The Big House, part 8.

I finished the sword by bedtime. Korn had left while I was at the shop, and as I went upstairs with the sword, I wondered if I could pray for it before retiring. I had the intimation that it might be wiser to wait until the morning, and as I readied myself for bed, I yawned long and loudly. I was very tired, and fell asleep but seconds after getting into bed.

I awoke before dawn, and as I gathered my supplies, I wondered how I could carry the sword. I suspected I could wrap it carefully in rags after first...

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “I need to s-sharpen it first.”

“Try praying for it before you do anything,” said the soft voice.

I did so, and dirtied two smaller rags, then when I asked for cold, the thing became 'cold' with such incredible speed that I nearly gasped with the 'smoke' that filled my room. I picked up the chill handle and then slung off the ice. The blade now dazzled the eye, with soft smoky lines showing the welding, a darker more-diffused line showing where the mud had ended, and then a lighter-colored portion that had been covered by the mud itself during tempering.

I began wrapping the thing in rags as I heard someone muttering about how cold it was upstairs, then as I 'bagged' the thing, I recalled those packs I had had before coming here. There had been two of them, both of similar styles, and their usefulness had been legion. I still had both of them, in fact.

“And I could use another like that second one,” I thought, as I checked revolver and knife. “I'll want that compass and one of those water bottles, as well as some food.”

Forty miles on foot in a day did not sound amusing, especially when carrying a lot of 'stuff'. I would need to eat and drink what I could on the road, while watching its weight.

After gathering those supplies, I left out the front door and began walking down the road headed south. My stride lengthened with each step during the first few minutes, and just past the Public House I turned left off of the road and onto a narrow and rutted path between two barren-looking fields marked out by piled rocks.

As I walked, I could feel the presence of Waldhuis, and I went east more than south until I was half-way to the volcano. I then turned 'due' south with the compass in my hand.

While I had been on my share of roads in this area during the last few weeks, I had the distinct impression I wanted to use cover and concealment when and where I could while avoiding the use of the roads. There was something about the roads being watched, and good ambush sites were common.

The rock boundaries of the Waldhuis cornfields showed some distance to my right a short while later, and as I saw the first of these wide long darkened plots, I picked up the pace. There was a long grassy stretch in front of me, and the nearest woodlot was several hundred yards to my left. I wondered why I had increased my pace from 'rapid walk' to a shuffling trot, at least until I saw a sizable chunk of sod and dirt launch into the air to my front and right. I moved left as I sped up, and another came closer still to where I was running. It was close enough to startle me.

I continued heading to my left in an erratic fashion while moving steadily forward, while changing my pace and weaving side to side steadily. More divots of sod shot skyward every few seconds, and the faint booming rumbles I heard in the distance to my right spoke of their likely cause and its probable caliber.

More than once I had to stop abruptly or speed up to a run to avoid being hit, and while I did so without substantial thinking, I marveled how I seemed to 'know' as to when to do what – especially given the sonic signature of the gunfire arrived at roughly the same time as the bullets. I paused once for a few seconds to estimate the range, and not three seconds after I resumed moving, I turned in mid-stride to see a trio of dirt-geysers erupt in the precise location where I had been standing.

The bullets continued after I reached the shelter of the woodlot to my left, and as I continued roughly south some fifty or so feet east of the woodlot's border, I could hear their crackling and crashing as they flew overhead or hit the trunks of trees nearby. More than once I was doused with branches from overhead, and several times I was sprinkled with bark from near-misses.

At the end of the woodlot I had entered, there was a space of open meadow, and there I ran for it. The musketry seemed to have bided its time for several minutes prior – the gunfire had become markedly less frequent – but when I emerged at a rapid trot, the earth-geysers erupted with a vengeance. I counted no less than eighteen such strikes by the time I reached the woodlot to the south, and for nearly another two minutes, the balls rattled overhead and struck the trunks of trees as I rapidly went deeper into the forest. Only once they'd stopped for nearly ten minutes did I stop and check my course with the compass prior to eating my first snack of the trip.

As I sat on a log and ate dried meat and bread, I drank deeply from the water bottle. I was thirsty, and not merely with exertion; there was fear also, and it showed when I urinated for a longer-than-normal time against the trunk of a tree. I resumed walking at the same rapid walk I had managed before being shot at.

Thankfully, there was no more gunfire, even though I tried to stay near the edges of woodlots as much as I could, and as I went south and east, I noted familiar-looking landmarks now and then. I was greatly surprised when I crossed a familiar-looking road.

“No, it can't be,” I thought as I trotted across it. “I can't be that close to the house this soon.”

Not ten minutes later, however, the lay of the land began to gently rise, and I knew my first impression was correct. I had traveled much of the distance at better than 'buggy' speeds.

“No, I could not have,” I thought, as the house proper hove into view. “I went in nearly a straight line, where the buggy had to stay on roads for the most part, and those went all over the place.”

Yet still, the evidence was present, and I recalled how rapidly I had actually moved as I continued across country. The house was but a mile or so away. There were no 'direct' roads from where I was to where I needed to go, and I continued across the fields and through the woodlots.

After presenting myself at the gate, I walked inside the house itself. I imagined I looked something like a tramp, for I had not merely a sizable bag tied with rope slung across my left shoulder and a leather pouch for the bottle 'dangling' from my belt, but also the other things I commonly carried: rifle, pistol, knife, possible bag, and bulging trousers pockets buttoned closed.

I first went to the refectory to get a refill of cider, and when I came in, I smelled something unlike anything I had smelled here before. It smelled like grape juice, and when I asked, the cook I spoke to said, “that came up from the fourth kingdom recently.”

“What is it?” I asked.

Unfermented wine,” he said. “A fair number of people prefer it fermented, but there are many who prefer it otherwise.”

“May I have a taste?” I asked.

I was brought a tinned copper cup some minutes later, and as I looked at it, I smelled the deep purplish liquid again. I then thought to taste it.

The flavor, though profoundly reminiscent of grapes, was mingled with hints of vanilla, 'wood', tart cherries, other fruits of some kind, cinnamon, and some other flavors I could not name, as well as a spicy aspect that was hard to describe. It seemed drinkable, though it wanted slow sipping. It had a very rich and satisfying flavor.

“How does one get 'unfermented' wine?” I asked.

“By putting it in a new cask,” he said, “and then storing it well clear of the stuff that is working. We have that cask in the kitchen.”

“And the others?” I asked.

“They are in a storeroom down the hall,” he said. “I don't much care to go in that room.”

“Uh, the smell?” I asked.

“Fresh wine that is working hard tends to have an unpleasant odor,” he said. “More than one person has said it smells a bit like distillate.”

“D-distillate?” I asked. “What?”

“Come with me, and I'll show you,” he said.

I savored the taste of the grape juice, and as I went past a sizable barrel in the kitchen, I saw several stoves with sizable and steaming pots of water, then what looked like 'butcher's blocks' hung with knives and cleavers, and some low tables where several cooks were 'battering' lumps of fragrant brown and grainy-looking 'dough' with their fists. The cook then led past an 'oven' that reminded me of the crucible furnace for size and shape, if little else. It had a small soot-stained brick 'addition' to the side.

“What is that?” I asked.

“That is a fourth-kingdom style bread oven,” he said. “It tends to be easier to manage than the common ovens up here.”

“Uh, what are those like?” I asked.

“They are wider, longer, and shorter, with a door in the top,” he said, “and one builds a fire in them in the morning, then scrapes out the ashes once the firewood is burned. Those can only run one batch a day, unlike that one there.”

“And it's a good thing, too,” said one of the kneaders. “This place eats more bread than a big Public House, and no mistake.”

A faint odor – sour, acidic, musty, faintly 'grape-y', and otherwise too unusual to quantify – now usurped all other smells, and I drank down the grape-juice quickly as the cook led me past several open-doored storerooms. With each step, the smell grew stronger, along with another even-more-familiar stink, that of distillate. We passed a head-tall black iron lever, then at the very end of the hallway, it ended with a passage that turned to the left. I glanced upward to see a white tin sign with the dread words 'Wine Cellar' painted on it in blocky black letters. I followed the cook into the room.

While the word 'cellar' implied stairs and a downward passage into a subterranean realm, they were not present, and the number of bottles and jugs on various shelves in the room was staggering. The 'distillate' smell continued to increase, then suddenly the previous scenery gave way to a long row of central varnished plank tables and triple-stacked barrels on each side, each barrel having a number of chalk-marks on its head and a crude-looking carved wooden 'spigot' below the markings.

The smell was now mind-altering in its profound reek, and the 'distillate' portion of the odor reminded me of that material in no uncertain terms. I then saw what the cook was doing: he was tapping one of the kegs, and when he brought me a small cup filled with what he'd drained, I shuddered.

