For the love of Pork.
The leather and its stitching continued until dinner, which we ate in the parlor, then while Anna resumed her work on the belt, I resumed work on the knives. I had in mind to make leather sheaths once I'd finished them.
The first knife that finished went to Anna for her own use, and as I worked on the second example, she said, “now that was part of the trouble. I was trying to use that old surgical knife, and this one makes it look bad for both sharpness and edge-holding.”
“Perhaps good scissors?” I asked. “How big are those usually?”
“Most scissors are bad, and the rest are worse,” said Anna, “though the size I'd like most is about as long as my hand.”
I finished another two knives prior to bedtime, and in the morning, we again ate in the parlor. The odor of 'rising' dough was substantial, so much so that when I thought to look, Anna said, “I'll be most of today baking those things. You might want to bring in some more wood, as Kuchen take a lot of it.”
When I brought in an armload of the stuff, however, I got to see how Anna was making her 'pastries'. She used a small measuring cup to scoop out a ball of fragrant dough, then put it on a rectangular sheet I'd never seen before. The sheet held several such balls, and when she indicated she had two more such sheets, I said, “how much dough is there?”
“Enough for a very long day,” said Anna, “and a great deal of Kuchen. Hopefully you can come back before dark, as I expect a fair number of people over about then.”
“Dark?” I asked. “What will they bring?”
“Themselves, good appetites, and most likely food and gifts,” said Hans. “Now we want to get done up for a trip, as it is a good distance to where Maarten lives. I would take all of your things, as well as some food and one of those metal jugs of water.”
“And those small lamps, Hans,” said Anna. “It's still dark as night out there.”
I packed all of that, as well as the small ax, and when I laid my bag of tricks in the buggy next to my cloth-wrapped rifle, I was surprised to see Hans put in first one wicker basket, then another, and finally, three jugs. I suspected they were filled with beer, and thought to ask.
“They have that in them,” said Hans. “I would bring one of those vials of cough medicine, also, as both of them were said to be coughing some.”
“Perhaps two of those vials, then,” I said. “I hope they can stand the taste.”
As we rolled and slid down the snowbound street heading south in the seeming middle of night with our lanterns hung on hooks Hans had dug up from somewhere, I wondered about making a small compass for my own use. I recalled the small 'watch bearings' Hans had pointed out, and as I thought about the matter, I wondered more. Where would I get a piece of glass for the top part? How would I keep the needle centered on its pin? How large did I need to make it?
“I still cannot understand that cough medicine going up with no alcohol in it,” said Hans.
“Perhaps an extractor?” I asked. “I'd need to make one first, and I wonder how big to make it.”
“That might be best, then,” said Hans. “How would it work?”
“You'd need to extract all of the stuff that needed extraction in that thing,” I said, “and then you could add the stuff from the malt after cleaning it out good and run it a while. That might help with the flammability of the stuff.”
I paused, looked as we passed by an obviously 'closed' Public House, then said, “and that root going up like that was too much. Is Torga a root?”
“They grow that stuff down in the fourth kingdom,” said Hans, “and only those that grow it and sell it know more than what most do. I've heard tell it is a root of some kind, but it is no normal root, as it goes to powder when it is ground.”
“Lacquer thinner?” I asked.
“I think that is your smeller,” said Hans. “Then again, I never saw Torga go up like that.”
“And that bark smells a little like a type of light distillate where I came from,” I said. “I had to add some aquavit to keep it from turning my nose inside-out when I ground it.”
We passed the dead witch and coach-wreckage, then slid and rolled further south. Here, I saw several obvious sled-tracks in the light of the two lanterns, as well as the markings of horses. The trees were thickly powdered with snow, and the ground was blanketed with billows of white.
“Can Maarten order books?” I asked.
“He might be able to do that,” said Hans. “What kind?”
“When I was in that one place for nineteen months,” I said, “I learned something of the language the newer portion of the book is written in. Where I came from, they called that language Greek, and as for the part the older portion is written in, they called that one Hebrew.”
“Did they teach that one there?” Hans asked.
“I wished they did,” I said, “but they didn't, and I've wanted to try learning it for years.”
“Why do you want to do that?” asked Hans.
“So I can hopefully explain what he's trying to say better,” I said, “as well as learn those languages better. If I come up with anything, I will be glad to let him know.”
I paused, looked around in the darkness, then said, “he needs all the help he can get.”
“I know about that part some,” said Hans, “which is why much of what we brought for food is for them.”
“Children?” I asked.
“Just him and his wife,” said Hans. “Preaching leaves little time for much else, same as medicine. I thought what you did was different, but for you at least, it seems to be as bad as anything I have heard of.”
Hans paused, then said, “and then, he is not well off, which is a shame.”
“Preaching often paid poorly where I came from,” I said. “It's not something you do by choice.”
“Now how is that?” asked Hans.
“Preaching, especially if you are given something people need to hear, is a good way to get hurt or killed,” I said, “and even if you don't have anything special to say, it usually isn't a pleasant or comfortable life. It has long hours, low pay, great hardship, and tremendous discouragement, and then people misunderstand you because they see what they want to see and purposely ignore the truth.”
Again, I paused, then said, “and that's just from people. The worst part is dealing with God.”
“How is that the worst part?” asked Hans.
“You are held accountable for everything you say, everything you think, and everything you do, and that's just for you,” I said. “It is entirely possible that you will be held likewise for the thoughts, actions, and words of those you are given to look after as well – and in that aspect, God can be a viciously harsh and brutally demanding taskmaster, one who accepts only one outcome.”
“What is that?” asked Hans.
“His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” I said, “where all of life consists of a single activity, and its focus is on a single being.”
“And what would those be?” asked Hans.
“Worship, and that activity directed toward God alone,” I said. “I do not envy those entrusted with preaching.”
“I might manage some money now and then, that and food,” said Hans. “Some others do that also, but the common is to not have much to spare, at least for those who want to help. For those who can help more, they usually are not inclined.”
I felt my left pocket and the pouch there, and Hans said, “you are an exception to that rule, but there is help, and there is help. Those like that fellow who came last Friday to pick up his gun could help a lot more than you could, and that without missing much.”
We passed the town where the shoemaker had his shop, and but a short distance past it, a road led off to the right. Hans slid around the turn, with the horses going straight and the buggy getting crossed-up slightly, then straightening back out to the slide-slip-roll pattern of the previous few miles. The lanterns shed chill yellow light in two ghostly halos, and the velvet drifting darkness seemed to swallow their light up within a matter of feet.
“Is it likely we might be stranded in the snow?” I asked. “I brought everything I thought I might need just in case, including extra wax candles.”
“It is good that you did,” said Hans, “and I'm glad you are armed now, as those witches have you marked down somewhere, and they want you dead worse than anything. Old Shuck was the mule for that, and I wonder what Maarten will say about it. Witches like their own kind.”
“Unless that kind is competition,” I murmured, as I drew details of a compass in my 'ledger'. I was amazed I could see, even though the light from my side's lantern shed glimmers upon the page. “Then, it is an enemy to be controlled or killed – and I hope I'm not a witch.”
“I doubt that,” said Hans.
“What would that dog have done had I been one, though?” I asked.
“It would not have come with its keg,” said Hans. “That keg is for those marked for death, which is what my grandfather said, and while I never saw black dogs until you got Old Shuck, I wish I could say that for him.”
“Did he see those dogs?” I asked.
“Them and witches and swine,” said Hans, “and more than one relative was killed by witches over the years. If witches cannot get marked people, then they go after those that do certain types of work, and preaching, medicine, and what you do get the most attention, and the better you are at those things, the worse it is. That might have something to do with why they are after you so much.”
The road led almost due west, and within twenty minutes, Hans stopped at the outskirts of a town. Here, I used my 'hatchet' to chop the ice off of the watering troughs for the horses to drink, and after doing so, I wiped it off with one of the 'oil-rags' I had brought with me. I suspected 'oil-rags' to be especially good fire-starters in an emergency, and once back underway, I noted the sense of 'gaiety' in the majority of the homes, as well as the blanket-covered horses and overturned 'sleds' in many of the yards. It was still dark, though the feeling I had was that 'real' dawn would happen soon. 'Apparent' dawn was over an hour away at the least.
“From out of town?” I asked, as I pointed to one of the sleds.
“That is likely, though from here to Maarten's is considered far in good weather,” said Hans. “At least we are doing passably in this stuff.”
“Did you dose the wheels?” I asked.
“Last night I did,” said Hans. “It seems a dose of bullet lubricant every week to ten days and then daily use of that other stuff keeps it working good. That stuff stays in a lot better in cold weather.”
“Does Maarten do well in snow?”
“No, he doesn't,” said Hans, “and in this weather, he has a lot of trouble. During good weather, he might have enough time to do his studying, visit people he needs to, go to the king's house to confer with his overseers...”
“One of those witches in that dream was an o-overseer,” I gasped.
“Yes, that is most likely true,” said Hans, “as that one witch you shot was a well-known one, it seems. Talk has it some of those black-dressed people have looked at the place where he was hung and spiked.”
“What are they thinking?” I asked. “Do you know?”
“I think they have the fear,” said Hans. “They know coming out this way can get them killed, so they do not try it much now.”
“The c-coach?” I asked.
“That especially,” said Hans. “That is all over now, and if we were to ask where Maarten lives, I would be surprised if he has not heard of the matter.”
“Then,” said Hans a minute later, “he needs to write his sermon every week. I suspect he keeps what he writes, as he uses those things again.”
“The same way?” I asked.
“I doubt he does that,” said Hans, “as when he repeats one, it is usually done differently.”
“Do you know why that is?” I asked. “Is it those over him that expect him to?”
“That is the best explanation I have heard yet,” said Hans, “as I have asked around some. It seems most preachers are told how to live by those over them.”
“Told h-how to live?” I asked. The road was about to pass through an uncommonly large woodlot, and the darkness overhead seemed to make it both endless and impenetrable.
“Yes, and in some detail,” said Hans. “I have heard tell that they can be put on a list if they do not keep those over them happy, and then they cannot preach again.”
“A blacklist,” I spat. We were about to go into a black hole of some kind, or so it seemed.
“I am not sure if that list uses black, save as ink,” said Hans, “but those on that list have trouble.”
“And not merely as preachers,” I said. “In many areas, they will not be able to find work of any kind – and then, they will be accused of witchcraft. You don't want to be a preacher accused of being a witch, at least not in this area.”
“Why is that?” asked Hans.
“You might be able to talk your way out of such an accusation,” I said, “and the same for Anna. It isn't nearly that easy for most preachers to avoid going up in smoke if someone calls them a witch.” I wondered briefly how I had managed to escape the flames when getting Georg's attention.
Hans looked at me, then said, “so if that is the case, preachers must...”
“Follow their overseers' wishes without question or comment, and to the utmost detail,” I said. “Then, those overseers have their spies – and dodging them consistently is a real trick.”
“How is that?” Hans asked.
“First, those 'spies' do little else,” I said. “They look like messengers, or freighters, or other people that need to travel a fair amount, but that's strictly a ruse. Secondly, they do a fair amount of their real work late at night, which is when they actually go inside of houses and 'take inventory'.”
“Those people sound like thieves,” said Hans. “It is a wonder they do not get shot.”
“Some of them do get shot,” I said. “The overseers count those deaths cheap when they can get such detailed information – oh, and those 'spies' commonly take anything they can easily steal, over and above what the overseers themselves want.”
“What would an overseer want?” asked Hans.
“Anything of sizable value that is compact in size,” I said. “The only way a preacher can get something like that is by neglecting his primary job, according to what those overseers believe.”
“What would that be?” asked Hans.
“Worshiping the highest-ranking overseer present by imitation of that person in word, thought, and deed,” I said, “and that while ostensibly seeming to be utterly devoted to the work of a preacher. The two goals are not compatible with one another, in spite of what many overseers believe.”
“How is that?” asked Hans.
How can you be devoted to a job like preaching, which demands following the truth in every way,” I said, “while living a collection of lies? More importantly, it's very difficult to preach the truth when you are reading one of those black books and fervently desiring what it says to desire.”
“How can one do those two things?” Hans asked.
“The simple answer is one cannot,” I said. “What the 'overseer of overseers' wants to see is someone who has two lives, both built by careful and systematic theft, with all the symbols of public piety plain for unwitting visitors to see, while well-hid in private are the words, thoughts, and deeds of an especially evil witch – just like the overseer of overseers himself.”
I paused, then said, “and in that especial way proving that imitation is indeed the most sincere form of worship. Being two such different beings at the same time is impossible, but that is conveniently ignored, as is the rule for witches.”
