The road more traveled, part q.


I awoke with a sudden start to look up at cold white stars amid a bone-chilling black night. All around me I heard the swirling din of battle; amid the clash of blades, I heard deep-pitched shrieks, thundering grunts, deafening screams, and high-pitched witch-chants in the horrible language of Norden. Words came to me suddenly, and I spoke them out loud as I stood amid the wide and open fields.

“If we must fight those people with our current weapons,” I murmured, “then we shall have a bloody and protracted war, with vast numbers of casualties if we win. If we lose, it shall be vastly worse.” A brief pause, then, “oh, but for more modern weapons, even a few.”

For some reason, that seemed the chief matter, even though I knew there was more to the question's answer. All seemed to fall away from thought save that one issue, and I knew the following:

Given a small number of weapons as modern as my rifle, the changes...

Them changes,” I thought, as an answer. It seemed to fit my current delirious state of mind.

Such changes would 'toss' the 'time-honored' methods that had been used – and abused – for centuries. For some reason, my 'liberated' mind wondered greatly if the word 'honored' was appropriate to the state of affairs, for my recollection of talk at the second kingdom house...

“Even that king lied,” I thought. “He was as wed to those ways and means as those who objected most strenuously in that meeting, and his talk of knowing the danger he himself faced was but little more than talk.”

More, my statements regarding those northern people were dangerously naive; I had underestimated them yet again.

“They're worth three to five of our people each, and that's for the auxiliaries,” I spluttered. “The tinned thugs are worth twice that!”

For some reason, a picture blasted into my mind, with two red-togaed 'Roman' legionaries taking on one of the people of Norden. To my astonishment, the spam crowded both of them at once, then as the Romans screamed high-toned Latin oaths, he ignored their blows and cut them down in seconds. Streaming with blood – mostly theirs, but some of it his – he then ran on with blood-dripping sword toward another knot of legionaries, all the while shouting strings of runes as a battle-cry.

“That th-thug's not even that good,” I muttered, as I saw his second-rate tin. “If we have to fight on those people's terms, we're doomed!”

This fled from my mind, and the former thinking replaced it with jolting abruptness. Our weapons needed to be updated, and the tactics...

“Much like the Civil War changed everything,” I muttered, “and the way people do things now is straight out of the Battle of Hastings, at least for tactics and strategy.”

The preponderance of bladed weapons I had seen at the king's house proper now crowded its way into my mind. There were easily ten to a hundred weapons for every guard position I knew of, and while there were muskets...

“Most of which are fit for scrapping,” I thought. “Cussed things would need to be cleaned at the least to be used, and then they'd misfire a lot if they worked at all. No wonder he went on so long about bladed weapons – that's what our people would have to actually use if those thugs came in real numbers.”

The level of weaponry we actually 'had' was but little different from that used in England prior to the arrival of William the Conqueror. More, muskets were worthless in close-quarter combat...

“So you need to get close enough to not miss,” I spluttered. “Fifty feet? Powder-burn range, and God help you if the thing doesn't fire...”

Aimed fire was a complete waste of time. No sighting equipment was the rule, unless the weapon was one I had worked on. Forget sniping...

And hence, swords, axes, halberds and pikes were the 'true' weapons of warfare. We didn't wear armor, and they did – and their blades would work amply well against soft and yielding unprotected flesh. Yes, their swords would bend if hard-used, but ours would break...

“Shatter like glass, in fact,” I thought morosely. “Soft and brittle. Those people would be worth dozens of our people each, not three to five.”

A brief pause, then the final thought as I plunged into the 'abyss' of darkness that lay over my head:

“If we are reduced to blades, then that witch will win, provided

she brings enough people – and that stinky woman knows that.

Everyone – me included – is hopelessly full of themselves.”


I found myself slowly floating downward amid a wearying conundrum, for while I could correct the weapons situation – I understood how to do that, at some level – I did not begin to have a clue as to how to undo centuries of 'inertial guidance'. Changing the hearts and ways of the multitude was a question for which I had no answer.

No, not even 'no answer'. I scarce comprehended the true depth and breadth of the problem – and the problem was running rapidly my way amid the thunder of hooves and porcine squeals.

I turned to my right to see a thundering war-pack of Iron Pigs rumbling down a dark corridor between two woodlots roughly a mile away. The pigs were moving at what looked to be a rapid trot, or roughly twenty miles an hour. Something 'told' me to duck, and I leaped for the ground as a blazing hot ball of fire shot scant feet overhead.

I wasted no time getting out of the line of fire, and I circled around to the right. After minutes of frantic crawling, I looked up to see matters clearer.

A pair of guns, each with a long and slender tube, now began to lower down their barrels as the gunners cranked furiously at their traverse and elevating handwheels. The myriad of rivets and 'crude' forging work implied the weapons to be old from my point of view. Perhaps they were up to World War One standards – or so I thought when one of the guns actually fired.

The brief muzzle flame was small and of a hazy orange color, and the thin elongated cloud of smoke spoke of something other than black powder for a propellant. I wondered as to what was being used, even as I did not wonder as to the deafening scream of the shell as it flew downrange toward the oncoming herd of pigs. I waited for the explosion.

But scant seconds later, a brilliant white eruption of fire billowed hot and crazily amid the front-runners of the pig-pack – and I watched in amazement as the pigs halted in their tracks and began shrieking. I looked closer.

Two of the pigs had dropped in their tracks, while those near them were obviously injured. The milling pack toward the rear had scented blood.

“Blood-maddened...” I whispered, even as the other gun roared out its challenge amid the gunners' shouts.

Again, a shell screamed downrange to billow white-hot fire, and a hulking shadow lofted lazily skyward as the shell detonated to the right of one of the pigs. I heard a sliding rasp to my right, and the slow movement of the first gun forward spoke of its being ready to fire again.

“Fire!” shouted one of the gunners. “Reload!”

The gun fired, the shell screamed downrange – and shadowed in the brilliant flash was a moving thing from above. I heard its noise, that being reminiscent of a chainsaw's buzzing snarl. I looked up from the pigs, and nearly fainted.

“Oh!” I squeaked, as a smoke-trailing biplane came on slowly from the east at tree-top height. Its light-tan blotched color and wobbling flight reminded me of 'The Red Barron' – until the plane shuddered into a shallow dive.

Seconds later, a pair of small dark objects tumbled from the bottom of the plane, and it began to slowly pull out of the dive as it turned away from the pigs. The first dark object struck the ground with a brief billow of flame, then as the second object hit, the entire herd of pigs became engulfed in brilliant red flames. The plane then turned toward me as two of the pigs emerged from the holocaust surrounded by a horde of tinned thugs.

“Th-that thing...” I stammered, as the plane performed a 'u-turn' in the blink of an eye. “N-no banking? And that quick?”

The plane came lower, now but thirty feet above the ground, and the upper fuselage became alive with a blinking light. The howling sound of the engine, the trail of smoke, and now the fountains of dirt erupting amid the tinned thugs were enough for them. They ran in utter panic, and the flaming pigs followed them.

The plane pulled out seconds later, and as it turned away, I saw the results of its pass. Those thugs that didn't drop from its gunfire had attacked each other – and as the plane climbed to roughly a few hundred feet, I saw another pair of similar planes wobbling to meet it. They formed up into a 'V' formation, and flew toward the west.

The sky had somehow brightened markedly during this time of watching, so much so that I mumbled the words 'dawn patrol' amid the morning fogs of obvious autumn. A chill was in the air, and when I turned toward the sounds of horsemen, I needed to again 'get out of their way' to avoid being run over.

“I'll want to head for some trees if this keeps up,” I thought, as the riders went by at a rapid walk.

