The road more traveled, part k.


Our slow walk back to the room had all three of us lost in our own thoughts, and once back during the midafternoon, I noted our clothing was gone. I looked in my clothing 'bag', and was astonished to find another pair of trousers and shirt of thin natural linen present. I set them aside, then thought to take a brief nap after using the privy.

When I awoke, I noted Hendrik and Gabriel were missing. Kees, I wasn't certain about until I found him laying on a bed as if in a drunken stupor, while the others were sitting around the table with leather pieces in front of them. I drew closer in my bare feet, and as I listened carefully, I could tell there was a mess brewing.

“I'm up,” I said. “You really do want to get started on those, don't you?”

The silence was deafening, and I sat down on a 'spare' stool, then laid out Karl's leather pieces in front of me. I saw what might have been chalk marks and knife-scrapes on the flesh side of the leather.

“They were trying to mark those out,” said Lukas, “and I was wondering what they were doing, so I set down here and start looking.” He paused, sipped from his mug. “Then, I can tell neither of them has done much with leather.”

“But I thought it was easy,” said Karl. “I've seen him do that work...”

“It isn't, not if you want it to work,” said Sepp. “I know that much.”

“And given what we face, how things work are very important,” I said. “Now were you concerned about appearances?” This last was directed toward Karl.

“I think so,” said Gilbertus, as he returned from the privy. “He was talking about how those fifth kingdom thugs run around with these things, and he's using a whole stick of chalk, and making a big mess.”

I had been wiping the chalk off, then looked carefully at the scraped places. “No harm done, as far as I can tell.” I gently took Karl's revolver, laid it down on the leather, looked at it carefully, and trimmed the leather to size with one of my smallest knives over the course of a minute.

“It tends to be difficult enough to get something that works well,” I said, “and if you want it to 'look good', then...”

“Getting both of those things in one piece of leather is hard,” said Lukas.

“Especially so for scabbards and holsters,” I said. “Karl, were you wanting this thing tooled?”

Karl looked at me as if I was out of my mind, then said, “I wanted it on my belt for this place, as I have been smelling thugs around here.”

“Oh, so that's your scheme,” I said. “Thugs don't respect decorations much – you do know that, don't you?”

While Karl seemed undecided, or perhaps 'bewitched', that could not be said of Lukas. “It's more than just those things you talked about,” he said. “Them what decorate things like that only see that part of what they do, and what they make works poorly if it works at all.”

“I don't tend to see that part at all,” I said, “or if I do, I tend to see it quite differently.”

After 'pricking' the pieces, I let Karl use one of the awls I had, and I began work on Sepp's. Somewhere, at 'the back of my mind', I could 'hear' chanting for an instant. It was fading in and out, for some reason, and I felt uncommonly distracted, so much so that I stood up to 'stretch my legs' and perhaps clear my head. I was about to sit down again when I heard someone pound fiercely upon the door.

“Was I hearing that normally, or not?” I thought, as I smelled an unpleasant stink. I paused at the door, listened, then opened it slowly.

The faint whisper of sound seemed to occupy my mind, even as I peered out into the ruddy candle-flickering dimness. They'd been by to load the sconces, and the smell of tallow was omnipresent.

It was more than just tallow I smelled. I could smell datramonium, rotten meat, strong drink, and... Faintly, the harsh chanted syllables came from the left and down the hall:

Yoh-Fogh-Wikk-Thogh-Tagh! Tagh! Tagh!

And like the last time I'd heard this particular curse, each rune was surrounded by strident colors, such that what was seared onto my memory was the exact same thing.

“Wonderful, there's a stinking serious witch in the area,” I thought. “Now can I defend myself, or does he get to slice me up?”

The curse sounded again, only closer, and ghostly snapping steps rang upon the hard stone of the floor. I saw faintly what might have been black-cloth and pointed boots, and I came outside and closed the door.

There was no use in giving the witch a better target, and the light from within showed around me into the hallway.

My eyes adjusted instantly to the gloom, and I slowly drew my sword as I heard the intermittent screeches that spoke of a homicidal thug 'walking his sword'. The rotten meat smell was becoming steadily stronger, and mingled with this reek was the smell of pigs. I flattened against the wall, and the Lurch-Pang noise of the true-step came closer.

The third time of the curse's uttering drew nigh. I held my sword-point low at the ready, and as the tall darkened shadow drew closer, the curse not only 'paused', but so did the steps. I remained where I was as the shaggy-maned witch stood but a dozen yards away and drew his sword.

He did not draw merely his sword, however; he removed what looked like an old and battered bandage-tin and a rag, and set the tin in 'mid-air' while he began rubbing his sword. Long strokes, pushing hard, much as if he were trying to coerce the thing he rubbed into becoming something it was not, and with each such stroke, the reek of rotten meat and 'dead pigs' increased. I was becoming ill.

I left my hiding place and stayed close to the wall, while the witch continued rubbing his sword. Low under his breath he repeated his rune-curse over and over, much as if this were a hell-appointed task and his curse was a calling-sign unto the host of hell.

While he cursed, he seemed oblivious to all else, and all I saw was faintly filmed and edged with reddish glowing. I came within three paces, sword still at the ready, then within two, and finally, next to the invisible 'table' itself.

The reddish-brown contents of the bandage tin spoke strongly of death, while the sword the witch was wiping down was long, fully engraved along its length, and ancient-looking beyond the bounds of time and language. Its patina was that of heavy use and regular cleaning, and with each mumbled instance of the curse, the runes and markings along the blade seemed to pulsate redly in time with the hoarse chanted runes.

“Long smooth strokes.” It seemed hypnotic, over and above the obvious reasons before me.

“Do unto others before they do unto you,” came the voice into my mind, and with a sudden lunge, I leaped and swung on the witch. My blade caught his midriff.

The stench grew vastly stronger, even as a roaring wind seemed to drive me back toward the doorway, and I slumped against the cold stone wall with a pounding thud under a dim halo of light.

“No ding-dong,” I thought. “At least that stinky wretch is where he belongs.” I then blacked out.

“Now this is a fine mess,” said a voice I could scarce recognize but seconds later. “He got whoever it was, as there's a lot of blood on this thing.”

“W-what?” I gasped, as my eyes opened. “What happened?”

“I think you sliced on a witch,” said Sepp. “There's bloody black clothing, this really old sword, and this tin of stuff that makes me wonder.”

“I don't,” snorted Gilbertus. “That's red-tallow on that blade, and not the common for that rubbish, either.”

I looked at my sword, then marveled. The blood upon it looked ancient, so old it was crackling, and I sat up further and reached for my possible bag. I found an oily rag therein and wiped all of the dirt and stain free of my sword.

“Not that one,” said the voice of Gilbertus. “This sword over here.”

I then realized where I was – out in the hall still – and Gilbertus was a short distance to my right with one of the student's lanterns shedding light on a mound of what looked like black clothing. I staggered to my feet, carefully sheathed my sword, and then staggered closer.

The reek was less than I recalled, and after passing Gilbertus, I noted the 'death' smell. A long bloody-looking sword lay atop the black clothing, and when I knelt down beside it, I saw several lumps beneath the stiff cloth. I carefully moved the cloth aside to show an ancient-looking bandage tin with its cover sprinkled liberally with age-blackened runes, then two pointed black boots, and finally, a red-glowing 'money-medal'. I moved this last gingerly aside, and then looked at the sword again.

The length of this tip-dragging monster was well beyond the three feet that seemed the cutoff length for 'common-shaped' swords that I had seen, and as I looked closer, I noted that it deviated significantly from the 'drastically elongated triangle' shape common to both Norden and the continent. This example's blade was nearly parallel for most of its length with a tip formed of two curves, and a broad shallow 'fuller' to lighten it.

