Witches? I hope not... (part c)
I had no idea as to how to respond to Albrecht, both as to his apparent knowledge and his seeming attitude, and my feeling 'lost' was such that I felt as if I no longer knew how to speak. I was glad when Anna came, as she seemed to never be at a loss for words.
“He tends to be bashful, especially about money,” said Anna. “Doesn't mind spending it, but does mind talking about it, and he is new here, so has little idea as to what is to be had. Going by what I have heard of him doing, if it is good and commonly used, it will work.”
I seemed to choke on my own tongue, so much so that I gasped before speaking. “I wish I had some good files, stones, drill-bits, and perhaps what is used for cutting screws here. I've used taps and dies before, but not here.”
Albrecht scratched his head for a moment, then said, “that sounds like what most instrument-makers want, which is a good assortment. They tend to do nearly anything that comes in the door.”
I was at a loss, but he seemed imperturbable, for he continued, saying, “bought drill-bits tend toward the soft, but I know of people that make decent ones. The best are said to be made of this unusual iron...”
“Is this stuff spoken of as being haunted?” I asked. “If it is, I got some yesterday.”
“Is it?” he asked.
“The finished product isn't,” I said. “I am not certain about the ore. The person who delivered the stuff yesterday spoke of an especially foul-smelling smelter.”
“Yes, and why is it you got that stuff?” asked Hans. I wondered why he was asking, as it was obvious to me, and I thought it equally obvious to anyone who thought about the matter.
“I need g-good tools,” I spluttered, “and I thought to make a knife or two out of it to see how well it works.”
I paused briefly, then murmured, “drill-bit blanks, pincers – oh, locking ones if you can find them, then a small vise, hammers...”
“You are likely to need to make much of what you spoke of,” said Albrecht as he wrote what looked to be notes. “Those types of tools are not commonly sold. Still, if they can be had, and I can get them, I will.”
After making further notes, Hans passed him five of the huge gold slugs. Those he slipped into a small leather pouch he drew from his baggy pants, and after tucking the pouch in his pocket and the writing materials in his hat, he left. I felt relieved, and yet curious.
“The hat?” I asked.
“Those are his traveling clothes,” said Hans, “and that hat looks a bit like what they use in the mining country. I think he uses it to keep his notes and things handy.”
“I hope this does not get me in trouble,” I said.
“Now why is that?” asked Hans. “Most people that do what you do have their own tools, and the same for blacksmiths, unless they are just starting out. Then, there is what Georg is likely to get for tools.”
“Some arrived recently,” I said.
“Yes, and they might be passable,” said Hans. “There are good tools, and those that are better, and Albrecht knows where to get the best ones.”
“Why didn't Georg deal with him, then?” I asked.
“Georg tends to quibble about prices,” said Anna. “If one wants tools that are decent, then anyone who goes south much can get them. Albrecht has the best ones. Then, there is his attitude.”
“Th-that scared me,” I said.
“Why?” asked Anna. “Georg has a strange attitude, but it is not uncommon for blacksmiths to think the way he does. Yours is unheard-of in that trade, and I wish it were not so rare among medical people. Now talk has it Albrecht once studied to be a preacher...”
The recollection of my nineteen months of earthly hell intruded, where I once had wondered if that was to be my road as well. I wanted to hide.
“I have wondered about you that way,” said Anna. “You almost seem to have studied that way as well.”
“In what way, Anna?” I asked. “I once thought I might be doing that, and that place where I spent nineteen months taught those type of things. I only gave it up when I learned otherwise.”
“I thought so,” said Anna. I almost heard a trace of what might have been smugness in her tone. “I would expect him to take a few weeks to round up what he's after, even with a long trip.”
“L-long trip?” I asked.
“It usually takes us six or seven days to go down there,” said Hans. “His buggy is like ours, and he has a good team. Then, both of them know how to drive, and he does not waste time when he is traveling.”
“Both of them?” I asked.
“Yes, him and his wife trade off, same as we do when we go south to get things at the market down there,” said Hans. “We don't stop much when we travel, unless it is night and time for sleeping.”
Maarten spoke again of witches the next day, and in this instance, he spoke of where they tended to appear and what they did. The unspoken portion of his message – what to do about them – was a matter of presumption on his part, or so I guessed. Once home and eating at the table, I was being plied with questions about what he had spoken of, and when lunch was finished, I thought to ask my own questions, chief among them this:
“Why did Maarten speak of witches again?”
“Mostly as it will soon be the witch-season,” said Hans. “Those northern ones mostly come in the spring and fall, though I have heard of them coming in the middle of winter. Then, there are those that live here, and they show when they show.”
Here, Hans paused, then said, “those northern ones are like a bad sickness.”
“Bad sickness?” I asked.
“They come back,” said Hans. “I hope that musket comes good, as you will want one when they show.”
The odd silvery tint that I had noticed with that strange 'iron' seemed inclined to remain when I made several slim billets of the stuff for 'cooking', and when I took it out the morning after, I was astonished to see substantial numbers of very fine blisters all over the surface of each billet. Welding seemed but slightly harder than with the former material – more flux and a higher temperature helped – and after folding the billets twice and repacking them in charcoal, I thought to try some of the 'first-quality common iron'.
Here, I was again surprised at how readily it forged, and as I banged out a thin section – I wished to try making a rim-bending tool for copperware as per my drawing – I noted the others were watching me.
“Good that you tried that stuff,” said Georg. “Someone spoke to me about an ax, and I was hoping you would try making one.”
“How are those done?” I asked. “A mandrel of some kind?”
The quizzical looks and complete silence that followed was such that I wondered for a moment, then I said, “I asked because I had heard of how they were done, but have never done one, and I hoped one or more of you knew.”
“I have seen them done,” said Georg, “but I've never done one, and what you spoke of is much of what I saw. Now what is this thing you called a mandrel?”
“That is a specially shaped bar that the iron is folded around prior to welding,” I said, “and the handle is put in the hole left by it.”
Again, the mystified expressions and silence, so much so that I asked, “do they do them that way?”
“I didn't get that good of a look when they were making that one I spoke of,” said Georg. “Few people make those up here, and where they make them in numbers, they don't speak much about the process.”
“Wonderful,” I thought. “They have no idea as to how this is done, and I don't either. All I can do is try making one.”
After making the rim-bending tool, I used the new files to finish it. While they cut noticeably better than the old ones, they also seemed to hurt my hands much more. I paused once to look at the handles, and saw clumsiness manifested as crudely turned wood wrapped with copper wire, with the whole nearly two inches in diameter and nine inches long. I wondered about wrapping them in leather – and then, perhaps, making my own handles to replace the existing too-long ones. Only the fact that they weren't 'mine' prevented me from acting immediately on the matter – at least, until I saw both Johannes and Gelbhaar whittling on the handles of the files they were using.
“Is it normal for these to be this bad?” I asked.
“It took a while to get the old ones to the point where they did not hurt to use them,” said Johannes, “and these are some of the worst I have seen.”
Three days of cooking and folding made for odd bluish-gray billets that were somewhat reluctant to move under the hammer unless I forged them at a higher temperature. As I forged one of the billets out into three pieces of the size I had envisioned for smaller knives, I noted that I seemed to be getting steadily better; I got more done with each heat, and I was able to forge closer to finished size and shape.
That ability was a plus, for between the harder nature of the 'steel' – it did not wish to file at all – and the soreness-inducing nature of the monstrous tool handles, I was wringing my hands with some frequency until one of the apprentices brought some oddly soft leather.
“What is this for?” I asked.
“If you cut that in strips and wrap those, they will hurt less,” he said. “Otherwise, you will be sore until you cut them to size.”
I looked at him dumbly. I had thought of leather wrapping, but I had no idea how to do it such that it would actually help – and more, I didn't have anything to cut leather with. The shears we had weren't very good, even with me sharpening them.
“How can I wrap them, though?” I asked.
It was now his turn to act 'dumb', for he had no answer for me. The only one I could think of was finish the knives and then use one of them – or so I thought for a moment.
“Do we have any wood-rasps?” I thought. It seemed worthwhile to look.
A pair of unusual-shaped coarse-toothed files – the blade of one had an odd lozenge cross-section, while another tapered noticeably over its length – were present in the tool rolls. These also had nasty handles that were both too long and too large in diameter, and as I began filing on a handle with the rag-padded blade in a vise, I could tell I was again getting an audience.
“Why are you doing that?” asked Georg.
“I don't have a knife yet,” I said, “and if I tried wrapping these things in leather, they would still be too long and too big around.”
I paused for a moment, then said, “how hard would it be to have tool handles made?”
“That isn't the trouble with these,” said Georg. “The chief trouble is getting the old handles off of the tools without breaking them.”
“The handles?” I asked.
“Those get ruined regardless,” said Georg. “Old files break near the handle when the handle is removed.”
“Could I look at one of the old files, so as to figure it out?” I asked.
I was given one of the 'superannuated' files but a minute later, and when I looked closer at its age-and-use-blackened handle, I saw that it had indeed been whittled on, and that at length. Comparing a new one and the old handle showed not merely a drastic reduction in size, but also a great difference in smoothness. I thought to cut the wire on the old one with one of my new chisels.
The wire unwrapped readily, and as it did, I had a strange intimation: the handle was 'burned in' and then pinned in place, with the wire covering the pin.
“And this wire has more than one layer,” I thought, as I finished the outer portion and began unrolling the second part.
Removal of the inner layer of wire showed not just one 'pin', but three of them, and driving them out with a punch seemed 'easy'. I laid the file over a partly closed vise and tapped on the smaller end of one of the pins with a small punch and hammer.
The pin all but leaped out of the handle to then roll on the floor.
“What?” I gasped. “This is too easy.”
Pins numbers two and three came out much the same way, and when I tried separating the handle from the file, it pulled off easily.
“What did you do?” asked Georg.
“I removed the handle,” I said. “Didn't you ever look under the...”
It was blatantly obvious that Georg – and the others – had never thought to do so. I then thought to ask a question.
“What do you do to break off the handles?” I asked.
“Why, hammer the handle off,” said Georg. “That is what I have seen people do, and the handle is always ruined and the file's tang always breaks – until now.”
“Can we have handles made?” I asked.
“It might be easier than whittling on them, as that is slow,” said Georg. “Try that new file there, and see if it is the same.”
The new file proved even easier to 'dismantle', and once the wooden piece was off, Georg took both the old file handle and the new one elsewhere. I presumed he wished to have the old handle copied, and when he returned, my presumption proved right.
“Give them about half an hour, and then go check that handle they're working on,” he said. “If it comes good, then we can do that with these others.”
I went to check after another brief stint of filing on one of the smaller knife blades, and to my surprise, the 'new' handle had not been 'trimmed'. One of the carpenters seemed to be making a new one from scratch.
“Is it the wood?” I asked.
“Bought tools tend to use bad wood,” he said, “and these are worse than is common for them. It's easier to get some decent stuff and make another handle.”
“Whittling?” I asked. “I've seen that done today.”
“That takes far too long,” he said. “I cannot put these on the lathe, they splinter if I try to use the usual tools, and I don't have farrier's tools to try to file them. I know you have more than one of those things that needs a new handle, so it would be wise to spend a bit of time to make a pattern.”
I left the man to his labor, and returned to the shop. There, I had to answer questions about why 'cleaning up' the handle was taking so long.
“He said the wood was worse than common,” I said, “and I do not know much about wood. Does this stuff splinter easily?”
“That is why you must go slow with your knife,” said Gelbhaar. “I thought those people had tools for wood.”
“I don't know if they have what is needed or not,” I said. “I am not familiar with carpentry.”
When I returned half an hour later, however, I found the man working what looked to be a foot-treadle lathe amid a small blizzard of sawdust. He paused for a moment, and then I saw what he was working on: five handles at one time.
“Now I see what you were doing,” I said, “and this does make a lot of sense.”
“Yes, I know,” he said. “Why make just one when you know there will be more?”
“How do I try these?” I asked. He was quite a ways from parting them off the stick.
“I went by that one old handle,” he said, “and then I've seen what you made recently, and then what most like for tool handles. Yours tend to be a bit smaller than the common.”
“Those...” I spluttered.
“That was why I made these a bit smaller than is usual,” he said. I suspected he misread what I tried to speak of, which was the original wooden pieces.
“Why a bit smaller?” I asked.
“Because you most likely will be using them the most,” he said, “and after trying one of those turnscrews you made recently, I can see why. That thing fits my hands better than anything.”
“When did you..?”
“Georg brought the one over to show me,” he said, “and if we used screws more, we would ask for a set of them.”
“Screws,” muttered one of the other carpenters. “Instruments of Brimstone, and minted in hell.”
“Too soft?” I asked, while recalling the badly chewed examples I'd seen recently. The musket Hans had given me had three especially bad ones.
“That, they're expensive, and they're hard to get,” said the carpenter working the lathe. “We can make pegs and dowels easy, and glue isn't too bad if it's done right. These shouldn't take much longer.”
The carpenter proved correct, at least as to his lathe work, as not ten minutes after I came back to the shop he brought the five pieces over to where I was. I wondered for a moment how they would be fitted until I saw the hole in the 'file' end of one of the handles.
“Burn them in?” I asked. I was thinking about the files becoming soft.
“That needs to be done slowly,” he said. “I didn't know as to what they would go on, and I don't have forges. I do have the pattern. Now try one of those handles, and tell me if I need to do more.”
I carefully grasped one, and found it to have a decent fit, if otherwise a bit rough. I wondered how to speak of the roughness until he looked closer at the handle while I held it.
“You grip those things strangely,” he said. “Then, given what I've seen, I'm not surprised. Let me have those, and I can put the right shape in them.”
With the carpenter gone and his handles with him, I was at a loss. I had no idea as to how to deal with the matter, and when Georg came, I was afraid – afraid of censure, at the least.
“How is it that you hold onto a file?” he asked.
“It's a bit hard to do with a handle that fits badly,” I said as I attempted to demonstrate, “but I learned to hold them that way. It helps with filing flat surfaces, and filing to scribed lines. Why, is it wrong?”
“I have never seen anyone do as good of work,” said Georg, “so it must work for you.”
The carpenter came back a short time later with a handle for me to try. It was much smoother, and fit well, with a slight rounded hollow where my thumb and forefinger went, a bulge for the palm, and a swelling for where the wrapping wires went.
“There, that one's right,” he said. “I just need to scrape it a bit and make the pattern, and then you can have it.”
That took another twenty minutes, and the others were eating lunch when he came in with the finished handle. I had just eaten – I tended to be very hungry when working hard – and was about to resume filing on one of the knife blanks.
With the handle in hand, I began carefully heating the tang end of the file in question in the forge. I knew enough to not put 'color' into the file, if not much more, and I was surprised when I touched the tang to the handle. It sank right in with a gout of smoke.
I nearly panicked, so much so that I dunked the metal portion of the file in the forge-bucket. The cloud of steam that came up was surprisingly small.
“I hope I didn't soften the file,” I thought. “Now do I need to pin this thing, or can I just wrap it with wire?”
Attempting to remove the file from the handle showed it was indeed 'clinched'. I put the old wire in the forge for a short time, then drew it out and quenched it. I had an idea about wrapping.
I twisted one end around the tang of the file, then filed a groove so that the wire could 'slant' up onto the wood in the direction of wrapping. I then tucked the wire under the first lead, bent it back, and began winding. I was able to put on two layers and have two feet of wire left over once I was finished.
With a 'good' file in hand, I was now able to work more efficiently, and I had made good progress on one of the blades by the time the others had finished their eating and drinking; and while I was watched, I was not asked questions as to what I was working on.
“They don't have penknives here, do they?” I thought. I then realized I didn't know what penknives looked like.
I stayed later that day between fitting handles to files and working on the three smaller knife blades, and the next day was much the same: fit file handles, file on the three knives, make sheet copper pieces for the vise so as to not scar the workpieces, work on copperware, sharpen tools, look at the musket a few times, and wander over to the carpenter's shop to see how the stake-stand was coming. I hoped the thing would be finished before the rickety old thing I was using fell apart. It was not postponing its dissolution, and it only paused in its doing so when I was not actually using it.
I was now finish-filing two of the knives to size, while the third one was something of an enigma. I vaguely recalled pictures of scalpels where I came from, which was what I was trying to duplicate. The precise shape wasn't inclined to gel in my mind, even if certain details did. I thought to attempt drawing it using chalk and slate.
The drawing, for some reason, took but a minute to fill in the holes of my mental picture, and once it was done, I resumed filing the 'scalpel' with a will. I soon had it at the same level of the other two, and here, I found the new-handled files especially helpful.
“And I had best use the stones on these to get them as smooth as I can,” I thought, “as this stuff will propagate cracks if I give it the chance.” I was not certain how I knew this beyond the fact that I was certain about the metal in question. It wasn't tolerant of sloppy practice that way.
