The road more traveled.


I packed away the fryers and 'dutch oven' in my bag of tricks, and went home without my apron. I was more than a little surprised to find the buggy horses gone, and when I rode southbound, I was surprised to see the shop still 'busy'. I could hear the drop-hammer banging steadily, as well as the whir of the buffing wheel, and I thought for a moment as to just 'what' the others could do without my being there.

“Is it true that they cannot do much without me?” I asked myself, “or is that merely the seeming?”

It seemed slightly odd to ask such a question, even if the 'evidence' I had heard and seen implied they could do but little otherwise, and as I went out of town, I wondered more about the morrow – and more, about the absence of Hans, Anna, and Sarah.

I could hear a buggy coming up the road at a steady pace, and as I went past the smelly clearing – it was beginning to lose its odor, finally – I saw the buggy itself. Its driver seemed to be an 'apprentice' of some kind, and the faint groaning noises spoke of dry wheels slowly wearing themselves into sawdust and kindling.

“And I hope those buggies have worked out,” I thought. “Will they be packing them today, or does that happen tomorrow?”

There was no answer to my question, beyond my vague guesses, and I could not come to a decision as to which I could believe. It seemed likely that some packing was occurring, though where and how much was a mystery.

I took the usual turnoff about a mile past the town where the shoe-maker had his shop, and as I rode south and slightly east through the fields, I kept my eyes open for potential trouble. I would need to spend tonight working on pistols, for I wanted a spare for myself in addition to one each for Karl and Sepp. I mentally added items to my list of things I needed to pack until I was jarred out of my thinking by the sound of a buggy some distance to my right and ahead.

I listened carefully, then looked at the position of the sun. It was a bit after midmorning, and as I continued to listen to the buggy, I realized I was drawing closer to where it was.

“If that is Hans driving,” I thought, “he'll come within a hundred yards of where I usually go.”

But minutes later, the buggy hove into view as it came out of a woodlot. I recognized not merely the road, but also the team, and Jaak began drawing closer as if he'd read my mind.

“Where did you come from?” asked Anna as I drew alongside.

“I was headed to the house so as to go over the written, uh, stuff,” I said. “I'll need to head home as soon as I can after doing so, as I've still got work to do at the shop.”

“Those fryers?” asked Anna.

“I finished those and that other thing,” I said. “Now why are you heading out this way?”

“Sarah and I need to buy some things in town,” said Anna, “and I think Hans has business at the house.”

“Packing?” I asked.

“They might want you watching them so they stay out of trouble,” said Hans. “With us, it takes all of one day, and part of a next, and then we are tired, so we go out on the third day.”

Anna elbowed Hans, then said, “we'll need to bring the stuff tomorrow morning.”

“Stuff?” I asked.

“What you'll need for the trip,” said Anna. “I hope to fetch the rest of it today in town.”

“Shot?” I asked.

“I found another two pounds of decent shot,” said Hans, “and I parted it in two for you.”

“In two?” I asked.

“In case the rats start,” said Anna. “I'm glad for this pistol just the same.”

“So I need to find more shot,” I thought, as I continued east along the road next to the buggy. “Perhaps the others...”

The road turned south, then headed into one of the handful of small towns in the area. Hans stopped to water the horses and add lubricant to the buggy, and I looked over Jaak's hooves. As I finished, I said, “oh, and a grain-plate.”

“You might make one, unless you do not have time,” said Hans, as he resumed his seat.

I mentally added 'one grain plate' to the list of things I needed as we went out of town.

I soon found the road-bound pace of the buggy restive, and I began looking to my right and left. The roads we were on, save for a very few, did not travel in a straight line for any real distance, and in following them, I suspected they added at least three miles to the trip. I wondered for a moment how Hans could speak of saving an hour each way by taking 'the back way', until the thought occurred to me that 'the approved route' might be further than I thought.

“How far is the usual way to the king's house?” I asked.

“It's a good hour's more than this way, as a rule,” said Hans. “Why, don't you know?”

“I thought I knew its distance,” I said, “and I wondered how you could speak of this way being an hour less.”

“How is that?” asked Hans.

“These roads,” I said. “It isn't a straight line to the house, and...”

“So that's why you go like you do,” said Anna. “You don't stay on the roads, do you?”

I was about to reply when Sarah said, “I don't either, unless I have a ride.”

“Why?” asked Anna.

“Gunfire?” I asked.

“I stay well clear of Waldhuis,” said Sarah.

“Have you been shot at elsewhere?” I asked.

“Very much so,” said Sarah. “It's been much less recently in this area.”

“And elsewhere?” I asked.

“I need to be careful,” said Sarah, “and that is on top of the added distance one gets by staying on the roads.”

“About three miles more for this trip,” I murmured.

“I'm not sure if it's that much,” said Sarah, “even if I know it makes a difference to travel that way if you can.”

“Buggies becoming, uh, mired?” I asked.

“That first time of traipsing away from the school was awful that way,” said Sarah. “We had to walk ahead carefully when we went off of the road, and most mornings, we would need to unload the buggy entirely and push it back onto firm ground before we could leave.”

“How deep would it get?” I asked.

“A hand's breadth past the rim was the usual,” said Sarah, “though once it went halfway to the hubs. We spent half that day digging it out and then rolling it back to the road with kindling under its wheels.”

“Where did you learn that?” asked Anna.

“It was spoken of in the lectures on traveling,” said Sarah, “and then, I found an old book that spoke of that and much else.” Sarah paused, then said, “and the year after, I wondered if speaking of that book was wise.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I and the students I was traveling with had to write our own version of that book,” said Sarah, “and then submit it for printing.”

“How big was the run?” asked Hans.

“Three buggies full,” said Sarah. “I was glad I received my copy free.”

“Was it expensive?” I asked.

“Not especially,” said Sarah, “at least, it wasn't that expensive for a required textbook. Just the same, it wasn't cheap.”

“Nothing in the fourth kingdom is cheap?” I asked.

“Who said that?” asked Sarah. “Was it Gabriel?”

I nodded, then said, “is it?”

“I think you will find that out soon enough,” said Hans. “I am glad for this trip, as you need to go on it.”

“I need to go on it?” I asked. Hans' emphasis of the word 'need' was blatant, and more, puzzling.

“Most do some traipsing so they learn about how things are,” said Hans. “Otherwise...”

“That isn't true,” said Anna. “There might be ten people in town who've been outside of the first kingdom, and most towns are worse yet that way.”

“Meaning they know their immediate area, and but little more,” I murmured. “Travel, even on business, isn't at all common. Or is it?”

“That depends on the business,” said Hans. “Freighters travel, and so do those that keep shops, and...”

Anna shook her head, then said, “August did some traipsing, and those at the Mercantile travel now and then, and we do.”

“I suspect Georg did his share in the past,” I said. “I'm not sure about the carpenters.”

“Not recently,” said Anna.

“Do people that do what I do travel?” I asked.

“That is why you need to go on this trip,” said Hans. “You need to learn where to get things, and who to talk to, and a lot of other stuff.”

“Uh, how much is that the case?” I asked.

“I'm not certain,” said Anna. “If you were like most instrument-makers, Hans would be right, and you would need to travel a great deal.”

“In what way?” I asked.

Anna paused, and seemed to think for a moment. The buggy was heading through the middle of an especially thick woodlot, which I had normally skirted during my recent 'straight-line' trips. I could feel the house but two miles or so away, with the 'rise' to come shortly.

“I think that has to do with you finding things like you do,” said Anna.

“It is a lot more than that, Anna,” said Hans. “He would need to know a lot of people in the fourth kingdom, and some in the fifth, and...”

“Does this have to do with getting all of my supplies in person, and trusting no one else to get them?” I asked.

Anna looked at me in stunned shock, while Hans said, “yes, that is so, and especially for what you need. It is hard to do what you do with the best to be had, and Georg does not get anything like that.”

I kept silent, for I'd seen plenty of instances to the contrary as to what had arrived for supplies. More, I'd heard enough at the shop to know Georg commonly 'asked' for the best - and, he paid accordingly.

He often had to settle for what arrived just the same.

“No, I don't want to be a witch,” I muttered.

“Now how is getting the best to be had being a witch?” asked Hans pointedly. “You really need to... Oof!”

“Hans!” shouted Anna, as she elbowed him forcefully. She then turned to me before speaking.

“Even I know this trip is not for that reason, if but little more,” she said.

“Why does everyone think I'm a witch, though?” I moaned. “Everyone thinks I'm supposed to be a curse-chanting secretive wretch who...”

Hans abruptly sagged toward Anna in his seat, and I leaped off Jaak as the buggy tried to slide off of the road and into the nearest ditch. I came beside Hans, and began 'looking', even as both women looked at me. We were surrounded by trees, and the end of the woodlot was a few hundred yards hence.

“I was wondering why he was talking like that,” said Anna. “After both of those people...”

“Did they say anything unusual?” I asked. “Did they give him something?”

“I do not know if they did or not,” said Anna. “Why?”

“His behavior, dear,” I said. “Remember how he was when he was acting like a miser? When he was wearing that, uh, medal in the Public House?”

Anna seemed to slowly think of the matter as I looked more carefully. Whatever it was, he wasn't wearing it, and I wondered where it was.

