Cough Medicine, Gun Barrels, Hair-Cutting, and... Ouch! continued

After the second batch of mash was dribbling 'firewater' into the charcoal, I thought to ask a question about Geneva. I had already suppressed a desire to 'chant' the doggerel speaking of being 'overly dry'.

“How does one make Geneva here?” I asked, as I recalled Paul speaking of the stuff that first night.

“The most common way,” said Hans, “needs a jug, a funnel, a clean pot or bucket, a clean cloth to strain it, and then the berries and herbs.”

“Herbs?” I asked. “What kind?”

“The greengrocer had those as well as the berries,” said Hans, “and what kind, and how much, varies a lot. My grandfather made his share, and so I use his recipe.”

“At least I could taste his and not spit for a while after,” said Anna. “Most Geneva tastes so bad I cannot endure the smell, much less the taste.”

“So, one mashes up the herbs and berries,” said Hans, “and then puts them in your container, and then covers them with aquavit. The stronger that stuff is, the better it works. Then, you leave it set for a while, and jug it when it is right.”

“R-right?” I asked hesitatingly. “Do you taste it?”

“That is the usual way,” said Hans. “Paul tends to make Geneva with a very strong taste, whereas my grandfather's stuff was fairly mild – at least for the taste. It worked just as good for most of the problems where Geneva helps.”

Hans paused, then said, “then, after a few days, one adds the water, any other flavorings that are wanted, and then leaves it sit. Grandfather's recipe was usable after as little as a week once he'd finished it, unless he made it special for the crae. It needed to sit longer then, as he'd put in a little sugar-tree sap.”

“What is the crae?” I gasped.

“I doubt you wish to find out,” said Anna. “That is a very common sickness. It might not be as common as catarrh, but its symptoms almost make up for it.”

“Symptoms?” I asked. “What are they?”

“First, your nose leaks,” said Hans. “Then, you cough and sneeze a lot, and you feel really sick.”

“How does Geneva help, though?” I asked.

“You get a small cup or mug, and a jug of the stuff,” said Hans, “and you put your shoes on a stool or chair, and get in bed. Then, you sip Geneva until you see twice as many shoes, and go to sleep.”

“What happens?” I asked. I could just see the result: a hangover of such monstrous proportions that any illness – other than perhaps death – would seem trivial.

“About five times out of seven,” said Hans, “you wake up with the crae gone.”

“You die?” I gasped.

Hans shook his head, then said, “I have done that cure twice. Once I no longer had the crae, and the other time, it was a lot better, so much so that it was entirely gone in two days.”

“If Geneva wasn't so common,” said Anna, “I would have the stuff here for that reason alone.”

“Have you had the crae?” I asked.

“That was how I learned about Hans' grandfather's recipe,” said Anna. “I've had the crae three times myself, and the two times I tried Geneva, it was gone the next day. The other time, I was sick for weeks.”

“Then, some Geneva in beer helps with catarrh,” said Hans.

We had a late night, between filling three jugs and getting well into a fourth with aquavit, and after cleaning the still, it was taken downstairs into the basement. As I followed Hans up the stairs, I stifled a yawn, at least until I saw the four smaller jugs on the counter.

“Could we make some Geneva tomorrow?” I asked.

“I think that would be wise,” said Anna between yawns. “It needs to sit at least a week or so, and that means we either make it soon, or it will be too raw.”

“Raw?” I asked.

“That is when it tries to light your throat on fire,” said Hans. “Drink that is much stronger than Geneva does that no matter what you do with it.”

I needed to wait until lunch and instruction was over to begin 'compounding' this strange medicine called 'Geneva', and while Hans had some odd ideas about its making – a hand-carved wooden 'club' figured prominently in his recipe – he left me to my lunacy once I fetched a mortar and pestle to 'mash' the berries. Anna was upstairs doing 'something'. Cleaning sounded likely.

The berries themselves were 'drowned' in aquavit, and when I gently fished the things out, I noted their small size – about the size of air-rifle ammunition – their 'pits', the 'florets' surrounding the pits, and their nauseating bluish-green color. I put a small clump of them in the mortar and mashed them carefully, then scooped out the mess with a spoon and tossed it into Anna's smallest pot. The smell was sickening.

I needed to repeat this process twice, then I rinsed out the mortar with aquavit. The rinse went in the pot. It also killed the stink.

“Now she spoke of some bark,” I said. “I think it's in here.”

I soon found the bark in question. It had a substantial 'aromatic' aspect, as well as an intense 'vanilla' flavor – though the 'vanilla' was definitely not the tame stuff where I came from. This had elements of cinnamon and cloves – and perhaps gasoline – and when I ground it up in the mortar, the aroma became profound enough that I added some more aquavit to keep it from turning my nose inside out.

After dumping the 'vanilla' in the pot, I resumed looking. I found the container of Raw-Deal, and added three pinches to the pot, then the container of Cobb. I put in but one pinch of that one. I found another spice container, this one unlabeled. Opening it showed what looked like green-striped purple-tinted crystallized ginger, and I put a small fragment in the mortar. I then mashed it up.

It was not ginger, nor was it a root. The thing went to powder, and the odor – intense, volatile, and reminiscent of lacquer thinner – was such that I had to drown it with aquavit post-haste. I rinsed that instance of spice twice.

I put three small spoons full of the 'mixed herbs' Hans had spoken of into the mortar, and added some aquavit before applying the pestle. I was glad I had done so this time, as the reek, even with the aquavit, was potent indeed, and grew more so with further grinding. The smell was so potent that I rinsed the mortar twice with aquavit, and once with water, with all such rinses going into the pot. I then put the mortar aside.

I then recalled Hans speaking of sugar-tree sap, and I found a trio of jugs in the spice area of the cabinet. Uncorking one of them brought forth a faintly musty odor permeated with 'wood', and pouring out some of the contents into a measuring cup showed a faintly brown-tinted watery 'syrup'. I thought to taste it.

The sweetness was of such intensity that my eyes crossed and I nearly fainted, especially as it did not taste like sugar. It tasted closer to chemical-contaminated saccharine, with a vile aftertaste that alternated between 'vinegar' and the imagined taste of drain-opener – and over all of these tastes and smells, there was a faint but distinct reek of turpentine. Mawkish wasn't close to describing the overall effect.

“They must have not cleaned this one out very good,” I thought. “I can still smell that gut-loosening paint-thinner.”

Two measuring cups of the 'sap' went into the pot, and then three more measuring cups of aquavit. I stirred the vile-looking stuff carefully, then added five measuring cups of water. I put it on the stove, and resumed stirring.

The heat increased not merely the 'action' I was seeing as the various herbs and God-Awful ingredients melded, but it also increased the smell. The odor reminded me more than a little of custard, even if the smell was closer to what had been in the Geneva jug the night of my arrival.

I heard steps coming down the stairs, then seconds later, Anna said quietly, “now I know you cannot cook. That vlai will never turn out right that way.”

“Vlai?” I asked mildly.

“That is not vlai he is making, Anna,” said Hans as he came up the stairs. “He is making Geneva.”

Hans then came into the kitchen, and looked at what I was making. He put a spoon into it, tasted it, then said, “I think you might add some more...”

Hans stopped speaking, then shook his head. I could almost see something happening, but I was not certain what it was.

“I think I had best not speak of this stuff,” said Hans, “as it is not done yet. I think it is like that beer you came up with.”

“Thank you for reminding me,” I said. “Could I get about a pound of malt – no, perhaps a bit more. I'll need to steep it carefully and then add it.”

“Yes, and that will make a very strange species of Geneva,” said Hans.

“I wanted to try making Geneva once,” I said, “just to say I had made it, but somehow, I have a feeling about this stuff. It isn't common Geneva.”

“Then what is it?” asked Anna.

“I think this will be a cough medicine,” I said. “It isn't something you would normally want to drink.”

“You don't say?” said Hans. “Cough medicine that works? That will be a new one, as I have never figured it out, nor has Korn, nor anyone else up here that I know of.”

“The tincture?” I asked.

“That does help with cough,” said Hans, “but most people would rather cough than be crazy.”

The grist-mill worked well for the barley, and I used the top portion of a mess-kit to carefully brown the malt to a near-black color. It went in another small pot, where the dark yet sweet odor of malt seemed to mingle with what was coming off of the other pot to combine into an aroma that was strangely mild – and yet one of a definite 'medicinal' nature.

It also had a definite action upon the sinuses. My nose felt much less stuffy within less than a minute.

