A strange and new land, continued.
As we walked further toward the end of town, I discerned a lack of people in the houses I was passing. Faintly on the gentle wind, I could smell an accumulation of horses, and a few minutes later, I could see them – all of them clustered in a huge yard in front of an even larger single-story building set by itself at the end of town.
This building was easily twice the size of the shop for width, and as we came into its uncommonly deep yard, I noted its wide stoop, its many roof supports, and its long horse-troughs. Each had at least a dozen horses, and as I scanned the equine rumps in a state of terror, I knew that all of them had run out their full-loaded broadsides, and were ready to fire.
Hans and Anna seemed oblivious to the threat of immanent equine-fomented mayhem, and they seemed sure of themselves as they came to the wide double-doors painted in a strange design. The equine threat was full upon my mind, such that it prevented a closer look at the doors, and as Hans opened the door to safety, an odor of a different kind assaulted my senses.
This odor was that of food.
The aroma of food was accompanied by a waterfall of sound, and as we went inside this truly dim building down a narrow aisle on the right, I smelled food again.
Lots of food. A great deal of food. And several different kinds of beer. And Geneva. And cider, this last in large mugs, with much boisterous talk, and perchance, the beginnings of songs.
“Th-this is like the P...”
I could not recall the name of the particular inn I had once read of, for some reason, even if I could recall a great many details about the story. There was danger without, and danger within, and one of the characters mysteriously vanished while 'showing off' for the other patrons, and...
“Do they have milk here?” I thought. I suspected it was neither available nor appropriate for someone of my size.
After occupying a smaller planked table beneath a beam-supported candle-holder – no glass panes here, just a bare wall-mounted piece of copper and brass adorned with several 'too-big' rivets and a thick candle shedding dim light upon the proceedings – I looked around. Not four tables over were Willem and Paul, and I stood uneasily.
As I walked closer, I looked down upon the floor. There, I saw stones neatly laid in mortar, with a soft shine that made for wonderment. When I came to their table – that part of the place didn't have many patrons, for some reason – my nose got the better of me, and when I saw the source of the odor, I nearly began drooling. Both of them had sizable 'steaks', and the smell and sight of the meat was sufficient to grab my attention completely.
“I cannot understand what is happening with my hand,” said Paul, as he sipped from a mug of what might have been beer. “It is healing much faster than any such injury I have heard of, and it hurts much less already.”
My legs nearly gave way beneath me, but again, the aroma of the 'steaks' was a potent reviver. My stomach growled agreement, and as I wobbled back to our table, I saw an apron-wearing woman conversing with Hans and Anna. I took my stool, and sat down out of the way. Again, I smelled the steaks.
“W-what is that they are eating?” I asked.
“Who are 'they'?” asked the woman.
“P-Paul and Willem?” I said.
“That came recently,” she said. “Would you like some?”
My stomach growled again in its relentless manner. The noise was astonishingly loud, and seemed rude; however, it was beyond my control.
“I take it that means yes,” she said. “Does it?”
I nodded, and she left for the rear of the building. As I watched her, I noticed that part was noticeably more crowded than where we were.
“She has gone to fetch the beer for us,” said Hans, “but I told her you would end up sleeping if you drank any of that stuff they have here, so they are fetching something else for you.”
“They are pressing the new crop of apples,” said Anna. “Some fresh-pressed cider is coming for you.”
Here, Anna paused, then said, “it is most healthful, and you really need it.”
I wondered briefly at Anna's emphasis of the word 'need', and as the woman came back with jugs and mugs, I wondered more about where we were – at least, until the drink arrived. Hans uncorked one jug, sniffed it, and passed it to me, along with a mug, and while he uncorked the other and began pouring beer, I poured myself a mug of cider. The fragrant 'apple' smell was such that I wondered, and when I smelled the mug carefully, I could tell it had but little chance to ferment. I then tasted it.
The flavor was intense, sweet, and refreshing, so much so that I sighed. I began drinking the stuff as if dehydrated.
“Now wait until that piece of meat arrives,” said Hans, “and then you can sleep upon it.”
For some reason, Anna giggled, and she resumed drinking her beer. Someone across the room began laughing as if being tickled silly, while Hans topped up his and Anna's mugs – and I refilled mine.
The meat came on a platter some half-hour later, followed by three thick metal plates, a bowl of chopped carrots, a bowl of what looked like chopped potatoes, and a bowl filled with greens. These last smelled strongly of cheese. Hans said a few words – this time, I knew it was a prayer – and then we commenced eating.
The 'slab' of meat was nearly two inches thick and almost as big as the platter, and when Hans began sawing on it with his knife, I wondered if the meat was tough. He wasn't making much progress, even if Anna was dishing up the carrots and potatoes rapidly enough. I looked at the knife again, and then recalled either Paul or Willem had a knife – and as I looked around, I noticed that most of the men had similar knives, which were being used in a similar fashion.
The idea of using a knife with a seven inch blade for cutting 'dinner' seemed unusual, especially given its wooden handle and large brass hilt, and as I tried to recall what I knew of history, I drew a blank beyond 'knives were common on the frontier, they used them for many activities, and many of the knives were sizable'. I then remembered something I had once read:
“Supposedly, people in the Netherlands once carried their eating utensils on their belts,” I thought. “At least they have forks and spoons here. I doubt I could handle eating with the fingers, as the feeling of 'food' on my hands would be very hard to endure.”
“Why is it we do not have forks at home?” I asked.
“Those things are hard to get,” said Hans, as he finished sawing off a slice of meat and gave it to Anna. “I have heard tell that they need making special, unless you get lucky and find them at an estate sale.”
“They make those down in the fourth kingdom,” said Anna. “I've seen them down in that market, but twenty guilders for a single one?”
“Why do they have them here, though?” I asked.
“I think a lot of the ones they have here are old,” said Hans, “and they have gotten them over the years. Not all Public Houses have them. The one here does, but they do a lot of business, and not just from people in town.”
After Hans sawed up another piece of meat, he began working on a third one. Anna forked the piece of meat on my plate, and as Hans continued working, I wondered as to how I would cut up the meat. I tried my fork on it, and was astonished. The stuff was almost fork-tender.
“How sharp is that knife?” I asked.
“This one is fairly sharp for a common knife,” said Hans. “Why?”
Hans' answer made for wonderment on my part, as the dullness of the knife was obvious to me. More, I knew that I would have been sufficiently frustrated in using it to have lost my appetite.
“Uh, I have sharpened knives and other things before,” I said quietly, “and I, uh, like them sharp enough to shave with.”
“Yes, I know,” said Anna. Her voice suggested her having different priorities compared to mine. “We have stones, so perhaps you can work on it later. You did enough for three people lately, so you need to rest. This is the beginning of the rest-day, or actually, it starts late Friday afternoon. People need that to stay healthy, so it is said. Then, Sunday, that is church, and the work begins again.”
“Is there there a special name for Saturday?” I asked.
“No, not here, unless one is in love with one's bed,” said Hans. “Then it is a day to...” Here, Hans made a snoring sound, then said, “I am not sure how to say that noise, but that is the most common special name for it. I wish I could call it that more often.”
As our meal progressed, the Public House became steadily more full. I could not tell of the passing of time, even if the place was now crowded, and the sense of joviality became more apparent as people began singing. Hans and Anna were both working on their third mugs of the place's straw-yellow beer, and the change in their demeanor was such that I marveled.
They had become markedly silly, and a good portion of the patrons had become likewise. Those otherwise were singing songs in loud and off-key voices. One of these songs was about swine, unrequited love, and something else I could not recognize:
“Oh bury me not,
Down deep in your heart,
For the swine are coming,
God help us all.”
There was more to this song; it continued for half a dozen more verses, each more lugubrious than the one before it, with fire, blood, smoke, and slaughter added to the original three topics. It was not overly popular, and its singer was soon drowned out by another, much more popular song. It was far more pleasing to the ear, at any rate, if vastly harder to follow precisely as to its words.
“Now, here is a good one,” said Hans. “Why did the rich person have twenty jugs of distillate?”
“Hans, that one is as old as this building,” said Anna. “Why are you speaking of it?” Anna did not seem overly fond of matters not pertaining to food at the present time.
“Because that joke may be an old one, but I heard a new answer for it,” said Hans.
“Why?” said Anna.
