The Big House, part 3.


The instructor uncorked the jug, and within seconds, the reek of distillate began causing my gorge to rise, even as he began wiping the sword down with a foul-smelling rag. The grime came off quickly, so much so that within a minute or two, he asked us to come up one at a time to look closer. When it was my turn – the last of the group – I came up, and was astonished yet again.

The marking I had previously seen now stood out much clearer, and it was joined by a number of others. I knelt down and looked closer, now wishing for my magnifier, for the markings in question had the feel, if not the appearance, of runes. I brought my face down closer yet, so as to look for cracks.

Within seconds, I saw the beginning of one near the middle of the blade, then another three inches closer to the tip. Both had come from where a long line of interlocking circles running down the center of the blade had joined one example with another, and by the time I came to the uneven-looking 'lopsided' tip, I had found five more such small cracks. I then looked at the edges again.

The coarse-looking file and grinding marks made for involuntary shuddering, and when I touched the edge carefully, I nearly jerked away in fright.

“Th-that thing's dull,” I said.

“Perhaps by your standards,” said the instructor. “Few places outside of the fourth kingdom can get them this sharp, and not many places do this well there.”

He paused for a moment, then said, “perhaps you can show us how to polish it.”

“Uh, do you have...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, for the instructor now brought out a pair of small tins, as well as several familiar-looking leather-backed wood pieces and two straps. I opened one tin, and found what looked like a mixture of tallow and fine black sand, while the other had what resembled a runnier version of what we used on the 'rouge' buffing wheel. I dabbed one of the 'polishers' in the black stuff, felt it carefully, and began running up and down the edges of the blade.

As I worked, the instructor lectured on the 'care and attention' warranted by swords. His speech, for once, made a modicum of sense.

“You will want to clean your sword each day,” said the instructor. “Should it be clean and bright when you check it, then use a mixture of rouge and tallow, and if it be dull, or have seen use recently, then clean it with fine-grit and tallow.”

“What is he cleaning that one with?” asked one of the other students.

“Fine-grit and tallow,” said the instructor. “Watch how he's rubbing it along the length of the blade using long smooth strokes. That is what you want to do.”

As the others gathered around at some distance, the instructor continued, saying, “there are a number of abrasives that can be used on weapons, including coarse-grit, fine-grit, rotten-stones, black-sand, the various colors of rouge, and yellow-dirt. You will want to get those you need from a jeweler, as instrument-makers are rare in these parts, and they will be disinclined to sell such supplies.”

He paused for a moment, then as I turned the thing over and began cleaning the other side, he said, “check the edge of the blade with the thumbnail each time you clean it, and should you have small nicks, carefully remove them with stones.”

“What kind of stones?” asked another student. His 'ignorance' came through clearly in his voice, so much so that I almost seemed to read his mind; his knowledge of 'stones' was chiefly due to plowing them up as a farmer, and he thought the instructor was speaking of those.

“They are in various grades, and come from the fourth kingdom,” said the instructor, who then turned to me. “I have one here, should you find a nick.”

“I've found several already,” I said.

“Where?” he asked.

I pointed to the first one. He felt the edge with his fingernail, then looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“The others?” he said.

“Here,” I said, as I pointed to the second, “then here, here, here, and here – oh, and I just found another one here.”

He knelt down and handed me a worn-looking stone. I dipped the stone in the distillate, then began carefully going over the edge. I felt as if I would spew from the distillate's fumes.

“You all might want to watch close here,” said the instructor. “He appears to be not merely removing the nicks, but also sharpening the sword.” He paused for a moment, then said, “the reason I spoke of having your own stone for nicks is you might be out in the field for days at a time, and nicks need prompt addressing when they are found. If you can have someone like him do that work, it is best by far to have it done, which is what I've done in the past.”

After cleaning up the nicks and touching up the edge, I resumed 'cleaning' the sword. I carefully scoured off all of the fine-grit, then began using the contents of the other container. I now noticed its rotten-meat reek – and as I polished the sword, I marveled at its rapidly-growing shine. I suspected someone had spent much time and energy giving the otherwise crude blade a high superficial polish.

“What is that red stuff?” asked one of the students.

“That is red-tallow,” said the instructor. “Tallow is cheap and readily available, and daily cleaning instills familiarity with one's weapon.”

“Grease, perhaps?” I asked, as I turned the sword over again and resumed polishing. The shine was coming up surprisingly quickly on that side as well.

You might have such materials,” said the instructor, “but most are not bombers, nor are they instrument-makers. Besides, tallow is best.”

“Why?” asked another student.

“It is far better to clean daily with red-tallow and be familiar with one's weapon, such that it comes naturally to the hand,” said the instructor, “than clean seldom with something different and have a rusted weapon when one reaches for it. No thief or brigand will respect a weapon that does not shine like a mirror.”

“And sharpening?” asked one of the students.

“Most who have swords do not sharpen them,” intoned the instructor's pious-sounding voice, “as they are ignorant of such matters, and they will make a good edge poor and a poor edge worse. Besides, few have the hands, the heart, and the head for such doings. He seems an exception to that rule.”

He paused for a moment, then continued with “most do well to cut down their assailants without incurring uncommon injuries.”

I glanced briefly at the instructor while wondering about what he was saying, then silently resumed my work. The cruciform shape of the hilt was astoundingly uneven as to its size, its cross-section, and even its color – it was of brass, and poor-seeming brass at that – and as I wiped it down carefully with the foul-smelling red 'mud', the color seemed to become steadily more even, and the 'shine' more obvious. The handle – age-darkened wood with a coarse-seeming grain – was next, and finally, when I began rubbing the pommel itself, I almost gasped.

It had more markings chiseled deeply.

I wiped the whole thing down carefully with a clean rag, and then began cleaning up the 'mess' I had made. As I did so, the instructor took up the sword. He began feeling the edge.

“I've never seen one done quite this good,” he said. “I suspect you will have a good deal of business from guards wishing to have swords gone over.”

“Uh, Georg...” I spluttered.

“I suspect they will deal with you directly,” he said. “That is the usual with weapons, especially swords. It is rare for their owners to let anyone deal with them other than those who possess the right touch.”

Why does he sound like he thinks me to be a witch?” I thought. There was no answer.

After inviting the others up to look again at the sword, the instructor began answering more questions. The first ones involved the interlocking 'O' marks that traveled from hilt to tip, as well as the other marks. Those were now quite visible, and while I clearly saw the cracks, no one else – the instructor included – seemed to see them.

“Those indicate the sword is especially good,” he said, as he pointed to the interlocking 'O' marks. “This mark here speaks of it being made to the old pattern, while this one says it was made in the fourth kingdom.”

The instructor paused for a moment, then said, “tomorrow, we practice.”

“Practice?” I thought. “With these things?”

I was glad the instructor took charge of the sword, as I wasn't inclined to carry around a three and a half-foot long implement of destruction, and Hans fetched me early during 'lunch'. On the way home, I wrote of what I had seen, and after a brief water stop, Hans asked me what had happened.

“I was given the key today,” I said, “and I fetched one out.”

“Good,” said Hans. “I spoke to Hendrik about that, and he said you were most likely right about what you said. Now were those things any good?”

“The best one I found might have been as hard as a full-polish wrench,” I spluttered, “and most of them were about as soft as that old knife of Anna's. I found a fair number of broken ones, too.”

“Why were they broken?” asked Hans.

“Th-those things all have markings on them,” I said, “and they start cracks at those places. The one I brought out had a fair number of cracks starting, and every crack I saw was coming from a mark.”

I paused, then said, “then, someone rigged up a strange musket in the room where I went.”

Hans looked at me, then shook his head before saying, “you were after swords. Now how did you find this musket?”

“It had a string across the room where the swords were,” I said, “and it was tied to a chair with a stick pressing against the trigger. Someone rigged it up as a trap.”

“Yes, and what happened?” asked Hans.

“I cut the ropes and dumped the priming powder,” I said.

“How was this musket strange?” asked Hans.

“It had an unusually short barrel,” I said. “It was a bit more than half the usual length.”

