The Big House, part 4


The next morning, I arrived at the house proper about an hour after true sunrise, where I was dropped off in front of the gates. I was fatigued beyond measure, and I had to walk to my weary labors alone; and with each step, I seemed to hear the ring and crash of steel against steel backgrounded with blood-curdling screams and deep-pitched yells. I wondered if I was enduring a nightmare, or something worse yet, even as I came into the main corridor, for I seemed to see faint red-tinted footprints trailing away from me on the floor. There were words to go with what I saw, and as I recalled the name of the king's wife – Maria – I seemed to hear those very same words in my mind.

I shook my head, even as the faintly red footprints merged with my path. I wondered if they were following me, even as I thought again as to the name of the woman in question. She was weeping – drearily – and the footprints, I now saw were dressed in some fashion. Their redness pulsated such that they lit up the dimmer sections of the corridor I traveled in, and faintly, I seemed to smell a warning. I leaped toward a beckoning doorway just in time to avoid colliding with the crackling sounds of someone pounding down the hall while wearing hard-soled pointed boots.

As the black-dressed 'General' foot-pounded down the hall, I heard the intermittent screeching of an obvious sword as its scabbard-tip dragged across the floor, and the olfactory warning grew stronger. I could truly smell rotten meat mingled with strong drink and other odors I could scarcely place, and only when the noise of the man's 'marching' faded into near-oblivion did I dare to leave my darkened refuge. Seeing him was a fit reminder of the day before, and I shuddered wordlessly.

The instructor had secured the use of a larger table compared to that of our last lecture, and when I came in, I was surprised to find several darkly 'varnished' things that resembled swords for shape if little else leaning against his table. What he had on the table, however, made for wondering: long thin pieces of wood, thin braided lead 'rope', some moldy-looking 'dried hides', an old copper pot, a small bucket of water, several bowls of 'chemicals', a candle, and then several old-looking and somewhat decrepit tools. I knelt down near the 'swords', and looked closer.

“Those are wood-swords,” said the instructor. “The others have gone to fetch the rest of them.”

I gingerly touched one, then hefted it. The weight – easily five pounds – was something of a marvel, until I recalled the heft of the swords I had examined thus far. Five pounds or more seemed the average weight.

“I've looked at thirty or so of those northern things,” I thought, “and at least three or four more come every few days. I wish they'd bring in more of that tinware, though, as I could use that for furnace-charges.”

The others came in a few minutes later, and here I saw the other 'wood-swords'. They seemed passable copies – for their shape at the least – of the swords I had seen the week before, and once the things were laid down with the first examples, we all took our seats on the floor.

The instructor now took up one of the wooden pieces, then beckoned to the class to watch him. All gathered around as he doubled the lead 'rope', then doubled it again and trimmed it with some balky-looking scissors. The crudeness of these last was enough to rattle my teeth – and that apart from their grating noise.

“At least my knife is sharp,” whispered Sepp in my right ear. “Now what is he doing?”

“I think he's showing how to put together practice swords,” I whispered.

“True,” said the instructor. “These are lead-inserted wood-swords, and it's important that you know something of how they're done so you can separate the good from the less-good.”

“Are those marked?” asked another student.

“Of course,” said the instructor. “Unlike real swords, these are made in all of the kingdoms except the third.”

“Do they make real swords around here?” asked the student.

“There are a few people,” said the instructor, “but their swords tend to be worse than the common. Like most things, the fourth kingdom makes the best to be had.”

“Why do they not make wood-swords in the third kingdom?” asked one of the students.

“They do little of value there,” said the instructor. “Given the place is peopled with murderers, brigands, and thieves, I'm not surprised.”

I now noticed a steady and growing odor of rotten meat, as well as a trickle of smoke from an obvious and flaring tallow candle. The instructor was stirring something on the table, and as I looked at the yellowish-brown mess slowly bubbling in the small copper cup, I wondered what it was.

“What is that stuff?” I whispered.

“I think that is glue,” said Karl. “At least it smells like glue. My uncle used glue now and then, and his smelled like that.”

The instructor then dipped a small brush in it, and smeared both wooden halves of the wood-sword. His hurry was such that I marveled, until I saw the 'glue' seeping into the wood before my eyes. When he put the two pieces together, however, I was astonished.

The glue almost seemed to grab the wood out of his hands and then 'freeze' in an eyeblink. He then tied the wood-sword with string in a few places.

“It will take a few minutes to set,” he said. “I can talk about raw-leather while I wait to do the first wrapping.”

He paused, then sipped from a battered-looking tinned copper mug. I then noted the 'hides', the chemicals, and the pot had somehow vanished.

“To make raw-leather,” he said, “take of the hide of a winter-deer, and scrape it carefully, such that there is no fat nor meat on the flesh-side, and no hair to the hair-side, and then drown it well in three changes of salted boiling water, such that the smell of death no longer remains.”

I listened carefully to this spiel, as I had never heard a 'medieval' lecture before, even from the instructor. I wondered just what he meant, and more, the location of a good translation. The thought occurred to me that I might well have to experiment with the subject matter.

“Then, bury the hide deep in a mixture of equal parts thrice-burnt lime and coarse salt for eight days,” said the instructor. “Its burial is to happen at the start of the rest-day at sundown, and its retrieval” – I nearly heard the word 'resurrection', for some reason – “is to happen after church of the week following its interment.”

I wondered briefly at his stipulation as to the days until I thought for a moment. Most people had little happening at those particular times, hence dealing with a smelly piece of 'leather' would be simpler.

“Once you have retrieved the hide, it needs drowning,” said the instructor after a brief pause. “The water must be warm to the hand, such that the raw-leather is like limp string. It may then be cut in strips with a sharp knife, and the wood-sword may be wrapped tightly with it. Take care to do so with as much care as can be had, and leave it to dry next to the stove for three days.”

“What of the remaining hide?” asked one of the class.

“Remove its strips from the water, dry them well over a slow and smoky fire, and put them back in the keeping, which is that mixture of lime and salt I spoke of,” said the instructor. “Raw-leather only keeps if it be wrapped and waxed, or if it is buried in lime and salt, and such wrappings need to dry quickly, so it does not go white or green. Should it do so, the whole sword needs burning upon discovery, as a witch has cursed it. Have nothing to do with such things.”

The muttering that coursed through the class was enough to make me wonder as to the common beliefs of those I was sitting with, at least until the instructor said, “the best wood-swords are made during the winter, as witches tend to show the least then.”

What?” I thought. “Those people...”

I then understood why he had said that: during the winter, the average person spent much less time outside than at other seasons, and hence witches 'showed' less – and for some reason, I had a near-overwhelming impression that everyone except myself accepted this statement as completely reliable.

“After three such wrappings,” intoned the instructor – he again sounded like he was preaching – “one rubs the wood-sword with drying oil, and then finishes it by rubbing it while still warm with the butt of a wax candle. Tallow undoes raw-leather, so never let tallow touch a wood-sword.”

“Is this because it has water in it?” I thought. “As in it has salt, water, organic acids...”

The thought occurred to me to 'neutralize' the stuff by boiling it with a very dilute solution of lye, then boil in a pressure-pot followed by the usual means that Hans did. I glanced down at my possible bag briefly, and as the other students began flowing 'back' to sit down, I stumbled back with them. I then opened my ledger and jotted down some notes about 'tallow-processing'.

“Small amount of sulfuric acid,” I wrote, “slow boil in glass container, then filter carefully with clean rags prior to pressure-cooking with lye...” I paused, then thought, “do they have sodium bicarbonate here, or, er, salaterus? That might work better.”

I continued writing my impressions down until an unbelievable stench usurped the room. I looked up to see the instructor using his knife to cut strips off of a foul-smelling mottled brown 'hide'. He worked rapidly, then once he'd cut the thing to size, he put its remains in a damp-dripping mound. I wondered what he would do next. I didn't wonder long.

He began wrapping the wood-sword with the leather strips in a spiral fashion, then once he'd finished a few minutes later, he 'vanished'.

“Now where did he go with that thing?” asked Karl.

“Recall he mentioned the need for rapid drying?” I asked. “I would bet he's going to stick that thing behind a stove so as to dry it.”

Faintly, I could hear an argument coming from the direction of the kitchen, then a clattering bang as if an irate cook had tossed a pot full of stew at someone. The argument peaked as to noise and fierceness, then the instructor came back a minute later minus his latest creation. I surmised our 'practice' would soon begin.

“A few words before we start,” he said. “While these practice swords don't have edges, they aren't harmless, which is deliberate. You can get hurt doing this.”

I wanted to say “duh,” but refrained. What Hans had said about this training being dangerous was an understatement.

As if the instructor was anticipating a question, he said, “when you use swords, or for that matter, any kind of weapon, there is a real chance of getting hurt. The key issue is to know that beforehand, and gird yourself up so as to endure the likelihood of injury or death.”

I looked at my arm, then moved up its slightly itchy sleeve. The small scar near my wrist showed, and Karl looked at it. I seemed to anticipate a question from him; then as if to answer, the instructor said, “I heard about all of your scars. Most people don't ignore pain and injuries to that degree, nor do they court what most would call certain death.”

I was speechless and wanted to hide in the worst way possible. The instructor continued, and his voice sounded yet more oblivious to all save what was on his mind. He spoke for another minute or two, paused, then said, “now, each of you pick up one of these swords, and follow me.”

'Marching' down the hall to the stairs with strange-looking rawhide-wrapped clubs seemed the height of strangeness to me, and when we came to the first below-ground landing, I wondered if our 'location' would be there.

It wasn't; we continued down to 'disembark' on the second floor below the main one.

The dim lighting and odor of burnt fat seemed to provide an amply 'spooky' atmosphere, and as we moved along the main aisle, I marveled at the sheer size of the place. If anything, the basement floors were larger than the ground floor, and the massive columns of masonry cast long flickering shadows that seemed tinged with soot.

“Why are we down here?” asked one of the class.

