The road more traveled, part i.


As Hendrik put up the three weapons, the men began to mill around slowly, and they moved slower yet as they began filing out of the room. Gabriel and Kees stood, and I followed their lead in the matter as Hendrik finished packing his 'gear'.

“Do you think them interested?” asked Kees.

“With these people, it is difficult to tell,” said Hendrik. “Save for a small handful, that matters very little as long as the king himself is convinced.”

“Top-down leadership structure,” I mumbled. “No feedback, and little checking.”

“That tends to be the rule in the houses,” said Hendrik. “You might wish to go outside and assay mingling.”

“Uh, who?” I asked. “Me, or..?”

“I think all of us might,” said Gabriel. “This group is closed-mouthed, even for the second kingdom.”

Once out in the main hallway, I was astonished to see a number of small groups, and while I had little clue as to 'mingle', I still heard a great deal, both on the surface, and below the surface. The 'surface' portion spoke of the commonplace at this location, that being eating and drinking. Otherwise, however, I began to 'hear' things the minute Hendrik emerged and began mingling.

The first of these was “where is your retinue? Your retainers?”, while seconds later, I heard “this is unseemly, you cur. A king must travel properly in matters of state, and this group you brought is but a tenth of what is proper for a king.” A third, however, made for wondering on my part: “what is this? Dressing for comfort, and not 'Style'?”

I continued 'moving' about among these people, wondering if any of them wished to speak to someone they did not know, when suddenly it was 'time' to return. As the group began filing back inside, I 'heard' a last and final comment that made for terror on my part:

“There is hope for you, for you travel with an arch-witch.”

I remained silent, and once inside – the main group was still taking their seats – I went back toward the table which had the unfermented beverages. I removed two more 'flagons', and brought them to our area.

“That stuff is more popular than I thought it might be,” I muttered, as I set down the two containers in front of Gabriel.

“Did you hear anything?” he asked.

I nodded, then whispered, “I'll speak of it when I try translation of what I wrote. Some of that stuff was scary enough to want to sit and think before speaking, and that among people I know.”

From the thugs themselves, Hendrik now went to swine. Based on both what I heard and felt, neither northern thugs nor Iron Pigs were at all common in the area, so much so that both were commonly thought to be fables by many. Those less-foolish believed them to be an issue to the north – and a non-issue locally, so long as one did not include the potato country.

They were a grave issue there – both as to digging graves, and for other reasons.

“Does growing potatoes confer high status?” I whispered.

“It can,” whispered Gabriel, “and if one has decent holdings and manages them well, a good income.”

“Good?” I whispered. I wanted to ask 'how good'?

“Most of the second kingdom's students at the higher schools come from either that location or this one,” said Gabriel.

There were drawings in the documentation, and I now saw one of them begin to circulate down the table, followed by another. The first drawing was that of an Iron Pig, while the second drawing was of the plate that had been on the pig I had shot. Both drawings had attached writing.

“Where did these comments come from?” asked one of the men after he'd received the second drawing. He was on the left hand side, three down from the 'lectern'.

“Those were deduced by careful observation of that animal's plate,” said Hendrik, “as well as testing at length.”

“I've never seen such comments before,” said the 'inquisitor'. “Most...”

He ceased in mid-sentence and turned pale, then said shakily, “what gives with testing that rubbish? Who says that their metal is better?”

“Why is it you ask?” said Hendrik icily. “You yourself saw the weapons I displayed.” Hendrik paused, then said, “the person who did that testing is here. Now, do you think an instrument-maker is fit to speak of metal and its quality, or its lack thereof?”

The man spluttered for a moment until that one individual I had seen earlier held his finger to his lips. Hendrik's presentation continued smoothly, and the splutterer resigned himself to his 'fate'.

However, the presentation was not to remain smooth, for once Hendrik had finished speaking of Norden's weapons, he began speaking of ours. His language made for difficulty, as not merely had he used my statements verbatim – difficult-to-pronounce words included – but also he'd included some examples of the results of trying to fight with the common type of sword.

He did not spare the instances where I was 'blown up' by fetish-grade weapons, either, and as I watched, I saw expressions I could not begin to read play across the faces of most of these men – until Hendrik finished the 'edged weapon section' with the following:

“While our weapons may look better than what is commonplace at Norden, that is their sole portion of desirability. They are made for appearances, and not for serious use.” He paused, then said, “and the converse, and all that is meant by it, is manifested in the weapons of Norden.”

The faces of those I saw went from unreadable to all-too-readable, even by my standards, and my ears 'rang' with scarce-restrained enraged shouts and vile-sounding curses. Hendrik ignored what was beginning to play out before him, and he passed around another page of drawings.

“This shows the range of what Norden currently uses,” he said. “I myself was surprised to learn that they have scouting parties that are armed with weapons able to be concealed readily.”

“Have you seen these weapons?” asked one of the 'scowling crew'.

Hendrik nodded, then said, “several of them, in fact, including one that was directly retrieved from such a scouting party.”

“How?” asked the previous questioner.

“A portion of that scouting party was killed by bombs,” said Hendrik, “and their bodies were inspected briefly before the remaining bombs were repaired for the oncoming balance of that group. Based on the testimony of those witnesses, other such weapons have been found and identified.”

“How long are these weapons?” asked a second man.

“The usual sword from Norden varies in length much as ours do,” said Hendrik, “and is similar as to size, shape and appearance, if one discounts color and apparent workmanship. Those swords intended for scouting parties are typically a bit more than half that length, with thinner blades and rudimentary furnishings.” Hendrik paused, then said, “they also tend to be done to a slightly higher standard than is usual for Norden blades.”

“Rubbish, all of it is rubbish,” spat an older man seated on the right near the other end of the table. “I'll not hear another insult about that which we do, and...”

That one older man near the end of the table seemed to be looking with fixed gaze upon this latest speaker, and in soft words said, “if you think the matter rubbish, then go north in a few months and cross swords with those northern people.” He paused briefly to drink, then continued, saying, “I myself have seen enough blades break up in this area to wonder as to why they do so, and I know others wonder as well, for they've told me.”

“Sir,” I said softly. “Perhaps he needs to see something that isn't rubbish.”

“Do you have a sample?” asked the man who had last spoken.

“He does,” said Hendrik.

I stood slowly, then walked around the table. All eyes seemed to be upon me, and it was all I could do to not bolt for the door, even as I passed the man who had spat the word 'rubbish'. I felt reminded of all that I had seen at home, for it was being played out here as well.

Still, there was a difference compared to the commonplace substitution of hearsay and tale for what was tested truth where I worked and lived, and I could not place what it was precisely.

I came to the one man, and gently turned to my side to show the sword in its scabbard. He seemed curious, almost wondering greatly as to what I had present, and when I shifted the possible bag, he asked, “why is it you carry so much with you?”

“I myself have wondered that question,” said Hendrik, “but I have been most glad, and that many times, that he does.”

“I travel a lot near home, sir,” I said quietly, “and I have enough work for several, so I need to have much with me. Then...”

He was touching the pommel of the sword, much as if he were looking for a 'catch strap'.

“Would you like me to remove it?” I asked. His eyes indicated yes.

I slowly drew the sword, and the faint barely audible hiss spoke of a creature worse than any snake that could be imagined. His eyes seemed to slowly bulge further and further from his head, until I cleared the sheath and grasped the back portion of the blade. The glinting steel's soft waves seemed to hypnotize him, and he looked at me with an unreadable expression.

“Grasp it by the handle there,” I said softly. “The edge is very sharp.”

He did so with a tentative and faltering hand, then when he had grasped it, I carefully turned it loose. He seemed to be stunned, shocked, and terror-stricken.

“Has this one been blooded?” he asked.

“It has, and multiple times,” said Hendrik. “I myself saw what it could do in his hands.”

“No,” I thought, as the tears started. “Please, d-don't.”

“What happened?”

“Those that witnessed the combat spoke of an expert fighter dressed as a witch,” said Hendrik, “and while I did not see the actual fight, I heard that witch utter an especially evil curse.”

“Where was this?” asked the man.

“Outside the door of my office, where he and two others were at their posts,” said Hendrik. “One of the other men spoke of what happened.”

“And?” he asked. His breath seemed bated.

