The Big House, part 16: A nocturnal tour of Norden


As I began servicing the engine – it needed its lubricant drained and refilled once disconnected, as well as 'dosing' here and there – I heard faint screams on the wind, followed by occasional gunshots. The booms of muskets seemed a counterpoint to all that I was doing, even if none of them were particularly close.

I thought too soon, however, as a thundering 'b-boom' seemed to come from the front of the shop, and I dropped to my knees as I turned in place. Hans then came in the front of the shop with the just-redone fowling piece.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I think that thing causes witches trouble,” said Hans. “It started making that noise, and before the two of us got home, I saw three witches in hunting clothing.”

“Anna turned the lamp up, and I had to vent the steam,” I said morosely.

“Yes, and that thing turns a lot faster then,” said Hans.

“It normally would be set at the 'quiet' speed,” I said. “Was there something or someone troublesome near the front of the shop?”

“Someone had shot a witch, and he was hiding,” said Hans. “I loaded this thing up good with some of that shot we've been saving, and I gave him both barrels.”

“Both barrels?” I asked.

“After shooting that one witch twice with a pistol, and thinking he might need another dose,” said Hans, “I wasn't about to take chances.”

“Shot?” I asked.

“I buy a little whenever I can,” said Hans. “I heard tell you were supposed to carry some in your bag.”

“I do have some in there,” I said. “Did you start getting more once those fowling pieces turned up?”

“I started looking for it more,” said Hans. “I think I might have close to ten pounds of that stuff.”

The gunshots seemed to be drawing steadily closer, for some reason, and amid them and the screaming I heard, I seemed to hear something else. The noise, for some reason, spoke of the presence of swine.

“Do swine respond to shot?” I asked.

Hans looked at me as if I were crazy, then said, “those smaller ones need several balls to stop, and that if they are hit solid. They ignore being shot otherwise.”

“Pig-musket?” I asked. “What Paul has?”

“Yes, if he hits one solid and doesn't mind chasing it some,” said Hans. “The only gun I have seen that stops those things right away is yours.”

I packed up shortly after Hans left, with the engine and boiler hidden partly under rags, and as I came to the front door of the shop, I unbuttoned my holster. I then nudged the door open.

There were a few small bloodstains on the northern border of the property, and when I looked around, I saw faint billows of smoke some distance to the south. The road showed recently-made buggy tracks. I bent my mind and body toward home, and walked hurriedly northward.

It was later in the afternoon than I thought and as I sat at my bench minutes later drawing the 'second type' of boiler, Anna came to my side. I turned to see her holding pieces of leather.

“A holster for a revolver?” I asked. “You did want one, didn't you?”

“I could not remember how you did yours,” said Anna, “and I don't wear a belt.”

A sudden jolt hit me, and I nearly fell to the floor laughing before I caught myself. As it was, I made some very strange noises, and Anna looked at me strangely before speaking.

“Enough people have approached me about swords to be glad of that knife,” she said.

“How do you carry that?” I asked.

“I was able to have a small pouch made at the house,” said Anna, “and I put it in my pocket, along with the usual things I have.”

“And your pocket will not hold a revolver, or medicines, or tools, or...”

“What are you suggesting?” asked Anna. “I have wondered for a long time about how to carry those things.”

“And a black doctor's bag will not work here,” I thought. “The idea behind it might, but the color would be trouble.”

“Perhaps you need a bag like I have,” I said, looking carefully at Anna, “save, perhaps not quite as large, and with internal dividers...”

Anna's eyes began steadily enlarging, and when she began muttering, I wondered as to whether an eruption was immanent. Thankfully, she didn't erupt, even if she found a chair and sat down after getting a mug. She began draining the thing right away.

“Did you dream about such a bag?” I asked.

“N-not one like yours,” she said. “I don't know where this dream came from, but I recall having one not long ago. There was this strangely-dressed pair of women that sounded stranger than they looked, and both of them had these huge bags. They were bigger than yours, with handles, and they opened like some traps I've heard of.”

Anna paused, then said, “I had no idea where these people were, as they were not acting like witches in the slightest.”

“Witches?” I squeaked.

“Those bags were black, with a big purplish-red addition sign on them in a circle,” said Anna. “If they were smaller, and not that color, I would not mind one like that.”

“Perhaps 'beeswax and tallow' color?” I asked. “That tends to darken leather somewhat from the way it comes from the tanner.”

Anna seemed to not have heard me, as she continued, saying, “and what those women did was even stranger than their bags. They pulled more odd things out of them than I knew existed, and there was this sick person they were taking care of.”

“Sick person?” I asked.

“I would not be able to help a person that sick,” said Anna. “He looked like he had the red fever, only it was worse than I've ever seen.”

“Did they help him?” I asked.

“They did,” said Anna. “Some strange cart came in the doorway of this house, and they and two others picked him up, put him on it, put him in this strange thing that looked like a tinker's buggy with no horses, and went to this place as big as the king's house.”

My recalled impressions – that place did remind me of a hospital at first – intruded. I put them aside, and thought to ask a question.

“Did you see sky?” I asked.

“That was the really strange part,” said Anna. “I could see nothing except grayish stone walls, and the same on the ground, and overhead as well.”

“Lighting?” I asked. “What were they using?”

“Those were awful,” said Anna. “They were using those lanterns that cause blindness, only they somehow turned them down. It was as bright as day in that place, at least, I thought it was until they took him into this room.”

The way Anna said the word 'room' implied this room was more unusual than anything in this dream, and I thought to speak of it. Anna did not wait for my questioning.

“That room must have had a hundred of those lanterns in it, it was so bright,” she said, “and everyone in it was dressed as if they'd been burned.”

“Burned?” I asked.

“Dark eyeshades, and every inch of them covered in soft clothing,” said Anna. “I had no idea there were so many burned people, and what they were doing in that place was a mystery, and what they were doing wearing gloves like that was an even bigger one.”

“Gloves?” I squeaked. “Th-that sounds like a...”

“I have no idea what it was,” said Anna. “I woke up then.”

I shook in horror, then gasped, “I've been in places like that.”

“What did they do there?” asked Anna.

“L-long p-pig,” I gasped. “Th-the doctors wanted to eat m-me, and...”

I awoke on the couch with the window shedding a dim and fading light into the parlor. It was nearly sundown, and I had been covered with the room-blanket. I could smell dinner – it would be ready shortly – and in the background, I could hear soft speech.

One of the speakers, I recognized within seconds. Sarah had come.

I slowly slid off of the couch, wary for tied feet, and when I moved them readily, I marveled. She had not tied them.

“And why she's here is a mystery, even if what Anna was describing was one of my worst nightmares,” I thought.

I was more than a little surprised to see both muskets and the fowling piece in the corner of the kitchen as we sat down to eat. I had put my rifle next to the workbench, and as I looked briefly after Hans said a few words, I noticed Sarah looking at it with longing.

“No, Sarah,” said Anna. “That one will hurt you.”

“Why?” she squeaked. “It has the smallest hole I've ever seen.”

“I know that,” said Hans. “It takes these things that look like corncobs, and it hits like a roer.”

“Hans, the bruises,” said Anna. “Remember how I had to rub him with Geneva after he shot that pig?”

“What happened?” asked Sarah.

