The road more traveled, part f.
Resumption of travel minus the marmot made for wondering on my part, for 'breakfast' had not been secured. I was glad for dried meat and drowned Kuchen, and when I saw Gabriel nibbling on something, I asked as to what had happened.
“They gave us five guilders for the carcass,” said Gabriel, “and they were out of bread.”
“Out?” I asked.
“Those freighters last night caused trouble, and not merely by their appetites,” said Gabriel. “They also beat several patrons and threatened the publican with knives and pistols.”
“What?” I gasped. “Where were they from?”
“Some from the fifth,” said Gabriel, “but over half came from close to where we are heading.”
“Hence we either use drowned Kuchen, or...”
“We can try the other two towns we come to,” said Gabriel. “Failing that, you will be right.”
We passed through more fields and orchards, and here, I noted that more and more 'farms' had grape-arbors clustered in small areas. I wondered as to the volume of wine able to be produced, as well as where the barley was grown.
“That tends to be grown in this area,” said Gabriel, “as are hops. I'm surprised we have not seen those yet.”
“What do they look like?” I asked.
“Hops are grown on arbors, also, but the arbors are shaped differently and the plant needs much more support,” said Gabriel. “The hop-arbors I've seen look like long and narrow tables, save for the tops which are of lattice-work to support the vines.”
While there were no people plowing, many of the fields showed manure or other signs of work, and after passing through a woodlot with a trio of clearings and then emerging from its other side, I saw a truly strange farm but a few hundred yards further.
The long straggly rows of its northern fields were not merely plowed, but also formed into wide snaky mounds, and a fresh sprinkling of manure attempted to hide vast numbers of small green shoots poking through it. The mound-rows went across multiple fields, and between each such mound, I saw a hard-packed walkway.
“Someone planted,” I gasped. “What is that stuff?” I then pointed with my right hand.
“I think that is wheat,” said Gabriel. “It's likely to be hard-wheat, as that type stands cold better.”
After passing the 'farmhouse' and a rock-walled enclosure that echoed with the bellows of 'mean black cattle', the fields resumed, and here, they were different entirely. Not only had they not been plowed, but only a portion of them had seen manure, and in the distance, I saw a strange 'buggy' parked in a corner.
The arrangement beneath the box of this vehicle, as well as the mounds of brownish material, spoke of the likely means of spreading the malodorous stuff, while the box itself implied a substantial amount was available for spreading. What showed in the southern fields was an even bigger surprise.
Here, I saw hop-arbors stretching back a lengthy distance, with what might have been gnarled-looking long lengths of 'wood' on top. These wood pieces, however, were garnished with thick tufts of green in various places, and the south border of the farm showed what looked like a wide fenced pasture with no reason present to fence it.
“Why do they have that part there?” I asked, as another woodlot approached.
“I can but guess,” said Gabriel. “Perhaps they raise horses, or the other type of bull that is found near home.”
“Other type of bull?” I asked. “Huge, gray, straight horns?”
“Those have none of those qualities,” said Gabriel. “They tend to be a good deal smaller than those black ones we saw yesterday, they are commonly a mottled brown color, and while their horns are straight, they are very short.”
“How short?” I asked. Miura had 'short' horns compared to the three foot examples on that first bull I'd encountered here, and he could still rip a person's gut open readily.
“They tend to be less than the width of a hand long, and are somewhat bulbous,” said Gabriel. “Besides, those cattle are not known for goring.”
“What do they do, then?”
A loud guffaw came from behind, followed by “no thief wants a common bull after him.”
I wanted to say “duh” but refrained. It was patently obvious to me that bulls could be trouble.
“I have heard they kick,” said Gabriel, “but I have never seen them misbehave.”
“Uh, the bull formula?” I asked. “More asleep than awake?”
“No, these were all too awake,” said Gabriel. “They wished to be combed, and were quite insistent about the matter. I didn't know how to comb them, though, and the farmer needed to rescue me.”
“Combed?” I asked.
“Those cattle need regular combing, due to their long hair,” said Gabriel, “and believe me, a small herd of them wishing to be combed is no joke. I would hate to think about how they would act if I were a thief.”
“Are they, uh, aggressive?” I asked.
“Toward those they know, no,” said Gabriel, “and toward wayward students who are traipsing, not particularly. The farmer spoke of a witch that got in his field, and he said the bulls had chased him up into a tree.”
“Did the farmer deal with the witch?” I asked.
“The witch was eventually burned, yes,” said Gabriel, “though when he jumped, he was not able to run, and the farmer shot him on the spot.”
“Not able to run?” I asked.
“The farmer said he was badly bruised all over, his clothing was shredded, and he had many broken bones,” said Gabriel. “There were several hoof-prints on him, and those places were pulped, so much so that the farmer thought one of his bulls might have kicked that witch up into the tree.”
“They kick?” I gasped.
“They make mules seem tame for kicking when they've a mind to,” said Lukas, “and those don't use just their rears. They use all four of 'em, and they get strange when they do it, too.”
“Strange?” I asked.
“Like a thief thinks he is clear and then gets kicked ten paces downrange,” said Lukas, “and that bull's on top of him the instant he lands to kick him again.”
“And the only way to avoid those kicks is to be out of reach of the bull or bulls,” said Gabriel. “That witch was nearly dead when he fell out of the tree.”
“Bulls?” I asked. “Don't those fight?”
“Not really, at least for those common at home,” said Gabriel. “They want a certain amount of room as a rule, but you can have several in a pasture, along with a number of cows.”
Another charcoal-burner's site billowed thick clouds of smoke across the landscape next, and after emerging from the choking gray plume, I felt the next of the two towns in the distance. While we could water there, I was becoming very interested in breakfast, for dried meat and Kuchen just wasn't the same. I wanted some jam on a slab of bread, and I was becoming irritable for not having it.
“I hope this next place has bread,” I muttered.
“It should,” said Gabriel. “This is a bit late for the usual breakfast, but travelers can be peculiar that way.”
“I hope those smelly people didn't pillage that place,” I grumbled.
“My, you must really need proper bread,” said Gabriel.
“J-jam,” I said. “I'll cook the stuff myself if I have to.”
“I've been doing that,” said Lukas. “I have a jam-pot, dried cherries, and the little box that it goes in, and it's cooking steady over one of those wax candles.”
“What?” I gasped.
“I found it years ago in a second-hand store,” he said, “and it went with me when I was traipsing. There's something about proper jam on one's bread that makes a difference, even if the bread itself isn't that good.”
“So that trouble is addressed,” said Gabriel. “Anna spoke of the trouble you might have in portions of the second kingdom.”
“As in they break out the fowling pieces and drive me out with clouds of smoke and hot lead?” I asked.
“Were you by yourself, that might happen,” said Gabriel. “Among a group like this, that would be unlikely.”
Gabriel paused briefly, then sipped from his cup. I felt reminded about the water bottle, and brought it out to drink.
“What is likely is that you would receive no service, or poor service,” he said, “and though we could cover your meals, they would neither appreciate us doing so nor listen to what we have to say regarding those people from Norden.”
“Which means I need to stay outside,” I said.
“Where you would be shot at by any misers or witches in the area,” said Gabriel. “It almost makes more sense to not stop anywhere in the second kingdom beyond at the house proper unless it is absolutely necessary.”
“If they feel that way, they will not give us assistance, will they?” I asked.
