They call that place an Abbey, and it's said to be filled with Monsters... part C.
Dinner concluded some few minutes later, and once the dishes were soaking, I thought to look at the 'pile' in the parlor between visits to the privy – which again, at least at first, I had to share with Sarah. I was glad she seemed in less pain after her second visit, though when I came in after her one time I wondered if the exchange had been worthwhile. I came out to see Anna's face twisted up into a grimace.
“I thought your wind was bad,” she said, “but Sarah's is worse.”
“You never had me eat Cuew, either,” said Sarah. It almost sounded as she had said 'Crow' instead of 'Cuew'.
“Yes, so now you know that Cuew does not like you much,” said Hans. “We need to go through this stuff so as to put it away.”
Hans seemed to have some sort of a plan, so much so that the first thing he pulled out of the now-unruly-looking mound was the first volume of the instrument-making books. He looked at me as if to ask a question.
“I had perhaps two periods of an hour or so to read those going down,” I said, “and none whatsoever coming back.”
“You might have more time now,” said Hans. “At least, I think you might have more time. That trip had you doing enough for two of you.”
“No, Hans,” said Anna, as she picked op a bag of clothing, “Twice what he did before he left.”
“That is what I meant, Anna,” said Hans, as he removed volume two of the set to hand to me.
Seeing that 'infernal' book made for muttering on my part, and upon my return to the 'pile', I had not merely volume three, but the bestiary waiting for me. I wordlessly took the two books, then as I put them where they 'belonged', I heard Sarah say, “those are trouble, Hans.”
“Yes, and how is that?” he asked. “They were talking as if he knew that way of speaking.”
“What?” I asked.
“Those men in the king's place,” said Hans. “They heard you speak like one of those black-dressed people once.”
“What?” I squeaked. “When did I do that?”
Hans had to think for a minute, then said, “you were talking about spices then, and they were not inclined to get them for you, as you are no cook.”
“Oh, that,” I asked. “They seemed to be thinking – no, better 'not-thinking'...”
“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “I told them that you might not be a terribly good cook for food, but you make up for that with chemicals. Then, there is medicine, and that needs spices sometimes, so I set them straight about it.”
“Do you know why I tried to talk like Black-Cap?” I asked.
“I think so,” said Hans. “They knew what they knew, which is not much, and those black-dressed witches think they know everything, so people listen to them all the time.”
“More than that, Hans,” said Anna as she returned. My 'clothing' most likely was now in my room. “This was about poisoning swine.”
“That is a hard thing,” said Hans. “Those things know when food has poison in it.”
“Yes, if it's not spiced right,” I murmured, as I reached for a small bag with a round tin tag. This last had what looked like an age-accentuated covering of dirt, and the knots proved uncommonly difficult to untie. I put the bag on the table, then went back to the pile – to there be surprised by Sarah removing that one brass pressure lantern.
I looked at Hans, and could not read his face; the same for Anna. Sarah, however, made a demure-sounding 'cough' and began reading from the lantern's nameplate.
“Sole-lay,” she said. “Lampa da Cost-ree-gin-ay, Ay-spear-ru-too Com-boost-tee-blay, Pell-ig-ray Non Petrol-lee.” A pause, then, “these are almost impossible to find outside of the fifth kingdom.”
Hans and Anna seemed utterly petrified, so much so that Sarah looked at me, then whispered, “this is not a witch-lantern. Don't they know that?”
“I'm not certain,” I said, “even if I remember someone in the house down there giving me that one...”
I then recalled what I had heard regarding the fifth kingdom house's steam engine, along with the statements regarding the lantern. Hans and Anna were still 'frozen', so much so that I handed Sarah a rag to cover the lantern. She did so without questioning...
And Anna stretched, then looked at me fixedly while Hans 'woke up'. Then Sarah looked at me with her mouth in a small pert-looking 'o'.
“I heard someone speaking,” said Anna, “and I f-fell asleep.”
And clear as a bell, I heard the voice of Liza speaking via recollection: “It isn't just witch-tools that cause riding. Certain beliefs, if held closely and with sufficient stubbornness, act much the same.” I bent over to whisper in Sarah's ear.
“I wish they could see the pieces of the one the witches had in the second kingdom...”
Sarah looked at me with a face that suddenly changed so drastically I wondered what she was thinking – at least until she shrieked. The noise made for reaching fingers so as to plug my ears.
“That's it,” she said. “They thought this was an Infernal lantern, and those have a picture of Brimstone on them.” A pause, then, “and this one just has a nameplate.”
“What is this?” asked Hans. He seemed 'awake' now.
“There are certain lanterns used by witches,” I said, “and those are fueled by distillate.”
“Yes, that is so,” said Hans.
“There is more than one type of distillate-burning lantern,” I said. “One uses a wick, and the other...”
Anna shrieked, “no! You will blow up the house!”
“No, dear,” I said. “Do those lanterns that cause blindness explode?”
Anna shook her head, then said, “those use this special fuel...”
Sarah had set down the lantern – it was still wrapped in the rag – and had drawn forth a sack. She passed it to Anna, then said, “smell that.”
Anna did so, and her face wrinkled up as if she'd gotten downwind of an open sewer in the dark portions of the fifth kingdom house. Hans, however, all but tore the bag from her hand and began untying its closure.
“Yes?” I asked.
“That smell is cooking fuel,” said Hans. “It is only to be had in that market down there, and...”
“There's both a solid form and a liquid,” said Sarah, “and that liquid is burned in those lanterns.” A pause, then, “though they will work with aquavit, especially if it is decent.”
“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. He was still working on the too-tight knot as if his life depended upon getting the thing untied as quickly as possible.
“Hence there are lanterns that do not burn distillate,” I said. “I was given one...”
“You will need to hide it good,” said Hans as the knot finally unraveled in his hands and he drew off a long string knotted at both ends with a small tin tag. “Those things would draw mobs up this way, as everyone thinks candles...”
“Tallow candles,” I intoned. “Using those wax ones verges on trouble. Or does it?”
The silence that now descended was such that I wondered as to its density. Could it indeed be cut with a knife and served up like an overcooked pie? I resumed digging in the pile of supplies seconds later, and my intent was such that I only noticed Anna when she was actually next to me.
“What is that thing covered by the rag?” she asked.
“I was trying to tell you that I was given a pressure lantern down in the fifth kingdom,” I said, “and it seems that this area is especially bad about light sources, so much so that the only sources that are thought acceptable for non-witches use tallow for a fuel.”
“That's not true,” said Anna. “They know you use them, and we use them, and...”
“And how hard are they to get?” I asked gently. “Not every Mercantile has them... No, not even that. Only certain places routinely carry them, and they tend to hide them when and as they can.”
Anna looked at me in shocked horror, then slowly, the truth dawned upon her. She then mouthed the words, “you're right. They do hide them.”
“Do you know why they do that?” I asked gently. Hans had gone somewhere, and by the sound, he was in the basement.
Anna had 'froze up', so much so that I asked, “where, in truth, does most tallow come from? Deer and elk generally don't have that much, do they?”
Sarah looked at me, then said, “they should have some within another month.” A brief pause, then, “most tallow is gathered during and just after harvest, at least in this area.”
“Most?” I asked.
