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

Andreas stopped at the second doorway on his right, then moved aside its yellow-striped gray cloth. His lantern raised above his head for a moment as he set it onto a stand, then once he turned around, he led us toward a workbench on the left wall nearest to where we stood. There were wax-carving tools laid out to each side of something bulky-looking covered by a sizable rag – which he promptly removed to show several tinned copper trays filled with wax disks. I wondered for a moment as to the incongruity between the shape implied by what was 'under' the cloth and what I now saw.

“Those are coins,” said Sarah, as she pointed to one of the trays. “Do you cast them by the numbers?”

“When I do them, yes,” said Andreas. “I don't do coins very often – at least, I don't cast them very often.” A pause, then, “I'm about ready to 'tree' this batch.”

“Tree?” I asked.

“Assemble the individual waxes to a larger sprue, or 'tree',” said Andreas. “I commonly do seven coins per tree.”

“And these?” asked Sarah, as she pointed to another small tray of waxen disks.

“Those are small buttons,” said Andreas, “and those...”

He was now pointing to a somewhat larger tray, and unlike the others, this one was still covered. Sarah seemed enthralled by what he was doing, and her eyes followed his finger.

“Those, my dear, are for your necklace,” he said.

I was aghast, so much so that I squeaked, “how..?”

“Anna told me about you drawing a necklace,” said Andreas, “and I came over before you left on that trip. One look at what you drew told me enough to do the waxes, as well as much else.”

“I'll need to bring you the silver, then,” I said, “as well as...” I paused, then squeaked, “I've not hardly had the time to do any further work on them!”

“I know,” said Andreas, “and between now and the time of your departure across the sea, you will be at least as busy as you were before you left.” A brief pause, then, “you also, Sarah – you will have your share to do before then.”

“As in..?” I asked, as Andreas covered his work once more.

“I know my portion,” said Andreas, “and often a good deal more than my portion, but there is a fair amount I do not know.”

“Uh, those Generals?” I asked.

“The fire of cleansing came yesterday evening,” said Andreas, “and save for those people and those wishing to be like them, nearly everyone was 'salted', myself included.” A pause, then, “and as for those Generals and their cronies, there are plans for them.”

“Soot?” I asked, and as I spoke, I recalled talk regarding a sooty face being the correct fashion accessory for black-cloth.

“That, and some other things,” said Andreas as he turned to lead us out of the room. “Someone learned of another use for fourth-kingdom ink-globes...”

“Yes?” I asked. “They receive fuses...”

“And dust-powder, and corks, and then lighting and tossing,” said Andreas. “It seems they're surprisingly effective, also.”

“Effective?” I gasped. “Those things rip people up!”

“You of all people should know how drunken Generals behave,” said Andreas. “They do not listen to talk, especially when they're spewing rune-curses.”

I paused for a moment, recalling as I did not merely my run-ins with those from General's Row, but also the experiences of Karl and Sepp with Generals.

“True,” said Andreas. “You also need to add Gilbertus, Lukas, and three of the cooks, and that's for the people I personally know who've had trouble with them. I know they've tried for more than those I spoke of.” A brief pause, then, “I suspect you'll wish to check the refectory next.”

“W-what's there?” I asked.

“Why, food,” said Andreas, “as well as beer. Then, after eating, you should be able to transact the rest of your business within a short time.”

I wondered at the seeming brushoff, at least until I noticed Andreas looking at my arms. We were at the juncture of the hallway and the 'wax-room'.

“That trip told on you far more than you realized,” he said. “I'd suggest spending a day or two to learn what you can before resuming work.”

“You mean rest a bit more, don't you?” I asked.

“That also,” he said, “but given your work and your responsibilities, I suspect learning as much as you can before you start will pay off handsomely when you resume work.”

With that, our time was at an end, and Andreas escorted us out into the hall. I wondered yet more at his seeming care, for I could tell more than a little he had a great deal still 'hidden' within his rooms; and as Sarah and I took the 'large-stairs' down to the entry level, I asked, “I know you've been near where those hunting horns have blown, but I wonder if you actually saw one?”

“I did,” said Sarah. “The one I saw was an old dirty brass thing about two feet long.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“It was curved like one of the tushes of an Iron Pig,” said Sarah, “and it was badly dented, also.” A pause, then, “and they take much wind to make them sound.”

“Did you blow one?” I asked.

“Not one of those,” said Sarah, “even if I have blown enough horns to have an idea as to how their size and shape affect that portion.” Another pause, then, “and it was obvious when I saw that thug blow that thing, also.”

Coming closer to the refectory, I smelled 'wholesome' food in large measure, as well as a substantial amount of beer; and my appetite seemed to get away from me by the time I had reached the doorway to the place. I was glad for 'ready jugs' then, as was Sarah; and as I devoured a lump of rye bread, I recalled a possible reason for my craving.

“No breakfast,” I thought. “No, it's more than that. Perhaps I became used to regular jam and bread in the morning...”

I then saw Anna looking at me in a peculiar fashion, and I noted the large bronze spoon in her hands. I was instantly frightened, for her face showed profound irritation, and I suspected myself to be the cause – and hot on the heels of this thought was the recollection of the morning we had left for the trip south.

“You aren't going to 'spoon' me, are you?” I asked as she came closer to where Sarah and I were sitting.

“Not you,” said Anna. “Hans.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“He's gone!” screeched Anna. “Someone from that carpenter shop is supposed to meet him here and he's not to be found.”

“Did you look in that place?” asked Sarah. “I would look there, if someone is to meet him.”

I could just hear Anna's fuming retort as she abruptly left for parts unknown, and I returned my attention to what I was eating. Andreas' speech about the rest of 'my' business being completed made me wonder as to how it would happen, at least until my stomach suddenly became 'full'. I belched then.

“Good that you ate enough,” said Sarah. “I think you still have some lead in you.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Harboring lead causes wasting,” said Sarah, “and once that is noticeable, then a substantial appetite shows.”

“The others that went...” I murmured.

“I suspect the two of them will be busy here much of the day,” said Sarah. “Once you learn what you need, you may wish to head home.”

“And you?” I asked.

“I hope to borrow the buggy, or failing that, a horse,” said Sarah, “as I need to fetch some sewing supplies in town.”

“And that might well take some hours,” I said.

“Especially if I must walk some distance,” said Sarah.

“And what of those things that need to come home?” I asked.

“I suspect Andreas was right about learning what you can before you start up work again,” said Sarah. “I know that the Swartsburg turning black again so quickly is but one matter of import, and that is but one thing among a great many.” A brief pause, “and that is the sum of what I know.”

Talk from behind us interrupted Sarah, and I turned to see Karl and Sepp. The former was scratching as if he had acquired fleas, while Sepp was looking intently at one of his arms.

“I do not know what this is,” said Sepp, “but I have these small bumps all over...”

