The end of the beginning, part C


“That's as good as anything I've heard yet for ones this bad, short of having them gone over by a wheelwright,” said the farmer.

I heard Lukas spit, then say, “those people would take far too long.”

“At the house?” I asked.

“They do whole wheels in days,” said Lukas. “We don't have days.”

“Hence what I suggested?” I asked, as I finally got the wheel off. “I might be able to shave out some of the worst ridges here.”

I spent some few minutes with my knife scraping the inside of the hub and the outside of the axle, and when I'd finished, I came to the other side. Neither the farmer nor Lukas had made much progress, and when I began working, the farmer stood there dumbfounded while Lukas went to the other side.

“This will help a fair amount,” he said. “Now for this grease here.”

“Is it common to use tallow?” I asked.

“That's the usual at the house, or so I suspect,” said Lukas. “I bought this grease myself last year.”

“Does it work for this type of axle?” I asked.

“It seems to,” said Lukas. “I know more than a few freighters quartered up here, and they swear by it, especially for heavy loads and fast trips.”

“In sleeved wheels?” I asked.

“It wants thinning with well-dried distillate for those,” he said. “Hans spoke of this special oil, and I hoped to get some for the trip.”

“Uh, I'll make certain several vials are packed,” I said. “I'm not sure how much he uses for the buggy, so I'll need to ask.”

“Do you work on that stuff?” asked Lukas.

“I do when I have the time,” I said. “That isn't often lately, between all that I need to do.”

“What's in it?” asked the farmer.

“The latest mix has nine parts uncorking medicine, two parts fourth kingdom grease, one part specially processed tallow, and one part boiled distillate,” I said.

“Boiled distillate?” asked the farmer. “How do you do that?”

“With chemistry glassware,” I said. “I still haven't made a distillery for distillate, even if I recently finished another pressure pot for the tallow.”

“What does that do?” asked the farmer. I was finishing up the hub. The axle was done, and the charred crisped shavings littered the floor of the barn.

“That eliminates the smell,” I said, “and the tallow itself is firmer. It almost feels like a very slippery type of wax.”

“I'll stick to wax for my good candles,” said the farmer. “Next time I see Hans, I'll ask him about that stuff.”

Changing the 'jack' from the front to the rear was a somewhat involved process, but once the front wheels were in the air, I began pulling wheels and then 'cleaning them up'. I could hear vague munching noises in the background, and when I finished one wheel and began moving toward the other, I looked to see the farmer wiping his hands with a rag.

“I put some more grain to those horses,” he said, “and I used the sweet grain, so it should help.”

“Where do you get that type?” I asked.

“That Mercantile near the shoemaker's up the road has it, though their stuff isn't the best for price or grade,” said the farmer. “I go to the nearest one to the south, and get my grain there.” He paused, then said, “I mix some grain from my neighbor with it, and that helps even more.”

“What kind is that?” asked Lukas.

“He has this strange still,” said the farmer, “and I've never seen one like it, either for looks or working.”

“Still?” I asked.

“Aye,” said the farmer. “It's a lot easier to use than the usual type, especially as it don't need a special building or anything else like the other type do.”

He paused, sipped something – I smelled beer – and continued, saying, “then, it makes really strong aquavit, and that in one run, and it does it working on the stove.”

“How does dried mash help?” I asked.

As if to answer, I heard one of the horses whinny, then the farmer laughed.

“It perks 'em right up,” he said.

“Drunken horses?” I asked.

“No, this stuff is dried,” he said. “I think it has something in it that horses seem to especially like.”

I mentally put 'dried mash' on the list I was concocting in my head, even as I finished the last wheel, and once the horses were harnessed, Lukas tethered his horse to the rear of the buggy. The drunkard went into the bed of the buggy, and I remounted Jaak after giving the farmer half of my shot-bag's contents. He was distinctly grateful, and wished us good day.

Our trip back was but slightly slower, for we stopped at the shoemaker's town to water the horses and tighten up the wheels. They seemed to be holding up passably – they made but faint groaning noises – and when I felt the hubs, I noted but moderate warmth.

“They should stay good until I get the buggy back to the house,” said Lukas, “and they can go over it properly there.”

“Will it take them long?” I asked.

“You cleaned up the worst of it,” he said. “I hope this isn't going to cause too much trouble.”

Our return was close to the time of lunch, and when we came, I was astonished to see the shop's people still present. I had the impression that they had left for the day, for some reason, even as Lukas began untying his horse.

“Where did you find him?” asked Georg.

“Drunk in some farmer's hay,” said Lukas. “He'd gotten a whole jug of accursed wine, and had drunk most of it by the time we found it.”

Georg looked at me, as did the others. I thought to ask a question to go with my impression.

“Did Hieronymus consume wine?” I asked.

“When he did not drink stronger things,” said Georg. “There was one especially bad type that he...”

Georg wrinkled up his nose, then doubled up with both hands on his stomach while making retching noises. He then straightened up with a look of intense misery upon his face, and picked up the jug. As he wobbled to the rear of the property, I thought to ask a question. Gelbhaar beat me to it.

“That is the wine he liked the most,” he said.

“Did it have a special name?” I asked.

“I'm not sure if it did or not,” said Gelbhaar. “He...”

“I know the name of that stuff,” spat Georg as he returned. “It was called Amontillado.”

“Th-that...” Lukas seemed tongue-tied at the mention of the wine in question.

“And that...” Georg squeaked, then said, “what gives with this sack?”

“The bound and bagged drunken driver,” I said. “I planned on putting him by the privy so his stink will be in good company while I do my work.”

Dragging the still-inert drunkard out to the juncture of hay and privy took two of us, and when we returned, I was astonished to find the metal pieces being brought in to set on old-looking barrels. I wondered for a moment as to why until Georg vanished.

“Now where did he go?” I asked.

“I think he went to get the buggy-pieces,” said Johannes. “This type of work is really difficult, and we seldom did it in the past.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Too close?”

“That especially,” said Johannes. “We did well to have one decent piece for three tries with the common ones, and with these, we...”

“They need the right tools,” I said, “as well as...”

“It is more than the right tools,” said Gelbhaar. “Hieronymus usually did those when he was here, and when he was doing them, he was worse than his usual.”

“Did he scrap much?” I asked.

“I'm not sure,” said Gelbhaar. “I doubt he did them particularly well.”

Georg returned with what looked like a pair of unusual-shaped 'beams' minutes later, and as the parts continued coming inside, he spoke of where they went.

“What are those for?” I asked, as I pointed at the 'beams'.

“This type needs special care,” said Georg, “as well as these spare axles. I ordered these years ago for the buggy trade.”

“Can I get help for these?” I asked.

“I suspect so, though you'll have to watch close,” said Georg. “Most of the parts need two people putting them on the axles.”

“That was the important part,” I said, as I began looking at what was coming in.

While the others ate, I looked over the parts and was astonished, first at their lack of wear, and then their workmanship. Only when I began stripping the pieces down to their individual components did I notice areas where I could 'improve' them.

“Is it normal for these brass pieces to be like this?” I asked, as I showed the 'washers' from one side.

“Those look decent,” said Georg. “I've seen them much worse.”

“They seem slightly worn, though,” I said. “Did any of you see the metal that supposedly came with it?”

