Forhard, Huargh!


I went home early that day – at the same time as the others – and once home, bathed, and in clean clothing, I wondered where Hans had gone. Anna was still working on the belt.

“The roads are slippery enough with the mud to make for worry,” said Anna, “especially given where he had to go.”

“Where did he go?”

“To fetch some powder from Klaus,” said Anna. “It's ready. Then, he needs to get bomb-jugs, and finally, the two of you might want to set some of those things near the river tomorrow.”

“Uh, that is a good trip,” I said. “What, about forty miles?”

“To the river where you went, yes,” said Anna. “The one to the east is much closer.”

“Will they come in the rain?” I asked.

“Things are different now,” said Anna. “Both of us have been looking at that stuff that's been coming to Georg's since it started, and then, there's the talk, and finally, your notes.”

“Can you read those?” I asked. I wondered if I could ever find someone able to read my writing.

“I can look at the pictures,” said Anna. “I cannot read your handwriting.”

Anna paused, then said, “still, anything that merits that much space must be important. Then, I'd never seen that many of those weapons in my life. I hope you can do something with them, as they look awful.”

“Did you talk to Georg about...”

“I haven't talked to him,” said Anna, “but I have heard the talk in town.”

“What is that?” I asked.

“First, you spent a fair amount of time carefully going over those things,” said Anna, “and then, you did some tests on the metal that showed it to be much better than what is common here, so much so that that much of what people believe about what those people use is rubbish.”

“As in 'anything that looks that bad is worthless for using'?” I asked. “I underestimated the usability of that equipment, and that to no small degree – and the way that stuff is, if they improved their processes a modest amount, their weapons would be... What are swords like around here, and who uses them?”

“I've only seen a handful of those made here,” said Anna, “and they are thought to be quite good.”

Anna paused, then said, “much like Hans thought of his old knife before you made its replacement.”

“Meaning they 'look' good,” I said. “I take it their edge-holding abilities aren't...”

“Those having them seldom talk about that part,” said Anna. “You'll most likely know more about those things than I do soon enough.”

I was mystified at Anna's speech; for one minute, she seemed to at least partly agree with my troubling assessment, and then the next instant, she had backtracked to 'looks are important, and nothing else matters'.

“Looks don't mean nothing to those northern people,” I thought. “Not when they're trying to kill you they don't.”

While I had knives and other things to work on, I wondered for a moment if I wanted a nap. I went to the couch, lay down, and fell asleep with such abruptness that only when I smelled herring did I wake up. I came to the kitchen, and Anna was dishing the 'fillets' up.

“He came home but a short time ago,” said Anna, “and he found a likely spot about five miles south and east of here to put those jugs.”

“Uh, just anywhere?” I asked.

“He did some asking,” said Anna. “It seems there are certain places where they like to land, and they mark those places specially. Then, there was talk of them being seen in that particular area. About all that can be done is go there, look around, and set out the jugs if they look like they will land there fairly soon.”

The sole thought consoling me as I went to bed that evening – I felt very uneasy about the matter – was what I had heard about Hans' successes setting traps. I had wondered many times how Hans knew where to set out his bombs, and now, I knew.

“He has little to go by other than hearsay and guesswork,” I said, “unless those people have actually landed already and are in the area – although there most likely is something to those people using 'good' landing spots repeatedly. That camp I saw didn't look 'new'.”

I awoke to a soft sighing sound coming from without, and as I went downstairs, I thought to check the stoop after visiting the privy. Opening the front door showed thick slush and something resembling an uncommonly wet fog, and when I stepped out onto the stoop itself and felt what was happening, I marveled.

“This isn't nearly thick enough to be drizzle,” I thought, “but one wants a waxed cloak just the same – and it's right at the point of freezing, so it doesn't melt the snow all that fast.”

I came back inside, then thought to check the 'supplies'. Going out in the buggy-way with one of the small brass lanterns showed the thing was partly packed, or so I guessed until I saw the baskets themselves. Looking at one of them showed partly-used supplies, and as I began bringing them into the kitchen, I heard noises from upstairs. I hoped we would have an early start.

Hans came down but a minute later, and when I brought in the second basket, he said, “good that you did that. I was too tired to bring in everything yesterday after that trip.”

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“To get powder and jugs,” said Hans. “Then, I stopped at every Public House I could get to easy, and did some asking so as to find out if anyone had heard of those people showing. Only a few knew anything beyond what you did recently.”

“Which means... Why did Anna speak the way she did?” I asked.

“I had heard a few things,” said Hans, “which means I have some idea where they might be.”

“Uh, go out in that general direction and look around?” I asked.

“And ask at the Public Houses in that area,” said Hans. “Those people come here a lot more often than most people know, and I've learned how to tell if they are going to use a place soon.”

Hans paused, then said, “the big trouble is finding out where they have those places, and I think you might be able to find them.”

“How?” I asked.

“I have seen how you find things,” said Hans, “and then, that map you drew.”

“But Hans, I don't 'do' that stuff,” I said. “I'm given that information. It's not something I can do anytime I want.”

“I am not so sure of that,” said Hans. “I think it works like that if you are awake and inclined to find out something.”

It was no use trying to 'tell the truth of the matter', as I saw I was dealing with belief. Belief thought what it wished; it needed no evidence, and the times I had been wrong – granted, at least recently, those had been seldom, and not in a crucial fashion – was not registering. I felt trapped, used, and greatly abused, and as preparations continued, I felt as if I was being treated like an especially evil witch – one who did what he wished, when he wished to, and whose sole motivation was his inclination of the moment.

We left with a near-full buggy, with our supplies under cover and the lanterns hanging out on the side-hooks. The slushy sound underneath the wheels, as well as the spray of muck that sometimes came up, made me glad for knit clothing and a waxed linen cloak. I had the revolver in my 'possible bag', along with the supplies I was steadily accumulating. Some of them – small locking pincers, a short-handled hammer, punches, and a screwdriver of a pattern I had made and used long in the past – had needed making, while others waited on either my finding them among my tools or their purchase.

The Public House was just beginning to rouse itself as we passed the place in the near-silent predawn darkness, and when Hans turned to the left but shortly after passing the place, I wondered where we were going.

“If we kept on this road,” he said, “we would go through Waldhuis, but I am not going to stay on it. There is another that goes east before we get there, and I will turn on that road.”

“Is this place behind that volcano?” I asked.

“Yes, and a bit further south,” said Hans. “That one second-hand store is close to that place, and I want to ask in that town.”

The turnoff showed soon, and as the darkness began slowly dissipating, I noticed familiar landmarks to east and west. I had come back this way from the volcano, and as the road itself curved gently toward the east, I saw the volcano itself some two or three miles away as it tried to hide behind the forest surrounding it.

“How far is that river from that one town?” I asked.

“About another three or four miles,” said Hans. “There is one road that goes along it for a ways, but that is further north. If we set the jugs, we will be carrying them a ways through this stuff, most likely.”

“Are these mostly fire-jugs?” I asked.

“I brought four of those and four of the other type,” said Hans. “I don't like to put those things out in big numbers in an area, as then they would find out about them.”

“Meaning the jugs are hard to hide...”

“That, and they are touchy as to where to put them,” said Hans. “Most fire-jugs are best put some distance up in a tree, so they fall good and burst above the heads of those people. The powder-jugs are best if they go off about waist-high. So, you need a tree, it needs to be one you can climb, it should be marked with their markings, and the markings either need to be fresh ones, or just touched up.”

“Uh, like those in that one camp?” I asked.

“Those had been recut recently,” said Hans, “and someone found pig-dung close-by, so those people with the pig might have done that work.”

“Are those people thought to plan what they do?” I asked.

“Most think they just come when they feel like it,” said Hans, “but a few people know about some of their tricks, like using good landing places a lot and cutting those marks before they land in a place. Otherwise, it is hard to say what they will do before they actually show, which is why so few plan ahead for them coming beyond the usual things.”

“Those being..?”

“They have their guns ready to go,” said Hans, “and with most, that is as much as they do. Usually there is no warning of those people coming, and when they come, there is no time to do much.”

“And you setting out the jugs like this?” I asked.

“That sometimes gives a bit of warning,” said Hans, “and more often, it causes them trouble. If they have bombs go off where they land, they do not rest up, but go straight into the countryside, and they are easier to deal with then. I think they get tired from going a long ways up the rivers here.”

As the mountain and its surrounding forest drew closer, the sky brightened steadily, and the road curved further east, such that it skirted the volcano. I could 'feel' a town in the area, and when I pointed to the south and east, I said, “is that town over there?”

“I think so,” said Hans. “This is what I was talking about, as that place is three miles away easy. It will take us another half-hour or so to get there, and the Public House should be open by then.”

Hans was correct about both the distance and time, or so I guessed, for our current road turned south and a side-road beckoned. Hans turned down the side-road, and after passing through two large woodlots and three meadows, we saw cultivated regions, then outlying houses – with barns, no less – and finally, a town showed. Hans came to the Public House – again, a large single-storied building with a large 'yard', multiple long horse-troughs, and a number of 'parked' horses – and went inside. I thought to remain outside so as to watch over the supplies.

Hans returned about five minutes later while shaking his head, and while he drove off south, he waited to speak. I had the impression he had been told little of use.

“That place might not be as bad as where Maarten and Katje live,” said Hans, “but it has black-dressed witches coming by often enough to not be much use for fighting swine.”

“They wanted you to spend hours in there eating, didn't they?”

Hans nodded soberly, then said, “there is a town about three miles down this road here. I might ask there, unless you can find the place.”

“Uh, the river's about two miles east of here, correct?” I asked. “Really heavy forest, and lots of brambles?”

Hans looked at me in amazement, then said, “that is what I was talking about. You have not seen the place, then speak of it as though you have been there recently.”

“That was a guess,” I said. “Those people aren't going to want to camp there, as they don't much like brambles, any more than you or I do. This next town might give better information – and besides, not only is it closer to the river, but the forest there tends to be a little easier to move through should we need to do much 'looking'.”

As we drove through the slush and 'splop' of the road, I seemed to faintly hear what might have been animals running through the forest, then when I looked to my left. I wanted my rifle for some reason, and when the woodlot showed a deer running in fright, Hans slowed, then stopped.

“Now why did that deer run like that?” he asked.

I got down from the buggy with my rifle and went to its rear, then waited. I wondered who – or what – was going to emerge.

I did not have to wait long, for here came an obvious tinned northern wretch waving a sword. I waited until he was well clear of the trees, then aimed and fired. He did a backflip and lay still on the ground.

“Now you have done it,” said Hans. “That is one of those people. They have a camp near here, most likely.”

“Uh, I'm not certain they do,” I said. “They tend to go some distance from their camps when foraging, and... No, the camp's about a mile away, and it's in the direction we're traveling. Those people like easy meals when they can get them.”

“Then why was he chasing that deer?” asked Hans.

“Desperation?” I asked. “Hunger? That camp isn't a permanent one, by the way, nor is it terribly big.” I paused, then said, “I'd like to look at that thug. He might just have clues we can use.”

After reloading, I went off toward the body with Hans in tow. I wondered for a moment as to why the tinned wretch had 'flipped' when I hit him, at least until I came close and saw what he was wearing.

“That is one of those bad ones,” said Hans. “He has better plate on him than the usual.”

“Did he come from that one place?” I asked, as I looked him over closely. I was looking for clues, though what kind was currently a guess beyond their importance. “Or are there some of these people here on a regular basis traveling and gathering what information they can? Do they go in circuits, like Sarah does?”

Hans was speechless, at least until I turned 'Mr. Spam' over and saw the eruption in his tin. The ripped metal was astonishing, with a blood-encrusted star-shaped rip in his back-tin nearly three inches across. I looked closely at the mottled blue-black stuff – it was slightly more than 'five lines' in thickness – then brought out the pincers from my bag and began worrying a piece loose. It was already showing its uncommon toughness, for it was disinclined to bend. A file marked it, but not readily.

“Now what is it you are doing there?” asked Hans.

“A little metallurgical test,” I said. “This stuff is fairly hard, Hans. Would a musket have done much at that range?”

Hans didn't speak for a moment, then asked, “is that why you use hard lead in that thing?”

“I'm not certain why I did at first,” I said, “only that I had the impression soft lead wasn't a wise idea. Since then, I have a better idea – high velocities want harder lead, and with what I have, printer's lead is none too hard.”

I broke the piece loose, then wiped it on the snow prior to bagging it; I then took up his sword. I then retraced my steps to the buggy, where Hans drove off once he'd returned as well.

While Hans drove, I examined the sword. Like most northern weapons, this one showed little if any effort expended toward appearances, but unlike many of them, this one seemed of 'decent' metal. I looked carefully at its slightly wavy 'grain' and noted little visible slag among the grinding and file marks.

“Do all of these things tend toward being three to three and a half feet long?” I asked. “This is one of the shortest swords I've seen so far.”

“I never looked at them much until they brought that stuff in the shop's yard,” said Hans. “Most of those things look bad enough that it was hard to look at them.”

“As in 'beauty' is a requisite for consideration?” I asked. “Are aesthetics that much of an issue here?”

“Now what is it you are saying?” asked Hans.

“Looks are really important,” I said. “Is that true?”

“I am not sure if that is true or not,” said Hans, “at least, it is that way for most.”

The troubling ambiguity of Hans' speech made for torment on my part, especially the last part. What was the issue for most? Did things have to look good to warrant consideration? Or was he not sure if most concerned themselves overmuch with appearances?

“Full-polish wrenches?” I asked. “That 'bad' knife that... Didn't you or someone speak of everything I turned out needing to shine like a mirror?”

“Most want their tools polished,” said Hans, “although the stuff you do seems an exception. If it has that triangle and lines on it, people know it works good, polish or not.”

“Uh, rust...” I spluttered.

“That has gone around some too,” said Hans, “and I have been asking about that color that is on guns. My grandfather did something like that for some of his tools and things, but I do not remember what he used to do it.”

I put the sword back among the supplies a minute later, and as I did, I had an intimation as to the camp proper's location.

“They do travel some,” I muttered. “Those people are staying at a landing site, and yes, they've marked it for use.”

“Ah, good,” said Hans. “Now where is the place?”

“They mark every such place they visit,” I said, “unless there are signs of recent fires or explosions. Now which one do you wish to go to?”

“How many of those things are there?” asked Hans.

“Enough that we can go to one of three within two miles of where we are right now,” I said. “If we set up for the one upriver from those people, we might catch some of that group. They're headed that way, as far as I can tell.”

“How many of them are at this place?” asked Hans.

“Enough that we would want help in going after them,” I said. “That thug I shot was one of the leaders.”

I paused, then said, “and not the usual for help, either,” I said. “Most people aren't inclined to go after those thugs much, especially right now.” I had the hint of a question in my speech, for I was not certain as to the accuracy of what I had said.

