Our next day


Dawn arrived far too soon, and when I took off my sleeping goggles, I remembered to bag them in my 'travel bag'. A glance at my brass clipboard, however, showed not two sheets of paper present, but five; and all of them writ in a surprisingly legible hand. I had no idea how this had happened, but I could feel someone coming.

Silently, weapons at the ready, suppressed pistol in hand with safety off and a round chambered, the hot stuff, suppressor screwed home – I seemed to glide noiselessly down the stairs, and 'slid' toward the door. I went to the hard-wall to its right, then noiselessly, by thought alone, I 'asked' the door to open.

It did, slowly, and a soft voice, this a woman's asked, “Noché tu Camé? Tueneé hoembæ?”

“Cé,” I said. “Sopa con, eh, Paejerio. At least I think that's how you would speak of a very tasty soup, er, stew.” Pause, then “Entra con, eh, Grecæ do Déo.”

“For a northerner, you do very well,” said the woman's voice. “I am a Makinekalé, oné Espeirto, and I was told...” Here, she came indoors, slight, starved-looking, yet her eyes were but for my workbench. She seemed drawn to it as if a magnet, and as her helper remained outside unloading a very tired animal – a donkey, if I went by its near-silent groaning – she advanced upon my workbench. Her touch was light yet quick upon my tools, at least until she quietly said, “Déo Grecæ. It is here I must be, and he told me true, by my missing toes and my shortened finger.”

“H-how?” I asked.

“How else?” she said. “It was my second year after finishing my training as a soldier, and I was leading a small-group toward a bad cannon with many black-dressed Cabroni about it, and their flank-guards volleyed and I was hit badly. I nearly died from their guns, and they put most of the things they shot off back on, but not for two of my toes and the tip of my finger, the one where I wore my ring until those stinking Cabroni killed my husband.” A pause, this most brief. “Gilbertèo – quickly. The Cabroni may be few in this place, but this is a place where they watch most. Take Sancho back to the rear and let him eat of their grass, what of it they might have, and then come in through their rear door.”

“Your name, Madame?” I asked, as I made my pistol safe and replaced the round of ammunition in the removed magazine before once more slipping it home. The length of that weapon made me glad for the 'cargo pockets' common to 'greens', as once the flap covering the pocket was down and buttoned, the butt of the pistol was out enough to grasp it readily with a flick of the flap.

“Graćiella,” she said. “I was two summers younger than Annistæ, so she was the group-leader, and she was hit badly also, but we fought on, and we killed them all and burnt their place until it and all in it was dead ashes.” Pause, then, “and while she could hide what had happened to her, it was harder for me, and I had to work in my workroom with no one else save a few helpers until our Cabroni burnt our town and killed everyone so as to try to kill me and a few others, and I have been running north with my things ever since.”

“Your things?” I asked. I then noticed her 'purse', this being perhaps half the length of my possible bag and a good deal thinner as to width. It was well-made, and also, well-maintained. “That?”

“Yes, of leather, which is hard to get so it is decent unless you know a good chemist, like I did,” she said. “This one is of cow. Much leather there is from Puerc, and that makes me scream and thrash as if I am ill with the sickness should it be close by, and the animals themselves are worse yet.”

“The sickness?” I asked. I would make sure 'Sancho' got his fill of grain and hay before we left, as that animal would get something of a workout once he was back to his former state of wellbeing.

“It is caused by whites, either that or they take that illness and make it much worse,” she said. “It is common talk with Cabroni to speak of those otherwise as wishing they would all become 'down with the sickness', but that is from that black book they like to read, and it is fit but for setting their towns alight with them in them.”

Soft steps from the kitchen, and the man came in. He held up his hand, and to my surprise, he had a shortened ring finger. Graćiella had an answer for him.

“He was one of my students, as my work permits but few, and when we took that town, a shell from one of their bad guns tossed him taller than the roof of this house and he was in a Téatré for much of a day, much like I and Annistæ.”

“Ooh, rotten cannons,” I gasped. “I hate those things. Nothing sounds worse than when a shell from one is coming your way, and you just know it has your name on it!”

“Cé, I know,” he said. “They are bad that way, and no one gets used to it, even those who have hair like yours who say they do, but I know better. They do not fight those to the south much, and those of the Rooster do – and we, all of us, are of the Rooster.”

Black rooster,” I said. “Big, mean, hard to stop, won't quit until it's dead...” I almost said, “Hier goed d' Swartshaan...” That song was coming back to me in snatches, for some reason. I'd listened to the radio briefly when I was too ill to work, or between jobs, and that song was a popular one. It 'felt like home', and seemed in a way to describe my life then.

It did a better job now.

“Cé,” he said. “They are like that, even when they are small.” He sniffed, then said, “I smell weapons. You have them here?”

“We do, but I need to do some work, and it seems some will need to guard the home-front. Who, I am not sure...” I was looking at the nearest wall, for some reason.

One of the men came to that particular wall, where I was looking in fact, feeling it, then said, “I know what I shall do. I shall work upon this wall, and wear my weapon on a strap, if you have one to carry so. We usually work that way when we are working upon settlements, and this one needs much work, as it looks as if the Cabroni came in a big black mass and tried to take it.”

“They did that,” said Anna's sleepy voice. “Now who are you two, other than...” Anna paused, her eyes jerked open, then she all but shrieked, “you know Annistæ!”

“Yes, she was my group-leader, and I was a small-group leader under her as well as a Medikalé , and we all are of the Black Rooster.” Graćiella looked around, then, “give us guns, and we could fight off a mass of Cabroni in this place, as its walls are thick.”

“We already did that,” said Anna, “and then he went and got the rest of them with a weapon that makes more noise and fire than anything, or so I thought until last night when I fired my first cannon.”

“You fired a Tuberó?” asked Graćiella. “Was this one that comes apart to fit upon donkeys?”

“He can pick it up and carry it, but yes, it does come apart,” said Anna. “Now you two look as hungry as they who came last night, and at least one of them is going with us as well as you, dear, as we have to teach people to use these.” Here, Anna pointed at what she was carrying. “Most of them will probably wish machine pistols, as they're used to shooting close, but we need to teach rifles also, and those...” Anna looked at me, then noticed I had mine slung with a magazine in the well.

“No worries, Anna,” I said. “The chamber is dry. I checked everything before I got out of bed, as I remembered what I said last night and I meant it for me as much as anyone.” Pause, then, “I've got my vest on, even if I need to load it up again once we get to the house proper, at least before teaching that class.” Pause, then, “I only have spare magazines in it now, a pair for each thing I'm carrying, so I don't hurt my knees so much.”

“Vest?” asked Graćiella. “If you have one, I wish it, as it would help me remember where I put things. I have much trouble that way.”

“You and me both, and him more than us two together,” said Esther. “Now you will wish the ones cut for women, as they're much nicer than those cut for men, believe me.” Pause, then, “if you are married, though, then watch out, as your husband...”

Cé,” she wept, then said through her tears, “the Cabroni, they took him and cooked him like a grease-slimed Puerc, then ate him while he still screamed over their fire, and I could do nothing!”

“Stinking witches,” I spat – and this time, spittle shot onto the floor, where it actually seemed to erupt in bluish flames for a fraction of a second. Anna jumped nearly to my waist as she leaped backwards and nearly hit the wall, as the fire – real fire, seemingly – had tried to set her alight.

“You spat fire!” she yelled. “Turn out! All of you! We have our work in front of us, and miles to cover before the sun shows!”

I dumbly handed Anna my clipboard, which she looked at avidly. She then mumbled about this one being a good deal easier to read than what Sarah had showed her last night, and as thumps and bumps spoke of people trying to 'get going' in darkness, I said calmly, “beer?”

Esther needed no such urging, and within perhaps thirty seconds, our three visitors were upstairs from the basement. They all immediately asked for where they could 'do their business', and Anna pointed to the privy. The stink that came from that place after they'd used it made me mumble about a privy-cleaning engine, and only when my left hand seemed aflame did I bother to look down.

It was resting, palm down, upon an obviously new ledger, and my hand – and indeed, the whole ledger, as well as part of the table – was absolutely hazed with blue, with lighting bolts shooting off of my hand. For an instant, I thought to try something, then thought, “no, this is really important. That can wait until later.”

This thought segued to silent prayer with closed eyes, and the burning sensation under my hand erupted into volcano-like proportions. When I opened my eyes, the ledger now absolutely blazed with bluish light, and as I took my hand away, I made a fist, pointing the index finger straight up, and from it, a small lightning bolt crackled for perhaps three or four seconds, the lightning seeming to search as it bent, twisted, and sparkled, until finally it died down and then went out with a small plop.

“I saw that, and I do not believe what just I saw,” said Anna.

“The book that just showed, or what I did with my finger?” I asked.

“I've seen what happens when you deal with books,” said Anna, “but what was coming off of your finger was straight out of an old tale, and the same for you spitting fire when speaking about witches.”

“What?” asked Sarah sleepily. “We have visitors?”

“Guests, dear, or rather two more of them,” said Esther. “Hans and Anna will have a rather busy household while the two of you are gone, and the place will most likely be nearly as good as new when you get back.”

“Assuming we can get the building supplies we need to do the work,” said Anna, who then yelled upstairs. “Hans! Wake your lagging rump up! Get it down here, you and your armory, and take that sack of metal pears with you!”

“S-sack of metal pears?” I gasped. “What for?” Pause, then, “we'll bring you something a bit more, uh, suitable for sundry thugs when we return – at least, I hope we can do so.”

“Yes, and what would that be?” asked Hans as he thumped downstairs. He was loaded down heavily, and to my surprise, he had one of those cloth satchels positively bulging with grenades.

“What are you planning on doing with those things – blowing up half the town?” I asked. Pause, then, “I think you'd really do better with these weird tins they have over there filled with 'red' shot and these, uh, smaller training aids that have this stuff called 'explosive A-something', as they won't blow up your house but they will get any witches within five paces unless the witches are so loaded with spam-tin they cannot move.”

Anna nodded, then, “you'd best get some of those things, then, and we'd best get ready to get going, so we can teach the house guards and the others who show how to 'get some'.”

“Where did you learn that?” I asked. I'd heard it before coming here – and more, all five of our visitors understood the concept involved, if not all of them knew what Anna had said.

“From me, most likely,” said Willem as he came up the stairs from the basement. “That's a very old saying, one that's been in my family since only God knows when, and any gunner worth his powder and shot knows of it, least in this area.”

“Yes, and what does it mean?” said Hans. He was not 'idling' – he was sucking down beer and cutting off slices of bread with his knife, and motioning to our guests to do likewise – which they did.

“Kill pigs and those stinkers that come with them, and the same for witches and those who wish to be witches,” said Willem. “Them common pigs, we leave them alone mostly, as they like weeds, and they're nearly as good at finding witches as Esther is – and if you're a farmer, you do not want weeds.”

“Yes?” asked someone in the privy. It sounded like Graćiella. “I need to use this smelly place, and with so many using it, it is beginning to really stink.”

“Hence a privy-stench-removing engine?” I murmured.

I murmured until I looked at the book that had showed, and when I saw the microfilm at the edges, as well as the pocket on the spine of the inch and a half thick book that showed two plastic memory card holders, I gasped, “what is this thing?”

“Most of what is needed to make 'privy-stench-removal engines',” said the soft voice. “They'll get the rest of what is needed when they read your mind – and between the microfilm on that book's pages, what it shows pictorially, what is in those two red memory cards, and what they learn from you – they'll learn enough about those things that some will go home with you in 'easy-assemble-format', and that's for those.” Pause, then, “the ones you draw up afterward are really going to shake them up over there, as they'll learn even more 'forgotten lore' about engines in general.”

“Wonderful,” I murmured. “Forged aluminum pistons. Dykes rings, with an oil-control ring of two thin ones separated by one of those special spacers. Taper-machined wrist pins. Titanium connecting rods, hardened and ground inserts in each end. Ball, roller, and needle-bearing throughout, even where they don't seem to matter. Gear drive to the cams, with a vernier adjustment to set each cam so it's right. Oh, and fuel injection, but that comes later, so we want something that looks like a baby Weber, complete with four circuits – from idle to 'power', for smoothest running and easy jet changes – and finally, a good muffler, one that flows freely yet is quiet.”

“I have no idea about a word of what you were just speaking of,” said Esther, as she picked up the book and began to look at it, “but if you have a list of what we must do, then we must eat and visit the privy, and then get on with it, as time does not wait for us and our laggardly ways.”

That got to everyone: the list became the 'law'; I did my packing, that being mostly the tools that seemed likely, slipping them into the various bags, with the greased-up jeweler's anvil being wrapped thickly with rags and then slipped into its own carrier. A chain of laborers, this with both 'Old Sole' and the titanium lantern running in the kitchen and on a stand in the parlor, loaded up first one buggy and then another, then those who would remain behind – three, all of them men, and all given machine pistols and several loaded magazines each, as well as two rifles – were given instructions to help themselves to what food they could, as well as some of the knives we had taken from the Abbey. I showed the one man where I kept my sharpening stones, those I had left behind, in case he was inclined to try to put a real edge on the knives in question.