I was ready to heat treat all three blades by the end of the day, and as the others filed out, I put them in the forge left to me. I moved the 'oil' next to the forge, and slowly pumped the bellows. I hoped to finish them before I went home tonight.
The thick smoke of a 'fat-quench' was such that it took minutes for the shop to clear completely once I had 'drowned' the blades, and as I rubbed them with a stone dipped in distillate, I noted a very different feeling, one of a nearly 'soapy' slickness. The steadily growing 'polish', as well as the astounding hardness of the metal, was such that I was frightened, and upon drawing the temper, all three blades showed not merely a well-demarcated 'temper line', but also a very obvious pattern of softly wavering layers. I resumed polishing, using a scrap of an old apron and fine black sand, and finally, I put the handles on the two that were to receive them. I would need to finish sharpening them at home.
Each knife went in its own string-tied and folded rag, and as I walked home, I noted it was nearly sundown. I had stayed a good deal later than the others, and I wondered if I would be in trouble once I got home.
The table was set as I went into the kitchen on the way to my bath, and I laid the three bundles at the far end of the table on the way out. When I came back in, the others were just setting down.
“What are those bundles there?” asked Anna.
“Some knives,” I said. “I'll need to use the medical stones after dinner so as to finish sharpening them.”
While there was no more talk regarding knives at the table, there was talk regarding other matters, which I mostly listened to while I ate.
“Why is it you stayed later?” asked Hans. “Is this because of all you have to do?”
“That mostly,” I said. “I am not sure why, but there no longer seems enough hours in the usual day to do what I need to do. I think I need to do more than I did when I first came, and now, I also have 'homework' as well.”
I went down in the basement after dinner with the knives, and as I worked on them, I noted their increasingly-sharp edges. Hans came by to look at what I was doing, and picked up one of the wooden-handled ones. I had the all-metal one hidden under a rag.
“Ah, this is a razor with a handle on it,” said Hans. “It makes even that knife look dull.”
Hans paused, then turned. “Anna, get down here quick!” he yelled.
“Wonderful,” I thought. “Now I'm in for it.”
Anna came running down the stairs, then came up to where Hans was. He was still holding the knife.
“I think you need one of these things,” said Hans. “It makes your surgical knife look dull.”
Anna gently took it, looked carefully at the edge – it still needed a bit of work with the black stone – then said, “no, it isn't all metal. Still, it...”
I moved the rag aside that was hiding the all-metal one. Anna had followed the moving of my hand, and as she gingerly reached toward the knife, she began muttering.
“What is this?” she asked.
“An all-metal knife,” I said. “Pick it up and tell me what you think.”
Anna touched it, then picked it up gingerly, so much so that I said, “no, it won't bite – at least, it won't bite you if you keep your fingers from the edge. I have to finish sharpening it.”
“Can you read minds?” squeaked Anna. “This is exactly what I was thinking of, and the precise thing that was in my dream. Now it isn't a dream any more, because I am holding it.”
I gently took it from Anna, then said, “at least the light is decent down here. I need to finish sharpening all three of these, and then I'll have a knife I can use.”
“What?” asked Anna. “How? These have such small blades.”
“Yes, and you did not see him working on that carving tool's handle,” said Hans. “The usual size of knife works badly for that kind of thing, as I saw him do that, and that knife was giving him trouble.”
“I still have trouble understanding why people want such large knives,” I said, as I began 'black-stoning' the blade I had been sharpening. “Is it custom, or something else?”
The silence that followed was such that I wondered if I had overstepped the bounds of propriety, until Hans said, “I never thought about that. Most people have that size of knife, and they don't think much about it. I know I did not until I saw you work on that handle like you did.”
The next day seemed about right to dismantle the lock of the musket. My new screwdrivers helped tremendously, and within half an hour, I had the thing into its component parts – for the most part, anyway. Three parts had broken during removal, and all of them were more rust than metal.
After capping the distillate – the stuff smelled so bad I wanted a fume hood and a gas mask – I began looking carefully at the individual pieces, with the goal of tracing them out on sheet brass for use as a pattern.
“And I need a decent awl,” I thought. “At least I still have some billets of that strange steel.”
I paused in my labors to forge out blanks for 'awls', and as I began filing one of them into a greatly elongated 'diamond', I wondered about not merely a handle, but also a 'sheath'. I wasn't fond of being poked, and this example of awl promised to be an exemplary 'poker'.
The metal area had short lengths of uneven-looking brass tube, and once I had gotten a piece, I thought to solder a loop to its top in addition to the wooden plug I had in mind for the bottom. I needed to make another trip to the carpenters' for both the wood and to check on the stand for the stakes.
The latter, thankfully, was nearly done, and as I went back with some more small scraps of wood, I had an idea.
“I wonder if they could use good awls?” I thought.
My thinking was confirmed once I finished mine, for I had both Gelbhaar and Johannes wanting to borrow the finished awl.
“Yes, when I'm not using it,” I said. “I need it for marking, as chalk doesn't work for what I'm doing here.”
“I think you had best make more of those things,” said Georg, “as while we might not use them much here, I know of lots of people who will want them.”
“Why do they want..?” I asked.
“I should have said, 'we might not use them for marking metal',” said Georg. “Good awls are rare and very needed. I know I could use one for poking holes in my apron for some new thongs.”
Before the end of the usual working day, I had traced out the various pieces of the old musket's lock onto the brass, and now, I had a quandary. There was no easy means of cutting them out other than using my chisels to 'incise' them. As the others filed out slowly, I set to work. They were already taking for granted my staying later.
The gentle tapping of the hammer seemed calming, and as I chipped my way through the brass, I seemed to somehow hear an added portion to familiar sounds. I paused to look up, now wondering if we had bats in the upper portion of the shop, and seeing nothing, resumed my labors. It was too hard for me to tell one way or another.
However, I still heard things, and when I paused, I turned to see someone in the shop's still open doorway. I paused long enough to decipher who it was, and as Hans came closer, he looked around.
“This place looks different from how it looked before you came,” he said, “and now, I know what you said about there being more work is true. What is it you are doing there?”
I moved out of the way, now laying aside hammer and chisel, and Hans looked closer.
“I thought it was rusted solid,” he said.
“I broke three of the parts taking it apart,” I said. “Either they were too rusted to stand removal, or they were really brittle to start with.”
“Now what gives with the brass pieces?” asked Hans.
“I needed patterns for the pieces of the lock,” I said, “and I'm having to cut them out with a chisel, as I don't have a small, uh, saw...”
“Yes, I have seen those things,” said Hans. “That jeweler we went to has a number of them. It is likely Albrecht will get at least one, along with the blades the frames take.”
“Are these blades really thin?” I asked.
“The ones I have seen are about like thread,” said Hans, “and they break if one isn't careful. They make them near that market town.”
I resumed my chiseling as Hans continued looking around, then with a low whistle, I was jolted from my beginning-to-return concentration.
“This one is bad,” said Hans, as he walked toward me with slow steps and something in his hands.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I think this is what they were using to make the rivets here,” said Hans.
Hans had fetched something that was so badly battered that I wondered as to what it was. It had a long pair of 'tongs' to hold two 'mold blocks' together, with a third piece that went against one of the open ends. The whole 'mess' was held in alignment by badly-worn pins that seemed compounded of equal portions of dead-soft metal and misplaced optimism. I touched a file to the parts and shuddered.
“How can these things work?” I spluttered. The metal wasn't much harder than wrought iron.
“With those, I am not sure,” said Hans. “Most places that do rivets don't let them get this bad.”
“That do rivets?” I asked.
“Not every shop does,” said Hans. “I have heard that some places make them to sell.”
“This is part of the problem,” I said after a minute's looking at the 'swage'. “They must have let the tools go after that one man left.”
“I think he looked after them,” said Hans. “I have heard those are like those stakes for needing attention now and then. You might take charge of those things and keep them to yourself.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“I think they were trying to make bad tools do good work,” said Hans, “and beating the tools so as to help them along.”
I recalled how file handles were supposedly removed, and what I had just heard made sense. I thought to 'surface' the blocks with a file.
The softness of the metal, especially once I had run the files over it, grated on my mind with such vigor that once I had trued the blocks and removed the majority of the signs of battering, I wondered how to 'make' the 'hole' smaller. The thought occurred to me to completely take the thing apart, and finding it used 'sloppy' rivets made for but a moment's hesitation. I chiseled their heads off in a trice.
“Now that is strange,” said Hans. “I knew about the turnscrews, but not those chisels, and now you use one and take those rivets apart like that.”
“Did I do wrongly?” I asked. “This thing needs a lot of work.”
“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “Now it looks like you might put it right.”
“Hans, do I need to make everyone's tools here?” I asked. “Almost everything seems to be worn out or in bad condition.”
“This is not bad for a common smith's shop,” said Hans, “but for this place, you are right. If their tools are good, they might be able to help more.”
Hans left shortly thereafter, and I began to plan the reworking of the swage. The obvious steps didn't need much planning, and by the time I'd left for the evening, I had filed the blocks reasonably square and found the oversize bars I needed for making replacement pins, as well as brass pieces for replaceable bushings. I was not going to put it together with rivets, as I suspected regular maintenance was a requirement.
I spent the next morning reworking the swage, and by lunchtime, I was 'hard-fitting' the blocks. I had cooked its pieces in the cooking pan most of the morning, and was now lapping the blocks smooth using the fine black sand. I was getting a great deal of attention, especially regarding my filing and drilling.
“Do we have threading supplies?” I asked during the first break of the day.
Georg went to his 'desk', then produced a hefty wooden box which he brought to my 'area', saying, “this stuff took a bit longer to arrive. See if what you are after is in there.”
I opened the box's lid, and nearly gasped. The thing was packed with tools.
After finding some square 'dies' – each had its matching 'gage' and tap – I was extremely glad. I then found a 'jeweler's saw', some 'calipers', a protractor, two 'decent' awls, and a small steel scale. This last was in far better condition than the other, as it was actually readable. Finally, there were a number of smaller files of various shapes. These last did not have handles, or so I thought until I found what looked like corks in a small sack next to them. I tried one, and it fit perfectly.
“And these will trim readily,” I thought. “Now I can fix this thing properly.”
It took but another two hours before I had the swage ready for testing. The 'rickety' aspect had been replaced with smooth functioning, the battered portion was almost gone, and the clamping pieces now worked as intended. I thought to try a rivet, and fetched some 'rivet-stock'.
With the rivet-rod heating, I noted the square hole in the anvil, and I had an impression: I needed a bright yellow, almost a welding heat, and then I needed to hit the swages light blows in a great hurry so as to forge the head. When it came time, I put the hot end of the rod in the swage, clamped it together, and then threaded the cold end into the anvil's hole. Five rapid taps, and I unlatched the swage.
I had created a near-perfect head on the rod.
As I let it cool in a copper pan full of ashes, I carefully looked at the swage. It showed no damage, and as I made ready with another rivet rod – I needed to find out just how this process worked, so as to establish its limits – I heard an oath. It was not 'Thunderation' this time, but something to do with 'accursed black cats' and who commonly had them.
“Yes?” I asked.
“How did you get this rivet to come out so good?” asked Johannes.
“I am still learning how to do these,” I said. “First, the rivets need to be really hot, almost a welding heat. Then, they need several light blows. Those swages... How hard were you hitting them?”
“They needed a lot of hammering,” said Gelbhaar, “which is the usual for rivets. You were hitting them with much less force. I take it the thing is right now. Is it?”
“I th-think so,” I said. “I'm trying to figure out just how to do these rivets.”
After forging another head – I tried this one at a slightly cooler temperature, and it needed more force – I said, “I was right. You want the stock to be nearly hot enough to weld with this thing, and light blows.”
After a third rivet – it too was almost perfect – the others seemed to treat the swage and its result as if it were something too 'precious' to endure their abuse; they were most reluctant to touch it, and no matter what I said, they were unwilling to attempt its use.
Once home, I thought to speak of the matter. I had gone home but shortly after the others, as I was finding myself becoming unduly fatigued. I was attempting too much too early, or so I thought.
“Why would they not touch the swage once I finished it?” I asked.
“That was why I said you would want to take charge of that thing and keep it to yourself,” said Hans. “I heard about how much you did to get it to work.”
“I have to make all the rivets now, since they won't touch it,” I said, “and while they don't use a lot of rivets, they do use some now and then.”
“What did you do to the tool?” asked Anna.
“That thing was bad,” said Hans. “Talk has it he had to redo it from scratch, almost, and now it is right, so they do not want to try it.”
“They don't want... Is this like bought tools?” I asked.
“I think that is likely,” said Hans. “At least, the idea is likely. You do almost everything different to what they do, and the outcome is a lot better.”
“Is it just ignorance,” I thought, “or is it something else entirely?”
The latter portion of my thought grew like an enchanted night-blooming fungus, and I muttered, “no, I don't want to be a witch, and they treat me as if...”
“No, that isn't right,” said Anna. “I doubt those people have been to the fourth kingdom. The two of us have, and I've seen enough people doing what you seem to be doing there to know better.”
“What, that I am a witch?” I asked.
“No,” said Hans. “I think you might be as good as the best instrument-makers down there, and most people have no idea as to what they are like.”
The recollection that occurred to me – any sufficiently advanced technology might be regarded as magic by those less-versed – was such that I wondered. Did that explain what was happening? I wasn't certain.
I was certain about the apprentices complaining when attempting to cut 'blister-steel' billets to size. Even with carefully sharpened saw blades, the cutting was much slower, and only when I told them to periodically wipe the blades with 'smelly tallow rags' did they reduce their complaints. I then thought to 'spread the misery' by having everyone cut the hard stuff by turns. That didn't help much.
Once I had filed the lock patterns to size, I began to make the parts themselves. Here, I needed to 'homogenize' the 'first quality common iron' by multiple weldings and relatively brief stints in the cooking box, and when I had a billet at the proper 'firmness', I let it cool slowly in ashes prior to cutting it.
While I had done work with chisels before, this was something of an unknown, and when I began sawing the pieces to rough size, I wondered – wondered as to whether I could do it, and wondered as to how the result would be received. Regardless, I had an audience.
As I worked, however, more 'improvements' occurred to me, and I jotted them down on the slates. The balky behavior I had observed in Hans' lock wasn't merely due to wear and corrosion; its geometry was faulty as well, and I altered the shapes of some of the pieces so as to correct the faults I saw.
“And now I will need some wood-chisels too,” I thought. “More tools I need to make.”
Removal of the musket's barrel proved slightly more difficult, as here, I had to learn how it came apart. Only when I had removed the rear screw – I put it aside for copying – and then found the two pins holding the barrel to the wood could I take it out. The 'hidden' side was so rusty I cringed.
“There has got to be a better way,” I thought.
Once the barrel was cleaned up on the outside, I thought to clean it up otherwise, and I recalled the use of threaded breech-plugs. I also knew this example was probably rusted in.
“Time for the stinky stuff,” I thought, as I dribbled distillate into the obvious joint between barrel and breech-plug. “I hope this stuff breaks it loose.”
It did, thankfully, and once the breech-plug was out, I noted more rust and corrosion. I thought to begin cleaning it, and as I did, I noted that my small vial had company. A jug had joined it.
“Is this jug filled with distillate?” I asked.
“Yes, it is,” said Georg. “You might want to make a pan so as to set it out to dry properly.”
A 'pan' was just the thing for a break, and after making a small 'pie-pan', I took the pan and the jug out back, along with a rag. Uncorking the jug was simple, even if keeping my breakfast wasn't, and I beat a hasty retreat once I had covered the pan with the rag. The smell still followed me just the same.
“I am glad that stuff is out back,” muttered Johannes. “It is bad enough that you use that stuff in here.”
“There isn't much to choose about distillate,” said Georg. “He needs to use it, it smells awful, so that is part of the work. Is what is in that vial dried?”
“I was told it had set out some,” I said, “and the stuff in the jug smells a good deal worse.”
“You might want to try drying it more, then,” said Georg.
The still-present reek of that first 'smelly' tallow-rag spoke of an enduring stench, so much so that when I checked the pan before lunch, the odor was still hard to believe. I wondered if 'cooking' the stuff would help – and then wondered how to do so without starting a fire. A candle seemed likely, especially with the saucer atop a sand-bath. I then noted I didn't have any sand handy.
“And put two candle-stubs in it,” I thought. It seemed worth a try.
I stayed a bit later that day, and thought to 'cook' the vial's distillate in another 'pan'. I used a short candle stub for a heat-source with the pan raised up on a trio of old-looking 'firebricks' I had found in the rear area. I put two other candle-stubs in the pan as it began heating, and then I added the contents of my vial.
The stuff began fuming almost immediately, and only by using a slate as a fan could I blow the thick and smelly fumes away as they slowly rose in a noxious cloud. I was truly scared when the distillate began bubbling, then boiling. The next thing, I knew, would be ignition.
I swung the slate hard, and then grabbed the candle-stub and tossed it into the nearest forge, which promptly extinguished it. The stuff in the pan was still fuming heavily, and when I looked at the liquid, the previous honey color had darkened noticeably. I began stirring it with a small piece of brass rod.
