The Big House, part 14

Georg left for elsewhere minutes later, and I followed him out of the shop shortly thereafter once I had fitted the handle fully. Once home, I sharpened the scraper, then began using it.

It worked even better than I had hoped, for its wide shallow markings rapidly went across the whole of both plates of the third round. I put my second plate of that round on the bottom, and continued with the process of cleaning, 'bluing', rubbing, and scraping.

With the forth round, I was now needing to be very careful with both bluing and scraping, and the light blue tints that showed areas of contact needed but gentle pressure to remove. I had to be careful to remove all of the tinting, but no more, and the number of 'tries' both increased and each 'try' took longer to 'rectify'.

“One more round after this,” I thought, “and they should be very close.”

By dinnertime, I was on that 'last' round, and my scraping was such that perhaps a few pinches of dust came from each try. I had decent contact over the whole surface of the plate I was working on, with a straggly-looking crosshatched surface that looked random enough to make for wondering. As a break, I thought to try the one especially worn straightedge.

It showed up its 'high' spots especially well with the student's lantern behind it, and with a few tries, I had it indicating full contact. I then tried one of the others.

It too had high spots, and one after the other, I carefully filed and stoned all of the straightedges into full contact. I then resumed my scraping.

By the hour of dinner, I was not merely ready for a bath but ready to give scraping a rest, for I had come into an area where I needed especial care to avoid making matters worse. All three of the plates were 'flat', with a level bubble in the indicator, and after carefully wiping plates and tools with an oily rag, I set all three plates to the side of the bench. I bathed before dinner, and at the table, there were questions.

“How much longer will you take to finish those?” asked Anna.

“They're about as good as I can get them right now,” I said. “I will most likely need to touch them up with use, which will take care of any warping.”

“I would check them regular,” said Hans, “as I remember that old fellow speaking of them going bad in a hurry if they were done without a long rest.”

“If they stay close for a few weeks, they'll do,” I said. “I have a posting tomorrow, and I'll be gone most of the day.”

I resumed working on the fowling piece that evening, and had it 'ready' for heat-treating by the time I needed to leave for the house the next morning. Again, I was wondering about shortening the barrels, and that occupied much of my thinking during my travel time.

I wondered as to precisely what might happen during the third posting on the rest-day, and when I felt the door with my hand, I was astonished to learn Hendrik didn't have normal days and hours either. Karl had his knife and wood pieces handy, while Sepp was sewing on a small leather pouch. I guessed it was for money, though whether it was for him or someone else was a matter of guessing.

“This is for my mother,” he said. “That one pot should arrive soon.”

“How will you get it?” I asked.

“One of the neighbors,” he said. “A small sack of cleaned salt goes a long way at home, and that trip is a day's travel there and back with a common buggy.”

“They have strange ones here,” said Karl. “Some of them are the usual type, and some have these things called sleeves.”

“Those are not strange, Karl,” said Sepp. “Those are a good deal faster with a given team.”

“Especially when dosed with motor oil,” I said slyly. “Anna never leaves home without a vial of it.”

While the house seemed calm enough on the surface level – there were fewer people compared to the usual 'week', and most of those present weren't working especially hard – I could still feel a seething undercurrent of activity along the row of doors across from where we sat. As they were in a row, and filled with Generals, I had a fitting name for that area.

“They ought to call that place General's Row,” I muttered.

“They're good at that,” said Sepp.

“Good at..?” I asked.

“Those people are good for a row when they are awake,” said Karl. “They might not cause much trouble for us, but they cause enough for the other postings.”

“Uh, they sleep here because their areas in the Swartsburg are all smoked up?” I asked.

“That place still smokes some,” said Sepp. “I went into the town yesterday for some string, and I saw some smoke coming from that direction.”

“String?” I asked.

“I stayed on Huislaan,” said Sepp, “as I was told that was the safest part of the place, and I went asking in the shops there. I could not find anything like what I was looking for, even if I found a lot of things I'd never seen before.”

“What kind of string?” I asked.

Fishing string,” said Sepp. “Someone said there is a river to the east of here, and there are fish in it.”

“That will do you little good,” said Karl. “I have had trouble with fish wanting to bite on the hooks, and then the hooks let them go.”

I went to fetch a refill of both beer and cider, and after delivering up the jug to the others, I refilled my mug with the cider. It seemed to help especially, as I could now and then hear sundry snoring sounds from the various doors across and down the hall. I thought to touch the doors in question so as to satisfy my worried head about the possibility of noisy activities, and when I stood, I looked around carefully.

I had the impression the most worrisome place was near the juncture of this hall and the big one, and as I turned to check that area, an ear-shattering roar blew out the candles in the hallway and put me onto my posterior.

“Augh!” I shrieked. The explosion had triggered a flashback, and rocks were again falling all around me while I was diving for cover in the Swartsburg.

In spite of the bursting terror I felt, I got on my knees, and looked to the bench. Both Karl and Sepp had been knocked onto the floor, and were mumbling about Harvest Day and dynamite.

“It isn't that,” I spluttered. “Keep the king safe. I need to find out what happened.”

I began crawling in the near-sepulchral darkness toward the source of the noise, and as I came closer to the juncture, I began having impressions of broken glass being scattered all over the floor. Accordingly, I watched where I was crawling. There was dim light coming from the right of the juncture, while ahead and in the hallway, the darkness was altogether palpable.

The sharp biting smell of burnt powder seemed to clench my nose, along with a number of other odors, and as I came to the juncture, I paused.

A wide spray of faintly glittering shards of glass had scattered out into the main hallway, while the nearest door on my left had sprung its hinges. I stood shakily with my hands touching the wall, and as I took my first step, I had but one thought in my mind.

“Oh for a closed-circuit TV camera and some microphones in that place,” I thought. “This nonsense isn't any fun at all.”

I kept near the wall in the shadow of the support beams, as I did not want the broken glass crunching under my feet and alerting possible assailants. I could see thick gray smoke tumbling out of the ruined doorway, and as I came closer, I not merely saw the opening where a once white-painted window had hid, but also the torn fragments of the window's frame. A strange thought crept into my mind, and I marveled at it.

“What if there's one of those b-black books in there?” I thought. “What will I do then?”

I then saw bits of rags smoldering on the nearest 'main' support beam, and between the smell, the noise, and what looked to be charred wadding, my thinking was along the lines of 'some wretch got hasty and settled an argument with a roer'.

“And given I've had enough thugs shoot at me with those things, it sounds believable,” I thought.

I came to within several feet of the door, and noticed not merely its 'sprung' aspect – it had been 'unlocked' by the blast – but also its elaborate-looking cast iron doorplate and large turned wooden doorknob. I touched the knob itself, and felt – and heard – the click as the lock unlocked. I then began pulling the door open while kneeling.

I saw closer the black-painted – was it paint, or merely eons of time and layers of drying oil? – iron straps with their hand-hammered basket-weave net securing the thick varnished planks of the door, and once the door was open wide, I cautiously stood. I then came to the doorway itself, and looked inside the small smoke-ceilinged room.

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “It's a c-c-cannon!”

There was more than merely a huge artillery piece present in the room, however, and I learned of the first of its occupants by almost tripping over him. An unconscious brick-hatted General lay sprawled on the floor with his hat still parked on his head, and as I knelt down to turn the stricken man on his side, I noted another such individual but three feet away. I dealt with him, and as I thought to straighten up, I noted the other smells in the room.

There was an abundance of strong-smelling Geneva.

An odor like aquavit mingled with bad herbs.

Unwashed bodies and rotten meat.

And finally, an odor I could not at first place. It took me several seconds, during which time I found a third unconscious General, to place it.

