The Big House, part 10.


“Th-that's...” Gabriel nearly choked on his tongue.

“That's just getting to where he is,” I said. “Then, there's dealing with Koenraad, and he's not merely unprincipled and vicious, but an expert fighter.”

“Like that witch that came the last posting?” asked Sepp.

“I'm not sure how that character compares to Koenraad,” I said, “but I doubt Koenraad is going to be easier to deal with – and that witch wasn't easy.”

I paused, then said, “and then, the hard part.”

“What you have said so far seems impossible,” said Karl.

“It isn't,” I said. “It can be done. So I get into wherever Koenraad is holed up, and I remove his head. Now how do I bag that stinky messy thing up and bring it back here?”

I paused, then said, “and if I bring that head here, what's going to keep every witch and thug in the Swartsburg from coming here and trying to remove all of our heads?”

“That I can answer,” said Gabriel. “If I go by what I have seen and heard of during my traipsing, when the chief of a group of those black-dressed people dies, his lieutenants squabble among themselves while choosing a successor, and those squabbles often degenerate into minor wars.”

“Minor wars?” I asked.

“Bombings, murders, gunfire, fires, and artillery,” said Gabriel. “One such war in the fifth kingdom left over three hundred participants dead, and many more bystanders. By the time it was over, the firms involved had vanished from the rolls and their works had been gutted of equipment and workers.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “those were the well-known casualties. I suspect the true extent of the destruction to be much larger.”

“Meaning if I 'do' Koenraad, the Swartsburg is going to be in an uproar for a while,” I asked.

“I do not know if that word is adequate,” said Gabriel. “I would expect recovery would take quite some time, and that is if no explosions or fires ensue during your escape from that location.”

“As in diversions?” I asked.

Gabriel looked at me, then said, “given that explosions or fires tend to happen whenever you deal with witches or their possessions, I am surprised you spoke that way.”

I looked at the two 'polishers' a minute or so later after 'pricking' the pieces of leather, then showed Karl how to 'polish' his sword.

“Long smooth motions,” I said. “If you can find a rag, I'll oil it up for you for wiping.”

“What kind of oil?” asked Sepp. “Cooking oil isn't too hard to find.”

“That would work,” I said, “but I meant one of the oils I have. They won't go gummy like cooking oil tends to do over time.”

“It does do that,” said Gabriel. “What is this oil you speak of?”

“It's a mixture of heavy distillate, uncorking medicine, specially processed tallow, and some of this special fourth kingdom grease,” I said. “Compounding it needs chemistry glassware and about an hour for a batch.”

“I would use that,” said Gabriel. “Tallow might be cheap enough, and common, and cooking oil common and expensive, but that sounds like it is much better.”

“It does seem to keep the rust down,” I said.

“Then that speaks of why tallow is so little used by instrument-makers,” said Gabriel. “Rust tends to be a problem up here, but its chief reasons are poor materials and neglect.” Gabriel paused, then said, “it is a worse problem down there, and that chiefly due to the climate.”

“Climate?” I asked.

“It tends to be a good deal warmer there,” said Gabriel, “and very moist as well.”

“They must use a lot of tool-cleaner there,” said Sepp.

“I think they make far more than they use,” said Gabriel. “I only saw it used a few times in that area, unlike here.”

“That stuff smells, too,” I said. “I helped paint a freshened-up plow with it once.”

After Gabriel left, I began sewing on Karl's scabbard. The rivets held the pieces in alignment, and with each push of the awl, I threaded in the 'thread' on the other side and then pulled. The faint creaks I heard when I knotted each hole were a marvel.

“That thing is strange,” said Sepp, “and these things work good.”

“They do?” I asked.

“I will not want red-tallow now,” said Karl. “This one helps the finish of the blade here.”

“You should only need to do that about once a week,” I said, “if you wipe it down with a clean oily rag every day.”

“Is that because of what he said?” asked Karl.

“I've seen my share of rust up here,” I said, “and what I did to that sword means rust isn't going to help it much.”

“It will look bad,” said Karl. “Is that it?”

“Rust eats into the metal,” I said, “and rust-pits act like those markings when it comes to cracks.”

I paused, then asked, “did either of you see what happened to that witch's sword and dagger?”

“Someone took those,” said Sepp, “and if I go by what I saw, they can have both of those things. Both of them were marked up, and they both had cracks going.”

“Small ones, or...”

“One of those on the sword was as long as my finger,” said Sepp. “There were a fair number of others.”

“Meaning about one more fight before it goes to pieces,” I said. “I should have this done shortly.”

'Shortly' proved to be roughly an hour, and when I finished the thing for Karl's inspection, Sepp had just returned with a pair of jugs. One was a common-sized example, while the other was smaller and labeled with a tinned tag.

“The tag?” I asked.

“That one has wine,” said Sepp, “though I was told it was not fermented. It smells strange.”

“Strange?” I asked.

“Wine normally smells like it is getting ready to become vinegar,” he said. “This smells like fresh-pressed stuff.”

The 'unfermented wine' proved to be indeed 'fresh-pressed', and its refreshing taste was helpful in the extreme. Karl and Sepp each had a small portion between their larger ones of beer. I glanced at the contents of their mugs, and noted a darker-than-common liquid with a modest fragrance of hops.

“The beer?” I asked.

“That is a darker type of common beer,” said Sepp, “and it was said to be Anna's recipe. It feels like it.”

“F-feels like it?” I asked.

“I've heard it's used for sick people,” said Sepp, “and it seems to help. Sick or not, it's popular enough here.”

“L-lion-Brew?” I asked.

“I'd rather have this,” said Sepp.

“Me too,” said Karl. “Is that thing done?”

“It is,” I said. “Now you can try it.”

Karl was enthused with his new sword, for it stayed near his leg like an obedient dog. More, it was silent save for the faint noise that the scabbard made against his trousers.

“Good, it does not sound like a pig,” he said. “Now what?”

“Let me get you an oily rag,” I said, as I reached for my possible bag.

After handing him the rag in question, I resumed sipping from my mug. The taste of grape juice was a marvel, and as I 'relaxed', I could feel something about to happen out in the main hallway. I carefully checked my pistol, then the sword, and as I did, I seemed to hear something out of time and memory. It spoke of sword and pistol being present.

“N-no, I am not a highwayman,” I thought.

Sepp looked at me, then said, “what is it?”

“There's something happening in one of those rooms at the north end of the main hall,” I said, “something about a big, uh, stinky argument between two of those, uh, people...”

As if to confirm my statement, a door opened with a booming crash and the deafening yells of drunken thugs, then as Sepp went to the 'fold', he was narrowly missed by a tossed dagger that clattered and slid down the hall on the floor. He turned to me with whitened face, even as the 'uproar' continued unabated.

“Those people,” I muttered. “I'm not sure the king wishes to endure their noise.” I paused, then said as I went to pick up the dagger, “I am somewhat more sure about myself.”

I grasped the thing by its handle and began walking up the hall. I was holding it between thumb and forefinger, much as if it were coated in torment-grease, and while it wasn't billowing flames like a fetish, that was its sole difference from the usual witch-dagger. I came to the mouth of the hallway, and there I saw something that I had trouble believing.