Georg pointed to an area under where I normally worked, and I knelt down to look at what had came.

There were several decent-sized brass sheets, a bundle of iron rods, some modest lengths of bar, and a small sack. Opening the sack showed its contents to be well-made fifteen-line rivets.

“They didn't know about the rivet-swages we have, did they?” I asked.

“Why, were some rivets supplied?” asked Georg.

I brought him the sack, and when he reached in and looked at one, he began muttering. He then looked at the supplies, and said, “I think they suspected there would be more wear than those parts have.”

“What do I do with what I don't use?” I asked.

“You might make some spare parts and package them up,” said Georg. “Now come to think of it, I suspect I know one thing, or rather two, that you'll need to make with that stuff.”

“Wrenches?” I asked.

“Those especially,” said Georg. “I know you need to make two for Anna, and she must of told someone, as I've had two more orders for buggy wrenches.”

“F-full polish?” I asked.

“I need to look at the orders,” said Georg. “I know one of them asked for 'graying'.”

Graying?” I asked.

“What you usually do with wrenches and tools,” said Georg. “Talk has it they're less inclined toward rust that way.”

“And that is important for wrenches, especially buggy-wrenches,” said Johannes. “Most get those things full-polish because they come that way.”

“You mean those making them won't sell them otherwise?” I squeaked.

“I suspect that is the usual,” said Georg. “I know you don't do that as a rule, and I've heard of some fourth kingdom shops doing things like you do for tools.”

“I'm still trying to find out about this one surface treatment,” I said, “but those books are so weird I...”

“I know,” said Georg. “Anna came over while you were gone and showed me one of them. Hieronymus had ones like them, save older.”

Over the course of an hour, I looked over the various parts carefully. In the process, I filed many of them to remove burrs and various surface crudities, and thereby learned their true natures. While none of the parts were 'butter' – most were about the hardness of full-polish wrenches – none of them were especially hard, either. More, I began to see subtle areas of possible improvement, and I made notes as I went.

“Perhaps I can make bronze bushings for those, once I ream them out and harden them properly,” I thought. “It's worth a try.”

With each such notation, however, I became steadily more aware of just how much work lay ahead of me, between heat-treatment, adjustment, 'cleanup', and replacement of wear-prone parts, and as I finished with the parts for one side, I knew there was a good deal of work present. I then looked up, and saw I was alone in the shop.

“They all vanished,” I thought, as I made for my stool. My back had a definite 'crick' in it from bending over.

By 'evening', however, I had made surprising progress, and as I packed the parts from the right side of the first buggy that needed to 'cook' in the furnace overnight, I recalled the 'drunkard'; I had completely forgotten about him. I went out into the rear of the yard, and found him – and the bag he had been in – gone.

“Now where did he go?” I thought. “Did someone...”

I was interrupted by a thunderous explosion, followed by another, and seconds later, a faint and fading scream. I ran back towards the front of the shop, and from there, out into the street, where I saw a sizable billow of blue-gray smoke coming from the north. I began walking rapidly towards home.

“I doubt I'll be able to question him now,” I thought, as I passed the houses leading to where I lived while still in my apron. “How did he get loose, though? He was tied good and then bagged.”

I was again surprised to find no one in front of the house, and when I tapped on the door, I was met by Sarah.

“What happened?” I asked.

“There was a black-dressed witch,” she said, “and he was driving off with a buggy. I think he had stolen it from someone in town.”

“And?” I asked.

“I was about to get a musket when Hans brought out that fowling piece, and gave him both barrels,” said Sarah. “That witch drove off, and I think they are going after him.” Sarah then looked at what I was wearing, and wrinkled her face.

“I heard the explosions and came straight from the shop,” I said.

“I would bathe first,” said Anna's voice from the left. “The two of you can stay here while we go after that witch Hans shot.”

I looked at Sarah in 'horror', then shrugged my shoulders as I started to try to get out of my apron. I did not wish to bring it or its filth into the house, even as I wondered yet more about what had happened.

Once divested of my apron – I laid it on the railing, such that it hung onto the stoop – I went for clean clothing upstairs, then bathed. I hurried to a modest degree, and when I came out, I was surprised to find Hans and Anna already returned. I wondered if they had been 'ridden'.

“That wretch did not get far,” said Hans. He was speaking to Sarah, who was busily sewing amid mounds of cloth.

“How far did he go?” I asked.

“He might have gone half a mile,” said Hans. “He was laying sideways in the front of that buggy, and he had all of these boxes and things in the back.”

“And a bagged person he was going to sacrifice,” said Anna. “I think he must have poisoned that man, as...”

“No!” I squeaked. “That wretch got drunk on Amontillado, and caused trouble, and did it because he wanted to!”

“That is good, then,” said Hans, “as he is still in that bag. I wanted to ask you about him, so I left him tied up.” Hans paused, then said, “and the person who tied him up knew his knots, as he is tied good.”

Hans then did a double-take, and looked first at me, then Anna. His facial expression changed drastically.

“Now what is it he did to cause trouble?” asked Hans.

“He was to deliver the buggy parts,” I said, “and he was told to wait...”

“I heard about that,” said Anna. “Sarah spoke of it. Now what else did he do contrary to his orders?”

“He went looking in three Public Houses, because he thought me a w-witch l-like Hieronymus,” I gasped, “and he somehow got a whole jug of that accursed wine and s-some b-bad food, and got pickled last night at a farmer's house, and this morning he got drunk again...”

“That is strange that a witch should bag him like that, then,” said Hans, “as that man sounds like a witch for his behavior, at the least.”

“Lukas tied him up, and I helped bag him, and I was going to question him at the shop this evening,” I said.

“He is still handy,” said Hans, “so we can take him there, and you can get your answers.”

I then 'hitched', and asked, “how did you get the buggy down off of those barrels?”

“That was easy,” said Hans. “I got two of the coopers to help me once I'd done the stuff that needed doing. They asked me about the wrenches I was using, though.”

“Uh, the one I went over?” I asked.

“And the other one is worse than it was,” said Hans. “I think you might make more than two of those good ones.”

“I didn't have time to measure the bolts,” I squeaked. “I had to...”

“Those are not hard to get to,” said Hans. “There are two sizes, a large and a small.”

As Hans and I went down to the shop in the buggy, I had my apron in my hand. The sack to the rear squirmed and made faint moaning sounds, and those sounds seemed to 'back' my mood. It was rapidly becoming obvious that the 'loose' quality-control common to most buggies almost demanded sloppy-fitting wrenches, and sloppy wrenches and soft nuts made for rapid wear on both tools and fasteners.

“Now how will you question that wretch?” asked Hans.

“Partially remove him from the bag,” I said, “then set him on a stool near the forge while I work. He should get some ideas quickly.”

“Yes, and what kind of ideas?” asked Hans.

The question utterly unnerved me, even as we came to a stop in the shop's yard and I saw the glow of the student's lantern next to the reddish glow of the forge I had been using. It was still ready.

“Uh, those forges are hot,” I muttered, “and the sight of glowing metal...” I could almost hear the sizzle of burning flesh and the screaming that followed it as my voice faded, and I thought back to the mentioning of third degree sessions during the lectures.

Mere bluff was more than enough for me, and I wanted to spew just the same. I shuddered visibly, even as Hans got down and went to the rear of the buggy. I followed him seconds later.