I then saw what they were carrying. None of these men – and women – were carrying flintlocks, or even what I was carrying. These weapons were part-stocked bolt-action rifles with long slightly curved detachable magazines.

“What?” I gasped. “They're using sighting equipment like I have?”

In the distance – easily four to five hundred yards away – I saw another swarm of tinned thugs. This time, they were flying a trio of red flags. The mounted riders halted, dismounted, and took up sitting positions prior to firing.

The first shot was a revelation, for the bright white flash and roar spoke of a 'modern' weapon, while the glittering brass casing that flipped out of the receiver caught my eye as it lay upon the grass.

The thugs froze in their tracks, save for one individual who crumpled to the grass. They looked around in obvious terror, even as another shot rang out, then a second, and a third. As the second man collapsed, the third looked down on his tin to see an obvious ripped hole over his belly. He dropped seconds later.

The shots continued, and with the eighth thug dropping, the panic I had seen on faces here and there became 'global'. The thugs turned and ran back the way they had come, while the riders began picking up their fired shell-cases prior to remounting and giving chase.

My vision became blurred, and when my sight cleared, I was in the middle of a sizable clearing. The chill in the air seemed magnified, so much so that I shivered uncontrollably until I saw what else was in the clearing.

“What is that thing?” I gasped.

A huge ' howitzer' or strange-looking mortar was in the process of being loaded from the breech. The shell – it resembled a small aerial bomb, complete with fins – went in first with the gun-barrel lowered to near-horizontal. The heft of the shell – easily six inches across, and nearly two feet long – was such that a small crane was needed to stuff it into the gun.

The 'evil-looking' shell was followed by three sizable cloth bags. The first two of these bags were tied with blue string, while the third had a red-string reminder. One of the gunners spoke of it being an 'igniter bag'.

“That gray powder is mean stuff,” he said, “and so it needs to be gotten in the mood so as to work good.”

“And if it is not in the mood?” asked another man.

“Then it acts like dynamite when it has turned brown,” said the first man. “I have seen it go more than once where they make that stuff. Every bomber wants bags of it, if he cannot get what these mines are filled with.”

“Mines?” I murmured.

“Yes, so that gun is called a mine-thrower,” said a third man, as he twisted the breach shut. “Now crank that handle there, so it gets up to eight-and-forty degrees. This table here says that works for the distance.”

The barrel slowly cranked up to the angle mentioned, then a long 'string' was attached to the gun's 'lock'. This last screwed into the breach. The gunners took their distance from the gun, and the 'first' pulled the string.

A huge reddish billow of fire shot from the gun's muzzle amid a massive dark cloud of smoke and a thundering roar. As this sound 'faded' in my ringing ears, I heard a whistling scream as the shell shot high into the air.

The 'first' gunner was consulting an obvious pocket watch, while the others went to a 'caisson' or 'gun-carriage'. Here, another of the 'mines' was removed. It needed all three men as well as the crane, and once the bomb was put near the gun, I noticed the 'first' counting audibly as he watched far to the north.

I now saw where they had been aiming the 'gun', and the distance was astonishing.

“Four-and-forty, five-and-forty, six-and-forty...”

The shell was beginning to descend toward the cove they had been aiming at. Its apogee – several miles – spoke of a prodigious range, and as the shell descended, I noted the cove itself. Three of Norden's ships had crowded it, and amid the trees a sizable camp lay, complete with numerous leather bags full of capped sticks of dynamite, mounded jugs of distillate, and some other things I could not identify. The shell's scream became steadily louder, until with a brilliant flash and horrific roar the entire camp seemed to vanish before my eyes.

As the smoke cleared amid towering flames, I saw the remains of the ships sinking rapidly, while the holocaust illuminated the remains of thugs, witches, and swine. The camp had been wiped out completely, or so I thought until a herd of blood-maddened pigs rumbled out of the wreck and attacked a column of tinned thugs. The pigs – they had lost their armor – seemed insane with fury, and while they dropped soon enough, the thugs were slaughtered en-masse. But a handful survived the onslaught.

I was now 'distanced' from the intimate surroundings I had found myself in, such that I could see clearly the larger picture. All over the first kingdom I saw such scenes played out, with the bulk of the activity happening within twenty to thirty miles of where ships had landed – save in the second kingdom.

There, the port had indeed been plugged with ships, and between those people and the ones that had landed on the coast, the entire second kingdom seemed ablaze with fire. Gunfire rang out over the whole of the kingdom, with the second kingdom house being laid waste and the house proper turned into a blazing ruin. Casualties were beyond belief, with but one in twenty people outside of the potato country surviving.

“That's more than mere 'inexperience' and 'we are hopelessly full of ourselves',” I thought. “That almost seems to confirm what Hans said about those black-dressed thugs wanting the witches to take over... Oh, my!”

Everywhere I looked, I saw crude-looking letter 'T's made of rough-hewn wood. Each of them bore the butchered remains of a black-dressed thug or miser, while blackened stone 'altars' smoked furiously with the flames of sacrifice – and to look, act, or smell like a witch was the surest death-sentence imaginable.

“Th-that's the case everywhere,” I muttered. “The common attitude doesn't hold a soggy tallow candle to that of Ultima Thule when it comes to domestic witches.”

Further south, a small 'armada' had rowed with the goal of attacking the third kingdom's port. Here, I saw profound evidence of 'Thinker' activity, as these individuals had left a week prior to the main fleet's embarking. There had been pre-positioned supply dumps along the west coast of the continent, and the rowers had rested themselves on dry land every evening.

Their attack had been just prior to dawn, and their surprise had been near-complete. Only the wearying effects of the week's travel diluted the fury of the thugs and the bloodlust of the pigs, and the third kingdom's port was wrecked beyond repair. Only the near-complete lack of food, water, and shelter slowed the steady advance of the pigs and witches, and only their comparatively modest numbers reduced the trouble they caused.

They still destroyed everything in their path, and their trail was a lifeless burned-out swath several miles wide.

The focus again shifted to the first kingdom, where the battle continued to rage. Here, I saw the overall effects of the small 'air-fleet'. While the number of planes was fairly small – but half a dozen airborne at any one time, with several spares – their effects on the battlefield were decisive, even given their poor endurance and marginal performance: the pigs could not cope with their 'chainsaw' engine noise, and the tinned thugs...

Help!” they screamed as one when a plane showed. “An evil spirit has come to take us to the lair of the great dragon! We have become food! Help!”

The world blanked before my eyes, and when it reappeared, I was stunned. Here, I saw numbers of motorized buggies that resembled nothing so much as wire-wheeled shrunken sand-rails. These – there were sizable numbers of them, and they were quite capable – roamed the battlefield, and whenever the pigs or tinned thugs showed, the invaders were taken under fire using the heavy machine guns mounted on the vehicles' roll-cages.

They had no chance whatsoever, unlike the first scenario.

The first instance I had been shown meant thousands of injured and hundreds of dead in the first kingdom, with the thick of battle lasting two weeks and the mopping up over a month. Dozens of towns burned to the ground, while few places outside of those in the deepest interior remained unscathed.

That was nothing, compared to what the second kingdom endured.

By the time the mop-up phase had progressed enough to permit war-parties to head south from the first kingdom, the second kingdom had been nearly destroyed. The thugs and swine had endured few casualties in the process outside of the potato country, and when the first kingdom's hordes came into the border region, there was hue, cry, chase, and destruction for upwards of a week before the thugs and pigs were annihilated.

In contrast to the smoke and fire of 'old-fashioned' warfare – referenced to where I came from – the second instance was so one-sided I had trouble believing it, until I saw the aircraft.

