The road more traveled, part p.


Our packing continued, and as each man's load finished up, it went out into the buggies. I topped the reservoirs as the last pair of bags went into them, then upon finishing that task, I was surprised by Jaak showing silhouetted by the setting sun.

“Yes, it's time,” I said, as I shook out the blanket and folded it.

Small glimmering lights showed amid the tent city, and as I swept my eyes over its broad expanse, I noted it nearly filled the internal space of the place. Here and there, I saw what might have been a 'monster-lamp' being lit with a brilliant flash of light, and once mounted, I led off between the edge of the overhang and the margins of the tent city formed by the wagons. I recognized more than one.

Ahead, I heard the 'heave-ho' singsong that went with the raising of the gate. The rattling and groaning noises seemed to come straight from hell, and I turned to the north to see deep shadows faintly moving upon the part-hid walls under the eves. I was more than a little surprised to see several faintly glowing small braziers surrounded by small groups of people.

“Knee-high braziers,” I thought. “They use those here, too.”

A wailing and dire trumpet note sounded as we came near the 'castle' portion, and I asked, “what does that horn mean?”

“Dinner,” said Gabriel. “It meant that when I last visited the place a few years ago.”

I nervously shuddered, for now we were near the teeth of the Iron Gate, and I looked with gladness upon the thick baulks of timber used to hold up the massive construction. Each rivet seemed to glare down in hot-faceted anger upon us as we came within its range, then once clear of the gate, it was the turn of the drawbridge. Again, noises made for uncertainty, and only when we were a hundred yards clear of the barbicans did I think of aught beyond the possibility of being crushed like a bug or drowned like a sickly puppy. The banging of the Iron Gate, followed by the rattle of the gate flanked by the barbicans, didn't help much.

Or, so I thought until we'd come to the first right turn. I then felt reminded of what needed to happen amid long and growing shadows.

“Can we be hid from our fears?” I asked, as I brought out the pendant.

At first, nothing happened, or so I thought until I looked to the sides to see them growing blue-tinted mists that steadily moved more rapidly in our wake. I briefly looked 'behind' and saw a growing dust trail that seeded darkness thickly behind us.

Since I knew we were to go 'south' upon striking the High Way, I came out slightly ahead once I saw the dark black line faintly glowing as it moved across my field of vision in the distance ahead, then when it was 'time', I 'leaned' into the turn. A brief glance behind showed a billow of sparks that winked out like dusted fireflies seconds later.

Farmsteads and trees shot past as spectral blurs now, and through the front and to each side I could now see clearly. Far ahead in the distance, I saw lined up across the road from margin to margin rows of black-clad horsemen, and above them, hoisted high on several poles, I saw things that made for shuddering.

“L-lizard banner?” I gasped. “Brigands?”

There was no answer beyond a 'desire' to look closer at what some of the thugs seemed to be holding in their hands. The darkness seemed to be thinning around what one of these odd objects, and as I saw its nature clearer, I was reminded of swine-shells.

“What are those things?”

Again, there was no answer save what I was seeing, that being an odd-looking canister about five inches high, three inches around, and slightly pointed on one end. The sides of the thing seemed wrapped with red yarn – and again, I was reminded of swine-shells.

Hot on the tail of this recollection was one of the times I had nearly been blown up during training or the time just after it, when the explosions...

“Bang! Bang! B-B-Bang!” echoed in my mind.

I looked down on the ground and saw mangled lead pellets scattered thickly. Suddenly, the thought erupted in my mind and spewed out of my mouth.

“Those characters have old-style petards, and they want to toss them at us!” I squeaked. “God, please, help us. Those people want blood-sources, and they think us prime examples.”

As if to reply, I heard faintly on the wind words that chilled my marrow. Whether from memory or realms unseen, they did not matter:


Ghäsh? Nögga zöp garg nghäsh!”


“No thank you,” I spluttered.

The trees to each side now seemed uncommonly blurred, much as if we were traveling faster than ever before, while the mass of the upper millstone around my neck seemed to be heavier than it was possible to believe. The distance between the massed thugs and ourselves steadily dwindled, even as we shot through towns and clearings between sparsely forested areas, and at several miles distance, I focused upon the actions of one particular thug.

He was looking at his bomb as if it were an idol, with its exposed fuse upward, and in my mind, I heard his chant among a forest of such chants.

“Yoh! Fogh! Wikk! Thogh! Tagh! Tagh! Tagh!”

The thug's idol, however, had a strange 'topknot', and as I saw clearer what he was looking at, I 'smelled' powder. I then knew I was looking at a fuse, and I wondered briefly if it were possible to ignite it.

My 'wayward' thoughts somehow gave the impression that one had to form a picture of the thing in question in one's mind and then somehow 'manipulate' the fuse in a peculiar fashion. The idea smacked of witchcraft, so much so that in an eyeblink of distraction, I thought, “don't they say 'fire in the hole' when they set off charges?”

My thoughts vanished with lightning abruptness as a thick reddish-yellow flash lit up the road far in the distance, and in the ruddy 'afterglow' of the flash, I saw the brigand who had been holding the bomb in question bodily flung up and off of his horse to fly limply through the air and land to the side of the body of horsemen. He hit the ground with an audible thud, and as I watched, first one of the thug's neighbors slowly toppled off of his horse, then another, and finally a third.

“W-what happened?” I asked.

There was no answer save the recalled reddish strobe-light brilliance of the bomb's explosion. I thought then to actually say the words – and mingled with the statement of blasting were others, so much so that those came out first.

“No!” I shrieked. “I don't want to be a witch.”

Yet still, the brigands remained; they had closed ranks around the fallen, the banners stiff with gore stood, our distance was now less than two miles, and we were on a collision course with them. I then saw what might have been a brace of cannons, one to each side, both manned with their crews.

There was no one else, and nothing else for me to do. I felt as if cursed, even as I whispered the words.

Yet the strangely loud sound that actually came from my mouth seemed to hang briefly in the air before it set up a metallic echo that shot forth at the speed of sound, and I shielded my eyes with my hands as a massive red-tinged white eruption flared like a collision between sun and planet for a slow count of three.

But seconds later, I heard a shattering roar begin to hollowly echo around us. Mingled in that roar were screams both human and animal, and when I took my hands away from my face, I shuddered again.

There were no brigands left standing, both guns were 'gone', and the billowing smoke and flames wreathing the road spoke of a blazing holocaust that had expunged all trace of our adversaries. The trees on both sides were blanketed in thick smoke of a distinct and pungently foul aroma, and again, screams echoed. They were few, and more of them animal than human – and for some reason, I did not think to lead to the side, but straight up the middle through the midst of the destruction.

“Why?” I thought. “Is there some strange effect manifested by doing so?”

There was no answer, beyond the sense that it needed to be done, just as I had spoken to the bombs.

The stench of death grew stronger with the passing seconds, and the flaming trees to each side became more visible and 'enlightening'. I saw smoldering gobbets of flesh spiked upon broken branches, dismembered bodies hanging impaled upon broken trunks, the hindquarters of either a horse or a mule hanging by its intestines, and then a long metal 'spear' pinning a thug to the trunk of a tree.

The flames at ground level were nearly out, and I led among them at our steady speed. The stink was appalling, and I did not look down. I kept my eyes focused ahead on our next goal, that being the border some imponderable distance further.

