In Circled Fire...”

The first of the townspeople showed about an hour after I had found the first of the 'medals' within the shop. The last medal – an old-looking piece that actually glowed slightly – was buried next to an anvil-stump with the ground carefully brushed around so as to not show digging; I had needed to find it by feel. I was rooting it out with my knife when the shadow of a man showed itself in the doorway, and I was glad Hans was near the front of the shop so as to give me 'cover' while I first uncovered and then retrieved the too-obvious fetish. It felt horrible to touch, and I was glad for a pair of tongs so as to handle its too-potent evil.

While Hans explained to him what was needed to be done – there were still a fair number of boxes that needed to be put away, while the entire place was dusty and dirty from 'lack of use' – I bagged up the mound of medals and put them away in the bottom portion of my tool carrier. As the others resumed sorting and 'tidying', I began cleaning out the 'long forge' so as to 'roast' the used tongs. Not two minutes after I started shoveling its ashes into an old wooden bucket, Hans brought in an armload of sticks.

“It is bad out there,” he said. “That scrap metal is a big mess.”

“Wh-what?” I gasped.

“I think someone was moving it around so as to look for something,” said Hans, “and they made that mess back there a lot worse than it was. Then, there is metal in here still that needs to go back there once that place is cleaned up.”

“Where's Georg?” asked another person from the doorway. The first man, seemingly, had gone to spread the news of my unlamented resurrection from a fate that seemed worse than death, and his replacement made me wonder for a moment, at least until I identified the speaker. I then relaxed to a degree.

“He is hunting up the rest of those people,” said Hans, “and there is enough work for him” – here, he indicated me – “that he cannot wait for them to come back.”

“Aye,” said Lukas, as he went closer to the oven. “I see some soot on the oven here.”

I went over to where Lukas was pointing, then said, “someone tried to open it while I was gone.”

“No lock to it,” said Lukas. “You might want one on it, given how some people are.”

“I am not certain that oven needs to be secured in that fashion,” said Sarah. Anna was still missing, for some reason. I had the impression she had business in town that needed to happen before dinner.

“Why would that be?” asked Lukas. “There's a handprint here outlined in soot.”

“Have you ever read a tale called 'The Sand-Man'?” asked Sarah pointedly. “It speaks of a great many things, and I've wondered about it for years, but I do know this: Georg spoke of that oven, and how it seemed to not abide him.”

“Did it try to bite him?” asked Lukas.

“I am not sure what it actually did,” said Sarah, “but I am sure he's afraid of it, and that I heard from his own lips.”

“He was afraid of being lit on fire,” I said, “and also, it growled at him.”

The silence that crashed down from above – or, perhaps, came up from below – was of such magnitude that I said quietly, “it's just an oven.” I then recalled some of my misadventures with ovens – including those since I had arrived – and the whole matter acquired a new aura of plausibility. I lit a tallow candle stub from one of the lanterns we had brought.

“Maybe there were, uh, gaseous accumulations,” I murmured quietly as I lit the stacked kindling in the long forge, “and when he cracked the door open, they, uh, ignited.” A pause, then, “I've lost hair from distillate when it was used to get the stove lit...”

“Yes, and I am glad I do not have to do that any more,” said Hans. “Those heating lamps are quicker than the stove for boiling water.”

Two more people showed within another hour, and by the time Anna showed – she was 'making the rounds' to learn of the town's news while catching up on her 'shopping' – I was not merely tired; I was as filthy as the shop had been when we started. I went home before the others so as to bathe, and when I emerged from the bathroom in clean clothing, I found a line had formed for the tub.

“I'd get moving if I were you-all,” said Anna as she tended three sizable and slow-steaming pots of water on the stove. The kitchen was becoming perceptibly warm as well as steamy. “That pie has fresh beef in it, and the Public House is not getting less full while we are still here.”

The six of us were walking south half an hour later in the long shadows of late afternoon, and as I walked next to Sarah, I 'listened'. Gunfire still banged and boomed far in the distance, though the usual was now infrequent single shots rather than semi-regular ragged volleys, and the smell and noise of swine seemed 'absent'. The surface of the road that passed through town had been churned into a slow-seething rutted region of dust by a huge amount of heavy-laden traffic, and when we came to the Public House, I marveled at the place's utterly packed yard.

I did not marvel at the heavenly aroma of 'roast beef' that assaulted my nostrils when we went inside, however. I barely caught my 'drool' in time.

There were two tables closed up together near the rear of the building with the passage to the privy but a few feet to the right, and when Anna led us to them, she said, “I slipped August a five guilder piece earlier today to hold these for us.”

“Good that you did so,” said Hans, “as otherwise, we would eat on the stoop with the place as crowded as it is getting.”

“Beer,” croaked Gilbertus. “I need something for the dust o' that shop.”

“It has a lot less dust in it now,” said Hans. “I spat some of that stuff in the privy after I bathed.”

The meal had its share of interruptions, chiefly quick visits to the privy to return with wet faces. I did so thrice, each time sniffing up a handful of the warmed salted water Anna had asked our table to have. When I came back from the second instance, Gilbertus spoke of the practice being common on the Low Way during the summer.

“That place has lots of dust,” said Hans, “and the wagons make more of it when they go.”

“And put it into the air higher than your head,” said Lukas. “It gets so you want a damp rag for your face, and as much water for your nose as beer for your mouth.”

The Public House continued to become more crowded and noisy; and while songs were most infrequent, laughter and 'gaiety' were common indeed. The place had the distinct aura of a deathly-ill patient that was swiftly on the mend, and the diners each and every one had raging appetites. I wondered why until Anna came back from a quick visit to the 'bar' at the rear of the place. She had another jug of beer in her hands. That, at least, was not scarce.

“Do you know why everyone is hungry?” I asked.

“They weren't hardly able to eat!” shouted Anna. “They were spending all of their days sleeping, and...”

“And now is the time for planting, so work needs every hour of a long day,” said Hans. “So, they could plant, or they could eat, and everyone knows what happens if you do not plant when you should.”

Sarah almost broke into laughter, then between half-suppressed howls, she said, “the corn gets strange, and the elk eat all of it.”

“What is this?” asked Hans. “The elk do not eat all of the corn, not even if you plant the stuff a month late and all of the elk that show are fresh ones.”

“Not where my cousin lives,” squealed Sarah. I found her behavior enchanting. “They don't plant much for corn there, but one year their seed-corn was held up and they planted it a month late.”

“And then what happened?” I asked.

“The corn almost shot itself out of the ground, it grew so fast,” said Sarah, “and when the ears started showing, they looked more like round-shot than corn for shape.” A pause, gulped beer, then, “and then, the elk came, and they were crazy for that stuff.”

“How did they manage without corn?” I asked.

“They had free meals at the three nearest Public Houses for most of the winter, what with all the elk they shot,” said Sarah. “I wanted to try a roer then, but Oom Heinrich said I was too small for such a gun.”

“What?” I screeched? “A roer?”

“I wasn't going to full-load it,” squeaked Sarah, “and I had found a tree so as to tie it up.”

“Those things want good knots,” said Hans. “I have no idea how his held when he tested what he uses.” Hans paused, then muttered, “and I wanted tinctures then, only I did not have any fresh-mixed.”

“Noisy, eh?” said Gilbertus. “That thing ain't near a normal musket, and that's just for its noise.” A pause to drink, then, “and only artillery shoots further.”

“How much do you put to it?” asked Lukas. “You don't use a measure.”

“That is because the measure is inside of that thing he uses,” said Hans, “and it adjusts like a close-balance.”

“Uh, a bit less than sixty grains,” I said. “I use this powder...”

“That thing takes what is used to fill shells for grain,” said Hans, “and you want to use two and three of that stuff should you try it in a flint-musket.”

“And that is if you do not mind falling on your rear when you fire,” said Anna crossly.

“That is because it is near priming powder for grain, Anna,” said Hans. “It works decent in those pistols, if you spare it some from what they usually take.”

“When did you..?”

“We were wooding while you were gone,” said Hans, “as I wanted to check this one woodlot to see if this stream it has was decent for fish or not. We had got some drop-wood and were piling the buggy up when this deer tried for Anna, and she had to shoot it.”

“How did she get..?”

“I could not find the usual powder measure for that musket,” said Anna, “so I used that one you used before you made your own.”

“And it still had powder in it...” I mumbled.

Anna nodded, then said, “and I loaded the musket like usual, and patched the ball, and when I shot at that deer...”

“Anna was not the only one on the ground, then,” said Hans. “That deer was down, too, and it was dead when I got to it.”

“It had a hole all the way through it, Hans,” said Anna. “Muskets don't usually do that.”

“How big was this hole?” asked Lukas.

“The usual size for going in, and about the same for the out-side,” said Hans. “Now if Dennis shot that deer, though...”

“I've seen what his does,” said Lukas. “It's worse than a roer.”

“And I was glad he used it when that big pig showed in the house proper down in the fifth kingdom,” said Gilbertus. “It may sound like a cannon...”

“You have not heard it full-loaded, either,” said Hans. “It does not sound like a cannon then.”

“What does it sound like?” asked Sarah.

“Like a sack of bad dynamite,” said Anna, “and the flame out of the front is almost as bad as one of Willem's guns.”

“What?” I gasped. “When?”

“Hans told me about it, and I did not believe him,” said Anna, “but I did when Maarten said he was hearing it for a week straight after you shot that pig near where he lives.”

“He was seeing it, too, Anna,” said Hans.

“Bad dynamite?” I asked.

“That stuff that drips oil,” said Anna. “I've never seen it, but Hans has.”

“That stuff leaves the mill bad,” said Hans.

“Lots o' dynamite does,” said Lukas, “but that stuff sounds like some I've seen once or twice.”

“Popping?” I asked.