“That's the logical reason,” I thought. “Witches don't do logic.”

The other reason soon showed itself: the fuller 'contained' the etched runes of a multitude of curses, and bound them together into a lethal and cohesive 'mass'. The witch was 'feeding' his blade with blood when I'd cut short his curse-session.

I moved the sword off in another direction, then began looking closer at the black-cloth. The near-metallic stiffness of this coarse-feeling cloth made for a desire to scream, and the dirt embedded into its reeking fabric was all I could endure – until I found the slice.

“I n-nearly c-c-cut that wretch in half,” I spluttered.

“Which caused him to vacate the premises,” said the soft voice. “He wasn't entirely 'there'.”

“Entirely?” I asked. “A ghost?”

Much more than a mere 'ghost',” said the soft voice. “Hence, his clothing, his sword, his witch-grade red-tallow, and his 'medal'.”

“Then how was he here?” I asked.

“He'd stumbled onto some very old curses and was powerful enough to say them without being killed,” said the soft voice, “and hence had 'remained present' until you killed him entirely.” A brief pause, then, “he is now entirely where he belongs.”

“His noise? Smell?”

“All of those were entirely real,” said the soft voice. “Physical death made them less potent.”

“Disposal?” I asked.

“I would let those be until you are ready for them,” said the soft voice. “In the mean time, leave them where they are.”

“Uh, isn't that...”

The sudden truth showed blatant in my mind, for now, I had thrown down the challenge to those 'riding' this place. I'd killed their 'champion'...

“That and much more,” said the soft voice.

I nudged the money-medal back where I'd initially found it, then went to the rune-marked tin. I thought to look at the contents, and waved my hand over it. The lid twisted and came off to show a dark tarry red-tinted brown mass that smelled strongly of death and 'corruption'. I 'waved' the lid back on, and checked my gorge as I turned back toward the doorway.

I was able to resume working on Sepp's holster once I'd downed a cup of cider, and once I'd gotten him 'started' with the awl, I thought to 'grease' my scabbard. I had the thing off my belt quickly, and minutes later was rubbing it with a hand-softened mixture of deodorized tallow and beeswax. The leather's color was darkening steadily.

“It will get hot enough to the south to bake that stuff in,” said Lukas. “I hope I can get some like you have there when we get back.”

“Deodorized tallow?” I asked. “I have more, though not a lot more. Here, let me get some for you.”

While I could easily get more of both wax and tallow, 'hand-softening' the mix seemed to work poorly for Lukas, and I suggested using a tin with boiling water or a low candle flame. That had the two older men working away from the table, and while I rubbed and rubbed, I noted the increasing soreness of my hands.

“Maybe I need to cook this thing some,” I thought. “Perhaps the heating lamp turned down low?”

The lamp helped tremendously, and once I had 'warmed' the leather, Gilbertus came with an old-looking tinned copper cup and an older-yet spoon. He began heating the cup, and within moments set it down.

“Here, let me,” I said, as I stood up again. “If you want to, you can rub that stuff into my scabbard.”

I cooked up the mixture of beeswax and tallow, and once it was molten, I added the remains of my lump to it. Rapid stirring seemed to help especially, and Lukas took the still-warm spoon to rub on something.

The something proved to be a leather-laced knife-sheath, and when Lukas removed his knife, I marveled.

“Where did you..?”

“Down in the fourth kingdom,” he said. “These tend to be quite rare, and they cost plenty when you can find them.”

“What is it?” asked Sepp.

“A ship's rigging knife,” said Lukas. “He” – here, he pointed at Gilbertus – “might have a respectable dagger, but this isn't much less for size and a bit more for using.”

“Uh, Karl,” I asked, as I rubbed more of the tallow-and-beeswax into my scabbard. “Could you bring my pack here?”

While Karl did so – he was nearly done with the awl I'd let him use – he also wondered as to why I wanted my pack until I opened it up and brought out the rag-wrapped dagger tagged as evidence. I passed the thing to Lukas, saying, “I have no idea why I have this thing beyond it may answer some questions.”

“Is that why it has that tin tag on it?” asked Sepp.

“It wasn't the only thing that showed,” I said. “I've seen some of those northern thugs with things but somewhat larger.”

“Now this is a pretty one,” said Lukas once he'd unwrapped it. “I've not seen such work, excepting that which you've done.”

“It's a copy of a dagger that showed on my first day,” I said, “and I nearly fainted when that stuff started showing in my workbench.”

“Was this dagger that showed bad?” asked Lukas.

“It and all the other original stuff was glowing red, and it was taking over the others in the room,” I said. “That one was given as a copy for evidence, and I've wondered about it.”

“Why, were there other things?” asked Lukas.

“There were, and no small number of them,” I said. “I brought most of them with me, in fact.”

After showing the magnifier, compass, and key, I spoke of the money and map, as well as the likely reasons for their being 'given'. I then mentioned what I had done to Kees with the key.

“That was strange,” I said, as I held up the key. “This was a copy, and I was told it would still be regarded highly, but why did it do what it did?”

“I think that is what you use to prove people are witches or not,” said Gilbertus, as he moved the key away from him and toward me. “I think my sheath might need some work also.”

The next two hours – it was getting close to dinner-time, and the others were nibbling on various bits of food – saw me finish both holsters. I then thought to go over the pirate-special pistols and the two muskets we'd 'inherited'.

“Them things are all loaded up,” said Gilbertus. “How is it you can clean them?”

“Completely, no,” I said. “I can go over the locks.”

However, when I broke out the distillate, I was banished to the furthest corner. Given the stench – it wasn't well-dried, save by a witch's lying 'definition' – I did not blame them, at least until Sepp came to look over my shoulder.

“That was not a good idea,” he said. “These things have bad rust.”

“So?” said Gilbertus. “Bad rust is better than being blown up with the fumes o' that stuff.”

“I am not so sure,” said Lukas. “How bad is it?”

Lukas came to look over my shoulder, then said, “now that is trouble. Gilbertus, what would happen if one of those people came after us, and you missed fire?”

That brought me and my gut-churning distillate back to the table, and as I scrubbed rust off of the lockplates and other pieces, I muttered steadily as to the foul smell.

“I had no idea the stink of that stuff bothered you so much,” said Gilbertus, “and those are worse than I thought. Whose are they?”

“One of 'em's yours,” said Lukas, “and two of them belong to these two, and then this one I wonder about...”

“I think it was packed as a spare,” I said. “Do those things really work with shot in them?”

“They do,” said Lukas, “though you want to be close enough to put some smoke on thugs if you need to shoot them. They're best for rats and small animals.”

Both muskets proved to be somewhat better in the lock department than the pistols, and after cleaning and lubrication, I put them back where they'd been. I thought to ask about priming powder as I went in search of the Hoelm's bestiary.

“Do we have priming powder?” I asked.

“Not much, but then, we haven't needed much,” said Gilbertus. “I saw your grinder, so I know you can do up more if needed.”

“Perhaps I'd best do so while we have the chance, then,” I said, as I found the bestiary.

While I ground up some of my powder into a near-impalpable dust, the bestiary circulated. Here, I learned that both Gilbertus and Lukas had better-than-average reading skills, as they were explaining matters to both Karl and Sepp. Sepp picked things up quicker than Karl, though neither younger man was particularly slow.

“You're both quicker than those I live with,” I said. “Anna constantly complains about how difficult reading is, and she seems to retain very little from one week to the next.”

“That is because you do not teach her daily,” said Karl.

“Not her,” said Lukas. “If she's of a mind to learn something, she tends to learn it. I've only seen a few quicker.”

