The road more traveled, part n.


The creature was finished regarding its spicing, and as it was smeared heavily with a grainy whitish substance, I heard Gabriel speaking. His voice seemed muffled, for some reason.

“That smell dissipates when such birds are cooked,” he said. “You may need to consume a portion of it, as such food is thought a great honor in this area.” He paused, then said, “perhaps they will bring carrots.”

“I hope this is a mix-up,” I thought mournfully. “I do not warrant anything like that kind of h-honor...”

I almost said 'horror'. That word seemed to fit, and the increasing nausea I felt seemed to proclaim profound illness to be on the way.

The surface of my beer blanked, then showed what the jeweler was doing with the chain. He'd fitted the clasp, riveted it in place, and was now slowly stroking the chain itself. I could feel something happening to the metal, such that it only looked like silver now...

And again, the odor grew potent, until it seemed to explode in my guts and mind all at once. I stood and shouldered my way through the crowd and into the advancing fumes of obviously rotten meat, and once I'd made the rear area, I ran for the privy. Therein were several stalls, and I lifted the lid just in time to spew a dark projectile spurt of rank-smelling green liquid, then race my pants to the floor before I spewed from that end as well.

I dirtied rag after rag as I spewed from both ends, and after the 'gut-rumba' had receded, I stood to wipe myself. This time, unlike any time before, I saw clearly a red-tinted oil slick floating down below, and when I closed the lid, I barely escaped the stall for staggering. As it was, I was slumped against the wall while slowly moaning.

“I feel so sick,” was all I could say, and this time, unlike any previous instance since coming here, there was pain.

It felt as if Black-Cap had not missed with his misbehaving weapon, but had hit me solid. The pain – burning, ferocious, nauseating – centered about an inch below the end of my sternum and projected all the way to the back, and the intensity was beyond description. My vision was blurred from the pain alone, and I staggered back to the table in a state of near-collapse. I took my seat with a groan, and nearly put my face in the remnants of my beer.

“You look very ill,” said Gabriel.

The king stood wordlessly and began moving toward the kitchen, all the while muttering about the illness-inducing nature of High Meats and that society which demanded their consumption. I tried a small sip of beer, and to my surprise, it stayed down.

“If you have that tincture for pain, you may wish to take it,” said Gabriel. “Anna spoke of that illness, and I think she's right.”

Within moments, the odor began to slowly dissipate, and Hendrik showed. His facial expression was not pleasant, and when he retook his seat, he grimaced before speaking.

“That was a squab,” he said, “and not a common one, but one of the worst kind.”

“W-worst?” I gasped.

“Those at the kingdom house were mild as squabs go,” he said. “This type was long-preserved in vinegar, spiced 'as per Koenraad', and smeared heavily with the fat of swine prior to being put in the oven.”

I nearly spewed, then gasped, “h-how could they...”

“I spoke of its proper last resting place,” said Hendrik. “The whole mess is in the manure-pile where it belongs, and those who worked on it are now in the privy.”

“Privy?” asked Karl.

“I spoke of their offense,” he said. “That was ample.”

Hendrik paused, during which time I heard drinking, and said, “they will be bringing out food fit to eat shortly.”

I then recalled something said, and spluttered, “as per Koenraad?”

“It seems their cookbook had his preferences written down,” said Hendrik, “and those recipes joined those two in the privy.”

“In the privy?” I asked. “Which...”

“The worker's privy,” said Hendrik. “I was more than a little inclined to tie them hand and foot and toss them down the hole.”

“After dosing them with uncorking medicine,” I murmured. “We still have some if it's needed.”

A much more 'wholesome' odor soon began to waft our way, and the smell seemed especially helpful. I thought to ask as to what I was smelling.

“That would be flour-mush,” said Gabriel. “Not only is it very filling, but helpful if one is ill.”

“Ill?” I asked. “What kind of sickness?”

“The crae, for one thing,” said Gabriel. “I hope they dice up part of that bird and put some in the mush.”

The food began arriving within about fifteen minutes, with the 'the usual things' – potatoes, carrots, a plate of roast meat, bread, greens – coming first, followed by a sizable pot of what resembled 'cream of potato soup', and finishing with what resembled a small well-browned turkey. The bowls came next, and finally, more jugs.

I tried a third cup of beer, and found it especially helpful, and when a small bowl came my way, I sniffed. The odor was that of 'chicken and dumplings', and when I tried a spoon, I thought, “where are the...”

There were dumplings in this stuff, only they were roughly the size of peas, and mingled with the fragrant whitish 'broth' were chopped carrots and potatoes. One taste, and I learned of the nature of 'flour-mush'.

It made mere 'chicken and dumplings' seem as dung.

“One adds sliced fool-hen to the mush,” said Gabriel. “That small knife works very well for it.”

I used mine on a slice of moist white meat 'turkey', and cut up the meat into smallish cubes and spooned it in. A quick stirring, another taste...

“They can have their stinking squabs,” I spluttered. “This is good!”

“I know,” said Gabriel. “When this was made in camp...”

“I wish they'd had this in that refectory,” said a mournful voice at the other end of the table.

“I could not get enough of it,” continued Gabriel, “and yes, it would have done well in both refectories. For some reason, the house proper didn't feel inclined.”

“Do fool-hens work well for broth?”

“They do,” said Gabriel. “Should one show, we might make broth of it.” A brief pause, then, “some call this invalid food.”

“I f-f-feel s-sick enough...”

“I have something of an idea how you might feel,” said Gabriel. “Ever since spending time in the privy like I did, and feeling as if poisoned, I wonder. I did not wonder much at all before.”

Amid such feasting, I thought to put away pieces of bread in my bread-bag, and watching the others saw them doing similarly. The meal finished – about half an hour, if I guessed right – the king stood, the room suddenly became a good deal less noisy, and he began speaking. I marveled at how his voice carried, and more, at how he could speak in such an environment.

Within minutes, the place became very quiet, and moving shadows spoke of people coming closer to 'look at us' – and the feeling was that of being stared at, and that at some length. I wondered if the jewelry was the cause of the matter, at least until I caught another portion of Hendrik's speech.

“That pendant is a consequence of what happened at the house proper,” he said. “He has seen those northern people and their pigs multiple times, fought them multiple times, and won multiple times...”

The sense of 'uproar' I felt quickly building segued into yells, screams, running feet, and shouts, and the air suddenly became alive with food and coinage. I did not hesitate; I ducked under the table and banged my head into someone as the food-fight overhead became yet worse.

“Ouch!” shouted Gabriel, as he looked at me while rubbing his head. “I was afraid that would happen.”

“What?” I spluttered.

“Tossing food was written of on more than one tapestry regarding the pendants,” said Gabriel, as he warily looked out from under the edge of the table. “It could have been worse.”

“Worse?” I squeaked. “I don't like food-fights.”

“Food, money, squibs, and gifts I've heard of,” said Gabriel, “and then, shooting corncobs out of the guns. Those are trouble, and the rockets are worse.”

“R-rockets?” I gasped.

“Some are small, thankfully,” said Gabriel. “You do not want to have a large one come down nearby.”

With the dissipation of the uproar, I cautiously climbed from under the table, and Gabriel followed seconds later – and as he came up, I gasped. The table was nearly carpeted with coins.

“What gives with..?” as I pointed to a gold monster coin that had nearly landed in my mug.

“At first, the usual way of funding campaigns was by means of subscriptions,” said Hendrik, as he wiped his face, “and now, the usual is to donate in this fashion.”