“Is it in his, uh, musket-pouch?” I thought. It seemed likely, for some reason, and as I reached toward the leather satchel on the floor next to his right foot, the impression grew.

“What is it?” asked Anna.

“He's got something in there,” I said. “Let me get it and look.”

Anna moved out of the way, and the instant I touched the pouch, I distinctly felt the presence of something 'wrong'. I could put what I felt in no clearer terms, even as I went to the rear of the buggy and dropped the gate for a 'table'.

“Is it in there?” asked Anna. The worried tone in her voice was not merely frightening, but also a potent distraction.

I opened the bag, and began carefully shaking out the contents. The powder measures came out first, then a small leather bag that clunked, followed by another leather pouch, and finally, a third such pouch. I touched this last, and jerked my hand away abruptly. I did not wish to be bitten.

“What is it?” asked Sarah.

“Stay here,” said Anna. “I've seen those things explode and catch fire, Sarah.”

I opened my bag, found a pair of pincers, and picked up the third leather bag. As I did, the bag squirmed frightfully, and the smell that invaded my nose...

Why does this thing smell like a pig?” I thought, as I walked off of the road and into the ditch. The trees were but steps away. “How did they get this thing to him..?

The bag abruptly billowed smoke, and I ran three steps – from the ditch and into the trees – and then tossed it to my right as it ignited to burn like a torch. I jumped back, and somehow still seemed encompassed by the flames, even as the trees around me seemed to dance.

All around me burned high red roaring tongues of flame amid clouds of glaring soot, and there seemed no escape. I stood motionless, waiting, even as the reek of burnt lard increased and the flames burned higher still, until suddenly the whole tableau vanished with a massive rumbling noise and I fell to the ground on my face. The stink, thankfully, was mostly gone.

“What was that?” I asked amid the humming darkness that watched over me.

“Are you all right?” shrieked Anna.

“I-I think so,” I said, as I came to my feet. “Why, what happened?”

“That bag,” said Sarah softly, as she came closer with hesitant feet. She stopped at the juncture of the trees. “I've tossed jugs before, and that looked like one of them.”

I looked at my arms, then felt my head. The fabric of the cap seemed somehow stiff, and when I took it off to look at it, I noted faintly charred places amid an overall darker tone. I brushed them over with my hand, and to my surprise, faint black-tinted clouds seemed to billow up.

“I'd do that all over,” said Sarah, “as I can see traces of soot on your clothing.”

“Soot?” I asked, as I brushed my sleeve. I was now in the ditch.

Sarah touched my sleeve, and brought away a blackened hand. “See?”

“I need a bath, then,” I said, as I tried fluffing my clothing. “I hope I don't get in trouble.”

I came to the rear of the buggy, and began putting those things I had removed from the pouch back into it. I felt carefully each sack or container – one of the pouches had musket balls in it, which did not surprise me – and as I finished replacing them, I heard Hans 'awaken' with a start.

“Now why are we here, and what am I doing like this?” he asked.

“A witch's tool was in your things,” muttered Anna, “and you were sounding like a witch again. Where did you get it?”

“Was it those two that came?” I asked, as I picked up the pouch and closed the buggy-gate. “As in they gave you an 'inducement' of some kind?”

Hans seemed to think for a minute, then said, “they did not speak of it so, but that person who wanted a marked sword gave me something.”

“How did he speak of it?” I asked. I fluffed more soot out of my clothing.

“I am not sure,” said Hans. “He was speaking, then somehow someone spoke into my head, and I fell asleep.”

“S-spoke into your head?” I gasped. “Like F-Freek did to m-me?”

“Now how is it he did that?” asked Hans.

“A c-curse,” I said. “I heard it, and i-ignored it, somehow...”

You could,” muttered Anna. “I doubt...”

Anna stopped in mid-sentence, then muttered, “those people were witches.”

“And well-disguised ones at that,” I said. “It seems the Swartsburg is back on a war-footing again.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “While both of those individuals are witches, they understood very little about what they were doing, and knew less yet about what was in that pouch.”

“What was in that pouch?” I asked.

“Another of those 'money' medals,” said the soft voice, “and unlike those prior, this one was an original.”

“An original?” I asked.

“The ones that Hans received were old copies,” said the soft voice. “The originals are somewhat older, very scarce, and a good deal stronger. Hence, that one witch speaking those curses without understanding was sufficient to 'control' Hans.”

“Uh, why him?” I asked. “Is this because of billiards?”

“That, and Anna is thought to be more resistant to such machinations,” said the soft voice. “Accessing you 'directly' is thought to be a extremely hazardous affair in this area.”

A brief pause, then, “I would watch for such attention while you are traveling.”

When I brought back the musket-pouch, Hans noticed my 'sooty' aspect. He began mumbling about chemicals and their behavior, then said, “I think it is about time you got in the sooty part of the business. Now what happened with you?”

“That witch-tool nearly lit him on fire,” said Anna. “Sarah said it was like a jug going up.”

Hans began shaking, even as I resumed dusting soot out of my clothing. I was leaving a sizable black cloud of soft-floating dust, and when I leaped up to Jaak's back, I seemed to leave a billowing trail of soot behind me.

I also caused sneezes until both Jaak and the buggy left the soot-cloud behind.

“That smells like a jug,” said Hans. “Now where did you find that thing?”

“In your pouch,” said Anna.

“I am not Pump, so I could not have a fire-jug in that thing,” said Hans indignantly. His change in demeanor was astonishing – and gratifying.

“It was a witch-tool,” said Anna. “I think it was one of those strange things that involve money.”

“It was,” I mumbled. “Why do they think you would respond favorably to those things?”

Hans was silent, even as we left the woodlot behind. I could 'feel' the rise ahead, and when we came to the upslope that marked the 'rise', Hans remarked on it.

“I never saw that before,” he said.

“What, the rise?” I asked.

“Is that what it is?” he asked.

“I've noticed it many times,” I said. “It means the house proper isn't that much further.” I paused, then said, “it is nowhere near as noticeable elsewhere, is it?”

While Hans was silent, Sarah said, “it is this noticeable, but not on the common roads, nor in town. One needs to go several miles past the crow's foot to the south to find it, and nearly the same to the east. The west doesn't seem to show such a change.”

“Your traipsing?” I asked.

“Since the last year and some,” said Sarah. “I'd spent time in this area before that, but in the last year and some months, I've become especially familiar with this area.”

“That is good, then,” said Hans. “Now I hope you can tell him about how it is to the south before he goes.”

“I suspect he has heard plenty,” said Sarah archly, “and half of those going are familiar with those areas.” A brief pause, then, “I would be less worried of what is down there, and more of what is up here.”

“Up here?” I asked.

“You do not want to spend days packing,” said Sarah, “and while Gabriel thinks he knows of such matters, he has forgotten what little he knows.”

“Hence a mess?” I asked.

“I would watch for him that way,” said Sarah. “Gijs and Rolf might try to keep him straight, but I recall them needing days on the road to get things in order.”

“Did you?” I asked.

“Not after I found that book,” said Sarah.

“And your cousin?” I asked.

Sarah began muttering, then said with surprising pique, “I have no idea why they spoke of her not having common sense.”

“What?” I asked.

“She could have written that portion of that book,” said Sarah, “and given how it was for her in that place, I don't wonder why. Her room in Boermaas looked like a Mercantile for the food it had.”

“Meaning she was especially good at packing things?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Sarah.

“Not having common sense?” I asked. I recalled being spoken of similarly in the past, and I suspected such speech was but the half-hidden tip of the iceberg. “Would people speak that way of me?”

“I am not certain of that,” said Anna. “You might do things strangely, but I've never seen anyone with so many tools, either.”

“I do, Anna,” said Hans, “and some would speak of him that way, and they would be speaking ill.”

Once inside the rear of the house proper, Hans disembarked and walked with me indoors while Anna and Sarah 'backed and filled' such that they could leave. I had laid Jaak's blanket unfolded on one of the hitching rails before going inside. Hans wondered at my 'carefree' attitude.

“No harness, so how can I, uh, tie him up?” I asked. “Besides, he tends to show shortly after I go outside.”

“I did not know that,” said Hans. “Now I need to go upstairs first, and then...”

“And I need to see Gabriel,” I said. “I hope he's up to being seen.”

Gabriel proved to be 'up', though the faint odor and seeming chill of his office made for wondering until I glanced at the 'wood-basket'. It seemed to be polished clean of all traces of wood.

“I ran out of wood yesterday,” he said, “and have been too busy to fetch more.”

“Perhaps some finely powdered coal..?” I suggested.

“No thank you,” said Gabriel. “I've been close enough to the fifth kingdom house to dislike that stink heartily.”

“Even a little bit?” I asked.

“Coal, if burned, has a vastly potent and penetrating odor,” said Gabriel, “and that irrespective of how it is burned. If it is not burned, its odor is less, but still penetrating.”

“I've burned it,” I said, “and while it does have an odor, it is not too bad.”

Gabriel looked at me with dropped jaw, and I wondered as to his thinking. I then continued.

“The trick to reducing its odor is to powder it finely,” I said, “and then sprinkle small amounts on an already-burning wood fire.” I looked at his stove, then said, “with that stove, I'd use a scant spoonful at a time, if that.”

