Beards, smells, and masonry.


After dinner, however, I felt especially tired, and I asked for a small cup of beer. I thought to drink the stuff while in bed, and once there, I gulped the stuff down. I barely had time to set the cup down before I blacked out to awaken at my usual time with a squirming bladder and a strangely relaxed and clear-headed mind.

I slowly stirred from bed, and for a second, I thought the nightmarish events of the last few days was merely an unpleasant dream. As I reached my feet, however, I felt both great fatigue and soreness, and when I came to the top of the stairs, I started in horror.

The stairs were slick with blood and cluttered with offal, and screamed oaths came rumbling up the stairs from below amid the clash and clatter of sword-and-ax battle that raged beneath me. I could feel that accursed swastika-swirling witch in the general area, and the smell was a nauseating mingling of blood, body fluids, distillate, and datramonium. I looked at the floor underneath my feet, and saw that it was nearly ankle-deep in blood.

I turned to look at the hall behind me and saw more blood, but several heads, a trio of arms, and two legs in the short section of hallway; in the corners, short pieces of viscera wiggled like half-dead worms; and when I looked at the walls, not merely were they splattered with blood, but scraps of red and black cloth seemed to have been flung against them. The blood acted much like wallpaper paste.

I put one foot on the stairs, while feeling them carefully to avoid falling. The blood underfoot was utterly real, more so than the sand of the precipice in church, and I took another step, then another. My head reeled, even as the smoky smell of 'battle' seemed to be slowly diminishing. I continued stepping, and the sense of a battle in the parlor faded with each further step, such that I felt encouraged. By the time I reached the floor below, not only had the sensation of battle vanished, but the fatigue I felt was much less.

“Was that the beer, or something else?” I thought. “I feel much better.”

I passed Anna on the way to the privy, and when I returned, I noted she was dicing carrots. I suspected 'elk stew' was being prepared, and when I heard steps coming from below, I asked, “what time is it?”

“About time for breakfast,” said Anna. “I'm making this for lunch and dinner today.”

I glanced over at the workbench, and saw a rag with the parts to a heating lamp. As I went closer, I wondered if there was time to work on it now, even as I found my stool.

As I assembled the lamp, I heard footsteps coming closer. I turned to see Anna.

“I'm glad that dark-haired witch didn't show,” she said, “but I wish I could say that for the one that did.”

“Uh, which witch?”

“She was terrible,” said Anna. “She was dirty, stinky, and had the nastiest hair I've ever seen. Then, her attitude. It was so bad it almost made up for what she lacked in power compared to the other, and then finally, the idols. Calling them awful is saying they're not so.”

“What did those look like?” I asked. I heard steps coming downstairs.

“Round brass things covered with blood for some of them,” said Anna, “and then some much bigger ones where they live. That wasn't all, though.”

“Uh, there was more?” I asked. I almost had the lamp fully assembled.

“You were talking to the walls,” said Anna. “I had no idea there were such people in them, nor such a place.”

“Place?” I asked. “What was it like?”

“Tall buildings, strange wagons without horses, a great deal of smoke and noise, peculiarly-shaped metal things that flew like birds, and armies of thugs everywhere one went. I've heard of witch-holes, but that place was an above-ground one, and anyone who lived there for long at all would be ready to live in a rest-house.”

Anna paused, then said, “I wonder if you can read minds. I really do.”

I finished the lamp, then recalled I needed to fetch the cup I'd used the night before. To my astonishment, I saw the thing sitting on the bench next to me. I stood up, went to the table, and put the cup next to my place. I thought to 'try' something.

“No, that is impossible,” I thought. I then remembered reading recently about an axehead floating, and more, where I had read it, and finally, to whom I had read it. While looking at the cup, I thought, “twirl around, please.”

The cup faintly shuddered, then acquired a faint bluish-white mist as it began to slowly rotate in front of me. It seemed to shake slightly, so much so that Hans' outburst startled me:

“I do not believe this. Anna, do you see this cup?”

“What cup?” said Anna.

The faint bluish glow was still visible, even though the cup was now stationary. Hans came to my side, then pointed at it while saying in a shaky voice, “it was that cup there. It was moving as if someone were turning it round.”

I felt emboldened by the apparent success of asking things to move, so much so that I thought, “now into the soaking bucket, slow and easy.”

The cup faintly shuddered, then slowly lifted clear of the table. It had a very definite idea as to how to proceed, for it gently climbed to about eye level at a few inches per second. It floated past Anna's astonished eyes, then began descending gently as it 'came in for a landing'. It submerged in the soaking bucket with a faint gurgle.

“What was that?” squeaked Anna.

“I have trouble believing that myself,” I said with a shaky voice. “Cup, come up out of the water, drain, then set on the wood beside the soaking bucket.”

There was a faint gurgle, then the cup slowly rose from the bucket, upended itself while shaking slightly, then slowly landed on the 'counter'.

“I hope Maarten doesn't see that one,” said Anna, who seemed about to begin laughing. “I might have to fetch a rotten egg for him. Rivers aren't common here. Now isn't that in the book?”

“It is,” I said, “and why that occurred to me is a mystery. It doesn't say how Elisha did that, but it said he did, and the ax was borrowed, too. I doubt we will have to borrow axes now.”

“Not with those you made,” said Hans. “Now we can eat.”

“Did that cider barrel arrive?” I asked.

“Not yet it did,” said Anna. “I'll need to go to the Public House to fetch it shortly.”

As I made ready to leave – 'bag of tricks', food, lantern, one of the copper jugs of cider, revolver in pocket, money pouch – I wondered if I could actually work. My energy level was very low, so much so that it was a struggle to walk the distance through the snow, and when I slid open the door, I groaned.

Not only was the shop dark inside, but there was no one present.

“Where is everyone?” I thought, as I slowly trudged inside.

As I began clearing the ashes of the last fires with scoop and bucket, I heard a sliding noise behind me, then steps coming in the door. I turned to see Anna, who was looking around as if she expected the place to be frantic with labor – or so I guessed.

“Where are they?” she asked.