As the fumes dissipated, however, I noted a near-complete lack of odor, and when I felt the rod, the oily nature of the stuff had markedly increased. It now felt like motor oil, even if it was but little thicker.
“And I am not doing that again,” I thought. “I almost blew the place up with those fumes.”
The new stake-stand came the next morning. While it superficially seemed a copy of the old one, when I tried using it, I found that while it looked like the old one, it was constructed in a vastly better fashion. It looked to last for some time, and after I had tried it out, the old stand went out back. I assumed it went on the woodpile.
The musket's parts went surprisingly rapidly once I had cut away the bulk of the steel, and here, I was glad for all of the files. There were two small brass brushes in the box, and I used both as needed to keep the files from gouging the metal.
My after-hours escapades continued. The next one involved a piece of bar about a foot longer than the barrel of the musket. I began heating and twisting the bar, with one end being twisted more than the other, and once I had it the way I wanted, I set it aside while I drilled a hole in a bronze chunk I had found. I would need to 'clamp' it to the musket's barrel after I had lapped it smooth.
Lapping needed three split brass pieces carefully tinned and another long rod, as well as a plug gage. This last was a source of trouble at first, as I knew I could not file the thing precisely round – or so I thought until I used two pieces of wood covered with soot tied with string that I fit to the 'gage'. The soot showed the high spots clearly, and with each filing – both of gage and the wood pieces – I 'snuck up on' the diameter I was after. I wanted something that was a hair bigger than the gun's current bore, and once I was close, I pack-hardened the gage. I used two brass bars and fine black sand mixed with tallow afterward to make it properly 'round' and smooth.
The long brass pieces each got their own grade of black sand, with the coarse stuff going first. I used the shop's hand-drill to turn the lap in the bore while stepping back and forth slowly, and here, I used some of the outside pan's distillate so as to keep the 'hone' cutting. I had to go by feel until the gage fit tightly in the muzzle.
“Now to clean it, and then go to the medium stuff,” I thought.
I put the 'coarse' hone away, and cleaned the bore out with rags and distillate. I tried the gage again, and this time, it went in a little further. I would hone with the medium grit until it was a close sliding fit.
That took no less than three tries of the gage before it went all the way, and as I ran the gage up and down the barrel, I could feel tight spots. Those would need the fine grit to clear up, or so I thought.
The 'fine' hone not only cleaned up the tight spots, it put a near-mirror shine on the bore, and as I checked it with the gage, I was glad I had 'lucked out'. The bore seemed to have a very slight choke near the muzzle.
The rifling cutter promised to be especially interesting, and as I forged one of the billets of that strange steel into the pieces I needed, I wondered how it would work. I wanted a relatively large number of shallow grooves, for some reason, and I 'eyeballed' the flats so as to give six narrow cutters. Rotating the cutter ninety degrees would give another six grooves, and I made the cutters narrow accordingly.
Finally, I had my 'jury-rigged' rifling setup done, and I doused the cutter with the boiled distillate-and-tallow mixture. I began to move the stick I had for a handle back and forth.
The steady pressure I felt – and the scraping sound I heard – was such that I wondered how the cutter was doing, and after thirty such strokes, I carefully took the rig apart. Cleaning showed the beginnings of rifling cut in the bore, with shallow smooth grooves just starting to show. I reassembled the rig rotated ninety degrees, and resumed the push-pull motion on the handle. After ten such 'doses', I had what looked like 'passable' rifling cut in the barrel.
I had cleaned and 'cooked' the breech plug – it too had received the 'square and round treatment' – and when I threaded it into the breech, I noted the gaps. Those were filed carefully, such that I could screw the thing home. It went in a full turn more before it became 'tight'.
I 'cured' the pin problem by inletting brass parts to receive the pins holding the barrel in place, and here, I had to make my own screws – in addition to a fair number of added rivets. I had decided to make another container for 'cooking' parts, and I wanted to rivet it.
While the others were now willing to 'try' the repaired rivet swage, I had to show them repeatedly how much to heat the rivet stock and stop them from trying to beat the thing to death. The 'usual method' involved a 'normal' forging heat, a surprisingly long 'wait', and then hitting the poor swage as hard as possible in hopes of a usable outcome. The result was commonly lumpy and marginally workable, with nearly a third of the rivets showing the beginnings of cracks near the margins of their heads.
“Why do people wait like that with rivets?” I asked.
“That is what I was taught to do,” said Johannes. “It was said that the stock needed time to get to the right temperature, as it would crack otherwise, and then one needed to hit the swage as hard as possible to form the head.”
“I think they told you wrong,” said Georg, “as I have looked at those he's done, and they aren't cracking. Try to do them like he does, as that is a lot easier on the arms and the tool.”
It took much of a morning's 'supervision' on my part before the others had overcome their 'fear' of doing rivets with white-hot bars, and as their output slowly improved – they still seemed wed to the idea of trying to destroy the swage, so much so that I had to watch them carefully when they were using it – I wondered as to why they seemed so slow to learn. It was almost as if they had no desire to try anything they had not done before.
With my two cooking containers – the second one's rivets came out surprisingly neat – I could now cook more parts, and the approximate-fitted gun parts went in for cooking sessions along with various tools and billets. When I finally had the metal portions 'done', I was able to polish and stone the individual parts such that they worked smoothly – and when I finally test-fitted the last hardened screws, I found I had an audience.
Gelbhaar was the first to examine the weapon, and as he worked the action, I could hear muttering. That portion I could not understand, but when he finally spoke, he said, “this is a very good musket. What are these grooves in the barrel for?”
“Those are to spin the ball when it is fired,” I said. “That tends to make them more accurate.”
With both cooking containers filled with billets and powdered charcoal and buried in a well-lit forge heaped high, I began wrapping up the musket with clean rags, and tied it with string once I had finished doing so.
“Those pieces you buried,” asked Georg. “What are they for?”
“More knives,” I said. “I'm not sure I want to try an ax just yet, as I need to, uh, get better – that, and make a mandrel for the hole.”
“You might want to see about patterns for their fittings,” said Georg.
“The pieces on the knives?” I asked.
Georg nodded, then said, “patterns for those are small enough they might be whittled. Word has gotten out about those smaller knives you made, and I suspect people want them. I know the others are wanted greatly.”
I left the shop but half an hour after the others. I felt uncomfortable with carrying the gun openly, for I felt much as I did with the first knife; this weapon was an uncommon one, and I did not wish to be seen carrying it. Once home, I sought out Hans, and asked, “Hans, can you try this one?”
“Yes, once I know what it is,” said Hans. “What is it?”
I was busy unwrapping the gun, and Hans came to my side. As the rags came off, he said, “now what gives with the...”
I had unwrapped the lock, and the mottled gray colors seemed to faintly flicker with a hint of blue haze. I could tell Hans was beside himself, so much so that when he spoke next, I did not hear what I expected.
“Now that is a good one,” he said. “Where did you get it?”
I nearly strangled on my tongue. “I-I completely redid the lock on this one, and reworked most of the metal parts as well.” Here, I paused, then said, “I hope it is acceptable.”
“This one is as good as I have seen,” said Hans. “Why, is this like with that knife?”
I looked, wondering why he could not hear the terror or see the fear in my eyes. I thought changing the subject might help, as well as give a distraction:
“I can load it up, but I have no idea how you stand that priming powder going up in your face.”
I used less than the usual amount of powder, then found the balls from the stock Hans had to fit loosely. I looked for a piece of rag, then found one.
“Do you have a candle handy?” I asked.
“Yes, here is one,” said Hans. “Is this for one of those rags you use?”
I nodded, then wiped some tallow into the rag. I then placed it over the muzzle of the gun, and pressed the ball into it. I trimmed it with one of the small knives, then rammed it home. I was astonished at the amount of force it took, so much so that as I removed the ramrod, I looked around aimlessly for the priming container. I was surprised to find Hans holding it.
After priming the gun, I handed it to him, and he walked up the stairs holding it. He came to the door, opened it, and stepped out onto the stoop. The sun was almost down. The days were getting shorter in a hurry.
“Now this one, I remember, had trouble hitting a bucket at twenty feet,” said Hans. “I wonder how well it will do now?”
“I h-hope it will do much better,” I said. “Oh, there is some animal over there, see, look.” I pointed near the edge of a cornfield that was across the road and headed out of town.
“Yes, a rat,” said Hans as he aimed at the furtive-looking creature while it paused at the base of a cornstalk. “I doubt I can hit it, but here goes.” He pulled the trigger, the gun roared and belched smoke, and the rat flew some feet in the air trailing guts and blood to land nearly ten feet downrange between two rows of corn stalks.
“That is... What did you do to this musket?” said Hans.
“I went over it,” I said. “Why, is it bad?”
“No,” said Hans. “This is better than any musket I have seen. It is as smooth as anything, it lets go abruptly, and that rat has to be a good seventy paces off.”
Hans began walking toward the rat, and as I went with him, I could hear him counting his steps. I was surprised when we had gone two-thirds of the distance and he passed seventy, and I was even more surprised when we got to the rat. He had counted out a hundred and four steps, and when he came to where the rat had been when it was hit and saw the splash of blood, he whistled prior to speaking.
“First, this musket had trouble hitting a bucket at twenty feet,” he said, “and now, it drills a rat at three hundred of them. Then, this rat is blown up. How much powder did you put in this gun?”
“Three-fourths of the measure,” I said. “Is that too much?”
“This one took a bit more than a full measure the last time I shot it,” said Hans, “which is a bit more than the other.”
Here, Hans paused, then muttered, “and now this thing is a witch-getter if ever I saw one.”
“W-witch-getter?” I asked, as I inwardly cringed.
“I have heard tell that some of those northern people ignore being shot at first,” said Hans. “I doubt the deer will ignore this one.”
After dinner, I dismounted the lock to show Hans all I had done. He held the piece of 'jewelry' in his hand, and gently felt the various parts.
“Now why is this thing all these shades of gray?” he asked.
“All of those parts are of pattern-welded metal,” I said, “and then pack-hardened, so they are not soft. Then, the important areas” – here, I pointed at them with my awl – “are carefully polished and fitted closely, so they work properly and don't wear rapidly.”
“Yes, and they remind me of a good watch, too,” said Hans. “Now how is it you can remove this one so easy?”
“First, the screws are not soft,” I said, “and second, I have properly fitting tools, and thirdly, there were some added problems with how the parts went together. Their geometry was wrong in a lot of ways, the fit-up was sloppy, and then there were certain other things wrong. I fixed those.”
I then showed Hans how to remove the barrel: tap out the cross-pins, remove the single rear screw, then lift it out of the channel. As I wiped the barrel down with a 'smelly' tallow rag, I felt less frightened, for some reason. I wondered if it was due to something familiar in my hands, or was it otherwise? I honestly didn't know.
As I replaced the barrel, Hans went to a corner of the basement and returned with a small vial, saying, “this I got from a clockmaker. The bigger bottle has been inclined to travel a lot, but this one has not moved much. You want to hide it good, as I think I know how these things grow legs now.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“They call this stuff Waal oil,” said Hans, “and it is hard to get. It works good for things like that lock there.”
I put the vial aside, and then refitted the trigger group. I thought to speak regarding the 'inclination toward travel'.
“Why don't you find out what is wanted,” I said, “and I will make a set of those things.”
“Those will grow legs too,” said Hans.
“I think I might have an idea, then,” I said. “If I don't have a lot of help with being organized, I lose things constantly.”
“That is why I spoke of a lot of tool pouches,” said Hans. “The better sets often come with them, now that I think about it, so you might not need to make too many.”
Hans then left for another part of the basement, and here, he returned with another 'medicine vial'. This example was nearly twice the height of the previous ones I had seen, and when I opened it, the smell was unlike anything I had ever smelled before. It smelled vaguely like a type of oil finish I had used long ago.
“What is this stuff?” I asked.
“That is drying oil,” said Hans. “If you get a little rag, you can wipe the wood on that gun after you scrape it smooth, and then it will stay good longer.”
I began taking the parts off of the gun again, as I had my suspicions about this 'drying oil'. As I did, Hans began looking for a rag, and brought one to me. I went to get one of my knives, and when I had returned, Hans had begun scraping the stock. He had managed to remove the remaining pieces.
“Now this will help keep guns good,” he said. “The old way was really hard to take the barrel out, and now it is not, so I can grease the thing easy.”
“Uh, I tried something with distillate and candle-stubs,” I said sheepishly, “and...”
“Yes, you did something with distillate,” said Hans. “What did you do?”
“I made a small pan,” I said, “and I wanted to gently cook the stuff, but I couldn't find any sand, so I used a candle stub with some bricks holding the pan above it. I put in two candle stubs, then that distillate you gave me, and the stuff started fuming and then boiling. I tossed the candle before it went up on me, as I thought it would blow the shop up, it was fuming so bad.”
“You are lucky it did not,” said Hans. “Distillate is trouble that way, even if it has set for a while. Now what was left?”
“The stuff was darker, a little thicker, and felt really oily,” I said. “The others were saying how bad the distillate was smelling, so I tried cooking it. I made another pan for the stuff in the jug, and it's been setting outside for two days now. I have it covered with a rag.”
I watched Hans scrape the stock, and as I did, I noted that he seemed to make better progress than I would have. I put my small knife on the table.
“Where does one get drying oil?” I asked.
“That I get down south when we go to the market there,” said Hans. “I usually get a fair amount, even if it is expensive, as drying oil is part of this wood treatment I do for the carpenters. Then, it works good for guns and tool handles, and some use it for furniture.”
“Does this 'Waal' oil come from whales?” I asked.
“I am not sure where it comes from,” said Hans, “even if I am sure they call it what they do.”
My small knife proved useful just the same for some of the more-intricate places that needed scraping, and once the stock had its old finish removed completely – it was more dirt and 'grease' than all else – Hans soaked the rag and began wiping down the stock. The 'oil' reminded me of furniture finishes I had used in the past, for it soaked deeply into the wood. I then recalled what day it was.
“Oh, no!” I squeaked. “We need to go wooding tomorrow!”
“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “At least we now have two guns that work good. After dinner, we can put this thing back together, and it will be good by tomorrow morning. You might want to wipe it again when we come back.”
“How often is this drying oil used?” I asked.
“For guns, about two or three times after they have been worked on, and then every so often afterward,” said Hans.
“The gunsmith doesn't...”
“Not unless you pay more,” said Hans. “That part is something most do themselves, as it is easy if you have a rag, the oil, a knife, and time.”
At dinner, I mentioned the 'sticks' I had gotten two weeks ago.
“Those things had worms starting,” said Hans. “They took them home for their stoves.”
“Uh, last weekend..” I asked.
“I told them you needed some pieces for axes and other things,” said Hans, “so they are looking for wood for those things. They should find some pieces soon.”
“At least our woodpile is getting bigger,” said Anna. “Now what did you bring home today?”
“He redid that musket,” said Hans, “and the thing shoots better than anything. You might try it tomorrow, as the harvest is nearly done.”
While we were gathering wood the next day, I could 'feel' Albrecht in the area, and I said, “I think Albrecht is coming. He found a lot of tools, too.”
“That sounds about right for him,” said Anna, “as it's been two weeks since you saw him.”
Here, Anna paused, then walked toward the buggy. There, she brought out the musket I had just reassembled the night before.
“I thought I saw a deer,” she whispered. I had neither heard nor seen one, but I hadn't been looking for deer. My eyes had been on firewood.
A faint crackle came from an area to my front, and I pointed.
“That's too far, though,” whispered Anna.
“Not for that one,” said Hans quietly. “That rat was that far off easy.”
Not two seconds later, a deer emerged from the edge of the woods where I had pointed, and Anna fired. The deer jerked abruptly, then in slow-motion crumpled to the grass to lie still.
“I do not believe this,” said Anna. “I didn't know it was possible to...”
“That deer is dead,” said Hans, as he walked toward it with Anna in tow.
While I continued piling sticks near the buggy – I had been concentrating on getting ones that were close to the right length, so they would not need the hatchet – Hans and Anna worked on the deer. They brought the gutted carcass back to where I was not fifteen minutes later.
“Can I help with skinning this one?” I asked.
“Yes, once we get the thing back in town,” said Hans. “We need to get those sticks in the buggy before we load the deer.”
Once underway and homeward bound, Hans said, “now it is good you want to learn how to skin those things, as you will need to shoot game sooner or later.”
“He doesn't have a regular knife,” said Anna. “What will you use?”
“One of the ones I made,” I said. “They...”
Anna turned to look at me, then thought for a moment before handing me the musket to clean it out. She then said, “I've never seen someone try to do that with such a small knife, but I would try it just the same.”
A brief pause, then “I think it's time you saw a knitter for clothing, and your boots, too. I'll need to get ahold of the person who knits so she can measure you.”
“The boots?” I asked, as I swabbed out the barrel.
