Es Dié da Muerté, Cabroni! Saluté!


The clock now roosted in my ears, but after perhaps four ticks, I suddenly knew it was 'time', I removed my hand from the pendant. The cloud came up away from us with a roar and we found ourselves somewhere on a grass-filled downslope, a steady mutter and rumble somewhere to our rear, while the light of early morning washed over us from the west. I turned around, there to see a sea of fire billowing thick black smoke and terrible red, yellow, green, and orange flames, and as I watched, a series of muffled booming noises tossed huge chunks of metal out of the fire to land with terrible clanging noises on the soot-blanketed road some distance to our rear.

I told those stinkers they were sitting atop a witch-hole, and now it has gone up on them,” spat Deborah. “I told them that more than once, and they would not listen to me.”

Never wished to get out of the place, did they?” I asked. “No mention of the Abbey?”

They were not fit to work in such a place,” said Deborah. “Worse jewelers I have never seen, even if I have not seen that many jewelers.” Pause, then, “is this beer? It smells like it.”

If it is, then use these cups here,” said Sarah, as she handed back two tinned copper 'dippers'. While these things looked 'old', they also looked to have been recently retinned. “I'm glad the house proper has so many of these things.”

This is not a cup, but closer to a smaller bathing dipper,” said Deborah, as she filled the vessel in question. “I'm glad I brought mine out with me, even if they took almost everything else I had.” Pause, then, “I did not have much else by this morning beyond this small bag on a strap and a few coins remaining in the rags that I had padded my things with.”

T-thieves?” I asked, as the horses now came to a stop. We were nearly half a mile clear of the place now, and even here, I could feel the raging heat of the smoky blaze and feel the muffled ground-shaking blasts as either distillate fumes or munitions detonated.

They were that,” said Deborah. “I had half of my remaining money stolen during the night the day after I arrived, and between that theft and them not giving me a single thing save food, I had to use up nearly all of what I had with me.”

They what?” I squeaked, as I saw what looked like chunks of a train shoot out of the smoke-cloud and pound a 'dent' into the dust of the soot-blanketed road before it rolled twice and slid to a smoke-billowing stop. “Did they..?”

I could tell it was them, as I could smell their hand-grease on those things they had left,” said Deborah. “I spoke to them about lying and stealing, and that's when I knew they wanted to be witches, but did not have the insides for that business.”

So why did you stay?” I asked.

They would not let me leave!” shrieked Deborah, “and they had this strange lock upon my door, and until I unblocked its inner keyhole a few days ago, I was kept a prisoner in there.”

And then Madame, uh, Annistæ showed,” I murmured.

Yes, and I could tell I would find someone in that town,” said the woman I had mentioned. “My clothing was bought far to the south, and it was hard to buy it, but I can travel during the day in most places...” A pause, this to look, then “Ai! There are no Cabroni here, or they are very few.”

Cabroni?” I asked. “G-goat-heads?”

They want all of that three-headed goat,” she said, “and they will not give it up, even if someone such as I speak plainly to them about how that is and where it leads to!”

I can speak of where it leads to,” said Sarah. “It took killing every witch that had tried for our town, and putting blood on nearly every floor in the place, and shooting out nearly every window and door, and then making everyone live as if a deep-slave for those there who are not marked to forget about what witches wish them to do and be.”

They all might as well have been fully-owned witch-slaves,” I muttered. “I had to bang a lot of heads after shooting the place up, and I made a horrible mess doing it.”

That was the name for those I lived with, all right,” spat Deborah, who obviously meant the word 'Cabroni'. “That place had many such people, or it did.”

How many left when you spoke of the place going to hell, dear?” I asked, as I dismounted. I was wondering if it was wise to disassemble the unused rockets, when to my astonishment they all were gone. “How many of those things did you-all fire?”

It was all I could do to get that launcher away from her,” squeaked Sarah. “I saw that place where she had lived, and it wasn't on fire yet, but she was about to shoot another of them off, and I had to scream at her to let me have it so as to blow that place up!”

I was too busy shooting it to notice,” said Deborah quietly. “I'd put two rockets into the bad places that I knew of, and then a third one when Annistæ pointed it out to me, though how she did that while firing both of those things like pistols is a mystery.”

It was not easy,” she said. “I had my hands beyond full with those smelly goat-heads, as you call them, and they were needing much warm lead to stay clear of us.” A pause, then, “I think I shall wish one of these, as I can shoot them well.”

That or what I have,” said Sarah. “It has enough range to drill a witch half a mile away.”

I might want to have one of those handy, then,” said Deborah – whose voice then climbed in pitch and volume as she pointed to the south with outstretched arm. “There's one, right there!”

How this one wretch had gotten clear of the town and this far north without being noticed was an entire mystery, but I unslung my rifle as he ran toward us, then as I knelt down, I carefully lined him up and fired. The witch screamed, then disappeared in a sooty explosion of dust.

I am not sure if I want one of those,” said Deborah. “It was as loud as one of my uncle's guns, and the flame out the front was worse.”

Yes, and it scattered that smelly wretch at a range fit for one of those guns you spoke of,” said Sarah. “There are no free meals here or in heaven, and your uncle told me that his-own-self.” A pause, then, “here's the bread.”

I hope you have cherries to put on it, as I need some,” said Deborah. “My teeth are starting to go loose, those people fed me so badly.”

I can make what is needed, if you can find me glass,” said Annistæ.

Glassware, madame?” I asked. “We can stuff Deborah with cherries inside of an hour, if she's so inclined, as there are plenty of them where we are going.”

How will you manage that, especially on this r-road?” Deborah asked.

Easily enough, I suspect,” said Sarah. “I was too busy to notice it much before now, but did you see how this place here is hard and smooth, almost as if it were a road once – a good road, not what passes for roads in the fourth kingdom?”

I was waiting still for trouble to our rear, and when a black piglet showed at the edges of the smoke-cloud far in the distance, I shot it. The abrupt bang nearly pitched Deborah onto the ground while she was trying to get more comfortable.

Ai, you got that bad-pig,” said Annistæ. “They had smelly bad-pigs there.”

Bad-pig?” I asked. “Big long, uh, dientæ? Especially the front ones?”

That is the worst type, those spoken of in our tales,” said Annistæ. “That was a common bad-pig, and no one wishes those, both for food or labor.”

Labor?” I asked.

No one wishes swine among my people, at least for food, and they make me ill if they are around, so they kept them well clear of me,” she said. “Some keep them for labor, but the only color of pig wished for work is brown or pink, with the pink ones being best for it, even if they are smaller than those which are brown.”

Pink?” I gasped.

I could never abide them,” she said, “and no one in the town I was born in kept them, as they sold donkeys, and pigs and donkeys do not go together with each other.” A pause, then, “I wished I could have kept my donkey, but those smelly Cabroni shot him before they came for me.”

“And..?”

“I shot every stinking one of them, and set them alight with Benzina,” she said. “It set much of my town ablaze, but that was not where I was born – and any town which wants Cabroni had best expect fire, as they do not take care in much, and that is worst if they are those who fumé.”

“Suck on weeds?” I gasped. “Smoke?”

“Yes, this plant that grows like a weed there,” she said. “It has some small uses – chiefly if one changes its structure – for chemicals and medicines, but no one in his or her right mind would wish to burn it for its smoke, even if he or she remained upwind of its burning.”

“Smells horrible, doesn't it?”

“That is not a fit word for its stink,” said Annistæ. “It belongs with that big lizard below us, or wherever that thing actually hides itself.”

It was sliced on good, so it has a fresh reminder of what awaits it,” said Sarah.

That thing does not learn much,” she said. “I have heard it from two people, and I know one of them does not lie.”

Actually, she isn't terribly good at lying, and neither am I,” I said. “If I tried to lie, I would get caught.”

As would I,” said Sarah. “It is not something I have ever done well, and that was when and if I wished to lie.”

Which, at least once you were old enough, wasn't very often,” I said. “Perhaps, what – eight, nine years old?”

I was not much older than that,” said Sarah. “I more or less gave it up entirely then, as it never got me anywhere save in trouble.”

I went to where Deborah was now endeavoring to eat as if starved, and as I came closer, rifle now slung, I noted that there was a foul smell nearby. Sarah turned and looked at the ground, and I followed her gaze.

Is that bread?” I asked.

They called it that, and until a few days ago, it was decent, as they got more daily,” said Deborah. “When she came, those stinkers went from perhaps a glass or two of wine a day to several bottles each per day, and the whole house became horribly smelly.”

They were Cabroni, then,” said Annistæ. “They bathed seldom, no?”

They did, but if it was once a week, it was a lot for them,” said Deborah. “I demanded my own bathtub, and while they took some time getting it, I did get one, that and soap.” Pause, then, “I had to use an old pot before that, that and a small bather that I had from home.”

It wasn't very good, was it?” I asked.

No, it was not,” said Deborah. “I had to bathe when I could, and that meant boiling my own water on the hearth after pumping the stuff.” Pause, then “at least I had what I needed to do that where I was penned up.”

What?” I asked.

It was a large room she was in, almost like its own house, with a place for fire,” said Annistæ. “I had to show her how to cook with that thing, as what we could get once I came was little and bad, and my little pot had to stretch some for feeding two.”

With its own privy, I hope.”

It had one of those, and a closer and smellier place I had never endured before,” said Deborah. “I'm glad they brought in wood when they thought to bring food, at least until I cleared their smelly door-lock and picked it.” Deborah then looked in one of the bags, and found one of the less-good knives. This made for an immediate question on her part, even if Annistæ began to look one of these knives over.

“May I use this one, until I can get my own?” asked Deborah.

“That one you can have,” said Sarah. “We have a lot of those.” Pause, then, “we will have more good ones when we return, and I will make certain you get at least one of them.”

“Good ones?” asked Deborah. “What are those like?”

“Like this,” said Sarah, as she drew one of the just-finished knives. “These are so sharp that they need sheathes when one is not using them, and...”

Sarah paused, then pointed with the knife. I walked over in that direction, then suddenly I found a black-dressed witch lying unconscious next to a jug. Without wasting a second's time, I lifted this stinking wretch up by his filthy clothing to a standing position, drew my knife of that kind, then with a swipe of the thing I nearly decapitated him before he could fall back down to the ground.

“Sharp as a razor?” I gasped, as I sprung back to stay clear of the thick streams of blood the man's throat sprayed as he crumpled dying to the ground. “These things make razors seem dull!”

“There, see,” said Sarah. “They are very sharp, and more, they will stay sharp.” A pause, then, “that was with the latest metal done. It will become better, I suspect, once we have new equipment.”

“I will wish tools of that metal,” said Annistæ, “as well as a knife, though those seem a bit large for common use.”

They aren't intended for common use,” I said softly, as I wiped the blade off before inserting it into the sheath, then tucking the sheath back into the possible bag. “We'd best go, before we get overwhelmed once more with stinky witches.”

Yes, after you get some more beer down,” said Sarah. “you're starting heat-waves – I can see them.”

If he ate something recently, then he is very ill,” said Annistæ gravely. “I am not one who does medicine, but I have talked with such people a great deal, and made the medicines needed to treat such illnesses.”

Needs more than just medicine, doesn't it?” I asked, as I handed Deborah my money-pouch and then reached for my beer cup. After I got two cups down, however, I was drinking the stuff down as fast as I could between bites of bread.

That is better,” said Annistæ. “Now you are not burning.” A pause, then, “why is it you handed her that pouch?”

Money, dear,” I said, speaking to both women. “The smaller coins are better, but you'll” – here, I meant Deborah, as she had been robbed – “wish at least fifty guilders out of it, even where we are going, as there are things you need, and you, Madame, the same, if there is that much in it.” A pause, then, “you might try looking on the floor of the buggy once we're in the house proper, as we had money rain on us and Sarah only spoke of the gold pieces. There has to be some silver as well.”

Where is this we are going?” asked Deborah. “It must be safe, as I've had my fill of witches, and I wish nothing whatsoever to do with any of those stinkers.”

The house proper,” said Sarah. “It currently has no witches, but it does have many rats for you to practice your shooting.”

I will keep my pistol warm if they are handy,” said Annistæ. “I might have trouble making powder suitable for it, unless I can get glass.”

That we have much of,” said Sarah, “though we will be able to get plenty of what is needed to keep it shooting where we are going.”

