Polly... Esther?


“I think those cows are about due for milking,” said Sarah. “I can hear them clearly calling to be milked.”

“Milk?” I asked.

“Paul did not show you his cheese-room, did he?” asked Sarah. “I've been in that place twice, and only a witch would enjoy being in that place.”

“Cheese-room?” I asked. We were having to head well to the west of the massive corn patch, these plants now easily waist-high and over a foot taller than any such plant that I had seen anywhere else.

“It comes off of their basement, and is accessible through a door next to their cold-room,” said Sarah, “and it is deeper in the earth, because it goes down a number of stairs. Then, it is very dark, so much that one needs a good light, and finally, the places where he sets his cheeses all have this nasty looking stuff coming out of their walls that looks like it belongs in a tincture-nightmare.” Pause, then, “one almost expects to find witch-wine in there, that, chains, and bad trowels.”

“N-no,” I gasped. “Tincture-nightmare?”

“I will only take that stuff with the other tincture first, or if they are mixed,” said Sarah, “and it's a near thing with the mixed stuff, sometimes, as more than once, I have heard ravens.” Pause, then, “his corn seems to be doing about like it usually does.”

“Usually?” I asked, noting the deep green color of the plants, their 'sturdy' nature, their 'seeming' rate of growth, and finally, their sheer size. These things looked like they wished to become trees, and more, they wished to do so within the next week. “Why are these corn plants so much larger than most others I've seen?”

“Part of it is the type of seed he uses, which he has had from his grandfather's time,” said Sarah, “and I suspect that one or more members of that family have either been most-careful with choosing their seed-corn, or they have been collecting the stuff from the fourth kingdom, or other matters I but scarcely understand.”

“Not hybrid corn, certainly not here,” I muttered. “He's bred the line back to true!”

“Not entirely, but yes, his corn is closer to prewar corn than almost anywhere in the first kingdom, and that ledger he's been using is over two hundred years old – and it is more than merely his corn. It's also his practices with manure and and much else.”

“How did they figure that one out?” I asked, meaning the seed corn itself.

“Simple,” said the soft voice. “Paul's family examines the seed corn under an old magnifier, and between uncommon care in ground preparation, systematic selection of the best seed, fairly detailed records of everything that happens regarding his corn crop, and consistent effort over a period of nearly two centuries, he's got the best corn to be currently had in this kingdom – and no one has figured out how he's done it, even though it would be fairly obvious to you were you to grow the stuff.”

“Examines every single seed he plants,” I muttered. “Spends much of the winter doing that, and they probably go over every single grain of corn once they get it out of the cobs.”

“Very close,” said the soft voice. “Esther helps more than a little in selecting the good cobs from the less-good ones at this stage, so they don't have to check all of the stuff – as that is a lot of corn to check. In the past, though, that's exactly what they did, and they spent an hour or more per day during the time from Festival Week until first-plowing doing just that.” Pause, then, “this ditch is a bit 'bad' right here, but if you go west a hundred yards or so, it's a lot easier.”

Accordingly, we did so, turning immediately east once on it; we then headed up the road. I was more than a little surprised to see a plump-looking woman, one with hair a bit darker than the usual 'blond' – almost a light to medium brown – come out of the door of the nearest house not ten seconds after my getting alongside Sarah, and the agility of this woman was altogether astonishing.

“Plump-looking due to her clothing, mostly,” I said. “She carries a lot in that stuff.”

“She will want a vest like the two of us have,” said Sarah. “She needs all the help she can get to be organized.” Sarah then raised her voice, and shouted, “Hallo! Esther! Is your beer running!”

The woman turned, her face in a state of seeming shock, then ran toward us. She obviously recognized Sarah, but when she saw me, I had no idea as to what she felt.

I could not read her face in the slightest: it seemed altogether blank. I wondered anew about mine, and more, the pathological term once used to speak of me: flattened affect.

“Yes, I know you,” said Esther. She had a very peculiar voice – high-pitched, girlish, with a barely-hid tendency toward giggling as if tickled silly. More, this woman was a COOK.

Serious-level cook. She didn't need no stinking cookbooks: she could write a library of them.

I then had a most-peculiar idea: if I should need to ask someone about the food practices of functionaries, she might well be the one – presuming, of course, that such people actually cooked. I then had an even-stranger idea: the functionaries most likely had consumed packaged meals – tinned or in pouches seemed the most likely, much like some military rations I had either seen pictures of or had heard about – to the exclusion of all else.

My mental meanderings then fled to the background once more, as there was something about this lady who was speaking that reminded me of someone where I came from – and that astonished me anew.

“She looks a bit like that one silly lady,” I thought. “That one named, uh, Julia something.”

“No, that is not my name,” said this now-thoroughly enigmatic woman. She'd obviously heard my thinking. “Paul has seen you, I think, and I know he has spoken of you, but I have never met a man with such hair as yours. Why is it so?”

“I'm not entirely sure, Madame,” I said gravely. “I tend to be so busy any more...”

“That thing you're given to would drive anyone out of their head and into a rest-house,” said Esther. “I've been called my share of strange names before, but you... I have no idea how you endured those evil little witches torturing you like they did.” Pause, then as she walked to the buggy, she said, “something is tickling my head, but it does not smell like something I've smelled before that way.”

“That would be the dough, Esther,” said Sarah. “It is as powerful as drippy mining dynamite, but it keeps much better, and...”

This 'silly' lady now giggled like a schoolgirl, then said, “I'd like some, if I may. I may have more dynamite than anywhere outside of a fifth kingdom powder mill, but I've wished for something good to cause trouble for witches, as I can feel a lot of them coming.” Here, she pointed toward the south. “More witches up here than the place has seen since that stinky war so long ago that I heard about as a girl.”

“Did such tales, uh, put you in the privy?” I asked. I'd heard that to be a commonplace matter.

“Yes, many times,” said Esther. “Do not tell me – you have things different about you. Something about your ear, your hand...” She then nearly fainted. “The witches call you a most-evil name. I will not say it, as it is as bad to the ears as to hear those stinkers spew their curses!”

“Rune-curses, or Underworld German?” I asked. “I've heard a fair number of both, and...”

“He understands those better than any witch alive,” said Sarah. “We could both use a time to set on your couch, Esther, as my rear is sore, and I could stand time in a privy right now.”

It turned out we both needed to use the privy, and when I came out, I found Esther holding her nose.

“Yes, I know, I smell terribly,” I muttered. “Stink, go bother some witches. They like to smell bad, and that stuff's about fit for them.”

The privy nearly erupted, only instead of a blast of light and sound, this was the precise opposite; the door opened, and a faint screech was followed by a torrential 'sucking' noise that lasted for perhaps a second and a half, and a whitish fog seemed to suddenly show in the kitchen and then as suddenly vanish before my eyes.

Esther unclenched her nose, then said, “now that thing has no smell. It's bad enough with children and two adults that are sicker than they look, but if I go by how you stink one of those things up, I'd say you need to have beer for food and drink, and that only.”

However, she had other things to say once Sarah and I had our beer mugs filled and were drinking as if parched, while I was rubbing one knee or the other with my free hand.

“You need some Geneva for those, don't you?” asked Esther, indicating my knees. “They look to be swollen, as if you'd run all the way from the kingdom house to here without stopping.”

