The Big House, part 12.


I continued on with Koenraad's head through the trees at a steady trot, not stopping until I had passed the Oestwaag and left it several hundred yards in the rear. There, I began coughing, and the amount of 'soot' that came from nose and chest was a marvel. I was glad for my water-bottle, and drained the thing in a trice. I then noticed the state of my clothing.

“I am a mess,” I thought. “Chimney-cleaner indeed.”

After urinating against a tree, I continued on north and slightly to the west. I could feel the house proper not quite two miles away, and when I came to some fields, I stopped and looked around carefully before attempting their crossing. There were no houses nearby, and once I found the boundary stones, I walked next to them until I was across the fields. The trees were ahead, and I moved faster until I was into them, where I rested again.

Once past the trees, the wide grassy stretch beckoned, and as I walked, I became aware of uncommon filth, a great measure of soreness, an unbelievable stink – I smelled nearly as bad as a mule, and much the same for quality – and a substantial dousing with blood. More, there was blood on my hands to no small degree, and when I looked carefully at them while pausing, I was surprised at the amount.

“Red-handed, indeed,” I thought. “Now if that wretch that thinks himself a guard...”

“He will no longer bother you,” said the soft voice.

“Uh, he'll find out?” I gasped, then coughed up and spat out another blob of messy black stuff.

“He already has,” said the soft voice. “He was among those showing the witches how those guns worked, and is now where he belongs.”

“Were those the guns Hans was speaking of?” I asked, upon recalling his description.

“Similar in outward shape and caliber, but otherwise very different,” said the soft voice. “Unlike what Hans drew for you, those weapons you saw load from the breech and are rifled.”

“Oh, no,” I muttered. “They shoot much faster and are more accurate...”

“When they do not blow up,” said the soft voice. “They are well-named among those who commonly fire artillery, and that with good reason.”

I continued spitting 'mud' for the next twenty minutes as I crossed the wide grassy plain, and when I came to another path that went across my track at a diagonal, I ignored it. I could see ahead the hedges that marked out the border of the house proper, and the trees that provided an eastern edge to the place seemed to be helpful so far as to guidance. I came steadily closer, and as I came within three hundred yards of the hedge, I was nearly dumped on my rear by a marmot as it went from underfoot toward the nearest copse.

“We should have trained out on this side at first,” I thought, “as we could have practiced shooting and marching.”

“Perhaps you and the two you stand guard with were up to doing that,” said the soft voice. “The others have some distance yet to go, those of them who will survive tonight.”

“Did they go into the Swartsburg?” I asked, after spitting up another nasty-tasting blob. They were no longer solid black, but rather a dark-streaked whitish material. Regardless of their color, they still tasted horrible.

“They went into the usual portion that is 'reserved' for 'new guards',” said the soft voice, “but given what happened tonight, everyone found within a mile of Koenraad's place is or will be under suspicion – and that over and above those who are usually suspected.”

“Usually suspected?”

“New guards tend to be suspected more than nearly everyone else until they've been observed for some months,” said the soft voice. “Their 'education' just got put on the fast track.”

“Education?” I asked. I was nearly even with the south wall of the house proper.

“What the older guards fond of the Swartsburg commonly think is needed to 'season' guards,” said the soft voice. “While many guards, perhaps most, drink in the Swartsburg once or twice, most limit their trips thereafter to dire necessity.”

“It sounds overrated to me,” I said, as I stopped to spit up another blob.

While I had no answer regarding the 'attractions' of the Swartsburg – I was not at all fond of the idea of going there again, no matter what the reason – I could feel the house proper to my left. The feeling was utterly unlike what I had felt in the past, even if I counted the feeling earlier in the evening when I had left, and when I turned around to look behind me, I was astonished, for there, I saw white glowings and red-tinted light that glared and churned amid faint booming rumbles of sound. The dull muttering noises reminded me again of accounts of Civil War battlefields.

“How bad is that place going to be messed up?” I asked.

“The two surviving brothels aren't going to be doing nearly as much business as they once did,” said the soft voice, “and while the wrecked portion of the Swartsburg will cease growing to any real degree by sunrise, the property damage will continue to grow apace – and that is just from tonight. The war for succession will add to the damage, and that in all senses.”

“Minor war?” I asked.

“That had started before you left,” said the soft voice, “and while the casualties will not be of Gettysburg magnitude, there will be a lot of dead and injured witches just the same.”

I came to the rear gate, and ducked inside the passage. As I came to the rear gate, I relaxed markedly, then opened the door. I was 'safe' now, or at least safe from the witches of the Swartsburg, and as I walked down the passage into the rear of the property, I thought, “now how will I spike this messy thing? Do I spike it next to the other, or on the other side, or do I wash it first, or pickle it, or what?”

“Hide it and bathe first,” said the soft voice. “I'd put it next to the manure pile, as there its smell is less noticeable.”

I did as instructed, and as I came into the trees after the clearing, I almost gagged upon smelling myself.

“This is worse than after that swim on the back lot,” I muttered. “I stink.”

“Warm baths and clean clothing help greatly with comfort, as will a nap,” said the soft voice. “I would use the forest-clothes for your trip home, and let your usual ones soak in the tub before bagging them up for cleaning.”

“But will they clean anything right now?” I asked.

“There is no 'weekend' laundry service,” said the soft voice, “but there are ways to clean and partly dry your clothing before heading home.”

I was glad the place seemed so deserted, and once I had staked out my room, I got the 'forest greens' and a stashed towel – one of those used for padding – then set off in search of a tub. There was no one present in the refectory, or so I thought at first until I surprised a woman cook. She nearly screamed when she saw me, and I did not need to guess as to why.

“What happened to you?” she asked. “Did you get into a fight in that place full of witches?”

“While I did go into the Swartsburg, and I did get into something of a fight,” I said, “I did not go into that part of the place, nor did I consume anything like what you are thinking of.”

“I wish you had,” she said, “as it would be an improvement regarding the smell.”

“I know, dear,” I said in deadpan voice. “Now where is a tub, and perhaps some vinegar?”

She not merely fetched a jug of the latter, but also a long spindly bar of soap, and led me forthwith to a 'bathroom', complete with sheet-metal tub, a bronze hand pump, a stove, a boiler – I was surprised to see one of those present, actually – and a smaller heating lamp. I fired up the boiler, and as my water began steaming, I doused my clothing liberally with vinegar in hopes it would come clean.

It took two separate baths – one after the other – and lengthy scrubbing during each of them to get the feeling of filth and the odor off of me, and when I put the dirty clothing in the tub after dressing in the greens, I was amazed at the dirt that came out. I thought to roll up my trousers and begin treading it, and did so.

Two changes of water later, the muck and blood was still coming out steadily, and when I brought the vinegar-jug back, I asked for some lye.

“I thought so,” said the woman, “so I found some. Use just a little bit, as too much will eat your hands when you scrub.”

As I began to sprinkle the foul-smelling crystals of lye in the tub, I gasped and nearly spewed, and once I began stirring with a 'pole', I had something of an idea. I was more than a little nauseated.

“Lye,” I thought. “That metal-coloring mixture has lye as one of its ingredients.”

I continued stirring the messy clothing, then once it had 'settled', I began cleaning my boots. Those, thankfully, cleaned readily with a damp rag. I then knew what else needed cleaning: my equipment.

I spent nearly half an hour cleaning sword, pistol, and possible bag, and after doing the last, I took all of the stuff back to my 'room'. I returned the lye to the woman, and was surprised to find her joined by one of the regular cooks.

