The Big House, part 2.


Hans looked at me, then at the road again before asking, “what did it look like, then?”

“Big paper-wrapped cylinders about a foot long and two inches in diameter,” I said, “and I was surprised I could see them, as the headache was worse than awful.”

“That might be why you didn't remember that one stick good,” said Hans. “You were almost blind from that headache you had.”

Hans paused, then said, “was that dynamite marked?”

“None of the boxes had labels I could read,” I said. “They all had copper or brass corners, brass hinges, and copper nails, and seemed well-made. Then, there was the smell. It was really bad.”

“Dynamite has little smell,” said Hans, “unless it is starting to go bad. Then, it smells some.”

“This stuff had an odor,” I said. “Doesn't it normally turn colors and drip, uh, stuff when it starts to go bad?”

“Some does, and some does not,” said Hans. “The stronger types show oil more when they start to turn. Now did you cap that stuff?”

“Uh, yes,” I said. “They were storing their caps next to the dynamite, which is a very bad idea.”

“I know that,” said Hans. “How many caps did you put in each stick?”

“Uh, one,” I said. “One cap per bundle, then quickmatch connecting them all up to where I'd hid the gun that witch was shooting at us.”

“Did you do like that wretch did with the haystack?” asked Hans.

“Uh, no,” I said. “He had this huge musket, and I filled it with priming powder and drove a plug in the barrel, then tied a bag of priming powder next to it, along with a capped charge of dynamite. All of the quickmatch went in that bag, as well as three jugs of this stuff called southern cleaning solution.”

I paused, then said, “someone said it was really flammable.”

“It is worse than light distillate that way,” said Hans, “and it is hard to find up here. Now what else did you do with that witch?”

“I put him back in his witch-hole,” I said, “and put him on his bed and doused him with a jug of some vile-smelling strong drink. I rigged the place up good, and it went up before we got back to the house proper.”

“So it is likely you got at least one more of those things,” said Hans. “Did you see it go up?”

“N-no,” I gasped. “I heard it, though, and when I saw the place on the way back, the woodlot was gone to charcoal and ashes, there was a big smoking hole in the ground, and I saw several smoking black dots laying on the snow.”

I paused, then said, “I brought back both the rest of the caps and the balls from that musket, as well as something that might be shot. I know we are short of lead – or are we?”

“I have been getting some from that one witch-hoard steady,” said Hans, “but then, I have had people asking for balls, too, so I have been casting those things some.”

Hans paused, then said, “what did these caps look like?”

“They were almost as big as the smallest finger of my hand for round,” I said, “and nearly three inches long, with a pointed closed end. I've heard of caps before, but they were not like these things.”

“That is the common type of mining cap,” said Hans, “and those long ones like that are the strongest ones. The common caps are a bit shorter.”

A few minutes passed, during which time I saw it was early afternoon. I wondered about work, and more, bathing. I was feeling like I needed a bath in the worst way imaginable. The itch of the clothing had remained, and now the knit stuff I usually wore was scratching me.

“How will I bathe?” I asked.

“We did you last night in the kitchen,” said Hans. “I spent some time after setting a place up in the basement, so you should manage.”

“Uh, that powder you ordered?” I asked.

“Most of it went in the jugs,” said Hans. “I have some left, and I think I want to order some more.”

“Could I look at it?” I asked.

“Yes, which is why I set some of it aside,” said Hans.

Once home and bathed, I brought out the caps and balls. Hans was not surprised much by the caps – he took them somewhere after looking at them for a moment – but when I brought out the balls, he shook his head. I had not yet examined the sack of shot.

“I am glad I got rid of that thing,” he said, as he examined one of the huge bullets. “It took these, and I am glad you have them, as I looked at the lead box after I put the caps away. I thought I had more soft-lead.”

“The instructor called that gun an elk-musket,” I said.

“That is the other name for those,” said Hans. “Most that I know call them roers.”

I weighed and measured a sample of four balls, one after another and as I wrote down the dimensions on a slate, I asked, “how much powder is the usual dose for a roer?”

“The usual dose is two and a half to three measures,” said Hans, “and much less than that doesn't do much good.”

“Uh, sore?” I asked.

“The only time it did not do that,” said Hans, “was when I left it at home. I was sore from its weight when I did not shoot it, as it was heavy.”

The balls weighed an average of eighty-three units, or about four ounces, and after I bagged three of them, Hans took the remainder to his 'lead-box', or so I guessed. He returned with a small copper bowl covered with a rag, and set it down in front of me.

“This is some of that powder,” he said, as he removed the rag.

The darker color, deep 'shine', and the 'even' grain of the stuff was astonishing, and when I gently picked at it with my fingers, I was even more surprised. It felt 'hard', unlike the stuff I had seen prior, and its 'metallic' feeling was uncanny. It reminded me of black powder I'd seen before coming here.

“How much is this powder?” I asked.

“It is about a third more,” said Hans, “but it is more than a third better. Do you want some?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “This is a bit coarse for what I use, but otherwise, it has an even grain, seems better made, and is more consistent as to size.”

“It works better in the jugs, too,” said Hans. “He can make to order easy.”

“Uh, kegs?” I asked. I was afraid I would need to get a sizable one.

“Yes, if you want that much,” said Hans. “You might get by with a jug-full, as you do not use much powder.”

Hans paused for a second, then noticed the sack of 'shot'. He untied the leather thongs, then poured out some small lead spheres.

“Where did you find this stuff?” he asked.

“It was in the witch's bag,” I said. “It was heavy, so I figured it was lead – and lead is lead when it's in a lead-pot.”

“This is a bit bigger than the common for shot,” said Hans. “There are some pistols that take this size.”

“What?” I asked.

Hans showed me several small lead spheres. Examination showed them to be about two-thirds the size of 'Number 1' musket balls, and as I rolled three of them in my palm, I muttered, “that wretch must have been using this stuff when he shot at me the last two times.”

“That is trouble,” said Hans, “as the usual shot is a bit more than half of this size.”

“Where does one get shot?” I asked. “A gunsmith?”

“Most of those people have some,” said Hans. “Now why is it you want some of that stuff, given you do not have a fowling piece?”

“Uh, for a sample,” I said. “I wanted to know what it looked like, actually.”

It was closer to dinner-time than I thought, for when the two of us came upstairs I found Anna stirring a pot. The steam coming off of it spoke of a meal in progress. I guessed stew of some kind, for I was too hungry to be more specific.

“Is there time to go to the shop and see what they're doing?” I asked.

Anna turned to me, then said, “they haven't been in there since your training started.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“You're paying their bills, remember?” said Anna. “If it comes from that place, it needs you working on it, or people are disinclined to bother.”

“But how can I be in two places at once?” I asked.

“You can't,” said Anna, “and until the first part of training ends, I would not bother going there, as you should stay home and rest. That training makes what you do at that shop look safe and easy, and your work is neither.” Her 'assured' tone was astonishing.

“Uh,” I spluttered.

“Hans spoke of a witch shooting at you with a roer today,” said Anna, “and then you rigged a witch-hole while keeping those others safe, and then rescuing two of them. I would say you did enough for a week today.”

“They wanted to toss a jug in there while he was doing that,” said Hans as he came up from the basement. “They just wanted to burn that witch the usual way, and the same for that place down there.”

“The usual way?” I said. “Toss a jug and a torch after it?”

“Those places don't turn up very often, Hans,” said Anna, “and few can find them. Now didn't you say that trap got several witches?”

“I saw several bodies lying on the snow,” I said. “Was that what you meant?”

I recalled Paul's speech that first Sunday, and wondered how it corresponded with what I had felt and heard earlier that day. My questions about burn-piles being 'entertainment'...

“Didn't someone want to burn me after the bridge?” I thought. I wanted to speak of the matter.

“I had the impression the others were getting restive while I was rigging that place,” I said, “and Karl spoke of them wanting to toss a jug.”

Hans looked at me closer, then his eyes narrowed as he said, “I would watch those people careful, as they don't understand what you are about.”

