The road more traveled, part b.

The morning dawned early, and my awakening preceded it. I went over all that the buggy contained, and added a handful of various things I had forgotten. I was amazed that I had recalled so much without benefit of a written 'check-off' list, and when I came inside, I was met by Anna. She was yawning conspicuously, and I poured a mug of beer for her. The odor seemed bracing.

She began drinking, and within a minute, was wide awake.

“I wish you could drink more beer,” she said. “It really helps.”

“I know, dear,” I said. “I'll need about fifteen minutes to finish my usual things, and then we can go when you're ready.”

Fifteen minutes proved ample, and we left shortly before dawn with two candle-lanterns flaring yellow as we went south. I was 'girded for action', with a full pack, and Sarah seemed preoccupied amid my supplies.

“When do you go?” I asked.

“Later today,” she said. “I'll most likely leave tonight with one of those horses.”

“One of those h-horses?” I asked.

“No one has claimed those things,” said Hans, “so we have put them under cover in back, and have that buggy in the back under the wood-sheet.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It might not be a good buggy,” said Hans, “but I think it might be improved some without much trouble, now that you know about buggy-irons and how they go.”

“Uh, the boatwright's shop?” I asked. “Perhaps shorten and narrow it?”

“You might think about that,” said Anna. “I saw those buggies they did yesterday.”

“Perhaps a few pieces at a time?” I asked. “Some from the carpenters in town once they have their pit dug and saw-blades running?” I paused, then “Cups? Cones?”

“I think you might make those,” said Hans. “I know you do bronze easy.”

I put aside the idea of a buggy as we passed a near-quiescent Public House, then headed south. The buggy made a faint scrunching noise on the rutted path of the road, and as the first trees showed just past the south boundary of town, I noted a house that seemed all by itself. I wondered briefly who lived there, even as the fields began to show themselves plainly.

While there was little evidence of plowing in the various fields, I wondered if it was but a seeming, for the snow and 'splop' was nearly entirely gone from the local roads. Finding snow, even traces, was very difficult, and genuine bog-type mud equally hard. The chill in the air, however, was still present.

“Is it too early to plant?” I asked.

“Yes, and not a little,” said Hans. “They will need to plant a bit later this year, as those fields look ripe for sucking the horses.”

“Sucking?” I asked.

“They get mired in those things,” said Hans. “I'm surprised you have not had to dig out yet going across the fields like you do.”

“I stay off plowed fields,” I said. “I give those a wide berth.”

“That's why he has not gotten stuck, Hans,” said Anna. “Fields with grass on them are not as bad that way.”

“Unless you're in a buggy,” I said.

“For most, yes,” said Hans. “This one could manage with a light load and one person, I think.”

“Or leading the horses,” said Sarah.

Anna made a mumbling noise, then said, “I have no idea how he did that, but he did, and that during the worst portion of the year.”

“What did he do?” asked Sarah.

“Lead the horses through places that looked certain to bog anything,” said Anna.

“Was there much in the buggy?” asked Sarah.

“No, there wasn't,” said Anna.

“That's what we did,” said Sarah. “You want an empty buggy until you are on firm ground, and you carry your things out then.”

“He was talking that way,” said Anna. “I still don't understand how it would work.”

“I'm not certain either,” said Sarah, “but I have done it enough to know it does work.”

“How big are the buggies used for student travel?” I asked a few minutes later.

“About a handbreadth wider and a foot longer than this one, with somewhat thicker wood,” said Sarah. “The wheels are a little wider, and about half again as much heavier. They're not nearly as big or as heavy as postal buggies.”

“Uh, have you helped pull wheels on this one?” I asked.

“I did once last year,” said Sarah. “I usually cleaned and greased them when I was handy.”

“Greased?” I asked.

“Mostly tallow,” said Sarah. I could hear the distaste in her voice. “Tallow may be cheap, but it is a very poor lubricant.”

“Did you find it caused rust?” I asked.

“That tends to be a problem with tallow,” said Sarah. “I usually cleaned it multiple times.”

“Did you ever add rouge to it?” I asked.

“No, I didn't,” said Sarah. “If I needed to polish something that way, I would try to get something from a jeweler.”

“Axle grease?” I asked.

“I used that many times,” said Sarah, “and I wished I had had some when I was helping with this buggy.”

“It would be too thick as it comes,” said Hans.

“I knew you had distillate,” said Sarah, “and I have dried distillate before.”

“Set it out in a pan?” I asked.

“That is the first part,” said Sarah. “It still smells then. I commonly did more to it.”

“More?” I asked.

“I cooked it slowly over a candle on an old pan filled with sand,” said Sarah, “and if I had fourth kingdom axle grease, I'd mix some in.”

“And what did you do with this stuff?” asked Hans.

“Oil guns and keep things from rusting,” said Sarah. “Truly dry distillate works passably that way, but that axle grease helps a lot if it's mixed in.”

By the time the east began to lighten, we had passed from the main road to the back roads, and here, our pace seemed to increase slightly. The cool air seemed a balm to the animals, and at the first stop, I went over Jaak's hooves first. I could hear speech above my head, and I was more than a little surprised to see Sarah looking over the hooves of the gray.

“You've done this part before?” I asked.

“It was common to do so every stop during our traipsing,” said Sarah, “and since, I've had my share of practice.” A brief pause, then “I hope I remember how to bag things up for horseback carry.”

“You're not going to ride?” asked Anna.

“I didn't plan on it,” said Sarah. “Those horses aren't that good.”

“So your supplies go in a few well-tied bags,” I said, “and then a lighter satchel, and you can make better time. Correct?”

“That especially,” she said. “I'll need to travel more than is usual for me, at least at first, and the less I carry, the further I can readily walk.”

The sun showed about twenty minutes after our first stop, and as we continued along the roads, I could 'hear' the beginning of actual packing. I wondered if the same situation would apply as had the previous evening, and silently I prayed that it would be otherwise.

“Please, put the supplies on the porch neatly,” I thought, “and have the buggies present nearby – oh, and get everyone up good and early, too.”

“That is likely,” said Hans. “I will tell them of what happened with us if they try to do things like we did.”

The second of the back way's two towns showed a short time later, and here, the checking over of all that needed attention went as rapidly as the first. I wondered how often we would need to stop and check things while traveling, and as I remounted Jaak, I wondered yet more.

“Uh, food for the horses?” I asked.

“That's usually found where you camp,” said Anna. “Now why do you have such large grain-pans, and why two of them, and why are they tinned?”

“Uh, I didn't know better,” I said. “I had an impression that they might have, uh, uses of some kind beyond dispensing horse-grain.”

“That fryer would work better for cooking those things in the third kingdom,” said Anna.

“Things?” I asked.

“They make this strange bread there,” said Hans. “It tastes strange, and it looks stranger than it tastes.”

“Most third kingdom food is that way,” muttered Anna.

“Will I want to, uh, keep some common food handy?” I asked.

“You might try that food down there,” said Hans, “but it tends to either cost a lot or taste bad.”

“That is the usual along that road,” said Sarah. “Were you traveling off of it, I could speak of places having decent food at good prices.”

The rise showed shortly thereafter. For some reason, I could hear what resembled an argument, with several of those going disinclined to 'shake themselves out of bed' at such an 'early' hour. The armorer in particular was something of a late riser, though in his case, he had a modicum of an excuse.

He'd been busy in a 'library' near Gabriel's office until late, and had filled five pages of a ledger with notes on both sides. and had been working like that for the last week and a half, if not longer yet.