“This part of the house has some empty rooms that we commonly use for sword-training,” said the instructor. “Besides, brigands and thieves do a fair part of their business after dark, and if you are going to deal with them, you need to not be afraid of darkness.”

The omnipresent silent screams of the others seemed to ring around my head like wayward comets, and when one of the class said, “but that's when witches are out...” I nearly fainted – both at the man's speech and at recollection of how darkness held little fear for me.

That was not strictly true, I realized with shocking abruptness. Darkness gave me a blatant – and growing – advantage. Furthermore, I had witches coming after me constantly; day or night, it mattered little if I was near them. I then recalled the 'witch-brewed propaganda' of the sacrifice-dream that spoke of all that stirred in the darkness being either a witch or a witch's chattel.

“Do people really believe that?” I thought.

I then wondered more at why I almost preferred darkness for traveling, beyond the fact that I saw especially well then. Was it merely a matter of advantage, or was it something more?

After heading down one dusty hallway that dead-ended in a cross-passage, then going right for some distance behind the dim shadows of the instructor's lantern, we came to an open place with several halls entering onto it. As the instructor passed around lit candles to insert in the old and corroded-looking brass 'lanterns' that had been removed from the walls, I wondered just what was present beyond the reach of conventional vision. I was comforted by the fact that I didn't know much beyond a vague sense of dusty rooms and occasional rodents.

“This isn't something I do at will,” I thought. “I'm glad it isn't my doing.”

Once the 'vestibule' was lit – it was comfortable for me, and marginal for the others – the instructor said, “the first drill is called 'the hall'. It goes down that way” – here, he pointed – “and it involves one attacker and one defender.”

He paused, then raised his voice slightly. “Remember this: advance, advance, advance. Advance and close.”

I wondered for a moment who he was speaking to until I saw him looking at me. I looked back, then asked “yes?”

“You be the defender,” he said. “Go in there first.”

I went into the darkened hallway, and within seconds, the 'darkness' had fallen away to the point where I wondered what had happened. As my eyes continued to adjust, I could hear movement around me, mostly the stealthy moving of sundry rodents, though I could sense people moving as well. Small panes of glass showed on the walls, and when I glanced at one of them, I saw soot near the top of the niche it fronted on, and behind the niche itself, what looked like another piece of glass.

“That looks like an observation port,” I thought, as I continued down the hall. “Now how far down the hall do I go?”

As if to answer, I heard running feet behind me, and I turned to see the light of the vestibule all but blotted out by another student. There was nowhere to run, and... I glanced to the side and saw a small disparity in the wall, perhaps a few inches. I gently moved toward it, then flattened myself against the wall, even as the 'attacker' came closer. I held my 'sword' in readiness by my side.

Within seconds, the running steps began to falter, then slow to a walk. I could hear faint murmuring, then the murmured words abruptly coalesced into coherent speech:

“Where did he go?” asked 'shorter Johan'. “I saw him, and now he's gone.”

Johan came closer, and until he actually went past me, I wondered what had happened. Was 'night-vision' a real problem for some people here? I wondered yet more, even as Johan came to the end of the hallway and began moving around. I looked down at my feet and saw a rat scurry by as if I wasn't present, then as Johan came back, he yelled, “where did you go?”

I let Johan pass me, and once he'd gone perhaps twenty feet, I moved from my hiding place. I walked behind him, slowly gaining on him until I was but six feet from his posterior. I wondered if I could play a trick on him, so much so that as he came closer to the light of the vestibule, I could hear the others speaking – until we came to within a few feet of the actual opening.

“He's behind you!” yelled one of the others.

Johan turned in seeming slow motion, and as he tried to swing, I went to the left. His sword hit the wall as he tried to swing and jarred itself out of his hand while I watched, then as an afterthought, I tapped his ribcage – and slammed him against the wall.

“You are going to get cut,” yelled the instructor. He seemed to be speaking to someone other than me. “Get in your cut. Advance! Advance and close!”

Johan slowly slid down the wall and collapsed on the floor, and I walked closer to him, where I knelt down beside him. For some reason, I didn't feel a pressing sense of urgency, even as I laid him on his side and felt his pulse. I then began passing my hand over his ribs where I'd hit him, even as I heard talk and footsteps coming closer. I then looked up.

“What happened?” asked the instructor.

“I let him swing first,” I said, “and he didn't allow for the length of what he was using, so he hit the wall and dropped the wood-sword.”

“And?” he asked, as Johan began stirring and feeling his side.

“I tapped him there,” I said, as I pointed at his chest, “and...”

Johan moaned, then coughed as he sat up, then he looked dazedly at first the instructor, then at me.

“Where did you go?” he asked.

“I was in here all the time,” I said. “There is a little place where the wall changes and I stayed there until you passed me, then I followed you back out. I had no idea as to what I was supposed to do, in fact.”

“What hit me?” asked Johan. “Something hit my side, and it felt like a lead-loaded club.”

“Uh...” I gasped.

“Remember, Johan,” said the instructor. “You can get hurt doing this. Now I hope you learned something useful.”

The instructor helped Johan to his feet, then led him out. I felt inclined to back up to a degree, only this time, I wanted to hug the right wall. I had backpedaled perhaps twenty feet when another student came running in with his sword in front of him. This time, there truly was no convenient place against the wall, or so I thought until he came within a few feet of me. I pressed against the wall with my 'sword' behind me in my right hand.

He ran past me as if I wasn't there.

“What is happening?” I thought. “This is weird.”

I felt sufficiently perplexed that when I turned to follow him as he continued running blindly ahead, I was astonished to find someone else starting down the hallway. Again, I flattened against the wall – and this time, I hoped this new 'assailant' would actually find me.

Unlike the first two, he was yelling at the top of his lungs, and when he went past me, I almost screamed with the pain of imploding eardrums. I turned to look as he went past me, then to my surprise, his yells merged with that of the previous 'attacker' as they began belaboring each other. I began walking closer as the dry snapping noises of 'clubs' hitting the wall continued intermittently. They hadn't yet learned to allow for their length, and they seldom connected.

“Do they each think they're thumping me?” I thought, as I came within fifteen feet of the two fighters. “At least this part has a little more room to swing.”

I saw another niche in the wall, and when I looked, I saw someone – Karl, perhaps – with his face pressed against the glass. I raised my 'sword' in acknowledgment – and the two that had come after me stopped, then turned around to face me while standing side to side.

“What was that?” asked one of them. I stood still as a statue.

“I... Aren't you him?” asked the other.

“I don't think so,” said the first one. “He seems to be tricky enough for an arch-witch, and worse than a dozen covens otherwise. I have no idea where he went.”

I moved back to the side as the two of them passed me, then I fell in behind them at a 'safe' distance. I wanted to ask some questions about what they actually believed, but as the two of them reached the light of the 'vestibule', I hung back for a moment in the darkness. They stood around, then the first one I had heard speak said, “now where did everyone go?”

I said nothing, as I felt a distinct prickling of danger. The two speakers were not merely ignorant – in general, I realized, and that more so than commonplace – but thought my behavior the product of witchcraft; and between the two of them, I suspected, they might well try for me with the goal of my demise. I then heard voices and footsteps, and the others of the class came out into the 'vestibule' after the instructor.

“I saw everything that happened,” he said to the two of them, “including what he did.”

“What did he do?” asked the first one.

“Nothing like what you are thinking of,” said the instructor. His voice sounded stranger than ever before. “I never thought I would see something out of an old tale happen while I watched.”

“What happened?” asked the second student.

“He moved against the wall,” said the instructor, “and seemed to become part of it. Then, when the two of you went after each other, he came close enough to touch the two of you with his weapon, and he was standing there in the hall waiting for you to try for him.”

“How?” shrieked the first student. “That witch...”

“I truly doubt him to be one,” said the instructor. “Witches don't hide like that.” A brief pause, then he turned to the hallway. He said, “you can come out now.”

I did so slowly, all the while still hugging the wall. I could hear talk, most of it dealing with the supposed capacities of witches, and as I came to the actual 'mouth' of the passage, I halted in mid-stride.

Someone – who, I didn't know – had either said or thought the word 'disgrace'.

I kept my 'sword' at my side, even as the two that had gone down the hall after me seemed to glare my way with unabashed hatred, and when one of them raised his sword, I didn't wait for a question: I brought mine up and had its blunt point at his throat with such speed that I was stunned.

“No, I am not a witch,” I spat. “I have no idea how that happened in there.”

The silence that descended was of such a measure that I marveled, at least for a second, or so it seemed. I ignored it after that, as I needed to make a point.

“I was told I would be doing much of the training,” I said. My voice had a hard and ringing quality which I had but seldom heard before. “I was not given instructions as to how I would do so, or much else. I was quite in the dark about the matter, in fact.”

I paused, then said to the two, “I am not in the dark about your thinking, nor what you purpose to do to me.”

“What is that?” asked the instructor.

“They named me an arch-witch,” I spat, “and said I was worse than a dozen covens for evil. Then, some wretch named me disgraced.”

I paused, then said, “and finally, these two men wish my death, and are plotting so as to accomplish it. They were the first to desire my burning when I trapped that witch-hole, and that second man did not wait for orders just now. He came of his own inclination.”

Here, I reached toward his belt while I continued holding the 'sword' to his throat, then removed a small bag from his left trousers pocket. I handed this to the instructor, who began untying it. Seconds later, he spoke.

“Where did you get all of these gold pieces?” he asked.

The silence of the second man was such that I marveled, until he 'feinted' with his head and tried to break out of the circle of students.

I 'waited' until he had turned his head, then lunged and swung 'backhand' at the base of his skull at the same time. He flew through the air to smash face-first against the nearest wall, and as he slid down the surface, dark runny-looking stains marked the wall with red and growing stripes.

“I suspect someone bought him,” I said mildly. My 'sword' was still raised, yet for some reason, I was much less 'ready'. “Look in his other pocket, and you will find his 'inducement' document.”