“I heard that witch curse again,” said Hendrik, “and then another person yelling. This last was of such speed and volume that I ran for the door, and when I opened it, I saw him” – here, he indicated me – “covered in blood, with that sword in his hand, and that witch in pieces on the floor.”

Pieces?” gasped the man. He looked at the sword in a whole new light.

“His arm was cut off cleanly, as was his head,” said Hendrik, “and his tripes were all over the floor, along with a great deal of blood from many deep cuts.”

I was trembling, and sniffled. I had been weeping, and now noticed it.

“I think that is ample,” said the man. “I do not doubt a word.”

I received my sword back, along with a rag, and I carefully blew my nose before reinserting the sword. In the process, this man most likely saw the holster for the pistol, and as I turned, he said, “you might rest as best you can, as we will be speaking of muskets presently.”

I came back to my seat in a half-blind state, and after taking a dose of the widow's formula, I sobbed. Yet in my sobbing at the recollection – I again felt like an especially evil and murderous witch, just as I had done so then – I heard, and more felt, a distinct and chilling forest of attitudes.

First among these was raw and brutal lust for my sword, and amid 'talk' that spoke of 'the primacy of blades in combat', there were other words applied to the blade itself. This talk spoke of its hunger for blood and its intense yearning to kill, as well as its sly and crafty nature. Mingled with all of these was profound disgust that I had even entertained the idea of remorse.

No, I was to rejoice in the slaughter of my enemies, and name them appropriately as I sent them to hell where they belonged.

Second among these attitudes was a related one, this being 'witches, especially those from the north, respect swords greatly, for they carry nothing else'.

“What?” I thought through my slowly decreasing tears. “They were shown that ax!”

Yet still, that belief ignored the truth. Swords were a matter of power...

Those words rang again in my mind, medieval tone and all. There were black-dressed thugs in the area, vast armies of them...

I came to myself hearing someone speaking of 'that major fortified region south and east of the first kingdom house'.

“What?” I thought. “The Swartsburg?”

The unvarnished 'truth' of the instructor's medieval lectures played over the faces of these men as if someone were playing an organ and they were each of them a single key.

“Who went in there and caused its destruction?” asked a faint-sounding yet evil voice.

There was no direct answer to this question, save the following one:

“Raise up yourselves, and hear ye word of ye king.”

I wondered what to do for an instant, even as Gabriel and Kees stood, and I stood with them. Something important was to happen shortly.

“Ye time of meeting be adjourned until ye third hour of ye morrow,” said that one intensely boring person who had started my portion of the meeting. “Array thineselves fitly with food and drink preparatory to such matters, for ye meeting shall waxeth sore and heavy then, and be ye ready to give proofs and answer rightly.”

Presently?” I thought. “Muskets?”

I remained silent until we were in a knot of four out in the hall, then asked, “what happened last?”

I am not precisely sure,” said Gabriel. “Shortly after you took your seat, you seemed to faint, and then there was speech regarding the Swartsburg and how it had been ruined, only they did not treat it as we know it.”

How did they treat it?” I asked.

I would reserve such talk for after our evening meal,” said Hendrik.

Our evening, uh, meal?” I asked. I wanted to ask where, even as I saw we were following the throng toward the stairs.

The entry floor refectory,” said Hendrik. “I recall it being much larger than at home.”

I noticed more on our passage downward than I had while traveling toward the meeting room, and with Jaak's blanket in my hands, I saw more doors than I recalled, and that on both sides. More, I saw the candles – wax, well-trimmed, in large lanterns with reflectors to their rears – on both sides at a foot above eye level. I suspected there to be roving crews of lamp-servicing people, and when we came to that 'balcony', I looked ahead down a long 'tunnel' to see a small group with a handcart.

“I doubt that is manure,” I thought, as the group worked steadily on 'something' in a dimmed hallway.

Once on the 'ground floor', the larger group moved to the right and across the hall, then into a dimly-lit corridor. I could smell food in large measure, though identifying it beyond 'food' was astonishingly difficult – and that was for the wholesome smells.

There were a host of smells that I wondered about, and some...

“I hope there is a privy close by,” I murmured. “I can smell something unpleasant.”

“I've not had trouble here,” said Gabriel. “You may wish to eat as I do.”

The odors grew stronger, and more numerous as well as 'spicy', and when a bright light showed at the end of the corridor, I marveled – until the mingled aromas swept over us like a hurricane and left me retching for an instant.

My nose and gut recovered with astonishing quickness, however, for as we came inside at the end of this crowd, the odors congealed into something vaguely oriental in nature. I wondered briefly if there was rice.

The crowd ahead of us had but one thing in mind, and seeing the food was impossible, much less getting some. I thought to find a table, and turned where I stood.

“Did Hendrik mix himself up?” I thought, as I surveyed the room. “This might be two-thirds of the size of the place at home, and it's almost as ornate-feeling as that council room was.”

The feeling was unsettling to say the least, even as I again briefly smelled what might have been rotten meat and strong drink. I began slowly stepping toward a likely-looking table.

The clean white shiny floor and walls seemed to be hiding secrets especially well, and when I came to the table in question, I noted first the table's construction – much like those at home, save fancier in a difficult-to-discern fashion – and then, the folded cloth in its middle. I began unfolding the cloth, and found that not merely was it a tablecloth, but several smaller red-embroidered cloths lay hid within it.

Slowly people gathered themselves around me as I 'arranged' the 'napkins' on the tablecloth, and when I turned, I saw the other three had procured plates and were bringing them along. I came toward them, then as they passed in silence, I wondered yet more as to what had happened. I went to the now-clear serving area, and gasped.

The vast array of serving dishes seemed to be mostly of silver, and what lay upon them in still-great profusion could be best described as 'gourmet food'. The smells seemed uncommonly enticing, so much so that when I found a glazed ceramic plate and silvery-looking fork, Gabriel's voice startled me.

“I'm glad you unfolded the cloths for that table,” he said. “I can show you what I picked.”

I walked behind him as he named off various 'dishes', and while he obviously knew his way around, I was utterly and completely lost. I looked for rye bread. It was not present.

Cabbage, the same. Not a shred of the stuff had ever been here.

Common meat? Stew? Soup? Potatoes? Carrots?

Nothing of the sort lay upon the multitude of gleaming silver 'tureens', and as Gabriel spoke of the various types of 'Nudeln', I again noticed the nausea-inducing smells.

“This stuff looks ripe for a day and a night in the privy,” I thought, as I came to a tureen piled with flaccid-looking stacks of green 'Jello'.

This last conjured a picture in my mind of such concentrated horror and misery that I recoiled from it instantly, and with each such further dish Gabriel named – I'd passed on the colorful tapeworms of what Gabriel had named Nudeln, the small 'heads' he'd called Noegen, the odd-looking pasty-white crackers covered with slimy-looking chopped reddish 'fish' – I felt more and more inclined to be sick. He then came to the well-attacked containers of Cuew.

Even that had a foreign smell, and once Gabriel had fetched a pair of ice-chilled flagons, he left me to my 'doom'. I continued looking, and at the very end of the table, I found a smaller tureen filled with obvious – and small – hardboiled eggs. I picked up two of them to put on my plate, and then noted a semi-familiar smell to my right.

There were small stacked 'silver' bowls next to a small silvery pot with a ladle, and when I looked in the pot itself, I noted a fiery reddish sauce that reminded me of ketchup and Tabasco mingled. I used the ladle to fill the bowl, then recalled seeing something similar at home. I fetched another bowl, filled it also, and put both on my plate prior to returning.

The speech I heard while walking was infrequent, and the sounds of eating – chewing, gulping, swallowing, slurping – were endemic in nature. They were also unpleasantly loud, so much so that I did not notice Gabriel's initial comments when I sat down.

“Why so little?” he asked, as I handed across one of the small bowls toward Hendrik.

“I have no idea what most of that food is,” I said, “and somehow...”

I stopped speaking, for the odor I now smelled was too strong to dismiss as mere imagination, and I felt reminded most strongly of my first encounter with the meat-crock at home. The smell was as potent, and similar as to quality. I sniffed the sauce, and found it to help with the nausea.

“What is that, uh, green stuff?” I asked, as I tentatively dipped one of the eggs into the Tabasco.

“Jellies,” said Gabriel mysteriously, and I glanced at our table. I was glad that stuff was absent. “Why do you ask?”

