The Big House, part 17.


“That's...”

I abruptly awoke from slumber to see darkness still outside the room, and with a squirming bladder. I went downstairs, used the privy, and then saw the low-burning wax candle stub in one of the small lanterns. Someone other than me recalled what I needed to do today – hence had put the lantern on the table – and as I began dressing in my usual cool-weather clothing, I had the intimation regarding warm-weather clothing. Faint yawning noises came from the basement, and then Sarah nearly collided with me as she 'sleepwalked' her way to the privy, then minutes later walked back downstairs.

“Was she awake, or asleep?” I thought. “Perhaps I can leave a note.”

After carefully writing out the words 'warm weather clothing, for trip south', I recalled what I needed to bring.

“All of that evidence, too,” I thought. “I just hope they don't get the wrong impression.”

As I wrapped the dagger in rags, I heard more movement coming from below, and then soft steps on the stairs. I turned to see Sarah.

“Uh, that dream was awful,” she said, as she came closer. With soft fingers, she touched my hand, and then drew it away abruptly. She then smelled it, and jerked.

“What?” I asked.

“Your hand,” she said. “I was looking at this big stinky place filled with these odd lanterns made of clay, and the soot was terrible.” She paused, then squeaked, “and now I smell that stuff on your hands.”

“Do I need to bathe?” I thought, as I smelled my arm.

The intense reek, as well as the upwelling nausea, nearly doubled me up.

“Th-that dream,” I gasped. “What happened to me? Why do I smell like I...”

I stopped what I was doing, and headed for the bathroom forthwith, where I bathed hurriedly. I came out minutes later feeling – and, I now noticed, smelling – much better.

“How could I smell like burning l-lard if that was only a dream?” I mumbled, as I resumed packing the evidence.

“Where did you get that dagger?” asked Sarah. “I've never seen one that large or well-made.”

“Did you see the tag?” I asked. I wondered if I had time to go into the whole story.

“I wondered about that,” said Sarah. “Who do you present to?”

“Some meeting today,” I said. “It's supposed to be just after the second posting, but I want to get there early so as to find that room and see what is in there.”

“Is this room on the second floor from the ground?” asked Sarah.

“It was said to be,” I said.

“I might have been in it once,” she said. “Here, let me find a slate, and I can draw you a map.”

While Sarah did so, I resumed packing, and by the time she had finished, I was looking for the greasy bundles of wadded paper I had confiscated from various witches over the last several months. I recalled bagging them, and as I found the bag – tied, with a stamped tin label – I heard steps coming from upstairs. I turned to see Anna.

“We can take you today, if you'll wait an hour or so,” said Anna.

“The second posting?” I asked.

“That's quite early for an elder meeting,” said Anna. “I doubt they will start that early, so you have time.”

“Uh, I'm not certain...” I mumbled.

“I think so too,” said Sarah.

“What, that I have time?”

“No, finding and checking that place like you said,” said Sarah. “I might have encountered one or more of those people.”

“What are they like?” I asked.

“This was years ago,” said Sarah, “and I don't have my notes handy, so it may be wrong.” She paused, wiped her nose with a small scrap of 'embroidered' cloth, then hid the thing in her clothing. “This person was speaking in a shop, and he was awful.”

“In what way?” I asked.

“His clothing was slightly scorched,” said Sarah. “Oh, my memory is returning. It was just off of the black region, and it was just after sunrise, and he needed it to be starched.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Starching, pressing, and...”

“All of those things,” said Sarah. “One of the chemistry lessons at school involved the preparing of starch from ground seeds and then comparing it with the various types of bought starch. You need a hot tool to make starch stick.”

“Especially if it's the most expensive type,” said Anna.

“It means easy burns, between a hot tool, the starch, and that type of cloth,” said Sarah. “That man must not have known that, as he became very angry, and spoke these horrible words that gave me nightmares for months.”

“R-runes?” I gasped. “A rune-curse?”

“I'm not sure what those are,” said Sarah, “or exactly what he was saying, other than it was a language not taught at school. I remember that much, it was a language. It was not what some witches speak specially now and then.”

“Specially?” I asked.

“They make no sense at all then,” said Sarah, “and that no matter where they come from.”

“If that wretch showed just after sunrise,” I murmured, “then they might well mean 'show up at the precise time of the second posting, or else'.”

“That man especially,” said Sarah. “Oh, I recall his name, too.”

“His name?” I asked.

Freek,” said Sarah.

I jolted, then collapsed where I sat, and I reached for my mug. My mouth went dry with such rapidity that I didn't pause until I'd gotten the first swallow down. I stopped abruptly upon realizing what I was gulping down.

“B-beer?” I asked.

“That was my mug,” said Anna softly. “I was going to rinse it out.”

Anna paused, then said, “after what she said, I think you're wise to not wait, especially after hearing about that man. He might excuse his lateness, and that of his friends, but he does not tolerate anything of the sort in others.”

“He's like that,” said Sarah. “If he's running that place, then they all will be there on the very turning of the glass, and he'll be angry if anyone is but a grain of sand late.”

I left with a full bag and much else but a short time later, and as I headed south in the darkness, I marveled at all that I had heard minutes before. I felt my water bottle, then my possible bag, and when I felt an 'odd' shape in the latter, I stopped in my tracks and knelt by the side of the road to examine the bag.

“It isn't too late to turn back if I forgot something,” I thought, as I dropped off the weighty bag and unbuttoned it. “Now what is this?”

I had found a third ledger, and as I flipped through its pages quickly, I noticed not merely maps, but text and blank spaces. I replaced it and resumed my southward trip seconds later, now knowing my sensing was correct. I needed the time to not merely find the place, but if possible, meet with Gabriel.

“Those people will be running roughly an hour late this morning,” said the soft voice, “but otherwise, what you heard and sensed about them was accurate.”

“They don't tolerate lateness in others?” I asked.

“That and a great deal else,” said the soft voice. “One very common statement among such people is 'quit wasting my valuable time', and with good reason.”

“What?” I gasped, both at hearing confirmation of what I had sensed in many places – and what I recalled one of the three tailors speaking.

“Those men named themselves witches when they spoke thusly,” said the soft voice, “and what Sarah heard Freek say was worse yet.”

“Did he speak a rune-curse?” I asked.

“Recall what Sarah said about 'the language of power'?” said the soft voice. “Witchdom has its cheap imitations, and Freek was speaking a curse in one of those languages.”

“A curse?” I asked.

“Not every witch is knowledgeable enough, or confident enough, to use runes,” said the soft voice, “and many of those you have encountered speaking rune-curses spoke them with a substantial measure of ignorance.”

“Koenraad?” I asked.

“He seldom spoke those,” said the soft voice, “as he knew of their dangers. Freek is somewhat less knowledgeable that way.”

