The fifth kingdom's mess, part b.


Morning arrived with the smell of cooking food and an omnipresent sensation of warmth and moisture. I blinked my eyes to clear them of grittiness, then sat up. I could hear a great multitude engaged in something of 'dire' importance, and I wondered what that activity was. I folded my cover-sheet carefully and then lay it upon the cot.

“Now that looks better,” said Lukas.

I stood and walked slowly to the sound of his voice and was astonished to see him looking at the place on Gilbertus' leg that I had bandaged the day prior.

“Uh, what...”

My voice trailed off at the sight of a near-invisible scar where the wound had been yesterday, and as Gilbertus moved the bandage down further – it had come untied – I gasped.

“H-healed already?”

“I suspect so,” said Gilbertus, “and I think I know why, too.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Those pigs in that place aren't wasting time,” he said, “and they'll keep eating as long as they're able.”

“Hence a pig-hunt?” I asked.

“You may wish to check the outer wall first,” said Gabriel.

“O-outer w-wall?” I asked. “What...?”

“He's right,” said Lukas. “That place smells bad in there, and if it has half as many dead witches in it as I suspect it does, then we don't want to leave them long.”

“Flies?” I asked.

“Those also,” said Gabriel. “The fifth kingdom was said to be the worst for sickness...”

“It's bad enough,” said Lukas. “Those pigs can wait until we do up the stable proper.”

Our beer and bread proved markedly depleted, or so I thought when I went to get some of each. To my surprise, the 'camp oven' was in use – someone had loaded up the brazier with scraps of wood, and the oven was perched atop it – and the smell spoke of bread baking. I thought to ask a question.

“Decent rye bread...”

“Is to the north,” said Hendrik. “If they want that here, the grain will need to be brought in.”

“And ground here, and then baked in the house proper,” intoned Gabriel. “At least we have this.”

My thoughts, however, were directed toward the stable, and once I'd gotten a hasty breakfast down, I led the two older men with me to the inner stable door.

The part-open door showed splintered planks and bent iron strapping as I drew closer, and when I reached toward its bent and twisted handle, I hesitated. There were two dead witches blocking the doorway, and I knew one of them had something well-hid upon his person.

“Time for a rope,” I murmured, as I began backing away cautiously. “One of these thugs has a trick somewhere...”

Lukas handed me a small coil of thin gray 'string', and I went to my knees to crawl forward. For some reason, the two older men hung back, and when I paused to look behind me, I understood why.

The beginnings of a crowd had already begun to show, and the first among them was that one dark-haired woman. She was helping the two men hold the multitude at bay.

I came to the arm of one of the witches, then touched it. The chill snake-like sense I felt spoke loudly of my suspicion, and I gave word to it as I began tying a knot around his wrist.

“This wretch has a bomb of some kind,” I spat, “and he primed it just before...”

The knot was done. I began backing carefully, even as footsteps behind me spoke of a moving multitude. I needed to be as careful as I could, as something about the device used meant for exceeding hazard. I came to the end of the 'string' and its wooden 'handle' – it was shaped like an old-fashioned wooden thread-spool – then reached into my possible bag for more.

I wanted to give myself plenty of room when the two witches and their bombs went.

I pocketed the handle, then carefully tied on the end of one of my coils. As I tied the knot, I heard behind me muttering about the nature of witch-bombs and their trickiness, then clearly, much as if she'd been practicing the remark for hours, the dark-haired woman said, “I've heard of these people doing things like this, and when they do, they stint neither powder nor distillate.”

“Dynamite, dear,” I muttered, as I stood up. “That upper wretch has at least three sticks in a bundle, two caps with quickmatch, and this weird thing that's sensitive enough to explode if you look at it wrong...”

I finished my second knot, and began backing up while paying out more string. Again, I heard talk from behind – I was focused entirely upon what I was doing – then from the direction of the stable door, I heard yells followed by the noises of a scuffle.

I froze in place, then as I looked up, I saw Gabriel attempt to break free from a swarming maelstrom of thrashing bodies not ten feet from the stable's door, and as my eyes were drawn to his face, I shuddered to see waxen blank-staring oblivion.

“I think he needs trussing,” said Gilbertus from directly behind me, “as if I've ever seen anyone being ridden, I'm seeing it now.”

“Trussing?” I asked abashedly.

“And who's to do it?” asked Lukas pointedly. “I'm surprised he ain't spreading it out.”

“A c-club?” I asked absent-mindedly.

“Good idea,” said Lukas. He then yelled, “club that wretch and get him clear o' that stable.”

Two men broke clear of the 'scrum' and ran for the stable door, while the thrashing mound seemed to waver and shift in the fast-growing heat of morning. Another swarm came out of the stable door seconds later, and as I watched, three of them began thumping Gabriel – and those near him – as if crazed.

“There,” said Lukas. “Now we can do this and not get killed.”

For an instant, I wondered as to why both older men sometimes spoke in educated voice, and other times, as if 'old countrymen', then put the matter out of my mind. I resumed backing, then when I reached the end of my rope – I'd used a small block of oiled cherry wood for a 'winder' – I knelt down, then went prone.

“We'd best do likewise,” said Gilbertus. “He knows what he's doing.”

I waited what seemed an hour to me, though it was actually closer to seconds while those with me 'assumed the position'. The last of the 'scrum' had just vacated the area where Gabriel had attempted to kill us all.

“What am I thinking?” I thought. Then, however: “what was he trying to do?”

There was no answer to either train of thought, and I brought the 'string' taut, then began gently pulling. The thug's arm began moving, then his upper body twitched...

A brilliant white flash strobed thunderously amid a fireball so huge that its heat and smoke washed over us like a hurricane, and the screams surrounding me drowned out my own frightened outburst.

“I-is anyone h-hurt?” I asked. My voice had more than a little of 'snivel' in it.

“What was that?” asked a man's voice to my right.

“A trap,” said Gilbertus flatly, “and he knew about it. If Gabriel had reached it...”

“We all would have d-died,” said the man. “What was that man, a witch's fully-owned slave?”

“I'm not sure w-what he is,” said Lukas' shaky voice, “but I am sure he's getting trussed the next time he tries acting or speaking like he sometimes does.”

“Aye,” said Gilbertus. “Now I hope that mess isn't too bad...”

When I finally resumed my feet, the flames still flickered and sputtered around a huge soot-stained place where the inner door had once been, and as I began rewinding my rope, I began muttering. While the rope had saved my life, I was sorry at some level for its misuse; so much so that when I came to where I'd tied it to the other, I was not prepared for the outburst that came from my right.

“How did that knot hold like that?” asked a woman's voice as the ropes untwisted in my hands.

“He don't tie knots good,” said Lukas.