The appearance was markedly lighter in color than that of the grape juice I had just drank, with a tawny 'feline' aspect and perceptible marbling in the cup. He inserted a spoon, swirled it in the vile-smelling stuff, and then put it his mouth.

The grimace he instantly acquired was only exceeded by his turning away and retching, and as the spoon clattered on the floor, I had no idea what to do beyond fetch him a stool. I did so, and when he collapsed onto it, he spluttered, “gah! I have never wondered what distillate tastes like, but tasting that stuff reminds me of its stink.”

I then noted the cup he'd used was sitting on one of the tables, and I tentatively dipped my finger in the wine; it was as if I were somehow compelled to act thusly. I then opened my mouth and touched the tip of my tongue to my finger.

The explosion of foulness in my mouth nearly put me on the floor, and as I began retching and spitting, I gasped, “that's w-wine?”

“Yes, it is,” said the cook, as he stood unsteadily. “Why?”

“It tastes like f-fermented k-kerosene,” I squawked. “Oily, burning, foul-smelling, and bad-tasting. I hope I don't have to spend ages in the privy.”

“I doubt it will do that,” he said, “as that stuff isn't uncorking medicine.”

“Th-that almost sounds preferable,” I said, between gagging and trying to spit the horrible taste from my mouth. “Was that Amontillado?”

“That wine is not cellared here,” he said, as he wobbled out of the place with me in tow. “I have never tasted it, even if I've heard of it and how expensive it is.”

I again noticed the iron 'arm' on the way back to the kitchen, and asked about it.

“That blocks the door out of the back,” he said. “It moves the riveted iron door in place and locks it in place.”

“Is there another door like it?” I asked.

“That one is trickier to use and harder to find from the outside,” he said. “This one is simple and quick to close, if a bit less sturdy.”

After refilling my water bottle, I left the refectory and headed down the hall toward that 'changing room' I had 'dibs' on, and when I opened the door, I truly noticed all that I was carrying, even as I hid the sword underneath and behind the bed. As I changed my clothing, I sensed that both Karl and Sepp were somewhere nearby, as both of them lived further away from the house than I did. I suspected they were 'exploring' the place prior to the stated starting time, at least until I finished dressing in my 'uniform'.

I then had a more-likely idea: they were cleaning weapons, and they were in the guard-room.

I went there first, and while I smelled distillate fumes, neither man was present.

“Perhaps they went to that one room on the third floor,” I thought, as I turned to leave. “It's worth a try.”

I had gone perhaps four steps down the hall back toward the refectory when I heard their voices coming steadily closer, and if I went by the tone of those voices, I suspected an unsuccessful hunt was the chief cause of both their return and their current speech.

“No tallow, unless it is bad,” said Karl, “and we cannot find that jeweler's place, and then those things do not want to clean up unless we spend a lot of time scraping them.”

“I'm not surprised,” said Sepp. “I think that was why we were told to explore this place as much as possible.”

I pressed myself to the wall as they passed, then fell in behind them. I had suspicions about what they were cleaning, and when first Sepp opened a door, then Karl across from him, I waited for them to remove. Only when Sepp came out did he see me, and his 'jolting' was a matter for startlement on my part.

“Do you have any idea as to how to clean these things?” he asked, as he indicated a long rag-wrapped bundle. “They may have grease on them, but under it is something that is closer to wax.”

“I might,” I said, as Karl emerged with another such bundle of rags. “Let me fetch something, and I'll join you for a cleaning session.”

I went into my room and fetched the sword, and when I came out, both men were gone. I smelled distillate afresh as I came closer to the room in question, and opening the door to the guard-room made the smell more intense. I walked inside, and found both men seated at an old-looking table scraping 'wax' off of those two swords. Both were using old-looking knives.

After partly unwrapping what I had and laying it aside, I fetched a stool and went to the table, where I touched the scrapings so as to learn of their texture. Their rubbery sense and tacky feel made for marveling on my part, and only when I smelled them did I notice the truly profound stink of distillate. I asked for the jug and a rag just the same. Karl stood up, then came back seconds later with what I had asked for.

“We tried wiping these things with that stuff, and all it made was a mess,” said Sepp.

“That and the stink,” said Karl. “Now what will it do?”

“The outer layer of grease had most likely oxidized,” I said, as I began removing the cork from the jug, “and had turned into a type of wax. Breaking the 'seal' should make it more readily dissolved.”

With the cork out, I dashed some of the yellow-tinted liquid onto the rag, and as I quickly wiped Sepp's sword, I nearly spewed with the foul-smelling fumes. The waxy material went mushy, however, and as I wiped, the wax seemed to dissolve before my eyes. I handed Sepp the rag, and as he continued wiping, his sword became steadily more clear of its preservative.

“That was a lot quicker,” said Sepp. “Now do Karl's.”

I took a fresh rag as my gorge tried to climb from my mouth, and when I touched his sword with the distillate-dampened rag, the wax went to mush even faster. I tried to stand, and the sense of dizziness I felt – and the gasping noises I was making – were mirrored in the other two. The fumes were nearly visible, and I was on the verge of fainting.

“That isn't common distillate, is it?” I muttered, as I sat back down with my head in my hands. I wanted to spew, and made gagging noises.

“It smelled like this type I have heard of,” said Sepp. “It's supposed to be thinner than the usual stuff, and a lot smellier.”

“I asked for the heavy distillate,” said Karl. “Did someone cheat me?”

“Where did you get it?” I asked.

“In the house, on Houtlaan,” said Karl. “It cost more than I expected it would.”

“What did you ask for?” I asked.

“Well-dried heavy distillate,” said Karl. “I remembered that much, if not much more.”

“Perhaps I had best look at it,” I said as I wrapped up my sword again. “I'll look at it later, as this place needs to air out badly.”

I led the others out with my rag-wrapped sword under my arm, and as we went down the hall amid thick and nauseating visible fumes, I could overhear comments about distillate. A cook showed abruptly on the right, and he looked at what we were carrying.

“If you're going to use that really smelly stuff,” he said, “you'll want to use it outdoors. The stink is terrible.”

“I was told it was well-dried,” said Karl, “and I hope the man who sold it to me can be dried well at the end of a rope, too. I think I was cheated.”

“Where did you get it?” asked the cook.

“In Houtlaan,” said Karl.

“That might be part of the trouble,” said the cook, “as sawyer's distillate isn't particularly well-dried. They use that stuff straight from the jug to clean their saws of tree-sap.”

“Where should I have gotten it, then?” asked Karl.

“There is this one Mercantile in town that isn't too far,” said the cook, “but one must watch oneself if you go there. Most of their supplies come from the fifth kingdom, and talk has it their clerks do as well.” The cook paused, then said, “now if you were of a mind to travel, then you could do better. There are several towns within an hour's ride from here that would be cheaper.”

“Neither of us have horses,” said Sepp, “so we would need to walk. I'm glad to have the use of a bed here right now.”

After going to the rear of the house, we set up on the edge of the stoop, and there I resumed cleaning the swords of the others. The smell was still potent, and as I wiped down the blades, I said, “I have a pair of small stones with me. Would you like me to go over these?”

“I think you might, but not much,” said Sepp. “Without some way of holding them, they might be trouble.”

I ran the distillate-dampened coarser stone along the edges of Sepp's sword a few times. Its steel was 'decent', and as I turned it over in my hands to do the other side, Karl asked, “what is that thing you have all wrapped up there?”

“Unwrap it carefully,” I said, “and then tell me.”

“What is it?” asked Sepp. “Did you make one?”

I nodded, then said, “it's about five inches shorter than this one overall, and weighs about half as much. Otherwise, it's like some old ones where I came from.”

“Did you mark it?” asked Karl.

“I stamped it on the hilt,” I said. “Otherwise, I didn't... Karl, be very careful. Set it down and let me unwrap it further, as it will cut you if you touch the blade in the wrong place.”

“How is that?” asked Karl. He had set it down, thankfully. “Did you do it like some of those knives?”

“I did,” I said, “and I made it out of some special iron that I normally use for smaller knives and cutting tools. Someone said that stuff is haunted.”

“Is it?” asked Sepp.

“I doubt it is 'haunted',” I said. “I've worked with it enough to know it needs a higher forging temperature than usual, unusual care in working, ample carbon, and a dead-smooth surface prior to heat-treating. It's really bad about cracking, so much so that I had to pray a fair amount while working on it.”

I finished Sepp's sword, then laid it across my knees as I brought out a vial of 'motor oil'. I dabbed a little on a rag and began rubbing down the blade.

“What is that?” asked Sepp.

“This is one of the lubricants I use at home and the shop,” I said. “It works well in sleeved buggy wheels and for rust prevention.”

Sepp smelled the rag, then said, “it doesn't smell. What is it?”

“A mixture of boiled distillate, uncorking medicine, and tallow,” I said, “though the preparation needs special equipment and special processing of the ingredients, like most of the latest species of lubricants I've been working on. They've been getting steadily better, so I'm not complaining much.”