They were also given two stacks of silver, one hand-high stack of five guilder pieces, and another stack, this one taller-yet and tottering, of one guilder pieces. These were to purchase what things they needed, and they were to make up their 'beds' wherever they could find places they might well like.

For some reason, every one of these men and the woman wished to bed down in a corner of the basement, and when I went downstairs to make certain I'd not missed something, I noted five cots, all of them close together as if to huddle together for warmth, with tables and other matters to shield them from sight. For some odd reason, this struck me as an utterly normal matter where they had once lived.

“Not as warm as El Vallyé,” I murmured.

“Non, it is better to have many sleeping close should there be vermin about,” said one of the men. “I have seen sign of them in here, and that knife you gave me shall have blood on it before evening, and at least one of those things will be in your manure-pile.”

“Blood?” I asked, regarding the knife. He was testing its edge, and looking at my stones jar. Given he was tutored at length by an 'expert machinist', he could most likely sharpen knives. I wondered if he could use a forge.

“Cé, as I am a good hunter,” he said. “Were I to have a rifle like I used to have, I could probably secure one of those smaller animals with the just-sprouting horns that we saw to the south, even if they are mean and wish to put their horns in every person that gets close to them.” He looked at his machine pistol, then said, “were I to use this, I would need to get close indeed, close enough that I put the barrel up to the animal's head and shoot it there until it fell.”

“Could you..?”

“Cé,” he said. “I have killed these animals farmers think pests with clubs, short ones, and there is a large club somewhere about here that I smell...”

“That one you do not wish to use,” said Esther. “Were there spares to be had, these green ones would work, but I would worry little about using clubs. Those weapons might not work on deer terribly well, but they will get marmots, and if you are careful, you can put a bullet in the animal's head and have it ready for food tonight when those of us coming back shall return.” Pause, then as she looked at this list I had somehow gotten onto my clipboard, “my, this isn't just for today. It needs copying, because it says what the house here needs to have fixed, and that down to the last detail, almost!”

“Then we must bring it to the house, and he must hold it,” said Anna. “Esther, your vest. Make your pistol ready, shoulder your rifle on its sling, and put at least three magazines for each of your weapons in it, as well as at least two metal pears and one of those green things that looks like a Harvest Day squib but is worse than a swine-shell stuffed by Willem his-own-self.”

“You mean one I loaded for him,” said Esther, as she began to do those precise things. “Oh, good. Here is a bag of all-purpose bullets, another of hot-loaded hollow-points, and then this one here has a hot red tracer bullet...” Pause, then, “hot red tracer bullet?”

“Try shooting one if we see a coach,” I said. “We just might see one, in fact. Now, we need to finish our packing, I need to stow that list in my possible bag, put everything I'm going to need save my possible bag in one or the other buggy, and then head out the front.”

We left the house heading south perhaps ten minutes later, and the darkness outside was sufficient that I led the way with the stars and a partial moon for our only light, with several people in each buggy. Their heavy loads made for slower progress, and now I knew why we wished to leave early: I would need to find our off-of-the-road paths, and as much as possible, we would need to take roads.

Unlike in the past, however, we had the firepower needed to deal with any witches we happened to see, and as I led off of the road some three hundred yards past the Public House to the east along a trail I knew well, I heard a distinctive-sounding 'bang', followed by the dying scream of a marmot.

“We will have stew tonight, marmot and carrots, unless I miss my guess,” said Esther. “This is closer to buzzard stew than soup, it has so much meat in it. I put that third roasting pan's meat in it, and it cooked slow all night long, so everything will be just right.”

“Good,” I whispered, surprised that our close-packed column could move as silently as we did. I led through the fields, that one brass 'cube' in my pocket, and my 'music box' now and then in my hand to give a check upon my path. I wondered if I could have small leather pouches sewn for both items, in fact, until I tried inserting them in my vest.

“Perfect,” I thought, as they slipped right inside, each to its own pocket. “Now I hope Karl and Sepp have swords fit to suit them, as those things are as individual to people as shoes are to feet. I really wish Georg would get plenty of information about those buying them, as much as he could, in fact.”

“Now he will,” said the soft voice, “and he may well refer those he's carefully vetted to Sarah, who not only has one, but can get information out of anyone who does not need a third degree session.”

“Yuck,” I spat. “I hope I never do another of those messy things again.”

“For the most part, you won't have to,” said the soft voice. “That was the last group witchdom on the continent had that was really up to doing a treason plot, and at least in this area, they do not have the time or the other resources needed to raise up a group that has any chance of pulling such a matter off. Oh, another matter.”

Yes?” I asked.

Those derailed trains destroyed the communication system for the functionary level,” said the soft voice, “hence orders are not arriving from 'higher command', and the leadership over there is both totally in the dark and totally fixated on that situation.”

“Better for us, then,” I thought. “Take down the rest of their networks, do it tricky and fast, and then they'll be at each other's throats with well-whetted knives.”

“Worse than that if you do a truly good job and do it fast enough,” said the soft voice. “Don't be surprised if you manage to mess things up for them so thoroughly that they'll never get matters unsnarled in time to do anything to the populace that way.”

“And now I must lead,” I thought. I was glad we had mostly-shuttered catalytic lanterns, one per buggy, with the other seven in a waterproof bag along with several spare candles per lantern at the least. I knew someone had been busy last night running the things, as the bag of candles fit for those lanterns was not at all small.

“At least eight pounds of wax,” I thought.

“Closer to ten, actually, but you will have enough of those candles now,” said the soft voice. “Don't be at all surprised if Georg gets questioned by Hendrik as well as you and Sarah, as there's a lot he's learned about the coming witch invasion.”

“Gets around a fair amount, has a nose for news...”

“He makes Hans look worthless that way,” said the soft voice, “and only Willem beats him, and that not by much, if you speak of Willem's designated territory.” Pause, then, “Georg has no such designated territory, and hence he tends to learn anything of news north of the second kingdom's southern border.”

“How?” I asked, this silently.

“He has a wide-flung network of contacts, most of whom he writes to regularly, and while his letters look common enough, he's got a fairly long list of code-words that he uses to correspond with those of his far-flung relatives – as he's known about witch-trouble in the area for years, ever since he had his first shop shelled into ruins near the second kingdom's northern border and moved up here about twelve years ago, where he was able to purchase his shop and everything 'for a song' due to the owner being ready for a rest-house and deathly ill beside.” Pause, then, “the rest of that money went for updating matters enough that he could hire Johannes, then Gelbhaar, then the witches 'put the arm on him'...”

“Not quite a double-barreled inquest, but not much less, correct?” I asked silently. “Hieronymus?”

“Chiefly as while there was a fowling piece 'stuffed' with stiff shot involved, they did not pay him anything,” said the soft voice. “In fact, they took nearly all of the money he had on the premises, so he was forced on pain of death to take that witch and his fetishes in, and had Georg spoken much of anything on the matter to anyone, he would have been killed. He was still a cannon-master then, even if the guns were to the north and east in a large wooden building.”

“And when he was injured by that one pig?” I asked.

“Hieronymus more or less took complete control of the place, made all of the needed arrangements with Blomfels and a number of other fifth kingdom combines he knew, and by the time Georg was ready to work again, the place was essentially a very well-hid witch-hole, as Hieronymus had cursed those other two men at some length, and the same for the apprentices – and those curses draw on some very potent still-existing ones, so 'density' is a matter that you and those other two from the Valley will need to fight on a daily basis for quite some time.”

“And Georg had to go along or else,” I said.

“More than just that,” said the soft voice. “Hieronymus spent more time cursing him than everyone else put together, so by the time Georg returned, at least for a time, he was more or less a witch-puppet – and all of this is mentioned in great detail in that satchel full of letters you recovered. It was planned specifically and in detail years prior to it being enacted, Hieronymus was groomed for years for his assigned task, he was tested at length to ensure his capacity was ample to the task, and then sent when the witches deemed 'the signs to be right'.” Pause, then, “trouble was, they didn't plan on you showing shortly after he'd done his job and left for the second kingdom house, where he received a massive reward – and now you've undone much of the damage he caused.”

“I did?” I asked.

“Those 'stupidity' curses still hold, and there's a good reason they do so,” said the soft voice. “They draw upon a large 'library' of old prewar and in some cases preflood curses, and hence they actually 'work'.”

“Just like a lot of curses do today,” I said. “All connected to one another, so I got to take an ax to the root of that tree before I can expect it to come down crashing.”

While there was no answer, we had gone perhaps two hundred yards past the ends of the fields, and here, I turned sharply to the right, almost to the degree that we would intersect the southbound road again within perhaps a mile, but I could see the edge of a woodlot, and near it, a hard yet somewhat winding path, one little used and a bit narrow. That path would take us clear enough of Waldhuis that we would not be shot at, but close enough that we could get some idea of the damage they had sustained, and also, what they were doing about it.

About a quarter of an hour later, I could hear, this faint upon the bare winds of this time perhaps an hour and a half before dawn, the cries, moans, and screams of a vast and badly injured multitude. More, among these cries I could hear imprecations, these mostly in Underworld German, then clearly, somehow, as if it stood out from the rest, the single word that meant slaves in that infernal language.


...Sklaven...”


“So they are bringing slaves, lots of them, and are wasting no time about the matter,” I thought, as I continued finding our path in the darkness. Ahead, a vast red-tinted blackness, this still periodically illuminated with rumbling booms and flashes of light, spoke of another matter: we had more or less trashed Waldhuis; and since witchdom had some limits to its resources and already had vast numbers of slaves at work upon damaged underground roads and other 'municipal works', this well-disguised hidey-hole was not going to get rebuilt quickly.

“They will most likely make hovels for the laborers, as that corn they grow is one of the big reasons...”

The answer I got was stunning: the corn, while it was sold predominantly to witches in one form or another, was camouflage. The true business of Waldhuis, while we now knew it involved a vast amount of witch-traffic, was much of a mystery. I then thought for perhaps what felt like a second.

“No aircraft, so they can't fly the stuff in,” I thought. “Overland cannot discretely handle the volume they move. Smuggling – again, not that kind of volume. No real ports handy for ships, and a long trip overland if they use the second kingdom port. Ergo, the reason Waldhuis is so stinking important is it's a main terminus on the Secret Way, and the witches ship a lot of stuff to that location.”

“A specially-run witch-built path that runs well-over a hundred miles to the south and slightly west, and given it has access doors and but two outer outlets, Waldhuis being one of them, it has no wasps, hornets, nor toxic gases – or, at least, it didn't have any until quite recently.”

“The explosions?” I asked.

“Had little effect on that path,” said the soft voice. “Those buildings used to camouflage the place – they're more or less gone, and the same for more than half of the people and nearly all of the witches coming to pick up their supplies. But one trouble.”

“The foundations and basements of many of those buildings are more or less intact, which means those hovels will be slave-quarters inside of two months and Waldhuis will look as if nothing happened – presuming of course, that no more 'hornets' decide to show up,” I murmured. I had more to say, however.

“Best let Deborah teach us about baskets and real hornets,” I said. “Sneak one or two of those on their property, and then...”

“Easier said than done, as the nearest nest is three miles away,” said the soft voice.

“Perhaps bait them?” I asked. “Uh, call them, perhaps, saying Waldhuis has lots of fresh meat?”

The red flames continued, as did the screams, but within a minute, as we drew closer, the screaming grew a new element of terror: the darkness now had eyes, great huge compound eyes that were sensitive to infrared emissions, numbers of clutching needle-like claws, razor-sharp 'teeth' – hornets did not have 'mandibles', but a strange sort of rounded mouth, much like a reptile, with two rows of scissor-meshing serrated teeth – and now and then, a hornet, infuriated by its food giving it trouble, bared its stinger, fresh-sharpened, and stung its prey, then flitted off to find something a bit easier to chew on until that particular source of meat was quiet enough to not protest being eaten.

And, hornets did chew. These hungry bugs didn't just fill their stomachs for themselves, they filled their guts for their broods of 'babies', each hornet having two or three to look after until they were able to fly and have the parents teach their growing progeny the art of devouring anything that looked likely so far as meat was concerned.

Hornets, after all, were strict carnivores, more so than almost any creature that lived upon this planet.

There was a lot of meat in Waldhuis, and I again called upon every hornet that might listen that there was a lot of free 'food' in that area, and as we began to see individual sources of slow-burning flames consuming the remnants of buildings, the formerly 'stolid' overseers were now running for their lives as swarm after swarm of irate green bugs the length of footballs shot after them with the speed of wood-pigeons until they tripped, fell – and the hornets then descended in swarms and planted twenty or thirty stingers in a coordinated 'attack' that left the target thrashing and screaming.

“Of course, that large of a dose of 'hornet-juice' does the job a lot quicker,” I thought.

“They usually can just fly around for a short time, then land and begin chewing through the clothing and into the body of the still-living witch and suck his blood until he actually dies from either shock, blood loss, or stops breathing due to the poison,” said the soft voice, as a line of hornets buzzed overhead at speeds that a wood-pigeon would envy. These things might be insects, but they were organized, disciplined, and employed a degree of teamwork that implied a lot of smarts.