After careful straining, I poured the 'malt extract' into the first pot, and then tossed in some carefully chopped hops, all the while steadily stirring. I was now noticing a definite change in the smell coming off of the pot.

It was becoming steadily more potent. Only a sufferer of anosmia could call it mild now.

It also had acquired a new stomach-turning character, one compounded of stale Guinness, lacquer thinner, bad synthetic vanilla, burnt rubber, turpentine, Tabasco sauce, ginger, and 'rocket fuel'. The words 'evil' and 'dangerous' did not do justice to the smell, and it was not getting better with time.

“Perhaps Jekyll conjured Hyde with this stuff,” I thought. “I wonder what it tastes like?”

Those proved to be famous last words: I dipped another spoon into the stuff, shook it carefully, and then put it in my mouth.

The gustatory eruption that exploded in my mouth was of such violence that I turned to the right and spat spoon and its coating clear to the wall, then my knees gave way as I continued spitting like an enraged cobra. I finally got to my feet, shaking like a leaf. I had but one word to say about what I had made up, as I could not manage the sound of Anna spewing.

“Yech!” I spat.

“That sounds like good medicine, if it tastes that bad,” said Hans.

“Y-you try it,” I spluttered. “That stuff is horrible.”

Hans fetched a spoon, dunked it in, and put in his mouth. He had not shaken the excess off.

“That is some very unusual-tasting Geneva,” he said. “I think you had better hide that stuff.”

“Why?” I squawked. “It tastes that bad to you?”

“No it does not,” said Hans. “If Paul and Willem come over, or anyone else who likes Geneva, we will not be able to get rid of them until it is gone.”

Hans paused for a moment as he dipped the spoon back in the slowly steaming pot. This time, he got a spoonful, and gulped it down.

“Still, I think it might make passable cough medicine,” said Hans, “even if it is useless for coughs, as it tastes pretty good for medicine. Grandfather would have loved that stuff there.”

I then noticed Anna was no longer in the kitchen. I looked around, wondering where she had gone to, until faintly I heard what sounded like a half-strangled cough, then stumbling steps coming closer.

“What is happening?” I asked, as I continued stirring the 'cough medicine'.

The coughing sound came nearer, and Hans said, “Anna might be doing some cleaning upstairs. The winter causes the dust to be worse inside.”

Again, more coughing. The sound was frightening, intense, and nerve-wracking, and when Anna finally showed, I was surprised she was not showing the dusky blue tint of asphyxiation. She was coughing as if she had end-stage tuberculosis back in the times of history, back when it was called consumption. I almost expected to see bloody lips.

Anna gasped, seemed to choke, then between hacking coughs, she whispered, “I got that dust-wad.”

“Did you inhale it?” I gasped.

She could not reply, so much so that I thought, “here comes Hyde,” as I found the measuring cup and half filled it. I then handed it to Anna.

She began drinking. I waited for the eruption that would ensue. I could just see her calling me a poisoner.

Two swallows, then a third, and finally, a fourth. She handed me the cup, which I put on the counter.

“That's Geneva?” she asked, in a perfectly normal tone of voice. “That tastes good.” I still waited for the eruption. It came about ten seconds later.

“What happened to my cough?” she yelled.

“Perhaps it has promise as cough medicine after all,” I said. “What did it taste like?”

“I've never had anything like it before,” said Anna. “I hope you remember that recipe, as coughs are common this time of year, and so are stuffy noses. Mine was really stuffy with all that dust, and now...”

Anna abruptly sneezed, then brought out a rag and blew her nose.

“That stuff cleans out one's nose, too,” she said. “Let me find you a jug to put that stuff in.”

Once the pot was emptied into a chalk-labeled jug – Hans had found two small glass bottles; we filled them also, with Anna taking one, and I putting the other on the bench – I cleaned up my mess, then began writing down what I had done. The 'bark' was called 'Nilus', the strange green-striped 'root' 'Torga', and the stuff in the jug proved to be indeed sugar-tree sap.

“Why is it you rinsed out the mortar each time you ground something up?” asked Anna.

“I'm not certain why, other than in some cases, it kept the odors from becoming too hard to deal with,” I said. “I'm not sure why that stuff tastes good to you and awful...”

I paused in mid-sentence, attempted writing some more, then said, “awful doesn't come close to how bad that stuff tasted to me, and the smell was bad enough to make me deathly ill.”

After a short nap, I returned to gunsight construction. The complexity of the two devices, as well as their precise nature, was something that demanded extreme care and good light, and only the presence of the new lantern, as well as the things I had previously used, was sufficient to permit its construction.

“And the lathe rigged up for cutting slots,” I thought. “If only it was a little bigger, and I had a dedicated milling machine...”

Those two things would need to wait, even if I suspected they would be a requirement to machine the sextant and its parts.

I looked closer at the lathe, however, and then saw how I could easily raise the headstock perhaps half an inch or so.

“If I put a spacer here, then put that one small gear on an arm here,” I thought, as I drew the details in the student's ledger, “then I could turn things slightly larger. Oh, I'd need to make a new rest for the chisels.”

I began rummaging in my supplies, specifically the box where Hans had spoken of the lathe being hidden. Within moments, I found things therein that I had not recalled seeing beforehand. Removing them from their bags showed not merely some very unusual metal pieces that took some time to figure out, but also several small gears with 'fitted' shafts. I looked carefully at these gears, and noticed the word 'Heinrich' on them.

“Is that who made this lathe?” I thought. I resumed looking.

The next small bag – its old appearance and oily nature spoke volumes; I would want boiled distillate for cleaning – proved to have a strange device with a built-in clamping arrangement. It looked like a milling attachment for the lathe.

The third bag, however, had something truly unusual: a small 'lead screw', a carriage, a tool clamping arrangement, and a cross-slide. These parts looked positively ancient, so much so that when I felt them, I expected to feel something bound up by sheer age – and nearly dropped the thing when I felt its precise, no-backlash feeling.

“Why did I find this just now?” I thought. “Is it perhaps I needed it more now, or..?”

While there was no answer to my question, fitting the various parts to the lathe proved fairly simple – at least, fairly simple once I'd cleaned off the tormenting preservative 'grease'. Much of the aspect of 'age' came off with the cleaning, and as I wiped the parts off, Anna came from the kitchen.

“I was wondering when you would find the rest of the parts to that thing,” she said.

“T-these t-take these?” I asked, as I pointed to my finds.

“Yes, they do,” said Anna. “They're fairly common in the best shops down in the fourth kingdom.”

“Best shops?” I asked.

“I know of four, the Heinrich works being one,” said Anna. “There might be two or three more in that area. All of the places like that have at least one of those, with all of the tools and pieces.”

Here, Anna dropped her voice, “and to the best of my knowledge, they are found nowhere else. They do not have things like that up here.”

I pointed out the gears marked with the word 'Heinrich'. She picked one up, then looked at it closely.

“I thought so,” said Anna. “I'm not certain if they make complete sets, but I suspected they made parts for these. Now I know they do.”

Anna paused, then said, “I know you do what's needed with these, so I don't need to tell you what to do.”

“Do?” I asked. “Do what?”

“Those things need to be kept clean and properly oiled,” said Anna. “There are some special parts inside the gears like that.”

“Special parts?” I asked.

“I've seen pieces of that equipment in one of the markets down there,” said Anna. “If one finds it in the market, it's usually in poor condition, but I've found pieces that seemed coated in wax, also. Those tend to look worse yet, but they just need cleaning.”

Again, Anna paused, then said, “I got one once, and thought to clean it.”

“What did you find?” I asked.

“It was a gear, like that one there,” said Anna, “and it was quite shiny. It also had some strange figures on it.”

“R-runes?” I asked.

“At least I know what those things are called now,” said Anna. “These markings were closer to very small pictures. One looked to be a carrot, and another, a horse.”

I began to carefully draw out the center portion of the gear, until Anna said, “I would not do that. The parts would fall out, and they are tricky to put back in.”

“Parts?” I asked.

“These looked like thin and short pieces of sewing needles,” said Anna. “There were a great many of them, and I was glad they stayed put inside. I could not put it back together, so I gave it to Hans. I think he may have given it to someone at the king's house.”

“Do you recall who?” I asked.

“I think it was the jeweler there,” said Anna. “You remind me of him in some ways.”

Once I had finished assembling the added parts on the lathe, however, I learned I essentially had an entire new machine: the gears I had been using as power-transmission gears were actually change gears, while the ones with 'fitted' shafts were the correct pieces, and the spacer blocks permitted the length of parts to increase by nearly an inch – and the diameter I could turn was now closer to an inch and a quarter. I thought to look in the boxes more.