“Those are just a bit down the road to the south and west,” said Anna. “I've been there many times.”
Here, Anna paused, then said in a tone of voice I could not place, “you might think about a horse.”
I nearly fainted on the spot, and whimpered the word, “horse?”
“Yes, for riding,” said Anna.
“Do you want me to wake up with a hoof-print in my forehead?” I squeaked.
“That will not happen,” said Hans, “unless you buy a mule. Horses usually do not kick people.”
“Usually, he says,” I muttered. “I would be certain to get the exception to that rule. Now, do those animals buck?”
I just knew I would get an imported horse straight from the pages of fiction, one that embodied every equine nightmare I had ever known. For a moment, I wondered if there was such a place as that fabled land named Mexico in these parts. If there was, I knew the horse's particular breed – and I did not want a Genuine Mexican Plug.
“That is what mules do,” said Hans, “especially if they are not deodorized. Mules are not common up here, deodorized or not.”
“Hans, those things still smell terrible,” said Anna. “It took soap, lye, and boiling to get the smell out of your clothing after you did that last one.”
“Still, horses do not kick or buck unless you mistreat them,” said Hans. “You might try the gray to see if he will endure you, but he seems a bit small. I think you need a big black one.”
“Hans! No! Those kick, buck, and chase people,” shrieked Anna. “I have seen those and they are mean.”
The description of the fictional equine nightmare-earthquake-rocket intruded: long, tall, black, ungainly, lumpy as a camel, uncommonly mean...
“Genuine M-m-m...” I choked on the words. I could not bring myself to speak the dread incantation that named this equine horror, and I felt as if panicked – at least, until my tongue untied itself.
“W-what are those l-like?” I stammered. “I want to stay away from them.”
“They are really big, all black, and run like thunder,” said Hans, “and you must be very gentle with them, though, as they do not tolerate mistreatment.”
“G-gentle?” I gasped. The horse overwhelming my mind had no idea of the concept; it did not wish to be ridden, and behaved accordingly, with the goal of shedding its rider at the first opportunity.
“I know you will not do that,” said Hans, “so that trouble will not happen. Then, they are just like any other horse, save if you must hurry. Then they leave everything else behind.”
The description of the nightmare-horse intruded again, specifically his speed when inclined to travel. It was compared to that of a comet. The animal Hans was speaking of sounded all too likely, for some reason.
“Then, they are as good as a dog about thieves,” said Hans.
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“They kick thieves to rags,” said Hans, “and that is when they do not bite them to pie-filling.”
As I finished cleaning the musket, I noticed for the first time the complete lack of any kind of sighting arrangements.
“Not even a front bead,” I thought, as I wondered how I hadn't noticed while working on the thing. A further question occurred to me, however: “how does he hit anything? Perhaps I could use eyepieces like those Georg said the sextant would take.”
“Hans, do you know anything about those 'eyepieces' that sextants take?” I asked.
“They are not common,” said Hans, “and but a few make those things down near that market town. Why, are your eyes going dim?”
“I doubt it,” I said. “I noticed you didn't have anything to aim with on this musket.”
“That is simple,” said Hans. “You point such that the top of the barrel is flat for what you are going to shoot, and then shoot.”
“Simple, he says,” I thought. “I would never hit anything that way.”
The Public House had more than the usual for a Saturday, and as I followed Hans, Anna, and the deer inside, I noted a buggy with a cloth-covered 'box'. I thought little of the matter, as I was looking toward my first 'deer-skinning' lesson, and when the deer was hung, Hans began showing me.
The 'partial-skinning' done in the process of field-dressing was such that I marveled, for it gave not merely better 'exposure' for gutting, but also flaps of skin that made for easier hide-removal. I gaped at Hans' rapid removal of the hide, then began doing what I could.
“You might be careful enough,” said Hans a moment later, “but I think you might leave that to other people if you can.”
“Am I doing badly?” I asked.
“No, you aren't,” said Hans. “That is a good and careful job, but we do not have hours to get the meat in the salt, either. Here, let me show you some more.”
Hans came to my side, then began 'peeling' the deer with such rapidity I could only stand and look at my knife. I wondered if one wanted a large one for this work until Anna tapped me on the shoulder.
“I'm not surprised,” said Anna. “I think you might let him do that part.”
“He doesn't do surgery, either,” said Anna. “That needs care like I just saw.”
My legs gave way, and I nearly fell to the floor in what might have been a faint to awaken to soft moans. I wondered dumbly who was moaning.
“What happened?” asked Anna's voice in my ear. It seemed thunderous.
“No, no, I can't, no...”
“Why?” asked Anna's oblivious voice. “I saw how careful you are...”
“Th-the blood,” I squeaked. “I would feel horrible.”
“How?” asked Anna.
I then opened my eyes and found myself sitting on a stool in the rear of the Public House. I blinked, then said, “what happened?”
“I think you fainted when I spoke of surgery,” said Anna, “though how you heard and spoke while you were like that is a mystery. Hans is just finishing up that deer.”
I looked around the room. As I did, I wondered for a moment why we were here, then with a flood of recollection, I recalled not merely what I had tried to do in the rear area of the building, but also what we had passed coming in.
“That b-buggy..?” I asked.
“I think you were right,” said Anna, “as I think that one was Albrecht's. I don't see either of them in here, though.”
“That is because they are doing stuff in town,” said Hans, as he came to the table. “We can wait for them here.”
Here, Hans handed my knife, saying, “I am not sure why you were taking so long, as I tried this thing and it works good for skinning.”
Anna looked at me, then said, “have you ever..?”
I shook my head to indicate no, then said, “I was afraid I would ruin the meat or the hide, so I was being as careful as I knew.”
“I think you just need more practice, then,” said Hans. “You might want to try skinning smaller things.”
The door opened to the Public House, and I turned to see who was coming. A tall and somewhat thin person came in first, with a somewhat shorter individual following after him. Both of these people were wearing long gray hooded cloaks, and as they came closer, I saw both holding satchels of some kind. The aura of mystery continued as they drew closer; both seemed to be wearing knee-length boots of soft leather, such that their walk was uncommonly quiet, and when they came to our table, I nearly fainted; it was Albrecht and his wife.
“I think we go now,” said Hans, as he rose from the stool.
Once home – Albrecht and his wife followed us – the five of us went inside. While Anna went to fetch something – I guessed it was beer, as the two of them looked thirsty – Albrecht flung aside his cloak. Here, I saw the buttons clearer, and also the boots. These latter looked to be made for comfort, not style, and as his wife unbuttoned her cloak, I was astonished to find she had dressed much as Albrecht himself – knit shirt, knit trousers, leather belt, and bulging pockets. Albrecht seemed to be waiting for something, and when Anna brought two mugs, I learned what he was waiting for: he drained the mug in something of a hurry. His wife was not far behind.
“You must have been traveling hard,” said Hans.
“We did, at that,” said Albrecht. “We went the back ways for the last half of the trip back.”
“Did you take the Low Way?” asked Hans.
“No, that was no good either,” said Albrecht. “I never saw so many of those people in my life.”
I wanted to ask who 'those people' were, but Albrecht seemed to be thinking. Finally, he spoke.
“I was very fortunate, even blessed, to find as much as I did,” said Albrecht. “For some reason, when I met with the people I usually buy from, they had the best work in years, and I bought it. Later found I had somehow got bonuses, in that there were some extra blank drill bits, punches, and the like.”
I gasped. It was as I had hoped.
“What we brought with us were the smaller things,” said Albrecht. “The bigger things took up an entire freight wagon and part of another.”
“Yes, and what are these things?” asked Hans.
“I found an especially good estate sale,” said Albrecht, “and I think that person was a miser.”
“Oh, no,” I thought. “Now they will b-burn me...” The tone of voice Albrecht had used implied 'miser' and 'witch' were two names for the same being.
“Was the stuff good?” asked Hans.
“I found nearly a dozen stakes,” said Albrecht, “and these weren't the common for either material or work.”
“In what way?” I squeaked.
“I've not seen many as good as these,” said Albrecht. “I think the miser had been collecting every tool he could get his hands on, and the agent was getting no takers until I came. I bought all he had, including the bench and its contents.”
“What did this bench have?” asked Hans.
“It was nearly full of tools,” said Albrecht. “Then, there was the tool carrier, and it had tools in it. I'd gotten the other things first, so in most cases, there is more than one of everything.”
“Other things?” I asked.
“Those were what I bought new,” said Albrecht. “If I go by what I saw in that consignment, it's either unused or well-maintained with little wear, and I suspect there were things I missed, there was so much. It should be along in a few days...”
Albrecht's voice trailed off abruptly as his eyes lit upon the musket Hans was holding, and he almost shouted when he spoke next: “Who did that musket?” I nearly fell of the stool I was sitting on, and I wanted to hide.
“He did,” said Hans, as he pointed to me. “Oddest thing I ever saw. First, it needs a patch on the ball, which is strange, and then it shoots twice as hard as is usual, and a lot further, too. I drilled a rat at a hundred paces, and Anna's deer was further yet.”
Albrecht's jaw slowly fell to stop with a near-audible click.
“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “That deer went nowhere except down. Here, look at this thing.”
Hans handed him the musket, and Albrecht began carefully looking at he. I could almost see his eyes widening, especially when he felt the action and tried 'dry-firing'. The shower of sparks made for flinching on my part, as I was afraid the gun would fire.
“I thought so,” he said. “First, I saw the knife, and I suspected something like this, and now I see this. Now I know better, and this area will change. One question” – here he looked at me – “are you marked in some way?”
“In what way? I am not certain as to what is meant.” I felt terrified, as if he were the executioner and fire-marshal in one, and had pronounced sentence – burning at the stake as a witch – to be carried out immediately.
“Well, marked or no, he certainly does enough things as if he was,” said Anna. “Tam's knee is much better, and he prayed for it.”
“Yes, and he was on the floor from it, too,” said Hans, as if he wanted to caution me.
“Then, there is this special knife,” said Anna. “I have it in my things. Let me get it.”
As Anna 'ran' for the upstairs, Hans said, “that is the special one. He made these smaller ones, and all of those things are so sharp that I wonder, as they make the best surgical knives look dull.”
I produced mine, and held it out. Albrecht forgot about the musket and picked it up gently.
“You didn't know about these, did you?” he asked.
“W-what?” I asked.
“This is an instrument-maker's knife, or very similar,” he said, “and I've only seen a very few of them done as well.”
Here, Anna returned with a small leather pouch. She held it out to Albrecht, who opened it and gasped audibly.
“What is this?” he said.
“I had a dream about a knife like that,” said Anna, “and now, it isn't a dream.”
Here, Anna turned to me, then said, “what he meant by the word 'marked' is spoken of in the old tales, where there were people who were disfigured in some way, either by chance, or by birth.”
Anna paused. Faintly in the background, I could hear screams, and over the whole of the screams – and flames; someone was being burned, I now knew – I could hear rhythmic chanting; and this time, I knew it was indeed a chant.
“There are no free lunches,” said Anna, “and that goes both ways, as there were things that went with that kind of making. A lot of them knew things, like you seem to, or were very sensitive in their hearing, sight, smell, and other senses. I have yet to hear of them seeing inside like you can, nor...”
“I wondered about going after that elk like that, though,” said Hans. “That was so abnormal I would hate to be a northern witch with a person like that in the area. I would get back on my ship and leave, and not bother trying again.”
Albrecht stood, then said, “I'd best bring in what I have.”
While he and his wife stood, I wondered what I was to do, at least until Hans stood as well. The four of us went outside, and here, I was astonished.
“Th-those boxes,” I spluttered, as Albrecht brought aside the sheet to show a number of boxes that looked like what Hans had in the basement.
“Those are what tools usually come in,” said Albrecht. “They're fairly common in the fourth kingdom.”
“Yes, I know,” said Hans, as he picked one up. “I got most of mine down there in the market town.”
“Were they this heavy?” I asked, as I picked one of them up.
“No, they weren't,” said Hans. “They did not have stuff in them then.”
“They have stuff in them now,” retorted Anna, as she picked up a box and I nearly dropped mine. I wanted to scream, at least until she put the thing down.
“These are heavy,” she said. “I think I will wait until they are less so before I try to pick one up.”
As I followed Hans and Albrecht inside, I noted his wife was writing something on what looked like a small brass clipboard, and when we returned, I noted that three more boxes were near the rear of the now-open back of the buggy. The two women had moved them in place.
“I'm glad neither of you are trying to lift these,” I said.
“Now why is that?” asked Hans.
Anna looked at me strangely, then said, “they are heavy. Is that what you mean?”
I nodded. The thought of Anna being injured by picking up something heavy was more than I could bear, and I was speechless with fright. I had no idea how I would have felt had she been pregnant.
Once the boxes – fourteen of them – were inside, I thought to look at the contents. I undid the latch, and lifted the lid. A thick neatly-stitched cloth roll was on top of the contents, and I opened it. I gasped in amazement.
“Those are among the best files I have seen,” said Albrecht. “Most of this trip's equipment has been like that.”
I could hear talk in the background as I continued looking in the second of the well-packed boxes: more files than I had ever seen in my life, drill bits, small 'pliers', some of which locked, trays of wrenches, measuring tools, calipers, layout tools, small 'medicine vials' labeled as having graded abrasives, punches....
My head was 'spinning' by the time I had peered in the second box, and all I could do was mumble indistinct words of thanks. I looked up, and saw both Albrecht and his wife with full mugs of beer. They looked to be ready to leave.
“Thank you very much,” he said. He then left.
“W-what is all of this stuff?” I squeaked, once I had put away the tools I had removed.
“I think this is enough to go into business as an instrument-maker,” said Hans. “Those tools are a lot better than what Georg got in that box.”
“Hans, this isn't half of it,” said Anna. “We'd best put those against the wall there, and then bring in the wood.”
As we brought the wood in through the buggy-way, I noticed some stiff-looking slightly stained cloths that had somehow 'showed up'.
“What are the cloths for?” I asked.
“Those are for covering the wood,” said Anna. “They took a while to get the wax into them, and now that I think about it, you will want a cloak with wax in it, also. At least I can put the word out for it soon.”
A few loads later, however, I noticed the woodpile was being arranged in a 'U' shape. Anna was 'untangling' the cloths.
“Why this shape?” I asked.
“Aren't you cold when you bathe like you do?” asked Anna. “This will help until we can have that room added on.”
“Room?” I asked.
“I have been planning one for a long time,” said Hans, “as it is cold during the winter, and we have needed a room for drying bandages and clothing. Now that you bathe like you do, there is more reason to build such a thing, that and the money.”
“Clothes get dry in the house,” said Anna.
“Yes, and they hang all over the place, too,” said Hans. “It would be better to hang them someplace other than the kitchen, especially when people come.”
“H-hang clothing?” I asked.
“That is the usual during the winter,” said Hans, “and most hang the stuff in the kitchen, as it is warmer there. We have that oven out there, so that might do as good for warm.”
“Is this keeping up with the Joneses?” I thought. “I hope not. That always got me in trouble.”
“Then, I have a feeling about this winter,” said Hans. “It plans to be cold, with a lot of snow.”
“I thought so,” said Anna. “We had best get all the wood we can.”
“Snow?” I asked. I was thinking of 'fourteen-foot drifts' and an immobilized town.
“We will need to fetch wood as we can,” said Hans, “even after it starts. I think twice our usual amount will not be too much this year.”
After piling the wood – now chest-high above the 'floor' made of stones, where I could easily put my tub – the covering went on. This was folded and carefully weighted with rocks, with a fold left for my entry and exit. I looked over the wall to the rear, and shuddered.
The cornfield was becoming steadily thinner and stragglier. No longer would it 'hide' my nakedness when I bathed.
By lunch-time, I had made further exploration among the boxes, and had discovered what looked to be a set of vernier calipers. They showed my hair as being two and a half units, which spoke of their accuracy. I looked for 'markings', and found little beyond three 'engraved' script 'X' marks. I showed these to Hans.
“I do not know what that means,” said Hans, “even if I have seen that mark before.”
“Which mark is this?” asked Anna.
“Three of these letters,” said Hans. “I have seen them on navigating timers before.”
“Navigating timers?” I asked.
“Yes, those and some few other things,” said Hans. “I have heard that meant they were the best ones to be had, money or no, but that was just talk. Albrecht might know.”
That box also had some other things that were cause for wonderment, as they reminded me of a device I had once made. Their workmanship, however, was far better than that device, for they were astonishing sensitive. I had the impression they were the local equivalent of dial indicators.
“Now I see that you are looking some more,” said Hans. “That shed might wish to be larger, what with all of this stuff.”
“Uh, Hans, these don't like damp...”
Hans shook his head, then said, “yes, I see that now. It might be best if you put them in the kitchen, or close to it, as it is warmest and driest there when it is winter. The basement might work, too.”
“That bench, Hans,” said Anna. “It might well be too big to move down there.”
