The Big House, part 7.


Hans continued east, and I looked toward the north, as I recalled the location of Mandelbrot's. An unusually 'narrow' street showed to the left, and when Hans made to turn, he stopped and pointed to the south before speaking. A somewhat wider street showed there.

“Look there,” he said. “That over there is the Swartsburg.”

I looked, and saw what looked to be a solid black location, one where everything was indeed black. The houses, the vehicles – coaches mostly, though wagons and buggies were present also – the people, and the road proper: all of it was black. I could almost see in the distance a huge Public House, one that dwarfed the one on Kokenstraat.

“It lives up to its name, I guess,” I said.

“Yes, and I would just as soon it go where it belongs, too,” said Hans. “At least these people up this way are honest enough, so we should have little to worry about.”

The shops to each side of the road were much as those at home, and the common-seeming cobbles seemed lifted from the area near the crow's foot. I briefly turned to the east, and saw that the town continued for easily another few hundred yards.

“What's east of Grussmaan's?” I asked.

“That is like the area just west of that place,” said Hans, “at least, for the most part. The further one stays from the Swartsburg, the better, as long as one avoids the bad places.”

“That one Public House?” I asked.

“There is another a bit west and north of here,” said Hans, “and then another at the northeast edge of the house, and then a few bad shops here and there. Other than those places, as long as one stays north of the Oestwaag, and west of Kokenstraat, then one has little to worry about during the daytime.”

“And at night?” I asked.

“I doubt there is any place in the house that is safe then,” said Hans.

Mandelbrot's had a carved wooden post with their name fronting on the street, and once tied up in their yard, I went inside with Hans. The interior reminded me of the first jeweler's shop I had been in here for layout – it was about half again as large for dimensions – and after speaking with a slender young woman wearing a smock, I was directed to a scale on the left next to a covered bin and scoop.

“That is where they weigh the stuff,” said Hans.

“H-how much?” I murmured.

“Twenty guilders the pound,” she said. “Or were you thinking about how much you needed?”

“That especially,” I said. “I might well wish to get what I can.”

“Yes, I think so,” said Hans. “I have heard about some things you cast using silver.”

I laid down three 'gold monster coins', and as the woman put gleaming silver blobs in the scale's pan, I marveled at their soft luster. I was nearly hypnotized, so much so that only when the blobs were decanted into a stout-looking cloth bag and tied did I come to myself. I was handed the bag, said thanks in an absentminded fashion, and left in tow of Hans. As he drove off northward along Silberstraat, I could see he had a question.

“Now let me guess,” said Hans. “Is that stuff for a silver bowl?”

“I'm not certain I will have enough left for a bowl,” I said. “This is for a necklace.”

“Necklace?” asked Hans. “Who for?”

“I had an idea for a necklace long ago,” I said, “one I would give to any woman that would have me. It seems there is one now.”

Hans looked at me, then nodded.

“I just have to carve the panels for it,” I said, “and when I will have time for them is anyone's guess.”

“What kind of a necklace is this thing?” asked Hans.

“It has twelve carved panels,” I said, “each of them with special lettering on them, and each panel is shaped such that it fits where it is to go. They all go on the front, and are connected at their small ends, with a silver chain in back with a clasp.”

I paused to look at the scenery. Hans had turned to the left, and had entered a 'commercial' district, with larger shops, huge 'yards', plentiful buggies and wagons, and a profound aura of 'labor'. I then saw the building.

“What is that place?” I gasped.

“That is a Mercantile like they have down south,” said Hans. “They might not carry some of the things those places have, but they have things that are hard to find elsewhere up here.” Hans paused, then said, “I did some asking about that plat-stuff you spoke of, and I think I know what it is. They might have some of it in there.”

Hans came to a stop among a 'row' of buggies, and as I followed him to the doubled doors of the place, I looked around more. The 'decor' of the place was such that I felt reminded of a hot and dry sun-bleached region, and walking inside was much like walking into Grussmaan's.

“It might not smell in here,” I thought, “but it isn't like the rest of town. This almost seems like a page in another history book.”

The chief aspect of how it reminded me of Grussmaan's, I deciphered quickly. There was a distinct aspect of 'wild west' in the proliferation and type of supplies, and as I followed Hans down the long aisles toward the back counter, I saw the overhead fifth kingdom candle-lanterns, the exposed roof trusses, the iron join-plates, the 'pegged' floors, and the long weathered wood planks of the shelves.

Near the rear area, I slowed down, for I sensed the presence of 'food' of some kind. I looked to my right, and was astonished to find a small mound of tied cloth bags with painted lettering. I then picked one up and spread it flat so as to read it.

“D-dried vegetables?” I thought. “I had no idea they did these. What's in here?”

Hans had left me behind, and as I hurried to catch up, I saw a small sign. I turned and read the description – 'dried meat' – and hurried on to the counter. Only when I came beside Hans did I notice a faint aroma which I could barely put words to.

The smell seemed an amalgam of dryness, dirt, bad meat, and 'corruption', and it wrinkled my nose. Hans was wasting no time with talk, or so I thought when a clerk showed. Hans put down one of those huge gold coins, and the clerk handed him two pieces of silvery wire, each of them a foot long. He then turned to go.

When we passed the dried meat again, I noted its shape and appearance, this being grayish-brown black-speckled elongated bricks of a grainy consistency. The smell was now more noticeable. It stimulated my gorge adversely.

“What is that stuff?” I asked.

“That is dried goat,” said Hans. He was not wasting time in the store, for he had finished his business.

“D-dried goat?” I asked. “Where does it come from?”

“That stuff is common in the fifth kingdom,” said Hans, as he paused to look at the bricks for a second, “and it is cheap stuff.”

“Its t-taste?” I asked.

“If I had a choice to eat bad raw turnips, and dried goat, I would take the turnips,” said Hans, “and the turnips with the leaves and mud still on them. They would be better food and better tasting.”

The front door of the place 'loomed', and I opened it. I was still stunned by the idea of something tasting worse than raw turnips.

“Better f-food?” I gasped. The buggy was to the left, and we headed that way.

“Dried goat is a recipe for sickness, no matter what is done to it for cooking,” said Hans, “and that is even when it is boiled in three changes of water.”

“Three changes of water?” I asked.

“That is when you boil it, dump the water, and then fill again with fresh,” said Hans. “The usual is to do that three times.”

“Why would they carry dried goat, then?” I asked.

“That stuff is cheap down in the fifth kingdom,” said Hans as he climbed up into the buggy seat. “Some freighter may have brought it up from that place.”

“And the dried vegetables?” I asked.

“With those, that depends on where you get them,” said Hans. “The ones in the fourth kingdom's market are decent. Those, I am not sure.” Hans paused, then said, “dried vegetables might be better than no vegetables, but fresh are almost always better if they can be had.”

“Gobens?” I asked.

“Those are better dried,” said Hans. “I am not sure what else is like that.”

Hans turned right a few minutes later, then continued north. The 'commercial' aspect steadily dwindled to be replaced by a 'residential' zone, which continued until we came to an area where it was abruptly replaced by that 'sawmill' sound I had heard over a month prior.

“Is this Houtlaan?” I asked.

“It is next to it,” said Hans. “Houtlaan is the next street over.”

“Do they saw wood there?” I asked. I wondered as to how just after I spoke of it.

“There are lots of pits in that place,” said Hans, “and pit-men, too. Why, has an order for saw-blades come to the shop?”

“Smaller ones, yes, though mostly for metal,” I said. “I've done two or three blades for wood.”

“I would check your orders, then,” said Hans, “as the carpenters have spoken about their saws needing work.”

Hans took the road heading northwest once he'd cleared the town, and as we went into open country, I asked, “now how will I get to where I need to go on Monday?”

“I think you might want to walk that, unless you can get a ride,” said Hans. “That job is one of those that has strange hours, only more so, and the same for its days.”