“Why?” asked another voice plaintively from deep within the crowd at my back as I pocketed my rope-bundle and withdrew Lukas' 'spool'.

“It's not through lack of practice, nor effort,” said Lukas, “as I've watched him close when he does tie string and such.” A brief pause, then, “and if I put that much work into my knots, they'd need God himself to untie them, and no mistake.”

I began winding the 'string' from where I stood. While my 'rope' – perhaps half again as thick as what Lukas had, if otherwise nearly identical – had reached perhaps a hundred feet, Lukas' 'string' was perhaps two thirds of that length. More importantly, we had needed nearly all of that distance so as to not be injured, and...

“Now this is bad,” said a man's voice from my right. “This ain't no smithy.”

“I'd not touch it, then,” said a woman's voice from behind me. “It's likely to be hot.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“A piece of hot iron,” said the voice of that one dark-haired woman, “and if I guess right, those thugs bound it and pieces like it around their charges so as to hurt and kill people.”

“Aye, and he does the same,” said Lukas, “though his pieces are usually a good bit smaller than that one.” A pause, then, “that thing looks about right for forging a horse's shoe.”

I had continued winding Lukas' 'string' during the whole of the conversation, and when I came to the end, I nearly dropped the 'spool' in shock.

“It-it's n-not b-b-burnt...” I squeaked. “H-how..?”

Lukas gently took his 'spool', then said, “now this is a neat job here, and no damage to this stuff, either.” A pause, then, “now how could that happen, seeing as how that had to be half a box o' dynamite and five jugs of that cleaning solution they use down here?”

I had no answer for him beyond the still-smoking hole in the wall that lay across the churned and scorched grass of the 'compound'.

The sun was beginning to beat down fiercely, and as I looked around the place, I noted the exact time of 'morning' as being shortly after sunrise. The flames had died down to show a ragged-edged hole where the inner door of the stable once stood, along with a dim smoke-shadowed light coming from somewhere outside.

“It's time,” I muttered, as I began advancing upon the doorway.

My recollection of exploration I had done but hours prior seemed to beat heavily upon my mind, even as I came to the ruined doorway. I expected to see vast numbers of bodies, and my expectations were indeed come to pass, save for one chief matter:

The explosion had flung them around such that a scorched and smoking path went nearly to the outer door, while smoldering bodies lay piled chest and head-high to each side of it, and the previous 'stench of death' had been replaced in part by the reek of burnt flesh. More importantly, certain odors were nearly gone.

“What?” I gasped, as I touched the still-warm stones that had once supported the door. “No paint-remover?”

“That fire most likely burnt all of that stuff up,” said Lukas. “We'd best not waste time with this mess.”

I wondered for a moment at his new-found confidence, then stepped cautiously inside. An instant of reflection, then, “did that explosion set off others?”

“I suspect it did,” said Lukas, “as these witches are scattered good in here.” A pause, then, “what were they like?”

“Uh, last night?” I asked.

While there was no obvious answer, I continued on ahead of the 'crowd'. Soft speech spoke of not touching anything except if I touched it first or indicated it was safe, while faint comments spoke of odors, danger – and, seconds later, 'an old coach'.

“Don't even think of going close to that thing,” said the voice of the dark-haired woman. “I heard talk of what Cardosso used when he came down this way, and that coach might be his.”

“It was, uh, marked on the side with r-runes on this strange metal plaque,” I said. “Does that mean anything?”

“Those tales spoke of that kind,” said Gilbertus warily. “There were said to be but a few done like that, and all of them belonged to especially bad witches.”

“But a few?” I asked. We had passed the realm of the 'great beast', and upon recalling that expression, I asked, “uh, does the term 'great beast' mean anything?”

“It's his, then,” said the woman, “as he was said to speak of it that way.”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “That thing...” A pause, then, “why aren't we all being ridden like mules?”

“No handy fetishes?” I asked. “I'll need to, uh, deal with that thing soon.”

An unspoken question briefly bloomed in my mind, and I continued speaking, even as we came abreast of the 'workshop'. It lay thickly shrouded with smoke, and its stench spoke loudly of death.

“When 'soon' will be depends on several things, chief among them dealing with these, uh, thugs in here,” I murmured. “I doubt it will happen today.”

The bodies began closing in about half-way between the two alcoves to the left, and as I drew even with the closer portion of where the two coaches had been parked, our path vanished utterly to show another massive hole in the wall of the stable but thirty feet away.

That thirty feet, however, was now paved thickly with bodies, and finding a place to put one's foot upon the stable floor looked to be difficult indeed.

“N-no,” I murmured. “P-please, I d-don't want to w-walk on these...”

“We'll need to move them clear anyway,” said a voice from behind, “so why...”

“Klais, it might not bother you to see this many dead,” said a woman's voice sharply, “but it sounds like it bothers him.” A brief pause, then, “does it?”

I was about to speak when Lukas said, “he don't much care to walk on dead witches, and I'm not inclined much that way either.”

“They're trouble, dead or alive,” said Gilbertus, “and dead like this, they'll draw flies in swarms.”

“And those are bad trouble,” said the dark-haired woman. “Gisela, find a rope. I think I know a way to move these stinkers without touching them overmuch.”

Commotion to the rear spoke of at least one person's leaving the area, and as I began looking among the piled bodies ahead for possible places where I might find bare spots upon the floor, I heard the beginnings of an answering commotion to the front. For a moment, I wondered as to the possible source.

Were the witches returning?

Or was the source otherwise?

I continued listening while attempting to spy a possible path among the mounded corpses, until with a shocking whistle to my right a thick and bristly rope flew up into the 'rafters'. It began sliding back down under the influence of gravity until its knotted end caught in a 'V' shaped area where three thick timbers joined one another.

“Now what..?” I asked.

A shadow leaped to my right, and with a rustling wind, that dark-haired woman sailed across the bodies of the witches at the end of the rope. She went well-past the half-way point, then slid with the rope still in her hands until she landed upon the threshold of the door some thirty feet away. She'd avoided contact utterly, or so I thought.

“I'm across,” she said. “Loop that free end around one of those thugs, and I can drag him out.” She then looked to her left, hitched visibly – then squeaked like a crushed mouse.

“Y-yes?” I asked softly.

“We had best be getting these stinkers out,” she said, “as there is a big mess out here too, and the merchants are opening their doors for business.”

Two men looped the rope under the arms of a witch, and while a third man held the free end of the rope, the woman began dragging him out. I was afraid for her safety, so much so that once the rope had come back, I asked to use it. There were questions as to why, which did not surprise me.

“I just need it so to climb up into those, uh, beams overhead,” I said, “and I can get close to the front of the building.” A brief glance at the door, then, “and we can clear these thugs quicker with two of us hauling on that end of the rope.”