Sarah took one look at Sepp's arm, then said softly, “you must have gotten too close to some witches.”

“What is this?” asked Karl. He was continuing to 'scratch like a hound'.

“You'll need to see Anna so as to have that shot removed from your skin,” said Sarah.

“How is this?” asked Karl. “I should have been all bloody...”

“Remember how dirty we've been since we got into the fifth kingdom?” asked Sepp. “I washed off enough blood down in the fifth kingdom, so...”

“And they were shooting at you a great deal in that place,” said Sarah. “I've been down there several times, and more than once, I needed to see someone when I returned to the fourth kingdom's central portion.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“The first time I returned from the fifth kingdom house, I filled a measuring cup with shot,” said Sarah. “The other times there was more.”

I looked at Sarah in unabashed horror, and my mouth opened of itself.

“Y-you?” I asked. “S-shot?”

“Dirt tends to hide that stuff,” said Sarah, “and I did not notice it until I had a chance to get a decent bath.” A brief pause, then, “and then, I noticed it greatly.”

“How is that?” asked Karl, as he scratched his rear.

“Much the same way you are noticing it,” said Sarah. “I was scratching a great deal once I had bathed with hot water, and I had to go see this one woman up on the hill in the fourth kingdom.”

“Liza?” I asked.

“Yes, her,” said Sarah. She then 'hitched' before resuming, and her voice was both higher-pitched and louder. “How did you know?”

“I heard the name mentioned as being that of a doctor who was 'worth bothering with',” I said, “and this was in the fourth kingdom house. Beyond that, I guessed.”

“I doubt that,” said a voice, one I guessed to be from the hallway outside the refectory, at least if I gaged its faintness correctly. “I hope he's in here.”

He?” I thought. I then turned to see Kees. He was talking to someone I did not recognize, and once he'd filled his mug, he began heading our way. Sepp saw him then.

“I think you might have more work,” he said. “There was talk of three guns...”

“Three 'number four' muskets,” said Kees. “I've heard enough, and seen enough to know you could easily do...”

“N-number four muskets?” I asked.

“Their parts arrived a few days before we did,” said Kees. “It seems someone had some ideas worth bothering with.”

“Yes?” asked Sarah. “Who?”

“I'm not sure who sent this out,” he said, upon producing a folded piece of paper, “as it was not done by those Generals, and no one, save Hendrik himself...”

The thought then dawned on me with an abruptness too sudden for words, and I gasped, “she did.”

“She?” asked Kees. “Who?”

“M-Maria,” I said. “She must have contacted, uh, someone, and that order went...”

“Yes?” asked Kees. “I'm listening, at least when I don't feel inclined to scratch.”

“That is shot,” said Karl. “All of us will need to see Anna to have it removed.”

“Hendrik also,” said Kees, “and those two gaffers will want two sessions each.”

“More than that,” said Sarah. “Anna already worked on him” – here, she pointed to me – “three times already, and each time, she dug out more shot.”

Kees looked at me in unabashed horror, then to my surprise, Hans showed. Anna was nowhere to be found.

“Now how much lead do you people have?” Hans' question was uncommonly direct, even for him.

“Enough to make for itching,” said Kees. “I trust you have room for those muskets?”

“Yes, if they do not fill the buggy with the other metal parts,” said Hans. “Why, have those things come?”

“They have,” said Kees.

“I hope you got decent barrels,” said Hans. “Those are trouble to make up here, as those other people do not want to work on those things much, and he cannot make them by himself.”

“Whoever actually ordered must have known that,” said Kees. “They made them three lines small for the bore, and five lines large for the outside.”

“Is this so he can clean those things up?” asked Hans. “I remember someone asking me about how he did that musket for that one man.”

“When was this?” I asked. “While I was gone?”

“They asked me some more then,” said Hans.

They?” I asked.

“I think it was someone who knew Maria,” said Hans. “It was no one from those Generals.”

“Who was it?” asked Sarah.

“I think she is one of the butchers here,” said Hans. “Those Generals do not speak to women much, so I knew she was not likely to be involved with them.” Hans paused, sipped from a mug, then said, “and I told them about how they speak for work in that place.”

“What?” I asked.

“I showed them what was written for that sextant,” said Hans, “and then what is on those slates, too, and I told them how those people thought you were a witch.”

“You mean they actually wrote...” I choked with the thought of someone actually being specific enough to not have to assay mind-reading.

“That is what I have here,” said Kees. “I haven't looked at it, but I doubt much it's like what I've heard about since we returned.” He then opened the paper, and began squinting at the writing.

“Is that stuff hard to read?” asked Hans.

“It is,” said Kees. “Whoever wrote this has a bad hand.”

“May I see it?” asked Sarah. “I've only found a few pieces of writing I cannot read.”

Kees wordlessly handed the piece of paper to Sarah, who began reading. “Three muskets for guard work... Barrels shortened to five and twenty inches, pull of stock to be fourteen inches, brass butt-plates closely fitted...” A pause, then, “these are to be a type of short musket. I've seen these...”

“Like what I have?” asked Sepp.

“What do you have?” asked Hans.

“A short musket, though it seems to have grooves in its barrel,” said Sepp. “That, and it takes thimbles.”

“Those I am reading about here have that portion 'as per custom',” said Sarah, as she continued reading. “I think that means whatever type you can do most readily.”

“Uh, if these are for guard work,” I said, “then they'll want thimbles. Flints...”

“You're right,” said Sarah. “Flint-muskets miss fire more, also.” A pause, then, “barrel bands...”

Sarah was looking at my rifle, then nodded before continuing. “I suspect she got some ideas from what you carry, also.”

“Rifling?” I asked. “Those grooves?”

Sarah resumed, then said, “oh, these are to have muzzle-tightness. That works better for shot.”

“Hence shot use, predominately,” I murmured. “That's enough that I need not guess much.” A pause to think, then, “any, uh, ornamentation?”

“Not according to this,” said Sarah. “I suspect whoever wrote this had seen fourth kingdom short muskets and was familiar with what you do for weapons.” A brief pause, then, “and if what I have heard about Maria is true, then she does seem likely.” Sarah then handed me the paper, which I tried to read.

The individual words were clear enough, even if they seemed written by a palsied hand, but when I tried to string the phrases together, I recalled Sarah speaking of many people having difficulty making sense. When I tried reading the third sentence, two matters became obvious to me.

“She wasn't kidding,” I thought, as I tried to parse out the fourth convoluted-seeming sentence. “Nice clear handwriting, and good vocabulary, but this barely makes any sense whatsoever.” A pause, then, “Sarah must have done some, uh, interpretation, as this borders on impossible to understand.”

With each further sentence, another impression grew steadily, as did my headache, and when I came to words like 'troublesome' and 'obdurate', the impression bloomed into a matter I could speak of.

“Those Generals tried something,” I thought.

“That very evening,” said the soft voice, “and Maria armed herself and then hid in the privy, along with her visitor.”

