The Big House, part 15.

That evening, I fitted up the remaining lock to the fowling piece, and as I stoned and polished the bearing surfaces, I found I had something of an audience – in addition to three sets of revolver parts. I suspected I would have several of them 'done' before I left for the trip. At dinner, there were questions.

“What will I do with that fowling piece?” I asked. “I'm not certain. There was mention of a trip...” I wanted to add, “what about rats in the house?”

“You might want to take that thing for traveling,” said Hans. “I have heard some things about a trip, and if it goes down far enough, you might run into birds.”

“Birds?” I asked.

“Those things are common in the fourth kingdom,” said Hans. “I would watch for the fool-hens, as talk has it they are starting early this year.”

“What are those like?” I asked. I recalled their supposed larger size and little else.

“They are big gray things,” said Hans, “and should you shoot one, you want to watch for the beak.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as Anna began muttering.

“That bird was as mean as anything,” said Anna. “It pecked both of us until Hans cut its head off.”

“That and its noise,” said Hans. “It was squawking a lot.”

After dinner, I resumed fitting up the fowling piece, and as I finished the thing, I wondered about the stock itself. It seemed thick and somewhat clumsy, so much so that I thought to ask about it.

“You might leave that the way it is,” said Anna. “Those need thick stocks, or so I've heard.”

“The wood?” I asked.

“You might scrape it some with your spokeshave,” said Hans, “but only some. You want to leave enough wood to stand firing.”

“Is it the wood itself?” I asked, as I began dismounting the locks.

“Fifth kingdom wood tends to be soft and weak,” said Hans. “If you make it so that it feels good, it is likely to break, unless you get some wood from around here and make another one to fit.”

“Perhaps just smooth it up carefully and then wipe it down with drying oil?” I asked.

“That would be best,” said Hans. “I can scrape and wipe it down.”

That gun went back together entirely before bedtime, as did one of the revolvers. The others would need more time, perhaps another evening, and then they could be put into 'storage' or handed out to others. As I made ready to head upstairs, however, Hans came with a vial of 'stuff'. Its weight was astounding.

“What is this?” I asked.

“That is a liquid death chemical used in one of these iron-blacking recipes I heard of the other day,” said Hans. “They call it 'twice-chloride' or something like that.”

“Any further information?” I asked.

“I told what you said to Albrecht, and he brought back that stuff, along with a few other things,” said Hans. “Those that do that down there in the fourth kingdom are close with the recipe.”

“Books?” I asked.

“Those should be along soon,” said Hans. “I heard they left for up here recently.”

I left the next morning about three hours after sunrise, and came to the house proper about an hour before the usual time of posting. I spent most of the time between arrival and posting tracing out the map on a thinner-than-usual piece of paper, and when the two scribes came, I gave them the tracing. Gijs folded it, and put it in his ledger.

“I've been reading what you spoke of,” he said, “and everyone I've spoken to prefers the way you wrote to the usual.”

“Good,” I said. “I would have a lot of trouble trying to write the other way.”

I spent roughly two hours speaking of what I had learned regarding northern equipment and my encounters with those using it, and the remaining portion of the posting correcting what the two scribes had written. As the two of them left – our relievers had not yet shown – I muttered, more to myself than anyone else, “I hope that will serve.”

“That was hard enough,” said Sepp. “What was it all about?”

“I've had a lot of impressions regarding those pigs,” I said, “and the same for those northern people, and then about how we tend to be. It's almost as if we're making their jobs a lot easier by being how we are, and that needs to stop.”

“How do we do that?” asked Karl.

Answering Karl's question suddenly loomed in front of me, much as if it were a tall mountain compounded of the bodies of black-dressed thugs, and my explanation seemed to wither on the vine before I could express it with my lips. His question seemed to echo in my mind, and gather size and strength with each echoing rumble, and only by sitting on the bench with closed eyes and thinking hard could I speak more than a few words. What came out astonished me.

“We're enslaved by the witches to do their bidding,” I spat, “and we think like they do, and act like they do, and...”

“How?” asked Karl. “I want nothing to do with witches beyond killing every one I see and then burning them.”

“I think that's the problem,” said Sepp thoughtfully. “You and everyone who isn't a witch thinks the exact same way, and the witches know that.”

“And they take advantage of it,” I murmured. “They take advantage of the way people are to such an extent that we all might as well be their slaves...”

The impression that caused me to cease speaking was too hard to ignore; my previous sentence, the one that spoke of us all being enslaved by witches, was closer to the truth than I wanted to believe. The statements of the sacrifice-dream regarding those 'guards' returned to me in fragments:

“Believed, accepted, and acted upon those statements...”

“...Obey higher authority...”

“Knowingly and by conscious choice...”

“...Those in authority define truth...

“Many people... utterly ignorant of the statements... behaved likewise.”

And finally, the last portion:

“All that stirs in the darkness is either a witch or the property of a witch.”

“No!” I shrieked. “I don't want to be a witch!”

“You aren't...” said the voice of rationalization.