“I have no idea,” I said. “Is it too early for them? I'm too tired to tell.”

“I've been too busy looking after you to check on them, and Hans has been working on traps,” said Anna. “Once you get the fires lit, I would sit down and rest, as you still look very ill.”

“If I look half as ill as I feel,” I murmured, “I should appear to be... What is the term for 'too sick to move'?”

“That sounds about right,” said Anna. “They could at least do those things that they can do, even if it isn't much.”

Anna paused, then said, “maybe you could tell them what to do. Would that work?”

“I more or less have to do that already,” I said, “as well as demonstrate, explain carefully, watch so they don't make too many mistakes, and then try to fix what they do wrong. It might help to a degree with quantity, but it makes for a lot more worry on my part.”

“That sounds as if they might as well burn their walking papers and become apprentices again,” said Anna. “If they don't show by the time I return, Hans and I will roust them.”

Anna left less than a minute later. I struggled to clear more ashes, as the weakness I felt was rapidly increasing, and when I sat down minutes later, I saw that I was dripping sweat. I felt truly ill now, as well as uncommonly sore, and I longed for soft rags and Geneva-anointed rubbing. I struggled to my feet and began walking toward the woodpile out back.

As I staggered, I wondered if I could get a cane, and noises coming from behind suggested people were coming. I stopped and leaned against the doorway, then turned before watching first the gray and black of the team at home, followed by the sled with Anna in the front and a sizable barrel in the rear, and then two people from the Public House walking in the wake of the sled. I suspected Anna would return soon.

I had barely gotten one of the forges lit with wood when Anna and Hans returned. The two of them looked around, and as I watched, I noted the still-tall stacks of stovepipe, as well as the stacks of slates used for orders. Those had increased noticeably from when I had last seen them.

“There is plenty of work here,” said Hans, as he looked at the slate-stack, “so where are they?”

“The publican said they'd been spending a lot of time at the Public House,” said Anna. “How are you doing?”

“I doubt I can do much,” I said. “I feel sick, sore, and worn-out.”

“I think you should come home, then,” said Anna. “I can tell they are not going to be easy to roust.”

Once home – I was stumbling by the time I got there – I bathed, then got in 'bed-clothing' and all but crawled to the couch, where I crept under the blanket. I had chills, fever, and nausea, and when my gut spasmed, I found I had the runs as well. The foul odor, as well as the further gut-spasms, spoke of an intestinal illness of some kind, and when I emerged, I felt subjectively but little better.

Between brief naps, I used the student's ledger to indicate what I thought could be improved regarding the bathroom. The present layout was somewhat cramped, what with washing, bathing, drying, and sometimes storage, and I indicated its length and width needed to be 'at least three feet more'.

Lunchtime came, and when I ate, I felt more stirring, and I had to run for the privy twice during the meal. Anna looked after the second time, and came out with a worried expression.

“I have no idea what happened to you,” she said, “but food is going right through you. I cannot tell more than that.”

“Food poisoning?” I asked.

“There is no poison in the food,” said Hans, “as the two of us are eating the same things, and neither of us are sick. Did anyone hit you in the stomach?”

“Not that I know of,” I said. “Why, do you think that might be the problem?”

“If someone had hit you hard enough, it might cause injuries on the inside,” said Hans.

“Hans, that usually means bloody messes,” said Anna, “and I didn't see those.”

“Did I go while I was, uh, asleep?” I asked.

“We had to carry you into the privy,” said Anna, “and clean you up a fair amount. Most people don't produce much dung when they're fed the way you were – though now, you seem to be making up for it.”

Anna left after the dishes were cleaned up, and I returned to the couch. I still had to make frequent trips to the bathroom, and on the return trip of one of these mad dashes, I was surprised to find Anna. She had an unreadable expression on her face.

“I found the three men,” she said. “It seems they thought you were dead.”

“Why didn't they ask?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” said Anna. “Most people in town knew you were alive, but they didn't, for some reason. Then, what they told me was worse.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“You are paying their bills,” said Anna, “and without you, that shop does almost nothing.”

“That isn't quite true,” I said. “They can do some things.”

“Not very much, nor very well,” said Anna. “It's well known that you have to work on almost everything that shop makes, and people's attitudes in this area are changing.”

“In what way?” I asked.

“They want those things with the triangle and four lines on them,” said Anna, “and if it doesn't have that mark, they do not want it, especially if it comes from that shop.”

“Should I watch my stamps, then?” I asked.

“I would keep those things close,” said Hans. “They might bang out some rubbish and put your stamp on it otherwise.”

I paused for a moment, wrote down an idea, then asked, “is this like that one person who wanted to burn me when I was found? Those people that wished to dump me off to rot, as if I were...”

“I did not think of that,” said Hans. “You might be right. Now what were you going to say?”

“Were those people influenced by the beliefs of witches?” I asked. “As in they knew what had happened, and it was 'wrong' to them? As in they would have rather seen towns burnt to the ground and people murdered, and because I'd done what I did, they wanted to get revenge any way they could?”

“Now how is it they would get revenge by burning you?” asked Hans.

“They would have the satisfaction that such things would never happen again,” I said, “and they'd be punishing me for flouting them – and if I woke up in the flames, they would enjoy my screaming as I burnt to death.”

Now that sounds likely,” said Anna.

I paused, then asked, “can I have some soft rags and Geneva for rubbing? I'm really sore.”

“Where are you sore?” asked Anna.

“Almost everywhere,” I said.

Anna began muttering, then said, “I was wondering when it would affect you. That one man was sore the day after, and you worked a lot harder than he did.”

I spent roughly half an hour rubbing myself with the smelly 'liniment', and while I wished to vomit from its odor, it did relieve the soreness. I wondered about the bruises, however.

“Why am I all bruised like this?” I asked.

“I think that is from working harder than is good for you,” said Anna. “Still, I'm glad that raid was stopped.”