I paused, then said, “then, when I brought down that sword, I needed to polish it and go over the thing, and he was talking like I was some kind of a witch while I was working.”

“How is that?” asked Hans.

“He spoke of g-guards seeing me about having their swords gone over,” I said, “and when I spoke of Georg, he said they would see me directly, with no intermediaries.”

“That is common for instruments and things like them,” said Hans, “as most instrument-makers trust few other than themselves to do their business. Now how would you be a witch to do such things?”

Hans' oblivious-sounding voice seemed intended to silence my objections, and I thought glumly for what seemed an hour. I was at a loss for words to speak of how I had felt while finishing up the sword, and finally, my tongue got the better of me.

“He said most people with swords would only let certain people touch them,” I gasped, “those with the right hands...”

I looked at my hands, and for an instant I saw sooty blackness covering them as neon-orange flames billowed up from my fingertips. These were the hands of an arch-witch, I instinctively recognized, and I shuddered, even as my mouth continued apart from my thinking.

“The right heart...”

For some reason, I not only heard chanting, but saw a monstrous pounding 'organ' subject purely to the will of Brimstone.

“And the right head,” I said.

It was as if someone else had spoken, for I saw the mind of a person entirely under the control of Brimstone. Possession wasn't an adequate word to describe the state of such a being; the only word I could think of was the word 'owned', and that without reservation.

“That is bad,” said Hans. “First, I see the hands of a bad witch, then the guts of a witch that was worse, and then this head-thing that Brimstone bought and paid for.”

“N-no, I don't want to be a witch,” I spluttered, “and that man was thinking I was a witch.”

Hans had no reply for me, even once we had come home, and only the distractions of the shop seemed to bring my mind from its fear-shaken funk. My concentration wasn't nearly as good as usual, and after an afternoon of labor – I worked for at least an hour after sundown at the shop – I came home with a mind filled with questions and salted faintly with a few ideas. There was little talk beyond the common at the table, and after another hour of work at the bench – I was working on parts for a trio of 'fifteen-line' rivet-swages – I wobbled up to bed after being dosed with the widow's tincture. I was well beyond fatigued, and into a realm I had but little knowledge of, and after drinking down the cup of beer, I fell asleep with such abruptness that I wondered what had happened until I became unconscious.

I awoke what seemed hours later, and as I turned to get out of bed, I noticed the faint sensation of dampness underneath my legs and back. For an instant, I thought I had wet my bed, but as I felt by my side for dampness, I felt at first waxy-feeling cloth, then something distinct and greatly chilled. I looked, expecting to see either ice or a snake of some kind, and I startled when I saw faintly the gleam of polished metal.

I thought to sit up, but as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw faintly the dirt-etched grain of wood above my head. I wondered if I had been buried for a moment, until I thought to look again to the side. I saw an obvious buggy-wheel.

“This is not a coffin,” I thought, as I recalled reading of premature burials as a child. “Thank God.”

I felt the chilled object again, and carefully turned on my side. There was barely enough room to do so, and as I finished the move, I felt a faint breeze bring a soft sense of mist across my face. I looked outside of my 'prison' and saw slow-moving mists lying deep across the ground.

“So that's why I'm sleeping under cover,” I thought. “I'm able to stay dry. Now what is this thing?”

I looked closer at the chilled shiny object, and nearly jolted when I saw the 'sleek' outline of an obvious sword. My eyes traced along its gently curved length, past the pointed tip, then back to the ovoid bronze hilt. It seemed older than time.

Why does this thing look familiar?” I thought, even as I touched the smooth coldness of metal. “It looks like someone took all the ideas I had, mingled them with history, and then combined them in some fashion.”

I then touched the handle itself, and the chill cold of twisted wire seemed at once to invite grasping. I carefully pinched the handle, and then lifted it. The light weight was astonishing, and the feel unlike anything I had ever touched. The weapons at the bridge were a primer for this thing.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw soft drifting layers gliding along the length of the blade, with a plainly visible line showing the tracings of mud used during tempering. The complete lack of ornamentation – there were no markings whatsoever on this blade – was astonishing, and touching it again burned its purpose into my mind.

This was a weapon, and it had nothing of the fetish about it, with its form strictly following its intended function.

“Then why does it feel like it does?” I thought. “It really feels like it's alive.”

Cascading across my eyes like sheets of bloody rain I saw body parts flying as if a hurricane of steel was cutting down enemies by the tens of thousands, and in my ears, I seemed to hear someone speaking words that I scarcely recognized beyond their familiar source. I had read them recently to Hans and Anna during a reading lesson.

“Be strong... Courageous... Not terrified... Not discouraged... With you wherever you go.”

The mists of the outside realm seemed to grow stronger, denser, and thicker, and faint upon the wind I heard the stealthy patter of what might have been rain. It was safe now, and I lay back upon my bed. I gave the sword a final touch, now reassured of its presence, and the faintly oily feel upon my fingers gave a greater reassurance yet. I had been looking after it properly.

“No, I do not want this thing to have tallow on it,” I thought. “That stuff draws water out of the air and causes rust.”

I then awoke abruptly, and jerked bolt upright with a suddenness that nearly gave me a headache. I had expected to see splinters in my eyes from the bed of the buggy above me, and the feeling of dampness beneath me...

“Was that a dream?” I thought, as I stood shakily. I needed to visit the privy in the worst way imaginable.

Once I had visited the privy, I returned to my bed, where I fell deeply asleep. I slept later than usually for me, such that I awoke when the sun began shining, and when I came downstairs, I was surprised to find both Hans and Anna already up.

“The two of you might go there after you pull the wheels,” she said, “as it was starting to squeak yesterday as I was coming home.”

I said nothing, even though I recalled hearing no such noises during my trip home, and after breakfast, I went out in the buggy-way to help Hans. I was yet more astonished to see a mirror-bright bronze 'cup' and shining steel 'cone' on the first wheel we pulled. The definite oily 'film' was such that I marveled.

“Why did she say it needed servicing?” I asked.

“I did not tell her about that stuff you made up,” said Hans, “and she is likely to think I am still using tallow or things like it.”

“Preventative maintenance?” I asked.

“There is nothing to prevent,” said Hans, “and that other word is one of them I cannot speak.”

“Does tallow draw moisture out of the air?” I asked.

“Why is it you ask?” asked Hans.

“I had this strange dream about a sword,” I said, “and that instructor was speaking of tallow being the b-best thing for swords...”

“I think he knows little else,” said Hans. “Most people know about tallow, and that tool-cleaner, as those things are common.”

Hans came out from underneath the buggy, and as I wiped out the inside of the 'cup' with an oily rag, I asked, “how much is tallow usually boiled?” I wondered about salt, meat-juices, blood, and other things of a corrosive nature remaining in it.

“That is likely to be the trouble,” said Hans, “as there is a lot of bad tallow. The good stuff is like snow for color, and has little smell. It takes me several boilings to make the common stuff good.”

“That red stuff smelled like rotten meat,” I said. “He called it red-tallow.”

“Was this a mix of tallow and rouge?” asked Hans. He was using a small spatula to apply bullet lubricant to the inside of the 'cup'.

“I think it was,” I said. “Then, he said to go to a jeweler to get abrasives, as...”

“Yes, he said to go to a jeweler,” said Hans. “Did he say why to do that?”

“I-instrument-makers were rare,” I said, “and he said they were disinclined to sell supplies.”

“That is true,” said Hans, “at least for the rare part. I am not sure about them and their supplies.”

“Then he said that it was best to have any real work done by s-someone l-like me,” I said, “and that most people had no business doing more to their weapons than a-absolutely needed.”

After finishing that particular wheel, we had but two more. The talk continued, even as we did both front wheels one after the other.

“That is what people say,” said Hans, “and not just about swords. It is the same with a lot of things.”

“Sharpening?” I asked. “Is that why so many people come to the shop to have their knives and tools sharpened?”

Hans looked at me, then said, “now why is it you are worried about that?”

“Uh, he said that most who had swords did not sharpen them,” I said, “and the way he said it... Ugh! It was as if the only people good enough were curse-chanting murderous black-dressed witches...”

