The Big House, part 9.

“One of you, go fetch someone to clean him up,” said the king.

While Karl left at a run – he tiptoed through the mess, then once clear began running – I looked around further at the floor. The body of the witch had collapsed on his side in a slow-growing pool of blood, and his guts flowed out onto the floor, while his head lay with eyes half-open on its side next to the wall some feet away from his body. I heard running steps out in the main hall but seconds later, and lifted up my head to see not merely one of the cooks, but also, Gabriel. The latter walked into the 'mess' gingerly.

“No, it isn't him,” he said.

“Who?” I asked.

“There is talk that says you are planning to go into the Swartsburg and kill the richest man there,” said Gabriel, “and by the number of dead witches that have been showing, I would say you're about ready to do so.”

“What?” I gasped. “Planning? Who said so?”

“You have not made such plans?” asked Gabriel innocently.

I shook my head to indicate no, then said, “I've had people speaking of my needing 'practice', and my going in there, but I, I... That isn't right!” My voice had gone to a shriek at the last. “Th-that witch wanted to kill all three of us f-for s-s-sport!”

“I doubt that to be the case,” said Gabriel. “Those with you, perhaps, but he had a very definite idea regarding you, and I suspect that to be his chief reason for...”

Gabriel noticed the man's severed head, and the streaky black smudges indicating he'd but partly removed his face-grease.

This was a witch,” he hissed, “and he was hunting.”

“And cursing, and that loudly enough to make work impossible,” said the king. “Now fetch some vinegar, and people to help clean up the mess.”

Gabriel left forthwith.

While I suspected he was joining the cook in rounding up the needed materials, I did not go anywhere. The blood on my clothing was beginning to slowly dry, and when I looked at the sword, its bloody surface demanded cleaning. I wobbled back toward the bench where I had somehow dropped the possible bag. Sepp unbuttoned it for me, then asked, “what do you want?”

“A r-rag,” I asked. “I need to clean the sword here.”

I was seated on the rags wiping the thing down meticulously when the first of the bucket-bearing 'cleaners' arrived, and while the bulk of their attention was directed toward the floor, one of them spoke of removing my clothing. I shuddered as I stood, then said, “but where?”

“Here is as good as anywhere,” said the 'cleaner', “and that blood will set in that stuff you're wearing if you don't get it off.”

“Not him, Klaus,” said another of the cleaners. “I spoke to the tailor's shop, and they should be coming directly so he can change.”

“Why, hasn't he gotten bloody before?” said the cleaner.

“He's gotten much worse than this,” said the other man, “and I don't doubt a word of what I heard about the ditch now.” He paused, then said, “he don't handle being unclothed very well, like some of them people in the old tales were said to be.”

The man in front of me seemed to think the matter an affectation on my part, and his groping hand, while not as malodorous as that of those three 'tailors', was enough to cause a terrible flashback. I leaped from where I was to an area clear of blood and began running before I realized what had happened.

I also nearly collided with Karl.

“Good, you need to hurry to the tailor shop,” he said. “What do you want to do with that witch?”

“Uh, cl-clean up the m-mess?” I said.

Yet as I said the matter, I knew a key issue. His head needed spiking. Why, I didn't know. I knew about the revolver, and I spoke again a second later.

“Uh, set aside th-that h-h-head,” I murmured. I was beginning to stutter with fear. “And c-clean up the pistol. Otherwise, d-d-dispose of him such that he d-doesn't m-make a mess or s-stink.” I left then for the tailors.

I was surprised to have not merely clean clothing waiting, but also buckets reeking of vinegar outside one of the changing rooms, and another such bucket inside the room itself. I went inside the room and disrobed, then set about cleaning my skin of blood with chattering teeth in spite of the palpable warmth of the liquid in the bucket.

“Good, the blood is coming out,” said a voice from without. “They should be easy to clean entirely.”

“I h-hope s-so,” I muttered. “That wretch was making a lot of noise, and I had to deal with him, and then he made a bigger-yet mess.”

“Who?” asked the person outside. “Was this that one witch that came here?”

“He came here?” I gasped. I was now wiping my sword of the remaining blood that I had missed beforehand. It was important to clean it entirely of blood – it caused corrosion if allowed to remain – and the instructor had not spoken of the matter.

“A witch came straight from the Swartsburg into the kitchen,” said the man outside the door, “and he must have been getting ready to hunt someone, as he had some of that black stuff still on his face. He was asking for someone with dark hair.”

“Meaning me,” I muttered.

“He was drunk as a stinker, so few said much to him,” said the man. “He didn't hear what he wanted to hear, so he drew his sword and they had to drive him out in front of a pair of large muskets.”

“Is there a rumor going around that I'm planning to go into the Swartsburg?” I asked.

“I don't know anything about such a rumor,” he said. “I heard the Teacher of Guards spoke of you hunting down a certain witch and bringing back his head.”

“He wasn't the only one who spoke that way,” said a fainter voice. “I heard that from at least three other people, and one of them was Anna.” A brief pause, “and given we have witches coming in here like that 'un did, it might be a good idea. Those people need toning down, and that kind of thing would do it.”

I finished dressing in clean clothing, and then came out into the main area of the tailor's shop. The better light showed faint spots of blood on the scabbard, and when I reached for a furry-looking 'moth-eaten' ball of what might have been rags, I was handed the thing forthwith.

“That will be best at cleaning that thing,” said the older man who handed me the bristly-feeling 'object'. “Blood don't look good on leather, especially when it's like what you have there.”

“N-no,” I said, as I began carefully scrubbing the scabbard. “This one isn't finished. I need to rub it with d-de-deodorized tallow and beeswax, and then warm it gently in the o-oven for a while.”

“Now that is a new one,” he said as he worked a shirt on what might have been a worn-looking carved board in a tub.

“Not if you make shoes it isn't,” said the other man. “I've heard some what do that treat their shoes to that type of grease so as to keep them good longer.”

“Which is where I think I got the idea from,” I said. I then looked at my boots, and hunted up a stool so as to clean them.

By the time I'd gotten the blood off of my shoes, I had become enamored of the strange-looking and stranger-feeling 'lump' I had appropriated, and when I handed it back to the man who'd been using it, I asked, “now where do these come from?”

“Those you can get in the fourth kingdom's market,” he said, “and like much of what they sell, they aren't particularly cheap. Talk has it most students of the higher schools have one in their traveling lists, if they are them who travel.”

“That isn't a ball of rags, is it?” I asked.

“No, it isn't,” he said. “I don't know what they are, but they aren't rags.”

Vaguely a recollection was forming in my mind, and as I pondered the possible names for the thing that I was recalling, I heard steps out in the hallway leading toward the main hall. There were people coming closer, and when Karl suddenly showed, he spoke of the mess being rapidly cleaned up and the witch's torso being removed.

“Th-the head?” I asked. “That pistol?”

“Those they bagged up,” said Karl, “though getting that witch to let go of that thing wasn't easy.”

“What?” squeaked the younger of the two washers. “What was he doing with a pistol?”

“I doubt he was trying for the king,” said Karl, “as he wanted him first” – here, he indicated me – “and then us.” Karl paused, then said, “and I never thought I would see a fight like that one in my life.”

“It's good that he was there, then,” said the older man. “These clothes don't show injury, so he wasn't sliced.”

“That witch was sliced plenty,” said Karl. “His tripes were on the floor, and his arm was over near the king's door, and his head down the hall, and...”

“Urgh,” I gasped. “K-Karl, p-please, d-don't.”

Karl's cheerful 'oblivion' only ceased after he'd spoken of the mess in gory detail, and when he'd finished by saying “I might have managed to count to four before it was done,” I nearly spewed. I felt distinctly ill, and as I wobbled toward the door, the room began shuddering and jolting. I looked to the side to see a tremulous and vibrating wall accompanied by leaping candles, and I gasped, “p-please, g-get me s-something to d-drink.”

Karl ran as if crazed while I backed up to the wall, which began to acquire an awesome tint of flaming yellow with hints of virulent green. Hollow-sounding echoing steps came from my left, and when I saw a mug shaking in a convulsion, I reached f-for it. Only the sour acidic smell warned me away.

“C-cider,” I gasped. “U-unfermented w-wine. Th-that's kerosene, and it's p-poisonous.”

The mug tried to force itself on me, and only when I smelled a familiar odor did I ignore it and reach for it instead. I drained the thing in a tearing hurry, and as I handed the shuddering tinned cup back to its issuer, I noted the slow receding of what had happened.

“Anna spoke of that trouble,” said a furry-sounding voice, “and I know you don't like the things he was speaking of, so I brought what she said worked.”

“Th-thank you,” I gasped. “I was about to faint.” I then focused on what was being said, as the worst of the hypoglycemia attack was now over.

“What was he speaking of?” I asked.

