A strange and new land

I awoke from a sound sleep refreshed and relaxed. I first noticed the cold I felt, and then the fact that I was not in a bed.

“And no drugs needed for sleep, either,” I thought swiftly, as I glanced at my hands.

Neither hand showed signs of injury beyond a few fine scratches, for some reason, and as I felt the left one with my right, I noted normal sensation and an absence of the many scars it had once had. I then thought to feel my ears.

Both ears felt normal as to shape and sensation, and the feeling under my right hand was so distinctly 'alien' that I shuddered. I had never had anything remotely resembling a normal ear there prior to now – neither normal for appearance nor function. Now both ears functioned better than the left one had before being sucked into that strange purple...

“What was that thing?” I thought. “Was it a bottle, or was it something else?”

A brief look at my body showed a near-complete absence of the scars I had acquired in my life, and their replacement with numbers of fine scratches. For some reason, I had the strong impression this state was more than 'skin deep' – and for a second, I wondered about the medicines I had left behind.

I gently removed the clothing I had used for a blanket, and shook it out gently prior to putting it on. As I did, I found it nearly dry as well as badly torn. Somehow, I didn't recall it being as ripped as it was.

“At least it is in one piece,” I muttered. I felt my pockets, and startled. I had nothing with me beyond my clothing itself.

“Not even that little brass thing with its needle,” I spluttered as I slipped my legs into my pants. “How am I going to fix this stuff?”

The questions about medicine reasserted themselves – and as quickly, vanished.

I found that I needed to 'go' once I had put all of my clothing on, and as I came out of the 'bamboo thicket', I noted not merely the tightness of my boots, but also the thickness of my mostly-dry socks. I suspected lengthy walking would make for sore feet, and by the time I had walked for a minute, I knew the matter wasn't one for suspicion any more. My feet were starting to hurt.

I paused and looked around. While my night vision had always been very good, it seemed to have markedly improved, for I saw clearly all of the trees and grass and the river's water. I then looked up to see a broad bright moon and a myriad of chill white stars of phenomenal brightness. Some of them had red or blue tints.

“Is it the lack of pollution in the air,” I thought, “or is it something else entirely?” I sniffed, and smelled a faint odor of wood smoke. At least that odor was familiar.

I felt an inclination to travel to my left as I came close to the riverbank, and I stopped short of the muddy area of the bank to walk on the long-tufted grass. As I did, I wondered as to the uncanny strength of the 'inclination' I had felt; it made that which drew me to the liquor store seem feeble. I could tell something had changed beyond two good hands and two good ears, and while I suspected it to be spiritual, I was not certain. The aura of mystery was profound.

The brilliant light of the stars, however, was no mystery; it, and the light of the moon, seemed ample for traveling, and I could see what might be a road in the distance as I walked slowly. I stopped now and then to look at where I was. It seemed important beyond merely resting my feet.

The grass underfoot was soft, with fine tufted leaves the length of my hand. It was dense, much like long plush carpet, and as I scanned the ground itself, it seemed fairly level, with vague-seeming shallow depressions here and there.

To my right were trees, and as I stopped to look, they seemed tall to the point of vertigo, with one clump seeming to rise high in the air amid a thick dark forest. A steady row of shorter trees seemed conjoined along the opposite bank of the river. The latter seemed all but silent, even as I recalled its gentle current and large fish.

The road joined the bank of the river near what looked to be an ancient stone bridge. I paused for a moment, then noted the three arched tunnels through which the river passed. I then continued on, and when I came to the road itself, I crossed over to the other side. I felt reminded of a joke, one I had not heard in many years.

“Why did the stranger cross the road?”

“Because he was a stranger, and wanted to see what was on its other side.”

The other side of the road showed the river running more or less straight across a plowed field and then into a forest of some kind. The field had long rows of roughly spherical 'bushes' that seemed the size of basketballs for the most part, with the exceptions being larger.

“Those things look like cabbages,” I thought.

However, the sight of 'cabbages' that large made for wondering until I saw an animal that easily came past my knees running furtively along one row and then hopping into what looked like a ditch. I wasn't precisely sure what the animal was, but the resemblance to a gopher was troubling. I did not wish to run into a gopher that large – for an eight inch gopher was trouble, and a four foot long example promised to be vastly worse.

I turned first to my right, and then my left so as to look at the road itself. The road seemed straight enough, and when I looked down near my feet, I saw well-worn ruts and what might have been coarse gravel in a well-cracked matrix of clay. I tried walking 'left' – a town was that way, I somehow knew – and within a few steps, I knew walking there would have me crawling on hands and knees long before I reached it.

“And bloody feet covered with popped blisters, no doubt,” I thought.

I turned to see faint clouds of dust I had stirred in my walking. Something then grabbed my attention, and caused wonderment.

The road had a definite crowned region, one that I had not seen before, with the most rutted places near the shallow ditches that seemed the road's boundaries. I thought to look closely at one particular pair of ruts.

These ruts were roughly four to five feet apart, with square-shouldered corners and smooth bottoms seething with dust. I knelt down, looking closer yet. The impression I had was too strong to ignore.

“Those are wagon tracks,” I murmured. “I had best get moving, as standing here isn't going to get me closer to that town.”

As I walked, I resolved to rest whenever my feet became too sore, though the rapidly-mounting pain tested my resolve within less than a minute. When a large rock showed on the verge of the left ditch, I thought to sit on it.

Removal of my boots and feeling my feet showed no blisters, thankfully. I knew, however, that walking any real distance was a recipe for blisters until my boots had resumed their normal contours.

“Perhaps barefoot?” I thought.

On second thought, that was nearly as unwise as walking in my boots, for the gravel-trodden clay wasn't much softer than concrete. I looked to my right to see far off in the distance what might have been some kind of a dim and flickering light.

The terror I felt upon seeing it was such that I wanted to hide, and as I looked around, I saw that the nearest 'hiding place' was the canebrake.

“How did I walk here?” I thought. “That has to be at least half a mile away.”

I looked again at the light. It was coming closer. I needed to put my boots on.

As I slid on the socks and then wiggled my feet into the boots, I wondered where I was, and more, how I knew I needed to put my boots on. My thinking on such matters was then interrupted by what might have been speech, and I looked to see where the light was. It had come noticeably closer while I was putting my boots back on.

I strained my hearing, and again, I heard what sounded like two people talking.

Within less than a minute, the speech became clear enough to decipher to a degree. It wasn't totally unfamiliar, even if it wasn't English. It sounded vaguely like German, only it wasn't that language either; I had heard that language, and knew its sound, even if I had but rarely heard it outside of a classroom setting.

In contrast, this language was softer than either of the two I had first considered, with a full rounded sound. I continued listening, and when I heard the word 'Georg', I was stunned; both as to hearing a word I recognized, and also, the pronunciation: a softer 'g' sound, a slightly rolled 'r', more liquid vowels, and a slight but noticeable drawl.

“I wonder if this is Dutch?” I thought. “Is it Afrikaans?”

Those were the two possibilities that came closest to my mind as I distinguished another word, then two more. I understood all that I was hearing, so much so that when I heard the word 'Boer' – a long drawn single syllable word that sounded like 'Boooaeerrr' – I knew that not merely it meant 'farmer', but also those speaking it were likely to be farmers themselves.

“And I hope I don't prove a boor to these people,” I thought.

The blowing and snorting of horses became steadily clearer amid the 'clop-clop' sound of hooves and the faint creaking of what might have been wheels. The light was now but a few hundred feet – or yards, it was hard to tell in the darkness – away. I quickly looked to my rear and saw masses of trees that were not conifers; those seemed absent. I was not that familiar with trees.

I turned again to my front. For some distance to my right and left, the ground was divided up into long plots of what looked to be corn in some apportions and vegetables of other kinds in the others. Each plot was separated by long mounded rows of piled rocks that seemed to vanish in the darkness far away; within the plots, often next to the boundary markers, were narrow paths of some kind.

The wagon – if wagon it was – drew steadily closer. I could tell it would easily go faster than my feet would, given what I had to walk in, and I doubted little that it would hurt less. Most likely, it would hurt a lot less. I could tell I was already sore enough to limp.

When the wagon came within thirty feet, I stood shakily, and then quietly said “hello.”

The horses drew up with an abrupt snort, and the two people began talking. I put my hands in plain sight, and as I slowly walked toward them, strange thoughts went through my mind.

Would they think me a robber? A brigand? Did they have such people here?

I did not know, even if I somehow knew there was a town down the road and it was too far to realistically walk.

Yet as I hobbled closer, I knew – with a surety that amazed me – that brigands seldom traveled in this region at night, and never singly and on foot. Most importantly, they would not be limping.

One of the men in the wagon passed what looked like a jug to the other. I heard a cork being withdrawn, and then what sounded like drinking. The cork went back in, and as I drew closer, I noted the size of the jug. It wasn't particularly small, and it seemed to have an unusual shape.

“Yes, and what do I know about such jugs, beyond I made a few years ago in class,” I thought.

The taller of the two men – he was closer – motioned to me. As I came closer – I was really limping now – he said, “you do not look up to much walking. Where are you going?”

“There is a town down the road,” I said, as I pointed with my hand, “and I hoped to go there.”

“Get up in the hayrick here, then,” he said. “The hay makes a good seat.”

I soon learned why he spoke of the hayrick, for when he got down, I noted how 'crowded' the usual seat was between him, his partner, and the jug. The latter was moved out of the way, and once I was nestled in the hay, I found that it made a tolerably good backrest as well as a cushion, with my feet almost straddling the jug.

“My name is Willem,” said the taller man as he got back in his seat, “and my neighbor here is Paul. This load of hay is for an ornery fellow that lives in that town. He's a blacksmith, and you look sore enough to need a ride.”

“Sore?” I asked.

“Limping, and torn clothing, and looking as if you were dragged backwards through brambles,” said Willem.

I thought to look at their clothing once the wagon got underway again. What they wore seemed similar as to shape, if I compared it to mine. Otherwise, I could tell it was different. It might have been knit.

Clothing was not something I commonly noticed as to appearance. I tended to notice other things, chiefly its discomfort, its itching, the sweating, and sense of strangulation I felt when I was the one wearing the stuff.

The other man felt my boots, then said, “your boots are wet, so that says why you were limping. We don't have tallow to spare, otherwise I would give you some.”

“They will have that in town,” said Willem. “Most of them are hospitable enough.”

From my vantage point, I now saw a great many things. The jug was larger than I had thought – its capacity was at least a gallon – and the source of light was a brass 'box' with glass panes and a single candle flickering steadily. This 'lantern' was hung by a metal hook from the side of the wagon's seat, and when I saw what looked like a leather thong, I suspected the 'hook' was hinged.

Thankfully, neither person seemed drunk, and both were friendly. More, their friendship was genuine – as was my terror and shaking. I wondered why I was so afraid, and as I looked around, first to the right, then left, and then ahead, I felt the darkness of the night. It had become terrifying, even as it had not been so beforehand.

The pace of the horses was 'slow', or so I thought until I watched the road and its many slight irregularities; within a minute, I knew that I would have had trouble going much faster, even if I had dry boots that had not shrunk.

“What is your name?” asked Paul.

“Dennis,” I said. “I know little about farming, less about wagons, and I don't come from around here. Where am I?”

“About ten miles or so north of Roos, in the first kingdom,” said Paul. “How did you get here?”

“I came down this hole,” I said, “and then shot out of it and landed in that stream back there. I hid in a thicket until my clothing dried and I had rested up.”

I paused, then said, “and how I got in that hole is a question for which I have no answer – that, and answers to much else.”

“Now that is an interesting one,” said Paul. “Your clothing isn't common for around here, your name isn't a common one, and I have never heard your voice before. Where did you come from?”

“It wasn't here,” I mumbled. I had but little idea how to speak of a place that I had trouble recalling beyond the fact that I didn't miss it much. I swallowed hard prior to resuming.

“It smelled different, it looked different, and farms were scarce there,” I said. “At least, they were scarce where I lived. I don't remember it that well, and I don't want to recall it all that much. They hunted me like an animal there.”

“Why, were you a thief?” asked Paul.

“No. I, I...” There was no time to think, and the word “marked” tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop it.

“Now that is strange,” said Paul. “How? I wonder about that, as those people are not common here, even if most accept them.”

Paul's use of the word most pricked up my ears, and when he resumed, I was not prepared for the balance of his statement.

“Some chase them, though,” said Paul. “Those that do that often tend to be witches, or act like them more than is good.”

I gulped, then said, “I am not one of those, I hope.”

I flicked my eyes to the sides of the road, now looking again out in the black night, looking for shadows moving darkly with razor-edged blades in their hands and murder in their hearts. Paul speaking the word 'witken' had conjured them in some fashion, and as I looked again, I wondered greatly where such thoughts came from for an instant, then was brought back to the present by Paul's talking:

“No, the witches chase marked people a lot, more than anyone else. How are you so?”

I held out my left hand, for some reason. It seemed to faintly glow in the night, and I wondered why. Paul looked at it as if he were a jeweler looking at a rare gem. I wondered if he saw the glowing. More yet, I wondered how – and if – I myself was seeing it. Finally, I wondered if I were hallucinating.

“Those scratches are from brambles, I see,” said Paul, “and they did not get infected in the slightest. That was said to be common with them. Your hair is dark, and that too is rare for here. Is it your toes?”

“I am not certain,” I said, even as I wondered as to what he meant. “That word came to me, and now, I know why. I was too different where I came from, and most people there came after me. Some of them wanted me dead, even as a child.”

“That sounds like what happens to marked people,” said Paul. He bent his attention to the jug, and as he corked it after drinking, I noticed the cork. It was nearly four inches long, with a bent and twisted aspect to the protruding portion. I then caught the odor of what he was drinking.

The odor – mild, yet somehow still penetrating – was that of an alcohol-based herbal extract. I felt vaguely ill upon smelling it, but the fumes dissipated quickly with the wagon's movement. Once they were gone, I felt better.

“That in the jug is Geneva,” said Paul. “It helps with digestion.”

“And feeling less cold of a night,” said Willem. I could hear a shiver in his voice.

“Is that stuff, uh, gin?” I thought. I had never knowingly smelled gin.

“Does that stuff use little, uh, green berries in its preparation?” I asked.

“It does,” said Paul, “that and some other herbs. Some crush the berries and things up and put them in the second running of the mash and then distill it, but that type tends to be less good.”

Willem made a shuddering noise, and grunted his agreement.

“The better way is to run the mash through the still three times,” said Paul, “and then put the herbs and berries in a jug. I left them to sit for a month, strained the stuff carefully, and then added water before letting it set another month. It tastes better and helps more then. Do you wish some?”

“Th-thank you,” I said. “The smell of alcohol tends to cause trouble for me, and it brings up bad memories. I've had drunken people come after me before, and they wanted to hurt me – that, and the taste. Everything like that I've tried tasted so bad I could not stand it.”

“Some like Geneva more than others,” said Paul. “It helps with a fair number of things, not just indigestion, and at least it tastes good. Most medicine tastes terrible.”

The memory of the taste of Proglycem intruded, and I thought, “the package said it had a chocolate mint flavor! That stuff tasted like fermented battery acid.”

I looked around again, now listening to the talk between the two men. I was quite ignorant of the subject, this being the care and keeping of horses. As I listened, I noted that Paul spoke, while Willem drove, and as I thought about the matter, I knew they had a long slow drive with the wagon. I also knew little about the time beyond 'late at night'.

“What kind of horses are these?” I asked. The conversation seemed to be in a 'lull' state.

“The common kind up here,” said Paul. “These are Willem's team, and he got them as colts.”

“Is that why he is driving?” I asked.

“It will be my turn soon enough,” said Paul. “Even so, they could almost take us and the wagon to Georg's without a driver.”

“Georg?” I asked.

“He's that ornery blacksmith,” said Paul. “He does not go broke, and we do not starve, but he still haggles over the price, even if we agreed on it beforehand.”

“And he does it every time we come with the hay,” said Willem.

“You spoke of distilling,” I said. “What do you use?”

“A distilling copper,” said Paul. “Why, do you know about those?”

“I have seen pictures,” I said, “and they have something that might be like Geneva where I came from, which is why I asked about the berries. I have done copper work before.”

My speaking brought back recollections of those things which I had done – two computer coolers, a dummy load container, a number of small raised pieces, a small copper 'frying pan' – and then a huge and barbaric-looking copper mug. That last had gotten no small amount of comment at school.

“Georg had a person who did that stuff, but he is gone,” said Paul. “The coppers they made there were decent, but their prices were high for what one got, or so people said. Someone to the west of here had one, and he said they didn't last too good.”

“How long do they usually last?” I asked.

“A good one might do a year, or two if you are careful,” said Paul, “but then they go leaky, and your mash puts out your fire.”

“And Georg charged more to fix them when that man was there,” grumbled Willem.

“Do you know about making Geneva?” asked Paul.

“I've never actually done it,” I said. “I have made beer before. Those times I helped with it, it came out good, and my recipes always tasted good. I liked making it and giving it away.”

Willem hawed the horses so hard I almost corked the Geneva jug with my nose.

As the wagon stopped, both of them looked at me, almost as if I had in some fashion babbled a priceless statement of inestimable worth.

“Now is that so?” said Willem. “Your beer comes good always?”

I wondered greatly at the remark, so much so that I said unthinkingly, “I never got a complaint, as long as it was a recipe I came up with, and even I could drink the stuff. If we used another's recipe, like as not it would taste awful, and people would pour it out on their flower beds.”

“Is it your taste?” asked Paul, as Willem resumed driving. “Is that why you could drink what you made?”

“Drink generally tastes horrible,” I said. “If I made up the recipe, it actually tasted decent to me.”