“Strange?” I asked.

“Medical work, preaching, and guarding do not have normal weeks,” said Hans, “and of those three, guarding is the worst for its days and hours. You might well have to do all of the posts, as those change a fair amount.”

“S-shift work?” I asked.

“The early and late posts tend to be the quietest,” said Hans, “though talk has it the place in front of the king's office is bad for noise.”

“Noise?” I asked. “What kind?”

“Those Generals have their rooms close by,” said Hans, “and they keep hours like witches do.”

“Uh, early morning is the quietest?”

“Ah, that tells me why Hendrik does a lot of his important stuff then,” said Hans. “He usually starts about the time you do.”

Home showed shortly after lunchtime, and after bathing, I headed to the shop. The days were now longer than I recalled them being earlier in the year, and as I tried to figure what month it was – it was still quite cold most of the day, there were still traces of snow here and there, the roads were still 'sticky' for the most part, with 'splop' quite common – I drew open the door. The others were mostly sitting on stools near a glowing forge, with one of the apprentices bringing in more wood. The aspect of idleness was troubling.

“The first part's done,” I said, “so I'll be here a lot more of the time.”

“Good,” said Georg. “I'd just as soon not finish a day's work in an hour or so.”

While Georg's speech implied a favorable attitude, I was not surprised when I was alone an hour later. I sighed, and continued working, knowing that Monday, at the least, would be unlikely for much beyond the trip to the house and back.

“And most of that on foot,” I thought. “At least I should be in shape for it.”

I stripped the remaining muskets completely, and stamped several tin tags with the label of 'refinish'. I then saw I would need to set up the rifling jig again, and made notes regarding the table and the parts I needed to set it up.

“And ream, and hone,” I thought. “I hope the barrels clean up readily.”

I took the two remaining locks home that evening, as well as the new parts that were ready for soft-fitting, and between gunlocks and the sword, I was busy until bedtime. There had been little talk beyond the common at the table, and as I made ready for bed, I overheard faint scraps of speech about the morrow. I suspected I would have answers at the table.

Morning came early, as it usually did, and when I came down the stairs, I was surprised to find Anna up. She was yawning a great deal, and when I came out of the privy, I noted two wicker baskets on the table. Their open tops spoke loudly of packing in progress.

“Are we going somewhere?” I asked.

“Yes, to get those roots for the red fever,” said Anna. “I'm glad we can leave at a reasonable hour this time, as I'm tired enough to want to sleep in the back of the buggy.”

“Uh, closer by?” I asked.

“South of here, and to the west,” said Anna. “We'll leave when Korn comes, most likely.”

“Uh, more witches?” I asked.

“I hope not,” said Anna. “I would plan on taking that pistol that came for a spare.”

“Two of them?” I asked.

“I don't much care for pistols,” said Anna, “but I care less for witches, and given the choice, I'll take my chances with one of those pistols.”

I had the impression Korn would be some time in coming, and after fetching my supplies – I took the pistol in question that Anna referred to, and wrapped it carefully in rags – I began drilling the rivet holes in the sword's handle portion.

I had to carefully ream them afterward, as well as radius their sharp edges, and when I began filing the bronze casting for the hilt, I had Anna come to watch me work now and then. Hans was still in bed, or so I suspected until he came in the front door from outside.

“It is just about time for the sun to show,” he said, “and I am glad for that oil.”

“Oil?” I asked.

“I made some like you did that last time,” said Hans, “and I put some in the oil-cups just now. I think we might go longer between pulling the wheels with that stuff.”

“That wire you got yesterday?” I asked.

“That is used by those who blow glass,” said Hans. “Some say freighters use that stuff to keep their teeth clean.”

“That is not good,” said Anna. “It cuts the fleshy parts of the mouth if one isn't careful.”

“Do you know when Korn will show?” I asked.

“He said he would leave early,” said Hans, “though his early and what most call early are two different things.”

“He starts later?” I asked.

“He starts about like you do,” said Hans, “though he quits at the common time, at least for his selling. I think he might try fourth kingdom hours for chemistry, is what I think.”

I suspected I wanted to finish-fit the hilt after the blade was heat-treated, hence once it was near to size, I set it aside. The sun began to show in the window to my left as I started on the handle's wooden pieces.

After a short time, however, I put the wood pieces aside. I could feel Korn in the area, and not two minutes after I'd cleaned up the shavings, someone tapped at the door. Anna came running as if she expected our visitor for ages.

“It's him,” said Anna. “I think we can go now.”

While Anna didn't sleep in the rear of the buggy – it was a bit too crowded for sleeping, I thought – she did yawn periodically, even when we stopped for oiling. I was surprised to see Korn ask for Hans' oil container and then 'dose' his buggy. When we resumed, I thought to ask about how common sleeved wheels were.

“That depends on who does the sleeves,” said Hans. “The good ones, which are what we have, are not common. The less-good ones, those are more common.”

“And the regular wheels are common,” said Anna. “Wheels with sleeves are not common, no matter who does them.”

“Uh, lapping them, like he did?” I asked.

“Now what is this?” asked Hans. “Those fifth kingdom wheel sleeves are not very good.”

“Yes, if you don't lap the cone and then scrape the cup,” I said. “I think he improved his some.”

“I did,” said Korn, as he came along side of us, “and that oil makes the usual stuff seem worthless. Is it hard to make?”

“It can be,” said Hans, “and that is for small amounts. It needs a lot of glassware and other things. I can show you when we get back with those roots.”

“Hans, don't,” said Anna. “You might have done this last batch, but you did not come up with it.”

Korn looked our way, then slowed slightly. I hoped he would not catch too much 'splop' while riding 'drag'.

Our second stop had both Hans and Korn go into a Public House, while I remained with Anna. I wondered as to the efficacy of 'asking around', but kept my thoughts to myself. Anna, however, did not.

“I think they are wasting their time asking,” said Anna. “You can find those roots, can't you?”

“I...”

I wanted to say 'no', but felt forborne for some reason. It was as if someone was telling me to not speak of the matter. Hans then came out of the Public House with a jug and sack.

“Did they know anything?” asked Anna.

“No, they didn't,” said Korn, as he came from the doorway. “The only people that know about that type of plant seems to be those that use them for medicine and witches.”

“Witches?” I gasped.

“They have no use for medicine,” said Korn. “I've heard of them killing medicinal plants.”

Anna looked at me again, then whispered, “that dream was right.”

“Do they try to sell poison as medicine?” I asked.

“I'm not sure what they do that way,” said Korn. “I do know they have no use for medicine.”

“Is that their behavior, or their talk?” I asked.

“I think that is their talk,” said Hans, “as they do some things if they are sick enough. They like to hide what they do that way, though.”

“Hence they must appear to be well, no matter how sick they actually are,” I said. “They must maintain the illusion of health, both to themselves and to others.”

“What is this word?” asked Hans.

“Illusion,” I said. “They think themselves healthy, and believe such thinking keeps them that way – that and the other things they do in the way of witches.”

“What are those?” asked Hans.

“I'm not terribly sure,” I said. “Perhaps there are certain curses that provide health.”

As I said this, however, I knew my guess was certain to be wrong. Witches believed they chose to be healthy, just as they chose everything in life, and that choice alone kept them that way.

“Bad food, paint-remover for drink, no bathing?” I gasped. “Is that choosing health?”

The illogic of witch behavior was enough to cause reaching for the vial of fever-tree powder I had in my bag, and I grimaced as I put a pinch of the bitter-tasting stuff in my mouth. I followed it with a mug of cider, and as I did so, Anna turned and looked at me.

“What was this you said about bad food?” she asked.

“Witches believe that none of that stuff matters,” I said, “as they 'choose' to be healthy, or 'choose' to be sick.” I paused, then said, “rather, they believe none of it affects their physical health. They think it has an effect in the spirit world, which is why they do much of what they do.”