“Visitor?” I asked silently.

“From a town about eight miles east and slightly to the north,” said the soft voice, “and while that woman is a butcher by trade, she does not work at the house.”

“But who was posting..?”

“The Generals told them to 'attend to dinner', said the soft voice, “and they did so.”

“Why?” I asked. “Did those thugs slip them a fetish..?”

Fetishes,” said the soft voice. The emphasis was unmistakable. “Some witch-grade red-tallow for their weapons, a written 'excuse'...”

“Like that map Gabriel received, no doubt...”

“Similar as to concept,” said the soft voice, “but a good deal less powerful. Then, there were the money-medal copies surreptitiously planted on their persons, and finally, a loud and lengthy curse-session to 'cement' the whole together.” A brief pause, then, “the end result, combined with the men's all-too-real hunger, sufficed to get them clear of their posts for a short time.”

“A short time?” I asked.

“There aren't many truly vulnerable guards left,” said the soft voice. “The majority of guards who still live, other than those who trained with you, are hard-bitten 'survivors' like Lukas and Gilbertus.” Another pause, then, “that handful of minutes sufficed to frighten Maria and her visitor. She wrote down her request for weapons but a short time later, which explains her handwriting.”

“And those, uh, guards?” I asked.

“They died within two weeks of that incident,” said the soft voice. “One was found shot on Silberstraat, and the other two were found without their heads near the north end of Kokenstraat.”

Shot?” I gasped mentally.

“His ripped-to-shreds body was found in the morning where he had crawled after being hit multiple times by stiff-loaded fowling pieces,” said the soft voice.

Witches,” I murmured, this time audibly; and as I came to myself, I saw Sarah looking at me. She seemed irritated.

“I thought so,” she mentioned. “I wondered why Maria seemed so frightened when I last saw her, and now I understand.”

“The three g-guns?” I asked.

“That and much else,” said Sarah. “I think you're right about using thimbles, as many of those guards who still live feel much as I do about flint-muskets.”

“And I will need to make more thimbles, then,” said Hans.

“Uh, I'm not so sure about needing to do so right away,” I said. “I picked up some decent ones on the way back.” A pause, then, “the armory?”

“Is deserted, if one speaks of those who once worked there,” said Kees. “Those three men left within a week of our departure, and as for that place's contents...”

“It smells in there, correct?” I asked.

“I smelled that place from its doorway,” said Kees, “and I knew enough to go no further, as the stink reminded me of that stable in the fifth kingdom house.”

“How is it they got mules in that place?” asked Karl.

“No, Karl,” said Kees. His voice, while low in volume and lower in pitch than usual for him, was most emphatic. “Not mules.” A pause. “Remember how it smelled with all those dead witches in it?”

Karl indicated yes with a sniff and a scratch to his back.

“Like that, only a bit different. The smell was more rotten,” said Kees. “It reminded me of that one pile of refuse, or around that big smelly coach.”

“Y-you could n-not go near that thing,” I spluttered. “That thing took everyone over...”

“I know,” said Kees, “and the sensation from the armory's doorway was similar in quality, if much less as to strength.”

“Then those people are...” I spluttered.

“They might have died as supplicants,” said Kees. “While the outward upheaval in the Swartsburg has been quieted under its new leadership, there is still a vast gulf of turmoil and trouble hidden just below the surface. It's like an egg that's about ready to turn, in fact.”

“Uh, what does that mean?” I asked. I wondered more than a little about the phrase and context.

“If another war breaks out in that place,” said Kees' mysterious voice, “it will not be so readily quelled as the last one.”

“So take that new witch's head,” spat Karl.

“That would work,” said Kees. “It also might be unnecessary.” A brief pause, then, “talk has it another cattle-drive was coming up the High Way yesterday afternoon, and the drovers were most weary of their animals.”

“Mean black cattle,” I murmured – and as I spoke, I once again saw Miura – only this time, that animal was not parked tongue-out-and lolling between two secure posts while in the grip of a drug-induced stupor.

Miura had thrown off his shackles, and had done so in the courtyard of another such huge and darkly ornate house with the goal of reducing the property to wide-scattered kindling.

“Oh, my,” I gasped, upon seeing the destruction this example of bull was wreaking upon the house and its furnishings. “That other bull doesn't hold a soggy tallow candle to this one.”

“I know,” said the voice of Sarah. She seemed to be speaking from the other end of the house.

I then opened my eyes, and found myself seated at a table. The others, Hans included, had gone elsewhere, while Sarah was standing.

“I must be off,” she said. “Kees spoke of a buggy headed into town before he left.”

I was now left by myself, or so I thought until one of the cooks showed with a jug. A beer-refill later, and I could feel perhaps two other locations needing attention: the boatwright's shop, and then possibly the king's office.

As I walked down the entry floor's main hall, I could hear many sounds that I recalled, including the Instructor's voice as he conducted a lecture. A second's halting to listen...

“The mirror in the hand... enemy... courage to its user.”

“What?” I spluttered.

“His second instance of that lecture,” said the soft voice. “Anna's estimate is a bit optimistic for this group.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered, as I turned the corner to go out into the rear yard. “Hans said there were groups where everyone seemed...”

“As is this one,” said the soft voice. “Finding capable people willing to be guards at this time is very difficult.”

The doorway lay but a short distance ahead, and as I passed from candle-lit dimness to the morning's watery sunshine – it was still very much 'early spring' locally – I asked, “are some of those people...”

I instantly ceased with my thinking, for not merely was the buggy parked next to the boatwright's shop, I could hear and feel people working close by it. Yet still, I knew there was a better reason for not asking.

“Uh, the witches...”

“Are not interested in this particular group,” said the soft voice. “Not only are these people currently malnourished, but they are also lacking in talents witchdom thinks essential.”

“Is that why he's taking extra time..?”

“To a degree, yes,” said the soft voice. “The lack of adequate nourishment is a somewhat greater cause.”

“L-lack of n-nourishment?” I asked, recalling the hefty servings dished up in the refectory.

“One does not get over chronic semi-starvation quickly,” said the soft voice, “and more than half of that class was homeless for an extended period due to last year's northern invasions.” A pause, then, “the others of that group lost their families the year before, and by the same cause – and their condition is worse yet.”

“Would no one take them in?” I asked, as I came under the trees to the side of the boatwright's shop.

“They had no near-relatives left in the area,” said the soft voice, “they were too old to be considered 'children', and they were too young to be up to an adult's workload. Hence, there was but little room in hearts and homes for them.”

“B-but that's wrong,” I gasped. “Why...”

Again, I ceased speech, this time because one of the carpenters had emerged from a side-door with a slate and chalk, and was looking over the buggy. He then looked up as I came near the front wheel on his side.

“Good that you're back,” he said. “We were getting the supplies together while you were gone...”