“That stuff gets wrapped good in rags before it's loaded into the holes,” said Lukas, “and only certain powdermen can use it without getting blown to hell.”

“C-certain..?”

“Talk had it they were marked,” said Lukas. “I wasn't at that mine very long, on account of them running it paying with drafts rather than coin.”

“Drafts collectible in 'supplies', correct?” I asked.

Lukas nodded, “and that meant a thirty-mile trip twice over on foot dodging escaped mules and Death Adders though bad brush and worse heat. I got that thing, and I never went back to that mine.”

We left our seats in the Public House about half an hour later, and our tables were split apart and occupied before we'd managed half the distance to the door. I wondered where the people had come from until I saw – for the first time ever – a narrow cloth-covered doorway on the north side of the Public House. The cloth was pulled aside and secured with rope ties to the right of the doorway, and I could hear the voices of a small multitude coming from the brightly-lit region within.

“What is that place?” I asked.

“That was put up just before you came, at least for its outside,” said Anna, “and they finished it up over this last winter.” A pause, then, “it has two long benches inside for people to wait for tables, and a door at the kitchen end so the waiters can fetch beer and things for them.”

“Not out on the stoop?” I asked.

“That was before it was ready,” said Anna, “though if it gets out about about the meat here...”

We had reached the door, and the hushed tones of the others as they passed the threshold were marvels, at least until I came to the threshold myself. I then saw the tables being set up and the added lanterns being hung from hooks on the eaves I had not seen before.

“I guess not,” muttered Anna.

“I am glad you thought ahead,” said Hans, “as they are setting the stoop like they did when the beef first came last year.”

“Uh, bugs?” I asked.

“Not this early,” said Hans. “Those things come when it is warmer.”

My sleep that night was uncommonly deep, as if I had not rested properly in ages, and when I awoke in the morning, I heard on the edge of hearing faint noises as I made for the privy. Once done and in the kitchen, however, I heard the sounds more plainly.

“Horses,” I murmured. “They're heading for the nearest ford on that river to the east.”

“With Georg behind right them on the same road,” said the soft voice. “He's wondering how to fetch the boys.”

“Uh, when?” I asked.

“Not today,” said the soft voice, “nor tomorrow, but sometime on the third day.” A brief pause, then, “between the men's tired horses, Georg's insistence upon putting grain to both of Gelbhaar's and Johannes' animals as if they were Jaak's relatives, and the fatigue of all three men, they'll do well to manage thirty miles a day – and that ford is an easy forty miles south of where they currently are.”

Grain?” I asked.

“Unlike most,” said the soft voice, “Georg knows well of the value of grain and sleeved wheels.”

“He has those?” I asked.

“He has wanted sleeves for several years,” said the soft voice, “but his brother has been most laggardly regarding their delivery.” A brief pause, then, “then, Georg uses that buggy regularly.”

“And he cannot have it out of commission for weeks,” I murmured.

“Not weeks,” said the soft voice. “Months.” A brief pause, then, “were you less busy, he would have you do some of that work, in fact.”

“Uh, greasing?” I asked.

“One of the apprentices' jobs is 'buggy maintenance', said the soft voice. “Georg has a farmer's lifter in his buggy-way, so the boys can manage the work easily.”

“They're not inclined much, are they?” I asked.

“About as much as is the rule for apprentices,” said the soft voice. “They don't like that grease.”

“Grease?” I asked.

“Georg has his own tins of fourth kingdom axle grease,” said the soft voice. “They're out in the buggy-way also.”

Lukas and Gilbertus were 'gone' by the time I came down for breakfast, and when lunchtime came – I was still putting things right at the shop; Hans was directing two of the neighbors into the rear of the place, while I and Sarah were now taking a 'detailed' inventory – they were still missing.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“I think they are checking that one river for fish,” said Hans. “I am not sure if there are trouts in that place yet, but if there are, I expect them to come back with at least one of those things, as I sent them out with some of that bait I make.”

“Uh, those fish last year?” I asked.

“I think those things move around,” said Hans, “as there are trouts in the ocean, and those things get big there, or so I have heard tell.”

“They spawn in the rivers?” I asked.

“What is this?” asked Hans.

“Where they lay their eggs,” said Sarah. “That was a great mystery until my third year at the west school.”

“It is still a mystery, at least to me,” said Hans. “Now what did you do?”

“I followed those fish as my third portion of that year's traipsing,” said Sarah, “and I found one of the places on the West river where they pile up.”

“Pile up?” I asked.

“Yes, in fish-piles,” said Sarah. “They were so busy digging in that gravel, at least some of them, that they did not mind me looking closely.”

“Did you see any lay eggs?” asked Anna.

“I think those that were digging in the gravel were doing that,” said Sarah. “I waited a week after they stopped piling up, but no small trouts showed.”

“How big...” Anna seemed entranced.

“The smallest trout I have seen was the size of my finger,” said Sarah, “and while it was a fresh trout, I saw it in the fall.”

“Those things are smaller when they come out of their eggs, then,” said Hans. “Where was this on the river?”

“Up near where it starts,” said Sarah. “It's very marshy there, and more than a few people gather linen in that region.”

“About fifty miles from the northern border of the potato country, correct?” I asked. “A bit to the north, and more to the east?”

Sarah nodded, then said, “and that area has its share of witches.”

Anna came by with cloth screens for the shop's windows late in the afternoon, and while I thought to 'test' them that night, she said, “a messenger came by to speak of your next posting, and it's tonight.”

“Which post?” I asked.

“The fifth,” she said. “At least the three of you will be together this time.”

“And, uh, Lukas and Gilbertus?” I asked.

“I expect them home shortly,” said Anna. “Hans spoke of a mirror-flash from the north a little while ago.”

“Mirror-flash?” I asked.

“That Teacher doesn't bother with those,” said Anna. “Hans learned about mirror-signals from Andreas, and I think both of those older men did also.”

“Uh, I don't have a mirror to use,” I murmured.

“They can be had in the fourth kingdom's market,” said Anna. “It took Hans two trips to find his, and that thing was old and crooked, with sharp corners.” A pause, then, “he had to have a jeweler smooth it up around the edges before he could use it.”

“Perhaps my, uh, boxes?” I asked.

“I'd look when you get back from posting,” said Anna. “Hans spoke of those men coming back the day after tomorrow.”

“Late tomorrow?” I asked.

“They're making about the usual for time, supposedly,” said Anna. “The nearest ford on the Main is about ten miles south of the kingdom house, and it's a good ten miles east of that place.”

“Hence another full day's travel once they cross the ford,” I murmured. “Especially given that those distances are you spoke of are close to straight lines, and the roads in that area weave all over.”

“That is true,” said Hans. “Now I hear that Georg is putting the grain to all of their horses, so they will do better.”

“His buggy, Hans,” said Anna. “It's about three years past due for going through, and he has the common for wheels.”

“He does not use tallow, Anna,” said Hans. “He uses grease.”

“When did he get grease?” squeaked Anna. I surmised she was thinking of the black fifth kingdom 'goo' that I had heard tales of.

“I went back in his buggy-way,” said Sarah, “and I not only found the grease there, but also what he has for tools and things.”

“Are they the common for tools?” asked Hans.

“They may be old and dusty,” said Sarah, “but they were decent just the same.”

“F-full polish wrenches?” I asked.

“No, these weren't,” said Sarah. “I think he got these at an estate sale, as that's about the only way to get that type of wrench up here.”

“Yes, and what kind of wrenches were these?” asked Hans.

“I've only seen them a few times in that market,” said Sarah, “and every time, there was a big crowd with a lot of fighting.” A brief pause, “and every instrument-maker in the area was tossing money-pouches at the seller so as to secure those wrenches.”

Hans narrowed his eyes, then said, “it is good he has them hid, then, as those would cause trouble if the word got out about him having them.”

“Perhaps not, Hans,” said Anna. “There are a fair number of orders for 'grayed' tools in the shop.”

“And town is fresh out of witches, also,” I said. “They'll be inclined to hide for a while.”

Both men returned before dinnertime, and while they did have a pair of fish, the fish themselves were far smaller than the huge things that I had seen before. Moreover, both men spoke of shooting at witches.

“Where?” I asked.

“Near this one woodlot on the way there,” said Gilbertus. “I know I put lead in one, and I might have barked another.”

“Barked?” I asked.

“What happened to my rear in the fifth kingdom,” said Lukas. “I think he got that witch more than a stripe.” A brief pause to drink beer, then, “and I know I got one solid, as I saw that wretch drop.”

“He didn't get back up, either,” said Gilbertus. “Both o' mine did.”

I had to eat in a hurry when dinnertime came, for I wished to arrive early at the post, and as I rode south and east in a nearly straight line once well south of Waldhuis, I recalled what Lukas had mentioned during the beginning of my rushed meal.

“I'd scout around for secret passages near the king's office,” said the voice of recollection. “I'll show you those I know of when I get back to the house.”

“And how to get around without being seen,” I muttered, between swigs on my water-bottle as Jaak moved in the shadows next to the trees of the nearest woodlot.

Karl and Sepp were finishing dinner when I showed in the refectory, and after getting my own snack and refill of cider, the three of us left for where we normally 'sat'. I had a feeling about those posting ahead of us – namely, they were working double-shifts at the current time, and hence alertness wasn't happening – and only when I actually came to the first door of General's Row did I relax.

“That place is almost empty,” I whispered into Karl's ear. “There might be three people in there.”

“That is now,” said Karl. “I have been watching that place close, and I know there are more than three of those stinky thugs in that place most of the time.”

“So where are they now?” asked Sepp, as we came to the first of the 'turns' that led to Hendrik's door.

“They are not in the Swartsburg,” said Karl. “That place looks like somewhere out of the first part of the book where that woman looked back at where she lived and got turned into salt.”