“And what you just did?” asked Anna.

“Trying to think that way is a quick recipe for a bad headache,” I said. “I cannot understand how anyone could believe that rubbish.”

The way Anna then looked at me seemed to indicate she understood, but on a deeper level, I seriously doubted as to her understanding.

“She thinks I'm saying that out of 'moral outrage',” I thought, “and it isn't that, even if the ideas behind it are loathsome and vile. I might not be visually blind, nor stupid for what I usually do, but when it comes to that way of thinking, I'm deaf, dumb – er, stupid – and blind.”

The recollection of how I was to social matters intruded, and the near-equivalence of the two 'realities' made for shuddering. I was deaf, stupid, and blind to those matters as well.

Our path took us through another town, where again both Hans and Korn went into the Public House. They did not tarry this time, and when Hans got back in the buggy and left right away, Anna said, “now what?”

“That place had a black-dressed witch in it,” said Hans, “and I think he owned the place.”

“Why?” asked Anna.

“It was like that place on Kokenstraat,” said Hans, “and I saw squabs hanging ready to drop, and bad meat, and these smelly yellow and green messes witches like, and...”

Anna shook her head, then said, “did that witch have people in there?”

“Yes, three of them, and all of them dressed like misers,” said Hans. “This might be one of those bad towns.”

“It wasn't like this when you last came here, wasn't it?” I asked, as I watched the doors of the shops to my right.

“No, it wasn't,” said Hans. “I hope you can find those roots, as they are supposed to be somewhere around here.”

Supposed to be?” I squeaked. “Is this more rumor or hearsay masquerading as book-truth?”

“We've gathered them around here before,” said Anna, “though the plant that has them tends to not stay put like those trees do.”

“Uh, gathering the roots kills the plants?” I asked.

“We only dig some of them,” said Anna, “and we plant some of what we dig nearby.”

“That doesn't help,” I spluttered. “That plant is a b-biennial, and the roots are far too fragile to be propagated that way.”

Anna looked at me, then said, “what does that mean?”

“It doesn't grow from cuttings like you've done in the past,” I said, “and those roots you transplant almost always die. You would be better off keeping them and using them for medicine.”

“But how will the plant continue?” asked Anna.

“You would need to gather its seed,” I said, “and that would need people staying by the plants and harvesting the seed-pods just before they burst open. People don't do that, do they?”

The silence that resulted seemed to rumble like a massive earthquake, and only when a door opened to my right on the south edge of town did I jerk my attention away from the 'response' of the others. I felt for my revolver as I looked again at the doorway.

A tall and somewhat emaciated 'miser' with a fowling piece was standing on the stoop of a dark brown house of uncommon size, and his drunken 'weaving' spoke of profound intoxication. His pallid face was contorted into a grimace of red-wreathed rage, and when he lifted up his head, his reaction was to shoulder his weapon and aim it at us. I cocked the hammer and fired just before diving for the bed of the buggy.

The crack of the revolver was joined by two booming roars, and the swarming rush of hot lead over the buggy's bed was all the answer I could hope for. I peered up from where I had taken shelter to see the man laying face-down on his stoop with a still-smoking weapon some distance away.

“Are you all right?” shrieked Anna.

“I th-think so,” I said. “I hope he didn't hit you.”

“He was not aiming at the two of you,” said Korn as he came alongside. “He only had eyes for your passenger.”

“How could you tell?” asked Hans.

“I saw his reaction,” said Korn. “I've watched those people up the road from me, and when they're that drunk, they usually don't go outside.”

“Usually?” I asked.

“There are a handful of people that seem to draw them out like that,” said Korn. “Esther's one of them, another is this short dark-haired woman, and perhaps two others I've seen. When they come out pickled with loaded guns, they only understand one thing.”

“What?” I asked.

“The answer you gave that witch,” said Korn. “You made a third eyehole in his head, right between the first two, and he's as dead as a corpse-box.”

I turned to look back at the dead witch, and saw faint vaporous trickles of what might have been smoke coming off of his body. I wondered if I were seeing something physical or otherwise, so much so that I murmured, “sup with Brimstone, witch.” The 'fumes' continued unabated in their ignorance of my speech.

“That is good, then,” said Hans. “Now where are these roots?”

“Uh, a woodlot about a mile from here,” I said. “Down this road until it meets another crossing it at an acute angle, turn left there, go until you come to the nearest woodlot, go to its far edge, and follow around on the right for about three hundred paces. The plants have red stems, small dark green spiky leaves, and long reddish-gray knotted roots about as big around as my smallest finger, and they're but a short distance inside the trees.”

“Those...” Anna turned to me with a face writ large with surprise. She found her voice a few seconds later, and squeaked, “those are the best type!”

“Do they work better?” I asked.

“I wish the tincture from those things kept better,” said Hans, “as those from that year worked better than any I have heard of. Only a few people died from that sickness while we had those.”

“Uh, does it work for just that sickness?” I asked. I could see the crossroads up ahead.

“We use it for that one,” said Hans. “Why, are there other things?”

“It's usually too scarce to use it for anything else,” said Anna.

“Perhaps your extraction process was wasteful,” I said. “Use an extractor with well-filtered aquavit and a small amount of, uh, salaterus, and a little oil of vitriol in the solution when it comes out...”

“That will ruin it,” said Hans. “I have always used vinegar.”

“No, this stuff is... Quinine?” I gasped. “R-red f-fever? Malaria?”

“Now what is your trouble?” asked Hans. “You need to speak things I can understand.”

“Quinine sulfate,” I said. “Acetic acid ruins the drug. You need to use a dilute solution of sulfuric acid, perhaps a few drops at a time until it changes color after the extraction. You then evaporate on the sand-bath and pull out the crystals, which will keep for years if treated right.”

I paused, then asked, “are there small flying bugs that are especially noisy?”

“Those are bad down south,” said Hans. “I am glad they are not common up here.”

“Most of the time, Hans,” said Anna. “They tend to be worst when that sickness shows during the warmest times of the year.”

“They cause that sickness,” I said. “There was a disease where I came from called malaria, and it was carried by small flying insects called mosquitoes. They tended to make high-pitched noises when they flew.”

“That sounds about right for those things,” said Anna. “Now what is this about ruining that tincture?”

“It's best not given as a tincture,” I said, “as it keeps poorly in solution.”

“Then how do we give it?” asked Anna.

“Mix it with sugar-tree sap just before giving by mouth,” I said. “You want one unit on that scale four times a day, bed rest, beer as the person can stand it, wiping with Geneva, and fever-tree bark for the aches and pains.”

I paused, then said, “why is it called 'red fever', when the person's skin is usually yellowish?”

“They make the privy red when they go,” said Hans, “and they tend to bleed some otherwise. I have seen them turn red for their skin more than once.”

“In the past it caused much worse bleeding, and the skin was commonly red as blood,” said Korn. “That disease tended to kill far more often than it usually does today, both for numbers and percentage.”

“When in the past?” I asked.

“The name of that illness is mentioned in several old tales,” said Korn, “and during the time of that war long ago, it was very common. What is called 'red fever' today is a faint shadow of the sickness it once was.”

The 'acute angle' was just ahead, and Hans paused at it. He seemed completely at a loss, and only with Anna first questioning me - “turn left here,” I said – and then goosing him in the ribs did he turn in the correct direction. I suspected hearing about the worthlessness of what he had been doing had something to do with his 'inertia'. Somehow, I wondered if that was indeed the case.

“Where did you learn about that means of preparation?” I asked.

“That was in my journals,” said Anna, “along with most of what we do for medicines.”

“And before it was written down?” I asked. “As in vinegar was available?”

“Yes, and it is a lot cheaper, too,” said Hans.

“Is that why you use it?” I asked. “I thought you said... Is this because that recipe was written down, and it was simpler to just follow it unthinkingly, or is this for some other reason?”