I found a slice of what looked to be beef, speared it with my fork, and held it up. My face seemed to form a question as surely as if I'd written it down plainly.

“It takes more than money to run an army,” said Hendrik. “It also takes food.”

“Army?” I mumbled. “Army?”

The blank stares of everyone else seemed to ask for guidance, and I felt the chain being handled across the road. I felt terminally confused about everything but the chain, and I cautiously stood, saying, “I think that jeweler has that chain finished.”

I tucked the jewelry back inside my shirt as I came up from the table, and I spoke of returning shortly.

My trip through the Public House showed the place to be noticeably less crowded, and I was not accosted by drunken freighters. Those two had gone elsewhere, and when I came to the door, I paused to open it a crack. I wondered about ambush more than a little, and when I slipped outside, I softly closed the door.

The yard had not changed much as to crowding, however, and I used the animals as cover while moving closer to the raised black stripe of the High Way. Once at its edge, I walked quickly across and then north along the shops I saw, all the while wondering if I would be either mobbed or hosed down with gunfire. I reached the jeweler's shop, tapped, and waited.

He opened the door less than two seconds after I finished tapping, and I ducked inside.

With the pendant on a soft rag, I undid the thong and he threaded in the chain. I was surprised at not merely its sturdy nature, but also its soft gleaming, and when I felt it, I noted its heft – and, perchance, its strength. The whole caused me to recall something from what I had read years prior.

“Didn't those dwarves have something like this?” I thought, as he showed me the clasp.

“They used to do what I did with silver here,” he said. “That chain may look to be of silver, but it is no longer that metal. It is named otherwise.”

“What, mithril?” I said, though mostly in jest.

He looked at me and shook his head, then said, “it is not that material, nor is it named that way. Still, that tale is a good one. It needs adding to the Grim Collection, as it fits well there and is instructive.”

He paused, then said, “this starts with silver, and somehow becomes another metal entirely, and while glass-blower's metal can be melted with difficulty, this metal truly does not melt.”

“It doesn't melt?” I gasped.

“No, it does not,” he said. “I don't understand much of what I saw, but I saw this strange accumulation of colored balls with a mess of smaller things flying around that accumulation in a dense cloud. I saw more colored balls labeled 'N' added to the center, such that it was nearly double its former size, and then the smaller things were made to fly in a special pattern.”

“N?” I asked. “Neutron?” This last was unspoken.

“The other things in the center were labeled 'P',” he said, “and the flying things were labeled as being a word I cannot speak. I then saw its number, and that was nearly doubled.”

“Number?” I asked. “At-atomic Number?”

“Aye, that was it,” he said. “That was strange seeing all of that part, but the rest I know about. That rubbed silver becomes much stronger and harder, so much so that it was said to make fair blades, and it does not corrode. More importantly, it was not spoken of in the common language, nor written using common letters.”

“Uh, what did they use?” I asked.

“The language of power,” said the jeweler. “Those named 'chosen' were the first to speak it, and to this day, they are like no other. Only those marked endure worse.” He paused, then said as I took up the pendant, “that metal is spoken of much as are those whitish stones.”

I dragged out my money pouch and removed two gold monster coins, which I lay on the rag that had supported the now weighty pendant. He looked at the two coins, and for some reason, I felt inclined to add to them.

I put down three more.

“Now that...”

“Yes?” I asked. “You can put the place up for sale now, instead of this summer?”

He nodded, then said, “that, and I can head north as soon as we finish what we have in-process. I'd guess about a month, or perhaps two at the most.”

He then paused, saying, “that, and gnippers are a chore to look after.”

“Boys?” I asked.

“That term speaks of small children regardless of gender,” he said, “and to speak that way in their hearing usually means gifts come quickly.”

I left his shop but seconds later, and once in the yard of the Public House, I noted greater crowding in the yard of the place. A string of horses had just arrived, or so I guessed, and when I came indoors, shouts went up and people converged upon me. I had to run for the table, as I suspected strongly they wished to have my hide – and I was not inclined to give it up.

I took my seat at the table, and began drinking cider as steps came closer. Someone then placed their hand upon the upper portion of my back, and slowly moved their fingers downward.

I nearly screamed with the sensation, and my hands shook crazily as 'magic fingers' went slowly down my spine. Lights flashed behind my eyes, and as the stroke slowly repeated, I moaned. My eyes closed as the sensation erupted into my brain, and...

That person did it again...

And again...

And again...

While back-rubs had always felt intensely pleasurable – my first recollection of such euphoria was at the age of three – this sensation was overpowering beyond measure, and my face soon collapsed onto the surface of the table. I barely missed the bowl containing the dregs of 'my' flour-mush, and all I could do was softly moan and make gurgling noises.

“I do not believe this,” murmured Gabriel. His voice rang distortedly, and through the high-pitched hissing and spitting tones, I heard incredulity. “You look to be far gone in Geneva.”

“Uh... Oh... Oh... B-back-rubs... Oh! They've a-always d-d-done this, oh!”

The 'rubber' finally went elsewhere, but the tingling relaxed state took much longer to dissipate, and with bleary eyes I raised my head. I felt trashed enough to hiccup, and found I could not do so, and as the others left the table, I needed guidance and support to avoid falling down.

“Now how will I ride like this?” I thought, as I tried tripping myself up with each step that I took. “I feel as if no longer in touch with the ground.”

Just how 'trashed' I was became obvious when I seemed to float up onto Jaak's back and nearly fall headfirst on the other side. Karl grabbed me and pulled me steady, then his voice seemed to pound into my mind.

“How are you like this?” he asked.

“B-back rub,” I said 'drunkenly'. “S-someone was r-r-rubbing my back, and it felt wonderful.” A brief pause, then, “am I h-here?”

“You are,” he said, as he took a seat in the buggy behind Gabriel and I. “Why?”

“I'm not sure if I'm here,” I said. “Maybe I'm partly here and mostly elsewhere.”

While I felt as if severely impaired, I somehow managed to ride. It was roughly midafternoon, or so I guessed, and the town lasted perhaps another minute as we headed south. We were then back in the trees of the woodlot, and when it gave way to a meadow, I wondered what had happened to the woodlot.

There was another in the distance, and the somnolence of full bellies and warm sunshine seemed to make for an ongoing chorus of yawning. My head was slowly clearing out as we traveled between obvious farmsteads, and by the time the woodlot beckoned, I felt nearly sober again.

This woodlot was like the one before, save with no town hidden in it, and its tall straight trees had a faintly 'medicinal' scent. Their foliage was full, deep blue-green, and profuse, and it was obvious this was 'spring' for this area. I was glad for a long wooden watering trough when it showed, even if it was a bit early for us all to drink.

It was not too early an hour later in the midst of a wide grassy meadow, and I spent that time first checking the buggies and then some of the horses. I saw that I was indeed right about someone else having a hoof-pick, even if it was obvious the thing wasn't as good as what I had.

Another town, this one a good deal smaller than the last one, showed about an hour after our watering stop, and our brief stop in the yard of the Public House to service buggies and horses permitted two of the party to refill beer jugs. Again, I marveled at the contents, and filled my small cup from one of them.

“Is this common Public House beer?” I asked.

“It isn't,” said Sepp. “I thought that stuff would all be like Lion-Brew, but most places we have stopped at have had common beer also.” Sepp then did a double-take, and asked, “since when can you drink beer?”

“I'm not certain,” I said. “Perhaps this jewelery has something to do with it.”