“It looks like something common where I came from,” I said. “That stuff was called Jello.”

Gabriel looked at me strangely, then said, “did those people enjoy High Meats?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Why?”

“Jellies are made from long-boiled High Meats,” said Gabriel, “or so it is said. Their concocting is very much a mystery.”

“And?” I asked. There was more.

“They make for grave illness and long stays in the privy should they be consumed by those not accustomed to High Meats,” said Gabriel. “I mentioned those things that gave no trouble when I last ate them, and I avoided mentioning those.”

“I think his choice was about the best for someone so ill as he,” said Hendrik.

“What are High Meats, exactly?” I asked.

“That is when meat is aged overlong,” said Gabriel, “and then it drops of its own weight onto the floor from whence it is hung.”

I then bit into the egg I had dipped.

The first thing I noted was the resemblance to Tabasco, which was quite marked. There were other flavors – a smoky 'chili pepper' taste predominating, as well as 'curry' and perhaps 'ginger' – and while the heat was less than I recalled commonplace with 'liquid fire', the duration of that heat, as well as the roast-chili aftertaste, was much longer.

It also helped markedly with the feeling of nausea I was now enduring, and I dipped the remainder of the egg into the sauce, then devoured it. I was poking the second egg with my fork when I heard faintly on the edge of hearing a tormented scream followed by a thunderous crash. I looked around to see a room whose sole interest was eating. Those at the table had not heard a thing.

“Someone is hurt,” I said quietly. “I need to help him.”

The imploring eyes I saw seemed to have but one message, and I dismissed it with a jerk, thinking, “no, it cannot wait, not for the hours this infernal meal is likely to take.” I stood, then tiptoed toward the door, and trotted down the hallway. Once out into the main floor area, I looked, sniffed, listened.

“There?” I pointed with my arm. “Two stories above this one?”

I sprinted toward the stairs, and even with my short run, I cleared all of them with a single bound, then turned hard to the right so as to make the balcony. I didn't have enough speed to hit the wall, thankfully, but as I ran down the balcony 'run', I heard the whistle-scream of rapid travel in my ears until I slowed to 'set up' for a hard left turn.

I made the turn without slamming into the wall and shot down a dim-lit corridor. It had a tight staircase at its end, and when I came to it, I leaped from a standing position to the first landing, hopped to the side, then leaped again to land out in the corridor of the third floor.

I could smell the smoke of burning, and as I trotted down the dim-lit corridor, I noted among the burnt-flesh smell the reek of badly-rendered tallow, even as I came to a cross-passage and went down it. The location in question was but a short distance away, and when I came to the door, I could hear and feel it vibrating with screams.

I jerked the door open anyway, and went from near-darkness into a realm of intense light.

It was more than light, however, for I smelled the acrid bite of molten metal and the stink of burn human flesh. I went inside cautiously, even as the screaming redoubled in both pitch and volume.

In an eyeblink's time, I took in the scene, that being a sizable room with nearly a dozen individuals working on jewelery. I wondered as to the time of day for such labor, even as I followed my nose to the chief source of the burnt-flesh smell. I turned left, and not ten feet distance lay an unconscious man.

Each step seemed to take a minute, while the screaming noises steadily dropped in pitch, and I watched my steps move of themselves. I then saw the apron, and below it, his clothing – and below that, a fist-sized blackened hole. I looked to his left, and saw the shattered remains of a still-glowing crucible. I then knew the following, and that instantly:

The others in the room could do nothing for him.

There were no real medical people on the premises; there was a self-styled 'doctor' – a thoroughly drunken quack – sleeping off his latest binge.

It was either pray to heal him now, or pray at his interment in the very near future.

I came to the man's side, and waved my left hand at the fragments of the crucible. For some reason, I was not surprised that they moved obediently almost to the nearest wall, where they billowed thick white fumes upon contacting fresh dirt.

The overpowering smell of burnt flesh was now conjoined with an intense pain in my thigh, and I looked down to see a blackened hole burnt through my trousers and my leg. A slow-spreading yellow-tinted puddle was coming out from under his leg, and tears flowed down my cheeks as I gently picked him up and moved him to the side.

Amid my tears, I saw a gleaming white-hot shimmering blob of metal, and its eerie radiance spoke of both tremendous heat and blinding light.

I began to pray – and in what seemed like a lightning-strike of time, I was not merely not all the way 'here', but the roof, walls, and floors had vanished to be replaced by thick bluish-white fogs and flames. I felt much better, for some reason, and began to 'gather' the flames above my head into a ball.

With each such addition, the noise and 'fierceness' of the ball increased, and the hum-buzz-roar-whine of the thing as it hopped and jolted frantically in my left hand while I added more with my right was a marvel. I wondered as to 'how much' I needed, even as I continued gathering.

When the angry-sounding ball of 'energy' was nearly four feet across, I moved his hand away from his wound, moved aside the charred leather and cloth, and placed my right index finger next to the hole. I started to move it in a vague circular motion, much as I had done with Freek's hand, but this time, the energy didn't flow in steadily as if I were 'arc-welding'.

Time stood still, even as the missing and damaged portions of the man's leg seemed to be outlined with filaments of lightning, then with a thundering roar and brilliant flash, the ball of energy vanished and I flew backwards through the air.

I was too shocked to try to 'land' in any special fashion or area, and I flew bodily into a workbench, which sent tools flying through the air as the bench toppled onto its side. I then landed on top of the thing as it slid across the floor and banged into a large brick 'edifice'.

The warmth of this 'thing' – it might have been an oven, but I wasn't sure – was profound, and I scampered away from it right away. I uprighted the workbench, and looked at it carefully, even as the sense of time being slow began fading.

“It seems all right,” I thought, as I turned from the wood of the workbench and back toward the man on the floor. “Now I wonder about him.”

The man was still unconscious where I had put him, and when I traced out the blackened hole in first his apron and then his trousers, I marveled at both holes and the faintly shiny place on his otherwise unblemished skin. I touched that spot, and saw it blend in further, until no trace remained. I then noted the heat to my right, and looked.

“That, uh, blob isn't a blob no more,” I thought. “What happened to it?”

I glanced at the 'blob', and saw it had been turned into a perfectly round disk about three inches across, with what looked to be a wreath of precise high-relief engraving. I then recalled the more-important issue, and turned him carefully on his side after feeling his pulse. I arranged his arms for support, then asked softly, “is there a towel or b-blanket?”

I then noted the lack of screaming, and I stood up. Everyone in the room, other than myself, had collapsed upon the floor.

“I'd best find one, then,” I thought, as I began looking, and within seconds, there was an instant of blackness, and I came to myself on my knees. I looked around and noticed not merely where I was, but how sore and tired I was, just as I saw what looked like a patchwork quilt of dirty ragged cloth.

I shook this out, then began stumbling back toward the man, and I 'tucked him in' with the nasty-feeling thing. I wanted water; water to wash with, both my face and hands, and then water to drink that wasn't a quick recipe for dysentery. I went to look for it, and after a fruitless search for such a liquid in the 'shop', I was 'arrested' at the door by the first individual of a slow-growing crowd in the hallway without.

“What happened here?” asked someone from further back in the crowd. I could scarcely hear him.

“If I know him,” said Hendrik's voice, “someone was hurt, and he went to their aid.”

“But how?” said another. The voice's seeming was one of abject confusion.

Movement came from without, and Gabriel came in. His panting spoke of rapid progress, and when he looked at the man laying covered, he shook his head.

“It was wrong to leave?” I asked.

“That is but a trivial matter,” said Gabriel. “Some will object, but... What happened to him?”

“He had a sizable burn injury,” I said. “I think he had a crucible filled with molten silver and was going to cast something.”

“That smells,” said Gabriel. “No one normally works at this hour, especially in this area.”

“Uh, all of these people were working,” I said, as I glanced around, “and I suspect the matter is an important one.”

“It is,” said that one particular man, as he came in the door, “and hence they and a number of others were working the fourth kingdom's hours in order to attempt its completion in time.” He paused, sniffed, then said, “that type of burn is beyond the ability of any doctor I have heard of.”

“Those here, or..?” asked Gabriel.

“Those that name themselves that way here would pour the dregs of their latest drink into such a wound,” he said, “and would then return to their drinking. There are said to be people who know medicine to the north and south.”

