Strange and Beautiful Visitors


A faint aroma, one that reeked of peace, seemed to suffuse the air around me upon awakening, and when I opened my eyes, I saw that I was lying on a sheet, with a thick knit blanket on top of me. Thick pillows were under my head, and their soft plush sensation seemed especially helpful. I withdrew my hands from under the blanket, then brought them to my face so as to smell them. The smell was that of roses, and I sighed with comfort, even as the odor went to my head.

I closed my eyes and moved gently, and as I did, I noted that I seemed uninjured. I wondered if my clothing was intact, for some reason, and the trouble I had recalling all that had happened recently made for wondering as to the day, the hour, where I was, and much else.

I smelled my hands again, and as I woke up further, I noted two distinct sources of that odor. One was the soap, and the other, harder to place. I doubted roses were available in the winter, and as I became more awake, I knew something more.

There were strangers here. More importantly, at least some of them were wealthy.

“I hope they don't have black clothing,” I muttered.

Thinking about the clothing of others returned my mind to thinking about my clothing again, and by extension, what I had done recently. My recollections of the recent past were very hazy beyond a certain point. I recalled dealing with a vast number of thugs, which I had...

“Oh, no,” I thought. “I didn't just kill one thug. I killed a lot of them, and...”

The thought was too dire to contemplate. I had tossed – nay, defecated on the torn-up shreds and then set them alight – every single one of the 'rules of war'. I had no clear idea as to what they were where I came from, and less yet of one here.

“Will they kill me because I left no survivors?” I thought. “What will they think about my mutilating all of those corpses?”

My recall of the failed army physical long in the past strobed into my mind: the embarrassment, the sense of failure, even in spite of a call back east by someone who wanted to get me into 'the system' just the same. I recalled one particular phrase used, that being 'highly motivated'.

“And what my motivation was when I went after those thugs is still something of a mystery, especially that last part. I was completely out of my mind then, just like...”

Sabrina. The burning car. Her shoes, the flames in my face, ignoring injuries. That old woman and stepping in front of an oncoming car while thinking calmly and deliberately of how to stop the car by incapacitating – if needed, by killing – the driver.

Faint steps came to my left, and I looked up to see dim light streaming into the parlor. I was home, and when I turned toward the source of the steps, I saw someone coming up from the basement, then a shadow projecting faintly onto the workbench. Seconds later, I saw Hans, who walked slowly toward where I lay.

Hans seemed 'oblivious' until he saw my open eyes, then he looked at me.

“I think you have done it now,” he said. “Anna told me about how you would see the king soon enough, and he is here.”

Hans turned, then went back down in the basement.

The terror I felt now was such that I first felt overwhelmed, then wanted to hide. I put the blanket up over my face and tried to burrow into the couch as steps came closer to where I lay. Thoughts went through my mind, specifically of some of the more bloodthirsty and tyrannical kings of history; for some reason, I fixated on Henry the Eighth, he of the six – was it six? – wives, and his tendency to 'dispose' of them by royal fiat and the headsman's ax.

“Do they have a tower of g-guard here?” I wondered, even as more steps drew closer. I tried to burrow deeper into the couch, and had no luck whatsoever. A familiar hand drew the blanket back, and I stared fearfully into the face of Anna.

“Why are you hiding?” she asked.

“Uh, this is worse than tying up that head witch to the north with a bucket full of Desmonds,” I whispered.

“Why?” asked Anna.

“I've never met a king before in my life,” I hissed. “What do I say, and how do I, uh, avoid being offensive?”

Anna looked at me as if I were out of my mind, then said, “I'm not certain you need to say much. He saw what you did out there, and a great deal more, including the price you paid doing it.”

“P-price?” I gasped.

“You were brought back here in a sled,” said Anna, “and you were very ill. We had to spend hours cleaning you up in a special tub that was brought, and I used that special soap you showed me. I didn't know what it was, but she did.”

“She?” I asked.

“His wife,” said Anna. “It seems that type of soap is not only costly, but it also cleans well and helps prevent infections. Were it not so rare, I'd use it instead of that tincture for brambles.”

Over Anna's whispered voice, I could hear talk in the kitchen, chiefly Hans and two other men. One of them wanted to fill me with beer, which Hans spoke of as being very unwise.

“No, if you do that, he will faint and have bad trouble,” said Hans. “I think he is sick.”

“Then beer is the best thing, isn't it?” asked one of the men. “Have you tried it on him?”

“Yes, which is why I am saying that,” said Hans. “I have given him a little of the widow's tincture once, and that seems to help some.”

The sense of incredulity – at least, one of the men seemed incredulous – was only exceeded by the calm gravity of the other's speech.

“Then what would be best?” asked the other man.

“He drinks a lot of water,” said Hans, “and non-fermented cider, though that is becoming less common hereabouts. They did not keep the stuff separate from the regular type, and the yeasts have jumped the barrels.”

“J-jumped the barrels?” I whispered.