“And heavy, too,” I said. “I wonder if there is some leather-sewing equipment in this stuff?”
“I would not be surprised,” said Anna. “Some of that leather has come back, and I hope I can make you a pouch soon.”
“For?” I asked.
“I've started on the money pouch,” said Anna, “but I think you need one for your knives, too.”
Another half-hour's exploration uncovered a 'sewing kit' consisting of two 'sticks' of sturdy-looking whitish thread, an assortment of stout needles, two 'sticks' of pale yellow wax, and what might have been a stitching awl. It looked like one of those I had where I came from. Anna all but took the kit from me when I showed her.
“Now this is what I've wanted for ages,” said Anna.
“Watch that it does not grow legs,” said Hans.
Anna looked at him, then said, “I know where this one goes, Hans.”
“Why is it you wanted one of these?” I squeaked.
“Sewing leather is slow and hurtful with the tools that are common up here,” said Anna. “I've wished for a good awl, but those fifth kingdom things are terrible.”
“Use his, Anna,” said Hans, as he came closer to look at what I had brought to the table. “That is the best one I have seen.”
“More awls, I see,” I said. “Georg was speaking of my making them, and both Johannes and Gelbhaar want to borrow mine when I am not using it.”
“You might look in those boxes more,” said Hans. “I think there might be some of those things in there somewhere.”
Another brief foray into 'box-land' found a trio of awls. These were far better than those that had come with that one box of tools, and when I brought them out, Hans looked at mine and then at those.
“I thought so,” he said. “These are good awls, and his is still better.”
Here, Hans looked at me, then said, “now why is your awl this yellowish-brown color?”
“That's the color the metal gets when it's tempered,” I said. “Why? I've seen colors like that before on needles here.”
“Yes, that is so,” said Hans, “and this one you made for your own use.”
“Why, is it wrong?” I asked.
“I am not sure if it is wrong or not,” said Hans, “but most tools are shiny, and many people want them to be that way.”
I looked back toward the boxes, then recalled that while there were a fair number of tools that had received 'full-polish', there were easily as many that either had temper-colors or satin finishes. I thought the matter one of preference, actually; I routinely left my tools in their temper colors when I had made them in the past.
“And I would have gladly had them treated with corrosion-resistant finishes, if I could have done it cheaply enough,” I thought.
“I doubt it matters much,” said Anna, as she took one of the 'bought' awls and began poking holes for stitching.
“Here, try mine,” I said. Anna looked like she was having trouble.
Anna took my awl, then within seconds, began muttering. I could tell an outburst would soon come, and seconds later, it did.
“Who was the witch who made those things!” spat Anna. “This one makes them feel awful.”
“Now what is this?” asked Hans, as he took up one of the bought awls. “This is a good awl, here.”
“Hans, try that one, and then this one, and tell me again those things are good,” screeched Anna.
Hans used my awl to poke some holes in the leather, then one of the 'bought' awls. He then began mumbling. I wondered what his outburst would be.
Hans, however, did not 'lose' his temper, even if he laid aside the bought awl before speaking. “Those that came might be good awls, but this one is better, and not a little better,” he said. “Now I would be careful, as awls are common things.”
“Common?” I asked.
“As in most people have them,” said Hans. “If they find out about this one, they will toss what they have and want ones like it, and you will be making awls all day and every day.”
As a break from sewing, I dismantled the musket and cleaned it thoroughly before applying a second coat of drying oil to its wood. The stuff seemed to rub in especially readily, so much so that when I finished wiping it, the wood was nearly dry. I left the gun downstairs and came up to resume sewing.
The amount of progress Anna had made on the small leather pouch was astonishing, as now she was using the stitching awl and a small piece of soft wood to sew it up. I wondered about what I would do for my knives.
“Those are easy,” said Hans. “I think you might make a little roll so you can put both of those in it, as well as that awl, and then carry them around in your pocket.”
That took the rest of the day and both of them helping, but by nightfall, I had a small 'tool-pouch' with leather thongs holding it closed. It had more pockets than three, however; it had seven. The money pouch was done as well, and it held several silver coins. Both had been rubbed well with tallow.
“You will want a gunflint and a piece of an old file for your lighting things,” said Hans. “Georg has several old files now, and you might try to get one of them.”
“Is that what you have?” I asked. I then recalled what Hans had said weeks ago.
“Yes, and I might have a spare flint, too,” said Hans. “I will need to look for it.”
It wasn't until late the following week that the two freight wagons came. I had been unusually busy at work that day – more knives, with both large and small sizes in process – and when I came home, I was astonished to find what looked like a huge four-doored wheeled closet on the stoop. I was too tired to look at it, and too filthy to have any such inclination, and only after I had bathed could I think of anything other than the dirt on my skin and my desire to be rid of it. Hans had been prescient about awls, and I had finished several of them that day – and every day that week I had been making awls, starting first with a batch for the shop and two more for home use.
I stumbled downstairs in a fatigue-hazed state after a brief nap and Anna speaking of dinner, and I nearly collided with a massive roll-top 'desk' of varnished wood. I turned right, and nearly tripped over a knee-high wall of boxes, and then sank on a stool. My stomach was making noise, and my mind seemed uncommonly fuzzy.
“Did you eat today?” asked Anna.
“Y-yes,” I said. “I'm not sure what it was, but I did eat.”
“How much did you eat?” asked Anna.
“I'm not sure,” I said. “I drank several mugs of unfermented cider.”
“I think you need to eat more,” said Anna. “She should be coming soon to measure you.”
“Soon?” I gasped, as I nearly collapsed face-down at the table.
“Yes, after dinner,” said Anna. “It won't take long, and she's staying in town for a day or two.”
“Is this one of those ladies who walks a lot?” asked Hans from below.
“Most of the good ones do,” said Anna. “Either they travel, or they work in the king's house, and a lot of them aren't fond of working there, even if the money is better.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. I felt as if exhausted.
“Those that have money tend to have other things also,” said Anna, “and one of the commonest things they have is ill-temper. Most think that it is better to have less money and be able to enjoy what they have.”
I was able to think clearer once I had eaten a bowl of stew, and as I worked on the second bowl – I had needed to visit the privy twice, as I'd somehow gotten the runs earlier that day – I felt better. I also noticed how much weight I had lost, and more, how much muscle I had gained.
“If I keep doing this,” I thought, “I will look like one of those muscle-bound bodybuilders. I never had these kind of muscles before.”
I then noticed the massive desk again, and blurted, “where did that thing come from?”
“That is the workbench,” said Hans, “and it has a lot of tools in it. It took all of us to get it in here.”
“The boxes?” I asked.
“Yes, those are the other tools,” said Hans. “I looked and found some more awls in those boxes.”
“But I made one for each of you,” I spluttered.
“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “That was not all we found in that thing. There were a lot of tool-rolls, and little sacks, and these brass things that are used for labels, too, and then some stamps for marking, and this strange little vise, and then a little anvil, like some jewelers have.”
“Which little anvil?” asked Anna. “Was this the jeweler's anvil, or the other one?”
“I saw the jeweler's anvil,” said Hans. “Why, is there another?”
“Yes, there is,” said Anna, “though it is one of the smallest ones I have seen.”
“What?” I gasped.
“Yes, you have your own anvil, now,” said Anna. “I think this is a good one, even if it is small, as it has 'Dietrich' on the side. I have heard those are as good as can be had.”
“Does it have numbers?” I asked.
“Yes, two fours, one after the other,” said Anna. “Why, is that important?”
“The ones at the shop like that say 'one-oh-two',” I said. “I think the number indicates their weight.”
The woman in question came as I was helping Anna with the dishes, and when the two of us finished, I was astonished to see a thin woman with pinched features and nervous movements. She had a small satchel, and when she removed a long thin cloth strip and a slate, I found my sense on the matter quickly.
I wasn't merely nervous, unlike our visitor.
I was frightened out of my mind, and wanted to hide.
Only by the presence of Anna and Hans did I not run, and while I was being measured, I was glad Anna was present to direct her. Once she had finished with her 'charmed' length of cloth, she said, her tone unreadable, “what color?”
My legs shook, and I looked first at Hans, then Anna, all the while racking my brain for an answer. I tried, failed miserably, and came up dry, save for a few words in the form of a question.
“W-what is common?” I gasped. I could say no more.
“I think he wants the usual colors,” said Anna. “Am I right?”
I nodded earnestly, with a slight shake of my head. The sweat was beginning to drizzle into my eyes, and I could no longer control the shaking I felt. I was glad when she had her notes in her bag and was walking out the door.
I collapsed as if drained upon the couch, and my eyes closed in shock. From somewhere far away, I could hear a cork being expunged from its resting place, then slow-shuffle steps gliding steadily nearer. An odor, one of medicine, seemed cloying and sweet around me, and I drank from the proffered cup. Once, twice, thrice, then two more swallows – and then, blackness to awaken to a body so rubbery I could not move. I opened my eyes, and saw faint and spinning lights that roared and echoed like billows of thunder.
Yet there was more. In my peripheral vision, a tall slim dark-haired woman in a clinging black dress stood rooted – yea, rooted, fixed, immutable, and waiting. She spoke, and her speech – soft, lisped, muffled – was unlike anything I had heard. I recognized it on the intention level, however, and who she was, I knew but seconds later.
She was chanting.
She was also an especially evil witch.
I pointed at this woman, who now turned her supercilious etched-in-stone face toward me. She pointed back with long haughty fingers, and her face morphed abruptly to show the evil behind the mask of seeming sanity she had presumed. Her voice became a high-pitched scream, one that abruptly changed into the shriek of tormented tires melded with the nerve-shattering crumple of a car wreck, and that followed by foul cursing and blood-curdling screams.
My eyes then opened completely to show the parlor in a horribly blurred fashion, and both Anna and Hans were sucking down beer as fast as they could. Anna finished first, then said in a weak voice, “that was horrible. What was it?”
I could barely speak, and I gagged on something that tasted like paper before spitting out a dry white cloud of something that vanished as quickly as it had filled my mouth. Anna had somehow refilled her mug, while Hans was wobbling back to the kitchen.
“There was a tall dark-haired witch,” said Anna between gulps, “and she was cursing in some language that...”
“It was not that spoken here,” muttered Hans. “I am not sure what it was, but it was not what people speak here.”
“Then, her knives,” spluttered Anna. “She had enough to fill a keepsake trunk heaping full, and her temper, oh!”
“Yes, that was bad,” said Hans.
“It was as bad as any witch that ever lived,” shrieked Anna. “That smoke was awful. It wasn't datramonium, it was worse.”
“W-what was that medicine?” I croaked feebly.
“Some of that last batch of beer,” said Anna. “You looked unwell, and I thought to give you some.”
Hans looked at her, then shook his head, saying, “Anna, that might be why he doesn't drink more than a little sip of that stuff at a time, is it causes things like this to happen.”
I nodded, then said, “or worse things yet.” The recollection of the effects of the Public House's brew was still fresh in my mind.
Anna shook her head, and resumed sucking down the remains of her mug.
After Hans refilled his mug, he said, “now, I am getting an idea. First, you are wondering about witches, and then you are frightened of them, and now this. You might not be a witch, but it sounds as if you ran into a lot of them.”
Here, Hans paused, then sipped from his mug.
“Now witches try to kill anyone not them if they can get away with it,” said Hans, “and that woman was a witch if ever I saw one.”
Here, Hans turned to Anna, then said, “I had trouble seeing what she was wearing. Anna, did you see her clothing?”
“She was wearing this long close-fitting black dress,” said Anna, “and it covered all of her except her hair.”
“And what color was that?” asked Hans.
“D-dark,” said Anna. “It wasn't his exact color of hair, but it was fairly close, and then her eyes, oh! They were horrible.”
“Yes, and what color were they?” asked Hans. “I doubt they were the usual color.”
“They burned red like fires,” mumbled Anna. “They were the most horrible things imaginable.”
The tone of Hans' voice changed abruptly from calm to very serious, and he said, “that sounds like a witch out of the old tales. Did she have her face painted blue?”
“I didn't see any paint,” said Anna, “but she could have washed it off. Instead, she was surrounded by this terrible smoke the color of that coming from a musket.”
“Smoke?” I gasped.
“That is not datramonium smoke, then,” said Hans.
“What color is datramonium smoke?” I asked.
“A thick white smoke, like that of burning weeds,” said Hans, after sipping from his mug. “That witch sounds like this really bad one down to the south and east that caused a lot of trouble long ago.”
“The curse?” asked Anna.
Hans nodded, then said, “yes, that one. Supposedly that thing wrote it, then spoke the words, and the whole place went to ruin after that. It is just starting to get better now, or so talk goes.”
After resting for a while on the couch, however, I felt 'revived' enough to look at what was in the 'desk'. The boxes next to it were such that I marveled; there were clearly more than the original fourteen.
“What did they bring?” I asked.
“That workbench,” said Hans as he pointed to it, “then that carrier thing on the stoop, and then about as many boxes as you got from Albrecht. I think you have a lot of those things, so you might want to spend some time seeing what you have.”
“And making combs,” I murmured. “How are we going to get that big thing... Uh, where should we put that thing?”
“It will not fit inside the house,” said Hans, “as the door is too small for it to pass. I think you might want it where you work, as it has a lot of drawers.”
“Isn't it already full of tools?” I asked.
“Yes, it has some tools in it,” said Hans, “but both it and that bench have a fair amount of room in them. I think you might have enough of everything to have a set for here and a set for the shop, and spares on top of that.”
“Still, how will we get it to work?” I asked.
“First, I would check it,” said Hans, “and perhaps take some of that stuff out of it, so that it moves easy. Then, the two of us can get those people from the shop, and we can take that thing there.”
I had questions to answer the next day at work, for the others had had time to watch the two lumbering freight wagons pass with all the supplies, even if I had been 'head down and elbows flailing' so as to do the things assigned to me. I had planned to begin working on the other musket as soon as I could, at least until the equipment had arrived. I now had a sizable interruption that needed servicing.
I went home 'early' – but minutes after the others that Friday afternoon – and that evening, I began looking at what had come in the 'closet'. Within, I found the stakes mentioned, and when I tried them with a file, I was surprised greatly, for the metal was fairly hard. More importantly, the stakes were smooth, bright, and somewhat oily to the touch.
The 'jeweler's anvil', however, was an uncommon prize. It had a number of removable 'horns' that wedged into its polished flat surface, and the rounded plate-like portion on top was hard and smooth. It showed a few small dings that had been mostly polished out.
As I kept pulling things out of the 'closet', I wondered where the other anvil was, and when I came up 'empty', I thought to ask.
“That is in the little place in back,” said Hans. “That thing is heavy enough to want its own holder.”
Hans then showed me where the anvil was, and when he opened the door – I hadn't noticed it before – I was shocked.
“Th-that thing's new,” I gasped.
“I doubt it is just made,” said Hans, “as I found a few little marks on it in places.”
“But it has no, uh...” I almost choked.
“No, it is not like those where you work,” said Hans. “It is a lot smaller, and I can see places where they did some work on it, too.”
“Some work?” I asked. “What kind?”
“Bring it out, and I will show you,” said Hans. “I asked about these, and they are about the most expensive anvils you can get.”
I brought out the anvil – it was heavy, but not impossible – and set it down gently. Hans then showed me the top.
“See how smooth and flat this one is?” asked Hans. “Now try a file on it.”
I did so, and the file did not bite.
“Is that normal for an anvil?” I asked. I had never tried filing the anvils at work.
“No, it isn't,” said Hans, “not even those like this. Dietrich anvils are made in the fourth kingdom, but this size is special even for that place. They use different metal, and different tools, and for some, like this one, they have them finished at the Heinrich works.”
“Where is that?” I asked.
“In the fourth kingdom, near that market town,” said Hans. “If you find a gun with the Heinrich name on it, it is the best you can get. All of their stuff is like that, and it makes everything else look cheap for buying and working.”
“Do they make shiny tools?” I asked.
“I am not sure what they use,” said Hans, “but whatever it is, it is right, as that is what is needed to do the best work.”
“Do they make tools?” I asked.
“They make a lot of things,” said Hans, “but I doubt they sell tools, other than those anvils. I know they don't do many of those things.”
There were a number of places for tools above the anvil, and here, I saw first-hand what Hans had been speaking of. For every hammer – there were four, all of which were in better condition than those at work – there were two places for others, and for every set of tongs, there was space for another set. I tried the tongs, and nearly dropped them.
“Those are a lot better than what is at Georg's,” said Hans. “They use bolts, and not rivets, so you can go over them like you did with that swage. The hammers, those are decent.”
“Hans, the ones at Georg's are...”
“Those need to be worked on some, is what I think,” said Hans. “These here are the common ones. There are a lot more, and those are either new or close to it.”
“Do I m-make my own hammers?” I asked.
“You might,” said Hans, “but then, you might just go over the ones here, too. Getting handles for them isn't that hard, and then you can work on them so that they are how you want. A lot of this stuff is like that.”