“I am not sure if that gun is as bad as a roer for bruising,” said Anna. “Hans wasn't bruised as badly as he was.”

“Yes, and I saw it try to get away from him when he shot an elk, too,” said Hans. “If you must shoot something...”

“You don't like priming powder in your face, do you?” I asked.

Sarah shook her head, then said, “I have fired that type of musket” – here, she indicated the two 'common' ones – “but I like the other type much better.”

“Perhaps the fowling piece?” I asked. “Hopefully Hans didn't put too much in it.”

“He didn't,” said Sarah. “I loaded it.”

“You?” I asked. My voice raised markedly in pitch as I spoke.

“I once had one,” she said. “It's barrels were a bit shorter, and it wasn't quite as heavy. I used it regularly at school.”

“Vermin?” I squeaked.

“Those and fowls,” said Sarah. “At least Hans has decent powder and shot.”

“Uh, the first stuff I saw was really bad,” I mumbled. “It wasn't at all round.”

“Was it dropped, or cut?” asked Sarah.

“I do not know,” I said. “It was very uneven as to shape and size.”

“That is the bad shot,” said Hans. “I have seen that stuff before, and it is common in the fifth kingdom.”

After dinner, I resumed work on the drawing. A faint – and somewhat familiar – odor seemed to come abruptly into the room, and with its increasing intensity, I began gagging and retching. I tried to concentrate, and with each minute, the smell grew steadily stronger – as did my headache. I put the pencil in the ledger, closed it, and went for my bag.

As I reached for the bag's button, however, I heard a faint squeal.

“That tears it,” I gasped, as I dropped the bag and stood. “No wonder it smells awful in here.”

Steps came bounding up the stairs from the basement as I capped my rifle, then Sarah showed at the top of the stairs.

“What is it?” she asked.

“There's a stinky pig somewhere around here,” I muttered, “and between the stink and the distraction, I have a headache.”

“Are you going to shoot it?” asked Sarah.

The pig squealed again, and I strode towards the front door. The smell was now eye-watering in intensity, and I nearly spewed as I came to the doorknob. With rifle in one hand, I opened the door. Steps came softly from behind as I stepped out on the stoop, then voices.

“That was not one of those northern ones,” said the voice of Hans faintly.

I looked around toward the north and west. Faintly visible was a mobile black-blotched tan mass some hundred or more yards away. The pig seemed to be partly mired, as its moving was slow, jerky, and spasmodic.

“Not yet, Hans,” said Anna's faint voice. “Let him shoot first.”

I went to my knees, then rested the stock of the rifle on the railing. The pig seemed to show clearer with each second, and as it stood out from its background further, I noted its 'size' and shape.

“About the right size for bacon,” I muttered, as I drew the hammer back to full cock, then centered down on the head of the grunting thing. “Stay still, you stinky varmint... There.”

I squeezed the trigger roughly a second later.

The recoil nearly put me on my posterior, and as I straightened up to control the rifle, I heard yells and shrieks from indoors. I turned to see what had happened.

“Did you get that swine?” asked Hans.

I looked back to see a clearly immobile pig, and I said, “I think so. What happened?”

“You put her in the privy,” said Anna. “I told her it wasn't a normal musket.”

“Let me come in and reload, and then we can check it,” I said. “If it's dead, it will keep a few minutes.”

While Hans went outside, I went back into the kitchen, where I began carefully cleaning my rifle. As I dumped the powder, the privy door opened, and Sarah came out red-faced. She seemed entranced by what I was doing, or so I thought.

“I was so startled that I wet myself,” she said. “I've never seen things like this.”

I was at a loss to speak, so much so that as I made ready to insert one of the bullets, I heard Hans coming inside at the front of the house.

“You cleaned its ears,” he said, “and there is a big mess out there.”

“Did you?” asked Anna.

“No, not yet,” said Hans. “I want to rig that thing, as there might be more swine, and more witches showing.”

“You what?” I asked. “Since when?”

“Since I ate grass,” said Hans. “I think I was corked upstairs some, as I seem to think a lot more now, and I know you've done things like that.”

“Perhaps one of those small cast iron bombs I did,” I said.

“You might keep those,” said Hans. “Besides, I have plenty of jugs, and I want to do that stinky thing up good.”

Hans paused, then said, “now what is this stuff called bacon?”

“A very fatty food made from swine,” I said, “and that pig looked close to the size I'd heard was used to make it – hence, a 'bacon-sized' pig.” I paused, then asked, “do witches eat bacon?”

Hans didn't know, and neither did Sarah. I finished reloading, then picked up my rifle. Hans said, “I am not sure what they eat, even if I still think they like to eat pigs.”

“At least one of those three people I had to shoot ate p-pork,” I said. “He made me sick to smell him.”

“How is that?” asked Hans. The two of us were at the door, and to my surprise, Sarah was carrying a jug.

“I had to give up most fatty foods before I came here,” I said, “and bacon was one of the worst for sickness. I don't miss it much, or this other similar food called Spam.”

“Spam?” asked Sarah, as we began walking up the road. “That is a strange name.”

“It was a strange type of meat,” I said. “When I first saw those tin-wearing northern people, I was reminded of it, which is why I call them like I do.”

“Yes, and what do you call them?” asked Hans.

Tinned spams,” I said.

Sarah snickered, at least until she caught a windblown drift of the pig's stink. She changed her speech abruptly.

“I forgot how much these things smell,” she said. “That one stinks.”

“Urgh, you're right, dear,” I said. “Perhaps I can stand guard upwind while you two deal with that stinky thing.”

As I watched Hans and Sarah bury a trio of jugs next to the pig and then attach lines to the animal and a few sticks some five to ten feet away, I recalled the oath that had been mentioned, both as to my supposed need to take it, and also, its probable waiving.

“Perhaps it comes later,” I thought, though I wondered upon thinking it. Further thoughts, however, came unbidden.

Later, in the common sense, might not come.

“There will be a later,” I thought, “but I doubt many around here will understand it readily.”

Another musket boomed somewhere in the distance, and as I looked south, I saw what might have been a faint billow of black smoke.

“There, that one is done,” said Hans. “Now we can get ourselves inside and wash up.”

“Dirty?” I asked.

“I think that one was rubbed with tallow,” said Hans.

“No, Hans,” said Sarah. “That pig was slimy.”

“Slimy?” I asked.

“I hope I don't get sick from touching it,” said Sarah. “I'm glad for the tub here.”

“Your clothing?” I asked.

“That and bathing,” she said. “Most houses don't have tubs like that, and bathing is very difficult. Clothing tends to be a bit easier, if they have pots to spare.”

Thankfully, no more swine showed before bedtime, and as I went up to bed in a slumberous house, I wondered as to what would happen tomorrow. I would need to leave early, I knew, and I would need to not merely find the meeting place – it was well-hid on the second above-ground floor, in a little-used section of the house – but also, possibly spy it out. I then would need to concern myself with a full shift afterward.

“Another full day I cannot spend at the shop,” I said, as I made ready for bed.

I was not sure if I fell asleep before or after I lay down, but within seconds, the darkness of beer-induced unconsciousness began fading. I was slipping steadily into a dream of some kind, and when I opened my eyes, I found myself hidden in a chill realm walled with blue-tinted ice, and dim flickering light seemed to come from all around me.

