Just like at the west school...”

The number of cleaners present upon the floor was several less than I recalled seeing, and when I asked as to why, I heard that two more had fallen dead. They'd been decapitated upon the spot, their heads interred upon one side of the manure-pile and their naked bodies upon the other side; and when I heard what had happened to those who had died, I was stunned.

“Every single one of them has acquired an owning marking?” I gasped.

“Yep, all of 'em I saw did, and I know, as I cut their heads off with this one ax,” said Tam. “Now, you going to show that one man how to shoot?”

“We shall try, but I will tell him that if he turns Cabroné, I will kill him dead right then,” said Annistæ. “He knows I will, and he knows I can shoot him, as he knows what this means here.” She pointed to what was 'sewn' on her 'laboratory coat'. It looked more than a little like one of Sarah's smocks, and I thought to ask Sarah about the matter.

“They have one for Anna, also, and she'll wish it in short order,” said Sarah. “Mine is being worked on, and I must confess I find such clothing to my liking.”

“Even with a hood?” I asked.

“Yes, as I told them about how students are clothed, and I think they went by that, as many of those people have done student-clothing,” said Sarah. “She says it's common for laboratory clothing to be like that, so I took what she told me and what I knew, drew the clothes, showed them to her, she nodded yes, and that was what they did.”

“They almost have to have a sewing machine in there,” I muttered, hoping that we might get another such tool if 'ours' was to prove to work decently and not be overly hard to use.

“I spoke to them yesterday,” said Sarah, “and then, you've not seen people sewing two or more to a set of garments, have you? I've done so many times to help fill orders for others quickly, and it's common if you're an itinerant seamstress and can find an abandoned house in a good area to use it for a place to sew and live, as then you and those you know all band together for mutual protection and aid.”

“A lot of them are living in towns in the area, correct?” I asked. “Usually in basements, only come out early in the morning or late in the afternoon, or sometimes at night, and now and then, they room with people from the Valley?”

“Yes, I have slept in such homes,” said Sarah. “It is much better than sleeping out in the woods, but when you must travel by foot with a heavy satchel and bundles of cloth, that makes for slow travel, and that meant I slept rough a fair amount.”

We had just entered the refectory, and there, I saw not merely the true 'household' at its morning meal, but going by the number of smaller jugs and bread-bags in evidence, it looked like a lot of these people were going to be heading out to fetch lead. I soon learned that was little short of the absolute truth, as Sarah handed Lukas a piece of paper, then began explaining to him the location of the lead as we had found it earlier today.

“These here?” I asked.

“Most of those you thumped out in that area were new hires, replacements for people who had gone missing since you first dealt with the Swartsburg,” she said. “Seems the witches bought most of them.”

“Most, yes,” I said. “None of them were that seriously desiring the matter, save perhaps certain parts of it.” Pause, then, “again, most. Some of those people were planted deliberately by witches in order to secure as many 'supplicants' as possible among the household.”

“You got most of them,” said Gilbertus. “Now, about this lead. That man Georg going to come, or we going to use his buggy?”

“Not sure, really,” I said. “He's likely to be closeted for much of the day, actually, as he's a fairly sharp individual, and he's good at planning. Not that good as a smith, but he is a good planner, and he was said to be one who was fit for the west school.”

“Him? he don't act it.” said Gilbertus.

“You know me that well?” asked Willem. “Do I let on about much that I do?”

Gilbertus shook his head.

“He was once one of the best cannon-masters in the area, until he was nearly killed by a pig,” said Willem. “Now are you stiff enough to stand by your gun until the pig is too close to miss, knowing that you're most likely not going to live?”

Gilbertus, to his credit, thought about the matter. Willem answered for him a second later.

“There is at least one of the newer guards here, a man named Mathias, who saw him do exactly that,” said Willem, “and it is by the grace of God alone he lives today. Now that alone would make a witch think him marked, but you know what he does now whenever he smells pigs, don't you?”

“He get too much swine?” asked Gilbertus.

“No, worse than that, Gilbertus,” I said. “I had to keep his flanks guarded from the witches when they tried nonsense where I live, and when he goes after pigs... Oh, you do not wish to be a witch or a pig then, as he will smash you if he's got a club handy, and he breaks them with some frequency, and oh! He changes into something like a cave-dwelling thug!”

“You're worse, if talk is true,” said Gilbertus with a certain degree of chagrin. “Now, at least we should be ready for a long hard day, and then keeping those left alive that are still scrubbing floors busy.” Pause, then, pointing over to someone in the corner, someone covered almost entirely by clothing, so that only their fingertips showed as they ate beer and bread. “you going to teach him to shoot?”

“Yes, as he will need to do his part in the port and across the sea,” said Sarah. “He will also need to help with part of the packing, and then, he will need to labor until he is not only sore enough to wish dosing, but in fact, need it.” Sarah said this last with a smirk, looking at Annistæ. “She has something for him especially prepared, as I brought her that entire chest of drugs Hans has and all I could find with labels writ in the Valley's language.”

“Ai, and I will give him something that will make him wish to sleep as if he were dead,” said the latter woman. “Now if that one man who is fond of whips fit for bad mules uses his on that man much, he will be sore from it, so he will wish dosing for pain, but so that he does not think himself to be in the bad place that some mistake for hell, he will wish dosing with this other drug also, non?”

“He will,” I said flatly. “If you want to experience that place without taking that medicine, then go into a good cheese room, and there you will find all of the fun right then.”

“I have such a room, and I must take a dose before going into it,” said Esther. “Now, we need to get that man up and moving, and we need to teach him. Any smaller rooms on this floor with good lighting and a place to set, so we can teach him what he needs to know?”

“Yes,” said Deborah. “I need a scabbard for this thing here.”

Deborah holding up her new short-sword seemed to bring all conversation in this fairly packed room to a halt, and Gilbertus whispered, “now that looks likely for in here.”

“It does?” she asked, her voice betraying no small surprise.

“Lots of places where you run into witches, you want something about that big,” he said. “They choose those places because most swords are too big by half, even theirs, so they use these big daggers.” Pause, then, “you got them there with that thing.”

“Yes, I know,” said Deborah. “Now it just needs a place on my belt so I can keep it handy, as I can smell rats in my future, and I dislike rats almost as much as Sarah dislikes spiders.”

Such a room took some minutes, and bringing suitable ordnance to it took longer, but getting Gabriel to move faster than a slow and halting hobble took the longest of all. I had a mind for a swift yell then whirling the flail about his head as a warning, but when I saw how he was leaving a small blood trail, I asked, my voice calm, “now what happened there?”

“It seems someone tossed a jug at me,” said Gabriel's cracked voice, “and I got sliced. That was yesterday, and now it has become infected, and I am afraid I will die of it.”

“No, not really,” I said. “Just get to that room, and I will look at it. You need to be well enough to pay attention to this, as it can mean your life from today on.”

While I could hear faint hissing noises about him 'lying', I glanced down, and Gabriel was neither lying nor exaggerating. Whoever had tossed that jug had indeed meant his death, as they had poisoned the thing inside and out, and for some reason, I knew just who it was.

It wasn't one of us. It was those witches I had killed recently, as they had reason to believe he would not respond to the call of 'bhoy'. I then had a question.

“Did someone name you 'bhoy' recently? As in the last day or so?”

