What was that place called?”

The 'third ditch' – I knew nothing about the first and second ditches – was where I had taken my stand against the northern thugs, and over the next few days, I continued recovering. I was able to drive small brass rivets by the middle of the week, and raise copper by its end, and more often than when I came home, I could smell flowers indicating Sarah had been present.

I wondered why she seemed to be 'biding her time', and while I seldom saw her, I could always smell her. I wondered more than once how she managed a circuit in such weather as we had, and more, what that 'circuit' was. I had the impression that trying to find her wasn't a good idea.

As I ran another small batch of thimbles Friday evening – I wasn't up to my accustomed hours yet, even if I was close to what the others did – I wondered for a moment what the customs for 'courtship' were. When I took the finished batch of thimbles down to Hans, he said, “Anna was much more straightforward.”

“How is that?” I asked.

“Neither you nor Sarah are entirely here,” he said. “She has never been like most, and the same for you. I think she is waiting so as to spring her mine when it will do the most good for her.”

“Has she done mining too?” I asked. “What kind?”

“That is one of the other common names for traps,” said Hans, “and she is good with chemicals, and learns quick. I did too, but that is the exception for chemistry, and she is able to help me some with those books, even if there is much she does not understand. That is especially so for a lot of those special things beyond sums.”

“How far can she go?” I asked.

“They might teach as far as that stuff that deals with angles,” said Hans, “and beyond that, it isn't taught here, no matter what the school is. She knows that good, and is trying to go further.”

“Angles?” I asked. “Geometry?”

“Now you have done it,” said Hans, “as I could not say that word, and one of those books calls it that.”

Hans paused, then said, “still, she is good with those jugs. I have never seen anyone with fingers like hers.”

“In what way?” I asked. “She seems to have especially dainty hands.”

“She could do watchmaking, I think,” said Hans, “and I have seen her splice threads before. That takes good eyes and a delicate touch, and I think Anna should apprentice her for what she does.”

“B-blood... N-no, please, no...” I moaned.

“I know,” said Hans, “and you handle that part worse than I do. Still, this part is as important at the least, and you do that good, that and those heating lamps.”

“I should have some clamps soon,” I said. “I just need to turn the parts that need turning on the lathe.”

The reality regarding the clamps in question was that I was doing a fairly large number of them, and was doing their pieces in batch-mode. I had cast more of them during the last few days, along with more bronze parts to the various sizes of knives, bushing stock, castings for another grist-mill, two sets of castings for 'close' powder measures, and the remaining bronze parts for the steam engine.

That weekend, I fitted new wood pieces to the revolver – I made a new screw, as well as a pair of bronze bushings to bear against the wood – machined several more steam engine parts, and worked on the clamp-castings. Their number was such that I was beginning to want a dedicated milling machine of some kind, and I found the quickest way to get good accuracy was to rough-file the parts 'close', machine them with the various cutters, and finish them by deburring with fine files.

When Hans saw the number of castings, however, he whistled, then asked, “what gives with all these clamp-castings?”

“You need some, Korn needs some, I need some, and I would bet some spares would be a good idea,” I said. “Besides, I had an impression these things would have a sizable market.”

“I am not sure if that is true,” said Hans. “Who were you thinking of?”

“Jewelers, for one thing,” I said. “They might not need as many as I might want, or what you or Korn might want, but I could easily see them wanting at least two or three for their shops.”

“I think you are right,” said Hans, “and there are lots of jewelers.”

Before bedtime Sunday night, however, I brought down one of the first three tinned copper mugs I had made and filled it with beer, then took it back upstairs. Once in bed – the door was mostly closed – I drank the thing in a hurry and tried to lay down. I didn't quite make it before I blacked out, and when I awoke in the morning...

“Why do I feel so strange?” I thought, as I looked around a room that seemed to have softly pulsating walls of a ghostly and diaphanous nature. “Why does my head feel five times its normal size?”

I felt my head, and my fingers were as numb as if injected with a local anesthetic. I tried to get some normal sensation in them, and as I tried to massage them back to life, I looked at the blanket. It was rippling in a rhythmic fashion, much as if it were the surface of a large lake and the wind was blowing. I stood up and nearly fell over, and as I tried to thread my legs into my trousers – they seemed alive and uncommonly frisky – I softly murmured, “w-what is happening to me?”

The room was filled with hollow-sounding echoes of my voice, and it took what seemed a full minute for the echoes to die out.

My bladder then found me, and it had my attention. I looked at walls that now wiggled strangely, and as I made for the uncommonly mobile doorway while feeling made of rubber, I noted the room's smell. The odor of beer was profound, and the elastic aspect of my body was disquieting to say the least.

The hallway seemed to be twice as tall as it normally was, with its shape that of a sinuously wiggling trapezoid, and the stairs seemed carpeted with tendrils of wavering mist. I wobbled down the stairs, turned to the right – I needed to turn left, then lean right at nearly a forty-five degree angle while dodging my own feet and their tendency to move backwards – and then made for the kitchen. There, I saw Hans and Anna packing for what looked to be a lengthy journey of some kind.

I wobbled past them, however, for now my bladder was truly complaining, and once in the privy, I watered the place for what seemed an hour and a half. In the foul-smelling darkness, the room seemed to have a strange shape – it had more than four walls, and could not make up its mind as to the precise number – and its size was vastly larger than normally.

The nonsense continued when I washed, for the water was not merely 'thicker', it was also 'wetter', and the sense of wetness remained even after I used the towels. I then emerged into the kitchen, and I wobbled up to where Anna was loading the wicker baskets with 'provisions'.

“W-where are you g-going?” I asked. The echoes were now enough to drive me out of my mind.

“You are to have your fitting today,” said Anna. “Normally, I would say 'fit', but I do not wish to start something.”

The room grew abruptly to half again its normal size, then shrank while its walls wiggled, and I said in a hollowed-out and sepulchral voice – it belonged in a tomb somewhere – “I f-feel strange, as if I am not here all the way. What has happened to me?”

“You normally are not here all the way,” said Anna, “so why should this be different?” Anna's knowing tone now seemed the product of something other than presumption or observation.

“I told you a jug was too much,” said Hans as he came around me on the left. “Half of one was plenty, but you had to put in a whole one, and I had to lead him to the privy most of the night.”

The sense of embarrassment I normally felt when such things happened was abstracted in a strange manner, but as Hans continued, the room slowly rotated clockwise and wobbled up and down.

“He acted like he was blind, and talked to the walls constantly,” said Hans. “At least he is relaxed enough to have his fit today.”

“F-fit?” I gasped. The word echoed endlessly.