“I hope that is the end of the bomb-tossers,” I mumbled. Seconds later, I was answered by a faint scream and then an echoing gunshot.

The stink of death receded behind us steadily, and I now had the chance to look around. Within perhaps two minutes, I felt markedly safer, so much so that I thought to ask if that group of thugs was the local supply.

Again, there was no answer.

However, I recalled the instructor's mention of three 'well-known' drink-houses in the third kingdom port, as well as their 'usual' clientèle.

“Black-dressed thugs, people who act like them, witches, thieves, and brigands,” I thought. “I wonder if the rest of the local thugs are in those places.”

“There are three well-known drink-houses in the third kingdom,” said the soft voice. “There are many more that are not well-known – and all of them are busy once the sun goes down.”

“More thugs ahead?” I asked.

“Yes, though not tonight,” said the soft voice. “That group had the remnants of those you encountered last evening, as well as every interested person they could find on a day's notice.”

I saw a 'downed' crossing guard some distance away, and to its right lay another hut. This one was unlit, and all four 'guards' were asleep. They had journeyed to the center of a locally produced jug of 'Geneva', and what locale it came from made me wonder.

“They don't do much distilling here, or do they?” I thought.

“There are a few pot-type stills at the kingdom house,” said the soft voice, “and their chief output is tailor's antiseptic.”

“That digestive stuff..?”

“Was imported from the fourth kingdom,” said the soft voice, “as was the 'wine' those men consumed.”

“Wine?” I spluttered. The crossbar wasn't more than a few miles distant.

“It was not common wine,” said the soft voice. “It was processed much like some cider is in the first kingdom.”

“F-fortified wine,” I spluttered. “Real fermented kerosene.”

“It isn't quite strong enough to burn,” said the soft voice, “even if it is much stronger than common wine.”

“And common wine..?” I asked.

There was no answer save the crossbar in front of me.

“Up with you,” I said, “and let us pass.”

The 'crossing guard' twitched and shuddered as it began to raise up, and as we came closer, I watched it continue to climb. As it came to near-vertical, we passed under it, and in our wake, it started back down. But seconds later, I heard a soft and echoing thudding noise as it struck its supports.

I sensed several things within a minute after passing the border:

The 'brigantisti' lay to the north and south. Where that term came from made for wondering.

Ahead lay a place for which I had no words beyond 'thugs don't much care for it' and 'it reminds me a lot of Sarah'.

I was about as safe here as at home, if not more so.

And finally, that upper millstone around my neck was exacting its toll upon me. My eyes were nearly closed, I was exhausted, and with palsied hands that shook as if in a hailstorm, I mouthed the words, “thank you. Can we slow down now?”

Within what seemed like seconds, the fog began to slowly dissipate, and the blurring rush of scenery to each side began to lose its frantic aspect of speed. I turned to see another impenetrable cloud of dust to our rear, and far in the distance to the north, I heard coughing sounds amid intermittent gunfire.

“What gives with all of that shooting?” asked Karl.

“Our passage raised its share of dust,” said Gabriel, “and unless I miss my guess, we are some miles inside the fourth kingdom.”

I wobbled in my seat under the stark and raving bleached-white moonlight, and I looked up to see a brilliant oval moon and a vast multitude of stars. I then looked down at the surface of the road, and nearly fell off of Jaak.

“We had best camp shortly,” said Gabriel. “That pendant is a heavy load to bear.”

“Upper m-millstone,” I whimpered. “I feel s-sick.”

“I'm afraid you will need to find a camping place,” said Gabriel softly a minute or two later. “My night vision is nowhere near what yours is.”

“More than that,” said Lukas' tired voice from behind. “This close to the border, we might find the leavings of mules, and your smeller makes me wonder sometimes.”

“Smeller?” I asked.

“Not yours, his,” said Lukas. “He'd not notice a mule-trace until he was close enough to step in it, and that's bad on a night this dark.” A brief pause, then, “and I doubt I'd be much better, at least at night.”

“F-few travel at night, do they?” I asked. For some reason, it seemed important to hear of such matters, even though I had asked about it beforehand.

“Only true desperation makes for a desire to travel at night,” said Gabriel. “Most camp with the sun still showing, and do not stir from their beds before it shows plainly.”

“Most?” I thought. I had seen ample evidence to the contrary, even if what Gabriel had said matched what I had sensed and heard of.

Gabriel had paused, and he now continued. “There is but one uniform exception to the rule about not traveling at night, and both tapestries and Grim speak of it. I suspect strongly it still happens today.”

“Those black-dressed thugs?” I asked. “Witches?”

“Not in the fashion described,” said Gabriel. “Those marked commonly traveled at night, for it was easier to avoid discovery then.”

“So it was entirely true,” I thought.

“And” – Gabriel had paused – “their pace was such that no normal man or woman could hope to equal it.”

“What?” I squeaked. I was surprised I had the energy to speak – and more surprised yet to 'feel' a camping spot nearby. I 'looked' further, and 'localized' the place to perhaps three miles ahead and a short distance to the left of the road. I then realized my fatigue was as nothing compared to that of the others, and I wondered why that situation was prevailing.

“What did you mean,” I asked, “when you spoke of their 'pace'?”

“When you were traveling on foot to and from the king's house,” asked Gabriel, “how long did it take you?”

“I never kept track of time,” I said, “as I was usually watching for trouble...”

All day..?” I thought, as I recalled what I had repeatedly heard. “Not even close.”

“Still, it took less time than I thought it would, and that regardless of light or weather,” I said.

“That is what I meant,” said Gabriel. “That distance is nearly eighteen miles if one travels as the quoll flies. Then, Hans once spoke of you keeping up with the buggy while walking, and that was but weeks after you showed.”

A brief pause, then slurping sounds.

“When traveling at night...”

Gabriel seemed to choke, for a second later, he said, “did you keep to roads?”

“No, I didn't,” I said. “I had the impression the roads were watched, and between that and the gunfire near Waldhuis, I wanted to stay in the shadows and close to cover.” I paused, then said, “and that doesn't count my tendency to travel in straight lines.”

“Did darkness slow you?” asked Gabriel.

“No, and the fog didn't either,” I said. “I learned early on a compass was optional, and I never became lost.”

“That is nearly identical to what the tapestries speak of,” said Gabriel. “Those accounts speak of walking nearly the length of the continent in a few weeks while foraging and dealing with witches.”

“Dealing with witches?” I asked.

“That usually meant hiding from them,” said Gabriel, “but in some few instances, those marked hunted them. One of Charles' chief men was said to have arrived at camp with a dull sword caked and dripping with blood, and him still a boy.”

“Why would he use a dull sword?” I asked.

“It was originally sharp and free of notches,” said Gabriel, “and it had grown dull with extensive use.”

“That sounds like a bad 'un,” said Lukas.

“It was as good as was common then, supposedly,” said Gabriel. “The account spoke at length as to what he did to ruin it.”

“He r-ruined it?” I gasped.

“Cracked, badly notched, and bent,” said Gabriel. “Given that he cut several witches in half at the waist and took dozens of heads, I'm not surprised.”

Such talk was enough to make silence easier for my portion, and when the camping spot came closer, I began looking more carefully. The trees were tall, rangy-seeming, and thickly clustered with foliage, and when a 'path' showed on the left, I turned that way off of the High Way.

The narrowness of the path made for single file travel, and the odor of the trees – like eucalyptus, only 'spicier' – made for a desire to sneeze. I soon did, and felt better.

