Something Wicked this way Comes... part three


More, I knew that the eight traitors that the corpse-washer had named were not the only ones. There were more of such people, and they were on the premises as well. I heard steps, these coming softly from out in the hall; then a faint tapping at the door. I myself – I would not let Hendrik risk his life by answering the door now; the only people who were up to that task were those willing to kill whoever they saw in front of them without the slightest hesitation – went to the door, and I opened it a crack, sword in hand and full-ready to run amok and kill whoever or whatever was outside the door.

It was the shorter guard, and thankfully, he did have one of the guard-muskets in hand. He motioned with the barrel of his mounted weapon, and one by one, their hands tied behind them with coarse 'string', those eight people the corpse-washer had named were marched in. The shorter guard was the first man inside as he backed into the room, his gun shouldered and finger on the trigger, hammer at full cock, ready to fire.

“Where?” he asked. He did not take his eyes off of the people he was aiming at. For once he was doing the right thing.

“Against that wall over there,” I said, as I pointed at the place in question with my sword. “That stretch of it which I've already marked with blood will serve.”

As the eight were lined up, I began wiping down my sword. Long strokes of a dampened rag, keeping my hands clear of its edge, then a light coating of oil from my oil rag. I then sheathed it – and then looked at these people.

I was blind to the expressions upon their faces, and now I had neither care nor worry about the matter. I had questions; they would answer them; and then, they would die. At this last thought, a growl, much like that of a huge and infuriated version of a long-haired cat, came from my mouth.

“Now, there will be questions.” My voice was simultaneously quiet and echoing, with a barely-suppressed fury that was beyond the capacity of language to describe. “There are more than eight of you people.” A pause for some reason, perhaps emphasis. “I know there are more traitors than those I see here.”

Here, I paused again, and the fury began to show its claws in my voice. It wanted to be turned loose so that it could rip them apart like a raging jungle beast, and holding it in check was no longer a thing I wanted to do.

“Do not think to lie to me,” I growled. “Now, answers. One at a time, you fools – and do not think that I have patience enough to endure anything less than you telling me exactly and in precise detail the very things that I wish to hear. I have little patience with fools, and none whatsoever with traitors like you.”

I began stalking the line, and as I did, the expressions I saw were a mystery – until I saw the face of the man I had healed earlier some eight feet away. I sprang, then landed and turned such that in an eyeblink of time the tip of my sword was drawing blood from just under his chin.

“Names, fool!” I screamed. “This is a hungry sword, and it seeks your life!”

He choked, stammered a second or two – and then, one at a time, my sword prodding him when he slowed in his naming or made choking noises, he named another full coven's worth of Judas-witch-murderer-traitors. When he finished, I somehow sensed that he had named all of the 'purchased' traitors in this particular batch.

There were others, but they were not purchased; more, they were not native to this region. I wanted to know about them, and now, I would resume my work – and I would not stop until I'd finished sending every living soul involved in this particular treasonous mess to hell where they belonged.

I walked over to the tools, sword still out and waving about slightly, much as if it was truly a hungry sword and desired the blood of evildoers, and looked them over. Suddenly, I found a sizable pair of nippers. I picked them up, admiring their workmanship, noticing the Machalaat Brothers imprint upon their handles, as well as their sizable and well-rounded bolt-heads. They would serve.

I walked back toward the traitor-line, now having but some vague idea as to what next to do, but still wondering slightly. My sword waved, its tip moving side to side like the nose of a hunting dog, and as I slowly stalked down the line, starting at the person nearest the door, I wondered just what I was looking for.

I could wonder that much, if not much more. Most of the questions I normally had were gone.

As I walked, I knew that my mere presence would 'flush' the thing I was after – and when one of these people averted his gaze, I knew.

Like lightning.

I was in his face nearly as fast, the pincers in my right hand and the sword in my left, now conscious of the fact that I was all but ambidextrous when like this and that I could swap things between my hands without thinking or looking. More, I knew the issue, that being an object lesson; and because traitors were witches – there was not the slightest shred of doubt in my mind now – they were not human. They had renounced that status so as to become followers of Brimstone.

Witke was a neuter noun. It wasn't a pronoun, as those were used for people or animals. Neuter nouns, especially strong neuter nouns like witke, described objects. I needed an object lesson – and here, I had found the object that I needed to perform that lesson.

I swapped the things in my hands again, then yet again for some reason, this literally too fast to follow with eye or mind, and I sheathed my sword as I lunged at the traitor in question. I grabbed his throat, my left hand like the hooked claws of an enraged black rooster and as strong as death, and with my right hand, I grabbed his nose with the nippers.

The wide portions of these things – where the cutting edges were – were touching the corner of his eyes and the bottom of his nose. I squeezed them but slightly, getting a firmer grip on the handles. I had a question for this fool, and it was an integral portion of the lesson I was going to impart.

“I wonder how you will look when your skull is rotting on a pole, you stinking maggot!” I spat. My voice then changed utterly, this to an insane-sounding and much louder howl. “Answer me!”

“Why?” he squeaked, his voice a high-pitched falsetto whining.

My hand tightened, and as my grip on the pincers slowly closed, the sound made by the crunching of the bones of his nose were only exceeded by his agonized screams; and when the blades of the nippers met, I yanked back hard with a sudden tearing sound – and where his nose once had been, there was now a blood-gushing hole in his face and a hunk of meat in the 'teeth' of the nippers. With my left hand, I slammed him hard against the wall such that he struck it with a ringing crack that sifted down dust upon his head, then as I shook his torn-off nose out of the nippers' jaws, I looked idly at the others with what could only be called an evil leering grin. A soft thud came to my ears from below, and without looking down, I ground the man's mangled nose underfoot.

The mess I made was not important. My point was, and the answers I wanted to hear were more important yet.

“I got an answer for your 'why', fool,” I spat. “I did that because my inclination of the moment was to rip your nose off, you stinking witch! Curse your Brimstone-loving eyes, where is your damned-to-hell-and-gone coven!”

I paused, this for a second, to let what I had said sink into their witchcraft-infested minds. That educated – no, it informed – what I next said.

“All of you people are witches,” I growled, “and that reptile you call 'Father Brimstone' is your lord, your master, and your 'beloved protector'.” A second's pause. “You'll be wishing that thing was chewing on you with its spiky teeth before I am done with sending you to hell.” Another pause, this one pregnant with possibility – then a sudden deafening scream:

“Tell me what I want to know!”

I was interrupted, this time by faint tapping – and again, the shorter guard came in first, musket shouldered, hammer full-cocked, finger on the trigger, ready to fire at the slightest provocation. One by one, the other traitors were led in, each one with hands tied behind the back, this done with coarse 'string', and as I pointed to where they belonged – my sword was once more out, it being the best pointer I had – they were thrown against the wall by the taller guard. I wondered for a moment how otherwise the taller guard was managing to remain 'ready for business', at least until I saw one of the other guard-muskets slung over his shoulder by a leather strap, the hammer half-cocked but otherwise ready to fire.

About halfway though the process of leading in the traitors, however, the one witch whose nose I had removed whimpered, then softly moaned.

My anger exploded; and in a single bound, I shot bodily through the line of traitors, brutally elbowing them aside as I passed and cutting one of them slightly with my sword as I flew past them, then I landed upon my right foot and threw a roundhouse kick – with the left foot this time – at the man's chest. I'd done it just like I'd been taught long ago in the Dojo – and again, I was using both feet as I had been taught in class.

Only this time, I kicked with the precise and exact goal of killing, not 'teaching' as I had done before; and there was nothing of gentleness remaining in either my heart or my mind. I put the 'pad' of my foot through the 'xyphoid process', where the brittle arrow-shaped cartilage would sheer off the bones of his sternum and rip his liver to shreds as it shot through it to then hole the top of his stomach – and finally, that hard piece of cartilage would tear his aorta open. He'd die quickly – but his death would be terribly painful.

I wanted that precise end for this man. The only possible improvements would be to let him hurt more and die somewhat slower.

The sound of the impact was a sudden 'snap' followed by an 'ugh' as the man struck the wall that seemed to shake my mind as well as the foundation of the building, but the blood that suddenly welled up in his throat turned into a deep red foaming geyser as he collapsed in place, knees buckling, much as if he'd been shot with a cannonball. He thrashed as he lay face-down, his moans near-silenced by his copious bleeding, then as he bled out, he ceased moving – and with a slow and rattling last breath that took what seemed a slow count of ten, he died within less than a minute after I'd kicked him.

His death did not affect the resolve of the remaining traitors in the slightest, and it seemed my savagery thus far had been of no use. I took out my knife, this small bright thing with but three inches of razor sharp blade – and while the witches remained stone-faced to my unfeeling gaze, I could feel their derision at its small size – until I slashed the clothing of the first one I encountered, and when he yelped, I stabbed him low in the gut.

Several times, just like the sting of an angry wasp, and quicker than the needle of a sewing machine – and by the smell that came up from the slow-bleeding punctures I'd made, I'd perforated his large intestine.

I left him behind me, and sliced the next witch's clothing open, much as if I were a mythical masked avenger that enjoyed turning witch-rags into just plain rags. If I saw any sign of pain; of objection to what I was doing; a downturned gaze that would not meet my savage and staring life-hunger – the knife would find a spot, or often several – and rapid-fire, I would plunge it in to the hilt and then withdraw it to stab again as the person I attacked either held his tongue in complete silence or screamed like a damned soul.

Screaming made the stabbing continue until that noise ceased, while 'silence' satisfied me with a few pokes – these generally in areas that did not have major blood vessels or 'vital' structures. I wanted my victims to suffer as much as possible before I killed them. I knew that much; I wanted their faces to show plainly the wages of sin when their heads roosted upon poles to rot.

The two guards left the room when the last of the traitors were brought in and forced into the line. I counted twenty-four of them in total, including the beheaded corpse and the man I had just killed. All of them were bloodstained now, most of them were covered with blood – and upon seeing that blood, I had an impression.