The mention of drink and 'indigestion' brought back a steadily fading recollection of needed medicine, and as I tried to recall what that medicine was and why I needed to take it, I wondered why I was so concerned. I glanced at my left hand, then gently pressed upon my stomach with my left hand.

It normally hurt to do so, and now did not.

“D-did that get fixed too?” I wondered silently. “Is that why I cannot recall what that, uh, stuff was?”

A short time later, Willem stopped the wagon, and the two of them changed seats. Paul seemed a passable driver – at least, from my ignorant viewpoint – and as the horses resumed their steady alarm-clock clopping, I looked around.

From my seated vantage point, I saw far into the depths of the starlit night, the 'ditches' alongside of the road, and past the edge of the ditches, the stands of trees as well as the fields. They alternated on both sides of the road, sometimes on both sides, usually one side of the road or another. The cornfields were tall, thick and dense, yet most of the corn seemed to be gone.

“Is that corn?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” said Willem. “There still is a fair amount out there, so people go out in the fields every day or so to get the ears as they ripen.”

“That, and to keep the animals out of it,” said Paul.

“Animals?” I asked. “What kind?”

“Deer are more common when the stuff is just starting to get ripe,” said Willem, “but people tend to drive them off, at least during the day. There are other animals, some of which do their business at night, and then other animals that are not as afraid of people. Those are trouble when they show.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“Elk, mostly,” said Willem. “They might not be like some cattle that way, but still, I've heard of them coming after people.”

I continued looking out into the fields, and now noted more of the large spherical plants, as well as some other row crops that I wondered about. I saw two more of the larger animals, along with a number of smaller ones of similar shape. The smaller ones seemed able to dig frantically, for more than once, I saw a tall and frantically straggling geyser of earth shoot several feet into the air as the animal vanished from sight.

“If that is a gopher, I do not wish to encounter it or ones like it,” I thought.

The clop-clop noise of the horses' hooves seemed to add to the comfort of the hay, and I briefly dozed off to awaken abruptly with a jolt. The wagon had just hit something, and as Paul slid out of his seat, I noted his side seemed to be listing slightly. Willem followed him but a second later, and as I struggled to get out of the hay, I wondered what had happened.

When I had reached the ground, I noticed in the faint light of the lantern a square-edged irregular hole about the size of a small kettle – and but feet away from it, an obviously damaged wheel with three broken spokes.

“How is it I know the wood isn't that good in those things?” I thought. “I hope this isn't going to be like it once was, with all those strange things happening all the time.”

I paused in my thinking for a moment. I could tell that it wasn't going to be like it had been. If anything, it was going to be both much more common and far more powerful – and with this knowledge, I recalled what I had called evil spirits long ago.

Spooks are not fun,” I thought, “and this talk of witches is scary.”

I looked out into the darkness again, straining as if to look for faint reddish glowing dots animated with evil inclination. I wondered why I was so concerned for a second. This seemed a strange distraction, and I returned my attention to the wagon.

I walked slowly around the wagon's periphery, looking carefully at both the wheels and the ground. There was but the one pothole, and the other wheels were intact. I came back to where Paul and Willem were both standing next to the wheel.

They were ahead in the talk department, if not the repair department, and as I looked in the direction of town, I could tell it was still far enough away that neither man was in the mood for walking. In my case – off with the boots and barefoot in the dust to arrive footsore and weary hours later. I turned to my left, and saw a thick stand of trees. All was dark as night. I had done my share of whittling in the past, and at least one of the men had a knife that I could see.

While there were some portions of the repair I had trouble figuring out, I knew that given modest help, I could possibly fix the wheel, with the worst portion being removal of the rim. In comparison, the rest would be easy.

I then noticed the turn in the conversation. Paul seemed to know more about 'wagons' than Willem.

“I never had the wagon break like this before,” said Willem. “I got it from a town up the road from someone who had more money than most I know.”

“Did you test it?” asked Paul.

“He isn't a miser, if that is what you mean,” said Willem. “I had him drive it fast through a plowed field before I paid a guilder on it, and every winter since, I have checked it carefully.”

“When did you last pull the wheels?” asked Paul.

“The week before last,” said Willem. “I put some long-boiled tallow in them then.”

Willem paused, then muttered, “I am very surprised.”

“Do not be,” said Paul, as he reached for the jug and uncorked it. “This is not the first time I have seen wheels go like that. Have a sip here, and we can start on it.”

After putting the jug in the wagon seat, I followed the two of them to the rear of the wagon. I had had my attention on both road and wheels before, and now noticed the length of the wagon. It was nearly twenty feet long.

“What is back here?” I asked.

“The wheel-props,” said Willem. “At least, they are that now.”

As the two of them began untying ropes, I wondered what these 'wheel-props' were, until something hit the ground with a thud and began rolling. Paul caught it with his foot and rolled it backwards, and when he upended it, I thought, “now what are they doing with conga drums on a farm wagon?”

“Are those barrels?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Paul. “I am not sure what they once had in them, though.”

“Fourth kingdom powder,” said Willem. “It was decent stuff, even if it was expensive.”

As the two of them rolled the barrels toward the front of the wagon, I felt a twinge of guilt. I noticed that I was taller than both men, and as they stood them to each side of the wheel in question, I said, “I can do part of the lifting.”

“Good enough,” said Paul. “I will do the other portion.”

“And I can slip those props under the axle,” said Willem. “Now...”

Here, Willem paused, then said, “how tall are you?”

“I'm not certain,” I said. “Why?”

“You're a good handbreadth taller than me, and twice that wider in the shoulders,” spluttered Willem. “How strong are you?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Sometimes I surprise myself.”

I looked closer at the wagon, and saw that the wheel would be about two inches clear of the ground with the barrels under the axle. Willem moved one of them closer to the axle, such that he could easily push it under when the two of us lifted the frame of the wagon. I looked carefully where I was, as I wondered about splinters, and I gently felt the wood on my side of the wheel. It wasn't as smooth as I liked, and I thought to feel where Paul would be lifting.

As I moved to that side and began feeling, Paul moved to the other, then asked, “what is it you are trying to find?”

“Splinters,” I said. “This side's rougher than the other, so I'll pick it up. I hope you have gloves.”

“Yes, some knit ones at home,” said Paul. “Get ready.”

I did so, and on Willem's count of three, I began lifting. Willem was near my right knee and about to get under, when suddenly Paul dropped his end. The pain I felt was so intense I saw odd flickering colors for a second or two, and then lifted the wagon easily. I then heard a groan to my left and rear. Willem was no longer near my knee; he was using the lantern to look at Paul's hand.

“Willem,” I said quietly, “please, put the kegs under the axle. I am not certain how long I can hold this up.”

I heard a shocked intake of breath, then a faint moan. Again, it was Paul moaning. I knew exactly what had happened.

“Remove the splinter,” I said. “Pull very gently.”

For some reason, I could feel the splinter being withdrawn, and with each sudden jerk I felt a stabbing sensation in the palm of my right hand. Willem was frightfully clumsy for some reason, and when he had jerked the thing out, my right hand burned with such pain I nearly screamed. I could feel trickles of blood on my fingers, and the splinter – it was as if I could see it in front of my tearing eyes – was covered with blood. I could somehow ignore the distraction. Normally, it would be impossible.

“Good, it's out,” I said. “Now, the kegs, please.”

Willem moved to my right knee with alacrity, and as I heard him move first one keg, and then the other in position, I was amazed at how calm and rational I felt. As he crawled out, I set the wagon frame down, and sighed with relief – and then fell to my knees with my right hand in my left. I stifled a scream, for now my right hand felt as if I had grabbed the wrong end of a hot soldering iron.

I turned, still shaking with the pain. I was glad it swiftly faded.

“I had no idea y-you were that strong,” said Willem, “and now you look really strange. I had no idea I was talking to a... What are you?”

For an instant of time I wondered as to why Willem was speaking as he was, at least until my right hand again exploded with pain. It seemed to remind me of what had happened to someone I knew, and I turned to fetch the jug. I then handed it to Willem.

“A friend of mine once cut part of his thumb off,” I said, “and this was the only thing that helped him with the pain. Please, drink some.”

I gasped as Willem uncorked the jug, then held it for Paul while the latter drank from it. Surprisingly, within seconds, the pain in my right hand began to diminish.

“May I see your hand?” I asked.

Paul held out his hand, while continuing to drink. I felt the pain lessening greatly, as well as a feeling of such horror I nearly screamed.

“Not too much,” I said. “Just enough that the pain is bearable. Willem, hold the lantern close, thanks.”

As I looked at the wound, I noted that while the splinter – it wasn't much smaller than a pencil – was indeed out, there were many small pieces of wood still in the wound, and as I looked, I saw vast numbers of small blue dots in the wound. I knew these to be bacteria. I also knew the finger-long wound would need to be opened and cleaned properly.

“I hope there is a doctor in the next town,” I said, “because you are going to have that injury opened and cleaned.”

Paul said, his words slurring slightly, “what will I need to have cleaned?”

Paul handed the jug to Willem, who now began to suck on the jug as well. I sighed with relief, for my hand was barely hurting at all.

Why are they so afraid?” I thought. I then thought to look at my arms.

Both forearms were easily twice their normal size and covered in soft brown glossy hair, and as I felt my face, I again felt the soft fuzz of hair where I normally had a little stubble.

“Is it my appearance?” I thought. I then pushed the matter out of my mind.

“Willem, this is very important,” I said.

He paused, then turned to me. Both men now seemed trashed, though neither of them was irritable in the slightest. The recollection of how I supposedly looked when under the influence of those stupefying pills intruded: very sleepy, intensely relaxed, and so calm I had no words for how I felt.

“And I fell asleep all the time with no warning,” I thought.

“Is there a doctor in that town?” I asked. “Where we are going with the hay.”

“N-no, no d-doctor,” said Willem. I was wondering why he wasn't hiccuping, even if he had trouble keeping his eyes open. “Anna knows more than any three of them.”

“Three g-g-good ones, you mean,” said Paul. He was more asleep than awake now.

“And 'er husband is the best chemist around,” said Willem. “His m-medicines w-w-work. Most other people's d-don't.”

Willem then set the jug down with exaggerated care, and both he and Paul wobbled toward the rear of the wagon. There I heard them crawling into the hay – and for some reason, they were snoring, even as they were crawling into 'bed'. Their snores soon became regular, and it was obvious they were both deeply asleep.

“They may be drunk,” I thought, “but they're not acting like any drunks I've run into before. They're acting like I did when I was first taking those pills.”

The first thing I did was set the lantern on its hook, and here, I looked at it carefully. It seemed important to do so, and as I held the hook, I saw its construction: thin sheet brass riveted in the corners and soldered elsewhere, three rectangular glass plates about two inches wide and four high, and within, an uncommonly thick and somewhat lopsided long-wicked candle. I smelled the lantern, and noted a faint greasy odor.

“I doubt that is wax,” I thought. “I bet it is tallow.”

I left the lantern and its dim pool of light, and went across the road and into the stand of trees.

I did not miss the lantern, for I could see as if it were broad daylight; more, I could readily tell what I was looking at amid the thick jumbled tangle of sticks that lay beneath my feet. In less than a minute, I found a large branch of 'hickory', one that made a Louisville Slugger look small, and in the minutes that followed, I found several more 'sticks' that looked likely for spokes.

As I came out of the woodlot, I sniffed again, and in the distance, I again smelled what had to be wood smoke. It jarred my thinking.

“I thought I smelled wood smoke,” I muttered, “and given how many sticks there are among the trees, wood heat makes a lot of sense.” I dropped my sticks next to the wheel, and looked at how it was attached to the axle.

The thick wooden hub was 'blocked' by a sizable brass plate, and the plate was held in place by a thick iron pin with a forged loop. The pin came out readily, and once it and the 'washer' were off, a tug had the wheel sliding off of the axle. I lifted it easily, and rolled it to the side.

Wooden axles?” I thought, as I looked at the worn and blackened wood. “How do they keep them from breaking and wearing in a hurry?”

Removal of the heavy hammered iron rim was another question, and as I looked at it, I thought, “don't they usually put these things on smoking hot, and the shrinking rim binds them together?”

I touched the rim, and wondered more. I thought to roll the wheel and tap the rim off.

I set the wheel to rolling, and as I tapped it gently with my 'club', I could see the rim move with each tap. By the time I had gone ten feet past the rear of the wagon, the rim had moved nearly half an inch to the side.

“Why is that thing so loose?” I thought, as I reversed direction and began tapping the wheel itself. “I thought the rim held such wheels together.”

With each tap, the rim steadily moved further and further off of the wheel, and by the time I had reached the horses, it had moved another half-inch. I turned around, changed hands, and went back toward the rear of the wagon, still slowly rolling the wheel and tapping steadily. It took two more such reverses to get the wheel such that I could lay it down and remove the rim.

With the rim off, I now had another puzzle, which was dismantling the wheel. The thick wooden pieces that the rim went on were held together with strange-looking carved pegs, and upon removing them, I was able to simply pull the two pieces of the wheel out, along with the three broken spokes and another that wasn't broken. I now had an issue: I needed a knife, and I didn't have one.

I twitched my index finger, and its claw came out.

“Will this work?” I thought.

I could not think of anything better to use, and as I began 'whittling' one of the sticks, I was astonished. It worked very well, and as I planed the bark off, I noted the stick I was working on had very close-grained wood. It was almost like maple that way, save less 'contrary'. I used the unbroken spoke as a pattern for both length and diameter, with the ends a trifle larger than for the one spoke. I had the impression a poor fit had contributed to the breakage.

When I tried one of the 'too-thick' spokes, however, the tight fit told me that I had nearly gone too far with my trimming. I would need to remove very little to get them 'right', and as I worked on the second spoke, I wondered if 'individual' fitting was a good idea.

“That sounds about right, given what I see here,” I thought. “The holes probably vary a lot.”

When I fit the second spoke, however, I noted that it needed more trimming, and the same with the third. The holes were most likely made with a brace and bit, and hence were fairly uniform for diameter, if not much else. The length of spokes varied nearly a quarter of an inch from longest to shortest.

The large wooden pieces went in one at a time, and here, I saw the first portion of trickiness. One needed to put the spokes in that portion first, then slide the free ends of the spokes into the hub. I removed first two spokes, then plugged them into the wood – and had to bend the spokes slightly so as to slip them into their holes in the hub.

I needed to trim one of the second pairs of spokes before I put the second wood piece in, and then fit the pegs. Those at least went in readily, and when I put the rim on, it seemed to slip down nearly an inch right away. I began tapping it on with my club as I turned the wheel, and as it went on, it became steadily tighter, until finally, when it was fully on, it seemed 'tight'.

“I thought this would be harder,” I said, as I stood up and shook the shavings out of my clothing. “Now, I need to, uh, put that thing back on – and no lubricant handy, either.”

I thought to feel the axle prior to lifting the wheel back in place, and when I felt the slimy thing, I wiped my hand on the ground as I squawked the single word “yuck!” Willem had been right about the long-boiled tallow, and he had been generous with its application. My hand still felt 'dirty', and the distraction was enough to cause trouble until I had wiped the 'nasty' feeling off.

After mounting the wheel and putting the 'washer' and pin in place, I wondered what next to do. I put the 'club' in the front of the wagon, and as I looked around, I heard rustling. It was coming from the hay, and as I went toward the rear of the wagon, I had an intimation as to the time. It would soon be sunrise. I dare not let myself be seen as I was currently.

I met Willem as I reached the rear of the wagon, and Paul joined him seconds later. Both of them wobbled past me, much as if I was not there, and when I turned to walk closer to the front of the wagon, I noted the jug was being uncorked. Paul first took a sip, then Willem. I was glad they did not take more, and as Willem put the jug back, I recalled the face of the man who had lost part of his thumb. I could not recall his name.

“At least my hand isn't hurting much now,” said Paul. “I am glad for that copper even if it does make a mess. Now, I take it we get the wagon going.”

“I can lift it,” I said. “I need to ask a big favor.”

“Yes, and what would that be?” asked Willem. “Did you get hurt?”

“I am not sure what happened,” I said, “even if I've had things like this happen before to a degree. I didn't get like I am now in the past.”

I paused, then said, “I will need to crawl in the hay and sleep, though.”

Willem pointed at the jug, then said, “a sip?”

I shook my head, then said, “I feel tired enough as it is. Please, remove the kegs when I lift the wagon.”

Once that was done – Willem managed both kegs, and was tying them in the rear – I climbed up in the wagon's seat and began worming my way into the hay feet first. I was surprised at how readily I managed, and once my head was hidden, I abruptly fell asleep. I was far more fatigued than I thought I was, and when I awoke, I could hear the steady clopping of the horses' hooves. I then moved my head, and crawled out a little.

Both men were asleep in the wagon seat, and far in the distance, I could see what might have been a town. I knew then that this road was a familiar one for the horses, and...

The dark black of night was now a deep and mysterious blue. Sunrise would happen fairly soon.

As I thought about the matter, I realized that this location wasn't where I came from. I wondered greatly as to where it was, precisely; it was as if I had set foot in the pages of a history book. This place didn't have a 'story' ambiance, but rather a certainty that spoke of a brimming and cogent reality.

I moved out my right hand, and noted it looked normal as for skin amid a thick coating of what might have been 'chopped' straw. I could hear faint creaking noises amid the clop-clop of hooves, and as I looked ahead again, I noted the town was closer than I thought. It might have been a mile away, if that.

With each minute, the town grew more distinct, and the blue of twilight became less dark. I could see two long rows of houses, one on each side of the main street – the road we were on – and to each side of the houses, wide fields of crops. Most of the vegetation seemed uncommonly tall rows of corn.

“I had no idea that stuff got so tall,” I thought. “It has to be ten feet high.”

A second later, however, I knew another issue: it wasn't a good idea to let Paul and Willem be seen coming into town like this. There was an aura of 'gossip' common to this region, and while 'malice' was uncommon in the majority...