“They were unthinkingly obedient, as befitting proper slaves,” said another voice, “and you could hand them a turnip and tell them it was a chisel, and they'd believe you enough to smack the thing with a hammer as if it actually was a chisel.” A brief pause, then “if you punished them because they made a mess instead of chips, they'd believe unquestioningly that it was their fault, just as you had told them, and that strictly because you had said so – and that with no indoctrination beyond what they'd heard and seen.”

“No sales talk needed,” said another stranger-yet voice. “The buyer will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy whatever the seller has.”

“Just like a witch,” I murmured. “Brimstone's selling dung plated with gold and calling it pure and unadulterated, and all of us fall hard for the salesman's lies.”

I was abruptly shaken awake by a furious defrauded purchaser, who spoke of my speech being that of a serpent. I opened my closed eyes and saw a vague face that slowly resolved itself into Gabriel's.

“Are you ill?” he asked.

“I said we were all controlled by witches to do their bidding, and...”

“Speak no more,” he said. “You aren't the only one, and that is one of the chief topics of that next meeting.”

“T-they didn't believe me,” I gasped.

“That but proves the depth and breadth of that control,” said Gabriel. “I've looked at that map and notes, and they're as good as anything I've seen.” He paused, then said, “which is good, as that means I've got work enough for a week and but days to finish it.”

“How can that be good?” asked Karl.

“Because without those notes, I have no portion in that meeting,” said Gabriel. “I came to confirm its date and time, but then this happened.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“As near as I can tell, you were hearing something that neither Karl nor Sepp was hearing,” said Gabriel, “and after a few seconds, you spoke a reply.”

“What was it?” I asked.

“You did not want to be a witch,” said Sepp. “I am not sure I understood the rest, but I heard a great deal, and what I heard would make me faint just like you did.”

“W-where is Karl?” I asked.

“I think he went to the privy,” said Sepp.

“Full of himself?” I asked, as I recalled Hans speaking that way recently. “Corked and full of dung?”

Gabriel's jaw dropped, and he walked back down the hall while muttering as if he'd had lessons from Anna.

“When do our, uh...”

“They should show anytime,” said Sepp, “and I wish you could write down a lot of the stuff you know, rather than what that stone-headed wretch spoke during those lectures.”

“Stone-headed wretch?” I spluttered.

“I've done enough asking to wonder, but after hearing you go through what those two people wrote, I know better,” said Sepp. “I've heard what those Generals write is worse.”

“Runes?” I asked. “Curses?”

“When they write about common things,” said Sepp. “It sounds much like what those two men did, only it makes even less sense.” He paused, then said, “and that instructor is still friendly with those people.”

“Generals?” I asked incredulously.

“He went into the Swartsburg all those times,” said Sepp, “and then he still goes to this one really bad Public House when it's full of misers and witches, and I've heard he likes bad food.”

“So he gives medieval-sounding lectures and...”

I choked in mid-sentence, then spluttered, “is that where he came up with all of that crazy-sounding rubbish he mentioned?”

Sepp nodded, then said, “I've heard those Generals do all of those things, and the same for misers, and we both know about how they're inclined toward causing trouble.”

Karl returned but minutes later, and our relief a short time afterward. Their sleepy aspect and faintly greasy faces made for wondering on my part, at least until one of them sat down and belched. The rank aroma made for a desire to run on my part.

“Now where did he get that bad meat?” asked Sepp.

“Bad meat?” I asked. “That smelled like, uh, roast p-p...”

Sepp looked at me in horror, then asked, “did he eat the meat of a pig?”

I gasped, then nearly spewed before muttering, “that, bad greens, and some bad wine.”

“I hope you can write those things down,” mumbled Karl, “as I think I was full of myself. I had to go to the privy.”

“I hope you are less so,” said Sepp. “Now what do we do about what they ate?”

“Can we prove they ate bad food?” I asked.

“Two of us smelled bad food,” said Sepp, “and you spoke of him eating swine. I've heard that counts for a great deal, especially here in the house.”

“All we can do is ask questions,” I said, as I began slowing, “and I hope that wretch doesn't make me sick with...” I paused in mid-sentence, then spat, “he got here when we did, and spent... Where did he get that stuff?”

“That's another thing we need to know,” said Sepp. “If someone's cooking swine, then that whole area is trouble, and that trouble tends to spread.”

“How is that?” asked Karl.

“There are small creatures in pigs,” said Sepp, “and they can travel several paces to other meat. You can never properly clean anything that touches the flesh of a pig, so you need to burn it.”

“Parasites, Karl,” I said. “I've heard about them where I came from.”

“Do they travel?” Sepp asked.

“I'm not sure if they can do that,” I said. “I am sure they are trouble – and I'm becoming certain that wretch who ate the pig is going to cause me trouble.”

We had come close to the post itself, and the nauseating aroma seemed to gather thickness toward itself. I had all I could do to not vomit, and when I came within ten feet of the nearest 'glutton', I asked, “where did you eat?”

“Here, in the refectory,” said the person with the greasiest face of the three.