“This is a plot, a treason-plot, and all of you fools are traitors – among other things, witches included.” I paused, then laughed, my laugh high-pitched, insane-sounding and ringingly loud, and as I stopped laughing, I saw definite traces of emotion – fear, most likely – show upon several faces. No matter: I understood their thoughts completely to the small degree necessary to do my job.

They were dealing with a maniac, someone just like those ancient people of the time between the war and the curse who blew horns – and who then killed without stopping for aught until either they died or they stood on the field of battle alone. Those people lived for but one thing: killing traitors, witches, and evildoers of one kind or another; and their Baresark savagery made a name for them, and those who were like them in latter days.

All of these old 'horn-blowers' happened to be marked, also; and many of them had markings that could not be hid by clothing. Those with markings that were impossible to hide were the most savage in battle; and when they blew horns, there was but one thing that was going to happen for certain: all of the witches in the area would die. I thought their speech would be appropriate, so I said that next.

“I enjoy ending traitors,” I said in a husky whisper, “and I hunger for their lives. Those who are stupid enough to play that game with me shall sup with Brimstone, and by the time I am done with my killing, you will wish for the teeth of that reptile, and that with a longing too great for words.”

I paused, then cleaned my knife with a rag. I had other ideas that I wanted to try, but first, more news for these people:

“Now, all of you – you are in league, this one with another, and all of you sold yourselves – first to Brimstone, which is a given for traitors, which makes you witches; and then to another, this being a person or a group of them.” A pause, then a deafening scream: “who bought you!”

One of the first people I had worked over with my knife moaned faintly as he tried to stanch the slow-dripping flow of blood from the half-dozen small punctures in his lower abdomen I had made with my knife. I leaped – somehow, I managed an easy fifteen feet – to land like a cat right in front of him. My knife was out, its small bloody blade working like a reddened bolt of lighting to make ready, then I slammed him into the wall with my free hand and stunned him, grabbed his head by the blood-sopping hair – and then with his head locked solid in my left arm, I poked my knife into his right eye socket and made a scooping motion that flung his cut-free eyelid up and onto his hair and jerked his eye out its socket to dangle on his cheek by the optic nerve.

And then, while still 'locked' in my arm, I somehow twisted about him and kneed him in the groin.

I turned loose of his head, and as he doubled up and began retching, I grabbed his hair and yanked up and back hard enough to hear some of it rip out by the roots. I doubled him up the other way, such that his eye laid upon his face like a poached egg, still hanging by the optic nerve, his head now bent backward. Holding my knife firmly, butt end down, I began bashing his mouth such that his shattered teeth flew like white icy fragments amid droplets of blood, then reversed it with a sudden flip, and with two ragged slices, I cut away his lips at the gum-lines. I poked the eye itself with the tip of my knife, then rammed it into his gagging mouth – and then hauled him up straight by his hair, my knife at his throat so as to cut it if he did not do exactly as I said. I had words for this man.

“Swallow it!” I screamed. “No chewing! Swallow it whole!” My voice dropped in pitch and volume, the knife still at his throat as he began 'working' on getting it down. I then saw the optic nerve holding his eye back; and I cut that, then had my knife back to his throat in an instant. He was still 'working'; and as I now realized, on trying not to swallow his own eye.

“If you do not swallow that eye, fool,” I snarled as I poked him in the throat with my knife to draw blood, “you will wish that you had read my mind to a perfection, just like all witches are supposed to do with those who own them – and then ripped out both of your eyes with your bare hands and gobbled them like the pig you are, and that done such that I am well pleased!”

I now began sawing on his throat with the knife, and after a little blood flowed to stain his clothing further, he swallowed his own eye. I wiped my knife off on his clothing such that it was relatively clean; and then, with no warning whatsoever, I grabbed him by the throat with my free hand and flung him hard against the wall where he hit flat against it with a snapping crackle.

I was 'tired' of their rubbish; and I knew that witches responded to certain key phrases, if I went by what I had been told.

“You fools have heard my questions twice too many times,” I screamed, “so quit wasting my valuable time! Tell me what I wish to know, damn your accursed eyes!”

Once more, I began stalking back and forth, relentless, a wild animal on the prowl, hungry for prey. I put my knife away, and drew my sword. An expression seemed to flash for an instant across a few of their bloodstained faces, and I then knew that witch-spewed nonsense about swords being 'a matter of power' was believed wholeheartedly – at least by witches, or those who thought like them.

It was believed enough, I realized, that I could use the lies that they had believed about swords and the like to destroy them – or rather, I could use it to destroy this particular batch.

“I like killing traitors,” I said in a deceptively soft voice, “and I shall enjoy hearing your screams as I cut you apart, slowly and deliberately, so as to make you ready for the smoke and the flames of hell. I will then take your heads, and put upon those very same heads expressions that delight me. I will laugh with great pleasure as I hear your voices, those coming from the bottom of the pit of hell, beseeching your beloved protector as he enjoys with relish the latest meals I have sent him.”

Here, I paused. There was more to this than the obvious, that being what I saw before me; and I could 'feel' this in my 'bones'. This plot involved Ultima Thule at some level, and I spoke of that next.

“I cannot wait until I can catch that stupid fat witch that runs Norden,” I said, “and then rip her apart with my bare hands while she begs me to have mercy upon her. She shall receive none of that from me, and neither will you people. Now, but one question more: did that witch that rules Norden buy you?”

A soft moan, this coming from the far end of the line; then a single croaked word. It was the signal I had been waiting for, and hearing the word 'yes' caused the fury within me to finally claw its way free of what few restraints that yet remained upon it. It did this in the time it took me to run to the man who had spoken, who was now clutching at his knife-ripped belly.

I slapped his face up with my left hand, pivoted on my left foot – and then, just like I had been trained all those many years ago, my right hand formed 'the fist of iron', and I crushed his larynx with a hammer-strike to the neck as I swung through his neck and into the very wall itself.

Lessons imparted to children tended to be retained better than those learned later, and though my time at the Dojo had been brief, nearly all of what I had learned there had indeed been retained. It was working here, just like the 'Instructor' – I could not recall his formal title; that place wasn't as formal as some martial arts places I'd heard of – had said it would.

His choking sounds as he slowly slid down the wall spoke of his going nowhere save to hell, and that quickly. Off to my left, movement in my peripheral vision spoke of another traitor assaying escape, this by crawling – I saw this as I turned in that direction – and then three steps and a spring to turn about in mid-air had me land in a crouch in directly front of him with a soft thud.

He'd wondered what his worst nightmare would be. He was now seeing it snarling in front of him, and with a voice dripping with sarcasm, I murmured, “trying to go somewhere, you snake-spawned son of the devil? Or is that 'slither off' – because you're lower than a stinking goo-spewing Desmond?”

I did not wait for an answer; I stomped his chest down to the ground such that he grunted in pain, unsheathed my sword, then deliberately, with great 'delicacy', sliced both of the thick tendons at the very back of his ankles. He would never walk again, I knew, and that meant no escape, either from me or what I had planned for him.

It also meant tremendous screaming as his feet 'cranked up' and locked forward into full tension from the muscles on the front sides of his calves. I kicked him in the head to silence him, then let him lay there in the slow-growing pool of his blood. My voice then rang out, a commanding shrill-sounding howl demanding death and destruction. I almost wanted to chant an old translation of a Zulu war-cry I had read somewhere far back in the past: “What is the lot of man born of woman? Death! Death!”

And when I asked the question – “what is commonly done to traitors such as these?” – I heard Hendrik speak much the same words as that war-cry.

“Death is the usual,” he said, “though you seem to be doing it in a manner I've but vaguely understood before now.” A a pause to drink, then, “all of these men are outlawed to the ultimate degree as of my speaking of it, and I suspect you know that means a large number of sizable burn-piles. I'll light some of them myself, most likely.”

“Yes, save for the traitors themselves,” I muttered. “They need to...”

“I took down those instructions as well,” said Hendrick, “and that shall be the first of those things to happen.”

“Instructions?” I asked. “Heads spiked on poles, bodies bagged, labels of treason and witchcraft attached, and public display in the sundry cross-roads of the kingdom house until they fall rotten of their own accord?”

“That and much more,” said Hendrik. “You also spoke of the possibility there might be more traitors, only not of our people, and I've called for the huntsmen, what of them there are on the premises. They are the quietest people we have who do not wear greens, and though they use bows and arrows, I've never seen one of them miss his target. Not once.”

Again, I spoke: “such mute witnesses as these who will hang in the streets of the town shall be a warning and a sign, and educate them who think to do evil as these people have. There will be no traitors here, and to think of such evil is fully as bad as to actually perform it.”

Once more, I noted with a sense of grimness and more than a trace of satisfaction, that there were no suspicions whatsoever in my mind. There were crimes, these needing punishment; some criminals hid those crimes better than others, much as these people had done. In all cases, these crimes – even those thought trivial by the people of the area – were of such monstrous nature in the eyes of the great Judge who we were supposed to worship that no temporal punishment...

“No matter how bloody, no matter how brutal, no matter how cruel,” I spoke softly.

Was even close to being sufficient recompense. Only one action was, and that was death, followed by divine judgment; and after that was rendered unto the guilty, eternal repose in that place which Dante had called Inferno. That, and that only, was the sole answer for those persons who did evil.

And as if I had spoken all of this from a pulpit high within the rarefied air of a cathedral, Hendrik intoned, “today is indeed the day of retribution, and all that you have said is writ upon tapestries and in many of the tales in the Grim Collection.”

I could feel something about to happen, so much so that with the blade of my sword I rapidly walked past the line of traitors, letting the tip of the blade slice clothing, skin and muscle until I came to the end of the line of the twenty or so who still stood. Several had collapsed face-down upon the floor in addition to those I had killed with fist or blade, and as I came to the door, I heard a brief scuffle outside. I came to the door and stood, waiting, expecting to hear the roaring of muskets.

None came.

Instead, the door swung open, its movement rapid and sure, and when I saw the barrel of a musket come in – one that I had not worked on, most likely, for it had no barrel bands – I kicked the thing up so hard that it flew into a vertical position and past that to strike the head of the man aiming it. With a shrill scream, he began to crumple forward; as I saw him fall into the doorway, I swung at his neck with a whistling strike that removed his head and sprayed blood and gore halfway across the room as I grabbed the man's musket before it could fall to the floor.