The soft winds that came from the west seemed to sift through the worn places in my hat, and my mind wandered as the shadows left by the trees steadily lengthened. Farmsteads were becoming slightly less common, as well as smaller, and the meadows stretched for what seemed miles when they showed. More often than not, sizable flocks of sheep were grazing in the distance with a herder's buggy nearby, and more than once, I might have seen the herder himself setting in the shade of his buggy.

“I wonder if Sarah likes her back to be rubbed?” I thought, as the shadows grew longer and a woodlot showed ahead.

As we came to the edge of the woodlot, I not only 'smelled' an independent Public House, but also some 'travelers' heading north, and when we came around the first of a series of gentle bends, several 'persons' mounted on horseback showed with pack-horses in tow. The odor of these people, as well as their dissolute and drunken aura, spoke powerfully to me, and when we came to the Public House itself, the odors of strong drink and bad food I had smelled upon them matched perfectly. I thought to ask a question.

“Did those people have stowed clothing?”

“That is likely,” said Gabriel. “They reminded me more than a little of older versions of those I traveled with while traipsing.”

“Stowed clothing?” I asked. “As in black-cloth?”

Gabriel made a strange-sounding noise, then blurted, “how could I have missed it?”

“That was a question,” I said. “Those people made me wonder more than a little as to why they were on the road headed north.” I paused, then asked, “and their saddlebags? Are those the things that tire horses?”

“Aye,” said the voice of Gilbertus from behind, “and I'm glad I have this gun ready.”

“For those people?” I thought.

“This area is likely to have fowls in it,” said Gabriel. “At least, I think that's why he loaded up one of those muskets.”

The day seemed to 'drone on' endlessly, and farmsteads abutting the road had become 'scarce'. The perceptible dryness in the air might have had something to do with it, or so I suspected, and as we came to a straggly-looking woodlot, I heard a faint 'whoom-whoom-whup-whup-whup'. It repeated seconds later, then yet again.

For some reason, I thought to look up at the trees, and especially at their overhanging branches. There was something about certain birds...

“G-gurrrggle-glug-glug-gloo-oop! G-gurrrggle-glug-glug-gloo-oop!”

“What was that?” I gasped.

While there was no answer to my question, I saw something ahead that made for wonderment. Perched upon a thick limb some distance ahead I saw a near-spherical blob of grayish tone, and as we drew closer, I noted further details.

First, the grayish tone was a mottled gray-brown, and seemed partly a product of color and mostly a product of texture. The fuzzy nature of the thing declared its covering to be feathers.

Secondly, a small black object showed near top and center of the ball, with two slightly smaller dots showing above and to each side of their neighbor.

Thirdly, the previous noises repeated, and the object vibrated in time to them.

“Is that a bird?” I thought. On second thought, the feathers should have made it obvious; but as for shape and size and behavior, I could not tell. “Perhaps there are creatures that wear feathers that are not birds, such as, uh, feathered serpents.”

We drew steadily closer to this odd 'thing', and as further details showed themselves – the upper pair of dots moved, the lower dot moved also, and the creature moved side to side on its perch – I became more curious. As I came within twenty feet of it, my curiosity got the better of me, and I pointed with my arm at it.

“What is that thing?” I asked.

The boom of a musket came from behind and I clapped my hand on my hat, while the 'creature' tumbled squawking from its perch as it assayed flight. To speak of it as a clumsy flier was giving it unwarranted credit, and its noise? It made an irate parrot sound musical.

“What was that thing?” I asked, as the bird tumbled and tried to glide while shedding a trail of feathers. “Was it a witch-bird?”

The bird now crash-landed on the road and tumbled, and someone from behind sped up to a trot. I looked to my left to see Gilbertus coming steadily while he was removing a sizable bag from his gear. I wondered how he was going to 'deal' with the hobbling feather-dragging bird; it was heading toward a roadside copse, and squawking steadily.

Gilbertus dismounted next to the bird as it tried to get into the copse, and proceeded to kick it clear. I slowed to give him a wide berth as he first kicked the bird away from the copse, then kicked it several feet above his head. The bird tumbled down 'like a wayward anvil', and Gilbertus 'bagged' it featly. He then tied the bag shut as the bird squawked and thrashed, and tossed it in the buggy which Karl was driving. I still wondered what it was.

“Is that, uh, dinner?” I asked. “What is it?”

“A fool-hen,” said Gilbertus. “It will keep until we camp, most likely, and I'll want my gloves then.”

As we resumed our travel, I asked, “gloves?”

“Those can be troublesome to make ready for the pot,” said Gabriel. “I've dealt with them before.”

I reached into my possible bag, and drew out the hatchet, saying, “would this help?”

Gabriel looked, then said, “I wished I had its like in school. It would have helped with not just food, but wood, also.”

“Wood?” I asked.

“For the stove,” said Gabriel. “I was too poor to purchase fuel.”

Camp proved a conundrum, for now, I needed to find it. The drier more-open country seemed to make it more-difficult to find suitable 'hiding places', and when I found a small turnoff heading east, I thought to lead up it. I paused at the juncture, then decided otherwise.

“What was up that way?” asked Gabriel, as we continued south.

“I thought there might be a camping spot,” I said, “and while there is something, it's a well-hid trap – or rather, it feels like a well-hid trap. I still want to stay off of the roadside places if we can.”

“Tomorrow?” asked Gabriel.

“If we're close to the border, say another fifty miles south, then I might chance it,” I said. “The 'reach' of those stinky black-dressed thugs starts weakening that far south. It's still fairly strong this far north.”

Our continuing needed a stop for both water and lamp-lighting, and once the sun had 'gone down', I felt safer to a marked degree. We came to another 'bridge', and this time, I checked again on the back side to the right.

“This is, uh, too much,” I thought. “There's another narrow path here, a river, and then...”

I wasted no time heading down the path, and this time, I remained mounted. The lush grass gracing the riverbank, as well as the thicker trees, seemed to make for a decent place to hide, and after roughly five minutes, I found a small place hidden 'in' a sizable copse. I had to move aside the branches to get to the interior.

“Now this is a snug place,” said Gilbertus, as he led in one of the buggies. “There might be enough room to fit both of these things and the tents if we work at it.” He turned, then gasped. “The water is but a few paces away.”

“Good, then,” said Hendrik, as he got out of the other buggy. “I'm past due for a bath.”

He wasn't the only one, and by the time we had 'camp' set up and the horses watered, I felt uncommonly itchy. Another 'oven' was nearly finished, a privy was dug – it was about forty feet past the outer portion of the copse – and wood was gathering steadily. I had started the heating lamp under the light of my student's lantern.

Gilbertus spoke of a peculiar species of trout being present in the water, and hence entire-boiling wasn't needed. The clean cool water – enough hot water was applied to it to take the chill off – was entirely pleasant, and once dressed in clean clothing, I bagged my 'dirty clothes' and slung the water out of the tub with my dipper.

Over the next hour, the others bathed, and then, it was the turn of the bird.

The first intimation of trouble was the squawking upon moving the bag, then when Gilbertus untied the cord the bird assayed escape. I grabbed for the thing and dodged the beak, and when the bird missed, it went after Gilbertus.

Even with his gloves, the bird made for an oath upon his part when it scored several hits on his forearms in rapid succession.

I drew my hatchet, and swung on the bird. Feathers flew, and the bird was undaunted in its attempts to escape. Karl reached for it, and the bird 'machine-gunned' both of his arms.

Karl howled like a mad dog, then punched the bird back.

