They call that place an Abbey, and it's said to be filled with Monsters...


Her giggling, however, was shortlived, for seconds later, Anna came out of the cloud to land on the floor facedown with a muffled thud. She looked up, then around with blind-seeming eyes, then somehow rolled out of the way on the floor just in time to be nearly hit by Hans as he fell like a wayward bomb.

“I never saw Anna move like that before,” I thought, as she scrambled to her feet and ran around the table as if Hans was contagious, while Hans walked much as he normally did. Outwardly, he seemed scarcely affected – and for some reason, I was not much surprised. A soft hand touched my shoulder with a faint crackle of electricity.

“Maarten will take longer,” I thought. “I'm not certain, but...”

I looked up, much as if I expected a bomb to drop out of the ceiling, and moved the stool upon which I sat backwards while still holding Sarah. I was amazed at how relaxed she seemed.

Maarten suddenly came down but a foot from where we had been sitting, and when he stood up, I noted he was rubbing his head as if he had a headache. I then looked at the floor.

“Did he land head-first?” I thought. There was no answer.

Katje looked likely to be absent for a longer time, which caused me to ruminate on the 'roles' of men and women here. In some ways, they were reversed from where I came from, while sexism – thankfully – seemed more or less absent. The chief matter, at least ostensibly, was ability – and often...

“Not often,” said the soft voice. “Save where witches decide matters, one's ability has the greatest weight.”

I was equally glad for the lack of 'discrimination', also – and more, I wondered if that were affecting her stay.

A second later, I understood clearer, and this question, I asked myself:

“Would Katje take an active roll here?”

And as if to answer me, the cloud overhead ruffled slightly, and two demure-looking feet slid down out of it, followed by dress-clad legs, arms and the rest of the woman in question. Her eyes were closed as she came to rest upon her chair, and her features were limp with relaxation. For some reason, I felt reminded of both sleep and sleepers, and I refrained from parroting the curious quote that came to mind, even if it was from the book.

“Dear,” I whispered. Sarah's ear was nearby. “What happened to her?”

Sarah squirmed slightly, then turned to face me.

“It looks as if she was given a great deal, and all of it is very special,” she said softly. “She wished to be someone she was not meant to be, but there was one trouble.”

“Yes?” I asked, as the cloud faded to be replaced by the ceiling once more.

“She was meant to be that type of person,” said Sarah archly, “but she misinterpreted her instructions.” The briefest of pauses, then, “that's very easy to do, and I know about it, as I have done the same thing several times.”

Katje then opened her eyes.

I wished to hide, for the radiant brilliance I saw reminded me of but a handful of eyes I had seen. Sarah slid off of my lap, and I stood up shakily from my stool, turning the instant I had come to my feet and then walking stiffly into the parlor. I was after the old and new portions of the book, this written in the original languages; and upon finding these two volumes, I picked them up.

I suspected Katje could not only read both books, but understand well what she was reading. I gave her first the larger book, then the smaller – and after both books were placed upon the table, she turned to the larger book of the pair, opened it, and began reading aloud from the first page she saw.

The effect was astonishing, for the language I heard was neither 'harsh' nor 'brutal' sounding, but rather a soft, rounded, very graceful and liquid-sounding language of astonishing musicality. While the Hebrew I had heard in the past – brief snippets here and there – had sounded 'alien', this language was yet more so; it was not merely more alien-sounding, but a different type of alien spoke it – a type of alien I would wish to meet, one that lived 'above the sky' upon other worlds.

I was more than a little unsure of that language where I came from, so much so that I might want to hear the phrase 'do not be afraid' among the first portions I heard – and that irrespective of the speaker.

“That language you just heard is spoken on other worlds,” said Katje. Her voice was missing something, or rather, a great many somethings, and it was better-sounding for their lack. “I was taught a great deal in that place.”

“What were you taught?” asked Hans.

“Patience, for one thing,” said Katje, “and then these languages...”

“Maarten has trouble with those, doesn't he?” I asked.

Katje nodded, then said softly, “it will take quite some time for me to learn to do my share.” She paused, then said, “and then, the smells in that place. They were...”

Faintly, borne upon the wind, I smelled an odor at once familiar and stomach-turning. Katje turned to me, then looked at the door, saying as she did so, “we do not need that stench here.”

The stench vanished, and I gasped, “th-those stinky birds.”

Hans was about to go to the door when Katje said, “that odor was not conventionally present, Hans.” Another brief pause, then, “I no longer desire such foul meals.”

“You what?” I spluttered.

“I desired squabs,” said Katje, “and gold, and servants, and...”

Sarah grimaced, much as if she were sniffing a pig; she then said, “a coach, also.”

“Yes,” said Katje. “One of those as well.” Another pause, then, “in that place, gold is underfoot, which is where it should be. Would that it were in the same place here.”

“Gold?” I thought, at the recall of coins carpeting the parlor. “Underfoot?” What I said, however, was different:

“Why would anyone wish one of those nasty stinky rotten things for a meal, urgh?”

“I know why I desired them,” said Katje. “Squabs, at least here, speak of power, and I desired that both fervently and to a great degree.” A pause. “In truth, though, I wished for a burn-pile, and did not know it.” Another pause, then, “as to those that commonly consume those birds, I am not certain as to why they want them.”

“It cannot be the taste,” I thought.

“Squabs, of and by themselves, have very little flavor,” said Katje, much as if she was privy to my thinking. “For all I know, those who wear black-cloth may find that little flavor to their liking.”

“What is their taste?” asked Hans.

“Much like uncooked turnips growing in a manure-pile,” said Katje, “save far less intense.” A pause, then, “the spices used account for most of their flavor.” Another pause, this one somewhat longer; then in arch voice, “it may be easy to hide most of the flavor of squab, but it is impossible to hide it entirely.”

“Turnips taste like that which they grow in,” said Hans, “so those birds must taste...”

Hans ceased speaking. I recalled the intense stink of that one escaped captive pigeon, and Hans' comments after he had shot it.

“...corked, and full of dung...”

Anna looked at Hans. She seemed about due for an eruption.

“Those things taste like dung!” spat Hans.

“They do,” nodded Katje, “along with ashes, rotten meat, the contents of corpse-boxes, and much else of an unsavory nature.”

“Enough of those stinky birds,” said Anna. “I disliked them before, and now...”

“Yes?” I asked.

“I still dislike them,” said Anna. “Something has changed a great deal, and I've yet to understand it.”

I then felt someone 'sniffing' near the back of my head, then Anna continued, saying quietly, “I know why you like flowers so much.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“That place has more of them than anywhere,” said Anna. “The Abbey was mentioned, and I heard something about it.”

“Yes?” I asked. “That lizard?”

“You had best be careful around that thing,” said Anna. “Stuffing it full of dynamite and then setting fire to its tail for a fuse might be very unwise.”