“Yes, and I told him to go to hell,” said Gabriel. “He tossed the jug at me then, and I knew that man for a witch.”

“So the witches have rejected you,” I said emphatically. “They don't even want you as a slave any more – they want to sacrifice you, as their little conjuring spheres or whatever they look into are telling them, 'this one stands on the brink, and he could fall into shadows, the first one of his line in nearly eight hundred years'. Correct?”

“How could you know all of that?” asked Gabriel. “They slipped a note under the door while I was trying to get that dung off of me, and it said that very thing. Here, read it.”

I was then handed something, this writ on obvious witch-paper, and I asked, as I read the blatant in-your-face death threat for what it was using a rag for my hands so as to not feel 'horrible', “you know what this means, don't you? This is a summons, this to either make your bones now and become what was laid out for you since before you were b-born, or to be sacrificed in a witch-hole with the label of disgrace?”

“S-something like that, and now I know those are my choices,” he said. “I was never so clear about the matter before, but I am now, and those people were whispering at the doorway almost the whole time I was trying to get that dung off of me and then those eggs you all splatted on me, and n-now I am burnt as if I am marked, and th-they saw that, and they c-called me a m-monster, and more than once they tried picking the locks I had blocked up.”

“Meaning they wanted you dead so stinking bad that they saw you as big a target as anyone in the whole place, and now...” I spluttered.

“Now I dare not leave the house proper, unless I have someone to protect me,” he said. I could hear a distinct pleading in his voice, and I knew it was, indeed, the truth.

“No more 'wait until tomorrow',” I murmured. “Seems that nonsense happened before I expected it to.”

“I have a taste of it,” said Gabriel. “If I can, I'll help today, but I'm afraid with this injury, I'm not going to be much good for anything, and I never did well near the sea, much less upon it.”

“Hence a time of rest will be in order,” I said soothingly. “You can do that during much of our traveling, but you will need to be ready for when we come into that third kingdom port, as then, much of our business will be upon land.” Pause. “Now, into this room here, where I need to look you over as much as possible.” I paused, then thought, this 'loudly', “Anna, Annistae, Graćiella – we have a severely injured man here, and he needs a lot of attention or he isn't going to live very long.”

As if I had used a species of radio, I could hear three women all coming at a dead run, and as those of us herded Gabriel into this one small room, it being darkened yet – Karl and Sepp went off to secure lighting of some kind – the three women arrived, this within seconds of one another.

“Who is it?” asked Anna. She was all business.

“M-me,” said Gabriel. “I was nearly killed by witches multiple times in the last day, and that last time they tried for me, they used poison.”

I was expecting Anna to say “serve you right, you stinky witch.” Instead, she screeched, “what?”

“Just what he said, dear,” I said. “It seems that batch of thirteen wasn't just up here to cause trouble – they were to check up on him, those sending them sensed defection from their ranks before they were sent, in fact, and in witchdom, that means a 'great-find-crush-kill' is an automatic matter, such that they set the dogs onto you – and in his case... Oh, my. Recall what they did when Sarah came north? Almost that big.”

As if Gabriel had been expecting me to say that, he fainted right off, and in the process, his infected leg came out.

“Ai, that is the work of a witch,” said Annistæ. “That is something they do to those who desert them, and what he said is just what they do.”

“Then, there is this note,” I said, handing the greasy sheet to Anna with a rag. She read the thing in what seemed seconds, then Annistæ waved her hand over it, and in the background, runes showed. I stood up, then said, “that one, there. It's a done deal, one decided by someone high up the 'tower of power'. It's just like he said it was – either make your bones now, as in today, or die on an blood-reeking black stone altar with the label of disgrace as a sacrifice to Brimstone –and that also today.”

“How?” asked Deborah. “Is that man still inclined to be a witch, or did the witches think he left them for good?”

“It is beginning to look that way, yes,” said Anna. “Gabriel, I am very sorry for all I said about you, but now... I wish...”

Annistae did not wish – she was digging in her pockets, then said, “open your mouth, man. Here, this. Swallow it, chew it well, then drink. It is an anti-infective. Then, we shall need to pray for you, as I have nothing better than something that will stop that, as it is the dung-poison, and that needs special medicines I have no time to make.”

“Oh, that is bad,” said Sarah. “Dung-poison?”

“Yes, only worse than what you did for those witches,” said Anna. “This type doesn't use what comes out of a privy. It uses those of rats.”

“Then that stuff needs to go in that vile wine they like,” I spat. “Infection, out of that wound, and then wound, open up!”

I pointed my finger at Gabriel's 'slice' – this was a sizable wound, and a deep one – then said, my eyes closed, “everything, now, one at a time... Repair that nerve, that tendon, that damaged muscle... What were they trying to do, give you something out of a wasp's hind-gut?”

“Yes, as that's another ingredient in dung-poison when it's brewed up by witches,” said the soft voice. “That kind of jug is a sure killer, and that should tell you that Gabriel might as well be you for all the welcome he currently has among the area's witches.”

“Did that get out?” I asked.

“It did some weeks ago, and it was decided among a meeting of several Powers and their secretaries in the second kingdom house,” said the soft voice. “It almost missed getting into that tome, but if you had seen the next-to-the last missive in there, you would have seen the addendum added before inking regarding giving him 'an offer he cannot refuse' and how he was under grave suspicion.”

“Hence life, or death,” I said. “Now it isn't just me. I might be bad enough, but I do have scruples – and compared to the witches, I have enough to stuff a large bag of them. These people have none as far as you are concerned. I won't act upon suspicion. I will know.” Pause, then, “they don't care. Their leaders have suspicions – and if they have suspicions, that means the crime is done and you're on their 'death-list' until you prove conclusively in front of a vast number of witches you are otherwise.”

“And the burden of that proof, the whole of it, must be yours, and yours alone,” said Deborah, who then spoke to Gabriel, who was coming around. My eyes were still closed, as this was a serious injury, one that was likely to need extensive medical care overseas to truly repair. “Now, as soon as you're well enough, we need to teach you the use of weapons, but given how it is for you now, I think leaving you completely defenseless isn't a terribly good idea, not even in here.”

“Perhaps a smaller pistol,” I said. “Several magazines, one group of slow, the other hot, and a suppressor,” I said. “Smaller bags of both types of ammunition, as while witches are scarce in here, I'm quite afraid our rat hunt will scatter those things enough that they will be everywhere.”

“Yes, I know,” said Gabriel between gritted teeth. “Why are your faces looking so strangely, and wh-what is that big hairy hand coming out of the ceiling there?”

“Here, I forgot,” said Annistae. “That drug causes trouble. You need this other also. Here, half of a tablet, chew it up well, swallow it, then a few drops of this tincture. It will help you a lot, both for pain and learning, as we will need to teach you...” Here, she jumped, then shrieked, “Ai! What is this?”

“He's repairing that injury, Annistæ,” said Anna. “I've seen some quite amazing things, even if he will need feeding with bread, jam, beer, and a dose himself, as this man here is difficult regarding weapons.”

“As in I might know something about fowling pieces, if they are common ones,” said Gabriel, “but blades – I nearly sliced myself the last time I used a penknife, and hence I had to get my pens cut by someone else.”