“Because his thrashing-engine blew up,” said Hans, “and he wanted to make the person who made it drink the distillate and thrash the corn out of the cobs.”
Anna nearly fell off of her stool laughing. I was clueless as to the utility of the joke, so did not comment.
After the end of the current song, another started. This example had both a familiar sound and familiar words, and the main character was named 'Augustine'.
“Finally, one I actually know,” I thought. “This place reminds me of a German beer hall...”
The word 'Bierstube' came again, and this time, it seemed to fit.
“No, it's not really one of those,” I thought. “This is closer to that place in that book, only it's a bit more modern-seeming, and they don't do lodging here – oh, and food and conviviality are the things they emphasize most. Drink is almost a side-issue, even if they do sell a fair amount of it.”
I then caught some unfamiliar lines in the song, ones dealing with the milking of cows. The thing seemed a 'round', however, and when the verse came to 'girls', I substituted 'noten' – grades – and 'fraag'n' – questions – for 'money'. That change to the original had been made by some friends and I long ago, as all of us were looking forward to college.
“Now I have an idea as to where you came from,” said Hans. “They have schools down south where they sing that song that way, and they put chemicals where the cows usually are, as they work with them a lot. Did you go to those schools?”
“I don't think so,” I said. “I did go to school a great deal where I came from, and I had several classes that involved chemistry.” I paused, then thought, “and that didn't include the stuff I did on my own.”
I then recalled an incident that was frightening when it happened and seemed amusing now, and I thought to speak of it.
“Once, when I was in school, my lab partner and I...”
“Yes? You had a laboratory partner,” said Hans. He sounded a bit strange, as if he were now uncommonly interested, more so than usual for him. He was most definitely not drunk. “There is this place about twelve miles or so north of here, and it has a lot of laboratory equipment in it. We may wish to visit it tomorrow, as it still has a lot of that stuff in there. Now, what were you doing in this laboratory place?”
I recalled the incident as if I were doing it at the table amid the remains of my meal, then said, “I had a beaker part-filled with water and four drops of phenolphthalein, and a heating pad for a lid. I had tweezers, and a small piece of sodium metal, and I used the tweezers to put the metal in the beaker. I clapped the heating pad on top in a hurry, which was a good idea.”
Hans seemed mesmerized, and Anna was listening as if I were telling an especially thrilling story. I continued, saying, “it plopped in the water, but it did not sink. Instead, it caught fire and burned with a purplish flame as it went around in circles on the surface of the water. It went faster and faster, and finally, it exploded and shot this streak of fire out of the beaker. I was afraid it would light someone on fire, so I had to hunt for it for a while. I never found out where the sodium went.”
I was not prepared for the response of either Hans or Anna: Anna laughed as if crazed and fell off her stool onto the floor, while Hans nearly joined her. I was afraid for Anna, but before I could help her, she got back on her stool and slyly nodded at me as she resumed sipping her beer.
“I am not certain of that metal, nor have I heard of that stuff with the unpronounceable name,” said Hans, “but fires and explosions are common with chemicals. I have made blasting oil before, and what you were doing sounds a bit like that stuff. Those books I got from that place speak of it.”
“S-sodium, or, uh, blasting oil?” I asked.
“Both of those things,” said Hans. “That place has a big tree next to this river, and they have big fish in that river.”
“Fish?” I asked. I recalled the huge 'trouts' I had seen.
“Those things are good to eat,” said Hans. “Few have luck with them, but I do. I have this special formula that they seem to like.”
I recalled the desire for a magnet so as to test the fish, and I thought to ask about it. I sipped more cider, and resumed working on my potatoes. I seemed uncommonly hungry still, and while the other two resumed their meals, I noted the 'meat-platter' was getting bare. Hans put another piece of meat on my plate. There were still two more pieces, though they seemed smaller than what I had just received.
“That is for hammering,” said Hans. “We will need to get more meat, as with you pounding like you do, you will put a lot of that stuff on you.”
“What is this, weight-training?” I thought. “High-protein diet for muscle-growth?”
“That is true, though,” said Anna. “Farmers might eat their share, but blacksmiths need a lot more, what with the work they do – and you do more work than the common for that place, so I expect you will need to eat as much as you can hold.”
After starting in on my latest slice of meat, I asked, “Hans, do you know where I might get a magnet?”
“Now what is this?” asked Hans. “I have never heard of such a thing. What does it do?”
“It attracts iron,” I said.
“That would be one of those shiny black rocks that weigh twice what they should,” said Anna. “They are so heavy that most call them lodestones.”
Anna sipped again from her beer, then picked up her fork. She looked inclined toward more potatoes, and before resuming, she said, “I have no idea why they misspell their names, but they do.”
“Why is it you wish a lodestone?” asked Hans.
“To test those fish,” I said. “They were named such where I came from that a magnet, or a lodestone, should stick to their heads.”
Hans laughed so hard he nearly fell off of his stool, and as he got back on it, he said, “I have wondered about those things for years. Most call them iron-head trouts, as they have such hard heads.”
“And next when you buy hooks,” said Anna, “you might see an instrument-maker. Those cheap things they sell at the Mercantile are too soft, as I had a big one on, and the hook bent.”
“What happened to the fish?” I asked.
“It escaped,” said Hans. “Mercantile hooks are costly, and those she spoke of are much worse that way, even if they are less inclined to bend.”
Steps came from my left, and as I looked up, I saw Gelbhaar weaving through the now packed room. He stopped at Hans' elbow, then said, “I have such a stone. I will bring it by tomorrow, and you can use it to test those fish to see if they are that kind. I imagine they forge well. Do they?”
His utterly serious demeanor made for wondering, until someone else said – I did not recognize the voice – “I doubt fish forge well, even if they are that kind. You might have good luck if you pack-harden them in a big pot with a lot of potatoes and carrots. They should be quite tasty then.”
“So they do know about carburization,” I thought. “Why did they act that way around me when I was doing it?”
“We found that place with all the stuff in it while exploring one rest-day,” said Hans, “and I was of a mind for fish then.”
“You and all that know of those things are of a mind for them when the chance is there,” said Anna. I wondered how she knew about fishing.
Hans then busied himself with his mug and his carrots, and after a minute, I asked, “exploring?”
“Finding the plants for medicines takes a fair amount of looking,” said Anna. “We've done our share over the years, and we still do a lot of looking when we get the chance.”
“So we set down on the bank, and try for the fish,” said Hans, “and between the two of us, we got a trout. It took four hooks to get it on the grass, though.”
“Four hooks?” I asked.
“The first three hooks bent and the fish escaped,” said Hans. “Instrument-makers are very scarce hereabouts, so that is another problem with good hooks.”
Hans paused, then said, “there is this huge hill of plants north of that river, and we found a way inside that day. Since, we have made a few more trips. The dust, dirt, and rats are awful, but they leave us be.”
Anna looked at Hans reprovingly, and Hans said, “at least, the rats leave us be. We usually needed to spend some time boiling clothing afterward.”
I noticed the greens again, and thought to ask for them. Their odor was mouth-watering.
“May I have some of those, uh, greens there?” I asked.
Anna did not wait to reply, save by grasping my plate and piling a sizable mound on it. She then handed it back to me, saying as she did, “those are very healthy.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“Minced cabbage cooked with steam,” said Anna, “and then sprinkled with crumbled hard-cheese.”
“Hard-cheese?” I asked. “What does it look like?”
“Like a jug without a neck,” said Hans, “only a lot smaller. It keeps good, like most cheese.”
“Uh, milk?” I asked.
“That is for calves and cheese,” said Hans. “I have never had any of that stuff.”
“Hans, it makes people sick,” said Anna. “I once tried some and was in the privy for the rest of the day.”
Anna paused, then said, “cabbage causes wind.”
“I'd best keep the privy in mind,” I said.
“Why?” asked Anna. I was beginning to feel embarrassed.
“Don't people go to the privy if they have, uh...”
I stopped in mid-sentence, for now I had a severe quandary. Most people where I came from didn't begin to have as much 'gas' as I did. I also knew most of them weren't nearly as sick – especially with that particular illness; it didn't just cause chronic diarrhea, pain, and illness.
Most importantly, however, in that place it seemed a requirement to either not have gas, or to behave in a manner such that others had that impression – regardless of its quantity or causation. I had gotten in trouble many times over the years until I finally figured out that particular rule. What was an inconvenience to others was a real problem for me, so much so that it guided my next thoughts:
“Now how do I speak of intestinal gas without being seen as irredeemably rude?”