“Unless it is knitting,” said Gilbertus. “She has trouble with that no matter how hard she tries, and I've seen but a handful of people try harder.”

“Meaning she could learn faster?” I asked.

“Both of those people,” said Lukas. “I took the test for the higher schools so as to get sponsored, and though I did good on that test, they told me someone else got picked.”

“Those positions aren't free,” I said. “They might be a bit cheaper, but only the extremely wealthy can afford to make lump-sum payments of that size.”

I then heard a tap at the door, and turned to see first Hendrik come in, followed by Gabriel, and then those two individuals that had come earlier that day. Gabriel was pushing a cart, and the smells spoke of 'dinner'.

The plates emerged, as did the heating lamp; a sizable piece of meat had been secured, and once the lamp was 'simmering away' under my larger pot, I thought to ask what was planned.

“I spoke of that broth,” said Hendrik, “and they were inclined to try it. Also, I did some more asking about certain articles of food.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“I found three more of those small eggs,” he said, “and I secured them, as well as some Raw-Deal sauce. I'm in need of it myself.”

“Do any of you have some Geneva?” asked a faint voice from the left. “Those corks are almost out, and I feel sick.”

“Now why is it you want Geneva, Kees?” asked Lukas. “You ain't et enough to get indigestion, and until the dung is out of your gut and your head, I think you should stay in the privy.”

“There might not be much left of me if I stay longer,” he said. “How did that meeting go?”

“Poorly,” said Hendrik. “They weren't willing to do anything that hasn't been done for hundreds of years regarding those people and pigs, and that's what I heard.” Here, he turned to me, then asked, “did you hear anything unusual?”

“Someone – at least one person, and probably more – thinks this is our problem,” I said. “Then, another spoke of no proof beyond 'a few interesting samples'. He might well be demanding a 'tangible' demonstration.”

“I can speak of one person like that,” said Hendrik, “even if I doubt much that he was thinking thusly.”

“Who?” I asked. “The king?”

“He's most definitely like that,” said Gabriel, “and to say he has a face for gambling is calling the pot dirty when it is full of burned stew.”

“There is more, isn't there?” said Hendrik.

“The third portion I heard was bad,” I said. “It spoke of us being 'proper' witches, and if we demonstrated that status satisfactorily, then we only had to fear from those like us who wished to take our property and place.”

Hendrik was not surprised, even if I was, and when the Hoelm's bestiary came around to him, he passed it to Gabriel. The latter began looking as if enthralled, then said, “I'm looking in here for worms, as we'll need to bring the Abbey up for use whether they help us or not.”

“Will we get help?” I asked.

“The quantity and quality of that help will be determined to a degree by the second kingdom's response,” said Hendrik. “The third kingdom will send some help, but their capacity is quite limited, and those in the fourth kingdom have considerable distance to travel.”

“Meaning decent amounts at the least, but those amounts will only arrive during 'good' weather, and nothing will come 'quickly',” I said.

“I am not entirely sure it will be that bad,” said Hendrik, “but not receiving help from this kingdom will have an effect on the total amount we get.”

“More than the missing contributions from the second kingdom?” I asked. “As in 'they aren't sending anything, so why should we'?”

Hendrik nodded, then said, “if you are not overly tired, you may wish to come with us in an hour or so when we resume private talks with the king.”

I dipped the eggs and ate them, then thought to try a slice of rye bread. The taste of the sauce seemed especially helpful, so much so that when Gabriel dipped a piece of his bread in the sauce, the furtive looks from the party made me wonder as to what was likely to happen – until Gabriel abruptly dropped his bread and began drinking from his mug as if tremendously dehydrated. After draining his mug, he turned to me while pouring a refill. His face was trickling sweat and was perceptibly red.

“How can you stand Raw-Deal sauce on your food like that?” he gasped.

“It helps with digestion,” I said, as I dipped another piece of bread. “There is a sauce where I come from that this resembles. Why, what happened?”

“I feel like a great fire-spewing worm eating that stuff!” he spat. “My mouth is on fire!”

“It took me years from the time I was small to develop a taste for that sauce, Gabriel,” I said. “I had to go slowly with it.”

I paused, then said, “now, speaking of worms – were you referring to a worm with legs, or without them?”

“What?” gasped Gabriel. “Are those things in the Abbey?”

“There is at least one large Desmond,” I said. “It should respond well to being swarmed with swords, spears, and perhaps bombs. Then, there is another creature...” I paused, then asked, “do people call unusually large lizards 'worms' here?”

A question was put to me, but the speaking faded with sudden abruptness to show a darkened tall-ceilinged place that took seconds to recognize as the interior of the Abbey. Here, I saw a 'Lizard' – a lizard of long and mobile tail, a long line of triangular spikes on its back, 'horns' of a sort, a mouth with a multitude of deeply-entrenched fangs, and...

The whole room seemed wreathed briefly in pale yellowish-orange flames as if that vermin-ridden reptile had loosed a monstrous belch composed of a sour-smelling gas that ignited upon contact with air.

There were tales of such creatures, and one might well name them Dragons, or as they called such beasts here, 'Dragoons'. And with the knowledge of such tales, those books – there were more than three, I now recalled; there were several of them – spoke of worms. One such 'worm' was an especially large winged example with the malodorous name of 'Smog'.

I began to make choking noises with the recollection of that beast's fumes and their capacity for causing prostration. Smog alerts had been common during the when and where I had grown up, and while the books had not mentioned the chemical constituents of that reptile's breath, I recalled hearing of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen. Smog received a biannual checkup to ensure he had plenty of all three.

“It was worthless to speak of that reptile there, and the same for much else,” said Hendrik. “They would not hear us. I could tell that much.”

“Will the, uh, king?” I stammered, between coughing fits.

“I am not longer certain,” said Hendrik, “but we need to try.”

“Which reptile?” asked Gabriel. “I seem to understand there to be two of them.”

“Uh, what?” I gasped.

“One of them resembles this creature in here,” said Gabriel, as he opened up the Hoelm's bestiary, “and the other was much larger and far more dangerous.”

“Uh, the smaller one is at the Abbey,” I said. “That other creature was not real.”

“Its fumes made you deathly ill more than once,” said Gabriel, “and the way you were coughing just now, I might wonder. It is too early in the year for the pollen-sickness.”

“Up this way, yes,” said Lukas. “It's near year-round in the fourth kingdom, and that's for the common type. There's this other kind, though, and that one's trouble.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“That one is when you cough like that, and then you spit blood,” said Lukas. “The first type has to be especially bad to kill. That other type gets that way eventually if you stay where it's warm. If you go north, it more or less goes away.”

“Does it have a name?” I asked.

“It does, but I disrecall it,” said Lukas. “It tends to eat people up before it kills them.”

Consumption?” I asked.

“I suspect... No, that's it,” said Lukas. “That's what they call that sickness.”

I ceased coughing shortly thereafter, and then thought to ask about what Gabriel had found.

“That would be 'The Horned Dragoon',” he said, “and that lizard at the Abbey has fewer legs than the one described here.”

“What?” I asked. “How many does it have?”

“The horned dragoon has ten legs,” said Gabriel, “a long tail” – I could hear him add the 'e' on the end of tail, such that it was spelled 'taile' – “and a tall prickly sail on top. Otherwise, it resembles what I saw.”

“The flames?” I asked.

“I am not sure about either of those I just saw,” said Gabriel. “This one here is listed as being like an iron furnace for heat.”

“Iron furnace?”

“One of those is under construction at Georg's,” asked Gabriel. “The bricks for it required special forms, and they are being made now, just like the Abbey itself is being worked on.”