Anna put her hands over her mouth, then spat, “what am I saying?”

“That sounds like a bad lizard,” said Hans. “Did this thing wear a strange hat?”

“N-no,” said Anna. “It belched fire like a fifth kingdom smelter running iron!”

Hans seemed nonplussed, then said, “I would be careful stuffing such a lizard with dynamite, as it will explode too soon.” A pause, then, “you might try some things like those you made.”

“Like this?” Gabriel asked, as he produced one of the round squibs. Its odd coloring made for wondering on my part. Hans, however, spoke before I did.

“That is interesting,” said Hans. “What do those colors mean?”

“This was a common fourth-kingdom ink-globe,” said Gabriel. “I think the colors are how those making them know they have dipped them in clay-milk enough.”

“Yes, and that is a fuse, there,” said Hans. “Those things are no good to write with.”

“This one is not filled with ink,” said Gabriel, “nor are the other handful of these left from the trip.” Gabriel paused, then said, “they are filled with dust-powder.”

Hans looked at Gabriel with twisted-up eyes, then asked softly, “where did you use them?”

“The fifth kingdom,” said Gabriel. “The first one used destroyed an excise booth when the bounders assayed robbery.”

“That is the usual for that place,” said Hans. “Was this excise booth of brick, with this...”

Gabriel began shuddering as his mouth closed like a trap, and I said, “badly-made reddish brick, a red-striped pole for a crossing guard, three black-dressed thugs on the outside...

“That is the bad one,” said Hans. “Those people do not listen to talk much, and they will try for you if they have the chance.”

“That was the bad one,” said Gabriel as he relearned how to speak. “A device like this damaged it badly and set it alight, and the fire got into some dynamite.”

Hans was now all but smiling.

“The dynamite exploded shortly thereafter,” said Gabriel, “and we were pelted with brick fragments at a hundred paces.”

“Good that it is gone,” said Hans. “Did you use more of them?”

“At the house proper, yes,” said Gabriel. “The first time was in this room...” Gabriel paused to try to drain his beer-mug – and while he did not succeed in doing that, he did resume talking quickly. “A room unlike any room I had ever seen, and that includes the times I went inside that kingdom house in the past.”

“What was this room like?” asked Hans.

“Huge, dark, smelly, and appalling,” said Gabriel, “and that was for the room.” A pause, this brief. “There were thugs in there, and they tried to kill us all.”

I again stood up, and walked to where my possible bag lay, there to retrieve the huge lead slugs I had found on the floor of the room in question. I brought the three of them back to the table, laying them out in plain sight where Katje took one look and shook her head as if to deny the heavy metallic reality I had set before the entire assembled group.

“We'd best be getting onto the road,” said Maarten. “They should be indoors once more when we arrive back home.”

“That one thug was replaced?” I asked.

“By two whole groups of people like him,” muttered Katje. “Two more houses in town have turned dark, and the whole place now smells like a bad mule dosed with strong drink.” She looked closer at what I had laid out, touched one, then said, “and they have at least three muskets that fire these things.”

“That is bad,” said Hans. “These things are to a large fifth kingdom musket, and those are as bad as a roer out to a hundred paces.”

“And past that?” asked Maarten.

“I think they are worse than a roer then,” said Hans. “Now what is this about mules?”

Katje held her nose as if smelling the stink in question, then said, her voice now eerily 'distorted', “it stinks like a herd of mules is stabled in town.”

“G-Genuine Plugs,” I said. “Imported straight from M-Mekhicho.”

“What is this?” asked Hans. His voice rose in pitch with each word.

“Those mules,” said Katje. She was no longer holding her nose, and she sounded much better for it. “I think he named them accurately, as that town deals much with mules.” A brief pause, then, “given its location and who lives there, I should not wonder.”

“Yes, it is in the Valley,” said Hans. He then realized what he was saying, and nearly shouted.

“Not just anywhere in that place, Hans,” said Katje. “Those people are grouped under certain animal figures, and that town's figure is that of the Mule.”

“Th-the Mule Totem,” I spluttered.

“Thank you,” said Katje. “I knew that word, but had little idea as to how to say it.”

Maarten and Katje actually left about ten minutes later, and with them gone, I wondered as to Gabriel's presence – chiefly as to whether he would stay overnight. After stowing the 'squib' in a cloth satchel, he brought out a ledger.

“I'll need to study those books as I can this evening,” he said, “and then leave in the morning.”

“And I need to look you over for shot,” said Anna. “I'll need to go with you tomorrow, and...”

She looked at Hans and I, then, said, “I think we all had best go, actually.”

“I need to find out about posting...”

Gabriel suddenly slapped his head, then turned to me with a shaking outstretched finger as if to accuse me of evil speech. “I had not thought of that in the slightest.”

“What?” I asked. “That another group of guards was in training while we were gone and they'll need to be, uh, shown how to do their business?”

Anna turned to me, then said, “that isn't quite yet.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“That Teacher looks to need another two weeks with them,” said Hans, “and then, there are the things that happened while you were gone.”

I was all ears to hear the news, but my mouth proved to have more yawns than words in it, and I staggered up to sleep in a proper bed for the first time in what seemed an age and a decade past. I had to use the privy during the middle of the night, and in the process of navigating the place, I found Gabriel asleep upon the couch with a huge book in his lap and a blanket covering all save his face.

“I hope he learned enough,” I thought, as I began climbing the stairs. I was more asleep than awake then, and I fell back into sound slumber upon crawling under the blanket – where, sometime later, I felt someone tickling me once more prior to awakening. I awoke with a jolt nonetheless, and sat up into an empty room all but glowing with sunlight.

“Oh, no,” I murmured. “I overslept.”

There was no answer save the obvious, at least until I was halfway down the stairs. The yawns I heard then indicated I was not the only person present, and once in the kitchen, I smelled food.

Specifically bread and jam, and I had a hankering for both things, and when Sarah suddenly showed, I thought to ask her about the matter of breakfast.

“Anna went to fetch some at the Public House,” she said. “The jam is fine.”

“And you?” I asked. I wondered if Sarah was 'fine' – or did she feel as I did – as if she were coming out of a period of intense starvation, both for rest and food.

“I feel as if I have not eaten for two days,” said Sarah. “I'll be needing to go to the kingdom house also.”

Breakfast started once Anna returned, and it finished quickly. I felt my arms, which now felt closer to normal than they had in the last week, and then gathered my 'things' prior to leaving. I then had a question.

“The back way?” I asked. I was not certain how we would travel, and that was but the first of a list of questions that sat somewhere near to my mind.

“That would be best,” said Hans, as he finished his bread. I then thought to ask what day it was.

“Tomorrow is the rest-day,” said Hans, “so we will have time to do what is needed here before things start again for you.”

