A multitude of surprises


After I finished the rifles, I then began to use my awl to put oil to the pistols. After dosing each weapon, I prayed silently, rag in hand, and then began wiping them. For some peculiar reason, I was finding so much dirt and grime showing on each pistol when I wiped it that by the time I had gotten each of the pistols 'clean', I had a rag so filthy that Anna needed to fetch me a clean one when I took up another pistol. The dirtied rag went into the now-sizable pile I had made cleaning the rifles of the others.

“I think they will work better, now,” said Sarah, as she removed her oil bottle from a pocket. “I can dose them with this stuff to make certain, or as certain as I can do so.”

“What will that do?” asked smaller Willem.

“Most likely it will help, if I go by the smell,” said Gustav. “Now, two boxes for each of these rifles, and that should do us, at least if we do not run into many witches.”

I paused in my wiping, closed my eyes, prayed silently, and then shook my head. “No, you shouldn't. The ones that still live are...”

“Are very scarce and are running for their lives,” said the soft voice. “They'll get thinned out badly when they try for the ford of the Main, as they think the west side of the first kingdom has become far too hot for them.”

“They will at that,” said Gustav. “I helped place some of those bombs myself.”

“That, uh, trench I found at the entrance we came out of?” I asked. It had worked, even if it was not a proper trench as I understood such things to be.

“I helped with that too,” he said. “It was Willem's idea, mostly, as he's used such trenches a number of times to keep lead out of him and others, and he sited three rows of them on each side of the Main.”

“Are there other such trenches?” I asked.

“The one for the north entrance has two,” said smaller Willem. “At least, I saw two.”

“Those are the first ones,” said larger Willem. “There are two others, deeper ones, with logs cut so as to back up the dirt in case they try guns on that entrance.”

“They lost many of those things recently,” said Sarah. “I am not sure how many they have within easy reach now, and those they were bringing up...”

“They still will have some,” I said. “They might need to bring up some from the fifth kingdom once they have cleared a path through that wrecked place, and their gunners...”

“Both guns and their crews will be second-rate,” said the soft voice. “The best crews and guns the witches could then get went up when that one Power got blown to bits.”

“Second-rate?” I asked.

“Compared to those that were coming then,” said the soft voice. “They aren't worth a soggy tallow candle compared to those people you dealt with at the border of the fifth kingdom, and most of their guns are either 'new' or badly worn.”

“The new ones burst a lot,” said 'large' Willem, “and so do those what are worn, least if you mean rotten cannons.” Pause, then, “if you want a rotten cannon to work decent, then you need to get parts to three such guns that have fired a hundred rounds each, change the parts of those three guns up so as to get one that's tight, check it over good every time you use it, clean it better than your own body and soul, and then keep a close tally on how much it's been used.”

“Uh, why? I asked, as I broke my rifle and began cleaning it. I needed to do an especially good job with this weapon, as mine would get more use than those used by any three people currently in the room. I had both smaller Willem and Gustav still watching me closely while I swabbed out the barrel and did the other things I had done to most of the other rifles, and my care was obvious with this weapon, more so than any of the others. Finally, I suspected both men wanted to learn all they could tonight before they left, as they'd have to keep everyone else out of trouble. The steadily-growing pile of dirtied rags was making quite an impression upon them, especially the size of most of these 'worn-out diapers'.

“'Cause them things give some warning of when they're about to let go,” said 'large' Willem. “You'll see small cracks in certain places, but that ain't the best way for those things.”

“Then what is?” asked Gustav. He was still watching me wipe clean the bolt carrier with a rag dampened with aquavit, and then dose it with some oil from Sarah's oil container.

“You keep a tally on your notch-sticks,” said 'large' Willem, “and when you put three hundred rounds through that kind of a gun, you scrap it entire, as there are bad places in those things that give out with no warning at all.” Pause, then, “the talk I heard while I was in the fifth kingdom house spying out them witches down there spoke of that number I spoke of with some consistency, and while witches lie a lot, they lie less to each other, specially when they're drunk and getting drunker.”

Hearing this proved distracting, so much so that as I finished my rifle and wondered where Sarah's had gotten to, I recalled two people who I'd not thought about.

“Oh, Maarten and Katje,” I squeaked, as I realized where they'd be and how they'd have no one to help them out.

“They'll receive the least trouble of all, especially now,” said the soft voice. “Remember, that 'invasion' will give ample notice of its coming, and since it has been delayed somewhat further by the main path of the secret way being 'destroyed', those two will have enough time to both practice and receive ample time for teaching. Then, remember just who will be coming to help them.”

“At least three people from the Valley, I hope,” said Maarten. “I'm about as lost as a tree-rat in a mud puddle with these things.”

“They will not be,” said the soft voice. “I would go with Katje the day after tomorrow so as to sit in on his teaching just the same, as you will need to become proficient with these weapons and the others shown then before that swarm comes.”

“Hopefully we'll have enough time,” I said, as I began to get the 'dirt' out of Sarah's rifle. The aquavit was really helping a lot, as I'd dirtied up three small pieces of cloth already in cleaning her weapon, and as I dirtied up a fourth one swabbing the barrel, Gustav said, “just like with what I use when I need to do it right, only these are a lot easier to work on.”

“They are?” I asked.

“Yep, sure enough,” he said. “I might not have oil that smells that good, but I hope I can get some quick.”

“That, or this oil made here,” said Sarah. “It might not work quite as well, but it does work.”

“I hope I can make enough of it, then,” said Hans. “Now there was some talk about making a thing that is like a distillery so as to make that stuff by the jugful, so when that happens, it will be easy, but until then, it will need me working as if I was down in the dark places.”

“Dark places?” I asked.

“Out of an old tale, in this bad place to the south with a name I do not wish to speak,” said Hans. “I got shown that place when I was dropping my hair, and then, I got shown another one that was worse, and I do not want to say its name either.”

“Was this worse place here?” asked Sarah.

“No, it was not,” said Hans. “It is very far away, and it is not hell, even if it smells terrible and is very smoky.”

“Smoky?” I asked.

“It is very hard to breathe there, just like it is in hell,” said Hans. “I think if someone went there from here, they would smother inside of an hour, it is so hard to breath. Then, one dare not speak its name in the language they speak, as one might as well be on that lizard's dinner plate for all the spirits that show then.” Pause, then, “that is its name, in fact – 'The Place of Spirits'.”

“N-no,” I gasped. “Not G-Geeststaat?”

“Were you to speak it in our language, that is how you would say its' name,” said Hans – who then looked over his shoulder and grabbed for a pistol. Thankfully, it was one I had already oiled, as he went off into the kitchen. “Ah, here is the hole, Anna. I will need to put some mortar and broken rocks to it so as to stuff it up.”

“Uh, does he have tools for that?” I asked discreetly. My voice seemed to echo nonetheless.

Anna shook her head, then said, “rats generally make holes in places that are hard to find, so unless you can make some trowels...” A pause, then, “you have made some – at least a few, haven't you?”

“For molding, yes,” I said. “Every so often Georg gets an order for a handful of those, at least since I got back from the trip.”

“That would be Albrecht's doing,” said Sarah. “Up here, I doubt anyone doing foundry work would wish such tools as I have seen you use when you're setting molds.”

“Ain't hardly a foundry north of the middle of the fourth kingdom worth bothering with,” said 'larger' Willem, “and up here, if there's a foundry, it either acts like it has a pack of witches running it, or them running it are witches.”

Were is closer, I suspect,” said Sarah. “I think that Georg may have trouble having those sextant parts cast if they are not already cast in their entirety, and that assumes they are decent.”

“They won't be,” said larger Willem. “Mark my words. I've not seen brass come out of Roos yet, but I have seen what is cast, and I know no one can top the stuff done here. No one.”

“Currently that is true,” said Sarah. “There is a smaller foundry at the Abbey, at least for its sand...” A pause, then, “they did not scoop their sand from the floor, did they?”

“If they were witches, they probably did,” said larger Willem. “Witches think their chanting does all the work that good castings need to come out right, so they do bad work as a rule and worse work otherwise.”

“They do need work, sir,” said Sarah. “They do need work – much work, and hot work, also – and I thought I knew how hot founding was until Frankij began running and I had to bring him beer after they'd poured iron.”