“Sodom,” I muttered.

“Is that its name?” asked Karl. “I could not remember.”

“I'll look it up just to be certain,” I said, as we came to the bench itself.

All three men were 'asleep', with two of them collapsed in fetal positions on the floor and the third man leaning against the wall such that he looked about to join the other two. I gently felt the knob of Hendrik's door, and breathed a sigh of relief.

“He's safe, isn't he?” asked Sepp.

I nodded, then asked as I pointed at the three men, “are they?”

There was no answer, and I knelt down by one of the collapsed men. A touch to his neck showed a pulse, though the thin rapid pulsing sensation I felt was not cheering by any stretch of the imagination. I knew something was deeply wrong, and not just by the nature of the man's pulse. Karl knelt by the other man on the floor, while Sepp looked at the still-seated man.

“If these men are tired, they...”

“No,” I spat. “They might be tired, but...” I paused, then looked out toward the main portion of the corridor in the directions of General's Row – and spat, “they were drugged.”

“With what?” asked Karl.

“I am not certain,” I said, as I again touched the man I was nearest. This time, I felt his cheek, and the 'hot' sensation nearly caused a scream to spout from my lips. His pallid face seemed to reproach me.

“They dosed them with datramonium,” I spat. “Spew, you, uh...”

The man still leaning against the wall instantly broke into a stiffly thrashing convulsion, while the man next to Karl feebly moaned. Karl bent down toward him, and as he listened, I felt a distinct chill suddenly gather in the air about us. I looked down at 'my' man, and suddenly, his eyes opened wide and staring; his mouth moved like a fish out of water. A feeble croak came from his lips.

“This man is trying to speak,” said Sepp as 'his' man continued to thrash feebly. “I cannot understand what he is saying.”

I again looked down at the man nearest me, and as I watched, his face gathered a faint reddish glow – save for the areas around his mouth, where the glow was brighter, with a pronounced orange tone. Suddenly, he arched his back and moaned loudly – and then collapsed on his side to feebly thrash.

“What can you do for datramonium?” asked Karl.

“Not much,” I said. “About all that Anna would do is try to make them spew...”

All three men then thrashed slightly harder, then suddenly the man nearest me became 'stiff'. His mouth opened wide in a silent scream showing black-edged teeth and a protruding tongue, then with a grating rattling noise, he gasped and died. His eyes remained fixed, as if he were staring into the fires of hell itself, and the dark shine of his huge pupils seemed to reflect redly the very flames of that infernal place.

I backed away from him, for some reason – and as I did so, I desired a rope. Karl looked at me, even as his man seemed about to go into full-blown convulsions.

“Karl,” I whispered, “I have a bad feeling about all of these men.”

“This one looks likely to die too,” said Karl. “We will need spades...”

“No, Karl,” I said with a trace of sharpness. My voice had grown a modicum of volume, but no more than a trace. I was still speaking quietly. “We want to drag them outside, and that quickly.”

“Why?” asked Karl.

“I'm afraid to say why in here,” I said, as I looked down at the corpse once more. “It might...”

The man who had died had begun to not merely give off 'fumes', but he smelled as if rotting apace. Sepp looked at me, then mouthed the word 'witches'. I gave the merest nod, then drew out a coil of rope from my possible bag. I tossed it to Karl, then I drew out another such coil. Sepp had his own rope out by then.

I led off with the first-to-die 'stinker', while Karl's man looked about to expire as he towed him by his stiff-as-a-board feet. Sepp's was still feebly thrashing at the end of his rope, though he looked to be fading fast.

“Hurry,” I muttered. “This wretch feels like he's about to...”

“Do not speak it,” said Sepp. “I've heard about what witches do when you speak to them.”

I made the door at a slow trot and the body of the man bounced as if alive as I took the stairs in a single leap. He drew me up short like a ball and chain when he came back to earth, and as I ran for the trees, I felt a slow yet steady warming from behind.

“Both of you, go to the right or left of me,” I yelled. “He's about to catch fire!”

I felt the sudden bloom of heat erupt from behind me but scant seconds later, and as I ran faster, the flames seemed inclined to embrace me. The shade of the trees seemed to beckon darkly amid the gathering gloom of early evening, and when my rope suddenly freed itself with a jerk, I turned around to see a high-billowing red-yellow conflagration directly behind me under a rapidly-gathering pall of black sooty smoke. Steps came to my left, and I turned to see Karl.

“That witch is almost dead,” said Karl, as he coiled up his rope. “We had best help Sepp before that other wretch...”

Sepp came running through the trees as if he were on fire, and when he came up to us, he skidded briefly and nearly fetched up against a tree. Karl looked at him as if this were all in a day's work, while I wondered what had happened. I then noticed his mostly-coiled rope and its charred dangling end.

“That witch went up like a jug!” he shouted. “I almost got lit on fire!”

“Good that you did not,” said Karl. He then pointed with a long and surprisingly steady arm, saying, “that one went up first, then yours...”

“What about yours?” asked Sepp.

A thick billow of putrid gray-black smoke came wafting through the trees, and I gasped, then spat, “he must of just ignited.”

That proved to be the case, and once we had ensured the witch-fires weren't going to spread to the trees – they burned hot and fast for a minute or so, then died down quickly to mounds of foul-smelling coals mingled with the fragments of bones under thick and growing sooty clouds of smoke – we hot-footed it back inside. We were met at the bench by Hendrik himself.

“Did those stinkers...”

“They all caught fire and burned,” blurted Karl. “He said they had gotten into some datramonium.”

“Good riddance, then,” said Hendrik. He then turned, and as he walked into his office, I noted an oddly 'padded' aspect to the seat of his trousers. I softly closed the door – and as the lock clicked, I heard a soft groan come from within. Karl looked at me, and I jerked the door open to see Hendrik sitting at his desk, his face writ with misery.

“Even with a pillow for padding,” he muttered, “it still hurts.” A brief pause, “and I cannot take that tincture for pain and still work.”

I was speechless, and all I could do was gulp and softly close the door to then retire glumly to the bench. There, I thought head-in-hand, and a minute later, muttered, “now there are three less guards. When will it end?”

“It will not get 'bad' again until the witches think themselves strong once more,” said the soft voice, “and those men were not guards.”

“Then who were they?” asked Sepp.

“Supplicants who had just made their bones by murdering the men who were supposed to be on post,” said the soft voice.

“Where..?” I gasped.

“In a near-by witch-hole, and that late last night,” said the soft voice. “Be glad they are done.”

“They do not sound done to me,” said Karl.

“The Swartsburg is gone, Karl,” said Sepp, “and every town within a day's hard ride has had burn-piles, gunfire, dead pigs, and dead witches.”

“So?” spat Karl. “There were three witches, and they were in here, and they murdered guards.”

“Those were the last three 'questionable' guards,” said the soft voice, “and their murderers were among the very last of those local witches currently bold enough to act as openly as they did.”

“Uh, the datramonium?” I asked.

“Those 'daring' local witches and supplicants who yet remain alive tend to be markedly lacking in sense,” said the soft voice. “Hence, those men 'celebrated' with a full witch-load of datramonium each upon making their bones.” A brief pause, then, “the fact that they had not developed the needed tolerance to indulge that way and survive did not occur to them.”

“What is this word?” asked Karl.

“They took too much,” I muttered, “and were more dead than alive when we found them.”

“Not merely 'too much',” said the soft voice. “Tolerance to the effects of datramonium increases drastically during the first few instances of use – and these men were virgins to both witchdom and datramonium.”

“That sounds like they thought to learn of the taste of Geneva and instead drained a jug apiece,” said Sepp. “Now, what do we do about these secret places I have heard of?”

As I brought out my latest ledger – I was beginning to make notes in it under the heading of 'Lunacy', as in 'the Lunatic's Handbook' – I said, “now would be a good time to look for them and note what is present.”

“How is that?” asked Karl.

“Firstly, the local stock of witches is depleted,” I said. I was about to continue when the soft voice said, “regarding worrisome witches, the word 'depleted' is currently far too mild.” A brief pause, then, “those that currently exist in the immediate area are either exceedingly stupid or very cautious.”

“S-stupid?” I asked.

“Like those three that just caught fire,” said the soft voice. “The cautious ones are likely to stay well clear of the house proper should there be any chance of you or a number of other people being on the premises.” A brief pause, then, “I would do my exploring of the ground floor during the early hours of the morning, should you have a posting that explains your presence here.”

“Uh, why then?” I asked.

“Recall the nature of the witches currently present?” said the soft voice. “The cautious ones might come as close to the house proper as the middle of town after dark, while the idiotic ones will be either be sleeping off the effects of their latest drinking binge or making ready to sup with Brimstone.”

“And everyone else will most likely be asleep,” I murmured. “Hence, we can learn what we can without anyone being the wiser.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “While Andreas will soon learn of your explorations, he is renowned for his discretion.”

“Er, anyone we need to worry about, then,” I muttered sheepishly.

While Karl and Sepp repaired to unoccupied guard-rooms after the end of our shift, I set off for home under the now glinting stars. As per usual, I stayed off of the roads and in the shadows, and as I came near Waldhuis in the darkness, I wondered if I might 'spy out' the place.

“No closer than the far edges of their fields, and keep moving if you get that close,” said the soft voice. “Those guns have not yet left.”

“Will they shoot?” I asked.

“The gunners are gone, and the guns are in the process of being dismantled for shipment,” said the soft voice. “The reason you can go closer to Waldhuis right now is because of planting-induced exhaustion of its dwellers, not because of the place being wrecked.”

Is the place wrecked?” I asked.