“And it is boiled down during the winter,” said Sarah. “The cold helps it set better, and houses need more heat then, so it's easier to cook it down.” Sarah then asked, “that is for the better tallow.”
“B-better tallow?” I asked.
“There is some that is less expensive,” said Sarah. “It is rare this far north.”
“And?” I asked.
“It smells more,” said Sarah, “and it causes more trouble during warm weather.” A pause, then, “it is worthless in wheels.”
“A very poor lubricant, right?” I asked.
“Worse than is usual for tallow,” said Sarah. “It is a poor preservative, also, and that no matter what it is used to preserve.”
“W-weapons-tallow?” I asked.
“I think whoever is buying that stuff at the house proper has been getting that cheaper tallow,” said Sarah, “and that knowingly.”
“Lard-contaminated...” I spluttered. “S-soft, poorly-rendered, and it has b-blood in it...” A pause, then, “cheap, and it comes from the south...”
“I'm not certain that stuff has lard in it,” said Sarah, “even if the other things are true enough.”
“L-lard?” squeaked Anna. I heard steps from the basement stairway, slow muffled thumping, as if the person was coming up from the nether regions of Hell with an impossible load.
“Swine-fat,” said Sarah emphatically. “I've smelled dead pigs more than once in that cheaper tallow.”
“Then your speaking of certainty..?” I asked gently.
“I cannot prove that stuff has the fat of pigs in it,” said Sarah. “The stink of those things travels like that of mules, so that could also be the cause.” A pause, then “though mixing in swine-fat does sound likely.”
“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “It does.”
Sarah looked at me as if I had lost my mind, then looked further in the mound. I could just hear her thinking about me and my 'patronizing manner'.
“No, not that,” said Sarah. “I've never heard anyone speak to me quite that way before.”
“Yes, and that is good,” said Hans as he returned. “I had to make some room for those chemicals, as there are a lot of those things in this stuff.”
“Including some from Ivo...” I spluttered.
“You saw him?” asked Sarah.
“Uh, yes,” I said. “Why?”
“I had him as a chemistry lecturer once,” said Sarah. “Did he say what they are?”
I had trouble recalling not merely the names of what he had given me, but also the precise location of the package itself, and the chemicals themselves proved more elusive than I thought they might be. It wasn't until the 'mound' was half its original size before the first basket showed, and I took it to the kitchen table. There, Hans opened it and began to take out the contents.
“I do not have that many good candles down there right now,” he said. “Now where are these special chemicals?”
“I think they're in some cloth bags,” I said. “The containers weren't that big – oh, and one of them was really strange. I remember that much.”
And much as if the dread phrase had been lying in wait for a week and a half, the dread words came tumbling from my mouth. Hans looked at me as I said them.
“Stimuluo vegetan, con Espirutu habitué,” I said.
I was surprised more than a little to not see Hans 'freeze up', and he said, “now what is this?”
“One of those strange, uh, drugs he gave me,” I said. “I was, uh, given something about what it does.”
“That would be Snurf,” said Sarah emphatically, “and I doubt he told you much about it, as he was close with everything from that place.”
“I have heard of that stuff,” said Hans, “but I have never had a chance to test it. What does it do?”
“I think” – here, I emphasized the second word greatly – “that stuff...”
Hans had found a bag within the basket, and as he drew it forth, the knot came untied at the merest touch.
“I think you mean it is in this bag,” he said, “as that looked like one of your knots.”
“Or one of Ivo's,” said Sarah. “He has trouble with knots.”
Hans then put the bag aside, and reached back into the basket to withdraw a small but surprisingly heavy-seeming crock. He glanced at it, all the while mouthing unspoken words.
“This is twice-chloride of liquid death,” said Hans. “Is this for that blacking?”
I nodded, then went to where he'd put aside the bag. I vaguely recalled handling such a bag some time ago.
While Hans brought out a number of other small crocks – all of which had surprisingly neat painted labels, these being 'Roesmaan's Chemistry, Taalmoes Lane, fourteenth district, north-south-two' – I began opening the bag. The first vial I withdrew was that one labeled 'Veldter Weed', and the second, another vegetative extract.
“No name for that one,” I thought, as I looked to read the tag attached to it. “Con Bovis... This stuff is for cattle.”
“Now what are you saying?” asked Hans. He was beginning to put the crocks back in the basket. “There are a lot of expensive chemicals here, as they are all from that Roesmaan's place.”
“Expensive?” I asked.
“And worth every bit of what they charge,” said Sarah. “I did no small business with them while at the west school.” She then came to my side, and began reading the label.
“This one is a cattle medicine,” she said. “It cleans them out.”
“Like, uh, uncorking medicine?” I asked.
“I'm not certain what it cleans out of cattle,” said Sarah, “only that this label says 'this medicine is for cattle, and it cleans their inwards out from, uh...” Sarah seemed to be squinting, then she said while pointing to the label, “I've only seen that word twice, and both times, I could not get a straight answer from anyone.”
I looked at the label again. The oddly-formed letters seemed lifted straight from that lantern's placard, and as I pieced them out – P-l-u-m-b and then a conjoined 'diphthong' – I suddenly understood.
“This gets lead out of them!” I screeched.
“Is that what that word P-pl...” Sarah seemed again to be in the 'grip' of something. “I cannot say that word!”
“Plum-bee,” I said. “Leastways, I think that's how you pronounce it. It means 'lead' – though in this case, it isn't common lead they're speaking of, but its soluble form. This stuff causes it to be excreted.”
“And also worms,” said the soft voice. “The precise meaning of 'Pluombeé' is determined by its context.”
“Deworming medicine?” I murmured.
“Contains that drug, among others,” said the soft voice. “Other than perhaps four drugs in that package, they are all used to formulate what is commonly called 'deworming medicine'.”
“Is it used for that?” I asked.
“The Veldters give small amounts of that drug as a routine preventative,” said the soft voice. “What is commonly sold as 'deworming medicine' is used for straight-horned bulls in the Valley.”
“And there are different formulations...”
“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “The formulation used for mules is markedly different, and the same situation applies for other animals common in the Valley.”
“And common 'green stripe', when given to 'mean black cattle'?” I asked.
“Is something no sane Veldter would contemplate,” said the soft voice. “Those who live in the Valley think those 'mean black cattle' to be 'bad medicine' when they are in their normal state.”
“And they are much worse when drunk,” said Sarah.
“Not merely drunk,” said the soft voice. “The Valley's term for what happens is 'spirit-madness'.”
“Oh, no,” I gasped. “They would become, uh, ridden.”
“No,” said the soft voice. “They would become floridly psychotic.”
“Psycho-cattle?” I gasped. “Miura? Insane?”
“To no small degree,” said the soft voice. “You can wave red rags in front of cattle all day here, and they will ignore your doing so, but if you wave black rags...”
“Ah, then that will cause those witches trouble,” said Hans, as he put away the last crock. “Those things do not like black anything.”
“Uh, what happens?” I asked. “Charging?”
Hans nodded, then said, “now fetch up another of those baskets while I put this one downstairs.”
It took but a moment to bring up another basket, and once I had done so, I resumed work upon the remnants of the pile. This was mostly bags, and while I began attempting to untie one of them – leather thongs tied tight, so I needed care and an awl – I noticed Anna was looking once more at the rag-covered lantern.