“I told them that would happen,” said Anna. “I asked to have one of the barrels be brought here, so you can have what you need. It should come shortly.”

“But if it has started to ferment?” I asked.

“Not all of them have,” said Anna. “Jumping barrels takes a fair amount of time, as well as warm weather, and cider-yeast works very slowly in cold conditions.”

I then noticed how 'dry' I was, and I looked around. I seemed to 'feel' ice in the area, and I asked, “is there ice?”

“There is,” said Anna, “and snow, as well as decent light for a change. It was dark as anything the morning after you left, and I wanted to stay in bed and sleep, until suddenly it went brighter than usual. I wondered what had happened until they brought you home, and then they told me.”

“What happened?”

“If that was not a sign, then I know nothing,” said a red-haired man as he came into the parlor. He was followed by Hans and another man, and while I recognized Hans, I wondered who the other two were. Anna moved to the side, then I noticed the stool she was sitting on, as well as the stools in the hands of the others.

“We should have yours done shortly,” said the man with the red hair. “I have no idea how you managed with them going bad like that.”

“G-going bad?” I squeaked.

“He almost mashed one,” said Hans. “Didn't you speak of that once, about how you were surprised they did not dump you on the floor?”

The red-haired man set his stool on the floor beside Anna, and as he did, I noticed his eyes. Unlike the usual 'flat' aspect, his seemed to 'glitter', and his face seemed writ large with curiosity.

That, and he had a small neat goatee.

“If there is anything you need, just ask,” he said. “You saved the kingdom and all our lives, and avenged the fallen among us. I mean what I say.”

I was speechless with fright, even though I knew beyond all doubt that he did indeed mean what he said.

“The kingdom?” I gasped. “How?”

“That was no ordinary raid,” he said. “Never have those people shown with dynamite and light distillate before, nor with that many blood-flags, and all of those wearing plate were blooded. Many of them were recognized as having come to this area in the recent past.”

“And killed people doing that,” said Hans. “I recognized two of them myself.”

“B-blood flags?” I asked. “Those red things?”

“We brought one here,” he said. “When you were found, there were three weapons by your side, and I know not what to make of them.”

“I know what to make of him,” said Anna, as she proffered me a filled mug. “Getting liquid into him wasn't easy, even with that tube, and he's still dried out.”

I was then handed a mug. The aroma of cider was such that I began gulping the stuff, and only when I stopped to breathe did I notice the mug had sizable pieces of ice in it.

“Where did the ice come from?” I asked

“In this weather, that is easy,” said Hans. “One puts a pan of water outside, waits a while, and the stuff goes to ice. It is much harder when there is no snow on the ground.”

When I drained the mug, I handed it back to Anna, saying as I did so, “thank you. I really need to make some tinned copper ones.”

“Yes, I know that,” said Hans. “Were it possible to have them made decent up here, we could...”

“I doubt they could be made better, even in the fourth kingdom,” said the red-headed man. “I've seen enough here to know that this house, and those living here, are very special.”

“I get enough witches after me,” I muttered. “Is that what you mean?”

“I told him about that,” said Anna. “He wants to be able to see you regularly, as he thinks you might have answers when no one else does.”

“He?” I asked.

Anna looked at the red-haired man. The man next to him said, “what of those weapons?”

“I have to confess theft,” I said. “I stole those from one of those people.”

“If they have weapons like those,” said the red-haired man, “then we are in deep trouble. Those are unlike anything I've ever seen.”

“They weren't like that originally,” I said. “They were decent when I found them, but...”

“How is that?” asked Hans. “I saw a lot of that stuff, and it was the same as it usually is.”

“You did not see all of it,” said the red-haired man. “Kees here went with me, and we spent much of a day looking at what they had brought, and there were enough things different from what has been seen before that I'm worried.”

Here, he paused, then said, “when you said 'decent', did you mean referenced to what is common?”

“Most of those people were carrying what looked like, uh, disposable weapons,” I said. “They were poorly constructed, of poor materials, and showed gross defects, especially in the case of the auxiliaries.”

“Who were these people you speak of?” asked the other stranger.

“They were wearing leather with a covering of thin and somewhat rusted iron 'scales',” I said. “They seemed to be, uh, apprentice thugs.”

“Apprentices in name only,” said the red-haired man. “They had been here before also.”

“Then who were those plate-wearing thugs?” I asked.

“They've been seen before,” he said. “It is thought Norden has several grades of men-at-arms, and those individuals are the best they have. Their armor was marked with numerous signs, just like those weapons were.”

Runes?” I gasped. “Where?”

“Now I wonder more,” he said. “Where did you go to school?”

“It is not any of the higher schools,” said Hans, “as he does a great deal that they do not teach, and knows more yet. He might not be the most patient teacher...”

“Hans, he might not be as patient as some, but I have yet to hear him scold or show much in the way of temper,” said Anna. “I remember more than one teacher doing those things.”

“Or much worse,” said Kees cryptically. “I saw my share when in Ginnedaag.”