“And he was apprenticed to some of those people,” said Gabriel.

“I meant those people also when I spoke,” he said. “They would be able to do nothing for him beyond relieve his pain until he died, and that would have happened quickly, if I go by that...”

He stopped in mid-sentence, then I turned to the man on the floor. He was beginning to move, and I knelt down beside him.

“Please, stay clear of those crucible fragments,” I said quietly, as I pointed to them. “Yes, those things there. They're still very hot.”

The man on the floor moaned, and put his hand on his injury. His eyes fluttered, then he softly moaned.

“Rest easy,” I said. “I think you are all right now.”

“W-what happened?” he asked.

“I've never used that type of crucible before,” I said, “but I have used enough crucibles to watch for cracks, and I know about hot metal and burns.” I reached up to touch the back of my neck briefly, and as I brought my hand down, someone asked softly “what did you just do?”

“I was burned there by a red-hot rivet a few months ago,” I said, “and that wasn't the first burn I've had.”

“Am I dead?” asked the man on the floor.

“No, you aren't,” I said. “You had a very severe third-degree burn on your leg, and I think the crucible was cracked.”

“Those like that are hard to tell that way,” said another voice from behind me. “Those used in foundries are a bit easier to tell.”

“I've used those,” I said. “Tap them with a stick, and if they 'clunk', they're junk.”

Another voice from behind me, this one higher-pitched, spoke of filing something...

“Then I heard him scream, and I saw the smoke, and everyone in here started screaming,” he said. “It was as if...”

“As if what?” asked that one man. “I myself spoke of the need for that set, and everything was taken down here along with the drawings and what else was present.”

The abrupt squelching of audible comment was not reflected in what I heard and felt, and I put the matter in the back of my mind. It would need later questioning, and this was not a location that seemed wise for it.

I'd seen the reaction to naming our 'weapons' as they truly were, and I doubted finishing the man's sentence – “the witches had cursed us for our lack of effort in bringing forth their desired results” being foremost in my mind – would have a beneficial effect.

“We knew nothing more until just now,” said one of those who I had seen at the rear of the 'shop'. He'd been unconscious, for some reason. I had trouble deciphering how, and more importantly, why.

The still-warm silver disc now 'acquired' my attention, and I slowly moved in its direction, even as more people began moving into the room. Its heat demanded tongs, and when I felt in my possible bag, I was surprised to find pincers ready to hand. I picked up the disk with them, now slowly moving through the gathering throng while speaking of hot metal, and once clear, I began looking for a container of some kind to cool it off.

As I looked, I heard scraps of conversation – “I was filing” – “burns like that usually kill in a hurry” – “doctors are worthless” – “I'd sooner see her what runs the laundry” – and finally, “ye king soundeth disappointed that his wish be not so soon fulfilled.”

Where the last person had divined that matter was a mystery, as the king...

“Is that him?” I thought, as I spied what might have been a barrel by that one tall 'edifice'.

There were no eyes for what I was doing, and when I smelled the barrel's acrid and sharp vinegar odor, I knew it wasn't what I wanted. Another such barrel stood some distance away, and when I walked toward that one, I could 'feel' that aspect of 'hands away' growing. This matter was getting under some people's skins in a tremendous way, and the quenching of the disk in what proved to be scum-surfaced water provided a hissing interruption to the multitude of speakers.

“At least it can be handled without burning the fingers now,” I murmured, as I walked back toward the front of the shop. “I wonder what this thing is?”

That one individual seemed to be by himself, or so I thought when I saw him speaking with Hendrik. I touched my finger to my mouth to wet it, then touched the disk. It was cool to the touch, and I held it out palm upward to the two men. I had a pressing matter to attend to, and once the disk was in their hands, I busied myself in hunting for an oily rag among my things. Once found, I began to wipe my pincers carefully.

Within seconds of beginning my wiping, however, I heard a quiet voice speaking, and I looked up to see a very serious-faced man. I left off with my wiping for a moment.

“I was told of the bridge before you came,” he said, “and if ever I held an omen of great import, I am holding one now. Have you any idea as to what this is?”

“I spent little time looking at it, sir,” I said. “That injured man had my entire attention until he was safe, and when people started coming in, I thought to pick it up and cool it off so they didn't get burned. I thought it an engraving of some kind, actually.”

“You do engraving, don't you?” he asked.

“As far as I know, I don't,” I said. “If I mark things at all, I'm careful where I do so, and I commonly use stamps, or perhaps some chisels with very small points.”

“If those are gravers,” he said, “then that would be engraving.” He paused, then said, “and what else I was told of you was such that I had much trouble believing it.”

He looked at the disk again, then as he continued looking, he murmured, “a common saying in this area is 'belief is much easier when one sees the matter plainly', and this is as plain as one can ask for. I have seen engravings many times, but I have never seen one like this. Here, look at it.

I came slowly around to his side, then as he held the disk in the palm of his hand, I saw its 'picture' move. The term 'silver screen' came to me, and I recalled small video players – but as I watched, I knew this thing made both movies and videos look worthless for detail.

In slow motion, the disk showed a monochromatic forest of lines, crosshatching, shadow, and brilliance, and this pictured in stunning clarity and focus all that had occurred for that nightmarish episode. I was seeing portions that I recalled at first, and the 'point-of-view' was identical to what I actually experienced. I saw...

The hurried glances to left and right as I went through the forest after meeting the wolves, then the wide-open spaces where I went like the wind itself – and then, arriving at the bridge, the foray into the forest among those people...

I looked at the face of the man I now knew to be the king, and his face was a study in both concentration and what might have been horror. His hands shook, and as I watched, he blinked as a massive flash lit up his face like lightning, then another, then several more one after another. I could hear plainly the screams of burning thugs, the bursting eruptions of jugs of strong drink, and more...

Again, I looked at his face. White-knuckled he stood trembling there, and I glanced at the disk. Here, it showed me making that one hide, first from an overhead view, then from my 'frontal' perspective. The thugs were coming quick and fast, and the sudden eruption of snow as I came out of the hide nearly lit up his face like the explosions in the camp. I glanced at the disk.

A closeup showed the terror growing upon the chief thug's face as his worst nightmare came to life, and his rune-curse died upon his lips as his lifeblood sprayed out in a crimson geyser to drip off of the branches of the tree above him. The off-white clothing of a hunched-over 'monster' went to dappled scarlet within what seemed a fraction of a second, and when that 'monster' turned, I shuddered.

Never had I seen eyes as this creature had, for while they were not glowing, they seemed to all but burn with ferocity – and with a lunge too quick to follow, it waded into the fray as if made for that express purpose, and the blood and body parts flew crazily as sword and ax found their targets.

The speed at which this happened, even in 'slow motion', was such that I marveled, while the white snow became clotted and red with blood in the wake of this one-man army as it paved the ground for nearly twenty feet to each side of its path with the slain. I saw terrifying gymnastics with both sword and ax, such that there was a 'ring' of lethal steel about the blood-drenched center of attention – until with a sudden burst of flying body parts, the 'creature' was free, and ran like the wind, first one way, then skidding to a stop, then back the way it had come first – and there, the bloodbath resumed.

Heads and helmets flew to each side as blood sprayed crazily in a myriad crimson arcs and formed a dense cloud of crimson mist, and the gymnastics with sword and ax continued. I saw a single blow of the ax cleave someone's head such that their upper skull and its pureed brains flew twenty feet, then slice open someone's gut, then on the return stroke remove an arm and sword and finish with slinging a head to the right, with all of this seeming to happen in eyeblink sequence while the sword carved a path of its own in likewise fashion.

The shaking of the man next to me was enough to put my finger on his arm, and as I watched his face, I saw the other portions of the battle slowly play themselves out over his eyes. It was if I were seeing the reflection of the light coming from the disk mirrored in his face, and after a minute, I thought to look at the disk again.

Here, that 'creature' was walking the battlefield, leaving bloody footprints in its wake. Its clothing was sliced up such that it was trailing behind in stringy and bloody rags, and when it came to the first of the fallen, it did not hesitate.

It removed the head with a swing of the ax, and kicked it aside as it went to the next one, where it did the same with the sword.