The thoughts that came from speaking thusly grew unbidden, and their night-blooming hellish words spewed forth with such abruptness that I was unable to rein them in.

“What am I supposed to do, dip the thing in the blood of my latest sacrifice while chanting rune-curses to bind evil spirits to it, such that it kills of itself?” I blurted. “So that only an especially evil witch may hold what I work on and not be devoured by Brimstone on the spot?”

“Is that what witches do?” asked Hans.

“That one w-witch b-baptized his sword in b-blood,” I said, “and he w-was chanting while he murdered those people...”

I reached toward my bag, even as I shuddered violently, and saw therein the vial of widow's tincture. The sense of being 'reminded' was especially strong, and I took a few drops – and when the stuff began to have an affect, I nearly screamed.

The confusion was clearing away quickly, and as my mind cleared, the horror I felt redoubled and became tangible as the manifold distractions faded with each passing second.

“N-no, I don't want to be a witch, and that man thinks I'm one,” I moaned.

Yet as I said this, I suspected the instructor to be the least of my worries in that aspect, as his ignorance of witches and what they did was like that of the majority of people. There were others at the house that I needed to worry about much more.

I had but little clue as to where we were to go until Hans passed the turnoff to that one second-hand store. The churned brown muck of the 'groove' showed plainly amid scattered threads of snow on the road, and the lessening whiteness of the fields and forests was now plain. It was obvious that the stuff was melting now, and it would be 'gone' within weeks.

“Thaw?” I asked.

“Yes, that is happening now,” said Hans. “It has become a little warmer, and it is raining a lot recently.”

“Are we going to get some bark?” I asked.

“I need to bring some stuff over to Korn,” said Hans, “and make arrangements so as to get that stuff. It is close to where he lives, so we might look at it on the way there to see when it will be right.”

“And the roots?” I asked.

“Those are best during the middle of spring,” said Hans. “We might start looking for the plants shortly, unless he has found some of them.”

I looked in my bag for the student's ledger, then began leafing through the pages so as to find an empty page for notes. As I continued looking, I noted that I had mostly used up the first book, and would need to begin using the second one within weeks. At the end of my most recent writing, I was astonished to find several more added pages, and as I looked at them, I found new drawings interspersed with neatly-written notes.

“W-what is this?” I squeaked. “Is this like those other drawings that showed?”

Hans looked over toward what I was looking at, and I held the book closer as I flipped through the pages. He seemed greatly interested, and I was astonished that he could look and still keep the buggy in the groove.

“Now that one is strange,” said Hans. “I have never seen a sword that was curved like that, nor with the handle done like these drawings, nor that brass thing that protects the hand shaped like that. How long is it?”

“Uh, it says...” I began looking for dimensions, then found the first of the captions. “It says 'adjust to suit arms and build of user'... Oh, here's something – twenty-seven inches from tip to hilt, and eight inches for handle and pommel.”

“That is shorter in the blade than is common,” said Hans, “and that handle is a good bit longer. How much is it for the whole?”

“A bit less than three feet,” I said. “It might be possible to wear it and not drag the tip.”

I paused, then said, “that dream showed one like this drawing, and there was nothing about it that was showy. It was intended to be used.”

With each stop, I drew my hatchet and 'chopped water' for the horses. Their frantic drinking was such that I marveled – until I saw them empty their grain pans. Their hunger was undeniable.

“Perhaps more grain?” I thought, as I went to the rear of the buggy. Hans had gone inside the Public House where we had stopped, and while I looked for the horse-grain, I wondered what he was actually after.

He returned minutes later with a jug and small sack, then put them in the bed of the buggy, along with the pans. He'd dosed the wheels earlier.

“Is there any more horse-grain?” I asked. I wondered if we were out at home.

“I am going to that one Mercantile to get some,” he said, as he got into the seat of the buggy.

I but vaguely recognized the area we were traveling in, as it had changed mightily since my last trip through the area. Here, the melting snow-slush was still present in places, and places that I recalled as being wide vast green-swarded places were now well-hidden mud-bogs streaked with snow. I suspected that even our buggy would become mired if we tried to go across them.

“Sticking to the roads right now?”

“That is the usual,” said Hans. “Not everyone knows how to manage in soft ground, nor are buggies this light common. Even so, I have mired this one more than once in recent memory.”

“Are some places worse than others?” I asked.

“Yes, and few know of the bad ones,” said Hans. “I know of a fair number in this area.”

Hans paused, then said, “what most know is that roads tend to be usable most of the year, farmer's fields are trouble, and then maybe where the bad areas are around the woodlots they visit a lot.”

“Three to five places for wood, and perhaps a few more for game?” I asked.

“That is more than most know,” said Hans, “which is why those places that are close to towns tend to have clean floors and little game.”

“And you knowing of them?” I asked.

“That is part of looking for supplies and things,” said Hans. “The one where I have seen the fever-bark trees is about two miles ahead on this road.”

My recollection of a certain type of tree once used for that came to me, and I asked, “is there water nearby?”

“Yes, though I have not tried fishing in that place,” said Hans. “Trouts need moving water, and that place does not move. Herring are the same way.”

“Trout, herring... Are there others?” I asked.

“I doubt it,” said Hans. “Those are safe to eat. Talk has it nothing else is, unless it comes from the sea.”

“N-nothing else?” I asked. “What is there?”

“These small fish that are really oily,” said Hans, “and then some long wiggly things, and these things people call land-crawlers that pinch a lot, and maybe some other things.”

Pinch a lot?” I asked.

“That is what they do,” said Hans. “I had one fasten onto me once, and it took my grandmother and thumping with a mallet to make it turn loose. I was glad it was one of those round ones, as the long ones are said to be much worse that way.”

“Long ones?” I asked. I was getting the impression these might well be crayfish.

“Those are long, have a lot of legs, and have big clamps,” said Hans. “The round ones are shaped closer to plates, and have smaller clamps on them.”

“Are those long ones a strange color?” I asked.

“I think they eat bugging flies,” said Hans, “as they are the same color as those things, unless they are just out of their eggs. They are green mixed with gray then.”

Hans stopped by the side of an especially large woodlot, and the two of us went into the place with him in the lead. I had the distinct sense that this place saw itinerant individuals with some frequency, so much so that when I saw a small 'cabin' made of mud-chinked logs I nearly stumbled. I pointed at it shakily, and Hans looked for a second before resuming his forward progress.

“What is that place?” I asked.

“I doubt brigands live there,” said Hans, “as they would hide their places better. I think that is a place where tinkers and people like them rest at night when they are traveling.”

“Are those common?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Hans, “as I have seen that one before. There are three others like it closer to the water, and that is for this woodlot alone.”

I could feel the presence of water ahead, and the unusual number of the tree-trunks seemed an especial harbinger of dampness. The ground felt unusually moist, such that it needed watching so as to not step in 'quicksand'. Vague light lay above and ahead, and brief glances that way showed what might have been still-present leaves on a few trees. The warm 'breeze' from ahead didn't help with the illusion of an uncanny spring.

“I think it is about time,” said Hans, as he put his hand on a nearby tree-trunk. “This one is starting to run its sap up into the tree again.”

“Run its sap?” I asked.

“It will start putting out the small leaves within a few weeks,” said Hans. “That is another reason why these bigger ponds are popular with tinkers and travelers, as they are warmer than most other places when it is colder.”

The tree-trunks grew yet thicker, and the branches above, though they were still bare of leaves, seemed thick and numerous enough to bring the place into darker shadows. The mud of the forest floor showed a near-absence of sticks, while the fallen leaves had mostly rotted and merged into the mud. Hans was still ahead and to my right.

“Ah, this one is close,” he said abruptly.

I looked for Hans, and to my surprise, he had managed to go from a dark and gloomy-seeming realm into a much brighter one. I continued toward him, until with shattering abruptness, the deep cover overhead suddenly vanished, and I came into what looked at first to be a grassy clearing.

It wasn't a clearing, however, and I stopped abruptly when I came within three feet of the fuzzy green 'stuff' when I saw waves ripple across it. I then realized I was seeing a moss-covered lake of substantial size.