I paused, waiting for an answer, and when one did not come within seconds, I sprang for the rope. While I vaguely recalled climbing ropes – I had not done so in many years – I found it astonishingly easy to shinny up the fifteen feet or so that dangled down from the rafters. Once I'd put my hand on the thick gnarled beam above my head, though... I found myself lost.

“Now how do I get up in there?” I thought, as I let go of the rope and grabbed the beam with my other hand.

“Walk with your hands,” said the woman. “You don't have that far to go.”

I put my right hand out and grabbed the beam, then the left. I managed perhaps six inches with each such exchange at first, but within seconds, I had acquired a definite body-swinging rhythm that permitted somewhat further reaches. Ten feet, twelve, fourteen, nearly half-way; and I noted something strange at the juncture of beam and wall ahead of me.

“That's, uh, a ladder,” I gasped, as I continued swinging hand-past-hand along the beam. “I can climb down most of the way on it.”

Twenty, twenty-two feet, swing-right, swing-left, right again, twenty-five feet, again, again, twice more... Then, a brazen leap – to then land some three rungs down on the ladder with a jarring shock that made me glad for the abundance of nails someone had used to put the ladder together.

At least, until my right foot came to the end of the ladder itself.

“Now what is it you be doing up in that place there?” asked the voice of an obvious stranger. “Her, I know, and the same for some of them in that stable, but you?”

“He's a visitor,” said the woman. Here, she changed the direction she was facing, then a trifle louder, “you'll need to jump the rest of the way.”

“And land on these, uh, thugs?” I asked.

“Better them than the cobbles,” said the stranger. “Now I hope there are enough dead-carts to haul off all o' these people...”

I but heard the first portion to a degree, for I was nerving myself up to jump; and the second portion, I missed entirely, for I was first falling and then landing. The splash I made upon impact startled the woman and drove off our visitor with muttered oaths. His 'dripping' aspect as he scuttled off like a crab gave a likely explanation as to why.

“Now what?” I asked, as I moved out of the 'indoor' mess and into the somewhat lesser mess usurping the cobbled road.

She turned to point with outstretched arm, and my eyes followed the fingers of her hand.

A narrow-seeming road continued east into the malingering mists of the morning, with the house proper providing a wall of sorts on the left for nearly another hundred yards from where we stood. Beyond that point, however, seemed the province of shops of one kind or another; while on the right side, there was no such 'seeming': 'cheek-by-jowl with unbroken sidewalks' described the shops that covered that side of the street, even as I turned and followed them heading west to an intersection perhaps two hundred yards away.

“Wall-to-wall shops, and most of them are either opening or fixing to do so,” I thought, as I bent down to pick up the rope – and as I did so, a portion of my perpetual 'tunnel-vision' slipped away to reveal the contents of the road itself.

“Oh, my!” I squeaked, as my gorge sought to climb out of my mouth. “There are more dead thugs out here than there are in the stables!”

“You left out the mules,” she deadpanned. “That means we must labor.” A brief pause, then pointing again to the east with a slender and somewhat grimy arm, she said, “at least those coaches came to a good end.”

A fire-blackened smoking mess usurped the middle of the eastbound road some two hundred feet away, and while the thugs and mules were amply thick between where we stood and that point, the point itself seemed a tall-mounding bulwark to my vision amid thick blackened puddles of quickly clotting blood.

“Piles of thugs, and heaps of mules,” I gasped. “Both coaches went up in smoke.”

“Yes, I know,” said the woman. Her 'knowing' tone surprised me more than a little. “I'm not at all surprised, either.”

I thought to ask her why, but the reek of death, fire, destruction, and 'mule' was potent and growing more so amid the rapidly growing heat. I kept my peace and lent hands to her wielding of the rope.

While she managed to keep 'our end' sequestered while the 'slow end' went back over the corpses, the yell of 'Ho!' made for a jolt on my part and her beginning to haul the rope back. I wondered as to how to haul on the thing when she gave me the rope.

“That first thug tired me enough to want a rest,” she said. “I think we can trade off, at least for this portion.”

Hand over hand I pulled the blood-slick rope until the mangled body of a witch came too close for comfort. As she untied the knots, she said, “I'm not sure how to pile this many dead.”

“This many?” I asked.

“A full dead-cart's worth of bodies is as much as I have seen at one time,” she said, “at least for the house proper.” A pause, then, “this mess looks to need a great many such carts.”

“Uh, stack them up against the walls?” I asked.

She looked up at me, nodded, then went back with the rope to guide it backwards over the pile.

It was obvious to me that I needed to find a place to lay the dead, and that in some semblance of order. Why I wondered about 'order' seemed especially troubling, at least until I had piled up four thugs head-to-toe in a line against the wall.

“There has to be hundreds of these thugs,” I thought, “and the day isn't getting younger. Those merchants will want to open as soon as they can.”

Accordingly, when I wasn't pulling on the rope, I was dragging bodies out of the way, at least until my third spell on the rope – where I then noticed the growing and sticky redness of the rope itself.

The blood and gore that now caked my hands engendered a sensation that beggared description, and neither mess nor feeling remained in its current state. Each such trip, either dragging a body or hauling on the rope, but added to the horrible sensation that crawled bestially upon my hands. Within minutes, I was wringing my hands and all-but screaming for water – warm, cold, icy, near-boiling – it did not matter as long as I could become clean again.

My hands seemed immured in hell itself, and when I looked up to see two others pulling on the rope I jolted – at least, I jolted until two more came out of an obvious 'path' made through the bodies bearing faintly steaming buckets. I drew near those buckets as if hypnotized.

I was not the first one washing, however. The dark-haired woman was flinging warm water on her clothing when she wasn't up to her elbows in a steamy bucket. I wondered briefly if she was going to bathe in the street when she suddenly shook her head and shied.

“Not here,” she muttered, as she looked around. “I might have bathed in my share of horse-troughs in the past, but not in these parts.”

“Me too,” I whispered, as my hands became satisfied with warm water and a lessening of the glue-like nature of blood upon them. They'd acquired minds of their own once the blood had become too cloying. “The buckets?” I asked.

“There's a path through that mess in there,” she said, as she wandered to where the two of us had dragged out the first batch of bodies. “Someone's found a barrow... no, two barrows.”

“I have an idea,” I said softly.

I was interrupted in my attempt to implement it, for Lukas came out with a wheelbarrow piled high with a trio of bodies. He stopped once he'd gotten clear of the 'doorway', looked to his right, then resumed his passage among the bodies until he saw the small group I'd stacked. On the reverse trip, however, he was shaking his head – until he came even with me.

“Yes?” I asked. “Vast numbers of thugs...”

“Aye,” he said tiredly.

“And building materials are scarce in the area, unless you know the right people,” I said. “Am I right, or..?”

“Near enough,” he said. “I suspect some of these witches have money, though, and that might help some.”