There were two small boxes that the bags had covered, and when I opened the first one, I was staggered, for I had received not merely two more 'face-plates', but also a very small 'four jaw chuck', along with a number of very precise screws and blocks for clamping. What was in the other box nearly put me on the floor.

“Th-that's a d-d-dial indicator,” I squeaked.

Steps came running from the kitchen, then Anna came to look. She seemed 'blasé' by what I had found, at least so I thought until she actually spoke.

“Those tend to not work when they show at the market,” said Anna. “They are thought curios by most people, so few buy them.”

“Who buys them, though?” I asked, as I carefully took the thing out of its padding of oily rags.

“Mostly black-dressed witches,” said Anna, “though I've heard some instrument-makers buy the cleaner ones if they can.”

“Why would a witch buy something like this?” I asked.

“I'm not certain,” said Anna, “especially with one that looks like that. Most of those things are really dirty.”

“Was the person who bought this a witch?” I asked. “Albrecht said he was a miser.”

“It is quite possible,” said Anna. “Most people with that much money did not get it honestly.”

“Does the word 'miser' mean someone who is, uh, tight with money, or does it mean..?”

“As far as I can tell, the difference between a miser and a witch is mostly their dress and their behavior,” said Anna. “Most misers do not routinely wear black-cloth, nor do they commonly act like those people do, at least near where they live. Otherwise, they might as well be two quolls of the same flock.”

“The way Albrecht spoke the word 'miser' implied he thought that person to be a well-hid witch,” I said.

“He most likely was, then,” said Anna. “Albrecht tends to be fairly perceptive that way, at least compared to most.”

The indicator had a small assortment of pieces used for holding it, as well as another tubular 'device' that made for wondering until I saw the 'tab' on the inner portion of the box. I removed that, and found more parts yet.

The parts I had found in the lower portion looked to go to a type of 'bore gage', and as I looked at them – depth wasn't going to be much, and precise diameter was going to be trouble – I had a possible solution beyond 'feel' for long holes like gun barrels – or, at least a way of amplifying sensation.

“What if I plug the thing at one end, and fill it with boiled distillate,” I thought, and then slowly pull the gage through the bore. The tight spots will drag more...”

I paused in my thinking, and said, “a big flammable mess, too. No thank you.”

The next morning, I took stock of what was on hand regarding 'gun barrels'. I had the initial 'guesstimate' mandrel, a sizable and growing collection of partly-carburized pieces of iron, a working drop-hammer...

“And I need to make that boring machine,” I thought. “Or, perhaps, reaming tool is better.”

I then recalled drawing the thing on a slate and taking it over to the carpenters. I had been too busy to look for it.

The 'boring fixture' had been completed, and was in use as a 'table' by the apprentices for holding metal pieces they were sawing. I cleared the thing off – it mostly had dirt and rust on it – and took it over to where I was working.

“Why did you take our table?” said one of the boys.

“This is not a table,” I said. “Or... What were you told?”

“That it was a table,” he said, “and you were too busy to use it until now.”

“No, it isn't a table,” I said. “This is for boring barrels. While you are right about me being too busy before, I'm not too busy now. Besides, you didn't have anything on it other than dirt, rust, and a rag or two.”

While the boys did not believe me at first, they did by lunchtime, for I had fitted not merely the bearing blocks needed for holding the 'boring bar', but also a 'crank' and 'pressure adjustment' using two smaller pulleys I had made recently during my 'homework' sessions. I now merely needed to make the barrel itself – which was venturing into truly unknown territory.

The metal strips weren't, however, and once I began forging out entire bars and then cutting them with a hot-chisel, I received a number of questions.

“These are for the first barrel,” I said. “I'm not sure what it will take beyond that drop-hammer and a lot of welding, so I need to get these ready.”

“What of the pieces we've done already?” asked Johannes.

“If you can hot-chisel them into thin strips, I'll be able to use them also,” I said. “I don't want a lot of carbon in the metal for this one, as it will affect the boring and reaming.”

It took until lunch to form what I hoped would be enough 'bars' to forge a barrel, and after lunch, I began 'forging'.

I had my hands full. Not only did I need to feed in the hot metal with one hand, but also turn the mandrel with the other, and only two or three hits were possible before the metal cooled. Thankfully, the iron wasn't 'freezing' to the mandrel itself.

By the time the first barrel was 'done', it was the usual 'quitting time', and the exhausted crew staggered out the door leaving me with a lumpy-looking thing that made me wish to toss both barrel and mandrel. I then thought to side it off – it slid readily – and then hand-forge it.

The hand-forging both compacted and tightened the barrel, as well as slightly lengthened it, and when I tapped the mandrel out, I found the result somewhat better.

“Perhaps a smaller mandrel for the second or third round of forging?” I thought.

I put the barrel aside, then began working on the mandrel in question after setting aside several pattern-welded pieces of metal for gunsights. I had 'homogenized' these pieces to the best of my ability, in hopes they would turn and file readily.

The next morning, I began hand-forging the barrel smaller. With each such operation, the barrel became more 'compact', as well as tighter on the mandrel, and when I 'checked' the internal diameter, I wondered how much it would take to clean up.

“I need a bigger starting mandrel, also,” I thought. I hoped what I was doing would work out.

At least, until I began boring the barrel. The rough gritty feeling I felt within minutes of starting the cutter could be best described as 'something is especially wrong here', and when I cut the barrel apart a few inches from the starting point, I knew exactly what it was.

“Dirty stock, not enough flux, and an accident waiting to happen if finished,” I thought. “At least if they ask questions, I can show them why it was bad.”

“Why did you do that..?” asked Georg.

“Look here,” I said. “The welds didn't take, because the metal wasn't clean and didn't get enough flux.” I paused, then said, “now who decided I needed to have my metal in the top part of the pile, and not deep where it needs to be for welding?”

There were no answers, save the obvious ones: keep a closer eye on everyone else. I could not do barrels alone, and the overall mood of doing something 'wrong' among the others – I could feel that clearly – was such that the likelihood of sabotage seemed especially probable.

“I wonder if I need to knock one of those boys across the shop to get the message across,” I thought, as I recalled who was 'tending' the forge. “They're thinking I'm a witch again, I'll bet.”

For the second instance of forging, I used the largest barrel mandrel, I cleaned the pieces to be welded in 'lye' – I did not wipe the stuff off, but 'baked' it on, noxious fumes and nausea to the contrary – applied the flux myself, and kept a close eye on the forge. More than once I caught the apprentice handling the rods moving them to the top of the fire, and when I caught him the third time, I stopped what I was doing while screaming “no!”

The abrupt halt was equaled only by the boy's howls as I hauled him up by his apron such that he was eye to eye with me and but inches from my face.

“You think I'm a witch, don't you?” I snarled. “Answer me!”

The silence in the air was such that one could hear a pin drop in an otherwise deafening environment. I wanted an answer, and I wanted to hear the truth.

“This is not witchcraft,” I snarled. “This has nothing in it of curses, nor runes, nor chants, nor that other stuff that witches enjoy. It needs care and attention to detail, and it does not need sabotage. Now stop that rubbish, or...”

“Or you'll do what, fool?” came the clearly audible voice of derision that echoed in the shop and in my mind. “Become a witch, as per the demands of these your servants?”

I set the boy down, then said, “what is the problem here? Do you really think I'm a witch? Do I need to spew profanity and chant curses to get you to try anything new, so much so that you sabotage anything I try unless it's something a witch would do?”

“What does that word mean?” asked Georg.

“I'm not sure how to simplify its meaning,” I said. “The best I can manage is 'deliberately doing wrong so as to cause trouble'.”

“Klais, was that what you were doing?” asked Georg.

To my astonishment, the boy nodded yes.

“Why?” asked Georg.

“Because he's a witch, and I want to see him burn,” said the boy. His voice sounded unusual, with a ringing tone of complete surety I had never heard him use before. It made Anna's 'oblivious and assured' voice sound indecisive.

“What?” I spat. “What did I do to you?”

The looks of the others were unreadable, and now, I had no idea as to what to do.

“Why do you believe that?” asked Georg.

“Because,” said the boy. His inhumanly certain tone of voice seemed to exemplify the term 'as per one's inclination of the moment'. “Because someone said he was, and I believed what he said to be true.”

“Who was this someone?” I asked gently. “Where was this person?”

“At the Public House,” he said.

“Was there anything, uh, unusual about this person?” I asked.

“He was like that man with the expensive musket,” said the boy. “No one would listen to him, though.”

