Ain't no place like a hole in the ground...

This time of dreaming took over after a period of unconsciousness. I seemed to be falling into a pit, an old volcano, and it had a vast lake at the bottom filled with water. Escaping from its eternal night required outwitting cannibals, but that wasn't the key part of this dream. I somehow escaped from that place, and then the real dream began.

I was homeward bound during a brooding night replete with centuries of misbegotten wrongs. The night was alive, and its bloodthirsty longing for retribution seemed to howl like a mad dog. The moon was hidden by clouds, and the nights stars were dimmed by the same fleecy gray clumps.

A screaming and howling war-pack of black-dressed fiends thundered after me as I ran for my life, with their cries sounding as if the very soul of agony. I could smell them as well as hear them, and their odor was redolent of the grave.

For each such fiend, there seemed a multiplicity of muskets, and the nightmarish flashes and deep red flames of musketry that lit up the path behind me seemed conjured especially from Hell. That location wanted involvement in the proceedings, for it assayed arising beneath my feet as I ran for the safety of home. The ground shook, vibrated, and groaned with each such subterranean outburst.

I came to the end of the uncultivated regions to the south and east, and ran into a cornfield, with long nodding rows of slow-drying cornstalks that rattled in the wind of my passage. A dog – someone's hound, most likely, as it bayed with deep and long-drawn roaring howls that echoed in my mind – had usurped the roll of the two-legged fiends, and I stayed one step ahead of this dog as I came to a strange and thoroughly unpleasant town.

The town was not like home; its houses seemed larger, much darker, far more ornate, and distinctly unfriendly, and as I came to its main street, I seemed to grow extra legs. I left the dog and town behind in a thick and choking dust-trail.

The hay-pile at home wasn't near big enough for my sleeping in it, so I used the sheet-covered woodpile as a place to rest. I was ill, near-collapse, and needed rest, and with my sleeping in the dream, the dream itself segued to what passed for normal sleep for me. That, unfortunately, did not endure long.

I awoke to an eerily quiet house, with a faint aroma of smoke on the soft winds of the night. That one village to the south and east seemed to perch in the back of my mind like a carrion crow as I slowly wobbled down the stairs. Caution was foremost in my mind as I walked barefoot across the stones of the floor, and at the door, I paused to listen. I heard nothing; I turned the knob slowly, and peered outside once I had opened the door a few inches.

The velvet blackness of night hid the stars and moon from my eyes, and the aroma – or, as I now realized, the stench – of that smoke was now far more apparent. It had a bitter, acrid, and biting reek, and the sense of my nose being clenched by its foul fumes was impossible to ignore.

Steps came from behind, and I turned to see Anna with a yawning mouth and a musket in her hand. I had never seen her in 'undress' clothing before – it was remarkably like what I was wearing for cut, to my surprise, and its soft cloth was appealing, if not terribly revealing.

“Oh, it's just you,” she said between stifled yawns. “That nightmare was horrible.”

“You too?” I asked. Anna seemed oblivious.

“It was worth a hundred nights of sleeping to see that pack of witches coming on the road from Waldhuis,” said Anna, “and those people there sound likely enough, they are so irritable.”

Anna seemed lost in thought, with faint mumbling noises coming from somewhere. I wondered who or what was mumbling. I knew it wasn't her.

“Few of those people travel,” she said, “except upon those farms they have. Those are big enough to make one tired with traveling, and they should be tired, too.”

“Why should they be tired?” I asked.

“They work seven days in the week, like a pack of idiots,” said Anna tersely. “They do no better for it, as no rest causes weary arms and heads.”

I then noted my new clothing, and what had happened. I had fallen asleep in it, and gently touched the knit fabric. The soft pleasant warmth of the stuff made for barely-suppressed yawning.

“Why the musket, Anna?” I asked. “Were you concerned about those witches coming here?”

“Witches, not likely,” said Anna. “I was more concerned about thieves.”

Anna paused, stifled another yawn, then continued:

“Were it after Festival Week, though, I would be most worried.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Those northern people sometimes come then,” said Anna. “Those muskets you are reworking will help a lot should they show.”

For some reason, I could almost see Anna working herself into a funk of some kind, and her next speech confirmed that something had changed. I had but little idea as to what it was, however.

“Hans said you were working on some brass blocks that looked like bullet moulds,” said Anna, “but those things don't make any sense. How are you going to get bullets shaped like hard cheeses down the barrel of a musket?”

I was about to answer, but Anna's voice was becoming steadily more 'irritated', or so I guessed.

“Balls, that is what people use here,” she squawked, “and the closer-fitted ones seem to work well.”

I guessed Anna was speaking of some mould blocks I had found among the tools. While I had some modest plans regarding mould blocks, what I had found didn't look usable. Her irritability implied I needed a plausible answer, and I used what I knew from history and previous practice to formulate one.

Those will not need patches,” I said quietly, “and they should carry further and do more damage when they hit.” I paused, then said, “I wonder about those pigs people have spoken of.”

Anna said, as she turned to go, “unless you can make a twelve-pound gun, I would round up some jugs and ask Hans. At least the jugs seem to stop those pigs some of the time.”

“And muskets?” I thought.

Anna seemed to 'hear' my thinking, for she said, “other than traps and cannons, trying to stop those swine is a waste of time and people's lives. Good night, yawn.”

I staggered back up to bed, now suddenly tired beyond measure, and resumed my bed with sagging eyelids. Yet even with the drained sense of fatigue, and the darkness and other things that made sleep an easier thing to grasp, it seemed uncommonly elusive. I tossed and turned for what seemed an epoch prior to escaping the fitful night.

Until that time came for me, I felt the cold malice of a black stone knife at my throat, and its razor-flaked edge sawed to the chanted lines of a language that seemed to define evil better than anything I had ever heard in my life – including the speech of that last female witch of the day before, I now realized.

This language was neither the common language here, nor what I had learned in school, even if it seemed distantly related to the former and much closer in sound to the latter, and its sounds seemed to demand an unusual mouth. An odd incident returned to me upon awakening after dodging that accursed witch-wielded knife for the fourth time.

“Krank is a spice,” I thought, “and not an illness. Anna said illness is 'aalmaent'.”

The idea was confusing to me, and Anna herself had spoken of people becoming confused between the two words and their meaning.

Sleep came shortly after that helpful revery, but awakening itself in the morning was slow, painful, and arduous, and once at work, I noted I was not doing particularly well. The long and frightening day prior conjoined with a near-sleepless night made for bleary eyes and unclear thinking, and my usually hit-and-miss concentration was nearly completely a miss.

“How is that fellow who got hurt?” asked Georg.

“I think he is going to live, but first helping Anna, then walking all the way there, then an irate bull that I had to kill with an ax, then some witch tried for me, and then some huge white worm, and the whole mess followed by nightmares last night,” I muttered. “I am not doing well right now.”

“No, one of those things would be trouble,” said Georg. “What was this worm like?”

“As big around as my arm and a foot longer for long,” I said, “and the whole worm, except for its head, was a sickly white color. The head was shiny and black.”

“Where did you see it?” asked Georg. I could tell he was curious.

“It was hiding in a really stinky bucket,” I said, “and when I got too close, it jumped out of the bucket, then it hit the floor and crawled into a hole in the wall.”