I had felt no shock or other unusual sensations in my hand when I decapitated this second assassin, and I was glad Hendrik was not at his desk. He would have been showered with blood otherwise; and when he returned to his desk a moment later, he wiped his face with his hand at the new mess I had made.

I then set my sword upon his blood-splattered desk, and flipped up the frizzen of the musket and dumped the powder on the still-bleeding corpse. I faced the gun downward, such that its muzzle was almost touching the dead man's body, pulled the trigger – and now satisfied of the matter, I retrieved my sword and put the musket over in the nearest corner of the room, well clear of the door.

I then went outside.

There was but one guard present, and no guard-muskets anywhere nearby. More, the guard was holding his head in his hands, and by the blood in his hair, someone had thumped him hard enough to stun him at the very least.

I did not care for his injury. I had but two questions, and I could barely restrain myself or my rage: the first being: why wasn't this section of the hall awash in blood and mounded with body parts, with the stink of burnt powder and death lingering in the air? And the second: why wasn't his clothing sticky and clotted with the blood and gore of enemies, his face blood-spattered, his eyes blood-caked, his hands dripping with blood – just like mine?

“Where is your partner?” I spat. My voice shook with barely-suppressed fury.

“S-some black-dressed stranger took him by the arm to help with something,” he said – and then he spat not merely blood, but the fragment of a tooth to land upon the floor with a faint rattling sound.

By some strange reason, I managed to retain a small measure of self-control.

“The guard-muskets?” I asked. “Where are they?”

“W-we put them b-back, as...”

“No!” I screamed, my voice rising in pitch and volume such that my ears rang anew. “You stinking fool, you should have shot that black-dressed wretch!”

I glanced at General's Row, then knew beyond all doubt: no current 'General' had anywhere close to the audacity to do what had just been done. This was someone else entirely; and the same for domestic witches. They'd gotten the fear so bad they'd not counted themselves close to safe until they were within smelling distance of the sea to the west, or a day's hard ride – on the back of a stinky mule ridden to the point of foundering, no less – to the east of the Main. The same distances, roughly, applied to both north and south. Anything less, and they knew themselves to be in dire danger, with the threat of instant death looming unseen over them like the all-knowing and omnipresent sword of Damocles.

“Go fetch those muskets,” I said. “I want you to get all three of them, as well as those things needed to load them – and the first person who you suspect, even the least bit, put some soot on that wretch and then beat him into a red mush!” A pause, then in a low and malevolent voice, I said, “I've already killed several traitors in there, and when that wretch returns here, I'll kill him also.” I then slammed the door with a shuddering bang.

And as the lock clicked under my hand, I thought – “Hendrik. Maria. This place is far too dangerous for them. They need to be elsewhere.”

And in my rapid-spinning mind, instantly I knew where: Room 67. The room I used. I knew it like the back of my hand, and when I looked down, I had the disk to it in my hand.

I banged the door open with a sudden rush of air that saw the man running back to the bench with an armload of guns. I shook my head as I counted but two weapons and no loading gear, then waited for him – and when he arrived breathless, I said in a harsh voice, “I want this to happen. You will fetch all of those guard-muskets, and retrieve their powder measures, their bags of shot, and their tins of caps, and then lead the king and queen to one of the guard rooms.” Here, I handed him the disk. “I want them in this room. I stay there at times, and I know it's safe. Should you take them anywhere else...”

He gulped.

“Good that you understand me, then,” I spat. The fury I felt was showing clearly. “I will make the arrangements inside.” A pause, then, “the password is 'keyhole'. Now repeat to me what I told you word-for-word, so I can have some assurance that you will not fail in any particulars – and by doing so, become a traitor to your God and your king.”

I looked down at my sword as he began to haltingly repeat back what I had told him, and as I heard his slow and hesitant words, I saw that my blood-caked hand was white-knuckle tight on the grip of my sword. I had no patience left with either of these men, and the slightest mistake on either of their parts would have me break them both down and then add them to the list of traitors; for their failures were far beyond excuse in my mind, and their lazy demeanor, their slack attitudes, and their overwhelming negligence added up to but one thing only in my mind:

Treason, and that of the rankest species. I was at the sword-edged point of killing the man in front of me right now, I realized, and only as he finished his recitation – he got the high points passably, even if he could not manage it word for word due to his obvious inattention to my commands – could I relax a trifle. I closed the door, this time gently; I then turned to see Hendrik. Where he had hidden himself during the last few 'minutes' was a mystery, but he had his fowling piece and 'bag' – and to my surprise, while I had known Maria to have a fowling piece, she had a bag of similar nature as well as the gun spoken of. I presumed she had her 'gun equipment' in there. I did not need to presume about Hendrik's bag; I'd seen what he kept inside it more than once during the trip south and back.

I wiped my forehead, then looked at my palm. Amid the grime and the blood, I saw a river of dirty sweat. I thought for a moment, shook my head, then looked at them. It was time to speak.

“At least part of this mess is working out passably, even if everything else has gone to hell,” I said in a 'gravel-voice'. “Did you hear what I told those two men?”

“That is a very good idea,” said Maria. “This is not common.”

“I wish I could say that about pigs, madame, but we've seen too many of those stinking things in the area lately,” I said gravely. I turned toward the door, then heard the frantic running arrival of the other guard, then what sounded like an argument. I opened the door, and as the taller man handed the other one of the muskets, I noted the shorter guard's ripped clothing, as well as a bloodstained patch on his side. I said, “no, not now. You've got work to do. Let that trouble take care of itself.”

I closed the door, then told the king and queen, “they're both out there. Room 67, where I sleep. Go with God, be wary, and stay safe. The password is 'keyhole' – and if either man should open that door to any other word, or for any reason otherwise, kill both of them and prepare to do battle.”

I opened the door, then watched the two guards walk with Hendrik and Maria between them. All of them now had cocked and loaded weapons, or so I suspected, and as I closed the door, I thought, “now I am most glad we have another crew coming on duty soon, and I hope everyone in here now knows why we need to have an overlap of guards during the time when one post ends and another begins, especially during the mid-day postings.” A pause, then, “and if this nonsense gets anything close to common, that's going to be the rule here.”

I then turned to see the line of traitors. Most of these men now slumped against the wall save for two more who had keeled over and lay facedown in slow-growing pools of blood. I was now alone with these men, but as I looked them over, I saw that someone – who was a good question – had tied their feet most expertly with more thin 'twine'. I suspected this would do well enough, especially when I felt one set of ankles on one of the fallen and found the knots firm and holding. I then left the traitor-line, found the stool that Thomas had used, set it down in the 'shadow' of Hendrik's desk, and sat down to wipe my sword, first with spit-soaked rags and then oil while waiting for this 'black-dressed person' amid the thick and cloying scent of blood, body fluids, urine, and dung.

Within a minute, however, I'd found some water, and as I began 'scrubbing' my sword, questions and hypotheses went through my mind. Firstly, the black-dressed person was both the most intelligent person of the lot by far and the leader of the entire plot. Secondly, one question was followed swiftly by another: was this man from Norden? Was he one of their Thinkers?

Steps, these at first faint, came slowly up to the door. The one making them was cautious, much as a hunted rat might be, or so I thought as I stood and came to the side of the door nearest its doorknob, there to stand, sword in hand, ready to strike. The steps grew louder; I waited. Suddenly, without no tapping, the door banged open as if the person opening it owned the place and all its contents, and as I looked this man over in an eyeblink of time, I knew beyond all doubt that the only thing familiar about him was the fact that he had gotten the raw cloth of what he was wearing from somewhere on the continent. All else about his clothing – and indeed, he himself – seemed utterly foreign, much as if I were not seeing cloth taken from Sam Brumm's body and remade to fit another thug, but something and someone coming from a place neither here nor where I came from, with a distinct 'alien' aspect too strong to ignore and too strange to really describe.

He stood, looking, transfixed at the bloodstains upon Hendrik's desk; then as he turned to his left, I leaped forward, my sword-tip finding his throat in an instant. I knew now beyond all knowledge and all reason that he owned this group of people, much as he owned his clothing and those other objects at his considerable disposal.

He stopped in mid-stride; and with consuming interest, I scanned his face, much as if I wished to commit to memory all the details of his alien kind: lips at once wide-spreading and thin, with a hint of jagged blackened teeth showing from behind their near-paper thinness; a nose, long, pendulous and somewhat crooked near where it joined his massive and overhanging uneven brows; close-set beady black eyes; finally, a forehead so large and lumpy it dominated his face. He reached toward his unbuttoned cloak pocket with his right hand.

I said nothing. I swung as he reached, and his hand and three inches of arm joined by the wrist fell to flop dully upon the floor. Blood followed it down from his arm in a steady and growing dribble.

He grimaced in what might have been shock or pain, then said, his voice strangely accented, “I will pay you...”

His stupid proposition did not interest me at all, and I screamed, drowning out his speech; and as I screamed, I swung on his neck with all I had to send his head flying and his corpse falling slow to the floor fountaining blood as it fell. Yet still I screamed, this earsplittingly loud and agonizingly high-pitched:

“I was bought with a price too high to reckon in mere money, and you think you can buy me, fool? You can sup with Brimstone where you belong, you curse-spitting witch!”

A tap at the door, then Karl's voice: “what gives in there?” Karl did not wait for me to reply, for now I was speechless; then as he cautiously opened the door and poked his head in to look upon the pooling blood surrounding my latest victim, I managed to finally find my now thick-clotted tongue.

“Can you f-find some r-rope,” I asked weakly, as I reached into my possible bag for some honey. I felt as if I might faint. “We have work to do outside.”

Karl closed the door, this slowly; and as the lock clicked, I found myself once again in the room with the dead and the dying. My hands closed upon a honey-vial, and I got down a slurp, then I began looking for a jug of beer. I found one, this one part-full and splattered with blood, and I wiped it off carefully with a spit-dampened rag prior to filling my cup. I drained cup after cup, and after I'd gotten five of them down, only then did I realize where I actually was. I looked down to see blood on the floor, then at the walls...