“My goodness,” I blurted. “Hendrik is up, and Sepp is up, and Karl...”

“He might need rousting,” said Hans, “and the same for two or three of the others.”

“That armorer's really bad about that part,” said Anna. “He might not be a witch, but his hours sometimes makes me wonder.”

“N-night mode?” I asked. “Working all hours of the day or night?”

“That sounds like he was doing a report,” said Sarah. “I had strange hours then, and long ones, also.”

“Uh, he isn't quite that far along,” I said. “He's got a ledger with about forty pages of notes so far.”

“That sounds like he's ready to begin writing a report,” said Sarah. “Does he have his thinking in order?”

“He might,” I said. “He's made what looks like an outline of some kind, and he's definitely thinking about how to write the thing.”

“He's ready, then,” said Sarah. “Now what is an outline?”

“That's where you have, uh, headings, and figure out what goes where, and...”

“That is a writing-plan,” said Sarah. “Those are best done just before you actually write your report.”

“How long did it take you?” I asked.

“I usually had a lot more than forty pages,” said Sarah, “and more than one report to do, but once I had my writing-plan, it usually took me less than a week to finish them all. With him, it might take a day or two, or perhaps a few nights while traveling.”

“After sundown?” I asked. “While cooking and bathing and campground things?”

“Eight people is not much bigger than the usual student's group,” said Sarah, “so one person could conceivably handle victuals for eight. I know you packed your student's lantern, and I suspect there will be more of them packed or ready to go at the house.”

“There are...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, for the house proper had hove into sight. I could hear faint sounds indicative of packing, that being footfalls and speech, along with the faint sliding sounds of bags sliding across stone flooring. A horse neighed, and for some reason, I did not hear the reply of the mule.

“Is that mule still there?” I asked. There was no reply, even as we came to the gate and the crossing bar opened up.

Once in the back, I was astonished to see both buggies lined up next to the 'hitching rails' next to the refectory exit, with the door open and bags mounded on the stone floor under the overhang. I could hear speech which I but vaguely recognized, then Sepp came outside with another bag.

“Good that you came,” he said. “They're just getting started in here.”

“Just g-getting started?” I gasped, even as Jaak came to a stop but a short distance behind the second buggy. “This looks like a fair amount of work done already.”

I hopped down, then went inside. Therein, I saw the early portion of breakfast starting, and as I looked around, I looked for familiar faces. I saw but one, that being Lukas. He was working on a slice of bread smeared thickly with cherry jam, with an old-looking tinned copper mug next to him. I looked closer, and shuddered at what was on the floor next to him.

“He's got one of th-those monster packs,” I thought. “Who's got the others?”

Sepp came next to me, then said, “I rousted Karl and Gabriel, and I hope they haven't gone back to bed.”

“Bed?” I asked.

“Gabriel slept in his office last night,” said Sepp, “and he'd gotten into the wine, unless my nose is playing tricks on me.”

“Karl?” I asked.

“He's lost for packing,” said Sepp. “I saw a list yesterday, and copied the thing, or rather, I tried to. The handwriting was very hard to read.”

“I think I know who did it,” I said.

“I doubt it was yours,” said Sepp, “as people talk about your writing and how hard it is to read.”

“Have you seen my handwriting?” I asked.

“I might have,” said Sepp, “but I came across someone who knows better than I do. He said a short dark-haired woman wrote this stuff.”

“Was it Gabriel?” I asked.

“No, Thomas,” said Sepp. “I have no idea how he knew, but he knew – and he copied the list for me.”

“So you...”

“I put it up in the kitchen there,” said Sepp as he pointed, “and I gathered my things up and bagged them good.”

“Bagged?” I asked.

“I put my clothing in a pair of bags, with a third one for the stuff that needs washing,” said Sepp. “One of those people who writes had this strange book that speaks of traveling, and he let me read it.”

“Did you read much?” I asked.

“I managed the first part,” said Sepp. “I plan on bringing it with me, if I can.”

“Those large packs?” I asked.

“Those two older men have one each,” said Sepp. “I'm not sure about Hendrik or Gabriel, or this other man. I know about yours, and had I one that size, I'd use it.”

“Karl?” I asked.

“I saw one in his room,” said Sepp, “but I'm not sure he's going to use it.” A brief pause, then, “they're almost too big to use.”

“You don't use them walking,” said a familiar voice, and I turned to see the man who'd seen me about a sword. While he didn't have one of those handy, he did have a sizable dagger in a long 'tooled' sheath, as well as a 'pirate-special' pistol in another.

“Mounted?” I asked.

“They work better that way than what some use,” he said. “Some use these pouches what go on the horse, and they tire the animal.”

“Breakfast?” I asked.

“I'll have that once we go,” he said. “I've bagged it up proper.”

“I'd best find our tardy people, then,” I said.

“There's someone doing that already,” he said.

“Gilbertus?” I asked.

“The same,” he said, “and I hope those people in the shop stay clear of those swords you're working on.”

“You know about those?” I squeaked.

“Them and much else,” he said. “It isn't just those you live with what tells me. There are others.”

The mystifying comment I had just heard was equaled only by a trio of yawning men and one rather irritated young man. I recognized Thomas immediately – he was irritated, and with good reason – even as the yawning trio stumbled toward stools and dropped their satchels.

I walked toward the three, and as I came to Karl, I nearly tripped over the monstrous pack he'd brought in. I looked inside, and began gently pulling out the contents.

“W-what are you doing that for?” he said between yawns.

“Karl, wake up,” said Sepp. “Why are you so sleepy?”

“I usually get up later,” he said. “The sun is not up.”

“The sun is up,” said Sepp emphatically.

“Where is it, then?” asked Karl.

“You were sleeping inside with no windows to your bed, weren't you?” asked Lukas. “If you want to use that big glowing ball of fire for a wake-up, you need to find rooms on the west wall on the upper floors. Then you'll wake up good and proper when it shows.”

“And you?” I asked.

“Thieves do what they do when they're of a mind to do so,” he said, “and that makes for an early bedtime and light sleeping when they're close by.”

“Meaning certain hours of the night?” I asked.

“Depends on the thief,” said Lukas. “Common thieves do their business early in the evening or early in the morning, and most witches a good bit later at night. That's for them.” A brief pause, then, “the worst ones, though, do what they do about three hours before dawn.”

“The worst ones?” I asked.

“They're really troublesome where they're common,” he said.

“Where is this place?” said Karl between yawns. I noted Sepp had 'vanished'.

“To the south, mostly,” said Lukas, “but the worst place I've heard of is the potato country. It's almost like living in an old tale in those parts, from what I've heard.”

Sepp returned a minute later with a jug, and poured beer for the three 'yawners'. While Karl began slurping immediately, both Gabriel and the armorer looked askance at the dark liquid for a time before sipping it.

“If you drink that, you will wake up,” I said.

“How do you know?” said Gabriel grumpily. “I was working the whole night on that paperwork, and so was he.”

“I saw what happened to Anna,” I said, “and she...”

“Gabriel!” shrieked Anna from across the room. “Kees! Wake up!”

Their apparent lack of response drew Anna like a magnet, and within seconds, she was at Gabriel's elbow with an uncommonly large spoon – which she began using with vigor. When she wasn't spooning beer into his mouth, she was thumping his wrist or forehead, and when Gabriel seemed to be drinking steadily, she began belaboring Kees in the same fashion. Not thirty seconds later, I heard someone trying to suppress laughter, and I turned to see Hendrik.