“Yes?” I asked. “That's the lantern I was speaking of.” A brief pause, then, “it is not a witch-tool, unlike some other lanterns I saw down there.”
Anna looked at me with an indecipherable expression, then Sarah held up the still-covered lantern.
“If this had distillate,” said Sarah, “you would be able to smell it.”
Anna sniffed tentatively, then shook her head prior to speaking. “I do not smell distillate.”
“What do you smell?” I asked.
“I'm not certain,” said Anna. “It is not aquavit, nor is what I smell the odor of cooking fuel.” A brief pause, then, “it smells a little like some spices, but it's not that smell either.”
A brief shake of the covered lantern, then Sarah said, “I think that's because there's no fuel in it.”
“Would it still smell of distillate?” I asked.
“Distillate's odor tends to remain on things it touches for some time,” said Sarah. “Only if you clean things carefully with Fell's soap...”
“Ah, then that is what this stuff is,” said Hans, as he brought forth another cloth bag with a round brass tag. “They were using bad stamps to mark it, is what I think.”
“...Or lye...” said Sarah.
“That Roesmaan's place sent a big crock of that stuff,” said Hans. “They called it reg-something.”
“Reagente grade?” I asked. I had put special emphasis upon the 'a', such that the word was spoken 'ray-AH-gent-uh'.
“I am not sure...” Hans stopped with his mouth open, then said, “what is this?”
“Reagente grade,” I said. “It's especially pure...”
Hans set down what he was holding and looked at the contents of the table's current basket, while Sarah walked down into the basement with the lantern still covered. Anna, however, had found the strange-looking 'coffin', and was endeavoring to open it with an older-looking screwdriver.
“Where did you get that..?” I asked.
“It was one of those you set aside as spares,” said Anna. “I've only seen you use ones this large a handful of times.”
The box was not forthcoming with its contents, even though Anna was prying for all she was worth, and its wood seemed disinclined to yield as well. I went to my possible bag and found the smaller pry-bar of the two I now kept in the bag, and wordlessly handed it to Anna.
“Thank you,” she said, as she slid the thing's thinner end into a crack as steps came up the stairs from the basement.
The wood then creaked and groaned as if being tortured, then with a snap, one of the top planks leaped up from its seat to then hit the floor beside it with a clattering rattle. A profound odor seeped into the room – as did Sarah. She seemed transfixed by what was in the box, while the odor was causing me great distress.
“G-grease,” I squeaked. “T-torment-grease!”
Sarah knelt by Anna with a rag, then as Anna pried up another board – once more the grating scream rang in my mind, and the bang-rattle-clatter at the end was that of a thrust-aside coffin lid – she withdrew a small piece of grease-stained folded paper. After unfolding it, she began reading – or rather, she tried to read amid sounds that took me seconds to recognize as joyful 'squeaks'.
“Yes?” I asked. I'd found another sizable cloth bag, and between its faint odor and its strangely-marked tin tag, I suspected it contained food of one kind or another.
“These are donkey-sleeves,” shrieked Sarah, “and they were made at the Heinrich works!”
“That is good, then,” said Hans. “You need a buggy for your stuff now.”
“More than that, Hans,” said Anna, as she levered off another uncommonly stiff board. “Maria's dream, remember?”
“Dream?” I asked.
“Between now and when you next go on a trip,” said Anna, “the two of you will be busy enough to need both what you ride” – here, Anna looked at me – “and a buggy.” A pause, then, “and it will be worse yet when you return.”
“Yes, and then it will be time to go south,” said Hans.
“With all those stinky witches causing trouble?” asked Sarah. She was wiping clean an obvious 'cone', and the dark bluish-black color of the metal made for wondering. It seemed 'miles deep' under the grease, which added to its shiny gloss.
“Uh, that color?” I asked.
“They blacken much of their work,” said Sarah. “A whole long building does nothing else at that place.”
“L-long building?” I asked.
“A chain for wide, and five for long, unless I am far off,” said Sarah, “and stone walls, a green tile roof, and several tall chimneys for that building.” A pause, then, “most of their buildings seem that size, at least for their floors.”
“Ch-chain?” I asked.
Sarah looked around in an 'idle' fashion, then said, “I think this house is a chain for wide, and two for long.”
“That is so,” said Hans. “Now this is the last of those chemicals, unless there are more of those things hidden in what is left there.”
“N-not yet,” I said. “Can someone untie the knot of this bag?”
“Yes, when I am done with putting up those chemicals downstairs,” said Hans. “This basket is heavy enough to want more than one trip for what is in it.”
Thumping steps heading downward came a minute later, and when I found a second bag – I'd found more tools needing to be put away, as well as a small bag of 'stiff shot' and an older brass powder flask – I wondered as to its contents. The knot – old, leather-thong-tied, and possibly waxed – was even more obdurate than the one I'd tackled earlier. A final coffin-lid creak brought me to my senses.
“At least the wood is dry on this thing,” muttered Anna. “Were those carpenters inclined to work right now, I'd have them smooth it up and trim it to size for platters.”
“They're closed also?” I asked.
“They're busy on some hole in their back area,” said Anna crossly, “and they're all as dirty as turnip-farmers, that new boy included.”
“They are digging a saw-pit, then,” I said. “Have you gone to look?”
“No, because those men farm also,” said Anna, “and farming is more than good enough to get one dirty.” A brief pause, then – an octave higher, such that her voice was a nerve-rending screech – “what? They're digging a pit?”
“Yes, a saw-pit,” said Hans as he returned to the kitchen. “Those people do not grow turnips.”
“And I need to make at least one...” I paused, then said, “no, three saw blades, and three frames.”
“Why is it you need to make three of those things?” asked Hans.
“There's something about having three pit-saws,” I said. “Something about 'one resting, one cutting, and one sharpening'. At least, that is the common belief.”
“Your saws do not go dull quickly,” said Hans, “and that is for those which cut metal. The wood-saws might need...”
“I probably have several of those that need sharpening,” I said. “There are three blades for each saw-frame at the shop.”
“Is that why you did so many?” asked Anna. She was using a rag to wipe down the buggy parts alongside of Sarah.
“Uh, no,” I said. “I expected them to need regular and frequent sharpening, and I hoped three blades per saw would be enough to get through a day.”
“Those things are like the knives,” said Hans. “That first one still shaves better than a razor, and that with no sharpening.”
Hans paused, then said, “you spoke of belief. Is what people believe about those things trouble?”
“The saws themselves are trouble,” muttered Sarah, “and the people making them tend to be worse than the saws.”
“Have you seen those things?” I asked.
“I've seen a great many saw-pits,” said Sarah, “and pit-men, and pit-saws. Why?”
“I have seen none of those things or people,” I said, “and those carpenters were talking like I could read their minds.” A brief pause, then I muttered, “he was speaking of not wanting the usual, but one of mine...”
“I think he meant, 'the usual for pit-saws is nothing but trouble',” said Sarah. “Most people making those things start with sheet from the fifth kingdom...”
“They d-don't forge them out from b-billet?” I asked.
Sarah looked at me, then said, “only two places do that in the fourth kingdom, and no one wants their saws.”
“N-no one?” I asked. “Why?”
“I think their prices have something to do with the matter,” said Sarah. “They don't do many of them, at least in the common shape for pits.” A brief pause, then, “they seem to do more round blades, actually.”
“R-round?” I gasped.