“As to their dangers?”

“That, and the curses themselves,” said the soft voice. “That magistrate was quite ignorant of the dangers involved, as was the witch that tested your sword.”

“Tested?” I asked.

“That curse you heard,” said the soft voice. “That rune at the end is associated with Sieve.”

A brief pause, then “and Sieve is associated with those marked, at least according to the beliefs of witchdom.”

“Tested?” I asked. I still did not understand. I suspected my attention was hopelessly off-topic, as I was watching where I was going.

“The two best-known meanings of that particular rune are 'sword' and 'destruction', and the combination of the two meanings more or less 'defines' Sieve.”

“Did he mean to sacrifice me?” I asked.

“That was why he 'prepared the way' with his curse,” said the soft voice. “Speaking to him as you did 'broke' all of his time-tested and well-laid plans, and he knew that. Hence, he attacked the first people in front of him, as per the tenets of that sub-chapter called 'the disgraced' in the black book.”

As I sensed the 'rise' ahead – it was starting to lighten to the west, which meant at least another hour before the start of the second post – I recalled Sarah's emphasis on the word 'that' when speaking of cloth.

“That was treated cloth,” said the soft voice. “While Anna was correct in speaking of 'chemicals' being used to process it, she did not know what was, and is, used. Clothing that is partially nitrated tends to burn especially readily.”

“Nitrated?” I gasped.

“And then boiled in a weak solution of 'lye',” said the soft voice, “and finally, partly plasticized by 'drowning' in aquavit.”

“That stuff is c-celluloid?” I gasped.

“Closer than you might think,” said the soft voice. “Its flammable tendencies provide much of its cachet among its wearers.”

“And its durability?” I asked. I recalled reading of 'celluloid collars', and to hear of things like them made for a nightmare.

“It is more durable than Anna spoke of,” said the soft voice, “but compared to the better grades of unbleached common cloth, it is very fragile. More importantly, it is not cleaned as she thought it was.”

“How?” I asked. “Hot aquavit?”

“That, and then dusting with salaterus,” said the soft voice.

“Ugh, dry-cleaning,” I spluttered. “What happens if it gets boiled in lye?”

“It falls apart within a few wearings,” said the soft voice. “Steeping in hot aquavit is a very popular means of cleaning among those who wear black-cloth.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It removes smells that normal washing leaves behind,” said the soft voice, “and it has little effect upon starch, assuming the use of strong aquavit and ample care.”

“Dirt?” I asked.

“Black-cloth is fragile enough to need regular mending,” said the soft voice, “and it then needs conventional washing so as to remove the starch. The color and weave of that fabric tends to hide dirt especially well otherwise.”

I came upon the rise but minutes later, and from there, reached the house proper as the sun was starting to actually come up.

“The second posting?” I asked.

“It starts in a bit less than an hour,” he said. “I hope the meeting goes well.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“There was mention of a trip, and I hope to go on it,” he said.

I left the man at his post and low-burning watch-fire, and before I had gone twenty feet, I heard soft snoring noises. I was glad he could snore, even if sleeping on watch wasn't a good idea.

“I tend to be too keyed up to even think about relaxing,” I thought, “and if I do a double shift, I'm ready for a bath and bed when it's over.”

After changing into my 'greens' and then fitting my usual equipment, I went to the refectory. The place was beginning to become crowded, and as I waited for a fill of cider and a slice of bread, I looked around in hopes of finding either Gabriel or one of the two scribes. All of them seemed absent, so much so that I was astonished to see my plate delivered up along with a filled bottle and mug.

“Thank you,” I softly murmured. “Do you have any idea where, the, uh...”

“The elders don't stay here when they do not have business,” he said, “and there's been a fair amount of traffic up to that location this morning.”

“Uh, preparations?” I asked.

“That meeting room, as well as several others on that floor, are served with a detached kitchen. It's a good thing, too.”

“Why?” I asked, as I woke up completely.

“Those people insist upon eating bad food,” he said, “and they usually order it in advance. We don't prepare it in the main kitchen unless we must.”

“Squabs?” I asked.

Those went up there last night,” he said, “along with the other foods those people like.”

“Wonderful,” I gasped. “That place will smell horribly.”

“Not until they actually eat,” said the cook. “Cooking up there means a short shift and long periods spent spewing in the nearest privy.”

“The kitchen?” I asked.

“It has smelled horribly for much of the last day,” said the cook. “Stay well clear of it if you can.”

The distraction of learning about 'a ghastly stench' was only broken by the other more-important portion, and I recalled it just as I was about to eat the bread.

“And those scribes? Gabriel?” I asked.

“I would look for them in their offices,” he said. “Go towards the small-stairs, turn left just before you reach them, then go along that narrow passage until you pass the privy. Their names are on their doors.”

I recalled clearly the route to the privy, and only once I had passed it did I slow. On each side of the dim hallway were narrow varnished doors, and as I began looking for the 'names', I heard a faint yawning noise, then the sounds of stretching.

“Is that one of them?” I thought, as I 'tiptoed' toward the door in question. “I cannot see any names here, so I need to...”

The door I had gone toward now opened slightly, and to my astonishment, I saw Gabriel. He looked as if he'd just awoken.

“Let me visit the privy, and we can go over what is to happen shortly,” he said. “Come inside, and find a chair.” He then ducked out, and hotfooted it down the hall.

I cautiously opened the door, then looked around to see a near-barren room holding little beyond a desk, three chairs, a bookcase – there were a fair number of books present, though their age and seeming decrepitude spoke loudly – what might have been a cabinet of some kind, and part-hidden, a strange-looking edifice that was a cause for out-loud wondering.

“Is that a stove?” I murmured, as I pushed the door closed and sat down in the nearest chair next to the desk.

While there was no immediate answer, I began looking at what was next to the stove. A slightly grimy container sat amid small and faintly dusty mounds of sawdust next to the stove, while a well-used short-handled saucepan sat atop the thing. This last steamed slightly, and as I was about to get up and look at it, the door shook and then slowly opened with a faint grinding squeak.

“Is that a bathing dipper?” I asked.

“It was well-used when I got it,” said Gabriel, “and unlike those you make...”

“Those rivets are huge!” I gasped. “F-fifteen-line b-b-brass...”

“They are that, as well as loose and badly cracked,” said Gabriel. “It was the best one I could find locally at the time.”

Gabriel paused, sipped from a mug, then said, “I recently put in an order where you work for a new one.”

“I d-don't use...”

“That is well-known,” said Gabriel, “and nearly everyone approves.”

“Nearly everyone?” I asked.

“Those that regularly wear black-cloth publicly speak evil of such work,” said Gabriel. “They speak otherwise in private.”

“What do they say?” I asked.

