The end of the beginning


Our long trip of six stories with three limp-as-wet-dishrag stretcher-born men made for my stumbling on the stairs and falling face-down to the floor on more than one landing. I continued falling amid sultry-sounding coughs and wheezes, and until we actually came into the room itself, this seemed to continue without relent and apart from the passage of time.

I had but little idea as to why, even if I felt worn, fatigued, dazed, and numb to the world, and when I collapsed against the wall and sat on the now icy floor, I noted steaming walls and faint voices. It was a strain to pick them out, much less comprehend their meaning, until one spoke slightly clearer.

“Please, pick me up and toss me,” it implored, and shuddering rumbles amid the blue-white roiled cloud overhead seemed to answer it.

I looked up again, and through clouded eyes saw what looked like a thick and wild river in flood-stage, and when I looked down, a stranger-yet sight overtook my vision and made it a slave.

A strange door had appeared to replace the normal off-white passageway, and this door – a brilliant scarlet – was guarded in some fashion by tall and thin fiends of sooty mien. They spoke in slow and horrible tones, even as one of them caressed a bulbous spray can and began painting the door a final and unfading black while the other fiends chanted. Their chant – strange, slow, unhurried – spoke of the ongoing process I was watching, even as my vision slowly faded to a darkly colorless state.

I jerked awake what seemed seconds later, and amid faint groaning noises, I opened my eyes. A brief glimpse of my clothing made for a strange thought.

“I really look like a chimney-cleaner now,” I thought, and unbidden, a rejoinder came to follow: “yes, and cleaning while someone had a good hot fire in the firebox.”

The grime and smoke-smudges that I saw through the holes in my charred clothing seemed to speak of serious burns, and as I felt my head, dust and grime seemed to sift down. I then touched bare flesh, and Gabriel staggered over. He looked filthy, and when he spoke, I marveled.

“First, you play with fire in hell,” he said. His voice sounded strange amid the ringing of my ears. “You then repeatedly make a noise like a huge white animal that resembles a cat...”

“What?” I squeaked.

“Dogs don't have claws like you do,” said Gabriel, “nor do they make that noise. That animal does.”

He paused, coughed, spat a nasty-looking blob on the floor, then said, “then escape from another exploding southern powder mill, and now have a most severe tonsure. In other circumstances, and in other clothing, I could name you a friar.”

“Friar, he says,” muttered another voice that took seconds to recognize as that of Freek. “I'd be careful with whatever is hid up inside your finger, as it nearly blew the house to perdition.”

“Anna..?” I asked.

“I suspect they are either on the premises or coming quickly,” said Gabriel. “Hendrik sent for someone.”

“But how will they find them?” I asked.

“He didn't send just anyone,” said Gabriel. “He sent Andreas.”

A brief pause, then “I think you need to go downstairs into that room where you change and sometimes sleep.”

“W-why?” I asked.

“I think you endured enough hell for one day,” said Freek. “Besides, we need to hunt up places to rest on this floor so we can stay hidden while we remain here.”

“And that p-post?” I gasped. “I need a bath!”

I found my feet, then asked, “is that why I was to, uh, stake out that bathtub?”

“I can most likely get you some clothing while you bathe,” said Gabriel.

As I wobbled over to the doorway, I noted the grotesque carvings seemed to have somehow been defaced, and once in the hallway, I nearly collided with a cook. He looked at me, then said, “I'm glad we have those things here.”

“Th-things?” I asked.

“Let me bring them in,” he said. “Maria sent them up while you were gone.”

I went in the brown door, then turned left, and as I did, I was astonished to find not merely two buckets of water, but also a bar of soap and what looked like a quilted piece of cloth. I went behind the screen, and began carefully removing my clothing, now wary for any burned places. But seconds later, someone tapped on the door.

“Yes?” I asked. My voice was very hoarse.

“I have the rest of them here,” said the cook, as he opened the door.

For some reason, I stopped undressing, and it proved wise, for the cook needed three trips to bring in all that was needed. Once he said he was done, I came out to look.

A full-fueled heating lamp was burning at low flame under a boiler, while the two buckets now faintly steamed. Two of those soft bath towels lay upon a stool, while a second set of greens, complete with underwear, lay beneath them. I unthinkingly removed the button and laid it on top.

“Then what did Gabriel go get?” I asked.

“He did not know about your clothing, nor did he know of Maria's dream,” said the soft voice.

“Dream?” I asked, as I resumed stripping off my clothing.

“She knew you would need clean clothing and a bath once you'd finished today,” said the soft voice, “and once you bathe, rest would be wise.”

“The posting?” I asked.

“When you are able,” said the soft voice. “What happened is well-known.”

As I bathed, I wondered about a pack. It sounded distinctly wise, given as I would be traveling in the near future, and I tried recalling the details of the ones I'd had and used where I came from. I found it very hard to concentrate, so much so that after bathing and dressing, I stumbled out of the door burdened down by a great deal beyond what I was carrying and into a room that was now vacant of all habitation.

The downward stairs seemed to be equally empty, and by the time I found 'my' room, I wanted to groan and put out my arms like a zombie, for I was walking in my sleep. My things mostly went on the floor, including my shoes, and when I saw the single wax candle burning on the table by my bedside, I sneezed and blew the thing out. I then collapsed on the bed into a dreamless state of unconsciousness.

This dreamless state did not endure, however, for after a time, someone was carefully looking all over my body. Gentle touches here and there seemed endemic, along with faint sighs of pleasure and an occasional giggle, and amid these noises soft murmurs now and then spoke of burnt clothing. I then began awakening.

I did not wish to awaken, however, as I was well-beyond exhausted, but soft speech continued, and finally, my eyes opened to see a bright-lit room...

“An infernally crowded room,” I muttered. “This thing has enough room for one person, assuming a lot of care.”

“I cannot find a burnt place on you,” muttered Anna.

“His hair, Anna,” said Hans. “He will need a cap so he does not become ill.”

“Cap?” I muttered.

“Especially during that trip,” said Gabriel. “Now why do you use such fine powder in that musket?”

“It put that deer down fast enough,” said Anna, “and then, it made me glad for that vial of Geneva.”

“I thought you did not consume...”

Gabriel then grunted, and Anna looked as if inclined to box his ears.

“She does not like its taste,” said Hans. “I had to rub her some, as she was sore after shooting that deer.”

“I did not need your elbow,” said Gabriel. “Did Andreas find you?”

“Yes, as we were coming here,” said Anna. “We started a bit later than we thought we would, and when I heard...”

“Heard?” I asked.

“I have no idea how you did that,” said Anna, “but somehow, I heard your voice as we were going out the door. You spoke of burn ointment, and I packed that and the other things used for burns.”

Anna paused, then said, “I still could not find a single burned place on you, except for your hair.”

Hans then turned around to fetch a tinned copper mug, then turned back toward me. I thought to sit up, and managed it easily.

“Now Maarten will have something to speak about when it gets warm,” he said.

“M-more witches?” I asked.

“No,” said Hans. “As a break from those things.”

Anna looked at him with eyes wide in stunned shock and open mouth.

“He has never managed a calling sermon worth anything,” said Hans, “and now, he can do that easy. He'll need to talk to you first, I think.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Gabriel spoke of what you did,” said Hans. “So, you know what hellfire is like, and you have seen Brimstone, pot-and-saucer hat and all, so now he can do one of those things easy.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Yes,” said Hans. “A real Hellfire-and-Brimstone sermon. He has wanted to preach one for ages.”

Anna clouted Hans gently, then said, “those books?”

“Those are coming in a hurry,” said Hans. “Talk has it there was enough to need a freighting wagon, and I think it is a special one, as they talked of sparks on the road from the horses' shoes.”

“Just the books?” I asked.

“There is some stuff for Georg, or so I heard,” said Hans. “There are a lot of big sacks for those books, as there are a lot of those things.”

“Did the ones I ordered come?” I asked.

“All of those,” said Hans, “and then some used for navigation...”