“It looks more or less intact outwardly,” said the soft voice, “even if several buildings burned to their foundations and over half of those which are still standing are damaged.” A brief pause, then, “the same cannot be said for the inside of those buildings.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Miura and his friends crashed the place about three hours before you saw that fireball coming home,” said the soft voice, “and what you were shown regarding armoire chests in antique-filled darkened houses and the like was a primer for what happened there.”

“Is, uh, Miura still out and causing trouble?” I asked.

“In some places, yes,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, he's reverted to his wild state.”

“Wild state?” I asked.

“Miura roamed wild from the time of the war's slowing until about three hundred years ago,” said the soft voice, “and since then, he's become slightly domesticated.”

I drew steadily closer to Waldhuis, staying at the edge of the nearest woodlot when the first of the buildings showed, and I kept at a steady pace the entire time of observation. What I had heard was entirely the truth, if I went by what I saw; and while the place was not wrecked, I could clearly discern a sense of 'absolute shambles' about the place.

“That place is a big enough mess that between planting and cleaning, they're going to be very busy for a while,” I thought.

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “Waldhuis will mind its manners passably for some months.”

The 'short-cut' had saved me an easy twenty minutes, and I came home via the back way. I came inside to a near-dark house, with but a sole wax candle burning in a student's lantern in the kitchen. The soft sounds of sleep I heard in the house were a marvel, for I could hear no less than five people 'sawing wood'.

“Lukas and Gilbertus will be heading out shortly,” said the soft voice, “and they'll be going home for a day or two before spending much time at the house.” Another brief pause, then, “before they go, though, you might want to ask for a map of the house proper.”

The next day, I ferried over the musket and buggy parts to the shop just prior to dawn, and I spent until lunchtime working on them. I was using the long forge exclusively, as I found I could more or less forge and heat-treat without interruptions save for those of fatigue. I used those times to check on the current state of the sword-blanks I had packed in the oven.

“Now there were a number of these things on order,” I murmured, between stints of welding the slag-spraying blanks, “and I'm glad they seem untouched.” I glanced at the oven, then looked around. “I'm going to be very glad when everyone gets back just the same.”

“I'll draw you a map afore you leave,” said Lukas as we ate lunch in the parlor. I had my next post to myself, it being the 'dead hours' of the first posting, and I would need to leave after dark once I had had a nap.

“I'm going to need a nap before I go,” I said. “I'm still tired, for some reason.”

“That is what lead does,” said Hans. A few small pellets had showed that morning, and they'd been removed before breakfast. “You have had enough lead for a lead-mine, and you are still too thin from that trip, so you will not have your usual strength for a while yet.” A pause, then, “those men should show the day after tomorrow.”

“I'd expect 'em late,” said Gilbertus. “I got some mirror-flashes this morning, and one o' those men's horses almost foundered from too much grain.”

“M-mirror-flashes?” I asked.

“I hear tell you might be getting a mirror-piece soon,” said Gilbertus. “Andreas was speaking of a new batch o' those things being close to done.”

“Uh, does he rework, uh, pieces?” I asked.

“His?” snorted Gilbertus. “He makes those things.”

“Yes, and you had best not speak much of that,” said Hans. “He does not do many of those things.”

“Then yours..?” I asked.

“Mine is a bit bigger than what he does,” said Hans, “and it needed a month's at a jeweler's once I found that thing in the fourth kingdom's scrap-market.”

“You can shave with yours,” said Lukas. “Those he does are worthless that way.”

“Yes, and they are strange for their pictures, too,” said Hans. “They make your face the size of a pill should you look in them.”

“That's because they're for signals, and not shaving,” said Lukas. “If they weren't so hard to make...”

“It is not that,” said Sarah. “Witches greatly prize mirrors, which is why they are so costly when they can be found.” Sarah paused to drink, then continued, saying, “and the type used for signaling is especially desired.”

“As a fetish, correct?” I asked.

“I think some witches might want them for that reason,” said Sarah. “I suspect the stronger witches seek to conjure with them.”

“Like in some o' those tales,” said Gilbertus. “They speak to mirrors then, and the mirror talks back.”

I was about to speak about 'Snow White' when I suddenly knew what was done here was an entirely different matter – and a vastly more dangerous matter as well. Most importantly, it did not deal with something so trivial as mere 'vanity'.

“Nor divination as a rule,” said the soft voice. “Sarah understated the case regarding witches and mirrors, both now and in the past.”

I got my nap upstairs shortly thereafter, and when I came down late in the afternoon, both older men were hunched over the kitchen table with a ledger between them and pencils in use. I came around to the side, and then noticed that the ledger I had first seen was a larger one, possibly one of mine; while each man had beside him a smaller version with neatly written notes. The larger ledger was receiving drawings of astounding neatness.

“She had to go down the street for a moment,” said Gilbertus, “and should be back directly.”

“Uh, who?” I asked.

“Sarah,” said Lukas. “I might be passable for maps, but she makes me look to need a brass cone for that business, and no mistake.

“Your notes?” I asked, as I found a stool and sat on it. The chairs were in use, with one missing. I suspected it was at the carpenter's shop undergoing repair.

“Aye, and a lot of 'em,” said Lukas. “Most of what we know about is those places on the ground floor where witches show, and those places where I've been told about or found by accident on the floors right above and below it.”

“There isn't much above or below those three floors, correct?” I asked.

“There is, but no one goes much to those floors,” said Lukas. “I've gone in rooms up there with dust so thick ain't no one been inside 'em for years.”

“Meaning I'll hit those places when and as I can,” I said. “Sepp mentioned sneaking around so as to spy on those Generals.”

“Now that place is a good one,” said Lukas. “That one passage, and about four others, I've put traps in time to time.”

“Did you get witches?” asked Sarah's sharp-sounding voice as she abruptly showed in the kitchen.

“Once or twice I did,” said Lukas. “The usual was to find the pistol somewhere close by and a big bloodstain on the floor, and bloody steps heading away.”

“What did you use?” asked Sarah. She had resumed writing upon a corner of the uppermost sheet of the ledger.

“Usually one of these older pistols a lot of guards have,” said Lukas. “The best for traps are the oldest ones, as they commonly have longer barrels with a lot of wear.” A brief pause, then, “they're hard to find so's they still work.”

“Wear?” I asked.

“Bad shot in a worn bore spreads faster,” said Lukas, “and the longer barrel gives more punch.”

“You may wish to use a finer grade of powder in shorter barrels,” said Sarah.

“I didn't have that then,” said Lukas, “so I'd use my usual – that, and the worst shot I could find.”

“I commonly used cut-shot for close work,” said Sarah.

The silence that descended was only broken by Lukas' muttering, and it segued rapidly to “since when?”

“Since I had to deal much with close vermin at the west school,” said Sarah. “While I was not mired in penury, I had little to spare for funds at first, and hence I made my own shot when I needed to.” A brief pause, “and then, I had to teach my cousin about guns and shot.”

“Knives?” I asked.

“An old dueling pistol,” said Sarah. “It was from an estate sale.”

“Cut-shot?” I asked.

“Melt your lead, and pour it out upon an old iron griddle,” said Sarah. “Do not use a griddle without ample blackness, as your lead will stick then.”

“Like some new moulds do,” said Gilbertus.

Sarah nodded, then said, “Let the lead cool to the touch, cut it up into small squares with the stiffest shears you can find, and then bag it in a close-sewn leather bag with a small spoon of blacking.”

“It loads like common shot, don't it?” asked Lukas.

“Yes, though you will want ample blacking on it, more so than with the usual shot,” said Sarah, “lest it become a solid mass in the barrel when your gun fires.” Sarah sounded as if she had learned by direct experience.

A brief pause, then Lukas spoke of 'greased fishing string' and its uses. Sarah looked at him with a brief smile, then asked, “near the kitchen?”

“There's a passage there, though it's hard to find,” said Lukas, “and then, there's this other one that's close to it that goes up over the roof o' the ground floor. It's narrow, though, and the dust is bad there.”

“It is likely to have its share of rats, also,” said Sarah, who then looked at me. “You may wish to have a small bludgeon loaded with lead for them.”

“Uh, the noise?” I asked.

“If you wish to explore places in kingdom houses,” said Sarah archly, “quiet is a must, and discretion a requirement, lest those you wish to spy upon learn of your presence.” A pause, then, “and gunfire in a small passage like that makes for much dust.”

“Spy upon?” I asked.

“The lecturer spoke of that matter,” said Sarah. “I knew of others, but did not speak of them during class.”

“Others?” I asked.

“If you are a third-year student at the lower schools,” said Sarah, “then secret passages are quite entertaining places to explore while your parents are busy.”

The talk returned once more to trapping, and here, Lukas laid out his 'secrets'. “Lay your string just above the floor, so the grease gets a little of the dust and it's hard to see in the direct light of a candle. If you set your trap right, then it either hits solid or it misses entire.”

“That's because the pistol's usually close enough to put some soot on the witch.” said Gilbertus. “I've found two places near the king's office that you might want to look close at, on account of no one but a few people know about 'em, and they're really close to the bench.”

“Yes?” I said. “As in 'musket storage' and related things?”

“Gilbertus 'jerked', then said, “I usually stuck a jug o' beer there, so's I didn't have to leave the bench for long.”

“That also,” I murmured. “I've got three muskets to fit up for shot, and with new guards, I don't want them handling those things regularly.”

“They might take a shine to 'em,” said Lukas, “and they'll grow legs. That it?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Recall how your trigger is?”

Lukas' eyes opened wide, then he gulped nervously.

“It would not do to have accidents with those,” I said, “both on account of the mess that's likely to ensue and the noise.”

“And the lessening of the guard-roster,” said Sarah. “The only time it has been worse in a very long time is during 'the three years of the swine' spoken of in Hendrik's Annals.”

“Wh-what?” I asked.