“There are hotter places, Sarah, even if I would most likely have trouble in that place when that furnace has been running,” said Anna. “Hans, that pistol. It needs wiping better.”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “My hands are all dirty from it.”

I found that I could quickly swab the pistols from the muzzle with more small pieces of rag dipped in aquavit, and between doing that and an added session of oiling them repeatedly and then wiping them off each time I oiled them, they gradually became 'clean' of both 'soot' and 'dirt'. After I finished the last one 'passably', the men filed out, this slowly, their motions indicating a great and growing degree of soreness; and as smaller Willem paused at the door, he seemed to admire the 'new wood'.

“All this one needs is a third hinge and some paint, and it will be a good door,” he said. He then closed it softly.

“There, now that is done,” said Sarah. “Now we must do the rest of our work.”

Anna 'vanished' upstairs, while Hans went downstairs for but a minute. I still had other matters to clean, chiefly a quartet of automatic weapons; and when I brought out the two machine pistols that had been actually used, I gasped, “what happened to Maarten's weapon..?”

The dirt that weapon had covering it was astounding; more, I was surprised the thing had actually worked, given that we'd not cleaned and oiled them beforehand.

“It was the only one of its kind that got used while coming here,” said Sarah. “Anna used the one you were carrying.” A pause, then, “and saying these things get their share of soot and dirt in and on them is calling the pot dirty when it has burnt stew in it, if I go by what I see here.”

“That pile of dirty rag-bits?” I asked, as I indicated the sizable mound with my eyes. “Perhaps some really soft cloth, ready-cut into pieces of the right size, and put in small pouches for cleaning guns, that and some a bit larger for wiping parts..?”

“Now that I can do, and do readily,” said Sarah. “I have the very cloth you'd want, most likely, and much of it.”

“Much of it..?” I asked. “M-much of it?”

“Old diapers, most likely,” said Anna, “though with her, I wonder if what she has is old diapers and not the cloth needed for new ones.” Pause, then, “those you used before were old diapers for the most part.” Anna then went after a bag, this to collect up the dirtied rags. I suspected that washing the rag-bits would clean them enough to sell to someone.

“N-new diapers?” I asked. “What is used for those?”

“Up here, the stuff is called diaper-cloth by most of the places that carry it,” said Anna, “but down south where it is made, it is called...”

“They call that stuff flannel,” said Sarah, “and it is used for much more than just diapers. I've got a great many scraps of it, and now I know what to do with them.”

While Sarah did have a lot of this soft and somewhat fuzzy cloth, most of it was the usual light-to-medium-tan color common to undyed linen. In fact, the chief difference between what was used for 'flannel' and 'underwear' was the latter seemed to have heavier thread and a tighter weave – though what I now had, courtesy of Sarah's labors, was delightfully soft, tightly woven, breathed well, and fit perfectly.

How she'd managed that was a mystery, even if such underclothing felt good to wear. Only a few examples of such clothing, this stuff I had purchased where I came from for when I needed to travel by bicycle or walk for lengthy periods, had felt better.

I hoped we could get some cloth like that, as its silky feel was a delight to have upon one's skin, and that for both shirts and underclothing – for both sexes. Sarah would probably enjoy it, or so I suspected.

“Not in that color, though, especially not here,” I thought.

“Why, what color was it?” asked Sarah. “Was this black stuff, with designs on it?”

“Uh, it was black, but it had no designs, least not like those I've seen on witch-underclothing,” I said. “It was far too baggy to be attractive to a witch, it did not have anything... Duh, it was the exact opposite of what a witch would wish, especially for its feel, and I think this stuff would...”

“Was it like that one species of cloth that made those witch-women kill themselves?” asked Sarah pointedly. “At least for its feel?”

“It did feel similar, though it didn't stretch nearly as much, and it had a very thin and fine weave,” I said. “It had its own type of pleasant feeling, and it prevented chafing when one needed to do a lot of walking or, uh, riding.”

“Then we may wish some, if it can be had in colors not fit for witches,” said Sarah. “I do not enjoy chafing, nor heat-rash. Now did this stuff help with that?”

“It did,” I said. “It was said to be especially suited for when one, uh, did much running, or other vigorous exercise, and it was available in colors other than black.” A pause, then, “those didn't feel as good, though – so it was the black stuff or nothing, and I had trouble with chafing and heat-rash before I got that stuff.”

“Sarah, did I ever tell you what those medical women in my dream used for carrying their equipment and medicines?” asked Anna. “These black bags, with this purplish-red addition sign in a circle?”

“Not as the color, no,” said Sarah. “Why would those people wish black bags when those witches valued black...” Sarah looked at me in what might have been horror, as she recalled my mention of purple and green stripes. While purple was associated to a small degree with cursing, green was a commonplace color among clothing in this area, as were various shades of brown – so much so that the difference between the clothing of the now nearly 'extinct' – in the first kingdom at this time, anyway – miser and that of many farmers was a matter of degree, not color; and gray... Many cloaks were a gray color, as was a lot of 'old' clothing that had not been washed particularly well or often.

“Witchdom has taken over several colors for its own,” I murmured, “but in the past, it thought it owned them all, even the black-striped gray of slave-dress and the darkness one sees at night, and the colors of the rising sun, and everything having a color – if it existed, they claimed it as their own, and put meanings to things they were never meant to have.”

They were never meant to be,” said the soft voice, “and their preemption of certain colors today is but a reflection of their desire to once more own all colors, and by extension, all things.”

“Hence the primary reason for not having colors associated with witches is due to the many years of, uh, training imparted to people not witches, in an attempt to turn them into fully-owned-witch-slaves, if not witches themselves,” I said. “They've actually done much of what they intended to do already.

“Closer to nearly all of it, you mean,” blurted Anna. “We might not think ourselves slaves to them, but we certainly act as if we are – and because we act that way, we are all very vulnerable to their cursing.” A pause, then, “if one acts a certain way, then one must think appropriate to one's actions before doing them.”

“As a person thinks in their heart, so are they,” I said. “The book itself, dear.”

“Yes, I know now,” said Anna – who then did what passed for a double-take, Anna-style. Her reactions that way tended to be somewhat subdued. “Now how did you do that?”

I had taken one of the machine-pistols used completely to bits. Unlike the rifles, these weapons needed this level of cleaning with some frequency, and as I began to use a larger scrap of Sarah's cloth which she was not using her scissors to subdivide – those scissors I had made her; they obviously worked well, and they fit her hands well, also – to cut into pieces suitable for swabbing out barrels, I noticed the other two colors she seemed to have commonly beyond the by-far-most-common light to medium tan color.

“Almost no white cloth,” I thought. “Doesn't surprise me, not if it costs a lot more and loses half or more of its useful life – but what gives with this bright red and this deep dark blue?”

“Those colors?” I asked, as I wiped off an obvious 'operating rod' and used it to point to the nearest scraps of first red and then blue. The resemblance of these weapons to those of the rifles I had just been cleaning, at least for their internal layout, was enough to 'spook' me. The differences I could see, however, were enough to make them significantly less reliable. I could see how matters could be improved already.

“That's mostly due to a small fraction of the development time compared to the rifles,” said the soft voice, “and a need for real use that was thought to be far less severe, based on what combat experience they saw prior to that war.”

“Thought?” I asked. “These weapons received, uh, development during the war?”

“They did, once reports of how much they were being used started filtering back,” said the soft voice. “When these showed in that series of shipments, they were relatively new weapons, unlike those rifles, so much so that they were initially thought to be 'bad' imitations of what the witches then commonly used to settle fights among themselves.”

“Bad imitations?” I asked. “Compared to that horrible rusty thing we found in that deeper 'drink-house'?” The colored cloth had been temporarily forgotten, or so I suspected – save for one matter. Sarah was not cutting that stuff up, but moving it off to the side whenever she encountered a piece.

“You didn't find any of those,” said the soft voice. “They had either been removed long ago, or had gone to rust among all of those dust-mounds you found in that one ice-chilled location.”

“Uh, were they like those that we did find?” I asked.

“Only as to their overall function,” said the soft voice. “They were a bit more compact, much simpler mechanically, and even more unreliable, save if the user was a strong witch and knew the correct chants – which is why most witches who had them carried one of those weapons and a pair of pistols, all of which took the same ammunition.”