And in the meantime, we have other pistols you might be inclined to use, if you're not inclined to carry one of what you were using,” I said.

She's good with that thing,” said Deborah. “I might need to pot a fair number of rats to get that good.”

There are plenty of such animals in that place, that and places to hide,” said Sarah – who then turned toward our 'destination'. “We had best move on, as that place back there will continue to burn for the rest of the day – and I will never forget that smelly witch-hole, as only the first day at the Abbey was worse.”

What is this place?” asked Deborah, as I led off.

The Abbey,” said Sarah. “It was once called Westmonster Abbey, and it was said to be in a place called...”

That one district called, uh...” I paused, for hearing the name 'Berkeley' spoken in my mind was beyond my capacity to believe. Just the same, that name was not one to speak: as here, that name amounted to a curse of an awesome magnitude. Still, the name occurred to me again, along with another name, this resembling it – as well as a most peculiar saying including the latter word.

Berzerkeley, the home of the real witches?” I thought.

That was its name,” screeched Sarah. “How did I just learn that?”

That is not a name you wish to speak,” said Deborah. “Not if it is one of the twenty-six districts of that place once called 'the realm of evil spirits' – and that name sounded as if it were one of them.”

You do not wish to say that name,” said Annistæ. “It is reckoned an evil curse where I came from, one that conjures many strange whites.”

'Whites?” I asked. “Oh, vague and filmy shapes that you might see briefly, ones that you're not seeing with your eyes but by some other means that I do not understand very well?”

Yes, those,” said Annistæ. “I have seen my share of them in the places where I have lived, but there is a worse place for them, and that is where I learned chemistry well.”

While Sarah was able to follow me readily as I resumed 'northward' travel along this hard-packed yet otherwise disused road, I found that behind me, I could hear low-toned speech, this speaking of what had just happened, including much of what I had just seen – and, more importantly, had not seen.

First, the talk was of the witches that had shown. Sarah, at the least, had recognized many witches from the Swartsburg, the hall, and that one town – all of them showing recently-healed injuries of a substantial nature – which had made them at once feared and powerful beings, for they had survived 'destruction' and had somehow healed themselves like the witches of old.

At least, that was the belief among those lesser beings they associated themselves with.

They found out about that invasion from the south, so they thought to take over that town, and in their underground travels, they learned about that one place over t-time,” I thought, even if I wondered as to why the place had been rebuilt so many times over hundreds of years.

They did that, and with that precise goal in mind,” said the soft voice. “One of them stumbled upon it by 'accident' while fleeing the hall's destruction using a handcar on the secret way, then he told several other witches about his new 'abode' once he'd staked out his quarters – and it took perhaps a week to become widely known among the area's witches, even if but few of them beyond its discoverer thought to live in that place at first.”

Pause, then, “the events of the last week, however, made that place a prime gathering area for the remnants of the area's witches, and then learning of what the place contained made taking that town very attractive.”

Another pause, then, “it's mentioned in numerous places in that tome you found this morning, but remember – very few witches have actually seen what is in that collection of documents – and I include 'the carriage trade' when I say that.”

Armored battle cars?” I asked, upon recalling their mention. “Those would make them in-invulnerable.”

Not quite,” said the soft voice. “The stored fuel in that place would have only lasted a certain distance if they ran any real number of those thirsty vehicles, and then they'd need to be run on a species of heavy distillate – which means they would quickly become a species of four-tracking deathtrap.”

How?” I asked. Again, this was silent.

Recall how often Sarah has spoken of what happens when she puts sand in the lubricant of 'evil engines'?” asked the soft voice. “These people would treat those things like prime fetishes, and not do the quantity and quality of maintenance needed to keep those noisy things running properly – so they would catch fire or explode sooner or later.” Pause, then, “those people were not Veldters.”

Again, faint scraps of speech, this around mouthfuls of food. Deborah and that other woman were very hungry, as neither had eaten well for some time; but when I heard about the witches in that town desiring to take 'the first kingdom entire' and then combine both first and second kingdoms together, 'as they were intended to be' and then make the combination of the two once more 'witch-country, that realm once owned entire by the witches'.

Hearing 'entire' spoken thusly made for a mental comment upon my part: “so that's why we usually say 'entire' and not 'entirely',” I thought. “Those stinkers have changed our language so much that all we do when we speak is chant their curses, and that without cease!”

More so even than what you just thought,” said the soft voice. “Correcting people's speech was the chief job of the fourth pendant, and because that person became the strongest arch-witch to live since the time of Cardosso, he made what had previously had some pretenses of witch-speech into 'the mule entire'.”

And my speech...”

You might not know it yet, but your customary speech is proper speech, and has nothing of the witch about it save for what little of the vernacular you've learned so as to camouflage who you are,” said the soft voice. “I'd listen a bit more to what they are saying, as they saw a lot more of that town's destruction than you did.”

Dodging hand-cars and rusting pieces of railroad rails?” I thought. “Rusted chunks of machinery as it flew around crazily and hit the ground to break up into fragments?”

You did speak of scrap-metal, and that area might as well now be an open-pit mine for such stuff,” said the soft voice. “You were too intent on what you were doing to notice all of what was flying out of that hole when it went up.”

More speech, this from Annistæ: “they have places like that one in some parts of the Red Mountains, as most call them in those areas I have traveled outside of El Vallyé , and while much of what is found in them is fit for breaking up and then melting for its metal, some equipment works well enough for using still, if it is worked upon a great deal first.”

What?” I gasped. “They run that stuff?”

Notice what she said about working on it?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “That isn't just 'getting it running' that she spoke of. She meant 'extensive modifications so that it might be put to use'.”

What for?” I asked.

Those vehicles like those that were in that place behind you make passable road-graders when modified suitably,” said the soft voice, “and people from several settlements in the Valley run them so as to keep the region's roads in usable shape.” Again, the command to listen.

That metal behind us was but fit for melting and then cleaning, as it had much rust, and then all of it I saw had black-terror curses painted on it with blood.”

Black-terror curses?” I asked silently. We were moving at perhaps five miles an hour, and while we were making 'decent' progress for this area, our current speed wasn't much faster than if a conventional buggy, one with wooden axles and tallow-smeared hubs, was being used.

Listen,” said the soft voice.

Yes, with bad-markings,” said Annistæ. “They are written with blood by Cabroni, and when that blood comes off, or so our tales speak of it, then it marks such a thing as being that of Cabroni for all time.”

What does that word mean?” asked Sarah. “I never heard it before today.”

Goat-heads,” I muttered. “Really bad witches, not the commonplace stinkers we had around here.”

They were fully as bad, if bad in different ways,” said the soft voice. “Listen more.”

That is what that word means,” said Deborah. “That is the way they name especially smelly witches, and though I have only been with her a very few days, I have learned much of her language, and she mine.”

Ai,” said Annistæ. “They smell bad. That is how you know Cabroni, is their stink – as they like bad smells, and they do not bathe, and then there is this other stink, and that one you know but do not smell with your nose.”

I know about that stink,” I said plainly. “The road is a bit downhill here, then about another mile further we turn northwest.”

It is already heading a little bit that way,” said Deborah. “Annistæ has a small compass, and it seems to work well.”

Good,” I said. “I have one also, and then Sarah has hers, and...”

A bang, this sudden, sharp, and dire, was answered by a hideous scream; then another two bangs echoed.

I got that witch,” said Deborah.

Yes, you did,” said Annistæ. “You may have gotten him, but you need to aim for his chest, or better his head, in case he is hard to kill.”

Stinking hard-witches,” I muttered. “Those wretches want this type of rifle, as then it hardly matters where you hit them.”

I think I might need to get used to their noise, then,” said Deborah, “as that stinker needed three doses of lead to drop, and I heard him scream after I hit him the first time.”

All three shots?” I asked.

Yes, she hit that Cabroné all three times,” said Annistæ. “She needs to be more careful, but she is new to shooting this type.”

I have scarcely done more than see such things used,” said Deborah. “This type does not smoke, while those I had seen before did so.”

That does not mean it does not wish cleaning, and that most-carefully,” said Sarah. “You do not wish your weapons to stick, especially if you must deal with as many witches as that town had.”

She is right,” said Annistæ, “and those want blue-oil. I am glad I can get glass, as then I can make it.”

What is needed, Madame?” I asked.

These strange green-and-yellow round-balls that grow on vines,” she said. “I have some of their seeds with me, as I knew I would wish that oil, and it comes out green at first when the round-balls are crushed. That is because the oil is impure.”

They boil those things,” said Sarah. “One takes the juice and boils it.”

That makes it less-good, said Annistæ. “One wishes gentle heating under a lessened pressure of air, or ideally a lessened pressure of a gas that does not cause it to change its structure.”

Helium,” I murmured. “Is that what you need?”

Non, that is what I had wished I could get and had not the tools for getting it,” she said. “How is it you know this matter?”

Uh, guess,” I said, meaning I had known of inert gases before coming here, and that one was about as non-reactive as they came – where I came from.

Here, the issue of 'less reactive' regarding Helium was a very good question.

I then paused, then, “no oxygen – boiling at atmospheric pressure in the presence of oxygen causes the stuff to, uh, turn this yellow color and oxidize, and that won't work for lubricating – correct?”

Cé,” she said. “One does not wish this other common gas, either, as then it turns that raw oil into something fit for poisoning ground-rats. Those are much more common up here than where I once lived, but one can find them there, if one goes underground much in order to look for metal or glass.”

You find glassware in that place?” asked Sarah. She was obviously astonished.

Yes, though it is scarce and needs much cleaning,” said Annistæ. “Then, there is this other material, one which is not glass, but that needs a trip to El Sierra do Nuëstra Brujé, and that takes many nights' riding on a donkey's back and stopping in towns during the heat of the day so as to rest.” Pause, then, “that is where I learned more of chemicals and other matters.”

Other matters?” I asked.

Yes, as I now have my own copy of that book,” she said. “One may read it there, but they have but few of them – hence one must sign one's name to a list and wait for one's turn.” Pause, then, “with my studies, there was but little time for anything else while I was there, so I had no chance to read it.”

And where you lived after that?” I asked.

It was not to be had in that place, as that part of El Vallyé is very poor, save if one is a smelly Cabroné,” she said. “Those people thought to buy me and keep me like they kept her, but they did not know about what I had handy, and they all ate warm lead, and then they all bathed in much hot fire when I found my donkey dead.”

Handy?” I asked. “Like what you used earlier?”

It was close enough to what I had that I knew what I saw and how to use it,” she said. “Those take larger cârtuchæ, ones nearly as long as my smallest finger for their brass, and their bullet is smaller for diameter and longer for length, and then it has a point which is open to show a small dot of lead.”

Soft-points?” I gasped. “No hole at the tip?”

Non, as that type does not drill through plate well, and sometimes one meets black-dressed Cabroni who put plate in their clothing. Then one needs a bullet with not merely lead, but also this other harder metal that is used for tools run under power.”

Wolfram,” I muttered, at the blatant mention of tungsten carbide. “Dark gray bordering on black, very hard, somewhat brittle...”

That is best if you can get such bullets,” she said, “but we often had to make do with tools of steel and bullet parts of the same, even if that type of bullet-part is sometimes found in that portion of El Vallyé.”

Steel?” I asked.

What we had must be run slow, as if it became too hot, it lost its bite,” she said. “That stuff in that knife you used is more like the good kind, that which may run faster.” Pause, then, “that stuff you spoke of likes to run fast and does poorly otherwise, but its cut is ragged if the workpiece is looked at closely, and then it chips badly when it wears, so fast-steel is best if one wishes a good cutting tool, either for the hand or for a machine.”

I dropped back then reached in my possible bag for that one huge knife. I found it, then carefully, holding it by the back of the blade, I handed it to Deborah. I was not prepared for her reaction.

I've wanted one of these for years!” shrieked Deborah. She sounded distinctly 'delighted'. “When did you get this?”

This morning,” said Sarah. “It does have its uses, but he's nearly as lost around those things as I am.” A pause, then, “he made me a smaller knife for my latest time in the woods, and it's handy enough if you aren't cutting up witches or that smelly gray explosive.”

That's about the only use I have for it,” I said, meaning 'cutting up bricks of smelly gray explosive'. “It does work well for that, which is why I think I was directed that way.” A pause, then, “the usual size of knife in this area is about twice as long as I like them, actually.”