“They'll enjoy those bugs,” whispered Esther with a chuckle. “First, hornets that explode like boxes of dynamite, and then lots more hornets that sting and bite. There isn't going to be a town left.”

“No, actually there will be, but now that the hornets know where they're likely to find suitable food, you can expect them to fly in this area during the 'best' hours – which with hornets is about an hour or two before dawn, when their prey tends to be asleep and their ability to see well in infrared gives them a huge advantage. More, they can communicate with each other for short distances, and finally, they do respond to certain people if they are inclined to call them – as they just did.”

“You put the hornets to them,” whispered Sarah. “There won't be a witch alive in that place by morning.”

“Most of them are already dead,” I said, “but I heard one such wretch speak of sending slaves, so they will be bringing in long coffles of slaves on a regular basis.” I then had a question.

“That group from Ploetzee?”

“Had three killed with clubs when they tried to escape, and every man and woman in each escapee's section whipped with stock-whips each and every time an escape was attempted – and the last ten miles to the Abbey, this after the third such attempt, they ran those people hotfoot with the lashes of stock-whips ripping their flesh constantly so as to 'get the witch-rubbish out of them'.” Pause, then, “figure about four hundred and eighty new workers from that source alone. Then, two hundred more fourth-kingdom workers arrived from the east coast since you left with that man's buggy, with more caravans arriving every few hours from the east and now the south, and finally, another eight hundred or so from the Valley have come in the course of the night.”

“And the plans for the basement and wall-foundations?” I asked.

“Surveyed entirely, staked out in detail, lines set with the right rags for coding, and the paths for the dirt-carts laid out in full, including the location where the excess dirt will go,” said the soft voice. “That one man, along with Willem, is building a fire under those working iron, and he himself already shot two of them dead with his pistol – one like Annistæ's – and he cut their heads off with his knife and put Krokus in their mouths, so they would stay dead and not speak to others of their kind.”

“He what?” I asked.

“They proved to have tattoos of goat-heads, very recently applied, and more, they smelled of those drugs that blue-suited thugs like.” Pause, then, “he spoke of recruiting men and women from among his people, as he knows they can labor, and he plans to make that shop much larger, with real machine-tools if he can get them.” Pause, then “he wants a steam-hammer badly, and the same for several lathes.”

“Not just manual labor, either,” I murmured. The lathes would be ready in good time as well as a lot of the needed reinforcing rods. They could make those in huge quantities overseas once the place was liberated.

“No, that will be dealt with today, as you won't be meeting with just Hendrik,” said the soft voice. “You'll be meeting with the king from the fourth kingdom, and a copy of that proclamation you did in Ploetzee has already reached Hendrik's desk.”

“Oh, no,” I thought.

“Oh, yes,” said the soft voice. “He wishes he could have written one as well in as timely a fashion, as he has been wanting to issue something like that for over a week – and when that king from the fourth kingdom sees it, he will have an even stronger reaction – so much so that he will wish precise copies to put in every Public House within his borders.”

“Blue fist, and green fingernails, with one missing?” I asked, this silently.

“He knows what that means, unlike Hendrik,” said the soft voice. “He will tell Hendrik in no uncertain terms that he dare not tarry or think of aught but getting that place done in the time allotted to him, and spare nothing whatsoever, even if it means the whole of the kingdom becomes destitute and and most of the people in the first kingdom are starving on account of it!”

“Better destitute and starving than in the belly of Brimstone as a meal,” I thought, as I looked east. Here, I had a good vantage point of Waldhuis, and amid the thick billowing gray and black smoke I saw, I saw not only but a few homes still standing – they were all on fire, and every single one of them were burning like torches – but also, their fields had somehow been set ablaze, and now nothing remained of their hard work save death, ashes, rust, and....

And, of course, hornets, which were now devouring the dead down to skeletons with a speed that reminded me of that fabled Brazilian fish called the 'Peer-Ahn-Ya' by those who lived among the rivers where they lived.

“Those bugs don't waste time,” I thought, as we left Waldhuis to its steadily-gathering swarms of hornets. Every hornet within miles, upon hearing of free or low-cost meals, had come on the instant – and now, over the screaming, there was a steady humming of fast-moving wings periodically punctuated by the most dire screams imaginable as the venom of a group of hornets took effect upon their meals, and they began to feed upon their victims like the Peer-Ahn-Ya found in the rivers of Brazil.

“They're going after everyone still alive,” I marbled. “Can't hide from these things, and those slaves when they come – they'll either provide meals, or they'll run off.”

“Just dump a shell or three every so often, whenever it looks like they got something going,” said the soft voice. “You didn't just tell the hornets they had free meals – you also told them when the dinner bell would be rung, and they'll come again once the explosions die down.”

“A witch-sump,” I murmured. “Suck them in that place and then wipe them out.”

“Very close,” said the soft voice. “Now watch the path ahead. It's a bit boggy, so you'll need to find the route until you can get on this one road that heads mostly south for a few miles – about eight or so – then you'll be past the worst of the destruction, and you'll have firm ground again.

Boggy was not the case here; it bordered on splop in places, and I had to guide each buggy with most care. I had gone perhaps a mile, then begun a slow turning toward the east in a meandering pattern, and had proceeded east-southeast for some minutes, when not four feet away I saw a lead brick.

I pointed this out, and the buggies continued rolling, even as Hans and Paul strained to pick the brick up and then slip it in the center of the driver's foot-board of the lead buggy.

“No more in that one, as its springs are mostly gone,” Hans said. “Now let us look at yours while it is moving, to see if it can endure lead should we find more.”

A moment later, Hans was back in his buggy, mumbling about the other nature of 'free lead', and how it cost enough in other ways. “Paul can haul one of those things if he is careful,” whispered Hans. “If you find another, we can take it, but no more this trip, and it would be best if you find a road quick.”

“There's one but a quarter mile ahead,” I whispered. “We may have trouble on it, but we can give those who cause it plenty of trouble in return.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “There are a lot of bagged bird whistles and other brass things showing on the stoop every hour almost, and there will be lots more of those things when we return.”

I found another lead ingot not three minutes later, this now in sight of the road, and once it was loaded – the buggies did not stop, as this area was soft enough to bog them badly if they ceased moving, at least according to Sarah – we continued our slow and straining way. I wondered where our first waypoint would be for food and water, and once on the road heading south, I knew roughly where it was.

“A small spring in the woodlot ahead, a small path going to it. Now did we bring buckets..?”

“Yes, two copper ones that Sarah has packed,” said the soft voice. “They're some of your latest output, in fact.”

“Buckets?” I asked.

“You raised the bottom, rolled the rest on that one machine that's more-commonly used for rolling stovepipe, riveted up the seam with two rows of rivets using a strip of brass to provide thickness for the bail, and you did the same to the other side, with the bottom getting two rows of rivets to ensure tightness, and the bucket itself getting a wired edge, the wire locked in by tinning the whole inside.”

“Oh, those things,” I said. “Not sure they'll be possible to spin, they're so large, but...”

“Most everything you currently raise will be possible to spin,” said the soft voice, “and that 'expert machinist' can tell you a lot about spinning that you don't already know. Georg is going to be very surprised that one of his helpers is a woman – a woman who's also an expert soldier as well as a 'combat medic'.”

“Well, there are women carpenters,” I said, “and I remember several women working where I had my last 'real job', so if they're up to matters, I see no reason to not use them – and they need proper pay, and decent treatment. I'll not stand for anything else, and I suspect Georg knows that.”

“Oh, he will, especially when he finds that nearly half of those renovating his shop are women – and more, that they do their work so well.”

“Ah, this is good,” whispered Hans. “I can smell water ahead, and this road is a good one. I know it decently.”

“Least we won't bog these things on it,” said Willem. “I was scared back there after that ingot got on the floorboards. Pause, then, “that ain't nearly all of them, is it?”

“No, there are a lot of those ingots,” I said. “I'm going to draw up what I call a 'lead-sled', something that works for drawing out lead out of boggy ground, and then a group of buggies can go get eight to ten of these lead bricks each, and do so twice today at the least.” A pause, then, “in fact, much like that sled I helped build for Anna's use this last winter, or like one I saw being used by someone else. Didn't any of you see such a thing?”

Given what I had heard about such things from others, I was surprised indeed at the answers I received – at least from some people. Anna, I knew, most likely had a very good idea as to what I was trying to do, as she'd ridden on such a thing in boggy depths of snow.

“How will this lead-sled be done so quickly?” asked Paul.

“About three hours work in the boatwrights' shop, and then rub the thing once with drying oil, least for now,” I said. “Bottom and outer sides get rubbed with warm beeswax so it slides easy on that mess, and it gets hooked to a team on solid ground by a long rope. You put several ingots onto it, then pull them with the horses onto the solid ground, do that twice, three times, and that buggy's full and it needs to go to the house. Then you get more lead for the next buggy, then the next, and you put grain to your team after all the buggies are loaded, that and water, and let them graze for the times between, that and rest.”

Pause, then, “the house proper is probably the safest place that's reasonably close to store lead in quantity right now, and I suspect we can, uh, cast it in smaller ingots while alloying it with tin and a bit of those hardening metals, and sell them at the house's cost for the fuel and other supplies, plus one guilder an ingot for our time and trouble.”

I paused here. I wondered, genuinely, if that idea was a decent one. Money was going to be tight for a while in general, even with all of those coaches raining the stuff. They tended to break windows then – and from what I had heard, those were expensive. I then thought to ask about it.

“That sound about right? I asked. “Those big ingots are troublesome things unless you got a lead-pot too big to use readily and you build a fire up under it big enough to light your house on fire. Then heft of those things! They're heavy enough to tear your innards out, or if you got bad knees, it's time for the Komaet and a lot of spewing!”

“I may have two of those plastic jugs of that nasty stuff packed,” whispered Sarah, “but... What is that ahead?”

“Another of those stinking lead bricks, only we can't take it with us,” I said. “That water hole is just up ahead, but where it's lying, we'll either need to move it off into the ditch or move around it.”

While the horses were being watered and 'grained' – I lent my hoof-pick to Willem, and he was speaking of tossing some money at Georg to get it copied; that meant a small batch of them, realistically, or if possible, dies to forge them readily – I found more and more of these 'stinking lead bricks'. It soon got so bad for these weighty leaden obstacles that I was shoving them off to the margins of the road, and as I continued shoving them, I heard soft steps behind me, as well as the rapid working of a writing dowel upon the pages of a ledger. By the sound alone, I knew it was Sarah.

“I'm marking down all of this, as this road will permit gathering this stuff quickly once we arrive,” said Sarah. “The house can use all the lead it can get, and not just for bullets. It will wish new piping.”

“Lead pipes? I asked.

“No, but if one wishes privies to work well, one must use iron pipe of good quality, and caulk the joints in such pipe with hot pounded lead – and every such pipe in the house needs redoing,” said Sarah, “or I have just ridden a mule with full odor.”

I sniffed Sarah's hair, then said, “no, you do not smell like a mule, but something a good deal nicer. You smell like a very pretty flower, actually, and I like that smell greatly. I hope I can get that scent, or something very like it, as you could use it when you're really tired, and Anna needs to wear it a lot.”

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“Uh, a prime tenet of 'feminine allure' is smelling really good,” I said. “Yes, I know it sounds silly, but I like nice smells, and I doubt I am the only one.” Pause, then, “your cousin could really use it. She'd have a lot less difficulties that way.”

“She's not overly fond of scent,” said Sarah, “but she might well try it if it does that.” Pause, then, “you'll need to move this lead aside, and I'm marking it on a tracing of my map of this area, so as to tell Hendrik where he can find stacks of lead and get it to the house proper.”

For the next half mile, I moved at a steady pace, moving lead to the right side of the ditch by shoving the hefty 'bricks' with my boots, then as the horses caught up with me, Sarah took up a position in the lead buggy and frantically made notes. I had the impression that she was marking down every single eighty to hundred pound ingot of lead. I was thinking why Hendrik wished a stack of the stuff, beyond the obvious reasons I had heard. I then knew more.

Hendrik was planning on fighting a major war, this on multiple fronts, and there was no such thing as having an excess of supplies then.

There were a vast number of such bricks, however, and when I retook my seat upon Jaak, I mentioned looking in and around the surrounding area so as to recover as many bricks as possible – this between gritted teeth, as I had overexerted myself, and my legs – and especially my knees – hurt. More, I mentioned that due to the nature of the road and the need for hurry, even if light buggies were used, like those two used for the tip down south, that their loads would need to be modest. Finally, as a test of their new training, every guard who had just been taught about weapons was to come out with the first batch of buggies, and was to guard the lead until it had been gathered and transported to the house, these people working in groups of three or four and walking the area steadily.

“Why would they do that?” asked Anna, as I hung back so as to speak quietly.

“Anyone who's going to steal that which has been declared crown property is, by definition, a thief of said property – and that type of thief might as well be a witch, and more, a traitor, because their selfish greed will result in our losing the war and this planet becoming the food of Brimstone. Got it?”