After dinner at the Public House – I hadn't had many chances lately, and Hans and Anna were busy as well – the three of us went home. I wanted to resume 'exploring', but the fatigue I felt meant that bed was a wiser idea. The three of us went to bed within half an hour of getting home.
Over the weekend, I worked on the combs when I wasn't gathering wood or attempting to gut and skin a smaller marmot Hans had shot on the way back. While I managed to gut the thing without ruining the meat, I still needed help with skinning. I was glad to commence work on the combs just the same.
I then found that I actually had two unusual vises, with one being 'new' – it wasn't, but it hadn't been used much, if I went by the lack of wear – and the other but little used. Both were fairly small, with removable jaws, clamps on the bottom, and a capacity to both tilt slightly and swivel around. Installing the 'soft jaws' in one of them took but little time, and now, I could make the combs.
I had received sufficient silver to make five combs, with sundry scraps left over, and once I had found the 'jeweler's solder', the 'blowpipe', and flux, I could begin assembling them. I had the first one done by dinnertime, and I brought it to the table. It needed to be cleaned and then polished, but otherwise, it was done.
“Now this is a nice comb,” said Anna. “Who is it for?”
“I'm not certain yet,” I said. “I have enough to make five of them.”
“Five?” asked Anna.
“Didn't you say Festival Week involved gifts?” I asked. “Are combs good gifts?”
“Like this?” asked Anna. “These are a bit much, actually. Had you made them of more common materials, I would say they would work well then.”
“How are they a bit much?” I asked. My unspoken request was “what is appropriate for that time?”
“I've done a few money pouches,” said Anna, “but what most people like are special meals.”
“Yes, that is the usual,” said Hans. “Still, I would think about those combs, and perhaps making them of the usual stuff. Those fifth kingdom combs are common, but that is because there is nothing better to be had as a rule.”
I had two more combs 'done' by the next day, and the first one cleaned and 'polished'. It didn't need much, thankfully, and its soft satin feel seemed to be especially pleasant to the touch. I found myself gently rubbing it more than a little, and when I gave it to Anna, she tried it immediately.
“This is the best one I've ever used,” she said. “Now how did you know the usual finish for jewelry?”
“I didn't,” I said. “I made it so it felt good to use.”
We moved the 'tool carrier' down to the shop after lunch Monday, and each evening and morning thereafter for the rest of the week, I was carrying tools to and from the house. Exploration of the boxes and bench continued steadily, and the more I looked, the more I was amazed. I had found two 'alcohol lamps', more jeweler's solder, no less than five jeweler's saws – all of them of different sizes – several 'tubes' of blades, five steel squares, and no less than three trays of taps and four trays of dies. I showed Hans the last, as some of them were very small.
“Those little ones are for watches,” he said. “I think you got more than the usual, actually, as I found the bearings used for those things.”
“Bearings?” I asked.
“Yes, the little gray things those gears run in,” said Hans. “They are hard to get. Then, I found the little thing they use to make those gears, too.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“That was in its own box,” said Hans. “It has some gears, and a few other things, and a lot of special chisels. I have heard those work good for guns, too.”
What Hans had found was a watchmaker's lathe of some kind. I had no idea how to use it, nor how to set it up – at least, at first. I soon figured the matter out: it needed a small stand and a foot treadle, along with a few other issues – and then, I could actually turn things, provided they were no more than three inches long and half an inch in diameter.
“Yes, like taps, and especially reamers,” I thought. “It does have the capability to do that.”
With the combs done, I began to do more 'homework'. This last involved making patterns for knife 'furniture', as well as working on the other musket. The new tools helped enormously, and the work progressed much faster both at work and at home.
The patterns took but two 'evenings' of sawing, filing and chiseling to get them 'close'. I wasn't certain about how to 'finish' the patterns when I brought them back for Georg to look at.
“These are fine,” he said. “I can have them taken to that one foundry when the sextant patterns go.”
“But don't they paint them, or varnish them?” I asked. I had heard that was the usual where I came from, while the few I had done had been coated in filled epoxy and then polished with a die-grinder.
“I am not sure what they do,” said Georg, “but I have never seen patterns other than like this.”
After feeling the patterns carefully, though, Georg promptly left.
“Now where did he go?” I thought.
Upon his return, however, Georg said, “now those carpenters know good patterns, as I showed them what you did. They'd like to know your secret.”
“I, I... Secret?” I gasped. “I was careful and did my best.”
“Yes, I know,” said Georg. “They wonder how you got them so smooth and detailed.”
That evening, as I filed the parts for the gun's lock, I recalled the old process for steel. While it was ancient history where I came from, it seemed unheard-of here, and when I spoke of a crucible days later – I had finished the gun the day before – Georg was all ears, or so I thought.
“What is this about strange iron?” he asked. “You do well enough with what we have, and I've ordered more of that haunted stuff, seeing as how you can deal with it.”
“Wouldn't you like drill bits that don't go dull easily?” I asked.
I was noticing that particular deficiency on a regular basis, as the harder metal I commonly used dulled drills in a hurry. Even those I had received in my tools needed frequent sharpening, and the number of knives and tools I was doing meant twice-daily drill-sharpening sessions, even with several drills for each of the needed sizes. I was beginning to think about making my own.
“Yes, I would,” said Georg. “How do you propose to make them?”
“We would need crucibles, a small furnace, flux – that bluish stone, perhaps – and some powdered charcoal,” I said. “Then, one takes scraps of that 'haunted' stuff, puts them in the charcoal like I do now, only instead of pattern-welding them after cooking them repeatedly, they get melted. That way, they'll pick up a lot more carbon, and...”
Georg looked at me, then seemed to think for a moment before saying, “I've heard they do something like that in the fourth kingdom. I'll see what I can get for that business.”
As I turned to go, I heard running steps, then Hans appeared breathless in the doorway. He gasped, then said weakly, “trouble! Someone is hurt bad. They were brought on a horse and their bones are coming out of their leg!”
All else vanished in my mind. I packed up my tools into the carrier, untied the apron and tossed it over my work, and I followed Hans to the house. I hadn't wasted time becoming filthy that morning, and I needed to bathe both myself and my clothing. I was starting to itch.
The itching was soon forgotten, for when I came within twenty feet of the door, I seemed to see small droplets of blood, and as I followed Hans inside, I nearly screamed, for it felt as if a cannonball had hit the upper part of my leg. I stumbled and nearly fell to the floor, and as I caught myself, I saw an occupied couch in my peripheral vision. I turned and nearly fainted as a faint moan escaped my lips.
An unconscious farmer lay on a sheet, with his bloody trousers slit open from the knee to the waist. Anna was carefully 'looking him over'. I was glad the worst of his injury seemed hidden.
“L-let me bathe first,” I stammered.
“That may be difficult right now,” said Anna's 'oblivious' voice, “as the carpenters are working in back. Still, this is important, and you need to try.”
I stumbled up the stairs, and found my clothing, then came down. I narrowly dodged Hans as he was going up the stairs, then went outside and narrowly missed one of the carpenters. He seemed to be measuring the area near the door I had come out of.
I bathed in cold water, which seemed to 'wake me up' to a degree, and with my dirty clothing soaking in the tub after bathing, I stumbled indoors. I hadn't time to put on my boots yet. There would be time for that later.
“Go help Hans with the stove,” said Anna. “We need a lot of hot water.”
I went back in the kitchen, and nearly spewed, for the aroma of distillate was so intense I could almost see the fumes. Hans had the oven door open, and was putting a rag inside, along with some sawdust.
“I put some distillate on this rag,” said Hans, “so as to get the fire lit faster.”
As Hans got his flint and steel out, he continued, saying, “I think we need a boiler like Anna spoke of, for this is slow.”
He struck the steel with the flint, and I saw a white-hot spark fly into the open door of the oven. I turned involuntarily when the oven almost exploded with a muffled 'Whoomph' and spewed a huge red fireball into the kitchen.
“Th-that distillate is...” I spluttered.
“Fresh stuff, and straight from the jug,” said Hans. “It works better for lighting fires that way.”
“Do I have any hair left?” I asked, as I tried feeling my 'burnt' head.
“Yes, and you look to need a hair-cutter's business, too,” said Hans.
The now-blazing fire received several sticks and another handful of sawdust, and once the stoke-door was closed, Hans adjusted the oven for 'maximum roar'. I could almost hear the thing rumbling hungrily, and the stove received three pots filled with water. I could feel the heat of the stove, and within minutes, I could see steam begin to come off of the pots. I then noted how chilled I felt. and how the warmth of the stove seemed to both bring sensation to my body and lift my 'spirits'.
Hans then fetched some bread, and all but stuffed it in my face, saying, “I think you had best eat something. Anna was talking about how thin you are getting, and that is not good.”
By the time I had gotten two slices of bread and a mug of water down, the smell of aquavit began drifting into the now-sultry kitchen to mingle with the steam. I followed Hans out into the parlor, and there saw Anna carefully removing the man's trousers. I turned my head and began shuddering.
“I have him covered,” said Anna a moment later. “Now we can start cleaning the wound.
I came closer, and as Anna stood, I knelt down. The 'towel-holder' and one of the jugs of aquavit were to my left, and the nose-burning reek of aquavit was thick in the air. I began to carefully clean the wound area with the cloths.
As I did, however, I seemed distracted, and for a few seconds, a cascade of pictures ran rapidly through my mind, as had happened many times before. The first part I saw was the inner cone, that being of two parts, with a radiused obtuse entry joined to a more acute cone that was nearly twice as long as the entry cone.
The next picture was of this conical assembly sitting in the center of a copper pot, with a small corked 'valve' on the side. The third picture showed a modified 'alcohol lamp' with an adjustable flame. I was seeing that 'boiler' Anna had spoken of, and I knew I could now make one.
“And it does me no good right now,” I thought, as I directed my attention back to the man and his injury.
Yet still, the pictures remained in my mind, and only by conscious effort could I 'blank' them partly, and as I cleaned the dirt from the man's thigh, I began to see vast hordes of minute blue dots. They were oddly mobile-seeming, for they scintillated evilly in the late-morning sun. I did not like them being there, and thought, “no bacteria in that wound.”
The resulting eruption of tiny flashes nearly blinded me as the man's leg seemed aflame for an instant. I looked at the rag I had just used, and saw fumes boiling off of it, but felt no flames.
“That leg looks different somehow,” said Anna from behind me. “Still, this will hurt badly, as I need to enlarge that wound and put the bone back in so it can heal from the inside out. That is, unless...”
The hesitation in Anna's voice was a cause for wondering, and I asked, “unless what?”
“Can you pray for him?” asked Anna. “I have heard of things happening, and I still cannot get what happened to Tam out of my mind.”
Once I had finished cleaning the man's leg, I turned to the medicine chest. This time, I made up a slightly larger batch of the tincture, but as I walked to the kitchen for hot water, I thought, “this business of making this stuff fresh every time someone gets hurt is asking for trouble. We need to make a big batch of it ahead of time, so we know what we have.”
When I handed Anna the vial, I said, “is there a way to have this stuff ready to go, in, uh, a standardized formulation?”
“It keeps better if it's dry,” said Anna. “The tincture goes bad quickly. That was what my mother told me, and so says everyone about it, so it must be mixed as needed.”
Amid seeming censure – I could not tell if Anna meant that in what she said or not – I still found the idea very hard to believe, even as Anna coaxed a small sip of the stuff down the man's throat. His seeming unconsciousness soon grew less of a seeming, and more a reality; minutes later, Anna said softly, “I think he's asleep.”
She then took out the all-metal knife, and swished it around in the copper cup of aquavit. I knew what was going to come next, and before I closed my eyes, I thought, “no bacteria, please.”
The 'thump' I felt was such that my eyes were jerked open, and the eruption of blue-white flashes I saw – the man's leg, inside the wound, Anna's hands, and even on the knife – were such that I almost closed my eyes again. I wanted to badly seconds later, as Anna began to cut the wound open.
With each such slice, the blood flowed, and I almost screamed. Anna seemed completely oblivious, much as if she were dicing meat for the pot, and I was horror-stricken. I shuddered and moaned, then words came from my mouth unbidden:
“N-no, please, don't.”
A light blue 'haze' seemed to settle on the wound, and the blood ceased flowing. The steady minute eruptions of light now became a steady flickering, and Anna muttered, even as she continued with her work.
“I do not believe this,” she said, “but still, it is happening. Why does blood cause you so much...”
Anna stopped in mid-sentence, then said in a tone reeking with surety, “I think I know why, too. Did that witch try to sacrifice you?”
The horror of blood was of such magnitude I gagged, then said without thinking, “as in kill me, no. Threaten to hurt me badly, yes.”
I gulped, then continued: “another person in my family did try to kill me. That isn't it.”
“Then what is?” asked Anna.
“I was hurt badly once,” I moaned, “and the blood... That was too much, but this is worse, as it isn't mine. I could never do what you are doing, as I would feel as if I were...”
I stopped speaking, for I now knew I was not connecting. I was not being heard, save at the most trivial level, and more importantly, Anna was not inclined to look further than her preconceived notions.
“I doubt that is the trouble,” said Anna. Again, I heard that tone of absolute surety, a tone that made for cringing on my part. I had never felt so assured save before getting in terrible trouble, and that early in my childhood. “I need to put this bone back in, and that means opening this wound up more.”
I could not bear to look, and as I turned away, the shuddering came again. Faint in the distance, I could hear chanting, and the unintelligible language seemed to conjure a sulfurous reek. I was forced to look, almost as if I were controlled by an unseen puppeteer, and I saw the knife...
My thoughts ran down a blood-slaked corridor and I tried to recall the name of a certain 'ceremonial' knife used by 'witches' where I came from. Even though the knife's name eluded me, many thoughts did not; the foremost one being 'witches' where I came from and those called that here had little in common beyond the label. Those called by that name here cut people up for amusement, much as...
My head was now wrenched around, much as if it were caught in an all-powerful machine intended for torture, and again, I saw the knife. Superimposed over it was a distinct image, an image showing a long blackened blade of such monstrous evil that I realized instantly the following:
Nothing I had heard of where I came from came close to the weapon I was seeing. This blade was intended purely for human sacrifice, much as Anna was now doing to this man.
And the chant seemed to swell as it encircled my mind, and its words became clear and distinct:
“This is your fault, witch! The wood is cut, and it waits with great hunger to burn you to cinders!”
The moaning resumed, and amid my sobs, I cried, “no, no, please, make it stop, no...”
A shaking hand rested itself upon my shoulder, then Hans said softly, with a shuddering quaver in his voice, “it is bad enough to do mules. At least that is simple and quick.”
Mingled with his words, however, I could still hear the chant swirling about my head, and when Hans' voice broke through the burning words of the chant again, I was jolted.
“That cut is bleeding a lot less than is usual,” said Hans. “They usually bleed a lot more, especially when they are where that one is.”
“There, I have it open enough,” said Anna. Her voice seemed from another world. “Cleaning this wound and not making it worse is very hard.”
Her seeming oblivion to all that I was seeing and hearing was unfathomable. I nearly choked before I spat out the words in a husky whisper.
“Please, no, no more.” I said this with the horror-chant still ringing in my ears, and the word 'witch' – it was applied to me, and me only; Anna was sacrificing this man at my express command – echoed in my mind again and again.
“W-what can I do to help?” I asked. My voice was still a whisper, though slightly louder. I wanted to scream, for not merely was the horror-chant battering at my mind: my own feelings of horror were full to the fore, and I was looking at a murderess and cannibal, who was cutting up her meat and drink. The whole of the evil was descending upon me, and it all was my fault alone.
“Ask the dirt to come out,” said a faint and ethereal voice. It might have been Anna speaking. I was too distraught to tell.
“Please, let the dirt come out,” I moaned. It was the least I could do to atone for what I had caused to happen.
A faint tingling sensation swept over my body as what felt like a gentle wind came into the room, then a small swirling blue-tinged cloud extended a long tenuous finger into the wound. It resembled a miniature tornado, both in its appearance and its action, for it began bringing 'dust' out of the wound. The dust steadily vanished as it came out, and seconds later, the 'tornado' itself faded from view.
“I've seen that happen before,” said Anna, “which was why I asked. Now his leg needs to be pulled such that it's straight. I think you should try, as this type of injury needs a great deal of strength.”
My mouth felt as if full of sand. I went to the end of the couch, then touched the man's bare foot prior to lifting it slightly. I began pulling it gently.
As I did, I became aware of Anna's level of knowledge. She knew but mere slivers of information, and mere tissues of reality, and as I continued pulling, I seemed to feel the shattered femur.
“And I know but little more, if anything, about this matter,” I thought. “Why do my hands feel as if they are on fire and full of electricity?”
I had felt this way long years prior, and felt inclined to pull somewhat harder. As I did, I felt a grating sensation in the man's leg – and Anna began muttering.
“I do not believe this,” said Anna, “but it is happening. I see pieces of bone coming out of the flesh. They are going where they belong and staying put, then there are a lot of cuts that are healing as I watch. Keep pulling.”