“Does this place have, uh, green stuff on the surface like this all year?” I asked.

“It clears a lot during warmer weather,” said Hans. “Now this bark here is just right.”

I turned to see Hans 'embracing' a stout tree with thick stringy gnarled-looking bark, then gently pulling on one of the strands. It seemed well-attached, so much so that as I drew closer, he began slicing on it with his knife.

“Is that old bark, or..?”

“I could use a little pry-bar here,” he said. “The bark is usually not this fresh.”

I reached in my bag for one of the small levers I had there, then found it and handed it to Hans. He looked at it, carefully inserted the bar into the 'tree', then levered off a chunk of bark nearly as tall as he was. I caught it before it hit the ground.

“Th-this stuff l-looks like, uh, cork,” I said.

“Those come from cork-trees,” said Hans. “I have only found bark this fresh two or three times.”

“Isn't it t-too fresh?” I asked. “You needed to pry it off.”

“Look at the new bark here,” said Hans. “It is ready to go. I think that other stuff was trying to come off.”

I went where Hans was pointing, and to my surprise, I found shiny silvery-colored smooth bark with faint longitudinal corrugations. The 'old' bark was darker, much thicker, deeply corrugated, and somewhat flaky, and when Hans levered off another piece, I looked at its inside.

The clear and abrupt demarcation was astonishing, and I asked, “would this have fallen off by itself?”

“Yes, in a few weeks,” said Hans. “It would have less medicine, too, and less-good medicine. I think I want to go after this stuff as soon as we can.”

Hans pried off several more such pieces, and after stowing my pry-bar, I carried three of them back toward the buggy. I had the impression he needed to convince Korn as to the 'readiness' of the harvest, and once back underway, I asked, “do you need to show him what we got?”

“I might not need to show Korn,” said Hans, “but if I show him, he might well put aside what he is doing with little speaking. Anna usually needs more convincing, and these pieces will have her jumping up and down. She might well want to fetch that stuff tomorrow after church.”

Once at the house of Korn – his upper floor seemed 'slightly' neater, with an aura of 'clean' that was difficult to ignore, so much so that I was distracted greatly – I wondered if he knew about red-tallow. The basement beckoned, and as the three of us went down the stairs, I asked, “have you heard of red-tallow?”

“Who spoke of it?” asked Korn.

“The instructor at the king's house,” I said.

There was an embarrassing silence, then when we had come into the main 'laboratory', Korn said, “he might well have spoken out of ignorance.”

“He seemed familiar with it,” I said. “He said it was a mixture of rouge and tallow, and tallow isn't that good for rust prevention.”

“Nor for candles, nor much else that it's used for,” said Korn. “It may be cheap, and easy to get, but that's most of what can be said about it that is good – and that's when it's done right. Did this red-tallow smell especially bad?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “It smelled like rotten meat.”

“That is bad tallow,” said Hans. “I boil a fair amount of that stuff so that it doesn't stink.”

Most of it is merely badly done,” said Korn. “I've seen those black-dressed people up the road make another kind entirely.”

“Another kind?” I asked. “Do they put blood in that stuff?”

“I'm not sure what that red-colored material was,” said Korn, “but I know it wasn't rouge.”

“Do you use..?”

Korn cut me off in mid-question by turning and walking toward a row of shelves, then returning with a small tin. This he opened to show a reddish-brown paste that smelled faintly of distillate and 'grease'. Hans looked with consuming interest, then touched it with his finger.

“This has one part jeweler's 'cutting' rouge,” said Korn, “five parts fourth kingdom grease, and one part of this red material that is sold in the fourth kingdom's market. I use it for lapping and polishing.”

“I think they have something like it there,” said Hans. “That red stuff is hard to get.”

“Red 'stuff'?” I asked.

“It is thicker than that grease that came,” said Hans, “and it smells strange. The instrument-makers fight over it when it shows.”

“Which is why I wanted a sample,” said Korn. “I wasn't able to get the red material itself, but I was able to get this.”

While Korn and Hans spoke of recent developments – the trees and bark figured heavily, though I heard mention of boiled distillate, that 'motor oil' I had mixed, and some few other things – I looked around carefully. I felt jarred by the recollection of the clamps that I was slowly finishing. The screws and their fittings were proving to be the bottleneck.

“I hope I'll have time to work on them today,” I thought.

Faintly I seemed to overhear plotting regarding not merely the bark-harvest, but also the roots needed for that one particular tincture. I wandered over to where the two men seemed to be, which was near where I recalled the still being.

“The old patch has its share,” said Korn. “I'm glad the witches don't know about it.”

“Why would witches want to know about roots?” I thought.

My thinking was interrupted by the sight of a completely revamped 'stilling' setup. The reduction in size was astonishing, so much so that I nearly bumped into an obvious grist-mill with a wooden bucket holding ground-up sprouted corn-meal.

“That should be enough for the day's mash,” said Korn. “Between the two things, I run twice the aquavit I used to, and that with a good deal less time and effort.”

“Do you get a good price for it?” asked Hans.

“The same as before,” said Korn, “but now, I have no trouble whatsoever selling all I can make, and that with much less traveling.”

“And hence, you are earning more money,” I said, “as you had to travel some distance to sell chemistry aquavit.” I paused, then said, “this still made for a significant improvement in the product, didn't it?”

“It's about a tenth stronger,” said Korn, “and that last tenth was the hardest part. The old distillery couldn't get it no matter what I did.”

“And your customers seem to not merely find enough money to buy two jugs where they previously bought one,” I said, “but they also tell people they know about what they're buying.”

Korn nodded, then said, “I hope you can help with the bark and those roots, as that will save us all some time.”

After another short time, the two of us left. Hans had received a small wicker basket, and when he put it in the rear of the buggy, I asked quietly, “is that something secret?”

“Yes, which is why it is hid,” said Hans. “I told him about the clamps, and he was surprised.”

“Surprised?” I asked. “How?”

“It took most of a year for my grandfather to get his,” said Hans. “Yours might need another month or two, at least for the first ones.”

“I was hoping to work on them today,” I said, as Hans drove off. I suspected he was going to that one Mercantile.

My suspicions proved correct, and once inside, I went after more blacking, while Hans went to the 'counter'. As I came to the area where the blacking was, I seemed to smell lemons – or rather, lemon furniture polish – and this odor became steadily stronger with each step toward my goal.

The tins of blacking were partly blocked by a sizable wooden box, and I needed to move it out of the way so as to get at what I was after. I did so, then as I reached toward the stacked tins, I had a strange intimation: I needed to look in the box. I paused, turned, then knelt down – and opened the lid.

The contents of the box proved to be more tins of blacking, and as I carefully moved them aside, the 'lemon furniture polish' odor became stronger. I wondered what it was, and what it had to do with why I was carefully moving the tins aside – until I moved the last tin out of the far corner of the box and nearly yelled in shocked surprise.

A white plastic tube stood in the corner of the box, and as I took it out, I noted the smell – it gave off the potent odor of lemon furniture polish – and the other details of the tube, including its hexagonal blue plastic knob, its 'seam' at the other end, and as I turned it over, its near-complete lack of labeling or documentation. All it showed was a cryptic-looking label, that being “Machsub-04FE34.”

I wondered what it was for an instant, even as I picked up a tin of blacking, and as I went to the front of the store, I smelled another odor, one that vaguely reminded me of distillate. I was drawing closer to that smell also, and when I put my finds on the counter – Hans was speaking with the clerk – I asked, “what is that smell?”

“Which smell?” asked the clerk. “There's a smell that reminds me of a fourth kingdom yellow-fruit, and then another smell that I wonder about, and then the usual smells around here.”

“That d-distillate smell,” I said.

“Those would be fifth kingdom wax-candles,” he said. “Hans here spoke of you needing regular wax candles, and we've got two bundles going already.”

“What are those candles like?” I asked.

“Smoky, smelly, and really bright,” said the clerk. “If they weren't so much trouble to get, and didn't smoke and smell like they do, we'd bring them up here regularly.”

“Could I buy one?” I asked.

“Now why is it you want one of those stinky things?” asked Hans. “You have good lights, and good candles already.”

