I came to myself walking with two beings at my sides, with one of them holding my arm as if guiding the blind. I had rifle and sack shouldered, and with each slow clumsy step, I seemed to be half-dragging through the somber snow-blind streets of a nightmare.
“Where am I?” I asked in a voice that echoed in silence.
“You are in town now,” said the voice of Hans to my right, “and it is the start of Festival Week. We should go home now and get you cleaned up, as I think that witch caused some trouble even after you killed him.”
“I k-killed him?” I asked numbly. “How?”
“I think you need to be dosed with some of the widow's tincture,” said Anna, “as you really look like you've had too much swine. Everyone's talking about it.”
“It?” I asked.
“First dealing with that witch like you did,” said Anna. “I'd never thought I would see an old tale, but that was straight out of one of them. Then, that other one. Why didn't you kill him too?”
“I think he is giving up on it,” said Hans, “as I have seen that man before, and he looked different this time.”
“And smelled and acted different,” I said. “That other man wasn't about to give up on his prize, and he would have killed the other on the way home after he'd killed me, and then taken those...”
I paused in mid-sentence, then said, “was he going to do that?”
“I suspect so,” said Hans, “as I saw those markings he had, and a lot of other things while you were cutting him up. He was a bad witch, and I am glad he will kill no more.”
“I cut him up?” I gasped. “I barely remember what I did back there.”
“That was out of an old tale also,” said Anna. “They don't describe that part terribly well, but after seeing you cut that witch to pieces, I know what they were speaking of.”
A bath and clean clothing, as well as some vinegar, helped greatly with the shock of being 'bathed' in blood, and as I stirred the acid-smelling tub with slow-soaking clothing, someone tapped at the door. I turned to open it, and in walked Anna with another jug.
“Vinegar?” I asked.
“For the blood,” said Anna. “They've got a mess to clean up at the shop, but that can wait until after lunch.”
“Lunch?” I asked. I was still slightly wobbly in the head.
“I think you need a good meal,” said Anna. “That might help.”
As that phrase usually meant the Public House, I put on my 'common' shoes, and but minutes later, we left heading south along the roadside path.
The sleepy aspect of town had been replaced by a mood that took me several seconds to understand, that being an unfamiliar one, and as we walked, I asked, “will we be expecting much in the way of visitors?” I wanted to ask about 'parties', but refrained. Those made for a fervent desire to hide.
“I should think so,” said Hans. “Today, tomorrow, and the day after, is when people actually get ready to do this thing, and then it starts for real.”
“For real?” I asked. “Do we need invitations?”
“Not really,” said Anna. “Those might be wise most of the year, but this is the one time when you can expect people to show.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Mostly people that know us,” said Anna. “That's quite a lot of people, so I hope you can stand the noise and crowds.”
“Yes, if you dose him good with the bull formula first,” said Hans. “You might keep him in the kitchen if it gets too bad.”
“Kitchen?” I asked. “Uh, why?”
“You might not be much good for cooking,” said Hans, “but I know you can stir things good, and you can make beer, and run a distillery. Then, most people stay out of those things, so you might not be as bothered by people and noise.”
“Will Paul come over?” I asked.
“I would expect him especially,” said Hans.
“And hide the cough medicine,” said Anna. “I can just see him drinking that stuff, even if it works well for coughs.”
“It does?” I asked.
“I've dosed four people, and their coughs left right away every time,” said Anna. “That wasn't all that left, though.”
“What else left?” I asked.
“Their sanity,” said Anna. “They wanted to drink the rest of the cough medicine, and the publican wants the recipe.”
“That is not a good idea to spread around,” said Hans with a dire tone.
“Why?” I asked innocently.
“I tried making some, and it caught fire on me,” said Hans. “I have no idea you could teach aquavit to act like distillate, but that stuff does that.”
A strange aroma came from within the Public House, and when we opened the door to the place, the odor hit me twice over. I smelled something akin to custard, and I looked at Anna.
“Was this why?” I asked.
“They have the first batch of vlai here,” said Anna. “I think you should try it.”
“And if I become ill?” I asked.
“I doubt that will happen,” said Anna. “I'll ask for a smaller bowl than usual, just in case.”
After visiting the privy, I paused at the 'bar' to the rear, and looked into the kitchen. The steamy fragrant air seemed especially enticing, and when a waiter came by with a sizable copper pot full of a thick mottled yellow 'syrup', I wondered what I was seeing. She was heading to where we were seated, so I followed her at a discrete distance – until she set down the pot at our table.
I had never seen the term 'feeding frenzy' applied to people before, but both Hans and Anna were spooning up the 'syrup' as if crazed. Their bowls were not small, and even the one reserved for me was easily as big as the common ones at home.
“This is vlai,” said Anna, as if contemplating a most delectable dish, “and I hope they spiced it right.”
“It smells like it,” said Hans. “Now we can eat it.”
I tentatively put my spoon into my small helping of 'custard', and found the texture to be closer to a very creamy and rich-looking species of Jello. The taste of the stuff was enchanting, so much so that only when my gut was doing an advanced species of rumba did I notice the gastrointestinal commotion. I made for the privy in a state of fright, and when I sat down, I felt as if I was unloading molten sulfur-contaminated bronze. The pain was beyond description, and caused flashing lights to appear before my eyes, while the stink was such that I expected to hear and feel the eruption of a volcano.
“C-custard?” I gasped, between moans. “Vlai makes custard seem tame!”
I emerged walking as if I'd spent too much time riding horses, and when I sat down, I stifled a scream of pain. Anna looked at me with a yellow-tinted smile, then asked sweetly, “what happened?”
“Vlai acts worse than custard for trouble,” I said. “Oh, I need to visit the privy again.”
I was unable to eat more vlai, and I barely made it home in time to visit the privy – and once at home, I acquired the dry heaves in addition to the runs. Those, as well as the soreness to my rear, only left just prior to dinner, and I wanted a liquid diet then – chiefly water, cider, and a small sip of beer. I was badly dehydrated, and when the other two looked at me, Hans said, “I think you had best keep him away from that vlai. He may like that stuff, but it does not like him.”
“But it's supposed to be helpful,” said Anna.
“Yes, and beer is that way, and it causes him trouble if he has more than a sip,” said Hans. “I think you might stick with what he can have that does not make him sick or crazy.”
“F-fumes,” I moaned. “W-wind.”
“I know,” said Anna. “People were wondering if I'd poisoned you.”
“The smell?” I asked. I hadn't had such foul-smelling gas since long before coming here.
“You were not doing well in that place,” said Hans. “Anna came to check, and she said you were moaning as if you were hurt bad.”
“It did hurt,” I said, “but if that tincture...”
“You would have needed the widow's tincture first, then that for pain,” said Hans. “I might almost try it still, if you are hurting badly.”
“Not badly enough to wish to be crazy,” I said. “I just hope it stops completely, as my guts are still more active than is normal for them.”
While my intestines still rumbled intermittently, the need to visit the privy grew less, and by bedtime, it seemed to have calmed down. The next morning, however, I had an idea involving some kind of a surprise, and I went out into the buggy-way with the student's lantern. I was going to fix that diabolically balky gate.
There were three portions to the gate, those being the two hinges, one to each side of the flimsy-looking wooden gate proper, then the latch itself – or so I thought until I began dismantling it. The number of pieces – banged-up, horribly abused, bent badly, and somewhat rusty – was such that I marveled, at least until I began drawing where the pieces went. I took them inside a few at a time, and then laid them out on the pull-out portion of my bench and began measuring.
“New hinge pins,” I thought, “new bronze pieces, or perhaps just reaming them a bit oversize, then these bent pieces here – oh, rivet on some sheet metal, perhaps, so as to strengthen them, then harden the soft metal parts... I wonder how hard those hinge pins are?”
The file-test proclaimed them 'butter' – well-forged clean 'butter' with little slag, but still, butter.
“Why is that stuff so popular?” I wondered. “It's soft, it's easy to work – do people even care how such equipment works at all?”
Looking at the pieces to the gate made me wonder more than a little.