“Did they think me a witch because I did something out of the ordinary?” I asked. “They heard the explosion, and saw what happened.”

“Yes, them and many others,” said Hans. “I would still watch those people, as they might act like those witches that wanted to kill you after the bridge if you give them the chance.”

Yet still, I had a strong intimation that I needed to check the shop. I left but minutes later, and when I began walking, I immediately knew at least one reason why I needed to check the place.

I could feel the 'state' of the town as I walked, and I needed to keep track of that matter.

The town was beginning to 'awaken' more fully with each day, and while the previous time since the bridge had been somewhat busy, the beginning of 'thaw' meant more activity and greater interest in what the shop did. Secondly, while the others had more or less been staying away from the shop while I wasn't there, Georg wasn't spending all day in the Public House.

He was out fetching orders, and accumulating them in numbers. I needed to do what I could, and that when and where I could.

“How will the orders get filled, though?” I thought. “If it's true that I have to work on all of them at least to a degree... Or is that just hearsay, and Anna was misled? I have a hard time believing I need to have a hand in everything, for some reason.”

My suspicions about more orders proved correct when I came to the shop, for the stack of slates on Georg's desk had noticeably increased in size. More importantly, yesterday's delivery was still all too present in the shop, for it formed a modest barricade in the shop's front area.

As I looked over the metal bars – labeled as 'common iron', complete with rust, scale, cold-shuts, and long crystalline-looking threads of slag – and bags of bronze labeled as 'number 1 graded scrap', I wondered if we had better material coming, at least until I found the sheet-metal for stovepipe.

It was all dark bluish-black, like the larger sheets, and its softness was astonishing. It was marked as being from the fourth kingdom.

I counted another fourteen packages of the smaller sized sheets, and two more packages of the larger, along with several coils of bluish-black wire for stovepipe rivets. The barrels, however, were a mystery, and as I began removing the top of one of them, I heard steps behind me. I turned to see Hans.

“I think she forgot about that stuff,” said Hans, “and I doubt she knows about Georg and his getting more orders.”

Hans then saw the stack of slates, and whistled, saying afterward, “and he is not wasting his time for getting those things.”

“Is it true that people demand I work on everything?” I asked.

“I think that is true for the things you are known do,” said Hans, “which is much of what this shop does now. They still might do the things they did before.”

“Uh, buggy and wagon parts?” I asked, as I looked around the place to see no sign of labor.

“Most want you working on those,” said Hans. “I have heard if you do them, they are a lot better.”

“Meaning I might not necessarily have to do everything,” I said, “but nearly everything this place does needs my involvement at some level, including checking the supplies that arrived.”

I paused for a moment, then asked, “do you think we need more mortars and pestles?”

“Every chemist needs those things,” said Hans. “Why, are you thinking to make some up?”

“Perhaps I could cast some of bronze,” I said. “Some of that stuff came in this order.”

I then resumed prying on the lid of the barrel, and with Hans' help, I was able to remove it. The contents proved to be more foundry sand, as I had hoped. Removing the other two lids showed identical contents.

On the way home, I spoke of needing to work on orders at least one to two hours a day during the training so as to avoid the stress of doing 'nothing', and also...

“They didn't get the better grade of metal, nor that 'haunted' stuff,” I muttered. The lack now dawned on me as to its true import; I would have trouble doing much that needed my attention without the needed raw-materials.

“I think that is coming soon,” said Hans. “I went down to the Public House to ask around, and I saw none of them there.”

“Did they go there today?”

“Yes, shortly after they opened this morning,” said Hans, “and they spent most of the morning eating and drinking.”

“And Georg?” I asked. “Those orders?”

“I think he might know about the training,” said Hans. “The first part tends to be fairly short, or so talk speaks of it.”

After dinner, I began grinding and sifting the powder Hans had showed me. Again, I set aside the dust-powder in a larger medicine vial, and as my powder measures slowly filled, I wondered how to indicate the desired size of granulation. I had just transferred another small amount into the mortar when Hans came to my side with a smaller vial.

“If you give me a little of that stuff you just ground,” he said, “I can use it for a sample.”

I dumped a little from the larger powder measure, and as Hans looked at it, he said, “this might not be priming powder for grain, but it is much closer to that than the usual.”

I then recalled the terms 'coarse' and 'fine' used in this context, and asked, “fine powder?”

“That is what some call priming powder,” said Hans, “but if you are ordering it, you need to speak more accurately, as there are more than two types of that stuff.”

“And what goes in cannons?” I asked.

“That was part of what I meant,” said Hans. “This stuff here looks like what they put in the shells.”

That evening, Anna pressed a tinned copper cup of beer on me after a few drops of the tincture, and as I made ready to go to my room, I asked fearfully, “why do I need to be dosed like this?”

“It helps greatly,” she said, “and after being shot at like you were, most would be ready to live in a rest-house.”

“Uh, what is a rest-house?” I asked. “I've heard the term before.”

“That is where people stay when they have too much happen to them,” said Anna, “though if they can be looked after at home, it's better for them. I see three such people weekly, and one of them has needed such care for years.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“He was nearly killed by a pig,” said Anna. “The others left the gun, but he stayed and fired it when the pig was in full charge and too close to miss. He got the pig, but it still wrecked the gun and hurt him badly.”

“And?” I asked.

“All the beer he can hold and that tincture twice a day,” said Anna. “Otherwise, he has daytime nightmares.” Anna paused, then said, “that wasn't the first pig, either. There were others before that.”

“Do events trigger such nightmares?” I asked innocently.

“Why do you ask?” asked Anna. “You have more of those than all three of those men put together, and I think you will need to be dosed for the rest of your life. That one man is not getting better quickly, and he just dealt with swine. He did not have witches trying for him like they do for you.”

Anna paused, then said, “and you were the only person who wasn't frightened out of their mind being close to that witch-hole like that.”

“Anna, I went in that place,” I said. “I needed help once, and Karl and that instructor...”

“It was all he could do to not listen to the rest of those people and burn you,” muttered Anna. “Seriously, most people want to do nothing more than burn every such witch and hole they find, and anyone of a different mind is thought by them to be a witch.”

“And you?” I asked.

“I know better,” said Anna, “and I hope they know better now.”

Hearing such talk made me glad for the effects of the tincture, and as I wobbled up to bed with the cup of beer in my hand, I noticed my fatigue much more. I spent some few minutes writing notes in the student's ledger, then suddenly recalled the wad of papers the witch had had. I looked in my bag, and there found them.

Untying the bundle was cause for curiosity, for the thing again showed a great many strange-looking symbols in addition to cryptic words and phrases. I wondered more than a little as to their meaning, so much so that recalling the term 'secret markings' made for wondering, chiefly as to what those actually were. These hieroglyphic-looking scribbles were neither runes nor conventional letters, and after setting the thing aside and blowing out the candle, I drank up the cup of beer.

The next day was much the same as the day before, save no witches interrupted our 'traipsing'. Again, we carried arrows, I was 'the point man', we went toward the north and later the east in a large circle, and the others tripped, shouted, and fell trying to keep up with me. Their noise was less of an issue, however, as I went at a steady – and for me, slow – walk.

The trip home, however, was something of an anticlimax, for both Anna and Hans had driven me to the house, and on the way home, Anna said, “you were right about needing to work in that shop, as there were people wondering why no one had been there today.”

“Uh, they need to do what they can?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Hans. “They cannot just blame you for things not getting done, as that makes them look bad.”

“What can they do, though?” I asked.

“I think you need to make a list,” said Anna, “and then tell them what needs doing once we get home. They might have trouble doing much, but they need to do what they can. I know they can put that shipment away at the least, and two people nearly came to grief this morning on its account.”

“This morning?” I asked.

“We went north and west after we dropped you off this morning,” said Hans, “and I met up with someone I know where we went. He had stopped in the Public House at home and had heard about what had happened.”