“Except you,” I said. “You listened. Did he speak specifically to you...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, for I realized something. While the boy wasn't lying – at least, as far as he knew, he wasn't lying – I was not hearing the truth. I would need to look elsewhere.

“I guess we need to give that man back his money, then, as I cannot do this work without help – and no, I'm not someone who can just speak to things and 'make' them happen.”

I paused, then asked, “do any of you – answer honestly, now – still think I'm some kind of witch?”

“I don't,” said Georg. “I don't know what to make of you, but I've asked around enough lately to know that you are no witch.”

“Then why do you think I'm a witch, then?” I asked. My question was directed to the boy. “Did this person say anything strange to you, as if he were speaking like Hieronymus?”

The boy nodded – and then, as I watched, his face took on a superimposed feral grin, even as his eyes faintly shimmered with reddish glowing briefly before changing utterly, such that they seemed to show more 'white' and less of the colored portion of the eye than before. Describing what I saw beyond my impression was impossible, even if I had seen eyes change in this fashion years prior, when I lived in that house that seemed on the horizon of hell – and like I once did in that house, I put my hand near his head.

The sense of furnace-like warmth was remarkable.

“Is this like that closet?” I thought, as I recalled my entrance to an 'inhabited' closet when 'clearing' a room in that place. I again looked at his eyes. He was 'showing forth' as blatantly as anyone I'd ever seen before, and I knew what it meant.

“You do not need to be controlled by spirits,” I said, in a voice that was at once quiet and yet somehow echoing like thunder. “You spirits, go away and leave him alone.”

The boy's eyes rolled back in his head as he collapsed nerveless to the ground, and I knelt down by him, keeping my hands clear all the while. I was not fond of the idea of having those things 'jump' onto me; secondly, I knew something of how tricky they were. His 'fainting' might well be a ruse.

As if the 'things' knew of my knowledge, they gave up their 'play dead' routine, and the boy began coughing, thrashing, and groaning. His groans were not those of a boy.

“No, no revenge,” I said quietly. “Go away, and do not come back.”

The boy arched his back, such that his middle was nearly a foot off the ground, and as he reached his 'apogee', he screamed as if a tormented animal caught in a trap. The sound of his voice – high-pitched, strident, and yet somehow metallic-sounding – seemed to continue for what seemed a minute without cease, until he fell over abruptly and projectile-vomited a gout of whitish foam that vanished abruptly as it sank into the hard dirt of the floor.

“Wonderful, that wretch got him inhabited,” I thought. “Now I hope he can see the truth.”

The complete limpness of the boy, as well as his 'normal' feeling, made for wonderment, at least until he woke up and held his head while trying to shake it. He was trying to speak, and could not for at least a minute. Finally, he choked out his words.

“What am I doing here?” he asked in a curious tone.

“Where were you last?” I asked.

“In the Public House,” he said. He sounded normal, unlike his former 'nasty' voice. “There was this smelly person dressed all in black, and he was speaking about you.”

“What did he say?” asked Georg.

“He said he” – here, the boy pointed at me – “was a witch, and needed a burn-pile, and no one would listen to him. He became angry and began speaking in this horrible language under his breath as he left, then he drove off in his coach.”

“Coach?” I asked.

“Yes, big, black, and with six really smelly horses,” said the boy. “Those horses had long ears, and were the worst-behaved ones I have ever seen.”

“L-long ears?” I gasped.

“Those were not horses,” said Gelbhaar. “Those were mules, and that means he was from far to the south.”

“Or he was from around here,” I said, “and he commonly keeps those mules hidden. I saw mule-tracks up here recently.”

I paused, then said, “showing those things openly like that?”

“That was why I said he was from far to the south,” said Gelbhaar. “Those people up here might well have mules, but they do not run them on the roads and in the daytime like that wretch did.”

“And to the south?” I asked.

“They do that where they are most common,” said Gelbhaar. “That means either the fifth kingdom, or the second kingdom house.”

After apologizing – I asked the boy if he was hurt; he wasn't – we resumed working on the barrel. This particular example seemed to go together marginally better, and 'looked' better, but I still suspected it had been ruined by the spirit-guided sabotage of the boy. I would only know when I began boring it with the smallest of the cutters.

The boring – or rather, reaming – went smoothly for the first portion. With each turn of the crank, I kept feeling for the rough gritty aspect that indicated a poor weld, and when I came to where I had finally stopped the sabotage, the change from 'metal' to 'sand' was so abrupt I took my hands off the crank and nearly shrieked. I unhooked the collar that applied steady pressure to the bar, let it go until the weights hit the floor, and then withdrew the boring bar.

The tip of the 'reamer' had chipped badly on the oxidized non-welded portion. I nearly screamed with frustration, and it took the rest of my day to correct the damage done to the boring bar and do the 'postmortem' on the barrel.

Where the reamer had chipped showed oxidized badly-welded metal, and that carried through nearly to the surface. The weak spot would have unraveled the first time the gun was fired. I was certain of it.

I bagged up the contents of the flux container, in hopes of Hans being able to analyze the flux. I wasn't certain if he could find anything, but still, at least to my thinking, I needed to try – and once I got home, before I needed to try anything else, I needed to bathe.

After bathing, I went looking for Hans, and could not find him nor Anna. I began working on the gunsights at the bench instead of sitting and waiting idly for them to return. I needed to do something so as to not feel crazy, and at least the metal I was using there was well-behaved.

The fittings I had for the lathe had not merely transformed its usefulness, they had also multiplied its capabilities, and the rapidity with which the rear sight assemblies took shape was astonishing. I was deep within the final boring of one of the elevation adjustment rings when the door opened quietly. I kept my head down, continued 'pedaling', and only let up when I had finished the cut. I looked up, saw Hans – he was 'too close' – and fell off of my stool and hit my head against the workbench. I felt slightly stunned, and wondered what had happened for a second.

“Yes, I think so,” said Hans. “First, some wretch comes up here from the second kingdom house to cause trouble, then one of those boys has something happen to him, and now this.”

“I, I...” spluttered. I felt horrible about losing my temper, and my guilt was too great for words.

“Anna is coming with some things for you,” said Hans.

“Th-that b-boy was...” I squeaked.

“I heard about that,” said Anna, “and the story is out now.”

“What, that I'm an abusive wretch?” I moaned.

Anna looked at me, then said, “you didn't hear the whole story. It wasn't just him that was affected that way, and he wasn't just ruining that metal. He had fouled the flux and put something in that forge, and he would have stabbed you if he'd gotten the chance. You stopped him but a short time before he was about to try for you with his knife.”

“But I p-picked h-him up...”

“He was planning to kill you,” shrieked Anna. “That witch had cursed him, both of the other boys, and half the people who were in the Public House then, and they only woke up this afternoon when you caught the boy that witch had chosen to be your murderer. A lot of the others were planning on burning you after he'd done that, and they all were talking about it until recently.”

“Stabbed?” I asked. “How?”

Hans reached into the bag he'd carried in, then laid an Arkansas toothpick dagger on the bench. This one, unlike the example I'd seen before, was neither old nor glowing red with flames. Instead, it showed poor workmanship, abysmal finish, and what might have been the beginnings of rust showing here and there. It looked very cheaply made, and touching it confirmed its nature as 'well-disguised scrap metal'.

“This thing turned up in the shop,” said Hans, “and the publican was keeping it safe until we could take it to you. That boy said he and the other two were to cause trouble when and where they could, and he himself had decided to stab you if he got the chance.”

“W-with that thing?” I asked.

“That wretch who came by in his stinky coach gave it to him personally,” said Hans, “and the people who weren't affected by that witch told everyone else what had happened once they had woke up. Now they are bringing their distillate here for deodorizing, and their wood is going back on their woodpiles, and the chains are going back where they belong.”

“Why would that wretch ch-choose children, though?” I asked.

“Because they would not be suspected of causing trouble,” said Anna, “especially in that place. Also, I would think that witch wanted them burned as well as you, so as to teach a lesson to everyone who might have your ideas about teaching.”

“W-what?” I asked. “Uh, how is that done?”

“It seems smiths aren't the only ones who treat apprentices badly,” said Anna. “That almost seems the usual.”

“K-knock him across the room?” I gasped.

“That is not that rare,” said Hans, “especially in some trades, with smithing being one of the worse for such behavior.”

“When I suspected sabotage,” I murmured, “I felt inclined to do just that.”

“I misjudged you,” said Anna.

“What, that I like hurting people?” I asked.

“I thought you didn't have such feelings,” said Anna, “and that explained your behavior.”