Anna's rejoinder was astonishing: “no more than they do if they breathe, unless it is accompanied by something else of a more solid nature.” Anna paused, sipped from her mug, then said, “sometimes it is, though.”
About ten mouthfuls into the cabbage, I felt something begin moving, and I stood up abruptly and left for the rear of the building. I had the impression the privy was back that way, and as I went past a sizable 'bar' of some kind – at least, it looked like a bar for construction, if little else – I saw another brown door. I pushed it open, and to my surprise, I found it led to a number of door-closed 'stalls'. I came to one of them, gently pushed, and the door moved.
“Is anyone in there?” I whispered. My voice seemed terrifyingly loud. There was no answer.
I went inside the 'stall', and found another 'commode'. It was just like the one at home for appearance – and stench, once I opened the lid. I sat down, my guts spasmed – and then I found that not merely did I have gas, I also had the runs.
“That problem still seems present,” I said. “At least I don't feel nearly as sick...”
A particularly vicious spasm gripped me, and I felt as if my intestines were going into the hole along with their contents. I softly moaned, then a long foul-smelling eructation buried the sound coming from my lips.
Finally, I finished, and I used two of the rags to wipe myself carefully. I put both rags in the 'commode', then closed the lid and left the stall. The smell was thick, pungent, nauseating – and familiar.
This place didn't have a bucket; it had something resembling a small varnished horse-trough, with small clip-on copper buckets for soap. Someone had scrawled in what looked like chalk on the wall the following truism:
“Anna says 'tis wise to wash good after you go,” while under it some other person had written, “and wash before you go, if you are a blacksmith.”
“How true,” I muttered, as I washed my hands carefully. I had commonly done that when working in machine shops, as the chips, dirt, and oil did not feel at all good on my hands.
Anna looked at me strangely when I returned to my meal, and when I began eating, she said, “wind?”
“That, and a great deal else,” I said between bites. “Why?”
“I was worried that you were corked to a degree,” said Anna, “and that is not good.”
“Corked?” I asked. “You mean...”
Again, I had a quandary, and I did not have time to think of an answer.
“I have heard of people becoming very ill from being corked,” said Anna, “and that is on top of the pain, discomfort, and other things. I was going to dose you with uncorking medicine when we got home.”
“Uncorking medicine?” I asked. “What is it?”
“It looks a little like beer, only it is thicker,” said Hans, “and it feels strange when you get it on your hands. I use it for lots of things, not just getting corks out.”
“It tastes terrible,” said Anna, “but it does get and keep people working that way. Paul should be drinking at least two mugs a day while he's taking that tincture.”
I then recalled 'something' pertaining to meals, and thought to mention it. I still had food on my plate, and appetite to spare.
“Uh, there was something I did when eating...”
“Yes, and what was this something?” asked Hans.
“I-I d-don't remember,” I said.
“I doubt it is important, then,” said Anna. “You still have food on your plate.”
After finishing off the piece of meat on my plate, I thought to ask more regarding the place with the chemicals.
“A lot of those things that remain are locked, aren't they?” I asked.
“Yes, that is true,” said Hans. “There are still things to be had easy, though.”
Hans' words seemed shadowed by other matters, however, for I felt other things, chiefly among them skeletons and a brooding feeling of great evil hanging over the place. I could almost smell a dire dead-meat stink, and I wrinkled my nose in disgust.
“What is it you smell?” asked Hans.
“That place has skeletons in it,” I said, “and it smells bad.”
“More than one of those books we got from that place shows parts of people in it,” said Anna. “I had no idea people had so many things inside of them.”
“Why, don't those journals speak of those things?” asked Hans.
“Not like that they do,” said Anna. “They might speak of a fair amount, and that in a manner I can understand, but those books speak of much more.”
Again, the smell seemed to linger in my mind, and with it, I felt much else: violence, hatred, concentrated evil, gunfire, poisons, and a huge 'worm' – a worm that I had no idea of its existence prior to 'seeing' it writhe slow and sluggishly down the halls of my mind.
A stout man now came by, and when he came next to Hans, he said, “I wonder if you know where I might find a good drawknife?”
“I haven't been to any estate sales recently,” said Hans, “and I would think that you might...”
Here, Hans looked at me, then said, “no, not just yet. He just got here, and barely knows where his bed is. It might take him a while.”
“Drawknife?” I asked.
“Yes, for barrels,” said the man. “I'm a cooper.”
“He certainly looks like a cooper,” I thought. “How I can tell that is a mystery, beyond...”
I paused in my thinking to notice a number of splinters in the man's hands and arms, and said, “you may want to spend some time with a sewing needle to get those splinters out, lest they get infected.”
I had said the 'magic word', for now Anna stood up and looked closer, then got off her stool and came closer yet to the man. As she looked over his arms, she said “Dirk, he's right. If you cannot get them out, I will do so as soon as can be managed.”
“Are infections a serious problem here?” I asked.
Anna nodded as she sat down, then said, “those need to come out quickly. Some of them are starting to turn a little red.”
“When Anna spoke of you seeing things,” said the cooper, “she did not lie. How is it you saw them?”
“I am not sure,” I said. “Sometimes, I just know, but often – like a few minutes ago – I can see them. I have been able to do that for a long time, but since a few months prior to staying at this place for nineteen months...”
“Now how can I speak of that place?” I thought. “Especially after Paul speaking of witches, and all the nonsense that went on there, and how it never let up, never stopped, and required constant prayer to stay sane?”
The cooper looked at my mug, picked it up, and then sniffed it. As he set it down, he said, “no, you are not drunk. Now you spent nineteen months somewhere. What was this place like?”
“It was attached to a church,” I said, “and so much went on there that I don't know how to rightly describe it. I had to pray all the time to stay sane.”
“That sounds like a school down south, one that is to the west,” said the cooper. “Those teaching there are sworn to not reveal anything to the students about the place itself. Close?”
“I am not certain if it is,” I said, “as I know very little of the area, actually, and I had so many things happen while I was there I am not comfortable speaking of many of them. It was too much like fighting a war when I was there, and were I to describe what happened, I would be hated here. I was hated where I came from.”
“People tend to be pretty tolerant as long as you are honest and do well,” said the cooper.
“He does that,” said Hans, “and he gets dirty enough for three doing it, so he needs a tub for bathing. Both of us saw him that way, and between him and his clothing, we will be wanting to make our own soap, and that by the bucketful.”
“No, Hans,” said Anna with a dire voice. “Making soap stinks worse than having a house full of stinkers and bugs. I do not mind buying more soap.”
“Soap-making does smell terrible,” said the cooper, “and that hammering was terrible to hear. Who was doing it?”
Over from the other side of the Public House, I heard someone yell, “he pounds like Fritz!”
“I thought so,” said the cooper. He seemed to think for a moment, then looked at me. “If you pound like that now, I hate to think how you will pound once you have some meat on you.” He paused for a second or two, then said, “the tub should take a few days. How big does it need to be?”
I indicated the desired size with my arms, that being about three feet for diameter, and roughly a foot deep.
“You want a mash-tub, then,” he said. “I've made my share of those.”
“Copper bands and a copper rim, Dirk,” said Anna. “Splinters on the bottom are very painful.”
Dirk looked at Anna as if pained, then said, “I learned that the hard way. Don't you remember?”
“I do,” said Anna, “which is why I spoke of it.”
“Come by Monday to have a look,” he said. “Do you want a dipper?”
“I could use one,” I said, “and I might well be able to make it. What are those made of?”
“Copper, as a rule, same as most pots and pans,” said the cooper, “and then lined with tin. Georg used to do some of them, but his close-man left a while back. He might have done decent work, but he was as irritable as anyone I've ever heard of or seen.”
“Yes, and good riddance to that wretch,” said Hans.
“I think I can make one,” I said. “I've done raising before.”
“I would be careful about that,” said Dirk. “That might well bury you for work if it's done decent.”
Here, he paused, then said, “we've got plenty of sheet copper. The common bathing dippers can pass for small saucepans, save for their handles, which are much shorter. Some have cooked with them when desperate.”
He then went back the way he came, and I saw what looked like a mug in his hand. He got a refill back at the 'bar' – and what that refill was, I could not tell.