Once home and bathed, I went to the shop. The place was deserted – it was close to the usual quitting time, if I went by the angle of the sun behind the clouds – and as I went through the orders so as to try to figure what the others could do, I heard steps behind me. I turned to see Hans coming in the door.

“I hope you can tell them what to do,” he said. “They should be in tomorrow morning.”

“My handwriting...”

“Yes, which is why I am here,” said Hans. “Anna will drive you tomorrow, as she needs to go out that way, and I can tell them what you tell me.”

As I marked out sheet copper with chalk and string, I spoke of cutting, annealing, and cleaning the pieces I had marked out. By sundown, I had not merely used up nearly all of the available copper sheet, but also I realized the need for further supplies of metal. On the way home, I said, “we need more sheet copper, that better iron, and the haunted stuff before we can do much more.”

“What about stovepipes?” asked Hans.

“Has anyone asked about them in this area?” I asked. “I hadn't seen much activity that way in the orders, and there still is a good stack of ready-done pieces.”

“Town might be caught up,” said Hans, “but I know there are people nearby who want good stovepipe. I think Georg has told them to not bother until you are there regular, is what I think.”

“I might need to check the in-process pieces and rivet the stuff,” I said, “but they can do most of the work on it.”

Hans thought for a moment, then said, “I think I know another part of why they think they cannot do anything without you there.”

“Is this because they expect me to tell them what to do as if I were a witch?” I asked.

“I doubt that,” said Hans. “I think they expect you to check what they do so they do not have trouble, and then perhaps do most of the thinking for the place. It would not surprise me that way.”

Hans paused, then said as we came to the stoop of the house, “Anna might be wrong in saying everything made there needs you working on it, but she is right in thinking people expect work from there to be better than the common.”

The next two days had traipsing in the field to the north of the house proper, and more labor afterward at the shop. I came home at sundown Friday with filthy hands and shambling steps, and once bathed, I was all but pulled out the front door by Hans and Anna for a 'good meal' at the Public House.

“I think you're due for a pie,” said Anna. “I know I am, what with all the driving I've needed to do lately.”

After dinner, I thought to ask on the way home regarding wooding, and once home, Anna said between yawns, “I think that would be a good idea. We still have plenty of wood, but you might find some animals while you are out. We could use fresh meat.”

The rest-day showed raw and blustery the next morning, with gray-clad skies pregnant with rain, and as the 'drizzle' flowed and ebbed, I noticed the state of the road as Hans drove north. The 'splop' was worse than ever, and on the roads, the snow was still quite obvious in most places. However, I noticed a definite 'groove' where the brownish muck showed churned and messy against the off-white slush that lay elsewhere in meandering thicknesses.

“The snow isn't going in a hurry, is it?” I asked. I was glad for a wax-impregnated cloak.

“I do not expect it to be gone soon,” said Hans. “I think we might want to gather fever-bark shortly, as now is the good time for that stuff.”

“How is it gathered?” I asked.

“It needs the trees to not have snow on their trunks,” said Hans, “as that is how you know which trees are the right ones, and then they need to have pieces of bark removed.”

“I hope you do not strip them of bark entirely,” I said.

“They shed that stuff,” said Hans. “I peel the old stuff off and bag it. I have heard tell the fresh bark has more stuff in it, but then I would only get it once, so I get the old bark. That extractor thing works good for it, as I can run a lot more of it at a time.”

“You spoke of some roots, also,” I said. “Are those a different medicine?”

“That one is for a different fever,” said Hans. “That sickness is when your skin turns red.”

“Red?” I asked.

“There isn't much that can be done for it,” said Hans, “other than prayer, that tincture, beer, and rubbing with Geneva. About one person in five dies from it, if it is looked after good.”

“And without the tincture?” I asked.

“I have heard that more people die then,” said Hans. “Anna said her journals speak of that tincture as being more helpful than most of them.”

“That one for wounds?” I asked.

“That needs roots from that market town,” said Hans. “There aren't many medicines that I can make using local ingredients, other than that bark one, and that one for the red fever.”

Hans turned east about three miles out of town, and as the buggy's wheels hissed through the slush, I looked at the sky. The clouds were thick and omnipresent, with darker gray clumps against the lighter gray of the background 'mess', and as I glanced toward a nearby woodlot, Hans asked, “are there animals in that one?”

“I'm not certain,” I said. “There might be.” I paused, then added, “the likeliest places in this stuff are the ones where the trees are thick in places near the outside edges, as the animals have shelter from the rain that's coming down. It isn't early enough to have a lot of browse for them.”

“That one is like that on the back side further up the road from here,” said Hans. “There are two like that further on, and we can check them easy.”

A minute later, however, Hans said quietly, “I am still glad Anna has as much dried meat as she does, as this weather is bad for game, and it tends to be in poor condition when you can find it.”

“Uh, no food?” I asked.

“There is food,” said Hans, “but the animals get all messy getting it, and they do not like to get soaked and chilled. They hide up in places like you spoke of.”

I seemed to 'feel' the presence of game nearby, so much so that I checked my rifle and held it in readiness. Hans noticed what I was doing, then slowed slightly. I looked toward the edge of the woodlot, then waited, even as the horses slowed further. I had but little idea of what I was waiting for, beyond it being an animal of some kind.

“I hope it isn't a pig,” I thought.

For some reason, the sense of a pig being present grew steadily stronger in my mind, and as I 'glared' at the edge of the forest, I could almost hear the grunts of the thing as it rooted around in the duff and undergrowth near the edge of the woodlot. I could faintly hear among its endless and forlorn snorts the hoarse chants of the witches owning it, and as I tried to determine if the latter were real or a figment of my imagination, I saw movement to the left of my gaze. I turned to see a faint 'black' nose seeming to materialize, then with agonizing slowness, an animal of some kind shambled out of the edge-of-forest darkness.

I gazed at it in a stunned funk, then asked softly, “what is that animal?”

Hans felt for my rifle, then as I looked at him, he seemed to whisper – or, perhaps shout; it was hard to tell in my 'funk' – that I was looking at a deer which had discarded its horns. I turned again to the animal, which had now 'enlarged' slightly, and I aimed after silently drawing the hammer back to full cock. The brilliant red muzzle flash and lightning roar pummeled my senses, and as I 'returned', I muttered, “I hope I can reload fast enough, as that pig is going to come in a hurry.”

“What is this about a pig?” asked Hans. “I do not see one.”

“T-there,” I said, as I dumped the powder and reached for a bullet. “It's a smaller one.”

I had barely gotten the bullet started when a small black pig rocketed out of the woods at waist-height, then flew through the air to tumble and slide crazily when it landed in a mud-mixed snowdrift. The agility of this piglet was astonishing, so much so that even as my hands worked on my rifle, the pig recovered, shook itself, then raised its head to sniff the air. It then shrieked like a meat-hungry jet engine prior to galloping back towards the woods.

“I hope you brought your revolver,” I said. “We might endure some spams shortly.”

As if to confirm matters, I heard a hoarse-sounding yell coming from where the pig had vanished, then suddenly three individuals wearing dark brown leather billowed out of the trees. I recognized them as archers almost immediately, and when I fired at the first of them, I yelled at Hans to get behind the buggy as I leaped for the ground and went prone.

“Now why is it you are on the ground like that?” asked Hans, as he came around the buggy.

“Th-those archers,” I muttered. “They will shoot at us with a-arrows.”

“I doubt that,” said Hans. “We had best get that deer before it burns up.”

I looked up at Hans, then saw flames billowing red with clouds of quick-forming black smoke.

“What happened?” I asked, as I came to my knees.

“One of those people was carrying light distillate,” said Hans, “and I think you shot the jug.”

With each closer step to the still-blazing holocaust, I smelled the intense reek of distillate mingled with the sour and acrid odor of burning flesh. I was again wondering about the pig, so much so that as I paused to finish loading about half-way to the deer, I muttered, “now where is that pig?”

