The road more traveled, part u.


Our trip to the High Way was relatively uneventful, save for two massive flights of quolls winging overhead as they poured forth deafening cries. No one of our party shot at them, for it was still early in the morning, and when we made the High Way proper, I turned around briefly to look at a 'strange' place. The stele seemed more appropriate now, compared to but days ago.

“I feel like a stranger here,” I muttered, as Jaak resumed southbound travel. I was 'looking' for a watering trough, and found one but seconds later. It was in the middle of the woodlot laying to the south of the two turnoffs.

At that stopping place, I did my share of horse-checking, and turned in the drip-screws another quarter turn. There was still a fair amount of oil remaining since I had topped it this morning.

“That red-paste quiets these down entirely,” said Lukas. “Now give it a day, and we should manage a bit faster.”

While the old-looking pump primed well and held its prime, I could feel definite and marked wear, while the trough itself seemed in good repair. Once back on the road, however, I had an impression, even as I 'looked' ahead and saw but few towns of size within a day's travel southbound.

“Will we want to purchase more supplies when we encounter them?” I asked.

“That would be wise,” said Gabriel. “The fifth kingdom charges much for what it has, and often, it has little.”

“A list?” I asked, as we entered another woodlot. The trees seemed to be thinning steadily as to numbers, even as their size increased, and I had just spotted the track of a dried-out riverbed. I could 'smell' a river ahead, however; I suspected it would likely be the last one we would see this far south.

“For that which we commonly purchase,” said Gabriel, “that might well be superfluous. Otherwise, a list is none too good.”

“For a cooking pot?” I asked. “Perhaps more beer jugs?”

“Those are common things,” said Gabriel, “while those chemicals that came, as well as most of what arrived in that delivery, was not.” A brief pause, then, “you needed to speak directly to the chemist, didn't you?”

I nodded, now wondering where the conversation was going.

“I thought so,” said Gabriel. “None of these people are chemists.”

“And if I did not speak directly to, uh, Ivo?” I asked.

“I might find some of the chemicals you listed or spoke of, given a detailed list, much time, and a great deal of asking, and the same for Hendrik,” said Gabriel. “I suspect you could find them quite easily.”

“What?” I gasped. “I do not know this area.”

“I suspect that would not matter in the slightest,” said Gabriel. “Based on what Hans said of your trip to Grussmaan's, I feel confident in your ability.” A brief pause, then, “first, you went directly to that jug, you knew it to be oil of vitriol, and then to top those two things, you most likely got the best jug on their premises. “

“What?” I gasped.

“Hans checked it, and spoke of its near-complete dryness,” said Gabriel. “He also said they had never sold things of that purity beforehand.”

“Never?” I asked.

“Not since he has dealt with them,” said Gabriel.

“What of spices?” I asked. “They seem common enough.”

“Remember, Lukas and Gilbertus are not common men in that aspect,” said Gabriel, “and outside of those things they are personally familiar with, you would need to supply a detailed and explicit list. For Karl, and Sepp, I doubt they are familiar with much beyond salt and pepper.”

Gabriel's pronouncement was indeed troubling, until I saw him counting on his fingers. He then said, “I am not much better regarding spices, and I doubt Kees or Hendrik is much of an improvement over myself. You, I do not know.”

“What if I asked to get a sample of 'whatever turns up'?” I asked.

“That would be greatly resisted,” said Gabriel. “It is not 'the word of a cook', and it is well-known that most cooks would not send others to get critical supplies.”

Why does he sound like the person who wrote that portion of Methods?” I thought.

“A real cook would go and fetch the supplies personally, or do without,” said Gabriel. “That is not commonplace knowledge, but cooks are thought to be especially particular, and that is doubly true for those who serve good food consistently.”

“And if I wished to procure them for Anna, as gifts?” I asked. I then saw the ledger and pencil, and both resumed their steady interaction.

“While Anna is not a spectacularly good cook,” said Gabriel, “she is a good deal better than is the usual for that area of the first kingdom. More importantly, she's known by everyone in this group, as is Hans, and securing gifts is common on trips like this.”

“Did we..?” I asked.