“Did you deal with Koenraad?” he asked.

I nodded, then said, “I have his head stashed on the property.”

The woman barely stifled a shriek, then said, “you didn't.”

“Yes, dear, I did,” I said, “and I nearly got lit on fire and blown up getting it, too.”

“Is that why I smelled mules?” asked the cook.

“There were a lot of those stinky things in that place,” I said, “and they do not clean up after them much. The whole place smells like that roofed-over pond in back...”

“Did you go in the bad part?” he asked. “The part where no one goes if they have any sense in their heads?”

“Near where they do 'services'?” I asked. “Koenraad was holed up not two hundred paces from one of those horrors, and I was told it no longer exists.”

“Good,” said the woman. “One of those thugs tried to put me in one of those places, and I'm glad my cousin helped me get away from him.”

“Thugs?” I asked. “Which thugs?” I wanted to add, “I just came from a place that was crawling with them.”

“Talk has it one of the Generals was involved,” said the cook, “and he liked to go to those places. Now what happened to that one you spoke of?”

“There was a huge explosion and fire,” I said, “and if I go by what happened to the houses I was running next to when it happened, it was probably blown up.”

“Was that the big explosion everyone heard a few hours ago?” asked the woman.

“I'm not sure,” I said. “I heard a lot of big explosions while I was getting away, but the first one was the biggest one.” I paused, then said, “I jumped when I saw the flash, and I nearly got buried under the rocks that fell around me from the houses that were blown up.”

After getting more cider – a mug and refilled 'jug', namely my water-bottle – I went back to my room. I went to sleep as if clubbed once in bed there, and upon awakening, I walked to where my clothing was still steeping to examine it.

I was more than a little surprised to see the sheer volume of dirt that had leached out due to the influence of the lye, and after careful rinsing with warm water, I hung the stuff up to dry near the stove. As I turned to go, I was astonished to see a cook coming with a bucket.

I was not surprised at my nausea increasing as the less-than-faint fumes of lye climbed further up my nose.

“The bucket?” I asked.

“I've checked those things twice since I started, and you look to have done a good job,” he said. “What happened that you got so dirty?”

“Uh, I had to go after an especially unpleasant witch,” I said, “and...”

“Koenraad?” he asked conspiratorially.

I nodded, then said, “I'll need to spike the head shortly, as soon as I can get these started to dry.”

“That's why I brought this stuff,” he said. “It may be poor for charcoal compared to some I've heard of, but it does burn decent in stoves.”

“For drying?” I asked.

“That, clothes-washing, and bathing,” he said. “Today's about the best day for it if you work here, and that tub there is popular with the cooks.”

“Bathing?” I asked.

“I know you bathe plenty,” he said, “and most cooks, if they do much work here, do the same, which is why I need to get this charcoal going. That boiler helps a lot, too.”

After setting up the stove – another cook came with a pair of large pots, and set them on the stove after filling them from the pump – I arranged my clothing a bit better. The heat of the stove was astonishing once the cook adjusted it.

“Figure about two or three hours for those clothes to dry,” he said. “We should be all bathed in an hour and doing our own washing afterward.”

“But one tub?” I asked.

“There is one metal tub, which stays here,” he said. “There are three others of wood that we have, and that doesn't include the basins and things. All of them get used for clothing, and the bad stuff has been soaking since dinner yesterday.”

After getting a wooden bucket filled with salt water, I put on my boots and spare stockings and went in search of the head. I found the bag where I had laid it – it was in good, if foul-smelling, company – and after dumping the entire bag into the bucket, I thought, “now where do I fetch a pole?”

There was no answer to this question, even as I brought the bucket back to the rear of the house, and when I set the bucket down, I looked up and saw Gabriel yawning mightily.

“I see,” he said. “Is that what I think it is?”

“It might be,” I said. “Why?”

“If I did not know better,” he said, “I would almost think you had been working in a powder mill and had the place go up on you.”

“What?” I gasped. “Why?”

“Your hair,” he said. “I recall it being longer than it is now, and it's really uneven in places. You might want a cap so as to not become ill.”

I felt my hair, then shook my head slowly. Gabriel had understated the case.

“No, no powder mill,” I mumbled. “I went after that wretch Koenraad, and I shot one of the lanterns, and that exploded...”

Gabriel looked at me with an expression I could not place, then said, “was this a distillate-fueled lantern?”

I nodded, then said, “I've seen this type before, and I suspected they made passable firebombs. I know better now.”

“Some are vastly more flammable than others,” muttered Gabriel darkly. “Did these take well-dried heavy distillate?”

“Well-dried is a misnomer,” I said. “Only boiling makes that stuff behave, and those things are still prone to starting fires.”

“Did they, or did they not?” he asked.

“These used wicks,” I asked. “Why, is there another type?”

“Supposedly there is, though they are said to be rare,” said Gabriel. “The wick lantern gives a pulsating light of moderate quality, while the other type of lantern is much brighter and does not fluctuate.”

“Do those cause one to be, uh, dim-eyed?” I asked.

“Those are variable output, and work well when turned down,” he said. “More importantly, they are said to use a fuel other than distillate, hence are much safer than either type of distillate-burning lantern.”

“You mean there's more than one type of distillate lantern?” I gasped.

“The existence of that second type is not proven, even if its existence is likely,” said Gabriel. “The wick-lanterns are fairly common and can be purchased readily if one knows where to purchase them, and the various types of candles are common, and then those special lanterns that induce blindness are fairly common in a few places. Otherwise, light-sources tend to be matters of rumor.”

“Question,” I asked. “Do you know where I might get a pole?”

“There might be one cut already,” said Gabriel. “I would look near the front gate, as they might well know of one.”

I left the bucket where it was, then walked around to the front gate. Someone had painted the head of that one witch so as to 'control' the smell, and the mottled yellowish tinting seemed to make him less 'human' and more something closer to a very bad joke. I was glad just the same, as seeing the head made for unsleeping nightmares, and my silent shudders were but the tip of the iceberg. I wanted to run.

The guard stations appeared unwatched, and as I mounted the 'step' on the left side, I thought to look in the guardhouses. I was more than a little surprised to see someone asleep and covered with a blanket, and I tiptoed out of the place to then leap to the road. I was nearly to the door of the other when the other guard showed. He was buttoning his trousers, and I suspected he'd used the nearest bushes in lieu of a privy.

“Uh, a pole?” I asked.

His expression went from half-asleep to wide awake over the course of seconds, and he asked, “did you get another witch?”

I nodded, then said, “uh, any loud noises?”

“This posting, no,” he said. “There were some coming from the house. Someone spoke of trouble in the Swartsburg.”

Trouble, he says,” I thought. I then spoke a question. “The posting before?”

“That one was a lot noisier,” he said. I then noticed it was just prior to sunrise, with a perceptible lightening to the west. “Both of the guards spoke of lights and fires coming from the house, and one of them spoke of a powder mill.” He paused, then said, “now what is a powder mill?”

“Uh, a place that makes explosives,” I said. “I've heard they can explode violently.”

After being handed the pole, I examined it carefully. This example was much closer to sharp on the 'business' end, and after bringing my supplies to where I had worked on the previous witch, I began 'trimming' the thing with my hatchet.

“Three or four of us spent time trying to get it sharp,” said the guard once he'd come back to where I was sitting on one of the stone wings near where it joined the gate-supporting pylons. “Where are you going to plant this one?”