“Uh, I wanted to look...”

I paused in mid-sentence as the clerk went past the cloth that separated the 'store' from the back room, then seconds later, he returned with a strange-looking yellow-streaked gray 'candle' nearly nine inches long. He laid it on the table, then said, “these make wax candles seem cheap, but I've heard stories about them.”

“Stories?” I asked. “As in they tend to start fires?”

“They're not like tallow candles that way,” he said. “I've heard talk about them working for sticky drawers.”

While the candle and blacking went for commonplace prices, the tube I had found was an utter mystery. No one at the Mercantile knew what it was or where it had come from, and my offer of two guilders was accepted with alacrity.

With the supplies loaded in the buggy – two sacks of horse-grain, three bags of dried corn, and what I had purchased save for the plastic tube; that went in my bag – we left post-haste. It was now early afternoon, or so I guessed, and while we did stop, we concentrated on watering the horses and dosing the buggy with 'motor-oil'. We ate and drank while on the move, and my 'bush-stops' were quick ones.

It seemed mid to late afternoon when we arrived at home, and when Anna saw the bark – she had come outside – she paused to look at the sun before speaking. I was surprised to hear what she said, even if she wasn't 'jumping up and down'.

“We'll need to leave early tomorrow,” she said, “which means we'll need to pack for it tonight.”

“Bark?” I asked.

“That's the best bark I've ever seen,” said Anna, “and if there's any real amount of it there, then we might well have some of the finished stuff for the market-trip.”

“Do you take it down there and sell it?” I asked.

“When we have enough, we do,” said Anna. “We've only had a surplus once in the last ten years.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Is it because of the local demand?”

“That is much of it,” said Hans. “I think this bark might have twice as much medicine as is common, and that one tree had as much bark as I have seen in one place. I saw other trees, so there is a lot of bark.”

While the two of them packed, I began working on the screws for the clamps, and by bedtime, I had finished the threading portions for three of them. As I went up to bed, I heard Anna say, “I would plan on leaving as soon as the sun shows tomorrow, as we will need to do all we can.”

I had little doubt as to my wakening, or so I thought when I came down in the morning to find both of them finishing the loading of the buggy. I had trouble recalling just what needed to be done until we actually were heading north along the road with two of the small lanterns shining with cut-down wax candles.

“Now where are we going?” I asked sleepily. I really wanted to go back to bed, for some reason.

“This is to get that bark,” said Hans. “I think you should rest more and work less at the shop, as now you are tired and want to sleep, and none of us can afford to do that.”

“Is that it?” I asked. Somehow, I suspected otherwise.

Anna turned to me, then slowly nodded before saying, “I'm glad I brought a blanket and pillow for you, as I can tell you've been working harder than is good.”

I had but little to say, so much so that I seemed to fall asleep in mid-thought to awaken with the sun beginning to show ahead. I wondered briefly why my bed seemed to be moving, then as I awoke further, I jolted suddenly.

“Is this a matter of outsmarting witches?” I thought. “Do they like to steal...”

For some reason, I was seeing a black-dressed thug standing at the counter of a strange-looking 'Mercantile'. The place had a great many chemicals, both organic and inorganic, and as I passed by a long serried ranking of 'apothecary jars', I noted their contents. One of them was 'fever-tree bark' – or rather, it was labeled as such.

It was not that material, but something else entirely. More importantly, it did not help with headaches or fevers.

I then saw the black-dressed thug receive a sizable bag. The impression I had was the 'Mercantile' had two lines of business: one hidden, and one overt. The jars I had seen dealt with the overt portion, that part visible to the 'public', while the hidden – and lucrative – business was transacted in much the manner I had seen, with similar black-dressed thugs its chief customers.

The third image showed what the black-dressed thug was actually doing. He was procuring various supplies here and there, and once 'home' – a huge dark house sitting in the middle of seeming nowhere – he went down into his 'inner sanctum'. The image blanked, and the fourth one came abruptly.

This fourth image showed an obvious witch dressed in full ceremonial hunting clothing, and his strange-looking contorted figure held a long carved wooden spoon while he stirred his cauldron-entombed 'brew'. His chanting – the hiding curse, among others – was harsh, hollow-sounding, clipped, and permeated with whistling, and as I watched him stir his mess, his clothing became diaphanous to show the various 'reminders to duty'. He had all of them in place, and believed himself to be fully under the control and guidance of Brimstone.

“What is that wretch making?” I mumbled. “Is he..?”

The image then blanked, and a fifth image showed. Here, I saw the black-dressed witch – complete with his 'reminders to duty', black face-grease, and ceremonial clothing – destroying plants by sprinkling them with salt and then treading them down into the dirt. I looked closer at the plants in question, and seemed to faintly see a small tag that said “medicine.”

“What?” I screeched. “That wretch is destroying those plants? Why?”

There was no answer, at least none at first. Vague recollections came fluttering on the wings of my mind to vanish forthwith in tempestuous red-tinged eruptions of fire. I could not understand the message that was attempting to come through beyond the 'obvious' one I'd seen.

“Or is it obvious?” I thought. The messages trying to 'come through' were diluting the initial impression, that being 'the witches want a monopoly, and will stop at nothing to get it'. Somehow, I knew there was more to what I had seen than that simple answer, and when I opened my eyes, I was shocked to find myself in bed.

“What happened?” I shrieked. “Where was I? What time is it?”

A glance at the window said 'dark', and my bladder spoke loudly of the privy. As I went down the stairs, I heard faint rustlings above and behind, then Anna's soft yawn-permeated voice speaking to Hans. What she was saying was being overwritten by the squirming of my bladder.

“Was that a dream?” I thought. It seemed far too real, and as if to answer, I heard Hans answer back with a sleep-infused grunt. I could understand him now, for some reason.

“Those witches cannot learn of that stuff so soon, so why is it you want to get out of bed now?”

“That dream, Hans,” said Anna. “I saw a witch mixing something, then salting those roots we use for the red fever.”

I recalled Korn mentioning witches in the context of medicine, then with terrible suddenness, I recalled the other recollections I could not sort out in the dream. The witches wanted far more than a mere monopoly...

“They think...”

Another recollection seemed to explode in my mind as I went into the privy, this being the too-familiar attitude toward medical help where I came from: 'it is all from the devil, and using any medical means is wrong'.

“Then what are we supposed to do?” I muttered as I emerged from the small room. “Chant rune-curses like a pack of witches, murder every person not a witch, and mix messes in cauldrons...”

Again, my recollection bloomed: “everything in life, with no exceptions whatsoever, was to be a matter of 'faith' in church and 'moral effort' elsewhere.”

“And with witches, 'faith' and 'moral effort' are the same thing named differently,” I muttered. I was near the bottom of the stairs. “That wretch was mixing up something intended to kill, not cure, and he did so with full knowledge in all particulars.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice, “and you were shown that dream for a reason. I would not waste time in fetching that bark.”

“Hans!” yelled Anna. “Get up!”

Once actually on the road, I found that Hans needed to wake up, while I was wide awake and watchful from the start. Somehow, I had the feeling that we could expect substantial trouble, and I peered out into the darkness while Anna drove. Hans was still more asleep than awake, for some reason, even after half an hour's steady travel on the northbound road. We would turn left soon, or so I guessed.

“Figures, he chided me for being asleep in that dream,” I muttered.

“I heard that,” said Anna, “and now I'm surprised he's wanting to stay in bed when we need to hurry.”

“Do you know where that place is?” I asked.

“If it's the place with the big pond,” said Anna, “I've been there before. I had no idea witches destroyed medicinal plants like that.”

“Did you see what that wretch was mixing up?” I asked some minutes later. “He added some white powder to his, uh, mess...”

“What kind of white powder?” asked Anna. I could feel a town nearby – we had just turned left – and we would need to stop there for a few minutes to look after the buggy and horses. It was still quite dark, and I was glad for the two small lanterns.

“It was wrapped in cloth...” I murmured. The local area seemed 'dead', unlike that closer to home.

“Cloth?” gasped Anna. “He was putting arsenic in that stuff!”