“Can you mix up some red-tallow?” asked Karl.

“I could, but it would not be like the stinky stuff I've seen,” I said. “Why do you want it, other than its being mentioned in class?”

Karl was dumb-struck, and when I handed Sepp back his sword, I began to unwrap mine the rest of the way. Karl watched what I was doing, and as I removed the last layer of rags, the eerie shine of the thing seemed to hypnotize him.

“Yes?” I asked softly. “I did not use red-tallow on this, or anything else a witch would want.”

“What did you do?” squeaked Karl. “That thing is...”

I carefully picked it up by the back of the blade, then handed it to him. He seemed afraid to touch it, so much so that I said, “no, it won't bite you. Hold it gently right here on the handle.”

Karl took the thing up, then gently moved. He was muttering as if terror-stricken, then said, “why is it that shape?”

“I recall seeing pictures of ones like it where I came from,” I said. “The curved blade works well for slicing, and the point like that is good for poking.”

“Poking?” asked Sepp.

“I had another run-in with witches on the rest-day,” I mumbled, “and I had to use a sword like you have there. It didn't work as well as I would have liked.”

“What did you do?” asked Sepp.

“I shot or sliced five witches,” I said, “and I used the head witch's sword because I didn't have this one ready to use.”

“What did you do with them?” asked Karl.

“One of them I just left lay where he fell,” I said, “and I cut off the heads of the other four.” I paused for a second, then said, “and how their heads got spiked was a mystery.”

“Did you spike them?” asked Sepp.

“No, I didn't,” I said. “They all went rotten in a hurry, for some reason, and then we recovered all of their weapons.”

“What happened to that witch's sword?” asked Karl.

“It was all marked up with those markings they tend to have,” I said, “and there were a lot of bad cracks. I was told that if I'd sliced one more witch, it would have gone to pieces on me.”

“I'm glad this one isn't marked,” said Sepp. “Now do you know how to make the things these go in?”

“I've never made those,” I said, “and I suspect either one wants some kind of a soft metal frame on the inside, or really stiff and thick leather.” I thought for a moment, then said, “come to think of it, we might find a suitable example in that third floor room after our shift.”

“That isn't for another two hours or so,” said Sepp. “Now did you get a ride here, or what?”

“I walked,” I said. “I was expecting it to take a good deal longer than it did, and I wasn't expecting the gunfire.”

“Was someone shooting at you?” asked Karl, as he gently set my sword down on the rags.

“A lot of someone's,” I said. “They weren't using common muskets, unless I miss my guess.”

“What were they using?” asked Sepp.

“If I go by the dirt the bullets flung, the bullets were a good deal larger than the usual musket size,” I said. “I didn't stay around to examine them.”

I paused, then asked, “do you want to look for scabbards?”

The trip up to the third floor went without incident, at least until I put my hand on the knob and felt an unpleasantly greasy sensation. I took my hand off and began digging for a rag. Karl was about to open the door when I shook my head to indicate no, then after wiping my hand off, I moved both of the others to the side as I knelt down.

“What are you doing?” asked Sepp.

“I'm going to kick this door open from the side,” I said. “Someone went in there with greasy hands.”

“Greasy hands?” asked Sepp, as I moved him further aside.

“Witches seem to have greasy skin, for some reason,” I said, “and their hands seem almost slimy that way.” I paused, then said, “cover your ears. Here goes.”

I kicked the door hard, which caused it to swing open abruptly, and 'nothing' happened. The others were about to go in when I held them back, and as I began standing up, I heard a faint hissing noise. I stood shakily, then began backpedaling. I was dragging them with me.

“What gives with...” said Karl.

“That's a fuse,” I said. “Someone put a delay on this one, and...”

A thunderous roar billowed sound and smoke out of the doorway, then another, then three more one after another like firecrackers. Both Karl and Sepp were shaking like leaves in a hurricane.

“So much for that nonsense,” I spluttered. “I can't hardly go in one of these places without some wretch rigging the thing.”

The smoke began steadily filtering out of the door, and I cautiously crept closer to the doorway. I recalled what the instructor had said about going after a certain individual, and then what Anna had said. Maybe I did need to hunt down that witch...

And go into the Swartsburg...

And bring back his head for mounting on a pole.

“N-no, I can't,” I gasped.

“What?” asked Sepp.

“First the instructor speaks of going into the Swartsburg to...”

“Where is that?” asked Sepp.

“The b-black region?” I gasped. “East of Kokenstraat, and south of the Oestwaag?”

“Didn't the instructor speak of that place?” asked Karl.

Sepp shook his head, then stood up straighter. The smoke was now pouring out of the doorway, and I could hear people coming up the stairs. I put down the rag-wrapped sword next to the wall and slowly came closer to the doorway.

The first thing I saw were badly mangled lead spheres on the floor near the doorway. They seemed irregular in shape, with their rough size that used for revolver bullets, and their soot-covered surfaces spoke of mingled powder and projectiles. I touched one, and found it still warm.

“That looks to have come from a swine-shell,” said someone from behind me.

“Swine-s-shell?” I asked.

“They shoot those out of the guns at the people that come with the swine,” said the voice. I was afraid to turn around, as there were more people coming.

I had to 'face the music' sooner or later, I knew, and I turned around seconds later. I was more than a little surprised to find two people dressed as the three of us were.

“Oh, it's you,” said one of the men. “I have no idea why that keeps happening, but it does. Were you hurt?”

I shook my head, then said, “I think there's a witch behind this nonsense. Do I really need to go into the Swartsburg and kill that wretch?”

Both men abruptly turned pale, then the one who had not spoken previously said, “that place is almost as dangerous as a witch-hole to go into.”

“The instructor spoke of my going into that place and bringing back the head of a certain witch,” I said. “I don't even know who that person is, much less have proof of his involvement.”

“I think the latter portion has been amply proved,” said the voice of Gabriel, “as you have had that witch try for you multiple times.”

“Th-that's proof?” I gasped. I turned to see Gabriel coming from my right. He had a sizable book under his right arm.

“It is,” said Gabriel, “and given the nature of the attacks, I would suspect the highest-ranking witches in the area.”

“B-bring back the head and m-mount it on a p-pole?” I gasped.

“That would put a stop to the attempts,” said Gabriel emphatically.

“Why a pole, though?” I asked.

“That has great meaning, both to witches and those otherwise,” said Gabriel. His voice sounded 'oblivious' to a remarkable degree. “At the least, it advertises the death of the witch, and it speaks of the wages of sin in a concrete fashion. Then, it was commonly done in the old tales.”

“How would I find such a, a...” I stammered.

“That was not spoken of in detail,” said Gabriel. “In many of the tales, especially those who spoke of Charles or people like him, it spoke sparingly of the process involved in locating the witch or witches in question, and much greater on what was done to them once they had been located.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “given how you are said to be, I am surprised you asked.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Talk has it you find witches readily,” said Gabriel.

“They tend to try for me,” I muttered, “and that's how I find them. I've never gone 'hunting' for them.”

The silence that descended seemed wreathed round and round with the stench of powder, and when Gabriel went to the doorway, he looked inside.

“This one has no back-passage, so it would need access by the door,” he said.

“Which of them have those?” I asked.

“The lower ones do,” he said, “or so rumor has it.”

Rumor?” I thought. “I know better.”

And for some reason, I knew another issue, even as I came closer to the door, and as I looked inside, I murmured, “we were going to try to find scabbards...”

“I would have those made,” said Gabriel. “The house has a shop for that.”

“But we f-found the swords in h-here...” I spluttered.

“If you find sheaths in that room,” said Gabriel with a dire tone, “it is likely they will be in poor condition. Were you thinking of actual use, or for models so as to make your own?”

“I wasn't certain what was available,” I said, “and I can't go over either of the two we found until something is available for them, as they'd be likely to cut their bearers if I did.”

“What about that one you have?” asked Karl. “That thing makes a razor look dull.”

I wanted to hide, even as the smoke continued to dissipate in the hall, and only when Gabriel noticed the bundle of rags next to the wall did he think to look at my face.

“Did you make one?” he asked.

“I did,” I said. “I never made one before, and this one isn't... It isn't like the common ones.”

“I see,” said Gabriel. “I take it to be an experiment.”

“It looks good enough to me,” retorted Karl.

“May I see it?” asked Gabriel. The other two guards had left.

I walked to the wall, then carefully picked it up. A rag fell, then another, and as I carefully grasped the back portion of the blade, the rags continued to fall. The tip of the thing showed before the rest of the blade, and when I presented it to Gabriel, his face was unreadable – and when he spoke, his speech was unfathomable.

He was speechless for nearly half a minute as he looked at the blade.

“This is like seeing an old tale come to life,” he stammered, when he finally spoke. “It makes that one musket seem a wine-vapor.”