“No, before that, urgh,” I said. “This one big dark Public House off of Kokenstraat, right?”

“How did you know?” asked 'sir greasyface'.

“You smell like you ate the flesh of a pig,” said Sepp.

The bristling aspect I saw on the man's face was of such an abrupt nature that I marveled, at least until one of the men drew his knife. For some reason, I held back – until I noticed the door across the hall starting to 'shake'.

“Put the knife away,” I asked calmly. “I think your meal is making someone other than me sick.”

The door opened, and to my shocked surprise, I saw Maria. Her face seemed the completed picture of nauseated misery, and as she daubed her mouth with a cloth, she looked at me, then at the latest shift. Her question surprised me when it came.

“Did someone eat the flesh of a pig around here?”

The three men leaped from the bench in fright, and now I didn't hesitate at all. I leaped clear of Karl and Sepp, drew my revolver, and fired as they began running.

The first bullet hit the center man low in the back, while the second tumbled the one to his right. The third man began slowing, then as he turned to face us, I shot him in the throat. He pitched over backwards and fired a pirate-special pistol into the ceiling as he thrashed on the floor.

I turned to Maria and began shuddering, then said, “I'm s-sorry.”

“I don't feel sick now,” she said.

“Nor do I,” said Sepp. “I smelled bad meat on one of them, and he” – here, Sepp indicated me – “said he smelled swine, bad greens, and bad wine.”

“I think I know what kind of wine it was, if that man was eating what you said,” said Maria.

“What kind?” I asked. “I tasted some here and it was horrible.”

“That was common wine,” said Maria. “I was thinking of Amontillado.”

“Cursed wine?” I asked.

“It is that,” she said, as she closed the door.

“Now we have a mess to clean up and a double shift,” I muttered. “It's all my fault, too.”

As we walked toward the three fallen 'guards', one thought seemed to bloom in my mind. It was a recollection regarding those 'trusted' guards – specifically their ready bribing.

“That will be much harder to do now,” said the soft voice, “as their effective number is now much smaller.”

“What is this?” asked Karl.

“Are those people among them?” I gasped.

“They are,” said the soft voice, “and the one remaining 'guard' isn't enough to watch that guardhouse alone.”

“There were four of them?” I asked.

“There were six, but two went missing during the Swartsburg war,” said the soft voice. “That remaining individual will need to leave the area between two days if he wishes to stay alive.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl, as we came upon the first man I had shot.

“Perhaps he's no longer useful to witchdom,” I said softly. After a brief pause, I nudged the leg of the first man. He twitched, then moaned.

“Questions?” I asked.

“We had bad luck with that witch you caught,” said Karl. “I think that instructor was right about questioning witches.”

“Th-third degree?” I gasped.

“No, just burn them and...” Karl's 'assured' voice was astonishing, and what he did next more so.

Karl ceased speaking, then went down the hall at a dead run. He leaped over the two others, then turned the corner and nearly collided with Gabriel, who walked closer in a steady and unhurried fashion. He paused at the man I had shot in the throat and nudged him with his foot, then at the second man.

“Is that witch still alive?” he asked, as he came closer.

“I th-think so,” I said. “I wanted to ask some questions.”

“You had best do it outside, then,” said Gabriel. “You've never done a third degree session, have you?”

I shook my head violently, then gasped the single word “no.”

“What did the instructor mean by that?” asked Sepp. “I've only heard the term a few times outside of his lectures.”

“T-torture,” I gasped. “Cutting, slicing, burning, hacking, beating...”

“I see,” said Gabriel. “If anyone is to do such things, you would be the one to do them.”

“What?” I shrieked. “Why me?”

“Firstly, you could do so and not be touched by cursing,” said Gabriel, “and secondly, you know what is involved.”

“What?” I gasped.

“That instructor knows but faintly the smell of that particular mule,” said Gabriel, “and what little he knows is by reading old tales.” Gabriel paused, then said, “in contrast, you have done many of those things.”

“D-done?” I gasped.

“You cut up a witch with an ax,” said Gabriel, “and then several with that sword you have. There is hard-to-trace talk that speaks of how you went after Koenraad.”

“Hard-to-trace?” I asked.

“The person who spoke of it was not physically there,” said Gabriel. “She described her dream, and based on what fragmentary evidence that has come from that night, it is likely she saw the truth.” Gabriel paused, then said, “you didn't go into details, did you?”

“Uh, no,” I spluttered. “Doing that tends to be too much like enduring that scary mess all over again.”

“Her dream tallies well with what Anna has told me,” said Gabriel. “I can arrange for cleaning the mess these people made if the three of you drag them out back.”

I was willing to help drag them if one person remained on the bench, and Karl and I dragged the first individual – the one that still lived – out into the rear area. I had no idea what to do with someone who was obviously fading fast, but Karl seemed to have an idea. He unsheathed his knife, and knelt down as if to cut the 'witch's' throat.

“No, not yet,” I said. “Let's get the other two out, and then I'll try questioning him.”