“Unless I need to post between now and then,” I mumbled.

“You need to catch up on your rest before you do anything of the sort,” said Anna. “I'd say you need a week's time to rest, and looking over at least twice more today.”

“Uh, more shot?” I asked.

“Half a measuring cup before you woke up this morning,” said Anna. “I've brought two pair of tweezers for use at the house.”

I had been far too fatigued to look over the town the day before, and while I was still noticeably tired, I was able to look this time. Town looked much as it had when I left, save for a number of fields – these showing between houses – under cultivation, at least until we went past the shop. There, the doors were closed, with a crude-looking wooden sign propped in front of them speaking of dire matters.

“Closed until high summer?” I spluttered. “Where does he get that?”

“That is the usual for those trips,” said Hans. “The last one was said to be four or five months.”

“He should know better, though,” said Anna. “Everyone in town knows you are home.”

“It is not just him, Anna,” said Hans. “Those boys have been sent home to their parents, and the other two are off doing what they do when they are not here, so he cannot just have them in there an hour after you speak of it in the Public House.”

Anna seemed to think of it, then from seeming nowhere, she asked, “how did you all eat?”

“Usually passably at the least,” said Gabriel from where he sat upon his horse, “though there were portions of the trip back that looked much in doubt.”

“Why?” asked Anna. “Could you not stop and get food?”

“Not safely,” said Gabriel. “I thought those older men to be crazy for what they were doing, and him worse of all.” Here, Gabriel pointed at me. “Only when we broke out of the potato country's northern border did I finally realize our true danger.”

“Yes, and what was this?” asked Hans.

“The witches were waiting for us,” said Gabriel, “almost as if they knew where we were going, and they fired guns at us.”

“That is the shot, Anna,” said Hans. “You got a measuring cup out of him.”

“N-no,” said Gabriel. “R-rotten cannons with short-cut fuses.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Where you forded the West river,” said Gabriel. “They had hidden a battery of three of those guns in the woods on the east side of the river, and they fired just as that wave of muddy water hit them.”

Hans made a choking noise, then said in a squeaky voice, “how did you get past them?”

“I have no idea how this happens,” said Gabriel, “but that pendant causes a cloud to come down, and when it does, we travel faster.”

“How?” asked Sarah. She was in the buggy's bed, and was sewing on something.

“I am not certain as to how,” said Gabriel. “I saw enough things on the trip down to make my head spin like a spinner.”

“Yes, and what were these things?” asked Hans.

“Chickens, for one,” said Gabriel, “and then that buzzard, and enough witches to fill the Swartsburg thrice over, and then I got lost in that market town and someone slipped me this map...”

“That map was probably a bad one,” said Hans.

Bad, he says.” I muttered. “That was not a map, that was a witch-tool, and he got almost got us killed more than once in the fifth kingdom house before that nonsense went where it belonged.”

“And then,” said Gabriel, “there was wine.” He shook his head, and muttered, “n-never again.”

“You like that stuff,” said Hans. “Has your taster learned some manners?”

“Y-yes, regarding certain wines at the least,” said Gabriel. “I will never touch Groessfuetchen again.”

“That stuff is bad,” said Hans. “People think it is unfermented, at least until they become pickled.”

And they spend much of a day in the privy,” muttered Gabriel. “That stuff could teach Death Adders how to be sneaky.”

We had passed out of town and were nearing the witch-clearing, and I wondered when Hans would turn to the east. We had already passed the usual place, or so I thought when it suddenly showed.

The area was in the grip of spring entirely now, and the roads seemed firm yet slightly tacky, with no dust showing, even in the driest places. Every tree was liberally dusted with new green leaves, so much so that my thoughts were of how Sarah might travel more readily.

She had a lot of traveling to do nowadays, and Anna was approaching one of her 'busy' times of the year.

“Those two horses...”

“Yes, they are back,” said Hans, “and they are a lot better.”

Anna elbowed Hans in the side, and while he seemed to 'ignore' the matter, I wondered why she would elbow him. I recalled Liza speaking of donkeys, and especially those two 'wagons' I had seen in Eisernije.

“Did something happen while we were gone?” I asked.

“Yes, lots of things,” said Hans. “Some of those will be coming back with us, I think.”

“More muskets?” I asked.

“No, not muskets,” said Hans. “These things are in pieces, or so talk goes. Then, there are things happening in the town, too.”

“In town?” I asked. I kept silent regarding the Swartsburg.

“Talk has it the Swartsburg was almost entirely burned,” said Hans, “but it is not like that now.”

“How much have they rebuilt it?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” said Sarah, “but that place has more witches in it now than before it was wrecked, and they are wasting no time whatsoever in making it worse than what it was.”

“D-did you go there?” I asked.

“Not inside it,” said Sarah, “but I did go past the north gates after dark along the Oestwaag.” A brief pause, during which I heard swallowing, then, “I spent a good half-glass looking at what they had there.”

“How?” asked Anna. “You cannot go inside that place, not unless you're a witch!”

“There are places where one can hide, Anna,” said Sarah. “The gate to the west has several good ones if you stick close to the outer wall.”

“Oh, my,” I gulped. “You almost went inside that place. What did you see?”

“It was very dark and smoky then,” said Sarah, “and those people are busy in there.”

“With what?” asked Gabriel.

“They have a great many wick-lanterns,” said Sarah, “as well as some much brighter ones that do not fluctuate as the wick-lanterns do.” A pause, then, “they are not those lanterns one can buy in the fourth kingdom market. I do know that.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“The light they show,” said Sarah. “Lanterns that burn distillate, no matter how they do so, have a yellow tint to their light, while those others are more whitish.” A pause, “and then, there were those burning them, also.”

“As in the odor of distillate?” I asked.

“Very much so,” said Sarah. “Were there ways of shooting arrows with flames, I would do so, and set that place alight again.” A brief pause, “I still have most of those arrows.”

“Most?” I asked. “Did you lose one?”

“I did,” said Sarah. “At least I lost it worthily, and not through carelessness.”

“How, dear?” I asked.

“That thug got away,” said Sarah. She sounded irritable with the recollection. “I was able to remove the arrows from the others.”

“Others?” I asked.

“They were not wearing plate,” said Sarah, “but I knew these people were from Norden, so I trailed them for half a day's time.”

“And?”

“I shot them when they stopped for their midday meal,” said Sarah, “and all of them dropped except one.”

“They dropped?” gasped Gabriel.

“I shot them where they would not easily ignore arrows,” said Sarah. “I had trouble getting those things out, in fact.”

“How?” I asked.

“I dotted their eyes,” said Sarah, “and that last thug stood as I aimed at him, so he swallowed my arrow.”

“In the mouth?” I asked.

“Below his chin,” said Sarah. “He could not yell with that arrow tickling him there.”