“That worm sounds like a Desmond,” said Johannes. “You said a witch tried for you. What did that witch have?”

“A big knife,” I said. “The blade was nearly a foot long, and shaped like a triangle. Both Hans and Anna saw the knife, but I think what they saw and what I saw were two different things.”

“What is it they saw?” asked Georg.

“A black stone knife,” I said. “I saw something entirely different.”

The silence that descended upon the shop was such that I marveled, both at the rapidity of its appearing and its 'density', and the aura of 'fear' was of such thickness I wondered. I then recalled another portion of trouble.

“Then, there was the bull,” I muttered. “It had some really strange writing burned into its hide, and then the horns. Each one of them had to be three feet long, and they came straight out of its head.”

My comment about the bull seemed unheard, for the shop began working as if I had just described a drinking binge instead of a harrowing series of events. I turned my attention to the saw blades, and after touching them up with a stone and wiping them with a 'smelly tallow-rag', I began doing the other portions of my 'work'.

Shortly after the morning 'guzzle', I seemed to feel a difference. I had no idea what I was feeling, until I heard the abrupt ceasing of hoofbeats outside the door of the shop, then a clattering thud that seemed to echo in my mind. I looked up from my filing.

The front door of the shop banged open with a noise like a gunshot, and in tramped an individual unlike anyone I had ever seen before in my life.

The surety of this person's mien, and indeed his walk – slow, lurching, each leg raised until nearly horizontal, then slammed down hard with a crash prior to raising the other – was enough to both raise questioning in my mind and conjure a sense of alarm.

“He seems to think he owns both the shop and those working here,” I thought, as he 'foot-pounded' his way towards Georg. I marveled at Georg's capacity to ignore the lurching movements and crackling noises, for he seemed lost in thought as he worked over something that involved several slates and some annoyingly unclear drawings. I suspected my drawing a blank as to some of what was wanted didn't help.

The man came up to Georg's 'desk', then slammed down both feet with a crashing roar. He looked for a moment, then kicked at Georg with one of his knee-length sharp-toed black boots.

An unreasoning curiosity seized me, and as I turned to look at our visitor, my nose wrinkled as I smelled first the odor of strong drink, then another odor worse yet, one that reminded me of rotten meat. I looked closer at his footwear as Georg looked up with a start.

The boots he wore were uncommonly 'ornate-looking', and seemed intended by podiatrists to increase their revenues due to foot troubles. I then scanned the rest of his clothing, and that made for a strange mixture of feelings, one having a sizable portion of dread, and the other, a healthy dose of near-laughter. I had never before seen a hat that resembled a brick for shape.

Yet still, the dread I felt overruled the brief spate of hilarity that had bloomed for an instant, for the color of his hat, and indeed, all that he wore, was of an awesome and spectral hue, this being a brown of such darkness that it bordered upon black – if it were not that precise color of darkness. It was very hard to determine the precise nature of this tint, beyond that of deep and impenetrable night manifested as clothing.

I felt drawn to the observation of his hat once more. This had a narrow brim, perhaps half the width of a finger in front and none elsewhere, with sharp corners everywhere and a gray feather tucked into the hat on one side. The thing almost seemed to merge seamlessly with his head.

The sharp unnatural corners, near-metallic sheen, and rigid starched lines of the hat seemed to glow with unsuppressed 'righteousness', as if the man were the precise and exact instance of perfection, and its stiff nature seemed to oversee all that he was and imbue him with that special quality that demanded obeisance from all others in the area.

While I seemed to sense the intended purpose of this clothing, and much else belonging to this man, I could not access the intended feelings themselves. I looked left toward the wall next to the bench, and scanned it hurriedly, then the tool racks. I wanted a steel square, and I knew there was one in the shop...

I wanted to measure his hat for squareness. Its angles and rigid nature were enticing that way.

I could not find the square – I did not think to look in my tools – and then I looked at my hand. There, I saw a small file clotted with filings, and as I gently rubbed the gritty-feeling swarf out of the teeth with a brass bristle brush, I had a strange thought:

“Can I file his hat?”

The question seemed very important. I then resumed my inspection of the man's clothing.

His trousers were of a thick and nubby tight-woven cloth, as was his shirt, what of it I could see; covering all that he wore was a cloak, with a loose-dangling hood in back, again of that same 'black' color; again, I could not make up my mind. Was this clothing an exceedingly dark brown, or was it an unusual shade of black? A strange scrap of old music seemed to float through my head:

I see a red door, and I want to paint it black...”

His wide leather belt – it was near the width of my hand – seemed again to have that same indecisiveness of color, as was the long leather satchel he had in his hands. The glossy tone of this last made for wonderment, as did the array of 'nickel-plated' buckles and the strange-looking 'toothy' fringe. It all seemed unduly strange, with a dramatic contrast to what I had seen here in the last few weeks, such that I wondered – until he laid the bundle on Georg's 'table' and began to undo the buckles. Once he had opened his satchel, I understood to a degree: he had a very ornate musket – or, as I looked closer and saw more clearly, a very ornate-looking musket. The workmanship made me wish to spew as I took a closer look.

The man turned his huge and shaggy head to look at me, and seemed to take my measure in the blink of an eye. He looked as if a cobra waiting to strike, then said, his voice rough and tinged through and through with a thick tone of despotism: “you, man! What are you looking at this weapon for?”

“I would not speak to him so,” said Georg in a tone I could not fathom, “as he will be working on it.” Here, Georg paused, then said, “now, Black-Cap. Your mark and guilders.”

While Georg did not sound as 'hard' as our 'visitor', his tone was one that brooked no nonsense. As the man began writing with ink and quill pen, I felt drawn to a 'hidden' mark on his shoulder nearest me. I could say the word 'hidden' with quotation marks, for that region seemed to be missing its clothing, and his chill bleached-white begrimed skin showed a strange tattoo, one that seemed to define the word 'predatory': two upward-thrusting black-lined teeth were joined by two downward-stabbing fangs, with each pair of blood-hungry teeth joined at their gum-lines by thin red horizontal bars. The whole of the marking was outlined in a doubled black line shaped as a feudal-looking shield.

A less-than-dim recollection tramped through my mind: the two conjoined teeth resembled closely a certain marking, the twin lightning bolts of murderous evil...

The man rounded on me, holding his pen as if it were a dueling sword as he spat hoarsely, “dog! What are you looking at?” His facial expression matched his tone of voice, and the reddened tint of anger I saw was sufficient to make me wish to hide. Again, I smelled strong drink and rotten meat, and that did not help.

I was taken aback by his attitude, so much so that I said guilelessly, “I saw something on your arm that puzzled me. I am new here, so I was curious, and I am not familiar with the customs, including dress and much else. What is the problem?”

For some reason, my slightly hesitant talk had overwhelmed him, such that his attitude seemed mostly shelved; he said in a more normal tone of voice, “it does not work. Here, let me show you.”

The barrel of this ornate-looking weapon was pointed in my direction, and I moved to the side such that I was away from the line of fire. I knew – I had learned the hard way – that one always presumed weapons were loaded. As he moved back the hopelessly gaudy 'cock', I could feel the muzzle of the weapon seeming to track my movements, so much so that I kept moving as he said “odd, it holds now. Normally, it does not hold. That is the chief trouble, it does not...”