“And only a few places make saws for those things,” said Sarah. “The best place to get them, if one wants a saw that makes decent lumber without extra work, is Knaadelmann's in Badwater.”
“That place is named right,” said Hans. “Their water poisons mules unless it is boiled good first.”
“They distill their water,” said Sarah. “I've seen mules turn up their hooves in that place from drinking the boiled stuff.”
“Turn up their hooves?” I asked.
“You've never seen what poison does to mules, have you?” asked Sarah. “I have, and that several times.”
“What happens?” I asked.
“The mule dies,” said Sarah, “and it goes stiff as a stone bridge right away.” A brief pause, then, “and then, somehow, those things roll onto their backs while stiff like that, and their legs go stiff and straight up in the air.”
“That is because they are bucking in hell,” said Hans. “I have seen those things do that.”
“Bucking?” I asked.
“They do that when they are still alive,” said Hans. “I have seen them go hooves up once or twice, though I did not know why they did that until now.”
“Do they stay like that long?” I asked.
“At least half a day,” said Sarah. “I did not watch them longer than that, as the witches were too much for me both of those times.”
“Sarah?” I asked hesitatingly.
“Yes?” Her voice seemed uncommonly shy.
“Do you know how those mules became poisoned?”
“Yes, I do,” she said.
“Uh, where you involved?”
“Yes, I was,” she said.
“Where was this?” I asked.
“Once was in the potato country near my relatives' farm,” she said, “and the other time was near this one stinky chemical store in the first kingdom house.”
“Grussmaan's,” I spat.
“Near there,” said Sarah. “These mules had just come out of the Swartsburg itself, and the coach had stopped...”
“You what?” I gasped.
“The coachman had left his coach,” said Sarah, “and the mules were drinking from buckets.”
“Yes, and what next?” asked Hans.
“I had some tincture of blue-stone handy,” said Sarah, “and I put a dropper of that stuff in each bucket.”
Hans shuddered, then said, “I did not know that stuff killed mules. What happened?”
“I dosed each mule's bucket,” said Sarah, “and it was a near thing, as the coachman came out with his own jug not two minutes after I finished. He got some more water, only this time he put some drink to those buckets.”
“And those riding in the coach?”
“Were in a shop of some kind,” said Sarah. “If a shop borders on the Swartsburg, it is likely to have more than one door.” Sarah dropped her voice, then said, “and those people had gone in the black door of that place, which named them witches for certain.”
“B-black door?” I asked.
“It was in the rear of the building,” said Sarah, “and it was also painted black, with a red-painted surround.” A pause, then, “and no one but a witch would enter such a door.”
“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “No one but a witch...”
Hans' face changed so rapidly I thought he might explode, and when he next spoke, his voice rose in both pitch and volume.
“What is this?” he spat.
“It was on a tapestry,” said Sarah, “and that tapestry was not easy to get to.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“While most tapestries are found in kingdom houses,” said Sarah, “many of them are either under lock and key, or at other locations entirely.” A pause, then, “and most of those other locations want special documents or proofs before they will as much as speak with you from behind barred doors.”
“S-special documents?” I asked – and as I did, I noted a slow-building sense of horror, for the nature of these special documents was an utter mystery at one level, and upon another level, one best hidden...
“No, not witch-documents,” said Sarah. “Ones stating who I was, and who those were who knew me.”
The horror redoubled, as now, I knew one needed to not merely be an arch-witch, but also be known of and by witches – and yet more, one needed to reek of witchdom's worst odors. I could almost smell the intense and burning reek of El Serpente in the room.
“Who you were..?” I asked. My tongue seemed to have trebled in size, such that I could scarcely speak.
“Yes, from the west school,” said Sarah. “It helped greatly to have the headmaster sign my papers, as well as have a fresh copy of the school's list.” A brief pause, then, “and no, they don't let anyone smelling of forty chain close to those things, and that's for those wanting documents.” Another pause, then, “proofs are another thing altogether.”
“P-proofs?” I asked. “Proofs?”
“I had to bathe to look at that tapestry,” said Sarah with an obvious grimace, “and then wear their clothing, and then write with their materials.”
“Uh, why...” I asked.
“I suspect they were watching me from hiding while I bathed,” said Sarah. “They would have learned much had they done so.”
Anna ceased with her rubbing of the buggy parts, or so I thought until I looked at where she had been sitting and saw that not merely had she 'finished' the contents of the 'coffin', she had removed both wood and sleeves to another location. She was now 'sorting' a number of thong-tied cloth sacks according to their labels – and muttering the entire time as to one of the things that had changed.
“What is this?” asked Hans.
“I have no idea how this happened,” said Anna, “but it is as if all of those times I spent trying to read finally did something to me.”
“Yes, and what is this?” asked Hans.
“I seemed to have learned to read,” said Anna. “Not only can I read these tags, but I can understand what the person who wrote them was actually saying.”
“That is good, then,” said Hans.
“N-not like this,” said Anna. I then heard – clearly – a distinct shuddering. “I can understand what the words themselves mean, at least most of them. Then, I understand what is written actually says, and then I can usually understand what the person writing actually meant.” A pause, then, “and what is written and what is meant is almost always very different.”
“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “You're right.”
“Just what I needed to hear,” muttered Anna. “I'm seeing something glowing red...” Anna stopped, then shrieked, “what did you say?”
“You needed to hear something soothing after speaking like that,” I said. “Am I right?”
“I think so,” said Anna. She was sounding befuddled to a degree – or so I thought until I compared it to her former 'oblivious' tone.
“It's gone,” I squeaked.
“What is this?” asked Hans.
“Anna no longer sounds oblivious,” I squeaked.
“That's because I'm a good deal less so,” said Anna. “I think that was what was frightening me, was looking at things I but vaguely understood days ago and now understanding them in a new and vastly greater fashion.”
“As in you thought you understood matters before, but now you actually understand?” I asked.
“Completely, no,” said Anna. “There are still a great many things I do not understand.” A pause, then, “before, I barely understood anything, and I thought I understood more than I do now.” Another pause, then, “and I'm most glad we have that dried medicine for the red fever.”
“Dried?” asked Sarah. “Where did you learn that?”
“From him,” said Anna, as she pointed to me. “I did not believe a word he said, because I knew all there was to know about that tincture.”
“It keeps poorly in liquid form,” said Sarah. “Is that what you mean?”
Anna nodded, then said, her voice half an octave higher, “where did you hear what you just said?”
“They spoke of it at the west school,” said Sarah, “and I did not believe what I heard, so I asked Ivo.” A pause, then, “and he wasn't much help, other than speaking of dilute oil of vitriol making the stuff dry somewhat easier compared to vinegar.” A glance around, then, “so I had to try it on my own.”
“What is this?” asked Hans.
“I got some of the dried roots,” said Sarah, “and I twice-extracted them using greatly-diluted oil of vitriol instead of strong vinegar.” Another pause, then, “it made a very bitter-tasting white powder.”
“Which the acetate does not like to do,” I said. “What next?”
“I was most glad for that powder,” said Sarah, “as when I traveled the northbound road the next year when coming out of the fifth kingdom house, I was swarmed in the Graaepensaan Rift. I needed it then.”
“Yes, and what happened?” said Hans.