“They'd still get in trouble,” I thought. “I had best wake them soon.”

I then thought to gently nudge Paul. He awoke surprisingly readily, and as I nudged Willem, Paul looked at his hand. He seemed 'numb' in some fashion, and as I looked closer, I noticed the following:

I could still plainly see the splinters. Those were very much present, and needed removal.

The blue dots were both more numerous and more active. They had been 'dormant' before.

His hand now looked inflamed, and I could tell an infection was starting.

The wound was still oozing slightly. It had not closed, thankfully.

This place didn't have antibiotics. They might have something for fever beyond cold washcloths.

“Paul,” I said. “Your hand really needs attention. I can see a bad infection starting.”

My speech seemed to remove his 'numb' seeming, and he moaned. The paroxysm of pain in my hand made me grit my teeth.

“Now what were you last night?” asked Willem. “I have heard those old tales, and I never thought I would see someone out of them.”

“Just me,” I said. “Both of you have hair like straw, and mine...”

“You have a lot of straw in your hair,” said Willem. He began picking the stuff out, then exclaimed, “and your hair is darker than I thought it was. It is strange, too. It is so fine it almost seems a vapor is on your head.”

I wormed my head out a little more, partly as to see what was happening better, and partly because I enjoyed my head being rubbed. It felt intensely pleasurable. It always had.

The town was now but a few hundred feet away, and I began coming out of the hay completely. The amount of the stuff that came out with me was something of a marvel, for I expected to fill up the wagon seat. Instead, I was merely 'dusted' with chopped hay, and I began to pick the stuff out of my clothing. I felt inclined to speak as we came to the first house on the left.

“Anna's house is that one, isn't it?” I said, as I pointed to the house in question.

“Now what else are you?” asked Willem. “She does live there, but we first must drop off this hay. That is just in the middle of town.”

I stifled a moan, and held my right hand in my left. Willem looked at my hand, and said, “what is wrong?”

“P-Paul's hand hurts,” I moaned, “and I can feel it.”

“How?” asked Willem. “I do not see an injury in your hand.”

“Th-this has happened before,” I said between gritted teeth. “If I am given someone to look after, I can often feel what is wrong. It tells me how to pray.”

“I do not believe this,” said Willem. “You feel things when you pray?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “Once I had to pray for a woman and she was dying. I could tell she was in agony, she could not breathe, and the pain...” Tears came to my eyes at the recollection of what had happened with Maria – and my hand now hurt ferociously. I looked down at my left hand, recalling its injury – my right hand was the one hurting, however – and again, saw that the former scars were indeed gone.

“This is strange,” said Willem in a 'befuddled' voice. “Georg's is but a little further. We can drop off the hay there.” Here, Willem paused, then said, “you should be in worse shape than Paul, if I go by your clothing. I see no cuts on you at all, and if you are like that, you should go with him.”

“This won't take long,” I murmured. “Georg will be shocked by that wheel, he will hand you the amount agreed upon without saying anything about the hay, and he will have all three of his, uh, apprentices unload the hay while you follow Paul and I to where Anna, and, uh, Hans live.”

“How is it you know?” asked Willem. He seemed confused, impressed, and most of all 'lost'.

“This has happened before,” I said. “How it works, I am not certain. The only explanation I have is a spiritual one, and this time, I am so certain I might well say words I seldom speak.”

“That is spoken of in the old tales, too,” said Willem. We were near a large building of stone and wood. I thought it resembled a barn of some kind.

“Of what? Witches?” I was curious and fearful at the same time.

“No,” said Willem. “Of those people that saved us all. Some called them seers, but that was but one of the things they did. Nearly all of them were marked.”

Someone was using a hacksaw within the building that resembled a barn, and I looked to see where we actually were.

We were roughly in the middle of the town, and as I looked back the way we came, I guessed we had traveled close to two hundred yards. On each side of the rutted main 'street' of the town, there were two-story houses that were obviously different from one another, yet in some fashion seemed as if made using patterns.

The houses had narrow strips of dirt between them, with wide planked areas underneath their overhanging post-supported second stories. I looked again at where we had now stopped, and noted this location was both much wider than common for 'homes', as well as having but one obvious level. I then saw its roof. That seemed identical for 'style', if not size, and it otherwise seemed the prototype for all of them.

The roof was steeply pitched – easily forty-five degrees – and made of weathered gray-brown shingles. It made for wondering about the weather. Did they have heavy snow in this area?

As my gaze wandered further, I noted the omnipresent watering troughs of gray-brown weathered wood, the small upright pickets and posts that fenced in 'stoops', the red-painted crude-looking water pumps, the wide steps leading up to the stoops, the centered doors...

“Why do these doors have similar colors?” I thought. “Why do all the houses look so similar?”

My inventory resumed: the small many-paned leaded-glass windows, the dark-brown objects hanging near the doors that might have been lanterns...

I looked at what was on the wagon, and thought it especially likely, and I looked yet closer at where we were.

The area we were parked upon had what looked to be a mixture of hard-pounded clay and gravel, and as I looked closer to our right, I noted what might have been a smaller-than-common house back some twenty or thirty feet from the front of the main 'shop'. The 'border' between this 'property' and the next one was formed by an uncommonly long watering trough. I then saw a small window part-hidden by a support-beam on the front of the house.

I did not wonder about my persistent 'tunnel vision', for such had been the rule for much of my life, and as I looked at the window, the face of a large and imposing man showed. The door opened with a faint squeak a second later, and the man himself came out with trudging steps and what might have been a well-suppressed yawn.

The man himself had a bear-like figure, and his now-rapid walk belied the initial impression of clumsiness I had had at first. His clothing seemed ample and roomy, as well as nearly completely hidden by a huge leather apron. I thought to get down, and nearly fell out of the wagon's seat. I needed to help Paul down.

When I reached for him, I knew why I needed to help him; his face was gray with pain, and the edges of the wound had acquired a noticeable reddish tint. The heavy lumbering steps came closer, then a deep voice said, “about the...”

The abrupt halting of his speech was a potent distraction, and I turned to see him looking in stunned shock at the wheel I had repaired. I then saw the spokes and the rest of the wheel.

I felt much as his face indicated he might be feeling, for there was a very noticeable difference as to the spokes: the three I had carved made the rest of them look badly done, even if they were passable for finish and fit otherwise.

“The wagon broke, Paul was hurt badly, and I am a stranger they picked up,” I said. “I am going to get Paul to Anna's house, as his hand is in very bad shape.”

I tried to pick up Paul so as to carry him, and I found him to be much heavier than he looked; he seemed thin, and about five inches shorter than I was, or about five and a half feet tall. I then thought to shoulder him down the road, and with hobbling steps, we began to head in the direction of Anna's house.

As we passed house after house, I realized my guess as to the distance from where we had stopped to where Anna lived was optimistic. I had gotten Paul perhaps half of the way there when I heard rapid steps behind us. I could tell it was Willem, and when he helped Paul on the other side – Paul was barely able to walk – he said, “Georg is speechless over that wheel, and he should be.”

“W-why?” I asked.

“His brother is a wheelwright,” said Willem, “and he made the wheels on that wagon. Your spokes make his look like they came from a manure-pile.”

Here, Willem paused. Anna's house now made me wonder if I had seen a mirage, for while we were continuing to walk, it was not getting closer.

“How much further is Anna's house?” I asked.

“Not much further,” said Willem. “I think it might be another fifty paces, as I can see it from here. I told Georg I would be back as soon as we got Paul to Anna's, and I did not tell him you spoke of the matter.”

“W-why?” I asked weakly.

“It happened just as you said,” said Willem.

We passed another five houses. My feet were beginning to hurt badly. I could see the end of town now, and as we came to the last house on my right, the door opened. Out came a man that I initially placed as Paul's brother – the resemblance was that strong – but unlike Paul, this man was yawning enough that he looked to need another four hours of sleep. He called to us in a friendly voice, “hello, Willem, Paul...”

He abruptly 'woke up', turned in the doorway, and then shouted inside the house, “Anna! Trouble! Paul is hurt!”

The man now bolted out of the door, and as he came closer, a woman appeared at the door. She was about the same height as the man, with a slightly plump figure well-hid by soft-looking clothing of a loose and free-flowing cut. This 'dress' had long sleeves, a tall neckline, and a wide cloth sash around her waist. The sight of her jarred my mind, for she looked familiar, almost as if...

Why does she look like one of the doctors at school?” I thought.

As we drew closer – now in the place's 'yard' – I sensed this woman was somewhat mischievous, with an independent turn of mind. In her business, it was needed, as some of those she saw were disinclined to listen to her advice.

“I can take him in and lay him where they tell me to,” I said. “Hans is very lucky to be married to Anna.”

“Now how do you know their names?” said Willem. “This is very strange indeed, and you are starting to really remind me of those people in the tales a lot.”

The stairs were ahead, and as I helped Paul up them – I was almost dragging him, now – I noted wide irregular white-painted boards, and then a wide wooden threshold. This last had seen enough traffic to show noticeable wear. Once inside, I saw a low and wide plushly-upholstered 'couch', with a single cushion nearly eight feet long. The slightly uneven color of this cushion made for a moment's pause as I sat Paul down upon it. I then looked around.

The 'decor' of the place made for a desire to see the flagstone floor covered in fur rugs, for it seemed to shout 'old-tyme frontier setting'. I could see the 'couch', a wooden table with some three-legged stools in what might have been a kitchen, a staircase heading upstairs, and perhaps a hidden area where the 'kitchen' itself might be. Otherwise, the house seemed disconcertingly empty.

The room I was in – the term 'parlor' occurred to me – had a ceiling nearly nine feet tall, with numbers of dark brown wooden 'beams' separated by what looked like lumpy and uneven bleached-white plaster. The same treatment 'covered' the walls.

The light within the 'parlor' came from a single window with its bottom about waist high, and its top some two and a half feet higher. It was somewhat wider than it was tall, with a thin gray metal 'lattice' holding small panes of glass.

I heard steps behind me, and I turned to see Hans coming with what looked to be a pile of sheets. I then had an idea as to why the place was so barren-looking: this was the 'consulting room', and clutter made it harder to keep clean.

I thought to help Paul to his feet, and as I did so, Hans laid out a clean off-white sheet on the cushion. He folded it carefully, then said, “put him down there on the couch. It will take us time to make ready.”

After arranging Paul such that his head faced the door and his right hand lay outside, I noticed the cloths were in a carved wooden holder that reminded me of a baby cradle. The smaller cloths were on the top layer, with progressively larger ones below it. I smiled at the organization aspect, then thought, “these people know more than I would expect in a frontier setting.”

I then noticed Hans looking at how I had laid Paul. Willem had vanished by some means I could not decipher, and as I turned to watch, I saw Hans head in the direction of the 'kitchen'. Seconds later, I heard thumping steps going down creaking stairs. The place most likely had a basement.

“How is it I know those steps are going down?” I thought. “Why is it I want to call that place down there 'the laboratory'? Do they make the medicine there?”

It seemed uncommonly likely, for some reason.

I turned my attention to Paul, who appeared asleep. I thought to begin cleaning him up, but as I reached for a rag, I heard Anna's voice behind me.

“We need to get cleaned up,” she said. “Hans went downstairs to get the medicine chest.”

As Anna's steps faded, I began to look carefully at Paul's hand. More steps came from behind, then Willem's voice spoke with Anna. I caught bits of the conversation, and most of it was about me.

“No, he's not crazy,” said Willem. “He came from elsewhere...”

“Where is this elsewhere?” asked Anna. She seemed both curious and somewhat irritated.

“I doubt he knows, actually,” said Willem. “Then, there is his name...”

A brief pause, then Anna said, “I wonder why he has that name. Is he...”

“I wondered myself,” said Willem. “He told us we needed to come here, he said Paul's hand was bad, and I think he's right. I've not seen many people seem to know things that way, other than you and...”

More steps from my rear buried the conversation, and I turned to see Hans bringing a surprisingly large wooden box, which he set down next to me. The brass corners, 'varnish', the latch, the small 'skids', and then the obvious cracks of a complex-looking lid – all of it reminded me of my main filing cabinet – until Hans undid the latch and opened its leaves up. It then showed several partitioned trays filled with small glass and ceramic vials, tools, and many other things of a medical nature.

Hans paused, then looked again at how I laid Paul. I could tell he was thinking, and as Willem came from the kitchen, Hans said, “how is it he knows how to arrange things?”

“I just got done telling Anna what I know,” said Willem. “Now what is this you speak of?”

“This is how he needs to be laid,” said Hans, “and I did not speak of it.”

“That was what I tried telling Anna,” said Willem. “I think he knows about this stuff, and now you tell me he's done right. Then, he says he can see splinters in that wound, he says it's infected, and he got into some brambles worse than anyone I've ever seen.”

“Yes, and he does not look it, either,” said Hans. “Normally he would be deathly ill, and he would have that nasty stuff all over his skin.”

“I saw the scratches,” said Willem. “He got cut, and none of the scratches got infected.”

Hans seemed to think more for a moment, and as he did, I looked at the 'medicine chest'. I wanted a disinfectant, and I wondered as to the hot water on the stove. Somehow, I knew that was for 'washing', and what was usually done for 'wound prep' involved something 'stronger'.

“Is there a disinfectant,” I asked, “perhaps...” I was thinking of 'green soap'.

The word 'aquavit' came to me, and I thought to speak of it.

“Is there aquavit, so I can clean him up properly?” I asked. “That dirt needs to come off of him before Anna starts, as that wound doesn't need more dirt in it.”

Hans wordlessly went to the chest, then removed a small 'jug', saying, “this is what you were asking for. I think I can go wash with Anna now. Willem, this will be a while, I think.”

As Hans left for the kitchen, Willem went to the door. I thought to look at the chest's contents more thoroughly, so as to see what else was in there. Hans and Anna would be some time getting ready.

I quickly looked at the chest's contents, and as I scanned the vials, I noted that not merely could I read their labels, but I knew what most of the various 'drugs' did. The impression I had was that while there weren't any antibiotics, there were a fair number of tinctures that actually 'worked' fairly well. More importantly, while the technology level was close to the Revolutionary War, the ideas behind what was present were closer to the Spanish American war.

“No 'laudable pus'?” I thought. “Now what is this? Is this stuff colchicine? Do they have gout here?”

My eyes then lit upon a small glass flask full of granulated grayish-brown 'stuff'.

“Th-that looks like opium,” I thought. The thought wasn't at all pleasant, and in the back of my mind, I could hear a drawn-out slow ticking mingled with the swish of a razor-edged pendulum. I then turned my attention back to Paul.

He was now awake, and as I uncorked the jug, I said, “I'm going to need to clean you up before Anna starts. I won't get any of this...”

The sharp burning scent of alcohol nearly made me choke, and I gasped, saying, “what is this stuff?”

“I think that is aquavit,” said Paul weakly. “They use it for cleaning.”

“I won't get any of this stuff where it will hurt,” I said.

Dampening a rag with the aquavit made for a nose-burning experience, and after cleaning most of the dirt off of Paul's hand, I removed one of the larger cloths and tucked it into his shirt as if it was a bib. I then resumed cleaning his hand, and here, I began scrubbing carefully: between his fingers, his fingernails, the back of his hand, his palm – blood came off then, and between the sight of blood and the nose-incinerating reek of the aquavit, I nearly gagged.

“This stuff is like Everclear,” I thought. “It must be nearly pure grain alcohol.”

After cleaning Paul's hand, I laid it on top of the cloth I had tucked in his shirt, and then put another cloth of similar size over its top. I corked the aquavit jug, then set it aside. I moved the dirty rags to the end of the couch nearest Paul's feet – and once I had finished with that task, I returned to the medicine chest. I needed to 'explore' it more.

In one of the trays, I found a small copper cup about three inches tall and about the same wide. This received a generous libation of aquavit, as I suspected it was used for 'cleaning' instruments. I soon found some likely looking 'instruments': two pair of finely pointed tweezers, and then a small wood-handled knife that reminded me first of a paring knife, and then of a wax-carving tool I once made. Both pair of tweezers went into the cup, as did the knife. I then continued looking.

In the next section of the same tray, I found first a brown-streaked sharpening stone, and then next to it, a shiny black stone about half the size of the other. I recognized them both immediately, as they looked like the ones I had back home. Touching them spoke of a pressing need for the knife: it needed sharpening. I started with the larger stone first.

I dipped aquavit onto the stone using the tip of the knife, and began to carefully sharpen it, with an especial emphasis on the tip. I thought to look at the edge after a few strokes.

The glinting light I saw from the edge spoke of a degree of dullness that made for shuddering, and I resumed stroking the blade across the stone.

I had had many years of practice sharpening knives, even if 'shaving sharp' had been something I'd seldom achieved. I still routinely managed to get 'close' as a rule, and when I next looked at the knife's edge, I noted the reflection from the edge was nearly gone. I thought to stroke it a few more times, then go to the black stone.

After a few minutes of the latter, I thought to try it on my arm. The sensation was unlike any previous time, and the hair that came off was frightening. I had achieved a true 'razor's edge', and after I cleaned the knife carefully with the last of the small rags, I put it back in the cup.

Steps came from behind me, and I turned to see both Hans and Anna come into the room. Both had their arms such that water dribbled down to fall from their elbows. Anna came close, lifted the cloth that covered Paul's hand, then began muttering.

“Hans, I do not believe this,” she exclaimed. “How could he know?”

“I think Willem was telling us the truth,” said Hans, “and I think he knows more than Willem spoke of, as that is a good job there.”

Anna looked closer at Paul's hand, then said, “I'm going to need to open this up and clean it out. I hope you can get that knife sharp this time, Hans.”

“Anna, I think you had best look here,” said Hans. “He got the cup out, and did it like you usually do, and the knife is in it soaking already.”