“Hence you'll wish to share a largish room with Kees and perhaps one other person,” I said. “ A screen between each of you so you don't distract each other overmuch, a stove near the door for warmth and, uh, keeping the soup warm, shelves for supplies, and a cot apiece for when your brain says 'too much',” I said. “I hope you do not mind working close to my hours, as there's going to be a lot to do involving you, Hendrik, Kees – oh, he's going to need help with writing-cramp, and then you will too, and that other person...”

“Better that than dying in a witch-hole,” said Gabriel. “At least I will not be working in the dark places where deep-slaves work, as they were talking about putting me in one of those before sacrificing me so I could properly learn my place.”

“This might well not be such a place, but I rather doubt you will find yourself having much time for leisure,” said Anna. “You won't last long on bread and water.”

“No, I'll take common soup, bread, and beer,” said Gabriel. “Even if it's that kind he spoke of once, I'll eat it. Pause. “Oh, wine. I'll need to get that to you-all, as they've probably found it and put poison to it.”

“Yes, and what will you wish for wine after today?” said Hans. I could tell he was going to be busy enough the rest of the day.

“Uh, perhaps in your soup?” I asked. “Recall how that can help the flavor when you're so tired you have no appetite for anything save sleep?”

Gabriel shook his head, then said, “yes, I do recall that on the trip. He then looked down at his leg. “It doesn't look nearly poisoned now.”

“That is because it is mostly healed,” said Graćiella. “It will wish a bandage still, and then this special soap for keeping it cleaned, and bathing twice a day with fresh bandages after each time until it fully closes, and I would take that medicine two more days, or until it is fully healed, as I can see they tried to do much else to you.” Pause, then, “now, do you wish to learn that which can keep you alive when the Cabroni try for you, as they will again soon?”

Gabriel nodded, then asked, “Cabroni? What are those?”

“Those...” Here, Annistæ sounded like she was spitting, something along the lines of 'evil-bad-pigs-that-run-with-that-bad-lizard' or something like that. “Those are Cabroni, or if you must speak of just one, En Cabroné. They are those wretches who tried for you, and poisoned you.”

“Witches,” Gabriel muttered. He then brightened upon seeing something he recognized. “Now, that there looks likely.”

“Yes, it is that,” said Karl, indicating his 'sawn-off shotgun'. He then turned to me. “Now do you know where my sword is?”

“I do,” said Sarah. “Karl, Sepp, follow me. Hans, Anna, watch him. He may become ill again.”

“Ill?” I asked.

“That one medicine is not done with me yet,” said Gabriel. “It may not be... Why does it look so bright in here, when there are just a few dim candles?”

“That is because these lanterns here are hard on the eyes,” said Deborah, as she produced one of those brass Veldter lanterns. “These use alcohol, so they are not infernal lanterns.”

“I could not smell distillate, so I was not terribly worried,” said Gabriel. “They didn't have a chance to put the distillate to me when I was bathing, thank God.”

“Infernal lanterns smell of distillate?” I asked.

“Yes, they do, and that when burning or otherwise,” said Deborah. “I can tell this type of lantern is not one of those, as I have seen those close enough to touch them many times, and they do not look like this one, placard of Brimstone or otherwise.” Here, Deborah pointed out the differences between the two. “Now, if you are inclined toward troubling witches, and you find one of those stinky deathtraps, if you put a common blasting cap in the fuel tank, they will have trouble about ten minutes or so after they set it alight.”

“What happens then?” asked Gabriel.

“It explodes,” said Deborah. “It usually takes that entire coach with it, though I have heard of their underground places going up that way also.”

“Good, I will have to recall that trick,” said Esther. “Now, since the witches wish your hide as much as they want mine...”

“No, dear,” I said. “You do have a price on your head, same as she does and I do.” Pause, then, “I am not sure if my price is higher, but his is up there, and more, it's payable in 'full-minted gold witch-money'. I believe the quantity spoken of was 'at least one bag, this weighing two units on an approved scale?”

“Three units as of now,” said the soft voice. “Yours is five such units, which means you've got the biggest price upon your head in the whole of the five kingdoms.”

“Five?” I asked.

“The entire net worth of the Blomfels combine is roughly thirty-five units, give or take a few,” said the soft voice. “Five units will just about buy an entire district in the fifth kingdom house, or one of the tonier ones in the second kingdom house.” Pause, then, “it would run the second kingdom house proper for nearly eighty years at their current rates of expenditure – both the obvious and secret budgets, that is.”

Gabriel had fainted again, and I snapped my fingers. I then said gently as he awoke once more, “so now you know. You heard it from someone who doesn't lie, rather than someone who can lie and seldom bothers to try because they know they're likely to get caught.” I then nodded to Esther.

She showed Gabriel how to first clear one of the smaller pistols, then how to load it, all the while speaking of the thing as if it was a certain deathtrap if he did not show due care. “All weapons are like that, but these are worse, and not a little worse.”

“That long tube?” asked Gabriel, pointing to the suppressor. “What does it do?”

“Reduces the noise,” said Esther. “Otherwise, these tend to be quite loud, and the larger pistols are worse yet.” Pause, then, “you'll wish special gloves for all of them if you shoot them much, even these. They can make your hands hurt or go numb. They've done that to me.

“I know,” said Deborah. “Now, I hope I have a chance to have a scabbard of some kind made for this thing, as I can smell rats, and I know I am going to need to use it on them.”

“What is that?” asked Gabriel. “It's the shortest sword I've ever seen, and only one blade I've ever seen is like it.”

“Something you do not wish to be sliced with,” said Deborah. “Now that for a time, there is but little inducement remaining unto you to turn witch, you will be most disinclined to listen to them; but in the future, it may well look once more attractive to you. Then, this choice will become such that you may well waver, and then... Then, you shall stand in that choice from now until you are dead. I know that much – you will either turn witch, and die quickly, or you shall renounce it utterly, even more than you do currently, and should you choose that path, then I warn you as to what shall happen.”

“Yes, and what will happen to him then?” asked Hans. He was next in line to show Gabriel how to use machine pistols, or so I guessed. I was waiting on Karl and Sepp, and wondering if I should make a number of riveted scabbards now or not. I was about to go for my tools when suddenly Lukas showed up in the doorway. Deborah had lit the lantern, turned it down, and hung it from a wooden 'lampstand'.

“We're off now, every wagon and buggy that is fit for traveling, and I heard tell you were going to need to do leather.” Pause, this to sniff. “Least he's cleaned himself up passably.” Another pause, then, “how did he get that cut there?”

“The witches have renounced him, and put a price upon his head, thinking him to be marked and against them,” said Deborah. “That price is sufficiently high that any witch who should learn of it will try for him, and hence he must be armed at all times, and work closeted in his office where he can be guarded at all times. There, he will work my hours, as while what was spoken will not happen, the end result will not be much of an improvement, at least as to his quantity and difficulty of labor.”

“So you don't want to be a witch,” said Lukas. “Well, I guess they'd best teach you, or you'll die in a witch-hole, as I've heard about them who turn witch and then turn their backs on it.”

“N-no,” I said. “This is not like what you heard. It's a good deal w-worse, as this was decided up high by at least three Powers, they all agreed he needed killing, they issued an order 'in perpetuity', much like that which is issued against me, and so he's now reckoned as being 'marked beyond the trivial' – and given the mess we made with those eggs, he now looks like he's been set alight by a jug of distillate and just gotten healed up enough to be up and around, as you could see if you looked at his head and shoulders.”