“Geneva, for one,” he said. “I think he must have been around misers too much, or something like that, as most people know Geneva does little good for too much swine, and the same for wine. I'd have done better with Lion-Brew, and I know what happens if you have that.” He paused, then said, “Besides, Anna talked about how you reacted and what was best, so I got some cider from the special jug.”

“F-fermented cider?”

“No, not that,” he said. “She said to add some sugar-tree sap and a little beer, so I had that handy. It works good if you're especially tired, like after a hard day's work in the kitchen.”

By the time I'd managed to stumble back to the posting area, I was surprised to find not merely Karl and Sepp, but also two older guards speaking with them, and when I sat down on the bench – I now felt tired, and that to no little degree – I was astonished as to their attitude.

“Why are they treating me this way?” I asked. “It's almost like I'm some kind of arch-thug, and they're just common thugs.” I wanted to ask a question, one along the lines of “what was I supposed to do? Let him bother the king while he's trying to do something important?”

“Now when is it you go into the Swartsburg and kill that head witch there?” asked one of the men.

“What?” I gasped. “I've not p-planned to do any s-such thing.”

“I think you had best get started, then,” he said, “as they aren't going to stop now, not until he's dead and where he belongs. I've seen that man you killed before, and he had a long notch-stick, or so talk has it.”

“Aye,” said the other. “Now when you kill that witch, you'll want to cut him up good, just like you did his partner, and then bring back the head for spiking. That tells them who's in charge.”

“T-tells them w-who is in c-ch-charge?” I gasped.

“The cutting to pieces does that,” said the first man. “The spiked heads speak to those who would turn witch, and tell them where that road ends.” This last was said with a profound air of finality.

“Our next posting?” I asked.

“That would be the fourth post two days from now,” said the younger of the two men. “Show about this time, and you all should have an easy time of it.”

“Yes, if that one witch is dead,” said the other man. “When the big men of the Swartsburg start showing, it's certain that they're inclined toward killing.” The man paused, then said, “now I think you have a head to plant.”

The 'blasé' pronouncement of this man was a cause for muttering on my part as I made my way back to the room where I had changed, and once changed into my regular clothing, I put the others in a bag with one of the three stamped tin tags I'd made with my name. Karl and Sepp joined me minutes later, and while Karl spoke of dinner, Sepp said, “he needs to leave for home, and that head needs looking after.”

“Shouldn't he eat first?” asked Karl.

“He'd get home at the witching hour if he did,” said Sepp, “and I doubt he'd want to do that.”

As the three of us walked toward the main entrance, I said, “how long does dinner last here?”

“I doubt you'd want to spend three hours eating half an hour's worth of food,” said Sepp, “and we both spent close to that last night in that place. It's just like a Public House that way, or so I've heard.”

“And neither of you have spent much time in Public Houses,” I said. “True?”

Karl nodded, then said, “no money for it. Here, at least, I don't have to worry that way.” Karl paused, then asked, “now why don't you want to eat before traveling?”

“Because I would not be able to get out of there until it was three hours after sundown,” I said.

“So?” asked Karl. “Sleep here, and go home in the morning. It would be better.”

“No, Karl,” said Sepp. “We might not have much to do outside of what we do here, but he has a full job and this one with it.”

Two full jobs,” said the voice of Gabriel from behind. “I spoke with Hans last week.”

I smelled distillate at the threshold of the entrance, and some distance away in the late afternoon sun, I saw three people tossing wood into a hole. To its right sat two sacks, and when Gabriel led that way, I wondered why he felt so inclined. I was not looking forward to impaling the head of a witch.

As we came closer, I saw further details. The witch's corpse was in the hole on a bed of sticks, and mounded on top and to each side were more of the same, along with sundry rubbish and other cast-off articles of one kind or another. Faint scraps of conversation seemed to come from another country, with some speaking of it being a poor situation when a witch burned with the garbage and not with the usual honors. Gabriel picked up a stout pole from the ground next to the larger sack.

“This looks to be likely,” he said.

“Did you kill that witch?” asked one of the people readying the burn-pile.

“I did not, but he did,” said Gabriel, “and he needs to spike the head.”

“I'd put it near the gate,” said the first of the men to speak. “That way, everyone who comes here will see it.”

While I carried both sacks, Karl carried the pole, and with slow aching steps we came closer to the place in question. I felt horrible and unspeakably evil, and when soft grass showed in the corner and Karl laid down the pole itself, I wanted to run and hide, at least as to my thinking on one level.

I unbuttoned my possible bag, then drew out the hatchet unthinkingly. I felt as if I were going out of my mind.

“Now that is a strange ax,” said Gabriel. “I wished I had one like it while I was traipsing.”

I handed the hatchet to Karl, then asked him or Sepp to trim the 'points' of the pole. They were a good deal too blunt to properly 'spike' a head.

“What is this for?” asked Karl.

“That pole needs a sharper point on it for the head,” I said softly. I wanted to spew.

Karl looked at the hatchet, then swung as if he were attempting to cut firewood. I gently stopped him, then took the hatchet and began slicing slivers of wood off the tip so as to form a sharp point like a pencil.

“I never saw that done before,” said Karl, “and that ax is strange.”

“It's sharp enough,” said Sepp. “How hard are those to do?”

“This size isn't bad,” I said. I was glad for the distraction. “I've got two axes in the queue that I know of, and both of them are the larger ones.” I paused, then said, “those tend to be a good bit more work.”

With my chopping of the wood, I found a small group soon gathered, and within two minutes, someone in 'full' regalia was picking up the chips as they flew. I had the intimation that a watch-fire was lit at sundown, and when I paused to turn the pole – it was a peeled sapling minus its limbs, or so I guessed – I looked around before resuming.

“These are just right,” said the gatherer. “What are you cutting?”

“That is a pole for the head of a witch,” said Gabriel. I shuddered soundlessly.

“Now that will get some respect,” said the guard. “Where was he killed?”

“But two paces from Hendrik's door,” said Gabriel, “and they should just...”

A rumbling 'Whoomph' made for jumping on my part, and as I resumed chopping on the pole, the guard said, “that was just the burn-pile starting. I hope we can get some of that wood they have.”

“They were speaking of needing garbage to fill out the bed of flames,” said Gabriel. “Wood isn't the easiest thing to get nearby right now.”

“Don't you lot use charcoal to heat your rooms?” said the guard.

“When it shows, which isn't often,” said Gabriel. “I've bought bags of sawdust on Houtlaan for when it's especially cold, and I've burned the stubs of candles when I've been especially desperate.”

I finished the pole about a minute later, and when I turned to the bag, I noted that Sepp was untying its knot. Thankfully, he seemed to have an easy time of the matter, and I put away my hatchet.

“Now that is a handy thing, that satchel,” said the guard. “Belt-bags might be the common thing, but...” He paused, then said, “now talk has it one of those new people has some forest-gear.”

“I have two pair of lighter-weight mottled green,” I said. “Is that what you meant?”

“I did, and I don't wonder why now,” he said. “Mind what's in that bag, if it's a head.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Some say there are witches that can speak after death,” he said, “and only spiking them like you are doing makes them cease with their curses.”

Sepp then reached in the bag and brought forth the head, and the silence that fell was such that I both marveled and shuddered – at least, until the guard spoke.

“And if that talk of dead witches cursing is true, that one would be one of those doing it,” he said. “That's one of the worst of them right there.”

“Worst?” I gasped.

“There are worse ones, but up here, they tend to stay in the Swartsburg,” he said. “I went in there when one of those Gen'rals turned up missing and he needed to sign something here, and it's a bad place to be day or night.”

“Is it worse after dark?” I asked.

“It is that,” said Gabriel. “There should be a place for that point on his neck.”

I found what might have been the witch's epiglottis, and rammed the point of the pole in forcefully. The jarring blow to my wrists was only exceeded by the sight of the pole going in nearly to its full diameter.

“Good one,” said the guard. “I'll fetch a spade, and you all can plant him proper at the gate.”

'Planting' the witch went quickly, and when another of the guards showed, he said, “ah, that is a proper head to start a reputation with. I've seen that wretch when he was alive, and only Koenraad himself was said to be worse for trouble.”

“Koenraad?” I spluttered.

“The wealthiest man in the Swartsburg,” he said. “He tends to hide himself near Maarlaan, or points east from that place, and about the only way you'd get him outside of it while still alive is in one of those stinky coaches.”

“With eight mules in front of it at their smelly worst,” said another voice from nearby.

While the other three left for the refectory, I headed out the gate, then once I struck the 'northwest trail', I turned right. I had maybe an hour or so of light left, and took modest comfort in my likely speed while heading home.

The gentle downhill seemed to add to my intention, and by sundown, I felt as if much of the way home. I could feel Waldhuis to the front and my left, and I bore west until it was to my right. A faint moving light was moving further to the right, and as I set my course to intercept it, I heard first the noise of a multitude of clopping hooves, then the groaning of badly lubricated wheels, and then, finally, the blowing of obvious horses. I hurried so as to catch up. A ride sounded likely.