The instructor slowly advanced on the man, who lay still upon the floor at the base of the wall. His inert and near-silent form was not troubling to me, for some reason, and as the instructor began pulling out what looked like a copy of the student's ledger, I asked the other man, “I take it you were following his lead. Were you?”

The other student nodded nervously.

“Tell me the truth,” I said evenly. “He tended to suggest such matters, didn't he?”

“He did,” said another student, “and he spoke ill of you from the first.”

“Did you all find him easy to believe?” I asked.

Nervous nods and soft words of assent were only exceeded by the instructor's exclamation of surprise, then nervous steps coming closer with a leather-bound 'document' tied shut with string.

“Open it, please,” I said calmly, as I brought down my 'sword' to my side. “That contains his 'contract', the name of his contact person, and various statements dealing with what is believed by witches, as is proper for someone who greatly wishes to be a witch – and he was working hard to make his bones by murdering me.”

The instructor opened the document, then blanched to a pale whiteness.

“Is what I said true?” I asked quietly.

The instructor nodded, then said, “this lists an address in the Swartsburg near a drink-house that sells services, and it says...”

“He availed himself of those, didn't he?” I asked.

The instructor nodded, then said, “and it says here he had received the tenth of his pay as an inducement toward your murder.”

“That was to be several thousand guilders total,” I said. “Correct?”

The instructor looked at me, then said, “there were twelve gold pieces in that bag, and he'd gotten more, according to what's written here. He spent some in that drink-house you spoke of.”

“One of the tailors spoke of spies,” I said. “Perhaps he is one of them?”

The instructor went to him, looked closer, then shook his head.

“He isn't a spy?” I squeaked.

“He's dead,” said the instructor, “and based on what I've learned in the last few minutes, I think he needs a burn-pile.”

“Question,” I asked. “Is there mention of 'bones' and the name 'Judas' in that document?”

The instructor nearly fainted, then nodded soberly.

“He was to make his bones by killing me,” I said, “and his name as the coven's 'goat' was Judas. He has several sentences speaking of what he wished, along with some strange markings above and beneath them. Correct?”

The instructor brought the document to me, and I blanched abruptly upon seeing the following:

“Th-that c-curse,” I squeaked. “I've s-seen it before.”

“Where?” asked one of the students, who drew nearer to look.

“Th-the inside of that volcano,” I spluttered. “Those cannibals chant it, witches chant it, and the s-s-same for that part in the middle. They ch-chant that part too.”

While the instructor took charge of the documentation and the money – he spoke of going to the king with it, and I didn't blame him much – the rest of us put aside our 'weapons' and began dragging the 'supplicant' toward the stairs. For some reason, that term seemed to 'fit' him especially well, and once we'd carried him up the two flights of stairs and onto the main floor, I was surprised to find a 'reception party' of sorts, these being several cooks, that one particular tailor, and Gabriel, who was looking through the 'documentation' as if he'd found an especially enthralling comic book.

“First, a short musket done as a trap in the room of the swords,” he said, as we dragged the erstwhile witch along the floor, “and then a witch in guard-training.”

“Uh, he didn't have his b-bones yet...” I spluttered.

“He would have had them soon enough, had you not stopped him,” said Gabriel. “Otherwise, the money and what is written here truly names him a witch.”

“B-burn-pile?” I gasped.

“That is being made up now out back,” said Gabriel. “Once he's on it, then you can return to your teaching.”

I was not looking forward to the idea of burning someone, even if that someone was dead, and my thinking was thoroughly flavored with the recollection of how I felt just before cutting up that one foul-smelling witch. Even that which had happened the day before had nothing on this mess, as my asking for the witches being burned was to ensure none of them survived – and more, my thinking had been strange then, so much so that I wondered more than a little as to whether it was indeed mine.

“I was mostly concerned with the stink and the mess with that one witch,” I thought, “and making sure none of those people were able to hurt those trees. Now they want to burn this wretch?”

As we came into the rear area, I saw a small area cleared of snow and mud, with a shallow pit off to the side ringed round with spaded mounds of dirt. Two men were tossing firewood in the hole, and as we came closer with the body, I noted two jugs. The smell spoke of distillate, and after setting the corpse down by the side of the hole, I turned to go back toward the door. I had no desire to see a 'funeral pyre', and the growing nightmares that danced before my eyes were such that I nearly collided with a small 'line' of people coming outside. I turned and looked at the slowly-growing throng, and knew beyond all doubt I wished no part of the affair.

I passed another twenty people before I came to where I had seen the 'greeting party', and as I stood around looking at a now-deserted hallway, I heard steps coming from my left. I turned to see Karl and Sepp.

“Are burn-piles thought prime entertainment?” I said. I had barely managed to keep a sob out of my voice. I suspected I was paying the price for yesterday as well as today.

“I am not sure if people think them entertaining,” said Sepp. “I wondered where you had gone.”

“Did you wonder why I didn't want to look?” I asked.

“Is it like with too much swine?” he asked.

I could not hold back the tears, and as my legs gave way, I moaned, then sobbed, “I killed a lot of witches yesterday, and I killed another one today. God, help me, I'm a murderer.”

Hands gently picked me up, and I was led blindly away. I could scarce think of where I was being led, until a door opened and the odors of cooking spoke of the refectory. I was helped to a seat, then someone came closer.

“I'm glad Hans left this,” said a familiar voice. “Here, have some.”

“W-what is it?” I sobbed.

“This is the widow's tincture,” said the voice. I recognized the speaker as one of the cooks.

I blindly opened my mouth, and someone put in a few drops of the evil-tasting material. Within less than a minute, I nearly screamed, and my tears came faster. I seemed to smell death in the room as a palpable presence, and shadows on the walls accused me of evil.

“Why do you weep so?” asked Karl. “I have seen people with trouble from swine, but they were not like this.”

“I have,” said the cook. “One of them fired his gun at ten paces, and the pig wrecked the gun and nearly killed him – and that was him. Anna said he endured worse things yet.”

“What could be worse than swine?” asked Sepp.

“Witches worse than any since the drowning,” said the cook, “and them in numbers too great to count. She said she'd seen some of them, and I believe her.”

“How did she see them?” asked Karl. “Did they try for her?”

“That was strange, or so she said,” said the cook. “They were like those spoken of in the old tales, only worse yet, and her seeing was like that written of.”

The silence that followed seemed permeated with shuddering, and I opened my tear-filled eyes to see both Karl and Sepp drinking down mugs of obvious beer. Their panicked visages were marvels to me, and when I saw the cook, he said, “about half the house is outside watching that burning.”

“D-do you wonder why I'm not out there?” I gasped between sobs.

“No, I don't,” he said. “It was enough for you to stop him, and that caused you great trouble.”

“H-how?” asked Sepp.

“The tales speak of the price paid by those who deal with witches,” said the cook. “I've wondered what they were speaking of in the past. I wonder less now.”

“Why, did they need to pay death-money?” asked Karl.

“D-death-money?” I gasped. “What?”

“Few do that now,” said the voice of Gabriel. I turned to see him entering the refectory. “Why are you not outside watching that witch burn?”

“Gabriel, how dare you!” spat the cook. “He broke down in tears, and needed dosing.”

“He did?” said Gabriel. “Do you know... Is this...”

He stopped in mid-sentence, then asked, “did that witch curse you?”

“N-no,” I sobbed. “H-he c-called me, or s-someone called me, a-a-a d-disgrace.”

“Thus did witches speak in the tales,” said Gabriel, “and those witches...”

Again, Gabriel stopped in mid-sentence. His talk was uncommonly troubling on top of being 'oblivious', and when Hans showed, Gabriel turned and fled as if he needed to visit the privy post-haste.

“There is a burn-pile outside,” said Hans. “Did you kill that witch?”

“He did,” said the cook, “and it affected him badly. I'm glad you left that tincture, as he needed it.”

Hans looked at me for a moment, then asked, “what did you use? There was talk of him having a broken head.”

“He used one of these wood-swords,” said Karl. “I never saw anyone move that fast in my life, nor did I...”

“Yes, and what else did you see?” asked Hans.

“I s-saw him vanish like smoke,” said Karl. “He held that thing up, and then he wasn't there suddenly.”

“Where was this?” asked Hans.

“Where they do the sword-training downstairs,” said Karl. “I think I need to learn more about those tales, as... Do they speak of people hiding like that?”

“They do,” said Hans, “and you do not want to speak much of what you saw. It was bad enough yesterday getting that bark.” Hans paused, then said, “he has enough witches after him as it is, and he does not need trouble with more of them.”

“Including that one that is burning,” said the instructor's voice. “I saw all that happened, and I'm glad that witch is where he belongs.”

“Who was it?” asked Hans.

“One of the students,” said the instructor. “He had twelve gold pieces, and that was the remaining part of his inducement.”

“Now what is this?” asked Hans. “Was that wretch a hired thug?”

“He was,” said the instructor, “and those papers he had spoke of him being a s-sup... I cannot say that word.”

“He was a supplicant,” I said between sobs. “He would have become a witch had he killed me.”

Did you go to the higher schools?” asked the instructor.

“I am not sure where he went,” said Hans. “He does a great deal that they do not teach, and knows more yet.” Hans paused, then said, “and that is for chemistry and sums, and things like them. I have never seen or heard of anyone that writes like that.”

“I know my handwriting is terrible,” I muttered. “It has become worse since I came here.”

“That is when you do not write it twice,” said Hans. “I can read it then, though I want a word-book for some of your words.”

Class resumed shortly thereafter, with me being in the hall again defending. Try as I might, the others tended to not see me unless I worked at being visible; even then, the 'combats' tended to be so one-sided that after several instances, I was pulled out for a breather.

“Do you have any idea as to why no one can see me in there?” I asked.

“I don't,” said the instructor. “The old tales speak of marked people being nearly impossible to find if they were of a mind to hide.”

“But I'm not trying to hide,” I spluttered. “I have to wave my arms around and speak for them to know I'm there, and if I try anything at all...”

“I wondered how anyone could take on that many of those northern people and do what you did,” he said, “but any more, I wonder much less.”