Again, the silence was telling, and I wondered as to what I had said. I suspected I was 'onto' something, and only when we came to the near edge of the woodlot did anyone speak.

“I hope there aren't witches coming,” said Anna.

“I think we had best harvest as much as we can, then,” I said. “I suspect they will be coming when that miser's death gets noticed – if it hasn't been noticed already.” I paused, then said, “and they won't need to go to the Swartsburg this time.”

“Why is that?” asked Hans. He sounded oblivious, which worried me greatly.

“That witch, Hans,” muttered Anna. “You said you saw one.” Anna paused for a moment, then yelled, “Hans, wake up!”

Hans shook himself, then said, “I think I fell asleep in that Public House. There was this black-dressed witch in there, and these misers, and...”

“And they were chanting curses of some kind, correct?” I asked. “That place might not have been done up to look like a witch-hole, but it was close enough to cause trouble.”

I paused, then said, more to myself than anyone, “and I had best prepare an ambush on this side of the road.”

“How?” asked Anna. “We...”

“You go on ahead,” I said. “They're coming right now.”

I gathered my supplies, then stepped out of the near-stationary buggy and went for the nearest trees, where I took up a position just inside. I laid out my supplies, then checked the revolver I had wrapped up. I was more than a little astonished to see it capped.

“Did I load this thing?” I thought, as I heard the rattle of harness and what might have been the bray of a mule.

I was astonished to see Anna running toward me, and I waved her off. She ignored all else, and when she came to my side, I expected to hear her scream as if I were abandoning her to the witches. I was more than a little surprised when she actually spoke.

“Where do we go?” she asked.

“Go to the other side of the woodlot,” I said calmly, “turn to the right, and stick to the edge of the trees. Dismount like I did for the bark and lead the horses, and go about three hundred paces and start looking for those plants. I'll join you once I deal with the witches.”

I paused, then said, “besides, they want me dead. They'll ignore you and what you're doing as long as they know I'm alive. Get that medicine, as it's important.”

Anna seemed loathe to leave me, but she did a few seconds later. I glanced to my right to see the three of them arguing among themselves. Neither buggy was moving.

“Go on,” I yelled. “They're using you...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, for what I was about to say was beyond belief, and I could not speak that which was 'untrue'.

“That is closer to the truth than you know,” said the soft voice.

“What do I do?” I asked. “Will the witches...”

Again, the 'heretical' thought proceeded. The witches wanted me dead so much that they would torture all three of them just to 'draw me out'. I needed to hide the others and...

“What?” I gasped. “I need to tie them up so they aren't used like p-puppets?”

While there were no answers, I knew I could not remain where I was. I ran to the buggy, tossed my stuff in the back, and grabbed the reins from Hans' waxy hands. I began leading the horses up the road at a trot.

“Please, follow me,” I asked, as I ran down the road. I needed to hide both buggies carefully and then go back where I could 'fight'.

About two hundred yards past the edge of the woodlot, I found a wide space between the trees, and I ran in there. The buggy managed perhaps thirty feet before it halted with such abruptness that I was nearly pitched onto the ground. I turned back to see the front wheels bogged halfway to the hubs and both Hans and Anna swaying slowly. They were as clothes-dummies, with waxy pallid skin and staring unseeing eyes. I glanced to the side and saw that the other horses had not followed me.

I ran out onto the road and ran back toward the still-stationary buggy of Korn. I suspected he had been 'taken over' also, and when I came to his side, he was in the same state as Hans. I took the reins from his hand, and was about to lead off when the rattle of harness became louder still and a team of mules came trotting around the turn. I had no idea as to what to do, so much so that without thinking, I stood by the side of the buggy.

Korn was as silent as a dead man, and as for help, he wasn't able to provide it. I had to protect him and deal with the witches, and the sudden knowledge bloomed in my mind: if they killed me, they would not stop there. They would kill the others as well, and then set fire to the entire area so as to sacrifice us to Brimstone. We had been recognized and cursed, as was appropriate for blood-sources.

“Why am I not affected?” I thought, as the mules slowed with snorts and 'roars'.

I was not able to finish my thinking, for as the vehicle – a high-wheeled 'buggy' of sorts – came to a stop, a tall black-dressed thug dismounted with a jerk. The driver wore the familiar dark brown 'severe' clothing of a miser, and within seconds, two more like him had joined the black-dressed thug on the ground. All of these people had fowling pieces at the ready, and their slow 'walk' was troubling to watch.

For some reason, I seemed 'rooted' to the spot, and faintly I heard what might have been a dragging noise in the dirt. I stopped and looked closer at the right side of the head thug.

“Is that a sword?” I thought.

I felt my right side, and nearly gasped. While I had put on knife-pouch and holster this morning while getting ready, I noted that both things were indeed present. I had thought I had removed the pistol earlier so as to reload the fired chamber.

“Four shots, and four thugs,” I thought, “and that doesn't include the mules.”

The thugs were but thirty yards off, and coming steadily closer. Their 'caution' – slow steps reminiscent of stereotypical 'gunfighters', or so I imagined – was such that I wondered. Did they assign special significance to their dead comrade and his wound? Was this the savoring of the moment of vengeance, or was it something else?

I didn't want Korn getting shot at, so I moved to the side. The trees were but twenty feet away.

None of the thugs expected movement of that speed, and their clumsy gun-mounting and then firing spoke loudly amid thundering roars and billows of smoke. I dove for the dirt just the same as the shot flew overhead, then slid nearly to the trunk of a tree. I leaped up as the three of them charged at a run.

The brays of the mules seemed a background for horror, and when the chief thug came to the edge of the forest he again mounted his gun and fired. I jumped to the side as splinters of bark flew off of the tree he'd shot instead of me, then as he came running toward me – he was no longer clumsy or slow in the slightest – he dropped his gun and drew his sword. I turned and leaped at him as the other two aimed and fired.

The roars of their shotguns seemed to burn around my head, and when the witch swung his sword at me, I ducked and then grabbed his arm. I heard an echoing click, then as I pulled the black-dressed thug down as I went for the dirt, the bang of a revolver was followed by his thrashing screams.

I hit the ground first, and as the thug hit, I punched him and rolled away to the side. Another gunshot billowed smoke over me as I touched cold metal, then as I leaped to my feet, I found I had the thug's sword in my hand and a pair of 'misers' staring at me but a few feet away. I leaped to the attack as first one fired, then another. Something ripped my sleeve, and I swung at the midriff of the nearest man.

The sword connected with a horrible shiver that made my arm attempt to go numb, and as I pulled the blade out of the man I had hit, the other charged me with a dagger. I swung at him as he tried to spike me, and to my utter surprise, I removed his arm with its dagger just above the elbow. He ignored the strike, and tried to shoot me.

His revolver refused to fire. I kicked him in the groin.

The miser nearly left the ground with the force of the blow, and when he began falling, his revolver then fired into the dirt near my feet. He collapsed onto his pistol screaming as the black-dressed thug tried to get to his feet.

I walked to the head of the now-groaning head-thug and poked him in the shoulder with his own sword. He looked up at me with a flushed reddened face solidified into a rictus of hate, then spat, “I saw what you did, and I curse you above those other fools.”

I said nothing, and drew closer yet.

He stared at the sword, and I glanced around. I had my suspicions about the driver, and leaped for a tree just in time to avoid being backshot by a 'cannon'.

The booming roar sent a massive cloud of smoke-trailing shot flying my way, and while it missed me, I could not say that for the black-dressed thug.

He fell heavily to the ground in a screaming fit to thrash crazily, and the clumsy run of the driver toward him spoke of 'panic' on his part as he drew closer.

The driver had only eyes for his 'lord', and as he came closer to the black-dressed thug, I moved further away. The black-dressed thug still screamed and thrashed, and as the driver stopped by him, I noted his weapon.