The buggies were a primer for these things. While they looked commendably modern while parked on the runway, their brief takeoff runs amid near-total silence spoke volumes.

“Stealth planes?” I muttered, as the third one lifted off with the grace of a bird to then climb steeply to altitude.

The planes flew north in a ragged 'V'. Again, their silence and grace spoke loudly – until one of them abruptly 'vanished' before my eyes and then reappeared just as suddenly.

“What happened?” I gasped.

The thought occurred to me that the current standard of 'stealth' – where I came from – in regards to these things was an understatement of the greatest imaginable magnitude. I then saw one of them waggle its wings and drop like a stone.

The gymnastics of this plane seemed to defy all of the laws of physics at once, and once it began firing on the oncoming flotilla, the explosions and flames the plane sailed through unmolested were beyond belief.

“That person's gotta be crazy,” I thought, as the plane twisted, turned, flipped, and skidded amid brief flashes of white near the nose of the plane.

Insane or not, however, the number of burning and sinking boats in his or her wake was a marvel, and when the other planes – five, for a total of six – joined in, the swath of destruction was indeed difficult to fathom. The surface of the ocean seemed alive with fires and explosions as the planes went toward the west, and the slow moving vessels...

“S-sitting d-d-ducks,” I spat. “Like shooting fish in a barrel using hand grenades.”

Still, a few boats managed to escape the planes, or so I thought until I saw them slowly settling in the water as they continued south. The rowers continued their long sweeps amid the hoarse chants of the witches, even as the sun slowly rose in the west, until one by one, the water rose triumphant over the gunwales and the ship in question slowly and majestically sank beneath the waves. Only a bare handful saw their 'promised land' before sinking.

I awoke with an abrupt start to the sounds of bathing. The sun had set, and the smells of cooking food made for further awakening. I put the books away after checking my place in the current ledger, and staggered stiff and stumbling toward what looked like a campfire.

“Th-the oven?” I asked.

“Has food in it,” said Karl. “I've wanted a regular fire for days.”

“For cooking?” I asked.

“No, yarns,” said Gilbertus. “I doubt we'll have another chance while we run south.”

“And north?” asked Kees, as he came out with clothing in his arms.

“That will want hurry,” muttered Hendrik. “I think we'd best enjoy this stop while we have the chance.” A brief pause, then, “if we can enjoy it. That dream was stranger than anything.”

“Dream?” I asked.

“He was not the only one,” said Gabriel. “I recognized much of what I saw, even if some of those things made a fifth kingdom foundry sound good and look better.”

“What was this?” I asked.

“Whatever they were,” said Hendrik, “those northern people could not endure their noise, and neither could the pigs.”

“Look better?” I asked.

“The smoke,” said Gabriel. “They had evil engines in their front portions...”

“Those were not evil engines,” said Hendrik. “They did not use distillate, but something else, and they did not billow flames like those do.”

“The smoke?” I asked. “What color was it?”

“A bluish gray color,” said Gabriel. “They sounded terrible.”

“Did these things fly?” I asked.

Gabriel looked at me, then nodded.

“Why, have you heard of such things?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said, “though those... Did you get a good look at them?”

“I did,” said Hendrik, “and I've but seen two evil engines that small. Most of those are much larger.”

“No flames, a lot of blue smoke...” I paused, then asked, “did they sound like they were going to come apart any second?”

While Gabriel mouthed the word 'yes', Hendrik seemed to differ with him, and said flatly, “come to think of it, no. These had a higher-pitched sound, almost like a hunting cat, and while they did need a fair amount of attention, they seemed to be far more capable than anything made in the fifth kingdom.”

“Were they round?” I asked. I was thinking of either a radial or rotary.

“No, they were shaped like a small fifth kingdom engine,” said Hendrik, as he indicated the rough size with his hands. “They had several pipes, most of which were for water, or so the person working on it said, and then this other device that I cannot name beyond it began with a 'K' sound.”

“What did it do?” I asked.

“He said it mixed the fuel,” said Hendrik.

“Was there but one?” I asked.

“No, there were several of these,” said Hendrik. “I think there was one for each hole, but I cannot be certain. He did speak of holes.”

“Holes?” I asked.

“Those fifth kingdom engines are described by the number of holes,” said Hendrik. “These engines had four of them.”

Such descriptions threatened to usurp anything the group might think of as a story, and while I listened in to first Gilbertus speak of an old tale, then Lukas, I thought to examine the books I had looked at prior. I was once more deeply into that one particular chapter speaking of methods when Gabriel interrupted me.

“This is what that engine looked like,” he said. “Have you seen things like it?”

“Quite possibly,” I said. “That isn't even close to that noisy thing I saw in the Swartsburg.”

“Those 'K' things are these,” said Gabriel, as he pointed to four devices on the lower portion of what looked to be a crankcase.

“Carburetors!” I spat. “That isn't an evil engine, it's one like I had been thinking about – only nowhere near that large.” I paused, then said, “and come to think of it, that type of engine would work well for flying.”

“Why?” asked Gabriel. “The noise?”

“That's not what I meant,” I said. “That type produces a lot of power for its size and weight, which is what you want for an aircraft.”

After a few more such comments, I returned to the book in question. It took several moments for me to learn that Gabriel was watching my every move and possibly attempting to read my mind.

“This section is especially bad,” I muttered. “It might not be a black book that way, but if it isn't a primer for witchcraft, I do not know what is.”

“Why is that?” asked Gabriel. His sudden 'oblivious' nature became obvious with the first word.

“'Only you know your business'?” I spluttered.

“It's true, isn't it?” asked Gabriel. “You understand what you are doing, and no one else does.”

I wanted to scream, even as I now knew for a surety...

“How?” I thought. “Most people never see these books.”

“And those at the higher schools are very familiar with them,” said the soft voice. “Recall those books being stated as prime examples of writing?”

I nodded mentally.

“That ensures at least a passing familiarity with the contents.” A brief pause, then “that section on 'Methods' is one of the more-commonly used texts for writing instruction, and finally, those who have gone to the higher schools tend to not merely deal most often with instrument-makers, but also speak of them to those they deem 'lesser beings'. Hence, the common 'beliefs' regarding instrument-makers are widely disseminated.”

“And...”

“The fact that most instrument-makers closely follow those instructions substantially reinforces those statements,” said the soft voice.

“They're all witches, then,” I spluttered.

“Not even close,” said the soft voice. “Many of them only see the more-obvious portions, and that after long and close study.”

“Uh...” I paused, then asked, “like with Sarah?”

“She does as well as many instrument-makers, and with much less time and effort.”

“And she's confused...” I murmured. “What they learn is as much by observation of 'custom' as by reading these things.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “The exceptions are both rare and truly exceptional.”

I then looked at Gabriel again, and to my surprise, I saw him yawn and shake his head, then wobble back to the campfire. I returned to my studies.

The 'yarns' I heard seemed relics of a bygone age, one I had read of in sundry books of one kind or another. I briefly paused, now wondering how the others felt at my 'absence', until I looked to see Hendrik absent as well. I suspected he had something on his mind that did not lend itself to 'frivolity', anymore than what I was reading permitted me to think of less-serious matters.

I was surprised when Gabriel returned to my side a short time later. I had put away the instrument-maker's books, and was looking over my notes.

“I'm glad you put those books away,” he said. “I went to sleep when you spoke last.”

“I was trying...” I stopped in mid-sentence, then asked, “I wondered about them myself.”

“I spoke some with Hendrik regarding that dream,” said Gabriel, “and though I have seen both portions on the tapestries, I understand little of the first portion and none whatsoever of the second part.”