“Why is that?” asked Hans.

“Most people don't like to be outside in this weather,” I said, “and then, while this group doesn't have swine, they have at least twenty people. Now do people go after those thugs when they're in the woods?”

“Most don't go after them,” said Hans. “Those that set traps do, and those that shoot cannons do, and maybe some others. No one likes to go into the woods after them.”

“Meaning the people locally aren't likely to provide help,” I murmured. “Why were those guards looking along the river like they were?”

“I have not been able to find that out,” said Hans. “You might do some asking after your training, as you will be at the house a lot.”

“That one man?” I asked.

“He has been asking some,” said Hans, “and he has not learned anything about that.”

“Should we bother with the town?” I asked.

“I think not, unless you cannot find that place you were talking about,” said Hans. “Visiting towns to find out that stuff tends to be slow, and that is when you do not go into Public Houses where people want you to stay half the morning so as to eat their food and talk of everything.”

I indicated the 'best' spot for Hans to stop so as to investigate that one camp I had indicated they were likely to go toward, and as we arranged our supplies – two jugs each, with Hans taking fire-jugs and I taking some marked with a chalk-written 'P' – I tried to listen to see what the thugs were actually doing. They seemed to be resting currently – that, and cooking a meal. They would be moving within an hour or so.

As the two of us headed east through slush and muck, I wondered just how 'wise' it was to set out 'traps' under the circumstances. I had the impression that Hans did this when and where he could, and I wondered if his traps were selective enough to only get his targets. However, once we entered the trees, I had an intimation.

The locals rarely went into the trees near the river, while the thugs tended to use the 'near-river' forests as preferential travel-routes – and otherwise, they had definite 'routes' they used. All of their routes were marked in some fashion, much as that one egress road had been.

“Hans,” I whispered. “We'll want to string our jugs next to their route-markers. They have well-marked paths.”

“That does not surprise me,” said Hans. “I have suspected them to have those, and they like to stay near the rivers when they can.”

“The big groups, or just the smaller ones?” I asked. “The smaller groups tend to stay hidden as much as possible during the day.”

I could faintly hear the droning speech of the thugs some distance away, and as I led the way through the trees, I marveled at how quietly I moved. I also knew our tracks would be spotted, so much so that I began heading as much south as I did east. I wanted our tracks to not be seen, ideally, and I also wanted to 'taint' the landing site proper with the soot and other residues of flames.

“How far is that place?” asked Hans.

“Not that much further,” I said. “I hope you have ways of erasing our tracks.”

The silence that came after was such that I strongly suspected Hans not only had no such means, but also, had never thought of the matter before – and his voice seemed to indicate a substantial aspect of oblivion to all save the matters he had mentioned as being important. I wondered how he could be so 'oblivious' and I could be thinking of such matters, given he'd supposedly...

The pigs are a lot smarter than those running with them,” said the voice of recollection.

“And no pigs handy,” I thought. “If those people are really dense...”

Again, the evidence of someone thinking carefully: the pig's plate, as well as the weapons I'd seen; the latest sword and thug-plate being a good example. While the plate had not resisted my rifle, I suspected strongly such plate either stopped or slowed musket balls to no small degree. I hadn't seen any dents in the plate that had arrived so far at the shop.

“That hasn't been terribly quick coming anyway,” I thought. “I might have seen a few scraps here and there. Much of what has showed has been weapons and maybe a few tools.”

I could faintly hear moving water ahead, and with sudden abruptness, the trees 'vanished' to show a 'clearing' nearly two hundred feet wide and twice that for length. It wasn't a conventional clearing, as many of the trees had been left to provide shade. To my left, I could see wide 'lanes' heading toward the obvious river, and in front of me, scattered stone-lined firepits showed the likely endings of the cut-down trees.

I then looked at the still-standing trees themselves. Nearly all of them showed the markings I had seen before, with a wide slanted cut running left to right as it climbed up the bark, with two uneven-looking cuts crossing it. Nearly every tree in the 'clearing' showed such a mark.

I pointed to the north, then whispered, “they're coming slowly from that direction.”

“This is one of those places,” said Hans, “and it looks likely. We can string up all of the jugs easy.” Again, I seemed to hear a voice oblivious to all save the square-in-the-face obvious, and I mentally shook my head.

While I had no real idea as to how to proceed – especially for climbing trees – Hans did, and I soon found myself passing up jugs with fishing line attached to the handles. Hans was a more than fair tree-climber once I'd boosted him up to where he could grab the lowest branches, and as I watched, I noted he tied a line to a limb, then set the jug proper in the tree after tying the other end of the line to the iron loop of the igniter. He would then climb down while I held the 'trigger line' well clear.

Once all four jugs were in trees – I could hear those people still, and they were coming closer – he tied the lines to other trees after cutting sticks to hold them just above the snow. The slush was such that while it showed our footprints, it also partly filled them and eroded the edges. I suspected it wasn't enough, and silently prayed that our tracks be erased.

As Hans came to where I was, he turned to look at what he'd rigged. He then noted the near-absence of footprints.

“Now how is it I am not leaving tracks?” he asked.

“Don't those people notice them?” I asked. “Tracks other than theirs would alert them to bombs.”

“I have yet to have that stop them,” said Hans. “I doubt they know enough to connect such marks with traps.”

“I prayed and asked our tracks to be erased,” I said. “It's happened before.”

As we returned to the buggy, however, I could tell the thugs were now definitely 'on the march'. Hans was backing and filling so as to get turned around on the road when I clearly heard a gabble of drones amid the higher-pitched sounds of what might have been a chant. This dreary-sounding noise was abruptly sundered by a flash of red-tinted light from the trees followed by a tremendous rumbling blast that spat a thick billow of black smoke into the air.

The chant had stopped, as had the droning noise, and it had been replaced by blood-filled screaming. A brilliant red-tinted flash came from that region of the forest, and the screams ceased for the most part. Those screams that continued rapidly segued to much quieter moaning noises.

“You were right about where to put those things, as they walked into that one,” said Hans. “That group of them is done.”

“Can we go and check to see what happened?” I asked. “I only heard two explosions.”

“I heard all four jugs go,” said Hans. Again, I heard 'oblivion' in his voice. “If they all went, then there is a big mess, and if it is in a camping place, then they will not use it again.”

“I have an impression that they have some unusual things there,” I said.

Hans thought for a moment, then said, “yes, and you found the place, too, so if you think it is important, then perhaps we should look.” Hans then stopped the buggy.

I felt able to travel a bit faster this time, and when I came close, I could 'feel' a number of impressions clearly.

Firstly, Hans had wanted to hear all four bombs go off, and therefore, he had. I had heard correctly; there were still two of them up in the trees. They might well need restringing due to the flames of the first jug burning the trigger line.

Secondly, there was another group of those people out hunting, and they would return to this area fairly soon. We needed to check and restring our bombs if possible.

Thirdly – and most importantly – there were important matters present at the trap-site that needed documentation. With few exceptions, the local populace had no idea there were small bands of these people routinely in the area, and their equipment was a good deal different from the raiding parties, chiefly as to its size. It was small enough to readily conceal, light enough to readily carry for long distances, and deadly enough to be nearly as troublesome as the usual spam-issue.

The reek of burnt flesh became steadily stronger as we came nearer the trees, and as we came to the edge of the forest, I turned to look. I seemed to sense the other group coming – with food, no less; they had a pair of archers, and had hit a deer – and as Hans went into the trees, I said, “wait a minute. You might want me going first.”

Hans acquiesced, then as I made my path straight in, I could 'see' the path made by the group ahead. I moved faster, as I suspected we did not have much time to check both the victims and our traps.

I struck their trail – wide, shambling, messy-looking, and formed of a multitude of peculiar-looking square-edged tracks – and as I turned to the right, I moved faster yet. Hans was almost having to run to keep up with me as I walked through the trees, and when I looked at the trees themselves, I noted more of the small 'crossed' ax-cuts almost everywhere. A good percentage of them looked freshly cut – and the balance, freshly recut.

“See, this is a trail they've used before,” I said, “and I bet these smaller groups come along and freshen up the markings whenever they travel along them.”

Hans was silent, even as the crackling sound of low-burning flames drew steadily closer. I moved slower now, for I recalled where the strings had been strung, and I did not wish to trigger the waiting bombs.

Roughly a minute later, I came to the clearing itself. An area nearly fifty feet across had been cleared of snow and dusted with soot, while the number of smoldering bodies that lay on the ground was well over a dozen. I went to the nearest one, and found mottled blue-black scales amid the charred strips of leather, then as I went to the second one, Hans whistled softly.

“You were right,” he said, “as this is one of those witches they have from up there.”

“What?” I asked.

“The witches don't come often, but this group had one,” he said. “Now what is this thing here?”

I turned to see Hans withdraw a shorter-than-usual sword with a slender fire-blackened blade, then as he continued looking, I heard the clinking sound of what might have been money. I went to a third thug, then reached down to find what looked like either an uncommonly large knife, or a very short sword. The whole thing was partly hidden by the charred clothing, and as I drew it, I muttered, “Hans, that group with the pig could have been carrying weapons like these people. They're nowhere near as big as the usual.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “This one here has another sword like that witch had, as well as some...”

Hans paused, then said, “now why does this wretch have a piece of wood like Albrecht has for his notes?”

“A scouting party?” I asked. “Trail-markers? Take notes and pass them back to where they come from? Is that paper written on?”

“No, there is no writing,” said Hans. “I see some lines as if this person was drawing stuff of some kind.”

“A map?” I asked.

“It might be, though it is as bad a map as I have seen,” said Hans.

I stood up and looked around, then saw the strings had been partially burned. I had an idea, and spoke of it, saying, “Hans, we need to splice the strings for the other jugs.”

Hans looked at me dumbly – he seemed 'lost', for some reason – then looked up in the trees. I followed his gaze, and to my astonishment, I saw the other two jugs still perched up where they had been set.

“We can tie the new lines to the dead as anchor points,” I said. “It'll only take a few minutes, and then we can leave.”

The lines tied – I added two more strings, such that the trip-lines for each of the two remaining jugs were now three each – I led back the way we came, and only when we came to where I had cut into the main trail did I think to ask that our tracks be erased.

Again, I hurried. I could feel the thugs drawing closer, and as we came to the edge of the forest, I looked around. I could 'feel' them close by, so much so that when I peered out from behind a tree, I saw a small group moving into the trees about half a mile to our north. For some reason, they had not seen the buggy. I wondered but for a few seconds.

“Hans, we need to hurry,” I said. “They just went into the trees some distance away. Follow me.”

I nearly ran out of the trees, then went as fast as I could without making undue noise. When I came to the buggy and leaped into the seat, I turned to see Hans nearly two hundred yards away running as fast as he could. I turned and shouldered my rifle, in case something happened, but when he finally came to the buggy, he seemed out of breath and exhausted. He needed to wait for a minute to catch his breath before driving off.

“I never saw anyone move that fast in my life,” he said, “and your tracks were hard to follow. I could barely see those things.”

“We don't have much time,” I said. “Those thugs are going to hit that mess in a few minutes, and then...”

Another dull red eruption melded with the sharper 'cannon-bang' of an explosion that came right after it, and as Hans drove off, I pulled something out of my possible bag.

Not only did I have one of the shorter swords we had recovered, but also the 'notepad' that Hans had found. How they had gotten there was something of a mystery, but as Hans continued driving, I looked at both articles closer.

The 'sword' had about eighteen inches of broad double-edged blade, with a coarse-looking wooden handle darkened by handling. It seemed to have a stubby cross-guard integrally forged with the blade, and as I gently filed the steel, I was astonished. The mottled blue-black color should have provided a clue as to the steel, but I didn't trust the appearances of what I saw.

“No, this one isn't soft,” I said.

“Did that file mark it?” asked Hans.

“It did, but not that much,” I said. “It's about as hard as the handful of knives I've seen that used files as starting points. You or someone said those either tended to be too soft or too brittle.”

“Yours are not that way,” said Hans. “Ones as hard as that one I have from my grandfather tend to be brittle to some degree. He told me that was the price one paid for a knife that wasn't soft for its edge.”

The 'notepad' had uncommonly coarse-looking brown-flecked paper , and as I looked at it, it became obvious as to what it was: it was a pictorial representation of the conditions of the area done by a 'marginally-literate' person, and it was map and document combined. I wondered for a moment if Ultima Thule could read, then thought it as likely as anything else in that great Unknown to the north.

“Which means it's a question for which I have no good answer,” I thought.

About half an hour into the trip home, Hans asked, “now there was this word you spoke, and I cannot say it. It sounded like the noise of a breaking jug.”

“Word?” I asked.

“It had to do with the roads,” said Hans. “It began with an 'S' sound.”

“Splop?” I squeaked.

“Yes, that word,” said Hans. “I have never heard it before. What does it mean?”

I pointed at the slush, then said, “see how it squirts and makes a big mess? That's what I meant.”

Our trip back led around that one town, as Hans was not inclined to stop there, and we came back in time for lunch. Unloading the buggy took longer than loading it, and once lunch was devoured, I wondered what next to do – for about two seconds. The obvious suggested itself: work at the bench.

There was no talk regarding the bomb-setting, almost as if the matter was an utterly commonplace one, and as the hours passed in slow-growing mounds of filings and chips, the thoughts at the back of my mind kept intruding. The chiefest of them were influenced by what I had seen earlier in the day, and those but a short distance behind belonged to the upcoming training. I wondered what that would be like, so much so that I broached the subject at dinner. The first thing that came to my mind was fear.

“Do people pray when they are afraid?” I asked.

“They do,” said Hans, “and only preachers do that more than you do. No one finds it much good if they have witches after them much, and you have more than anyone I've heard of.”

“And that is on top of what happens when those northern people cause trouble,” said Anna. “Those fighting them usually need a great deal of rest, careful care, all the beer they can hold, and then both tinctures so they can sleep at night. They need to be treated as if deathly ill for months to get over it, if they do.”

If they do?” I squeaked.

“Some of them don't,” said Anna. “Are you thinking about what happened today, or that training?”

“B-both,” I asked.

“That training is scary,” said Hans, “so I will be sure to pack some of the widow's tincture for your things. You will want that, and all of your stuff...”

“All of my stuff?” I asked.

“If you have a musket, they usually want you to bring it,” said Anna, “and the same for anything else that might help.”

“Do they have a list of some kind?” I asked.

“That is the trouble with that training,” said Hans. “I have heard that Teacher does not want a list, as it would be different every time and for each person.”

The implications of Hans' statement seemed to resound within my recollection, and I gasped, “what is this training like?”