“Th-this is Norden,” I thought.

I looked around, and then down. I was sitting on 'thin air', and as I looked, I had an impression as to what was happening and why I was 'here'.

I was getting a guided tour of some kind, and within seconds, I realized it wasn't anything like a 'common' guided tour.

“Yes, this tour will be commented on, both now and in the future,” said the soft voice. “This is very important information.”

I moved slowly down an icy hall floored with streaky brown and black ice. While this particular hall wasn't 'populated' currently, I had the impression these places normally were close to standing-room only, and as I passed 'under' smoky light-sources of some kind, I had a strange question.

“Where are the privies?” I thought.

The impression I had was a simple one – “watch carefully” – and within seconds, the blotchy hide cover of what might have been a doorway moved aside to pass a blond-haired being clad in near-shapeless black clothing.

This 'creature' had a high-pitched strident voice that made me wonder as to its gender, and when the gabble-babble slowed slightly I recognized the sounds as strangely-pronounced runes. These billowed out of the creature's mouth to form red-tinted shapes hanging on air which I recognized instantly.

“That's a curse,” I spat.

The creature ignored my presence, then turned to see a furtive-looking fur-bundled mass moving a box on runners. This 'mass' – it was animate, though what kind of animate was a good question – was grunting and straining. The creature went forward at a run, and as 'it' ran, it unsheathed a huge weapon.

The weapon resembled a blunt-tipped chef's knife, with a broad blade, a thick leather-thonged grip, a blackened curved pommel, and blazing red markings along the mottled blue-black blade. The creature came to the 'mass', swung at its hunched-over back – and blood sprayed crazily from a gaping wound as the 'mass' collapsed in place.

The floor beneath this 'mass' quickly turned intensely scarlet, while the creature half-ran, half waddled to a brown-tinted 'puddle' in the floor. The creature laid aside the bloodied weapon, hiked up its clothing, squatted over the puddle, and then shook intermittently amid grunting gaseous emissions.

“Th-that's a l-latrine,” I gasped.

A faint sibilant bubbling seemed to come into my mind, and this bubbling faded abruptly into speech.

“Norden is a cold place, both for land and inhabitants,” said the soft voice, “and those that live there are colder in heart and mind than anyone currently living in the five kingdoms.”

I felt as if tape were applied to both lips and mind, even as the voice paused. I needed to listen, and not ask questions. The voice resumed:

“The sole thought on all minds, from that of the queen down, is revenge. That goal has replaced 'conquest' and 'destruction', which were formerly foremost in the minds of these people, and in that order.”

I had remained stationary during this time of listening, and the creature...

“That is one of the women of Norden,” said the soft voice.

That is a woman?” I gasped. “I could not tell.”

“With few exceptions, if a person from Norden wears black, that person is 'female',” said the soft voice. “The exceptions are seldom seen outside of their 'enclaves' to the north.”

“Female?” I asked. I had heard the 'emphasis' clearly, and I wondered at its meaning.

“With the exception of those large black pigs,” said the soft voice, “all fauna currently native to Norden produces bisexually, with both genders bearing young.”

“B-both genders?” I asked.

“Witchcraft prior to that long-ago war started many of those mutations, the war and its immediate aftermath manifested them,” said the soft voice, “and witchcraft, including that curse you have heard of, cemented them into a region of stability.”

There was a brief pause, then, “that tendency for mutations to be unproductive is designed in, just like it says” – “be fruitful, and multiply...” followed by “after its own kind” came to my recollection – “and more so here than where you come from. Everything currently native to Norden came out of that war, and the mutated plants and animals endure to this day by the action of witchcraft.”

My view abruptly changed, such that I saw the whole of a vast continent, one that stretched nearly five hundred miles from east to west and nearly half again as much more north to south. The southern shore showed a somewhat narrow 'green belt' that varied in width from two to ten miles, and at its northern edge, true 'mountains', massive glaciers, wide fields of ice, 'valleys', and more glaciers stretched on far into the distance.

The 'days' then flitted over the length of this ice-bound continent with a speed that was startling, and the drastic change in seasons became readily apparent.

“Th-that place is like Alaska,” I said. “Long summer days...”

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “The longest days come close to the state of 'midnight sun', but the time of 'temperate' weather is but three and a half to four months in length during the 'better' years.”

“Temperate?” I asked.

“Food crops can be grown then,” said the soft voice. “Norden tends to be too cold and dark the rest of the time.”

Dark?” I asked.

“A few hours of twilight about midday for nearly half of the year,” said the soft voice, “with true winter being being a months-long unbroken night. 'Summer', in contrast, is a few weeks, and 'spring' and 'fall' but somewhat longer.”

“Hence they work outside then...”

There was no further answer, save that faint bubbling 'attention' signal, and the narration resumed:

“During the 'temperate' portion of the year, there are frequent light rains,” said the soft voice, “while the remainder of the year, snow, sleet, and hail predominates, along with thunder and lightning. The bitter and chill climate of Norden is reflected in the disposition of its people.”

I was about to ask a question, and the narration resumed.

“These people are cruel, hateful, vicious, and prideful, with lives of unending darkness both within and without. Much of their time is spent indoors, and their labor there is unending. Temperate periods but add to those indoor efforts, and 'life in the fast lane' is the rule year-round.”

An abrupt shift brought me back inside. I was again floating near the ceiling, only this time, I not only noticed the flickering nature of the light, but also the sooty nature of the sources themselves.

“L-light-giving smudge pots,” I gasped. “All of the smoke of a distillate-fueled wick-lantern, and perhaps as much light as a bad tallow candle.” I then noticed the stink, and I gasped again.

Lard-fueled light-giving smudge pots,” said the soft voice, “with stolen vegetable fiber commonly serving as the wicks. Those are the most common sources of light at Norden.”

“C-clay pots?” I asked.

“Pottery is a common product at Norden,” said the soft voice. “Unlike where you currently live, Norden has less knowledge than resources.”

I did not speak. There was more.

“Norden tends to have bad odors, worse hygiene, and the illnesses that proceed from a lack of sanitation are endemic,” said the soft voice. “Contrary to what you might think, where you currently live is limited more by its lack of resources than by its lack of knowledge.”

I was so shocked and stunned by this statement that I was astonished yet further by being put back 'outside', and when I regained a modicum of composure, I was looking closer at those 'green belts' – only their thick dusting of snow and ice made them closer to 'green-speckled white belts'. Here I saw those huge trees – eight hundred feet tall, with the bases nearly as wide as their height – the beginnings of mountains and glaciers in the distance, long straggly looking bays and fissures, and perhaps, now and then, a fjord.

I then noted I was moving to the left, and as I passed 'cultivated' sections – they were flat and smooth, with no trees showing – I saw that they tended to be sizable, with straggly edges. Their borders were more of those trees. I looked to the left, and saw that the coastline was now moving north.

The trees soon 'took over' the coastline, and as I followed that wavering fissured crevasse-wrinkled area, I noted it came out further from the beginning of the mountainous area than I had seen along the southern coast. I was seeing more of the fjords, and as I passed twenty in my counting, I thought, “they have enough of these to sell them in a used car lot.”