“There are building materials,” said Blackbeard, as he wheeled another barrow. “This one turned up in that scrap pile.” He paused, looked up the road to the east, then jerked.

“I wondered about those things,” he said.

“As to..?” I asked.

“Those coaches, and then those bombs you brought into the stable,” he said.

“D-did you..?”

Blackbeard shook his head, then said, “they looked to be tricky enough for me to want no part of them.” A brief pause, then, “didn't you set them later..?”

“N-no,” I gasped. “Why, did they, uh, vanish?”

“They had gone when I next had chance to look at them,” he said, “and but minutes later, I was far too busy to speak on the matter.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “The thugs..?”

He nodded earnestly, then rubbed his shoulder slightly prior to washing his gore-clotted hands in a bucket.

The bodies steadily piled head-to-toe against the outer wall of the house proper with the passing minutes, and as the disorderly-looking windrows grew higher and wider, red-tinted water splashed upon first the floor of the stable, followed by deluges upon the cobbles of the road. I then looked to the west and saw yet more bodies, these laying chiefly between the ragged hole blown in the outer wall and the 'crossroads' some two hundred yards away.

“Men and mules,” I spluttered. “Do these dead-carts pick up mules?”

“Aye, and they'll want decent money for hauling them,” said Gilbertus. “They'll want enough to haul off these stinkers as it is.” A brief pause, then, “now this 'un is bad.”

“How?” asked Hendrik, as he dragged a body to join a wobbly chest-high mound next to the wall.

“I've heard of this wretch,” said Gilbertus, as he began stripping off the blood-sodden outer garments of the witch. “He might not have been as bad as the head of the Swartsburg, but...”

“He was the head of a large combine,” said Blackbeard. “That makes two of them so far.”

“Two?” I asked.

“Among these dead,” said Blackbeard. “I've recognized over a dozen other important people so far.”

“And this one here is w-worse,” said Karl, as he knelt besides another such crumpled form. He was looking at the dead witch's unclothed upper arm as if to determine if it were still attached. “M-man-ma...”

“Don't say it,” spluttered Kees. “If it is written upon his skin...”

Karl stood bolt upright in apparent terror as he let drop the witch's arm, then nodded. He'd been ready to move the corpse to one of the still-growing mounds, and was now backing away from the badly mangled body in near-panic.

“That would be his cult-name,” said Blackbeard. “Supposedly, each witch has three names.”

“Each made witch, you mean,” said Kees. “Supplicants have but two.”

“As did I,” said Blackbeard. “Talk had it there was another name, one held in secret and told to no-one.” He paused, then said, “I suspect we need to clear a path to the house-road.”

“H-house-road?” I asked. I was again looking for a bucket to wash my gore-clotted hands.

“That road to the west,” said Hendrik. “The dead-carts will come down it, most likely.”

A peculiar question came to me, even as I resumed my hunt for a bucket of clean water. One soon showed, courtesy of the busy multitude within the stable, and as I washed my hands, I asked, “how much will they want to, uh, dispose of these people?”

“Enough that we will wish to search these men for valuables,” said Blackbeard, who looked around absent-mindedly. His eyes seemed to fasten upon the now-barren scar-seamed feet of a witch.

“Not much luck that way,” muttered Lukas, as he indicated the witch's 'weapons'. “Someone's been through their pockets, and no mistake.”

As the lowest corpses became exposed near the ruins of the stable doors, however, I noticed a definite trend: the bodies were mingled with rubble from the doorways. I indicated the broken 'stone' needed to be piled separately from the bodies, and as an afterthought, the coke needed bagging once the bags had been washed of blood.

“Done and done,” said Hendrik. “We are but seeing a portion of the water being pumped.”

“The rest is..?”

“Drowning those coal-bags,” said Kees, “The used water is poured out onto the grass inside.”

Hendrik looked at Kees, then at me, then shrugged his shoulders prior to fetching another corpse.

“Won't it poison the grass?” asked Karl.

“I doubt it,” I said. “As long as they wash the blood down good before feeding animals there, it should cause no trouble.” I paused, lifted another body, then began dragging it by its slimy-feeling cold bare feet to another pile; then, upon 'dropping it off', I said, “besides, dried blood makes decent fertilizer.”

“And the leavings of mules don't,” spat Lukas.

Another hour seemingly passed before there was a clear path from the house-road to the end of the bodies running east, and as the 'teeming throng' stretched and rinsed themselves and their fouled clothing with water in the now-baking morning heat, I recalled one particular thug I had encountered earlier.

“Is that one thug here?” I asked.

“Which thug do you speak of?” asked Blackbeard.

“The one who killed two of his underlings in the cloth-room,” I spluttered.

While there was no answer, I had a distinct impression regarding his demise – while he wasn't among these dead, he had expired recently.

“He managed to get back to his compound before he was overcome by poisoned drink,” said the soft voice.

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“He noticed the taste of arsenic after the third sip,” said the soft voice, “and vomited within minutes.”

“And he still died?” I asked.

“Most arsenic is neither pure nor particularly soluble,” said the soft voice. “Madame Curoue's material was exceptional as to both qualities.”

“Oh...” I murmured.

“Hans has prepared a similar grade in the past,” said the soft voice. “Poison that effectual tends to be indiscriminate if ample care is not taken when it is used. Hence, he's kept quiet about it.”

I was tongue-tied, even if I recalled Hans speaking of arsenic months prior.

“She started with that material,” said the soft voice, “as did Hans, and while their processes were markedly different, the end result was nearly identical.”

I kept the matter to myself as I went inside the stable. There, I saw a steady trudging line of people bearing baskets of coke out into the innermost court, while small 'teams' poured water upon the floor prior to scrubbing it with brooms. The alcove where the old coach lurked saw few come near it, as did the one next to it; and as I looked at the 'trash-dump' so as to figure out how to 'clear' the thing, I heard steps behind me.

“There's no money for dead-carts,” said Blackbeard. “I was hoping to find some of the funds I had once hidden, and...”

“They were scavenged most thoroughly,” said the dark-haired woman. “Based on what I have so far seen, I doubt we will find much upon these people beyond what the scavengers left behind.”

“Or what the witches hid especially well?” I asked.

She nodded solemnly, then produced a small knife from her clothing as she walked outside to where the bodies were being piled. Upon finding an exposed corpse, she slit open the trousers near the groin and then reached in.

To my complete surprise, she drew forth two large silver pieces, followed by a small but heavy thong-tied leather pouch.

“Ah, he had some crude-gold,” she said. “Not many of these witches are likely to carry it.”

“Uh, is this like a special, uh...” I almost said the word 'fetish'.

“'Tis most common hereabouts,” she said. “If you must carry weight, and that slyly, then crude-gold is about the easiest.” A brief pause. “Glass-blower's metal may carry more value for its weight, but it is much harder to spend. Crude-gold is not so.”