“Gah!” I spat. “One of these wretches was playing with one of those stinky birds!”

I continued carefully looking over the floor of the room, and in the process I found no less than three added doorways with sturdy and medieval-looking locked doors, four jugs of one kind or another, several silver 'shot-glasses', and two more Generals near the opposite wall.

“Those hats have to be uncomfortable,” I thought. “I'd best remove them and put them...”

I stood up and looked around, then noticed the complete lack of furniture in the room. The only thing that was close to 'furniture' was the gun itself.

“Perhaps along its barrel,” I thought.

I removed the first of these strange-looking hats from the head of the nearest General, and as I did, I noted not merely its tight leather headband, but also its construction. The hat had an internal wooden frame of thin varnished 'sticks' assembled with string and glue, and the cloth covering was stitched in place with coarse dark-colored thread. The care in execution, as well as the stiffness of the cloth – it reminded me of doped aircraft fabric – was such that I marveled, and when I removed all five hats and laid them along the barrel of the gun, I felt less worried about the men. I then turned my attention to the gun itself.

After seeing those three cannons in the Swartsburg, I was prepared to see a breach-loading weapon, and I was altogether surprised to find no such mechanism. The soot-stained touch-hole, as well as the remnants of an obvious friction-igniter, reminded me of what Hans had spoken of when he had described the local artillery, and when I put my hands on the rear swelling of the gun, I was astonished.

It was nearly a foot across, and over a foot long, with the entire gun having a plain-looking unornamented aspect. There were no rings, strange bulbs or swellings, nor were there conventional trunnions for barrel elevation.

These last were replaced by a number of thick iron hoops that secured the barrel to an elaborate wooden sub-carriage held together with iron straps and square-headed screws, and at the rear of the sub-carriage was the elevating mechanism. This last had two thick steel screws, a square-headed adjusting screw, and three square-cut gears riding in bronze plates. I touched the gears and shuddered at the cold clammy sensation, and shuddered yet more when I smelled my finger.

“This t-tallow is almost as bad as that r-red stuff for stink,” I gasped, even as I walked carefully around those on the floor and went to the muzzle of the gun, where I noted the thick walls and roughly three-inch smooth bore. I walked back towards the breach, for I had an impression about friction and the sub-carriage absorbing part of the recoil, and when I put my hand on the breach, I pushed forward.

The tube and sub-carriage moved forward nearly an inch under steady pressure. The gun 'checked', I then resumed examining the belongings of the people on the floor.

There were five of the 'shot-glasses', and my seeing these things in the Swartsburg made for an all-too-rapid connection. I gave the first example a careful examination, as I felt it might have clues.

“The first clue is its odor,” I spluttered, “and it smells horrible.”

'Horrible' was an understatement, and as I hefted one of the shot-glasses, I noticed its weight. It had to weigh an easy eight ounces, and as I looked at the thing – nearly three inches tall, slight taper, and two inches across at the bottom – I wondered less. I then looked at the underside, and saw nothing. I then upended the glass, and nearly dropped the thing in fright.

Within and wreathed by 'inscrutable calligraphy' was a thoroughly unpleasant-looking face, and as I tried to determine who was depicted, I noticed light coming up outside the room. Someone stopped at the doorway, muttered loudly as to the damage, then stuck a flaring candle in the room.

“It's just them,” spat a disgusted-sounding male voice. He then left.

I began stacking the 'shot-glasses' in line with the nearest wheel of the gun, and I did 'passably' until I collected the last example. Unlike the four beforehand, this one was not empty, and when I went to the doorway out into the light with the contents, I gasped.

The mirror-like shine, rainbow-shade 'oil-slick' on the surface, and sickly deep green liquid underneath were ample to assure acute nausea. The smell made for dry heaves.

It was not Geneva, nor was it datramonium tincture. It had its own peculiar brand of eye-burning, nose-clenching, nauseating fumes, and the intensity of those sickening fumes conjured nightmares in tangible form. I returned the 'shot-glass' to the row, and then, I saw the jug.

The other three jugs were forgotten in their plainness, for this example was utterly different, and that as to its outer nature as well as its likely contents.

Its rougher exterior, as well as its somewhat careless colors – including a bright glaring green stripe the width of a finger – seemed to speak of hasty and somewhat careless manufacture, unlike the jugs I had seen beforehand. Those tended to be neatly glazed, with smooth surfaces and 'colorful' exteriors, and were sufficiently uniform in size and shape to make me think of 'slip-casting' in a mold of some kind.

This example, in contrast, had perceptible rings running the whole of its length, and its slightly lopsided shape spoke of hand-throwing, then removal from the wheel while still soft and moist. I then thought to remove the long crooked cork.

The stench that billowed forth was so intense and sickening I replaced the cork instantly, and I staggered to the door of the place with the jug in one hand and my other hand on my heaving stomach. I felt a dull ache below my ribs that steadily grew in intensity, and only when I came back to the bench itself did I notice the relit candles in the hallway. I then took my seat on the bench, and set down the jug in front of me. I wanted to spew, and my stomach hurt.

I managed to not do so. Instead, I thought, “now how do I find a toxicologist in a place that's like frontier South Africa thirty years before the Great Trek?”

“What is in that jug?” asked Karl.

“Oh, urgh, I d-don't know,” I said. “It h-has bad fumes.” The sickness I was feeling was growing steadily.

Karl reached down, picked up the jug, uncorked it – the 'pung' of removal seemed to echo in my mind – then thumped the cork home and put the jug back where he'd gotten it. The odor briefly redoubled, and through my increasing nausea, I heard him speak.

“That is some drink that is said to get rid of worms,” he said.

“Urgh,” I said. I wondered for a second if I was a worm, as it wanted to get rid of me.

“No one I know would taste it more than once, even on a dare,” said Karl.

“P-poison,” I gasped, as I held my stomach with both hands. “Th-that stuff will k-kill them.”

“Them?” said Sepp, as he came from the main hallway. “They would like that stuff. Did they seem about ready to die?”

I pointed to the jug, then gasped while trying to avoid spewing, then said, “th-they were so drunk I c-could not tell, urgh.”

“Did you taste it?” asked Sepp.

I shook my head to indicate 'no', then said, “bad f-fumes, and th-they were drinking it.”

I got up and staggered down the hall toward the privy, then broke into a shambling run as I turned the corner heading left. I nearly knocked down someone who resembled Gabriel in my haste, and after reaching the privy and vomiting sour liquid until I could spew no more, I felt but slightly better. I then felt my gut squirming, and I sat down on the stool – and had the runs.

“Ohhhh,” I groaned. “I feel s-so sick.”

I finished up several minutes later, and when I staggered back to the post, I was surprised to see Gabriel sitting on the bench with the other two. He was 'staring' at the jug, and as I collapsed by the bench, he said, “so it was you. Did you drink some of that?”

“N-no,” I murmured. “I checked over that room and the people in it, and the fumes made me sick.”

“I've heard it is nearly aquavit for strength,” said Gabriel, as he stifled a yawn, “and I've got enough trouble with sleep right now to wonder about the taste of Geneva.”

I nearly vomited again, then gasped, “Geneva is bad, datramonium tincture is worse, but th-that stuff smells like pure unadulterated poison.” I paused, then said, “not only is it death in a jug, but it's green enough to pass for antifreeze.”

“What is this word?” asked Karl.

“A very strange one,” said Gabriel. “I think that first word corresponds to the title of a relative, though how one could speak of one's Ouma that way is a mystery. The second is a little easier to understand.”

“Is that the name of your Aunt?” asked Karl. “Odd name for a woman if you ask me.”