Untying the mouth of the bag showed the man's head, and I was surprised greatly to see a rag tied over his mouth. Hans made to untie the rag, even as I fetched a stool, and I was astonished to hear a scream as I came near.

“Now why are you screaming?” yelled Hans. “That witch was going to sacrifice you, and now he is dead.”

“Perhaps he overheard what I said about forges,” I said quietly. I then set down the stool about four feet from the forge, then indicated the man needed to be moved such that he sat upon it.

Once sitting on the stool, I began bringing some pattern-welded blanks to welding heat. The gouting sparks and intense heat seemed to make the man wilt before my eyes, and he moaned.

“Yes?” I asked. “Where did you get that evil-smelling wine, and why did you cause trouble?”

“I-I d-don't know,” he moaned. “I stopped at this one Public House on the way out of town...”

“Which Public House?” I asked. “I know of several.”

“It was on Huislaan,” he said.

“There are none of those places on that street,” said Hans. “Now did you go to Kokenstraat, to that bad one there?”

“N-no,” he muttered. “It was on the corner of Mangenwaag and Huislaan, and I wanted to find out about the roads. I wasn't able to find out much.”

“That store where you got the metal?” I asked. “Where is it?”

“Near this one bad Public House,” he said. “I didn't know about that place before she spoke of it, and I was afraid then.”

“Afraid?” I asked.

“That the parts would...” He then saw the 'axles'. “How did they get here?”

“He had to go chase after those things with Lukas,” said Hans. “Did you watch that buggy close?”

“How could I, when there was but one person?” he said. “I could not ask her to stay outside.”

“And after getting the supplies..?” I asked. “You didn't load them, did you?”

“One of the people at that shop did,” he said. “That whole area smelled bad, for some reason, and I was glad to leave it. I then went until I came to that Public House on Huislaan, and no one there would speak to me.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Is it necessary to spend time and money eating and drinking in such places before you can learn anything?”

“That is not so,” said Hans. “If you are in a hurry, and the place is not full...”

And if you are well-known,” I muttered. “He'd never been in that place before, he looked especially out-of-place, and when he started asking questions right away, they 'froze him out'.” I paused, then said, “proper 'etiquette', especially if you are a stranger, is to do as the 'regulars' do and go slow regarding questions until the people inside have had a chance to look at you for a while.”

Hans looked at me in shock, and shook his head before saying, “I think you are right.”

“You then traveled down Huislaan to the crow's foot, then down the road heading west,” I said. “Oh, once you went past Houtlaan, you were on unfamiliar territory, correct?”

He nodded yes.

“There are faster ways to travel from the house proper to here,” I said. “Did you know about them?”

“N-no,” he said, “and I was spoken to about my route. I followed those instructions close, which meant traveling that way.” He paused, then said, “what other way is there?”

“The way I usually go when I need to go to the house proper,” said Hans. “That is good for near an hour's less time for each way.”

“So then you travel as fast as you can, with no stopping,” I said, “and the wheels start to make noise...”

“They did that from the beginning,” he said. “There wasn't time to pull them before starting, and that was presuming I could find decent tallow. All of what I found smelled bad.”

“Most tallow does,” said Hans. “Now were you looking for the stuff that smelled the least, or what?”

“I didn't hardly have time to do that, between getting the written orders and being grabbed by those Generals and people like them,” he said. “They told me about where I was to go, what I was to do, and how to speak to instrument-makers, and how those people were.”

“You have seen one of them now,” said Hans. “Is he like how you were told?”

The man looked around, then asked, “where is this person, and where is his shop, and..?”

“What were you told?” I asked. “Were you given a description?”

He nodded, then said, “I'm not sure if what I was told was right.”

“Yes, and what did they say?” asked Hans. “Did they name him a miser, or a black-dressed witch?”

“I am not sure,” said the man. “I was told to find this person. He would be dressed in...”

“Dressed in what?” I asked gently. “Dressed in 'special' clothing, or dressed fit for work?”

The terror of the man was now such that I marveled, and I said, “well-hidden dark-brown or black clothing, a large, dark, and stinky house, a separate shop done similarly, a really arrogant manner...”

The man fainted with such abruptness that only my catching him on the shoulder kept him from falling onto the ground, and I picked him up and moved him and the stool further from the warmth of the forge. I then asked him to wake up.

He did so with a faint shriek, and murmured, “I remember better now, and they were speaking as you said.”

They?” I asked. “Those that told you as to what to do?” I paused, then said, “including 'commanding' you to not merely give them your orders for copying, but also 'commanding' you to take the wine they proffered you as a token of 'goodwill'?”

The man nearly went into a convulsion, and as he thrashed against his bonds, I said, “cease.” He fainted with such abruptness that I suspected he'd been 'cursed' in some fashion.

“Now that is bad,” said Hans.

“Especially as those black-dressed people at the house are behind what happened,” I muttered. “The 'usual' people were busy, so they fetched someone who normally deals with used privy rags and had him transport the stuff from the house.”

“Now what does he do with those rags?” asked Hans, as I began to remove him from the bag.

“Uh, I think he collects them up and, uh... Hans, this fellow is uh, 'a few bricks short of a load', and those wretches in General's Row took advantage of him that way.”

“Now what does what he did have to do with bricks?” asked Hans.

“He had more trouble in school than most,” I said. “He worked hard, and what was taught didn't seem to stick hardly at all.”

“That is common,” said Hans.

“Uh, no,” I said. “Not like this. Most of the people you're thinking of weren't trying very hard.” I paused, then said, “he was trying his best – his genuine best – and had trouble not being laughed out of the classroom. He had trouble that way from birth, in fact.”

“Did he get a brass cone?” asked Hans. I was now working on the string used to tie him up.

“I'm not sure if he did or not,” I said. “What is a brass cone?”

“Those were said to be for those too stupid to learn,” said Hans. “I thought what I had been told was rubbish until I saw one of those things in a second-hand store years ago.”

Hans then helped me with the knots, and as he untied them, I thought to carefully search the man for hidden fetishes. Upon looking in his shirt, I was astonished to find a strange gray casting on a dirty piece of string, and when I had it in my hands, I was stunned.

“Th-that's one of those accursed c-coins,” I spluttered, as I held it in my hand. I then saw its lack of red flaming. It but faintly glowed about its edges, so much so that I wondered if it were indeed glowing.

“N-no, no hiding,” I gasped.

The coin did not change, save faintly in some hard-to-discern fashion, and when I stood and went to the doorway, I seemed to sense its true – and well-hidden – capacity. I tossed while speaking of it going to hell.

The coin bounced, hit the road, and then began faintly smoldering. I went out after it, and as I watched, I saw it begin to corrode before my eyes.

“What..?” I asked.

“A recently-made gray-metal casting,” said the soft voice, as the thing began crumbling into whitish smoldering chunks. “It was copied closely from 'medals' like those you found on Hans.”

“It's capacity?” I asked. “Was it especially good at hiding?”

“It had little to hide,” said the soft voice, “as it wasn't particularly strong.”

“And that man?” I asked, as the fetish continued to crumble into whitish powder.

“Was substantially affected by it,” said the soft voice.

I returned to the shop, and upon entering, Hans looked at me, and said, “I think I know what happened to him.”