Gabriel's face was inscrutable.

“And then, a full set of those Compendium books,” said Hans, “and a full collection of Grim books, and then those special ones, too.”

“Special?” I asked.

“An instrument-maker's set,” said Hans. “I have heard tell about that Compendium set.”

“I hope I can use those,” said Gabriel conspiratorially, “as the set here is an old one. Does it include the Doomsday book?”

“I think so,” said Hans blithely – until he realized what Gabriel had asked. “Now why is it you want the place to go to hell?”

“It does not speak of the final destruction,” said Gabriel, “but about the people, their towns, their farms, and their flocks, and that by numbers and maps.” Gabriel paused, then said, “I will be most glad for the maps, especially if that is a recent book.”

“I heard all of these things used the latest ledgers,” said Hans. “Now why do you want the maps?”

“Some wretch cut them out of the set here,” said Gabriel. “I suspect your house would be the safest place to put them, as my suspicions about General's Row have grown greatly.”

“Yes, and how is that?” asked Hans.

“I found a spy-hole but lately vacated near that meeting room,” said Gabriel, “and by the time I saw Hendrik, he was speaking to Karl. He'd overheard one of those Generals speaking of the meeting, and that to a messenger.”

“What?” asked Anna. “He was a Schpee?”

Hearing the word 'spy', especially from Anna, was not comforting.

“He was,” said Gabriel. “Those men on the council...”

“Yes, and where are they?” asked Hans. “Talk has it they were bad witches.”

Were is correct,” said Gabriel archly, “and I suspect that will have the witches after them, especially once they learn of what happened to three of those men.”

“Those that buried scrolls?” I asked.

“You did not notice, did you?” asked Gabriel. “You were too busy tossing them to look closely.”

“What happened to them?” I asked.

“All of them have missing toes,” said Gabriel.

Anna shook violently, then said, “how?”

“It seems they were burned off,” said Gabriel. “There are scars, but they indicate rapid healing with no infections of consequence.”

“That is good, then,” said Hans. “They...”

Good?” squeaked Gabriel. “They'll draw every witch within fifty miles after them, and that's them. I have no idea what Freek will do.”

“What happened to him?” asked Anna.

“His hand, dear,” I said. “He tried to poke me with a black stone knife, and most of his hand went up in smoke.”

“That means he is as good as dead, then,” said Hans.

“He is most definitely not dead,” said Gabriel. “His hand was healed completely, and if one looks carefully, one can see a difference.”

“His palm?” I asked.

“He can hide that readily,” said Gabriel. “I mean the skin is slightly lighter.”

“Then he is marked, and so are those others,” said Hans.

“I know,” said Gabriel. “They'll need to leave the area and travel for a time, and how long a time is, I wonder.”

“Until...” I paused in speaking, then said whispering, “a few months.”

“Months?” asked Gabriel. I heard him reaching for a ledger.

“Our trip,” I said, “and then clearing that place, and then...”

“I think this room is a bit crowded for what you have to say,” said Gabriel.

“Security?” I asked.

“This room is really close,” said Anna, “and its lighting could stand improvement.”

“And I left my ledger in my office,” said Gabriel. “I need a flat surface for writing, and this room has no such thing large enough.”

I needed to resume my stockings and boots, and once burdened again, I met Gabriel out in the hall. The fatigue I felt was still sufficient to make travel on foot for any real distance most unwise, and as the two of us walked, I asked, “the post?”

“Is being looked after,” said Gabriel. “It seems that 'messenger' wasn't the only person heading toward the Swartsburg.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I saw no less than five Generals leave in the space of a minute, and Sepp says that place has no one in it.”

“I wish I could bug that place,” I sighed.

“That would work well,” said Gabriel. “The stink of those bugs would but add to the odors present.”

“N-no,” I said. “R-radio transmitters and closed-circuit TV cameras.”

Gabriel stopped in mid-stride and slumped against the nearest wall of the passage we were in, and gasped, “the way you talk makes me long for my own private word-book.”

“Was one of those ordered?” I asked.

“Two,” he said. “The two together might not be a Gustaaf, but it should help.”

Gustaaf?” I asked.

“If a word exists, the Gustaaf has it,” said Gabriel, “or so I was told. I wonder about some of what you say.”

“I sometimes wonder myself,” I said. “I hope we can get some food.”

“I arranged for that,” said Gabriel. “It might well be there now.”

Opening the door of Gabriel's office made for anticipation followed by 'letdown', for all I could smell was fresh-sawn wood and what might have been shavings. He looked in his wood-bin first, then as he went out into the hall to fetch a lantern, I heard him say, “no food yet, but someone brought some wood-scraps.”

“Wood-scraps?” I asked. “For your fire?”

“That especially,” he said, as he returned with a burning candle. “Now I can light the lantern in here, and we can get to work.”

Gabriel's concept of 'work' proved slightly strange, however, for it included stove-preparation and then lighting a meager stoking with the stub of a tallow candle. As he adjusted his stove's controls, I heard steps out in the hallway, then a cook showed.

“Yes?” I asked tiredly.

“I see you're still among the living,” said the cook, as he brought out a wicker basket. “The wine should be along shortly.”

Wine?” I gasped.

“Unfermented,” he said. “Anna stopped by before she left, and said the other type wasn't a good idea.” He paused, then said, “do you need porridge?”

Gabriel turned, then looked in his desk and brought forth a small cloth bag. He felt it, then said, “not today, though I suspect two bags would be wise within a week.”

“The trip?” asked the cook. Gabriel nodded.

Once the cook had left and Gabriel closed the door, I asked, “porridge?”

“It isn't common up here,” said Gabriel, “mostly as some of the grains used want hotter and dryer weather than that of the first kingdom. I developed a taste for it while at school.”

“Do you cook it in here?” I asked.

“I am an execrable cook,” said Gabriel, “but I can manage porridge.”

“How is it cooked?” I asked.

“A small mug works well,” said Gabriel. “I usually put in one measuring cup of the meal and two of boiling water, with three pinches of salt. I add sugar-tree sap before eating it.”

“How long does it, uh, take?” I asked.

“Perhaps half of a small glass,” said Gabriel. “When I wasn't traipsing with a group, I commonly cooked it morning and evening.”

“It isn't expensive, is it?” I asked.

Nothing of an edible nature is cheap if purchased in the fourth kingdom,” said Gabriel, “but porridge-grain comes close.”

“Could we make it up here?” I asked. I was beginning to get an idea.

“We do,” said Gabriel. “The main kitchen has grinding facilities. It's cheaper to get the whole grains.”

“We may want to take some porridge for the trip, then,” I said.

Gabriel wrote briefly in his ledger, then asked, “any other ideas?”

“Uh, how are these trips done?” I asked.

“Recent events have changed everything,” said Gabriel, “hence the usual rules don't apply.” A brief pause, then “every guard wants to go, and...”

“And in the past a long winding line of march traveled slowly and tripled the earnings of every Public House in its path,” I muttered. “Ten miles a day? Twenty?”

“I doubt that would work,” said Gabriel. “Hendrik told me we would need to do our best each day for distance.”

“Hence the smallest feasible party,” I said. “Will Maria wish to come?”

“One of them needs to stay here,” said Gabriel, “and while which one of them went would matter little in some of those places, there are locations where women are not commonly heard in such capacities.”

Duh...” I spluttered.

A tap came at the door, and Gabriel brought in a small jug. Uncorking it loosed a fragrant aroma of grape juice, and when I sipped the stuff from my tinned mug, I marveled at its chill. Someone had iced the stuff.

“I know,” said Gabriel, as he resumed his seat after tending the stove. “Now what does 'duh' mean?”

“I've heard of the concept before,” I muttered, “and I do not care for it. Hence 'duh' to express how I feel about choosing gender over qualification.”

I then recalled the need to eat, as did Gabriel, and we both applied ourselves to the food. I was glad for its plainness, and once I'd eaten a thick slice of bread smeared heavily with cheese-spread, I asked, “food?”