We had entered the woodlot some minutes before, and as I looked around, I noted the seeming impenetrability of the place, as well as its snow-covered trees. Nothing but snow showed for what seemed miles of darkened road, and as the road itself meandered slightly so as to dodge larger trees, it was impossible to see beyond the trees and the snow. The lanterns seemed the only sources of reality and hope.
It made for a sinking feeling, knowing that ambush was such an easy thing to pull off here, and only when the end of the woodlot was in plain sight did I feel better – at least, until I saw what looked like a snow-covered body by the side of the road in the faint glow of the lantern on my side.
“What is that?” I asked, as I pointed to the 'corpse'.
Hans stopped, then reached for his musket and leaped to the ground. I followed him down a second later with the revolver in my pocket, all the while wishing I had a belt and the holster present. Hans nudged the 'corpse' with his musket, and the sudden reek of death billowed up like a thick miasma.
“This one has gone rotten,” said Hans, as he carefully moved off the snow to show a bullet hole in the chest and held his lantern close, then as he moved around to near where the head was, he poked and prodded a little more. The head suddenly lolled to the side.
“They c-cut the head off,” I squeaked.
“That means witches were involved,” he said. “They found someone while out hunting and killed them, then dumped the body here as a warning to people traveling through this place.”
“L-like that dream?” I asked. I wanted to add, “is this witch-territory?”
“I suspect so,” said Hans. “This is not the first time I have seen bodies left like this.”
As we resumed traveling, I asked, “where have you seen them before?”
“Other than where those northern people have come,” said Hans, “I have found two bodies in the countryside, and nearly a dozen in the king's house, though those were outside of the bad areas. I do not count bodies I have seen there.”
“Uh, too common?” I asked.
“There, one does not just find the poor and travelers,” said Hans. “Sometimes, one finds the witches themselves lying dead. I have found more bodies near that chemical place in the king's house than anywhere, if one does not count towns where the pigs have come.”
“Uh, gutted and without their heads?” I asked.
“Most of them were killed by witches while hunting,” said Hans. “At least, that was what people said. I did not believe them until you had that dream, as that said just how much those people like to kill when they are out at night.” Hans paused, then said, “and this feels like night, near enough. I'm glad I know this road we are on.”
Thankfully, we came out of the woodlot but minutes later. While other woodlots showed in the dark blue distance as blacker islands, the bulk of the area before us was drifted snow, with occasional copses showing as lumps in the white powdery region. The sky had gone from from pitch-black to a much lighter color in the far distance, and the white stuff was now dusting down out of the sky again. The road seemed but two narrow-looking lines that wound gently across this wide 'plain' of some miles, and as the buggy slipped now and then across unusually slick places in the road, I said, “cloaks help here, don't they?”
“That is why we have those,” said Hans, “that and knit clothing. I'm glad we are not north some, as it is said to get colder there.”
“Colder?” I asked.
“This is cold for winter here,” said Hans. “It has gotten a little colder in the last week, which says that the weeks right after Festival Week will be the worst time for cold and snow in years. I think it might dump another inch of snow today.”
“And the road?” I asked.
“That will stay good for a week or two,” said Hans. “Once that happens, though, nothing with wheels will run, except buggies like this one, and that with the lightest possible load. We won't be able to haul elk unless we section them and do them in pieces, and that with everyone walking beside the buggy. I've wished for a sled, but getting one made was trouble, and finding a place to put it worse.”
“Uh, are they hard to make?” I asked,
“The wood part is the easy portion, if you know of good carpenters,” said Hans. “The metal parts are trouble, and that has stopped me.”
“Perhaps 'were' is a better term,” I said. “Unless you want a special one, I might well be able to do the copper portion.”
“That is much of it,” said Hans. “Then, there is the steering part, which is like that of a buggy, and finally the metal parts that hold the wood together.”
“I have a sneaking hunch that I would need to make a fair number of 'good' screws,” I said. “Does that sound about right?”
“I think that is the other part of the trouble,” said Hans. “If you can do that, then I could talk to the carpenters about making a small one.”
“The wood might be a problem,” I said, “unless you are speaking of an especially small example.”
“I was thinking of a two and three size,” said Hans. “Those have trouble fitting two people in them, unless they are careful with how much they have, but then we have a buggy that manages snow better than most.”
“Two and three?” I asked. “Two-thirds?”
“Those are the smallest common sized sleds,” said Hans, “and if made right, the fastest. I was thinking for Anna's rounds and her shopping, mostly.”
“How wide is it?” I asked.
“The usual type is almost the size of this buggy,” said Hans. “A two and three size is about three feet wide, and a bit more than five feet for long. Then, I figured to make it of spaced wood, with low sides, and wide runners.”
“Perhaps some sheet-metal braces,” I said. “We still have a fair amount of that 'large' stovepipe stock, though I have to confess I like using that for cookers and other things, like those cooking stands.”
“You might want to get Georg to order more of it, then,” said Hans. “Those stands are not too hard to make, are they?”
“Not really,” I said. “Once I get those knives done completely, and some more of that leather stuff, then I can try making more of them. Do you think they would work good for chemistry?”
“I tried that one you made, and it works good that way,” said Hans. “Now how is it you want to use sheet metal for sled-braces?”
“It would be simple to make them,” I said, “and then I have an idea about that stuff that came. I can form it and then cook the pieces, and they'll be quite a bit stronger.”
“Yes, like those nails were,” said Hans. “That will help a lot. Now there is a town up here, and we might want to stop there for watering the horses and get some food for us.”
“Uh, we brought some, didn't we?” I asked.
“Yes, and we will want that soon enough,” said Hans. “I want to speak to the publican, too. Besides, we will not have Kuchen until tonight, and I want to try some of those things.”
“Perhaps Maarten, and, uh, Katje?” I asked.
“Now you have done it,” said Hans. “That is her name, and she would like some, too.”
“Can she cook?” I asked.
“She manages, though not terribly well,” said Hans. “I think she is better than you are, but I doubt she is much better.”
Hans paused, then said, “and I think Anna sells you short by saying you cannot cook, as I saw what you were doing with that meat and that Goben.”
“I am not a very good cook,” I said.
“Neither am I,” said Hans. “I can cook well enough to know that a good meal is to be had at a Public House, and I had best stick to certain things if I must cook and then eat the stuff.”
When we came to the town, I began chopping ice at one of the watering troughs while Hans went inside. The horses seemed to have a definite idea of how to drink, even while hitched, and when Hans came back out with a jug and bag, I was surprised indeed. Real sunrise had just happened, and the darkness had fled sufficiently to blow out the lanterns.
“They only have three people in the rear of that place,” said Hans, “and they are busy enough for twice that number.”
“Much business?” I asked.
“Mostly Kuchen,” said Hans. “The one at home has perhaps a third of its people right now, and they trade off as they are able.”
“Do people come in to eat there?”
“Some do, but not many,” said Hans. “Those that do are usually traveling, and they do as I just did.”
As we resumed heading west, I smelled a delicious baked-rye odor, and when Hans brought out a glossy-topped round 'cookie', I wondered what it was. I had never seen a inch-thick cookie before, especially a glazed example, and the dark brown of the thing suggested chocolate.
“What is that?” I asked.
“This is how they make Kuchen at that place,” said Hans. “Anna's tend to be a bit thicker, as are most of these things. Here, let me break this one in half, and you can have some of it.”
This example of Kuchen proved uncommonly 'tough', and when Hans finally busted the thing, I was astonished – it looked like the usual common rye bread inside. I was handed half, and when I bit into it, I was astonished yet again.
The taste was 'wholesome', delicious, and somewhat 'spicy', with an enchanting aspect of sweetness. It actually tasted like a thick cookie, with a chewy outer portion and an almost creamy inner aspect.
“Are the ones Anna is making like this?” I asked.
“They are less tough on the teeth,” said Hans, “and a bit moister and sweeter inside, as well as a finger's width thicker. I hope she made more cherry jam, as these are best with that stuff on them.”
“Did we bring horse-grain?” I asked.
“Yes, though I put plenty to them last night,” said Hans. “In cold weather, one does not want to feed unless one is going to rest more than a few minutes.”
“Did you find out much otherwise at that place?” I asked.
Hans looked at me, then said, “the river over to the west there is still passable, which says those people might well come there this winter.”
“River?” I asked. “Where?”
“About thirty miles or so further west from where we are going,” said Hans. “From the bigger river to the coast here is about a hundred or so miles, or a bit more than a day's hard traveling in good weather. It would take us two days in this stuff.”
“And on the other side of that large river?” I asked.
“I have only been over there once,” said Hans, “and that years ago. There isn't much out there for herbs, as far as I could tell. Anna and I spent almost two weeks looking then.”
Hans paused, then said, “though if I wanted to hide from those black-dressed witches, for some reason, that would be one of the first places I'd pick.”
“Uh, few people?” I asked.
“It's drier there, though not much, and towns are smaller and further apart,” said Hans. “That is where most of the orchards are, is the east side, though there are some on this side too.”
“What kind?” I asked. We had left the town behind, and our road was curving gently to the right for a short distance. I could see a woodlot ahead.
“Here, most orchards are the usual things,” said Hans, “though they tend to be smaller. Over there, they have large orchards, ones that are as big as some farmer's fields, and they grow more things over there. I've seen at least three types of cherries, four types of apples, and two types of pear there, whereas on this side, there is but one of each as a rule.”
“And grapes?” I asked.
“Those are south,” said Hans. “It gets too cold for those things up here.”
After passing the woodlot, the road made a gentle left turn, such that it passed around another one, and then in the distance behind it, I saw the faint trickles of smoke that marked a town silhouetted by the slow-gathering brightness of the cloud-hidden sun. I could feel something ominous ahead, and though I knew not what it was precisely, I knew it was important.
Within minutes, however, the feeling had separated into two distinct things. One was the immediate aspect, that being directly in front of us in the town ahead, and the other, far more widespread and less definite. The 'immediate' portion dealt principally with the people we were to see.
The demands of Maarten's overseers, coupled with the truly important demands agglomerated under the name 'Survival', ensured he was pulled in so many ways and spread so thin I was surprised he had not unraveled under the strain. Then, on top of those two poles of existence – the reality of life, and the lies of Brimstone – there was a third one, one that desired to supersede both of them, and that pole was a blond-haired woman named Katje.
She wished to be much as a queen in some fashion, chiefly in dress and elegance, if not the title and authority, and she had no idea as to the nature of both her husband's business – he didn't have much choice in the matter, which I had expected – and also, as to her own. She wasn't much help.
“What is Katje like?” I asked, as the snow billowed around us in a dense white powdery cloud.
“She is not much help to him,” said Hans, “and she wishes a great deal more than is common, but beyond that, I don't know much. She does not go around much, for some reason.”
Hans paused, then said, “why is it you ask?”
I had trouble responding, for such impressions as I had received – and was receiving; Katje was in a state of some kind, and she was not at all someone I wished to intrude upon at this time – were both familiar to me, and disquieting, both as to their feeling of 'accuracy' and their detail. All of these things had increased steadily since I had come, and my recollections of those things that had happened but added to the disquiet. Previously, 'mind-reading' had been a rare thing. It now seemed a daily and even hourly occurrence at times.
“And Maarten himself is not at home,” I muttered.
“Then where is he?” asked Hans.
“He is out asking people if they have 'chores' that he can do,” I said. “Those overseers have been slack in sending their stipend – not that it matters that much, as it's pretty meager – and then gifts have been rare too, so they don't have much in the house right now. That isn't what is causing him grief, though.”
“What is, then?” asked Hans.
“It might be her attitude,” I said, “and while he isn't as 'blind' as I am that way, he isn't all that good at figuring people out – and then, Katje is a real pickle.”
“Has she gotten into the Geneva?” asked Hans.
“I didn't mean she was, uh, trashed,” I said. “She has a devious streak, is a good actor – at least, she can be if she's inclined – and is good at hiding how she feels. Between her capability, and Maarten's lack that way, he has no idea of what is going on.”
“That sounds like Anna,” said Hans. “She is like that.”
“Uh, no,” I said. “I've gotten to the point where I can sort of read Anna, and she isn't a good actor – at least, she isn't nearly as good as his wife is. Then, Anna isn't devious.”
“That just goes to show you do not know her,” said Hans. “She can be very much so if she's of a mood. Now I will say she does not conceal how she feels.”
“Odd, I had the impression Anna was not particularly devious,” I said. “Perhaps I should say, 'compared to this lady, she isn't'. This lady almost reminds me of some people I've known that way.”
“Now that I could believe,” said Hans. “Talk has it she can be tricky, almost as much as some of those black-dressed people.”