Gabriel abruptly shut his mouth, then squawked, “what?”

“I use it at the shop when I need to run iron,” I said, “and we have a modest bag or two at home for especially cold periods. Anna tolerated it passably when we had that cold period a few months ago.”

“What?” gasped Gabriel.

“Ask her when she and Sarah come back,” I said. “She should be about two hours or so in town.” I shivered, then said, “dredge up the writing, and I'll see about getting some heat in here.”

I left Gabriel's office, and went out the main entrance toward the long white building filled with wood and carpenters. As I walked, I wondered if the place had a name, and upon coming to a wide pair of doubled doors, I tapped. One of the doors opened but seconds later.

“The buggies?” I asked.

“Are working better than anything I've seen,” he said. “They're getting supplies right now, in fact.”

“Could I get a few small wood scraps,” I asked, “and, some, uh, coal?”

“Coal?” asked the 'carpenter', as he opened the door. “What do you want to do with that?”

“Show how to burn it with little smell,” I said. “Why, are there other uses?”

“There are,” said the 'carpenter', “and I thought you knew something of them.”

“Powdered coal does help when it's especially cold or you need to pour iron,” I said. “Is that what you meant?”

“We keep it for the colder days during the winter,” he said, “only Leen takes it somewhere in the house where the stink gets taken out of it. It comes back all strange-looking, and it's entirely black.”

“It does?” I said incredulously. “Does it smell then?”

“You have to work at smelling that stuff,” he said. “Coal otherwise, especially if it be burned in lump form, tends to smell bad enough to cause people to spew and faint at the same time.”

“Have you ever powdered it?” I asked.

“I think it gets powdered when it gets done in the house,” he said. “We have some of each type, so you can look at it.”

I was led into one 'room', then into another, and then into a third before I recognized familiar surroundings, and in each room, I saw articles of furniture in process of either repair or construction. The sawdust lay in sizable bags in the corners, and the walls were lined closely with old-looking yet well-maintained tools.

As we came into the fourth of the 'row' of rooms, I thought to speak.

“What is this place called?”

“This is the boatwright's shop,” he said.

“Boats?” I asked.

“About half of the people what work here have spent time in the fourth kingdom's shipyards,” he said, “and most of the rest have done patterns for foundries and things like them for close.”

“Buggies?” I asked, as we came to a cloth-closed entrance.

“I was apprenticed in a fourth-kingdom buggy-shop,” he said, “and during my traipsing, I heard about this place. I had to send a letter up here speaking of interest, and then wait until there was a place for me.” He paused for a second, then pulled aside the deep red-orange curtain. I followed him as he resumed speaking. Another such drape showed ahead, and we crossed a well-lit room with cloth-covered equipment on both sides. I suspected the room to have wood-lathes.

“It might not be quite as safe as the fourth kingdom, but it's close that way,” he said.

“Cheaper living?” I asked.

“About half for the food, and more than that for lodging, and a tenth of the bugs when they show,” he said. “It's easier to hide up here, by and large.”

“It is?” I asked.

“As long as you stay clear of certain places, it isn't hard at all,” he said.

“What would those be?” I asked.

“The kingdom house, for one,” he said, “then certain towns and places near them, and finally, most of the more-traveled roads.”

“Aye, roads are trouble,” said another 'carpenter' from the other side of the 'drape'. It abruptly went aside, and I was astonished to find him holding two modest-sized sacks.

“One of these is some of those coarser chips,” he said, “and the other has some of that coal that Andreas runs in his shop.”

“Uh, why did you..?” I gasped.

“First, I heard you and Jan talking,” he said, “and second, I'm not worried about you needing fuel for one day.” He paused, then said, “it's those what come back day after day that flattens our supplies.”

“Does Andreas run coal?” I asked. “For what?”

“I'm not certain what exactly he does with that stuff,” said the second carpenter, “but I have an idea about that bush of his that catches fire.”

“He uses c-coal gas for that thing?” I asked.

“He might,” said the second man. “Then again, he might not. He isn't inclined to speak much on the matter, even if he goes through some of our tools.”

“S-secretive?” I asked.

“Not that way,” said the second carpenter with a faint smile. “He's got to be careful, same as we do, and for the same reasons.” He glanced in a corner, and I recalled the 'hidden passages' that I'd heard of.

“Uh, this coal?” I asked.

“I would be careful as to who you show it to,” said the second man. “If this is for that one scribe, he's safe enough.”

“He's going on that trip,” said my 'guide'.

“That would be one of the reasons why I spoke as I did,” said the second carpenter. “I'd keep what of that coal you don't use for his stove, in fact.”

“For what?” I asked.

“I'd look close at that stuff,” he said. “I suspect it would give you some ideas for what you do.”

I retraced my steps to Gabriel's office after leaving a large silver piece behind, and once at his threshold, I tapped twice. The door opened abruptly to show Gabriel swaddled in what looked like a moth-eaten cloak. His 'hairy' aspect was remarkable.

“I have f-fuel,” I said.

“I h-hope s-so,” he said with chattering teeth. “It's like a cold-room in here.”

“Fetch a candle while I lay your fire,” I said. “I'll have the place warmer shortly.”

While Gabriel went for a candle – he dumped his cloak in a previously hidden chair before doing so – I opened the lower door to his stove and looked therein. The dust and ashes I saw was enough to make for wondering, and as I began shoveling them out with an old spoon, he returned with a flaring tallow candle.

“What is all that?” he asked.

“These things need to have their ashes cleaned out now and then,” I said, “and I found this old spoon...”

“You found what?” he gasped.

“An old spoon,” I said. “This thing has a very small firebox, so it needs careful cleaning on a frequent basis.”

“It what?” spluttered Gabriel. “Cleaning?” A brief pause, “but I wiped it down regularly with a rag.”

“The ashes accumulate with use,” I said, as I continued spooning ashes into his 'wood-bucket'. “I've gotten some coarse sawdust, as well as some coal.”

“I'll stick with the sawdust, thank you,” said Gabriel. “The coal...”

“This isn't common coal,” I said. “I was told it had been, uh, processed in some manner...”

I gasped, then spat, “it's coke!”

“What did you call it?” asked Gabriel, as he stifled a sneeze.

“Coke,” I said. “It has all of the s-smelly stuff removed from it, and it's, uh...”

I laid down my spoon and opened the sack of 'coal', then reached inside. The shimmery sound of smooth rounded 'granules' seemed to chime in my mind, and when I removed my hand, I had several small blue-black 'grains' between the fingers.

“That looks like cannon-powder,” said Gabriel, “at least, cannon powder for shape and size.”

“This is coke,” I said. “I suspect it burns very hot, so a spoonful should suffice once I get the sawdust lit.”

I resumed cleaning the stove, then once I'd cleaned out the bulk of the ashes, I grabbed a handful of 'sawdust' from the bag.

The coarse wood-chip aspect of the stuff was a marvel, and after laying a 'bed' of the stuff, I asked for the candle. Gabriel handed it to me, then said, “you can toss that one inside.”

I did so, then was astonished to see the sawdust ignite slowly and evenly while the candle melted. I let it burn for half a minute, then used the spoon to dump in a spoonful of coke onto the now briskly burning sawdust. I closed the door a minute later once I'd seen yellowish flames bursting out in faint puffs amid the granules.

“Now, we wait,” as I moved the sawdust to a corner and the 'coke' back to my chair.

Gabriel went to the stove, then put out his hands such that they nearly touched the top. Faint ticking noises were coming from the stove, and when he almost touched the thing, he abruptly dropped to his knees and adjusted the 'air' control, then the damper.

“What did you do?” he asked, as he straightened up.

“You saw what I did,” I said. “Why, is the stove working passably now?”

“I would not be surprised if it drives us from the room,” muttered Gabriel. “I could boil bathwater on it the way it is now.”

“Have you?” I asked.

“I have,” he said, amid steady ticking noises. “How much of that coal did you add?”

“A single spoonful,” I said. “Even when I want to cast iron in the shop, I don't need much.”

Within a few minutes, however, the office grew pleasantly warm. Gabriel began yawning, then opened the door a crack. I thought to 'damper down' the stove, and touched the 'air' control.

“His is a bit leaky, so close it almost all the way,” said the soft voice. “Close the damper a bit further, and then add another spoonful of that 'coal'.”

I did so, then as I returned to my seat, Gabriel said, “do you wish to turn my office into an oven?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Coal does not merely burn hot, but burns for some time. Hence, you should have heat until late tonight, if not longer.” I paused, then said, “and heat enough for a large pot of bathwater, and a small pot of soup.”

“Soup?” asked Gabriel, as he closed the door. I heard genuine curiosity.

“A simple type,” I said. “Three pieces of chopped dried meat, a large pinch of dried Goben, a small pinch of salt, two small pinches of pepper, one cut-up potato, and two cut-up carrots. Cover all of the ingredients with water in a small pot, cover the pot with a tin plate, and set it on the top of the stove.”

Gabriel was knuckling his eyes while muttering of culinary disaster.

“Ask Anna about it,” I said. “She might 'sniff' at its simplicity, and wonder about the use of the plate, but I doubt she would look askance at it when she smells the broth.”

“Soup, he says,” muttered Gabriel. “I'll stick to these documents, thank you.”