“That is likely,” said Gabriel, “at least in those certain areas. Outside of them, they might and might not, depending on a host of imponderable matters.”
“As in what Hendrik spoke of?” I asked.
Gabriel looked at me, then asked, “do you know what it is?”
“I was told something would happen on this trip,” I said. “I was not told when, or where, or much else.”
“And Hendrik knows of it,” said Gabriel.
The next town not merely had bread, but had just baked the stuff, and we bought several loaves. More than one jug went in for a refill, and someone purchased more dried meat. I idly looked at the Public House itself and noted another subtle change in architecture compared to home: this place had book-shaped mottled green tiles for its roof, even if it was otherwise white and medium shades of brown.
“Tiles?” I asked, between mouthfuls of bread thickly smeared with cherry jam.
“Those tend to be common from this point south,” said Gilbertus. He'd had the same inclination toward rye and cherry jam, and had bought more dried cherries. “These things are uncommon once you pass the northern border of the third kingdom, and while they can be found in the fourth kingdom, they're dear.”
“And in the fifth kingdom?” I asked. “If you want cherry jam, you bring it or its makings with you. Correct?”
That and then some,” he said, “and about the only candles down there to be had are smelly ones, so we need to have plenty for our time there.”
“Uh, yellow and gray streaks,” I said.
“Those things smell like the fifth kingdom, not rotten meat,” he said. “I'm not sure which is worse for stink.”
I finished my bread, and sliced another piece for my bread-bag, then checked the dried meat in my possible bag. That was running low, and I began looking for the rest of it. I was met by Karl with another sack.
“Here is more dried meat,” he said. “This is beef, though it is not as good as the last time. It is still decent.”
“Better for cooking, or gnawing?” I asked.
“I still have plenty of the good meat, so you can have that,” he said. “This might be better in soup.”
I took a piece anyway, so as to learn for myself, and soon found out the flavor was indeed 'less' – though the chief matter was a relative lack of flavor, rather than the 'off' taste of bad meat. It was still edible by itself.
The sun was past 'midmorning' by the time we resumed our travel, and as we continued steadily southward, I noted faint breezes and perhaps a slight increase in warmth over the day before. Our last stop had had unfermented cider, and the jug had been refilled and another purchased. I had refilled my water bottle, for which I was glad.
The breezes brought strange smells and stranger feelings. The scent of manure was commonplace, as was the smoke from cooking; more than once, I recognized the peculiar scent of Cuew amid other wood-cooked foods. I wondered what it looked like, more as to its flavor, and I wondered still more yet if we could make the stuff in camp.
“That needs a marmot,” I thought, “and I may well need to hunt one.”
And finally, there were other odors, though these were especially faint. One of them was datramonium, and another, the indescribable bad-sewage stink of swine.
“I smell a pig,” muttered Karl. He was driving the buggy behind us.
“I do too, Karl, and if there's a pig, then there's trouble afoot,” I said.
“Those draw witches,” said Karl. “If you find one, there are witches nearby.”
“The border is perhaps twenty miles from here,” I said, “and that town is a bit more than half of that. The place where we turn to go to the kingdom house is beyond the border some short distance, part of which we can cover before we camp for the night.”
“Where would that be?” asked Karl.
“Gilbertus said he knew of places,” I said.
Yet as I spoke, I had a horrifying premonition: Gilbertus' information was grossly out of date, and many of the locations he knew of were now 'captive' to various Public Houses. Non-captive locations were now either off of the High Way some few miles, lacking in 'crucial' amenities – the second kingdom 'prided itself' on semipermanent privies, well-kept 'lawns', permanent fire-pits with stands, and well-maintained pumps and troughs – or were especially well hidden, such that Gilbertus would have neither the experience nor the capacity to find them.
Instead, I would need to find our campsites, and then solve the myriad problems that cropped up during our traversal of the second kingdom. This educated my next question.
“How long have those 'camping places' been captive to their respective Public Houses?”
“That is something of a mystery,” said Gabriel, “as until you had mentioned it, I had no idea of that being done.”
“Did you use such places when traveling?” I asked.
“Yes, and I had little trouble, even during the last instance, which was the winter before this last,” he said. “I was traveling with a group of freighting wagons...”
“Meaning you were treated like a lively version of cargo,” I said. “When you did your traipsing, did you go on the High Way?”
“The only time I spent much time on it was the second portion of my first time of traipsing,” he said, “as after that, its chief attraction is its somewhat greater speed. Otherwise, the lesser roads are much preferable, due to their lack of traffic, better notes, and their better prices.”
“Better notes?” I asked.
“Once you've traveled a portion of the High Way,” said Gabriel, “it commonly induces a sensation of boredom. I suspect you've become very familiar with that feeling.”
“I have,” I said. “Why, does it continue that way?”
“Save for the food, the landscape, and some of the buildings, the High Way tends to be monotonous,” he said. “There are shops, but they tend to be Mercantiles or places freighters wish to frequent, the farmers tend to be large holders who look and act too much like misers to be a coincidence, and game isn't that common save in a handful of places in the second, third, and fourth kingdoms.”
“And 'notes'?” I asked.
“One does not want a boring report to hand in at the start of one's term of school,” said Gabriel. “One wants detailed observations, clear descriptions, perhaps drawings if one is good that way, and above all, things that few have written about previously. The High Way was exhausted years ago, so it is seldom mentioned by older students.”
“Seldom?” I asked.
“With a handful of exceptions,” said Gabriel, “traveling upon it might merit a few lines, unless something unusual happens.”
“Unusual?” I asked. “Like last night's fires and explosions?”
“That would have been an exception,” said Gabriel, “and had you been a student, I suspect you could have traveled the High Way and produced a prime report.” Gabriel paused, then said, “had you delivered up such a report, it is likely you would have been dismissed, save at possibly the west school.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“That is something of a rumor,” said Gabriel, “but I saw enough to make it seem likely to me. Most of the Higher schools tend to want nothing to do with those who either are or might be marked, and to hear of such things happening would be thought very suspicious by most lecturers.”
“And at the west school?” I asked.
“That would depend on the lecturer,” said Gabriel. “The west school speaks of tolerance in its rules, and some lecturers were said to be better at following that principle than others.”
“And the others?” I asked.
“Their rules are harder to find, and seem to be applied selectively,” said Gabriel. “That was the chief reason the west school was my first choice.”
“Harder to find?” I asked. “How?”
“The ones at the west school are written down in at least two places,” said Gabriel, “and both instances of them are readily visible for consultation. In contrast, at the other schools, it is difficult to find anything written down that way, and yet more difficult to learn if those rules are valid or not.”
“And you learn them by getting in trouble,” I muttered.
“That was much of the way I learned what was permitted and what was not,” said Gabriel, “and with time, I learned of their selective application as well.”
The farms to each side continued to crowd out the woodlots and meadows, and here, I noted the dearth of side-roads compared to beforehand. I started looking carefully for them when inside the woodlots, and here, I began having success. Their narrowness – little more than wide enough for one buggy if the driver exercised care – was not comforting. I suspected our 'hiding places' in the second kingdom would be located along similar trails.
While the woodlots seemed scarcer, they tended to more reliably contain clearings, and here, I began to see clearings that were still occupied. While most clearings showed recent and heavy use, those that had people typically had but one or two wagons, or a trio of buggies. One group had several horses tethered to the edges of the forest, and their riders seemed absent. I felt reminded of what I had heard of brigands, and thought to ask.