“Wine?” I gasped, as I recalled the intensely horrible flavor of recent recollection.

“I've had my share,” he said.

After another minute, he looked at me, then said, “talk has it you are not familiar with those tales.”

“I haven't read them,” I said, as I gulped 'dust'. “Why?”

“There aren't many descriptions of swords in the Grim Collection,” said Gabriel, “but they are pictured on many tapestries, both good and bad.”

“Good and bad?” I asked.

“Both witches and those killing them had swords,” said Gabriel, “and this type was especially prized by both groups. They were stated as being very rare.”

“Witches?” I gasped. “Swords?” I recalled what I had done but days prior.

“Today is much the same as it was then, at least for blades,” said Gabriel. “It may be otherwise in many aspects, but witches and certain classes of people greatly respect blades.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “if you plan to make more of these, you can ask what you will and expect to get it.”

I shuddered violently, then moaned, “no, no, please, no, I can't.”

“This is to be the only one?” he asked. “Or is the talk about money true?”

I nodded 'yes', then said, “it's e-evil.”

“The sword?” asked Gabriel.

“N-no,” I spluttered. “M-m-money.”

“I see,” said Gabriel. “There should be time to head over to the leather shop to have scabbards traced out, though that one may need some experimenting to get one that works well.”

I went to collect up the rags, then resumed wrapping it up carefully. I thought to tie the rags with string again, as I was not fond of showing the thing in public. The fear I felt of being 'labeled' a witch because of having it on my person was strong, and growing stronger by the minute. Karl closed the door, or rather, he tried to.

“This door will not close,” he said. “I think it is sprung.”

I went to the door and handed him my sword, saying, “could you please tie this up with string?”

As Karl worked on the string portion, I pulled gently on the door. It seemed resistant at first, but then closed readily. The latch clicked, and I turned back to see Karl finishing the knots.

“Do you know where this leather place is?” he asked.

“I d-don't,” I said. “I think it's on the floor below this one.”

As we came to the northwest stairs, however, I had a stronger sense – the north end of the building – and once on the floor in question, I led towards the northeast corner, then down another darkened hall near the juncture of east and north walls on the east side of the main hall. The odor of 'leather' grew steadily stronger, and when Sepp stopped in front of a door labeled 'tanning', he said, “I thought you didn't know where this place is.”

“I didn't,” I said. “It's this door here, I think.”

The door then creaked open to show Gabriel haloed with light.

“What?” I shrieked.

“I went here to let them know you'd be coming,” he said, “and talk underestimated your ability to find locations.”

Gabriel opened the door fully, and as the three of us walked around it and into the 'tunnel' of the hallway, the odor of leather grew stronger, along with the smells of wax and perhaps sweat. The 'tunnel' was a good six feet in length, and the well-lit region at its end seemed to faintly hum with 'enterprise', at least until we all came into the room itself.

The room had several columns built into each of its four walls, with sturdy shelves of varnished wood holding sheets of leather and cloth in rolls. Other supplies hung from places between the columns, and in the far corner, I saw what might have been a small round table and four stools.

There were but three men, however, and their long rectangular worktables were cluttered with tools, thread, and pieces of leather. Each man had his own table, or so I thought until a fourth individual came in with a thick roll of leather under each arm.

I was at a complete loss as to what to say, much less how to speak of a brimming enigma, and only when Gabriel spoke of the three swords did any of the four men seek to do other than what they had been working on.

“Busy is an understatement for these people,” I thought. “Only the tailor shop is more so.”

They seemed to have an idea as to how to make scabbards, also, at least for the two 'common' swords. I was still loath to unwrap mine, and only with Gabriel's urging did I set the thing down and try the knots.

“K-Karl, I...” I spluttered. The knots were not responding to my fingers in the slightest.

“Someone spoke of free lunches,” said Karl, as he untied his knots. “I had no idea it was possible to make things like this, but at least I can tie knots.”

I became aware of an audience as I undid the rags, then once I had laid out a padded area on a small table someone had found, I gingerly transferred the sword to that region.

“Now I've seen everything,” muttered one of the men. “I've never seen a bent sword with but one edge before. Where did you get it?”

“I m-made it,” I said. “It's the first one I ever did.”

“And no markings?” said another of the men. “I always did think those were overrated.”

“Th-the markings?” I asked.

“Most people don't have magnifiers,” he said, as he produced an old-looking leather pouch and removed an old-looking squat brass cylinder similar to what I had seen Georg use a number of times. He wiped it carefully with a rag, then said, “this one is old and not very good...”

“So that's where it went,” murmured Gabriel. “I sold my old one at a second hand store to the north and east of here.”

“I doubt this is it, then,” said the second speaker of the shop. “I've had this one over a year.”

He paused, then said, “I've looked at those markings, and if they're at all deep, the sword is a bad 'un.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Marked swords may be popular, but they aren't the best if you need to use them much,” said the second man. “They tend to crack at those markings, and I've heard tell that means they'll most likely break in use.” He then began looking closely at the blade.

“He does that with all of them that come in here,” said the man who had come in with leather. “Ever since he was visiting his relatives and those northern people showed, he's done that.”

“Is this like with too much swine?” asked Karl. I had remained silent, as my suspicions had been aroused by the previous comment. I knew about the flashbacks and nightmares.

The man straightened up, then went to a small nook where he stayed for a few minutes. He came back with a strange-smelling cup of beer and an odor about him I recognized instantly as that of the widow's tincture. I could see the tracks of tears on his cheeks, and knew my suspicions were most likely accurate.

“Karl, it is best to not be probing of such matters,” I said softly. “It can cause great distress.”

“Aye, and he but saw what they did at a distance,” said the fourth man. “Talk has it you saw those people up close.”

“I did, and I live with Hans and Anna,” I said.

“That bad, eh?” he said.

“No, I've lived with them since I came here,” I said. “I need to take the widow's tincture daily just the same.”

“So that explains some of this,” said the second man, “and I think I know about some of the other parts, what with it being shorter than any sword I've seen come in here.”

The man also looked at the swords of Karl and Sepp, and as he traced out what looked like a pattern around their edges, I asked “do scabbards get a lining of soft metal?”

“With most, that isn't the case, as we use elk-leather,” said the second man. “Why, did that occur to you?”

“It did,” I said. “I was thinking of soft copper, actually. I've never made a sword-scabbard, even if I've done a fair amount of leather-work recently.”

“What kind?” asked the man. The man who had not spoken, as well as the first man, were stretching out some uncommonly stiff-looking leather, while the fourth man was digging in a leather bag for tools of some kind. I suspected he was after a prick-marker, based on Anna's regular use of the one at home.

I removed my possible bag, then looked at my belt. Gabriel undid the button of the bag once I had laid it down, then lifted the flap.

“I've seen things like this in the hands of t...”

The abrupt stop of Gabriel's speech made for wondering on my part, even as I undid my belt. My trousers longed to dive for the floor, and only with care could I remove knife-pouch and holster without dropping everything. I put the belt back in place quickly.

“Who did that thing?” asked one of the men. It was his first time speaking, and his cracked-sounding faint voice was a marvel. I wondered what had happened to him.

“I did,” I said, “and the same for these other things.”

“That may look like a tinker's pouch, but it looks a bit heavy for what they would carry,” said one of the other men, as he came to look at the knife-pouch. He undid its button, then withdrew my knife. The blade's eerie shine seemed to jolt Gabriel out of his 'trance'.

“Did you make that one?” he asked.

“I did,” I said. “The common sized knife is a bit much for me...”

“You and many others,” said Gabriel. “I'll speak to Anna about one like it.” Here, he paused, then said, “you haven't seen this traveling group of minstrels called Pump and Tilly, have you?”

“I've heard the name, but I've never seen them,” I said. “Why?”

“Pump has a bag similar to this one,” said Gabriel, “and when I looked inside, I thought it likely you had copied his bag and its contents.” He paused, then said, “at least, I thought so at first. Pump has some uncommonly bulky things in his bag, and you don't seem to have those.”

The snickering sounds of Karl and Sepp were such that I said, “I heard that some people in the past where I came from had satchels like that, and they called them 'possible bags'. The name seems to fit, as I put a lot of stuff in there.”

“How is it called that?” asked Gabriel, as he fingered the button on the holster.

“Because if I need something, it's all too possible I might well have it in there,” I said, “hence the name.” I paused, then said, “what does Pump have in his bag?”

The snickers erupted into laughter, then Sepp said, “I think you might have the tools he has, but talk has it you do not like Geneva, so I doubt you have that.”

I looked for a moment in the bag, then brought out a large medicine vial labeled 'liniment'. I put that in front of Sepp, who took it up and looked at the tag. His expression was unreadable.

“Now what is this stuff called lin-lin...” Sepp paused, then said, “I cannot say that word.”