He paused for a moment, then said, “you might want to chase down that person in the Swartsburg and bring back his head for a pole.”

What?” I squeaked. “Why?”

“Practice,” he said. “That, and they'd try for you a lot less.”

I wondered where the instructor was coming up with his ideas until the next lecture, where he spoke of 'tactics'.

“When you have a sword in your hand, there are but few things you need to know,” he said. “The chief of them is to advance and close with the enemy, and the second of them is to know you will get cut.”

He paused, then said, “do not concern yourselves with being hurt or killed. Advance and close, then cut with all your strength.”

“What?” I thought. “That's crazy.”

“When you attack, aim at the arms and legs,” he said. “They are seldom armored, even if your foe is from the north.”

“What of their eyes?” asked a student.

“Thrusting at the head is a poor tactic,” said the instructor. “Swords are not daggers, and hence thrusting is unwise.”

There was murmuring in the class, chiefly about daggers and knives. The instructor continued a moment later.

“Brigands and thieves commonly have daggers,” he said, “and you would be advised to procure one in addition to the usual for knives.”

“D-daggers?” I squeaked. “What do they look like?”

“Talk has it you have seen them,” he said.

“Those w-were witches,” I said, “and I don't want to use a witch-d-dagger...”

“You might well make one that suits you, then,” said the instructor. “If you do, I would plan on making them in numbers, as it is likely people will desire them.”

A brief pause, then the instructor said, “if you must block with your sword, use its flat side, and not its edge. It is better to not block, as the motion used for blocking is better used for cutting.”

“Is this to prevent nicking the edge?” asked 'taller Johan'.

“That is but part,” said the instructor. “I have seen swords break up when used for blocking.” Another brief pause, then “when attacking, concentrate on making your blows as fierce as possible. Where you hit is less important, though you want to concentrate on the limbs.”

A round of questions ensued after this, and upon its ending, the instructor intoned, “sword-work is always bloody, and death and injuries are to be expected. Still, it is a requisite to engage the enemy when such is in sight, and such is your oath. Do not shirk from battle, as cowards deserve hellfire.”

I began to acquire an impression – it was best to use a sword against a lesser-armed opponent, and so forth up the various ranks of equipment. The instructor confirmed this but seconds later.

“Swords are best used when one or more of the following four matters is present,” he said. “Firstly, should you be too close to use aught else. Then, they are decisive.”

He paused to let this statement sink in. I wondered if he was watching me take notes.

“Secondly, when guarding persons such as the king, the queen, and 'men of importance',” he said. “They demand such attention, and it must be provided as per their desire and your capacity. Thirdly, there are circumstances where swords will be especially respected, and their use is a matter of power.”

“When is that?” asked one of the students.

“When dealing with those fond of black-cloth,” he said. “Such people respect such weapons greatly, more so than those of lesser import.” A brief pause, then “and finally, when questioning brigands, thieves, and witches using methods of the third degree.”

This last seemed to be ignored by the class, so much so that when another student asked a question about those wearing black-cloth respecting swords, the oblivious-sounding speech of the instructor seemed to be uncommonly tormenting:

“If you have your sword out and waiting, they are more likely to answer your questioning without undue surliness. Otherwise, they are likely to try for you, should they be overly intoxicated.”

“Is it common for them to be so?” asked one of the students.

“It is,” said the instructor. “Black-cloth and drunkenness commonly walk foot-in-boot.”

The lecture concluded with a reiteration regarding nicks and 'injuries' to one's weapon. Like before, the instructor spoke of such damage as needing prompt attention, but unlike the last instance, he said, “if such things occur, it is best to send it back to its maker. Only fools trust their own hands to do such work, for ignorance of such matters will surely lead to trouble. That is especially true of better blades, as they neither forget nor forgive such insults.”

As he said this, however, I had a distinct feeling, one of concentrated horror; it was not easy hearing him speak as if only 'arch-witches' could make good swords, and as I left the room at the tail of the column as we went downstairs for our training, I thought, “he seems to think good swords to be compounded of 'magic' and meteorites, and their function to be determined by their looks alone.” I paused in my thinking, then thought, “what happened at the bridge still is a mystery to me.”

Our next instance of 'drill' involved certain 'fixed' moves in stylized fashion, with chalked places on the floor of the vestibule. There, we – or rather, the other students – were shown the rudiments of 'block', 'parry', and 'slice', and following this, the others practiced while I stood to the side and the instructor 'coached' the others. For a moment, I wondered why I was being left out, at least until I watched closely. I then felt reminded of the time with the poles and how I picked up the matter presented far quicker than the usual – and also, how I had thumped Karl.

During a break, however, I was asked to 'demonstrate' the various moves. I drew, then faced the wall so as to faintly see a shadow. It was hard to run through the motions without some indication of a target, for some reason, and when I was told to 'block', 'parry', and 'slice', I did so, in spite of the feeling of overwhelming clumsiness.

“I've never seen someone do that quite as smoothly,” said the instructor. “Were you moving slower than normally?”

“I saw how everyone seemed to have trouble holding and maneuvering these things,” I said, “so I concentrated on showing how the moves were to go. I had to go slower to do so.”

“Now show how you would do were your honor impugned,” he said.

“What?” I thought. “Honor?”

I looked at the instructor, then slowly mouthed the word “honor?” His oblivious face was sufficiently tormenting that only when I saw a flicker of movement to my right did I think to turn, and when I did so, I nearly dropped the sword.

A filmy black-dressed witch was standing with drawn sword, and when my eyes met his, he lunged at me without hesitation.

The sword seemed to move of itself with swift and brutal efficiency. I was not even close to being photogenic, or even 'stylish' as I 'flicked' the point of his blade away and slashed across the figure's chest with the tip of my blade. He drew his 'dagger' from a belt sheath, then with both blades he again leaped to the attack.

Dividing his attention by using two blades made matters slightly easier for me, as I first sliced at the underside of his dagger-arm, then blocked his sword-arm with the wide portion of the blade. I now longed for a sword that permitted thrusting, and as his dagger fell toward the ground, I again slapped his sword-arm to the side with the flat of the sword, then swung at his neck.

The figure abruptly vanished with a faint scream when I connected, and as I turned to the others shakily, the instructor asked, “now that was a demonstration. It looked as real as anything I've ever seen.”

“Th-there was s-something t-there,” I said. “S-some black-dressed thug who used both sword and d-dagger.”

The instructor's face blanched so quickly I wondered if he would faint, at least until he gasped, “did this person seem especially good?”

“He wasn't an amateur,” I said. I could not keep the shaking out of my voice. “He was almost as tough as one of those tin-wearing northern people, as I had to remove his h-head to make him stop.”

“That sounds like who I was thinking of,” he said. “Now what did you do with his head?”

“I r-removed it,” I said. “I cut him repeatedly, and he ignored being cut, just like those northern people tend to do. He didn't stop until I cut his head off.”

“You may want to keep that in mind for the future,” said the instructor, “though how you could deal with him before I could count three is a mystery.”

I mentioned what had happened on the way home to Anna as she drove, and her talk, while more 'realistic', did not help much.

“Why did he suggest you go after that man?” she asked.

“P-practice,” I muttered. “Who does he think me to be, a witch? I cannot just go after someone and murder them like that.”

“That man sounds like a witch, though,” said Anna. “If he sent someone after you, he might not stop otherwise.”

“N-no proof?” I gasped.

“Didn't that witch try for you?” asked Anna.

“Th-the supplicant?” I asked.

Anna nodded, then said, “I've heard of witches sending others to do their killing before.”

Anna paused, then said, “and if talk is true about what happened today, I think you might want to go after that witch just the same.”

“How?”

“I've heard of witches showing like that one did,” said Anna. “It may be spoken of in old tales, but I've heard of it happening like it did with you, also. Hendrik has said he's seen witches show like that more than once.”

“There was no one physically there,” I said. “I could see a filmy form...”

“I've seen enough witches show like that since you came,” said Anna, “and that dark-haired one is especially bad. I'm glad she hasn't showed recently.”

“Uh, with sword and dagger?” I asked.

“That... What?” gasped Anna.

“This wretch had both, and used both,” I said. “He might not have been quite as tough as one of those northern people, but he made up for it in other ways.”

“What did you do?” asked Anna.

“I-I removed his head,” I said, “and he screamed and vanished.”

Anna was sufficiently shaken that I needed to fill a tinned copper cup with beer, then hand it to her to drink. Only after three refills was she able to speak rationally, and her speech then was sober-sounding, if not dire.

“I hope you can make a sword soon,” said Anna. “That one man spoke of how those at the kingdom house tend to have cracks in them.”

“Th-they d-don't see those,” I said. “All that seems to matter is the things are 'marked' with the appropriate symbols and are treated properly, just as if they were common distilleries.”

I nearly said the word 'idol' instead of 'distilleries'.

I stayed later at the shop that evening, for I could no longer wait to begin with the forging of what I now knew to be a requisite. Its length meant using the largest forge of those in the shop, and after doubling the billet once, I found myself fatigued enough to pack the thing in charcoal for cooking along with another sectioned billet for knives and other tools. As I walked home in the darkness, I wondered if I could make a sword that would actually work.

The next day's lecture spoke of 'tactics' in reference to those northern people. Here, I was astonished beyond measure when the instructor spoke of them.

“With those northern people, if you can hear them, they are here,” said the instructor. “If you cannot hear them, they are not your business.”

“But...” I squeaked. I recalled how I knew when they were present, and that regardless of noise or any other common means. He seemed uncommonly oblivious, and he confirmed his thinking minutes later.

“They are not your business,” he said flatly. “Silence on the march is something those people seem to know little of, as I have never heard them not sing or pound kettles, and both of those things loudly.”

“Can those people be tracked?” asked Karl.

“It is most unwise,” said the instructor, “and the most recent attempt to do other than time-tested methods proved once more that nothing good can came of such doings. That entire group, save for one man, was killed, and their deaths accomplished nothing beyond a crop of widows and orphans.”