As we walked to the doorway, I could hear faint moaning noises, then a strident-sounding scream. I turned around, and to my surprise, the 'witch' had burst into flames.

“Oh, no!” I yelled. “Someone lit him on fire!”

I turned and ran, and as I came closer, I noted the intense redness of the high-reaching flames. There was no one nearby, and as I looked around, I noted the blaze itself. It seemed to have faint filmy figures dancing in it, and as Karl came closer, he began muttering.

“That is no burn-pile,” said Karl. “I do not smell distillate.”

“Then how did he catch on fire?” I asked. “I've seen witches smolder a little while they were going rotten, but not this.”

I turned to go, then wondered. Had I done wrong by staying Karl's hand?

The impression I had was odd and somewhat peculiar, and as we came to the next of the 'witches', I asked, “would he have caught on fire like that regardless?”

“You saved Karl from being lit on fire,” said the soft voice. “I would put the other two next to his remains, as they might yield information you don't already have.”

“Are they shamming?” I asked.

“That would not surprise me,” said Sepp, as we came into the hallway in front of the king's doorway.

“Do witches play dead?” I asked.

“I suspect these people are doing that,” said Sepp. “None of them was hit especially hard.”

“Then why did they drop like that?” asked Karl. “They went down right away, and witches seem to ignore being shot.”

“Perhaps they thought they could escape that way,” I murmured, as I picked up the second individual. His hand twitched as I began dragging him.

“I saw that,” said Sepp. “I'll help you with the third one, as these people are tricky.”

Once witch number two was outside, I brought out some 'string' and asked Karl to tie his hands and feet. Karl did so quickly, and when I came back to drag off the one I had shot in the back, Sepp said, “I was right. That wretch there tried to get away, but couldn't manage it.”

“How did he..?”

“He tried to crawl off,” said Sepp. “He isn't able to move from the waist down, so he wasn't able to go far.”

Bringing out witch number three rapidly became troublesome, as a small crowd had gathered near the smoldering remains of the first witch. I was surprised to see several jugs and small mounds of sticks here and there, and when I began looking through the pockets of the backshot 'guard', I heard murmurs from several points of the compass.

“What, are these people traitors?” I asked softly.

“They took oath and broke it,” said a female voice. “If that isn't treason, I'd like to know what is.”

“I don't much care for traitors,” I muttered. “Now I just hope I can get some useful answers out of these people.”

“Here,” said a male voice to my right. I looked to see a jug.

“What is in that jug?” I asked.

“Distillate,” said the man. “Fill those witches up with it, and sew up their lips before burning them.”

“What?” I squeaked. “How will they give answers then?”

As if to 'remind' me, faint on the wind I heard someone – or some thing – speak of a third degree session.

“Uh, no,” I said. “No m-messy third degree session.”

The 'witch' seemed to relax upon hearing my speech, and without warning, yelled in a hoarsely guttural voice, “Hail Brimstone.”

I was so surprised – and so irritated – that I leaped and kicked at the same time. My boot smacked the witch full in the face and nearly spun him completely around on the ground. It also sent Sepp sprawling.

“What did you do?” he asked.

“Th-that wretch...” I spluttered, as I pointed at him with a shaking hand. “He spoke evilly, and I kicked him.”

I was still more than a little irritated, so much so that I crawled over to where the witch I had kicked lay, and bodily pulled him up by the hair to a sitting position. He seemed to have a strange-looking smile, though its crooked line and trickle of blood down his chin made for wondering.

“Why are you smiling, you stinky wretch?” I snarled. “You proved yourself a witch by speaking that way.” I paused, then asked, “who are the members of that group that bought you?”

He continued smiling his strange way, then suddenly his mouth drooped open and several bloody teeth fell to the ground. Only one side of his jaw moved.

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “I b-broke his jaw.”

“H-hail Brim...” whispered the witch.

I had no idea how I managed the next move, as I had lifted the witch up with my right hand. Somehow, I turned loose of him, then punched him full in the face before he fell to the ground – and I kept up with him as he tumbled, such that I was not merely by his side when he came to rest, but I also had my knife out with the blade inches from his face.

“Do not speak to me that way,” I spat, as I yanked his head up from the ground by the hair. “I want answers, and I want them now.”

The witch again spat broken bloody teeth, then dropped his head in what seemed a faint. I let the witch's head down. Sepp looked at him closely, then at me.

“I think he's dead,” said Sepp. “He isn't breathing.”

“Perhaps move him clear, in case he goes up in smoke like that first witch,” I said. “I have no idea how to speak to these people and get answers.”

This last I had spoken in a barely audible voice, and again I 'heard' mention of a third degree session. I dismissed the matter out of hand. I didn't much care to receive torture, nor did I wish to inflict it upon others. The third witch seemed to sense this, and he grinned stupidly at me.

“Perhaps if I, uh...” I paused, then thought, “now what would get under this wretch's skin? I doubt he'd react to grease the way I do.” I then saw the jug.