“Yes, for clothing,” said Hans. “I don't much care for such things. Normally, I do not want Geneva when I am not sick, but those things make for wanting a mug of the stuff before doing them.”

Hans paused, then said, “now you will want to take all of your things, as this is a long trip, and will most likely take much of the day, between getting there and back.”

“W-what time is it?” I asked.

“Dark enough that I'm glad for good lanterns and thick wax candles,” said Anna. “We should be able to go shortly.”

Getting 'fully dressed' – cloak, stockings, trekking boots – and fetching all of my supplies took roughly ten minutes, and by that time, both baskets and several jugs had been loaded in the buggy. Anna led me out by the hand and helped me into the rear of the buggy's box, then to my surprise, she began moving the baskets around.

“We'll eat in an hour or so,” she said. “This might not be the season for trekking, but this trip is long enough to be good practice.”

“Yes, which is why I brought a heating lamp and mess-kit,” said Hans. “I think you might want a blanket, just in case.”

“B-blanket?” I asked.

“It is still cold out,” said Hans, “and you are still hurt and sick from that ditch thing, so you should not try to get sicker. Anna packed some Kuchen so you can eat on the way over.”

I was handed both 'muskets', and as I checked them over, Anna brought up the horses. They seemed unusually 'steamy' for some reason, and when the front doors opened, I was amazed.

“Uh, real sunrise isn't for at least an hour,” I said.

“That is true,” said Hans, “and this trip is a good distance in this weather, especially with the snow like it is. I hope the stuff is packed up solid, as we can go faster then.”

The thick snow in the main street of the town was indeed packed hard, and the buggy slid crazily more often than not for the first few minutes. As we passed the Public House, I asked, “is it common to travel armed?”

“That is the usual,” said Hans, “unless one is but a short distance from home. Then, there are witches after you, and those northern people show now and then, so it is good to be armed all the time.”

“Uh, pigs in this weather?” I asked. I heard the faintest trace of an echo in my speech, and the distorted sound was not comforting to hear.

“Those can show anytime,” said Hans, “and they commonly are like that one over near Maarten's. They show when they show, and usually with little warning.”

Hans paused, then sipped from a mug.

“Then, because it is dark a lot, witches do their business this time of year,” said Hans, “and they need powder and lead in them should they show, and finally, there is that chief stonemason. Talk has it he was banned from a number of drink-houses recently, and he might have ideas. He wants a two-barreled fowling piece, and both barrels with full loads.”

“Is he inclined that way?” I asked. The dead witch was just ahead.

“He needs a lot of powder and lead in him,” muttered Anna. “That wretch causes a lot of trouble, and the only reason he hasn't been hung out to dry is he's especially good with building.”

“Yes, and talk has it some people want to try to do that just the same,” said Hans.

“Just the same, he treads on thin ice,” said Anna. “If ever someone was full of himself, it would be that man.”

“I know the remedy for that trouble,” said Hans. “We should get more uncorking medicine soon.”

“I have thought about dosing him,” said Anna. “Someone asked the other day about that white powder you have hid in the basement.”

“It is hid for a good reason,” said Hans, “as it is an especially deadly poison. It might not be as bad as some things, but it is trouble just the same, and I need to keep it wrapped up good so it does not go bad from too much light.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“I think it is a type of arsenic,” said Hans. “There are some to the south that call that stuff old knitting.”

“Old knitting?” I asked.

“Yes, and I wrapped it up good in some knit stuff, too,” said Hans. “There was talk of an old woman in the second kingdom house who liked to knit, and that name comes from what she did.”

Hans paused, and I could hear him sip from a mug. The lanterns to each side of the buggy wavered as the thing slid now and then when the snow grabbed more than usual at the wheels.

“She was wealthy and unscrupulous,” said Hans, “and was as vengeful as anything, and she used her knitting to keep records of who she wanted dead. When they searched her house after her death a year or so ago, they found twenty big canisters full of fine white powder, and those things were in a laboratory where she made chemicals.”

“Was that why you went over there after that witch died?” asked Anna.

“Yes, that especially,” said Hans. “That place had no bugs, mice, rats, or other common vermin in it, and I got two of those canisters so as to figure that stuff out. Good rat poison is much wanted.”

“Are rats a problem here?” I asked.

“Those things are trouble,” said Hans, “especially in the spring, as that is when the new crop of them comes in. Then, some houses, especially those of farmers, seem to have trouble with them all the time.”

“Does Paul have trouble with rats?” I asked.

“The children keep their slingshots busy there,” said Hans, “and I gave him some more cough medicine, as he told me about what it does to rats should they drink the stuff.”

“What happens?” I asked.

“They like that stuff,” said Hans, “and it gives them trouble. Still, they do not die from it.”

“What does it do?”

“I have never heard of rats jumping around and hanging from clothing before,” said Hans, “but when they get into that stuff, they do that. It makes them a lot easier to catch, and the manure pile is busy over there with them.”

“No, Hans,” said Anna. “I will not let you bait the rats with cough medicine. They are enough trouble when they are their usual selves.”

The road now passed through the town where the shoemaker did business. The stillness of the place was astonishing, at least until we passed the Public House. I could almost hear the firewood catching fire in the multitude of stoves the place had.

After passing the turnoff to where Maarten lived, the road narrowed further, and the buggy seemed to speed up a trifle. The snow somehow felt gritty as well as hard-packed, and as the buggy slid now and then, I noted a 'groove' in the snow about five feet across with thick-tossed fluffy white stuff to each side.

As 'true dawn' showed in the west – 'apparent dawn' would be a while yet, and I wondered how I could tell the difference in my current state of mind – I saw long snow-covered lines of stones dividing what I guessed to be fields. The lines meandered slightly, and now and then, a single house showed. Single houses tended to be rare, or so I thought, and as we passed one after another, I noted their near-identical architecture, their 'sheds', and now and then, what might have been a barn.

“Why are there no barns in town?” I asked.

“Because you have not looked for those things,” said Hans. “About one house in three has one, though they tend to be smaller things compared to what Paul has. Most are not much bigger than where the horses are at home.”

“And out here?” I asked.

“If you live in a town, and you want a good-sized barn,” said Hans, “you either need to have your house and fields at the end of the place like Paul has, or you need to be one of the first people to build your house in the place. Otherwise, you live where there is room like these people do.”

Apparent sunrise happened earlier than I expected, and as the blackness faded to a dull gray that steadily brightened, I wondered at the lack of snowfall. A brief break in the clouds showed a pale bluish-white disk surrounded by a thick halo of mist, and as the clouds closed back up and the place went 'dark' again, I wondered if I had seen 'the winter sun' that I had heard spoken of.