That is the best size if one is inclined toward daily use, is that shorter type,” said Annistæ. “If they are not too much, then I would like such a knife.”

Out of our latest batch of steel once we return from across the sea, and another like I just used, in case you have trouble with Cabroni and need to be quiet,” I said. “I make a lot of that smaller size of knife, and I use mine like that commonly.” I then shuddered violently with the recollection of what I had done while dealing with the traitors. I'd used my smaller knife to 'cut up witches'.

What else did you use it for?” asked Deborah innocently.

He sliced up a coven of traitors in the process of getting information out of those stinkers,” said Sarah, “and it would be most unwise for him to assay another instance, as I think that gives him nightmares both waking and sleeping.” A pause, then, “only what he did at the Abbey was worse that way.”

It was?” I asked. Those traitors did 'give me nightmares both waking and sleeping', while those things I had dealt with at the Abbey did not – so far. Only the chief of all traitors roosted in my waking mind, and I had no desire to see him again. There would be no more four-legged rocket engines or giant accursed Desmonds to deal with, while large rats – those, if one was adequately armed and fully prepared to deal with them, bordered on what might be thought of as 'sport' – as in hunting 'dangerous game'.

I was not sure if I enjoyed hunting 'dangerous game'. Deer were plenty for me, as I'd only had one of them not charge me, that being the first one I'd actually shot here. Elk – those things acted like Cape Buffalo, I now realized: they were mean, vindictive, and usually irritated – when not 'in the mood'.

I saw what you needed to do to stop that lizard,” said Sarah. “When do we turn?”

Very shortly,” I said. “The horses are pulling more readily, aren't they?”

They are, which is why we are moving a bit faster,” said Sarah. “The road is wider at this point?”

Not wide enough for two buggies and their teams, but wide enough for us,” I said. “I can see part of a drainage ditch here, and I can tell this was once a decent road. It simply has not been used, and... Some witches covered it with dirt and then put weed-seeds on it!”

They do that where I came from,” said Deborah. “I did not believe what I had been told about them doing that until I actually found one lying dead with a bullet hole coming out of his back and a sack of weed-seed in his hand.”

Bullet-hole?”

Yes, from a roer,” said Deborah. “They are very common in the potato country, and most men in my family had them.”

Uh, thimbles?”

Yes, as a rule, though some put up with flint and smoky faces,” said Deborah, rolling her eyes dramatically. “How they endure that nonsense is a mystery to me, as that type still gives me nightmares, and I'm likely to put the fine-grained powder down the barrel and what is supposed to go in the barrel in the pan.” A pause, then, “I've done that three times, and I was lucky twice.” A pause, then, “the third time, I was not lucky, and I've no desire for weapons using flint since then, even if I'd not mind the other kind.”

What happened?”

The gun burst, and I spent half a day in the nearest privy on or near the stool,” said Deborah. “I might not have been cut by the gun exploding like it did, but I did soil my clothing badly, and that meant a lot of time in the privy scrubbing on that stuff with lye and a brush.” A pause, then, “I do not like lye, and it does not like me.”

Then you must stay away from this lye,” said Annistæ. “It is a poison that needs special work done so as to remove it should it get inside your body, and only a few places do it in El Vallyé, and that means one must see a Brujé to have it done.”

It's true,” I muttered. “The words are the same for doctor and 'witch' – though I think Cabroné is a much worse word.” A pause, then, “wise people?”

The literal meaning for Brujé in that language is 'wise person', and you would most likely receive that title were you to go there,” said the soft voice.

I then saw the turn, this surprisingly sharp for roads in this area, and guided Sarah around it. I then found myself ahead, for here, the road narrowed slightly, and the downgrade was such that I had to scout the region ahead so as to keep Sarah on 'the straight and narrow path'. I could almost call it 'strait' instead of 'straight', as this path was far more narrow than 'straight'.

It tended to meander more than a little, and when I saw the Suedwaag some distance ahead, I was very glad, as then we'd be on a truly good road, one that saw enough use to get regular maintenance with weighted drags and road-crews.

Having to do a lot of that lately, aren't we?” I thought.

Especially in the house proper,” said the soft voice. “You'll be able to take the women to the kingdom house proper along the path you came through the city, but I would watch for witches attempting to break out of the house – as they will draw gunfire when they show.”

If we don't provide some of it ourselves,” I thought, as a sort of snide reply. “We might well do that, as this morning was a primer for such action.” A pause, then, “will we have to play games to get past the Suedwaag's ditch?”

Nothing more than unburdening the buggy of its two passengers,” said the soft voice. “They can remount once you're on the Suedwaag heading north.”

That portion came up perhaps three minutes later, and once northbound on the Suedwaag, I recalled Knokenplats and its beer. I wondered if it was a good idea to stop there, then thought, “no, not a good idea unless we must.”

You can, and I would so as to water the horses,” said the soft voice. “Besides, Deborah really wants cherry jam, and now she has the chance to buy it for the first time in months.”

It was not to be had where she lived?”

No, as that place's Public House hasn't had it in years, and most families there didn't bother to cook it themselves,” said the soft voice. “Where she lived didn't, and those people just lived with the varied illnesses that dietary deficiency caused.”

Infertility, also,” I thought.

That was mostly due to them desiring to be witches,” said the soft voice. “Infertility is very rare here, save if people are inclined toward the things of witchdom.” A pause, then, “they weren't interested in raising children, though, and that is usually caused by a lack of needed vitamins, as is loose or falling teeth – and a desire for wine in those inclined to be witches.”

Me?” I asked.

I meant 'for those not marked',” said the soft voice. “Those marked often have 'far more important matters' involved in their lives compared to raising children, and that's when they're not given to a pendant.”

The road into Knokenplats was met with little drama, for the morning was still early enough to have no travel yet upon the Suedwaag – or at least until we were actually in the town in question, where there were two buggies already in the yard of the Public House. Their horses were tethered by long leads to the 'hitching posts' and were there drinking their fill. I suspected someone had left out grain for them.

Once actually at the Public House, all three of the buggy's passengers got out and went into the inside, and while I finished all three horses quickly – hooves, water, and mash – the three women seemed inclined to stay in the place a while. I soon found out I was mistaken, for with a rush, all three of them left the inside of the Public House, and they left in such a hurry that I needed to first mount Jaak, then hurry to catch up with them. I was glad they weren't able to travel at the buggy's usual speed, as that would have needed me trotting after them for the entire length of the town.

What was that all about?” I asked.

I had to shoot two witches in the privy,” screeched Sarah. “I went in there, and while I was sitting on the stool I heard them coming after me, and when they came to the stall, I shot them both and left my rag in the place behind me!”

You s-shot two witches?” I asked.

Yes, and those were two of the three that made it past us,” said Deborah. “I might handle two witches easily with a decent knife, but not five of them at once, and I was about to try for a third one with that knife when that stinker ran into the back room and the other two disappeared somewhere else, and she was too surprised to see them inside of that place.”

She's never been in one, at least one in this area,” I said.

I have, though not this far to the north,” she said, “and when I last saw such people, they were dressed in black like those in that bad-pig town that went where it belonged, and not washed and scrubbed like most people I have seen in my travels north.”

They were witches, all right,” said Deborah. “I was about to point out their ink-markings to you when Sarah comes running out of the privy and tosses some money at the publican, and I knew enough then to forget the jam and run.” Pause, then, “I can wait another hour or so, even if I wanted that jam.”

Plain-dressed witches,” I asked. “Uh, well-washed, so they didn't smell much, and then they... They just made their bones.”

Not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if they did plan on doing that in the next few weeks, and had 'sealed' matters by getting inked weeks ago.” Pause, then, “they did know those niter-thieves fairly well, and they'd gotten descriptions of those involved from those people in that town.”

Sounds like that place needs to go to hell also,” I murmured, as we left Knokenplats behind us.

It did that yesterday,” said the soft voice. “The people there had no desire to leave witchdom behind, so they burned when their town went up suddenly during the night the day before you-all started working at the Abbey.”

Burned?” I asked. “How?” I then squeaked, “the niter!”

That was all moved within days of your claiming it, so that location was empty of all matters deemed worth the bother of removal,” said the soft voice. “That material is now at Willem's location – one of the Manse's larger rooms – until 'better' places can be found for most of it. Pause. “They found more niter present than just that in the 'showroom', as in those four men were not just stealing niter. They were also cleaning that stuff up, and doing a more-than-passable job on the less-good material they had stolen.”

Worth the bother?” I asked. I had only really noticed the large amount of kegged niter in the place, that and its 'keepers' while first shooting them and then 'hanging them out to dry the old way'. My hands had been over-full then, and the recollection of that nasty-feeling tar-impregnated rope only cemented the horrifying images of the gut-streaming corpses hanging by their feet like animals being butchered. I had their company in my dreams far too often to suit me.

Lukas was in charge of its removal, and Willem was present also,” said the soft voice. “Willem was using his hay-wagon, and Lukas was driving another wagon, one he'd borrowed from one of his former neighbors.” Pause, then, “they were glad they'd gotten that stuff out when they did, as Lukas found some well-hid mining dynamite while he was checking the place over to find the remaining kegs of niter those thieves had on the premises, and he knew enough to not move it from where it was.”

Did that stuff explode?” I asked.

It did,” said the soft voice. “Some northbound witches recently found that box, and it went up on them when they tried removing that 'prime dynamite' from the premises – and the resulting fire consumed the whole of that town within perhaps half an hour.”

The whole place was on fire and burning within half an hour?” I asked.

That happened within seconds,” said the soft voice. “It was charcoal and ash in half an hour, due to the fact that that dynamite was the type that gives Hans nightmares, and the entirety of the town went to kindling within a fraction of a second of that stuff detonating.” Pause, then “those witches put two other boxes of that particular dynamite in that town, in addition to that in that box they'd put in that thieves' den.”

The niter-thieves didn't put that stuff there, did they?” I asked.

No, as they had neither the time to fetch it or the connections to get it locally,” said the soft voice. “There were witches coming by within two days' time, though, and they put that box there late at night in hopes that it would blow up whoever had 'slain their champions', as they put it.”

Their c-champions?” I asked.

Anyone who's hung out to dry the old way, especially if they are labeled as you and Sarah did with those men, is automatically assumed to be a witch – and that by man and witch,” said the soft voice. Pause, then, “the fact that those four were known of by many witches in the central part of the first kingdom just added to matters that were already obvious to those planting the three boxes.” Another pause, then, “you can guess what happened during the intervening time with 'dynamite that leaves the mill bad' – dynamite that was well on the way to turning – and clumsy drunken witches.”

They dropped that box, it exploded, and the others detonated in sympathy,” I muttered.

And turned the whole place into kindling in three blinks of an eye,” said the soft voice. “Now Deborah knows the difference between 'decent' knives and truly good ones.”

Which knife did you use, dear?” I asked softly.

That black one, as that place was lit with smelly tallow candles inside, and that means you do not wish a shiny knife, but one that is dulled and darkened like these are,” said Deborah, as she wiped her knife off. “These things need sharpening, and I suspect they will wish it often, as I can see places where this one went slightly dull when it hit bones.”

They need sharpening every time you use them, if you must use a knife,” said Annistæ. “That was what I learned in my school-training, is if you must stab or cut a person with a knife, then you must check it afterward unless it is an especially good one – and you want to get in the habit of both checking and cleaning up your knives regularly, as then you can trust them to work as you wish.”

I know,” I murmured. “Most that have mine speak of them seldom needing sharpening, but people put up with dull knives here...”

Sepp does not, and he has spoken of your earlier ones not needing sharpening beyond an occasional strapping,” said Sarah. “He's good enough to be a master butcher, and those people wish their knives to both be and remain sharp.” A pause, then, “your latest ones are likely to be better, and I'll wager Deborah wishes a sword of that metal.”

Those tend to be a bit large for me,” said Deborah. “That one knife works well, as I cut those two down quickly enough with it when I spiked their lower backs, and I know about those rigging knives.”

You want a corn-knife?” I asked. “I'll need to make some, uh, special ones for a few people, and once I get them done properly, then...”

If you make one out of good steel, then I could use one,” said Deborah. “This type here is best for poking, and slicing is usually quicker when you are dealing with lots of witches.”