“Not openly like that,” said Gabriel, “and certainly not during daylight, not in this area. I suspect those horses to be those of drovers.”
“Uh, where are the drovers themselves?” I asked.
“They might be hunting a meal,” said Gabriel. “Drovers tend to have funds when they are working, and then only.”
“And hence they need to, uh...”
“B-boom, boom, b-boom-boom,” came from behind and to our right, then a frantic crashing noise seemed to desire our company. I leaped off of Jaak with my rifle in my hands as the noise steadily drew closer, and then I scrambled across the way and into the edge of the woodlot.
The noise seemed to be heading south at a terrific hurry, and I went further into the trees. I knelt down behind a rock, drew to full cock, and waited. The noise wasn't traveling at all slowly, and behind it, I could hear yells and catcalls – until with a huge and violent spring, a bloodied elk showed a short distance to my front. I aimed, then fired.
The gun nearly tossed me on my behind as I recovered from the recoil, and the running 'drovers' came on steadily. I wondered for a moment as to the 'rules of the chase', but I somehow had the impression they would otherwise do well to find the animal again before nightfall. I began reloading, and had finished when the first of the men came upon the fallen animal. He knelt down, cut the elk's throat, then turned and yelled to his companions.
They came up in a body, and their dusty clothing and aura of 'poverty' was such that I marveled, at least until they began to gut the animal. I then saw sizable 'Bowie knives' in use, as well as an ax. One of the men went to cut saplings, while the first on the scene continued cutting into the animal.
“Gijs,” he said to one of his helpers, “go to those people with the wagons, and tell them what we have here. Offer them some meat so they can help us take it to the Public House to the south.”
I made ready to 'sneak off', as I now suspected them to be honest men. I stood, turned, and began to quietly walk away.
“You!” said the first drover on the scene. “What did you do?”
I turned, then said, “that elk was escaping, it was wounded, and I shot it.”
“Don't you wish some meat?” he asked.
“We're traveling, and we'll be stopping at that Public House,” I said. “Had we ways of preventing it from going bad, I would ask for a few pounds...”
“How many are you?” he asked.
“E-eight,” I said.
“If you go there, then we will speak of you,” he said. “This will be some time, most likely, as this elk is not small.”
I heard steps behind me, then as I turned, I saw Sepp, followed by Gilbertus. Sepp looked at me as if to ask a question, and the man doing the 'carving' said, “are they of your group?”
“We are,” said Gilbertus, “and that weapon I heard last was no ordinary one.”
“That was his,” whispered Sepp, “and that talk of it hitting like a roer is true.”
“Is that what you used?” asked the carver. “That elk looked good for hours of chasing.”
“They offered us some meat,” I whispered, “and I had no idea as to what was p-proper or anything.”
Sepp needed no such encouragement; he went and began helping the 'carver', as did Gilbertus, and within moments, I could hear a near-swarm of people coming from the north. I did not wish to be near such a crowd, and I began making my way back to the road as they swarmed in crazily with bags and baskets. I finally made the road and column.
“What happened?” asked Gabriel. “Did you shoot it?”
“I did,” I muttered, “and I thought to help those people. Now I've delayed our progress.”
“What was it?” asked Gabriel.
“A sizable elk,” I said. “Sepp and Gilbertus are helping those men butcher it.”
“I see,” said Gabriel. “At least we will have some fresh meat, and elk is as good as beef when fresh.”
“C-Cuew?” I asked.
“Elk is prime meat for Cuew,” said Gabriel. “Do you want some?”
“I've never had it, and your talk has made me curious,” I said. “Besides, we...”
I turned to see both Sepp and Gilbertus coming with a pair of red-tinted bags each. Both of them began wiping their hands and knives, then Gilbertus found that one large pot and put his bags in it. Sepp did likewise for a metal bucket I had not seen earlier.
“They'll meet us at that Public House ahead,” said Gilbertus. “I suspect we have a free meal coming, and meat for tonight.”
“Uh, cold water on it?” I asked, as I made ready to mount.
“Aye,” said Gilbertus. “The next water-trough should do, and will take but a minute.”
Gilbertus was as good as his word, and the bloody water went onto the grass of the clearing. The buckets were again refilled, and we proceeded on.
Within a short time, however, I could feel traffic on the road behind us, and I turned to see the first of a line of buggies and wagons coming on our heels, with a number of horsemen in their lead. I could smell 'fresh meat' to no small degree, and I had a peculiar impression, one involving dumping a handful or more of salt in each container of meat.
“Would salting that meat help it keep until we camp?” I asked.
Gabriel nodded solemnly, then said, “that is the first step of preparing meat for Cuew.”
“And that sauce you spoke of?” I asked.
“It is likely we might jug some at that Public House ahead,” said Gabriel. “I asked about that one pot you brought, by the way.”
“Yes?” I asked.
“I described it to a waiter in that last Public House,” he said, “and he said it would work well for that meal.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“Less waste, and faster cooking,” said Gabriel. “Cuew is usually cooked that way in fourth kingdom Public Houses, or so he said.”
The 'mob' on our tail steadily drew closer, and as it did, I could hear speech indicating substantial hunger and a desire for a 'good meal'. I had the impression that a number of meals previously had been less than efficacious, and I wondered in what way until one of the horsemen came up beside me on the left.
“So it's you what shot that elk,” he said. “I never saw a roer before.”
“That weapon is not a roer,” said Gabriel. “It has a much smaller bore...”
“You never shot that thing, Gabriel,” yelled Karl. “I did, and I was sore afterward.”
“It's dangerous at both ends,” I said, “and when we stop, I'm going to need to spend time with some liniment to avoid being unduly sore.”
“What is this liniment?” he asked. I marveled at his ability to speak the word as readily as he did.
“The common word for it is Geneva,” I said, “and I can barely stand the smell. I cannot stand the taste, which is why I do not drink it.”
“How is it used?” he asked.
“Dampen a rag with it,” I said, “hold your nose, and rub the sore places.”
“Why hold your nose?” he asked.
“The smell causes retching,” I said.
“When it does not cause spewing,” said Gabriel. “I draw the line at wine, and go no further unless I am sick and that drink will cure it.”
“You d-don't like Geneva?” I asked.
“I tried it once on a dare,” said Gabriel, “and I managed perhaps three swallows before I spewed. Only one thing was worse, and I will never taste that wine again.”
“Which was it?” I asked.
“That cursed wine,” said Gabriel. “I've had some noxious wines in my time, but that stuff was the worst.”
My interlocutor trailed back to talk with someone else, for some reason, and I resumed looking around and ahead. We were within an hour's time of the Public House, and beyond it, I could 'feel' the border. I wondered if there was a 'border crossing ceremony', and as we came to more farms and fields, I smelled a rich 'roast meat' smell.
“That isn't Cuew, isn't it?” I asked.
“No, it is not,” said Gabriel. “That smells like common roast, though an uncommon amount.”
“I would not be surprised if the person cooking is using a Public House size meat-oven,” said Gabriel. “Those have large wrought-iron grills and fireboxes to the side.”
“Are those used for Cuew?” I asked.
“In places that do not have ovens dedicated to its preparation, they are,” said Gabriel. “Still, the best Cuew is said to come from a Cuew-oven.”