“What?” gasped Gilbertus. “That place is full of witches.”

“It seems it is not,” said Hendrik. “Hans, Anna, and Dennis went in there shortly after he came, and no witches were detected.”

“N-no witches,” I said. “It has plenty of other things, and will need clearing before use.”

“As I suspected,” said Hendrik. “They're concentrating on the exterior and the land around it.”

I went with Hendrik and Gabriel shortly thereafter, and our trip into the brightest-yet portion of the house was a revelation. Unlike at home, this house's 'quarters' were well-elevated and well-hidden. We needed to climb three flights of stairs and travel to the southwest corner of the building down long dim hallways until we came to 'ye king's area'. I actually looked for the sign saying that, and was disappointed when it proved absent.

The contrast could not be more abrupt than what I saw, for here, the walls practically blazed with candle-lanterns burning thick wax candles, and the intricate mosaics I saw inlet into the floor made for a desire to attempt 'hopscotch' more than once. The 'guards' here were dressed in the most ornate finery I had seen yet, and as I glanced at one man's 'kit', I noted a faint 'chemical' odor that made for a desire to sneeze.

We came to a small alcove with two benches and three jugs, with four men 'on-duty' sitting half-asleep with tankards in hand and short large-bore muskets next to them. I felt reminded of blunderbusses again, even as I glanced at the weapons themselves while Gabriel tapped on the varnished planks of the door.

“Such large guns,” I thought. “I wonder if those are called 'gonnes' hereabouts?”

Rapid steps came closer, and the door unlocked with an echoing clack. It went wide to show the 'announcer', who let the three of us inside.

I had seen Hendrik's office. Here, I was currently expecting Henry the Eight's 'court', and I found myself utterly disappointed to see a somewhat larger version of what Hendrik had. As I looked around, however, I began to see differences, but I had but a fraction of a second to look before the noises of chairs spoke of a need to sit down.

“I've only been in one of these places once before,” I mumbled, “and I'm still surprised.”

“I see,” said the king. “I had wondered about you more than a little, given what you do and have done.”

“Were you expecting s-someone different?” I asked.

“I was,” said the king. “I am glad my expectations and the truth diverge so widely.”

I nearly fainted in place. Hendrik and this other king began speaking of something, while Gabriel brought out one 'binder' after another. I was glad for my water-bottle being filled with cider.

“Now that is another example,” said the king. “I was told you made that. Did you?”

I nodded, then said, “these are not easy to make. I've made but four of them so far.”

“I do not share the views of the majority of that last meeting,” he said a moment later, “which is why I hope to have copies of these ledgers. I was told they would need to be done elsewhere, and then brought here.”

“To you personally,” I said softly. “They would become kindling in a stove otherwise.”

I suddenly had three sets of eyes on me. I shrugged, then asked, “do you know about this, uh, apparition that showed outside our door?”

“What... Where did you go to school?” asked the king.

“He did not go to any of those on the continent,” said Hendrik, “and the three of us were little beyond scribes to his dictation of our reports.”

“Why is that?” asked the king.

I brought out my slate, then passed it to Hendrik.

“I have some experience with his handwriting,” said Hendrik. “Now this looks like... I think he was writing of candles here, though I am not sure, and this...”

“That might be a number,” said Gabriel. “When he showed me that list earlier, I thought I might be looking at a transcription of an especially bad curse.”

“I would not write down one of those,” I said. “Writing and chanting those things are both bad ideas, and which of those activities is worse is a good question.”

Hendrik passed the slate to the king, who brought out a magnifier and began looking at it. I wondered if he were nearsighted, so much so that I produced mine, and proffered it.

“This might be clearer,” I said.

He took it up with thanks, then began muttering, and within seconds passed back slate and magnifier.

“I have never used a glass of such quality,” he said, “and I have yet to see writing of such an impossible-to-understand species. What was it you wrote?”

“A shopping list, sir,” I said. “It spoke of wax candles, herring, dried vegetables, cooking supplies, soap, and uncorking medicine.”

“Good that you got all of those things,” said Hendrik. “I've had a hankering for herring recently, ever since the last cork came out.”

Hendrik paused, then said, “I have but little idea as to how to proceed further, which is why I brought him here. That, and I knew you had a desire for questions in private.”

“I did, and do,” he said. Here he turned to me. “Is it true as to some of what I have heard to the north?”

“As to what, sir?” I asked. “A great deal has happened in the last few months.”

“Firstly, as to what occurred during your training,” he said. “I wondered about the bridge until that disk showed, but I wonder no longer as to either its truth or much of what I have heard.” He paused, then said, “the chief matter is getting the truth out of what amounts to gossip.”

“Things were different from the first with him,” said Gabriel. “He was given some clothing fit for those called misers to the north, as well as a great many...”

“What do you speak of?” asked the king. “Would these be gifts?”

“Yes, though not ordinary gifts,” said Hendrik. “The whole matter has become somewhat clearer since, and I can state it thusly: 'if ever there was a person both hated and feared by witches, it would be him'.”

“Then the suppliers of these gifts?” asked the king.

“Most of those things glowed red,” I said, “which named them witch-tools, or fetishes, and they took control of both Gabriel and a tailor named Aart. I've had that happen many times.”

You were ridden?” gasped the king.

“Him, no,” said Hendrik. “He seems immune to such influence.”

The king sat and thought for a moment, then said, “that would either make him an especially strong witch, or...”

“Or what, sir?” asked Gabriel.

“Or like Charles himself was said to be,” said the king. “He was said to be that way, and...”

Here, he paused, then said, “perhaps that was why they were not inclined.”

“I heard many people thought him a witch,” said Hendrik.

“I am not surprised,” said the king, as he reached into his desk. “I wondered myself, in fact.” He then brought out a slim brown book, and passed it to Hendrik, who then gave it to me.

“Now read from that,” said the king.

I opened the book, then smiled and began reading where my finger first found a place. Within seconds, I could faintly hear an eerie-sounding whining noise that pulsated amid a churning hissing. The candles seemed to faintly flicker, then flicker more, until finally an echoing explosion was followed by two rumbling blasts.

“What was that?” shouted the king. “What did you do?”

“I read from the book, sir,” I said. “I did nothing beyond what you saw me do.” I paused, then asked, “was this to see if I was a witch?”

“Only to a small degree,” he said. “I was more interested in seeing if you were like the old tales spoke of people like Charles.”

“I am not familiar with those tales,” I said, “even if I have a good name for them.”

“What would that be?” he asked. I could hear rapid running steps coming quickly with 'news'.

Grim's Hairy Tales,” I said. “What little I've heard of them implies they can quickly raise one's hair from fright.”

“I have but heard of that happening,” he said. “I myself recall many hours spent in the privy after hearing them read as a child.”

“Your visitors, sir,” I said, as I pointed to the door. A faint click ensued, then seconds later someone pounded frantically amid the door's creaking opening.

“The Generals, sir!” shouted the guard. “They set themselves on fire!”

“Put them out, then,” he said, “and this time, not merely with water. Tell them to remove all distillate and those smelly lanterns from the premises.”

He then turned to me, and said, “first, someone tries to set you people on fire with those things, then those in proper visitor's quarters burn the place up, and now those Generals have caught fire. One question.” He paused for emphasis. “Does anything happen when you tell witches to sup with Brimstone?”

“Uh, I'm not sure,” I said. “Is something supposed to happen?”

“I have it on good authority something does happen,” said Hendrik. “I have heard of witches catching fire multiple times around him.”

“But I didn't say a-anything to those three,” I sobbed, “and the other time, I was telling this piece of paper to go to h-hell, and both paper and witch caught fire.”