“Three of those going have done traipsing,” said Gabriel. “Have you?”

“Uh, not here,” I said.

“I would not be so certain,” said Gabriel. “I have it on good authority that you have traveled some.”

“Yes, and not here,” I said.

“From where you live to the king's house is considered a fair distance,” said Gabriel. “Most would wait for a buggy rather than walk.”

“There and back..?” I asked.

“In one day, and that on foot,” said Gabriel. “Only the west school's students think to travel further in a day, and they do that mounted.”

“As in I might know what is important?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Gabriel. “Horses and buggies don't care for extra weight, and such traveling speaks loudly of your knowledge.”

“But I wasn't going, uh...” I paused, then gasped, “how far is this trip to go?”

“The length of the continent,” said Gabriel. “Hendrik once traveled from the west school to the north-tip, and did it in a bit more than a week.”

“We won't manage that,” I said.

“I know,” said Gabriel. “We'll need to stop once a day at Public Houses, then get supplies, and then at each kingdom house.”

“Uh, n-no,” I said. “No one will want to go that fast.”

“Which is why we need to pick our people carefully,” said Gabriel. “Hendrik needs to go, as does the armorer, and you and I, and...”

“How many people do we need?” I asked.

“That is the rub,” said Gabriel. “With but four, we could pass as friars or perhaps as lecturers, but custom...”

“Demands a huge mob of people,” I spluttered. “Forty or more, unless I miss my guess, and ten is about as much as is wise if we want to hurry.”

Gabriel wrote for a moment, then as I sipped grape juice, he said, “you were right about that number, by the way, and ten sounds much better. Now who would you pick?”

“Uh, who can we trust?” I asked. “We don't want to be taking people who might turn witch, especially at the wrong moment.”

“That lets out many of the guards,” said Gabriel. “Those who sit with you would not worry me, and perhaps two others I can think of.”

“Oh, one person,” I blurted. “He used to be a freighter, and he spoke about the trip and gave advice...”

Gabriel's eyes opened wide, then as he wrote more, he muttered, “I forgot him, for some reason – him, and this other person who used to cut wood.”

“Cut wood?” I asked.

“He brings in a fair amount of meat when he isn't posting,” said Gabriel, “and then, he's got greens.”

“Like I do?” I asked.

“There are only four people other than you with that clothing,” said Gabriel, “and three of them are out traipsing right now.”

“Traipsing?” I asked. “What for?”

“Brigands and thieves, mostly,” said Gabriel. “Usually they're out a month or more at a time.”

“And him?” I asked.

“His plot is local,” said Gabriel, “which makes it harder. The worst thieves are in the kingdom house...”

“And a good percentage of them are no longer able to steal,” I said. “Am I correct?”

Gabriel nodded, then said, “town has been unusually quiet since you went after Koenraad.”

I counted mentally, and said, “eight, then?”

“That's actually believable,” said Gabriel. “That will mean two buggies for the baggage.”

Baggage?” I squeaked.

“While we didn't usually take tents with us,” said Gabriel, “those at the west school did.”

“G-ground-cloths,” I said. “I might know where some such things are. That third floor arms-room had baskets of them.”

After another short spate of eating and drinking, I asked, “and after the trip?”

“What we do after the trip depends upon what we learn while traveling,” said Gabriel. “Oh, I didn't see this. Someone dished up some fowl.”

Gabriel now brought out a small tinned copper 'tureen', which went on his desk. Removing the lid showed the marbled dark-and-white meat of an obvious quoll, and as he put pieces on a slice of bread, he said, “this reminds me. About twelve miles north of where you live, as the quoll flies...”

Crow?” I asked.

“Those don't like cold weather,” said Gabriel, “nor do ravens, unless such birds have two heads and reside upon red flags.” Gabriel paused, then said, “why did you speak of crows?”

“Uh, they fly straight?” I asked.

“Perhaps if they are inclined to hurry,” said Gabriel. “Quolls might be clumsy fliers, but they do tend to go more or less straight if they're flying. I've seen enough crows and ravens fly to know they commonly don't.”

A brief pause, then, “I was speaking of the Abbey, and its distance from where you live.”

“Oh...” I gasped. I nearly spewed.

“It is named aptly, for there are said to be worms there,” said Gabriel. “They'll need removal prior to using the place.”

“Using?” I asked.

“To train an army, among other things,” said Gabriel. “Given your performance during your training, as well as afterward, I'd say you need three ledgers to write down your thoughts.”

“And more scribblers,” I muttered. “As for that Abbey place, it doesn't just have worms. It has idols...”

“You mean it has one of those rooms?” squeaked Gabriel.

“I suspect so,” I said. “Then, there was a trap...”

“Hans spoke of that,” said Gabriel, “and he said where there was one, there might be more of them.”

Within moments, it became obvious that neither of us were up to solving the issues of trip-supplies and planning in a short time, and the conversation segued to the 'elders'. Gabriel turned a few pages in his ledger, then began writing.

“At last count, their combined monetary resources are sufficient for quite some time,” said Gabriel. “Hendrik thinks it wise to add what can be added.”

“Uh, how much?” I asked.

“Why do you ask?” said Gabriel. His curiosity was utterly unfeigned.

“Traipsing,” I said. “They'll need to...”

“I see,” said Gabriel. “Some off-duty guards will be combing the storerooms today and tomorrow, and they leave tomorrow night by postal buggy.”

“How will they travel?” I asked.

“Each buggy will carry two men and their supplies, along with what mails show,” said Gabriel, “and during a common post-stop once they are out of the area, they'll unload themselves and their equipment.”

“And how will they travel then?” I asked. I had lost my train of thought with Gabriel's interruption, and now I knew why I had suspected a need for resupply during the months-long 'hiding'.

“Post-stops commonly have at least two teams,” said Gabriel, “along with several horses kept for messengers. They are to use those until they can procure teams and buggies.”

“And then take the messenger-horses back?” I asked.

Gabriel nodded.

“Do they have sufficient funds to provide themselves with food, neccessities, a pair of horses, and a buggy?”

Gabriel abruptly wiped his face with his hand, then muttered for several seconds before responding. “No one, and I mean no one, saw that,” he said. “They cannot go out with more than perhaps three hundred guilders per pair.”

“Which might buy a decent buggy,” I said. “The team will be more, and then living expenses on top of that.” I paused, then said, “and I hope in all honesty they don't spend most of their waking hours in Public Houses.”

“They won't see much if they do that,” said Gabriel.

“No, something worse,” I said. “Not only will they have trouble making twenty miles a day, but they're bound to fetch up at a witch-run Public House sooner or later – or, failing that, they'll be questioned by witch-sympathizers in such places.”

Gabriel's mouth now wobbled from the bottom of a full-open position.

“And while twenty miles a day might work passably for them,” I murmured, “they need to avoid undue questions. Hence, all such stops need to be quick ones.”

“Beer and bread, then,” said Gabriel, as he resumed writing. “Outside of where Hendrik needs to stop daily, it may be wise for us to do likewise.”

“Jugs?” I asked. “Perhaps several for each buggy, as well as tinned copper mugs?”

“Could you make more?” asked Gabriel.

“I could,” I said, “but given what I was told to expect regarding...”

Again, Gabriel wiped his face.

“The buggies?” I asked.

“Have you worked on those before?” he asked.

“I have to a small degree,” I said. “I was told by that one man to expect the metal parts, and I've never given the underside of a buggy much attention before.”

“The wooden portions are being worked on right now,” said Gabriel, “and the metal portions were stripped off days ago. Have they showed where you work?”

“Not that I know of,” I said. “Are there examples of buggies handy that are similar to those?”

“There are,” said Gabriel, “but the metal portions on buggies tend to be similar as to function. You might look at the buggy where you live, as those tend to be as clear as anything that way.”

“Will there be many more postings before we leave?” I asked.