I leaped out of the way as a thundering boom seemed to light my back on fire and fill the front of the shop with acrid-smelling smoke. I 'came to earth' face-down on the hard dirt of the floor shaken badly, and looked around as I picked myself up. The reek of alcohol now seemed stronger than ever.

Everyone in the shop had stopped what they were doing. Johannes had a hammer in his hand, and looked inclined to forge the head of the visitor into a bloody pulp. Georg's face was now nearly as frightening to look at as that of the visitor. I could tell he was trying very hard to not 'go after' the man. Our visitor seemed badly shaken. I was shaken more. He had nearly shot me, so I did not wonder as to why I felt as I did.

I went slowly to a new and somewhat splintered hole in the stone walls of the shop. As I came closer to this obvious bullet hole, I saw streaks of rust providing a border to it, then what looked like dirt and soot mingled with the rust. I paused to touch the hole, then slowly came back to the table. For some reason, I now had something to say to this person, and he needed to hear me say it.

“How often do you clean that one out?” I asked. I could not keep the acid tone out of my voice, for some reason; I continued, saying, “you have three muskets, and this is the 'fancy' one, isn't it? The other two look less fancy, but they are constructed better than this one. I would not be surprised if I take the lockplate off and find a lot of rust.”

My confrontational attitude, as well as something I could not name, seemed to affect this man greatly; he threw down a small leather pouch on Georg's 'table', then did an abrupt 'about-turn', and stomped out of the shop in the same fashion he had arrived. His lurching steps and crackling footfalls were much like the sounds of a badly-made metronome, and once he passed the door, it slammed like an explosion. Seconds later, I heard the scream of a beaten horse, then rapidly receding hoof-beats as he rode away at a fast trot or gallop.

Now what did I say?” I asked, as I opened the front door to let out the powder fumes. “That got me in some real trouble dealing with those witches yesterday, knowing about that stuff.”

“I think you found another in that character,” said Gelbhaar. “I have seen that wretch before. He might not stink like a witch, nor chant like a witch, but he often acts like one for talk and attitude, and he likes strong drink, as I could smell it on him. Now what is this you saw on his shoulder?”

I drew what I had seen, carefully labeling the drawing as to color and size, then passed it around as I began to look over the musket he had brought in.

“That is a witch-mark, one of a number of them,” said Gelbhaar. “I have heard of this kind. It is called the double-lightning, and the witch having it isn't an ordinary one.”

As I examined the musket closely, I cringed, then said, “this thing was built to be a wall-hanger, not shot! The metal in this one is so soft that if it fires fifty shots before it is worn badly I would be surprised, and the barrel is all pitted with rust. What did that fellow want done, beyond making it work right?”

Georg handed me an envelope, then said, “I think that black-capped fellow had this written. Most of those people write badly, if they can manage it at all, and the same for most common things. Some are said to be Generals for the king. He isn't like that, thank God.”

I brought out my pocket roll, then removed one of the knives. I flicked the letter open, then as I looked at the knife itself, I saw traces of blood. I paused to get one of my 'smelly' rags, and as I wiped the blade carefully, I murmured to no one in particular, “Hans didn't get all of that bull's blood off of my knife.”

What was this about a bull?” said Georg. “You mentioned dealing with one yesterday.”

“The ax stunned the bull,” I said, as I began to pull the paper out of the envelope, “but it was still too lively for my liking, so I cut its neck open to the bone and got covered with blood. Even so, it tried to get one of its horns into me, so I dumped its guts out on the ground. It dropped after that.”

Georg now looked at me, then at my knife. The silence in the place was of such thickness one could cut it with a knife, and I glanced at what was in my hand.

“First, you take ax to one of those mean things, and then you cut on it?” spluttered Georg. “That wretch had best watch himself around you.”

“Why?” I asked. “I wasn't planning on cutting him.”

“Did you plan on slicing that bull?” asked Georg.

“No, I didn't,” I said, “even if I knew about it being loose and causing trouble. I spoke of packing the muskets, and both were taken.”

“Those people are fond of dueling with swords and knives,” said Georg, “and using guns and poison on those they dislike isn't rare, especially where they are common. Still, anyone who went after a bull like that...”

Georg paused, then sipped from a mug. I wanted to make tinned copper ones, I now realized, as I had nearly knocked mine onto the floor a number of times. The copper ones would only spill their contents if they fell, unlike the usual pottery examples.

“Was that bull loose?” asked Georg.

“It got loose just before I swung on it with the ax,” I said, “but it had gotten its horns caught in the doorway just before that.” Here, I paused, for the 'calligraphy' of the letter, as well as its expression, was uncommonly hard to decipher. I wondered if the lettering had a special name here.

“This stuff is really hard to read,” I said.

Georg seemed oblivious, for he said, “that man would be an idiot to try for you.”

I looked again at the calligraphic 'script'. I felt reminded of 'Hevace Eveeloj' and his indecipherable dispensation of advice regarding young Beazeley, and as I tried to 'piece' it out, I seemed to get an impression: this was a special 'document', essentially a contract of an infernally coercive nature, and as I read it through for the fourth time, I muttered, “this paper says he owns me, the shop, everything and everyone in the building, all that I might think about or purpose to do, where I live, the sun, the moon, the church building, the Public House...”

“Give me that paper,” asked Georg. “I might know what it is.”

I gave Georg the paper, and he began reading it. He seemed slightly more familiar with the document in question, though when he tried reading out loud, he said, “cheese? What does cheese have to do with what he wants done?”

“I told you it was confusing,” I said. “I didn't see anything that pertained to what he wanted – nothing about estimates, time, materials, specifications...”

“First this paper is confusing,” said Georg, “and now your talk is more so. What were you saying?”

“I wanted to know how he wanted the work done,” I said. “That document does not speak of how long it will take, or how much it will cost, or what he wants used, or anything else,” I said. “It seems intended for an entirely different purpose, and that purpose is something I cannot determine.”

I paused, then said, “I think it might give him the title deed for all he sees, actually. It isn't a normal contract.”

Georg looked at me again, then resumed attempting to read the paper. After another few minutes, during which time he spoke of 'garden-hoes', 'barrels of wine', 'tall mountains', and 'rotten cabbage', he said, “I think this is an indenturement paper, though I have never seen one like it. It seems to say he owns the shop for the duration of the work on his musket.”

Georg paused, sipped from his mug, then said, “and it's no good. These need everyone involved signing on them, and all I see is his signature, and that of a magistrate. I don't see the signature of anyone here in the shop.”

“Magistrate?” I asked.

“There are a few of them around here, and I have heard of this particular one,” said Georg. “He lives up on the hill, and dresses in black stuff, like most magistrates around here.”

“What do they usually do?” I asked. I did not wish to be charged with a crime.

“I'm not too sure,” said Georg, “at least with those dressed like that. The nearest one mostly does indenturement papers.”

Here, Georg paused, then said, “indenturement papers usually don't look like this, though – they're written by hand. This is far too even, and looks to be too fancy by a mile. I'd say this was done in a print-shop.”