A faint 'tinkling' sound spoke of a possible nearby river, and the rutted nature of the path or road I was leading down caused me to look at it carefully for the most part and glance briefly ahead. I began mumbling about 'bad roads', more to myself than anyone else.

“Most roads in the fourth kingdom are better than this one,” said Gabriel's fatigue-laden voice from behind. “I hope we can rest soon.”

I had no reply for either statement beyond my own half-stifled yawn, and when the path abruptly broke out into a vast meadow that seemed to stretch for miles in all directions, I was flabbergasted – until Jaak stopped but feet away from a deep ravine.

“Watch for the, uh, river,” I murmured, as I carefully got off. I was stumbling with fatigue.

“Over to your left,” said Gilbertus. “That's a bit better for watering.”

I turned left, with Jaak in tow, and began stumbling toward what looked like a sunken place. Odd scraps of music seemed to rumble and tinkle in my head, and the chiefest of them was a mis-heard hodge-podge that sounded remarkably like “down at the sunken mill...”

I turned to the left at a lower place, and the rutted soil showed a limpid river flowing peacefully around the gone-rotten portion of a windmill's sail. The moon above sent its shadows down to light up both river and sail, and as I turned away from the scene portrayed, I wondered briefly as to what I had seen.

There was but little time to continue wondering, however, for the groans of dismount seemed a charm to my mind. While the others could...

“My hands are still topping full,” I mumbled. “No watching...”

Not even the tents went up, nor much else, as the riderless horses now meandered slowly amid their unconscious riders. I was the only person still awake, and I knew my business.

As I began examining the hooves of the horses, I wondered about tents, a privy, a fire-pit, and a meal. I wasn't particularly hungry, thankfully, and as I went from one horse to another – I was glad for an absence of stones to pry out – I knew I could not remain awake much longer.

Or so I thought. Within less than a minute, a faint odor manifested, and with the passing seconds, it grew steadily stronger. Soon, I longed for a nearby irate skunk, as the stench was of such potency I nearly spewed my dinner onto the grass amid faint coughing sounds.

I finished the horses' hooves, and began undoing the various saddles and 'harness'. Each horse soon had its own mound of gear piled on the grass, and as I began unhitching the horses on the buggy with my tub in it, I heard faint steps. I turned in achingly slow fashion to see Gabriel staggering toward me.

He was holding his nose, and when he came to the other side of the pair I was 'untying', he spoke.

“How can you stand that stink?”

“Not very well,” I said. “What is it?”

“It is either a bug or a stinker,” he muttered, as he began working on the buckles on his side, “and stinkers do more than just stink. They cause insomnia as well.” He paused, then added, “at least the smell seems to be dissipating.”

I reached for my water-bottle, and drank from it. I then recalled just where I was.

“The west school, Guymus, Ginnedaag, Boermaas, Maagensonst...” I paused briefly, then asked, “how many of those schools are there?”

“S-seven,” said Gabriel sleepily. He seemed to be mumbling. “The other two are named Septobraag and Muenster.”

“Where are they, uh, located?”

“Muenster is about thirty miles west and south of here,” said Gabriel. “I never wanted to go there.”

“The west school?” I asked. “A month?”

“While they put the rules out in plain sight,” said Gabriel, “there is much that they conceal, and the lecturers there are sworn to secrecy about much of what they teach. Hence, few go there.” Gabriel paused, then said, “I did well to manage a month.”

“The coursework?” I asked.

“That I did fine,” said Gabriel. “The other things were frightful, and they happened all hours of the day and night.”

Gabriel drew himself up, drank deeply from his cup – its contents, if I went by his moonlit expression, was that of concentrated nightmare – and then swallowed twice.

“First, there were the huge gray noisy things, or so the older students spoke of them,” he said. “They made more noise than artillery, and left tracks of such size and depth that everyone not enjoined to secrecy was frightened out of their minds. Those otherwise, I know not.”

“Tracks?” I asked.

“Ten paces between each set,” said Gabriel. “No one who knew of them spoke aught, while those that spoke knew little beyond fleeting glimpses, dire rumors, and nightmares.” Again, Gabriel paused, then said, “those tended to show at night.”

Another sip, slow swallowing on Gabriel's part. The stink was less, and the ragged snores of the others seemed to bring us into a realm uncharted by fact or fantasy.

“Then, there were the spiders,” said Gabriel. “They'd show on one's bed in the morning, and their size...”

“Spiders?”

“The size of large serving plates,” said Gabriel. “Then, there were fool-hens showing in the classrooms.”

The eerie darkness was a prod to my mind, even as Gabriel's voice was the only other sound I could plainly hear. We were working on the second pair of hitched horses.

“More than once,” said Gabriel, “I came to the room in which classes were to take place, and found my desk covered with the nest of a fool-hen.”

“N-nest?” I asked.

“Both sizable and occupied,” said Gabriel, “and the occupant was in the mood for raising a family.” A brief pause, then, “that fool-hen we dealt with was well-mannered. The mother ones are uncommonly rude.”

Another pause, a long sip, then darkly-spoken words: “one needed a fowling piece to live in that place, and while most of the new students had one, I did not. The gunfire was horrible, but I endured it until early one morning I went out to fetch my washing from the line.”

“You dried clothing?” I asked.

“Much like we did in the third kingdom house,” he said. “Unlike that instance, my clothing froze instead of dried – and that on top of the holes made in it by shot and balls. I left the place that day for a spinner parlor, as it seemed safer.”

“What?” I gasped.

“At least I never encountered the rats,” said Gabriel. “They were said to make everything else that school dished up seem tame for danger and trivial for trouble.”

“That p-place,” I gasped. “The w-west school..?”

“Is very demanding that way,” said Gabriel. “Boermaas may have inedible food and little or no time off, and Maagensonst has a great deal of vermin, and Ginnedaag has...” Gabriel paused, then said, “I'm not sure what Ginnedaag has, nor am I sure about the others any more. I am sure that those that endure the whole of the west school's time tend to rise to the very highest positions in the houses.”

The stink was mostly gone, and while Gabriel wandered off to find a soft place on the grass, I found my sleeping things and set up under one of the buggies. I went to sleep as if turned off the instant I crawled into bed.

Pale sunlight showed across my face when I awoke, and when I knuckled my weary eyes, I noted wavering shadows amid a faint splashing noise some distance away. The scent of 'eucalyptus' seemed everywhere, and when I crawled out from under, I noted still forms laying prostrate among the thick tufted grass of a wide and deep-green meadow.

This did not last long, however, for my bladder and bowels got the best of me, and I grabbed a shovel from the nearest buggy and hurried toward the shelter of the trees. There, I dug a privy, and baptized the same post-haste. A shovel of dirt went back in atop the used rag, and I returned to where the others were.

“Now to get breakfast, and bathe...”

I began itching, and the noise I made dragging my tub and supplies out of the back of the buggy awoke Sepp. He soon began awaking the others, and when Karl showed, I marveled at his red and pimply face.

“What happened to you?” I asked.

“This place is terrible for bugs,” he said. “I'll need to wash up with Geneva.”

It was nearly midmorning before bathing ended, and while I felt much better afterward, the griping I had heard that morning, as well as the many instances of 'leave me alone' and 'let me sleep', said that no one – save, perhaps, myself – was inclined toward travel today.