“And those green-area copies?” I asked.

“Were relatively rare, save among certain groups of military people,” said the soft voice. “They tended to be more reliable, but unless one started with a good weapon and improved it as much as was possible, they still weren't in the same class for reliability compared to what you are cleaning now.”

“And now I must reassemble this one,” I murmured. “Let's see, first wipe this portion with the rag here...”

Sarah had 'dosed' my oil-rag with more of the oil from her oil-bottle, and its exotic 'perfume' seemed to make me wonder anew if such materials could be provided for the women of the house. After all, women and perfume belonged together, as per the tenets of 'feminine allure'.

“Flavor extracts?” I asked silently. Those tended to be related to such good-smelling things.

“They have many of those,” said the soft voice. “More, they also can more or less make any species of 'scent' you might have a mind to ask them for, given a sample – and that sample need not be terribly large.”

“Sample?” I asked. “How can I get them one..?”

I looked at Sarah, who seemed engrossed in cutting up small pieces of cloth, and smelled her hair. For some reason, I felt once more reminded of roses; and also, the name of our town. Why it was named that was an entire mystery, as this location had never had roses to the best of my knowledge.

“It once had them in numbers, hence its name,” said the first kingdom. “Roses are an especially hardy plant here, and it took hundreds of years of hard labor by the area's witches to 'eradicate' those plants in the first kingdom.” A pause, then, “the fourth kingdom's version of those did not hold a candle to those that once grew here, at least in regards to color and odor.”

“Those fourth kingdom roses most likely work as well for medicine,” said Sarah.

“They're but slightly inferior that way,” said the soft voice. “Be glad that those coming here can readily breed those witch-mutated things found down there back to true, and be glad they'll be so inclined toward doing so.”

“I'm glad Andreas came by to pick up those flowers when he did,” said Anna, “and I am yet more glad he spoke of knowing ways to root them.”

“Root..?” I asked.

“He said he had ways of making those things I gave him take roots,” said Anna, “and while usually one has trouble doing so with just flowers, I was told by several sources that that was otherwise with those things.”

“Meaning they'll be all over the back area of the house proper?” I asked. “They'll be safe there?”

“Yes, for a time,” said the soft voice enigmatically.

“Need to hide some of those rooted things from a new crop of Generals, then,” I murmured. I then noted a change in what was currently present upon the table – mostly a lack, to be precise. “Those two colors, red and blue – do they have..?” I wondered for an instant; I then squawked, “where did they go?”

“In the stove,” said Sarah quietly. “I had a number of people wishing those colors for diapers, but I have learned since that they are worthless for that, as their dyes do not remain in the cloth, but migrate to the skin of the child wearing them, and by that time...”

“N-no,” said Anna vehemently as she shook her head in negation. “Sarah, those people were witches, and they were trying to drive curses into their infants by putting those colors to their bottoms!”

“Good that I got some use out of that cloth, then,” said Sarah – who then spoke specifically to me. “Red is normally put upon boy children, and blue upon girls, but no one I know bothers with such nonsense, as those colors tend to be expensive and somewhat hard to find. I had to travel a lot to get them in the amounts needed, and that was one reason I walked a circuit, as I could only get so much at a time in each of a number of places, and diaper-orders tend toward the sizable.”

“And plain 'flannel' isn't particularly cheap,” I said. “Or is it?”

“There is cheaper cloth, but one cannot get it outside of the fifth kingdom house,” said Sarah. “Otherwise, though, flannel is about the cheapest cloth worth the bother, if one speaks of cloth that can be had in this area.”

“Hand-woven, then,” I murmured. “They actually make some of that stuff up h-here.”

“I thought so,” said Anna. “They might make a fair amount of cloth in the first kingdom, even if the plants used for it wish less cold during their winters.”

“Yes, for the most-common species of flax,” said Sarah. “If one can find a flax-bed up here, though, then cloth made from those plants is particularly hard-wearing stuff, even if those making it tend to do all of what is involved in a hurried fashion.”

“So they can survive,” I murmured. “Besides, I'm not sure I want to handle cloth dyed those colors up here, as I really suspect they're particularly toxic if you are, uh, marked.”

Anna looked at me in horror, then screeched. This noise brought Hans from the basement, and the odor that followed him spoke of warm wax and candles.

“Hans, we dare not use blue and red for anything,” said Anna. “Those colors are poisonous!”

“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “That is why Grandfather always told those who help with babies to use well-washed stuff that was not dyed, as the colors everyone wanted to use then make babies sick if they...” Hans looked at me, then shook his head, “that was what I was told, anyway. There is more to it than just that, and I hope to find out what the other parts are soon.”

“Special poisons, ones that work most powerfully against certain types of genetic structures,” I said. “Is cloth of those two colors dyed in the fifth kingdom?”

“No, as they do not make dyes down there, and the only place that I know of that has those colors for sale is Matthyssoon's” said Hans. “If you want a lot of colors beyond the common ones made from plants and things like them, it is deal with that place or do without, and some of what I have is from there.” Pause, then as Hans looked at his hands, “I handle anything from Matthyssoon's with tongs now, as I am afraid of their stuff.”

“Do they make those colors, or do they just sell them?” I asked gently. I then noted what else Hans had in his possession beyond the odor of waxes, that being a small amount of wood-dust on his clothing and in the creases of his hands. He was trying to 'multitask', meaning he was slowly 'cooking' the waxes and other supplies to make the candles we would need for our next trip while he was working on the handles to the knives – and taking more care when doing both of those jobs than was his usual when just doing a single task.

“I do not know,” said Hans. His chastened tone indicated 'he wished he knew', but had not had the chance to learn. My hands were still wiping parts as we spoke. “That place is hard to get inside of unless you are a stinky witch.”

Or a king's messenger,” I murmured. “Now Gabriel is about the only one left at the house fit for that task, and I really doubt Hendrik is going to let him go anywhere without appropriate escort.” A pause as I wiped off the bolt with unusual care, then, “I suspect he will also demand that he no longer live in town, but insist that he live on the premises.”

“He has wanted his rooms for months,” said Anna. “Now you speak of him getting what he wishes, only...” Here, Anna's eyed narrowed, and her face turned a ghostly white while smiling faintly. If ever I had seen the face of death, I was seeing it now.

“So Lukas and every other greens-wearing guard, myself included, can keep an eye on him?” I asked.

“You especially,” said the soft voice. “Gabriel fears many people now, but he smelled the blood and brains of witches when you came close to that buggy, and when you tapped the side of that thing, he knew for a certainty that he could no longer hide anything from you – and more, that you wanted nothing more than to kill him when you next saw him.”

“Ah, that sounds like that wretch has the fear, now,” said Hans. “He knows that I will shoot him if he does anything the book says is wrong, and the same for Anna and Sarah, and now you too.”

“He wanted to shoot Gabriel multiple times in the last few days,” said Sarah dryly, “and I swore hand upon book, and Anna...”

“What do you think I did first thing once I dumped my hair?” shrieked Anna. “I do not care if I am covered with mine-birds, I will kill that wretch if he does the least thing wrong and I learn of it!”

“Did I hear you speak of 'mine-birds', dear?” I said gently, as I carefully cleaned one of the more intricate pieces of the machine-pistol. “My, I can really see some ways this thing needs improving. I'll bet a brief stint in a cooking can would help some of these parts, following by, uh, some external honing...”

“Keep that thought in mind,” said the soft voice. “You are learning about these things.”

“I hope I can remember enough,” I murmured. “We could always swap out a lot of the internal parts, which would help some.”

“I think you may wish to do that and make those parts that occur to you when and if you have the time,” said Sarah. “You might not have much time for doing such things, what with that sextant and all, but I think much of what you do to these and other weapons will be good practice.”

“He probably needs it,” said Georg, as he came out of the bathroom. He was dressed in some old clothing, this beyond that which I knew to be in the house. “This stuff may fit badly, but at least it is clean.”

“It came from the house proper,” said Anna. “I've been getting clothing there ever since that one messenger came with his clothing in shreds, but tomorrow, I'm going home with a bag of that stuff, and no mistake.” Anna then looked at Hans, saying, “the waxes, Hans. If we can run those candles tonight, then we need to do them, that and those knives. They need finishing, tonight if we can.”