The town was less than a mile away, and faintly, I could hear shouts, screams, oaths, and other things. The voice was feminine, almost like Anna's, only a trifle higher pitched, while its character was unlike anyone I had ever heard here before, at least heard physically.
It reminded me of that last woman we had met in the town given over to the witches, though unlike hers, it was much less obvious as to its character. This woman didn't have that kind of feeling about her, nor did she smell of much beyond Geneva. She had been consuming that to a modest degree intermittently, and with the goal of relieving something. She was not trying to get drunk.
However, this voice had a feeling of long-hungered lust for power that had been denied long enough to turn it inward unto the brink of insanity, and Katje was now having an argument with 'herself' in some fashion, much as if her mind had been cleft in two by...
“A huge double-bladed ax of northern bloodshed,” rang through my mind like a chime.
Maarten was indeed 'scouring' the neighborhood for work. For some reason, the people here had either been 'blinded' or somehow 'corrupted' in some fashion, and they were turned inward toward their chosen guests. Maarten didn't have time to be overtly 'friendly'; given his nature, his job, his overseers, and Katje, he needed to not merely work at being 'friendly', but needed time to actually 'blunder' his way through the social 'gamesmanship' that was practiced in this area.
“Are people here like those at home?” I asked.
“For the most part they are,” said Hans, “though there is talk that at least one house in or near this town might have or know some of those black-dressed witches.”
“Are such towns different towards certain people?” I asked.
“That depends on what those certain people are,” said Hans. “If they are common, and stick to the common, there is but little difference. If they don't, then places like this can be trouble.”
“If the person is, uh, awkward with talking, or has s-strange mannerisms, or...”
“Maarten might not be that way when he is preaching,” said Hans, “but I have heard he is almost as bad as you are when he is not.”
“Meaning I would have nothing but trouble in this town,” I said, “up to and including being labeled as a witch and then killed.” I almost said, “sacrificed.”
“I am not sure they would go that far,” said Hans, “but I doubt they would be as tolerant as at home.”
“He isn't home,” I said. “I'm certain of it.” The town was but a quarter of a mile off. “She's really beside herself, too” – as I said this, I could almost see the woman in question, with a faintly shadowed silhouette standing next to her – “she cannot make up her mind as to whether to stay, or leave town between two days. She is looking for a...”
“What is this she is looking for?” asked Hans.
“Hans, what would a man be called when a woman is after a rich fool to look after her?” I asked.
“That woman sounds like one who wants a family worse than anything,” said Hans. “Is that what you are thinking of? That man would be really desperate if he had a woman after him like that, so that is what I would call him.”
“I doubt her to be that kind of woman,” I said. “The woman I'm thinking of wants nothing to do with children, cooking, cleaning, knitting, making Kuchen, sewing, or anything else I've seen that is common. She wants to have a good time, spend money freely, and otherwise, do very little.”
“That sounds closer to a witch than any woman with sense in her head,” said Hans.
“Right,” I thought. “If I found a woman with a good disposition and a playful nature, I could easily tolerate that kind of behavior, but that one in that house right over there is neither playful nor well-disposed.”
The yelling and screaming I had heard before was now loud and clear enough to make out oaths, including 'Thunderation' and ones similar I had heard at the shop, and amid all this, there was weeping. I did not wish to intrude upon the grief of this woman, as while pain was familiar to me, comforting others was an utter and complete mystery, and I found myself an abject failure.
I had no idea as to how to do so.
What I had endured was sufficiently different that I might as well have lived in a different world from either this one or where I had come from, that place fully as much as here, and it was not merely my perceptions that were vastly different. My experiences were equally so.
I looked around, even as we came even with the house itself. Hans pulled into the yard, and I looked around in the now obvious morning. I needed to find a bush or something, and when Hans looked at me, he pointed to a small snow-hid copse. I ran clumsily, burrowed in, and did my business.
Once finished, I returned to the buggy. The town was a bit more spread out than most I had been in, and as I looked across the street, I saw a feeble-looking cloak-clad figure coming closer. He was limping on what seemed a peculiar cane, and as he came from the last house – his was the 'outskirts' of the place – I recognized him as Maarten. He began hobbling closer in something of a hurry.
“I hope she hasn't consumed all of that liniment,” I thought. “He looks like he needs to spend some time being rubbed on.”
As Maarten drew closer, however, I saw his 'cane' was the wooden portion of an ax, with the head end missing. He came up to us, and while I had no idea as to how to speak to him, Hans did.
“Now what is your trouble?” Hans asked.
“I fell yesterday while bringing in some wood,” said Maarten, “and I could not find the Geneva. Katje was disinclined to look for it.”
Here, he paused, then said, “and I do not blame her much, as she is not doing well. She will not tell me why, even though I ask, and I have but little way of knowing.”
I reached into my left pocket, withdrew the pouch, and emptied the contents – three large silver coins, and four small ones – into my hand. I then walked toward him.
“Here,” I said, holding out the coins. “You need this.”
He seemed dumbfounded, so much so that he dropped his ax-handle. His hands shook as he put the money into another small leather pouch which had seen much use. It looked as if someone had thrown it away and he had found it, then tried to 'make do' with a badly-worn discard.
“Why did you give me that?” he asked.
“You were desperate for money,” I said, “and between the nature of this area, your overseers, and Katje, your desperation is quite understandable.”
I paused for a moment, and waited. I wondered if I had been heard. I decided to go ahead regardless, as it would not wait.
“She wishes to be a wealthy woman, with rich friends, a large house, and servants,” I said. “She cannot make up her mind as to whether to leave or stay, and she is fighting with herself because of it.”
I paused again. This time, I knew the truth of my suspicions.
“She gave her oath in a very ignorant state,” I said, “as she did not understand then that you had as much choice as to your work as you do about your hair color. Finally, she still thinks that what you do is purely a matter of voluntary choice, and that is causing her conflict.”
Maarten's jaw dropped audibly, then he stammered, “who are you? I saw you first weeks ago, and then I saw something about you, much as if you burned...”
My mind seemed to retreat to the recalled terror I felt, that being burned at the stake. I almost did not hear his next words, so overcome I was with fear.
“...With a pale flame, and I wondered at it then. Now, you do something as if out of the book itself, and you know more than I do as to the nature of my house!”
“I think he is marked,” said Hans, “and not the more common type of markings.”
Hans had said a mouthful, and while the terror of recollection was substantial, my new-found fear of the area made me wish to hide. I looked toward the north along the deserted main street, past the closed-off and shuttered-in houses filled with feasting and merriment, past the closed...
The Public House here was truly closed. It had no one inside, and there was no one to supply travelers or to help people happening by.
...and past the Mercantile – it too was utterly closed – to the true center of town, where a house seemed to have been lifted from the streets of Waldhuis and planted here, complete with black-cloth, bad odors, possible witches, and much else of an unsavory nature. Maarten didn't have visiting spies, nor did he need them to ensure full and unrelenting compliance regarding his overseers' wishes.
They lived just right down the road.
I then came to myself to hear Hans speaking.
“Old Shuck came with a neck-barrel, and every witch in the area is after him,” said Hans, “and then, there is some cough medicine. It might taste good, and smell good, and work good, but only he can make it without it catching fire.”
We moved over to the buggy, and as I gathered up my supplies, I noted Maarten had forgotten his ax-handle. I went to fetch it for him, and when he took it, I noted that the oaths and screaming from within were finally subsiding. I looked closer at Maarten, and saw that he was beyond oblivious to the matter, so much so that I wondered if he had hearing trouble.
“Hans,” I whispered, “can you hear anything?”
“This place is really quiet right now,” he said, as he picked up one of the baskets. “Your hearing is a lot more sensitive than mine, though, or that of most others. Why, what is it you hear?”
“I wondered if anyone else was hearing as I did,” I said, as I picked up the other basket. “I do not want to be seen as rude.”
“What is it you were hearing?” asked Maarten.
“I've been hearing screaming, yelling, and oaths for some time,” I said, “and then, there were the other things I was feeling.”
I then realized that there were three portions to my perceiving: Katje, the trouble in town that was local, and the trouble in the wider area that wasn't local.
“First, I don't want to intrude upon Katje, and my being here might be taken as an intrusion,” I said. “Her current 'state' reminds me of what is happening in town.”
“What is that?” asked Hans.
“First, the Public House is closed, and has been since Friday morning,” I said, “and it will not reopen again for at least a week from today, the same as most other places in town of a 'commercial' nature. Then, the people themselves are unusual, both for this area and the wider one, and that's because who's the center of attention.”
“Who's that?” asked Hans.
“There's a big house at the other end of town, and it's somewhat hidden from the street,” I said. “It's easily twice the width of this one here, it's three times as deep, it has a deep basement, a big barn, and it is a really dark brown. Then, those that live there have black clothing...”
“They keep that hidden mostly,” said Maarten, “and the same for the coach, but I have seen both a number of times. Go on.”
“And they are in touch with those overseers on the hill. At least two of the people that live there are 'church-spies', and...”
Maarten looked at me in the strangest way imaginable, for I had spoken something he had wondered about for a very long time.
“And you are under more than a little suspicion,” I said.
“Suspicion of what?” he asked quietly. “If this is what I think it is, it is best spoken of indoors.”
We crossed the stoop with Maarten in the lead, and the door opened with a faint creak to show a disheveled parlor. The layout – couch to the left, not much else in the room – was close enough to that at home to make me wonder, at least until I had laid on the floor what was in my arms. The others had already gone outside, or so I thought as I turned and saw someone laying on the couch.
This woman seemed a slightly thinner version of Anna, and she lay head-down. I came closer, and saw her head laying in a puddle of what I suspected were tears. I knelt down, and gently patted her head, saying as I did so, “why are you crying, dear?”
She looked up, and for an instant, I saw faint reddish flames, which winked out as she screamed and then went into a violent convulsion. I stood and backed away, then as the others came back in with their loads, she looked at them, then ran around me shrieking. I heard steps thundering up the stairs behind me.
“What did I do?” I said. My voice seemed to define the word 'bewildered'.
“I have no real idea, even though I saw what you did,” said Maarten. “I know you meant well. Let me go see.”
A scream came from upstairs, and as I turned, I again saw the woman. This time, she had a broom, which she held like a spear – which she then tossed clumsily at me. It tumbled in mid-air to hit the floor with a clatter.
“Madame, why are you angry?” I asked softly. “I wanted to cheer you up.”
Amid horrible screams, she waved her hands angrily, then shouted in a faintly metallic-sounding voice, “my head burns as if I have cursed God to his face, and an angel has touched me.” She punctuated this fearful-sounding rant with more screaming, then she fell down and thrashed crazily.
“Has she ever done this before?” I asked, as I watched her thrash at the top of the stairs. I was worried for her safety, and it showed in my voice – even though I had seen this type of behavior before coming here, and I had a strong suspicion as to its likely cause.
“She reminds me of that one apprentice,” I thought.
“No, she hasn't,” said Maarten. “What does this mean?”
“I've had enough witches trying for me lately...” I murmured, much as if I was barely hearing him. “No, she isn't inhabited. She is being annoyed.” My voice suddenly gained volume as I said, “Stop that, you things, and leave her be!”
The screaming stopped in mid-shriek, the thrashing ceased abruptly, and with a single convulsive spring, Katje fell down the stairs to slide bumptiously to the bottom.
I leaped to where she lay, then knelt by her side as Maarten 'stumbled closer. I could tell he was terrified, and what he said confirmed what I was feeling.
“Th-this is, is...”
“I am not speaking as the book calls it, even if the book speaks of these matters,” I said, as I looked carefully at her before turning her on her side. “I wish I could get some reference books, as you are too busy and she doesn't understand how this work is. I do to a small degree.”
“Why, how do you understand?”
“Years ago,” I said, “I thought I might be doing it, but I learned otherwise then.”
Yet as I said this, the pictures and senses I had had at that time were chilling, as here I was – and I was doing as I had been led to believe – only in a different place, time, fashion, and much else.
“Now I am here, and I will do what is put in front of me, and do it as best I can,” I said. I seemed to be getting impressions of the problems, even though I wasn't certain as to what they were yet. “One of those duties is explaining to Hans and Anna, and whoever else happens to be over, what you meant in church.”
I paused, for I had an impression the 'big' trouble was near her head. I began concentrating in that area.
“Usually, it's just the two of them,” I said, “but I wished I could look these matters up. I am not certain I would do better than I do now, but I know I would be less worried as to its accuracy.”
I held out my right hand, then began to slowly pass it over her head. I was feeling for a bruise, which meant being close – roughly an inch or so – but not touching. Why I was feeling for a bruise, I wondered beyond her falling down a flight of stairs, until I felt a small bump – and beneath that bump, something inside.
“Oh, my,” I thought. “She has an aneurysm, and it's starting...”