“The other side from that stinky wretch?” I asked. “Why, where is a good place?”

“That depends on who it is,” he said.

“Koenraad?” I asked.

The man blanched so quickly that I was stunned, then murmured in a feeble sounding voice, “you didn't.”

“I think so,” I said. “I went into that stinky place and got him, and I nearly got lit on fire and blown up before getting out.”

“Where is his head?” he asked.

“Right here,” said Gabriel, as he came with the bucket. “I looked in that sack, and it's him for certain.”

“You've seen him?” I gasped.

“While few have seen Koenraad in person,” said Gabriel, “his face is well-known, as he has a ink-marking on his forehead modeled after the description in the very last section of the book. Then, there are the other portions that are rumored.”

“Rumored?”

“He was said to have an unusually tall head, with a low brow, deep-set narrow eyes resembling those of a domestic pig, an unusually large and crooked mouth, a curved chin, a long nose, and a large jagged scar on one cheek. This man has all of those and the ink-marking.” Gabriel paused, then said, “and why you drowned him in salt water is a mystery.”

“Uh, stinky, messy, and nasty,” I said, “that, and I hope the bag isn't ruined.”

“The bag will retain bloodstains to a degree, but will remain usable,” said Gabriel. “Now why is it you wanted to clean up the head of a witch?”

“So I can spike it without getting messy again,” I said. “I came back here, and I looked awful and smelled worse.” I paused, then said, “I'm not certain if I smelled as bad as a mule or not, but I smelled too much like one to tolerate how I was.”

“Good that you bathed, then,” said the guard. “Now let me fetch a spade, and we can plant that head.”

'Planting' Koenraad was something of an anticlimax, as the sharper stake seemed to 'fit' better than the last one, and otherwise, the hole was the same. Once his head was on the pole, however, I was amazed to see his facial expression.

Yech,” I gasped. “That wretch looks horrible.”

“I know,” muttered Gabriel. “That description I gave you may be passable for accuracy, but it left a great deal out regarding how ugly he actually looked.”

“I just hope that place calms down some,” I muttered. “Now I hope I can go home shortly, as I need to go there to rest.”

“Did you sleep here?” asked Gabriel. The sun was now truly starting to come up.

“For a short time,” I said, “mostly while my clothing soaked. I'll need to bag it up and take it home for proper washing.”

My clothing proved mostly dry when I went to check it, and after a modest meal of rye bread and cherry jam, I set out for home. The sense of the fields and forests being 'clear' was such that I marveled, and even when I turned west well clear of Waldhuis, I had the distinct impression that I could go into that area and not receive gunfire.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “I would still give that area a wide berth.”

“And the rest of what I'm feeling?” I asked.

“Not every witch is that aware of spiritual matters,” said the soft voice. “Much of what witches know travels by word of mouth, and much of the balance by coded postal messages, hence many 'lesser' witches are still ignorant of Koenraad's death.”

“How long will they remain that way?” I asked.

“Regarding his death, anywhere from several days to a few weeks,” said the soft voice, “depending on their 'importance' and location.” A brief pause, then said, “the 'big event' happens fairly soon, and that will change their attitudes much more.”

As I walked the last mile south of town along that one road, I noticed the growing stink of rottenness on all sides, and it peaked as I passed that one clearing where I had spiked that magistrate. While his skull still grinned from its position on the stick and the bag still hung from its branch, I could tell much of the flesh was gone from his bones. He would not stink much longer, thankfully.

I wished I could say that for the dead mules, however, as I found their bones scattered here and there on the road. Their stench seemed unabated.

After passing the stinky clearing, I had the impression that there was not merely one event, but rather a chain of them, and 'doing' Koenraad was the start of it, or rather, the start of the big event spoken of. There was at least one event that occurred beforehand, or perhaps a few such events, and then what was mentioned would occur.

The chief matter, however, was the timeframe. That was indeed soon.

“Weeks,” said the soft voice. “A handful of weeks.”

I was dousing my clothing in the tub when Hans showed yawning in the bathroom doorway, and one glance at what I was doing had him yelling for Anna. She added some of the green soap, a lot of lye, and boiling water, and as she began stirring the resulting evil-smelling 'mess', she muttered steadily about turnip-farmers and mining coal – when not speaking of where lye had been invented and where it needed to go.

“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “I spiked his head this morning.”

“You did what?” asked Anna.

“I went after Koenraad,” I said, “and nearly got...”

Anna then abruptly 'woke up', shivered violently, then looked at me before saying, “you couldn't have. Did you?”

I nodded, then said, “I nearly got lit on fire and blown up doing it, and that place is so dirty it makes a manure pile look clean.”

“I smelled manure, but it wasn't normal manure,” said Anna. “This smelled like the leavings of mules.”

“That place had lots of those,” I said, “and most of the ground and all of the streets in that place are covered with mule-dung.”

“That sounds like the Swartsburg,” said Hans. “Now did you get that witch?”

Anna muttered, then said, “he got smelly enough to get a coven's worth of witches.”

“Yes, and there was that big one,” said Hans. “Is Koenraad dead and his head on a pole?”

“I spiked his head this morning at the house, and Gabriel both identified him and helped me put him up to be seen.” I paused, then said, “and until I put his head on that pole, I had no idea how ugly he was.”

“Did that wretch have a mark on his forehead?” asked Hans. “One like the last part of the book talks about?”

“You mean three runes that look like, uh, the number six?” I said. I then gasped, as now I knew what was spoken of.

“Oh, no,” I gasped again. “Six hundred, sixty, and...”

“I would not speak that number,” said Hans, “as it is bad. If he had that marking on his head, it was him, and he is dead with his head on a pole, so he can no longer cause trouble.” Hans paused, then said, “did you try out those things?”

“I placed two and tossed one,” I said.

“Did they work?” asked Hans.

“I think so,” I said. “I saw one of them go...”

I paused again, then asked, “when a witch-jug goes, what color is the explosion?”

“Red, with some yellow places,” said Hans. “Why, were these a different color?”

I nodded soberly, then said, “that first one was awful.”

“How was it?” asked Hans.

“I have no idea what happened to that thing,” I mumbled, “but I shot one of those lanterns while it was burning, and that was bad enough, but when I tossed one of those things, it was much worse.”

Hans looked at me strangely, then said, “you made six of them, and used three, so you have three left. Do you want to try one out back?”

“No, Hans,” said Anna. “If you try one, go out in the field a ways.”

“I was going to do that, Anna,” he said.

Rigging up the remaining 'placing' bomb with more string took Hans finding the stuff, and after putting it out in the middle of the field with us behind the wall, Hans jerked the string.

The thundering roar sent splinters screaming overhead, and I nearly fainted. Hans looked at me and yelled as if crazy.

“I'm having nightmares from hearing that thing,” I moaned. “Please, don't yell.”

“Yes, and you ought to, as it made a jug look feeble,” said Hans. “Now what color was the fire of the one you saw?”

“W-white,” I gasped.

“Now how is it you put blasting oil in those things?” asked Hans. “That bomb sounded like it was full of that stuff.”

“I d-didn't,” I said. “You saw me fill them, and...”

“Yes, and they explode like they are filled with blasting oil, too,” said Hans.

The rear door of the bathroom opened, and Anna came out muttering. She looked around, then looked over the fence.

“Hans, there's a big hole out there,” she said. “I thought you were not going to make more blasting oil.”

“I did not do that,” said Hans. “That was one of those things he made.”