“N-no, but we did clear a house out of a very stinky witch and a great many people that acted too much like witches for me to enjoy it much, and we're both more than a little sore,” said Sarah. I was more than a little surprised at her suddenly-acquired tendency to 'stutter' when 'afraid' or confused. “We will need rubbing tonight, and he needs to not walk more than he must until his legs can be looked at overseas – as I've seen him limping more than once in the last few days – more than once each of those days, with today being the worst day of the lot.”

Esther didn't wait, however – she took off my boot, then my stocking, and shook her head over what was now showing on the exposed skin of my leg.

“What happened?” I gasped. The sheer number of scars I'd picked up in the last few days was stunning, so much so that now I had more scar-tissue than flesh.

“You didn't notice those times you were actually hit by shot and balls from those who were shooting in that room when they aimed at a fast-moving functionary and 'got' you instead,” said the soft voice, “and then more than a few of those blue-suited thugs had those smaller pistols and fired them at you during all that noise. Granted, most of them lost fingers when the pistol in question blew up after firing one or more rounds, but a fair percentage of the time you were actually hit.” Pause, then, “recall what I said about how you took injuries that would normally kill most other people, and that multiple times? That was for there. You also picked up shot in that town that went up and while taking that one shop.”

“Yes, and this looks about like it,” said Esther. “Let me get that Geneva that Paul sets aside for his knees, and you can rub yourselves with that.”

Sarah looked at me with a look that all-but screamed 'hysteria', as if this stuff Esther 'brewed up' were in the same category as Komaet.

“I hope this is not Komaet,” I murmured.

“I am not sure what you spoke of is,” said Esther, as she returned with a small jug, the smallest one I had seen recently. “This gets a long steeping in the crushed berries, but I've added some things to it that Paul says makes it work better.”

“Better for risings, or better for spewing?” asked Sarah. This indeed sounded ominous.

“It tends to cause spewing regardless,” said Esther, “but this stuff does work well for risings, and more, it works for quite some time, unlike commonplace Geneva, even his.”

“You have not endued Komaet, yet, either,” I thought uncharitably. “You really must get a nose-full of that stuff before you speak of liniment and spewing in the same sentence.”

Esther then uncorked the jug – she was 'absorbed' in what she was doing, so much so that she had not heard me, or so I guessed – and while she poured out some on a folded rag, I could feel my gorge rising. While this stuff was not Komaet, it had a scent at once unique, nauseating beyond belief, nose-twisting, and reeking of something that I could not name, but as I checked my gorge, Esther replaced the cork and handed the rag to me.

It went on my right knee – and the sore places instantly went numb as if dosed with an ice-chilled local anesthetic.

“What did you put in this stuff?” I asked, as I put the rag on my left knee, then handed it to Sarah – who had already dirtied one rag and was looking to dirty another. I then grabbed for my own rag, and was tossed one by Esther – who had brought a bag of the things with her, one that I had not noticed before.

I vomited so incredibly hard into that rag I'd been tossed that I did not notice that two men had come into the house, and when I heard Willem speak, his voice was unusually nasal, almost as he had inserted 'boogers' in his nose.

“Hans must have told you about his other use for ear-corks,” said Sarah dryly. “This stuff works differently from Komaet, but it is its twin for spewing.”

“Yes, and it works better on risings than the usual type of Geneva,” said Paul. “Now I am glad for that cough medicine, as my insides are not getting better, and neither are hers. That sickness is becoming worse, and it is not wasting time about doing that.”

“Two weeks,” said Sarah. “They'll have something for you then. It will not be a lot, but it will help.”

“You'll have that medicine when you return home, and then Esther can take it as needed,” said the soft voice, “and more, you'll know how to 'dose' her with it.”

“Dose?” I asked. “Does this involve Spraetzen?” I hoped it did not, as the idea of using one on myself was horrifying and on others... I would feel as if I were torturing them for pleasure.

“No, not one of those,” said the soft voice. “This device requires little more than one put it on an exposed body part, move it along until it shows a 'good' place, and then turn loose of it. It will do the rest automatically.” For some reason, I had heard that word a bit differently, almost as if it the latter portion, that after 'auto', should have 'magic' in it somewhere – as in this strange device most definitely 'had a mind of its own'.

“What is it?” I asked.

“A device used by the medical people there for emergency treatment,” said the soft voice. “It finds veins, anesthetizes and sterilizes the area, then actually injects the medicine needed – it can tell how much is needed with most life-saving drugs, also – which is very handy when you're trying to save someone's life when they would normally be written off as hopeless where you came from, much less here.”

“H-hopeless?” I asked.

“Yes, like with injuries Annistæ spoke of,” said the soft voice. “Those injuries, had they occurred where you came from, would have killed her within less than a minute. Having automatic devices, especially multiple ones, really helps save lives when you've got your hands well-beyond-full.

“I heard that,” said Esther. “I think I will wish such a thing, and leave it in my clothing.”

“Pockets, many of them?” I asked. “Oh, that one kitchen knife, in case someone tries for you?”

“I've wished for a better one, but this is the best one for that work I can find,” said Esther as she reached for the knife in question. “Paul said you made knives...”

I had that one 'fighting' knife out in a second, then loosened it in its scabbard so Esther could see its' edge. Its rainbow shine was undiminished, even with hard use.

“Those work especially well,” said Sarah, indicating the knife I had brought out. “They stand up to very hard use, and they do not go dull, not in the very slightest, even if you should cut a thug's head off with one – and I can say that, because I did so with mine not two or three hours ago, and it took me but little longer than with a sword – and I did that more than once today, also.”

“Stabbing them into bones?” I asked. “Cleaning ears like I did? Kill or injure six thugs in, uh, seconds?”

“Take it out and look at the tip,” said the soft voice. “She'll really get an appreciation for it then.”

I did so, and a hush seemed to gather itself over the room: that rainbow shine was undiminished. The blade showed absolutely no signs of use; in fact, that 'oil' made the thing almost look like some fictional black-bladed weapons – or like another creature, one I had not seen here, thankfully – this last being an especially deadly snake, and this animal was not fictional in the slightest. I carefully wiped it with that one 'special' oil-rag, then slipped it back in the scabbard with care.

“I'd like one of those,” said Esther. “I have to keep my knife hidden anyway, as no one expects someone like me to be carrying a knife, and that finish would work well in some of the places I've needed to do cleaning, or at night, which is when I most need a knife.” Pause, then, “what are those normally used for? They don't look as if they'd work that well for cooking.”

“Those like that one are for fighting, Esther,” said Willem. “I got a message just an hour ago from Ploetzee, and those two sitting on your couch there were causing more trouble for witches in that place than anyone in here could believe possible, but I know who sent that message, and I ran the paper right away, soon as I got the north-running line hooked up with the switches.”

“Paper?” I asked. I had this strange impression about this paper – as it sounded like something that went to an old-fashioned electro-mechanical teletype machine, one that used paper for recording and possible retransmission.

“It's not common paper, but a good bit thicker, and special-graded,” said Willem, “and then it comes in these long coiled strips, and it goes into the ticker, where these round pins punch holes in it according to this strange thing that I cannot for the life of me figure out save that it sounds much like an expensive clock or watch, then with each character, that paper advances itself until the ticker either runs out of paper or the message ends.”