The whole seemed mechanical, at least until the creature had walked the entirety of the blood-soaked field, and from that point on, I saw portions that I had but heard about: the desire for my burning, the ride home in a sled while swathed in blankets, talk of 'a corpse that needed burying', and then arrival to be washed of blood at the house prior to laying for days in a near-coma.

“I never saw most of that,” said Hendrik. He was on the other side of this king.

“What do you speak of?” he asked.

“There was talk of burning him as a witch, and much else,” said Hendrik, “but I had no idea there was so much talk that way, and so many desiring to do so.”

“W-witch?” muttered the man. He said no more, for the disk had his entire attention once again.

The disk then flashed abruptly, went blank, and then, it resumed 'playing'. Here, it showed scenes from long before my dealing with the first Iron Pig: cautious and carefully planned information-gathering of a systematic nature, this being directed in person by an obvious 'Thinker' from Norden; multiple small-scale landings, several of them at night...

I shook violently upon seeing the truth of what we faced. I knew Norden's prowess was underestimated greatly by nearly everyone, but I thought I had an idea as to their capacity. I now knew I had underestimated them as well, and nearly to the same degree as was usual in the first kingdom.

I then saw meetings between Norden's people and our own, and while I did not recognize the people, I had an idea as to the locations of these meetings. One such location looked so familiar I gasped.

“You rigged that witch-hole,” said Hendrik. “Good that those traitors will not use it any longer.”

The scenery segued abruptly to that of Norden's interior, where an ice-hall meeting had Ultima Thule becoming irate and slicing up three tin-wearers just to get a point across, then the provisioning of that one ship with its pig and fifteen 'spies'. Here, I saw them to indeed by spies, for all of them had 'concealable' weapons, clumsy-looking 'packs' and bags, and 'writing pads' hidden in their 'field dress'.

“Th-that-that's...” stammered the king of the second kingdom.

“That illustrates those small groups,” said Hendrik. “That one had a pig, for some reason. They usually don't.”

“Large pigs, no,” I said. “They commonly take smaller swine, as those are a bit less dangerous.”

“Why do they take the pigs then?” asked the king of the second kingdom.

“It seems those pigs are uncommonly capable when it comes to warfare,” I said. “If one of them travels a given area, it is able to record all that it experiences and then communicate what it knows to the other pigs, and that in great detail.”

“They what?” he asked. “Those pigs speak?”

“Not as you or I do,” I said, “but they do speak. I was told a great deal, and it's all written down in the portions dealing with those swine.”

The disk now showed what the pig had done before Hans and I had encountered it. It had bided its time regarding 'people' – it preferred the taste of raw human to all other meat, and its appetite was insatiable – and had instead hunted game for its 'followers', then found places where they could rest readily in poor conditions. This had continued for two days, until the day before I had seen the pig. There, it became 'frustrated', and as an object lesson killed and ate three of its followers.

The survivors had moved faster thereafter, they stopped much less to 'rest', and they 'respected' the pig much more.

Yet still, the pig remained frustrated, so much more that when it came to the village of Maarten and Katje, it had turned on its people again – and from that point on, it had wanted to smash up the town in an orgy of killing. My shooting it had stopped the pig in its tracks and scattered its followers.

From that point, there were two more small-scale landings to scout the 'likely' landing area, and then the sailing of the thirty-ship 'armada', finding that one group of guards 'in position' and waiting – and then the thugs killed our men with ridiculous ease as the musket balls pinged off of their soot-blossomed armor.

“Uh, not even powder-burn range does much to that plate,” I murmured.

“That disk would prove what you said about those you called Thinkers,” said Gabriel from my elbow, “and boughten traitors among our own. Our choices are these: either we face them in absolute unity, or be swallowed up by flames and swine.”

I but partly heard Gabriel, for I now realized how affected I was by what had happened, and as I turned away from the disk, I saw the one burned man. He was fingering his burnt apron and clothing.

“L-longer tongs, and c-c-common crucibles,” I muttered, as someone took my hand in theirs and began 'hustling' me out of the shop. I wondered who it was, and I looked to see Gabriel on my right.

“What did I do wrong now?” I asked softly.

“I seriously doubt you did anything 'wrong',” said Gabriel. “That disk has made much of our case, I suspect.”

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Back to the refectory,” said Gabriel. “We need to at least finish the first course.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“That would be best,” said Hendrik. “I'm glad you left just the same.”

“Is it wrong?” I asked.

“That would be best spoken of in private,” said Kees faintly, “and not just your questions. I have some of my own.”

Returning to the refectory was a shock and surprise, for a 'swarm' of cooks were clearing up the plates from the tables. The 'serving places' were entirely bare, and as I watched – I was gnawing on that which was in my possible bag, and drinking the remains of what was in my water-bottle – the 'second course' came in.

If anything, this was more elaborate than what had been laid out before, and the odors were at once exotic, familiar, and noxious. The combination induced nausea, so much so that I wondered briefly where a privy lay. I thought to ask.

“Is there a privy near here?” I asked.

“I suspect there is,” said Hendrik. “There must be two or more refectories on the entry floor, as the one I recall was easily thrice this size, and much less fancy as to its appointments.”

“Were you a student then?” I asked.

“My last year's traipsing,” he said.

“Where are the others?” I asked.

“Most likely in our room,” said Gabriel. “Such as they...”

Hendrik looked at Gabriel, then said to me, “I never saw that before.”

“You mean this society has 'classes'?” I asked softly. “As in 'commoners' and, uh, 'lords'?”

Hendrik nodded, then did an obvious double-take.

“I saw that word on a tapestry,” he said.

“Which word?” I asked.

“The second one you used,” he said. “I've never seen it used elsewhere, nor heard it used until you just spoke it.”

“And what did you mean, Gabriel?” I asked quietly. “Is that attitude a common one here?”

Gabriel looked at me in blank-faced shock, then said, “what did I say?”

A faint 'silver bell' tinkled ominously, and someone shouted, “raise ye yourselves up!”

I stood with the others, and as something 'droned' singsong fashion for nearly a minute, I wondered yet more as to what was happening. I again felt reminded of 'Henry the eighth', but hard on the heels of such thinking was 'this isn't like anything I've heard of or read about, either in history or fiction' – and, at the very bottom, were unpleasant and horrific memories, chiefly recalled perceptions that I had endured for my entire life prior to coming here.

Those spoke of but one place, and to dwell upon such thoughts since the cellar and its flaming was to endure unsleeping nightmares. The others moved, and I followed behind them like a whipped dog.

At least, at some level I moved like a whipped dog. I also felt inclined to chant as per the vague glimpses I'd had of the military, something like 'left-right-left' repeated ad-nauseum, but that wasn't the precise thing that seemed to go with how I felt.

The feeling had far too much compulsion and control to be the result of mere military life. I was so unnerved that I felt along my sleeves for the strings of the puppetmaster, then glanced up to see more glossy white stone above my head.

“I'm glad they do not have carvings in here,” I thought.

Yet while the carvings were not present, a great many malodorous things lay in close proximity, and here, I suspected I would need to 'choose'...

“Choose my poison?” I thought, as the line jostled ahead of me. “This stuff is making me sick.”

The line abruptly split and moved to the right, and rigid-footed I marched with feet lifted high and slammed down until my pointed boots kicked the table itself. The plates – lime-green color, precisely matched, and gilded in intricate designs spelling out the hiding curse along with others like it – jumped into the air. I found one of these accursed plates in my hands, along with a black stone knife...

“What?” I squeaked. “What is happening, urgh?”

I nearly spewed with the smell of obvious rotten food, then noticed that I indeed had a plate in hand. As I had 'seen' before, it was lime green and gilded, but its designs were absent. Gabriel was to my right, and he was using a silver serving 'utensil' to handle another batch of Noegen.

Not merely was the gleaming utensil contrary – it wanted to bind up when it didn't wobble horribly – but its high-polish finish was obviously a 'smokescreen'. I had never seen anything project that aura so clearly before – and after Gabriel picked up two of those 'sculpted' pastries that reminded me of bleached shrunken heads, I noticed the wide silver pans to their right.

There were two of these things, and while their shape was not that of a stereotypical coffin, I still thought of the descriptions of premature burial I had read about when much younger. Those viands that filled them were obvious 'fowls' of some kind, and while one was recognizable as a younger species of quoll, the other birds were unlike anything I'd ever seen.