My guts ceased griping by dinnertime, and I ate with good appetite. This time, the herring was an appetizer, with elk stew – it was a bit thick for soup – being the main course. I went to bed shortly after eating, slept well – I woke up twice to visit the privy – and in the morning, went to work. This time, I also carried two wiping rags and a large medicine vial labeled 'liniment'.

While I still needed to rest a great deal, I was able to do a bit more than the day before, and the others began arriving by the time I'd gotten a forge lit. All of them expressed surprise that I was among the living, Georg most of all.

“I have no idea how you are here,” he said, “as anyone who took on a hundredth of that number of people would be certain to be dead.”

“Thrice over,” said Gelbhaar. “Now what was this about some strange weapons that shown like mirrors?”

“I stole those,” I muttered, as I soaked a rag with Geneva and began rubbing the back of my neck.

“I thought you did not steal,” said Georg.

“I needed weapons,” I said, “and I stole those from one of those people. He did not give them up willingly, and I had to use them right away.”

“How is that?” asked Georg. “Did you get caught?”

“Uh, there were a lot of those people,” I said, “and I hid until the last minute, then went for that thug while he was in the middle of his people. I think he might have been a thug-leader, actually – as in he was in charge of that group – and he had the best weapons I'd seen of that bunch.”

“Talk has it they are bringing all of that metal here,” said Georg, “that, and those people were specially picked.”

I ceased rubbing my neck, and now began rubbing my upper arms – and nearly spewed from the odor before I said, “this stuff may work good for soreness, but it makes me uncommonly sick to smell its fumes. How were those people specially picked?”

There was no immediate reply. I waited, then said, “They seemed specially drunk, actually. One of them had an argument with a tree and nearly shaved his neighbors' heads with his ax.”

“You have not needed a razor since you came,” said Georg, “and, I think I know the reason. The stuff migrated all to the top of your head, and now that hair is short, and you look ill.”

“Ill?” I asked.

“I am not surprised much,” said Georg, “as anyone who fights those people has trouble with it later. I heard the cannons for months the last time. If you are tired...”

“Tired, sick, and really sore,” I said, “which is why I'm using this liniment here.”

“That smells like Geneva,” said Gelbhaar. “Why are you rubbing it on your arms?”

“They're really sore,” I said. “I sliced on a lot of those thugs, and neither ax nor sword was particularly light.”

“Ax?” asked Georg. “You used an ax?”

“And a big brute of a sword,” I said. “I had no idea that business would be that messy, nor would I be so sore in my arms afterward. I doubt I could pick up a smaller riveting hammer right now, I'm so sore.”

I paused for a moment, and began rubbing my forearms. I noted a small scar on one of them, then touched it. It seemed merely a surface cut, and as I looked at it, I noticed I had an audience of sorts.

“I never saw that one before,” said Johannes. “Where did you get it?”

“I think I got sliced there by a thug,” I said, as I carefully rubbed my left forearm.

“What?” gasped Johannes. “You got cut and...”

“I doubt I felt it,” I said. “When I was using that sword and ax to cut my way out of the press of thugs, I felt insane, and everything went red on me. I tend to not notice injuries then.”

A short time later, I heard a horse – or perhaps two – coming, and I turned from my marking of pieces of sheet copper with sharpened chalk. My speaking of a light riveting hammer being too much to handle was not a joke; it was the reality.

I heard clanking noises outside the door, and I wobbled stiff and sore across the shop to see what was being 'dumped'. I was surprised to find the smaller pieces of 'iron' from the pig being unloaded.

“That stuff there makes that from down south look good,” said Georg as he came behind me to see what was being unloaded. “Still, those pigs are trouble, and loading that gun was more trouble, and the two together needed a really bad-tasting tincture for a month to sleep at all.”

“Perhaps we can make a cupola?” I asked, as I went inside. The sled was almost unloaded, and I suspected it would be but the first of a great many.

“Church equipment pays tolerably,” said Gelbhaar, “if you can get them to buy the stuff. Talk has it they are uncommonly picky there at the hall, and some of them are like that black-capped fellow for attitude.”

“A cupola is a type of iron-melting furnace commonly used for cast iron,” I said, “and the usual load for those uses a fair amount of scrap. The iron off of that pig might not be the usual type of 'pig-iron', but we could make a lot of useful stuff with it. I think it has a lot of silicon.”

“You lost me,” said Georg. “I've been looking for a good word-book, and finding one up here seems impossible.”

“There are things that lose me,” I said. “Certain types of mathematics are especially troublesome.”

“Now what would those be?” asked Georg.

“I'll do one with a slate to show you,” I said, as I reached for an unused slate. I then did a convolution integral, and because the thing needed doing by parts, it took up the whole of both sides of the slate. I hoped it was correct as I took it to Georg.

“Now what is this?” he asked.

“One of those troublesome types of mathematics,” I said. “That one deals with one frequency modulating another. There are worse ones.”

I doubted Georg would understand discrete-time Fourier transforms, as I barely understood them.

I soon found that even marking out parts was tiring, and when I hadd erased the slate and drawn a cupola from memory, I nearly fell to the floor when I turned. I caught myself with the edge of the workbench, then as I raised myself up, Georg said, “I saw that. Should I fetch someone from home to take you there?”

I nodded, then said, “I'm still especially tired.”

Hans came to fetch me in the buggy about twenty minutes later, and as he drove me home, he said, “those stonemason people are due sometime after lunch, though with them, that is hard to say as to the time.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“That is a great secret,” said Hans, “and they are the only ones to know it. They are fond of Geneva, and that is much of their nourishment.”

We arrived home a minute later, and in a state of exhaustion, I staggered to the door, stumbled inside, then fell on the couch with a crash. I hadn't gotten nearly as dirty as was the rule, as I had done very little.

“Hans, am I turning into a drunk?” I said weakly. “I feel so ill.”

“I doubt that,” he said. “You had a big fight with more drunks in one day than the port of the third kingdom has, so that should tell you something about drunks. These people are not that unpleasant. They do not carry axes as a rule.”

“What do they carry?” I asked.