“The snow seems to have stopped mostly,” said Hans, as he caught the buggy trying to slide sideways around a bend in the road. “It does not seem likely to put much more on the ground.”

“Thaw?” I asked.

“That will be later,” said Hans, “as there is a lot more snow than the usual.”

“What if it rains like it snowed?” asked Anna. “Then we will have muddy roads.”

A squirming bladder got my attention, and when I saw a nearby 'bush', I asked for a stop. I wobbled over to the bush, and as I watered it, I noted I felt less 'wobbly' and more 'focused and calm'. I returned to my seat, and the buggy resumed its travel south.

The absence of traffic on the roads made for wondering, so much so that as we passed through an unusually large woodlot that straddled the road, I yawned while looking at the 'asleep-seeming' trees.

“Why are there so few on the roads?” I asked. “Is it the time of day?”

“That is part of it,” said Hans, “but much of it is the time of year. If you are a farmer, as most are, then this is when you mend your equipment, your house, your clothing, and your other things, and also when you jug your beer and Geneva.”

“And do things to sell,” said Anna.

“That too,” said Hans, “though that tends to be more common later in the year, especially during the time just after planting.”

Hans paused, then said, “most farmers have a lot of jugs, many more than we do, and they have beer-rooms in their basements where they store the things. Winter-beer tends to taste better, and a long time in the jug helps the taste. I've noticed the difference with ours, now that we're running bigger batches when we run beer.”

“That and the distillery,” said Anna. “I'm glad it works so well on the stove.”

“Paul is saving up for one,” said Hans. “I've heard you were working on some more of those things.”

“I just resumed work on those late last week,” I said. “It might be another week or so before I'm able to work a full day.”

“Hans, we need to get more jugs,” said Anna a moment later. She was looking out toward her side for something I could not see.

“I have a number of bomb-jugs made up, and I have sent out for more of them,” said Hans.

“No, regular jugs,” said Anna.

“Why?” I asked.

“I think that is because Sarah is at the house so much,” said Hans. “She drinks a great deal of beer, and she likes cough medicine. She tends to cough a fair amount, and I doubt she is making it up. She tends to fret a lot.”

“She has a lot to fret over,” said Anna. “Witches are not easy to deal with, and she does have them come after her more than most – about as much as Maarten, actually.”

The road now wound slightly as it passed by woodlots, and roads going east and west showed periodically. Anna turned to me and reached into one of the baskets, then handed me a Kuchen. While the thing itself was stationary, it seemed to have an oddly mobile yellowish tint, and as I bit into it, it made a strange groaning noise, almost as if it were alive. I looked at it, touched it carefully, then resumed eating the thing.

Another town came, and now I noticed activity in the place. The slowness, however, was palpable, with much yawning, drowsiness, and sluggish behavior, and as we passed the Public House at the south end of the town, I could almost hear the noise in the place. It almost made up for the lack of activity elsewhere.

“How many people eat in the Public House in the mornings?” I asked.

“A good portion of town, at least this time of year,” said Anna. “It tends to be less when there isn't snow on the ground.”

Another two hours of steady travel – two more 'bush stops', two cups of cider, several more side-branching roads that Hans spoke of as leading to other towns, two more towns, over two dozen houses, and a great many fields, meadows, and woodlots – we came to a larger left-leading side-road that climbed slightly. As we turned, I saw an unusually large woodlot but a short distance ahead.

“Is this the way to the king's house?” I asked.

“It is,” said Anna. “If we have time after your fitting, we need to go into that place so as to get some supplies.”

“Paper, too,” said Hans.

“That I can get at the house proper,” said Anna. “I know someone there.”

“How big is this place?” I asked.

“The house proper, or the town itself?”

“Both,” I asked. We were now in the woodlot, and it looked to be nearly half a mile wide.

“The house is the largest town in the first kingdom,” said Anna, “and while the ones like it to the south tend to be larger, this one isn't at all small. The house proper is a good deal smaller than home.”

“It is not that much smaller,” said Hans, “not if you count the grounds in back. The main building is over a hundred paces for long and thirty or more for wide.”

“Hans, that place is strange that way,” said Anna. “It feels a lot bigger inside than it looks from the outside.” Anna paused, then turned, saying, “about how much paper will you need?”

“A few sheets, if they are the size of those in the ledger,” I said. “If they are bigger...”

“I'll try to get book-sized,” said Anna. “Your drawings might be fairly neat, but they also tend toward the cramped, at least those in that thing seem that way.”

Breaking out of the woodlot showed more of the same we had been passing through, with snow-deluged meadows, fields under cultivation – they too were covered with snow, but I could see long straggling lines of stones, which meant they were being used for crops – houses, and also more side-roads. The 'groove' here was wider, hard-packed, and somewhat lumpy, and within moments, I could hear someone coming from the rear. They seemed to be in a hurry.

I wondered why I could not see them, until suddenly the lead animals burst out of the woodlot. Their tall stature, gray coloration, and straining aspect made for marveling, as did their thrashing hooves on the slick and slippery ice-sprinkled snow.

“Hans, someone is coming,” I said, as the animals fought to gain traction. I wondered if they were horses, for their fractious nature was almost beyond belief.

Hans turned, then steered to the right out of the groove. Our horses instantly had trouble, so much so that I leaped over the side and began pushing on the rear of the buggy, and within seconds, Anna had joined me. The buggy now moved much easier – it had a good deal less weight – and as Hans drove to near the side of the road, I noticed an odor that I had smelled before.

“Are those mules?” I asked, as I stood up from my pushing.

Anna turned, then ran for the front of the buggy, saying, “I would get ready for gunfire. That's a coach, and it has a team of six.”

I got back into the buggy, and uncovered both rifle and loading equipment. I sat down, lifted the hammer to half-cock, and capped the weapon. I then looked up.

I could now see an obvious 'coach' with six huge gray 'horses' that were trying to gallop-in-place while the vehicle bounced from one side of the 'groove' to the other. The driver – full black outfit, including box-hat – was using his whip with abandon on his animals, while the animals themselves leaped, plunged, and 'roared'. I hoped the vehicle's occupants would mind their own business. The mules, I wondered about.

It was not to be. As the coach drew within a hundred yards, someone leaned out of the side with an obvious weapon pointed our way, and I mounted my rifle as I heard a boom from the right side, then the left. The coachman looked down, and as he reached for something, I fired between his legs.

The coach disintegrated in a brilliant blast of such magnitude that we were showered with flaming wreckage as a billowing whitish-red fireball climbed lazily into the sky, and as my ears rang like chimes, Hans came wobbling over. He looked to be trashed.