“That so?” asked Lukas. “Well, he'd best carry iron waking and sleeping, and not just for shooting. You'd best teach him how to use knives and a lot else. Now they got a price on his hide?”

“Yes, and a large one,” said Esther. “Three entire units of full-minted witch-gold.”

Lukas shuddered, then gasped, “only one higher, and he's right there. That would make anyone scared out of their mind.”

“I am, sir,” said Gabriel. “I had best apply myself, and I will do my best, but I am not terribly good...” Pause, then gently, he touched the pistol, slowly pulled back its slide, looked inside the chamber, then let it go forward gently, his hands upon it the whole time. The soft clicking noise as the pistol 'locked up' told me plenty.

“That stuff does help people pay attention,” I said. “Hence regular dosing with it is in order.”

“It works well on pain, also,” said Gabriel. “Now, as soon as my back is looked after, I might be fit to learn this stuff better, as it's still an oozing and weeping mess, and I'm afraid it's infected also.”

Graćiella looked at his back once Gabriel was laying face down, and here, I found Gabriel had but hinted at that matter. He could easily die from these injuries alone, and it took no small amount of labor from all three women – including dabbing here and there with aquavit – and then, my speaking to the infection. For some reason, I had to use my 'finger' again, and here, I did so with my eyes open.

“I do not believe this,” I murmured, as a two inch long 'lightning bolt' was steadily flowing from my finger over the injuries and burning up both the bacteria and causing 'especially rapid healing', almost as if I were welding his torn muscles, fascia and skin back together. “That one powder cannot do this, can it?”

“That powder would not hold up for days of round-the-clock heavy combat, like that of a 'heavy' scout team,” said the soft voice. “What you are doing is 'straight out of an old tale', and it was precisely what Rachel and those with her needed to survive that trip south after her injuries, as they had to travel and fight for nearly a month, and they had no real medical supplies – they had old clothing for bandages, and that was all they had.” Pause, then, “you-all have more, in fact, and not a little more.”

I paused to try this on my knees, this to give the women a chance to work on Gabriel, and when I did so, to my surprise the 'glow discharge' turned into something that was closer to real lightning. My right knee nearly 'exploded' with pain for the several seconds I was 'welding' on it, then as I turned to the left one, I could somehow feel the parts of the right one coming back together.

The left one was fully as bad for both pain and the other sensations, but when I resumed working on Gabriel, that lightning-like glow-discharge went back to its former strength.

“Almost need a welding hood for this business, that or tightly closed eyes,” I muttered. “It seems to help a lot, though.”

“I can see a lot of fire there,” said Anna. “Not just from your finger, either. It's getting to that infection right away.”

“Yes, most of it,” I said. “He'll still need to take those nasty pills until he gets to where he can be looked over, and he'll most likely...” I then squeaked. “One dose?”

“Yes, he'll need one dose for that problem,” said the soft voice. “He'll need surgery to repair his other injuries, same as you all will, with you needing quite a bit of it – enough that they'll wish to keep you in a hospital bed overnight at the very least.”

“I'll be banged up that bad?” I gasped, as I continued working over the 'slough' of Gabriel's back.

“You've already been banged up 'that bad',” said the soft voice. “'Bobs Bahadur' would have been dead ten times over had he collected what you have – and that just at the third ditch.” Pause, then, “taking that place is just going to add insult to a very large collection of severe injuries, and that for all of you.”

By the time I was 'done' with Gabriel, I was utterly spent, and I nearly fainted, or so I thought until I found myself sitting on the floor with a pot of jam next to me, or what smelled like it. In reality, it proved to be a small plate of these oddly thick dark brown 'cookies' coated with this wonderful-smelling 'glaze' that added nearly a quarter inch to their thickness, and Karl and Sepp were both present, along with an individual who I had seen but once. He was speaking of us all needing to come up to his area to trim such leather to size, but he was speaking of riveting needing to be done. I had the impression he'd take perhaps three hours at the least.

“No, let him do that,” said Sepp. “You take this leather here, we can carry it up, you cut our sword things out of it a finger's width oversize, and we can do the rest down here. Besides, we need to get this man here a knife-scabbard, as he needs to carry weapons all the time from today until some time after we get back, as they're going to be trying for him as much as any of us.”

“More yet than us,” said Sarah. “I showed Hendrik what had been given Gabriel, and both of those men were the color of old tin plates when they saw it. I then asked that you come to read the parts in that tome applicable to him.” Here, Sarah stood, looking at me. “Come.”

I did so, this with alacrity, though I was dry as a bone and that 'cookie' was tasty beyond belief. It also seemed especially helpful. I thought to ask what they actually were.

“The first of those drowned Kuchen to come from the ovens,” said Sarah. “There is plenty more honey for drowning them, and it seems some more honey came from Ploetzee recently, now that the bees are working more. We just saw some of their logs. They have a great many more.”

“Ploetzee, the town of the ever-cruising hornet, and now Deborah has a smaller sword fit for a hornet's stinger,” I murmured. I almost choked on what I was eating, as I was trying to laugh while devouring a delicious and chewy 'morsel'. It was, indeed, 'cramsome' or whatever one wished to call an early nineteenth-century version of a 'Kommando' ration.

“Perfect for going on Kommando,” I said. “That is much of what we will do, I think, for advanced training – Kommando.”

“I know that much,” said Sarah. “I suspect we could deal with those groups that come in the forests readily with six to twelve people, but that one woman Graćiella will need to train all of us in using much of the medical equipment we will be carrying with us.” Pause, then, “we have none of those green things that fly, so we will have to do much of the work needed while out in the field, most likely.”

“If we do not get better-still training from those people overseas,” I said. “Then, of course, we will be wearing equipment able to stand up to swords, shot, spears, and edged weapons, so we can hurt them, but unless they get really lucky, they won't do much to us...”

Here, we were at Hendrik's door. I knew the three who had newly received swords had gone up, and there, that one roll of elk-hide would be cut into manageable pieces, and not merely for swords.

They'd brought several other weapons up so as to be traced out, and I had a hunch that those who worked in leather had recently gotten another emigrant to swell their group. We then went inside after being admitted.

“Ah, someone from the Valley is helping up there, and everyone save that one new-arrived man from the fourth kingdom cannot keep up with him, er, her.”

“So they will need to learn to do so,” said Hendrik. “At least I can count on most of those people from the Valley, as the witches want nothing more than to kill them on sight. Now, I get this, and that changes matters greatly.”

“More translation, sir,” I said, using that one rug hook Annistæ had lent me. I then, while holding this thing, thought with all my strength, “become that special tool that she needs, and of that special 'brass', so it never wears out while handling rags.”

The thing shook violently in my hand, then when I opened my eyes, it had indeed become that indescribably golden color.

It was also about half again as heavy, for it had a deeply milled section so as to lighten its weight, and that was filled with this peculiar blue rubber.

An eerie rainbow of colors flitted across it, depending upon how I looked at it in the light, and its smoothness was almost such that I wished to slowly stroke it. I asked for Sarah's while I was turning pages, finding that particular missive that spoke of Gabriel, and when I found it, I laid down Annistæ's rug-hook, took Sarah's in hand, and asked that it too become of that same metal.