Time seemed to drag, especially now that the sun seemed almost directly overhead, and when the trees of a final woodlot gave way to wide meadows, I was astonished tremendously to see what looked like a tinker's buggy, complete with stove, and gathered about it in a clinging flock were hundreds of obvious sheep. I could see the town some few miles ahead.
Unlike those I had seen recently, these looked ready for grooming, and their mingled gray-brown fleeces made both for marveling and a desire to pet them.
The meadow, however, went for miles to the west and east, with small copses here and there to provide variety amid deep-green grass.
“Do sheep cluster around such vehicles commonly?” I asked.
“They do,” said Gabriel. “The herder is most likely indoors, as they would follow him were he outside.”
“Follow him?” I asked. “D-don't those wander off?”
“Only if someone picks them up and takes them do sheep 'wander off',” said Gabriel. “Otherwise, the herder tends to have them underfoot, and the sheep which are carrying young are the worst for it.”
“Uh, they are?” I asked.
“Herding sheep is a recipe for insomnia during the later portion of spring,” said Gabriel. “I have heard of mother sheep nosing their babies into the laps of sleeping herders.”
“What?” I squeaked. “Why?”
“The babies needed to be belched, most likely,” said Gabriel. “That, and there is something about the smell of people that sheep find reassuring.”
“Do sheep go in after the herder?” I asked.
“I have heard they do,” said Gabriel. “Once a herdsman left his flock for a trip to a Mercantile, and when he returned, the sheep had gotten into his buggy, and two mother sheep had laid their babies upon his bed.”
“Two... How many were there?”
“Four,” said Gabriel. “His bed had no room for him, and he had to move the babies onto the floor after padding it so he could sleep.”
“Cold?” I asked.
“That sounds as likely as anything,” said Gabriel. “Sheep endure cold poorly, which is why the house-flock has been kept in one end of the horse-barn since a month before Festival Week.”
With the sheep behind us, the meadow stretched for what seemed an eon, but we reached its end and the beginnings of fields about fifteen minutes later. The town was perceptibly closer, and the fields and farms intermingled themselves with obvious orchards. These last had not merely close to their full leaves, but also what might have been flower buds, and the size and massive nature of the trees spoke loudly to me. They were quite old, and produced mightily.
“I just wish I knew what those trees were,” I said.
“Those look to be pears,” said Gabriel, “and not northern pears, but southern pears.”
“There is a difference?” I asked, as we came to the northern end of an obvious orchard.
“Southern pears are larger, sweeter, and keep less well,” said Gabriel, “and are commonly fermented into cider.”
“Fermented cider?” I asked. “That doesn't get distilled, does it?”
“It commonly has ice frozen out of it after fermentation,” said Gabriel, “which gives the strongest drink apart from distillation.”
“Strong drink?” I asked.
“Commonly uses a grain mash, with pears, apples, or grapes added,” said Gabriel. “Drink made from distilled wine is a more-costly material that has added properties beyond the induction of drunkenness.”
“Uh, what?” I asked, as I thought to bring to mind the name for the antiseptic material I had heard of.
“Tailor's antiseptic,” said Gabriel. “The second kingdom house supposedly makes a substantial amount, and the fourth kingdom makes a great deal.”
The town drew closer, and at its northern limits – I expected to see a sign of some kind – I turned to see the 'column'. We now looked like the invading swarm that forty guards conjured in my mind, and I wondered for a moment if the Public House in question could endure such numbers. The place was at the south end of town, and as we passed shuttered location after shuttered location – there was a farrier's, a wheelwright, a sizable Mercantile, a number of genuine 'shops' with detached living quarters – I wondered if the place were even open. I soon did not wonder.
The yard of the place appeared, and while it was as big as any I had seen yet and had obviously seen much traffic, the sole indicators of current occupancy were a handful of buggies, a few horses, a freighter's wagon that had seen better days, and what might have been a 'tinker's wagon', though this last had its smokestack removed and the hole patched with a sheet of tin.
“They should manage well,” said Gabriel, “and this time, I think, you might rest.”
“R-rest?” I asked.
“This group with us will most likely be the bulk of the crowd within,” said Gabriel, “and in a place like this, it's just enough to keep it from feeling strange.”
I had the impression that Gabriel underestimated the situation, for when I began walking toward the door, a woman came out dressed for 'waiting' and asked me what I was inclined toward.
“Uh, I'm not picky,” I said. “We have most of an elk...”
Her face changed expression to such a degree I had no idea what had happened until she reached for the door, opened it, and yelled inside “we... have... meat!”
“You were out, madame?” I asked.
She nodded, then said, “without meat, the place doesn't do much after midmorning. You saved our hides.”
“I hope they got some of that animal's hide,” I mumbled. “Kees needs a knife-sheath before we do much more.”
Once inside and seated, I was thoroughly glad for the comfortable dim feeling, even as a train of 'porters' transferred in bags, sacks, and pots of meat. I somehow had the impression that the meat had been cut into usable pieces during the trip from the woodlot to the Public House, and when Gabriel returned to our joined trio of tables, I asked him what had happened.
“They're salting meat right now,” said Gabriel, “and we're to have that large pot full of salted elk when we leave, along with a jug of Cuew sauce.” Gabriel paused, then said, “and that publican is as happy as a bull in a corncrib.”
“Corncrib?” I asked.
“Cattle purely enjoy corn,” said Gabriel, “though it is best when ground fine and boiled at length, then turned into a type of mash.”
“Or that grain that comes from aquavit mash,” said Karl. “They like that stuff.”
I was equally glad for unfermented cider, though the taste spoke of something unusual. Gabriel sniffed it, then said, “southern pear cider. Had they kept it much longer, it would most likely turn.”
“Turn?” I asked. “Ferment?”
“Last year's crop, and the regular cider is close enough for the yeast to jump.”
While the meals cooked, the smell of that one pig returned to my recollection, and the pigs I had seen here beforehand joined with it to make a sizable and grunting herd of the things in my mind.
“We need to take the battle to the pigs,” I snorted, between gulps of cider.
“How?” asked Karl.
“Stopping at every Public House that shows for at least a few minutes,” I said, “and that's us. We've got a good reason to not waste time. How common is that with others?”
“It isn't,” said Gabriel flatly. “How does it relate to swine?”
“If we are to bring the battle to the pigs, and not wait passively like we've been doing for a very long time,” I said, “then what we are doing is a large step in the right direction. If we use what we learn as a starting point, then we can find the pigs and fight them on our terms instead of theirs.” I paused, then said, “besides, those pigs are plenty of trouble. If we can avoid trouble and save time in taking care of the necessities of life while out in the field, we have more resources with which to take the war to the enemy.”
“And..?” asked Gabriel.
“We have a better chance of winning,” I spluttered. “This trip isn't just to provide information and form some kind of a workable alliance among five leading individuals. The trip itself provides an opportunity to learn what works in a mobile environment during a rough approximation of wartime.”
“How is it that different from the traipsing of students?” asked Kees.
I could not speak, but Hendrik did.
“That was a type of training that made us slaves to witches, and food for pigs,” he said. “What we are doing here is closer to what I've read about in old tales and on tapestries.”
“And in chasing those pigs?” I asked.
“No one has chased them,” said Gabriel, “and when people go out, the pigs, those people that come with them, and their movements determine everything that is done.”
“Besides,” I added, “if we go after the pigs preemptively, it might neutralize some of that swinishness they have.”