I uncorked the thing, then gasped at the stink. It was not dried at all, and when I held the jug over the witch's face, he seemed to see what I had planned. I didn't hesitate.

“Bottoms up, wretch,” I said, as I poured the foul-smelling stuff in his face.

The witch began screaming and thrashing as if insane, and I kicked him in the head to still his thrashing. I then poured another dose down his throat, and when I'd finished and corked the jug, someone handed me an unusually large curved needle threaded with coarse 'yarn'.

“No, not yet,” I said. “I have questions for him.”

“He's not likely to wake,” said the woman handing me the needle. “Sew his mouth up and be done with him, and then burn the two of them.” And then, inaudible, but just as clear, “and this time, you consign them to the flames yourself, and watch them burn, until they be burnt entire...”

“Yeah, for thou art a killer of witches, and thou must enjoy the flames of perdition as they consume those damned by thine own hand.”

As if to bolster these infernal statements, the witch awoke abruptly, and said in a husky drunken-sounding croak, “you will hear nothing of use from me.”

“That remains to be seen,” I said calmly. “Now, there is a coven that meets here. One member is an overseer of preachers, two work in the house proper, and a new goat is being chosen soon.”

The response of the witch was so stunning – and abrupt – that I knew I had something. I continued, saying, “you were one of six 'specially chosen' guards, who received not merely the usual house stipend, but also sizable blessings from those Generals – oh, and you had free 'passes' into much of the Swartsburg, also. Only the 'dark side of town' needed an escort. Correct?”

The witch hissed like a snake for an answer, and I knew I was 'getting somewhere'.

“Correct?” I asked. “Yes, or no? I suspect I know the truth, and if you don't tell me, someone else will sooner or later. Brimstone doesn't care about you either way.” I paused, then said, “and between your 'legitimate' sources of income, and those you were working on... Oh, my! You three had a two-doored shop and were working on becoming misers. Another year, and you all would have been able to make your bones and live in the Swartsburg, as is proper for made witches.”

The shuddering of the witch now seemed to usher in something that made for wondering, and as he gasped, I listened carefully. He wasn't cursing, and it took some seconds to piece together what he was saying.

“So what I said is true,” I said calmly. “See, witch, you did give up some information that I can use. Brimstone will be most furious with you, as you confirmed your disgrace in his eyes.” I moved the jug clear, then stepped back. I had the impression the witch was about to go up in smoke, and when he went up, he would light his deceased partner on fire as well.

Within minutes, however, I realized the witch wasn't about to catch fire, and as I went closer, I felt a 'hitch'. He was shamming – he wasn't really dead – and something needed to happen to him first. I paused, motioning the slow-tightening circle of people back, and the witch screamed one last time while trying to get loose from the strings binding him.

He then burst into flames like a torch, and as his fire burned higher, the other witch began to evolve thick and putrid-smelling fumes. He ignited seconds later.

“What was that?” asked Sepp.

“It does not bode well for witchdom,” said Gabriel, “and while that wasn't a very good example of third degree, you still got useful information. I recorded everything you said.”

“N-no th-third degrees,” I said. “I could not live with myself if I did one.”

A 'double shift', while tedious in the extreme, had some certain benefits, chief among them a 'brought lunch'. I had never had lunch done quite like that before, and when one of the cooks brought a small jug of 'unfermented wine' – it had a tin tag stating its contents – I asked, “did those three have a long breakfast this morning?”

“Yes, they did,” he said. “All of them ate like second kingdom freighters.”

“Second kingdom f-freighters?” I asked.

“I've heard about the meals of misers and witches,” he said, “and while I have some difficulty believing those stories, I've seen the people I'm speaking of.”

“Do they eat a lot?” I asked.

“Most that travel much do,” he said, “but those people eat twice what any hungry man could hold, and they spend hours doing it.”

“Did you notice any strange smells?” I asked.

“They'd gotten into some bad meat recently,” he said. “Nikolaas said it was likely they'd eaten swine, and that last night.”

Late last night,” said Sepp. “That stink was really strong, and those people seemed to be glutted.”

“Amontillado,” I gasped. “Bad greens. That one bad Public House off Kokenstraat, and that shortly before they showed here.”

“That place needs burning,” said the cook. “I wish I knew something about bombing, as I'd set it alight myself if I did.”

Once finally relieved, I was weary enough to want to rest for some hours, and I took a nap in 'my' room prior to leaving an hour after sundown. The darkness was full and enveloping as I left the front gate, and once 'downslope' from the house, I began moving at a slow trot. I wanted to get home before the 'witching hour', whenever that actually was, and as I moved through fields and around the edges of woodlots, I wondered if anyone at the shop would build a fire in the new forge. I hoped they would leave it untouched, at least at first.

While there was no answer, I wanted to check a couple of places in town once I got there, and as I came to the Public House itself, I wondered how I could go in and ask about the usual times spent eating, as well as the appetite of 'second kingdom freighters'. I paused at the door, breathed deeply, opened the door, and went inside.