I shook my head, then said, “antifreeze is a dark green liquid coolant, and it looks like what's in that jug. In the past, it was said to be mostly alcohol.”

“That sounds like that drink,” said Gabriel. “It looks tempting, and only common sense says to leave it be.”

“Why would it be tempting?” asked Sepp.

“I've been working fourth kingdom hours doing a report for a meeting in a few days,” he said, “and the report is but the smell of that mule. The meeting promises to be closer to the mule itself, but there's rumor of another worse-yet meeting the week after, and that one, I wonder about. I am not certain that meeting will confine its ways to that of a mule.”

“Why?” asked Karl, as I wormed out the vial of the widow's tincture. I suspected it would help with Gabriel's insomnia. I knew well as to how it helped mine.

“Because that meeting is still undecided,” said Gabriel, “both as to the exact day, and the precise subjects.”

“So?” asked Karl. “Concern yourself with it when it is time.”

“I wish I could do that,” said Gabriel. He sounded well beyond tired. “Something important is brewing. What it is, I'm not certain, beyond it's very important indeed, and I need to prepare as best I can. Waiting until the last minute will not work well.” Gabriel turned, noted the vial and dropping tube, suppressed a yawn, and asked, “what is that?”

“The widow's tincture,” I said. “It works well...”

Gabriel slapped his head with open palm, then said, “it never fails. I completely forgot about that stuff.”

“Have you had it before?” I asked. “It can make for a very strange and lively landscape.”

“It was on the list of things one needed as a student,” said Gabriel, “and when one's at the higher schools, one needs it if one wants consistent sleep.” Gabriel paused, then said, “and that goes double for the worst places.”

“Worst?” I asked, as I handed him the vial.

“All of them are bad for vermin,” said Gabriel, “but it isn't just the vermin, at least at most of those places.”

“What is it?” asked Sepp.

“The gunfire,” said Gabriel. “I longed for a fowling piece then, but could not get one, so I had to make do with a slingshot.” Gabriel then took a full tube of the tincture, and grimaced.

“Now I know what else I forgot about that tincture,” he said. “Its taste.”

Gabriel wobbled off not a minute later, and as I watched him meander from side to side with his head in his hands, I thought I heard snoring sounds. I was then jerked 'awake' by Sepp's question.

“What gives with him speaking of gunfire at a school?”


I paused, then said, “have you ever been too close to one of those noisy quolls?”

Sepp nodded, then said, “I've put a few of them in the pot, too.”

“Imagine you are trying to concentrate, and several of them show up and start with their noise,” I said. “Tossing rocks may drive them off, but they tend to return, and once when Hans spoke of a fowling piece to me, Anna overheard what he said and spoke of wanting one due to the noise of those birds. Then, I've heard of rats...”

Sepp looked at me, then said, “talk has it those are especially bad near those schools.”

“And you want a fowling piece for them?” I asked. The talk gave me an idea as to why a 'sawed-off shotgun' might be useful indoors.

“That or a slingshot,” said Karl. “I've kept mine busy most years that way.”

I wondered further about 'dictation' until we were relieved, and then surmised that duty would only happen during the regular week.

“The fourth posting on the first day,” said one of the three who relieved us, “and I would expect a scribe to show after lunch.”

“What is this about a scribe?” asked Sepp.

“Supposedly one of you cannot write,” said the man, “and...”

“Write legibly, you mean,” I said. “I can write.” I paused, then asked, “do you have any idea as to what the subject might be?”

“No, I don't,” he said. “It has to be important, as they mentioned paper, and that stuff ain't cheap.”

“I'd best bring my ledgers, then,” I thought, as I followed Karl and Sepp to the refectory. I needed a refill of liquid for the journey home.

“What about that jug?” I asked, as we came to the refectory doorway. I had not seen it recently.

Karl looked at me, then at Sepp, and shook his head before saying, “how they took that thing setting by my leg like that is a mystery, but someone did.”

“I think that talk about secret passages has something to it,” said Sepp. “It was there until you went to the privy that second time, and it was gone when you came back.”

I made it perhaps half-way home before the sun went down, and it was just becoming entirely night when I arrived. Dinner was nearly ready to eat, and by the time I had bathed, it was on the table.

“So when is it you post next?” asked Hans.

“Monday, the fourth posting,” I said. “Someone is supposed to come to take dictation then, and I was expecting them to come today.”

“Not on the rest-day,” said Anna. “Some of those people act as if they grew up to the south for when they work.”

“And for how much they work,” said Hans.

“South?” I asked.

“Yes, they do nothing at all on the rest-day, and they might manage church on the next,” said Hans. “I am not sure how much they do the rest of the time, but I doubt they do much.”

“The second kingdom?” I asked.

“That and the third,” said Hans. “At least, that is the way it seemed to be when I have been there. I am glad for those cooking sets, as one needs to eat whether the Public Houses are open or not.”

“They stay open on the High Way,” said Anna. “Those tend to be busy.”

“Uh, all seven days?”

“Freighters tend to rest when and as they can,” said Hans, “and during the middle of a trip is not a good time to rest if you run a freighting wagon.”

“Blessings for quick delivery?” I asked.

“They might not be large, but I think they are common enough,” said Hans. “That thing is starting to get crowded by now.”

“Hans, that road is crowded all of the time,” muttered Anna. I had pictures of bumper-to-bumper grid-blocked traffic, for some reason.

“How bad is it?” I asked.

“One cannot drive a mile without seeing someone,” said Hans. “That is when it is decent. When it is bad, it is trouble, especially if you need to travel quickly.”

“P-passing?” I squeaked.

“The usual time for trek is just before it gets that way,” said Hans. “It usually gets bad about the last day or so of the trip then.”

“What is it like?”

“There are wagons and buggies everywhere,” said Anna, “and we've done better off of that road than on it.”

“Yes, as most of them are a lot slower, and it takes some distance to pass them,” said Hans. “You get past one, and then the next one is where you want to come back to the right, so you cannot come back in, and then your horses get tangled with someone coming the other way.”

“Meaning you don't try to pass on that road when it's crowded,” I said.

“Only if you have a good buggy, good horses, you rest them a lot, and you put a lot of grain to them,” said Hans. “The only people that do all of those things are those running the post.”

“Do they switch teams?” I asked.

“They do,” said Anna. “There are hostels every so often on that road, and they usually have teams waiting.”

I then recalled the jug, and as I described it and its odor, Anna looked at me with a measure of distaste – until when I described both how I'd gotten it and what it did to me, she said, “I thought so. You need to stay clear of strong drink, and that type especially.”

“Am I some kind of a worm?” I asked, recalling the supposed effects of the stuff.

“No, but anything that makes you that sick isn't wise to get close to,” said Anna. “I need to ask some people about what you might have, and that waits until better weather.”

“Are they the people with that small-seer?” asked Hans.

“No, but the distance is further yet,” said Anna. “That kind of a trip needs dry roads and longer days.” Anna paused, then said, “Failing that, there are people I know of in the fourth kingdom.”

“It would be better to wait, then,” said Hans. “That trip is hard to do in one day no matter what the weather is like.”

“How far is it?” I asked.

“Far enough that my family thought it a long trek,” said Anna. “It usually took us three days to get there, and three to get back, and then an entire day spent at the place resting.”

“That is with what they had,” said Hans. “Most common buggies would manage it in two, given good teams and pulling the wheels in the afternoon.”

“How far is that?” I asked.

“I think that place is about twice the distance to where Paul lives,” said Hans. “With most common buggies, twenty to twenty-five miles is about what you can do in a day.”