“What of witches?” asked Karl. For some reason, he seemed to have questions now.

“Hunting is the best training for witches and brigands,” said the instructor, “as wounded game behaves in much the same way. They leave tracks and blood-trails behind them when wounded, they desire to have revenge, and they will try for you if they can see or hear you.”

The instructor paused, then said, “all of you have heard of hunting, if not actually done it. I would hunt as much as you can find time for.”

After a brief break, we again returned to the 'deep-floor' for further sword-work. Here, there was a new drill, this being 'the dining room'. Someone had put three old tables and a number of chairs around a dimly lit room off of the vestibule, and again, I was to be the defender at first.

I also received no instruction as to how to act or what to do, and when I went inside, I waited near the rear of the room. The instructor seemed to have trouble finding anyone to want to come inside, so much so that I was astonished to see 'taller Johan' bodily kicked into the room to land face-down on the floor.

I wanted to help him up, but hung back. For some reason, I wondered about him shamming for a second, then came closer slowly, using the furnishings for cover. I was careful to keep the wood-sword pointed down toward the floor as I came closer to the table nearest the door. Johan was trying to crawl under it, and as I came closer to the table in question, I thought to give him a wide berth. I didn't want him slicing on my legs.

The thought occurred to me to 'flush' him out, and as I came to the left side of the table, I leaped up in the air, then landed on top of the thing and leaped off whirling in midair. I was more than a little surprised to see his posterior coming out from under the table on the right side, and I landed but a foot away. I had an idea, and thought to try it.

I gently tapped his rear with my foot, as if I were nudging a soccer ball.

He screamed as if I'd broken something, then shot out from under the table and scrambled for the door while still screaming. This time, he made it outside, and I came to the door after him.

“Perhaps someone else needs to be the defender,” I said quietly. “I think he's frightened of me.”

I was not heard amid the instructor's yelling, and Johan was pushed back inside. His fear was such that I looked at him with an expression that was – to me, at least – a mixture of pity leavened largely with curiosity. I put the wood-sword on the table, so as to 'give him a chance'.

He swung on me with sudden abruptness, just as I had suspected he might.

While he swung with all his might with both hands – he wasn't slow that way – I still moved out of the way easily, then reached in and grabbed his arm near the shoulder. I pulled him back toward me with my right hand and put my left arm around his forehead – and bent him backwards like a crochet wicket, with my right arm poised to strike. The effect of my doing so was of such stunning magnitude that when I asked him a question, he could only scream in terror.

“No, no screaming,” I said quietly. I then asked the question again.

Why did you crawl under the table like that?”

He only screamed more.

“Johan,” I said quietly. “I do not have a knife in my other hand.”

“You d-don't?” he shrieked. “I thought you did.”

What?” I squeaked. I then looked at my right hand, and turned loose of him.

For some reason, I seemed to faintly see one of those 'bowie knives' in my hand, with the blade pointed down. It did not remain for more than an eyeblink, thankfully, as I felt reminded of another time long in the past.

Johan bent down toward the floor to pick up his dropped wood-sword. I grasped the hem of his trousers and the back of his shirt, then 'frog-marched' him toward the door. This time, I was a good deal less gentle, and delivered him up to the instructor.

“I'm not sure I have anything that resembles honor,” I said, “but I think he thought I had some, and tried to take advantage of it.”

“What did you do?” asked the instructor.

“I laid the wood-sword on the table nearest the doorway,” I said, “and like I suspected he might, he tried for me then.”

“I heard him scream,” said Karl. “What did you do?”

“I dodged his swing,” I said, “and then grabbed him as if I was going to cut his throat.”

The instructor looked at me with narrowed eyes, then asked, “how?”

I turned loose of Johan, and quicker than the time before, I grabbed him as I had done previously. The movement was so fast that I barely had time to think – and for some reason, I had my right hand ready to deliver a 'hammer-blow' to his throat.

Johan went limp on me, and the dribbling sound I heard seconds later spoke of his needing to visit a privy.

“What did you do?” asked the instructor.

“What I did inside,” I said, as I laid his inert body down to the floor and turned him on his side. “How he saw me holding a knife is a mystery, as I only saw something for a short time.”

I paused, then said, “there was nothing physically there.”

Yet as I said this, I recalled instances where someone – or some thing – was present, such that others saw filmy shapes.

“Perhaps he knew what I could do,” I murmured.

“What was that?” asked Sepp.

“I could have easily killed him without a knife,” I said. “I could have crushed his throat.”

“How?” asked the instructor.

“By striking it with my fist,” I said. “I've heard of it being done like that.”

The look of askance I saw did not surprise me, but its abrupt fading did, and while someone else went in the room to be the defender, the instructor said, “you're apprenticed where you live, aren't you?”

“I was told that was the case,” I said.

“Then that explains it,” he said. “Most people have no idea about those things.”

His cryptic remarks didn't affect my recollection of where I'd learned that particular concept, and sending two other students into the room one after another spoke of profound oblivion to all thinking other than the obvious and the common. When the sounds of a 'battle' came from within the room, the instructor went to the doorway and began yelling encouragement. I looked around, and as I did, I saw clearly the presence of visitors in the shadows. They remained where they were for a few seconds, then glided into greater darkness.

I was able to work on the sword some more once I returned home, with it serving as a break from the other activities I needed to do. The orders had continued to grow in number, and while those things I marked out were done, they tended to be done badly enough that they saved me but little time. The troubling recollection of what Anna had said – I was 'paying their bills' – came back to me, and I wondered again as to its precise truth. It seemed uncommonly likely, for some reason.

Lecture the next day spoke of 'out-in-the-open' battle during the daytime, and while I remained silent about what I had done at the ditch, the instructor's oblivious voice seemed to ring clearly in my mind as if he were chanting like a witch:

“Casualties are part of battle, and must be endured, and the more desperate the fight, the more graves. You will dig your share of them, hence learn your spade as well as your sword.”

“Graves?” I thought. “No burn-piles?”

The next drill involved stairs, and here, I had to watch myself to avoid tripping as I went up and down the semi-hidden stairs in the northwest corner of the building with the others coming after me. Again, I was the defender, and while the stairs themselves were tricky at times, the swords of the others were easy to 'remove' from their hands. I tried to avoid thumping them, as they tended to get ample bumps and bruises from falling down the stairs.

On the way home, I consulted my notes that I had made that day. I was at the very end of the first ledger, and packed it away in a bag once home. I had work to do on the sword, I now realized, and I gave it more time proportionally compared to before, so much so that I welded and folded it twice that day before packing its box carefully with charcoal, and I came home later than before.

I had the intimation that our lecture would be different the next day, and when the last student arrived that morning, the instructor spoke to me as he again handed me the key.

“Fetch the best musket you can find,” he said. “I'll have the cleaning supplies here when you return.”

I thought about why swords were thought to be especially important, given how poorly most of the class had done with them so far, and when I came to the room in question – it was the same one as before – I opened the lock with the key. For some reason, there was an aspect where I wanted to open the door from the side while kneeling on the floor. I moved toward the wall, knelt down, then kicked the door – and as the door banged to its stop and began flying open, I jerked my leg out of the way in a strange pirouette to slam broadside into the wall with my face on the floor.

The thundering roar and billow of smoke that belched out of the room made for a barely-suppressed shriek on my part, and when I crawled to the edge of the doorway, I noted smoking splinters of wood and gray-toned fuming fragments on the floor. I looked up and saw the door itself had been chewed badly by what looked like a sizable shotgun.

“How did they know I would come here?” I gasped, as the sound of running feet came from far to my left.

I turned to see the instructor coming at what passed for a dead run with the class trying to keep up, and I stood shakily using the wall to lean on. The smell of powder smoke was intense and growing stronger, and when I looked again at the door, I noticed the holes that had appeared in it. Their jagged nature spoke of something other than shot, I now realized – and the damaged hinges spoke of the thing's power.

“What happened?” asked the instructor.

“I d-don't know,” I spluttered. “I knew the place was rigged, so I kicked the door open from the floor and to the side.”

I paused for a second, then asked, “was that a witch-jug that went off?”

There were no answers, and when I carefully looked inside, the shards of thick-walled 'pottery' reminded me of the 'jugs' I had seen Hans working on. I wondered for a moment who could have secured a jug of that type.

“Now who would know how to rig one of those?” asked the instructor from behind me. “I don't think there are any bombers that would wish you dead.”

“Who would know of my needing to visit this room?” I asked.

The silence seemed to demand further questioning on my part, so much so that I asked, “did you speak of what you were planning to do to anyone?”

“No, not really,” said the instructor. “I cannot think of anyone who heard me speak of the matter wishing to kill you.”

“Who did you speak to?” I asked. “The cooks?”

“There might have been one or two of them here that heard,” he said.

“Were there any black-dressed people nearby?” I asked.

He looked at me in horror, then said, “yes. One of them was arranging for a meal, in fact.”

“And do you speak of such things elsewhere?” I asked. “Such as at one of the Public Houses in town on the way home?”

“But how would that make a difference?” he asked.

“I've heard there are places outside of the Swartsburg that are controlled by those people,” I said, “and if you spent a few hours eating and drinking in one of their Public Houses...”

“How?” he stammered. “I don't see any of them there, so how could they know?”

“Do you spend time every afternoon...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, for I had an impression as to where this Public House was. I asked, “is this Public House near Kokenstraat?”

He nodded.

“Is it a big place, with a lot of, uh, 'fancy' buggies commonly in the yard,” I asked, “buggies with larger-than-common teams?”

Again, he nodded.

“Dark brown 'severe'-looking clothing inside?” I asked. “That isn't at all rare in that place, is it?”

“I never really thought of that before,” he said. “I've been going there every day for years.”

“And they pump you for information every time you go there,” I said. “That information goes straight to the Swartsburg when you leave that place to head home.”

“Still, how could they put a jug in this room?” he asked. “I have the key to it.”