“Did you chase him down?” asked Hans.

“Yes, I did,” said Sarah morosely, “and he jumped into the West river and sank like a rock.”

Another brief pause, then, “and that was for those witches. The people in the Swartsburg are building that place anew, and not wasting a glass's grain of time.”

“Are they still scavenging, or..?” I asked.

“I did not see them doing that,” said Sarah. “They were dragging the streets smooth before laying new cobbles, and they were digging out the pits for houses and shops.”

“Oh, my,” whispered Anna. “They will have that place back the way it was within a year's time.”

“If I go by what I saw,” said Sarah with lowered voice, “that place will be dark again long before summer is high, as the place I was looking at was among the last places to burn.”

“Was this your first time looking?” I asked.

“I have been checking that place ever since since that one stinky witch lost his head,” said Sarah, “and I have no idea how they did that much that quickly, but they did.”

“A lot of, uh, slaves?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Sarah. “These people were not dressed like slaves in the fifth kingdom house, but they looked and acted too much like that place's slaves for me to not notice.” A pause, then, “then, there are the witches themselves, and finally, there are large numbers of people who wish to be witches.”

“Wish to be witches?” I asked.

“They do not dress in black-cloth, or in the clothing of misers,” said Sarah, “but they act like witches, so it is likely they find being a witch attractive.”

“Uh, those people might well be witches,” I said. “I saw a great many of those people...”

“So it was you,” squeaked Sarah. “How did you get that witch's head?”

“It was not easy, dear,” I said, “and I've had enough nightmares since doing it to wonder if it was wise.” A brief pause, then, “and I'll need to go back in that place before long.”

The silence that then descended remained for upwards of half an hour. During that time, I had the chance to observe the state of the back way, as well as the fields of one of the towns in the area. They too seemed ripe and ready for planting, and I thought to ask when that might start as we came closer to one of the towns in the area.

“They need plowing again,” said Hans. “I think they might wait another two weeks to do it around here.”

“And then sow?” I asked. “How is that done?”

“That depends on what is being planted,” said Hans. “Most just use a sack for their seeds and a pointed stick to make holes for them, and then they kick the hole so as to bury the seed.”

“Most?” I asked.

“I have heard of these things that make holes and drop seeds,” said Hans, “but those things waste a lot of seed, and that is when they work right.”

“When?” I asked.

“Those things mostly just dump your seed on the ground in piles,” said Hans, “and then you have to dig it up and plant it the old way just the same.”

“That is the best way to plant,” said Sarah. “One can check the seeds to see if they are good before planting them.” A pause, then, “my cousin taught me that.”

“Did her family farm?” I asked.

“Potatoes,” said Sarah, “though that was not all they grew in that place.” A brief pause, then, “sometimes I wondered if that area grew thugs.”

“What place was this?” asked Hans.

“The northern third of the potato country,” said Sarah. “The pigs came every year, but those black-dressed people were there all the time.”

For a moment, I wondered how we had missed seeing them in that location, at least until I recalled the nature of the area. It was almost as if it were a single large town in the central portion; more, those there were said to know each other, and help each other...

“Do they get swine also?” I asked silently.

“The northern third receives the worst depredations at this time,” said the soft voice, “while 'all'” – I could tell the concept of 'all' was more a matter of people's thinking than reality; there were places in the potato country that those pigs and imported witches didn't bother with, for some reason – “areas of the potato country get invaded regularly by both swine and witches.”

“Worst for swine, or both?” I asked.

“Both,” said the soft voice. “It's also the least settled region, and, contrary to popular opinion, the most productive for growing potatoes.”

“Popular opinion?” I asked.

“Is manifested in the potato country by density of settlement,” said the soft voice. “Most people, those farming in those areas included, believe the central and southern portions of the potato country to be the most productive.” A pause, then, “the yearly snows and frosts in the northeastern third keep the bugs from becoming too numerous in that area.”

“And elsewhere, the bugs...”

“Are no joke, at least regarding potato plants,” said the soft voice. “The upper portions of the potato plants are larger and leafier, but the potatoes dug from those vines are smaller and less numerous due to the feeding of the insects.”

The 'rise' showed roughly an hour's time later, and the house proper a 'short' time after that. The gateway had but a single guard dressed in war-cut clothing, who waved us through without remark. The rear of the house proper was much as I recalled when we had left, save for firmer ground – and the area inside, the same also.

At least, it looked the same.

It did not feel the same, however, and that caused my disquiet to grow with each step I made. I began to walk toward the 'large stairs' with Sarah's hand in mine. I wanted to see Andreas before I saw anyone else, and the reason why, at least to me, was blatant and obvious in my mind.

I was also more than a little surprised to not hear anyone call out after me as I and Sarah climbed the stairs. Her 'silence' was becoming unnerving.

“Do you know who and what is up here?” I whispered. I was listening as 'hard' as I could. So far, I had heard nothing 'unusual'.

“There is a great deal on this floor and the ones above it,” said Sarah. “I think you are going to the jeweler's, and not merely about what you spoke of last night.”

I was aghast, for Sarah had more or less read my mind. The only area where she was not correct was the area of what I would be asking about.

I had forgotten all else in the need to speak about the necklace and ring, and my tunnel-vision was now more blatant than ever. I then realized I did not recall exactly where Andreas had his rooms – at least until we reached the top of the stairs.

Sarah also had something of an idea as to where he was, for she needed no guidance to find the door of the place. She tapped twice before I could stop her.

“And what's in here is still much of a mystery,” I thought, as faint-seeming steps came from a far-off country. I recalled what Andreas looked like as the sound of the steps came closer, then when the door opened, I nearly fainted.

He was, as the time I had seen him before, wearing overalls covered with tool-filled pockets, but unlike that time, he was carrying a sizable tinned copper 'beer stein', complete with a chased copper 'lid' and a turned wooden handle attached by riveted brass supports. The rivets were both 'tiny' – smaller than my usual six-line size by at least a factor of two – and numerous.

“Please, come in,” he said. “I'm past due for a break anyway.”

Sarah went first, and I followed, and the dim lighting I recalled from my last visit remained with its dark and flickering shadows. I wondered where Andreas had gone until I heard the sounds of the door being barred behind us, then steps sounded faint to our right. I could see the candelabra in front on the wide varnished 'counter', and while it fixed my gaze, no steps came near it. I was then surprised once more by a growing whitish glow from behind the planked 'shield', then as that glow became brighter, the hanging cloth shot aside and Andreas showed with a glowing brass lantern.

I had questions – many of them, in fact, as this was but my second time here – but Sarah had more, and she spoke before I did.

Where did you get that covered mug?” she asked.