“The winters put but little snow upon the ground for three years running,” said Sarah, “and what little ice in that showed in the rivers was thin and brittle.” A brief pause, a slurping of beer, then, “the witches then came every month of the year then, and they came often, and they came in great numbers, with many pigs bearing full plate.”

“Roos was almost wrecked then,” said Hans. “There was little of this house that was burnable that was not charcoal after that time. They rebuilt the place entire, almost.”

“And every field fit for digging was sown thickly with graves,” said Sarah. “They stopped coming so often at the end of the third year because there was nothing of a food nature left to steal.”

“And no one left to grow the stuff in most places,” said Hans. “Now there is this place down the hall from those guard rooms that I found once when Anna got lost in that place, and it is...”

The 'discussion' continued until shortly before dusk, and at dusk itself, I left for the house. On the main road out of town heading south – I'd leave the road at my usual place so as to give Waldhuis the mile and a half of distance I felt comfortable with – I could 'feel' the oncoming men. Georg was not merely not wasting time; he was speaking of continuing for some time after dark by the light of lanterns.

“Those men don't want any part of that,” I murmured. “They want to crash early and get started late like they're used to doing while out on their hunting trips, and Georg...” I paused, thought for a moment, then said, “he must have heard about how we traveled on our trip if I go by how he's going.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Georg looks a good deal lazier than he actually is, and he knows about the people clamoring for what they've ordered.” A brief pause, then, “and while this is the furthest Georg has ever traveled before, he's traveling much like he commonly does of a rest-day morning.”

“Doesn't waste time, does he?” I asked quietly. “Got to get those orders when and where he can.”

“Not merely that,” said the soft voice. “His usual work-schedule precludes spending the 'normal' amount of time for news-gathering, hence he must pack a week's 'gossip' into a single morning.” A brief pause, “and while he is nowhere near as observant as you are, he follows close upon Hans' heels in that way for matters that pertain to his business and survival.”

The darkened shadows lengthened until the night wrapped the fields and woodlots in soft blackness, and by the clear cold light of those few stars that showed through the high cloud cover, I moved swiftly at Jaak's common walk. The darkness was sufficient that I felt safer than I had in months, and I wandered further from the darker shadows of the woodlots into the meadows themselves so as to make my traveling a straighter line. It seemed to help, for I arrived at the rise a good bit sooner than I expected to, and once inside the house proper's walls of greenery, I led Jaak to the stable for 'a roll in the hay'. The night had gotten chilly and misty during the ride, and the warmth of the horse-barn sounded likely indeed, based on my observation of horses during the months since I had come here.

In the house itself, I first visited a near-deserted kitchen peopled with a handful of yawn-stifling cooks slow-stirring sizable pots and other steam-wafting utensils used in kitchens. A check at the bench – this from the end of the hall opposite those two 'bends' that protected Hendrik's office from the main court area – showed two 'somnolent' guards that were attempting mightily to stay awake. Both men had mugs in hand, and a jug of beer between them, for which I was glad.

“Now those men did a double shift,” I murmured, as I turned to go back the way I came, “and I've got perhaps an hour before I need to show at the bench.” I then brought out the map Sarah had drawn, and began walking down the hallway that Gabriel's office bordered on. A small 'alcove' was listed there, with a narrow 'slit' hidden behind a wooden set of shelves.

The slit was indeed present, but that region of the map proved to have a number of errors. Firstly, there wasn't one set of shelves, there were a group of them; and the winding alcove was easily forty feet in length. Most importantly, it wasn't lit in the slightest, and the thick undisturbed dust on the floor spoke of very infrequent visitation.

The slit itself was but barely wide enough to pass me, provided I doffed my possible bag and pack beforehand, and I drew them through the slit after me. I checked my revolver, then began to follow the winding passage.

The dust of the place was sufficient to induce a desire to sneeze before I had gone ten feet, and the rough-stone walls of the passage itself seemed intended to grab at my clothing whenever I brushed too close to them. Within a few minutes, I soon came to the conclusion that the 'facing' of individual rooms was intended to give a certain size and appearance to their interiors, while the actual structure of the building was far more massive so as to support its upper stories. I came to a narrow set of carved-in-stone stairs, and began climbing them in the darkness. I was now wishing I had brought a light of some kind, even with my eyes.

Each sound I made – faint breathing, the scratching shuffling of hobnails on stone, the occasional 'hiss' of flatulence – seemed to ring and echo within my ears and my mind, and when I thought to 'plug' my ears with my fingers, I learned otherwise.

“They're still ringing some,” I muttered softly as I removed my fingers, “and my hearing...”

“Is working better than you think it is,” said the soft voice, “even with that ringing. It's getting better, trust me.”

“And this, uh, passage?” I asked.

“Much as you surmised,” said the soft voice, “most of the kingdom houses have their structural walls made of rough-hewn stone and then finish walls to provide the actual rooms and outer facing, with sometimes gaps left between the two sets of walls.” A brief pause, then, “those gaps not only provide a degree of thermal insulation, but also dampen sound between chambers and provide places to run plumbing and flues.”

“Plumbing?” I asked.

“What little there is of it in this house,” said the soft voice. “If you go further up those stairs, you'll find one of the lines to the upper privies, and if you go right a few feet from that plumbing-junction, you'll find one of the main flues for a group of office-stoves.”

As I climbed the stairs – I was easily somewhere close to the first above-ground floor, I thought, “this would be a good place to run wiring, also.”

“That was planned for when this kingdom house was built,” said the soft voice.

“Wiring?” I asked in incredulous voice.

“Fourth-kingdom telegraph equipment,” said the soft voice. “Even though the witches managed to delete the equipment itself during the ordering stage, they were not able to delete everything, and Andreas took advantage of the situation to run his wiring.”

“He doesn't have the only, uh, sounder in here, does he?” I asked.

“At this time, he does,” said the soft voice. “However, he does have a line run to Hendrik's office with a small and well-hid bell and push-switch.”

“They could use that, then?” I asked.

“The code currently used on the continent by non-witches all-but requires a marked person so as to decipher it rapidly,” said the soft voice. “The fifth kingdom's code is vastly cruder – and even that code takes witches years to learn passably.” A brief pause, then, “that line exists so as to let Hendrik know he's received a message, and for him to discretely request Andreas so as to send such missives.”

“It isn't Morse code, is it?” I asked. I had my ideas, but I wasn't sure as to what it was.

“The code used is similar in concept to ASCII, as you suspected when you first heard it,” said the soft voice, “and is a simplified version of a similar code used by computers prior to the war.” A brief pause, then, “Morse code would work well, especially as no currently-alive witch would be able to decipher it.”

Able?” I asked. I wanted to add, “but it isn't nearly as complex as what they use now.”

“The witch-code is also a simplified version of a computer code,” said the soft voice, “only the computers that once used it functioned as much by spiritual means as by all else.”

“And hence it, and all connected with it, gets treated like a fetish,” I spat.

“And one must be a fairly strong witch to properly discern its meaning,” said the soft voice, “as that code functions in some ways like 'the written format' – and in some instances, involves effectual curses.”

“And straightforward information...”

“Would be interpreted likewise by witches, and in the process become utter gibberish,” said the soft voice. “It might not involve one-hundred and twenty-eight bit 'strong encryption' software, but Morse code would be nearly as hard for the witches of the continent to 'crack' were they to intercept a message.”

I was near the top of the stairs, and the smell of 'sewage' was enough to turn my stomach. I found a somewhat crooked run of glazed clay pipes about as big as my thigh that ran snake-like along the floor down the darkened hall to vanish into a rough-edged hole, while faint light came from an area far above and to the left. I looked in that direction and saw what looked like a jagged crack writ brightly with flickering light.

“I would be careful around such cracks,” said the soft voice. “The larger examples might be useful for observation – as Sepp learned regarding General's Row – but if one does not take especial care near them, those on the other side might suspect something is amiss.”

“Hence stay clear of them?” I asked.

“Especially when witches are on the other side of the wall,” said the soft voice. “There will be 'safe' means to utilize such cracks in the near future, but until that time let caution be your guide.”

“Sepp was lucky?” I asked.

“The witches in question were well beyond 'drunk' at the time,” said the soft voice, “and that crack opened out in a darkened corner behind a piece of furniture, unlike that one you see now.” A brief pause, then, “just the same, I would write of the matter in that manual you are working on.”

The passage on the right dead-ended but a few paces past the 'smokestack', and when I put my hand near it, I found it to be faintly warm. My guess was that the rooms in which the stoves were located had been unoccupied for some time.

“Days, actually,” said the soft voice. “Their normal occupants were strongly inclined to become supplicants, and are now where they belong.”

“How many of those people were there?” I gasped, as I began slowly retracing my steps back toward the stairs.

“More than Hendrik thought likely,” said the soft voice. “He's learned an added measure of caution regarding those not 'well-tested'.”

I managed to briefly check the location that Gilbertus had mentioned prior to relieving the two near-somnolent men on the bench – they were slightly more awake than when I first saw them – and as I took my seat, I heard one of them softly mumbling about 'new guards' between attempts to stifle long bouts of yawning.

“And how much of a pain in the rump they are to train, no doubt,” I thought.

“This batch might well be frustrating at first,” said the soft voice, “but once they are trained to a certain degree, they will prove to be especially valuable.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “The witches aren't interested in, uh, subverting them?”

“That, and none of them are interested in becoming witches,” said the soft voice. “With very few exceptions, they will remain that way for the duration.”

“Few exceptions?” I asked.

“A few might have a measure of curiosity,” said the soft voice, “but even their curiosity will be unusual, as it will not be along the lines of 'why do witches have so much money and power?'.”

“Uh, what, then?” I asked.

“Their curiosity will directed toward more effectual ways of effecting the witches' collective demise,” said the soft voice. “Most of those men have made oath regarding avenging their families, and no common species of oath is both more respected and better understood on the continent.”