As I drew closer, however, I had a distinct intimation that this wagon – it was too big to be a buggy – wasn't one I wanted part of, and I felt caution stirring in my guts. I thought to observe the thing just the same, and when I came to a copse near the side of the road some distance ahead of the thing, I burrowed into the bushes. A faint yet chilling mist was starting to come down, and the shelter felt welcome.

The noise of the horses continued, and as I watched, the wagon hove into view. I recognized both road and area, and as the wagon passed, I noted first the team of six, and then the driver.

This individual was alone and darkly silhouetted in the faint rays of a flickering candle-lantern, and the odor I smelled was of such magnitude I began retching, even as the boxes on the rear of the wagon seemed to silently shake for a second; then, with an abrupt outburst, I heard a sound I had but heard once before:

“Bwoop-Whoo... Oh! Bwoop-Whoo... Oh! Bwoop-Who... Oh!”

“No wonder it smelled so bad,” I thought. “That wretch is hauling those stinky birds!”

I waited for another two minutes, then carefully wormed my way out of the copse. I went some few hundred yards to my right, then headed north at a rapid walk. I could already hear the wagon to my left, and as it faded from my hearing, I began quartering to the west, until I struck the main road. Home was but a few miles away, and as I walked amid the slow-gathering mists of the night, I wondered what – and who – would be present at home.

“Forget working, save for a short while at home,” I thought. “I'll want to go to bed early tonight, and get an early start tomorrow.”

I was surprised when the Public House showed its lights, and by its noises, I guessed dinner was still much in progress. I knew many came to eat at least an hour before sundown, and I wondered just how common it was for 'three hour dinners' in such places. I knew about ours at the place, and could only guess about the meals of others.

“We spend at least an hour there, if not longer,” I said. “It usually takes a bit more than half an hour from our order to the food, and then the waiter takes a while to see us if the place is busy, and then we spend a half hour or more eating the stuff, and...”

I paused abruptly, then thought, “and a pie each for those men, when one glutted the three of us! Is that why they take so long?”

Somehow, as I tapped at the door, I knew it was more than merely the quantity and quality of food, and when the door opened a crack, Anna was standing there.

“What took you so long?” she asked, as I walked inside.

“The third posting,” I said, “and then a really nasty witch came, and I had to deal with him.”

“But that's...” Anna abruptly stopped, then asked, “when does the third posting start?”

“That happens a bit before lunch at that place,” said Hans from somewhere behind her. “I think you are confusing it with the second posting, which is the one most of those guard people want.”

Hans then came up from the basement, then said, “now how was your first day?”

“Let him set down first,” said Anna.

I but had eyes for the bath, however, and only once I'd unburdened myself and had clean clothing on could I speak of what had happened between guzzling cider and gnawing on pepper-dried meat. Dinner would happen soon, or so I guessed.

“Did you eat before you left?” asked Anna.

I was about to reply when Hans said, “that place is bad for dinner, Anna. It might not be in the second kingdom house, but if you eat there then, they do not want you to leave until you are too full to do anything worthwhile.”

“And getting your food, unless you speak of it before lunchtime, takes at least an hour,” I said. “I imagine those guard-rooms are full after that place does dinner.”

“Yes, that is true,” said Hans. “You might want to spend the night there with the later postings, as you would be coming home during the dark.”

“Still, what kept you?” asked Anna. “You should have been home at sundown, if not before.”

“First, there was a witch,” I said. “He was really nasty and stinky, and he comes here spewing this really awful curse. I didn't like that much.”

“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “That names him a witch, and that oath speaks of what you are to do.”

I looked at Hans as if he was crazy, then said, “Hendrik had some paperwork to do, and that rude wretch was making a lot of noise. That kind of work is hard enough without some thug yelling.”

I paused for a moment, then continued.

“So he tries bothering Karl and Sepp, and I ask him not to,” I said. “I wanted to ask him what was his problem, but he comes after me like I'm the problem, and I have to deal with him.”

“Yes, and what happened?” asked Hans.

I burst into tears, then said in a piteous voice, “God, please forgive me. It was me or that witch, and I killed him.”

“Good that you did, then,” said Hans. His oblivion seemed to have reached a new epoch. “Now what did you do to that witch?”

“I s-spiked his head just inside the gate,” I moaned, “and I was told that it wouldn't stop until I went into the Swartsburg and killed the richest witch in the place and brought back his head.”

“That is likely to be what you need to do,” said Hans in an utterly serious voice, “and there will be no rest until that witch is dead.”

“Is this that one witch?” asked Anna.

“K-Koenraad?” I asked.

“I have heard of that name,” said Hans. “Does that witch like to stay near Maarlaan?”

“Th-they said he did,” I sobbed.

“That is him,” said Hans. “There might be worse ones to the south, but they are there, and not here. That wretch is here, and he is trouble.”

“Did h-he send that one s-student after me?”

“Talk has it he did, and the same for that one that was in the that room that you caught,” said Hans. He paused for a moment, then said, “now how did you get home?”

“I w-walked,” I said.

“You could not have,” said Anna. “Even if you went in close to a straight line, you would not be able to walk that far in a day.”

“I did,” I said, “and I stayed clear of the roads until a bit south of Waldhuis,” I said. “I was shot at a lot on the way there.”

“I think you had best give that place a lot of room,” said Hans. “Were you going through their fields?”

“N-no,” I said. “Their fields ended about three hundred paces to my right, and there were trees some distance to my left. They started shooting, and the balls were showering dirt and leaves where they were hitting. I had to run and get into the trees, and then keep moving, otherwise I would have been hit.”

“That is a far distance,” said Hans. “Most muskets do not carry that far.”

“L-larger muskets?” I asked.

“Those might make it out that far, but they would be rolling their balls on the ground. Were these doing that?”

“They were spewing dirt and sod into the air when they hit,” I said.

Hans wiped his face with his hands, and I noted movement to my right. Anna had just refilled my mug.

“What did these muskets sound like?” asked Hans.

“I'm not sure,” I said. “You said roers were not common, but what they were using had that type of sound.”

“They might have those fifth kingdom guns,” said Hans. “Those might not be roers for the ball they take, nor much else, but they shoot further than most muskets.”

“Are these the ones that load from the breach?” asked Anna.

“Them and these others they have,” said Hans. “Both of those things shoot a far distance.”

“I am not sure if they shoot as far as what he uses,” said Anna. She paused, then said, “next time, if you leave during the day, try to get a ride. It is likely to be faster than walking, and you will be less tired.”

“I am not sure if it will be faster for him,” said Hans. “He has little trouble keeping up with our team, at least for a few miles.”

“Hans, that is a good deal more than a few miles,” said Anna. “Most that walk that far take much of a day doing it.”

I remained silent about how long it actually took me, and went to bed but an hour after dinner. I wasn't going to argue about the tired portion, as I was that. Bed was calling me, and I could not tell if I fell asleep while lying down or while undressing.

I awoke the next morning with the barest trace of light showing in the window, and once downstairs, I looked at the parlor window. It was just beginning to lighten in the west, and I gathered my things quickly. I was glad I had oiled my sword once I had gotten home the day before, and I carefully hid the thing under the workbench before I picked up one of the student's lanterns.

I all but ran to the shop, and once there, I was astonished. I was indeed the first one there, and I had two forges going with wood before the first apprentice showed yawning and seemingly still more asleep than awake.

“They'll wake up soon enough once the place gets going,” I thought.

My estimation of what the others wished to do proved something of an understatement, and by the time of the morning guzzle, the place was pounding and filled with smoke amid the showers of sparks from grinding and the whir of the buffer's gears. I was getting filthy with chips and filings faster than ever before.

“What happened at the house?” asked Georg once he'd started on his second mug.

“A witch showed next to where the king works,” I said, “and I had to deal with him.”

“What happened to him?” asked Gelbhaar. “Did you light him on fire?”

“N-no,” I said. “I had to fight with him, and got really messy doing it, and then did something really awful with his head, but I did not light him on fire.”

“Careful,” said Georg. “He might deal with more witches than anyone outside of an old tale, but he does not enjoy it much.”

“N-no, I don't,” I said. I was dabbing my now-watery eyes. “I got shot at a lot going there, and then I had to walk home.”

“I'm amazed you are here,” said Georg. “Most that did that would not bother going home when you did, but wait until the sun was up the next day.”

“And take all day doing it,” said Johannes.

“That would not work out,” I said. “I'll need to go two or three times a week, and most of those times, they're likely to be during the afternoon and evening, so it doesn't disturb things too much here.”

The others left somewhat early, due to their apparent fatigue, but as I checked over what had been done, I was amazed at the quantity of work. Our stock of stovepipe was well on the rebound – I had checked over several batches that day, and Georg had sold a fair amount of the stuff – the copperware was rapidly progressing, I had spent a short time 'inventorying' the latest arrivals of Norden-metal, and I had reworked all four musket barrels in their entirety. I suspected all four of them would be ready for delivery within a week.