“A buggy,” I gasped in horror. I now knew one of the reasons for the mysterious speech and behavior of Hans and Anna since I had returned. “But I do not know how to drive one.”

“True,” he said. “You don't.” He then paused, looked around – and in a soft voice, “it isn't hard to learn, and you have a most able teacher.”

“A-able teacher?” I mumbled.

“She came by earlier,” he said. “Come inside and see what we've done so far.”

I followed the man in, my heart in my mouth and my fingers twitching with fear and dread. The thought of getting kicked returned to the forefront of my mind, and I gently felt my forehead, much as if thinking to trace out with the fingers the impression of an angry horse's shoe. Amid piled shavings, I walked carefully, dodging two intent-on-their-labor men working quickly with awls and straightedges, then across the room to a strange-looking framework on two sawhorses. Another man was fitting a flimsy-looking plank to a peculiar-shaped 'box'.

It was far too wide to be a coffin. I knew that much, if but little more.

“Th-this is...”

“About the smallest buggy of it's type I've ever seen,” said the man with the board. “Anna spoke of a three and four size, and it caused us no end of trouble to figure it until Andreas spoke of it being the common size for donkeys in the fourth kingdom.” A brief pause, slurping sounds as he half-drained a tinned copper beer mug, then, “and then, the irons came. They're the strangest irons I've ever seen, especially as they don't fit together...”

“That is because they are not finished,” said the man who had brought me in. “They are to go home with him to be fitted, and then brought back here once they are done.”

“C-cups and cones?” I asked.

The man who had brought me in looked at me strangely, then said, “those are the only portions you might have to make entire.” A brief pause, then, “some were ordered, but they've not come yet.”

“Hist, you,” said one of the pair intent upon their labor. I noted they were marking out some other planks, these of somewhat thicker nature. “Talk has it some of those sleeves came up here specially, as the witches have been trouble to the south.” The man then turned to me, saying, “and if I go by what Anna spoke about how much lead she got out of you, that talk of witches being trouble is calling the pot dirty when it has burnt stew in it.”

I absent-mindedly scratched my arm at the reminder, and not two seconds later, I had someone at my side with some unusually large tweezers. Their dark 'patina' all but screamed 'dirty'.

“I saw you scratch there,” he said. “I bet that is some more shot coming out.”

I was loath to dig in my own hide for shot, no matter how much it itched, yet the man seemed insistent that I do so here and now. I thought to carefully squeeze the spot with my fingers first, however, and as I made to do so, the man said, “no, use these or something like them. That just drives it back inside.”

I was still loath to dig shot out of my hide, so much so that I ducked outside into the shade of the house's rear area, and faint upon the wind, I heard Anna's voice. I left the boatwright's shop in search of her, now cognizant of itching in several places. At least one of them was a location I could not reach.

“What am I, a lead mine?” I thought, as I returned to the interior of the house. “I'm starting to itch all over!”

Anna's voice now seemed to echo faintly, and as I homed in on her somewhat strident-sounding words, I had the impression she was digging shot out of someone. I continued on walking, at least until I came to the first door of General's Row. I paused to listen there.

Faint noises, these indicating slumber, came from the door in question; and with each further door along General's Row, I heard much the same sound. There was a difference, however, which I only noticed as I came to the bench next to Hendrik's door. The thing was unoccupied, for some reason.

“There are two people in that place where there used to be five!” I spat. “Where did they all go, the Swartsburg?”

My 'snide' tone seemed an utter and complete recipe for not receiving an answer, so much so that when I felt a slow-growing conviction that my 'half-baked' guess was correct I thought to shrug it off with the murmured sigh of 'no, it cannot be. There's got to be another reason'.

“It is, though,” said the soft voice. “General's Row lost its share of people when the Swartsburg went up in smoke, and a fair percentage of the survivors 'graduated'.”

“The current lack of black-dressed thugs is but temporary,” I muttered. “Just like the Swartsburg will turn black again soon enough.”

Yet from somewhere, a seemingly irrational turning in my mind erupted, and I asked a further question.

“They can't rebuild that place an infinite number of times, can they?”

“No, which is why discomfiting the current leadership in the Swartsburg will have a greater impact than the last time,” said the soft voice. “They won't be able to recover anywhere near as quickly, even with a lesser degree of damage.”

“And if Koenraad dies?” I asked.

There was no answer, save for the recalled experience of the past.

At least, that was the case at first as I sat upon the bench. Seconds passed, and again, I was seeing Miura on a rampage – only this time, he had a number of helpers, and they were raising absolute hell while flushing witches out of every half-likely hiding spot in the middle of a Medieval town's 'ruins'. Suddenly, a particular black-dressed witch showed, yelling and pointing as if directing matters.

I felt for my rifle. It was loaded, as was usual for a hostile region, and I was near an outcrop of coarse-looking mounded bricks, much as if I were to assay shooting another box of dynamite on the fourth kingdom's southern border. The witch in question was but feet in front of his coach.

His dynamite-laden coach...

Five full boxes of nitro-dripping stuff, fresh from the fifth kingdom's nastiest powder mill.

I aimed at the coach, drawing the hammer back to full cock as I nestled into the stock of the rifle. Miura and his relatives, while numerous nearby, had other people who needed bothering; the cattle were busy goring every stinky black-dressed thug they could hook with their horns. Meanwhile, the witch in question was reaching into his coach for a lantern of some kind, and I could smell the distillate of the thing from where I stood. I looked around briefly.

The witch was easily two hundred yards off in the middle of a dragged 'main' street, with part-finished buildings bracketing him and his coach much of that distance. Behind me was a huge 'supply dump', while behind that was one of a handful of places where one could 'sneak through' on the north side of the main Swartsburg wall while avoiding the eyes of the witches. To the immediate right and left, ruins still smoldered among the last few buildings of the old Swartsburg that still stood. I then saw what the witch now had in his hands.

“A p-pressure lantern,” I thought, as the witch began pumping the handle.

I aimed for the lantern's lower portion, then let out part of my breath. The rear peep sight surrounded the front sight, which now had the round brass bulge of the lantern's fuel tank centered in the flickering lamp-pillaged 'twilight'. I began to squeeze the trigger...

“What are you doing here?” asked the voice of Anna to my immediate right as I dived to the floor to avoid the tremendous eruption of flame and explosion as the whole of the current Swartsburg vanished in a titanic flaming roar. I then came to myself.

“The Swartsburg,” I muttered. “It went up in smoke...”

Anna looked at me, then at my arm where I had been scratching.

“I thought so,” she said. “I've got the whole office in there, and Hans and I are digging shot out of people.”

“Anna, come quick,” said the voice of Hans. “There is this big thing here...”

Anna left me to my ruminating, and as the door closed with a nerve-shattering crash, I scratched again. Something abruptly 'came out', however, and the telltale 'tack-tack-tack' noise as it hit the floor and bounced made me wonder just how readily shot came to the surface.