“True,” said Gabriel, as he checked his boots. He'd been bitten several times overnight, and his red-blotched face spoke of savage and hungry insects. “It may be possible to learn the physical portion of rapid travel, but the thinking portion of such travel is another matter.”

“Thinking?” I asked. I wanted to ask “what is there to think about?”

“Not even students would readily push on after last night,” said Gabriel, “and I wonder about those you live with.”

“Why would students..?” I wanted to speak of their relative 'lack' of responsibility.

“Many students do not have funds to spare,” said Gabriel. “When I was taking notes, I had my meals, but otherwise, I did well to secure a loaf of bread and a jug of beer most days – and I was glad they were paying for the journals I used.”

Mounting made for groaning, and when I led back the way we had come in, I marveled at not merely the trees – they were 'taller' in the daytime, as well as more odoriferous – but also, the aspect of warmth and humidity. The High Way was all-but walled off by the trees of a huge woodlot, and it took nearly twenty minutes of groans and griping to get clear of the trees.

The sun had but partly put forth its energy while we were flanked by trees, for when we came out of the woodlot and into a region of wide yellow-green grass, thick copses, and what might had been 'heather', I felt the sun's full weight beating down upon my head. I touched my hat, and felt crisped fabric amid what might have been holes. There had been no time for me to repair it thus far during the trip.

“They make those down here,” said Lukas between yawns.

“I hope I can get another,” I mumbled. I'd been far too busy to actually look for a hat.

A long and thin watering trough of weathered stone showed in the next woodlot, and as I checked my 'usual', I heard the noisy working of the pump mingled with the growls of empty bellies. I then recalled what had happened to our bread at the third kingdom house – and the lack of packable food in the third kingdom.

“Hence, everyone is hungry enough to gnaw on...”

My thinking 'interrupted' and I looked in the possible bag for dried meat. The 'meat-bag' was nearly empty, but what was in there was still good. I began chewing the stuff in a furtive fashion.

“Is that meat, or old leather?” asked Lukas.

“I have a little dried meat left,” I said. “I take it we are out?”

“Not nearly,” said Gilbertus. “I think everyone is so tired they forgot about what we had left.”

“Bread?” I asked.

“Aye, we do not have that, and...”

Lukas looked at me, then at Gilbertus, then spat on the ground before speaking.

“I'd wager as to that being the trouble,” he said. “That, and beer.”

“Are we out of that too?” I gasped.

While there was no answer from either man, Gabriel supplied one once we had resumed traveling. He'd been checking jugs of some kind, if I went by how he was licking his fingers.

“I hope a town shows soon,” he said, “as we are entirely out of bread, and nearly out of beer.”

“Uh, yesterday?” I asked.

“I drank my share then,” he said. “I suspect your share is all that remains.”

“M-my share?” I asked.

“Half a jug, if that,” said Lukas from behind, “and less than that of cider. I got a small cup of beer so as to wake up.”

While I did not mind the consumption of 'my' drink, I was noticing the relative 'lack' of towns in the immediate area on the road. I could feel one ahead, but its distance seemed vague – and its disposition, more so beyond 'they have food and drink there'.

The first 'farmstead' of the fourth kingdom showed shortly after my assessment of the state of the towns in the area. While the place seemed 'small' – it had narrow and short mounded rows in several well-separated plots – the aspect of fertility seemed to make up for it, for here, I saw knee-high plants in thick profusion sprouting up through the dark brown 'caps' of the rows in each plot.

“What are those plants?” I asked while pointing at one of the plots. I was being distracted by a small orchard of trees, all of them clustered thickly with deep-green leaves.

“Those are probably some of the vegetables that only grow in this area,” said Gabriel. “Corn is usually cheaper if it's imported from the north.”

“Can they grow corn here?” I asked.

“They can, and do,” said Gabriel. “Unlike where we live, they don't have a fallow season, so corn can be grown year-round. It's strange corn, though, and is best for parching.”

“Parching?” I asked.

“That small oven would work well for it,” said Gabriel. “It needs a modest amount amount of oil, a kettle, and a fire.” A pause, then, “I've had it at school.”

“If this is parched corn, then you'd best not take it where those northern people show much,” said Lukas. “It sounds too much like gunfire when it cooks.”

At our next stop – the town was 'closer', so much so that I spoke of an hour's further travel – I saw a peculiar bird drinking from the watering trough. Its long pinkish-gray legs, orange-brown-yellow-green plumage, small gray-striped wings, and long red-tipped beak made for questions on my part.

“What is that bird?” I asked, as I finished up checking my share of the hooves.

“I suspect it is trouble,” said Lukas. “That beak has a red tip.”

The meaning of the 'red tip' made for wondering during the next hour's travel, and when we came to the town – it was larger than those few places we had stopped at in the third kingdom – we split up to secure what was needed. I sensed a larger town to the south some distance and had spoken of it, and the talk I had heard implied 'beer and bread' were the two edible things most on people's minds. I remained by the buggies, as that bird was still much on my mind.

The Hoelm's bestiary described it as a 'long-billed bird', with several references to 'bees' in the first paragraph. The second paragraph of the three, however, gave a chilling description of the bird's capacity for mayhem.

“L-Lukas was right,” I spluttered. “Those things are trouble.”

The third paragraph specified the bird as 'inedible', and more, referred to a list of some kind called 'the butcher's rules'. I was puzzling out this last when Sepp returned with two filled jugs.

“They're filling the other jugs in there,” he said. “Are you looking up that bird?”

I nodded, then asked, “butcher's rules?”

“What's safe to eat, what's not, and how to tell the difference,” he said. “Animals have to have split hooves and chew what they eat twice, and fish need to have fins and scales.”

“Uh...”

“That isn't nearly all of it,” he said. “There are listed animals that can only be safely eaten if they are properly prepared.”

“Uh, what are those?” I asked.

“Wood-pigeons need spit-roasting after par-boiling,” he said, “and the same for sheep, though no one wants to eat those.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Greasy and poor flavor,” said Sepp, “and that's if you skin them right. If you don't, they might as well be squabs for taste and trouble.”

I was glad for a refilled meat-sack and water-bottle when we resumed travel. It was now quite warm, with a sun that seemed inclined to melt one's brow. Further testimony of the sun's brightness showed at a good portion of the farmsteads bordering the road, for amid the now-obvious grape arbors were taller platforms draped with light-tan cloth.

“Are they bleaching that stuff, or shading the vines?” I asked.

“That would be cloth-bleaching,” said Gabriel. “Most farmers, if they have sufficient funds, commonly bleach cloth in their fields.”

“Is the price affected much?” I asked.

“It is,” said Gabriel. “Sun-bleached cloth is often thrice the price of unbleached.”

“How long does it take?” I asked.

“That varies greatly,” said Gabriel. “I heard that it often took months.”

Another vast woodlot loomed ahead, and the faint noises coming from within it spoke of animals and birds. Hans had spoken of quolls and fool-hens being present in 'to the south', and the faint 'QUOOOOLLLL' I heard as we came near the trees warned me of the presence of those birds. I then heard a faint whistling noise.

The noise – it reminded me of a jet engine for shrillness, if not volume – came swiftly closer, and I ducked as something 'gray' showed abruptly in my peripheral vision to shoot over my head. It nearly blew my cap onto the road with the wind of its travel, and as I watched, the gray blur vanished between a pair of trees in the blink of an eye.

“What was that?” I squeaked.