“We had best not disappoint Sir Swill-A-Lot, should we?” I said, as I went back to where I had laid out the musket. “I plan on doing the best I can with his weapon, so I never see his fancy-dressed person again. While I might act like a dog on occasion, his tone of voice implied I wasn't even as good as one. Maybe I am, and maybe I am not, but after all that happened yesterday and last night, I don't need that kind of an attitude to give me trouble.”

I paused, then said, “and I'm going to need something to set this thing on for a while.”

Within moments, I had an old-looking yet otherwise clean rag folded under the weapon, and I selected the tools I needed to dismantle it from the tool-carrier.

While the screws came out readily – I first removed the lockplate – they were unbelievably soft, and when I had removed the lockplate, it was not merely solid rust, but badly pitted and badly made. The same proved the case with all the metal parts, save the exposed portion of the barrel.

The worst was waiting for me, however. I dosed the rear of the barrel with distillate, waited for a short time, and then fitted a wrench to the breech plug. I applied force gently – and the barrel twisted in half just behind the vent. The rust had eaten the soft metal to paper thinness.

“It seems this gun will need all new metal parts,” I said. “Did that character leave any instructions?”

What instructions?” said Georg, in a piqued tone of voice. “I heard a lot of bad talk, saw bad behavior, smelled strong drink, and have a badly-done indenturement paper here, as well as some money. Now, let's see what that sack has. It might well have some instructions.”

As I came around to Georg's desk with the ripped-off barrel stub in my hand, I saw him untying the thongs that held the money pouch closed. He then dumped out a number of those huge gold coins, and after stacking them in three neat piles of five, he said, “if I go be this, I would do the best you could. This is almost as much money as comes in here a month this time of year.”

I laid down the breech plug, and said, “the barrel on that thing is more rust than metal. Look at this.”

Georg picked up the barrel stub, then began muttering.

“You said this thing was meant to hang on walls,” he said, “and this would seem to say so. This rust is as bad as anything I've ever heard of.”

“Look at the thinness of the metal,” I said. “Soft metal that thin won't stand much of a load, even when it's new.”

I paused, then asked, “how are barrels made? Do they take thin strips of metal and a mandrel, and weld those strips in a spiral?”

“I would need to find out,” said Georg. “I doubt many barrels are made up here, at least around here. Then, I will need find out in some fashion what that man wants. If I go by how showy it is, that is important, but I understand how you do not want it going bad and having him back here. I am not fond of such persons either, no matter how much they pay.”

I took the barrel stub back to where I was, then resumed dismantling the gun. This example not only had a number of decorative fittings – including a 'sculpted' trigger guard – but also a buttplate, unlike any previous gun. As I removed the latter, and saw it was badly corroded, I said, “I wonder if we can use bronze for the non-stressed parts? That won't rust readily.”

“That isn't common up this way,” said Georg, “but I have heard of some especially good muskets using bronze for some of their parts. Why is it you wonder?”

I brought the trigger guard and buttplate to Georg, then began prodding the buttplate with an awl. As I dug away at the rusted backside of the thing, a shiny bump steadily grew. The metal was paper-thin.

“I see,” said Georg. “I wonder how old this musket is?”

I went back to the bench, then picked up the mostly-stripped lockplate. I came back with the awl, and there used it to point out what looked like either some unusual machining marks or markings of another type. Georg saw them, then opened one of his desk drawers and brought out a small cloth sack. What he took out of the bag was astonishing.

The brass portion looked like an unusually large-diameter shot-glass, while in the bottom of the brass thing was what appeared to be a lens. Georg began looking over the lockplate, and within seconds, muttered about rust, bad metal, poor condition, and abysmal workmanship.

“This is one of the worst I've ever seen,” he muttered. “It looked fancy where it showed, and looks bad everywhere else.” A brief pause, then “this was made in the fifth kingdom, and this figure here says it was done four years ago.”

“F-four years?” I gasped.

“Their metal tends to be about as bad as can be found,” said Georg. “If I go by the rust I see here, either this character didn't clean it at all, or he got it with rust going, or both of those things. I'd say make as much of the gun of bronze as is possible.”

Georg looked up, and put his 'magnifier' back in the sack, saying, “I'm going to need to find out about this character more before that happens, as he might not want bronze parts on his gun.”

By the end of the regular shop's day, I had determined that only the stock was salvageable. Everything else would serve to make patterns, much as I had done with the two previous gunlocks. I had compared the pieces with my previously-made patterns, and discovered their geometry to be even worse than the two locks I had done before.

Accordingly, I had made a list of materials needed – either a first-quality 'bought' barrel, or the supplies to make one, the likely amounts of 'first quality' iron, and, if permitted, both bronze and the wood needed for patterns. On another slate, I indicated the tools I suspected we needed.

Here, I mentioned a 'drilling machine', a drop-hammer, and a small furnace for both 'heat-treating' and crucible work. I truly doubted I wanted to do castings in quantity, and I suspected those were best farmed out. I also knew all of these tools would have further use than Sir Swill-a-Lot's gun.

That night, however, I spoke to Hans about the 'lathe' while working on the jeweler's carving tools, and to my surprise, he said, “I have been asking about that thing, and I think I might be able to get the things for you to use.”

“The stand?” I asked.

“That, the thing for your feet, some other parts, and a bit more,” said Hans. “Either I can get them, or I can have them copied easy. Why, do you think you might use it soon?”

“I suspect so,” I said. “Someone brought a gun in today, and the only part that's still good is the stock.”

The next day, I showed Georg the two slates I had filled. He looked at them closely, then nodded, saying, “if that furnace works, we will want more than one, though one to start would be wise.”

“Crucibles?” I asked.

“I've found those and the other things,” said Georg, “and put out the orders for them, at least for those things that aren't to be had locally. The other things I should be able to get in the process of finding out about that man and his gun.”

I left at the 'common' time that day, and after bathing, I went with Anna to the shoemaker's in the buggy. I was still very much not in the market for a horse. The reason why was obvious to me, even if it was not obvious to anyone else: I did not wish to wake up with a hoof-print between the eyes, and attempting to ride a horse sounded like an entirely too-plausible means of acquiring one.

“I wonder if I can go for a walk this Friday afternoon,” I asked, as we went out of town heading south. “I plan on coming back within a few hours. I was curious about the area to the south and east.”

“There are no towns out that way,” said Anna. “Why do you want to go there?”

“I'm not certain,” I said. “Most of our wooding trips have been to the north, and I want to know what is there.”

“If you go a few miles that way,” said Anna, “there is a mountain, and it sometimes steams a little. Watch for Waldhuis, as those people are rude.”

Here, Anna paused, as if gathering her arsenal. She continued a few seconds later.

“There are said to be cannibals near that mountain,” she said. “I have heard they are on the other side of it.”

“I'll be sure to stay away from that part,” I said, “though the mountain itself sounds interesting. I've thought this place too flat to have mountains.”

“That is about the only place that isn't flat around here,” said Anna. “I've heard one can see for a good distance if one climbs to its top.”

Anna didn't speak for another minute, which was somewhat unusual for her. I wondered why she wasn't speaking, until she spoke of another matter altogether.

“You should have another pair of good clothes within another few days, as the first one of a set takes the longest. After the first ones, they take less time.”

“How long do they usually take?” I asked.