“I am not certain as to their precise words,” said Gabriel. “I am quite certain they regard that work highly enough to pay substantial premiums for pots and saucepans.”

“Substantial?” I asked.

“One person at the house purchased a bathing dipper,” said Gabriel, “and one of the Generals assayed robbery. She poked him in the stomach with her knife, and before he left, he offered to pay her triple its going price.”

“And?” I asked.

“She told him to sup with Brimstone,” said Gabriel. “While I admire her courage, such speech and attitudes will not help us with this meeting.”

I reached into my possible bag, then drew out the new ledger. Gabriel began looking at it, and within less than a minute, he was muttering and turning pages.

“You don't realize what this is, do you?” he asked.

“Uh, some documentation on Norden?” I asked. “I had a very peculiar dream last night, and I doubt it was a common dream.”

“The Compendium Set has perhaps part of a column setting out what is known of that area,” said Gabriel, “and at least half of that information isn't trustworthy. This...” Gabriel paused, drank deeply, then resumed looking for a few seconds. He then spoke.

“I've counted thirty pages so far that have either written documentation or pictures, and I'm not even close to the end of this ledger. I can tell there are places I haven't looked at.”

“Is there more room available for additions?” I asked.

“There is, and not a little,” said Gabriel. “I suspect this document makes our case much more believable, both here and elsewhere.”

“Is believability an issue?” I asked. “Or will these elders come with their own notion of the truth and ignore anything that disagrees with it?”

Gabriel looked at me with an indecipherable expression, even as the ledger softly dropped onto his desk. He pointed a shaking finger at me, then said, “what Hendrik barely hinted at, you now said. This meeting promises to not be as a mule, but something much worse.”

“A twelve-legged Great Bovine with five voracious heads?” I asked. “Mules don't hold a soggy tallow candle to those.”

Gabriel shuddered, then said, “how you can speak that way of those persons is beyond me, especially given the rumors.”

“Perhaps the destruction in the Swartsburg has toned them down slightly?” I asked.

“Slightly is correct,” said Gabriel. “Those that wear black-cloth, as well as misers and that third class of well-hidden witch, have learned a veneer of manners, which they wear when they are concerned with being seen by those inimical to their goals. That is for them.”

Here, Gabriel paused, then said, “those named elders are past masters of such behavior, and they have done it successfully for many years.”

“As in Hendrik has only realized their perfidy recently?” I asked. “Since, perhaps, the third ditch?”

Gabriel nodded slowly, then said, “let me gather up the rest of the paperwork, and we can go up to that place and look it over.”

“As in you expect traps of some sort?” I asked, as I stood to vacate the chair. “Or are those rumored secret passages an issue?”

“All of those, and the nearby detached kitchen,” said Gabriel. “I might have developed something of a taste for unusual food during my traipsing, as well as learned of the pleasures of wine, but I still eat plain food most of the time. I cannot say that for those men, and that is for the food that isn't High.”

“High Meats?” I asked.

“They are said to prefer those,” said Gabriel, “as well as other foods that are less than healthy.”

As we went for the small-stairs, I asked, “what kind of wine did you learn about?”

“Many types, both good and bad,” said Gabriel. “I have some hidden in my office, in case the book-dust gets too bad for me.”

“Book-dust?” I asked. “What does that do?”

“It makes for an intense desire to sleep, among other things,” said Gabriel, “and though I drank two mugs of decent wine, and one of the stuff they carry here, and all of it last night, I still fell asleep in my chair.”

“Decent wine?” I asked.

“Yes, some stuff I ordered,” said Gabriel, as we came to the roundabout below the one for the third floor. “It was said to be sweetened with honey.”

“I tasted some here and it was horrible,” I gasped. “I never learned to like it.”

“That seems the usual,” said Gabriel. “Even in the higher schools, there are people that insist on unfermented wine.”

“I don't mind that type,” I said. “Now where is that trend most prevalent? The west school?”

“Fermented wine is not easy to find in that place,” said Gabriel. “I have heard since then that I was looking in the wrong area for it.”

“Wrong area?” I asked.

“Fermented wine is both more common and more popular at the other schools,” said Gabriel. “One school is said to swim with wine, but their food is so bad that one cannot eat it.”

“Must be a tough school,” I said. “What is that one called?”

Boermaas,” said Gabriel, as we reached the third floor landing. “That place was said to be the best for languages.”

“Travel?” I asked, as we went along a darkened corridor.

“Unlike most of the other schools, Boermaas students do not travel,” said Gabriel. “I have heard they have the least time off of any students.”

“Harvest Day?” I asked. “Festival Week?”

“I think they receive those,” said Gabriel. “I might have had a month to the year when I wasn't sitting lectures or traipsing, which was about the usual, but talk had it many Boermaas students studied without cease during the whole of their time at that place.”

“Did they go home?” I asked.

“While I usually did,” said Gabriel, as he led down an even darker hall, “I had heard that some of them remained at school that entire time. Others may have gone home, but they carried their notes and copies of their texts with them to study while traveling.”

“That sounds familiar,” I muttered. “I recall some of my studying where one had to do things like that to manage satisfactorily, and working every day one possibly could was a requirement.” I paused, then said, “the back way?”

“Just up ahead,” said Gabriel. “The kitchen is on the other side, and I spent my time in the privy yesterday.”

“From?” I asked.

“The food they took up there last evening,” said Gabriel. “I heard squabs, and smelled things worse yet.”

Worse than those stinky birds?” I asked. The darkened hall made for slow moving. “What are they?”

“I've heard them called jellies,” said Gabriel. “While I never have tried them, I have seen others do so, and they spent hours in the privy afterward.”

“Long meals?” I asked. I could see a door ahead.

“Those were very common during my traipsing,” said Gabriel. “I seldom had time for eating them, as I had to write instead of eat.”

“Recording the meal?” I asked.

“That merited a sentence, perhaps two,” said Gabriel. “The comments of my traveling partners merited much more, especially as I incorporated what they saw into my notes.”

“One person takes...” I paused, then whispered, “the door is locked.”

“I think I might have a key,” said Gabriel.

I moved around him, touched the doorknob, and the lock beneath it audibly clicked.

“Was that a Dietrich you used?” asked Gabriel.

“What is a Dietrich?” I asked, as I gently pushed the door open to show a darkened room.

“A lock-opening tool,” said Gabriel. “I never learned how to use one, in spite of all I did to learn their use.”

“Opening locks?” I asked. “What?”

“Sometimes one wants into the lecturers' rooms,” said Gabriel, “and keys were very common at Maagensonst. I had a decent collection by the time I'd been there two years.”

“Maagensonst?” I asked, as I looked for the wall-lanterns. They seemed to be 'missing'.