“Those are still being worked out,” said Gabriel. “We still don't know the entire number of missing guards beyond 'over twenty, and less than twenty-five'.”

“Which is nearly a third of them, unless I miss my guess,” I said. “Hence more postings than the usual for those that remain.” I paused, then said, “what about while we're gone?”

“There will be a fair number of guards living on the premises then,” said Gabriel – who seconds later 'hitched' before blurting, “is that why you thought to have such a small number of guards on the trip?”

“No, not that,” I said. “Remember how we need to move quickly? A big meandering swarm guarantees lengthy stays in any Public House we stop in, as it will take hours just to get the food, then more hours to eat the stuff, then we leave camp when the slowest person is ready to leave and stop when the laziest person wants to go to sleep.”

“And none of those eight is either of those things,” said Gabriel. “No, I take that back. I sometimes have trouble starting early.”

“I don't,” I said, “and I'll roust you if needed. Now do I finish at my posting, or what?”

Gabriel had but little more to say, and as I left his office, I had an intimation: while most of the house had some idea of what had happened to me, that could not be said about Gijs and Rolf. They were due at the post shortly, and when I staggered around the corner into the hallway leading to the bench, I could hear low speech coming from points ahead.

“Is it them?” I thought, as I nearly tripped over my own feet. “I think I recognize one of the voices.”

Seconds later, the bench hove into view, and I saw not merely those I thought might be there, but also someone I had never expected to see in the king's house. Sarah was sitting between Gijs and Rolf.

“W-what are you doing here?” I squeaked.

“I came here with Hans and Anna,” said Sarah, “and I needed to go into town to fetch some things.”

“Things?” I asked.

“I read that note, and needed to ask about it,” she said, “and what I heard tells me a great deal. I'll be heading off to get the stuff after I ask a few more questions.”

“W-warm weather clothing?” I asked, after touching the door to the king's office.

“That, and some other things,” said Sarah.

“How will you get home, though?” I asked.

“I have that worked out,” said Sarah archly. She reminded me a bit of Gabriel then. “A buggy is going into town to get some supplies, then it will head into Roos with some work for you.”

“For me?” I asked.

“Buggy-parts,” said Gijs. “They need to pick up some supplies before bringing it over.”

“Supplies?” I asked.

“They did their asking, and what Georg calls first quality iron isn't,” said Gijs. “Were you speaking with Gabriel?”

“Y-yes, some,” I said. “I'm really tired, so much so that I'm not going to be able to walk home the usual way.”

“You might try riding,” said Sarah, as she stood and then turned. I then saw her 'seat'.

“Your sewing?” I asked.

“That and much more,” said Sarah. “I need to get a mug filled, then find that buggy.”

After she left, I asked, “how did she not sit on her, uh, needles?”

“She's clever that way,” said Gijs. “That way, and many other ways.”

“Do you know her?” I asked.

“Two classes before mine, and three before Rolf's,” said Gijs, “and I would be careful with her.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

Rolf giggled, then as he brought out a ledger, he said, “she made the list five years in a row, and that was in school. Her traipsing is still spoken of.”

“What did she do?” I asked.

“She did not go into the valley,” said Gijs conspiratorially, “but she went everywhere else, and I do mean everywhere.”

“Did she go into the...” I almost said Swartsburg.

“If you are talking of the Swartsburg,” said Gijs, “I suspect so, and that multiple times.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Not every ledger that students write in is let out for reading,” said Gijs, as he brought out his own ledger. “I saw one of hers once, and it was a marvel.”

“What was in it?” I asked.

“I'm not sure if this was the Swartsburg or the fifth kingdom house,” said Gijs, “but either way, there was a lot in there, and she saw a great deal.”

“Open sewers?” I asked. “Mule-dung everywhere? B-b... Ugh!”

“All of those things,” said Gijs. “I've written briefly of my time traipsing, and Rolf has also, and then I asked her some questions while we were waiting for...”

Gijs' voice trailed off abruptly, then his eyes bugged out as he squeaked, “what happened to your hair?”

“Uh, I had some trouble earlier today,” I said.

“Chemicals?” asked Rolf.

“Uh, no,” I said. “It was up on the third floor for much of it, then in the lowest basement level for the other portion.”

“The noise? The smoke? The smell?” asked Gijs.

“I think so,” I said, as I noticed faint ringing echoes in my hearing.

A hand touched my scalp, then Sepp muttered, “I'll see about a cap for you. It's still cold enough to not want to be outside with no hair.”

“Cap?” I asked, as I recalled the few examples I'd seen. I didn't want leather on my head.

“You might want a friar's cap,” said Rolf, “or one used by chicken-pluckers.”

“Ch-chicken-plucker?” I gasped.

“Those are leather and well-padded,” said Rolf.

“And those for friars?” asked Sepp.

“Those are of cloth,” said Rolf. “I think I might have seen a bag of those things in the cloth-room earlier today with all those clothes.”

“Used clothes?” I asked. “Where did they get them?”

“Most likely out of a storeroom on the upper floors,” said Gijs. “Traveling, especially long rides, tends to be hard on the clothing, and one wants loose stuff that's well-washed, so it isn't hard on the body.”

“Uh, greens?” I asked.

“Most guard clothing isn't wise for riding,” said Gijs, “but that kind works well for it.”

“Riding?” I asked.

“Three to five students and a buggy,” said Gijs. “Everyone except the buggy-driver rides horseback.”

“Buggy-driver?” I asked.

“That depends,” said Rolf. “With us, we traded off every other stop for water, and the riderless horse trailed behind the buggy.”

“What did you have in that buggy?” I asked. “Baggage?”

Rolf laughed, then said, “who said that? Gabriel?”

I nodded, then asked, “what was it?”

“He didn't go to the west school,” said Gijs. “We carried food, grain for the horses, our tent, a few ground-cloths, clothing, miscellaneous supplies, and our tub.”

“Tub?” I gasped.

“It got used regularly,” said Gijs. “Bathing in the evening, then our clothing, and hanging the stuff from ropes under the trees to dry overnight, and all of that while either cooking or writing in our journals.”

“Late nights?” I asked.

“And early starts,” said Rolf. “We were on the road by sunrise as a rule, and seldom stopped long before sundown, at least until we were in our plotted area.”

“Plotted area?” I asked.

“The reason why we traveled,” said Gijs. “We commonly set up a base camp for a few days in a promising area, and then did our work.”

“Work?” I asked. “What kind?”

“Record what we saw,” he said. “Where towns were, how big they were, the countryside between them, the animals, and whatever else we found, at least for the more-common places. The less-common ones...”

“Those tended to go into the Compendium if the writer was any good,” said Rolf.

“How did you bathe?” I asked.

“Quickly,” said Gijs. “Cold water tends to make for rapid bathing, even when a screen is handy.”

“A screen?” I asked.

“Ground-cloths, sail-rope, and canes,” he said. “I wished we had had one of those aquavit-burning things and a water-boiler, as that would have helped a lot.”

“A heating lamp?” I asked. “A mess-kit?”

“Traipsing tends to be messy,” said Gijs. “Do mess kits help that way?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Those are for cooking, though three people would stretch the ones I've made.”

“How big are they?” asked Rolf.

I indicated the size with my hands, then a faint whistle came from Gijs.

“I'd be careful about those,” said Gijs, “as if the students find out, they will bury you with work.”

“What did you use?” I asked.

“Nothing that handy or neat,” said Gijs. “With eight people, you might want more than one.”

“Or a larger pot,” said Sepp.

“How much larger?” I asked.

“That depends on how much you will want to eat,” said Gijs. “Hard traveling does strange things to the appetite.”

“Uh, great hunger?” I asked.

“I'm not sure what happens,” said Rolf, “but school tends to remove some of one's inclination toward food.”

“Especially while traipsing,” said Gijs. “You never want to go out more than a month, as then sickness and weakness become troublesome. Mother would try stuffing me when I came home during Festival Week, and I needed it.”

“But I thought...”