“No, dear,” I said. “Remember what I said about frustration? I often feel frustrated, and the difference between what I commonly felt in that shop and this latest incident was one of intensity, only...”

“Yes, only what?” asked Hans.

“There was something about how I felt,” I said. “It was strange, and like something I've felt before, only it was not quite the same, either as to feeling or magnitude. A good portion of that boy's behavior wasn't his own, and I now wonder about mine.”

“But he was causing trouble, and wanted to kill you,” said Anna.

“He was also cursed,” I said. “I've seen things like this before, especially with this one person. He normally could only move one side of his body, and then something happened to him. He looked strange, sounded stranger, and could move both sides – and quite strongly, too. It took two people to hold him down.”

I paused, “and I was one of those people doing the holding. His eyes were just like that boy's.”

“What does that mean?” asked Anna.

I didn't have any 'good' language to use to describe the sights and sounds of dealing with someone who was 'possessed'; further, I wasn't comfortable with that term. 'Taken over' was an amply descriptive phrase.

“A spirit of some kind 'took' control of him,” I said, “and that s-spirit was using him to do its bidding.”

I had completely lost both of them, at least until dinnertime. Once the food was mostly devoured, Anna said, “I'm glad you're commonly armed, as that wretch coming from down south means they know about you there.”

“Hans spoke of th-things,” I said.

“Yes, bed-clothes for when you sleep,” said Hans. “Sleeping in your clothing is not the best thing for comfort in bed, and no clothing beyond your breeches is worse yet.”

After dinner, I went out into the bathroom to change, and found the resulting thin 'trousers' and 'shirt' to fit passably, if a little baggy in most places. I replaced them with my usual clothes prior to coming back out into the kitchen. The feeling of modesty I had had before I came had grown since my coming here.

I left the clothing on the cleared-off table, then went down in the basement to ask about the flux. I had no idea Klais had 'fouled' it – I wondered just what Hans meant – nor what he had done to the forge itself, and when I saw Hans, I was surprised to see him working on carefully powdering some familiar-looking blue 'gravel'.

“This you will want to keep with your things,” he said, “as I had this stuff set aside for years.”

“Flux?” I asked.

“That stuff is not stone,” said Hans, “no matter what they might have said of it. This is what they use in the fourth kingdom's better places, and I think it is better than what Georg uses.”

“Perhaps he's gotten more in those boxes,” I said. “If he did, it might be... What did he get before?”

“I think it was fifth kingdom stuff,” said Hans. “That flux was not very good.”

Hans paused, then said, “now this stuff is a bit better, I think, as I put some lye and salt with it, then cooked it for a while in the stove. I have wanted to try it for a long time, but have had no takers.”

“So I need to try it,” I said, even as I did not wonder as to the lack of people messing around with an evil-smelling chemical that caused illness. “Can that one batch be salvaged?”

“You cannot put that stuff on the manure pile,” said Hans, “as then it will kill plants when the manure is used on the fields. You might try making a bronze pot and then melting the stuff along with some salt and lye, then pouring it into a bucket of water after skimming its rubbish. It might well be better than it is now if you do that.”

Before the evening finished, I had nearly completed both rear sights, and had started on the front portions, as well as made progress on the patterns for both trigger guards, barrel bands, and buttplates. Sling-swivels for mine were mostly a matter of saving a sprue or two and then machining them.

“And saving those isn't easy to do,” I thought. “About half the time, they turn up missing shortly after I remove them from the castings.”

I thought for a moment, then murmured, “perhaps I need to make barrel dies?”

'Barrel dies' was something of a conundrum, as I wasn't precisely certain how big the finished barrel would be. I recalled reading of 'swage blocks', but beyond the rivet-swages I had seen, those seemed to be absent here – at least, they were absent at the shop where I worked.

“Perhaps I do need to make such dies,” I thought sleepily, as I made ready for bed. “Perhaps...”

My thinking was buried in the sounds of slumber, those being deep breathing and perhaps the faint intermittent hissing of gas.

The next morning, I used a bowl I borrowed from home to make a mold for pouring bronze, and I poured not merely two such bowls, but also three flasks full of knife patterns. After pouring, I took both butt and hilt over to the carpenter's shop, and asked for a pair of 'rough' duplicates of each piece.

“What is this about rough?” asked one of the carpenters.

“Find a piece of wood big enough, then saw and chisel it such that it's a bit bigger,” I said. “Whatever you can do readily, actually, only make them a trifle oversize. I have the finish-sized brass gages at home, and I can finish them there, same as I'm going to need to do a gunstock soon.”

I was glad the instances of sabotage the day before were not brought up at the shop, and when I drew a picture of an upper die with a curved 'V' shape in its center, the men in the shop made up for the lack of comments about the boy's behavior with questions about the drawing.

“I hope it doesn't warp when it's hardened,” I said. “This should make forging round surfaces a bit easier.”

“But with that shape?” asked Georg. “That will make them lumpy.”

“This is intended for a range of sizes,” I said. “I've heard of 'close' swages, but those are only good for one size. Dies like these take enough time and energy to make that making 'close' swages for things we won't make in quantity...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, for I saw – or, perhaps, sensed – a substantial difference of opinion. Georg still thought we would be making large numbers of musket barrels, or so I guessed. I knew we didn't begin to have the equipment needed to do them in the quantities he envisioned.

“Not until we have powered equipment is that a good idea,” I said quietly. “As long as the equipment and personnel situation is the way it is, large-number production of much of anything isn't going to happen.”

“What did you say?” asked Georg.

“Are you thinking of making musket barrels by the wagon-load?” I asked.

“No one else makes them up here, and there are lots of worn barrels,” said Georg.

I had been right about his desire to produce them in 'quantity', even if his idea of quantity might have been less than I thought.

“I have no idea what you plan to charge for those,” I said, “but anything that takes the whole shop the entire shop's day, and then me working the remainder of that day and part of the next – and that to make one barrel – doesn't sound...”

Georg looked at me, then shook his head for a moment. I wondered if he was going to erupt.

“I think we had best stick to stovepipes if we wish to make numbers, at least for now,” he said. “I thought we would be able to make those much quicker once you had figured them out.”

“The chief matter is powered machinery,” I said. “Given that, making them would take less time and need less effort.”

I paused, then said, “and we are going to need powered machinery soon enough.”

After pouring the bronze into the molds, I had to shoo the others clear of the smoking flasks for nearly an hour. The molten-lava fascination of gleaming red-orange sprues seemed an irresistible attraction to the others, and only once I had shaken-out the still-hot castings after lunch and 'drowned' them could I let them look at the outcomes – at least, when I was not removing sprues and risers.

“And this time, I'm keeping a sprue,” I muttered. “Why are those things so wonderful?”

“I have wanted a soft-headed hammer for a long time,” said Georg. “They are best if you need to tap on metal so as to check it.”

“Check it?” I asked. “Is this some kind of, uh, folklore? As in 'knock on wood', only substitute 'iron' or 'brass' for the wood?”

The strange looks I got were impossible to decipher, so much so that only when Gelbhaar fetched a sawn piece of iron bar and showed it to me did I get some idea.

“Now tell me if that one is good or not,” he said.

I touched it, then shook my head, saying, “only in a crucible will that one work out. It's got a lot of slag, a bad cold-shut running lengthwise, and some nasty inclusions.”

“Now how is it you knew?” he asked. “I was told that hitting such pieces with a bronze-headed hammer would tell by the sound.”

“Duh...” I spluttered. “Is that why you wanted those sprues?”

“Those are good bronze,” said Gelbhaar. “The usual stuff does not work. Here, listen.”

Gelbhaar then tapped the iron piece with a 'stolen' sprue. The 'clack' sound was enough to nearly make me grab my teeth and then scream, even if he seemed oblivious to the noise. He then fetched one of the 'scrap' guards, and hit the iron.

The near-metallic clang was astonishing. I was glad my teeth wished to remain in my mouth just the same.

“I've tried that with those musket barrels you said were bad,” he said, “and where they are good, they sound normal, and where there were bad spots, they sounded just like that one piece did. I have no idea how you tell where the bad spots are, but I'm as bad as Hieronymus was that way.”

“And how...” I squeaked. “He didn't test those things, did he?”

“He had a bronze hammer, but only rarely did he use the thing,” said Johannes. “I'm surprised you've never used one.”

“I didn't use one because I had no idea they could be used that way,” I spluttered. “I have to look carefully most of the time, and sometimes, I just know when the stock is bad.”

“And after seeing what you did with that one piece, I doubt you needed one,” said Georg. “At least now you know why those sprues have been turning up missing.”