Anna then used the tip of the knife to gently move something inside the wound, saying as she did so, “there, that's where it belongs. Now I can bandage this.”
As I continued to hold the leg – traction was an issue here, I realized; I recalled seeing that done in a hospital – I again was impressed with not merely how little Anna actually knew, but also her attitude toward her 'ignorance'. I suspected she thought her information was vastly better than it actually was, and therefore she had unwarranted confidence in what she knew. I then felt an intense pain in my upper leg, and I wept with the pain. Hot tears flowed down my face, and I closed my eyes.
I felt drawn into another world, and here, I saw what had happened. A huge bull – dull grayish white, long straight horns, a hump like a bison, and a temper worthy of a peeved Cape Buffalo – had come after the man with the goal of his demise. It had hooked him with its right horn and flung him into the lower branches of a nearby tree. This 'movie' faded, and then I noted my shaking, even as the tears of pain dried up.
“There, I have the bandage,” said Anna. “Hans, we need the leg-pieces for this one.”
I opened my eyes to see Hans handing Anna several long pieces of wood wrapped with cloths. As he held them in position, Anna began winding a bandage around them tightly.
“I'm glad we had that tincture that cleans out wounds,” said Anna. “Other than that, strong vinegar, that tincture for pain, and uncorking medicine, there isn't much that can be done for this type of injury, except pray.”
“Yes, and that got done a lot,” said Hans. “I could see that thing smoke like it was on fire.”
“Hans, his leg felt like it was on fire,” said Anna with a trace of alarm, “and by the time I bandaged it, the wound was much less swollen and had stopped bleeding.”
By the time Anna had wrapped two more bandages around the 'splints', the man's leg was as rigid as if it were in a cast. I could then let go, I knew, and I gently laid it down on the sheet. Hans had gone somewhere, and I staggered backwards to almost collapse against the wall. Anna looked at me in alarm, then ran for the kitchen. She returned with a mug.
“Here, this is some cider,” she said. “You need to drink it.”
I gulped down the liquid, and as I did, I noticed how thirsty I was. The shivers and chill soon receded, and I felt better by the time Hans had brought a pair of poles and folded cloth.
As he and Anna threaded the poles into sewn 'pockets' on the cloth, Hans said, “now this will be trouble, as Arendt here is heavy.”
“You might let him do the lifting,” said Anna. “At least, let him pick him up enough to put the carrier under.”
I knelt down, then carefully put my arms under the man, as Hans went to my left and Anna to my right. I lifted the man – he was heavy – and the two of them slid both cloth and poles under him.
“Now, we can put away our things,” said Anna. “The two of you might get the buggy ready, and then we can put him in.” Anna turned to me, then said, “this is why you need a horse, as he'll take up the room in the back.”
“Yes, and we will need to take turns,” said Hans, as he went to the door. “It will be slow getting there, but at least it is not too far to walk.”
As we opened the outer doors to the buggy-way, I said, “you might wish to take the guns. That man was gored by this really big bull...”
“Does this bull have long horns?” said Hans.
“It does,” I said. “It has a very bad temper, also.”
“I thought so,” said Hans. “That one is trouble. It wants out all the time. Now did it get out?”
“I think so,” I said. “It gored him, and flung him into the lower branches of a tree.”
I was the first one to walk, and as we passed down the road Hans had turned on, I found that I could actually keep up with the horses if I hurried. It made the weight I had lost seem much more noticeable, as now, I needed a belt. My pants wished to drop more than a little, and I wondered about the new clothing. I had heard knit clothing stretched to a degree.
The road – narrow, rutted, somewhat bumpy, and winding – was mostly in the shade, for which I was glad, and as we passed through a woodlot, Anna said, “we're nearly halfway there, and neither of us can walk that fast. Can you go further?”
“I think so,” I said. “Do you know about my clothes?”
“One of the places she stays at is close to where he lives,” said Anna, “and the last time I saw her, she said she was nearly done with them.”
“I hope you told her to have them loose in the right places,” said Hans, “as he will put more meat on his arms and legs.”
“I know,” said Anna. “I just hope he does not get smaller in his middle. I'm glad I packed some food, as he may well need it.”
“What direction are we heading?” I asked.
“We are a bit north and west of home,” said Hans. “I might not have one of those things, but I have had them to use before.”
“Things?” I asked.
“You might try making one of those compass things,” said Hans. “They have them down in that market town.”
“Even the cheaper ones are costly, Hans,” said Anna.
The trees and meadows began to give way to cultivated regions about fifteen minutes later, and I suspected another town was ahead. I thought to ask if this was the one with the bull.
“Is there a town ahead?” I asked.
“Yes, the one with that bull,” said Hans. “Anna, you might want to check both guns for priming.”
As Anna did so – she was holding both of them – Hans said, “towns tend to be every so often on roads around here, so one usually cannot go more than a few miles without finding one. There are ten of them within an hour's easy ride from home.”
Hans paused, then said, “that is with a common horse. Those big black ones can go fast enough to get to that big Abbey place in a bit more than an hour.”
“Abbey?” I asked.
“Yes, where we went to get that stuff just after you showed,” said Hans. “That is the name of the place, Westmonster Abbey.”
“W-Westmonster?” I gasped. I could tell the town would 'begin' soon.
“Yes, as people say there are worms in the place,” said Hans. “You spoke of the place having one, and when I heard that, I didn't think it wise to speak that place's name. You had enough trouble then as it was.”
The first house – somewhat isolated, with large fields of straggly-rowed green-topped vegetables on each side – showed but minutes later, and here, I saw not merely the tree where the man landed, but also ominous-looking tracks. The size of the latter – twice the size of my palm, and surprisingly deep – were such that I felt terror-stricken, and their freshness spoke of their recent making. I could almost feel the presence of the animal in question, and as we stopped next to the stoop, I thought to sit on the steps for a moment.
Anna was both unconcerned with my fatigue and oblivious to all save her thoughts and admonitions, for once the door had opened to admit a woman dressed much like she was, she began issuing her 'orders' to all and sundry. While Hans and I brought the man in, I heard her speaking of tinctures, of rest, of cleanliness – these people weren't in the habit of regular bathing, if I went by what she was saying – and of keeping the wound dry and clean.
“Why do I have the impression these people know absolutely nothing about medicine?” I thought. “Anna might know less than she thinks, but these people... They barely know when they're sick. They make her seem wise and knowing.”
I followed Hans back out to the buggy, and there drank another mug of cider before helping put the poles and cloth in the rear of the buggy. Anna was still inside the house, and by the tone of her voice, she was on her third repetition of the needed instructions and feeling irked at the 'denseness' of her listeners.
“Are people that ignorant of medicine?” I asked.
“This is about the usual for most,” said Hans. “I am glad they did not pack that wound with cheese, as that usually kills the person with bad infections. Anna may think she knows more than she knows, but she knows a lot more than many who call themselves doctors.”
“Uh, do you know what those worms at that Abbey place look like?” I asked.
“No, I don't,” said Hans. “I am not sure if they are common worms, or other things. Why?”
“I s-saw one,” I said. “It was a long white thing with a black head, and three teeth shaped like triangles, and they made a grinding noise as it chewed.”
“That sounds like a Desmond,” said Anna, as she came from behind me. “I hope those people do as I told them to do, as they seemed worse for not listening than most.”
“Why?” I asked, as I crawled into the rear of the buggy.
“I am not sure,” said Anna in a quieter voice. “Some people seem set in their ways. I'm glad someone with sense got to him before his family did, as they would have killed him for certain.”
“Yes, and we should talk to the people at the Public House here, so they do not go wrong,” said Hans. “He is a long way from well.”
Anna paused, then said, “witches are said to like Desmonds, and they are commonly found where they meet. Some say they can become as large as a tree.”
As we returned to the road into town, I could almost feel the presence of the bull. It was still very much loose, and was wandering around the town. A shrill-sounding bellow seemed to ring in the air.
“That cow sounds unhappy,” I said.
“Close, but no Geneva,” said Hans. “That is a bull, and it sounds like it is corked.”
“Corked?” I asked.
“Some bulls get that way, even if you give them uncorking medicine daily,” said Hans. “I am glad we have the muskets, as if this is that one bull, about the only way you can get close to it is to air out its smelly hide.”
“What does that mean?” I asked innocently.
“Powder and lead,” said Hans. “That is what you do to witches and what they ride when they show.”
“Ride?” I asked.
“I have wondered about that bull for years that way,” said Hans. “I have never gotten close enough to find out if it had saddle-marks on it.”
We were now in the town proper, and as Hans drove looking for the Public House, I heard another shrill bellow, then a thundering crash as a huge bull broke down the wooden doors of a buggy-way on a house directly to our right.
The bull was nearly a stretched bison for size and build, with long legs, a protruding tongue wet with dripping spittle, bulging red-tinted eyes, and a long 'paintbrush' tail. This last thrashed much as if the animal had taken lessons from either a lion or a scorpion. The horns were thick where they joined the skull, and their length – and shape – was that of a pool cue, save much thicker. One of the tips showed a blood-spattered patch of cloth, which contrasted with the gray-white splotches of its hide, and its rippling muscles seemed a counterpoint to a pronounced barnyard stench.
The bull seemed to be blind to our presence, and when someone came to the door of the house with a musket, I learned why. He aimed, then fired, and the reaction of the bull was astonishing.
The bull convulsively leaped several feet in the air, then charged head down like a train at the doorway. The man leaped back inside and slammed the door just as the bull reached it – and then, with a jump and 'salmon-wiggle', the bull leaped, bent itself into the shape of a horseshoe, and then slammed one of its horns into the door while still airborne. The door splintered into fragments and its remains came with the bull's head as it jerked back.
With another shrill bellow that seemed to etch the air with 'rage', the bull tried to batter its way into the house, and with flailing hooves the size of dinner plates, it snapped one of the stoop support beams like a matchstick. It then smashed out the window with its tail as it turned, then leaped to the 'yard' – and from that point, I knew it had seen us. It began to paw the clay and gravel mix of the 'yard', all the while snorting as if enraged.
The 'farmer' inside the house again appeared at the door with a musket, and fired at the rear of the bull. This time, the bull leaped and thrashed in midair and landed with hooves flailing and head-down in the charge. It struck the wall such that several blocks fell out inside the house, and as it thrashed and bellowed with rage, I saw something interesting. The bull had hooked one of its horns inside the house, and was 'stuck'.
I then saw the ax amid a mound of wood. I leaped over the side and hit the ground running, then snatched up the ax. It almost jumped into my hands with eagerness, and as the bull continued thrashing, I ran at it. As I came within ten feet of the bull's posterior, it jerked its horns free with a crash of stone and seemed to turn in place, such that it was facing me.
Somehow, I went to the side and 'wound up' at the same time. The bull lowered its head as it's entire body rippled with muscles. It was going to spring. I swung the ax.
The head hit the bull between the eyes and went in up to the haft with a thick meaty noise, and as the bull 'jolted', I grabbed one of the horns and lifted it up like a crossing bar. I went under the high-lifted horn, and as I passed, I turned loose of the horn and reached into my pocket. The 'tool-roll' was there, and my fingers closed around a familiar smooth wooden handle. I didn't need to look at what was now in my hand.
The world shook with high-pitched thunder as I slashed the bull where its 'neck' joined the body. A deep red weeping slice seemed to appear by 'magic'. I sliced again, and again, and the blood sprayed out in a thick and gouting stream as I continued slicing. I didn't stop until I could see bone, and as the bull tried to poke me with its horn, I jumped down its length with the knife in my hand, this time held low. I didn't care if I ruined its meat, and was surprised to see its guts pile out of the yard-long slice I made in its side.
I came to the animal's tail, and saw it down near the ground. Its listless seeming was a marvel, and I stood dumbly as first the front of the animal crumpled in a wide pool of blood, then the back portion as the rear legs gave way in slow motion. I then noticed how I felt.
I felt nearly as bad as the dead bull looked.
“I hope the owner isn't going to be hard to deal with,” I said numbly.
Snarled echoing words answered me: “Brimstone take that bull, and the wretch that keeps loosing it! It causes more trouble than a fleet of northern witches, and it's here all the time.”
From my side, a familiar voice spoke: “that is that bull, all right, and I think I see some marks here. How often has it got loose recently?”
“Twice in the last week,” echoed the words in my mind, “and since harvest started, two people were hurt, not including today.”
I seemed to come to myself, and I blinked my eyes. I could hear footsteps behind me, and I turned to see Anna. I then noticed I still had the knife in my hand.
“Are you hurt?” she asked.
“I, I'm not sure,” I said weakly. “That bull was trying to kill anyone it could, because it was trained that way, and the owner lets it out deliberately.” I swallowed what seemed like a mouthful of dust. “That person is a c-coven-leader of some kind, and they h-have worms in this underground place in their back area. It's a well-hid place, and they've denied its existence when questioned in the past.”
I then 'truly' came to myself, and shook my head. Hearing the word 'Kofen' didn't help.
“What am I saying?” I squeaked. “What happened?”
“You put the last lags in that wretch's corpse-box,” spat the 'farmer'. “That is enough for a burn-pile, and that wretch will get his.”
“What did I say?” I squeaked.
“Quite a lot,” said Anna. “It is very uncommon to find people who can rout out witches.”
“Oh, no,” I thought. “I've gotten someone killed because of something I said.”
“I think I might have heard of this person,” said Anna's oblivious voice. She had no clue as to what I was enduring. “I've wondered about this whole area for years. I recall children vanishing around here with some frequency, and rumors have had a coven in this area for a long time.”
I was speechless with horror. Anna continued, her voice still oblivious.
“Now it might be found out and dealt with,” she said. “This has to be the bull's blood on you.”
“Anna, what is this on its side?” asked Hans.
I wobbled over to where Hans was standing. There, I saw strange markings burnt into its hide, much as if a brand of some kind had been used. Their angular nature and straight lines spoke of ownership of some kind, and in a 'spooky-sounding' voice, I said, “runes, runes, the old witch-runes. The old witch runes, and this fellow chants nightly so as to raise the blackness dark, that he might be an overload and burn barns. He wants to kill everyone he can get his black stone killing knife into.”
I then looked down and saw my clothing. It was more blood than all else, and all went black as my legs gave way.
I awoke to the smell of gunpowder, fire, and steel, and my blinking eyes showed vast clouds of dust-motes in the air. I was covered with a sheet that felt uncommonly damp, and as I raised my arms, I was pressed down.
“Lie still,” said a familiar voice. It took a few seconds to recognize it as Anna speaking. “You must have been hurt in some way, even if I could not find any cuts or bruises. Are you sick?”
“I-I don't know,” I said.
“Your clothing is soaking in a pail so as to get out the blood,” said Anna. “I got as much of it off as I could. Hans went to see if your clothing is done. Here, drink this.”
A mug was held to my mouth, and I tried to drink. I could not do so, and Anna tried to drown me.
“Let me sit up so I can drink,” I said.
I sat up easily this time, and noticed my 'shirt' was still on me. It had noticeable bloodstains still, and smelled strongly of vinegar.
“That wasn't as bad,” said Anna. “Your trousers were much worse.”
A gunshot echoed, then two more. Someone screamed, high-pitched. Another three shots boomed. The smell of smoke was faint. I could hear people walking nearer.
“What is happening?” I asked. My voice was little more than a weak croak.
“They have that wretch confessing,” said a rough male voice from nearby, “and we've found that black book he had, three skulls, a pot of human flesh cooking over a fire, and a black stone knife. We will get the rest from him ere his death.” This last was said with obvious relish, and I shuddered, then moaned softly.
“This is horrible,” I sobbed. “It is all my fault.”
“No, it isn't,” said Anna. “Witches choose knowingly to be as they are, in full knowledge of what will happen to them if they are caught. There might not be many burn-piles, but there are enough to remind people of what awaits witches should they be discovered, and most children hear enough tales to know about witches and what is to be done to them.”
Anna's voice seemed to summon darkness, and as I looked around, I was no longer in the room lying on a couch. I was standing, walking in a dark thicket, and ahead of me outlined in burning red lines I saw a doorway in the ground. Thick camouflage leaves covered it, and as I walked toward this entrance, the leaves moved away of their own accord. The trap-door's latch snapped open, and with a groaning creak the door itself opened wide like the tooth-studded maw of a giant reptile.
Down the thick stone steps I walked slowly, and with each such step, I counted aloud. Thirteen was the number I spoke when I reached the hard-packed dirt floor, and looking around, I saw thick wooden poles shoring the place up, with dirt-crusted beams and planks overhead in the darkness.
Ahead lay a black oblong, and I walked toward it. It was surrounded by thirteen poles, all of them reeking with rottenness, and on many pegs driven into the wall, I saw what might have been 'ceremonial' clothing. The stench grew as I passed what I knew of as an altar, and in a corner, a mound of rotten meat stirred. A glossy black head showed, and as the worm leaped toward me, it grew steadily in length and hunger, and its teeth ground with bloodlust and fury. Its name was 'eater-of-the-dead', and the term 'Desmond' was a corruption of a name as old as time itself.