Two black-dressed thugs were thrashing and rolling on the floor while locked in the grip of a desperate fight, while no less than three others in dark brown 'severe' clothing were watching them. I laid the dagger down on the floor some distance away, then said softly, “could you please go outside? You are making a great deal of noise.”

The bristling aspect of the three watchers as they turned toward me was such that I marveled, until one of them reached for something 'inside' of his clothing. I felt a sudden 'commotion' at my right side as my hand went to my revolver, then as I saw the flash of blued steel appear at the waist of the 'miser', I drew and fired.

The miser 'flinched', and in slow-motion, he crumpled face-down to the ground. The two black-dressed thugs carried on unimpeded, or so it seemed.

“Now go outside,” I said, with raised voice and cocked revolver in hand.

The two surviving 'retainers' now waded into the melee and brought the thugs apart, then somehow shooed them outside, while the door – a thick iron-strapped varnished wood 'plank' – closed with a faint creak and then latched with a snapping noise. I could hear curses coming from the thugs as they left for outside, and when I lowered the hammer such that it was 'down' on an empty chamber, I noticed how I was shaking.

The thug I had shot was not moving, and I wondered what to do about him.

“Good, they've stopped,” said the voice of Sepp from my rear. “The king saw what happened.”

“I s-shot someone,” I murmured.

“He was about to shoot you, too,” said Sepp. “I saw that part.”

“Uh, that th-thug?” I asked.

“They can clean him up,” said Sepp. “That isn't the first time they've done things like that.”

I turned and walked back to the bench, and there I cleaned and reloaded the revolver prior to putting it back in its holster. Both men had seen my careful wiping of the thing's parts, and after putting it away, I asked softly, “will doing Koenraad solve that much?”

“I am not sure what it will do,” said Karl. “Now what do you mean by doing that wretch?”

“Uh, removing his head,” I spluttered. I almost spoke of something otherwise, one old 'joke' that had to do with a certain species of 'haircut', one that removed everything above the epiglottis. “I'll need to slice him up some...”

I paused, then recalled what I'd done dealing with the witch. I'd not been concerned about 'slicing', only stopping him while not getting hurt – and he hadn't really stopped until I removed his head. Koenraad was likely to be similar.

Over the next hour or so, I heard faint noises coming from the main hall, and when two men showed – one of them the 'guard' that had showed earlier – they both commented on the bloodstains out in the hall.

“They were making noise, and he asked them to go outside,” said Sepp, “and one of them tried for him and got shot.” Sepp paused, then said, “served that wretch right, too.”

“Now why is it you did that?” asked the 'inquisitor'.

“He was going to shoot me,” I said. I wanted to add, “what was I supposed to do, let him?”

“When those black-dressed people fight, you want to let 'em alone,” he said. “It is not your business.”

“They were bothering Hendrik with their noise,” said Sepp, “and he saw what happened. He's glad, too.”

The abrupt change in the men's demeanor was such that I marveled, and their silence seemed at once thick and oppressive. The three of us left the two of them behind, and as I paused prior to heading outside into the darkness, I shook my head at the attitude of our replacements. I then left.

For some reason, however, as I came to the front gate, I had a strange intimation as to what I wanted to do prior to heading home, and I turned left instead of right once past the gate. The dim lighting and chill gave impetus to my moving, and when I reached the edge of 'town', I looked carefully around.

This portion of town seemed 'dead', and as I paused to listen, I knew that for most, it was the truth. Those inclined otherwise were to the east and ahead.

I passed by what had been pointed out as Houtlaan, and the smell of distillate was enough to cause retching. There was another road to the left ahead, and I wanted to take it. It would save a modest amount of time while still staying clear of the 'bad places'.

As I walked, however, I felt the presence of such locations here and there. While Hans and others had implied they were rare outside of the Swartsburg, I was now learning that the truth was closer to 'those operating openly are rare. Those that are well-hid are anything but rare'.

The first sign of life came as I turned left onto a road lined with shops. Kokstraat was ahead, if I had been told correctly, and as I came past a 'suspicious-feeling' shop, I heard the bray of a mule, then the snapping sound of a whip. I darted into the shadows to my right and froze.

The groaning sounds of heavy-laden 'dry' bearings came steadily closer, as did the hideous reek of mules. I was expecting to see a coach, for some reason, and when a six-mule team showed ahead of a long rumbling 'farm wagon', I was shocked – until I saw the driver.

He was dressed much as the man I had shot earlier in the evening, and his vehicle was noisy enough to substitute for an avalanche. The cargo – boxes, barrels, and a few coarse-looking sacks – seemed to hover over the bed of his wagon as he rattled past.

I remained in the shadows until his noise and smell was much reduced, then moved rapidly down the road heading east. I could feel the street I was after ahead, and when I found it, I turned right.

Kokstraat had a homey smell that reminded me of the Public House kitchen at home, and the small flickering flames of lanterns on each stoop seemed to remind me of what it was like there – both as to appearances, and also, the feel. Home tended to be utterly silent at this hour of night, and Kokstraat was the same.

Kokstraat was a good bit longer than the street that ran through home, however, and when it joined another street coming from the left with a possible left turn at the intersection, I wondered if I needed to take that particular turn. I had the impression there were others that were better, and continued on.

I passed another left-going road, and that one was not what I wanted either. As I continued, I had the feeling that the next sizable road was the one I wanted, and the thinning houses spoke of the edge of the city, or so I thought until I turned left to find more houses and shops.

“Is this the right one?” I thought. “It feels like it.”

The road heading south and east went straight for some distance, then at a bend in the road, I noted long rows of trees to my right. I had the sense that this was an orchard, and as the road curved slightly, the houses finally 'gave out' and were replaced by farmer's fields. My sensing was correct; this was the best way – at this hour.

“Recall the route across the city you spoke of?” asked the soft voice. “You more or less followed it. Most people would need to follow it closer to your description to stay out of trouble.”

“Is it that bad?” I asked.

“You saw that witch,” said the soft voice, “and you felt the number of those that either are witches, or wish earnestly to be witches.” A brief pause, then “you will want to leave by the back side and avoid the city entirely then.”

“When I deal with Koenraad?” I asked.

“Tonight as well,” said the soft voice. “It is worse than Hans said it is after dark, and the worst time in the evening is coming.”

The trees to the right finished up, and now I had barren-looking fields on each side. I sensed that the road I was on needed to be followed until it joined the Suedwaag, as the fields made for difficulty in hiding. I could see a thick forest up ahead, however, and that, I knew, would help with both concealment and other matters. I hurried as I could just the same, for I could almost feel the watchful red-rimmed eyes of witches looking for people to murder, and again, the scrap of remembered music occurred to me.

“No, I am not a...”

I paused in my thinking and went to the ditch on the right side of the road, where I lay down quickly. The groaning noises in the distance spoke of both rapid travel and unlubricated wheels, and when I turned to the left, I was astounded to see a pair of pulsating yellow-tinted lights drawing nearer.

“What is that thing?” I thought. “It looks like a coach.”

“It is, and is filled with the local equivalent of highwaymen,” said the soft voice. “There are closer approximations some distance south.”

