The road more traveled, part g.


I now had a quandary, so much so that I stood and left Kees where he lay 'inert' in the dirt. I wandered around the back of the tents, and within seconds, I could hear steps coming toward where I'd left him, followed by screaming. I ran back the way I came and found Gilbertus thumping Kees with a half-trimmed stick.

“No, don't pound on him,” I asked. “I need time to think.”

“But he spoke evilly of you, and I've heard such talk before,” said Gilbertus. “If that wasn't a curse, then I know not what is.”

“What did you say, Kees?” I said calmly. “I lost my temper with you, for which I'm sorry, and I am trying to think.”

“But...”

“Witches are always right, aren't they?” I said. “They don't need to ever say they are sorry, nor do they need time to think, nor do they need to ask questions. They aren't interested in the truth, because all they ever desire is their inclination of the moment.” I paused, then said, “and that course of action will be the death of us all, you included. Do witches think like that?”

I seemed to hear something to the negative, while overriding it was 'admiration' for what was thought to be cunning.

“No, Kees, I am not cunning that way,” I said. “I'm this way because I cannot be otherwise, and if I need to be otherwise, something happens to me which I do not really understand.”

“How can you not be otherwise?” asked Kees. “Everything is a choice, from...”

“Where did you hear that one?” I asked. “Ginnedaag?”

To my utter surprise, he nodded.

“I heard – or rather, sensed – something similar where I came from,” I said. “Something about 'perfection in this life is altogether achievable, and is therefore obligatory'. I believed that out of ignorance, and nearly killed myself before I gave it up.”

“That was your fault, then,” he howled. I could hear a volley of profanities mingled in that howl.

“I had to give that way of thinking, too,” I said. “In order to be blameworthy – for the most part, anyway – one must act in a contrary manner while knowing it to be so.” I paused, then continued, saying, “much of what people do in life is permeated with ignorance, hence they must use judgment. Then, not everything that happens in life operates in a causal fashion. In fact, much of what happens seems immune to all outside influence, and it must be endured.”

“Ain't that the truth,” said Gilbertus.

“And then, if one is born to a high station, it confers great advantage,” I said, “and the converse is equally true. A question, if I may...”

I paused for effect.

“Can you show me the unborn infant able to manipulate his or her surroundings to any real degree?”

“They do make their mothers sore,” said Gilbertus, “and give 'em an appetite, and cause trouble in other ways, but that's all of what they do.”

“What?” I gasped melodramatically. “They do not line their cribs with cloth of woven gold? They do not make their parents filthy rich? They do not act such that all think them priceless and worthy of great esteem?”

I wondered if I was getting somewhere. I had to try.

“That is for the 'good' babies,” I muttered. “Now, for those named 'disgraced'. Since I've been called that... Oh, that should be enough right there. Do witches name each other disgraced?”

Kees looked at me in stunned shock.

“No matter,” I said. “Those like that are not witches, and cannot become witches, and that goes doubly for those born that way.” I paused again, turned to Kees, and then spoke.

“As I was.”

“What?” he asked. “How?”

“Before I came here, I was disfigured and gravely ill,” I said. “Both of those things were taken care of on the way here, one more than the other, as far as I can tell.” I paused, then said, “I can tell you that I did not choose to be so, and that's for the stuff that was obvious.”

I paused again, then said, “another question, and I want your answer. The book says you cannot change the color of your hair, while witchdom implies most strongly you can. Which of them is true?”

“Why, the book,” said Kees. “Where does it say you cannot change your hair color?”

“It does say that,” said Hendrik, “and I've heard that sermon more than once.”

“You have made a choice, then,” I said. “You have chosen to believe what is in the book to have higher accuracy than what the witches have told you. Therefore, if the book says you cannot change your hair color, which is a trivial operation...”

“It is not trivial,” said Hendrik. “It cannot be done.”

“For the purposes of argument, we can think of it as trivial,” I said. “Compare it to the idea of 'choosing' to grow added toes. Hair color versus a serious anatomical difference.”

“I see,” said Hendrik.

“Added toes aren't much compared to how I was different, also,” I said, then paused for a second. “If the book says you cannot change your hair color, then obviously you cannot 'choose' to be yet more different – and hence, I had no say as to how I was when I was born, any more than I could choose to have dark hair.”

I paused for emphasis, then “and if I had no control over those things internal to me, then by reason, I would not have greater control over that which was external. I was born into a situation where I was dependent upon others, and they determined how I was to live. I had no control over that situation, and I doubt you had much more.”

I paused, and noticed the intense quiet. Even overhead it had become quiet, for some reason.

“The 'illusion' of control is actually a matter of belief,” I said, “and for many, perhaps most, that illusion is both satisfying and readily maintained. It helps greatly to be wealthy and powerful, and the converse...”

“Poor people have to take what others give them,” said Gilbertus, “and I've been close enough to being poor to have some knowing of what it is like.”

“Uh, not much 'choice' when you're poor,” I said. “Do your best and hope it works out well enough to live another day, and hope those better off don't punish you too much for your 'failure' to measure up to their standards.”

“That sounds about right,” said Gilbertus. “It was like that for me then.”

Gilbertus paused, then said, “What? What was that about being punished?”

“What those who believe in their own capacity for correct behavior do to those who have attacked them by 'choosing' wrongly,” I said. “It's much easier to believe all that is around you is bent toward your happiness when you are wealthy and powerful, and much easier to punish those who are causing you trouble by not being as you yourself are in all possible ways.”

A brief pause, then “and those that believe that way think themselves to be God.”

I looked at Kees, then asked, “are you God – or, rather, are you Brimstone?”

Kees' expression showed that I had accomplished something, for he grimaced and shook his head.

“More lies you believed,” I said. “Every witch wants to devour Brimstone and take his place, and that lizard feeds them lies so they work hard to accomplish that goal. In the process, they provide that reptile with amusement, and in the end, they provide him sustenance. Now do you want to be a plaything, a fool, and then that lizard's meal?”

“Where did you get that?” asked Kees.

“From Freek, after he'd, uh, given up on being a witch,” I said. “He said he'd heard it straight from that lizard's mouth. I believed him, as those statements sound quite plausible.” I paused, then said, “and I know for a fact that Freek was a very serious witch.”

I paced back and forth for a moment, then asked Kees, “do you wish to be a witch, or not?”

“But...”

“No, I want an answer, and not 'what I wish to hear', either,” I said. “I am not the person to whom you will answer in the future, and you need to speak to that individual, not me.”

“Who do I speak to?” he asked.

I shook my head, then said, “I'm not buying your Brimstone-minted rubbish, Kees. You know who owns heaven and hell and all that lies between them, and it is not that lizard.” I paused, then said, “easy choice, indeed. All of us want to be like Brimstone, and act like witches, and kill everyone not ourselves for our pleasure, and all of us hate God with a passion too great for words! Enough!”

I saw the slow-building fire that was in the firepit, and I began to kick Kees toward it. Each step moved him closer to the fire, and as he slid along the ground, I could hear not merely chanting, but also the frantic hunger of the flames for sacrifice. I wondered again about burn-piles, and who actually instigated them, but I wondered little about Kees. He was a Brimstone-minted spy and a witch, and he needed to sup with that reptile and burn in hell. We did not heed him or his trouble, and the flames flared up head-tall with their hunger for his flesh and blood.

“Burn, witch, burn,” I mumbled. “Burn, witch, burn. Sup with Brimstone, witch. Burn, witch, burn.”

Kees was screaming. I stopped kicking him, then fetched the rag. I wanted more than a rag, though; I wanted distillate, a coarse bundle of thread, and a curved needle. I wanted him silent here, so all of his screams would go into hell and there season him for Brimstone's dinner plate. I found the rag, slapped his face repeatedly, and then gagged him. I stood, and repeated the same measures I had before, while the flames billowed high and crazily from the altar of sacrifice.

“Burn, witch, burn,” I muttered. “Sup with Brimstone, witch. Burn, witch, burn.”