“Where I spent five years and nine months,” said Gabriel. “I was given two months for my attempts prior to signing the rolls there.”

“Did you take notes for your traveling partners?” I asked.

“I usually did,” said Gabriel. “Good, here is one of the lanterns. I think they took the rest of them down for cleaning.”

As I fumbled in my bag for a candle, I heard Gabriel looking for something, and the hissing scratch of a match startled me. I looked to see Gabriel igniting a stubby candle, then inserting it into the lantern.

“Was that a match?” I asked.

“Those came with the wine,” said Gabriel. “The fourth kingdom ones are scarce, far more expensive, and slightly less temperamental compared to those from the fifth kingdom.”

“And you bought some anyway?” I asked.

“A small tin,” said Gabriel. “I ration their use carefully, much like I hoard wax candle-stubs.”

“What do you do with those?” I asked.

“Mostly things like I just did,” said Gabriel, “but now and then, I heat one and add a small pinch of jeweler's rouge to the base.”

“Is that how sealing wax is done?” I asked, as I looked around the room in the dim light.

“Not everyone can afford to import it from the fourth kingdom,” said Gabriel. “In my case, I could buy a small tin of matches, or a stick of that wax.”

“How much is that wax?” I gasped, as I walked toward a pair of tables at one end of this sizable rectangular room.

“About as much as a bag of nails,” said Gabriel. “In small numbers, fourth-kingdom matches are four for a guilder, or twenty guilders for a tin of one hundred, and that wax is twenty guilders a stick.”

I was struck dumb by the pronouncement I had just heard, for I had the impression the stick in question was perhaps the size of a finger. I was about to ask further when I came to one of the tables.

“There's this big b-bowl here,” I stammered, “and...”

“They will have their drink in there,” said Gabriel, “or rather, some of it. They will have glasses of wine and bottles at each of their positions.”

“Do these people behave as if, uh, pickled?” I asked.

“They do,” said Gabriel, “and they commonly become more so throughout the course of these meetings. It doesn't help their speech or behavior.”

“Hence showing with all of my equipment?” I asked. “I wondered if I were to demonstrate its functioning.”

“They might well ask for that,” said Gabriel, “but you would do well to hide those more-obtrusive things under the table or in a nearby corner.”

I looked around, then found not merely a small 'cabinet', but also a 'coat-rack', and as I opened the first, Gabriel said, “I would stay well-clear of those.”

“As in they own the furniture here?” I asked.

“Aye, or so they act,” said someone else's voice, as the room became brighter with stunning abruptness. I turned to see someone coming with a pair of tall brass student's lanterns.

“Thank you,” I said. “It was dark enough in here for me to have some trouble seeing.”

“These are the calm lanterns,” said the man who had come. “I'll bring in four more, and hang them on these stands.” I then noticed one of the 'stands' in question next to the wall.

“Calm?” I asked.

“They'd rather have those smoky firetraps, but Hendrik won't let those near the house,” he said. “He's spoken of them exploding, and...”

“I've seen those explode,” spluttered Gabriel. “They...”

“So that makes two of you,” he said. “I can tell that wretch Freek that when he tries bringing one of those stinkers in here.”

“Uh, I've nearly been blown up by those,” I said, “and that multiple times.”

“When was this?” said the man. “That time in the Swartsburg?”

I nodded, then said, “that wasn't the first time I've had distillate misbehave, nor the first time I was almost blown up by one of those lanterns.”

“Sounds like proper infernal lanterns, then,” he said. “There are some of those things that hail from down south that have their patron chiseled into their tanks, along with the other things they have.”

“Patron?” I asked.

“Aye, a right picture of Brimstone himself,” said the man. “Now if we could get these other type, those I'd have, even if I had to watch them myself like a bird with eggs.”

“Other type?” I asked.

“They're fairly common in that market town, and in that big port,” he said, “and they burn this strange stuff that smells a bit like aquavit...”

“Those cause blindness,” said Gabriel.

“Yes, if they run them with a full knob,” he said. “About a quarter knob works well, and they make those fires-waiting-to-happen look dim then.”

The two stands he had indicated were opposite from us, and after he'd hung both lanterns, he returned the way he'd came. I then saw the layout of the room better.

The room itself was roughly thirty feet wide, and forty or so feet long, with a long oval-shaped table in the rough center. Surrounding this table were old-looking chairs, and next to the strangely white and glistening walls were dark-colored 'heavy-looking' wooden tables. Lampstands stood about every dozen feet next to the walls, while to my left and behind were both the one cabinet and clothing rack.

A closer examination of the table showed it to also be of 'heavy-looking' construction, with a prominent dark 'grain' and darker-yet lines showing the places where the planks were joined together into 'sections'.

“This table seems about a hundred years old,” I softly murmured.

“It's a good deal older than that,” said Gabriel. “I think we had best make our preparations now, as those people might arrive any time.”

While I knew the people in question would run late, I kept such thoughts to myself, for I suspected Gabriel would wish to read the new ledger carefully. I also knew I needed to have my 'evidence' handy, as I suspected I would receive some answers beyond what I had yet heard and suspected. Finally, I recalled the pouch I had received from Anna recently, and knew I needed to look at it.

“Where should I put my equipment?” I asked softly, as the 'lighter' returned with two more candle-lanterns.

“I would put all save that which is in your bag in the...”

Gabriel turned around, and noted the 'service' door, and he motioned to it. I stood, and walked over to the door, and tapped gently.

The door opened some seconds later, and as I walked past the threshold, the stench of bad meat mingled with strong spices seized the nausea center of my mind. I gasped, saw a brown door to my left and ahead, and crashed through it blindly. I then saw what looked like a free-standing 'shield'. I ducked behind the cloth-and-lath shield and nearly pitched into an elongated metal tub.

“What?” I gasped. “A bathtub?”

“I would put your rifle and some of the more bulky things in the corner to the left and behind that tub,” said the soft voice. “No one will use it until long after the nonsense is over, and those 'elders' will avoid it entirely.”

“Do they bathe?” I asked.

While I received no answer, I recalled the grimy skin of the deceased magistrate, and suspected bathing wasn't a common behavior among serious witches. I wondered why for a moment, even as I unburdened myself, and then thought, “will those people drag..?”

“Not with you in the same room,” said the soft voice. “I would be wary of poison and surprise attacks just the same.”

“Hence the food and drink I brought with me only,” I said.

“That would be best,” said the soft voice. “Your reputation precedes you to a sufficient degree that their main attempts will be poisoned food and drink.”

I felt my bag, and recalled what I had in it, then chuckled quietly.

“No, that will not be needed today,” said the soft voice. “They have no idea what awaits them. Suffice it to say that when they become aware of their destiny, they will have trouble.”

“Trouble?” I asked. “Should I ask what kind?”