“Figures, he has a front-loading elephant gun, and he loaded it with shot,” I thought. “Now how do I get him?”

The screaming thug drew something from beneath him, and as the driver knelt down, I heard the crack of a revolver. The driver fell on his posterior, then slowly collapsed to lay face-up with blood staining his 'severe' clothing a frothy red color near his right shoulder. The black dressed thug was trying to cock his pistol, and having no luck.

I looked at the bloodstained blade in my hand, and then knew what needed to be done. I walked slowly toward the driver, whose eyes now seemed shrunken and yellowed as he came to a sitting position with a bloodstained hand on his wound, and swung at his neck. His head leaped off as his neck fountained blood. The black-dressed thug groaned and writhed on the ground, uncocked revolver in his thrashing hand. I ignored him; I would kill him last, so that he could see his end coming.

“Sup with Brimstone, witch,” I muttered, as I swung on the next 'miser', this being the man with a missing forearm. “Burn in hell where you belong.”

His head 'jumped' off, and as I turned to the third miser – the one whose guts showed red and glistening from the cut I'd made in his side – the black-dressed thug looked at me. He held his revolver in his wavering hand, and as he again tried to cock it, I said, “best to put that to your own head, fool.”

To my surprise, the witch did precisely that. As he tried to find the strength to fully cock the hammer, I swung on the third miser. Again, I muttered “sup with Brimstone, witch.” I then turned to the last one.

“You failed, fool,” I said. “Prepare yourself for the great dragon and his hungry teeth.” I then swung the sword at his neck, shouting as I did so, “sup with Brimstone, witch!”

The head of the arch-witch leaped from his body, and as his corpse billowed blood and briefly thrashed, I looked around at the 'mess'. The blood-sodden forest floor was such that I marveled – four witches made for a lot of blood – and as I began gathering up the various weapons they had used, I again noted that 'fog' that I had seen earlier was coming off of their bodies. I wondered what it was, so much so that when I came to the edge of the road, I was astonished to see Korn shaking his head while still seated, then muttering. I came closer to try to hear him better. I had the witch's blood-dripping sword still in my hand.

“Now why do I smell mules?” he said, as he shook his head. He then looked at me.

“How did you get hurt?” he asked. I was surprised he hadn't seen the sword.

“There were four witches that came after us,” I said as I came to his side, “and I had to deal with them.”

“But you got hurt doing it,” he said.

“Where?” I asked.

Korn pointed to my arm, then felt the rip when I held it up. He brought away his finger, and shook his head at the sight.

“No blood?” I asked.

Again, he shook his head. He looked ahead, saw the tracks of the other buggy, then asked, “now where did they go?”

“I had to hide them,” I said, “and I was going to hide you up the road with them, but the witches came.” I paused, then said, “follow those tracks with your buggy, and see about helping them.”

While Korn did so, I had the suspicion there would be another argument, and within moments, I could hear another three-way brawl. I was collecting the weapons of the witches, as three fowling pieces and a roer sounded distinctly useful, and I knew about the revolvers. I had my misgivings about the sword.

“More Hieronymus-grade guns,” I thought, as I gathered the pistols. “No wonder they misfired like that.”

I had a full load of weapons in my arms when I picked up the last pistol, and when I laid them by the side of the road near where I had had my fight with the witches, I still heard the brawl. I left the guns where they lay and ran up the road to where I had 'parked' the buggy of Hans and Anna.

The argument was in full swing, with Korn's buggy blocking the way. It was mired also, with the front driver's wheel nearly halfway to the hub. I came into the 'mess', then said quietly, “cease with the argument.”

“What are you doing here?” screamed Anna. “We were...”

“You were all cursed,” I said, “and this argument is part of its outworking.” I turned, then said, “Korn, unhitch those horses, and tie them up to a tree.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Your buggy is mired,” I said. “You came in here slowly and steered directly into a soft spot, almost as if you had planned to do so.”

I paused, then said, “I really need to deal with both those witches and their places. Those curses are bad.”

As if to remind me of just how bad they actually were, Anna shook herself, then said, “what am I doing?”

“Causing trouble,” I said. “Now help Korn unhitch his horses, and hold them off to the side.”

Within seconds, I found that not only had Anna become 'sulky', but Hans and Korn had become 'stupid'. I recalled what had happened with my 'clothing' during my first day of guard training, and after sitting the three of them down on a fallen log, I began 'looking' for something amiss.

“This is like that dagger,” I thought. “Something is hiding, and it's causing trouble – and somehow, this thing is worse than that dagger was for trouble.”

As I began carefully searching he area, however, I had the intimation that the 'object' in question wasn't nearly as strong or capable as the dagger had been. The greater 'control' was another matter entirely, and as I continued looking, I had the feeling that I was being watched. Someone was being very tricky, and when I turned from Korn to look at Anna, I saw Hans attempt to hide a small 'coin'. I leaped to where he was, grabbed the thing in a hideously 'rude' fashion, and yelled 'leave' as I tossed it away.

The thing vanished with a flash and thump, and as I came out of the putrid-smelling smoke that billowed around me, the others were knuckling their eyes and yawning.

“Now can we get on with the business at hand,” I muttered testily.

“Yes, and what is that?” asked Hans.

“First, you need to tell me what that thing was you took,” I said. “It was laying on a table, and you picked up this strange-looking coin.” I paused, then said, “not only was it not a coin, but it gave those curses a great deal of power over all of us, and...”

I gasped, then said, “was that why those witches came after us?”

“That tipped them off sooner than otherwise,” said the soft voice. “The arch-witch noticed his 'medal' was gone but minutes after you shot that first witch. They saw the body as they left town.”

“Hans, why did you steal that thing?” shrieked Anna. “Why?”

“Because I wanted it,” said Hans. His voice reeked of the surety that came with oblivion.

“No, that wasn't it,” I said. “It wasn't nearly that simple. There was something that made it especially attractive, so much so that to see that thing was like putting a big stack of gold monster coins in front of a miser.” I paused, then said, “did that witch speak to you directly?”

“Not that I know of,” said Hans. “I saw this special thing there and I wanted it bad.”

“Did that witch speak something special?” I asked.

“He did,” said Korn, “though I had never heard it before. I think it was a curse of some kind, as I've heard things like it.”

“And the witch was pointing with his finger at Hans, correct?” I asked. “Or was it too dark to see well in that place?”

“He was doing as you say,” said Korn, “and I think I might know what he said.”

“Yes?” I asked. “What does Hans want bad enough to scheme for?”

“I doubt it is that,” said Hans, “as those things just take money, and...”

“Did that thing you grabbed look like a big sack of gold monster coins?” I asked. “Did that witch tell you they were yours and you deserved what you wanted, because you had worked for it?”

To my complete surprise, Hans nodded yes, then said, “I thought they were mine, so I took them.”

“And you took a really bad goat-head medal instead of a sack of gold monster coins,” I said, “one that wasn't a common fetish, but an especially bad one.”

“That dagger that tossed you was worse,” said the soft voice.

“Now, can you remove your horses so we can get that buggy unstuck?” I asked, as I looked at Korn.

'Unsticking' Korn's buggy proved easy once he'd unhitched the horses, and as Hans did the same with the gray and the black, I noticed Korn hitching his to the center 'pole' of his vehicle. I went out to him and spoke of retrieving the weapons I had piled next to the witch-area, and while he left toward that place, I went back to where the other buggy was stuck.

“This one will need all of us pushing on the rear wheels,” I said.

“That will not work,” said Hans. “We will need bulls in here to pull it out.”

“No, Hans,” said Anna. “We might need bulls if all four wheels were up to their hubs.”

“Collect some sticks, then,” I said, “and put them in back of those front wheels.”