“Hans told me of that incident,” said Hendrik. A brief pause. “Anna said she'd told you about that phrase and what happened with it in the past, and how she thinks it might happen with you in the near future.”

“That was what I wished to know,” said the king. “Even if it does not happen now, it is likely to happen soon.” Here, he paused, “and if it started happening here and now, then I would suspect things would change in this kingdom. I can only hope that it happens soon enough, as I now know of our own danger.”

“How is that?” I asked. “Those in that last meeting said it was not 'their' problem, but ours, and they would be glad to see the first kingdom turned into a blazing mound of rubble.”

“While I wonder as to that assessment, I do not wonder as to what happens in the potato country,” he said, “and if those people come down here in numbers, then...”

“A wrecked port, for starters,” I said. “They would plug the place up with a dozen of their ships parked in each of those two long places, and each ship would have a pig. Then, there would be more swine traveling the overland route.” I paused, then said, “now if three or four of those pigs causes that much trouble in the potato country, imagine what would happen if there were three or four dozen pigs, and each pig leading a shipload of those people.”

I had yet to see a man 'melt' before my eyes, but within seconds, I knew I'd gotten through where everyone else had failed utterly. He shook, trembled, then reached with palsied hand for a 'flagon' and began guzzling the stuff as if dehydrated. The odor of beer became steadily more profound, until he had finished the container and burped softly.

“Th-that...” he gasped. “I n-never saw that. That many of those pigs would d-destroy the second kingdom.”

“You forgot the people, sir,” I said. “The first kingdom deals with them fairly regularly, and is, uh, somewhat inured to fighting. Casualties are still very high, but those people don't get what they want cheaply. In contrast, were those pigs and people to show in an area like this one...”

“They would ruin all we have,” said the king.

“And with comparatively light casualties,” I said. “Even in the first kingdom, those people don't need the pigs to cause great destruction and loss of life.”

“How so?” he asked.

“First, they are not like people here,” I said. “They are trained extensively in what they use, and that for many years.”

“They are said to be stupid,” said Hendrik. “Do you say otherwise?”

“If you mean activities outside of warfare, you are exactly right for the vast majority,” I said. “Those people are not terribly smart. That has some terrible advantages along with the obvious disadvantages.”

What would those be?” asked the king. He wasn't the only one who wondered.

“Firstly, they follow orders exactly,” I said. “That means if you tell them to take a position, they will do so, or die trying, and they will ignore injuries and casualties in the process of achieving that goal.”

“What does that mean?” asked the king. He had heard something he could not understand.

“It means that if your position holds, it is going to be awash in blood and mounded with corpses,” I said, “and if there is but one of those people alive, he will attempt to take that position and kill everyone in it until he himself is killed.”

“That... That...” spluttered the king. “How are they able...”

“They don't have enough smarts to be afraid, I guess,” I said. “Given how they live in Norden, they almost need to be that way to live any length of time at all.”

“How is that?” asked Hendrik.

“There's but one rule in Norden,” I said. “The women there run the place, and all of them are witches, so if they want to take someone's head, they can do so without answering to anyone.” I paused, then said, “and it will be exactly the same here if those people get established. They will not be satisfied with anything less than the entire continent, and they will do whatsoever it takes to achieve that goal.”

The king leaned forward, then asked, “and what can we do to stop them?”

“His training gave glimpses of what was needed,” said Hendrik. “Between attacks by various witches...”

“What!” shouted the king. “The witches went after him then?”

Hendrik nodded solemnly, then said, “from his very first day. It did not lessen materially until the destruction of the Swartsburg.”

“Did he..?”

Hendrik nodded, then asked, “what is the condition of that place?”

The king paused, drank more, then turned to a ledger. He opened it, then read, “the southeast quarter was leveled and burned the first evening, and from that point, the fires spread to the other quarters. Only when all that burned readily was smoke and ash did the fires and explosions finally cease.”

“There were three, uh, places with red...” I asked.

“One of those was destroyed that first night,” he said. “The other two are severely damaged.”

Severe?” I asked. “Gutted with fire?”

“I am not certain as to their precise disposition,” he said. “I am certain that services are difficult to locate in that place, and rumors have it neither building is currently used much.”

“Uh, foundries?” I asked. “Those cattle between the inner and outer walls?”

“I doubt they pour much there now,” he said. “As for the animals, I had no knowledge of them until now.”

“Meaning your information is suspect to a degree,” I said. “How much did you pay for it?”

The king looked at me 'strangely', then said, “enough that I thought I would get reliable information. Now you speak of it as being lies. Is it?”

“That depends on who sold it to you,” I said. “I could easily see... Oh, definitely. Some black-dressed thug spent an afternoon touring the place, a few days learning the common gossip in the first kingdom house, then wrote up a 'proper' report in the 'correct' format, and sold you a bill of goods at a very high price.”

I paused, then muttered, “I'll need to go in there myself to get information I can use.”

“Use?” asked the king. “How could you use it?”

“I myself am not entirely certain,” said Hendrik, “but regardless of what happens from here to the fifth kingdom, we can ill afford to not do our utmost. What he will be doing is still much of a question, but I doubt seriously it will be trivial, and I do know this: unless we change to meet the challenge, it will destroy us utterly.”

“Especially given the numbers of those people,” I said. “They have more than we do.”

“How many would that be?” asked the king.

“Uh, somewhere over three m-million...” I murmured. “Every inlet plugged with one or more of those ships, every harbor – perhaps two dozen in the one here, and that one in the third kingdom getting as many ships as can make it down that way, and then every river to the north practically lined with those things.”

“Th-three million?” gasped Hendrik. “That's two for every person on the continent.”

“And most of those people will be arriving in the first kingdom,” I said. “That means a local superiority of forces of ten to our one, if not more.”

“That does not bode well,” said the king.

With that, I sensed the meeting to be over, and on the way back to our lodging, I said, “I'd best check that laundry, and then the buggies.”

“Those were checked while we were in the second meeting today,” said Hendrik. “Both Gilbertus and Lukas checked both of them. Why, do you not trust them?”

“Three of the guards here implied I didn't trust anyone other than myself,” I said, “and I spoke of checking the buggies this morning. If they looked them over, then I can do what looking I need to do for my own peace of mind when we put the wheels on.”

“How much looking is that?” asked Gabriel.

“Given what they did,” I said, “I suspect that I might need a few minutes. What did they do?”

“What is commonly done to buggies,” said Gabriel. “Both said they were doing extremely well.”

“I might need some moments with a strap, then,” I said. “There were a few little spots on the cones...”

“They touched those up also,” said Gabriel. “It seems those polishing pads work well for such work.”

I left for the laundry once on the ground floor, and arrived to find our clothing 'in process'. Some was being washed, while other portions were being 'dried', and some other clothes – they were not ours – were being 'ironed', if I went by the clothing that was on the 'ironing boards'. No one was currently 'on' the ironing, unless I missed my guess.

I wandered back to where our location was, and found that two of our party were missing. I wondered where they had gone as I sat down to look through the bestiary. It was about dinnertime, and within moments, someone tapped at our door.

Sepp opened it to admit another covered 'dinner cart', and I set aside the book for the moment. I then noticed the smells.

“Herring?” I whispered.

“Those also,” said Gabriel, as he returned from the privy. “Kees got into the Geneva, I suspect, as he is asleep in there.”

“Does it smell like Geneva?” I asked, as I stood up. I wanted to check the liniment to see its current state.

“It does, and strongly,” said Hendrik. “I do not know what to do with him, as he seems inclined to become a witch no matter what is done.”