“You won't be slicing on them,” said the soft voice, “even though they will long greatly to be cut to pieces as per those old tales you've heard of.”

I 'ran the gauntlet' and returned to the table, then as I brought out my water bottle, I said, “they plan on poisoned food...”

Gabriel turned to me and smiled, then said, “thank you for confirming my suspicion. I might not have one of those copper things like you have, but I have secured my own bottle and cup. I have it hidden, also.”

Still no good,” I said. “About the only way you'd manage is if you went downstairs and drew the stuff yourself from a cask in that 'cellar'.” My gorge arose with the recollection of that smelly room.

I then looked at what I'd brought, and sniffed.

“Did they dose this cider?” I thought.

“They think you to be like most guards that way,” said the soft voice.

“Most guards?” I asked.

“Most guards will at least sip that which is offered to them,” said Gabriel, “even if they dislike fermented wine.”

“Those few that dislike fermented wine,” said the soft voice. “Most guards greatly prefer fermented wine, and most of the rest assiduously cultivate a taste for it – and excepting those who sit with you on the guard bench, all of the current guards will 'oblige' those poisoners by draining the glass offered them.”

“And what should I do?” I asked softly. “Is this one of those situations...”

“It is,” said the soft voice. “They will work hard at trying to get you to 'drink up', and your refusal, no matter how diplomatic you attempt to be, will anger them greatly.”

Gabriel looked at me, then said, “I suspect you are right about that wine I hid.”

“They know about most of the hiding places,” I said. “If you want wine, you would do best to get your own bottle... No, not that. Get an empty jug of uncorking medicine, rinse it out thoroughly...”

“N-no,” said Gabriel. “I'll do without, thank you.”

As I went over my 'evidence', Gabriel periodically glanced at the various items, until I brought out the magnifier. When he saw its satin finish, he said, “now where did you get that?”

“It was a copy of that magnifier that went up in smoke,” I said, “only unlike that slimy unusable thing, this one actually works.”

“May I examine it?” asked Gabriel.

I placed it on the ledger, and he took it up and began using it. Within seconds, he gasped, then said, “I've never seen such an instrument.”

“Did you notice the scale?” I asked.

He took it up again, then gasped twice before saying, “I've heard of things like this, but never actually used them before.”

“I panicked when it and the other things showed,” I said. “I thought I'd been cursed.”

“What else showed?” asked Gabriel, as I returned the magnifier to its leather pouch.

Everything,” I said. “Everything that showed was a precise copy, save where it involved runes or other cursed aspects. I was hoping I could ask about that key, in fact.”

“These people would be the wrong ones to ask,” said Gabriel. “I've done some research since, and I think I have an answer.”

“Oh?” I asked. “I was told a partial one.”

“What were you told?”

“That key was issued by Koenraad,” I said, “and it was a sign of inclusion into...”

“It was much more than that,” said Gabriel. “It seems those keys confer substantial privileges in witch-held realms.”

“Especially that one,” said the soft voice.

“Uh, a 'vassal' key?” I asked.

For some reason, I felt reminded of a peculiar 'ring' I had read of, and as I tried to recall the ring's inscription, I recalled clearly what it supposedly did.

“That k-key...”

“Was similar in function,” said the soft voice, “and while the bulk of its recent power was in the realm of belief, beliefs in witchdom...”

“Are reality, and are treated accordingly,” I mumbled. “Hence possessing it would have...”

“No, not would have,” said the soft voice. “It still is thought a great token in witchdom, and that copy will perform like the original if it is used as the giver intended.”

“Then why did Koenraad 'deliver' it?” I asked.

“He was covering all of the possibilities he could see,” said the soft voice. “He was trying to achieve puppet-like 'control', but failing that, he wanted a willing vassal; and failing that, he wanted an 'ally'. Hence, the degree, number, and potency of those gifts.”

“And going after the people I live with,” I muttered.

“And where you work, also,” said the soft voice. “Be glad his like is uncommon.”

I then brought out the leather pouch, and untied its loose-seeming knot. Upending it showed a pair of small buttons, complete with clips on their backsides, and after looking briefly at one – a neat clean execution showing a sword and shield – I found what might have been a small hole in my greens. I inserted the button, attached the clip, put the pouch back, and then resumed my former activities.

A few minutes passed, and when I looked up from my busywork, I noted a well-lit room. I thought to listen, and faintly, I heard the rattle of unlubricated bearings and the clopping of four-horse teams drawing 'fancy' buggies. I tried to 'see', and felt as if blocked.

“They'll be here soon,” said the soft voice.

“That's sufficient,” I thought.

“That capacity is still young,” said the soft voice. “It will grow greatly, and that in the near future.”

“I hope this stinky meeting goes well,” I mumbled. “I feel nauseated just thinking about it.”

“I know,” said Gabriel. “Hendrik would be here, save he knows enough to not waste his time with these people.”

“Are we wasting our time?” I asked.

“He suspects something important will happen today,” said Gabriel, “and that something involves you intimately. Beyond that, he knows little more than what I just said.”

“Their perfidy?” I asked.

“That is the chief area of change,” said Gabriel. “He knows these people are potential enemies at the least.”

“And given my recent experience...”

I ceased speaking, then said, “they're here.”

“Where are they?” asked Gabriel.

“The main gate,” I said, “and I don't envy the people speaking to them, as they're really drunk.”

“Their clothing?” asked Gabriel.

“They left the black stuff off,” I said. “At least, they aren't wearing black-cloth.”

I paused for a moment, then said, “they're wearing that severe brown stuff.”

“They're dressed like misers?” asked Gabriel incredulously.

“This is going to sound strange,” I said. “They think dressing in that starch-stiffened brown cloth hides nearly everything from everybody – oh, and they know less about me than I thought they did.”

“What do they know?” asked Gabriel.

“They think I have had one huge spell of luck,” I spluttered, “and that I'm like they themselves are.”

“How?”

“They think I'm a well-disguised arch-witch,” I said, “and that I'm ignorant of most of what they are doing...”

“I think not,” said Gabriel emphatically. “You seem to be reading them like a book.”

“Now they're inside, and they're all in this big long line, lifting their boots high and slamming them down,” I said. “The only thing they aren't doing to show off is chanting this one really nasty curse while wearing black-cloth and dragging too-big swords.”

“Are they walking that way?” asked Gabriel. “If they are, it does not sound good.”

“For them,” I said. “They're beginning to look really overconfident.”

“They are,” said the soft voice, “and they know less about you than you thought they did. Those two heads were a wakeup call for them, which they saw for the first time today.”

“They just saw them?” I squeaked.

“And dismissed them both as fakes,” said the soft voice. “Deception is a fine art among witches.” A brief pause, then “they still saw them, however, and they still know of your reputation. They have not seen you in person yet.”