“Much of what we purchased, at least personally, could be thought of as gifts,” said Gabriel. “This trip is vastly different from the usual.”

“As in 'if we were we traveling at the usual pace, there would be ample time to learn that market town all over again'?”

“That and twice over,” said Gabriel. “Hans has spoken of past trips spending days in that town securing those things they needed, and he's intimately familiar with that place. Anna is but little less that way.”

“And if I speak of things I work on?” I asked.

“That would be the best thing you could do, as knowledge of your capacity is likely to cover the continent,” said Gabriel. “I might not have found much on that list, but I did find a shop selling those instrument-maker's handbooks, and the volume that describes places was open to show those things you personally make.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped. My discomfort grew, and with it, a certain suspicion. I did not wish to share it, but at the next stop for water, I spoke of it anyway.

Why would it be best to speak of matters I commonly work on?” I asked.

The voice I heard answer positively reeked of oblivion, and as I strained my ears to decipher its words, I suddenly knew what I was currently hearing was not conventionally audible.

“Isn't it obvious?” said Gabriel. His voice but added to the other. “You, and you only, know your business, and as such...”

I heard chanting in the background, and the words I was now hearing otherwise spoke of witches.

“Only you are able to speak of such matters with the hope of comprehension.”

“Change?” I asked. “Resistance to anything that isn't time-honored with the practice of unthinking centuries of rote behavior?”

“That is precisely why I said what I did,” said Gabriel. He still sounded oblivious. “New ideas are quite rare, and unlike most who work as instrument-makers, you have a great many such ideas. Between doing the undoable, thinking the unthinkable, and speaking of the unspeakable, you have the witches upon you, and for those not witches, they each and every one of them have been schooled rigorously in the teachings of blind and unthinking obedience to those over them.”

“What?” I squeaked. It was impossible to believe what I had just heard.

“Blind and unquestioning obedience is not taught for the first time in guard school,” said Gabriel, much as if he were lecturing an incurably stupid child. “It starts much earlier, and the higher schools work very hard at teaching people to think. Given that so few go to them, most learn but the little they do daily, and that poorly indeed.”

“B-but that is wrong,” I spluttered.

“Yes, I know,” said Gabriel. He now sounded as if not merely oblivious, but from a far-distant space and time continuum. “It must not remain so. Supposedly, one of the pendants had that task as its chief duty.”

“What if a person 'in authority' should speak?” I asked. “As in...”

And with my cut-short speech came hard thoughts and harder words, all of which rang with 'authority', and amid the blizzard of withering verbiage that enveloped where I sat, I heard multiple instances of that very word being spat as a weapon for my undoing.

“And all of it smacks of witchcraft,” I muttered. “Unthinking and unquestioning obedience to the master's whim, and the slaves mere objects to be used and abused as per his inclination of the moment.” I wanted to spew with the sense of revulsion I felt.

“That way is less prevalent at home compared to elsewhere,” said Gabriel, “though it is not particularly rare there.” A brief pause, then, “I suspect it is most common where we are going.”

“What?” I asked, as I 'came to myself'. The road had acquired strange ripples and seemed to be traveling while we remained stationary, and the sun overhead had acquired a strange aura. It almost looked to be coated with brilliant blue and red strips of fur.

“Their attitudes regarding leadership,” said Gabriel. “Those named pfuddaarn listen far more to positions than common sense, and they are common there, hence what I said.”

“Nearly everyone does that,” I spat. “Here, there, it doesn't matter – it's more or less the same, with some people being a bit more obvious that way than others.”

Gabriel was silent, and only the furtive sounds of pencil upon paper gave evidence of his thinking. Some minutes later, he jerked, then said quietly, “you're right.”

I drank from my water-bottle, and began chewing dried meat. Within moments, the odd behavior of the road vanished, as did the other things of a tormenting nature, and I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. The chill sweat I felt there was a matter for shuddering, and my still-twitching fingers supplied confirmation.

“Did I have a hypoglycemia attack?” I thought, as I continued drinking.

There was no answer, save the steady climb of both sun and heat, and the answering thirst of men and animals.