Lukas swung on the bird with his 'pole', and the thump launched both bird and bag into the tent where Gabriel was assaying sleep. The squawks melded with his yelling for an instant, and he leaped out after the flopping bird as it tried to get out of the bag. Lukas again landed a blow, then another, and finally a third to 'stun' the bird.

“Your hatchet!” yelled Gilbertus. “Let me have it!”

I handed him the hatchet, and he grabbed the bird in some strange fashion, then swung on it several times. Blood spurted, and a final strangled squawk spoke of the bird's death.

I now had a hatchet to clean, and while I did so, Gabriel returned to his 'roost' while the bird first lost its plumage and then its guts. The resulting 'fowl' was easily the size of the one we'd had earlier in the day, and cut-up it went in one of the pots along with spices. The 'oven' soon made for a rumbling pot and fragrant wisps of steam

“What are you doing?” I asked, as Lukas tended the fire.

“Wet-roasting that bird,” he said. “I'm glad you have plenty of Geneva still, as that thing got to me.”

The reek of Geneva answered his speech, and I was surprised to find Gabriel with a small cup and rag. The size – and number – of the bird's welts on his arms was astonishing.

I was even more astonished when I saw what was going into the 'vegetable pot': dried vegetables, spices, and boiling water, and then the pot set aside. I turned to look at what was present.

“That has a lot of c-cabbage,” I murmured. “Did s-someone...”

I turned to see what Lukas was doing, and marveled at his using the grater in the mess-kit. He was grating up a 'bullet-shaped' orange 'cheese' into a granular powder, and the pungent smell made for sniffles on my part. I turned my head just in time to loose a sneeze.

“I heard that book-dust,” muttered Kees. He had a book of some kind, and was trying to read it.

“B-book dust?” I asked. “That was a cheese.”

I then recalled Anna's recipe cards, and fetched them. I wasn't certain as to whether she'd included something appropriate as I untied the string. What I brought out, however, made for mumbling on my part.

The cards were on odd-shaped hunks of what looked like pasteboard, and on the top card I found an inky scrawled mess under the archaic-looking script label of 'Hoetpoot'. Its language seemed more than merely foreign due to handwriting that was unreadable, and the smudged ink helped little with intelligibility. I assayed deciphering it, and the best I could manage was:


Tak own fuel-hane, grost it in brime,

then filcher width coild druel in threeee

chains of gnargle. Brost fuel fogn hoar,

then glumph wit five argns fupe.”


“What does this mean?” I mumbled, as my eyes began glazing. The cards vanished from my sight, and I looked in the direction of Lukas. He was reading from that one card, while looking at a collection of vials to his side. I surmised the vials contained spices.

“Good, I did it right,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“This recipe,” he said. “Medical people write like this.” He paused, then asked, “you got these from Anna, didn't you?”

“Yes, but...”

“I thought so,” he said, as he put the pack of cards back in the bag. “It should be ready in about an hour.”

I did not feel 'up' to study, and thought to lay down. My bedding went under the nearest buggy, and I crawled in. I fell asleep instantly, and but seconds later, someone was pulling my leg so as to wake me up.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Dinner's ready,” said the faint voice of Sepp.

'Dinner' tasted surprisingly good; 'wet-roasted' fool-hen reminded me more than a little of chicken, and the greens were especially helpful. While I could tell the difference between the usual Public House fare and what we were eating, the taste of the meal was still more than satisfactory. I wondered what Karl was doing between servings when he produced a whitish square 'cracker' and put it near the mouth of the 'oven'.

“Someone said bugs liked this stuff,” said Karl, “and it needed heating to...”

The fire abruptly popped.

Karl's eyes jerked wide open, and he looked at the 'cracker'. It seemed to be moving in a strange fashion, and again, the fire popped – only this time, it sounded louder.

The popping noise continued, even as Karl borrowed my pincers and picked up the 'cracker', and when he shook it over the flames the abrupt crackle was enough to make for wondering on my part. He looked at the cracker closely, and shook it more.

“Now you know why field-biscuit isn't something you want to eat regular,” said Lukas. “It draws grain-beetles.”

“What does it taste like?” asked Karl. I was put off by Lukas' description. I did not wish to taste the stuff.

“Make sure the bugs are out of it, then try it,” said Lukas.

Karl tried toasting the stuff near the flames, and after a final spurt of pops – each of them a small burst of flame amid the oven's glowing mouth – he used the pincers to break off a small piece. He then handed both 'cracker' and pincers to Sepp, who pried loose his own sample.

Karl put the piece in his mouth, tried to chew it – and spat it out promptly. He tossed it into the flames, where it ignited within seconds and burnt with pale yellowish flames.

“It may be decent for fires,” he said, “and it is noisy enough, but it is worthless for food. You might toss that stuff at a mule, should one show.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. Sepp was trying a piece.

“The mule might eat it and get rid of it for us,” he said, as he spat his own fragment into the oven's firebox. “Karl, that stuff tasted like rotten wood.”

The 'cracker' went back with Gilbertus, who again spoke of it being 'better than worms', and with a scowl, he put the whole bundle in the bag it had came out of.

I got my pincers back, and resumed the devouring of fool-hen and vegetables. Once my dishes were in the boiling pot, I thought to ask about 'frying' and its application to fool-hens.

“That can be done,” said Karl, “but this gives a good flavor.”

“Fool-hens, unless they be young,” said Lukas, “are tough buzzards, and they would need partial cooking this way.” He paused, then said, “frying? How is that done?”

“Dredge the pieces in, uh, corn-meal after getting them wet,” I said, “and then cooking them with oil in a fryer...”

“That is not done often,” said Lukas, “as cooking oil is dear. How much would this need?”

“I browned some meat with a spoonful or two,” I said. “Cooking up one of these birds would need more, but I doubt they would need much more than what I used then.”

“The best fry-bread is done with a gallon of such oil,” murmured Karl. “Have you ever had such fry-bread, all of it steaming hot and covered with sugar-tree sap?”

“No, I haven't,” I spluttered, as I choked back a wave of nausea. “Given how I react to...”

“You'd best stay clear of fry-bread,” said Lukas, “and cooking birds that way might not be a good idea.”

“Uh, yes,” I muttered, as I recalled my reaction to fried chicken where I came from. “It might taste good, but it made me sick pretty consistently.”

This night, there was a watch, and Kees woke me. As I went around the camp and packed things up, I could feel a distinct presence of thugs to the south, so much so that I murmured, “hereabouts there be High-Way-Men.”

The words were amusing, even if the idea of freebooting thugs wasn't, and once underway – Sepp had caught more fish to be traded for beer and bread – I spoke of the matter to Gabriel.

“The second kingdom has its share of brigands,” said Gabriel, “and the further south one goes, the more common they were said to be. More, they are not amateurs.”

“Meaning they will be inclined toward mayhem,” I said.

“I'm glad we have what we do, and more glad yet all of them are loaded,” said Gabriel.

Our third stop of the day for water was in a modest-sized town, and as we stood eating our breakfast of hot bread and jam, I thought to speak of another thing I had sensed, chiefly another landmass to the west.

“What is over to the west about a hundred or so miles?” I asked.

“Rumors, mostly,” said Gabriel. “Supposedly, a long-dead society was there, but those rumors are buttressed with enough facts to make me wonder.” A brief pause, then, “there are said to be strange ships that submerge and travel rapidly.”

“Are these ships noisy when surfaced?” I asked. My voice was piqued with curiosity.

“They are said to be silent,” said Gabriel, “and those in them are said to be very strange.” Another brief pause, then “their dress, their customs, and their music – all of it is strange, even if they enjoy music greatly.”