Anna gulped, then nodded.

“You and some others will help me tell those guards and the others we teach today so as to make certain, certain twice over, that this is so far beyond war to the knife that the only rules we fight by are those of the book!” I spat. “Recall what was written about Sodom and Gomorrah? Blown off the map! No survivors! The city Lot left, and how they were told to move their rears out of that witch-hole before the place was blown to hell, and Lot's wife looked back at her beloved home and was sent to hell on the spot, with a reminder to fools left behind, that being a pillar of salt? Jozua, and those who lived in the land they were given as an inheritance, and how they failed time and again and were punished for their multiple failures? Three times the area for curses for failure to obey as compared to blessings for obedience near the end of 'Second Law'?”

I had to pause for breath, then surprisingly, I spat by the side of the road before resuming my half-whispered speech. I seldom spat, hence it 'really meant something' if I did so. “No, I am not going to be a half-baked, half-hearted fool that sups with Brimstone because he's failed the Sovereign Lord, and the weight hangs heavier upon me than anyone else who lives upon this planet!”

My quiet tirade seemed to put 'the steel in the backbones' of everyone, and from that point on, unless it was a waypoint where the animals were to be fed and watered, I remained in front, primed for mayhem, ready to kill anyone who stood in my way, my attitude at once vicious beyond comprehension and my resolve as hard as a granite mountain. Give me trouble: you die, no matter who you are.

The instant I thought this, I felt a presence to my right and front, and without thinking, I snap-shot at the movement. Three rapid-fire shots, and a dire scream erupted that finished in a billowing ball of fire, the flames outlining the bodies of a trio of witches. I aimed once more, this time carefully, and with methodical precision, I centered each man's head as the witches thrashed feebly in the flames.

Never mind the heat, nor the smoke. I wanted those stinkers dead, and I'd changed magazines from all-purpose bullets to 'high-energy hollow points' to make absolutely certain those witches would not survive.

“No, no Krokus for them,” I muttered, as I made my rifle safe amid the still-blazing sooty clouds of the burning witches. “Nowhere to put it now.”

“No need to, either,” said the soft voice. “A destroyed head works fully as well as decapitation, as a witch who's head has just exploded cannot speak his last words – and those badly charred forerunners will not be able to report back to their masters as where all their lead has gone to.”

“And my claiming it for the crown?”

“Fully within your rights as the king's chief guard,” said the soft voice, “and you might as well have read Hendrik's thoughts upon the matter in doing so. He will do just as you suggested, and every buggy able to be used will be used to convey this lead to the house proper – and yes, there will be lead-sleds made. The house is going to be very busy collecting up that lead for the next few days – and yes, there will be guards put upon it until every brick that can be found is found.”

“No, not forth kingdom hours,” I said softly. “Deep-slave hours. We do not have weeks to do this, but a handful of days, as the witches are working without cease, or as close to it as they can manage.” Pause. “Any laggards, anyone who complains – shoot them on the spot, spike the head with a mouthful of Krokus, and cut up the rest of the body and bag it with the label of traitor and witch. Do that no matter who says otherwise or who the person is who complains. Then they will realize that we are indeed at war.”

“Good that I wrote what you said down,” said a voice that came from behind me, soft, yet filled with a steely resolve: Sarah. “That is precisely what is needed, as these are desperate times – and that means desperation measures, and what you said is the very description of such things.” Pause, then, “and I know Hendrik and his visitor will back you as far as they can possibly manage.”

“Because of what I have been given to?” I asked

“No, because you see matters that most others miss, and what takes them weeks to think out takes you seconds – if not less yet,” said another voice. This one was that of Anna. “I know I am going to do my best to teach people today, and afterward, you're not the only one who will speak as to what we must do – I will be in there with you, and I will speak as I know and listen well otherwise.” Pause, then, “anyone who will doubt me? I will show them the scars I received not two days past at the hands of witches, and show them my missing toe, and tell that the witches are dead-serious about taking this kingdom and this planet, and they will make some of us slaves, and sacrifice the rest, like they did with poor Graćiella's husband!”

If I had put steel to the backs of the column, what Anna said dwarfed my contribution to that aspect, and more, it made me most glad she was along. There would be more than myself in that room teaching; in fact, the ratio of teachers to those taught would approach one instructor to perhaps two students, as Hendrik wasn't about to let untried people receive weapons of such 'rarity' and 'effectiveness'.

“And such danger,” I muttered. “You best toss your metal pears long, or get behind cover, or they'll turn you into pie-filling, and then you get too close to a coach when you shoot it up, and you'll get tossed but good – and then mortars? Awful? Ain't no word for those things!”

“You forgot the fire-breathers,” said the soft voice. “'Put people in privies in absolute droves with soiled underclothing', which you did going through the house on the way back from rescuing those two women – who will also be helping teach as they can and learning otherwise.”

“Is that what people are calling them?” I thought. “Machine guns? Fire-b-breathers?”

“More than a few have gotten onto that nickname, on account of what they do,” said the soft voice. “It is not the first time – that was a common name in that war long ago for what happened when a marked person got his or her hands on one with too big of a pill in it.”

“And then, of course, there's the broom,” I said, then pointing. “Over there. About forty feet in, near and around some smashed trees. Big mess of lead bricks, several sacks of gold coins – regular gold coins, not the witch-polished stuff – and some really important stuff otherwise...”

I wasted no more time: I slid of of Jaak, and ran into the forest, this dark as night yet lit up like daylight to my eyes. Machine pistol in hand in case Chucky decided he wanted my hide, I came up to the mound, and here, I found enough tracks to know the witches had gotten people onto the business almost as soon as it could be done. We'd already wasted twice too much time, and I motioned to at least one of the others, one with a lantern with 'light'.

“Either these were the survivors of that mess, a big mess of witches escaping just after, or that witch-message-system uses the best stinking clock-ticker on the continent,” I spat quietly as Esther came up holding a lantern with its shutters part-open, and Anna in her wake with a turned-down tent-lantern. Both were armed, thankfully. “See, this is exactly what I meant. We dare not waste a minute's time, and we need to gather...” Here, I paused, and began tossing aside lead bricks as if they were made of balsa wood. What I then found shocked and horrified me.

“All of that money,” gasped Anna. “That is enough to run the house proper in the second kingdom for a ten-year, and the one up here much longer.”

“Then we had best get someone onto it right away, the minute we get there,” I said. “We need to secure this...” I then closed my eyes, and said, softly, “let no witch recall or see this, yet let those of us who hate witches and love God see it as if it were a blazing sun in the darkness of night or the brightness of day.”

I stood back, and to my astonishment, the chest-tall mound did not just 'vanish': there was a faint shadow, seemingly, but then that vanished: and what replaced that shadow was a near-holographic representation, this of bluish light – a bluish storm of light, lightning caught in a net, a solid haze of blue in the precise shape of what I had spoken of, and more...

This small mountain now shot a storm of lightning bolts from it, some of these these nearly as thick as my arm and over ten feet in length, and these writhing ropes of fire whipped about as if madness made tangible and infused with a fury beyond imagining.

“Wh-what would happen if a w-witch came c-close to that pile?” I asked softly, as I backed away, wondering if I should take off my boots as I did so. The feeling I was getting was 'this is now holy ground, and here, you wear no shoes'. It made me know one matter: tomorrow, both I and Sarah would be carrying our boots in our hands, as we would have something happened beyond my comprehension. The rejoinder I had momentarily expected arrived as if it too were lightning, and came with the same suddenness as lightning here did, where it crackled across the whole of the sky and lit the place up as bright as an arc-welder the size of the Abbey as it would eventually become.

“Turn him instantly into charcoal briquettes, same as happened to Nadab and Abihu,” said the soft voice. “You just made that stuff crown property, and when you declared that other lead to be so, the same thing happened to it, only it isn't nearly as obvious.” Pause. “It will get where it will be safe, and it will be used to conduct warfare against the enemy the only way that it can be done with any real hope of winning.”

“And what I said about not delaying?”

“That is also part of a war against an enemy that plays by no rules save the one rule you're too familiar with,” said the soft voice. “Now back to the road, your horses, your buggies. Time waits for no one, and especially not for you-all.”

“Good,” said Sarah, her ledger in hand. “I wrote that on my map. I wrote down all you said, and more, all I heard, so when Hendrik sees it, he will indeed waste not a second's time in seeing it done, and he will see it done at gunpoint if he must.”

“As in that lead won't just need casting in smaller ingot-molds, of which there are some hidden near Annistæ's suite of rooms?” I asked. “It will need skimming, because witch-lead tends toward a lot of dross and other rubbish, as well as zinc and other stuff that doesn't belong in it – and then we need to put things in it, like some tin, and for hard-lead, that suitable for rifled weapons like mine and what I'm probably going to make for Paul when I get back, as well as stiff shot, yet more tin and that naturally-occurring mixture of hardening metals.”

“Why do they...” Sarah was aghast.

“Badly-run coal-fired smelters, with the work done hurriedly and carelessly, that done so as to secure maximum profit at the customer's expense,” I said. “That's a guess, by the way, but if I go by what I saw in the fifth kingdom house when I went out with Eliza to get the crude-gold we found on a mess of witches changed into silver coins, then it's at least a half-educated one.”

“That's as good an explanation as I've ever heard,” said Sarah. “Now we must hie ourselves, as I heard that part as clear as a good witch-horn.”

Sarah was right; and when the road began to lead away from our track once it had broken out of this incredibly long woodlot, I turned off of it and carefully led the way toward the house proper. At this distance, I did not bother with the compass, as I was both on ground that seemed and felt familiar – I knew this region by feel as much as by all other means – but also, I could clearly feel where the house proper was, not three miles distant as the quoll flew – flew like a blundering bird that could only fly in a straight line, and that because it could barely fly!

I had to avoid boggy spots the first mile or two, but once we reached the rise, I heard whispered comments about the horses pulling easier, and I straightened my track so as to arrive about two hundred yards west of the main gate.

This was not protocol. This was a needed precaution in times like these, where to approach by any other means meant only one thing: witches, witches bent on taking the house and killing everyone inside it; and had I my druthers, I'd have a tripod-mounted flak-gun on one of the gate-posts, complete with a composite gun-shield for the gun-team, and a sandbag-revetted machine-gun on the other.

“I'd do that precise thing, that and mount one of those 'flak guns' on the watchtower Hendrik is trying to figure out the plans for.”

“A wooden tower, or a good one?” I asked. “A wooden one would work passably while the good one went up, it being summer and all, but that good one's going to need a locally-based rolling mill and an ability to make good 'iron' in tonnage lots – and no one does that on the continent right now.” Pause, then, “ergo, we go to the people who have that equipment, but more, prefabricated bits of watchtowers that we can bring here and put together in days, and perhaps mount one of those flak guns on it – presuming, of course, they can spare a few of them for our use.”

“They will once the functionaries become scarce enough,” said the soft voice, “but that place is going to ring with gunfire worse than the west school ever has for about three days and nights with no letup.”

“Now, this lead,” I said. “Sarah? Anyone? Ideas?

“A house-subscription to fight a war,” said Sarah. “Hendrik has been thinking about one for some time.”

“Then?” I asked. “A guilder an ingot, this to cover our time, trouble, and our costs of preparation?”

“That... That's half the going rate, and that if one finds the cheapest lead at a second-hand store.”

“So the witches provided it for us at no expense,” I said, my voice laden with a sense I could not name save 'unusual'. “Our work in cleaning and recasting it does involve time, trouble, and cost, correct? – and that upon our part to make it fit for ready casting in the usual size of lead-pot? I'll probably be doing loads of those things when I get back from the trip, and I've got some ideas for how to do them better than I have before.”

“'Loads' is no word for those,” said the soft voice. “You'll want to do up those patterns from the parts the carpenters at the boatwright's shop do for you, as one, their wood is better than that to be had in town, and two, the ones in town are going to be very busy repairing that place for the entire time between now and Harvest Day.”

“If they keep that work to themselves, they will,” I said. “If they permit their spare saws to be sharpened, and they give the correct dimensional matters to Sarah, then they can fit doors in a tenth of the time, as about one person in five coming to Roos has at least some training in woodworking, and a few are sufficiently trained in matters of metal that they can... Oh ho! They're wanting to build a version of Frankie in that settlement!”

“Which is why that one man is going to come to see him run when he next 'howls',” said the soft voice. “He personally has no desire to run one that large, but he does wish to make those things they need to cook their food – that, and their current room for such a furnace is rather small.”

“Then I think we need to get those people set up to do metal,” I said. “Nice Generator. Boils water for steam-thrashing your clothing, good soap that they make that's better than Lavadora, so they run a laundry for people and clean up!”

“Good that you solved that problem,” said Sarah. “Now where shall we clean this lead – that former armory, as it has a good draft from all that steaming soap?”

“Yes, but we'll be hard pressed to do more than an ingot at a time, and I'd really like to do closer to ten of those things so as to get a more-uniform product. Perhaps talk to the masons?”