“Is that due to their construction or the hunger of those driving them?” I asked.

Hans looked at me strangely, then said, “I think that depends on who is driving. I know that most longer trips want regular stops to look after the horses, and if one is traveling far, one wants to go slower with that type of buggy.”

“As in they are harder to pull?” I asked. “Especially with a load?”

“Is that why they're slower?” asked Hans. “I know that those tend to slow a lot more if you have much in them.”

“Three people constitutes a sizable load?” I asked.

“The common ones, yes,” said Hans. “Those are best with two people, or just one if there is much in the box. Sleeved wheels stand up to loads better.”

“Slatting the axles?” I asked.

“That is when they have gone bad and the owner is too cheap to have them made right,” said Hans. “They carve out grooves in the old axles and patch them with harder wood.”

“They put brass on those things in the fourth kingdom,” said Anna. “Those seem to hold up better and not get as hot.”

I began 'flatting' the boiler pieces after church the next day. They were fairly close, to my surprise, and the 'candle-test' proved conclusively the end-pieces were indeed flat. I had not yet attempted working on the boiler tubes, and between filing and scraping those, I drew the other pieces I suspected I would need.

“And those will be tricky to cast and make patterns for,” I thought, as I drew the pieces to the boiler feed pump. “At least we're close to being caught up on the orders.”

Monday morning in the predawn stillness showed a 'dead-looking' town as I walked slowly toward the shop. I'd packed a full bag of tricks, and once I'd lit three forges with wood and dragged in a sack of charcoal for each of them, I began 'planning' matters. Georg had gotten a few new slates, and as I glanced at them, I suspected those weren't the only things that would need my attention that morning.

My thinking proved prescient, as when Georg came, he had another two slates under his arm, and these, he brought directly to me.

“I have no idea how you are going to do these, as...” he mumbled.

“What are they?” I asked.

“One of them is for someone asking to have his sword 'gone through',” said Georg, “and another wants a new one.”

“Did they give any kind of description?” I asked. “Do they want one like what I have, or that one I did for someone else, or what?”

“They didn't say,” said Georg, “and I don't like it much.”

“Who were they?” I asked.

“Two of the guards at the house,” said Georg.

“Does the man with an existing sword have one that is marked and cracked badly?” I asked.

“He neither spoke of that, nor showed me,” said Georg. “I told him you were not likely to speak to him directly, and...”

“And he misunderstood what you meant, no doubt,” I said. “Did those people act as if they thought me a witch?”

“I could not tell,” said Georg. “They spoke of seeing spiked heads, and one of them was Koenraad's, and seeing his head at the house on a pole decided them.”

“Do witches spike heads?” I asked.

“That I can speak of,” said Johannes. “Those tales had their heads being the ones spiked. They tended to do other things entirely.”

“I doubt I will be able to 'go through' that one man's sword,” I said, “as I cannot fix cracked swords except by melting them down. I'd most likely need to copy the thing...”

I ceased speaking abruptly, then spluttered, “the scabbard also?”

Georg looked at me strangely, then said, “supposedly you did one, and I know you do decent leather work.”

“Is it customary to provide 'tools' with edged weapons?” I asked.

“It might be,” said Georg. “Finding people up here who make swords for using isn't easy, unlike founders or stovepipe-makers, and I suspect they're as close as they're common.”

“Markings all over the blade,” I muttered. “Both of them will want those. Did you say I didn't mark blades, and why?”

Georg nodded, then said, “they seemed to understand. Then again, so did Black-Cap.”

“Meaning I'll either need to speak to them myself,” I spluttered, “or I'll have to find out what they want. I have the fourth post today, so they might come by then.”

I left the shop just prior to lunch with the fowling piece parts still in a cooking can hidden in the depths of a forge, and once on the way to the king's house, I again wondered about those two orders Georg had gotten. This so occupied my mind that I reached the rise before the house before I knew what had happened to the time, and when I went inside to change my clothing and secure 'drink', I was still greatly preoccupied with the matter. Only when I met with Karl and Sepp in the refectory did I get something of an answer.

“I put in an order to have my sword gone over,” said Sepp. “How long do you...”

“Th-thank God,” I squeaked. “Georg came with two slates, nothing was on them that told me what was wanted, and he frightened me out of my mind.”

“How?” asked Karl.

“He spoke as if he'd encountered two people like that person who said we would not be heard until we had killed someone,” I said, “and I was having to guess as to who he'd met and...”

“There are others that want those things,” said Sepp, “but I think they might want them marked.”

“And they'll want to talk to me only,” I spluttered, “and they think I'm some kind of witch, and...”

“I doubt that,” said Karl. “None of those people wore black-cloth, and I've seen them before.”

“What are they like?” I asked.

“There seem to be three types of guard,” said Karl, “and that does not count those of our class that still live.” Karl paused, then said, “there are people who are like those you find in towns that want to do their jobs, there are people that make me wonder, and there are some I cannot figure out.”

“The s-second and th-third groups...” I spluttered. I then noticed where I had been walking and stopped just in time to avoid colliding with a support-pillar.

“Those that make me wonder act like that one wretch that said we needed to be bloody,” said Karl. “Talk has it many of them are gone.”

“The Swartsburg?” I asked.

“They turned up missing after that place started smoking,” said Sepp. “I think the fires are out in that place, as it no longer stinks or smokes.”

“Then, there are those I cannot figure out,” said Karl. “They act decent enough, but there is something about them that is wrong, and I do not know what it is.”

The first third of the posting was sufficiently uneventful that I had time to go over what I had written recently in the second ledger, while Sepp continued working on that one leather pouch. His sewing was slow enough to make for a slow-building sense of frustration on my part, and when I heard footsteps coming from my left I glanced up to see two 'scholars' coming at a slow and somewhat 'tipsy' walk.

“Two of those people?” I thought. “Do they want to see Hendrik?”

As they drew closer, however, I suspected the source of their walk was not overindulgence in drink, but rather overindulgence in labor, for both of them collapsed on the other side of the hall from where I sat. Both men seemed fatigued beyond measure, and as their slow-moving hands tried to find 'hidden' pockets, I asked, “that meeting?”

“It was awful, and this next one is likely to be worse,” said one of the men. “At least we don't need to attend it.”

“Who does?” I asked.

“Some call those people elders,” said the other man, “and others, councilors. I'm not sure what to call them.”

“I know what to call Freek,” said the first 'scribe'. “He smells, and not just with the nose. He smells in other ways, too.”

“Caution, Gijs,” said the other scribe. “Those black-dressed people are nearby, and he spends time with them regularly.”

I had no idea as to how to speak to these men, and their fatigue was enough to cause wondering on my part.

“Are you here to write for him?” asked Karl, as he pointed at me.

“I think so,” said Gijs. “It might be easiest if...”

“Someone said his writing might make that of a lecturer look bad for expression,” said the other man, “but unless he writes it twice, it cannot be read.”

I began digging out my ledgers, then as I fished out the first one, I asked, “what would you like me to speak about?”

The two men looked at each other in a way that spoke of their near-complete ignorance of that issue, and only when I mentioned what I had spoken of when I'd seen Hendrik did they have 'some' idea as to where to start.

For the next hour, I described what I'd seen during the whole of the two trips I'd made into town, and as I did, I thought to retrieve the map I'd been 'given' for the next time. The scratching of two pencils was such that I marveled, and when it was time for a pause, I had the impression I needed to look further in my bag.

I was more than a little surprised to find the map there, and as I looked it over, I noted people gathering close to me. I looked up to see not merely the two 'scribes', but also Karl and Sepp.

“Now that is a good map,” said Karl. “Where did you get it?”