“What are those things?” I asked, as I pointed to the near-spherical 'Rock Cornish Game Hens'.

“I think those are squabs,” said Gabriel. “They raise those differently here, and...”

The sudden surge of bile was so strong that I nearly smacked myself with the plate, then I jumped out of line and set the plate down on the nearest table as I ran for the door. The nausea had crept up on me due to being 'distracted', and I began to run. I did not wish to spray the walls with vomit.

While I ran blindly, I also seemed to know where I was heading, and when a brown-hued door showed to my right I leaped to the side. The door opened with a crash, and I nearly collided with two walls and a door before I came to the 'throne' itself. The lid opened of itself, and I spewed with such violence I was forced to my knees.

The green material that sprayed out came with a rushing hammering gurgle, and the pain was such that my eyes closed. I softly moaned, even as my gut squirmed, and I grabbed for a privy rag as I dropped my trousers and sat down. I gushed again from that end but seconds later, and moaned again...

And had to reverse my position as a fresh gush of dark green spewed from my mouth and soaked the rag.

The vomiting and diarrhea seemed endless in their alternating, so much so that when I finally finished, I tried drinking and could not find anything to hand. My mouth was dry, parched like burnt cornmeal, and the taste in my mouth was that of congealed blood. I staggered to my feet and left the room to its stink, and wobbled out the door.

I was sufficiently disoriented that I called for help, and when such help ignored my soft speech – I was yelling my loudest, but the volume I managed was barely above a whisper – I knew I would need to find my own way 'home'. There was a hallway in front of me, and I staggered along its dim-lit regions, touching each door in hopes it would lead me back to a place of refuge and safety. I heard snaps, clicks, and felt sharp shocks jolt up my fingers, and I could not determine their meaning until I nudged a door open with my foot and the rest of me followed into the room beyond the threshold.

The smells of 'exotic' food were closer, so much so that my stomach was again troubled, and I brought forth a rag to wipe my mouth. Thankfully, these heaves were now dry ones, and while the resulting contortions hurt badly, they did not make for a mess.

The narrow and contorted room I was in wandered amid stacks and piles of supplies, and faint odors proclaimed them to be either roots or vegetables. Another doorway, this one with a part-open door, showed ahead, and as I stumbled through it and into the next room, the foul odors, once faint, redoubled in intensity. Mingled with them was the scent of fresh blood, and I wobbled down the center of this nightmare realm into a third room.

This last room had a faint high-pitched ringing sound seeming to dwell within its four walls, as well as an even worse smell than the one previously, and I raced my gorge for its exit. I came into a hallway, and with a faint muffled thud followed by a click, that doorway I had come from locked tight. I touched its knob, and heard the click as the lock responded – and I wobbled to the right.

I now had some idea as to where I was, and when I heard 'cooking noises', I paused to listen at the nearest door. Someone was coming, and I jerked back just in time as the door 'slammed open' and a knife-flourishing cook marched inside with a lantern in his other hand and his retinue strung out behind him.

The snapping sound of boots on stone I heard reminded me most strongly of the true-step, and the regimented aspect of being a cook – or rather, a cook in this location – was enough to make for silent travel in the other direction while listening for possible clues from either the kitchen or its emissaries.

The first indication of trouble behind me was a repeated statement in the common language, this being 'as I will it, so it shall be'. This statement had a distinct feeling, one that reminded me of a rune-curse chanted endlessly, and as I continued down the hall, both chant and sensation refused to fade.

The chant was still continuing when I came to the end of the hallway, and I found myself in need of a route of escape. I tried the nearest door to my right – that one hallway was back that way – and when the door's lock clicked, I went inside and closed the door behind me.

Here, there was deep-pitched darkness, and as I waited for my eyes to adjust, I tried taking in my surroundings. The room in question was narrow, quite long, and meandering, and when I began walking it, I noted its multitude of side-passages, most of which went into rooms. I ignored most of them, for I now had an idea as to what was important in this place, that being the far door.

“It does open up out onto that hallway,” I said. “I'll want to do this some at home.”

While there was no answer to my comment, I soon felt a pronounced diversion ahead, and when I came to one of the doorways, I stopped to look inside. I set one cautious foot in, then another, and when I looked around in the darkness, I saw what might have been a copy of Hendrik's 'portable writing desk'. I came closer, with the idea of 'measuring' its various thicknesses.

My first touch had the faint prickle of an electric shock, and I knew enough to not touch it more. I looked down closer, and here, I was horrified.

The deep-toned varnished wood was easily two inches thick for the top, and more for the legs, and the carvings I saw were 'woodsy-looking', deep, and intricate, with 'gilded' flourishes and inlays. There was a faint aspect of sloppiness to the entire assembly, with this manifested in crude-looking yet highly polished fittings, none of which matched the others. I then looked around the table proper.

It was 'inserted' in what looked to be an equally carved and gilded niche, and written in letters I had seen but one place before, I read, “Ehre setze sich hier auf Ehresitz beim Sprach des Treuhecken.”

“T-th-the s-s-seat of h-honor?” I gasped. “By the speech of the true-witches?”

I shuddered violently, then left the 'shrine' behind, and touched the door at the end of the room softly. The lock clicked as I gently turned it, and I pressed the door open with a faint groan to find myself in a familiar hallway. I closed the door behind me, and began walking toward that evil-smelling room.

I had a rag to my lips, and when I touched the door, I heard a snapping bang-crack-rumble, and I leaped to the side as the door banged open. Those fleeing madly from what was happening inside were at first those I did not know, but when Kees stumbled out with a greasy face I grabbed him and pulled him aside, then Gabriel, and finally, Hendrik. The last, at least, seemed to have a measure of composure, and when he turned to me, his green-tinted face spoke volumes.

“D-did you find the privy?” he gasped.

I nodded, then pointed to where it was. Hendrik ran in that direction, and while Gabriel and Kees seemed 'stupefied', I caught a whiff of nauseating fumes amid what was now obviously a violent argument. I waved my hand and said, “smell that rubbish, and...”

Both men startled, and then Kees spewed such that he sprayed the wall, while Gabriel stumbled to the floor and began heaving. I herded both men down the hall to where the privy was, all the while dodging pools and streams of foul-smelling vomit that grew steadily more and more potent.

I'd managed about half the distance to the privy when I heard screams from behind me, followed by a 'lusty-sounding' chant of some kind – and at the end of the chant, the screams abruptly stopped. Upon hearing this, I knew what I wanted.

“I do not wish to set foot in that place again, thank you,” I muttered. “I'll fetch my own food, and cook it myself...”

“Do not speak of f-food,” moaned Gabriel. “I feel like I've been poisoned.”

Kees' reply was a fresh spate of vomiting, and by the time I'd herded both of them to the privy, I looked up to see Hendrik wiping his face. His sweating made for wondering, and his question, more so.

“I hope you have uncorking medicine,” he said.

“I think so,” I said. “Uh, why?”

“That food has changed drastically,” said Hendrik. “I suspect you picked out the only food in that place that wasn't High to at least a degree.”

“What else?” I asked, as I 'nudged' Kees into the privy.

“You did not see the drink they brought in,” said Hendrik.

“What was it?” I asked.

“Long-aged brandy,” muttered Hendrik. “There was more strong drink, but I recognized that by its smell, and when those people started getting drunk, I knew it was no fit place for any of us to be. I was about to leave when someone cursed at his neighbor in a witch-language, they both drew daggers, and they fell to the floor fighting – and then two more tables, one from each side of those two, joined in.”

“Witch-language?” I asked.

“There are several, supposedly,” said Hendrik. “I've heard this one before in the fifth kingdom. Freek mentioned it as being especially common in the Swartsburg.”

“I might have seen this language written,” I said quietly, “but...”

Kees emerged, and Gabriel staggered into the privy to take his place.

“I do not wish to eat there again,” said Kees. “The food may have tasted good, but...” Kees looked at me, then asked, “why did you leave?”

“The smell did as much for me as eating that stuff did for you,” I spluttered, “and I hope I have enough uncorking medicine to clean the three of you out properly, and then a bad argument once the high-test gets passed out? No thank you!”