“Ginnedaag?” I asked.

“One of the higher schools,” said the red-haired man. “It might not be the west school for vermin, or Boermaas for languages, but it does its share.”

He paused, then continued, saying, “I've only heard two or three lecturers name those things rightly, as you just did. They were on the inside of those people's plate, and were painted on in blood.”

“I would let him look at those things,” said Hans. “He seems to understand what they mean.”

“Uh, I'm told what they mean,” I said. “I think those people write their language in them as well as curses.”

“How is it you know?” asked the other man.

“I've seen a handful of rune-curses,” I said, “and the longest one so far has had but seven symbols. I counted twenty-seven such symbols on those weapons. If that's a curse, it's a truly long-winded one.”

“Hence it is likely to be writing,” said the red-haired man. “Do you have any idea as to its meaning?”

“Perhaps those weapons used a meteor for a source of alloy content,” I said “It isn't the usual metal from there, either as to material or much else, and I doubt greatly they have many weapons like those.”

As I said this, however, I knew that what I'd stolen was a 'decade' weapon, one that not only had taken quite some time to prepare, but was of such rarity that ones of a similar quality were all but non-existent.

“They might make ones of that grade every few years,” I said. “The raw materials used aren't exactly common, and people able to work them in that place are less common yet.”

“I suspect you might have more answers when you are able to look at the recovered weapons,” he said, “which is why they are being gathered and brought to where you work.”

“That is bad stuff,” said Hans. “What will they do with it once he looks at it?”

“Why, melt it down,” I said. “Didn't I say there was something unusual about that metal – something about it being tougher and stronger than what is common here, even given their poor preparation? I'd like to get that stuff in a crucible.”

The two men exchanged knowing looks at one another, then the red-haired man said, “I'd like to see you on a regular basis, but I wonder how to do so without attracting the wrong type of attention.”

“That man that came,” I said. “I was told he was one of the guards.”

Again, knowing glances, then “that is a good idea,” he said. “Those people are common, they see me with some frequency, and they are trained well. There will be another group starting training as soon as thaw starts, and you will be expected then. In the meantime, things will change here.”

“Uh, do you want those weapons?” I asked.

The looks I saw now indicated consternation, and I needed to explain, saying, “I used those because they were available, and they, uh, look showy...”

“I told him about how you feel about such matters,” said Anna, “along with money, and much else. Hans showed him that card you have.”

“Oh, no,” I murmured. I wanted to hide badly, even as the two men left the room.

“He laughed about that card,” said Hans. “At first, he thought you might be one of those divine messengers, but I said that was not likely. I told him you were marked, and he had suspected that to be the case.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“Hans saw that place out there,” said Anna, “and if that wasn't out of an old tale, I'd like to know where it came from.”

“Uh, the mess?” I asked.

“It wasn't just the mess,” said Anna. “The dogs didn't have that many of those people left to bite, as nearly every one of them had been burned, blown up, or cut. A lot of them were missing their heads.”

“Those were on that big field,” said Hans. “Every one of those people had his head cut off, except for one of them. He was split in half from head to tail.”

I nearly screamed, then moaned, “he'd dropped his weapons and was asking me to spare him, and I was so crazy I killed him anyway!”

“Good that you did not fall for that trick,” said the red-headed man as he came back into the parlor. “Those people neither give nor accept quarter, save as a ruse to gain advantage, and the word 'mercy' has no meaning whatsoever to them.”

“In what way?” I asked.

“The only way to make them cease killing is to kill them,” he said, “and they tend toward shamming when the battle is going poorly. Did you walk the battlefield and make certain they were dead?”

I nodded amid my sobs.

“Good that you did so,” he said, “as I've heard of instances of those people appearing to be dead and then waking up and trying to kill again. They might not be as the Black Fiend was said to be, but with them, taking their heads before burning them is a very wise idea.”

The two men now left, and as they did, I wondered more as to why I still sensed more than the usual number of people present, and this added person was down in the basement. I tried to sit up, and noted for the first time a degree of fatigue and soreness that was daunting. Anna looked at me, then pulled her stool closer.

“You've filled one sack with coins, and part of another,” said Anna, “but I will not be surprised if you fill such sacks a good deal quicker now.”

“How?” I asked.

“Your wages, mostly,” said Hans. “That, and the blessings.”

“B-blessings?” I asked.

“A lot of people that have things you made bring those,” said Anna. “I put most of those in the bags, and some in your money-pouch, though after hearing about what you did with Maarten, I know I should put more money in that thing.”

“I, uh, needed to get some food on the way over, and I surprised a stinky black-dressed thug trying to steal some of their hanging meat,” I said. “I hit him with a snowball.”

“You must have put a rock in that thing,” said Hans, “as Katje said he was dead when she found him. At least now I know why that place has changed some.”

“Changed?” I asked.