“Oh, I think I know what it is, now,” I said. Willem had more or less confirmed for me what it was: it did act like a teletype, save without the typing aspect of those. “It has, uh... I'd almost have to see that thing, as it sounds like it's got this weird capacitor-and-solenoid resonant-circuit-thing that kicks this carefully-machined wheel over either once or twice, depending on how long it's energized each time, and then when the character finishes, a long press on the sender key punches the actual character and advances the paper – and that uses a special device that's, uh, imported from overseas, one that drives the hammer solenoid and resets the punching mechanism to 'zero' on the magnet-driven return stroke.”

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “You now have a better understanding of that particular device than anyone currently on the continent.” Pause, then, “they'll really like that one code you know overseas, as they can send that one easily and decode it easier, and the same for here, as it won't need to have three spare tickers for each position in case one of them decides to 'smoke' or do anything else too-strange for anyone save you to figure out.”

“It would help a lot if the coils were wound better, with decent wire, and those capacitors adjusted closer,” I said. “What do they use, linen-covered wire dipped in varnish for those smelly jumble-wound coils, and tinfoil and glass for the capacitor?” The latter capacitor, given proper construction, would work consistently, but the coil sounded like perhaps one in five actually worked and the others were best cut apart and the various parts melted for scrap-metal when they 'failed on test'.

“I thought so,” said Willem. “Now you two have had enough for a week's labor so far today, so about the most we can do is show you-all what we got here, and then maybe teach us all what we need to know tomorrow at the house proper.”

“Some of it I'll need to show her today,” I said. “Unless, of course, you can put the children with the neighbors and all three of you come tomorrow.” Somehow, that sounded very likely.

“We do that regularly, as she's sick more than anyone I know of except you,” said Paul. “Hans' grandfather spoke of someone coming with dark hair like yours not a week before he was killed, and he said Hans wasn't inclined to listen to him much. I know now he was right.”

“Set a good example?” I asked. “That's usually the best course.”

“Yes, but if you want to be a witch such that you need to eat grass in hell?” asked Willem. “He'd listen now, or...” Willem thought for a moment, then said, “no, he's remembering all of that stuff now. He never really forgot it, it was just a lot more work than most do around here, and he wanted to be like most are, which is lazy.” Willem paused, then, “lazy will get you killed if you don't do all you possibly can if you're a cannon-master, as everyone is counting on you when the guns must roll.”

“Or was forced to be like everyone else like so many are, or a mix of those two things,” said Esther. “Witches are like that – they wish everyone to be as they are, and that in every way.” Pause, then, “now what gives with this weird blue fist with the greenish fingernails and this red writing on it? Writing I can but barely understand?”

I wasn't really able to give much of an answer, save, “that just happened. I'm not sure about the colors, especially that strange color of blue. Perhaps those where we are going might know.” Pause, then, “the writing, I can tell you something about, as I recall doing that one before I came here – though about half the time that stuff is nearly a mystery, and how it got on that paper along with the other stuff is a bigger mystery than I can understand, other than perhaps it has to do to the task I was given to.”

By this time, the rag had done its varied multiple-soaked rounds and was put elsewhere, along with the jug and the soiled bag of rags covered with the contents of various stomachs, and while Sarah went out to her buggy, I wondered just what Esther would need – beyond a knife, a weapon of some kind, and perhaps at least one brick of plastic explosive. That stuff sounded 'good' for jugs like she enjoyed playing games with. Sarah, however, soon had something of an answer – a hefty-looking one, one sufficiently so that only knowing the state of my knees didn't let me get up from the couch – that, and someone seemed to be sitting on my legs. I could also tell this someone wasn't a witch, or a collection of spirits that I would normally not wish present, either.

This was someone I needed to listen to, and especially now as to the state of my knees. Our lives, all of them, depended upon my doing so right now – as I would be thrashing my knees enough taking that place overseas that I would need help when and where I got it – and I could not afford to be picky.

“I packed several weapons for you today, Esther,” said Sarah. “I have three of them that fire bullets, as well as two bricks of the gray dough and one that looks like solid white-thread as well as several knives, and I think I can give you a few metal pears – though I must caution you about those.”

“A metal pear?” asked Esther. “What would I do with one of those? They aren't something you can eat, now, not if they are metal ones?”

“No, but they do make witches sup with Brimstone, and should you toss one into a house...” Here, Sarah paused to shake her head, then, “that would need to be one especially large and well-built house to endure a pear of that kind, and anyone inside that house who isn't behind a thick stone wall will either be turned into pie-filling, or they will be dead upon the instant – and one needs to toss long and fast with those pears, as they kill witches worse than a shell from a three-inch gun – and that no matter with what that shell should be filled with if it is one that can be fired from a gun.” Pause, then, “we have several of those things that we filled with something that makes them worse than metal pears, but they are not something one tosses, and you can toss metal pears.”

“She can do that,” said Paul. “I've seen her throw rocks, and she manages nearly half again as what I do.”

“Wine-bottles, dear,” I said, speaking to Esther. “Fill those with distillate...”

“Those are awful,” said Sarah. “We used them to do the hall.”

“He was tossing those like he was shooting a gun, and they sounded like distance-shells, only worse,” said Willem. “I got to see him go after those stinkers, but then we all went in that burning ruin when it looked worse than something out of an old tale, and we put enough explosives and things like to that place to blow it completely to hell, and the witches went to hell with it, and we all flew like quolls when it went where it belonged.”

“At least you got a bath out of that mess when you landed in a horse-trough and swam its length without working at it,” said Paul morosely. “I was sore enough to want the special Geneva for rubbing for days.”

I then drew out a training aide from my vest, and handed the thing to Esther. Her eyes brightened immediately.

“Now you have done it,” said Paul. “It is a long summer's work until Harvest Day, and you have handed her one of those squibs people set off then.”

“Yes, and I like tossing them,” said Esther delightedly. “This one is very strange, as it has writing upon it. It names it a 't-training aide', though how this would help with training...” Esther looked at me, then asked, “what kind of training?”

“Those things are worse than a metal pear if one wishes to wreck a house, but they do not turn people into pie-filling,” said Sarah.

“No, they just get scattered worse than if you tossed a charge of dynamite,” I muttered. “Those things aren't much fun if you're at all close.”

“Do not speak of tossing dynamite,” said Sarah. “Just hearing you speak so had me seeing those flashes in that deep-hole when that stuff tossed me.”

“So I doubt either of you two will need to speak a word on the matter, save one,” said Willem, “and I know you'll you both say yes, as you've already done that more than any two people ever have, even those writ about in old tales.” Pause, then, “any pair that stands up to dynamite is not going to give up.”

“Witches do that, but I won't, and I know he will not either,” said Sarah. “Willem, if you close the door, I think I can show you something very special, and then we must see what is in Paul's barn, and I must show him something in there, also, as his cattle are full of milk, and they need draining.”

“What, dear?” I asked. “My hair? I really like you playing with it.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “I might be able to rub your back some on the boat trip, at least while we are going downstream in that river.” This was spoken in a most-serious tone; then, “this is a serious matter, one that none of you must speak a word to anyone about.”

“Is this the reason his hair is so long?” asked Esther. “Does this have to do with these really bad-smelling blue-suited thugs with these silver collars like bad dogs?”