I paused, then said, “besides, I've had people warn me about those stinking birds and High Meats, and about half of the stuff...” I stopped in mid-sentence, then spat, “most of that first course was High, and all of the second course, and those people would have kept eating for hours!”

Hendrik looked at me, then nodded before speaking. “I suspect you are right,” he said. “I thought I knew enough to not eat food like that, but when you are here and need to speak...”

“You must act like a black-dressed thug in all possible ways, including eating rotten food,” I muttered, “and then get drunk and try to kill each other. Is that nonsense common here?”

“It is,” said Gabriel, as he emerged from the privy, “and I doubt we will be the only ones seeking the other refectory tomorrow.” A brief pause, then “I recall roughly where I slept, and I suspect we will be quartered there.”

While Gabriel spoke of recalling the location – “it's on the entry floor, down this one hallway, then another much longer one to the right” – he could do but little more than indicate the rough direction, and once he became lost, I had to find his 'turnings'. The near-sepulchral gloom, as well as the reek of badly rendered tallow, seemed a fit counterpoint for what was feeling more and more like a trap for the unwary, and when I came to the door, I could hear quiet speech amid intermittent yawning. I tapped gingerly, and seconds later, we were let inside by Sepp.

“What kept you all?” he asked, as we filed in wearily.

“That meeting,” said Hendrik. He sounded uncommonly tired. “I forgot how long those things can be, and how much they invest in what they do, and that apart from the meals, urgh.”

“At least you lot ate,” said Gilbertus. “We had to dig into our supplies we had brought with us, as they weren't about to feed us anything, nor fetch drink.”

“B-bath?” I asked.

“These stinking people don't bathe,” spluttered Lukas, “and that goes double for them what call themselves 'betters'. They figured we don't bathe either, so they didn't...”

Hendrik quietly stood and left for the door, then closed it behind him.

“They don't bathe?” I gasped.

“I know I did when I was here last,” said Gabriel. “They had fairly nice bathing facilities, in fact. Are you sure they spoke of not bathing?”

“That person that led us here spoke of us, and then of those called our betters,” said Gilbertus, “and they were asking where everyone was. I told 'em there were but eight of us total, and they didn't believe a word I said.”

“Did they speak of this matter at length?” I asked. “Such as 'where is your retinue' or 'this group is a tenth of what a king is supposed to have with him'?”

“That, and how we were dressed,” said Lukas. “Those people have never traveled hard, if I go by their comments about clothing.”

“House-dress is required, regardless of what one is doing?” I asked. “Even if it is obviously unsuitable?”

Gilbertus looked at me as if I was a strange oracle of some kind, then nodded.

“The buggies?” I asked.

“We got some barrels and put the buggies up after unloading them,” said Lukas, “and we put the wheels in here, along with all of our things.”

“Hence thieves will have problems,” I said with a trace of a chuckle. “Do they look, uh, normal?”

“They bedded good,” said Gilbertus. “No scoring, nor rubbing beyond the polish that shows round cones and cups adjusted right and fed plenty of oil.”

I then stood while the others broke out mugs, and as I looked around – my stomach was still doing a rumba of some kind – I noted the sheer size of the room. We were sitting around a pair of tables pushed together, while the rest of the room was taken up with beds like in the 'guard-rooms' at home. I numbered at least twenty, then as I went to the beds piled with our provisions and equipment, I heard the door softly open and turned to see Hendrik.

“Y-yes?” I asked, when I came back to where the others were seated.

“Everything of a common nature is closed down,” he said, “and many of those at that meeting are continuing their eating and drinking in private on the floor above this one.”

Above this one?” I asked.

“You were right about there being a division into groups of people here,” said Hendrik. “They have two types of everything, apparently.”

“Baths?” I asked.

“While there are baths in this building,” he said, “they are neither close nor readily accessible, unlike cleaning rooms.”

“Did you find one?” asked Karl. I could almost see him 'scratching like a hound'.

“Those are quite common,” said Hendrik, “and I brought my school-collection of keys. I began trying them once I came back down to this area and I found a suitable cleaning room in a few minutes.”

“Suitable?” I asked.

“They do not have a tub,” he said, “nor common soap, nor towels. They do have a pump, buckets, and a stove with plenty of charcoal, and I started the fire when I found the place.”

Traipsing down to the washroom in question – less than a hundred feet down the hall – with the tub and other supplies took but minutes, and I was the first to bathe. I was glad for ample hot water, as well as a warm stove – it helped with drying – and once dressed with my last set of clean clothing, I began bailing out the tub and dumping the 'waste-water'. I'd had their two buckets going on the stove while I bathed, and their faint steaming by the time of my finish spoke of quicker-than-common bathing.

“And we'd best retrieve our tub when we finish,” I thought, as I walked back with my dirty clothing.

Hendrik went next, then Karl. The chief matter seemed to be 'who smelled worst', followed by 'who was scratching the most'.

With four of us 'unable to eat', we had to procure something, at least snacks, and once we had those in hand – along with mugs of beer for the others, and unfermented cider for myself – we could compare our notes and try to answer each other's questions.

“I am not certain we ate,” said Hendrik, as he worked on a piece of dried meat. “We each had to go to the privy, and it came out both ends, and that at length.”

I then noticed faintly the turpentine reek of uncorking medicine, and noted that the number of mugs had doubled in the case of the three. I noted periodic sips from both mugs, along with grimaces at the unpleasant taste. Gabriel then asked about my 'map'.

I produced the slate, and passed the thing around while speaking of what the two Mercantiles were likely to have present, followed by my impression of that one road and what lay off of it.

“That makes one problem easier to look after, then,” said Hendrik. “Was there any portion safe?”

“Not really,” I said. “I would go straight to those Mercantiles and the Public House between them, get refills of anything we might need, and then head back as quickly as was feasible. There's something about that place that is quite unsettling to me, and the honest people are saving as they can so they can leave.”

“Why?” asked Kees.

“I had the impression that not merely are wages low in that place,” I said, “but the cost of living isn't particularly cheap.”

“That sounds about right,” said Gilbertus. “There was this one farrier I know that has wanted out of there for years.”

“Uh, located near the east edge of town?” I asked. “If he's there, then that's where I went.”

“I think so,” said Gilbertus. “Now about that meeting. Is there to be more tomorrow?”

“They spoke of the third hour,” said Gabriel.

“Th-third hour?”

“An hour into the second post,” said Hendrik. “I have no idea how to fetch food that does not...”

Hendrik stood up abruptly, then left post-haste for the rear of the room. I turned to see him trotting for a brown door.

“At least the room has its own privy,” I said. “Is that all it has?”

“I think so,” said Lukas, “though that privy has two smaller rooms, almost like what I've seen in a few Public Houses.”

“I have a few questions about that table,” I said. “Hendrik mentioned two trips of a month's time from the first kingdom house to the fourth kingdom. Do any of you know why it took so long?”

“That would depend on who was involved,” said Gabriel. “Do you mean his travel-table?”

I nodded, then said, “and I might have a portion of an answer about that thing, as while I was coming back from the privy after spewing...”

“You what?” gasped Gabriel.

“The aroma of those birds was enough to make me spew from both ends,” I said, “and it came up green repeatedly.”

“I'd stay away from those, then,” said Lukas. “Now what were these birds? Squabs?”

Gabriel nodded, then said, “they looked decent, and they did not smell High...”

“With those things, that doesn't matter,” said Lukas. “I've heard tell that squabs are High the day they're hatched, and only burning them to ashes gets rid of them proper.” He paused to drink, belched, and then said, “now what other kinds of bad food did they have?”

“I saw these odd-looking pasty-white loaves shaped strangely,” I said. I had just recalled them being present. “They smelled terrible.”

“I hope you didn't eat those things,” said Lukas. “Those were wheat bread...”

As if to answer, Gabriel got up and ran for the privy, and nearly collided with Hendrik as the latter emerged. The first thing Hendrik did upon sitting, however, was bend his attention to the uncorking medicine, and only when he'd finished gulping it down and refilling his mug did he think to speak.

“Everything I ate in that place had to be High,” he said. “I have no idea how they hid it as well as they did.”

“Are you corked?” asked Lukas.

“Yes, very much so,” said Hendrik. “I'll need two more mugs of that stuff there, most likely, and no more food in that refectory.”

“Perhaps find the large one, then” I said, then paused before resuming. “Do you know why those two trips took a month's time?”