The pig seemed 'gone', so much so that as Hans began 'part-skinning' the deer, I took a few seconds to listen. I could faintly hear the pig as it crashed through the brush some distance away, and as Hans finished, I brought out a rope. I suspected we would tie the deer's hind legs and drag it to the buggy.

“I think we can tie it to a stick,” said Hans. “I spoke to the carpenters, and they brought it by a day ago.”

“Stick?” I asked. I was still listening to the pig. The smaller ones gave up size and strength in great measure, but the same could not be said for their smarts.

“Some call them meat-poles,” said Hans. “I have its parts in here, and it will just take a minute.”

Either Hans had a very elastic notion of time, or he had been told wrongly, as the pieces did not wish to go together as he had intimated, and after a few minutes, he replaced the five sticks in his pouch and brought out a rope. He tied it to the hind legs of the deer, and began dragging the thing back toward the buggy.

“Fifty paces, and I'll drag it for a while,” I said.

“I think you had best watch,” he said. “I saw how you were looking around as if you expected trouble.”

I wanted to speak about the pig, but I remained silent, and as I helped put the deer in the bed of the buggy, I looked again at the woodlot. To my complete astonishment, I seemed to 'see' the pig, even if I could not see it normally. I wiped my eyes, and looked again for an instant, until the impression redoubled in force.

I froze, and shouldered my rifle. I could now feel that pig somewhere in the area, and what Hans had said about the pigs, especially their intelligence, came back to me. It was an incredible distraction, so much so that the abrupt stab of recoil mingled with the echoing roar and high-pitched shriek of an obvious 'stuck pig' brought me back to the here and now in an instant. I gasped, then muttered, “I knew that pig was going to cause trouble.”

“Yes, and now it is dead,” said Hans. “I think we had best leave, as that many of those people and pigs make for wanting cannons.”

“What?” I asked. I now saw the dead black bulk of the pig itself, and I still had trouble believing my eyes.

“The bigger groups have pigs that size,” said Hans. “I think those people train those things that way.”

On the way home, I spoke of leaving a piece of meat for the wolves. Hans looked at me strangely, then said, “I think that might be good. Do you know where put it?”

“Well away from where we got it,” I said. “Perhaps in that first woodlot we passed on our way out here?”

Hans nodded, then said, “I have seen them in that place several times. How much do you want to leave?”

“One of the hindquarters?” I asked.

That done, we continued home. The Public House found the deer especially welcome, even though there were murmurs of 'poor condition' and 'weakness' among several of the 'cooks' – as well as comments about the missing portion. Hans spoke of the matter as he finished stripping off the hide.

“Yes, and who among you has brought meat in here?” he said.

The silence that descended was such that I marveled, and on our way home with a sizable pot of meat, I asked, “will Anna complain as much?”

“I doubt it,” said Hans. “She has been with me before during this time of year, and knows of the nature of meat.”

While Anna did not complain, she also did not remain home for long once she'd rinsed the meat with water from the water pot. But minutes later she returned with a jug, and the sharp 'acid' smell of vinegar seemed to poke holes in my nose. I could hear soft mutterings, and walked slowly into the kitchen once I had finished with my rifle.

“They spoke of this one being 'weak',” I said. “Is it truly in poor condition?”

Anna turned to me, then shook her head before resuming the 'vinegar bath' of the meat. Once she'd 'doused' the stuff, she said, “most animals do poorly during the end of a harder winter, but this one is as bad as I've seen in years. At least I can make a decent batch of stew.”

“It was the first one we saw,” I said.

“I doubt that was the case,” said Anna. “At least, I doubt the two of you were involved.”

Anna paused, then said, “if I go by what I've seen lately regarding game, I suspect you were the one who found it.”

“That and some of those northern people,” said Hans. “There was that deer, three of those people, and a smaller pig, and all of them are where they belong.”

Hans himself paused, then said, “and I am thinking that meat-pole needs some work, too, as it would not go together.”

An examination of Hans' 'meat-pole' showed what looked to be a strange wood 'carving' of some kind, with open 'sockets' that looked like five long fingers and spindly-looking pins that fit within them. While the thing 'looked' well made, slipping a pin into one of the sockets made for a frightfully wobbly joint, while trying another such pairing had Hans muttering as if he'd been taking lessons from Anna. I continued trying each pin and socket, and after several minutes, I'd found the various pairings.

“Now how is it you did that?” asked Hans.

“Each of these things is paired,” I said, “and they didn't mark them, so you have to try them one with another, such that...”

I began counting the possible choices, such that I counted backwards.

“Four, three, two, one,” I said, “which makes ten tries to get them all sorted. Does the thing need to be tied tightly once you manage that trick?”

Hans looked at me, then said, “that was what I was told. Now there is a special rope for these, and it needs ordering specially from the fourth kingdom where they work on boats.”

“What is special about it?” I asked.

“I think you might want some,” said Hans. “It is easy on the hands, unlike the common ropes, and it holds knots better. That, and it is thin stuff, so it is easy to carry.”

“Could you order some, then?” I asked. “I have no idea how much I might want beyond 'plenty' – and how much 'plenty' is seems a very good question.”

“It is cheaper by the bundle,” said Hans.

Our next lecture involved swords, chiefly as to their history. While the others listened raptly to the instructor as he spoke of how enemies were especially fearful of swords, I wondered why that was the case – why as to his sources of information, and why such people were especially fearful of swords.

“Those northern people only grew fearful of what I was using when they started dying in heaps,” I thought, “and I'm not certain they had any notion of fear as most understand fear. They came at me regardless of how many I killed, and they didn't give it up until either I was out of reach or they were mostly dead.”

When one of the members of the class asked about 'using' the things, the instructor said, “that happens when you grow less clumsy on the march. Until then, I would concern myself more with keeping up, being quiet, and not falling down. Swords do not tolerate slackness that way.”

He paused, then said acidly, “you do not wish to spill your own guts, do you? I've seen that happen to those who did not properly respect their blades.”

I shuddered involuntarily, and the instructor looked at me.

“I was not including you in that statement,” he said, even as he looked idly at his sleeve. “I expect you to do much of the training in their use, in fact.”

On the way home, I spoke of the lecture – we'd done more traipsing, this time further to the east than any time before – and Hans said, “I doubt he knows much about those things beyond the common.”

“Uh, he spoke of cutting one's gut open,” I said. “Did he hear about that witch?”

“I would be surprised if he did not,” said Hans. “Why, did his speaking trouble you?”

“I was reliving that nightmare the instant he spoke of it,” I said, “and it didn't stop with cutting that wretch open. I was cutting him up all over again, and spiking his head... Ugh!”

I paused for an instant, then murmured, “no, I don't want to be a witch.”

Closer to home, I continued speaking of the lecture. While he had spoken mostly of 'history', I suspected that I had not been hearing history as I understood it, but something closer to a description based on fancy and hearsay, and the whole tinged through and through with poorly-understood 'magic'.

“And I still have no idea what happened to those things at the third ditch,” I muttered.

“Now what is this?” asked Hans.

“He was speaking of swords,” I said, “something about those who do evil being especially afraid of them. Those northern people didn't seem to be afraid of me until they were nearly all dead.”

“That is them,” said Hans. “I think he was speaking out of the old tales, is what I think, and he was talking of people then. A lot of them were scared of swords such that they turned colors when they saw one.”

“Colors?” I gasped.

“Yes, tin-fright,” said Hans. “That is when you turn pale and cannot move from fear. I have seen it happen a few times.”

“Have you had it happen?” I asked.

“No, but it was close some times,” said Hans. “That time when I tossed that bad dynamite was as close as anything.”

The next day's lecture again involved swords, and this time, the subject was 'knowing' them. While there were no examples present for us to look at, the instructor's speaking regarding the things made me wonder as to his thinking.

“Swords must not be too long,” said the instructor, “as then, they cannot be held up toward the foe, nor must they be too short, for then they show cowardice in their users. No foe will respect a sword that is too short.”