Liniment,” I said. “It helps if rubbed on sore places, though for some arcane reason there are people that like to drink that stuff.”

“Drink?” asked Karl. “What is it, medicine?”

I use it that way,” I said archly. “You know about what I shoot and its ability to cause bruises.”

Karl nodded soberly as Sepp uncorked the vial. He sniffed, then mouthed the word 'Geneva'.

“I've never tasted it, Sepp,” I said, “and the smell is a bit much, even for that stuff.”

I had to take the vial out of his hand and cork the thing before I began retching. Even so, I gasped.

“You don't have a distillery in there, do you?” asked Gabriel.

“No, not even a small one,” I said. “Why?”

Again there were snickers. I looked around, then said calmly, “what is so funny?”

“Pump has been known to pull one of those out of his bag,” said Sepp. “I have seen that group several times, and every time, he pulls something out of that bag that you would never expect him to have.”

Gabriel undid the flap of my holster, then removed the revolver with a faint gasping noise. He held the thing by its handle gingerly, much as if he were fondling a dead rat bristling with plague-infected fleas, and after a few seconds, he set it down on top of the holster. His achingly-slow movements seemed to telegraph his feelings toward it – perhaps it was alive, and it actively disliked his unfamiliar touch – and with a grimace of distaste, he attempted to put it back in the holster.

“He showed that one to us already,” said Sepp.

“Why does it look like this?” gasped Gabriel.

“Those things need some work to make them right,” said Karl, “and he had to do a lot of work to that one.”

Gabriel looked at me with an expression unlike anything I had seen on the surface of two planets. He seemed about to faint.

“Someone tried to blow us up with that one,” I said, “and it had a poor finish when I found it.”

“What did you do to it?” he asked.

“I replaced nearly all of its parts,” I said, “and I've been looking for this one metal treatment that gives a blue-black rust-resistant finish. Once I find that, then I can...”

I paused, then said, “are appearances especially important, more so than all else?”

Again, Gabriel looked at me, then shook his head as if a cloud of flying insects had decided to roost in his face. He again tried to put the thing back in the holster, and only when I reversed the pistol and gently inserted it did he seem to 'breathe', for I heard a long low gasping breath.

“Are appearances that important?” I asked again.

“That depends on who you are and who your companions are,” said the second man among the leather workers. “Some greatly prize appearances, while others view them as of lesser importance, and some value function more than all else.” He paused, then said, “and I would suspect anyone who's dealt with swine and witches like you have values function highly.”

“I do,” I said quietly, “and that pistol has saved my hide more than once since I started going through it.” I paused, then said, “who are those that greatly prize appearances?”

“That seems a function of money and position,” said the leather worker. “The more a person has of those things, the more important looks are, at least with most.”

“B-black-cloth?” I asked.

“They tend to be especially picky that way,” he said. “I would be very careful about showing some of what you have around those people, as they might cause trouble for you.”

Especially them,” said Gabriel.

“They already have,” said Karl. “One of them tried for him.”

“Uh, he wasn't the only one,” I said. “More of them tried nonsense within the last few days.”

More of them?” asked Gabriel.

“One was wearing black,” I said, “and the other four were wearing this stiff dark brown cloth. They all shot at me, and I had to kill all of them.”

“With what?” asked Gabriel.

“One with that pistol,” I said, “and four with a sword.” I paused, then said, “and that was a big mess.”

“How?” asked Gabriel. He seemed as if listening to a thrilling story of derring-do. I wanted to hide and spew.

Right,” I thought. “It was scary as anything, and I was glad when it was over.”

“They shot at me with fowling pieces,” I said, “and I had to dodge a lot of hot lead before one of the brown-dressed people shot the black-dressed leader when I pulled him down with me as I went for the ground. He tossed his sword, I got it, and I cut two of the brown-dressed people with it, and they were shooting at me while I cut them. Then, a third brown-dressed thug comes in with a shot-loaded roer and shoots at me.”

It was not amusing to speak of what had happened, as I was reliving it with each word. I could smell the blood and hear the gunfire, and when I looked at my hands, I saw them dripping with blood and holding the still-twitching bloodstained sword. I then wondered why I had not been doused with blood during the affray.

“He missed me and hit his 'master',” I said, “and that black-dressed witch shot him with his pistol.”

“What happened next?” asked Gabriel. The two 'common' swords were well on the way to having completed scabbards, while mine seemed a prize conundrum to two of the men. I suspected I would need to ask for the leather pieces and put it together myself.

“It got really weird,” I said. “It was as if I knew exactly what to do, and who I was dealing with, and I cut off the heads of those witches one by one with the sword of the black-dressed arch-witch. I told them all to sup with Brimstone, and I killed their leader last, so he could see where he was going by watching the death of his underlings.”

I paused, then said, “had I not done so, they would have killed all four of us, and burned the woodlot to the ground so as to sacrifice us as per that arch-witch's inclination of the moment.”

The silence that descended was broken only by the second leather worker muttering as he tried to hold my sword on the leather. He had 'rough-cut' the strips needed. They were nearly an inch oversized.

“If you want, I can show you how that one might go,” I said. “It needs a place on the back for the belt...”

“I saw how you did your pouches,” he said, “and that isn't the usual, even if I've seen those done before that way. The chief problem is the curve.”

“Make the scabbard about an inch too wide at the tip, and an inch and a half too wide at the hilt, while drawing straight lines to form the shape,” I said. “Put the back strap on like I did for my things, put no 'catch-strap' on the top, and use thinner than normal leather for the spacer portion, so that it helps retain it by friction. I have deodorized tallow at home to rub on it, so it needs no treatment otherwise.”

The man was writing what I said on a slate. When he finished, he said, “decorations?”

I shook my head, then said, “I'm interested in how it works, not how it looks,” I said. “I have enough people trying for me to be concerned greatly about how it works, especially given it tends to be difficult to get both of those qualities to any degree in the same article.”

“Ain't that the truth,” said the man. “It might take an hour or so once I finish tracing the lines here.”

Gabriel then 'shook himself' and startled. I had put my knife and pistol back where I had removed them, and I was working my fingers around the belt-buckle. I was glad the buckle was behaving itself.

“I had no idea it was like that,” he said. “That sounds like something out of an old tale to hear it.” He paused, then said, “did you spike the heads?”

“That was the weirdest part,” I said. “While I didn't worry about anything of the sort, they became that way somehow, and their bodies all went rotten in a hurry.”

“If you did not spike them, then how did they become spiked?” asked Gabriel.

“I have no idea,” I said. “I was glad they weren't trying to shoot me any more, to be honest. That sufficed for me.”

I was able to wrap my sword back up some few minutes later, and while Karl tied it with string, the leather-workers began to assemble the other two scabbards. The talk I heard was such that I marveled, until Gabriel said, “I think the three of you might go down to your stations.”

“Stations?” I asked. “Where are those?”

“In front of the king's office,” he said. “Day-posts have three, while night-posts usually have two at the bench and one wandering the floors.”

I had a full load to carry now, as I was afraid to leave my sword in the place, and with its rag-wrapped bundle under my arm, I followed Gabriel out. The other two followed in my wake, and when we came to the northwest staircase, Gabriel said, “I'll need to go to my office shortly. It's on the way to where you need to go.”

“The same floor?” I asked. “Down the hall a short distance from the bottom of the stairs, turn down the first hall that shows to the right, about thirty feet past the privy with a storeroom across the hall?”

“I would be as careful with that as anything,” said Gabriel. “Some people might wonder about some of what you have and do, but speaking like that will have the witches after you.”

“They already are after him,” said Karl. “Why is that so bad?”

“Because only certain people in the old tales could speak as he did,” said Gabriel, “and witches name them worse than all others, both during those times and now.”

“D-disgrace?” I asked.

“That word especially,” said Gabriel. “What?”

“I've heard it before,” I said, “and I've already had at least one potential witch or person of similar sympathies speak it regarding me.”

By this time, we had reached the stairs, and were heading down them. Their tight nature – perhaps four feet from wall to center partition, unlike the fifteen feet of the 'large stairs' – and their close 'spiraling' nature had made them naturals for defense, and when we came to the first floor landing, I was astonished. This was a portion of the house that was mentioned quickly and in passing – we had passed it by during the house-tours – and as we went into a well-lit corridor, I marveled yet more. Most importantly, I could 'feel' the bench in question some distance ahead.

Gabriel paused at the mouth of a 'dimly-lit' hallway – it wasn't dim, but the current example was as bright as anywhere I'd been outside of the refectory – and said, “up that way a short distance, and look for the bench on the right next to the door. It's hard to miss.”

With that, he left down 'his' hallway, and I walked with trepidation down the hall. I could feel the presence of Generals to both left and right of where I was, and within seconds, I could smell the less-than-faint odor of strong drink. Karl and Sepp seemed oblivious, and when I came to a widening of the hallway to the left, I froze.