I left for the shop at first 'light' with the needed pieces, and while I waited for furnace and forge to heat, I carved on the partly-done knife pieces. Only when I took a break from the buggy's pieces did I notice I had company.
“What gives with you being here?” asked Hans.
“Uh, no time for gifts,” I said, as I held up one of the pieces to the buggy's gate, “so I'm fixing this.”
“What is it?” asked Hans.
“That gate that Anna has so much trouble with,” I said. “I should be back home by lunchtime.”
“I'm glad I brought you some bread,” said Hans. “Anna is off to get some special things in town, so she does not need the buggy.”
“I hope she does not become angry with me.”
“Angry about what?” asked Anna from the doorway.
“He is fixing that gate,” said Hans, “and if I go by these parts, it needs it, too. This one is really bad.”
“The other is worse,” I said. “Whoever did this gate presumed you would use it little and look after it tenderly, and treat it like some of the more fragile tools I have.”
“And how is that?” asked Hans.
“Very carefully, and no forcing,” I said. “Otherwise, you would damage the thing in a hurry, especially the way people are around here.”
When Hans left with Anna a few minutes later, I resumed carving on the wooden pieces for knives. I wanted to make a pair of 'personal' knives, and when I rammed up the patterns that were currently available, I wondered about a handful of small 'dowels' as runners. Bushing-stock was especially useful, and the gate needed its share of bushings.
The dowels worked well as runners, and when I returned in time for lunch, I not only had the original pieces, but also their replacements handy I began filing and fitting the parts after eating.
I had become sufficiently expert in the use of the 'pedal-lathe' that I was beginning to wonder about batteries and an electric motor or two, and when Hans came to watch me 'skim' a cut on one of the new pins, he muttered appreciatively before speaking.
“Those look to be good hinges,” he said. “Those old ones were too expensive to get them fixed when we had the chance, and we have not had the chance since.”
“They were s-soft metal,” I said. “How do they expect them to last?”
“That gate only weighs about three pounds,” said Hans, “and one is supposed to be gentle with it. I was told that it was better to have the hinge pins bend than have the gate break.”
“Who said that?” I asked.
“That is what is commonly said at places that work on buggies,” said Hans, “and though I wonder about most buggies, I do not wonder about those like ours.”
“It's thinness?” I asked.
“That might be the case,” said Hans. “The place that went through ours down there had a lot of those things ready to fit, so that might have been why.”
“Uh, what things?” I asked.
“Like what you are turning there,” said Hans. “I think they get them close to size from some other place and then fit them up when they put them on.”
I needed to go back to the shop after nightfall to harden the various pieces that needed it, then once home, the fitting resumed until dinner. That involved 'soup' of some kind, and then after, I began fitting the individual pieces to the buggy.
I had to file on a few pieces of the latch to get it to engage properly, once I had adjusted it, I found it closed with a gentle push. Once it was completed, I oiled it carefully, then began bringing my tools back in. I ran into Hans with my last trip going out.
“What is it you are getting?” he asked.
“The last of my tools,” I said. “You may wish to try the gate now.”
While I gathered up the last two bags of tools, Hans was closing and opening the gate as if he'd found a new and fascinating toy, and when I left to go back in the house, he went on ahead of me. I suspected he would fetch Anna, and when I came inside, he was trying to convince her of something wonderful.
“No, Hans, it's not the magical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in Eire,” I thought. “It's just a buggy gate, and now it works reasonably well.”
Once he had Anna up and her knitting abandoned, he fairly dragged her out the door and through the snow, and I tagged along in the rear to explain things if they proved needed. Anna seemed sleepy to a small degree, which made for wondering as the precise reason for knitting. She might well think it a sleeping aid.
“So the latch is fixed,” said Anna. “I was trying to knit, and you pull me away from it.”
“I know you get frustrated with knitting, and that latch caused you a lot of trouble,” said Hans. “Now, you need to try it.”
Anna took hold of the lever, then looked at it with widened eyes. I had riveted on a sheet-brass reinforcement, and the rivets I had used gave a much better purchase for the hand.
“Now lift up gently, and pull back,” said Hans.
Anna lifted as instructed. I could faintly hear the mechanism withdrawing the pins. With a faint click, the gate freed, and then Anna lowered it to a horizontal position. She turned to me and said in a breathy whisper, “what did you do to this gate?”
“He fixed it good,” said Hans. “Now, lift up, and it will click nice.”
Anna did so, and the gate latched with a barely audible click. She shook it gently, found that it had closed solidly, and then looked first at Hans, then at me.
“No more gate troubles?” I asked.
“I th-think so,” she spluttered. “Now I can actually use it.”
“I also made it much easier to look after,” I said. “If it's dosed when the wheels are, then it should continue doing that for a very long time.”
Before bedtime, I recalled the papers I had lifted from the witch, and I looked them over carefully. Their cryptic markings – they were neither letters nor runes – made for wondering as to what, precisely, they meant, and I put them in a small cloth bag and then in with the 'miscellaneous' bags in a corner of one of my drawers.
The next morning, I wondered if we had church, and to my surprise, Anna said, “not this week. I would help Hans in the basement if you feel inclined.”
I did, and when I came down into the basement proper, I noted Hans was working on an obvious extraction. He was using one of the just-finished heating lamps turned down under the sand-bath.
“Is the mash due?” I asked.
“I need to check it,” he said. “It was close the last time, and if we run it, we will want to do it on the stove.”
“The extraction?” I asked.
“I'd like to try one of those things you spoke of,” said Hans. “How hard are they to make?”
“Not now, Hans,” said Anna's voice from upstairs. “Can't it wait?”
“While I might need rest,” I said, “if I don't have something to do, I tend to get bored – and I don't rest well when I'm bored.”
The mash proved ready, and while Anna was drying meat in quantity, I found that it was possible to run the still at the same time – and while the still needed a certain amount of watching, it also gave ample time for reflection. For some reason, I was curious about cloth.
“What are those cloaks made of?” I asked.
“The usual cloth is called linen,” said Anna, “and it supposedly comes from marshes. There aren't any of those close by that I know of.”
“And the yarn?” I asked.
“That grows on sheep,” said Anna, “and is called wool. It is best knit, though some do it like linen.”
“And waxing the linen helps waterproof it?” I asked.
“It does,” said Anna, “and rubbing new beeswax into cloaks now and then helps some.”
“For hot weather?” I asked.
“That is when you want clothing similar to what is worn to bed,” said Anna.
Once the second load of mash was running, I wondered about clothing 'disposal'. I had been laying my clothing on the floor, on the shelf – I had a bag for stockings – or on the bed. I had wondered about the pegs in various places on the walls for quite some time.
“Are there such things as hangers for clothing?” I asked. I recalled plastic, wood, and metal examples from where I came from, and had seen nothing like them here.
“Yes, there are,” said Anna. “I'm surprised you didn't look for them at that second-hand store.”
“I had no idea they existed here,” I said. “I remember seeing my clothing hung straight on the pegs a few times, but...”
“That tends to stretch them too much,” said Anna, “unless you just hang them that way for a short time.”
Anna paused, then said, “worst case, you might make them yourself. A lot of farmers make their own.”
“Of what, though?” I asked.
“Most people whittle theirs,” said Anna, “and I know you carve wood well, so it should be easy for you.”
“Not for hangers,” said Hans as he came up from the basement. “I might do those things decent, and some people I know make me look worthless that way, but whittling common things is trouble for him. He is better off getting them second-hand.”
“How are they commonly done?” I asked.
“Most farmers cut twigs about as big as the sections to a ramrod,” said Hans, “then they boil some of them for a while and wrap them around a mug and let them dry. That gives the one part.”
Anna looked at Hans with definite distaste. I could tell such hangers didn't sit well with her.
“Then, they cut a longer piece, peel it and smooth it up, then use glue and string to put the two together,” said Hans. “That is for those. The good ones...”
“You mean the ones worth bothering with,” said Anna. “Those things would dump my clothes on the floor so much I wanted to build a fire with them.”
“Those are like that, unless they are built unusually carefully,” said Hans, “and most farmers are not that careful. Now the good ones are done by carpenters, and they use three pieces of wood, glue, and no string.”