“More so in your case than is the usual,” said the soft voice, “which is why she spoke as she did of 'old tales'.”

“And my scratching?” I asked.

“I would wait as much as you can until she can remove it,” said the soft voice. “You should shed the last of it by sundown tomorrow.”

“And between now and then?” I asked.

There was no answer, at least of the type I expected and wished to hear, even if I had heard a 'sort of' one before. More, I now knew there was enough for me to do to need a time of planning...

“And shot removal,” said the soft voice. “That stuff is not beneficial.”

“Uh, no,” I murmured. “L-lead poisoning?”

“Your appetite is thought to be a symptom,” said the soft voice, “and your 'wasting' is a symptom.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “What will I d-do?”

“Rest as much as you can, let Anna dig out the rest of that shot, and plan what needs to happen in the shop,” said the soft voice. “Georg has not been idle with his portion, even if the other men and boys for the most part have.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. I could just see multiple head-high stacks of slates, each such slate indicating multiple orders.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “He does not have that many orders.” A brief pause, then, “there is plenty that needs to be planned for just the same, and you will need time to do so.”

“And the others?” I asked.

“He's not yet located either of the two men,” said the soft voice, “and all of the boys are busy helping their families during the planting season.”

“They took out extra fields, in fact,” I muttered.

“Two extra for each family,” said the soft voice. “The past trips educated the expectations of nearly everyone in town, and few if any expected you to return prior to the beginning of harvest-time.”

“H-high Summer?” I asked.

“Georg was thought a bit optimistic in his dating,” said the soft voice. “Now everyone who named him that way is 'chewing on a raven'.”

“What?” I gasped – until I made the connection between the phrase and one of my long-past recollection. “Eating crow?”

“Ravens are thought to have worse flavor,” said the soft voice, “as well as being much tougher to chew.” A pause, then, “more than one of those old tales mentions crows and ravens being prepared as meals during long-ago times of famine.”

I thought to wait Anna out, but as the minutes passed with her not showing, I turned back my mind toward Sarah's talk of heading homeward once I had learned what I could. A hand upon the door made for a faint vibration, and as I turned to face the west-heading hall, I heard familiar voices.

“Those, uh, scribes,” I thought, as I removed my hand from the door-frame. It was becoming obvious to me that Anna was not going to finish any time before lunch.

“They will be home in time for dinner,” said the soft voice, “and 'postings' are still much up in the air. Anna has spoken of how much lead she's removed from your body.”

“And?” I asked.

“You can be spared until you're cleared of it,” said the soft voice. “Hendrik has spoken of the other aspects of those marked and lead-exposure.”

“Uh, what?” I asked. “How does it...” A strangled squawk, then “l-lead poisoning?”

“Is no joke for those marked,” said the soft voice. “Unlike that one man in the poem, you could not go about collecting slugs and spears for three decades.”

I stood, then noted a great deal of itching as I walked toward the entrance, and once outside, recalled the injunction to not scratch. I wondered how I would endure the itching, so much so that I asked, “this?”

“I would be far more worried if you were not itching,” said the soft voice. “There would be little that could be done for you if that were the case.”

“Uh, do witches become affected?” I asked.

“In time, they do,” said the soft voice. “Long-term lead poisoning is a common cause of death among witches.”

“And, uh, people like Karl?” I asked.

“He's itching, which is a good sign,” said the soft voice, “and once his shot is removed, he'll recover quickly.”

“And I'll be affected l-longer?” I asked.

“Chiefly because you received more shot,” said the soft voice. “Once it is cleared, you might need a week to ten days to fully recover.”

“When did I get shot?” I asked.

“Mostly on the last night of your return trip,” said the soft voice, “with those witches firing from that one cornfield contributing the bulk of it.”

I but vaguely recalled that echoing roar that seemed to continue for hours in apparent time, and let the matter drop. I wanted to scratch like a hound, and as I came to the rear area, Jaak showed himself unannounced. I headed home but minutes later.

My trip back through the rear area, however, was a true learning experience, for now, I could actually observe the area in detail. The only real distraction I had was the now entire-body itching from shot slowly working its way to the skin, and when I did scratch – it was too much for me on two separate occasions – I felt several small globules 'rub away' from my skin. I dared not look, especially when I felt the welts the emerging pellets left behind as they fell to the ground.

“I cannot stand on my head,” I thought, “and...” The recollection of that sizable bowl filled with lead pellets returned to me, and I concluded, “that looked to be about a quart.”

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “You'll be a few ounces shy of a quart's worth when it all comes out.”

The back region's greening, however, was but a species of camouflage for some activities. Twice I felt the presence of recently-used witch-camps some distance from my line of travel, and more than once, the head of a deer showed as the animal stood on the edge of a woodlot.

And as if I'd formed a habit on the trip back from the fifth kingdom house, I stayed off of the roads. My path was a somewhat meandering one, for I could feel the state of the ground, and Jaak did not like to sink to his hocks in mud.

“There's still a little bit of splop here and there,” I thought, “even if the roads look dry and firm.”

With a northwest heading, I struck the road into town about four miles south of home. I had given Waldhuis a wide berth, as befitting an area which did not feel inclined to change.

“Uh, I change because I must,” I thought, “so how am I any different?”

It took perhaps seconds to know one area of especial difference:

“No, I would not shoot at strangers running through my cornfield,” I thought. “I'd try to find out what was happening before I did anything that drastic.”

A town showed, this being the one just south of the shoemaker's. I passed through its late-morning hustle in something of a hurry, then as I left, I saw a field being plowed on the right side of the road.

Or rather, the 'farmer' was attempting to plow. Both horses were having a very hard time, and the thick gluey muck that coated the plow spoke of appalling conditions yet remaining in the fields.

“His especially,” said the soft voice.

“Uh, why?” I asked. “More moisture?”

“More organic matter,” said the soft voice. “He gathered dead leaves in bags during his wooding trips last year, and used those leaves to substantially extend his manure.”

“And now his fields are mud-bogs?” I murmured. He'd managed perhaps ten feet of furrow in the time I'd seen him, and as we passed by him and his team, I could hear swallowing and smell beer.

“He will have more work throughout the year,” said the soft voice, “but he will be most glad of his crop.”

“W-why?” I asked. “Is he short of c-cash..?”

“More so than his neighbors,” said the soft voice. “A doubled yield will more or less cancel his debts.”

“D-doubled?” I asked.

“He had poor yields from that field in the past,” said the soft voice. “Given the soil's percentage of clay, it's not surprising.”

The shoemaker's town showed a short time later, and as I passed that particular shop, I suddenly recalled another need. Sarah needed shoes, and not merely those thought appropriate for daily wear. She'd also want boots.

Ladies wear boots?” I asked.

“In her case, yes,” said the soft voice. “More, procuring such boots for her would be very wise.”