“Blood there, too,” I thought. “No matter. They have cleaners here that do walls decently, or so it seems.” A tap came at the door, and I walked slowly toward it with my sword to the side. It was Karl, and he had several coils of old-looking yet 'decent' rope. I felt it, then thought for a second.

“I have an idea regarding these wretched traitors,” I murmured.

Karl looked around, the door to the office still ajar. He came to one, nudged him with his foot, then looked further. “I think some of these people are dead. Is this idea about those of them that are alive?”

“Yes,” I said. “Firstly, other than those without their heads, and possibly three others, these people are alive. They might be playing dead, but they are alive – which means my questions, and their answers.” A pause, then, “should they die in the process, no loss. They just die a little sooner than they would otherwise.”

And as we set to work after explaining what I wanted, I said, “grandmother's knots, Karl. I'm glad yours hold.”

I cleaned my sword again, this time first with water, then with the oil-rag. The latter was becoming bloodstained, and as I sheathed the blade, Karl said, “now who used this fishing string here?”

“I had some,” I said.

“I doubt you had that much,” said Karl. “Sarah told me she put about twenty paces in that bag you have, but not much more.” Karl then looked around as he tied the feet of one of the traitors, then asked, “did you have help with this?”

“No, and I wished heartily that I did,” I spat. “Those other people...”

“They ran off, didn't they?” he said. “Didn't want to do the hall, so when these...”

A glint of brass showed, and I was about to 'launch' when Karl drew his knife and held it to the man's throat. I could see no little blood flowing onto his blade. “I will cut your throat, wretch. Just give me an excuse, anything at all, fool, and I will take your head and plant it myself!”

“I wish they had had that attitude,” I muttered, as the man Karl was working on put his hands out where Karl could tie them up. He then reached into the pocket in question, and drew out a 'court jester' pistol.

“One of those stinkers, eh?” I muttered. “If there's one, then I bet there are more of those things. I'd best start searching pockets.”

I began doing so, but as Karl continued tying knots 'fit for his grandmother', I saw another such brassy glint show with suddenness. I launched into mid-air, leaping over Karl's back to clear it by nearly two feet, and as the glint slowly became another pistol of the type Karl had just retrieved, I landed on the man's back with a snapping crackle with my right knee down and my entire weight bearing upon it. This bone-crushing kill-strike was not something I had learned in the Dojo.

“What did you do?” he said. “I heard bones break.”

I reached into the blood-coughing man's pockets – I'd busted more than his ribs; nothing was working from the waist down on this man now – and drew out another pistol, much as the one Karl had found first.

Karl looked around once more, then said, “now I know why none of these people tried to go anywhere.”

“Why?” I asked. I was totally mystified. These people had shown themselves to be disgustingly 'tough' regarding injuries, or so I thought. 'Obdurate' did not come close to adequately describing their behavior.

“They're hurt too bad to move,” said Karl. “What were you doing, thumping them with a club like Georg is said to use on swine?”

I shook my head, then said, “I leaped from the other side of you, over there” – there, I pointed at the place nearly fifteen feet away – “and I flew over you and landed where I am now – and I landed with my knee downward, and that with the goal of killing my target.”

“He is not dead,” said Karl matter-of-factly, “though if you have been doing things like that, I am surprised any of these people are still alive.” He then turned the man he'd been roping over.

“This wretch should be dead,” said Karl. “He might live a day if Anna were here to look after him close, as he's cut up bad. Now who was stabbing him?”

“I was,” I said. “These people were so infernally disinclined to talk that I...”

I stood, seeing a third brass glint – and I leaped and then kicked the head of the man who was showing it. I removed another of those accursed four-shooting court-jester pistols – and with that, I started at one end of the 'line' of traitors and began slitting pockets with my knife, then rifling everything out of them to gather it into a mound of 'stuff' on the floor near the bookcases. Thankfully, those as of yet showed little blood.

“Four more of those stinking pistols,” I muttered, “three bad knives that aren't much bigger than mine...”

“There was this one wretch with one eye,” said Karl, “and no teeth. What happened to him?”

“I busted out his teeth and made him swallow his own eyeball,” I said flatly. “I've only begun with these people, though – they've not been giving me the answers that I want to hear.”

Between Karl and I, it took nearly half an hour to remove their 'strings' and then rope-together the hands of those traitors that yet remained alive – and during that time, on multiple occasions, a traitor that had at first seemed 'dead' to Karl not only proved to be very much alive, but also inclined to fight our efforts. I usually kicked those that resisted in the head, though in one instance, one wormed out a 'shiv' that I had somehow missed in my searching of pockets.

I threw my rat-club at him, this unthinkingly and with rifle-like accuracy.

The club bounced off of his arm with a bone-snapping crack, then narrowly missed Karl as it flew over him to hit the floor near the far wall. He looked at me, then at the rat-club, then resumed working. I admired his stolidity, even if I did not admire the witch who had been trying to poke me with his 'shiv'. I looked closer at the 'poker', and then took it to Karl.

“That is a bad awl with a handle that has been whittled down,” he said. “Lukas said witches used things like that to poke each other and people they wanted to rob.” Karl then asked me, “now how is it you kick like an angry mule in common shoes?”

“I'm not exactly sure, other than some very brief training I had had as a boy, perhaps,” I said. “I'm not sure if that's it, actually – it might be something entirely otherwise, now that I think about it.” I then paused before asking a question.

“Can the dead ones be brought out back also?” I asked. “There's something I need to do there.”

When Karl left after checking the ropes, I began kicking these roped-together people to their feet. There, I 'linked them up' with the two remaining coils of rope: each of these people, save for the very last in line, had a hangman's knot about his neck going to the waist of the traitor in line behind him, while the first man had no knot for his waist. I'd stabbed him low in the back three times on each side to make up for its absence. I'd then reversed the order of roping, rear-to-front and neck-to-waist, such that the person in the rear – I'd also given him three pokes for each kidney – now had a neck-rope also, with only the person in front not having a rope for his neck of that type, as there was no person in front of him.

He had one going the other way, however, and all save those in the very front and rear of the column had two neck-ropes, one going to the person in front and another to the rear.

Between these two poles of treason, each of the now-hobbled survivors was linked neck-to-waist. I had had no leg-irons handy, else I would have used those as well.

I was going to march them out back. There, I would resume my questioning of them.

“Left hand gripping the shoulder of the wretch in front of you,” I shouted. “Synchronize your breathing and your feet, then march! For-hard, Huargh!”

I went to the door of the office and opened it, sword in hand; and as they filed out slowly and gingerly, I yelled, “you stinking whores, lift those damned-to-hell feet up past your accursed waists, and then pound them into the floor so that I can hear them bleed! I want to you to shake these walls as you pound your feet into this floor, curse your damned eyes!”

While their feet lifted slightly higher, and a semblance of rhythm began to rustle among them, I saw a slight problem beyond the obvious: the traitor at the front of the column had nothing to do with his left arm. That needed addressing.

“Hang out that left claw, you accursed snake-spawn of a witch!” I screamed. “Clutch that familiar spirit's left shoulder like the talons of a black rooster!”

That person did as instructed, though feebly. I then recalled the usual way marching was supposedly done where I came from: counting cadence, and the pacing of the marchers done in time to it. That was the answer, and I began yelling it at the top of my lungs:

Left! Left! Left-Right-Left!” I paused, then I yelled, “Curse you, you idiots! Hope on those damned-to-hell left hooves when I tell you 'Left' twice in a row!”

I stalked up and down the column, its moving slow, the feet still shuffling, the rhythm ragged and clumsy-sounding. In my mind, each slammed-into-the-floor pace was to sound like thunder, and the rhythm of marching was to have the machine-like precision of a group of robots running the same exact program in perfect synchronization: feet, breath, everything – even the beat of their failing hearts – all were to beat as one, fully as much as if no individuals existed anymore, but they had all merged their souls and bodies into a machine.

“And as the war-machine keeps turning,” I thought. The recollection was impossible to ignore, for I was speaking from memory. “That has to be in that black book somewhere.”

This distraction sufficed to point out to me the lagging person in the middle of the column. He was the gear with the broken tooth; the dirty bearing; the worn linkage: in short, he was the problem, and the whole machine therefore needed to be taken down and then thoroughly 'overhauled'.

He was dragging his feet, this ever so slightly.

I did not tolerate such rank rebellion among those I was 'educating', and I came to him, pirouetted and leaped, then threw a roundhouse kick to the side of his head that flung him such that his ropes went taut, then stretched to near the breaking point – and the whole column toppled to the left like a row of dominoes amid a forest of choking and gagging sounds.

I then began to kick them, my blows landing wildly, until they were onto their feet once more. Once I had them all standing – their eyes glazed, their tongues hanging out, choking noises from nearly all of them, I screamed, sword again clenched in my white-knuckled grip: “out, damn your eyes! Out! Move, you cursed swine, out! Run, damn you all to hell, or I will cut you up more!”

The mob attempted to run, and choked themselves yet more until they formed up in column, where their thrashing feet reminded me of mules attempting to gallop away from the coach they were hitched to. As this occurred, I realized the following: while they were still altogether unbroken regarding delivering up useful answers to my questions as of yet, they were very much broken regarding expecting anything close to mercy at my hands, much less anything close to 'common-sense' behavior. I could smell the fear boiling off of them, and its sheer intensity gave me thoughts of using that very emotion against them.

I shot into a leaping run after the last in line and caught up with him nearly instantly, then grabbed him by the hair with my left hand as I put my foot down. While still gripping his hair in a death-grip, I leaped straight up – and kneed him in the spine with my left knee. I heard his strangled wheeze as his neck-rope cinched down tight to strangle him, then somehow I managed to stay airborne – and then pirouette in midair, then knee him in the gut with the right knee.

He screamed like a damned soul being throttled by the tail of Brimstone, and the others echoed his half-strangled screaming as they fell to the ground one at a time over the next two seconds.