“That one had dynamite in it,” he said, “and it went up when you shot that thing. Now where did you shoot it?'

“The driver was reaching down for something,” I said, “and I thought to scare him enough...”

“I think he is scared of Brimstone, as he is supping with that lizard,” said Hans. “That whole thing is scattered good.”

I looked to my left to see where Anna was, and as I looked, I saw that she was sucking down the contents of a mug. Fragments of foul-smelling wreckage littered the area, and a huge smoking black space lay to our rear.

“Uh, Anna?” I asked.

She paused for a moment, then looked at me.

“Are you all right?”

“I hope to be soon,” she said. “I did not expect that thing to explode like that.”

I helped push the buggy back into the groove, then once underway, I began cleaning the guns. The spit-and-tallow regime got all three clean fairly quickly, and once I had reloaded them, I passed the other two back to Anna.

The lumpy aspect of the groove continued, as did its gritty seeming that made for hissing now and then as the buggy slid. I ate another Kuchen, and needed a bush-stop a short time later.

After some time – I guessed as to an hour, for it seemed about the time of the morning guzzle at the shop – I could see the outskirts of a large city to our left. The current road split into three somewhat narrower examples, and at the juncture of the roads, Hans took the one going furthest to the left. I wondered as to where the road-signs were, even as the city itself loomed steadily larger in the distance.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“This is Huislaan,” said Hans, “as it leads to the house proper. The Oestwaag leads through the heart of the city, and should we need to get chemicals, the shop is on that road. It's just on the edge of the black region.”

“The Swartsburg?” I gasped.

“Those that live there call it otherwise,” said Anna, “but those who wish to stay clear of it call it that, among other things. Most of those other names are less polite.”

“And that coach?” I asked.

“That thing was most likely going to head up the Oestwaag,” said Hans, “and then go into the black region. Lately, talk has it there are well-hid mules there.”

“And they run those things openly more often than not,” I said. “They might practice some discretion otherwise, but they act like they own that place. Is it very large?”

“About as wide as home is for long, and a bit less than that for wide,” said Hans.

“It's bigger than that,” said Anna. “I've heard it's nearly half a mile on a side.”

“There were three roads,” I said. “What is the one on the right?”

“That is the Suedwaag,” said Anna, “and that place where the one road becomes three is called the crow's foot.”

Crows?” I asked.

“Those are more common to the south,” said Hans. “Some say they are ravens, but those things are a lot bigger.”

“They're solid black, too,” said Anna. “Crows have yellow beaks and feet.”

The groove began to steadily fade, then with a sudden abruptness, it 'vanished' to show what looked like a strangely regular rounded gravel matrix. The buggy quit sliding, and now clattered over the bumpy stuff. We were now on the verge of the city proper, and as we passed the first houses, I asked, “do they keep the streets cleared of snow here?”

“They drag them most days,” said Hans, “though some places get dragged more than others. I've heard tell the more money the shops in an area have, the more often and the better they are dragged.”

“Dragged?” I asked.

“Yes, with a snow-drag,” said Hans. “They look like sleds, and when they are dragged across the surface of the snow, they scoop up some of it and pile it in the box.”

“And where do they dump the snow?” I asked.

“That gets piled at the end of the streets,” said Hans, “which is where the cold-houses usually are. Those running those places are freezing every pan they have right now.”

“Cold-houses?” I asked. “Do they keep ice in them?”

“They usually keep some ice until early summer,” said Hans, “though by planting, it tends to be dear. Selling ice tends to be steady work, even if it is not the best-paying trade.”

We now passed a side-street, and as I looked down its length – it was about a hundred yards long – I saw a huge field piled high with snow surrounding a 'mound' with double-doors. One of them was partly open, and two men were drawing a small sledge into the place.

“That is a cold-house,” said Anna, as she saw me looking, “and they are taking in the pans. Ice-work tends to be busiest during the winter.”

“Do they keep the snow, or do they use it to freeze the water?” I asked.

“They freeze water,” said Hans. “I am not certain if they boil the stuff beforehand, but most people know that cold-house ice is not to be eaten.”

“Pans?” I asked.

“I'm surprised you haven't had cold-house pans to do,” said Hans.

“That is because most of those things come from the fifth kingdom,” said Anna.

“What do they look like?” I asked.

“Like pots, save with a taper to their sides,” said Hans, “and the good ones hold two or more gallons easy. That size needs setting out two or three times a day and then dumping the ice.”

“How do they get the ice to not stick to them?” I asked. “Tallow?”

“That I have wondered about,” said Hans. “Now up here is where one goes to get cooking equipment, down that road there.”

“What is it called?” I asked.

Kokstraat,” said Anna, who pronounced it 'coke-straight'. “They have more than just cooking equipment, as this place isn't like the fourth kingdom's market.”

“And Public Houses?” I asked.

“There is one of those up ahead,” said Hans. “This place has at least five that I know of, not counting those in the black region. There is one just off of Kokenstraat that is bad.”

“Bad?” I asked.

“The Swartsburg is not the only place that has those witches in it,” said Hans. “There are places that cater to mostly witches in town outside of that place.”

“And Maarlaan?” I asked.

“That is in the middle of the Swartsburg,” said Anna, “as is Neerplats and some other places that are as bad.”

The smell of some kind of 'sweets' seemed to enchant my nose, and I looked to see another street, this one branching off to the right. I pointed at it, then asked, “what is that one called?”

“If I go by the smell,” said Anna, “I would call it Beschuitstraat. They must be baking something.”

“Yes, but what is that something?” I asked.

“I've not smelled those before,” asked Anna, “so I cannot tell. I might know what I know, but with cooking, there is a great deal I don't know, and I've wanted to learn more for a long time.”

“Yes, and Esther is too busy to teach cooking,” said Hans, “and that is when she is not sick.”

We passed 'Marktplats' on the left some minutes later, where the road turned slightly to the left. Marktplats went to both right and left, and here, I saw the 'gravel' plainly: dark rounded things set in a mortar matrix.

“Are there shops here?” I asked.

“Most of these places are those,” said Hans, “though they are like home for living in. The real shops are in the center of town, and there, they do not live in those places, at least most of those who work in them.”

I now saw my first example of 'traffic'. This was a buggy with a two-horse team, and it headed the other way as we passed it. The 'box' had a number of sizable cloth bags, and while the driver was not in a hurry, he was not wasting time, either.

A possible cause for the lack of traffic soon showed, however, as a large Public House sat on the corner of Mangenwaag, and the crowded yard – twice the size of the one at home, and more crowded than any such place I'd seen yet – indicated much business.