“That is good,” said Gabriel, as he brought out his ledger and began writing.
“What?” I asked.
“A guest lecturer would be pressed hard to speak better,” said Gabriel, as he continued writing. “Pigs being swinish, indeed.”
“Doesn't the behavior of swine define their natures?” I asked.
“That also,” said Gabriel.
Our meal came most of an hour later, and as it came in 'dribs and drabs' – most of those who had followed us in were also receiving food, along with speech regarding 'banked fires' and other things – I seemed to hear something faintly in the background. I had not heard any cats since coming here, but this noise – a deep pitched 'Miaaooow' – indicated curiosity, and perhaps hunger. I felt a great longing for such comfort as I had found in the languid stroking of the cats I had known in the past, and as if to answer my heartfelt need, I heard purring – purring of such vibrating volume and pitch I marveled. It all but shook the room.
“Can you hear that?” I asked.
“What is it you speak of?” asked Gabriel. “This roast is excellent.”
“That cat wants some, too,” I thought, and I found a small plate and put a slice on it. I began slowly walking toward the door amid the scattered chairs, with but a few small groups of diners eating the same sort of simple meals our table was managing. I then reached the door, and waited.
The 'Miaaooow' came again, only louder; then unsteady steps, and a breathed curse. Again, the 'Miaaooow' – only at its base, I could hear a growl starting from somewhere. This noise, unlike the others, was such that I wasn't sure what I was hearing – until the voice of a young girl rose high and clear to cut through the noise within and without to shout “go away, you stinky witch! Go away!”
Steps came running from several directions at once outside, but they were far away, and I reached toward the door in what seemed slow motion as I set down the piece of roast on the floor. I heard a growl – deep-pitched, muscular, lion-like – and then suddenly, a terrifying scream seemed to freeze my marrow, a scream composed of a young girl's terror and something so violent and savage that I flung aside the door and ran outside.
The noise had died away within a second or so, at least most of it, and as I paused to listen, I heard a young girl weeping. I ran in her direction, now cautious for the wild animal that had attacked her, and when I saw her sitting in unharmed in a buggy, I paused to look around.
“Are you all right?” came from behind me, and I turned to see a distraught-looking woman run past me, with a man who looked like her husband but a second behind her. I came slowly on in their wake, for there was something loose in the area that spoke of being especially careful.
“Besides, that wild animal might be in the area, and if anything I've ever heard sounded dangerous, that animal did.”
The woman reached the girl, and reached toward her, while the man was looking down on the ground. I was wondering if he'd found the tracks of the animal, and as I came closer to the buggy, I asked softly, “is she all right?”
“She seems to be,” said the woman, “but I had no idea there were witches about.”
“There are?” I asked. “Where?”
The girl pointed toward the far corner of the building, and when the woman and man saw what I was carrying, they hung back. I was still looking on the ground, for that 'animal' was still handy – I could feel its presence – and when I saw the blood-trail, it was thick, gloppy, and showed pieces of what might have been raggedly torn flesh.
“I found something here,” I said, as I unslung my rifle and pulled the hammer to full cock, and cautious steps came from behind.
“Who is it?” I asked, as I took another cautious step toward the corner of the stone-walled building.
“Maria's father,” said the man. “We were speaking for a moment with a landowner on the south side of the Public House, and she wanted to stay in the buggy and play with David.”
“David?” I asked.
“Yes, David,” he said. “David is a cat, and he is very protective of her.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I think David drove off whoever was trying to get Maria,” he said. “I have a musket here, and I see you have one, so we should manage that witch.”
I was within feet of the corner, and when I saw a black-hole muzzle suddenly appear, I moved to the right while firing from the hip. The 'muzzle' vanished, and a final burbling moan came from ahead and to the right. I turned around, and saw a prostrate individual lying face-upward and unconscious.
“Wonderful,” I said. “He fainted.”
I slung my rifle, and drew the revolver after turning the man on his side. I knew he had simply fainted. The person – I now knew it was a person – ahead of me sounded acutely dangerous. I came to the corner, pistol in hand, and peered around.
A black-dressed thug lay face-down in a slow-growing pool of blood with a destroyed hand scrabbling out from where he'd tried to shoot me, and when I touched his head with my boot his other hand twitched and was still. I put my boot under his head, and kicked and lifted at the same time.
The black face-grease covering his face was of nauseating appearance and odor, but amid that sea of darkness I discerned a rash of reddened rents across his face. These slices looked to have been done with a razor, only deeper, for they went clear to the bone. The power of what had sliced him made for shudders on my part, and when I looked at his chest, it soon became obvious his assailant was not a common animal.
His chest looked like blood-sopping hamburger mingled with bone fragments, and below that, torn black-cloth showed glistening and ripped internal organs. He'd been disemboweled, and that thoroughly, and the rags of his guts dripped blood onto the ground to widen the slow-growing pool beneath him. Shaky steps came from behind, and the girl's father put his hand on my shoulder for support before asking a question.
“What did you shoot him with, a roer?”
“N-no,” I said. “It isn't a roer, even if it supposedly hits like one.” I paused, then said, “what happened to him?”
“I think David did not like him getting too close to Maria,” he said, “and he went after him. I hope we can burn that witch soon, as that kind of witch there is the worst.”
I did not speak of 'imported' witches, as black-dressed thugs were good for their own stable of nightmares. I turned and faced the man, then holstered my revolver after lowering the hammer onto an empty chamber.
I wobbled back to the buggy, where the woman was attending to something in the bed. She was making soft noises that sounded like a person trying to purr, and when I came to her side, I was astonished.
A softly tinted yellow-striped brown Persian cat sat on the bed of the buggy, while the woman used a vinegar-dampened cloth to clean the blood off of the cat's forepaws. Maria seemed asleep, for some reason, and I moved my hand slowly toward the cat's head. He noticed my hand and its slow and steady movement, and began purring.
Again, I heard the thunderous rumble that seemed to all but shake the ground, and when I reached his head, I gently stroked him. He looked at me, showing brilliant orange eyes and a protruding tongue, and I rubbed his head again.
“He likes that,” she said. “Getting blood out of his fur isn't the easiest thing, but it's better than having Maria killed.” She paused, then said, “I hope that witch is dead.”
“I doubt he will live much longer,” I said, “and he will not bother anyone in this world again.”
The cat ceased purring for a moment, then loosed a soft 'Miaaooow' and tried to lick my hand. I brought it down such that he could reach me, whereupon he began to lick enthusiastically.
“He's only done that with a few people,” she said. “Do you like cats?”
“Very much so,” I said. “How much does he weigh?”
“He's not huge by any standards,” she said, “but he's larger than the common, and he's about worthless for rats, and trouble if you try to knit – and I don't mind a bit having him the way he is. Not many cats will sit in your lap and keep you warm on a cold night.”
“Is that the first witch?” I asked.
“I think so,” she said, “but I doubt he was the first thief. David's clawed more than one thief at home.”
I fetched the meat and placed it next to David, where he began eating hungrily, and I said goodbye. The woman was still cleaning blood out of his fur as I went indoors.
“What happened out there?” asked Gabriel, as I resumed eating.
“A witch attempted to kill a young girl,” I said, “and her, uh, cat drove him off.”
“Was this a long-haired cat?” asked Gabriel.
I nodded, then said, “I could hear the purring, and then something screamed...”