I paused, then thought again, only this time stranger still: “weren't those Fords?”

As if to answer my question, the scenery below blanked, and instead of near-impenetrable darkness, the sun showed faintly yellow-brown behind thick shrouds of smoke and fog. The ice flows were replaced by swampy green locations thickly hedged with tussocks of vegetation, and just offshore, I saw two familiar-looking ships dumping 'stuff' over the side. The view zoomed in, and I nearly fainted.

“They're dumping people...” I gasped.

“People, animals, and plants,” said the soft voice. “The hot phase of the war has been over about twenty years, and one of the combatants is 'removing' those that have become 'traitors' to their cause.”

“Traitors?” I asked.

“More than one combatant 'nation' was controlled by witches,” said the soft voice, “and the largest one on the northern portion of the mainland had witches for the bulk of its populace as well.”

“A nation of witches?” I gasped. “Are they d-dumping..?”

“They used those they labeled 'disgraced' as munitions,” said the soft voice. “What you are seeing is but one way that concept was implemented.”

The people were now swimming onto the green and messy-looking shoreline, and singly or in small groups, they staggered out of the waves and onto the shore. They began huddling together for warmth in the faintly cool... Was it morning? Afternoon? It was impossible to say beyond the position of the smoke-shrouded sun's position being 'well above the horizon'.

Several of those first on shore began wandering away from the group, and when one of them looked into a nearby copse, she turned and ran. One of those huge multi-headed 'cows' came charging after her, and as she neared the group, the group slowly 'flew apart' and began running in all directions.

The 'cow' experienced no such panic, and ran after the slowest person it could find, until it trampled him screaming down into the muck. Two of its three heads began chewing noisily upon the carcass of the fallen – and then, each of the two heads began gulping down gobbets of flesh while the bulging eyes of the third head kept watch for 'counterattacks'.

It became quickly obvious that chewing was reserved for detaching meals, for each bloody bite was swallowed whole with no chewing whatsoever.

By the time the cow had finished its meal, the people had left the area. The ships were still tossing things overboard, though what kind of 'things' they were was a mystery. The 'cow' then turned around clumsily, and galumphed – an odd number of legs insured a clumsy gate – over to the edge of a new-sprouted 'pine' forest. I suspected the animal was an omnivore, and wished to garnish its meat meal with greens.

The cow's three heads greedily chewed the browse, and I wondered what would happen next. I was astonished to see first the eyes of one head become 'blank', then the eyes of a second head, and as the third eyes became fixed and staring, the 'cow' froze abruptly, then slowly toppled over onto the virulently green ground with a thunderous crash.

Before my eyes, the trees seemed to 'move', and within what seemed minutes, a dark blackened 'root' broke the skin of the animal's belly. The cow began to contract about this root, and as its previously plump body developed hollows, more roots came up from the ground and the now-dessicated body. They began to tear the corpse of the animal apart, and I then saw what had happened to the 'forest'.

It had grown noticeably taller, and as the roots continued tearing the animal apart, I noted splashes of foliage here and there upon them.

“Those trees...”

Tree,” said the soft voice. “The immature stage of the Giant Conifer tree tends more toward lateral growth to establish its roots. Once that 'forest' becomes over a hundred feet in height, the three to five strongest 'shoots' will concentrate on vertical growth, while the others will retract into the earth and become added roots. The largest 'tree' that remains of that small group will eventually be the sole above-ground portion of a very large root-system.”

“Uh...”

“All plants and animals at Norden are opportunistic feeders,” said the soft voice, “and that 'cow' is called a Great Bovine.”

Cow?” I asked.

“Literature on those is currently very scarce on the mainland,” said the soft voice, “as is documentation on much of what happened during the timeframe depicted.” A brief pause, then “those animals do not cease growing in overall size, number of heads and legs, or appetite.”

“How long do they live?” I asked.

“Until they die,” said the soft voice. “Natural death is very rare in Norden.” Another brief pause, then “compared to the early examples, current Great Bovines are far more intelligent, a good deal less clumsy, and somewhat hungrier. Otherwise, they have changed little.”

“They still eat p-people?”

“When and where they can,” said the soft voice. “They instinctively avoid poisonous plants now, and instead pillage the locally-grown crops for their greens.”

The scene before my eyes now faded to be replaced by a view of an ice-hall. While I suspected – no, knew – these places were crowded, the scene before my eyes dwarfed all that I knew, for the place was now so crowded with people that I had trouble discerning any purposeful movement.

“How do they all eat?” I gasped. “That place looks to be grossly overpopulated.”

There was no answer, save slow-seeming movement as I 'floated' around lard-fueled lanterns and through the thick and clinging soot that billowed in clouds from their uneven wicks. I came to a long row of hide-covered doorways, and as I floated, the ice above them became gauzy and let me pass within.

Below my crossed legs I saw the layout of the living quarters as I floated slowly overhead. Behind the hides of the entrance – there were several thick shaggy things that looked to be provided by 'buffalo' – there was a narrow arched tunnel about twenty feet long that ended in an ice-walled room covered with more 'buffalo' rugs for flooring and walls. The ceiling, however, was covered thickly with the powdery soot of the fat-burning lanterns.

This room – roughly rectangular, perhaps twenty feet wide and twice that long – had mounds of furs, piles of black clothing, what looked to be a small 'cauldron' perched over a stone 'oven' with a tall rough-chiseled stone chimney, and two black-clad blond-haired occupants, both of them copied as to features from the first example I had seen during the tour. As for size, but one of them was similar.

The other was perhaps half as tall and much thinner-looking, and her upraised hands and high-pitched shrieks proclaimed her a young 'girl'. I then noticed the hallway's continuation, and my slow-hovering way followed it.

The fur rugs ceased covering the floors the minute I left the women, and as I followed another hallway, I became aware of not merely increasing grime upon the floor beneath me, but also more grime upon the walls and ceiling. I looked along my path of 'flight' and saw what looked to be a crude doorway into a dimly lit region, and once I came from the dimness of the hallway into the slightly diminished dimness of my destination, I mentally gasped.

This place is h-huge!”

It was also crowded with fur-covered bodies, with a few showing examples of tin as well as fur, and numerous furry mounds lay immobile upon the floor. The grime was near-impossible to believe, and the soot nearly as bad, while the lights above smoked heavier than any I had seen thus far. I looked closer at the fur-clad bodies, and discerned familiar features.

M-men?” I asked.

Watch closely,” said the soft voice.

I then slowly moved among the mounds, and as I moved, I noted the shape of these mounds steadily changed, with a growing 'lump' seeming to be one end of each mound, until at the 'end of the line', the bulge of the mound now seemed the size of a beachball.

I seemed to discern a range in not merely the size of the beings populating this room, but also what might have been age, with those showing 'tin' being among the oldest, and those smaller beings a good deal younger. Suddenly, two of the tin-wearing individuals came to a now-mobile mound, and removed the fur covering. I blanched in horror.

A near-naked and emaciated man lay on a fur covering with hugely swollen male parts that moved rhythmically, and as I watched, one of the tin-wearers handed him a long knife. The 'pregnant' man lay with wide-spread legs, and slowly wrenched himself up to a sitting position with knife in hand. He then plunged the knife into first one side of his massive scrotum, then the other – and with help from the tin-wearers, first one thin and emaciated male child was removed, then another.