“Refinement of that lead can wait quite a bit longer than securing it and then stowing it at the house,” said the soft voice. “More, I would expect you to actually need to make much of the hardware were you to do it that way, and finally, those furnaces available overseas make that task trivial, safe, and give not merely pure lead, but also materials in the 'dross' that those people overseas want, and want badly. Hence two of those with a generator able to run them would be the best solution, and then ingot molds giving two and a half pound ingots – which you can make, and those in numbers.”

“Two and a h-half pounds?”

“That's about what most people manage at one time when casting bullets, unless they're casting for roers,” said the soft voice. “Those individuals might manage a bit more than the quantity spoken of, but two and half pounds is plenty of lead for most people. Then, if you make those ingots the right shape, they'll stack readily in compact fashion, and you want that done with all of that lead you claimed.”

“Scavengers?” I asked.

“Oh, they'll get some of that lead, but the kingdom house is going to get so much of that stuff that Hendrik will have a near-monopoly on it in the first kingdom – as what you said didn't just 'hit' that pile and those things you moved on the road – it hit every ingot of lead that flew out of those holes, and a lot of scavengers are questionable characters, so they'll get set alight if they go near one and don't see that bluish glow warning them off.”

“Now those furnaces will melt lead, and clean it up,” I said. “They won't smelt lead ore, correct?”

“I'd ask them that question,” said the soft voice. “They do have means of processing that dross readily, but those huge things used for smelting ore have been out of commission so long that you may well need to solve that particular problem yourself in the months to come.”

However, something was awaiting us, even though we were within perhaps a mile of the house. I could feel it coming, and with my hands, I indicated we needed to ride line abreast. I went to Esther's buggy, and asked for a magazine of that 'hot red tracer', which I inserted into the magazine well of my rifle. I then bade everyone to halt.

“Now we wait,” I whispered. “Someone's coming. Can't you hear it?”

Faintly creaking wheels were suddenly eclipsed by the whip-crack of a coachman, then a drunken curse in Underworld German swore at the slow speed of the vehicle as it went along a narrow road but a few hundred yards away. No explanations as to why were given, for they would not be heard; and the coachman, a new-minted witch himself trashed out of his mind on drink and drugs, glowed red as a fetish as I saw his face.

He did not see mine, however, as I aimed low and to the rear of the door hinge. By hand-signals, I indicated 'fire when I do'. I was glad they were understood passably.

I fired at that particular spot, and while the screams that resulted were high-pitched and raving, the brilliant red flames that abruptly erupted were only exceeded by the absolute hailstorm of rifle fire that erupted from several rifles firing rapidly I aimed at the coachman, but someone else blew off his head before I could get him, while the mules were receiving numerous body-hits so as to achieve a 'mobility kill'. I then fired at the coachman's box-seat – and the whole mess, mules, coach, and all, detonated with a yellow-tinted flash and roar so huge that the eerie whistling chorus I heard was a matter I but an instant later recognized.

“Down,” I yelled, “and get under the buggies!”

My screech was obeyed with alacrity, for the money began to fall like rain.

A hard rain, vicious, virulent, thundering; that coach had had to have to have more money than dynamite in it, and its brazen behavior only made sense in, 'they will not be expecting us to do this here at this time, hence this is the best time to get out of the realm of chiefest danger and into one where the danger is less – and then take ship south from the second kingdom port into another where such as I will have a suitable abode'.

The coach was now little more than a flaming wreck, its mules burning as if less stinky versions of pigs, while all about us, the grass, lush, pile-like, now lay absolutely covered with money. With alacrity, everyone was out with a bag save me, my job being to provide security; and not thirty seconds passed when a clinking cloth bag went into one or the other buggy.

“Almost want that stuff to gather itself into mounds for easy cleanup,” I thought – though the result of such thinking was awe-inspiring.

“Praise be to God,” said Anna. “It's piling itself up, each pile fit for one of these sacks, and we can walk the rest of the way, as it's only a mile's distance and fifteen minutes for time, and it's just starting to lighten in the west a little bit.”

“Lanterns?” I asked.

“I have two tent-lanterns going, and both part-shuttered catalytic ones,” said Sarah “Most of the money is piled up, but some is still scattered.

“All of it, or leave some for the poor?” I asked. “All the stuff needs recoining regardless, it all needs cleaning up, and then we can issue the stuff 'from each according to his ability – his best ability – and to each according to his need'.” Pause, then, “it will definitely be a year of jubilee, so far as debts are concerned – and that is out of the book.”

“Good that you learned so quickly what those where you are going took years to learn,” said the soft voice. “Hence that scattered money has now found its mounds.”

“Why is it we pick up this greasy money?” said Graćiella. “I must use rags, as it has fat of Puerc upon it.”

“Witch-money,” said Anna. “It needs wooden tongs to handle. Here's my spare pair. Bag it up, tie the bags securely, then put them in the buggy. Most of us will need to walk the rest of the way, so we'll be glad of these vests and that special underclothing.” Pause, then, “I don't want to wear nothing else any more.”

“It's close to what I had, chiefly less silky-feeling,” I said. “Otherwise, I'll bet it's better.”

“They'll correct that aspect in the stuff you go home with, because that's merely a matter of a slight change in the mix of fibers they use to make it. It will really feel good then, and the same for vests. They'll be able to fit Sarah properly there, and then make her a woman's vest and clothing.”

“The clothing is different from that of the men?” asked Graćiella.

“It is, but the chief difference is how it is cut, not how it looks,” said the soft voice. “It covers nearly the entire body and has a hood that one can put up, but it is not burn-clothing for movement or appearance, and it cleans readily – as in tread it out in a shower using the soap that comes out when it comes during the 'soap' portion, then stamp the soap out of it, hang it up to dry, and it's wearable within two days if it's cold or one if its warm.” Pause, then, “it is quite warm to wear, however, which is why nearly everyone you see on a submarine will be wearing it.”

“Stinking cursed coins,” spat Anna, as she used tongs. “Some of these things are about ready to glow red like fetishes, they've been polished by witch-jewelers so much, and then it's not worth what it should be because it has lead and gray-metal in it, so it can be cast readily by witch-jewelers.”

“Lowers the melting point and makes the fluid-to-solid range a lot wider – oh, and those additions increase the fluidity,” I said. “Those furnaces will separate that right out.”

“Most of it, anyway, but they're not happening right away, so old-fashioned fire-refining is what can be done for the time being.” Pause, then, “Annistæ has been planning with Andreas so as increase his ability that way, as well as set up a temporary furnace where she is located.”

“And those new furnaces will do that, once they're properly tuned,” I said. “Faster, safer, and a better result.” Pause, then, “but none for a while, so we do what we can now.” Another pause, then, “the new furnace that Annistæ has planned?”

“Will do hundred of kilograms at a time, and do a better job than anything Andreas can think of.” said the soft voice. “More, they will need ingot molds, special strange ones shaped like trees.”

“The anodes for electrolysis,” I said, as I walked around and saw the last of the coins being collected up and bagged. I saw at least eight such bags in Hans' buggy, and as I watched, Anna heaved in another.

“Stinking bags weigh twenty pounds, and about half of them gold pieces,” she said.

“That will be reckoned as trivial when you are processing weight at the Abbey,” said the soft voice. “Such as what Annistae will manage on a pilot scale will be a full-scale requisite, which is where you will have many such furnaces pouring into permanent molds, then thousands of barrel-sized electrolysis tanks, and finally, crucible furnaces able to melt and mix five hundred kilograms a time – and cast their contents into extruded strip-metal that goes straight to the rolling mill while it's still hot – where the coins get blanked and stamped at the same time, and the strip-scrap goes back to the crucibles.”

That is much weight,” said Misaheél, as he heaved up a bag with a practiced matter. It made me wonder about him and satchel charges. “I have taught some matters of foundry work, but not so much.”

“Welcome to the club, then,” I said. “I am still learning. You teach wood-carving? Patterns?”

“Some, but I am willing to learn,” he said, “and a hard worker.” He was doing a quick scan of the area, bag in hand, and he'd found a few coins that needed collecting up. That done, he went to help Paul, then Willem.

“ Déo Grecæ,” I said. “Those carpenters in Roos are going to be almost too busy to make patterns, they've got so much to do, and any more, many of my patterns will be smaller ones – and they cannot help me much with those.”

“Not after today they will say they have no time for you,” said the soft voice. “Anna will personally read them the 'Act of Desperation' signed by Hendrik his-own-self, which means you have first call upon all their services. If you need it, and they can make it, then that work is to have the ultimate priority over all else they might do, regardless of cost, pay, or profit.”

“And I need to work on a reciprocating saw, as they've got to make good boards quickly,” I said. “Lot of foundry work there.”

“And good practice, also,” said the soft voice. “You need to have lots of practice with those tools at the Abbey, as once you get used to using those, you'll have those sextants done in a few weeks instead of months like you thought it would take.”

“How?” I asked.

“First, many of the parts you need you can order overseas once you liberate the place, like various-sized corrosion-proof fasteners, ultra-precision ball bearings in various sizes, synthetic lubricants, seals of various kinds, and much else you will need. Then, there are a number of alloy-steel heat-treated corrosion-resistant forgings – send in the drawing, it comes ready to use on the next boat. Plating – they'll be able to do it, as well as make a lot of those machines at the Abbey run right so you can run several of them at once while making parts for those sextants and the other things you'll need to make.”

“CNC machines,” I said, recalling the screen I had seen.

“No, not like you recall, but much easier to use and far more precise. It's nice to make just one part and have the machine duplicate it exactly. Comes in handy when you want to make pistons, or piston rings, or connecting rods that are machined all over for maximum strength for minimum weight – then low-temperature carbon impregnate them in those heat-treating ovens and green-plate the bearing surfaces to give a finished hard surface for the needle bearings on the crank-pins and wrist-pins for your air-engines.”

“Just like Annistæ will wish to have for her laboratory,” I said. “Triple expansion, geared down, lots of torque, and near silent when running.”

“That particular design, scaled up a trifle, will work well to drive ships, given boilers of sufficient size,” said the soft voice. “It too will need gearing, but they have equipment for that at the Abbey, and some of the people coming will know how to use those machines – and then, they can teach you their tricks, which you need to know before tackling that set of instruments. Hence you'll spend a lot more time drawing and simulating that sextant than you will actually spend building it, and then you won't scrap a lot of parts, as then you will know what you are doing.”

“An iron casting the size of a smaller engine block?” I gasped.

“No, not like that,” said the soft voice. “The crankcase is a casting, the same for the bed-plate and lower crankcase cover, then the individual cylinders which bolt to it are individual castings, and then the valve gear running in the separate head-castings, which bolt to the top of the cylinders. Very simple engine, little to go wrong with it, simple maintenance with steam, and simpler yet when running air.”

Simpler yet?” I asked.

“Look at the lubricant 'gage' mounted on the oil tank, and add lubricant if it's not 'full'. Crack the throttle valve, let the engine free up without load, then turn off the valve, engage the clutch to the gearbox, and then throttle up to the desired power output as indicated on the control panel. Check the engine and refining pots every so often, then shut the engine down at the end of the day, remove the anodes and cathodes from each pot, and have both of them remelted and cast while filtering out the 'mud' from the electrolyte and pack that up for sending overseas. They can really use that stuff, as catalyst metals are in short supply there and that 'mud' will have its share of them.”

“Glad I brought that glass-blower's wire, then, as well as every spare lantern coil and all of the lantern wire I have drawn.” Pause, then, “they won't use that stuff for vacuum tubes, will they?”

“Not entirely, but the alloy that is specified in those books has a significant amount of platinum, as well as wolfram and some other trace metals, including thorium.” Pause. “You'll get tough filaments with very high emission for a given amount of current, which is why one of those pentode tubes is a good deal larger than the others and uses a finned graphite plate – as well as a turned copper anode cap and a wider and thicker filament ribbon.”

“What?” I asked.

“Works well into the UHF frequencies you're familiar with, seventy watts intermittent plate dissipation, good for up to twelve-hundred regular units of 'pressure' and three smaller hundred units of 'flow'. Figure it's roughly as strong as a 4-65A transmitting tube, save a higher current at lower voltage.” Pause, then, “It will work especially well for audio – nice tone, if you set it up right, and you can run it at eleven for hours without it giving up on you.”

“N-nice tone?” I asked.

“Especially when pushed into distortion,” said the soft voice. “They'll improve those for audio use, of course, especially when they read your mind – but they do have to start somewhere, and they'll really work on those.” Pause. “They will learn what 'the man' liked to use, and more, what those amplifiers looked like a lot better and a lot about their their circuitry configuration.”

Marshals,” I muttered. “Plexi Marshals, Celestion speakers, EL34 tubes – no, what I had wasn't a Plexi, nor was it a Marshal, but I did have a pair of those speakers in a closed-back cabinet, and that amp used a pair of those tubes, and my friend commented upon it having a nice 'growl'.” Pause, then, “anything above 'two' with that thing had the neighbors complaining, so I had sort of a 'baby stack' for amplification when I got fed up with stuff that didn't sound good.”