“No you do not,” I said in a strangled-sounding whisper. “It is not her time. She needs another chance, and she needs to see the truth.”
Her hair began to fade before my eyes, then the skin, the skull, and some odd glistening shadowed gray material vanished to show a bulging thin-walled artery where it had ballooned out to form a thin – and headache-inducing – globular bulge. This bulge began shrinking under my hand, then the walls of the split area closed up and healed, even as the other stuff faded to be replaced by her hair.
I heard a spitting noise amid coughing, and looked down to see a slowly vanishing droplet of whitish foam.
I ignored the 'leavings' of what might have been something vacating the premises, and I saw something else. This was not spiritual, but physical, and as I moved toward this area, I saw what it was more clearly.
Katje had a very sore back. She had no money for tinctures, and hence was applying Geneva both topically and internally in an attempt to deal with the pain. She wasn't having much luck, because her back wasn't merely strained, which is what she had thought was the problem.
She needed back surgery.
“Just like Mike did,” I thought, “and she tried dealing with it like he did, too. I doubt he used Geneva, though.”
“Be as you were,” I said, “and become healed, and stay so. She does not need to be in such agony that she thinks she needs to drink to solve her problems, for without such pain, she can hear clearly.”
I then saw my hand was nearly touching the area in question, and the sense of burning under it was such that I wondered if I would have burns on my hand. I heard a low moan, followed by a sigh, then...
“Your knee is on my hand,” said a soft woman's voice.
I panicked, leaped up, and fell on my posterior. Someone caught me and prevented me from falling on the floor and cracking my head, and as I caught myself, Katje stirred, then felt her back.
“It doesn't hurt now,” she said, as she began getting up. She then looked at me, and said, “who are you?”
I was speechless, both with fear and something else that I could not name.
“I don't have a headache anymore, either,” she said. “I had no idea why I was in such pain, I could not travel, there was a jug of Geneva, and the more I drank the thirstier I became. Now I am not so thirsty, and...”
She paused, looked around, and nearly screamed.
“Oh!” she moaned. “This is Festival Week, and...”
“You were sicker than you knew, madame,” I said quietly, “and you aren't terribly good at cleaning house. Maarten is worse yet, and is frightfully busy – and I'm worse at cleaning than either of you.”
“Now how is that?” she asked.
“I am not sure why he is like that,” said Hans, “but I have seen him work hard at doing that, and Anna thinks him worthless for it. She will not even let him do the dishes, and that is bad.”
“Then, there is this community,” I said. “Those people at the other end of town are its leaders, and those living here follow them in their rejection of you two. You are not likely to get any visitors from among those of this town – or for that matter, from anyone in this area.”
The door closed, then Hans came in with the last of what is in the buggy. I turned, and saw that Maarten was somewhere else. I suspected he was trying to put things away, then as I tried to find him, I heard Hans mutter, “now this is bad. Anna would have a fit in here. Here, let me help you with that stuff there.”
“It seems 'housecleaning' is in progress,” I said. “Perhaps we can manage to help?”
I stood, then helped her to her feet, and we went toward the noises.
While I had seen but one other kitchen here, this example seemed to have followed the same pattern for both layout and much else, including the utensils. Hans had vanished out the white door in the rear, then came back with a sizable stoneware crock that proved brimming with water. The place needed something, but beyond being aware of a definite need of some kind, I was at a loss.
“I think we can go into the other room and arrange our things there,” said Hans. “They make both of us look bad at this.”
As we came back into the parlor, I asked, “will they be long?”
“I doubt it, not with two of them,” said Hans. “Their kitchen is like Paul's for size, and has less in it than at home.”
“Those spies?” I asked.
“Have been in here recently,” said Maarten as he came into the room to take in another of the baskets and a jug. “They usually leave some kind of writing on the walls asking me why I have so little money for them to steal.”
“They do not just steal for themselves,” I said, “but also for the benefit of your overseers.”
Maarten looked at me in stunned shock, then said, “why is it they pay a niggardly stipend and then seek to steal it back?”
“They expect you to provide for them and yourself, and that by careful and systematic theft,” I said. “They expect you to be able to pay them a sizable amount monthly, as is your obligation and their due.”
I paused, then said, “that isn't all they expect, either. They expect this portion of your house to be an example of 'piety', so as to fool your simple-minded slaves – namely, people like us – and your private area to be a well-garnished homage to Brimstone and a shrine to your chosen overseers.”
“But that's impossible,” said Maarten. “One cannot serve two beings who are sworn enemies of one another.”
“Exactly,” I said. “That is why they expect you to be a well-hid black-dressed witch, and use your public life – in all aspects – to furnish a secure hiding place while you become a highly initiated servant of Brimstone.”
“What is this?” asked Katje, as she came out into the room to pick up some of the supplies we brought. “At least we now have some food. I've had no end of trouble trying to shop lately.”
“As in needing to ask people for help in picking out supplies because you were nearly blind from the pain of both back and head,” I said. “If possible, I'd try going up the road to the next town in the future. At least there they aren't inclined to cheat you.”
“How did they cheat me?” asked Katje. “I wondered why I would always come home with nothing left of what money I took with me.”
“First, you would need to ask for help,” I said, “which they provided, though with unspoken curses. Then, when you asked for certain things, they picked out the worst they had, and it wasn't just at the Mercantile. This was at the greengrocers' and Public House also.”
“Yes, and we had to toss all of your food, as it had gone rotten,” said Hans.
“On top of them selling you rotten goods, they exacted a sizable fee,” I said. “You were being charged double the going rate, if not more yet, which meant your meager income did not go very far.”
“But why?” asked Katje.
“Locally, that depends,” I said. “In the case of the well-established places, it was because those people at the end of town actually own those locations, and that by well-disguised proxies. In the case of some of the others, those people believe the lies spread about you by the 'town leaders', and hence they think you deserve the worst they can manage, outside of calling you both witches and then ending you on a burn-pile.”
“I think we need to sit down with the two of you,” said Maarten, “and we need to talk for a while. I've had suspicions, but I could prove nothing, and my suspicions seem but a tenth of what you've spoken thus far, if that.”
After putting away the supplies brought, the four of us sat around the kitchen table. There, Hans and I had our 'breakfast', or so I gathered.
“Is it usual to eat at this time?” I asked.
“They drink a lot of beer at the shop around now,” said Hans, “and in cold weather, especially traveling, one needs to eat more. They do not have a lot of firewood here, and the stove needs work, as I can see sooty places on it.”
“I would load it every morning for her,” said Maarten, “and on my trips other than Sunday, I would gather what wood I could get. I'm not a good wood-gatherer, though.”
“I think that is mostly a matter of getting the stuff at a good place,” said Hans. “Now is not a good time to gather wood, and the nearest place is two hours walking, easy.”
“The snow is too deep for a buggy, you mean,” said Maarten. “Ours is useless until the spring.”
“Uh, is there another source of heat?” I asked.
“There is, but it smells terribly,” said Maarten. “The Mercantile has a few sacks of coal, and no takers.”
“I tried asking for that stuff,” said Katje, “and every time, they said they had none.”
“None for you, anyway,” I said. “I was thinking of using it to extend what wood you had.”
Katje got up, then returned with a sack from the kitchen, saying, “I've been finding this smelly brown stuff in the bags, and putting it out on the manure pile. I thought it was dung, it smelled so badly. Here's a piece I missed.”
Katje brought out a ragged-looking mottled brown-and-black lump streaked through and through with thick black lines. It seemed to 'buzz' with energy, and the odor it gave off reminded me of the manure-pile at home. I was loath to touch it, in fact, as I could almost see the fumes it gave off as a thick and rancid gray-tinted effluvium.
“That is not dung,” said Hans, as he looked at what Katje held. “That stuff is coal, and if you burn it, it will make the whole house smell terrible.”
“And create an odor 'pleasing to Brimstone', as per the lies those stinky black-dressed thugs up the road believe and speak of among themselves. I'd burn some of it, dear, though I would be careful as to how much.”
“How?” asked Katje. “The smell makes me sick.”
“Perhaps if I show you?” I asked.
While Hans and Maarten went outside to fetch some wood, I began 'chopping' on the sizable lump with the back portion of my hatchet. As I did so, the odor of 'coal' became stronger. I wanted pea-sized lumps and fines, as I suspected the secret of burning coal was adding it in small quantities in a near-powdered form. Katje then brought me an old hammer-head with a broken handle. The handle was too short to use, even if the hammer-head was amply long enough to grip.
“I found this one,” she said. “Will it help?”
“Normally I would do this in an old pie pan or something similar, so as to not make a mess on the floor,” I said. “Here, let me try that. You can take this hatchet to Hans.”
While Katje did so, I used the old 'carpenter's hammer' to crush the coal carefully. I heard talk to the rear of the place, then Maarten came in with a meager bundle of sticks.
“Now what are you doing making a mess on the floor with that stuff?” asked Maarten.
“First, a cold house needs an answer, and about half of your manure pile is coal,” I said. “Secondly, your woodpile has been receiving 'levies' by your neighbors, hence it's small enough to need drastic extending.”
I paused, then said, “if you have an old pie-pan, I could do this in it, but you need heat in here. I'll clean up this mess before we go.”
While Maarten went looking for what I had asked, Katje came back inside. She also had an armload of wood, and after setting it down, she said, “where did all of our wood go?”
“Your neighbors have been stealing it,” I said. “That's been a portion of what you've been enduring, as the town 'leaders' have said you were thieves and needed to be taught a lesson.”
I paused, then said, “be glad they have not yet named you witches.”
“Why would they do that?” asked Katje.
“You are being 'disobedient',” I said, “as you are not well-hid witches. If one wishes to do well in the local church system, one must preach evil thinly hid in the guise of good, and be a witch while appearing to be precisely the opposite – and not a common witch, either, but one that is as serious as Brimstone himself, and fully as evil.”
I paused, then said, “at least one overseer is like that – he belongs to a group of witches, he's a murderous thug that kills because he enjoys doing so, and he buried his blood-pact under his idol in that smelly room where they sacrifice their victims.”
After cleaning out the stove, I built a small mound of wood chips and shavings that I made with my 'new' knife, then lit them with the stub of a tallow candle. After adding some smaller sticks, I got a small handful of 'coal dust', then sprinkled it on the slow-burning wood.
The aroma of 'coal' was instantly heightened, and the yellowish flames seemed uncommonly hungry. I was about to adjust the damper when Hans came with an old pan.
“I thought that stuff would smell more,” he said.
“I didn't add much,” I said. “It needs more 'air' and more 'flue' than wood for a slow fire, but not much more. What I added is easily equivalent to half an armload of wood for burning.”
Within perhaps ten minutes, the kitchen was noticeably warmer, and while there was an odor of 'coal' in the place, it was not the biting choking reek I had suspected it would be. Maarten had found the pie-pan, and I showed Katje how to carefully crush the coal. She'd found a small measuring cup.
“One of those every few hours, as well as a few more sticks,” I said. “Cooking is going to be slow, as adding more than that will make for a lot more stink and smoke, and the same for not crushing it up fine. You'll want to spread it carefully when you use it, also.”
“Slow?” asked Hans, as he came into the kitchen. “That might be a bit less than what Anna might want for cooking, but not much less.”
“The smell?” I asked.
“That is usually much worse,” said Hans. “I can smell that stuff, and most people would think that smell bad, but I see what the trouble is now.”
“Namely, after Festival Week, the temperature will drop some for at least a week to ten days,” I said, “and while a little heat right now might be enough to get by as long as they dress warmly, it will cause them a lot of trouble to be without heat then.”
“It causes trouble now,” said Katje. “This stuff might smell, and smell a lot, but given we have no wood nor much of a way to get it, I guess we have little choice.”
“No, not 'no' wood,” I said. “Unless that's all of it those thieves have left you.”
“They have more, though not much more,” said Hans. “We might want to bring more of it inside.”
“Or hide it carefully,” I said. “Now what is it that witches thoroughly dislike, yet is common?” There were no answers to my question beyond half-expected shrugs.
Investigation of the manure-pile showed that it had its share of coal mounded on it, and as I poked around, Hans said, “there has to be a bag of that stuff here easy. Those people must have been putting a lot of it in their groceries.”
“There isn't enough here to get through the winter,” I said, “and the same for their wood, though they can gather wood if they're willing to drag it behind their horses.”
“How is that?” asked Hans.
“Cloth bags and rope,” I asked. “It might be possible to make a small sled.”
“Yes, though that will be trouble,” said Hans. “Those are not easy to make quickly.”
“One big enough for riding would be difficult,” I said. “What I am thinking of is about as big as two of Anna's larger bread-platters put together.”