“That was a wood-pigeon,” said Karl from behind, “and I think it was in a hurry.”

“W-wood pigeon?” I asked.

“This place is said to have more strange things, places, and people than anywhere else I have heard of,” said Karl. “I know about wood-pigeons, though, as they can be found at home if you look for them.”

“That's the easy part,” said Lukas. “The hard part is shooting them.”

“Uh, fast?” I asked.

“That's when they're baiting you,” he said. “The rest of the time, they fly so crazily that you need twice their weight in powder and lead to bring one down.”

“I used nets,” said Sepp from far back in the line of march. “I caught my share that way, that and gathering eggs.”

“To sell?” I asked.

“It needs little money to gather eggs,” said Sepp, “and I thought it didn't need much skill.”

“And you were wrong?” I asked.

“First, you have to find the nests,” said Sepp, “then get to them, and finally, get the eggs without getting attacked by the birds. That was for those. The nets weren't any better.”

“That takes a lot of string,” said Karl, “and then a lot of time to make them.”

“And find places to put them, and repair them all the time,” said Sepp.

It was early afternoon when we came to the larger town, and here, I wondered as to going inside to 'sit down and eat'. While Gabriel and Kees went to the Mercantile, and Hendrik, Karl, and Sepp went in the Public House, the three of us who remained busied ourselves with the horses and buggies.

“Will we eat in this place?” I asked.

“Somehow, I doubt it,” said Lukas. “I'm not sure if it's the money, or what, but I doubt we want to spend much time here, at least today.”

Lukas proved right, for we were southbound within ten minutes after he spoke. I wondered as to the sudden change in plans until Gabriel spoke of the matter.

“This kingdom's people are not merely more industrious compared to home,” he said, “but they tend to travel more than nearly everywhere else.”

Somehow, I knew that was but a modest portion of the matter. I could feel a distinct difference in the air compared to those regions we had passed through, one of brooding and waiting, like a prisoner caught by fiat and held ransom in a darkened well-hid hole.

“No, they have no blinders here,” I muttered. “They know something is not as it should be.”

“What was this you said?” asked Gabriel.

“This place is waiting for something,” I said. “It has been waiting some time, and more, it has an idea as to why it is waiting.”

“And what it is waiting for,” said Hendrik. “I could tell that much by that last Public House, as they were speaking of what happened in the third kingdom.”

Gabriel seemed 'flustered' for a second, then recovered, saying, “that is what I meant. If we present at the house proper...”

“It will spread like quickmatch,” said Hendrik. “Besides, we will need to spend a day or two there for other matters.”

“Other matters?”

“Chiefly the market, most likely,” said Gabriel. “I want to see about sealing wax, among other things.”

“T-twenty guilders for a piece the size of one's thumb?” I gasped.

“I doubt it will be that much,” said Gabriel. “Certain materials seem to have unusual shipping and procurement costs, and that wax is said to be especially bad that way.”

“Meaning the stuff is closer to three guilders if you get it yourself?” I asked.

There was no reply. I then thought to try a piece of the bread I had stowed.

The aroma seemed sufficiently like that of home that I bit into the thick slab without hesitation, and then I noticed a difference, that being a moist and chewy texture with a hint of spiciness. It made for a good appetite, and upon tasting the contents of my water bottle, I was again astonished.

“This is beer,” I squeaked.

“They did not have unfermented wine in that place,” said Gabriel, “nor unfermented cider. At least their beer is good.”

I took another cautious gulp of the beer, and noticed a peculiarly sweet aftertaste amid the thickness of 'malt' and the faint astringency of hops. The flavor, overall, was satisfying as well as filling, and I finished up 'lunch' with a strip of peppery dried meat.

“If we want fresh meat..?” I asked.

“It will want powder and lead,” said Gabriel. “It might be difficult along the High Way.”

While Gabriel's statement seemed appropriate for the open areas, I wondered greatly about the woodlots, for those tended to ring with the calls of quolls and fool-hens, and I commonly saw movement in my peripheral vision.

I wondered if I was the only one as we came to the trailing edge of an unusually dense woodlot. Far in the distance I saw a mottled brown creature streaked with white moving rapidly across the ground.

“What is that thing?” I thought, as the 'creature' leaped into the air with a blurring aspect at its side. It had hopped over a sizable bush amid the dense 'heather'. “It might be a bird...”

The birds had continued to show themselves to be uncommonly wily. Our last watering stop had Lukas firing both barrels of the fowling piece at what he thought was a fool-hen. Not even a feather had dropped to prove him correct.

Jaak slowed, and I leaped off with my rifle in my hands. I moved to a clear place on the roadside 'heather', then drew to full cock.

“That thing's got to be nearly five hundred yards off,” I thought, as I twisted the range dial for added elevation. “Now where... There it is, out from behind that bush there. Now I just hope it either stands still or moves at a steady pace.”

The creature – I wanted to call it a bird, as it seemed to peck at the ground now and then – found something interesting at the edge of a waist-high bush, and remained still. I centered on its upper body, where the long slender neck joined the rest of its body, and gently squeezed the trigger.

The abrupt roar made for a faint ringing in my ears as I came up from the prone position I had taken, and in the distance, I saw the 'bird' thrashing on the ground. To my left, Lukas trotted forward, followed by Karl and Sepp. I began the spit-and-tallow regimen of rifle cleaning as they continued toward the still-thrashing creature.

I had run the third patch through the bore and was about to put a fourth one in when I heard yelling in the distance, followed by the noises of pistols. I looked up to see Gilbertus riding ahead with the fowling piece and resumed my task, all the while thinking, “did I just stun that thing?”

As I rammed down another bullet, I heard the steady clip-clop of returning horses, and I looked up to see Karl with a sizable blood-stained bag over the front of his saddle. He had an impossible-to-believe grin on his face, and the others with him seemed equally merry. Gilbertus was still absent, for some reason.

“I think you get feathers now,” said Karl.

“W-why?” I asked. “Did I miss?”

“No, you didn't,” said Lukas. “Buzzards aren't the easiest things to stop, and that one was one of the worst I've seen that way.”

“Oh, no,” I spluttered – the word 'buzzard' conjured up a distinctly unhealthful flavor and a nauseating aroma – “I shot an inedible bird.”

“Not those,” said Gabriel. “Buzzards are the most prized of all birds.”

“When you can catch them,” said Sepp. “It tried to escape, and needed more lead before I was able to gut it.”

“Buzzard?” I mumbled. I was more than confused; I was beginning to feel sick with the mere thought of consuming an intensely revolting meal.

“We'll want to wash it down thoroughly at the next stop,” said Lukas, “and put the salt to it.”

The nauseating association that had been brewing at the back of my mind reasserted itself, and I spat, “buzzard? Doesn't that taste terrible?”

“Turkey,” muttered Gilbertus, as he came up with a still-smoking fowling piece. “That one's big enough to want the common term, and I shot that hen-grabber when it smelled the offal.”

“Hen-grabber?” I asked. After hearing of 'buzzards', I wondered if such questions were wise.

“Those are common in the fourth kingdom,” said Gabriel. “That bestiary should speak of it.”

I now noticed the faint odor of what I thought was a leaky aquavit jug, and as the column resumed southbound travel, I asked, “do you smell aquavit?”

“Not really,” said Gabriel. “Why?”

“I could have sworn...”

“That bird smells like it bathed in a mash-tub,” said Sepp, as he came up beside me. “Broiling it should get rid of the smell.”