“The Teacher seems inclined to yell a great deal,” said Anna, “and he seems perpetually ill-tempered. Otherwise, those stonemasons are much worse.”

“What?” I gasped.

As if to answer me, I seemed to faintly hear someone scream – at eardrum-rupturing volume, no less – “SIR-YES-SIR!” followed by a diabolical rumble of profanity. Some of the words I recognized – I had heard them before – and some, I did not, while the tramping snap of boots making holes in the parade-ground was one that I had never heard before. This noise-chorus then faded abruptly, to be replaced by something worse yet.

Here there were screams, the sounds of fists striking flesh, curses so evil my mind could not accept them, and now and then, the thundering roar of obvious shotguns. I looked in my peripheral vision to see a face contorted in red-flushed rage and ducked just as the fist flew over my head.

However, I didn't duck fast enough to dodge the kick, and I crumpled up in a ball as the thickly-accented words roared over my head to the sound of hundreds of shotguns being presented. I waited for the roar of the gun as its cold muzzle came closer to my neck...

“What was that?” shrieked Anna.

“Th-the training?” I squeaked. “It w-was l-like what I grew up with.”

“I could not speak some of those words,” said Hans. “Now what was that wretch calling you? A trained rat?”

“Th-that was m-my stepfather,” I gasped. “They did things like that where I came from, supposedly, including talk like that...”

Again, the slide of the shotgun racked in my ears and in my mind. I could audibly hear the thing.

“N-no, they didn't threaten to k-kill recruits,” I spluttered. “They may have used really bad language, and they may have occasionally done some things...”

For some odd reason, I then heard the jangling of the tinny-sounding bell in that one crowded house. Five-thirty in the morning wakeup, make the bed – perhaps not hospital corners, but the beds were inspected – and then off to one's labors. Constant watching, even without uniforms, saluting, and 'two-legged volcanoes'.

“That place had its share of those,” I thought. “Granted, they weren't nearly as profane as my stepfather, but you wanted to stay on their good side just the same.”

Long list of written rules. Following 'orders'. No grumbling – that was guaranteed to get you in trouble. Strict, consistent discipline, most of which made sense. No shotguns...

“They didn't need those,” I thought. “That place had its own sources of fear.”

Looking at Hans and Anna showed terror-stricken faces, and speech seemed beyond their capacity, at least for a few seconds. Finally, Anna spoke.

“What was that place?” she asked.

Which place?” I asked.

“That last one,” she said. “It was horrible.”

“Is that where you spent nineteen months?” asked Hans.

I nodded, then said, “a lot of people spoke of how strict it was. I had few problems there, because what I grew up with was so much worse it was hard to compare it to anything I'd seen. Only a few places I'd read about were clearly worse – and lots of people died in them. I was afraid for my life just the same.”

“At that one place?” asked Anna.

“No, when I was growing up,” I said. “That last place wasn't nearly as scary as...”

Here, the shotgun racked its last time, then a horrible accented curse seemed to continue endlessly as it too faded from hearing. I wondered if I was merely remembering all that I was hearing. It had the same feel, and I recognized much of it, but somehow, it did not seem the same as what I recalled.

“Now who was that strange-sounding witch?” asked Hans.

Which strange-sounding – was this the person who spoke of a trained rat?” I asked.

Hans nodded, then said, “that wretch was as bad as any I have heard of.”

Sleep was a blessing that evening, even as I prayed to not hear shotguns in my dreams, and I prayed to not hear them the next day as well. Thankfully, I didn't, even if now and then I heard faint cursing in the background, along with the crackle of marching boot-clad feet.

“Does this training involve 'army-chants'?” I thought. “I hope not.”

Monday morning dawned early, and as I dressed in moon-silvered darkness, I wondered just 'what' I needed to bring. The only thought was to bring as much 'likely' stuff as I could readily carry, and as I found the small hatchet, lists of other things occurred to me.

Privy rags. Dried meat. One of the water bottles filled with cider. Kuchen, if it was available...

“I hope that doesn't constitute, uh...” I thought.

While the word 'bait' existed in the common language, I wondered more than a little about the word 'pogey', and based on Anna's description, Kuchen sounded as likely a staple 'military' food as anything available. I wondered again as I put a spare pair of stockings in the possible bag, then thought, “perhaps some medicines other than just the widow's tincture?” Fever-bark powder seemed likely, and I took a small supply.

I continued gathering supplies, then once I had them present and 'accounted for' in my bag, I dressed the rest of the way. I wanted the trekking boots here, and once I'd put those on, I heard soft sounds of movement at the end of the hall. I wondered when I would need to be there.

As preparations continued downstairs – this was another long trip, one sufficiently lengthy that I wondered as to whether I would stay on the premises or not – I could hear faintly the screaming voices of nightmares coming for me. I could not separate these from the possible reality, either that of where I came from or what was likely to be present here.

The lanterns faintly flickered as we rolled out in the predawn stillness, and while I was in the rear of the buggy amid the thick and clinging mists, the steady noises of slush under the wheels spoke of thick sloppy snow that was slowly diminishing in its thickness. It wasn't close to being a proper thaw, or so I thought.

“Is this normal for thaws?” I asked.

“Usually they are much slower,” said Anna, “and with much less rain. This will not make matters easy during that training.”

“Do people stay..?” I asked.

“Some do, if the trip is too far for them and they can arrange places to sleep,” said Hans. “That will not work for you, as you will need to come home every day.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“The shop, for one thing,” said Hans, “and then, proper rest. I think you want some beer before getting there, which is why I am glad I brought two jugs of the stuff.”

Anna then handed me back a small part-filled cup of beer, which I drank two swallows from. As I did, I wondered why I needed to be calmed to such a degree.

“There are no free lunches,” said the soft voice, “and there are many evil people that desire to injure or kill you. This is what can be done for it now.”

“And that dream?” I thought, even as I handed back the cup.

“That speaks of the future,” said the voice, “and it will most likely be needed.”

The recollection of such matters – 'prayer alone isn't that helpful when witches are commonly chasing you' being a key one – made for wondering, so much so that I felt slightly ill. I had heard...

The 'common' attitude I had seen toward pharmacological assistance where I came from could best be summed up as 'it is all from the devil, and using any medical means is wrong'. No medicine, even aspirin, was acceptable, and its use indicated evil thinking manifesting as doubly-evil actions. Everything in life, with no exceptions whatsoever, was to be a matter of 'faith' in church and 'moral effort' elsewhere.

This was interrupted a faint gust of wind ruffling through my hair, and I asked, “is it common to cut one's hair during the training?”

“I don't think so,” said Anna. “Your hair is still a good deal shorter than the common. Why?”

“Th-they shaved your head in the military during training...”

“That will make you sick in cold weather like this,” said Hans, “and it will cause heat-sickness when it is warm. Your hair is short enough that I am surprised you are not sick from it.”

Hans had turned to go 'cross-country' about a mile past the south end of town, and as we went down various roads toward the house proper, I wondered as to why we had done so, other than to save time. The noise of rolling through slushy snow was a steady squishing sound, one that seemed to foretell of trouble. What kind of trouble, I could only guess.

'The back way' seemed to be an efficient way of hiding secrets, for there was no traffic, even as the sky grew less dark, and when 'real' sunrise came, I was astonished. The sun was visible but minutes later as a pale bluish-white disk part-hidden by mists and clouds, and I sat staring at the thing in a vague state of mind. I felt paralyzed, so much so that I looked in my bag, first for the medicine Hans had put there, then for the other things. I needed something to keep from going out of my mind with waiting, and as my eye landed upon the vial of the widow's tincture, I looked up to see Anna looking at me.

“I think that would be very wise,” she said. “Here, let me help you.”

I was given three drops of the vile-tasting stuff, and within minutes, I nearly screamed – as the mental fog I felt had vanished, and the depths of my fear were now laid out precisely. I knew what I was afraid of, and it wasn't merely being yelled at.

I wondered if I was going to be dealing with witches of some kind.

“Will I be cursed?” I asked aloud. “Will someone wish my death because I am not as they think I should be?”

“That training is tough,” said Hans, “and anyone who could endure a witch like that one man would find it easy. Then, you are in better condition than most who finish this training, and you are better at weapons than most.” For some reason, Hans sounded oblivious to what was happening.

“Weapons?” I asked. “What kind do they use?”

“Same as most use,” said Hans.

“M-most?” I asked.

“Hans, most people do not use swords,” said Anna. “Those people use them commonly.”

“Yes, and he has used those things,” said Hans, “and most people should know of what he did to those thugs. Once that teacher finds out, he should cease with his yelling.”

“He was supposed to be told, too,” said Anna.

Yet even with this reassuring talk, I still found the likely result to be soul-shattering, and I was glad for the widow's tincture now.

“And why this matter is so frightening is still a mystery,” I thought.

With each passing woodlot and meadow, the sense of fear seemed to grow, and as we neared the house proper, the woodlots clustered closer and thicker. The roads out this way were sufficiently narrow that our buggy had but a foot on each side of its track, while the 'groove' I had seen during the earlier trip was not present.

Its place was taken by a brown-streaked slush that churned with the passage of the wheels and left but little trace of our passage. The sun was still very low in the west, and was mostly hidden by clouds, such that while it was morning, it was almost as dark as the deadest portion of winter.

After being 'let in' by another frill-bedecked guard, Hans parked the buggy near the door. There were several horses tied to the hitching rail, as well as two other buggies, and as I gathered my supplies, I felt burdened down more than was usual. I checked all I had before setting foot in the door, and as we turned left onto the main wide hall of the place, I could hear someone 'lecturing'. The harshly spoken words reminded me more than a little of those foul-smelling tailors.

“Who is that?” I asked. My voice seemed to faintly echo as we traveled down the left side of the main 'court'.

“That sounds like the teacher,” said Anna. “He seems in an unusually bad mood.”

The multitude of candles seemed to billow and shake with the commanding growl, and as I went down the left-going passage that I had gone the last time I was here, I shuddered. I could smell the three stinky tailors somewhere on the premises, and as Hans and Anna led me past the 'cafeteria' into a dimly-lit 'close' area, I could hear the roared words more plainly. We were drawing closer to the source.

“Uh, the clothing?” I asked.

“That should be up ahead,” said Anna. “I'm glad I brought a bag for what you are wearing.”

Several 'small' rooms showed to each side, each of them with pegs hanging a small brass disk. I could see sloppily-stamped numbers on two of the disks. The candles near each door were no longer in the brass-framed 'cages' of lanterns, but rather in small copper 'basins', and the odor spoke of not merely tallow, but also rotten meat.

“Those c-candles?” I asked.

“That must be some bad tallow,” said Hans. “They did not boil it much.”

“You boil yours enough,” said Anna. “That oven smells horrible.”

“You're boiling tallow?” I asked. I could tell the 'changing room' was up ahead, as was the 'lecture hall'. They were in close proximity to one another.

“That, old candle stubs, and the fat-trims from that elk,” said Hans. “I am glad Anna has dried most of the meat off of that thing, as with it raining like it does, it will go bad unless it is put in the salt.”

“There's about half of a quarter left,” said Anna, “and I'm drying the rest as fast as I can.”

“Where have you been putting it?” I asked softly. Again, I felt inclined to whisper, in spite of the shouted lecture coming from nearby.

“Some has been going in your bag for work,” said Anna. “I packed that one meat-bag full of the peppered stuff. Then, about half of it has been flint-dried, and that I've been putting away in bags. I've used what I have and need some more, so while you're busy, the two of us can go fetch some more of them.”

Anna stopped in front of a door, then tapped. The door opened with a faintly dusty grinding noise, then Anna went inside. I followed after her, as did Hans.

I could hear the faint rustle of cloth and whispered speech in the background, and when the woman who had let Anna in turned to speak, I wondered what next would happen – until she led the three of us into a small room with a small table. Opposite the entrance was another door, which she indicated was for changing – and on the table were three sizable bags.

“Your clothing is in the rightmost bag,” she said.

I took that bag, and went into the changing room. Two candles shed dim shadow-filled light over a room that was perhaps the size of the privy, and as I removed my normal clothing, I wondered what I would find in the bag. I did not wonder long, for when I removed the clothing itself, it seemed a carbon copy of what that one man had worn – and as I got into it, I shuddered.

Not only was it terrifyingly uncomfortable, but it was so tight I could scarcely move, and as I looked at it, I shuddered again – for it was not a carbon copy, unlike my first impression.

The trousers resembled skin-tight 'jodhpurs' of some kind, with a wide lacy frill running along the outside seam, a quintet of buttons on the inside of each lower leg, and 'pleats' of some kind that were gathered in by the wide leather belt, while the shirt was of a drowned-corpse whiteness that reached from the tall stiff frilled collar to the button-closed sleeves – and again, every seam sprouted a wide lacy frill.

I was glad I had not been issued the shoes, or so I thought until I explored the bag. Therein were stockings of some kind, and as I began pulling the stuff out, someone tapped on the door.

“Come in, please,” I squeaked.

“What are you doing?” asked Anna. “Come out where you can see...”

Anna gave a giddy screech, then bodily pulled me outside into the much-better-lit 'reception' area – where I had a chance to finally see what had been produced – and there, I nearly fainted.

“That stuff is bad,” said Hans. “It will not last two minutes when you move in it.”

“No, Hans, it is not just that,” said Anna. “Look at the cloth here.”

As Anna and Hans looked carefully at the cloth itself, I noted the color – a dark 'severe' brown – and also, the 'cut'. The resemblance to what those foul-smelling 'tailors' had worn was too close to be a coincidence.

As the two of them looked at the cloth itself, I began to notice a definite 'itch', and when I tried stretching to scratch it, the clothing was so incredibly tight I could barely move. I could almost hear the sounds of seams ripping as I tried to move my arms.

“What is this thing?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” said Anna. “It isn't the common for guard clothing. Did they provide shoes and the other things?”

“I was going to look in that bag, but you tapped on the door beforehand,” I said.

Hans fetched the bag, then brought out the belt, the 'over-the-shoulder' strap, the skullcap, the stockings – and finally, the shoes, or rather, boots. These last were a streaky dark brown verging on black, with pull-on straps and toes that seemed fit for fashioning...

“These boots do not look to be good for the feet,” said Hans.

“P-pointed boots?” I gasped.

“I think you had best wear what you brought for shoes,” said Anna. “You do not need rotten toes, and whoever cut that clothing did a bad job of it.”

I needed help to get my boots on, as I could not bend over, and as I bent my right knee, I heard a faint tearing noise. I then knew my suspicions were correct, and this clothing was indeed worthless for fighting in.

“This stuff probably needs the local equivalent of dry cleaning,” I thought.

“How do they fight in this stuff?” I gasped, as I straightened up.

“That isn't the usual clothing,” said Anna, “much less the war-cut dress. I think I'm going to talk to someone I know, as this isn't right.”