“Those were smaller than Harvest Day squibs, and filled the same way,” said Anna, “so how could they explode like that?”

“I do not know,” said Hans, “but I would like some of those things, as they are stronger than the jugs.”

'Stronger than the jugs' proved an understatement, as the raked area from the bomb was easily fifteen feet across, and the crater took the two of us spading for nearly half an hour to fill it. At the end of our spading time, we needed to go to church.

I was dreading my time there, for some reason, and when Maarten spoke of the end of witches, the earnestness of the congregation was troubling – especially as now, I was beginning to have flashbacks constantly, and I was moaning and weeping with each sudden 'jolt' or rumble that came from my tortured recollection. I was a sobbing and sopping mess by the end of the service, and only dosing with the widow's tincture helped.

“Now that sermon was strange,” said Anna. “I never understood it like that before.”

“Sniffle, I...”

“What happened?” asked Anna.

“I was nearly lit on fire, and almost blown up,” I moaned, “and I was told it would go up like a big powder mill, and it d-did.”

“That is trouble, Anna, if that is what happened,” said Hans. “I have heard of that happening to people.”

“Is it as bad as being charged by a pig?” asked Anna.

“I am not sure,” said Hans, “as they do not have those places like that up here. If this was a common one, it would be bad enough, but if it was one of those places in the fifth kingdom...”

“Everything within two h-hundred paces was blown f-f-flat,” I gasped, “and I was nearly buried by falling building stones.”

“That is not a common powder-mill, then,” said Hans. “That sounds like a lot of mining dynamite.”

“Over five hundred full boxes,” said the soft voice, “and hundreds of jugs of distillate.”

Hans promptly collapsed where he stood, and Anna dropped her head on the table. It took me nearly ten minutes to wake both of them up, and then several mugs of beer in each of them before they stayed awake. As it was, both of them were shaking horribly.

“That is worse than a big fifth kingdom place going up,” said Hans.

“Uh, a rest-house?” I asked.

“I would live in one for a long time if I lived through something like that,” said Hans, “and I would live on beer and tinctures the whole time.”

I found my vial and took a dose, and the weeping increased for a time. I was more than a little surprised to see Anna borrow the vial and take a dose also. As the tears decreased, I sobbed out the words, “you too?”

“Just hearing of that much dynamite is trouble,” said Hans. “Those places in the fifth kingdom send it almost as fast as they make it, especially if it is the stronger types. Then, all that distillate.”

“Does that stuff just burn really fast, or does it actually explode?” I asked.

“I think it explodes,” said Hans. “It might not go like blasting oil, but it is touchy like that stuff.”

Anna looked at me, then said, “don't you remember tossing that one lantern at that shelter and being nearly blown up when it went?”

“I thought there was dynamite in there I'd missed,” I said.

“I saw that thing go, and that was just distillate,” said Hans.

As I wobbled up to bed after lunch, the thought of 'cap-sensitive petroleum products' was too much to endure, and only exceeding fatigue was enough to ensure quick sleep. I awoke at dinnertime, ate, and resumed my bed promptly – and only in the morning did I recall when my next 'shift' was.

“They didn't tell me,” I gasped.

“The talk of Koenraad's eminent demise had much to do with the matter,” said the soft voice, “and the postings, as well as much else, are in a state of flux. I would go the day after tomorrow early.”

“Early?” I asked.

“Arrive in time for the first post,” said the soft voice.

That day, and the day after, passed in what seemed a blur. My clothing came out completely clean, and was sent off to the knitter for repairs, while the backlog seemed to shrink apace at the shop. Nearly twenty slates were 'retired' on Monday, while another half-dozen left the day after, and both days had Georg leaving with a full buggy just prior to the usual quitting time.

More importantly, the effects of 'doing' Koenraad seemed to carry over into the shop, as the others seemed to have gained a measure of 'further' diligence and capacity; this was such that I needed to correct fewer errors, and the corrections themselves took noticeably less time to perform on my part.

I paused at the end of my second shop's day, and looked at the 'to-do' stack. Georg no longer had many slates on his desk, and while the 'crosswise' holder on my bench was as full as ever, it also held the bulk of the remaining orders. All three surface plates were resting in the oven, with a modest wood fire burning slowly to finish their 'stress-relieving'. I'd closed both air-intake and damper down as much as I thought wise.

“I can begin to scrape those things in after I get back,” I thought, as I removed my apron. “I could use a new one of these things, too, or at least a cleaner example. Oh, for some saddle soap!”

My sensing the utter lack of such a material was only equaled by my short time at the bench prior to dinner, and when I went upstairs for bed, I marveled further at the progress I had made on the pistol I was working on.

“About two more days, and I should be able to trade Hans for what he has,” I thought, “and I should be able to work on more pistols soon – those, and one of those, uh, fowling pieces.”

I had the impression working on one of the 'shotguns' was a very good idea. It would be needed soon.

I awoke sometime during the 'night', and after dressing and checking what I had, I left for the trip to the king's house. The stars showed in places above my head, and as I broke from the road once a mile past Waldhuis, I marveled again at my seeming speed. I was walking, yet my speed approached that of the slow trot I had managed part of the way while leaving the Swartsburg.

I went across roads and wove around woodlots while remaining close to their edges, and the whole time I moved steadily. I stopped twice to 'visit the bushes', and when I came to the rise, I was astonished.

I seemed to be traveling faster than when I had first made the trip, and when I went to the refectory to get food and a refill of my water-bottle, I was surprised to find Karl and Sepp trying to wake up with bread and beer.

“How did you find out about our posting?” asked Karl.

“Uh, I was told,” I said. “The first one, isn't it?”

Sepp nodded, then said, “that stinky place in the house is smoking like a burn-pile still, and there's another head at the gate.”

“H-has anything happened here?” I asked.

“Some,” said Sepp. “Those black-dressed people have been causing less trouble.”

“Less?” asked Karl. “I had to poke one of them when he tried coming into the privy yesterday.”

“The privy?” I gasped.

“I heard him speaking, and I told him I would be out presently,” said Karl. “I was feeling a bit corked, so I needed more time than usually. So, he starts with his yelling about the time I finish my business, and he comes into the privy with his sword out.”

“Oh, no...” I gasped.

“He must have been pickled,” said Karl, “as he swung on me right away and hit the wall with that thing. I ducked under his swing, drew my knife, and poked him a good one.”

“I'll say,” said Sepp. “That wretch was dragged outside and burned in that pit not half an hour later.” A brief pause, then “still, that is less trouble than usual for those people, as that's about all they've done since that witch-hole in town caught fire.”

“And since one of them tried for Karl here, that means...”

“You-all are not likely to have further trouble from Generals,” said Gabriel from behind. “I wish I could say that for your class.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“At this count, there are over a dozen guards missing, including three new ones,” said Gabriel, “and it is rumored they were in the Swartsburg.” Gabriel paused, then said, “and talk has it you might know as to why they are missing.”

“Uh, that place nearly blew me up and lit me on fire,” I spluttered.

“That is much of what Hendrik wishes to learn,” said Gabriel, “which is one of the reasons why you all have this posting.”

I was not looking forward to such a meeting, and when the three of us came to 'relieve' those on the sixth posting, I could feel the still slumbering individuals in the room behind and to the left of the bench. With the passing minutes, I felt again the near-oppressive stillness of that particular area, including the barely-audible snores of a multitude.

“Why do I hear a saw-pit?” asked Sepp quietly. “Someone has a bad saw.”

“Snoring?” I asked.