“Perhaps a slug-mould,” I thought. “That would help with those things.”

I continued working until just prior to sundown, then left for home with a sizable bag. I had stripped Karl's sword and had put it in the full-loaded furnace to 'anneal' and carburize after a lengthy session with saws, the grindstone, and files, and I would assemble the thing tomorrow before I left.

“He didn't say how short he wanted it,” I thought, “nor much else, so I hope he can manage with what I did.” I paused, then thought, “it seems a good deal lighter just the same.”

I was surprised to see the rear door open and Anna coming out of it when I came into the kitchen, and her muttering was enough to make me nervous. I thought to ask, even as I unloaded my supplies on or near my workbench, and as she returned to the stove, I asked, “is it close to done?”

“All except for the cleaning,” said Anna, “and I think they started that today.

“Did they just do the bathroom,” I asked gently, “or did they do more?”

Anna resumed muttering, then steps from the basement spoke of Hans coming up the stairs, or so I thought when I turned to see Sarah. She jolted and ran back down the stairs with such speed she seemed to vanish.

“Now what happened to her?” I asked.

“She came earlier today,” said Anna, “and she's been helping downstairs since.”

“Should I bring out four settings?” I asked.

“You might, but not for a while,” said Anna. “I put the tub out in the bathroom, so you can try it out tonight. I know bathing downstairs has been trouble for you.”

I felt much better once I'd bathed, and as I drew what I recalled of the panels of the necklace in the student's ledger, I paused now and then to sip from a mug. I had ten of the things in process at work, and hoped to finish them soon.

“And all of them the larger size,” I said, as I indicated which of the names went where. “I'll most likely need to ask Maarten how those names are spelled in the original language, unless those books come here soon enough.”

Still, I could indicate the rough shape and layout of the panels, and after putting those drawings aside, I resumed work on gunlocks with files, drills, reamers, and stones, until the rattle of place-settings spoke of it being time to help. There were indeed four to be put out.

Hans came up with Sarah in tow, and once we had all had our first bowls of potato soup and were working on seconds, I paused to look at Sarah's hair. It was slightly longer than when I first had seen it, and was perhaps a shade lighter, while she had doffed her cloak to eat. Her clothing, however, was not the usual for women – she seemed to be wearing a long-sleeved shirt – and I marveled at it and her.

“She seems to have a hollow leg,” I thought, “and an appetite that won't say no. Perhaps she could eat an entire pie by herself.” I paused in my thinking, “and she smells wonderful.”

After dinner, I thought to show my drawing of the necklace. While Anna rubbed her head upon seeing it, and Hans seemed 'indifferent' – perhaps my drawings were not entirely clear; they were the first examples – Sarah had gone to the privy, and when she came out, she went to Hans' right. Hans set the ledger down, and as Sarah looked intently at it, I stood slowly.

It was a good thing I did, as she fainted with such abruptness that I barely managed to catch her.

As I carried her to the couch, I was surprised at how little she weighed, and once I had set her down on her side, I gently checked first her pulse, and then her breathing.

“And she needs a blanket,” I thought. I did not want to take chances, and I was glad I had a folded example handy in a hanging cloth bag. I then returned to the table.

“What happened to her?” asked Anna.

I was speechless, and seconds later, Anna supplied a 'suitable' rejoinder:

“It was nice to put her how she likes to sleep.”

“He was not doing that,” said Hans. “I might have trouble understanding this drawing here, and about half of the stuff in those medical books downstairs is beyond me, but I know what he was doing. He was checking her over to see if she was all right, and then covering her like you are supposed to do.”

Anna abruptly covered her mouth, then muttered, “I wished I could learn how to read quicker, but it is so slow! I had no idea it would take this long to learn to read even a little bit.”

I had wondered more than a little as to Anna's 'slow' progress, as she seemed to forget much of what she learned from one week to the next. More importantly, I had but little added time for teaching, and I suspected she wasn't inclined to try more often.

“You practice, don't you?” asked Hans. “I do what I can with that stuff.”

“I do,” said Anna, “and I cannot seem to learn anything, no matter how I try, and after a short time, it makes me want to try knitting. Still, it is so slow!”

I kept silent, for I recalled how it had been in my case. Reading happened with a sudden abruptness when I had been first taught, and speed and vocabulary grew frightfully, such that within a short span of time, I was reading encyclopedias, dictionaries, and fiction. That one gold-embossed book entitled 'The Works of Poe' was a regular item by the time I was eight, and it was far from the only one in that set. I had started reading but two years earlier.

Slow and unsteady steps came from behind me, then as I returned to the ledger, Sarah came and plumped herself down in a chair. She seemed worn and fatigued, and when she spoke, I thought that an understatement.

“I have seen that before in dreams,” she said. “It is very important.”

“In what way, dear?” I asked. I tried to sound soothing, as she seemed to need it. Her reply was unsettling to say the least.

“That thing has a great deal of power,” she said, “and it will kill the one who wears it unworthily.”

“What?” I squeaked. “I had the idea for this many years ago.” I paused, then asked, “this isn't something a witch would want, is it?”

“Any witch that dared to touch it would burst into flames and become cinders,” said Sarah, “and that quickly.” She paused, then said, “each of those pieces has a name, and is named specially, depending on where it is among the twelve of them.”

“How is that?” asked Anna. She was truly curious.

“The names are of the twelve brothers that formed the tribes,” said Sarah, “and the writing is not witch-scribbling, but what the first and largest portion of the book is written in. That is the language of power, the kind that burns witches with a single word and ruins their imagined fortresses with a sentence. The tapestries speak of that language, and all of the important things are written in it.” Sarah paused, then said in a faint voice, “there will only be seven of those ever made.”

“How much time do you spend praying, dear?” I said. I wanted to add something, but it was too strange to speak of right now.

“No stranger than you,” said Sarah, “and much less so.”

She then came to where I stood, and reached toward my face. I wondered what she would do – until with soft and delicate hands, she gently tweaked my nose.

It tingled mightily, and it was all I could do to not laugh with joy.

“A few more months,” she said, “perhaps as many as three, but no more, and then there is a place with many trees. After, a large river, and then the sea...” She paused. I had but little real idea of what she was speaking of, even if her statements matched my impressions of the future. “And then, it becomes stranger. I have not been shown that part yet. Much of the rest, I have been shown over the years.”

“How much time do you pray?” I asked again.

“As much time as I can,” she said, “and that, I have done since I was very small.” She paused again, and asked shyly, “you do like to have your nose tweaked, don't you?”

I smiled, recalling the intensely pleasurable touch of her hands, and to my complete surprise, she leaped up and grabbed at my chest. I caught her with my arms, and walked over to the couch, where I set her down. I was at a loss as to how to respond appropriately – recollections of my previous attempts at 'breaking the ice' and 'humor' ran wild through my mind, and how all of them had backfired horribly – and when I set her down, she leaped to the side giggling and ran past me to the stairs heading down. As I turned and looked toward the kitchen with a face too frightened for words, I again smelled the delightful smell of roses. I walked back towards the kitchen, and sat down at the chair I had vacated.

“What is she like normally?” I asked, as I rubbed my still-tingling nose. It was interesting to hear 'confirmation' in that fashion.

“Like she is now,” said Anna, “though less frightened and tense, and much less thin. I try to stuff her as full as I can, and she eats for two when she is here. She will not put on weight.”

I put my hands over my mouth to stifle the shriek, which almost emerged just the same, and when I spoke, it was high-pitched, shrill, and scarcely audible.

“Her d-diet?” I asked. “She doesn't get en-enough food?”

“I think that the case,” said Anna, “as she is not with child.”

Hans looked at Anna knowingly, and I wondered what was unsaid between the two of them.

“Most women with child eat so much that it seems impossible they can hold what they eat, and that until they are very swollen and unable to move,” said Anna. “I hope you do not mind carrying her then, as even with one child, she will swell frightfully, and be unable to move once she starts showing.”

“I would greatly enjoy carrying her,” I said. “She doesn't weigh much at all.”

“That is now,” said Hans. “She will weigh more when she has children.”

“Still, I would enjoy carrying her,” I said. “I have seen women with child before, and they were not that swollen.” However, as I said this, I recalled bulging white furry rodents – pregnant mother rats, at that – and their irritable and hugely frenzied ways. I wondered if that figured in what I said next.

“They were still able to move readily, right up to the time they were ready to give birth,” I said.

“Not here they do,” said Anna's arch tones. “Only witches can do that, as they hardly show at all, or so it is said, and they foster their children out. They are as dry as dead sticks.” Anna paused, then said, “otherwise, women become so large that they need to be carried to move when it is close to time, and then the children come.”

“Yes, and there is usually more than one of them, too,” said Hans. “About a third of the time, there are three of them.”

“Three?” I squeaked. “Three children?”

“Single children tend to be uncommon,” said Anna. “When there are three children, the mother eats constantly, goes constantly, and yells constantly, as when the children start to show, they cause great pain.”