“What is it?” asked Sepp. “The bench is right there ahead.”

“Those black-dressed thugs are in there,” I said, as I pointed to a sizable iron-strapped varnished door with a white-painted lattice in its upper half. I then saw the bench, and jolted. It was indeed close, and more, unoccupied.

“Aren't there supposed to be people present?” I gasped, as I ran forward. “What if something happens?”

While neither Karl nor Sepp had an answer, I looked around in fright. But a short distance away was another of those iron-strapped varnished doors, and I almost expected one of those black-dressed thugs to come marching out of it with the goal of unvarnished mayhem. I walked slowly to the door in question and put my left ear to it.

The faint sawmill-like rumble coming from it spoke of slumber, and as I pulled my ear away from the snoring sound, I heard another sound, one of an entirely different character.

“Yoh-Fogh-Wikk-Thogh-Tagh! Tagh! Tagh!”

I jerked my head away from the door and ran for the bench, where I collapsed upon the thing while shivering.

“What did you hear?” asked Sepp.

“A c-curse,” I squeaked. “S-someone was speaking a curse, and they were s-saying it with r-r-runes.”

The door then seemed to shake and vibrate with hidden malice, and from another door – one out in the large hall, if I went by the direction – I heard a grating crash as the door banged open, then the sound of hard boots slamming into the floor in the Lurch-Pang! rhythm of the true-step.

“I think you are right,” said Karl with a noticeable shiver.

“As to those th-thugs?” I gasped.

“That and this bench needs people on it all the time,” said Karl. “Talk has it the king does not like to be around those people much.”

I could hear talk coming from the large hallway to our right, and when I looked that way, I was surprised to see three 'guards' coming with sizable mugs. The intense odor of 'Lion-Brew' was enough to make for nausea on my part, and when the oldest of the three came, he 'jerked' and nearly sprayed us with what he was drinking.

“Oh, you're here,” he said. “It's been quiet this morning. I would just watch until the fourth post comes.”

With that, he and his companions turned and went back the way they had come, and I looked at Sepp, then at Karl. Thoughts began erupting in my mind, and the first word from my mouth was a question.

What?” I squeaked. “I thought they would...”

“That beer is really strong,” said Karl, as he sat down on the bench. There was enough room for three on the thing, if one didn't mind being somewhat mashed to one or both sides. It was more comfortable with two, or so I suspected, and I moved off of the thing to sit next to another sizable and varnished iron-strapped door. I gently put my hand on it a few inches below the bulging knob and lockplate of polished brass, much as if I were feeling its warmth or lack thereof. The sensation I felt made for yelping.

“Thank God he's all right,” I squeaked.

“Who is this?” asked Sepp.

“The king,” I said. “He's in there, and he's uh... What?”

“That much I know,” said Karl. “I asked about this part some.”

“He's s-sitting at a d-desk, and doing r-research,” I said. “There's a big thick d-dusty book that he's reading out of, and he's making notes of some kind with a, uh, writing dowel.”

The thought of a 'king' doing 'homework' was enough to stagger the mind. I still had vague thoughts of 'Henry the eighth' associated with the word 'king', and to see someone behaving in the precise opposite fashion was very hard to believe.

“Oh, and he's probably thirsty, too,” I said. “Study is thirsty work...”

I stood up carefully and backed away from the door as its knob seemed to faintly shake, then seconds later, Maria came out of the door with a jug in her hands. I was so astonished by her abrupt showing that I slumped against the wall with staring eyes, and when she looked at me, I was speechless. Sepp wasn't, however.

“Is he working in there?” he asked.

“Yes, he is,” she said, “and I've been helping. Whoever wrote that account has very bad penmanship, and trying to read it makes for a headache.”

“He was talking about that,” said Karl.

“Who?” she asked.

“Him,” said Karl, as he pointed to me. “He was describing what was happening as if he was in the room watching you.”

I then saw the jug, and gulped. Thirst was an understatement, and seeing the proof of what I had known made for a very dry mouth.

“I suspect the talk is true, then,” she said, “and I'm glad for it.” She then left down the hall in the direction of the refectory.

“G-glad for it?” I squeaked. “How?”

“You do not have a common attitude for much of anything,” said Sepp, “and talk has traveled about it, same as with much else you do. I think she is speaking of that.”

“C-common attitude?” I asked, as I gently fingered the button of the possible bag.

“No one in class seemed to want to learn as much as you did,” said Karl, “though I tried to pay attention as well as I could. It was not easy the way he talked.”

Maria came back minutes later, and I placed my hand on the doorknob so as to open it for her. The lock clicked at my touch, and the door gently opened; when she went inside, I gently pulled it closed behind her. I was even more surprised when she came back to the door a minute later with huge eyes. I felt reminded of Anna more than a little by her facial expression.

“Yes?” I asked.

“I've never had anyone do that for me,” she squeaked.

“Aren't they supposed to do that for you?” I whispered.

She shook her head to indicate 'no'. My legs nearly gave way, and when she quietly closed the door, I could almost hear the consternation in my mind. I felt accused of 'evil', and my sole answer was, “but I do that for Anna all the time. Aren't you supposed to hold the door open for women? Besides, she had her hands full.”

I then looked carefully at the doorknob, and squeaked, “I unlocked it.”

“What is this?” asked Karl.

“That door was locked, and it unlocked for me when I touched it,” I squeaked.

“How?” asked Sepp.

“I put my hand on it so as to open the door for her,” I said, “and the door unlocked and came open, and when I closed it behind her, it locked again.”

Nothing else of import happened for the next two hours or so, other than a need to visit the privy on my part. I went down the hall toward the stairs and turned left at the 'dim' hall.

The 'dim' hall grew steadily brighter, and as I came to a 'jog' in the passage some thirty feet past the juncture of the two hallways, I knew the privy wasn't much further. My nose soon confirmed it, as someone came out of a hallway to the right but a few feet in front of me. I turned that way, and came to a brown door.

I retraced my steps quickly once I'd done my business, and was surprised to find one of those people from the 'leather shop' present. Sepp was checking the fit of his sword in an obvious scabbard, while Karl was attempting to put his on his belt while keeping his trousers from falling.

“Here, let me help you with that,” I said, as I gently reached toward Karl's trousers. They were as contrary that way as mine were.

Within a minute or so, Karl had gotten everything done, and he then began muttering. I looked at the tip of the scabbard and understood why. It was touching the ground, and the slightest movement on his part made for a faint nails-on-chalkboard screech – and while he may have been 'tepid' regarding that one black-dressed thug's squealing sword, he was not that way about his.

“This thing sounds like a pig,” he muttered, “and I do not like pigs.”

“The common-length swords usually make that noise,” said the man from the leather area. “You might wrap the tip with leather if it bothers you too much.”

After the man left, I thought to sit next to the wall on a piece of cloth I brought out from my bag, and as I reached for my 'snack', Sepp said, “they're supposed to bring by some food and beer shortly.”

“I hope they bring something other than beer to drink,” I said. “A small cup causes me to fall asleep right away.”

“I asked for common beer,” said Sepp. “Once we eat, then you can go over this sword if you want to.”

“It isn't screeching?” I asked.

“It does that if I'm not careful,” said Sepp. “I think if Karl can manage if he can get his to go up an inch or so on his belt.”

“Did he speak of mine?” I asked.

“That one should be done shortly,” said Karl. “They spoke of needing to find rivets for that back piece.”

“I can do that part if they don't sew it up,” I said. “Why, what kind of rivets did they want?”

“I'm not certain what they use,” said Sepp. “The usual type would be trouble. He did say that.”

“The 'usual' type?” I asked. “Are these the things with heads that look like half a musket ball?”

“Why, don't you use those?” asked Karl.

“I use lots of rivets,” I said, “but most of them are a lot smaller.” I then brought out my 'water bottle', saying as I did so, “see, I use this size a lot.”

The reaction of both men was complete astonishment. Based on my experiences at the shop, I guessed the small size of the rivets to be the chief matter, or so I thought until Sepp said, “you must have had a jeweler do those rivets for you.”

“No, I did them,” I said, “and I caught enough trouble from various people when I first showed things I did with that size. Almost everyone I talked to seemed to insist that I use these huge things...”

“Those are not huge,” said Karl. “These here are the smallest rivets I have ever seen. Now what is this thing?”

I uncorked the bottle and took a drink of cider, saying as I did so, “I'm glad I made three of these, even if they were very difficult to make. I can drop it and not have it break, unlike a jug.”

“Which is why I hope to get one of those tinned copper drinking cups,” said Sepp. “The other kind break too much, and I've broken my share.”

“How big of one do you want?” I asked. “I think I have a batch of them due shortly.”

After Sepp indicated the size he was after with his hand, I said, “three cups?”

“That, or whatever is like the usual ones of pottery,” he said. “Those copper ones tend to be smaller, at least with the ones I've seen.”