“For the first set, between one and two weeks,” said Anna, “depending on how hard it is to get yarn or cloth and how busy the person doing the work is.” Anna paused, then said, “then, you'll want stockings, too.”

“Stockings?” I asked.

“They might...” Anna's abrupt pause made for wondering, until she said, “no, I doubt they have them big enough for feet like yours. Those will need knitting specially.”

I wondered for a moment about the seeming importance of clothing, then looked around at the falling leaves and near-bare trees. This wasn't fall any more, but close to winter, and in a 'frontier' setting, clothing wasn't a joking matter, nor something to trust to clothing whose chief attributes were in the realm of 'appearance'. Appearances didn't keep one warm, and good clothing was a requisite, almost as much as anything else that was needed to support life.

As the buggy went along the southbound road, I ran my left hand through my clean and dry hair. I was thoroughly glad it felt clean and did not itch, but as I returned my hand to my lap, I said, “Hans spoke of a hair-cutter.”

Anna looked at me, then said, “perhaps you are ready to see one. If it were much cooler, I would say wait until spring. Trimming it much isn't a good idea right now.”

Once at the shoemaker's – it reminded me of the jewelry shop as to its layout for customers, even as it seemed a good deal larger – I removed my boots. I saw their soles were becoming worn, and one seemed a trifle loose. There were no others in the 'waiting area', and seeing four unoccupied stools was a cause for thinking as to the volume of business done.

The shoemaker soon showed – apron, baggy clothing, somewhat stout, and very muscular, with thinning hair – and looked at my boots closely.

“These are the strangest boots I have seen, but they look good for trekking,” he said. “I am not certain where to get soles like these, but I think I can make good enough ones with what I have here. Now, what kind of shoes do you need?”

“I-I'm not certain,” I said. I had no idea as to what he was asking.

“He works in a smithy much of the time,” said Anna, “and the rest of the time with us, so the common work type should work for the shop, save with thicker uppers. Hot metal burns on the feet are terrible, and smiths are prone to them. Then, there is need of common shoes, as most have, when doing other things.”

“That tells me plenty,” he said, “as I do shoes for a lot of smiths, and I put two layers of leather on the top there. I would say you need two pair for the shop, and one of the usual type, for a start. Now about these boots – I would like to copy them. May I?”

“Yes, when I am not in them,” I said. “That floor in the shop is hard on the feet even when wearing boots.”

“I think I know why, too,” he said, “as these soles are worn. I think they can be put right in short order, and I can take measurements while I do that, that and figure these boots out. You need stockings, and those can be measured for while you wait.”

Measuring my feet involved a pair of carved and varnished wooden 'calipers', an odd-looking brass tool of a type I had never seen prior, and a slate for figuring. During the several ticklish minutes he was measuring my feet, I deduced the strange brass tool measured angle, thickness, and 'area', much as a slide-rule might. The slate had a column of figures when he was done, as well as a great many cryptic scribbles.

When he finished, he left for the rear of the building, and not a moment later, a young woman – possibly his daughter; the familial resemblance was astonishing – came out with small shears, a trio of needles stuck in wax, two long 'sticks' of thread, and thin tan cloth. She then began measuring my feet to make 'stockings. Her speed was astonishing, and I shortly had 'stockings' that came well-past my ankles. What I wore when I came here barely reached them.

“Your boots should be done directly,” she said, as she gathered the cloth scraps to put in a voluminous cloth bag. “Those should do for a while.”

'Directly' was but minutes later, and as I put the boots on with Anna and the shoemaker watching me, I noted that new soles were but the least of what had been done. My boots had been completely 'overhauled', with a shiny coating of what might have been a mixture of tallow and wax covering the leather.

“My, these...” I was at a loss for words, at least until I stood up.

I nearly screamed with the pain, and sat down abruptly. I felt as if I had stood upon a carpet of nails, and I wasn't a Fakir. I could not ignore the pain if I tried.

“What is wrong?” asked Anna.

“They h-hurt,” I said. “They feel as if someone put nails in them.”

“Those are the usual for those boots,” said the shoemaker, “and those stockings she did are until the knit ones are done. Let me get you some rags for them, so you can pad the bottoms of those things.”

As he left for the rear area, I muttered darkly, saying, “I took the rags out to wash them so he would not be bothered by those stinky things.”

“I'm glad you wash what you use,” said Anna. “Not everyone does.”

“Rags in the s-shoes?” I asked.

“Especially when it is cold,” said Anna. “Take those off, and I can show you how to pad them.”

I was able to walk in my 'new' boots once they were padded, and the ride home went much as the ride to the shoemaker's shop. I thought to inspect my boots more thoroughly once home, and after sitting on the couch, I took them off. I then looked at the bottoms.

No wonder they felt as if they'd been nailed,” I spluttered. “They were!”

The entirety of each sole – both the main portion, and the heel – was liberally studded with small diamond-headed reddish-brown nails. They seemed intended to improve traction. I knew about their other function well enough to not need to guess.

My outburst had drawn Hans from somewhere, and as he came, I murmured, “what are these nails doing in my boots?” I wanted to add, “instruments of torture indeed. These things hurt!”

“Those things there are for hard going,” said Hans, as he indicated the 'nails'.

“Hard g-going?” I asked.

“Yes, like when you are tramping a lot,” said Hans. “They call those things hobnails, for some reason, though why nails are called that is something I have never figured.”

“Stockings?” I asked, as I held up one of the thin tan cloth things.

“Yes, those need knitted ones, like most shoes and boots, hobnails or no,” said Hans. “If you try walking otherwise, they are hard on your feet, and they hurt bad.”

“Rags?” I asked, as I held the two wadded rags up for 'inspection'.

“Yes, those too,” said Hans. “I learned about them as a boy.”

Here, Hans paused, then said, “I have wondered about you wearing those trekking boots all the time like you did, but given you traveled a far distance coming here, I should not be surprised much, and I am not. Good boots are not cheap, and those look to be good ones.”

“They hurt some before they were worked on,” I said, “but now, they are like some...”

The recollection of Black-Cap's boots interrupted me as surely as if he'd kicked me in the shin.

“Yes?” said Hans. “They are like something. Now what is this something?”

“Like some horrible boots I saw yesterday on a customer,” I said. “I could not tell if their color was an especially dark brown, or an odd-looking black. Then, the boots themselves were awful – sharp toes, tall, and painful-looking, and his attitude, ugh! He called me a dog.”

“That was rude of him,” said Hans. “I have heard of some really rich people that are rude always, and they dress in black stuff all the time, and they wear hats a lot. Did this fellow wear a hat?”

“He did,” I said. “I've never seen a hat that looked like a black brick before I saw his.”

I paused, then said, “it had such sharp corners I wanted a steel square to check it.”

“You have those things here in your tools,” said Hans. “They are greased nice and wrapped in leather, so they stay good. That shop is not the best for close work, and those are for that.”

Hans paused, then said, “now this hat you speak of is an interesting thing. Did it have horns coming out of the sides?”

“His hat?” I asked. “I didn't see any horns. Perhaps he was wearing it to hide some that were coming out of his head, as he was as ill-tempered as that bull. Then, his walk. That was strange.”

“How is it he walked?” asked Hans.

“Really stiff,” I said. “He lifted his feet high, and then slammed them down.”