“This is not a new desire for him, either,” I said, as I recalled what had been said about questions during his traipsing. “He plotted this for a long time. Now why would the life of a witch be so attractive?”

“I have no idea,” said Gabriel. “Witches may be wealthy, and look to have a great deal of power and prestige, but neither of those is a likely reason as to why they do what they do.”

“Does he need to be, uh, simmered?” I asked.

A deafening scream came from the area of the privy, then Kees rolled out of the place as if bundled in flames. I stood up and began walking closer, thinking to ask him a question, when suddenly he 'morphed' into a peculiar-looking lime-green snake. The snake raised up to the height of my head – it was growing rapidly – and then tried striking at me.

Quicker than I could think I ducked and moved forward, then slashed at the portion raised from the floor. The snake ducked back, then rose higher – and I leaped upwards and forwards to slash at it again.

The wily snake dodged my stroke yet again, and I kicked at its midriff fiercely. It bent like a rubber band, and as I began falling, it seemed to be following me down. I hit the floor and bounced to the side as the snake just missed me with its fangs – and when I flew past its body, I swung on it again.

This time, I scored a hit, and the snake turned to thrash crazily on the floor as it tried to raise up again. I found the tail – it too was thrashing – and I picked it up and sliced on it, then leaped out of the way as the snake tried for me again. I landed and sliced at its body where it was thickest, then leaped back and did an end-run as the snake tried to catch me. I stopped in mid-stride and leaped back toward the snake with my sword pointed toward its open mouth, then feinted and leaped right as it assayed a strike.

I turned as I leaped and jabbed the point into the snake's head, then hit the floor running toward the rear end of the snake. I turned, leaped over the back of the snake, and sliced hard at its back.

The snake began thrashing again, and I left it be for a second until its tempting amputated tail presented itself. I suspect this was bait, so I ran past the end of the tail as the thrashing stopped, and I rammed the snake in the side with the sword as I came back on the other side.

The blade went in to the hilt, and when I removed it, I plunged it in again. I had hit something important, and when I pulled the blade out, I was sprayed with deep greenish-yellow blood.

The snake thrashed crazily, and this time, I was angry. I began ripping holes in its hide with my sword, and when its staggering head came at me, I turned – and sliced its nose off. The fangs of the upper jaw fell to impale the lower, and the snake twitched once before collapsing finally as it died.

I looked around where I stood after dodging the coffin-sized head of the snake, and stayed clear of its tree-trunk thick body, and I saw the room to be limned with bluish-white clouds of what might have been smoke. The snake was burning briskly as the fires spread along its rapidly putrefying corpse, and when I again looked around, I was astonished enough to ask, “where is everyone?”

The room responded by exploding with a long drawn-out rumble, and I 'came to myself' with Kees' neck under my boot and the bloody blade of my drawn sword pointed at his sniveling face. I glanced upwards to see a ceiling gone mad with blue-white fire, and I looked down at my prisoner.

“What shall it be, witch?” I asked. My voice displayed no doubt, and expressed a cold hard fact. “I just had a battle with, uh, your chief familiar spirit, and I think it's indisposed.”

I looked closer at my sword, and at the blood on it. The tint was green melded with a pinkish red, and when I flicked the blood off, the stuff went up in smoke upon contacting the floor.

“I've lost my patience with you, witch,” I spat. “You chose to be a witch, and nothing else in this life matters. So, you need to go and look at the next one.”

“No!” screamed Kees. “D-don't send me there!”

“Fool, food, and toy of Brimstone,” I spat. “I feel like ripping you apart for my amusement.”

I removed my boot from his neck, then pulled him up bodily and tossed him into the cloud overhead – where a huge eruption made for wondering on my part. I then saw where I actually was.

I was in the visitor's room, with the two missing people – Lukas and Gilbertus – present, and the table was being set. The rich smell of broth seemed usurped by the reek of Geneva, and as I moved to where I could wipe my sword down, I wondered what had happened. I then found a clean rag, and began wiping.

The rag grew a deep dark redness quickly, and when I saturated the ragged bit of cloth, I reached for another in my bag. I suspected I needed a dampened third rag for 'full-cleaning' and then an oil-rag before putting my sword in the scabbard.

“Now I never thought I would see one of those done,” said Lukas as he came closer.

“What?” I asked.

“He started acting strange,” said Lukas, “and he was speaking like a bad witch.”

“He..?” I asked. I wondered if the snake was meant.

“He was cursing you,” said Hendrik. “He must have learned it from that witch in the hallway, as it sounded exactly the same.”

“So you gets close to him, he pulls this dagger, and you slap him such that his dagger goes over to the wall and he goes after it, and your sword is out,” said Lukas. “He tries to get up, you kick him in the head, and then start cutting him to pieces while he's still alive and screaming.”

“The cloud, Lukas,” said Gabriel. “That showed up from the beginning.”

Lukas looked up, then said, “blood don't stain that place much.”

He resumed, saying, “about the time you had him in a dozen pieces, you seemed satisfied, and you then saw the cloud, so you grabbed what's left of his stinking body up and then tossed it and all the pieces up into the cloud, where they vanished.”

“And good riddance,” said Hendrik. “I'm glad he's done with his evil.”

And, as if to answer us all, Kees fell down with a thud to lay as if dead upon the floor.

I left him lay, as I needed some vinegar to entirely clean my sword, and when I found the jug, I began wiping it carefully. Finally, I had all of the blood off of the sword, and tossed the vinegar-dampened rag onto Kees.

“If he's not a witch,” I thought, “then he won't mind the smell of vinegar.”

I oiled my sword carefully, now fully conscious of it being a portion of preserving my life, and once I'd finished, I went to Kees and knelt down. Faintly I seemed to see scars showing here and there among the rents in his ripped-to-shreds clothing, and when I found one, I noted not merely greenish-red stains, but also obvious scales that had been ripped off of the skin of a reptile.

“What was I seeing, then?” I asked.

“An especially powerful witch-in-training,” said the soft voice, “who was trying hard to make his bones.”

“Then what he did when we hid..?”

“Much of that was faked,” said the soft voice. “Witches that adept at concealment are very rare here at the present time.”

“Uh, the past?” I asked.

“They were somewhat more common then,” said the soft voice.

Gabriel came up to me, then shook his head before speaking.

“For some reason, I can not merely hear better, but also think clearer,” he said, “and I think he will wake up shortly if you do not awaken him.”

“Is he faking it now?” I asked.

“It is not easy to fake matters after a time in that place,” said Gabriel. “It can be done, but only when the person doing it is as much in the dark as everyone else.”

“I was fighting a snake,” I said, “a snake that started out decent-sized and grew a great deal. What happened that you could see?”

“That cloud overhead first showed,” said Gabriel, “and then he tried for you with a dagger. He seemed different somehow, almost as if he'd been hiding everything, and now, he wasn't hiding at all.”

“Did this happen as Lukas described?” I asked.

“More or less, though the blood was strange-looking,” said Gabriel. “I never saw green blood before, and there were little pieces...”

I pointed carefully with the toe of my boot, then asked, “scales, like those?”

Gabriel knelt down, and touched the sliced portion. A faint moan came from somewhere, then “what happened to me?”

“Did you give up on being a witch?” asked Gilbertus.

“I th-think so,” said Kees. “I know where it goes now.”

“Aye, straight to hell,” said Gilbertus. “Now did you see Brimstone?”

“N-no,” he said. “I saw someone so much worse that I asked to be put in hell so I did not have to be around him.”

“Now who was that?” asked Gilbertus.

“G-G-God,” stammered Kees, “and I knew what I was, and I could only tell the truth. It was no longer possible to lie.”

“The truth is not what the 'most important person' says it is, is it?” I asked.