After roughly an hour, I had gone through the bulk of what Gabriel had present, and as he put aside the various ledgers and 'reports' – I suspected there would be more such work in the near future, and asking proved my guess to be accurate – I thought to fetch the things needed so as to prove to him the ease of preparing the 'soup' I had mentioned. As I stood to go to the privy, he said, “you'll wish to come early tomorrow for the packing.”

“I thought so,” I said. “Is packing especially difficult?”

“It was for me,” said Gabriel, “and Hendrik wishes to leave as early as possible.”

“Dawn?” I asked. “Before sunrise?”

“Before lunch, if possible, and that tomorrow,” said Gabriel.

“Eight should take less than with forty,” I said. “I'll be doing much of my packing tonight, in fact.”

Gabriel was silent, and when I returned from my visit to the privy, I was surprised to see Sarah present in the office. Gabriel looked to be purely miserable, and I remained silent, even as Sarah pointed at a sheet of paper with her finger.

“You need to be explicit in your listing,” she said. “'Food' is a singularly vague concept.”

“As in dried meat, potatoes, carrots, spices, Gobens...” I had listed such foods on my list.

“You want dried Gobens,” said Sarah archly. “The fresh ones are most troublesome.”

Gabriel held his head in his hands and softly moaned.

“Dried cherries, sugar-tree sap, cheese-spread, bread...”

Sarah was writing frantically. Gabriel had nearly collapsed onto his desk.

“Several jugs for beer,” I said, “with tin tags speaking of common and dark...”

“Good,” muttered Sarah. “Dark beer helps with sleep. I was glad to have it when it was available.”

“Two pots,” I said. “I finished up a smaller one recently, as well as some added utensils.”

“How big is this pot?” asked Sarah.

“Sepp spoke of one a foot wide and the same deep,” I said, “and I made one about an inch less for height and two inches less for width.”

Sarah thought for a moment, then resumed writing while saying, “that sounds about right for eight people, unless one or more of you develops an unusual appetite.” Sarah paused, then said, “the real reason for having a common-sized pot was for wash-water. At least, I think that was why it was listed.”

“As in it works better with the usual means of heat?” I asked.

“If you can do that,” said Sarah. “There are many areas where openly-visible fires are quite unwise, and then one wants the smallest pot which will serve.”

“I hoped to use a heating lamp,” I said. “Those are much less obvious.”

Sarah wrote that down as well, then continued with her now-obvious list.

I continued speaking of what had been on 'my' list, then as Sarah continued writing, I mentioned the 'soup' recipe. As I spoke of it, I noted Sarah was making another entry on the page, and when I finished, she said, “I've done meals like that, though not with the covering.”

“And?” I asked.

“They tend to need close watching,” said Sarah, “though if one uses a stove like that one there” – here, she pointed at the stove – “it would be easier.”

“Easier?” I asked.

“Stir it every turn of the glass,” said Sarah. “Open fires tend to either heat poorly, or too well.”

“Uh, the taste?” I asked.

“Anna might speak of it as being weak in flavor,” said Sarah, “but on some of my trips, I cooked such meals. I used fourth-kingdom dried meat, which helped.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Such soup tends to have little taste,” said Sarah, “unless one is careless with it and permits it to burn.”

“Which I would be certain to do,” said Gabriel.

“I would still try it,” said Sarah. “Now that I think about it, covering the pot would help. Anna has such covers.”

“What does it do?” I asked. I suspected Gabriel needed to hear Sarah's answers.

“Not only do such covers help with cooking,” said Sarah, “but the food is much less likely to burn, especially with a slow fire.”

“Hence your soup takes, uh, hours,” I said.

“Meals at school commonly did,” said Sarah. “We usually did them in groups, such that when we were not actually cooking, we were studying.” Gabriel looked at her with eyes deep-set in unquenched misery.

About ten minutes later, Sarah finished her list, then handed it to Gabriel. He unclasped his hands, then looked first at Sarah, then at me before speaking.

“This was much of what I needed to finish,” he said, “or so I thought.”

“What is it, then?” asked Sarah.

“I need to spend more time on the documents that go with us,” he said, “and let you worry about packing.”

Sarah nodded, then said, “I'll need to do my own packing tonight.”

The two of us left minutes later, and crossed the main hall diagonally, then went into the smaller hall leading to familiar territory. As I walked with the bag of 'coke', I noted an aura of unfamiliar bustle in the area of the kitchen, and I went there following Sarah. We were met by Anna in the doorway to the refectory.

“Did you?” asked Sarah.

“They're working on it now,” said Anna. “Those two buggies just came back with the rest of the supplies, and they're starting to pack them.” Anna paused, then said, “and they'll need to go all night to be ready tomorrow, if I know the people here.”

“All night?” I asked.

“That's better than Hans and I do,” said Anna tonelessly. “He wasn't exaggerating when he said it took all of one day and part of the next, and needing to leave on the third day due to exhaustion.”

“Didn't you have a list?” asked Sarah.

“I could not read or write, dear,” said Anna, “and Hans was not inclined to make one. Besides, it was obvious as to what we needed.”

“Why did it take so long, then?” I asked.

“Mostly fitting it in the buggy,” said Anna, “and then taking it out because one of us had forgotten something, and then doing that again and again too many times to count.” Anna paused, then said, “and with Hans packing, he only knows how to do it one way.”

“One way?” I asked.

“Take everything out until the buggy is empty, and start from the front to the rear,” said Anna, “and the whole thing must be just so, no matter how I'd tell him it wasn't like a chemistry recipe.”

“I'm the same way to a degree,” I said.

“Not like he is,” said Anna, as she came out into the hall. “Now we need to go home.”

The 'need' to go home manifested as a pair of restless-seeming horses presided over by an even more restless-seeming Hans, and he moved out with alacrity once his passengers were in place. I was glad Jaak wasn't inclined to waste time, even as Hans went along the roads.

“If you go across the fields like you do,” said Anna, “you might want to go on ahead. I know there are things waiting for you at the shop.”

“He will need to pack his things, Anna,” said Hans, “and then get them straight here tomorrow. Hendrik wants out of the house as soon as he can.”

I was about to speak when Sarah said, “I would go just the same. I doubt it will take you very long.”

With that, I left the road and headed out cross-country. Jaak's strides seemed to lengthen until he seemed to be rapidly shuffling across the meadows. I could see each place ahead as if viewing a movie, and as we skirted the woodlots, I had a picture of what awaited me at home – and it wasn't good, even if that picture was far vaguer than the ever-scrolling topographical map that guided Jaak and I.

“I hope not,” I thought, even as we diagonal-cut a road that passed through a wide meadow.

With each minute, the sense of unease grew. I needed to spend several further hours in the shop that day, as I needed to 'pack away' those things of importance I was currently working on. I had no less than five sword-blanks in process, and each of them needed work before putting them away for...

“How long will this trip be?” I thought. “I know it's possible to travel more than ten to twenty miles a day.” A brief pause, then “can we do so?”

Such thinking fed the unease to a modest degree, so much so that I was startled when Jaak broke out from the forested land and eased onto the northbound main road. Here, he paused to 'dump', then renewed his speed. I recalled the need for a grain-pan, and wondered if I could make a 'quick' example. There was ample sheet copper, and the thought of a grain-pan just added to the unease that I felt waiting for me in the shop.

The farms and towns passed in what seemed a joggling blur, and the smelly clearing shot by in a rush such that I barely caught its aroma before I had left it behind. Passing the Public House showed a crowded yard and a resounding building filled with gut-bursting 'cheer', and as we left it behind, Jaak seemed to speed up yet again, such that the remaining distance was such that I could count slowly with each house-yard.

Each house passed with a blurred visage, and when I came past the middle of town, I seemed to be listing to the right. Finally, I seemed to leap and fall at the same time, and with swishing strides of silent thunder I leaped the remaining steps to the threshold.

And there paused. Something was...

“By the pricking of my thumbs?” I murmured, even as I felt my right thumb with my left forefinger to endure mere normalcy of sensation. “Something, uh, wicked this way comes?”

The silence without was only sundered by the steady gulping swallows of Jaak as he assayed draining the horse-trough. I opened the door.

And stepped inside...

And all within my mind – those portions of fear and dread intermingled – flared up into crimson flashing to then fade as abruptly into the dark stillness of the shop.

The vague heat of near-dead forges, the soft sounds of wind, the otherwise near-silence of an empty building seemed to charm me unto acceptance of complete normalcy, and with each step, the fear and uncertainty dissipated – until I came to Georg's desk and looked upon the floor behind it.

“Oh, no,” I gasped, as I bent down.

Someone had left an old-style distillery behind Georg's desk, and the uppermost slate on a pile of four had its crude-scrawled disposition:

“What?” I gasped, as I read 'repair one distillery'. “Th-that thing's an I-I-idol!”

The mounded pieces were covered with green and brown streaks of corrosion, and as I carefully touched the dented copper 'sculpture', I noted blatant and deep-chiseled rune-markings in many places, furrowed and wrinkled tin-splashed seams, vast numbers of crude green-flashed fifteen-line brass rivets, and finally, an odor of such foulness I nearly gagged. On top of all this, the thought seemed to rampage through my mind:

“Is the curse of these things due to the markings, or is it more than mere runes? Is it apportioned in their shape as well?”