I paused, then recalled the 'important portions: “he had an ornate-looking musket with which he nearly shot me, an impressive legal-looking document that was nearly impossible to decipher, and a small leather pouch with fifteen of those large gold pieces.”

Hans' reaction was astonishing, for his nonplussed seeming implied he routinely encountered such black-dressed fiends. He seemed to think for a moment, then spoke.

“If that character had horns coming out of his hat, I would say you were looking at a fancy-dressed northern pig-runner.”

“Pig-runner?” I asked.

“Those northern people that come with the swine,” said Hans. “The pigs don't come with every raid, but when the pigs come, those people come with them, and some of them wear hats with horns.”

Hans paused, then said, “since his hat had no horns, I think he did a lot of business at the king's house, and I do not mean the town, but the house proper.”

“The house proper?” I asked. “Where is it?”

“About fifteen miles south and five east,” said Hans. “The two of those places are close to one another.”

Hans paused again, then said, “that fellow sounds like he might be one of those military-type people they have up there.”

“How is it you know about th-that place?” I asked.

“We get called up there every so often,” said Hans. “The king and queen get sick now and then, and they do a lot better with us than with some of those high-priced people they have down that way.”

“Oh, I remember something,” I squeaked. “He had a feather in his hat.”

Hans' expression changed abruptly, so much so that I wondered if I had said something wrong.

“What color was this feather?” asked Hans. “That is important.”

“Gray,” I said.

“That character was from the general staff, then,” said Hans. “There are about five or so of them that high-ranking, and they want the king's ears a lot.”

“Want h-his ears?” I asked.

“Yes, they want to speak to him,” said Hans. “He does not listen to them much, as he does not like their attitudes.”

“Uh, can't he...” I wondered if he couldn't just yell “off with their heads” and fetch new people.

“He would toss them out if he could find people with good attitudes who could do that work,” said Hans.

“Georg said he might want to slice me,” I said. “Given what he did with that gun, it seems possible.”

“Those people like that do not need much reason to come after those they think their inferiors,” said Hans. “Did this person have a sword?”

“If he did, he had it hidden well,” I said. “Then, there was a marking on his left shoulder. It was done with red and black ink, with two teeth going up, two going down, and each pair of teeth joined with a red line. The whole was in a black-outlined shield-marking.”

Hans' expression was now very serious, or so I guessed. When next he spoke, I learned that I had been right as to 'serious' and had underestimated how serious he actually was.

“I think that is another witch,” he said, “and that means they are on to you, and want you dead. You had best go armed wherever you go, as you never know when one might try for you.”

Hans paused, then said, “I think you need a fowling piece, is what I think.”

Steps came from the kitchen, and as I looked around, I saw Anna coming from the kitchen area. She came up to Hans' side, then said, “yes, Hans. I do need a fowling piece, as earlier today, there were some quolls in the tree out back, and I got a headache.”

“Is that why you were asleep when I got home?” asked Hans.

Anna nodded, then said, “I could not find any shot, so I threw rocks at them until they left.”

“Anna, what are quolls?” I asked.

“Birds,” she said. “They might taste good after an hour or so in the oven, but until they are plucked, gutted, and stuffed with diced turnips...”

Anna paused to rub her head for a moment. I had the impression talking about these birds was a potent migraine inducer.

“They are noisy as anything,” said Anna. “They sound...”

For some reason, Anna had paused. I wondered what was happening, but faintly, I seemed to hear – or perhaps, feel – something about to happen; then, with no warning whatsoever, an earsplitting drawn-out “QUOOOOLLLL” came from outside. I wanted to hide, but there was nowhere to run.

“W-what was that?” I asked. My voice portrayed fear.

“Those birds are back,” said Anna, as she again rubbed her head. I could almost see a huge lump arising slowly from the effects of that noise.

Hans turned and went for the stairs, while I set aside boots and stockings, and went with Anna. I thought to ask as to what Hans was about to do until he returned with both muskets. He came down, handed me both guns, then laid his satchel on the table.

As I loaded first one gun and then the other, I put but half a measure of powder in each. As I rammed down the ball for the first one, Hans said, “good that you put in a smaller amount. Those things are not that big, and they are worthless when they are blown up.” Hans primed his, and as I finished the other, he handed it to Anna.

“This should stop that noise they make...”

As if to interrupt, the screaming “QUOOOOLLLL” seemed to pound on my ears fiercely, with the long drawn-out 'mating call' continuing for nearly ten seconds with a steadily rising pitch.

“That sounds like a really bad calliope,” I thought, “and I could see how it would give Anna a headache.” It was doing a more-than-passable job on me.

I went to the white door, then quietly opened it. Perched in the upper branches of the leafless tree were two near-spherical birds. They looked like huge quail, with dark mottled brown plumage streaked with flecks of gray, pink barely-visible legs, bright black eyes, an odd-looking spiky 'crest' on the head, and curiously large – and blunt-shaped – orange-yellow beaks. Hans crept out of the door, then he and Anna took aim. I stood back to watch, then both of them shot at nearly the same time.

Both birds took wing instantly amid the clouds of powder smoke, and as they flew straight up, their stubby wings blurred and their upper parts shed feathers. I went out of the door, and shaded my eyes in the dim light of dusk, and as I tried to find the birds in the air, one landed at my feet with a thud and the other landed behind me. I picked up one bird, then the other, and began bringing them in. Each bird weighed three pounds easily.

“What are these noisy things called?” I asked, as I came into the kitchen.

“Up here, they call them quolls mostly,” said Hans, “and some people call them feathered noise-makers.

I did not have to guess as to the 'why' of that name.

Anna looked at Hans, then said, “you forgot, Hans. Some call them partridges.”

“Yes, that is true,” said Hans. “That name is more common down south, though.” Hans paused, then said, “no matter what they are called, these things are good eating, especially if they are dosed good with Raw-Deal and Cobb.”

“R-raw-Deal?” I asked. “Cobb?”

“Those are spices,” said Anna. “Raw-Deal is a reddish-brown powder, while Cobb is yellowish and lumpy. I tend to use both of those quite a bit, along with about five others.”

“What do they taste like?” I asked.

“I should let you taste them when I spice these birds,” said Anna. “We need to clean and pluck them now.”

The birds were both minus their heads. While I was shown how to 'pluck' them, Hans said, “we want to save the longer feathers for pens.”

“Pens?” I asked.

“Yes, for writing,” said Hans. “They go ten for a guilder once they are trimmed up. I know someone who does that, and these birds have a lot of good feathers.”

The words 'feather' and 'pen' sounded quite similar to my ears, and as I continued removing feathers, Hans placed them on top of rags. I was glad they came out readily, and once I removed the longer ones from my bird, Hans spoke of removing the down.

“How?” I asked. “Burn it off?”

“That would stink the place up,” said Hans, “and the birds would taste bad. Just grab that short stuff there and pull it out.”

I did so, and within a moment or two, I had a 'bare' bird. Hans took it out back, and within a moment, he came back with a gutted bird minus its feet.

“Why out back?” I asked,

“These are simple to do,” said Hans. “You just cut their heads off first, then cut them open carefully, and turn them upside down. Everything falls right out, and it hangs until you cut around the vent at the back. You do that, it drops in the hole you have dug, and then you cut the feet off. It only takes a minute.”