“Greatly?” I asked.

“Sometimes a vast organ is said to play when they are visible,” said Gabriel. “Talk has it they play it when they exchange cargoes in mid-channel.”

“Cargoes?” I asked.

“Mostly lamps,” said Gabriel. “Those are well-known, if far from the only things they trade.”

“What color are these ships?” I asked.

“They are said to be a very dark gray or black color,” said Gabriel. “Their structure is strange.”

“Structure?”

“A tall fin comes from a deck made of slats,” said Gabriel, “and there are no masts, nor are there sails.” A brief pause, then “you remind me to a degree of how those people are said to be.”

“That sounds like a submarine,” I thought. “I wonder what kind it is?”

My thinking educated my next question, which was, “is there a round door somewhere in that deck through which people come and go?”

“There is said to be at least one such door,” said Gabriel. “Have you heard of such vessels?”

“That sounds like a submarine,” I said. “How big is it?”

“Near two hundred paces for length,” muttered Gabriel darkly, “and while it has a shape like an iron-head trout, it makes a hungry trout seem slow for swimming.”

“Oh, my,” I spluttered. “I've heard of those, and I've known people that went in them.” I paused, then said, “those people called them 'big-black-never-come-back'.”

Gabriel's face turned green, and he nearly fell off of his horse before he regained a modest amount of composure. He turned to me, then muttered, “so say the old tales of those things! They had huge rockets that came from the bottom of the sea.”

“We need to talk to those people if they still exist, then,” I said. “If they have those, then they have a great deal more, including computers and...”

“I'm glad you see that need,” said Hendrik from the other side of the buggy. “Those that trade with them come from the third kingdom's port, and if the swine get a foothold here...”

“They lose their market at the least,” said Gabriel. “Can those witches follow them?”

“That I doubt, at least at first,” said Hendrik. “Still, we need to investigate those people, as they badly need what markets they have.”

“What do they want?” I asked.

“That is much of a mystery,” said Hendrik. “Beyond money, food, and perhaps small amounts of certain medicines, not much is known.”

We came upon a train of long rumbling wagons laden with 'everything' about an hour later, and as we passed them in a long line, I wondered as to who they might be. Their dress seemed conventional enough – it was much like our own, save perhaps somewhat more travel-worn – and as we cleared the head of the column, I saw another like it some distance away.

“Those look to be vendors,” said Gabriel, as we passed into a sparse-seeming yet fragrant woodlot. “I would expect to see more birds in this area.”

While no birds showed in that particular woodlot, upon emerging from it into an area of smaller farmsteads, I heard the echoing sounds of a flock of quolls. I wondered if any of those 'feathered noisemakers' would actually show when a sky-darkening cloud of them suddenly emerged from a farmstead a short distance ahead and came our way.

“Ready the fowling pieces,” I thought.

But seconds later, the birds jerked into a left turn and flew due west in a bobbing and weaving mass. They were still well out of range, even at their closest, and as they flew in what passed for a straight line, I asked, “where are they going?”

“Most likely to find another farmer's fields to lay waste to,” said Lukas. “I'm about inclined to diced quoll, myself.”

“Lunch?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Gabriel. “Are there any towns ahead worth bothering with?”

“For size, or otherwise?” I asked. “There's another smaller town not too much further, but if you want a decent-sized one, then we might reach it before nightfall.”

“I'd settle for a smaller one,” said Gabriel. “My posterior is not getting used to this nearly fast enough.”

The 'smaller town' showed about noon, and while I had thought it 'smaller', it was larger than I expected. Here, we stopped, and resumed travel about midafternoon.

The aspect of the country we were now in had changed further, and only with a full stomach did I fully appreciate its changes. The road now undulated gently, with hollows and swells showing now and then, and the trees that commonly showed were tall, straight, and stringy-barked. Herds of sheep seemed to gather in each meadow that showed, and at the farmsteads – most were now common-sized, if I went by those at home for comparison – there looked to be large gardens and modest-sized fields. At least, I thought them modest-sized in comparison to those further north.

“Those fields are still two days or more plowing each,” said Gabriel.

“And those plants I saw?”

“Those would be cord-plants,” said Gabriel. “This area is still decent for wheat and grapes, though farming those crops needs more work. Cord-plants need less, and crude-rope brings good prices.”

“Crude-rope?”

“The plants are dug up and beaten with flails while being dried in the sun,” said Gabriel, “and then allowed to rot in ponds for some days. The result is crude-rope, which is readily made into common rope and ship's-rope.”

“Ship's rope?”

“It is soaked in heavy distillate with a small amount of road-tar,” said Gabriel, “and then let dry. It retains its strength for a much longer period.”

“And sheep?” I asked.

“Those will be more common yet further south,” said Gabriel. “Much of what the third kingdom does is raise wool.”

“Aye, and not all from sheep,” said Lukas. “Some of that stuff comes from goats.”

“Goats?” I asked.

“Not all of those things are in the valley,” said Lukas. “Some run wild in the fifth kingdom, and some shepherds run them with their sheep in the third.” He paused, then said, “dried goat is usually inedible, but the fresh stuff is decent, if somewhat tough and bitter-flavored.”

“Have you had it?” I asked.

“It's fairly common in the third kingdom, along with those straight-horn cattle,” he said, “and of the two, goat tends to be cheaper if it's sold.”

As the day drew on, the woodlots became both larger and thinner as to consistency, with small portions carved out for watering troughs. Those tended to have modest 'unimproved' fields attached to them, and at sundown, I thought to investigate the next one I found.

That 'field' was but little larger than our most-recent camping area, and after carefully looking, I led the way in. For some reason, I wanted to actually camp in amongst the trees, and when I led to the area that occurred to me, I was startled to find not merely a well-baked 'oven' with a stack of firewood next to it, but also a modest firepit nearby.

“Now that I like,” said Lukas. “Someone's been using this place and left it ready.”

While the water for bathing needed carrying some distance, the ready-made oven made for quicker bathing and then cooking, and our bedding down happened earlier that evening than any night before. I was most glad of it, for some reason, and I wondered why.

I was awakened what seemed a short time later by the rattling of unlubricated bearings and the hoarse brays of mules, and when I turned to look out toward the open region near the watering trough, I saw three coaches gathered in a line. Their teams were fractious and troublesome, and watering them seemed an involved and time-consuming process involving buckets of water drawn by the drivers.

With each passing moment, the coaches' aspect of restiveness increased steadily, and the curses of the coach passengers became more strident and voluble. Soon, one of the passengers began yelling, and a coach-door opened with a creak to close with a slam followed by unsteady tottering footsteps. Another coach-door opened, and the yelling abruptly changed into a long, drawn-out, and dire-sounding scream.

The drivers hurried somewhat more as the steps resumed and the doors slammed, but their thirsty charges would not be denied, and when the first of the noisy things rumbled south into the distance, I wondered as to their destination. The other two coaches joined the first a minute later, and in the faded misty darkness, I saw what might have been a body left laying in the road.

“Good riddance,” muttered someone from our camp, as I made ready to resume sleeping.

The next morning showed the one corpse to have doubled in number, for there were two black-dressed bodies showing numerous knife-wounds lying dead amid wide spreading dark pools of congealed blood.

“Uh, what should we do with those two?” I asked, as I dismounted. “Drag them into the ditch over there?”

Without a word, Karl and Sepp dismounted also, and the three of us dragged first one witch into the roadside ditch, followed by the other. I was more than a little surprised to find both younger men washing their hands afterward. We left minutes later.