“I heard that part,” said Gabriel. “That was why I asked, as that type of cat makes that kind of noise.”
“What?” I gasped. “Gabriel, that witch was ripped up!”
“How bad?” asked Karl.
“Uh, bad enough to give nightmares,” I said.
“Was a burn-pile being readied?” asked Gabriel.
“The girl's parents were looking after her and the cat,” I said. “The witch tried to shoot us, and I shot first.”
“I see,” said Gabriel. “That witch can wait, because he's most likely dead.”
Over the next half hour, there was traffic going in and out of the door, and when we left – early midafternoon, perhaps – there was a smell of burning wood, distillate, and human flesh in the air. I did not wish to remain in the area, and while the others were a trifle more languid in their movements, I noted that my feeling on the subject of burn-piles was but somewhat stronger than that of some of the others. I heard Lukas muttering about bad smells and worse dreams when he got into the buggy for his driving stint.
I glanced back at the Public House, and again noted a tiled roof of red-streaked mottled green, as well as what looked like whitewash covering the stone portions of the building. Those that had come with us were lazily coming out in small groups, and I noted what looked like pots of meat as well.
We had left a modest pile of larger silver pieces at our table, and someone, perhaps Kees, had taken them to the rear of the place as we had left.
“Now for this border,” I mumbled, and we set off to the south.
There was an abiding sense of 'desolation' in the country south of the Public House, and farms and their fields seemed rarer than to the north. More, there were wide meadows and smallish woodlots, with but a few 'clearings' in the larger ones. I had the intimation that one did not wish to rest too near the border crossing, and as we left the one region of burning behind, the odor of burnt flesh and destruction seemed to grow in my mind, and not recede; and it continued to grow with the passing minutes.
The road had been nearly straight since that one woodlot that had exploded behind us, and now that lack of turning was being paid for. The road weaved to a degree around tall stands of trees that overtopped anything I had seen here before, and when we came around one bend, the trees seemed to fall away to the right to show a still-smoldering ruin of a farmhouse. A feeling of great and abiding evil – that witch was but a primer for what I was feeling – seemed to hang over the whole scene, and when I looked upon the access road leading to the smoldering pile of wood and stone, I saw what might have been the pieces of a corpse smoldering as well.
“That is bad,” said Lukas. “First, a bad witch shows at that one Public House, and they'd never done that before, and now this.”
“Did they b-burn...”
“I would suspect so,” said Gabriel in a low voice. “This place has changed more than I thought it would, and a lot quicker than I thought possible.”
The country seemed to continue in its 'wildness', and I was surprised to see a pair of tile-roofed stone huts some distance away. There was a 'crossing guard' raised to the vertical, and the lack of 'habitation' spoke of disuse. I turned to Gabriel as we drew closer.
“Is this like the second kingdom house?” I asked. “Very little happens outside of the usual hours and days?”
“I'm surprised for this area,” said Gabriel. “It's as if the influence of the house over the area close to it has grown.”
“And the size of that area as well?” I asked.
“I suspect so,” said Lukas, “and if Gilbertus' places are still good in this area, I'll be surprised no small amount.”
We went through the crossing guard, and as we left it behind, the sense of darkness, and more, shadow, increased exponentially. We had entered what looked like a massive woodlot, one that stretched for miles, and I expected to see bodies lying in the ditches without their heads. We turned a corner heading to the left, and on the right margin of the road just around the bend I saw the first corpse.
This body had blackened burnt-to-a-crisp skin, and the darkened pool around it spoke of wounds as well. We gave it a wide berth, and resumed our traveling south.
The chill that this evil poured out upon us made for a better rate of traveling, and the loose aspect of the road made for more-frequent stops. I soon thought to stop at every watering trough that looked likely to water the horses, and I and Lukas checked the shoes of each horse as it came away from water.
Our speed continued to climb, for now there was an aspect of chill in the air, and I looked up in the sky to see clouds. While these clouds were high, their darkened aspect spoke of rain, and I wanted a 'dry' place, one where we could park just off of the road, and yet be hard to see from it. If trees were around and overhead, it would be a plus to me, and the nearness of a watering trough was a requirement – that, or perhaps, a small stream.
“And why am I thinking about streams?” I thought. It still seemed worthwhile to ask.
“Are there streams in this area?”
“If you wish something to catch fish in, then no,” said Gabriel. “There might be ponds big enough to find water, though they are well-hid. Is that what you are looking for?'
“Uh, no,” I said. “I'm looking for a camping spot right now, and I want to camp before we come to one of those, uh towns.”
“Why is that?” asked Gabriel. He seemed to be vaguely stupefied in some fashion.
“Because those towns will alert those black-dressed thugs to our presence,” I said, “and they will cause us trouble.”
I had the distinct feeling that Gabriel was blind to not merely the likely truth of what I was saying, but also all that we had seen in this area of a negative nature. More, he was not he only one; Kees was as well.
“Is this the blindness of ignorance, or the stupidity of deliberate drunken-fool choice?”
My questioning did not matter, for in this situation both processes benefited those 'controlling' the border at our expense. More, I needed to hide us, and hide us well, and that knowledge was a potent distraction – for, in a way, this portion of the High Way operated much like a trap for the unwary.
I had the next reminder of our danger when I spotted another corpse on the road but a few minutes later, and the broken rope around the feet and the thick clotted pool of blood spoke of lengthy dragging toward the north before the rope broke. I looked at the surface of the road, and somehow saw the wide-track circles left by tall and spindly wheels. I had my proof; this was a realm that evil believed it owned, and therefore, those wearing black acted as if they owned everyone and all that they did.
“I must find a place,” I thought, even as I felt completely and utterly alone. I felt as if I was the least capable person in the whole group, and now, I had to think for all of us...
And think the most for those who made me seem especially stupid, inept, and worthless.
This nightmarish revery seemed to compel the use of those things it labeled evil, and after a dose of the widow's formula, I knuckled my eyes as I restrained a fearful lower lip. All that I saw amid this landscape was tinted with the red of bloodshed and the inky black of hell's night, and when I found an area where this seemed 'absent', I moved off toward it.
This place was in a veritable 'wall' of thick greenery, and when I came to it, I dismounted and began touching what I was seeing and 'feeling'. The twigs of the plant used had grown together to form a shield of some kind, but as I bent down to touch the area near the ground, I could hear the column coming, and within seconds, I could feel steps to my rear.
“What is this you found?” asked Lukas.
“I think I found us a hiding place,” I said. “S-someone grew these plants as a shield, and there's an old road behind it that heads close to a stream about a half-mile away from the road. It's really dark, dim, and secretive, and if we get in there...”
I looked overhead, and saw the clouds bunching up rapidly. I looked down, and saw what looked like five cords holding the shield in place. I pointed out one of them, and Lukas drew his knife, then cut.
“I think you're right,” he said. “I've heard of this being done in those old tales.”
I began pointing out the other places I had initially seen, and by the time I'd found a dozen total, I had help from Karl and Gilbertus as well.
“What did you find?” asked Karl.
“I don't remember any place near here,” said Gilbertus. “Now what do I need to cut?”
I continued pointing out the places, such that a big 'spider-hole' door existed, then reached down and pulled up. A faint cracking sound came from the hidden arbor, and as I lifted higher, the gloom without seemed to be swallowed up by the gloom beyond and within. There was no 'road' on the other side.