And upon seeing this happen, something inside of me 'snapped' like a dirty glass rod: mere 'fear' was not enough.

I wanted more, much more, so very much more – and I would do anything to make it happen.

I wanted terror, terror so total that I was now completely mindless with rage, and with but one single goal in mind – achieving a state of total and overwhelming terror – I tossed every shred of reason I had remaining unto me and sought with all I had to get that very thing.

I began beating them as if crazed, and this with my hands and feet alone.

Within seconds, I knew that I had had a vast gulf of rage remaining inside of me, and heretofore I had been far beyond kind and gentle with these people. Now that collection of niceties was completely gone, and as bone after bone cracked under the relentless pounding that I delivered for nearly three sweaty speed-blurred minutes without an instant's letup, the column then once more took its feet such that I had a measure of satisfaction.

A modest one, anyway.

They were but halfway across the main hallway of the first floor, and nearly forty yards from the east-facing main door of the house proper; they were now facing due west; they were marching in the manner of fifth kingdom slaves...

And they were marching backwards, each foot-pounding step crackling like thunder as all of their feet rose to several inches past their waists and then those bleeding feet smashed as hard as possible into the stones of the floor, then their other bloody feet repeated the identical process – and all of this, including the hopping backward on the left feet twice as per my orders, was done in time to my shouted cadence.

The previous wall of 'monolithic obdurate resistance' was now beginning to crumble, just like the hall had crumbled under the barrage of flung artillery-shell-cum-wine-bottles prior to being blown to hell and gone by the two 'big-bombs' and the remaining liquid-filled bottles piled between them. The majority of these people, however, were not silent; they were whining, weeping tearfully, and moaning. Those not making such noises were 'sucking wind' – and on the verge of strangulation due to the tightness of those neck-ropes I had fashioned for them.

I kept up the screamed cadence, now waving my sword as if it were a 'swagger stick', glaring at these wretches angrily without cease, and as they passed out into the late afternoon sunshine and down the steps, and from thence to under the first of the trees – I cursed at them and poked several with my sword when the people in question looked as if they were going to trip up the column while going down the stairs. This was such that when I screamed “Halt!”, this well under the trees, one of them near the middle of the column – one of the chiefest of the accursed whiners, in fact – moaned this tripe after sniveling for a second or so:

“P-please, s-spare me,” he moaned. “Have mercy...”

I had no idea as to what to do with such an utterly stupid and foolish request, save for one thing: do the precise and exact opposite of what he had asked.

It was time for another object lesson, and he had chosen himself by his contemptible whining to be the object of my lesson.

I walked to this man, sheathing my sword as I did so. Out came the knife, its three inches of too short blade now bright once more and glinting with oil; and I grabbed his right shoulder with my left hand while I sank the knife into his gut at the lower left corner of his abdomen. His screaming, those times before seemingly muted in comparison, now took on a new level as to pitch and volume, one I had not yet heard among any of these men. I turned loose of my knife, leaving it clenched by his gut-wound, and then punched him full in the mouth – and with now-bloodstained knuckles, I resumed sawing his guts open, each stroke short, sharp, and jagged, like a slow-running saber-saw.

I was fully past caring now, and that completely; I wanted these fools to be so terrified of me, so terror-stricken, that they would genuinely – and greatlyprefer Brimstone's company to mine.

I now reached the bottom of his rib cage, then turned the blade to the left while I continued jab-slicing. Blood was pouring from the cut, staining the ground, the front of his lower body, my clothing, and my hand up to my elbow, but I did not care any more about blood – his blood, or anyone else's. At the right margin of his abdomen, I turned the corner with my knife, still stab-cutting, slicing, ripping, tearing; then I began to saw-cut downward. His screaming continued unabated, but as I finished cutting this flap of his skin, his intestines suddenly piled forward onto his boots; and as a reproach for so insulting me by dumping his guts without me first commanding him to do so – and that by the numbers; there was a definite order to 'dumping your tripes', with each coil of intestine, each organ, and the other offal common to witches numbered explicitly in my mind, and they had to come out and fall to the ground in that precise order – that I spat full at his face as I turned loose of him. He collapsed then, and the other roped-together witches fell down in a row, this slowly, one at a time with choking noises, to give him company upon the ground.

And I laughed at him, my laugh high, maniacal, and insane, as he thrashed in the slow-growing pool of his own blood and offal; he splattered his neighbors with his blood and body fluids as he thrashed. I had words for him once I had finished laughing at his plight.

“You” – here, I meant the slow-thrashing wretch I had just cut open – “will rot in a tree, fool, and be an object lesson for these others here.” This I said in a high-pitched scream that echoed among the trees and seemed to shake both the ground and their leaves. “I think these lessons on the wages of sin need to begin with you, you scum-licking Babylonian whore! Those lessons are these, you idiots:

“First, you shall die, and die screaming, and die screaming as I kill you for my express pleasure,” I snarled. “Secondly, you shall then be cast down to hell where you belong, where the teeth of Brimstone shall gnaw you as his choicest food for all of time; and finally, you shall be judged, and that harshly, and the way of that Judge shall make you long – with screams and shrieks of loving adoration – for the sensation of my hands ripping you apart limb from limb!” My voice then regained its high-pitched shrieking echo of a scream:

“Rope! Rope! Rope, the mean stuff, and that swiftly!”

From somewhere to my left a large coil of fearsomely spiky rope flew through the air to then land at my feet, and I began tying them up, feet to neck as they lay upon the ground, this in addition to their other bonds. For some reason, this particular rope actually held my knots well; and when I had finished tying them, I had words for their hearing.

“You shall speak when I command you,” I growled in a brutally harsh-sounding voice. “You shall give me my choicest desire, which is the information I wish in the manner of my choosing; and I shall take it, and then I shall take your lives. Regardless of what you do or say, however, you shall die; your heads shall rot upon poles, their labels those of treason and witchcraft, and that before God and man – in that order; your bodies shall be dismembered, their pieces bagged, and those bags to be labeled with treason and witchcraft also; and both heads and bags shall be hung publicly, where the largest streets of the first kingdom house cross each other, and they shall there remain, untouched by the hands of man or the claws of beasts, until of their own accord they shall fall to the ground in rotten fragments.”

A pause, then, “and now, this idiot here shall instruct you fools as to the nature of your end.”

I kicked the still-alive man I had disemboweled onto his side, and I re-tied his hands tightly behind his back – as tight as I could – before cutting him free from the mass of ropes tying him to the others. The remnant of that most-recently arrived rope went about his feet, where I tied it tightly in the shape of a hangman's noose. I had had decent luck with those holding, unlike most other knots I had tied in the recent past.

I dragged the man by that rope to the trunk of the nearest tree, where the other witches could plainly see him; then I tossed the free end of the rope over a branch about twelve feet up from the ground. It came down to dangle at the height of my face, where hand-over-hand, I began to haul him up. First, his feet came up; then his waist; then his chest; and finally, he finished, now screaming unceasingly, with his head hanging down three feet from the ground and the ragged bloody mess of his intestines and viscera hiding his face. Unlike those I had done the day before, this man's viscera truly formed a 'red carpet', one that dripped with blood; and as I tied the rope to the trunk of the tree using another hangman's knot, I knew of but one last thing that I needed to do to him.

The curse of silence,” I whispered, as I made ready with my hands and my knife. I was caked with blood, and I now relished the sense of slow-clotting gore covering my clothing and body. It made me a monster – and witches feared monsters such as I. I almost wanted a horn to blow, though I had no idea what kind of horns were the right ones.

The man's screaming abated for an instant, and I acted: I slapped his gut-covered face until the blood sprayed for tens of feet and covered my hands and arms anew up to my elbows; then I reached in among his dangling guts until I found his mouth. There, the pincers, these from my possible bag, came into play, and I grasped his tongue with them and 'locked' them down hard. I then plunged my knife-hand in amongst his viscera, then by feel, I sliced open his right cheek, then sliced around with the knife while pulling with the pincers until I had cut his tongue free. A quick fling of of the knife to spray more blood onto the traitors, followed by a wipe upon one of the traitor's clothing to clean it passably; then it once more found my pocket.

I then drew my sword. Witches respected swords, for those were a matter of power – and I had that now in full measure as I went to the first of the roped-together witches with the blood-dripping fragment of meat in the still-locked pincers.

“One bite each, you accursed witches,” I snarled, “and one small bite only.” A pause. “This is just the beginning of your education on the wages of sin.” Another pause. “That education will continue for all time in Hell after I am done teaching you fools about such matters here.”

The first man began gnawing tentatively, but when I poked him in the gut with my sword he bit down savagely instead of screaming. I yanked the rest free with a jerk that drew three teeth after it, then made him chew slowly and thoroughly at sword-point before swallowing the tiny morsel of 'witch-tongue' he'd actually gotten. Once it was down and swallowed, I repeated that same process with the next-in-line witch, sword at the ready and screamed oaths as well; and after about ten minutes, the tongue was gone, down to its smallest fragment; and each witch had tasted his mouthful of blood-soaked flesh.

They were true-witches now: they had eaten human flesh and tasted human blood, and therefore, they were indeed witches – and more, with the consuming of the last morsel, courtesy of my poking sword making more holes in their guts, I had achieved an outcome at once surprising and difficult for me to believe.

I had shattered their resolve, and that completely; and now, they would give answers.

I called loudly in a slightly hoarse voice for a writer, and as running steps came quickly from the door of the house, I looked around. Here came Thomas, only instead of chalk and a slate, he had a ledger and what might have been several 'pencils' ready-sharpened and a stool for his seat. He found a clean place on the lawn, sat down, opened his ledger to a clean sheet, and then looked at me, waiting as if for a signal of some kind. I had his full attention, much as I now owned these witches as surely as if I were indeed the chief arch-witch of the whole continent and they were my property to do with as per my inclination of the moment.

As I asked questions of them in a casual voice, I began get answers, answers that were not merely useful, but ones that I either suspected to be the truth before asking the questions or knew beyond all doubt to be true the very instant I heard them. The first one – this confirmed by multiple replies – was that they had indeed been purchased, this with a surprisingly hefty monthly stipend, one that most likely doubled their house-paid – and non-trivial – monetary income.