“Drink, you wretch,” shouted Anna. “Open your mouth!”

I stayed well clear of Anna, and again addressed myself to Karl's pack. I wondered what he had inside for a moment until he turned to me and spoke clearly in response to my question.

“My clothing,” he said. “I couldn't figure what else I needed.”

“Perhaps some food,” I said, “a small bag of grain for your horse, bagged bars of soap, a bath-towel, a cover sheet... Are we using tents?”

“I asked for a pair of those specifically,” said Hendrik, “and lanterns suitable for study. I know we'll be doing things like that in camp, if not much more.”

“Uh, what are you carrying?” I asked absentmindedly. I then turned and looked.

To my utter surprise, Hendrik had somehow acquired a satchel similar to my possible bag, as well as a small pack of some kind, and slung over his shoulder was an obvious fowling piece.

“I have all three of those weapons bagged and padded,” he said. “They should prove convincing in some circles.”

I gulped, then nearly gagged, and in my peripheral vision, I seemed to see a swarm of oncoming tinned spams.

“I see,” said Gabriel. “I'll have to remember the effects of beer in the morning.”

Anna had vanished, and after repeating to Karl what he 'needed' in his pack, I went out the door to where the 'packing' was to begin. Again, I was startled, but only for a moment, and I put aside my things next to the wall.

“Now what?” asked Sepp.

“Perhaps we should begin?” I said, as I went to the buggy with my things. “I can identify what I have here.”

As the two of us transferred the supplies, I spoke of what I had packed, and about half-way through, Sepp whistled.

“I had no idea you were that thorough,” he said. “How long did it take you?”

“About an hour and a half,” I said. “Now once we get this stuff, the other things...”

I had nearly tripped over a long and somewhat dingy-looking bundle, and once I'd set down my load, I asked as to what it was.

“A tent,” said Lukas, “and if I go by what you packed, then about half of this stuff on the walkway here can go back where it came from.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Is it food?”

“That we can put where it will fit,” said Lukas, “and you'd do most freighters good, the way you pack.”

“Perhaps the 'essential' supplies, then,” I said. “We're almost done with this portion.”

Once the medical buggy was empty, I began looking over the supplies under the overhang. With most of the softer bags, I tossed them toward the other buggies, and the other matters, I carried. I was glad for both Lukas and Sepp, as they seemed to have the same thing in mind.

I could tell things were happening on the periphery in some strange fashion, and as I separated 'wanted' from 'needed' things, I was given a fairly wide berth. I paused for an instant, stood up, looked around, and was shocked to find several individuals on the periphery that were organizing what I had separated.

“Good that it is going rapidly,” said the voice of Hendrik from behind and my right. “Those that need horses are finding them now.”

“Uh, Gabriel?” I asked.

“He may need one, but I suspect you need to go with him,” said Hendrik. “I hope you can keep him out of trouble that way.”

“I d-don't know how to ride c-conventionally,” I murmured.

“That's why I suspect you need to go with him,” he said, “as he knows but little more than what you just said.”

But minutes later, I was 'herding' Gabriel toward the horse-barn. In the distance, I could hear neighing sounds, and as I listened – and smelled – I wondered as to the disposition of the mule.

Faintly I could smell the beast, which meant it was still on the premises, and when the two of us came to the door, I paused to listen.

“What are you doing?” asked Gabriel. I could hear and feel his fear.

“There was – or rather, is – a mule on the premises,” I said, “and I do not wish to get too close to it.”

I looked around again, and went inside with Gabriel hot on my heels.

He was so 'hot' that way he was nearly treading on the rear portions of my feet, and when I stopped, he almost collided with me.

“How do you know a good one?” he asked tremulously.

“That is hard to explain,” I said. “Mostly, you need to...”

The discordant bray of the mule blasted from everywhere at once, and with a sudden 'clacking' sound, I saw a leather-clad 'groom' fly bonelessly across the hallway not twenty feet in front of us.

I ran ahead, and as I came close to where the groom had flown, I leaped up on the mounded hay and grain bags to my right. The mule's hoarse and stentorian breathing was eclipsed only by its stink, and when I leaped down from my elevated perch, I nearly collided with a head-rubbing groom. It was the mule's owner.

“I've found a buyer for that smelly animal, and I think it knows,” he said.

“It kicked you?” I asked.

He nodded, then rubbed his forehead again. Faintly I could see the broad 'V' shaped print of the animal's rage with its 'point' an inch above where his eyebrows would have met, and I brought out the vial of liniment. Uncorking the stuff seemed to liven him up, and he reached as if to drink it.

“No, don't drink it,” I said, as I felt for a rag. “I'll rub this on the sore spot. It really helps.”

Dousing the rag in Geneva and then rubbing his forehead made for nausea on my part and a faint sigh on the part of the groom, and when I handed him the rag, I said, “keep rubbing it. It will help the swelling.”

I came to the doorway of the stall, then looked to see where Gabriel was. He had hung back, and seemed to quake in fear. I turned to look across the hall itself...

And came face-to-face with the mule.

The foul stench of the animal was only accentuated by the animal's bloodshot yellowed eyes, and when it opened its mouth, I ducked under and kicked at its legs as I went to the right. I straightened up, then turned to see the mule walking tall and stiff-legged after me, and for some reason, I looked to my right.

There, I saw a three-tined fork, and I grabbed the thing. With the long, sharp and rusty tines presented toward it, the mule seemed disinclined to advance further, and with each advancing step on my part, the mule seemed incrementally less fractious. Three steps on my part had the mule attempting to find 'reverse', and my fourth step had it turn to show its posterior and long straggly tail. I could hear thunderous silence all around me, as well as crackling steps to my rear and front, and when the mule vacated the hall, I relaxed slightly.

The hostler, however, showed to my right, complete with his smelly rag. He was still wiping his forehead.

“Now I never thought of that,” he said. “I had no idea that animal didn't like a hay-fork.”

“Is that what this thing is?” I asked softly, as I moved the point of my 'trident' such that it faced the underside of the roof. “I'll carry it until I'm well clear of that animal.”

I turned and motioned for Gabriel, and once he'd caught up, I said, “now look around. There's one in this area... Oh, try that one there.”

“Th-that one?” spluttered Gabriel. He was pointing at a sizable dappled gray.

“Go close and ask him what his name is,” I said. “If he's inclined, he'll answer.”

As Gabriel drew closer, I could 'feel' the last portions of packing, with Thomas, Sarah, and Sepp checking off a pair of lists. Sarah would stay but minutes longer, I suspected. Hans and Anna were finishing up their business, or would be doing so shortly.

“I seem to be hearing a name,” said Gabriel.

“Yes?” I asked. “Is it Christoph?”

“How did you know?” he asked.

“I have but little idea,” I said. “Now, find a blanket – yes, that one there will do fine. Fold it such that its ends are covered...”

I went to show Gabriel how to 'fold' the blanket. As I did, Christoph smelled my head, then cut loose with a neigh that sounded like laughter.

“Yes, I know I smell strange,” I said. “I just got chased by a very unpleasant mule, too.” I paused, then said, “now, Gabriel, place that pad up there, and come with me. He'll follow.”

“N-no harness?” asked Gabriel.

“What has happened when you attempted to ride?” I asked.

“I had trouble getting on the horse,” he said. “Then, if I managed that, I did well to count ten before I was off.”

Gabriel paused, sniffed, then said, “and I was of a mind for Geneva then.”