“I don't know what happens to freighters, or most others that travel,” said Gijs, “but they seem to think themselves gluttons.”

“And otherwise with students?” I asked. “As in their minds are on things beyond food?”

“I think you're right,” said Gijs. “I tended to worry more about feeding the horses than myself.”

I paused for a moment, then asked, “what kind of food did you eat?”

Gijs looked at Rolf, then the latter said, “beer and bread when we could get it, game if it showed...”

“Is that how you got all of those welts?” asked Gijs.

“It took all of us to settle down that fool-hen,” said Rolf, “and until it was dead, it seemed to have five more beaks than is common for birds.”

“Geneva?” I asked.

“You want that for the bugs,” said Gijs. “Those can be trouble to the south.”

“No, for the welts,” I said.

“We'd used up what we brought, and getting more wasn't easy in that place,” said Rolf. “Besides, we were only two days out from the school, and we could rest while doing our reports. One can find Geneva in the fourth kingdom's market readily.”

“Porridge?” I asked.

“I'd take some just in case,” said Gijs. “If one of the party is a decent cook, I'd have that person be in charge of victuals.”

“What is this word?” asked Karl with a snort. I suspected he had been napping.

“Food,” I said.

“What kind?” asked Karl with a wink.

“We commonly carried potatoes, carrots...”

Karl interrupted Gijs by saying, “I'd best hide plenty of that stuff, and hide it good, then.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“I have heard about how you are,” said Karl slyly. “You might not look like a burrowing rodent, but you like that type of food.”

“I doubt he eats those things raw, Karl,” said Sepp. “If you like potato soup, I'd fetch along a decent-sized pot.”

“Decent-sized?” I asked.

Sepp indicated one about a food across and nearly as deep, then said, “are you going to bring one of those drunken lanterns?”

“Drunken l-lantern?” I squeaked.

“They take aquavit,” said Sepp. “I've heard they work well.”

“They do,” I said, “but a big pot... “Perhaps a bit smaller than what you spoke of?”

“I don't know about you,” said Karl, “but I would try getting one of Anna's.”

“It might be too big for the cooking stand,” I said.

“Do those fold?” asked Gijs.

I nodded, then said, “I think I have three of them in the queue at work.”

“I think one of them is mine, then,” said Gijs, “as well as a smaller one of those aquavit-burning lamps.”

“Smaller?” I asked.

“The big ones are better for families,” said Gijs. “Hans said the smaller ones were better for people just starting out.”

I thought for a moment, then noted Rolf writing something. He looked up, then said, “we should have this ready for checking over when you post next. Do you know when?”

I shook my head, then said, “between work and other things, I hope it isn't going to be all the time. I've got two buggies' metalwork to go through, and I hope I can find someone to tell me what is wanted.”

“That I can speak of,” said Rolf. “You want free-turning hubs, clear passages, hard bolts, and tight wrenches – oh, and blackened metal if you have the time and supplies for it.”

“Blackened m-metal?” I asked.

“It isn't really a black color,” said Rolf. “It's closer to a dark blue.”

“The color is important?” I asked.

“Not the color itself, but how it stands up to dampness,” said Rolf. “If it's done right, it helps prevent rusting.”

“Done right?” I asked.

“Some places do better than others,” said Rolf. “One of my first traipsing days was spent at the Heinrich works, and they did a lot of their work that way.”

“Did you get a recipe?” I asked.

“It uses lye, a liquid death compound, chlorate of potash, salt, and perhaps two other chemicals,” said Rolf, “and all of them have to be carefully purified. Beyond that, I don't recall much.”

“I do,” said Gijs. “That recipe is in one of those books used by instrument-makers.”

“It isn't the exact same one,” said Rolf. “I tried that recipe, and it seemed more for looks.”

“You tried it?” I asked.

“Yes, at school in one of the chemistry laboratories,” said Rolf. “I did up the locks and other metal parts for a fowling piece.”

“And?” I asked.

“The color was streaky and wore rapidly,” said Rolf, “and I had to repeat the process several times until the gun came good.”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“It finally took,” said Rolf. “Until then, I had to keep it oiled all the time, just as if it were bright-metal.”

“And after?”

“It wasn't nearly as hard to look after,” he said. “I used a rag and this strange oily stuff I got...”

I removed my container of 'motor-oil' from my bag, and passed it to Rolf. He uncorked the vial, put his finger in, then looked at the yellow-brown liquid.

“It was like this, only lighter in color,” he said, “and it had more of a smell.”

“Smell or not, that stuff works better than anything,” said Sepp. “It stops rust entirely if you wipe things down regularly.”

Rolf looked more at his finger, felt the oil, then said, “this would have worked well in the buggies. Where did you get it?”

“Uh...”

“You want to speak to Hans,” said Karl. “I just got a small vial of the stuff, that and a stick of that tallow that does not smell.”

I then recalled the need of a pack, and thought to speak of it.

“Did any of you ever use a pack?” I asked.

“No,” said Gijs. “The buggy carried most of what we had, and our satchels had those things we wanted close.” A brief pause, then “what is a pack?”

I was at a loss for words, so much so that when Sepp brought out a slate and passed it to me, I gasped twice before speaking.

“Where did you, uh, see this?” I asked.

“I went back in that room with the bath-towels this morning,” said Sepp, “as I suspected I wanted another, and it took me a while to find them.”

“Did you?” I asked.

“Those you found were easy to find,” said Sepp. “I looked around a bit more, and found more of them.” A brief pause, then “I found four things like what I drew, and I wanted to ask someone as to what they were.”

“That thing looks like a pack,” I said, “only... How big was it?”

Sepp indicated with his hands, then said, “it was nearly big enough to crawl inside.”

“N-no,” I shuddered, as I shook my head. “I had two of these things, and I was thinking of the smaller one's size.”

“How big was it?” asked Gijs.

“About a foot or so wide, eight inches thick, and perhaps twenty inches tall,” I said, “with a small pouch on the rear closed by a pair of straps.”

“That sounds like a student's satchel,” said Rolf. “Did it have a rope to hold it with?”

“It had straps,” I said. “One wore it on the back.” A brief pause, then “the larger one was a little larger.”

“You could not crawl inside such a thing,” said Karl, “not unless you were a baby.”

“How would you know?” asked Sepp.

“Mother's sister had a pair of them last year, and she brought both of them over when they were still new,” said Karl, “and both of them were bad about crawling into things.”

“Into what?” I asked.

“One of them got into the barn,” said Karl, “and he got all sticky with the horse-grain there. It made him easier to catch.”

“Catch?” I asked.

“He was in the barrel,” said Karl.

“Overturned?” I asked.

“I am not sure if that was what he was doing,” said Karl, “as all I could see was his feet. He was enjoying himself, though, and that made him easier to carry inside.”

Sepp looked at me knowingly, then said, “neither sister went out into the barn, but they were good about finding things.”

“Finding things?” I asked. “What did they find?”

“My shoes, for one,” said Sepp. “Babies are strange that way, especially when it comes to hiding.”

“They hid your shoes?” I asked.

“They did that more than once,” said Sepp. “Once mother found one of them in with the potatoes.”

“How old were these children?” I asked.

“They were close to sprouting teeth,” said Sepp. “I had just started going to school, so it was a while ago.”

Our relief came early, to my astonishment, and after hearing of the next post – three days hence, and the same posting as our current one – I thought to hie myself up to the leather shop.

As I walked into the main hall of the first floor, however, I recalled the fabric portions of the two packs I had used, and thought, “why do I have the impression the whole thing needs to be made of leather? Is it the lack of a suitable fabric? The matter of wear..?”

I stopped just in time to avoid a collision with a support-column, and moved to the left. The stairs were but a short distance away, and once on the second floor proper, I passed the way to Andreas' shop, then continued on. As I did, however, I wondered as to buckles and the handful of metal fittings needed, and only when I opened the door to the leather shop itself did my thinking jerk away from its path.