The stops for water became more frequent, such that every watering trough received attention. Farmsteads were few, and when they showed, the wide moist ditches between rows of crops spoke of likely irrigation. Flocks of sheep stood out like mobile ground-bound clouds clustering around one or more herder's wagons, while off to right or left, I could discern towns in the distance.

And, now and then, small flocks of wild-looking goats showed.

These last were of a speckled and spotted coloration, with short horns perhaps the width of a hand for length, tall erect ears, knowing expressions, and sprightly gaits that induced a sense of near-hilarity. I half expected to see one lodged high in a tree, and about noon, my expectation was gratified.

“I did not know goats climbed trees,” said Karl. He was driving the buggy behind Gabriel and I.

“I doubt it was put there,” said Gabriel. “Those goats look to be healthy, at least for goats.”

Early in the afternoon, after a short stop for water, beer, and bread in a small town, I wondered as to the price of glass-blower's wire.

“The best price so far seems to have been in that market,” said Gabriel, “but talk had it the prices were better still to the south.”

“And our return trip?” I asked.

“We might go on a portion of the High Way,” said Gabriel, “though I think it wise...”

“The pfuddaarn are after us, you mean,” I said. “I'll need to look ahead.”

“I suspected that to be the case,” said Gabriel. “I heard speech regarding the second kingdom house in that market town, and it did not sound at all good.”

“Which means we need to stay clear of the Low Way, also,” I said, mentally ticking off an unusable option as I spoke. “They will watch that, just as they might watch the High Way.”

With this statement and its lacking answer, the sinking sense of resignation seemed overwhelming. We would need to travel rapidly, unseen, and probably during the hours of darkness; for we did not wish to be seen, either by witches or the common people. We had become, all of us, pariahs, and speed, concealment, and darkness were needed for our survival in hostile territory.

“And I need to find the path, and that through country I've never seen,” I thought.

Yet still, I had an intimation. There had been mention of a marked 'path' or road, and how it left the High Way just north of the third kingdom's border to not return save near its very end just south of the kingdom house.

“And the potato country was mentioned,” I thought. “I can find out where that place is.”

As I thought this, however, I recalled where it was spoken of, that being on the border between the first and second kingdoms. It was well to the west of the High Way, and...

“And near the coast,” I thought. “It might not be on the Low Way, but it runs parallel...”

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “The Low Way ends at the second kingdom port, and the potato country's southern border is just north of that area. It's also a bit further inland than you thought.”

“I heard that,” said Gabriel. “I am not certain I could be much help to you then.”

“Do you know that area?” I asked.

“I am no longer certain what areas I know of this country,” said Gabriel. “I thought I knew of that market town, and I was lost there, and the same for much of the fourth kingdom, and what I learned while in the second kingdom has made me doubt everything I recall for locations.”

“Meaning, you would only be able to travel on the main roads, like this one?” I asked.

Gabriel nodded soberly, then said, “which is what most do.”

“Including the pfuddaarn?” I asked. I had reason to believe they did otherwise.

“They tend to be on roads suitable for their traveling,” said Gabriel. “Down here, that is mostly the Low Way.”

“And in the third kingdom?” I asked.

“Again, mostly the Low Way,” said Gabriel. “If they are heading north any real distance past the southern border of the second kingdom, they will remain there. Otherwise, they travel where they will.”

“Which means I'll need to dodge them,” I thought.

“And the first kingdom?” I asked.

“Had you asked me months ago, I would have told you they were only found in the Swartsburg,” said Gabriel. “I have heard and seen enough since that time to know that the first kingdom is thought an open territory by those riding coaches, much like the fifth and the second.”

“Open territory?”

“They go where they wish, and more or less when they are inclined,” said Gabriel, “although night has its attractions, especially in certain areas.”

With each such further water-stop, I noted the flow of lubricant into the wheels had decreased slightly, and I opened the screws a quarter-turn about mid-afternoon. The hubs had remained cool, and the progress of the buggies seemed unimpeded – or so I thought until Lukas spoke of the matter between attempts to drain a jug of beer. His thirst seemed remarkable.

“This one's speeded up some,” he said, as he set the jug down. “Now try pushing on it.”

I did, and the rolling resistance was astonishingly low. I could almost push the buggy with my fingertips.

“Was it always like this?” I asked.