The 'full' aspect of the place was staggering, and as I moved slowly between crowded tables, I noted numbers of 'pie-eyed' dinners demonstrating ravenous appetites and regard for little beyond food. I somehow suspected my appetite was markedly different from what I saw, at least after the first few minutes of eating – I was hungry enough then – and when I came to the rear of the place, I noted the publican working out something on a slate. He looked up at me, and his face brightened noticeably.

“I heard something about second kingdom freighters and their diet,” I asked.

“I cannot speak much of them up here,” he said, “as they don't often come this far north. Why, did someone speak of them at the house?”

I nodded, then said, “whole pies each?”

“Aye, and not the common pies for size or much else,” he said. “They're more common points south, as those people don't mind dirty food as much.”

“Dirty food?” I asked.

“Meat gets dirty when it's High,” he said, “and those hungry ones want their meat High.”

“And enough Geneva to cure a whole family of the crae,” said a woman as she was bringing up a full platter.

“The worst ones, though, like those smelly birds,” said the publican. “Between those stinky things, High Meats, and bad food in general, there are jokes about that main road called the High Way.”

“Uh, lots of bad food?” I asked.

“If you travel, you'll want to pack plenty from home,” he said. “I'd stick to cider and bread for buying, and get those only at places that smell decent.”

“Is that in the second kingdom, or in general?” I asked.

“If you're as bad off that way as Anna says you are, I'd be especially careful in that place,” he said, “and not just at the places that smell. I'd be careful everywhere.”

I paused, then asked, “and meal-times?”

“Hans and Anna tend to spend a bit less time than the common for dinner,” said the publican, “but not much less. Why?”

“Three and four hour meals?” I asked.

“The only people around here who seem to do that often are those where you work,” he said. “Otherwise, some freighters might spend that much time in here.” He paused, then said, “I'd watch travel on the High Way, though.”

“Are long meals common?” I asked.

“They can be, especially in the places that smell bad,” he said. He paused, then said, “oh, and I'd watch out for wine. That tends to make for really long stops.”

“I cannot stand fermented wine,” I said. “It tastes like...”

“Aye,” he said. “I keep the casks of that stuff well clear of the regular food, as most don't like food of that flavor.”

“D-distillate?” I gasped.

“I've never tried distillate, so I cannot compare its flavor,” he said. “I have had uncorking medicine, and plenty of it, and I think fermented wine tastes worse.”

“That's for the common type,” said another woman. She was busy with a fryer. “There's one especially bad type, and no one in their right mind would taste it.”

“Is it expensive?” I asked. I suspected she was speaking of Amontillado.

“No, this stuff is fairly cheap,” she said. “Few make wine up this way, but this was said to be a local variety.”

“Do grapes grow up this way?” I asked.

“It gets too cold for them,” said the publican. “You won't see many vines until you're close to the second kingdom.” The publican paused, then said, “come to think of it, I think I've heard of that stuff, and it didn't use grapes.”

“It didn't?” I asked. “Did it use, uh, pears, or apples?”

“No, not them either,” he said. “I think this stuff used turnips.”

“Turnip wine?” I gasped.

“Do not speak of turnip wine,” yelled another woman. “I had it once, and swore to never try it again.”

“No thank you,” I spluttered. “I had one bit of well-cleaned raw turnip once.”

“Anna spoke about that,” he said. “I think you'd best stay clear of turnips.”

Checking the shop showed the forge untouched, and home showed little beyond the student's lantern burning on the kitchen table, or so I thought until I began bathing. Footsteps outside the bathroom door spoke of my presence awakening at least one person, and when I came out in 'undress' clothing, I surprised Anna.

“What kept you?” she asked.

“Our replacements turned out to be witches,” I said, “and we had to do two posts, one after another. I was so tired I had to sleep before starting home.”

“What did you do to them?” asked Anna.

“I shot all three, and then we took them out back for questioning,” I said. “Everyone just wanted to burn them.” I paused, then said, “dose them with distillate and sew their lips shut?”

“You didn't,” said Anna.

“I did dose one of those people with distillate,” I said, “but I did no such sewing.”

“Yes, and what happened to that wretch?” asked Hans as he came down the stairs.

“I actually got some kind of answers from him,” I said. I paused, then said, “and what happened afterward was really strange.”

“What was this?” asked Hans.

“They caught fire and burned,” I said.

“That is the usual for witches,” said Hans. “Did you light them?”

“N-no,” I said. “That was the strange part. They just, uh, caught on fire somehow, and then they burned.”

“Did you say anything before that happened?” asked Anna.

“Not really,” I said, pausing for an instant. “I could almost hear people demanding me to set them on fire, then watch the whole time while they burned.”

“That comes from those old tales,” said Anna. “Those that killed witches were said to have enjoyed doing so, and the sights and smells of burn-piles gladdened their hearts.”

“What?” I shrieked. “That's crazy.”

“Then why did you...” squawked Anna.

“I do not think he has ever set a witch alight, Anna,” said Hans, “and then, I am not sure he thinks about them the way most do.”

“Uh...” I murmured. I was indeed tongue-tied, as I suspected Hans was right.