“And spiking heads?” I asked.

There was no answer, beyond what I'd previously heard.

“So they think I'm as murderous a thug as they are,” I muttered, “and I have the 'gall' to 'mount' my trophies in plain sight...”

“That seems to count for a great deal among witches,” said Gabriel. “I have no idea how to present anything to drunken misers.”

“Perhaps hand the documentation up one of the rows once they settle down and, uh, uncork their bottles,” I said. “I hope I don't spew.”

A faint clink seemed to answer me, and seconds later, I heard a 'Lurch-Pang' chorus. The true-step of witches was coming, and I recalled all of these people as being so.

“I wonder if that magistrate was replaced yet?” I muttered. “Do they know who 'got' him?”

“That is one of the few things they actually 'know',” said the soft voice. “The details of his 'finding' and death speak loudly to all save the hardest of those fiends.”

“And Freek is...”

“Too drunk to take much of anything beyond his own thoughts seriously,” said the soft voice. “Still, be advised. He's but slightly drunker than his usual state.”

“And is well-accustomed to being pickled,” I muttered.

Gabriel looked at me, for some reason. I glanced at him, then at the door, which seemed to faintly vibrate. I clearly heard the scuffling clumsiness of drunken 'savages' trying to open a contrary door with a badly-worn key amid the clinking of bottles and much else.

“They're at the outer door,” I said. “When the inner one opens, I'm standing up.”

“That is the usual,” said Gabriel. “I'm surprised you knew.”

“I didn't, and this isn't standing as a sign of respect,” I said. “This is a death-match, and I'm throwing down a direct challenge in their collective faces.”

I paused, then said, “I'll cut every one of these thugs to pieces if I'm instructed to do so, and that with no thought on the matter other than how to send them all to hell as fast as possible.”

I paused again, and growled, “to hell with them all!”

The door opened with a banging crackle, and I stood with such abruptness the chair toppled over. My right hand instinctively went to the hilt of my sword after undoing the flap of the holster, and as these men walked in, they glanced in my direction.

And froze as if in the chill blast of a blizzard.

“Don't mind me,” I said calmly. I then backed up, retrieved my chair, and pushed it forward. As I made ready to sit, I said, “we've been waiting for you.”

The bristling aspect of these men as they now resumed their incoming was such that I marveled, both at their clearly enraged visages and at the apparent complete ruination of their long-made planning. Only the 'leaders' were yet 'undaunted'...

No, that wasn't quite the case. I had gotten under their skins as well. Even Freek had taken notice.

As the smell of strong drink and rotten meat usurped the room, I was amazed at how I wasn't acutely ill with the stench, and I thought to glance at the wall nearest me. One of the lanterns shed a faintly flickering light upon what looked to be a grotesque carving, and as I looked closer at this carving, I faintly smelled the aroma of distillate. I turned to see two distillate-fueled lanterns being 'arrayed' on the table.

“No,” I thought. “We do not need light-giving firebombs in the room.”

One of the 'stinkers' brought forth a match, and raised his boot. Here, I saw the pointed toe and black leather I had 'seen' earlier. He then struck the match.

It popped, and the flaring head flew across the room to land on the floor.

“Watch that,” hissed one of the other 'misers'.

He ignored the hissing 'curse', then brought out another match. This one didn't work at first, and after three attempts, I could almost see smoke coming from it. He laid it on the table, and as he reached for another, the used match ignited with a pop and a flash.

It also flew several feet in the air toward the lantern – and then fell down the brass chimney, where it went out.

Gabriel looked at me, then whispered, “I have yet to see matches act so strangely.”

I smiled faintly, even as another of these smelly men assayed lighting the other lantern. The distillate stench was becoming stronger, and as Freek himself made to strike another match, the 'lighter' arrived with two musket-toting guards.

“I knew it,” said the 'lighter'. “First, I get this thought in my head that you people brought those things, and I don't get such thoughts generally, especially that clear and distinct. Then, when I come up here, not only do you have 'em, but you've been filling them with the smelly kind of distillate. Hendrik don't want those things in here.”

I could almost hear Freek speaking a curse followed by the words, “so what.” I made a motion to stand, then the chair behind me slowly scraped across the floor. I stood, and slowly walked toward the nearest lantern.

Everyone in the room seemed frozen, and when I came near one of the 'misers', he backed away. I could almost smell the fear on the man, and I saw the glances at the hilt of my sword.

“No, it is no rumor,” I said softly. “These things do explode. I've seen them do it multiple times, and we don't need firebombs in this room.”

I picked up the lantern, and turned down its wick until the 'wheel' felt 'empty', then picked it up and handed it to the 'lighter'. He seemed grateful, and I turned toward the other lantern.

Freek himself seemed to be guarding it, and as I came closer, he seemed disinclined toward giving it up.

“Which will it be, sir?” I asked coldly. “Your lantern, or your life?”

He looked at me with unconcealed rage. I flatly ignored his expression.

“These things burn witches as well as those otherwise,” I said. “I saw a number of them incinerated that way in the Swartsburg. So, you can either give up your lantern, or be lit on fire when it explodes, which it will do in due time.” I paused, then said, “which will it be, sir?”

I didn't wait for an answer. I reached toward the lantern with my left hand, and to my surprise, Freek gave it to me.

“No, don't think about shooting me, either,” I said. “I know about your little toy – no, toys. You have two, one in each pocket, capped on all six, uh, nubs.”

The crestfallen look on the man's face was merely a facade, and I turned my back to him deliberately as I picked up the lantern. I used his 'fellows' as cover while turning the lantern's wick down into the reservoir, then handed the lantern to the 'lighter'.

“They didn't dry that distillate,” he said, “so you were right about what you said.”

“These things are dangerous if fueled and lit,” I said. “They're prime firebombs with boiled distillate, much less that stinky stuff that's called 'well-dried'.”

I again used the other 'misers' as 'cover' while I returned to my chair, which I pulled in while sitting down. The 'lighter' left with both lanterns, and the 'preparations' resumed.

The 'elaborate' nature of these preparations – ledgers, pens, ink-bottles, bleached-white rags – was such that I marveled, for each setting received all of those things, followed by a sizable dark green bottle of wine and an equally dark-green 'wineglass'. The shape of these glasses was intriguing.

I had expected to see 'stereotypical' wineglasses with long thin stems, but these streaky mottled green things were unlike any glasses I had seen before. Their wide mouths, thick rounded 'rims', voluptuous tapering, 'plump' waists – compared to what I had expected, they were 'plump', anyway – and thick uneven rimmed bases were something of a marvel.