She does that as quick as a ground-rat grabs legs,” said Annistæ. “She could teach knife-work where I came from, and not just with men. She could teach other ways to use knives, also.”

Ground-rat?” I asked. “What are those?”

What are called burrowing rodents up here,” said Sarah dryly. “You do not wish them to grab your legs, as I've seen what can happen then – both around here and in the fourth kingdom.”

Which is..?”

They break your leg,” said Sarah. Again, her tone was dry. “I've had to kick them away from me many times, and more than once, I had to use a musket or fowling piece to drive them off.”

Those in this place are not like those I was speaking of,” said Annistæ. “El Vallyé has worse ones, both for size and quickness, and they like dark places like the inside of that place.”

And where we are going has those things..?”

Like what Annistæ is speaking of, only worse,” said the soft voice. “You'll learn about those on the trip over.”

They will have them on the boat?” I gasped.

Not on the ships,” said the soft voice. “They do not have rodents on those, and for very good reasons.” A pause, then, “what they do have on those boats isn't a joke.” Pause, then, “if you need to use what passes for a 'privy' on that boat, you will wish to watch yourselves closely.”

Wonderful,” I murmured. “A toilet so complicated that it can cover you with its contents if you're not careful in which order you turn its valves.”

They do not have those,” said the soft voice. “You'll wish to ask those people before you use one, as they have special equipment for them – and you will desire that equipment.”

Equipment?” I asked.

Hair-nets,” said the soft voice. “What is in there would really like your hair – and I would wait to get it trimmed until after that place settles down.”

Is this like a vow or something?” I'd read about such hair in the book – both here, and where I came from.

No,” said the soft voice. “Recall how most functionaries have close-cut hair – and how slaves are have been described as being the same way? How witches long ago regarded long hair as a sign of power?”

The Mule's men do not think like Cabroni, but every one of those people who finishes his training wears his hair like yours,” said Annistæ. “Men of my people wear their hair such that it is easy to look after, as we were often out in the bad area to the south keeping those Cabroni out of El Vallyé.”

Short?” I asked.

Shorter than I have seen here, but there it is warm always,” she said. “Its summer heat is greater, and hence you need less hair on your head to keep it warm.”

That is why he has his hair so long, as where we will be going shortly is very cold,” said Sarah – who then screeched, “that is why you need your hair!”

One of several reasons,” said the soft voice. “Be glad none of you save Gabriel has close-cut hair, as that place will be cold enough to make you glad of it.”

At least until it is warmer in that place,” I murmured. “I hope those people don't like it the way it currently is.”

Not really,” said the soft voice. “They might find this area as it is right now to their liking, but you will see chillers running during the summer here, and warm clothing used extensively during the winter.”

Warm?” I asked.

Warm and dry,” said the soft voice. “Most of those people on their boats have such clothing, by the way, as those boats are not terribly warm at this time – and then, they don't much care to be changing their clothing constantly every time they go topside – and then, that stuff is really stain-resistant.”

I wish I could have had that stuff, then,” said Deborah, “as getting my clothing clean was really hard there.”

You could not wash it effectively, you were too busy to spend hours scrubbing and boiling, you only had one of each thing save for perhaps underclothing...”

Hours is right, especially with that soap,” said Deborah. “I'm glad Annistæ knows about clothing, as she was able to help me get it clean for the first time in months.”

I had to boil her things to get the insects out of them,” she said, “and that got much of its dirt, but it needs proper thrashing with steam so as to get them clean enough to wear and not scratch oneself like a dog.”

If I could get a drawing of those, I might try making one,” I murmured. “Both of us are worse than terrible when it comes to washing clothing, and...”

I am not good at it, I just had some of my cleaner handy, and that works well,” said Annistæ. “It only takes a few drops and hot water to get clothing-insects out of clothes and get them clean, and where I lived was bad for both such insects and dirt, so we needed a good cleaner.”

Was this Lavadora?” I asked.

Non, it was something that we make, which is much better,” said Annistæ. “That is like the soap she was using, but done correctly, not like something fit for stuffing bad-pigs like she had.” Pause, then, “this cleaner is from plants and some other processes, and it needs glass, special metals of catalytic nature, and then much cleaning with carbon between the many steps so as to make it.”

I think that was the point, dear,” I said. “You could not show yourself if you were dirty, so they deliberately tried to make certain you stank and were covered in filth so as to keep you where they wanted you to be regardless of your labors to stay clean.”

I did not smell, nor was I filthy, even if my clothing was dirty enough to feel awful,” said Deborah. “Now I hope I can get it cleaned, and I need new underclothing anyway, as this stuff has gone buggy, and no mistake.” Pause, then, “how I wish for some flour-sacking, as that stuff worked well.”

They tried to make you smell like a bad-pig, so that those Cabroni in that town knew you were like they were,” said Annistæ. “That is what Cabroni do, is wish to stink, and make everything around them smell like them so they know it is theirs.”

We have decent soap,” I murmured, “and they're making it where we're going.”

Decent, or good?” asked Deborah pointedly.

It is good enough that people buy the stuff as if it were Kuchen in the dead of winter,” said Sarah. “The first time we tried it, it even got our clothing clean, and neither of us are very good at clothes-washing.”

If it worked for you, then it is likely to work for me,” said Deborah. “Did it work for him?”

It did, dear,” I said. “I was afraid it might do something strange to the clothing, like make it fall apart, but so far, it seems to get clothing clean enough to feel good, and I get dirty in my work – enough to be compared more than once to a turnip-farmer, in fact.” I then had a better analogy.

I get as dirty as an iron-founder,” I muttered. “I've done that enough to know of it.”

Then that is good soap, as I have seen that done,” said Annistæ. “I might not have done that work, but I have done analysis upon such metal, so as to know what is in it and whether it is worth using or needs to be melted for scrap.”

Southern black-cast is...”

I was truly astonished to see what Annistæ did: she spat over the side of the buggy. Her voice then went up an octave, and here, I heard a dire screeching tone, one that made me glad Knokenplats was over a mile behind us and the kingdom house proper was at least a mile to our front. “There are no words for that abuiena! Only that song sung about Ese Puerc is worse to hear, and that is when it is played well, rather than how it is commonly sung here!”

Dung?” I asked.

That word is not strong enough for that evil metal,” said Annistæ. “It is worse than ten oaths on top of that word you said. That is to be put to piles that it may be fit for growing plants. That stuff you called black-cast is made by Cabroni, and its fumé is bad when it is melted.”

It wants much scrap metal, especially the rusty kind,” said Sarah. “I've seen them stoking that furnace, and for every bag of that stuff that goes in, at least one bag of rusted scrap goes in with it.”

Sometimes two, dear, depending on what kind of iron we want,” I said. “The kind that goes in a crucible usually has two bags of that black brittle 'iron' for each three bags of scrap metal, or perhaps two and two if the scrap is really rusty.” A pause, then, “what is in that one, uh, hole?”

Is similar to southern black-cast for carbon content, if otherwise better for its ingredients,” said the soft voice. “It will work well for feeding Frankie, and I would watch out once Georg gets wind of it.”

Will he desire it?” asked Sarah.

He'll wish its use extensively, and that's because it will not only work well, but he will not need to deal with a southern combine to get it,” said the soft voice. “Paying high prices for a poor material is not something Georg likes to do.”

Plays hell with his profit margin,” I said.

No, much more than that,” said the soft voice. “He does not like dealing with southern combines, and his experience with that stovepipe-making equipment only cemented his attitude that way.” A pause, then, “and that will get him in trouble.”

Not dealing with those stinkers?” I asked.

More than that, also,” said the soft voice. “He might just have to dodge multiple instances of 'double-barreled inquests' if he changes his suppliers regarding ferrous metals.”

I have heard that term,” said Sarah. “Stiff shot, heavy loads, and a bag of money in the other hand.”

Witch-bribes,” said Deborah. “They do that a lot to the south in places, and that where you think them to view it unwise.” Pause, then, “I hope she does not spit again, as the last time she did it nearly set the house alight.”

Uh, why?” I asked.

She came very close to imitating a tyrant lizard,” said Deborah. “The fire blazed up as if she'd spat distillate at it.”

That is out of an old tale,” said Sarah. “Be glad you are not him.”

Why, what happens then?” asked Deborah.

If he should think about witches, or merely be around them, they tend to catch fire,” said Sarah, “and what he was doing yesterday was like nothing I have ever heard of nor seen.”

What?” asked Deborah.

First, there were rats, and he cracked a club on them,” said Sarah. “We had found these large pistols earlier, and they think themselves cannons for both noise and flame.”

Yes?” asked Deborah. “I do not wish one, as every pistol I have tried...”

Look in that bag there,” I said, pointing with my finger.

Oh, I see it,” she said, as she opened the bag. She then took out the pistol I'd meant – as well as a suppressor.

What is this...” Deborah began reading, this slowly, mouthing the faint etched words in the dull gray-black of the foot-long cylinder. “Rat-poison pistol muffler.” Pause. “What does this do?”

What did you hear when I shot those witches in the privy?” asked Sarah.

Nothing,” said Deborah. “As Public Houses went, that place seemed busy and noisy. No such place is that loud in the potato country, and that no matter what time of year or day, or how full it is.”

They expect Ese Puerc to show all the time is why, or so I have been told,” said Annistæ. “That is one tale that is not old, but those of the Mule's men speak of it.” Pause, then, “I heard a faint noise, like a cork coming from a bottle, and that twice. Was that you?”

It was,” said Sarah. “That type of pistol is otherwise loud enough to put bells in your ears, and that is with the slow ammunition.”

Did those, uh, thugs need more than one 'dose'?” I asked.

No, and that was even when I shot hurriedly and hit them in the upper part of the gut just below their ribs,” said Sarah.

They are dead if you hit them there,” said Annistæ. “They might not feel it the minute they receive lead, but they will not live long.”

They felt it right away with what I shot them with, as both of them had dropped by the time I got off of the stool,” said Sarah.”

Perhaps you hit their liver, dear,” I said. “That has a lot of blood vessels, and if you hit that, then it does not take much to put someone on the ground quickly.”

Both of those men were hit in the spine,” said the soft voice, “and since both of them were hit beforehand in the major artery of the body, they both died by the time you-all you'd gone a hundred yards from that place's yard.” A pause, then, “they were discovered about three minutes later lying in a lake of blood , and all of those people were identified as witches.”

Hence they are now on the way to the manure-pile,” I murmured. “Best resting place there is for a full-of-dung witch.” I then screeched, “no, dear, those will drop any witch who isn't a serious hard-witch, and that if you pot them most anywhere in the torso.”

That is a more reliable occurrence if you use that hotter ammunition,” said the soft voice, “but if you speak of 'powder-burn range' – which those two were at when she became aware of them – then you are right.” A pause, then, “that hotter stuff opens that range up to nearly fifty paces.”

Yes, there was more,” said Deborah. “First, there were rats, like those where you went to school.”

Then wasps,” said Sarah, “though he sent them after the witches, along with a great many hornets.”

Good,” said Deborah. “Witches wish to have hornets present, and I have caught those things and put them to witches.”

You what?” I gasped.

I caught hornets and put them to witches,” said Deborah. “One wishes a net for the hornets, then a wicker hamper, and a net and hamper for each such hornet, as they become very irritated and might bother each other if you try to put two of those in one hamper. Put one of those hampers in a coach, and when the witches open it, out comes an angry hornet with its stinger just sharpened and its anger sharpened also, so then it puts that stinger into the witches.” Pause, then, “they do not do well afterward.”

Sore?” I asked. “Really sore?”

Dead is more like it,” said Deborah. “They might not drop as fast as if you put a roer's lead into them, but they might stay afoot for perhaps half an hour, if that.” A pause, then, “they're seeing things then, and that quickly.”

Seeing things?” I asked. “Is that venom neurotoxic?”

Very much so, and one of its initial effects is profound hallucinations,” said the soft voice. “That usually stops the witch right there – that, and the state of paralysis that quickly supervenes.”

It did that,” said Deborah.

How large are these, uh, hornets?” I asked.

As long as that knife I put back in your bag,” she said. “I'd like a bag like that so as to put my things in, at least for its size.”

Do you want leather, or..?”

Leather is hard to get so it is decent up here,” said Deborah. “She told me what I had suspected for years, and she knows how to make this mixture of chemicals that help do that business right if you put decent skins in such vats.”