Georg paused, then said, “and the most likely reason Hieronymus didn't use his hammer that much was he did not care if bad pieces went out or not.”

“He didn't?” I asked.

“I am not certain about that,” said Georg. “I am certain how things looked was more important to him than how they worked, and I know he wasn't nearly as careful as you are.”

When I began cleaning up one of the bronze bowls, I had questions again.

“What are those for?” asked one of the apprentices.

“For cleaning up the flux,” I said. “Hans said it wasn't particularly good, and it needed cleaning to work better.”

I paused, then said, “I've got to do a lot of things different to get those barrels to come out, so much so that I don't fancy making many of them this way. I'm beginning to wonder if it's possible, actually, but I'm not going to give up yet.”

As if to punctuate the matter, I resumed filing on the place where the sprue had joined the bowl, and when I finished it, I spoke again.

“Perhaps we need to do something to the billets used, like, uh, some of that better iron and the common stuff, clean the pieces up with lye, and then twist them together before welding them into strips.”

“Now what will that do?” asked Georg. I was surprised at his interest.

“I'm not precisely certain,” I said – this regarding the metal. I knew what using lye would do to me. “There's something about 'added' mirror-metal that helps with welding, at least how we're doing it, and then the twisting might help the metal give up its slag and impurities better. Even that better stuff has a lot of slag in it.”

“How is that?” asked Georg. “Is this something you see in it?”

“I'm not certain how I feel so sure about the matter,” I said, “but getting a truly high-enough temperature to 'float' the slag in the fifth kingdom isn't at all easy. Besides, they think it's good business to sell bad metal.”

“That does not surprise me,” said Georg.

Somehow, I knew Georg hadn't heard me at first, and I waited expectantly for when he realized what I had said. Meanwhile, I put the 'fouled' flux in the bronze bowl. As I poured it, I noted a faintly musty odor, then recalled what Hans had said about that particular forge. I went to the forge in question, looked at it carefully – it had not been lit that day, for some reason – and reached in to remove the remnants of what might have been a round metal disk of some kind. It had partly melted.

“What is this?” I thought, as I tried to decipher the ruined blob. “It doesn't look like anything we use.”

Shadows came from behind, then as I turned to show Johannes, he spat, “Thunderation! Who put that stuff in the forge?”

“Hans spoke of something being in that forge,” I said, “and I thought to look. What is it?”

“Gray-metal,” he said. “They use that stuff in brass along with the copper, and I am glad you have not tried melting brass in a forge.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Gray-metal ruins the welds if it is present,” he said. “Why, you didn't know that?”

“No, I didn't,” I said. “Does it make them weak, or what?”

“With you, it might not make that much difference,” he said, “as I've looked at that barrel you sectioned, but had I tried welding anything in that one yesterday, I would have been wasting my time. Now that forge needs to be torn down, as no one will ever weld with it again.”

“Does the stuff vaporize or something, and get into the... Let me try something.”

I took the 'gray-metal' to where I was working, then sprinkled a little of the 'fouled' flux on it, and took it to the one forge that was running. I held it out over the piled charcoal, and watched its action. I had the impression that it somehow affected the action of the flux.

Within less than a minute, the flux began melting, then began smoking as the 'gray-metal' began to shimmer with heat.

“What?” I gasped. “This stuff makes the flux melt at a much lower temperature, so it does not stay put on the metal. Does gray-metal need to be present in real quantity to cause this?”

After mashing flat the 'stuff' – it mashed very easily, which did not surprise me – and recovering the melted flux, I put the gray-metal in a small cloth bag. I wanted to ask Hans about the matter before I made up my mind, as well as attempt some further testing. In the mean time, however, I went to find what I could among the boxes.

Salt and lye were easy to find, as the salt was marked as being such and I knew where at least one container of lye was 'hiding' already. However, when I found a strange greenish powder in an unmarked tin, I knew I'd found something of especial value.

“A small amount of this stuff will make that flux really strong,” I thought. I then wondered how I felt so certain, even as I used the tip of a knife-blade to add it to the foul-smelling contents of the 'crucible'.

Melting the flux needed a dull red bowl in a quiet forge, this off in the corner nearest the rear door. The amount of 'dust' and 'dirt' I scraped off as the flux began melting was astonishing, and upon adding the 'green stuff', the fumes that spouted were enough to cause sneezing amid an intense desire to vomit. I stirred the melted flux well with a thin iron bar, scraped off more 'dirt', then used tongs to pick up the bowl and pour the liquid flux into a bucket of water.

The steam and spattering was almost beyond belief, and when I went back to my area, I wondered where my stirring bar had gone.

“Where is my stirrer..?”

“B-bang-bang-bang,” rang a nearby anvil, then a high-pitched yell followed:

“What gives with this iron?”

The yell was from Johannes, and when he showed me a narrowed-down piece of rod, I gasped, then said, “what happened?”

“Th-that stuff you were working on turns iron into clay,” he said. “The stuff was trying to weld itself to the hammer, it was so sticky.”

“It was trying to weld itself to the hammer?” I asked. “Are you certain it was actually 'welding', or just uncommonly sticky?”

“Here, you try welding with that stuff,” he said.

I forged out the iron rod, then bent it double and ran it up to a welding heat. Johannes was still looking at his hammer, then said, “I think you are right about the sticky part,” he said. “This hammer needs work, too.”

“If you can arrange for a new handle, I can go over it completely,” I said. “I suspect a clean-up and then overnight in a can will help more than a little.”

“But won't that blister it?” he asked.

“Not if I, uh, hammer on it some,” I said. “Or would you have me make an entirely new one?”

“That might be better,” said Georg. “Those are old things and not that good, and spares aren't a bad idea to have.”

I took out the metal piece, and to my astonishment, not merely had the flux spread, but the surface of the metal seemed to be 'different'. I put it on the anvil, and began hammering.

The spray of flaming 'mess' that shot out was such that I marveled, then when I edge-hammered the bar and bent the thing double, I said, “I think we might want some more of that stuff.”

After setting the bar to cool on the ash pile, I returned to the bucket where I had poured the flux, and began scooping out the 'gravel'. The friable nature of the stuff, as well as the glassy crackled sheen, spoke of an utterly different material, and when I put the stuff in a copper pan for drying, Gelbhaar thought to look closely at it.

“Yes, I think so,” he said.

“Have you seen that type of flux before?” I asked.

“I have heard about it,” said Gelbhaar. “Supposedly, this is what is used in some places in the fourth kingdom, only...”

“Let me see that stuff,” said Georg. “I sent for a bag of fourth kingdom flux, as I've wondered about that stuff I've been getting for a while.”

“Did that flux involve a combine?” I asked.

“It might well have,” said Georg. “Most common industrial supplies in the fifth kingdom do, especially if they are used plentifully.”

“Meaning, they stand to make money by selling or dealing with them,” I said.

While Georg looked at what I'd done, I went looking for this 'fourth kingdom flux', and when I found one of the apprentices bringing in one of the last remaining boxes, I knew it was the one in question. I took it from him, brought it in, and opened the lid.

The entire box was filled with small sacks, and opening one of them showed a subtly different species of 'bluish stone'. I used an old spoon to remove a sample, then brought it over to Georg. I was still waiting for an 'eruption' from when I had spoken before.

Georg was carefully moving around the friable stuff I'd made with a small brass wire, and when he looked at the contents of the spoon, he said, “I thought so. This is better than what we had, and what you made makes me wonder, especially as to that bar you welded. What was it like?”

“It made the stuff I'd been using seem, uh, awful,” I said. “It makes the common metal much easier to weld.”

I paused, then said, “I think your old 'flux' was about half smelter slag, actually.”

“Now what did you mean by the people in the fifth kingdom thinking it good business to sell bad metal?” asked Georg. “They do that, but I've never been able to figure out why.”

“First, by bad metal, I mean poorly processed,” I said. “They spend as little time, trouble, and money as they possibly can, and then pass the poor results on to the buyer while swelling their money pouches.” A brief pause.

“Secondly, they also know which customers are least able to 'get back at them', which means local customers, especially sizable well-connected ones run by copies of Black-Cap, get the better metal, and 'small fry' who are far away get the worse.”

“Then, finally, this area isn't the only one with strange beliefs. Some of those people think metal that's full of slag, inclusions, and 'rubbish' is actually better than the good stuff – something about the slag strengthening the iron, as it is stiff. It might be stiff, but it's weak and brittle, too.”