I made a gagging noise, then said, “m-mash tub?”

“You've run a distillery,” said Sepp. “Why, don't you run the mash?”

“Uh, no,” I said, thinking his question to be about turning the grain into what went into the still. “You mean sprouting, grinding, cooking...”

“I figured Hans did that,” said Sepp. “I meant running the still.”

“I have done that,” I said, “but that smell was closer to what comes out of the condenser. Mash isn't nearly that bad.”

The next watering stop was slightly longer than usual, what with the need to 'hose down' a large fowl. I was too busy with the usual things to give notice to the bird except when I caught a whiff of it. Once underway again, I wondered as to a good 'camping site'. We still had some hours to go before nightfall.

After passing a three-span bridge over a wide and shallow river flanked by wide marshes, however, I had an impression: we wanted to make camp early today, and allow everyone to 'rest up'.

“Besides, that bird will spoil in this heat,” I mumbled. “Now where is a good spot?”

“Near shade and a watering trough,” said Gabriel. “I take it you are hungry?”

“Th-that bird,” I said. “This weather will cause it to turn in a hurry.”

“Some hours, perhaps,” said Gabriel.

“I'd make that 'some' two hours or less,” said Lukas from the buggy behind us. “Buzzards are best served up fresh, and no one wants 'em High.”

“Urgh,” I muttered. “High...”

The wave of nausea subsided within minutes, for in the distance I could see another large woodlot. The river we had passed sent a tributary up into that region, and as we went through the wide fields to the south, I noted the marshes seemed to be 'alive' with small boats and activity.

“What is it they are after?” I asked.

“Marshes commonly have linen-plants,” said Gabriel. “Fourth kingdom linen is thought to be especially soft.” Gabriel paused to briefly look at what I was wearing, then said, “I suspect your clothing to be made of it, in fact.”

“Where does linen grow?” I asked.

“Much of it comes from the second kingdom,” he said, “while the east side of the first kingdom grows a modest amount, as does the fifth kingdom. Only the third kingdom does not grow linen.”

“Anywhere there are people and marshes is what he means,” said Lukas. “There's a linen-patch about ten miles east of the kingdom house near the river, and that isn't the only one I've seen near home.”

“Uh, other plants for cloth?” I asked.

“There are several listed on the tapestries,” said Gabriel, “but I have not heard of them being grown currently.”

“Vegetable fiber?” I asked.

“Is not commonly made into cloth,” said Gabriel. “Unlike linen, it only grows in the fourth kingdom...”

“Those things made me sick,” muttered Lukas. “I lasted all of two days squeezin' em.”

“Squeezing?” I asked.

“Vegetable fiber is costly for a good reason,” said Lukas. “I was in the privy all of those two days, and had to stay close to one for another three.”

The woodlot drew steadily closer. The 'marsh' continued its meandering way to finally vanish at the edge of the trees, and when we entered the woodlot proper, I began looking for paths to my right. One soon showed, and I turned right from the High Way onto the narrow and rutted 'road'.

The woods seemed alive with the calls of birds and assorted 'animals', and the rustle of leaves amid the deep shade meant for marveling. I had the sense that we were not the only people thinking to 'rest up' along the riverbanks ahead, and when the path abruptly widened, I was astonished to see not merely the sand-girt river itself, but also three small groups of travelers wide-spread over a space of nearly two hundred yards.

I turned to the left upon reaching the continuation of the path, and as we slowly moved past the first such encampment to the south of the juncture, I looked carefully at the buggies drawn up next to the trees.

They appeared to be tinker's buggies, and while the horses were 'elsewhere', I could readily tell these people were camped here for more than a day or two: they had cloths spread out, bagged tools in orderly rows, an obvious 'oven' which faintly smoked, and dampened clothing hanging from a short and drooping line.

“We always stopped here on our trip north when traipsing,” said Gabriel, “and when time permitted, on the way back. It might not be the quietest place to work, but finding better places is not easy.”

“School?” I asked.

“Tended to be noisy, and that was apart from the vermin,” said Gabriel. “It took me over a year to find a quiet place on the grounds, and then some further months to find an assortment of keys able to unlock its doors – and then, I had to be careful so as to not draw attention to myself.”

“Which meant?”

“Late nights,” said Gabriel. “I had to sneak out of my rooms.”

“Your rooms?” I asked.

“Those to my right and left tended to be noisy,” said Gabriel. “I suspect they thought learning could be imparted by copious consumption of drink.”

“Was that common?” I asked.

“More so in some portions of Maagensonst than in others,” said Gabriel. “That was another reason I wanted to go to the west school – it was said to be quieter that way than all of the others except for Boermaas.”

“Boermaas was the quietest?” I asked.

“No,” said Gabriel with a perceptible shudder in his voice. “Boermaas was said to be in a class by itself when it came to noise.”

“Bad food and worse noise?” I asked.

Again, Gabriel shuddered, then gasped, “I was there for the space of an hour, and only a fifth kingdom drink-house could be worse!”

“If this is Boermaas, then I can speak of why,” said Lukas.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Not many from the fifth kingdom go to the higher schools,” said Lukas, “but if they go, they tend to go to that place, and the same for the second kingdom.” A brief pause, then, “talk has it there's a drink-house on the grounds o' that place.”

“N-no,” said Gabriel. “I went looking for it and could not find anything of the sort.”

“Did you smell any, uh...”

“That place smelled terribly,” said Gabriel. “Now what were you asking?”

“Strong drink?” I asked

“Th-that...” Gabriel looked at me with a face tinted a sickly green, then spluttered, “I could not smell it at the time, even if I recall smelling it now.”

“Perhaps their drink-house was hidden, then,” I said. “The kingdom house at home has its share hidden that way.”

The second group of travelers had less in the way of buggies – two, instead of four – a brace of tents, a much smaller group of people, and several tethered horses. I had the impression they were resting for a short period, perhaps as little as a day. I could see another campsite some distance further ahead, and as I led past the second encampment, I wondered aloud as to our egress.

“There are several paths out of this woodlot,” said Gabriel. “Muenster is over the river and west about eight miles or so.”

“Over the river?”

“The other side of the woodlot has a small bridge,” said Gabriel, “and that road leads to it. It might be one of the smaller schools, and the furthest north, but it's still a higher school.”

“That means it's hard work, a lot of money, and plenty of vermin,” said Lukas. “That place up ahead looks likely enough.”

Its distance was deceptive, however, and when I walked off of the path to check for soft ground I was astonished to learn that not merely was an 'oven' present, but also a small stone-walled privy. The pooling water of the river made for soft gurgling noises of a calming nature in the background, and as the others came to slow and jerky halts, I hitched suddenly.

“G-grain!” I spluttered.

“Two smaller bags at the last Mercantile,” said Lukas, as he 'shook the kinks out'. “We can lead the horses out to graze at the other end of this thing if we need to.”

I wordlessly began checking 'my work' while further groaning noises spoke of sore bottoms, and within moments, I heard the tents going up amid faint snoring noises. I stopped, stood, and looked around to see everyone else seeming to be awake.

“I'll bet they'll want naps just the same,” I thought.

I was surprised, however, with what happened: the tub came out, two of the party went for wood, and the jugs and other food matters went next to the tents. I, Lukas, and Gilbertus were the only ones left to our work.

“Have they all gone off to sleep?” I asked softly, as I resumed checking hooves.