I reached for the glass flask of 'opium', and I thought as I picked it up, “what would they call this stuff? Didn't it come from, uh, flowers of some kind?”

“Hans, is this the dried, uh, sap of a certain flower that relieves pain?” I asked. To my surprise, he nodded.

I set the evil stuff to the side, then began looking in the chest. I wanted a scale, a small vial, and perhaps a small spoon of some kind, as well as a tray to put the 'opium' in. I soon found a small scale that looked like what I had once had for reloading. This scale had two sliding brass counters that slid on long narrow beams, and when I took it out, I noted it was mounted on a varnished wooden base.

When I set the scale down, I saw that the base had what looked like a drawer, and I cautiously removed it. Within was a small brass 'spoon', as well as two tin saucers about an inch and a half across. I put one of them on the scale's pan, and then saw a hexagonal brass nut. This last was most likely a tare adjustment, and as I moved it, I noted the scale's sensitivity. It was quite touchy, and the needle wavered at the slightest movement. I was glad I had done so much reloading in the past.

Once I had adjusted the thing, I uncorked the flask. Within seconds, a sickness-inducing nauseating reek seemed to envelope my mind, and as I began spooning the granules into the saucer, I thought to pray silently. I needed to get this right, and as I added more of the granules, I had the impression I needed one 'unit'. I moved the larger brass counter to one, and saw I needed to add but a little more.

Another third of a 'spoon' had the needle wavering around the center, and when it settled, it was just a tiny bit 'low'. I had the impression this was where it needed to be, and I corked the flask. I now needed to make up some 'laudanum'.

“I always wondered why I had bought that old Pharmacopoeia book,” I thought. “Now I know.”

After finding a small ceramic vial, I removed its cork and poured in the contents of the saucer, followed by a dash of aquavit. I then put the cork in, and stood up. I walked toward the kitchen, all the time shaking the vial as hard as I could.

The sense of steam and warmth seemed especially attractive, and when I found a steaming pot on a long blackened cast iron thing, I looked for a spoon. I found what might have been a small 'ladle', and after uncorking the vial, I ladled in a small amount of hot water. I then corked the vial, and returned to the parlor.

As I came closer to the couch, I became aware of a number of things that my 'tunnel-vision' had previously blocked from my awareness. Hans had all he could do to not laugh as if out of his mind, while Paul was moaning between answering Anna's questions. I then noted Anna's tone: one that demanded answers and brooked no nonsense whatsoever.

“I would not want her questioning me like that,” I thought. “I would tell her whatever she wished to hear, no matter what it was.”

I then handed Hans the vial. He looked at it, then shook it a little. His grin, if anything, now resembled that of a Cheshire cat.

As Anna finished her 'inquisitional questioning' – it smacked of a third degree session – Hans said, “Dennis here figured out what you give women when they have babies. He made up some, and I think he made enough of it.”

“I am not certain as to its strength, Anna,” I said. “I would give him some, wait a minute to see how he reacts, and then give him more if he needs to have it.”

Anna now turned toward me, and to my utter and complete surprise, her eyes now resembled saucers. I could not tell if she was shocked, horrified, or baffled, at least until she spoke. I had a better idea then, and I wanted to hide.

“First, you lay Paul out like we would,” she said in a tone I could not place, “then, you clean him up as good as I've ever seen, and you put the dirty cloths where we would put them, and then you clean the instruments we need. Now you not only mix what I would have given him for pain, but you speak of how I would give it. Who are you?”

I was tongue-tied, and as I tried to find words to say, Hans said, “ah, and he makes me look bad for sharpening knives, Anna. This thing has no shine to its edge, not even a little bit.”

Anna's mouth sagged open, then she closed it prior to asking, “can you see inside his hand?”

I nodded faintly.

Anna then muttered more, and reached for the vial, which Hans gave her. How she managed to get some down Paul's throat was a mystery, and his retching spoke of a truly unpleasant flavor. Somehow, I was not surprised at his reaction to the taste. Pain medicine had its own special torment that way.

“I wonder if he will have the other kind of reaction?” I thought.

“Yes, Paul, you need to drink it,” said Anna. “It will relieve the pain, and hopefully make you sleep while we work on your hand. I thought Willem was telling me a story at first, but I know better now.”

Here, Anna paused, then said, “tell me when it hurts less.”

I then felt my hand, and I nearly screamed, both with the pain and the evil taste in my mouth. Proglycem was a primer for what I was tasting, and the taste – intense, bitter, malodorous, and otherwise, too bad for words – was such that I grimaced, even as the pain began diminishing rapidly. I looked at my hand, and noticed it looked somehow swollen hugely, almost as if it were a...

I shook my head abruptly, and all save the dull ache in my hand vanished. I could talk now, and said, “the pain is much less,” I said. “He needs the rest, and he'll sleep then.” I continued silently, “and I hope my hand doesn't feel like a balloon. It was bad enough seeing it swell up like that.”

Anna get the rest of the vial down Paul's throat, and within minutes, Paul was deeply asleep, with regular breathing.

“How would you test the level of consciousness, Anna?” I asked. “I would dunk a sewing needle in that aquavit and gently probe the wound.”

Anna jerked, then in a frightened tone of voice, she squeaked, “can you read minds?”

“N-no, I can't,” I said. “I have had enough work like that done to me to not enjoy hurting.”

Hans then handed her the knife, and as she knelt down with Paul's hand laid out palm up, I said softly, “be careful with that. I don't usually get knives that sharp.”

Anna now gently stroked the tip of the blade down the length of the wound, and the skin seemed to leap apart at the touch. I was glad there wasn't much bleeding, even when Anna opened the wound fully with another stroke.

“This is too much,” she murmured. “Hans, hand me those tweezers. There are splinters in here.”

After Hans handed Anna the cup, she removed one pair and began to carefully tease the splinters out with one hand while using the knife to move the skin to the side. Hans laughed softly, then said, “Anna, we have an able helper here, I think. Only God knows how much he can help us.”

“This is too easy,” said Anna. “I have had dreams of being able to do this, and now, it is no dream. How is it you could see like that?”

“I was given that,” I said, “and I have had things like this happen before, only not quite like this.”

Again, the recollection of how it once had been came to me, and this time, there was no escape from the reality: things had changed, changed drastically, and had changed in ways I could not fathom. This was not like while at that one church long ago; it made that time seem trivial, it would grow, and grow mightily.

My thinking was troubled, and amid questions as to how – and more importantly, why – I recalled the horror and fear of that time, and I said, “I still don't understand how I got here, and...”

“Yes, and what?” asked Hans.

“Willem will be back in five minutes, with the money Georg has given him,” I said shakily, “and he will speak of Georg's attitude and some other things.”

“What is this?” asked Hans. Anna was busily removing splinters. She had accumulated a small pile of them already.

“I've had that happen before,” I said, “but it wasn't nearly this often, nor did it feel like this.”

“I think you are knowing things before they happen,” said Hans. “Willem said that had happened on the way here, and now I know he was right. Here is that vial you mixed that tincture in. You might want to mix up some more of that stuff, as his hand will hurt some for a few days, and he will need to take it now and then.”

I set the scale for half a unit this time, and as I began 'spooning' more of the dried plant product, I had a strong suspicion: this stuff wasn't opium, and it did not come from an annual flower. More importantly, the plant that produced it had an odor of such penetrating and sickening intensity that only truly desperate people made to cultivate the plants. Gathering and processing the product was even worse.

“And full extraction of the active portions takes most of a day,” I thought. “I had best add more alcohol and water to this batch compared to the first one.”

After adding the alcohol, I went into the kitchen to get some hot water. As I returned with the vial in my hand, I thought to ask some questions about this drug.

“Has this stuff been processed some?” I asked.

“Yes, it has,” said Hans. “How is it you knew?”

“I once read of something similar,” I said, “and also, I had some suspicions when I was looking at it. That wound will need to heal from the inside out, and until it's healed, it will hurt...”

“Yes, it will,” said Hans. “That place tends to hurt a lot.”

“While this will help with the pain,” I said, “I put in less than with that first batch, as this gets stronger for the first day once it's mixed – or does it?”

“I think you will want to help me downstairs,” said Hans, “as it does do that. I do a lot of work with tinctures and things, and I saw how careful you were with measuring that stuff.”

Anna was nearing the end of the splinters, and within less than a minute, she began looking in the chest. Her aimless-seeming 'poking' as she looked for something made for wondering, until Hans helped her find what she was after. I noted a slender glass tube, and when she uncorked the vial, she placed a few drops in the wound. I had an impression that this was an anti-infective agent of some kind.

“You were right about these needing to heal from the inside out,” said Anna. “The infections are terrible otherwise.”

“Does that, uh, tincture help prevent those?” I asked.

“It does to a degree,” said Anna. “We don't have anything that works especially well, but this seems to help.”

“Do these infections have, uh, this messy smelly stuff?” I asked.

“The bad ones do,” said Anna. “I've seen people die from them.”

“Is there an infection where the skin turns black and puffy, with gassy accumulations?” I asked.

“I'm glad that one's rare,” said Anna. “Why, have you seen it?”

“I've read of it,” I said. “I've never actually seen it.”

“I have,” said Hans. “All we can do for that one is pray, should it show. Most people die before then, as the injuries that cause it are bad ones.”

As Anna began wrapping Paul's hand, I heard steps outside, then a tap at the door. Willem then walked in. Hans nearly fell off of what he was sitting on as Willem admired Anna's knot-tying skills.

“He didn't haggle,” said Willem. “He just handed me the money.”

Willem began counting out some coins, then as he walked behind me, I could see Hans digging in his trousers for something. A clinking sound indicated money changed hands.

“We can settle up next time we come with the hay,” said Willem.

“Yes, I thought so,” said Hans, as he looked in the chest. “I need to go upstairs to fetch those bandages.”

As Hans left, Anna turned to Willem, then stood.

“He'll need to keep that clean and dry until it heals,” she said. “We have some tincture for pain, but do not let him have any until he speaks of it hurting, and no Geneva while he's taking it. He'll go to sleep and never wake up if he does.”

I could hear Hans coming, and when he came, he had a sizable tin, which he gave to Willem.

“These are bandages,” said Hans. “Bring back the tin, as those are dear. Did Anna tell you about that tincture?”

“Yes, she did,” said Willem. “No Geneva while he takes it, and no more until he speaks of it hurting. I take this is the usual stuff?”

Hans nodded, then said, “he mixed that stuff. I think he knows a lot about this work, as I watched him close, and he did as good a job as I ever saw.”

“Yes, I did too,” said Anna. “Do you have uncorking medicine?”

“Uncorking?” I thought. “What does it do?”

“I think so,” said Willem. “If not, we can get some in town. Is this so he does not get corked?”

“That tincture is bad for corking people,” said Hans. “He will need to drink that stuff every day until he is done.”

“That bandage will need changing daily,” said Anna. “If it starts to get red, or smell badly, or he gets sick, bring him back here right away.”

Paul then made a soft moaning sound, and sat up. Willem helped him up after taking the bandage tin, and as Anna opened the door, Paul moaned again. He was not moaning due to pain, and as I followed the two of them to the door, I nearly stumbled. I looked outside, and as I did, I shuddered.

The doorway framed the wagon, and as I watched, the clear blue sky acquired an ominous aspect, as well as a steady darkening. The two men slowly climbed into the wagon, which seemed 'haunted' in some fashion, much as if it were freighted with a long, tall and morose coffin. I knew the proper name for this spectral freight, and murmured this title in ghostly solitude:

“Tis an oblong box.”

Echoing and booming, I heard ghostly flapping noises fit for a pterodactyl thunder about my head, and their whirling motes of sound seemed to conjure a ghastly black shadow. This shadow grew steadily in size and strength, and the flapping sound grew in intensity. Suddenly, both sound and shadow vanished, and their overwhelming presence was abruptly usurped by a monstrous black bird of night-shaded beak and somber mien that landed on the ground with an audible thud.

The wagon had a hidden cargo which interested this bird, and with a springing trio of hops, the bird landed lightly on the straw-strewn bed of the wagon. It looked intently at Paul, and it trod the boards expectantly toward him. The bird saw something of profound and fascinating nature, and it commented in its mournful way:

Nevermore... Nevermore... Nevermore...”

The sky was no longer blue, but an awesome no-color, and the wagon was now but a centerpiece for a loathsome gray-toned land, one awash in solitude and permeated with madness, with its territory stretching from here to eternity.

To the right of the wagon and across the road was a dismal lake, its shores overgrown with moss and rock-bound lichen. The vastness of the lake was walled in by tall dead and dying trees, and within its center lay an island-bound manse of haunted gray stone. My eyes seemed drawn past the architecture of this massive dwelling to its singular identification, that being a jagged vertical crack in the wall facing me; and as I watched, transfixed by horror, with shuddering finality the house and its island slowly sank into the endless black depths that had previously forbore its dominating presence.

The wagon and its avian cargo now slowly backed and turned, and as it completed the lengthy task, a dark-haired emaciated woman of pasty complexion walked toward it from the left. She was dressed in a wrinkled and mold-crusted winding sheet, and her bony outstretched arms held two objects, one in each hand: one hand held an ancient and dusty wine glass, and the other, a mortar-encrusted trowel. Behind her, on a clinking and rattling chain, rolled a dusty cask filled with dry sherry, and as the wagon made its slow way to the right and what I saw began to fade, I heard the voice of an irate nobleman cursing a wretch named Luchresi.

“Wonderful,” I thought, as I shook my head as if to clear it from a too-familiar and overly-tangible nightmare, “it does that here too!”

I heard faint speech behind me, with words and phrases I vaguely recognized. I wondered as to their meaning, even if I did not wonder as to my current state: I was fatigued, hungry, and near collapse.

“When did you last eat?” asked Anna.

“I-I have no idea,” I said, “but it was not recently.”

“I think you had best sit on the couch once we get the sheet off,” said Anna. “You do not look well.”

Hans pulled off the sheet, and my legs twisted and gave way. Anna went into the kitchen, and less than a minute later, she came out with a mottled brown ceramic mug, and put it in my hands. I looked, and saw what might have been a yellow-tinted species of cloudy-looking 'tea'.

I brought it to my face, and instantly noted a familiar odor. It was beer of some kind, and I tentatively sipped it. The flavor was delightful – the stuff had a definite 'yeast' aspect, and considerable 'body', with faint bitterness and a great deal of 'malt' flavor – but by the time I swallowed twice, I had to set the mug down on my lap.

I felt as if made of rubber, with a dizzy head and a sense of relaxed calmness that was so profound I thought, “this is beer? Did she put some kind of rapid-acting sedative in this stuff? Whatever it is, it's really strong.”

'Really strong' was an understatement, for now I had trouble moving. Taking another sip was out of the question, and I did not mind my inability to consume more, for I was frightened. The thought of 'alien food' had never entered my mind – and now I wondered if I had been poisoned.

The mental 'answer' I received was so strong I was nearly prostrated: I had not been poisoned. I was exhausted, and I had been given something that was considered to be medicine. It was not merely a beverage.

“Don't I need to..?”

My thinking stopped abruptly, for I could not recall more than the mere fact that I once did something whenever I ate – and what that activity was had become an entire mystery.

The medicinal properties became more noticeable within minutes, for my sense of fatigue seemed to be markedly less. I was able to stand, albeit in a wobbly fashion, and I half-staggered toward the stove.

I could hear a meal being prepared, and with each step, the aroma of food became more noticeable. I went past what looked like a stairwell, then saw the table itself, with three small tin plates, a wooden platter with a round brown loaf of bread, a tin similar to a bandage tin showing what resembled orange-colored margarine, and an odor of cooking meat. I wondered as to the last, and when Hans showed, he said a few words that I barely understood. It might have been a prayer.

“It is time for eating,” he said. These were the first words I actually understood.

“W-where do I sit?” I asked.

Hans pointed with his knife, and as I thought to move there, Anna came from behind me and nudged a stool over to where 'my' plate was, then she herself sat down. Hans was already slicing the bread, and as I carefully 'landed' myself on the stool, I felt the wood creak and give way slightly.

“I hope I don't break this thing,” I thought, as Hans tossed a thick slice of bread on my plate.

I then saw two more mugs, and another jug. This jug was of the same shape as that I had seen in the wagon, but its size was a bit smaller, and its shape, much more obvious. I had never before seen a jug shaped like a tall and thin barrel mated to a short upside-down funnel, with a sizable loop for a handle.

Hans poured some of the jug's contents into his mug, then filled Anna's and passed it to her. Both began drinking from their mugs between bites of bread. As they did, unpleasant memories intruded, chiefly my being abused at the hands of irate drunks.

“I do not want to act like that,” I thought, “and if this stuff is that strong... No, I do not wish to be difficult to endure.”

“Could I have some water?” I asked.

“Yes, you may,” said Anna. She paused for an instant, then asked “why?”

“That beer may taste good enough,” I said, “but it seems to be affecting me a great deal.”

I wished I could have adequately communicated just how much it was affecting me, but I could not describe either its effects or the terror I had of acting like a mean drunk. I had had too many instances of abuse at the hands of such people, and I did not wish to act like them.

Anna stood, then came back with another mug. This one did not smell in the slightest, and I drained it quickly after tasting it.

“Thank you ever so much,” I said. “That stuff was so strong I nearly went to sleep on the couch. If I have insomnia, I will drink more of the beer.”

Hans looked at me as if he were a leprechaun and I had spoken of the magical pot of gold in Eire.

“Willem spoke of you knowing how to make beer,” said Hans. “How is this stuff?”

“It tastes and smells good,” I said, “and I had but two swallows, and I still feel wobbly. The food is very good. What is that in the tin?”

“That is cheese,” said Anna. “One puts it on bread with a spoon. Here, let me show you.”