“And when you want to make some more of those things, I'll take a pair,” said Georg, meaning the knives. “Talk had it in some places I've gone recently that one could wear boots and stitch them such that they had pockets for knives, and if that is so, then I'll go to that shoemaker's tomorrow to have my shoes gone over and ask for riding boots also, so he can get them started.”

“You'll need to speak of knife-pockets when you do so,” said Anna. “We only have those knives of that kind that we have on hand, and they'll need to take all of them on the trip so as to have spares.”

“We found many knives that are close to them for shape and size,” said Sarah, “and I suspect you'll wish a pair of those, one for fitting and the other...” Sarah looked at me, then shook her head. “Those might not work.”

“Why?” asked Anna.

Sarah seemed to think for a minute, then squeaked, “that one knife! It was made in Vrijlaand, and...”

“Yes?” I asked. “It's blackened all over, just like one of the pistols I do, and there's nothing of the witch about that thing or those pistols.” I then thought to look in my possible bag, and to my astonishment, I not only removed the pistols I had used since leaving the Abbey, but also, with a small amount of digging, the knife in question. Here, in good light, I was more than a little surprised to look at the knife. “My, that finish does look likely, doesn't it?” Here, I pointed to the blade itself, then thought a moment at seeing once more that mottled green handle. Good lighting made it much more obvious. “Especially that handle there – various shades of green mingled with black, so it works well in the forests around here?”

“I think so,” said Hans surprisingly. “If they did that thing like you do your guns and tools, then it will not be inclined toward rust much, and then...” Hans picked up the knife, tested it against his thumb, then said, “It might need a minute or two on a dark stone, and then I could shave with it easy.”

“Not even that, Hans,” said Sarah. “Now look at it carefully, and you will see Vrijlaand's letters on it, unless I am far wrong.” A pause, then, “the others we saw might as well be copies of that one, at least for their appearance.”

“I think they got many of their ideas from there,” I murmured. I'd wiped the parts clean, gotten another dose of oil on my oil-rag, and was now wiping down the parts so as to oil them just prior to reassembly. Sarah then caused me to nearly drop the bolt carrier with a screech.

“Here,” she said, pointing to a place on the pommel. “There's a donkey, then this one symbol that means lightning...”

“It's not a rune,” I said. “Looks totally different – almost like some depictions of lightning I've seen years ago before I came here – correct?”

“I am not sure what that would look like,” said Sarah, “but this is done so it looks like real lightning, and if you've seen that stuff, you know those paired runes witches seem to like so much don't look like this.” A pause, then, “and here's a symbol that wants a magnifier, as it's either a carrot or a sword.”

“Probably a sword,” I said. “After all, those knives were intended for, uh, protection against both evil stinky thugs and some of the more-unpleasant vermin they had down there.”

“Yes, and what were those?” asked Hans. “Sarah, did you ever find out?”

“N-no, beyond they had a great many such animals,” said Sarah. “Why, what were you thinking of?'

“Firebugs,” I said. “Not the ones we have today, but ones as long as my arm, and those things being very irritable and most-lively.”

“Oh, no,” said Sarah. She seemed to wilt under this news. “Then I have heard of them, as more than one tale mentions large firebugs.” Pause, then, “were these things red with black stripes, like those common to the south in the fourth and fifth kingdoms?”

“Solid red, red with black stripes, mottled red and yellow, solid orange, and the worst ones were a solid glossy black,” I said. “Those black ones were as bad as prewar wasps for trouble, and they were not rare at all in Vrijlaand.”

“I hope those things do not show,” said Hans. “I have no wasp-shot made up, and one wants wasp-shot should you see a wasp, as they are bad trouble.”

“They are?” asked Georg. “What are they like?”

“If you have never seen a wasp, then hope you stay that way, as those things are bad trouble,” said Hans, reiterating what he had said about 'wasps' as he knew of them. “A firebug's spike might hurt bad for some days, but wasps kill people, and that is if just one of them plants its spike in you.” A pause, then, “they usually fly in flocks like quolls, so when one finds you, it calls the others somehow, and they all come with their spikes out and poisoned.”

“He sent enough of those things south toward the witches,” said Sarah, “only I think they were turned into hornets, like the book mentions regarding those evil people in that one place, those that acted like the witches of long ago.”

“They will have trouble, then,” said Hans with an air of finality, almost as if I had sent an uncommonly bad plague upon the witches who received wasps and hornets. “Be glad that hornets are not like wasps for their tempers, as they would be worse, and not a little worse.”

“Hornets?” I asked innocently. I had never knowingly seen one of those here. The wasps I had seen at a distance, and they looked to be much worse than those things called wasps where I came from.

“Those things like to put most of their nests underground, though I have seen them in trees if it is dark enough to suit them,” said Hans. “A wasp-nest is really messy, and it smells like that cheese that put Anna in the privy when she ate it, but hornet-nests are hard to see if they are in trees, and the nests do not smell, leastways they do not smell like wasp-nests.”

“They do have an odor,” I said. “Kind of like this strange plant that currently only grows in certain herb-gardens in the fourth kingdom – really spicy, a bit sweet, and a little like, uh, Krokus.”

“Thank you,” said Sarah. “You just described how a large hornet's nest smells.” Pause, then, “I have seen hornets, and seen them fly, and they make wasps look both small and slow.”

“What?” I asked. “What color are they?”

“Varied shades of green over their bodies, just like their nests and the trees they usually set in when they're watching for food,” said Sarah. “That's one of the reasons those things are so hard to find up here – they hide well, and green is a most-common color in woodlots, at least most of the time.”

“Is that why the big nests are underground?” I asked. “Uh, entrances large enough to walk inside, almost, these big rooms, lots of bones of, uh, rats...” I then squeaked, “rats?”

“A full-grown hornet could carry off a full-sized rat, leastways if that rat was one from up here,” said Sarah, “though what is more usual is those things go after rats in groups of three or four and then divide up the rat once it is dead.”

“Divide?” I asked. “How?”

“With their teeth,” said Sarah. “There's an entry in the Compendium that speaks about hornets as they are found in the various kingdoms, and I think the picture is one I drew of a group of those things cutting up a bird they had brought down.”

“Bird?” I asked. “How big...”

“I think this bird was a new-fledged fool-hen,” said Sarah. “It was too large to be a quoll.” Pause, then, “and while most people have heard of hornets, and they know they can sting, they do not know of their ability to bite.”

“'Those things that can bite',” I murmured. “That's what that, uh, nightmare means – it's speaking of being chased by a swarm of hornets, at least part of it, and the person being chased stole something out of a church.”

“I am not sure if...” Sarah paused, then, “that might work for that portion of what I read, but I am not sure about the rest, especially the part about that thing that was living in a foundry's sand house.”

“Maybe someone's dreams got really tangled up,” I said. “I've had that happen – two of them, or maybe three, all going at once, and it's awful trying to keep track of what's happening.” I then thought to ask a question: “are dreams like that important?”

“I suspect they might be, if you have them,” said Anna. “I didn't realize the full import of your being given to that pendant, and I still don't have more than its smell, but before, I had no idea whatsoever as to what it involved and what you would need to do.”

“B-both possess and implement th-the answers?” I asked.

“I have seen you do that in the last two days,” said Sarah. “Now who told you this?”

“G-Gabriel,” I said.

“Then I would be most-careful, as he may have been speaking as a witch might speak,” said Sarah. “I doubt much that he had a clue as to what he was saying, beyond what was spoken of Charles in old tales and in those bagged commentaries he read on the tapestries.”

“He went to some of those places,” I said, “and I think he actually read, or rather, he tried to read what was written, and then the pictures... He tried to draw those, and he's not an artist, so he was lucky to get something usable out of the time he spent doing searching those tapestries he could get to.” I paused, then said, “were I doing things like you did in your traipsing and visiting all of those strange places, I'd want an evidence-camera, one that allowed me to do some things I used to do with this one I had.” Pause. “That thing was weird with a capital 'B'.”