“The morning guzzle?” I asked, as I pointed at the place.

“What did you say?” asked Anna.

“What do you call the usual morning break they have at the shop?” I asked. “Two mugs is the usual then, and periodic sips the rest of the time, and another two mugs or so for lunch.”

Anna shook her head, then said, “that place doesn't just sell food. If one wants news, that is one of the best places in the town for it, and I imagine about half of those people are from the surrounding area.”

“Uh, deals?”

“This is not the fifth kingdom,” said Hans, “and that is not a drink-house, so they do not do such things. I think most might find out who is buying and selling, and things most freighters want to know if they are up here, such as the better roads and things like that. There are a fair number of places to the east and south that are reached by the Oestwaag, and hence one wants to stop in a place like that to find out.”

We left the busy Public House behind, and suddenly another buggy showed. This vehicle had two horses, which seemed the usual, but when I saw the passengers, their 'bundled' nature, dark brown 'berets', and odd silence made for wondering – at least, wondering on my part.

“What are friars doing up here?” asked Anna.

“Friars?” I asked. “What do they do?”

“If they are from the fourth kingdom,” said Hans, “they mostly study old manuscripts.”

“Are they connected with the hall here?” I asked.

“That is not likely,” said Hans. “Those people here like to eat too much.”

“Eat too much?” I asked. “Who, the friars?”

“They tend to not have much money,” said Hans, “and they must be careful with what they have. When your chief customer is the higher schools, you do not earn much as a rule, unless you also lecture. I have heard many of them do that.”

As we passed the 'friars' – they had a fair amount of supplies in their buggy, much of which looked to be food – I noted the width of the street itself. It seemed about twenty feet wide. Ahead, I saw an area that looked vaguely familiar, and as we went past a street that sounded as if it had a busy sawmill nearby, I asked, “what is this area?”

“That street we just passed is Houtlaan,” said Hans, “and there are a lot of carpenter's things there. This part tends to be a bit less good for looks, but it does a lot of work.”

“This reminds me of that one dream with the hunting witches,” I said, “and th-that b-b-building is the g-guardhouse!”

“Where?” asked Anna.

“That place?” I said. “There's a trick door there.”

“What is this about a trick door?” asked Hans.

“It has a knob that is gripped in a special fashion,” I said, “so that one fingers the hidden button, which allows the knob to turn and unlocks the door.”

“Does it go anywhere?” asked Hans. The answer was obvious to me.

“It leads to a really old passage with a second hidden door in the floor,” I said, “and that door leads to another even older passage. The witches used that route to get to that really smelly room where they sacrificed that girl.”

“I have seen some locking doorknobs without keys in that fourth kingdom market,” said Hans, “and there are two types. One of them has a button, and another type does not. Those without the buttons are the strangest ones, and they call those marked doors.”

“Marked doors?” I asked.

“Those old tales speak of those people not needing keys to open locked doors,” said Hans. “If they have one of those, it is likely they got one of those old things in the scrap-market and had it remade, as those things I have seen like that were bad.”

“Remade?” I asked.

“Much like you do with guns,” said Anna. “Those things tend to be unusable the way they are when sold.”

“Yes, and misers like those doors, as few common thieves can figure them,” said Hans.

“Uh, how do I recognize those?” I asked. “One of them might show.”

“Locking doorknobs with no key, or a miser?” asked Hans.

“Both, if possible,” I said. “Someone spoke of misers already, I think, but I've only seen one type of doorknob so far.”

“Misers act like witches,” said Hans, “even though they hide such behavior better than most, and they do not usually dress in black stuff. Talk has it they are commonly drunk, and they are usually tricky. The doorknobs are usually solid dirt and corrosion, and the fitting is said to need care, skill, and a fair amount of work.”

Hans paused, sipped from his mug, then continued, saying, “only the best instrument-makers can manage them. Still, I have heard of those people tossing the money at the miser and then telling him to leave, unless they were starving.”

“I'd best be looking out for such knobs, then,” I murmured.

“Those are not common up here,” said Hans. “If that place had one, then it is the first such place I've heard about in this area.”

“Hans, you don't go into the Swartsburg much, do you?” asked Anna. “Sarah has told me few people want those things unless they are witches.”

The town proper now became steadily less dense as the angle of elevation increased slightly, then suddenly, as if a line was crossed, the town abruptly ended, as did the road. We were again in a region of thick snow, with a narrow 'groove' worn in the road, thick fluffy snow showing everywhere, and now and then, tall trees. Under one of these trees, the snow had been mostly cleared, and a small group of animals that looked like sheep appeared to be eating the grass.

“Why do those animals have such thick padded blankets on them?” I asked.

“Those things are sheep,” said Hans, “and that is about a third of the house-flock. I am glad they have the blankets on them, as most of those things are in barns in this weather.”

“And cattle?” I asked.

“Those would be in barns also,” said Hans. “Now are you speaking of work-cattle, or those for food?”

“Work?” I asked. “They use cattle for work? What kind of work?”

“If you are a farmer,” said Hans, “you want at least two of those bulls, or know someone who has them, as they are good for lots of things on a farm, especially rough plowing or removing stumps. Two can get out a big stump easy, if the chain is made fast proper and it holds.”

“The chain?” I asked. “What happens?”

“That is said to be the best test of a chain,” said Anna. “One makes it fast to a big stump, and puts a pair of well-fed bulls on the other end. If the stump comes out and the chain isn't badly stretched, then it is a good chain.”

“Those are the cattle for working,” said Hans. “For eating, that depends. Straight-horn bulls, like that one that tried for us, are common for eating in some places, though they are tough and stringy...”

“And of poor flavor,” said Anna. Her 'testy' voice indicated she might well have had such meat.

“And then, there are these mean black ones that are a bit smaller,” said Hans. “They make the common ones up here look small.”

“Salt meat?” I asked. “It isn't beef, as a rule, is it?”

“Salt meat is usually deer or elk,” said Anna, “or if it is especially bad, an old cow that is too old for milk. Most cattle up here, if they are the ones liked, are too prized to end in a stew pot.”

“Only witches dump their cattle that way,” said Hans. “There is a lot of game, just the same. But that is here. Down south some, they have those mean black ones, and they drive those things up during the freighting season, both on the hoof and already salted.”

“Drive?” I asked. I could just see a meandering cattle drive wrecking all in its path, especially given its population of 'mean black cattle'.

“They are best brought up live,” said Anna. “They do not do a good job down south of caring for those. Besides, when they bring them up, the fresh meat brings people from miles around.”

“Who brings up those cattle?” I asked, as the buggy slid for a second.