“I never saw that before seeing him,” said Kees. “He had a copy of the book there, and he told me to put my nose in it until I learned what the truth was, and once I did that, he spoke to me about thinking about what I was doing. He then told me I needed to learn about common sense, and who to learn it from.”

“Common sense?” I asked.

“It is not what most think it to be, and it is certainly not what witches mean by those words,” said Kees. “He spoke of strange words that I barely recalled from school.”

“What were these?” asked Gabriel.

“One of them was called Logic,” said Kees, “and he had me do a number of lessons so that I had an idea as to what it was and how it worked. I had to prove everything I believed in, such that I could answer as to why I believed what I did, and I needed to have something called Evidence as well. If I did not have that, I could not prove anything.”

“Any other words?” I asked.

Causality, for one,” said Kees, “and also Prejudice, and then, finally, Reason.”

“Were curses mentioned?” asked Gabriel.

“I didn't know any,” said Kees. “They said I would be taught those when I made my bones.”

“Bones?” I asked. “As in your name of Judas?”

Kees nodded soberly.

“Where?” I asked. “In the Swartsburg?”

“Yes, there,” said Kees. “There are a fair number of buildings that are still usable in places.”

“Such as near the north-west walls?” I asked.

“If they're right next to the walls, yes,” said Kees. “There are a lot of buildings that were burnt out from the inside such that they're deathtraps, and they collapse if you try to go in them, and...”

“And those two places with the red lights?” I asked.

“They can still use their basements,” said Kees, “and perhaps their first floors. Otherwise, they are ruins and waiting to fall down.”

“Did you go into that place much recently?” I asked.

“Twice,” said Kees, “and that within days prior to us going. Those on the council lost everything in there.”

“Yes, it was confiscated,” said Gabriel.

“No, not merely that,” said Kees. “I went in there that same evening, and the buildings were but little damaged, but in less than a week, several more fires started, and by my last visit prior to leaving on the trip, they were either rubble or hollow burnt-out shells.”

“Basements?” I asked.

“A fair number of those had survived,” said Kees. “Otherwise, it's either the north side nearest the two main gates for about sixty yards south, the north-west corner near or next to the walls, a few places on the west wall, and a lot of scattered places here and there.”

“Manufactories?” I asked.

“A few small places,” said Kees. “Many of the survivors have moved their chief holdings out into the house or the surrounding communities while they start rebuilding.”

“Which is going slow,” I said. “Mostly right now it's scavenging.”

“That's the chief activity in that place,” said Kees. “They don't scavenge in hot areas, or where there are buildings about to fall down.”

“Hot areas?” I asked. “Where fires have just gone out?”

Kees nodded, then staggered toward a bed, where he collapsed.

“Is he done with the privy?” asked Lukas.

“I think so,” I said. “I doubt he will sample pork again – at least, I doubt he will sample it knowingly.”

As I said this, however, I thought to carefully go through his things, and within moments, I found not merely several small glass vials filled with off-white granules, but also a rag-wrapped dagger. Unwrapping this last made for gasps on my part, for the shape and reddish glow proclaimed it a fetish. I gingerly took the thing to the door and pitched it out into the pile of 'witch-things'. I pocketed the likely arsenic, thinking Hans might have use for it once we'd returned.

“They still haven't touched that stuff yet,” I murmured, as the smell of herring became stronger. It was time to eat.

Kees wobbled to the table about half-way through the repast, and unlike the instances prior, he was astonishingly temperate. More, he had developed something of an aversion to fermented wine, which surprised me.

“I thought you liked wine,” said Gabriel.

“I did,” he said, as he took a sip and grimaced. “It tastes different now, and...” Kees looked at a jug of unfermented wine, and asked for a small cup. He then tasted it.

“I think I'll leave fermented wine for the soup-pot,” he said. “This tastes much better.”

“Aye, it does work well in broth,” said Gilbertus. “I cut up the potatoes and carrots for our bedtime snack.”

About ten minutes later, however, I had a peculiar impression: the previous 'ironing' job had finished, and now a new lot of ironing – ours – was about to be ironed. Most importantly, someone had fetched the starch.

“Is it common to starch clothing around here?” I asked. I was recalling my last encounter with the stuff, that being the witch who 'tested' my sword.

Gabriel nodded solemnly, then said, “I had to ask when I last came here that my clothing not be so treated, in fact. Why do you ask?”

I was surprised at Gabriel's question, so much so that I blurted out, “they're going to starch our clothing, and this stuff, ugh! It makes cloth into sandpaper, and that goes double for underclothing.” I paused briefly, then said, “dear, please, no starch. Take a break, and put your legs up.”

Faintly I heard a chorus of thuds, and I stood to walk over to the door, then opened it. The stuff outside still remained unmoved. I seemed to smell that odd chemical smell I had noticed near that one guard, and I wondered more – until I backed away from the door and collided with Gabriel.

“What was that noise?” he asked.

“I'm not sure as to what it was,” I said, as I came outside fully, “but I am sure as to where I want to look first to find out.”

The laundry had three young women present, and their glazed-eyed expressions and seated forms were troubling. Their limp arms dangled down towards the floor, and their feet rested upon laundry carts filled with neatly folded clothing, while on the floor itself were several things that looked like medieval instruments of torture.

The length of these aged bronze 'boats' was near a foot, with a three inch width and curved topside that came to a point, and a graceful curved bronze rod attaching to the 'boat' with a pair of old-looking brass rivets and the wooden potion covering the parallel end. The heat of these things was stunning, and I learned of their heft when I picked one up.

“What is this thing?” I gasped, as I saw several more of them laying atop each of the ovens I had seen next to the wall.

“Those would be coppers,” said Gabriel, as he picked up another, “and they are used for...”

Gabriel's abrupt pause caused me to place the 'copper' on the nearest stove, and then fetch the other two. Once I had done so, I came to his side, where I saw not merely an 'ironing board', but also a pair of trousers that took me a second or so to recognize as mine. I blanched, then picked them up – and saw a multitude of small whitish spheres spill out. The 'chemical' smell I had noticed earlier was now obvious as to its source.

“H-hot melt glue?” I thought, as I carefully shook out my trousers, then folded them. “Now whose are those there?”

“Hendrik's, I think,” said Gabriel. “He does not like starch.”

“Starch!” I gasped. The word had a powerful sense of 'curse' to it, and my recollection of that witch and his clothing but added to what I had just heard.

“Especially that type,” said Gabriel. “If one wishes clothing that will stand up by itself, that starch is what is used.” He paused, then said, “what happened to them?”

“Too much ironing, I suspect,” I said.

“Those are not irons,” said Gabriel. “Those things are made of copper.”

“My mistake,” I said. “They had things like them where I came from, and those were called irons. I had one once, in fact.”

A faint moan came from one of the women, and as she stirred, I came to her side. She looked at her hands, then at her feet, and finally, down at the floor.

“My copper,” she moaned plaintively. “Where is it?”

“On the stove with the others,” I said. I tried to sound soothing, as this woman needed to hear such tones. “Is it customary to starch such clothing as you had on those boards?”

“It is, especially for those named betters,” she said, “and with that group of them, they were to receive the expensive starch.”

“Expensive?” I asked.

“Yes, very much so,” she said. “It wants an especially hot copper, lest it not stick.”

“Typical hot-melt glue,” I muttered. “Now who would want that stuff in their clothing?”

My last question was spoken in a distinctly 'wry' voice, and she sat up. I looked for something to give her to drink, as the 'laundry' currently reminded me of an oven for warmth.

“Supposedly all of the guests desire it,” she said.

“What?” I squeaked. “Who said that?”