The reason I could not tell was I felt as if about to fall asleep, bed or no bed. The food was gone, and both Hans and Anna now helped me to my feet. I nearly fell to the floor just the same.
“Too much work will do it every time,” said Anna. “Now, we need to go home, and you need to get in bed.”
“B-bed?” I asked. “W-where is that?”
“I think Anna is right,” said Hans. “You look and sound as if you got into the Geneva.”
Wobbling and stumbling home in the early evening was an uncommonly difficult chore, for I felt beyond exhaustion, and 'drunk with fatigue' wasn't an exaggeration. Once home, I half-stumbled and crawled up the stairs, and once in my room, I doffed boots, socks, trousers, and shirt, and crawled into bed as if already asleep. I wasn't certain if I fell asleep before or afterward, and did not stir until sometime during the middle of the night, where I visited the privy. I fell asleep again once back in bed, and only when light showed within the place did I stir again.
This time, however, I not only saw my 'good' clothing hanging on what might have been pegs, but also a spare candle near my boots and the sack of powder on the shelf. I thought to rub my boots thoroughly, and as I began, I heard noises downstairs. I pocketed the candle and powder, put on boots and socks, and went downstairs. I had in mind the idea for candle-lighting, and wanted to ask about the use of a vial for the powder.
Once in the kitchen, I saw the reason for the noises, as Hans and Anna were packing supplies. I visited the privy, came out feeling much better, and then promptly got in the way.
“May I use one of those small vials?” I asked.
“Yes, you may. Why?” asked Hans.
“I had an idea about an easier way of lighting candles,” I said. “It involves musket powder, and I wanted to put some in a waterproof container.” I paused, then asked, “how are candles usually lit?”
“Usually with a gunflint and a piece of an old file,” said Hans. “Now how will musket powder help?”
“Dip the candle's wick into it,” I said.
Hans looked at me as if I had gone to Eire and fetched him the magic pot of gold.
“I had never thought of that,” said Hans. “Now come with me, and I can show you the downstairs part of the place. Anna needs to finish packing up the food.”
For an instant, I wondered where the stairs going down were, until Hans led from the kitchen and into a near-hidden place next to the upstairs passage. I had not seen it before, partly as it was recessed in from the upstairs-going passage, and partly because...
“I wasn't looking for it,” I thought glumly. “Tunnel-vision strikes again.”
I followed Hans down into his 'inner sanctum', and with each stair-step downward, I sensed that I was descending into a place that was easily a hundred years more advanced than the upper regions. I wondered what I would see down here, and when we reached the landing, I was astonished.
There were thick wooden posts, tables in abundance, unlit candlesticks – those outnumbered the lit ones by at least a factor of three – shelves, and more 'stuff' than I believed possible. As Hans led me through this maze, I marveled; it seemed two parts apothecary, one part vintage Frankenstein's laboratory – though with no electrical machinery – and more budding Thomas Edison than all else.
“This looks about right for a Victorian-era mad scientist,” I thought. “I just hope he does not have any monsters down here.” A brief pause, then “that coin last night was big enough to pass for one.”
Hans then led past his glassware collection, and here, I was again surprised, both at the quantity – he had enough to stock a college chemistry classroom – and also, its quality. I had expected to see 'alchemist's retorts', and instead, was seeing quite modern-looking glassware.
“He even has a fume hood,” I thought, as the two of us passed by a narrow copper-covered table under a riveted copper 'hood'.
“Where do the fumes exit?” I asked.
“They come out in that oven up there,” said Hans. “That thing has a good chimney, and if there is a fire going, they get burned good. I have the stuff for the medicines over here.”
Hans now showed me several sturdy-looking floor-to-ceiling shelf-units filled with crocks, boxes, sacks, and jugs. I then recalled the bandage-tin.
“How are the bandages done?” I asked.
“Anna gets the cloth,” said Hans, “we wash it good, dry it, roll it up, and then put it in those tins. It gets cooked in the oven after, so the cloth does not have any little creatures on it.”
“L-little creatures?” I asked.
“Yes, these small things,” said Hans. “Anna has a lot of drawings of them, and they cause trouble, especially if they get inside of you. They cause sicknesses and infections then.”
“Is there a way to see those?” I asked.
“Yes, though getting to where that thing is takes most of a day, and only a few can use it,” said Hans. “Anna has used it many times, and I think her family used it before her.”
“Is it hard to use?” I asked. “Is that why only a few can use it?”
“That is part of it, I think,” said Hans, as he led off toward another part of the basement. “The person who has it does medicine, and only lets medical people look at it, as it is touchy.”
“Oh,” I said. “They restrict its use to, uh, medical uses?”
“I think that is what they do,” said Hans. “You might be able to use it in a few months, as you know more than most do about this stuff. That is the most important thing, is what Anna tells me, is that you know what you are doing. Lots of people who say they know medical matters know them badly, if at all, and that is up here. There are lots of places to the south that are much worse that way, especially among those black-dressed people down there.”
I had an impression, and said, “uh, witches?”
Hans stopped, looked at me, then said, “now I never thought of that. Why would witches want to use something like that?”
“Uh, ruin it, perhaps?” I said tentatively. “I had an impression, and I just guessed as to a reason that sounded, uh, plausible.”
Hans led me past another sturdy shelf unit cluttered with containers, and said, “those are some more medicines. I have a lot of stuff for those.”
“The candles?” I asked.
“Those are up ahead,” said Hans. “How many of them do you want?”
“Three,” I said.
Hans came to a small 'cabinet', and took out a cloth-lined wooden box. He handed me four thick and greasy-feeling tallow candles, saying, “now you have one for your boots that you can keep handy. They still look a bit tight.”
“I have one in my pocket already,” I said. “It was near the candlestick upstairs in my, uh, room.”
“That is for lighting,” said Hans. “You might want to keep that thing lit for when you must go downstairs at night.”
“But then I would not be able to sleep,” I said.
“Anna will need to keep one lit near the stove, then,” said Hans. “I would feel bad if you got hurt walking around in the darkness.”
Here, Hans paused, then said, “you said you got the fine powder?”
I nodded, then Hans said, “I might want some, if it is decent. I am nearly out of that type, and I can pay Georg for it, or give him some back when I get a supply. I usually get mine from a mill south of here, and they make the good stuff.”
“Uh, fourth kingdom powder?” I asked. I recalled Willem speaking of it.
“That usually is decent,” said Hans, “but this stuff I am speaking of is about as good as can be had.”
Hans then found a vial, and when he inserted a cork, I asked, “why are some of those, uh, long and strange-looking?”
“That is because they were whittled,” said Hans. “The turned ones come with the vials, and those are down in the fourth kingdom.”
“Uh, those whittled ones seem common, though,” I said.
“There are lots of farmers, too,” said Hans, “and if you are a farmer, you have lots of time during the winter, and a need of extra money. Whittled corks may not pay well, but the farmer only has his time in them, as cork-trees are common enough, and selling them is easy, so corks are a popular thing with farmers.”
The two of us now wound our way through the maze, and once back upstairs – Anna had put a great deal on the table – I brought out the candle and bag. I opened the latter – it was tied with thin rounded leather thongs, and the 'granny knot' took effort and concentration to untie – and as I used a small spoon to put some powder in the vial, Hans said, “that is priming powder all right, and it looks to be decent. How much do you think the candles will take?”
Not a second later, a thunderous booming seemed to 'come' from the door. The sound reminded me of the anvil-music of the previous day, and when I went to the door and opened it, I saw Gelbhaar with another small thong-tied leather pouch in one hand, a leather 'satchel' over his shoulder, and a long wrapped 'thing' in his other hand.
“Here is the lodestone,” he said. “I need to look over the musket, and then try for some partridges. My neighbor is having trouble with them getting into his rye.”
“Thank you,” I said, as I took the surprisingly heavy pouch. “I hope you do well with the birds.”
“He hopes so too,” he said. “They are driving him out of his mind with their noise when they are not devouring his crop. Then, those birds are good eating, and the Public House pays well for them.”
He then left, and as I watched, he untied a dark brown horse from the border of the stoop, then mounted and headed off down the road in the direction of the Public House. The horse was moving at what seemed a pace similar to that of those pulling Willem's farm wagon.
“And what do I know about horses, beyond their fervent desire to dent my head with their shoes?” I thought.
I pocketed the lodestone, and went back to the table. Anna was elsewhere, and as I tied the pouch of powder to put it away, Hans said, “I had more of that stuff than I thought I did.”