“That comes after dinner,” said Lukas with a barely-suppressed yawn. “There's enough work for an hour or two before that bird gets boned.”

“The horses?” I asked.

“Grain first,” said Lukas, “and then some rest. I'd want to put them out for grazing later if it can be done.”

Yet still, in the back of my mind there was an unanswered question relating to our spreading the news of the northern trouble, even if our actions in the fourth kingdom had received a portion of an answer. I thought to ask further as to just what we would need to do.

“I was thinking of the matter,” said Gabriel when I found him. He'd gotten an armload of wood, and was among the trees after another one. “Firstly, fourth kingdom Public Houses tend to be smaller than what is common elsewhere. Only in the kingdom house and at that market town are they of the usual size.”

“Hence...”

“Our business is best done at the house proper, both here and in the fifth kingdom,” he said. “Now I hope I can help with that buzzard.”

The mention of the bird brought to my attention a commotion in my nose, and I thought, “I'd best check that aquavit jug.”

“Secondly, many people here are merchants...”

“Hence they travel,” I said.

“More than that,” said Gabriel. “Merchants read and write more than the common, at least to the north.”

“Bills of lading...”

“And orders, and sending things by the post,” said Gabriel. “There, that should be enough.”

I had picked up my share of drop-wood while speaking, and while my armload was a bit sparser than usual for me, we collectively had gotten 'ample', or so I suspected.

“Thirdly, paper tends to be cheap in the fourth kingdom compared to elsewhere, and all of the larger print-houses are in this area,” said Gabriel. “Had you gone into that Public House, you would have seen its notice-board.”

“Notice-board?” I asked.

“Where printed matter is posted,” said Gabriel. “I counted no less than five full-page listings, and none of it looked to be gossip.” A brief pause, then “and finally, what Hendrik spoke of. This place is like a privy waiting for an unwary candle.”

“Oh, no...”

“Yes, I know,” said Gabriel. “That is for the fourth kingdom. The fifth kingdom promises to be another matter, and I hope speaking of it does not make you ill.”

“Uh, the fifth kingdom?” I asked. “Hans and others have spoken of it.”

“Yes, that place,” said Gabriel with a tone that could only be described as loathing. “The kingdom house there is much larger than anywhere else on the continent, and the dirt and smell is frightful, while Public Houses as we know of them are very rare.” A brief pause, then, “the only place our message isn't likely to fall on deaf ears is the house proper.”

“What of..?” I asked.

“Elsewhere, we can only look and try our hands, and see what comes of it.”

Gabriel's talk sounded foreboding, at least until we reached the 'oven', where we added our armloads of wood to a sizable mound. Karl and Sepp were working on a sizable damp sack stained with blood, and I staggered past while checking my gorge so as to look at the cooking lamp and its fuel.

“Corked and dry on the outside, and no spillage,” I thought, as I examined jug and lamp. “That odor must be coming from somewhere else.”

I busied myself among my things for a moment, then returned to where the bird was being addressed. Karl, Sepp, and Gilbertus were plucking the feathers out of the bird, and while I looked over the growing mounds of such feathers – they looked perfect for quill pens – the odor of alcohol grew steadily stronger. I looked around, wondering if someone had a well-hid yet leaky aquavit jug, then returned my attention to the bird itself.

While I had previously seen pictures of wild turkeys, those birds had been native to where I had come from – and this bird was not one of those. It had a rotund body resembling that of a domestic turkey, the nearly-bare and sizable legs of an ostrich, while its head had a large hooked beak, beady black staring eyes, a vestigial wattle, a non-existent comb – and a nearly bare neck. Sepp was withdrawing feathers by the handful from a ridiculously small wing.

“Do these fly?” I gasped. The wing was but somewhat larger than that of a quoll.

“I've heard they do,” said Sepp.

“Like a wood-pigeon,” muttered Lukas, as he came up with the two largest pots. “They run more than they fly, but when they do fly, they don't waste time. I'm glad your shot broke its wing-bones, as we would have never stopped it otherwise.”

The reek of alcohol intruded again, as did a profound sense of nausea, and I clasped my gut as I backed away from the ongoing meal preparation. I began mumbling, and turned to nearly collide with Gabriel.

“S-someone is running a still around here,” I mumbled, “and they forgot to put rye paste on the cap.”

“There is no still here,” said Gabriel with a trace of a yawn. “Why do you speak so?”

“I ch-checked my supplies,” I muttered, between twinges of pain in my gut, “and the smell is not coming from there.” I paused to catch an episode of dry heaves, then said, “that stink is making me sick.”

“The odor should dissipate once the bird is cooked,” said Gabriel.

The reek became more intense once the bird became entirely denuded of feathers, and I left for the riverbank. There, I contented myself with watching the slow-moving water and what might have been half-hidden fish among the thick weeds that carpeted the rocky bottom. I then saw tufts of obvious 'grass'.

“Th-they can eat that,” I gasped, between surges of nauseating pain.

“It's a bit too sparse to nourish eight hungry horses by itself,” said Hendrik from behind, “which is why I'm glad for the two extra bags of grain.”

“Th-that smell?” I asked. “Something smells like a leaky distillery.”

“Broiling removes the odor rapidly,” he said. “It was getting to be a bit much for me, also, as they are cutting up the bird right now.”

A faint 'whoomph' behind us spoke of a fire, and I turned to see a blazing orange-red billow of flame rumbling out of the 'chimney' in back of the 'oven'. While Sepp and Karl were still working on the bird proper, every other person beyond myself and Hendrik was loading up long blackened iron skewers with sizable chunks of meat.

“Broiled..?”

“It tends to be the quickest way, also, yawn,” said Hendrik. “I suspect we will need to remain here until the morning.”

“Uh, tired?” I asked.

“That especially,” said Hendrik. “We're far enough inside the fourth kingdom that we can afford to rest, and close enough to the fourth kingdom house that one good day should see us there.”

The smell was now dissipating quickly, and the two of us returned to the region of the tents. Sepp was gone, while Karl had loaded up his own skewer.

“Where..?”

“He went to bury the bones,” said Karl. “That thing filled all of our pots with meat.”

“Salted?” I asked.

“A handful each,” said Lukas. “That small pot has water boiling in it over that lamp.”

“Did you notice the s-smell?”

“Aye,” said Gilbertus. “It was like a leaky distilling copper until he lit the fire.”

I soon had my own loaded skewer, as did Hendrik, and while we took turns holding them over the flames, I noted the pungently spicy aspect of the wood. Steaming hot water went into each large bucket, until the meat was thoroughly covered, and the pots themselves covered with cloths and put by the tents. The small cooking pot then received dried vegetables once its water boiled afresh over the lamp.

The hot gases and faint tendrils of spicy-smelling smoke that gouted from the two holes in the top of the oven made for surprisingly rapid cooking, and the meat quickly acquired a seared aspect, as well as faintly charred corners. I was afraid I would burn what was on my skewer, so much so that I raised it up above the opening nearly a foot more.

“Aye, that's about right,” said Lukas. “These would be best with a holding frame and a slower fire than this.”

“How long does it need to cook?” I asked.

“That, you'll want to test with your knife after a while,” said Lukas. “You want it cooked through, but still juicy. Buzzard is dry enough without being turned into dried meat.”

I waited roughly another ten minutes to try poking my chunks of meat, and when I showed Lukas, he nodded, then said, “I suspect mine is about done.” He then pointed at Karl with his free hand, and said, “and he's fixing to flint-dry his, unless I miss my guess.”