Hans jolted awake, then yawned before saying, “now what is this with arsenic?”

“That witch was making poison and labeling it as medicine,” screeched Anna.

“Yes, and that is common where those black-dressed people run things to suit them,” said Hans. “Now why are we going in the dark like this, and not waiting until the sun is up?”

“We were observed yesterday,” I said quietly, “and the only reason that bark is still present was our 'observer' was a supplicant and not yet a full-fledged witch.”

I paused, then said, “and I'm glad there are three of us, as this buggy will need dosing while the horses are watered.”

“But it's not making noise,” said Anna. “Didn't you put tallow in it yesterday?”

“Tallow isn't a very good lubricant,” I said, “so we used something better when we pulled them, and dosed the wheels every time we stopped.”

“Why?” asked Anna. Her 'ignorance' nearly made me choke.

“Because tallow doesn't work in sleeved wheels,” I said, “and bullet lubricant isn't that much better. These need a liquid lubricant to work properly.”

I paused, “and then, when they work properly, they permit higher speeds, which we need right now.”

“But it costs so much to put...” How Anna could worry about such trifles right now made for wondering – at least, at one level. At another level, I didn't wonder at all, and it showed when I next spoke seconds later.

“Fine, then,” I spat. “Turn around, go home, go back to bed, and let everyone not a witch burn in hell where the witches say they belong. Those people will be there by late morning, as they are not wasting time.”

“How is it they will be there by late morning, if we were seen yesterday?” asked Hans.

“I'm not precisely certain how witches operate,” I said in a quieter voice. We were coming close to the edges of the town. “I suspect that the higher-ranking witches make all the decisions of importance, which means our supplicant had to go to a 'witch' before action could be taken.”

“Matters of that importance go much further up the chain of command,” said the soft voice, “which is why those trees and that bark are still intact – and yes, you do have need of speed. Don't stint the oil.”

Anna's opposition dried up with the last pronouncement, and while I chopped ice for the horses, I could hear both Hans and Anna working on 'dosing' the wheels. I turned to see their clumsy movements mingled with muttering about 'bad light' and 'I can't see a thing', and I came closer.

“Just untie the rags,” I said, “and I'll do the oiling. I most likely can see better than either of you, and I won't make a big mess.”

“I thought so,” said Anna. “You almost poured that whole thing on the ground, Hans.”

We resumed westward travel but minutes later, and within further minutes, the buggy seemed to 'loosen up'. I looked to the side of the road as Anna began muttering.

“Why is this thing seeming to go faster?” asked Anna.

“It has a suitable lubricant in its wheel bearings,” I said, “and while that lubricant has uncorking medicine as one of its ingredients, it is not that material.”

I paused, then said, “I had some impressions about improving that oil – something about processing the tallow portion beyond just boiling and filtering it.”

The buggy seemed to speed up more, then hold steady at its new speed. Anna seemed flabbergasted, so much so that when I said, “Hans spoke of this happening with proper lubrication,” she did little beyond mutter, even as the darkness lessened with the coming of 'real' sunrise. 'Apparent' sunrise would follow shortly thereafter due to the steadily thinning cloud-cover.

The next stop went quicker, and once on the road again, I looked around carefully in the dawning day. The 'common people' were still mostly in bed, and the witches...

“Late morning?” I asked.

“Those black-dressed witches keep late hours, and they get up later than is common,” said Hans. “That seems as likely as anything.”

“Th-those coaches,” I spluttered. “Are they driving those?”

“Hans, those things don't stop much,” said Anna, then as she turned to me, she said, “now why would they drive a coach?”

“The preferred mode of travel for witches?” I asked. “Why do they not stop?”

“I have no idea,” said Anna, “but I have seen and heard them enough to the south to know those driving them tend to not stop for much of anything short of breakdowns or horses going lame. I thought they would act different up here before that one witch tried to burn down the shop.”

“Hence if they use a coach, they are likely to manage somewhat better time than otherwise,” I said. “If that supplicant went to the Swartsburg, that means a trip of some distance – and then he needed to get into the place without being seen, so he had to travel further yet on what he was riding.”

“So he gets there soon enough,” said Hans, “and those witches leave right away. How is it they aren't already there?”

“Uh, his horse wasn't very good,” I said. “He didn't get there before dark. Then, he had to find a witch he could talk to, that witch needed to find his superior, and...”

“And it was 'bedtime' by the time they found a witch high enough in the command structure to 'authorize' the trip,” said the soft voice, “You don't wake up 'high-ranking' witches when they're asleep.”

“Why is that?” asked Hans.

“I'm not sure,” I said. “Perhaps they dump really bad curses then – oh, I think I know. They tend to kill underlings who 'disturb' them.”

We came to the woodlot but half an hour later, and when Anna slowed to a stop, I said, “we need to bring the buggy into the woodlot.”

“It will get bogged,” said Anna.

“Not with it empty,” I said, as I crawled out of the rear. “I'll take my stuff inside now.”

As I began moving toward the trees, I could hear something of an argument starting. Both Hans and Anna were wondering why I thought it wise to bring the buggy and horses into the woodlot. I thought the matter obvious: the witches would kill the horses and burn the vehicle – and the presence of horses and vehicle would alert them to our presence. They would wish to kill us as well.

“If they see that thing, they'll burn it on the spot,” I said, “and they'll know we're here. Surprise helps when you have to fight a gang of witches.”

The two of them still argued, and after I laid my supplies down, I took the reins from Anna's hands and led the horses myself. I walked carefully to the edge of the forest, then slowly walked between the trees.

“At least I have a long lead for these,” I said, as the branches overhead grew thicker and darker. “I'd best go well to the side so as to reach those trees from the back side.”

I could hear voices behind me, then scrambling steps to try to catch up. Someone came to my right as I straightened out again.

“I had no idea this was possible,” said Anna. “Hans is coming with your things.”

“Haven't you ever led the horses like this?” I asked.

“I have, but not in a woodlot, and especially not in this woodlot,” said Anna. “This place is a sure one for bogging.”

“The buggy hasn't bogged yet,” I said. “Now tell me – in the past, at least one person had to drive, and the front wheel on that person's side tended to bury itself the worst. Correct?”

“Yes, but...”

“With no person 'driving',” I said, “that problem is removed. Then, there isn't enough headroom to 'drive' in this place anyway, so leading the horses like I am doing is the only way that will work.” I paused, then said, “this isn't commonly done, is it?”

“No, it isn't,” said Anna. “Few take buggies and wagons off of the road.”

“Which reminds me,” I said. “I'll need to ask our tracks to be erased, so those witches think they've come here first.”

“Now you have done it,” said Hans from the rear. “These tracks are fading in a hurry.”

Anna looked at me in horror, then asked, “but how will you know how to get out?”

“I doubt that bark weighs a lot,” I said, “and worse case, we can hide some of it well away from the trees.”

“That will not work,” said Hans, as he came closer. “That stuff goes bad in the damp like this.”

“I didn't propose to leave it for very long,” I said. “If needed, we can take the buggy out, and fetch the remainder of the bark once it's on the road. It might need two trips each to do it.”

I could feel the 'lake' ahead and to my left, and I went along the obvious 'passage' that showed before me between the trees. I hoped we would have time to gather the bark before the witches came, but I knew for a certainty that we would endure gunfire before the day finished.

“I hope they don't kill the trees,” I said.

“Now why would they do that?” asked Hans.

“They want to,” said Anna. “Without medicine that works, then people are sick more.”

“Is it true that most people think medical treatment is a sign of wrongness?” I asked.

“I doubt it,” said Anna. “Most people know enough about swine to not torment those who have fought them.”

Most?” I asked.

“The only exceptions seem to be witches,” said Anna.

When I came to what looked like a 'good' place to park the buggy – the nearest tree was less than a hundred feet away, and the furthest but a short distance further – I let Anna have the reins, and fetched out my equipment from where Hans had put it in the buggy. I looked over what I had laid down carefully, and while the others set out grain-filled pans for the horses, I began walking toward the first tree.