Hans seemed balky, but Anna took him in charge. They both came back a minute or so later, and as I put the sticks under the wheels on the back side, Hans looked and scratched his head. He then asked, “now what will that do?”

“It will help get the buggy out,” I said. “I've done things like this before where I came from. Now get on the other rear wheel, and I'll get on this side. Push when I tell you to.”

For some reason, when I spoke of pushing, the buggy both backed up and slewed badly to the right. I had been pushing on the left side.

“It is out now,” said Hans, “though it is partly turned around.”

“Hans, he pushed it out all by himself, almost,” said Anna. “Now we can get it out into the road.”

While the two of them did that, I went back onto the road and toward the place where I had fought the witches. I was more than a little surprised to see Korn still loading 'guns' of some kind. He'd loaded the sword already, or so I guessed. I had put it point-first into soft ground.

“I piled the good stuff by the side there,” I said. “Did you get that?”

“You only got a third of what they had,” said Korn, “and all four of those witches have gone rotten.” Korn paused, then said, “I wished I could say that for the mules.”

“Did they go somewhere?” I asked.

“I think they left of their own accord,” said Korn, “as I found no footprints beyond the ones the witches left.”

“At least they're gone, then,” I said. “I was afraid I would need to shoot and burn those things, and I'm glad I don't have to...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, for the heads of the witches had all been spiked on carved wooden poles, and that in a line. Their skulls were rapidly becoming free of all flesh – it was dropping to the ground in small pieces as I watched – and as I looked at Korn, he said, “I didn't touch them. Did you spike the heads?”

“N-no,” I said. “I removed them, but I didn't spike them. I don't recall why I did, for some reason.”

“What, you don't know why you did that?” asked Korn.

“They all tried to kill me,” I said, “and they weren't inclined to quit. I stopped three of them, and that on top of two of them shooting the others. Beyond that, I'm not terribly sure – Oh, now I remember. I remember speaking to them of Brimstone.”

“Did you tell them to sup with that thing?” asked Korn.

I nodded.

“I thought so,” he said, as he resumed the seat of his buggy. “Get in back, and I can give you a ride.”

As Korn drove up the road, I examined what he'd put in the buggy. I discovered that he'd had no qualms about rifling the witches' pockets, and the plunder included a number of discomfiting things, including several bulging sacks of money. I was glad to jump out when he stopped.

“Now we can go to where those roots are,” said Anna.

The end of the woodlot was another quarter mile or so, and when we came to the end of it, I had to again remind the others to walk while leading the buggy. Hans seemed especially obdurate, for some reason, and only with Anna's help did he dismount.

“Now how are we going to get this thing back in there?” he said. “There is no one to drive it, so it will not go.”

“No, Hans,” said Anna. “Let him lead them in. He did that with the bark, remember?”

I led in by the reins for some three hundred yards, and as I did, I could feel something in the area. It was almost as if the witches had known about this patch of plants beforehand and had assayed cursing it – and for some reason, the curses hadn't done much.

“They didn't do much to the plants,” I thought. “They might well keep others away.”

“Other witches, mostly,” said the soft voice. “The plants are unaffected, and I would harvest all of them.”

“All of them?” I asked.

“The witches will kill any plants you leave,” said the soft voice. “Those that came after you would have done that later today had you not killed them.”

“I heard that,” said Anna. “Are there more witches at that town?”

“There might be,” I said, “but after what happened, I'm not inclined to go close to that place.”

“Why, what did you do?” asked Anna.

“I had to fight four witches and kill them,” I said, “and somehow, the heads got spiked without me doing anything of the sort.”

I then looked at my sleeve, and to my surprise, Anna came up next to me. She looked at the cut place, felt it with her finger, then shook her head.

“At least those are easy enough to mend,” she said. “Did one of them cut you?”

“One of them just missed my arm,” I said, “and I was shot at enough to wonder why I wasn't hit.”

“What were they using?” asked Anna.

“Three fowling pieces, a roer, a sword, and several pistols,” I said. “The pistols were like Hieronymus' before I worked on it, and they misfired more than once.”

Anna began muttering, and as I looked to my right – I expected to see rune-curses carved into the trees – I said, “now what?”

“Those usually don't do that,” said Anna.

I could feel the plants ahead, and when I looked again to my right, I saw 'fresh' crude-looking markings cut into the trunks of the trees. Their appearance – I wasn't certain if they were actual runes, even if the resemblance was definite – was such that I suspected the plants to be in the area, and I dropped the reins as I left for the edge of the trees. I could now feel the presence of the plants nearby, and as I looked carefully for the small shoots amid the duff of the forest floor, I wondered if I would have to do all of the looking and actually 'find' the plants.

“Here they are,” said Anna's abrupt voice to my left. “This isn't that big of a plot, but I'm glad it's here just the same.”

I was at a complete loss as to the means of 'root-harvesting', and while the other three dug up the plants with knives and what might have been spoons, I wondered aloud as to what I could do.

“I'd watch out for trouble,” said Anna. “We'll take this road back and stay away from that town with the witches.”

“Would dealing with those people have an effect?” I asked.

“That depends,” said Hans. “If they were running the place, it is likely that it will be better for the town if they are dead.”

“That one Public House?” I asked. “Should I, uh, burn it?”

“I did not think of that,” said Hans. “It had bad stuff in it, so you might.”

“And that one house on the end?” I asked. “And the Mercantile?” There were other places beyond those I had named, though I wasn't certain as to their names or precise locations. I simply knew they were there in the town.

“That is much of a town there,” said Hans. “If it is bad like that, then maybe the whole place should be burned.”

“A whole town?” I gasped.

“If it were possible to do that with the Swartsburg, I'd do it, and be glad of it,” said Hans. “That place is a lot smaller.”

“But I can't just burn a town,” I said.

“You didn't take your oath yet, did you?” asked Anna. “If that oath is like I've heard, then you could burn that place. You had five witches try for you, and that's enough for a big burn-pile.”

What?” I gasped.

“I think that what Anna said is true,” said Hans. “Now did you say that oath?”

“N-no,” I said. “I doubt anyone in that class has said it.”

A few minutes later, Hans brought a sizable mud-stained cloth sack tied shut with a piece of string. He put it in the buggy, then said, “come to think of it, I think you might not need to take an oath. What you did at the third ditch may have substituted for it.”

“N-no,” I sobbed. “I cannot just b-burn a town.”

Yet as the minutes progressed, I knew something had to be done, at least to that one house and the Public House. Both had demonstrated themselves to be owned by witches, and their presence was a curse upon the whole area – and with the witches dead...

“No, some of the witches,” I thought. “There are others there, and they'll cause trouble if I try.”

“They'll do that regardless,” said the soft voice. “If you try to burn the place, do it alone and after dark.”

“Alone and after d-dark?” I thought.

“That town is closer to the Swartsburg than where Maarten and Katje live,” said the soft voice, “and going back through it in the daytime would be very unwise.”

“Uh, well-hid witches?” I asked.

“Them, misers and supplicants,” said the soft voice. “Most of the honest people have left, and those few that remain will leave very soon.

“And those five?” I asked.

“They'll be replaced within a few weeks,” said the soft voice. “Deaths in witchdom are not rare.”

We finished with the roots about an hour later, and as I led the buggy around and back onto the 'trail' I had made, Anna was walking next to me. She seemed pensive, for some reason.

“I heard some of what was said,” said Anna, “and if that place is like the Swartsburg for witches, then after dark might be best. I wonder why you would need to go alone, though.”

“Uh, less trouble?” I asked. “Until I disposed of that thing Hans had, all of you were causing trouble to some degree at least some of the time, and none of you were able to help me. It was like some of those times at the shop.”

I was glad the trip back went rapidly, and once home, we all took our 'supplies' down into the basement. I put the 'witch-plunder' in a corner for examination, which I began doing while the others began washing and then further trimming the roots. Three muddy bags looked to take a while, especially given their substantial size.