I was shocked and horrified, both at what I saw, and what I saw emerge, for the boys – nearly waist-tall – cut their own umbilical cords, and then walked silently with bleeding stumps toward an iron 'firepot' on a stand. There, one after another, they seared their own stumps with glowing irons, and vanished into the milling mob of 'youngsters' clustered around another 'cauldron'. Their development proclaimed them small children for size, and well beyond that for apparent intelligence.

The delivery, however, was not yet over. The second tin-wearer handed the still bleeding individual a thick and moldy strap of leather, which he silently took into his mouth, while the first tinned individual went toward the firepot. He began moving it slowly toward the culmination of the delivery.

His second and last instance,” said the soft voice. “He's ready for 'graduation'.”

The man now began sawing on the deflated mound, and as I watched, he slowly cut his way through all that made him male. Soundlessly he worked the dull knife through the now-useless flesh, and when he had finished his self-castration in a growing pool of blood, he dropped the knife and took up the first of a series of glowing red-hot iron bars.

The smoke and smell of burning flesh billowed thickly as he first cauterized the wound, then redid the job with the second. He lay back down in the pool of his own blood, and when his leather 'piece' was removed, he softly moaned.

The effect of this barely audible sound upon the occupants of the room was an electric one, and they soundlessly moved aside amid terrifying screams from the left. The larger black-dressed being crashed into the room at a dead run with one of the huge black-bladed weapons raised high, and her screaming curse was this:

K-Hoot-V-V-Vang-AH-eeee!”

She came next to the now thrashing individual, and swung viciously at his neck. The black blade came down in a flashing sable arc, and the man's head jumped away from his body to roll sideways amid a small tidal wave of blood.

The single rule that governs life in Norden,” said the soft voice, “can be summed up as 'a head if she feels so inclined, and he has no choice in the matter.”

I shuddered soundlessly, and the narration resumed seconds later.

If men marry in Norden, there is a chance, albeit a small one, that they might die of natural causes. On the other hand, if they don't...”

There was a dramatic pause, then as the witch jerked herself up, she screamed another curse, this one even more horrible-sounding than the one before, and waded into a mob of fleeing men while swinging her weapon with both hands.

That young girl isn't quite old enough to emulate her mother,” said the soft voice, “but once men become a certain size in Norden, they have two choices: be 'married', or be murdered. That girl will soon start her first collection of heads.”

Death-pole?” I asked.

The speech of Norden names those skull-studded obelisks otherwise,” said the soft voice. “When she is 'ready', she will lay in wait at another 'den' like this one, and remove the head of her drugged prey by dissection with a small knife. She will return to her mother with it and receive not merely her first 'death-pole', but also her first 'Great Knife', which is that weapon her mother is using to 'find' those unfaithful to her.”

Knife?” I gasped.

That curse you heard her chant first is a close approximation of that weapon's name,” said the soft voice, “and the 'better' ones are marked appropriately with runes, as befitting fetishes thought especially potent.”

And they d-don't go to pieces,” I gasped.

True,” said the soft voice. “They don't.” A brief pause, then “the language of Norden was once far more effectual for witchcraft than it currently is. It has been diluted greatly by two previous judgments and the passage of time.”

I was abruptly 'yanked' from this scene of marital discord and into a region of darkness. The sense of rapid movement was so marked that I was stunned when the darkness vanished in the blink of an eye to show a huge stone-floored region mounded with long lines of brownish-black 'rock'. The smell caught up with me minutes later.

“Gack!” I spluttered. “Coal?”

“For the furnaces,” said the soft voice. “Norden burns much of its coal twice.”

“Twice?” I asked. “How?”

“The first 'burning' is a crude form of gasification, which provides heat for the initial firing of pottery and ore beneficiation. What is left is coke.”

I then noticed the tall stone 'chimneys' that supported the roof of the huge room, as well as their tapering structure. As I slowly moved around, I noted not merely the winding stairs that wound around the chimneys themselves, but also, their crudely blocked up doorways.

“Those permit burning of the off-gases within each of those chambers,” said the soft voice. “A given firing takes nearly two weeks.”

“Those f-furnaces?” I asked.

“Take nearly a week to load, and a week to unload,” said the soft voice, “and each furnace processes nearly three tons of coal at a time. There are several more rooms like this in Norden.”

“They must burn hundreds of tons of coal every month,” I gasped.

“They do that in this room,” said the soft voice. “There are more furnaces built into the walls.”

I was now moved from the room, and into another, and here, I was astonished to see a number of furnaces resembling the drawings I had done for the cupola. Numbers of tin-wearing thugs danced up and down on small skin 'trampolines' embedded into the floor of the room, while the furnaces themselves seemed to faintly hum under 'blast'. I moved along the row of furnaces, and to my astonishment, one group of 'jumpers' was stationary on their bellows, while another group was picking at the wall of the red-glowing wall furnace just above a wide trough that led out onto a dark sandy 'plain'.

“They're tapping that thing,” I spluttered.

“That furnace is a native design,” said the soft voice. “Not merely is it fairly efficient, but it also produces higher temperatures than those on the continent.”

“Cast iron?” I asked.

“Only a handful of fourth kingdom foundries do better,” said the soft voice. “The next location burns most of the carbon out of the metal.”

Brief blackness, and then blazing white and heat billowing up from the floor below. There, I saw what looked like huge blazing caves, and I recognized them instantly as examples of the 'coal-fired furnace' that had immolated the fifteen survivors of that one ship and the swine set loose upon them.

“That wasn't coal they were tossing in, was it?” I asked.

“Ultima Thule might not know the book, but her anger burned hot enough to give her ideas,” said the soft voice, “and hence she directed her chief 'watchers' to toss raw coal inside for added heat.”

“Those don't usually use 'raw' coal, do they?” I asked. “Are those puddling furnaces?”

“They are,” said the soft voice, “and unlike the 'air' furnaces commonly used in the fifth kingdom, they do not add impurities.”

“Air furnaces?” I asked. “Do those tilt?”

“Not unless they fail under blast,” said the soft voice. “They are tapped from below, unlike those you were thinking of.”

“How do they 'add' impurities?” I asked.

“Mirror-metal ore, with added coal,” said the soft voice. “Then, the furnace linings commonly used are not very good. Finally, southern black-cast tends to have much more slag to start out with than Norden's metal.”

“And the slaggy resulting metal?” I asked.

“Norden's metal tends to have slag extracted every step of the way,” said the soft voice, “while much of the fifth kingdom's metal has more added periodically to 'cheapen' the resulting products. The end result is similar.”

“Much of?” I asked.

“Most iron is processed initially by fifth-kingdom combines,” said the soft voice. “The smaller firms process their leavings, and the fourth kingdom refines the 'carefully-selected' output of the smaller firms.”

“Hence well-forged 'butter',” I said.

“The exceptions in the fourth kingdom that way are truly exceptional,” said the soft voice, “even though few firms there know of crucibles and steel. Pattern-welding is the common means of 'acquiring' hard-iron.”

“Hard-iron?”

“The stuff of full-polish wrenches and similar tools,” said the soft voice. “Those books will be most instructive regarding the 'common' processes, as well as the 'common' terminology.”