A somewhat familiar odor seemed to slowly grab ahold of my nose. This reek – acrid, foul, and redolent of a stereotypical 'barnyard' – was diffused in the general area, and when I nearly stepped into a long ragged spray of gray-green 'slime', I stopped abruptly.

“T-there was a m-mule here,” I spluttered.

While neither Hans nor Anna paused in their bark-removal, I had the impression I had indeed been heard, and my careful stepping as I followed the 'broad-V' tracks of the mule left a definite impression.

“That supplicant must have been staying here,” I thought, “and...”

I paused in mid-thought upon seeing two obvious pairs of pointed boots. One pair was badly worn, while the other was much less so. I followed the pointed tracks back to one of the trees, and nearly ran into Anna.

“P-pointed b-boots...” I stuttered.

“I saw those,” said Anna, as she levered off a piece of bark, “and every one of these trees shows those tracks. Did you say you found a mule-trace?”

“Y-yes...”

“That explains how that witch got there when he did, then,” said Anna. “Mules tend to be slow when ridden like horses, or so it is said.”

“F-forty miles or so?” I gasped.

“Is that how far it is?” asked Anna between tugs on the bark. “Don't you have a small pry-bar?”

I was about to speak when Hans said, “I would let him watch, Anna. Neither of us are likely to hear those witches coming until they are too close for us to do much.”

I could not hear the witches, for some reason, and when I saw the nearest 'cabin', I thought to investigate it. I wondered about Hans' statement regarding 'itinerants', as I suspected 'commoners' seldom used such places. I began skirting the 'lake', and within moments, I found not merely more mule tracks, but also another squirt of mule-dung.

“Was he coming from that direction?” I thought. “If he had that stinky thing here, how is it we did did not smell it?”

I continued around the lake, and as I walked, I listened carefully. The silence of the place was only echoed by the soft breeze of morning stirring a few branches here and there above and around my head.

The mule-tracks seemed to form a line coming from that one location, and when I came close to its doorway, the 'odor-of-mule' seemed diluted with other smells. I stopped, sniffed, and nearly vomited.

“Th-that wretch was swilling paint-remover, and burning a distillate-fueled lantern,” I gasped, “and he was eating some really bad meat.”

I came to the doorway, knelt down, and looked inside – and nearly fell over in shock at the sight of soot-blackened walls scarred with crudely-shaped rune-curses, a pile of filthy rags laying in a corner that seemed alive with vermin, and in another corner, an obvious mound of supplies. The germ of an idea began to blossom in my mind, and I gingerly went inside.

The reek of bad food and strong drink intensified with each step, and when I found the marks of mule shoes on the floor, I jolted suddenly.

“He was keeping that mule in here,” I squeaked. “Why would he want a mule where... Was he sleeping in here?”

“Yes, though not when the mule was present,” said the soft voice. “It went outside when he was of a mind to sleep.”

I stayed clear of the verminous rags, and nearly shouted when I came to the supplies, for the telltale tops of several jugs showed. I uncorked the first one I picked up and said a silent prayer of gratitude, for I had found a full jug of distillate.

Further searching turned up a partly full one, as well as a crude-looking version of a light-giving firebomb and three capped sticks of old-looking dynamite, as well as some fishing equipment. I felt in my bag, and nearly yelped when I touched one of two friction igniters.

I began bringing out the various supplies I had found, and on my third trip, I was surprised to find Hans looking over what I had brought out.

“We have the buggy half-full of bark,” he said. “It might take us another hour or so to fill it.”

“I think I might have a surprise for our witches,” I said. “I have two friction igniters in my bag here.”

“Do you have string?” asked Hans.

“They have that in there,” I said, “along with three capped sticks of old dynamite. It's strange dynamite, though, as it seems weak in the headache department.”

“It is still likely to explode,” said Hans. “What is in those jugs?”

“Heavy distillate,” I said, “and I doubt it is well-dried, at least if I go by the smell. I think I know where I can rig up two, uh, 'jugs'.”

“I have not seen you climb trees,” said Hans, “and these are not proper jugs for setting.”

“These will be on the ground,” I said. “I might want some help with placing them.”

Rigging the bombs took but twenty minutes once we had brought the supplies to the edge of the woodlot. I was at first at a loss regarding concealment of the jugs until I thought to hide them behind tree-trunks, and Hans was definitely at a loss when I indicated the dynamite needed to go on the side of the jugs.

“It will spray the distillate in one direction,” I said, “and set it on fire while doing it.”

“Ah, that will give them a taste of hellfire,” said Hans. “Now where are you putting these things?”

I had a definite idea as to a good location, for some reason, and when I put the strings such that they went to the handle of each jug and stretched near-taut a few inches above the snow, I wondered if the witches would see the strings – and more, if they would continue into the 'trap'. I had trimmed the fuses as short as I dared.

“That will give them a little while,” said Hans. “That fuse stuff there burns a lot slower than quick-match.”

As we finished rigging the trap, however, I could faintly hear the sound of a 'heavy' vehicle coming steadily. I indicated to Hans that we needed to get back to work, and as we turned and left, I again asked that our tracks be erased. I paused briefly to look behind us, and was shocked to find them gone.

Once back at the trees, I helped load up the buggy with the bark while the other two pried the stuff off of the remaining trees, including two Hans hadn't found the day before. I continued listening intermittently, even as the jingling sounds of harness and the grinding groans of unlubricated wheels came closer, and as I came back to where Anna was prying off bark, she asked, “are those witches coming?”

“I think so,” I said. “I've been hearing something coming for a while.”

“Something?” asked Anna, as she removed a sizable piece of bark.

“It's big, heavy, and has wheels that need lubricating,” I said. “It also has a sizable team.”

“That sounds like a coach,” said Anna. “Can you tell how fast it is coming?”

“Not beyond 'they are not wasting time',” I said. “One of the disadvantages of non-stop coach-runs of real distance is the speed is sometimes embarrassingly slow for a given team.”

“Why?” asked Anna.

“Poor maintenance and fatigued animals are two reasons I can think of,” I said. “Long coach-trips tend to have a fair number of breakdowns as well.”

“I don't know what you mean by long,” said Anna. “I've seen those things break down in the kingdom house.”

“Do they break down a lot?” I asked.

“They seem to,” said Anna. “I've seen several broken coach-wheels in the kingdom house where the witches left them laying.”

“They leave them?” I gasped.

“Yes, they do,” said Anna. “It's usually fairly easy to tell when a wheel was left by a coach.”

“How are they different?” I asked

“They tend to be larger in diameter than any other kind of wheel,” said Anna, “and with few exceptions, they show signs of being smoked in the hubs.”

“No lubricant?” I asked.

“They use fifth kingdom axle grease,” said Anna. “They don't use tallow.”

“T-tallow...”

I stopped in mid-sentence to listen to the now plainly audible noise. Anna seemed oblivious, even as she pried on the last piece of bark on the tree. I turned toward the south, and as I did, she said, “this tree is almost done.”

“Those people are a lot closer,” I said, “They might take another ten minutes to get here, and...”

I again listened carefully, for I seemed to hear not merely one coach. I was hearing at least three.

Three coaches?” I gasped. “How many thugs..?”

While there was no answer, there was bark to convey to the buggy. The thing was close to heaping full, and when I added my armload, I wondered how I would get home. I didn't fancy walking twenty miles or more, and as I moved aside the bark, I murmured, “good, it seems possible to stack this stuff such that I can sit in the bed.”

“Yes, I think so,” said Hans. “Anna says you can hear those witches. Where are they?”

“About two miles off,” I said, “and there's more than one coach. I can hear at least three, and...”

Again, I paused in mid-sentence, for I now could hear more than just coaches. I could hear other vehicles as well.

“So that's why they took so long,” I muttered. “It wasn't enough to just get that high-ranking witch involved. He had to get his retainers and equipment gathered together as well.”

“And do some last-minute maintenance,” said the soft voice. “Not every witch can afford to treat coach and buggy wheels as consumable supplies.”

“What is this?” asked Hans.

“Use them until they break and then toss them?” I spluttered. “N-no maintenance whatsoever?”