The flames now billowed out from the pit in a hungry holocaust, and embraced Kees tenderly. I could hear his screaming as it echoed in the halls of hell, and with a huge and fearsome last kick on my part, his body flew to land among the blazing coals of fire in the pit. There, he swiftly melted, and with a single last blast of flames fueled by his screams, he vanished among the coals.

“Now that wretch is done,” I spat. I had work to do, and I knew it, and now, he would no longer cause trouble.

I gathered my things for writing, and walked among a thunderstruck group of people and from thence into the tent. I had ample work, and upon checking it, I knew I had more than my initial guess: not merely had Kees labored long and hard to undo all of my labor, but the other two had slyly done likewise.

“And purely for the joy of travel and the desire to manifest hell's arising,” I spat. “There never was any intent toward uniting these kingdoms, save as one world under Brimstone, and then consecrating the place unto hell and...”

From somewhere dark and dim I heard faintly a scrap of 'music': “...let hell arise, and crush our enemies...”

“And from there, cause the place to be conjoined to hell, such that Brimstone may do as he wishes, when he wishes to, with no encumbrance whatsoever – which means Hell enlarges, and this planet is added to it.” The voice that had spoken was not to be gainsaid, and the matter commenced forthwith.

The tent's candles began 'inverting', such that their flames burned steadily darker, and when all in that tent was dark, I was walled away in darkness. There was nothing to do, and nowhere to go, and I lay in my cold iron sarcophagus where my flesh was devoured down to the bones...

For some reason, I was being shaken like unto a rattle, and the dead bones rattled like dice. Again, the shaking – the number received was not the one wanted. There was more shaking, and more shaking, and finally, there was fire.

“Burn it out of him.”

“No, that won't work.”

“Burn him,” shouted the ogre.

“No, that will not work. I need to get this in him.”

“Here, let me have that,” I said. “If it's poison I need, then I need to drink it, and no help from the two of you.” I then drank up the poison, and laid down in state...

To then awaken in a place gone mad with sound, sight, and color.

I felt as if riding an earthquake, with strobing lights coming from all corners of the compass, and the sounds roared, howled, screamed, and blasted. The intensity of the experience, as well as dryness in my throat, seemed to call for a waterfall, and a yellow-tinged tidal wave tried to suck me under amid animalistic howling. Again, I heard the calls for fire and saw billows of flame, but unlike the nightmare beforehand, this time I recognized the sources to a modest degree, and when all went black again, I was glad.

The two witches were done with their evil.

Awakening – true awakening – came slow, with pains in the joints. I was laying face-down in a tent, with low-pitched voices coming from various directions. A feeble-seeming warmth came from the direction I faced, and when I opened my eyes, I saw faint ghostly tongues of real fire but a short distance away. I knew it wasn't the stuff I had seen recently; this indeed was truly real, for it had precisely-fitted 'fire noises', sparks, and faint tendrils of smoke. Someone was sitting by it, and when he turned and spoke, I recognized both face and voice.

“You're up,” said Lukas. “I thought you didn't get touched by curses, but I guess not.”

“That was not a curse,” said a voice that I slowly recognized as Hendrik's. “Anna said he was ill, and I knew he was ill, but I had no idea he was that ill.”

“W-when did that fire get lit?” I croaked.

“After the two of them gave up on being witches,” said Lukas. “You were kicking Kees into this thing as if it were a burn-pile while telling him to burn, but it wasn't lit until you got him into it. It lit then.”

“It l-lit?” I asked.

“Yes, and that was no normal flame,” said Hendrik. “Those tales speak of such flame, but when Kees burned like he did, I almost ran.”

“He b-burned?” I asked.

“Both with those flames and this reddish glowing,” said Hendrik. “The fire billowed up nearly to the tops of the trees before it consumed him.”

“Gave up?” I asked. “If he burned... How?”

“I was glad he was gone,” said Hendrik, “both him and Gabriel, as we don't need traitors and witches among us.”

“That and those notes you all were working on,” said Lukas.

“Those especially,” said Hendrik. “Kees had changed them all somehow so they were fit for the second kingdom, and that means yet more work for you once you're well enough to do so. I've done what I can, and I've made but little headway understanding what's there, much less rewriting it.”

Hendrik paused, then said, “once he and Gabriel had burned, I started on those notes, and found out they'd been ruined. I recognized Kees' handwriting all over them, as well as many secret markings, and in a few places, I found curses writ in runes. It was all I could do to not burn the lot and resign ourselves to heading home to our destruction, especially with you seeming to be so ill.”

“W-was someone calling for me to be burned?” I asked.

“I heard that,” said Lukas, “but I could see no one.”

Lukas paused, then said, “at least, I didn't see anyone right then. Kees and Gabriel showed hereabouts a short time later, and both of them looked as if they'd had chemicals go up on them for soot and a powder mill for burn-marks. Their clothing was scorched rags, what of it they still had.”

“W-where are they?” I asked.

“Eating grass when they aren't trying to get that mess off of them,” said Lukas. “Gilbertus loaded up the fowling piece and is watching them close for trouble.”

“E-eating g-grass?” I asked.

“I saw both of them in that meadow you found,” said Hendrik, “and they're there with the horses.”

“The t-tub?” I asked.

“Is set up, with a bucket of water waiting for you on that small lamp, and two buckets in the tub already,” said Hendrik. “The rest of us bathed, and that small pot is cooking elk right now for Cuew.”

I thought to waste no further time, and tried to stand. I had been covered with my blanket, and as I came out from under it I noted extreme fatigue and soreness that was difficult to believe. I found my 'bathing' bag, and went to where Lukas indicated the tub was set up, where I lit the heating lamp with a short piece of wax candle.

The air was still measuredly chilly, and I bathed quickly once the water in the bucket boiled. I bagged my dirty clothing – that bag was becoming full – and put on my next-to-the-last set of clean clothing. This was a light tan color, which Sarah had spoken of as undyed linen, and the soft looseness of the fabric seemed especially helpful. I put my things away, fetched the jug labeled 'liniment', and retreated to the tent where Hendrik was attempting to work.

Within moments, however, I heard what might have been a 'commotion' outside of the tent, and I saw Karl and Sepp with more firewood. More importantly, the two of them were working on the makings of a meal.

“Uh, that lamp?” I asked.

“I put that over by the buggy,” said Sepp. “We've plenty of firewood here, and I think saving that lamp and its fuel is a good idea.”

“It takes aquavit,” I said.

“Aquavit takes some doing to find in the second kingdom,” said Lukas, “and outside of the third kingdom's harbor, it's the same there, too. It's common in the fourth kingdom, so you might want to fetch another jug for it once we get there.”

“Uh, lead?” I asked.

“I have that lead-pot here,” he said, “and I've gotten my pole loaded. Gilbertus' is next, as soon as I get it ready.” A brief pause, then speaking to Karl and Sepp, “you'll want to cut those up small so's they cook faster.”

Those?” I mumbled, as I began looking at the notes and reaching for a mug of unfermented wine.

It took no less than two such mugs and another of cider before my muddled head began to clear out. It was obvious to me that I'd had an especially bad hypoglycemia attack, and when Hendrik showed me the notes, I was stunned.

“This is awful,” I said. “It's about as bad as that bad section in those instrument-maker's books, and then these markings... What was he trying to do? Tell every witch in the second kingdom house we need to be sacrificed for their pleasure?”

The text in its entirety abruptly 'flashed', then 'seethed' with faint red flames. The markings themselves moved, and the text seemed to 'crawl' in some mysterious fashion. I looked at one of the markings, and before my eyes, the various portions seemed to untangle and then recombine themselves into a recognizable rune-curse of a type I had never seen before.

I picked up a rubbing-block, then began rubbing down the curse. It seemed disinclined to erase, so much so that I looked closer at the document itself while bringing it closer to my face.

“He inked this stuff!” I spat.

“Then we need to start from the beginning, almost,” said Hendrik. “We needed to do that anyway, but with but one person good for handwriting, it will be very slow.”