“Y-yes?” I asked. “He was especially vulnerable?”

“I think so,” said Hans. “Anna's journals speak of those like him, and the cause for being like that is usually a curse of some kind.”

“And his collecting privy rags for, uh, boiling and cleaning?” I asked.

“I think he might do that,” said Hans. “No one would want to do that kind of job, as it is stinky and dirty.”

“And paper?” I asked. “Does that come from rags?”

“It does, but I am not sure about those at the house proper,” said Hans. “I think they use so many of those things that it is cheaper to treat them like diapers than to just toss them like most do.”

“And do worn-out diapers make good paper?” I asked.

Hans thought for a moment, then his eyes opened wider before saying, “so that is why rag-merchants ask for those things like they do.”

“Do they pay for them?” I asked.

“They pay more for old diapers than for most other rags,” said Hans. “Anna would collect them if they were not so stinky.”

“They have space at the house,” I said evenly, “and enough volume to justify a permanent position. So, they save money on privy rags by reuse, they earn money on rag-sales, and... Oh, I have an idea. Do they make paper at the house proper?”

Hans eyes opened wide, and he slapped his knee, while our 'captive' awoke abruptly as Hans shouted.

“Quiet, please,” I asked, as Hans continued to shout. “You are scaring him.”

“I never saw that before,” said Hans.

“What was it you never saw?” said the man. “I seem to have gotten most of my smarts back.”

“Do you collect privy-rags at the house proper?” I asked.

“I normally do that,” he said, “then boil them with lye and clean water, dry them, remove the ones that are too poor to use again, and put the good ones back in the boxes for use. Someone else purchases the new rags, though I tell him how much we need and when we need them.”

“Do you know why you collect such rags?” I asked.

“It saves money,” he said. “That, and we part-make a certain part of our own paper that way. The fourth kingdom gives us good prices for our old privy-rags.”

“You don't make paper on-site?” I asked.

“That takes special equipment,” he said, “most of which...”

He then looked around, and looked straight at me.

“Are you him?” he asked.

Him?” I asked. “Who are you asking after?”

“I've never dealt with instrument-makers before,” he said, “and everyone, except for two or three people I saw, said they could only be spoken to directly. I was told to speak to no one else, in fact.”

“Who said otherwise?” I asked.

“The person who gave me my written orders,” he said, “and also, this woman I gave a ride from the house proper. There might have been one other person, but everyone else said the same things.”

“Same things?” I asked. “Such as a large and fancy dwelling brimming with foul odors, a shop easily as large as that dwelling and much the same for appearance, a sizable barn with a well-hid team of mules, an arrogant manner...”

“That, and much else,” he said. “I wondered if I was hearing straight, as the description I was given sounded like that of a miser.”

“Were you given a description of who to look for beyond what you just spoke of?” I asked.

The blank look on the man's face was such that I marveled, and only when Hans spoke directly to him did he speak again.

“I think you had best ask people who will not lie to you,” said Hans. “Now did those Generals tell you that rubbish?”

To my surprise, he nodded.

“And that bad wine, did they give it to you?” asked Hans.

He nodded again.

“And when you could not find him here” – here, Hans indicated me – “they said he would be in a drink-house somewhere close by. Is that true?”

“Y-yes, and I was to not waste a moment until I found him,” said the man. “They gave me numbers of special things for him...”

“Which that witch knew about,” I muttered, “and when he found that stuff, he knew you were nearby, and he 'took' you along with the witch-supplies. He would have killed you when he felt inclined, and used the supplies...”

I paused for an instant, then said, “what was all of that stuff in that buggy?”

“We brought it back to the house,” said Hans, “along with the buggy and that dead witch. I think you might douse that forge there, and come home so as to look at that stuff.”

The blanks had cooled enough that I thought to merely bury them in the coals, and once I had done so, I left them to 'cook', much as I had done prior to the furnace's presence. The trip home needed but minutes, and once indoors, I thought to ask about the 'supplies'. Somehow, I had missed them while the buggy was being unloaded.

“First, that man,” I thought, “and then, getting the parts they brought in arranged, and somehow Lukas left with the buggy and his horse...”

My thinking was interrupted by Hans, who gave the man a mug of beer as he sat on a stool in the parlor. I wondered now about the witch as well as what he had, and when Hans fetched his musket, I went outside with him.

The witch's buggy and horses were parked on the other side of the buggy-way, and when I saw the dead witch lying in a pool of blood on the floor of the buggy's seat, I gasped, then asked, “where did you hit him?”

“I think I got him good,” said Hans, “as his clothing is solid blood on that side from the waist up.”

“Uh, his disposal?” I asked.

“That will need a hole dug,” said Hans. “I can get some people while you look at those things, and I will ask who in town has had their buggy stolen.”

Hans left but a moment later, and when I touched the first basket of the three wicker containers, I gasped at its weight. I then opened it carefully to find it filled with metal pieces. I removed one, and squeaked.

“They didn't unload these,” I spluttered, as I turned the bracket over in my hand. “Is there a fetish in here?”

The second basket – it was larger than the first – had the buggy's springs, and when I felt them, I noted faint tracings of rust over their rough-feeling surfaces. Careful examination showed it to be 'surface' rust, which meant easy cleaning.

“I hope I can just rework these,” I thought. “I don't fancy redoing them completely, not in a few days.”

The last basket, however, was yet more astonishing, for it was filled with a multitude of leather pouches. I was examining one of them when I heard steps to my left and rear, and I turned to see Hans returning with a neighbor I had not recently seen.

“Uh, a hole?” I asked. I then saw the jug on the edge of the stoop.

“They should be bringing some firewood soon,” said the man, “as Hans went to two more after me, and each of them should do the same as he did.” He paused, then said, “and that buggy isn't one I've seen around here.”

“They didn't get all of the parts,” I spluttered. “These are...”

Hans came to where I was, and opened the top of the basket with the brackets. He removed one, then put it back, and went to the one with the springs. After looking in there, he began looking in the third one, and not three seconds later, he removed a sizable leather pouch and a folded piece of paper. This last, to my astonishment, had an obvious 'seal', and Hans handed it to me.

“W-witch-paper?” I asked, as I carefully undid the reddish wax. It reminded me of hot-melt glue, for some reason, and when the seal 'broke', I was astonished. I then attempted to read.

My attempt did not go far, for the wording and concepts seemed to have been lifted from the worst portion of the handbook for instrument-making's second volume, and as a headache began blooming between my eyes, I heard Hans speaking.

“The hole goes over there,” he said, as I heard clumping boots and clattering spades, “and then it needs digging good and deep.”

I tried reading the thing again. While it did not mention 'rotten cabbage' and 'tall mountains', the impenetrable language made for a worse-yet level of confusion. I was trying to locate words that spoke of specifications, and having no luck whatsoever.

“At least Pieter's document spoke of what he wanted,” I mumbled. “This thing might be a paean to Brimstone for all I can tell.”

The sudden reddish glow that the paper acquired was enough to make me toss it to the side, and as the paper fluttered to the ground, I quietly murmured, “go to hell.”

The paper erupted in flames, and the yells that resulted were enough to make me cringe and then duck; when I straightened up, I saw not merely the black crisped ash of the paper, but a thick and malodorous black smoke cloud that swirled and billowed darkly. I coughed, choked, and gagged, and when Hans emerged from the cloud of smoke, followed by his 'helpers', I marveled at his visage.