The 'shift' went calmly, with Hendrik 'waking up' about half-way through the four hour period, and my fetching breakfast for the four people in his office. I found that both young women were able students – Maria was teaching them as she had time, with the work of the office providing the texts – and there was talk of fostering the girls out soon at a town named Ploetzee. I wondered for a moment where that town was until the end of my posting, when I was met by two men that I had seen before but otherwise did not know beyond 'they're loyal' and 'one of them helped me plant Koenraad's head'.

I thought to continue my exploration of secret passages, and using my map – I'd added some notes to it while watching on the bench – I thought to investigate one of those passages I'd heard of as being near the refectory.

The talk and drawing on the map was but the smell of the mule; for not merely was there a passage – long, dark, dusty, and malodorous in places – but it also branched off in several places that neither talk nor drawing hinted at. One branch ended in 'Karl's Privy' – I marked it as such on the map, and I could plainly smell the slowly-fading yet too-familiar unwashed reek of 'General' there – and another ended in a small alcove that joined the 'wine cellar'. I came out into that stinky place with my gorge trying to climb out of my mouth, and I all but ran out of it into the hallway and toward the kitchen to nearly collide with that one particular woman butcher – who was speaking softly yet earnestly with Lukas!

“Y-yes?” I asked, as I tried introducing myself sociably and failed miserably. “Madame?

“My niece,” said Lukas. “I just found out I get to post with one o' them new guards, and that today at the third post.”

“And he is not looking forward to it much,” said the woman. “At least the hall is still signing papers, if not much else.”

“Hall?” I asked. “Is this the place that, uh, was firing rotten cannons the morning after the Swartsburg went up in smoke?”

“The same place,” said Lukas, “and those people in there, what's left of 'em, are on a short leash now.”

“Uh, no longer doing what they please?” I said.

“Not while Hendrik's lookin' close at 'em,” said Lukas. “He's speaking of an accounting.”

“Hopefully it will be a close and searching one,” said the woman with more than a trace of pique. “They did not wish to grant me my papers, even though I sent them three fresh pairs of ears.”

“Ears?” I asked.

“Three dead bulls, and that during the night the Swartsburg went to hell and the morning after,” said Lukas, “and Sepp did the same thing, even if it took him until after lunch that day.”

“They give him any trouble?”

“Not when he showed up with a full-loaded fowling piece,” said Lukas. “He got his papers right then, and hers in the bargain.” Lukas drained his beer mug, then said, “and about what those witches needed, too.”

“Is there anything happening inside that place?” I asked.

“The hall, or the Swartsburg?” said Lukas.

“Both places,” I asked, “but especially the hall.”

“Ain't much happening in either place, so talk goes,” said Lukas. “Might be some scavengers picking over what's left in the Swartsburg, but there ain't much to find right now.”

“Scrap metal, perhaps?” I asked.

“That new furnace will want some o' that once it starts burning,” said Lukas. “I'll put out the word.”

Home again, this time in the shade of woodlots for the most part save when I stopped at a town some three miles north of the house for water. The clean and fresh aspect of the town was a marvel; and again, about half-way home – it was roughly an hour before lunch – I noted the progress of the three men. Georg had pushed on as long as his candles and axles could stand the night before, and the three men had pulled the wheels and greased them before snatching a few hours sleep before resuming.

More, I could feel something other than 'money's wasting' on the part of Georg. He was starting to hear, and hear clearly – in every town he now passed through – what had happened to the Swartsburg 'on the night the sun rose'; and to say he was getting 'the fear' was rapidly becoming an understatement – at least for him.

The other two men had left him far behind in that aspect, and only the jaded nature of their mounts prevented them from galloping toward home until they and their horses fell from exhaustion.

“They might actually make the ford today,” I thought, as I turned onto the road that led into town. “They might have another ten miles to go before they hit it.”

“They're closer than that now,” said the soft voice. “All three men now 'have the fear' in full measure, and they are no longer stopping to eat 'good meals'.”

“Good meals?” I asked. “As in several hours thrice a day in Public Houses?”

“Your times with Hans and Anna served Georg as a guide for meals,” said the soft voice. “They were not wasting time.” A brief pause, then, “or so they thought until this morning, when Georg woke up after a virulent nightmare – one in which the three of them were burnt as witches because they'd not been home and busy at work during the 'witch-time'.”

“So now it's beer and bread for the men while the horses get grain and water,” I murmured, “and no more complaints about early starting and late stopping.”

While there was no answer to my soft-spoken comment, I still felt satisfied; and while I would need to post again shortly – the third post tomorrow – I could put in at least a partial day today.

Once home and bathed, I headed to the shop with a full bag of tricks, and worked until just after sundown. I had two forges going including the 'long' forge, and I returned home with gun parts needing careful filing and then soft-fitting. I could really feel a definite need for those three 'guard muskets', and the quicker I finished them and the pumps, the better I would feel.

“Especially given how much I have to do to those things,” I thought. “Every wear-prone surface save the bore itself needs to be bushed, all the pins need replacement, the inside needs honing or whatever they do to those things to deal with out-of-round wear and general corrosion, and then the leather valves and seals need replacement.”

At dinner, however, I received an earful.

“Those men crossed the ford late this afternoon,” said Hans, “and I heard tell they are pushing their horses as if Brimstone were behind them and hungry for meat.”

“That sounds about right,” said Anna. “I heard more than one person in town here that was gathering chains and distillate for a burn-pile, and then they've been coming to the house here to ask about their things.”

“They have?” I gasped.

“At least eight of them this day that I talked to,” said Hans. “I told them it is just you right now, and that but part of the time because the house has so few guards that are still alive.”

“Did you say why there were so few guards?” I asked.

Hans looked at me strangely, then said, “it was not just those Generals that were witches, but some guards too, and there were three of them who made their bones and died the same day from too much datramonium.”

“Did you speak to them?” asked Anna.

“He did no such thing,” said Hans. “All of those witches caught fire once they got them outside, and that with no talk nor distillate.”

“And they killed the last three, uh, suspect...” I paused in mid-sentence, then spat, “those men were busy the night the Swartsburg went up, otherwise they would have gone there!”

“That is good they are dead, then,” said Hans, “as it sounds like they wanted to be witches too.”

“So now I need to train guards,” I murmured.

“Yes, you and every other guard that is still alive in the house,” said Hans. “You will want to be careful with those guard-muskets, as I have heard talk about those new people and how clumsy they are.”

“They will shoot their own feet?” I asked.

“Most of them do well to hit those blocks they use for targets if they are close enough to put soot on them,” said Hans.

“Perhaps stiff shot?” I asked.

“There was some of that stuff in your things that came back,” said Hans. “Then, there was this other thing that I found hid in a sack the other day. It was in those things that came back with you.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“I think this is an armory mould,” said Hans, “only it only has four places for lead.”

“Uh, balls?” I asked.

“It was all greased up good, so it is soaking in some boiled distillate,” said Hans. “You might want to look at it when it comes clean.”

The mould had 'come clean' by that evening, and as Lukas and Gilbertus made ready for bed in a corner of the basement, I fished the mould out of the old tinned copper pan Hans was using. A quick wipe with a rag, and I gasped upon seeing the clearly-outlined symbol of the maker.

“What is your trouble?” asked Hans as he came to my side. He was putting away the grinder for dust-powder.

“Th-this is a Heinrich mould,” I spluttered with shaking fingers, “and it does...” I looked at it some more, then 'broke' it open. The stiffness spoke of a yet-unused piece, and the cavities – still well-filmed with congealed torment-grease – were of a size that spoke volumes. “It either does small pistol balls, or stiff shot, and I am not sure which.”

Hans looked at the mould, wiped it carefully with a distillate-dampened rag, then read, “four-hole mould, for shot of eighteen lines.” A pause, then, “I think this thing does stiff shot, is what I think.”

“Four cavities,” I said between attempts to stifle a yawn. “How much will that make?”

“That depends on how much you run it,” said Hans. “I doubt you can sell much of that stuff up here.”

“Uh, no,” I murmured. “I was not thinking of selling such shot, but rather...”

“I'll take some,” said Gilbertus sleepily, “and I know Lukas will want some, and the house needs some for those guard-muskets, and you want some for that fowling piece you have here...”

“Quolls?” I asked. I was asleep on my feet, I now realized. “Rats?”

“Those want regular shot,” said Hans, “and I am still trading for that stuff so as to have plenty.”

Rats and shot were the things of dreams that night, and when I went down during the night so as to use the privy, I thought I saw a scurrying furtive form dart behind my workbench. I paid it no mind, for my bladder had my undivided attention beforehand, and I was more asleep than awake once I'd visited the privy.

That, and 'movement in my peripheral vision' had been an issue for decades.

Breakfast, and then musket parts for a short time at the bench, and then a quick readying prior to leaving for the king's house. As I rode south and east, I could now clearly feel the progress of the three men somewhere in the area. They had started a trifle later than 'dawn' due to unusual fatigue, and as our paths converged, I thought to not add to their near-overmastering fear by showing them my presence. I was more than happy that they were indeed coming home.

“What about the boys?” I asked.

“Georg sent for them yesterday evening after crossing the ford,” said the soft voice.

“By the post?” I asked.

“One of his friends is located in the town where they spent the night,” said the soft voice, “and he left shortly this morning after Georg did.” A brief pause, “and while his buggy and horses are closer to the common than Georg's, his horses are well-rested, unlike Georg's.”

“Hopefully with plenty of grain,” I muttered.

“Georg first learned of grain's value from that man,” said the soft voice. “Georg's horses and buggy are better because of his heftier purse, not a lack of desire.” A brief pause, then, “both men want better transport, and that for very good reasons.”

“And once I finish those irons...” I murmured.