While I had been devouring the slice of bread I had been given – it was thick, toothsome, and very tasty, with substantial filling aspects – I now noticed that both Anna and Hans had orange-tinted spoons. Anna showed me why hers was tinted that way: she scooped out a mound of the 'cheese', and smeared it thickly on a slice of bread, then ate it.

I noticed I had a spoon also, and dipped it tentatively into the cheese. Its softness – about the consistency of margarine – and color – again, orange-yellow – were such that I marveled, until I did as Anna did with bread and spoon. I then bit into the remnant of the slice of bread I had.

The taste of the cheese was similar to a tarter version of Velveeta, with some slightly spicy aspects. I thought I detected salt, cayenne pepper, and perhaps custard, and for an instant, I wondered if the stuff could be used for fish bait. I recalled Velveeta's use in that aspect, as well as the fish I had caught with it.

I ventured a third sip of the beer, and within seconds, I nearly dropped my face into my plate. The rubbery sense I had had not merely returned; it had redoubled, and I looked at the two of them with such bleary eyes I wondered if I was still awake. I looked at the surface of the beer in my mug, and seemed to see written upon its limpid mirror the word 'sedative'. I was surprised that I felt as 'safe' as I did, and I had some questions in my mind, chiefly as to the beer's effects. Was it the malt? The yeast? Some special ingredients? Did Anna put a sedative in my mug?

“How do you make the beer?” I asked. “I used water, malt, hops, and yeast.”

“We use those things too,” said Hans. “We use more malt, and our yeast is not very strong compared to what some use. People really like ours, and we have given it to sick people so as to build up their strength. It does not strain their digestion as much as regular food.”

Anna looked at Hans knowingly, then paused in her drinking to speak to me, saying, “that is why I got you some. You looked very tired, and I thought it would help. I think I misjudged you.”

“Yes, you look about ready for bed,” said Hans.

“I do?” I asked.

“You do,” said Anna. “I expect you will be working tomorrow, which makes bed seem a wise idea.”

“That is the other thing that keeps people healthy,” said Hans. “Hard work, and plenty of beer.”

“What Paul had was worse, though,” I said absently. “I could hear and see all of what he was seeing, and I've seen all of that many times. I've endured it before.”

“What is this?” asked Hans.

“He must mean the tincture,” said Anna. “I've heard people speak of strange things about it.”

“N-nevermore?” I said. I could almost see that coal-black bird in my peripheral vision.

“Now what is this you said?” asked Hans. “I have only heard that word a few times.”

“It must be the tincture,” said Anna. “I think we are done here. You might want to see if you can find some clothes for him.”

While Hans went elsewhere, I helped Anna bring the dishes away from the table. I copied her in regards to putting the dishes in a bucket filled with water, and as she put the last of them in, she yawned herself.

“You are not the only one ready for bed, I think,” she said. “There is a small room upstairs with a bed, and you can sleep there. Hans should be down soon with those clothes.”

Hans came down but a minute later with the clothes spoken of, and as the two of them went upstairs, I wobbled and stumbled in their wake. Between my fatigue, the effects of the food, and that of the beer, I felt as if heavily drugged, and when I looked to see the two of them, they were also tired, though seeming far less so than myself.

At the top of the stairs, Hans handed me the clothing. I was facing a blank wall, and to my left, I saw what might have been a doorway on the left wall of a long, dark, and twisted-seeming passageway. The doorway was but a few feet away.

“That is the room I spoke of,” said Anna. “You can sleep there.”

I did an 'about turn' as if an automaton, then two steps to 'fall-in' to my left. I nearly fell to the floor, and on my knees in a haze of fatigue, I saw what looked like a lumpy mattress. I dropped the clothes in a mound, and crawled onto the mattress to collapse into a deep sleep.

I awoke what felt like hours later, and as I opened my eyes, I noted a squirming bladder. I sat up, alert, refreshed, and in pitch blackness. I picked up the clothing, and looked at it – and then, my bladder got my attention again. It needed emptying, and I stood unsteadily.

I recalled the route out of the room, and wobbled to my right. Again, the place was dark, and with wary tread, I shuffled my feet. I then noticed I had fallen asleep with my boots on, and resolved to remove them once I had 'gone'.

I came to the top of the stairs, and noted what might have been a reduction in the darkness as I put my foot on the first stair. I was glad for a handhold of some kind, and with each such step, the creaking and groaning seemed to conjure a nightmare. Recollections of my early childhood, where noise at night meant getting in trouble, intruded, and only with effort was I able to banish such thoughts. They only left me completely when I reached the floor.

I recalled the stove, and as I moved in its direction, I seemed to see ghostly lines and shadows. The interior of the kitchen, while dark, seemed to be lit with a faint reddish glow, and when I looked around, I saw faint traces of light coming from behind me. I turned in place, and looked.

The window was lit with a feeble yellowish glow, as well as what might have been moonlight, and when I turned back toward the kitchen, I noted not merely the outlines of a door, but also what might have been the outlines of the stove. A hand raised toward the latter indicated less-than-faint warmth, and as I looked to the door, its outline seemed to grow stronger. I thought to look to my right, as I had a suspicion what I was after lay that way.

I gave the stove a wide berth, and as I walked gingerly, I could see dimly the outlines of a cabinet to my left and other things to my right. Ahead lay the door proper, and when I put my hand to it, I felt for a knob. I was surprised when I found one, and more surprised yet when I opened the door.

The place was surprisingly well-lit with starlight.

A small vestibule showed a bucket and 'stand', while the place I was 'after' was ahead. It looked vaguely like a commode, and when I lifted the lid, the smell told me I had come to the right spot. I urinated in a great hurry, and closed the lid before the stench overwhelmed me.

I retraced my steps to the stairs, and there, I walked back up them slowly. I was again feeling fatigued, but nowhere near as much as I had hours before. I thought to try on my new clothing once I got to my room.

After removing my boots and socks, I laid out what I had been given. I found a long-sleeved shirt with a number of buttons. This seemed likely to be tight in the shoulders, and when I removed my shirt, I found I was being generous. I could barely get into it.

The next portion was some kind of thin 'swimming trunks', with a drawstring closure. Their soft feel told me they were likely to be underwear, and I put them aside.

The final article proved to be trousers. These had huge button-closed pockets on the front, a very generous waist, and very tight ankles. I wondered as to their tightness until I found the button closures. I undid those, and then removed my underwear and put on the 'swimming trunks' prior to putting on the trousers.

“At least my underwear is intact,” I thought.

As I looked over my pants and shirt more fully, I recalled I would need needle and thread to repair them. I laid them aside, and the crawled onto the mattress again. I closed my eyes, and slept deeply within seconds.

When I next awoke, I was astonished to find that my room was no longer dark, but pleasantly dim. I sat up, and found my 'room' to be about nine feet wide and nearly fourteen feet long, with the wall in back of me bent from shoulder-height to the ceiling. I suspected the steep pitch of the roof had something to do with it, and when I looked for the source of the light, I was astonished to see a small window on that wall. I stood up and looked outside, and saw that it was just before dawn.

I looked down on the bed – a wooden frame raised but inches above the floor that held the mattress – and saw that not merely had I been sleeping on a folded blanket, but I also had a small and thick pillow. I had missed it entirely in my fatigue. I knelt down, and felt the mattress itself, and acknowledged its lumpiness.

“I guessed right about that part, at least,” I thought.

I turned to see the other walls of the room, and noticed other things. First, I saw the door. It was pushed well out of the way, such that I had not collided with it, and then, at the foot of my bed in the space between the door and the bed's end, I found an old-looking copper 'candlestick' with a candle, a mug, and a jug like the one I had seen last night. I went to the jug, lifted it, and then twisted out the long knotty-looking cork. The odor of beer was plain, and I put the cork back in.

“Why is that in my room?” I thought.

I saw a small shelf and several pegs on the other wall, and as I thought to look closer at them, my bladder squirmed, and then the feeling of 'greasy-sticky-itchy-nasty' crawled like ants over my entire body. I needed a bath. I picked up the clothing I had removed – I needed to wash it, as well as myself – and stumbled for the door.

As I slowly walked down the hall – it was longer than it seemed earlier – I wondered where to actually bathe. I did not wish to try the front horse-troughs, even if they were convenient. I still had suspicions about the gossip in town, and I did not wish to be seen bathing anyway. The stream was far too distant.

“Do people bathe regularly here?” I thought. “If I go by the dirt I got off of Paul yesterday, they don't. Besides, this type of society wasn't known for regular baths, if I go by history.”

Yet still, I suspected Hans and Anna bathed regularly. I wondered how for a moment, but as I came to the top of the uncommonly noisy stairs, I knew they needed to both wash their cloths as well as their clothing. The creaking I heard seemed to be the sounds of weeping, and I gave the stairs what respect I had. I was glad to be here, as it still seemed much 'safer' than where I came from.

I turned right into the kitchen at the bottom of the stairs, and here, I noticed more than I had previously. The place was again lit passably, and the stove still felt 'warm'. I now saw one of the sources of light – the kitchen had another of those small windows like my room, and the dawning day shed light throughout the room. I then saw the candlesticks here and there, and as I looked around, my bladder squirmed again.

“At least I know how to take care of that,” I thought, as I went toward the door I had visited the night before.

After using the facilities again, I came back into the main room, and here, I noticed the walls of the place. They seemed to be an abnormally glossy species of plaster, and as I looked around, I saw the stove, and then to the left of it, a white-painted door. I looked back toward the door I had just come out of, and noted its brown paint.

Why is that door painted brown?” I thought. “Is it because that place is, uh, a...”

The word 'privy' came to me.

“Is that what they call that place?” I thought. It seemed to fit.

I now examined the stove proper. While I had seen the stove yesterday, it had not registered beyond 'hot stove, be careful', and as I strained to recall the reddened outlines I had seen while visiting the privy during the night, I realized it was no good. I had not actually 'seen' the stove before now.

The stove was about waist-high, with short stubby legs putting its bottom about eight inches off of the floor, with two doors in front. The upper door was a bit larger than the lower one, and as I looked at these doors, I recalled the shape of the reddened outlines I had seen then. The lower one seemed an especially good match for my recollection.

The top of the stove showed its narrow and long shape, with three round lids on top staggered left-right-left. At the rear of the stove I saw a surprisingly small riveted stovepipe, and as I looked at it, I thought, “weren't those usually bigger around for this size of stove?”

To the side of the stove I found hanging from the 'cabinet' a wooden-handled iron rod that reminded me of a poker, and when I looked closer at the 'lids' on top of the stove, I noticed that each one had a lump with a hole in it. The rod fitted in this hole readily, and I used it to lift one of the lids a crack. Thin gray smoke came out of the sooty hole I uncovered, and I put the lid down in a hurry. I did not wish to smoke up the kitchen.

“Does this thing have a fire going in it?” I wondered. It seemed likely, I thought, as I rehung the 'poker'.

I then gave my attention to the cabinet. While I was acutely distracted, I still had the idea of bathing at the back of my mind, and even though I knew my exploration to be very important, I was also looking for something I might use for bathing.

The cabinet was of planed wood uprights joining crosspieces into a 'lattice' covered by a planked top, with the whole ensemble coated with a species of darkened varnish. It seemed quite waterproof and easy to clean, and as I looked closely, I noted its age, as well as its dimensions. It was about the same height as the stove, not quite as wide as the stove was long, and about as long as the couch for its overall length. It also had a fair number of drawers, and I thought to look in one of them.

My initial impression of 'flimsiness' vanished when I drew out the drawer, for now I knew better; a more accurate phrase was 'flimsy-looking', as the drawer, and indeed the cabinet itself, was quite sturdy. The drawer's contents was a mish-mash of sundry kitchen utensils, and as I tried to pick out individual items, I was lost.

“I could never make that setup work,” I thought.

I thought to now look closer at what was actually behind the brown door, and upon opening it, I saw an obvious wooden bucket on a wooden stand, with a pair of small towels on a built-in towel rack and a small 'soap-dish' with what might have been soap in it. I then saw the inner door, which I had missed in my first two trips, and then...

Sitting amid a tiled room was a sizable glazed stoneware crock with a wooden lid, and peeking out from the lid was what looked to be a leather gasket. I knew what was in there, and the shock of recognition staggered me.

“No wonder it looked familiar,” I muttered as I closed the door. “That thing looks a lot like a toilet.” My thinking then caught up with me:

Why does it look like a toilet?”

Across from the brown door was another 'cabinet', this one having three wide shelves of varnished wood. The shelves held numbers of jugs, boxes, and bags, and while I thought to look in them, I knew they didn't have things I might use for bathing. I looked to my left, and saw a pair of narrow 'cabinet doors', and to my right, I saw things that might be useful. I took the two steps to my right so as to look at them.

Here, I saw a number of pots and pans, and as I looked through them, I saw a riveted tin-lined copper basin about eighteen inches wide and a foot deep. It was the largest pot, and far too small to bathe in. I looked further to my right, and saw the table. It was as I recalled: small, rectangular, of planks, and varnished. I had 'toured' the kitchen, and come up empty for bathing.

There did not seem to be much in the kitchen compared to what I thought was commonly found in kitchens, but then I thought, “yes, and what do I know about cooking other than I have a vast amount of trouble with it?”


“And bathing will be more trouble yet,” I thought, as the crawling-with-bugs feeling made itself known to me again.

I thought to examine what lay beyond the white door, and when I went to it, I noted the turned wooden knob. There was no place for a key, and I wondered briefly at its lack. I had seen neither latch nor lock on the doors I had seen in the house so far. I turned the knob, and then pulled gently.

The door opened with a faint creak, and I looked out to see a modest sized back area enclosed by a stone wall about chest-high with a strange-looking 'fold' roughly opposite the door about thirty feet away. Beyond the wall lay tall rows of standing corn.

In the left corner was a small grayish-brown mound of 'stuff', to its right was a tall and spindly-looking tree, then an area that looked like a long-dead herb garden minus its herbs, a row of stones heading to the fold to serve as a walkway, a watering trough with pump, a modest mound of what might have been hay, and on the right...

The odor spoke of something terrifying, and I looked that way.

There, I saw a small stone barn, and my eyes swept past it in a state of terror to see part-hidden by the door a tall stone oven with its mouth plugged with firebricks. Below this 'mouth' was a cast-iron door similar to that of the stove, and to the side of the oven, a tall mound of sticks lay stacked. I surmised this was stove fuel, and as I wondered again about bathing, my nose was assaulted by the odor again. This time, I knew what made that odor – and more, I recalled what those animals could do. The hair rose on the back of my neck in fear, and I looked at the open mouth of the barn.

Two equine rumps, one black, the other gray, stood ready and waiting, and their long bristly tails swished like semaphores. I didn't need any help interpreting their signals nor their intent, for my eyes were held by the steely glint of weapons upon their sizable hooves. They had their full broadsides presented, and I knew their 'guns' were loaded.

I shuddered, then said in a squeak of fear, “horses...”

One of them quietly snorted, and then the black one turned around and looked my way while stolidly chewing something. I held my ground, even while I wanted to run and hide. The animal might well come after me if I ran, and as I looked again, the hooves seemed to be covered thickly with macerated blood-dripping brains. The steely glints of horseshoes – the equine weapons of murder and mayhem – seemed to shine through the gray mess as if talismans of death.

The black then returned to its feed, now seeming to be satisfied as regarding me, and as he ran out his 'guns' again, I thought, “yes, he has the range now. Most likely he is plotting with the other one so as to turn me to a pulp if I get near. Now I wonder if these are...”

Here, I gulped, then thought in a terror-stricken tone, “Kung-Fu horses? The kind that can kick you if you are within a hundred feet of them, no matter how they are arranged? Those...”

Another glint of mottled iron showed, this time on the feet of the gray. With agonizing slowness, that animal raised its foot slightly to show an iron-gray hoop. I gulped, then as a wave of itching thrashed its way over the surface of my body, I took a tentative step out into the realm of danger, and closer to the promised dampness of the horse-trough.

I was wary for the slightest sign of a charge from either animal, and as I stepped slowly from step to step, I had visions of my skull being disintegrated by a flying hoof. My head pounded as if with a migraine, and the first thought-barrage was replaced by a second and more chilling series. I saw myself awaking cold and stiff amid the uneven grass I saw here and there in the rear area, miserable with a headache too severe to be anything but the result of a fractured skull, and then touching my forehead gently with my fingers to trace out the outline of a horseshoe in my forehead. As the train of unsleeping nightmares continued one after another, every horror of horses that I had ever undergone tramping endlessly down the halls of memory, I continued taking slow and aching steps toward my goal of cleanliness.

Thankfully, the horses still seemed interested in their food, and I was now within leaping distance of the trough's shelter. I now looked to my left, and saw the horse-barn was divided into three regions: a place each for the horses, and a third smaller region nearest the trough. I suspected this was the 'tack room', and thinking of the word 'tack' made for another vicious thought-train;

“I hope they do not have tacks in that section, as they will find my bare feet.”

Another odor crowded in among the 'odor-of-horse', one that fairly screamed 'clean', and as I came closer to the region of tacks, I looked carefully for such things on the dirt floor of the 'tack room'. I did not see them, thankfully, even if I did see a small wooden bucket hanging from a peg on the wall. The 'clean' odor seemed to emanate from there. I then noted the stones of the walkway, and their off-branching path toward the 'tack-room' that went within a few feet of the horse-trough.

I crept closer along the path, each step finding another smooth flat stone. I could see more in the 'tack room': a small barrel with a wooden top, other buckets, a small spade, coils of bristly-looking rope...

By this time, I was within a few feet of the 'tack-room', and one of the horses snorted. I nearly collapsed, and then leaped into the tack room, where my sudden movement startled a small rodent. I was glad it did not try to get in my clothing, and as I stumbled into the barrel's side, the lid moved sideways to show mixed grain of some kind. The odor of grain, as well as something cloyingly sweet, gave a plausible reason for the rodent's presence.