“And these people..?”

“I would guess one out of ten to perhaps retain a small pouch in that fashion,” said Blackbeard, “and with so many dead, it will not be nearly enough.”

“And?” I asked. There was more.

“I suspect strongly that the house-funds have been ransacked,” he said.

For some reason, however, I was nowhere near as worried as Blackbeard seemed to be. At first, I put the matter up to my gross unfamiliarity with the area, but as the bodies continued to pile outside in the now-glaring sun, I thought to arrange them such that the dark-haired woman could quietly 'go over them'. This so grasped my mind that I went in search of her.

“There you are,” I said softly when I had located her among a mound of dead. “How can you endure the smell?”

“It is not easy,” she said, “but the stink does more than bother me. It also bothers observers.”

“And these, uh rows?” I asked. I had just noticed them among the formerly solid-seeming windrows of bodies.

“Whoever stacked these stinkers head-to-toes like this must have known about what I would need to do,” she said, “as I can easily check them nearly all of the time.”

“No!” came a hoarse shout from inside. “Nothing of the witch, and that way is...”

“Quiet,” snapped the voice of Lukas. “How did he get loose?”

The talk submerged again, even as I wondered as to how I could help the woman. I watched for a moment as she cut the cloth and then reached inside with slender dexterous hands.

“I doubt that,” said the voice of Hendrik. “This is like some of the larger instrument-making shops in the fourth kingdom when they do things by the numbers.”

“Aye,” said another voice. I could not tell if it was Gilbertus or Lukas speaking, and when I turned, I saw the dark-haired woman speaking to two other women. Both of the visitors had knives and small cloth bags.

The bodies continued mounding before my eyes, so much so that I was astonished to hear the clopping of hooves and the rattling of harness behind me. I turned and nearly dove into a 'bay' between two thick stacks of corpses when I saw an obvious mule but feet away from me.

Thankfully, the animal did not come after me, even if it loosed a blubbering gaseous emission from the hind end and an earsplitting bray from the front, and when I escaped from my 'hiding spot', I saw Lukas speaking with a pair of obvious freighters.

More importantly, two more such men were reaching among the mounded corpses to the east of the 'hole in the wall' and flinging the bodies onto a freight wagon. I went back indoors, and moments later, Lukas joined me where I was inspecting the tools and anvil in the 'shop'.

“Now I just hope they do all o' that,” said Lukas. “I've had to get into our trip-money so's to pay them fellows.”

“Uh, how much money...” My voice trailed off, as I hadn't thought ahead clearly enough to anticipate this particular need.

“Less than I thought there might need to be,” said the voice of the dark-haired woman from somewhere ahead. The mound of coke had diminished drastically in size, and looked to shrink more in the foreseeable future.

“Now where are you?” asked Lukas. “I can tell your voice, if not much more.”

I tried to 'locate' the woman by her faint movements, but when she 'materialized' from behind the forge, she said, “many of those people so far have had their small-pockets rifled.” She looked down at her feet then, and indicated for us to come closer.

I picked my way carefully among the friable lumps of coke scattered over the floor between the pile and anvil, then came to the 'back side' of the forge to find an obvious 'too-big' hand-crank protruding from what might have been a geared-up blower. The woman had knelt down next to a small wooden bucket, and I knelt down with her as Lukas glanced around the 'smithy'.

“Th-this thing's nearly f-full,” I gasped. “W-why didn't we...”

“Part of dealing with freighters, especially in this area, is concealing one's resources,” she said quietly. Lukas looked at her in obvious appreciation, or so I gathered. “Then, if I go to certain places nearby, I can change this for silver.”

“And?” I asked softly. There was still a great deal of activity out in the main area of the stable, even if the place had more or less been cleared of both corpses and the worst of its mess. That was but a portion of my suspicion, however. There was more, and what she was speaking of provided the balance.

“The usual rate is four guilders' silver for five guilders' worth of crude-gold, if it is used directly to purchase,” she said. “If one exercises care in changing it, however, it is possible to get ninety-five guilders of silver, or perhaps more, for one hundred's worth of crude-gold.”

“That's if you're careful where you go and watch the weigh-man close,” said Lukas conspiratorially. “Some of those people finger the scales.”

“Finger the scales..?” I asked. I was feeling confused, and more than merely by the terms used.

“Aye, they put their fingers under the weigh-pan so it balances with smaller weights,” said Lukas, “so you might get three guilders worth of goods for five guilders' gold.”

“And if you watch their scales carefully,” said the woman with a knowing tone, “then you learn which scales give the most value.” She paused, then said, “I've seen some that were quite generous at times.”

“Generous?” I asked.

“Almost as if someone were pulling down on the weigh-pan, instead of pushing up,” she said. “They don't stay that way long, usually.”

I then recalled what Lukas had spoken originally.

“When you spoke first,” I asked, “what did you, uh, refer to?”

“What I asked for,” said Lukas. “They were to bring stone, mortar-fixing's, and tools on their way back.”

“Small amounts, I hope,” she said. “Large amounts of building supplies, unless brought heavily guarded in convoy, tend to be taken at gunpoint.”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “I've heard plenty about how things are in this place, and I suspect you know two things about this place for every one I've thought of.”

The woman 'returned' to the forge, then came back with several more empty bags in each hand. She 'stuffed' them into her clothing somehow, then 'vanished' with a lithe grace that I found more than astonishing. Again, I felt reminded of Sarah.

“I'd watch her close,” said Lukas. His voice was just above a whisper. “I've seen them marked, or I thought I did, and if she ain't that way, she's either known them good or had them in her close relatives.”

“Her mother, supposedly,” I said.

I soon found something similar to a pattern as to where I needed to go, and I made a 'circuit' of the premises: the various portions of the stable where we were 'camped', followed by those portions of the 'main' stables that had activity, then the outer portion of the street. This last needed a certain degree of furtiveness upon my part, as I suspected my presence might well cause trouble. Not two 'runs' of the circuit passed before 'trouble' descended, or so I thought.

“One of those witches was shamming,” said Blackbeard, “and Gilbertus shot him.”

“Did he say anything?” I asked.

“He tried to,” said Blackbeard, “but a short musket's worth of stiff shot in the face silenced him.” A brief pause, then, “and that man had his share of money, also.”

“H-his share?” I asked.

“He'd looted his neighbors,” said Blackbeard, “and he most likely was waiting until it became quiet and he had a chance to escape.”

“Uh, have any weapons turned up?” I asked.

“No, and I suspect why,” said Blackbeard. “Some of them were scavenged by those from without.” A brief pause, then, “more, I suspect, were scavenged by those within.”

“Within?” I asked. “As in those still, uh, holed up in the main building?”