“Is that it?” asked Sepp. “It sounded like a pit to me.”

Karl returned from a brief absence, then said, “it is those people in that one place. They are all snoring, and they are loud about it.”

“If they are sleeping, they will be less troublesome,” I said. “Now I'll need to speak to...”

The sudden jolt I felt from behind was such that I squeaked involuntarily, and Sepp looked at me. “Did they just wake up?” he asked.

“I th-think so,” I said. “We might be fetching food and drink, possibly.”

Not two minutes later, however, the door opened, and Maria came out in 'undress' clothing that seemed the carbon copy of what I had seen Anna wear a few times. Beyond her different build – she was thinner, and perhaps an inch taller – the resemblance to Anna was not trivial, and I stood shakily and went after her. She seemed exhausted.

“May I fetch something for you?” I asked.

She turned to me, wobbling, then with open mouth seemed to ask a question. I wasn't certain as to what that question was, or even how to answer it, beyond the obvious hints I saw: a tinned copper plate in one hand, and the jug in another. I gently took both utensils, then said, “sliced rye bread, cherry jam, cheese spread, a jug of common beer, and... Raw-Deal sauce, and that in a small bowl?”

“He said you could read minds,” she murmured, “and now I know he didn't exaggerate. Yes, yawn, please.”

While Maria turned around, I went at a good speed toward the refectory, and when I returned with the things in question – the Raw-Deal sauce reminded me of things I'd seen in the past, and smelling it induced a substantial appetite on my part – I expected to hand them in. Sepp gently tapped at the door, and when Maria opened it, she said, “oh! Please, bring that into the office.”

With great trepidation, the door opened wider, and I stepped from the familiar into another world.

While doing so aroused my fears for an instant, this 'other' world was utterly unlike what I was expecting. For one thing, it was well-lit, with a barely perceptible odor that I had trouble placing at first beyond it had nothing of moral taint involved. I found the table that Maria indicated, and then straightened up to look around.

To my right was a sizable desk, with several stacks of clipped papers in one corner, a pair of thick 'tomes' in another...

I turned abruptly to see bookcases seeming to surround me. The odor intruded again.

“B-books?” I gasped. I had not been heard, and when I saw what was happening to the food, I was not surprised. Both Hendrik and Maria were not wasting time.

I continued my surveying, even as I knew where I'd smelled the odor before. I'd smelled it in libraries and bookstores, and the sheer number of bookcases with volumes spoke of its source.

The light-sources hung from the ceiling on long chains and hooks, and their number – half a dozen near the desk, and another similar number scattered about the other three walls of the room, where they shed light on the bookcases – were copies of my student's lantern for shape and somewhat larger for size. Their cheering glow seemed to provide a sensible aura, and I recalled what Maria had spoken.

Office?” I thought.

That word seemed a very fitting description, and as I looked around the place for a third time, I tried to place what kind of office. I noted other fittings: a few common-looking chairs, with thick padding on the bottom; what might have been a 'stove' of some kind on the wall opposite the door; another doorway, this one with part-closed door; a strangely tall octagonal 'waste-bin' next to the desk; a glass 'ink-pot' closed with a cork, as well as a small wire bin with what might have been quill pens next to it – and finally, what Hendrik and Maria were actually doing.

“You've never been in here before, have you?” he asked.

“Uh, no,” I softly murmured. The aura of a library was of such strength that normal speech seemed painfully loud as well as unwise.

“The house has changed more than a little since your incursion into the Swartsburg,” he said.

“I hope it caused no trouble here,” I said.

“It cured a substantial illness,” he said, “and the head of that chief witch has had a very positive effect upon all and sundry.”

“That...”

“Yes?” he asked. “You endured a great deal to get it, if talk be true. Do you recall what you saw while in that festering outbreak of hell?”

“To some degree,” I said. “It may take some time to speak of it, as I have, uh...”

“I'm not surprised,” he said. “I have heard you endured something similar to a large fifth kingdom powder mill explosion.”

“That, nearly being lit on fire, the stink, the...” I paused, then spluttered, “open s-sewers?”

Hendrik reached for a ledger, opened it to where a pencil lay, and began writing.

“That is an uncommon term, even at the higher schools,” he said, “and that part tallies well with descriptions of the worst portions of the fifth kingdom house. Were these 'sewers' narrow stone-lined ditches filled with dung and things like it?”

I gagged, then nodded, and gasped, “the stink of that place! Ugh!”

“The smoke that has come from it speaks loudly of its filth,” he said. “There are two well-known types of witches, and you have seen both types. There is rumor of a third. Did you see any such persons?”

“Uh, perhaps,” I said. “There were a number of plain-dressed individuals lining up to go into this, uh, nasty...” I could not go on, for the word 'brothel' now seemed an especially evil curse. Only 'pimp' was worse, and there had been witches that answered to that name in that red-shadowed mob.

“Where they sell services?” he asked.

“Ugh!” I spat. “There were a lot of those thugs, and the only differences between them all was their clothing!”

“That rumor is true, then,” he said, as he wrote more. I then noted Maria writing as well, and when she looked up, she asked, “were there red lights showing on its stoop?”

I nodded, then said, “it was huge, three-storied, smelled vile...”

“Smelled?” asked Hendrik, with genuine surprise.

“I have no words for that stink,” I said, “other than 'the moral opposite of sanctity'.”

“The minions of Brimstone are said to be malodorous, and that sounds likely,” said Hendrik. “Is that portion of the Swartsburg paved?”

“It is, and badly, with the leavings of mules and horses all but covering the stones for the most part,” I gasped. “If that place is so filthy, why is it those wretches are so concerned with their outward appearance?”

“The book speaks of white-painted dead-houses,” said Hendrik, “and were I preaching and had need of an example, I suspect your description would serve well.”

“Are drink-houses common there?” asked Maria.

“Uh, they seemed to be,” I said. “I encountered several of them, a foundry, a s-smithy, a wagon-repair shop...”

“What?” gasped Hendrik. “They have those places?”

“I saw those that I named,” I said, “and based on what I saw, heard, smelled, and was told, I'm worried.”

“How is it you are worried?” asked Maria.

“First, those northern people's weapons actually work, and people think them worthless because they look 'bad',” I said, “while ours 'look' superficially better, and are disposable weapons that go to pieces with modest use.”

“You are speaking of edged weapons?” said Hendrik. He was writing steadily.

I nodded nervously, then noticed what Hendrik was looking at. I wondered if he were interested, so much so that I asked, “did someone speak..?”

“They did, and that of both sword and pistol,” he said. “If rumor and suspicion are even partly true, those supply answers we need now and will need much more in the foreseeable future.” He paused, then said, “please, continue with your thoughts.”

“Then, those working in the shop where I work start late and end early,” I blurted, “and work sluggishly in the bargain, while those witches work at all hours of the day and night, and work as if their hindquarters are ablaze.” I paused, then screeched, “what is wrong with us?”

“The curse, most likely,” said Hendrik. “While many believe we are finally recovering from it after many centuries, I suspect that to be a witch-propagated lie.”

“We are recovering,” I said. “The witches are recovering faster, and to a much greater degree, and have been doing so for many years. In comparison, we've just started, and that gap widens with every day that passes.”

Hendrik looked at me with narrowed eyes, then said, “I'll need to speak with some others in the days to come. In the meantime, however, I would expect people with good handwriting to show during your postings.”

“Uh...” I murmured.