“This must be grain for the horses,” I thought. “Now to fetch that stuff that smells like I might be able to use it for bathing.”

As I tried to spy the bucket in question – there were more buckets than I had thought – I found harness hanging from what looked like iron rods embedded among the stones and mortar of the wall. Overhead I saw shingles and boards, and as I continued looking, I found that my nose was speaking of the bucket-in-question's proximity. I began checking the buckets, and the third one I checked was part-full of a grainy greenish-white species of soap. The odor was pungent and nose-wrinkling, and I recalled the idea of 'green soap'.

“Is this it?” I thought. It seemed likely.

I picked up that bucket, as well as an empty one, and then walked back to the horse trough with both of them. I now had to actually bathe, and I noticed the chill in the air. The water itself was likely to be worse. The itch, however, was worst of all, and when I came to the trough, I disrobed to my underwear, and climbed in.

The chill was less than I had expected, and I felt sheltered from the horses. I submerged completely, then removed my underwear. I dunked what I was wearing, then got a finger of soap and began scrubbing them. After a minute's scrubbing, I got the second bucket, put water in it, and put my underwear inside. There, I rinsed them thoroughly, and dumped the water – and put them back on before leaping out.

I now soaped up hurriedly, and began scrubbing. The clean feeling was so great that I murmured thanks as I rinsed and put on my new clothes, then dunked my 'arrival' clothing and soaped them. I rinsed them thoroughly, then put both buckets back and ran along the stones to the rear door of the house. I was met by Hans at the door. He had a long brass 'thing' in his hand.

“This is the spare comb for your hair,” he said. He then wrinkled his nose and sniffed.

“Did you use that soap out in the shed?” he asked.

“Yes, I did,” I said. “I feel much cleaner.”

“I am glad you rinsed good,” said Hans, “as that soap has herbs in it, and we use it to clean the sheets. It can eat the hide off of you if you do not rinse well.”

Here, Hans paused, then said, “Anna is getting the food ready, and we will need to take you to Georg, or he will pound our door down.”

I went inside after Hans, and when Anna saw my damp clothing, she said, “you can lay those out on the bed... What did you bathe with?”

“He rinsed good, Anna,” said Hans, “so he will keep his hide. I saw him finishing up.”

I went upstairs, and there laid my clothing out as instructed. I hoped it would dry passably, and as I fetched my boots and socks, I could hear meal preparation underway. I came down just as the two of them were sitting down, and as I took my seat, the two of them began eating.

Breakfast was the same as the other meal, save a species of tart cherry jam was used instead of the cheese. I stayed clear of the beer, as I did not wish to be made of 'rubber' while attempting to work. I thought to comb my hair when Anna fetched another loaf of bread, and when the comb tried to remove my hair along with some stray bits of straw, I looked at it closer.

The comb was of sheet brass, brass wire, some uncommonly shiny-looking solder, and a wooden handle attached with three sizable copper rivets. The last were a trifle lopsided.

As Hans tossed me another piece of bread, I said, “I think I can make combs as good as this, if not better. I've made jewelery before, and perhaps I can make them of silver.”

I was not certain as to why I had spoken that way, but Anna drank from her mug, then said, “I have no doubt that they would be better. Those are from the fifth kingdom, and they cost a great deal – and for what they cost, they are not very good.”

Anna paused, and in a different tone of voice, she said, “now we must hurry. Georg tends to start early, and he had best not try to take you from us. I truly think you are a treasure.”

“But, uh, Anna, I was hated where I came from,” I spluttered. “I was cursed and reviled, people tried to kill me, and I handle complements badly. Everyone there said I was worthless, useless, stupid, and incompetent, and I kept getting those same messages from the time I was born until the day I left.”

“That must be a very bad place,” said Anna. “I am glad you are here now.”

With breakfast finished and the dishes soaking, I put on my boots. I was more than a little surprised, as they seemed not merely less damp, but also supple. They were near normal as to size.

“The end of a candle helps a lot with those,” said Hans. “You might rub them as often as you can, so they do not blister your feet.”

As the three of us walked on a narrow stone-laid footpath by the side of the road, I wondered what working at Georg's would be like, and more, I wondered as to why I would be working there. There had been no indication beyond what Hans and Anna had spoken, and while...

Did someone tell him about what I said about making copperware?” I thought. “What did Anna mean about Georg 'taking' me? Do they have slaves here?”

The large barn-like building I had seen yesterday had its main door open when we arrived in its yard, and a young boy – I guessed his age to be about twelve or so – was walking out of the door. Within the 'shop', it looked like a cave, and as we stopped in front, I could smell wood smoke.

“Do they use coal here, or charcoal?” I wondered. History said charcoal was more likely, and I knew about the plentiful firewood. Still, history might well be wrong, and second-guessing sounded like a recipe for trouble.

“Now where is he?” asked Anna. “I know the boys get the fires going early, but he should be here to see to them.”

I was about to speak on the matter when I heard a door softly creak, then rapid steps come closer. As if by 'magic', the man I had seen the day before suddenly showed, and within seconds, a heated three-way argument erupted. I got out of the line of fire, as it looked like the three of them were about to come to blows – and besides, I wanted to see how they would act. It seemed important.

While Georg was the largest – he reminded me of a blond grizzly bear; he was nearly as tall as I was, if much narrower in the shoulders and much wider in the middle – he also seemed the least 'volatile'. He was having trouble saying more than a few words between Hans waving his finger at Georg as if lecturing a truant schoolboy and Anna's shrill shouting.

“My, she really is telling him,” I said. “She almost sounds like she's an ill-tempered empress with that tone of hers.”

The argument seemed to show little signs of dissipating, and I thought to stay clear of it. The shop seemed a passable refuge, and I began to edge closer to its door. I wanted to see what was inside the place, and I paused at the door to look within.

“Go on inside,” said Georg. “We need to get this worked out here.” The uproar then resumed with renewed fury.

The lighting of the room surprised me, for I had heard such rooms were darkened; more, it belied my initial impressions of the place being a 'cave'. I could hear talk somewhere on the property, such that I suspected the one boy wasn't the only one, and as I began looking around, a different boy came in bearing a dirty soot-stained sack. He obviously knew what to do in here, unlike myself.

To my immediate right and slightly ahead was what looked like a 'table' of some kind. It had a long and somewhat narrow planked top adorned with several wood-bordered 'slates', a teardrop-shaped stoneware 'pot' with a cork and bedraggled-looking quill pen, and a small 'varnished' wicker basket showing several irregular pieces of chalk.

The area in which I stood at the front of the shop seemed a waiting area of some kind, and as I walked forward, I managed three steps before becoming even with the front of the 'table'. I then noticed the posts.

These were thick and old things, with their bottoms embedded in the dirt floor and their hewn lengths ending well above my head in what looked like elaborate roof trusses capped with shingles. I noted what might have been age-blackened copper flashing that formed a covered slot. There were no chimneys here, and faint wisps of smoke seemed to vanish near the top of the roof in some mysterious fashion.

I moved to the side of the post in front of me, and walked past it. To my right, where it began almost directly behind the desk, was a long and somewhat narrow plank-topped workbench. This bench ran nearly the whole remaining length of the shop, and numbers of small windows, much like the one in my room, illuminated long-legged 'blacksmith's vises' attached to the bench. Unlike the example in my room, these windows were filmed over with an uneven layer of grime, and the resulting light, while fairly bright, was diffused and without shadow. I wondered if this dirt was 'cultivated' in some fashion.

The supports of the bench were but slightly smaller than the roof-support I had nearly collided with, and as I began to walk its length, I thought to look to my left.

I saw a row of anvils, each on a thick stump, and what looked to be forges between them and more small windows behind them. Several of these brick 'boxes' were piled with wood, and two were smoking. I suspected the boys were getting the 'fires' lit, and the bags next to each 'box' made my guess seem more likely.

Behind each of these forges were long wood and leather boxes attached to the walls, and as I looked at the well-worn wooden 'handles', I guessed them to be bellows.

“At least, I suspect them to be bellows, given their proximity to those 'barbecues',” I thought. “This building is really old, and these timbers look to have been trimmed to size with an adz.”

I then wondered how I knew this, and shuddered.

The rear wall of the building – I now realized it was bigger than I thought it was, with its width easily forty feet and its length nearly twice that – showed a number of long and irregular-looking shelves and a somewhat off-center doorway. This last had a door propped open with a thick wooden bar, and when I saw the forged iron 'hooks' on both door and door-frame, I wondered as to the need. Did this place have thieves of some kind after all?

I was sufficiently concerned that I nearly collided with a tool rack on skids, and here, I saw a great many tools. I suspected there were more of them hidden here and there.

Two boys now came in, each with another bag, followed by a third boy. This last individual had a length of iron bar in each hand, and he went to a vise near the end of the bench. There, I saw another iron bar, and as he resumed sawing on the bar with what looked like a hacksaw, I thought to come closer. His lack of progress, as well as growing sweat, bothered me more than a little.

As I came closer to his labor, I noted the hacksaw itself. This had a brass frame and wood handle, and as I watched, I thought, “that construction? I've never seen one like it before.” I had seen pictures of old-style leg-type 'blacksmith's vises' in the past. I came closer to the boy who was sawing, then asked, “may I see your saw?”

He ceased sawing, then handed me the saw. I guessed he was glad of the respite, and as I looked closely at the blade, I noted its teeth were badly worn nubs. It was well beyond the 'worn-out' stage.

“Are there more of these blades?” I asked.

“No, there aren't,” he said. He looked at me as if to ask me why I didn't know, and more, what I proposed to do about the matter of his blade being dull.

“Is there a small three-square file and tongs?” I asked, as I looked around the shop. “Oh, good – there are buckets by the forges – is there brine, or oil? By the way, my name is Dennis.”

“Georg has been talking all about you since Willem came in yesterday with the hay,” he said. “He wants you so so bad that he will raise the roof if he does not get you!”

“So someone did talk,” I thought, “and Willem was involved in some fashion.”

“Here is another saw,” said one of the other boys as he came closer. I glanced up to see the previously smoking forges now spitting small bursts of flame, and the other forges beginning to smoke. All of them were now piled with wood.

“Uh, the forges?” I asked.

“Those need to be hot before the smiths come in,” said the oldest boy. “I can get you that file shortly.”

While the file took a few minutes, the other hacksaws accumulated at once, and I soon had a stack of five of them. Glancing at their blades spoke of neglect, dullness, and other things possibly as well.

I was handed a file that had seen better days, with worn teeth and a round age-blackened wooden handle. I looked at the odd shape of the handle; it had a 'normal' thickness portion where one gripped the thing, and a much thicker area wrapped with wire where the tang of the file went into the handle. I mentally shrugged. I laid it down, and began removing the blade from the first hacksaw.

Thankfully, this had a familiar 'principle', even if the construction was unlike anything I had seen, with large-headed brass rivets holding the pieces of the frame together, a crude-seeming execution, and a patina of age, sweat, and use. Some of this patina had already begun to rub off onto my hands. I would need to wash them before long.

The vise I went to – it was not used – seemed about a hundred years old, and was worn and creaky enough to make me wonder. I clamped the blade, and then started on one end with the file.

I cut alternate teeth with the file, each tooth taking two or three strokes to get a sharp point, and as I went down the blade, I first noticed the softness of the metal – about like some of the softer steels where I came from – and also, the lack of 'set' or waviness to the teeth.

“I wonder if I can harden this blade?” I thought. “It would hold a better edge, then.”

After finishing one set of teeth, I turned the blade around, and began cutting the other set. These needed filing differently, and it wasn't easy at first to figure out how to cut them. My hand-filed teeth were becoming uncommonly sharp, and I turned to see the boys adding scoops of obvious charcoal to the forges as the wood portions burned down.

“I wonder if I can cook the blades in there?” I thought. It seemed likely.

Another few minutes had the teeth cut, and as I set down the file, I noticed someone had gotten me some tongs and laid them next to where I was working. I picked the blade up in these, and went the nearest forge. There, I poked the blade down in the deep bed of coals, and as I moved them around, I thought to work the bellows slightly. I went to the nearest 'handle', and then moved it. A soft 'huffing' billowed sparks into the air from the forge, and after a few more cycles, I went back to look at the blade. It was already starting to glow.

I began looking for either water or oil, and as I looked around for a 'slack tub', one of the boys asked, “what are you looking for?”

“A s-slack tub,” I said.

“What is that?” asked the boy.

“Uh, a bucket of water that is normally by a forge, that is used...”

“The forge-bucket is on the other side, nearest the anvil,” he said. He then looked closely at the forge, and asked, “why are you heating that blade?”

I went closer to the forge, then said, “see how those yellowish flames are coming close to it? That color of flame means the fire has a lot of extra carbon. Those are called reducing flames, and if they come in contact with hot iron, some of that extra carbon will mingle with the iron's surface. That will make it harder when I quench it.”

The sense of 'confusion' I felt in the boy's lack of response was such that I marveled. Wasn't the idea behind carburizing well-known here?

While I waited – carbon-impregnation took a while, according to my recollection – I thought to look at one of the anvils. While I had seen and used anvils before, these were larger than the pair I had used. None of them were precisely the same, due to wear and age, and as I looked at the nearest one, I thought it and the two next to them were made by the same place, for all of them had the letters

an inch high chiseled into the side of the anvils in question. I wondered about the markings, both on the three anvils and the others, but then I fetched the water tub spoken of. I needed to have it right by the forge.

The water, at least, was clean, and I put both hands in it to 'wash'. The dirt came off for the most part, thankfully, as my hands were beginning to itch. I wondered if I could get gloves, and as I glanced at my pants, er, trousers, I wondered about an apron. My hands weren't the only things becoming dirty in this environment.

I then looked again at the nearest anvil, and noted the thick 'spikes' clinching its feet to the stump, where its foot nestled in a little hollow. This instantly brought forth a mental sigh of relief.

“Good, it's nailed down,” I thought. “Those at school weren't, they liked to hop, and I had to dodge one once when it tried to hop on my feet.”

I added a bit more charcoal to the forge, and thought to try the bellows again. The noise reminded me of a prehistoric monster's breathing – and, perchance, flames – and when I went to fetch the tongs, I saw the bright yellow of the blade nestled deep within the charcoal. I grasped it with the tongs, drew it out, and quenched it straight down in the water of the forge-bucket.

I was bathed in steam.

I took the blade out, and noted a mottled gray-streaked surface. As I looked at it carefully, I felt the presence of one of the boys nearby.

“Are you a smith?” he asked.

I startled, then spluttered, “I am not sure. I've done my share of forging, including carving tools, knives, some few other things, and once a small trowel. I've tempered a fair number of tools, and I work on a lot of things. My mother told me I was taking apart alarm clocks when I was still a baby.”

The boy looked at me as if I had said something incomprehensible, which did not surprise me much. My mother had indicated a similar reaction to my behavior then.

“Is there a rag handy?” I asked.

The boy reached in his pocket – he had an apron, I now saw – and presented me with a worn-looking bit of uneven-looking cloth. I wiped the blade with it, then walked over to where the one hacksaw frame lay. There, I put the blade in, and tried it on his cut. The chips spewed out in a stream, and I removed the blade. I had an impression, and thought to speak of it.

“Try it now,” I said. “This blade might be brittle, so be careful to not bend or twist it.”

He took up the saw, then made a stroke as I watched. He made another, then said, “what did you do to this blade?”

“What you saw,” I said. “Why, it cuts better, doesn't it?”

“Not even those they buy from down south cut as well as this blade,” said the boy in tones of wonder.

“Let's see how well it, uh, endures before you speak too well of it,” I said.

He resumed sawing, and I began looking around for a lubricant. I knew tallow was used that way, and as I wondered about candles, I continued looking. I wanted something a bit better if I could find it.

“Is there anything like uh, tallow, or oil handy?” I asked.

“I can get you a candle,” said one of the other boys. “Why is it you want one?”

“If you put something on the blade, it will cut better and stay sharp longer,” I said, as I began to take the blade out of another saw frame. “You want to cut on the push stroke, and lift a little on the back stroke, and...”

My attention went to the piece of metal the first boy was sawing on. It was about to drop.

“Oh, watch the metal piece,” I said.

The 'blank' fell three strokes later, and I caught it as it dropped. I held the fresh-cut end close to my face, and looked at the place where the blade had 'glided' through the metal. There was a definite 'before' and 'after' showing the effects of what I had done to the blade.

“May I look at the blade?” I asked.

With the blade in my hands, I looked carefully at its teeth. They were still uncommonly sharp, and as I continued looking – for what, I did not know – I heard steps from behind me. I could tell it was Georg, and when he coughed, I nearly jumped.

He had a deep voice, and when he spoke, he spoke as if somewhat hard of hearing. I was not surprised; I knew of many machinists who either wore hearing aids, or wanted them.

“I was in the doorway the whole time,” he said. “No one has lied about your ability, and you show yourself a good teacher.” Here, he paused. I was shaking in fear. “I bet you can forge, or file, or do anything in this shop. Klais, let me look at that saw blade.”

The boy handed it to him. He looked at it as I did, and whistled in amazement. He then took a few strokes on the next cut the boy had marked off, and he startled. He turned to me, then said, “Hans and Anna tell me your name is Dennis. Is that true? They said you are bashful. Now, about money...”

I cringed in fear. I could feel my face flushing in embarrassment, and my tongue seemed in hiding, for I could not speak; I wanted to hide, and there was nowhere to run to.

“What is wrong?” asked Georg. “I earn plenty, and I pay well.”

“I, I, I'm embarrassed,” I stammered. “People hated me all the time there! I live with Hans and Anna, and they treat me well, and, and, I don't want to be hated here.” I began weeping.

“Why is it you weep?” he said. “Should I fetch them?”