“This is a copy,” I said, as I pointed out that particular caption, “and these indicate the copies of the other things I received for evidence.”

“Evidence?” asked Gijs. “Will you need to deliver to the king or someone like him?”

“I'm not sure yet,” I said. “I can tell you where there's a lot of bad places using this map here. There's one there, and another here, and...”

I had begun by pointing out the general region of the three 'bad' Public Houses on the north side of the king's house, but my finger seemed to have had an effect upon the paper. In its wake, more markings steadily appeared, each of them with one of several colors. The edges showed a legend indicating what colors meant what, with 'red' meaning the home or business of a witch, orange that of a 'witch-sympathizer', green indicating 'neutral', and blue indicating 'those that wish nothing to do with witches'.

“I'm glad blue is so common on this map,” said Gijs. “Rolf, you might want to see about copying this thing.”

“How?” I asked.

“I'll need to trace it out carefully,” said Rolf. “That might take some...”

“If what we heard is true, then we might well have to do that later,” said Gijs. “I know someone's been in my office recently, and has been looking with some frequency, and I imagine they've done the same in yours.”

“I wish they would fix the stove while they were at it,” said Rolf, “that, and drop off some of that black furnace fuel.”

“Black furnace fuel?” I asked.

“It looks a little like charcoal,” said Rolf, “but it is not charcoal. If it's poor, it smells horribly.”

“Coal?” I asked. I recalled the examples I'd seen locally.

“I think it is made from that stuff,” said Rolf. “Coal smells much worse, even if that fuel is done badly.”

“And if it is not?” I asked.

“Then it has but little smell, it burns warmly, and does so for long periods of time,” said Rolf. “They use it in furnaces in the fourth kingdom, and rumor has it the fifth kingdom uses much more that way.”

“Would that map be stolen if it was left here?” I asked. I had a strong suspicion that way.

“I think so,” said Gijs. “That map is as good as anything I've seen, and that apart from what it indicates.”

“Which would most likely make it very attractive to thieves,” I said, “even if there's a lot of area where it doesn't have indications.” I paused, then asked, “why does it show where I went?”

There was no answer, and I continued moving my finger along the locations where I'd been. As I continued moving my finger, more and more 'designated' houses showed in its wake. I then moved my finger into 'unexplored' regions, and the designation ceased abruptly.

“This area along Kokstraat seemed pretty decent,” I said, as I showed my path along it with my finger, “and then there were some malt-curing sheds here...”

A small printed label showed where they were, and its neatness – and black-on-white letters – seemed inhuman in their accuracy.

“Do I need to 'explore' this place further?” I thought. There was no answer, at least to my question.

As I thought about the matter, however, I did have the impression I would need to go into town at least a few times over the next few months, and in the process, I could fill in more of the blanks.

“I could attempt tracing this out at home, given paper,” I said. “My maps and drawings tend to be decent.”

“They spoke of that,” said Gijs. “We have enough here to begin writing the needed report, though I would expect more such sessions over the next two posts. That meeting is early next week, and it's likely you'll need to be present.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Those people may want something more tangible than speech,” said Rolf. “We'll bring by what we have written the next time so you can make sure you didn't leave out something.”

“And paper?” I asked.

“We can bring that by before you're done here,” said Gijs. “I need a nap before I do much else.”

While neither of the two men showed before the three of us finished, someone else – short, quite thin, and dressed plainly – did, and he had three sizable sheets of paper. As he gave them to me, I noted not merely his seeming 'emaciation', but also his fingers. They reminded me more than a little of Sarah's.

“Talk has it he once raced,” said Karl some minutes after the 'thin person' left.

“J-jockey?” I asked.

“I do not have a word-book handy,” said Karl, “so you will have to tell me what that word means.”

“Someone who rides horses in races,” I said. “I've seen pictures of such people before, and he reminded me of them.”

I came home to a darkened house with but a single candle burning in the student's lantern on the kitchen table, and after bathing and my usual pre-bed chores, I went upstairs to sleep. The next posting was the second during 'mid-week' or Wednesday, and between the two days, I had my share of work to do. I had gone home with Sepp's sword and his 'meager' instructions – “like what you did with Karl's.”

The other sword, however, was much a mystery still. No one had spoken of the matter, and the new forge seemed the best location for making it – once I had a running blower, or so I thought until one of the apprentices looked askance at the yawning brick-lined chasm and its long slot at the bottom.

“I don't know precisely how long to wait until we can start burning wood or charcoal in it,” I said. “Why, do you know?”

“It's done, isn't it?” he said.

“It is, and it isn't,” I said. “The masonry portion is done, but the blast portion needs me doing a fair amount of work yet.”

“That is fine,” said Georg. “You do not set firebrick and mortar under blast.” Georg paused, then said, “did they speak of its curing?”

“They didn't tell you?” I squeaked.

“No, they didn't, and I've never seen one like that before,” said Georg. “The common kind needs a wait of at least a week, as those can only be set under a moon that's just starting, and...”

What?” I gasped. “Who said that?”

“That is what people said,” said Georg. “That seems to be the usual at smith's shops.”

“Perhaps a small fire,” I said. “A few pieces of wood...”

The effect of my speaking seemed to put a hush over the shop, and as the apprentice went to fetch some wood, I thought to actually feel the bricks of the new forge. Beyond 'how damp is it?', I had no real clue as to what I was trying to learn, that being in contrast to what Georg had spoken regarding the usual time-frame.

“Why did you speak about a moon just starting?” I asked, as I began feeling the forge's bricks.

“That has to do with the nature of forges,” said Johannes. “They need to be built on the fading moon, as that one was, and then set on the building moon, and put under blast the first time under a full moon. That usually means a celebration.”

“What, bringing a forge under blast?” I asked.

“Yes, and during the evening, also,” said Johannes. “I've never been to one of those, as only certain people can come to them.” A brief pause, then, “though I have smelled new forges.”

“Smelled?” I asked.

“They smell like burned meat,” said Johannes, “and they seemed unusually dark at first. It takes nearly a dozen firings before the smell and the soot is gone from the first firing, and then they can be actually used.”

“Used?” I asked.

“No forge is to be used in a darkened state,” said Johannes, “and hence the new ones need not merely heaping hot fires, but also regular blast so as to set the bricks entirely. They are not fully set until that is the case.”

“Heaping hot?” I asked. The bricks were difficult to 'feel', as the outer portion was 'dry', and the inner portion was difficult to discern. “Does this have to do..?”

“I think that was why I was told to build the fire as big as I could,” said Georg. “I wonder about the rest of that stuff more than a little.”

“As to its meaning, or what?” I asked. The whole sounded like 'fetishism' to me.

“It wastes a lot of fuel and effort,” said Georg, “and it smells bad, and smokes a lot. I know you commonly stay late enough to do the portions that must be done after dark.”

“What are those?” I asked.

“That part is a mystery,” said Georg. “Only those most-skilled were permitted to attend the birthing of a new forge, which meant three people where I was apprenticed. They did not tell me what happened then.”

“I doubt they were cooking food,” I muttered, as I continued feeling the bricks.

“What is it you are doing?” asked Gelbhaar, as he came beside me.

“I wasn't told how long this needed to air-dry, and that information I heard smells like a witch was involved, especially with this talk of the phases of the moons, doing things in the dark, celebrations, and the other things.”

“But that is how forges are done,” he said. “They go bad often enough in most shops that a new one needs to be brought up every few months.”

I was becoming more than a little irked by hearing such obvious rubbish, so much so that I stood up abruptly and wrung my hands at hearing the latest installment.

“Can I start the curing of this one now?” I asked.