“I made this down in the fourth kingdom during my apprenticeship,” said Andreas, as he 'flipped the lid' and then drank slowly for a few seconds before speaking again. “Drinking vessels – at least, those I use – want lids down there because of the bugs, and this one is one of three I kept for myself from that time.”

“I know well about those bugs,” said Sarah. “Is your flame-bush sick?”

“I need to run some more coal for it,” he said. “That, and the igniter needs adjusting.”

“It does not use matches, correct?” asked Sarah.

“It can be lit that way, but doing so tends to be quite dangerous,” said Andreas. “A sizable gas-cloud would accumulate, and...”

“I know about the fumes from cooking coal, also,” said Sarah. “I've seen several coal-ovens explode in the fifth kingdom.”

“And I need to figure out a way of getting the stink out of that stuff that isn't...”

Andreas had led off without a word, and the two of us followed close upon his heels. The lantern now had stabilized the color of its light to an even whitish glow, which made its brass construction that much more plain.

“Is that one of those fifth kingdom lanterns?” asked Sarah.

“This type is not made in that place,” said Andreas, “even if there are places in the fifth kingdom house where they can be bought.”

“Eisernije?” I asked. “The, uh, tinkers?”

Andreas stopped in his tracks and turned slow enough to make for a brief nightmarish thought, this being the possibility of offense.

“I hid in that place for a ten-day, once,” he said, “and I made arrangements for two of these then.”

“I did not hide there for ten days at a time,” said Sarah, “even if I did spend my days there while learning about the fifth kingdom.”

“Your days?” I asked.

“One must travel at night in that place if one wishes to avoid the worst types of trouble,” said Sarah. “I thought about using a spy-box, at least until I heard about what sometimes happens to those who think to hide in them.”

“Which is?” I asked. I recalled Georg's speech of what he endured entering the Swartsburg, and a similar matter seemed likely.

“More than one person has died in those things when the witches shot into it without warning,” said Andreas, as he once more turned to 'lead us on'. I then noticed where we were walking, that being a surprisingly narrow corridor with a number of 'rug-draped' doorways to each side. The colors differed one from another, which reminded me of color-coding – at least until I saw the second doorway since our entry. This was covered with a red-striped gray cloth trailing a beaded fringe at the bottom. I wondered where Andreas had gotten it.

“I've never been back here,” whispered Sarah. Whispering seemed appropriate to the region.

“That would be true for all save a handful of people,” said Andreas. “I've shown Hendrik, Maria, and perhaps two others before you since I refurbished the place years ago.” A pause, then, “and when you see what I have in this room, you will have ideas as to why I need to be so careful.”

At the third door on the right – this draped with a red-striped yellow cloth – he flung aside the 'closure' and hung the lantern from a tall wooden stand while the two of us passed into a surprisingly long and narrow room. The glaring light from the lantern threw huge and ghastly shadows, at least until its light was joined by that of another lantern like it. The shadows then rapidly shrunk in size while becoming far more numerous.

Or so I thought until I turned to see Andreas holding one of those third kingdom titanium lanterns.

“Those...” I gasped, as the lantern's light took up the entirety of my vision to drown out the details of the wall I had been previously facing.

“Are significantly brighter,” said Andreas, as he walked toward another lamp-stand after turning the lantern down. “Their thirst is about the same as the one you first saw me with.”

“And they cost more, don't they?” said Sarah, as I now once more noted the walls' finish. They seemed to be painted.

“True,” said Andreas. “Very true.” A pause. “They are also much easier to get.”

Sarah put her hand over her mouth. I could hear speech, though it was barely audible to me, and I wondered if I were hearing conventionally. The shadows but added to this aspect.

“Those like that are not common in that market town, are they?” I asked.

“They aren't rare, either,” said Andreas. “If one spends a few days in that place, it is very likely that a purchase can be arranged for one.”

Sarah now looked as if inclined to erupt – and seconds later, she did. Her voice rang as she screeched, “I could not get one of those things!”

“I should have said, 'assuming, of course, one is not a student at the west school',” said Andreas. His deadpan tone was difficult to believe. “The sellers know those rules about selling to certain groups of people.”

Again, Sarah looked likely to erupt, but unlike the last time, I did not hear the irate aspect when she next spoke, and her voice was closer to her usual volume. “They know those rules better than the students do, Andreas!”

“I wondered about that,” said Andreas. “I did find a copy of those rules in a shop down there, and I know that wasn't the only copy in the area.”

“They print those things,” I muttered, “and every merchant who's ever received attention from students is supposed to not merely have one of those rule-lists near at hand, but memorize both the words and what the statements actually mean regarding his particular business.” I paused, then said, “still, that does not stop some students from getting those lanterns.”

Sarah now looked at me as if she were inclined to spit, then asked calmly, “how?”

“Through intermediaries,” I said. “Usually, they were the student's closer relatives from outside the immediate area, although some students went a good deal further.”

Both Sarah and Andreas had ears for my speech, and I continued as the surroundings seemed to fall away to leave nothing except those two with open minds.

“Those people used two or more layers of intermediaries,” I said, “and they paid each person their price, as is the custom among witches. Such machinations more than double the cost, but...”

I choked upon my words, then gave a strangled gasp. Sarah looked inclined to hit me, then said softly, “those people seldom endured long in that place before they went elsewhere.”

“Because of those lanterns?” I asked.

“The vermin, mostly,” said Sarah. I could tell there was a good deal in that last word, but now was not the time to speak of it.

With no conversation to occupy my thoughts, I could now look around more closely and confirm or deny the painted nature of the walls. That seemed indeed likely upon a further glance, for not merely were they glossy in reflection, but also unusually even for color. I then saw the workbenches themselves, these in two long rows parked next to the nearby walls. The room was a good deal narrower than my first impression had implied.

“No tools on the wall,” I murmured.

“You don't have tools on the wall where you live, either,” said Andreas.

“You live here?” squeaked Sarah.

“During the week I do,” he said. “It's far enough to where I live to wish a horse, and I do not have one for daily use.” A pause, then, “my tools might not be as delicate as many of yours, but I'm not inclined to leave them out to be looked at readily just the same.” Another such pause, then, “come, let me show you the coal-ovens.”

As Sarah and I followed him down the length of the room, it became more and more apparent that much of what was in this room was a distraction from the chief matter, that being the processing of coal. The lack of odor was truly astounding, and that more so because I was trying to find the odor I associated with coal.

“Either my nose is not working, or...”

“Your nose is working,” said Andreas. “I just replaced the seals in the ovens. That, and it's been several days since I last ran a batch of coal.”

“You use the gas for more than lighting, don't you?” I asked.

“It works especially well for soldering,” said Andreas, “as well as smaller casting jobs. I'll show you some of those once you see this.”

Andreas came to one of three head-tall wood-framed cloth screens, then moved one of its leaves aside. He turned to another lantern while the two of us came in after him, then while he lit it – he was whispering about a balky igniter, and the mechanism in question needing cleaning – I saw the equipment in question.