After bagging my clothing – as well as the infernal boots and much else – I followed Hans and Anna down the hall. With each step, I almost felt constrained to lift my feet high and then pound them into the ground, much as if I were a witch and wanted all and sundry to know of the matter as I marched the true-step, and when the two of them came to the door, neither Hans nor Anna knocked.

I understood. This was my baptism of hellfire, and I alone was to endure it.

I tapped on the door, and the lecture abruptly ceased. The door flew open, and I saw a ring of eleven people, all of whom were dressed in common 'farm' clothing. The person who had opened the door was dressed in mottled gray and brown trousers and shirt. He had no 'skullcap'.

“Your name?” he snarled.

“Dennis, sir.”

“Come in and be seated,” he said in a gruff voice.

I went around the edge of the circle and found an open-looking spot, and as I sat down, I heard a faint hissing noise followed by the tearing of cloth. I could tell someone was looking at me, and as I arranged my equipment, I heard steps. I looked up to see a closed door, and this man standing over me with his hands on his hips.

“Well, well,” he said. I could hear sarcasm clearly in his voice, as well as a distinctly snide tone. “Look who we have here.”

He paused, then said in an even more dire tone, “I have heard things about you.” I could clearly hear volumes as to what he thought of what he had heard. “So, what is like to shoot an Iron Pig?”

“That horn she was blowing was more trouble than the pig,” I said. “Once the noise stopped, I was able to shoot.”

“That has to be a lie,” he snarled. I could almost feel his attitude, one of complete disbelief, and I thought, “had I not seen the pig afterward, I would have had trouble believing it myself, and that regardless of how sore I was.”

The door opened with a faint creak, then Hans' voice came clearly, saying, “I was there, and saw that pig drop when he shot that thing, and I took some of its plate off and got its brains on my hands. It was as dead as a corpse-box. The plate is over at Georg's, so you can look at it and see for yourself.”

The 'oblivious' aspect of the instructor seemed impervious to logic, reason, and evidence, even as he began looking at my clothing. I could almost feel more seams ripping out as he spent several seconds looking – until he paused at my boots.

I could almost hear deranged screams about 'non-regulation footwear' when he abruptly stood, then came back to the center of the circle. He looked around, then resumed his 'lecture'.

“At least you are dressed right,” he said in a tone of dismissal. He paused, then resumed speaking.

“Now where was I?” He paused as if to think, then said, “some of you people will not make the end of this training. That is fine – we don't need such people. Those that finish can deal with swine and those northern people when not chasing brigands and thieves. One of you, it seems, as already dealt with swine on one occasion. Now” – here, he turned to me – “have you dealt with brigands or thieves?”

“No, sir,” I said. “I have dealt with witches. One tried for me with a knife, and another with a gun, and then there was the bull. It was big, stinky, and especially mean.”

“That sounds like the leavings of a bull,” said the instructor.

“Did this bull have an ax embedded in its head and big slashes in its neck and gut?” asked one of the other seated men. “If so, I saw it before they burned that house.”

The instructor rounded on the man, then said, “so? Describe it!”

“It was a big grayish-white straight-horned bull from the third kingdom,” he said, “and it got loose constantly and hurt people more often than not.”

The instructor now swaggered over to where I sat. It was blatantly obvious he didn't believe anything other than what he wished to believe, and his following words confirmed matters.

“There is so much said about you,” he said snidely, “that I wonder if any of it is true. Until you convince me otherwise, I am not believing a word of it.” He paused, then said, “I don't convince easily, and that goes double for people like you.”

His voice then gained decibels and raised in pitch, and resumed the ferocious-sounding roar I had first heard:

“This is where you learn how to follow orders. Each of you, grab the other's foot!”

I gently reached over and 'grabbed' the foot of the person to my right, and as someone grabbed my left foot, I heard first the sound of a seam ripping, then steps from my front. My hands were abruptly 'ripped off' the foot I had grabbed, then flung to the ground.

“Now grab that foot, curse you!” roared the instructor.

I did so in the same fashion, only slightly faster. 'Grab' was a thoroughly ambiguous word, and I had a suspicion as to what was happening.

He seemed satisfied, to my complete surprise, and now went around the room doing much the same as he had done with me.

“So that's his little 'game',” I thought. “He might not think it a game – it is one, just like high-stakes poker, leveraged buy-outs, what those tinned thugs were doing, and Russian roulette – but when those thugs come after you, it gets messy in a big hurry.”

“Now, grab the foot of your other neighbor,” he shouted.

I did so with alacrity, so much so that I felt several seams rip out. The sense of being in a straitjacket was rapidly diminishing, and with each further 'evolution' – I recalled these training events being called that, the term being an old one – the clothing tore and loosened more. Finally, we 'stood up'. I wondered at the lack of 'saluting', the screamed 'Ten-Hut', and other things I'd heard of being done in 'military training', but when we lined up to go out of the room, I wondered silently where we were going.

The lack of 'cadence', 'army-chants', and other things was astonishing, until I thought about what had been said. I guessed 'brigands' and 'thieves' didn't respect such things. I knew about those northern thugs and assorted witches.

“Maybe I have dealt with brigands and thieves,” I thought. “That one witch could have passed for a brigand, and those people over where the bull was had rooms full of stolen goods.”

The steady tramp of assorted footwear made for wondering, even as I had left my sacks of supplies and weapons in the room. I was glad it had been locked by the instructor, though his key made for wondering. I'd never seen a real 'skeleton key' before.

The line went along the main 'court', then right along the entrance corridor, and then out past the horses and buggies. Hans and Anna were gone somewhere, and as we came under the trees, I noted the still-thick slushy snow, the 'manicured' nature of the area – and front and center, the intense and growing aroma of horses.

That one building was to our left, and as we walked under the trees, I glanced at it. Its white color, many small shuttered windows, and mingled smells – distillate, drying oil, sawdust, and some others I could not place – made for wonderment, even as we came to its end. The trees were nowhere near theirs.

The size of these trees – two and three foot trunks were the rule – was such that I wondered about the six to ten inches common in most woodlots, at least until we came to their end. The instructor had been leading to the left to a small degree, and he had abruptly stopped in a small 'clearing'.

I glanced at my surroundings briefly. To my left was the grove of trees we had just left, and to my right, another thicker-yet grove. Directly ahead was a long low white building with a green tiled roof, while to its right was a copse of such thickness I marveled. To the right of the copse was a tall malodorous mound that had but little snow on it. I surmised it to be a manure-pile.

“Flat-Down!” roared the instructor, and I 'dropped' into the snow with such abruptness that only when my face was covered with dirty snow did I realize what had made the snow dirty.

Someone had thoroughly mingled the snow with mud and horse manure.

“Get up!”

I 'leaped' to my feet, and as I stood rigid 'at attention', I glanced quickly at the others. They were getting up comparatively slowly.

“Flat-Down!”

Again, 'drop' abruptly and try to duck the flight of oncoming arrows. It was as if I was at the third ditch again with arrows flying at me in a thick and humming cloud.

“Get up! Stand on one foot! Stick that right foot out so I can touch it!”

The shouted word 'opstanden' seemed to ring in my mind, and when I heard it again after burying myself in the mud and dung, it morphed into another word, this being 'aufstehen' – the favorite word of concentration camp guards when they were inclined to amuse themselves by tormenting their charges.

After a few more instances of 'becoming one with the ground', we did 'deep knee bends' and 'push ups'. By this time, my clothing was well on its way toward self-destruction, and I was shocked at how easy it was to do the 'calisthenics'. I knew then the hardest portion of the 'training' would be enduring the attitude of the instructor. What had been said about him expecting a different attitude had been an understatement, or so I guessed.

“And asking what he wants will not work,” I thought, “as it would accomplish nothing right now, and I doubt I could act as he expects.”

After more such exercises, we formed a line and were led through the trees to our right. I was the most mud-caked of the lot, with my face crusted with dung and mud and streaked with snow, and the smell of dung steadily increased. The trees abruptly thinned to show a roofed-over pond that reeked and bubbled and steamed, and as we formed up at its edge, I saw dirty-looking brownish-gray water surfaced with thick and lumpy scum.

“Swim, you wretches,” yelled the instructor. “Jump to it!”

I didn't hesitate for a second, but leaped into the pond and began swimming, even as the others splashed behind me one after another. I managed perhaps three strokes when the reek of obvious sewage clenched my nose, and I swam faster, so much so that when I came to the other side, I waited in the waist-deep water for further orders.

“Swim back the other way, and repeat until I tell you to stop,” yelled the instructor. I resumed swimming.

I soon found myself doing 'laps' amid spluttering and floundering recruits, and only when I was told to stop did I realize I had the pool to myself. I was then told to 'get out'.

“This way,” roared the instructor. “Run, damn your eyes, run!”

While the mud and dung from the calisthenics had vanished, it had been replaced by that of the sewage-swim, and as we ran through the trees, past the calisthenics area, and into more trees, I noticed the thick miasma that 'boiled' off of those ahead of me. I had been put last in the line, and I was surprised I wasn't having to run around the rest of the column as a 'punishment' of some kind. I could tell the instructor was not at all pleased with me.

“About par for the course,” I thought. “At least he hasn't tried for me yet.”

We stopped under the trees in the rough middle of the larger grove, and there found another small clearing. This one, however, had two barrels full of clubs on the snow-covered ground and a thick carpet of tree-branches overhead, such that we stood in gloomy-seeming shade. I wondered as to the purpose of the clubs for an instant.

“Are we to beat on each other so as to become 'hard'?” I thought. I then saw the padding.

The padding on each end of these 'poles' seemed a bit skimpy, and as I paused to try to recall the name of those things like them where I came from, the instructor pulled one out of the barrels and tossed it at me like a spear. To my complete astonishment, I moved to the side and caught the thing with my left hand, then pulled it down such that I held it at an angle with both hands. My hands, and indeed all of me, moved so fast that I could scarce follow what I had done, and my speech following the matter seemed unusually appropriate:

“Yes?”

“You, pair off with him over there,” spat the instructor, as he pointed to the only person taller than myself in the 'class'.

“He did say he would be especially hard to impress,” I thought, “especially in my case. Catching that thing like that impressed me.”

However, I soon learned tossing the 'club' like a spear was the usual – and as I watched, nine of the 'recruits' were knocked to the ground when the hefty poles thumped them in the chest or head. The remaining two were quick enough to dodge them and then chase the things. No one else did as I had done.

Once the last pole had been tossed – to my partner; he dodged the thing and chased it afterward – I glanced at what I was holding. The pole was about five feet in overall length, with the center three feet slightly uneven fine-grained wood covered with varnish. The outer pads were about five inches across, of streaky-looking brown leather, and carefully stitched with light tan 'thread'.

“And tinned thugs will ignore these,” I thought, “and forget the pigs. One does have to start somewhere, though. Perhaps quicker reactions?”

“Watch me!” yelled the instructor.

As the instructions came – mostly carefully choreographed swings that seemed lifted from overly-clumsy martial arts classes, with a few baton-like twirls – I thought of more possible reasons, the chief one being hand-to-eye coordination. The thought of 'hardening' intruded again, although I wondered just how one could be hardened against the bite of a sword or ax.

“Each of you,” yelled the instructor, “at the other, and fight like you mean it.”

I shuddered visibly, and was disinclined to hit who I was paired with. He wasn't a tinned thug – and most importantly, I was terrified I would hurt him. I was about to ask him to try first when he came at me with the pole in both hands held high as if to drive me into the ground like a tent peg. We had not been shown that particular move.

I waited until the pole was on its swift descent, then moved to the left slightly and twirled mine in my right hand. It caught his pole and jerked it brutally downward – with him following after it to the ground.

“Oh, my,” I thought. “He fell down.” It was all I could do to not giggle at his pratfall.

He did not enjoy his dirtying, and now leaped up in a state of fury. He rushed at me with his pole held low like a spear.

I sidestepped to the right as he came and nudged his pole to the side with the tip of mine, much as if I were using a pool cue. He almost collided with a tree this time, and only at the last minute did he recover.

His clumsy movements were perceptibly slowing, and my focus had sharpened noticeably. He swung at me with his pole. I twirled the pole as per the instruction, then checked it in mid-twirl as his came down – and then flipped his pole up such that it tossed him backwards. He nearly fell on his rear.

He was becoming more angry with each such attack, and after three more such tries, he paused for breath. I now saw the real need to teach hand-to-eye coordination, and I saw yet more other issues – issues that the instructor had not spoken of that would carry over to actual combat involving swords, axes, and possibly arrows. I knew about those.

“Concentrate and see where the tip of your pads are as much as you can,” I said quietly. “Rest a bit, then try again.”

My quiet and calm voice seemed to infuriate him yet more, and he rushed at me red-faced and enraged. I thought to 'trip him up', and after dodging his pole, I knelt down and thrust the thing between his legs. He tripped and fell sprawling, then slid several feet in the snow.

I paused to look around, and the five 'two-person brawls' I saw were complete marvels – mixtures of low comedy and profuse lumps, mostly. The instruction had missed them completely, and the instructor seemed enthralled by the 'battles'.

“Toughening indeed,” I thought, even as my partner rushed at me again.

This time, I feinted a grab at his pole, then swapped hands on mine and knocked his clean out of his hands. It flew upwards with such abruptness that he stopped in mid-charge and shrieked, “where is it?”

The pole answered him by landing on his head after tumbling out of the branches where I had knocked it.

“Your pole, sir,” I said in a deadpan voice. “I think you have a future as a recipient of airmail.”

My right shoulder was grabbed roughly, even as he picked up his pole and charged, then swung the thing like a baseball bat. I grabbed his pole out of midair – I checked the full force of his swing, in fact – and then brought the pole down with such abruptness that the man was pulled down to the ground with it. He fell face-down with a grunt.

“Why didn't you hit back?” squawked the instructor. “These poles are padded well, and you cannot hurt people with them.”

I looked at the man I had just dumped on the ground, then looked at the instructor himself. My eyes were wide open, as if to say, “is that what you think?”

Instead of speaking my mind, I almost sobbed, then stammered, “b-but I h-hit that w-witch, and h-he d-d-died.”

“So?” squawked the instructor. “He isn't a witch.”

“But I'm afraid I'll hurt him,” I said, even as I had a horrible flashback of the witch flying boneless and limp from the force of the blow. “H-he isn't an enemy.”

“The enemy is who I say it is, fool,” roared the instructor. “For the purpose of this exercise, the one you are paired with is the enemy, and you are to hit as hard as you can. Do you understand!”

The flashback abruptly vanished as something inside of me snapped – and unthinkingly, I turned and screamed at my loudest the time-immemorial demand of all such instructors:

“SIR-YES-SIR!”