Unlike that first roer, this one was not a flintlock, and when I tried fitting one of the balls I had saved, it would not fit in the bore. Examination with a gage showed its bore to be nearly an eighth of an inch smaller, and when I began cleaning its barrel with spit and tallow, the first few batches showed not merely a substantial accumulation of dirt and soot, but also traces of rust.

“Now what is it you will do with that thing?” asked Hans as I began dismounting the roer's lock.

“I think I will hide it somewhere,” I said. “I do not plan on firing it.”

Hans picked up one of the fowling pieces, then said, “I was never able to find one of these for sale, and now you have three of them.”

“Are those things any good?” I asked.

“These are from the fifth kingdom,” said Hans, “so they are not as good as some. I think you might be able to improve them some, is what I think, and then they will be good for birds and rats.”

“No s-shot on game birds?” I asked. “Birds need b-balls?”

“Whoever said that did not hunt for those things much,” said Hans. “Shot works decent on quolls and fool-hens, if you are close enough, and the same for those wild pigeons that like to eat crops. Turkeys, those are different, as they are difficult to find and harder yet to get close to. They usually want balls.”

“M-marmots?” I asked. “Didn't that one farmer speak of them ignoring shot?”

“That one did,” said Hans. “Not all of them do. He might not have been close enough when he put that shot in it.”

“B-both barrels, and full loads?” I asked, as I recalled the chief stonemason and the comments made regarding him.

While Hans had nothing else to say at that time, Anna came by but a minute later. She was muttering.

“I'm glad those people are finally finishing up in back,” she said.

“Those p-people?” I asked. “Who?”

“Those masons,” said Anna. “That man with the beard must have as much stone in his head as in his quarries, if I go by his behavior.”

“Bathing?” I asked. I hoped the bathroom would be ready soon. The basement wasn't a good place to bathe.

“It should be ready within a few days,” said Anna. “I'm glad they're no longer leaving their jugs around when they leave for the day.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I dismounted the lock's mainspring. It felt 'weak', which did not surprise me. I suspected I would need to make a new one, as was usual for weapons I worked on.

“I was dosing those jugs with uncorking medicine every evening,” said Anna. “Every jug they left got a small measuring cup.”

“What?” I gasped. The stonemasons did not seem to be constipated.

“Those people were as full of themselves as any I have seen,” said Anna, “and once I started dosing them, they were less so.” Anna paused, then said, “I think you had best hide those guns until they're finished here.”

“Why?” I asked. “Will they try to use them on, uh, you?” The lock was nearly in pieces, and I would need to bag its parts and screws. I hoped I could 'improve' it with minimal new parts beyond those I had already noted.

“Every time Sarah has come recently,” said Anna, “she has wanted to shoot those people, and only the lack of weapons ready to hand has prevented her from doing so.”

“That is so,” said Hans from across the room, “as she has wanted to try that musket of his on that man with the beard.”

“Ooh!” I shrieked. “She'd be hurt if she tried shooting it.”

“Until I heard from Karl, I doubted that would be the case,” said Anna. “Besides, we have to keep ours put up also.”

“Does she find them especially annoying?” I asked.

Anna muttered for a few seconds, then blurted, “those people were annoying when they were doing well!”

“And the rest of the time?” I asked gently.

“They were trouble,” muttered Anna. “One of them tried for her once.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“She thumped him with a shovel,” said Anna. “He didn't bother her after that.”

“Was he..?”

“He had a big lump on his head,” said Anna, “and the shovel was damaged. It was his shovel, so I'm not too concerned.”

With the roer dismantled and its deficiencies noted, I began cleaning the 'shotguns'. I suspected that the same situation would apply to their locks as did the roer, and hence I merely cleaned and oiled them. Once they were finished, I went to the revolvers.

Those had more than powder residues in their cylinders and bores; they had plentiful amounts of 'dirt' and 'congealed grease' in and on them, and when I stripped one of them entirely, I noted not merely poor workmanship and 'bad' parts, but also accumulations of dirt and hardened grease 'gumming the works'. After a quick brushing with boiled distillate, I reassembled them one by one and then put them aside.

Finally, I went over the sword. A brief glance showed a superficially 'good' finish – it was shiny – with numbers of 'secret markings' with plentiful – and sizable – cracks radiating out from each such marking in all directions. A file on the edge spoke of a 'full-polish wrench' level of hardness, and I wrapped it in rags and put it next to the roer. Unlike the huge musket – I could think of possible uses for that weapon – the sword only made sense as a portion of a furnace charge once it had been taken apart. It was barely holding together as it was.

“How was I able to slice those thugs with that thing?” I thought.

“Be glad there were only four of them that needed killing that way,” said the soft voice. “Had you swung on a fifth neck, that blade would have shattered like glass.”

After visiting the privy, I went to where the others were working. The three of them were sitting on stools around a cloth-covered table, and all three were carefully peeling and trimming the 'strange-looking scallions'. I looked closer at one of the 'cleaned' roots, and picked it up.

The sense I had was of something almost bursting with 'medicine', and as I examined the eight-inch long root, I noted its 'knots', its scales, and its thin covering 'membrane'. I thought to begin loading the extractor's basket with the cleaned pieces.

After unclamping the three pieces, I took the basket over to where the cleaned roots were, and began dicing the roots up into small pieces with my knife. I could almost taste the extreme bitterness of the medicine they contained, and as I carefully 'stacked' the pieces in the basket, Hans paused to look at me.

“Now that is a good job,” he said. “How are you putting them in that basket?”

“The cut ends running up and down,” I said. “I'll sprinkle some salaterus between each layer.”

“Now why is it you are doing that?” asked Hans.

“So as to get more of the cut pieces in there,” I said, “that, and it will help with the extraction. That will need to happen at least twice, and three times in total would be better still.”

It took roughly twenty minutes to finish loading the basket, and after filling the bottom portion with diluted aquavit and the top portion with water, I clamped the extractor together and put it on a stand with a turned-down heating lamp underneath. I felt the clamps begin tightening within less than a minute.

“It should need about an hour for the first run,” I said, “and then we can put fresh aquavit in the bottom and do the second run, then the third run after. The runs will need combining to get the maximum yield.”

“What is that thing?” asked Korn.

“That is an extractor,” said Hans. “It works better than those big things in the fourth kingdom, and is a lot safer.”

“I hope I can get one of those, then,” said Korn.

“I should be able to start on one soon,” I said. “These don't need especially close watching.”

I went upstairs, and as I came into the kitchen, I had a strange feeling about that 'medal' that Hans had taken. The whole 'question-session' had seemed too 'pat', with too-easy responses to my questioning, and when I came to the workbench, I was astonished to find the wire next to the drawplates and special 'locking' pliers. I began filing one of the ends of the wire so as to draw it through the first aperture of the series.

“And I'll need six steps, with annealing and pickling between the steps,” I thought. I then looked at the size of the coil and at the size of the parlor, and I suddenly understood. I needed to do the drawing at the shop, much as I needed to do the bulk of the remaining work on the sword there anyway. I began packing up its pieces in clean rags as I heard steps coming from the basement stairs.

“We're all about due for a nap,” said Anna, “and Hans blew out that heating lamp. That stuff should keep for an hour or so.”

“And Korn?” I asked.

“He is taking a nap downstairs,” said Hans, as he came up the steps. “That is a good drive to where he lives, and I turned off that lamp, so it will not cause trouble.”

I then realized I needed a nap myself, and when I lay down in bed, I fell deeply asleep almost immediately, and when I awoke, I was shocked to see a darkened window. Looking at the outside spoke of it being past sundown, and when I came down the stairs, I wondered as to the others.

They were all downstairs working on the remaining roots. There weren't that many left to clean, with two of the bags empty and mounded in a pile.

“Th-the lamp?” I asked.