“Is there a...”

Hendrik stood, then went outside. I went after him, but for a different reason altogether; I wanted my pack with the covered slates, as I suspected those would be especially helpful during the composition process.

Hendrik was bringing something out of one of the buggies, and I went to his side. I was still fairly wobbly, for some reason, and when he began tugging on a bag, I asked, “is that a portable writing table?”

He looked at me, then said, “it is, and I'm glad I brought it, and yet more glad you're here.”

“It needs assembly?” I asked.

“It does, and it could stand a great deal of improvement,” he said. “The wood portion was easy to improve, but the metal portions have needed to be endured.”

“And hence it needs not merely careful and time-consuming assembly, but also lashing with cords, several carved wooden wedges, and a strategically-placed wooden piece to render it somewhat usable.”

“You left out one thing,” he said. “I've never assembled it without substantial help.”

“Substantial?” I asked.

“I have seen but a handful of things frustrate Andreas,” said Hendrik, “and that table is one of them.”

As we carried the thing in the tent, I asked, “where did you get it?”

“It was made in the fourth kingdom” said Hendrik, “and I myself could not go to negotiate with its builder, which meant using intermediaries. It took months of time sending documents by the post, a lot of discussion on my part with those that went in my stead, two trips of a month's time each, several trips to bring down the various payments over the course of further months, and then 'special' shipment back from where it was assembled.”

“And?” I asked.

“It was not what I wanted,” said Hendrik. “It was carved, painted, and gilded, and far heavier than was agreed upon, and that was but its surface, for it arrived fully assembled.”

“And it was intended to come apart for such work as what we need to do?” I asked.

Hendrik nodded, then said, “and while it came apart fairly readily, reassembly was nearly impossible. It took Andreas nearly two days working his hours, and the thing was then fit for the stove.”

“And you spoke with those people in the boatwright's shop?” I asked, as Hendrik set down the sack.

“They were much easier to deal with, and much faster as well,” he said, “and they were able to replace the wood portions readily. The remaining portion, however – not even Andreas could make what they had done work, no matter what he did, even with multiple attempts.”

“And hence the wedges, cords, and bracing stick?” I asked.

“You'll see what I mean soon enough,” he said. “Now we need to assemble it.”

I began bringing out the pieces with my possible bag next to me, and the slim planks with their carefully inletted metal pieces were marvels, with 'clever-looking' castings, polished metal fittings, 'locking-levers', 'nice-looking' wood...

“The wood was originally three times the thickness for the legs, and twice as thick for the top,” said Hendrik, “and the metal pieces were worse yet that way.”

“How?” I asked. I'd emptied the bag, and was doing a trial fitting of one of the locking levers in an obvious socket.

“Those pieces like that were done much less well,” he said, “even if they were polished carefully.” A brief pause, then “those were supposed to be tied one to another.”

“I thought so,” I said, as I tried another. The first two had been appallingly sloppy for fit, even if their apparent workmanship was quite good – and within seconds, I'd concluded the same for the third example.

The next one, however, fit well, and I put it in a row to indicate its position. I began with the remaining five, and on the third try, found a 'good' fit – and number two of the remainder fit in the third socket I tried. Number four, second try, the same for number five, and number six was obvious.

As I began trying the three planks of the table's top, I noted further locational issues, even as the five main pieces went together; and once the table was entirely assembled, I touched the thing to learn its wobbly tendencies.

That's much better than is usual for it,” said Hendrik. “It may actually be usable that way.”

I touched it again, then muttered, “they must have used shims on this thing.”

What are these shims?” asked Hendrik, as he brought over a collection of ledgers.

Thin, uh, sheets of metal or p-paper,” I said. “They are put between joints like this to take up the slop.”

Hendrik looked at me, then said, “there were thin sheets of paper written strangely. I burned them, as they looked to be curses.”

Then that's a portion of the problem,” I said. “Did those wedges help much?”

As Hendrik took his place – legs under the table, a ledger open on top, then a pair of fresh-sharpened pencils and a new eraser – he said, “they were required to keep it from coming apart, that and the stick and the cords – and that after three and four hours of beating on each of those fittings and levers so as to make them engage.”

Did you ever think to try them as I did?” I asked.

I did, and knew too little to do more than just try putting it together,” he said. “I tried marking the pieces, and the markings wore off...”

No stamps?” I asked. “Did you use...”

Ink, chalk, and string,” he said. “I tried to get stamps, and when they finally arrived at vast cost, not merely were they done badly, but they were stolen the day after they showed.”

I began sorting through the documents with Hendrik's help, and began 'reading' the notes with him copying them down. Thankfully, the notes were not terribly hard to follow, for the 'written format' was mostly absent. As an experiment, I began grading the things by writing style into piles based on subject matter.

If all he knew was the written format for writing,” I asked, as I separated out his documents, “then why are these notes written this way?”

Hendrik asked for the writing in question, then said, “it's likely he simply copied this portion from what he was reading.”

Is that common?” I asked.

Among lesser students, or those just beginning, it is,” said Hendrik. “In time, and with experience, one learns to use one's own words.”

And applies that infernal written format in the process,” I said.

During a break – writing with but one copyist was a slow process, and promised to take much of the time we were camped – I touched the table and noted the wobble. I looked at the remaining pieces, then began inserting the wedges. There was not merely a definite order of insertion, but also a definite place for each wedge, and once they were in place, I noted the 'stick' and its rope. A touch of the table still showed a trace of wobbling, though it was at the level I had once endured for my desk at home.

And that thing was better for its size and cost than anything you could purchase then in that place,” I thought.

The stick slotted into an area centered on the bottom run of the pieces that formed the table's legs, and the rope needed first wrapping, and then tying. This last was where I first met real trouble, and I was glad Hendrik could tie it for me.

I usually did more than what I did this time, but not much more,” he said, as he tried the table, “and...” His voice climbed in pitch. “What did you do to this thing?”

What you saw,” I said. “Not only do those wedges need to go in the right places, but also in the right order – and then the stick only goes in one way, and finally the rope.” I paused, then said, “I take it it's a decent writing table now. Is it?”

Hendrik looked at me with an expression I could not place, then resumed his writing.

As I could speak faster than he could write, and he could remember much of a paragraph at a time, I began to work out the nature of the reports themselves. As far as I could tell, there was a 'main' section, where the chief issue was introduced; then, there were subsections, one dealing with Norden, another the continent...

The upper portion of the continent,” I thought. “That is a long trip in a, uh, trireme or whatever those ships are called, and usable ports aren't that common. Those rivers – they plan on coming up those in swarms.”

I noted that concept on one of the slates, then resumed with the subsections until Hendrik nudged me to indicate he was ready. He was writing out the description of Norden and its people, and when he noticed what else I was doing, he shuddered before speaking.

If the two of them prove useless for this work,” he said, “we may need to remain camped here until all of these reports are finished.”

Inked?” I asked.

If time permits,” he said. “Normally, papers are done with writing dowels, then traced with ink, and finally, rubbed clear when dry. I had that portion of my papers done when and where I could, at least for the important portions.”

That ink dries slowly, doesn't it?” I asked.

Hendrik nodded, then switched pencils. I suspected he would sharpen his dull one during his next break.

Perhaps if I, uh, gently cook it over that heating lamp,” I said.

Hendrik looked at me, then suddenly dropped his mouth open.

Is that why you brought two large grain pans?” he asked.

I made those because I'd never done grain-pans before, and Jaak needs a lot of grain,” I said. “Why, could I get some sand from that spring, dry it, and then use the lamp to dry the pages quickly?”

Hendrik nodded, then said, “that's quite close to what fourth kingdom scribes do. They commonly use jeweler's lamps for heating.”

I think I brought one of those, come to think of it,” I said. “I have several of them at home.”