“To drink?” I asked.

“For rubbing,” said Gabriel. “I was very sore.”

“I brought a small jug of Hans' latest,” I said, “as well as cough medicine...”

“I would be careful of that,” said Gabriel, as he followed me out of the nearest doorway. “Kees might wish to sample it, cough or no cough.”

“Does he have indigestion?” I asked.

“He does,” said Gabriel. “Anna's seen him more than once on that score.” Gabriel paused, then said, “and I've been in the privy after he's used it, also.”

“Smell?” I asked.

“Only that mule is worse for it,” said Gabriel. “Now how do I get on without being tossed?”

“I'll show you when we're ready,” I said. “Just walk through the trees along this path with me, and he should follow.”

“He is,” said Gabriel, “and he seems inclined to nibble on my clothing.”

“Perhaps some grain is in order before we go,” I said. “That, and... Gabriel. Turn around and address him by name, and ask him if you can sit on top.”

Gabriel did so, and then seconds later said, “I have no idea how that happened, but I am needing to duck my head.”

I turned to see Gabriel sitting on top of the horse, which was now following me.

“Did you jump?” I asked.

“I could hear him telling me to,” said Gabriel, “and I did. Somehow I got up here.”

“Good, then,” I said. “Follow me.”

I led off at a rapid walk, and I could hear the horse coming at his 'normal' pace. I could also 'feel' a distinct need for grain, so much so that I mumbled, “is that why I made two of those things?”

“Grain-pans are commonplace things, at least in the usual size,” said the soft voice. “That 'spare' will prove its worth when you start cooking meals.”

I was surprised yet more when I emerged from the trees and saw horses standing around the buggies. Saddles were in use, though as I looked at them, I was surprised to find substantial variance among them. None of them were particularly substantial looking, while three were little more than thin leather-encased pads of strange contour with a well-padded leather belt beneath.

“What are those?” I asked.

“Long-distance saddles for mettlesome horses,” said Lukas. “They might not be the most comfortable things, but some horses tend to buck with anything more.”

“Uh, they look really uncomfortable,” I murmured, as I fetched out a grain-pan and some sweetened grain.

“That one looks to need it,” said Lukas, “and I can see you can tell.”

“Sweetened grain?” I asked.

“Good that you brought some,” said Hendrik. “It really helps.”

“I did not bring a lot of it,” I said. “It was said to keep poorly.”

“It does,” said Gilbertus. “Sugar-tree sap is common, and grain is common enough, and I saw two big tinned grain pans for mixing the stuff.”

“Uh, I made those yesterday,” I murmured, as I set grain before Christoph. “Let me fetch my blanket and things, and we can, uh, go.”

For some peculiar reason, I felt the eyes of all upon me, and when I got my things and fluffed out the blanket, I was shocked to find Jaak ready. I put the pad on, leaped – and landed as light as a small bird.

“I'd like to know how you did that,” said Gabriel with a trace of envy.

“You and the rest,” said Gilbertus. “I'll take the first stint of driving one buggy, and I think Lukas might want the other, so as to feel 'em out and check the oil-screws.”

I was at a loss now, so much so that when the others mounted up fully, I asked, “uh, when do we go, and how?”

“Lead off,” said Hendrik. “I suspect you know the way.”

“I do?” I murmured.

As if to reply, Gabriel's horse began moving toward the gate, and Jaak followed. I heard faint whispers of wheels turning and muffled footfalls in our wake, and when I came to the gate with Gabriel beside me, I wondered what next to do.

“Good luck,” said those at the gate as we continued down the road heading slowly to the left.

I wondered as to the pace and much else, but for some reason, the early morning sun and cool fresh air made for a inclination to travel, and my recollection of the path seemed to fuel Jaak's pacing. I had gone this route in recent memory – that day of hellfire and trouble in the basement – and as we came into the town proper, I asked softly, “where do we stop first?”

“Up here, perhaps every two hours or so,” said Gabriel, “or whenever a horse finds a stone.”

“Meals?” I asked.

“That would be noon at the earliest,” said Gabriel. “Hendrik spoke of our usual stop being that one, should a suitable Public House show then.”

“I've never been south of where the...” I paused, then said, “that west road at the base of the crow's foot?”

“The Westwaag,” said someone from the rear. “Turn left where it joins the main road.”

“What lies there?” I asked.

“That would be the High Way,” said Gabriel. “I can see one advantage of this means of riding.”

“What is it?” I asked, as I felt in my possible bag for a snack.

“Notes and meals,” said Gabriel. “I'm surprised you asked, in fact.”

“I knew about the food,” I said, as I began gnawing a piece of pepper-encrusted dried meat. “I did not think of note-taking.”

At the juncture of roads called the crow's foot, I went to the right, and once onto the dirt road portion to the west, the previous clattering sounds of iron-shod hooves and buggy wheels became muted again once more. The once-muddy road had the seeming of dryness, but within moments, I knew it was but the seeming.

“No, no splop,” I said. “It's still soft in places.”

“What is this word?” asked Gabriel. I turned to see him holding a ledger and pencil.

Splop,” I said. “It's when the roads are really muddy and messy, and stuff gets on your buggy.”

“They might be that way up here still here and there,” he said, “but fifty miles south will be a different matter.”

“Dry?” I asked.

“Drier than it is here,” said Gabriel. “At least the trees will have leaves then.”

“Are you cold?”

“Somewhat,” said Gabriel. “I'm glad I have my cloak in my bags.”

The Westwaag passed steadily to both right and left. Time seemed to have ceased its travel, even as we continued west. Talk, faint and tenuous, came from the rear, and from my right, I heard occasional faint scratching noises. We passed fields, farms, roadways, and as I glanced ahead, I noted the 'main road' in the distance.

“Turn left there?” I asked silently, with pointed arm. It seemed likely enough.

The road seemed to draw steadily nearer, and once at its juncture, Jaak went to the left. I thought to take the right-hand side of the road, and once headed south, I noted a furthering of that road surface which lay to the north.

“You seem to know the road-rules well enough,” said Gabriel.

“Keep to the right?” I asked.

“That is common where such rules are followed,” said Gabriel.

“W-where they are followed?”

“On this road, that is the usual,” said Gabriel. “Only in the fifth kingdom house are such rules widely ignored.”

A smaller town showed within roughly a mile or two as the road twisted its way between the trees, and when I turned to the right to look down a side road, I strained my hearing. Something lay down that way of an awesome nature, and as I looked that way, I seemed to faintly hear something resembling the crowing of a rooster.

“Chickens?” I murmured.

“Where?” asked Karl's voice. He seemed but a handful of feet away to the rear.

“I'm not certain,” I said. “I thought I heard one crow.”

As if to answer my indecision, I heard the noise again. It was but slightly louder than the 'edge of hearing' level I had heard before.

“That was a rooster,” said Karl, “and if it was a black one...”

“Those lay rotten eggs,” said a voice from the rear. I could not identify the speaker beyond it wasn't someone I knew well.

I could hear occasional hissing noises from behind that spoke of sliding wheels, as well as squelching sounds. For some odd reason, I had not noticed these sounds recently, and I wondered briefly as to why – at least until we had left the town over a mile behind us.

Here the road went straight amid the trees, and in the distance, I seemed to see a broad black line merging with the horizon. I had the impression about stopping for water at the next town.

“The next town?” I asked. “Do we water there?”

Gabriel looked at me, then nodded.