“I was told I would have died had I used the tincture,” said Sarah. “As it was, I had to take that nasty-tasting white powder with beer in Badwater for a ten-day until I was well enough to travel.”
“D-died?” asked Anna. Her voice was a strangled squawk.
“Yes, died,” said Sarah, “and the person who told me said I'd been instructed as to how to make that medicine for that precise reason.”
I then noticed Hans had left the kitchen. The noises – the table was cleared of baskets and chemicals – spoke of him rummaging around in the basement, and when he appeared with one of the wide-mouth medical crocks containing the 'quinine', Sarah nearly shrieked.
“Now what is your trouble?” asked Hans. “We did up a lot of that stuff this year, and it was done using oil of vitriol.”
“Y-yes,” said Sarah, “and I'm glad, also, as there are a lot of those noisy bugs starting to hatch out in the woodlots around here.”
“And those cause the red fever,” said Anna. “You said the tincture is worthless?”
“Not quite worthless,” said Sarah. “It tastes somewhat better than that powder does, and it is better than nothing, especially if it is freshly made with good roots.” A pause, then, “still, if that sickness is at all bad, you want that medicine in powdered form like that.”
Hans had pried out the cork, and was bringing a small glass vial of the white crystalline material closer to where Sarah was sitting. He then showed her the drug.
“This is better than what I had!” shrieked Sarah. “Had I this stuff, I would have been entirely well in two days!”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“The stuff I had was still wet, and it smelled bad,” said Sarah. “I got that acid from Ivo, but he was speaking of it as if a witch had caused it to turn.”
“That stuff needs to be redone every so often, as it gets water out of the air,” said Hans. “Did he know that?”
Sarah slowly shook her head to indicate an emphatic 'NO'.
“Perhaps it wasn't just, uh, bad acid,” I said – and with my speaking, I realized what I had actually stated. The term 'bad acid' had several distinct and unpleasant possibilities, but the part that spoke loudest to me was the likelihood of adulteration.
“Does Roesmaan's carry oil of vitriol?” I asked.
“Yes, usually they do,” said Sarah. “He was speaking of this material coming from a shop connected with Matthyssoon's...”
“Th-that p-place?” I gasped. “Th-those people m-make fetishes...”
“And sell chemicals,” said Hans emphatically. “They might not have the name of Grussmaan's, nor is their chemistry place like Grussmaan's for looks, but they are as tricky as that place, and their chemicals are as bad.”
The mound was now nearly gone, and as I put away the remaining things – more tools, a bagged lump of cooking fuel, my smaller pry-bar, and an old-looking hammer-head of peculiar shape – but three bags remained. Two I had noticed earlier, while the third was much of a mystery. My back was turned as I put away the tools.
“Eew,” said Sarah. I turned to see her holding the 'food' bag, while Anna was trying to look inside it.
“Now what is your trouble?” asked Hans. He was working on the third bag, which had another 'grandmother' knot.
“G-goat sausages,” said Sarah. “This bag is full of those things...”
Somehow, Anna had removed one, and was now 'sniffing' it. I wondered if she felt inclined to gnaw upon the foot-long 'wrinkled road flare' so as to learn of its rubber-and-sawdust consistency.
“These are spicier than the usual for goat-sausages,” said Anna as she slipped the thing back in the bag that Sarah still held. “I might actually cook one up tomorrow for lunch so as to find out how they taste.”
Sarah looked down inside the bag, then seemed to count them. Her whispering – it continued for nearly a minute – spoke of a sizable number of 'sausages'.
“There are at least thirty of these things,” said Sarah. “I think they are for this next trip.”
A dull clattering came from the table, and Sarah and I went to where Hans was seated. Anna was hiding the bag of goat-sausages in the kitchen somewhere, while Hans was busy removing the contents of a time-and-dirt-stained bag and laying them out on rags atop the table.
“I think this is for a door,” said Sarah, as she held up a carefully-executed 'doorplate'. “It just needs some cleaning, I think.”
“Yes, and so does this doorknob,” said Hans. “That plate there only has the holes for the bolt and the knob.”
Sarah looked closer at the lockplate, then at Hans – and then at me. Her lips seemed to be working overtime, even if I could not read her face. She set down the plate and looked at the knob itself.
“There's nothing on that thing,” she whispered. “Not even a button.”
“Is this like Andreas' door – the one without a key?” I asked.
Hans then withdrew the bolt itself, and as I looked the casting over, the dirt and grease in the 'channel' seemed to suddenly vanish to show a peculiar marking.
“What is that in the center?” I asked, as Sarah came to my side.
“I think that is a hammer,” said Sarah, “and if it is, then that symbol represents Charles.” She went back over to the lockplate itself, and began to rub on the place where the keyhole would normally be, while Hans resumed looking in the bag.
“Is this one of those, uh, marked doorknobs?” I asked softly.
Hans appeared to not hear me, while Sarah was busy with a spit-dampened rag. I came around to where she was working, and to my astonishment, I saw a definite marking, one showing a stylized 'C' within a circled crown.
“Now this is bad,” said Hans. “I found this old paper here...”
Anna came to his side from where she'd been working on the knot of the last of the bags, and began muttering. She then looked at me.
“I doubt you wrote this,” she said, “as it's really old.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“This writing is impossible to read,” said Anna. “Sarah, can you try?”
Sarah put down the lockplate, then sat down with the paper. Within minutes, she was muttering as if trying to copy Anna during an especially trying time with knitting needles and yarn.
“I'm having trouble with this,” said Sarah. “Not even my cousin's writing was this bad.” She then looked at me.
“Uh, no,” I said. “That knob is news to me, and I doubt I can read what you're looking at.”
Another moment, then Sarah said, “I think I know what this says, even if I cannot read it.”
“Yes, and what is that?” asked Hans. He was putting the doorknob and its pieces in a much cleaner bag. I suspected the old bag would be washed in the future, as bags were reused until they were too damaged to be of use as bags – and then, they were cut apart and used as rags.
“This is a special doorknob,” said Sarah, “and I think it's for a special door.”
“Which is where?” asked Hans. He seemed to think the bathroom's inner door to be likely, if I went by how he glanced at it.
“The door isn't built yet,” said Sarah. “I know that much, if but little more.”
While Hans put away the strange doorknob and its parts, Anna brought the last bag to the table. I glanced at the window to see a darkened street and a far-distant moon just above the western horizon.
“Good,” I thought. “I should be able to manage...”
Anna undid the thong with a soft yawning noise, and I found it impossible to not match her sound for sound.
“Best get in bed shortly, then,” she said. “I've had a long enough day to suit me as it is.” The bag then disgorged its contents with a rattle and clatter onto the table.
Anna flew backwards as if the glittering brass and blackened steel thing was a bomb, while Sarah turned and ran like a hare, all the while yelling for Hans. My eyes focused closer, then I recognized what I was seeing – and in disbelief around a jaw hanging close to the middle of my chest, I made spluttering noises before speaking.
“It can't be,” I murmured, as I moved my hand closer. “That's some, uh, linked ammunition.”
Faint from another realm I heard shouts and what might have been yelling, then from below where I stood, I heard soft moaning noises. I looked directly downward to see Anna's head.
“Hiding under the table?” I asked. “Why?”
“Th-those things,” she shrieked. “I've seen them before.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Th-that market,” she said. Her fear was beyond my ability to believe, much less comprehend, and the steps coming from my left and rear were nearly as troubling. I turned to see Sarah.