“I think I put a bit more than I need in that vial,” I said, “so unless your, uh, musket needs a lot of that stuff, you should be covered. You have your lighting things, don't you?”
“Yes, in the usual place, and also some candles,” said Hans. “Candles are cheap, and we use a lot of them. Now let me fetch the musket, and we can be off.”
While Hans went upstairs, I wondered again where Anna was – until she came inside from the rear door. I noted she had some long canes in her hand.
“Where do those go?” I asked.
“In the buggy, like everything else,” said Anna. “If you come with me, you can help load it up.”
I was about to follow Anna – she was putting things in my arms – when Hans showed with another leather-wrapped 'thing' and a satchel that resembled that of Gelbhaar. He looked inside the latter as Anna got her load, then said, “it is not likely we will see deer this time, as harvest is still busy, but one might show near that place while we wait for the fish to get hungry.”
“That place doesn't have deer,” said Anna. “You are more likely to find witches, actually.”
“Yes, that is so,” said Hans, “and so I need to have something for them. Besides, there are places closer to town that have deer in them, and I know where they are.”
I went out the door after Hans and Anna, and when Hans opened an unusually wide pair of doors to a 'shed' on the side of the house, I was astonished.
“What is this place?” I asked, as Hans swung wide the door.
“This is the buggy-way,” said Hans. “We keep the buggy in here.”
The 'buggy' seemed uncommonly flimsy, so much so that when Hans set his things in the front of the low-walled 'box' and began working on something to the front of the thing, I wondered what to do – until Anna set her load down in the box next to the front. I did the same, only I was very careful with what I had. Anna had loaded me down with much of the food, and as I set the jugs carefully next to the absurdly thin-looking planks of the side, I turned to my right. Anna had vanished.
I continued with my work, now arranging Anna's supplies as well. She had carried the rest of the food, and as I finished, I heard a snort from my right. I nearly fainted.
“That is not a mule,” said Hans. “We can finish loading the buggy while Anna gets the horses in the mood for travel.”
“Uh, the latch?” I asked. I saw no horses yet, so thought to speak of it; and as I went by the rear, I opened it easily.
“Now you have done it,” said Hans in a tone of voice I could not place. “That latch is tricky.”
“How was I supposed to open it?” I asked. “Wouldn't it make loading the buggy easier?”
“Yes, it would,” said Hans. “Anna has a lot of trouble with it, which is why she avoids its use. I have seen her spend ten minutes trying to open it.”
“I hope I can fix it soon, then,” I said.
Again, a snort came from my rear, and I jumped in the bed of the buggy. Anna brought in both horses, and as I cowered in the back of the buggy, she said, “now what?”
“H-horses scare me,” I squeaked, “and I...”
“I could tell that,” said Anna, as she brought the black around the buggy. “These are not prone to trouble. Mules are not wanted much here, as those are.”
Hans took the other horse, and while they hitched them up, I bolted from the rear of the buggy and went inside the kitchen. While I tried to figure out what needed to go next, Hans joined me.
“Anna is still getting them taken care of,” he said. “We should be able to get the rest.”
We were able to get the rest – at least, that part that did not include the canes – by the time Anna returned. She got the canes, and as the three of us went with our supplies, she went ahead. She laid the canes in the rear of the buggy, then began putting the supplies in according to what looked like a special pattern.
“I have no idea how you knew as well as you did where things went,” she said, “but they were quite close. I just had to check to make certain I hadn't missed anything.”
“Yes, that is good,” said Hans. “Now I can open the front of the buggy-way as soon as you get that stuff put how you like it, and we can go.”
“Go?” I asked. “Uh, where do I go?”
“In the back, on those bags there,” said Anna. “That should make a passable seat.”
A minute or two later, Anna had the supplies situated, and I crawled in back, closing the gate after me. Anna looked on in shock, then began muttering as she left out of the rear area. Hans was opening the front, and when Anna returned with a jug, she paused to close the rear doors. She then handed the jug to me, and got up in the 'front seat' of the buggy. She then drove out.
The easy rolling of the buggy, as well as its near-complete silence, was unlike that of the farm wagon, and once Hans had taken his seat, he began driving out of town in the direction of where I had 'arrived'. Within a few minutes, the horses had 'loosened up', and were now moving nearly twice as fast as the farm wagon had.
I was surprised at how well the buggy rode, for it seemed to ignore the small bumps and ruts. Again, I had an impression, and said, “do you, uh, fetch hurt people with this?”
“When we can take them in, we do,” said Anna. “We have a thick sheet with straps and a pair of poles, and we pull them out of the fields when they are hurt.”
“Pull them out of fields?” I asked.
“That is the problem with a lot of places where there are no roads,” said Hans. “This buggy does well then, if it has little in it and the horses are fresh, but most buggies tend to get mired when they do not stick to roads.”
“Fields?” I asked.
“Farmers get hurt with some frequency,” said Anna, “and even this buggy might well become bogged in a freshly plowed field.”
Anna paused, then said, “once they are on firm ground, we can load them in the back, and then take them where they can be worked on. It helps a lot with broken bones to use this kind of buggy, as it is a special one. Most buggies are not this light, nor this well-sprung.”
“Yes, and that is good when you must travel long distances,” said Hans. “Medical work might not be like what some do that way, but twenty miles or more is not uncommon for a trip.”
Within a mile of home, I saw first one person on horseback, then another. The early morning sunshine, as well as the chill in the air, spoke of 'fall', and as we went past long wandering fields of corn, I could tell this was indeed harvest time.
“First, Willem spoke of it, and now Hans,” I thought, “and I guessed it was happening, so it must be.”
I was glad for the food and drink, and when I looked at the jug I had been handed, I wondered as to its contents, so much so that I asked, “the second jug?”
“That has the cider you started on last night,” said Anna. “You were so gone you did not notice it, nor much else on the way home. If it gets too frightening in that place, you can have some beer.”
I thought for a moment, then asked, “where did you get those towels in the privy? I'd like to get some like them for bathing.”
“Those are at Huybert's, which is the name of the Mercantile in town,” said Anna. “They have those, combs like you are using, linen cloth, sewing things, and a great deal else. All of it is expensive.”
Here, Anna paused, then said, “Hans spoke of what you said about those combs, and Georg nearly had a fit. He says that sextant will be yours once they cast its parts, and it is likely there will be a fair amount of brass sheet left over. Why did you want silver?”
Anna's question was confusing, for the reasons why were obvious to me: “that makes nice jewelry, and that's the least I can do for the two of you...”
I stopped in mid-sentence, for I felt something happen to one of the horses.
“Yes, a small rock,” he said, as he stopped and got down with something in his hand. “The gray seems more inclined to get them than the black, so I am checking there first.”
A few minutes later, Hans climbed back in the buggy's seat, then resumed driving. The horses rapidly achieved their former speed, and as I began to look around, I wondered briefly how I had 'felt' the stone. A minute later, I recalled one of the things I had been filing on the day before.
“What are the front perches of a buggy?” I asked
“What is this you are talking of?” asked Hans.
“I was working on the front perches of a buggy yesterday,” I said. “I'd never worked on buggy parts before, and they were saying I had to be an instrument-maker, when they weren't saying other things and whistling.”
“Was that what those things were?” asked Anna. “I've seen my share of parts, including the ones for this buggy, and I had trouble recognizing them.”
“Uh, these needed to be put together with something,” I said. “I was having to file them all over, then file flats on them where they would be joined.”
“I would think they might use rivets for those,” said Hans. “This one has a fair number of those for its iron parts.”
Hans paused, then said, “now do the springs go in the perches, or do they do the steering?”
“I am not sure,” I said. “There were some pieces that fit together specially, and I wasn't able to get them close enough for my liking. They needed to leave more metal so I could fit them right.”
“Do these pieces have parts that are like fingers?” asked Hans.
“They did,” I said. “There were three on one type of piece, and four on another, and they seemed fairly sturdy, if otherwise of soft metal.”
“Those are not to this type of buggy,” said Hans. “These have two and three, and they do not use rivets for them, but bolts, and they are not of soft metal. The ones on this buggy do the steering.”
“I hope you checked those recently,” said Anna. “I was lucky to find the bolt that one trip.”