“That was one of the head witches,” said Hans, “and since he died, most of the people in that place are no longer wanting to be witches. Talk has it that the robbers are now afraid to go in their house at night.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because that head witch was killed,” said Hans. “Killing those people tends to put the fear in those under them and those that want to be like them.”

Hans paused, then said, “and stools aren't the only things that are being put right. They spoke this morning of having the bathing room done proper, which means the stonemasons will be over in a few days once you are rested better and have drawn how it should be.”

“Uh, I know very little about such matters,” I gasped.

“You draw such things much better than either of us,” said Anna, “and given how you are, it is likely you will have ideas.”

“And... How long have I... What day is it?” I gasped.

“The third day of the week,” said Anna, “or mid-week. You didn't completely wake up until this morning.”

“Georg..?”

“He's been told,” said Anna, “both as to what you did and as to what you will most likely be doing. You will still be there, but not all the time, and once thaw happens, you will be in training.”

Anna paused, then seemed to gather herself in a peculiar fashion. She then said, “this town now has a special title, and our house will now be visited a great deal.”

“Oh, no!” I squeaked.

“Yes, that will happen,” said Anna, “and it will take people some time to now accept you as you are now known to be.”

Anna had sunk into the hell-broth of oblivion, for some reason, and as she continued, I barely seemed to hear her, until I heard the word 'hero'. I fell instantly into a black hole of unconsciousness.

Yet for some reason, I could still hear, though in a muffled form.

“You should have waited until he is better,” said Hans.

“It would be best to not wait,” said Anna. “Now I must go to the Public House, and fetch a rotten egg so as to wake him up.”

“No! I screamed. “Please, no rotten eggs. Just let me rest a moment, and I'll wake up.”

The vague fuzzy thing that now blasted into my head was the roar of a near-explosion that sent the stools flying in long clattering arcs and put both Hans and Anna on their rears with their hands on their heads. I had not spoken, however; the scream was purely a mental thing, and...

“I cannot do such things,” I thought.

“You just did,” said the soft voice. “Do not be afraid. Rest, and get up when you are ready. They know better now.”

They were not the only ones who knew better; I did too, and in a blurry fog filled with shame and grief I fell off of the couch and crawled toward them, saying as I did, “please, forgive me, I did not mean to hurt you...”

I said no more, for now, I was truly dead to the world, and collapsed in a faint.

Sometime later – how much later was a good question – I awoke to an odor of such profound and appetizing status I marveled at it. While the aroma of flowers was still quite present, this new odor was unlike anything I had smelled before. It smelled vaguely like smoked salmon, and when I sniffed, the effects were staggering.

I awoke fully in the blink of an eye, and noticed my raging appetite, even as I fell from the couch to the floor and began crawling toward the kitchen. I came to a wall and hauled myself up, then staggered toward the table. I barely noticed the number of plates at first, but as I saw Anna with a sizable crock and a long bronze two-tined fork and heard steps behind me, I sniffed again. Anna startled at the noise, then turned to see me.

“How is it you are up now?” blurted Anna.

“What is that smell?” I asked. My voice was very weak.

“I know what works on you now,” said Anna with a knowing voice. “Forget rotten eggs, and use herring.”

“Herring?” The word came out 'Haarrring', and my stomach knew the word implicitly.

“Packed in salt and dried over a smoky fire,” said Anna. “They came from the south a few days ago, and the Public House has them. Do you want one?”

I wobbled over to where Anna was forking the things out, and saw what looked like silvery fish 'fillets' packed in damp salt. The odor was now enough to induce drooling, and when Anna managed to get one of the fillets out of the crock, I was astonished. The piece was easily eight inches long, four wide at its widest point, and nearly an inch thick for the most part.

“How big are those fish?” I asked.

“Those things there are two to the fish,” said Hans as he came in from behind, “and they come from upriver a ways. I think they were delayed this year, as they usually get here about the time of Festival Week.”

“Or when the publican can get someone to go down and fetch them,” said Anna. “It's two days or more traveling to the nearest fish-house.”

“Fish-house?” I asked.

“That is where they put the fish up,” said Hans. “With those, one must clean them good, and rinse them in steaming hot water with a lot of salt, then one splits them lengthwise. That gets the bones out. Then, one packs them in salt for two days or so, and then they are smoke-dried for at least another day before they are crocked like that. The best ones are packed in salt, and those look to be good ones.”

“How long do they keep?” I asked.

“Quite some time if they're kept cool and dry,” said Anna.

“Can they be eaten like that?” I asked.

“They can, though they are best steamed if they've sat for some time,” said Anna. “I take it you want one.”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “Why are there four plates?”

“Some woman has been asking about you,” said Hans, “and she seems a good match, too. She's the oddest girl I've ever seen, though.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Her hair is as dark as anything,” said Hans, “and she seems an especially quick learner, though that heating lamp was too much for both of us.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“She tried turning it down too much, and it went out,” said Hans, “and neither of us could figure out how the wick threaded into that thing, so she took it apart. She was afraid to try putting it back together, as those things are tricky that way. I said for her to put it in a rag, and leave it for you.”