“It does, I suspect,” said Sarah. “We dealt with...” A pause, then, “did you know of them before today?”

“Yes, twice,” said Esther. “It seems they like to invade one's dreams, and you do not wish these thugs handy in the night-time, as they might as well be witches out of an old tale for their behavior, especially certain ones that really stink awful, like this word they use down in the fourth kingdom.”

“Pfuddaarn,” I said. “That the word?”

“Yes,” said Esther. “Good. Now place up the window-cloth, Paul, Willem, and I'll fetch a light for this business.”

“We have those, Esther,” said Sarah, as she took out a tent-lantern and turned it on. “This will work, at least for now, but those stinkers that are coming will look for any kind of light other than tallow candles, and...”

“I have had them in my dreams also,” said Esther, “which is why I was hoping to get lots of this type of s-squib.” She then said, her syllables halting, “cyclohexanite? What is that?”

“A very powerful explosive, dear,” I said. “That is one unpleasant device right there – it thinks it's five sticks of drippy mining dynamite, and while it can stand dropping, you'd best not drop it far – as it will explode if you do.”

“No, not five,” said the soft voice. “Seven, and that of the kind she likes especially.”

“Oh, good,” said Esther. “I'd like some more of these, as I know what to do with them. Now how do I set this off? I see no place for a fuse, or a cap, or any such thing, and this odd ring here is very... It takes little force to pull this ring, correct?”

“Not much at all, dear,” I said, “and the same for that type of assembly in most metal pears.” Pause. “Make sure you're holding it such that that thing that looks like the handle of a spoon is in the palm of your hand, pull that ring out, and then toss it in a house or coach or whatever – and then run as fast as you can and dive behind something solid so it doesn't toss you ten feet into the air when it explodes.” Pause, then, “placing just wants tying fishing string to that ring on the handle and putting plenty of bad musket balls in around the device after digging a hole for it.”

“Which I have kegs of,” said Willem, meaning the bad musket balls, “and I've about used up those bags Sarah sowed for me last year, so I hope to get more sometime soon.”

“If you can find the cloth, then I most likely will be able to find the time,” said Sarah. “We will be having much special equipment coming back with us, including this one thing that scares me green, but I suspect it will speed up sewing cloth greatly once I have learned to use it – and those sound like a way to learn its' use.”

“They are, dear,” said the soft voice. “Now, show what you were going to show them, and return their house to its former condition. Even with Paul and Willem inside the place, and with the two of you here, there still is some suspicion that hangs over anyone who does something out of the ordinary for any real length of time.”

“Witch-thinking,” I spat. “So that's why that weird hand-print showed up, and the f-first verse from that p-poem.”

“Yes?” asked Esther. “You may wish to speak more of it when we're out in the barn and I'm milking the cows, as I've enjoyed hearing such things. Only better thing is hearing music, but hearing decent stuff up here is very rare, and that of any kind.”

“This is rarer-yet, Esther,” said Sarah, as she 'played with my hair'. “Now that is an ear that is not of this world, and that should tell you the truth of whence he came, and more, who brought him here – as if you needed further ones than him being given to the last of the pendants.”

“I s-see,” said Willem shakily. “His hair grew half again as long as it was in the space of t-three days, and th-that...”

“That, I think, also happened then,” said Sarah. “It is showing itself now, and because he is so ill, he needs a lot of help – and we have been told he would get such help, though I have but little idea how that help will show, and where, and much else.”

“You've heard some clues, dear,” said the soft voice. “Now, up with all of you, and...” Here, I heard myself being talked to, “carry nothing more than just the machine pistol and a spare magazine. Much of the trouble you've been having lately is because you've been carrying far more than is good for you in your current state, and doing that is now catching up with you.”

“What was this?” asked Esther. “I have heard of machines, and pistols, but never the two combined thusly.”

“That one shorter weapon, the one which folds,” said Willem dryly. “I suspect you want one of those, but there are three settings on those things, and one of those settings will put you in the privy should you hear it nearby.” Pause, then, “the way he was doing some of that stuff that came in on the ticker today, I have no idea how he stands making some of those noises.”

“Plays absolute trouble with your ears,” I said. “Almost like firing cannons all day long.”

“No,” said Sarah. “I have fired cannons, and I've seen you do that business close enough, and while cannons are bad, those are worse.” Pause, then, “and that isn't that one huge rifle that sounds like an exploding powder mill, either, and the same for brooms or things that act like them.”

“Brooms?” asked Esther, as she opened the door. The two men had removed the window-shade, and Sarah had put away her lantern. I'd done as instructed, and the apparent lightness I felt was so astonishing that I gasped, “how much of a load have I been packing lately?”

“A good load for a mule,” said the soft voice. “Try putting that stuff on Willem's scale if you have the chance, and you'll get a much better idea – as that's the most accurate scale able to cope with 'weight' in the area at this time.”

“I doubt that,” said Paul regarding 'a good load for a mule', as he picked up my possible bag and then set the thing down immediately. “This thing feels as if it is filled with rocks!”

“It ought to,” said Sarah sharply. “We shall wish a look at your tanned hides, Willem, and I will put three gold pieces on a decent one, as we will have need of good leather for holsters, and then two more on a shaved one, preferably deer, and that for special gloves.”

“I'd like a pair of those,” said Esther, as we went outside. “I do not like dirt on my hands, and it makes me feel as if my hands are such that I wish to scratch the skin off of them like a long-haired cat.”

“Oh,” said Sarah. “I forgot to speak of those cats in Ploetzee!”

“No, and you did not need to, as I did,” said the soft voice. “Two such animals are reserved for the Abbey, these to be 'prime specimens, the pick of their respective litters'.” Pause, then, “what they don't know is just what will happen to those kittens there.”

“What will happen?” I asked, as we out into the yard, and I began to help Sarah unharness her animals. Lightly burdened, I could now walk readily, and I realized that I needed to carry as little as possible while on the move.

“No more than forty pounds per person, if that,” I said. “Best to take a donkey or a marmot-cart otherwise.”

Sarah looked at me, then nodded. “I'll speak to Willem about sending word south for some donkeys.”

“You won't need to, as a number of those people from the Valley have brought donkeys to the Abbey, and they're 'in the mood' right now – and a lot more of those animals will be coming in over the next ten days.” Pause, then, “while many of them will be in use pulling small 'dirt-carts' and wheelbarrows up and down that incline during that foundation excavation, there's a good chance you can buy several of them when you are ready for such animals. Failing that, you could pick a horse from the house proper's stables.”

“Donkeys are much quieter, even if they can carry a good deal less,” said Sarah. “I'd rather have two of those rather than one horse – that, and keeping them fed is easier.”

“That is so, unless you check your horses especially well and pick them carefully,” said Willem. “You do not want noisy gun-horses, and you want ones that are stout, and you want ones that last well – and the best of the type only give up much that is wanted to animals that no gunner wants handy.”

“Which would be?” I asked. I was thinking of Jaak, as I looked over his shoes with my hoof-pick handy. I'd put that in my left trousers pocket, with the spare magazine in my right.