It shook even more violently, and when I turned loose of it, I slowly stroked it, both the metal and rubber portions – much as if I were petting a kitten. I handed it back to Sarah, who seemed hypnotized by the thing, and gently rubbed her back.

That too was like petting a kitten, or stroking certain types of cloth, or kneading the back of a cow being milked.

“I was told you fret a great deal, and now I see it to be the truth,” said Rolf. “Now continue when you are ready.” The man then slapped himself. “That's right! You two are about due!

“That is but a small part,” said Sarah. “I think doing things like that takes a lot out of him, more than I can imagine, and he's just had to heal this one man who most likely would have died before we sail – and he looks burned, all right. He could pass for a marked person, he's so burnt by those rotten eggs we put to him.”

After draining three mugs of beer, however, I was able to resume, another 'cookie' in my hand. I made a comment as I went line by line, mumbling between bites all the while, that “we need to make these things regularly, as they're perfect for people who are sick and need a food with a lot of energy.”

“They are?” gasped Rolf. “Do you have...” He then noticed the plate of them, took one, then began chewing on it. About three bites later, he said, “you're nothing but right about that.”

Here, Sarah bared my stomach, and there, Hendrik gasped. As she turned loose of my shirt, Rolf said, “he must have caught more blades there than I did. How long did he take to heal from them?”

“He was unconscious for much of a week,” said Hendrik. “I had come to visit where he was being looked after, and he woke up then, and ever since, he's been sick enough to be thought an invalid, or so I now hear, now that the one who had been looking after him is but recently marked.”

“Yes, and you'd best keep that matter to yourself,” said Sarah. “I endured something like a great-find-crush-kill when I left the second kingdom, and there is a permanent one called out upon him, and now this man who I thought a witch has one called out upon him, and his...”

“Right there,” I said, pointing at the place with Sarah's rug-hook. “Begin quote: “we, in agreement, have declared this man... Here, his name is spelled out in runes, so they thought him a witch in all but bones, and an especially bad one to boot!”

“I thought so,” said Hendrik. “Now, the rest of that quotation.”

“We have declared him to be a traitor in all possible ways. We curse him with all curses, and we shall pursue levies, in order that three full units of witch-minted gold shall be given to the arch-witch who brings us his head, and we shall douse it in strongest brandy, and put it in the hall of traitors, which is a shrine known but to us. Finish quote.” Pause, then, “if they plan to do that to him, I'd be really strongly inclined to do all I could to stay clear of them were I him.”

“He's not to go outside this building without an escort,” said Hendrik.

“He does not want to go outside without one now,” spat Sarah. “They tried to kill him multiple times in the last twenty-four hours, and his face is gray with fear! If ever I saw a man who has the fear, it would be him, and you can depend upon him to do his best, whatsoever you give him to do, for at least that time while he perceives his life to be in such danger.”

“Which will be at least a month after his return,” I said. “Now, is there a suitable office close to your quarters – as in, either there is, or can readily be made, a passage such that you may readily confer with your close-closeted scribes? A room that has sufficient space for, uh, 'monk-cells', or something like them, with desks, a bookshelf, a stove with a soup-pot simmering constantly, a place for beer jugs, and easy access to a privy?”

Hendrik's eyes grew wide, then asked, “close-closeted scribes?”

“Why, yes,” I said. “Kees, Gabriel, and perhaps one or two others, those people being from the Valley, all of them good writers or inkers, and that such that you can speak with them with no witches seeing anything out of the ordinary, because the passage to and from that place is hidden from them? Oh, and keep the regular offices 'filled', such that they catch witches whenever one of those stinkers tries his pass-key?”

Rolf looked inclined to laugh like a fool, then he said, “now that is the best one I have heard yet, and only what I use comes close, and we have witch-trouble to spare down there. It seems you have it up here, also, only worse, so I would do that very thing.” Pause, then as he became utterly serious: “you do have access to good masons, don't you? I suspect you could easily do what he suggests, and if you work those people in teams, you could do so quickly.”

I walked over to Hendrik's desk, asked for a fresh ledger, put it down upon his desk – his going-to-pieces fetish-desk – closed my eyes, and prayed.

Hard.

The ledger nearly erupted under my hand, and when I opened my eyes, I found that I had made another book. This I handed to Hendrik who nearly fainted when he began reading it.

“This is all I need,” he said. “It has a very good collection of maps in it, and more, detailed instructions as to how to set up this scribe-room you speak of.” Pause, then, “now, this other matter.” Another pause. “What, exactly, are receivers, and why do I need one in here, as well as a transmitter?”

“To send messages, sir,” said Sarah. “We will be coming back with a great deal of equipment, some of which will go up in the laboratory here, some of which you will have, some of which Andreas will no doubt desire – though how he will endure such music is beyond me.”

“Music?” asked Hendrik.

“Yes, one can hear music from the Valley,” said Sarah.

“Oh, not just from them, sir,” I said. “I suspect there are others transmitting, but the trouble will be that currently the best instrument we have needs headphones, and more, careful adjustment so it does not sound like a violinist tuning his or her instrument.”

“I have heard those being tuned,” said Hendrik with a shudder. “Are you telling me these things called receivers can do so also?”

“The smaller ones, yes,” said Sarah. “We have one from the Abbey, and it's quite sensitive. We shall need to use it on our sailing trip, and that to listen to our enemies, though there is one man who plays in the Valley that is highly esteemed, and I had a short chance to listen to his playing.”

“You did?” I asked.

“Yes, while you were getting your last bath of that night,” said Sarah. “That type is very touchy, and one needs the touch of a violinist to get their best. I have that touch, as I am such a person, and I have played Anna's instrument more than a few times.”

“You, I can believe, as you were once in the orchestra,” said the king from the fourth kingdom. He then turned to Hendrik. “You will need to have musicians, I guess, if you need to use these things.”

“Yes, for those,” I said. “Those are 'field radios'. The type that is more for settled locations is a good bit larger, uses quite a bit more power, and can drive a small loudspeaker – and that type, while it needs a similar touch, will generally not screech like a violin being tuned.”

“Larger?” asked Hendrik. “How much larger?”

“Not sure yet,” I said. “I'll have to make one. One thing I do know, though – it's going to want a unrestricted run to the top of the building, as there is where we'll wish to run our antenna. Run it all around the building's periphery on these thin ceramic insulators, thin copper wire for the whole run, and then the ladder-line transmission down to the receiver, with an old-fashioned Frankenstein switch for receive and transmit. Have to throw it manually for changeover, in fact, which should make it easier for most.”

“What?” gasped Hendrik. “What did you say?”

“A doubled knife-switch,” I said. “Comes from some weird talk I once heard. I've used equipment like this before, and made it from scratch, also.” I then almost giggled.

“What is so funny?” asked Hendrik.

I made this 'mad-scientist laugh' that nearly put Sarah on the floor and Hendrik under his desk. I then looked around, and Rolf gasped, “now how did you laugh like that?”

“Bad joke, I guess,” I said. “Comes from some, uh, visual story I once saw. Really strange, used a lot of equipment like I'm talking about, only... Only the reason I was laughing was 'this is about right for our level of understanding, and we can actually make gear like this readily'. That was what had me laughing.”

“Good that you know it, then,” said Hendrik, as he came out from under his desk. His hair was filled with sawdust, or particles of rotten wood. “Now, if you can get Georg out of the privy, as you just put him there with your joke, then you can go shoot the house up and get rid of some of the rats. We've seen two in here today so far, and I think they are just getting started.”