Hans paused, then said, “watch that she does not jump on you.”

“Hans, don't,” said Anna.

“Why would she do that?” I asked. Anna looked at me in a knowing fashion. Neither of them said anything.

I had an intimation, and went over to the workbench where I kept the two remaining combs. I removed one, then walked over to the spare plate, and put the comb under the plate there.

“But you have not seen her yet,” said Anna.

“Anna, I have a feeling about her,” I said, “and Hans saying she might jump on me only confirmed what I was feeling.”

As Anna removed the herring fillets from the crock – they were a tight fit, or so I gathered – I wondered what I could do. Hans went to the stairs, then called down them, “Sarah, please come up. It is lunchtime.”

For some reason, I now wanted to hide as lithe footsteps came running up the stairs at a frantic pace. I turned to look, then just short of emerging, the steps stopped. From around the corner, someone with short dark hair and large expressive eyes poked her head around the stairway, then hid again.

“He won't hurt you, dear,” said Hans. “Come on.”

She then showed herself fully, and as she walked by me, I marveled. I had seen a king earlier in the day, and as I watched her move, I noted slender arms and a dainty-seeming figure. This lady had to be a princess, and she...

She needed help. I went for her stool and pulled it out for her, and as I came closer, I noticed her hair. Not merely was it short and dark, but it was lustrous, soft, and seemed slightly unruly – and it was only short in relationship to the shoulder-length hair I'd seen on every other woman here. I was captivated by it, and as she sat down, she squeaked, “thank you.”

I then smelled her hair.

The stuff smelled of flowers, and the intoxicating aroma was of such intensity I nearly fainted. All I could think of her was “she has such pretty hair. I wonder what it feels like?”

Hans and Anna then sat down, and I sat in my usual place. Hans said a few words, and Anna began dishing up the herring.

Sarah noticed her plate seemed different, and when she lifted it, the expression on her face was priceless: huge eyes – they made Anna's saucer-eyes look small – an unreadable expression, and then small fingers delicately touching the thing to see if it was indeed real. She picked it up, and in a high-pitched squeaking voice, she said, “where did this come from?”

“He put it there,” said Anna. “Do you want one or two?”

“Two, please,” she said. “I'm famished.”

While I was famished, I suspected one would be plenty for the immediate future, and when one of them was put on my plate, I was surprised to find the tinned brass forks in use. I then wondered how herring were to be eaten. I'd heard of several different ways – roll them up, hold them by the tails and down them whole while using the fingers, use forks – and I thought to wait until the others ate some.

I didn't need to wait long, for the others tore into the fish as if starved. The fish on my plate was fork-tender, and when I had eaten but half of it, I paused. I seemed to have guessed right, as my appetite was almost gone, and as I watched Sarah eat, I was astonished – both at her dainty eating habits, and also at her appetite. She had spoken of being famished, and was proving it in decisive terms.

The fish was uncommonly salty, so much so that I was on my third mug of water by the time I finished my single 'fillet', then my gut squirmed and I went to the privy. Upon emerging, I had a renewed appetite, or so I thought when I sat down.

The reality was I had a renewed thirst, and drained two more mugs of water and one of cider. I then felt sleepy, so much so that I left the table and staggered over to the couch, where I crawled under the blanket, found the pillow, and fell asleep as if clubbed.

Awakening – in the late afternoon – was a bit of a struggle, and when I opened my eyes, I knew but one thing: I had to visit the privy. I tried to get up, and again, I fell on my face. I squirmed around, and saw that someone had tied my feet together with a thin gray rope. As I sat up and tried untying the strange-looking bow knot, Hans came up the stairs.

“I told her not to tie your feet together,” said Hans as he untied the knot for me, “but she is like that. Anna was playful enough, but Sarah is unbelievable.”

Once untied, I ran for the privy, and when I came out, I said, “what a woman! Does she use things with flowers?”

“I doubt she uses scent,” said Hans. “I could not smell anything out of the ordinary.”

“She smells very strongly of flowers for some reason, and...”

Anna came from the bathroom with an armload of clothing, and when she saw the rope in Hans' hands, she said, “I see that rope worked. She had to go for the day.”

“Go?” I asked.

“Yes, go,” said Anna. “She walks a circuit, and she said she was heading north from here.”

Here, Anna paused, then said, “you will need to be very careful with her.”

“Why?” I asked. “I have no idea what the, uh, customs are here.”

“I do,” said Anna, “and that rope says she is most interested. I would expect her to chase you a great deal, and she might well jump on you if she gets the chance.”

“Why would she chase me?” I asked. The thought was an enchanting one, as such behavior seemed the acme of playfulness – and as for being jumped on, it sounded amusing.

“That is the usual,” said Hans, “for it is rare indeed for men to ask women.”

“What?” I asked.

“The women do the choosing,” said Hans. “I think it goes back to the war, and that curse after it, as then there were very few men. Most of them were killed in the fighting, and the women fought over the men.”