His face, as well as most of his clothing, was blanketed with soot, and his half-dozen 'helpers' were equally begrimed.

“We had just gotten him in the hole when he caught fire,” said Hans, “and he went up like someone had filled him with light distillate.”

“Th-that paper,” I gasped. “It was a c-curse, and I told it to go where it belonged.”

“When did you do that?” asked Hans, as he began to wipe the grime off of his face.

“When it started glowing red,” I said. “It was impossible to understand, it was giving me a headache, and... Was that a contract of some kind?”

There was no answer, save the obvious three baskets and their weighty contents, and there were enough sooted-up people handy to put all three of them on the stoop. As I resumed examining the bags in the third basket, Anna came out with a folded sheet of paper.

“This just showed on the table,” she said. Seconds later, however, she asked a question for which I had no answer.

“Do those baskets have chemicals?”

I paused in my search, then asked, “uh, why?”

“Hans is covered with soot,” she said, “and that usually means he had trouble.”

Chemicals?” I asked, even as I recalled the behavior of cough medicine.

“That's the usual reason,” said Anna. “He's told me how that seems a lot less common when you're in the basement with him.”

Anna paused, then said, “you might want to bring those baskets inside.”

After doing so, I resumed looking in the third basket. The first three bags I checked seemed to be filled with various 'flavors' of square-headed screws and rough-looking washers, and upon checking them with a file and calipers, I noted a shallow surface layer of moderate hardness and substantial variance in dimensions. Below that paper-thin 'hard' layer, however, was 'butter'.

“I do not have time to redo all of these screws,” I thought. “The best I can do is clean them up, make them somewhat more even, cook them, and then heat-treat them.”

The fourth bag, however, contained several short metal 'ingots' of scabrous-looking grayish metal, and as I put aside the obvious gray-metal, I wondered as to the contents of the remaining pouches. I touched the fifth bag and heard a suspicious-sounding rattle.

“What was that?” asked Sarah.

“One of these bags, dear,” I said. “That one sounds like a tin filled with either shot or nails, and I'm not certain which of those it is.” I paused, then asked, “would a buggy use nails?”

“I have not seen them used,” said Sarah.

“Would horse-shoes use nails?” I asked.

“Most of them do,” said Sarah. “Bronzes don't.”

Yet as I asked, however, I had a very strange impression, and I reached carefully into the bag to find a square tin box with a hinged lid. I carefully opened the greasy-feeling box, and between wiping my hands on a rag and finding the contents of the box to be oval-headed rivets, I could not prevent myself from faintly gasping in shock as I removed three rivets.

“These...”

The rivets somehow seemed alive – I was now speechless in horror, and that from a source beyond the seeming liveliness of the rivets – and as I recalled the single instance where I had seen them used, I gasped again. I made more noise this time. Sarah stood and came closer, then took the box from me. She put the three rivets I had removed back inside the box.

“These are very hard to find, and expensive when they show,” she said.

“Do you know what they are used for?” I squeaked.

“I'm not sure as to their purpose,” said Sarah, “even if I have seen them used a few times. They are not ordinary rivets, and they charge accordingly for them in the fourth kingdom's market.”

“They had these in this old passageway under or near the king's house,” I spluttered, “and the only people to use it were witches.” I paused, then asked, “who buys them in that market?”

“Mostly instrument-makers,” said Sarah, “though I have seen misers purchase them also.”

“Wearing black, or the usual d-dark brown I have seen?” I asked.

“Wearing black in the fourth kingdom tends to draw mobs,” said Sarah, “and those times I spoke of misers, I recognized them by things other than their usual behavior and dress.”

“Odor?” I asked.

“Yes, though not as one might find them up here,” said Sarah. “These people hadn't bathed recently, and they tried to hide that smell with aquavit.”

“Distillate?” I asked. “M-mules?”

“Those also,” said Sarah.

“Why would instrument-makers buy these?” I mumbled, as I looked again in the bag. There were three more such boxes, and faintly I could hear the death-rattle of the rivets within each tin coffin.

“They seem to work well for locks,” said Sarah.

“Locks?” I asked. “What kind?”

“Haven't you done any locks?” asked Sarah.

As I shook my head no, I wondered why I was being asked about them. I had seen the lock on the church, and a number of 'built-in' door-locks at the house proper, and one particular lock briefly in the Swartsburg... And then, it dawned on me. Hans had spoken of locks without keys.

“Do these locks have buttons hidden on the back sides of the knobs?” I blurted.

An instance of silence, and Anna came in, even as I began removing the remaining bags from the basket.

“Did a customer bring one of those locks to the shop?” she asked.

“N-no,” I said. “Someone supplied these oval rivets, and...”

“I've asked about those since you spoke of them last year,” said Anna, “and I was right as to who uses them, at least partly.”

“Partly?” I asked.

“Not all instrument-makers use them,” said Anna. “Those that do tend to be...”

Anna looked at me in horror, then slowly settled to the floor to land with a thud, and I ceased looking in the basket.

As I hurried to where Anna lay, I noted that Sarah seemed not merely nonplussed about Anna's fainting, but also intrigued by the rivets and their tin, and only after checking Anna and turning her on her side did I think to ask why she hadn't 'panicked'. She was about to speak when Anna abruptly awoke with a face etched deeply with fear.

“Yes?” I asked, as she slowly came to a sitting position. “That man spoke of who likes to use oval rivets?”

Faintly I seemed to hear talk about 'best' grade rivets, and only seconds later did I realize Hans was asking our visitor questions about what I had found. Anna seemed about ready to resume her prior state of unconsciousness, and to my surprise, Sarah knelt by her with a mug. The rivet-tin had vanished.

“This is all I know to do about fainting like she did,” said Sarah, “and she's told me about how you seem to know what to do then.”

I waited a second while thinking, then said, “I take it those rivets are especially popular in the Swartsburg?”

“They are,” said Anna, “and no one I know up here uses them.”

“Did Hieronymus?” I asked.

“I do not know,” said Anna, between gulps from the mug.

“Do you know of anyone who does use them?” I asked.

Anna shook her head as she drained the mug, then as I helped her to her feet – she was very wobbly still – Sarah said, “most instrument-makers work in and around that market. Up here, there might be four of them within a day's travel.”

“Yes, if you use a medical buggy and put a lot of grain to the horses,” said Hans, as he came in to the parlor from the kitchen. “Those Generals put the extra stuff in there before he left, along with all of that money.”

“D-did you...”

“I gave it straight to Anna, and she put that stuff away,” said Hans in a chastened voice. “I know enough about that stuff that it is trouble for me.”

“And this extra work and all will be trouble for me,” I thought, as I went back to where the bags of the third basket lay.

Further sorting showed more screws, these being harder, more uniform as to dimensions, and a strange dark blue bordering on black color; numbers of bolt-and-nut pairs; oddly shaped metal 'placards' the size of my palm that made for wondering as to their use; and finally, another pouch of money. Anna disposed of the last, and as I returned the stuff to the basket, I recalled what had 'showed'.

“That piece of paper?” I asked softly.