“This would c-c...”

The lamp lit with a faint clicking noise, then while it slowly 'cleared itself out', Andreas turned. In the currently 'ruddy' glow of the lantern – I could tell it would quickly become brighter and whiter very soon – Andreas said, “I believe you meant, 'this would cause great trouble in the house were it known of'. Correct?”

“N-no,” I said. “This is the type of equipment needed to clean up coal and not make a horrible stink while doing so.” I then looked closer at what I was seeing, for the lantern had grown brighter.

“N-no fittings for clearing the cooked coal out,” I muttered. “The whole thing needs dismantling for each run, it takes a lot of time to do that...”

“And an uncommon amount of care, if you refer to the people around here,” said Andreas. “I suspect that you might run something like this, and perhaps a handful of people in the house proper.”

“That also,” I said, “though once it's put together and running, then it just needs, uh, watching.”

“And not terribly close watching, either,” murmured Sarah. “I've seen these in a handful of instrument-making shops and two or three of the larger jewelers.” A pause, then, “how do you prepare it for running?”

“First, I need to grind the coal to the consistency of a coarse species of meal,” said Andreas. “One of the chief 'secrets' toward a near-odorless fuel is proper preparation.”

“And the others?” I asked.

“The correct equipment,” he said, “smaller batches...”

“So that's why they used several smaller pots like this, and not one big one,” said Sarah.

“That, and you also get a more-constant flow of coal-fumes for processing,” said Andreas. “Finally, it also demands the correct technique.”

“And deviating much from any of those means what?” I asked.

“More smoke and more smell when that stuff is burned,” said Sarah. “I think that's one reason why a lot of shops in that market town either use charcoal in part or entirely for heating purposes.” A pause, then, “and after grinding the coal, you put distillate to it, don't you?”

Andreas nodded, then said, “I leave the dampened material in the pot here overnight before starting the fire in the firebox.”

“A slow fire, correct?” asked Sarah.

Andreas looked at her curiously, then said, “did you run one of these?”

“They had a group of them at school,” said Sarah, “and I helped run them many times.” A pause, then, “and the gas itself?”

“That gets stored in closely-sewn bags of carefully scraped and oiled leather,” said Andreas. “Most of those workbenches you saw have gas storage bags hiding behind them.”

“And, uh, tubing to connect them..?” I asked.

“Mostly the larger size for distilleries,” he said, “with lengths of flexible tubing where it needs regular movement.” A pause, then, “let me show you the grinder.”

As Andreas walked to the center screen, he said, “the flame-bush is not merely bright enough to light the entire reception area, it also supplies a most-potent distraction for the more worrisome clients.” He then moved a panel aside and beckoned us behind it. The lantern – brass – was now shining brightly, and Andreas adjusted it to a dimmer level.

“I recall seeing those, also,” said Sarah. “The coal goes in the upper portion, one turns the crank, and collects the meal in a bucket.”

“And then runs it through a screen,” said Andreas. “The larger chunks go back in the hopper for another running.”

A glance at the third screen showed another such 'cooker', and in this instance, I noticed its construction better. A winged sheet-metal 'screen' was closed around the main pot, while coming off of the upper portion of that pot was a thick copper pipe of indeterminate age. That pipe went into a receiver; from there, into another such small pot, this one about six inches lower on its stand; from there, into another pot, this one lower than the last; and finally, a fourth receiver, this one connected with a much longer run of copper tubing coiled like the condenser of a distillery. The last receiver had a copper tube of smaller bore which led into a hole in the wall. I suspected it removed the gases.

“I did not see the smaller pots before,” I murmured. “Do those acquire liquid contents?”

“They do,” said Andreas, “and the jugged material brings good prices in that market. I have a modest number of jugs waiting for shipment now.”

“Given the difficulty we had coming home,” I mumbled, “we...”

“I've heard but little so far,” said Andreas. “Come back into the study, and we can talk in somewhat more comfortable surroundings.”

As we returned to the corridor, Sarah said, “you meant 'you have not heard much of use', didn't you?”

“I've heard some thus far,” said Andreas, “but much of it isn't worth repeating.”

“Uh, bad language?” I asked.

“It but confirmed what I already knew,” said Andreas. “That can be stated in a few short lines – 'the witches are all over, and full of themselves'; 'they seemed to know where we were heading'; 'no sane person travels at night'...”

“I must be crazy, then,” muttered Sarah, as we reached the doorway. “I traveled at night all the time, and that before I went to the west school.”

“As did I, and as did your husband,” said Andreas. “Though he did not go to that place.”

“How did you know?” asked Sarah.

“Much the same way I knew you were coming from Roos,” said Andreas. “I asked a few questions, looked, listened carefully...”

“Not just that,” I said. “It all depends on who you ask, also.” A brief pause, then, “were you aware of our return?”

“Y-yes,” said Andreas. His tentative tone made for wondering, at least until he paused at another doorway and pointed to it.

“My electrical equipment is in there,” he said. “I have to make my own cells.”

“C-cells?” I gasped. “Do you..?”

“Those wires might manage eighty miles to the south on the better days,” he said. “It seems the witches to the south have some knowledge of them.”

“They try to cut th-them?” I asked.

“They know something is hidden among those trees,” said Andreas, “and they look up in the foliage, according to my informants.” A pause, then, “and in the process, they step on the wires buried in the soil below.”

“Does that damage them?” asked Sarah. We were progressing further down the hall, seemingly to the last of the suites where a door showed. I had so far counted seven cloth-covered doorways. Several more remained.

“It seems to interfere with the other end's ability to make sense of what is sent,” said Andreas, “and it tends to be the worst when there's no one to relay the sending.” A pause, then, “of course, there are also messengers, pack trains, hidden compartments in buggies and wagons...”

“M-messengers?” I asked. “W-we saw one headed north, and I was afraid for that girl.”

Andreas looked at me, his face showing genuine surprise. He then reached for the handle of the doorknob, and for some reason, I expected to hear it click in response.

“I removed the locking parts to this thing,” he said, as he twisted it silently. “No key existed when I was given this place.” Another pause, during which time he was obviously reaching for a lantern, then, “why were you afraid for her?”

“Th-that horse,” I spluttered. “It could have taught bad manners to a mule, and it liked to buck!”

“It did not do that, though,” said Andreas as he put another softly glowing new-lit lantern upon a wooden stand. “More, I have it on good record that Jaak has tossed quite a few would-be riders when they thought to annoy him.” Another pause, then, “let me fetch a jug, and we can talk more.”

As Andreas seemingly 'vanished', I looked around. My thoughts had been for the recollection of what I had seen, and now I could look at where we actually were.