The word – or rather, words – that meant 'weird' in this language started with 'B', as a rule, and 'Bitschaar' was the most common one, with 'Buettenlaandish', 'Vreamede', and 'Oenwaanij' being the others I knew. They all had various shades of meaning, all of which were context-determined and shaded further by other adjectives, though most people, I suspected, didn't have the degree of familiarity with this language that Sarah seemed to have – and I wondered if I knew more than she did as to the sheer number of words.

The answer that came to me was so stunning that I nearly did not manage to put the bolt assembly in the receiver of the machine-pistol I was working on, and as I focused intently on the process – I could now see just how many people would need days to learn the tricks and intricacies of keeping these things running.

“What you're doing is such that you'll most likely not have to do that again while you are taking the place where you are going.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“That blue oil, especially applied as you did, will make those weapons both far more reliable and better able to tolerate 'dirt' and 'soot'.” A pause, then, “get Georg one of those knives that you found in that dark room, and then ask that its 'evil' be hidden.”

While Sarah went to find one of the knives in question – she had to spend some time looking, as those things had been put 'wherever' for the majority – I resumed assembly of the machine-pistol. It went together surprising fast, and as I began dismantling the other, I found that doing that particular task went much faster.

I also had help, as when I took this weapon apart, I found that both Hans and Anna were wiping down parts with rags soaked in aquavit, then using that one oily rag to wipe them off once the aquavit had evaporated. I noted with some small satisfaction that both of them were far more careful than I recalled them being.

“I'll just check the parts over when I put them back in the gun,” I thought. “Now I wonder how hard those machine-guns will be to clean?”

Sarah brought one of the knives in question, and laid it by the one from Vrijlaand. The resemblance was unmistakable.

“They copied these things down to all save their markings!” I spat.

“You mean 'they purchased several knives like that Vrijlaand blade, dismantled one of them for exhaustive and detailed testing of its various parts, and then used that information to program their equipment in an attempt to duplicate it',” said the soft voice. “They came fairly close with those, but after the war started proceeding badly, their quality control on their versions went downhill, especially once their critical stockpiles of materials were depleted.” Pause, then, “they've made small batches of those knives on a semi-regular basis since the 'declared' end of the war with the goal of improving their qualities.”

“Did they improve them?” asked Sarah.

“Beyond what you have there?” asked the soft voice. “Not that much for actual use, even if they have grades of steel that are far better than what is present in those knives like you found.”

I thought to wipe down the blade with the oil-rag, and as I did so, I did as I had been told: I asked that the 'evil' of the blade be hidden from all. But, as I did so, I thought, “evil? What gives with this? This thing was intended to fight evil people and creatures, same as what they copied, and those stinking arm-long firebugs were bred by witches!”

“Close, but not quite,” said the soft voice. “The firebugs were native to that region, but until the witches cursed them, encountering them tended to take a non-trivial amount of real work – as in you had to know when to look and where to find them.”

“Once cursed, though, they lost all of their fear of people, and more, they actively sought out dwellings so as to 'devour' the food inside – which was both plentiful and suited to their curse-modified dietary needs. Hence, they went from 'rare' to 'very common indeed' – and that meant not only carrying effective weapons all the time, but also needing to shoot fast and accurately so as to stay alive – again, all the time, as in day and night, one more or less lived with a weapon close to hand, if not in one's hand.”

“Finally, the presence of hoards of cursed vermin – not just arm-long firebugs, but a lot of bigger and nastier creatures – inculcated the attitudes needed toward keeping one's weapons clean and oiled such that they would work when needed; and because those accursed creatures were very common, the witches effectively transformed the citizens of Vrijlaand into a very effective military force – one where everyone old enough to walk could shoot, and shoot well, and do so no matter what the circumstances.”

“Stinking firebugs liked to cause trouble at night, didn't they?” I asked. I recalled my trekking boots getting attention then.

“Hence sleeping with loaded guns close at hand, much as you did on the trip,” said the soft voice. “Unlike what you had to contend with then, these people became accustomed to shooting fast-moving and difficult-to-kill creatures of various kinds.”

“What did they use?

“Daggers, pistols, and folding-stock carbines for the firebugs, and larger weapons for some of the other vermin the witches cursed,” said the soft voice, “and children were trained to use weapons in infancy.”

“Probably needed to, as a firebug that big sees a baby as a 'good meal',” I muttered. “Cussed things were everywhere, probably.” Pause. “Now, it's time to see just what we need to do to those two machine-guns.”

I was glad I had put one together earlier today, so when I began to dismantle the one I had used to 'clear' the town, I looked carefully for damage to its parts.

“I put enough ammunition through this thing tonight that it should be badly worn,” I muttered. “Now why is it so, uh, clean, and why do these parts just show a little burnishing, and no real wear?”

“Have those parts tested for hardness and other matters when you see the right people,” said the soft voice. “They will get some ideas then.”

“Did these things change?” I asked, as I began to carefully wipe every part I possibly could, first with rags dampened with aquavit and then the oil-rag. Sarah had dosed it again, thankfully, and when I noticed Hans looking at the container of blue oil, he seemed shocked and stunned.

“Careful with that stuff, Hans,” said Anna. “Sarah, you'll want to get some of those bottles like you have, and I'll get a funnel so he does not waste any.” As Anna went into the kitchen, she was muttering about 'that's the liveliest stuff I've ever seen', and 'it looks very inclined toward escaping'.

“It is, Anna,” said Sarah. “Now, you will wish to be most careful with that cork, as it needs that wax to prevent that stuff from escaping.” She said this as she went to 'hunt' for that bag she had filled with those escape-proof bottles. I then recalled my 'vest' had several of them, as well as a 'cosseted' grenade.

“Yes, if I can get it out,” spat Hans. “This thing is in there good enough for me to want some of that wax, so I can sell it to the carpenters as glue, it is stuck so good.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “We'll wish that formula for boiling our corks.”

“Yes, and people will not be able to get them out,” said Hans, as he slowly twisted the cork. The wax was proving once more to be uncommonly tenacious.

“Boil them, yes,” said Sarah, as she returned with that one bag and began opening it. “I think I might have that stuff's formula, and we will wish to make up this one waxy stuff before we go.”

“Yes, and what is that?” grunted Hans as he continued to wrestle with the cork. He was making progress, albeit with much effort. “We have plenty of wax yet, as I found some pieces that I had hid down there over the years.”

“Two parts of that tormenting grease,” said Sarah, “and one of beeswax, and then some of that oil so that they mingle, and then slow cooking for an hour, with a bit of stirring. Then, we can put it in these things we f-found that are l-l-like bandage tins.” Sarah looked around, then ran into the 'techno-jungle' I had formed into the shape of an 'E'.

“Now that is a good idea, there,” said Hans as he got the cork 'loose'. It still had some distance to go before we could 'fill' our oil 'bottles'. “I wish I could draw better, as I would draw that way of stacking things up so I can use it.”

“We were told that concoction Sarah spoke of would not merely work well on these tins I think Sarah is looking for...” I murmured, as I continued carefully cleaning the gun's parts. I needed real familiarity with these, as teaching the ways of 'fire-breathers' was something I would need to do before leaving on the trip.

“I am looking for them,” she said from within the 'E'. “They have these rubber gasket things, so if that stuff is put on them, they will be tight enough to stand drowning, and still open easily.” A pause, then, “and that is for those. There are a lot of other ones that will make Anna wish to toss what she currently uses for bandages, only these things are brass, and they have ammunition in them.”

“I think most of those are up in my room,” I said, as I finished wiping down the receiver portions of the gun. It had had a surprisingly modest amount of 'fouling' present, and aquavit, while clearly a sub-optimum powder solvent, did work to a certain degree. Even so, the oil-rag was becoming very dirty very quickly as I moved to the area where the gas-tapping was done.

“Now this part is dirty,” I murmured. “Got to make certain to clean out the pill, er, spool in this thing, and I'll need to m-measure it carefully.”

“That thing takes pills?” asked Hans. “It is not a person, or an animal, so these must not be medicine pills, but something else.”

“They look a bit like some pills we found, though they are better named spools,” said Sarah. She was still hidden within the 'E' structure. “I think this bag has those canisters in it... Good, it does. I'll bring out three of them, so you can see what they look like.”

I removed the gas plug, and then carefully removed the 'pill' or 'spool', as it had been named. I now understood why I needed to make a set of these things, as not merely did this one show an uncommon amount of 'filth', but also, the entire gas-tapping assembly was filthy.