“The same,” he said. “That door to the stable has gathered three witches since we started this morning.”

“Gathered?” I asked. “As in they showed up...”

“And heavily laden with booty,” said Blackbeard. “Those three had nearly eleven hundred guilders between them in coin, and a good deal more in crude-gold.”

“Meaning the treasury still has enough to get by, most likely,” I said.

Blackbeard nodded slowly, then shouldered a fowling piece and went back into the 'mule' portion of the stables.

On my third circuit, I thought to go back into that area myself, and when I came to a region glowing with candles, I ducked my head inside that particular stall.

“Oh, my,” I gasped, as I found building stones being stacked in neat piles. “What is all this?”

As if to answer, three women came by me silent as shadows to then 'disgorge' three more blocks. They wordlessly turned, and as I thought to go after them, a bedraggled-looking man came into the stall. He struggled mightily, then with a faint ripping noise, he brought forth a hefty-looking cloth bag.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Supposedly it's lime,” he said. “The last freighter brought two bags of sand, and it wasn't easy to bring those things in here.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Most of the local merchants are honest,” he said, “at least, honest by the standards of the fifth kingdom house. There are some, though...” Here, he dropped his voice, then said, “some of those people want to be of the fortune hundreds, and when they want to be that way, then...”

“They'll sell their own mothers as marmots, and their children as fresh meat,” said another woman. She had just showed, and her rubbing of her arms indicated soreness appropriate for a well-hid heavy load. “Guido here had his family burnt out one night on account of his uncle helping someone who was hurt, and those people were as good as any for hiding.”

“It was someone they knew?” I asked.

“Not close,” said Guido. “I could never find out who, as three people turned dark within a month's time after.”

“Turned dark?” I asked. I did not speak of my suspicions.

“They left that area,” said Guido, “and left those of us staying to our misery. I saw at least one of them recently in this area, and he was dressed in black-cloth and riding in a coach.”

The recollection of how the Swartsburg had first seemed to me – the black region lived up to its name and legend fully, for it had seemed an outpost of darkness then, with all I saw housed and hidden within and under a deep dark and blackened cloud – seemed to overwhelm my reason. Only a shake of my head dispelled the too-tangible memory from my mind, and that shake tumbled words from my mouth.

“Hence we must conceal matters, much as if we were surrounded within and without by spies,” I muttered. I then looked back up the hall, and noted odd 'scraping' sounds.

“That noise?” I asked.

“I have heard blood works well in glue,” said the woman. “If we can sell it or trade it, we shall need to do so, and the same for much else for the immediate future.”

“And later?” I asked.

“There will be changes,” said the woman, “and they shall happen before that witch to the north is done with her trouble.”

And, as if to distract me, I heard the 'old outboard' sound of an obvious fly, followed by the 'thwap' of a slingshot.

“Those things are bad outside,” said another man as he 'disgorged' two smaller sacks, followed by an old-looking trowel. “That one was not easy to get, or so they said.”

“Is it a good one?” asked the woman. “It looks as if it has been used a fair amount.”

“That was what they said,” said the man. “I'm no mason, even if I have scrubbed enough rust off of iron things recently.”

I turned to go, and as I went past the smoke-blackened hole leading to the inner 'lawn', I heard first one gunshot, then another – and then an oath, followed by the long and drawn-out screech of an obvious pig.

I ran toward the commotion 'blindly', so much so that only by the 'twitching of my thumbs' or some other similar means did I have my rifle in my hand when El Porko actually showed. I fired at the pig, which dropped in place – and from a well-hid region to the pig's left, a volley of gunfire followed.

“Oh, no,” I spluttered, as I drew my revolver. “M-more witches!”

A thug came out as if I'd called him, and his blackened shiny face and drunken wobbling spoke of truly unusual activities within the house proper – until he turned toward me as if in slow motion, his mouth working soundlessly as he tried to spew out a curse.

He didn't quite manage it, however: I shot him in the throat.

That seemed the signal for another rush, for with more shrieks and squeals, two more pigs bounded out of the door, followed by a small mob of similarly-arrayed witches. Their drunken bearing, as well as their profligate use of weapons – they each had several pistols in their belts, and two or more muskets or fowling pieces, and they fired as if each witch had a ton of powder and two tons of lead handy – made for wondering on my part, at least until the answering gunfire stopped them.

The pigs, however, were much tougher; and here the description I had once heard of how hard they were to stop seemed borne out by practice. I saw one mottled black animal absorb no less than four blasts from fowling pieces – at powder-burn range, no less – and three musket balls. It only stopped when someone fired a weapon that sounded more than a little like a fully-loaded roer.

The moaning I heard afterward was submerged seconds later when I shot another pig, then another group of witches charged headlong out of the door behind a third grunter.

I was glad for a 'spare' revolver now, as I had shot all five rounds out of the 'usual' one, and the witches were not stopping their charging for any reason less than gross incapacitation. I saw one of them dodge clumsily around a pair of piled corpses, and as he made the turn, I fired and hit him in the side.

He seemed to 'ignore' being shot for some reason, and only when a fowling piece roared twice – first one barrel, then the other an instant later – did the witch retreat. He stood still, utterly unfazed, then as I watched, he crumpled slowly to the floor of the stable to there lie still.

The quiet that now descended was a tocsin of foreboding, and as I began checking the pigs – the thugs could wait, somehow; I knew that, if but little more – I faintly heard a scuffle, then another hoarse shout. I turned to see a small 'scrum' thrashing madly while two or more of those making it up swung knotted wooden clubs.

“Stop, you wretch,” shouted an unfamiliar voice. “Keep that up, and it's a burn-pile for you.”

The thrashing grew greater, so much so that I stood up from the dead pig and began walking toward the mound. Coarse-sounding oaths in strident screech-tinged speech seemed to ring from every wall in the place, and as I felt in my possible bag – I would need to run more bullets before going on a hunt for pigs or witches, I now knew – I wondered why Gabriel had suddenly 'blossomed' into a witch-puppet.

“He's been vulnerable to that stuff since the day I first met him,” I thought, “but ever since we've gotten down into the fifth kingdom...” A brief pause, then, “no, before that, even. He was speaking of chemists and bombing, and that in ignorance...”

That seemed an obvious dead-end, so much so that I walked lost in thought until I actually came to the edge of the still-thrashing scrum. A club rose high in the arms of an unidentified person, then just as abruptly struck with a muffled crunching noise. The thrashing stopped as if a switch had been turned.

As the people making up the scrum began untangling themselves from one another, I heard first Sepp's voice, then that of Karl. I began looking closely so as to find trace of either man, and when I reached for a trouser leg, someone tapped me on the shoulder.

I nearly fell on my face in a state of startle. Only when I recovered did I turn around to see Sepp.