I rewarded this answer – and that multitude which followed it in response to my questions – by using the tools that had followed me by some strange means out into the yard and under the trees.

I used the old-style carpenter's hammers on bones, which splintered them into bloody ruin wherever I happened to strike; I found an old awl, this of unusual length, and poked holes in their lungs so as to give them 'sucking chest wounds'; I found an old saw, which I used to saw off fingers and toes, which after amputating the appendages in question, I let the ragged stumps bleed and made the amputees eat their own flesh without chewing like the snakes they were; and now and then, I put aside all of these commonplace things and drew my sword once more.

I removed larger things with it: hands at times; other times feet; and more than a few times – more often, in fact, than all else – I delicately sliced open the trousers of the man in question, grabbed the man's 'organ' with the pincers – and removed it and his testicles by raggedly slicing them off. This usually caused terrible screaming, which I silenced by grasping the bloody stump of what I had just removed, punching the person in the mouth as hard as I could with my fist as I gripped the sword harder than usually – and then ramming the still-dripping bloody penis into the gasping hole that I had made with my blow, and then shoving the bloody mess in up to the ragged-cut stump, such that the man's cheeks bulged out like a hamster's from his own testicles.

Silence then was indeed golden, if otherwise bloody; and I spoke of those whose mouths were thusly plugged to be spiked with those plugs still in place, the explanation given being this: “those witches had truly evil curses they wished to say, and what I just did is the means of preventing them from speaking those death-curses when they actually die.”

I then laughed maniacally at those who were now sucking their own balls. I had promised to do that exact thing, and I had kept my promise to the full; and now, those people were indeed choking on their own 'weapons' – and with that, I noted even more the following: the witches were broken; I had broken them; and now, those few still able to talk – those few knowing information yet unspoken – were delivering up to me that which was mine to take when and as I chose, that being the information I wished and then their lives.

Most of all, I was 'getting results'. I knew a fair number of 'old hares' both living and dead would thoroughly approve of what I was doing, and as the screamed truth of the third degree session – this was one of those affairs, one of those bloody horrors the Teacher of Guards had but hinted about – filled page after page in the ledger, I was alert for repeated information. When I started to hear repeated dates, times and places from those still able to talk, I cleaned my sword as well as I could upon what portions of their clothing that was not bloodstained, then sheathed it – and drew out my knife.

That one man I had hung by his feet had been the beginning of my 'gut-slitting'. I began to cut more of them open in the precise same manner, and after the fourth witch was cut open and his guts lay mounded upon his face and chest where I had piled them with my blood-dripping hands, I started to hear new information from those three witches still able to speak, this of a truly surprising nature:

A cove, this 'somewhere to the east' and just off of the Main river, complete with a smaller Norden-ship and a sizable well-used camp filled with Spams tinned and otherwise.

The actual 'date' of the black-clothed ringleader's arrival – nearly a year before my own coming, and he was indeed, by all accounts, not merely a Thinker, but an especially selected man of considerable experience and training. More, Ultima Thule had sent him her-own-self for this particular job, which told me something about her own priorities and where she thought her chiefest danger lay.

The rites of Norden's witches – it seemed that those people actually did come to the mainland with some frequency, there to do things far too bizarre to describe readily – they were quite secretive, according to the three I was questioning – but otherwise thought to be most effectual in motivating their forces both domestic and foreign

Idols, these being of metal, wood, stone and clay, and of both foreign and domestic manufacture. One of the nearest domestic idol-manufacturing places was a certain well-known volcano in the area, and its inhabitants did much business that way. They did many other things desired by witchdom, but these people knew nothing about those activities, even if they did know the place made idols in some quantity. Otherwise, 'idol-making' was a cottage industry in some of the more-impoverished witch-held regions to the north – and that part of the country could pass for the 'worst' sections of the second kingdom in places regarding what witches could and did routinely do.

Their 'coven' – not much as witches; there were no bones involved – but witches they surely were, and that for everyone taking part in the plot, both foreign and domestic. That Thinker was the nominal coven-leader; while the true leader, of course, was a witch imported specially from Norden for the task and tasked for that job by Ultima Thule her-own-self. The witch in question came periodically to preside over 'coven-meetings', and the Thinker interpreted her speech when that was possible.

I had the impression that much, if not most of her speech, however, was sundry rune-curses – and that man was ignorant of those. Thinkers didn't do anything with curses, and that by Ultima Thule's own especial edict.

Their longing for the flavorful flesh of swine and squabs, and their gross and crude-spoken profanity-laced irritation that such 'tasty viands' were now beyond their capacity to acquire; and not merely because of their fifty-fold increase in price when they could be found. Such foods were now genuinely difficult to get – regardless of price – unless one knew the right people and wanted to travel an entire day at a hard pace to where they could be prepared and consumed; wait a day or perhaps two for the smell to dissipate enough to travel safely out of those near-uninhabited regions; then head back into 'the heart of darkness' once more at the same horse-laming pace – and these people did not get that kind of time off, either from their nominal jobs or their secret duties.

The two activities convolved left them with very little free time, so much so that only by living in the house could they do both jobs.

Their 'love' for the witch-queen of Norden, and their wholeheartedly desire for our complete and total destruction as a people.

And finally, their willing and self-chosen bondage to her, each one of them, individually and collectively, as her true and boughten fully-owned witch-slaves.

“That term is real, then,” I thought. It seemed far too 'unreal' to be true, but it was indeed true; and the precise words I had once heard were now spoken and confirmed several times in my hearing. More, hearing such confirmed the entire hyper-dominant master-slave relationship common to witchdom: one was either a master or a slave, depending on one's companions and circumstances. The goal of the entire arrangement was total, complete, and unrelenting control by those who were one's betters – and to become such a being necessitated all manner of evil behavior. Murder was a given, but there was much more to climbing in the witch-world beyond killing. How much more, and what those activities were, was a matter these people had had little idea of. They were near the very bottom of the witch-ladder, even if they'd been told otherwise by those above them.

The impression I had gotten by this time was “they've been told enough for them to do their jobs and not much more, save if such knowledge helped them along the path that Thinker laid out for them. Otherwise, they know what they've seen and heard in the process of being involved in some of Norden's more-secret doings in this area – and witches, both imported and domestic, tend to be secretive wretches when and where they can.”

But a short time later, I knew: I had all taken all the information that they had to give. All that was left remaining to them were their lives; and as I drew my sword after cleaning my knife as well as I could, I knew the remaining part I had to play with these men: take their heads, then pile the severed heads into as neat a mound as I could manage. That portion had an odd importance, and beyond that, I understood little. The bodies I would cut up...

“No,” I thought, as I swung on the first neck and kicked the head out of the way as the blood poured out in a rapidly diminishing gush of redness. I didn't have time for that; certainly not right now. I knew who did, however:

“Those two 'guards': let them cut up all of these bodies into pieces, these no larger in size than a man's hand, and that done using an ax or sword; let them bag the body parts of each body, leaving no choice morsels behind, and keeping the body parts entirely separate to each such bag; let them tie up the bags, and affix the labels; and finally, let them, under gun-toting supervision, actually plant the accursed heads and body-bags in the center of each street-crossing in the house such that the stink of death fills the entire whole of the city.”

“Who would these two people be?” asked Thomas. I then realized I had actually been speaking aloud, and while doing so, I had sliced off three more heads. More than a dozen remained, and that did not include those dead who had been brought out without my noticing it. They would be decapitated also – and every witch on the premises, that Thinker included, would be cut up and bagged to hang and rot at every possible crossroads in the kingdom house.

“Those wretches who failed at their posts today,” I muttered, as I swung on another head. “They failed God, they failed Hendrik, they failed Maria, and they failed the rest of us by not performing to the utmost of their capacity.”

“That isn't much with those two,” said Thomas. “I almost wish they'd been among those who had died when you took the first Koenraad's head.” I heard writing, then “still, doing what you said might salvage them to a certain degree.”

“Yes, if that work I spoke of is done without stopping for food, drink, rest, visits to the privy, or sleep until it is completed to the uttermost degree,” I muttered. “If it takes them an unceasing three days to do the whole of that work, then let it take three entire days; and if they cease from their labors before the job is done in its entirety, and that for any reason whatsoever, cut them down on the spot and add their heads and chopped-to-pieces bodies to those of these stinking traitors. I'm finished with those two, and were they present, I'd” – here, I removed another head – “I'd chop them up into pie-filling right here and right now, and that while they still lived to cheer me up with their screams for mercy.”

“I have think they've left the premises, actually,” said Thomas, “and if I know some people, they'd best not think to head homeward, but rather out of the kingdom entirely.”

“As they'll be killed, won't they?” I asked quietly. “I sincerely hope that happens, actually.”

“So I just wrote,” said Thomas, as I swung on another traitor's neck and sent his head flying. “I'll see that those instructions get into the right hands.”

As I swung on another neck, I knew that I had just ordered that those two be killed on sight if they were seen anywhere in the first kingdom – and that, I noted with grim satisfaction. I swung on another neck; but another few left to kill of this batch, then decapitate those who had died earlier – and then to make a 'monument' of sorts to my savagery.

Not that I needed such recognition, nor that I wanted it; but I now realized I needed to add to my 'reputation' when and as I could. Such doings would have some modest effect upon the influx of witches, and a substantially greater effect upon those not witches. I came to the last of the roped-together traitors, and as I turned his body over just so that he could see his death approaching, I saw that his eyes were locked in the rictus of death; and terror, like that of all the others I had just killed, was writ plain and large upon his features.

I swung on him anyway, then as quickly as I could, I decapitated the remaining bodies. I had work to do, this being getting cleaned up enough that Jaak would hopefully endure me and my weapons would not corrode; and then, gather enough of a party – hopefully, a competent party – to run down the other portion of this accursed plot and put an end to them and their ways.