“And those break often enough that I am glad they're so common,” said Anna.
“That is why you might get some sheet brass and cut the hanging portion out of that stuff,” said Hans, “and then have the carpenters cut the wooden pieces for you. You might need two screws for each one, and I know you make those good.”
“Hans, he's better off just buying them second-hand,” said Anna. “I've seen him make screws, and they take enough time to be trouble if he needed them in numbers.”
“That depends on the screw,” I said. “I have ways of cutting smaller ones that only take about five to seven minutes each.”
“Now how is that?” asked Hans.
“I get fifteen-line rivet stock, then clean it carefully with fire and lye,” I said, “and then even it out in the bar-roller. It usually becomes about half to two-thirds of a line smaller. Then, I set up the lathe to cut screws in batches using some special tools I have, and finally, all of the screws get cooked for a while and then quenched in water.”
“Those are not soft, are they?” asked Hans.
“They aren't as hard and as tough as the 'good' ones,” I said, “but they are much harder than most screws I have seen.”
After finishing the mash-running and cleaning the still, I took the still-warm jugs of 'firewater' downstairs and put it where Hans had the other jugs of aquavit. Hans was cleaning up the mash-tub, and I suspected he would want to sprout more corn soon. I thought to ask just the same.
“I got that stuff going as soon as the mash was working good,” he said. “I'll grind it tonight, most likely, and then start the new batch.”
While there had been no uncommon dreams the night before, or even the night prior to that, the current night assayed making up for the matter. Between seeing a black-faced version of that sleigh-riding red fable I didn't miss, Black-Cap's 'friendly' magistrate causing trouble as if intact, and a huge black brandy-keg-bearing Saint Bernard with a bad attitude and a worse odor, the night was devoured by dreaming, and I stumbled down the stairs in the morning to stare at my workbench in a shambling daze.
“If revolvers worked in dreams,” I muttered, “I'd have it by my bedside, and the same for my rifle, and I'd borrow two or three of those jugs from downstairs.”
A brief pause, then “and I'm really glad that red-dressed obese wretch is unknown in the area. He can have his accursed coniferous fertility symbols.”
After collecting my wits somewhat, I thought to look out front to see the condition of the snow. The stuff was still falling steadily, and as I looked out over the landscape, the steady powder accumulations were forming quite noticeable drifts.
“No fourteen foot drifts, but I think I see one or more fourteen inch ones,” I murmured. “I wonder how thick the snow actually is out in the road?”
“Is this normal for snow?” I asked during breakfast.
“It normally is a bit more than half of what we have for this time of year,” said Hans, “and it shows no sign of not dumping more of the stuff.”
“And the temperature?” I asked, as I put some cherry jam on my bread.
“That is about the usual,” said Hans. “That deer's carcass is frozen solid, and the wolves are out in force.”
“Uh, I hope you don't shoot them,” I said, as I recalled that one 'buckskin-wearing wretch'.
“It is better to feed those than shoot them,” said Hans, “and I have been doing that regular since the snow started.”
“Feed them?” I asked.
“Yes, with chopped meat and vegetables, like a thick stew,” said Hans. “Grandfather always taught me to feed them, and he said they kept the black dogs off. I think he was right, as I have yet to see any of those things.”
“Vegetables?” I asked.
“I've seen more than a few instances of gnawed cabbage that wasn't chewed by the usual things,” said Anna, “and the dogs they keep at the king's house proper are fed a mixed diet. Malnourished dogs have less stamina and gameness.”
“Gameness?” I asked. “They don't fight with those, do they?”
“Those northern people might hide from people passably,” said Hans, “but they do not hide at all well from those hounds. You want a gamy dog then, as those people tend to ignore dog-bites unless they are bit good.”
I helped Anna clean up the table, then 'checked' my rifle prior to working on a batch of medium-sized knives. As I worked – I wasn't under the usual pressure, so it was closer to busywork for me – I thought to ask Hans about the nature of 'black dogs'. I wondered if that evil-smelling Saint Bernard of my dreams was included among them.
Hans came up shortly, then came next to the bench as I peened the rivets holding the various pieces onto the knives. He picked up one, then remarked, “now these look about right for the table.”
“Table?” I asked. “I planned on carrying one of those, and giving another to Anna.”
I paused for a moment, then said, “can you describe those black dogs you spoke of?”
“They smell like rotten meat,” said Hans, “and their eyes burn red like charcoal in the dark, and they are solid black otherwise, from top to bottom.”
“Uh, how big are these things?” I asked.
“They vary some,” said Hans, “but the smallest ones are still fairly big. Then, they are said to be the consorts of witches, and wolves do not get along with them.”
“They don't?” I asked.
“Talk has it wolves don't much care for witches, either,” said Hans. “More than one old tale speaks of witches being bitten to pie-filling by wolves.”
“Then we should feed them as much as possible,” I said. “Do they bother stock?”
“Too many people think they do,” said Hans, “and they shoot at them, but I have looked at the tracks around their stock-kills. Those tracks were not those of wolves, as they were bigger and had six pads, not four.”
“Six p-pads?” I asked.
“Yes, and they almost looked like the hands of people, too,” said Hans. “Now after we have our guests today, we might do some work on leather...”
I turned toward the door, then looked at it. Faint on the wind I could hear a strange-sounding padding, almost as if a three hundred pound five-legged wolverine was on the prowl, and when I reached toward my rifle, I seemed to smell something so nauseating that I had to check my gorge.
“We don't have any bad meat handy, do we?” I asked, as I checked my rifle.
“Not now we do,” said Hans. “Why, do you smell something?”
“Yes, though it isn't normal rotten meat,” I said, as I again looked at the door. “Six pads, eh?”
Hans didn't have a chance to answer, for a faint howl seemed to come from several points of the compass at once.
“What was that?” he asked. “That was no wolf.”
“I'm not sure,” I said as I stood. “It seemed to come from the road out front.”
I took a step toward the door, then as I lifted foot to take another, a hoarse metallic roaring bark seemed to shiver the glass and send chills up my spine. I wasted no time, even as I thought “if ever a dog sounded like a rabid Doberman Pinscher, that one did – and I do not like Doberman Pinschers.”
“Let me open the door for you,” said Hans, as he went ahead. I had the rifle 'mounted' already, and as Hans took hold of the door, I pulled the hammer back to full cock. He then opened it wide.
Standing out in the roadway and looking toward me was the hideous and reeking dog of my nightmare: a huge coal-black Saint Bernard stood in the road with a black keg below its head, its red mouth seeming to burn like fire and its eyes a glaring crimson. I aimed for the bridge of its nose and fired.
The blast of the rifle rocked me back and sent thundering echoes cascading from above, while the dog howled long and forlornly before it erupted into a blizzard of soot that blanketed the road from margin to margin, with ashes settling out of the cloud like fallout and smoke slowly drifting to the north.
My ringing ears were such that I set the rifle down on the couch and followed it there a second later, and as I sat there in a daze Hans seemed to be speaking excitedly.
“Slow down, please,” I said wearily. I felt as if I'd been hit with a crowbar, and my ears rang in three-part harmony. “That dog was in my dreams last night. Now what did you call it?”
“I do not believe this!” yelped Hans. He seemed uncommonly excited. “That was Old Shuck himself.”
“You mean Old Stench, don't you?” I asked. “The one in the dream smelled like a crock of rotten meat mingled with a crate of rotten eggs, and all of that mess pickled in bad lye, and that one outside in the road was worse.”
As if to disabuse me of my statements, Anna now came down holding her head as if she had a headache. I wondered why she looked fuzzy around the edges, at least until she spoke.
“I do not care if there is an elk on the stoop,” she said. “Do not shoot that musket in the house. It put me under the bed, it was so bad.”
“Yes, and Old Shuck showed, too,” said Hans. “That means those witches are onto him for certain, as that dog is their messenger.”
“M-messenger?” I asked. My ears were still ringing, and I felt inclined to take Anna's 'diatribe' to heart. My rifle was dangerous to the target and the shooter – in multiple ways, no less – and I did not wish to lose my hearing.