“Uh, tinned thugs and swine do not handle certain noises well?” I asked.

“Those flying things were death on them,” said Gabriel, “and the smoky ones were the worst.” A brief pause, then “neither situation showed war as it is commonly understood.”

“I figured that,” I said dryly. “The tapestries showed what?”

“The first part was after many months of war, when much had been ruined,” said Gabriel. “Only makeshifts were available then, and those in but modest amounts.”

“I don't much care for depending on the strength of bubblegum and baling wire...” I thought.

“The second portion was from the time of that war's beginning,” he said. “I am not sure as to the meaning of either portion of the dream, however.”

“The first portion needs much less assistance than the second one,” I said. “Had we several years, that first portion might be possible with none.”

“The second is a better proposition, then,” said Gabriel. “There were no injuries of note beyond a broken limb dealing with a smaller pig during a common raid.” He paused, then said, “though how an arrow could rip a pig apart that way is beyond me.”

“The usual guns...”

“Those might make holes in the swine if they hit them right and are very close,” said Gabriel. “Past a hundred paces, stopping a pig with full plate is an unlikely chance.”

“Those bows were in the second instance,” I said, “and they were doing things that are normally impossible. Are there bows of that shape to be had?”

“I would ask at the fourth kingdom house,” said Gabriel. “I have seen them used there.”

“We need to try, then,” I said. “At least one such bow, and at least a handful of arrows as samples.”

I paused, then said, “and, I suspect I need not speak of horseshoes. Every horse needs new ones, unless I'm far off.”

While Gabriel spoke of his ignorance regarding shoes, he accepted my assessment readily. I then thought to go down by the river prior to bedtime.

To my surprise, the horses were munching on the riverside bunch-grass, and I turned back toward my 'bed'. I wanted a cover-sheet for the night, and once situated, I carefully covered my entire body before falling asleep.

Morning went smoother than usual, and within half an hour of rising I was leading the column along the river's bank while looking for a way out. I soon found one, and we were back on the High Way but ten minutes later.

“Why was he speaking of shoes this morning?” asked Karl. He was well back in column. “None of the horses are lame.”

Gilbertus spat, then said, “if they don't get attention soon, they will be. It's better to act before then.”

“I thought so,” I muttered. “There's a decent-sized town ahead... No, more than that. This place is about as big as can be found on the High Way this far south.”

“A farrier?” asked Gabriel.

“There is a sizable shop,” I said, “as well as a 'south-style' Mercantile...”

“I'll fetch a hat for you, then,” said Lukas. “I saw you try to sew on it last night.”

“Your sewing was bad?” asked Gabriel.

“That thing is fit for a rag-merchant, and no mistake,” said Lukas. “He might sew like a tailor, but that cloth was bad stuff. He had to sew a rag into it.”

The end of the woodlot showed further meanderings of the marshy areas that had been on its northern side, and the winding nature of the river and its deep beds of reeds seemed to travel on interminably. It went somewhat to the south, and much more to the west, such that after a quarter hour, I could still see the river heading west. It had stopped heading south, and the wide expanse of deep-green reeds continued until they were swallowed up by haze and distance.

The sun wasted no time in showing its heat, and I was glad for the more-frequent watering troughs. Farmsteads showed regularly amid the heather, and some enterprising people had carved small enclaves out among the woodlots. The aura of industry was palpable, and the traffic on the road was substantial for the first time since we had left home. Large slow-moving wagons rumbled behind six and eight horse teams, while buggies rolled smooth and quiet around them. We did also, though with a bit more noise.

“Now this is about the usual for this road,” said Lukas between slurps of an obvious beverage. “I hope it ain't like this on the way home.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It makes for slower traveling,” said Gabriel. “We may wish to take less-traveled roads then.”

Some of the traffic stopped at the next town, which was about halfway to the larger one, and with a clearer road, we sped up a trifle. The place with the farrier's shop was less than an hour away, and I wanted to get there as quickly as was practical. I suspected the others wished to also, and when the town proper showed, I learned my suspicion was correct, even if my reason was concern for thrown shoes and not 'a proper breakfast'.

I was left to my 'lunacy' then, for the Public House of the place drew all of them as if it were a magnet and themselves iron filings. They were going to do the 'commonplace' thing therein.

As I led Jaak to the farrier's shop – it had a carved wooden post-type signboard in front of its yard, much as I had seen for Markus' shop – I recalled the vast array of impressions and talk I had heard about 'special' travel.

“Most spend more time eating and drinking in Public Houses than they do actually traveling,” I thought, “and they might ride two or three hours at a time. Then, they don't get out of camp for at least two hours after sunrise, and they get into camp at least two hours before sundown.”

Hard on the heels of this thinking, however, was the thought that no one – save 'desperate fools' – thought to travel this early in the year. The talk of students traveling made me wonder if they were included among those so labeled, and I wondered greatly.

“How does anyone go anywhere, then?” I thought. “Those people taking a month coming and going for that writing table?”

It suddenly became perfectly clear: that errand showed what was commonplace for 'business' traveling.

“And this type of junket is in its own league,” I murmured. “Months, long layovers at each kingdom house, resting for days at the first sign of fatigue... Ugh!”

My thinking was jolted by the smell of hot metal at the farrier's, and I came to the threshold of a sizable building with wide side-rolling doors. Peering within the darkened interior showed a number of anvils present, easily twice the number of the shop at home, and doorways into an obvious back-room showed what might have been either supplies or other machines. I saw no people. I then looked to my right.

An older man with age-whitened hair sat at a small table just inside the door, with a wooden rack showing various sizes and shapes of horseshoes behind him. I turned and began to walk toward him.

“Those,” he said while pointing at Jaak with a grimy finger, “we do specially, as the common shoes don't fit well.”

“Do they need to be larger, or a different shape, or..?” I asked, with a squeaking voice. His brusque manner didn't help much; I wanted to hide from him.

“Most shoes need adjustment, but those...”

He 'hitched' abruptly, then nearly fell out of his chair prior to limping off toward the nearest doorway into the back area, all the while muttering something I could not decipher. I heard movement in the rear as well as shuffling steps, then he returned to the 'main' area with a vastly lesser limp. I then saw his legs, and knew why he limped.

One leg was perceptibly shorter than the other, and the longer one seemed more than a little stiff. He had a pair of horseshoes, one in each hand.

“These two are close to the right size, but I have no more like them,” he said. “Others will need making from stock.”

“D-do you make those here?” I asked.

He looked at me as if to 'take my measure', then seemed to 'dismiss' me as an ignorant wastrel with more money than sense.

“Of course we make them here,” he spat. His temper was quite obvious, and his next statements indicated no small quantity of pique. “Shoes aren't bought ready-made.” A pause, then, “why, haven't you ever seen iron forged?”

While I had considerable knowledge of what he spoke, his bristling attitude made for a dry mouth and a tongue that would not move. He seemed oblivious to what I was feeling, and his next statement seemed to bolster what I was discerning.

“Besides, most freighters tend toward ill-temper if they stop overlong, and you don't look like a freighter.”

“N-no, I don't,” I said weakly. “I might be able to make those shoes.”

The man slowly reoccupied his chair, then said, “now how is that? You don't look like a smith, nor an elder, nor a student.” He paused, then said, “what are you, a right-rich pfuddaar or something?”

“What?” I squeaked. “What is that?”

“I take that back, then,” he said, “as one o' them would have spoken otherwise. Besides...” Here, he looked piercingly at me. “Pfuddaarn don't use their hands much, and you do.” He thought for a moment. “Now that I think of it, I have an idea. Are you an instrument-maker?”