“They carry jugs, mostly,” said Hans. “Then, if they must put in a blast, there are kegs of powder, and then they have the things most masons have, which are picks, saws, chisels, hammers, and trowels, along with troughs for the mortar.”

Hans paused, then said, “they tend to speak ill, and they are commonly rude and surly. If they bothered Sarah, she would thump them.”

I found the idea of Sarah being that way especially enchanting, so much so that I softly murmured, “what a woman! I like her already.”

“I heard that,” said Anna as she came down the stairs. “Those stonemasons might not wear what those northern people do, nor do they run with swine, but they do act unpleasant. You still look very ill. I think you need some beer, or some of the widow's tincture.”

“Hans spoke of the bull formula,” I said. “How is it used?”

“One gets the mash, adds beer, and then the bull-formula,” said Hans, “and then puts it where the bull will eat it, that and a few cups of uncorking medicine a day. Still, they get corked now and then.”

“How does one 'uncork' them?” I asked. Our lunch would start soon, or so I suspected. I could smell herring.

“That is a hard and dangerous thing,” said Hans, “as when cattle become corked, the corks are as big as corncobs for size.”

What?” I gasped. “Do they actually get corks in their, uh, backsides? How are those things removed?”

“When uncorking cattle,” said Anna, “they first must be tied well, then one uses tongs and removes the cork. One must be careful then, as the animal usually wants to run in two directions at once.”

Anna paused, the sipped from a mug near the stove. She was stirring something of an appetizing nature.

“Only bubbly-wine is worse for spouting when the cork is removed,” she said, “and thankfully, bubbly-wine does not smell badly. Cattle do.”

“There are corks that smell worse than those of cattle,” said Hans.

“What are those?” I asked.

“Those that come with the pain tincture,” said Hans.

“Do not speak of those things,” said Anna. I had the impression Anna knew about them all too well.

“That tincture causes c-corks?” I asked.

“Yes, invisible ones,” said Anna, “and only uncorking medicine works for them. One must drink it like beer, a mug at a time, and then one is usually in the privy for days.”

“Uh, that stuff sounds awful,” I muttered. “First the tincture induces insanity, then one must guzzle that nasty paint-thinner, and spend a lot of time in the privy.”

“You forgot the smell,” said Anna. “I'm glad I've not needed to see a tooth-puller, as teeth need that tincture, and those people are terrible.”

“Yes,” said Hans, “and they hang those thieves out to dry, and burn the worst ones as witches.”

“Tooth-pullers?” I asked. “Thieves?”

“Talk has it most of them wear black-cloth, box-hats, and pointed boots,” said Hans, “and that type of person is their chief customer.”

Lunch was indeed herring, and after the dishes were cleared, I began asking Hans and Anna as to what their experiences had been with the current bathroom.

“It could stand being larger for length and width,” said Anna, “and with stone, it might be wise to redo the oven. At least it drains passably the way it is now.”

“That will be a bigger problem with masonry, or so I guess,” I said. “I could indicate a drain is needed.”

“What is this drain?” asked Hans. “Those clothes drip some, and the water goes through the cracks in the boards.”

“I can make the drain-closure,” I said. “Are there pipes to be had?”

“Yes, down in that fourth kingdom market,” said Hans, “and some few cast them of lead for house-pipes.”

“House-pipes?” I asked.

“So they do not have to get water from outside,” said Hans. “Those places have their pumps indoors, as well as ways of draining their waste-water into the privy.”

“Uh...” I gasped.

“People know they will get lead in their brains if that is done,” said Anna, “and those that can afford it commonly do so anyway.”

“Lead in the brain?” I asked. “That sounds really strange.”

“Mother thought so too,” said Anna, “but a rich person she knew of had lead house-pipes, and he fell down on his plow one day. He split his head open and scattered his brains.”

“How did he manage that?” I asked.

“She never found out,” said Anna. “I've suspected he was like most misers and was drunk all the time.”

Anna paused, then said, “there were enough lead pellets in his brains to load up a large musket with shot, and his brains were wormy with holes.”

“Was this a special plow of some type?” I asked, as I recalled talk of 'fifth kingdom plows'.

“It was,” said Anna. “Talk had it he'd gotten tangled up in it somehow, and cracked his head open. There were a great many people that wanted to air out his smelly hide, as he'd gotten his wealth by robbery and theft.”

I was tongue-tied, and wondered greatly at Anna's statement.

“The usual means of becoming that wealthy is by dishonest means,” said Anna. “Even Hendrik is not that wealthy, as most of what he has is what he looks after. It is not his, even though he does not need to worry about money.”

“Yes, as he has other things to concern himself with, and those have plenty of worry,” said Hans. “No miser has those kinds of concerns, and what they concern themselves with is as nothing compared to his work. That is why his job supplies his needs ample.”

“I wish they would do the same with Maarten,” said Anna, “as his job is fully as important.”

“The hall isn't inclined,” I said, as I began sketching the drain layout, “as they expect him to enrich himself and those over him by thievery.”

Minutes later, I had drawn a tile-lined stone passage that flowed out to the foundation, with floors that slightly sloped toward it. I showed it to Hans, who then showed it to Anna, and as she looked at it, she said, “I'm glad you have paper and writing dowels, as this kind of detail would not show well using chalk and slate.”

“That is a good one, there,” said Hans. “Now I hope those people will not act as if they had mules teaching them for manners.”

“That pistol you recovered?” I asked. “Did you load it? You might wish to keep it handy.”

“I have that thing upstairs,” said Hans. “It was better than the one you found in that haystack, so it works passably without you needing to work on it.”

“That, and I'm still working on mine,” I said. “At least I have an idea as to how to make the parts for those now.”

I paused, then said, “how are those men going to learn of these details?”

“That might be trouble,” said Hans, “as we do not have spare paper, nor do we have much in the way of spare slates. You might have to copy that stuff out gradual and explain it to them.”

“Hans, he would have to be here nearly the whole time those people are working then, and tell them what to do and how to do it,” said Anna. “It would be better for him to get sheets of paper up at the house proper.”