“Is this talk about looks,” I thought, “or actually using the things?”

“The polish of the sword depicts the soul of its wielder,” said the instructor. He almost sounded as if he were preaching. “And therefore, the shine of the sword is the most important matter. Rust speaks of ignorance...”

I had the impression – strong, yet somehow greatly confused just the same – that a rusty sword spoke of a great many things, most of which were far worse than mere ignorance. My thoughts came back to the oblivious-sounding instructor's speaking.

“The mirror in the hand presents blindness to the enemy,” intoned the instructor, “and courage to its user.”

“What?” I gasped, as I 'returned' to the present.

“Those tales that speak of Charles speak of them so,” said the instructor. “Talk has it you are not familiar with those tales.”

“I'm not,” I said.

Yet as I spoke, I sensed the following:

I was but somewhat more ignorant of the tales in question than those around me. That included the instructor, to my surprise.

Secondly, I now knew something as fact that I had suspected for some time: in many areas, hearsay and rumor were regarded as unassailable verities, yeah, even as if writ large in the book itself.

Finally, the Instructor had spoken. He was 'in authority'. To doubt such superior beings was thought sacrilege, his word was immutable 'law', and I was supposed to regard his words as if he were the Deity.

I found myself lost in thought on the way home, so much so that when we passed the shop, I was jolted from my 'funk' by the sounds of hard labor within the place. I wondered what had happened, so much so that when I turned in my seat, I was yet more struck by the deep ruts in the yard amid fresh-looking mounds of spam-tin and sundry northern weapons. I recalled my need to secure documentation with an abrupt shudder.

“There was a delivery,” I muttered. “I hope they brought some of that h-haunted iron.”

“I do too,” said Hans. “There have been people asking about knives a lot, and talk has it they use that stuff.”

“Uh, I only had the one piece,” I said. “I usually made those out of the best stuff we had in quantity. It wasn't that haunted stuff, save for a few of those smallest knives.”

“Yes, and the word has gotten out about those things,” said Hans. “Now are you going to make swords?”

“I am not certain,” I said absentmindedly. “I've not yet seen one at the house, though the talk today was really strange during the lecture.”

“I think he is getting you all ready for those things,” said Hans. “They have been cleaning them up good in the armory there.”

“Cleaning them up?” I asked. “Armory?”

“Yes, that place,” said Hans. “You might find it and see what is in there.”

“How?” I asked, as we came to a stop and I hopped down. Hans handed me a wicker basket, and its heft indicated it contained something other than food.

“I think Anna and I should spend some time in the refectory tomorrow,” said Hans, “so you have time to find that place.”

I all-but ran to the shop after bathing, and met the last of the others as they dallied in the front of the shop. The drag-marks on the shop floor were such that I marveled.

“What came?” I asked.

“Some southern black-cast,” said Georg, “some more bronze, more common iron, and then that better stuff, both haunted and otherwise.”

“Where is it?”

“The haunted metal is under the bench where you work,” said Gelbhaar, “and I hope it does not cause trouble.”

“Trouble?” I thought, as they resumed divesting themselves of their aprons. I went to where I commonly worked, knelt down, and was stunned.

Georg had not been slack in his ordering; he'd bought three sizable boxes of the stuff.

After prying off one of the lids, I was overjoyed, at least until I wondered for a moment as to what I would do with so much raw material. I knew about the knives, awls, and cutting tools, but...

“What kind of sword could I use?” I thought. “I don't want a big drag-across-the-ground monster like I stole from those northern people, and...”

I paused in thought, then spluttered, “now where did he get the idea that a short sword spoke of cowardice? Didn't the Romans use those things? And what about Ehud in the book?”

While I did recall history to a modest degree, I sat on a stool for a moment and thought. I wanted one that worked as well as possible, and as I recalled the various shapes and sizes from history, I realized I didn't know much about them. One 'engagement' did not make me an expert in their use, and as I sat there, thinking about the potential uses of such a weapon, I heard steps coming in the door. I looked up to see Hans, who seemed like a hound on a scent of some kind as he followed the drag marks. He went past me, and out of the door, then came back minutes later.

“They have plenty of sheet copper now,” he said, “as well as a lot of iron. Now why are there drag marks leading to where you are sitting?”

“They got more of that 'haunted' iron,” I said glumly, “and for some reason, I was thinking about swords.”

“I am not surprised much,” said Hans. “I have heard about those things they have at the house there.”

“Do they concern themselves mostly with how they look?” I asked.

The impression I had – I had not been heard – was bolstered by Hans as he looked in the opened maw of the tool carrier. I followed his groping hand as it reached toward the tinned copper container I had put the 'motor oil' in, and when he brought the stuff out and put the container on the bench, I wondered as to what he was going to do, at least until he brought out a small vial and dropping tube.

“Now this stuff is strange,” he said. “I found it recently, and it works good for the buggy, especially if one must drive distances as we have. What is it?”

“Uh, engine lubricant,” I said. “I'm glad I wrote down the directions to make it, as I think I'll need to make more of it regularly.”

I paused, then stood. I wondered how the stuff worked well for the buggy, and thought to ask.

“How is that stuff, uh, better?”

“It stays put better than regular uncorking medicine,” said Hans, “and then, it is quieter and smoother, and it seems a little faster than the other things I have tried. That is important when you are going a far distance every day like we have been doing.”

By the end of the 'day' – an hour after sundown, roughly – I had brought several pots 'close', trimmed-to-size more copper pieces, and chalked out several more. I knew that I would either need to work later each day, or more days in the week, or perhaps both so as to attempt to keep up, and while I walked home in a filthy state, I again thought about the shape and fittings of a sword.

“Perhaps I could draw something,” I thought. “I want to see what they have at the house, though – that, and look at the armory.”

The next days lecture involved swords – again. I was beginning to feel restive, given the talk I was hearing. It seemed the 'goodness' of a sword was entirely a matter of its appearance, with all other matters of secondary importance.

“Let your swords be marked properly,” intoned the instructor's voice, “for no sword will respect its user if it is not owned completely by such letters and symbols.”

Why does this sound like he's describing a fetish?” I thought.

“Unmarked swords are made by thieves and worse,” said the instructor. “Have nothing to do with such pieces, for you dishonor your oath by doing so.”

“What?” I gasped. The instructor was oblivious to all save his topic, and his voice – it had an eerie hollow-sounding aspect – made for wondering on my part, especially when he said something that truly made for wondering.

“Good workmanship shows as a high polish, as all such swords have a proper 'soul',” he said, “and one should see oneself as if in a mirror.”

By the end of the lecture, I felt sick and nauseated, for the lectures thus far had been mostly about how the things were to look and not how they worked. I had something of an idea as to which concept was more important, and as we went out for our 'traipsing' by the main door, I wondered when we would fetch out some of them.

The others seemed to have less difficulty in keeping up than I recalled them having, and when it came time to rest, I thought to backtrack for a moment. Examination of the tracks showed one likely reason for the lesser number of pratfalls: several individuals had had their shoes worked on, and when I knelt down beside a track to examine it, I heard steps to my left. I looked up to see Karl.

“Those were not easy to get,” he said, “and getting that knife-order out that way was even harder. I had to wait for him to show where I lived.”

“Him?” I asked, as I stood up.

“Where you work,” he said. “He showed on the rest day, and I started the payments then.”

“Georg came out...”

“So that's his name,” said Karl. “He might not be a tinker for looks, nor for what he does, but he could pass for one in his traveling, and he's a freighter for his eating.”

“Does he eat a lot?” I asked.

“He might spend two hours in a good spot,” said Karl, “but if he spends more than half a turn of the glass actually eating, I would be surprised. He does not waste time.” Karl paused, then said, “I was surprised at what he ate.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He seemed ill somehow,” said Karl. “He wasn't that hungry. Then, there was his food.”

“His food?” I asked. “What did he eat?”

“I have never seen someone eat greens in the morning before,” said Karl, “but he ate those, some bread, a bowl of thin soup, and beer.”