Tall smooth walls of glossy white ended perhaps a yard above my head, while next to the wall to my right was a square table of varnished planks and three hefty-looking stools covered with soft cloth pads. A bookcase, this filled with books of various pedigrees, stood against the opposite wall, which was but eight feet or so away. Behind me stood the lamp-stand, with the lantern Andreas had lit still warming to its task, and ahead, another arched doorway, perhaps ten feet away. The room we were in had the feeling of a place where one could study, but was commonly used otherwise. Andreas then returned with an obvious beer-jug and a trio of tinned copper mugs, these of more-conventional construction. They looked similar to some I'd finished during the days just prior to leaving, though their 'age' told me they weren't my work.

“Those fourth kingdom lanterns come up to full brightness a good deal quicker than those brass ones I've gotten from Eisernije,” said Andreas.

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

“I got my first two a short time after I returned from that trip to the fifth kingdom,” said Andreas, “and since, I've purchased six more, for a total of six to use regularly, and two spares.” A pause, then, “and I'm glad someone's learned how to make decent aquavit in this area, also.”

“Hans...” said Sarah.

“He's not the only one who has a distillery,” said Andreas. “Making do with a poorly-constructed fetish-collection instead of something that works makes for a very poor product.”

“Unless one wants liniment...” I spluttered.

“Fetish-collections aren't all that good for that, either,” said Andreas. “That man wasn't exactly happy with what he was using.”

“He... What?” I squeaked.

“He was not pleased with that thing's tendency to plug,” said Andreas, “nor did he appreciate much else about its construction.” A pause, then, “the potato country does not drink 'Geneva', even if they produce decent quantities of effectual medicine.

“Then why do you think they make it?” asked Sarah pointedly. I wondered more than a little about her asking, as I could tell she was trying to learn Andreas' mind on the matter.

“They rub it on their sore arms and legs,” said Andreas, “and while that place is widely known for 'tasteless' food and 'bad Geneva', it is much less known for its beer.”

“They did have decent beer,” I said. “At least, I thought it was decent. I was getting really thirsty by then, so I most likely was not noticing the finer points of its flavor.”

“Only certain places in the fourth kingdom make beer that is much better,” said Andreas. “Now, what was that place like when you went through it?”

“I presume you mean the fourth kingdom?” I asked. Andreas nodded.

I spoke of the 'border crossing' under clouded night skies, followed by the seeming omnipresence of witches. Sarah listened raptly, while Andreas seemed 'bored' until I spoke of our hiding in the brush and receiving 'reconnaissance by fire' from a sizable collection of coach-driving thugs.

“Now that is news,” he said. “How much trouble did you have with the northbound trail?”

“Northbound?” I asked.

“There's two decent trails heading out of the fifth kingdom house if you need to dodge witches,” said Andreas, “and it sounds like you took the northbound trail.”

“The other?” I asked.

“That one heads up into the Valley, or seems to,” said Andreas. “It goes through a much less traveled region, involves much more distance, and is thought to be somewhat safer.”

Sarah looked at Andreas with a look of horror, then violently shook her head.

“It is thought to be somewhat safer,” said Andreas. “It chiefly exchanges one type of danger for another.”

Sarah seemed but somewhat mollified, for she squawked, “the only truly bad place on that one route is the Graaepensaan Rift!”

“Yes, if you are traveling alone and the witches have not blown 'Weidmansheil' upon you,” said Andreas. I was surprised at him mentioning that word. “Normally, groups of that size would take the westbound trail, as it's thought to be easier for buggy travel.”

“No real cover except distance,” I muttered, upon hearing a most-obvious and blatant untruth. “Most water, except that found in the mining towns, is lye-water, there are no real sources of edible food – and every day begins and ends with the blowing of the hunting horns of the local witches.”

“You mean their behavior,” said Andreas. “They don't actually blow those things in those towns.”

Sarah shook her head, then said, “I've but heard those things twice in those towns, and both times, I had to run to not get shot.”

“You what?” I asked.

“I had to run,” said Sarah. “The first time, I was hiding in a disused building with my things, my ledger was out, and I was writing about what I saw.” A pause to drink, then, “some wretch blew one of those horns, another thug answered him with a fifth kingdom musket, and then the feud started up.”

“Feud?” I asked. “Those...”

“Are very common in the fifth kingdom house,” said Sarah. “The people you must stay clear of are of the Makooij combine.”

“They the ones who paint on the walls?” asked Andreas.

Sarah nodded, then said, “there are a number of combines which do that, but the Makooij seem the most inclined to fight. Then, there are the Hedjtfeld people, which fight with them most commonly, and then some other well-known combines on the west side...”

“Those thugs started fighting while we were leaving,” I spluttered. “Cannons, rockets, packs of dogs bearing dynamite, vast crowds of black-dressed witches, explosions, fires...”

“So I heard,” said Andreas. “There was also the removal of a very old coach from the fifth kingdom house, wasn't there?”

“I had to re-remove it,” I spluttered. “It had a bunch of plague-infested...”

Sarah looked at me in what might have been shock, at least until I saw her eyes. They seemed to be 'shining'.

“What did you do with this coach?” said Sarah archly. “Was it a big stinky black thing with an engraved metal plaque on its side?”

I nearly choked, then gasped, “did you see it?”

“Not closely,” said Sarah. “I could tell it was trouble, so I kept my distance.”

“W-when?” I asked.

“When I was inside the house proper as part of a group of three students,” said Sarah. “The other two were not inclined to go in that portion of the stables, as it was said to be dangerous.”

“Th-that place was full of m-mules,” I gasped.

“Not when I looked,” said Sarah. “This was some time before the current man took over.”

“What was it like then?” I asked.

“Not as bad as it is now,” said Andreas. “There were some few safe places in the fifth kingdom house then, and the house proper, at least for most people, was one of those places.”

“For one thing, that portion of the stable was not in use then,” said Sarah. “At least, that was what I was told. I learned otherwise when I got inside.”

“H-how?” I asked.

“There were two principle ways,” said Sarah. “The one opening onto the inner courtyard received the most travel, if I go by what I saw.” A pause to drink, then, “I noticed the smell right away.”

“Smell?” I asked. I recalled a vast number of stinks and smells in that place.

“That told me that there were witches involved,” said Sarah. “I looked around quickly, and covered my tracks when I left.”

“C-covered your tracks?” I asked. “How?”

“I used the tail-feather of a buzzard to sweep the floor behind me,” said Sarah, “and I used soft-soled shoes instead of what I usually wore when traipsing.”

The resulting 'halt' seemed my cue to continue with the description of what I had done with the coach, and I described how I had 'waved' the plague-infested rubbish into the coach's interior, then 'walked' the thing down into the local version of the Swartsburg while in the midst of a thick cloud of darkness.