Maria then emerged with her fowling piece on its strap, a ledger in one hand, and a 'writing dowel' in another. She looked around, saw that infernal tome, then said, “I'm set for rats. Now are you two?”

“Yes,” said Hendrik. “They propose to thin them out upstairs while teaching someone with a huge witch-price upon his head how to defend himself, as he's as much a reason for them coming here in droves as nearly anything or anyone else. That, and he” – here, Hendrik indicated me “made a suggestion regarding a close-shuttered scribe-room and this other thing he calls a radio.”

“Nice music, also,” I said. “Imagine, if you will, having a private – a quiet one, but still – a small private orchestra you can relax to when the strain gets too much.”

“Then I know I will wish it,” said Maria. “I'm not much regarding music, even if I do have an instrument.”

“What kind?” asked Sarah.

“A small travel-guitar, much like Hans has,” she said.

“Go fetch it,” said Sarah. “I have played those some before, even if I do much better with violins.”

“Why?” asked Maria.

“We were told he could play,” said Sarah, meaning me, “and I suspect he will need little or no teaching.”

“Today?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Sarah. “It might help. Besides, shipboard life can become a bit tiresome, and if you or someone can play music...”

“I doubt I will have time, actually,” I said.

“You will have time in that hotel room,” said the soft voice, “and you will have time once you get there and get out of one of their hospitals. You will want something to do other than sew gloves for shooting, help prepare meals, devour Kuchen, and all the other matters that will be needed for you to do while there – and besides, Sepp wishes to learn to play music, and Sarah can teach him.”

I shook my head, but when Maria not merely fetched out Georg, who was shaking like a leaf, but also a small yet well-made acoustic guitar, I was consumed with longing.

I wanted one like my last one, and that badly, along with an amplifier.

A good amplifier – one with tone, as Annistæ would say. I wanted one that sounded like...

The instrument was placed in my hands. Its neck seemed uncommonly thin, for some reason, but when I turned the instrument 'upside down', Sarah asked, “how will you play...”

My hands instinctively found what I knew to be a chord, then with my fingers of my right hand fretting the strings 'strangely', I did something with both hands working rapidly in so strange a fashion that a rapid-fire series of notes came from the instrument. I then ran a single-note scale, my hands now blurring...

And with each note, the sound seemed to be changing, growing louder, beginning to scream and wail like the music of only one place, a place not of this earth, a place where one could find no evil, as evil was not permitted there.

It could not stand this kind of sound.

“Good God!” screeched Hendrik. “What did you do?”

An urgent tap upon the door, then Annistæ came in. “Where is this man playing? He sounds like Roberto hijé Ion!”

“Do that again,” said Sarah. “She needs to hear this, and then she can tell Hendrik what you are doing.”

I again did that rapid single-string run, only I did not stop there. I began to 'compose' something so strange that it sounded at once 'really good' and 'really alien' – as in this was the sort of music one might well hear in space.

Or, in his stranger moments, from the man his-own-self when he was in the mood for playing it.

I wondered if I could get 'sustain' out of the thing, and hit a note and held it. The screaming sound continued for at least three or four seconds before it began to fade, but then I decided to face a wall, and then...

I actually began to get feedback.

That put a boost to my efforts, and for the next three minutes or so – it felt like an hour – I was playing like I never could play before. My fingers were moving so rapidly, both chords, extended single-string runs, and odd vibrato-like string bends – as well as several 'dive-bombs' that were normally impossible with such an instrument – that the noise seemed to both swell, and, in the background, it caused both an audience to gather...

And, it separated the sheep from the goats. Everyone still even a trifle inclined toward witchdom wanted to storm the door where I was making this 'infernal racket', and when I let up, I could smell the biting reek of smokeless powder.

A lot of burnt smokeless powder, and the tap at the door let in Gabriel, this with his fowling piece broken open, smoke coming out of both breach and muzzles, and a belt of shells, many of them used, their still smoke-trickling mouths testifying to real use. He had two shells in his fingers, ready to dump them into the breach.

“Good,” said Georg as he emerged from what was obviously the privy. He'd wiped himself well, commendably. “It's more than just me who uses one of those.”

“Y-yes, and I have seen the hare, and it was too big to believe,” said Gabriel shakily. “I was on the firing line, and I was shooting witches, and they were coming for us with their knives and screaming curses both in bad language and runes, and that music – that music was beyond my understanding, but I could understand how it would make them hate it and us.”

“Meaning he fought for his life and ours,” I said. “Now, hopefully... I then looked at the strings, and discovered that not only did I need tailor's antiseptic for both hands, but that every single string had gone slack. I had to tune them with Sarah's help, though by the time I had done so, she was shaking her head.

“Uh, why, dear?” I asked, as we left the room to head back toward where Gabriel was being taught. I was hoping my jeweler's anvil was handy, along with my leather tools and that one sewing kit.

“You could keep up with Anna, all right,” said Sarah. “I saw your fingers move, and they were so fast that it looked like you had two extra hands, but that noise!”

“Yes, and I need to hear that 'noise' a lot,” said Annistæ. “It makes the chemicals behave better, and that is always a good thing.”

“What?” I gasped. This whole matter smacked of witchcraft, but a glance to our left showed droves of fallen bodies in slow-growing pools of blood. I counted over a dozen with a glance, each one slowly going rotten, each one clutching a going-to-rust blade of some kind. They would need interment quickly if we were to get use of them, either that or wait until they were entirely dust and then merely sweep them up and mound them on the dung-pile.

, it does,” said Annistæ. “I am not sure why, but if you can get good music, they seem to behave better, and I know I feel better, and that helps too.” Pause, then, “now how is it he gets tone out of such an instrument, and then why are his hands bleeding like that?”

“It happens,” I said. “We need tailor's antiseptic, but we have none.” Pause. “Got one of those smaller vials?”

Sarah quickly found one of the smaller plastic containers, one with a screw top lid, and after I asked that she or someone write upon it 'tailor's antiseptic', I asked that it be filled with wine from the kitchen's jugs. That took perhaps ten minutes, and when Sarah came back, she was holding a rag that smelled of vomit. I took the stuff in one still-bleeding hand, then shook it hard while praying – and then handed it back to Sarah. She uncapped the stuff, and the instant reek of 'high-test' suffused the room.

“Good that you have some,” said Gabriel. “If you can put it on my back, I'll try to not scream too much.”

“What?” gasped Anna, as I got my own rag dampened with it. “That smells a lot like tailor's antiseptic, but I think it is a lot stronger in some way.”

“Burns like fire, also,” I said, as I put it on my bleeding fingers. I then had Anna looking at me intently.

“How did that happen?” she asked.

“He was playing something like what Hans has, only I think Maria has hers from a better luthier,” said Sarah. “He made all of its strings go slack inside of three minutes by the clock, but such music!”

“Was that what I heard?” asked Anna. “I had to shoot three people who were screaming curses and runes, and they all were glowing red like fetishes, so I knew they were witches.”

“Wanted to be, anyway,” I said. “I have never been able to do that before, but I know what I want, now. I had one once, but I could never play it.” Pause. “Now I can.” Left unsaid, was “I want my Seymour Duncan amplifier, a close-backed cabinet with Celestion speakers, and a solid body electric guitar, one cut to fit me!”