Karl then removed his skewer and began prodding his black-edged mass of meat. He soon drew Sepp on one side, and Gilbertus on the other – and the latter spoke strangely.

“That isn't a witch, Karl. Now why do you want to burn it?”

“I've never done this before,” said Karl, “and I did not want it raw. Raw bird is...”

“Is trouble,” said Sepp. “You might want to fetch a plate, Karl – we can mingle our pieces, so none of us has meat that's too dry.”

'Mingled meat' made for wondering on my part, at least until several skewers were unladen onto fresh-washed plates. The vegetables seemed done, and when I went to them, I heard murmurs of appreciation amid congratulations directed toward Kees. I turned and saw the 'dutch oven' being handled with rags.

“What..?”

“I wondered where he went while the tents were going up,” said Lukas. “Now I know.”

My question was still unanswered, at least until I brought the pot of vegetables to where the party was setting down on a pair of ground-cloths.

“Potatoes?” I asked. “How?”

“I asked at the last Public House,” said Kees, “both for potatoes, and how to cook them in that type of oven. I hope they came out passably.”

“They look decent, Kees,” said Lukas. “Now we can eat our fill.”

Once I had a plate piled with food, I thought to try the bird first. The meat was fork-tender, and when I tasted it, I found it moist, flavorful – and astonishingly 'dry' to the palate. It was the antithesis of squab, or so I gathered, as it was utterly lacking in 'grease'. Moreover, it was quite filling, so much so that the 'leftovers' went back in both pot and 'dutch oven'. Both were put at the mouth of the still-smoking oven to 'keep warm' prior to the tents becoming occupied.

As faint snores began to 'saw wood', I thought to spread out my bedding under the wagon I usually used, and once I had done so, I brought out needle and thread so as to attempt repairs on my cap. Two minutes' effort told me enough.

“This thing is too far gone to fix,” I muttered, as the cloth unraveled between my fingers when I tried to put in a stitch. “About the best I can do is put a rag inside it and try stitching the corners.”

That done – it was not merely far quicker, but also quite precarious, so much so that I knew I needed a replacement cap as soon as possible – I brought out the instrument-maker's handbooks, along with my current ledger. I then opened volume one.

While the language was still 'convoluted' and 'Byzantine', I seemed to see below the obvious 'layer' with surprising ease. Within moments, I was deeply 'wrapped' within the verbiage of the first chapter, so much so that I was astonished when I felt the distractions of the larger picture. The two were somehow related, I now realized.

“Is that why some of those people seemed so in love with the 'time-honored' methods used for hundreds of years?” I thought. “Is it because 'this is all we have to fight with'? As in the available weapons more or less determine tactics?”

Yet as I resumed – the feel I was getting at the 'first' subsurface layer was 'this is privileged information, and such understanding must be earned with great labor' – I knew it was more than a mere lack of technological capacity.

“First, most people aren't terribly literate,” I thought. “Then, communications are slow and unreliable, the materials available aren't that good, and finally, that 'it's not my problem' attitude.”

“You left out scarcity of resources, both true and contrived,” said the soft voice.

“Contrived?” I asked.

“The supplies of many materials are manipulated by witches for purposes of personal profit,” said the soft voice, “and that both as to quantity and quality.”

“Do these books speak of such matters?” I asked.

While I did not receive a direct answer, I had something of an impression regarding the matter minutes later, and I put a strip of leather where I was reading and went to the front of the book.

While I wanted a table of contents, one was not provided, and checking the other two books showed nothing of the sort to be present. A look at the back of the first volume showed the exact same thing, that being nothing beyond the printing house – 'Wingen, Bosser, Malchedik and Forundt' – and where it was printed, that being Boermaas. There was no date of printing listed.

As I turned up this in the back of all three books, I had further impressions, and after checking the last of the three volumes, I checked the second volume. That portion on secret markings seemed clearer than I recalled, but the portion I wanted was later in the text. I went past the end of that 'chapter', and began leafing through the one behind it named 'Methods'.

'Methods' had at least two layers of thought. The surface layer was intended to hide the secrets buried within the document from those unwilling or unable to spend the time reading the thing with the needed resources present and marshaled in serried ranks, while the first subsurface portion...

“There are three layers to this part here,” I muttered, even as I finished the first page of the chapter in question. “There is that first layer, which confuses matters for those 'less educated', the second layer for those who are 'educated enough', and then a third layer for those initiated into...”

“No! I don't want to be a witch, and this thing is a witchcraft manual worse than one of those black books!” I soundlessly screamed.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “While that third layer does have a decided witchcraft slant, it is not worse than a black book. Take a dose of the widow's tincture, drink a cup of beer, and try again.”

I did as instructed, and then took up the book. For some truly odd reason, the surface layer was not merely much less 'irksome', but the second and third layers seemed divided cleanly one from another, and within moments, I began reading the 'secrets' of being an instrument-maker, as described in 'Methods'.

“It says to trust no one but oneself,” I muttered. “What? 'Hold yourself to be true, and name all others liars'? What?”

“That witchcraft slant,” said the soft voice. “Continue reading under that heading.”

Within a minute, I had read two more long and twisted paragraphs, and in each one, I saw another 'truth' followed by its 'explanation'. The tone of lofty superiority engendered by the explanations seemed intended to cause nausea, while the 'truths' stated – 'let no one hold your purse-strings save you yourself', and 'be the soul and vision of meanness to others, while being the opposite otherwise' seemed a recipe for miserhood. I then came to the third such paragraph.

“'Only you know your business',” I muttered, even as I glanced ahead to a longer-than-usual explanation, “'and only you can speak of matters near and dear to your true and inward nature'. Now what is this 'true and inward nature' that they speak of?”

The immediately obvious part came to me with sudden abruptness: not merely was this document written with a profound witchcraft slant, it was, at least in some sections, addressed specifically to witches.

“More than a few instrument-makers become witches before their apprenticeships are finished,” said the soft voice, “and questions like the one that just occurred to you lead them strongly in that direction.”

As I continued reading in 'Methods', I became more and more worried for the larger picture. Here, I saw delineated 'the ways and means of business as practiced by instrument-makers', with the end goals being maximum profit and prestige achieved at the expense of all other aspects of life.

Nowhere in this hideous chapter did I see 'common-sense' matters mentioned, while 'lesser' matters such as 'advertising' and 'public relations' were equally absent. The whole of life as an instrument-maker was shrouded deeply in secrecy, so much so that following closely the listed 'instructions' in 'Methods' made one a curse-chanting wizened 'gnome' whose chief goal was self-aggrandizement in the guise of worshiping Brimstone. I wanted to scream.

And as I wrote down my notes, I recalled the outcomes of such thinking: unreliable weapons that superficially 'looked good' – that was mentioned at length, all the while treating one's customers as fools and worse – artificially-induced scarcity so as to maintain prices at the highest level while securing for oneself 'time' to spend on 'important matters'...

“So that's why bows and arrows are in such short supply, and why they cost so much,” I thought. “Each arrowhead is thought a prized jewel, turned out for a display of cunning amidst greatest secrecy, and when the thing turns out to be tinfoil...”

The book slid out of my grasp as my eyes closed with sudden abruptness. Fatigue had stolen up upon me like a daytime thief, and I fell to the ground deeply mired in slumber.