The odor of the tawny yellow liquid that began to fill them wasn't a marvel, however – its appearance was noxious, and its odor, vile. It made for retching that I could not conceal, and when a cup and bottle 'appeared' before me, I had an answer ready to hand.

“I do not like wine,” I said icily to the 'miser' presenting, “and I am not drinking this stuff.”

The silent hungry-looking glares of the 'misers' seemed to fasten upon me, and I picked up the bottle by its long dark-green neck, then uncorked it. I stood, grasped my nose with my fingers, then took the bottle through the service door, down the hall, and turned right into the kitchen. There, I saw 'punch' being prepared, and I emptied the bottle into the noxious contents of the punchbowl, then stood it up next to the container. The resulting 'mess' smelled acutely poisonous.

“Now what did you put in there?” asked a cook. I wondered how he could endure the stink.

“They attempted to poison me,” I said quietly amid the noises of the kitchen. My voice sounded nasal and high-pitched. “They should find the flavor of arsenic to their liking.”

“Good,” said the cook, as he picked up the bottle. “Now how is it you knew about that recipe?”

“It includes arsenic?” I squeaked.

“That isn't listed,” he said. “That wine is, though, and finding the stuff was impossible on three days notice.”

“Problem solved,” I said, as I left the kitchen.

The stink seemed inclined to follow me, and only when I returned to the room was I able to unclasp my nose. As I took my seat, I noted the still-glaring expressions of the 'misers, and as I looked closer at them, I noted the near-monotonous sameness of their over-serious expressions. I then glanced at the head of the table. Freek had finally taken his seat, and was drinking deeply of his 'glass'.

“Well?” I asked. “What are you waiting for?”

Freek nearly sprayed his wine, and coughed before attempting speech, and what came out was a mumbled epithet in a language I recognized at once as a dialect of German. I looked at Gabriel; his face was unreadable, at least until he stood with the neat-stacked paperwork.

There was my ledger, and what looked like a slim leather 'binder' that I had not seen before. He moved these to the nearest miser, and that man passed them up the table to the one next to him without glancing.

“So everything comes down from above,” I thought snidely. “All of these men are merely pieces of Freek's body, and under his full and complete control, to do as he wishes and when he wishes it done.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “That level of control requires a much larger disparity of 'power' between 'master' and 'slaves'.” A brief pause, then “however, the idea itself is accurate, and not just with this group.”

As I watched the paperwork working its way up the table, I noted a possible 'hierarchical' seating arrangement, with those 'lesser beings' seated at our end, and the 'lord and master' seated at the other. Still, I wondered as to the arrangements more than a little – until Freek himself began looking at the ledger.

“This is not seemly for written material,” he said, as he closed the ledger. “I will not read it until it be in the correct fashion.”

“It be?” I thought. “Shouldn't that be 'until it is'? And 'the correct fashion'? What gives with this wretch?”

“You are the first to find fault,” said Gabriel. “It has been carefully reviewed and found easily read and understood.”

“Silence, knave,” said Freek.

“What?” I thought. “Did he say 'knave' – or did he say 'slave'?”

“Now, speak,” said Freek. “Tell me why you are here, and with unbidden company.”

As Gabriel slowly spoke of what was in the documentation, I seemed to listen carefully. Much of what was happening was an obvious smokescreen, with the attention of the entire 'council' feigned. I thought for a moment as to the mention of 'correctness', and made a possible connection.

“As in Koenraad wanted his written requests done in 'the correct format'?” I thought. “Is that what that wretch meant?”

A cough came from the other end of the table, and I saw a lacy white 'handkerchief' in action. For some reason, I seemed to see the 'mite' clearer, then suddenly my sight 'zoomed in' to see a blood-tinged mass of green mucus.

“Aha,” I thought. “Spending time in that datramonium smoke isn't good for your lung infection.”

As I listened to Gabriel continue, though, I became aware of something I had not seen prior: he was 'head and shoulders' above these people in raw intelligence. More, they wanted to give him the Judas Choice, that being either making his bones or bleeding on their altar as the object of adoration.

“There's no backing out of that one, is there?” I thought. “Obey the summons, and become a witch, or become a sacrifice?”

As if to distract me, I recalled a strange phrase – “bell, book, and candle” – and I abruptly made another connection. These people had a black book, they...

Had is correct,” said the soft voice. “That book went up in smoke when the dark side of the Swartsburg burned.”

“The bell?” I asked. “The one they rang in that room while getting it ready?”

“And the candles of melded lard and human tallow,” said the soft voice. “I would pay close attention to that head man at the table, as things are about to get interesting.”

I lifted up my head to gaze at this man, and watched him again wipe his mouth after coughing. As he listened, I could hear again tones in that 'German' dialect, and the connection between what I heard in the dream became utterly clear.

“The language of power, witch-version,” I thought. “So he's chanting in that nasty-sounding speech.”

Gabriel had now come to the part where he spoke of the hordes of Norden, and how our utterly controlled lives conveniently played into their hands.

“It is as though we were schooled and ruled by witches, so as to do their bidding,” he said, “and that to their exclusive benefit, such that they have our labor now, and our blood later to do with as they feel inclined.”

“And how do you have this?” demanded Freek. “You spoke of dreams...”

Freek 'cogitated' for a moment, then said with a tone of finality, “dreams are not a fit means of information-gathering.” He paused for a moment, then said, “resume your speech, knave.”

As Gabriel continued, I marveled at his ability to speak from memory, and more, at his attempt to work the night through. I worked as I was able, and worked long hours, but his capacity...

“Do not belittle yourself on that score,” said the soft voice. “Your hours are but little less, and far more energetic.”

“Knave?” I asked.

“A common epithet among witches,” said the soft voice. “There are worse ones.”

As if to confirm matters, Freek suddenly 'shouted' for silence, then in a low and threatening voice spoke directly to me. I listened to what he said, then somehow heard Gabriel speaking normally.

“What was that?” I asked.

“His attempt at a curse,” said the soft voice. “That was the strongest one he could manage, by the way.”

“Calling me 'bhoy'?” I asked.

“That is one of those worse epithets,” said the soft voice. “That term is very old, and the curse using it nearly as old as that term.”

I looked again at Freek, and heard Gabriel coming to the end of his spiel. I myself would be asked for shortly thereafter. I thought to respond 'appropriately'.

“That is all we have at this time,” said Gabriel. “There is more, but there was no time to gather it and write it down.”

“Sufficient,” said Freek. “Now bid your...”

Freek seemed at a loss, for he but now saw my hair. It occurred to me that the usual 'shade-of-blond' was all he had ever seen.

“Not true,” said the soft voice. “He has no idea as to how to refer to you, and seeing your hair made it worse.”

I stood, then said, “you meant 'bhoy', didn't you?”

Freek took the matter with a measure of aplomb that surprised me.