Anna went to the door, then looked back at us with wide eyes.
“Where did it go?” she said.
“It went to smoke, soot, and ashes,” said Hans.
“Old Shuck?” I said numbly.
“Grandfather said that if that dog came,” said Hans, “it meant the witches wanted to cut you up and eat you.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered. “I have ringing ears, I feel as if I've been thumped bad, and now the witches want to dine at my expense. Just what I really need.”
I paused, shook my head, then said, “that dog had a keg. Did it have brandy in it?”
“That was how I knew it was Old Shuck,” said Hans, “as that keg is their blood-bucket that they use to hold the blood when they murder people in those stinky rooms.”
“Stinky room, stinky witches, and now an especially stinky dog,” I said dumbly. “Someone spoke of stinkers a while back, and now I wonder if that thing was a dog.”
“Stinkers do not smell like that,” said Anna. “If this was a big black dog with red eyes, then Hans is probably right.”
“H-have you seen Old S-Shuck?” I asked.
“Twice since I married Hans,” said Anna, “and three times before that. Did it have a big head and a blunt nose?”
Hans nodded, then said, “now it is gone where it belongs.”
“And I think my sanity is gone where I cannot find it,” I muttered. “I will never, ever, shoot that gun indoors again, Anna. I l-learned my lesson.”
I paused, then said, “and now I need to clean it, too.”
“Yes, after you have a swallow of beer,” said Hans. “You look like you were too close to one of Willem's guns when he had it loaded for swine.”
After cleaning my rifle and getting a mouthful of beer, I thought to ask why Hans had not seen any black dogs and Anna had seen the keg-wearing Saint Bernard multiple times.
“How is it you saw that smelly varmint and Hans didn't?” I asked.
“I'm not sure,” said Anna, “but I have. It seems to show more in some areas than others.”
Here, Anna paused, then said, “I expect Paul and Willem today, so you might want to have your things out to show them.”
“Things?” I asked.
“Your tools, mostly,” said Anna. “I know both of them will want to see that distillery, but that's downstairs.”
I was again working on the 'medium-sized' knives when a tap came at the door. I was about to stand up when Anna came from the kitchen to then open the door. Paul and Willem both came in, then as I watched, they both hung their cloaks on pegs in the kitchen, and removed their shoes. Paul opened the oven, then said, “no, I guess not.”
“I have meat in there, Paul,” she said. “You can put those under the stove, same as we do.”
The two of them then came to see what I was working on. While I explained what I was doing to Willem, and let him handle the knife I was working on – I suspected he wanted one, but I spoke of testing them first – Paul commented, “good that you have a musket.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Old Shuck has been showing a lot,” said Paul. “I used the pig-musket, hit it solid, and it ignored the ball.”
“Didn't you see the soot and ashes out front?” asked Anna.
“I wondered what had happened there,” said Willem. “Did Hans test something out front?”
“I didn't,” said Hans, as he came up from the basement. “He shot Old Shuck out in front there, and that brute went up in smoke.”
“How?” asked Paul. “Is that musket a special...”
He then looked closer at my rifle, then picked it up. I almost heard him grunt with the strain, then I felt his eyes cranking open to 'saucer' status.
“What gives with all of this stuff?” he asked.
“That stuff helps with aiming,” said Hans. “He shot a deer at a good range for artillery.”
“Did it need chasing?” asked Willem.
“It went nowhere except down,” said Hans. “We have most of it still hanging out back, so you can see what that gun did.”
“Yes, once our shoes dry,” said Willem. “That sled may be quick, but it isn't exactly warm.”
“Nor dry for the feet if you go a distance,” said Paul. “I hope I do not get sick.”
“Sick?” I asked.
“Especially with the crae,” said Paul. “As it is, Willem was coughing now and then, and...”
Willem coughed. I reached for the cough medicine, found the small copper 'shot glass' I had made, poured it half full, then said, “drink this.”
Willem looked at it, smelled it, then drank it – and then burped.
“Now since when did you learn to make Geneva?” he asked. “Did Hans teach you?”
“That was cough medicine,” I said quietly. “Does your throat bother you?”
Willem thought for a moment, then said, “no, it doesn't, and it was scratchy, and my nose was stuffy, and it isn't.”
He paused for a moment, then said in a strange voice, “I must have the secret of that Geneva, as it was the best I've ever had. How did you get it to come out dark like that?”
“You had best not try making that stuff,” said Hans, “as we need to figure it out more. I tried making some, and it went up like distillate fresh from the jug. Then, that stuff is a trade secret, and finally, Anna likes to keep some of it on hand.”
“I thought she didn't like Geneva,” said Willem.
“I don't,” said Anna. I could tell she was feeling testy. “Anything that works consistently for coughs is a valuable medicine, and medicine that tastes and smells good is even more so.”
“I know about the taste,” said Willem, “which is why I want some. Paul needs to try it.”
Anna looked at the two of them, then shook her head.
“Hans, how did you do that stuff?” I asked.
“Like you did, except Anna was using the stove, so I used that one heating lamp turned down low.”
“The sand-bath?” I asked. “Waiting until you put in all the aquavit and cut it with water before heating?”
“I could not read your notes, so I went by what you had told Anna,” said Hans. “I think I had best watch you make that stuff.”
“As the stomach turns,” I thought, as I put down my file and went into the kitchen, along with my student's ledger.
With each addition of the various ingredients – I felt inclined to up the proportion of Nilus bark, as well as that of Torga – the reek became more intense, biting, and nausea-inducing, and the dry heaves and retching the stuff induced was torment – at least, it was torment for me.
It was not so for the others, even while I was preparing the malt over a heating lamp on the table, and as I began slowly stirring the foul-smelling brew, I felt reminded of a line from a play and my play upon it. I did not speak it though, even though it seemed especially appropriate to what now looked and smelled like the contents of an open-air septic tank:
and drain-flush bubble.”
As the stench grew, I thought, “I am not tasting that stuff. I would probably spit the spoon in pieces at the wall – and if I leave the pot, they'll all take turns drinking the stuff until it's gone!”
“Anna, could you please fetch that one small c-cup... Anna?”
She seemed mesmerized, stupefied, swaying as if bathing in an unseen putrid breeze coming off of a paper mill. I waved my hand in front of her face, then gently tapped her on the shoulder. She startled, then shook her head.
“What is that smell?” she said.
“I know it smells horrible,” I said, “but could you please fetch that small cup?”
Anna wobbled off while muttering about my 'smelling equipment', then came back with the cup in question. The stench was becoming such that I wished to hide in the privy with an open-topped stool, as it seemed an improvement over the slow-steaming nature of the concoction I was stirring.
I filled the cup with a few spoonfuls, then handed it to Anna. She drank it off, sniffed, then burped.
“This batch is better than the first one,” she said. “At least, it is better for taste. I think you should dose Paul next.”
I spooned him a slightly larger amount, then handed him the cup. The evil-reeking mess seemed to get his attention abruptly, or at least I thought until he drank the contents of the cup slowly. The abrupt change in his face and his wide-open eyes made for a desire to hide, and a mental outburst:
“Here comes Hyde, and I'd best hide before he erupts!”
“What is that stuff!” shouted Paul as I cringed. “I must have the recipe!”
“For this?” I said incredulously. “You saw me make it.”
Paul's shout seemed to wake the others up, but only dosing them truly woke them, and only once the stuff was jugged and marked as 'number 2 batch, cough medicine' was I able to relax.
I wanted to air out the house, also, as the stench was still most present, and the nausea was not easily endured.
“At least that medicine tastes good,” said Anna wistfully. “Even children like the taste.”
“Ch-children?” I gasped, as I checked my gorge.
“One of those sick people was a child,” said Anna, “and she giggled before she went to sleep, just like you did that one time.”
“When?” I asked.
“That was when the knitter came over,” said Hans. “You went to sleep, then woke up a bit later, and that was when that witch showed.”
“What was this of a witch?” asked Paul.
“That one was not here,” said Hans, “and I wished I could say that for the ones that have shown in town recently, as they were as bad and as stinky as any witches I have ever seen.”