The abrupt change in the others' demeanor was so astonishing that only when mounds of wood and charcoal began piling up next to the thing did I begin wondering as to what I had said. More, I suspected my impression regarding 'witchcraft' being involved in 'bringing up' forges was not merely likely, it was also inadequate.

Only that dream of nocturnal sacrifice was more clear as to its subject.

“Stop!” I yelled.

The thuds I heard seconds later spoke of people falling in place, and when I found the first of the apprentices, his waxen pallor and 'catatonia' was only dissipated by my 'awakening' him. He arose like a 'zombie' and slowly began walking toward the front door of the shop, and with each further awakening, the same happened: every person in the shop promptly left once 'awakened'. I stood out in the yard of the shop as I watched all of them slowly wobble south.

“Are they going to the Public House?” I thought. “I'd best check shortly.”

However, as I resumed work – I left the new forge alone, as I wanted to check matters further before doing anything to it – what had been said began to slowly combine itself in my mind.

I first recalled what had happened earliest at the shop, where I had been thought to be a witch, then that odd voice and its horrible speech about becoming a witch, then hearing all I had recently, with the last part just adding its portion to the end result.

“What are we doing here?” I thought, as I began carefully stacking smaller sticks in the new forge. “Does everyone in the shop except me think what we do is witchcraft?”

The impression that came back to me, however, implied my estimation was conservative, if anything. More, checking down at the Public House would give clues. I undid my apron, laid it on the bench, and began walking south along the road.

The rutted soft surface of the road spoke of needed repairs and still-damp ground, and as I carefully walked on the stones of the roadside path, I noted not merely their own 'muddy' surfaces, but also their unevenness. I suspected both they and the road would need a measure of leveling to achieve the smoother surface of the road I recalled when I came, and I then remembered the 'tacky' appearance earlier in the year. That portion of road was almost like a firmer version of potter's clay then. It had dried since, such that...

“Was that then, and for that particular stretch of road?” I thought. “As in this road was still in the 'splop' state? Do roads dry evenly here, and are their surfaces the same?” There was no answer.

I had never been to the Public House in the morning, and when I came to the yard of the place, I saw not merely a number of saddled horses and several buggies, but also a lumpy-looking yard-surface and traces of mud on the boards of the stoop. I came to the door, opened it quietly, and stepped into a room at once familiar and strange.

The number of people at the tables was less than I recalled to be usual at dinnertime, and the sense of appetite – all present were starving for food – was such that I marveled. I wondered briefly where the others were, until I saw them attempting to hide behind several jugs. I came closer, and nearly ran out of the door.

Every person's eyes, even Georg's, showed a red-tinted picture of hell, and the sense of 'oblivion' was so intense I nearly screamed – until I saw the food being brought.

“Why is there s-so much?” I thought. “They might not have pies, but...”

“Those will come later,” said the soft voice. “They just got here and put in the orders.”

And the others in here?” I asked. The sense of 'gluttony' was especially strong.

There was no immediate answer, and I turned to go. I wondered how my speaking of 'bringing up a forge' had suddenly caused everyone in the shop to act as if 'controlled', and I was sufficiently lost in thought to nearly bump into Anna when I returned to the shop. She was standing next to my stool.

“Did they leave you here?” she asked.

“I asked a few questions about the new forge,” I said, “and they all spoke of the thing as if it were an especially powerful witch-tool...”

“Which it is not,” said the soft voice.

“And these?” asked Anna.

“If I go by what I heard, they are,” I said. “They spoke of building on a, uh, dying moon...”

“Fading moon,” said Anna.

“His term is commonly used by witches,” said the soft voice.

“All the more reason to not use it,” said Anna. I was wondering if she was being affected, so much so that when I spoke of a new moon, I wondered at the interruption.

“A building moon,” said the soft voice. “Those terms are used for a very good reason among smiths.”

“Celebration?” I asked.

Sacrifice,” said the soft voice.

“Are those people witches?” asked Anna.

“Th-those people?” I asked. “I wondered about what we do here.”

“The chief difference is the level of initiation,” said the soft voice. “Most smiths aren't initiated into the 'mysteries' of their trade, even if much of what they learned as apprentices is treated as witchcraft.”

“Is it witchcraft?” asked Anna.

“I'm not sure, now,” I murmured. “What I've heard about forges definitely had that feeling.”

“Then how can it be treated as witchcraft if that isn't what it is?” shrieked Anna.

Anna's behavior was becoming strange enough that I wanted time to first think, then pray, and then go 'fetish-hunting'. I suspected that the common teaching style was as much an issue as what was taught, as those methods I had heard of created a warmly-receptive mind – a mind open to the ways and means of witches, and closed to all else.

“It isn't quite that bad,” said the soft voice, “even if most smiths do listen especially well to witches. I would look carefully under Georg's desk.”

As I went closer to the area in question, I wondered briefly if I would find a fetish hiding there, and when I got down on hands and knees, I was astonished to see a strange 'lump' on the floor. Touching it caused the lump to shrink down into a small copper 'coin', and the squirming sense of the thing as I picked it up was a marvel – at least, until I saw Anna swaying with half-open eyes in the grip of an unseen wind. I ran towards the door and tossed the thing while yelling at it to leave.

The explosion jolted me backwards, and when I bumped into Georg's desk, I turned to see Anna shaking her head while muttering.

“Where did that one come from?” I asked.

“It had been there for quite some time,” said the soft voice. “Between its presence, what those people were actually taught, and how they were taught, you could only speak one way of forges and be heard.”

“How would he need to talk, then?” asked Anna. She sounded normal now.

“I would need to speak like a very serious witch, dear,” I said. “Now I remember something more. What of those things I took out of the forges months ago? Those gray-metal things?” I paused, then said, “is that why they put those there?”

“Only foundry 'ovens' are thought greater fetishes,” said the soft voice. “Yours was the wrong type, so it was ignored.”

“Wrong type?” I asked.

“What Georg initially spoke of and drew was the 'correct' type, as per what he had been taught,” said the soft voice, “and given sufficient fuel and ample blast, those will melt iron.”

“And that one?” asked Anna.

“Will melt steel readily with modest blast,” said the soft voice. “It needs much less fuel and blast than what he had put on those slates.”

“What of that iron?” asked Anna.

“Modest amounts of coal and no blast whatsoever,” I said.

“El Vallyé designs tend toward greater efficiency,” said the soft voice. “A slow fire of wood in the forge's firebox today and tomorrow will cure it sufficiently to fill it with charcoal on the third day, and the day after, it can be used.” A brief pause, then “it will burn hot enough without blast for a good percentage of what you do.”

“I thought so,” said Anna. “Are they down at the Public House?”

“They all looked in-inhabited,” I said, “and I had no idea they would work that hard at glutting themselves.”

“That's what they usually do there,” said Anna.

“Is eating like that common behavior?” I asked.

“It seems to be with many, perhaps most,” said Anna.

“A pie each?” I squeaked.

“I would not be surprised,” said Anna. “I've seen those people eat and drink, and by the time they are done, they are too full to do much beyond go home and sleep.”

Once Anna had left – I never learned why she'd come, other than perhaps boredom at home – I put on my apron and began dismantling Sepp's sword. It came apart easier than Karl's, for some reason, and after putting it in a forge to anneal, I resumed building my first fire in the new one. I had the impression one wanted slow and 'gentle' heating, and hence built a smaller fire than I had first planned. A scoop of glowing coals from one of the two operating forges made for a softly flaming fire minutes later, along with slow-rising trickles of steam.

“Is that fire too hot?” I thought. There was no answer.