“Smelly mules,” said Willem, as he came to help me. “They might endure all of those things better than a good gun-horse, but only an Iron Pig smells worse – and I've put shot in both of those things, and the same for shells.” Pause, then, “this one, I doubt would do well for guns, but then, they were never meant to pull carts, guns, or anything like that.”

Once finished, we began to gather ourselves for the road-crossing, and then, I noticed an odor.

This reek was of mash, and as I recalled what Paul had out in his barn, the odor coming from that barn was now climbing up my nose so strongly that I almost gasped. I then spat, “hello? Any elk out there? Come hither, it is lunch-time!”

“No, not yet,” said Paul. “They are still out on the west end of the place, a long ways away from...”

As if to provide an answer, faint, distant, I heard the strident noise of a most-obvious elk: “AWWREEE-eeee-EEEP!”

Paul looked at me, then, “I think that one heard you, though it sounds as if it is a young one, and it is not close by, but at least a mile off.”

“You'd best come with me to the manse after you-all are done in the barn, as that thing will be in there drinking your mash before you take them home,” said Willem. “That gun will need taking out of the grease, or rather, it will need me cleaning it well with that bad stuff from down south.”

“B-bad s-stuff?” I asked. I was not looking forward to potting an elk, and I wondered for a moment if my first rifle here was in the buggy. I did not recall packing it, but there was so much I did not recall lately I wondered if I was developing 'boom-head' – that memory-lapse tendency so commonplace among people who endured a lot explosions of one kind or another going off in the near vicinity.

I'd had enough of them occur in the last few days to last me the rest of my natural life, and that did not include being tossed by fetishes. Those, at times, were worse than explosives that way.

“Southern cleaning solution,” said Paul. “That's about the only safe place to use it, as there is this strange thing there that sucks air out of this tall chimney, and then it turns several overheads, and I have no idea how it does all that.”

“Is there a watercourse in the area?” I asked. “A small one?”

“Yes, but it is barely big enough to see fish in, much less catch anything,” said Paul, as we entered his barn. The reek of 'corn-mash' was now beyond overpowering, and as I surveyed the tremendous change wrought in the place, I was stunned. Not a fetish was in sight, and that old 'grinder' was gone.

“No wonder it smelled so strong,” I gasped upon seeing twenty or more fuming mash-tubs, each large enough to bathe in and nearly as tall as my waist. “There is enough mash here to draw every elk and deer within twenty miles if their noses are working at all!”

“Yes, now I can see why you said that,” said Willem. “Paul, you'd best keep that thing loaded up good, and when he gets back, you'd best either have him make you a proper pig-musket, one like he has, or get your own gone through like some I've seen at the house proper.”

“I did make sure it was packed,” said Sarah. “It's in that long bag, and that with its usual things, so if you want to try 'a real pig-musket', then you can.” Pause, then, “though for your sakes, I hope you can endure a rifle that thinks itself a roer for its kick.”

“I have fired roers, and that more than once per day,” said Paul. “I could never get one that was decent, though, as they are terrible for trouble, and until he came, there was but one smith worth the bother within a day's travel.”

“Then you might manage it, and might not,” said Sarah. “It weighs a good fifteen pounds, much like this does here.”

Here, Sarah handed him her rifle.

Paul admired the weapon, then said, “it is too short in the butt here for me.”

“That is because...” Willem looked, then said, “that one adjusts. Now I remember. It can be set, but it takes a while to set it, and then if you do not have it set right, it can hurt you as much as a roer, if not worse yet – and those kick nearly as much as a four-gaged musket using good powder and patched balls fitted with dark-grease.”

“It can hurt you like a roer if you do have it set right,” said Sarah. “It did so more than once today already, and I have fired a roer, so I can compare the two.” Pause, then, “you learned about dark-grease from Hans, didn't you?”

“And he learned it from him,” said Willem. “I know who gets most of the good ideas in your house, and it is him as much or more than you – only his are so strange that only he can usually figure them out at first, like he did with my ticker, and he's not seen one, as far as I know.”

“I haven't, not like that thing,” I said. “Worse case, once we get back, bring in your 'dead' ones and I'll see what I can do.”

“No,” said the soft voice. “Bring them all in, one at a time, your worse one first and while you will have to wait a month or possibly more for each example, you'll get back the best to be had regardless of price or letter – and those will not go dead on you.”

“They take about that long to come back anyway,” said Willem dryly. “Good, Esther is fetching the cattle.”

“Yes?” I asked. I had been looking at the mash all this time. “Paul, you really need closed fermenters for this stuff, as your yields are badly off here – you have a lot of opportunistic organisms going on here, and that's apart from...” Pause, then, “that full-of-dung witch! He cursed these things!”

I now staggered back, for the barn began to fill itself with fumes, and as I watched through the quickly growing haze, still staggering backward, I wondered if I would be tossed. Only when I stumbled against a mound of hay on the floor and then collapsed against what could only feel like a rather nice – if otherwise strong-smelling mattress – did I truly come to myself.

“Where am I?” I asked. The reek of this 'mattress' was potent indeed.

“You got tossed again,” said Sarah dryly, “though at least you had a soft landing this time.” Pause, then, “Paul now has good mash-tubs, larger mash-tubs, covered mash tubs, and his mash looks and smells right, better than what we have at home, in fact.”

“Hans needs to get his corn here,” I said, as I sat up and shook my hair. The stuff was indeed, shoulder-length, and I hoped Sarah would play with it some more.

“He will with his next load, or so he told me,” said Paul. “He's been getting that stuff as cheap as he can, but since he did his time eating grass, he's been remembering what his grandfather tried to teach him.”

I got up, shook the hay out of my clothing – there was a lot of it on me still – and then, a most peculiar scent, one faint yet definite, was punctuated by a steady 'squirting' sound. It made me look around, only to see no less than three obvious cattle in the barn. The placid nature of these things made for a desire to both whisper and tiptoe, as one did not wish to disturb them, though when I came to the behind of one of them, I could not resist the desire to rub the animal's back.

I began doing so, and a faint 'mooing' noise came from the 'cow'.

“Over here,” said Esther quietly. “They like being rubbed, and it helps drain them better.”

I again, walking on tiptoe, moved quietly over to where Esther had spoken, and when I saw where she was sitting, I was more than a little surprised.

The 'udder' on these things was not merely not where I expected it to be – it was not near the rear of the animal's belly, but close to its middle; but also, the 'nubs' were indeed nubs; they were not the long things I had recalled seeing where I came from – and there were 'several' of them, all in a line, not grouped in a nearly square formation like they were on the cattle I had seen before coming here.

“In a line?” I asked.

“You've never seen one of these being milked before, have you?” said Esther. “It takes a fair amount of work, and usually two people to do them. The children are at work looking for bugs right now, so I could use a 'rubber' for them while Paul checks his mash.”

“No, not today for this one,” muttered Willem. He was speaking regarding the mash – and he was sounding too loud.

“Shh,” I whispered. My ears were no longer 'ringing', thankfully. “You want to speak quietly right now. She's milking, and these cattle are really sensitive to loud noises.”

“Especially when they are being drained,” said Esther. “Good, the milk is coming better now that you're rubbing her.”

“Her?” I asked, indicating that while I knew the animal was not a bull – if you didn't look closely, it was quite hard to tell with these animals – I wondered at the use of that particular pronoun form. It normally indicated a person. It did not merely indicate 'female gender', but someone who had a most-definite name.