“A-are you afraid?” I asked.
“Only for those things on the table,” said Sarah.
“Uh, why?” I asked, as Hans moved around me.
“Don't touch those,” said Sarah. “I've seen things like them explode.”
I turned around to look closer at the now-obvious ammunition, and Sarah came by my side. I thought to ask a question, but Hans beat me to it.
“I have never seen anything like these things,” he said. “What...”
“D-don't touch them,” squeaked Anna. “I've seen what even the old ones like that can do.”
“O-old ones?” I asked. “Like this?”
“Yes, for shape,” said Sarah. “Usually, all one finds is the pointed portion, and it is often very rusty.” A pause, a slurping noise, a demure belch, then, “they come in several sizes, also, those being among the smallest I have ever seen.”
“Uh, larger?” I asked, as I looked closer at the five linked cartridges. Their squat shape and pointed projectiles made for marveling, as well as a desire to measure their diameter – and with such thinking, came other thought trains, chiefly these:
“Where did these things come from?”
“Is there a weapon that fires them?”
And lastly, but not least, “are these able to explode?”
Hans had not been idle while I was thinking, for he then touched the sharply-pointed tip of one of the rounds.
Nothing happened, which gave me an idea.
“Uh, those have to be a certain size to have explosive filling,” I murmured. “Those rusty ones...”
“Are at least twice this big, and that is for the pointed part,” said Hans. “I have never seen any of them this new-looking.”
“Are there smaller ones than these?” I asked.
“Yes, in that market,” said Hans. “No one knows what they are down there, but that does not stop the witches from buying those things when they show.”
“You're right,” murmured Sarah. “They want those older ones, also.”
“Uh, one question,” I said, as I pointed to the thickest part of the bullet of one of the rounds. “Is there a copper or brass ring around those rusty ones? One about right here?”
“Yes, and it's usually a mess,” said Sarah. “It's all rusty and cut-up.”
“Which means it was fired out of a gun,” I mumbled. “If these have fuzes...”
“I see no such things,” said Hans.
“Different kind of fuze,” I said. I wondered how Hans knew what I was talking about, as 'fuse' and 'fuze' were two different words in our language, with the chief difference being one was 'set alight' and the other functioned by different means. Perhaps it was the similarity in pronunciation – that, and the relative obscurity of of the word 'fuze' compared to the word 'fuse'. “The type I'm thinking of needs to be fired out of a gun before it becomes, uh, live...”
“Now how will you shoot something this small out of a gun?” said Hans. “The usual shot and shells are three times as big for round.”
“Uh, no,” I said. “Different kind of gun. Sort of like a rotten cannon, only these don't blow up.” A brief pause, then, “the fuze arms itself when the shell is fired, and only then will it explode – and these here have not been fired.”
Anna looked at me as if out of my mind, then whispered, “those rusty ones...”
“Had been fired,” I said, “and they did not explode on...” A pause, then, “Duh!”
“Yes, so you have trouble,” said Hans. “Now what does that word mean?”
“Uh, unexploded ordnance,” I muttered. “There was this big war a long time ago, they probably shot a lot of that stuff off and not all of it exploded when it landed, so it's just lying around waiting to blow up the first person that touches it.”
“That stuff is not lying around much,” said Hans. “Most people think it is scrap metal, so they collect it up.”
“And g-get b-blown up,” I squeaked. I then turned to see Anna.
The poor woman was about to cry, and I found her a rag. She blew her nose, then moaned, “my uncle found a big one while plowing when I was a young girl.”
Anna nodded, then said, “it wasn't just him, either, and I saw that thing explode.”
This time, I did not speak of my feelings, even if 'Duh' was far too mild of a word. “No wonder she lost it,” I thought. I then thought to ask a question.
“Uh, how large was this 'big one'?”
“As long as my leg is now,” said Anna, “and as big as a smaller dinner plate for around.”
“Oh, my,” I gasped. “One that large would scatter this house and the two next to it.”
Anna shook her head, then said, “they brought the bulls up to it with a long rope. I was about thirty paces away, at least until the bulls began pulling on it, and then I needed to find a bush, so I ran for the nearest one.”
“How far away was the bush?” I asked.
“About another hundred paces,” said Anna. “I had just finished my business when I looked up, and the whole field exploded.”
“The wh-whole field?” I asked.
“I was tossed four feet in the air and I landed on my side five paces from that bush,” said Anna, “and the bush was on fire. I ran all the way back to town.”
“What was that thing?” I gasped. “I've heard of things like that exploding, but a hundred plus yards from the shell and it tossing you?”
“That sounds like something I once saw on a tapestry,” said Sarah. “It showed entire cities being destroyed, and that all at one time.”
“Uh, I doubt what blew up Anna's relatives and what you are speaking of are the same thing,” I said.
“Why is that?” asked Hans.
“She would have become very ill,” I said.
Anna shook her head, then said, “that happened the next day.”
“Radiation sickness?” I gasped. Anna appeared to not hear me, for she continued seconds later.
“My ears had bells in them when I got home,” said Anna, “and mother put me in the tub right away.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“I was dirty,” said Anna, “only it wasn't normal dirt, it was ashes, too, and my hair was nearly gone, and my clothing was scorched and cut.”
“Did that thing fizzle?” I thought. “A marginal nuclear yield?” There was no answer.
“She put me to bed right after that, and I remember very little until the next day,” said Anna. “I was sick then.”
“Spewing?” I asked. Radiation sickness supposedly had that as one of its symptoms.
“N-no,” said Anna. “Something had cut my leg, and the cut was all filled with infection.”
“She has a scar there,” said Hans. “It looks like she was too close to a swine-shell when it exploded.”
“Did your m-mother do anything?” I asked.
“Yes, once I started screaming,” said Anna. “Just the same, she did not believe me until my father saw it.” A brief pause, then, “I made up my mind, then.”
“Yes, and what did you think?” asked Hans.
“I was going to do my best, and that always,” said Anna, “because I knew what could happen when that wasn't done.”
I had further questions for Anna, but once the shells were bagged up once more and taken down in the basement, it felt as if it was late in the night. Visiting the shop in my current state seemed unwise, and when I began climbing the stairs toward my room and bed, I had an intimation as to why.
I was needing props for my eyelids again, and I wasn't sure if I was still awake.
I awoke to soft twilight the next morning, and as I dressed, I seemed to faintly hear the crowing of an enraged rooster, followed by a giddy-sounding shriek. I hustled downstairs barefoot to nearly collide with Sarah and the fowling piece. She was holding the gun in her arms, and I was glad it wasn't full-cocked.
“Yes?” I asked, as she looked around warily.
“I heard a rooster,” she said.
“Uh, you've had trouble with those...”
“More than once,” she said. “I'm glad none of those things were black ones.”
“R-red roosters?” I asked, as I recalled talk of their fighting prowess. “Pounds of l-lead, and then an ax to cut it apart?”
Sarah looked at me in horror, then nodded slowly. “Some of that bird's lead was mine.”
“Yours?” I asked.
“I put three large musket balls in that bird,” said Sarah, “and if I had had a chance to use a roer on it, I would have.” A pause, then, “that man was busy with that gun, and that bird was busy with him.”