Wait until tomorrow,” said the soft voice, quoting from 'the man' for some reason – this not being a literal tomorrow, or so I guessed. “Wait until you get that thing going, and then you will learn about growl.” Pause, then, “several hundred watts of growl, no less, and a full stack of eight speakers that are both far more capable than those you used and a lot more efficient.”

It was now 'the last mile', and even the drivers of the buggies were leading their animals by leads. But one person sat in each buggy, this person usually someone small and light – and this person usually helped spot bad-places before the buggy in question had gotten mired. With three hundred pounds or more of goods added beyond what we had left the house with, each vehicle's springs were 'sacked', and I resolved to make new buggy springs for both the medical buggy, but also Paul's – though for some odd reason, I wanted to stretch his buggy to nearly the length of Georg's.

I wanted to build it so that the box ran 'low' and do the wooden portions to near-medical buggy standards, put crosswise bracing – and then line the thing with three to five layers of fiberglass alternating with layers of lightweight armor cloth. Finally, I wanted to put a hoop on his buggy, one with four spreading-down portions, such that it perched above the front end of the box – and mounted there, a machine gun, with a belt-bag handy and two more in a hanging bag from the gun's mounting plate.

The house slowly hove into sight, as those of us who walked slowly had to hurry to keep up with our teams now that they were on firm ground and seeing an end to their difficult toil; and as we walked up the road to the house proper, I saw at least one guard with a 'new' weapon, while slung on the shoulder of the other was one of those reworked muskets, while in his hand, barrels pointed 'up' at a forty-five degree angle, was a fowling piece.

I suspected he had at least three pellets of that shiny-looking stiff shot that came from our four-cavity mould in with some other more-common shot – and that per barrel.

Were his barrels up to the business, I'd dump in a 'load' of 'green' five millimeter stuff atop a suitable charge of my powder and call it good. That load would work well out to fifty feet easily on most thugs, unless my overworked memory was faulty – but I knew it would work very well when my shotgun started singing its peculiar song”

“Say hello to my not-so-little-friend, Señor Rat. He does not like you trying to cause trouble.”

However, as we went through the gate – the men and women walking with the buggies were with me, hence we were waved through – I mentioned a small device that might prove useful for our newly arrived guests.

“That cart you had, how big was it?” I asked.

About this for wide,” said Graćiella, indicating about two feet, “and about this for long,” indicating three feet, or perhaps a bit more. It reminded me of a bicycle trailer I had once built, a most useful device for when the car was not needed or was being worked on. It received a lot of use, especially once the 'clamp-on' motor was perched above the rear tire to give a 'slow' but utterly steady pace for traveling. I could haul over a hundred pounds when I had 'trailer' gearing in use – granted, ten miles an hour, or perhaps a bit more – and easily cruise at my top flat-ground speed while pedaling when on its other set of gears. Changing over was perhaps a matter of a minute or two, given a handy coin in one's pocket.

“How tall were its sides, and did it have a rear gate?” I asked.

She indicated a foot tall, then spoke of a knotted rope 'mess' that one tied in place in lieu of a gate.

“Sounds simple enough,” I said. “I can draw you up something like that easily, only yours is going to be sprung, have a lightweight axle, and sleeved wheels if I can get them, or better yet, donkey sleeves. Then you could carry three bricks of that lead easily behind your donkey, or other things as needed.”

“Yes, but there would be little need for such metal,” said Misaheél. “It is all claimed for the king.”

“Mostly, yes,” I said. “One or two bricks – given that we produce essential ammunition for the house using that metal – I think we're covered.”

“What of the donkey and bags?” asked Graćiella.

“If you should do that,” said Sarah, as she unharnessed the horses to Hans and Anna's rig and I leaped off of Jaak who immediately ran off for the barn as I spread his blanket out to dry, “then such bricks must be the smaller ones, as that donkey is a common one, not a larger one.” Pause, then, “someone my size would injure him were I to ride any distance, and I was a bit much for that size of donkey when I was in school. That is why I rode a larger one when I needed to go distances using such an animal during my trips.”

Sarah then looked at me, even as I was going over the hooves of the animals with my hoof-pick. They now seemed to know that I was doing this out of concern for their wellbeing, and I sent a picture of a very sore horse, one gone altogether lame due to a lodged stone, and how I did not wish that to happen.

To my utter astonishment, each horse in turn offered up his or her hoof to be looked over with care when I came to them upon my knees, and when I pried out deeply lodged stones with the hoof-pick, I could sense a deep feeling of relief.

“No, you aren't going to kick me,” I thought. “Why kick someone who is relieving your suffering, and cares for you as much as I do?”

It did make sense, and animals, at least, did understand such matters, especially when you were gentle with them. Finally, I had all four animals done, and suddenly Jake showed. I methodically went over all of his hooves, then vigorously rubbed his back with both hands. He needed that badly.

“I wondered when you-all would get here,” said Deborah's voice from the door of the house. “Everyone is still asleep in there, and I have a mind to fetch a bad witch-horn and blow 'turn out'.”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “They'll wake up quickly enough.” Pause, then, “what I wouldn't give for some real Harvest Hay squibs about now.”

I reached into one of my trouser's 'cargo pockets' and produced three of those infernal green cans with the red writing on them. These 'training aides' were filled with 'Explosive 'A-1B', and based on what I was told, this material, while powerful enough, wasn't in the same class compared to cyclohexanite. I handed one to Deborah, who looked at it with consuming interest. She said, “what can I do with this?” It won't wreck the place, will it?”

“I was told a version of that stuff was about half as strong as cyclohexanite,” I said. “I suspect that one would be equivalent to a potent Harvest Day squib. Put it on an old stool that's about fit for the stove in the middle of the main floor, pull the pin and then take cover. It will wake everyone up.” Deborah vanished as if smoke, and as we went into the building itself, a long, snaking column, the folding metal trailer laden with ordnance and towed by Anna, a thundering roar, one nearly as bad as having that mortar go off 'danger close', seemed to make the entire house shake to its foundations.

Deborah had not blown a 'a bad witch-horn': she had 'blown' a call to arms. As the echoing roar died away, a voice – high-pitched, the shrill scream of an opera-trained soprano urging her voice to its utmost – came clear and cutting through the smoke and haze left by the flaming fragments of the destroyed stool and the device itself:

“Turn out, you lazy lugs! There's work to be done, and swine and witches to kill!”

“Sounds really bloodthirsty, doesn't she?” I mumbled.

“Not the half of you,” said someone from somewhere back in the column. “I've heard you speak on such matters recently, and hearing you talk that way made me want to hide.”

However, as we walked into a quickly awakening house – people were coming out of doors like the place was on fire, which the smoke of the smoldering wreckage of a fit-for-the-stove chair along with the sooty smoke made by the device made altogether plausible-seeming – the sights of us present almost sent people back to their beds.

Save Deborah was not inclined that way, and somehow, she'd acquired a 'waster' flail-piece of the longer type, and was now moving with such rapidity that the name of 'Mad Bee' now grew a potency and meaning unlike anything I had seen before, as this woman...

Crazy? You bet your life! If you weren't moving fast enough to suit her, she'd raise a dozen sizable lumps on your body before you could think enough to count to one! More, she could seemingly go after nearly thirty people at once, so fast did she move, and when she swung at one particularly recalcitrant individual, the blow to the back of the head sent him flying to slide nearly to my feet.

I turned, eyes cold as stone and with but one thought in my head, drew my suppressed pistol, worked the slide – and calmly shot him in the back of the head, then turned him over and ripped open his clothing with my bare hands when I knelt down. His cloth tore like damp newsprint, it was so badly done, and his old-sweat stench ripe, potent, and indicative of heavy drug-use.

He was already being ridden hard by that eight-hundred pound monkey.

“Well, well,” I muttered. “Got witches in here again already. Here's one who just got himself inked with the owning tattoo, which means he's made his bones within the last two days.”

“Not quite, though he was planning on doing that very soon. More, he's a second kingdom import sent to spy on this place.”

“Good that he is dead, then,” said Anna – who then raised her voice to a scream. “Come on, you wretches! Hoof it! Get this witch undressed and bury him face-down in that manure-pile NOW! Put some Krokus in his mouth to make sure he stays dead, and chop off his head with an ax and bury it some distance away so he'll never speak to another witch again! Move it! NOW!”

While Anna's voice was a bit deeper than Deborah's, nor was it of operatic quality, her voice had a raw and hard edge that cut like a well-honed razor, and I purposed in my heart to have her try using Sarah's sword to see just how she liked it.

Failing that, I could see a kukhri in her future – a shorter one, yet still capable as any other sword I made or would make. I would still make those as I had time, I knew – for close-quarter fighting masses of poorly-armed blue-suited thugs, it was definitely a case of 'sword beats club, and machine gun beats both of those things' – but swords didn't need reloading, and they didn't run out of ammunition.

And, finally, there was the matter of terror. Terror ran witches, and raw violence got through to them worse than anything, especially if it was turned against them on a scale beyond their capacity to conceive – and swords, especially wielded by bold, resolute, and capable people, did precisely that.

I was good at doing that. Kill them all – that was what I usually did, or at least, what I tried to do.

I then heard Anna speaking with our new arrivals, this about more mundane matters. What the bomb had started, and Deborah had continued, Anna's voice had finally 'busted things', as she would come with a spoon if that was what it took; and Anna using a spoon was not a joke, as was all too known in the house proper.

Only Hendrik using a machine-pistol, or me running amok with a sword, could be worse than Anna when she was using a spoon, and the gunshot and the body I left lying showing the new-cut goat-head tattoo of a witch galvanized people like nothing that morning had before. They paused to look at the body, then at the people walking toward the refectory, there to get food and drink, and then, they knew.

It was, indeed, time to wake up. This was no longer the first kingdom.

It was the house of war, that place that lived to kill, and it labored without ceasing save for needed rest so as to kill more of the enemy – whoever and wherever that enemy might happen to be.

“My middle name means war, people,” I shouted as we were about to go into the refectory. “Got it? That name is Michael, and I've got documentation to prove it. Want to see the back of the last of the pendants – and then die on the spot by the judgment of God? You don't, do you? Then move your sorry behinds like they're on fire, or that is just what will happen, you pack of lazy witch-slaves!”

The result of this utterance was almost beyond my capacity to believe: every door was blown clear of its hinges to turn to kindling upon the floor, black soot shot out of every doorway, people went flying as if dynamite had tossed them to then slide amid the soot and wreckage covering the stones of the floor, and their goods and chattels followed after to disintegrate atop and among them.

More than a few were cut and banged up by such flying debris, and my voice rose to a roar, this like that of a lion hungry for meat. “Five minutes by the clock, fools! Clean that dung up, bag it fit for proper disposal – you know what that means, fools: it's going elsewhere for paper if it's wood or things like it, and the rest goes in the manure-pile – and then report for your inspection, lined up shoulder to shoulder, fully dressed in clean clothing, and ready for work. I'll be out to do that inspection shortly, and my sword thirsts for your blood, damn your sleep-filled eyes! Sleep? You need Sleep? Fully-owned witch-slaves need no such thing, as their master in hell neither sleeps nor rests!”

Pause, then, “you want to see that lizard's face? I did, close up and for real, and I sliced on him good!”

The kitchen people were at least awake and well under way, as was their wont, or so I thought until Anna went among them and found that they were already working 'fourth kingdom hours, and not the usual for such hours, but when the markets are full of business'. I then asked her what that meant.

“They start about the time we left home,” said Anna, “and they went later than we did last night. I've only seen one person work like that consistently, and that would be you.”

“Then I guess I need some company,” I said, as a slender girl showed, her shoulder-length brown hair now clean, soft, and flowing, and in a clear voice, this a trifle higher-pitched than Sarah, she asked politely for a jug of beer. Her clothing reminded me more than a little of Sarah's latest, save with larger pockets in front, and its bottom hem around the knees. One of the pockets, however, held that one waster flail-piece, and I suspected more than a little she had at least one well-concealed knife.

I wondered more than a little if she was inclined toward a sword, given that she was so used to blades. With her in the area, the average 'Spam', no matter how good his tin might be, was due to get 'cooked' in very short order.

“Annistæ needs beer to wake up, as we both had a very long night,” she said. It was obviously Deborah. “We tried out what they have for bathing up there, and it works a lot better than anything I've used in a rat's age – and we gave it some workout yesterday, we got so filthy. She said we both looked like 'Ese Puerc' after what we did then, and...” Here, she turned to see our party taking up a trio of new tables. “Good that you found that witch. I knew one had snuck in here, but he was a tricky wretch, and...”

“You thumped him when he'd finally made up his mind, so you did find him, and I shot him in the back of the head with the slow stuff, so he should be dead about now – Krokus in the mouth, the head on one side of the manure pile, the naked headless body on the other, and both well-covered with manure.” Pause, then, “is that dunghill smoking yet?”

“Some, yes, as we put our share of rats in it yesterday,” said Deborah. “She taught me how to use a machine pistol, and I once tried the frightening setting when a big rat showed. It may have gotten to that rat good and proper, but it put me in the privy afterward. I kept on shooting regardless until I knew that rat was dead, and she said I did well for a first time.”