I seemed to hear echoes from within my mind, and the echoes without bounced off of my head and the trees. The instructor staggered back from me shaking his head, and as I watched, first a trickle of blood came from one ear, then the other. A faint crackling noise came from the area of my waist, and the clothing...

It was well on its way to becoming a collection of rags marching in formation.

I looked down at the pole, and noticed that my hands had crushed down into the wood of the pole. I began weeping, even as I recalled the ease with which I had killed hundreds of 'blooded' tin-plated thugs...

I softly moaned, then looked up to see through a mist the instructor weaving crazily. He had blood on his hands

“Please,” I moaned. “N-no blood. No blood in the ears.”

He put his hands up to his ears, then looked at his hands. The blood was gone.

“How did you do that?” he asked in a normal voice – normal for him, anyway. He was not shouting, even if his voice sounded slightly gruff. “I have never had anyone yell that loud.”

He paused, then said, “and not even the largest guns draw blood like that.”

I sobbed, then said, “I d-don't know. I don't know what happened to me just now.”

I paused, sobbed more, then said, “I had to scream that way all the time so as to satisfy him, and he still hit me when he felt like it.”

He thought for a moment, shook his head, then said – in a normal tone of voice – “back at it, you two – and this time, both of you land blows.”

My partner – perhaps half my chronological age, or so I guessed – had rested, and he charged in with his club gripped near one end. He swung at me; I parried the blow, and gingerly tapped him in the chest with the padded end.

He staggered back, and fell down on the ground, where he lay stunned for a moment. I looked for the instructor, who had gone elsewhere. He seemed to be giving the others more attention, for some reason, and as I returned my attention to my partner, he got up and came at me again.

He seemed unbelievably slow, so much so that I seemed to know what he would do well in advance, and as he swung at me again, his 'slow-motion' moving was such that I wondered for a moment. I ducked the pole – bend at the waist while simultaneously dropping onto my knees, then standing again – and then flicked his pole with the tip of mine.

The pole abruptly launched out of his hands, then spun upwards into the tree, with his hands flying up to nearly clout him in the face. He spun halfway around in dumb shock.

I then flicked the pole 'around' my right wrist, then grabbed it with my right hand just ahead of the pad. I held the pole while thinking what to do next – everything had become almost stationary – and I saw his muddy posterior. It looked likely; he was still turned facing my left in 'shock'.

I gently tapped him there with the padded end.

My partner bent double and launched off the ground in an arc. As he did, horrible flashbacks rocketed through my mind, and I dropped the pole and followed after him, even as he landed on the ground in a crumpled heap and bounced such that he hit his head against the trunk of a nearby tree.

I was on him but a second later, and a glance told me he would die in a hurry if God did not intervene: his unequal pupils showed through the staring eyes of unconsciousness. I knelt by him, even as time seemed to come to a complete halt. There was no time to weep, nor to ask forgiveness. I needed to pray, and did so.

Closed eyes did not block the tears, and I saw through waves of intense pain a shattered skull with a severe brain injury. The pain fed something that almost exploded inside of me, and I found myself in a timeless place where I had never been before, even as I gently placed my hands on his head.

The blood from the injury – the term 'subdural hematoma' came to me, for some reason – abruptly vanished, then as the shattered fragments of bone came out of his lacerated brain, the torn place reformed. His skull returned to its normal shape – it had been lopsided from the collision with the tree-trunk – and the bone fragments 'glued' themselves together under my hands.

I then felt a shocking pain near my waist, and I went to his rapidly swelling left leg. Again, I saw what had happened, and I was stunned even more.

That had not been a gentle tap; it had broken his pelvis in several places, snapped the left femur, and cut the femoral artery in his left leg.

I prayed for that location, and again, I felt a familiar surge of energy flowing like a massive river. The bones aligned, joined, and healed, as did the lacerated muscles and blood vessels. I then looked back at his face, and saw a crooked nose.

“No, he does not need a deviated septum,” I thought. “Mine was awful.”

His nose became straight in what seemed seconds, and I now felt over his entire body. It was strange to feel everything minutely while my hands were nearly two inches away from his clothing, and as I found bruises and cuts, I asked them to be healed as well. Finally, as I had done what was needed, the sensation of being 'not completely here' began lifting, and I opened my eyes to see a melted region in the snow nearly five feet in diameter. I felt my chest – it was soaking wet – and then my face. I had been weeping steadily the whole time.

“P-please, forgive me,” I sobbed. “I didn't mean to h-hurt you.”

A hand gently gripped my shoulder. I looked up to see the instructor looking at me.

“I was afraid this would h-happen,” I said.

“What did you do?” he said.

“I t-tapped him on the rear,” I said, “and...”

My partner shivered, then abruptly awoke and put his hands to his head, saying, “my head hurts. What am I doing here?”

I nearly fainted, then said, “I didn't w-want to h-hit y-you, as I was afraid I would...”

“Why are your eyes burning like that?” he asked. “What did you do?”

“Karl, I, I...” stammered the instructor. “I was wrong to not believe what I had been told about him.”

“What were you told?” asked Karl, even as he continued rubbing his head.

“There was so much talk, and such strange talk,” said the instructor. “Hundreds of those northern people dead, that camp blown up and burned to the ground, bloody snow for hundreds of paces, body parts lying everywhere...”

“N-no,” I moaned. “P-please, d-don't,” I moaned. “I, I...”

“I think what I was told was but the smell of that mule,” muttered the instructor. “I've seen swine before, but given the choice between facing him, and an Iron Pig with full plate, I'm not sure which I'd choose.”

“Why?” asked one of the other 'recruits'. “Those pigs are nearly impossible to stop.”

“I've seen injuries like that before,” said the instructor, “and they kill in a hurry.”

Here, he paused, then said, “were you apprenticed to madame Anna?”

“Hans spoke of that being the case,” I said. “I've been helping them both since the day I came here.”

I then looked down at my clothing, and saw that not merely was it tattered, but all of the lace and frills had vanished save in a few smaller areas. I then had a strange idea, one that at first caused wondering, and then...

“No, that would be wrong,” I thought. “It isn't something I can 'do' when I feel like it.”

The impression I had upon thinking this, however, was precisely the opposite, and with misgivings, I 'desired' to become covered with hair.

The startling sounds of fabric tearing nearly frightened me out of my wits, and then seeing my arms enlarge added to the fear, so much so that I 'changed' back in a flash to show 'normal' looking arms again. I then noticed my clothing was now 'shredded', and I squeaked in fear.

“Oh, no! I ruined the clothing.”

I then looked around to see everyone – except for the person I had injured; he was still rubbing his head and making soft moaning sounds – laying unconscious on the ground.

“What happened now?” I moaned. I was beyond terrified, and into a region that I had no idea of its existence.

“It was that hair showing in that ripped thing, I think,” said the one recruit. “I would have fainted too, but this headache hurts so badly I could not faint if I wanted to.”

“W-wake up, please,” I squeaked. “I won't hurt you.”

The sounds of awakening included faint mutterings about 'old tales', with several persons speaking of that one creature known as 'The Black Fiend'. I hunted up my pole, and when I picked the thing up, I noted that one of the pads had nearly disintegrated; the leather had torn badly and soft white stuffing was billowing out in a hazy-looking spray.

“What did you do?” asked the instructor. “First, your clothing...”

He paused, looked at the clothing, then at me, then at the clothing again, while fingering the stuff.

“It was really tight,” I said, “and those t-tailors were awful.”

“This isn't – did you ask for this stuff?” he asked.

“N-no,” I asked. “I was hoping it would be what someone said was w-war cut, but I could not speak to those t-tailors. Then, there was this other stuff, including some really uncomfortable-looking boots.”

He looked at what I was wearing, then asked, “those?”

“I wore those here,” I said. “Anna said what they supplied would cause my toes to fall off, and I've seen at least one witch with strange-looking feet from wearing things like them, so she's probably right.”

I winced, then said, “he has a very bad headache. I have some medicine in the room, only...”

The recollection about opening doors without keys came to me, and the instructor began feeling in his clothing. His facial expression spoke volumes.

“I left the key inside,” he said. “It will have to wait.”

“Ten minutes,” I said. “I might just be able to get in there.”

I went at a trot through the trees, then found the entrance to the building. There were few people about, thankfully, and when I came to the door of the place, I put my hand on the turned wooden knob and whispered, “please, open for me...”

The lock clicked with alacrity, and I gingerly pressed the door open. I went to my bag, rummaged around until I found the vial of fever-tree powder, came to the door, then closed it. It would not lock, for some reason.

“P-please,” I said. “Please lock.” The door clicked its answer.

I came back out into the area to see the others 'policing up' their poles, and when I handed the vial to the one man, I said, “A few pinches in a glass of water, then drink it. It tastes terrible, but it does work.”

“Have you had it?” he asked.

“I have,” I said, “and I helped with making it...”

I was interrupted by a shrill-sounding neigh, and I turned in fear toward the sound. It was coming from my right and slightly ahead.

“W-was that a horse?” I asked.

“It was,” said the instructor, “and not an ordinary horse. No one can ride him.”

“W-why?” I asked. I wanted to ask if the horse in question was large and black. Hans had spoken of that type, but his description didn't concern me nearly as much as what I had read about.

“He's wild enough for three common horses,” said the instructor, “and he's a handbreadth taller than the usual. If you were to ride a horse, you would want one that size.”

“W-what color?” I asked.

“Most of the horses are black, with some few grays,” he said. “I think he's black.”

“B-big, black...” I thought. The idea of being in the area of an equine earthquake was not something I felt inclined toward.

“That isn't a big black one, is he?” I asked. “Hans said I needed one like that, and, and...” I broke down, then moaned, “and even what they have scare me still. I'm afraid I'll wake up with a hoof-print in my forehead.”

“I've heard of horses doing that,” said one of the other recruits, “but thank God mules are rare up here.”

“Mules?” I asked.

“They buck, kick, bite, and cause trouble,” he said. “Most horses only do those things if they're abused.”

“I t-thought that would not matter,” I said. “I'd get too close and get kicked for certain.”

Karl then returned. He seemed much better, so much so that when he spoke of the matter, I listened carefully.

“I was afraid I would need this one tincture,” he said.

“Does that tincture make you feel as if you are crazy?” I asked. I had a suspicion as to what it was.

“Have you had it?” he asked. “I have. Both times, I was seeing a huge black bird, and it pecked my head. It made horrible noises when it didn't speak, and I felt so miserable I cannot recall what it said.”

“Does 'quoth the Raven, Nevermore' sound appropriate?” I asked.

Karl shuddered visibly, then said in a shaky voice, “how did you know?”

“I have not had that tincture,” I muttered, “but I have had things like it where I came from – and I recall hearing the bird, smelling and seeing this wine called Amontillado, hearing this character named Montressor – him and his trowel, no less – and more nightmarish stuff than I can ever describe.”

I paused, then said, “at least the stuff there relieved the pain. If I go by how things affect me here, the pain may be easier to endure.”

“Lunch-time,” yelled the instructor. “Follow me.”

Going back inside now made for embarrassment, for the place had acquired a sizable population, and while we traveled in-line, I could almost feel the stares of those around us. As we came into the main hall, I saw a location in my peripheral vision that made for wondering, and I thought to ask about it later: it had a bench, two seated individuals, an obvious door, and an aura of 'importance' such that I marveled.

At least, I marveled until another door near it abruptly opened and out came a black-dressed carbon-copy of Black-Cap.

This individual began walking, with a lurching stride and high-lifted pointed boots, and as he went the way we had come, I wondered greatly if there were more such people on the premises. We came into the hallway that led to the 'cafeteria', and as the instructor opened the door, he mentioned its proper name:

“This is the refectory.”

My previous visit had no unusual odors, but in this instance, I noted a number of them among the usual 'Public House' smells – including one of such an intense stomach-turning nature that I gasped out the words, “quick! Where is a privy?”

“Down the hall to the right,” said someone from the 'kitchen'.

I left the place forthwith at a run, then within seconds, I 'found' the place. I dashed inside to find a round ceramic edifice nearly identical to the one at home – and the instant I opened the lid, I vomited. The 'heaves' were so bad that I saw spots of light, and the pain so intense I wondered what had happened – until I tasted sourness in my mouth and sprayed the stuff into the 'commode'.

Once I'd finished vomiting, I looked for a rag to wipe myself, and when I found a container – a small wooden box marked 'clean rags' – I found next to it a metal-lidded container marked 'dirty rags'. I wiped myself, then lifted the lid of the other and tossed in the rag I had used.

“So they recycle those?” I thought. “For what? What do they make paper out of here?”

The idea made a fair amount of sense as I warily returned to the refectory, and when I paused at the door to 'smell' before entering, I noted the drastic diminution of the foul odor. I came inside, and saw a 'publican' carrying a sliced platter of bread. He set the thing down at a long thin planked table occupied by my 'class'.

“What was that smelly, uh, thing?” I asked quietly.

“That was a squab,” he said. “It was a mean brute, and I'm glad it's gone – that, and the General who got it.”

“Do those usually smell like that?” I gasped.

“They do,” he said, “and between the odor of that thing, its mess, and the vinegar we crocked it with, it was a near thing. I hope it corks him proper.”

“Who buys those, uh, things?” I asked. “Hans warned me about them, and he said they were really greasy. Greasy food makes me sick.”

“There are a few places in town that raise those things,” he said, “and I'd stay clear of that area if I were you.”

“Where is it?” I asked. “Is it Neerplats?”

He nodded, then said, “right in the middle of the Swartsburg itself.”

I went to the table, where I found the bread being passed around on its platter. I secured a small piece, which I began nibbling on. I wondered what next was to come, until a short time later, a delightful smell drew steadily closer. I looked up to see someone bringing in an obvious pie – only this example wasn't the usual 'pie-pan' size.

Its 'dish' was easily eighteen inches across, and four inches deep, with steeply sloping sides. The resemblance to a 'gold pan' was enough to make for strange thoughts.

“That thing is huge,” I thought. “How will we eat it?”

I soon found out 'how' – tinned copper plates, spoons, forks, and a 'publican' – I now knew these people to be cooks – dishing the thing up. The plates went down to where I was sitting, and there, I was astonished.

The 'pie' was almost identical to what I had eaten twice at the Public House, at least for appearance, and when I ate a mouthful, I found that it was easily as good. The spicy flavor of 'pepper' was a good inducement to eating after that foul-smelling bird, and as my plate went back for another helping, I asked, “what kind of pie was that?”

“A pepper pie, with chopped elk,” said the instructor. “The huntsmen use bows and get a good deal of meat that way, though I wonder about that musket you brought. It has some odd fittings on it.”