However, Sepp looked in, and said, “we can go in here easy. Where does it go?”
“A few hundred yards into a small clearing with a tall roof,” I said. “It's quite dark in there...”
“I think we had best go,” said Sepp, “as that sky is talking about rain, and not normal rain, but the hard stuff. Hold this open, and I'll bring in a buggy.”
Sepp led the first of the buggy horses in, with the buggy following, and then Karl led in the second. I sensed we did not have much time, so much so that I urged the others to bring in their horses quickly. Gabriel was balky, as was Kees, but Hendrik overruled their silent-seeming objections. Gilbertus went inside with his, then Lukas, and finally, Jaak went in. I drew the door closed behind us, and then looked around.
I was indeed shocked to find an actual wooden door-frame, though the wood was beginning to fall apart and the leather lashings had gone rotten years before. I tested the 'hatch', found it safe-seeming, then said a silent prayer of thanksgiving as I followed Jaak into the gloom.
I quickly overhauled those ahead of me, and with Jaak coming behind, I soon came to the second buggy, and then the first. The pathway was lined with sticks and leaves intermingled, while the near sepulchral gloom was troubling to the others – or so I thought. I was glad there was no complaining, for I had done something unthinkable according to the bearers of prejudice: I had not gone unto the representatives of Brimstone, as per the decree of the ruling arch-witch, and I had instead done something that named myself an enemy of all that was good and right by hiding in such an evil and unrestrained fashion.
“Is this thought to be wrong?” I asked, as Sepp caught up with me. I could feel the clearing but a short distance ahead.
“Wrong or not, we do not want to be without cover if it drops hard rain,” said Sepp. “We've got plenty of candles, so light isn't a problem.”
I resumed my forward path, then with astonishing suddenness, the narrow path widened abruptly to form a clearing about fifteen by forty feet. I stopped where I was, then said, “here is the clearing. I'll find the water.”
I set off down the 'path', and as I did, I became aware of not merely a slight up-grade, but also a lessened darkness, and with each step, that darkness lessened quickly. The trees to each side were still uncommonly close-together, and when I climbed further, I came to what looked like a sizable 'halo' of light. I felt caution growing, and I crept ahead, using the darkness and tree-trunks for cover, until I came to the edge of a blatant clearing and stepped out into it.
The darkness overhead was yet profound, and I remained in the shadow of the trees as I looked the place over. It seemed to be but a hundred feet by perhaps twice that much, but as I came to its northern edge, I nearly stepped into a pond. The limpid clearness of this thing made for marveling, and when I knelt by its edge, I thought to touch the water.
“Why is this stuff moving, and why isn't it like ice?” I thought.
I surveyed the 'pond' closer, and noted its elongated nature and rocky walls. It seemed about six to eight feet deep, and when I turned to go back, I nearly collided with Sepp.
“Does that spring smell?” he asked.
“Smell? I'm not sure,” I said. “Why?”
“You found a healing spring,” he said. “That water makes the soreness go away.”
Sepp then looked at the meadow.
“And a perfect place to pasture the horses for tonight, too.”
As we went back through the trees to the other location, I could 'feel' the sky 'lowering', and faintly, I heard what might have been an argument of some kind brewing. I could feel again that strange sense of having done that which was named evil, and I looked at the darkness that surrounded us. I then softly said what I had thought and spoken of weeks prior regarding sheltering in the darkness while traveling.
“If you must travel in a land controlled by witches, then darkness means safety,” I whispered, “and that is especially true if one is a pariah...”
“Disgraced...” said a faint voice of unknown origin.
“Then one must not be seen, either by witches, or the common people,” I whispered, “and speed, concealment, and darkness are requirements so as to survive.”
And as if to answer, a faint tick-tick-tick started above the two of us.
“There it is,” said Sepp. “That is hard rain, and this forest is sheltering us almost as good as a house.”
The tick-tick became something closer to a sound like ripping canvas, and faintly I heard the enraged shouts as the stuff came down upon the buggies of the misers and black-dressed thugs that had followed us from the last town.
“Were those people in that town under the control of witches?” I asked.
“While those you met were not, and those in that Public House were not, many of those living in that town were,” said the soft voice, “and the situation with 'captive' clearings is worse than you thought it was.”
“How bad is it?” asked Sepp.
“Without special 'assistance',” said the soft voice, “you would need to find places like this for the next few nights on the road, until you reached the northern border of the third kingdom.”
“Assistance?” I asked. “What kind?”
“The first portion will show at the second kingdom house,” said the soft voice, “and further portions at each house thereafter.”
“And?” I asked.
“Two days more,” said the soft voice – and as if to end the conversation, lightning crackled and the hail poured down like thunder.
“I did not understand all of that,” said Sepp as we came into the still-dry clearing, “but I think I heard some people out on the road.”
“There were,” I said, “and they'd followed us from that town we stopped at. More importantly, we were followed by witches, and they wanted to kill us all.”
“It's good that we hid, then,” said Sepp. “Can they find us?”
“Few things undo the commoners of witchdom more than hard rain and lightning,” said the soft voice, “and by the time the storm ceases, it will have wiped out your tracks.”
“Yes, but do they recall this location?” I asked. I felt fearful just the same.
“They never used it,” said the soft voice. “This hiding spot has been used by marked people for the last several hundred years.”
“And they no longer bother with traveling through this area in that fashion,” I muttered.
“The potato country tends to be a much more forgiving route currently,” said the soft voice, “which is why the current 'marked route' leaves the High Way just north of the third kingdom's northern border and stays clear of it until near its northern terminus.”
“Those back-roads Albrecht spoke of?” I asked.
“The same idea, even if the route isn't precisely the same,” said the soft voice. “He doesn't need to hide from everyone.”
I had somehow come into the clearing while involved in conversation, and the spattering noise above continued steadily. Sepp had gone ahead, and as I came to the two tents lit from within, I was astonished to a substantial degree. I came close to one of the 'doorways', and Hendrik emerged.
“You were right, in all particulars,” he said. “This is a perfect shelter from both a severe storm and also a great many witches, and they wanted to go on ahead.”
“We would have all been killed had we done so,” I said. “Did they wish that, or did they think they could bargain with the witches chasing us?”
Hendrik blanched white, then said, “how?”
“Why is it both Gabriel and Kees are so in love with that infernal written format, and all it stands for?” I asked.
Hendrik looked at me, then shook his head. “Neither man went to the west school, both were highly recommended, and both did well enough in the past.”
“Well enough, or genuinely well?” I asked.
“I thought them to do genuinely well,” he said, “and until I saw your work, I thought the common for instrument-makers was as good as could be had, also.” He paused, then said, “now, the question is either bringing them around, or replacing them.”
“And both of them are now asleep or appear to be stupefied,” I said.
Hendrik walked to the tent he had come from, looked within, and then nodded once he'd turned to face me.
“That usually means a well-hid fetish is causing trouble,” I said. “Once they are tied and the fetish dealt with, then the rest of us can set up camp and settle in for work.”
I was glad Hendrik's knots were better than mine, and while he did so, I pointed out the waxy skin and pallor that came with being 'taken over'. I thought to look over what they 'had', and when I found Kees' money pouch, the sensation of 'slime' was enough to make me drop it like a hot potato.
“What is in there?” asked Hendrik.
“It feels like a fetish,” I said. “If one of those things is handy, then it tends to affect the person 'tied to it' most of all, and then those close to the person. Now I'll need to go through the contents in here, find it, deal with it, and then resume looking. There might be more than one.”