I was taken aback at his latest question, and spluttered, “d-don't those people do some forging?”

“Aye, many of them do,” he said. “Now how are you about that?”

“Let me fetch my tools, and I can show you,” I said.

While Jaak remained in the shade of the building, I went back toward the buggies to fetch my tool-bags. It took some ten minutes, as they were buried under many of my things in the tub. When I returned, I was astonished to see a forge ready-burning with iron pieces just beginning to glow faintly red. I looked, saw no bellows, and nearly tripped over an ancient-looking handwheel jutting up from the ground behind the forge in question. I turned the wheel, and heard the rushing of the blast vary.

“So Anna was right,” I thought. “Not every place uses bellows.”

“That setup isn't common to the north,” said the man as I put on a thin leather apron, “and I'm surprised you figured it out as quickly as you did.” He then paused, looked at what I had leaned against the nearest wall, then continued, saying, “that weapon you have isn't a common one, even for here. You might try the Heinrich shops if you are inclined.”

“Do they make horseshoes?” I asked.

“Those they do seldom,” he said, “but they make the best guns and tools I know of. Those I named pfuddaarn won't go near that place.”

I drew out one of the pieces of iron, looked at it, and began forging.

“This stuff is s-soft,” I thought, as the metal moved like putty under the hammer. Within moments, I had four blanks close to shape and size – as well as a 'gaffer' who was draining mug after mug of beer between attempts to fill his ears with a soft white fuzzy material.

While the shoes reheated among the charcoal, he wobbled over, then slowly looked at first the hammer, then my arms. He then used tongs to withdraw one of the ruddy shoes and looked it over with a practiced eye before replacing it and turning to me.

“No, I think not,” he said. His voice was unplaceable as to meaning. “They'd be surprised at the Heinrich shops to see work like this.” He paused, swallowed, and brought out another. “These need little more than finishing, punching the holes, and then fitting.”

He looked around after putting the shoe back in the fire, then adjusted the blast up a trifle.

“I'd watch close for pfuddaarn if I were you,” he muttered. “They shouldn't bother you here, but talk has them showing now and then in these parts.”

“Who, or what, are pfuddaarn?” I asked.

“Those black-dressed people from the fifth kingdom,” he said, “and work this good would have them onto you if they knew of it.” Again, he paused – he seemed a bit dehydrated, for some reason – then said, “they call such people a strange name that makes no sense, as everyone eats, and anyone who can do work this good is not useless.”

From dim memory came recollection, and the words dropped near-silent and tottering from my lips: “U-Useless F-Feeders?”

“Their lingo isn't quite that clear,” he said, “but it is said to mean that.”

The shoes were now the sunny red-orange color that spoke of ready working, and this time, I punched the holes and smoothed up the shoes afterward. Each shoe went deep in the coals once finished, and I added more charcoal at the end of the session. The 'gaffer' poked at them with his tongs, then briefly muttered.

“They wear better on hard roads when 'cooked' this way,” I said softly between sips from my water-bottle. “I'll douse them shortly.”

“So I heard,” he murmured, “and few do such things, especially as it usually adds greatly to the time.”

“N-not if you...” I spluttered to a halt, then continued, saying, “hooves vary too much, which is why making to size is the usual. Most of your, uh, 'ready made' shoes vary enough to need time in a forge followed by filing to fit.”

“True,” he said. “These will need nothing of the sort, which tells me I guessed right.” A sudden hush seemed to fill the building. “Most instrument-makers, if they be worth much, are marked, and things happen different with them.” A brief pause, then, “I'd bring the horse in, and we can change those over once they're cold.”

Jaak had his new shoes but twenty minutes later, and as I finished the last one, several people wandered into the place one by one. Two went into the rear area, and as I put away my tools, the entire group came to look at Jaak's new iron as well as his old shoes – and all the while, they muttered darkly.

That situation was not helped by my laying down five large silver pieces.

As I led Jaak back across the road, a faint hiss gave way to a sudden clangor that lasted for perhaps three seconds. Faintly in my recollection I recognized what machine that particular noise was associated with, and the matter turned over in my mind as I entered the crowded yard of the place.

“This many horses?” I thought, as I wove among them while staying out of range of their 'main guns'. “That place has got to be packed.”

Hot on the heels of this sentiment was the thought that we would have a longer-than-common layover here, and when I opened the door, I knew I was being generous with my assessment.

The singing and carousing was in full 'holler', and our table was already working on piled-high plates of food.

As I meandered around the crowded tables, I noted the building's cleanliness, which compared favorably with that of home, and then the furnishings, and finally, the staff itself. These latter properties compared favorably with those of the Public House at home also. I drew closer to our table, and then wondered about food – until a frightful and unpleasant reek twisted my nose. I nearly spewed.

“Yuck,” I spat. “Fermented kerosene, and they have more of that stuff than anything.”

I was more than a little surprised to find jugs of cider and beer at our table, as the popularity of the kerosene seemed astonishing. A less-than-vague miasmal cloud drifted over our table, and I grimaced in horror as it 'tickled' my nose.

“Have you ever had distillate?” asked Gabriel between sips from a mug. I suspected his mug had beer.

“Yes, but not here,” I spluttered. “Distillate here is far more troublesome than where I came from.” I paused, then said, “that farrier shop is a good one, but I'd watch close for the gaffer.”

Lukas, Gilbertus, and Karl stood, then began moving toward the door.

“I spoke of the shoes and made the needed arrangements,” said Gabriel. He then looked at my cap, and removed it gently. The entire top came away at his less-than-deft touch, and the rag I'd used nearly fell into his plate.

Sepp stood and left post-haste.

“You do not need heat-sickness,” said Gabriel, “not with your work and concerns.”

I found a mug and filled it with beer, and began sipping from it. Within moments, I felt calm enough to talk amid the uproar in the place, and the first word I murmured was 'pfuddaarn'.

What did you say?” asked Gabriel. “Where did you hear that?”

“T-the gaffer,” I spluttered. “He said they wore black clothing...”

“That and much more,” said Gabriel. “That term might be one local to this area, but those people are not confined to the fifth kingdom.”

“Black-Cap?” I asked.

“Him and those like him, or how he was,” said Gabriel. “He now avoids General's Row for the most part, and the same for much of what is common there.”

I drank an entire mug of beer and part of another before the viands at the table got my attention. The first of these was a sizable platter of what resembled close-sliced fried potatoes mingled with spicy-looking green bits of vegetation. I asked for some, and once I began eating them, I treated them with a measure of respect.

“How can you eat those so readily?” asked Kees. “Those things...”

“Yes, they are hot, and quite peppery,” I said. “What are those green bits?”

“Those things that looked like weeds in the second kingdom house,” said Lukas, as he returned to his seat. “They got the horses going in that place, and we should be done in an hour or so.”

“That...”

“I think I've heard of that place,” said Lukas. “They might be the only place on the High Way that has equipment beyond the common, but they do a deal of business with freighters.”

“Who don't like to wait,” I murmured, around a mouthful of fork-tender 'roast'.

“Aye, and they don't like bad shoes much,” said Lukas. “They don't have time to go into that market, so that place has their custom.”

“Do they...”

“Those and much more,” said Gabriel. “Now how will you endure her?”

“Her?” I asked. There were a number of people I knew or knew of who corresponded to 'her', and their multitude made for confusion in response to the question.

“I wonder little about Sarah,” said Gabriel, “but Rachel may wish to live on or about the premises for a short time. Matters will not take long, however, and by the fall, much will happen. Yet still, that will be months, and that time will be a rest-house for crazy.” A pause, then, “first, this trip, then clear the Abbey...”