Slow heating, this with burnt-coal so it burns for a long time between doses, regular stirring so they steam a bit, regular additions of distilled water, PH testing with these, uh, sticks, and then...”

Our machine needed better valfuelæ so that it worked well, as they went soft quickly,” said Annistæ. “I have their pictures in my notebook, so if those valfuelæ can be located, I could make much of what is needed, both for equipment and glass.”

Much..?” I asked.

I cannot bend metal,” she said, “but I can run their wires, and while I cannot make those things which swing needles, I can make their probes.”

Mostly as you had to?” I asked.

I did, as the good ones were very costly and were ruined quickly once they were first used,” she said. “Those I made might have needed testing often, but they endured well, and I could repair them, unlike the good ones. Those needed to be sent back to their makers once they were ruined.”

Often?” I asked. “As in 'test them every time you use them'?”

Non, not that often,” she said. “One would test their points if they had sat for longer than a few days, and then another testing if they received much use during a day, and then pulling them apart for cleaning and inspection and cleaning at the end of each day they were used. If one did all of that with due care, they functioned well for many months.”

Not as stable, nor as accurate as those, uh, good ones?” I asked.

They worked well enough most of the time,” she said. “There were a few reactions which needed those good ones, though, which was why I and my people saved them for that work and used ours otherwise.” Pause, then, “I made sure to bring a few small ones of our type with me when I left, as I know there are people here who can make more of that type.”

“Wrapped in a clean rag and tied with string, correct?” I asked. “Tied, with paper – waxed paper – indicating which markings on the probes are good for which type of, uh, chemical condition, as well as the three PH probes indicating most of the usable range. Am I correct?”

“Ai! You have it!” she screeched. “That is what I brought. Now, have you valfuelæ?”

“No, but he has many drawings of them, and we were told they were especially good ones, so we will have many of them shortly, as well as the portion that...” Sarah looked at me, and asked, “what is this that swings needles? Is this like a compass?”

,” she said. “It swings its needle should you give it current, and the best type is both of high resistance to such current and very sensitive.”

“Meaning it needs a special wide-band transformer for impedance matching, one with a ten-to-one step-up ratio as to its windings and a lot of special laminated iron sheets, as well as a chopped amplifier and then an effective low-pass filter to get the bad noise out of the probe signal.” Pause, then, “almost want to run that transformer-input driver stage in push-pull, with a third winding added for 'chopping' the signal – and then a ten-to-one transformer on the output with that 'chopping' frequency one hundred and eighty degrees out of phase on a primary winding so as to cancel it out in that second transformer and give the original DC to low frequency voltages needed to actually drive that meter properly.”

“You are more than an Elektrikalé, much more,” said Annistæ. “You would be most-valued in El Vallyé, and much pursued by Cabroni, as they understand nothing of such matters and wish to own those who do.”

“Much protected, also,” I said. “Such people are not common, and whole towns in that place depend on their well-being, as their work is critical to the survival of whole areas there.”

“Yes, much as I was until those Cabroni took the place over,” said Annistæ. “They bought many people as if they were but less-good mules, and those otherwise they drove out or shot, and when they came for me, it was me or them... and then they shot Sancho, and I knew then that I must kill or be killed, so I did as I was trained as a young girl while in my later classes – and now I weep at night.”

“Here, you might wish this,” said Deborah. “It was in Sarah's bag, and I think it is for things that are like what some people call 'too much swine'.”

“If it is like what I had earlier today, then 'too much swine' isn't even close,” I said. “Not even 'too many witches' – though what you went through is bad enough.” Swallow, this first dry, then several gulps of beer. “This is for something closer to 'too much hell' – and I mean 'real hell', as in 'it's hot, it's really smoky, so filthy you can't see your hand in front of your face, and these animated gone-back-to-life skeletons are coming from all directions at you, all aflame from old curses, and some wretch is tossing dynamite and another wretch is sending bolts of lightning, and these stinkers just keep coming until there are no more of them left intact – and when they're done, that's but a primer for what happens afterward.”

“I am glad for this medicine, then,” she said through her now-obvious tears. “I did not face a lizard like you did, but I did endure much gunfire when I left, and there were people who wished to set me alight as if I were what some call a Brujé do Mallé, and I escaped by the hand of Déo, and that only.”

“They have wished to burn me as a witch also,” said Sarah. “Were you bound with chains and piled upon wood, and soaking with distillate?”

“Y-yes,” she said. “This was before I bought this clothing, and then s-someone took me to a place of shelter and p-paid for it.”

“Ivo, unless I miss my guess – him and a jeweler in the same area of the fourth kingdom house, correct?” I was guessing here.

“Y-yes,” she said. “They were both good to me, and they let me rest in their places, where it was safe.” A pause, then, “I was able to help them some with this oil they were trying to make, and now they know they need special pots to make it, so they sent word by donkey-train up this way.”

“So I can make them, correct?” I murmured. “They have no clue as to what you drew for them, even if I probably can figure your drawings out by one means or another, and perhaps give them some ideas as to how to use them.”

Cé,” she said. “They have ports for flushing at the top, and others for draining at the bottom, and then a number of small bolts holding their close-machined pieces together, and then thin gaskets of oven-softened tin sheet, as that type stays good if it is softened in the oven between uses and can be melted and used again when it has gone bad.”

“And this weird place in the top casting that holds this, uh, tangled mess of this really thin flat twisted wire for a catalyst,” I said. “Thin turned or soldered fins on this really tall tinned bronze tube that goes on top, so it acts as a reflux column...”

“Cé!” she said excitedly. “Now you speak like a chemist! That is just what is needed to make that oil so that it is oil and not this bad varnish that gums up everything!” A pause, then, “the right seeds to grow the round-balls, several of those pots I spoke of done like the drawings, some chemicals that are a bit difficult to get, this one fraction from this badly-made chemical that is called 'distillate' up here...”

Smelly chemical is more like it,” said Deborah. “I think I smell some of that stuff around here. There is a town ahead, isn't there?”

“Yes, the kingdom house,” said Sarah. “We are about due to enter its outlying areas, which are fairly safe, as those in them at this time of day will be farmers and perhaps marmots.”

“There is one good thing about those,” said Deborah, meaning the marmots. “The fresh ones can be put into a stew-pot, provided they are grain-fed for a week or more before doing so.” Pause, then, “they gripe me otherwise.

“Cé, though if some use them for labor,” muttered Annistæ, “those people...” Pause. “They should be called animal-tormentors, as those things scream like small swine when they are being cooked alive by pig-eaters.” This last was spoken as if it were a prize oath, one a good deal worse than 'rat-dung'.

Pig-eaters?” I asked.

“If people in El Vallyé eat a pig, a priest must be present so as to cleanse the meal and the region where it it is cooked, as while pigs themselves draw some whites, cooking them makes those things show in huge clouds that are filled with red fire, and then those whites like to jump inside those who eat such food along with their meals. That is why few indeed among my people wish to consume swine, and those of them who do so are thrown out so as to run in the wastes along with the other Cabroni,” she said. “Those that are Cabroni like to eat their swine when they are but part-grown, and that covered with the fat of swine, so they are full of whites and are nothing but trouble.”

“Those would be Shoeten,” said Deborah, speaking of part-grown swine. “I have put arrows in those things before, though unless one is an especially good shot or a most-good tracker, one tends to lose one's arrow – and if one's arrows are at all good...”

Here, Sarah was directing Deborah as to which bag to look into regarding arrows. She then drew out an arrow, this with a head that was utterly unmistakable as to who made it. Its razor-keen edge drew a less-than-faint rainbow in the morning sun, which Deborah looked at as if marveling at the thing.

“This one may be small for an arrowhead, but it has killed its share if I go by its appearance,” said Deborah. “Now, who do I see about a bow, and where do I get such points for my sticks? I think I might well wish one for witches.”

“You will not wish arrows for witches as a rule, save if you should encounter the spy-groups of Norden and have a need for quiet,” said Sarah, who then paused to think. “Then, that type of arrow there only works for a common bow of the usual length and draw.” Another pause, then in quiet voice, “there is another type of bow, one that is utterly different as to shape and nearly all else, and that kind of bow needs an entirely different arrow, the nature and type of which I was privy to during Hendrik's asking for some of both the fourth kingdom's bowyers and their work recently.”

“You were privy to..?” I asked.

“I was his copyist, as I can write faster than anyone he knows well and can take dictation rapidly and without errors,” said Sarah. “Given one of those strange things from across the sea that looks like a slate, I might well do...”

“You'll want one, and not a commonplace one,” I said quietly. “I'll see if I can find you a pair of them, one for home use and a smaller one to carry with you.” The part I did not add, Sarah already most likely knew: a carefully tailored vest lined with multiple layers of soft body armor, complete with pockets filled with various bombs of one kind or another; a brick of that gray explosive divided into thirds and well-wrapped in plastic for minimal smell in her pack; several detonators, this in a padded pouch on her belt; eight to ten mostly-full magazines for her rifle – and a trio of larger pistols in sundry holsters, all full-loaded and 'ready for business' – and finally, one of the smaller pistols, this with a suppressor, in case that particular business had a pressing need for quiet.

There would be much of such 'business' in the area shortly upon our return, and hot lead would fly like rain in many places, just like the lard-greased money endemic to the well-to-do of witchdom.

“Given one of those, then I should be able to write faster than I currently do, and not worry about doing so twice so as to secure legible copy,” said Sarah. “As it was, I only had to help out Maria in certain places when she was copying what I wrote for sending out, and I saw her copy receive the red waxed seal for the eyes of the fourth kingdom's king.”

“Carried by special messenger, correct?” I asked.

“Yes, that especially,” said Sarah. “Andreas was the first such man to carry that missive, and he was running a bronze-shod mare with neither saddle nor bridle, just like you set upon Jaak.” A pause, then, “I know Jaak can leave such a mare behind were he of a mind to do so, and I can speak of such matters now.”

“How is it you know?” asked Deborah.

“I saw him do so today,” said Sarah. “I was fleeing a great many exploding witch-holes, and he flew over me and this team while at a near-gallop, and he made them seem as if standing still and not moving at all.” A pause, then, “careful with those things, Deborah. They may look like a bit like smaller pears, but they are not fit to eat.”

Deborah had found the 'metal pears', or 'grénadæ'. as Annistæ spoke of them. “What are these things?” she asked. “They are far too small to be pears, not even ones that are not ripe.”

“They are for tossing at Cabroni,” said Annistæ. “They explode much harder than those I have tossed, even if those I have used look to be similar in shape and their arrangement for activating.”

“They did?” I asked. This was indeed a shock.

“Cé, though those did not destroy houses and cut Cabroni to ribbons while exploding,” said Annistæ. “Those I have used would kill them, and that dead indeed, but one needed to put the bombé right next to them so as to put them down and keep them there.” Pause, then, “those there act like what one places in the tube of a mule-gun, especially if that gun is set up for firing at high angles.”

“We have such guns, only they do not need mules to carry,” said Sarah. “We plan on shelling a really bad place near home after dark tonight, so as to 'put the hornets to those smelly people'.” Sarah then giggled.

“Why, will you shoot those things out of those guns?” asked Deborah. She was definitely interested. “I am good at finding those nests, if you are inclined toward putting hornets to witches.”

“No, not actual hornets, Deborah, but shells that are the size of a large hornet,” said Sarah, “and for the most part, they are as green as any hornet I have seen.” Pause. “Then, these shells fly rapidly for great distances, and the splinters from such shells will sting those stinky people good.”

“Kill them, more likely,” I said. “Those might be, uh, small as mortar-rounds supposedly go, but I suspect they think themselves a good deal larger when it comes to killing and blowing things up.”

However, as I said this, I had a distinct picture of a 'mortar shell' where I came from, and the diameter of the thing was listed as a '120 millimeter' shell of type 'HE'. This round was hefty enough to wish care in handling, and dumping the shell needed a stepladder and months of weight-training on the part of the one dropping it down the yawning bore of the massive tube.

That bad?” I asked.

“In so far as lethality, yes,” said the soft voice. “Recall what was happening with those grenades you were tossing?” asked the soft voice. “That one you tossed into that shop – how it 'brought the house down' and sent a great deal of money flying?” A pause, then, “Sarah knew about the three gold pieces she saw and heard land on or beside her.” Another pause, then, “there are more than three gold monster coins in the buggy's rear that she knew nothing of then, and easily five times that number of both large and small silver pieces.”