“Yes, one must name cattle, as then they will respond to their names,” said Esther. “This kind is quite capable that way.”

“I am not sure that way about Miura,” I said. “Those straight-horn bulls – I only saw the one up close, and that one was witch-trained at some length.”

“Oh, Miura did recognize that name,” said the soft voice. “They have records where you are going about those animals, and he thought it quite the compliment.”

“Doesn't mean what I thought it did, then,” I said. “Now, is there a Totem dealing with bulls in the valley?”

“Yes, and that one 'rather excitable' man is a born member of it,” said the soft voice. “They're the true experts when it comes to construction on the continent, and that man is the best of them all at this time.”

“At this time?” I asked.

“There are a few people where you are going that can help him to a certain degree,” said the soft voice. “But in terms of real, practical experience – you'd have trouble finding better, especially with that building – and he's going to be busy in it, also.”

In it?” I asked. I was still rubbing the cow, and it felt good. Not quite as good as some types of soft cloth, nor as wonderful as the soft fur of a dark gray kitten, or Sarah's feet, but still, very, very good.

“You're the best rubber I've ever seen,” said Esther. “There, she's drained. Now to wash up, jug this milk, take it to the cold room, and get work on the next one.”

I wondered as to the need to 'immediately' deal with milk until I realized this was raw milk. I then realized yet another matter – and was then 'set straight'.

“These cattle give naturally homogenized milk, and it stays that way if it's properly cared for,” said the soft voice. “If you want it to give good cheese, though, then you must do as she's doing, and you want it 'working' in a room like Paul has as soon as is possible, so she'll need to pour the cheese molds after she's done 'draining' the cows.”

Pour the cheese-molds?” I asked. “I've never made cheese.”

“Not like she does, and I doubt you wish to go in that room,” said Sarah. “I have no idea how she endures it, actually.”

“A full tube of the widow's tincture is the rule for her, and that prior to milking,” said the soft voice, “as that type of cheese-room does tend to conjure nightmares similar to those caused by that tincture for pain or drugs that act like it.” Pause, then, “that is not due to a curse, but something a great deal stranger.”

“Does it act like a species of cavity?” I asked. “As in it, uh, resonates and catches s-stuff?”

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “It does exactly that, but just what kind of stuff resonates in that kind of a cavity is a bit too strange for you to understand right now.” Pause, then enigmatically, “you'll learn just what the meaning is, and that sooner than you want to, of phrases like 'just ask the axis' and some other choice phrases that seemed to never make sense to you in the past. They will make sense then.”

A brief interlude passed, during which time I was continuing to rub the first cow. I then realized a matter that Esther had strongly implied.

“The cows have names?” I thought. “This one needs to be, uh, 'Polly', this other 'Anna', and this third one needs to be called 'Gretchen'.”

“How did you know their names?” said Sarah – who was now working the second cow over, rubbing it in a most-careful fashion. “That one you're working on could use a bit more, but you'll most likely wish to...” Pause, then, “are you fretting?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “I am, and I need to rub something soft, and, uh, furry.”

“Then I know why you will wish those two kittens, and ticklers also,” said Sarah. “I know about ticklers, as without one in my bed, I would have not survived this one fever I had when I was especially small.”

“Not just tickling, but, uh, helping in other ways,” I said. “Those things help keep you warm, and... What?” This last was a high-pitched screech. I was surprised we did not have 'jumping cattle' or whatever happened when some weird person like myself got my voice higher-pitched than the cry of an angry long-haired cat. “They have fever-reducing properties?”

“More than that, much more,” said the soft voice. “They have a very potent odor, one much like you recall for those animals they look like, an odor that witches both cannot endure and positively hate, even if they have never learned why – and that 'scent' they produce is a potent antipyretic compound, one that makes fever bark seem worthless.” Pause, then, “the reality, in regards to saving Sarah's life, is much simpler.”

“What is it?” I whispered.

“Their saliva contains a most-potent mixture of antibiotics, and that animal was kissing her a great deal,” said the soft voice. “Recall that one time you needed to be in the hospital to deal with that one severe life-threatening infection after your sinuses were first worked on? It's stronger than that stuff was – and that's when it's given by mouth, not like you were dosed then. Overseas, they have much stronger stuff that was originally developed from that naturally occurring material those animals produce.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “There weren't many things stronger there than that drug, especially given that way, and most of the stronger ones were so bad that the cure was nearly as bad as dying.”

“The ones here get close, if they are for truly life-threatening diseases,” said the soft voice. “That's one reason they have so much automation, as when you get someone who's in several chewed-up pieces and you need to save their life, you need equipment that can truly help you do that.”

“S-several pieces?” I gasped.

“One of them being a severed head,” said the soft voice. “Yes, if they can get to you quickly enough after that kind of an injury, they can save your life when an industrial accident essentially kills you – and the same for getting hit by smaller artillery rounds, or getting hit with bursts from multiple automatic weapons.”

“Then we need such things,” said Sarah. “I am not sure if that means what swine can do should they turn your gun into scrap metal and firewood.”

“It most assuredly does,” said the soft voice. “Or, should one of those 'good' rotten cannons plant a shell between your legs and it's loaded as hot as can be fired out of a gun.”

“You would be scattered by such a shell,” said Sarah. “You would be dead, and that on the instant.”

“They can fix that if they can get to you quickly enough,” said the soft voice. “With that kind of injury, the 'good' rate is roughly three to five minutes. Beyond that, survival becomes very doubtful.”

“Sounds about right,” I said. “They stabilize the parts...”

“No, more than that,” said the soft voice. “Recall what Annistæ said about that one medic? They have materials superior to that stuff you saw being used, and to no small degree – as in put the parts back together in rough proximity, put those things on them that I spoke of earlier, and then hold the pieces together while that person is 'reassembled' enough to hold blood. The blood is then replaced with a somewhat larger device – and then, it's possible to do definitive treatment at a properly-equipped theater, which with such a person means 'within a few hours'.”

“And they most likely had those fairly close by,” I said.

“Not only that,” said the soft voice. “They also had those 'long green things' that took off and landed vertically, and then shot away like bullets from point to point at speeds you'd believe impossible for that type of craft.”

“I-impossible?” I asked.

“If urged to its utmost and lightly loaded, one of those craft could blast off the ground with a force roughly twice the force of gravity, then move rapidly into forward motion and accelerate at nearly one and a half times the force of gravity until it was up to its maximum speed – which was well over three hundred miles an hour. But one trouble with that style of eggbeater.”

“What?”

“It sounded like a very loud blender when it took off, and then it sounded like an even-louder die-grinder when it got to moving,” said the soft voice. “They could make them hard to see indeed, but they could not make those things quiet, and hence a fair number of them were shot down – and they were, much like most things of a similar nature where you came from, very vulnerable to ground fire.”

“Hence maximal speed, fly like the person driving is a lunatic for twisting and turning, and fly so low the thing leaves a huge dust storm in its wake,” I muttered. “Get tree-branches lit on fire by the engines, it's flying so low, and go though the tops of trees more than a little.”