Georg rubbed his chin, then said, “I suspect you are right, even about the slag in the metal, as I've heard talk that way, and until you began working here, I believed it myself.” A brief pause, then, “now I hope we can weld barrels Monday, as Festival Week starts two weeks from today, and I doubt you'd relax much with that man's gun needing to be finished.”

“Uh, where did you...”

“Anna, mostly,” said Georg. “I know you've been working on the other parts for it as much as you can, but the barrel is holding you up the most. Then, you need a musket as well.”

“Why?” I asked.

“You don't have one,” said Georg, “and half the people in town think you need one, and after what happened recently, I can see why.”

“And the other half?” I asked.

“I haven't heard from them yet,” said Georg. “I imagine they will say things similar if and when they speak of the matter.”

Once the others had left, I began forge-welding the upper die for the drop-hammer. The 'cleaned' flux made the work so much easier that I marveled, and once the die was forged to size, I buried it in the ashes. I would need to retrieve it tomorrow, then clean it up and harden it over the weekend.

I was greatly astonished, therefore, when I came to my bench after dinner to find a sizable chunk of wood laying next to it on the kitchen side. The nature of this 'beam' – nearly four feet long, close-grained, thick, and clumsy-looking, with numerous crooked-looking saw-cuts and marks from what might have been a hatchet – made for head-scratching, at least until Hans came.

“That thing was trouble,” he said.

“How?” I asked. “I have no idea how to cut that thing down much, nor do I have the tools unless I make them.”

“I got him the chisels the day after you finished them,” said Hans, “and he'd already started on the piece, and then when I went there today, that was as far as he had gotten. He did not want to turn it loose, as he said he wanted to finish it.”

“Did he have much else going?” I asked.

“He might have,” said Hans, “but then again, I wonder if Anna's speaking was wrong.”

“Why, he'd take less than a month?” I asked.

“No,” said Hans. “He'd take more than a month, if I go by what I see there. You would have done that much in an afternoon.”

“This might work out better, though,” I said. “First, if he did one... Did you give him any instructions?”

“I told him what you were doing,” said Hans, “and told him you wanted it like a club, as you would finish it yourself. That is not common, or so he said.”

“Uh, no tools beyond bad knives for most,” I said. “I hope to fix that spokeshave this weekend, at least for the angle it holds the blade at.”

“Most people might have more than bad knives,” said Hans, “but not much more, unless it is scrap like I had with those turnscrews. I am glad you have good tools, as now I do not need to worry about them.”

“A clamp, perhaps?” I asked. “I might be able to try making a suitable pattern this weekend.”

While Hans went to fetch me one of his 'babies' – he treasured them greatly, and not merely because they were helpful; he didn't have many things to remind him of his grandfather – I looked over the piece of wood. Its size meant trimming at least a foot off of the thing for length, and then shaving it down to give the proper contour. I vaguely recalled what I 'liked' in a weapon, and as I mentally planned the matter out, I heard steps to my right and rear. I turned to see Anna.

“He might have made the thing like a club,” she said, “but that thing you're working on looks fit for a roer.”

“How big are the barrels on those?” I asked.

“About twice as big around as a usual musket for the diameter on the outside,” said Anna. “I've wondered what you are going to make, especially as how that boy poisoned that forge. Talk has it the entire shop will need to be torn down and burned, then remade from scratch to get rid of the poison.”

“That is rubbish,” said Hans as he came up from the basement, “as I heard what he did. He put some gray-metal in that thing, and that makes welding impossible while it is there.”

“Did anyone say why the place needed to be torn down beyond 'being poisoned'?” I asked. “Is there a curse associated with 'gray-metal'? Was that thing I found something special?”

“I just spoke of what people were saying,” said Anna. “I actually don't know what gray-metal is, much less what it does.”

“They use that stuff in making brass,” said Hans, “and brass is trouble. It likes to burn and make smoke when it is melted.”

“It does affect the action of the flux,” I said. “I tried it out, and it not merely makes it melt at a much lower temperature, it also becomes so runny it will not stay on the metal you are trying to weld. Hence, bad welds or no welds.”

I paused for effect. I hoped I was being heard.

“As for it being tossed in the forge and 'poisoning' it, that is slightly possible. If that metal is what I think it is, it melts at a low temperature and vaporizes readily, so it might well 'poison' the individual forge for a time.”

I paused, then sipped from a mug of water. “Given that I managed passable welds save where Klais put the iron on top of the fire to oxidize, I wonder just how effective that stuff is.”

“There was talk of that too,” said Anna. “It was said you somehow did good work even with a poisoned forge.”

“Does that make me a witch, then?” I asked.

Anna shook her head, then said, “after a witch tried to kill you like that one man did, and him coming from the second kingdom house? I really doubt that.”

I thought to try 'chiseling' on the piece of wood, more as to find out what it was like than all else, and when I began using one of the small 'paring' chisels, I said, “he might not have done much to this thing, but he did choose good wood. This is fairly hard stuff.”

To my surprise, Hans came close with a bag, then began picking up the chips as fast as I made them. I wondered why he was bagging them until I recalled what the coopers did with their 'waste'.

“Is this for the stove?” I asked.

“This stuff works good for lighting fires,” said Hans, “and I was right about how much you would get done. If you had a decent chisel for that stuff, you might get more wood off of that thing.”

“I was just trying the wood to see what it was like,” I said. “I found that one piece of gray-metal, and brought it home in a bag.”

“Had it melted completely?” asked Hans. “That is when it causes the most trouble, is when it is melted and blown all over the place.

“He put the thing near the blast-hole,” I said. “It had melted to a degree, but was still in one piece.”

I paused, then said, “that wretch gave him very explicit instructions, or rather, those boys were all given such instructions, and that isn't the only one of those things. They put one in each forge!”

I stood up, then took up my lantern and pocketed the revolver. “I need to go over there and get those things out, and I need to do it now.”

“Can't they wait?” asked Anna. “It's dark out, and no...”

“Anna, I think he is right,” said Hans. “They might want checking now, as no one will be looking outside so as to watch.”

“It isn't that,” I said. “Our coach-riding wretch had his stop here as a less-important errand on the way to something 'bigger', and he might well come back this way to see if I'm dead and the place is burned to the ground. He planted that rumor about 'poisoned forges' and the effects of those things on the forges, unless I miss my guess.”

“Why?” asked Anna plaintively.

“Those people like that do not like new things,” said Hans, “and so they want to cause trouble.”

Hans turned to me, then said, “now why would he think this place less important?”

“Because there's just one of me,” I said, “and because outside of this town, I'm not really that well known. Among those black-dressed people to the south, I'm mostly a vague rumor, or was, at least until that man came through town to find out the truth.”

“Yes, and they knew where you live, too,” said Hans.

“He knew it was in this 'general' area,” I said, “and he knew I worked in a smith's shop. Not every town has one of those, so that narrowed the field of possibilities. Then, he'd figured I wasn't going to work at just any smith's shop, but only those 'wealthy' enough to attract someone like himself, so that narrowed it more – perhaps down to as few as a handful of towns. He started at one on his route north, asked around in the Public House, didn't find what he was after...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, then said, “his question was 'is there anyone unusual around here who does smithing'?”

“And Georg has traveled enough that the publican tells him where to go,” said Hans. “He only needs to go to one place, he asks, and then he goes straight to here.”

Now do you understand why I shouldn't wait until Monday?” I asked. “That wretch may come back tonight, and he will try to set the place on fire if he doesn't see signs of a burn-pile in the area.”

I paused, then said, “uh, Hans, do you have any small jugs rigged up?”

“Why, do you think that wretch may need trouble?” he asked.

I nodded, then said, “we may wish to give it to him. Do those traps tend to cause big fires, or smaller ones?”

“That depends on the trap,” said Hans.

“Can you fetch me a larger medicine vial...”

I went down the stairs at a run with Hans after me, and Anna following him. I spoke of a medicine vial filled with priming powder, a cork, and a friction igniter, and within minutes, we had a pair of substantial-looking bombs as well as some string.

“Now this I had never heard of,” said Hans, “but you talking like that says you know of witch-jugs. These are the smallest ones I have ever seen.”

“They are intended to, uh, warn us of our witch, should he return,” I said, “and perchance cause him trouble if he tries anything. The regular jugs would cause too much damage to the shop, wouldn't they?”

“I think so,” said Hans, “though I have never been close to those when they have gone.”

I draped a cloth over the smaller lantern I took so as to shine but a thin ray of light ahead of us, while Hans took the unlit student's lantern in his bag. Neither of us spoke, even as we hurried along in what seemed the dead of winter and the black of night, and when I came to the shop's yard, I looked for tracks. There were none; the snow had covered those I had left but two hours ago. I moved the door aside, let Hans past me, then closed it behind us.