“How?” shrieked Anna.

“I remember him saying something about witches going somewhere,” said Hans, “and I thought I knew where he was speaking of, so I tried helping him.”

“Why, everyone knows where witches belong,” said Anna. “Where did you want them to go?”

Elsewhere,” I muttered, “and at the time, I must confess I wasn't terribly picky as to where they went as long as it was well clear of home.”

Anna looked at me with saucer-eyes, then shook her head while muttering.

“They're annoying, dear,” I said. “I'd just as soon they bother each other rather than bother me and those I know.” I paused, then said, “I often wonder why they keep trying for me. Honestly, I do.”

The next morning, there was talk of wooding, and Hans and I left for a woodlot. I was still very concerned about the meeting, so much so that when Hans shot a deer, I was jolted out of my 'funk' and shambled over to where he had begun gutting it.

“I'm worried,” I said.

“I would not worry so much, then,” said Hans. “We are not so short of wood that we need to hunt for it much, and the deer are decent now.”

“I'm worried about that meeting,” I said. “It happens at the start of the week, and another posting right after it.”

While Hans knew little about the meeting, Anna proved to know slightly more once we'd returned home. Once lunch was started – I had to work at the bench to avoid going out of my mind, as work was a potent distraction; my concern demanded it – she came close and said, “I heard about that meeting while you were gone.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“All of those elders will be there,” she said, “and I would watch them close, as talk names them witches.”

“My dream?” I asked.

“That may have started matters,” said Anna, “but since, people have been watching them closer, and suspicion is upon several of them at the least.”

“As in they spend a fair amount of time in the Swartsburg, all of them have well-hid black clothing, and... Oh, their footwear. All of them wear pointed boots.”

“You're right!” squeaked Anna. “Every one of those people... Why?”

“Their feet, dear,” I said. “Most of them have missing toes, and the ones that have been at the business for years have feet like that magistrate did.”

“But can't they wear normal shoes?” asked Anna.

“Not without great pain,” I said. “Once your feet have become 'weapons', you can only wear the appropriate sheaths – meaning hunting boots, or pointed boots. Then, there is the other part.”

“What other part?” asked Anna.

“Not everyone sees pointed boots as you or Hans do,” I said. “Most people don't believe that part about toes rotting, and nearly everyone connects pointed boots with wealth and power. Hence, those people have black pairs and 'common' pairs, and they change them like their clothing.”

I paused, then said, “as long as they aren't black, and their wearers aren't attempting to pound holes in the floor by marching the true-step, most people don't attribute wrongness to footwear.”

I paused again, then asked idly, “is there a curse involved with pointed boots?”

“While there are collections of curses that deal with footwear,” said the soft voice, “the curses regarding those boots are 'manifested' by those individuals who bear such 'weapons'. Then, that black clothing is seldom hidden.”

“Seldom?” asked Anna.

“The only time most of those men named 'elders' wear 'common' clothing is when they think it to their advantage,” said the soft voice. “Black-cloth is commonly accounted a sign of wealth and power.”

“I know there are places like that to the south,” said Anna, “but here?”

I nodded, then said, “yes, here. Money excuses a great deal of ill behavior in the eyes of most, especially when the worst of that behavior is hidden by darkness, distance, or the double walls of the Swartsburg.”

I spent some time at the shop burning a slightly larger fire in the new forge, while I made ready several bars of 'haunted' iron for cooking. I wanted to assay thorough impregnation with carbon, which meant careful packing with charcoal, 'luting' with clay, and then stoking the furnace with wood, charcoal, and a small amount of powdered coal. I closed the air intake most of the way once the fuel was lit well, and then added a small amount of charcoal to the low-burning embers of the new forge. I would check both by nightfall, or so I planned.

I finished fitting the three revolvers in process by dinnertime. Hans looked askance at their 'harlequin' nature, or so I thought until he tried one. He was becoming steadily better at handling a pistol, which made me wonder.

“I think so,” he said approvingly. “I think these get better each time you do one, as this one is the smoothest yet.”

“I've had to work some more on the gages for these,” I said. “That, and I'm still learning.” I paused, then asked, “what did you learn about that coloring?”

“That formula does not make iron black,” said Hans. “It makes it go to rust in a hurry.”

“I've heard of bluing done that way,” I said. “It's really slow, and it needs extreme care.”

“What grandfather had was not slow,” said Hans. “He could take bright-metal parts and do them up in three turns of the glass.”

“And this rust?” I asked.

“That is bad,” said Hans, “as it eats up the metal fast. I was told it took overnight.”

“And in the morning?” I asked.

“I put in a piece of cleaned rod last night, and this morning, I took that thing out in little pieces.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “That won't work.”

“Yes, I know that,” said Hans. “At least there is that oil for these things, so as to keep them good.”

“Uh, your interest in how they work?” I asked.

“I had to go near Grussmaan's a day or so ago,” said Hans, “and whatever happened in the Swartsburg has caused those black-dressed witches trouble.”