I looked at Gabriel, who was trying to hide his face with a mug. He was drinking the thing dry.

“And then, it gets weird,” he muttered, as he set the mug down and reached for a jug of beer.

“Underground cities?” I asked. “A place where I have but some idea as to what is happening, while everyone else is b-ballast?”

“At least you will secure writing equipment in the process,” said Gabriel. “I would try for one of those things that resembles a book.” A pause, a long drink, then, “Sarah is now a good deal more her normal self, and while she is quite strange...”

Another of those 'pregnant' pauses.

“You like that kind of strange.”

“Strange?” I thought.

“I hope Maarten and Katje are prepared to become as she is, however,” said Gabriel darkly. “Neither of them had much choice in the past, but now, their choice approaches what you were given.”

“Ch-choice?” I spluttered.

“Perhaps using that word is unwise,” said Gabriel cryptically. “I suspect what most receive in that way and what you have had are two very different things.”

Sepp returned shortly with a cloth bag, and once it was delivered up to me, I untied the string with fumbling fingers. Soft dark green cloth seemed to leap into my hands, and I removed a cap similar to what I had received but weeks prior, at least for shape.

“Green?”

“They were out of brown,” said Sepp, “and that color, and brown, are what they usually have. It was green or nothing.”

“And nothing is not good with your hair like it is, especially in this sun,” said Hendrik.

I tried the hat, and became blind within less than a second, for it had slipped down over my eyes. The thing had a cord, and upon tightening it, the hat perched atop my head. It also wished to escape every time a waiter went by with food. Loosen the binder cord, retie...

“Now you look proper for a friar,” said Gabriel once I'd gotten it to stay put. “If you dressed differently, though... You could go to the west school.”

“As a student?” I asked.

“As a guest lecturer,” said Gabriel. “Strange would be an understatement were you to dress that way.”

“How do they dress?” I asked.

“Long gray cloaks with hoods,” said Gabriel in a 'mysterious' voice, “and the cloaks have pockets inside and out. Then, their shoes or boots are especially quiet to walk in, and their faces are nearly completely hidden. All one can see are their eyes.”

“Those people sound like they were burnt,” said Gilbertus. “Now is that so, or do they dress that way for other reasons?”

“I am not sure why they dress that way,” said Gabriel, “only that I have heard of them doing so.”

“Sarah..?” I asked. “She has a cloak.”

“Those are the rule with students and lecturers,” said Gabriel. “Cloaks are common for travelers, also. Yours seems a bit short for someone as tall as you are.”

Talk then went to what had happened at the third kingdom. As I had been unconscious during the majority of the time there, I listened eagerly. During 'intermissions', I put two slices of bread in my bread-bag, and when the comment of 'address' came up, I had a question.

“The written format?” I asked.

“He might not have insisted upon it, but it was commonly used during that meeting,” said Hendrik. “He saw our documents in private, as both he and I suspected they would not be entertained by that group.”

Entertained?” I asked.

“Much like the second kingdom as to attitude, even if it was not as clearly expressed,” said Hendrik. “I could tell that much.”

“Copies?” I asked.

“Enough that I am going to need to hunt up a dozen globes of ink and a quire of paper,” mumbled Kees around his mug. “That buzzard you shot provided enough pen-quills for a ten-year.”

“At least I did my part, then,” I murmured.

“Regarding inking, I should think so,” said Gabriel. “I suspect you will be doing a great deal of writing in the near future, so I'd best fetch a sack of rubbing blocks and two quire of writing dowels.”

“Quire?” I asked.

“That causes fights,” said Lukas. “Usually, that's as thick a stack as a hand is wide. Whose hand they use is the trouble.”

“Isn't there a standard?” I asked.

“There is,” said Gabriel, “but few have such hands, so they substitute the cheaper examples they already have.”

“And in the case of those less scrupulous, they use either theirs or the customer's, whichever is the smaller of the two,” said Kees. “I'll want to buy a brass-hand if one shows.”

“Brass-hand?” I asked.

“Those are the standards I spoke of,” said Gabriel.

“Could I measure one?” I asked.

“You could,” said Gabriel, “but it would not help our cause. Only brass-hands are accepted as standards.”

Karl finally returned to the table, and as he finished his meal quickly, he spoke of the horses being 'full-shod'. I wondered about payment until Gabriel abruptly stood and left the table.

“I think we had best hurry,” said Gilbertus. “This place ain't getting less crowded.”

Getting outside was something of a chore, and as we slowly moved through the dense-packed throng, I wondered as to whether we might have done better by leaving through the kitchen. Once outside, however, I had to shade my eyes for a brief moment. It was nearly noon, or so I guessed.

“I hope it does not burn today,” muttered Karl. “It looks to be bright enough.”

Once back on the road and heading south, I was glad for the new cap. Not merely did it keep my head 'cooler', but the presence of a new cap acted as a spur to my thinking. I began to wonder about the blower, the furnace, possible machine-tools, and other matters. I described what I recalled of the lathes I had used before coming here.

“That is the type of equipment we need,” said Gabriel. “There are things like that in this area, but they are not bought and sold.”

“I suspected as much,” I said.

“Even if they were, however, it would take you years to make a fraction of what I saw in that first dream-portion,” said Gabriel, “and that presumes those machines could do sufficiently close work.”

“You meant me doing the work without help, didn't you?” I asked. 'Methods' implied that to be the usual.

Gabriel looked at me, then nodded.

“I was not speaking from what was stated in those volumes,” I said. “I do most of the work involved in those things I work on by necessity, not by choice.” I wanted to add, “those people tend to be clueless regarding anything I work on, no matter how much time and effort I spend trying to teach them.” I then muttered, “I just about have to run that place.”

“That especially,” said Gabriel. “A few hundred rifles done as what you have would tax your capacity. Fitting out the Abbey would need thousands of people, and then more thousands afterward working on weapons.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “if that land over the sea has such weapons, or but a portion of the equipment you suspect it to have, then either portion of that dream is possible in the time we have.”

“The outcome of that mission determines what we endure, then,” I muttered.

As if to comment on what I had said, I heard faintly the caw of a crow or raven, then a 'clatter' that increased in volume as it came nearer.

“I hope not,” I muttered. “I'm not in the mood to see Nevermore right now.”

“What is this you speak of?” asked Gabriel

“That b-black...”

I stopped in mid-sentence as a mottled green-and-brown bird landed clumsily on the road and began 'crow-hopping' toward the nearest bush. The behavior of this bird, as well as its shape, suggested its nature, and when it turned back toward us, I saw the sizable yellow beak. It then cawed.

“What is that bird?” I gasped, as it hopped and took wing.

“A crow,” said Gabriel. “Unlike ravens, crows vary markedly as to size and color.”

“What?” I gasped. “They aren't all black?”

“Many of them are,” said Gabriel, “but I've heard of or seen gray, blue, reddish-orange, yellow, green-and-brown, and red crows. All of them make the usual crow noises.”

“Aye, and the black crows are the worst for trouble,” said Lukas. “They like to show if you need that tincture for pain, and their chief has a strange name. I disrecall it.”

“N-nevermore?”

“That's it,” he said. “I've seen that wretch twice in my life, him and his consort.”

“Consort?” I asked.

“That one lady looks a little like that woman, at least for her hair,” he said. “Come to think of it, so do you.”

“Dark hair?” I asked.

“That and old-time grave clothing,” he said. “I'd best put a cork in it, lest that bird and his woman show.”

After passing two more watering troughs we came to another town. This one was the smallest of the three we had seen today, and in its rough middle, a road branched off between two buildings. While the road was neither the width nor the condition of the High Way, it was still a substantial road that saw much traffic.