“Fought over the men?” I gasped. “In what way?”

Hans looked at me in a knowing fashion, then said, “I know they still do that some.”

“Hans, don't,” said Anna.

“Still, she likes that comb,” said Hans. “I have no idea as to what she will use it for, as her hair is so short, but she does like that comb.”

“Her hair may be shorter than is common for this area,” said Anna, “but it is far from too short to use a comb, especially those combs. They work much better than the common, and I've let mine be examined by a jeweler.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Given the price of silver in this area, and the nature of imported brass combs, it isn't that much more expensive to make them locally of silver,” said Anna.

“And most jewelers can use more business,” said Hans. “I told that one man how you did your combs, and he was asking a lot of questions and writing notes.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “They were simple enough to make – straighten the wire, cut it, fold it using a little jig I made, then fold the silver sheet and put them in along with some jeweler's solder and flux, then heat the whole thing with a blowpipe and pickle it overnight in vinegar before cleaning it up.”

“I know that,” said Hans, “and that way is a lot quicker and neater than anything that man could figure out without me telling him how you did those things.”

Anna then fetched a bag, and undid its strings. Within was another ledger, two writing dowels, and a square tan thing about two inches to a side. She laid them on the 'counter', then resumed stirring something on the stove.

“Hendrik looked at your ledger and brought another one,” she said. “I told him you wrote as much down as you could.”

“Could he read my notes?”

“No, and neither could Kees,” said Anna. “He mentioned something about scribes and dictation being provided if needed.”

Anna paused, shifted her load of clothing, then said, “we have herring, Kuchen, cider and beer for dinner.”

At the table that evening, Anna tried to get me to consume more than a mouthful of beer, and once I'd gotten one swallow down, I was disinclined to go further, even with Anna urging me.

“You have too much to do and not enough time by a third,” she said, “and now, you will have even more to do.”

“More?” I asked. I was on my second 'fillet of herring', and third mug of water.

“Yes, more,” said Anna. “Talk has gone around in town since you were brought back on the rest-day, and between Hans and those that went out to that place, everyone in town knows of what happened.”

“Did they get the boat-drivers?” I asked.

“That camp was burned good,” said Hans. “I have no idea how you managed to set fire to that place like you did, but I saw a lot of those dead-piles those people make when they have the chance.”

“Dead-piles?” I asked. “Uh, thugs burnt to charcoal?”

“There were lots of those,” said Hans. “There might have been a few that got away, as there were drag-marks that showed where one of the boats left.”

“How many boats were there?” I asked.

The count was twenty-nine,” said Hans, “and in every one of those boats, there were at least two of those thugs that sail those things. The dogs chased them out and then bit them good, so they were easy to shoot.”

“Uh, live ones?” I asked.

“There were a few,” said Hans, “but except for those people in those boats, they were not able to do much. Most of them would not have lived long, as they were cut up bad.”

“Bad?” I asked.

“A lot of them were missing arms, and some were cut open,” said Hans, “and then, there were those thugs in the ditch.”

“Were they alive?” I asked.

“Some of them had drowned,” said Hans, “but a lot of them were missing their heads. There were a few that were cut in half at the waist. Then, there was the bridge itself. That thing had a hand's thickness of frozen blood on it, and long red ice-sticks coming off of it.”

“That all sounds like an old tale,” said Anna.

“Uh, what happened to my clothing?” I asked.

“Hendrik took that with him for the museum,” said Anna. “I would not worry, as it will be replaced and then some.”

“There's a museum?” I asked.

“Yes, though it is small,” said Hans. “It is mostly a room in the house proper that is kept locked up most of the time, and a lot of old papers and things are in there.”

Hans paused, then asked, “what were you thinking when that man came in?”

“Uh, I don't recall much,” I said. “I'd been feeling, uh, worried the whole day, I come home, he comes in, and then that worried feeling gets a lot worse. I started seeing pictures, and then something happened to me that I don't understand. There were a lot of things that happened I don't understand.”

I drank deeply of the cider, then continued.

“Once I'd gotten out of the door, I started running. I wasn't going my fastest, but...”

“They checked your footprints,” said Hans, “and the tape said they were four paces for the most part, at least when you left normal-looking tracks. There were a few places where it looked like you made your own roads, and those had no tracks to be seen.”

“Four paces?” asked Anna. “How fast was he going?”

“A good pace for a horse,” said Hans. “There was a lot of talk about that, especially how shallow and wide they seemed to be, and how easy they were to follow.”

“When did they start?” I asked.

“The big bunch of them started late that night when the dogs at the king's house started howling like they do, and they turned them out,” said Hans. “Two men saddled up and began following them, and one had a horn. He was blowing that thing as often as he could, and when I heard the horns, I knew about what was likely to happen, so I got the sled out and put the jugs in it, and left.”

“And Anna?” I asked.

“She stayed here looking after that man,” said Hans. “He was able to go home early the next morning, when someone came for him. I think he is still in bed a fair amount.”