“Most of the ones I've made have been the smaller ones,” I said. “I can easily make some that size.”

“Some?” asked Sepp. “I doubt I can afford more than one of them.”

“Uh, I might want a one-cup one for bedtime, but a three-cup one would be good for when I'm working in the shop,” I said, “and I'm not the only one who'd want one in that location. Besides, I usually make copperware in batches if and when I can.”

“Bedtime?” asked Karl.

“Yes, for beer,” I said. “I might manage a small cupful of beer if I drink it in a hurry while sitting in bed ready for sleep.”

“You do not look sick,” said Karl, “so why is that?”

“Not everyone who's sick looks sick, Karl,” said Sepp. “I've heard there are sicknesses that show little until they're especially bad.”

“And what happens then?” asked Karl.

“I've heard there are types where the person looks fine one day, he goes to bed that night, and they find him dead the next morning,” said Sepp. “Anna would know about them.” Sepp paused, then said, “now if what I heard is right, she said he was sick.”

“That is different,” said Karl. “I do not know much about sicknesses.”

“Most people seem to be that way,” I murmured. “Don't feel too bad.”

However, I knew within seconds that while Karl knew little beyond the common regarding illnesses, there was a massive difference otherwise compared to the majority of people. He was at least partly aware of his ignorance, and was willing to assay its rectification – and that with solid truth, not hearsay or rumor.

The 'food' – a jug and part of a loaf of bread – came minutes later, and while we each ate a piece of bread, I wondered about a smaller-yet cooking set than the two I had made. While no one had ordered complete sets, there had been orders for most of what went into them. The graters had proved moderately popular, to my surprise, as was the 'tableware'.

As I began stoning the edge of Sepp's sword – I was sitting on the bench; Karl had taken my place on the cloth I had laid out on the floor – I looked around carefully. The sense of slumber down the hall to the left had left, and was now replaced by some other activity. I had trouble placing what it was beyond it wasn't something I'd personally want to be involved in.

“This place doesn't have a conventional legal system,” I thought, “so the usual ideas aren't going to work.”

And hard on the heels of that thought came another, specifically that one particular witch in the Swartsburg. I still could not accept the statements of all and sundry regarding 'murder', especially that type of killing which was plotted beforehand. No matter who spoke of it, it sounded too much like the behavior of those black-dressed fiends, and I had no desire to be like them.

“Do either of you know why I've had people speak of hunting and killing witches as if it were, uh, sport?” I asked.

“That is what the witches do to people when they feel inclined,” said Karl, “and I can speak the truth of that, as I have seen them do it.”

“S-seen them?” I gasped.

“There was a group of them chasing someone where I lived, and I would have shot at them, except I had nothing but a slingshot,” said Karl.

“Were they, uh, hunting?” I asked.

“They were all dressed like that one witch was,” said Karl, “and everyone that saw them spoke of them as doing that.”

Everyone that saw them?” I gasped. “Didn't they d-do something?”

“Those that could did,” said Karl, “but either people where I live are especially bad shots, or witches usually ignore being shot, as only one of them was found dead the next day.”

“Blood trails?” I asked.

“What are those?” asked Karl. He was looking at Sepp's sword as I stroked the edge with the stone. It was becoming sharper in something of a hurry, even if it was too soft to take a truly keen edge.

“The trail that wounded game leaves,” said Sepp. “If the witches were shot, they would leave blood on the ground behind them for a while at least.”

“There was a lot of that,” said Karl, “and some drag-marks, too.”

“Then some of them were hurt badly,” I said. “Is that why Paul spoke of shooting that one witch five times?”

“That sounds about right,” said one of the men from the leather shop, as he came from the right with a bundle of leather in his hand. “I hope this thing will work.”

He held out an obvious 'scabbard' toward me, and when I wiped off Sepp's sword with a soft rag and handed it to its owner, the man handed the scabbard to me.

“I'll need to test it,” I said. “Why is it that swords commonly drag their tips on the ground?”

“Most scabbards are intended to do that,” he said, “and then, most that have swords desire them to make the noise they do.”

What?” I shrieked. “Most?”

“There seem to be two classes of people that routinely carry swords,” he said, “and both of them tend to want to fight when and where they can. The noise of a dragging scabbard is said to speak of that desire.”

“Bl-black dressed th...” I spluttered.

“Them especially,” he said. “I suspect you to be different that way, but that's you.”

“I do not want to make noises like a pig,” said Karl. He sounded more than a little irked. “Is there some way to make this thing so that it does not drag?”

“Other than by shortening the sword itself, not really,” he said. “We have patterns for scabbards, and we make them to those.”

“And his?” asked Sepp, as I tried to untie the knots. I was going to need help again.

“I had no idea how to do his until he spoke of it,” he said. “At least I could figure out the master-piece.”

“If you can get some leather, Karl, I could try doing one for you,” I said. I paused, then said, “did you have trouble with rivets?”

“There are special ones for leather,” he said, “and while the common rivets are common enough, these weren't. It took lengthy searching before they were found, and then an hour's practicing until they could be peened without doing a bad job.”

“You don't usually use rivets on leather, do you?” I asked.

“The master-piece had three of them,” he said, “and I spent a week ruining rivets by the handful every day before I thought I could try doing those things. They came good, thankfully.” He paused, then said, “I've only used them a few times since, and ruined many rivets every time.”

“Hence you normally just stitch these things,” I asked. Sepp was untying the knots on the rags.

He nodded, then said, “the usual means of attaching to the belt doesn't need rivets. It's also quicker, and saves leather.”

“Quicker to make, you mean,” said Sepp. “Sliding a belt through stiff leather isn't easy, and neither are these knots. Karl, why did you tie these things fit for your grandmother?”

“I did not want them to come undone,” said Karl. “Why, are you having trouble?”

Sepp passed him the sword. Within seconds, Karl was muttering about his knots, and I reached into my pocket for the tool-roll. He took one of the proffered knives and began cutting the string he had used, then handed me back first the knife, then the rag-wrapped sword. I began unwrapping the thing, and once it was unwrapped, I attempted to slide it into the scabbard.

It went in as if greased.

“Did you put anything on this leather?” I asked.

“No, I didn't,” he said. “You spoke of having a special type of tallow at home for it, and I cannot say that word.”

“Deodorized,” I said. “It isn't common tallow, at least once it's done, and it has no smell.”

“I'd like some, then,” he said. “We boil what we get, and that multiple times, and no matter what we do, we cannot get it to not smell.”

“Uh, where do you get it?” I asked.

“Someone orders it for the house,” he said. “There is common-tallow, which we get, and then another type that is used for weapons, and then that which is in candles, and then this special type that is red.”

“Red?” asked Karl.

“It is said to be especially costly,” he said, “and needs ordering specially. Only certain people seem to be able to actually get it.”

“Certain people?” I asked. “Who?”

“Most of them tend to wear black-cloth,” he said. “If it is as expensive as it is said to be, you would need their wages to purchase it.”

“Ordering specially?” I said. “As in one must speak to its sellers in a drink-house in the Swartsburg?”

To my complete astonishment, the man said, “that is said to be the case.”

I drew the sword, and felt the stiffness and friction of untreated leather. The faint hissing sound made the hair on the back of my neck rise.

“What was that?” asked Sepp.

“The sound this thing made when I drew it,” I said. “It s-sounds like it's, uh...”

“That thing sounds like a snake,” said Karl, “and not a common one, but these bad ones they have in the mining country that my uncle spoke of.”

“No, not a snake,” I said. “I've no idea what this sounds like, but if it was alive, I think I'd rather deal with a snake.”

“Not those things,” said Karl. “They are full of poison.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “I was including poisonous snakes when I said what I did, and I've seen and heard about poisonous snakes. Why, what are those like?”

“They are trouble,” said Karl.

“Do they hide well?” I asked. “So well that people commonly step on them accidently?”

“He said they liked to do that,” said Karl. “They bite when you get close to them.”

“Does their bite cause great pain and bleeding?” I asked.

“He said it did,” said Karl. “He saw someone that was bit by one.”

“Does the bitten portion swell and turn purple or black?” I asked.

Karl looked at me, then shook his head. His face indicated a measure of fear that I had seldom seen.

“The kind of snake I'm thinking of does all of those things,” I said, “and while people do survive their bites, they are very common, and good at hiding. I was lucky I saw one when I did, as I was not ten feet from it when I stopped – and I've seen that type of snake bite, also. They move so fast you can barely see them when they strike.”

Karl was now shaking, and the man from the leather area said, “Death Adders may be bad enough, but that type sounds worse.”

“There are much worse ones where I came from,” I said. “I've only read of them, though. The type I spoke of I've seen close at hand.”