“Georg might well desire his buggy reworked then, said the soft voice. “He's never seen a donkey-sized buggy.”

“He will find it amusing, won't he?” I asked wryly. “So s-small...”

“He will find its speed yet more amusing, especially given the horses drawing it,” said the soft voice. “Watch that he does not ask to borrow it.”

While I would not mind him doing so, I had a hunch Sarah would, and that because of her need to travel during the next few weeks; and as I came closer to the rise, I wondered aloud, “how many new guards will I be tasked with?”

“One, as a rule,” said the soft voice, “at least at first.” A pause, then, “while you are known to be a good teacher, these people are thought to be poor students – and talk has circulated about how you are with the apprentices.”

“I don't abuse them, do I?” The question was absolute in its seriousness.

“Your tolerance to frustration,” said the soft voice. “You might not do a tenth of what is common for people in your position regarding disciplinary action, but you also tend not to hide anything about how you feel.”

“Hence my frustration does show,” I muttered, as I recalled how I often reacted to overly frustrating matters where I came from. “At least I haven't thrown anything yet.”

That causes more than a little talk,” said the soft voice, “and all of it favorable.”

“How?” I asked.

“Recall how that one coworker spoke of your self-control?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “How it was more than that of anyone she had ever seen?”

“Yes,” I said sheepishly.

“That same trait is seen here, and marveled at,” said the soft voice. “It is also respected, which accounts for the modest numbers of 'dull' guards you are to be given to teach.” A brief pause, “only when the need is truly understood by the house will you be given more, and that out of dire necessity.”

“Meaning a lot of imported witch activity,” I murmured. “Those people are coming out of their holes, aren't they?”

There was no answer, nor was one needed as I came up over the rise. Norden's people came during the winter out of either dire necessity or 'tactical advantage', not out of preference; and spying, while it continued at some level during the winter, was then mostly a matter of marking trails and staying fed. With the coming of spring and people being out of doors much more, Norden's spies became more active – and the possibility of raids steadily increased with the greening and ripening of the fields.

Once indoors, I resumed my exploration of secret places, a small candle-lantern mostly-shielded in one hand and my ledger ready to hand; I had asked further questions in the refectory while getting my snack and my water-bottle refilled.

One comment spoke of the laundry and its location, and I had noted it down; but now, I was wishing for a lead-loaded bludgeon – I had found a rat-mine, and the talk of rats being common in the house had grown noise, fur, and odor in great profusion. I had to keep kicking the things with my boots for several minutes until I left them behind amid a multitude of soft rodent sneezes and a trio of my own. My kicks had stirred up a great deal of dust.

“Now I know why Sarah spoke of a bludgeon,” I muttered, as I turned a corner in the darkness. My lantern's sides had thin shields behind its louvered 'vents', with the small wooden knob on one side in the middle of the slot and the other three shields full-closed. I'd drawn the idea during my first days home from the trip, and had 'relaxed' while preparing to 'do' the Swartsburg by making a small example. It was now proving its value, but when I approached an area of lessened shadow, I knew I was coming to the end of the passage.

I was proved wrong, however, for the source of light was a side-branch that opened out on another of those unlit dusty storage alcoves, and I continued straight on my twisting and turning route.

A minute later, I smelled 'water', and when I came to an old and corroded pipe running up from the floor to the ceiling, I wondered what it carried. It was too small and of the wrong material to be carrying sewage, and I wasn't precisely certain who – or what – resided upon the floors above me. A finger's touch spoke of cold, chill, and rust.

“A water-pump?” I asked.

“Some dusty and little-used rooms on the upper floors have water-pumps,” said the soft voice. “That pipe goes to Andreas' area, which is why it is both in relatively good repair and currently in use.”

“The others?” I asked.

“Are either plugged with silt or are entirely rust,” said the soft voice. “That pipe was replaced when Andreas received his position.”

“Iron?” I asked. My voice was a rat-like squeak, and seemed to be answered by a multitude of soft and high-pitched echoes from the direction of the 'rat-mine'.

“Feel that 'rust' more carefully,” said the soft voice.

I did so, and for some reason, I had the impression that not merely was the rust confined to the surface, but it was not conventional rust.

“No, feel it closer,” said the soft voice. “Squeeze the pipe with some force.”

I did so, and felt a slight give.

“Is the pipe that far gone?” I gasped.

“The pipe is copper,” said the soft voice, “and that 'rust' is a mixture of Hans' paint mingled with real rust.” A pause, then, “Andreas is most familiar with the ways of witches – who were the people most commonly found in these places until very recently – and disguised the pipe accordingly.”

“Paint?” I asked.

“An early batch,” said the soft voice, “and compounded according to his grandfather's recipe. He's improved it enough since that he's now in 'final test' to ensure its durability prior to general release.”

“That machinery paint?” I asked. It seemed to be durable enough thus far.

“Is part of his testing,” said the soft voice. “He may only have white right now, but he's most definitely 'on' to a good thing.”

“Paint...”

“Is both much wanted and a chief realm of 'snake-oil salesmen',” said the soft voice, “and anyone who has paint that is both durable and relatively non-toxic has a ready – and lucrative – market.” A brief pause, then, “it is good that Hans has learned his lessons regarding money, as his paint would otherwise make him a miser in short order were he able to make it in quantity.”

“It would?” I gasped.

“No real competition exists at this time,” said the soft voice, “and while his color choice is limited, that particular shade of white is far and away the most popular color for paint on the continent.”

I came out into the open somewhere close to where the laundry was said to be hiding, and as I looked around the darkened realm – candles were still scarce in the house, even if new shipments had been coming with regularity since the Swartsburg went up – I seemed to smell faintly the odor of wood-smoke. I stepped cautiously toward this odor, now dusting my clothing with both hands, and when I came to a door with a stamped tin plate affixed to its lintel, I blinked my eyes before reading the word 'Washing'.

“So it's here,” I thought. “I'd best hurry, as it's getting to be time for me to hit the bench.”

I tapped at the door, and languid steps answered a second later. The door opened a crack, then wider, this with a slow-grinding creak that had me reaching for my oil-vial with one hand and my teeth with the other. The light within made for slitted eyes and an unusual silhouette in front of me, and only once I was inside and my eyes had adjusted to the light did I learn the cause of the strange outline.

One of the two laundresses present had had an armload of damp clothing, and she'd been on her way to the dryer.

As I looked around, I noted definite similarities between the larger location of the second kingdom and this 'much smaller' copy. As the woman with the clothing walked into the dryer, I thought to follow her; and only when I came to the door itself did I actually stop.

“So small?” I asked quietly.

“Most clothing gets hung from ropes,” she said, “as oven-heat damages the thread and the clothing wears out faster.” A pause, then, “and, we do not do starch.”

An oath came from behind me, and I turned to see a taller version of Anna standing with a 'rusty-looking' 'iron' in her hand. “You'd best not be speaking of starch, as we do not have that stuff, and I will not purchase it.”

“Uh, I've only seen one of these places before, madame, and I, uh...”

“So it is you, then,” she said, as she dropped the 'iron' to the floor with a dull-sounding clang. “I did not recognize you at first.”

“M-me?” I asked.

“I've but heard of you before,” she said, “and I'm glad the Swartsburg is gone where it belongs.”

“Her sister was taken there by force over a year ago,” said the other laundress, “and she's given oath regarding witches on account of that.”

“Uh, it's pretty, uh, trashed,” I murmured. “I'd wondered where the clothes were done, as I've always dropped them off where I was t-told.”

“And I've been glad to clean them, no matter how dirty they've gotten,” said the laundress. “I'm Mathilde, and she's Lise.” A brief pause, “and I'm not about to speak your name, on account of things happening.”

“W-what?” I gasped.

“Lise once washed your clothing after you'd done the Swartsburg the first time...”

“But I soaked that stuff!”

“No matter, it was still dirty,” said Mathilde, “and it still smelled of that place. She spoke your name as she was setting it to dry in the dryer there, and then the oven lit of its own accord.”

What?” I squeaked. “How?”

Mathilde smiled, then said mildly, “it was just like out of an old tale.” A pause, then, “and your clothing came out of that thing just as if it were new-made, with no mending needed.”

I was about to faint at hearing such obvious 'strangeness', and I stammered my goodbyes as I headed hotfoot for the door. I did not slow down until I was approaching the folds near Hendrik's office, I was so frightened, and when I saw Sepp with two young men I'd never seen before, he looked at me and blanched instantly.

“What happened?”

“Th-the laundry,” I gasped. “I found it, and they...”

“It isn't like the second kingdom's for size or people,” said Sepp. “Why, did you ask them about starch?”

I nodded nervously.

“One of those women does not much care for it,” said Sepp, “and the other...”

“Mathilde...” I stammered.

“She probably wondered if you'd turned witch,” said Sepp.

“N-no,” I gasped. “They were talking about the oven l-lighting on its own when they did my things after I went after Koenraad's head.”

I nearly spewed after speaking this last portion, and I was glad for the jug of beer sitting by the bench. Sepp resumed speaking to his charges while I sat next to the bench on the floor while draining my cup of beer, then began working on a refill. Once I had begun drinking my second refill – I was thirsty, and speaking to the laundresses had been shocking – I heard faint words coming from 'the dark end of the hall', and I turned to see Gabriel leading someone dressed in war-cut dress. I then glanced at the two new guards, and saw that they, like Sepp, were so dressed.

“And I'm wearing greens,” I thought, as I looked down at the mottled and streaked 'emerald' tinted linen trousers and long-sleeved shirt. “How will they take me?”

“Decent, I suspect,” said Sepp. He turned to his two charges, then said, “listen close all the time, 'specially around him.”

“Why?” asked one of the two 'boys'. He might have been a few years younger than Karl; Karl was just out of his teens, while Sepp I guessed to be in his early to mid twenties.