“Hence there's a decent stake for you two,” I said. “You may wish to pool your funds as well as find your own rooms at the house proper – somewhere well-hid on or near the northwest corner of the third floor, or perhaps the fourth floor somewhere within a short distance of the back stairs.” A pause, then, “there's this one room up there which has its own sizable chimney, its own stove – a good stove, only those in the kitchen are better if one speaks of that place – it's own privy, a place fit for cleaning clothing and bathing...”

“I have been in that set of rooms, and only those of Andreas are larger, I suspect,” said Sarah. “It's very dusty, no one has been in there in ages, and...”

“Benches, all well-built because they're old and coated with several layers of good drying oil thinned with distillate so as to keep the dry-rot out of their wood, lots of shelves done the same way, many places for good lights, and then a perfect place for reactions that demand a lot of long slow boiling.”

“Where is this?” asked Deborah. “It sounds like a fit place for a chemist's business.”

“Mostly because it is a fit place for chemistry work,” I said. “It makes Hans' basement seem tiny, and more, it's been disused for upwards of fifty years.”

“Try closer to a hundred and twenty years,” said the soft voice. “It's been that long since there has been a chemistry lab in the house proper, and that place not only has its own locked door with a marked doorknob, but that sizable closet has enough 'glass' in it to make Annistæ jump up and down for joy.”

“Yes?” she said, suddenly brightening. “Is this good glass, or the bad stuff?”

“Good glass, unless I miss my guess,” I said. “If you need it, and it isn't there – and if it's made of metal – then let me know about it...” I then nearly laughed, even as we came into a realm bordered by farmer's fields. I could see the orchard to my left and ahead but a short distance away.

“Yes, and why are you laughing?” asked Deborah.

“This strange alloy that needs a good furnace to 'brew it up',” I said. “It may start with gray-metal, and we may get lots of gray-metal beyond what I currently have or can get readily, but this material neither looks nor acts like common gray-metal, but something very different from that soft and brittle rubbish witches like.” Pause, then, “it lends itself very well to permanent-mold castings, it's not much harder to cast than good bullets, and...” I gasped, then screeched, “type-metal. That stuff would work perfectly for movable type. It would never wear out, practically!”

“Yes, if you were going to do printing that way on a long-term basis, I would make such molds and pour such type,” said the soft voice. “Remember, that press that is currently finishing up in the boatwright's shop is a temporary expedient, as real printing equipment will be available within a few months – and that sizable fourth-floor suite of rooms would work well for such equipment, as not merely does it have a working privy with a hefty drain-pipe, it also has ready access to ample water – and it has a number of sizable antechambers, one of which would be perfect for printing.”

“Ready access?” I asked. For some reason, I was also hearing the term 'server farm', which made me wonder.

“It just needs a pump able to pull the water up from the water table and then up to the fourth floor,” said the soft voice. “Andreas has a spare motor-driven pump, and you'll have both a suitable power-source and several improved versions of his pumps available within weeks of your return.”

“And in the meantime, one merely needs to find that bronze pump hidden in that one room and fit it to the pipe,” I said. “It will work passably for bathing and cleaning needs – just not give the volume of water needed to run a high-power generator.” I then gasped, “the volume needed?”

“That tank's vent-pipe will be steaming a great deal on a regular basis,” said the soft voice. “That size of generator, when mounted in a stationary position, needs either a large radiator – one larger than that of the Abbey's engine – a lot of cooling air, or a large copper water tank with periodic additions of water – and the water in that tank, once that generator gets it to a steady boiling, is about as close to pathogen-free water as you're likely to find short of distilling the stuff.” Pause, then, “and that well-water is not contaminated with mule-dung, as that well was dug during the early phases of the house proper's construction.”

“Pathogen-free?” I asked.

“Not much of a bacterial or viral nature survives a single passage through that type of powerplant when fresh water is used for cooling,” said the soft voice, “and multiple passes will ensure near-sterility.” Pause. “The water may have traces of short-lived radiation coming out of the device, but by the time that tank's water is cool enough to drink, that radiation is pretty much gone – and copper thick enough to make such a tank stops it cold.” A pause, then, “build the water tank of thicker tinned copper with the needed tinned bronze fittings, put a lot of longitudinal copper fins on it, make it a foot larger than the distillery you have at home for diameter and several times taller than that pot, then arrange for a float and valve arrangement to keep the water level constant in that 'boiler', and finally put it under a 'chimney' to collect the copious steam that boils off that water when that powerplant is working hard – and you'll be in good shape, with plenty of electric power available for operating a sizable and well-equipped laboratory – and a bit more besides, as a rule.”

“What is this word sizable?” asked Annistæ.

“It will be a good deal larger than the place where you last worked, and much better equipped, dear,” said the soft voice. “It may need some weeks of cleaning and arranging before you can put it to rights, but by that time, the good stuff will start pouring in – and then, you'll be in regular contact with other chemists, chemists that could teach the people that taught you how to do chemistry how to do that business right.”

“Oh, and if you need a special tool or group thereof, just let me know and I'll make it for you,” I said. “Metal is my business, and I'll need to make a lot of chemistry equipment anyway.” A pause, then, “that presumes we don't end up bringing some back with us.”

“You-all will do that, and not a little of it,” said the soft voice. “Now ask Deborah about what she's been using for bathing, as it will give you both an answer to questions you've had for a long period regarding what you use for bathing, and also give you another thing to put on your list of things to secure in that third kingdom port prior to taking ship across the sea.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“You have one, and I have mine, though mine is getting a bit frayed with use and could stand to be larger,” said Sarah. “None of the others going on the trip has one of those, and we will not merely wish at least one like yours for each of them, but also several bags of spares in case one or more of those things perishes or one turns up missing should we need to leave someplace in a hurry.”

“I know about that part,” said Deborah. “Today was but the most recent instance in the last year or so, and I made sure to pack those things I knew I would need to keep.” Pause, then, “I'm about worthless around leather, so I hope I can get someone to make me a sheath for this knife once I put an edge on it.”

“Can you do that?” I asked, meaning sharpening. “I do have a good supply of sharpening stones, and I can bring them tomorrow during 'weapons class'.”

“I can, though I doubt I can get hair to jump off of my arm,” she said. “One does not need 'jumping hair' if one is poking thugs, but I am not sure about slicing on them.” Pause, then, “that may well wish a blade sharp enough to make hair jump.”

“You will wish that kind of an edge then, Deborah,” said Annistæ. “Now, I am not sure if you wish a sword, especially ones like those that I have seen commonly used.” I could tell she was wondering about me that way, as what I had most likely wasn't one she'd personally seen before.

“Do they use those in the Valley?” I asked. This was astonishing.

“The Cabroni do, but no sane man or woman with brains in the head uses such a weapon as they use,” said Annistæ. “Most I have seen among our people use knives of various lengths, as we would sneak up upon Cabroni without them knowing of us or where we were, and leave them with their heads laying upon their chests in pools of their blood so as to cause the others that wished to be like them trouble.”

“It did, didn't it?” I asked.

“Not just them, but for us, also,” said Annistæ. “Getting that blood on you means a good long bath with a special soap at the least, and then often a visit to a Brujé, and more than once I needed to see a priest as well as all of those things, as that wretch spoke evil words before he died and I had much trouble with whites showing after such work until our priest banished them to the place where such things belong.”

“He what?” asked Deborah.

“He spoke words from this book,” said Annistæ, showing a slim brown leather-bound volume, “and he had markings he was born with, and he spent an hour's time upon his face speaking with Déo, so they left.”

“Born with?” I asked.

“An extra finger,” said Annistæ. “It is not like what you have, as I can see several markings that you were born with, and I know there are more than what I can see – and that is for those marks you were born with. There are many more markings that some especially evil Cabroni put upon you so as to make you like they themselves were, and those people were evil enough to make me spit like a bad lizard.”

“B-bad lizard?” asked Sarah – whose voice became shakier with each further word. “W-what kind of b-bad lizard?”

I could see Iggy imitating a four-legged rocket engine, right in the middle of our road as we passed between rows of crops being slowly walked by hoe-bearing farmers, their whole families in tow, each person able to hold and use a hoe having one and removing weeds to be then put in buckets. I had an impression these plants would be used for animal bedding, then after harvest, when the inches of crushed-down 'duff' had accumulated...

“No, not that seldom,” I thought. “Jaak needs his floor cleaned every few weeks, if not more often yet.”

“Most horses might get their stalls mucked twice or three times a year,” said the soft voice. “Jaak needs to have his done every week to ten days, but the other horses where you live need theirs done nearly as often if they are expected to do their best consistently.” A pause, then, “that is another witch-inculcated practice.”

“And those unhousebroken things?” Again, unvoiced.

“Those need twice-daily mucking with fresh hay, ample fresh water, ample fresh grains, and fresh 'grass' on a thrice-daily basis – and they ruin at least three times what they actually eat and drink, as they tend to defecate in their mangers and watering troughs once they've eaten their fill.” A pause, then, “new mangers, buckets, and frequent replacement of all else that comes in contact with those animals is part and parcel of the price of owning that type of horse, as they tend to destroy everything they touch unless it's made of heavy cast bronze or especially hard stone.”

“And those things that don't get destroyed need regular and scrupulous cleaning to keep the animals' nastier tendencies at bay,” I thought. “Now why is it I can feel those stinky things in the area – either a lot of those bad horses, or a whole lot of stinky mules?” Annistæ then interrupted my thinking with a singular comment.

“Yes, I was spitting like some lizards that climb the Red Mountains when they are hungry for meat and it is not to be had upon their western sides,” she said. “The ones which do that are not only large and clever, but they start fires with their spit so as to mark their food and cause trouble, and I have seen them drag off large goats in their mouths.” Pause, then, “I have put much lead in them, and they need at least two magazines from a rifle unless you turn their heads into pot-strainers with bullets that are used for plate-wearing Cabroni.”

Deborah had been working on digging something out of her small satchel this whole time, and when she removed a 'sponge' – this small, somewhat fibrous, and clenched tightly in a smoothly-carved forked stick – I gasped, both at the sponge and also its mounting. It was perfect for scrubbing one's back, and brought forth visions of Sarah all but concealed in bubble-bath and me scrubbing her back with such a mounted sponge. Still, I had words to say about what I saw – quiet ones.

“I have one, only it's more than twice that size in all dimensions,” I said softly.

“That one needed Anna paying an inducement to Tam to fetch an 'extra-sized' one,” said Sarah. “We have a small bag of those things at home now, but for the trip, we'll wish the largest ones we can find, and many of them.”

“Yes, you might have a bag of those things, but do you have tailor's antiseptic?” asked Deborah. “The best we could do was get this small vial of diluted aquavit, and we two had to share it between us for our cuts and scrapes.” Pause, then, “those bad wax-tools tended to cut us more than the wax they gave us.”

“It was the best I could get while coming up here,” said Annistæ. “They do not have that liquid you spoke of where I once lived, but they had other things that most likely worked at least as well.”

Other things?” I asked.

“One of them worked well on cuts, even deep ones that bled a lot, such as what you can get if you fight Cabroni and they use their bad swords to cut you,” she said. “One sprinkled this powder from a tube on the cut, held the cut closed for a short time, and it would seal up well enough to save the person's life.”

“It needed proper treatment later, didn't it? I asked.

“Yes, but that needed a Téatré, one for doing kiregéo,” she said. “There was a large Téatré in my last town, at least until the Cabroni decided they wanted the place and drove those doing that work off with gunfire.” Pause, then in an infuriated whisper, “they think their devil-speech does that work, but it is worthless and it shows themselves to be complete fools, those who curse Déo to his face.”

I then had a silent question: “that powder?”

“It works surprisingly well, even upon severe injuries,” said the soft voice. “It has saved a lot of lives in the Valley – and were it available where you came from...”

A slow-motion array of strobing scenes flashed before my eyes. A badly injured soldier had sustained a severed femoral artery due to a volley of gunshots that had hit him several times while pulling a comrade to safety. The injured man was screaming in pain and panic, and as they tried to clamp the torn artery closed with badly-made tools, they caused him more pain – and those laboring to save his life then failed in their task.