“For the table?” he asked. “I suspect that was partly who was involved, and partly a matter of custom.”

“More time spent eating in Public Houses than traveling?” I asked. “Like we would be doing with the common sized group?”

Hendrik nodded, then said, “that would account for the custom aspect. Those Generals had something to do with the whole process, or so I suspect.” A brief pause, then “did you find something?”

I looked around carefully, and noticed Kees was also missing. Faintly, I could hear someone spewing at the rear of the room, then the muffled thump of a huge gaseous emission.

“Both of them need more uncorking medicine,” said Gilbertus. “I'll fill their mugs and take them in so's they can get the corks out.”

While Gilbertus took both mugs back, I gathered my thoughts regarding what I had seen, and described what had happened from the time I emerged from the privy.

“I was really impaired,” I said, “and I went through what might have been a walk-through pantry, then some place where meat was hanging...”

“Was this a cold-room?” asked Lukas.

“It was actually fairly warm,” I said, “and from that place, into one that smelled yet worse. I had to dodge a cook or someone like a cook who was marching as if he'd been watching too many black dressed thugs – that, and he was saying something about 'all shall be according to my will' in the common language.”

“Was this person dressed like a cook?” asked Lukas.

“He was,” I said, “but his behavior was strange, and he seemed uncommonly fond of slicing on things, almost as if he were practicing for an induction ceremony.”

“Induction?” asked Hendrik.

“Into a coven, and there make his bones,” I said. “When you received your table, you mentioned it being heavily constructed, carved, and gilded. I came to what might have been a shrine or something like it once I'd gotten out of the pantry and into another suite of rooms.”

“Shrine?” asked Hendrik. “I did not bring a...”

Hendrik stood, gulped down the rest of his uncorking medicine, and ran for the rear of the room. This time, I saw someone just emerge, then with a thump followed by 'sprawling' noises, I heard more scuffling. Gabriel turned, and then closed the door, and resumed drinking from his mug.

“That uncorking medicine is mean stuff,” I muttered.

“It ain't nothing compared to being corked with bad food,” said Lukas. “That stuff is bad trouble, and that goes double if it corks you.”

“How?” I asked. I could just see someone deathly ill with salmonella.

“I've heard of it causing a lot of trouble,” said Lukas. “There is this one thing down low in a person's gut on the right side, and I've heard talk about its temper. It doesn't like bad food.”

“Temper?” I asked.

“Aye,” said Lukas. “I'm glad angry worms are rare.”

“Uh, have you...”

“I've heard of those things,” said Gilbertus, “and calling them troublesome is like calling those black cattle friendly. I'd rather be gored by one of those bulls than have an angry worm.” A brief pause, then “what is this thing you called a shrine?”

I described at length not merely what I saw, but also what I felt, including the faint 'jolt'. I spoke of the 'seat of honor, as defined by true-witches', and muttered, “honor? My 'honor' impugned? Is this like the word 'sore' when used in the written format?”

“You might well be right,” said Gabriel. “Once we are clear of this place, we might start going over those books.”

“And after I check over the muskets tomorrow evening,” I said. “How did they speak of the Swartsburg that is different from what we know, and what were the questions they asked?”

“Someone spoke of that place as if it were still as it were originally,” said Gabriel, “but yet, this person had recent information, at least as to what was there before it was damaged.”

“Oh, another question,” I asked. “Did you get any ideas as to how badly that place was damaged?”

“I am not certain beyond 'very much so',” said Gabriel, “as none of those who spoke went into details.”

“Very much so?” I asked. “As in there's a lot of traffic directed toward rebuilding that place, and constant fights over who gets to take over what space?”

“I think that may have been the cause of that fight,” said Gabriel.

“And that individual who asked as to who destroyed it?” I asked. “The word destroyed implies more than 'substantial damage', Gabriel. That place may be little more than a doubled wall enclosing a flattened town.”

“It isn't entirely flattened,” said Gabriel. “I know that much.” Gabriel paused, then “there was more than one person in that room asking as to who wrecked that place, and that question went nowhere.”

“Did it?” I asked. “Weren't there comments as to what type of a person could do such a thing?”

Steps came from the side, and I saw Hendrik and Kees slowly wobbling closer. Both of them were drinking deeply from their mugs, and when Gabriel drained his, he refilled it and went back to the privy.

“Do either of you know about the questions relating to the Swartsburg?” I asked.

“Those that asked were thinking only an especially powerful arch-witch could manage what happened,” said Hendrik, “and more importantly, the level of damage currently extant in that location is very substantial.”

“Very substantial?” I asked.

“The outer walls are still present,” said Hendrik, “so it's hard to know from the outside.” A brief pause, then “I suspect one or more of those people has seen the interior of the Swartsburg within the last ten days, and the way they were talking, I'd be surprised if much beyond the northwest corner of that place is still usable.”

“Those two, uh, places with the red lights?” I asked.

“I'm not certain about those,” said Hendrik. “I know one of them is completely gone, and most of that place is damaged enough that scavengers are a lot more common than they were before.”

“Scavengers?” I asked.

“Broken building stone, wood, rags, metal, perhaps damaged machinery, money, and much else,” said Hendrik. “Supposedly, there are several 'camps' set up.”

“Meaning much of the place was flattened,” I said. “A thought. Find one or more of those working in there that normally, and uh...”

Hendrik shook his head, then said, “only those who have given up on the goals and means of witchdom are willing to speak that way. Brimstone's servants tend to be far more loyal than those otherwise.”

“Meaning I, or someone else, would need to sneak in, somehow,” I said.

“I've suspected that to be the case since the beginning,” said Hendrik.

I looked around, and saw Karl and Sepp seeming to be absent. I wondered briefly where they had gone, then thought to ask.

“I'm not certain,” said Gilbertus. “They might be thinking to find proper bathing places or that one large refectory.”

I suppressed a yawn, then asked, “is this place really interested in appearances?”

“I think so,” said Lukas. “I remember it being that way, but not like it is now.”

“As in that one shop had dirt in its corners, and, uh, those 'jewelers' acting as if they were enslaved by an especially evil witch? As if they thought the breaking of a crucible spoke of a curse being poured out upon them because they didn't have the stuff done early, done perfect, and done smiling?”

“What was this?” asked Gilbertus. “We were in here by that time, and cooking our meal.”

I looked around, and noted the brighter lighting, as well as the student's lanterns. All three of the latter were on stands nearby.

“How many candles?” I asked.

“About half of them we had,” said Gilbertus. “They had the worst tallow things imaginable in here when we came, and most of 'em had melted.”

“That shop fits in with the other portions,” I said. “They had people working late, the place had a fair amount of dirt in it, the apparent attitude of the 'jewelers', it's thought to be 'bad form' to leave that stinking meal even if someone's hurt badly, and finally, those comments I heard during the first intermission.”

“What were these?” asked Hendrik.

“First, some were mentioned here as well,” I said. “First, you are expected to travel with a lot more than eight people, regardless of its impracticality. Secondly, you and all with you must dress 'appropriately', with 'style' the sole emphasis, and comfort, durability, and maintenance not considered.” I paused, then said, “meaning you, Gabriel, and Kees need to be dressed like black-dressed thugs, and I...”

Hendrik shook his head, then said, “while the numbers are correct, and much of the balance accurate, I know enough about these matters to know that is impractical.”

“Yes, you know it's impractical, and some of those people agree with you, including that one man whom I suspect to be the king. However, there are a substantial number that thinks otherwise, and they have a great deal of say in what this place does.”

I paused, then said, “and then, the last portion.”

“Yes?” asked Hendrik.

“They spoke of you traveling with an arch-witch,” I said, “and that knowingly, thereby demonstrating your great cunning.” I paused, then asked, “and I wonder who they meant.”

“How is it you wonder?” asked Hendrik. “I saw how those people reacted when you showed your sword, and I overheard enough comments for me to worry.”

“I wondered if they might be thinking of someone other than me,” I said. “Recall what happened recently?”

“I do, and I know those comments were not about them,” said Hendrik. “They were most plainly about you, and everything you've done since we came has but added to them.”

“What am I to do, then?” I asked.

“I am not sure if there is anything you can do,” said Hendrik. “At least the king is amply impressed, which gives a measure of hope.”