“After dinner,” said Anna from somewhere to my rear. “Sarah went to fetch some more food from the Public House, as five is stretching what I had ready to cook.”

“That and she might find out who is missing a buggy,” said Hans, as he came to where I was finishing my 'packing'.

“How much of that stuff goes to those buggies?” he asked.

“I'm not precisely sure,” I said. “Do buggies use screws to hold their wood together?”

“Most of them do,” said Hans. “Medical buggies use fewer screws than the usual.”

“Are they this uneven?” I asked, as I withdrew one from a bag.

“I have never looked at those things much,” he said. “Why, are they bad?”

“If I'm going to make a wrench that fits tightly, they are,” I said. “The usual wrenches fit sloppily, don't they?”

“That is if the wrench has gone bad,” said Hans. “That one you worked on is decent for fit now.”

My mind was off of my food more than a little that evening as we ate in the parlor, and it continued to be on buggy parts until bedtime – where I fell, the paper forgotten, into dreamless sleep. I awoke at my usual time, and as I walked to the shop in the darkness with one of the baskets, I wondered just how much I could do that day.

“And I hope there's no more interference,” I thought.

Between starting the fires and ferrying the baskets to the shop, I raised a fair sweat in the predawn stillness, and as I began removing the cooked parts from their boxes, I wondered if I would need to hone the holes 'straight' and lap the pins. Trying the 'kingpin' in the holes made for shuddering, due to its looseness.

“Did this get worse by cooking?” I thought. “I don't recall it fitting this loosely.”

I had two buggy jobs going by the time the apprentices showed, and two more by the time Georg came. I wondered as to his curiosity when I began reaming the first perch. The left set of parts was already cooking in the furnace.

“Don't you do that before you cook parts?” he asked, as I carefully turned the reamer.

“Y-yes, but these warped while being cooked,” I said, “and now I have to true them up.”

“Good that you have the tools, then,” said Georg, who came closer yet. He then actually saw what I was doing, and the muttered oath was astonishing – as it seemed commingled of 'Thunderation' and two others.

“I'll need to check this carefully with a musket gage after,” I said. “I'm glad I have good reamers.”

“Th-that-that's...”

“Hieronymus never did this, did he?” I asked. The reamer had but a short distance further to go, and once it had passed through the holes, I would need to spot-face the leaves of the perch itself using an arbor and cutter. I'd need to make a pair of arbors, at the least.

“N-no,” said Georg's shaky voice. “How hard is that iron?”

“Fairly hard, actually,” I said. “If I heat-treat this piece, I'll need to draw it back to a full dark blue so it doesn't become brittle.” I paused, then said, “do buggies commonly use a lot of screws?”

“They do,” said Georg. “Why, was some screw-stock included?”

“Someone included a lot of badly-made screws,” I said, “and that's a good third of the work for these things, unless I miss my guess.”

“Where are they?” asked Georg.

“In one of those bags there,” I said, as I carefully guided the reamer through the last portion it needed to cut. I then dipped it in boiled distillate and set it aside on a clean rag. I turned to indicate which basket, and found Georg withdrawing the springs.

“Those can be...” I stammered.

“These can be wiped with a rag and distillate,” said Georg. “We can manage that.”

I 'shunted aside' the questionable pieces, and when I produced the screws, Georg whistled.

“That bad?” I asked.

“For you,” muttered Georg. “Those are as good as any I have seen, if I do not count yours.”

“What?” I squeaked. “Those things are s-sloppy!”

“You, and perhaps a handful of others might speak so of them,” said Georg, as he touched one of the screws with a file. “Only yours are harder.”

“I-instruments of B-Brimstone, and m-minted in hell?” I asked.

“That would be as good as any oath, were you speaking of the common for screws,” said Georg. “I'm glad the knowledge of your screws is in its infancy, as people would want them by the bagful otherwise, and I doubt I could charge sufficient money to make it worth the trouble.”

I checked the left side's pieces before leaving for home with the first 'perch' in my bag, along with a small sack of 'fire-cleaned' screws. I suspected 'roasting' would help with cleaning them up, and when I began running the lathe, I soon had an audience.

“What are those for?” asked Anna, as I turned a bushing.

“The front perch on one of those buggies,” I said. “I'll ream them all to the same size, then press them in.”

“I've never seen anything like that,” said Anna. “What will it do?”

“Hopefully give a long-lasting joint that works smoothly,” I said. “I'll need to post tomorrow at the third posting, and...”

I paused in mid-sentence, for the lathe's feed had come to the end of the cut. I disengaged the feed, moved the cutter's holder back to the left, dialed in another small increment, and reset the feed, all the while pedaling steadily.

“How will you put those in?” asked Anna.

“The inner ones will need plugs and drifts to set,” I said. “Otherwise, I'll use that small arbor press.”

By bedtime, I'd not merely 'rough-turned' over a dozen blanks, but also finish-turned enough bushings to insert a full set into the perch I had brought home, and had fitted a plug for pressing and an external lap for the pins. I was idly trying the last with fine-grit mingled with fourth kingdom grease on the pivot-pin.

“This metal is soft,” I spluttered, “and it needs full heat-treating.”

“As does all of that metal,” said the soft voice. “Draw it back a bit more than for knives, much as you thought to do, quench in water, then do so again.”

“Twice-temper?” I asked.

“The second time will relieve the residual stresses of heat-treating,” said the soft voice. “It won't crack or break then.”

I reamed-to-size the second set of perches at the shop before leaving for home, and once dressed in clean clothing, I wondered just how fast I would get to the house. Jaak soon gave me an answer, once we went east from the main road.

He was not inclined to waste time.

The same situation seemed to apply once I had reached the house proper. The whole place seemed uncommonly quiet, so much so that when I went into the refectory I seemed to sense something momentous had happened. I thought to ask a cook about the matter when I got a refill of cider.

“They found two of those Generals dead,” said a cook, “and that one man who was poisoned by them identified the two of 'em as telling him lies.”

“Poisoned?” I asked.

“Aye, with cursed wine,” he said. “That is bad enough, but to do that to him is worse yet.” He paused, then said, “did you have something to do with them turning up dead?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “I've had my hands well beyond full with buggy parts.”

The cook looked at me with narrowed eyes, then murmured, “so it is true, then.”

“What?” I asked. “They were delayed in getting there, I had to chase them down, then a witch tries to run off with the parts and that man...”

“Aye,” he said. “That was what I meant, that and needing to do in days what normally takes months.”

“I hope I can do a good-enough job in the time I have,” I said. “I've made decent progress, at least.”

“Now what would that be?” asked Sepp from behind me.

“Those buggy parts,” I said. “Do you know much about what happened?”

Sepp grinned, then said, “I do.”

“What is it you know?” asked the cook.

“First, I was able to find out some things that I didn't know,” said Sepp. “That one weapons-room has a big passage that gets a lot of traffic, and then a smaller one. I found out about the smaller one, and I tried it out.”

Sepp paused, then said, “and I found out about pistols and how it's good to be able to shoot more than once before loading them up again.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“The rats might not have started out in the towns yet,” said Sepp, “but they don't ever stop in the house proper. I shot the first one, and after that, I had to thump them to keep them off of me.”

“So now you know why he has one of those,” said the cook. “What did you do with this smaller passage?”