I noted the level-seeming of the countryside, as well as the slightly raised aspect of the road. Narrow eroded ditches were on each side of the road, and as I looked down at the surface of the road itself, I saw not merely the clay and gravel, but also a vast number of small cracks in the surface. Each crack seethed with dust, and as I watched, the wheels stirred up slight tendrils of dust that hung in the air for brief seconds. There was less dust than I thought, and what little the wheels stirred settled quickly.
The miles passed one by one, and as I watched the fields, I saw neither animals nor people. That alone spoke of the waning part of harvest, for I suspected that during the beginning and peak of that time, people worked every day they could and from dawn to dusk.
“Do people work every day during harvest?” I asked.
“Harvest-time has long-enough days with the usual number of them,” said Hans, “and most farmers spend their rest-days in bed during harvest, as they are tired then.”
“And what we are doing?” I asked.
“This is when we can do this,” said Hans, “so we either do it now, or we do without.”
“Doing without for most isn't the same as doing without for us,” said Anna. “When you do medicine, you touch many lives, and it's important to do your best all the time.”
“Which is why we are doing this,” said Hans. “We seem a bit more than half-way there, so I would get something to drink.”
Getting some of the cider made me wonder about metal cups, for now I noticed the buggy's movement to a far greater degree. I was glad I hadn't spilled the stuff, and as I sipped, I felt better.
About half an hour later, when the sun now plainly showed itself, I could see the stone bridge where I had met Willem and Paul. I looked at the sacks I was sitting on, and noted adjustable leather straps, as well as old-looking metal 'buckles'. I seemed to dimly recall something similar from where I came from.
“I packed all three of those things this time,” said Anna. “Some call them rucksacks, and others, traveling bags. We got them in the fourth kingdom some years ago.”
Once past the bridge, Hans drove the buggy on a narrow deeply rutted path that appeared to the right. The ride was still smooth, and as we went along the river, I could see the trees steadily coming closer.
“Will we need to worry about thieves?” I asked. I then wondered about the propriety of my question. It seemed blatant and obvious to me to speak of the matter.
“This buggy?” said Hans. “I doubt it, as everyone would be after the thieves, and most know such things.”
“Such things?” I asked.
“Theft is dealt with on the spot,” said Hans. “A rope, a tree, a prayer, and the thieves stay there to rot, if he or they are still alive. I once caught one in the house.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I shot him,” said Hans, “and Anna and I buried that wretch out back in the cornfield behind the house. The rule-book is well-known, and everyone knows what it says, so there is no excuse for them.”
Hans paused, then said, “people are supposed to do what it says, and those that do otherwise end up dead, and good riddance to bad witches.”
As if to punctuate the matter, he spat on the ground.
The tree came closer, and once we were under its shade, Hans dismounted. Anna followed him a second later, and while the two of them led the horses to water, I unlatched the gate and began removing the bags. They proved much heavier than they looked, but by the time Hans and Anna returned with the horses, I had all three of them out on the grass with the straps facing up.
After tying the horses to the tree with lengths of rope, Hans said, “I had the musket loaded, except for the priming, and I did that just now. Now we can go inside this place.”
We each took a sack, adjusted its straps, and left for the huge green mound I had seen under the stars but days ago.
Hans was in the lead, and as we walked along a grassy path that seemed but barely visible to my eyes and like thick carpet to my feet, I began to feel something within the mound of greenery that lay in wait for us like a cruel and vicious predator. It was a familiar feeling for me; I had lived in a similar environment most of my life, and at this time, I was not unduly bothered by it, for some reason.
I wished I could say that of the bramble patch that lay ahead, for I knew there was something wrong about it. Hans confirmed the matter but seconds later.
“Do not touch those little fruits,” he said, as he pointed to the clusters of 'blackberries' that lay to the left and right of the path, “as they cause sickness if eaten. That is so even if you wash your hands good, as washing does not seem to touch what makes it happen.”
The brambles grew steadily higher, and within a short distance, they formed a dim and prickly canopy overhead. The path now curved to the left and began to 'sink down', and after a short distance, the path's previous feeling of dense and decayed vegetation underfoot became as hard as stone. I looked down, and seemed to see stone beneath my feet, with a pair of doors ahead. These latter were set at an angle in an ancient and cracked masonry casement, and were open but a crack.
“I have cut my way in here twice before,” said Hans, “which is how I know how to get in here. I used a reaping tool, thick gloves, and a lot of old clothing, and I still spent a whole day in the privy with the bramble-sickness.”
“It was more than that, Hans,” said Anna. “The first day was the worst, but it did not end then. You were needing to stay close to the privy for two days after, and then the scratches needed cleaning out twice a day until they healed.”
“Yes, and I hope this does it, too,” said Hans. “Now, we open these doors here.”
The door Hans reached for and touched now opened with a shuddering groan, and its rust and age kept it in place. A foul and nauseating odor jogged both memory and stomach, and now, I knew why we had not eaten breakfast this morning.
“I forgot just how bad this place smells,” said Anna. “I am glad we packed our food, and did not eat it before coming here.”
“Yes, I know,” said Hans, as he opened his 'satchel'. I guessed he was after his lighting things, and I brought out the candles and vial. I was not prepared for Anna's outburst.
“I forgot the candles,” she exclaimed.
“Yes, and he did not,” said Hans. “I always carry one or two in my things here.”
I knelt down and uncorked the vial, then dipped the candle's wick end into it. The wick came out thickly dusted with powder, which I rubbed in carefully before dipping the candle again. I then handed the candle to Hans.
He put the candle down as I corked the vial, then struck a spark. The candle lit with a flare and billow of smoke, and as I handed him the other two, he said, “you were right about that idea, as usually it takes some frayed cloth and a lot more work. There, these other two are lit.”
He handed Anna and I a lit candle each, and we now slowly walked down the crumbling steps into the maw of this forgotten place.
At the bottom of the steps, the darkness was absolute, save for the feeble flames of our candles, and only their light allayed the complete and total gloom. I longed for something that gave more light as we walked slowly across a gritty and lumpy floor, for I could 'feel' the presence of a trap of some kind, one involving bombs, trip-wires, and ancient evilly poisonous chemicals.
“We need to watch ourselves in here,” I said, “for I can feel something tricky here. I think it is some kind of a bomb.”
“I have not seen one yet in here,” said Hans, “and I have set my share of those things. Still, one cannot be too careful in this place.”
“Hans, anyone who could see that infection in Paul's hand and do those other things bears listening to if they have such suspicions,” said Anna. “This place is frightening, bombs or no bombs.”
I now saw the coarse-looking 'plastered' columns and their faint tracery of scratches, along with what might have been ancient stylized graffiti that was now dust on the floor. I could also sense the presence of evil, and in a faintly chilly voice that seemed to echo both in the room and in my mind, I said, “there were murders in here.”
“When was this?” asked Hans.
“Not recently,” I said. “They did a lot of killing in this place. Those skeletons are murder victims, and this place reminds me of...”
“What does it remind you of?” asked Anna. I could hear the fear in her voice, and across the width of this huge place I saw the beginnings of a passage.
“Some places I have heard of, and one place I have worked in,” I said.
“Where was this?” asked Anna.
“It feels like that church late at night, when I was cleaning the place,” I said. The recollection was a cause for involuntary shuddering.
“Where was this church?” asked Anna.
“The Devil's Playground,” I blurted. I wondered where the phrase had come from.
“I had no idea Brimstone had a place like that,” said Anna. “There must have been many witches there.”
“This place had them,” I said, again in a 'spooky' voice, “and there were a lot of them. They had...”
My voice trailed off abruptly, and as it did, I wondered how I could speak of 'witches' as if I knew about those people here. I barely knew anything about 'witches' where I came from. Yet still...
“They had ceremonies,” I said, “both below where we are standing and elsewhere in this place, and that huge worm, or rather, worms.”
The others now seemed 'gone', and ahead lay the passage. I felt impelled to speak, for there was more that needed to be said.
“This place is really nasty,” I said. “Anna, you had best let me protect you, as I have been in places like this...”
In my peripheral vision I saw something move, and turned so rapidly I nearly waved my candle out. I saw a small grayish-brown rat creeping along the wall. As we turned into the passage, Hans said, “how good can you see in the dark? I did not see that rat until you moved and put the light of your candle on it.”
“Quite well, actually,” I said. “Much of what went on here is not normally visible, and I am not seeing it conventionally. I am mostly feeling it, and the sensation is not pleasant.”