After slipping the sword and scabbard on my belt – my trousers tried to drop, and only by extensive gymnastics did I keep them up – I tried walking. The utter silence of my tread was a marvel, and when I looked, I noted the tip of the scabbard was several inches above the ground. The lecture that spoke of a too-short sword being indicative of cowardice now roared in my recollection, and as I returned to a surprised group, I said, “is that why he said that?”

“What?” asked Karl. He still sounded peeved.

“A too-short sword speaks of cowardice?” I spluttered. “I think he should have used another word.”

“What is that?” asked Sepp.

“Uh, belligerence?” I mumbled.

“If word-books were not so costly,” said Sepp, “I would try to get one. Now you said a word that I neither know of nor can speak.”

“Pugnacity?” I said. “A desire to fight at the slightest provocation, with the excuse real or imagined?” I paused, then said, “is that why he spoke of 'honor' and it being 'impugned'? As in 'take no rot from anyone, and if they give an opportunity of any kind, cut them down'?”

I then gasped, whispering, “no, I don't want to be a witch.”

“You aren't a witch, so I would not worry about it,” said Sepp. “I think he left.”

“Who, the..?”

“He did,” said Karl. “You weren't making those squealing noises, and that thing was staying close to your side. This one didn't.”

“If he fetches some leather...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, then said, “we have more of this metal. Would you like one like I have?”

“Yes, but I do not have that much money,” said Karl. “I am still paying for that knife, and it is taking it all.” Karl paused, then said, “at least it will be easier to finish its payments now.”

“So I make a scabbard like I have, except sized to fit that sword,” I said. “Perhaps I can shorten that thing somewhat, and, uh, improve it a bit.”

“How would you do that?” asked Karl.

“I would need to take off the pommel, the handle-pieces, and the guard,” I said, “and then anneal the thing in the biggest forge. I could...”

I paused in mid-sentence, for I could hear the lurching steps and screeching sword-drags of one of those black-dressed people coming. I moved closer to the 'fold' on the other side of the king's door, then leaned against the wall. The steps came close, then closer still. I could smell the reek of bad meat, strong drink, a lack of bathing, and most importantly, the scent of datramonium. The lurching strides came closer, then stopped.

“Where is that wretch!” shouted the man. His hoarse voice reminded me of Old Shuck's rabid-sounding bark.

Neither Karl nor Sepp spoke, for some reason, and as I heard the curse I had heard earlier today...

The ringing syllables launched thundering down the hallway, much as if they were shot from a roer, and each such rune paused briefly for emphasis. They seemed to form a picture in my mind of brilliant mutated colors surrounding the runes themselves, and the colors and curse were interlocked into a pronouncement of diabolical power. With the pronouncement – “Yoh! Fogh! Wikk! Thogh! Tagh! Tagh! Tagh!” – starting a second time, I wondered as to the point of spouting rune-curses, especially in this area. The colors I was seeing were bright enough already.

“If that thug isn't a witch, I'd like to know who or what he thinks himself to be,” I thought, “and yelling like that is very rude. There are people trying to work here.”

The thug didn't wait for a reply. He began walking down the hall, each lurching boot now raised high and smashed onto the floor beneath him. He was 'walking tall', and while I had but a vague recollection of the meaning of that phrase, I needed much less of a recollection regarding who he might well be.

“Is it him?” I thought. I then recalled a phrase I had spoken but the day before after church. Maarten had mentioned Gideon – in 'De werken Pruefeer' – and I'd needed to do a lot of explaining to Hans and Anna.

“As the man is, so is his strength?” I whispered.

The abrupt change in the behavior of the thug was such that I marveled, for he abandoned all semblance of 'decorum' and came at the run. I heard the hiss of a sword being drawn, and as he came past me, he yelled loudly at Karl and Sepp.

Again, they did not respond.

The now-obvious witch stalked toward them in a cold rage, while as I came from my 'hiding place', I wondered as to the purpose of the niche itself. Was that its intent? – hiding? – or was it a mere architectural quirk?

“Don't bother them, sir,” I said quietly.

The witch bristled, then turned. I was astonished to see smears of black face-grease on his red-flushed face, and as he drew a dagger from his left and began elevating his sword, time began slowing...

And the hallway erupted in crimson haze.

My sword all but leaped from its scabbard as the witch lunged at me, and as I 'wound up', I went to the side and ducked, then slashed at his leg. The blurring tip of my sword ripped a huge gash across the front of his thigh that oozed open with a thick crimson billow following. I then saw the slow-swinging arc of his sword overhead and swung my left hand balled into a fist at his forearm.

The ferocious swing of the witch seemed but little impeded, or so I thought at first as his sword kept moving over my head. He had tried for the 'quick and easy' decapitation strike.

I could feel his dagger closing in, however, and I lifted up my sword abruptly as I recovered from my arm-punch with my left hand. A sharp clicking sound resulted and I somehow 'flowed' backwards about three feet as an irregular shadow wobbled overhead to be joined by another faster-moving one. I leaped to the side as the two shadows continued in their flight, and then stood up.

The witch had somehow turned to face me, and his wide-open mouth showed black-edged yellowed teeth that resembled the fangs of an animal. I moved to his rear as he began turning. My sword was still in my hand and I slashed at the man as I passed him. The slight jarring sense I felt in my hand said I'd hit him again.

The red mist was now strobing with flaming crimson torrents and flashing with peals of high-pitched thunder, and as I turned, I felt anger, or so I thought. He had come here after someone, and that because he felt like killing. There was no reason for his murderous behavior.

I then realized that 'anger' wasn't even close to how I felt. This was rage; cold-blooded, remorseless rage; rage that calculated and killed without thinking beyond the most efficient means of effectual slaughter. I lunged at the man as he finished turning toward me, and with the tip of my sword, I ripped his gut open from side-to-side. My next thoughts were beyond chilling.

I wanted him to feel the pangs of death approaching, a death at once slow and merciless, like the teeth of that ever-hungry reptile the witch called his master.

He was drawing something from inside his now-bloody clothing, and with a slight 'afterthought', I sliced on the middle of his reaching arm. He 'stopped' reaching, and the revolver he had grasped slowly began dropping with his hand still clutching it in a half-cocked state. His yells, and louder-yet unidentifiable sounds, seemed to form compression and rarefaction waves in the red mist; and now, it was time.

I wanted his head, and I would have it.

I lunged closer, then the blade of my sword contacted the side of his neck. A slight shiver launched up my arm as the blade hit his spine, and an eyeblink later, his head wobbled, then a thick red weeping line became wider as his body went limp and his head toppled over like a broken brick.

The deafening din in my ears was now replaced by a rapid saw-like noise, and as the witch in front of me collapsed in death, I spoke a single most-appropriate phrase. I walked backwards as I said it, and when the red mist began clearing, I grew slowly more aware of what had happened and what I had done.

“No! Help me! I'm a murderer!” I shrieked.

A surprisingly soft voice came from my right, and I looked to see the king standing in a part-open doorway. I then saw the thick splashes of blood that had been splattered all over the hallway, as well as the blood-sopping floor. A severed forearm still clutching a revolver lay near the juncture of floor and wall but feet from his door, and as I realized again what had happened, I moaned. The words that came out, however, were strange.

“I'm sorry I d-disturbed you,” I said.

“You weren't disturbing me,” he said, “and that man was.”

“I k-killed him,” I spluttered, as I began weeping.

“Witches, especially that type, are not welcome in the house,” said the king, “and besides, your oath speaks of dealing with them.”

“But I h-haven't s-s-said any kind of oath,” I moaned.

“Nor do you need to,” he said. “Actions speak far louder than words.” He then noticed the revolver, the hand clutching it, and the blood-drenched severed forearm.

“Do you know why he was here?” he asked.

I shook my head. I knew little beyond his presence being a nuisance of the worst sort prior to his assault.

“I suspect I do, if I go by that pistol...”

Hendrik's abrupt ceasing of speech was such that I marveled, and when a shaking hand touched my shoulder, I nearly collapsed.

“I think he wanted to kill us all,” said Sepp in a shaky voice, “and I heard him speak that curse many times.”

“C-curse?” I asked.

“I heard it also,” said Hendrik, “and I hope Maria will be all right. She does not cope well with the words of witches.”

“I h-heard him twice,” I said.

“He said it more times than that,” said Sepp. “He said it twice more while he was trying for you.” Sepp paused, then said, “and someone else was screaming a lot louder.”

“Who?” I asked.

“It sounded like you,” said Sepp, “but it wasn't your voice, as you tend to be quieter than anyone I've ever heard for speaking.” Sepp paused, then said, “at least I could understand what that person was screaming.”

“What was it?” I asked. I was afraid to hear what it was, for I knew it to be evil greater than anything the witch had purposed.

“That person was telling that witch to sup with Brimstone,” said Sepp, “and I think you need to bathe with vinegar.”

“B-bathe..?” I gasped. I then looked down at my clothing, and burst into sobs and tears.

I was covered with blood.