“Yes, and what kind of trouble?” I asked. I could tell this was leading somewhere.

“One of them tried for me,” said Hans, “and I had to air out his smelly hide. I was glad for that pistol then, as he needed more than one ball before he quit.”

“Where did you shoot him?” I asked.

“I put the first one in his chest,” said Hans, “and he ignored it, so I put another one in him about a handbreadth higher, and he still came after me, at least at first. He fell down before I could put a third one in him, but it was close. I had to dodge his knife.”

“His knife?” I asked.

“One of those big pokers witches like,” said Hans. “I left it lay, as it was glowing red some.”

“And what happened to that witch?” I asked.

“He must have been bad, as he went rotten quick, and his knife went to rust,” said Hans.

After finishing the revolvers, I resumed working on the boiler parts. The boiler feed pump was done, and as I lapped the pressure gage, I looked at the pieces to the boiler itself. My latest drawing clarified matters greatly, and I had outlined it in my current ledger.

“I still have castings I need to do,” I thought, “and at least one spring to wind.”

For some reason, however, I felt inclined to look in my junkboxes, and within half an hour, I had not merely found several suspicious-looking castings, but also a coil spring made of square wire, an internally threaded 'cap', a number of peculiar-looking fittings, and nearly thirty sizable 'nickel' nut-and-bolt sets.

“I wonder if I can find more of those?” I thought. “They look about right for the hold-together bolts.”

More searching turned up several of them, and as I continued looking, I found not merely several oddly bright 'nickel' bars, but also a paired tap and die unlike anything I'd seen here.

“Since when do they have round dies here?” I thought. “The adjustable ones tend to be rectangles, and the 'common' ones are square.”

I visited the shop about an hour after dinner, and added more charcoal to both furnace and the new forge. I thought to leave them both burn overnight.

I made a holder for the new die by bedtime, and in the morning, resumed fitting up the boiler. I had the thing nearly complete by the time we went to church, and entirely 'finished' by lunchtime.

Running the engine to test the boiler proved slightly harder than expected, simply because the boiler was originally intended to burn charcoal. A heating lamp fit in its underside readily, however, and after spending an hour 'lashing up' the engine to the drilling machine, I felt it was time to try it. I filled the boiler with water, brought a bucket for the feed water, lit the lamp, and hid behind the new forge. Thankfully, this last was now cool.

The first intimation of something 'happening' was a faint hissing sound, then the 'pressure gage' coming off of its stop. A faint puff of steam came from the feed pump, then a 'hiss-took' noise that repeated every thirty seconds or so. The gage bar steadily climbed, and I came out from cover to turn down the heating lamp.

The pressure continued climbing. I gingerly opened the throttle valve of the engine.

The abrupt jerk as the engine began turning was such that I marveled, and as I slowly throttled up, I was amazed – both at the near silence of engine and machine, and also, at the speed of the spindle. I then saw the rapidly spinning handle.

“That part is dangerous,” I thought, as I moved the machine's lever up and down. “At least I can remove it.”

Removal of the engine from the drilling machine took roughly half as long as it did to fit it, and transferal to the buffing wheel took less time yet, as the leather 'belt' needed readily flopped onto the inertia wheel. I relit the heating lamp, built pressure, and throttled up.

The 'jerk' of starting was much less this time, and as the big wheel slowly sped up, I noted the smooth and steady rotation of the buffing wheel. I was so entranced by this steadily humming leather disk that I nearly fell down when I saw shadows to my right.

“What is that thing?” asked Anna.

“A steam engine,” I said. “I tried it on the drilling machine, and it works there, too.”

“If Georg sees this, he will faint,” said Anna.

“Why?” I asked. “It isn't very loud – or is it?”

“I would not mind one of those things in the shop, as it is quiet,” said Hans. “Why is it steaming so much?”

“I'm not collecting the exhaust steam,” I said. “If the exhausts were routed into a forge-bucket, then there would be much less steam in the air.” I paused, then said, “I'll need to make a bigger engine and boiler for the blower.”

“That one is not turned up much,” said Hans. “Why can you not do that?”

As if to disabuse me of the matter, Anna reached in and turned up the lamp. The pressure gage rapidly rose, and by the time I had turned down the lamp, it was almost off-scale. I needed to vent the steam, and turned up the engine slightly.

The steam billowed thickly from the now humming engine, and the 'inertia wheel' spun rapidly, while the gears whined and howled crazily. The buffing wheel spun so rapidly I was afraid it was going to fall apart from turning too fast, and when I turned to see what had happened to the others, they had both left.

“Now what?” I asked.

“They learned of their ignorance,” said the soft voice.

“A larger boiler?” I asked.

“I would not go much larger,” said the soft voice, “as that boiler design is fairly efficient. Perhaps one row of cross-pipes taller, a half-inch deeper on the other dimensions, and fins on the inside pans. Enclose it in sheet iron like you had in mind, put a large heating lamp inside, and it will easily run that larger engine.” A brief pause, then “your current boiler would manage for everything save blowing the cupola.”