“Big rat?” I asked.

“White for shape, if not color, and as long as my leg for its body,” said Deborah. “It kept coming, but I was putting holes in and on its head, and I shot out both of its eyes by the time I'd used up that magazine and I went for my knives.”

“You used a full magazine?” I gasped. I then sensed someone interesting was coming, someone unlike anyone I had yet seen.

“N-no, but I wished I had had one for that thing,” said Deborah. “I learned then that whenever you use part of a magazine, you replace it with a full one as soon as possible, and Annistæ said it was very wise to do so, especially as she saw you do that many times when you came to get us out of that witch-hole that looked like a commonplace town when I first saw it months ago.”

“And then, from your bag of ammunition, the one you keep your loaded rounds in, you replenish your partly full magazines – full minus three for a long one unless you're in the middle of a fight. Correct?”

Cé”, said Annistæ – who I then saw for the first time. I had read her figure well, as well as her hair color; but she was nowhere nearly as disfigured as I had expected her to be. She actually looked quite similar to 'Anna with brown hair' – a trifle thinner perhaps, and perhaps a trifle taller – and more, her clothing, that being a species of 'lab coat'. She then continued speaking, this to me and the others.

“You do that well. I am not used to such long nights, but it sounded like an attack of Cabroni when that bombé exploded, so I put on my things and got my weapon, and I came down to find them carrying a Cabroné outside, and one with an ax so as to take his head, and another with a small sack that smelled of what is to go in his mouth. Non?”

I nodded, then said, “she thumped him, he slid almost into my path, and I shot him in the head, then flipped him over and tore open his shirt to show his goat-head tattoo, the one used locally to tell other witches he's the property and minion of Brimstone.”

“And all of that bad wood?” asked Annistæ. I then saw one of her forearms. Not only were there scars there, but this lady had muscles. “It was being bagged up as if it were to go somewhere, and not into stoves.”

“Yes, to some people who need paper as badly as we need people who are totally committed to the cause. Now, another cup of beer, then I'm going to do an inspection – one with drawn sword, shouldered rifle, and a machine pistol in front so I can just point and shoot any more traitors we might have.” I then lapsed into 'dialect'. “Them boogers from the south are as tricky as they come, so we gonna have to turn this place into an old-time training camp, and I get to play Comândanté.”

“Ai, just as with the men of the Mule,” said Annistæ. “That is his name who leads their training and tells them what to do, and he walks their lines with his sword.” Pause, then “it is not like yours, but shorter.”

“Want to feel this one?” I asked, drawing the weapon as I stood up. I left my possible bag on the table to save my knees, then reached into it to get my 'dose'. I then handed Annistæ the weapon by the back of the blade.

She looked at it with a sense of awe, then tentatively, slowly, she moved with it. Her lab coat now made a lot more sense, as it was beginning to look like something one might well see in a Dojo, and as she moved, I saw some very loose-fitting trousers, as well as a long shirt, this with a common neckline, much as Sarah sometimes wore. Sarah stood up, drew hers, made sure she was clear of people or tables, then said, “watch what I do. This is a simpler drill, and I will do it slowly. Try to follow me as I move.”

Sarah then did her 'dance', the one that had her leaping, pirouetting, slicing, stabbing, fending off blows and then cutting on her adversary, only done slower than I had seen her do before. “Like that. That was done to show you how to use a sword.”

Surprisingly, Annistæ had kept up fairly well, her moves showing that she'd take to edged weapons like mine readily with but modest practice. I wondered how she would do in other matters, such as these flails Sarah had mentioned.

I wondered how I would do with those.

Sarah then resumed speaking. “Now this takes practice.”

Here, Sarah ran through the same routine, only this time, she did so at such a speed that it seemed as if I were seeing lightning move and strike at multiple points at once, so rapidly did she move, lunge, parry, and slash. The whole took perhaps a quick count of three from beginning to end, during which time Annistæ had laid my sword on the nearest good table.

“That was a simpler one,” she said. “I know ones that are far more complex, but if you want to learn to use blades, then he needs to teach you.” She pointed to me, then put her fingers to her mouth and loosed a piercing whistle as she carefully sheathed her sword. This was followed by a yell just a hair lower in pitch than Deborah's – and just as loud, but with a much harder edge to it. “Karl! Sepp! Gabriel! Move your hides, or I will air them out with a machine-pistol set on the scary setting!”

The first two men spoken of came at a run, their gear 'arrayed' passably – they were carrying it, which was a plus, even if they looked as if utterly new to the business – while the last continued at a yawning pace, his feet a slow shuffling, and occasionally, a moan. The second moan I heard, followed by a yawn, was enough for me to act. I'd already wiped down my sword and sheathed it.

I launched myself at the door, drawing my sword while in flight, then after 'bouncing' off of the far wall with my boots marking it at chest-height as I made the turn, I shot up the hallway to suddenly have the tip of the blade at Gabriel's throat, this done so rapidly that he made choking noises.

He also awoke instantly.

“Fear is the way to run fully-owned witch-slaves, and I am the master of terror,” I screamed. My voice, unlike Deborah's or Sarah's was neither operatic nor anything else of this world – it had a shrill howl, an unearthly roar, and a volume of such intensity that it made my ears ring worse than a mortar firing but three feet away. I backed away slightly, moved my sword up, then carefully sheathed it – and as it had when I had drawn it, it made that evil hissing noise.

That noise was now such that it made the hair rise on my arms, and if I knew better, my head. I moved aside to let Gabriel pass – and as he 'moved out', I kicked him so hard in the rump that he flew through the air like a missile to the doorway leading to the refectory – where someone grabbed him out of the air and hauled him bodily inside. There the shrill howl of Anna's spoon-thumping mode made itself known. I looked at an imaginable wrist-watch, and knew:

'Twas time.

Inspection time.

I walked out into the main room, my sword loosened slightly in its scabbard, and as I loaded my machine pistol and flicked the safety off, I could hear faintly the gulps of a multitude. This person wasn't Hendrik, who could be at times 'irritable' and 'prone to anger'.

This was someone so far beyond that that any witch among these people would name me Sieve before all other names; and that incarnate, just like they did with the worst monsters; but I was not one of those.

I was The Monster, that one spoken of specifically and at length in that black book, and while the sounds of Anna 'ripping up Gabriel's backside and making him eat uncooked what she tore off' faded, I came to the first person.

My hand, my left hand, had the suppressed pistol. I thought to chamber a round, and the slide worked full-stroke with alacrity. I flipped off the safety. I then drew my sword, long, slow, hissing like a snake that made the legendary Death Adder seem a feeble joke.

I now walked the line, turning toward each man and woman, and looking at them attentively. I wanted care, industry, and attention to detail, and while I kept my voice down, I did say, this smartly, “when you are lined up for inspection, you will 'Brace'. That means you will be as rigid as a column of masonry; you will have your hands rigid at your sides, thumbs facing outward, fists slightly clenched, silent as the grave save if I speak to you, and otherwise.... No, not just that. I want you all to synchronize your breathing, such that you act as if you are no longer individuals. No! No longer. Not in here.”

Pause.

“I want a machine, a machine that makes war, and I want a machine will do so unto the end of time itself! Do you understand?”

This was said in a tone at once chilled to the depths of liquid nitrogen, and so 'evil-sounding' that I wondered if I had turned witch. Suddenly, without conscious thought, I saw someone running, and I leaped backwards, stuffed the pistol into my left trouser's pocket, turned loose of my sword...

And fired a short burst with the machine pistol, holding it like a pistol with my left hand as I once more reached for my sword and grabbed it before it could fall to the floor.

The man tumbled, and lay still, moaning, rapidly leaving a pool of blood on the floor.

“Now will any of you ride money on that wretch not being a witch?” I spat as I sheathed my sword. “Stand still – rigid as a column of masonry. You are still at 'Brace', and I want you to work on becoming that machine – as that is precisely what we need to become. I am not playing tyrant here – we need to survive, people, and if I must kill half of you to save the other half – then, I will. Simple as that. I'll do whatever it takes because I must answer to God, and that pendant owns me as much or more than any slave was ever owned by a witch, even that one especial witch-owned slave named bhoy.”

I was glad I had put my sword in its sheath, for this time two men bolted, and I aimed, shooting both of them cleanly and piling their bodies one atop another.

“Four witches,” I spat, as I went to the first one and pulled him out to lay face up, then the second – and finally, the man I had 'dinged' with my burst. It was a marvel that he was still alive, as I'd drilled him in the upper part of the back no less than five times, my group small enough to cover with the palm of my hand. I flipped him over with my foot, and saw clearly the grimacing face of evil that lay behind the mask of pain he showed.

I slung my weapon, drew my sword – and decapitated him on the spot, which made more blood flow.

“Stinking hard-witch,” I said. “Now, those of you remaining alive. You know I can kill any of you if I think it wise, and Hendrik will back me to the hilt. I am going to resume my inspection, but four witches out of forty-three people is not looking good.” Pause, then, “I do not like people trying for my friends, and that wretch was going to kill Hendrik and the king of the fourth kingdom while they were trying to figure out just what needs to be done here and at the Abbey, and that older man has his hair standing on end right now.”

“How is it you know that?” asked Deborah as she came out. “Oh, more witches. Here is some beer and bread.”

I took those, ate and drank hungrily, then resumed my slow stalk, much as if I were looking for more 'weakened' ones among a line of traitors. This time, I had Deborah watching what I was doing, looking these people over as if to somehow learn how I knew which was a witch, and which was otherwise. As if to surprise me, several more people suddenly showed, smelly and sweating from having interred the first witch, and I went to them immediately, sword out, waving about as if it were scenting the blood of evildoers, then I asked them flatly, “that first witch I found?”

“Buried deep in the manure pile, his mouth stuffed with Krokus, his head buried deep on the east side, and his naked body deep on the west – and we found two more ink-markings, so he was indeed a witch.” They then saw the three bodies.

“That one without his head?” one of them asked.

“That one made his bones, and he's got a goat-head tattoo also,” I said. “He was the leader, far as I know, and he was to kill Hendrik, Maria, and the king from the fourth kingdom, and if possible, kill myself and Sarah tomorrow. The others I found so far...”

I paused, went through the column while elbowing and kicking people out of my way, drew the second of those 'weird green cans', pulled the pin with my teeth, kicked down a door – the thing crumpled into kindling and flew off of its shattered hinges to fly downrange like splinters driven by a hurricane – and threw the bomb down the darkened hall while ducking to the side to put the wall's solidity between myself and the coming blast. The thundering roar brought forth a chorus of screaming, and I rushed down the hall, machine pistol at the ready. A furtive figure emerged amid the darkness and I fired a short burst, downing him, then I turned the corner whence he had emerged and then sprayed the room with a longer burst, this one well over a second, the muzzle flashes showing bodies flying amid wood chips and rubbish flying in a hailstorm of screaming bullets as I advanced, spraying lead the whole while and kicking heads when and if they came within range of my boots. Changing magazines by feel as I backed out into the hall, I had the full one in as I cleared the doorway; and then as an afterthought, I threw the third training aide in that room, then turned and ran up the hallway.

I leaped to the side of the hallway just in time to tumble and roll, as the blood-spatter that sprayed out past me to splash those it reached, as well as body parts that clouted more than once person amid a billow of soot and a brief flash of flame, spoke of but one thing: more witches, and by the mess I saw and the tidal wave of gore now flowing out of the hallway, a lot more.

“Damned-to-hell witches,” I spat as I got to my feet. Deborah seemed in shock. “Stinkers were hiding in that closet, and now we get to clean house in here.

“Not now you do,” said the soft voice. “The four that came out first were the expendables, even if that one individual was groomed at long length as an assassin and his job was to kill everyone you spoke of, if at all possible.” Pause, then, “the reason he was deemed expendable was that firstly, assassination in this house has become a much-more-hazardous undertaking since that treason-plot was uncovered, and then it was believed that you would be on the premises – which meant that while he might kill one or both men, he was unlikely to live long after – if he even got the chance to kill them before you located and then killed him.”

Another pause, then, “the big boys – those you just butchered, all nine of them, which makes a total of thirteen – were all well-hid, put in place in the house months ago one and two at a time, and all imports from the second and fifth kingdoms.”

“Nine of those stinkers?” I asked incredulously. “How could I get nine of those thugs?”

“First, that one bomb stunned them thoroughly,” said the soft voice. “Not much for fragmentation with that type of device, but those devices do pack a decent wallop – about like two sticks of drippy mining dynamite, which is considered quite effectual by witches who use that stuff. That one man was going toward the door and he caught enough of the blast that he had dropped his fowling piece, so when you 'stitched' him, he dropped right there.” Pause, then, “you then did the standard tactic of a point-person in a heavy scout team – spray the room full-auto for a good second and a half while advancing into it, reloading as you egress, then toss in an offensive grenade to finish matters – and those like what you tossed were often used for that very purpose.”

“But aren't they just, uh, good for stunning people...?”

“Not in a room that's that small they aren't,” said the soft voice. “That closet had a lot of metal-reinforced shelves that were about due for paper-making, and when that bomb went off, those witches got a lot of wood pieces driven into them as well as got tossed thoroughly – and in some cases, thoroughly dismembered.”