“Those would be drovers,” said Hans, “and they need two drovers to the bull, one in front, and the other in the rear, with padding on the horns and mash twice a day.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Those black ones are worse than anything about charging,” said Hans.

“Do they have batteries?” I asked.

“Now what is this?” asked Hans. “I have yet to see a bull with cannons, though those black ones are hazardous enough to make me wonder if they eat gunpowder.”

“Bad joke,” I said. “There is a device called a battery that stores electrical energy, and we have most of what is needed to make one particular type.”

“Yes, and what would those things be?” asked Hans.

“We have crocks,” I said, “and lead. I wonder if we have this one particular kind of acid that uses sulfur...”

“Hans, I think he means what you used to make blasting oil,” said Anna.

“Ah, I have some of that stuff still,” said Hans. “It is called oil of vitriol, and it is bad for burns should you get it on you. It goes bad if the air gets to it, only with the glassware, I can make it right again.”

“How?” I asked.

“It distills easy,” said Hans, “and if it is kept jugged, and the jugs are good ones with good corks, it stays good for a lot longer. That is especially so if it is Oleum.”

“Oleum?” I asked. I had heard the term used before, but had trouble relating it to anything.

“That is the strongest type, and has bad fumes,” said Hans. “That is what you use to make blasting oil, and then this strange stuff made with vegetable fiber.”

“Vegetable fiber?” I asked.

“That white stuff that goes in your ears,” said Anna. “That is the raw material, and when it's combed and woven, it makes those towels.”

“That stuff with vegetable fiber dissolves in aquavit and these two other chemicals,” said Hans, “and then it turns into a thick syrup. I put some of that on a plate, let it try good, and it went strange on me. I thought it might be a good place to put hot pots, as it was this mottled yellowish brown stuff.”

Hearing Hans describe his manufacture of cellulose nitrate wasn't a recipe for sound nerves, even as I watched the near-endless field stretch toward the horizon in all directions. I recalled the long underground trip that chanting witch-pack had made, then the gentle upgrade we were on. The groove seemed to have gravel, at the least, so we were not sliding backwards.

“That stuff was awful, Hans,” said Anna. “I thought Brimstone had showed when it caught fire.”

“Caught fire?” I said in alarm.

“Worse than a pan-full of priming powder,” said Anna. “I opened the oven, a spark came out, and it went up like that mortar full of Torga, only worse for light and noise.”

“What did it look like?” I asked.

“Like glass, except flexible and darker in color,” said Anna. “I wondered if it might help for bandaging wounds if applied as a liquid.”

“If you cut that stuff up,” I said, “you could load it into cannons, and it would cause trouble.” I wondered for the reason as to why I thought to speak thusly, until I saw that we had come to a wide plateau. In the distance to the right, a tall building part-hidden by trees and climbing creepers seemed to take precedence over all it surveyed, while to our left was a huge stand of tall trees some distance away. I had not seen either before now.

“Cannons are enough trouble the way they are,” said Hans, “and Willem would not wish them to be worse.”

The road now continued straight, with a wide field – easily three hundred yards across, and half again as wide – to our right. The building showed traces of medium brown amid its snow-covered creepers, and the trees themselves were not merely to the south corners. They were at the rear of this building as well, and that portion was sizable enough to make for wondering.

As the road curved to the right at the edge of the field, I saw an endless-seeming series of woodlots and fields heading north and east. The whole region seemed more or less uncultivated, and only when Hans spoke again did I come to myself. We were but a hundred feet or so from the building, and ahead lay an imposing structure that scared me.

“Now we need to be looked at,” said Hans.

“L-looked at?” I gasped. The structure ahead looked simultaneously medieval, modern, forbidding, and terrifying, with small green-tile-roofed stone huts to each side of the iron-infested stone pillars. A tall hedge stood to the left of the structure, and its snow-covered tops seemed only to add to the forbidding nature of what lay before us.

“Yes, that is important,” said Hans, as he neared the open-to-the-world portion of the masonry 'wings' that stretched forth as if a devouring maw.

I hid my rifle and supplies under the blanket, then thought to join them. The whole feeling of the place was that of something unlike anything I knew, and as I glanced at the upper portion of the structure that barred our path, I seemed to see a horrible thing, one that I had only read about...

The black iron bars of the structure slowly became threaded with rust and faintly glowing with reddish fire, then as the crude-looking letters over the gate itself became steadily more apparent, the expression itself burned its way into my soul, and I screamed soundlessly with with the knowledge of where I was being taken.

“N-no,” I moaned. “No!”

“What is wrong?” asked Anna.

“Th-that g-gate,” I said. “It says work makes f-freedom, and I've r-read about it.”

“How?” asked Anna. “We don't have those books at home, so how can you read of it?”

“W-where I came from,” I said. “I r-read about it th-there.”

I paused, even as Hans came to a stop amid the foul-reeking smoke of the crematoria, then asked, “read of it here?”

“Yes, several old tales speak of it,” said Anna. “One was called 'Smokestack Heroes', and it spoke of a gate...”

Here, Anna turned, then said, “what are you seeing?”

“A g-gate,” I said, “with two guardhouses...”

As I spoke, however, someone came from the right guardhouse, and the whole thing abruptly vanished upon his appearing: lacy-looking frilly stuff, tight sleeves that went down to the wrists, tighter-yet trousers, and glossy black buckled shoes, with a small brown leather 'skullcap', wide brown leather belt, and a belt-holding strap going over the left shoulder. A glance at what his belt held spoke as to the likely reason for the strap, at the least:

A sheathed knife, only this example wasn't the size that seemed 'common' among men. This example seemed larger.

A long and somewhat ungainly sword that almost dragged the stone of the knee-high platform he was walking on.

A brace of 'pirate-special' flintlock pistols.

A 'sporran' or whatever one called a smaller and more ornate 'musket-supplies' pouch that hung from the belt and not on a strap.

“Didn't those things have hair on them?” I thought. “He looks ridiculous.”

The man came closer, looked briefly for a moment, then went back to his 'hut'. I then saw the red-painted 'crossing guard' that now raised up as the wings of the gate opened. Hans began to drive forward.

I now saw details I had missed before. The platform was hub-high to the buggy, and of dressed stone set neatly in mortar, while the huts themselves were of similar construction. The pillars upon which the gate swung were thick, old-looking, of dressed stone, and strapped with iron, and the gate itself?

It had enough obvious hot-rivets among its iron bars and straps to provide nightmares in the daytime, especially as these weren't fifteen-line rivets. They were a good deal larger.