I watched Hans do the second bird, and while it looked a bit more complicated than he spoke of, it was as quick as he had said. I estimated roughly a minute from start to finish.

As we went back inside, Hans said, “now they can be stuffed with turnips.”

“Turnips?” I asked.

“They need to soak first in salt water,” said Anna. “Do you want to get some?”

“I do not think that is wise,” said Hans, as he handed Anna the second bird. “Those witches might be on to him, as another one showed at Georg's today.”

“A witch?” squeaked Anna. “How?”

“It was one of those Generals,” said Hans. “He had a witch-sign on his shoulder, was dressed all in black-cloth, and wore a box-hat on his head, with no horns.”

“That does not sound good,” muttered Anna. I had the impression she knew about black-dressed fiends as much as Hans did, and did not share his blasé attitude. “What was he there for?”

“He brought in a fancy-looking musket that was rusted worse than any I have yet seen,” I said. “It was so bad I could not remove the breech plug in the usual way, and it twisted off. Then, he said it would not hold back the cock.”

“That is a common trouble with muskets,” said Hans.

“This one decided to hold it well enough to for him to attempt shooting me,” I said, “and I had to keep moving to avoid being shot. It took a larger ball than any musket I have seen yet.”

“I think you should stay here with me,” said Hans. “I didn't know it was like that with that wretch.”

Anna went for the turnips after getting one of the larger cloth bags. I could almost hear her thinking about witches, and when she returned with a bulging bag, I thought to ask what she was thinking about. She did not wait to be asked.

“I think Hans is right,” she said. “Those black-dressed people often act like witches, and the way it sounds, that man came in with his gun... How was his gun? Was it usable?”

“I'm surprised it didn't burst when it fired,” I said. “The breech-plug twisted off when I tried removing it, and the metal that wasn't rust was paper-thin. The lock was rusted worse than either of the two I've worked on before.”

“You will have more than two soon,” said Hans, “as the word has gotten out about ours some. I will see if I can find a fowling piece for you just the same.”

Anna then untied her bag, and began bringing out its contents. I had seen turnips before I came here, and what Anna piled on the counter in a neat stack made for a shocked intake of breath on my part.

These things had little in common with my recollection beyond their basic nature as roots.

“T-turnips?” I asked.

“Yes, from this year's crop,” said Anna. “Haven't you seen turnips before?”

“Not here I have,” I said. I could hear steps coming up from the basement.

The turnips – ten long muddy green-streaked white cylindrical roots with bushy tops, a full 'beard' of roots, and a long thin 'goatee' for a tap-root – were such that I marveled, and as I picked one up, I thought “now this would need Horace Greeley's advice. Beazeley would be smitten with these things.”

“Those are turnips there,” said Hans from behind me. “They taste like mud, unless you clean them good, peel them careful, and then dice them and cook them up good with lots of pepper, Raw-Deal, and Cobb.”

“They still don't taste that good by themselves,” said Anna. “I might use them for stuffing birds, but outside of that, I'm not much inclined. I didn't much care for turnips growing up, as birds didn't show much at our table, and these did.”

“Uh, turnips..?” I asked.

“If one must buy vegetables, turnips are the cheapest,” said Anna. “Hans was giving them credit they don't deserve by saying they tasted like mud.”

“Are there other birds up here?” I asked.

“There are quolls, and fool-hens, and there are turkeys,” said Hans, “though turkeys tend to be so difficult to bring home I have not yet managed one. I have gotten the other two.”

“Fool-hens?” I asked. “What are those?”

“Those are enough for a meal when you have people over,” said Anna. “They tend to be a bit large to put in the oven here without a special pot to put them in.”

“Special pot?” I asked.

“I've seen them at Public Houses,” said Anna. “They look like corpse-boxes.”

“Corpse-box..?” I squeaked.

“People are buried in those sometimes,” said Anna, “at least, they were. I've not seen one up here recently.”

The turnips were easy enough to deal with once Anna had showed me how: scrape the mud and hair off into a wooden bucket, remove the 'greens' – those went in the bucket, as Anna said that part was inedible – then rinse them thoroughly, and finally, dice them. Before dicing, they reminded me of uncommonly hairy cucumbers with roots and greens as to texture and odor. I thought to taste a small well-rinsed fragment, and popped a piece from the center of the most recent one in my mouth.

I grabbed the bucket and spat the turnip-piece into it, and continued spitting until the taste of turnip was mostly gone. Saying they tasted like mud was saying they tasted wonderful.

“How do people stand these things?” I spluttered.

“Those were done as good as any I have seen,” said Hans. “How did they taste?”

“Uh, hot, spicy, starchy, and muddy, with a strong overtone of garlic,” I said, after rinsing out my mouth. “Especially mud. They taste terrible.”

“What is garlic?” said Anna.

“A strongly-flavored odd-shaped bulbous root with these small elongated things called cloves under the husks,” I said. “They look really strange. The flavor, especially if one chews on a fresh clove, borders on nauseating, and the smell isn't much better.”

“That sounds like Krokus,” said Anna with a knowing tone. “Some grow it up here. There is little call for it, save at Public Houses, as the taste is so strong. Some use it for turnip-spice.”

“And then one can only taste the Krokus,” said Hans.

“I've wanted to make a witch eat some,” said Anna.

“Why?” I asked. I had the impression 'Krokus' worked on witches much like Garlic did with vampires.

“It is said to light witches on fire,” said Anna.

“Yes, after it kills them,” said Hans. “I am not sure if it is Krokus that does that, or a plant that is like it. If one eats a handful of regular Krokus, one is sick for days at the least, with much of one's time spent in a privy. The plant that looks like it kills in less than a day, and then, it is time for the spades and a hole.”

Once the remainder of the turnips were peeled, I went outside with the bucket to 'inter' its contents in the manure-pile, and when I came back, she had one of the birds on a platter and was prodding it viciously with a spoon. I wondered what she was doing until I saw the small containers.

“Loading the birds with..?” I asked.

“This is how these are spiced,” said Anna. “First, two pinches of pepper, then two of powdered Raw-Deal, and two of Cobb. I just put in the pepper.”

“What does pepper look like?” I asked.

Anna handed me a container, which I opened. Within was a acridly 'hot' smelling grayish-brown coarse powder, and I put the lid down in a hurry before I sneezed and dumped the contents of the container all over.

“Y-yes, that is pepper all right,” I said. “It seems stronger than the stuff where I came from.”

“I just got some,” said Anna, “so it is likely to be stronger than is common for it. It varies some between crops.”

The Raw-Deal powder was a brilliantly reddish-orange 'dust' that smelled like the confluence of paprika, hot sauce, and perhaps curry powder, while the stuff called Cobb was beyond my experience or capacity to describe beyond 'spicy', yellowish, and indeed, lumpy. I tried touching one of the larger lumps, and it went to dust. I set the container down, and tasted my finger.

The flavor reminded me of lemonade, for some reason, at least at first – though when the aftertaste hit, I needed to revise the taste to 'really sour lemon'. I could feel my mouth turning inside out, and when I spoke, I was surprised I could talk and sound normal.

“What does Raw-Deal taste like?” I asked.