“A good spot?” I asked.

“I wasn't the only person that spoke to him,” said Karl. “The publican said two others had done so before me.”

As we made ready to continue, I asked, “do you wish to learn something useful about swords?”

Karl looked at me, then grinned for an instant before replying in the affirmative.

As I headed east – a circle similar to our first, save wider and faster, with fewer stops, pratfalls, and yells – I wondered about the nature of the armory in general. While I was not about to go where the swords themselves were actually hidden, I had a feeling about not merely the location of the armory, but also its principal duty at the current time.

“I bet they're cleaning those things up,” I thought, “and this talk about swords is intended to get us to buy our own somehow.”

At the end of our lunch period, I went to the door with Karl in tow, and I looked to the left and right before crossing the hall. I could feel the armory's location, and as I climbed the stairs, Karl asked, “now where are you going?”

“Someone said there was an armory on the premises,” I said, “and I suspect it holds some answers regarding these, uh, things we've been hearing about.”

“Why, do you think they've needed repairs?” asked Karl.

“I'm not sure what they need,” I said. “I am sure I want to look at this armory, and I suspect there are some in there being worked on.”

“You've used them before, haven't you?” asked Karl, as we came to the top of the stairs. I felt the place as being to the right, and walked that way. I kept near the railing, for some reason.

“Uh, I have,” I said, “and I have more than a few nightmares about what I did with that thing.”

“Why?” asked Karl. “Is this like people get when they have too much swine?”

“I've been told that's the case,” I said. “I got drenched with blood more than once that day.”

I paused, then said, “and I know enough about swords to know I don't want one that drags its tip across the floor all the time. I might not know much more about them, but I do know that.”

“Why?” asked Karl.

“Uh, the noise,” I said. “That, and I like knives to be sharp and stay that way, no matter how big they are, and dragging the tip...”

I paused in mid-sentence, then grabbed Karl and leaped for the nearest hallway. He wanted to protest, but I put my hand over his mouth as the snapping crackle of someone wearing pointed boots came steadily nearer. Faintly, I heard a high-pitched intermittent shrieking noise that reminded me of fingers dragged across a blackboard, and as I took my hand away from Karl's mouth, I whispered, “it's one of those people.”

“Who?” he asked. His voice seemed uncommonly loud, for some reason.

“One of those black-dressed people,” I said. “I've had run-ins with them recently, and I'd just as soon...”

A faint glint of light flashed into the hallway for an instant, then flashed again as the clashing steps pounded against the stone floor. The sound – Lurch-Pang – was enough to make for nightmares on my part, and I glanced down at my bag. Within was my 'harlequin' revolver, and I reached slowly for the button closing the bag, even as Karl watched my hand nervously.

“What's in there?” he whispered.

I put my finger in front of my mouth to indicate silence, even as the steady snapping of hard-soled boots made for echoes in the passage. I knelt down so as to make a smaller target, and Karl followed my lead, even as the light-flashes became steadily more consistent and rhythmic.

“Why is that screeching noise in time with those light-flashes?” I thought.

The clashing sound drew closer, then as I watched in seemingly slow-motion, a pointed black boot seemed to slowly drift across the hallway, followed by a black-clad leg that seemed to hold itself in midair for an eon. The light flashed once more, and this time, I saw the source: a long black scabbard with shiny 'chrome' tip. The thing was intermittently dragging on the floor, and its forty-five degree angle with respect to the vertical gave a hint as to the length of the contents of the scabbard – which lifted clear of the floor and then landed sideways to screech again a second later.

When the foot-pounding General had left the area, I cautiously stood up, then shook my head as if trying to dismiss an intense bout of nausea. Karl looked at me, then said, “I never saw that before.”

“What, one of those black-dressed people?” I whispered.

“I have seen them before,” said Karl. “I never saw them walk like they do while wearing a sword.”

“Uh, no,” I said, as I slowly came closer to the juncture of the two hallways. “It would take far too long to bring something like that into action, that scraping noise would alert the enemy, and...”

“And what?” asked Karl.

“Something tells me the common for swords around here leaves something to be desired,” I said, “and using an inferior tool is a recipe for trouble, no matter how someone in charge describes the thing.”

We resumed our northward path, only this time, I wanted to stay closer to shelter, and I kept an eye out for possible places to hide. I was so distracted by this need that when I came to a faintly musty-smelling hallway, I jerked in mid-step and squeaked.

“Now what?” asked Karl.

“It's back that way,” I hissed.

“Have you been here before?” he asked, as I turned around and went down a dim hallway. Candle flames flickered as if slowly smothering, and the shadows dancing across the floor were enough to conjure nightmares.

“N-no,” I said. “I'm going by, uh, 'feel' – that, and, uh...”

I sniffed, then gagged. The nauseating odor of distillate seemed to pound on my nose.

“I think you are right,” he said, “as I smell distillate, and that means sharpening stones.”

I continued retching, then gasped, “s-straight from the jug. Th-they don't even set the stuff out to 'dry'.”

“What is this about drying?” Karl asked.

“D-distillate stinks less then,” I said. “It smells really bad otherwise.

The hall grew darker and dimmer as we walked, for some reason. I looked around to see the majority of the candles present to be extinguished, and when I looked at one 'lantern', Karl said, “they use tallow candles around here. I think few people normally come around this place, as they would use wax ones otherwise.”

I came to the door, and thought to tap until I had the intimation I needed to listen first. Karl, however, did not wait, and tapped three times on the topmost thick black-iron strap. I gazed briefly at the gloss of the varnished planks as faint steps from beyond came unsteadily closer, and I backed away from the door at seemingly the last minute. A clack, a dusty-sounding groan of dirty dry hinges, and the dimness without was adjoined to the dimness beyond the threshold.

“Come in,” said a grimy-looking individual. He seemed the archetype for someone – someone named Igor, perhaps – and his filthy visage seemed centered upon an apron worse than what I had at the shop.

As we walked into the place, I noted candles flickering on the walls, long thin planked benches to each side, a pronounced feeling of dust and dirt, and faintly, the scent of decay. The narrowness of the place – perhaps eight to ten feet wide in the wider places, with small dark nooks and crannies here and there, and a long dark tunnel-seeming passage showing on the far wall – seemed intended to foster claustrophobia, while the bad lighting seemed to add to the air of decrepitude.

The doorman had two others dressed as himself for company, and while I looked around, I seemed to feel an attitude of some kind present among the three of them – one of neglect, possibly very poor pay, profound ignorance, and unrealistic expectations put on them by others. The feeling was both familiar and disquieting, so much so that I nearly turned where I stood and fled.

“Why do these people feel like slaves of some kind?” I asked. There was no answer.

Karl seemed partly oblivious to the whole issue, or so I thought until he asked about swords.

“We've been working on those steadily these two weeks past,” said the doorman, “and we should be close to finishing this batch of them within days.”

“W-working?” I asked.

“Mostly cleaning them,” he said. “You haven't heard much about that part yet, have you?”

“He has been speaking out of old tales mostly,” said Karl. “I wondered what they looked like, and I think he” – here, Karl indicated me – “wondered something else, as he has used them before.”

“Twice, Karl,” I said. “Do you have any of them handy that I might look at?”

The doorman glanced at his fellow laborers, and there being no speech, he took his 'lantern' and guided us slowly across the 'shop' and back into the dark tunnel. After the 'portal', I learned that it really wasn't a 'tunnel', but rather a dark and shadowy storage area, with other short branches going back into the walls. Grimy-looking tin tags seemed omnipresent between doorways, and rustling near my feet made for wondering. I suspected vermin of some kind, and when Karl stumbled to the sounds of frantic screeching, our 'guide' said, “one must be careful of the rats in here.”

“Rats?” I asked. For some reason, I was thinking of pet rats.

“They are more common in the less-lit portions of the house,” he said, “and our storage area has the most of them.”

“Was that where we just went?” asked Karl.