Cringing hands touched first the dented and twisted condenser – here, the word 'worm' seemed to fit – and as I found the crown-shaped cap studded with rivets, I wondered if it was possible to repair the thing. Turning the cap over showed mash-eroded copper, acute roughness, and badly-driven rivets part-clogging the passage into the long and tapering side-arm.

And as I looked further, I had the following impression:

“They could do most of this thing,” I thought. “I just hope they don't ruin the rivet-swages trying to...”

I again looked at the slate, and turned it over. There was nothing beyond the three dreaded words upon it.

“This thing needs to be replaced, not repaired,” I murmured. “The copper's far too corroded...” I paused, then, “perhaps I can replace it with a column...”

I stopped in mid-sentence as the distillery seemed to faintly shimmer with redness, and I stepped back from the precipice of contemplation. I would say but one thing to an idol.

“Go to hell, you accursed thing!” I spat with venom.

The distillery remained in place, and as I looked at it, the faint redness I had seen had utterly vanished. I again noted badly corroded copper, gaping tin-plugged seams, lumpy misshapen rivets of unendurable crudity, and...

“Why not?” I thought.

Such thinking was unbelievable in its aura of blasphemy, and I cringed inwardly. I would not construct an idol, and that was final.

And yet the thought remained.

I sank to my knees, and the faintly dusty floor of the shop seemed to ring with curses and the howling roars of the nether regions. It was evil to even contemplate such actions. All that remained was a refusal and a committing of the accursed scrap-metal to the nearest crucible. I was decided upon the matter, and asked forgiveness of my evil ways.

And with each word of prayer, the thought of constructing a copy of the thing grew stronger.

“Away from me,” I shrieked, even as the accursed rust-red thing in front of me slithered as if alive. “I will not make an idol.”

“Then don't, idiot,” roared a voice that took me seconds to recognize as that horror I had heard but once or twice before. With my recognition of it and its capacity, it repeated its former speech.

“Why are you working here, fool?” howled the voice of recollection. “Either become a witch, as per the demands of Brimstone and his servants, or burn in hell where you belong.”

As the voice of evil rang in my ears with somber echoes, I cringed and stumbled backwards, and as I turned to leave the shop, I heard voices and the clopping of hooves. A shadow came from without, and as I staggered toward the door, the shadow vanished to be replaced by Anna.

“It smells in here,” she said, as she looked around. “Where are they?”

A soft moan came from everywhere at once, and the place went black as my legs gave way.

I awoke on a hard surface with a washcloth on my face, and faint voices coming from far above. Clattering and rustling came from close by, and the voices seemed to provide punctuation for both types of noise. I tried to sit up, and could not.

“Lay still,” said one of the voices.

I could do but little otherwise, at least at first. The clattering noises continued, then surged into a smashing rumble that scraped both the ground beneath me and my ears. Again, I tried to sit up, and this time, I managed.

I also truly awoke, and to a scene of utter stillness.

This stillness made for ringing ears, and for some reason, my hands lay at my side. I lifted up one of them, and saw a fuming log. I then knew my purpose – gnaw like a beaver – and what lay before me, that being wood. I began gnawing mechanically, and the deep-rumbling grating noises seemed to thunder down amid my protesting bowels.

As an answer to this protest, there came a foul-tasting sauce between bites of the log, and as I continued gnawing, the ringing in my ears steadily declined. Something else, however, was growing, and while I knew not what it was, it knew what needed me – until with an abrupt flash and shuddering rumble, the tumultuous smoke-shrouded landscape vanished to show the interior of the shop.

I was vibrating like insanity and my teeth chattered like a hyperactive gopher, and I reached convulsively for my water-bottle. I uncorked it, and put the thick-sloshing thing to my lips and began drinking.

About half-way through, I noted not merely my state of dehydration, but also what had happened. I had had a severe hypoglycemia attack, and had fainted on the floor of the shop after inspecting...

“Finish what you are drinking, and resume eating that dried meat,” said the soft voice.

I did so, and between mouthfuls of dried meat, I asked, “why was I h-hearing talk about rebuilding that thing?”

“Because it would be excellent practice,” said the soft voice. “While the shape is influenced by ancient witchcraft practice, the chief current aspect of cursing with those is in their markings, bad design, and poor construction.”

“And?” I asked. I knew there was more.

“Copying that distillery will give many ideas regarding that blower's housing,” said the soft voice. “Recall how many instances it took to get a usable fiberglass example?”

“F-four tries,” I gasped. I then saw – dimly – the rub, or so I thought.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “You do not have fiberglass. You do have sheet copper.”

“It's likely to be worse, then?” I asked.

“The difference is more one of 'difficult' fabrication than a lack of knowledge and skill,” said the soft voice. “Recall the best shape for a blower's housing, and then look at the cap of that distillery.”

I continued eating, and only when I felt strong enough to stand and not wobble did I think to stand. I stood but long enough to move the stinky portions of the distillery near my bench and then find a stool, which I then occupied.

For some reason, the 'cursed' aspect of the sheet-metal before me seemed to have vanished, and as I looked carefully, I noted the abundance of compound curves, the numerous sheets and patches, the rivets...

“This thing makes a water-bottle look easy,” I muttered.

“Exactly,” said the soft voice, “and after the blower's housing, there will be more intricate pieces of sheet-metal work that will need careful making and fitting.”

“How much demand for these are there?” I asked.

“Among witches, the demand persists,” said the soft voice, “and among those otherwise, the column still is preferred where it is known of.”

“And this one?” I asked.

“Came from the potato country,” said the soft voice, “and while that farmer knows of column distilleries, and wants one badly, he has peculiar ideas about Geneva.”

“Peculiar?” I asked.

“He distills Geneva from an infusion,” said the soft voice, “and hence a column still will not work.”

“Uh, what happens to the Geneva?” I asked.

“Potato farmers tend to be very sore during the growing season,” said the soft voice, “and his liniment is celebrated for its effectiveness.”

“Liniment?” I asked. “Is that why Paul spoke that way?”

“It is not sold as a beverage,” said the soft voice. “The potato country is known for its strange tastes as to food and drink.”

“Strange tastes?” I asked.

“They do not like wine,” said the soft voice, “and their food tends to be somewhat bland, even compared to this area.”

“Bland?” I asked.

“Points south tend to be spicier,” said the soft voice, “as well as more inclined to wine.”

“Wine?” I gasped.

There was no answer beyond my recollection, both of the helpful aspect of 'grape juice' and the nauseating flavor of the fermented material. I then had a strange idea.

“Perhaps I can mix up some proper liniment...”

“Riding, even distances, is not potato farming,” said the soft voice, “and what you have will suffice.”

“Digging?” I asked.

“And hoeing, and mounding, and driving off black-dressed thugs and imported witches, and planting, and more hoeing, and manure-spading, and more hoeing, and harvesting, and then deep-digging,” said the soft voice. “A common epithet in that region is 'rodent', and with good reason.”

For some reason, I but now heard the wheels of the buggy coming, and I stood up to wobble toward the door. I looked outside to see early afternoon, perhaps an hour or two beyond lunch, and with a growling stomach, I walked out into the yard. Jaak was nowhere to be found, or so I thought until he showed from behind the corner of the shop.

“I need to make a grain-pan at the least,” I muttered.

“I would make that, and go over those things like you thought,” said the soft voice, “and then bathe and fetch a nap prior to beginning your packing.”

“Because there is so much?” I asked. I could see the buggy coming.

“Here, no,” said the soft voice. “You could easily do your packing in an hour.”

A brief pause, then, “I would rest up for tomorrow.”

“Big nightmarish mess at the house proper?”

“Less with packing, and more with the trip itself,” said the soft voice. “It might take you an hour or so to pack both of those buggies, given minimal assistance.”

I waited for the buggy, and to my surprise, it pulled into the shop's yard. I was more than a little surprised to see the rear of the thing piled high with supplies, for I had not noticed them beforehand.

“I had forgotten something,” said Anna, “and we needed to stop in the nearest town to the south.”

“Forgot?” I asked. “What?”

“Potatoes and carrots,” said Anna, “as well as a bundle of smaller bags.”

“Smaller bags?” I asked.

“Sarah suggested them,” said Anna. “You might keep them in mind for the fourth kingdom, among other places.”

Anna paused, then sniffed, and wrinkled up her nose. I could tell an eruption was about to boil over, and when she leaped to the ground, I followed in her wake. I could hear her muttering, and when she came inside, she sniffed again.

What is that smell?” she spat.

“Someone brought in an older distillery and wanted it reworked...”

“You don't do those,” said Anna. “They're cursed, and only witches want them.”

“True, witches do want them,” I said, “as do those who only know of that type of distillery. There are exceptions to those two rules, though.”

“What are they?” asked Anna.

“It seems there is one individual in the potato country, that...”

Anna looked at me with a face twisted into an indecipherable maze, and I asked, “yes?”

“I once had some Geneva from there,” she said. “We went to a Public House, and they left the spices out of the food. At least, I think they did.”

“Bland?” I asked. “T-tasteless?”