“Plague?” asked Andreas. “There is an ailment called that up this way, though it is rare. I doubt much it is the same illness.”

“That is because those are two different sicknesses,” said Sarah. “The one up here ignores regular bathing, while that illness down there is most subject to soap.”

“Soap?” I asked.

“Those small bugs that carry it die quickly should you put soap to them,” said Sarah, “and that is for the bugs one can see with the unaided eye.” A pause, then, “the small creatures that ride upon them do not like soap either, and hot water kills them in a great hurry.”

“Oh, my...” I gasped. “No bathing, dirty clothing, and...”

“The slightest scratch means death, and the same for almost any meal favored by witches,” said Sarah, “and every corpse killed thusly draws rats as if it were their most-preferred food.” A pause, then, “I would not be at all surprised if a plague-ban is present in that area.”

“So that's how it spreads like that,” I gasped. “The rats get the spores on them in the process of feeding... Does that really happen?”

“I've seen how that sickness spreads in that place,” said Sarah. “The dead-carts become very busy within days after it shows in a black area, and that area does not remain black for long.”

“It doesn't?” I asked.

“Much as the Swartsburg changed,” said Andreas. “It lost almost all of its blackness within days after the former Koenraad lost his head, and has only recently begun to truly recover that aspect.”

“Rebuilding?”

“That started before you-all left,” said Andreas, “and while there were the usual fights and thefts until the new man took over, he put a most-rapid stop to them once he did.”

“The new man?” I asked.

“Is also named Koenraad,” said Andreas. “At least, so I hear.”

“I heard also,” I said, “and my source is not known for lying.” I paused, then said, “there was mention of cattle pens...”

“Yes?” asked Andreas. “They have been receiving cattle-drives from the south, and those in some numbers.”

“What kind of cattle?” I asked.

“Mostly those ill-tempered black things,” said Sarah with distaste. “I have been around those animals enough to learn of their ways.”

“Mostly?” I asked.

“I have only seen those arriving,” said Sarah, “but I doubt I have seen all of those animals. They might have some straight-horned bulls.”

“Not mingled with those black things,” said Andreas. “Unless things have changed drastically, there's but one large pen for cattle in the Swartsburg.”

“Which means hundreds of those, uh, animals,” I murmured. “Ill-tempered?”

“Very much so,” said Sarah, “and that is when they are dosed with mash.”

“The b-bull formula?” I asked.

“A strong species of Valoris tincture,” said Sarah. I could mentally see her ticking off the ingredients with her fingers. “Old beer, the stronger the better; then older hops, ground barley, ground corn, perhaps ground rye if the bull likes the flavor.”

“I doubt those people are giving their animals rye,” said Andreas.

“This is what I was told by a chemist in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “He was no ordinary chemist, but I still have asked others who might know, and they agreed with him.” A brief pause, then, “mix the mash thoroughly, adding beer as the grains soak up the liquid, and then give it to the bull.”

“Uh, those straight-horned bulls?” I asked.

“Those usually have a much better temperament,” said Sarah. “I've driven carts towed by them in the third kingdom.”

“What?” I gasped.

“They might not be as well-behaved as those common in this area,” said Sarah, “but they can be managed if you know how to do so.”

“Uh, this one bull...” The bellowing rage of the bull as I swung the ax rang in my mind.

“That is a different matter,” said Sarah. “Those in the third kingdom do not mark their animals with witch-scribbling, nor do they abuse them, nor do they attempt to train them to cause trouble.” Another pause, “and that animal was subjected to all three of those things.”

“And hence it was in a bad temper all the time,” said Andreas. “Normally, that type of bull only becomes hard to manage when it is in the mood.”

“And those black ones..?” I murmured.

“Become worse yet when that way,” said Sarah. “There is but one thing still worse for them.”

“Which is?” I asked.

“Forty-chain,” said Sarah. “Those cattle are most fond of it, and when intoxicated, they...”

“They what?” I asked emphatically, and as I spoke, a strange 'movie' began rampaging through my head involving a thoroughly drunken bull and a 'china shop'. The sound of breaking crockery and smashing glass as the animal thrashed wildly in the place's narrow aisles was enough to make me cringe.

“Much like that,” said Sarah, “only I think they would be more destructive than what I just saw.”

“Uh, deworming medicine?” I asked. I had only recalled it being mentioned.

“I am not certain,” said Sarah, “as I have not dosed any of those cattle with that stuff.” A pause, then, “I have dosed them with forty-chain.”

“When?” I asked.

“Some years ago, while visiting my relatives in the potato country,” said Sarah. “Some witch tried to take over a town some miles away from where my cousin's family lived, and that wretch brought in a herd of those animals.”

Andreas was listening as if he was about to hear a favorite tale, while in my mind – at least, intermittently – that soused bull was still trashing its current location. A brief halt in the action, the 'tape' rewound – and I saw a jug with a green stripe upon it, along with another jug next to it speaking of 'El Serpente'. The action then resumed – though now, the 'china shop' had been replaced with a huge and hideously ornate-looking home filled with dark and dusty antiques, and 'Mr. Bull' was in fine furniture-destroying form. The horrible crashing noises as the antiques were reduced to toothpick-sized splinters were nightmare-inducing, and I came to myself seconds later to see Sarah looking at me strangely.

“Now how did you know what happened?” she asked.

“Uh, what happened?” I asked.

“I got those bulls drunk on forty-chain, and they wrecked that witch's house,” shrieked Sarah. “It looked just like what I saw.”

“Big, dark, really, uh, fancy?” I asked – and in my mind, I heard another horrific crash as the bull smashed a dark walnut 'armoire chest' to kindling with a single flying hoof.

“All of those things,” said Sarah. “He had wick-lanterns going, and between the fires those started and the bulls, he was driven out.”

“And?” I asked.

“The townspeople woke up then, and they aired out his smelly hide,” said Sarah, “and they burnt the pigs he had hidden when they found them, also.”

Andreas now looked green, and gasped weakly, “it's better to drown those things in lye.”

Sarah nodded, then said, “I learned that then, as the stinky smoke from their burning put me and my cousin in the privy for much of two days.”

“And speaking of stinky matters,” I said, “those, uh, three armorers...”

“Yes?” said Sarah. “I have wondered about those people for quite some time.”

“I think they left while we were gone,” I said.

“That's but a small portion of what happened here,” said Andreas. “Some, you already know about, and perhaps have ideas regarding, while the rest...”

“I think that armory needs looking over,” I muttered.

“I'll go with you,” said Andreas. “That place has more tricks to it than it likes to show, and I've long suspected those black-dressed people have had much to do with how I remember it being.”

With that, Andreas stood. I thought we might be done with matters of speech, but he indicated he had yet more to show us. Leaving the mugs and jug behind, we followed his lantern-lit path as he led back out into the hallway.