“What happened to them?” asked Willem. “I didn't see any burn-piles, or things like them.”
“Go south of town about half a mile and you'll see plenty,” said Anna. “First, a coach full of witches and dynamite went up, then a really bad one was cut up, spiked, and bagged.”
“What?” yelped Paul. “Like out of the old tales?”
Anna nodded, then said, “at least I know what they are talking about now, as I saw all of that done.”
“Who did it?” asked Paul. I wanted to hide in the worst way imaginable, and thought to crawl under the workbench.
“He did,” said Anna.
“How did you catch that witch, though?” asked Paul. “Was he out hunting?”
“Not in the usual fashion,” I said. “We had a customer bring in a musket suitable for wall-duty...”
“Was it as heavy as yours?” asked Willem, as he looked closer at my rifle. He thought to touch the muzzle, then said, “I thought this thing had a big hole in it, and this one's the smallest hole I've ever seen. Do you have any balls for it?”
“That one does not take balls,” said Hans. “It takes lead things shaped like corncobs.”
“And what do those do?” asked Willem.
“More damage than a roer, and that at a good range for artillery,” said Hans.
“Could I see one?” asked Willem?”
I fetched out a bullet that was not yet greased, and handed it to him. He admired its shine, then hefted it, saying, “I have never seen things like this before, at least not this small. It reminds me of some swine-shells I've seen for shape.”
“That gun is louder than one of yours,” said Hans, “and when it shoots, it sounds like dynamite.”
“Do not speak of dynamite,” muttered Anna. “He was inside when he shot Old Shuck, and I jumped under the bed, it was so bad.”
“How bad is it?” asked Paul.
“Do you want to try it?” I asked. “It's loaded and ready to go.”
“Not now,” said Paul. “Our shoes need thawing and drying still. Why, what is it like to shoot?”
“Scary even with the usual charge,” I said. “I'd hate to think what it would be like with a heavy load.”
“I would watch those,” said Anna. “I'm still wondering about that bruise that showed when you shot that deer.”
“Bruise?” asked Willem. “How?”
Willem paused to think for a minute, then said, “didn't you say it hit like a roer?”
Hans nodded, “and that at three hundred and fifty paces. Then, there was the elk.”
“What did it do then?” asked Willem.
“Turn a big piece of it into pie-filling,” said Hans. “They needed to drown a bucketful of meat in vinegar.”
“I thought that happened with that deer,” I asked. “I thought I'd ruined half the meat when I saw the exit hole and all that blood.”
“I cut that part out and soaked it good,” said Anna. “Vinegar helps a lot then, just like it does when you need to chase a wounded animal for a distance. The same thing probably happened with that elk.”
Anna paused, then said, “why don't the three of you sit on the couch, and I can make lunch.”
Three?” I thought. “There are five of us...”
Anna motioned to me with her eyes, and as the others went into the parlor, I followed Anna into the kitchen.
“You might not be much good for cooking, at least most cooking, but I could use some help in here,” she said.
“Help?” I asked. “What kind?”
“Mostly a big pot of soup or stew,” said Anna. “I saw you working on those knives. Are any of them able to be used?”
“They might not be finished, nor sharpened properly...”
Anna was digging around in her 'stuff' drawer.
“But they are in much better shape than that knife,” I said. “What would you like done?”
“Once I get some deer meat from outside,” she said, “you might want to cut it up in pieces. I'm not certain whether I'm going to make stew or soup yet.”
While Anna took one of the knives I'd been working on outside, I set up the heating lamp, stand, and a mess-kit fryer, and when she returned with a frozen chunk of meat, she said, “now what do you have in mind?”
“Do you have some cooking oil?” I asked.
“Yes, but it is dear,” said Anna. “I might not have enough.”
“A spoonful?” I asked.
“I thought you were going to oil-cook something,” said Anna. “I can manage that much.”
As I began slicing the meat, Anna brought over a small jug, then asked, “now what are you going to do?”
“Cut up the meat,” I said, “and then brown it. Supposedly it helps the taste.”
“Now since when are you speaking like a cook?” said Anna. “They do that at the Public House sometimes.”
“I've done it before,” I said. “That, and I want to test this small fryer here. The knife I have an idea about.”
After cutting up the meat – Anna indicated how large she wanted the pieces, which were quite small – I put a small amount of oil in the fryer, then lit the lamp. The rapid nature of cooking was such that I was cutting, frying, stirring, and removing cooked meat in a near-continuous cycle, and as I worked, I had a distinct impression.
Copper fryers were superior to the usual 'black-iron' type, at least for browning meat, and after browning three batches, I had Anna helping me. I needed to add but a small amount of oil each time.
“I've never seen frying done that way,” she said. “How is it you can cook it so rapidly?”
“This fryer works quite well,” I said. “It works better than I hoped it would, even if it is small.”
With Anna slicing, the browning went faster yet, and as the last batch of meat was cooking, I asked, “are there such things as, uh, onions?”
“What are those?” asked Anna.
“Uh, round brown things with husks and roots that make your eyes water when cut,” I said.
“I don't know much about the round, nor the brown, nor much else that you described, but I do know about the eyes watering,” said Anna. “I think I have several fresh Gobens, and the greengrocer's has more of those things.”
Anna then began digging in the pantry, and after removing several new-looking sacks, she brought out a smaller example, then brought me a slightly twisted oval-shaped 'bulb' with yellow-striped brownish husks, a furry 'fringe' on top that reminded me of dessicated chives, and a long and straggly taproot covered with 'hair'. Picking the thing up and smelling it said 'onion' in no uncertain terms.
“Are these peeled before use?” I said.
“That is usually a good idea,” said Anna. “I always did it outside, but it was warmer then.”
“Outside?” I asked.
“They tend to be a bit messy with all their layers,” said Anna. “You might manage to keep their cloaks from going all over the kitchen.”
The adherent nature of the 'cloaks' of Gobens required careful surgery with a knife to remove, then gently peeling off the vaguely rubbery skins. After doing so several times, I suspected it was ready to cut up. The upper 'sprouts' went readily, as did the hairy taproot. I then cut the thing in half.
Within seconds, my eyes abruptly closed with a burning sensation so intense I nearly screamed, and when someone led me by the hand, I obediently followed until I was moved toward a stool. Someone began washing my hands, then as my eyes slowly began opening, Anna said, “I forgot about the other reason to not cut up Gobens indoors.”
“Those also,” said Anna. “I opened the door briefly so as to let out the worst of the smell.”
“Did he try slicing on a fresh Goben?” asked Paul.
“Yes, he did, and I forgot how bad they are, especially those,” said Anna. “I think those came from the potato country, and those...”
“Esther likes those especially,” said Paul, “though how she keeps them from wrinkling her eyes is a mystery.”
“Wrinkling her eyes?” I asked.
“Yes, like yours are,” said Paul. “I stay well clear of Gobens, unless they are cooked or dried.”
When my eyes had finally cleared to a degree, I was able to wobble back toward the kitchen, and once I sliced on the thing again, I was surprised at its relative lack of 'outgassing'; it had vented itself mostly when I first sliced it. Still, I muttered, and as I cut the thing up fine, I asked, “how do people stand these things?”
“Not terribly well, now that I recall,” said Anna. “Dried Gobens tend to both keep better and sell better, even if the fresh ones taste somewhat sweeter and juicier. Why, what will you do with that one?”
“Brown it, same as the meat,” I said.
“What will that do?” asked Anna.
While I could not readily explain what 'browning' a tear-gassing bulb would do, when I began cooking some of the thing in oil, the aroma became rich, spicy, and 'thick', and within seconds, the vaporous aspect was nearly gone. Anna came closer with a spoon, got a small bit, blew on it for nearly a minute, then ate it.
“I had no idea the taste would change that much,” she said. “If those things weren't so much trouble, I'd do what you're doing every time I cooked with them.”
“Does it taste good?” I asked.
Anna promptly got another spoonful, blew on it, and then crammed it in my mouth.