“I ran it for another turn of the glass when we started,” said Hans, “and it finished an hour ago, so it should be ready for its second time.”

As I undid the clamps, I marveled at the 'plant' smell that was coming from the bottom portion, and when I decanted the quart or so material into a round-bottom flask, I was astonished at the yellowish-green color of the liquid. I refilled the bottom portion of the extractor, clamped it up, and then set it back to running.

“That stuff looks strange there,” said Hans. “I have never had it come out that color before, and never that strong-looking, either.”

“I think he was right, Hans,” said Anna. “Now what will you do with that?”

“A little oil of vitriol?” I asked. “Perhaps some from that jug I got?”

Hans fetched me a small and acridly fuming vial some minutes later, and after putting twenty drops of 'acid' in another vial half-filled with water, I started adding drops of dilute acid with a dropping tube. Each drop caused a distinct trail of 'clear' to billow down through the liquid in the flask, and as I added the drops one at a time, I heard faint scratching noises coming from the table. Someone was writing, and not on a slate.

“How much did you dilute that acid?” asked Korn.

“A half-full smaller medicine vial of boiled water, and twenty drops of the acid,” I said. “You add it drop by drop to the flask until the color goes completely out of the liquid.” I paused, then said, “normally, I would add all three runs and do this at the end, but we're short of glassware right now.”

“Yes, with that bark needing running,” said Hans. “There is still a lot of that stuff.”

“I hope you are running it more than once,” I said. “Is that why the glassware is in use so much?”

“Yes, it is settling,” said Hans. “I use the weaker stuff in the extractor so as to strengthen it.”

“And then boil off the remainder so as to retrieve the alcohol?”

“I never thought of that,” said Hans. “I just let the stuff set out and dry, like I always did.”

“You can boil off some of the alcohol,” I said, “though direct heat isn't a good idea, and you'll need to watch it carefully. You'll save a lot of alcohol that way – that, and time.”

Hans did not believe me, so much so that I had to demonstrate carefully what I meant once I'd gotten the first batch of extract 'cleared'. I had to move the evaporative trays off of the sand bath, then begin running the 'distillation'.

“Now that is strange,” said Hans, as he came to my side. “Why are you running that stuff into that water there?”

“You can redistill that water,” I said. “I would run it separately from the usual batches, and label it as 'fuel' use, just in case. I would feel terrible if someone made it into Geneva and became sick.”

By the time I had reduced the volume of liquid in the flask by half, the extractor had its second load cooling, and Hans jugged the water-alcohol mixture I had distilled off. I continued boiling some of the fever-bark extract until the extractor was ready to reload with its third charge of liquid.

It was 'bedtime' by the time the three extractions had run, and I had needed to add more acid each time, as well as boil off more alcohol. The remaining liquid had a distinct whitish cast, and when I poured it out into a pan to evaporate, I was astonished to find a thick coat of crystals adhering to the inside of the flask. Only by adding more water could I dissolve them.

“That never happened before,” said Hans. “What do you think it will do?”

“That pan will have a good deal more than you usually get from a whole season's gathering,” I said. “You won't run short of that drug this year.”

I surmised Korn would stay the night, and I was proved right when I went down the stairs during the evening to use the privy. He was sleeping on the couch, and as I went downstairs to the basement to check on the drying crop of crystals, I wondered as to when he would actually leave.

The water level had dropped markedly, and the entire pan was lined with a thick crop of crystals. I suspected it would be 'dry' by morning. I returned to bed.

The breakfast table was crowded with four people, and when breakfast finished, I went downstairs with Hans so as to 'prepare' him for the sight of a large 'crop' of medicine. Hans looked at the pan in what resembled shock.

“What is all of this?” he said.

“That medicine,” I said. “You should get another three or four batches this size, if I go by the number of cleaned roots I saw last night.” I paused, then said, “you'll want to dry the crystals the rest of the way in the kitchen, as it's warmer there, and then package them in several small crocks, each of them with a wax seal for the cork.”

“What is this?” asked Hans.

“Corks that large tend to fit poorly,” I said. “A wax candle rubbed on the edge of the crock will help the seal, and the medicine will retain its potency better.”

I was able to resume work on the sword after church, and once in the shop with changed clothing and my apron, I worked with a will. I suspected Georg had been busy on the rest-day, and the increased height the slate-stack made it obvious he had been out getting orders.

As breaks from the sword, I set up the boring and rifling jig, and I used the board I'd made for Black-Cap's musket as a rifling-guide. I thought to 'ream' one of the musket barrels, and was surprised – both at how easy it was to turn and advance the reamer, and how readily the barrel cleaned up. The barrel I tried only needed a single pass, unlike previous instances.

“Those others must have been done worse, or they had a lot of rust and corrosion,” I thought, as I returned to drawing the silver wire. “This stuff is easier than I thought it would be, too.”

Heat-treating the sword made for trepidation and prayer, and the thick billowing smoke of a fat-quench drove me coughing out of the shop. I blocked the front door open, and when I went out into the street, the thick gray billows coming from the roof seemed especially 'potent'. It was almost like visiting an oracle of some kind to see the stuff slowly dissipating as the soft wind blew it away.

The blade cleaned up readily on the buffing wheel, and after 'mudding' it, I put it next to the forge. The telltale temper colors took some few minutes to show, and after dousing it with water, I scraped the mud into the mud-bucket. I then took it back to the buffing wheel.

The blade had curved slightly during the quench and tempering process, and as I carefully polished it, I noted the wavy lines of the pattern-welding beginning to show more and more, while the lighter area where the mud was seemed to stand out especially well. After a few minutes, it was time for the straps, and from that point, carefully wiping the blade with boiled distillate and then wrapping it in rags.

I left an hour before sundown with my 'bag of tricks', and once home, I began assembling the sword. The softly gleaming blade seemed to shine with a strange and ghostly 'light', and as I began fitting the hilt to the tang, I heard steps to my right.

“What did you do to that thing?” asked Anna.

“I hardened and tempered it,” I said. “I never did anything that big with that steel before, and I was praying the whole time.”

“It curved more,” said Anna.

“I suspected it would,” I said. “It's just about right, in fact.”

“What else do you need to do?” asked Anna.

“Fit the hilt, like I'm doing here,” I said, “then put on the handle pieces and pommel, and then wrap the handle with twisted silver wire. I'll sharpen it then.”

“Why are you using silver?” asked Anna.

“Uh, no verdigris,” I said. “If your hand gets cut, silver is less likely to cause an infection.”

“I thought so,” said Anna. “Some might look at that as decorative.” Anna paused, then said, “now what is this v-v-v... I cannot say that word.”

“The greenish corrosion that forms on brass,” I said. “I've heard it tends to cause infections.”

“It does,” said Anna. “That's why no one in their right mind uses brass anything around wounds.”

“I'll be certain to speak of that when people ask questions,” I said. “I'll need to go to the house tomorrow morning, and I guess I'll need to leave at first light.”

“That would be wise,” said Anna. “I'll let Georg know where you went should he ask.”

At dinner that night, I recalled my 'lessons', and for the space of an hour or more I spoke of what had been preached earlier that day, as well as 'sums'. Anna looked about ready for 'long division', or so I thought until I tried her with the following problem:

She nearly tossed the slate after the first portion.

“No, dear,” I said calmly. “First find the largest multiple that will go into the top number, like this.” Here, I wrote 210, then thirty to its side to remind me. “That leaves fifty-three, and forty-nine goes into fifty three.”

“Forty-nine?” asked Anna.

“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. I could tell it helped. “Seven times seven is forty-nine. So, that leaves four for a remainder.” I paused, then said, “now, add thirty and seven, put it on the top, and then 'R 4' to indicate what remains.”

As Anna wrote what I spoke of, I could feel a degree of tension that was unlike her, and I stopped the lesson but minutes later. I then resumed my labor on the sword.