“The front portion is where the simpler things are done,” he said, “and where we receive visitors.”

I was wondering where we were heading for a moment, until he turned to the right and seemed to vanish for a few seconds until light bloomed brightly. I looked around, and was astonished.

Three old-looking forges of unfamiliar style went left-to-right, and between the forges sat two old-looking anvils. To my left lay mounded bags of obvious charcoal, while behind the anvils lay a sizable ash-heap mingled with black particles. I looked up to see a pyramid-shaped roof covered thickly with soot, and when I looked down, I noted what the light was doing.

It was beginning to vary in intensity, and I looked to see our guide adjusting a distillate-fueled lantern. He seemed to be trying to turn it down, and as I watched his combat with the soot-billowing 'firebomb', the thick billows of sooty smoke coming from the blackened top of the brass chimney wafted skyward into the black hole overhead.

He finally finished with the lantern, then indicated a bench to the rear and right of the forges. I followed behind him, and as I went past one of the anvils, I saw the telltale 'Dietrich-102' marking chiseled into its side.

The darkened walls of the place seemed uncanny in their gloss, almost as if I were again in a tar-walled witch-hole, and when I came to another narrow bench, I was surprised to see hanging from the walls an assortment of old-looking and decrepit tools. I recognized most of them, and when I turned, I saw both Karl and the doorman looking at the top of a table. I quickly joined them.

The table proved to be padded with clean rags, and when I came close enough to touch it, I gasped. Three swords lay side-by-side, and their dirt and corrosion seemed to add substantially to their dimensions – and their dimensions, shape, and layout reminded me greatly of the sword I had stolen.

“Is that a preservative?” I asked, as I pointed to what looked like layers of tallow thickly smeared with coal-dust, rust, and dirt.

The man was at a loss for words, so much so that he darted from our side and grabbed the smoke-spewing lantern. He blew it out, then spat in an angry burst of enraged fury, “follow me. You've seen enough to suit you.”

The two of us now had to weave our way through the 'maze', and Karl grasped my sleeve as I moved between forge and anvil. Our guide was not wasting time, even as he came into the main area, and when he stopped by the other two, he beckoned to us hurriedly.

“Was this due to that lantern?” I asked.

Again, I was surprised at his reaction, for he uncorked a jug and began pouring a liquid into a mug. The odor of this liquid – sour, acrid, biting, with a faintly fruity overtone and hints of vinegar – was cause for wondering, and only when he had drained the mug did he speak again.

“Someone stole our other two lanterns,” he said, “so it's bad candles or darkness, for the most part.”

“What lanterns were these?” asked Karl.

“They took candles, and didn't smoke,” he said. “That one I used might be brighter, but it's a touchy thing, and I don't like running it much when it acts strange like that.”

I shuddered, then said, “l-light-giving firebombs...”

“Now why is it you sound like a bomber?” asked the man.

“He lives with Hans,” said Karl, “and I think he has had lessons. I know about the witch-hole he rigged.”

That seemed to loosen matters up slightly, and our guide gave us leave to 'look, but don't touch'. I did so with a small brass candle-lantern in my hand, and as I walked along the benches, I was yet more astonished.

The tools I saw were old-looking and somewhat decrepit, save for a new-looking set of full-polish wrenches. One of the workmen used one of these wrenches to 'test' a bolt, and when he was finished, he opened a small tin, then touched a clean rag to its contents prior to wiping the wrench carefully with the rag. The smell of tallow grew stronger as he wiped the wrench down, and when he set it aside, I seemed to see not merely a thin and even film of 'grease', but also a definite and perceptible reddish tint on the wrench itself.

I gingerly went behind that man, and then looked at an old-looking musket to his side. The obvious wear and dirt of the thing was astounding, and when he began rubbing the lockplate forcefully with a rag-wrapped stick, I wondered just what he was doing – until I looked closer at the rag and saw what looked like faint reddish-brown smears of 'rust' on the lockplate.

“There are some swords over here,” said Karl.

I moved over to where he was, and here, I was astonished to find two swords. These were even dirtier than those I had seen earlier, and while both the third man and our former guide were 'cleaning' them with rags, their progress was uncommonly slow, with sluggish-looking movements and a distinct sense of lethargy. I bent down my lantern, and shuddered involuntarily.

“Those things...”

I said no more, and as I bent up, I noted faintly the smell of rotten meat, and, perchance, strong drink. I wondered if I could do a discrete 'file test', so much so that I looked around to see if there were more of the things present. A covered table to my right seemed likely, and I slowly made my way past the three men. Karl followed in my wake, and as I was about to lift the covering, I had the impression of being watched.

“And discretion is the better portion of curiosity,” I thought. “I think we had best leave.”

I set my lantern down and began moving toward the door, and as I got outside into the hallway, I turned to see Karl all but pushed outside. The door banged shut, then a heavy muffled thump came from its other side.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They do not like people watching them,” he said, “and I got a good look at one of those things they were hiding under the sheets.”

I moved quickly down the hallway, then once it had joined the main corridor, I asked, “what did you see?”

“Those swords might be tolerable for looks,” he said, “but they seemed to have this reddish stuff still on them.”

I thought for a moment, even as the two of us hurried toward the stairs. I vaguely recalled Hans speaking of rouge mixed with tallow for tools as a 'cleaner-preservative', and I asked, “were those other swords coated with tallow?”

“I am not sure,” said Karl. “Do you know about that red paste they were rubbing on those things?”

“Hans spoke of rouge being mixed with tallow used for wiping rust off of tools,” I said, “and tallow is not very good for keeping rust down. It seems its chief attractions are its ready availability and its low cost.”

“Then what do you use?” asked Karl. “There is tallow, and this black stuff they put on some farm equipment, and there is nothing else to be had.”

“Have you looked for other things, or is this just what you've heard?” I asked.

“Both,” said Karl. “Everyone speaks of those two things, and they are all I could find where I live, so...”

“Where you live has no Mercantile,” I said, “and you didn't travel much before starting here – at least, you didn't go much to other towns, and when you did, your chief stops were at the homes of people you knew, not shops. Then, those you spoke to weren't very knowledgeable, at least about things other than the familiar and commonplace – and they weren't that knowledgeable about those.”

Karl nodded soberly, to my surprise, then said, “that was one of the reasons I came here. Are there other things for rust?”

“There are,” I said, “but they seem quite rare up here, as either they're imported, or they need to be made specially – and making them needs chemistry equipment, as a rule.”

Karl thought for a moment, then asked, “now how did you know about where I live and what I do?”

“I just knew,” I said. “It's been that way to some degree for many years.” I paused, then said, “was what I said correct?”

“It was,” said Karl. “I never thought I would see something spoken of in old tales.”

The trip home, thankfully, seemed quicker than usual, and while there were questions from both Hans and Anna, few questions were about swords.

“That armory was strange,” I said. “First, those people felt like they were slaves of some kind, they had thieves steal their good lanterns, they had one of those smoky firebombs in its place...”

“Why?” asked Anna.

“I'm not certain,” I said. “Do those black-dressed people run that place? I saw one of them on the way there.”

The silence that followed made for a question on my part, that being:

“How much say do those people have at the house proper?”

“I am not sure what they do there,” said Hans, “but a fair number of them carry on as if they were in the Swartsburg.”

“Hence the bad clothing and those other things?” I asked.

Anna turned to look at me with wide eyes, then squeaked, “oh, my. I never saw that before.”

“I never saw someone drag a sword like that before, either,” I said, “and if I go by what little I saw of swords in that place, what they have seems intended strictly for looks.”

“Were they cleaning those things?” asked Hans.

“They were working on them,” I said, “but they seemed to be guarding a great secret of some kind. They were rubbing on them with some kind of rags, almost as if...”

I then recalled something else I had not noticed before. While our guide had not been speaking while he led us to the rear area, the other two men had been faintly speaking something. I had had trouble discerning what it was, and as I tried to piece together all of the various well-hid details, I recalled more and more.