“Ah, so that is where the soot shows on these things,” said Hans as he left off removing the cork. Anna had the funnel ready, and had removed a number of the small oil-bottles. “At least, it looks like soot.” I was surprised indeed when Hans touched it, rubbed it between his fingers – and then said, “yes, that is so.”

“What, Hans?” asked Anna. “If we must learn how to use these things, then we need to know all we can.”

“It may look like soot of some kind, but it is not the usual for the soot one finds in guns,” said Hans. “It is much softer, almost like blacking between the fingers, and...” Hans looked at his hand, then said as he wiped his fingers carefully “and it spreads around a lot more than the usual for gun-soot, and then it wants aquavit to get it off, not water.”

“It is not inclined to leave off much with that stuff,” said Sarah as she returned to the table. She had found several of those tins formerly spoken of. “Once we make a potful of that wax, then we will wish to put it in these tins so it can be used easily, as that stuff is good for keeping rust off of things.”

“Better than the usual things used for rust?” asked Anna. I could hear an unusual tone in her voice, one I had seldom heard beforehand. “If so, then people will desire it greatly, as tallow is worthless for preventing rust and that stuff called tool-cleaner is better named 'tool-eater'.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “That is why they had to repair that manure-shovel and did a bad job of it.”

“You mean, 'they did not try to weld in a piece, but used a bad piece of cut-to-size sheet metal and some smaller-than-usual hot-rivets... No, not hot-rivets. They peened those things cold, and they did not have the time to do a proper repair.” A pause, then, “that shovel originally came from the Valley, didn't it – one of their tinkers had it in his buggy when he escaped, and he repaired it as best he could with what he had before he sold it for 'eating money'.”

“And got an unusual amount of money for it, as that type of shovel is very rare in the five kingdoms,” said the soft voice. “Hans is rather embarrassed that he paid so much for it, in fact, or he was embarrassed until he tried using it.”

“I might try making smaller versions in the future, once we have the needed tools and 'plant',” I said. “Somehow, we're going to need to make a lot of shovels of one kind or another beyond those that showed at the Abbey, as those things will become...”

“So that is why we must make that tool-steel in such quantity,” said Sarah. “I hope they can make up some like what we show them.”

“They can, they will, and the benefit they receive from using it instead of what they use now will astonish them,” said the soft voice.

I had finished the gas block, and was now withdrawing the gas piston assembly. Here, I saw the first signs of wear, and knew I needed to carefully wipe down the thing in the right places with plenty of that blue oil. I had not done so before using the weapon, and had gone on the warpath with a 'dry' gun – and now was seeing the price paid for my 'misdeeds'.

“Check the other one when you see it,” said the soft voice. “You'll see a similar level of wear.” Pause, then, “that's why that gas piston head is readily replaceable, and one of the reasons why you have armorer's level tools as well as a number of those piston heads in that satchel.”

“Need to fit them individually to the gas tube, and actually put a special contour to them,” I said. “One that's slightly barrel-shaped, a trifle longer, a cup at the 'gas' end, and then have it both screw on as well as pin the thing in place once it's screwed home. They tend to vibrate loose with extended firing, and that pin will stop that nonsense.”

“I would perform that modification as well as draw up all of the changes you have in mind.” Pause, then, “the practice will be especially good for you, and you'll have the time to do so once you've dealt with those troublesome functionaries and those over them.”

“They wear blue everything, don't they?” asked Anna, “and then these strange-looking silver collars, and they act like fifth kingdom mining-town thugs, and smell like they never bathe, even if they bathe daily with something like laundry soap.”

“How so?” asked Sarah. “I have written down all I can about those stinkers and that place, and will write down more as I get the chance.”

“It is not laundry soap,” said Anna. “This stuff is a liquid, it has a faint odor that reminds me a bit of Grussmaan's, cleans very well, but it seems it is intended more for clothing than it is for people.” A pause, then, “it's nearly as effective as Fell's soap, if one wishes it to chew up one's skin.”

“They use it because it removes all softness from them, and because that 'soap' is what they are given for daily bathing,” said the soft voice. A pause, then, “that stuff is more than a little germicidal, so using it helps keep those people 'healthy' as well as 'hard' – or so they're told.” Another pause, then, “they tend to believe everything those over them tell them as if it came out of the book itself.”

I then nearly laughed, even as I finished wiping down the operating rod. This pushed on the bolt carrier, and the rod itself had its own oddly 'shiny' multiple-part return spring. The fact that the gas-tube had a heat-shield present between it and the barrel was more than a little remarkable. While these guns had more than their share of quirks and needed some serious improvements, they did work well if given adequate maintenance.

“Only real trouble they had with these things was firing vast numbers of belts through them without enough opportunites to clean and maintain them,” I said. “It got so bad that 'a pair and a spare' was the usual for each position when expecting a human-wave attack on the front lines, and there was no such thing as 'too much ammunition' for them, either.” I then had a question.

“Were there other grenades used beyond the ones we found?”

“Yes, but they were issued after the war began going 'badly',” said the soft voice. “The type you found was not thought to be 'deadly enough' then, so they tried other designs, most of them based on intercepts.” Pause, then, “they always went back to the steadily-improving 'pear' when those other designs proved themselves worse in most of the ways that mattered on the battlefield.”

“Pears can be trouble, especially if they are made into cider, or worse yet, bad brandy,” said Anna. With Hans' help and Sarah's oversight, she was beginning to fill the 'escape-proof' bottles, this slowly and carefully, with Sarah's whispered admonitions. “I hope these pears are different from the usual kind.” Pause, as she finished pouring a 'dose' into a bottle and replaced the cork to prevent the blue oil's escaping. “I am thinking about getting some of that wine they have at the house proper and distilling it.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, even as I had a strong suspicion and then put words to it a second later. “They now have a great surplus of wine, they'll be making lots of clothing, and that means...”

“I hope I can get some of that stuff in one of these bottles here,” said Sarah. “I may wish to distill some of that wine before we go, in fact.”

“Good,” said Anna, as she began to fill another 'escape proof bottle'. There were drips on the table, or rather, upon 'new' rags put under the whole arrangement. Such rags would be coveted in this house. “We have a distillery, and the house does have a lot of excess wine, and there are a lot of tailors who will become very busy in short order, which means a pressing need for tailor's antiseptic.” Pause, then, “and that is for them. I want some here for our use also, as at least that stuff works on injuries.”

Our use?” I asked.

“If Sarah makes up some before you-all go,” said Anna, “then you'll wish to have it tested overseas by their people, as what Hans told me once about that stuff killing small creatures better than most things we have is most likely true.”

“Meaning it's actually better than regular aquavit...” I mumbled, as I reassembled the gas block minus the spool I'd used. I needed to measure it overall as well as its' orifice, which meant using 'the wires' I had that passed for plug gages; and then drilling the spool-blanks once I had made up ten or twelve of them. I was glad I had 'cribbed' some short lengths of fifteen-line brass rod after making a small supply of 'fifteen line brass rivets' so as to have them handy when and where their use might be 'appropriate'.

“Need to electroplate all of our copper and brass rivets, too,” I said. “Coat those things with tin good and proper, then cook them buried in powdered charcoal overnight in the stove.” A brief pause, then, “now what would I do with fifteen-line brass rivets?”

“Temporary repairs to various weapons, among other things,” said the soft voice. “I would do all I can to make 'special' dies for that size of rivet, as you will make a lot of them in the months to come – and more, you will need to make them out of better metal than you have in the past.”

“Proper rivet stock is far too soft for what we need to make, then,” I said. “Need to make melts of Norden's metal, this with a moderate amount of carbon, a few sword off-cuts, and then...”

“Something like that, though you'll wish to be far more careful when you're making age-hardening hot-rivets,” said the soft voice. “You will wish to be very careful when making those gun-parts, as you'll wish to both use a lot of those rivets, but also you will wish to not do any welding for those portions needing to endure the shock of repeated firing.”

“Too brittle, hence they break there,” I said.”Even with heat-treating in large ovens, ones that don't have those accursed names on them.”

“The Veldters do name their kilns,” said Sarah. “They usually speak of them as if they were women, for some reason.”