“Here I come with a lantern,” said Sarah from behind me. “Lukas has those people standing up straight and he's keeping them that way. Now what did you find – witches hiding back here?”

“Seems so, dear,” I said. “Nine of them in there?”

“They must have been touching one another then, as that is a small room, and it has a lot of old shelves in it, many of which have badly-made iron portions and many large screws so as to give their heavy wooden pieces added strength. Why?”

“I was told they were all dead,” I said.

“Figure an eighteen round burst at a range measured in less than ten feet at the most, then one of those bombs in a room the size of the bathroom at home?” said the soft voice. “Those people weren't like that one you decapitated, but like the other three – and you got most of them good with that burst, with those bullets going through two and sometimes three of those stinkers.” Pause. “The bomb you tossed afterward just made sure they all died right away.”

“So, we get good lighting set up for the hallway and closet, and we set up a witch-removal detail, followed by floor-cleaning by those yet on the line while on hands and knees, this to be done with small brushes and buckets of soap and water,” I said.

Had we toothbrushes and well-used foul-smelling tobacco-filled spittoons – ones that would need lengthy cleaning before using, such that they shined like a mirror before I permitted their use – I would have demanded their use, but none were to be had at this time. Hence, I did the best I could with the available supplies.

“Two to hold our lanterns, and then we just have those standing in line in the main area troupe in here one at a time and grab 'something' and carry it outside the house, and either put it aside on the ground or put it near the manure pile – and we have the 'seasoned' guards keep these people moving at a good pace. Not a dead run, but not moving slow, either, as there's a lot of work in here and then more work at their usual jobs – and all of it's got to be done as well as they can possibly manage, done with due and appropriate diligence, and done from now until some hours past nightfall, or if possible, until sometime during the sixth posting.”

After midnight. Five AM to Nine PM would be a longed-for respite for these idiots. I then capped that one with an audible message.

“They can get by on three hours of sleep a night for a while at the least,” I spat. “I did it for years.”

I then heard steps, and turning, I saw not merely Hendrik, but also the king of the fourth kingdom. I was surprised when this second man spoke.

“No, not a treason plot, because those are usually more widespread and have more people to them,” he said. “Either those people are spies or assassins. How many?”

“So far?” I asked. “I've killed thirteen, though I had a bit of help with one of them.”

“I'd have expected them to try to kill us both, then,” said the fourth kingdom's king, “and he stopped that assassination plot colder than a dead fish.” Pause, then, “you doing an inspection, like a majordomo?”

“I'm not sure what prompted me to do that,” I said, “but...”

“I am,” said Hendrik. “I heard what your first name was when I first saw you, but I did not recall your other names – and now, I do. It's just like what is writ on the back of the last pendant, and...”

“And he's given to that thing, and that means more than anything on this planet,” said this older man. “It matters not if the whole of the continent must starve and live in hovels like just after the curse, because the alternative is we all burn in hell, and that because we shall belong there, as is Brimstone's right and our just due for our individual and collective failure to do as we have been commanded.”

“I was telling them something like that,” I said. “Maybe one of you should tell them. After all, you both do have a title, and both you will be heard.”

“You have one also, and not merely in this kingdom,” said Hendrik. “He's been looking, and I have also, and no one has yet to find out what it is.”

“Across the sea,” I said. “We sail tomorrow morning, hopefully.”

“No hopefully,” said Hendrik. “That ceremony is to be just after dawn, and it will be the shortest one of any size since the time of the Curse descending – and if it lasts from start to finish more than five minutes by the clock, I will know the reason why.”

I had to 'supervise' the first portions of the cleanup, then during the next hour, I was walking about a great deal, inspecting the work being done, kicking more than a few rumps, and more than once, whacking someone with what Deborah had used for thumping that first witch. More than once, I had to get down and actually demonstrate what I meant by 'clean' in regards to blood, and when I heard muttering, then saw Anna approaching at a rapid walk, I could feel something brewing up in the man I was showing how to 'clean floors' that was nothing short of raw terror.

He was wrong. Anna had worse in store for him.

First, she kicked him sprawling by trying to implant her shoe in his rear, this using a move she had to have learned from Sarah. He got up dazed, but she pulled him to his feet before he could get off his knees, then slapped him down to the floor with a move that I had no idea where she could have seen it, save possibly when I was 'training' Gabriel.

She then spat, “you saw how he was working, didn't you? Are you blind, you stinking son of a witch? Were you to work that hard, this entire floor would be clean enough to eat off of as if it were a dinner plate just-tinned by the man who was doing his best to show you what 'clean' means, and that within a quick count of three after you started – and you're better at it than him by a long chalk, so quit being such a lazy idiot of a witch, or I shall hang you out to dry the old way, and cut your tongue out myself!”

“She means what she said,” I said, standing. “Now, work your hardest. Remember, you've got long days ahead of you, same as do we all – yes, me too. No, me especially. Remember, I give my best, no matter what it is I am doing, or no matter how I feel, or even if it gives me absolute hell afterward, I still do my best. I have to, remember, but that gives you no excuse to not work hard. You need to try your hardest, and that every waking minute.”

I then looked up. “That goes for everyone in this kingdom, and indeed, all upon this planet. That is why I and four others cross the sea tomorrow, first to kill those witches over that people that they treat like deep-slaves living in the fifth kingdom's holes, and then free that people from such evil – and it is my prayer that they help us as much as we try to help them. Do you understand?”

A chorus, ragged, indicated yes.

“Then do your best, do it all the time, do it all day, and don't stop until this place is where it belongs and the Curse is broken and stays that way,” I said, my voice rising to a shout. “Now I must go and show guards how to use these weapons after speaking with Hendrik regarding some supplies we located on the way here, and soon enough, I will need to teach more of you their use – as there will be more witches in here, and I cannot be everywhere, and you will need to get your hands bloody, just like I have in the past and will do so many times again. Do you understand?”

I then turned to Anna. “Gabriel – is he 'awake' yet?”

“He ought to be, given his hairless head is now mostly lumps from that spoon I used,” said Anna. “He seemed to take that to a degree, but when Sarah showed with something I'd only heard about and began doing her exercises, he got the fear in a great hurry, and he dove for the floor!”

“A flail?” I asked.

“Yes, and she's working on knotting up a number of them, as Tam brought that rope she asked for and she's doing a batch of work.” Pause, then, “I think she plans on teaching you their use, but I recall you saying you'd probably hurt yourself if you tried one.”

“Not sure any more, dear,” I said, this tentatively. I wondered, given what I had been told in the last few days. “My younger brother once banged himself in the head with something like that, and...”

“Here, catch!” yelled Sarah, as she tossed something overhand at me. To my utter surprise, I grasped one of the wooden pieces out of the air, then dropping the machine pistol to fall on its strap, I began to whirl the thing with such speed that it all but screamed. I was catching the thing with both hands one after another, then passing it around my body and over each arm and across the front of my body from arm to arm, then when someone took a damaged chair beside me, I somehow directed the thing such that it came from underneath.

The flail blasted the entire chair into toothpicks and sent them flying out of the man's hands without a stop in the smooth flow of motion, which continued all about me and some feet to each side as the pitch of the screaming sound increased with each further second. I then suddenly reached up and caught both poles of the flail, stopping it in mid-air as if frozen lightning, my hands rigid, my arms like pillars – and all about me were stock-still, frozen as if horrified.

I also had Sarah staring, her eyes like saucers, her mouth open, and a slow gasp of breath. Anna asked calmly, “did you ever use those before?”

“N-no,” I said. “S-second Dan?”

“Yes, and with those as well as a number of other things, swords included,” said the soft voice. “You have any idea how fast you were doing all of what you just did?”

“No?” I asked. “I saw that chair and that thing just disintegrated it, though, and it was not even an interruption in the flow of movement, and I was making those things go everywhere as if I'd been doing them for hours every day for years.”

“Just like when you went after those six functionaries and killed them with that knife,” said the soft voice. “Electrified mongoose, indeed.” Snort. “Try more like 'electrified lightning'.”

“Uh, 'Power'?” I asked.

“I never saw that demonstrated, not even by my teacher, and he could teach all save that,” said Sarah. “If ever I saw the Power method done using a flail, I just saw it – and you would not sling brains.”

“What would I do?”

“Destroy heads as if you'd shot them with one of those pistols that makes the hand go numb,” said Sarah. “You'd kill people so fast with one of those things that you could clear out a large fifth kingdom drink-house and leave every person in it dead before I could count to three, and they'd all be shooting at thin air while you were moving!”

“I'd catch some lead, dear,” I said. “Mostly wash it out when I bathed, unless some stinker got really lucky.”

With the cleaning of the house's bloody mess now thoroughly underway – the storeroom just had bloody floors now, while the tracks of those carrying the dripping chunks of gore I'd splattered all over that small room had left a red trail from the room to the doorway of the house – I could now eat a proper breakfast, though watching Sarah do up the rest of the flail sets had me wondering just how she could tie the knots and then make them hold. She would finish one flail, then go into the kitchen, and return to then start on another – and the one I had tested, other than her personal 'first' flail, was the second example. I soon found it too needed to go into the kitchen, and when I brought my dishes in after my meal, I knew why they were in there.

Hide glue, the stuff used to conjure Hyde himself!” I spat, as I ran out of the kitchen after grabbing a fresh icy jug of beer to then find Anna giving advice to our two latest visitors from last night and this morning. They knew something regarding food acquisition, but what Anna was telling them was how to get the most good food for the cheapest prices, and I listened fascinated as she spoke of offering the individual farmers coin on the spot and then bagging up the pick of their crops, at least so far as they had harvested that day. She then spoke of weeding rows of cabbages and carrots and thereby acquiring a lot of 'salad greens' and 'baby-carrots' for a guilder or two.

“Just tell them you are getting them for me,” she said. “They dare not cheat me, not now, as I will call them witches to their face and kill them, then cut off their heads and spike them myself – and they know about what I did in the process of getting all those bullet holes you saw in our walls, and those scars you might have seen on me.” Pause, then, “another matter, though, one of greater importance, is firewood.”

, but where is it found, and with what do we cut it?” asked the woman. “I have yet to see a fuel-saw, nor an ax, nor even a saw that works by hand and is pushed and pulled by two.”

“We have an old hatchet, though it once was bad and is now much better,” said Anna. “He” – here, she indicated me as I ate a slice of bread thickly smeared with cherry jam, with Deborah, Sarah, and Annistæ doing likewise – “did something to it. Before, it went dull quickly. It is now as if it were a new one, with a slimmer profile to the head and blade, a new and longer handle, and it keeps its edge very well indeed.”

“I spent enough time on that thing that it would almost be easier now to make a new one, but that was when I was new to making such things,” I said. “I forged it down to compact the metal and reshape the head, I cooked it overnight in a clay-luted cooking can, I quenched it in oil from an orange heat after that, then I left it by the forge until it began to smoke – and then I used tongs to pitch it in a bucket of lye and let it cool outside before I took it and washed it well in a bucket of water. It took a good edge then, and finally, I fitted a longer handle to it after rubbing that handle twice with drying oil, so now it's actually a decent ax.”

“Those two you made?” asked Anna.

“Both of those shall go with us,” said Sarah. “They may have little wood there, and it is very hard to find, and forget using it for fires – but I do know this: I know of no rat that does much when it has an ax put to its head, and they have large rats there, and burrowing rodents that come past my waist when they stand up.”

“Are those leather pouches for money hard to make?” asked Misaheél.

“If you wish them to last well, they can be,” said Esther. “That man with the long hair makes good ones, as I have seen those he's made, but he's got enough work for ten of people like him, and then there is what he has been given to – and that is a great matter, one too large for most kings to grasp.”

“Ai, he is Espirutu Calienti, and the great time is at hand,” said Annistæ. “Now, you had a question, this regarding tools for wood. Non?”

“I did,” said Misaheél.

“If you mean chisels, small rasps, and other things he might use for making special patterns for casting metal, then yes,” said Sarah, “and many of them, including some very nice woodcarving tools.”

“They would work well for detail work, yes,” said Esther. “I could use larger ones as well.”

“Done, if you can get me some drawings or good descriptions of what you wish,” I said, “as.... Oh, I think I know. Just take those I use, make them larger in most of their dimensions, use a bronze-ringed blackwood piece with a bronze cap for a handle, and then you have regular woodcarving tools – though a bit smaller than the common, which is good, given what you propose to do with them.”

“You do those and you will have the carpenters onto you like a bee's nest when someone has gotten honey out of it,” said Hans.

“I will not be able to make many of those, save for my own needs and perhaps a few more,” I said. “That sextant will have to come first, and there will be many other things that need me doing them.”

Yet, for some reason, I knew, this beyond all reason, that what I had heard about needing more time to simulate and draw the thing than to actually make it was the absolute truth; and more, I would not need to routinely work like a deep-slave. There would be other matters, many of them, that would need my attention: books to write, classes of guards to teach, and then, of course, much else, most of which was yet a mystery to me.