Maria shook her head, then said, “Hans showed us your filled ledger once, then the places in it where you had written things twice. I never thought I would see such writing.”

“I know it's bad,” I muttered.

“Yes, for legibility,” said Maria. “Otherwise, it compares favorably with that of lecturers at the higher schools.”

“You give many of those people undeserved credit, dear,” said Hendrik. “They could learn much from him that way.”

I left with the empty plate some few minutes later, and as I softly closed the door, I gasped abruptly.

“What happened?” asked Karl. He had found a cloth and a stick, and was whittling something.

“I know what that place is like, now,” I said. “It's like some places I've read about.”

“I know you read a lot,” said Karl. “Now what is this place you speak of?”

“It's like the, uh, rooms of a college professor,” I said. “They were said to be like that in, uh...”

I could not recall the name of the country, for some reason, even if I recalled the description clearly enough to equate it without hesitation. I left with the plate, all the while trying to recall the place's name.

“Was it Angle-land?” I thought. “No, it sounded different – Eng-loon-udd? No, that wasn't it either. That one, er, lecturer who did all of that writing was one of those people, and he supposedly had rooms like what I just saw, except his weren't as big.”

When I returned, I saw Sepp coming up the hall. I suspected he'd visited the privy down that one hallway.

“It's a lot quieter now,” he said. “I saw one of those people they have down that way, and he was looking for firewood.”

“Firewood?” I asked. I could just see 'mendicants' coming with huge wayward bundles of brushwood, and the nature of sticks out in the woodlots made such thinking seem modestly plausible.

“Or charcoal, or crushed coal, or even candle-stubs,” said Sepp. He then looked at what Karl was doing, and said, “I'd hide that stuff if I were you.”

“Why?” asked Karl. He was in the middle of some careful 'surgery', and I marveled at what he was doing. Had I attempted his work with that size of knife, I would be looking to cut myself.

“He might buy your shavings,” said Sepp. “He looked as desperate as a publican who'd just run out of dried meat before dinner.”

“Perhaps I could help him,” I said quietly. “I've heard of shavings doused in distillate...”

“No thank you,” said Sepp. “I tried that once, and mother was cleaning the soot for a week.”

Karl shook his head, then resumed whittling. I wondered what he was carving, actually, and when he brought out several more sticks, as well as some more carved pieces, I asked, “what is that? A puppet?”

“This is for a little box,” he said. “I've made them before.”

“Box?” I asked.

“It's a lot further from here to that store,” he said. “I sold every one of them I made there.”

“Is this a second-hand store?” I asked.

Karl nodded soberly, then said, “had I been much better at carving, I would have been apprenticed as a carpenter.”

“For what?” I asked. “Is there a foundry close to where you live?”

“That especially,” said Karl. “It's a pretty busy place, and the carpenters I was to be apprenticed to did a lot of the patterns they use.”

I remained silent, at least as to my suspicions, for I suspected what Karl's father had been told and what was the actual truth were two different things entirely. I'd seen enough of what the apprentices did where I worked to know it wasn't likely to be a matter of extraordinary capacity.

“They aren't that capable,” I muttered.

“Who?” asked Sepp.

“The apprentices where I work,” I said. I paused, then said, “your refusal had little to do with your capacity for carving wood.”

“Then what was it?” asked Karl.

“Perhaps you ask a lot of questions?” I murmured. “Not merely the number of questions, but also their nature?”

Karl looked at me, then shook his head. He did not believe me, or so it seemed.

“They want people who do precisely what they are told, and in the exact manner of their instruction, and that with no questioning whatsoever,” I said.

“Perhaps some want apprentices like that,” said Sepp, “but I wasn't like that, and I was expected to not merely ask questions, but think about what I was doing.” He paused, then said, “given how common cheating is in some places, you have to think and watch carefully so as to not sell unsafe meat.”

“Uh, is that common for butchers?”

“The ones that do any real business are like that,” said Sepp, “and the same for people who make shoes in quantity, medicine that's worth bothering with, good carpenters...”

“I am not certain about carpenters now,” said Karl. “I think he is right about what they wanted.”

“I've seen a difference,” I said. “I know how some smiths are, because I work in a smithy, and I deal with carpenters more than a little, so I went by what I know. I don't know much about...”

I paused, then said, “are there separate shops for butchers?”

“Those are not common,” said Sepp. “He said such places were best to stay clear of.”

“Then where did you work?” I asked.

“We worked in a building attached to a busy Public House,” said Sepp. “There was the meat-room, the cold-room, the smoke-room, and the salt-room. I've done my share of salt-cleaning since I had to leave, as I learned that there.”

“Salt-cleaning?” I asked.

“Dissolve the salt in boiling water,” said Sepp. “Stir it in until no more will dissolve, strain it carefully, let it cool, and then strain the liquid to give the cleaned salt.”

“Uh, not much better?” I asked.

“It depends on how good the salt is to start,” he said. “There are some tricks I've used since I had to leave, and one of them is using washed charcoal. That gets the stuff a lot cleaner.”

“How would it do that?” asked Karl. “No one wants black salt.”

“It isn't if you wash the charcoal first,” said Sepp.

Karl seemed nonplussed, so much so that when he tested the fit of his workpiece against another, I said, “we do that for the aquavit.”

“No one wants black aquavit, either,” said Karl.

“It isn't,” I said, “nor is the liniment made from it.” I paused, then said, “and I was glad for that liniment after bathing that night when I got home after Koenraad, as I was really sore.”

Karl again seemed nonplussed, until Sepp took out a small vial and put it on the bench next to him. Karl put down his knife, picked up the vial, and then asked, “now what is in here?”

“Some salt I cleaned recently,” said Sepp. “I've put in for the first big pot, as I'd like to do more of it.”

Karl opened the vial, and shook out some of the contents into his hand. The coarse white crystals were astonishing, as was the near-complete lack of odor. It looked like what I recalled of Kosher salt.

“This is not like any salt I have seen,” said Karl.

“Taste it,” said Sepp.

Karl put one of the granules on his tongue, closed his mouth, sucked – and his eyes grew wide with such abruptness I was staggered. I wondered if he thought he'd been poisoned.

“What did you do to this stuff?” he squawked.

“I cleaned it like I spoke of,” said Sepp. “I can get a guilder's worth of salt, clean it, and then sell it back for at least twice what I paid for it. I have no trouble selling it, either.”

“Hence money for your mother?” I asked.

“That, my brothers, and sisters,” said Sepp. “Salt-cleaning isn't that hard to do, and the same for charcoal-burning.”

“Those ovens?” I asked.

“I've used the smaller common crocks in the stove,” said Sepp. “We usually do two of them every night where I live.”

“And the used charcoal?” I asked.

“That stuff is strange,” said Sepp. “I think it cleans out the stove if you burn it there, as there is a lot less soot inside the thing than there used to be.”

“Do you need a lot of charcoal?” I asked.

“If we did lots of salt, we would,” said Sepp. “We were getting ten to twelve guilders a week that way before I came here, and that with doing the stuff in the kitchen.”

“And the big pots?” I asked.

“I'd need several of them,” said Sepp, “as well as a small shed and two furnaces, one for boiling the water and the other for cooking charcoal.”

“And time?” I asked.

“That is the strange thing,” said Sepp. “Other than gathering the wood itself, and perhaps a few other things, it takes about the same time to clean one pound of salt as it does ten.”

“And more than ten?” I asked.

“If you do much more than what the places within easy walking distance want, then it starts taking a lot more time,” said Sepp, “as then you need a buggy for fetching wood and salt, and then you need to do deliveries, too.”