And with that came other strange thinking, this being of the trip to come. There were no answers, and more, there was much that needed to happen beforehand.

“The cupola, for one,” I thought, “and then drawings for a lathe and milling machine, and...” I paused, thought for a moment, then, “and I need to look in that shop to see what's been done, and...”

Another pause, during which time I seemed to hear the noise of shovels flinging dirt. The task was slow, arduous, rock-smitten, and greatly loathed; and it was being done now in a desultory fashion, with much mumbling and grumbling, more because there was little else to do currently than anything else.

“The saw-pit...”

My mumbled speech seemed to ring in the air, and I looked around. I could faintly smell mules, and as I panicked, I then realized where I was.

“That stinky clearing still smells,” I thought, as the south end of that one dread clearing came into view.

And yet, as I came closer, I could make a clear distinction between the deceased mules of last year and the very-much-alive versions that were currently in the area. Both sets of mules had 'full odor', or so their owners believed, and those mules still alive were producing much of the reek I was enduring.

“They passed this way earlier this morning,” said the soft voice, “and made the south side of the Swartsburg before sunrise.”

“The south...” I gasped. “Why the south side?”

There was no answer, even if the impression was strong and growing stronger with the passing seconds. Something – what, I knew not – was present in that general region, and it needed my investigating it prior to attempting the interior of the Swartsburg once more.

“And how far to the south I need to go is...”

It was not much of a mystery in reality. Most of what I needed to see would come north on the Suedwaag, and the area in question would have ample hiding places so as to observe. I paused in my thoughts to notice the Public House but a short distance ahead, and wondered if I should stop there.

“No, not itching like this,” I thought. “I want to bathe so I don't itch so much.”

The soothing sensation of a warm bath, even if it was but a fond and fragrant recollection, seemed a spur to both my current efforts and a potent goal to strive for in my mind, and I was unable to think of much else until I actually was in the tub and bathing. The itching rapidly ceased, for some reason, at least until I drained the tub. It resumed then, though much less intensely.

“Oh, my,” I gasped, as I moved my fingers among the pellets of shot in the tub. “There's enough here to load up a fowling piece, easily.” A brief pause, then, “why is this stuff so dark?”

No answer came to me, save a vague picture of a fuming acid-filled crock joined by five like it. Andreas had spoken of having to make his own cells, while I had once spoken of batteries to Hans...

“The s-sooty part of the business?” I squeaked. “Chemicals..?”

“Are more reactive in this location compared to their namesakes where you come from,” said the soft voice, “and lead is no exception.”

All I could seem to do is then yawn with sleepiness, and I awoke from a long-seeming nap on the couch with a sense of itching so intense I wondered if I were yet asleep and dreaming of such 'infernal' torment. I touched the skin of my right arm with my left index finger, and nearly screamed with the hellish feeling.

“I feel all greasy,” I muttered, as I began walking toward the bathroom.

The second instance of bathing dumped another small amount of shot in the tub, and as I dried myself off, I could hear – far-distant, yet still unmistakable – the sounds of a buggy coming northward. I then wondered what time it was, and I gazed at the bathroom's nearest window.

“About three hours of daylight left, if that,” I mumbled. “When am I going to, uh, check the shop?”

I received no answer, and as I thought about the matter, I found I was not paying enough attention to the state of my clothing.

I had nearly put my trousers on backwards. Only the drawstring being in back alerted me to the matter, and when I finished dressing, I was glad the itching was less.

“I'll be yet more glad when Anna gets home to dig that stuff out,” I thought. “I hope she's not going to tell me to wait...”

“Tell her about your bathing,” said the soft voice. “Hans might not enjoy cooking much, but he's a better cook than he's spoken of being.”

“Uh, that greasy sensation?” I asked.

“That especially,” said the soft voice. “She will recognize that symptom.”

“Uh, is it serious?” I asked.

“Were you still 'loaded', it would be,” said the soft voice. “Greasy skin in the presence of 'much' lead is usually followed by a species of progressive and irreversible dementia.”

“Usually?” I asked.

“Those marked do not become demented by the presence of 'too much lead',” said the soft voice. “With them, 'normal' sleep progresses to coma, and death rapidly supervenes in the absence of appropriate treatment.”

“Is this commonly known?” I asked.

“Several of those old tales speak of lead and those marked,” said the soft voice, “both as to how such people initially seemed immune to its effects, and how some of them eventually died from 'too much lead'.”

“Immune?” I asked. “How?”

“That one musket ball was a good deal less than 'too much', at least while it did not have company,” said the soft voice. “Liza was informed of its presence for a very good reason.”

I heard the sounds of horses but seconds later, and I looked out the front window to see a buggy seemingly piled high with supplies with Sarah sitting among them. I wobbled to the door, then opened it wide.

Sarah leaped from the bed of the buggy, then came running up the steps and onto the stoop. Her first thought was to touch my wrist.

“Anna,” she yelled. “He's feeling slimy!”

Anna wasted no time, even while Hans looked askance at her, and I could just hear the muttering about lead and how it affected people. She turned to Hans before speaking.

“It will have to wait, Hans,” she said. “It will do no one good if he's dead on your account.”

I was about to speak when the two women pushed me indoors ahead of them, then Sarah 'dragged' me to the couch. Hans came in afterward.

“That is bad,” said Hans. “Now how is you are slimy, given how much lead we got out of you?”

I had no answer, so much so that I seemed gagged – at least until Sarah began 'tickling' my back. I nearly collapsed then.

“I think I know why,” said Sarah. “This stuff that I'm seeing looks to be the last of it.”

“No, having the slime means he is doomed,” said Hans. “Slime on...”

Sarah came from where she was 'hiding', then said, “no, Hans. “This isn't that kind of grease. I'm not sure what kind of grease it is, but it's not the grease that comes with too much lead.”

“But that is the only trouble that gives grease on the skin,” said Hans. “Those journals speak of it, and...”

“There is a great deal those journals do not speak of,” said Sarah archly.

“Especially those portions which my mother spoke of but did not write down,” said Anna, as she came from the kitchen with dripping hands. “Lead-sickness might be common enough, but...”

Anna was now behind me and looking at my back. I could feel soft delicate fingers tracing designs upon my skin, and I wanted to laugh with the tickling sensation.

“Hans, come here,” said Anna in a tone that brooked no nonsense. “Were that slime due to the lead, it would be coming out of these places.” A pause, then “feel them.”

Another touch, then, “that is greasy.” Hans did not seem inclined to change what he was thinking.

“Here, Hans,” said Anna. “There's no lead-mark there. Touch that spot.”

“That is worse than the other,” said Hans. “How much did he bathe?”

“Twice since I got home,” I said, “and the itching was more than I could endure both times.”

“That is strange, then,” said Hans, “as when one is slimy from lead, then that itching stops.”

“It was worse than it has ever been,” I said.