“Hard-iron?” I spluttered.

“The 'written format',” said the soft voice. “The word 'steel' is but seldom used in the higher schools, and refers to an entirely different material.”

“Different?” I asked. “In what way?”

“Those instrument-maker's books will answer a vast number of questions, both current and future,” said the soft voice. “This tour doesn't have that much time left, and you need to make the most of it.”

As I 'traveled' steadily down another smoky corridor, I began to have renewed impressions of someone, or rather, groups of someones, actually thinking about genuine 'needs', even if my impressions of the masses indicated 'dumb-brute' levels of mental functioning. More, what I had heard implied patient ceaseless and systematic labor toward definite concrete goals.

“And 'good enough' doesn't exist in their vocabulary,” I thought.

“For the 'Thinkers', yes,” said the soft voice. “For the upper-crust witches, they tend to live in another world entirely, and for the vast majority otherwise, they tend to 'do as they are told' with little thinking.”

“They do that at home,” I spluttered.

“You are comparing turnips and trouts,” said the soft voice. “The 'brainlessness' of most first kingdom people is that of choice and custom, not a lack of intelligence. Ultima Thule, were she not thoroughly inhabited, would be labeled 'mentally retarded' where you came from, and be employed at a sheltered workshop under close supervision – and those witches under her would be less intelligent yet.”

A brief pause, then “for non-witches that are not 'thinkers', their mental functioning is very limited.”

“Very limited?” I asked.

“Much of it operates on a level comparable to instinct in animals,” said the soft voice, “and a vocabulary of a few hundred words is achieved by 'graduation'.”

“Those thugs at the third ditch?” I asked.

“Training for battle in Norden is unlike anything you are familiar with,” said the soft voice, “and involves years of intense training before the first trip. Even then, casualties are still substantial.”

The 'trip' now ceased, and I came into a huge workshop. The 'men' here were all wearing tin and leather, and as I watched them work, the sheer repetition I saw spoke of little thought and much sweat – until in the corner of my eye, I saw a pair of black-dressed individuals hunched over what might have been a rough-planked table. I seemed to be drifting closer to them, and as I saw one of them working with crude pencil on some horribly blotchy-looking paper, I wondered what – or who – I was seeing.

“Those two men are 'thinkers',” said the soft voice, “and they are nominally in charge of this workshop.”

“Nominally?” I asked.

“They advise a sizable cadre of witches, who in turn control the older men who actually do the work.” A brief pause, then “notice how all of the workmen are wearing 'tin'?”

I gasped, then said faintly, “yes?”

“Tin-wearers tend to wear the stuff constantly,” said the soft voice, “and only remove it to look after it. Should they have swords or other weapons, they do the same with those.”

My eyes were then brought to the waists of several of the men, and as I watched, small circles of red appeared around the hilts of obvious swords. One man had a two-headed ax within easy arm's reach.

“They even sleep in their tin, and hug their weapons close in slumber,” said the soft voice. “One never knows when one might fight in Norden, and real-world practice is common for tin-wearers.”

My attention was then directed back to the 'thinkers', and the narration resumed.

“Those people do nearly all of the thinking here,” said the soft voice. “Most processes in Norden are limited by both resources and the capacity of those implementing them.”

“And those people?” I asked.

“Improve what they have, subject to the permission of the queen,” said the soft voice. “In areas that do not interest her much, such as the maintenance of furnaces, they upgrade them with each rebuild.”

“Upgrade?” I asked. “How?”

“Mostly by trial and error,” said the soft voice. “Given time, effort, and good records, trial-and-error does result in progress, even in Norden.”

“And where I live hasn't changed much,” I spluttered.

“Compared to the near-stasis of the first kingdom during the last two hundred years,” said the soft voice, “Norden's progress is not trivial.” A brief pause, then “among locations on the continent, only the fourth kingdom's central area progresses faster than where you live at this time.”

I gasped, then squelched my voice. There was more.

“Your thoughts on population are correct as to concept, if somewhat off as to degree,” said the soft voice, “and had they the means of feeding their current population for another fifty years, they would become not merely more numerous, but also far more capable, and that without assistance.”

“They receive assistance?” I asked.

“Those providing it think it more substantial than it actually is,” said the soft voice. “While Norden's 'thinkers' are relatively few in number, they are neither stupid nor slack in their labors.”

Blooming in the halls of recollection was my statement regarding recovery, and as I heard it again – the witches are recovering faster, and to a much greater degree, and have been doing so for many years – I gasped again.

“And nowhere is that more true than at Norden,” said the soft voice. “Their recovery period has been much longer than most places on the continent, they've concentrated on that aspect of life more than anywhere else until very recently, and the level of recovering is greater than anytime in the history of witchdom on this planet.”

“And why are they this way?” I asked. “Is it because they started with so little?”

“That, and much else,” said the soft voice. “Norden's thinkers have never been common, and only in the last hundred years have they become numerous enough to have a non-trivial effect upon Norden's society. Since that time, those people have become literate in their own language and in the common one.”

“That group that was burned and blown up?” I asked.

“Was a common group, under the charge of a larger one located miles to the north of that location,” said the soft voice. “Norden's 'thinkers' seldom come to the five kingdoms personally.” There was a pause, then “though when they do, they tend to blend in fairly well as a rule, should they wish to do so.”

“They wish to..?” I asked.

“They do much of their spying without needing to interact with the populace,” said the soft voice, “and they direct those 'common' groups to do their thieving once they locate what they wish. Books have always been high on the list, as have the other tools of study.”

“Do they steal everything?” I asked.

“Up until recently, that was the sole means of acquiring non-native articles,” said the soft voice. “Since that time, not every ship from Norden comes with the goal of plunder. Some come to engage in trade.”

“With who?” I asked.

“With certain black-dressed individuals native to the mainland,” said the soft voice. “They do so in secret, in secret locations, and not even their 'fellows' are aware of what they do.”

“Is this because of 'public sentiment'?” I asked.

“Public among black-dressed witches,” said the soft voice. “Norden is their 'enemy' also, though for a very different reason than the usual.”

“Usual?” I asked.

“Witchdom has but two classes, just like Hell does,” said the soft voice. “There is one master, and everyone else is that being's property.”

I now saw what was actually being 'done' in this shop area, and I was astonished to see numbers of tools and weapons being forged. While their technique left much to be desired – 'lug-headed wretch' seemed an apt description for most of these people – and those witches supervising them were ignorant of forge-practice, the resulting combination did make fair numbers of 'passable' tools and blades. More importantly, their industry was palpable, and I suspected their hours were longer than at home.

“The forges never cool,” said the soft voice. “They have two shifts here.” A brief pause, then “the next location may surprise you.”

I resumed traveling, and when I came to another workshop, I was indeed surprised. Unlike the previous location's 'quantity over all else' ethic, this location had smaller numbers of workmen and vastly better equipment. My eyes seemed drawn to one anvil in particular, and when I saw its marking, I muttered, “I doubt they stole that one from the shop.”

“It was stolen years ago from another location to the west,” said the soft voice, “along with much of this location's equipment. They rework 'blooded' weapons here, after cleaning and recarburizing in the coke furnaces.”

“Do they forge-weld them here?” I asked.