I was speechless, for the packs Sepp had mentioned were occupying the tables I had recalled seeing.

“Uh, is this a bad time?” I asked.

“Why?” asked one of the men. I recognized his voice as that of the 'leader'.

“That trip...”

“So that's why these need to be looked over,” he said. “Will you be using one?”

“One of th-those things?” I gasped. “They're huge!”

“That's what you want for a long trip, and that trip is supposed to be as long as they go,” he said.

“Uh, no,” I spluttered. “Here, let me draw what I'm after, and then you tell me.”

I spent ten minutes with pencil and paper, and here, I saw the disadvantage with the small size of the ledger's pages. As I drew, however, I suddenly recalled the 'evidence' that I had forgotten to speak of and nearly fainted.

“Gabriel spoke of those,” said the soft voice.

“Those p-papers?” I asked silently.

“I would drop those off with Gabriel before you leave,” said the soft voice. “Those men could easily translate them for you.”

“They are important, aren't they?” I thought.

“Rather less and more,” said the soft voice. “Their chief use now is to give insight into the workings of witchdom.”

“That is important,” I thought, as I resumed drawing.

Once I had the thing 'drawn', I showed it to the men in turn. I was astonished at what they were doing to the packs, however, and as I looked closer at one of the 'monstrous' things, the 'leader' said, “we don't have the cloth for these, which is why we're patching them.”

“L-leather?” I asked.

“For one like you drew, that would work well,” he said. “We recently tanned several deer-hides, and those would be best for most of it.”

“Buckles and fittings?” I asked.

One of the other men came with a cloth bag, then opened it. Several 'nickel' buckles came tumbling out onto the nearest table, followed by a number of bronze ones.

“Which kind?” he asked. “The bronze ones were made in the house.”

“Uh, no sh-shiny things,” I said.

“Good, because someone else wanted those,” he said, “and if this is who I think it is, he can have them.”

“Those fifth-kingdom buckles?” asked the man with the cracked voice.

“Aye,” said the other, who began bagging them up. He set aside the bronze ones. “Talk has it Andreas did the bronze ones, and they look likely.”

“And I have buggy-parts at home to work on,” I said.

After indicating the various pockets I wanted – two on the side, in addition to the small one at the rear – and the other portions of importance, those being chiefly comfort, I left the shop. I suspected it would take several days to finish the pack, and as I went across the hall toward the small-stairs, I felt for the bag with the paper-wads in it.

“Oh!” I squeaked. “I didn't show him the compass.”

“That was an added bonus,” said the soft voice, “and it will earn its keep in the very near future.”

I surprised Gabriel more than a little when I came to his office, for he was writing furiously while consulting the ledger. I wormed out the bag, and as he untied my clumsy knot, he said, “I'm glad it isn't just me who has trouble that way.”

“Knots?” I asked.

“Those especially,” he said, as he opened the bag. “Now what are these?”

“Some papers I retrieved from various witches,” I said, “and they have useful information of some kind. I was told the council-members would have an idea as to their meaning.”

“Good that you brought them, then,” said Gabriel. “It looks like another long day, and not just for me.”

“Gijs and Rolf?” I asked.

“Them also,” said Gabriel. “The post will go south tomorrow night with our confirmation.”

“South?” I asked. “How far south?”

“That group will step off two stops north of the border,” said Gabriel, “and it will leave just after sundown. The others will follow it at short intervals, and the post will stop at each of the kingdom houses.”

Upon leaving Gabriel's office, I wondered what next I needed to do. I was still too drained to walk far, and yet as I thought on the matter, I I knew I needed to go home and rest. I was in such a frightful 'funk' that I nearly collided with that one young man that looked like a jockey, and only by catching myself on the nearest wall did I not fall down.

“S-sorry,” I mumbled. “I'm really tired.” A brief pause, then, “do you know who I can see about a ride home?”

“You might go out back and ask for a hostler,” he said, “but before you do much, I would get a hat.”

“A hat?” I asked. “Where?”

“Here, follow me,” he said. “There's a lot of stuff in the cloth-room right now.”

As I drag-footed my way in the young man's wake, I seemed to hear his name in my ears, and I whispered, “Thomas, please, I'm really tired.”

He stopped in mid-stride, turned to me, and said, “how did you know my name?”

“I-I'm not sure,” I said. “I seemed to hear your name somehow, and, oh... You really wanted to go to the west school, didn't you?”

“I did,” he said, as he resumed walking at a slower pace, “but those places are costly.”

“So I heard,” I said. “Then, those 'sponsored' positions aren't.”

“I tried for one, and was told... What?” he squeaked.

“They take somewhat less money than the regular instances,” I said, “but unlike those, one must deliver the money in a lump-sum, more or less. That reserves them for those who are really wealthy.”

“How do you know this?” he asked. We were now on the other side of the main hall and following its strange meandering outline. It vaguely reminded me of a saw's teeth.

“I'm not certain if it's true,” I said softly. “I would want it checked out before doing anything.”

A brief pause, then “those positions tend to be filled by people who like bad food and worse drink, and their papers get, uh, smudged. That makes them look better than they really are.”

We now entered the hallway that led to the cloth-room, and once inside, I was astonished at the wicker baskets piled with clothing. They seemed to be everywhere, and several women were sorting through them carefully. I found a stool and sat upon it with a creaking noise, while Thomas went somewhere to my right. I dozed off nearly instantly.

I was awoken by someone placing a soft cloth 'cap' on my head, and as it was adjusted, I sighed softly.

“I wondered how you were sitting there like that,” said a female voice. “Thomas was quite excited.”

“How?” I asked. My speech was as much a yawn as all else.

“He found this cap, and it needed some tailoring,” she said, “and while I was doing that, he met one of the councilors. They were talking for a minute about the higher schools.”

“You were right,” said Thomas, as he showed to my left. “I asked about all of what you said.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “Please, I don't want to be a witch.”

“You are not a witch,” said Thomas. “They can't do that, and they feel awful.”

“They can't?” I squeaked.

“I spoke about that part too,” said Thomas, “and that man that told me gave up on being a witch, so he would know.”

“All of those people felt worse than awful to be around,” said the woman. “There.”

I felt my head, and felt soft cloth, then asked, “what color is this thing?”

“A medium brown color,” she said. “It should do until you can find a better one.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Most of that stored clothing hasn't been worn that much,” she said, “while that cap seems to be a rare exception. It's a bit frayed in places.”

“I think we can go to the horse-barn now,” said Thomas. “Do you want something to eat?”

“Uh, no,” I mumbled. “I might want some cider, perhaps.”

After filling the water-bottle at the refectory, I wobbled back towards the main entrance, then once outside, I was astonished to see at least two hours left of daylight.

Thomas was on my left, and as we moved slowly through the trees in the direction of the horse-barn, I recalled the long building to my right. It seemed to all but hum with activity, and when someone came out of a side door with a bulging cloth bag, Thomas said, “that trip has really built a fire under those people, and most in the house are glad of it. I know I am.”

“You are?” I asked.

“The shavings,” said Thomas. “I've made my share of trips over to Houtlaan so as to pick up scraps of wood.”

“Do you live in the house?” I asked.

“During the week I do,” said Thomas, “same as many who live a day's journey away.”

“And otherwise?” I asked.

“I usually catch a ride when I cannot borrow one of the horses here,” he said. “I'd rather go horseback, as I get home before dark then.”

Thomas paused, then said, “and there's one in there that I'd really like to get to know, but I don't have the time.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“I think that horse is bronze-shod,” said Thomas. “I'm not sure what it is otherwise. I hope it's a mare.”

“Mare?” I asked.

“They tend to be faster,” said Thomas, “even if their bearing is less.”

“Bearing?” I asked.

“I was light enough for most of them to endure me,” he said. “Why, haven't you ever..?”

“N-no,” I gasped, “and they frighten me.”

A faint snorting noise came from ahead, then a hoarse braying noise. Thomas flinched, then said, “that's one of the reasons I tend to not have the time.”