“Yes, as they move a lot in there,” said Hans. “I have seen them do that.”

Anna looked at Hans with a look I could only describe as 'knowing', then added, “it hurts more when they come out.”

“You saw them m-move?” I asked.

“I have many times,” said Anna. “The mother's belly often wiggles with moving children.”

“No wonder the poor woman is in pain,” I gasped. “They're kicking her in the stomach constantly.”

“That sounds about right for babies,” said Hans. “They do that a lot when it is time to for them to come out.”

“And her behavior?” I asked a moment later. I wanted to ask, “is it normal for women to be so 'playful'?”

“That is not unusual,” said Anna. “I would expect her to ask you sometime in the future.” Anna paused, then asked, “though when in the future is a good question. What was she speaking of when she said a few months?”

“Something will happen then, and it will be especially important,” I said. “I saw much the same as she described. I have known something was going to happen...”

My voice fell away, then, “the Swartsburg? Hunting down and killing that witch?”

I expected to feel 'censure', and that to no small degree. Instead, the feeling I had could be best described in words as “no, this will make that event seem trivial.” More importantly, I had a substantial impression that I needed to deal with Koenraad, and that soon. It wasn't just me now.

It was everyone connected with me as well, including many at the house proper.

“N-no,” I gasped. “I cannot just go in there and kill that wretch in cold blood.” I wanted to scream, as to act like a black-dressed thug was the same as being a black-dressed thug.

“Who is this?” asked Hans. “Is this that witch in the Swartsburg?”

I nodded, then asked in a faint voice, “how?”

“That will be tricky,” said Hans. “Talk has it there are the north openings to that place, and then some to the south, and those witches hide those places good.”

“And they watch those north openings,” said Anna. “I've heard many witches get their bones there when people they don't want try to come inside.”

“The south openings?” I asked. “Openings?”

“That place has this big wall with spikes on its top,” said Hans, “and that keeps out people the witches do not want in there. Talk has it a lot of the spikes have the heads of those the witches sacrifice.”

“M-murder?” I asked. “There are a l-lot of murders...”

“I have found more than one headless body near Grussmaan's,” said Hans, “and they are not unknown elsewhere in the house.”

While I had not previously made anything remotely resembling 'plans' regarding a Swartsburg incursion, and I was still loath to do so, strange ideas came into my head as I worked, and I drew them out in the ledger as carefully as I could. Most of them seemed to be drawings, with some of them words and pictures, and as I stretched before going upstairs to bed, I paused to look at what I had scribbled.

“S-seven pages?” I gasped. “What is this?”

There was no answer, and I pushed in my chair. I had hard-fitted the second lock of the four for the muskets, and the other two needed but minor soft-fitting prior to hardening. I needed an early start tomorrow, and as I turned to go, I felt a strange tugging in my mind.

“Four-B-eleven,” came softly from my mouth, and I went to the drawer and row in question. Opening it showed a small leather pouch, and when I opened it, I was stunned.

I had found a large number of soft copper rivets with backup washers, and I suspected they were used for leather. I commonly carried enough tools with me to peen them, save for a backup stake. I had one of those at the shop in my tool carrier, or so I suspected.

“And I can use the floor if I need to,” I thought. “I'll just need some leather-sewing supplies, and then I can fix Karl's scabbard.”

I went earlier yet to the shop the next morning, with the ledger tucked in my bag in case more ideas showed regarding the Swartsburg, and I began heating Karl's sword in the largest forge once I had it out of the furnace and the forge itself lit. I used still-glowing coals from the furnace to 'start' the forge, and with a fresh load of wood in the furnace, I tossed in the sawed pieces of lye-dowsed bars. Heating broke loose the remaining bits of scale, which was why the bars now commonly sat in the corners of the forges in use during the day.

The heat and faint smoke from the charcoal also killed the nauseating aspects of lye.

The lightening I had done to Karl's sword now showed in its more-rapid heating, and the front door was just beginning to show light around its edges when I doused the thing in the oil. The gouting smoke drove me toward the front of the shop, and when the door opened abruptly, I halted with the billowing fumes wreathing me.

“Why did you smoke up the shop?” asked an apprentice. “I need to get the fires lit.”

“I've lit three of them already, Klais,” I said. “I'll need to leave about lunchtime for the house, so I need to do what I can while I have time to do it.”

Without a word, he went around the shop toward the rear of the property, and while I waited for the fumes to clear, I stayed out front. I began to have ideas regarding the blower I needed to make, and when I was able to go back inside, I drew what I had.

“And another engine, and boiler, and I need surface plates first, and those need patterns, casting, and scraping,” I thought. “I can draw them up easily enough.” I began drawing on a slate but minutes later, and took it over to the carpenters when the others had arrived. I returned to a scene of consternation.

“Now this is a good one,” said Johannes, “except for one thing.” He was looking at the sword.

“What?” I asked.

“It is not marked,” he said. “No sword is any good without being marked.”

“They crack at those markings,” I said testily. “You know how...” I paused, then said, “didn't you say you needed to stone weapons before hardening them, or they cracked and broke?”

“Y-yes, but those things were for hanging on walls,” said Johannes. “The good ones must be marked, lest they...

“At least some of those markings are runes,” I said, “and I suspect they mean something quite different from what I've been told.” I paused, then said, “I used a sword I stole from a witch to cut off the heads of four witches, and I was told it would have shattered like glass had I attempted to remove a fifth head with it.”

“That was a bad sword, then,” said Johannes.

“I have that accursed thing still at the house,” I said, “and it's both scrap metal and marked as being especially good. Do you want me to bring it here and show you?”

While the silence that descended seemed to billow crazily and then bloom a message of censure, I wasn't about to take such an answer quietly. I ran from the shop to the house, then down into the basement. To my surprise, Sarah had left, and when I found the rag-wrapped piece of scrap-metal that masqueraded as a sword, Hans said, “now why are you here?”

“I was reworking a sword for Karl,” I said, “and the people at the shop demanded the thing have those accursed marks on it so it would be cursed fit for a witch. I need to show them what happens when that is done.”

“I had best go with you, if they are talking that way,” said Hans. “I am glad I have this belt pouch, as it keeps that pistol handy.”

Hans came back with me as I walked with the blade held over my shoulder, and the quiet of the shop when I went inside at first seemed disturbing – at least, it was disturbing until I saw the uncorked jugs and mugs in use. The morning guzzle had come a bit earlier than usual, and the frantic consumption of beer was such that I marveled.

“They are working hard in here,” whispered Hans. “I can see a lot of sweat on them.”

I did not speak, but went to my portion of workbench, where I unwrapped the sword carefully. Several of my knots had come undone during the trip, and when I finished, I said, “now, come and look at this thing, and you'll see just what I mean.”

Johannes was the first to look, and as he traced out the multitude of cracks with his fingers, he was silent. He turned the sword over, and then gasped.

“Yes?” I asked. “What did you find? Was it made to 'the old pattern' in the fourth kingdom? Is it 'especially good'?”

He turned to me, and nodded soberly before saying, “how did it crack so badly?”

“Those things have cracks starting from those markings,” said Hans, “so if they need to be used, they go bad in a hurry like that one there.”

“Used?” asked Johannes. “How?”

“He killed four witches with that thing,” said Hans, “and Korn saw them lying there dead without their heads.”

“Without their h-heads?” gasped Johannes. “Were they c-cut..?”

“That and spiked,” said Hans. “He said the rest of those things had gone rotten, so they were bad witches, and that town where they came from needs to be made into a burn-pile, so they all can go where they belong.”

Hans paused, then said, “and he needs to go in the Swartsburg and kill that head witch there.”

“What?” exclaimed Georg. “That place is so bad no sane man goes into it, and that day or night.”

“You did to learn about Black-Cap, didn't you?” I said.

“I questioned my sanity more than a little, and that several times” said Georg. “I had to sneak in and sneak out.”

“Yes, and how is it you went in there?” asked Hans.

“The north entrance,” said Georg, “and I paid someone I knew to let me hide among his grain-sacks he was delivering. They poked them with their daggers, and I was nearly stabbed with those things.”

“So you got in,” said Hans. “Now how is it you got out?”

“I waited until the place was quiet, and sneaked out then,” said Georg. “It isn't like the fifth kingdom house that way, as it starts to go quiet late at night, and it's almost as quiet as it is here about three hours or so before dawn.”

“That place never completely sleeps,” I said, “though it comes closest to doing so then. The most dangerous people tend to sleep during that watch, and most of the others who live in the Swartsburg are either sleeping or doing business behind closed doors. The only people out then are the town drudges, and they are doing what no one else wishes to do during the hours allotted to them. The north-gate guards ignore such people as a rule, and 'rubbish collection' is important to that place's image.”

“Which is why I had spare clothing, so as to dress like them,” said Georg. “It wasn't easy carrying three added sets of clothing into that place.”

“Were any of these places you went to on or near Maarlaan?” I asked.