The sweetness of the thing was the first impression, with a host of aftertastes hot on its tail. One of these was 'heat', another 'garlic', and a third quite spicy – and then, the real aftertastes hit with such ferocity that I gagged and nearly fainted: motor oil, sour beer, scented acetone, 'wood', a vile acidic astringent, and something so intensely sour I swallowed and burped. I was surprised I didn't ignite the kitchen when I did so.
“Ugh,” I said. “I hope that will all even out.”
“Why?” asked Anna.
“Those are sweet enough at first, and then quite good, but when the real aftertaste finally hits, it's enough to turn the stomach.”
I cooked up the rest of the Goben-bits, then cleaned up my mess while Anna chopped up potatoes and carrots, then added the spices. She then placed a strange-looking sheet metal 'cover' on the pot.
“Where did you get that?” I asked.
“I found this at that second-hand store the last time I went,” said Anna, “and it helps with more-rapid cooking. We should have our meal in an hour or two.”
“Uh, there is this thing I drew up,” I said, “and...”
“I wondered why the carpenters came here with that pattern and not to the shop,” said Anna. “Do you know what it is?”
“I do,” said Hans, as he came into the kitchen with the pattern in question. “I looked it up in one of those books, and it is called an auto-clave. It does not look like a clavier, so I will need to ask someone who plays those next time I go up on the hill.”
“Do they call those that here?” I asked. “I figured no one would understand what it was if I called it by its real name, so I called it a pressure-pot. It's used for sterilizing surgical instruments and supplies.”
As Anna and I picked up stools to bring them into the parlor, I asked, “clavier?”
“They play those things in the orchestra,” said Anna. “I have no idea how they manage, as all of those white and black keys look very confusing.”
“How many keys are there?” I asked. The number 'eighty and eight' occurred to me, for some reason.
“That depends on who made the clavier, and its size,” said Anna. “A great clavier has over a hundred keys, and needs two people to play it, while a lesser clavier has about eighty keys, and can be played by one person.”
“Yes, if that person is really tall and has long-enough arms to reach all of those things,” said Hans.
“What I played didn't need especially long arms,” said Anna, “and it had but four strings. I still had to play out of doors, though, or in the neighbor's barn.”
“Why?” I asked.
“The noise drove my mother out of her mind,” said Anna in a tone I could not place. “At least I did not play the drums.”
“Why?” I asked. “Were they too loud?”
“That and their sound,” said Anna. “They were awful.”
“Has either of them seen the distillery yet?” I asked.
“I showed both of them while you two were in there doing up that meat,” said Hans. “I think Anna wants one of those knives bad, as I could see how she was doing with it.”
“Yes, for carry,” said Anna. “I have the impression those knives were not intended for cooking.”
“Not specifically,” I said, “thought they could be used for that. I hope we can get some more of that special iron soon, as I'm almost out of it.”
“What is it you use it for?” asked Paul.
“Tools that need to be especially hard and wear-resistant,” I said, “as well as knife-blades when I can get it. Those blades used better 'common' iron, and had been folded at least seven or eight times.”
“Why so many?” asked Paul.
Hans held out his knife, then said, “this was the first one, and it is still sharp enough to shave with. They almost do not go dull, and the newer ones are better yet, especially the smallest ones, like what he has in his pocket-roll or what Anna now has for surgery.”
I brought out the roll in question, but as I did, I looked at the revolver as it lay on the bench, and brought both pistol and roll over. Hans looked at me knowingly, even as I unwrapped the roll.
“I think you might get a holder for that thing there,” said Hans, as he indicated the revolver.
“Why does it look so strange?” asked Willem.
“Some witch tried using it for a trap,” said Hans, “and he unset the thing, so he got the dynamite, the jugs of distillate, and the witch's gun. Since, he has been working on it, which is why it is all of those colors.”
“Neither of you know how to get a dark bluish-black color on guns, do you?” I asked.
“They might manage that in the fourth kingdom,” said Paul, “and maybe a few places elsewhere, but up here, the only color on guns is that of rust.”
“It was,” said Willem. “I know at least one man had his gone through here recently, and I know about those here. Why do you want your guns colored?”
“Uh, rust protection?” I asked, then said, “besides, I wanted the metal parts on this one closer to the same color.”
“Now why is that?” asked Hans. “I know why most people would want them all one color, but I wonder about you.”
“Uh, the same color, just like, uh, how I like my tools to be, uh, organized in their drawers – no, that isn't it, and it isn't because I'm like most people that way,” I spluttered. “It's like having four buttons on a cloak and five holes for them.”
“And how does that make you feel?” asked Hans.
“Like trousers that are too big, or a lopsided wrench, or...”
“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “I have noticed how you have your mug on the right side, and the same for your spoon when you eat, and the same for how you lay all the stuff out neat like you do, and that shows in all that you do, especially the parts for that distillery.”
“I hope you can make more of those soon,” said Paul. “I tested some of that aquavit, and it's the strongest I've ever seen.”
“And the Geneva?” I asked.
Paul looked at me sourly, then said, “that needs to sit more, and the herbs and berries need to stay in the aquavit longer. Still, otherwise, I can tell the stuff would be a lot better using one of those.”
“Do you know much about the common practice of distilling?” I asked.
“Some,” he said. “Willem has traveled more, and has probably seen more distilleries.”
“I had some strange impressions about the usual type,” I said, “and between those impressions, what I've heard and seen, and the more obvious problems with them, I've had a lot of questions in the back of my mind. First, do most people have special houses for their stills?”
“I don't,” said Paul, “but that seems a common practice.”
“And fireboxes that are a certain shape, with tall chimneys, oval stoke-holes painted as if they were tooth-lined mouths, and the whole thing made of brick?” I asked.
“I have not seen anything like that,” said Paul, “especially bricks. Those are not common around here.”
“I've seen two that way,” said Willem, “and both of those people I wonder about.”
“And then the wood – it has to be cut specially from properly chosen trees...”
“I've heard that affects what comes out of the still, but that part is rubbish,” said Paul. “Wood might not be the best fuel for a distillery, as it's hard to control and makes the mess worse, but it only costs the time spent gathering it. Others, I don't know, as I doubt many of them have time...”
Paul stopped in mid-sentence, then said, “do you have an idea as to why those things are treated how they are?”
“I do,” I said. “The impressions I had were that with many people, perhaps most, the important things with a distillery were its shape, its color, its size, the wood used – that one was especially important, almost as if there were but a few types of trees suitable – the markings, and the type, frequency, and volume of what was chanted at the still and the mash. Nothing of common sense is involved. Nothing.”
I paused, then said, “oh, I forgot. All 'proper' distilleries have a specific curse on them in the 'correct' location, and that curse actually makes the thing function, according to what is commonly believed. If it's not there, you have a pile of scrap metal that needs melting.”
Paul shook his head, then said, “I suspect you are right, now that I think about it.”
“Meaning the common distillery is treated like an idol,” I said. “I don't know about the people themselves, especially those two with brick fireboxes.”
Lunch was ready a short time later, and once it was devoured – there was no talking while it was available, which seemed the best compliment imaginable to the cook – I helped Anna clean up the mess. Afterward, however, I was forcibly removed from the kitchen, and as I peered from its outer limits, I saw Anna breaking out sacks, bags, an ancient-looking brown crock, old-looking bowls, a carved wooden 'paddle', and more strange-looking things than I believed possible.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Kuchen,” said Anna.
“What are those?” I asked. I wanted to ask as to why my presence in the kitchen was 'taboo'.
“Small round spiced loaves,” she said, “and they are quite tasty. They keep much better than regular bread, especially if they are drowned.”
“Drowned?” I asked.
“Yes, as drowning Kuchen, especially when the drowning syrup has minced cherries, helps the flavor and keeps out the drubs,” said Anna.
A hand gently touched my shoulder, and as I turned, I saw Hans. He gestured to me, and as I followed him back to the region of the couch, he whispered, “Anna is strange about baking, and she does not want men in the kitchen when she is doing it. I've heard it is that way with most women.”
“Esther tolerates me then,” said Paul, “as long as I don't get in her way much.”