“Th-that mule?” I asked.

“I d-do not like mules,” said Thomas, “and one of the hostlers rides that one.”

“Is he...” I gasped.

“I think he's poor,” said Thomas. “Mules might be uncommon for the most part, but they can be had cheaply, and that's for their purchase.”

“Do they, uh, make up for it with their appetite?” I asked.

“I'm not certain what mules eat,” said Thomas. “You might ask him.”

We continued to the right, such that the hedge showed its dark green ruffled exterior through the trees. The horse-barn was ahead still, though somewhat to the right, and I was astonished when we encountered it.

“I nearly ran into that one,” I thought, as it seemed to show but feet away with stunning abruptness. I wondered if I was asleep on my feet, and that more than a little.

I also wondered if riding was wise, save in a buggy in the rear box.

For some reason, however, I now saw details of the building. Its green tiled roof, its small latticed windows, its stone construction, even the whiteness of the mortar between the stones – all of this seemed beyond comprehension, and when I came to a small door wafting steam into the cooling air, I wondered if this was the door.

“N-no, it isn't,” I thought. “That was bigger, and it had two of them, and a...”

“The door's just up ahead,” said Thomas. “Those smaller doors are to keep the building cooler.”

“Cooler?” I asked.

“Horses tend to be warm in buildings,” said Thomas, “especially that type of building. I've never been cold in there, no matter how much snow was on the ground, and more than once, I've slept inside.”

“You've slept in there?” I asked.

“The house proper tends to be nearly the opposite,” said Thomas. “Only during high summer is it warm, and that's if you're above ground. Those lower levels could pass for the cook's cold-room then, and it's worse during the winter.”

The doorway proper to the stable showed but a minute later, and its wide-flung doors showed someone sitting on a stool with harness in his lap. He was using a stitching awl like one of those I had, and as I looked around in a fatigued-seeming daze, I heard again the shrill-sounding neigh of that one horse.

I startled, and as I tried to find my bearings, I heard the bray of the mule. Unlike all the times before, the loudness of the animal was shattering, and the after-noise – a faintly liquid-sounding discharge – made for mumbling on my part. I recalled the statement of the instructor, and his comments about mules.

“S-slow in the head, and sluggish for moving,” I thought, “and I certainly feel that way.”

The man looked up with a start and saw me, and as my gaze wandered, I noticed Thomas had 'vanished'.

“I wondered when you would come,” he said. “Let me finish this, and I can show you how to ride.”

“R-ride?” I thought. “In my condition? I would fall off!”

However, I did not speak of my fear, and as I watched him in a seeming daze, he carefully made several more stitches prior to turning over the leather straps and knotting the threads. He was speaking afterward, and I heard but part of what he said.

“There, done,” he said. “I need to look after the mule first, as I ride it.”

My murmured reply was echoed by the crackling sound inside my head of my marrow chilling rapidly, and my finishing words were drowned out by the mule braying again – only this time, the mule's punctuation was a rumbling noise that spoke volumes.

“Oooh, that smell,” I thought. “Is that why mules smell so?”

The man stood with the harness, and as I followed him in, I asked quietly, “what do you need to do with the mule?”

“First some mash,” he said, “and then this tincture I got from Hans.”

“Tincture?” I asked.

“He said it was used for corked bulls,” said the hostler. “I'll need to wait a short time after dosing it.” He paused, then said, “I learned the hard way about saddling mules.”

“Hard way?” I gasped, as I 'woke up'.

“I don't fancy getting kicked in the head again,” he said. “Without periodic dosing, mules tend to be especially fractious, or so people say.”

I was about to speak, and he cut me off, muttering, “so they say. I know better, and that's for mules that have been deodorized. Those otherwise are worse.”

Deodorized?” I thought. “Are there such animals that smell worse?”

“I've but heard that about mules,” he said. “This one is the tamest of the three I've seen, and it was the most expensive to buy.”

This comment had me reaching into my pockets, for some reason, and as the hostler put the harness on a long thin planked table, I paused to see what he had present.

Harness hung from head-height pegs in vast leather profusion, while below it hung a multitude of 'bits' and other things I did not recognize. Below those implements of torment, and but a foot above the table, hung various tools in cloth sacks. More than a few had stamped tin labels.

I followed him somewhat deeper into the building, and when he turned left at a slightly narrower passage, I noted the straw on the floor. The bleached off-white stalks of the stuff made for wondering on my part, as I hadn't seen anything like it before.

This passageway was long, cavernous, dimly lit with a multitude of brass candle-lanterns, and lined with door-less stalls, while near each such doorway lay piled mounds of chopped hay and grain-sacks. More harness hung from pegs on the walls. I followed the hostler closely while being wary for the mule and its bullseye-shooting feet.

He paused at an open stall with a larger-than-usual hay-mound in front of it, then cautiously looked within. The 'odor of mule' was now such that I nearly fainted; I marveled at his capacity to endure the stink. He found a sack, and as he began to bring out various supplies to array them on a small table, I thought to ask what he was doing.

“Mash?” I asked.

“Hans spoke of it,” he said, as he began scooping coarse-ground barley into a wooden 'mortar'. “He said this type was used for corked bulls and mules.”

I watched in nose-wrinkled fascination as the hostler added old-smelling hops and what looked to be Lion-Brew. The pungent aroma caught my nose and twisted it.

“Is that..?”

“I like beer, but that stuff is a bit much,” he said. “It works well in the mash.” He paused, then began mixing the stuff with a turned wooden 'pestle'. “Supposedly, where mules are common, they are given other things.”

“Common?” I asked.

“Talk has it there are lots of them in the Swartsburg,” he said, “and they can be found points south, also, but they are most common in the fifth kingdom, and that part I can speak of. I spent two years traipsing down that way.”

“What is it like down there?” I asked.

“Hot, dry, smelly, and expensive,” he said. “Horses tend to do poorly there, unlike mules, and that presumes you can get a horse – and that's outside of the mining country. No one rides horses there.”

He paused, then drew forth from the bag a large ceramic vial, which he uncorked.

“The tincture?” I asked.

“Aye, it is,” he said. “I'll need to get some more from Hans soon enough.”

He added a modest dollop of the dark-colored malodorous liquid, corked the vial, and returned it to the bag. He then belabored the pestle, and between stints, added more Lion-Brew. The reek of the stuff steadily grew as the texture changed, until when it was pronounced 'done', it looked like badly-made porridge and competed with its prospective consumer for stink.

He then fetched an old tin plate that had been clumsily dished in to form a broad-mouthed bowl of sorts, and poured out the contents of the mortar into it.

The smell seemed to be increasing, both from the mash and the mule. I wondered what it meant, until he picked up the plate, darted into the doorway unto the presence of the mule, and leaped back out as the straw crackled under the mule's hooves. The sounds of eating now seemed to penetrate my mind, and as I listened, the voracious aspect of the mule became blatant.

A-are those that hungry for mash?” I asked.

“The only time mules are not hungry,” he said, “is when they are gorged, and that is their preferred state when awake. I am not sure how they feel when asleep.” He paused while bagging up the rest of his supplies, then said, “we can see to that horse while we wait.”

Once he'd hidden the bag in the straw, he resumed walking down the passage, with steps at once cautious, slow, and quiet amid the sounds of continued eating. I then turned to look at the mule, for I had never seen a mule close-up before.

The shaggy gray mane of the animal provided a contrast for the darker mottled gray of its hide, and its splayed front legs seemed at once awkward and stiff. I followed the right example down to the coal-black hoof to find a steely glinting, but as I did, I saw the eyes...

The red-rimmed yellowed eyes that wandered aimlessly in their orbits seemed a warning, and when I heard the rumbling discharge, I caught up with the hostler quickly. The odor was increasing, and threatened to smother me – and at the end of the pulsating grunting noise, I heard liquid splattering on the floor. It made for a strange recollection of a conversation I had had in the recent past.