“I needed one, and I needed to test some ideas out for a customer's piece,” I said between mouthfuls of pie. “I've shot a deer, two elk, a huge pig, one of those northern people, and an unusually stinky black dog that Hans called Old Shuck. It had a keg, and Hans said that meant some witches want me dead.”

“That is the head-dog of that pack they have,” said the person sitting across from me. He had a familiar-looking knife – one of the first ones I'd done – which he was using on a small piece of roast meat. “I wish the wolves would get to that one, but it goes too fast for them, and it ignores muskets.”

“It went to soot and smoke when I shot it,” I said.

“When?” he asked.

“The start of Festival Week,” I said. “It smelled terrible, sounded horrible, and my weapon made my ears ring when I shot it, but I'm still glad I shot that stinky dog.”

“When I was apprenticed to a butcher,” he said, “I would put out the scraps for the wolves, and ask them to get those black dogs. Still, it was no good, and Tijmen died in a witch-pot.”

“W-witch-pot?” I gasped. “Was this a big black iron thing?”

He nodded, then said, “those northern ones were involved. Since, I have wanted to get some lead or steel in those people, and I want that so bad I can taste it.”

“Hear, hear,” chorused the table – and from outside, a deep-pitched baying thundered encouragement. It sounded more than a little like the dogs I had heard at the third ditch.

“Now what stirred him up?” I asked. “If that is a dog, he sounds like he is due for some food.”

“That is one of those fourth kingdom dogs,” said the instructor, “and he's as big as they come. He's all red, has a black ear, and has an appetite to go with his size.”

“Is that dog the one called Masher?” asked one of the others.

“I'm not certain,” said the instructor. “Those northern people tend to call those dogs other names entirely, and that when they aren't being bitten into pie-filling.”

“What do they do then?” asked another young man.

“Mostly they scream,” said the instructor. “Then, when the pigs show, the dogs go after them in teams.”

Here, he paused to sip from a mug, then said, “that is for those. There are some other dogs that are a lot smaller and a lot nicer – except if those northern people are handy.”

“What happens then?” asked the person sitting across from me.

“Talk has it they go insane,” said the instructor, “and the same for common witches, pigs, brigands, and thieves. They get swine like nothing else, so much so that some call them hell-hounds.”

“H-hell-hounds?” I asked.

“That is a bad name,” said the instructor, “as those dogs are otherwise very friendly.”

“What do they look like?” I asked.

A ringing high-pitched bark seemed to come from everywhere at once but seconds prior to a door at the 'rear' of the refectory all-but crashing off of its hinges. I turned to see what had arrived, and was astonished to see a barrel-chested white dog with red ears and an abnormally long and waggly tail. It seemed uncommonly friendly and inquisitive, and as it went around the room, I could hear conversations springing up in its wake.

The dog drew steadily closer, until it came to our table, and as it slowly went around the table, I wondered as to what it had in mind – until it saw me.

The dog sprang like a bolt of lightning, landed on the floor in front of me, and then its demeanor changed utterly. It had been friendly before, but now I had all I could do to avoid being 'kissed' all over my body amid high-pitched yips of obvious 'joy'.

“Are you hungry?” I asked quietly. I suspected that to not be the case, but it did not hurt to ask.

I had the impression that I had been 'recognized', and more, the dog regarded me as a relative of some kind. I looked closely at the 'muscular' nature of this dog, and the resemblance to a pit bull was astonishing – save, of course, for the long and somewhat floppy red ears.

“That is one of those dogs,” said Karl. “I think he likes you, though with those, it is hard to tell. They tend to like everyone who isn't a witch or a pig.”

“Him especially,” said an unusually 'cultured' voice from behind me. “He keeps the rats down.”

I turned to see a tall individual – about Karl's height, though less muscular – clad in a long gray hooded cloak. On him, such clothing seemed appropriate to a 'scholar' of some kind. His eyes seemed to sparkle and glitter, much like those of the king, and the books he carried – thick 'tomes', one under each arm – but added to the impression. He then turned slowly, and walked out of the room. He went toward the right, which did not surprise me.

Lunch continued for what seemed hours, and while my famished state responded well to the food and drink, my clothing seemed to further wilt under the glances of those around me. I noted the instructor was continuing to look at me, and at the end of the meal, he pulled me aside.

“I've never seen anyone as close to being 'trained' at the start of this thing as you,” he said. “Now about that clothing... You saw the tailors, didn't you?”

“Th-those three smelly men?” I asked.

He looked at me, then muttered something under his breath that I did not understand. He shook his head.

“Talk spoke of you being embarrassed easily,” he said, “and I wondered about that, especially what was said to have happened then.”

“Th-they tore my clothing off,” I said, “and I didn't know how to behave. I'd never been here before, and I thought the r-rules were different.”

“They are, though not nearly that much,” he said. “I thought anyone who couldn't endure those people wasn't up to this work, but after today, I have an idea.”

He paused, then said, “there are a fair number of tales that speak of marked people, and the worst ones could not endure things like those tailors did. That dog was the mule, though.”

“W-why?” I asked.

“The absolute worst were said to be half-hound,” he said, “and they are like those dogs when they start fighting. Nice enough people, so it was said, unless you got them angry. Charles was said to be that way, and those dogs loved him like a brother.”

He paused, then said, “I'd go to the tailor section and see about your clothing.”

The unspoken portion – for some reason, I seemed to discern this part plainly – was 'stay clear of those three stinky tailors'. I glanced at my clothing as I walked back to the 'changing room', then once inside the privy-sized space, I changed back into the clothing I had worn coming here. I came out with my arms bundled with bags, and the clothing bag dragging behind me on the floor.

“Well?” said someone who I could not place. “Did it work out?”

I set my bags on the table and turned to see a tolerably-dressed man whose clothing and demeanor seemed to proclaim him a tailor. His seeming was such that I muttered, “if you are a tailor, then who were those three stinky men?”

He looked closer, then went to the bag my 'clothing' had come in, then began muttering as he pulled out the ripped-to-shreds brown cloth of my trousers.

“Don't tell me,” he murmured. “You must be the person that held the bridge over the third ditch. I told them not to measure you in the usual guard place, but in here, like most people.”

Usual g-guard place?” I asked. “Th-three smelly men?”

“I have half a mind to take this stuff to the cooks,” he spat, “and stuff some of those evil birds those people like with it, and have them eat both birds and clothing. Now come into my office, and I will do that business.”

I wondered for a moment as to what kind of evil birds he was speaking of as I followed him out of the room and down a narrow hall into a region of soft speech and the sounds of cloth-work, then when he turned right into a small room, I followed.

While this room had a decor similar to that of the three stinky men, it was otherwise vastly different; it was neater, much cleaner, and all-but odorless. I could faintly smell the odor of wax candles, and perhaps 'wine' – though the latter odor was very faint indeed. He laid out the bag on a varnished planked table, then began to empty it.

He first removed the torn remains of the trousers, and as he did so, he muttered “this is not guard clothing. I don't know what it is, but it isn't even close for cloth or cut.”

“What is it, though?” I asked. “I've seen but two examples of such clothing.”

“There are two types,” he said, “and talk had it you needed special fitting, as you have an unusual build.”

Here, he looked at me up and down, then said, “and the talk didn't speak wrongly, either. House-dress would go to rags like this stuff did if it was cut normally, and the usual war-cut stuff wouldn't last long either. Your clothing would need to be especially accommodating.”

He then removed the 'shirt', and as he looked over its torn and mud-streaked cloth, he muttered more.

“They don't wear things like that, do they?” I asked.

“I think not,” he said. “So far, what I've seen is closer to what some people wear in and around the Swartsburg.”

“Uh, the other stuff?” I asked. “Black b-buckled shoes, frilly stuff, s-skullcap...”

The tailor was removing the 'boots', and as he did, I felt an eruption about to commence. He set them aside, then removed the belt from the bag. Here, I saw its color clearer, and shuddered.

It was that peculiar shade of brown-going-to-black that Black-Cap had worn when I first saw him.

The skullcap proved to be the same color, as were the other leather things I had seen earlier, and when he removed those things I knew of, I noticed there were other things yet within the bag.

“I'm not familiar with the clothing found in the Swartsburg,” I said. “Some of this stuff looks like the two examples of guard dress I've seen, at least for shape.”

“Two?” he said. “You mean two examples of house-dress. The Teacher wears the war-cut stuff.”

“Oh?” I asked. “That actually looked workable.”

“Yes, for him,” he said. “In your case, you would need something a good deal looser, if talk is right. Is it true that something happens where you grow in size?”

“Uh, I'm not sure what you mean,” I said. “I don't get taller, nor...”

“Do your arms and legs increase in girth?” he said. “Talk has it that you split one of those northern people like a butcher splits an ox.”

I burst into tears, then sobbed.

“I'm not surprised,” he said. “It's rare to not be affected by doing those things.”

He paused, then drew out a 'sporran' of glossy black leather, then a sheathed dagger. He wrung his hands after touching the last – I wondered why, for a moment; was the sheath unpleasant to his touch? – and as I drew closer, I noted a faint reddish haze that seemed to envelope the dagger and sheath.

“Oh, no,” I thought. “That dagger is...”

As if to remind me, the reddish glow seemed to erupt into virulent flames that 'burned' briskly.

“Now this is bad,” he said. “First, I recognize that type of dagger, and second, it looks a bit different than the common.”

“Uh, it's glowing,” I said. “I've seen those do that before.”

“And every time they did that, they belonged to witches,” I thought.

I paused in mid-thought, then went to where he had laid the dagger. With careful movements, I removed a pair of locking pincers from my bag, and fastened them to the tip of the thing's scabbard, then used a small pair of 'pliers' to undo the black cord ties around the handle of the thing. The 'pliers' then served to withdraw the dagger itself.

The shape of the thing was unlike any dagger I had seen here before, with an oval-shaped streaky wooden handle, a brass guard, and a long thin double-edged blade. The steel portion was a mottled blue-black color, with a darker color – near-black – within the fuller. The brass hilt seemed simultaneously older than time and yet newly made, with a soft patina formed by eons of polishing.

Overshadowing all of this was the sparkling reddish-orange glow that spoke of spiritual infestation, and the red-tinted runes on the brass hilt made for an instant's questioning – at least until I saw the familiar 'hiding-curse' spelled out.

“No, no hiding,” I muttered. “Show yourself.”

The reddish flames reduced their apparent size and virulence, then with a sudden screech – I wondered if I was hearing it audibly – the dagger seemed to vibrate in a hesitant fashion for a second. Its flames were still much present.

“Do you see the flames now?” I asked.

“Y-yes, I do,” he said. “What do they mean, and why isn't that thing trying to start a fire?”

“It's a witch-tool,” I said. “I've seen a few of those things glow like this one, though it seems to have been trying to 'impress' someone. It has a really nasty curse carved into the hilt – see, those markings right there.”

I pointed at the dagger's hilt with my finger – and when I did so, I heard the accursed chant and saw the individual runes pulsate in time to the hiding curse's syllables.

“Why is it doing that?” he asked.

“I'm not certain,” I said. “I am slightly more certain about the purpose of this clothing, as when I was coming here with Hans and Anna, I wondered if I was going to be dealing with witches of some kind.”

I used my tools to put the accursed dagger away in its sheath, then moved it to the side. I had the impression all of this stuff needed documentation in some fashion, and as the tailor emptied the bag, I noted one final item that did not wish to come out.

“No, come out of that bag,” I said. “Quit hiding.”

The thing fell out of the bag abruptly and lay on the varnished planks of the table. It was a 'sporran', or whatever such things were called here, and its brown-going-to-black color was the same as the other leather items.

“Now this is strange,” he said. “Why would they provide a belt-pouch?”

“Is that what that thing is called?” I asked. “What is its purpose?”

“I've only seen three or four men wear ones like this,” he said, “and all of them went into the Swartsburg regularly.”

“Uh, certain guards?” I asked.

“Those are a bit different than this one,” he said. “Those are a lighter color, a bit larger, and seem less well-made than this one.”

“Is that a matter of appearance, or the truth?” I asked.

“I'm not certain,” he said. “I've never used a belt-pouch, and we don't make these things on the premises.”

He paused for a moment, then said, “we don't make any of this stuff here, especially boots of that type.”

“Pointed boots?” I asked.

“Work poorly, especially if one must walk much,” he said, “and that's apart from what they do to the feet.”

He looked again at the boots, then his long-held eruption seemed to slowly build with the passing minutes as he felt them. Their leather seemed stiff and unyielding, and as I recalled the dream which showed them, I recalled both the shape and function of such weapon-sheathes.

“That belt-pouch has the secret in it,” I said, even as I moved past the rags of the shirt and trousers. Only a brief glance dissuaded me, and as I turned to look, I saw clearly an inscription, this done multiple times. I stopped, then removed the shirt, and showed the five embroidered runes of the curse to the man.

He went pale, then went out into the hallway while I continued looking for the further examples of this curse that I now knew was hidden within the torn fabric, and as I laid out both trousers and shirt, he returned. I turned to see him kneeling in front of a brass-bound dark wooden box, then seconds later, I heard a jug being uncorked. This sound was followed by him turning to show a small silver 'cup' of some kind – and as he slowly swallowed the contents, my nose began to burn and my eyes began watering.

“What was that?” I gasped, as I checked my gorge and he finished the draught. The odor of high-octane drink wasn't improving, either for quality or quantity.

“Some call it water-of-grape,” he said in a squeaky high-pitched voice, “but where it is made, it is commonly called brandy.”

He paused, set down his cup, then wobbled over to the clothing and muttered, “and I've seen markings like those before, too.”

“Where?” I asked.

“The most recent instance, other than on this stuff, was on an ax, sword, and dagger,” he said. “The king keeps those safe with him.”

He paused, then said, “these somehow look very different from what is on those weapons.”

“The ones on the weapons were most likely used to write something,” I said, “while these are a curse, most likely. Question: is this embroidery?”

“It is,” he said, “and that proves a number of things.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“First, the people who made this stuff are either lovers of witches or witches themselves,” he said, “and second, there are people inside the house proper who know of them, know them intimately, and regard them highly. That does not bode well, especially given the rumors regarding witches wanting you dead.”

He paused for a moment, then said, “thirdly, that means we have spies. I sent for one of the people here who might know more about those markings. He should be along shortly.”

'Shortly' proved to be but minutes later, when the man who had commented about the dog came without his 'tomes'. He had his cloak, however, and when he looked at the trousers and shirt, he asked, “what happened to those?”

“First, they measure him in the wrong place,” he said, “and then, they make clothing that looks right for the Swartsburg.”

What?” gasped the scholar. “How?”

“I doubt greatly they did it here,” said the tailor. “The stuff was so tight it went to shreds on him, and that in one day. Then, there are some unusual things here, including some markings that worry me. I was hoping you might know what they mean.”