“I stayed out of that part of the place,” said Georg. “There are several sections, and one of them is where a lot of the more-common business is done.”

“Near the west-wall at the north angle?” I asked. “One of those small places there?”

Georg nodded, then said, “most of the deliveries are in that area, and there are decent places to hide.”

“And a great many thieves, robberies, murders, and low-ranked witches trying to get higher rankings any way they can,” I said. “You went into a closed shop, much as if you were a thief, and hid inside until it quieted down.”

Georg nodded soberly, then said, “I'm glad I didn't have to do that much, as those places commonly have people walking them then.”

“Those 'people' are usually supplicants who wish to make their bones,” I said. “While not everyone who lives in the Swartsburg is a 'made' witch, those people make the rules and set the standards, and the quickest way to prominence there is to get 'made'.”

“What does that mean?” asked Gelbhaar.

“Join a coven as a 'goat' with the name of Judas and kill your first sacrifice,” I said. “The other term used is 'making one's bones', and it has to do with the tips of the first fingers. Every such sacrifice donates those to the witch killing him or her.”

The shivers that resulted were enough to make for nausea on my part, and I turned back to the sword. The cracks seemed to yawn wider and speak like mouths, and their bloody speech was something incomprehensible, evil, and savage. The markings seemed somehow accentuated in their virulence as I watched, and when the long 'joined-O' marking wiggled side-to-side like a snake, I looked at it closer. It then showed the sign.

“R-ride the s-snake?” I gasped. “Is th-that what it means? Not 'especially good'?”

“Now what is this?” asked Hans. “I see something strange on that sword there, and it looks like a little piece of tin.”

“Th-that sign?” I gasped, as I pointed to it. “Can you see it?”

I moved so that Hans could read the little tin piece, and when he looked closer, he said, “it is changing right along here. First, it says what people say, and then it speaks of what it actually means.”

“What does it say about what people say?” said Georg.

“It says it is said to be especially good,” said Hans.

“That was what I was told it meant,” said Johannes, “and only certain people...”

“Certain witches, you mean,” I muttered. “Hieronymus wasn't nearly that 'good'.”

“And this other speaks of riding a snake,” said Hans. “I do not know how a person could do that, as not even a big Death Adder is big enough to be ridden.”

“It speaks of a witch's relationship to Brimstone,” I said, in a strange voice, one that sounded at once brutal beyond the bounds of language and encased in the grip of iron. It was almost like speaking a curse, and I squeaked, “what did I say?”

“I think you are right,” said Hans. “Now there is this other one here, and it has no little sign.”

“He said that one meant it was made in the fourth kingdom,” I said. “I'm not sure if that whole group meant that, or what.”

“That one there does, or so I was told,” said Johannes as he pointed to a strange-looking '4' followed by an odd-looking lower-case 'h' unlike those used in common printing, “and that other one...”

“N-number one first quality?” I gasped. “Old pattern? Where do they come up with such rubbish?”

“I take it you can do better?” asked Georg.

I went to where Karl's sword lay, and lifted up the blade. While I had not yet sharpened or polished it, I had doused it in the now-'smoking' lye solution, and its bright metal seemed to be an effectual counterpoint to the congealed curses of the witch-blade. I then swung it in the air, and the faint whistle it made seemed to call attention to itself.

“I might understand now,” said Gelbhaar. “None of us have used those things, and you have. Is that why that one is different?”

“I had to use one I made yesterday,” I said, “and I was glad it wasn't one of the common ones, as I think I would have been hurt if it had...”

“You would have not come off unscathed,” said the soft voice.

“Now what is this?” asked Georg. “You made one?”

“Yes, and that thing does not look like what he has there,” said Hans. “It looks like something out of an old tale.”

“It took a lot more work than this one, also,” I said. “Now I need to finish this one, as it's for one of the people I trained with. The way it was, it was squeaking when he walked.”

“Oh?” asked Georg. “That's common in the Swartsburg.”

“It is?” I asked.

“If you hear that sound, then the person making it wants a fight,” said Georg, “and I saw more than one fight there while I was trying to find out what I needed to know about that musket.”

“Uh, messy..?” I mumbled.

“They do not play games with those things,” said Georg, “and I saw one sword break up during a fight. That person was killed by the person he was fighting.”

The silence that descended was broken by the voice of Hans, who said, “so now you know why he will not mark those things, as those marks cause cracks.” He paused for a second, then said, “and those make for swords that break, and those using swords that break get killed.”

“N-no quarter...” I muttered.

“Not among those people,” said Georg. “They might as well be from Norden that way, at least for what they do when they fight.”

“Are they otherwise for other matters?” I asked.

“I am not sure what they say then,” said Georg, “other than they shout loudly what Hieronymus sought to say quietly, and they speak much more as well.”

“Those are witches if they speak that way,” said Hans.

“Ugh, witches,” I muttered. “I wish they would all go.”

“Yes, go where?” asked Hans. “I can think of a good place for them.”

I looked at Hans, then shook my head as I said, “I just wish they would go.”

I spent much of the remaining time prior to lunch working on Karl's sword. I went over it quickly with the buffing wheel after heat-treating it, then filed the guard and pommel to shape and riveted on the scales after rubbing them quickly with drying oil. The result, while not up to my 'usual' standards, was easily a pound and a half lighter and six inches shorter, and as I rubbed the blade lengthwise with a leather polisher loaded with fine-grit, I asked, “I heard something about red-tallow. Do any of you know what it is?”

“I do,” said Georg, “and it's simple enough to make. Just get a few old candle stubs, boil them good, leave the pot out overnight, skim the white stuff on top, and mix that with a little cooking oil and some of the coarser grade of red rouge.” Georg paused, then said, “and given the choice between that, and what you mix up for that buffing wheel, I think red-tallow is fit for the manure-pile.”

“Have you had people asking for it?” I asked.

“Not yet,” said Georg, “though I would not be surprised if I get people here asking soon. How hard is that mix to make?”

“The latest types take a bit longer,” I said, as I continued to wipe the sword, “as I've found a way to process tallow that works especially well.”

“I do not have Hans' equipment,” said Georg, “nor did I have it at the time in the past when I made that stuff, so I did what I could with it. I had no complaints.”

“Did it smell?” I asked.

“It did, but less than usual for common tallow,” said Georg. “Why?”

“The stuff I used to clean a sword in class was really stinky,” I said, “and I've heard there are some types of it that are used by w-witches to 'inoculate' their swords.”

“What does that mean?” asked Georg.

“Another term is 'baptize', and is spoken in the context of sacrifice,” I said. “It supposedly does something to the sword to...”

I suddenly ceased, for the whole gelled: the markings made the sword 'pleasing to Brimstone' in some fashion, and by the action of those 'curses', the use of the sword in acts of human sacrifice, and owning by a strong-enough witch, the effects of poor metallurgy and worse execution were nullified. At least, that was the commonly-believed theory.

I had hard evidence as to the reality, and as I wiped off Karl's sword, I looked at its surface.

The shine seemed deep and 'heavy', with a depth that looked to be endless, while the darker portion in the center was jointed to the lighter portion of the edges by the straggling intermediary of the temper line.

“At least the hilt is even and smooth now,” I thought, “and the pommel isn't lumpish and lopsided.”

I wrapped the sword in rags, and just prior to lunch, Gelbhaar tied it carefully with an off-white string over its whole length. I then left for home.

Once home, I gathered my supplies and ate a quick – and small – lunch. I was glad for both meat and bread-bags, and after bagging those things I needed to take with me, I was out the door and headed south.

This time, I went by the main road south while keeping to the right side of the road, and within a mile from town, one of the neighbors came up in a buggy. He was neither going far nor fast, but three miles off of my feet would help, or so I suspected.

I had no suspicions about my fear of speaking, and until he spoke to me, I said nothing.

After asking about what I was doing, and what I was carrying, he left it at that. I suspected he wasn't in the market regarding 'witch-news', and when he turned west, I left him behind with thanks.

“And while that's three miles I don't need to walk,” I thought, “I could have walked four in the same time, and that while not having my ears tormented by the groans and rattles of dry buggy wheels.”

I skirted the road to the east now, and when I knew I was well clear of Waldhuis, I began angling east. I stayed clear of the roads and near the woodlots when I could, and in the steadily growing afternoon, I checked the compass now and then. I was coming to a certain realization, however.

I knew where the house was, and I could find it without the compass. Landmarks were reassuring but unneeded, and the same for roads, and when I encountered the gentle rise that spoke of the house proper's nearness, I was again stunned. I had traveled rapidly, just like the time before.

“At least I'm not three hours early again,” I thought.

I found Karl in the far corner of the refectory trying to puzzle out several pieces of leather and his empty scabbard, while Sepp was without his. I laid the rag-wrapped bundle in front of Karl, and as I straightened up, I noted how the room was nearly empty. Only a few 'scholars' were present, and they were busy with books as much as meals.