I shook my head, and sobbed. I didn't know what to do, and when someone put a rag in my hand, I wiped my face with it.

“They spoke of this,” he said, “so I can talk with them about it. There is a great deal of good you can do, and I have seen proof, and not a little of it.”

Here, Georg grasped a mug, and sipped from it, then continued once he had set it down.

“I recall another man,” he said, “who was good at what he did, and he was very picky about money, unlike you. He wished his tools, and money, and he was happy. He did not become embarrassed as you did.”

I did not know the import of this speech, but I glanced at the saw blades. I saw them as familiar, as comforting in their easily-understood metallic nature; I could speak to them, and they responded in a predictable fashion, unlike the counter-intuitive ways of people and their myriad deceptive practices which I could not understand nor hope to emulate.

“I see,” said Georg. “He was not like that, either. Help him with the blades, boys.”

The enigmatic speech seemed a release from bondage, and I resumed work. Within moments, one of the boys interrupted me to show me a mound of dirty-looking leather.

“W-what is that?” I asked.

“One of the spare aprons,” he said. “You will not get as dirty if you wear it.”

I was helped into the thing, and as I touched it, I jerked away. It felt filthy, and I now realized one thing that had come here intact.

I did not cope well with the feeling of dirt on my skin. That had not changed in the slightest.

As I resumed filing, two other men arrived, and within a short time, I could hear one of the bellows working. I suspected the hammering would start soon, and my suspicions were answered with ringing blows.

I could hear an aspect of 'harmony' in the pounding, such that I thought, “dueling anvils?” I paused in my sawing to look at what was being forged.

One of the apprentices had moved a previously hidden table between two of the bellows, and both men – both were blond, a bit shorter than Georg, and wearing aprons – were consulting what looked to be a slate and some badly mangled bits of iron. Their talk when not hammering indicated they were making pieces that went to either a wagon, a stove, or possibly a piece of farm machinery.

The one saw was now busy, and when I had another blade ready to harden, I used the forge at the very end so as to stay clear of the obvious business of these two men. I looked around the periphery of their project, and saw not merely a jug, but also several mugs. Both men were drinking when not hammering, and by the amount they were sweating, I did not have to think as to why they might be thirsty.

“Hot iron does make for sweating,” I thought.

After putting the blade in the forge, I pumped the bellows twice, then let it set. I needed to get all of the blades done, and as I returned to the vise to file on blade number three, my bladder squirmed.

“Where is the privy?” I asked.

“That place is around back, near the hay pile,” said someone who I could not place. “Just follow your nose.”

I now cautiously went toward the rear of the building. Another forging session was in progress, with the pounding sufficiently loud to induce a headache. I hoped I would not go deaf from it.

The rear of the shop had an open area to the left of the door, and to its right, a long roofed-over area of shingles, posts, and beams. Long benches of rough-sawn timber were covered with sundry pieces of metal, and racks beneath the top held more long scaly lengths of iron. As I went past the benches – there were five, all of them easily fifteen feet long – I noted a few barrels as well. I paused to look at one, and found a great deal of old-looking scrap metal.

“Waste-not, want-not,” I thought. “Didn't they save everything they could on the frontier?”

When I came to the end of the covered area, I noted another region with stubby clumped grass. The covered place was easily thirty feet or more, and this region was larger. I looked to the left, and then saw the hay.

“They said it was near the hay pile,” I thought. “Now where is it?”

'It' proved to be almost hidden behind what might have been an unusually large bush, and when I found the door and opened it, the smell made for gagging. I opened the lid, did my business, and left in a tearing hurry after wiping myself with a rag from the bundle next to the 'stool' and tossing it in the hole.

By the time I had filed blade number three, number two was ready for quenching, and I returned to my vise with the still steaming blade. One of the other boys put it to use forthwith, and amid more anvil-music, I began filing the fourth blade. Number three had gone in the forge.

By the time I had finished blade number five, however, it was time for a 'break'. The jugs came out, as did the mugs, and the odor of beer was profound. I looked around for a coffee pot, and was not surprised to not find one. I didn't like coffee, so did not miss it.

“This must be the morning 'guzzle',” I thought. “Now how do I get something to drink that won't turn me into rubber?”

As if to answer my question, Anna showed with a mug. She came inside, looked at me, then handed me the mug without a word. I was glad it was water, and drained the thing in a trice. I then saw she'd vanished as if smoke.

“What was that she brought?” asked one of the men.

“W-water?” I said. “I had three swallows of beer last night and my face almost hit the table.”

“Are you ill?” asked one of the men.

“I'm not sure,” I said. “I don't feel sick, but I was very tired yesterday.” I then resumed work on the blades.

I found watching the flames of the forge mesmerizing, and as I gently moved the blades around such that they would become fully 'loaded', I could tell I was gathering strange looks and potential questions. The hammering resumed for a moment, but now, I had an impression: forging got the parts to rough size, and they would need filing such that they fit together properly. I then thought to go look at what was being done.

I crept along the side of the building, such that I came to the table while not getting in the way of the two men, and when I looked, I suddenly understood: these were wagon parts – old, badly worn, and pitted with corrosion.

“Will those need fitting?” I asked.

“Yes, they will,” said the taller of the two men. “Georg tells me your name is Dennis. Are you an instrument-maker?”

“N-no,” I stammered. “I've done work like this before, and those blades were really soft.”

“I saw those things,” said the other man, “and if that is not the work of an instrument-maker, my hair is as dark as...”

He then looked at my hair, and softly muttered, “may I bathe in hard rain and freeze solid! Your hair is as dark as anything!”

“He is not from around here,” said Georg, “and that is but one thing different about him. Why are those blades sitting in that forge?”

“They are getting carbon in them,” I said, as I went back over to the forge, “and that will make them harder. It will also most likely make them b-brittle.”

“That is like some knives, then,” said Georg. “They are either very hard, and tend to break if one is not especially careful, or they are soft, and do not take a good edge.”

“Nor do they keep much of an edge,” said one of the men. The speaker was the shorter of the two.

“What do those pieces go to?” I asked.

“Those are for a customer's buggy,” said Georg. “We do a fair amount of fittings for wagons and buggies, among other things. You might watch to see how they go together, as we could use some tools to make some of that work easier.”

After quenching the remaining saw blades and 'greasing' them all with the back of a candle, I thought to watch the others. The taller man introduced himself as Johannes, while the shorter was named Gelbhaar.

“That isn't a good name,” I said. “Everyone around here, except me, has yellow hair.”

I soon was doing more than looking, however: I was instructed as to what portions needed to fit together, and I found two more files. One of the men came with me to 'my' vise, and indicated what parts needed 'cleaning up'. They needed filing all over, with various flat spots where the pieces were to be joined together.

As I filed – I had done a great deal of filing over the years, and it showed – I could tell I was beginning to get an audience. I paused, shook my file to get the chips out, and looked around.

“Yes?” I asked. I wondered where a file-card was hiding. I did not see one, and the soft metal demanded a clean file to avoid deep scratches.

“You might be a tinker for what you know,” said Georg, “but you are not a tinker for what you do. I think you might do the finish on those pieces, as that is as good as I have seen. Have you ever done the front perches for a buggy before?”

“No, I haven't,” I said. “I have done my share of file-work, though.”

“Yes, and it shows, too,” said Gelbhaar. “I could not come close to that work.”

After another short time of filing – I had rough-filed two pieces, and I guessed there were pieces that needed to be fitted to them – I was wondering about a refill on my mug. As I pondered briefly, I heard a faint snap to my left, and I went to investigate.

Someone – one of the apprentices, most likely – had left for parts unknown. He had left his saw in the cut, and the blade had broken.

“I said these were most likely going to be brittle,” I murmured, “and now here's the proof.”

I picked up the saw, and as the boy using it came back, I began removing the blade from the frame.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Did you remember my speaking of these being brittle?” I asked.

“N-no,” he said. “I've left them like that many times before. Why, what happened?”

“The blade broke,” I said, as I looked at the fracture, “and I can see why, too. These blades weren't all that good to start with, as this fracture is really nasty-looking and grainy.”

I paused, then said, “now what do we do about blades? Are there blanks, or do I forge my own?”

The boy had no answer, but Georg did; he said, “bought blades are not easy to get up here, and they are expensive for what they are worth.”

“Are there better ones?” I asked.

“Yes, there are,” said Georg. “They might as well be made of gold for their cost, and they are not that much better. I would look out back and see if you find anything you can use to start with.”

I returned to the covered region indicated with the broken blade in my hands. As I looked closer at the 'stock', I noted further details about the benches: their planks were somewhat uneven, weathered, and slightly warped, with their thick posts embedded into the ground. Here and there, I saw what might have been hand-forged spikes, and elsewhere, what might have been 'baling wire' used for lashing.

The stock wasn't all iron; some of it was brown-yellow brass, and other pieces, reddish-brown copper. The last tended to be sheet, for the most part, but I saw one modest bundle of short copper rods about a quarter of an inch in diameter.

All of the iron was covered thickly in layers of black-brown hammer-scale, and when I found a likely-looking piece, I picked it up. It was easily twice as thick as the broken blade, but I had a strange sense: it needed to be thicker. There was something about processing the metal that not merely thinned it, but reduced its volume to a degree.

“Is this stuff really impure or something?” I thought. I looked again at the piece of metal, and could not tell.

However, when I filed it, I could tell something: the metal was dead-soft, and the surface I had cleared away showed a definite thick and nasty-looking grain, almost as if it was a coarse-grained species of wood. It was most likely wrought iron.

“Didn't they make that stuff by puddling it in a bloomery?” I thought. “A lot of hot and hard work for a very soft and slaggy product?”

As I looked at the saw frame and broken blade, I had suspicions as to what was needed: not only would I need to forge the blade to size, but before doing so, I would need to 'pattern-weld' the blade. I had read of that process years before.

“I am not interested in special looks for this thing,” I thought. “I want it to hold a good edge and not break.”

I gathered up the supplies I would need, or rather, I tried to. I had the tongs, and a forge with an anvil nearby, but I also needed a hammer of some kind, and I would need flux as well. I had to ask around before one of the apprentices went to the rear area and came back with a hammer.

This hammer had seen better days, or so I guessed, and as I put the iron in the forge, I wondered what next I needed to do. Did I add charcoal? Water? How hard did I need to pump the bellows?

I looked carefully, and thought to add more charcoal. As I reached for the bag, one of the apprentices spoke of adding the stuff with the tongs. I tried it, and while it was slow, I could place the lumps precisely where I wished. Once I had the billet covered, I laid the tongs on the anvil, put the hammer on the stump, and went to the bellows.

Here, I pumped slowly, and as the sparks gouted upwards, I wondered if I was doing it right. Was I pumping too hard, or not enough? What of my rhythm? Was it important? There was so much I didn't know, and I longed for my electric driven oil-fueled furnace. It ran on anything from kerosene to used motor oil, and the latter was a common addition to the furnace's fuel tank.

“At least that thing was cheap enough to run,” I thought.

I also knew what I was doing with it, and as I continued pumping, I looked at the forge's fire. The sparks had ceased, and I now saw dark blue-tinged yellow flames spewing from amid the charcoal lumps. I pumped twice more, then left off.

I fetched my tongs, and went to the seething mass of charcoal. The glow within was a brilliant orange-tinged white, and when I brought out the billet, I found it was nearly at the point of sparking, I went to the anvil hurriedly, and then began hammering. What happened next astonished me.

The rhythm of my blows was of a tempo beyond my wildest imagination, for the banging was so fast and furious that within seconds, I had gone the entire length of the billet and forged it out nearly half again as long. It was still hot enough to work it again, and I turned it edge on, then forged it further. It was still a bright red when I folded it in half by bending it on the horn of the anvil, and I put it back amid the coals.

I then noticed Georg was watching me, and as I pumped on the bellows, he looked at the forge for a moment, then came closer.

“How much of this have you done?”

“Not much, and very little recently,” I said. “I've never done it quite this way.”

I paused, then said, “I'll need to pattern-weld that blade.”

“Have you done that before?” asked Georg. His eyes seemed to narrow slightly.

“I've read of it,” I said, “but never done it. That...”

Georg went from where he was standing back to his table, and began rummaging in some 'drawers' I had not seen before. It took him some minutes looking, and as he did, I moved the charcoal around in the forge with my tongs. I knew now was the time for 'soaking', and I would need to resume work on the buggy parts.

“Do either of you know how to do pattern-welding?” I asked. Both of the men were in their 'drinking phase', after the latest bout of hammering. They were both very sweaty.

“I have done that,” said Johannes. “The better grade of sword is folded four or five times, with some time in the coals like you are doing between each welding.”

“How much time?” I asked.

“Usually two turns of the glass,” he said. “We do not have one of those here, so you might try a while and see how it acts. That is the other way to tell, but it can be tricky.”

I went back to the buggy parts, and as I resumed filing, quick steps to my right spoke of Georg coming. I turned to see him holding a folded piece of paper in his hands.

“Read this,” he said, as he gave it to me.

I opened the paper, and as I did, I noted not merely the uneven nature of the paper – lumpy, with perhaps a bit of fiber here and there – but also the writing. This was much like that of the anvils, with squared-off blocky letters that were at once unusual and easy to read. The language was simple also, and the subject, obvious. The writer came straight to the point, and after glancing at Georg, I read aloud:

I, Pieter Huygens, desire a sextant made of the best brass, with two

eyepieces, one of four power, and the other of ten power. I understand

that the workmanship is to be of the best quality, and time is to be no

object, for this work must be done properly. I will pay a fair and

reasonable price, as is appropriate for such a class of work.”

“This is a contract,” I thought. “Now who is Pieter Huygens?”

“Exactly so. So you can read,” said Georg. “Even I cannot read as easily, and I was better than the common at school for reading and other school things.”

“Other school things?” I asked.

“Drawing, sums, reading maps, and writing,” said Georg. “Can you do those as well?”

“I am not sure about the drawing portion,” I said, “nor about reading maps, but the other things” – I was not about to mention calculus, differential equations, or the ugly stuff – “I did for years.”

Georg looked impressed, then asked, “now Anna spoke of you seeing inside of Paul's hand. Is that true?”

I nodded yes.

“How?” asked Georg.

Recollection spoke of what many frontier regions used for teaching reading, and I asked, “Georg, with what did you learn to read?”

“Why, the book,” said Georg. “Everyone learns reading with it, starting in the beginning and finishing with the end of it.” Georg paused, then said, “I have wondered about Job and his skin trouble ever since I first read of it.”

I shuddered involuntarily, for I knew more than I wished to know about the matter. I glanced at my right arm, and for an eyeblink of time, I saw two zits that had come to a head. I felt itchy, greasy, and had trouble suppressing an urge to scratch all over, starting with my head – just as I had endured for many years.

“Then you know something of what is said in there,” I said. “All throughout that book, there are all kinds of strange things mentioned. I have seen a lot of them, and have been used to do some of them – including some that still frighten me.” I wasn't about to mention Maria and what I had learned years later had actually happened, or clearing that one area and getting echoes.

I paused, swallowed what felt like dust, and continued, saying “Paul had an infected wound, and I was given the ability to help him.”

Again, I wasn't about to mention some of the other 'hidden' things I had seen, including seeing a small 'creature' made of flame inside of someone long ago, or some of the other things I had seen of a spiritual nature.

Georg looked as if he were ready to faint, and he looked for a stool. He found one, sat upon it, and I came closer to where he said. I had no idea as to what to say to him, until I recalled something:

“Georg, doesn't it say God doesn't change, and if he did, we would be destroyed? Doesn't it say that God isn't a man and therefore doesn't lie, nor a son of man that he might change his mind, and if he is perfect – why should he change? Any change would be for the worse, and we would all be in trouble!”

Georg fainted, and fell to the floor with a thud. I put him on his side, felt his pulse at the neck, and said, “someone, quick. Fetch Anna, please.” I turned to see one of the boys running for the door.

As I stood, Gelbhaar said, “Dennis, where are you from? They have a school down in the fourth kingdom where it is said they have teachers that speak that way...”

Gelbhaar looked around, much as if someone was listening. I wondered who he was looking for, and all through my mind ran the things I had heard since arrival, especially the talk of witches.

“And talk has it there are people down that way who paint their faces blue...”

“What?” I thought. “Paint their faces blue? Do they have druids here?”

“They do such things as you spoke of all the time,” said Gelbhaar. “They would have trouble with the book though, and you don't. Do you know anything about those places?”

“I barely know anything about this town,” I squeaked. “What is down that way? I have heard of blue-painted people, and I never painted my face or did what they were said to do.”

I had no idea of how to speak of druids, even if I knew in some fashion that they would have killed me on sight.

“Now what is keeping Anna?” I thought, as I looked around. I recalled my blank was still 'cooking' in the forge, and after stirring the coals and adding more, I worked the bellows a few times. The soft blue-yellow flames and bright yellow of the glowing mass, as well as the bright red of the billet, seemed to speak of carbon diffusing into the surface of the metal. I hoped I would not ruin the metal by what I was doing.

“Now where is she?” I thought. Anna was nowhere to be found.

“Where is the flux?” I asked.

“In this tin,” said Johannes, as he indicated a sizable container with his hammer. “You must know something of pattern-welding to ask of it.”

I went to the paint-bucket sized container, and opened its lid. Within were two small copper cups and a long-handled iron spoon, as well as a crumbly bluish 'dust'. I guessed that to be the flux, and after filling one of the cups, I took cup and spoon to the anvil nearest the forge. I then began pumping for a welding heat.

The sparks gouted up in a massive pyre, and within seconds, hot yellow-white flames followed them. The sounds of the bellows seemed louder than I recalled, and as I pumped, I seemed to hear but little else. I stopped after a moment, and then went to the forge with my tongs – and as if in a dream, drew out the white-hot sparkling iron.