I fetched the lamp in question during the next break, and here, I noticed not merely the pots in use in the firepit, but also a long ladle or spoon of tinned copper. Karl was sitting by the fire whittling, while Sepp and Lukas were elsewhere. I was surprised indeed to find it still light, though I could feel nightfall coming soon. The coming of darkness seemed to bend my thinking strangely, and when I came back into the tent, I saw Hendrik looking at the table.

I suspect the original table was done for appearances and not serious use, if I go by your description of it,” I said. “That might explain why Andreas had so much difficulty.”

There was more, however, that I kept silent about: that table had been done as if it was some kind of a fetish, and it was done so with the idea of placing it in 'the seat of honor'. Such thinking made for a strange questioning:

“Is there such a thing?”

I continued 'organizing' the reports between speaking of the current document, and about the time I'd done a plausible-looking outline, I could hear steps coming from the region of the pasture. I stopped with my writing, and knew a key and crucial issue between the two men. Gabriel was a better – and more versatile – writer, whose use of the written format in this situation was principally a matter of habit and perhaps 'custom'. He could and did write otherwise when not presented with a report to be delivered unto the second kingdom, if I went by what I had heard.

In contrast, Kees' preferred mode of expression – as well as the only kind of writing he could do – was the written format, and his 'best hold' was that especial variety popular among black-dressed thugs wherever they were found. The second kingdom house's desires toward that end were merely much better known.

His motives, however, were vastly murkier, and made for questions upon my part, even as voices – scratchy, dire-sounding, greatly troubled – came closer.

“At least I hope I can do some good,” said Gabriel. “I'm not planning on doing anything beyond dictation, and perhaps inking if there are portions ready for it.”

Faint mumbles seemed to reply amid what might have been weeping, then the voice of Gilbertus rang clear, saying, “I might trust him some, but I'll only trust you when you speak the truth and live as the book demands, and that without cease nor stint. You've done enough evil for a hundred covens, you wretch.”

“What?” I asked softly.

“I suspect they are done with their grass-chewing for a while,” said Hendrik, “and I need to work the cramps out of my hands.”

“As in we might need to remain here tomorrow and that night as well?” I asked.

“I hope not,” said Gabriel, as he stumbled into the tent to collapse in a corner. “What happened to everything?”

“Kees rewrote all of our notes as per the second kingdom house's preferences,” said Hendrik acidly, “and more, he somehow inked them.” Hendrik paused to let that sink in. “That was not all he did, though.”

“What else did he do?” asked Gabriel. I could tell he was not enthused.

“He put those secret markings on every page, and curses writ in runes,” said Hendrik, “and I saw what at least one secret marking really is.”

“What is it?” asked Gabriel.

“A cunning fashion of arranging the runes of a curse such that only those familiar with its true meaning knows the thing in question is the property of Brimstone,” said Hendrik.

“Do all of those people know that meaning?” I asked.

“You yourself spoke of him telling the witches of the second kingdom house we needed to be sacrificed for their pleasure,” said Hendrik.

“P-please, d-don't,” I said. “That was a question, and after hearing Kees speak like he did when I asked him...”

“That portion I but barely understood,” said Gabriel, “and that was when I heard it repeated after spending time on my face in that pasture. You were asking him questions, and he was saying you already knew the answers to them.” Gabriel paused, then said, “even I know better than that now. You ask questions when you either do not know the answer, or are uncertain as to what it is.”

“After seeing him right so much lately, though,” said Hendrik, “and deal with things like that, I truly wonder, both at what is to come, and what is happening now.”

“In what way?” I asked.

“There were people in those old tales who did things similarly,” said Hendrik, “and some of them were thought to know the mind of God especially well, such that their statements, no matter the situation or the subject, were but seldom questioned.”

“Who?” I asked. I wanted to learn about this person so as to avoid their taint.

“Charles, for one,” said Hendrik. “He was the best known one. There were others, but they tend to be obscurely documented.”

“Those strange jeweled things called pendants?” asked Gabriel, as he began 'sorting' the pages I had laid out.

“Among other things, yes,” said Hendrik. “Now where is Kees?”

“I think he is trying another bath,” said Karl from outside. “He's still got a lot of dirt on him.”

“Dirt?” I asked.

“Mine mostly washed off in the rain once I laid down in that meadow for a short time,” said Gabriel, “and after I bathed and changed, I felt better, but I knew I needed to spend longer on my face, so I went back to that pasture and did so.”

“And Kees?” I asked.

“He must have been dusted with a mixture of grease and soot,” said Gabriel, “as his does not wish to come off of his body. All he was able to do was smear it around.”

“I brought some soap,” I said, “and I've been...”

Kees screamed, then someone came running while laughing as if crazed. Karl came to the door of our tent by 'mistake', or so I thought.

“Now what?” I asked, as I sipped some unfermented wine.

“I got some of this special soap from Hans,” said Karl, “and it smells strange, and is really strong. I put some of that stuff on his washcloth.”

“Is this soap green?” I gasped.

Karl nodded enthusiastically.

“Karl, that stuff will devour him!”

“Good,” said Karl, amid more screams. “He's blacked up like a witch, so he should learn by the time he gets that stuff off of him.”

I left the tent and went in the direction of the shrieks and moans, and as I went, I had a peculiar impression: I needed to add a small amount of boiled distillate and cooking oil. I asked for the cooking oil – Karl went to fetch it – and once I'd found the boiled distillate, I closed my eyes, and then walked to my tub. I could feel thrashing, as well as hear screams, and when I began slowly pouring the boiled distillate onto him, the screams went to a new level. I wondered if I had gotten some in his eyes.

“Rub yourself carefully with this stuff,” I said. “Karl went to get some oil.”

“Are you going to burn me?” he shrieked.

“You're covered with grease and soot,” I said, “and there's this special soap used for that...”

Karl came on the run with a small jug, then handed it to me. I uncorked the jug, then doused Kees with it.

“Now rub, and rub hard,” I said. “This oil will kill the extra lye, and that distillate will help dissolve that nasty stuff that's on you.”

As I heard splashing and thrashing, as well as moans, I kept my eyes closed. I could hear steps coming.

“I had no idea that would work like that, Kees,” said Lukas. “I think he did you up some Fell's soap.”

“Fells?” I asked, as I turned with my eyes still closed.

“It's used a lot in the fourth and fifth kingdoms,” said Lukas. “If you get axle grease on you, it will get it off, and that quickly.”

“Is this the soap that burns like tallow?” asked Karl.

“I am not sure how good Fell's soap burns,” said Lukas. “I've never used it like that, even if I have used it before.”

“Uh, when?” I asked.

“I was in the mines for a season,” said Lukas, “and I learned about it there. Mining is dirty work, and that fifth kingdom axle grease is common in those holes. Fell's soap is the only thing that works on it, and...”

Here, Lukas turned, then said, “I think he's going to come clean now, as that stuff is bubbling and foaming over the sides of that tub.”

“What color is it?”

“White, mostly,” said Lukas, “though that foam has gray tinges in places. If your tub needs cleaning, Fell's soap will clean it.”

“Is he getting clean?” I asked.

“He is,” said Karl. “Now why were your eyes closed back there?”

“I cannot look,” I said. “Now I hope he's come to his senses and will do something useful.”

I was surprised to no small degree to find two people working on documents in the tent, and when I checked, I was astonished to find Gabriel writing out copy that was as close to 'usable' as I'd ever seen him do.

“He's gotten noticeably better,” said Hendrik, “as have I. You might want to check what we do, and then if Kees comes clean, then he can ink the documents.”

“Uh, is there something special about him that way?” I asked.

“He does that better than anyone I've seen,” said Hendrik. “Had he not come here, he would have gone to the second kingdom house proper to do that very thing.”

“And most likely, but little else,” said Gabriel. “For each page done at home with ink that is not printed, they do at least ten, and that during their slack periods. They do more otherwise.”

“Uh, how much is inked at home?” I asked.

“It's rarely done,” said Gabriel. “Besides, I suspect there was another aspect to his choosing, also.”

“Yes?” I asked. “Less money initially, with a chance to do especially well if he, uh... Are cards played as a form of gambling?”