“And inclined to cause poor digestion,” said Anna, “which is why I tried a small sip.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“That stuff might have been called Geneva,” said Anna, “but it was not Geneva. It put me in the privy, and before I was done, I was missing all of my meal and most of the inside of my mouth.”

“Paul spoke of a certain way of making Geneva involving an infusion...”

“Yes, I have heard of that stuff,” said Hans as he came inside. “Anna asked for a little sip-glass of Geneva to help that bad food, and they gave her that bad Geneva instead.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“It was just after we were married, and it was our first time out,” said Hans, who punctuated his speech with a sniff. It was followed by a grimace, and then speech.

“I smell some bad berries,” said Hans. “Now is there one of those bad distilleries in here?”

“There is,” I said, “and I was told it was the property of a farmer in the potato country...”

“They like bad Geneva in that place, and worse food,” said Hans.

“I was told that 'Geneva' was not sold as drink,” I said, “but rather as liniment. Potato farming involves a lot of digging.”

Anna looked at me, then gasped abruptly as she looked at Hans.

“Perhaps I need to make two distillate distilleries,” I said. “One for boiled distillate, and another for liniment.”

After the buggy left, I labeled the distillery with chalk and moved it aside, then began working over the sword blanks. I used the new forge for them, and as I pounded each billet out flat and forged it again to size, I left the others 'soaking' while buried deeply amid the coals. As a break, I pounded out a pair of 'grain pans', steadily deepening them with each pass over the stakes. I soon had two things that looked like shallow copper woks.

After tinning the pans inside and out, I set them aside, and began loading up the sword-blanks in the furnace. Their heat was such that they needed to be handled carefully with tongs, then packing powdered charcoal around them. I somehow suspected using the 'coke' wasn't a good idea.

“True, it isn't, especially for that metal,” said the soft voice.

“Too much sulfur?” I asked.

“For that metal in particular,” said the soft voice. “It's especially sensitive to the impurities found in coal.”

“How is it made?” I asked.

“In covered crucibles, with a deep cover flux and a mingled charcoal and 'number one first quality' fourth kingdom coke fire,” said the soft voice. “Georg's last purchase was nearly half of a week's batch for that place.”

“A week's batch?” I asked.

“Frequent and substantial repairs are the rule with fifth kingdom smelters,” said the soft voice, “and that place isn't exceptional that way, even if its people, its equipment, and its metal are.”

It was late afternoon by the time I left the shop. The sense of 'abandonment', and more, sacrilege, was enough to make for a furtive aspect, and when I tapped at the door, I heard shuffling and blundering before Sarah opened the door.

“Yes?” I said gently. “May I come inside?”

Sarah opened wide the door, and I nearly fell to the floor when I saw the couch piled high with cloth of one kind or another.

I bathed, and then went upstairs for a nap amid a sense of preparation too intense to readily ignore, and only when the smell of 'dinner' awoke me did I think to come down. I sat down amid a crowded kitchen, and began eating once Hans had spoken.

“Uh, recipes?” I asked, once I had started on the second bowl of soup.

Anna looked at me amid obvious signs of an inflamed appetite, and asked around a mouthful of bread and cheese, “what kind?”

“Trek-recipes,” I asked. “Someone spoke of them recently – Lukas, I think.”

Anna nearly buried her face in her bowl, and before I could jump to her aid, Hans was shaking her shoulder. She finally arose with a gravy-stained halo, which she began alternatingly wiping and licking off of her face, and finished with a shuddering voice.

“I f-forgot,” she stammered.

“Is forgetting things common?” I asked.

“That is much of why it takes three days to get ready,” said Hans. “That, and packing is touchy, so it can only be done one way.”

“One way?” I asked.

“If I do it otherwise,” said Hans, “I either forget things, or they grow wheels during the trip, or they get all mixed up.”

“Grow wheels?” I asked.

“They need stopping and chasing then,” said Hans. “That is trouble. Getting them mixed up is worse, though.”

“Mixed up?” I asked.

“Some chemicals do not like that,” said Hans. “I always put the distillate at one end of the buggy, and the aqua fortis at the other, and I keep the chlorate of potash well clear of both of those things, and the same for a lot of other chemicals I'd get down there.”

“Or you get a fire...”

“That too,” said Hans. “Grandfather showed me about chemicals that do not like mixing, and I did not believe him, so I mixed them up good in this big stump we had.”

“And?”

“I nearly lost my hair and my clothes,” said Hans, “and that stump burned for a week straight.”

“Was it gone afterward?” I asked.

“It was,” said Hans. “It also jumped out of the ground and left a big hole behind it, and I had to fill that hole.” Hans paused, then said, “and that was when I learned about Geneva and my grandfather.”

“What?” I asked.

“Grandmother needed to rub me a lot with that stuff,” said Hans, “and she had to fight my grandfather for it.”

After dinner, I began packing. My tub went out in the buggy, and as I consulted the list I had in my mind, I heard steps coming from behind me. I turned to see Sarah with a large cloth sack, which I took from her. The odor of roses was especially potent, and I held the sack close and sniffed.

“These smell good,” I said. “What are they?”

“Clothes, mostly,” said Sarah. “You may wish to check them.”

I did so quickly, and by the time I had a short list of what else was needed, I heard more steps. I turned to see Anna with a pair of smaller bags.

“You might just put the stuff you think of on the kitchen table,” I said. “It will be easier for you.”

Anna looked at me as if I was out of my mind, and put the bag in my hands.

“Food?” I asked.

Anna nodded, then said, “dried meat. Hans is putting up the other things.”

“Perhaps just put them in those, uh, wicker baskets and leave them on the kitchen table,” I said. “It will be quicker that way.”

“How?” asked Anna. “Packing...”

“It will not take him hours like it does you,” said Sarah, “and I think I have an idea about the clothing. I'll lay it out in the parlor.”

While Sarah was correct about the clothing, Anna and Hans proved somewhat balky. They insisted upon piling the stuff in the buggy in great and huge mounds regardless of my protestations, and only when I began taking it back inside to put on the table did they think to leave off. Still, I had to speak.

“Now just watch what I do,” I said with a trace of sharpness. “I am not able to use up an entire buggy for just 'my' things.” A brief pause, then, “besides, who is going on this trip?”

“But you have never traveled...” squawked Anna.

“Your methods barely serve for the two of you,” said the soft voice. “They would not work at all for him.”

“Barely?” I asked, as I removed some unneeded kitchen utensils and set them aside.

“You just touched the tip of the iceberg,” said the soft voice. “I would carefully check all of the things they packed, and do as you had planned.”

I emptied two of the wicker baskets, then began packing. Even with continual checking, I marveled at the speed I managed, and when I reached for a small jug, I turned to see Sarah.

“I have the clothing and things like it laid out,” she said.

“Where did they go?” I asked.

“I suspect Anna went to the Public House to fetch some things for you,” said Sarah. “It's just as good, as this kitchen is fairly small.”

“Did I offend them?” I asked.

“I doubt it,” said Sarah. “Besides, I heard what you were told.”

“Did they?” I asked.

“I'm not sure if they wished to,” said Sarah.

As I put aside those things I did not need, Sarah put them away, and within fifteen minutes, I not merely had checked over those things I wanted, but I had arranged the cooking utensils such that they were neatly stowed one inside the other.

“I wish they could see all of this,” said Sarah. “It took me two years to come close to what I see here.”

“Did your cousin?” I asked.

“I suspect she did matters similarly,” said Sarah, “even if it took her a bit longer than the time this took you.”

As I had foods and supplies that remained unsecured, I began going over the clothing, and within minutes, I had included those things I wanted to take in their various piles. I then had an impression.

“Perhaps I should hide a small money pouch in here,” I thought. “I'd best carry a fair amount of that stuff divided up in portions.”

As if to buttress my thinking, Sarah produced four small leather pouches, saying, “we usually didn't need multiple money pouches, but then, we weren't doing things like this...”

“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “You anticipated what I was thinking.” I paused, then said, “you did your share of asking, didn't you?”

“That, and I do this size of pouch when and where I can,” said Sarah. “They tend to sell well, same as do the smaller cloth bags.”

“I'll need to ask Anna to fill them when she returns, then,” I said. “I was going to hide them in various places, in case of robbery.”

Sarah looked at me strangely, then said, “that would be wise, even for a trip like this.”

“Like this?” I asked.

“You won't need much money while staying at the houses themselves,” said Sarah. “Otherwise, what you spend depends mostly on when, where, and how much you eat.”

“I suspected that to be the case,” I said, “and I suspected my meals would be the cheaper ones.” I paused, then said, “I also suspected there would be unforeseen expenses and possible thug attacks.” I then began bagging tools.

I was midway through packing tools when the door opened to show Hans and Anna. Both had modest-sized bags, and as they walked slowly through the parlor and past where I was busily packing, I could almost hear the cries of utter amazement. I turned when Anna came to the table, and saw her gawk in what might have been terror, amazement, or disgust.

“How did you do that?” she asked.

“How did I do what, dear?” I asked, as I put aside the leather tool-pouch I had just packed.

“Th-this little?” she said, with a quavering voice. I then came beside her.