As lunch finished, I could 'feel' a pair of individuals coming north on the road in a sizable sled. Their team – four horses that needed better care – was such that I was bothered by the 'abuse' the horses endured, even though I was quite ignorant of how to properly look after horses. I could feel the mens' attitude, rather than their knowledge, and while they were less ignorant than I was, they didn't know much.

“Hans, where did you get your hoof-cleaning tool?” I asked, as I drew details for two windows. The existing one was too small to light up the current room, and a larger room would need more light.

“I got that one at an estate sale years ago,” said Hans, “and ones that good are not common. Why?”

“Those people have a four-horse team, and a larger-than-common sled,” I said, “and they need to look after the horses better. One of those men makes me angry.”

“Does he have a beard that comes to his chest?” asked Anna.

“He does,” I muttered, “and he had best mind his manners around you.”

Anna looked at me with a face that might have indicated wonder, and I continued, saying, “I tend to be very protective of women, especially when that kind of man is near them.”

“I am not surprised,” said Anna, as she removed her knife from her pocket. “If he tries for me, I will carve him.”

I checked my revolver, laid it on the table, then fetched my rifle. I set it to half-cock where I could get at it readily – in the corner – and then removed my knife. I was satisfied, and pocketed both knife and revolver.

“I didn't know you were that serious,” said Anna.

“Th-that wretch is fond of abusing women,” I said in a harsh half-suppressed whisper, “and he likes to v-visit those places in Maarlaan.” I had almost said the word 'Brothel'.

“Some women have few alternatives,” said Anna. “Few go to such houses, unless they are wealthy or out of their minds.”

“I think those that do that are both of those things,” said Hans, “as those places are costly, like most things in or around Maarlaan.”

“How can they abuse those poor women so?” I squeaked.

“Those so inclined are very few, as most wait until marriage,” said Anna. “There should be a way that widows can look after themselves better, but some few have no relatives, friends or family remaining to them.”

“That is common with swine,” said Hans.

“And Sarah?” I asked.

“She is very independent,” said Anna, “and well-educated, resourceful, and well-skilled in many areas – and like you, she is not particularly good at cooking or domestic affairs.”

“That is common,” said Hans, “which is why there are Public Houses and cleaners...”

A hissing sound came from without, then thumping steps banged on the stoop. I turned to look, and as I did, I 'saw' the two men that were to come visiting. One of them had a huge and somewhat shaggy beard, and as he raised his hand, I knew he wasn't going to tap on the door.

The thunder of someone banging rapidly upon the door seemed the very definition of a despotic summons, as if the man owned the house and all in it. Hans went to the door, and when he opened it, the man in question pushed it open with an abrupt manner. Hans had been ready for their attempted 'inrush', and hence had been to the other side of the door.

While neither man lifted his feet high, nor walked stiffly, there was a profound aura of 'mastery' about them both, and the odor accompanying them – rancid sweat, crusted dirt, 'profanity', and sizable consumption of strong drink – made for silent retching on my part. Even so, there was a portion of what I was seeing that was somewhat familiar, and my thoughts echoed this familiar portion.

“These people remind me of construction workers,” I thought. “The one with the beard had best mind his manners.”

The bearded man paused to look closely at my workbench for a moment, and then came into the kitchen. His odor, while previously potent, now approached the nauseating nature of that one particularly unpleasant witch, and as I looked at him, it was as if I were seeing that evil-smelling witch and his hidden arsenal all over again. I then glanced at his companion.

That man did not hide half his face and upper chest with a beard. Instead, he had stubble like sandpaper, filthy clothing, and obvious crusted 'dirt'.

“There is some great warrior said to live here,” growled the bearded man, “and he is said to be both good at drawing and desirous of a room to bathe in.”

He paused, then said in another voice entirely, one that indicated his attitude, “and why he wishes to bathe himself is a mystery to me. Where is he?”

“You smell like you do and you wonder why people need to bathe?” I thought. “You stink worse than that captive pigeon did.”

'The beard' was jolted as if he'd been hit by a club, then he looked around. Under his breath, he snarled, “now who says I stink worse than a dead squab?”

His glance fell upon Anna, and while he seemed to be inclined to 'take her measure', I took his measure fully in the blink of an eye. He intended violence, with Anna his chosen victim.

“Sir, you might wish to not bother Anna,” I said. My voice was still even, yet it had an edge to it that I knew not whence it came.

He looked at me with evil eyes half-set in a murderous rage, and as he growled again, I abruptly changed fully and leaped toward him as the stool flew to crash against the wall. I grabbed his filthy clothing in my left hand and lifted him easily off of the floor by his clothing, then as I dropped him, I swung the razor-sharp claws of my right at his chin. His beard erupted into a yellow blast of hair as my claws shredded it, and as he continued falling in slow motion, I backed away. He hit the ground with a thud and 'splat' at the same time. His whimpering – and the odor of dung – said he was frightened.

“An apology to her,” I said, in a high-pitched voice that made my ears ring. “I will not let my friends be so abused.”

He apologized profusely.

“I've done the needed drawings,” I said in a more-normal tone of voice. It still sounded violent, edgy, and particularly merciless. “I need to add some further details, then copy them onto paper, as they are too complex and detailed to fit on slates.”

I leafed through my ledger, scribbled some further notes, then handed it to the stubble-faced man. “You may look at those briefly,” I said. “If the information is not in those drawings, you may use your own judgment.”

I paused, then said, “if you need special tools, go down the street to the shop where I work, and ask for Dennis. I will make the needed tools without cost.”

The man was speechless, and as he sat in a growing pool of what smelled like alcohol-laced urine, he said in an utterly different voice, “are you him?”

“Quite possibly,” I said. My voice had acquired an acidic tone. “Did you think to ask as to who you were to look for? There were fairly explicit instructions as to who to ask for that information, and you had ample opportunities to find out. Instead, you had preconceived notions, and you used those instead.”