“They are,” said Gabriel. “Why do you ask?”

“If he 'plays his cards correctly',” I said, “he might start out with a comparatively small salary, but in time, he not only acquires a decent-sized legitimate income, but he is able to parlay that into a much larger one with minimal effort.”

“How?” asked Hendrik.

“His position as armorer gives him the needed, uh, hiding place,” I said, “as well as the connections. There is but one issue, though.”

“Which is?” asked Hendrik.

“He not only needs to be an especially well-hid witch to do so, but also needs a certain amount of investment capital to start off with,” I said. “The witch portion provides the added connections, and the money he needs is used to purchase, uh, weapons. Those come up here surreptitiously, and then are distributed to witches at sizable markups.”

“Which means?” asked Hendrik.

“Because of his position, he is thought to have a superior product,” I said, “and 'fetish-grade' weapons bring huge prices. Hence Kees goes from pauper to well-beyond-miser level within months after his first such deal – and he doesn't need to do many of them thereafter, due to the profits of each such sale.” I paused, then said, “besides, that way guarantees exclusivity, and that's worth a lot in the witch-world. Only 'Powers' are more exclusive that way, at least for weapons.”

Hendrik looked at me with what might have been horror or perhaps admiration, while Gabriel's mouth had sagged open.

“Which gives him a huge incentive to become a witch,” I said. “Wouldn't you, given the ease of earning vast amounts of money that way?”

“How would it be easy, though?” asked Hendrik. “Freek spoke of the witch's life, and I'd want nothing of something that hazardous.”

“For most witches, that's exactly the case,” I said. “It is not so for a select minority, and Kees would have been one of those people.”

“How?” asked Hendrik. “I cannot see it.”

“He's an armorer connected with a kingdom house,” I said. “It's his job to deal with, uh, weapons, and he needs to do research, including special weapons...”

I could almost see the 'light bulb' go on in Hendrik's mind, and as I watched, I 'saw' that same light bulb manifest in Gabriel's.

“Yes?” I asked. “What he would be doing would look altogether legitimate, as those things aren't exactly cheap to buy. He'd need to recoup his investment. Then, so as to 'save' the house's funds, he uses his own, then sells the things after 'testing' to recoup his investment – and that at a profit, so as to reward his risk. The chief matter hidden is the size of that profit.”

“Testing?” asked Gabriel.

“Purchase of the 'best' grades of swords to be had,” I said. “I suspect Kees has some ideas on the matter, even if he's ignorant of those I've been working on save by hearsay and 'rumor'.”

I paused, then said, “he knows about the usual nature of swords being soft, poorly made, and other aspects. Hence, he deals with certain people who not merely do a better-than-common job, but also either restrict their markings or refuse to do them entirely.”

“What?” gasped Gabriel. “I thought no one did unmarked swords that were thought to be any good, at least outside of those you do.”

“The ones I've reworked had poor quality control, poor machining practices, and abysmal heat-treating,” I said. “Those unmarked swords are quick and easy to rework, and the result is a fairly good sword, if I go by comments I've heard.”

“So he purchases unmarked weapons,” said Gabriel. “What does he do then?'

“He sends them to a jeweler for, uh, engraving,” I said. “In the process, the jeweler not only puts shallow much-less-troublesome markings on the blades, but also corrects many of the weapon's more-troubling deficiencies. Kees then has a scabbard made, procures the other supplies, and delivers them up to the customer.”

“I had no idea that could be done,” said Gabriel.

“And I had but partly figured it out,” said Kees, as he came into the tent. “Now why is it you do not mark swords?”

I saw faint grass-stains under his upper lip, for some reason, then drew my knife.

“Most of the metal I've seen used on the continent tends to crack readily if it's at all hard,” I said, “and that 'haunted' stuff is especially sensitive that way if done in pattern-welded form.”

“I've heard about that,” he said. “I wondered if it was true.”

“I've been fortunate to not have quench-cracks here,” I said. “I have had them happen elsewhere, and I've heard from others about those cracking tendencies from quenching alone. Then, I've seen cracks show in weapons many times, and I've heard about swords going to pieces in use.” I paused, then said, “so, there is something to the matter – oh, and I was told something else about that 'haunted' metal.”

“What was that?” asked Kees. He was looking through the 'notes'.

“It will not work for the usual shape of sword in pattern-welded form,” I said. “I was reminded of the shape of my sword for that express reason.”

“Why would it not work?” asked Kees, as he took up a ledger.

“I suspect it has to do with that metal's tendencies toward brittleness and cracking,” I said. “There's nothing in it of witchcraft.”

To my complete surprise, Kees began writing, and while his writing still showed the influence of the written format, it was much easier to follow. He paused, then looked at what he had written.

“I do not understand how this changed like this,” he said. “I could only write the one way before, and now I can write otherwise.”

“I would avoid writing otherwise if possible,” said Hendrik. “I hope you still have ink.”

“I do,” said Kees. “I take it you have things that need it?”

Hendrik vacated the writing table, while Kees began to gather supplies from elsewhere. Meanwhile, I thought to go get some 'sand' and set up for ink-drying.

The 'healing spring' had its share of clean dry sand in the bottom of its 'lake', and the pot portion of the mess-kit tied to a length of rope permitted me to scoop up small amounts readily. It took about ten minutes to part-fill one of the grain-pans, and on the way back to the campsite, I heard chortles of glee.

“I'd like to be in on that,” I mumbled, as I balanced my pan of sand on one hand. “Now I wonder what it is?”

I smelled something vaguely reminiscent of barbecue within less than a minute. As I drew closer, the smell – spicy, 'thick', and otherwise too unusual to put into words – grew stronger, and when I came to the campsite, I was amazed at the 'haze' of 'fumes'. I put down the pan of sand next to the doorway of the tent, and took a look.

Lukas was using knife and two-tined bronze fork to 'tear apart' a reddish-brown mass into what looked like barbecued beef, while Sepp was stirring what looked like a lumpy version of mashed potatoes. I found the odor of food sufficiently distracting that it took me several minutes to find the remaining supplies I needed in the buggy.

And atop the gustatory distraction, I knew of another matter pertaining to Kees.

“It wasn't merely his 'lack' of writing capacity otherwise,” I thought. “He wanted to write that way exclusively due to its greater 'power' – and that would explain those two costly bagged fetishes he was carrying.”

Once I'd set up the 'drier' in the corner, I thought to look at what Kees was doing, and I found myself astonished.

“How does he do it?” I thought. “He's already inked one page, and is halfway through a second... And what is that thing there?”

I had spotted something that resembled a spherical tomato with a bluish-green 'stem' held in a carved wooden 'stand', and when Kees returned his quill to the stem and dipped, I had a suspicion as to its use. I then watched him write.

His tracing, while careful, was delicate and rapid, and the tip of the pen seemed to all but fly across the page. I could feel the growing heat of the sand-bath behind me, and turned to stir the sand with the blade of my knife.

“That will work well,” said Hendrik, “and that Cuew is delicious.”

“That's a small pot for eight, isn't it?” I asked.

“It wasn't the only one used,” said Hendrik. “That larger pot was pressed into use also, and the cast iron one is being refilled.”

“Meaning?” I asked.

“It might take another half an hour or so before more of that meat is ready,” said Hendrik, “and then but another half an hour for the third batch, and so on.”

I turned to see Hendrik with a small plate and a reddish stain around his mouth. He was devouring the 'meat' as if starving, and when I came outside, I was nearly splatted in the face by another such small plate.

“This isn't a 'mess of pottage', is it?” I asked, as I eyed the spicy-smelling 'mess' ringed with mashed potatoes and diced carrots. The plate, while small, was heavily burdened.

“What is this?” asked Karl.

“What, uh, Jakob's brother sold his birthright for?”

“That may have been a mess,” said Sepp, “but I doubt you or I would be hungry enough to eat boiled turnips by themselves. That's what that sermon spoke of the Red Man getting.”