I looked at the key, then said, “this is a simple key to duplicate. Tell me, does this key open all of these rooms?”

He nodded. I was not surprised in the slightest.

“Then I would bet it's not the only one,” I said. “Then, making up a jug... Was that a jug?”

I cautiously took a step inside, and looked closer at the shards of 'pottery' that lay scattered on the floor. I knelt down, then touched one of them. The sharp-edged shape of the fragment seemed familiar enough, but touching it spoke of its still-warm metallic nature, and its weight made for wondering.

“That was not a jug,” I muttered. “Look at this piece of metal I found.”

I handed the metal piece to the instructor, then began peering into the dimness while murmurs began springing up outside.

“This looks to be a piece of a swine-shell,” he said a moment later. “Wait until we get some lights, and then we can help you.”

“N-no, not just yet,” I said. “Let me check the room by myself, as there might be another one of those things in here, and I don't want the rest of you to be blown up should I stumble onto it.”

That seemed to keep the others 'at bay', and my careful looking soon found well-gnawed fragments of what had once been a chair. The stained aspect of these fragments, as well as their smell, spoke of 'musket powder', and when I returned to the door, I said, “it seems clear enough. I suspect they figured that bomb would do the trick.”

“Where was it?” asked the instructor.

“A few feet inside the passage, and waist-high on a chair,” I said. “It might have been touching the door when fully opened, in fact.”

“How did you open the door, then?” asked the instructor. I noted a distinct 'oblivious' tone in his question, so much so that I wondered as to why he hadn't heard my previous explanation.

“I knelt down next to the wall and kicked it open after unlocking it,” I said.

The 'room of the muskets' was some distance down the right-going passage at the end of the hall, and while we had passed a number of racked examples, the instructor spoke of those being next for 'being gone over'. The 'good ones' were supposed to be hiding in the room he had spoken of.

“If you sent me here,” I asked, “and that was the arrangement, then how was I supposed to know that?”

“Talk has it you would have found what I asked for,” said the instructor. “Besides, how did you know that door was rigged?”

“I j-just knew,” I said. “I had to test those swords and look at them some to find what seemed a decent one...”

I stopped in mid-sentence when we came to the threshold of the room in question, for I had a strong impression. It was not about muskets, however, and as the others went in behind the instructor, I wondered as to what I was feeling.

“Why do I seem to feel another way of getting in here,” I thought, “and why do I more or less know that this other way is a well-kept secret? A secret that few know of?”

As I came in last, I kept silent. The impression had grown more detailed, and I was loath to speak of it in present company.

“They'll tell those they know or those they come in contact with,” I thought, “and those black-dressed thugs will learn of it.”

The room had racks arranged neatly, and as the others looked at the various 'guns', the instructor said, “look, but don't touch. We won't be using those for a few days yet.”

I felt inclined to go to one of the racks nearest the wall furthest from the doorway, and when I turned it around, I reached for the weapon third from the nearest end. When I touched it, I felt a strange thrill run through my hand and arm, and as I hefted it, I felt all eyes upon me. I then carried the slimy-feeling thing to the instructor.

“Is that it?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said, as I glanced around the room. “This one feels really slimy, for some reason.”

“Is that why you picked it?” he asked.

“I felt something different about it,” I said, “something about it being different from the common for workmanship, and this stuff they put on it is...”

The instructor took it from my hands, and I looked around for a rag. Someone offered me one, and I wiped my hands frantically. It was all I could do to not go into a convulsion and scream, for I had felt grease instead of tallow – and not ordinary grease, but the stuff that was absolute torment to touch.

With the class and musket back in the room, the instructor began wiping the thing down with distillate-soaked rags. The vile stench spoke of distillate that had seen but little if any drying, and when I was asked to come to the table, I wondered for a moment as to whether I would 'clean and polish' the gun, or merely check it over.

“I've heard you work on these,” he said.

I was glad I had some tools with me in my bag, and once I'd brought them to the table and asked for a stool, I began going over the weapon. The first surprises proved to be the lockplate screws.

“These screws are decent,” I said, as I removed the fourth screw out of five, “and I see very little rust so far.”

“I think you found an unused musket from the fourth kingdom,” he said. “You might want to try this one for your own use.”

“Uh, I brought mine...”

The silence that descended was a near-marvel, for it continued until I had the gun stripped completely. I brought out a stub of a tallow candle, then began the 'spit and tallow' cleaning regime of the bore.

“This one has no real soot accumulation,” I said, as I brought out a used patch that showed little dirt. “It must not have been shot much before they stored it.”

“They might have tested it, then,” said the instructor. “I've never seen tools like these before. Did you make them?”

“Mostly I did,” I said. “Some I just had to clean up and go over.”

As I said this, however, I discerned clearly the questioning in the instructor's mind, and I said, “shiny tools tend to rust readily, so I didn't polish these. Then, the various temper-colors remind me to be especially careful with the more-brittle tools, and...”

“And what?” asked the instructor.

“If I need to do work in the field, I do not want shiny tools to attract the attention of the enemy,” I said. “I've been trying to find the recipe for this one coloring scheme that is used on guns, as I suspect it will help more than a little.”

“How so?” he asked.

“The color was said to be a dark bluish-black,” I said, “and depending on the existing surface finish prior to treatment, one could get anywhere from a soft lustrous color to one that was nearly completely non-reflective. Then, I suspect it helps prevent rust.”

I reassembled the gun after carefully oiling its action with the contents of my oil-vial, then wiped it down with a soft rag. I wondered if we were to use the thing today as I began cleaning up my 'mess', and as I finished 'packing', I abruptly 'jerked'. The class had been observing me the majority of the time, and learning of their close proximity was troubling.

“Uh, what was that for?” I asked.

“I've only seen the insides of muskets twice before,” said the instructor, “and I've never seen them worked on like you just did. I suspect that to be the case with the other students.”

The lecture proper began once the instructor had cleaned his 'mess' up, and as he spoke of 'coarse' and 'fine' powder, the restive aspect of the class became steadily more difficult to ignore. I had the impression that the ignorance regarding swords did not extend to firearms – at least, as long as the instructor spoke of the commonplace issues of balls.

Shot proved a different matter, and when a 'sample' shot-pouch began touring the group, I awaited it with bated breath. I wanted to see what the stuff looked like.

“You will want a small bag of shot in your ready-pouch,” said the instructor, “along with a wad of linen-waste for wadding.”

“What is linen-waste?” asked shorter Johan.

“That is what is left from making linen cloth,” whispered Karl. “It is common stuff in Mercantiles, supposedly.”

“That is not strictly true up here,” said the instructor. “You will most likely need to either ask for it by order and pay an inducement, or check several such places during late spring or early summer, as the freighters will be running steadily by then.”

“Why is it we want shot?” asked shorter Johan. “Game?”

“That is not common in this area,” said the instructor. “Many of the birds in the first kingdom are not edible, while most of those that are fit to eat need balls to drop them.” He paused, sipped from his mug, then said, “the chief use of shot is guarding those of 'importance' at close range, or if one is an uncommonly poor shot. Then it helps greatly.”

The shot pouch now came to me, and I untied the thing so as to look inside. The knot was being unusually difficult, and my fingers felt uncommonly clumsy.

“When loading for shot,” said the instructor, “use a measure of powder, half a thumb of linen-waste, another measure of shot, and another half-thumb of linen-waste to hold the shot in check. Be less firm of your rod when loading such a charge, as one wishes shot to spread. It is not like a ball that way.”

Karl helped me with the knot, and when I poured out a small handful of the stuff, I was surprised at not merely its lumpy nature – it was neither 'round' nor smooth – but also its size. It was easily three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, and as I poured the dull gray lumps back into the pouch, I wondered how I could get a small amount. I thought it wise to have some in my bag, even though I had no weapons suitable for it.

For sword-drill, we now had room-to-room passages, with two or more people per side. The aspect of melee was such that I usually wanted to hide, and the yelling of the 'attackers' when they came on the run didn't help much. Karl was my first partner, and when I indicated he needed to get into a corner, he asked why.

“Mostly as they're not going to expect it,” I said, “and surprise is a key matter when dealing with the patrons of drink-houses.”

Karl said nothing – at least until the three howling attackers ran in clumsily and nearly collided with one another when they didn't find us waiting for them directly in front and center. I had been moving toward the exit steadily, and when they came in, they ran past me.

They didn't notice Karl at first, for some reason, and that gave me a chance to come from their rear and flank. I did so, and amid their screams of rage and surprise, I could hear Karl coming at them from their erstwhile front.

I kneed one of them in the gut, while Karl walloped another in the side. The third man sprang for the door, and I leaped and tackled him. He went flying and collided with the door on the way out.

“I'll remember that trick,” said Karl, as he walked toward the door.

“Not much of a trick,” I said. “Those black-dressed people are a good deal trickier.”

On the way home, I thought to ask about shot and linen-waste.

“I have been asking about that stuff,” said Hans, “and I got a little bag of it in trade the other day.”

“Little bag?” I asked.

“It is a bit smaller than the usual for shot-pouches,” said Hans, “but it seems to have decent shot.”

“And linen-waste?” I asked.

“I have some of that stuff,” said Hans, “and that second-hand store should have that rope soon. I'm of a mind for going there tomorrow so as to see if it has come.”

I waited a minute or so, then said, “Oh, I went after a musket today, and was nearly blown up.”

“Now how is that?” asked Hans. “You are the most careful person I know.”

“Someone had rigged a bomb near the door of that one particular room,” I said, “and I could feel the bomb being there, so I went to the side after unlocking the door and kicked it open.”

“Was this a jug?” asked Hans.

“There were pieces of metal on the floor,” I said, “and the instructor thought it to be pieces of a swine-shell. What are those like?”

“That depends on the shell,” said Hans. “I have seen three types of them used up here.”

“Tipped shells?” I asked. “Cutting fuses?”

“The tipped ones do not need those,” said Hans, “but they are not cheap. The other two types use fuses.”

“C-cast iron?” I asked.