I now took the lead, and Hans willingly let me past as Anna muttered about 'seeing in the dark', and as I moved slowly into the 'hallway', I began looking carefully along the floor. Our slow steps stirred up dust from the floor, and the dust gave thick-shadowed lives to the flickering flames of our candles.
Doors showed to our right and left, and while some were closed, others were not. I stopped at a half-open door, for I sensed one or more skeletons beyond the threshold, and I opened the door warily with my left hand. My right hand held my candle, and as the door opened further, I put my candle into the room.
Within lay a dark and dirty dust-blanketed desk showing ancient papers scattered over its top, an ancient and rotten chair behind the desk – and upon the desk, a rusted pistol serving as a paperweight where it had fallen from a long-dead skeletal hand. In front of the desk, two skeletons lay on the floor, and by their rotting ribs, more pistols lay half-buried in the dust of centuries – and seated in the chair, a skeleton lay head-back, with tattered moldering clothing. A thumb-sized hole lay in the middle of the skeleton's forehead, and I pointed at the hole with my left hand while still holding the candle aloft.
“That is a hole from a bullet,” whispered Hans. “These people were murderers, right enough.”
I stepped closer, and knelt down by the two skeletons. Both of them had sizable missing places in the backs of their heads, and the floor was gritty with bone-fragments. I stood up, and looked around the room.
Shelves cluttered with ancient books in the corner, as well as stacks of papers, showed this place to be the 'office' of an administrator, and when I touched the 'books', they proved to be loose-leaf journals of such age that they crumbled. I came back out into the hallway, and slow-stepped away from the 'office'.
We passed more doors to the sides, and on the floor, assorted trash and rubbish, as well as a number of still-shiny metal spheres about two inches around. The dust continued thickening, as did the sense of evil, and when we came into a sizable room that went left a short distance and right a much further one, Hans said, “this is where the stuff is. Those cabinets on the wall there are the locked ones.”
I paused to glance around, and saw a long central row of what might have been 'workbenches'. On their tops, there were sundry grime-coated rods and what might have been clamps and stands. I suspected these went to an organic chemistry 'scaffolding' of some kind, and when I looked at my feet, I started. I saw a skeleton, and this one seemed in the throes of a convulsion.
“S-skeletons, too,” I said. “This one here was poisoned, and the r-really bad stuff is right below us. There is a huge room there, and th-they did the ceremonies in that p-place.”
I made a choking sound, then muttered, “those worms, the idols, the b-blood, those m-murders...”
Both Hans and Anna now moved with alacrity, and began 'looking' at the metalwork. The two of them whispered something, which I did not hear; I felt 'drawn' to the head-tall cabinets, and when I grasped the cold metal of the handle, I pulled. A faint creak answered, and I seemed to hear faintly a voice chiding me as a sense of frustration built with explosive rapidity – and with a sudden effort, I pulled again. The door groaned, and then with a tearing sound, it came away in my hand. I looked at it dumbly, then dropped it as Hans came from where he was. I then saw the long narrow workbench underneath the rows of cabinets.
“How is it you tore that door off?” asked Hans.
“I f-felt, uh, led to try it,” I said. “I think there is a lot of stuff in here.”
“I wold try the others, then,” said Hans. “Anna, leave that stuff be, and...”
“Hans, I would be very careful,” I said, as I went to the next door. “There's something in there, and I think I need to find it. It's hidden very well.”
I pulled on the door, and again, it ripped from the wall. I dropped it, and thought to look at the contents. I then saw a very thin wire coated with what looked like rust, and as I held my candle higher, I saw how it was tied around certain containers.
“See, here it is,” I said, as I held my candle close. “That wire is the trigger, and if it breaks or moves, it will set off the bomb – or rather, bombs. There are several of them, and they would tear this place up if they went off. We will need to avoid touching it to get the supplies.”
I resumed ripping off doors. In the background, I could hear Hans and Anna removing supplies and bagging them, as well as faint murmurs of appreciation. I tore off two more doors, then thought to come back to look.
“There is a lot of good stuff in here,” said Hans, “and I can tell about that wire. Whoever did that one was tricky.”
“I hope we can use it all,” said Anna. “I don't know what most of this stuff is.”
“There is a lot I don't know about,” said Hans. “Those books are likely to speak of that stuff, so we can figure it out, especially given what Georg said about his reading.” I resumed tearing off the doors.
After ripping off eight of them, I came to an area with unlocked doors and near-empty cabinets, and I returned to where Hans and Anna were packing their bags. I now began to remove the supplies, and here, I soon had the job to myself.
“I gave that wire a wide berth,” said Hans, “as I cannot see it that good. Can you?”
“I can see it fairly well, actually,” I said, “and for some reason, I seem to know what's safe to touch and what isn't. I'm not sure how I know, but I can get almost all of this stuff.”
“Then you should do that part,” said Anna. “I've seen what some of Hans' traps do.”
I reached in to bring out the first of several silvery-colored mortars and pestles, and as I handed the thing out, Hans said, “now I know you need to work in the basement with me, as those things there are good to have, especially when I need to grind powder better than it usually comes. You knowing about traps will help much.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Your traps?”
“I make up a fair number of those things,” said Hans.
“What for?” I asked.
“Some are for those people that come with the swine,” said Hans. “I have blown up a lot of them over the years, as all of them are killers, and each of the pigs is worth several boatloads of those thugs.”
I handed out the rest of the mortar-and-pestle sets, then as I moved down the workbench, I thought to ask a question.
“You said some traps are for people,” I said. “What are the others for?”
“The pigs,” said Hans. “I have gotten eight of them so far.”
It took roughly another twenty minutes for me to 'loot' the cabinets, and once I had finished – I had left the stuff with the wire wrapped around it, which wasn't much – we picked up a bag apiece and began moving down the halls. The heft of the bags spoke of much plunder, and when we passed some of those metal balls, I thought to stop and pick one up.
“I got some of those things,” said Hans, “so why is it you want another?”
“I need to test that wire,” I said, as I went back down the hall.
I came to a point some thirty feet from the room, then threw the ball. Somehow, the thing curved, and as I leaped to the wall and began running with my candle cupped, I heard a thunderous roar followed by pinging. I scooped up my bag and ran after the steadily retreating candle flames, and once I caught up, I relit my candle amid convulsive sneezes. I had an intimation to hurry, and I spoke of it.
“They didn't just have those bombs,” I said, “but they put some nasty chemicals in front of them. We'd best get out of this building in a hurry.”
While we did not run – the candles wouldn't stand running – we did not waste a second of time, and we came to the large room but seconds later. There, we moved as quickly as we could without blowing out the candles from the wind of our passage, and as we climbed the stairs, we waved our candles out. I then heard screaming, and as the thin and high-pitched sound faded in my mind, I asked, “did either of you hear that screaming?” It seemed the very essence of evil, and I suspected evil spirits to be its cause.
“No, but I do not want to stay in the area, either,” said Anna. “We had best get to where the horses are in a hurry if there is poison in there.”
Hans closed the transom tightly, and then took the lead, with Anna and I following closely after him at a rapid walk. I suspected the chemical in question was an especially virulent poison, and as we cleared the arched place of the brambles, the letters 'GB' occurred to me.
“Wonderful,” I thought, “that stuff is a nerve agent, and we do not have the antidotes for it, either.”
“Will we need to return?” I asked, as the end of the brambles came in sight.
“I think we got all of that stuff that is worth getting,” said Hans. “I packed a few of those metal pieces, so I can try them out. If they come good, making more should not be too hard in the future.”
Our path among the brambles soon came to an end, and after putting our bags in the buggy, Anna fetched out the poles. I wondered if she were planning on carrying them until she fetched out the food. She put that in my arms, and led off toward the bank of the river.
As I followed after her, I noted a tall bush with coarse green foliage and malodorous white blooms streaked with thin straggly red lines. The sight of this plant made me long for weed-killer, for if ever a plant needed such treatment, this one did.
“Is that plant bad?” I asked. It had the 'feel' of poison ivy.
“That one is poison, and is of little use in medicine,” said Hans. “It helps sometimes with bad headaches if the tincture for pain doesn't work well.”