“I made arrangements for something to drink during dinnertime,” said Sepp, “and I can go fetch the stuff then.”

“I should have those mugs done fairly soon,” I said. “I might be able to bring you one... No, I'd best not. Those will need to go through channels.” I paused, then said, “no, I take that back. I can bring one to you, and when you next see Georg, you can speak to him.”

“Or I can talk to Anna,” said Sepp. He then saw the bundle I had laid out in front of Karl.

“Karl,” said Sepp, “I think there is something for you in those rags there.” He then turned to me, and asked, “what did you do to it?”

“A fair amount, actually,” I said. “It's shorter, a good deal lighter, it looks... No, I'd best not speak of looks.”

“Why, is it bad?” asked Karl.

“Unwrap it and then tell me,” I said. “I'm not the best person to speak of looks.”

Karl unwrapped the sword with what might have been twinges of fear, and when the handle first showed, I heard a hissed breath being taken in.

“I think he went over it,” said Sepp. “It won't squeal like a pig now.”

“Those people at the shop made enough noise over it,” I said with a trace of irritation. “They thought it worthless because it wasn't marked...”

“What did you do to this thing?” gasped Karl.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“That will get the guards after you,” said a cook from behind and to my left. “Now that is a pretty one. What gives with the colors it has?”

“It was a good deal softer than I liked,” I said, “so I treated it much as I did a fair number of my tools after I cleaned it up and shortened it for him.”

Karl hefted it, then said, “and it's a good bit lighter, too. Here, you try it and tell me what you think.”

Sepp took it, then looked at me with huge eyes before speaking. “This is a lot better than it was.”

“Now that says something,” said the cook. “Is it like one of those knives?”

“Not quite,” I said. “Had I done it that way, it would have taken a lot longer to do, and it would be a different shape.”

“Different shape?” asked the cook. “How would it be different?”

“Shorter yet for the blade,” said Sepp, “with but one edge, and a longer handle, and a sharp point. I'm not sure if that one there comes close to that thing, as I saw him use his on a witch.”

“Was that the stinky wretch that came here?” asked the cook.

Sepp nodded, then said, “that witch was trouble. I hope no more of them show like that.”

“Aye,” said the cook. “He came here, too. Is that one sharp?”

Karl felt the edge gingerly, then nodded. “It's a lot sharper than it was.”

The cook touched it, then said, “now that edge would make a razor ashamed. I'm glad it's in your hands, and not the hands of a witch.”

“Now I just need to figure this scabbard,” said Karl. “Can you help me?”

Within fifteen minutes, I had taken the thing apart at the seams and was trimming it to size with one of my smaller knives. I marked the places with my awl as to where rivets were to go, then traced out the back portion such as to fit the belt loop.

Do you have punches for that part?” asked Sepp.

I might not have as many tools as those people in the shop upstairs do,” I said, “but I suspect my tools are at least as good, and I have done this work before.” I paused, then asked Karl to stand up so as to check the fit of the belt loop.

Good, that will work,” I said, “I brought my leather sewing awl also.”

How is it you have so many tools for leather?” asked Karl.

Some few were bought specially,” I said, “and others came with the rest of my tools, and some I made.” I paused, then said, “given I need to make leather goods with some frequency...”

What do you do?” asked Sepp.

The last thing I did was a new leather buffing wheel,” I said. “It's a small one for buffing the inside of small pots and cups.”

How does that work?” asked Karl.

Is this like a strap?” asked Sepp.

It is, only much faster,” I said. “Now if you save those leather scraps, I'll show you both how to make polishers, so you don't need any of that stinky red stuff.”

Karl looked at me, then murmured, “good, because I still have not found out where to get it.”

It seems Georg knows about it,” I said. “At least, he knows how to make the common type.”

I will ask him, then,” said Karl.

He said it was fit for the manure-pile, also,” I said with a smirk in my voice. “Those polishers will work a lot better.”

Karl looked at me strangely, then Sepp said, “Karl, I think that Teacher was a stone-head for that part of what he spoke about. Who do you think would know more about polishing metal, him or someone who's as good of an instrument-maker as they come?”

Karl seemed to be hesitant for a moment, as if he were still under the spell of the instructor's preaching, then with an abrupt 'jolt', he said, “an instrument-maker.” He paused, then said, “do those people make swords?”

He does,” said Sepp, “and we saw how his worked. Now which are you going to believe, Karl – talk, or blood?”

I shuddered, then moaned, “n-no, no blood, please...”

I think I will have one of those leather things,” said Karl. “I hope you can show me how to use it, as I am not an instrument-maker.”

“I will,” I said, between sniffles. “I think we had best get to our post, so we can do our jobs.”

After relieving the three there – they were actually present this time, and our next posting was to be the fifth post on the rest-day – I briefly felt the king's door with outstretched hand, and began working on Karl's scabbard. My meager tools were enough to do his work, and when I brought out the rivets and the 'stake', the others watched with 'bated' breath as first I punched the holes needed, then inserted the rivets.

“Where did you get such a small hammer?” asked Sepp.

“This is one of the first batch of hammers I made for carpentry, or rather, it's a copy of one of those,” I said. “I found the 'number four' style in a smaller head works well for 'close' layout work, and I've made several such hammers. This is one of them, albeit with a shorter-than-common handle.”

“Do those work for nails?” asked Sepp, as I lined up the rivet punch.

“They do,” I said. “The ones used by carpenters are...”

“I have heard of those,” said Karl. I could hear a morose tone in his voice. “My uncle heard of what they do for those in the fifth kingdom.”

I drove the rivet, and when I removed the punch, I noted a good head had formed. I began inserting another rivet next to it.

“They turn those things out in bad shops down there,” said Karl, “and they have to drown the handles in distillate, or they go wormy in a hurry.”

“Do they cut the handles specially?” I asked.

“He said they do,” said Karl. “There is this tree in the fourth kingdom that seems to draw bugging flies worse than anything, and they cut limbs off of those things to use for handles.”

“Are you sure the trees draw the flies,” I said, “or are those insects drawn by something that is attracted to the tree that the insects like to eat?”

“He said the flies tended to be around those trees more than anywhere down there,” said Karl, “so the trees attract the flies.”

“No, Karl,” said Sepp. “His question had to do with why the flies were around those trees. Now did your uncle speak of that?”

Karl had to think for what seemed half an hour. During that time, I drove the remaining rivets, carefully rounded their heads where they could contact the sword itself, trimmed the 'middling' strip, punched the three main pieces for reinforcing rivets, and deleted the catch-strap. I suspected this last was purely 'window-dressing' and served no useful purpose.

As I began cutting out two polishing pads from the used piece of leather, Karl said, “I don't think he knew why those flies were so common around the trees.”

“Meaning he said, 'the trees seem to attract the flies', he did not go into details, and because it was him saying what he did, it had to be true,” I said. “Just like with the Teacher of Guards and his stinky red-tallow being 'the best thing' for daily use on swords. Correct?”

I was surprised when Karl nodded soberly.

“It's a good idea to test what you hear before you 'buy' it,” I said. “The book speaks of testing information as well as the sources thereof.”

“Now how is it you know about that?” asked Karl.

“I usually need to explain sermons to Hans and Anna,” I said. “More than once, it's been more than just them.” I paused, then said, “I have this stuff that needs to be rubbed into the leather, and my hands are tired. Do you want to rub it in?”

“That depends on what it is,” said Karl. “What is it?”

I reached into my bag, then brought out a small sack of 'deodorized tallow'. I handed the sack to Karl, then said, “take one of those sticks and rub it on the leather, then massage it in with your fingers.”

Karl took out one of the thumb-thick lumps, then looked at the white waxy stuff before rubbing it on the leather. Within seconds, he had 'woken up' entirely and was muttering.

“Yes?” I asked. “That is tallow, though it's been processed.”

Karl held it to his nose, and muttered, “this stuff has no smell at all.”

I smiled, then said, “you rub that one, and I'll rub this one here. I was too busy to rub it when I wasn't working the last few days.”

After I had quickly rubbed down my scabbard with the other stick, and put a little on the blade of the sword itself before returning it to its sheath, I took out my ledger and began reading what I had written earlier about the Swartsburg. As I did, I began to formulate something of a plan, one that involved arriving at the area in question some hours after dark when 'the dark side of town' was in full 'roar', and then finding Koenraad and 'dealing' with him.

“And then getting out,” I thought. “Will I want a disguise then?”

The impression I had was that the combination of darkness, surprise, and the 'ability to hide' was likely to be enough for the most part – though Koenraad himself was much of a mystery beyond 'he'll be fairly easy to find' and 'killing him isn't going to be easy'.

“And plotting his murder makes me wonder if I haven't become an especially evil witch,” I thought.

I continued pondering for a moment to be interrupted by Karl, who had returned both lumps to the pouch. I pulled one of them out, then said, “now rub these two pieces of leather here with that stuff while I find something suitable.”