“That means you are shedding the last lead,” said Sarah. “It was like that with me, also.”

“Feeling greasy?” I asked.

“No, the itching,” said Sarah. “I needed to bathe several times a day, it was so bad, and I left shot in the tub each time.”

“B-both times,” I said. “There was enough to load up a fowling piece after bathing each time.”

Once on the couch and covered with the room-blanket, I had attention from all three people. I could hear not merely Anna muttering, but also Hans.

“There is a lot of this stuff still, Anna,” said Hans. “This is a measuring cup full, easy.”

Another 'tickle', followed by a barely suppressed giggle on my part. “I think she's right, though.” Anna's voice sounded unusual for her.

“How?” asked Hans.

“Remember Hendrik's backside?” asked Anna. “How those sores were open like this?”

“He got shot in the..?” I gasped. A load of shot in the posterior sounded very painful.

“He did,” said Anna, “and until he got a bath an hour after getting home from the trip, he said he did not notice anything out of the ordinary.” A pause, then, “and those sores had all opened up by the time I saw him, and the lead was coming out as fast as I could catch it with the tweezers.”

“He wanted that tincture, then,” said Hans.

“He needed it,” said Anna. “Shot hurts more coming out than when it goes in, especially when it makes open sores in the process.”

“That is when it does not turn you to pie filling,” said Hans. “Now this is a strange thing here.”

“What is it?” asked Sarah.

“I've not seen shot like this,” said Hans. “This thing looks like a new silver coin...”

“That is from the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “I've only seen shiny shot like that three times before now.”

“S-shiny?” I asked, as I heard a cork being removed, followed by a faint clicking noise.

“There, it is jugged in this vial,” said Hans. “You can look at it when we are done with you.”

I was turned over shortly thereafter, and now all three of them went to work on my front side. Thumping steps came on the stoop, then someone male – I'd heard the voice several times before in town, even if I had no name to put with it – asked “now what happened in here?”

“Those witches put enough shot in him for two buzzards,” muttered Anna. “There's another, Hans.”

“How is this?” asked our visitor. “He was not to be back until harvest-time, and now he gets home filled with lead.”

“They did not travel like those groups do,” said Sarah as she paused from working on my leg. “Besides, there weren't enough guards left to keep watch at home and go in a group like they usually do.”

“How many went?” asked our stranger.

“Eight of them,” muttered Anna. “I've spent enough time today getting shot out of those people to wonder if I will sleep tonight with tweezers in my hand.”

“What?” asked our stranger. 'Curiouser and Curiouser' didn't come close to his attitude, if I went by what I was hearing.

“Every one of those men had at least a handful of shot in him,” said Hans, “and I got that much out of Hendrik's rear.”

I could just hear the mirth growing in our visitor. Such a revelation would be worthy of a vast number of potent jokes.

“Both those older men had a lot too, Anna,” said Sarah. “There, I think that does that leg.”

Our visitor thumped off shortly thereafter, or so I thought until I heard more thumping. Hans walked over to the doorway, then said, “leave that metal in the buggy there. That goes to the shop.”

Faint words, these seeming to come from the other end of town: “but that place is closed.”

“I know about the sign,” said Hans, “and I know who does most of the work in there, too.” A pause, then, “those bags there can come in, as that stuff is for sewing, and those jugs, too – and that box there.”

I was about to ask a question when someone began to gently rub my head, and I fell asleep to awaken to the smell of cooking. I was covered with the room-blanket, and as I felt my skin with both hands, I noted the entire lack of both 'shot-bumps' and 'grease'.

“Did they get all of that shot?” I asked.

“Not quite all of it,” said the soft voice. “A few more pellets have yet to emerge.”

“How deep did that stuff go?” I asked.

“Deeply enough that a normal person would have died several times over,” said the soft voice. “More than one member of the party now wonders how they are still alive, in fact.”

I was about to speak when I heard, “a normal person for this location, not where you came from.”

I had more questions, these being about the effects of shot upon people here and where I came from, but now seemed a poor time for asking. The smells of cooking had grown stronger, and as I put the room-blanket away, I wondered yet more. Was it a matter of low velocity, or were people 'tougher' here – or was it something else?

“That one man ran all that distance,” I thought. “That isn't normal, is it? Thirty-plus miles, clothed like that..?”

I was ruminating still upon the matter when Sarah suddenly 'appeared' to my right. I noted the stairs being nearby, and seemed satisfied as to how she'd managed to show with such abruptness.

“Why does shot seem to work..?”

“I've wondered about that for the longest time,” she said. “That stuff seems to work much better on thugs and witches than it does on most animals or common people.”

“Being drunk all the time?” I asked. “Dirty skin?”

“That would account for some of what I've seen,” said Sarah. “I know of few marmots that bathe, and I've yet to see a buzzard endure water.”

“You know of marmots that bathe?” I gasped.

“Some keep those for pets,” said Sarah. “Most dogs will bathe if given the chance.” A pause, then, “still, I'm glad shot seems to work passably on witches and thugs. I would not be here otherwise.”

“Food?” I asked. The smell was a profound reminder, and my stomach was 'vibrating'.

“Some of that is in the oven,” said Sarah, “and Hans is at the Public House fetching more.” She looked around the right of me, and I turned to see the still-stacked mound of supplies that had come yesterday present in the parlor, along with an uncommonly small and neat-looking 'coffin' nearer the wall.

“Those?” I asked.

“I would wait until you've eaten,” said Anna, as she came through the inner bathroom door with a small armload of sticks. “I found that small camp-oven among your things, and I thought to make this one meal I've heard of using it.”

“Is this that smaller iron pot I saw?” asked Sarah.

Anna nodded, then said, “it has been a very long time since I have had Cuew, and those men spoke of that thing working well for it.”

“Cuew?” I gasped. “Th-that stuff...”

“Is very tasty,” said Anna. “Why, does it cause trouble?”

Trouble, she says,” I mumbled. “It might not be as bad as vlai, but still...”

“What does vlai do?” asked Sarah.

“It puts him in the privy,” said Anna, “and then people speak of the smell for the rest of the day.”

Sarah's silence now made for marveling, and when I looked at her face, not merely were her hands clasped together over her mouth, but her face was a mottled pink. Faintly around the edges of her clasped-tight fingers, however, I seemed to see a virulent shade of green – and as the door to the parlor opened to admit Hans, I found myself tongue-tied. He came to where Sarah was standing with a cloth sack, then looked at her as if she were an exhibit of some kind.

“Now what is your trouble?” he asked.

Vlai,” murmured Sarah. She sounded as if deathly ill. “Anna was speaking of it, and I...”

“If that stuff makes you sick, then you are in good company,” said Hans, who then turned to Anna. “Now how is that Cuew coming?”

“It needs more time, Hans,” said Anna, “and more fuel, and perhaps more meat.”

“Is that woodpile too small for you?” he asked.