“First, I picked the utensils I knew I would use,” I said, as I indicated the small stack of cooking gear, “and then, I put them in order. This larger pot holds the mess-kit and added knives, forks, spoons, and plates, while the heating lamp goes in this basket, along with its fuel and a pair of tallow candles.” I paused, then asked, “those recipes? Some salt, pepper, and perhaps a few spices?”

As if to answer, I heard Hans' voice coming from downstairs. “I think we had best watch you, as I think he was right when he said we don't know how to pack.”

“Six small medicine vials?” I asked. “For spices?”

“I have some of those things,” he said, as he came up into the kitchen. “Now what else do you need?”

Within moments, I had not merely secured the half-dozen 'vial' spices, but also a few 'bagged' examples and the bagged recipes. I then mentioned that 'soup' I had described to Gabriel.

“Sarah spoke about that,” said Anna, “and I think you're right.”

“About it being easy to cook?” I asked.

“If done on a stove, and covered with a plate, yes,” said Anna. “I also told her about its likely taste.”

“Bland, I suspect,” I murmured.

“It would be that,” said Anna, “but then, it would be difficult to ruin, also.”

“Broth?” I asked.

“You might keep that recipe in mind,” said Hans. “I think you could manage it if you need to cook for those people.”

“I would want more food than the amounts I mentioned, then,” I said, as I began packing the wicker baskets. “What I spoke of was for one person.” A brief pause, then after touching a larger cloth bag, “bread?”

“Drowned Kuchen,” said Anna. “Bread you can get along that big road, that and the commoner things.”

“Dried cherries?” I asked. “A bandage tin? Dried sugar-sap?”

Anna looked at me, and nearly collapsed on the floor. I was glad Hans caught her in time.

“How?” she asked. “That stuff needs long slow cooking.”

“You can get it easy along that big road,” said Hans.

“In most places, yes,” I said. “The first kingdom is truly easy, and the second kingdom takes a bit of work for the most part, at least for most.” I paused briefly. “I'll need to be especially careful there...”

Anna brought her hands up to her face, and whispered, “I never thought of that...”

“Hence I'll need to simmer the stuff at night,” I said. “We should manage an hour or so after dinner, if not more, and then I can put the container on top of the night-light.”

“What is this?” asked Hans.

“A small candle-lantern with a cut-down wax candle,” I said. “It goes on one of the buggy-hangers, and burns there so people don't get lost if they need to do their business after dark.” I paused, then said, “and I think I have just the lantern, also.”

Anna did not waste time once she'd received my explanation, and within moments, I had two such bandage tins and a bag of dried cherries. I wondered about the second tin, until she said, “cook what you can, and have one of those with you try to fetch some from a Public House every day.”

“Uh, who?” I asked.

“The butcher,” said Anna. “I've asked about him, and I think he might get his walking papers just the same.”

“Will he leave, though?” I asked.

“Him?” said Hans. “I doubt it. He might help out in the kitchen some, is what I think.”

“Did you find out about his, uh, salt?” I asked.

“I did,” said Anna, “and he's bringing some.”

“Did you pack common salt...”

Anna reached for the mess-kit, then removed the vial I had labeled 'salt'. She uncorked it, then put it under my nose. The lack of odor was profound.

“Yes?” I asked.

“I got some from him,” she said, “and I put it in that vial.”

I finished packing the wicker baskets, then took them one at a time out to the buggy. I was surprised to find the tub in place when I came back in for the second basket, along with a number of things.

“Sarah spoke of your bathing stuff,” said Hans, as he bagged a broken-in-two bar of soap, “and I put one of those pink things in here just in case.”

“Where's Anna?” I asked.

“She is fetching some medical things,” said Hans. “I'll get the box up here, and you can pick out an assortment.”

My knees began shaking, and I moaned, “oh, no...”

“I think you might want to bring some of the bull formula, then,” said Anna, as she appeared with a pair of smaller sheets. “I filled those pouches up. Now where do you want them?”

“One in this basket,” I said, “and then one in one of those tool pouches, and one in, uh, a clothes bag, and then another hidden good somewhere.”

“Why are you splitting it up?” asked Anna.

Hans picked up one of the pouches, then hefted it. The dull clink made for cringing on my part.

“Feel these things, Anna,” said Hans. “They make for wanting a good belt.”

Anna did so, then looked at me prior to asking, “is that right?”

“Partly,” I said. “I was more concerned with robbery.”

“That is not likely to happen,” said Anna. “Still, I think Hans is right, as these pouches aren't light.”

“W-what is in them?” I asked.

“All three sizes of coin,” said Anna. “I made sure of that.”

“And Sarah?” I whispered.

“I put silver pieces in hers,” said Anna. “There is talk of her to the south some distance.”

“Oh?” I asked.

“She was abused by wealthy people,” whispered Anna, “and giving money to her needs great discretion to avoid their anger.”

“Who are they?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” whispered Anna conspiratorially, “but I am sure they are very wealthy, and quite unscrupulous. More, they would not be merely angry at you if you helped her that way.”

Anna paused, then said, “they would be angry at us, also, and the whole town as well.”

I thought for a moment, then said, “given that Sarah does a great deal of sewing, she commonly has 'commissions' regarding sewing work, doesn't she?”

Hans was looking at me strangely with narrowed eyes. His face was inscrutable.

“Now, given that state, it is possible to hand her a contract regarding apparel,” I said. “She buys all the supplies pursuant to that commission, and marks them up her customary percentage prior to actually making the clothing. That allows for travel time, equipment, meals during transit, petty cash, subcontractors, and...”

“Now what is a subcontractor?” asked Hans.

“Why, Anna is,” I said soothingly. “Sarah needed an intermediary to purchase certain items, which means that not merely must she pay the going rate for the original item, but also Anna's markup and fees – and those are quite substantial, given Anna's busy schedule and status. There is nothing cheap about medicine, and that goes double for those practicing it.”

“I am glad you are not a miser, then,” said Hans. “That way of thinking is more than most of them manage.”

“It is?” I spluttered incredulously. “That's common business practice where I came from.”

“That is good, then,” said Hans.

“Hans, don't,” said Anna. “It was bad enough hearing about my portion.” Anna paused, then said, “now how would it be good?”

“Those people like that have spies,” said Hans, “and when they hear about such things, they will have trouble figuring them out.”

“They should also know about my, uh, generosity,” I said.

“That is so,” said Hans. “So even if they have a dozen spies for a given town, they will not know much.”

Hans paused, then said, “I put some of the bull formula in a bag there, along with the other things we use most for trekking.”

Again, I shuddered, and wanted to hide. A soft moan came from my mouth.

“I've seen my share of people hurt on our trips south,” said Anna, “and medical people worth bothering with are rare when they can be found.”

“Chemists are the same way,” said Hans. “There are some up here, and a few in that market town, and that is all there are of them.” Hans paused, then said, “and, I would say you've had most of an apprenticeship for medicine.”

“S-seven y-years?” I asked.

“Medicine has no papers that way, and neither does chemistry,” said Hans, “and the papers for what you do are really strange, or so I have heard.”

“Those are terrible, Hans,” said Anna. “They look like preacher's papers.”

“That might be why good instrument-makers are as rare as people who do medicine,” said Hans. “Now to the south, there are a lot of people who say they do that, and they lie when they speak such things.”

“Instrument-making?” I asked.

“That, medicine, chemistry, and a few other things,” said Hans. “Now with medicine, much of what is involved is tinctures, and keeping people from getting sick that way.”

“Hans, injuries,” said Anna. “Those frequently kill.”

“P-Paul?”

“Remember what I said about the man with the broken leg? How I spoke of making it worse?” asked Anna. “Living after that kind of an injury isn't at all common.”

“Those usually kill with bad infections,” said Hans, “the same as bad cases of crae or the red fever. Prayer is about all that can be done then.”

“Children are nearly as bad sometimes,” said Anna. “I think you could handle them.”

“Oh, no,” I moaned.

“You could fetch, carry, boil water, and mix tinctures,” said Anna. “That's what Hans does, and he does poorly otherwise.”

“Yes, and he is worse that way than me,” said Hans. “Deodorizing mules is bad enough to want Geneva after.”

“Drinking or rubbing?” I asked.

“With those, it is both,” said Hans. “They kick a lot.”

“Still, I think you might be able to do surgery, given the equipment,” said Anna. “I've had enough dreams answered since you came to wonder.”

“Yes, if you dose him with the bull formula first,” said Hans. “I packed some of that stuff in case he needs it.”

“Uh, that widow's tincture?” I asked.

“One drop of the bull stuff for ten of the widow's,” said Hans, “and then adjust it so it is right.” Hans paused, then said, “most of medicine involves care, listening, and things that do not need knives. The big trouble with you is people hurting. I think you feel it a lot more, and it causes you trouble that way.”

“Hans, I wonder about that,” said Anna. “I've heard of tales that speak of being like that.”

“W-what did they say?” I asked, as Hans left for the basement.

“I heard that one needs to be like that to hear God consistently,” said Anna, “and if you want to pray and be answered, you need to know what he wants. There's more that I heard, but I'm not sure of it.”

After packing away the 'medical' supplies, I began loading up the stuff I would need for weapons. I made certain both Hans and Anna had a supply of balls, 'thimbles', and 'revolver powder' for their weapons, and when I put my meager mostly-empty 'shot bag' in the larger cloth bag I had labeled as 'weapons', Hans had vanished.