“He thumped Karl when he escaped,” said Sepp, “and Karl caught him first.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Gabriel, who else,” said Karl sheepishly. He'd come up with a rag reeking of Geneva, and was wiping his arms. “I was cleaning my guns while he looked asleep, and...”

“Did you tie him?” asked Sepp.

Karl nodded, then said, “I'll never begin to understand how he could untie knots like that.”

“Like, uh, how?” I asked, even as I recalled Sepp speaking of Karl's grandmother when it came to knots.

“I tied them fit for my grandmother this time,” he said testily, “and I searched his pockets good after I tied him up, too.”

“Pockets?” I asked. “Which pockets?”

“Why, those he has,” said Karl. “Are there others?”

“You might let him go through his things this time, Karl,” said Sepp. “I think that one woman's still busy looking among those witches.”

“She spoke of a 'small-pocket',” I said, “which means 'unusual' clothing...”

I then looked closer at Gabriel's trousers, and felt their weave.

“Uh, Karl,” I asked. “Feel that cloth there, please.”

Karl did so, then looked at me.

“This is not the common for cloth,” he said. “It might not be quill-cloth, but it feels a bit like it.”

“As in traces of starch that did not entirely wash out?” I asked. “Did he get anything...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, then asked again: “what, exactly, did you all get at that market town?”

Sepp shook his head. Karl almost did the same – until I recalled mention of matches and sealing wax, as well as Gabriel's seeing the instrument-making manuals.

“Did he go in that shop?” I asked softly.

“Which shop?” asked Sepp.

“The one where he spoke of seeing those manuals,” I said. “He said one of them was open...”

Karl looked at Sepp, then shook violently.

“And right after, he wanted to go to Reyermann's, correct?” I asked. “He went from greatly confused to absolute and abiding certainty, and his sole thought was f-food...”

“He was starving then,” said Karl.

“Did you go in that shop?” I asked.

Sepp shook his head, then said, “he wanted to go in all of these strange places, but even I could tell we would not find those things on the list in them.”

“Was he, uh, speaking of asking for directions?” I asked.

“He was,” said Sepp. “We'd just came from that place with the matches and wax, and I think he found that one by luck.”

“And its smell,” said Kees. He'd come closer without my noticing.

“Smell?” I asked.

“Matches, unless they are of certain types, tend to smell a bit like burnt powder,” said Kees. “The less they smell, the less likely they are to behave badly, or so I've heard.”

“And that shop afterward,” I asked. “A bookseller's, or..?”

“It looked like one,” said Kees, “only...”

Kees' voice trailing off like that made for a degree of curiosity on my part that seemed insatiable, so much so that when he asked a question, I did not have a ready answer.

“What was he trying to do, if I may ask?” he said. “Cause more trouble?”

Karl nodded. Kees knelt down beside us, then looked at Gabriel's wrists.

“Damp leather, Karl,” he said, “and that tightly, and both hands and feet, and finish up with a bag over the head tied tightly in place.”

“Uh, why the leather?” I asked. “Harder to untie?”

“Not really,” said Kees. “Leather ties are used for those to be sacrificed.”

“And hence, uh...” My voice trailed off into 'nothing' at the horror of what I had just heard. Only recalling my previous line of questioning helped to any degree at all.

“What did you buy in the fourth kingdom market town?” I asked.

“Not much,” said Kees. “The only portion I had any remaining familiarity with was Studentstraat and that area right around it – and we did not go there.”

“You used to know more, didn't you?” I asked.

Kees nodded, then said, “I forgot where those places were, for the most part.” A brief pause, then, “I did recall enough about them to stay away, though.”

“And him?” I asked.

“He first seemed to know where things were,” said Kees, “but within the turn of a glass, he became more confused than I was, at least for the most part.”

“The matches?” I asked.

“Them and this one place close by,” said Kees. “I'd never seen it before.”

“He did not want to go in that place,” said Karl.

Kees nodded earnestly, then said, “Gabriel spoke of asking directions, and how that place looked likely for them.”

I paused for a moment. During this time of questioning, I had been getting a modest impression, chiefly that the shop Gabriel had gone in was two-doored. More, unlike Grussmaan's, this shop hid its 'bad' side especially well.

“Did he know?” I asked.

Kees looked at me for an instant, then said, “somehow, I suspect that I once would have known with that place.”

“Which is why you felt as you did,” said the soft voice. “He was not entirely ignorant of how that shop did business.”

“Meaning he had some idea...”

“He suspected that shop had two doors,” said the soft voice, “and as he had done in the past, he asked for directions.”

“Why?” I asked plaintively. “Weren't there other locations?”

“I suspect I know why,” said Kees, “at least for the chemicals.”

“Uh, is this like chemists only selling to their own kind..?” I asked.

Kees looked at me in stunned shock, then mouthed the word 'no'.

“Meaning a less-than-upright shop is likely to give more information, and possibly better information,” I muttered. “The upright shops tend to either be especially close-mouthed...”

“Which is where he learned of chemists' 'discretion' regarding sales as a student,” said the soft voice. “Had he remained at the west school, he would have learned the 'rules' in due time.”

“Rules?” I asked.

“First-year students seldom receive much in the way of chemicals,” said the soft voice, “while third year students commonly do, or during their second year if they make the lists.”

“And not merely for chemicals, correct?” I asked.

While there was no answer, the sense I had seemed to imply that to be the case; and with that realization, I suspected that Gabriel had received more than merely 'directions'.

“Written directions,” I muttered. “Something about a m-map...”

For some reason, I knew – and that beyond all reason – that Gabriel had something on his person. More, his current trousers were a portion of the matter.

“We need to remove his trousers,” I said. I then saw Kees with a knife in his hand.

“Uh...”

“Liza showed me how,” he said, “and these trousers look to be those of a miser.”

“Meaning?” I asked.

“They have at least one hidden pocket,” said Kees. “I'll need to burn most of my clothing when I get home.”

“You had miser's clothing?” asked Karl.

“As to color and cloth, no,” said Kees. “As to the pockets, and much else, yes – and a good portion of miser's clothing is how it's made.” A brief pause, then, “there's more to that clothing than seems obvious, and that of black-cloth is more so that way.”

“Strange underwear?” I asked.

“He might be wearing some, in fact,” said Kees.

“In that case, we might want to remove it, uh, without knives,” I said. “He isn't dead.”

“Not yet, anyway,” growled a voice from somewhere nearby.

After re-tying Gabriel's hands with leather thongs – Karl made certain to dampen them with spit beforehand, and the same for the thongs tying the bag shut that covered Gabriel's head – we began to remove the ropes tying his lower portion. Sepp undid his belt, then with a steady pull, he removed the now bristly-seeming trousers...