The hedge to the left, I now saw, had a deeply-buried head-high stone wall, and on the right side, another such hedge hid the lower portion of the building. I looked up and nearly made myself dizzy with the height of what we were now passing, and as I looked ahead and between Hans and Anna, I noted not merely the size of the building, but also, what lay beyond. I could see another building about a hundred or so yards away.

“Uh, our guns?” I asked.

“We are well-known here,” said Anna, “and I suspect you are too. Should there be trouble here, those who are armed are expected to help.”

Anna paused, then said, “I know of at least one plot that we helped stop while visiting, and Hans shot one of those involved.”

“I am glad that wretch did not have his jug lit,” said Hans. “It was full of the lighter grade of distillate.”

“Who was he?” I asked. We had gone perhaps fifty feet, and there was still a good deal of building left to pass.

“He was an incendiary,” said Anna, “and he had a price on his head. That jug ended him on his burn-pile, along with the other three. They had jugs too. Then, there are traitors.”

“T-traitors?” I asked. There was still another twenty feet or so of building left.

“Those get outlawed to the ultimate degree when they are found out,” said Anna, “and treason-plots happen every so often. The last one happened when I was a girl, and the burn-piles smoked for two days before they and their evil was done.”

“Two days?” I asked. We were finally reaching the obvious end of the building, and the place was bigger than I thought it was.

“The traitors, their families, their friends, all that knew them or knew of them, their homes, their animals, and their property,” said Anna. “Traitors are said to be among the worst sorts of witches.”

Hans passed the end of the building by a good twenty feet, and as I looked to the right, I saw why. The building itself might have ended, but it had a wide stone-floored stoop that ran to the end of the building, and as he completed the half-circle, I marveled at the nature of the stoop's roof. It was easily ten feet wider than the floor of the stoop, and the tracks present on the muddy-looking short-cropped grass spoke of a need for frequent 'parking' by visitors.

The thick stone pillars supporting the roof – it was tiled, like those of the guardhouses – had long varnished poles connecting them about waist high. I wondered as to the point of the pole, even as Hans came to a stop and stepped down to tie up. I then saw the trough, the pump, and what might have been a pair of broad buckets hanging from a wrought iron peg.

“Uh, that crossbar?” I asked.

“Much the same as for home,” said Anna. “Most people tie up there, if they're riding.” A brief pause, then, “you'll wish to bring all of your things with you. We can leave most of the food in the buggy.”

While I had been in my share of large 'government' buildings before, my previous experience had been with smaller examples, and more 'modern-looking' examples – although upon second thought as we walked down a wide candle-lit corridor, I concluded the chief aspect of modernity was the lighting. Otherwise...

“Why does this place remind me of a hospital rather than a governmental seat?” I thought. “I cannot see a king living in this place.”

Still, the stone floors were dressed smooth – much like at home, save slightly better and neater – the corridors were wide, mostly deserted, and lit with plentiful candles, and the number of doorways tremendous. Nearly all of them had common-looking planked doors, with shiny-looking 'varnish' and narrow iron-strap hinges.

“What is this place called?” I said.

“This is the house proper,” said Anna in a near-whisper. “I know where the tailor section is, and I hope you can stand those ridiculous-looking things they wear.”

“Yes, if he can get in one of them without ruining it,” said Hans. “With him being as he is, that is likely, so I hope they make them good and loose.”

“Was that man out front wearing one of those, uh, things?” I asked. My voice was even quieter than Anna's, and I could almost see the 'quiet please' signs hung on doorways. The doctors would not wish distractions.

“He was,” said Anna. I could tell she thought him crazy for doing so. “Normally, when the first swine of the year are seen, that type is put away and the war-cut dress is put on. Perhaps he had not heard of that pig, or maybe thought no more of them would show this year.”

“There will be more pigs,” said Hans. “This winter dumped a lot of snow, and that means a damp year and a big harvest, and that is what draws those people, especially the last few years. I expect them to show in droves.”

“I would ask for war-cut dress,” said Anna. “Those work much better for training, as frills are ruined by mud.”

I continued looking, even as we came to a hallway going left and then another going right. The utter absence of 'courtiers' was astonishing, and the few people that showed – they looked much as we did – was even more so. Anna came to a door, tapped, and then waited.

“This is the tailor's section,” she said. “I would be...”

The door abruptly opened, and I was grabbed by the arm and dragged in bodily by a malodorous individual in 'severe' brown clothing. While the stuff wasn't starched, its cut reminded me of Black-Cap's more than a little, and as I looked around the small and stuffy room, I took in its decor all at once: roof of long rolls of cloth hung by ropes, screened-off partitions on both sides, a narrow bench at the rear – and the first individual was abruptly joined by two more.

“Off with all of it, damn you to hell and gone!” shouted the first man. “Quit wasting my valuable time, fool!”

“Where can I s-set my things?” I asked.

I was not given a reply, as all three of these smelly men swarmed me and all but tore my clothing off of my body. They seemed to have but little regard for anything beyond my weapons, which they laid down carefully once they'd removed them from my bewildered grasp, but once down to my underwear, one of them grabbed my hands and yanked them back hard behind me while the other two began to quickly 'measure' me everywhere. I was too bewildered to do much, until one of them wrapped his 'tape' around my neck and twisted it tightly as if to throttle me – whereupon the dam broke and I moaned and began weeping.

The tears seemed to only infuriate these men, and they began pinching and elbowing as well as 'measuring', and amid their derisive shouts, I heard chanting faint in the background. One of them slapped my face, while the other elbowed me in the gut – and being where I was, I wondered how I should behave. I had the impression that the rules were different here, and after being tossed away into a corner as if garbage, the first 'tailor' yelled, “now pick up that trash and get out of my sight! Now, damn your eyes! Move!”

I tried to put on my clothing as quickly as possible, but before I had put on the trousers, I was being bodily shoved out of the door by all three men. The door opened as if by 'magic', and I was tossed bodily in a heap out of it with my clothing flying out behind me, then sliding across the floor came the weapons. The door then closed with a bang amid what sounded like cursing.

“What was that?” asked Anna.

“Th-they y-yelled at me,” I said around my tears as I moved out from under my clothing, “and then...”

Anna did not wait for my speaking further on the matter, for she stormed into the room and slammed the door behind her. I wondered what would happen next, even as Hans began to help me to my feet.

“Now this is bad,” he said. “What were they trying to do?”

“M-measure m-me,” I said.

“No, this part around your neck here,” he said. “It looks like they were going to hang you out to dry. Then, there all these other places where I can see marks on you. I think those people need to be more careful with what they are doing.”