The coach rapidly drew closer, and when it rumbled past behind an eight-mule team I was amazed at the sight of the thing. I had never really seen one closely before, and the high wheels, the long boat-like shape, the raised 'boot' at the rear, and the small brilliantly-glowing windows that pulsated to the irregular beat of a distillate-fueled lantern were enough to make for a shivering fit.

The smell of the thing and its team was enough to make for nausea.

“Ugh, mules,” I thought, as I slowly got up from the ground. The coach was hurrying on its way east and south, and again, scraps of that refrain recurred in my mind.

“Along the coach-road I did ride...” I murmured.

“That happens sooner than you might think,” said the soft voice, “and not as a thug.”

The forest drew steadily closer, and when I came to the road itself, I glanced both ways and hurried into the trees. There, I felt much less worried, so much so that as I headed east and a little north...

“How is it I know I'm going east and north?” I thought. “Is it because I cannot read the compass?”

I paused and drew the thing, and to my astonishment, a faint bluish glow showed not merely the 'N' that indicated north, but also the compass needle pointing in the direction in question. I put the thing away, as I now had an idea as to why I knew about my heading, and why I wanted to move quickly.

“And I want to stay off of that trail they have here,” I thought, as I moved through the woods. “They have witches coming along this way with some frequency.” I paused, then thought, “didn't they hide the south entrances to this place?”

While I knew 'talk' had spoken of them being hidden, I also knew talk, at least from the mouths of most, was questionable as to its reliability, and when I 'felt' a wall some distance to my left, I was astonished.

“They didn't say how big it was, or how tall it was,” I thought, “but that thing has got to be twelve feet tall if an inch.”

“In some places,” said the soft voice. “It tends to be taller yet in others.”

As I came within visual distance of the wall, I went no closer, and instead began heading east while following the thing. I could hear faint scraps of speech here and there ahead, and when I came to a hazy reddish glowing region, I paused in my steps and moved behind a tree.

The walls showed a pair of thick pylons that framed a varnished wooden gate that rose far up in the air above the walls themselves. Atop the gate was an inscription, and while the trees partly blocked it, I recognized the words 'men' and 'slaves', with the whole limned faintly in reddish torchlight.

“Now how do I get in that place?” I thought. “Do I wait until it opens for someone else, or do I open it myself?” I paused, then thought, “I doubt I want to try a rope and grapnel.”

“Especially in this region,” said the soft voice. “Not only are there spikes on top of that wall, but also embedded broken glass and other sharp things – and that's just for the outer wall. There's an inner wall as well, and they run cattle in the area between the two.”

“Cattle?” I asked.

“They do not have land mines,” said the soft voice, “and unlike land mines, cattle are edible.”

There was a pause, then “try the door itself.”

“Try the door?” I gasped.

“Go to the door from the side, knock, and then get close to the wooden portion and move with it as the witches swing it out, then while they search the outer area, go inside.”

“Th-they won't see me, will they?” I asked. The incredulity in my thoughts was beyond comprehension.

“They won't,” said the soft voice. “You were not hidden fully during your times of training.”

I wondered if it were wise to assay examination of the Swartsburg prior to my foray after Koenraad, and the sense I had was that of stirring up a wasp's nest. As I turned to head further into the trees, I had the impression that there were supplies I wanted to take with me for diversions, and when I began heading east again, I wondered just what was on the other side.

“I would worry about that when the time comes,” said the soft voice. “Contrary to popular belief, much of the Swartsburg is like a very thick-shelled egg.”

“Meaning the security is all on the outside?” I asked. The wall was still heading east.

“The witches take great pride, and that with justification, in their ability to secure their 'home',” said the soft voice, “and those outer layers of guarding tend to work quite well.”

I caught the word 'tend', and thought to ask about it.

“Which is why I said 'tend',” said the soft voice. “Once you breach their security measures, the place is almost wide-open, and given their beliefs...”

“They chose to permit security to be breached?” I asked.

“That especially,” said the soft voice, “and 'minor war' will be an understatement when you deal with Koenraad.” There was a pause, then “especially as you've already dealt with those thought to be his most-likely successors.”

I reached the end of the east-going wall minutes later, and began angling to the left as I picked up the pace. The feeling I had was that outer wall had a parapet with witches periodically walking it, and although their numbers were 'few', they tended to shoot when and if they felt inclined.

I could 'hear' and 'feel' the place now truly 'waking up', and I suspected that the best time to try for Koenraad was shortly before his 'bedtime'. He kept late hours, even for a witch, which meant...

“Come here after your next shift at the house,” said the soft voice, “and you should get here during that time-frame. Koenraad's location will be about a hundred yards east of Maarlaan, and about two hundred yards north of the first brothel you come to.”

“And the brothel?” I asked.

“Is very difficult to miss,” said the soft voice. “Watch for the red lights hung on its stoop.”

“Does that gate go to Maarlaan?” I asked.

“Maarlaan starts but a hundred yards or so north of that gate,” said the soft voice, “and that brothel is about four hundred yards inside the inner wall.” There was a pause, then “unlike the 'common world', the Swartsburg has road-signs.”

I continued at my 'quiet' speed through the forest, with the east wall of the Swartsburg over a hundred yards to my left. Again, I felt the slow-stalking sentries on its parapet, and when I heard a rumbling boom to my left, I ducked.

There were no branches coming down nearby, and I resumed travel.

“He shot inside the wall,” said the soft voice.

“Was that a roer?” I asked.

“It has a larger bore than common muskets up here,” said the soft voice, “and is rifled, hence it has much better range than most muskets – and while it is not a roer, it hits as hard as one inside of a hundred yards. The difference grows with greater range, and that in favor of that type of weapon.”

“That sounds like a Civil War...”

“Close, but not quite,” said the soft voice. “The bore is larger, even if otherwise the similarities are marked.” There was a pause, then “they usually don't need to saw off arms and legs with those.”

“The bones aren't splintered?” I gasped.

“The arms and legs tend to be ripped off,” said the soft voice, “and torso hits, especially at close range, tend to kill in a hurry.”

“Waldhuis?” I asked.

“Those, fifth kingdom cartridge rifles, and roers,” said the soft voice, “with roers predominating.”

It took some time to leave the Swartsburg behind, and when I passed a wide 'dirt road', I suspected I had just crossed the Oestwaag. The outskirts of town were steadily heading westward, and I 'followed' them at a safe distance. As I felt no witches in the area, I moved faster, now just short of a trot, until I came to some farmer's fields. I found the pathways near the boundary markers, walked their length, and then resumed my former speed.

I soon struck an obvious trail and here, I kept to it. This portion of the area was more or less devoid of witches, as it was a wide area nearly free of cover save for a tree belt that the path went through, and when I emerged from the other side of the trees, I was astonished.

The house proper was over a mile away, with but a few small copses and trees, and I was heading right for it.

The trail bent gently to the left, and when it joined another that bent further that way, I followed it. This new trail bent more sharply, and as I came even with the boundaries of the hedges, I noted their distance. They weren't that far away.

“And I'd best head further away from the house to avoid gunfire or arrows at this time,” I thought. “Someone like that one guard might be out there.” I paused, then “does he have a small black book?”

“No, but he'd like to have one,” said the soft voice. “The individuals that have those books tend to keep a lower profile.”