He now was shaken to the core, and as he twitched violently, he seemed about to faint. A sour ripe odor accompanied by a staccato ripping noise said he was terror-stricken. Free beard trims and clothing alteration – as well as amateur-level surgery – were all too possible in his usual drink-house haunts. Those places resembled some rough bars I had heard of long years prior to coming here, unlike the local Public House – which was best described as 'a first-class restaurant that served alcoholic beverages'.

I stepped toward him, then helped him to his feet. I then saw the stains on the front of his trousers, which spoke of the source of the pool of liquid on the floor. The reek of urine and dung, both plentifully laced with alcohol, was nauseating.

“The work I do as a smith gets me very dirty, no matter what I do,” I said. “Dirt bothers me more than words can express, so bathing is a requirement so I do not go out of my mind.”

The two of them turned to go, and as he went, I saw the brownish stains that were beginning to show on the rear of his trousers. Once they had left – they closed the door behind them quietly – I heard the hissing sound of their sled seconds later. They did not waste time.

I wordlessly collapsed onto a stool to be hugged by Anna, who said, “I wonder little about you now, and that man wanted to hurt me. You got right in front of him.”

“Yes, and that stool flew against the wall,” said Hans. “At least it isn't broken.”

“I never saw anyone move so fast in my life,” said Anna. “May I see what is in your fingers?”

I placed my hand wordlessly palm up and unsheathed the claws.

“Those are... Those are as sharp as anything I had ever seen before,” said Anna. “Hendrik said they found someone wearing unusually good metal that had his throat ripped out with some kind of strange knife with more than one blade. He was almost decapitated.”

“I hope I change back soon.” The world went black the instant I finished speaking.

Awakening was slow until I caught the aroma of a blasted privy – whereupon I awoke the rest of the way and tried to vomit, and saw Anna cleaning a place on the floor with a long pole bound with damp rags on one end. The hair trimmings were gone, thankfully.

“Is that lye I smell?” I asked.

“That, and he needed to go in the privy and forgot himself,” said Hans. “He made a big mess.”

I then saw the bucket, along with its thick and grayish mounded suds. When Anna finished, Hans took both 'mop' and bucket outside, then came back indoors. I was now beyond that state called 'exhaustion', and I staggered over to the couch to then fall asleep as if bludgeoned. I awoke in time for dinner, which was followed by bathing and then bed.

I needed to rest as much as possible the next two days, and I found the softness of lye-washed bed-clothes helpful as I ate and then slept most of the day and nearly all of the night. I noted the weight loss Saturday evening when I bathed, and the next day, I saw Katje with Maarten. She seemed to be 'better' – she was helping him, for a change – but she still, deep inside, wished to be a rich 'dame' with servants, a large house, and a great deal of idle time.

“Dear, that will cease soon enough,” I said, as she walked by at the end of the service.

“What will cease?” she asked.

“If I speak more now, it will make it harder for you,” I said. “Some things need to happen first, and many of those things are spiritual – and most importantly, not all of it happens to you. A good deal of it happens to me, and I'm not sure what those things are.”

“And no matter what those things actually are,” I thought, “they are scary.”

“Oh” she said, as she joined Maarten in the sled and drove off toward the south.

I could tell that she was confused as to the meaning of what I had said, and more, she didn't think it especially important. I still knew I had said something of crucial import, and more, it had done its job. I wasn't certain what that job was, or much else beyond the fact that it had indeed done its work.

The next morning, I felt somewhat recovered, as I managed to load up two forges with wood and get them lit before the others arrived. As I resumed marking patterns and looking over the work that needed doing – the slate-stack had grown again – Gelbhaar said, “talk has it some abusive brute of a stonemason, one of the chief ones at the least, went after Madame Anna, and he is missing most of his beard.” A brief pause. “I would say he got off cheaply with that.”

“Very cheaply,” said Georg. “If he should try that again, he will be hung out to dry. That wretch likes to hurt women, from what I hear, and that tends to get the mobs coming.”

I paused in my looking over the slates, for the order on the one I was looking at – 'one knife, as per usual' – had vanished. It had been replaced by a gauzy-seeming picture which I recognized instantly as being one of the 'haunts' of the bearded man. Its walls fell away to show the place's interior, and my eyes abruptly filled with tears while I screamed as if on fire.

The man was slapping some poor hungry girl as she tried to hurry with his morning meal.

I tried to 'calm down', but seeing the girl being abused was too much, and I screamed, “that person is evil, and he is hurting her! I want him dead!”

“Who?” asked a vague and somewhat foggy voice that took nearly a minute to recognize as Johannes.

“That evil wretch that went after Anna,” I shrieked, as I wiped my nose with a rag. “He learned nothing! Wretch! Let your hand pull your own beard out before you hit another woman, and let her pain be trebled in yourself!”

The slate erupted in brilliant colors, almost as if it was a video monitor. The 'evil wretch' had his hands abruptly jerk to the remains of his beard, then begin to rip it out by the bloody handfuls as he went into a violent convulsion. The girl shrieked as she ran for safety, and the proprietor came with a stout cudgel and began beating and kicking the man toward the drape-covered door, where he shouted, “no more in my place! No, never again!”

The scene vanished, and I sobbed, and I turned to see Johannes to my left, and then Gelbhaar behind him.

“What happened to your eyes?” asked Gelbhaar. “They went to a very pale bluish glowing, and they are normally... What color are your eyes normally?”

“D-dark green, I think,” I said. “I have yet to see anyone else with eyes that are not brown.”

I paused for a moment, then blew my nose again before speaking.

“That man is not going to hit that woman again,” I said, “as he's banned from that place for a while at least. There are few things that anger me more than to see women abused or threatened, and I was...”

I glanced back at the slate, and saw that its order was still gone. In its place, I now saw filmy outlines of ice, snow, dirty floors – and an evil-looking blond-haired woman that I recognized instantly as that accursed witch to the north. I recalled her 'name', and shuddered at the recollection.

The witch – she was indeed a witch, I now knew – screamed as fifteen men were draped in thick heavy crude-forged chains, then forced to walk naked at sword-point toward a doorway that billowed thick yellow-white tongues of avid flame. To each side of this doorway, I saw a pair of armor-plated thugs using shovels to toss lumpy brown-black stuff into the flames, and as the first of the chained men hesitated, the plated thugs on each side used their shovels to drive him into the fiery furnace.