“Mostly thump rats, at least at first,” said Sepp. “After a time of doing that, though, I heard those Generals talking, and I moved closer. I got to the point where the place was lit up good with these bright lights that cannot make up their minds.”

“Cannot make up their minds?” I asked.

“They go really bright, then dim, then bright again,” said Sepp, “and they smell terrible.”

“Those would be those lanterns they like,” said the cook. “They aren't supposed to have them inside, as they're bad for fires.”

“Fires, he says,” I muttered. “I've nearly been blown up by those things more than once.”

Sepp seemed nonplussed by my remark, for he continued unabated.

“I then heard them talking clearer, and they were speaking of buying and selling, only it was strange to hear them talk about buggy parts that way.”

“How did they speak?” I asked.

“They were talking about them as if they were alive,” said Sepp. “I heard them speak of those parts having souls, and hunger, and fierceness, and some other things.”

“L-like that Teacher spoke of swords?” I asked, as I recalled those insane-sounding lectures.

“That and more,” said Sepp. “Then, they brought down their voices, and spoke of what they had done with him.”

“Him?” I asked. I wanted to ask more, but did not.

“The man who was sent,” said Sepp. He paused, sipped from a copper mug, then said, “they had something to do with the usual people being too busy, as they've had plenty of business for them.”

“What kind of business, as if I needed to ask?” asked the cook.

“Mostly work in and around the Swartsburg,” said Sepp. “They kept their voices down about that part, though I heard mentioning that name at the least.”

“Did they 'gift' that man?” I asked.

“Did you hear those people speaking?” asked Sepp in amazement.

“N-no,” I said, “but I had some suspicions about what had happened there.” I paused, then said, “a lot of 'added' parts, including some sizable amounts of money for me, and bad food, worse wine, and a cursed 'thing' for that man, so he'd listen to their spiel...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, then gasped, “that thing controlled him as if he were a brainless puppet! They didn't need to do much at all once they'd gotten it on him.”

“What is this?” asked the cook.

“This, uh, 'medal',” I said. “It was a recently-done copy of some I've seen that were a lot older and stronger.”

“Was he cursed?” asked the cook.

“He was,” said Sepp. “They were talking about him as if he were a sack of horse-grain, when they weren't calling him worse things yet.”

“And..?” I asked.

“I could do nothing about it where I was,” said Sepp, “so I got out of that place, and came back the way I came. I was dirty and stinky, and after I'd bathed, I wondered as to what I could do about those witches – at least, until I saw these three jugs in the kitchen here.”

“What was in these jugs?” I asked.

“I don't know,” said Sepp. “I think it was wine.”

“Uh, wine?” I asked. “Was this stuff really bad-smelling and nauseating?”

Sepp nodded, then said, “I heard about this strange root used for spicing turnips, and I thought...”

“So it was you who got into the Krokus,” said the cook.

“No, not just me,” said Sepp. “Karl helped me cut up three of those things, one per jug, and we took the three of them to one of those doors where they are.”

Sepp paused, then said, “and it wasn't ten minutes before all three of those jugs went inside of General's Row, and not a glass's run after that before they had a row going in the place. We found the two dead ones in the hall the next morning, and both of them smelled terrible.”

“They usually smell terrible,” said the cook. “Given what they eat, I'm not surprised much.”

“They smelled like that stuff we mixed up,” said Sepp. “Karl has some questions, and I hope you can answer them.”

I did not speak of questions then, for my stomach had found me, and only after a 'snack' – bread, a herring fillet, and a refill of cider in my water-bottle – did I think to ask. Sepp helped himself to a plate with three of the fish, and as we walked to the post, I had a question that could not wait.

“Have you had those before?” I asked.

“Once, and only once,” said Sepp. “I doubt Karl has had them.”

Karl proved ignorant of herring, and once he'd gotten a bite, there was no holding the two of them back for eating. I managed the last half-fillet once the two of them were done, and as Karl wiped his salt-crusted fingers with a small rag, he belched.

“Now I hope we can take some of those things on that trip,” he said, as he finished wiping his mouth.

“You may want to mention it, then,” I said. “I'm not certain as to traveling food beyond what I have heard, and I know those don't cause me trouble to eat them.”

“Good,” said Gijs. “I wrote about herring for food.”

“What else?” I asked.

Gijs passed me his ledger, and as I read, I was astonished. He'd included everything I commonly ate and a great deal more. I passed it back, then asked, “Rolf?”

“He needed to get another writing dowel,” said Gijs. “I did some figuring, and that size of pot mentioned is a bit large for a group of that size.”

“A f-foot across and the same deep?” I asked.

“As near as I can figure it,” said Gijs, “it is near on five gallons. I doubt any of that party would be so inclined to gluttony as to need it.”

“For cooking, no,” I said. “I've been so busy that I had not time to figure its size.”

“That is why I spoke of it,” said Sepp. “Pots like that are common enough that you could just borrow one.”

I was about to mention the ideas of 'weight' and 'bulk' when Rolf arrived muttering about something. It took several seconds to learn the subject of his discomfiture, and when he blurted out something about knives, I wondered more.

“The common size of knife is not what you want for writing dowels,” said Gijs. “If you could get one, I would use an instrument-maker's knife, as those work well for pens also.”

“Like this?” I asked, as I removed my tool-roll. “I've heard these are similar.”

When I handed Rolf one of the knives, I noted Karl looking at the other, and when I handed it to him, he began mumbling. He ceased speech abruptly when he tried it on one of his wood-pieces, and as he carved off delicate-looking shavings, he resumed his mumbling over the course of seconds.

“Those are fairly common at the shop,” I said, as Rolf handed me back the one I'd loaned him. “There are some I use for wood-carving specially, but I'm still working those out.”

“If they are half as good as this one,” said Karl, as he handed my other knife back, “I'd like to get some.”

“Perhaps some pattern-carving, then,” I said. “I still need a fair number of wooden pieces for knife-patterns – those, and tableware.”

“Spoons might be wise, then,” said Gijs.

“Those and forks,” I said. “I have patterns for tinned brass spoons and forks, and patterns for cast silver-bronze spoons.”

“If they are cast, then we can do those here,” said Rolf.

“The time,” said Gijs. “It would take a week or more easily to have them cast, then another few days to be ready to use.”

“And we might have a week,” I murmured. “The mess-kit has four of each, so I need but make a few more.”

Once home, I closeted myself at the workbench, and only moved from it to do those things I needed to do otherwise prior to bedtime – and in the chill predawn, I left again with more buggy parts, as well as a crude list of things I needed.

As I lit the fires, I sensed I had but five days, perhaps six, before we would actually go, and when I unpacked the cooked parts of the first buggy's left front, I recalled how they would likely warp after cooking. Checking, however, showed but minimal change, and as I began packing up the next set of pieces – the left set of the second buggy – I wondered how I would convey the finished articles to the house proper. More importantly, I wondered as to when I could do so.

“That stuff will not fit in the buggy at home,” I thought...

“They'll be ready by early in the week,” said the soft voice. “The current 'date' is in a week's time, due to those delays.”

The morning went by in a seeming blur. When I was not actually 'working', I was inspecting, and I needed to be especially careful of even the simplest activities on the part of the others. Cleaning was done in a manner that looked 'passable' at first glance, but upon closer inspection the parts in question needed near-complete redoing. As I worked, I noted subtle details regarding the forges, use of tools, and other related matters, and when I sat down after heat-treating the springs for the first buggy, I wondered as to what was happening.