I was nearly three hundred yards from the front gate when I passed the road called Huislaan, and not a minute later I struck a familiar trail. I sped up slightly, while still 'tuned' toward the presence of witches.

For some reason, I had the intimation that those people were not outside at the current hour, at least those I needed to worry about in this area, and I went in a completely straight line once I'd reached the bottom of the rise. I walked when I felt tired and trotted otherwise, and my pace was such that I nearly ran into the cornfields of Waldhuis before I realized where I was. I stopped and listened there.

“Those people are all indoors,” I thought.

While I was tempted to take a 'short cut', I sensed I would be dodging hot lead fairly soon if I did so, and I turned to the left. I sped up into a run within seconds, and I soon knew why as red flashing dots began erupting far in the distance to my right. The buzzing of bullets flying nearby was such that I marveled, and only when I came even with the houses did the gunfire stop.

I did not slow down until I reached the road, however.

While I had heard the term 'the witching hour' recently and in my past, I had wondered as to its significance. I now had a slightly better idea, as I could smell faintly the odor of burning datramonium. The stink was nowhere nearby, however, and as I settled into a steady pace, I looked carefully around me.

“Is this why I feel less worried when traveling after dark?” I thought. There was no answer.

Getting home was a matter for surprise, as while I was bathing, I heard voices in the kitchen. I recognized them as being Hans and Anna, and I said, “it's just me.”

“Why didn't you stay at the house and come home in the morning?” said Anna plaintively.

“How am I going to get done what I need to do if I, uh...”

I stopped speaking, as I could tell – clearly – that I was not being heard. There was 'custom', I had broken it, and therefore I was 'bad'.

No, bad was not the word. I had named myself a witch, and a most evil one, because I had broken the thirteenth commandment, that unwritten rule that spoke of travel by night.

“I think I know why,” said Hans' muffled voice. “He sees good in the dark, so he can travel then.”

“But that's when the witches are out,” said Anna. “They aren't out during the day.”

“Uh, no,” I said, as I began draining the tub. “I have less trouble traveling at night than I do during the day, actually.”

“Now how is that?” asked Hans.

“Firstly, I see better in the dark than when I first came, and not a little bit,” I said as I put on my trousers, “and then, the only people likely to be awake and observant at this hour are fairly serious witches – and they tend to be indoors, as a rule.”

“So who is outside, then?” asked Hans.

I did not answer, for I now had something of a suspicion. If one were a pariah...

Disgraced...

One did not wish to be seen, either by the witches or the common people...

And speed, concealment, and darkness were a requisite to survive. Not even the witches saw well then, as the gunfire from Waldhuis wasn't nearly as accurate as it had been during the day.

“Then why did I hear those things buzzing like that?” I thought, as I put on my shirt.

“Your hearing is more sensitive with fewer distractions,” said the soft voice, “and you gave those people more credit than they deserved.”

“As in?”

“If you must travel in a witch-held realm, night-time travel is safer than during the day,” said the soft voice, “and for the reasons that occurred to you.”

“And for others?” I asked.

While there was no answer from the source I wished to hear from, my recollection of the town seemed to supply one. The noise, the bustle, the hum of industry – all of it was silent; and amid this silence, the schemes and tricks of witchdom stood out loudly. It was almost as if I could not merely discern them better, but also...

“They have no place to hide,” I spluttered, as I opened the door.

“I heard some of that,” said Anna. “Now why is it safer for you to travel at night?”

“Fewer distractions, for one,” I said, “and then the witches are less able to hide. Finally, I'm not certain about what happens to me then, but I suspect I'm harder to see also.”

“Very much so,” said the soft voice. “Partial concealment often suffices in dim light.”

I was glad to go to bed just the same, as I felt exhausted, and when I awoke, it was light outside. The response I got at work when I arrived was astonishing, however.

“You finally got in at the proper time,” said Georg.

What?” I squeaked.

“This is about the time most that do what you do would show,” said Georg. “Now why did you sleep in?”

“I got home late last night,” I said, “and between work here, travel there, the posting, and travel back to here, I was exhausted.” I paused, then mumbled, “and I had to shoot another witch, too.”

“Now that is an interesting thing,” said Gelbhaar. “Where was this witch?”

“In the king's house proper,” I said. “I was doing my job – whatever it actually is, as no one has explained much to me – and those black-dressed people get into a big smelly argument. They're making a lot of noise, and I go out and ask them and those with them to go outside.”

I paused, as I had said a mouthful.

“I asked them nicely,” I said, “and one of those people goes for a gun.”

“And you shot him,” said Johannes with finality. “Was he like that one man here?”

“He wasn't dressed like that, but otherwise, he wasn't much of an improvement.”

“How was he dressed?” asked Georg.

“This really dark stiff brown stuff,” I said. “The cut might not be exactly the same as what's common in that black cloth, but it tends to be close, and the same for a lot else they wear.”

“That sounds like a miser,” said Georg. “Those people are common in the Swartsburg.”

I shuddered, then said, “I've seen them in the house, too.”

Georg rubbed his chin, then said, “you're right, they do tend to mingle more than those that wear black.”

“Night deliveries?” I asked.

“Who?” asked Georg.

“Someone was headed this way with some really stinky birds,” I said, “and he seemed to be wearing that stuff, and last night in town, I saw another person dressed like that driving a big team of mules.”

“Did you go to the Swartsburg?” asked Georg.

“Uh, not inside,” I said. I was conscious of being evasive, but I had to conceal what I could until Koenraad was dealt with. “I went into the house proper, and I saw this character west of Kokstraat near Houtlaan.”

What?” squeaked Georg. “What was a miser doing there?”

“Driving a farm wagon loaded with stuff behind six stinky mules,” I said. “Then, a short time later, I saw a coach, and it had eight mules.” I paused, then said, “ugh, mules.”

“Was that in the Swartsburg?” asked Georg.

“No, it wasn't,” I said. “I did not go in that place.”

“Then why did you go into the town at night?” asked Georg.

“To see what was there,” I said. “I learned some very important things that I would not have learned during the day.”

“Such as?”

“Hans said the place was safe enough during the day,” I said, “as long as one stayed away from the Swartsburg and certain 'bad places'. That might well be true for him.”

I paused for emphasis, then continued:

“That is not the case for me.”

“Why?” asked Johannes.

“Places that are openly sympathetic to witches are rare outside of the Swartsburg,” I said. “Well-hid witch-sympathizers are fairly common. Then, he said it was dangerous during the night.”

“It is that,” said Georg.

“He grossly underestimated that danger,” I said, “and given what I saw last night, about the only way to avoid trouble after dark is to see it before it sees you and then hide so it cannot find you.”

“But if you're at home...” began Georg.

“That isn't particularly safe, especially in the poorer sections of town,” I said. “You never know when a witch is going to break in and kill you because he feels inclined toward murder.”

I was able to start working once I'd checked over and 'adjusted' the fires in the various forges, and when I returned to 'my' portion of the workbench, Georg asked, “now why did you need to do those fires like that?”

“Perhaps habit,” I said. “Given I've been here before the apprentices in the past...”

I stopped abruptly, for I knew now what the issue was. I needed proper fires for working, and the work had been done too badly to be usable.

Georg looked at me, and I said, “I guess I need to teach them about how to set the fires correctly. They were done badly.”