“What would they do with it, though?” asked Hans.
“Hauling supplies and wood,” I said.
“I think it might be easier for me to borrow a regular sled after Festival Week,” said Hans. “I think I know of someone who would let me, especially given how this town is. I had no idea it was this bad.”
“It is that,” I said. “Now, we can ask our questions.”
While Hans was finding out matters germane to their 'survival' – their plight would arouse help closer to home, I suspected – I looked around the parlor. I wasn't certain as to what I was looking for, but when I found a stack of books nearly a foot high, I began looking through them.
The books dealt mostly with theological matters, and while many of them were clearly beyond my limited understanding, when I found a Greek lexicon, I was thrilled, and I was overjoyed when I found one dealing with Hebrew. I brought both books into the kitchen and laid them on the table amid mugs of beer and well-chewed Kuchen. Katje was having her share of trouble gnawing on one of those we'd brought.
“Those are not the easiest to get,” said Maarten, as I opened the one dealing with Hebrew.
“They aren't printed up here, are they?” I asked.
“Those are printed in the fourth kingdom,” he said. “Nearly every book made, other than some hand-written manuscripts I have well-hid, seems to be printed in or near that market down there. Given all of the schools are within two days' journey...”
“That is if you are slow,” said Hans. “The furthest one might be seventy miles or so.”
“That was two days when I was a student, and it was hard traveling indeed,” said Maarten. “It was usually better to figure three days, what with the tendencies of those I traveled with.”
“Walking?” I asked.
“No, horseback,” said Maarten.
“Did they get sore?” I asked. I suspected more than a few hours a day in the saddle meant for a very sore posterior. I knew about that from riding motorcycles.
“They were not from the west school,” said Maarten, “so they did not get out of bed until at least an hour after sunrise while traveling, and they took an hour or more to get packed in the morning.”
“Did they want to stop at every Public House they came to?” asked Hans.
“They did, but none of them had enough money to do that and then purchase books,” said Maarten. “I had to sit outside as a rule, as I could not afford more than one such stop per day, and that for beer and bread.”
“They would have done better to all do as you did,” said Hans.
“Is that the usual for traveling?” I asked.
“That depends on who is traveling,” said Hans. “For those with no hurry, and plenty of money, it might be, but those people are not common. Most have some need of hurry, and less money, so they stop when they can, and the less money and the more hurry, the fewer and faster the stops.”
“And you?” asked Maarten.
“We take most of our food with us,” said Hans, “and while it is light, we only stop to water the horses. We do not wait until the sun shows plainly to start, either, and we do not stop until it is too dark to see where we are going.”
“Uh, going on after dark?” I asked.
“There are places where we do that,” said Hans. “One does not want to stop in certain places, as they are dangerous, and then there is need of hurry the whole time, especially the last few years.”
Hans paused, then said, “now what is it you know about black dogs?”
“Beyond they aren't a myth,” said Maarten, “not much. I've heard of them, but never seen them.”
“So much for that one,” I thought.
After Hans got a similar response to the behavior of cough medicine, I thought to ask about securing copies of some of Maarten's books. I had the intimation that for some of them, at least, one had not merely the cost of their purchase to be concerned about, but also well-disguised bribes, talking to the right people, knowing the correct 'catchphrases', and other such nonsense.
“I wish this was like buying books at school,” I thought. “The chief worry regarding those was paying for them – that, and sometimes getting them in time for the start of class.”
“About purchasing those books..?” I asked.
“This isn't the best time for it,” said Maarten, “and those two would need ordering specially. They might have older copies at the hall.”
“Hall?” I asked. “Is that where those overseers, uh, lurk?”
Maarten nodded, then said, “I need to go there at least once a week, and in this snow, it's trouble enough to want a sled. I have no idea how you got here.”
“That buggy weighs about half what the usual ones do,” said Hans, “so it slides some when the wheels do not roll. I might be able to get you a sled for your use after Festival Week, that and more supplies.”
“And as for the overseers themselves,” I said. “Are they likely to be suspicious?”
“With few exceptions,” said Maarten, “they not only are suspicious, but they commonly act as if what is written and what is done are two very different things. Their behavior isn't a good example, especially if one knows the book and wants to do what it says.”
“Right,” I spluttered. “Strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel.”
“I am familiar with that statement, if not the animals themselves,” said Maarten, “and it does apply to those people. The usual translation for the first is a small red fly...”
“Those are trouble,” said Hans.
“Where are they found?” I asked. “I want to stay clear of them.”
“Near water, as a rule,” said Maarten, “and anyone who has a different opinion of their company has not had them close by.”
Maarten paused, then said, “the second animal is commonly translated as a mule, as those prefer dry locations, smell terrible, spit, cause trouble, bite and make a great deal of noise.”
“Save for the color... What color are mules?” I asked.
“Mostly a gray color,” said Hans. “They vary some as to how dark that gray is, but every mule I have seen has been the color of ashes.”
“Camels aren't gray, as far as I know, and they have humps on their backs,” I said, “but otherwise, that sounds close enough.”
I thought for a moment, then recalled the subject of interest. Being sidetracked had always been trouble for me.
“And bribes to get the person doing the ordering 'interested'?” I asked.
“I am not certain about bribes,” said Maarten. “I am certain those books have their purchase fees, their agent fees, their shipping fees, and their handling fees – and the last three fees are often as much as the cost of the book itself when they are combined.”
“That sounds like the fifth kingdom's way of doing things,” said Hans. “The shipping fees for books are not as much as for other things, and that is when they do not go by the post.”
“Namely, there are bribes, but they are well-hidden as well as sizable,” I said. “It is likely the purchase price is also artificially inflated, so some gets skimmed there as well.”
I paused, then said, “now what is a plausible-sounding means of getting such books?”
“Languages are commonly studied at the higher schools,” said Maarten, “and those two are said to be among the most common ones. Given that they are the only two that have decent study materials, that isn't surprising.”
“There are other languages?” I asked.
“There are those two,” said Maarten, “and they actually have word-books, grammars, and books written in them beyond the book itself. Then, there are some languages that are very old that few study, and then there is another language that is said to be spoken by some people to the east and south of here.”
“That is the valley, and no one other than those living there goes into that place,” said Hans.
“Still, that language is known of, and there are documents dealing with it,” said Maarten. “More importantly, if one wishes to be reliably understood in portions of the back-country in some of the kingdoms to the south, one wants to know that language.”
Maarten paused, then said, “those are for the languages written in conventional letters. There are some that are written in other letters entirely, and those are not taught in the schools.”
“Is one of those what those northern people speak?” asked Hans.
“That is the best-known one,” said Maarten. “They are not the only ones to write that way, as there are many old documents that have similar markings.”
“Is there a special name for those markings?” I asked.
“Some have called them secret markings, but they are not those,” said Maarten. “Secret markings are commonly used by people making certain things, like lanterns...”
“If these lanterns burn distillate,” said Hans, “that is a curse, and a bad one.”
“It is?” asked Maarten. His voice indicated genuine surprise.
“I've seen that one in other places,” I said, “and witches commonly chant it so as to hide better. At least, that is what they believe happens when they do so.”
I paused, then said, “it isn't just on lanterns, either. I've seen the same figures used on distilleries, and based on the beliefs regarding those...”
I paused in mid-sentence, then asked, “does that big dark stinky house have a small brick building to its rear with a big woodpile next to it?”
Maarten nodded, then said, “they have a distillery in there, and they commonly are distilling something. It smells terribly.”
“Have you seen this distillery?” I asked.
“I have never gone in the building,” said Maarten, “and only by accident did I come to its door.”
“Accident?” I asked.
“I was traveling home late one night on foot, and took a short-cut,” said Maarten, “and I became lost. I came in the back way, and only when I saw the rear of that house did I realize where I was. I turned, and there was the small building ahead of me, and there were three people in there. All of them were yelling strange words as loud as they could, and I stopped to look.”
Hans was listening intently, as was Katje. I was as well, for this was not merely a story. It was very important.
“I came to the door,” said Maarten, “and not only was there a still in that place, but a number of tubs of mash, and while one person was watching the still himself, the other two were walking around the mash tubs – and all three were yelling these words as if the outcome of what they were doing depended on them doing that more than all else.”
Hans looked at me in stunned silence. Maarten drank deeply from his mug.
“Then, the man watching the still moved to the side,” said Maarten, “and I saw the still itself. That frightened me so much I left right away, and ran the rest of the way home.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Don't tell me – the firebox was made of bricks, had an oval stoke-hole painted with teeth, and no door, didn't it?”
Maarten nodded earnestly, then said, “and it looked hungry, too. The wood by its side looked like raw meat.”
“You were right, then,” said Hans. “Those people chant at those things, they have one of those fireboxes with a mouth and teeth, a special house made of bricks, and a lot else that is rubbish.”
“They might believe a great deal that is rubbish,” said Maarten, “but they believe that rubbish more than most people believe what is in the book. Most importantly, they believe that rubbish to the point where they live as though it is real, even when it is patently and obviously a lie and that lie stares them in the face.”
“Hence the need for a plausible-sounding reason that those people will be inclined to believe,” I said. “I would guess they know of all of the... Oh-Ho!”
“Yes, and what is it,” asked Hans.
“Given that people that do what I do... No, that won't work,” I said.
“Yes, what is it that you do?” asked Hans. “Are you thinking that they might think you a witch, and because of that, they might let one of those books through?”
“There is a big hole in that one,” I said.
“Yes, and what is that?” asked Hans.
“Were I a witch, I would not trust an intermediary to do my 'special' work,” I said. “I would go there, all blacked up and wearing pointed boots, kick their door in, and then demand the thing at gunpoint and pay them what I felt inclined when I was of a mood to pay it.”
“I have seen that done,” said Maarten. “You haven't seen any of those people, have you?”
“He has seen people wearing black-cloth before,” said Hans, “and he has blown them up and shot them, too.”
“All the more reason to use an intermediary,” I muttered. “They aren't going to sell anything to those they perceive as unfriendly.”
I paused, then said, “besides, one has to have 'special' qualifications to get some of those books, and up here, one must be either a preacher, or work for a preacher. Otherwise, one cannot get them in this area.”
“Yes, and you do something like that,” said Hans.
“That is mostly true,” said Maarten. “I've heard that if one is an instrument-maker doing especially critical work, then one needs to know those languages. That is the one well-known exception to what you said.”
Hans slapped the table, then yelled at Maarten, while I wanted to hide.
“Now what has gotten into you?” asked Katje. “I just got the last part of that Kuchen down, and you almost sent it back up.”
“He is one of those things,” said Hans, “and he is doing a sextant.”
Maarten looked at me, then said, “oh, really? They will have a very hard time denying you those books if that is the case. Tell me, is this sextant for someone named Pieter?”
I nodded, then asked, “uh, why?”
“I heard about him coming up this way with his contract,” said Maarten, “and I did some asking about him. It seems he's one of two people that does charts, and he needs an especially good one. If you are doing his contract, then I can say it's likely that most of those added fees will be dropped.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“While those people might be suspicious beyond all reason, and act like brigands on their good days and worse otherwise, there are some things they will not touch.”
“Why is that?” asked Hans.
“Those people do not want to have that kind of scrutiny put upon them,” said Maarten, “and should they cause trouble under those circumstances, it won't be just local scrutiny, nor will it be common scrutiny.”
“Ah, the king will be in on it,” said Hans.
“Not merely the one here,” said Maarten. “I would expect at least one of the others to look in on the matter as well.”
“That will be trouble for them,” said Hans. “So that is solved.”
“For those languages,” I said. “I still need to do some research regarding sextants, as I don't know that much about them.”
“You might want the full library, then,” said Maarten. “I'll be certain to mention that.”
“Do those people wear odd-looking black hats?” I asked seconds later. I was curious about those at this hall still.
“They seldom do in this area,” said Maarten. “I've heard they do elsewhere.”
“Do they wear feathers?” asked Hans.
“Yes, red ones,” said Maarten. “I have seen those several times.”
“Uh, that nasty 'wine' and 'bread'?” I asked.
“That is trouble,” said Hans. “Anna and I can eat that stuff, but he has had to decline it since the first time.”
“Why is that?” asked Maarten. “He isn't the only one, as it seems to make most people sick at first, and some never get over that part.”
“It made him sick,” said Hans, “and not normal sick, for he was spewing until it came up green.”
“Oh, my,” said Katje. “That sounds bad.”
“Do you know about this trouble?” said Hans. “Anna is not entirely sure as to what it is.”
“If it is like what someone I knew had,” said Katje, “it is very serious. He could have nothing but beer and tinctures.”
“That is what Anna thinks he should have,” said Hans, “only beer affects him as if he is a small child and is deathly ill.”