“Which is what the pilots of those things soon learned to do,” said the soft voice. “Their aircraft could endure that.” Pause, then, “they could not endure a hailstorm of small-arms fire, or a group of the enemy's antiaircraft guns putting shells into them – and when you're flying 'full-out' in an eggbeater at those altitudes, nothing beats them for trouble on the ground – and I do mean nothing.”

“Specially if it's one that has guns on it,” I muttered, as I recalled the nature of 'gunships' where I came from, one being named after a rather irascible poisonous snake. “Guns coming out of each side, guns out of the nose, and all of them really nasty ones.”

“They did not do that with those, because they had aircraft that were far harder to shoot down, far quieter in operation, and far more deadly than anything like that where you came from – for both types of aircraft,” said the soft voice. “As in 'they almost have to be centered with a big rocket', 'bracketed with dozens of large antiaircraft gun rounds', 'hit solid with several large antiaircraft gun rounds', or be 'near-missed' by a main gun from a mobile fortress. They'd survive anything less – and then, one would have to find them, first.”

“Find?” I asked.

“Those didn't show up on anything the enemy had until they were actually shooting at you or dumping bombs, and when those things 'dumped' bombs on you... They'd literally hit the head of a pin.” The soft voice was never so emphatic. “They could and did flit about like 'silly moths', but their sting... The enemy had nothing but curses for those planes, and their destructive tendencies were beyond your current ability to believe.”

“Yes, then I wish to know of one of those things,” said Esther. She had returned, this obviously with a well-made copper 'pot' in one hand and a wooden bucket in the other, the pot one that looked so much like one of a modest number I had done recently that she looked at me in a peculiar fashion, and asked, “is your mark a prism? One ray going in, and three coming out?”

“It is,” said Sarah. “That's one of his, all right, and a recent one by the looks of it, though when they get that one lathe done, they'll be better still.”

“Lathe?” asked Willem. He was still inspecting the mash – both the mash itself, and the containers it was 'working' in. Those were easily a foot larger for height and diameter, which meant they held a good deal more. Paul's mash-capacity had nearly doubled, or so I guessed. “Did you speak of a lathe?”

“Yes, he did, though this will not be one which runs marmots,” said Sarah, “nor will it turn wood, I suspect, not given what I was told.” Pause, then, “I doubt it will use overheads, either, as this thing will need to turn rapidly.”

“Does he know about those?” asked Willem. “I got four old greasy things in some of my rooms, and some overheads that still work, though I need to put grease to those sleeves they have regularly or they get noisy – and these overheads turn faster than anything I've heard of or seen elsewhere.”

“How fast do they turn?” I asked. “Several hundred revolutions? Enough that you need to, uh, 'belt them down' a lot for that hay-chopper?”

“That is faster than is usual for those,” said Sarah. “Normally, such shafts are such that one can count the spots on them, though barely, and that is if one works hard at it.” Pause. “That speed Willem spoke of is what the Heinrich works uses to power its special machines, and one cannot count their spots, no matter how hard one works at doing so.”

Sarah had led the first cow out to the rear area of the barn and through an open doorway, while Esther began cleaning the 'udder' portion of the next cow carefully with the soap and water solution in the wooden bucket. Once that location was cleaned and properly dried, she began 'milking', or so I guessed more by sound and smell. My eyes were now closed, carefully 'massaging' the cow's back, my fingers seeming to become one with the animal as I 'got the tension out of my hands' – until Sarah returned and squawked, “fretting? I think not! That's as bad as ever I have seen anyone do so!”

“You've not been given to the last of the pendants, Sarah,” said Esther quietly. “He has, and that job is worse than that of all five kings and their collected labors combined and doubled and then doubled again – if you speak of fretting as it's commonly understood.”

“N-no,” I said. “I need to do this. It feels good. I need to feel good right now. Really, I do.”

“Then she is right, as that is not normal fretting,” said Esther. “It's helping the milk drain a lot better, and I usually feel a lot better after being dosed, also. It's as if I can think clearer than usually – and not a little clearer.”

“I was told he would need to have dark gray kittens to pet, and t-ticklers, and...” Pause, this by Sarah. She was extremely confused. I could really feel it now – she was getting close to the 'my head is going to explode with all of this new information I am hearing' level. “Why would he need ticklers, though?”

“He just told you,” said Esther. “He needs to feel good some of the time, especially given the difficulties of first his job, then a degree of sickness that would kill you, I, Paul, Willem, and half the rest of the people in the town were it parceled out among them, and then there is the weight of this world and its people upon him – and that is but the upper millstone, and it is by far the smaller of the two.”

“And the larger?” asked Sarah.

“God,” said Esther.

The faint slumping noise brought me out of my state, and in stunned surprise I saw Sarah had fainted. I then saw that thankfully, she was in a thick midden of hay, so that her fall had been cushioned to a degree. I softly said, “please, wake up dear. I feel better now.”

Sarah did, though her groggy aspect was more than a little of a marvel, at least until she said, “it wasn't just what Esther was saying.”

“What was the rest?” asked Esther. “By the way, I'm dealing with my 'fretting' doing this here, that and regularly taking a stronger-than-usual form of the widow's tincture, one Anna makes up specially for me.” Pause, then, “I think it is what she does for Hendrik, come to think of it, as only being sick would not have me corked from it, and corked thoroughly.”

“M-my necklace,” said Sarah. “I was given to it today, and it reminded me of my job, and I had forgotten the most of it – and it is no joke either!”

“You still don't know most of it, dear, and neither does he regarding that with his name on it, even if his fear educates him greatly as to how bad it might be,” said the soft voice – who then spoke directly to me. “No, it will not always be this bad. Right now, realistically, there might be two, or perhaps three, worse instances than right now before the work is done here.”

“Right now?” I asked.

“Between now and the time you get real medical help,” said the soft voice. “That's five days from now – and I will hold your hand so you are not terrified.”

“No, dear, don't faint,” I said. “I usually am, to put it mildly, frightened out of my wits if I'm not doing something that takes my entire being to do it.”

“That is a terrible understatement,” said the soft voice. “They will know just how frightened you are overseas, and they will deal with that decisively.” Pause, then, “now, resume rubbing 'Anna', while Sarah works on 'Gretchen'.”

“Good, you know their names,” said Esther – who had her share of scars, I now saw. Her clothing was intended to conceal a fair amount, more than merely her tools and much else. I wondered if she needed more than one pistol, now, and thought to ask Sarah.

“What sort of pistol did you think to give her?” I asked quietly.

“One, originally, though I had packed one of those smaller ones as a spare and just now thought to give it to her to use,” said Sarah, “and she needs one of those long things that goes on the end.”

“Yes, when you get back,” said the soft voice. “For now, she mostly needs one that's reliable enough to drop any thug that tries for her – and those smaller ones require one to be a fairly good shot to do that consistently.”

“She isn't?” I asked.

“I've not used a pistol before,” said Esther. “Why, what kind? I know you do those which rotate in some numbers, and I've wanted one ever so long.”

“We have those, but we use these others when we can and those when we must, as when you're dealing with lots of witches or smelly blue-dressed thugs five shots isn't going to help much,” said Sarah. “I was thinking to give my spare of this smaller type, but I was just told we would be bringing back a number of improved copies of them, as well as their s-suppressors.” Pause, then, “there, I said that word, and my tongue is not in a knot.”

“When did you last get a dose?” I asked.