“That might be part of it,” said Hans. “Your kitchen is bigger than ours, and two people cramp the kitchen here some.”
“What are drubs?” I asked.
“Small white insects that are fond of ruining bread,” said Hans. “They are not worms, for they have legs, and they do not have wings, and unless you have a just-laid garden snake, they are not much use. At least, they are not much use for most.”
“Most?” I asked.
“That fish stuff I make uses those in its preparation,” said Hans. “In a while, we can go down in the basement and make the drowning syrup up using a pot and one of those lamps you did recently. Besides, I want to see you make that cough medicine again.”
“The spices, Hans,” I said. “That, and no open flames.”
“I think I might have what you need down there,” he said. “Anna may have her spices, but I keep my own down there. A fair number of tinctures use those.”
Hans paused, then said, “besides, she only has some of them. I have almost every type that can be had.”
As we went down in the basement, I wondered as to whether we would have time to 'indulge' in leatherworking or anything other than what we had done so far, and as Hans showed the others what he was doing, I gathered up the supplies needed to make more cough medicine. I set up under the fume hood, and as I turned to get more supplies, I saw the three men returning with what looked like additional supplies.
“This time, you can watch me do the stuff,” said Hans. “I have seen you do it, so I might know how now, and I can make my own notes.”
I ran a smaller batch in a beaker under the fume hood as an example, while Hans worked on his own. About half-way through my additions of the various ingredients, I felt a terrifying bloom of fire off to my right and turned to see Hans tossing a whitish powder by the handful at his flaming beaker. I turned off my heating lamp, moved my beaker clear, and stood back to watch the blazing conflagration.
“What made that stuff so hot?” I thought. “It's still burning, uh, without c-color...”
That wasn't strictly true, as the usually near-invisible flame of aquavit had acquired a faint bluish tinge, and the stuff wasn't taking no for an answer until it had burned itself out.
It also had coated the beaker, ring-stand, and the inside of the fume-hood with soot.
Once Hans had extinguished his blaze, I helped him clean up the mess, then said, “why not dilute the aquavit with water before you put it in?”
“How is it you can do that stuff with an open flame, and I cannot?” asked Hans.
I looked at my setup, realized we had but one sand-bath – Hans had coated it with soot, also – and shrugged my shoulders before saying in a faint voice, “I have no idea.”
After finishing my batch – the stench was an abomination, so much so that I let Hans stir the stuff with me by his side, thinking perhaps his technique was faulty – I was able to fill several large medicine vials. I put those aside, then asked, “drowning syrup?”
“Now that I know how to do,” said Hans. “It needs a big jug of sugar-tree sap, some spices, and little bits of cherries, and then boiling it so that it is right. I think we can use that heating lamp there for it.”
“Under the fume hood?” I asked.
That was an infamous question, I soon learned. The vile taste of sugar-tree sap was but amplified and spread largely when boiled, and I felt intensely ill. Hans' additions of spices did not help much, and when I looked around, I noticed Paul and Willem had gone.
“Where did they go?” I asked.
“Their shoes were dry,” said Hans, “and they left south in that sled. Now I need to go get the cherries wet, and we can put those things in that pot there.”
“As the stomach turns,” I thought, as I stirred my 'brew'. “Double, Double, Toilet Trouble...”
Hans returned with another small pot shortly, then dumped its contents into the larger one I was stirring. The fumes continued boiling off, and when I next looked, I noted the previous light brown 'syrup' now was tinted a strange and lumpy iridescent red color.
“Were those the cherries?” I asked.
“That was those things, said Hans, “and now that stuff should dry out a bit faster, as the cooking gets them juicy again.”
“Were they dried?” I asked.
“That is the usual for cherries in this area,” said Hans. “To make jam, one uses much less sap, and more cherries, and cooks it slow for most of a day in a little crock. I think Anna has that jam-crock hid in the oven.”
“Uh, more cherries and sap daily?” I asked.
“I think that is how she does it,” said Hans. “I know she works on it some every day.”
“You said this stuff would be 'right',” I said. “How do I know when that is?”
“Taste it,” said Hans, as he poked a spoon into the brew and then waved it around before tasting it. “This stuff needs to boil some more, I think. You need to taste it every so often, so that you know when it is right.”
“'Taste it', he says,” I muttered, as I found a glass stirring rod and cleaned it carefully in a pot of boiled water brought down to bring the stuff up to the proper level as it boiled. “How in blazes do I know when this stuff is 'right'? What is right for drowning syrup?”
I dipped the tip of the stirring rod in the stuff a few minutes later, let it cool, and then tasted it.
The previous flavor I recalled of sugar-tree sap was mawkish, with horrible aftertastes. This stuff not merely had more of the same 'bad saccharine' taste, but the 'vinegar' and 'drain opener' flavors had been joined by those of 'distillate' – it wasn't 'gasoline'; it was indescribable save by comparing the taste to the concentrated reek of fresh heavy distillate – 'essence of wax candle', an unbelievably sour chemical taste, and somewhere buried deeply, a faint hint of past-their-prime cherries. I had but one thing to say about the flavor:
“Bleah! This stuff is awful!”
“Now what is your trouble?” asked Hans. “Did you taste it?”
I nodded sickly, then grimaced at the recollection of the flavor. He then tried it.
“I think your taster is funny, as this is just right,” he said. “I want to try that cough medicine again once we get that stuff out of the way there.”
This next time, I made certain the aquavit was diluted prior to the rinsing of the mortar, and put a fair amount of water in the beaker prior to adding anything. I watched Hans closely, at least until my gut squirmed and I had to 'run the gauntlet' of Anna in the middle of baking, or so I thought until I saw her at the table surrounded by mounds of leather and various supplies. Once I had finished with the privy, I came to the entrance to the basement, and as I went down the stairs, I smelled a familiar reek.
The cough medicine had caught fire again, and when I came to see the beaker, it was coated with soot and dusted with white powder.
“That stuff is nasty for fires,” said Hans. “It is nearly as bad as some fireworks powder that way.”
“Did it, uh, go up abruptly like the last?” I asked.
“Yes, and I saw how much you cut that aquavit, too,” said Hans. “There wasn't enough to start a fire, especially as the heating lamp was not burning.”
“Perhaps no aquavit,” I said. “Just rinse out the mortar with water.”
The next batch was the smelliest one of all, and now I knew why I had wanted to rinse the mortar with aquavit: the alcohol killed the stink of the smellier ingredients. I felt ill enough to begin retching, left for the privy – and again, I smelled the smoke of combustion when I returned to the basement. The soot was beyond belief, as this time, it had spread to the face and hands of Hans.
“Is that stuff a witch-drink?” I asked. “I never made up that stuff before.”
As Hans cleaned himself up, he said, “I think we might ask Maarten about it. He might know, and then, he might not. I've heard tell witches cook things in iron pots.”
“Wasn't one found in that one's house?” I asked.
“I did not see that one,” said Hans, “so beyond what was said of it, I do not know. I've seen enough to know they do not use regular cooking utensils or chemistry glassware.”
Hans paused to wipe his hands again, then said, “besides, no witch would mix up something that gets rid of coughs. If it caused them, I would wonder, as cough is a common problem, and cough medicine that works is a good thing to have if you treat the sick.”
After finishing the mess, I followed Hans upstairs. Here, I saw what Anna was working on, and after asking if I could help – I could, and she wanted help, as the leather had seemingly taken lessons from knitting yarn and was being contrary – I began to work on what might be a suitable bag of some kind.
“I would start on something for that pistol first,” said Hans. “I think that is a belt she is working on.”
“I am working on a belt,” said Anna. “I had no idea these took so long, though.”
“What is it you are doing to it?” I asked. I had a picture of a horrible beaded, 'carved', and embellished thing of stiff black leather, one that I would never purchase nor wear. Plain brass buckles and common 'harness' leather had always suited me best.
“Belts need to be of two pieces of leather and carefully sewn,” said Anna, “as otherwise, they stretch quickly and then tear.”
“What?” I gasped. “I know about the stretching part, but that takes a while.”