I could feel the border ahead, but much closer I felt that one particular 'larger' town. I wondered if the town in question was a so-called 'border town', one of those places of noise and violence, and as I thought about the matter, I heard clattering hooves from the rear, then seconds later, a postal buggy passed at a pace just short of a trot.

The arid-seeming aspect of the countryside was enough for wondering, even if small streams and their associated bridges were common. Here and there, I saw small encampments part-hidden in woodlots, with dusty-looking travelers working steadily while their vehicles 'rested'.

“Is it common to have the wheels off like that?” I asked, as I pointed to one such group of three 'tinker's buggies'.

“Those would be tinkers,” said Gabriel, “and they look to be doing the usual for such people.”

“Their wheels off?” I asked.

“They might well be hunting, so as to secure tallow of some kind,” said Gabriel. A faint boom answered him seconds later, then two more.

The next such encampment, however, had a crude-looking part-buried hovel with fragrant smoke billowing from a stubby smokestack, as well as more travelers. These people were obviously working, for I saw spread sheets layered thickly with tools, hides, and kitchen supplies.

“Th-that meat?” I asked.

“I suspect they're drying goat,” said Gilbertus, “and if some turns up fresh-done for sale in this town, we may want to buy some.”

Gabriel shuddered, then shook his head.

“No, not common dried goat,” said Gilbertus. “What they eat in the third kingdom.”

The town showed but a short time later, and the smell spoke of either a great deal of meat being grilled or a lot of meat being dried. It was still fairly early in the morning – about two hours after sunrise, or an hour before the usual 'stirring time' spoken of by Lukas as being common for the area – and while I looked after the buggies and horses along with the two 'gaffers', everyone else went after some species of either food or drink. I became aware of a less-than-subtle difference in 'smell' when they returned.

“The food is strange,” said Karl. “This bread tastes...”

The lighter color, as well as the faintly sour odor, spoke of common matters such as different grains, or so I hoped, and when I found a small slice of bread, I looked closely before trying to eat it.

Its moisture spoke of its just being baked, and its texture seemed somewhat finer than the 'coarseness' common to home. I sniffed, and smelled sweetness, and I nibbled a corner of the slice after another moment's contemplation.

The first thing that struck my tongue was indeed sweetness, though the sweet taste was much thicker and richer than mere sugar-tree sap. Following hot behind it was a taste that spoke of grain, though the grain wasn't just rye. I might have tasted corn and barley also. Finally, there was a slight smoky aspect, as if the fuel was burning while the loaves rested on their oven's shelves.

“Do they have a special o-oven?” I asked.

“Aye, one big enough to walk in,” said Gilbertus, “and for what they sell, they need an oven like those in the fourth kingdom.”

“And the same for their grain,” said Lukas. “There are a gang of bakers in that place, and everyone for miles wants their bread.”

“Did we, uh...”

“Every bread-bag I could find easy,” said Lukas. “I'm not certain I'm hankering for what they call bread in the third kingdom.”

“And dried meat?” I asked.

“All of what they have, at least for sampling,” said Lukas. “They had both dried beef and dried goat, and that goat was decent.”

“You t-tried it?” I asked.

“Aye, and it was done like it might be in the fourth kingdom,” said Lukas. “I think they put Raw-Deal in the meat-dip.”

“Meat-dip?” I asked.

“They do that best in the fourth kingdom,” said Lukas. “They use more salt, and better salt, as well as pepper and spices, and I've seen them do the stuff up. Near home, only Anna and those she's talked to who listen use as much salt.”

The town was in our wake a short time later, and I thought to try some dried goat. The smell was familiar, as was the appearance. I assayed a bite a second later.

The aspect of 'salt' was the first thing that struck me, as well as that of 'smoke', and then hot on the heels of those two flavors was 'pepper' followed by the heat of Raw-Deal mingled with other spices I could not name. It seemed to give one an appetite, and I devoured the balance of the thin stick, followed by two more.

The woodlots became closer together, if more straggly and 'wild-looking', and the trees often stood in small clumps in the midst of knee-high clumps of grassy foliage. Here, there were more plots of those cord-plants showing, and now and then, I saw flocks of sheep.

The border drew steadily nearer, and now, I felt beyond all arguing the diminution of the second kingdom's power. This was the border-land, a realm that wasn't 'proper' for either kingdom, and the undulating and turning road made for what might have been good ambush points, or, perhaps,well-hid 'High-Way-Men'.

“I wonder if those people use swords and pistols?” I murmured, as we emerged from another straggly woodlot and into a narrow meadow area waving with knee-high lime-green grass.

“Brigands use whatever weapons they might have,” said Gabriel, “and from this point to the northern border of the fourth kingdom, I expect them to be common.”

“Uh, will they bother us?” I asked, as I smelled a faint source of smoke ahead.

“Much of their business is done in darkness,” said Gabriel mysteriously. “I recall that border being in this area, and you will wish that thing to be visible when it is time.”

“Time?”

“The crossing proper,” said Gabriel. “The second kingdom hides its formality far better than I recalled. Unless my memory fails me, the third kingdom might well be less formal than the second, but it hides little that way.”

“And hence it looks more formal than any of them...” I muttered.

“It was spoken of as being by far the most formal of all of the kingdoms,” said Gabriel, “and during my traipsing, that seemed proven to my satisfaction. I know better now.”

“Uh, is it formal, though?” I asked.

“It is,” said Gabriel. “They do not speak of 'commons' and 'betters' there, nor much else that happened at our last visit, but it is formal.”

“And during your traipsing, that portion was hidden from you completely?” I asked.

“I saw but bare glimpses of such matters then,” he said, “as I did not realize how much they hid from me. These people ahead don't do much hiding.”

Another turn, another woodlot, two meadows, a decrepit-looking farmstead, and then a dirt road to the side showed. The road went nearly straight for some distance afterward, and to the right some miles amid a wide field I saw what might have been the ancient ruins of buildings. Their seeming age was enough to make for wondering until I heard Gabriel speak.

“The border is just ahead,” he said. “You may wish to have that thing ready to show.”

I removed the jewelry from my shirt. As I touched it, I felt the sensation of 'power', and more, the sense of power added by the chain. It started gaining weight the instant I took it outside.

“P-please, I am not up to this,” I murmured, as I sagged to a near-horizontal state.

The weight began lessening, and when it weighed close to its former weight of ounces, I noted a strange and uncanny feeling – and then, suspended before my eyes was a 'movie' showing the precise ceremony.

The whole of the small dark room – it had the feeling of being underground, for some reason – seemed to have walls of bluish-white fire, and each of the seven 'things' lay upon a coarse knotty plank where the crudely-dressed 'monk' bathed them carefully in the hazy flames.

As I watched him 'bless' each such thing, I saw details about him: he had not been eating well recently, for one thing, and for another, his clothing was strictly functional. It was not a pious affectation, but the best he could find for rough living at that time.

“So a knee-length 'hair shirt', coarse trousers, open-topped leather sandals, a crude-looking leather shoulder-bag, a knapsack of the same material, and perhaps a jug or two,” I thought. “It looks like it works.”

The man was speaking a language I had not heard before as he carefully paused before each of the pendants, and there, he gave names to them. On the back, small letters showed...

“Both of you,” said Hendrik. “We're here.”

I looked up to see a realm unlike anything I had yet seen on the trip. The trees – tall, whithered-seeming, spare, tattered stringy bark – were to each side, and seemed to go on to form a lengthy corridor. I followed in Gabriel's wake, and as I did so, I felt as if I had brought the party to the border of Southern Hell itself.