I shook my head as I 'returned' to 'reality', and Anna shrieked, “what was that place? That worm was horrible!”
“I could find it now,” I said softly. “It's not that far from here, and it's hidden in a thicket. That man will not speak of it.” I choked down another mouthful of dust. “It's much older than he is, he's the third leader in the last ten years, and the next-in-line to lead is one of the other members. He's got more things in his house, and I know where they're hid.”
“You've done too much today as it is,” said Anna. Again, I heard that tone of absolute surety. “It won't matter if they find those things or not, as that whole house will be burned to the ground, and that pit will turn up sooner or later. Now lie quiet and rest.”
I was not able to do anything of the sort, for Hans now came in. He smelled of smoke, fire, and blood, and I seemed to hear iron in his voice when he spoke.
“That wretch died without telling anything,” he said, “and no one can find anything beyond what they found when they grabbed him. That is not much, so they are coming here to ask questions.”
“No!” shrieked Anna. “First attacking that bull, then fainting because of being hurt? What, do you want him dead too?”
Hans shook his head, then felt my arm. I thought to speak.
“Why do they wish to ask questions?” I asked. “Are they unhappy that they did not get all thirteen members and those people that wish to be members? Do they want to burn me instead?”
“I doubt that they wish to burn you,” said Hans, “as witches hide good, and finding them is hard to do, at least for most. You caught that one, and they want the rest of them, as just getting one witch does nothing to a group. They do know that much, now. There is a group of them nearby.”
Hans paused for a moment, and rubbed his chin.
“This is just like one of those old tales,” he said. “There was this one character that had your name, and he was a terror for witches.”
Anna looked at Hans. I could read her lips, and she mouthed the words “oh, no...”
“He got his head removed for that,” said Hans. “He found some in a king's house, and that king and his town were all controlled by witches. They found that man, then cut his head off, and ate the rest of him, and it was the end for those witches that did it, for they were all poisoned. It cleared the whole countryside of witches, and from that time, they said of him that he was a plague on witches while he lived, and a worse one after his death.”
To hear Hans speak thusly was sufficiently troubling that I moaned, and as Anna felt me, she muttered something about my being injured. I wondered what she was looking for, as she seemed to be 'flailing in the dark' in hope of finding an answer.
“Yes, and he did lots of miracles, too,” said Hans. I could hear the oblivious tone in his voice, which surprised me. I had but seldom heard him speak that way, even if speaking thusly seemed the rule for others. “You could not hide anything from him. A lot of the reason why we are like this is because of him, and those like him, and all of those people were marked.”
As if to answer Hans, I heard clumping boots on the door, then the 'farmer' came in. His smoke-smudged face and hard-set features were a sign of foreboding, and his speech confirmed what I felt.
“That witch told us nothing,” he growled, “no matter how we beat and burned him. Now he is gone. Where are the others?”
His question, I knew, was directed toward me, much as if I were a witch, and not a common one, but the witch over the entire area with many covens under my feet worshiping me as if I were their lord and master.
“Do not question him,” said Anna. “He has already done too much.”
“None of us could learn anything,” growled the man, “and those people have killed three children here in town in as many years, and that doesn't count the stock that has vanished. That place is hid too well for us to find it, and talk has it they have been here nearly a hundred years. People and things have gone missing that whole time, almost.”
“The place in the house is behind a special wall in one of the back rooms,” I said, “and it has faint smoke smudges on the walls nearby from, uh, lanterns. The door has very fine cracks that are filled with flour and salt from the outside, and they show as faint lines if the light is right. The other...”
The man had walked closer to the couch as I spoke, and roughly grabbed my feet. He jerked me out of bed, then began dragging me. His face was black as a thundercloud, and his anger, great beyond measure – and I had no clue as to why.
“I have no trousers,” I said. “Why are you dragging me like this?”
“You don't need trousers to find that place,” he snarled.
I then felt his hands upon my ankles, even as he stopped dragging me. The sense of filth and of cold was appalling, and my confusion left abruptly to be replaced by a chilling certainty.
“This is not as you say,” I said in a tone I could not place beyond it wasn't a common one for me. “You are one of them, for I see that mark you have on your shoulder.”
The man tossed my feet down as if refuse, and stepped back a pace as he reached for something in his trousers. I rolled over onto my stomach, then onto my knees. Time was beginning to become noticeably slower, and my movements faster. I twisted upright, and as I straightened to face him, he drew a long-bladed knife of polished steel. I saw its coffin-shaped handle, and the sight seemed to make the world shudder for an instant before all around me went red as blood.
In an eyeblink of time, the crimson shade became darker and deeper, and the whole of the room became hideously distorted. I had knowledge now of who was in front of me: not only was this man a witch, but he did not own this house. The true owner was also a witch, he was hidden in the deep room among the ceremonial clothing, and this man in front of me was wearing what amounted to a disguise.
I no longer felt weak nor sick, and as I saw the knife, I noticed further details. Its outline was now flaming a neon orange-red, as was the person holding it, and the strobing images imprinted themselves in my mind.
“Th-that's an Arkansas Toothpick,” I thought.
The long triangle-shaped blade was nearly a foot of polished steel, with a wide brass hilt and wood darkened with age and use for a handle. This was an old knife, far older than even the man holding it realized, and the spear-like point of the blade seemed to waver and sniff the air as if hungry for blood.
The witch seemed oblivious to the hunger of his blade, and as he looked around, I wondered if he could see me. He acted as if I were hidden from his sight until I crouched down. He then rushed toward me in a clumsy fashion.
His tottering steps were such that I marveled, until he swung the knife like a sword. I ducked my head, and felt the slow-moving blade attempt to trim my hair as it made a shuddering low pulsating rumble overhead. I then uncoiled from my crouch, and as I sprang, I threw a punch that struck him between the eyes.
His left foot was forward, for he had stepped as he swung, and he was still in mid-stride. I found my feet as his stride reversed, then the knife began falling as his feet left the ground with an abrupt jerk. The movement of both knife and man was of such slowness that I marveled; it was like watching the whole scene in slow motion, even as he slowly transcribed a graceless arc backwards like a ball of dirty clothing and his knife hit the ground with a thump to then rattle slowly on the stones of the floor.
I walked towards the dagger, which still glowed reddish-orange as if aflame with mysterious energy, and once it was near my feet, I thought to speak to it. I said but one word: “leave.”
The blade gathered a faintly bluish-white corona, then as the reddish haze began to fade, the bluish-white stuff became steadily more solid, until the red was gone. Then, both knife and corona became steadily more gauzy, then vanished as if a slowly fading mist. I looked around, saw encroaching blackness coming in thick clouds, then I knew no more.
I awoke on the couch again, once more covered. Anna was patting my hand as if to wake me. I could tell she was 'lost', and could think of nothing better to do. My eyes then opened, and she startled.
“That wretch wanted to kill all of us,” she said, in a tone I could not place. “You vanished for a slow count of two, then came back in a heap on the floor with that knife gone and that witch against the wall over there with a broken head. Your fist is all swollen.”
Here, Anna paused, as if to deliver her ultimatum as an inquisitor: “did you hit him?”
“He swung that knife at me,” I croaked. “What was I supposed to do, let him kill me?”
“Yes, that is true, he did try for you,” said Hans. “Now did you hit that wretch?”
“Yes, but I had no idea I had hit him that hard,” I said.
“I heard you speak about a mark on his shoulder,” said Hans, “and I found one. It looks like the head of a goat in the middle of this five-pointed star thing, and that is a well-known type of witch-mark, as it is done in red and black ink. Then, there was that knife, and we both saw it.”
“Knife?” I asked.
“That knife was the mule,” said Hans. “I saw that knife, and it was a black stone one, just like witches are said to like, and so did Anna. It hit the ground and vanished.”
Here, Hans paused, then said, “I think he wanted to kill you first, is what I think, and then the rest of us. He does not own this house.”
“You were speaking of those things,” said Anna.
“Yes, and some witches hide better than others, too,” said Hans. “That one over there might be one of them.”
Hans paused, then looked at the crumpled body of the witch. He then said, “and punching that witch will get you talked about. I can tell you did, as that wretch has a dent in his head that matches your fist, and he is not long for this world.”
“No! God help me, I am a murderer!” I shrieked.
“Witches do that,” said Anna, “and you said that fool tried to kill you. We both saw the knife, so we know it's true. There isn't a witch alive that isn't a murderer, and that one is done with his killing. Now we need to get you home, before any more of them try for us.”
The dichotomy between 'you' and 'us' rang in my ears, for it emphasized the fact that I was the cause of all that had occurred. I was not merely a murderer, but too evil for words. I softly moaned, then said, “does that make me a witch?”
Neither of them seemed to either hear nor care as to my plight, as Anna had other things on her mind, and Hans was wandering around in a seemingly aimless fashion – or so I thought until he brought an unbelievably foul-smelling bucket near the couch.
“I told those people to soak those in water,” she spat. “They put them in mud.”
“Then they are ruined,” said Hans. “Mud makes that stuff...”
Here, Hans paused, then set the bucket down and moved it away with his foot. The reek increased; it now reminded me of that especially bad salt meat.
“That is not mud, Anna,” said Hans. “It is rotten meat, and something else that smells bad. Why would they do such a thing?”
“That man” – here, I pointed at the crumpled body of the witch as I spoke – “wasn't the only impostor here. All of those people were, and they were not his family. All of them are now hiding in that underground place I spoke of.”
Here, I paused. I was having trouble speaking, for my mouth was desert-dry.
“I cannot go outside now, and that part was done deliberately,” I said. “That bull was never all that picky as to who or what it damaged, even if they did bait it regularly and attempted to train it. Those trousers will...”
I stood up, and wrapped myself in the sheet. It worked passably as a toga, or so I thought.
“I can look now,” I said, as I walked closer to the bucket. Its age and condition were such that I was not surprised to see a small leak starting. I could see the 'remains' of my trousers, and saw that they had been cut to ribbons as well as doused in mud.
“Those trousers are ruined,” I said. “That stuff in there is...”
I saw movement, and ducked my head back just as a glossy white worm thrashed free of the water and leaped nearly as high as my chest. The grinding noise – faint but audible – was such that I shuddered and drew back as the worm crawled maggot-like across the floor. The glossy black head and dead-fish white of the rest of its body were chilling to look upon, and only when it had crawled into a hole in the wall did I realize I had held my breath for the duration. I then noticed the trail of black goo it had left on the floor, along with the steadily increasing rotten-meat stench.
“What was that thing?” I said.
“I think that was a Desmond,” said Hans, “and that means those who ruined your trousers knew about that witch-hole you were speaking of. There is one near here for certain, now, and...”
“Hans, his clothes,” said Anna sharply. “Did you see her?”
“Yes, and she is about done with them,” said Hans. “She said she might need another hour or so, and that was about an hour ago, I think.”
Hans paused, then said, “and I do not have to think about getting out of here. These witches are too much.”
“Can you go with that cloth?” asked Anna. I nodded. We then made ready to leave the house.
As I gathered the cloth around my body, the smell of rotten meat seemed to steadily increase, and when I looked for the source, I seemed to notice the witch more and more.
“What is making that stink?” I asked.
“I think it is that witch,” said Anna. “For some reason, dead witches go rotten much faster than those who are not witches, and I think that witch just died. He will be dirt, bones, and stink within an hour, unless I miss my guess.”
As Anna spoke, an eye fell out to dribble purulent liquid on the corpse's clothing. His other eye followed seconds later, and once the two eyes hung by their nerves, his head began to swell and change color. The purple tint was becoming steadily more obvious, and as I watched transfixed, the skin of his forehead tore and muddy gray slime began to leak onto his rapidly rotting face. I shuddered, shook my head as if deathly ill with chills, and wobbled out the door behind Anna.
Once in the bed of the buggy, I carefully covered myself with with the cloth, such that I was 'decent', and when Hans came, he first put my boots in beside me, followed by the jug and the mug. The mug was full, and as I drank its contents thirstily, I was glad it was cider, and not beer.
“We need to stop at the Public House here,” said Hans. “We need to get more for him to drink.”
“No, we had best not,” said Anna. “At least, not here. That place probably has more witches inside it. The sooner we leave, the better I will like it.”
I could hear – and feel – the raw terror in Anna's voice, and I did not blame her much, even if she was not the target of the witches. As long as I was present and near to hand, all others in the area would be ignored. How I knew that unsettling bit of information was a mystery, but it was likely to be true; I wondered as to how to check its accuracy, even as we drove past an obvious Public House. Its yard had a small mob of armed farmers standing around. They seemed to be looking for something or someone.
“We found that room in his house,” said one older man, “but one person left while we were looking. Do any of you know why he did?”
“That was a witch,” said Hans, “and I think he was next to lead that group.”
“Where is he?” asked the farmer.
“In that house,” said Hans, as he stopped and pointed back the way we came. “He is dead and gone rotten. There is a witch-hole around here, and it is hid good with leaves. It most likely is not far.”
Here, Hans paused, then said, “they almost got him” – here Hans indicated me – “three times so far, and that is three times too much for anyone to endure. Besides, they ruined his trousers, and they tried using a Desmond on him, too.”
There were no further comments, and as Hans resumed driving, the farmers all went into the Public House. I had the impression they thought the matter 'dealt with', or so I thought until Anna said, “hunting witches is hard work, and they most likely want beer before they start looking again.”
“I doubt they will find much,” said Hans. “Most witches hide too good for people to find their things, and these people are as bad as any that way. They only knew what he had told them, and nothing more.”
“Hans, that grove is but a few hundred, uh, paces from here,” I said. “I can point it out from where we are.”
Anna looked at me, but for some reason, I seemed to see past her toward one of the last houses in town on the right, and as I watched, a door opened to admit a woman dressed much as Anna was. Somehow, I knew this woman was in some way different from the common, and as she came near, I faintly smelled an odor of death and decay. I moved around to get a closer look.
The whole of her visage was limned faintly with faint reddish-orange flames, much as the male witch had been, and I felt cold, chilled, and afraid. She raised her hand as if to command us to halt.
“He knows where the place is,” said Hans, “but he cannot point it out, as his clothing is ruined and they tried for him too many times already.”
“That does not matter,” she screamed in high and lofty tones. “He must be a witch, then!”
“He killed the bull,” said Anna, “and then another witch, and finally, a Desmond tried for him. He is no witch, for those are friendly with their own kind.”
The woman's face abruptly changed, and as she brought down her arm, she began to shout words in a horrible language that sounded like German. I looked at her closely, and when she saw me looking at her, she did a backflip and began thrashing and screaming on the ground in a convulsion. Hans stirred the horses to greater speed, and Anna turned around. I wondered what she would do.
“Sup with Brimstone, witch!” Anna's hoarse-sounding yell seemed to be buried in the screams of the witch.
“Anna, what did you tell that woman?” I asked. I was lost and bewildered, even as the woman continued screaming and thrashing. I turned to see three musket-bearing farmers coming toward us at a dead run, then as we left the town behind and I turned away, I heard the booms of gunfire followed by more screams that abruptly ceased.
“What did you say, Anna?” I asked.
“That was another witch,” said Anna. “I think she was cursing us, as I have heard witches have special languages.”
“Yes, and she was speaking one of those,” said Hans. “I am glad we are getting out of this place, as it has too many witches for me to want to be here.”
“Brimstone?” I asked. I had my suspicions as to what that name applied to.
“Brimstone is that creature the book calls Leviathan,” said Anna. “I have always wondered about one account, though, as it speaks of a lizard spewing fire.”
“I doubt that account was speaking of a physical being,” I said quietly. “What I remember as to descriptions I have read implies it isn't a mere reptile, but something much worse – and something witches, at least some of those I have heard of before coming here, want as a master. I have no idea as to why they would want that, as that isn't a good idea here, and a very bad one in the hereafter.”
The location of the knitter showed about twenty minutes later in another town, and with Anna's help, I was bundled indoors. The clothing – knit shirt and trousers – was comfortable and pleasant to the touch, and after being checked over by Anna and the knitter, I was able to put on my boots. We left forthwith, with Anna giving the woman several large silver pieces and a request for more clothing.
Our route back was a circuitous one, with a wide berth being given to the witch-owned town. I was bothered by the idea of leaving the town to the witches, even when we stopped in another town to get the jug refilled, and on the way home, I quietly sobbed now and then. Both Anna and Hans seemed glad to leave that town to its inhabitants, as it was not their problem.
The problem was mine, and mine alone.
Coming home showed the shop closed, and the sun coming down. The day had been far too long, and dinner drew sleep fast behind it. I crawled up the stairs afterward, now weary beyond words, and when I reached my bed, I collapsed with my clothing still in place. I fell asleep nearly instantly. At first, there were no dreams.
Those came later.