“I thought so,” said Georg. “I've seen your fires, and they tend to be as neat as anyone's.”

“Why didn't you speak of the matter?” I asked.

“I did, but I have no idea how you lay those things like you do,” said Georg. “I was taught to make them as big as I could without getting lit on fire.”

“N-no,” I said. “Here, let me show you with this forge over here.”

I showed Georg the usual 'routine' of shoveling out the ashes, clearing the blast-vent – I wanted to call it a tuyère, but I doubted my speech would be understood, unlike the term blast-vent – and then laying the kindling in a species of lattice with a 'distillate-dowsed' piece of rag near the top. I left out the distillate for the sake of my gorge, and I left it unlit as an example. I wanted everyone to see it.

“I never saw it done that way before,” he said.

“What, you don't clean the forge out?” I gasped. “Just pile the wood in and light it?”

Georg nodded, to my complete surprise, and I shook my head – until he said, “none of us knew better, and more than once, I wondered why the fires you laid seemed to burn hotter than common.”

During the morning guzzle, I came across an order for 'one saw blade, as per usual', and when I showed it to Georg, I asked, “metal, wood, or what?”

He scratched his head, then looked on the other side of the slate, then in a leather-bound 'ledger' I had not seen before. He spent several minutes perusing this latter, then said, “I think that one is for the carpenters here.”

“I've seen several types of saws over there,” I said. “Now do I need to go over there to find out what they want, or what?”

Georg had no knowledge of what needed making, and when I went to the carpenters themselves, they weren't much better – or so it seemed to me at first.

“Did you want a saw blade?” I asked.

“Yes, and a good one,” said one of the men. “I know you do those.”

“What kind?” I asked. “I would guess this to be for wood, if I go by what I see here.” I paused, then asked, “do you have an example of what you want, or a drawing?”

He shook his head, then said, “had I either, I would have brought them.”

I looked around, and saw the 'common' saws, those being the things hanging from the walls. Other than unusual construction and somewhat strange contours in places, they looked familiar enough to me. I then asked, “what would this saw be used for?”

“For slabbing, like they do in pits,” he said.

“You've never seen pit-saws?” I asked.

“I've seen many of them,” he said, “and I want none of them. I want one of yours.”

“I don't have the slightest idea of what those are like,” I gasped. “Are they done with two people?”

“I thought you said you didn't know,” he said, “and now you talk as though you do.”

“That was a guess,” I said. “I've heard of the term before.”

“So then you know enough to start,” he said. “I'd like it to slide easy, like you do with the smaller blades, and be comfortable on the hands, and not need filing every foot it cuts.”

“Most do well to manage that,” said one of the other men.

“A pit?” I asked.

“We should manage that later this year,” said the first man. “I know how you're buried for work, and how most expect you to have things done long before they're due.”

“L-long before they're due?” I asked.

“Those knives you do would take months instead of weeks were they done elsewhere,” he said, “and done less well in the bargain, and the same for everything else.”

I went back to the shop in a state of dejection, for now I was lost utterly, and when I drew out what I thought was a pit-saw and showed it to Georg, he said, “that looks likely enough. I'd do that.”

What?” I gasped.

“Only a few people can manage those up here, and they do badly,” said Georg. “The ones from the south tend to be but little better, no matter who makes them.”

“Do badly as to, uh...”

“They look bad, and work worse than they look,” said Georg, “and with those, unlike a lot of other things, the customer gets what the maker can manage. If you do one, I'd expect more to follow.”

“Is that why he was so vague?” I asked.

“In what fashion?” asked Georg.

“He knew what he wanted about its behavior, and not much else?” I asked. “Otherwise, he seemed to think I could read his mind.”

“I've wondered more than a little about that,” said Georg, “and that doesn't include what Anna has spoken about the matter. She seems to think you can.”

“And now I have to figure out how those things are, and how they're done,” I mumbled. “I just hope I can do something like what I drew.”

After a minute, however, I asked, “how long are those things?”

“The shortest ones I've heard of are three feet and some,” said Georg, “with the better ones close to four and a half. Five feet is the biggest I've heard of.”

“Maybe I can...”

I ceased in mid-sentence, for now I knew a chief trouble, that being heat-treating. We did not have a forge big enough to heat the thing, nor a quenching container large enough. The last was a simple matter, or so I suspected.

“If we made those, we would need a forge big enough to put the thing in it,” I said.

“Why?” asked Georg. “These are big enough, aren't they?”

“The biggest one barely fit those swords,” I said, “and the shortest saw like that... Is that why so few places make those? They need a big forge?”

“How big of a forge are you speaking of?” asked Georg.

“As long as the saw blade, plus a foot or so added length,” I said. “It could be a bit narrower than the common.”

“And what would it be used for, though, other than saw-blades?” asked Georg. “The bellows? The fuel? A big one needs a bigger blast.”

“That furnace out back will need a bigger blast also,” I said. “Those usually use...”

Georg's face blanched white as a sheet, and did so with such abruptness I wondered if he had become ill. He groped about for his beer mug, then drained the thing and wobbled over to the nearest jug, which he removed to where he was sitting. He poured himself a refill once seated, and began sucking the contents down hurriedly.

“What did I say?” I asked.

“Those th-things down south they use for those furnaces,” said Georg. “They are very dangerous.”

“Do they have, uh, boiler explosions?” I asked.

“I don't know what kind of explosions they have,” said Georg, “but they explode often enough.”

“I doubt what I have in mind will explode, actually,” I said. “It might be somewhat finicky to run...”

“Those are that, and expensive, too,” he said. “They need constant repairs and a great deal of distillate.”

“This might need some for its lubricant,” I said, “but otherwise, charcoal should suffice.”

What?” shrieked Georg. “Those things drink distillate, and make huge fires, and smoke like a coal-oven!”

“I doubt we are speaking of the same thing,” I said. “You never saw that engine, did you?”

Georg did not blanch this time; he fell to the floor in a dead faint, and I sent one of the apprentices to fetch Anna while I looked after him. Anna came but minutes later, and Georg was still 'out'.

“What did you say to him now?” asked Anna.

“First, it had to do with a larger forge for making saw blades,” I said, “and then he spoke of needing – oh, my, and he wasn't kidding. Those things need three people huffing on them as a rule.”

“What is this?” asked Johannes.

“Saw-blade forges,” I said. “Three of those blast-vents, a big fire, three people working the bellows, and then three people banging on each blade – and they scrap four out of every five they try when they're doing well.”

“So why is he like this?” asked Anna.

“I told him about the blower,” I said, “and he must have been thinking of something entirely different, as he spoke of this thing that consumed distillate.”

“I've seen those things,” said Anna, “and I've seen them run, and seen them burst, too. You are not going to bring one up here, are you?”

“I don't know what they are,” I spluttered. “I was going to use an engine like I was working on.”

“That little thing?” asked Anna. “How will that turn one of those huge things they use?”

“It will not be huge, dear,” I said. “The blower will be about as big around as a distillery, or perhaps a little bigger, and the engine will drive it directly.” I paused, then said, “I just need to finish the boiler and its parts, and then I can try it out.”

“Will it be noisy?” asked Anna.