“Now, no,” said Anna, “but if it gets much smaller, it might be. It's still cold at night.”

Hans had brought home a small crock of 'fresh-chopped elk', and when Anna brought out the camp oven, I noted its still-sooty appearance. I wondered if it had been put into use while still dirty, so much so that I touched the side with a clean rag once Anna had placed it on the top of the stove.

“That's...”

“That type of pot is hard to clean,” said Anna, “which is why they are unpopular with most.”

“Yes, if they know about those things,” said Hans. “Most do not know of them.”

“And the inside?” I asked. I recalled its mottled dark staining steadily growing with each use while on the trip.

“Those two men spoke of that thing while we were getting shot out of them,” said Hans, “and they said it worked as good as anything they have seen.”

“I could not clean that stuff off,” said Anna.

“That is because it is burnt on,” said Hans. “That type of pot wants that stuff, as otherwise it will put rust into the food.” Hans paused, reached for a mug, drank from it, then said, “and rust is a bad spice for a meal.”

“The taste?” I asked. I was again looking at the 'mound' of supplies as if distracted.

“Rust works like uncorking medicine,” said Hans, “and it tastes bad, too.”

During this time, I had but barely noticed the odor of what Anna had been cooking beyond it smelled much like my more-recent recollections of 'roast meat', and I recalled the use of a special 'sauce' in Cuew. I thought to ask, at least until Hans brought forth a smaller crock. The tint of the faint stains upon it was a potent hint as to its contents.

“Is that the sauce?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, only it is done the way that stuff is done up here,” said Hans as he looked at me. “That man Gabriel said you were hissing like a Death Adder when you ate that stuff down south.”

“Uh, I had a lot of w-wind,” I muttered, “and I had to visit the privy...”

“That is why I spoke to those cooks about the sauce,” said Hans. “They do that stuff down there differently, and it causes some people trouble.”

“Including me,” said Sarah. “I might not enjoy the flavor of the potato country's food much...”

“That stuff does not have flavor,” said Hans, “so how can you talk that way?”

Sarah ignored his comment, and continued, saying, “but I have yet to have it gripe me. I wish I could speak that way of food prepared elsewhere.”

“Uh, a bland diet?” I asked. “Did you ever try goat-sausages?”

Sarah looked at me with a face twisted into the picture of misery, and said “yes, I did.”

“D-did they make you ill?”

“Yes, they did,” said Sarah, “at least until I learned how to cook them to suit me.”

“Yes, and those things need a lot of spices,” said Hans. “Otherwise, they might as well be corks for their taste.”

“They act like corks, also,” said Anna. “I'm glad we don't have any of them here.”

“I would not be so certain,” said Hans. “They got a lot of those things on the way back.”

Dinner looked to be at least another hour before it was ready to eat, or so I thought as I wobbled back to the couch. A great fatigue had come unannounced upon me, so much so that the moment I sat down I fell asleep once more to awaken to a smell at once familiar and yet profoundly different – and while the smell was that of Cuew, that smell seemed muted and distant.

“Is my nose plugged?” I thought, as I stood shakily to slowly wobble around the mound in the parlor and into the kitchen. “That uh-oven?”

Anna came from around me and went directly to the stove, where she opened the largest door and removed the pot with rag-wrapped hands. The odor was now stronger, yet still, it was not what I recalled either for intensity or 'spiciness'.

“Is it ready?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Anna. “I remember this stuff smelled stronger.”

“Where did you eat..?”

“In one of the fourth kingdom's places,” said Anna. “Where did you eat it?”

“In camp off of the High Way,” I said.

Anna looked at me, then said, “where?”

“N-near the border of the second kingdom,” I murmured. Anna's question was not to be denied.

“Did this town have witches in it or near it?” asked Anna. “Was the place decent?”

“It seemed to be,” I said, “and a witch showed outside. I had to deal with what was left of him.”

“What happened?” asked Anna. She seemed insistent.

“He tried to bother a girl,” I said, “and her cat objected to him doing so...”

“A long-haired cat, correct?” asked Anna.

I nodded dumbly, then said, “loud purring.”

“Those are like that,” said Anna. She paused to think, then said, “were there other witches?”

“That place has turned into a witch-hole,” muttered Sarah as she suddenly 'showed'. “That whole area is like the second kingdom house now.”

“Then I think I know what happened,” said Anna. “That place sold you bad food.”

“But the others managed fine...” I murmured.

“I usually had more trouble with griping than the others during my traipsing,” said Sarah. “I wish I could speak so of my cousin.”

“Does she...”

“I thought it was because she grew up with that food,” said Sarah, “but it was more than that.”

“What happened to her?” Anna was about to remove the lid of the camp-oven. I could almost see the lid shake faintly with 'anticipation'.

“She had to be most careful with her diet,” said Sarah, “at least until she became accustomed to a spicier one.”

“Did she try Cuew?” I asked.

“Yes, once,” said Sarah. “She became very ill, also.” A pause, then, “at least she could consume vlai.”

“That is good,” said Hans as he materialized in the now-crowded kitchen.

“She could consume it, provided the bowl was suitable for an infant,” said Sarah. “If she ate a smaller common bowl, it would put her in the privy.”

I thought to be cautious with the Cuew, at least until I saw the firmer texture of the meat itself and its seeming lack of sauce. A taste, and I was all for devouring the stuff, at least until I recalled just how I had felt upon consuming it. I looked to see what Sarah was doing.

“She seems to be cautious with it also,” I thought, “while Anna...”

Both she and Hans were devouring the stuff as if it were a more-solid species of vlai, and as I got the third mouthful down, I felt my gut twitch once, then twice. I looked toward the privy – and as if my look induced trouble, Sarah sprang from her chair and ran toward the brown door.

“Now what has gotten into her?” asked Hans around what he was eating.

“Uh... My stomach was more than twitching now. I suspected I would need to visit the privy in short order – at least until a feral-sounding hissing noise seemed to come from all corners of the room. Anna looked around – mostly on the floors, but she spent some of her effort looking upon the table – then asked, “was that you?”

I nodded nervously, then 'sizzled' again. My stomach was beginning to evidence a desire to escape. Sarah then emerged from the privy with a red face and weepy eyes.

“It is worse now,” she said.

“How is this?” asked Hans. I was glad he wasn't sounding oblivious.

“If it does what it did much more,” said Sarah, “I will want both tinctures.”

I was not able to listen longer, for I had to make my own run toward the privy, and while nothing solid came out, I wish I could speak similarly for the gaseous emissions. I opened the outer door just in time to let Sarah back in – and once at the table, I noted the different status of our plates.

“I put what you were eating out on the stoop,” said Hans.

“Uh, wolves?” I asked.

“I heard some of those coming back,” said Hans. “Now it is bread and beer for you two, as this stuff causes you trouble.”

“How?” asked Anna. “I did it as per the recipe I had written down, and it should not have done that.”