The morning seemed to have acquired a sense of great somnolence, such that it was difficult to watch ahead and to the side, and the muffled clumping noises below and to the rear were a sleep-inducing lullaby. I briefly 'dozed off', or so I thought when my eyes abruptly jerked open to see what looked like a solid black wave cresting upon an alien shore.

“What is that?” I asked.

My voice seemed abstracted, as if it were not present here and ensconced upon another world, and as the frozen black wave came steadily closer, I wondered as to what it was. Would we have trouble 'surfing' on it? I did not know, even as it drew closer.

At a hundred yards' distance, however, I relaxed, for someone had put rolled earth up next to it to give a smooth translation. The glinting of black-polished rock seemed enticing, almost as if the stuff were a fantastic form of stone-impressed liquorice, and when I came to it, Jaak seemed to pause...

And then step upon it with all deliberation, as if he were testing it.

“It's fine,” I murmured, and the 'spell' shattered like glass, even as the previous muffled aspect of horseback riding now took on a ringing glassy sound amid a grinding rumble of buggy wheels.

“What is this stuff?” I asked.

“Mostly broken rock glued down with road-tar,” said Gabriel. “This is the High Way, and...”

His voice broke off with an abruptness too great to describe, and I wondered as to the meaning of what he'd done.

“I've been on roads like this before,” I said, as I surveyed the obvious asphalt road. “Why is it called that?”

“It's raised up from the ground over a foot in most places,” said Gabriel. “The Low Way is sunken into the ground, and is far to the west and south.”

“Sparks from the horses' hooves?” I asked.

“Those will show better near sundown,” said someone – Lukas, most likely – from my rear. “We'll want to check for rocks more often when the road is loose.”

“Loose?” I asked.

“It needs repair then,” said Lukas. I turned to see him on my left in one of the buggies. “This part looks decent.”

“Does one manage good speeds on this road?” I asked.

“Up here, few do better,” said Lukas, “especially when it's cool like this. The warmer portions lay ahead, and watering stops need to be more often.”

“The next town sounds likely,” I said. “It's about, oh, perhaps eight miles?”

I heard a strangled gulp, then when I turned to my left, Lukas' eyes were bugging out as if he'd seen an especially bad fetish show next to him on the buggy's seat.

“Is it?” I asked.

“It is,” he said between gasps. “How did you know?”

“I, uh, guessed,” I said.

“That was a good deal more than a mere guess,” said Gabriel. “I'm glad you can tell where such places are.”

The 'High Way' wound gently, and its width, while variable to a degree, was seldom less than twenty feet. The grinding sounds I heard underfoot spoke of accelerated wear on horseshoes, and when we came out of a woodlot into a wide and windswept meadow, I wondered about our potential camping places. Meadows similar to this one looked likely, and for some reason, as I thought of the matter, a scrap of song came to me:

“You take the High Way, and I'll take the Low Way, and I'll be in...”

“Now what was that place called?” I thought. The name 'Vrijlaand' came to mind, but I knew the place in question was not named that.

“Do you have a compass?” asked Gabriel.

“A smaller one,” I said. “It isn't the most, uh, precise thing...”

“How many points does it have?” asked Gabriel.

“North, south, east, and west,” I said, as I reached in my possible bag for it, “and a midpoint between each of those. Why?”

“That's about as much as is common,” said Gabriel. “Only large navigational compasses for ships have more.”

I then fished the thing out of my possible bag, and Gabriel looked at it. The satiny brass object again reminded me of a music box.

“That is no common compass,” said Gabriel. “It's the smallest one I've ever seen.”

“Uh, it does work,” I said. “I wondered what it was when I found it.” I paused, then asked, “planting?”

“Up here, it might wait a month,” said a voice from the rear. “I'd expect to see plowing tomorrow or the day after.”

The town showed roughly an hour later, and as we came into its northern reaches, I could faintly hear groaning noises. I could feel a distinct need for liquids, even as the sun showed itself to be nearing its zenith, and when the group came to the yard of the Public House, I heard a chorus of thumping noises. I gently eased off of Jaak, and went to Gabriel's side. He stifled a groan as he nearly 'fell' off.

“Are you sore?” I asked. Gabriel nodded.

“Aye,” said someone from the rear. I turned to see Kees rubbing his posterior.

“Liniment for the bottom?” I thought. “I am not inclined to apply it!”

The aching voices I heard from the others as I went toward the first of the buggies made for wondering, even as I paused to feel the first hub. It felt 'normal', and when I lifted the keeper, I was surprised to still see a modest amount of oil. I looked at the buggy's 'floorboard', and there found the tied bag labeled 'buggy'.

“Good that you're after the oil,” said Lukas. “These are as quiet as any buggies I've ridden in.”

“Less soreness?” I asked. I'd found the oil, and was spooning it into the reservoir.

“I'll be trading off with someone, most likely,” he said. “There's two or three beyond you who aren't up to driving, so that number isn't terribly big.”

“Who?” I asked, as I went to the next hub.

“Gabriel might manage if I sat next to him,” he said, as he looked toward the doorway of the Public House, “and then one of those sitting with you might learn fairly quick. He's never driven before.” Here, he paused, and found his cup, which he filled from a 'well-hidden' jug. I was topping the second reservoir. “Then, there's you. I'd imagine you might learn quicker than anyone, and then maybe not.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. The second buggy beckoned, and no one else was near it.

“It might well be too simple for you,” he said. “There are no free lunches...”

“Especially when you drive what he usually does,” said Gabriel from behind me. I turned to see him using a small and somewhat dented copper cup, and he raised it again to drink. I walked to the second buggy, and felt its hub. It was a trifle warm, and I opened the reservoir with one hand. The other was feeling for my pouch of screwdrivers.

“Now what are you talking about?” asked Lukas.

“What he is accustomed to driving,” said Gabriel.

“What, a freight wagon?” Lukas was working on the other side of the buggy.

“Most of them were the size of postal buggies,” said Gabriel, “and they moved without horses. More, they moved rapidly.”

“Like out of an old tale?” asked Lukas.

“That, or off of a tapestry,” said Gabriel. “Then, there were strange things with two wheels.”

“What would those be?” asked Lukas.

“I'm not sure,” said Gabriel, “as while two-wheeled conveyances are spoken of in the Grim, they used horses, and these didn't – and their wheels were arranged one in front of the other.”

“There's but one way to arrange wheels,” said Lukas. “If they're not side-to-side, there's a falling sure to happen.”

“I know,” said Gabriel. “He fell a few times, but much of the time, he not only did not fall, but moved rapidly.”

Gabriel then turned to me, and said, “and I had no idea it was possible to move faster than a wood-pigeon in full flight. How did you do that?”

“Uh, what?” I asked. I had finished the one hub's business, and had opened its oil-feed slightly. “Drive?”

Gabriel nodded, then said, “and how did you cope with that thing's noise?”

“Noise?” I asked. I was feeling the next hub, and it too felt warmer than I liked.

“I have heard evil engines before,” he said, “and this thing was not one of them, at least for its arrangement. I am not sure of its noise.”

“What did it sound like?” asked Lukas.

“Like nothing I have ever heard,” said Gabriel. “It was like thunder, only not quite as loud, and then it made this horrible screeching, and finally it... No, I cannot describe it. It almost seemed alive, though, as when he would tickle it with his toe, it roared violently.”

“Was this, uh, creature a soft gray color?” I asked. I was opening the oil feed slightly.

“It was,” said Gabriel. “Now what was it?”