“Ovens, dear,” I said. “Ovens, because that's where they recall being given 'cakes' while still warm by the women who did baking in their settlements.”

“I think that to be as good an explanation as anything,” said Sarah. “Now, here is one of those containers which has grease in it. I think I will empty it out...” Sarah left off speaking, then, “you did not know about these things when making those water bottles, so how could you get the shape as close as you did?”

“That is a mystery, Sarah,” said Hans, as he replaced the cork in the bottle so as to resume when Anna made ready to fill another oil bottle. So far, there were five that Sarah had 'closed', and a sixth one was waiting on the funnel's last drips. “He most likely got instructions so as to make those that way, same as a lot of marked people do.” Pause, then as Hans looked at the just-removed barrel of the machine gun, “now this thing is dirty. I think I can swab it out some, so as to spell you while you do something else for a break.”

“Such as...” I then knew just what was needed. The oil bottles could wait for a few minutes, either that or Anna could hand the filled ones to Sarah. “Sarah, please find a chair, and remove your boots and stockings.”

“Wh-why?” she asked.

“Because you said your feet would need rubbing, and I don't know when else I will have the chance to do so tonight,” I said while going to wash my hands carefully. For some reason, I took one of the empty brass tins that Sarah had retrieved, wiping it off carefully with a scrap of flannel, then as an afterthought as I put it on the counter to use the privy, I asked silently that it be filled with skin-cream of an especially 'healing' nature.

The tin was gone when I returned to the table, and Sarah was staring at Anna – who was rubbing her hands in a most-unusual way. A faint fragrance seemed to suffuse the air around the table.

“I would like to know what you asked for, as this stuff is the best thing for sore hands ever,” said Anna. “I hope we or those across the sea can duplicate it.”

“They can, and most likely will attempt to improve it,” said the soft voice.

“How?” asked Anna.

“More germicidal, possibly,” I said. “It would work well for sore places, small cuts, and...” My voice began to rise in pitch as its volume fell to a whisper. “Oh, my.”

Sarah's feet were not merely a mottled shade of red, but looked uncommonly sore, and I could see places where they might have blisters starting. I took the tin, got a little bit of the soft white cream on one finger, and began to carefully rub her feet. She jerked slightly, then said, “thank you. My feet were hurting badly, and I just realized how badly they hurt not more than a few minutes ago.”

“I'll make certain to rub carefully between your toes, dear,” I said. “I think you might have some trouble starting in those places, and it does not need to get worse.” I then had a question.

“Is there a special 'song' that goes with gun-cleaning at the west school?” I could tell there was one 'somewhere', one that spoke of swabbing out barrels – and I might well hear it in the near future.

“No, but there needs to be!” exclaimed Sarah. “I had a lot of work cleaning guns, and Gustav had more yet when I could not do enough of it in that place!”

“Neglect?” I asked.

“That place is bad for rusting guns,” said Hans. He had left off with his oil-transfer. It needed Sarah's close watching and regular input, as calling this oil 'inclined to escape' was speaking well of its tendencies that way. “You need to boil your gun out good down there with hot water and scrub it out with soap almost the minute you shoot, then put grease to it right away once you dry it – and if you let that bad powder they use down there get rust started, you will need to use some fine black sand as well as the usual things so as to get all of that stuff out.”

“You do not use sand, Hans,” said Sarah. “Careful...” Sarah then took her foot away from me, and looked between her largest toe and the one next to it. She then looked at me, and said, “how did you know I was starting to get foot-rot?”

“F-foot r-rot?” I gasped.

“If she has it, then I hope that stuff gets rid of it,” said Anna, “and you had best put some to your own feet, as that trouble spreads like rats do when they've got plenty of food in a warm house.”

“It's contagious?” I gasped.

“In your case, not particularly,” said the soft voice. “Be glad it isn't, as those too-numerous problems that make your feet unhealthy for that opportunistic organism are worse than this place's version of 'athlete's foot'.”

“Is it as bad as what was common where I came from?” I asked silently.

“No,” said the soft voice. “Foot-rot here is closer to immersion foot where you come from, and that cream's current ingredients stop it cold.” Pause, then, “I'd still rub some into your feet before you retire, as you do not need trouble there either.”

“What you have is most likely worse than foot-rot,” said Anna – who then looked at her hands. “This stuff seems to draw splinters and pieces of lead out of one's skin.”

“It does, if the lead and wood pieces are not deeply embedded,” said the soft voice. “It also works on small punctures, even if distilled wine is a more-potent material for needle-pokes.”

“It is?” I said, as I continued rubbing Sarah's foot. I could tell she needed to have them rubbed regularly, as now I could see – and feel – skin sloughing off rapidly. She either had severe calluses from walking barefoot, or this stuff called 'foot-rot' was a serious problem.

“It is that,” said the soft voice. “More than a few farmers are laid up for weeks on account of it in this area, and the time just after spring plowing and sowing is especially troublesome that way.”

For some reason, I could now tell that not only did Sarah need her feet rubbed regularly, but also it helped me to do so to no small degree. I found it oddly calming and pleasant, and the soft white cream seemed to be helping my hands as well. When I got a small amount more and began to work on her other foot, she took the one I had rubbed, and looked at it strangely.

Why, I had no idea. The foot I had rubbed was now its usual delicate-looking pink self, and was very alluring, so much so that I wished to kiss them when I finished – one kiss per foot, in fact.

“I would watch him around your feet, Sarah,” said Anna. “He may wish to play with them.”

“I know,” said Sarah. “This helps a lot, though.”

“Yes,” I said dreamily. “I hope you do not mind a head-rub, as I can tell you have something of a headache also.”

“I do?” asked Sarah quizzically. “From what?”

“That explosive,” I said. “It might not look like dynamite, and it isn't nowhere near as dangerous as dynamite to handle, but that does not mean it cannot cause headaches.” I then rubbed my own head, and thought to fetch a brick of each type for Hans so he could see what everyone except me called 'moldy Kuchen dough'.

“First need to do this, then her head, then the machine guns, and...”

“And let her find that material,” said the soft voice. “You need to clean your pistols, including that large one you used tonight – and it needs proper disassembly, as you'll use it while you're over there. Then all of the ones she used, including that smallest one. You'll wish to do likewise with yours in that size, as you'll use all of your pistols a fair amount.”

“On what?” I asked, regarding the 'hand howitzer' especially. “Functionaries?”

While there was no answer, I had a suspicion: there were some things that either needed that kind of stopping power, or the mere sight of that type of weapon would have a tremendous impact upon some individuals. Those functionaries – I had no idea. They might not know such things existed, and if their clumsiness was fully as bad as I had been told, then anything remotely like a hand-howitzer was a very bad idea for such people.

“They'd probably either shoot themselves or each other with such weapons,” I thought. “If they use pistols, they probably do that no matter what kind they are.”

“Or get them stolen, or they injure themselves when those weapons fail catastrophically,” said the soft voice, “or have them 'stick' – and you do not need your weapons to stick.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “Now, I saw the one kind that is strange, and it is like one of those big ones for size. There are others, or so I just heard.” Pause. “Are they worse for trouble?”

“H-how would you k-know?” I asked.

“I tried one of those things on some witches on the road coming here,” said Hans, “and it tried to get away from me until I grabbed onto it tighter than a double-charged flint-pistol. It stayed in my hand then.”

“It did?” asked Sarah. “If you could manage that, then... Did it leave your hands sore?”

“Yes, which is why I got a little of that cream there,” said Hans. “It gets dirt and other things out of your skin, is what I think, and then it smells good, and I bet Anna would like her feet rubbed like that.” Pause, then, “she has complained about them being sore more than once recently.”

“Uh, no padding in the shoes around here, and women's shoes are...” For some odd reason, I was thinking of 'high-fashion shoes' like some women supposedly wore where I came from. I recalled them having 'elevated' heels; beyond that, my recollection had faded. Just the same, Sarah looked at me with the strangest look, and shook her head.

I wondered if she'd seen the odd picture that had flashed into my head – as these things, while they had an odd resemblance to shoes I had once seen women wear long ago, were utterly unlike any shoe I had ever seen a woman wear where I came from. Calling these things 'spike-heeled' was speaking well of a bad situation, as they had metal studs on their bottoms near the front, and the heel was indeed a 'spike' – as in it was pointed, metallic, and most of all, sharp.