“He was like that just before he died,” said Katje. “Someone said a witch had cursed him with wasting, for he was like a skeleton, and he died in agony.”
Katje paused, then said, “at least now I feel well enough to do my share, and I do not have to worry about needing a doctor.”
“We could have come out and helped,” said Hans.
I kept silent about what I had seen, for I suspected what Hans was referring to was mere palliation. It would not have helped Katje much.
I thought to ask about hunting, for I had an impression regarding animals in this area. While wood wasn't at all easy unless one traveled some distance – further than we did at home, in fact – game was even easier to find. Animals commonly showed in or near town.
“Madame,” I said in a soothing voice, “do you two hunt?”
“When we can,” said Katje. “Maarten is nearly always far too busy, and I'm hopeless for shooting. I do well to hit the side of a barn if I am inside of it.”
“Really now,” I said. “Would you be willing to prove that to me?”
Hans tried to hide his mouth, but his eyes – and the sound of laughter – gave him away. Katje turned to him with what might have been a glare.
“Why are you laughing, Hans?” she asked. I could tell she wasn't at all amused. “I need to find food, and my missing all the time has the other people in town tormenting me with laughter.”
“Does this place have bad gossip?” I asked.
“That, and much else,” said Maarten. “Gossip is common, but not with the sort of ill-nature common here, and that goes double for those who do not do well in things thought important.”
“Such as shooting, talking in a certain fashion, knowing what the rules are here – they aren't written down, they change a fair amount, and they're somewhat complicated – having the right things in one's house...”
Katje nodded, then said, “that is a lot of it. I've been to other places enough to know this place is different that way.”
“Why is it you live here?” I asked. “Are you assigned an area in which to live?”
“It goes further than that,” said Maarten. “The hall owns some houses, and one must 'purchase' one's home from them.”
“And about the time you get the thing paid off,” I muttered, “they send you to a new one, and have you start on another.”
“It isn't quite that bad,” said Maarten, “but I suspect you are right.”
“Meaning perhaps half of what you paid in goes toward your new one,” I said, “unless you either are especially favored or thoroughly disliked.”
I paused, then said, “I have no idea why the conversation tends to travel that way.”
“I do,” said Hans. “This is important, and we are all learning from it.” Here, he turned toward Katje, then said, “he works on guns. We have one musket that did well to hit a bucket at twenty feet, and I hit a rat at a hundred paces with it after he worked on it. That is not all, though.”
Hans paused, then said, “one of those black-dressed people dropped off a gun that was so bad it was scrap for the metal, and he redid it entirely. That man was a very bad shot, and when he was shown how to shoot with his gun after it had been worked on, he hit something for the first time in his life.”
“And I'm an especially bad shot,” I said. “I need all the help I can get, which is why what I have is the way it is.”
Hans looked at me and shook his head, then said, “so how is it you drill a deer at three hundred and fifty paces, and the thing goes nowhere but down?”
“Uh, a good rifle, a healthy dose of something other than skill on my part, and perhaps divine intervention?” I asked. “I did well to hit objects the size of buckets at a hundred paces before I came here.”
“That is not bad,” said Hans. “Most do worse.”
I fetched my rifle, and laid it out on the table. Katje touched it, much as if it were something she had no comprehension of, and as she asked questions, I explained what it did. I finished up with the question, “are you interested?”
“You had best put in less than the usual powder,” said Hans, “as if it leaves you sore, it will be worse for her.”
“I loaded it with the usual amount before we left,” I said.
Katje looked at me, then said, “how much is that?”
“About three-fourths of what goes in a normal musket,” I said, “but this one has a bullet that is smaller in diameter and much longer. It does not shoot balls. Here, let me show you one.”
I did so, then showed her the grease. She touched it, then said, “we have sticky drawers. Will this help?”
“Yes, that, buggy wheels, and a lot else,” said Hans. “I am trying to figure out how to make it in quantity, but it is not inclined to come good.”
“What did you do?” asked Katje.
“I think I tried to mix too much at one go,” said Hans, “and I did not stir it enough, so it made a mess all over me and where I was working.”
“A cup or less at a time is best,” I said. “If you are going to do more than that, you need to keep the temperature moderate... Hans, next time you make a big batch, use the sand-bath, keep the lamp turned down as low as possible, and stir continuously until it is mixed. That stuff almost needs a motor-driven stirrer, as large batches need lengthy stirring.”
“Now what is this?” asked Hans.
“That will need me making it, as well as some other things,” I said. “I need to make one of these things for the buffing wheel as it is.”
I paused, then picked up my rifle, then indicated the door. Katje arose, then Maarten and Hans.
“What is out there?” asked Hans.
“This place might have unpleasant people,” I said, “but for some reason, the deer and elk think this location a good place to be. They show up in the area even more often than at home, especially during the winter.”
“But I cannot get close enough to them,” said Katje. “I need to...”
“I would not worry much that way,” said Hans. “If you can see them, you most likely can hit them, and they will not go far.”
I opened the door, and to my astonishment, not two hundred yards off was an uncommonly large 'deer'. It had the usual horns for deer, unlike what I had recently seen on elk.
“But that one's too far,” said Katje.
I looked at her as I cranked up the rear sight, then handed her the rifle.
“This one is so heavy, though,” she said. “Now what do I do?”
“Lean against this post here,” I said, “and then bring the front sight such that its very top is where you want to hit. Then, center that point in the rear sight – yes, like that. Now, full cock. Yes, like that. Now, take a deep breath, let part out, hold it, center your sights, then gently squeeze...”
The abrupt roar of the rifle was like a blow to the head, and the muzzle blast was such that I felt as if struck by a huge hammer. I blinked my eyes closed and saw the reddish-white muzzle flash of the gun in my left peripheral vision, and as my ears quit ringing, I gasped.
I then looked at Katje, and was astonished she was still holding the rifle.
“I do not believe this,” she said.
“W-what?” I asked.
“That elk is down and is not moving,” she said. “I saw it jump a little and then fall down right away.”
“Now we must bring it in,” said Hans, “and it will need to be hung in two pieces, or perhaps four.”
While Hans gathered up the needed supplies, I cleaned the rifle with spit-and-tallow, then as I was about to reload, I had an impression. I did not wish to reload just yet, but rather wished to wait. I was glad for the revolver just the same, as the elk might be shamming and would need distraction in case it came after someone.
Once we reached the thing, the blood-pool that had accumulated was such that Hans was whistling, and when he began gutting the thing, Katje said, “I still do not believe that was possible, even if I think I want some Geneva for rubbing.”
“Are you sore?” I asked.
“A little bit,” she said. “I've fired larger muskets before, and it's a bit worse than one of those.”
“Be glad it is heavy,” said Hans. “The first time he shot it, it bruised him good. He needed to be rubbed some with that stuff.”
After cutting the elk in quarters – my hatchet was especially helpful – we began dragging the pieces back to hang. I wondered for a moment if there was a tanner in town, then recalled no one was open.
“Do they usually stay closed longer than normal during Festival Week?” I asked.
“They have the last two years,” said Maarten. “Before that, they were available if one had an emergency or planned ahead.”
“When did those black-dressed people show?” I asked.
“The summer before that first winter,” said Maarten. “By the time of Festival Week that year, we were living in a different town.”
“I hope they don't steal this meat,” I said.
“That takes more teamwork than most of those people can manage,” said Maarten. “I just hope we can hang all of it.”
Once it was hung – it took scrounging on Maarten's part to find enough rope to hang four quarters of elk, and Hans' promise regarding the hide – we came again to the kitchen. I wondered for a moment if Katje had knives enough to cut up and serve 'elk'.
“I am still working on this second Kuchen,” she said. “I'm glad we have food now.”
“Can you cut pieces of meat, though?” I asked.
“It is best to wait until it is part-frozen,” said Hans, “as then one can use common knives to cut pieces off.”
“Do they have those, though?”
Katje went to a drawer, opened it, then reached up under it to bring out an Arkansas toothpick, saying, “they had a fight outside once, and left this laying. It isn't a very good knife for looks, but it is a good deal sharper than most knives I've heard of.”
“Witches like those things, Katje,” said Hans.
“We don't have any knives other than this one, Hans,” she said. “I once had two kitchen knives, but they stole those. At least I think they did, as they went missing over a year ago.”
“Were these older second-hand things you found,” I asked, “ones that were unusually sharp and held a good edge?”
“That knife you have there may be better than the common,” I said, “but there are much better ones. Witches prefer those like that for ceremonies, and those better ones for the other activities for which they prefer knives – and hence, your two 'good' knives were stolen when they found them.”
Minutes later, I smelled an odor of a faintly nauseating nature, and when I turned toward the parlor, I was reminded of that third aspect of neighborhood trouble. It was drawing closer, and when I stood, I had an impression that this was why I hadn't wished to immediately reload.
“Hans, what is that smell?” I asked.
“What smell is this?” he asked.
“Something smells really bad,” I said, “like an ill-tended privy, only in some ways worse.”
“I think your smeller is strange,” said Hans, “but then, it works better than mine. Where is this smell coming from?”
“Out near where we got that elk,” I said. “Whatever it is, it can smell blood especially well, and...”
Hans stood, then said, “I think we had best look out front, then. There are few things I can think of that are like that.”
I picked up my rifle, then brought it to the couch where my other supplies still lay, while Hans opened the door. He went outside, then said, “I do not see anything in town. I think...”
I went outside, then looked to the left and far out into the 'field' of drifted snow. Faintly, I saw movement.
“Hans, over there,” I said.
“What is that thing?” he asked.
A dark mass was some distance away, and as it moved, it leaped among the thick-fallen snow of the region. The ungainly aspect of this 'mass' – it was an animal of some kind, and it seemed monstrous in some dread fashion – was an indicator of substantial weight, and as it drew slowly closer, I discerned what might have been people following in its wake. I slowly counted twelve of these individuals, all of them furtive-looking black dots that seemed to have uncommon trouble keeping up with the huge creature.
I heard a faintly muffled clank, then another. The noise was not that of any animal I had ever heard of.
“The worst of them wear iron plate laced with leather...” said the voice of my recollection.
I looked closer at the bulky creature, and noticed what might have been long saber-like projections coming from its front, as well as a vaguely familiar shape. It looked like a pig – sort of.
“That isn't a pig, though,” I thought. “No pig has th-that kind of anatomy, nor have I heard of pigs nearly fifteen feet long. It's too m-muscular to be a hippo, and grizzly bears are not that low to the ground, nor do they have tails like that.”
The animal drew steadily closer, and I saw what the 'drifts' were – low copses buried thickly with snow. I went inside, picked up my rifle, and began twisting the knob on the powder measure. I wanted more. How much more was a good question, but I wanted more – three turns, four, five, six, seven...
I paused at eight, wondering why I had done so, and more importantly, wondering how much powder I would dump down the barrel. Hans was still out on the stoop watching, and I shook the measure after turning the lever up. I shook the measure carefully, then positioned the drop tube over the muzzle and gently inserted it. I worked the lever, shook gently, then removed the measure.
A faint dusting of powder on the gleaming lands and grooves spoke of a good 'drop'. I took the loading board, and 'plugged' a bullet, then rammed it home. The bullet stopped nearly an inch further out than it usually did, which spoke of at least half again as much powder as normal. I drew to half-cock, capped the nipple, and then went outside with fear in my heart and dread on my mind.
It wasn't merely the idea of shooting a full-loaded rifle that promised to hurt me nearly as much as the target that was causing my sense of dread.
The animal itself was the source of much of it, as I had a strange feeling as to what it was.
“Hans, what do pigs look like here?” I asked, as I noted the animal and its party. “Is that a pig, and who are those people?”
“I think those northern people came early this year,” he said, “or at least a few of them did. They usually come in much bigger groups. How far away is that, or can you tell?”
I held my tongue, and perchance, my breath, for the animal now stopped and began pawing aside the snow while its panting followers stopped to catch their breath. The massive gouts of snow spoke of tremendous strength, then as it began grubbing with its 'snout', I recognized definite porcine behavior. A bear would not root around in that fashion, and I doubted a hippo would do so.
The snow continued to fly, then with a move that was nearly too abrupt to follow, the animal turned in its tracks, and sprang upon its panting followers. Its agility was astonishing, so much so that while they all turned to run, the animal was on the two closest ones in the blink of an eye – and then with abrupt insane fury, it ripped them apart with its tusks such that body parts flew into the air. The animal then began to devour those it had killed, with an eye to gore and an appetite that seemed incomprehensible.
“That proves it,” said Hans in a near-whisper. “That is an Iron Pig, and those are trouble. We need to raise the village, only quietly, as that one is close enough to come and kill everyone here.”