While there was no answer from one source, there was from another, as this location had black-dressed 'thinkers' supervising small groups of older-looking workmen. There were no witches in the area, and as I watched a team of four beat time on a yellow-white billet, I saw slag and 'rubbish' spray wildly.

“While they don't 'homogenize' their work to the degree you do,” said the soft voice, “they do pattern-weld blades several times between issues, and bake carbon into them each time. The resulting weapons improve steadily with each subsequent issue.” A brief pause, then “look over there.”

I felt my gaze abstracted toward a far corner, and as I watched, I noted crumbled black objects lying in a mound. Their dark glazed seeming was enough to make for wondering.

“Those are reserved for the swords of leaders,” said the soft voice, “though small pieces tend to be incorporated into twice-returned swords.”

“Small pieces?” I asked.

“Those weapons you stole had about twenty-five percent meteoritic content,” said the soft voice, “which was very needed due to the high carbon content of the other metal used to make them. Twice-returned swords tend to be slightly brittle without some modest added alloy content during their third period of rework.”

“And after that?” I asked.

“They tend to not be reworked further unless damaged or the one owning them becomes a 'fleet-leader'. Thrice-issued swords tend to be fairly rare, perhaps two or three out of a hundred.”

“How does one tell them apart?” I asked.

“By careful testing and examination,” said the soft voice. “They tend to look but slightly better superficially, even if their performance is drastically improved.”

Drastically?” I asked.

“Those neither bend, nor break, nor chip edges, nor dull quickly,” said the soft voice. “Those you make are markedly better, but otherwise...”

“Those sound as if they would be hard to beat,” I said. “Even those reworked ones would not be as good.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Thrice-returned weapons still have a modest amount of slag, unlike most of the fourth kingdom's unmarked weapons.”

“They're still soft,” I said.

“Their softness is due mostly to a poor understanding of heat-treating,” said the soft voice. “Between reworking, carburization, and proper heat-treating, the resulting weapons are vastly improved, just like most full-polish wrenches.”

I went back out into the hall, and this time, I sped up markedly, such that I was dodging lamps crazily and trying not to cough as I shot through the billowing clouds of soot. The path I was on took several crazy high-speed turns, then slowed as I came to a thick wall of solid rock. There was blackness, then blazing light on the other side.

I now 'flew' high over a brightly-lit cavern nearly half a mile wide, and as I watched, I was staggered by the mounds of planking and piles of shavings accumulating near swarms of workmen. The rows of various ship-parts spoke of a 'standardized' means of production, with small groups each working in turn upon the parts in question. Small 'canals' with 'skiffs' floated pieces down to the central lagoon of the cavern, and there, I was stunned.

“Th-this is a shipyard,” I gasped, as I looked down the long lagoon and its rows of ships under construction. “I had no idea they did things like this!”

“You haven't seen much yet,” said the soft voice. “The stocks are next.”

The stocks were over on the other side of the widest portion of the lagoon, and there I was further stunned, as each of these long stone things had several ships under construction in assembly-line fashion. In the first location, they built the frame, the next the hull-planking, the one after the deck, and the fourth, the masts.

“Two masts, nearly a hundred feet long, twenty-plus wide...” I muttered. “They must turn out... How many of these things do they make?”

“The yards are in a state of rapid change right now,” said the soft voice, “and this one is among the furthest along. Even the old ways produced ships with surprising rapidity.”

“Rapidity?” I asked.

“The incoming improvements will help to no small degree,” said the soft voice. “Now, to see the outside during its growing season.”

I 'flew' into blackness, and emerged seconds later into a clear bluish-gray sky scudded with high clouds overhead. The sun beamed down lazily, and the fields below utterly swarmed with people. While tin-wearers and witches were plentiful, the true numbers were stooped ragged individuals crusted with dirt, and when one of these people looked skyward, I was astonished to see his eyes.

They were utterly and completely crossed, and when he bent back to his labors, I had an idea as to why, for he was pushing another box on runners, and the messy brown contents had a stench that made a privy smell good.

These individuals were dumping these boxes as per the directions of the witches, and the tin-wearers used short-handled clumsy-looking spades with broad triangular blades to spade in the muck.

I now saw a long row of these 'execrated' cross-eyed people heading back towards a wide smoke-billowing hole in a distant glacier, and within that glacier, I saw what they were doing.

“They're emptying those latrines,” I gasped. “I know those women, er, witches supervise, but...”

“And torture, and chant, and hunt misshapen children, and cause trouble,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, they bear girl children, eat, excrete, sleep, and engage in witchcraft. As for work, that is the job of the men, which is why each witch has a sizable harem of at least thirty of them.”

“And where I live?” I asked.

“Women are still slightly more common than men,” said the soft voice. “Be glad it wasn't like it was several hundred years ago.”

“What was it like then?” I asked.

“Men were outnumbered ten or more to one in many places,” said the soft voice, “and they were chased constantly by women. The usual was to pass them around like baseball cards.”

I gagged with the horror of what I had heard, and the narration resumed once I'd recovered some composure.

“In those days, women did little beyond eat, excrete, sleep, and have children,” said the soft voice, “and had done so since over a hundred years prior to the war. It took them nearly three hundred years after the issuance of the curse for them to learn to do their share.”

“And the men?”

“They did nearly everything save bear children,” said the soft voice, “as the area now covered by all of the first and most of the second kingdom was a matriarchy prior to the war. It resembled Norden as to the division of labor, if not much else, and the rare exceptions to that 'rule' – often sterile, and mostly marked – were hunted like plague-spreading vermin and killed when and where they were found.”

There was a pause, then, “after the curse, however, their example of life became the dominant one, as to do otherwise then meant certain death. Save in the handful of locations where marked people were still named disgraced, they provided most of the leadership from the end of the war's 'hot' period until the last few hundred years. As for why, the reason was simple.”

“Simple?”

“They knew how to survive in a implacably hostile environment, and no one else at that time did,” said the soft voice. “The choice was then simple: do as they did, in all particulars, or die unmissed and unmourned.”

As a welcome respite from the horror I had heard, I now saw plowing – pig-drawn plows, with smaller versions of those two and a half-ton plate-wearing monsters pulling the wood-and-iron contraptions – constant weeding, guarding, being chased by hungry 'cows' and then giving chase in return, more weeding, then finally, the harvest.

“They g-grow corn,” I muttered. “Otherwise, what else grows here?”

“Most of their seed is either carefully selected from their crops or stolen,” said the soft voice, “and theft of some seed is a requirement on a routine basis. Most first kingdom crops are initially fertile when grown at Norden, but over time, they become unable to produce pollen.”

“Which means regular theft of still-fertile crops,” I said.

“Seeds are high on the theft list also,” said the soft voice, “as is food that doesn't grow well at Norden, both wild and cultivated.”

“If they trade...”

“They get some food that way,” said the soft voice. “Unfortunately, that food might be enough to keep Ultima Thule and a select portion of her coterie supplied. It doesn't even come close to providing occasional treats for the tin-wearers, much less the bulk of the populace. Hence, the summer and fall raids.”

The ground moved beneath me, and I now seemed to be shooting to the east. I passed over a huge number of inlets lined with ships under construction, vast numbers of huge fields sown with crops, patches of forested area thickly clotted with Giant Conifer trees and sundry 'weeds', and then finally, a huge area several miles across that reminded me of a massive stockyard.