“Will it help?” I asked inaudibly. There was no answer.

The first intimation of utter and complete difference was the mud-brick hut, followed by its occupants. These three bearded men wore old-looking partly-bleached linen trousers and shirts plentifully marked with old stains, round-toed tall leather boots, and blunt-tipped broadly conical hats with narrow brims. These last – they looked to be made of plaited sun-yellowed reeds – reminded me slightly of sombreros.

With the three men slowly coming closer from the shade of the hut proper, I noted its construction. The roof was of more of the reeds used on their hats, with fresh-looking examples piled thickly upon the older reeds below them. A line of uneven poles supported the roof, and the door – of old-looking somewhat grimy planks bare of anything resembling iron – was flung wide. A thin trickle of smoke came from within, and a fourth man dressed identically to the first three showed with a steaming fork in his hand.

It was obvious to me that he was cooking something.

To the left side of the road somewhat further away was a lowered 'crossing guard' painted a faded and streaky red. I was distracted, so much so that when I noted the three men but feet away, I but barely heard one of them speak.

“Your manifest?” he asked. His accent reminded me of the masons.

I was about to reply when the late-midmorning sun glinted off of the pendant, and another voice – that of the man standing next to him – said, “that is sufficient. Go and do what you were called to do.”

The third man now all but ran ahead to where the crossing guard 'weight' was, and began pressing down upon it. The crudity of the weight was exceeded only by the smooth and near-silent movement of the pole as it came up steadily. From behind, I heard the others coming. The three of us moved ahead and off to the side, and as the column came up, we each took our places. I finished by returning the jeweled piece to the inside of my shirt, and felt the massive weight of responsibility cascade off of my mind and brow.

The corridor seemed to constrain our path, and the trees provided but little shade. I hoped this locale would have enough watering troughs, and when the first one showed but a short time later, I went to it, first to check the trough and then the pump. I tried the pump while Jaak drank, and then, I looked around.

“N-no cover at all,” I softly murmured. All I could see for at least half a mile was knee-high irregular-looking grass.

“Most don't rest much in this place,” said Lukas, as he came up beside me. “I'm glad we can stop at the kingdom house.”

“Where is it?” I asked, as I began checking the buggies.

“About the rough middle of the kingdom for north and south,” said Gabriel, “and some miles east from this road.” Gabriel paused, then said, “and I hope they will remain open for us after sundown.”

“They should,” said Hendrik. “It's still far enough that traveling from here to there will have us come upon the place after dark.”

Such was not pleasant to hear, and the sparsity of population rapidly became blatant, even though every field of size had a flock of sheep, small 'farmsteads' weren't at all rare – they grew cord-plants, mostly, with small gardens next to part-sunken mud huts – and now and then, I heard sounds in the woodlots that spoke of gathering 'something'. When I came to the fume of an obvious charcoal-burner, I asked, “do they burn a lot of that stuff?”

“They do, especially in Public Houses,” said Gabriel. “While the third kingdom is especially warm during the day, it is not warm at night save during high summer.”

“And it's cool enough to want warm clothing at night this time of year,” said Lukas. “Only the fifth kingdom stays warm year-round.”

Gabriel began muttering of the fourth kingdom, and I asked, “warm?”

“It tends to rain more during the winter,” he said, “and warm rain is very rare. I might not have needed much wood, but when I needed wood for heat, I needed it.”

“And hence you gathered the stuff and...” I spluttered, then said, “and traded it for charcoal.”

“When I did not make the charcoal myself,” said Gabriel. “There were three small charcoal ovens at Maagensonst, and they burned regularly. Between what I gathered that way, and the candle-stubs, I did passably.”

“Candle-stubs?” I asked.

“Mostly tallow,” said Gabriel. “I saved the wax ones for lighting.”

“Did you, uh, use the tallow candles for lighting your fires?” I asked.

“More than that,” said Gabriel. “I would boil the stuff with water, stir in ground charcoal, and then scoop it out and let it dry.”

“Sounds messy,” I muttered.

“It is that,” said Lukas. “Only a few things work better for cooking, though, as it lights easy and barely smokes at all.”

“There was this special wax...”

“That is the best stuff to be had,” said Lukas, as he interrupted Gabriel. “I hope to get some more while we're down this way, in fact.”

After another two stops for watering – both of them at or near postal hostels – we came up past an undulation in the road. I could see something brown moving slowly in a field of yellow-tinted grass, and when I pointed to the 'thing', I asked, “is that a marmot?”

“That is stew, there,” said a voice to my left. It sounded like Karl. “See if you can get it.”

I went to the roadside ditch, then dismounted as the rest of the party stopped, then went outside and assumed a prone position after capping my rifle. I guessed the distance to be close to six hundred yards, which meant an added turn of elevation on the rear sight. I settled in, then fired.

About four seconds later I faintly heard a heart-rending scream, and two of the party trotted on ahead to secure what I had shot while I cleaned and reloaded. I had finished doing so and remounted when Sepp came by me. He'd been one of the two.

“Do you usually aim for the head?” he asked.

“On that one, I aimed for the body in the direction it was going,” I said. “Uh, why?”

“Its head was gone,” he said. “It just needed gutting and skinning.”

“Do we cook it, or..?”

“It's going in the salt now,” said Karl over his shoulder. “Gilbertus put two handfuls to it, and we can put water once some shows.”

That proved to be but a short distance ahead, and once under way once more, I could feel a town. It was nearly noon, or so I guessed, and as I 'reached out', I had the impression that this town wasn't nearly as good as another that was perhaps another hour's travel further south.

“How many larger towns are there on the High Way in the third kingdom?” I asked.

“There are but a handful of towns of size,” said Gabriel. “The house, that port, a rumored town near it on the coast, and perhaps three or four others on the High Way are the largest towns in the whole of the kingdom.”

“Where are the people?” I asked.

“Many of them are in shops along the Low Way,” said Gabriel, “or they are in the back country.”

“Are there towns there?”

“Not as we would think of towns,” said Gabriel. “There might be small drink-houses that sell drink and supplies, tinkers, and then shops by themselves.”

“That sounds like the Low Way,” said Lukas. “Everyone that lives there either has a shop or boils salt, and most do both of those things and more besides.”

“And the back country?” I asked.

“Those people don't travel much,” said Lukas. “Tinkers are rare to the north. They are not rare in the third kingdom.”

The smaller town showed about an hour later, and there, the marmot went inside the Public House to remain. Those exchanging it returned with not merely three jugs of beer, but also a few potatoes.

“Those are scarce down here?” I asked.

“Especially this time of year,” said Sepp. “I'm glad we have so much dried stuff with us, as about all they had in there was roast meat and bread for food.”

Our 'hour's distance' stretched past an hour and two watering troughs, then a third example. It was now early afternoon, or so I guessed as I remounted, and minutes later as we came to a wide flat field surrounded by tall strange-looking trees, I saw numbers of furtive-looking animals trying to eat and hide at the same time.

“What are those?” I asked, as I pointed with my right hand.

“Those are goats,” said Lukas. “They're still a good bit small for meat yet.”

As if to disabuse us from 'samples', the herder showed seconds later. This man was dressed much as the quartet at the border, and his short-barreled musket made for wondering – both as to its age, and also, its functionality. I was soon shown my errors.

With a blundering rush, a quoll erupted from beneath his feet and he brought his musket into action. The bird erupted into a cloud of feathers and tumbled down crazily just in front of a goat, which stood dumbly with its tail downcast. The herder picked up the bird and began plucking it on the spot.