“No shoemaker would make such things here, and I doubt any woman would wish to wear those awful things,” said Sarah, as she shook her head in disgust. “They're worse than anything I've heard of being mentioned on tapestries and old tales, and I'd probably end up on my face before I could count to three if I tried walking in them, they're so bad.”

“What are these things, Sarah?” asked Anna. “Do I need to know about them?”

“Here, no,” said the soft voice. “None of the 'commons' over there have – or wish – such clumsy footwear as you were shown. Those over them, though... Those women do wear such footwear, and they make themselves lame by doing so.”

“Lame?” I asked.

“As in they're unable to walk any real distance in such footwear,” said the soft voice. “The only people who wore such footwear here in the past were the witches of this area, and that only when they needed to be 'especially showy'.” Pause, then, “they used other footwear entirely when they needed to engage in 'business' – as one could not run in shoes like that, and 'business', if you were a witch, could and commonly did involve vigorous activity – which included running.”

“Are women's shoes different from those made for men here?” I asked.

“They are a bit smaller, as a rule,” said Anna, “but otherwise, they're no different, least those shoes I've seen.” Pause, then, “I've never seen what witches wear, as witch-women...” Anna chewed on her lip, then, “I may have seen two of those people in the last ten-year, but they were wearing common clothing, and they must have just bathed, as they didn't have that smell Sarah said was common to them.”

“Like a Swartsburg b-brothel,” I spat. “Their stench is straight from a place that is as bad as hell is.” I paused, then said, in lower voice, “like perfume gone rotten mingled with bad body powder, and over all of it, a reek of decay that the first two things try to hide and only partially succeed in doing.”

Sarah gawked at me, then nodded silently. She'd never heard words put to that particular stench before, most likely, even if that stink was something no one ever forgot if they had the chance to have it 'climb up their nose', as the local vernacular spoke of such intense and sickening odors.

Once I had carefully rubbed both of Sarah's feet and she had put on 'clean' stockings' – I now knew why one needed several pair of them, as if one worked hard, one needed to change them at the first sign of dampness, lest 'foot-rot' get started in susceptible individuals – I cleaned my hands, and began rubbing her head. I thought to smell her hair, which nearly made me faint, and I thought, “get a sample of this odor. It would make women smell wonderful.”

“They can do that, even if duplicating it precisely will be rather difficult until they've had a chance to work on the formula for a while,” said the soft voice. “A passable duplicate – by their standards, anyway – can be managed readily.”

“P-passable?” I asked, as I began to carefully kneed Sarah's scalp, while trying hard not to gently twirl small 'bits' of her hair around my fingers. The soft silky nature of her hair was enchanting to feel, and I involuntarily purred while rubbing her head, much as if I were a large version of a long-haired cat.

“I heard that,” said Anna shakily. “Someone told me you were like a cat in some ways, and I think I just heard something like one.”

“A lion,” said Sarah. She was obviously enjoying her head-rub. “This is better than fever-bark for headaches, even if it makes one feel as if one had far too little sleep and had just gotten into the cough-medicine.”

“Do they have cough-medicine overseas?”

“No, which means they will desire large quantities of it, and more, they'll need to use your equipment designs to actually make a material of similar effectiveness.”

“Uh, our equipment designs..?” I asked.

“The ones you came up with,” said the soft voice. “That design scales well, but getting the needed ingredients in sufficient amounts might be a bit difficult at first.”

“Samples of the materials?” I asked.

“They can determine that by analysis of a small amount of the cough medicine itself,” said the soft voice. “Getting those roots and the other ingredients in tonnage lots isn't going to be easily – at least at first it won't be easy.”

“As in they can grow such plants?” I asked silently.

“Yes, in their 'gardens',” said the soft voice. “In the months to come, however, they'll improve that stuff a great deal, so much so that it will become available in forms you'd never think possible.”

“What?” I asked.

“An injectable form, for one thing,” said the soft voice. “More, a single dose of that material will stop the crae and a number of other troublesome illnesses 'right then'.”

“Then I will wish to have it, as normally the crae is troublesome enough to wish watching the person closely until they're well,” said Anna. “Now if only they have materials better than that tincture for pain...”

“They do,” said the soft voice. “All of them require dosing beforehand with a material that has similar effects to the bull formula – for reasons you can readily guess, if you have not actually experienced them.”

“The horrors,” I muttered. “I've seen what they do here, even if I have not actually had them here.” A pause, then, “I have had them where I came from, and I needed this one strange drug to be given before I could take such drugs if they were strong enough to deal with real pain.” Another pause, then, “do they have anything that works on nitro headaches?”

“Yes, and you've had materials like what they have for that kind of pain,” said the soft voice. “Recall that one instance before surgery when you were dosed before that first drug took effect? The time you nearly screamed, it was so bad?”

“I-I d-d-don't w-want that st-stuff,” said Sarah's shaky voice. “It sounds as if I'd rather go blind from making blasting oil than endure something that causes screaming.”

“The birds were everywhere then,” I said in a 'spooky' voice, as I recalled the instance clearly, much as if I were seeing a video of the situation from a 'God's Eye Viewpoint'. I was in a surgical waiting room, and the 'anti-insanity drug' had been given by mouth some minutes prior. A small amount, two milligrams of the other drug, had just been injected...

And the 'movie' then slowed down to near slow-motion speed.

A deafening ringing 'Caw-chorus' now rang in my head, then as I looked around in a room suddenly filled with smoke, I saw the walls suddenly turn to niter-stained bricks and the cart I was perched upon became dry sand, this reeking of...

No, it was not dried sand. This was a catacomb, and that which I sat upon was the crumbled remains of a vast multitude of corpses – these remains being bones gone to a crumbly near-powder. Around me though, shadows suddenly multiplied instantly. I had eyes ringing my head roundabout, so that I could see in all directions at once; and the shadows suddenly took unto themselves darkness; then form; then added shadows – and finally, these details sprouting faster than the ticks of an overworked clock: a beak, claws, feathers, wings...

CAWWW! screamed the ranked rows of ravens that had suddenly shown fully sized and deafeningly loud. CAWWW!

A strange creature – was it a creature, or was it a man resurrected from the dead? – its face having an unnatural chalk-white pallor with black 'paint' surrounding its eyes and mouth to form a mask-like 'picture', came striding toward me in a purposeful manner. Its long lank hair, its thinness, its clothing – black; an odd blackness: glossy, shining, torn in places, holes showing here and there – was but partly hidden by a long leather coat. For some odd reason, even though this being was bent upon mayhem beyond my comprehension, it – or, perhaps, he; if it were a man, he looked vaguely familiar – had no such interest in me. I was merely 'here', and since I had not caused him trouble, he was not inclined to injure me.

He then walked through me as if I were not present physically, and as he receded away into the mists that ringed me roundabout, I saw perched upon his shoulder a darksome feathered guide, one of those oddly intelligent birds which had shown earlier. I then recalled his name, yet found myself unable to speak it – even as what I was seeing faded out to where I was once more rubbing Sarah's head.

“Sarah?” I asked. “Did you see that f-fellow...”

“I would be tossed if I tried to ride a plank with mining cart wheels under it,” she said. “I have no idea how that girl rode that thing, and that city made me long for the dark parts of the second kingdom house!” A pause, then, “and though I have never seen before spirits wearing clothing, that person was one.”

“I hope this spirit was not an evil one,” muttered Anna. “I've seen enough of those recently to last me the rest of my natural life and a good portion of the next one.”

“And don't be late,” I muttered, as I resumed rubbing Sarah's head. I then recalled what else I needed to do beyond clean weapons.

“Unpack some of that stuff we need to either show Rachel, or at least make drawings of,” I said. “We do need to do that before we sleep tonight.”

“If we need to make drawings, then I am glad you are rubbing my head,” said Sarah. “I enjoy it greatly, especially when you do strange things to my hair with your fingers.”

“Ah, he is playing with her hair,” said Hans. “That is a good sign.” He then looked at Anna.

“At least he has something that smells good on his fingers, Hans,” said Anna. “I suggest you do the same the next time you're so inclined.”