“I am neither his property, nor someone he understands terribly well,” I said quietly. “I'll tell you of that strange 'dream' I had.”

I paused, then muttered, “if it was a dream. Dreams don't have you coming back smelling like burnt lard.”

Freek was about to speak. I put my hands on the table, then spoke before he could manage to 'silence' me.

“Those people are coming,” I said, “and they want revenge, our lives, and food, in that order. They had a poor result with their last raid, which means good weather, mature crops, and us not expecting them.”

I paused, then said, “just after harvest sounds likely.”

I looked around, and saw I 'held' the table. I then continued.

“Between now and then, I expect common-sized raids – from twenty to a hundred ships – with the usual goals of causing trouble and getting food. They really need to get food.”

I paused, then said, “why, you ask? Those swine-pens they have are sizable, and brimming full of piglets. They want those big black stinkers large enough to bear plate, which means a year from this fall is the likeliest time.”

Someone was about to ask a question, and I looked at the 'miser' in question. My single thought was 'silence'. The man nearly collapsed in place, and once 'recovered', he began guzzling his wine.

“Perhaps eighteen or nineteen months, as a guess,” I said. “Between now and then, they will cause trouble, so wasting time is very unwise. We need proper swine-weapons, as they will bring those things to train them every chance they can.”

“How will they bring them?” asked Gabriel.

“Their harbors are full of ships under construction,” I said. “I saw one closely, and I was told there were more. How many more is a good question, as I saw a large number of open-air shipyards as well as those year-round ones they have indoors.”

I paused, then said, “in round numbers, the minimum size of that fleet is going to be a thousand of those ships they have, and thrice that many would not surprise me.”

I paused, then finished with, “while those tin-wearing individuals are troublesome, the pigs are each worth hundreds of those thugs – and that's not counting the archers, the auxiliaries, the spy-groups, and the witches themselves.”

“They have spies here?” asked Gabriel incredulously.

“They do, and I've seen at least two groups of them,” I said. “One group was wiped out with traps, and another was at least partly incinerated.” I paused, “oh, and I forgot the 'thinkers'. They come here now and then to, uh, supervise theft and information-gathering.”

“Dreams,” muttered Freek, as I sat down. “They are worthless. I hope you are done wasting my valuable time.” He paused, looked at the documents, then continued, saying, “I have a fit title for you, you impudent dog. All about you is unseemly. Now, about this tissue of lies under my thumb – where did you get it?”

“I doubt those who have faced the hunger of swine and have died saving our lives were entire liars,” said Gabriel, “and though the source is somewhat unusual, I would be disinclined to dismiss it so lightly. It fits well with what others have contributed, and until we can get better sources, we should use what we have.”

Freek shook his head, then said “dreams. Only fools dream.”

“I would still not toss dreams, especially from that source,” said Gabriel. “It would be worse, perchance, than tossing most eye-witness accounts.”

“Freek isn't interested in those either, Gabriel,” I thought. “Unless it is something he wants to hear, and that larded with chants in that, uh, German dialect or runes, he isn't going to hear it.”

“Besides, some people's dreams are good sources of information, and his especially,” said Gabriel. “Others tend to have them as well, and corroboration, as well as dreams, are spoken of in the book.”

“He's not interested in that book,” I thought.

“Finally, we have almost no reliable information about those people,” said Gabriel. “The Compendium has but a small section, with much of it questionable. I wish I could say that about what you have there.”

“Too much Geneva,” said Freek. “That explains all of this.”

“You really must have not done your asking, sir,” said Gabriel. “I have it on good authority that he does not consume Geneva.”

“As a beverage, no,” I muttered. “It works well as liniment.”

“Then wine,” shouted Freek. “Gallons of wine!”

I shook my head violently, and spat, “no thank you. One taste had me spitting for quite some time.”

“Then what do you drink?” shouted Freek.

“I might have a small cup of beer at bedtime,” I said. “It helps with sleep. Otherwise, boiled water, unfermented cider, and small amounts of unfermented wine.” I paused, then said, “I doubt you will ask Hans or Anna to find out if I'm lying or not, as you think I lie whenever I open my mouth. Still, if you were interested in the truth, you could ask them, and they would tell you what they see daily.”

Gabriel looked at me with open mouth, which he promptly shut. He then spoke.

“Not only could they verify his condition, but also those dreams. It seems they often know not merely when he has them, but also, what they are about. Then, the tapestries speak of dreams, especially those of certain people.”

“He really doesn't want to hear that one,” I thought.

“The dreams of those marked are often as good as a great deal of intelligence gotten by common and tedious means,” said Gabriel, “and those are sent by someone who does not lie – both the people, and the dreams – and if you wish confirmation, you may look to the gate.”

Freek brushed off the reference with a brusque wave of his hand, then passed the documentation back down the table. As it passed back our way, there was a nervous gabble of discussion that brewed in its wake. For some reason, I saw – and heard – otherwise, even as the recollection of the behavior of some middle managers I had encountered seemed to be played out before my eyes once more.

“Dreams, huh,” I heard. “Who does this fool think he is... A prime blood-source...?”

There was more, though, and it was no language I had heard prior. Interleaved with language I understood were 'words' and 'phrases' that made no sense whatsoever save on the intention level, and that very poorly:

Ghagh!

Ghäsh?

Snog wurga fulp niggle,

spüt wazzoo!

Ging ninga spittupa fatchøo?

Nögga zöp garg nghäsh!”


“Why do these things” – I knew then who and what the speakers were – “like umlauts so much? Given where they come from, and how they like hearing that nasty-sounding German dialect, perhaps it should be called, uh, Underworld German.”

A glance at the nearest of the 'misers' caused the clothing of his arm to become gauzy, and amid the crusted filth covering his skin I saw a tattoo of familiar form – that feral half-man, half goat hybrid with horns and fangs within a five-pointed reddish star – and as the fabric resumed its dirt-shrouded dark brown hiding, I knew what I was seeing was correct. These were the people of that dream, and I had just seen one man's owning tattoo.

“I am not fooled for a minute by this rubbish,” said Freek, as he refilled his glass. “It will be time to adjourn for lunch in about three turns of the glass...”

Ye glass, you mean,” I thought. I could clearly hear that medieval tone in his voice.

“So we can pass the time in here until that time.”

He paused to drink deeply, then resumed speaking.

“Where are you from?” he asked. For the first time, he was speaking in a semi-civil tone. I thought to answer, when he spoke again.

“Never mind mere words, come here. I want a closer look, as I can see something different about you...”

I instantly felt a pang of fear too great for words, which was just as abruptly squelched.

“And I wonder what it is. It will serve to pass the time prior to the squabs and jellies.” A brief pause, then “at least, we have proper wine between now and then to deal with this irruption.”