As I looked around from my advantage point overhead, I noted a vast number of tin-wearing individuals, a great many witches, and here and there, small groups of 'thinkers'. These last were easily outnumbered by several hundred to one, but as I watched what they did, I wondered, “are those people inhabited?”

“More so than is common for men in Norden,” said the soft voice. “The typical tin-wearer has little attraction for spirits, due to the severe limitations on expression, and the common 'thinker' isn't much more attractive that way – at least, not when there are a hundred witches for every such man.”

There was a brief pause, then “also, it has to do with the common diet.”

“Diet?” I asked.

“Recall your interest in Hansel and Gretel?” asked the soft voice. “Norden's witches are, with very few exceptions, routine cannibals, and such meals tend to attract spirits and foster inhabitation.”

A brief pause, then “the usual first solid-food meal of young girls is raw 'fillet of sacrifice', and the mother offers her daughters choice pieces from her kills thereafter. In contrast, the tin-wearers are too common to receive such meals, and the 'thinkers' are denied them by the queen's edict.”

I now noticed the other inhabitants of the area. Within each sunken pen were one or more huge pigs, and as I watched, I saw some pigs with small examples clustering near them. I wondered for a moment if those were the only pigs in Norden, until I came to an area which was 'clotted' with 'domestic' pigs. These last squealed and shrieked crazily, and I gave them leave to do so. The big grunters were more important.

As I watched the behavior of the large pigs surrounded by numbers of small copies, it became obvious that the large pigs thusly accompanied were sows. I was astonished to see those pigs having long razor-edged tushes just like the boars.

“Both genders of Iron Pig are especially capable fighters,” said the soft voice, “and the 'piglets' are getting much more than mere nourishment from their mother. She is teaching them, also.”

“Teaching them?” I asked.

“Much as you do with Hans and Anna,” said the soft voice. “Were those pigs given appropriately written intelligence tests,” said the soft voice, “you might well be surprised.”

“How?” I asked.

“Firstly, very little of what those 'animals' do is instinctual,” said the soft voice. “They're close to people that way, and not the people of Norden, nor the people you live with, but the people you grew up with. Secondly, they understand commands.”

“Uh...”

“Not like common animals do, or even like some people do,” said the soft voice. “They actually parse the words and understand them individually, then combine the meanings and analyze them – and then decide if they want to act on them or not.” A pause, then “most importantly, they are able to learn the nuances of spoken language very quickly.”

“Can they speak?” I asked.

“They don't have the vocal equipment to speak human languages,” said the soft voice. “If they did, however, they have sufficient intelligence to mimic words very quickly.”

“Like a parrot...”

“They manage that in seconds,” said the soft voice. “Understanding takes somewhat longer.”

“Understanding?” I gasped.

“There are more than a few multilingual swine at Norden,” said the soft voice. “Then, they can read.”

“Read?” I asked.

“More than a few lecturers would be surprised if they knew how well the average Iron Pig performs that way,” said the soft voice. “They also understand the concepts of location quite well, and while they cannot draw maps, they can read and understand them.”

“What good does that do?”

“It means that when one of those smaller pigs travels in a group, it records where it's been, and that in substantial detail,” said the soft voice, “and from the recalled experience of that pig, the other swine in its 'group' soon know that area, much as if they'd examined a highly detailed topographical map.”

“They communicate?” I asked.

I heard a ringing high-pitched screeching that seemed to be modulated in both frequency and amplitude, and as it echoed in my mind, I gasped.

“What was that?”

“Swine communication,” said the soft voice. “I shifted it down in spectrum so you could hear it.”

“Ultrasonic?” I asked.

“For communication, ranging, and echolocation,” said the soft voice. “Iron Pigs are quite capable of navigating blindfolded, and that at their normal 'cruising' speeds. Only in the full speed of the charge are they hampered by being unable to see. Given familiar ground, they manage well nonetheless.”

“Full speed?” I asked.

“Willem underestimated the speed of that pig, as well as his distances,” said the soft voice. “It accelerated from a standstill to nearly fifty miles an hour in less than four seconds, and it continued to accelerate until it was hit. Its top speed exceeded eighty-four miles an hour.”

“Eighty-four m-miles an hour?” I gasped. “How long can they keep that up?”

“Several miles,” said the soft voice. “They can maintain their cruising speed for hours at a time.”

“How fast is that?” I asked.

“No horse can keep up with an Iron Pig,” said the soft voice. “None. Not even the best 'race-horses' can manage a steady gallop of twenty to thirty miles an hour for hours at a time without rest.”

“And in the course of a day?” I asked.

“A trio of Iron Pigs debarked from an area near the northern tip of the continent some hours after nightfall,” said the soft voice, “and by nine in the morning on the next day, they were wrecking the second kingdom's potato fields.”

“What?” I asked.

“Two-hundred and forty miles in eleven and a half hours,” said the soft voice, “and they destroyed three towns and killed hundreds of people in the process of traversing the first kingdom. Potatoes doubled in price that year, and nearly thirty families were wiped out trying to protect their fields.”

“And the pigs themselves?” I asked.

“Were finally killed several weeks later,” said the soft voice. “Sarah was responsible for burning one of them, and while the pig did not die that day, it died of infection two days later.”

“Infection?” I asked.

“Their Achilles heel,” said the soft voice. “All pigs, both domestic and imported, are unusually vulnerable to trauma-induced infections.”

“Meaning if you shoot one and it runs off, it...”

“That pig Paul shot died three days later,” said the soft voice. “Bacon-sized domestic pigs are harder to stop than full-grown elk, while full-sized Norden swine make any animal where you come from look harmless for danger and a sick joke for stopping. However, if you can draw blood with bullet or blade, that pig's chances of survival approach zero within a week's time.”

I paused to think then asked, “how smart are those things?”

“Intelligent enough to impersonate a certain well-known fictional psychopath,” said the soft voice, “and that in many ways. While they cannot play music, they have near-perfect pitch, and can recognize both tunes and individual playing styles. Were they able to play, you would be amazed.”

“How?” I asked.

“First, the pig would become fairly proficient within weeks of beginning, and that with a normal amount of practice,” said the soft voice, “and then, the pig would be able to play most tunes upon hearing them once or twice. Difficult tunes might need three or four listening sessions.”

I made a choking noise.

“It helps to have a photographic memory,” said the soft voice. “Unlike the elephants of legend, Iron Pigs truly never forget.”

“Do they manage, uh, 'sums'?” I asked.

“Better than you do,” said the soft voice. “However, do not fret.”

“There are lots of people where I come from who are better at math than I am,” I muttered. “Now what else is dangerous about these genius pigs?”

“They are not known for originality,” said the soft voice, “nor are they good at thinking outside of the realm bounded by their past collective and individual experience. Most importantly, they have little or no imagination.”

“Is this what I think it is?” I asked, as the scenery below my legs began to fade and that above my head began to darken.

“Their greatest strengths can be made into grave weaknesses,” said the soft voice, “if only someone chooses to think carefully and do things differently from how they've been done in the past.”

“Frozen in time...” I thought, as my eyes closed in slumber.

“This area will change,” said the soft voice echoing in my mind.