I uncovered the lantern, and handed it to Hans while I went to the first forge nearest the door. I fetched a poker, and within seconds, I found a metal disk buried among the ashes of the forge. The light of the larger lantern then flared as Hans brought it near, and I brought out the metal disk.

“This one is nearly intact,” I said, as I looked at the disk on the first side, “and...

I nearly dropped the thing when I saw what was on the second side. It was a 'carving' of an ugly-looking man with horns – he looked more than a little like a goat – centered in a five-pointed star.

“That is a witch-marking,” said Hans, “so that was a witch for certain that gave those things to those boys.”

“We don't have a minute to spare,” I hissed abruptly. “Blow out that bigger lantern, and help me rig these things. That wretch is coming back right now, and he'll be here any minute!”

Hans seemed to fumble with the lantern as if panicked, and I took it from him and blew it out. I motioned for one of the bombs, which Hans gave me.

“The string,” I hissed. “Hurry.”

At least with such 'directions' he managed passably. While he held the bomb, I tied the string onto the loop of the friction igniter, then walked toward the door. Faint on the wind, I heard the crack of an obvious whip, then the tinny jingle of harness and the 'give me lubricant' creak of wheels.

The inner handle of the door seemed to faintly glow in the thin ray of the lantern that Hans now held, and I tied the string onto it, giving myself about six feet of slack. I put the bomb such that it was sitting on the ground, with a bit of slack in the line that draped from the handle to the bomb. I hoped the igniter would be sensitive enough, and that our witch would slam the door open like Black-Cap had.

I turned, ran to where Hans was, took the small lantern, and motioned Hans toward the rear of the shop. The sounds of whip-cracking, harness, and creaking wheels were now plainly audible.

“Out the rear door, then follow me,” I whispered. “I'm going up the delivery side toward the front of the shop.”

Hans almost seemed 'petrified', and only as I moved past him did he think to move. I went out the rear of the shop, moved him past me, then silently closed the door. Not merely was he afraid – at least, he seemed that way – but I knew he was brimming with questions, and I put my finger to my lips before turning and heading up the passage to my right. But seconds later, I heard again the faint rumbling and rattling noises I had heard before – only now, they weren't faint, and as I kept in the shadows next to the wall, I saw a huge black vehicle turn into the yard.

“You were right,” whispered Hans. “That wretch is...”

A hoarse chorus of braying broke the stillness of the night, and with a crushing hiss, the vehicle juddered to a stop. I was still walking cautiously forward, with Hans to my rear. I had the other bomb in my pocket, I now realized, and I gently removed it, then began unwrapping the string from the stick we'd wrapped it on.

I kept my head down, now almost bent double, and the faint creak of a door alerted me. A crunchy sound said someone had dismounted from the vehicle, then more such sounds spoke of unsteady lurching steps. I could smell an odor of strong drink, as well as rotten meat and other nauseating odors, and as I came to the last window on the north side of the shop, a vicious bang pounded on my ears and flashed red light to my left.

The creaking sound came again, and more steps came from ahead and to my left. As I came to the corner, I saw that one black-dressed thug now laying immobile on the snow, and two copies of himself had come out of the vehicle. The reek of strong drink was stronger than ever, and the harsh yellow surging light coming from the long and ungainly high-wheeled vehicle spoke of a distillate-burning lantern.

“Phew, that stuff stinks,” I thought, as I unwound the rest of the stick and handed Hans the string. I began looping the line out in wide loops. I was going to throw the bomb.

The 'thugs' – they certainly looked the part, as these people were carrying swords of some kind under their black cloaks – were dragging the still-immobile witch into the vehicle. I could see sizable gleaming wet spots on his clothing, and in the harsh light of the lantern, I saw the man's face as his head lolled to the side.

His face looked like hamburger. I nearly spewed.

This tableau, however, was overshadowed by what the obvious driver was doing with his whip, and what his charges were doing to cause trouble, for all six animals were rearing and bucking while making horrible 'roaring' noises, much as if they were trying to imitate the sounds of a lion with severe indigestion. He was steadily cracking his whip at them, and the foul-smelling animals were ignoring what he was doing.

“Hold the string tight,” I whispered, as I turned to Hans. “I'm going to toss this bomb.”

I turned to see the second of the two still-functional thugs stepping into the wide doorway of what I now knew to be a coach, and as he got fully inside, I threw the bomb as hard as I could at the open door.

I stood transfixed for an instant of time, even as I saw the bomb do an abrupt hook to the right and fly in the door. I then leaped back as another vicious blast was interrupted by screams and another hoarse bray-chorus. Two more cracks of the driver's whip, and the vehicle started with a crunch and rumble, and as I sneaked back to see what was happening, I saw the vehicle leave the yard trailing a billowing tongue of soot-rimed red flame out of its still open door – as well as an arm dragging its hand along the surface of the snow.

The driver was not wasting time, for his whip was busy and his charges springing forward in an attempt to gallop and leave the cumbrous weight of the vehicle behind. The flames grew steadily longer and brighter, and as I came even to the front of the building, I noted the thick and slowly dissipating clouds of black smoke that hung in the air.

“They must have distillate in that thing,” said Hans, as he came even with my right side. “Now why did you give me the string and then toss that bomb?”

“Our witch was injured when he tried to open the door,” I said, “and he brought two helpers with him, as well as his driver. I knew the string was just about long enough to go from here to there, so I gave you the string to hold and tossed the bomb.”

I paused, then said, “and how that thing curved into that vehicle like it did is a mystery.”

I stopped speaking, then came out into the shop's yard. The thick black smoke hung dense and slow-moving in the air, and far in the distance – easily well past the Public House now – I could see the red slow-wavering flames that marked the position of the vehicle. I thought for a moment to look at the front door of the shop, but for some reason – it seemed important – I thought to remain out front and watch the flames of the coach until they disappeared.

Hans stood by me, even as he shivered slightly in the cold, and his staying by me was something that I wondered about. Perhaps he expected something to happen, even as I wondered what had motivated me to stay and watch, and as the flames seemed to momentarily bloom brighter, a sudden white flash blasted a massive eruption of flames into the air that remained for a slow count of three, even as a thunderous roar pummeled our ears.

“That was dynamite,” said Hans.

“It was?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so,” said Hans. “That looked to be much of a box, unless I guess wrong.”

“Our witch will have trouble reporting back to his people, then,” I said, as I began gathering up the string I had paid out, “or, at least, he will have trouble reporting conventionally. Now, let's see what happened, and then get those accursed things out of the forges.”

Where the witch had fallen showed traces of blood, and as I studied the 'wallow' carefully, Hans said, “that thing got him good, as I see some blood here.”

“Hans, I saw his face in the light of that vehicle's lantern,” I said, “and it looked like bloody chopped meat. How that happened is a good question, but he wasn't moving. I doubt he enjoyed the effects of that bomb.”

Looking at the still open door-frame, however, showed a fine scrabbling network of deep gouges and small flakes of white-glazed ceramic that extended from chest-height to the bridge of my nose, and as I moved aside to let Hans look, he whistled. I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“That thing must have been touching him, almost,” he said, “as I can see the soot from that thing all over this post.”

“How strong are those jugs?” I asked.

“They would have blown out the windows of this shop, and cut up anyone inside of it,” said Hans, “but they are best within a few paces.”

“They're a lot bigger than those medicine vials were, aren't they?” I asked.

“They are the size of the usual jugs for beer,” said Hans. “I am keeping those medicine vials in mind, though, as those are a lot easier to hide.”

Digging the remaining disks out of the forges took but minutes, and as we came to the front of the shop, the aura of 'uproar' in town was steadily growing. I quietly closed the door, then led off toward home at a near-trot after lighting both lanterns. I did not wish to be shot at by suspicious neighbors, even if I suspected their attention would be directed south and not north.

“I doubt explosions followed by flaming mule-drawn coaches that explode half a mile south of town are common,” I thought, “and no matter how rare such events are, I do not wish to be known as having something to do with this instance.”

Thankfully, Hans and I were not 'hailed', nor were we shot at, and I guessed the reason why to be candle-lit stoops and an absence of lit windows. None of the neighbors at our end of town were up and doing, even if I could hear faint shouts and a yell or two at the other end of town. As we made the door, I whispered, “thank God we were not questioned by the neighbors.”

“I would not be thanking too much yet,” said Hans. “Anna is inside, and she will ask questions for ten.”