I began looking in my bag for the small medicine vial of 'rouge-paste' that I had mixed up recently, and when I found it, I noticed Sepp was admiring Karl's sword – as was a visitor. I suspected him to be a guard in 'common' dress, for he was not merely older, but 'grizzled'. This last was mostly an impression, as it was not obvious externally.

“When did he s-show up?” I gasped.

“While you were writing in that book,” said Sepp. “He wonders why it isn't marked, and I told him what I know.”

I was speechless with terror, and when I opened the vial for Karl, the visitor asked, “now what is that stuff there?”

I was still speechless, and Karl put the tip of his finger in the vial. He was utterly stunned when the brilliant red-orange of 'rouge-paste' came out, and he smelled it.

“This has a very faint smell, and it smells like distillate,” said Karl.

“It isn't red-tallow, then, as that smells like bad meat,” said the visitor. “Some have said red-tallow smells like dead pigs, but I've never smelled those in it.”

“I have been trying to find some of that stuff,” said Karl, “but no one knows what I am speaking of, nor do they know who to talk to.” I wondered why he had not spoken of Georg.

“There's an easy answer for that,” said the visitor. “How much blood is on your hands?”

Karl looked at his hands carefully, then said, “I don't see any.”

“That isn't what I meant,” said the visitor. “When you're just starting out as a guard, there are a big lot of important people you need to meet and learn to know, and most of them won't say anything you want to hear unless you've been blooded.” He paused, then said, “most of that new class should manage that within a week or so.”

“How is that?” asked Sepp.

“That's when you go into a drink-house and get into a fight,” said our visitor, “and then, you get bloody.”

“B-bloody?” I squeaked.

“Now what is your trouble?” asked the visitor. “Why are you here, if you're afraid of blood?”

Sepp was looking at the floor, and nudging something with his foot. I could not bear to look, for some reason. Our 'oblivious' visitor was troubling me to no small degree, so much so that when Karl spoke, he said, “he might not like that stuff on him much, but I think he has been blooded a lot more than most.”

“Ooh,” I squeaked. “No, please d-don't.”

“He ain't acting like it,” said the visitor.

“You were not here a few days ago, were you?” said a voice from my left. “Where you stand was awash in blood and littered with body parts.”

Our visitor bristled, then turned. I saw Gabriel coming out of the corner of my eye.

“And how would you know that?” he asked. I could hear a barely-restrained snarl.

“I saw it myself,” said Gabriel. “An especially bad witch came here while hunting, and he tried for that man there.”

“What, that sniveler?” said the visitor scornfully.

“He was not sniveling then,” said Gabriel. “He was covered with the blood of that witch.”

“No, please, d-don't,” I said. I was on the verge of tears.

“Then how is he like this today?” I heard a definite snarl this time.

“How much swine have you endured, sir?” said Gabriel cuttingly. “Or if not the swine themselves, then those that run with them?”

“I've done well so far,” he said, “as I've only had to deal a few of the small groups they have, and them at a distance.”

“He did the third ditch,” said Gabriel, “and there have been other times since, and swine.”

“Those common ones aren't that hard,” said the visitor. “I've shot two of them.”

“A full-sized Iron Pig with full plate,” said Gabriel emphatically. “Now, is it right to be harsh to them who weep because of what they've done protecting us all?”

I could feel the man's bristling aspect wilting like a weed tossed into a furnace, and he turned to slowly walk away. I then looked up, and sobbed.

“If you have the widow's tincture, I would take it,” said Gabriel.

While I did so, Sepp asked, “now who was he?”

“One of the guards,” said Gabriel. “He's due to post after the three of you, along with another man.”

Here, Gabriel paused, and noted what Karl was slowly smearing on his polishing piece.

“If that is red-tallow, it is not the common for it,” he said. “It looks like it came from the fourth kingdom.”

“I doubt that,” said Karl. “It has almost no smell, and what smell it has is that of distillate.”

“Then it came from there,” said Gabriel. “How did you order it?”

“I didn't order it, and I think he made the stuff,” said Karl. “He did my sword over, and was helping with the sheath when that character showed and said we all needed to be bloody before anyone would talk to us.”

“Did he say in what particulars?” asked Gabriel

“He spoke of going into the Swartsburg,” said Sepp.

“Did he?” I asked. “He spoke of drink-houses.”

“Outside of a few well-hid locations here and there in the house,” said Gabriel, “if one speaks of a drink-house, one speaks of the Swartsburg, and if he was speaking... What was he speaking about?”

“No one would talk to us unless we were...”

I interrupted Sepp, and said, “unless we had killed someone.”

Gabriel nodded, then said, “that tends to open many ears. I suspect that had to do with all of those things that you were presented with.”

“Blooded?” I asked. “He almost sounded l-like a witch.” I paused, then said, “older, t-trusted men, bribed with a f-falsified order and a sack of silver, so they could visit a drink-house and drink themselves drunk with Geneva.”

“What did you say?” asked Gabriel.

“This was in a dream I had,” I said, “and there was a coven that ran amok one night. They killed more than twenty people by the time they'd caught the sacrifice and brought her back to kill her here in the deepest room.”

“Now that smells,” said Gabriel. “You are but one of the people I've heard that from.”

“What, about those people killing like they do?” I gasped.

“About there being a coven of witches in the house proper,” said Gabriel, “and until you spoke of the matter, I did not take it seriously.”

“W-why me?” I asked.

“While much talk circulates about you,” said Gabriel, “I ignore much of it, save if certain people speak of the matter. Two of those people are those you live with, and they have spoken of your dreams.”

“What of them?” asked Sepp.

“He might be someone off of a tapestry that way,” said Gabriel, “as they tend to be accurate, detailed, and helpful. More, he isn't the only person to have them, as a rule.”

“Who else has them?” asked Karl. He had begun putting rouge-paste on the second polisher.

“Both Hans and Anna have spoken of those dreams,” said Gabriel, “and not merely in my presence. Hendrik has heard of them also.”

“And Koenraad?” I asked.

“I would be careful if you try for him,” said Gabriel. “He tends to be hard to get to.”

“Meaning he rotates the places where he holds court and has a small private army in the area to call on should trouble come looking for him?”

Gabriel's eyes opened a good deal wider, then said, “that goes beyond anything I have heard about that man. How do you know?”

“I just said that,” I said. “Now about some disinformation... Everyone thinks I'm going after that wretch, and they think I'm going to sneak in using a disguise of some kind, as is common for new guards when they want to find out about hangovers and knife-fights.”

“Do you plan on that?” asked Gabriel. “That is what many of them do, by the way.”

“I am not interested in either of those things,” I said. “Of course, that's common knowledge also.” I paused for a moment, then asked, “Koenraad doesn't spread himself too thin, does he?”

I had lost everyone. I thought to clarify the matter by saying, “He has a short list of places where he goes, most of which are not merely owned by him, but also connected together by underground tunnels. The Swartsburg has a lot of those, doesn't it?”

“Much of the town is said to be that way,” said Gabriel.

“Those are older passages, and fairly deep,” I said. “The ones in the Swartsburg are nowhere near as old and might be as little as fifteen feet from the passage ceiling to the floor of the basements of the houses over them.”

Again, I had lost them.

“Then, while Koenraad tends to travel by those when he can, his retainers need more conventional means of travel. That means at least three to five mule-drawn coaches and several 'fancy' buggies drawn by teams of mules.” I paused, then said, “given that Koenraad is the volume mule importer for the west side of the entire first kingdom, among other well-known titles, he tends to use those things extensively.”

I paused for emphasis, then said, “between the mob of retainers, the general location itself, the concentrated stench of those mules, and the number of supplicants coming and going to see 'his lordship', Koenraad might as well have a huge well-lit sign proclaiming his presence in front of any place where he's holed up for the night.”

I paused again, then said, “and getting that wretch is going to be tricky.”

“That is obvious,” said Gabriel.

“No, it isn't,” I said. “Koenraad thinks himself quite secure, and that with good reason,” I said. “First, he's in 'the dark side of town'. That means people have got to go through the main gate, then another gate that's well hidden, and travel most of the length and breadth of the Swartsburg to get to him – and unless you're a very well-known and powerful individual, that isn't easy.”

“Second, not only is he in 'the dark side of town', but he's between two brothels,” I said. “Those places have their own guard-teams, and they keep anyone other than those they know of out of the whole area. The Swartsburg might not have levies as are understood elsewhere, but when it comes to the confluence of 'the dark side of town' and Maarlaan, it's pretty hard to get in there unless you're a very influential witch.”

I paused to let what I said sink in. This last portion was indeed a 'kicker'.

“Finally, those locations where Koenraad hides need prior appointments to see him. That means you need to know who to speak to personally, and that means writing one's request out – in the correct format, no less – and allowing it to go up the chain of command. If you are a big-time witch, then you can hand the thing over at the door where he's holed up and see Koenraad his-own-self a few minutes later. Anyone lesser needs the better part of a week and some sizable bribes.”