“Ginnedaag is down that way,” said Gabriel. “Septobraag we passed, and Muenster I already spoke of.”

“And the others?” I asked.

“Save for Guymus, they are all located within ten miles of that market,” said Gabriel. “Guymus is about ten miles south of the west school.”

“Is there anything else in that area?” I asked.

“Boeskmann's,” said Gabriel. “One of the larger shipyards.”

Between heather, woodlots, farmsteads, towns – two more before sundown – and watering troughs, the day passed in a haze of heat and what might have been humidity. It was now necessary to drink deeply and regularly, and at each watering trough, the horses not merely drank, but were also wiped down with cold water. I recalled that odd little 'rag-hunk' I had once used, and spoke of it once back under way. It was late in the afternoon, about an hour before sundown, and the worst of the heat was done.

“Those are used for bathing,” said Gabriel. “I wish I still had mine.”

“Can they be purchased?”

“In that market, yes,” said Gabriel. “I think I recall where the shops were that had them.”

“Could we get some?” I asked.

Gabriel nodded, then said, “I planned on getting a replacement, in fact.”

The lights went out at dusk and we continued on amid the again-growing traffic. For some reason, noontime had seen the High Way all but deserted, but once the sun went down, that road became alive again, with a train of lights swaying slowly amid clopping sounds.

“They'll go on for some time,” murmured Gabriel. “Unlike places to the north, much of the fourth kingdom does not go to sleep at sundown.”

“They don't?” I squeaked.

“That market town is almost like Kraag that way,” muttered Lukas. “It might not be nearly as big or as stinky, but it doesn't sleep much, especially at certain times of the year.”

“How do they avoid running into each other?” I asked.

“Those lights they have,” said Lukas. “Had I not known better, I would have thought you got the idea from down here.”

The evening rapidly cooled the air, and with the coming of what felt like a chill, I began looking for a place to camp. I wanted a site some distance from the road – and as I began looking, I had a question.

“The buzzard?” I asked.

“Was traded at that Public House,” said Gabriel. “It cut our meal bill by a third.”

“Did we...”

“Every jug we had was filled,” said Lukas, “and in this weather, we'll want to fill them every chance we get.”

I found a 'meadow' in the midst of one unusually large woodlot, and led the group back to the rearmost portion. There was a secluded 'nook', and while the tents went up next to the trees, I thought to go further into the forest on foot. I was more than a little surprised to find a small 'pond' that bubbled faintly and gave off a potent 'mineral' odor, and when I scooped up a mouthful of its water in my cup, I thought to taste it.

“No, better not,” I thought. “I want to ask about this stuff. For all I know, it might be 'alkali-water'.”

That is found some distance to the south,” said the soft voice. “That water is safe to drink, even if the flavor is rather strong.”

“Strong?” I asked, as I put the cup to my lips and then tasted it.

The intense 'mineral' flavor was sufficiently off-putting that I began spitting, and I brought the cup back to the others just the same. All the while, I was muttering steadily.

“What did you find?” asked Sepp.

“I think this is one of those little ponds,” I said, “only this one is really warm and a bit smelly.”

“You found a healing spring?” asked Karl.

“I am not sure what is in it has healing properties,” I said. “Taste this water, and tell me if it does.”

Karl took the cup from me, looked at it, and then took a swallow. He then drained the cup, burped, and wiped his mouth.

“How could you stand that stuff?” I asked.

“It tasted like good water,” said Karl. “Why, did you try it?”

I nodded, then said, “it tasted like, uh, bath-salts, or perhaps alum, or...”

Karl looked at me, then jerked. His face flashed a vision of purest misery.

“Where is the privy?” he asked.

“Find the shovel and dig one,” said someone from the other side of the nearest tent.

Karl grabbed the nearest shovel, then ran for the edge of the trees and began digging as if he'd had lessons from a domestic gopher. He managed perhaps two minutes, and then put the new-made hole to use.

“Did you put uncorking medicine in that stuff?” asked Sepp.

“N-no,” I said. “I was told it had a very strong flavor, and it does. It has a very strong mineral taste.”

“Does it smell like bad eggs?” asked Sepp.

“I'm not sure what it smells like,” I said. “I didn't swallow any of it, if that's what you mean.”

“I've heard there are some healing springs that one can drink from, and some where it isn't a good idea...”

“Like that one he found,” said Lukas. “That water might not be uncorking medicine for how long it works, but it beats that stuff for strength easy.”

“And quickness?” I asked.

“I suspect so,” said Lukas. “Why, did you drink any?”

“Karl did,” said Sepp. “Can we use that stuff otherwise?”

“If you mix a little with your regular water, it helps the taste some,” said Lukas. “It really helps if all you have to drink is fermented wine.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Fermented wine can cause corking if consumed to excess,” said Lukas. “It might not be near as bad as some food is that way, but in this weather, you don't want much for wine.”

“And hence you don't get corked if you mix your wine with that water,” I said.

“That, and it helps with keeping you from getting dried out bad,” said Lukas. “Fermented wine is bad that way too.”

“I'll take my wine in the cooking pot, thank you,” I muttered.

A faint chorus of agreement seemed to come from everywhere at once.

By the time our bathing finished, however, we had company in the form of a trio of freighting wagons. They began setting up small cloth-and-stick 'shelters', and amid the sounds of meal preparation and perhaps bathing, I heard knocking noises coming from one of the wagons. I turned to look at the source.

The freighters were busily engaged in pulling the wheels of their wagons in the light of an uncommonly bright lantern, and as I watched, they cleaned both axles and hubs carefully before applying a thick black 'oil' to the hubs.

“That would be fourth kingdom axle grease, unless I miss my guess,” said Gilbertus from my right. “We'll want to pull our wheels once we get to the fourth kingdom house.”

“Are we likely to have more company?” I asked.

“Here, who knows,” said Gilbertus. “I would not be too concerned just the same.”

“Uh, black-dressed thugs?”

“They'd get their smelly hides aired out proper if they showed,” said Lukas. “Those people stay on the Low Way down here.”

By the time our meal finished, the freighters had been joined by what looked like a portion of a southbound vendor caravan and several tinkers. While none of these people were particularly loud, their intensely bright lights were enough to speak loudly of insomnia – or so I thought as I made ready to turn in. At least the central area of the clearing was clear of occupancy, and I fervently hoped it would remain so.

I slept soundly, and in the morning, I awoke with a jerk. I turned to my left to see what looked like a solid 'wall' of horses and buggies, and muttered, “oh, no. We're blocked in.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “There's a path about twenty yards south of that 'healing spring' that leads to the main road.”

“And if we hurry, we can get on it before it gets too crowded,” I thought.

While there was no answer, I found no complaints when I began waking people up, and we left quietly under a fading moon. The path in question was barely wide enough for a single buggy, and when we broke out into a heather-dusted field at the south edge of the woodlot, I turned off to the side to wait.

“I can see the road from here,” I thought, “and we have an hour or so before real sunrise.”

I waited for the rest of the column to come, and as I did, I noticed the dark brown earth between the bush-clumps, as well as the 'bunch-grass'. Gabriel came out, then the first buggy, and as I resumed along the now slightly wider path, I thought to look to the south and west.

A faint dust trail seemed to steadily grow in length at a frantic speed some miles in the distance until it terminated at a woodlot. Seconds later, however, I heard a noise that nearly frightened me off of Jaak.

The first portion sounded like a muffled explosion, followed by a earth-jarring thud. More thuds followed, each one following closer the one before, until the thuds merged into a rumbling uneven roar of such intensity that I trembled in fear. It sounded like an especially violent species of thunder, and the echoes rang in my mind.