As I thought to speak, I knew that the usual means used here were out of the question. The snug fools who had shut themselves off from the outside world so as to spite those not like them were about to be killed, and their lie-stopped ears would only hear what they wished to hear – until the animal crashed through their walls like a tank and ripped them apart. I knew it could do the latter, as I had just seen it kill two people with speed and agility that made a cobra-chasing mongoose look slow and clumsy.
How I knew the rest, however, was a good question, and I thought to confirm it.
“How are those usually fought?” I asked. “Artillery?”
“That is usual,” said Hans, “but there are no guns closer than Willem's house. You might try shooting that thing.”
The clank of metal sang again, and I looked at Hans. His eyes seemed to narrow, then he said, “that one has plate on it. Muskets do little to those.”
I paused to think, then as I turned to watch the pig again – it was coming closer again, as it had eaten its fill of its followers – a horrible screaming squall nearly pitched me off of the stoop and onto the ground. The pig abruptly jerked its head up as I began turning my head to my rear, and when I had managed the turn, another hellish discordant screaming howl nearly blew me off of the stoop again. Katje had a long brass trumpet, she was holding it with both hands, and she was blowing on the thing with a red face and as if out of her mind.
“That thing is terrible, dear,” I muttered. “Why are you blowing it?”
“That pig!” she screamed. “Those northern people are here!”
Her panic-stricken squalling notes only proved the state of the town, and its smug self-deluded stupidity was about to cause its destruction. As if to buttress the obvious with superfluous commentary, Hans said, “there goes the town.”
I looked at him, and noticed again his narrowed eyes.
“That horn will attract that swine,” he said. “No guns, and no traps handy. A lot of people will die because she did not think, and instead decided to panic.”
The squalling horn became an impediment, even as I went prone onto the gritty-feeling stoop. As I cranked up the rear sight, I felt the absence of the wind, and saw clearer the pig and its followers. The pig was the obvious leader of the group; it did what it wished, when it wished to, and it would not be denied its inclination of the moment. It knew the town was ripe for the taking, and it was savoring the growing panic it heard in Katje's blowing.
“Katje,” I said calmly, “leave off with the horn. I am going to shoot that pig.”
Katje obviously had not heard me, for she was continuing to blow frantically. I could almost hear the panic in the horn's squalling. There was no 'almost' about its distraction. I had to act, and act now.
“Hans,” I said calmly, “take that horn away from her while I make this shot. That pig is coming closer, she got it interested when she first blew on the horn, and the noise is making it impossible to concentrate.”
A scuffle to my right made for a clattering noise some seconds later, then panicked steps running inside. I wondered where Maarten had gone for an instant, then began concentrating on the pig and my sight picture again.
“You can shoot now,” said Hans. “She has gone upstairs, as she thinks she is doomed.” The voice of Hans grew progressively more muffled sounding as he continued. “She has brought it on herself, though, as no one is listening to her. There would be more horns if people wanted to hear. Those northern people planned it this way, I am thinking.”
While Hans was right, my sight picture took precedence over all else. The pig was slowly turning to its left, and as it did, I noted not merely the arrangement of its eyes to give near-binocular vision, but also...
It had more than the issued number of eyes, or so it seemed, for one of its eyes...
I now recognized the ruse. Someone had painted a reddish eye in a sea of bluish-black leather-laced metal. The eyes of the animal were strictly to the front, for it was a predator among predators, and death in the guise of predation was its sole reason for existence. To call it a plague was to call it wonderful, for it was far too tangible and swift to be a mere disease.
It turned toward me again, paused, then seemed to sniff the air. I saw under what looked like a low and broad 'brow' of some kind a faintly reddish 'eye', then as I looked closer, the eye seemed to grow, become more distinct, and become more plain. It showed an hourglass for a pupil, the symbol of time passing and the end of life, and as the front sight became centered just under the center of the hourglass and the ring of the peep sight surrounded the globe of the eye itself, I began gently squeezing the trigger.
A crash like lighting seemed to spit a gleaming bolt of electric energy at the sands of evil time, and amid sulfurous fumes and raging flames, I heard screams of pain and what felt like an earthquake. A long silver missile was streaking for its home amid the blackness of despair's fortress, and...
I came to myself. My shoulder felt as if broken, and ahead of me lay a thick bluish-gray cloud. I could hear a voice trying to break through the ringing in my ears, and as I sat up, the wobbly sense I felt was such that I wondered if I was still alive. I had lived through an earthquake and being struck by lightning, and when I looked to my right, I saw through a shimmering haze a frozen stick of gold thunder that had narrowly missed me.
Again, I heard voices. This time, I recognized one, and as I laid the rifle down and slowly massaged my shoulder, Hans said, “that pig is...”
“Pig?” I croaked. “What pig?”
“That pig is not going to cause trouble now,” said Hans, “as it is down. I think you dotted its eye, as there is a puddle of blood growing in the snow in front of it, and it is collapsed and not moving.”
“M-moving?” I asked, as the stick of gold thunder shimmered as if in a heat-haze.
Someone handed me a cup, which I smelled carefully. It smelled of cider, and as I drank, I saw how thirsty I was. With each swallow, the heat-haze faded, and sounds became clearer, more distinct, and more recognizable. I then turned to see Maarten standing in the doorway.
“I do not believe my eyes,” he said in a voice I could not decipher. “An Iron Pig killed, and that with a single bullet?”
Slowly the reality of the situation began to dawn. I needed to check the pig over carefully, and draw and record what I could. It was important. I knew that much.
“Anyone responsible for killing one of them is regarded with great favor,” he said in a haze of oblivion, “and refusing a reasonable request from such a person is much frowned upon.”
'Much frowned upon' was a colossal understatement, I suddenly realized. There were things that weren't done, and things that were not done – and 'denying the reasonable request' of a person responsible for killing an Iron Pig was regarded as a 'mortal sin' in the eyes of nearly every person who wasn't a witch.
“If they complain over much,” he said, “I will speak to the king. That will silence their complaints. There are records of towns being demolished by pigs, and their inhabitants killed.”
“W-what?” I squeaked. I had only now come to myself, I realized. “The pig killed a few...”
“Those things do not do that,” said Hans. “That town where that one shopkeeper lived was razed, and her and two other people were the only three survivors. I have heard of them doing worse, though.”
“Worse?” I gasped, as the truth now dawned upon me. I needed to look at that pig.
“Two towns and more than a thousand people in one night,” said Hans. “No buildings left intact, and five big holes to bury the bodies. There were no survivors.”
“Was this about thirty years ago or so?” asked Maarten.
“It was more than that,” said Hans. “My grandfather told me of this, and the ruins of those towns were left as a memorial for the dead more than twenty years. I was a small boy when it happened.”
“Where did it happen?” I asked.
“One of the towns is about twenty miles north and west of where we are,” said Hans, “and the other but two or three miles further west. That pig you shot could have killed everyone in this town and wrecked the town doing it.”
“And that isn't at all uncommon,” said Maarten with finality. “Hardly a year goes by without hearing of towns being destroyed by swine and those that come with them.”
I staggered inside with the others, and as I sat in a daze, I began to carefully clean my rifle. This time, I felt inclined to put in the usual amount of powder, or perhaps a bit less, and when I cranked nine turns back the other way, Hans looked at me and asked, “how much did you put in?”
“E-eight turns more,” I said. “I'll need to weigh how much that is when we get home, but I'm really in the mood for some liniment. My shoulder hurts.”
“What is this you are asking for?” asked Maarten.
“He might not drink Geneva, and he does not like its smell,” said Hans, “but he will endure it on his skin for bruises. If you have some, I would put it on a rag so he can rub himself.”
While Maarten wandered off to find the 'liniment', I heard steps coming from the upstairs, and what seemed like minutes later, Katje herself came down. I wondered what had happened to her.
“I panicked when I saw that pig,” she said, “and one came years ago when I was a girl. I was terrified when I saw that one, and that one out there... Is it dead?”
“It is,” said Hans, “and he shot that thing.”
“Why, weren't you terrified?” she asked. Her eyes indicated me.
“I wasn't sure what I was seeing out there until Hans told me what it was,” I said, “and in my ignorance regarding pigs, I didn't panic. I knew little about what I was seeing beyond it was trouble and needed to be dealt with. It didn't scare me that much, for some reason.”
I paused, then said, “I wished I could say that about the first time I went to church here. It was a lot worse than seeing that pig.”
“Why?” asked Katje.
“I've been tossed out of one church because I didn't fit in there,” I said, “and I wasn't accepted in or out of church where I came from – and that because of a great many things I was thought to have full and complete control over.”
“Did you?” she asked.
“That was the common belief,” I said, “and at the time, I believed it myself. I was having a notable lack of success being the person the people around me wished me to be, and they thought me evil because I was 'wrong' in some hard-to-understand way. I believed them then, and I believed I needed to be punished, just like the people around me who were punishing me for my 'wrongdoing'.”
The looks of both Hans and Katje were inscrutable and unknowable. I could not understand either facial expression, I now realized, and my 'understanding' of Anna was mostly a delusion. I was clueless with her also.
“I thought I might be burnt as a witch that first Sunday, and there have been more than a few times I have wondered since, even with witches coming after me since I came here. This episode with the pig might be another instance. Now, I have a question.”
I paused to let what I said 'sink in'. I hoped it was getting through.
“Am I a witch?” I asked. “I really wonder about it. I hope and pray I am not.”
As if to answer, Maarten came up with a jug and a rag.
“This is almost empty,” he said. “I doubt it will help much.”
As if to prove matters, he uncorked the jug. The reek was unmistakable. Maarten had brought some especially stinky 'paint remover'.
“That is not Geneva,” said Hans. “That is some bad brandy.”
“But I thought it was Geneva,” he said. “It was where I had put it...”
“I think those people stole what you put there and put what they wished us to have in its place,” said Katje. “I think I might have found a way around that, though. I have a small jug of the stuff up in our room where I had hid it.”
While Katje went up the stairs, I asked, “can we look at that pig?”
“Now why do you want to do that?” asked Hans. I had the impression I had spoken something unthinkable, and more, morally wrong. “Most just want to burn those things and be done with them.”
Maarten made a choking noise, then said, “not here. I've seen pigs wandering free in this area more than once, and no one has done a thing about them.”
“And you?” I asked.
“I think those black-dressed people own them,” he said, “and after seeing their writing inside the house as much as I have, I thought it unwise to do anything.”
Maarten paused, then said, “that was for their pigs, and those are much smaller and look a lot different. Why is it you wish to look at that one?”
“How often do those things come?” I asked.
“Every year, almost,” said Hans. “Bad years have them coming more often than otherwise.”
“How often do people get close enough to one of those things to learn of its weaknesses?” I asked.
I had spoken the truly unthinkable, for the expressions of both men went completely blank, even as Katje came down with a small jug. She uncorked it, and the odor of Geneva – a third variant, this one smelling noticeably different from the two I had smelled previously – spoke of assistance. I really noticed the 'medicine' aspect of the stuff this time.
“The jug?” I asked, as Katje handed me a rag dampened in Geneva. I put it under my shirt and began rubbing the sore spot.
“I got it the last time I went north some distance,” she said. “I knew about it being useful as a medicine, especially like you are using it there. It was not easy rubbing my back, but I was doing that when and how I could until today.”
She paused, then asked, “now why are they all so quiet?”
“I spoke the unthinkable,” I said. “Is it regarded as an especially evil thing to learn about one's enemies so as to effectually fight them, or is utter complete ignorance resulting in death preferable?”
“I am not sure,” said Katje. “I know that most people know little about those pigs beyond what they are said to do, as most that know more are either disinclined to tell or are dead.”
“There is a dead pig out there,” I said. “I want to look at it carefully, and make notes and drawings if possible. I know there will be more of them, and...”
“And what?” asked Katje.
“There is something about the way those are fought that is really strange,” I said, “and I think it has to do with why the two of them are 'frozen'. Wake up, please.”
For some reason, while both men suddenly 'shook' themselves awake, they were not the only ones. Katje shook as well, then said in a low voice, “I think you are right... What did you say about ignorance resulting in death?”
“An impression, dear,” I said. “I am not certain if it is correct, so I asked a question.”
“Now what is this?” asked Hans. “You said something, and I fell asleep somehow.”
“I spoke of learning of the enemy's weaknesses,” I said. “It seems that is something that is simply not done here, so people continue making the same mistakes and get killed because of it.”
Hans thought for a moment, then said, “I do not understand how that is, but I will go along with the part about getting killed, as that is common when fighting swine and those people.”
“So can I look at the thing?” I asked. “It's really important.