Yet now, there was the monument that needed building, or the 'samadh' as someone in my recollection had once called such things; and using the long and lank blood-caked hair of each severed head, I carefully stacked the heads into a somewhat sloppy mound. I paid the sensation of my blood-caked skin no mind, and the same for my blood-clotted clothing; this was War, and the Hare spread dirt where it willed when it roared past like an explosion and left coughing and spitting filth-caked veterans in its wake.

And the emerald color of the grass below my feet, once the color of spring, was now stained a deep and darksome shade of red, the color of butchery, of raw meat, of death, and of destruction; and this redness was omnipresent, piled thickly in places where the blood had piled slowly while it was clotting; and gobbets of raw meat littered the ground as well as the slow-drying blood.

“Is that vinegar I smell?” I thought, as I sniffed out the familiar reek. Thomas had gone, and so had his stool and ledger; and in their place, I saw a large and steaming bucket, from whence that odor was coming. I went to it, and before I did aught else, I cleaned every weapon I had of blood, and that with utmost care. Those were to have attention before my skin, my clothing, and even my life; and once those were thoroughly clean and properly oiled, in place, ready to use once more – I began to clean, with all possible speed, as much blood as I could from skin and clothing.

“Best do as good a job as I can, while not wasting time,” I thought, as I soaked my hair and shirt with the steaming liquid from a 'rag-hunk'. “That stink will alert the enemy, even more than it will bother Jaak.”

The water was becoming the thickness and consistency of blood by the time I was finished, but the stink of blood was hidden by the reek of vinegar, which sufficed. I turned to see three people, only one of which of whom I knew by name, looking over the 'samadh' I had stacked and the dark and bloodied ground that surrounded it for some distance in all directions. I'd left the headless bodies lay, as the dismemberment of the dead could wait upon the decease of the still-living enemy to the east.

“Well,” I said in a 'business-like' fashion, “we need to go find that cove and deal with the rest of them.” A pause, then, “the huntsmen? Where are they? We need to hurry.”

Two of the three shot off toward the house as if their trousers were burning, while the one that remained behind proved to be Karl. I wondered if what I had done had gotten to him.

He pointed to the feebly-thrashing body I had hung in the tree, and said, “I never thought I would see such a thing.”

“Old tales?” I asked, as I began walking with him toward the house's entrance. The people and things we needed were in there.

“That is like seeing one of them, not hearing about it from your grandfather,” said Karl, “and of those I know of, that there is like seeing Charles' own work. He did things like you did.”

I was going to ask about stacking heads, when instead what came from my mouth was pent-up 'feelings' of a truly unexpected sort: “I have hated traitors my entire life, Karl, and betrayal, especially when it has been poured out upon you like water when you are a small child, hurts more than any and all words that exist can speak of.”

I needed to pause here, for I could 'feel' the effects of the other two people as they began to speak to those yet in the house proper. To say they had 'started something' was an understatement, which made me wonder: why was Hendrik outside of room 67? Where was Maria? Who had spoken the word 'keyhole' and relieved those two 'guards' such that they could leave the building? That made my next comment audible.

“They left the building,” I muttered.

“Who is this?” asked Karl.

“Those two, uh, guards,” I said. “They failed once more, and that puts a death-warrant upon them over and above what I asked for, unless I miss my guess.” It brought me back to my former point. “When traitors betray you as a small child, one of two things happens to you: you either become one yourself and all you do is treason until you join the king of traitors in hell where you belong, or you do all that you possibly can to not let others be hurt by such people.”

Karl looked at me, then shook his head as we climbed the steps and went inside.

“Did I say something wrong?” I asked.

“No,” said Karl. “Those who abuse children so burn as witches, and those two you spoke of will burn as witches, or my name is not Karl. I will kill them myself should I see them, no matter the place or the time, and I will tell Mathias when I see him who they are.”

To my surprise, the first person I encountered was Hendrik, and he seemed embarrassed. “I have no idea how I missed those two people, but they surprised me completely when they left about a glass's turn after you had them escort us to your room.”

Missed?” I asked. In my mind, they were now traitors indeed; one did not leave one's post, especially in an emergency.

“I did not bring them down” said Hendrik. “Perhaps it was more than surprise, as the shot I have, while it is decent shot, is a trifle on the small size. It's more for quolls and things like them than thugs.”

“Maria?” I asked,

Is safe,” said Hendrik. “She has her weapons, and Sarah is in there with her with those guard-muskets handy – and while Sarah is not a guard, I trust her nearly as much as I trust you yourself, and I know she can fight.” I had the impression Hendrik knew of this more than by 'gossip' – though Anna's speech regarding what she'd seen and done after that one affair wasn't in the same class as the usual hearsay. Besides, he could always ask about what it was like to shoot a roer at a 'hard-witch', or blow up a dynamite-laden coach at a range of less than thirty feet.

“The guard-muskets?” I asked. I was glad they'd left them behind, as now Sarah was 'armed'. “They didn't take those, as they would be then known to be thieves, and weapons like those are uncommon enough in this area to identify them readily as such.”

Hendrik again shook his head. “They left those behind also. Only when Andreas came a short time later and spoke the password did we know it was safe enough to come back out.” Hendrik's tone then changed into something that I expected him to have after the perfidy of those two 'guards'.

“They won't have homes to go home to,” he spat. “They're outlawed to the ultimate degree now, and I've sent word by messenger to Tam to see to both them and their families.”

A pause, this of several seconds. Two men were but a short distance away, and seemed to be getting ready for 'something'. I'd never seen them before, even if their bows and arrows – and clothing, this being the closest thing to forest camouflage I had yet seen here, more so than my normal clothing – gave me a decent idea as to who they might be. I had to ask Hendrik a question, though; as to ride with us would cement his own reputation, and that would be worth a vast amount in the months to come. He would become 'hard' as well as 'tough' in the minds of those who knew him – and in certain circles to the south, that counted for a great deal, possibly far more than he currently realized.

“Are you up to a longish ride?” I asked.

“Yes, but with whom?” he asked. “I'm not much with a bow.”

“I'm passable with one,” I said. “Then, there are those two men over there, which I presume to be the huntsmen you mentioned.”

“A third man is getting his things ready,” said Hendrik. “He should come shortly.

“So we have you – bad shot or no, it's important that you yourself go on this one, as that's going to help a lot in the months to come when dealing with the other kingdoms – those three, me...” A pause. “We need a few more, but only a few. Ideally, we need between six and ten people in total: six being the minimum needed to shoot down those thugs fast enough that we don't end up getting killed should they rush us or decide to shoot back, and more than ten would make enough noise for them to learn of our presence too soon.” I paused, then said, “it's important that they all be quiet, also.”

“It will have to be Gabriel for one of them, then,” said Hendrik. I heard obvious misgivings in his voice, so much so that I wondered why he was mentioned. While Gabriel had gone south on the trip, much of the way back he'd caused enough trouble that he'd almost gotten us all killed – and on top of that, his tendency toward 'oblivion' was as much evident lately as it had ever been.

“Does he know how to use a bow?” This my bare-whispered question.

“He does, but only about as well as I do,” said Hendrik. “More, both of those bows and arrows we received in the fourth kingdom are stored in his office.”

“Why, other than that 'closet' called the museum is getting crowded and they're readily accessible in there – oh, and his office is fairly safe now, now that Generals and their supplicants are scarce?”

Hendrik looked at me with open mouth and surprise writ upon his face, and nodded.

“And we cannot use Kees,” I murmured. “It seems he has trouble not merely with guns, but also...”

“Kees has trouble with anything resembling a weapon, save perhaps a smaller club suitable for rats,” said Hendrik. “He's best kept busy in his office inking documents, as he does that extremely well – and we're doing that more now than since I took office a few years ago. A lot more, actually.”

“Not just mail,” I said. “Documents you plan on archiving, also, as ink gives them an added permanence and drastically improves their legibility.” A pause, then, “everything in those ledgers that you have is inked if it's legible, correct? Especially if it's an older document?”

Hendrik nodded, now surprised that I had figured that matter out. I then had an idea as to who might be sufficient to 'round out' our party and give it sufficient 'firepower'. Karl was doing a 'double shift, so he wasn't available – and he'd proven to be worse than 'awful' when using a bow, but I'd heard some few rumors about the very latest crop of guards.

Some of those people could shoot bows passably at the least. They'd had to stay fed somehow during their year and more of living 'alone' in the woods.

“Perhaps two of those newest guards?” I asked. “They might be quiet enough in the woods, but then again...” I was thinking, “if we use them, I want the two that went to the hall's nonsense. They'll not back down if those people try for us.”

“I'm not sure about them, unless they were among the handful of that second class that took part in the hall's destruction,” said Hendrik. “They're otherwise untried, and Norden's people are involved.”

Those two that I had thinking of proved unavailable; they were elsewhere, most likely in town fetching things they needed to set up housekeeping. Given that they had nowhere else to live, I wasn't surprised much; and with further reports, these by runner, the other results came in: nearly everyone, save for those either on duty or who were going to be on duty during the next posting, were 'elsewhere', save for two people of that newest class.

Like those two now marked for death – that was a given now; they were judged to be traitors of a sort – these people had not gone to wreck the hall. However, unlike those who had 'run off', they had not 'begged off' or found 'excuses' – they had been 'working' at the house proper that evening on post with an older guard; more, they had wanted to go, and that badly.

“At least they're available, and they are willing to go – and they can go right now, not 'later',” I thought. “They've spent over a year dodging witches in the woods, so they should know how to be quiet.”

The preparations continued; and as part of them, I went toward Gabriel's office. I suspected he was at work upon documents of a sort himself, and when he came to the door in response to my tapping, he was but one of a few in the house who had not stared at me.

I had ignored such staring; I had a job to do, and it was but part-finished; more, those remaining might escape if we did not hurry. I could feel some of the other traitors, these being the well-hid and raggedly-clothed 'watchers' for our boughten traitors; and while they were on foot, they were neither slow nor laggardly in their efforts. We needed to beat them, and that by at least an hour.

A sleeping camp – or one unaware of our presence – would make for easier extermination.