“It almost seems as if someone is trying to cause trouble,” I thought. “If they ignore something, I have to do all of the work on it, and if they work on it, I have to do not merely my share of the work, but sometimes undo what they do as well.” A brief pause, then “perhaps I need to work over the weekend.”

Coming home was something of a surprise, even though I staggered through the parlor directly to the bathroom to there bathe. When I came out, I was yet more surprised to see Sarah 'finishing' what looked like an unusual-looking long-sleeved shirt.

“Uh, what's that?” I asked, as I picked up what resembled a satiny bedsheet.

“A cloak of unwaxed cloth,” said Sarah. “I should finish it tonight.”

I looked closer at her bag, then asked, “do you have scissors?”

“I do,” she said, “but they are not very good.”

“May I see them?” I asked.

Sarah reached into her satchel and drew out a metallic amalgam of hideous crudity and blasphemous finish. I touched the scissors with cringing fingers, and shuddered involuntarily.

“Uh, where did you get these?” I asked.

“A second-hand shop in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “They were the best I could find then, and I've continued looking since.”

“Uh, you have found none better?” I asked.

“Those from the fifth kingdom look somewhat better,” said Sarah, “but if one works much with cloth, one wishes scissors that cut cloth without cutting ones' hands.”

Sarah paused, then said, “and sometimes, I wonder if that isn't a price that I want to pay, as these things are dull enough to drive me to tears.”

“May I sharpen them?” I asked.

Sarah handed them to me. When I sat down at the workbench, I thought to reach for a stone. The sense of 'wrong' was sufficiently strong that I dropped the idea instantly, and instead, picked up a fine file. I touched the edge, and nearly dropped my file at the mingled brittleness of slag and the dead-soft 'butter' of wrought iron. I gritted my teeth, and began filing.

Within moments, I had cleaned up the worst of the dullness, and handed back the scissors to Sarah. She looked at them, then brought out a scrap of dark green cloth, which she cut. The grating noise had me reaching open-mouthed for my teeth.

“What did you do to these?” she asked.

“They're really soft,” I said. “I wasn't able to sharpen them much.”

“They're sharper than any scissors of this type I've ever used,” said Sarah. “Those fifth kingdom scissors might be better...”

“Those are about the only things that the fifth kingdom does better that way,” muttered Anna crossly, as she came into the parlor. “Everywhere else, even the fourth kingdom, does worse, and usually a great deal worse.”

“Do those fifth kingdom scissors cut their users?” I asked.

“They do,” said Anna. “I've heard the usual is to wear leather gloves while using them.”

“One cannot cut close that way,” said Sarah.

I wondered for a moment if I would have time to make scissors, then began working at the bench. As I worked, however, I suspected that I not merely needed to make scissors, but also an abbreviated mess-kit of sorts, and...

“Oh!” I thought. “She has a bow. Now where is that thing hid?”

When I took a break from the bushings, I thought to speak of the matter, and between instances of trying articles of clothing, I bided my time. Only when the clothing was actually done did I think to ask.

“Do you have any sample, uh, arrows?”

“I have but two left,” she said. “I've been looking for arrowheads for years.”

“If I did those, could you do the rest?” I asked.

As if to answer me, Sarah dug deeply in her bag, and produced an arrow of such horrible crudity I nearly shrieked. I gingerly picked the thing up, then asked, “where did you get this?”

“I found that one some months ago in the forest,” she said, “and while Norden-arrows tend to be poorly made, they are better than most arrows made in this area.”

“What?” I shrieked. “They have decent ones in the kingdom house.”

“Those are made in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “Where did you see them?”

“In one of the, uh, rooms where they have weapons,” I said.

“Those are not the common for fourth kingdom arrows,” said Sarah.

“The common ones are better?” I asked.

“That might be the case in the kingdoms to the south,” said Sarah. “Up here, they are likely to be the best that can be had, especially if they are war-arrows.”

“Tinned thugs?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Sarah. “Those people might ignore musket balls much of the time, but they do not ignore those arrows.”

“Does what they wear stop bullets?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” said Sarah. “If you are going to stop them with musketry, you need to get close enough that they wear the soot of your gun.”

I wondered at the need for 'powder-burn' range, at least until Anna came again into the parlor. She noted the arrow, then what Sarah was doing, then thought to ask me a question.

“Do those northern people ignore being shot?” I asked.

“They seem to,” said Anna. “I've seen them shot more than once, and only shooting them in the head drops them quickly.”

“Have you ever shot at their tin?” I asked.

“I never got close enough to try shooting at them,” said Anna.

“Has Hans?” I asked.

“What is this?” asked Hans from the basement.

“Do you know of anyone who has shot at those northern people much?” asked Anna.

Hans came up the stairs quickly, and once he saw what I was working on – more bushings – he answered Anna.

“That stuff they wear stops balls unless you have a good musket and you are close,” said Hans, “and then, even if you hit them solid, they ignore it long enough to come after you.”

“Better plate than the usual?” I asked.

“I think that is why everyone says to shoot them in the face,” said Hans. “They do not have plate there.”

“Powder-burn range?” I asked, as I brought the lathe to a stop and reset the cutter. “Close enough to smoke up their faces?”

“I have heard of people doing that,” said Hans, “though most speak of five to seven paces.”

“Is that why that instructor spoke of getting close enough to see their eyes clearly, and then closer still?” I asked.

“A lot of people are bad shots,” said Hans.

“Uh, miss something head-sized at fifty feet?” I asked. “Like the students did?” A brief pause, then “shot if you're especially bad?”

“They ignore shot, or so I've heard,” said Hans. “Now what gives with those copper things there?”

“These are bushings for perches,” I said, “and I'll need to make both a special cutter and a pair of arbors – at least, I think I'll need to do so.” A brief pause, then “at least I should manage the screws easier.”

'Easier' proved an understatement: a single pass along the shank cleared up the worst portions there, a few passes with an oddly-shaped file dealt with the 'screw' portion, and 'squaring' the head took but a minute. I soon was piling up screws at an alarming rate, and by bedtime, I'd done over thirty of them. Hans came along, picked up one of the finished ones, then whistled such that I nearly fell on the floor.

“I thought these were good before you did them, but now they are better,” he said. “Why did you do them like this?”

“So the wrenches will fit them properly,” I said. “The diameters varied about half a line, they seemed rough in places, and the heads varied more than the shanks.”

“Yes, and how much is that?”

“So far, I've seen at least a line's difference,” I said. “Trimming them...”

Hans was checking one of the screws with a small scale, and as he did, he whistled again.

“These things are the exact same for both ways,” he said.

“Uh, are they supposed to be otherwise?” I squeaked, as I oiled the lathe's bearings.

“I am not sure if they are supposed to be that way or not,” said Hans, “but I have measured some of those things you have in your pile there, and I have yet to find one this close.”

I resumed 'screw-work' in the morning, and by the time I had finished another similar-sized batch, it was time for breakfast. I ate hurriedly, then left for work with a full 'bag of tricks'. I started the screws in a spare forge once I'd gotten two of them lit, and the fourth set of parts went in the furnace.