One of the other two women startled awake, then said, “that's the usual for the clothing of betters, though the number one grade starch is more usual with special clothing.” She paused, then looked at me, and asked, “and I'm greatly surprised you don't have any.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“It tends to be cut in a very special fashion, and is either a dark brown, or more commonly, a color that has trouble making up its mind as to whether it is a very dark brown, or a black – and with that clothing, it all needs to be starched, hats down to stockings. Only those portions which are made of leather do not get starched.”

“Hats?” I gasped. “P-pressing?”

For some odd reason, 'praesunge' was understood perfectly, unlike 'eiseernij', and I wondered at the difference, at least until the woman began murmuring.

“Those hats are the worst things imaginable for pressing,” she said, “and only the underclothing itself is worse. I can tell its colors easily enough.”

“Underclothing?” I asked. Again, I recalled the underclothing of that one particular witch – and for some reason, the connection between that person and these people was not as solid as I thought it might be. Still, starched underclothing was something for wondering about...

“Of the same fabric,” she said, “and solid black, with many red-embroidered markings. It must be starched, lest its wearers become especially irate. I always thought them ready for a rest-house to want underclothing that was as stiff as wood.”

Them?” I asked gently.

“Visitors dressed in black, misers, high-ranking clerics, and those like them...” Here she paused, then said, “and you are not like those people at all.”

“Why?” I asked.

“They tend to smell of bad meat and strong drink,” said the third woman. “They do not like herring.”

“Uh, that clothing,” I asked. “Are there places that dip it in aquavit?”

“That room is upstairs,” said the second-to-awake woman. “They allow no common flames in that room, only daylight, and only certain people are permitted to do it.”

“Oh, those hats,” I asked, as I recalled the tangible aspects of General headgear. “Are they shaped unusually?”

“They are,” said the second-to-wake woman. “They tend to either look like black building stones, or look like upended soot-covered pots resting on blackened saucers.”

“Those hats trouble their brains,” said the third-to-wake woman.

“That is likely, Gertrud,” said the former woman. “We can do without extra pressing. Let me fetch the markers.”

She stood groggily, then began damping down the ovens. One of the other women also stood, then fetched a cloth bag of 'lumps', one of which she attached to the laundry basket. I looked at the clamp, and marveled at its simplicity.

“I never saw an overly-fat clothespin painted red on its tip before,” I thought, as I touched the smooth wood of the 'marker'. I turned to go, now confident in our clothing being ready for the morrow, and as I waited for Gabriel, I heard one of the women speak to the others.

“I have wanted to set for a while. My feet hurt.”

On the way back, I recalled what one of the women said, and mentioned it. Gabriel stopped, then looked at me with an unreadable expression.

“I think even Hendrik was misled by this place,” he said, as he resumed walking. “He most likely did not hear people like those doing laundry.”

“You?” I asked.

“I saw but few people other than what my guide pointed out,” said Gabriel, “and now I wonder as to what I was shown.”

“You were shown what those over that woman wished you to see,” I said. “Is that what you are thinking?”

Gabriel thought for a few seconds, then said, “that seems far more likely than it did earlier, for some reason.” A brief pause, then “why has that clothing remained out front of our room?”

“Uh, a challenge,” I said. “That, or perhaps witch-bait. I know it gets under those people's skins to see the garb of their champion laying down on the floor like that.”

“It might be those lanterns catching fire, also,” said Gabriel. “I know those things are dangerous that way, but catching fire so readily and in such numbers speaks of something unusual.”

“Roast witch, perhaps,” I murmured.

I heartily wished I had not spoken so, for the booming rumble that ensued was close-by, and the flash of flame that billowed crazily up the hall to our front made for diving for the floor and then rolling sideways to the wall.

“What was that?” asked Gabriel.

“Witch-trouble, most likely,” I said. “Either that, or they were playing around with those lanterns again.”

I staggered to my feet and ducked down seconds later, for the air near the ceiling had plenty of soot in it. I began walking bent double near the wall in the direction of our room, and when I came to where our current passage joined the long one, I was nearly run over by a black-dressed thug at a dead run. He tumbled and slid until he thumped a wall while I watched, then he lay inert. I resumed moving forward, now wary for trouble.

No more thugs showed abruptly, thankfully, though the mound of 'witch-supplies' I had left out had acquired another group of similar mounds nearby, and when I came to the first example, the door opened and Sepp came out.

“Now that one was scary,” he said. “I heard those thugs coming, and I told the others to get ready for them in case they tried for us while I fetched out my trap and laid it.”

“Trap?” I asked, as I nudged a black-dressed thug with my boot. He was unresponsive.

“Hans told me about them,” said Sepp, “so I made one up with priming powder in the smallest jug I could find and bought a friction igniter from him. I strung it up up so it was hid mostly in that clothing.”

“And?” I asked.

“I think that jug fetched those witches,” said Sepp, “as it went up, and the whole mess flamed good.”

“Uh, did you use any distillate?” I asked.

“No, I didn't,” said Sepp. “Then again, I've heard talk about witches being especially fond of distillate around here, so I thought it might not be needed.”

Sepp paused, then said, “and those flames told me I was right, that and the bits of the lantern we found.”

“Lantern?” I asked.

“It's really strange,” said Sepp. “Lukas said he knows what kind it was.”

“Uh, do we tie up these thugs?” I asked.

“I would not worry about them,” said Gabriel. “They are either dead, close to it, or too badly injured to do more than crawl away.”

The door then opened behind Sepp, and I saw Hendrik with a fowling piece. I suspected it was his.

“Are they still up to trouble?” he asked.

“I doubt it rather much,” said Gabriel. “We could poke them with knives to be certain.”

I was loath to do any thug-poking, but I soon found myself 'elected' so as to keep the others out of trouble while we moved the dead and dying black-dressed thugs next to the walls. Only three of them were still alive, or so I thought until I saw Lukas wiping an awl once we had finished.

“What..?”

“I cleaned their ears,” he said. “It tends to be about the least messy way of making certain with thugs like that.”

“Did you poke...”

“All the way,” said Lukas. “I'm glad I got this awl when I did, as it's the best I've ever seen.” He paused, then said, “and you'll want to look at that lantern's pieces, as I've heard of lanterns like that, but never seen them before now.”

The lantern in question was surprisingly intact – it had its tank torn open by what looked like a piece of pottery – and its construction made for wondering, first at its precision, and secondly, as to its means of producing light. It did not use a wick, and the wire mesh 'globe' was faintly covered with soot.

“Th-this thing is a p-pressure lantern,” I gasped.

“I am not sure about pressure,” said Lukas, “but if that thing is what I think it is, it's bad trouble.”

“Bad trouble?” I asked, as I found the 'pump'. “I've seen things like this.”

“Those used a different fuel,” said Gabriel. “That is one of those lanterns that uses light distillate.”

“I thought so,” said Lukas. “I've heard those things were called Infernal lanterns, too.”

“P-picture of Brimstone?” I asked.

“That one must have had it burnt off,” he said. “No matter. That jug of Sepp's ripped the tank open, and it got those witches outside our door.”

“How big was this jug?” I asked.

“I have no idea where he got it,” said Lukas, as he moved his hands, “but it was only so high, and this big around.”

Lukas had 'measured out' a jug about six inches tall, and about four inches wide.

“About the size of that smallest cooking pot?” I asked.

Lukas nodded, then came closer with a bag and small piece of tin.

“Uh, bag for evidence?” I asked.

“The museum at home,” said Hendrik. “That one might be damaged...”

“I could repair the damage, most likely,” I said, “at least to the point where those studying them would have a clear idea as to what they look like.”