By lunchtime, I'd packed Sepp's shortened and slimmed sword in a box for cooking, and while it cooked in the main furnace, I cleaned up its fittings. The wood was sufficiently bad that I cut new pieces for the handle.

I drew up several more patterns and packed up the drawings to the carpenters, where I needed to explain what I wanted. On the way home, I asked, “do carpenters get taught to be witches during their apprenticeships?”

“Other than those overly-expensive hammers, not usually,” said the soft voice. “Wood is too pedestrian a material, unlike metal.”

“Fire and smoke?” I asked. “Poorly understood processes?”

“Those and more,” said the soft voice.

About midafternoon, someone came in the shop. I was in the middle of raising a copper pot, and when I stood up, his voice – gruff, somewhat familiar-sounding, yet still previously unheard – came from my left. I didn't cope well with abrupt transitions, so much so that it took me several seconds to realize what the question had been.

“I spoke of that forge there,” I said, “and they all went off to the Public House to gorge themselves, and I...”

“And they left you here,” he said. “Why aren't you there with them?”

“Uh, I d-don't know,” I said. “I don't seem to be affected that way.”

“By what?” he asked. I was beginning to recognize the voice. I had heard it before, but not recently.

I found my stool, then refilled my mug, and sat on the former while sipping from the latter. I realized I was tired and needed a break.

“It seems most smiths are taught to think like witches as part of their apprenticeships,” I said. “Then, some wretch dumped a fetish or witch-tool under the desk there. I spoke of bringing up that one forge, they talk about moon-phases and celebrations and a lot of rubbish, I ask if I can start a small fire in the thing, and they all drop to the ground as if clubbed.”

“I've only heard that word a few times before,” he said. “Did you get rid of it?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “It tossed me, too.”

“Then I most likely need to speak to you alone,” he said. “Those others will demand that you put marks on anything you do, if they're that way, and I want something that I can use and not have it go to pieces after a few good swings.”

What?” I gasped.

“I told Georg about wanting a sword,” he said, “and I came here last to speak of your fitting. You weren't doing well then, so I'm not surprised as to you not remembering me.”

I was so taken aback that I gasped again, only this time, no words came out. It took draining the mug of cider and then refilling it before I could speak.

“Do you have any ideas as to what you want?” I asked.

“Talk has it you made one that works especially well,” he said. “It isn't like the common type, as it has but one edge to it, it's short enough to use in close quarters, and it doesn't squeal like a pig when worn. That's important.”

“The screeching?” I asked.

“Only witches want swords that screech,” he said. “They'll never raise them against those northern people.”

“That one wretch tried for me,” I gasped.

“Him and Koenraad,” said my visitor, “and some misers, and this one magistrate, and then more witches, and you minding your business. That says but one thing.”

“W-what?” I asked.

“I won't speak of it to others,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper, “but only marked people get that much trouble.”

I nearly fainted upon hearing this last bit of information. It took several seconds to recover, then after another deep swig of cider, I said, “I most likely can start on one soon. Have you seen mine?”

“No, but talk is plentiful about it, and it sounds about right,” he said. “It has one mark on its hilt, and that one isn't one of them called secret.”

“I d-don't handle the money part here,” I murmured. “I don't know what you'll do with them stuffing themselves in the Public House.”

“They'd all gone home by the time I'd checked,” he said. “I've seen people eat like that before, and I stay clear of those places unless I know better.”

“Places?” I asked.

“There are three or four bad ones outside of the Swartsburg,” he said, “and some scattered few out in the area around here. They get more common to the south, especially in parts of the second kingdom. If you ever do a long trek, you will want to watch the places along the High Way.”

“W-why?” I asked. “Three and four hours if we stop?”

“That and questioning the whole time you're there,” he said, “and when you leave, about all you'll be good for is sleeping off all of that food and drink.” He paused, then said, “it's hard enough to travel without them wasting your day for you.”

“Uh, three stops?” I asked.

“That would be common,” he said. “If you go to those places regular, you tend to start late, travel slowly when you're traveling, end early, and have your mind on little beyond eating and drinking.” He paused, then said, “and if you run freight, that won't do.”

“Did you?” I asked.

“Years ago,” he said. “It isn't an easy life, and making time wants a very scanty diet.”

“You won't hardly go anywhere if you spend that much time eating,” I spluttered.

“That and the money,” he said. “Freighting doesn't pay that well, at least if you're sited up here.”

“Blessings if you get your cargo in early?” I asked.

“That is the best reason to eat scanty and go as far as you can each day,” he said. “A modest blessing can increase your income to no small degree if you haul freight, and the faster they get it, the bigger those tend to be.”

“And wheels?” I asked. “Axles?”

“Those are best sleeved,” he said. “Even bad fifth kingdom sleeves work better than plain wood, even if it's brass-slatted on the cone and has a tallow-holder.”

“Pulling the wheels?”

“Every day,” he said. “It's best to run in a group, as then the wheels can be pulled and replaced faster.”

He paused, this time longer than before, and said, “hopefully, they'll have a chance to go through those buggies before that trip.”

“Trip?” I asked.

“That isn't firm,” he said, “at least as to its date. I hope it runs soon, as it's warmer to the south than here.”

“Go through?” I asked.

“Most buggies get looked over and worked on before that kind of a trip,” he said. “They might bring the metal portions here.”

“Uh, I would need to do most of the work on them,” I said. “The others...”

“Then I'll be sure to mention that,” he said. “Most common smith-work up here isn't that good, and I've seen enough of yours to know otherwise.”

The man then left, and as I sat still on the stool, I rubbed my head with my hands. My hair had mostly grown back, such that I could feel it readily, and when I finished my mug, I was surprised to see Anna coming in the front door of the shop.

“Good that he saw you,” she said.

“Is this one of those things where people would only deal with me personally?” I asked.

“I think he spoke of why, didn't he?” asked Anna. “He told us he what he wanted.”

“They'd insist I mark the thing up with s-snake-tracks and curses?” I gasped.

“He spoke of that especially,” said Anna. “He did not want his blade marked.” Anna paused, then said, “I asked around some at the house proper, and I think I might know why you were told that during your lectures.”

“Custom?” I asked. “What instrument-makers commonly do?”

“Most might say that,” said Anna. Her voice dropped markedly in volume. “That jeweler said otherwise.”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“They would be thinking of you as a witch,” said Anna. “At least, some of them would. I don't know how many guards would do that now.”

“And the instructor?”

“He knows better now,” said Anna.

Anna then reached in her pocket, and drew out a small leather pouch as I resumed my work. She placed it on the workbench, then said, “he's had this done for some time, but it's been difficult to get it to you.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“He mentioned a button,” said Anna, “and how you had seen him the first day of your training.”

“And difficulty?” I asked. “All of that nonsense in and out of the house?”

Anna nodded, then left shortly thereafter.

I was able to assemble Sepp's sword before leaving for home, and after wrapping it in rags, I bundled it into my bag of tricks along with the bagged gun parts, the leather pouch, and pieces to the steam engine boiler. I had a lot of short lengths of brass rod that needed making into screws, and after bathing, I resumed work until dinner.

The trip next morning needed leaving well before dawn, and as I walked in the stillness, I seemed to feel what would happen. The mention of the trip was not merely timely, it was also intended.

“And the reason for that trip is a mystery,” I thought.

“Yes, right now,” said the soft voice. “It will not remain a mystery long – and yes, you will be going on it.”

“The boiler?” I asked.

“You will have your hands full between now and the day of departure,” said the soft voice. “That meeting happens in five days, and the trip starts within fifteen.” A brief pause, “and the big event happens during the trip.”