“Those people were chanting,” I said, “and then everything else...”

“I think you might want to look at those things in one of those rooms,” said Hans, “as it sounds like those people were disinclined to show you much.”

“Uh, is this like some merchants possibly not selling to me?” I asked.

“That might well be so,” said Hans. “Was that place really dark?”

“It was,” I said, “and it felt a little like that witch-hole I rigged.”

I paused for a moment, then asked, “where did you hear about that place being dark?”

“That jeweler has been watching that place for a while,” said Hans, “and what you spoke about it agrees with what he has seen. I think you might go in one of those rooms and look at what they have there.”

“But the swords I saw were really dirty and messy,” I said, “and it isn't a good idea to go into those rooms unguided.”

“They are not witch-holes,” said Hans, “so that should not be trouble. Now why is it you do not want to go in those places?”

“Hans, if he isn't...” said Anna. “Are you afraid?”

“Of the rooms themselves?” I asked. “Not really. I'm worried about what people will think if I go in one of them without 'orders' of some kind.”

“Now how is that?” asked Hans.

“No key,” I said, “so either I'm a thief, because I picked the lock, or I'm worse than a thief, because I didn't need a key. Either way, I get people after me. Then, because I went in one of those rooms without leave, I'm a witch for certain.”

“How is that?” asked Hans. His obtuseness in the matter was troubling.

“The only reason to not 'wait patiently' is because I'm a witch,” I said, “and not merely a witch, but a witch who wants to murder someone in the worst way imaginable.”

“But you have weapons,” said Anna.

“No, dear,” I said. “The people that believe what I'm speaking of have some strange ideas about swords, and I do not have one.” I paused, then said, “besides, that dream showed swords in use by those witches while out hunting, and...”

“Is that why shorter swords are thought to be the province of cowards?” I thought. “Those more advanced witches had them, that traveling group of northern people had them...”

I still had no answers to what I needed, and the next day on the way to class, I began drawing something in the student's ledger. I still had no good 'shape' for a sword, even if I had some ideas as to a grip for the thing, and as I sketched those details I could think of, I thought “one edge, or two? What shape? How long is a good idea for this thing” – and over all of this was the thinking, “when can I get a good look at the ones they have?”

The last seemed a key issue – it seemed to prevent thinking on the matter, so much so that when the instructor came slightly late to our room, I wondered if he was fetching an example or two to 'show' us some of the important portions. What he showed with, however, made for wondering, as instead of a sword or two, he had brought a wicker basket, which he set down. He then indicated I was to rise and come closer.

“Here,” he said. “Take this key, and fetch a good one from that one room. Those people in the armory don't have anything ready yet.”

I looked at him in stunned shock, then said, “ a g-good one?”

“I suspect you know a good sword when you see one,” he said, “as there aren't many who've crossed blades with those northern people and lived to tell about it.”

As I walked to the room in question, I wondered about the request, chiefly as to what he was after. While I hadn't made much progress toward making a sword, I had made significant progress as to clarifying what was important to me.

“It needs to be good for both slicing and poking,” I thought, as I held the key by its stem in plain sight, “and then it needs to take and keep a good edge, and finally...”

My thinking on the matter was halted by the appearance of the door in question, and when I turned to see if someone was watching me, I noted not merely the dim lighting, but also the columns that I had somehow missed while walking deep in thought. I then returned my attention to the locked door in front of me, and inserted the key.

The key turned readily, and when the bolt shot back with a click, I opened the door wide and slipped the key in my left pocket. After removing a lantern from the outside wall, I went inside.

My movements in the darkness were swift until I came to the room labeled 'room of the swords'. Here, I slowed, for there was an aura of 'danger' present that I could neither ignore nor deny.

I shined the flickering candle 'lantern' down near my feet, and as I watched for trip-wires with each shuffling step, I listened carefully. Faintly I heard the squeaking of rats behind me, and when I stopped to look up, I was astonished to see a thin black thread stretching across the passage but a foot in front of me. I thought to follow it to the right, and there, I was yet more astonished.

“What is that gun doing here?” I thought, as I came to an uncommonly short-barreled musket lashed to a chair.

The thread was tied to a stick with a lashing in its center, and the other end in the trigger guard of the weapon. I drew my tool-roll, and carefully cut the string, then the lashing that held the stick to the middle upright of the chair. I breathed slightly easier when I had brought the weapon to half-cock.

“Now I can cut it loose,” I thought.

Once the gun was untied, I dumped the priming powder, then set it on the chair pointing toward the nearest wall. The feeling of 'danger' was now much less, and when I held my lantern higher, I was astounded.

There were a number of long racks running fore and aft along the narrow room, and I went to the nearest one, where I knelt down next to a line of obvious swords.

Unlike those in the armory, these were not hidden in the slightest, and their 'grime' smelled strongly of rotten meat and long-aged tallow. The length seemed to vary to a degree, unlike the overall plan and shape of the blade. That seemed the consequence of a closely-followed pattern, and as I looked over the dozen swords on the rack, I noticed several had deeply chiseled markings near the juncture of blade and hilt. I picked up one of these, and looked closer.

“What is this?” I gasped, when I looked at the clumsily-executed symbols. “This looks like a curse, even if it isn't using runes.”

As I looked closer at the swords in that rack, however, I soon saw that every one of them was marked on the blade near the base, and when I lifted one up so that I could 'feel' it – I had no idea as to the point of doing so – I was stunned.

“This thing is as heavy as that one I stole,” I thought, “and I bet it's soft, dull, and...”

I set the monster-blade down and went looking at another rack. Here again, I saw ages of tallow and dirt smeared all over the blades, and when I looked at these, they also were marked near the junction of blade and hilt. I took one of them up and nearly dropped it when I saw an obvious crack propagating from the marking down into the hilt.

“I wonder if there are broken ones?” I thought, as I scanned the next rack.

I felt 'pulled' in the direction of the rear of the room, and I ignored the other racks as I cautiously came closer to the place of interest. I could feel an 'answer' of sorts, and as I drew closer, the reek of decayed meat and tallow grew steadily stronger. I came to the last rack, then went to its right side and knelt down next to a sizable mound of 'scrap metal'.

“Th-this is...”

My speech came to an abrupt halt when I found a broken sword. The tip had shattered like glass, and the remnant – the handle, hilt, and a few inches of blade – showed sizable file-marks, deep grinding scratches, and at the fracture itself, a very coarse gray granular structure riddled with slag. I turned the thing over, and was shocked to see an obvious marking showing two strange marks with a trio of runes incorporated.

“Those cracks propagated from the mark,” I said softly. “I guess this proves my suspicions about cracks growing readily. Now I wonder how hard this thing is?”

Removing my tool-roll, and then extracting the small file I had packed the day before meant for 'bated' breath, and when I ran the file across the blade, I nearly shrieked.

B-butter!” I squawked. “Brittle, cracked, full of slag and cold-shuts, and butter-soft!”

I went back past the various racks, and in each case, I tried the file. With few exceptions, the blades were not merely soft, but gritty-feeling, and when I came to the first sword I had investigated, I tried filing it.

“This thing might be as hard as a full-polish wrench,” I spluttered, “and it makes those others look soft indeed. I guess it might be the best, as far as I can tell. Now how do I carry this slimy-feeling thing?”

I found a dirty rag on the floor, and wrapped it around the hilt, then gingerly carried the thing outside of the room, where I laid it on the floor while locking the door with the key. I held the sword in one hand – point down, with my arm at an awkward angle – and the key in the other. I hastened back to the classroom, and when I came in, I was surprised to find a table, a jug, a small mound of rags, and what might have been paintbrushes.

“Is it a good one?” asked the instructor.

“I hope so,” I said. “It seemed the best of those I found.”

I then laid the thing where he indicated, and he looked at the mark, then at me, then at the mark again. I wondered what he would say until he muttered, “you must have found the best one in the whole house, as I've only seen that type of marking a handful of times. Those Generals would kill for one like this.”