I had to hurry. I went with the iron to the anvil, and got a spoon of the flux. I dashed it between the two surfaces, picked up the hammer – and began hammering.

The previously rapid tempo now sounded slow, for the blows were conjoined together in a thunderous roar. The metal seemed to 'jump' together under the hammer as the blows marched down its length, then with a dexterous flip, I went down the length of the billet again from the backside, and finally, worked along its edge. I bent it double again, and put the thing back in the forge. It was still a brilliant orange-yellow color.

I looked up to see Anna in the room, and Georg awake and shaking his head. My ears rang like chimes as Anna looked at me. She was holding a washrag in one hand, and a white object in the other. As she went past me, I noticed an odor profoundly nauseating, and after she tossed the object, she turned and said, “that egg was about ready for the manure pile.”

“Egg?” I thought. “Rotten eggs for smelling salts?” Rotten eggs supposedly smelled awful. That egg had nothing 'supposedly' about its aroma.

Georg wobbled over, then said, “now what gives with hammering like that? It sounded like thunder, only louder, and it woke me up.”

“I would say he is learning to pattern-weld,” said Johannes. “He said he knew how it was done, but I have never seen it done quite that way.”

“W-what way?” asked Georg.

“That hammer was moving so fast it was blurred,” said Johannes, “and he went the length of that bar before I could count to two, and every hit was a good one, as he did both sides and then tested it by hitting it edgewise.”

“B-blurred?” I said. My ears were still ringing.

“Yes, I had trouble seeing it,” said Johannes. “I could not count the individual blows, they were so fast, and then there was a lot of yellowish flaming stuff coming out from between the bars when they were being welded. That is said to be a good sign.”

I went back to the forge, and saw the billet heating. I moved more charcoal around so as 'bury' it, then added a bit more to the top of the heap before returning to the parts that needed filing. I was surprised to find an old-style hand-drill present, along with a sack of bits – all of which needed attention.

I filed on those as a break, then put them in the forge as well. I suspected they would need carburizing, as they seemed uncommonly soft as well as badly worn.

After an hour or so of filing and quenching drill-bits, I again repeated my performance with the billet, and I returned to my filing and 'fitting' with ringing ears. I would need hearing protection at this rate, and when Anna came with a wad of white stuff, she said, “put some of this in your ears.”

I looked at her dumbly, and then my hands. They were filthy, and after I went to 'wash' them, Anna gently put the stuff in each ear for me. It tickled more than a little.

The reduction in sound helped markedly with my concentration, and I made better progress on the filing. More pieces came, and some of the first-filed pieces left briefly, until it felt like it was 'time' again for the welding.

This time, my ears did not ring, and as I put the bent-double bar back in the forge, I suspected that I wanted to wait less than in the past. The iron had 'shrunk down' noticeably from its previous bulk, and I suspected carbon penetration would happen quicker now that I had removed a good percentage of the metal's residual slag.

I folded the stuff two more times, and then afterward, I brought the broken blade near the anvil prior to forging the new one to size. This time, I continued hammering until the metal had become a dull red, and as I finished it all over with light rapid taps, I could tell I had an audience of sorts.

“You do very well for a novice,” said Johannes. “I wonder what it will be like when you finish it.”

I looked around to find a place to cool the blade-to-be, and found a mound of ashes in the corner of the shop. There, I buried the blade, and returned to my filing. As I thought to start, I looked around for Georg, and did not find him.

“Where did he go?” I asked.

“It is near time for lunch,” said Gelbhaar. “I think he went to the Public House for another jug.”

“That, and some bread,” said Johannes. “I hope it is sliced already.”

Georg soon returned, with a loaf under his arm and a jug in his other hand. This jug resembled the two I had seen before for shape and the first one for size, and from seeming nowhere, mugs appeared. I washed my hands in the forge-bucket, and ate the slice of bread hungrily. I was thirsty at the end of my eating, and when I looked at my mug, I noted more 'tea'.

This example of beer had a more pronounced yellowish cast, and the odor was much stronger than the stuff at home, with a pungent aroma of hops. I took a large swallow – thirst got the better of me – and while the taste was quite good, within seconds, my body felt as if made of rubber, and I collapsed on a nearby stool.

I was absolutely, completely, and irredeemably trashed.

As the stupor steadily descended, my befuddled brain knew of cider, and I said in a slow and somewhat thick-sounding voice, “Georg...”

The word echoed endlessly. Was it echoing in my ears, or in my mind?

“This beer may smell good, and taste good...” My tongue was now nearly too large for my mouth to contain it.

“But I am feeling very strange with one swallow of it,” I said. “I really need to sit down.”

I then realized I was sitting down. I had felt as if standing, or rather, floating.

My vision was now blurred, and where I had previously seen but one object, I now saw two, or occasionally, three instances, and the sounds of eating – and perhaps, working – were thick, booming, muffled, and echoing.

A booming and echoing voice said its distorted words:

“But this is what the Public House commonly sells.”

My too-large tongue had tied itself in a knot, and speech was beyond me. I needed to close my eyes, as the blurring and multiple vision was too much to endure. I seemed to faint, and then returned to the here and now but seconds later. I could speak, and said, “Georg, I don't mind the taste of that stuff, but hops pick me up and throw me out the door.”

Insane-sounding laughter echoed for a hundred years as a rejoinder, while I wondered what had happened to me.

“C-could I have some water?” I croaked.

One of the apprentices 'ebbed and flowed' to an area behind where I was sitting, then as I slowly turned, I saw him drain my mug with no more effect than a prolonged belch. He then uncorked a smaller jug, and filled it with a sparkling white-hot beverage, which he handed to me. I smelled nothing of flames and fire, and cautiously sipped it. It was, indeed, water.

“Could someone fetch a mug of cider,” I said. “He's got apples, but the pears will be next.”

“Yes, and the pears will be terrible this year,” said the oldest boy, “for there are many of them.”

I held out my mug, and gasped, “could you please fetch a mug of it?”

The boy took my mug, and then left.

I tried to stand, and nearly fell on my face. The rubbery feeling was still present in large measure, and I felt frightened; frightened of censure, and frightened of the effects of beer. For some reason, the sense of fear was damped down and abstracted, and when the apprentice returned with a small jug, as well as my mug, I wondered why he was here – until he handed me the mug.

I was so thirsty I drank without thinking, and as I drank, I felt better. I only now realized how hot and sweaty I was. I paused in the middle of gulping down the cider – it was tasty – and noticed the size of the jug. It seemed the twin of the one filled with water.

“Now all I need is a pot for boiling water,” I thought, “and I saw plenty of sheet copper in back.” I resumed draining my mug.

“Oh, that's the fermented cider,” said the boy. “It is much stronger than the beer.”

“Funny, I do not taste any hops in it,” I said, in a near-normal tone of voice. “Thank you. This tastes delicious.”

“They freeze ice out of that stuff during the winter,” he said, “and that was from last year's crop. The new stuff is still pressing, and they have not yet barreled it.”

I drained my mug, and thought it strange that I had not tasted any alcohol, only some refreshing cider – and more, the 'impaired' feeling was nearly gone. I was able to stand, and to my surprise, I neither wobbled nor felt like falling. I recalled the blade I was working on, and walked over to the ash-heap with the goal of retrieving it.

The blackened piece of metal was still somewhat warm, and I doused it in the forge-bucket, then returned to my vise. The others were still very much 'at lunch', and when I began filing the blade, I smiled. It was no longer 'soft'.

“This stuff feels like it has some carbon in it, all right,” I thought.

I continued filing, using the broken blade as a pattern for length. My blank was wider, and as I filed, I knew another portion: with no wavy pattern or set to the teeth, the back portion of the blade needed to be narrower than the teeth, and the portions that actually fit on the metal tabs of the frame needed to be thicker than any other part of the blade – and finally, the whole of the blade not only needed to be smooth, but also free of deep scratches. Polishing it would not be too much.

I began draw-filing the blade to finished shape, and then used the coarser file to 'cut' the contour between the ends. The desired shape was rapidly becoming a reality under my hands, and after cutting the teeth – I used the broken blade clamped in the vise as a guide – I asked for a sharpening stone. I was given a choice of three, and using some water, I dipped the coarsest stone and began rubbing the blade carefully all over.

“That is a new one,” said Gelbhaar from behind and to my right. “I have yet to hear of someone polishing a saw blade like that.”

“I wondered why I was told to do things like that for weapons before hardening them,” said Johannes, “until I made my first sword. I forgot to do that, and the next day, when I was going to smooth it up after hardening, it was cracked in many places, and it was broken in two.”

“I haven't made swords,” I said, “but I have had tools crack before, and scratches tend to propagate cracks, which is why I am trying to remove those before I harden this one.”

My bladder squirmed again, and after visiting the privy, I thought to ask about muskets. I briefly wondered what kind they used here, and for some reason, I thought about a blunderbuss. I suspected flintlocks were commonly used.

“Do they have muskets here?” I asked.

“Most have those,” said Georg, “and people bring them in here to have them worked on now and then. Most likely, you will be working on some shortly. Why?”

“Is there powder for such things on the premises?” I asked.

The reason for my asking was a mystery, at least until I had asked. I then recalled the candle in my room, and the complete lack of matches. Use of muskets told me of flint and steel being the likeliest means of lighting fires, and musket-powder would help the candle get lit.

“We have some,” said Georg, “both the coarse and fine powder. Muskets need test-firing to see if they work properly after they are repaired. Why, have you not seen powder for those?”

“Yes, but not here,” I said. “It isn't terribly common where I came from, but I have seen it. I wanted a small spoonful of the, uh, fine powder.”

Georg gave me a small leather pouch, saying, “bring it back on Monday. I hope the hunt goes well for you.”

“Hunt?” I thought. “Oh, they use those for hunting here.” I was really wondering about that blunderbuss now.

I thought to briefly examine the powder, and when I looked, I noted its table-sugar like consistency. I had not seen 'four-f' powder where I came from, even if I had seen 'three-f'; I had a reproduction revolver that took that propellant. I had not shot it in years, and it was hiding in a closet where I came from. I put the bag well clear of my work area after tying its strings.

I drilled the holes in the blade's ends, and then tested it for fit in the frame. Again, I was surprised at the construction of the hacksaw, as it was similar in size and feature to those I had where I came from.

“Brass frame, and wooden handle?” I thought. “This is weird, and those huge rivets look strange.”

I then took the blade back to the forge, and carefully wormed it into the coals. I suspected I wanted a bright red heat, no more, and I wanted to bring it up to temperature slowly. I added a little more charcoal, and then went back to my filing of the buggy parts.

Those had now increased in number, and I was filing the latest arrivals as to shape with one of the two men near to hand so as to advise me of the critical portions. Now and then, the finished parts were test-fitted, which made for distracting whistles and comments, and now and then, what might have been oaths.

“What, are those bad?” I asked. I had wanted to get them to fit closer than I had managed.

“They are as good as any I have seen,” said Johannes. “You must be an instrument-maker.”

I felt thirsty again, and refilled my mug from the water jug. I thought to smell the one with the cider, and this time, I did smell alcohol, though the odor was not marked. It wasn't even close to the nauseating aroma that came from Paul's jug, much less the nose-incinerating reek that came from that small jug of aquavit.

I checked on the blade a short time later, and then quenched it in the forge bucket. The steam that came up was thick and fuming, and after laying the blade on the anvil-stump, I thought to go out back again. I had seen what looked like stiff red clay, and when I found it, an old-looking bucket, a stick, some wire, and a small shovel that had seen better days, I gathered half a bucket full of clay. I was going to try something that I had heard of.

Once back in the shop, I cleaned up the blade carefully with the stone. The steel gray aspect of the metal, as well as what might have been numbers of 'layers' showing as wavy lines, was such that I wondered, and when I wired the blade to the stick, I could tell I was being watched. I then began to apply clay to the teeth of the blade, and when I had them covered, I put the blade over the forge. I kept watching the blade, now looking for a purplish color in the exposed steel. It wasn't long in coming, and I plunged the blade into the forge-bucket. The half-dried clay remained until I scraped it back into the bucket.

I untied the blade, and then returned to my area. There, I used another stone of triangular cross-section to stone the teeth. Their hardness was astounding, and after I carefully polished the rest of the blade, I was amazed: not only was there a wavy line that showed where the clay had been, but the softly drifting layers of the metal now stood out even more.

“Now for the test,” I thought. “I hope it doesn't break.”

I bent the blade into the shape of a horseshoe, and let it return. It had neither cracked, nor had taken a set, and when I put it in the saw frame, I looked for the forgetful apprentice. I had him fixed now, and I wondered why he was removing his apron. The day was still 'young', or so I thought.

“Rest starts at sundown today,” said Georg, “so we get an early start on it. Klais, you might wish to help him with that apron.”

As my apron was untied, I noticed how dirty I was, and I muttered, “I want to get an early start on a bath.”

There was laughter, at what I had no idea, until Johannes said, “given how you work, I do not need to wonder.”

Once free of the apron, I felt as if burning with heat, crawling with bugs, and filthy as a lampblack-dusted pig. I fetched the jug that Anna had brought, as well as the sack of powder, and wobbled out the door with the others.

By the time I was three houses up the road – the others went in the opposite direction – I felt like I wanted to lay in the horse-trough for an hour, horses or no horses. I needed to cool off badly, and that apron had not helped much with keeping myself or my clothing clean.

When I tapped at the door, Anna opened it. She barely stifled a shriek, then ran as if crazed for the kitchen while yelling, “Hans, he's back.”

“Yes, now what is this?” said Hans from somewhere. I could not see him, and I was so drained I could barely stand, much less think clearly.

“Fetch his other clothing,” said Anna. “I'm glad I'm still set up to do washing, as he's as dirty as a turnip-farmer.”

Anna came back in with a long and somewhat spindly whitish-yellow bar of what might have been soap. She beckoned to me, and as I shuffled into the kitchen, Hans came up from the basement. I was surprised to see him carrying a pair of buckets.

“H-how do p-people bathe here?” I asked.

“We use that thing there,” said Hans as he pointed to that one wide riveted pot, “and it is not easy to do that. The two of us bathed after you left, and we just got the sheets and clothes to going in the oven out there.”

“But how do you f-fit in it?” I asked, as I set the jug and bag down on the kitchen table.

“Hans, that way might work for us passably,” said Anna, “but we do not work in a smithy...”

Here, Anna looked closer, then said, “what did they have you do? I've never seen anyone so dirty in my life.”

“Uh, work on all of the saw blades, then file a lot of buggy parts, do all of their drill bits, and make one saw blade from scratch when someone broke one of the ones I worked on,” I said.

“So he did three people's worth of work,” said Hans, “and he got three people's worth of dirt on him doing it. I can fill that washtub, and once he has his clothes off, we can set them to washing while he gets himself clean.”

I then wobbled out back, and began bathing. I was too sore to do more than take my clothing off down to my underwear and douse myself with a bucket of water before scrubbing, but when Hans brought out my other clothing, I got in the trough and changed my underwear.

“Here is an old cloth so you can dry yourself,” said Hans. “Anna has your clothing boiling.”

“Boiling?” I squeaked, between bursts of chattering teeth. The water was not much warmer than it had been in the morning.

“Yes, they are really bad,” said Hans. “She put a little of that strong soap in with them, so they should get good and clean.”

After drying myself passably, I put on my 'ripped' clothing, and I stumbled back indoors. There, I saw that one large pot on the stove. It was faintly steaming, and Anna was stirring my clothing, much as if she were making a peculiar species of soup or stew. I pulled the white stuff out of my ears, and laid it on the table.

“There,” she said, as she gave the clothing a final stirring. “We can take those out once we come back.”

“Come back?” I asked, as I gathered up the small sack.

“You still look very tired,” said Anna, “and a good meal will help you a lot. We should be able to go to the Public House in a few minutes.”

I put the bag up in my room on the shelf, then came back down to find Hans looking at my boots with a candle in his hand.

“Here, take this,” he said. “Before you put those on, rub them good with the bottom of the candle, and then rub that stuff into them. They should be a lot better by tomorrow.”

I did so, and once I had finished and put them on, I asked, “why are we going to the Public House?”

Hans produced a huge gold coin, then said, “Georg came by while you were bathing, and gave us an advance on your wages. He cannot figure you out, but still, he knows he will do a lot better.”

“He ought to,” said Anna. “One person doing that much work, and getting that dirty doing it?”

“So, he is treating us all to food and drink at that place,” said Hans.

As we made ready to leave, I mumbled, “I hope I am not required to consume that place's beer.”

“I heard about that,” said Anna. “He said how it affected you, and it makes me wonder if you are ill.”

“W-why?” I asked.

“One mouthful, and you were pickled?” asked Anna. “Then, you drink the fermented cider, and become sober that quickly?”

“Yes, that is usually the reverse with that stuff,” said Hans. “It might not be Geneva for strong, but it is not weak. A mug or two of that stuff, and most people are ready for bed, whether the bed is handy or no.”

“Hans, that stuff is terrible for drunkenness,” said Anna.

“I had best not consume too much, then,” I said, “as I am afraid people will hate me for it.”

“Why?” asked Anna.

“I have had drunks abuse me many times,” I stammered. There was more, a lot more, but I could not put my finger on the remainder of the answer right then.

“Those people must have been witches,” said Anna. “Now, we eat.”

By this time, we had passed the shop. The walkway still meandered gently along the side of the road, and as we passed house after house, I wondered what this Public House was like. I seemed to recall those places called 'pubs' where I came from, and I knew it wasn't one of those. It seemed much more likely to be either lifted from a novel, or from a textbook of some kind. The term 'Bierstube' came to me.

“No, I doubt it is one of those,” I thought.

“What is the Public House like?” I asked.

Hans looked at me, then said, “haven't you ever been in one?”

“Not here,” I said, “and I somehow have the impression it isn't like anything I have ever seen, or even heard of.”