A trio of huge black pigs suddenly showed, then with frantic roaring screeches, the pigs rushed at the remaining men. The men ran from the pigs and into the flames, then as the pigs came upon the last of them as he leaped into the fire, the pigs skidded, slipped, and spun one by one into the flames with terrible near-human screams.

The picture upon the slate vanished, and I shook my head, for it was neither filmy nor indistinct, and as I saw again the chalk-writ order, I thought, “and I never kept score of those things.”

“One ship left out of thirty with a fraction of its usual number,” I muttered softly, “and that witch burned those that came back with the bad tidings. She stripped them naked, chained them up, and then burned them alive, with three big black pigs chasing them into a furnace.” I paused briefly, then spat, “ugh! I hate that witch and her pigs!”

“What happened to you?” asked the oldest of the apprentices. “Are you like someone out of an old tale?”

“What happened?” I asked. My nose was still running a great deal, and my eyes were watering.

“You became much larger,” he said.

“I'm not at all familiar with the tales here,” I said, “and I'm only slightly more familiar with the ones where I came from.” I paused for a second, then said, “much larger? How?”

“Just like the Black Fiend,” said the boy. “It grew in size, and changed shape.”

No, Klais, that one was dead when it changed,” said Georg, “and it only did that once. There are other tales that are more likely, and we ow our lives to those people. Some were terrors for evil.”

“Oh, like Charles?” said the boy. “He was said to enjoy playing horns.”

“That was when he was not cutting apart those who did evil,” said Johannes.

I cringed, then nearly screamed. I wanted to hide, even as Johannes continued with his oblivious-sounding talk.

“There were a lot of people like that during that time,” he said, “and all of those he went after thought mercy weakness and took advantage of those showing it. Because of that, he showed them none, and he killed every such person he could find.”

“N-no...” I moaned.

“They called him the headhunter,” said Johannes. “He took heads, and put them on poles to rot...”

A horrible flashback enveloped my mind, as I saw the body of the witch I had cut to pieces. His rotten bullet-ripped head was speaking accusations of evil – my evil – and I knew he was right. I had put his head on a pole to rot, and his half-rotten head moved its jaws as it mouthed the truth.

“...He hung people out to dry the old way,” said Johannes, “and lit them on fire to burn to ashes, along with their families and belongings. When he was in the area, there was either peace, or pieces of those he named his enemies, and before there was peace enough to suit him, there were a great number of such pieces lying on the blood-soaked ground around him.”

My eyes suddenly erupted a fresh spate of tears, and as I closed them and sobbed, the sense of being present in the shop faded abruptly to be replaced by sights of a snowbound waste. I was surrounded by mountainous pine trees, some of them easily eight hundred feet tall, and in a wide and irregular clearing, I saw a huge and deceased cow-like animal with five heads and twelve gangly legs.

Several gangs of chained slaves were hauling a huge red 'bladder' of milk from the hacked-up corpse of the animal, and as I looked around, I saw a number of well-chewed corpses sporting mottled blue-black plate, blood-crusted weapons, and missing body parts.

It was obvious the cow was an uncommonly vicious fighter, and its ragged bites were huge, savage-looking, and bloody.

The scene showing on the screen of my mind began fading, and when I opened my eyes, I was astonished to see nearly a dozen people gathered around me with pieces of cloth in their hands. I took one, and blew my nose – and the terrible noise sounded ridiculous.

“W-will you have me as I am?” I said in a tear-stained voice. “I have stood drenched in blood twice upon the field of battle, and I feel guilty and ashamed of myself.”

“You did what needed doing,” said an unfamiliar voice. “Only God can give a person the ability to stand up to that many of those people when they're flying blood-flags like that, and you did. I saw all of it, that last thing they did, and they came in a swarm and melted like cheese on a hot summer's day...”

“But I could have sworn there was no one there to see what had happened,” said my morose thoughts.

“Then they ran and were cut down, even when they tried their cursed tricks, and as we came closer, I saw you making certain none of them played the games they do. They might not be the smartest people, but they are cunning, and only a hardened soldier could go among them and make sure they was dead, as if you leave one of those twin-teeth ones alive, you can be certain you will regret it.”

“Twin teeth?” I thought. “What?”

“Those having that brand have come before and killed more than one person,” said the man, “and most of them were recognized as having come to this area and killed before.”

Here, the man paused, then sipped from something. He reminded me of a real need: tinned copper mugs.

“There was one special wretch wrapped around a tree in that forest where they camped, and that one had a price on his head of a hundred guilders. He'd been seen driving swine before, and burned a town not ten miles to the north and west of here, and that was years back. Since then, he'd been seen three times, and each time he'd killed at least two, and each of those times he'd been promoted. I'm glad he was dead, and so are a lot of others.”

“We picked you up, and took you to the best place there is, hoping you were still alive,” he continued, “though some people wanted nothing to do with you because you were drenched in blood and looked to be dead.”

“He wasn't, though,” said another voice. “Did someone want to burn him?”

“That's true,” said the man, “and some wanted to dump him off somewhere so as to die, and only the king himself was able to stop those witches from killing him on the spot. They aren't going to try that again.”

As I wondered how and what had happened, the man continued, saying, “they won't try that again in this world, anyway. I lit the burn-pile for those witches myself.”

He paused briefly, then said, “and your clothing was bad. It was cut to ribbons, and you had a lot of places on you where you were cut. None of them were deep, and Anna said most of them were new ones. We had to cut a lot of your hair off once you were home, as it was clotted solid with blood, and the dogs stood by you, both those from the house proper and those others, and those others treated you like one of their own.”

He paused again, then said, “and after seeing what you did, I don't have to guess as to why, as that is the way those are, and they stick together close.”

He paused, drank deeply – this was a long spiel – and for some reason I could not speak. He continued a minute later, even as I dabbed my eyes and tried blowing my nose again. It was mostly dried now, and was badly plugged up.