“Yes, and they will read your mind about that,” said the soft voice. “They will try to get you those parts, as they will like those noises even more than people do here.” Pause, then, “of course, having such an instrument handy will flush functionaries out of their hiding places like no tomorrow.”

“It will?” I asked.

“Why do you think those running that place more or less forbid all music?” asked the soft voice. “They're just like witches that way – hell has nothing like music, and witches want nothing to do with it, and the more it sounds like what you just played, the more it 'gets to them' – which is why Gabriel had his baptism of fire, and he was very much doing his part 'repelling the boarder'. He's also quite sore.”

“So he can use a fowling piece,” I said. “He said he could, at least to some degree, and it seems he took to what we have readily.” Pause, then, “how many more in the manure pile?”

“Latest count we have is eighteen,” said Anna. “You nearly got to all of those people with what you were doing. Now is there some way I can hear that without you tearing your hands up?”

Cé, but he will need to use the right equipment for it,” said Annistæ. “That type must be played slow, and he was not doing that, but very fast, if I go by what I was hearing when I was shooting next to this man and teaching him how to fight Cabroni. There is this one place where we were that makes it a lot easier, so they must come single file, and if you have three people shooting, and another to guard your back, then it is easy to deal with them if you have sufficient supplies, and we had those.”

“Now, Gabriel, I have this rag,” said Anna. “Bandages for this large of an injury are hard to find right now, so the best I can do is wipe it off carefully. This will burn some, but I suspect it will help close those things up if it is done regularly.”

“Get on with it, then,” said Gabriel through gritted teeth. “My shoulder feels very sore.”

“Yes, I know,” said Anna. “I lost a toe to witches not two days ago, so I can tell a lot of things I used to think I knew, and I have something of an idea as to what you just endured. Mine lasted what seemed days.”

“It feels like that when you are fighting, but hearing music like that makes it a lot easier,” said Annistæ. “It tells you what you are fighting for, and more, why those who want to kill you wish to do so.”

After cleaning up Gabriel's back – it was still 'sore', and he would have some degree of scarring, but it was no longer 'dirty' or 'messy' – he was rubbed well with Komaet for his shoulder.

He also spewed repeatedly, but when he was done, he thanked Anna for what she had done for him. He then gave his undivided attention to weapons training, and within perhaps half an hour of frantic leather-work, fitting three swords and a dagger with 'workable' scabbards – they would need sewing later, but the rivets would do for now – we began what I jokingly thought of as 'the rat patrol'.

The gunfire started surprisingly quickly, as not merely had that frantic three minutes of playing 'like I was on fire' dislodged everyone even remotely inclined toward witchdom that was on the premises; it had also 'discombobulated' every rat in sight, and the stinkers were absolutely crawling out of the 'woodwork'.

“This place is starting to sound like a shooting gallery,” I spat, as I drilled three rats in a row with my suppressed pistol as fast as I could count, with my shotgun on its strap on my left shoulder, my rifle on my right, and my machine pistol hung in front. Even at thirty yards, a nine gram slug from one of these pistols stopped a common-sized rat with authority pretty much no matter where they were hit. “Enough noise to make the ears ring like chimes...” Pause, two more rats shot. “Was the west school like this?”

“Yes, some times it was,” shouted Sarah, as she shot another rat, this being a shot long enough to want a machine pistol. “We will have that manure pile smoking like a burn-pile after today, as that noise you were making...” Pause, then, “will we hear such noise again?”

“Yes, and sooner than you might think, dear,” said the soft voice. “What you were hearing came straight from me, and evil cannot stand such music. Hence he was 'given' that composition.”

“Good,” said Anna. “It needs to be played in churches a lot, as then nothing of the witch will be inside such a place.”

“They would call such stuff 'the devil's music',” I spat.

“That should tell you just how evil that place really is,” said the soft voice. “The last of the 'Songs' speaks of every known instrument in the time and place of its writing. Obviously, the writers didn't know anything about 'valfuelæ', or some of the other things that are used up here.” Pause, then, “just because those tubes are microwave-capable doesn't mean they will work poorly at audio frequencies, and they have suitable drivers for 'horns' in large numbers overseas. You'll be bringing back a number of them, in fact.”

“Oh, and a pair of those transmitting tubes for a back end,” I said. “Now, do they have transformers suitable for keeping a pair of those things happy?”

“No, but they can make them fairly quickly once they read your mind,” said the soft voice. “They'll make good ones, by the way – ones that you will not be able to 'smoke' or burn up.” Pause, then, “what you make will sound good if it is on, by the way – and loud will be no word for that amplifier.”

“Good,” said Gabriel. “If it keeps witches away, then I want to be able to hear it.”

“Perhaps headphones, then,” I said. “Those can be quite soothing for sleeping. I used to use them, in fact, and that gives me much of a reason to make good radios, ones that will pick up everything.” I then joked about 'an all-continent twelve – as in having twelve tubes.

Such a radio would be a very hot item, one that could hear any signal that was present, nearly, and having a very wide range. It would be nearly as good as an old Collins unit I once used for a while.

“What would that be?” asked Esther. She paused, then as a hoard of rats came out in a piled-together tumble, “fowling piece time. We have hit the mother-rat lode here, as they speak in the mining country.”

The rats spread out in all directions, and here, I learned about what I would soon call 'third-kingdom reloads' and then 'Island reloads' – as in I shot my pistol dry, then went to the machine pistol, shot it dry, then went to one of the clockwork marvels, and finally was about to reach for a hand-howitzer when the rats suddenly 'vanished'.

They'd left an absolute hoard of dead behind them, such that the floor to our front and each side was paved with dead rats for a distance of nearly fifty feet in all directions, and two or more people were either wringing their hands, rubbing their shoulders, or in my case, both. I wondered just how I had managed to get so sore when I saw my rifle dangling from its strap, its bolt locked back on an empty chamber, and my ears ringing. Only the shotgun had not seen use, and I had been about to grab for that one as well as the pistol.

“How did I do that?” I asked.

“I think it wise to learn that matter,” said Gabriel quietly, as he stifled a moan. “Now about these blue-suited functionaries – do they come with such suddenness?”

“No,” said Sarah. “They're worse, and not a little worse, and you must shoot them solidly indeed, as while many of them will go down readily, if you should happen on one out of perhaps ten, that person will act like a hard-witch, or a fifth kingdom mining town thug full of forty-chain or whiskey.”

“They act like they're utterly trashed,” I said. “No smarts, no common sense, and if you get their some of their worst, then it's definitely like getting dusted by one of those huge hares – you will be filthy, and you will feel as if you just got done fighting a real war when it is over.”

“And sore enough for two such wars, if one of them gets you with his club,” said Sarah. “One of them broke my leg, in fact.”

Gabriel was staring at Sarah, and then, he began shuddering.

“That should tell you plenty,” said Deborah. “Any thug who could put something on her is not a commonplace thug, but an especially bad one, and that type is not particularly rare over there.” Pause, then, “I really think you might want to help out with a fire-breather, actually, as the shooter needs his or her back guarded well, and that wants two people, unless the person shooting is using a bag for the thing's belt and doesn't mind being sore enough to wish to bathe in that Geneva some wretch named Komaet.”