“Shortly after you did,” said Sarah – who first touched her goggles, then softly spoke. “My, I do believe it's bright enough in here. I am seeing this strange thing that looks like a huge orange sun, and it has this ring about it, and there are these things zipping by like Komaeten, and then there is the surface of this place.”

Here, Sarah shuddered. “They have these huge animals, big, green, lumpy, and they jump like jumpers, and they make this noise that causes deafness, and then they have this long tongue that causes them to devour worms as if they are starving.” Pause, again, then, “no, these are not worms – at least no worm I have seen here, as these things are taller than I am when they stand up, and the big jumping things are nearly the size of a freight wagon”

Sarah shook her head, and gasped, “what were those creatures? Seeing one scared me out of three years growth!”

“A toad,” said the soft voice, this in a most-laconic fashion. “You just saw how life was on another planet – and you will be going there for a visit in the foreseeable future.”

“I hope I am not expected to stay on one of those things when they get to jumping,” said Sarah with a shudder. “They flew in the air as high as a lightning-hare, only they were a good deal slower, and then their noise! They could make the dead jump out of the ground and walk with that noise, and make them deaf as bricks while doing so!”

“Was it like, uh, this?” I asked, as I felt reminded of the phrase 'riders on the toad' and how such creatures worked well when there were no roads – provided, of course, said creature was not inclined toward its riders as meals. I then tried to croak, and failed miserably.

“A little, but it was much louder, and far deeper in pitch, such that you felt it as much as you heard it – and no voice I have heard, save perhaps one, goes that low.”

“Who?” I asked.

“I am not sure who this person is,” said Sarah, “but he does know his boats, and he did tell me how that thing would be in that dream I had of it a few nights ago.”

“The old man of the sea?” I asked.

“I am not sure who that is, either,” said Sarah, “though if I were to name who I heard in my dream, that name would be as likely as anything.”

“You had best be careful if you are going to sail,” said Esther. “You'll wish a lead-line, and take soundings, unless you're planning on riding a paired log like I once did as a girl.”

“This thing draws as much draft as what you probably rode, then,” I said. “It might draw enough to come up to my knees when it's fully loaded, and that's when it's moving slowly.”

“Then you need merely watch close and steer around such things as you should see,” said Esther. “That isn't terribly hard in the West river, if you're down this far, or the Main past this area, at least until you get up to this one strange thing on the Main that causes the water to back up above it. I had to turn my logs around then, and swim back to where I had put them up on the shore.”

“Still need to mark the channel to where the Abbey is,” I said.

“No, her advice is good,” said the soft voice. “Just speak of what you see and feel to Sarah, and she'll write it down in her ledgers – that, and point out any trouble sites you might notice.” Pause, then, “that will update their maps enough that they'll be able to navigate upstream to the appropriate site within perhaps eight to ten days after you leave for home from there.”

“What?” I asked.

“You'll leave on the first boat that's ready to leave port,” said the soft voice. “The second one will be worked on once it's ready, as that boat will need to do more than just 'get to a certain meeting point somewhere out to sea' – and then, it will leave for that site with a full load of people, equipment, building supplies, and a great deal else – and from that point on, more people will be coming every few days, at least in the beginning. That's the trickle.”

Pause.

“You'll give them the means to make that trickle a flood.”

“And now Anna is drained,” said Esther. “Gretchen is next, so give me a few minutes, and I'll be able to do her up proper, and once I pour the cheese-molds in the cheese room, then Paul can harness his team and we'll all go up to the manse for proper business.”

While Gretchen took perhaps ten minutes to be milked – this time, Willem led 'Anna' out – I could tell Paul was otherwise busy, and as Sarah led Gretchen out, I said, this idly, “I suspect she could use a good version of one of those, uh, 'medium-sized' pistols, about eight magazines full minus two for it, a machine pistol with a similar number of those good magazines, and a rifle, one like ours, only that one needs twelve magazines.”

“Why so many?” asked Sarah over her shoulder. Esther was going to be a while, what with three buckets and that narrow winding room where they 'set' their cheeses to 'cure', while Sarah would be a while coming back. I was more than a little surprised when she returned less than a minute later.

“I'm not terribly sure about that number, but I suspect when it comes to causing trouble for witches, I think she does more of that than the rest of the town put together,” I said.

“You're right, she does,” said Sarah. “She will be most-sore from shooting, though.”

“No, she won't be shooting like we did, dear,” I said. “That's enough to keep her in business for a month's shooting – though compared to say, Paul or Willem, she will be shooting a lot.”

“Long shots, also,” said the soft voice. “Those coming witches are going to be in for quite a surprise, and she's going to be in for a surprise, also – as she just received all of what you asked for, two entire boxes of 'metal pears' – upgraded ones, so they're even worse than what you have – and three boxes of cyclohexanite-filled training aides – and a pair of those smaller pistols, each with its own suppressor.”

“I'd like a few of those other training aides,” I said. “Are... Ooh! We can get those easily.”

“How?” asked Sarah. I was following her out of the barn. The place now smelled as if it would draw every elk within possibly smelling distance, and I wanted to keep my first rifle handy, in case I needed to either show Paul how to shoot it, or worse yet, drill said elk myself. I then replied to Sarah, this regarding the devices in question. They were, indeed, very common overseas, so much so that we'd most likely find some quickly, and that in close-proximity to well-stocked bins full of wasp-shot. I then had another comment, one I made more to myself than anyone else.

“I really wonder how Paul is going to enjoy shooting an elephant gun,” I muttered, this more to myself than anyone else.

“Wait until a few months from now,” said the soft voice. “In that kind of darkness, anything is possible.”

“Darkness?” I asked. “Darkness? The black hole?” Then, another: “p-purple haze..?

“Yes,” said the soft voice. “That's one reason you'll want good pistols with real stopping power – as it will be a good place to inculcate the attitude and values the west school tries hard to teach.”

And as if to supply a fit rejoinder to that comment, I heard an absolutely deranged-sounding scream, one of such a nightmarish nature that I ran across the road and into the house, there to find Esther pointing with a trembling finger at a head-high stack of bins, boxes, and other things – and at least one of these bins had four conspicuous stripes, these in a most-familiar order: red, yellow, green, and blue.

“What is all this?” she asked, her voice shaking.

“He asked for you to have some things,” said Sarah, “and while I brought what I thought was wise, he suggested you might well wish more – and you received more yet, more than even what we were told.”

“If it's not too heavy, then we may want to take most of that stuff to the manse,” said Willem, as he came out of the privy. “I got plenty there, including rooms, beer and privies, so unless your legs won't stand it...”

“No,” said Esther. “He's not to carry more than he must, not for the next five days, and he needs to ride that distance, not walk, and the same for her, as you'll need to lay up her vehicle in the manse, as the witches will want to steal it worse than almost anything you or I or Paul might happen to think of.” Pause, then, “I might manage to carry some of those things, if they are not too much for me.”

For once, however, I was more or less left out of the carrying, even if I could and did pick things up for the others so as to test their weight – that one striped bin wasn't the only one; there were two more in the stack behind the first one, and they needed both men carrying each of them – and once mounted, both buggies full, Esther sitting with Sarah, and Paul and Willem riding in the larger buggy, we headed east toward the other end of Laidaan.