“Hans, he was almost well when he left the next day,” said Anna. “He was still dry, hungry, and sore, but he didn't need me looking after him, and a good thing, too.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“They brought you home about two hours before nightfall,” said Anna, “and they thought they were going to show me a corpse before burying you, as those people thought you were dead. Hans refused to believe them, and when Maria showed, she spoke of what to do. It took all three of us until late that night to clean you up, and that's when I knew Hans was right.”

“What did you find?” I asked.

“You'd lost a lot of weight,” said Anna, “and acquired a great many new scars, but otherwise, you just seemed dried out, hungry, and very tired. I needed to use that tube several times a day, and every time, I put in at least one mug of beer along with water and sugar-tree sap.”

“There were a lot of people on that trail,” said Hans a minute later, “and the hounds were making a lot of noise. Then, the witch-horns started, and by the time I'd been out two hours, there were easily another ten sleds behind me.”

“How long did it take you to get there?” I asked.

“It was dark almost the whole time,” said Hans, “and when the moon quit, I had to slow down some, as I had not been out that way in years, and then your trail went through the woodlots. The sled won't go in those places, so I had to go around them, same as most people. The two following the dogs didn't, as they were on horseback.”

“How did they stay on?” asked Anna.

“I am not sure,” said Hans, “but I am sure they each were leading a horse, and they'd trade off every hour or so, as is usual for those following the dogs close like that.”

“Did any, uh, white dogs show?” I asked.

“Yes, in the camp itself,” said Hans. “They showed there, and then they went off after something. I think some of those people tried escaping, as I could hear screams now and then once I'd gotten there.”

Hans paused, then said, “I wasn't the first one there, but I was just behind the people following the dogs, and they were standing next to you. I could not fit you on the sled, as I had the jugs there, and they were talking like you were dead, and I told them that was not true. I'm glad one of them brought a blanket, as I wrapped you up in that thing and waited until some people came that could take you home before I went to where that camp was.”

Hans drank from his mug for a minute, then said, “and that camp was burned good, too. There wasn't much for me to do, other than look around for a bit, and then I headed back to where I'd left you, and I had to tell them to put you in that sled and put their horses to work.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Some people do not listen good,” said Hans, “and they were cold and everything, and they thought you were dead. I was glad I had that pistol, as I almost had to shoot one of those people. He wanted to burn you on the spot.”

“Why?” asked Anna. “It should have been obvious he wasn't one of those northern people.”

“Yes, but he was covered in blood, too, and they saw those weapons with their markings,” said Hans. “That is enough for some people. If they find someone all bloody, there are weapons close by like those northern people use, and that person is near some dead pig-runners, they think that person is one of those that run with the swine.”

Hans paused, then said, “then, I got you in a sled, made sure you were as warm as I could, and then I got those people going toward home. They did not want to go, but as we left, Hendrik showed. I talked to him, he talked to them, and there was no more talk of dumping you off somewhere to rot.”

“Who were these people?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” said Hans. “There are people you can count on if those northern people show, and then there are some that panic and hide, and then there are some that make me wonder.”

“Uh, what is usually done with those, uh...”

“They didn't dump off those men they killed,” said Anna. “They found what was left of them, and took them home.”

“Then why wasn't I treated like those people?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” said Hans. “I think it was that you were not well known by a lot of those people that came at first, and those people in that patrol were known good. Now that was then, and what I've heard before and since has gotten me good. What did you do?”

“I got there while it was still dark,” I said, “and the moon was showing enough that I could see well. I went into their camp, and found some tents with dynamite and distillate. I go to the last one in line, uncork two jugs and leave them laying, then uncork a third one and leave a trail of distillate back to the next tent, where I do the same thing.”

“Now that is trouble,” said Hans. “I am wondering why you were not blown up.”

“It was cold, I stayed well away from the fires, and I prayed the whole time,” I said. “At least, I stayed well away from the fires until I came to the last one. I tossed the jug at it and ran.”

“Yes, and what next?” asked Hans. Anna was spellbound.

“There was a huge explosion that flung me into the trees,” I said, “and I barely got to my feet when a bigger one went. There were three more by the time I could count to five, perhaps, and then I ran through the forest where I could hide.”

“Ah, that sounds like it worked good,” said Hans. “Now what did you do once you'd hid?”

“I was waiting for the thugs to come after me,” I said, “as I wanted to get some weapons. They came fast enough, then this one thug shows with good stuff and I go for him. That was when I got bloody the first time.”

“What happened?” asked Anna.

“I ripped out his throat,” I said, “I got his weapons, and I went after the other thugs. They were trying to surround me, and I cut my way through the group and began running.”

“Was this in a big bloody place like a road into the forest?” asked Hans.

“It was after I got done causing trouble,” I said. “At first, I head back toward the camp, then realize I'm going the wrong way, so I turn around, and then I leave the forest.”

“So you got away from them,” said Hans. “That whole forest road place was solid blood, almost, and I saw a lot of arms and heads still.”