He died a short time later, and his agonized screaming continued until but seconds before his death.

The 'film' then rewound – and in this instance, there was no such clumsy attempt to clamp the squirting artery. A small vial of this powder was dumped into and around the wound – and within seconds, the bleeding completely stopped as the powder first went red, then brown, then became a dark and tenaciously-tough fibrous material that literately glued the two pieces of first the artery together – not terribly well, but well enough to ensure both the man's survival and more or less complete recovery within a short time once he was in a setting where definitive treatment was possible – but then, as I watched fascinated, the action of the powder drew together first the bullet-damaged muscles, glued-together a ripped tendon, then the torn-up fascia, and finally the ripped-to-shreds skin itself, this whole process happening over the course of seconds. While this injured man was not good as new, he was not going to die from that injury – or the others he had sustained, as more of that powder was sprinkled on those and they were 'sealed' from the inside out.

“I do not believe this,” muttered the beleaguered medic. “He was going to die, but now...”

“I'll be all right, won't I?” asked the injured soldier. He was no longer screaming, even if his injury still hurt to no small degree. “Give me a rifle. I can fight now.”

“No, not yet,” said the medic. “You need this first.” Pause, “then you can fight, and we need you to fight, and fight well.” Another pause, then, “I can give you something for the pain then, as your injuries will have been mostly stabilized.”

The man then put a strange device upon the injured man's forearm, some distance above the usual 'conventional' IV sites on his forearm. Within seconds, the clear dark 'plastic' face of the device flashed a brilliant red, and the injured soldier looked upon this new 'black project' device with consuming interest as it faintly whirred and hummed.

“This will replace your lost blood,” said the medic, as he...

He? No, this person was definitely female. The long flowing soft brown hair was a dead giveaway, as was the face – even if this medic had sizable splatters of dried blood and an obvious cut or two that would eventually need treatment. Brave and 'collected' – those were no words for this lady. She could write the book on those two matters, and the fact that she was carrying a rifle, a large knife – one easily the size of that rigging knife I had recently 'confiscated, with a brass handguard and a slender straight blade, one good for stabbing and slashing – and a number of grenades, as well as a sizable medical kit, spoke volumes. I then had an idea why this woman was packing her weapons.

Their enemies didn't play by anything remotely resembling the rules of 'civilized warfare', and in their eyes, medics were thought prime targets, more so even than officers. Hence, she had the black 'gunsight-marking' indicating she was 'an expert soldier' as well as the red one indicating she had training just short of that given to real doctors – years of such training, no less.

Her level of medical training was far beyond what would be considered appropriate to a 'Registered Nurse' where I came from, even those nurses with extensive specialized training. This woman could and routinely did perform major surgery, and her unnaturally calm demeanor reminded me of some of the doctors that had done such work upon me.

“No, this is not what I recalled seeing,” I thought. “There were no women in that...” I looked around. Not only were there women fighting in this hellhole, but they were nearly as numerous as the men – and more, the women all had shoulder-length hair of varied colors and were doing fully as well as the men when it came to actual fighting – including instances of hand-to-hand combat. My 'picture' then went back to this female 'medic' – and as I watched her 'look at' the sizable IV bag, I saw the device attached to the man's arm literally suck that IV bag dry within perhaps thirty seconds at the very most.

“That thing had to have at least a liter of...” I gasped. “What was that white material?”

“A blood-extender commonly used by the Rooster Totem,” said the soft voice. “Unlike such materials where you came from, what went into that injured man's vein isn't just a 'half-baked substitute' like some you've heard of, but has substantial oxygen transport capacity and has 'biologically-engineered devices' that make white blood cells, platelets, and much else that normal blood has look to be completely worthless.” A pause, then, “put plenty of that in someone who's stopped some shell splinters, and unless they've been turned into widely-scattered pie-filling, they'll most likely be able to make it back to where their injuries can be dealt with properly.”

I was then even more astonished that when the IV equipment was quickly removed from the injured man, he did the following: he stood up shakily shortly after he was 'dosed' with a small syringe; he picked up his rifle; he cleaned the blood off of its surfaces with a damp rag and then did a quick cleaning of its internal parts with a watery 'solvent' of pungent aroma he retrieved from a small gasketed brass flask; and then, once he was genuinely ready to fight, he went back to his position – where he put on his camouflage vest, his camouflage-painted helmet and then his leather gloves, these of a darkish species of thin tanned hide with the tips of the fingers removed – and only once he was in position did he chamber a round in his weapon. He then he resumed fighting off the oncoming hoards of black-dressed 'Cabroni'.

He was hitting his share of these stinkers, and with the passing minutes, his aim steadily improved. The 'Cabroni' were becoming thickly piled outside this thick-walled building, the darkened dust-dry ground soaking up their blood like a parched wilderness, and the dead and dying witches became man-tall immobile windrows where they fell in ever-growing squirming piles.

The defenders didn't waste a single bullet on the high-piled mounds, as the other witches were coming in vast black masses and they did not have an unlimited supply of rounds on their persons.

“Those stinkers don't know the first thing about cover!” I thought, as the witches pointedly ignored the mounds of bodies and ran straight into the 'kill-zones' thusly created to be shot down the instant they showed. “All they seem to know is to do frontal assaults until the enemy either dies or they all die.”

“It's listed as the way to take positions in that black book,” said the soft voice, “and commonly worked well when the defenders didn't have good training, capable weapons, and well-constructed buildings like this one to hole up in.” Pause, then, “it piled their corpses high indeed if one of those situations was the case. All three of them – like the situation present here – they just simply died.”

I then blinked, and saw Annistæ nod. “I knew well that woman you just saw, and she saved my life more than once when I was hit by their bad bullets.”

“Bad b-bullets?” I asked.

“Once in this area,” she said, pointing to the left side of the pelvis, “and another one, here.” Here, she pointed to her chest. “Both needed much time in a Téatré to repair entirely, but I still walk a little stiff from that one where I was hit here.” Again, she pointed to her pelvis. A pause, then, “those bad bullets are these huge things of soft lead, and they cause much trouble...”

“You were shot with a roer?” gasped Deborah.

“Non, it was not one of those, as its bore was smaller and the bullets were not round, but long things with grooves for holding lubricant and digging out the dirt of their powder,” said Annistæ, “and such weapons have grooves to spin their bullets, even if that type is loaded from the muzzle.” Pause, then, “that type of bullet needs good medical care right away, as it can kill in minutes if it hits you more or less anywhere.”

“Uh, these weapons they have in the fifth kingdom,” I muttered. “I saw someone hit in the shoulder, and he was mostly dead within a matter of minutes. He more or less bled to death from that wound.”

“Cé,” said Annistæ. “That was what I was shot with those two times. Then, there were other weapons, including these larger pistols which rotate their cylinders like mine but are much slower to load.” Pause, then, “I was shot with those, also, and lost a finger to a bullet from one. They could not put it back on, unlike with two of my toes, which they did in a Téatré.

“Dragoons,” I murmured. “They turn your hands numb when you fire them.”

“Cé, and they break bones in the hands when they are fired,” said Annistæ. “If you have fired such pistols, I would have someone across the sea look at your hands, as perhaps they might be able to strengthen them and fix badly-healed bones if yours were broken.”

“St-strengthen them?” I asked.

“It is in our tales,” she said. “There is this metal we use, one which needs special tools to work to size that only one or two Téatraæ can do, and that special metal is used to repair damaged bones.” She looked at me, this in a most-penetrating manner, then suddenly sniffed.

“Ai, I smell a bad-pig,” she said. “There are Cabroni around here, as I can smell their bad horses too, the ones that ruin all they touch unless it is made by and for Cabroni!”

“So it is not just me noticing bad stinks,” I murmured. “Two of us smell witches, and witch-horses, and perhaps mules...”

“They have those too,” said Deborah. “I might not smell witch-horses as well as she does, but I know the stink of mules far too well to not ignore it.” Pause, this while she fingered her knife, then glanced at the machine gun. I could tell she was very curious about this particular weapon – both as to just what it did, and also, if she would be able to use it to effect.

“That weapon you must use care with, Deborah,” said Annistæ. “It can be very hard to control, and it will need both of us to use it.”

Both?” I asked.

“Cé, one to aim the weapon, and the other to change its barrels and keep it fed with cârtuchæ,” said Annistæ. “It eats like a famished donkey, one which is ridden hard and fed little, at least those like it I have used before.”

“You what?” I gasped.

“Best not let her get to your broom, then,” said Sarah. “Now I can smell mules. That means there's a witch hiding somewhere around here...” Sarah looked around. “Bad cobbles, and people repairing them. Good.”

“Either that, or something exploded close by and broke them up or scattered them,” I said.

“I think so,” said Deborah. “That smelly brick-pile full of witches is gone, thank God.”

Deborah was pointing to the remnants of the hall, and here, I saw what had been thus far done. The roads in that area had been mostly cleared of debris, while small groups of individuals went over the sizable ruined region with the goal of retrieving rocks and piling those what 'assorted junk' they found by the sides of the roads. I had an impression that some few of these people were inclined toward acquiring small plots of farmland, and many of the others were inclined toward rebuilding the damaged homes in some fashion. More, those working on the cobbles on Hallstraat were also working both on Kokenstraat and on our current road – and there were a lot of these three-man teams relaying cobbles with as much of a will as could be mustered.

“Oh, that one Public House that got a bottle tossed at it,” I murmured. “It went up really hard.”

“That blast also damaged a lot of cobbles,” said the soft voice, “most of which did not show their damaged nature until that deep-hole went where it belongs.” Pause, then, “now, with planting finished for the most part, a lot of people are involved in rebuilding large portions of the city.”

“Uh, their incomes?” I asked.

“Many of the people you just saw, the road-repairers excepted, were scavengers,” said the soft voice, “and most of the latter individuals are currently living in the basements of those damaged homes. They hope to repair them sufficiently to one day live in them, but that means accumulating a fair amount of money, and those funds take time to gather.” Pause, then, “the Swartsburg still has rich pickings, even if the easy gleanings regarding readily usable coins are becoming somewhat depleted.”

“Hence the building stones being are piled, the metallic junk is being separated, the...”

“The bags of old weapons and the many pieces thereof are being taken to several places nearby, also,” said the soft voice. “There are a lot of scrap-dealers setting up wagons in this area most days who are paying silver on the spot for weapons and their parts – who are more or less eating such losses.”

“They won't be eating those losses for long,” I murmured.

“They haven't been going broke,” said the soft voice. “Remember all that melted coinage money? Some of it wasn't melted, and those scrap-dealers have their employees scouring a given area with small spading forks so as to locate what coins they can – so they are not likely to starve.” Pause, then, “besides, Hendrik has spoken with a number of guards about the coming war, both with Norden and elsewhere, and that talk has gotten out in a great many circles over the last few days, with most of the kingdom house knowing of the matter to at least some degree.”

“And all of the explosions lately have been reminding them of its likely veracity,” I muttered.

“You badly understated the case,” said the soft voice. “Now, watch carefully. You're going to be entering an area which has a number of witches who have been readying themselves to 'break out' of the city, and you may need to start them.”

“Get everyone really revved up then,” I muttered – and then pointed. “Oh, bulls. Over there.”

“They cannot raise those in El Vallyé,” said Annistæ. I could hear her 'stuffing' cartridges into machine pistol magazines, and her practiced fingers were a marvel to hear. She could most likely teach me how to load these magazines.

“These need cleaning, and possibly some filing on their blocks,” she said. “They work very stiffly.”

“That is why I have a sore thumb,” said Sarah. “I tried putting those things in those boxes, and the most I could manage was fifteen for a magazine that supposedly holds twice that.”

“Perhaps we can, uh, have them gone through overseas?” I asked – though I then had a distinct impression. “Did those stinkers that made those bad mortar parts work on these things?”

“They did, and supplied out-of-tolerance followers as well as overly-strong springs,” said the soft voice. “The usual in the field was to relieve and debur the follower with a file, drill a few small pits in it for holding red-paste, and then cut two entire runs off of the magazine spring, at least until new ones were produced and then distributed to the soldiers in the field.”

New springs?” I asked.

“Entirely new magazines,” said the soft voice. “Remember how they developed these weapons extensively during the war, once reports came of how often they were being used?”