“Most likely not,” I said. “It should be fairly quiet, in fact – at least, the engine will be fairly quiet. The blower might make some noise.”

Georg then woke up, and made gagging noises that took several seconds to understand. The first word I 'heard' was 'rest-house', the second was 'Brimstone', and the third 'hell'. The fourth, surprisingly, was a coherent sentence involving all of the above subjects: “they call those horrors engines, and they're made by Brimstone, and hell comes when they run, and those running them are escaped from rest-houses.”

“Georg, I've seen that thing, and it is not one of those from the fifth kingdom,” said Anna. “It may look strange, but it's not much bigger than a navigating timer.”

“How can it turn those huge barrels they use, then?” asked Georg.

“I doubt it will use one, actually,” said Anna. “He spoke of something about the size of a distillery.” Anna turned to me, then said, “I think you mean those like you make, don't you?”

I nodded, then said, “that was what I meant when I spoke of a blower.”

“Blower?” asked Georg. “What is a blower?”

Anna looked at me, then said, “no, not wind. You might draw one to show him.”

After copying my most up-to-date drawings onto a slate, I showed Georg. He was still frightened until I indicated the dimensions of the thing, where he said, “you can walk in those barrels they use.”

“Those sound like they're for a much bigger furnace,” I said. “Now how fast do they turn those?”

“As fast as those evil things will run,” said Georg. “Why?”

“The volume of air is influenced by speed and size,” I said. “If those devices turn relatively slowly, then they need something large like that.”

“And what you're working on will turn faster?” asked Georg.

“Most likely, it will turn faster than the buffing wheel turns,” I said. “Now I need to have those patterns back for those surface plates, and then I need to cast them.”

“Surface plates?” asked Georg. “What are those?”

“They are used for close layout, inspection, and, uh, 'flatting',” I said. “I believe that is the correct term.”

“If those come good, you will want more than three,” said Georg.

“Why?” I asked. “Sales?”

“Don't they go bad in a hurry?” asked Georg.

“The ones I've heard of didn't,” I said. “One needs three as part of their preparation.”

I was more than a little surprised when the pattern I needed showed just prior to lunch. Accompanying it was another 'large' casting flask, and after eating, I began loading up a crucible with a mixture of cut-up scrap, charcoal, 'powdered lime', forging flux, and a few broken bits of the 'black-cast'. This last was so brittle that it made glass seem tough, and several of the ingots had shattered during transport. As a test, I picked up an undamaged ingot and dropped it on the hard-packed dirt floor of the storage area.

It broke into four pieces.

After stacking the pieces back in the 'mound', I thought to get some of the Norden-metal, and when I came to where it was being piled in the center of the shop's yard, I was astonished at the complete lack of activity regarding cutting it apart. I went back inside with my current load, and asked, “why isn't that stuff from Norden being cut apart?”

The silence that greeted me was uncommonly thick, and I said, “isn't that stuff saved by farmers?”

“It is, and they want it reworked,” said Georg. “No smith wants it.”

“Its appearance?” I asked.

“I suspect that to be the case, that and bad memories,” said Georg. “I have trouble if I see cannons, and I've turned down repairs of those things because of it.”

“I can remove the appearance issue by melting,” I said, “and the book speaks of that being an efficient means of removing the taint from metals.” I paused for emphasis. “However, that stuff needs to be cut up before I can melt it.”

“Doesn't that need that big furnace?” asked Georg.

“To melt it in quantity, it does,” I said. “I was hoping some pieces had been cut up so I could use it for the surface plates, and nothing has been done on it.”

I had some small pieces of 'tin-scrap' a short time later, and as I tucked them in among the various bits of scrap I had selected, one of the apprentices came in with another small sack of pieces.

“I'll need those for the next batches,” I said. “There's something about adding a little bit of this stuff to this metal that helps harden it.”

“What will that do?” he asked.

“I'm not precisely sure,” I said. “This is still something of an experiment – oh, and when a decent amount of Norden's metal is added, something really strange happens to the metal.”

“What is that?” he asked.

“That metal may cast like cast iron,” I said, “but it does not act like cast iron.”

The first surface plate poured just prior to the others leaving, and once they had left the hot and sweaty environs of the shop, I settled down to the work I needed to do. I was finishing the muskets up, with one ready for final assembly once it received a second coat of drying oil, and the other three nearly in the same place; the batch of mugs were done, save for their buffing with rouge and then tinning; another batch of common-sized knives was ready to finish; and I needed to carve to size more patterns for hilts and pommels. The goal was to do ten of each per flask.

“Which means a month's supply per pour,” I thought. “Now I wonder if I can get those boiler castings close.”

The cleaned 'boring table' checked out as passable in the flatness department, and after sooting up the various pieces to the boiler with a candle, I began rubbing them across its surface. The bronze filed and scraped readily, and as I got the pieces flatter, I wondered if I needed surface plates to do the pieces.

“They're big enough to not work on that jeweler's anvil,” I thought, “and if I want to make a bigger engine...”

I looked at the drilling machine, walked over to it, and then touched the spindle.

“Hah!” I said softly. “That will go bigger than fifty-nine lines. Perhaps I can make an engine with a larger bore.”

After drawing the patterns needed – the chief ones being those for the cylinders and valve castings; the others were close enough that modest changes were likely to suffice – I resumed working. I needed to polish the mugs, and as I went over the things with rouge, I marveled. The chief issue was being consistent, as they didn't need much polishing.

“They might not need buffing on the inside,” I thought, “or if at all, just a quick pass.”

A quick pass proved ample, and tinning the things went quickly. I cleaned them up and set them in place on Georg's desk after setting two mugs aside.

By the time I left, I had nearly buried Georg's desk with finished goods, with a pair of slates indicating the needed 'saw-blade forge' for its construction. I hoped he would get moving on the thing soon.

The next morning, Georg was gone, as was his 'desk-covering'. I had shaken out and trimmed up the surface-plate casting, and had been surprised at its 'reduced' dirtiness when I trimmed the sprues. I had set it on the edge of a forge so as to 'stress-relieve'.

As I reassembled the last of the muskets – it was about time for the morning guzzle, or so I guessed; someone would need to go get the beer soon – I wondered how they would be delivered to the house. I also wondered about how I would teach their users about proper care of them, and as I thought of the matter, I was startled by Johannes speaking.

“Now this is strange,” he said. “I know you put these things on your pistol, but I've never seen them on muskets.”

“Most of the students had trouble hitting objects the size of beer mugs at fifty feet,” I spluttered. “Those should make that task easier.”

“What about those things you did with yours?” asked Johannes. “Why didn't you put those on them?”

“Uh, time,” I said. “That and the care they need. Those only took an hour or so to make and fit.”

The aura of 'so' seemed to ring in my head, so much so that I said, “and the others took much longer to make. I do not have that much time.”

So?” asked Johannes. “You had a good outcome with those, and now everyone wants one like that.”

“Uh, not everyone dumps that kind...”

I paused, for I was not being heard. There was an answer, but I didn't know what it was, and more, I was not able to provide it. I could only state the obvious.

“I don't have months, not even one or two of them,” I said, “and there's a lot more work than there was before the time of Festival Week. Besides, these...”