The scholar brought out a small cloth bag, then untied its delicate-seeming knot to withdraw a small brass 'cylinder' about two inches in diameter. As he carefully cleaned its ends with a soft white cloth, I noted the resemblance to the thing Georg had, then as he began looking closely at a piece of cloth from the trousers using it, I thought to look closer at my own example on the shirt.

The black thread showed again the five characters, each of them now seeming to be ever-so-slightly mobile upon the mud-streaked cloth, and as I looked in my bag for something to write with, I saw a slate handy on the table.

As I reached for it, however, I was interrupted by a strange thought:

“What is in that 'sporran'?”

I ignored the thinking, then carefully traced out the first of the runes on the slate while pressing gently with the chalk. As I did, I had an intimation as to its possible meaning, both singly and in combination, and wrote out the word 'mountain'.

“Is that what that word means?” asked the tailor.

“I had an impression,” I said. “That first figure here looks like a mountain, the second one like a lightning bolt...”

“There are markings with two of those,” said the scholar, “and they call those the double-lightning. Few know what it means, even if it is common enough.”

“The third looks like a hole of some kind,” I said, “or, perhaps a mouth. The fourth is a bad version of a capital 'A', though I've yet to see that letter done that way here, and finally, that last one looks like a 'T' – or a cross. Does that one mean 'death'?”

I paused, and the stillness I heard and felt was astonishing, so much so that I continued my illegible scribblings.

“That 'A' looks a little like the head of a dog,” I said, “and that 'hole' might symbolize not merely a mouth, but other things...”

I paused, then seemed to smell the frightful aroma of that huge black Saint Bernard.

“B-black dog?” I thought. “Does this deal with that stinky varmint?”

Somehow, I began to suspect it was the case.

A further look, however, equated the first character with 'high places', and from thence, the association was 'rank', 'authority', and 'privilege' – all of them being of a peculiarly despotic type, where those below one were one's slaves.

“And those above?” I thought. “One's masters, who needed to be reassured of their status by unceasing worship – worship manifested as rapt unquestioning obedience to their every whim?”

The lightning bolt now seemed to speak of power, such that the 'M' and 'S' combined in some strange fashion, and interacted with the other three symbols, almost as if they accentuated their dread power.

“Hell-dog-death?” I thought. “Did this 'call' that stinker?”

Somehow, however, there was another – and bigger – meaning, with Old Shuck being something closer to a decoy. Somehow, the 'sporran' seemed to get my attention again, and I set down the slate with my scribblings. It was promptly taken up by the other two, who looked at it in rapt-seeming 'awe'.

I felt alone in the room, even as I came to the brown-turning-black leather pouch, and I looked at it carefully. A brief touch left no nausea, nor a sense of slime-ridden greasiness, and when I touched its button, I noticed the now-telltale gleam. It was not brass, but rather, a soft yellow metal that dinted when I ran my fingernail over it. I felt reminded of Hans speaking of a silver belt-buckle – and this? I wondered more.

I moved the button, and opened the thing's top. The careful neat stitching, as well as the soft cloth lining, spoke of uncommon care in construction, and when I pricked up my hearing, I asked softly, “do either of you have impressions about the workmanship on all this stuff?”

“It's as good as anything I've seen,” said the tailor, “at least, it's as good as anything that can be readily had in this area.”

“Finding better would be difficult in this area, at least for the work itself,” said the other man. “The cloth is a type that is more popular points south.”

“Popular among some people?” I asked. “It isn't the common for cloth, even where it's made – or is it?”

“I've heard it's costly,” he said. “Those wearing it tend to be fairly wealthy, even by the standards of those areas where I've seen it worn. It only seems common up here in certain portions of the house.”

“The Swartsburg, you mean,” said the tailor. “I've only seen a few people wear it outside of that area, and to a man, those people spent a fair amount of time in that region – and all of them were salted through and through with money.”

I now reached into the 'sporran', and carefully withdrew a folded piece of paper. This was sealed with a red 'wax' impression. I wondered for a moment as to what it actually was, at least until I thought to remove the remainder of the supplies. I then forgot it, much as if it did not exist.

The next thing I brought forth was a small leather pouch. Its substantial heft and clinking said ample, and I set it aside, alongside the message. I looked closer at the paper now, and for some reason, I seemed to see what the paper referred to.

“You are cordially invited...” I murmured. “Is that an invitation of some kind?”

“What?” asked the scholar. “I cannot understand your writing in the slightest.”

“That paper,” I said. “It gives several addresses, as well as some other information – oh, and it is an invitation.”

“To what?” asked the tailor.

“I'm not precisely certain,” I said. “Two of those places are in the Swartsburg itself, two more are near it, and three of them are in other parts of the city. The rest of what is in this belt-pouch should give more clues as to what the invitation is about.”

I then brought out a small leather pouch, and untied its cords. The shining brass shape within was a familiar one – it looked like a magnifier – and when I brought the thing itself out, I wondered more as to its appearance.

The clear glass portions in the top seemed faintly filmed with grease, while the shine of the outside – it too was smudged with clinging grease in some fashion – seemed uncommon and absolute. I thought to try the thing out so as to see what it was good for, and soon began muttering.

“This one is really blurry, it feels awful to hold, and everything about it smacks of appearances,” I sputtered. “Do either of you recognize it?”

The 'scholar' took hold of it, cleaned it carefully with a soft rag, then tried it out on what he was looking at. He then said, “much of its trouble was the grease they put on these so as to preserve the finish. Where did you find it?”

“In that bag,” said the tailor, as he pointed to the bag in question. “Why, is it a bad one?”

“I think not,” said the scholar. “I've seen these before, and while there are better ones, they are very difficult to procure.”

“And those like that?” asked the tailor.

“These merely need time and money,” said the scholar.

“Time?” I asked.

“Mine is a recent replacement for the one I had as a student,” he said, “and it wasn't cheap. I only had to wait a month or so for it once I put out the order by the post.” Here, he paused, then said, “ones like that need a personal visit as well as an inducement.”

“Personal visit?” I asked.

“To the fourth kingdom's market town, where those are made,” he said. “I would guess the inducement to be a third of the agreed-upon price, with the balance paid prior to receipt. Those tend to take some time to make, with multiple payments in person the usual.”

What?” I gasped. I then recalled what Black-Cap had done.

“These are made to order,” said the scholar, “like most things made by instrument-makers, and their price reflects their special status, unlike those made by the numbers.”

“Made by the numbers?” I asked.

He looked at me, then said, “haven't you made things that way?”

“I am not certain as to the term,” I said. “I use patterns and things like them when I can, especially for things I make in quantity.”

“That is what I meant,” he said. “Supposedly you did some pieces of stovepipe that way.”

“Stovepipe?” I gasped.

He nodded, then said, “and that one man's musket was done 'to order'. I thought his statements to be fanciful until he actually took delivery of the piece.”

“Fanciful?” I asked.

“Complete reworking of such a weapon commonly takes much longer, especially when done to order,” he said, “and work of that grade is extremely rare.”

“And that magnifier?” asked the tailor.

“It isn't a common one, even for those things made to order,” said the scholar. “Mine borders on useless when I compare the two of them.”

I reached into the 'sporran' again, and withdrew a strange-looking all-metal 'key' of some kind. Its 'ornate' aspect, as well as its age – the ages-deep patina was telltale – made for wondering, so much so that when I laid it aside, I was startled by the scholar's exclamation.

“This key is very important,” he said. “I've seen but a few like it.”

“What is its use?” I asked. “It opens a lock of some type – or does it?”

“It might well open locks,” said the scholar, “but chiefly, it opens doors. If I go by its age, it might well open a fair number of them.”

“What kind of doors?” I asked.

“Ones that lead to wealth and power,” he said, as he looked at me in an 'arch' fashion. “What else is in that belt-bag?”

I looked carefully inside the 'sporran', then shook my head, muttering “there's nothing inside, other than...”

I had put my hand inside the thing, and was now carefully feeling the cloth lining. I could feel strange-seeming 'seams' of some kind, and when I turned the thing inside-out, I was astonished and horror-stricken.

The lining had red-bordered white embroidered runes spelling out the hiding-curse, and as I looked at the others, I noted their flaccid features and near-waxy pallor. I'd seen this before, chiefly at the shop when that apprentice had been taken over, though there had been other times as well since.

“Wake up, please,” I said.

Nothing happened. I looked closer at the two men, and then knew the issue.

Again, I had a choice, just like with the bridge – and like with the bridge, the bulk of that choice was made for me. There was an element of involvement for me – a small element – and as I carefully put the things back in the 'sporran', I saw just how small that choice actually was.

The 'sporran', its contents, and indeed all that had showed, constituted either a bribe of sorts, or a challenge. I could not choose as to which was the more-likely interpretation, and when I glanced again at the others, I shuddered.

Behind the glazed-seeming eyes and waxy faces, I could 'hear' their thinking. Not merely did neither man understand what the true issues were, but both of them were almost compelled to choose as per the desires of the witches who had sent all of the materials. I then knew my 'choice', and made it.

“No,” I muttered. “No, I do not want to be a witch.”

The 'sporran' twitched, then began to steadily glow redder, as did everything that had been packaged up. The tailor shook his head, then as he looked at the scholar, he said, “what happened to him?”

“It seems this stuff was all either a challenge or a bribe by witches,” I said, “and...”

I paused, then noticed the stuff on the table. I thought to speak to it, and said, “leave, please.”

The stuff began trickling faint tendrils of foul-smelling gray smoke into the air. The scholar 'jerked' awake, then looked at the growing cloud of smoke as if hypnotized. Thankfully, the tailor had some presence of mind – though in my case, I had something utterly different.

“Quick!” I yelled. “Grab that stuff and follow me!”

I grabbed the 'sporran', while the other two grabbed the now smoke-billowing clothing and other things, and as I ran for the door, I could almost hear screaming. I ignored what I was hearing, and ran for the hallway.

The squirmy nature of the 'sporran' – as well as its growing heat – was a spur to my efforts, and as I came to the slow-opening door of the refectory, I nearly bowled over a cook in my haste.

“Open the door!” I shouted. “This stuff is trying to catch fire!”

The cook stumbled and tried to trip me up, and I leaped over him as the 'sporran' began to billow a thick trail of greasy gray smoke. I came to the door, then dropped the 'sporran' and jerked the door open as the 'sporran' ignited. I kicked the thing out soccer-style as it trailed red flames, then watched as it sailed over the railing and landed in the snow to burn as if doused in distillate.

I could hear steps behind me, and just as I turned I was nearly crushed by the tailor as he tossed a hugely smoking bag of clothing outside. It too caught fire and began burning.

“Now where is that scholar?” I thought. It seemed important.

I had my answer but a few seconds later, for the cook managed to trip him up and send him sprawling. He nearly slid to the door, and the magnifier rolled rapidly past my feet. It too was smoking as if about to burst into flame, and when I kicked the thing, it erupted into a billowing spray of fireworks that flew like a magnesium flare for nearly thirty feet.

A brief glance afterward showed all of the 'stuff' outside and burning holes in the snow, and as I closed the door, I wondered what had happened to everyone. I looked at the tailor, who seemed uninjured, then went to the two immobile men laying on the floor.

“Wake up, please,” I said.

This time, both men responded with alacrity, and as the scholar got up – he 'woke up' a trifle faster than the cook – he looked at his hands. The traces of soot that showed were a marvel, and when he looked further at them, I asked, “are you all right?”

“I think so,” he said. “I had no idea that thing was rigged with chemicals.”

Thing?” I asked.

“That magnifier,” he said. “I must have fainted, then I awoke with it growing steadily hotter in my hands, and when someone yelled for me to run, I did so. I just woke up completely now.”

“Gabriel, that stuff was not rigged with chemicals,” said the tailor. “That clothing caught on fire, and it was burning until I tossed it.”

He looked at me, then said, “and that belt-pouch was burning like a leaky witch-jug. Are you burned?”

I looked at my hands, felt them, and noticed slight redness amid a thick dusting of soot. I then thought to visit the privy and clean them, for the soot didn't feel at all good.

“I need to clean them up better before I can tell,” I said. “They don't feel burned to any degree, but they look a little red.”

In the privy, the redness vanished along with the soot, and as the three of us retraced our steps to the measuring area, I had a further intimation as to the nature of the curse embroidered onto the clothing. Once I'd retrieved the slate, I said, “try this interpretation: 'may the black dog of Brimstone chase this man into the grave'.”

“Now how do you get that?” asked Gabriel.

“First, these two here give the thing its power,” I said. “The mountain, combined with the lightning bolt, symbolize the power of the issuer. The 'hole' symbolizes hell, the next figure the dog itself, and the last one means destruction or death.”

I paused, then said, “then, Old Shuck showed. That dog was solid black.”

“I think you might be right,” said the tailor.

Gabriel thought for a minute, then said, “and the witch that wrote that one out was no stripling. Few witches understand those, and fewer yet understand them well.”

“And those not witches?” I asked.

“They might know those to be witch-markings,” said Gabriel. “Most people have never seen them.”

Here, he paused, then said, “the witch that wrote the Curse was said to understand them especially well, as did those she trained. Otherwise, there is very little documentation on them, and legitimate documentation is quite scarce, outside of a certain black book associated with witches.”

The recollection of the book in the dream intruded, and I asked, “what do those books look like?”

“I have but heard of such books,” he said. “I have never actually seen one. Given they are said to be especially rare and guarded closely, I am not surprised.”

“I saw one in a dream,” I said. “It was easily a foot wide, about two inches taller yet, and the width of my hand for thickness. Then, it was very old, with strangely glossy and even pages, and finally, it was marked on its outside with the double-lightning in silver.”

Gabriel looked at me closely, then drew a small 'ledger' from his pocket and began writing. As he did so, he said, “that type of description goes far beyond anything I'd heard, and what you spoke of those other characters is much the same.”

The recollection of what Maarten had said about secret markings intruded, and I asked, “do some regard runes as being secret markings?”

“I have heard of secret markings,” said Gabriel. “Now what are those things you named runes?”

I picked up the slate, then pointed out the figures I had faintly traced, saying, “that embroidered curse was done using runes, then that dagger...”

I paused in mid-sentence, then looked around the room carefully. I seemed to feel something still present, and when I set down the slate, I knew someone had not gotten everything.

“Show yourself,” I muttered.

As if to disabuse me of the matter, one of the overhead cloth-rolls jerked and came loose, and from its end leaped the dagger. I put my foot on the thing, then said, “leave, and no revenge!”

The abrupt 'thump' tossed me up in the air to land on the floor amid a flash of light – it was like that mortar full of Torga all over again – and as the 'smoke' cleared, I came to myself and shook my head. I then saw both of the others looking at me closely.