I took the pouch out with pincers and went to the edge of the clearing, as far away from the buggies and horses as I could. The activity in the background – someone was fetching water, the tub was being set up, a 'privy' had been dug, and a firepit was being 'constructed' – helped reassure me greatly. I untied the thong holding the pouch closed, then dumped out the contents.
Kees had an assortment of coins – several gold monsters, a few larger silver pieces, and many smaller ones – but one coin in particular stood out clearly. I recalled the money-sorting I had done with clearing Hans' fetishes, and now it was obvious why I needed the practice.
I picked up the 'coin' with pincers, and the thing began billowing thick gray smoke. I could tell I was being watched, even as I went up the road toward the 'pasture'. The smoke segued to flames, which made for telling the thing where to go, and as I pitched it, it exploded with a muffled thud that tossed me backwards to slide for a short distance and then flop onto my face with the pincers still in my hand.
I got up, then saw the lessened gloom above and around me, and wiped off the pincers with an oily rag, mumbling as I did so about fetishes and their tendencies. I was wondering if I had soot on me, in fact, and when I went to where I had emptied out the pouch and coins, I was surprised.
“Where did they go?” I asked, as I knelt down to look. “Did someone take them?”
“Those went up in smoke,” said Sepp from a short distance away. “I saw you walk away with that one thing while it was smoking and burning, and when it tossed you, those things all went to smoke.”
“Wonderful, Kees has no money at all now,” I murmured. “Now I need to look him over to see if he has a money-medal.”
When I returned to the tent, I overheard the sound of the spade working to finish the firepit, then someone stacking 'firewood' next to it. I was glad this location had plenty of firewood. I then had an impression.
“When he bought something...”
“I have yet to see him actually pay for anything,” said Hendrik. “I have seen you pay enough for yourself, him, and a third person, but I have not seen him purchase a thing.” Hendrik paused, then asked, “why, his money?”
“It all vanished,” I said, “and... Where did he get that money?”
“How much did he have?” asked Hendrik
“Four or five gold monster coins, about the same number of large silver pieces, a fair number of smaller ones, and then this one bad one.”
“I'm surprised he had that much,” said Hendrik, “as he tends toward spendthrift practices.”
“Perhaps that is a clue,” I said, as I began to 'search' him.
I first felt around his neck, and found nothing, then around his waist. For some reason, that also seemed likely and came up empty. I then began 'ransacking' his pockets.
The first one was empty, as was the second on the right side, but when I checked the first left pocket, I gasped; I had not merely found a second money pouch, but also his rag-wrapped knife.
The knife came out first, and here, I saw the issue: it tended to slice through his rags at the slightest touch, while in my hands, it 'behaved itself' and did no such thing. It made for wondering, especially given how the sword, ax, and dagger had felt at the bridge.
The money pouch, however, was a different story, and it wished to remain within his trousers. I threatened it with my knife, however, and it then emerged – and promptly began billowing smoke and streaming flames. I ran out of the tent and threw the thing while speaking of where it needed to go.
The explosion was of such magnitude I awoke on my back what seemed an instant later, and I needed help to get up. More, I was very tired, such that I wished to go to sleep, and when I scrambled to my feet, I could hear and feel two individuals struggling.
“What was that money pouch filled with?” I asked.
“Neither pouch had money,” said the soft voice, “and both pouches, as well as their coins, were strong fetishes. Finally, Kees sought them out with a measure of knowledge and purchased them with his own funds.”
“Did he wish to become a miser?” I asked. There was no answer.
The fury that I felt was enough to make for leaping to my feet and then running into the tent. Both tied men struggled against their bonds until I slapped Kees and yelled, “witch! Confess your evil!”
He did not reply, but I had an answer for him. I found my pack, undid the drawstring, and reached therein for the dagger. I removed its rags, and now, held the thing to his face.
“You wanted to sacrifice me, you wretch,” I snarled. “I ought to cut you up and burn your carcass as an offering to Brimstone, your lord and protector! Answer me!”
Kees still had no answer, and struggled mightily. I put down the dagger, and then found the 'key' – which hypnotized him, seemingly. I moved with the barrel of the thing, such that it touched his head, and then gently 'inserted' it into his brain.
“Now answers, you wretch,” I spat, as the key went in nearly two inches. “The truth, and nothing else.”
Kees' mouth began to move, but for some reason, nothing was coming out. I then saw the rag.
“Duh,” I sputtered. “He has a rag in his mouth.” I looked around the tent and saw that Hendrik had left.
“Why was he gagged?” I asked.
“Hendrik acted upon what he knew, and he protected himself,” said the soft voice. “He thought that witches needed to speak to issue curses, and hence he prevented their speech.”
I wanted to speak of the matter, but one 'duh' was enough. Freek had but proved my suspicions about curses and the witches uttering them.
“Again, he acted upon what he knew,” said the soft voice. “There aren't many in the five kingdoms that know more who aren't witches, and he's quite ignorant. At least he acted upon what he knew.”
“Most would run away or simply burn those two,” said the soft voice, “and a similar level and type of thinking is involved with both courses of action. He actually thought, and then acted upon that thinking without panicking. Such behavior is very rare in the five kingdoms.”
I then removed the rag, and Kees' slow-moving lips groaned out a monotonous modulated drone that took several seconds to recognize as the hiding curse.
“No, you wretch,” I spat. “The truth!”
Kees continued to speak – he changed curses and voices – and I ripped the key out of his head with a soft 'puckering' noise. He then jerked, convulsed, and began screaming.
I slapped him, then yelled “silence, witch. Tell me what I want to know!” I then looked at the key.
It needed wiping, and while I wiped off the blood, I said, “I'm waiting, witch. I do not have all day.” I paused, then slapped him again while screaming, “quit wasting my valuable time, curse your eyes!”
Kees looked at me strangely, then said, “I thought you were not going to show yourself a witch.”
I punched him in the face, then hauled him outside by his foot. I wanted to cut him to pieces and burn his sorry carcass, and once outside, I slammed his foot down and jumped to land with my knee on his chest.
“Fool, I ought to cut you up and feed you to those witches down there that are hunting for us,” I spat, “but...” I paused, then said, “your sole intent for this trip was to amuse yourself while causing trouble. Confess it.”
“Why?” he asked. “You spoke the truth.”
“What?” I shrieked.
“You named the truth,” he said. “Because you said it, it must be true, and it is so because you're an especially powerful witch.”
I slapped him again, then said, “no, fool, I want your answer. Cease your lies.”
“You have my answer,” he said. “It is as you said.”
“Is he lying?” I thought, “or is he playing games?”
“He is neither,” said the soft voice. “He is simply stating what he knows and believes to be the case – namely, 'those in authority define truth'. More, his behavior is a primer for what is common to the south.”
“What?” I spat. “There is n-no objective truth in witchdom?” I asked.
“All that is named true in hell is that way strictly by definition,” said the soft voice, “and 'truth' is whatever the highest authority in a given position states it to be.”
“And hence if I act like this?”
“Getting a straight answer from him will not be easy no matter what you do,” said the soft voice. “Your own judgment is likely to be more useful.”
“But I cannot depend upon it,” I said. “It is flawed.”
“Agreed,” said the soft voice. “It also gives usable answers in a timely fashion.”