“What gives with this stuff?” screeched Karl, as the red-embroidered stiffened black-cloth 'underwear' showed with startling abruptness.

“He's dressed like a witch,” said Kees. “I remember hearing about this stuff.”

“Uh, special powers?” I asked, as I was handed the trousers. Their now-blatant 'stiffness' was more than a little tormenting to feel.

“Some of them, perhaps,” said Kees. “Mostly their power had to be manifested.”

“What is this word?” asked Karl, as Kees began to cut off Gabriel's shirt.

“Not all curses work as well as many people commonly believe,” said Kees. “A lot of them need helping.”

“Which means the witch causes them to work in order to maintain belief on the part of others,” I said. “Belief gives witchcraft much of its power, in fact.”

“Yes, now,” said Kees, as he removed the last button from Gabriel's shirt. He was wearing the full 'suit'. “It was not always that way, at least according to the Grim Collection.”

“So how do we get that stuff off of him?” asked Sepp.

“Most likely by cutting it,” said Kees, “though he” – here, he looked at me – “had best be handy, in case Gabriel has got something hidden and we become controlled by it.”

“Uh, no,” I said, as I put my hands in one of the 'outer' pockets. “I can tell something is in these, uh...”

My hand touched something horrible and slimy, so much so that I yanked my hand out forthwith and ran with the trousers toward the stable's door – and as if the unmasked fetish had waited for me to do that very thing, Gabriel's trousers began billowing thick gray smoke and tendrils of flame. I reached the bottom of the incline, and tossed them while speaking of where they needed to go.

I came to myself back on my cot amid the smells of cooking, and when I sat up, I wondered for a moment what had happened, at least until I saw the jug and rag. Uncorking the jug made for dry heaves.

“Why is that Geneva here...”

“Those things tossed you good,” said Lukas, “and I'm about glad you're awake.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“That place in there is trouble,” he said, while pointing at the part-open door leading to the rest of the house proper. “At least we can get rid of the pigs easy.”

“P-pigs?” I asked.

“Fresh-killed swine bring top prices hereabouts,” said Lukas, “so if we dump one o' those stinkers outside along with a bunch of witches, they take the whole load for nothing.”

“Do you know where they are taking those thugs?” I asked.

“I didn't ask,” said Lukas, “and they didn't speak of it.” A brief pause. “I suspect they're getting money for those witches just the same.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

Glue,” said Gilbertus cryptically. “Those what make the cheap stuff care more about the price of their sources than about the sources themselves.”

“Uh, I'll need to, uh, run some bullets...”

“You and about ten others,” said Lukas. “Shot, though – that's different.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“They've washed three buckets o' that stuff already,” said Gilbertus.

“Washed?” I asked.

“Floor-sweepings off of the stable,” said Gilbertus. “They scraped up shot along with all of that blood.”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “Then, those witches what came out of that place all had shot with 'em, and most of it's decent shot, if a bit smaller than the usual for around here.”

“Usual?” I asked. “What size?” I asked.

“It ain't the stiffest stuff,” said Lukas, “even if it is bigger than most shot closer to home.” A pause, then, “most shot in the fifth kingdom house tends to be stiff enough to fit these small rotating pistols made down here.”

I indicated my revolver's holster, and Lukas shook his head.

“These things are small enough to pocket easy,” he said. “They're not much use unless you get close enough to spit.”

“And dot their eyes or clean their ears,” said Gilbertus. “I've heard those things work passably for common-sized rats.”

“At home,” said Lukas. “Common-sized rats down here are bigger.”

As I gathered my supplies for bullet-casting, I noted a modest number of cooking pots steaming over braziers similar to what Sepp had dug up the day before. Their lack of smoke was a marvel, as well as their heat, for those in attendance upon them did their stirring quickly and at arm's length, and the billowing clouds of steam made for a sultry stable.

“I suspect they'll learn about that coke quick enough,” said Lukas. “A little goes a long way.”

“So much so,” I said, “that we may wish to get a few small bags of the powdered stuff for our trip home.”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “I hope you don't mind company when you're running those things, as I need to do some of those slug-bullets.”

While bullet-casting went as smoothly as could be expected once we found a place to do so, I wished I could speak similarly for lunch. The aspect of chaos – and more, hunger – was such that I wondered if there was enough food to feed all of those on the premises. I was glad for dried meat and the remnants of the morning's camp-bread.

“The food's still mostly in that place there,” said Lukas as he dropped another slug, “and I'll need plenty o' these things for those pigs.”

“Don't stint the grease,” I said softly, as I filled the last hole in my loading board. “That helps with the fouling.” A pause, then, “those witches out front?”

“About half of 'em's gone,” said Gilbertus,” “and the other half's been gone-through.”

“Uh, crude-gold?”

“That and their clothing,” said Gilbertus. “The rag-pickers came about three turns of the glass after the first freighters.”

“N-naked w-witches?” I gasped.

“Lots of 'em are getting that way,” said Gilbertus. “Then, there are the manure-carts and blood-scrapers...”

“And a big long line of freighters waiting,” said a voice which I did not recognize. “We're getting plenty of stone and things.”

“G-good,” I said. “Tools?” I asked.

“Last time I went, I saw three old-looking trowels,” said Gilbertus. “I made certain to ask for old tools, and these look old.”

“Old?” I asked. “Are they, uh...”

“They aren't like they are closer to home,” said Lukas. “Up there, if it isn't shiny and new, people think it's junk.”

“And here?” I asked.

“Any tool that stands up to real use in the fifth kingdom is decent,” said Lukas, “and that no matter what it looks like.” A pause, then “the fourth kingdom's work, unless it comes out of the better places, isn't that much better for working.”

“It looks better,” said Gilbertus, “and most buyers pay for looks.”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “There, that's done.”

After checking my further supplies, I met up with both older men, as well as Karl and Sepp. The latter had news about Gabriel.

“He's not tried to get loose since we got that underwear off of him,” said Sepp. “What was in those trousers?”

“I-I'm not sure,” I said, “other than it felt really slimy and slick, like, uh, certain papers I've seen and felt in the past.” A brief pause, then, “did either of you get some squibs?”

Karl showed me two, while Sepp had three. Both men were carrying fowling pieces.

“Are you sure El Porko will stop with those?” I asked.

“Who is this?” asked Karl.

“I think he's speaking of swine, Karl,” said Sepp. “Hans said he calls them that.”

“Uh, yes,” I said. “There aren't just pigs in there, though.”

“That is what I got this one for,” said Karl. “They work good on witches.”

“Yes, with stiff loads and stiff shot,” said Gilbertus. “Those muskets they use down here...”

Karl began muttering, then rubbed his shoulder more while speaking of 'well-hidden roers'.

“Uh, Karl...”

“Yours is bad enough,” he muttered. “I am not shooting one of those others again.”