“Now what did you do?” asked the tailor. “I thought I got that thing, but I was in a hurry, and...”

“I can think again,” said Gabriel. “Now I know you were speaking the truth.”

He paused, then said, “and what you said doubled what I know regarding those markings.”

“What did you know before?” I asked, as I stood shakily. The dagger was gone, thankfully.

“What is written in old tales,” he said. “The Grim is a very useful collection.”

Grim?” I asked. “Was this written by a pair of brothers?”

“No one knows who wrote down those tales,” he said. “There are seven Grim volumes numbered in the order of their compilation, and their full name speaks of their nature.”

“Full name?” I asked.

Grim Old Tales,” he said, “and they tend to live up to what that name implies. I spent my share of time in the privy when I was small on account of them.”

Gabriel left but a moment later, and the tailor brought forth his measuring equipment – chiefly a small piece of paper, a 'pencil', one of those square brownish cubes, and a 'tape'. In this instance, I was able to be measured with my clothing present, and as he wrote down my measurements, I asked, “what is in these tales he spoke of? Is there one that speaks of this, uh, thing called the Black Fiend?”

“Yes, there is,” he said, as he measured my waist. “There is a complete set of those tales here. Why, did someone think you were like that?”

“I've heard it mentioned,” I said. “I've never read any of those tales, at least those here.”

“The Black Fiend was supposedly the body of a man brought back to life by some witches,” he said, “and then his body changed shape and grew greatly in size.”

“And?” I asked. I knew there was more.

“Only the Curse itself was worse for destruction,” he said. “That thing laid waste to much of the continent before it was destroyed. It supposedly happened just after that big war long ago.”

He paused, then said, “there are a few other tales, and they speak of marked people.”

“Marked people?” I asked.

“Usually they had missing body parts, at least the ones in the tales,” he said, “and during the time those tales speak of, they were accused of desiring to be that way, so as to spite the rulers of the lands in which they lived. They were hunted without mercy, and killed when and where they were found.”

He paused for a moment. He'd said quite a mouthful, and I did not blame him for pausing.

“Change shape?” I gasped.

“I doubt they actually changed into trunks, trees, bushes, or rocks,” he said. “I think what was meant that they hid especially well, such that they were almost impossible to find if they were of a mind to hide.”

Once he had finished with his measuring, he said, “now at least we can make appropriate clothing here. You'll want to wear what you have until then, unless...”

He paused, then looked at a slate that I had not seen before.

“So that's why you were to be fitted early,” he said. “This isn't the only thing you are doing, but one of a number of things, and you don't have clothing for three people – hence, you need temporary clothing. I wonder what you can use that will work.”

“Clothing?” I asked. “W-war cut?”

“In your case, you'll look like a chimney cleaner, only without the soot,” he said, “and you know how messy fighting can be.”

His speech brought abrupt tears, and for some reason, I was 'reminded' about the widow's tincture. I thought to 'fight' the tendency toward a pharmacological solution, as it was not...

The suggestion was now clearer, almost as if Anna herself was in the room and telling me in no uncertain terms to 'take my medicine'. I sobbed more, then through my tears, I reached for the bag and found the vial. I got out a few drops, which I took without looking, and the guilt that washed over me was of such magnitude that I nearly screamed until the stuff took effect.

The sense of relief overwhelmed the guilty feeling, at least for a few seconds, until I recalled with crystal clarity what I had originally heard.

I had been 'told' in no uncertain terms that I needed to take the tincture, and feelings of guilt were not appropriate. It was needed, and I had done as instructed.

“What was that you just took?” asked the tailor.

“This tincture Hans makes for widows,” I said.

“I thought so,” he said. “At least now you don't look like you expect swine to suddenly show in the room.”

“I had no idea that was the case,” I said.

“First, you shot one, if rumor be true,” he said. “Then, you've dealt with those northern people, and finally, the witches are after you. One of those things is enough to send people to rest-houses.”

He paused, then said, “now how will you not look like someone who cleans chimneys?”

“Perhaps a buttonhole on the chest?” I suggested. “Then, use a button with a pin on the back, like this.” Here, I drew what I had in mind.

As I drew, however, questions arose in my mind, and I asked, “what do guards commonly use?”

“More or less what is available,” he said. “There are swords, war-axes, knives, muskets, artillery, bombs, and traps. Some specialize in those things to a degree, and sit under people who do them.”

He paused, then said, “given who you live with, I would think you might specialize in bombs and traps.”

“Why?” I asked, before thinking. I then realized I wasn't certain what he meant, even if I did have an idea. I then said, “I helped set out some bombs a few days ago.”

“See, you've already started,” he said. “The guards do what they do a lot more of the time than most, but when the swine show, everyone does for them that can. The usual person who leads a town is called the bomber, and Hans is the bomber of Roos.”

He paused, then said, “and one of the best-known ones, too. Only a few get close to him. Then, there is another man to the north and west of him, and his name is Paul...”

“So that's why his basement is the way it is,” I thought. “It looked like a clandestine munitions factory, because it was!”

“Then, there is someone who's older,” he said. “He's too old to set the traps, but he's not too old to make them. Supposedly, he's the best in the kingdom, and he's said to make the best powder to be had.”

He paused, then said, “we should have some temporary clothing by tomorrow. You might want to speak to Andreas the jeweler about that button. Do you know where he is located?”

“No, not really,” I said without thinking; I continued speaking seconds later. “Up the stairs to the second floor, left turn at the top of the stairs, right at the first hallway, and then about fifteen paces?”

“I thought you didn't know where he is,” said the tailor. “I could not have given better directions myself.”

“I just said that,” I said. “Oh, now I know. I think I can find him passably. Thank you.”

I gathered all of my supplies, and once 'loaded up', I began walking down the various hallways toward the stairs in question. It took me a few minutes to reach them, then as I began climbing the stairs – wide things of marbled stone, with a spreading landing, wide wooden handrails, and a column at the juncture of the second floor and the top of the stairs – I looked around carefully. The smooth cool nature of the stone was such that I marveled, and when I turned to the left at the top of the stairs, I noted not merely the wooden railing that permitted looking out over the main 'corridor', but also the vast number of smaller rooms and corridors that joined the second floor's 'promenade'.

“How many floors does this place have?” I thought. “I know about these two, then the one below them that's a full floor, and possibly one below that, and then...”

I turned, then looked around. There was another smaller staircase diagonally across the way, and I saw that it led both upwards and downwards. The building was certainly tall enough to cope with three stories above ground, if not four.

“Perhaps I can ask him,” I thought, as I found the first left-branching hallway.

I wanted to pause in my asking, for within seconds, I heard the telltale sound of someone raising metal. It did not sound like copper – it was simultaneously 'duller' and more 'resilient'. It needed frequent and careful annealing.

“Given jewelers work a great deal with silver,” I thought, “I would bet he is working with that stuff. I'll wait until he takes a break, which should be soon.”

'Soon' came but a minute after I stopped next to the door, and as I reached to tap, I could hear steps coming closer to the door. I tapped twice, then stood back and to the side.

The door opened seconds later to show a short bearded man wearing overalls covered with pockets. He looked like a stereotypical 'farmer', or so I thought, until I noted just how many tools he was 'wearing'. I then knew my impression was bogus; no farmer would carry that many tools.

“And I need a tool-carrier the size of a closet, a huge roll-top workbench, and a lot of bags and boxes to keep what I have now – and I still don't know all of what I have,” I thought.

“Come in,” he whispered. “I'm about due for a break.”

He opened the door, and when I came in, I turned around to watch him place a varnished wooden bar into the old-looking metal hooks that held it. I wondered for a moment as to why he was barring the door, at least until I turned to follow him.

The lighting in the place was dim, for the most part, and gave a peculiarly 'spooky' atmosphere, with long candle-tossed shadows lurching crazily as the two of us moved toward a long counter. There, I saw what looked like a candelabra crossed with a sagebrush. He touched something near its base, and the thing suddenly blazed up with a multitude of small candle-like flames. The place was now well-lit.

“Gaslight,” I thought. “Now what other surprises does he have up his sleeve?”

The counter was a long waist-high thing of varnished planks secured with pegs, and as I looked around on the 'customer' side, I noted a vast profusion of shelf units with cloth 'face-covers', two old-looking couches, several well-made boxes with faded lettering serving as 'tables', and odd-looking inlays in the floor. On the other side, however – that smacked of complete mystery, for the place was curtained off where it didn't have a wall of varnished planks.

“I tend to be easily distracted,” he said, “and people come in here with some frequency, hence I need shields.”

As he spoke, however, he removed from his pockets several carving tools, an awl, wax, clay, and then thin metal rods with blunt tips.

“Those...” I spluttered.

“You made these?” he asked. “My brother lives in Antonhoek, and he spoke of some carving tools that were badly done and then reworked such that they worked well. I wanted some like them, and put in an order at Georg's. Unlike the ones he received, these were made right the first time, and are marked with a prism.”

He paused, then said, “that would be your mark, wouldn't it?”

“Odd, you do not look like the man I got the silver from,” I said. “Is there a guild of silversmiths or jewelers?”

“Nothing that formal,” he said. “Mother survived the swine that year, as did Juliaan, but Karol did not. She was lucky to remarry quickly.”

He paused, then said, “if rumor is true, there is at least one person who has done well with swine. Now what does that one have for furniture?”

He was looking at my rifle, and I carefully laid it on the counter for him to look at. As he gently touched the various pieces, I said, “I needed to try out the ideas for a customer's piece, and I needed the practice – that, and I don't like priming powder going up in my face.”

“The fitting metal?” he asked.

“Mostly common bronze,” I said, “though I added some tin, charcoal, and a small amount of flux. The bronze came out fairly good, which surprised me. Given the customer's weapon had a great deal of rust...”

“That seems the usual,” he said. “I suspect it has to do with the way it's usually processed.”

“The slag and impurities?” I asked.

“Those especially,” he said. “Given you made these tools, you might wish to do some work with the clay I have here. Have you done wax before?”

“Yes, but not here,” I said. “I've mostly been carving directly in metal or wood for patterns.”

I paused, then asked, “oh, the button – how big should it be?”

He looked at me, then said, “so that's why you were coming.”

“You knew I was coming?” I asked.

“That and much else,” he said. “I'm not surprised about the clothing.”

He removed several coins from a small pouch. While I recognized three of them – two small silver pieces, and one large one – there were three small copper-tinted disks. These had no recognizable markings on them beyond many layers of wear and tear, and as he moved the disks in a line of some kind, I pointed to the middle-sized copper one.

“That looks about right for size,” I said. “What are those?”

“Coppers are quite rare,” he said, “and most coins are so old that no one, myself included, has any idea as to what the markings are.”

“The small silver piece might have a '1' marking,” I said, “or it might be a tower, or a cannon firing upward.”

“Or a lightning-struck tree,” he said. “I've always wondered about those.”

He paused, then said, “most go by size anyway, so the markings matter little, and new coins are cast with wax using an old one as a pattern. I've done my share when things are slow enough to permit it.”

“Uh, not often?” I asked.

“They do that more to the south,” he said.

I modeled the clay with my fingers for the most part, as my main idea involved the fastening of the thing into the buttonhole. I had but little idea as to what was best for the front, even as I fashioned the pin portion.

“This part wants a lathe,” I said. “I could easily turn this. Now the back spring...”

“I have ways of making both parts,” he said, “and I've seen escutcheons using a sword and shield. I think they went on wrists to protect them from bowstrings. No one knows what they were used for, so that is a guess.”

“Their shape?” I asked.

“That mostly,” he said. “That might look fitting.”

He paused, then said, “this other, though, is a very good idea, and I might want patterns so as to make them in numbers. That northern place has more people than it can feed right now, which is why they did that recent blood-raid.”

“That many of those flags?” I asked.

“The last time had three, and that was a hundred years ago,” he said. “With thirty, that would seem to mean they figure to cause trouble, or die trying, and they care little as to which they do first and options are few as to when and how.”

He began working a small slab of clay, and within what seemed seconds, he had traced out a simple design involving a shield with a diagonally crossed sword. I nodded when I saw it.

“This should take a few days,” he said. “Perhaps a day or so to carve the wax, a day to make the patterns, a day to cast it, and a day or so to finish it. Oh, the silver-house you want to go to is named Mandelbrot's. It's in Silberstraat, just off of the Oestwaag.”

“Near this one chemical house?” I asked. “About three hundred paces north, and a hundred east?”

He nodded, then said, “it is said the proprietor is fond of a certain species of Kuchen called that.”

I then almost choked, then gasped, “how did you know about that necklace?”

He smiled, then said, “it isn't nearly as hard to hide toes as it is to hide what you have, unless you have a great deal of help – which you have. Unfortunately, that help has also gotten you marked down by every witch worth his or her fetishes.”

“Fetishes?” I asked. “Is that what they call those things?”

“Some call them witch-tools,” he said. “They remind them of that hat-wearing lizard they like. While some of those people around here like hats, about all the more-common species of hat has in common is the color, which suffices for those wearing them.”

“More-common species of hat?” I asked. “I've seen some that look like black bricks.”

“The other type is more common points south,” he said. “It looks like an upturned pot on a saucer, which accounts for its name of 'pot-and-saucer' hat. Those look similar to what that lizard likes to wear.”

He paused, then said, “I think they would be better off wearing pots and saucers of tin, with a tin horn attached, so that people would stay away from them.”

I left his shop shortly thereafter, and as I wandered downstairs to the 'main' level, I wondered where – and when – I would be picked up. I was most of the way to the refectory when I heard Anna's voice, and as I wandered in that direction, I wondered yet more how I could speak of what happened. I was lost in thought when I nearly collided with Hans, who wordlessly took me in tow to where Anna was 'hiding'.

“I think we can go now,” he said.

As we took the back way home, I turned Hans' hoof-pick over in my hands. I felt numb in some way, with tears walled off in some fashion, and as the buggy made its sloshing sounds along the road, I knew that much of my training was a matter of learning things not taught in the classroom or during drill – chiefly the people, the places, the customs, and related things. Finally, I could no longer avoid my 'duty'.

“Th-there was an accident today...” I said.

“Which one?” asked Anna. “I heard about that bad clothing trying to light you on fire.”

“Uh, one of the other people nearly died,” I said.

“Who was this?” asked Hans. “Is he all right?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “I prayed for him. I almost killed him, too, and if I had not been helped, he would be dead. We were paired off with those poles, and I was doing passably, until that t-teacher said something that hurt me badly...”

I began sobbing, then I said, “I did not want to h-hurt him, and now I feel horrible.”

“Did you take that medicine I packed?” asked Hans.

“I d-did,” I said. “I felt bad about that also.”

“You should not feel bad about needing help,” said Anna, as she turned to me. “You look like you need some more, and I think it would be a good idea to have it now.”