While Hans grumbled at my 'lunacy' – there were the ways he knew of, and those were the only ways that worked enough to bother with – he also realized I had stopped the pig in its tracks. He was unable to deny evidence when it lay in a pool of gore in front of him close enough to touch, see, and most importantly, smell.
This pig smelled horrible, and its stench was beyond the capacity of language to describe well. The best I could manage was 'unclean', and that word didn't really do the reek justice. The pig smelled of death, decay, sewage, a barnyard, bad chemicals, a paper-mill, dead skunks, rancid butter – the list in my mind would have continued further if I could recall all the various names I could gather. Its odor went far beyond any pig or collection thereof I had smelled where I had come from.
As we came closer, however, the reek seemed to intensify, and as I came up on the pig itself, I had more impressions beyond 'I want to vomit until my guts come out of my mouth'. I then spoke of them.
“This was a feeler action,” I said, as I drew out my student's ledger and began sketching the animal's shape. “Those people will return, and return soon in numbers. They will come to this area, hit it hard, and they know enough to not take pigs like this in snow.”
Hans did not hear me, or so I thought when he said, “then why did they turn loose a big one like this?”
“I'm not sure, beyond the obvious reason of testing to see how well they do in snow,” I said. “The snow varies quite a bit from year to year, I imagine, and the usual amount of snow isn't that much of an impediment to these things – or is it?”
“I have seen them come in snow before,” said Hans. “The pigs only have trouble if it is deep.”
“Hence the simplest and most reliable way of knowing was to turn one loose,” I said. “The boat... These people use boats to ship their people and animals, don't they?”
“They do, and they are badly made things that should go down five minutes after they become wet,” said Hans.
“They don't, though,” I said, “as I doubt they traveled a short distance. It is likely that ship observed this pig and its followers long enough to make a decision, then left them behind and went back whence it came.”
“Why is that?” asked Hans.
“To cause panic, dread, and fear,” I said. “They treated that group as expendable, and... Are the pigs worth a lot of those people? As in each pig like this is worth hundreds?”
Hans nodded, then said, “that few of those people wouldn't do much, even with weapons, and they did not have those.”
“They didn't have obvious ones in their possession at the time you saw them, you mean,” I said. “That does not mean they don't have them in the area.”
I paused, then said, “you mentioned the river being open. This more or less proves it, as they didn't go that far overland. How far is the river from here?”
“I am not certain right now,” said Hans, “though I remember it as about thirty miles. I know it is far enough that I would not wish to try following them up in this weather.”
I drew closer yet, and began inspecting the pig itself. It wasn't quite as large as I thought it was, and its shape was stranger than I thought it was also, for its armor concealed that to a degree. It was still big enough to warrant the label of 'monster' just the same.
The pig had a long wrinkled snout, with oddly curved lips that concealed teeth sprouting from both gums like a crocodile, while the two tushes were easily fifteen inches long with coarse and rusty-looking iron inlays that formed sharp rounded points, much like the spokeshave bits I had recently made. The long straight tapering ears were upright, and the exposed skin – its underside and its legs, for the most part – was tough, wart-strewn, leathery looking, and slightly hairy.
The iron plate, however, was something of a marvel, for not merely was it contoured to fit the pig; its rough 'basket weave' of welded iron bars showed metallurgical crudity manifesting as fibrous slag-rich metal and a surprising amount of 'thinking' as to the nature of the armor. I felt the edge of one of the pieces.
“That stuff is nearly half-an-inch thick,” I muttered, “and they don't waste time on deburring it, either.”
However, as I looked further, I saw where they did spend their time: the stuff was graduated in thickness to provide the best protection with minimum weight, and the critical joints overlapped with holes laced with multiple leather strands. I cut the lacing away from one hole and was astonished.
The makers of swine-armor had obviously spent a fair amount of time deburring the holes where the laces went, and the smooth rounded contours there made for wondering – both as to their knowledge, and also, their priorities. Appearance wasn't high on their list, obviously.
As I walked around, I noted the iron plating curved along the top of the animal to a marked degree, where it shielded the leather straps that supported the thick side-plate. The upper portion was not completely devoid of armor, however; I noted thinner laced-on scales roughly an eighth of an inch thick there, and the same for the rear of the animal.
The frontal pieces of plate had full thickness, however, and when I looked at the head, I noted a riveted iron 'skullcap' with sloping sides. Touching some of the plate showed that while it did not move 'smoothly' – it wobbled a bit, and hitched slightly – it did move. More, the skullcap, or 'helmet', was securely laced in place.
As I made my sketches and wrote my notes, Hans looked further at the front of the animal. I saw the flash of a knife in my peripheral vision, and as I looked up, he said, “you dotted its eye, as there is gray stuff coming from its ears here, and this metal thing is holding a lot of gray mush.”
“Is that, uh, helmet damaged?” I asked.
“There is some gray stuff behind it on the plate here,” said Hans, “and...”
I looked at Hans as he wiped the inside of the skullcap off. He said, “why is this thing all of these colors, and why is it blistered?”
“The whole armor on this thing seems that way,” I said. “These people don't spend any more time on their work than they absolutely have to, and a lot of it looks like junk.”
“That is because it is junk,” said Hans. “I have seen some of what those people use. This part here looks bad.”
“Question,” I asked. “Does that plate stand up to round-shot?”
“It does unless you are close and hit it right,” said Hans.
“That pig Willem spoke of as being hit with two round-shot wasn't hit where there was plate of real thickness,” I said. “There are places where the plate is either relatively thin or has gaps in it, and while those places are vulnerable, they tend to be small hard-to-hit targets. The big targets are well protected, if I go by what I've seen here. Another question: has anyone ever hit a pig from the side?”
“I do not know,” said Hans, “as one is usually firing at pigs when they are charging.”
“Hence hard to hit, because they're agile and most likely moving rapidly,” I said. “Hitting them is more luck than anything that way.”
I paused, then said, “the most likely reason for the side-shields being as they are is to protect the pig when it is in 'town-trashing' mode. It isn't charging then, nor is it moving quickly. Has anyone fired at a pig with artillery while it was in a town?”
Hans thought for a moment, then said, “Willem spoke of that and said it was a good way to get killed. If one was close enough to do much to the pig, then it would be on you before you could reload, and if one was far enough to have a second chance, the shot did little if they hit.”
“I thought so,” I said. “This armor might look terrible, but it does protect the pig fairly well from gunfire. It has a soft core and a hard surface, it's graduated in thickness, it's well-articulated – granted, not done as well as some I've heard of, but it's not bad, either – and it provides a measure of ventilation.”
After gathering our supplies – it was nearly noon, or seemed that – we took our leave and began heading home. As Hans drove, I continued making laboriously hand-printed notes, especially regarding my impressions of the armor.
“How well do traps work on those?” I asked.
“It depends on the trap,” said Hans. “The pigs are a lot smarter than those running with them, and for animals, Iron Pigs are uncommonly smart. They are almost as smart as some people when it comes to what they do, and I do not speak of less-intelligent people when I say that.”
Hans paused, then said, “they have more smarts than those Generals when it comes to fighting and acting like swine.”
“What do those people do?” I asked. I was trying to write down my impressions of the makers of swine-armor, and what Hans had said and my impressions were very much at odds.
“Those people do not know much about fighting,” said Hans, “but they do know how to act like swine, and those pigs beat them at both things.”
“Do traps work on those pigs?” I asked.
“They do sometimes, if the pig does not find the trap,” said Hans. “Usually, though, the pigs find the traps and the people that run with them come along behind them to get blown up or burned.”
Hans paused again, then said, “some few have lit pigs on fire, or dumped chemicals on them, or even blown them up.”
“Have you?” I asked.
“I might have,” said Hans, “and I think my grandfather did too. I know about the pig-runners, though, as we both had a lot better luck with them.”
“Uh, why is it you aren't sure about the pigs?” I asked. “Is it because they are so hard to stop?”
“I think that is so,” said Hans. “That, and one does not want to be nearby to watch a trap going up. That was the first time I was ever close enough to one of those swine to know how bad they smell.”
Our trip home seemed faster than our trip out, even with snow drifting down steadily. The powdery nature of the stuff, as well as its rate of fall – very slow, very light, yet even and steady – was such that our outbound tracks still showed clearly, yet I could discern the snow attempting to fill them. They would be erased soon enough, but they would not be gone today. It seemed likely that it would take at least another day to vanish beneath the new-fallen snow.
It was late afternoon when we came onto the road heading north, and the number of sled-tracks that showed seemed noticeably greater than I recalled. Ahead I could smell baking, food, merriment, and drink, and as we came past the Public House, I noted its 'closed' status. It was not truly closed, even if there was but little happening inside, and passing the Mercantile and a few other places showed them to be the same – 'closed', but subject to opening on short notice if someone needed to do business.
As we pulled into the yard, however, I had a distinct intimation regarding visitors. Those would come tomorrow, not tonight, and they would be present for much of the day. I wondered if I was correct, at least until Hans opened the door. I then wondered no longer, for there were two people from town sitting on the couch, and the odor of baked rye filled the air to the point of madness.
“Now where do I put my things?” I thought, as Anna came from the kitchen.
“What came of that trip?” asked Anna.
“Not much for answers,” said Hans, “at least, the ones for which we left with questions.”
“And for those otherwise?” asked Anna.
“That place where they live is bad,” said Hans. “They have thieves stealing their stuff regular, there are black-dressed witches in that town trying to force Maarten and Katje to become witches for thinking at the least, and an Iron Pig showed and was killed.”
Hans paused, then said, “and he was crazy for wanting to look at that dead thing after shooting it in the head.”
“I would not call him crazy, Hans,” said Anna. “Did he speak of why he wanted to look at it?”
“Yes, some nonsense about taking advantage of their weakness,” said Hans. “Those pigs have been the way they are for time out of mind, and everyone knows how they are and what can be done. That isn't much, and everyone knows that.”
“Didn't you say he'd shot the thing, though?” asked Anna. “No one has done that before.”
Anna turned to me, then said, “did you learn anything useful?”
“About the pig itself, a good deal,” I said, “and about those sending them, more yet.”
After Hans described what had happened, however, Anna looked at him sternly, then said in a surprising tone of voice, “Hans, you might not have any answers beyond the common, and I know I don't, but if anyone can come up with them, I think he might.”
“I have at least one idea at this time,” I said, “but it might well be tricky to implement with what we currently have for equipment.”
“Now what is your plan?” asked Hans.
“The main area those pigs have that isn't armored is their underside,” I said. “They have thin top armor...”
“So that's why throwing spears from above works so poorly,” said Anna. “I had no idea those things had plate there.”
“Thin stuff, mostly,” I said. “It might well stop spears, arrows, and musket balls, however, as whoever came up with the ideas for that armor knew what they were doing.”
“Now how is that?” asked Hans. “It looks bad.”
“Hans, those people do not think like those around here,” said Anna, “and while that stuff on those pigs might look bad...”
Anna turned to me, then asked, “is it as bad as it looks?”
“Based on what I've seen done at the shop?” I asked. “Let's see... The iron is about as good as some I've seen from down south, at least as to superficial appearance. It has a lot of slag and impurities in it, same as the worse stuff from the fifth kingdom, though there is a difference about the stuff those people arming the pigs use.”
“And what is that?” asked Hans.
“For some reason, that stuff they use isn't as weak or as brittle as a lot of metal I've seen here, even with a lot of slag and impurities in it,” I said. “Then, the color. That metal has its share of rust, but that's common here also, and then its main color, which is a mottled bluish-black. That part's really uneven, so it works as a type of camouflage when it's dark.”
“I saw that part, and that is really bad the way they did that,” said Hans.
“I didn't have a file with me,” I said, “so I could not test it for hardness. I suspect that they form that plate and then cook it like I do, and don't quench it. That would account for the colors.”
“What does that mean?” asked Anna.
“Its surface is harder than its core,” I said, “which gives it more strength yet. Then the side-plate on those pigs is fairly thick. Do you know what happens if you shoot one of those pigs in the side with a gun?”
“It just draws them onto you unless you are very close and hit them just right,” said Anna. “I think those pigs ignore being shot unless they are hit solid within fifty paces.”
“It isn't just the way the pigs are, dear,” I said. “That armor works a lot better than one might think, especially if you judge it by exclusively by appearances and don't examine it in detail with an eye to its functioning. I'll agree, it doesn't look very impressive. What worries me is the people making the stuff.”
“Why is that?” asked Hans.
“Whoever is doing that is thinking about what they are doing,” I said, “and has their priorities geared toward fighting an all-out war. Most importantly...”
I paused for a moment, as this was a truly important concept. I then continued speaking.
“That person, or persons, is prepared to do whatever it takes to win.”