“Perhaps where you live and here?” I asked.

Sepp slapped his knee, then said, “why do you think I put out for one of those big pots?”

“Here?” I asked.

“They'd buy almost as much as I could sell where I live, and that for the kitchen in the house proper,” said Sepp. “The people that work here and live in town would easily buy as much more.”

“Hence ample work for your family during the 'slow' months,” I said. “Especially the younger children, as they're good at gathering wood.”

The end of the posting came without incident, and after more food and drink at the refectory, I headed back toward home. It was now midmorning – rather, it felt like midmorning, and the sun was well up – and as I traveled in the sunshine, I noted the trees were now truly beginning to sprout leaves. I was aware of a need for hurry, so much so that I turned toward the west about halfway to home, and began walking along the road headed north. I wondered why I had done so at first until I heard the sound of a buggy coming from behind me. I turned, and saw Anna driving.

“Did you know I was coming?” she asked, as I got in the seat beside her.

“I could tell I might get a ride that was worth bothering with,” I said.

Anna looked at me, then asked, “there are some that aren't?” She almost seemed to be scolding me for expressing an opinion otherwise.

“The last one I had was slow and noisy,” I said. “This buggy goes about twice as fast as that one did, and it barely makes any noise.”

“I think you are spoiled by it,” said Anna. “Before this one, the only buggies I knew of were the common type.”

“Wood axles and hubs?”

“Those and tallow,” said Anna, “and regularly pulling the wheels to put more tallow in them, and cleaning them well. My father spent half a day doing that every few days.”

“Half a day?” I asked.

“He had no children able to help him,” said Anna, “and the wheels for common buggies are a good deal heavier than the ones for this buggy.” Anna paused, then said, “and he wasn't up to doing much beyond a nap after he'd finished doing it, at least for that day.”

“Are they commonly noisy?” I asked.

“Why do you think he spent so much time greasing its wheels?” said Anna. “It started squeaking and groaning when it became even a little dry, and once it started with its noise, it became much worse in a great hurry. We came close to smoking the wheels many times.”

“Pulling them by the side of the road?” I asked.

“If we went any real distance, we did, and that because we needed to,” said Anna. “That made for a lot of extra work and slow traveling, as he wasn't able to drive further that day as a rule, even if it wasn't dark by the time he finished. My mother wasn't a good driver.”

“Slow?” I asked.

“Slower than usually,” said Anna. “I'm not sure if it was the team or the buggy, but it wasn't nearly as fast as this one when it was moving.”

“Is that why people who travel stop for hours at every Public House they come to?” I asked. “Is it to let the wheels cool down?”

Anna looked at me, then said, “I never heard that explanation before, but it does make sense. I know if we stopped frequently while traveling, we could go quite a bit further between pulling the wheels.”

“And most might go a few miles before stopping?” I asked.

“That's likely,” said Anna. “I know my trips tend to be longer than the common when I'm doing my rounds.”

“Did your family stop frequently?” I asked.

“I'm not certain why,” said Anna, “but mother wasn't inclined to stop much, even if we needed to eat and we had the money for it. She wanted to go as far as she could, and that at one time, and nothing short of a lot of noise or smoke coming from the wheels made her inclined to stop.”

“Or breakdowns?” I asked.

“Those too,” said Anna. “They weren't at all rare with what we had.”

“And this one?” I asked.

“Other than needing a lot of repairs when we first got it, and that gate, not much,” said Anna. “I usually carry the wrench with me, and I go over it every morning when we are on trek.”

“Every morning?” I asked.

“Hans tends to be clumsy that way,” said Anna, “and he would use the big end of the wrench for everything. I know enough to not do that.”

“But one wrench?” I asked.

“It came with two,” said Anna. “The second one is only needed if you need to take something apart. If you're just checking or tightening loose bolts, you only need the one.”

Anna then reached into her clothing, then brought out a worn-looking full-polish wrench. The thick and streaky red-brownish 'patina' on the thing was troubling, as was its obvious wear and lopsided-looking crudity. I was about to speak when she said, “I would not be surprised if it needs replacing soon. Does it?”

“I'm not sure,” I said. “How old is it?”

“It was new when we got the buggy,” said Anna, “and it was said to be the best to be had.”

“The, uh, rust?” I asked.

“I kept it wiped down with tallow, like I was told to,” said Anna. “Hans said tallow wasn't that good that way, but we had plenty of it, and that was what we were told to use, so I used it.” Anna paused, then said, “and based on what I've heard recently, I wonder why they were speaking that way.”

“Recently?” I asked. “Was this about, uh, red-tallow?”

“They said that was what we wanted for tools,” said Anna, “but that stuff they had there smelled worse than any tallow I've ever seen, and it was expensive, too. I knew about candles, so I used those if I could find nothing better.”

“Would you like me to go over that wrench?” I asked.

“You might,” said Anna. “I know it doesn't take you that long to...”

Anna paused, then said, “you might want to fit it tighter to the bolts, as both sides are fairly loose any more.”

“Meaning I need to make a pair of new wrenches,” I said. “I'm not surprised.” I paused, then said, “still, I could clean that one up and cook it for a few hours for while the new ones are in process.”

Anna then handed me the wrench, and it was one of the first things I worked on once I came to the shop. The place had just finished the morning guzzle, and amid the steady bangs of the drop-hammer pounding out 'twisted' billets, I removed the three still-warm surface plates from the furnace. I then recalled the process used, albeit very poorly, and after filing the worst of the 'badness' off of the wrench and buffing it all over with coarse-grit, I put it in a cooking can and buried the can deeply within a working forge.

“Was that a wrench?” asked Johannes between swigs of beer.

I nodded. I was trying to figure out how to deal with a flat expanse nearly eighteen inches across. I didn't have a milling machine handy, even if I had a 'wide' chisel. These castings were already fairly flat.

“It looked like one to a buggy,” he said. “Was it?”

“I need to make two replacements for that one,” I said. “Anna said it was the best to be had, and those people...”

“Was this a buggy-wrench?” asked Georg.

“He must have gotten one of those things from Matthyssoon's,” said Johannes. “They might be a big house, and speak well of what they do...”

Georg muttered something that seemed compounded of several mingled oaths, then said, “they are located in the fourth kingdom, but they speak as though they did business in the fifth kingdom house.”

“And their work?” I asked.

“That can vary some, or so I've heard,” said Georg. “If you speak with the right people, and know the person working on what you want, and perhaps give them the right kind of gifts...”

“B-blessings?” I asked.

“They call them that up here, and talk has it a fair number of them show where you live,” said Georg. “At least your work warrants those. Those people, I wonder about.”

“Soft tools?” I asked.

“Why, was that one softer than the common?” asked Georg.

“It was softer than most tools in my collection,” I said. “I've seen but a handful softer.”

“Was it a poor fit?” asked Georg.

“Anna said it was,” I asked. “How poor it actually is makes for questions on my part.”

“I would presume it to be poor indeed, as...” Georg paused, then said, “Anna?”

“She spoke of it, and said she went over the buggy while on trek,” I said. “She also said Hans tended to be, uh, clumsy that way.”

“Both of them are likely to be that way compared to you,” said Georg. “I'd check it myself to be certain.” Georg paused, then said, “did you mean it was softer than your tools are now, or before you worked on them?”

“Before I worked on them,” I said. “Now I need to figure out how to, uh, flat these things.”