“You did not hear that rhyme I heard in my dream, dear,” said Anna. She was reloading, while someone else was using tongs to bag up still-hot empties. We had littered the floor with such things, and I hoped we would find more overseas. We'd otherwise need to use blades a lot more than I wanted to.

“Still going to need to poke and slice a lot of those thugs, though,” I said. “At least I can tell you about those latest knives.”

“Yes, I can also,” said Deborah. “I have my own, now, and a sword, though I barely know what to do with it.”

“Give us an hour for a break while we are packing,” said Sepp, “and we'll teach you how to use it.”

“Yes, for swords,” said Sarah ruefully. “You might well be surprised at her should it come to knives, and then him if it comes to such matters, also.”

“Why?” asked Sepp. “He's...” Sepp shook his head, then, “no, I think not. I've seen him work on birds, and he's good enough to do surgery if such could be done, and then he does leather, and then he's the best with a sword there is that I know of, and...” Pause, then, “fighting?”

“I saw what he did, and quick is no word for it,” said Sarah. “Then, there are flails.”

“God help you if you get close to him when he has those going,” said Gabriel. “I saw the mess, or part of it, and I heard the noise, and I know he caused more trouble with those things than a dozen masters with what he was using then.”

“Noise?” I asked.

“Yes, very shrill,” said Gabriel. “It was like out of an old tale, or a bad dream, one I barely recall, something about going at speeds nearing those of a wood-pigeon, and passing these metal wagons, all of them going at similar speeds, only the source of that noise was between my legs, and it sounded both very shrill and like a hornet the size of a bee-log, a very angry hornet, and it was going past these wagons at a speed that would frighten me out of three years growth.”

“Better get used to such noises, as you will hear ones similar in the future,” said the soft voice. “Some you will hear within a matter of a handful of days.”

“ Cé, that sounds like a fuel-saw,” said Annistæ. “That would be a smaller one, one used for cutting wood into pieces fit for carrying on mules or donkeys, not one used to fell trees. Those are larger, and need two people to run, and a third to keep fuel and oil in them.”

“What?” I asked.

“Then, there must be a ring of people around where they are using them, as they draw Cabroni like manure draws flies, and there are usually a lot of them, so they go in their tanks, and the wood remains go in their tanks, so we get farolcumbusteblé and paper from such work, along with that wood that we need for making things like small things to sell to our north.” Pause, then, “our furniture, or that which is most liked, it is made of bound glass.”

“Fiberglass?” I gasped.

“Cé, that is what it would best be named,” said Annistae. “That type does not go bad down there, and it is pierced, so it is cooler to sit on. Wood goes bad in that place, though not like it does around here. Here, were it possible, you would do better to use bound glass or metal if you could get the right kind.”

“With cloth pads, I suppose,” I said. “Correct? Ones that could be washed readily, and stuffed with this, uh, waste material for padding?”

“Cé,” she said. “That is best, though one must figure on putting such stuffing in one's wood-tanks when it starts to go bad.”

The rats we left to the cleaners, as these were commonplace rats, and those did not tend toward cannibalism. Not even a single part-white rat was present, and when two people came with a barrel and two pairs of 'rat-tongs', I was overjoyed.

They, however, were not, even as we continued to clean up our expended cartridges.

“Going to need to comb that manure pile for shot,” I muttered. “Gabriel, you have enough shells?”

“Ten more on this belt, and then several more in each pocket,” he said. “I take it that you have an unusual fowling piece?”

“Yes, I do,” I said. “They have rats over there, as well as these things people here call burrowing rodents and they call hamsters, for some arcane reason, and when one of those shows, I'm going to blow him up good – and the same for close-in functionaries.” Pause, then, “save your loads marked 'S' if you can, as those are best for functionaries, though they all seem to work if you're close enough.”

“They can be reloaded?” asked Gabriel.

“Yes, especially those, and we have the tools and some supplies,” I said. “I suspect that's going to be much of what we do when we hole up to 'rest' – reload ammunition, clean weapons, and make, uh, bombæ with these things called training aids, hot-melt glue, and wasp-shot – presuming we can get hot-melt glue.”

“Easily,” said the soft voice. “They have kits on the boat, and securing a couple will be a matter of asking for them.” Pause, though, “they'll be doing their own mischief, by the way, especially if you take down enough of the Draekkstaame, as they call it.”

“Ooh, that word sounds bad,” said Sarah. She was still reloading. We would not be able to deal with a mother-rat load again, I suspected, though the other rats in the area would still need shooting. “What does it mean?”

“What many people over there call 'the system',” said the soft voice. “It is a rough translation from an intercept, one by someone who's nearly as popular as that one man.”

“Bobs,” I muttered, this time getting the two syllable pronunciation correctly. I was stuffing my own magazines, wary still for rodents. Gabriel startled me by firing his shotgun.

“There,” he spat. “That one was waiting for its chance. It was a white one, or I'm a mule.”

Gabriel proved himself not merely correct, but at ten yards, 'Señor Rat' had its head and upper body turned into a sieve. Because it was a white rat, however, I knew that those were trouble, so I sliced its head off with my sword.

“It had been about to wake up and get over it,” I said. “That's one reason you want a club or a sword over there – any rat that's that color, or any big one, is going to want decapitation to make sure it's dead. They don't get over that. I put no less than fourteen rounds from a machine pistol into a larger one like that earlier today, then shot out both of its eyes at close range, and it still needed using my sword.” Pause, this as I wiped down the blade, “you'll get your knife shortly. You'll want it, and tonight, everyone who goes sleeps with their weapons in their hands, all up on the fourth floor in Annistæ's rooms, and we'll finish up there with her stuff after we do our own – which, I'm glad, we'll have help with.”

There was no mother-rat lodes left on the first floor, even if we went into rooms that the cleaners had not gotten to yet and flushed individual 'mother rats', and these swollen creatures were the very picture of irritation and fury. A shot in the head from a pistol settled them, and their carcasses were dragged out into the middle of the floor. The floor in much of the area was becoming bloody, and by the time we'd hit most of it, the rats were either laying low, or were more or less dead.

“Probably going into hiding for a while,” I muttered. “How many barrels of rats we get, anyone?”

“Two at the least,” said Esther, as she fired her pistol at a fleeing rat some forty feet away. The rat did a flip and lay still. “That's the kind of shot you need to be able to make, just draw your weapon, click off the safety, and fire it. That quick, and then hit what you aim at 'most every time. Then you can go up against blue-suited thugs and not worry overmuch.”

“Do not underestimate those thugs,” said Sarah ominously. “We may have fought many of their worst, but when they come at you in a big swarm and they're as stinky as anything, you'd best shoot hard and make every bullet count, as they can break heads as easily as legs with those clubs they have.”

“We can use their clubs to break heads, also,” I said. “She and I did that a lot yesterday. Easier on the ears, too.”

“Then I think I want one of their clubs,” said Gabriel. “We have some, don't we?”

“Yes, a dozen or so, all of which want wiping well with aquavit. Now, do we do the second floor, or the third floor, where the rats are really common?”

“Best get some reloads before we do that, and I think we'd best get to our packing. Gabriel, I have no idea as to what or how much you can do, but I suspect you can do something other than cause trouble.” Pause, then, “fetch the last of your empties, bag them up, and then let's find a room a bit bigger than that one we were teaching Gabriel in. It is time to start our packing.”