“Boiled turnips?” I gasped.

“They do not taste good, even if they are cheap enough,” said Karl. “This tastes especially good, and I hope they have it closer to home.”

I put my spoon into the Cuew, scooped up a small amount, and put it into my mouth.

The first sensation I noted was a continuation of the spicy sense that I had smelled, along with truly tender meat. This segued into a herd of tastes, most of which were familiar, and their melded sense reminded me of an intensely sweet and delicately sour version of...

“This isn't barbecue!” I thought. “This is sweet and sour, uh, elk!”

Thankfully, the stuff had no noxious aftertastes, and I sat down to enjoy it. Its taste seemed to grow upon one, so much so that I had finished my small plate before I noticed what my stomach was actually doing. I stood, handed the plate to Karl, and ran for the privy.

The first emission was gaseous, as was the second, while the third was a burning spurt that coaxed a low moan from my lips. I waited, wiped, and felt myself, then stood – and 'vented' again.

“Oh, no,” I thought. “It may taste good, but it causes really bad gas.”

I went back into the tent to resume work, but within moments, Gabriel was looking at me.

“This is not a place where I would expect to see Death Adders,” he said, “but that noise you are making sounds like a smaller one.”

“It does not feel good,” I said, as I 'vented' again. “I doubt further ingestion of Cuew is a good idea.”

As if to reply, Hendrik shook his head, then resumed his labor.

I was able to eat the potatoes and carrots, however, along with some of the meat not yet made into Cuew, and while the flavor was comparatively bland, it neither caused discomfort nor undue fumes. The fumes soon reduced themselves to the faint intermittent outbursts common to life as I knew it.

Between dictation, corrections, and 'drying' pages, I was quite busy, and as the hours 'droned on', I had an impression as to our rapidity. We would be able to finish our reports tonight.

“And get little sleep before needing to bail out of here,” I thought. “We really need to leave here while it's still dark and then pass to that turnoff by midmorning.”

I mentioned the matter, and Gabriel stretched, then looked at his other papers before speech.

“Kees might have inked those notes into worthlessness,” he said, “but I suspect their chief area of worthlessness was in their information content. If I go by this, that labor helped organize your thinking.”

“Or I'm becoming better at deciphering the written format,” I said. “After this, I have those infernal instrument-maker's books I need to go over...”

“I might help with those,” said Kees. “I had several lecture-series over them beyond the common.”

“As to that section that deals with secret markings?” I asked, “or more than just those?”

“The whole of their three volumes,” he said. “Outside of instrument-makers, their chief use is as a guide to composition, and that was the portion I learned.”

“Is it true that language acts like a secret code among those who understand it, uh, properly?” I asked.

“It is nowhere near as simple as that,” said Kees. “Firstly, much of that language permits great leeway as to its interpretation.”

“Which is why we cannot use it for these meetings,” said Hendrik. “Go on. I have wondered for a long time as to why it was demanded so much.”

“Secondly, its use states that one is worth taking seriously,” said Kees. “I am not certain as to how that works, but that was what I was told in those classes.”

“And it seems to help when dealing with, uh, those wearing black-cloth?” I asked.

Kees nodded, then said, “and a good portion of being an armorer is dealing with such people. It's quite difficult to get access to some documentation otherwise, in fact.”

“And worse yet if you wish to, uh, investigate weapons,” I said.

“It is, for some reason,” he said. “I found that trying to go around them was a sure route to trouble.”

“And, in contrast, to 'give them their due' made things much smoother,” I said. “Didn't it?”

Again, Kees nodded, then said, “including the needed inducements. Anything to do with weapons beyond the local and trivial involves a great many fees of one kind or another, such that...”

“A thirty guilder unmarked sword goes for a hundred by the time it gets up here due to those fees,” I said, “and while the marked ones are a lot more for their 'price', their 'fees' are much more reasonable.”

“I learned to get around some of the trouble with unmarked swords,” said Kees, “but it was not easy. I had to spend no small amount of time in the Swartsburg talking to people, and it was difficult to convince...”

“The chief purpose of those documents among such people,” I said, “is closer to a calling card. Correct? The real work is conducted verbally in drink-houses over bad food and worse drink?”

“I've still got indigestion from what I ate trying to get some unmarked swords up here,” he said, “and otherwise, you may well be right. I know most of the important details were decided that way.”

“And, in dealing with those who wear black-cloth, it is necessary to be on their good sides, if not be like them in all possible ways,” I said.

“I did not wish to wear black-cloth,” said Kees, “nor much else common to them, but based on what I have seen, you are right.”

“Now, for some other questions,” I said. “I'm not certain you were this far along.” I paused, then said, “did you eventually have the goal of reworking unmarked swords into marked ones? With better fittings?”

Kees looked at me, then slowly shook his head before speaking. “When I said I had but partly figured it out, I had determined it was possible to do that. I had not gone much further.”

“As in you were going to, uh, go down to the fourth kingdom personally and deal with those making them directly?” I asked. “There are several shops that make swords down there, and the unmarked ones are commonly thought the work of apprentices. True?”

Kees looked at me in near-horror, then began muttering.

“I suspect you have given him more information in minutes than he learned on his own in months,” said Gabriel. “Now where are you going with your questions?”

“I'm trying to learn his motives,” I said. “These occur to me. First, he wants to get in good with those Generals, as promotion in his position – as well as much else – happens faster and smoother if you act and think like a witch.”

“I see,” said Hendrik.

“Then, it is not cheap to do business with such people,” I said, “and that on top of the attraction of a life of easy wealth.”

“Wealth, yes, though it did not promise to be easy,” said Kees, “and by wealth, I would... What are you saying?”

“Precisely what I said,” I said. “You didn't know just how much profit there was in 'fetish-grade' weapons, did you?”

“How much would that be?” asked Gabriel.

“The sword in question, when purchased directly, costs perhaps a hundred guilders,” I said. “Kees uses 'the best materials to be had' – whatever those actually are on the continent – and specifies the best available workmanship. He has these coming regularly at about three or so a year, which saves him time and money, and guarantees that shop a certain income.”

I paused to sip some grape juice.

“Then, he conveys them personally to a selected jeweler, again in the fourth kingdom,” I said. “By this time, he's spending a fair amount of time on the road, and is wondering about a special buggy with a team of four. He's already got the appropriate clothing needed to 'address' misers and black-dressed thugs. Bones, I'm not sure yet. He might and might not have those.”

Again, I paused.

“Then, he pays perhaps another two hundred guilders to have the sword dismantled. Everything is 'evened up', the blade 'heat treated' using 'a secret process', all of the pieces polished to 'number one jeweler's grade' and then the markings are engraved using acid. The sword is cleaned carefully, its 'accessories' – witch-grade red-tallow, a tip-dragging sheath, a soft rune-embroidered rag for wiping, and a page covered with blood-writ runes specifying its pedigree and potency as a fetish – are bagged up with it, and it is hand-carried to its buyer. That man pays upwards of several thousand guilders for it upon delivery.”

I paused, then delivered the 'punch-line': “an income of seven to ten thousand guilders a year achieved so readily is not to be trifled with.”

“How?” asked Kees weakly.

“I just told you how,” I said. “While there isn't a huge market for such weapons, there definitely is one, and by selling two or three such weapons a year, you minimize your exposure to detection, you maintain your market in a ravenously hungry mood, you minimize your own labor, and you maximize your profit margin, such that for each guilder you invest, you receive somewhere between seven and ten. Most importantly, you would have an effectual monopoly, with customers dealing with you on your terms if they want your goods.”

I paused, then said, “there is no higher accolade in witchdom than abject worship by one's peers, and dealing with a witch on that beings' terms is worship.” A brief pause, then “my third point was those lecture-series involving those manuals. That lecturer was not merely very influential, he was also a well-hid and very serious witch.”

I had 'stunned' Kees, and Gabriel was but little better. I was more than a little surprised by Hendrik, who was still writing – though when I looked further, he was writing something other than about Norden and what it planned to do.