The looks of confusion I received were but slightly greater than how I felt inside, and only when I found a straightedge – unlike the scales I had used in the past, this tool was intended for this purpose – did I have some intimation as to how to proceed. I coated the edge of the thing with bluing and wiped it across the surfaces of all three plates, then took the 'Fritz-file' to one of them.

The high-spots showed clearly as shiny places after the first few strokes, and were in different places compared to the blued places left by the straightedge. I was beginning to have an idea as to which surface was more accurate. I suspected it wasn't the straightedge, and sighting along its edge spoke of yet another tool that needed rework. I set it aside on rags.

A few further wipes of the file widened the flat places on the first casting. I turned the plate around, and wiped it again with the file, then went to the other plates and did the same thing. I recalled that portion as being very important.

I no longer bothered with the bluing, and while I suspected I was making a very shallow hump on each such plate, I wondered more as to what I actually needed to do – beyond forge a set of scrapers, and that as I went along and learned what was needed.

The scrapings steadily accumulated, and after an hour, I had several small handfuls of cast-iron dust and some 'quasi-flat' plates. That dust went in a 'scrap-bucket', along with the off-cuts and chiselings of the more-usual metals, and when I heard a dragging sound coming from the rear of the shop, I looked up to see two of the apprentices bringing in a piece of rusty-looking sheet metal.

“What is that for?” I asked.

“Those drawings of that furnace,” said Georg. “I might be able to figure out some of what you drew, but that thing's good for a headache just the same.”

“That one forge?” I asked.

“They should be here to start tomorrow,” said Georg, “and you'll need to advise them and make sure they do it how you want it done.”

“Wonderful,” I thought. “I'll need to endure trowels constantly.”

I was glad the backlog had shrunk further at the end of the day, and when I left the shop, I hoped – and prayed – I would retain my sanity on the morrow. My next posting was the third post on the rest-day, and as I went home, I realized how postings normally worked, with three postings one week and two the following.

“It was that way,” said the soft voice. “In your case, it now depends on a number of things, including when people are available to take dictation.”

“Dictation?” I asked. There was no answer.

I finished up the revolver I was working on that evening, and when Hans looked at the thing, he seemed to be turning up his nose at its 'piebald' appearance, even as he tried its action. If anything, it was better that way than the first one I had done, and as he set it down, he said, “I have heard some things about this dark coloring for iron.”

“Dark coloring?” I asked.

“I am not sure if it was what my grandfather used,” said Hans, “as his involved boiling the pieces, and this does not.”

“Boiling?” I asked. “Did it need lye?”

Hans looked at me, then said, “I think you might have something, as what he did smelled like that stuff.”

Hans paused, then said, “now that I think about it, he boiled the parts in lye after dipping them in strong vinegar for a while, and then he washed them good in boiled water before putting them in the stuff to blacken them.”

“That sounds familiar,” I said. “He had to use wooden tongs or things like them for what he was doing?”

“Those, and a big crock,” said Hans. “This stuff might not have been acid, but it had taken lessons from that stuff for its appetite.”

I wrote down all that had been said in my ledger, then asked, “can't remember any more of the chemicals, can you?”

“No, not much,” said Hans. “There was one that had liquid death in it, and then several others, but the lye was the biggest one.” Hans paused, then said, “and that stuff was not the common for lye, either. It was the good stuff, as that blackening did not come good with soap-maker's lye.”

“Chlorate of potash?” I asked.

Hans 'jolted', then said, “I am not sure if he had that. He might have, and then he might not.”

I wrote down the remainder of what I'd heard, then asked, “have you heard about any books?”

“Albrecht spoke of those things,” said Hans, “and there are more than those you asked for. He said there were these three that you might want.”

“Three?” I asked.

“I've heard that they speak of what you do,” said Hans.

“Do you know more?” I asked. “Did Albrecht speak of that?”

“He said they were among the usual for instrument-makers,” said Hans, “and he did not have time to hunt for them when he got the rest of your tools.”

“And since?” I asked.

“I think those things might need you going in person,” said Hans. “They are not the common for books, or so I have heard tell, and they might well need a big inducement to get those selling them in the mood for business.”

“Is that the usual for books?” I asked.

“Not for most,” said Hans. “Some places sell to students and lecturers mostly, as they carry what they want, but I have heard there are some special books that are different.”

“Like those black ones witches want?” I gasped.

“They do not sell those things in stores,” said Hans. “These I am thinking of are sold in those places, and they are really expensive.”

“Are these the books that come in the box?” asked Anna, as she came to my other side.

“In a box?” I asked.

“I've seen those twice down there,” said Anna, “and they cost as much as our team and buggy together, supposedly.”

“What?” I asked.

“I didn't ask the seller his price,” said Anna, “but I have asked around at the house since then, and that was the figure I heard.” Anna paused, then said, “I doubt she'd make it up, even if I wonder about some people there.”

“She?” I asked.

“Maria,” said Anna. “She went to the west school.”

“Did she speak of the sellers?” I asked.

“She did, and others besides, and then there's what I've seen,” said Anna. “There are some books that are scarce enough that they restrict their sales.”

“Like carpenter's hammers?” I asked. “Hans spoke of some, uh, books pertaining to what I do.”

“I think those are like the better navigating charts,” said Anna. “You need to be a pilot to get those, and I would not be surprised if you would need to go to one of those shops in person with samples and an inducement.”

“Would they sell to me?” I asked.

“They aren't like that there,” said Anna. “The fourth kingdom may be a strange place, but witches don't much care for it.” Anna paused, then said, “come to think of it, Albrecht may be able to get those for you.”

“He would?” I asked.

“He's bought some of those awls, remember?” asked Anna. “I know he got a rivet swage you did there.”

“He what?” I gasped.

“You did some rivet swages recently,” said Anna, “and he bought at least one of them. He said he had a buyer down there who was very interested, and if I know that place, the word would get around like lightning once they started using that thing.”

I wiped my face with my hands and muttered, “oh, no...”

“Why are you worried?” asked Anna. “Albrecht said it was the best one he'd ever seen.”

“Won't they beat it to pieces?” I murmured. “I still have to watch the people in the shop with the one I fixed, and I'm working on replacement parts for it regularly.”

“I doubt he would sell to such people,” said Anna, who then paused for a moment. She looked at the revolver I had just finished, picked it up, then tried thumbing back the hammer. I was surprised when she didn't drop the thing, and more surprised yet when she cocked it.

“I hope you finish another one of these soon,” she said, “as I've had people asking me about swords at the house.”

I nearly collapsed onto the floor, and only by grabbing the workbench did I not fall.

“Is that why you want a pistol?” I asked.

“I've asked about those people,” said Anna, “as I've heard about some guards going missing since the Swartsburg turned into a burn-pile.”

“Some of the n-new class?” I asked.

“Talk has it they went into the Swartsburg that night and didn't come out,” said Anna. “If they did that, then either they're witches for certain, or they're where they belong, and I don't want what you work on to fall into the hands of witches.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“That stuff is like out of an old tale,” said Anna, “and while those tales are full of witches, I don't want the ones around here having things like what they had in those tales.”

“Witches had swords then?” I gasped.

“They did,” said Anna, “and they worked well, supposedly.” Anna paused, then said, “though well in those tales and your knives seem two different things. I'd hate to see a witch get one of those, much less something like your sword.”

“S-sacrifice?” I squeaked.

“Every waking minute,” said Anna. “Hans isn't the only person to see bodies in the kingdom house.”