“I don't know how this happens,” said Sepp, “but that wasn't the first time I have heard his thinking.” A brief pause, “and more than once, hearing it and paying attention to what I heard saved my hide from being aired out.”

“And from being run over by swine,” said the voice of Gabriel. “Here's the pick of the bunch, or so the Teacher says.”

“Uh...”

I was utterly tongue-tied, and I could hear my knees audibly knocking together as if they were small gongs, while my eyes goggled and my mind swirled like a maelstrom. Faint on the wind, I could hear the ravens gathering, and my hand found the bottle of the widow's tincture. Somehow, the noxious taste of the stuff got itself into my mouth – and then, I once more heard the voice of Gabriel speaking to the newcomer.

“No, not too much swine,” said Gabriel. “He has endured swine readily, and the same for witches.” A brief pause, then, “I suspect this might be because of the Swartsburg's destruction.”

“He did that?” squeaked the newcomer. “How?”

“With divine assistance, most likely,” said Gabriel. “He may not look as if he stepped out of an old tale, but his behavior more than a little resembles what was said to be common during those times.”

I was left quaking in my boots in the company of this new and overawed man, and only when 'duty' asserted itself did I think to touch Hendrik's doorknob. I relaxed then, or at least until the new man asked me a question.

“What was it you did?” he asked. “Is it luck to touch that door?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “I can tell if he's safe or not, or...” I stopped to speak, then rose to a standing position, my hand still touching the knob. I could almost feel the thing shaking in my fingers, and I opened the door to surprise Maria with a jug in her hand.

“Yes?” I asked. “Beer?”

She nodded, and I took the jug – along with a shocked and dazed trainee guard in tow – all the way to the kitchen and back. Only once I'd handed it in – with thanks – did he cease shaking enough to ask another question.

“How did you know?”

“I'm not really sure,” I said. “The part I know of is what you saw me do, pretty much. The rest is still much of a mystery to me, beyond it involves God at some level.”

“Do you pray much?” he asked.

“When and where I get the chance, and same for reading the book,” I said. “That isn't all that often, save on Sundays after church.”

“Just like Charles,” muttered the new guard. “Just like Charles...”

“I don't know much about him,” I said, “even if I've heard the name before.” I paused, sipped some beer from my cup, then brought out my ledger so as to write. “Anything happen along General's Row?”

“Where is that?” he asked.

“See that door there?” I asked softly as I pointed with my right hand at the door which marked the eastern boundary of General's Row. “It starts there. Every door on that side of the wall as you follow it out of the hall here and along the north wall of the main hall to a bit past the half-way point to the main entrance enters onto where those people called Generals liked to hide. They're all in a row, and they're filled – or rather, they used to be filled...”

“Used is right,” said the new guard. “There might be one of those people where there used to be five, and that one is but late from sucking his mother for doing General's business.”

“You know?” I asked.

“I have been watching those people since the end of the training,” he said, “and since I do not have a home yet, I live here.” A pause. “It gives me good chance to watch what happens here, and do some exploring.”

“The Teacher...”

“He said to do that,” said the new guard, “but if he has done that much beyond the busiest places of this floor, then my name is Aasse, and I am a mule.”

“Aasse?” I asked. To hear the word 'ass' used as a name and not an oath was something of a marvel, as I'd but seldom heard it before in any capacity. “Where did you hear it used?”

“In the horse-barn, before that one groom sold his mule and got a horse for its replacement,” said the new guard. “And since my name is Mathias, and I am not a mule, I am right.”

After some time of showing my ledger – he was most interested, even if he had trouble reading my handwriting, and once I'd translated, more trouble understanding my language – I asked, “the others?”

“None of them are witches, as they know who killed their families,” said Mathias, “and none of them, at least none that I know good, are inclined that way.”

“That you know good?” I asked.

“This batch of guards I know good,” said Mathias. “This next batch is getting their clothing now, and I know them less well.” A brief pause, then, “they were to our north some, and we met them seldom.”

“We?” I asked.

“We were living like roving tailors,” said Mathias quietly, “and I met up with some of those people in my travels.” A pause to drink, then, “and some of them make teachers in school look worthless for teaching.”

“Why, what are they like?” I asked.

“Most of them sew well, but some – well, one, rather – she's gone to the higher schools,” said Mathias, “and I think her to be fit to teach at those places, she knows so much.”

“Is this woman, uh, short?” I asked.

“Yes, and her hair is like...” Mathias paused, then gulped audibly before squeaking, “your hair! It is as dark as anything, and it is just like hers!”

“Would her name be Sarah?” I asked.

“Now who asked for me this time?” said Sarah's voice. She sounded as if peeved, and when her steps came through the first of the 'folds', Mathias looked at me and whispered, “it's her.”

She then showed, and her face seemed furrowed with 'something' other than good cheer. She sat down beside me, then looked at me closely.

“Curiouser and Curiouser,” I thought. “Now what did you find?” This last was spoken.

“First, the wood for that buggy is as close to done as they can go without the metal portions,” said Sarah, “and second, my shoes are in the mood for disposal, and that quickly.” She paused, then said quietly, “that is not why I came here before going to the refectory.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“I found this on the floor in front of the main door of General's Row,” she said, as she produced a greasy scrap of paper folded in two. I could see faint traces of red 'wax' in places. “I am not sure of its meaning, even if I do not much care for its words.” She then handed me the paper.

My eyes glazed over at seeing inscrutable-looking 'ornate' calligraphy black-inked onto the thin and greasy sheet, and as I began to read silently, I began to acquire a headache:

In Circled Fire:

Securest thou Best Toledo,

Well-honed Bright Blade,

Center-Hair with one Disgrace.

Burnest thou in Chauldron Deep,

three handful weed d'doul,

two Jongae spice d'mille,

five copas Garry Owens,

ten full fathom wine.”


Sarah looked once more at me, and when I wiped my face, I noted the greasy sheen of sweat that had accumulated there. I gasped, then said, “I'm not entirely certain what this means, but I do not like it at all.” I paused, then felt the paper again, and looked upward.

“The armory,” I said. “This piece of paper is really old, it was copied out of that black book...”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “While it dates from the timeframe of the black book's original writing, it is not from that particular book.” A brief pause, then, “recall those 'especially bad curses' mentioned?”

“Is this one of them?” I asked. I looked to the side to see Sarah blanch stark white.

“It's diluted more than a little by the action of time,” said the soft voice.

“That's a curse?” said Mathias weakly.

I nodded, then said, “even diluted and performed with the wrong materials, it isn't even close to being a joke.” A pause, during which I drained my beer-cup – my mouth had gone dust-dry – then, “this is about as bad as some of the nastier curses in the black book, isn't it?”

“For those not writ in runes, it's close in power to the worst of them,” said the soft voice. “The rune-writ curses are more potent, if but little less dangerous to implement.” A brief pause, then, “there aren't any witches currently strong enough in this area that could implement that curse and survive.”

“Uh, Koenraad?” I asked.

“The first one, yes,” said the soft voice. “His latter namesake would have not made it out of the curse-room.”

“That is spoken of on a number of tapestries,” said Sarah. A pause to drink a cup of beer – she had secured one of the tinned copper cups from home – then, “I came by to speak of us two being invited to Maarten and Katje's house in a week's time.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “A dinner party?”

“It may involve dinner,” said Sarah, “but the matter to be discussed is far more serious than any mere meal.” A pause, then, “I wish she could come.”

“She?” I asked. For some reason, I recalled the name associated with that title, and I nearly spoke the name 'Ayesha'.

“She's tall, thin, and has hair darker than mine or yours,” said Sarah, “and she is but newly arrived from the second kingdom.” A briefer yet pause, this one punctuated by a demure-sounding belch, “and if anyone would know of spirits beyond what you or I know, it might well be her.”

“Spirits?” asked Mathias. “First this curse, and now spirits, and...”

“The Abbey,” said Sarah. “It is said to have worms, but what it is said to have and what it actually has are two different things altogether.”

“Oh, it has worms all right,” I said. “At least one large Desmond lives there, and then this one creature that has gotten ideas from the story of the Horned Dragoon – and that's for those things. There are other matters as well.”

“Hence our need of plotting,” said Sarah, “and with the witches cleared utterly from where Maarten and Katje live, it now seems a likely place indeed.”

“C-cleared?” I asked. “Utterly? How?”

“Maarten said only the swine of Norden themselves could have done worse,” said Sarah. “His house is the only one left untouched of that entire town.”

“And the others?” asked Mathias.

“Save for Maarten's house and the area just about it,” said Sarah, “the ground is black with soot and heaped with ashes, and mingled with those ashes are the bones of witches and their animals.”

“The whole town burned?” I gasped.

“Yes, and I was there to see the end of of that place,” said Sarah. “We had watched it for some time, and when the cattle showed in the area, I...” Sarah paused and suppressed a giggle.

“Sarah?” I asked. “Did you have a hand in this?”

“Very much so,” she said with obvious delight. “I opened some of the still-house doors when the first of the cattle showed, and I led them from thence to where the drink was hid.” A brief pause, then, “and I think every house save Maarten's was that of a witch or someone who wished to turn witch, as those cattle found much strong drink.”

“D-doors?” I asked. “I knew there was one still house, but...”

“Half of the houses in that place either had those places or were building such things,” spat Sarah, “and the whole place smelled like a fifth kingdom drink-house!”

“And hence Miura found it much to his liking, and smashed all the fine crockery and expensive antique furniture he could find.”

“Ant-ik-cue?” asked Sarah. “I can say that word, but my tongue feels knotted upon itself after the attempt.”

“Old, dark, ornate, expensive, and creaky,” I said.

“Witches like that kind of furniture,” said Sarah. “No loss that it is gone.”