Johannes looked at me in the strangest manner imaginable, almost as if he thought me to have recently made my bones as a witch, and in the process of doing so acquiring an immense amount of guile. I then realized the 'correct' answer – the only one he would hear, and that strictly because he wished to hear that particular answer – was the answer a witch would speak.

I had no idea as to what that answer was, and more, I could not speak it. Before, I had suspicions; they had been replaced by assurance.

Steps came from outside, and when I turned to my right to look, I was astonished to see Hans. He had what looked like a rust accumulation in his hand, and when he brought it to me, he asked, “now why are those two acting strange?”

“L-look at those,” I asked, as I pointed to the weapon I was working on, “and tell me.”

Hans picked one of the finished guns up, then sighted it at an imaginary 'deer'.

“I never thought of this before,” he said, as he set the musket back on its padding of rags, “but those things that you use help a lot if your eyes wander.”

Johannes glared at Hans, then said, “then why didn't he do them the way he did those other two?”

“I think he has a lot more to do now than then,” said Hans, “and then, you did not see him working on those things. I did, and I saw him do these, and given the choice for me, I'd rather have these.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Those things you did like that might work good, but they are navigating timers for close,” said Hans. “Those things do not stand rough handling, and they break when they are dropped.”

“And these?” I asked, as I indicated the muskets.

“They look to be a lot easier to put right if they break,” said Hans. He then turned to look at Johannes, then said, “now are you thinking him wrong because he does something that looks to work better for them who are likely to be using those things?”

The 'attitude' I sensed vanished as abruptly as anything I'd seen in recent memory, and the oppressive stillness seeped away with it. Hans turned back to me, then said quietly, “I would watch them close, as I think they still think you are a witch.”

“I-I...”

“These things went to the stove,” said Hans as he dumped out the 'rust' on the bench, “and they are bad. I hope you can make new ones soon, as I needed to douse the fire, and it is still cold enough to want a fire going steady in the house.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“They are rust now,” said Hans. “They were pins for the lower door of the stove. I think you might want to come home so as to measure the holes they go into.”

“Won't those need turning?” I asked.

“That is likely,” said Hans, “and you do not have that thing here.”

As I went home with Hans, however, I had a strange intimation – I had something that was 'close' in my junkboxes – and when Hans went into the kitchen, I stopped off at the most likely one.

“The stove is in here,” he said, “so why are you looking over there?”

“I just might have the part handy,” I said, as I brought the box in question to my workbench stool, “and...”

I paused in mid-sentence, for a small leather pouch was staring me right in the face with a stamped brass tag. It read, “odd metal pins. Anna says they might be stove parts.”

I brought Hans the pouch, whose label he began reading with moving lips while I continued looking, this time in one of the drawers of the workbench. I had the intimation that I had something labeled as being 'stove tools', and just when I had found that particular bag, Hans yelled.

“I have two of these things here, and they fit,” he shouted.

“Let me check them,” I said, as I came with the tools. “There's something about stoves having, uh, bad quality control, and they need careful r-reaming before fitting the pins.” I paused, then said, “and that does not include rust, either. I'm glad I have some of that special tallow for the reamers.”

As I began reaming the holes in the stove itself – Hans had gotten some pins that were non-workable due to both the corrosion in the holes and the looseness of the pins – Hans said, “I make some of that stuff every day, and the same with both of those oils. I will need to go fetch some more medicine vials, as I have three takers for each vial I do.”

“And the tallow itself?” I asked. The stove was being slightly contrary, and I needed to watch my reamer to prevent breaking it.

“I have been asking for everyone's burnt candles,” said Hans, “and I have been getting those things. Anna should have another bucket of them when she comes back.”

“Where did she go?” I asked. I was cleaning the reamer with an oily rag prior to resuming.

“She had to deliver some medicine,” said Hans, “that, and pick up some more of those smaller crocks. There is a lot of that stuff for the red fever, and it has filled both of that size of crock, and another bigger one, and that bigger one I need for something else.”

“And before, you were lucky to get enough of the powder to fill a small medicine vial?” I asked.

“That was during the bad years,” said Hans. “The good ones might fill a big one. That year we had a surplus, it filled one full and half of another, and made a small jug full of the tincture.”

“I hope you are keeping that stuff dry,” I said, as I began reaming the holes in the door itself. “I'm glad I have a spot-facer for these hinges. Did the stove ever have a washer there?”

“The door fell off while Anna was in front of the stove,” said Hans, “and it dumped that rubbish on the floor when it fell, and she started yelling. So I come up, and the kitchen is a smoke-room, and Anna is running around as if she is on fire, and I need to catch her before I put the fire out.”

I needed the 'third' reamer of the set of five to clean up all of the holes – numbers 'one' and 'two' had sufficed for all save the last two holes – and when I began trying the pins, I sensed impatience on the part of Hans. He was cold, and growing colder, and he wanted his fire, and I was causing him trouble by being careful. He wanted his fire now.

“If the pins fit badly, the smoke will...”

I ceased with my thinking and looked carefully around where I was. Faint mottled gray streaks showed clearly the effects of regular scrubbing, and the traces of soot that remained spoke of a stove that had been leaking to a small degree for some time. I then found the 'right' pin for one of the holes, and seconds later, found another.

Hans remained silent, even as I began counterboring the various bearing surfaces, then looked for the needed washers. I was glad I had them handy, and after painting on a mixture of blacking and aquavit, I put the stove together. The door swung freely with no perceptible 'wiggle'.

“Now try it,” I said.

Hans remained silent, and only when I cleaned up my 'mess' in front of the stove and stoked the thing did I think to 'awaken' him. He came to himself with a jerk so abrupt I marveled.

“Did you go to sleep or something?” I asked gently, as I lit the kindling with a tallow candle stub.

“I was waiting for you to fix that thing,” said Hans, “and I was going to hurry you up, as I am cold in here.”

“You were going to kick me, weren't you?” I asked.

Hans looked at me, then nodded soberly.

“I could tell,” I said. “I don't know how to reply to such behavior, so I either let it happen to me, or...”

Hans blanched with such abruptness that I wondered if he might faint. Steps thumped on the stoop, then the door opened to show Anna. She came in, noted I had lit the fire, then said, “I hoped you would get to it before the end of the day.”

“Is being cold an especially big problem?” I asked.

“It is that,” said Anna. “At least it's not winter-cold.”

“Is it a big-enough problem to want to beat me because I wanted – no, needed – to do the stove right?” I asked.

“Why?” asked Anna. “It was leaking for a long time.”

“First, I finished those muskets today,” I said, “and I put things on them similar to what is on my pistol. Johannes gives me a lot of trouble, and when I try to explain things, he thinks I'm an arch-witch. Then, Hans shows with a pile of rust, dumps the stuff on the bench, and all but drags me home so he can get his fire going again – and that in a hurry.”

Anna looked at Hans, then said, “you didn't.”

Hans was speechless, and I needed to say something. I knew that much.

“Tell me if this is true: the usual for stove fittings, especially when done under these kind of conditions, are things so crude that such repairs are nearly as bad as doing nothing – that, and those few people that engage in such doings commonly take advantage of the situation.”

“Few is right,” said Anna, “and I've wondered as to where to find someone to look at that door for many months.”

“Many?” I asked.