“Those are for use against the swine themselves,” said Hans. “The other type looks like a bandage tin, only it is longer, and is used for the pig-runners.”

Hans paused, then asked, “how was this thing rigged?”

“I'm not certain,” I said. “Whatever it was, it was tricky enough that I didn't want to get too close to it. I had the impression it would go off if one looked at it wrong.”

“My grandfather's traps were like that, but I doubt they were using those things,” said Hans.”

The trip out to the store was something of a revelation, as while I was familiar with a small subset of roads between home and the kingdom house proper, the roads in other areas seemed to better indicate the true state of the weather. There was a bit less snow on the roads than I recalled last week, and the snow in the fields had diminished yet further. I could almost see buds starting on a few of the trees.

“The trees will be putting out their small leaves soon,” said Hans. “It is warming faster than I thought it would.”

The second-hand store had not merely the rope in question, but also a small bag of what looked to be shot. Opening the old-looking leather bag needed help again regarding the knots, but once they were undone, I poured out a sample and gasped.

“That is good shot there,” said Hans. “I have only seen stuff like that a few times in the fourth kingdom.”

I bought shot, rope, and some cleaned tin, and while Hans spoke with the proprietress, I continued looking along the rows of goods. I had an impression I might find something of especial use, and when I found a hoof-pick, I picked up the rust-filmed thing and looked closer. It seemed the twin of Hans', at least if one overlooked the surface rust. I brought the thing back toward the counter, then began wiping it with an oily rag. I had nearly finished when Hans asked me what I had found.

“I think this is a hoof-pick,” I said, “and once it is cleaned up, it should...”

“You have no horse,” said Hans, “so why is it you need one of those things?”

“I am not sure,” I said, as I continued wiping it. “Worst case, I can always give it to someone as a gift.”

The surface rust of the tool meant for a better than common price, and once on the road home, I added a pinch of 'rotten-stone' to the spit and tallow on the rag I was using to wipe it. The rust came off faster then, and by our first stop, I had cleaned the thing up greatly. I thought to try going over the shoes of the gray while Hans dealt with the other horse. I doubted they would kick me with him present, for some reason.

“I never thought of that,” said Hans, as I went over the hooves carefully and removed a pair of small rocks when I found them. “Now what is it you did to that thing?”

“I rubbed off most of the rust,” I said. “I could tell it would clean up readily when I found it, and it resembles the one you have.”

When I showed it to Hans, however, he compared the two, and said, “I think you found one of those good ones, as this one is just like mine here. I think that rust was making people think it was bad.”

I continued rubbing it during the remaining time of travel, and by the time we were home, it was ready for the straps. A few minutes with the rouge-strap had the thing shining soft and lustrous, and I pocketed it after wiping it with an oily rag.

For some reason, the idea about tallow now recurred to me, and I went down in the basement so as to try processing the stuff. Hans had precious little unused glassware – it tended to have bark in it – and the extractor was running fever-bark steadily. I thought to ask for some 'cleaned' tallow.

“I have some here that needs more cleaning,” he said, “and I should be able to go get some more next week.”

“Uh, supplies?” I asked, as I began going through the malodorous candle stubs in the bucket Hans had brought me. I wanted to start with the least-offensive examples.

“I have been getting all of those I can,” said Hans. “Since I or Anna must travel a lot with you doing your training, we have been doing our business as we have the chance for it. I have gotten twenty more beer jugs, and more distillate to boil, and I have been selling stuff as I can.”

As I sorted the lumps and removed the burnt stubs of the 'wicks', I asked, “do you have a little oil of vitriol I might use?”

“Now what is this?” asked Hans.

“I had an idea for tallow-processing,” I said, “and it involves boiling the stuff in a dilute solution of that acid, filtering carefully with clean soft rags, and then pressure-cooking the stuff with, uh, salaterus, and some lumps of, uh, tin.”

“I have never heard of that,” said Hans, “so it is likely to be worth a try. What do you think it will do?”

“Uh, no smell?” I asked. “It might well change it in other ways, which is why I want to try a small batch first.”

Once I had the tallow melted and mingled with water to form a gray streaky emulsion, I fetched the jug and a long glass pipette. Uncorking the acid-jug caused a billow of nose-biting fumes, and two pipette-doses in the water seemed 'sufficient'. I then corked the jug and put it back where Hans had gotten it.

Something 'told' me I needed to hurry, and when I came back to where the tallow-water mixture was now boiling, I was astonished to see it foaming and acting as if crazy. The smell had become much worse.

“Hans!” yelled Anna. “What are you doing?”

Hans went upstairs to appease Anna, while I moved my 'experiment' into the area underneath the fume hood. I adjusted the lamp down in flame, then began stirring the 'mess'.

The gray foam that began accumulating was of such volume that I had to scrape the stuff off for several minutes and put it in a bucket. I looked carefully at a scraping of foam once, and shuddered when I looked at it.

I saw many small dark fragments of meat and long stringy things of what might have been blood, and as I resumed skimming, Hans came close to where I was. I had not heard him return to the basement.

“What is this gray stuff you are skimming off?” he said.

“I think that stuff in the candles was poorly rendered,” I said. “It looks like there's a lot of meat, and, uh...” I paused, then said, “now what is that stringy stuff?”

“I think that is blood,” said Hans.

“And that gray, uh, sediment?” I asked, as I pointed to the water portion of the cooling mixture.

“I am not sure what that is,” said Hans. “I think you might have figured a good way of cleaning that stuff, as I can barely smell that tallow now.”

“It isn't done yet,” I said. “I need to put it in that pressure-pot with some salaterus.”

After a thorough washing of the boiled tallow – it seemed much less miscible with water now, and Hans took close note of the matter – I ran the still-molten material through a carefully folded rag and into a saturated solution of 'salaterus'. I suspected salaterus to be sodium bicarbonate, but as I looked at the crock containing the lumpy yellow-tinted stuff and noticed its nausea-inducing tendencies, I seemed to see several small white tags, one of which indicated the 'salaterus' had a portion of lye. The tallow mixture went in the pot along with several small blobs of shiny bright tin.

“Salaterus must be an impure chemical,” I thought. “Still, it's worth a try.”

The pressure-pot boiled merrily for nearly an hour before I turned off the heating lamp, then as I let the container cool, I wondered as to the contents. I removed the clamps ten minutes or so later.

The tallow had turned into a clear brown jelly, and as I poured the stuff out into a beaker, the water separated cleanly. I used a glass stirring rod to test the consistency, and when I brought out the rod, the clinging aspect was even more astonishing.

“That is a mess,” said Hans. “What is it?”

“I think it needs a little further boiling with stirring to get the rest of the water out,” I said. “I had the impression this variant of tallow might work better as a lubricant.”

The further boiling caused more settling, as well as an aspect of thickening, and when I poured out the now 'cooked' tallow, I was astonished. It was a much lighter color compared to what I started with , it was entirely clear, it had become smooth – it had a perceptible lumpiness beforehand – and was entirely odorless. I thought to dip one of the used candle wicks a few times and then test it as a light source.

“You have wax candles,” said Hans, “so why is it you are dipping that little short thing?”

“So as to find out what it does,” I said. “It might be a type of tallow, but it has no smell now.”

Hans sniffed the slowly solidifying contents of the beaker, then said, “that is so. It does not smell.”

“Feel it, Hans,” I said. “It feels a lot firmer than normal tallow.”

Hans touched it, then said, “it is closer to wax, only it is slippery. I think you might have something there.”

“Which is why I need to test it this way,” I said. “We don't have a lot of testing equipment, so anything we can do is likely to help.”

The 'tallow dip' burned noticeably brighter than a regular tallow candle, with little smoke and no odor. I let the thing burn for a minute, then extinguished the flame and stripped off the now-waxy solid. I was going to compound some more 'motor oil'.

The nine parts of uncorking medicine went in first, and as I added the two parts by volume of fourth kingdom grease, I noted the lack of mixing. It needed heat and stirring to mingle, as I recalled, and when I added the 'tallow', the stuff floated as it had before.

“Now for some boiled distillate,” I thought. “It needs that to mingle properly.”

The amount of boiled distillate was perhaps half a part, or a tablespoon or so. I began mixing the ingredients over a turned-down heating lamp.

The stirring needed to be vigorous, just as I recalled, and as the 'tallow' melted, Hans came closer.

“I think you want to try that stuff in that oil you use for guns and things,” he said.

“I thought it might work for that also,” I said. “Perhaps we can put the raw distillate and other ingredients in the flask and cook them that way.”

“Now why do you want to do that?” asked Hans.

“That way the volatile constituents of the distillate can react with the tallow and uncorking medicine,” I said. “I think those might help with their further mingling.” I paused, then asked, “is there something like, uh, nickel, or platinum?”

“What are those things?” he asked.

“Shiny metals,” I said. “The first might be used, for, uh, plating, and the second has a very high melting point.”

I had completely lost Hans, or so I thought until he retrieved one of the old chemistry books and began looking in it.

“There is this word here that I cannot say,” said Hans, “and it mentions that stuff you called nickel.”

Hearing Hans speak of nickel as 'Nick-cool' made for a desire to feel my teeth, and when I came to the book in question – he had it open on a table – I said, “does it speak of a catalyst?”

“Now you have done it,” said Hans. “That is that word I cannot say.”

Hans paused, then said, “now what does it do?”

“It starts chemical reactions,” I said. “Can we get some of that Nick-cool?”

“That will be trouble,” he said. “They rub brass and copper such that they look like gold and silver down in the fifth kingdom, and they do something else for other metals.”

“Don't coaches have shiny trim on them?” I asked. I recalled the first one I'd seen being that way.

Hans looked at me, then asked, “is that what nickel looks like?”

“It might,” I said. “I did some nickel plating before I came here.”

Scrounging in various junkboxes – mostly Hans', but I went to where my junk was accumulating as well – tuned up a dirty gray-streaked strip of metal that Hans could not identify beyond it wasn't anything common. Cleaning it brought out the peculiar shine of nickel, and after twisting it into a spiral, I tossed it into a round-bottom flask.