“My c-car,” I said. What I was doing reminded me of it, in fact, and I looked up to see Lukas on the other side of the buggy. He seemed concerned, and I held up my screwdriver. He took it, then gave it back.

“Now that I think of,” said Gabriel, “I can think of an animal that sounded like it. It was that white one with the claws.”

“Would this be a cat?” asked Karl, as he returned from the Public House. I looked to see a bulging bag under his arm, and I smelled bread. I then returned my attention to my screwdriver, which I put away.

“I am not sure what this animal is called,” said Gabriel. “I know but little about it, and less yet about this thing called a car.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “why did it screech?”

“Perhaps the gears,” I said, as I returned the oil to where I found it. “Did this, uh, screech vary rapidly in pitch?”

“It did,” said Gabriel, “and the roaring noise did also.”

“That sounds like the gears,” I said.

“I have seen gears before,” said Gabriel, “but I have yet to see them smoke.”

“The tires?” I gasped. “Big round, uh, black things?”

“Those were no tires I have ever seen,” said Gabriel. “No tire looks like the surface of the High Way, especially when it is in use.”

“You have not traveled much upon this road, then,” said Hendrik. “I've driven through recent-laid repairs, and the tires were as black as night afterward.”

“Do we go soon?” I asked, as I refilled my water-bottle with cider.

“There might be another minute or so before those buying food or drink finish inside,” said Hendrik. “I might take a stint driving. It's been a while.”

“Soreness?” I was feeling somewhat that way, though much less than I expected. I was indeed glad for the bag of dried meat in my possible bag.

“That too,” he said. “At least the buggy-seat has a padded place.”

Mounting made for more faint groaning noises, and our heading out of the south side made for wondering on my part, for the long and even rows of trees spoke of an orchard. I wondered briefly as to what kind of trees, but kept the matter to myself – until we had continued amid even rows of these trees for over a minute. I then could no longer keep silent.

“What are these trees?” I asked.

“I would name them apples,” said Gabriel.

“You must have been drinking something other than beer in that cup,” said Lukas from behind. “Those be pears.”

“What were you drinking, by the way?” I asked.

“Unfermented wine,” said Gabriel. “I needed something sweet.”

The orchard ended nearly two minutes later, and was replaced by unplowed fields on each side. These went for what seemed a mile or more, and near their end, I suspected Jaak needed to visit the road-side. He went there briefly, paused, and returned to his former position.

“I was wondering when he would do that,” said Gabriel. “Christoph did so when we'd stopped.”

“He did that then, too,” said a voice from the rear.

The unplowed fields were replaced by the common alternating woodlots and meadows thereafter, with infrequent side-roads. The sun seemed to hang lazily overhead, and I touched my hat. I was glad for its presence.

“You'll need a new one soon enough,” said Gabriel. “I might watch for one in a Mercantile.”

“Did you get your knife?” I asked.

“Just days ago,” said Gabriel. “It is fully as I had hoped, where it is not more yet.”

“Do you have more than merely a knife?” I asked.

“I wished that I did,” said Gabriel. “I saw a fowling piece in one buggy, and worse case, I could use that.”

“I put that in there, along with a musket,” I said. “I packed a couple of surprises, also.”

“Now what would those be?” asked Lukas.

“Two pistols,” I said. “I just finished going over them.”

“Which kind?” he asked. “Those you like, or the other type?”

“Reworked revolvers,” I said. “I'd have trouble with some I've seen. Why, do you have one?”

“I do, though I have it hidden in my things,” he said. “I brought another of those good muskets.”

“Good?” I asked. “What I did for the house?”

“No, not one of those,” he said. “I heard about those you did for those you live with, and I sent in mine.”

“Yours?” I asked. “W-worked over?”

“I had to ask Hans about how to load it up once I'd gotten it,” he said, “as it does not like loose balls, and it is worthless for shot.” He paused, then said, “I never used shot in that one, so I didn't miss it.”

Lukas paused, then said, “I have plenty of patching, and a small tin of that black grease.”

“What is that used for?” asked Gabriel.

“Those like that need patches on their balls,” he said, “or, they need these strange bullets that look like jugs without their necks. I have some of each with me.”

“Have you tried those, uh, strange bullets?” I asked.

“Those are what you want for elk or running witches,” he said. “I shot a witch at a hundred paces a few weeks ago, and it put him down right away.”

“What?” asked Gabriel.

“He piled right up and slid on the cobbles,” said Lukas with a chuckle, “and we didn't need any chains for the burn-pile. He was as dead as a corpse-box when I got to him.”

“Did it make a hole in both sides?” I asked.

“The hole going in was the usual size,” said Lukas, “but that other hole was bigger.”

“How much bigger?” asked Gabriel. He sounded nauseated.

“It wasn't like that of a roer,” said Lukas, “but it was bigger than that of a large musket.”

“How much powder did you use?” This question came from behind.

Lukas dropped back to talk with our questioner, and the talk continued for some time about muskets and other matters. For some reason, however, I was 'exercised' by the idea of possibly needing to do much shooting.

“Will we have enough?” I asked.

“Enough of what?” asked Gabriel.

“I brought my moulds,” I said, “as well as the other things I use.” I paused, then asked, “did anyone else think to bring such supplies?”

Gabriel looked to his rear, then at me, and said, “I'm not certain if anyone understands the true import of this trip. If I had to guess exceptions, however, you would be the first on my list.”

“I'll need to ask at the next stop, then,” I said.

Yet still, I felt unease, and more than a trace at that, and I brought out the small slate and a nubbin of chalk. I wrote 'musket powder', 'shot', 'common-size balls', and finally 'linen-waste', and only my recalling the small bronze mortar I had packed made for less worrying about priming powder. I still thought to ask:

“Did someone bring priming powder?”

“I saw what you had packed,” said someone from the rear, “and I let it go at that. I took what I usually do.”

Gabriel looked at me, slowly shaking his head, and muttered, “I thought so. All of your things take thimbles.”

“I can make priming powder if needed,” I said.

“That was not my thinking,” said Gabriel. “My concern was for the attitude expressed regarding your equipment.”

“Would this be like some of those lectures about having someone else look after one's sword?” I asked.

“I would expect that type of an answer,” said Gabriel, “but the truth is otherwise.”

“And I'd best check everyone's weapons when and where I can,” I said.

“That especially,” said Gabriel. “Now that I think about it, that reason might well be the truth.”

“Don't touch the mechanism and send it in when it goes b-bad?” I asked.

“That is the usual,” said Gabriel.

“Not with what he did up,” said Lukas. “It came with a smaller turnscrew, and it's easy to take apart.”

“What?” I spluttered.

“Those screws are good ones,” he said, “and there's this little wiggle in the sear-bar. So, you can take out the lock and wipe it down when you clean the gun, and the same for everything about those done like that. Hans showed me how.”

“How do you, uh, clean the lock?” I asked.

“A little stick, some of that good distillate, and an oily rag for afterward,” he said.

“Do you know who spoke?” I asked.

“I think it was Kees,” he said conspiratorially. “He's not gone after witches or thieves, and I doubt he's had many of them try for him.”

“Remove the 'm' from many,” said Gabriel. “You'd be closer to the truth.”

Another town showed in the distance, or so I thought. I kept the matter to myself, as I 'knew' it wasn't a good stopping point; there was another town some few miles further, and that one was. I then smelled smoke, and saw drifting overhead faint grayish clouds. I started looking for the fire, and far to the left, I saw what might have been its source. It looked to be a huge weathered barn, and it was partly obscured by smoke.