“Since a year before you came,” said Anna. “I could tell it was getting worse, but I knew you did not do stoves.”

Here, Anna paused, then said, “at least, I thought you did not do stoves. I know better now.”

“Oh, when I said 'take advantage', I did not mean like Grussmaan's does,” I said. “I meant something worse.”

“Now how is that?” said Hans. “I have only seen a few of those people, and I want nothing to do with them.”

“Hans, how could you?” asked Anna.

“As in they are constantly drunk – no, they appear to be constantly drunk, at least for the good ones,” I said. “With them, that's a disguise. The others are not merely drunk, but also thieves and worse.”

“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “I knew you could do the work, so I waited...”

“You could have spoken about the matter during better weather, or when I had more time,” I said. “Instead, you waited until the thing caused trouble, because that is what is commonly done.”

Anna looked at me knowingly, then said, “Hans isn't the only one who does not want tinkers handy.”

“Especially when they're marked?” I asked. “Is that why he was so angry at me for not 'snapping my fingers' and fixing the thing instantly, as per his inclination of the moment?”

“Was that what you wanted, Hans?” asked Anna. “He might be quicker than anyone I've heard of, but I doubt he could repair that stove before you could count three.”

“He wanted to put these things in those holes there,” said Hans, “and I found the pins for him, so he could set the thing up quick, and I could...”

“And you could have your fire,” I said quietly. “You would also have a very smoky house. Now do you want a live-in smoke-room that needs constant cleaning to not look like the interior of a witch-hole, or do you want a stove that holds its fire overnight and lets Anna do her wall-cleaning during the usual time of year and not year-round?” I paused, then said, “that was the main reason you had to get up at night to 'feed' the stove – the door was leaking soot out, and leaking air in.”

Hans was now petrified, and he could not speak, while Anna was muttering about Hans' behavior. I resumed cleaning up my 'mess', and when I left the house, I paused briefly to listen.

Georg was coming up the road from the south, and would be in town shortly. I would be glad for his presence.

Georg listened to his exchequer, and as I went down the road back to the shop, I thought, “I never thought I would be glad for someone loving money...”

I paused in mid-sentence, for I suspected Georg was not in love with money, even if to many that seemed otherwise. His motives were difficult to discern at times...

“Maybe for me, but not according to most,” I thought. “Most just think him to desire those things common to the wealthy. I might not know what he's after, but I know the answer isn't nearly as simple as is commonly believed, and I doubt he wants to be 'rich'. Comfortable, perhaps, but not rich.” I paused in my thinking, then thought, “there are a lot of people who love money more than he does.”

As I began ramming up the mold for the second surface plate, I had an idea involving some kind of 'grenades'. I used one of the existing core-boxes to make the cores, then one of the rammers for the 'casing'. Some quick touch-up with the molding tools, and I closed first one flask, then another, and then a third. As I clamped the last closed, Georg asked a question.

“What are those things for?”

“An experiment of some kind,” I said. “I've set jugs with Hans before, and helped make up some of them, and...”

“Those things were smaller than any jug I've ever heard of,” said Georg. “They might be as big as the vials used for medicine.”

“I've used those before,” I said. “I wanted to try this style of container.”

“I see,” said Georg. “Bombing isn't the most lucrative thing, nor is guarding, but you do both, and you need to. I've heard how things are at the house.”

Georg paused, then said, “and I hope you can find time to do more swords.”

“Why?” I asked. “Do people want them?”

“I've heard a few do, even if no one has asked me yet,” said Georg. “I have had people asking me about polishing materials.”

“R-red-tallow?” I asked.

“Those that spoke to me spoke of a nearly odorless reddish-orange material,” said Georg, “and also pieces of leather, along with this very unusual oil. I asked a few questions, and I knew what they wanted.”

“R-rouge-paste,” I gasped, “and p-polishers, and m-motor oil...”

“I thought so,” said Georg. “Talk has it something big is to happen in the Swartsburg, and that soon.”

“What?” I asked.

“The talk was very confusing,” said Georg. “Some were saying one thing, and others another thing, and some few were speaking of someone acting like that one character in the portion of the book that killed all of those witches.”

“Oh, the witch-killer?” asked one of the apprentices. “He had a strange name, and people have trouble speaking it.”

“Jozua?” I asked. The word came out 'Yo-zhoo-uh', as was common for names; the first syllable usually got the accent, though there were enough exceptions to make for wondering at times.

“Yes, him,” said the boy. “Now how did you say his name?”

“Hans said he does things they do not teach at the higher schools,” said Georg, “and he knows more than is common for those who go to them, so I imagine he would know of such things also.” Here, Georg paused, then said, “and I spoke to the masons about that forge. They should be coming within the next week or so.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “I wish there was a way to add 'trowel-torment' to the cost of manufacturing.”

“I have not figured that,” said Georg, “but if you could show me how, I would do so. I don't much care for their noise.”

“H-headache,” I gasped. “Bad headache. Can't concentrate, nor think straight.”

“I see,” said Georg. “They might not cause me headaches, but I've heard they cause trouble that way for many.” A brief pause, then “I hope you can get the medicine needed, as I spoke of that blower, and I lost them right away.”

“I can draw the details out clearer,” I said. “I hope I'll have time this rest-day, or worst case, the day after.”

With the backlog still substantial, I needed to stay late, and I came home after sundown to a scene of seeming 'waiting'. While there were no words spoken while I bathed, once outside, Anna grabbed me by the arm.

“W-what's wrong?” I asked.

“You're overdue for a good meal,” she said. “We need to go to the Public House.”

While I felt 'strange' – Anna was behaving unusually, even for her, and Hans was no better – I went along with them. I could not feel 'danger' in an explicit sense, and as we walked down the pathway beside the road, I could feel the absence of people in the houses and shops to left and right, much as was common on the evening that began the rest-day. I then recalled the first Friday I had been here, and the matter dawned on me.

“Is this a party of some kind?” I asked.

“Now how is this that you figured that one?” asked Hans. “There is one, as you have started with your guarding now, and talk has it there are things happening with you.”

“Things?” I asked. “What things?”

“It's a bit too early to tell,” said Anna, “but I would not be surprised if something happens within a few months. Albrecht did say that.”

“When did he...”

“While you were gone earlier in the week,” said Anna. “He said the changes are starting.”

For some reason, I heard Anna speak of 'the changes' as 'them changes', and learning of a party did not sit well with me, especially being what day it was. I had the impression there was trouble brewing over in the Swartsburg, and when I thought further on the matter, I had a strong impression.

The loss of two 'senior' witches, along with that one 'troupe', was making matters a bit more time-consuming. I had tonight.

“And not many more,” said the soft voice. “It will take them days to strike that massive of a blow.”

“And a weaker one?” I asked.

“They've run out of patience that way,” said the soft voice, “and Koenraad is calling in his keys. Tomorrow night is just about perfect.”

“Keys?” I asked. “Like that one..?”

The impression I had was too hard to ignore: I had heard such keys 'opened doors'. The reality was that while they did mean 'wealth and power', they also meant substantial involvement in witchdom, and my thinking thusly was only jarred from its channels by the abrupt opening of the Public House door. I nearly turned and ran when I crossed the threshold.

The place was packed, and the party was in full 'roar'.