“Buggy-parts?” I asked.

“Those and swords,” said the soft voice. “That one man broke the dam.”

“I hope they don't...”

“The ones that wish swords to use will speak to Anna first,” said the soft voice, “especially now that the 'secret' is out.”

“Secret?” I asked.

“That 'rumor' about you not being fond of money is now cemented with fact,” said the soft voice, “and while you might tolerate matters important to you, such talk is still quite draining. That is now better-known as well.”

“I hope the shift isn't troublesome,” I murmured. I was already starting to get a headache.

While there was no answer, my headache continued to increase in intensity, and within moments, I had to stop and take a pinch of fever-bark powder. I winced at the acrid taste, even as I washed it down with cider.

I gave Sepp his sword prior to changing my clothing, and when he came to the post with sword, scabbard, and another piece of leather, I saw that I had my work 'cut out' for me. I also learned another aspect of the second posting.

Hendrik had more visitors during that shift than all of the others combined, and I looked at each such person carefully while they stood before the doorway to the office.

With Sepp's scabbard redone – it took the first half of the shift – I began looking for the 'scribes', and only when the influx of people slowed to its usual state of 'seldom' did they actually show.

“At least they don't look quite so fatigued,” I thought, as they came closer. “I wonder if they got any furnace-fuel?”

“Here, look at this,” said Gijs. “I did it with a writing dowel, in case you want to change anything.”

I began reading. I immediately saw the much-neater handwriting, and that seemed to temporarily blind me to the other aspects of what I was reading – at least, until I tripped over a most-peculiar form of the indefinite article.

“What does that mean?” I thought. “Is this like...” I then recalled what I had thought about the instructor and his meaning of 'ye retreate' during one of his lectures.

Ye?” I asked. “Does it mean that?” There was no answer, save the growing inscrutability of the paper in front of me.

The whole mess – it was that – seemed almost a witch-chant for dire tone, and incomprehensible for understanding, for its awkwardness of expression was difficult to believe and its clarity that of thick gooey mud. I tried puzzling out one sentence:

“Ye Black-Region be topping-full of arch-witches, and they pounds sore and heavy upon their irons, while casting metal maketh for difficult breathing and horrible noise coming from an Evil Engine. This last speweth soot like unto a sea-monster, and flames like unto Brimstone, and ye chanting of ye witches...”

“Yech!” I spluttered. “This stuff is awful.”

“It may be that, but better isn't easy,” said Gijs. “We were picked because our...”

“Your penmanship is better,” I mumbled. “The rest of this... Let me try something.”

I thought for a moment, then said, “The population of the Swartsburg consists of black-dressed thugs, brown-dressed 'misers' – be sure to put marks around that word, as I still am not sure about them – and plain-dressed persons who act like the first two groups mentioned.” I paused, then said, “I would put the description of forge and foundry under a different heading.”

It took much of the remnant of the posting to clarify what had been said, and in the process, I added a great deal of detail. I also removed the 'medieval' tone for the most part.

“Now what gives with this word here?” I asked, as I pointed to the twentieth instance of 'Ye'.

“That is the formal form of 'the',” said Rolf. “It is customary to use it in written accounts.”

“And these words?” I asked, as I found again the adjectives 'sore' and 'heavy'. “Their context seems to indicate a very different meaning from the common.”

“That is the written format,” said Rolf. “I spent years learning it.”

“And if you want notes worth mentioning, you must write that way at the higher schools,” said Gijs. “Most people in the houses insist upon its use.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “I removed all of that nonsense.”

“I would not worry much,” said Rolf. “Those who will be looking at this document appreciate clarity over style, and this kind of clarity is almost unheard-of.”

“I would drop the 'almost', Rolf,” said Gijs. “I've never seen such writing before, and I doubt you have either.”

“Would it be thought, uh, bad?” I asked.

“That depends on who's reading it,” said Gijs. “I'm not certain most lecturers would call it bad, come to think of it.”

“It doesn't 'sound' right, though,” said Rolf.

“I've wondered about that more than a little,” said Gijs. “I think that stuff is to hide the fact that most that can write have great trouble doing it.”

“Can write?” I asked.

“That seems the worst in the first kingdom,” said Gijs. “While most people can read passably, writing isn't nearly as common among people here. Writing is more common to the south.”

Our relievers came just as Rolf and Gijs made ready to leave. The next posting was the third, on Friday. One of the men then came close to me.

“There's a meeting for you on the first day of the week, and it starts just after the second posting,” said my 'interlocutor'. “You'll want to bring all of your equipment.”

“Dressing?” I asked.

“Like you usually do,” he said. “Talk has it you have greens, so you might want to wear those. They tend to look more presentable than war-cut dress.”

“They're cooler, too,” I thought. “These things are fine when it's cold, but they're not something you want to wear when it's warm.”

Home arrived in the early afternoon, and after bathing, I hurried to the shop. There, I had just missed the others, and as I checked over the work in progress, I noted an increase in the number of slates on Georg's desk. I paused to look at them, and saw that most of them were orders for swords.

The first one was simple: 'one sword, as per usual', as was the second; but the third had a request for 'proper markings' in addition to the 'common' request. I wondered what those were – the person went into no details, and the writing looked foreign; it wasn't Georg's writing – until I turned the slate over. Here, it showed what was wanted in a crude yet brutal-looking hand that was unlike anything I'd ever seen.

The first portion was a 'marching' row of those marks I had heard described as the 'double-lightning', while the three other marks I had seen before near the hilt of various swords. I shook my head, then thought, “and I'll bet he wants a tip-dragging five pound monster, too.”

As if to remind me of the noisy tendencies of the common length of sword, I heard faint intermittent screeches in my ears. I flinched, then ducked down behind the nearest forge with my hand on the pistol-pouch's button.

“No,” I thought. “I'm not making an idol.”

The slate leaped up from the top of Georg's desk and disintegrated in a thick gray burst of smoke and fragments, while the slates I had not yet looked at began twitching. I walked closer, and moved them apart so as to read them. The smoke slowly dissipated as I looked.

“Two want the common length of sword reworked 'as per usual',” I thought numbly, “and two more want new swords 'as per usual'.” I paused, then thought, “who is writing down this 'as per usual' stuff? Is Georg doing so on his own, or is he just taking dictation?” There was no answer beyond what I recalled on the matter. 'Terse to the point of omission' was usual regarding written instructions at the shop.

“I hope those to be reworked have usable fittings,” I thought. However, as I restacked the slates, I had a strange impression.

“What?” I gasped. “That 'haunted' iron won't work in the 'usual' format?”

“Not in its pattern-welded form,” said the soft voice. “You were reminded of that type of blade for a very good reason.”

“Then how do I do those things?” I asked, as I pointed to the slates indicating rework of existing blades.

“You may have found the last two unmarked swords in that room,” said the soft voice, “but they were far from the only unmarked swords on the premises, and 'butcher's talk' tends to be common 'gossip' among guards.”

“Butcher's talk?” I asked.

“Sepp has but added to it,” said the soft voice. “Butchering 'mean black cattle' isn't safe or easy.”

I wanted to say, 'duh', but refrained.

“It's more hazardous than dealing with the average domestic sword-bearer,” said the soft voice, “and nearly as hazardous as dealing with blooded tin-wearing northern thugs.”

“And cattle?”

“Unlike domestic witches and most northern thugs,” said the soft voice, “they don't ease up if your sword goes to pieces.”

“Ease up?” I asked.

“That witch chanted for nearly a minute before he killed his disarmed foe,” said the soft voice. “A blooded spam might be startled for a few seconds, as their weapons almost never break.”