“Tossing damaged wheels is a haste-born expedient,” said the soft voice. “Not even the wealthiest witches do it lightly.”

“The cost?” I asked.

“More in time than in money,” said the soft voice. “It takes much less time to repair a damaged wheel than it does to make a new one, and there are many more places able to do so.” A brief pause, then, “those wheels Anna saw in the kingdom house were collected up by supplicants and returned to the Swartsburg after nightfall. They were repaired within days of their return.”

“That is strange,” said Hans. “Broken wheels usually take weeks, if not longer yet.”

I kept silent about my wheel repair episode, as I suspected the combination of few tools that worked poorly coupled with the 'common' attitude I had seen toward work was much of the cause. A time-frame of 'days' was reasonable given decent tools, moderate skill, and a will to work, or so I suspected.

I continued listening, even as Hans and Anna put away their tools and gathered the last bits of bark, and after checking my weapons, I turned to the south. I had the intimation that the witches were in sight of the woodlot itself, and the faint pulsating 'snorting' noises I heard intermittently made for wondering – until I heard a less-than-faint braying.

“That was a mule,” said Hans.

“One of a number,” I said. “Every one of those coaches has a full-mule team.”

“How many of those things do they have?” asked Anna.

“Six per team,” I said, “and five coaches means thirty mules...”

A brilliant yellowish-white blast of light was followed by another, then as a third one erupted, the noise of a massive explosion seemed to pummel our ears. The ongoing nature of this explosion, as well as the red billows of flame and further white flashes, seemed uncommonly long and dangerous, and only when the echoing roar ceased to be submerged in the red flames of distillate did I ask, “what happened?”

“I think those witches are supping with Brimstone,” said Hans.

As if to contest Hans' statement, I saw flickering black shadows moving drunkenly ahead, and faint groaning noises came from the region to our front. I had the impression that at least one coach had gone up in smoke, and while I wondered as to the other vehicles, the drunken shadows continued coming our way.

A faint crashing noise made for a jump on my part, then when Hans fired his weapon, I looked in his direction. Another crashing noise came seconds later.

“Who are these people?” I thought. “The group the witches sent in to draw our fire so they can rush us?”

While Hans reloaded, I covered the front, all the while looking to the sides in expectation of a flank attack. Tottering steps drew closer, then suddenly not thirty feet to the front a well-charred black-dressed thug lurched from behind a tree to then collapse face-down and lie motionless.

The odor of burnt flesh now began wafting our way, and as the minutes steadily ticked off, I could feel the restive natures of both of the others. They were not of a mind to wait; either we needed to leave in all haste, or investigate the mess and then do so. I wanted to wait, so much so that when I reached for my bag without thinking to draw my revolver and then fire twice without looking, I was astonished to find another charred black-dressed thug laying face-down not twelve feet from the buggy.

“That was a close one,” said Anna. “I didn't even see that witch until you shot him.”

“We need to get all of them,” I said. “There might be only a few of these people still alive, but if we leave one, that person will try to kill the trees. The witch-in-charge spoke of that matter at length, and these people all gave oath to perform as per his decree.”

The restive aspect declined abruptly, and minutes later, I thought to begin investigation of the mess. I looked to right and left, and then knew the chief issue: Hans and Anna were safe as long as they stayed close to me – and altogether otherwise if they strayed, at least until I had verified that all of the remaining witches were either dead or incapacitated.

“Follow me,” I said. “I need to check over those witches and...”

“And what?” asked Hans.

“And k-kill a-all of th-the survivors,” I squeaked. “We dare not leave any of these people alive.”

“Do you want to spike their heads?” asked Hans.

I wondered for a moment where Hans was getting his ideas, even as I went to the witch I had shot and drew my hatchet. I chopped twice at the back of his neck, then went to the next one in a steady and growing daze where my mind seemed to retreat from sanity and into a realm that I was but little aware of.

While I seemed to become mindless, my sensing of the locations of witches seemed to but steadily grow, and when I found a third witch, I flipped his body over with my foot and slashed at his throat with the hatchet. Blood spurted briefly and he twitched once, even as a gunshot to my left and rear seemed to scarce penetrate my mental state.

I walked swiftly toward the sound of the gun, then saw Anna reloading her weapon while a witch spat blood as he crawled on his knees. I walked toward the witch, grabbed his stiff black 'hunting' clothing, hauled him up bodily – and then all-but decapitated him with the hatchet and pushed him over backwards while his slashed neck fountained blood in a thick-stalked crimson geyser.

Faint talk seemed to billow in my wake, even as I walked among the trees and killed witch after witch. There was something about the nature of 'hatchet-chopping' that did something in the spirit-realm, and as I gashed throat after throat, I became more and more 'insane'. Death needed a sharp blade, a strong arm, good eyes, and no thinking – and a mind in retreat was no great obstacle when the goal was merciless extermination.

As I came closer to the trapped area, I saw billows of charred soot-stained earth and crisped corpses. Each of them received a hatchet-cut to the throat, as I did not bother checking for life; I bared the throat, then slashed it open with the hatchet. The scent of burnt distillate grew stronger as well, until I finally broke out of the trees into a realm of guttering fires, thick billowing smoke, and scorched earth. I looked to my right, and then my left; I had trouble believing what I saw.

The two trees that I had 'rigged' were blown to kindling, with everything above ground nearby sheared off as if a giant ax had mowed them. The trees toward the center of the 'killing zone' were charred, with tendrils of smoke coming from their blackened trunks and the corpses that lay atop the baked and blackened mud. The destruction had not stopped there, however.

The road was awash with body parts and vehicle fragments for a considerable distance, while chunks of mules and black-dressed thugs lay nearly everywhere. The reek of 'mule' seemed omnipresent, so much so that when someone showed to my right, I asked, “what? Were they drawing the other vehicles with mules, also?”

“I do not see any pieces of horses,” said Hans, “nor do I see any witches that are still alive. I shot three of those things.” Hans paused, then said, “now why is it you were cutting on every witch you saw?”

“I-I'm not sure,” I said. “It's especially important to not leave any person from this group alive, because, they, uh, gave oath to their leader to kill us, destroy all of the bark, and then kill the trees. We'd best get back to the buggy and lead it out.”

I took another path back toward the buggy, and again, I slashed open the throat of every witch I found. I had to wander some as I moved back toward the buggy, but when I came to the 'cabin' where I looted the supplies, I went inside, smashed one of the jugs – it was full of distillate – and then went outside with the lantern. There, I lit the thing and tossed it into the room bodily, then turned and leaped to the side as the building disintegrated in a massive fireball.

The flaming bits landed around me, and as I got up shaking, Anna came running.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“I think so,” I said. “That supplicant was living there, he sooted up the walls, and he carved runes into them that deeded the place to Brimstone. It needed to go.”

I paused for a moment, and when I found a witch trying to escape, I nearly decapitated him with the hatchet. I turned to Anna, then said, “and we need to go. I'll lead the buggy out.”

Weaving among the tree-trunks while avoiding the 'mess' proved more difficult than I was prepared to endure, and I led to the east until I was more or less clear of the woodlot. I then went south until I struck the road. As the three of us carefully stacked the bark in the bed of the buggy, I asked, “can we stop at a town and let them know about the mess back there?”

“Why do you want to do that?” asked Hans.

“So they can burn that mess entirely,” I said. “I hope they're all dead, but burning the witches and their stuff will make certain they won't cause trouble.”

While Hans muttered something about my having some loose rivets, he and Anna still helped with stacking the bark, and at the first town, he spoke to someone at the Public House. The 'publican' seemed astonished, at least until he saw the stacked bark in the back of the buggy. He then went back inside, and returned with one of those nightmarish trumpets, which he blew a long blast upon. The horrible tone made for wincing on my part, and my speech was an expression of my fears.

“There goes the neighborhood,” I muttered.

“How is that?” asked Hans, as he returned to the seat of the buggy. “They should be leaving for that place soon.”

I kept my comments about the horn to myself, even when we stopped later to oil the buggy and water the horses. Once home and the bark down in the basement where it belonged, I helped Hans for the rest of the day while plotting how to make more extractors. I could really see a need for them now.