“It ignored being shot?” I asked.
“Yes, it did, especially at first,” said Sarah. “My third ball hit it square in the chest at ten paces, and it kept on fighting as if I hadn't touched it.”
“How big was this bird?” I asked. I was beginning to notice not merely hunger, but also a desire to scratch in places.
Sarah indicated it to be chest-high for her, then said, “it was said to be large and full of itself, and it was, and both of those things.”
“Are the younger ones any less, uh, dangerous?” I asked.
“If they have their regular plumage, yes,” said Sarah. “A newly-moulted bird is as large and troublesome as a fool-hen.”
“Those are trouble...”
“Yes, if they are alive when you are trying to make them ready for the roasting pot,” said Hans as he came down the stairs. “Now do you have lead still?”
I wordlessly gave Hans my right arm, and within a second, he pointed out a single shot-bump. “I think you had best get some beer, and then a bath before you do much, as I see some shot here.”
I returned from bathing with a renewed sense of itching, so much so that I was very glad Anna was up when I emerged from the bathroom. However, I soon learned another issue: shot-removal, at least for me, came prior to eating; and Anna ate with one hand while she searched for shot with the other. At least one of the others was holding a well-stoked student's lantern nearby.
“You are almost out of lead,” commented Hans once I was eating at the table with the others. “She only found a few of those things.”
“That one, uh, shiny pellet?” I asked.
“There is more than one of those,” said Hans. “That vial has...” Hans paused to count on his fingers, then said, “four-and-twenty of those things, and those in more than one size.” Another pause, then, “and you got a lot of those thimbles, too.”
“Those things are for the shop,” said Hans, “same as those buggy parts. I'll ask about some rags for the windows while you are looking in that place this morning.”
“R-rags for the windows?” I asked.
“We will want leather for here,” said Hans. “Sarah showed me that lantern you brought home, and those things are trouble.”
“They run well on aquavit,” I said. “Uh, trouble?”
“Yes, for the light,” said Hans. “It is almost as bright as one of those fourth kingdom lanterns, if it has a full knob.”
“I showed him,” said Sarah, “and I agree with him. You'll want to be careful with that thing.”
“At least at first,” said Anna. “It may take me a while to tell people about it.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
Anna mumbled for a bit, then she said, “I wished heartily for daylight when I had to clean up that one messenger, and that was not the only time recently. Then, last night I had a dream involving those lanterns that make people dim-eyed.”
“Would people accept those?” I asked.
“They might,” said Hans. “I think a few people in town have seen those things, as that market town has lots of them.”
“If they saved lives?” I asked.
“You must have had my dream,” said Anna, “because we had some bright lanterns then, and the swine came, and I had to clean up a great many cuts and bruises in this place with a lot of t-tents...”
“To the north and east, correct?” I asked. “The battle was closer to the river, while this was at the east end of a town.”
“You had my dream,” said Anna. “They didn't mind bright lanterns in the slightest after that.”
“And between now and then, you will need to cover the one you have,” said Sarah.
“At least until I tell them what kind it is,” said Anna. “There will be times between now and that time when you will need to use that lantern.” A pause, then, “and that second part of the dream showed me how Infernal lanterns really are.”
“Y-yes?” I asked.
“They have a picture of Brimstone on them,” said Anna, “and they are not made near as well as what you brought back with you.”
“That is the other reason, Anna,” said Hans. “Only his work is as good as that lantern's.”
“And those, uh, new distilleries are going to need that grade of work,” I muttered. My appetite had gotten the better of me, and I was devouring another thick slice of jam-smeared bread. Anna pinched my arm gently, then nodded.
“You'd best eat what you can,” she said. “You were becoming wasted from all of that lead.”
After breakfast, I made my preparations prior to leaving the house. The others were all busy in one location or the other, with the noise suggesting at least two people were working downstairs. A brief shuddering redness came from the stairwell, followed by a steady lightening of tint and brightening of light. As the light dimmed somewhat, I heard Hans' voice.
“Ah, that thing lights up this end of the shop by itself,” he said.
“No windows, Hans,” said Sarah's muffled sounding voice. “You've got plenty of aquavit, and...”
“And about three decent candles for down here,” he said. “Those wax ones have gotten scarce recently.”
“I thought so,” murmured Anna. I turned to see her emerge from the upstairs stairwell. “That's why...”
She paused, then looked at the stairwell leading down to the basement.
“He's using that thing down there, isn't he?” she asked.
“I think so,” I said. “It's about as safe down there as anywhere, isn't it?”
Anna's face 'twitched', then she looked toward the front door. “It might be wise to get some leather today so as to cover our large window.”
“Uh, where?” I asked.
“The tanner's, for one place,” said Anna. “Hans shot another deer while you were gone, and it's leather is likely to be ready by now.”
Hans looked inclined to remain downstairs for a short time at the least, and when I opened the front door, I noted the sun just starting to 'show' in the west. Talk I had heard during the trip of 'no one dare rise from bed prior to the sun showing plainly' made for wondering; first, at the seeming change I was noticing, and also, at the words Gabriel had used.
“No one dare?” I asked. “Why? Is getting up too early worthy of being punished? By who?”
I blinked away the recollection of my early home-life, and crossed the threshold. Once down on the ground, I glanced briefly in the rear of the buggy, and there saw the cloth-muffled buggy and gun parts. Their apparent heft gave credence to the idea of leaving them in the buggy until Hans was ready to drive them down.
As I walked along the walkway, I noted not merely the aspect of 'true spring' in the region, but also its 'consuming' deadness. I looked east and south in the direction of the kingdom house; and suddenly, for no apparent reason, I knew a good deal more.
“Koenraad,” I muttered. “That wretch has an uncommonly long reach...”
“One of the chief ways he makes up for his lack of potency in the realm of curses,” said the soft voice. “He does know to 'make friends and influence people'.”
“Is that why I noted that part about tallow candles only now?” I asked. “It's been like that for a long time, hasn't it?”
“To a certain degree, yes,” said the soft voice. “He has also been purchasing a great many wax candles for the use of his laborers in the Swartsburg.”
“Hence the supply has been dried up,” I muttered.
“And those purchasing agents have been reviving long-held public beliefs about lighting sources, also,” said the soft voice. “Hence, most people in the area have reverted to the exclusive use of tallow candles, and their working hours approach that of the central portion of the second kingdom's western back-country.”
“Which gives the witches a much freer hand,” I muttered.
“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “You are not the only person adversely affected.”
I was halfway to the shop by now, and while it felt like early morning, I was really noticing the change. Previously, most people had been up and doing in town by this time, but so far, I'd only encountered one house with anyone actually awake other than where I lived.
“It's like that in the kingdom house, isn't it?” I asked.
“Not quite as bad as it is here,” said the soft voice. “Koenraad 'knows' where his chiefest danger lies, and has spent his efforts accordingly.”
Hearing of Koenraad's nonsense was not helping my attitude in the slightest, and by the time I had actually come to the shop, I was in something of a funk. The sign seemed to be jeering at me, and when I first touched it, it was all I could do to not rip it off and fling it aside.
And then, I hitched.
“That's what he hoped for,” I muttered, as I drew back to 'think'. “That stinker's rigged the shop.”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “He hasn't put bombs in the shop.”
“Too clever for him?” I asked.