“That barn looks...”

“That is not a barn,” said Gabriel emphatically. “That is a charcoal-burner's building, and he's burning charcoal.”

“I never saw one before,” I said, as I tried suppressing a cough, “and the smoke is bad.”

“It's worse for the bugs,” said Lukas from behind. “That kind of smoke keeps 'em clear.”

I turned over the small slate, and wrote down the word 'charcoal' for some reason. I then saw Gabriel looking at me.

“Where did you get that slate?” he asked.

“At the Mercantile where I live,” I said. “It seems to work.” A brief pause, then “why do you ask?”

“It looked to be a fifth kingdom slate,” said Gabriel. “A replacement might be wise.”

“You'd have trouble getting those up this way,” said Gilbertus. “About all that Mercantiles sell in the first kingdom and most of the second is fifth kingdom rubbish.”

I was about to speak when Gilbertus continued, saying, “unless they make it themselves, buy it locally, or know a group of locally-sited freighters.”

“Those places are scarce along this road, aren't they?” I asked.

“They are,” he said. “This town ahead here is almost too small to be a town, so the next one will have to do for a stop.”

“I h-had that impression,” I said. “How is it too small – a small poorly-stocked Mercantile, three shops, a Public House, and a farrier's building?”

“You haven't been there, have you?” asked Gilbertus.

“No, I haven't,” I said. “This is as far south as I've ever been.” A brief pause, then “about the only reason the place stays there is the post and its mail. True?”

“I suspect you are right,” said Gilbertus, “as few freighters stop there except when it's hot or their horses need attention.”

“And there is a postal hostel in that town,” said Gabriel. “I can point it out to you when we pass it.”

However, the smoke soon dissipated as we came into another orchard. These trees were not like the ones I had seen previously; they were straighter, longer-limbed, and bedecked with bunches of lime-green finger-sized leaves. A query named them 'cherry' trees, and when a narrow meadow showed at the end of the orchard, I noted the unnatural regularity of the next woodlot. Once inside it, I knew better.

“What trees are these?” I asked.

“Those look to be apples,” said Gabriel.

“What kind of apples?” asked Karl's faint-sounding voice. “Red, green, or straw-colored?”

“I have no idea,” said Gabriel. “Were this the east side, and later in the year, I might manage better.”

“Red apples?” I asked.

“I think you are right,” said Karl. “Most apples I've seen are red.”

Passing the apple orchard and its road-wiggles made for wonderment, as a crossroad showed. Again, this time less faintly, I heard what might have been the crow of a rooster, and then seconds later, deep-pitched gusts of cackling.

“Those birds sound loose,” said Gabriel. “I hope they do not show.”

“Loose?” I asked. The town, such as it was, was less than a mile away.

“Outside their pens,” said Gabriel. “I've been close to them before, and I do not wish to repeat the experience.”

“Why?” I asked.

“On second thought, perhaps I might manage, provided I can use that fowling piece,” said Gabriel. “I've heard chicken is edible if properly cleaned and slow-roasted over an open fire.”

“Yes, if you drink a mug of uncorking medicine with it,” said Lukas. “I've heard chicken is best boiled like dried goat.”

“I hope we didn't get some of that stuff,” I muttered. The town was drawing steadily closer.

“It's costly up here anyway, and that's when you can find it,” said Lukas. “Except for a Mercantile in the house at home, the nearest place it can be had is in the second kingdom house.”

“What is that place like?” I asked.

“You might manage it,” he said, “but the rest of us would need to be careful and stick to the well-traveled portions. It might not look like the Swartsburg, but it's nearly as bad in places.”

“Drink-houses?” I asked. We were 'in' the town.

“There are those, though they tend to be well-hid,” said Lukas, “and the same for a lot of what you can find in the Swartsburg. It's like a two-doored shop that way, only finding the back door is really hard unless you know who to talk to and where to look.”

“Uh, part of it, or the whole town?” I asked.

“That's the hard part,” he said. “If you don't know something about that place, you could go there and think it's just bigger and fancier compared to home.”

“The place as a whole?” I asked. “I've heard things about the house proper.”

Gabriel interjected with his arm as he pointed out a sober-looking single-story building across from the town's Public House. The aspect of 'dead' was potent in this town, and as I looked at the building's wide pair of varnished wooden doors, I heard words that seemed appropriate. It took what seemed seconds to realize they did not fit what I was currently seeing.

“I'd watch close in that place,” said Lukas. “I've been there twice, and for every General at home, there has to be three of those people in there. Then, they don't stay in one area.”

“Meaning they can show anywhere with little warning,” I said absent-mindedly. The town was now in our wake, and farmer's fields were on each side of the road stretching away from us for hundreds of yards. None of them showed signs of recent tillage.

“That especially,” said Lukas. “I'm not sure if they're worse for behavior or not.”

“Is this because of their greater skill at hiding, or because...”

“I never saw that,” he said. “If they do that, then they're clearly worse for behavior.”

With the town and its surrounding fields behind us, I began to notice sounds I had not heard clearly before. The steady clattering noises of iron-shod hooves grind-smacking the pavement were circumscribed by the rolling 'crush' noise of the buggy-wheels and the faint hissing noises of cups and cones. I could faintly hear – or, perhaps, feel – something amiss, however, and I wheeled out of line and went backwards.

I was surprised at the brevity of the column, for Hendrik's team was but feet behind us pulling the first buggy, and his horse was on a slim lead to its rear. I leaned off in some strange fashion and put my hand next to the still-rolling front wheel, then the rear of his buggy, and leaned up just in time to avoid being struck off Jaak by an oncoming horse.

The second buggy was next, and here, I felt something definite. There was something wrong, so much so that I did not bother feeling 'my' side. I went to the other side of the buggy ahead of the 'drag' pair of horses, dodged the horse on a lead, leaned over, felt the heat coming off of the nearest hub, and said in a surprisingly soft voice, “stop, please.”

The buggy came to a stop – Karl was driving, and he shook the reins – and as the column stopped and gathered around, I leaped off of Jaak and brought my hands near the rear hub. Its warmth was palpable from several inches away.

“Did he open the screw, or did he close it up?” I thought, as I reached back toward the reservoir.

“What is it?” asked Karl.

I began adjusting the screw, and found it was but one and a half turns open. I closed it, then backed it out two and a quarter, and went to fetch the tool-pouch from where it lay on the buggy's floorboard.

“What is it?” asked Karl nervously.

“Someone confused 'right means tight' with 'left means loose',” I said, “and I could feel something wrong.”

“Good that you did, then,” said Hendrik from my right. “Is it serious?”

“I hope not,” I said. “It was still getting oil, though not as much as it needed. I'll see about marking these things appropriately so it doesn't happen again.”

As I retook my place at the front of the 'column', I thought to go slower for a mile or so to permit the bearings to cool down. I reached for the small slate and wrote 'sheet tin', and after replacing the slate, I reached for some more dried meat. I glanced at the sun, and noted 'early afternoon'.

“About another hour or so,” I mumbled amid mouthfuls of peppered meat. “I hope we can get more of this stuff.”

“I suspect that was much of what was packed away for food,” said Gabriel. “I tried that soup recipe last night.”

“How was it?” I asked.

“It wanted more spices,” said Gabriel, “but otherwise, I could not complain in the slightest.”

“Uh, little care?” I asked.

“I think covering it with a plate and using a slow fire helps more than I expected,” he said. “I made it up like you described, set it on the rear part of the stove, began working, and only checked it when I had finished one set of notes and was about to start on another. It was done then.”