“I sliced on every thug I could reach until I got away from them,” I said. “Once I got back to the bridge, I washed myself in that river there, then slept for a little while. I woke up, was given some food...”

“How?” asked Anna.

I began weeping, then said, “I ran into two deer on the way there. The first one I avoided, but the second one was hiding and I kicked it.”

I nearly screamed, then said, “I'm so sorry. I was trying to protect the animals and forests and people, as those nasty northern people want to kill everything and turn the place into hell!”

“I thought so,” said Anna. “Go on.”

I sobbed, then said, “I had met with a family of wolves on the way, and I asked them to fetch the dogs. They were glad for that deer, and they said they'd bring me a piece of it. They kept their word, and I won't ever forget it.”

I paused for a moment, then wiped my eyes. I continued, saying, “I did something with those weapons that I barely understand my part of, and they changed quite a bit. I used the dagger to cut up the meat, and I fed the wolves and myself.”

“Raw meat?” asked Anna.

“He had no way of cooking the stuff,” said Hans, “and he loses weight easy, so he must eat.”

“But still, you are supposed to..” I had a suspicion that Anna was speaking of the need to get the blood out of the meat before eating it.

“I cut my pieces up small and wiped them good with snow,” I said, “as I didn't want any blood in what I was eating. I did the best I could.”

I drank deeply from my mug. My mouth was dry, and thirsty seemed an understatement.

“It was still dark when they came out of the forest with torches and those red flags, and when they lined up so as to shoot arrows at me, I did not stay around. I ran between them, the archers shot at the tinned thugs, and when the snow I'd kicked up had cleared, most of the thugs that were still alive had arrows in them, and they came at the bridge...”

I moaned, then shrieked, “I went out of my mind, and I wanted all of them dead, and I didn't stop until I killed them all. I chased down those that ran and killed them, even those that had dropped their weapons, and...”

“And what?” asked Anna.

“I could only think of one thing,” I moaned. “I wanted to kill those people, and nothing else mattered. I didn't care if I lived or died, I wanted them dead and burning in hell – and mercy? I had none. I walked the field after they were all down on the snow, and I cut off every head that was still attached to a body. I didn't check, I took their heads, just as if I were a witch, and was out hunting someone to murder in one of those stinky rooms.”

I looked down to see a puddle of tears on the table, and as I sobbed, I hung my head in shame. The feeling of guilt was of such proportions I felt as if doomed, as if I could not be forgiven. Still, the words came to me, and I moaned, “God, please, forgive me. I tried, but I wanted to kill them. Do what you want with me. I deserve what you give.”

This time, there was no feeling of rationalization, nor was there anything that I expected. I heard clearly a soft voice say, “you did exactly what was needed, and you gave back a lot more than ten times what I gave you.”

I closed my eyes to blink out the tears, even as I felt as if transported in some fashion, and when I lifted my head and opened my eyes, I was shocked and horrified. This was neither vague nor filmy, and I was no longer sitting on a stool. I was sitting on soft green grass, and the whole was real enough to touch. I felt the grass with my hands, then looked around. I was in a small grove of some kind, and the leaves of the trees hid me in deep shade.

The horror redoubled, and I felt as if I were going to be beaten to a red paste. I cowered on the grass, and as I sobbed, I heard clearly, “no, beatings do not happen here. Here, there are rewards, not punishment.”

I sobbed even louder upon hearing something that crushed my heart, and when I came to myself, I opened my eyes to see Anna with saucer-like eyes.

“Where did you go?” she shrieked. “You were gone for a count of two, and then you came back. What happened?”

“I, I don't know,” I said. “I feel horrible.”

“It sounds as if you were more affected than anyone I've ever heard of,” she said. “Hendrik left one of those blood-flags here, and I'm not sure you know what those mean. Do you?”

“N-no, I don't,” I said.

“When those people fly those flags,” said Anna, “they aren't after food or out to cause trouble. They are out to destroy everything they possibly can. That means kill everything they see that's alive, burn everything that can be burned, leave no stone atop another, and then curse the ground so it's dead and stays that way.”

Anna paused, then said, “for many years, I have wondered if those flags were connected with the curse itself. Few people have seen those flags and lived, and of them, most were hurt badly.”

“Were they in tears, like I am?” I asked.

“One of those men wished he could cry,” said Anna. “He wasn't able to do that any more, as those fiends were burning him when they were shot and killed. Hendrik understated the case when he said those people don't know the meaning of mercy, as I've never heard of them practicing it. No, not ever.”

“Uh...”

“If one survives those people,” said Anna, “it is because they've either run off, or lie dead on the ground. If they are alive, and in the area, they will destroy all they see and kill everything that lives, and they only leave an area when it's all smoke, ashes, and flames – and that's when they don't have the blood-flags.”

“Dynamite?” I asked. “Distillate?”

“That is trouble,” said Hans. “I have never heard of them using that stuff before.”