“And now a final question, and I will leave you be for the remainder of the night,” I said. “What were those bags, and where did you get them?”

Kees shook himself, then said, “that was the chief reason for my eating grass, as I bought those from those Generals. They told me owning such money would bring much my way, and...”

“And once you had those bags...” I spluttered. “No, not quite. There was a part of that life that was then quite attractive. Maybe not killing attractive, but certainly enough to do a great deal that you would otherwise not do.” A pause. “Once you received your costly treasures, however, that life became much more desirable.”

“Would he have killed then?” asked Gabriel.

“That is the one portion I'm not certain of,” I said. “I am certain he – and you – wished to go on to one of those towns to the south. While you perhaps wished to ask about wine, he wanted to go to the nearest black-dressed thug and deliver up everyone except himself for sacrifice.”

“That makes him a serious witch, then,” said Hendrik.

“But one slight portion wrong,” I said. “He would be the first one killed, as he had been fattened with friendship for the slaughter, and treachery is savored as fine wine among witches. He would provide his bones, not make them.”

“I learned my mistake while eating grass,” said Kees, “and I doubt your speech much less now. I have no idea how you could speak the precise same words as I was told, for you had no chance to hear them.”

“No normal chance, anyway,” said Hendrik. “We need to resume.”

More hours droned by, and the paper piled higher. I could tell I needed to rest, and when I looked at Gabriel, he seemed to wobble in place. The odor of fermented kerosene seemed endemically sour, and when I staggered out into the darkness so as to 'wake up', I heard faintly the voices from within calling for me, or perhaps something else, to return.

“We'd best figure on staying tomorrow, then,” I murmured. “I'm exhausted, and there's a lot more writing to do.”

And as if I had spoken 'the' judgment of all time, the lights subtly flickered from within the tent, even as I slowly rotated where I stood. I went back inside, and saw all three men collapsed.

I gently shook one of them awake, and helped put up the supplies, while taking especial care with the ink-pots. Kees had brought three of them, and as I carefully picked up his empty pot, I had an idea.

“This would make a good squib,” I thought, as I made ready for bed. “I'll want to clean it out properly tomorrow.”

While dreams remained absent at first, I twisted in bed shortly after retiring to awaken in what felt like a coffin. It took seconds to awaken to a groggy-enough state to hear a chorus of drunken-sounding yells amid the rattle of unlubricated bearings and the brays of mules.

“Stinky coach-driving thugs,” I muttered, as I heard gunshots one after another. “Go away.”

There were more such interruptions overnight, and when the morning came, I awoke with a start and banged my head. Not merely had no one fetched me, but no watch had been set.

“Nor was it needed,” said the soft voice. “If you pick your time of departure correctly, you can leave during the day.”

“How?” I asked.

“You did not look at the back side of that meadow, did you?” asked the soft voice. “There's a back road that heads east and south.”

“Does it go to the kingdom house?” I asked.

“While it does go there,” said the soft voice, “it would not help the cause to arrive there by that road. However, it has junctures that will lead back to the High Way about two miles north of that eastbound road to the kingdom house.”

“And we dodge those three nasty towns and their respective Public Houses,” I said.

“Those and much more,” said the soft voice. “The 'witches' have become sufficiently 'forward' in this area that the crown is sending guards out to deal with them peremptorily.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Not everyone in the second kingdom house is a witch, or wishes to be a witch,” said the soft voice, “even if many influential people are.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“There are three for every one at home,” said the soft voice. “The population of the second kingdom house is more than three times as large. The house proper has an even bigger size and population disparity.”

“Meaning I'm about as likely to run into Generals there as I did in the house proper at home?” I asked.

“If you stay with the group,” said the soft voice, “it is possible you might not see them at all.” A brief pause, then “Lukas hasn't posted in the house recently, and between you, Karl, and Sepp, you saw more Generals outside of General's Row than everyone else put together. Hence, his comments.”

I wondered about breakfast, so much so that when I came to where I recalled some Kuchen being hidden I heard someone in the tents stirring, then when I turned, I saw Gilbertus. He was looking at the remains of the the fire, as well as the pile of wood next to the firepit.

“No one stayed up,” he softly muttered. “No one.”

“I was told we didn't need to set a watch in this place,” I said, as I continued looking for food. “I'm not sure how much writing is left, but I was told we could leave during the daytime if we went the back way.”

The camp began awakening within minutes. Why, I didn't know, save for slivers of light coming in from the west announcing sunrise; within half an hour, there was water boiling for cleaning dishes, and talk of camp-bread. I'd found a Kuchen and some dried meat, gnawed them down, cleaned my weapons properly, and visited the privy.

I'd also looked over our writing.

As I lit the lanterns in the tent, the other three writers slowly awoke to the smell of what was now cooking. Someone was mixing what might have been 'dough' of some kind, while the fragrant steaming odor coming from without the tent spoke of cherry jam being 'compounded' and 'watered'. I soon found myself alone in the tent looking at the papers that were ready to ink.

“How much more do we need to do?” I asked.

“Perhaps enough for another two hours work,” said Hendrik from outside. “I recall some of the roads in this area, though less well than I would like.”

“I was told there was a back way that would keep us out of the, uh, bad area,” I said. “I'm not sure what else it's good for.”

“Game, perhaps,” said Gabriel, as he came inside to take his place. “I recall enough of the second kingdom house to know they always appreciate fresh meat.”

“Is that place really big?” I asked.

“The town, or house proper?” asked Gabriel. “Both are a good deal larger than in the first kingdom.”

“And the house proper?” I asked. “It...”

“It tends to have all of its floors well-populated,” said Gabriel. “At home, only the entry floor is that way.”

“And the others have...”

“I think that has to do with the original purpose of that house,” said Hendrik, as he came in the tent and took his place at the table. “It was the last built, and it was built during a time when Norden's people showed regularly in the area, more so than they do today.”

“Siege?” I asked.

“That also,” said Hendrik. “The first portion made of the kingdom house was closest to the house proper. Over time, as the house expanded to the south, there was talk of a fortified area being built closer to that portion of town.”

“The Swartsburg?” I asked.

“The same,” said Hendrik. “By then, the town was near its current size, and a group of people began constructing the walls of that place. It took them nearly twenty years to build the outer walls, at least according to the Annals I've read recently.”

“When was that?” I asked.

“One hundred and nine years ago, if those records do not lie,” said Hendrik. “It took another thirty years for the Swartsburg to start showing itself black at times, and thirty years further labor within what was then a walled city to make it like it was until recently.”

“And now?” I asked.

“I know but little more than you,” he said, “and unlike you, I have no good way of learning more.”

“Will you, uh, speak of that matter?” I asked softly.

“It is likely that they know of it already,” said Hendrik. “I am not sure if they know how it was done, or who was involved, or much else regarding details.”

“And if they do know?” I asked. “Will that alter their perception of me?”

“I am not sure,” said Hendrik. “That might go either way.”

After resuming the writing – the cooking outside was in full 'swing' – Hendrik said, “on second thought, it might well be for the best.”

“How?” I asked.

“Firstly, the witches would be disinclined to try for someone who has demonstrated that degree of lethal prowess,” said Hendrik, “and for those otherwise, they might well have a favorable attitude.”

“Much as if they were seeing one of Charles' own people?” asked Gabriel.

Hendrik looked at Gabriel, then at me, and nodded slowly. We resumed writing.

Gabriel finished his 'stack' first, and while I went over it a last and final time, he began stacking it preparatory to fitting the various portions into one of several stitched leather binders. As he did, I changed the drying sheet of paper with one Kees had just inked.

“Will they want copies, and how will they get them?” I asked.

“They will,” said Hendrik. “The usual is to copy them on-site, but with these, I think that very unwise. They'll need copying at home.”

“Meaning I'll have my hands full then,” said Kees.

“You and a number of others,” said Hendrik. “I'll most likely be busy writing up what we learn in the process of serving it up...”