“Now that stonemason is trouble, and him going after Anna like he did only adds to the rumors about him. He needs close watching, and if he gets into trouble again, I'll take a pole to him myself, and make sure it has a full load of lead in it, with no padding. He needs to learn his manners, and a good thumping is about all he will listen to, if talk is true.”

“But I wanted those p-people dead!” I shrieked.

“It's good that you did, as everyone else wanted them dead too,” he said. “People don't make oaths much, but a great many have made oath to avenge friends and relatives here – and making oaths about killing witches is common enough, especially given how those northern people are. All of them are witches, no matter their age or gender – and if they show here, they die and they burn. That was part of my oath.”

He paused, then said, “it went like this, at least part of it: 'if I see a witch, I will kill that person first thing I do, and the same for them outlawed, for they have set themselves against God and their fellow men, just like witches do'.”

I wiped my eyes again, even as the man continued: “you'll be taking it soon enough, as I had come by to say that when it thaws some, you're to come for training, and the fitting session is very soon.”

“F-fitting session?” I squeaked.

“That can be a handful, but anyone who has faced that many of those fiends should cope with it.”

He paused, then said, “I say should, as some of the hardest found being fitted worse than battle, especially if they were marked. Those people were terrible on the field, but it is said they could not stand being unclothed at all. At least one tapestry has that on it.”

I clotted another rag with mucus, then said, “what is involved with this fitting? I cannot abide nakedness.”

“That is as true as anything,” said Anna from behind me, “and the same for money, nor many other things. I'm glad they brought that metal washtub, as yours would have been ruined for all the blood that covered you. At least you have new clothing coming soon enough, and your fitting will be in a few days.”

Fitting?” I gasped. I was horrified at the thought.

“Hans and I will go with you,” said Anna, “and we had best help you, as I know about those things. More than one person has found fire, flames, swine, and thugs easier to handle than those torment-sessions.”

I felt faint, and as I backed away, the crowd parted. I staggered, shuffled, and wobbled, until I found a stool and sat down with my head in my hands. I had heard enough to overrule my reason, and when I looked around I saw the world becoming steadily grayer and dimmer, until my eyes closed abruptly as I fainted.

The odor of flowers tickled my nose as I began to awaken, and a strangely mobile weight was on my stomach. When I opened my eyes, I was astonished to see someone dressed in a soft gray gown-like garment with a hood covering her head, and when my eyes focused, I was speechless.

That woman was sitting on my stomach.

She seemed eerie, spectral, and of another time and place, for there was an aura of the fairy about her, and her strangely glowing eyes were the touchstone of mystery.

In a soft lilting voice, she spoke, saying, “good, you are awake. I need to go downstairs, as the extraction is proceeding. I hope you rested well.”

I longed to touch her, to reassure myself that she was indeed real and not some 'woodland sprite', but she somehow leaped from her sitting position and landed on her feet. She began walking toward the kitchen, then as I sat up and she began walking down the stairs, I saw what might have been trousers showing beneath her knee-length gown.

I sat up slowly, then checked my legs for ropes. There were none present, thankfully, and when I staggered to my feet, I mumbled, “she must run around the forests as if out of her mind. Is she real, or is she a woodland sprite of some kind?”

“She's real enough,” answered Anna from the kitchen, “and is strange enough. She's spent many years in the forests, on the road, traveling, and being schooled.”

“Schooled?” I asked.

“Not just any school, either,” said Anna. “She went to the west school, and she did more traveling than anyone I know of, including possibly Albrecht. Then, she knows languages fairly well.”

“The ones in the book?” I asked.

“I'm not certain about those,” said Anna. “She is familiar with the common one, and all its varieties, then knows that one spoken in the back country passably, and finally, she knows the type written on the tapestries.”

“Is that type different?” I asked.

“Mostly for its expression,” said Anna. “Those things tend to be hundreds of years old.”

Anna paused, then said, “she might know those things as well as anyone I know, draw like an artist, sew better than anyone I've seen, knit as if she has three extra hands...”

The idea of someone knitting with five hands was quite intriguing, even if I suspected Anna meant 'she knits especially rapidly'.

“And is very skilled at doing things with her hands,” said Anna, “but if a person could burn water while cooking, she could, and for cleaning? No, hire a cleaner. Then, I spoke of the cough medicine.”

“Oh, no,” I thought.

“She tried making it, and almost had it jugged before it caught fire,” said Anna, “and no, she did not use an extractor.”

“How did she do it?” I asked.

“Like you did the first two times, save over a heating lamp,” said Anna. “She put it out readily, and the batch was easy to salvage. I think that comes from her dealing with swine.”

“Pigs?” I gasped. “How?”

“She's lit more than one of them on fire,” said Anna.

I came into the kitchen, then noted what Anna was cooking. It looked like stew.

“I woke up with her sitting on my stomach,” I said. “Is that normal?”

“I told you she was serious,” said Anna. “Now you must watch for her.”

“But I was asleep, and not normally asleep,” I said. “It is hard to watch out for someone when you are unconscious.”

I paused, then asked, “does she like to sneak up on people like that?”

“I think that might be how she manages to live as she does,” said Anna. “Sewing might pay poorly, but Sarah is an accomplished hunter, and she's downed more than a few deer.”

“With what?” I asked.

“She has a bow,” said Anna, “and she's shot a great many hares and marmots. Both of those are pests.”

“Hares?” I asked. “I haven't seen any.”

“Hans has trouble finding those,” said Anna, “much less shooting them. She finds them all the time.”

“What does she do with them?” I asked.

“Skins them out, has the hides tanned, and then makes shot-bags,” said Anna, “and much the same for marmots, and in the same fashion – though with marmots, the meat goes to the nearest Public House. Then, she has witches after her, and she goes after them as she can and hides otherwise. I've wondered about her for some time.”

“In what way?” I asked.

“I've wondered if she is marked,” said Anna, “as no one hides like she does unless they are. You don't, for some reason, but then, you tend to go after every witch that shows and find them and their things if they are close by.”