“Is there a place called Mexico?” I thought, even as we passed more stalls occupied and otherwise. “I really wonder.” Recalling the vaguely Spanish sound of El Vallyé's speech didn't help.

After passing a number of sizable black and gray horses – not every stall had a horse present, but many of them did – we passed one of those smaller doors. I then noted the increasing brightness of the lighting, and the absence of the hostler. I suspected asking where he was wasn't wise.

A few more steps, however, and it became obvious as to where he was: he was in a larger-than-common stable part-walled with hay, and was putting on a bridle. He'd already managed a saddle, and in shock, I looked around. I then thought to look at the horse, and for some reason, I winked.

He winked back.

“Who is this, Mr. Ed?” I thought. “I'm glad I don't need to deal with Francis.”

The hostler soon left, and as he went down the passageway back toward 'Francis the Flatulent Mule', I had several impressions. First, I could 'speak' to this horse by means of pictures, and secondly, I knew his name, that being Jaak. I drew closer cautiously, then held still while he smelled me.

That was nice of you,” he seemed to say. “That girth-rope is too tight.”

“I can tell,” I said softly. “That stuff looks about as comfortable as a roll in a bramble-patch.”

I laid aside my equipment, and began loosening the 'girth-rope'. It was a wide leather strap, and once I'd taken it off, I removed the saddle and set it on the hay.

“I have no clue as to how to use any of this,” I mumbled, as I now looked at the harness, “and this thing here looks to be torment.” I then turned to see an astonished hostler.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I again felt my money pouch, and dug deeply. The heft of the thing seemed to have grown, and as I began reaching inside, I jolted.

“Why do I feel so many gold monster coins in here?” I thought, as I drew out several of them, then reached for more. “There's got to be a dozen of those brutes.”

I gathered up 'several' of them, then went to the hostler, saying as I did, “I have something for you. Here.” I then put the gold pieces in his shaking hands.

He stood there in stunned shock, then gasped, “what is this for?”

“Driver's education for horses,” I said, “and seeing that mule only adds to what I've heard of them.”

While the man stood there stunned and shocked, I resumed removing the harness. The 'bit' – a horrible-looking bronze thing that seemed intended for torture – went atop the saddle, along with the rest of the harness, and when I checked the blanket, I flapped it out such that all of the straw and foreign matter flew out into the air. I then folded it carefully into a small pad roughly eighteen inches wide and twenty long, and carefully laid it on the back of the horse. I then reached for my bag. I needed to check the shoes.

I knelt down with the hoof-pick in my hands, and as I looked carefully, I noted still the sounds of utter silence from the hostler, until I began looking over the left rear hoof.

“Th-there's s-s-seven of these things,” he spluttered.

“Is that enough?” I asked calmly, as I carefully checked the shoe for tightness.

“I th-think so,” he said. “I c-can get a horse now.”

“And put Francis out to pasture,” I thought. “I just hope that mash works.”

Thinking of mash made for retrieving a cloth bag and filling it with some grain, and as I tied it, I thought, “I hope we can get enough grain for him.”

As I put the bag in my satchel, I could 'feel' the eyes of the still-stunned groom, and I turned to him amidst putting my equipment back on.

“Yes?” I asked.

“W-why did you remove the s-saddle and harness?” he stammered.

“I think he might not toss me that way,” I said. “Will you, Jaak?”

The impression I had was unmistakable: not merely did he feel much better, but he was inclined to travel, and he backed this up by coming to the door of the stall and sniffing my hair. I then followed the still-muttering groom – he was speaking of wealthy lunatics with more money than sense – and as he walked, I noted his still-quiet steps. He halted both speech and boots when he came to the stall of the mule, and after a quick peek inside, he slowly entered.

He returned some minutes later leading the mule by a thick leather strap, and only then did I clearly see the size and color of the animal.

The mule was nearly as large as Jaak for size, with a rangy and harsh appearance, and as the animal slowly clacked its glinting steel shoes on the floor of the stable, I was again reminded of that one dark and nightmarish fictional horse. I suspected there were equivalents to such animals, and I was seeing one of them.

“I'm glad it isn't bucking,” I thought. “That one h-horse was known for it.”

“He can out-buck anything in...” came the voice of recollection.

I felt reminded of the shape of mule-shoes, and with each slow step, I saw clearly the broad 'V' outlined by steely glinting shapes. The clank of each shoe cut through the hay on the floor, even past the left turn out into the entrance and into the small clearing. There, I had a question.

“Now how do I get on?” I thought, even as I carefully arranged the 'pad'. I then thought to leap.

I was astonished at how readily I did so, and was astonished yet more at how softly I landed. My weight seemed that of a very small child, and as Jaak moved to the side of the clearing, I wondered how he took it.

I glanced to the mule, however, and soon had another intimation as to why Jaak had given it a wide berth.

It was not inclined toward travel in the slightest, and had parked its rump on the ground.

The hostler nudged its rear, and the mule wobbled that portion skyward while attempting to turn around. It nearly tangled its front legs in the process, and while the hostler was ready for that behavior – he moved with the mule – I wondered if he could get on. The mule, even though dosed, was still disinclined to ride.

“Stinker wants to stay here and devour the stable and its contents,” he muttered, as the mule finally stood still.

“Is that its name?” I asked.

“I'm not certain if it has a name,” he said, as he put a foot in a stirrup, “but I am certain about its appetite and its odor.”

The mule continued being obstinant, even as he tried again to mount. I was beginning to get a picture of mule behavior, and I almost spoke the three dread words naming the animal. He then tried again, and this time managed to get in the saddle. The mule then brayed, and 'jumped' – and then, it sat down and tried to unload him.

The hostler remained seated, and the mule stood back up. He then looked at me, noted that Jaak and I were easily twenty feet clear, and slowly shook his head while speaking of mules and their behavior.

“This mule is fairly well behaved,” he said.

“What?” I squeaked.

“For a mule, that is,” he said. “That horse is behaving very well for him, and I hope he will endure you.”

“The front gate?” I asked. He nodded, and led off.

I had no idea how to proceed, and gingerly nudged Jaak's side with my right knee. The merest touch sufficed, and he followed the mule.

“And soon, I won't even need to do that,” I thought.

Within seconds, I knew that to be the truth, for halting at the gate merely needed a quiet word, and by the time we had passed Houtlaan, I was communicating much as I had with the wolves. Town was still active, even as the sun was not pausing in its steady hunting of where it hid itself in the east overnight, and the two of us gathered many stares: Jaak was huge, at least eight inches taller than either horse at home, and the mule continued with its contentious ways.

While it did not buck, it did 'jump' at times, and every time it did so, I could see daylight beneath its flailing hooves for an instant as it became airborne – and every horse-trough seemed a magnet for the animal's thirst.

“No, not here,” said the hostler, as the mule tried to drain another horse-trough. “We haven't hardly gone half a mile.”

The mule jerked, then switched its long and straggly tail like a whip as he nudged it in the ribs, then once underway again, it raised its tail straight up like a bristly flagpole and grunted for several seconds. I was glad I was to the side of the animal.

“Phew!” I thought. “That thing smells.”

It did that several more times, until after one unusually long venting session, it shot a projectile greenish streak to the rear to splatter on the cobbles.

I wondered when Jaak would be inclined toward water, even as we continued down Huislaan, and when I saw the garden plots of the crow's foot, I wondered more. Jaak seemed to have loosened up, and once on the softer surface of the dirt-and-gravel road, he began moving faster. Again, I felt reminded about mules, and the words of the instructor came to me:

“Slow in the head, and sluggish for moving.”

“Are mules slow?” I thought. “This one seems to be.”

With the passing minutes, however, it became steadily more obvious: between gaseous emissions, squirts of dung, a lethargic aspect, and tendencies toward misbehavior, mules were not good mounts. After one particularly noisome deluge of greenish stuff from the mule's posterior, I had an impression.

Do mules need antifreeze?” I thought. “This one seems about to boil over and spew steam.”