It was midafternoon when the town actually showed, and here, I first noticed the true import of where we were. Stone wasn't at all common, and the same for wood, while mud-brick slathered thickly with a species of whitish 'paint' was; the roofs were of multi-colored tiles, with either red or green predominating; the weathered doors tended to sag if open; and the stillness and near-silence seemed to conjure a sense of immanent death.

Coming into the narrow dessicated area in front of the Public House bolstered the sense of disquiet, for the gravel and clay had been pounded hard into a firm gray substance. It too looked dead, and as I began checking over the hooves of the horses, I could hear the others beginning to mutter about brigands.

“I'd bet half of the people here have names like Pancho,” I thought, as I finished one horse's set of hooves and went to another. “There are brigands around here, and they provide a good deal of these people's business.”

I went inside with Lukas and Gilbertus, and while the others had gone in earlier to 'get things started', I still felt nervous. The door was secured by a leather thong to the weathered post, and when Lukas lifted the thong, I wondered if he was going to unleash something. He pulled on the door, which grated on the worn stones underfoot, and went inside.

I followed after Gilbertus, and as I stood on the threshold pulling the door shut, I began mumbling about contrary doors and 'unlit mineshafts'. Faintly the glows of candles came from below and ahead, and once I turned around, I felt for the steps below my feet.

I found the first one, and moved ahead, with my hand upon the gnarled wooden rail to my right. Before my eyes I seemed to see stars moving in wayward orbits, and I put out my left hand to feel the ceiling.

“Oh my,” I squeaked. “I nearly hit my head on that thing!”

I ducked my head down, and made another step, again feeling for it. I had the distinct impression that the steps were uneven as to size and 'drop', and the longer drop of the second step spoke of being correct. The third step, however, was shorter, and the ceiling dropped nearly to the top of my head. Faintly, I heard the need to whistle, and I failed miserably as I dropped down another step and nearly tumbled onto the floor of an obvious witch-hole.

I looked up from my knees and the sense of conjuring vanished in a hazy bloom of candlelight. There was smooth clean stone beneath my feet, and all around, there were multitudes of small square tables with candles burning in profusion.

I found a post next to where I was kneeling and pulled myself up, then looked around more to see an otherwise familiar-looking building. I saw our group some distance away, and began walking toward them.

The walls showed numbers of wooden pegs, some of which bore things like bundles of rope, and as I passed a pair of nondescript-looking men, I thought to touch the hilt of my sword with my hand.

The abrupt 'jolt' I felt ripple through the place was a matter for marveling, and when I sat down at the end of the collected tables, I could feel something happening. Faintly, I heard silver being carefully left behind in wobbly stacks, boots softly treading upon the floor, and then the scraping of the door as it admitted air and sunlight into the witch-hole the brigands were abandoning for safer regions.

“Th-they're getting out of Dodge,” I thought – and for some reason, instead of thinking of a wild-and-woolly town of distant history, I recalled an elderly pickup truck. It too was named Dodge, and it warranted its name.

“The Doomsday book speaks of no such town,” said Gabriel, as he drank from a mug. I smelled beer. “What is this place you called Dodge?”

I found another mug, it too containing beer. I thought to sip it before speaking, and again, the town of history melded with the contrary vehicle – until I tasted what was in the mug.

The first flavor I noted was 'sour', followed by 'acid', and then faintly hot and distant was something best thought of as 'malt'.

“What is this stuff?” I asked.

“The third kingdom's version of beer,” said Lukas. “It takes a while to acquire its taste.”

I tried sipping the stuff again, and now noticed how it helped. The 'sour' and 'acid' tastes had muted and melded into a thirst-quenching concoction that reminded me of tart lemons. I then thought to look at what I was drinking.

“They put slices of yellow-fruit in that stuff,” said Karl. “It tastes strange, but I will remember that trick for high summer.”

“If you can find yellow-fruit at home,” said Sepp. “I never saw one before coming here.”

“Uh, is that the cause?” I asked. “They didn't put something else in it?”

“They do that too,” said Gilbertus. “These people are still far north enough to get the usual things easy, so they use them like at home. To the south, though...” Gilbertus shuddered, then murmured about the taste of wine.

“Wine?” I asked.

“They have small plots of grapes and cask their own,” said Gabriel. “It tends to vary a great deal as to...”

The door scraped shut, and I looked around. Nearly a third of the clientèle had left, and again, I was reminded of the phrase involving Dodge.

“You might explain its meaning,” said Gabriel.

“Leave in all haste, while not drawing attention upon oneself,” I muttered thickly. The beer was acquiring a pleasant aftertaste. “There is a city where I came from called Dodge City, and I think the expression came from that place's early history. It had its share of trouble, supposedly.”

“Both the town and that other thing,” said Gabriel. “Let me guess – it smoked terribly, left huge trails of flame behind it, and woke dead people by its noise alone.”

“That sounds like these things in the fifth kingdom,” said Lukas. “Was that what it was?”

“This resembled something I once saw on a tapestry,” said Gabriel, “and what was on the tapestry did all of those things I spoke of.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “It might have been a tiring vehicle to drive, and needed more care and watchfulness than any vehicle I've ever used, but otherwise, it wasn't bad.” I paused, then said, “what did you see on the tapestry?”

“I am not terribly sure,” said Gabriel. “It was treated much as a coach might be, and was used by witches. What I just saw had two fewer wheels, was a different color, and was smaller, but otherwise, appeared to be similar.” Gabriel paused, closed his eyes, grimaced upon sipping from his mug, then said, “I recall its name, also.”

“Its name?”

“Yes,” said Gabriel. “It had a name, and I'm not certain if the vehicle on the tapestry had the same name as what I just heard or not.”

“Th-that truck had a name, all right,” I muttered. “That thing was a Dodge.”

Gabriel's mysterious speech made for wondering, at least until the food arrived. Two platters of each viand plumped down upon our 'table', and the stacks of each made for a measure of wonderment until their odors came close to my nose. I then wondered much less.

“No greens in these parts,” said Lukas. “This is what they serve, because it's what they have. Let's have the plates.”

I passed mine his way, and it returned with a pair of wide rectangular flatbreads and what resembled an uncommonly tough steak. I tried my knife on the latter and knew appearances regarding this meat were deceiving.

It was tougher than it looked to be.

I began slicing the steak into thin strips while glancing at the two older men. They were doing likewise, while the others were watching them closely. They seemed to have but little clue as to how to proceed.

After slicing up the 'steak', I put some of the coarse stringy pieces of meat lengthwise on the uppermost of the pair of flatbreads, and then rolled the thing up into a rubbery-feeling tube. I was more than a little surprised at the pliability of the flatbread, and also its thickness.

“I've never heard of tortillas this thick,” I thought, as I mentally measured the thing, “nor have I heard of them being rectangular, either.” A brief pause, then “oh, good. They have Raw-Deal sauce. These things need it.”

I dipped the end of the 'roll' in the sauce, then bit into it. I was surprised that I could bite it, and more surprised that it neither crunched nor went to pieces on me. The taste was mostly corn mingled with rye, with several grains I could not identify, and the result combined to form an intriguing flavor.

“How did you figure that out so quick?” asked Kees.

“I think he's had these before,” said Lukas. “Have you?”

“They were similar,” I said, “and I had them a great many times where I grew up. That, and I watched the two of you while working on this one.”

“Those people were not Veldters,” muttered Gabriel, as he worked on his. “They were worse.”