However, when Gabriel showed – he was indeed working on a document – he proved to have 'dug out' both bows and those arrows we had received, and it took him but minutes to douse his lights – two student's lanterns with wax candles – cork his ink-vial; he was speaking of 'ink' when he did this – and then, after handing me the pair of fourth kingdom bows and the sizable pouch of arrows, he closed and 'keyed' his door.

I then saw the small silver ring on the side of one of the bows, and as I looked at it, I noted that it did not show the marks of either filing or buffing. “Someone machined this thing, or at least portions of the wax portion of the mold,” I thought, “and they used my ideas of quick-detach locking fittings.” I wondered if Gabriel knew of the recent happenings.

“There were traitors,” I said, “and... I wanted to say, “I made a horrible stinking mess!”

“What I was copying down in there were some of the notes from that session,” said Gabriel, “as we need multiple copies, and our printing setup is entirely fit for scrapping. Kees will ink them once I finish writing out the three or four copies needed.”

“Forms in triplicate,” I thought. Time was a-wasting, and we needed to go.

One for general use here,” he said as he walked with me to where the others were yet gathering near the juncture of entrance hallway and main 'court', “one to send south by special courier, and one for the archives – and possibly one for you, though I suspect a writing dowel's marks will suffice for that one, provided it's kept sharp.” A brief pause, then, “if a person in this house does not now know of what happened, he is either blind, deaf, or was dead to the world, for the noise and the smell has traveled far – and I fully agree with what was written about witches being traitors to God and man.”

“Written?” I asked. I barely recalled what I had spoken of, other than that information I needed to know in order to find the cove. It was somewhere to the east, it was just off of the Main, it was sizable and fairly well hidden, and its people were within days of sailing downstream, this presuming Hendrik had been eliminated and all in the house had been put to the sword by the contingent of spams who were to come during the night after the plot had succeeded. That one Thinker had planned on picking a horse out of those in the horse-barn and riding the thing to death at a hard-flogged gallop in the process of returning to his waiting 'assault group' at or near this particular cove.

“We need to hurry now,” I said to the group as I passed through them and walked rapidly toward the entrance. “I do not wish them to get away.”

The horses proved to be gathered outside next to the hitching rail, save for Jaak; he was waiting, his 'saddle-cloth' in his mouth, and as I shook it out and mounted, I wondered if he would endure me. The first impression I got was “you smell like really bad sour wine mingled with blood.”

“Sorry, can't be helped right now,” I thought. I then 'showed' what I had been forced to do. My preference for mere 'bluff' had been called in great measure, and these people had needed an entire 'straight out of an old tale' third degree session to give up what they knew.

I was surprised greatly they had not merely told whatever they could to make the torture stop, until I realized one thing: unlike the semi-mythical tormentors of my world, I could tell – usually fairly clearly at the least, if not with absolute precision – if I was hearing lies and other such drivel; and I dealt with such 'lying' viciously upon hearing it. When I heard truth – I could tell when I heard that, also, chiefly as I commonly had impressions as to what the truth was before I asked questions regarding it – I was a good deal less vicious in my punishments; and I was after the precise and exact truth, and I would stop at nothing to get it.

These people had learned that relatively early. What they did not know – until I had broken them completely – was just how far I was willing to go to rip the truth out of them, and that in all of its gory detail.

Just like an old horn-blowing 'monster', one of them who blew horns and lived to kill evildoers.

Under the west end of the trees, this in the shadow of the boatwright's shop, the horses were now gathered with us mounted while I gave some small indications of what needed to be done next. I had made the mess – I was thinking of it in those precise terms – somewhere further into the trees, not at their edge. I tried hard to recall that portion of what I heard as to where that Norden-ship had actually sheltered. The traitors not been terribly specific, and I suspected they had never been near the place, or for that matter, told where it actually was. I'd have to find it myself, which I spoke of.

“Compartmentalization,” I thought. It was a familiar concept to me at least. “Tell them what they need to know, and enough more of a non-related nature to overcome all of their 'programming' to do otherwise, and no more.”

That did sound likely; and that, coming from the mind of one of Norden's thinkers, made for a chilling thought: those people knew what they were doing, and that in multiple senses. Once more, I had underestimated their capacity, and that badly. Norden not merely outnumbered us by a factor of ten to one, and their people were more capable than all save our very best if we had to resort to edged weapons; they also could readily out-think us, and that with half their brains tied behind their backs.

“Yes, if you get one of their very best people,” said the soft voice, “and that man was one of them. Norden took a serious hit from his loss that they're not going to recover from.”

“As in Norden's Von Moltke?” I said. “Their premier military strategist, or at least someone in that league?”

“Not much less,” said the soft voice, “and the next best person they have is not even close to being as good at his work.”

“No Schliefen plan, correct?” I thought. “He did leave notes, but the witches cannot read them.”

“Not even that,” said the soft voice. “Ultima Thule forbade him from making notes of any kind regarding her master plan for the continent, so such plans died when you removed his head.”

I then spoke of what kind of concealment we would need, and more, why: in the slow-gathering dusk, I would need to lead the column quickly and in and among cover as much as I could so as to dodge the quick-running witch-messengers coming to the Spam-camp with the dire news.

“They chose the Main river,” I said as we left by the front gate, “because it is closer, more readily passed at this time, and it has a number of shaded and protective coves within a reasonable distance. More, unlike most such camps, this one has been present, well-hid, since the ice broke up in that river and they sailed under darkness up the river and into it.”

“Why did they stay so long?” asked one of the new guards. He was was 'hot for the matter', if otherwise green. I'd been told that was a commonplace attitude among our newest people.

“Because few visit the Main's coves,” said Hendrik, “and they are ripe places to hide. More, I suspect this place has been used by them before.”

“Yes, many times,” I said. “We will see their markings upon the trees when we get there, if not a death-pole or three,” I said. “The river's dropping, so they'll need to leave soon regardless, even with their boat.”

“Not a regular war-ship?” asked Hendrik, as I led east while staying but feet from the house's hedges. I was glad for my compass, as a short distance beyond where we now were was unfamiliar country to me, and I wanted to stay either close by trees or actually in the trees as much as I could. The fleeing couriers would keep to the paths, thinking little beyond the obvious and familiar, as was the usual for those living here. I had a question, though.

“Do any of you know who that black-dressed wretch was?” I asked.

“Your questions answered much, but examination of his remains showed their accuracy,” said Hendrik. “That person was from Norden, as his facial features matched drawings of men taken near the third ditch.”

“One of those Thinkers, though?” I asked. I wanted to say, “she keeps them separate from the spams, and they're almost a different breed of person from the usual people there.”

“The similarities are unmistakable,” said Hendrik, “even if that man was physically taller than any of those tinned thugs I've ever seen, and he was a lot better fed, as well.” A pause, then, “and then, there was his clothing.”

“The cloth might have come from here,” I muttered, but all else...”

“It was not sewn by someone like Sarah,” said Hendrik, “but done by a tailor who sews the clothing of witches, and there are no such people in this area.”

“Not now, you mean,” I muttered. “There was one well-hid man in Roos...”

“No, not the usual type of witch-tailor,” said Hendrik. “The cut of his clothing was altogether different, which means a bones-carrying witch-tailor having talent and skill not much less than that of your wife-to-be – and there haven't been any such people in this area since time out of mind.” A brief pause, then, “between Kees and Freek, I found that one of the things they do up near the north-tip is witch-clothing, and if you are a high-ranking and wealthy arch-witch and want clothing that fits you especially well, you take a trip up that way in your long-coach with your black-cloth and your other supplies, and you abide near such people until you have exactly what you wish – and you pay them in coin of their choosing once you have it done to suit you.”

“And the now-confirmed truth of that one report?” I asked.

“Two copies of the original are in Kees' hands for inking, and this new information will but add to it,” said Hendrik. “It more or less proves that your 'untried assertions' that were thought in the second and third kingdoms to be the product of 'excessive consumption of strong drink' were indeed the precise truth, and that will get into some of those people's minds and roost there for a while.”

“Yes, but not the mind of the man running the second kingdom,” I spat. We were now in truly unfamiliar country, nearly a mile east of the house proper, and I knew even our low-pitched voices needed to cease shortly. The cove in question was easily ten miles away from where we currently were, and at our slow trot, we would come close to it within an hour, even with my leading us around the edges of woodlots and in some cases through them.

“We drilled mostly to the north, not in this area,” I thought. “Those hikes we did then were too stinking short. I want long ones, ones made at quick-march over ugly terrain, with possible overnight camping during the process.” I then recalled it was outside of the one other truly familiar region to me, that being north and somewhat to the west.

At least I had my compass and 'some' directions, and while some behind me whispered of trails, Hendrik silenced those whispering. He then said, in a dread whisper that seemed to ring like echoes in our minds, “those runners will take those. He's used to going across country. I've seen him do it many times over terrain worse than this while we were dodging enemies, and I've never seen him go wrong.”

Such talk was a help to my thinking, and as I led through the trees – the woodlots here had conjoined themselves such that they were a near-impenetrable band of trees, or so it seemed until I came to the front and began leading, my compass checked frequently and otherwise wary for trouble – I could feel where the place was to a degree. More, I could also feel the presence of messengers in the general area, and though these people were restricted to paths, our route through the trees cut miles off of our distance compared to that of the paths. Also, they were afoot; and finally, these raggedly-clothed 'beggars' were not in especially good condition. They were walking far more than they were running, even if their devotion to their task was otherwise 'beyond fault' by the standards of witchdom.

“We'll beat those people by hours,” I thought, as we came out of the trees and began crossing a narrow meadow. Another group of trees was ahead, and once in it, I began leading a trifle south. The place was that way 'slightly'.

“About as far up the Main as they could go and not ground that thing out,” I thought. “Now is this a pilot ship, or is it an actual 'dragoon' or whatever they call their war vessels?”

“Recall how Norden's shipbuilding methods are changing?” said the soft voice. “This is one of the first examples of a new type, even if many of its construction-methods still reflect the old ways of Norden's ship-halls – and while it is a little smaller than the usual Norden-ship, it is not a pilot-ship.”