I was glad to leave the 'poison-plant' behind, and once down near the riverbank, we set out our baskets and jugs. After a quick meal, Hans produced a small tin from his satchel, and the strange odor that came from the paste within made me wonder greatly as to what it was – until he tied on three sizable hooks and smeared the stuff onto them. I then looked back toward the building, and I felt the wind. There wasn't much.
“I'm glad the wind is blowing away from us,” I thought. “Distance is our friend, and we'd best get more of us between us and that building before long.”
I then turned to see Hans and Anna tossing their hooks in the water. I thought to do the same, and as I settled down on the grass, I asked, “what is commonly used for fish bait?”
“Worms are very hard to find,” said Hans, “but if they can be found, they work well. Then, there are certain insects, and finally, there is a mixture of corn-meal and cheese-spread.”
Here, Hans paused, then said, “those are the usual things. What I have is a special bait that I have made up, and it uses some very hard-to-find insects. It gets to these fish good, though...
Hans then had his pole almost leap out of his hands, as a fish struck hard. He grabbed onto it before it flew away, and now the pole bent nearly double as a large fish tried to escape. I wondered if I were to receive such recognition when Anna said, “pull up a little there.”
I did so, and now, I had a torpedo on my line. I had never dealt with a fish of this size before, and when Anna received attention by a fish, she 'hooked' hers as well.
“That stuff makes anything I've heard of seem worthless,” I thought. “Now how do I reel this monster in? These things do not have reels on them.”
I thought to watch Hans, and as he began backing step by step away from the bank, I noted the fish continued to thrash. I thought to do likewise, but Anna said, “let your fish get tired before you try backing. I've seen them jump into the river from the grass before.”
“How far did they jump?” I asked.
“Far enough that I tried to catch the fish and had to swim to shore after I fell in the river,” said Anna.
“Was this when you were small?” I asked. I recalled the children fishing here days earlier.
“That was but three months ago,” said Anna crossly. “The hook did not bend that time, and I had a trout worth ten meals on the grass, and it leaped back into the river.”
“That is why you must stun them when they are on the grass,” said Hans. “You needed to thump it with your hand and then put it in a sack.”
“What, no gutting?” I asked.
“That is done after they are dead,” said Hans. “They thrash too much before then.”
Hans soon came to help me with my fish, and as he took the pole, I thought to watch Anna. She was having no end of trouble with hers, as it still seemed uncommonly lively.
“What happened to yours?” I asked.
“It is in a sack, and tied good,” said Hans. “I tied it to the buggy's front wheel, so it will not escape.”
Here, Hans paused, then said, “this one you have here must have just ate, as it is still very frisky.”
“Do not speak of frisky trouts,” said Anna crossly. “This one seems to have eaten its fill just before it got into that bait.”
I thought to spell Anna at her pole, which she gave up with gladness. As she rubbed her arms, she spoke of how I needed to 'look after' the fish, and finally, when it was time, I began backing up. I then saw Anna stoop to the ground and pick up a rock.
“The rock?” I asked.
“This one is not getting away,” said Anna. “I'm going to thump it a good one before I bag it.”
“Do you have a bag handy?” I asked.
“Yes, I do,” said Anna. “Mind the line there, as the fish is about to come onto the grass. You'll need to move backwards faster then, as that's when they tend to get loose.”
I did as Anna instructed me, and as I dragged the thrashing fish well clear of the water, she fell on the thing and began 'tenderizing' it with the rock. Once it was still, she removed the hook, and slipped the fish into the sack. Its heft was astounding, and its size – two and a half feet long – more so.
Once Hans had 'beached' mine – Anna used the rock again, and Hans had his share of trouble, as it was the biggest one yet; it actually leaped several feet in the air, and Anna tossed the rock and brained it before it could escape – the two of them bagged it. Hans then untied the one he had caught first, and gutted the thing with his knife. I then thought to try the lodestone.
The stone stuck to the fish's head as if it were indeed made of iron, and as I struggled to remove the lodestone, I muttered, “that was supposed to be a joke.”
“It must not be one, then,” said Hans, “though I doubt these will forge well. You might try the heads of them that way once we get them to the Public House. That one there is about right for roasted trout, so we will keep it.”
I tried the lodestone again for the other two fish, and in each case, they lived up to their name of 'iron-head', as the rock needed persistence and strength to remove it from their heads. I bagged the rock and pocketed it, then looked back toward the tall green presence of the building. It was further away than I thought it was, and as I helped pack our food and the fish, I saw faint clouds of 'fumes' coming from the bushes near the building. The wind still blew away from us.
“That stuff is leaking out of the building,” I said, “and...”
I ceased speaking in mid-sentence, for one of those small gopher-like animals collided with a small shred of low-drifting fume cloud. The animal dropped and began thrashing as if in a convulsion.
“You were right,” said Hans. “That stuff is poison, and it is trouble. I am glad there are no people living close to here, and none to the north within miles. We must go now.”
We left but minutes later, and the urgency imparted by the escaping fumes seemed to be communicated to the horses, for they moved faster than they had the trip out. Their gate was just short of a trot for nearly half the distance home, and only when town was actually in sight did they slow to a normal-seeming walk.
At the Public House, Gelbhaar was seated, with his satchel and musket handy, and a jug and mug in front of him at a table near the rear of the place. I gave him the lodestone as Anna and Hans went by me with the still-bagged fish.
“The stone sticks to their heads quite well,” I said, “and I tried it on all three. Hans says they are not likely to forge well, and I think he's right.”
“Just as well,” he said. “I shot a bag full of partridges, and now one of them is cooking. I should have some free meals here in the future.”
Here, Hans returned, and as I turned to follow him, he said, “those fish got us three meals each. Now we can go home and roast that third one.”
Once home, Anna took charge of the remaining fish, and Hans and I carried the bags downstairs to set them on tables. As we put away the supplies we had looted, Hans brought out one of the books he had mentioned. It size and age were astounding, and while its binding was going to pieces, its pages were still smooth and legible. I began scanning it, and to my surprise, I seemed to know far more than I recalled.
“I might have done some chemistry, but this is far more than I did,” I said.
“So you have trouble understanding it?” asked Hans.
“No, I don't,” I said in a voice that faintly reeked of fear. “I might have taken three or four classes, and I seem to understand this stuff as if it were my major.”
“Now what is this?” asked Hans.
“My major,” I said. “I had a very difficult one, and it took me a long time to get through, because I was sick nearly the whole time, and I ran out of money near the end. That slowed things down a lot.”
“Yes, and what did you learn?” asked Hans.
“A great deal, and it didn't matter,” I said, “as the only jobs I could get were ones I could do at home. I couldn't do what I went to school for, save in a peripheral manner.”
Hans then wandered off, and returned with another three books, saying, “you seemed to know that one well enough. Now try these.”
The next book was a mathematics book, and as I looked through it, again, I was surprised. Not only did I recognize all of what I was seeing, but I understood it far better than I once had. It had my lips moving in a steady mumble, and I said, “no, my major was not math, either. I had trouble with math.”
“Now what is this about sums?” asked Hans.
“This isn't sums,” I said. “This goes far beyond those.” I then showed him a particularly difficult topic, and he scratched his head, saying, “if I did not know better, I would think that stuff to be something witches would do.”
“Witches?” I asked. “Do they do convolution integrals?”
Hans looked at me, then said, “I am not that sure as to what they do, but that is nothing I have ever seen before.”
The next two books were medical, and as I leafed through them, I was confounded.
“No, I did not go to medical school, either,” I stammered.
“Now what are you speaking of?” asked Hans. “There are no schools for medicine here. If you wish to learn it, you must be apprenticed.” Hans paused a bit, “and you are, so I would not trouble yourself about such matters here.”
“But Hans, I, I understand this stuff as if I studied it for years,” I stammered.
Faint steps came running, then as if by 'magic', Anna showed by my side. She began leafing through the medical books, then said, “now what did you understand as if you spent years studying?”
“Those books, Anna,” said Hans. “He is talking as if he knew them and all that is in them, and at least for chemistry, I think that is close to the truth, as he knows a lot more than I do about what they speak of.”
“And math, and m-medicine,” I said. “How more of these do you have?”
“Several of each,” said Hans. “Now at least they are good for more than pictures, as at least one of us can understand them.”
The fish provided a delicious mid-afternoon lunch, and that night, sleep came readily. I was glad for the bed, the fish, and the pillow, and I wondered about tomorrow as I prayed silently in bed with closed eyes. I fell asleep shortly thereafter.