“I should say so,” said Anna, as she slammed the door behind her. “They were expecting someone quite different, and I doubt they hear much of the rumors that fly around this place.”

“W-why?” I asked, as I hurriedly put on my shirt.

“It's like home, only much worse,” said Anna, “and they roll out gossip by the jugful. I'd say you need about a jugful to cope with that mess in there.”

“I am not sure that is the best,” said Hans. “Anna, look at this place here.”

Anna now looked at my neck, then said, “what were they trying to do?”

“I am not sure,” said Hans. “Had I known better, I would think that a rope mark, and they wanted to hang him out to dry.”

“They didn't have ropes in there, only the usual things for tailors,” said Anna.

“T-the smell,” I said. “They smelled awful, and f-felt dirty, and...”

“And what?” asked Anna, as she helped me gather up my supplies.

“They felt like those greasy lanterns,” I said, “and they s-smelled, and they c-cursed at me, and...”

“Why?” asked Anna. “They had to have seen all of those scars on you.”

Anna paused for a moment, then once I'd gotten everything arranged again, led me by the hand down the hall to another portion of this strange building.

I didn't mind being so led, as between being unclothed in that fashion, being cursed at, the odor of those men, their filthy grease-smeared hands, their scrabbling frantic grappling...

“That was worse than doing the bridge with no weapons and fresh sober tinned thugs,” I thought.

“This place should be better,” said Anna, as she opened a door. “I've been in here many times.”

'In here' proved to be a smaller and better-lit copy of the Public House at home, and once led to a small planked table along one wall, I sat down. I then noticed how I was feeling: shaky, trembling, feeling as if in shock, and nauseated. I looked at the walls, now wondering if I was having a hypoglycemia attack, then at the doorway we had come in. It wasn't vibrating, so I knew that wasn't the cause.

A copy of the publican at home came to our table, then he went aside to where Anna was sitting. I was sitting between her and Hans, and overheard the whispered question:

“What happened to him?” he asked.

“He just had his fitting,” said Anna, “and it seems he had to strip to his underclothing.”

“It was not that, Anna,” said Hans. “I heard those people in there, and they were yelling bad language at him.”

“Th-they t-tore my clothes off,” I moaned.

Anna looked at me, then said, “what? Why?”

The 'publican' looked closer at me, then at the door. He walked over, opened it, then looked down the hall before returning to our table.

“Is he the one who held the bridge?” he asked.

Anna nodded, then said, “someone came after me, and he showed not the least trace of fear, but I know he doesn't like being close to unclothed.” Anna paused, then said, “and he needs some medicine, so he doesn't go out of his mind.”

The 'publican' turned abruptly and went into a doorway I had not seen before, then returned with three sizable mugs. They were set down before the three of us, and when I looked at the straw-yellow concoction and caught a whiff of it – it absolutely reeked of hops – I began shuddering. It made Public House beer seem weak and insipid.

“Try to drink as much of it as you can,” said Anna gently. “It is far preferable that you giggle and laugh than go out of your mind right now. We can get help to get you to the buggy.”

Another 'publican' came out, then came to our table. His questions were as the former man:

“What happened to him? He looks to have faced an entire group of those northern people by himself.”

“He did just what you said, and he came out of it looking better than this,” said Hans gruffly. “If this keeps up, I will need to dose him with the bull formula. He just finished with that tailor place, and they must have learned manners from witches.”

“I wondered more than a little about them,” said Anna. “I think they were expecting someone who wears black-cloth, and when they got someone who is the exact opposite, they thought him a scholar sent there by mistake. Those people get fitted elsewhere.”

“Who is he?” asked the 'publican'. “Is he who talk has him to be?”

“That depends on the talk,” said Hans. “He was to come up here for fitting today...”

“Then he is well-known,” said the 'publican', “and rumor has it he was to be fitted specially. Most here know of the one who held the bridge, though I wonder about the Teacher of Guards.”

“What is it you wonder?” asked Hans.

“He might expect a different attitude also,” said the 'publican'. “That part of the tailor shop isn't trivial to deal with, and had they sense in their heads, they would have fitted him where they do the scholars. Rumor speaks of him embarrassing readily. Does he?”

“That is telling the kettle it needs cleaning after it has burnt stew in it,” said Hans. “I think he gets the widow's tincture when he gets home, and if I had it with me I would put three tubes in him now.”

At Anna's urging, I sipped from the mug. After the first swallow, the room went dark. I felt a spoon at my lips. I drank that, and the cycle was repeated until I blacked out.

I awoke to cold air and the slow breeze of movement, with a cloth bag under my head and a blanket covering me in the back of the buggy.

“Where am I?” I croaked in a slow and nauseating-sounding voice.

“About an hour from home,” said Hans. “We got about a third of that mug in you with a spoon before you were on the floor.”

“W-what was that stuff I drank?”

“They call that stuff Lion-Brew, and it is really strong” said Hans. “Why they call it that, and what is a lion, is beyond me, as there are no such things save in the book.”

“There are cats that look like those pictured in there,” said Anna, “and while they are not as large as those in the pictures, more than one thief has been killed by a smaller one.”

“S-smaller one?” I gasped. The scenery was uncommonly strange-looking, and the food in the rear of the buggy had multiplied astonishingly.

“Those are but a bit larger than the common cats,” said Anna. “They are still small enough to sit on one's lap. Then, there are larger ones.”

“L-larger?” I asked. I wanted to ask 'how much larger?', but I was having trouble speaking.

“Larger cats like that are not at all common,” said Anna. “I've only seen them three times, unlike the smaller size, which aren't that rare. The larger ones would be good for swine, as they are uncommonly fierce.”

“Yes, if you could keep their fur from getting tangled in a mess,” said Hans. “Those things are not much good for rats, though.”

“I doubt they were meant for that,” said Anna. “They are so warm and soft to hold, and they tend to stay in your lap as long as you might want them.”

Here, Anna paused, then said, “mother told me about how they are around knitting, and I didn't believe her.”

“Yes, and what happened?” asked Hans.

Kuch'l was sitting on the couch,” said Anna, “and I was trying to knit. He saw the yarn, and before I knew it, he was in it. It took me an hour to get him out of that stuff, and all the time he was wanting to play...”

I fell asleep while Anna was speaking, and awoke in the shed while the horses were being unharnessed, then stumbled in to collapse on the couch. I could go no further, and only awoke when I smelled herring. I stumbled into the kitchen, saw the plates – Hans and Anna were about to eat – and sat down. I was dried out beyond endurance, and when I saw a mug at my place, I picked it up, sniffed – it wasn't beer – and drained the thing without breathing. Only when I had downed the whole thing did I realize just what I had drank.