A yell came from without, and Sepp came to the door with an uncommonly fluffy-looking brown chunk in one hand and a tin of jam in the other.

“This stuff is good,” he said. “I think I might want it again, it's so good.”

“We need a break,” said Hendrik. “I'm glad we're nearly done.”

The 'camp bread' proved to be a cross between Kuchen and common rye bread for flavor, with a lighter texture compared to either food and a pleasantly sweet taste. I noted the source of steam – my larger copper pot – and asked, “what is cooking?”

“That would be broth,” said Gilbertus. “There's enough for lunch there, especially once I add the potatoes and carrots.”

“That wine,” I mumbled. “That stinky honeyed stuff. It needs it for flavor.”

Gabriel looked at me, then wordlessly left.

Now what did I say?” I asked.

“I talked to that last publican about wine in cooking,” said Gilbertus, “and while most cooks think it to be a waste of both food and wine, that fellow went and looked it up for me.”

“And?” I asked.

“He said the best sort to use was honeyed wine,” said Gilbertus, “especially certain types. I got a little of that stuff Kees bought and he started laughing.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Kees was sold,” said Gabriel. “This is not drinking wine, but cooking wine, and that publican had a copy of the best cookbook to be had.” Gabriel handed the jug to me, then said, “how did you know about it? The usual way?”

I shook my head, uncorked the jug – the noise it made was unmistakable – and poured a few glugs into the broth. I then corked the jug, handed it back to Gabriel – and nearly spewed with the reek of the stuff.

The comments resulting as we finished with the writing, however, were most appreciative, for I heard slurping noises now and then. Someone was preparing a most-delicious lunch, or so I suspected.

“Now how will we travel with a pot-full of soup?” I asked, as I changed sheets of paper.

“Mostly by dipping our cups or mugs and drinking up,” said Gabriel. “The more-solid portions will keep passably until lunchtime, most likely.”

“Won't that be when we, uh, move out?” I asked.

“It's but midmorning at the latest,” said Hendrik. “We did not sleep as much as we thought we did.”

Gabriel proved not merely prescient, but also practical; the broth was not merely rich, but filling. It worked well for a departure-fortifier, and as we set off to the east through the meadow, I looked at the actual 'time'. It was, indeed, midmorning.

The rear portion of the meadow had a narrow-seeming road – buggy-width and a foot to spare – which meant riding single-file unless one wished to chance jostling one another. The buggy-horses brushed their sides against the bushes, which made for a steady whisper of noise. The road went almost directly east for nearly a quarter mile, then began a gentle turn. I was checking the compass now and then, and waiting for the chance to 'break out' of this otherwise copse-like woodlot.

It took roughly half an hour of such slow travel, and during that time, I learned no small amount. We had needed the rest. More, there was game in this 'thicket', for as we came to a sudden 'kink', I heard the 'bad-calliope' sound of a quoll suddenly answered by another bird of the same kind – and then, a guttural gurgling noise interrupted by a muffled basso drumming.

“What was that?” I whispered.

“That might have been a fool-hen,” said Gabriel. “I've heard they make noises like...”

“AWWREEE-eeee-EEEP!”

“I know that sound,” I muttered. “I do not wish to encounter the elk that made it.”

The copse-like nature of the woodlot gradually thinned shortly thereafter, even as the road continued curving to the right, and when we finally broke out of the trees and into a meadowland, we were headed almost due south. This country was slightly rolling, compared to the dead-seeming flatness to the north, and far in the distance to the east and south, I could see the beginnings of what looked like hills. I wondered what lay to the other side of them, beyond more of the same.

“The valley starts a bit south of the second kingdom house,” said Gabriel, as he pulled up beside me, “and I'm glad those confiscated muskets...”

A thundering boom nearly made me leap from Jaak's back and onto the ground, and when I turned to see someone – Karl, most likely – ride off to the side, I asked, “what was that?”

While there was no answer immediately, Karl promptly returned with a marmot. We needed to pause, obviously, and I thought to check the buggy-hubs while waiting.

By the time I'd felt the hubs – all were fine – the marmot had been gutted and part-skinned, and I looked to see Lukas cleaning one of the muskets.

“They had this thing loaded with a ball,” he said, “and it needed emptying.”

“No safe place to do so?” I asked.

He shook his head, then resumed cleaning with 'spit and tallow'.

With the marmot and used musket stowed, we resumed. I wondered about towns, so much so that when I felt one in the distance, I wondered as to the thick bluish-gray clouds billowing up from its direction. I suspected a charcoal-burner to be the smoke-producer.

“That would indeed be a town,” said Gabriel. “We might drop off that marmot there.”

“Won't they appreciate it...”

Gabriel shook his head, then said, “they prefer fancier food than is common at home.”

“Those we meet with, or..?”

“I am not certain about those otherwise,” said Gabriel. “As a student, I seldom saw them in that house.”

“Who did you see?” I asked. The town drew steadily closer.

“There was a designated 'teacher' that looked after the students,” said Gabriel, “much as there was in the third and fourth kingdom houses.” A brief pause. “Unlike elsewhere, though, that person truly looked after us.”

“What did they do?” I asked.

“Led us to every place that we might wish to go, remained with us the entire time we worked, guided us to and from our rooms, and brought us our meals as per our order,” said Gabriel. “It saved us a great deal of time and energy.”

“And you only learned what those over that woman wished you to know,” I muttered. “You only saw a small portion of that place...”

“No, we saw most of it, actually,” said Gabriel. “They hid little from us, and it wasn't that difficult to learn more.”

“N-no guards on your doors?” I asked. “No, uh, spies?”

“If there were such people,” said Gabriel, “they hid unusually well. Besides, unless you have the ability to find things, you want a guide. I've heard tales of people becoming lost for days in that house.”

“Uh...”

“If this is the second kingdom house,” said Lukas, “then he's right. I didn't rate that help, and I spent the night either sleeping or wandering around in that place before I found the entrance, and when I came out, I nearly got a large musket's worth of shot for my trouble.”

“Uh, how?”

“That place nearly swarms with guards,” said Lukas, “that and the town part. They do a lot more fetching than those at home.”

“And help with the wine-harvest,” said Gabriel, “though the house more or less sleeps for its usual work then, and the corridors ring with the sounds of rolling casks.”

“W-wine cellars?” I asked.

“Much of that house's below-ground floors are used for wine,” said Gabriel. “There, they truly are cellars, and the drink made therein shows it.”

The town – a small place, perhaps half the size of Roos – was just beginning to awaken, and the Public House was not merely welcome for the marmot carcass, but also becoming crowded. The two that went in came out with bulging bags of bread, and when I was handed half a loaf, I felt much better. I had a strange 'premonition' about securing bread in the house to come, and I now had enough to get by on for a while.

The rolling portion of our nearly straight road continued, and periodic compass checking showed it to be heading very slightly west. I could feel those towns to our right, and when we came to a small stone bridge heading over a stream, I looked up into the sky to see the 'time'.

“No, another hour or so yet,” I thought. “It's a bit early for lunch.”

The road skirted woodlots, though not in the fashion at home. The woodlots here were trimmed out of its path, seemingly, for I found shallow depressions to the sides of the road that showed where trees had once been.

“Those they cut for wood,” said Lukas. “They do a lot with wood down here, more than at home.”

“Building?” I asked.

“That especially,” said Lukas. “They might use stone for the foundations of houses, if that.”

“Swine?” I asked.

“They might see those down this way every twenty years,” said Gabriel, “and swine showing further south than the potato country is very rare.”

“Those people?” I asked.

“They might come down a little further,” said Gabriel. “That will not help our cause much, I suspect.”

“They'll want to travel by water as far as possible,” I said. “That means every, uh, inlet, harbor...”

“I wrote about that,” said Gabriel, “and I am glad you checked it over. That has never happened before.”

“During the time of the Annals, you mean,” said Hendrik. “There is mention of people that resemble those of Norden in the tapestries, and they were found over the whole of the continent at one time.”