“Where did he go?” I asked.

“To fetch some shot,” said Anna. “I know you don't have much chance to get more, and I heard how you gave part of yours to a farmer recently.”

“He was down to three loads for his musket,” I said. “You'll want to keep some in case...”

“Yes, I know that,” said Hans, as he reappeared. “I can fill your pouch up with this stuff here, so you have enough.”

'Enough' proved to be nearly two pounds, and while I had known of Hans 'collecting' shot, I was surprised at what he'd been getting. He had three decent-sized bags of the stuff, and I suspected he bartered for it when and where he could.

“I do that,” he said, “and I trade for it, too. I might get ten pounds a month or so in trade.”

“Ten pounds?” I asked. “How?”

“Most people with muskets can spare a measure of shot,” said Hans, “or two, if they seldom use the stuff. So, I trade them two balls for a measure of shot, and I get ten measures of shot on a good day.”

“And?” I asked.

“Then, I ask about it at Mercantiles,” said Hans. “If they have decent shot, and I have less-good shot, I trade them three of mine for two of theirs.”

“They don't go for that, do they?” I asked.

“For selling, no,” said Hans. “Mercantiles might not have trouble with rats all the time, but when they have rats, they have bad trouble.”

“And less-good shot works for rats?” I asked. “Huybert's?”

“You might go there once the rats start,” said Hans. “I've seen everyone in there carrying pistols then.”

“I'm not certain he would want to go into a place that sounds like it is practicing for Harvest Day,” said Anna.

“That is so,” said Hans. “Now you will want to take an added measure of powder for your musket and pistols.”

“And regular musket powder for the fowling piece,” I said. “I most likely have enough thimbles.”

“How many of those things do you have?” asked Hans.

“About two thirds of that tin full still,” I said. “I haven't needed to shoot much lately.”

Hans looked askance at me, and returned with a fresh supply. I added them to what I had.

“Now you have enough,” said Hans. “I put a small pouch of balls in that bag.”

“What size?” I asked.

“The common size,” said Hans. “I know you have plenty of lead and stuff.”

“And a lead-pot,” I said. “Will the others carry?”

“They should carry something,” said Hans. “I made certain at least one of those muskets you worked on is going, and I tied a small pouch of slugs onto its trigger guard.”

“Hence people will take what they have?” I asked, as I went to the workbench.

“They should,” said Hans.

I spent roughly another half an hour packing the remainder of my 'buggy' supplies, and once I had done so, I was amazed at the volume of what was present. It took up perhaps two-thirds of the buggy's box, though it was laid flat when done so, and upon moving it around slightly, I found it easy to squeeze down further.

“I would worry about that more tomorrow,” said Hans. “Now there is this big satchel thing, and you will want to pack that up before you go.”

“My pack?” I asked.

“Yes, that thing,” said Hans. “I think you want those special things in it.”

“Special things?” I asked.

“Those things with the tags,” said Hans, “and your magnifier, and...”

“Those are in my bag,” I said. “Otherwise, you're right – that, and some ready-to-eat snacks.”

Filling the pack with 'evidence' took but minutes, and with each such article, I spent a minute padding and wrapping the item with rags. I put the 'key' in my possible bag on a length of string tied to a strap, and after tucking a small bag of peppered dried meat in beside it, I thought the work done.

“No, those three books, a pair of ledgers, writing dowels, and...”

My thinking burst abruptly into speech: “slates. I need a few of those, with covers.”

“You have ledgers,” said Hans, “and those are a lot better.”

“Yes, for 'permanent' documentation,” I said. “For 'simple' things, and, uh...”

I suddenly had an impression: paper was not something mere 'guards' had ready access to, and my use of ledgers and other matters would need concealment in many places. I thought to speak of the matter, and when I turned, I was surprised to see Sarah missing. I was now alone in the parlor.

I went upstairs, and when I turned the corner heading left I heard Anna and Sarah speaking ahead. I had never gone past my room down this hallway, and an open doorway seemed to beckon me. One step, two steps past my doorway, then a third and part of a fourth, and I was in a room of astonishing size.

“What is this room?” I asked, amid the faint glimmers of a candle.

“Where the cloths and larger medical things are kept,” said Anna. “I've been putting Sarah's things in here for a while.”

“A while?” I asked.

“Since shortly after I came to this area,” said Sarah. “Most of what I own that I cannot readily carry I keep here.”

I looked around the room, and noted its width, as well as the obvious dark pipe of the stove. I came closer to the pipe, and put my hand within a foot of it – and noted palpable warmth.

“So that's how it stays warm up here,” I murmured.

“That, and heat comes up the stairs a fair amount,” said Anna.

“Is this stovepipe the same size as that below?” I asked. “It seems larger.”

“It was all the same size we put up,” said Anna. “You might want to look closer, as there's an outer portion to prevent burns and things.”

I looked closer, and noted the actual stovepipe at the bottom, and then, at the top. The wider portion – it looked like the 'oven' size – was a heat-shield.

“And it increases the efficiency of the upstairs heating arrangement,” said the soft voice.

I then recalled my 'mission', and upon mentioning it, Sarah 'jolted', then said, “I always wondered why they listed covered slates as part of what we needed for our traveling.”

“Uh, camouflage?” I asked. “Are guards thought to be, uh, illiterate?”

Anna looked at me with huge eyes, then mouthed the word “Oh!” Sarah, on the other hand, said, “that depends on the house. Here, it can vary widely, as it does in the fourth, but in the second and third kingdoms, the common level of education seems usual.”

“And my using paper speaks of something amiss,” I said. “Hence, I need camouflage of a sort.”

“Slates and chalk?” asked Sarah. “How would that help with hiding?”

“They aren't paper, dear,” I said. “Do such people write?”

“They do, though badly and seldom,” said Anna.

“And hence I'd be expected to be an abysmally poor reader, and unable to write, given where I come from,” I muttered, “and doing the precise opposite would get the whole group into trouble.”

“I am not certain about that,” said Anna. “I am certain it would draw attention.”

“The wrong attention?” I said.

Anna looked at me strangely, then produced a peculiar rectangular-shaped bag with a buttoned top portion. I opened the bag, and took out a dark gray slate edged with wood and covered with a screw-retained sheet copper cover.

“Where did you get these?” I asked.

“That one second-hand store,” said Anna. “I suspected them to have been sold by a student, and Sarah confirmed it.”

“I once had a package just like it,” she said. “You might take one of the slates and put it in your satchel, along with some sawed chalk in a bag.”

“How did you know about sawing chalk?” I asked.

“I've seen block-chalk, and I've sawn it myself,” she said. “Wall-slates are common in the higher schools, and one wants one's own chalk should one be called to demonstrate in class.”

“How did you saw it?” I asked.

“I borrowed a saw,” said Sarah. “Our dining-group had many things in common, and a jeweler's saw with a package of mingled blades was one of what we had.” Sarah paused, then said, “I saw you pack one in your tool pouches, in fact.”

“I have some sawed chalk in my possible bag,” I said, “as well as a small slate.”

“Then you might wish to take this package,” said Anna. “Hans has enough slates downstairs.”

After packing the slates – I put one in my pack – I topped the thing up with another small package of dried meat. I then put it in my room next to my bed, and recalled my pillows and blanket.

“I'll bag them in the morning,” I thought, as I found a suitable-sized bag. “Oh, horse-grain.”

Sarah showed in my doorway, and said, “I packed three bags of it in the front of the buggy.”

“Three?” I asked.

“One of common grain,” said Sarah, “a bag of sweetened grain, and then a third bag of dried distilling grain. I put those grain-pans in with them.”

I then went downstairs, and bagged up the books, ledgers, and other supplies. As I did, however, I saw an old-looking book I had not seen prior, and upon picking it up, I noted the title.

Hoelm's Bestiary?” I asked. “What is this thing?”

“I found that in a second-hand store,” said Sarah from the top of the stairs amid yawns. “You might wish to take it along with those three books.”

“What would I do with it?” I asked.

“It describes some of the creatures to the south,” said Sarah. “It might describe animals that no longer live now and then, but if an animal or bird lives, that book knows of it.” Sarah paused, then said, “that, and it's a good deal easier to read than most student's books.”

“Did you have a copy?” I asked.

“Yes, and it was quite helpful,” said Sarah. “Some parts were particularly amusing, and served to help with nights when sleep did not wish to remain with me.”

“Amusing?” I asked, as I slipped it into the bag.

“Some of those animals are hard to believe,” said Sarah. “One of them has ten legs, horns, and blows fire.”

“Blows fire?” I said with chattering teeth. “Which one is that?”

“That one is in the Grim Collection also,” said Sarah, “and there, its description is especially frightening. I'd rather read about it in that book.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “What is it called?”

“The one in the Grim is large and fierce,” said Sarah. “The one in the Bestiary isn't nearly as bad.”

“And the name?” I asked.

“The Horned Dragoon,” said Sarah, who again stifled a yawn. “I think it's near time for bed.”

Sarah was indeed right, and over the next hour, the house grew silent, save for the faint noises of snoring that seemed to come from all points of the compass. While I did not know if I snored or not, I slept deeply, and without dreams. Tomorrow, I hoped, would be neither dream nor nightmare.