The passage of time seemed endless, and now, I knew the chief matter of riding anywhere when true distance was involved: the pace, and more, the seeming monotony. I was becoming bored, and my attention seemed to faintly wander in wide and aimless orbits. I wondered as to our distance south more than a little, and more, wondered as to what was in store toward the south.

The woodlots were barren for the most part of leaves and entirely of animals, and the lack of traffic on the road made for wondering. I could 'feel' the town – it was still an easy hour or more away, I now recognized – and I suspected that in such instances, watering when and where possible was needed.

“Should we have watered back in that town?” I asked softly.

“We would have spent a glass's turning had we done so,” said Gabriel.

“Once you got the pump working, you mean,” said Lukas. “I saw the rust on that thing, and I know what that means.”

“I've never worked on pumps,” I said.

“Rusted pumps might raise a drop of water for a mug's worth of sweat,” he said. “The only time you bother with 'em is if your team is dry and it's a lot hotter than this.”

I had trouble suppressing a yawn, for some reason, then turned my attention to the front once more. Again, I smelled a fire, only this one had an additional odor that reminded me of meat. I turned toward a sizable farmhouse, and again noted faint clouds of grayish smoke.

“He's not burning charcoal, is he?” I asked, as I pointed.

Gabriel looked, sniffed, then made a gagging noise. He looked at me with an expression that seemed to exemplify the word 'misery'.

“Smoke-dried meat?” I asked.

“That type isn't commonly that dry,” said Lukas. “It's more common to the south.”

“Basted with s-sauce?” I asked.

“Do not torment me so,” murmured Gabriel.

“What is it, then?” I asked.

“Th-that smell,” he said. “I've but had that meat a handful of times, and each time, I hungered for it until I felt right to bursting.”

“We'd best keep him clear of that stuff, then,” said Lukas. “He'll want to eat for hours once he gets into it.”

“I know,” said Gabriel. “I might not have that kind of appetite as a rule, but that meat is an exception.”

“What kind of meat is it?” I asked.

“Where it's common, it's usually beef,” said Lukas, “and they drown the stuff in that sauce before they grill it over a slow fire. It takes a long time to cook, and it looks fit for the manure pile when it's done.”

“Sounds very unappetizing,” I said.

“You scrape off the blackened part,” said Lukas, “drown it again in the sauce, and then tear the inner pieces up with serving forks before serving it. It goes well with potatoes, carrots, and minced cabbage.”

“I've heard of meat done like that,” I said, “and it does taste good.”

“That rubbish?” said Gabriel. “You have not had this meat.”

“Perhaps it is better, then,” I said. “I've never had meat like that here.” I paused, then said, “rubbish? How?”

“Most that cook that meat boast of their fires and ovens,” said Lukas. “They're very picky about their wood, and how the oven is arranged, and how long they cook the stuff.” Lukas paused, then said, “I've managed similar food over an open fire.”

“How?” moaned Gabriel.

“It wasn't beef,” he said, “and it wasn't quite as spicy or juicy, and I didn't have minced cabbage to go with it, but it was good. I was glad when the tramps showed up, in fact.”

“Tramps?” I asked.

“Two women and a man,” he said. “The women did sewing, as is the usual for women tramping, and I think the man was heading north after his hammer died. He'd been tramping for days with his things.”

“His hammer?” I asked. “Was he a carpenter?”

Lukas nodded, then said, “I'd shot a young marmot earlier in the day, and was cooking it up over a slow fire. I'd had the spices and things with me...”

“Did you have a special pot?” I asked.

“I had a small one for the vegetables,” he said. “I think it had once been a larger bathing dipper.” He paused, then said, “I'd rubbed the carcass good after gutting and rinsing it, and was turning it every so often, and it was roasting...”

“I'm getting hungry just listening to him,” I thought.

“And I was using this small spoon to sprinkle it with water...”

“Is that why I made up that d-dutch oven?” I thought.

“I'd been doing that for about an hour when the tramps showed,” said Lukas, “and they offered to help with the meal. I needed to bathe, and there was a pond nearby, so I did that. I get back, and they've done as they said, that, and they'd gotten out their stuff.”

“Their stuff?” I asked.

“There's a rule common to the south about tramping, and most people doing that do it wherever they come and go,” said Lukas. “If you have food, you share it, and the same with the other things you have. I was glad for what they had that way.”

“What did they have?” I asked.

“Powdered Torga root, among other things,” he said. “A few pinches in the basting water made all the difference.”

“Did it catch on fire?” I asked.

“No, it didn't, not with all of that baste-water,” said Lukas. “Talk has it Torga is touchy that way.”

“Touchy?” I squeaked.

“I heard about that stuff going up on you,” he said, “so I take that talk a lot more serious than I used to.”

“Did you bring some?” I asked.

“It and the other spices I usually carry when traipsing,” he said. “So, we finished up that marmot, scraped all of the burned places into the fire, dished up the potatoes and things, and ate like second kingdom freighters.”

Gabriel moaned faintly as if to reply.

I was about to ask him as to his 'illness' when I suddenly heard a discordant jangle that made for a tentative hand on my teeth. Gabriel abruptly jolted as the noise quieted itself for a second. It did not remain quiet long:

“Too-ooo-oon, ton-ton-twap-twap, twong, t-tw-twoooong!”

“What was that?” I gasped, as I drew my hand away from my mouth. Again, I heard something faint, discordant – and steadily growing in familiarity. I thought a distraction was wise.

“Uh, camping for the night?” I asked.

“Thank God,” muttered Gabriel. “I was about to go insane thinking of that meat.”

“Does it have a special name?” I asked.

Cuew,” said Gabriel, drawing out the word for nearly a second. I could clearly hear the 'w' at the end. “At least, it is called that in some quarters. 'Slow-cooked spiced meat' is the usual term.”

“I might manage a passable substitute,” I said, “but that will need a camping spot.” I paused for a moment, then said, “somewhere within about an hour's travel south of this town that's ahead, with good grass, water, and an open space off of the road?”

Gabriel looked at me with interest, then said, “yes?”

“There are a few people out this way inclined toward mischief,” I said, as I indicated the region to our front with my arm, “which means a watch over the night is a good idea.”

“Watch?” asked Gabriel.

“An hour or so per person,” I said. “I usually get up early, so I can take the last one before dawn.”

“That sounds likely,” said Hendrik from behind.

As if to interrupt matters of importance, the noise I had heard twice before resounded in my mind, and Gabriel winced.

“Th-those p-people...” Gabriel gritted his teeth.

“Who?” I asked. “Do you speak of those, uh, individuals with the out of tune...”

Twaaaanggg!” The discordant note grabbed my mind and forced both the recollection of the device and its name unto me.

“Guitars!” I spluttered. “They play as if three of their five fingers were triple-jointed thumbs!”

“Now you have done it,” muttered Gabriel. “That is the most common name for those horrors, and most strolling players play them.”

Again, the horrid noise pounded hard upon my mind as someone ran a bottleneck down grease-suffused steel wires. The 'barre' chord – if that was what it was – ended in a hideous jangle as the hand wielding the thing collided with the guitar's body.

“Perhaps I gave them too much credit,” I murmured. “They can play better than I can.”

Gabriel had put both hands over his eyes. His mouth was moving, but he was not speaking – at least, at first. He then said, “you played those things?”

“I tried,” I said. “I was better at making them than playing them – and I sounded terrible.”