The tallow and uncorking medicine went in after, and as I topped the thing up with distillate, I wondered if I could make a 'Liebig' condenser. The complete lack of running water said 'no'.

“At least I still have glass tubing and rags,” I thought.

The water that went in the beaker slowly bubbled as I 'boiled' the mingled ingredients in the flask, and the slowly darkening color of the liquid made for wondering, even after I had turned off the heating lamp under the sand-bath. I had the intimation it needed to set for a while, at least until it cooled off for the most part. I hunted up some of the larger ceramic vials while I waited for it to cool.

“Now why is that stuff shaking that metal thing?” asked Hans as he walked toward the sand-bath. “I think that... What is this?”

“What happened?” I asked.

“There usually is a lot more liquid in this cup here,” said Hans, as he lifted up the beaker. “There should be almost twice as much of that light distillate stuff compared to the water.”

I returned with the vials and set them down, then looked at the beaker closely. I knelt down, such that its top was at eye level, and gasped.

“Is distillate heavier than water here?” I squeaked.

“That boiled distillate is heavier than the stuff that is not boiled,” said Hans, “and heavy distillate weighs more than the light stuff. All of them are close to the weight of water.”

“Close?” I asked.

“Which weighs more depends on how careful I am with the vials,” said Hans. “If one weighs a little more than the other, then that one is heavier, and the same for how much of each I put in the vials. I have to use one of those burette things and get every drop out of it so as to tell.”

The amount of 'filter-junk' that remained behind on the rags was greater than usual, and as I held the catch-beaker up to the light, I noted the darker color of the 'oil'. My fingers had earlier learned that the stuff was indeed as oily as anything I had yet touched here.

Hans came up with another vial, then looked at the beaker. He uncorked the vial, then dipped an awl into it and drew it out.

“I think you have done it,” said Hans. “That looks like Waal oil there.”

Hans then rubbed the awl between his fingers briefly and then continued rubbing while he reached for one of the filter rags. He wiped his fingers, then touched the rags and resumed rubbing.

“This stuff is really slippery,” said Hans. “I think it is as good as Waal oil, if not better still.”

“I'll want to test it, first,” I said, as I began decanting the contents of the beaker into the vials one by one. The oil was still slightly warm.

Testing the new oil that evening showed a disconcerting tendency to 'find' crevices and all but jump into them, and cleaning my revolver showed another peculiarity of this lubricant: it made the weapon's action feel noticeably smoother.

It did the same thing for the other weapons when I went over them.

“Now this I can sell,” said Hans. “I think it is better than Waal oil, if one uses it on guns.”

“Did you, uh, try it?”

“I got some more of that stuff recently,” said Hans, “and I did that. This stuff is better.”

Homework went rapidly, and when I next sat in the 'guard room' with the new ledger on my knee, the instructor spoke of musket-handling in a 'combat' situation.

“It is most important that you be the first to shoot,” he said, “as if your foe shoots first, there is a great likelihood you will have no chance to do so.”

The silence of the class seemed to echo in my mind, and while he sipped beer, I wondered as to the senses of the others. I ceased with my wondering when he resumed.

“It is best to load from cover,” he said, “and then fire from the open.”

“Why?” asked one of the students.

“Those northern people are not good at finding people that are well-hid,” said the instructor. “If you fire out in the open, and then hide to reload, they are less likely to assay mayhem.”

“And those archers are less likely to perforate your hide,” I muttered.

“That also,” said the instructor. “While large numbers of archers are rare among them, small groups of archers are commonplace.”

The instructor paused for a moment, then put out his hand. The term 'rules of thumb' came to me, even as he moved his fingers as if counting. He then spoke.

“Advance to fire, retreat to reload,” he said. “You cannot fire your gun otherwise.”

“One can almost hear him spell 'retreat' as 'ye retreate',” I thought, “and his spelling of 'gun' is 'gonne'. He really sounds medieval now.”

“When you advance,” said the instructor, “advance until you see their eyes clearly, then get closer still. Get as close as you dare before you fire, then fire hard and fast.”

The eyes of the students seemed the very pictures of rapt attention, and when someone – Frans, one of the quieter students – spoke a question regarding swords and their seeming 'most-importance', the instructor paused and drank deeply from his mug.

“You'll see why that emphasis is as it is when you start shooting muskets in a day or two,” he said.

I continued working on the sword as a break from the other things at the shop, and when I packed it away in the charcoal for its night's 'baking', I thought to pray carefully as to how much further carbon impregnation I wished to attempt. I vaguely recalled swords having less carbon than smaller tools, at least in most cases.

“Except for those 'Damascus' things,” I thought. “Those...”

I looked at the now-buried billet, and thought, “cook it twice more, then forge to size. I wonder if I can find snow to try what...”

I stopped my thoughts in their 'tracks'. To contemplate doing so was wrong, much less attempting the matter; both were the acme of presumption. I picked up the 'box' so as to load it in the oven, and began walking.

The near-silence of the shop – the soft wind blowing made faint whistling and moaning sounds that came from seeming everywhere – seemed to build around me, and when I looked down, I no longer saw the hard-packed dirt floor of the shop.

Instead, I was seeing snow strewn wide with footprints that blazed with faint reddish-orange 'neon' flames. It abruptly vanished between two of my steps to again show the dirt of the floor, and when I stopped and turned, I heard a noise faint on the wind.

A far-distant cannon boomed out a challenge, and I moved quickly. There was a space behind the still-warm oven, and I could fit there.

I was nearly hidden when a snapping crash came from the front of the shop and something tumbled and rolled past me as if to escape out the rear door. I looked to see a rust-streaked lead sphere nearly an inch in diameter on the floor. It was fuming slightly, for some reason.

“Did I hear that thing conventionally?” I thought. “Or did I hear it in some other fashion?”

There was no answer beyond the still-smoking ball that lay on the floor.

I loaded the oven with its cooking boxes and cans, and once I had the fire lit, I went back to the front of the shop. I found a broken plank in the door with a missing fragment on the floor, and when I picked up the ball itself, I again noted its size and heft.

“Figures, another front-loading elephant gun,” I thought, “and some wretch used it in indirect-fire mode in hopes of hitting me with it.”

The chill I felt around me seemed to embrace my body, and when I went to put the ball on Georg's desk, the scrunching sounds of my shoes upon obvious snow underfoot were too much to endure quietly. I set down the still-warm projectile on a rag next to his ink-pot, and as I turned, I seemed to see something else in my peripheral vision. I turned my head to look.

Surrounded by small mounds of brownish 'dirt', yellow piles of 'sulfur', and boxes of matches, with the whole 'tableau' shrouded thickly by the vapors of boiling liquid nitrogen, was a sign written in black block letters. I squinted, then read,


using an inferior tool is a recipe for trouble.”

The letters then faded to be replaced by the following:

And you have enough trouble without handicapping yourself by such thinking.”


“What?” I squeaked. “I thought it was wrong to do that more than, uh, that once.”

The sign still seemed to 'glare' at me. Suddenly, the thing blanked, then letters printed the words, “take out your knife, and do as you did with those weapons at the bridge.”

As the sign faded, and the snow beneath my feet slowly sublimed into a thin and barely perceptible vapor, I drew my 'carry' knife, and began rubbing it. Within seconds, the previously bright steel filmed over with 'dirt', and I nearly dropped it onto the floor in horror.

Faintly in my mind I seemed to hear a calm voice speaking of wiping my hands with a rag, and I numbly did so. I then noticed how I felt – noticeably better – with clean hands, and I looked at the knife again. I seemed to be hearing someone coaxing me into continuing to rub the thing.

“Try some more of the widow's tincture,” said the soft voice.

I was startled and jolted enough to actually do so without thinking, and within a minute, the interior of the shop seemed to blaze with red flames for an instant. I blinked my eyes, and looked at the knife. With shocking clarity, I saw precisely what I needed to do. The 'opposition' – I now knew it it for what it truly was – had left. I then resumed rubbing the blade.

The quantity of dirt that slowly seeped out of the thing was astounding as to its tenacious nature, even if its quantity was much smaller than I had initially expected to show. The myriad 'black holes' within the interior of the blade steadily vanished under my hands, and as the blade 'compressed down', its shine became deeper and more lustrous. I then noticed I was sitting on a stool.

“How did that happen?” I thought, as I again wiped my hands with a rag. “Now there isn't any snow. How do I ask the snow to become liquid n-nitrogen when it isn't here..?”

The thought occurred to me to place the knife on the ground in front of me and place my hands next to it, and then pray. I did so, and the sinking sensation happened with such rapidity that the ground seemed to shake beneath my knees. My crawling skin brought forth a tinge of fear, until with sudden abruptness, I knew it was 'done'. I ceased praying, removed my hands from just above the knife, and opened my eyes.

The knife was encased in a solid jacket of smoke-billowing ice, and it steamed crazily with chilling cold. I picked it up by the handle, then shook off the ice. The eerie gleam of the blade was only exceeded by the faint colors of the rainbow that glinted off of its edge.

“I need every advantage I can get,” I thought soberly.

“Which is why you were reminded,” said the soft voice. “There are a lot more than nine hundred tinned and pickled thugs to the north, and that is for them. As for black-dressed domestic thugs, you might have some idea as to their numbers in this area.”

Walking into the 'guard-room' the next morning showed a pair of vacant racks, as well as two tables cluttered with rags and jugs of distillate. I recalled the instructor speaking of firing muskets, and as I looked over the racks – old, but in good repair, and freshly 'varnished' – I heard the voice of the instructor. I turned to see him holding the key.

“As soon as the others return, you can tell off three of them and fetch four muskets,” he said. “Those people at the armory must have been riding mules lately.”

“R-riding mules?” I asked.

“Riding mules causes one to be slow in the head and sluggish for moving,” he said, “and those people have become much worse for slowness. Then, their work seems worse than I recall it being.”