“That is what people say of them, though,” said Anna, “and that's all I know. I'm not a tanner, nor am I one of those people up on the hill who does this for a living.”
“Is this like what people believe for distilleries?” I thought. “Everyone says they act like witch-tools, no one says any different, they 'work' – sort of, anyway – so they believe it?”
“Have you ever worn a belt?” I asked.
“No, but Hans has,” said Anna, “and he was one of the people speaking of two pieces of leather and sewing them together. I didn't believe him until a belt I'd made before a trip dropped his trousers down in the fourth kingdom.”
“And I will not wear a belt like that again,” said Hans. “It is hard to bargain in one's underclothing.”
I wondered then if I could actually 'make' a holster for the revolver, and as I felt out the hides themselves, I noted that some seemed significantly thicker than others, while all of them were thicker than I recalled for deer hides.
“What are these from?” I asked. “I thought deerskin was thinner.”
“The thinner ones are deer,” said Anna, “and all of them are late-year hides, which is when they are best. That may have had something to do with that belt tearing.”
“Should I use one or the other?” I asked. I had used thicker hide for the holsters I had made in the past.
“That stuff you were feeling there is likely,” said Hans. “I would cut that, make the place for a belt in the rear there, and then stitch two pieces together, so it is like a carpenter's belt-pouch.”
“What are those like here?” I asked.
Hans was unable to describe such a 'commonplace' thing, so I realized I was on my own. I decided to make one similar to the second one I had made, and as I traced onto the leather with one of the 'writing dowels' I had received with the student's ledger, my thoughts turned to its presence – and more, how it had 'arrived'.
There was no good explanation for its showing, especially in the way that it had showed, and as I used the 'prick-marker' – Anna was normally using it for the belt she was working on – I wondered how having such a weapon showing openly would be received. There were some modest advantages to carrying the thing in my pocket.
“Does leather take special buttons?” I asked.
“The buttons are the common ones, usually,” said Anna, “though leather-thread is better for holding them on. Why is it you ask?”
“For the top flap,” I said. “The ones like this I made both had those.”
“That is not like a carpenter's pouch,” said Hans. “Why does it need a closure like that?”
“To help it stay 'good' in the weather,” I said. “That, and if you're moving around, it helps it stay put better. I know about that part.”
Hans again had something to say about the rear 'strap' I added; he indicated the usual was to cut slots in the leather and then thread the belt through it.
“It would take me a long time to put one of those on,” I said. “I almost want to put some rivets in this thing, along with some small washers.”
“This is leather, not metal,” said Hans. He was going to continue until Anna looked at him, then said, “I think he knows what he's doing, Hans. Most good aprons have rivets holding their pouches on, at least at the corners.”
“Which is what I had in mind,” I said. “Does that dough need to rise prior to baking?”
“Yes, all night long,” said Anna. “Kuchen may be the most time-consuming thing imaginable to make, but I have yet to hear of other baked goods keeping that long. Most bread needs eating within two or three days of its making.”
“Stale?” I asked.
“It gets that way,” said Anna. “I've seen bread three days old with drubs in it. It might manage a bit longer in the winter up here.”
“Three days?” I asked.
“That is what bread-bags are for,” said Hans. “Those keep the drubs out, even if they do not stop the white-thread that bread gets.”
“White-thread?” I asked.
“The stuff looks like bad white thread,” said Hans, “and it is not a good idea to eat that stuff. I did once, and I spent the whole day in the privy.”
When I had the 'holster' done and had slipped the gun in so as to model it, Hans was amazed. He looked at it closely, then I saw he was indeed wearing a belt, for he removed it and slid the holster on, then put it back up. He then looked at it.
“That fits as good as anything I have seen,” said Hans. “Be glad there are no fifth kingdom brigands up this way, as they would want things like this bad enough to kill for them.”
“Brigands?” I asked. “What are they like?”
“That depends on where they are,” said Hans, as he began removing his belt. “The fifth kingdom ones look a bit like black-dressed witches, save they usually have two of these, one on each side, as well as a pouch with a big knife in it. Outside of the fifth kingdom, they are much harder to tell apart from travelers, at least for their looks.”
“Their behavior gives them away,” said Anna. “It might take me another day or two to finish this belt the way it's going, which means later in the week.”
A tap came at the door, and when Hans opened it, he received a cloth bag. As he returned to the kitchen, he said, “now this is strange. He has those shoes you had when you came here, and it looks as if he has made more of them.”
“He said he was going to finish them soon,” said Anna. “I was wondering when they would come here.”
I needed to try them on, and here, I was astonished. The original boots came about an inch higher than my ankles, while this pair came two inches further up the leg; the soles were thick, hobnailed entirely, and possessed a thin yet otherwise substantial-looking heel; the lacing did not pass through grommets, but rather riveted brass hooks of a substantial nature; and the care in construction was substantially better than those I had come here with. I had heard of expensive 'handmade' boots, and these looked as likely as anything.
“Now those you will want for wooding or long trips,” said Hans, “as they are made for that, and their hobnails seem the large size. We might try them tomorrow, as we can go to Maarten's to find out about that cough medicine.”
“Did you try to make more?” asked Anna.
“That stuff catches fire unless he makes it, Anna,” said Hans, “and it does not need a fire to ignite, nor aquavit to burn.”
“How is that possible?” asked Anna.
“Given the tastes and smells of some of those things, I wonder,” I said. “That Torga stuff smells really flammable.”
“How?” asked Anna. “I've smelled it plenty of times.”
“Lacquer thinner?” I gasped. “It smells like it wants to catch fire.”
“Now what is it you speak of?” asked Hans. “I cannot speak that first word.”
“Have you ever tried lighting that smelly root?” I gasped. “I bet it burns like distillate, and not well-dried distillate, but the really stinky stuff.”
The 'smelly root' proved to be disgustingly disinclined to burn, even after powdering it, and while the 'lacquer thinner' aroma was especially potent to me, I had trouble convincing the others as to what I was smelling.
“Now how is it you smell that Lack-stuff?” asked Hans.
I put the mortar up to his nose, then said, “smell that nasty stuff.”
Hans did, then said, “what is there nasty about it?”
“Hans, lacquer thinner is about as bad for fires as distillate straight from the jug,” I squeaked, as I put the mortar back on the counter, “and if that stuff isn't lacquer thinner – here, let me try that candle.”
I picked up the candle – it was on the table – and slowly walked toward the mortar. For some reason, I could now see thick and putrid fumes almost boiling off of the powdered root, and when I took another step, something seemed to grab the flame of the candle – then with a huge muffled thump, a brilliant blast of red-tinted light seemed to singe my hair and then plunge the room into screaming darkness. The echoing shrieks became quiet as someone moved slowly in the darkness and began stepping down the stairs.
“Are you all right?” I asked. I suspected Anna had screamed when the stuff 'exploded'.
“Sniffle, I think so,” said Anna. “What did you do?”
“I told you that root smelled like lacquer thinner, and I could see fumes boiling off of the stuff,” I said, “only somehow, that wasn't lacquer thinner as I recall it.”
“What was it then?” asked Anna. I could hear someone coming up the stairs, and in my peripheral vision, I could tell they had a light.
“It might have smelled like lacquer thinner,” I said, “but it went up worse than any lacquer thinner I've heard of.”
The flame of a candle now began slowly moving around, and within a few minutes, the kitchen was lit again – to show a soot-caked mortar and pestle. I went to look at it, and to my surprise, the root no longer smelled like lacquer thinner. It had also vanished utterly, and as I looked in stunned shock, Hans came closer with the candle he'd used for lighting.
“Now what is it you did?” he asked.
“Th-that stuff went up like priming powder,” I said.
“Yes, for you,” said Hans. “I think you might be careful about speaking about such things, as they seem to listen to you better than they do to me or Anna.”
Hans paused, then said, “and I think you had best write down that Lack-stuff, as I want to ask some questions about it. It seems likely for witch-jugs.”
After writing down 'L-a-c-q-u-e-r', Hans tried to say it. The best he could manage was 'Lack-Quee-OO-Ur', and that only with several attempts and a heavily rolled 'R' at the end.