“What was that?” I gasped, as the noise gradually faded. The dust trail was long gone.

“That n-noise,” said Gabriel. He was twitching and about to fall off of Christoph. “It was at the west school, and a stronger recipe for sleepless nights cannot be had.” A brief pause, then “I have no idea as to what creature makes tracks of such size.”

“Tracks?” I asked. I had recovered much of my once-shaken composure.

“Yes, tracks,” said Gabriel. “I knew it wasn't a bad dream then. They were grouped ten paces apart, and one could hide a baker's dough-board within each track.”

“What?” I asked. “Did they resemble anything?”

“Yes, the tracks of a hare, at least for shape,” said Gabriel, whose voice dropped precipitously in volume when he resumed speaking. “No hare is that large.”

We made the High Way some minutes later, and stopped at the first watering trough we came to. Here, the pump seemed balky, and when I looked at it, I marveled at not merely its age, but also the obvious care in maintenance.

“This pump needs a new leather,” said Lukas, as he worked the groaning device. But feeble spurts of water came from it.

I finished my 'stint', then thought to try the pump.

The first stroke was oddly silent compared to the former rasps and groans, and the second stroke worked with a perceptible resistance. The third stroke gushed water, as did the half-dozen I did following before Karl 'spelled' me at the pump.

“I think it just needed priming,” said Lukas, as the rattle of harness and clopping of hooves came from our rear. I turned to see a halted pair of freighting wagons and a dismounted freighter coming nearer.

This man was dressed much as we were, save slightly 'rougher', with an unusually 'large' revolver holstered in plain sight on one side and a large knife on the other side of his waist. He came to the pump, worked it once, then sputtered an oath.

“Those people...”

“Who?” I asked.

“They call them pfuddaarn in these parts,” he said, “but they call them otherwise where they're common. They damaged this pump.”

“How could you tell?” asked Karl. “It was working fine for me.”

“It was not working until he worked it,” said Lukas.

The freighter looked askance at me, then nodded slowly without a word. His partner now came up with a bag of tools.

“Did they put rocks in it?” asked the second freighter.

“It feels like it,” he said. “If it loses prime, we'll need to repair it.”

“Do you do that regularly?” I asked.

“Most fourth kingdom freighting wagons carry at least the leather pieces to these pumps, if not a full tool set,” he said, “and they're carried because they need to be.”

“This is common?” I asked.

“This is the third damaged pump in the last three days,” he said. “It's worse in some places than others.” He paused, then said to me, “I would be very careful if you go much further south.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Bart was killed the last time he went south for sand,” he said, “and I knew him fairly well. There wasn't a pump made that didn't work for him, no matter how much those cursed black-dressed stinkers did to ruin it.”

“Who was Bart?” I asked.

“One of the best-known instrument-makers in the fourth kingdom,” he said, “and his work was such that few came close to it. His sextants...”

“He's working on a three-ring sextant,” blurted Karl.

The freighter abruptly turned pale, then wiped his brow before turning to Karl. He spoke with trembling lip and more than a trace of fear in his voice.

“I would not speak of such matters outside of the chambers of the king himself,” he said. “Elsewhere, such talk would be your deaths.”

Karl looked around, then asked, “from who? I do not see any witches.”

“For every black-dressed witch, there are several who dress plainly,” said the man, “and those witches who dress plainly are the worst of all of them.”

“Misers?” asked Karl. “I have seen them.”

“No, not them either,” said the man. “These people dress much as...” He turned to face Kees, who was filling a grain pan. “If I did not know better, I would name that man a plain-dressed witch.”

Kees blanched, then murmured, “I gave up on that, and I'm glad I did.”

“I am glad you did also,” he said. “I hope you can help spot those people, as calling them tricky is naming them fit to wear brass cones.”

Thankfully, the pump did not lose its prime before we filled the trough, and the second freighter continued working it while we mounted up. I wondered if the pump would need repairs, and if so, when.

“They might put in a new leather, and then, they might just rub the thing with tallow,” said Lukas from my left. He was riding his horse, while Karl drove the first buggy. “I've done both with pumps before, and...”

“Perhaps just exchange them?” I asked.

“That's quicker, but it costs more,” said Lukas.

“Perhaps save the old ones and boil them while on a form, then rub in deodorized tallow while the leather's still warm?”

“I'd keep that idea close,” said Lukas. “I suspect some pumps might show where you work, and that will help.”

The High Way seemed to be heading uphill to a small degree as the sun rose, or so I thought, and to both west and east, there were the low broad mounds of hills. Otherwise, forests and heather intermingled as before, and the calls of birds and of animals seemed to usher in a greater aspect of strangeness, such that I now looked around in full expectation of seeing something too strange to readily believe my eyes. As we came from out of a densely-treed woodlot into a more-open one, I heard a terrible and echoing screech that rang for several seconds in my mind.

To the left was a bipedal reptile that resembled a very overweight Komodo Dragon. The green and brown of this 'Lizard' made for a strikingly effectual species of camouflage, so much so that only its long worm-brown tongue gave its presence away.

“What is that?” I asked, as I pointed to the lizard.

“A tyrant lizard,” said Lukas. “You don't want them around your stock at night.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Do they..?”

“They tend to be not merely hungry, but unprincipled, according to Hoelm's bestiary,” said Gabriel. “I recall that much, if but little more.”

“That, and they're said to be behind the story of the horned dragoon,” said Lukas. “I think that one's about ready to...”

With sudden abruptness, the tongue of the lizard vanished to the sound of a long and drawn-out spitting noise – and the trunk of a tree some forty feet from the lizard's front erupted in a fireball that burned for several seconds to leave charred bark and tendrils of smoke.

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “I hope it doesn't spit at us.”

“No, it doesn't have horns,” said Lukas, “nor enough legs, and the color is wrong, but otherwise, it starts fires passably.”

The first town of the day showed roughly an hour later, and the warmth of the sun was enough to make me glad for a cap. If anything, the temperature had climbed from the day before, and while the majority went into the Public House, the three of us who normally stayed outside to check the horses and buggies busied ourselves. I had had to turn in the oil-screws another quarter-turn the day before.

“About how far is the kingdom house?” I asked, as I finished the hooves of another horse.

“I'd guess we'd hit it soon,” said Lukas. “I've never been there, but I've heard it's about even with the market town.”

Lukas was answered by a deep-bass bellow, and I looked hard to the right to see an 'oxcart', complete with a pair of straight-horn bulls in front. The bulls had drawn up short at the juncture of a dirt road and the High Way, and the person driving the cart seemed imported from the third kingdom house as to appearance.

“What is he doing here?” I asked, as we left the oxcart in our wake.

“I suspect he's here on business,” said Gabriel. “The turn to that market town is but another ten miles or so.”

“And that of the kingdom house?” I asked,

“It's a bit less,” said Gabriel. “Both turnoffs are fairly close to one another, and they are signed as such.”

“Signed?” I asked.

“Unlike most towns, that market town has some road-signs,” said Gabriel. “The fifth kingdom house, on the other hand...”

“That's the one good thing about that place,” spat Lukas. “Every street has a sign.”

“Like the Swartsburg,” I muttered. “How many signs does that market have?”

“I've counted eight,” said Gabriel. “The two most useful signs are at the gates, as they are fairly complete.”

“Complete?” I asked. “Signs?”

“They are not as in the fifth kingdom house,” said Gabriel. “They are much larger, and are laid out much as a map might be.”

“And that place needs 'em,” said Lukas. “No place is as confusing for directions, and most people ain't much help.”

“They don't give directions?” I asked.

“They do, and plenty,” said Lukas. “They're impossible to follow.”