“After seeing you react that way to Cobb,” said Anna, “I am not sure you will wish to finger it like that. I know I didn't.”

“Why?” I asked.

“My mouth felt as if it was on fire for the rest of the day,” said Anna. “One wants to go slow with Raw-Deal, especially the powder. The sauce is a bit easier on the mouth, but it isn't commonly available up this way.”

Anna began 'loading' the bird with diced turnip, and once it had been 'filled', she rubbed it carefully with a small handful of salt. It then went in a pot with a cover and a mug of water, and once the other bird was 'potted', she somehow managed to load both pots in the oven.

“Wood?” I asked.

“I put some in before I went to the store,” she said. “I could use more, especially for tonight.”

After bringing in an armload, I went out to bathe. The chill of sundown was such that I hurried, and once inside, I stayed near the stove.

“I hope those things do not taste like mud,” I said, between shivers.

“If one wants turnips that can be eaten,” said Anna, “then prepare them that way, and put them inside some birds. I can eat them then. Normally, I don't like turnips.”

We needed to eat by 'candlelight', and here, I saw the prime disadvantages of candles used for light sources: flickering, smell, traces of smoke, a tendency to try to melt if too near the stove, and an unpleasant aura of dimness. I had wondered about the polished brass semicircles I had found in the tool-carrier, and now, I had an idea as to what they and the candle-holders were for.

“Are there other candles?” I asked.

“Yes, but they are only good for light,” said Hans, as he cleaned up before dinner. “Why, are you going to be doing more work when it is dark?”

“Uh, like this?” I asked.

“I'll get some better ones,” said Anna. “I can find out where they can be had, as I can tell you're going to need some.”

I was surprised at the taste of the turnips once the birds were served up, for their taste was like that of potatoes, and their texture similar, save with a small crunchy aspect. The birds themselves were tender, flavorful and juicy, if somewhat greasy to the palate, and when I looked in one of the pots, I saw nearly an inch of grease-swimming juices. Each bird was the size of a smaller chicken, and two of them made for a very substantial meal for three. I hoped I would not get sick.

Quolls had an abundance of dark meat, a substantial amount of 'marbled' dark meat shot through with pinkish white 'threads', no 'white meat' whatsoever, and sparse gristle with thin fragile bones.

As Hans gnawed an unusually plump leg, he said, “quolls are about as rich food as one wants to eat. Turkey, fool hens, and other fowls are not troublesome, but there are worse things, and captive pigeons are the worst. Never let anyone feed you a squab.”

“Do they cause trouble?” I asked.

Anna nodded, and wiped her chin with a small rag, then said, “it never fails. At least one person at the king's house gets corked after eating one. I've wondered for the longest time how they could get one down.”

“Why?” I asked.

“They smell terrible,” said Anna, “and anything that smells that bad will most likely taste awful.”

As if to anticipate my question, Anna muttered, “though I wonder if awful for witches and awful for those otherwise are the same. Witches are thought to prefer swine and squabs for food.”

“Swine?” I asked. “Where do they get those?”

“I'm not certain,” said Anna. “Those get shot and burned if they're seen around here. For the longest time, I've wondered if squabs and swine are related.”

“What do pigeons eat?” I asked.

“The wild ones are a pest on crops,” said Hans, “but they like rye specially.”

“They do not get squabs from those,” said Anna.

“Yes, I know that,” said Hans. “Those they use for squabs are raised in special houses, and they are bigger, a lot fatter, and will eat whatever the keeper puts in front of them, especially if it is meat.”

“Meat?” I asked. I wanted to add, “that sounds like an unclean bird, all right.”

“Yes, meat,” said Hans. “If they get into that stuff, they get fatter yet, and then they get noisy and really mean, such that if the chance happens, they will peck you. Only chickens are worse that way, and them, not by much, even the black ones.”

Hans paused, then said, “captive pigeons are so full of grease that there are jokes about feeding those birds lye at night and getting soap in the shape of eggs from them the next morning.”

“Those do not sound like any pigeons I've heard of,” I thought.

“What do they sound like?” I asked.

Hans contorted his mouth in some strange fashion, and then made an uncommonly loud noise. It reminded me vaguely of some of the more 'aggressive' pigeons I had heard for tone, save this noise had an aura of irritability appropriate to that of a peeved gamecock, and an aspect of size approaching that of a small turkey. It also was uncommonly low-pitched, with a drop of nearly an octave from the second to the last part of the 'call'.

Hans also received a prompt reply:

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

“What is that noise?” I thought. “It sounds like a foghorn.”

As I opened the door, I wondered what had showed now, and in the gathering darkness, I looked up to see parked on the branches of the tree a dark gray bird. Its shape reminded me of a falcon, and its size...

“That thing is h-huge,” I whispered. “It's easily twice as big as one of those quolls.”

The bird now turned around on its branch, such that it faced me, and as it turned, I saw its profile better: it looked vaguely like a pigeon mingled with a bird of prey, with a typical 'pigeon-beak' showing a hooked tip. The bird now rustled its wide-spreading wings.

“That's no pigeon I've ever seen,” I thought. “That thing looks more like a falcon.”

However, the falcon resemblance broke down, for this bird turned its head to the side so as to look at me better. It did not have binocular vision.

It did have a surfeit of birdlime, however, as it dumped a splattering load on the branch. It then began strutting back and forth along the branch, and as it strutted, I seemed to see mirrored in its stiff-legged movement the stiff-as-a-board foot-pounding of Black-Cap.

I turned back toward the table, and pulled the door to as I did, then said, “uh, there is this strange bird here.”

“Yes, so there is a strange bird,” said Hans. “There are lots of those. What is it doing?”

“It's acting really strange,” I said. “I've seen pigeons before I came here, and this one... I'm not certain it is a pigeon. It's really big, and it looks mean.”

Hans came to the door, and as I opened it slightly, he looked out.

“That is an escaped captive pigeon...”

The bird interrupted him with its deep-pitched call, and with each 'round', it contorted itself, especially at the end where the pitch dropped. It wanted to inflict a vibrato on that portion, and as it tried to hit that deep bass pitch, it shook violently.

“That thing sounds irritated,” said Hans.

I closed the door, then said, “what do you plan to do?”

“I had best ruffle its feathers with lead,” said Hans. He then left for the upstairs.

Hans returned with a musket, and as I opened the door wide, he pulled back the cock all the way. He then aimed and fired, and the huge red-orange muzzle flame showed a billow of feathers and mist. Hans seemed transfixed, but as the mist drifted down and scattered, I caught an odor so foul that I began gagging. Hans seemed unaffected, and as I doubled up with retching, he closed the door.

“Gah! How do people stand those things?” I muttered.

“Witches handle datramonium fine,” said Anna, “so those probably smell...”

Anna paused, then began sniffing the air. The odor-of-pigeon was not staying in one place. She resumed speaking, and this time, she sounded peeved.

“That thing smells terrible,” she squawked. “What was it full of, rotten meat?”

“It was full of itself,” said Hans. “That means it was corked.”

“Corked?” I asked.

“And full of dung,” said Hans, with an air of finality. “Now it is gone.”

“Thus endeth a perfect day,” I thought. “As the pigeon rots, and the stomach turns...”