“While Koenraad is clever, his thinking isn't quite up to what you had in mind,” said the soft voice.
“Bury me with work?” I asked.
“He knew Georg would do that with but little assistance on his part,” said the soft voice. “Recall his chief area of strength?”
“Influence?” I asked.
“His agents suggested to Johannes and Gelbhaar that hunting would be better on the east side of the Main river,” said the soft voice, “and that all of the boys needed to be home to help with the crops this year – and that for the entire growing season.” A pause, then, “and while he does know about who does most of the work there, he also knows you do not do all of it.”
“Hence I'm effectively tied up,” I said.
While there was no answer, I was still most wary for the front door, and I thought to use a length of string to tie to the sign. I dragged it off from the corner of the property nearest the watering troughs, and as I began to coil up my string, I noticed the sound of hooves from the north. I looked up to see someone – Hans, perhaps – coming south on the road through town.
“Perhaps let Georg know where his people are?” I thought.
“He's looking there already,” said the soft voice. “Georg is fairly capable when it comes to getting information.”
“Disinformation?” I asked.
“Is one area of trouble for him,” said the soft voice. “He also knows something of his weakness that way, so he tries to build consensus and ask questions before acting.”
With pocketed string, I began to gently edge the doors open. Their gritty feeling, as well as the 'damp' odor coming from within, spoke of no fires burning recently; and when I'd gotten one of the doors open wide enough to admit me, I gasped.
“He's not wasted time ordering supplies, either,” I murmured. “This place is crammed with them!”
I walked in slowly, my feet hesitant. I could hear the slow-coming buggy from the north clearer now, even as I came to the first of a row of sizable barrels stacked along one wall of the 'waiting area'. A glance at the top of one barrel showed not merely a thick coating of variegated dusting, with each of the many layers possessing a color that spoke of a given road on the long trip north. The barrel next to the one I initially looked at showed a marking of some kind, which took a moment's fingering to then finally guess its meaning.
“He did order that stuff,” I thought, as I saw the letters spelling Joosten's. “Why did I not see the label before? Was it because I was not looking for it, or something else?”
Examining more of the barrels showed a possible reason why: only one in three was actually marked that way, and of those marked with the manufacturer's name, only two were 'readily' visible. The third showed marked signs of 'wear'.
“Do they reuse these things?” I asked.
“Until they are fit for kindling,” said the soft voice, “which is why you did not see a 'proper' label until now.” A pause, then, “Joosten's barrels tend to ride south filled with corn, potatoes, and turnips.”
“Yech!” I spat at the mention of turnips.
“Diced turnips do work well as a meal-extender, provided they are thoroughly cooked and the spicier dried meats are used,” said the soft voice, “and they will grow almost anywhere, given ample water.”
“Uh, the fifth kingdom?” I asked. “Eisernije?” A pause, then, “the Valley?”
“El Jefe does manage turnips,” said the soft voice. “He has trouble with most other things, save if he uses special equipment.”
“Special e-equipment?” I asked.
“It tends to be located underground,” said the soft voice, “so as to conserve water.” A pause, then, “most of El Jefe's more interesting things are hidden that way.”
At the end of the line of barrels, I found a knee-high straggly stack of black-cast ingot metal, while bagged next to it were three sizable sacks of 'number one graded bronze scrap' surrounded by wobbly chest-high stacks of packing boxes.
“Stove-pipe?” I asked, as I drew one down.
“The bills of lading are in Georg's desk,” said the soft voice. “Hans will be by shortly.”
“Shortly?” I asked.
“He's needed to stop twice on the way,” said the soft voice. “Two families in town came down with the crae while you were gone, and both groups needed lengthy attention.”
“And?” I asked.
“And each of those groups needed three 'large' jugs of cough medicine,” said the soft voice. “That extractor was very busy while you were gone, so much so that Hans is wondering when you can make more of them.”
Behind the stacks were more stacks of sheet metal, these being predominantly copper. While most of our former copper had been 'three-line' thickness, the current stuff had thicker and thinner sheets as well. I wondered briefly if that one distillery had figured into the order.
“To a modest degree, yes,” said the soft voice. “Georg has been out of the other three common sizes for some time, and the order finally arrived.”
Next to this copper, however, was a sizable stack of sheet brass. Again, there were varied thicknesses of it, some of it thinner than any brass sheet I had seen here.
“That stuff is almost thin enough to use for shimming things,” I thought.
“The 'shim' brass is packed in one of the boxes,” said the soft voice. “About half of what arrived was ordered last year.”
“The roads?” I asked.
“Were thought impassible north of the High Way,” said the soft voice, “and for most freighters, and most teams, they were.”
“This, uh, shipment?” I asked.
“Shipments,” said the soft voice. “There were three of them, all of which arrived days before your return – and all of them done by locally-based freighters willing to run with lighter-than-common loads.”
“The dirt roads are that bad still?” I asked.
“They were surprised to no small degree,” said the soft voice, “especially given the trouble they'd seen with people attempting to plow in this area.”
The 'work area' was nearly as cluttered as the 'waiting' area, and with similar materials. Here, there were more barrels of foundry sand, as well as a vast number of bags of charcoal. While normally that stayed outside, the rains that still fell in the area gave me a plausible reason to store it indoors while the shop remained 'quiet'.
They also gave me an idea.
“Perhaps if I move some of this stuff around so it acts like those, uh, blinds in Andreas' area..?” I thought. “It might just, uh, work.”
“Yes, if you avoid activities that are unduly noisy,” said the soft voice. “Working after dark, save if you do it at home, is a very bad idea right now.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
The door to the front opened as if to answer me, and I turned to see Hans. He was shaking his head, then as he came closer, he spoke.
“This is trouble,” he said. “Everyone in town is still asleep.”
“And they go to bed before the sun goes down,” I said. “Correct?”
Hans nodded, then looked around more. I expected him to erupt, and when he began looking, I murmured, “I have to work those same hours, at least for now.”
“Yes, for a week or so,” said Hans. “I had no idea there was this much stuff here, or...”
Hans turned, then whistled softly. I turned in his direction and had to grab a barrel so as to not fall flat on the floor.
“That is a lot of work,” he said.
The bench's west end had no less than four head-high wobbly stacks of slates, save at the very tip nearest Georg's desk, where the stacks – two in number – were about the height of my chest. Hans walked over to the stack at the west end and picked up a slate from the top, then put it aside.
“These things are blank,” he said, as he continued putting them on Georg's desk.
“Those in the pile next to that one?” I asked. I was still 'taking inventory' of the supplies. I could 'feel' more supplies than what I was seeing, and was wondering if they were elsewhere on the property or were en-route. Hans picked up a slate from the top of the next stack.
“This is an order,” he said. “It is for a knife.”
“Any, uh...” I asked. Hans then showed me the slate.
“That's a little better than usual,” I said. “I guess the person wants the usual size.”
Hans looked at me, shook his head, then looked in another stack. “Another knife,” he said, then as he 'shuffled' the upper few slates, “a set of forks... A distillery, new type... Turnscrews...”
“What?” I asked.
“I think that person needs to tell Georg more about what he wants,” said Hans. “I have seen more than one type of those things, and that is before you came.” A pause, then as Hans set down the slates, I heard a muffled clatter. Hans then looked down near his feet, and I left my refuge to come closer.