“House-clearing especially,” I said. “One wants a machine-pistol then, and that frightening setting on those can prove a lifesaver – that, and the liberal use of grenades and satchel-charges – nail-stuffed or otherwise.” Pause, then, “I bet I could make a fixture for reworking magazine followers, and I know I could file at least some of them and trim the springs before we head out to sea.”

“They have lots of latest-design magazines over there, even if complete recent-design machine pistols are hard to find in real numbers.”

“Numbers?” asked Sarah – who began to look for something. She then reached behind her, found a machine pistol, unfolded its stock, and then inserted a magazine, hanging the weapon by its strap around her neck.

“Spare magazines, dear, both for that weapon and your usual,” I murmured. I had no such weapon, but as I removed the magazine out of my rifle and replaced it with one filled with 'all-purpose' bullets, I asked idly, “how many shots did I get out of that last one?”

“About twenty more than you put in,” said the soft voice. “Get used to that happening, and I would stay close enough to that buggy to readily get ahold of that broom.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “The two women?”

“Will be using the machine gun,” said the soft voice. “Annistæ will be coaching Deborah in how to first feed it, then actually fire it.”

“She's used those before?”

“That precise type?” asked the soft voice. “No. Ones that resemble it to a degree – yes, many times, and she's an expert in their use.”

“Better than I am, then,” I said.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “She needed years of training.” A pause, then, “how much training did you have when you first went after that accursed tungsten in that underground warehouse, then that witch-party on the route home, and finally, when you shot up Roos and killed masses of witches?”

“N-none,” I gasped.

That was your training,” said the soft voice. “Remember, that broom has a bottomless magazine, and it's 'ammunition' doesn't have medium strength propellant.”

“What does it have, then?” I asked.

“The most-recent-vintage high-energy propellant they currently have overseas,” said the soft voice, “and that ammunition is loaded to maximum levels – so it gets enough velocity to be very destructive, as you learned earlier this morning.”

The reek of dead-rotten meat intruded, and with that horrible stench, a most-distinct odor, one I had not smelled since I had put a pig-load into the skull of an Iron Pig.

“Gah, that stink,” I spat. “Do any of you recognize that smell?”

“I do,” said Deborah. “That is an Iron Pig – or, as I think she speaks of them, 'Ese Puerc'.”

“That song about pigs?” I asked. “About not being buried, and the swine coming?”

“It is sung badly here,” said Annistæ, “but I can smell a bad-pig, and it is a very bad one, just like those in our tales.” “Pause, then, “there are many Cabroni around here, also, them and their stinking witch-wagons they pull with bad mules and worse horses.”

“Well-hid witches,” I murmured, as I leaped off of Jaak and walked beside the buggy. I was looking for the broom, trying to stay clear of the two women as they laid out supplies for 'repelling the boarder', in case we were swarmed. The machine gun was much in evidence, and only my finding the broom made for comments, as the feverish preparations were otherwise being made without speaking.

“That thing is awful,” whispered Sarah. “It looks like lightning when it fires, it sprays bird-whistles everywhere, and then it puts people in the privy in droves.”

“Yes, and we will wish such things for these Cabroni,” said Annistæ. “They have hid themselves well, and they are as drunk as smelly goats, or these bad black and white animals that drink worse than fish are said to...”

Annistæ then ceased speaking, and as I turned, my hand finding the broom and putting it within easy reach, I followed her pointing finger toward a commonplace shop some distance up the road and across the street. Seeing this, the buggy continued on, this slow, Jaak following it closely, as I walked...

No, I stalked, this slow and patient, rifle at the ready, my hands changing magazines without looking save to glance at what the new magazine held. I stuffed in the 'stick' of hollow-points with a faint muted click, and as I did, I could now feel witches, this feeling so strong that when I came to the yet-closed buggy way, I felt for further magazines.

“Good, I have two more,” I thought, as I felt my vest. For some odd reason, I still felt the presence of a number of grenades, and careful fingers found first one 'firebomb', then another, and then a third item, this last of cylindrical form and with a fuse just like that of a metal pear. Softly, my feet still stalking as if sneaking up on a hyper-vigilant deer, I moved to the side of the shop's buggy-way, and without thinking beyond the need to be ready, my left hand reached up to softly pull back the cocking lever and then slowly let it go forward, the slithering rasp as the bolt picked up the first of the twenty-nine rounds in the magazine a dire tocsin of coming warfare – until with a faint clack, I felt more than heard the bolt lock up solidly in the receiver.

My hands at the ready, a round in the chamber, index finger of my right hand beside the trigger guard – I'd figured that one out myself after that one scary hypoglycemia-induced accident – and altogether ready for action.

Somehow, however, my slow and near-silent progress toward this shop had woken someone up, for one of the buggy-way's doors opened with a faint dry creaking noise as I moved further to the side so as to hide in the door's shadow. My eyes found a knothole, and I then saw the person who had opened the door.

His clothing: dark brown, of 'severe' cut; his bearing to match; his hateful facial expression the very picture of a miser. Yet, as I waited in silence, his staggering gate and blinking expression as he met the full brightness of morning...

The sudden 'blazing torch' light of the sun's full springtime glare, burning his retinas into dust...

I knew then: if anyone that I had seen personally genuinely fit the description of 'a wizened gnome', this man did. I watched him closer, as he slowly turned his head to the rear; this done, he resumed looking to his front, this turning of his head slower yet than before, this done so as to see those who remained in his road, his stolen-from-others road, his bought and paid-for road, the road he owned.

He then shouted, his voice loud and hoarse, much like the braying of a consumptive mule or the deep baying coarse growl of one of Old Shuck's relatives.

I then noticed what he he smelled like, and nearly collapsed with the reek of strong drink he gave off. It made for a thought, this at once violent, savage, and kept entirely to myself by silent means:

He smells worse than a distillery cooking bad brandy mash, one where they left out the rye paste entirely,” I thought. “He must be the point-thug for this infernal mess that's about to bust out...”

The man vanished, this with a suddenness that surprised me as I looked through the small knothole, and what next came out of the doorway did not wait for him to guide it: the hoarse braying and roaring noises of a large team of mules, then the slow groaning of a coach's unlubricated axles announced that a massive 'ship of the road' was about to get under way.

I looked out toward the nearby street, and saw that the buggy with its passengers had vanished by some strange means, even if I knew it was somewhere close by, perhaps as little as fifty feet away. All three people in that vehicle were good at hiding, and between the three of them and myself, I suspected we would give this about-to-emerge coach a hot time indeed.

Yet still, these stinkers were far too trashed to be even remotely aware of what was happening beyond what they wished to see, and as the varied reeks of strong drink assaulted my nose, I could smell a further reek: this intense, acidic, like old unwashed sweat. It seemed to hover over and mingle itself through all of the former stenches.

“Just like that one horrible witch-drug,” I thought. “It surrounds them as if it were the very personification of bad luck – perhaps Magraat herself...”

No time to think now: my vision was blocked by the short-haired coat of an obvious mule. I leaped from cover, my rifle going to my shoulder as if on full-automatic, and as I came face to face with the first animal of an obvious mule-team, I did not hesitate.

Finger went to the trigger.

Instinct gives elevation and bearing. Too close for the scope.

A twitch of the finger touches off a flash of lightning as the stink of 'mule' explodes in my mind – and the mule's head seemingly disintegrates in an explosion of dust and gore as gouting blood shoots out of both ears and a small hole appears in the center of its head.

“No, it did not disintegrate...”

No such time for analysis now. Back to cover, there to wait. There will be more witches, and they will respond to my bullets.

“Stinking mules need all-purpose bullets,” I thought, as I 'flowed' back behind the door.

As if to reward my 'cunning', another gnome, this one wizened as much as the first example, only dressed in stiff-as-sheet-metal black-cloth, came out to investigate his dying mule. My bullet had made a sizable impression on that animal, even if it was not killed outright.

I then knew more: these people had known Deborah's keepers, keeping them in 'business'. I then recalled that impression I had had last night, and the whole mess gelled with the suddenness of a lightning strike: Deborah's work was the respectable aspect of these people's output, that which provided her slave-masters 'cover' as legitimate jewelers.

Their real work – that which gave them status in the world they wished to belong to – was that slow, patient, 'stupid' – and until the witches took the town, very well hidden – labor of polishing common coins into witch-coins; and these people were their chief patrons. I reached for my possible bag, then found that one knife – the one that made a straight razor seem dull. Soft, silent, slow: I drew it as I slung my rifle, then like lightning itself, I purposed my next moves.

Time slows to a near-stop as I move, my feet dancing behind the door, now out of the shadows.

Into the light. Suddenly, death is upon this obvious witch, standing in front of him like a grim specter sent specially to escort him to Brimstone. He is too trashed to see me suddenly 'materialize', a razor-edged knife in hand, blade forward, bared and sharpened like the stinger of an enraged hornet, one the size of a nightmare.

I lunged like a fencer, my knife-hand sure, the knife sinking deep in utter silence, the blade burying itself in his throat to its hilt, then as I drew it out slowly, I flicked it to the side as if ripping his neck apart for the sheer amusement of seeing his blood fly like sheeting rain.

The blood gushed slowly as his head flipped to the left, his voice silenced in this world, his legs collapsing slow and noiseless save for the crackle of starch breaking up as its master died at my hand.

I flung the blood off the blade, then tossed it in my possible bag as my rifle suddenly found my hands once more and the buttstock the region just below my shoulder. A cloud of dark smoke billowed to my right, but I ignored it pointedly as the distraction it was.

A whip cracked once, then twice. I could hear the noise of another witch clambering down, his hard-soled boots hitting the ground as a pair of rapid-fire thuds. I backed away, one step, then another. This witch was a real one, and I could tell – this by a strange and unmistakable knowing – that he was uncommonly 'hard'.

I leaped forward as he came clear of the downed mule, then at a range of perhaps two feet, I fired twice, two holes appearing like magic in his chest but an inch apart, then an instant later, a third hole, this in the precise place where his eyebrows met. His chest was destroyed and his head – that had exploded.

Two in the chest, and one in the head. Subhuman scum or not – he was certainly dead.

With that, I knew my business, and by instinct, slow, certain, my finger began working the trigger.

Each bullet found its mark, the mules collapsing slowly as the rounds struck their heads, then as the last mule began falling, I shot first the pair of black-faced coachmen, each round destroying their heads, then as I set my sights lower in slowed time, my finger went into overdrive and the stuttering roar as I received machine-gun rates of fire...

Say hello to my little friend, witches. This is...

Strange thoughts run rampant through my head, even as my bullets rip 'hundreds' of holes into the leather of the coach. My mouth screams words, these strange, horrible to hear. I but barely understand them as I scream them again and again, and faintly, I understand as the bolt locks back and my magazine runs dry.

Es Dié da Muerté, Cabroni! Saluté!” I scream, as I run from the smoking hole the coach had hidden itself in, and suddenly, the buggy shows. I dive for the cobbles as the machine gun opens up, its stuttering roar now joined by Sarah's firing her rifle as rapidly as she possibly can. I come up sliding on the other side, stand up, toss a grenade, my teeth finding its pin as I then somehow toss the thing through the window and then reach for the broom, go to a kneeling position, my rifle slung, the feathery brush of the broom's 'stock' finding my armpit.

I can feel a cold metallic hush, and the trigger of my weapon lays death-like upon my index finger.

I press gently, a faint click...

A roar that rapidly builds to a keening howl, then as the long and luminous muzzle flames blaze nearly to the walls of the shop, the doubled doors disintegrate into kindling, and a billow of reddish flames bloom out. I then aim for the upper story, and fire a long howling burst into that black hole of death.

A rumbling boom blasts forth, then suddenly, as if it had waited for years, the roof blasts skyward amid a greenish-yellow white-tinged column of fire nearly a hundred feet high.

“Run!” yells Sarah. “Run!”

A cold nuzzle touches my back. I fling my smoking hot weapon into the buggy, my arms so sore they feel as if they will drop off. I leap, this mindless, slow as a dead man arisen from a crypt. The entire shop was billowing red, white, yellow, and green flames now, and the screaming from within was high, shrill, and spoke of vast numbers of witches achieving their fondest wish in this world in the process of arriving in the next one. I landed on the saddle blanket, then as I turned to the others, I screamed, “let's get out of here! This place is going to blow!”