“It was easier that way than any buggy I've seen when we started,” said Lukas, “and it freed up entirely before we left the house at home. It stayed good until we put the red-paste to it, and now it's freeing up again.”

“How long does that red-paste last?” I asked.

“More than one trip like this,” said Lukas. “Heavy loads seem to use it up a little faster, while higher speeds keep it good longer, and the same for putting oil to it.”

“Meaning it will most likely not give trouble for the rest of the way,” I muttered. “I hope so, as I've enough trouble of other kinds.”

That one river was still to the front as the sun steadily lowered, and I thought to travel past sundown, or until we found a 'good' place. I needed to work on the squibs, and I suspected the others were inclined to rest as much as possible before we entered the 'desert' ahead.

“And rest won't happen much there,” I thought, as I wiped my brow with a damp rag. I had soaked it at the last watering stop.

A smaller town showed ahead, and we stopped there briefly to fill our used jugs and secure bread. Once finished, we again continued. I wondered if the horses would endure our 'antics', so much so that as the sun began going down behind the hills to the east, I was most glad for the ensuing 'chill'. I wanted to continue as far as I could.

The small lanterns went out on their hangers at dusk, and I began 'looking' for the river. It was still to the front, though its distance seemed elusive, and when a woodlot showed, I thought to investigate.

It proved both 'spartan' – a water-trough ringed round with horses, a poorly-working pump, and little grass – and also crowded with people. Three groups of freighters were pulling wheels and greasing axles, and the smell these men produced spoke of strong drink and unhealthy food. I led off down the road under the slow-emerging stars into the purple night.

The dryness of this area was now palpable, and seemed a fit prelude for the 'desert' ahead, and our steady travel under growing darkness set us apart from the people around us. Here, the road was deserted once the sun dropped behind the eastern mountain range, and as I looked ahead, I could 'feel' a place some few miles away.

I could also feel the river, and knew the two locations coincided to at least a degree.

“I hope that place isn't crowded with people,” I thought.

With each minute, the sky above deepened in darkness and winked brighter with stars, and my furtive glances skyward reminded me of things dealing with time. I knew beyond knowing that now, 'each day must count', and wasting time was as bad as the most popular of all rune-curses.

“There was Rachel before she changed,” I thought, as I ruminated over the matters dealing with time, and then what happened to that king in the fourth kingdom, and...”

The pendant seemed to be nudging me. I looked down and saw it flash briefly with an electric glow, and felt reminded of my thinking it might have a mouth and need feeding.

“No, not that,” I thought, as a picture began forming in my mind. It was a strange picture, and I recalled having actually done what it showed once.

“Running up an escalator going down,” I thought. “I almost didn't make it to the top of that one.”

And yet, there was an aspect of useful information to this remembrance. I knew that running down a down-going escalator got one on the lower floor faster, while running up such an escalator caused one to...

“That's it,” I thought softly. “The time gets stretched, and that pendant did something similar in the third kingdom.” A pause, then, “can the Abbey run up a down escalator, such that it gives a longer period of labor?”

I nearly choked, for I suddenly recalled an instance where time had 'stood still' and given a group of people the time they needed to complete the destruction of a group of their enemies.

“We would have days inside to each day outside,” I muttered.

“What is this?” asked Gabriel.

“Jozua,” I mumbled. I was becoming quite fatigued. “Something similar happened when he asked the sun to stand still.”

“How?” asked Gabriel. I heard ignorance, for some reason.

“There's very little detail given,” I said, “beyond his asking, and God responding.” A pause, three gulps of unfermented wine, then, “the Abbey has a very strange clock, and it does something similar.”

“Then you would need to...” Gabriel was now lost.

“It might need cleaning and adjustment,” I said, “but otherwise, the thing is intact. I suspect I can coerce it into running.”

The previously dry area began to resume the former aura of moistness prevalent miles to the north, and when we came to the first of a series of bridges, I stopped for a moment to 'marvel' at the sight of a wide and reed-lined 'swamp' that seemed to head off into the west to no possible end under the light of a pale moon.

“Are bridges like that one common?” I asked, as we resumed traveling south.

“Most bridges, if they be of any size, are very old,” said Gabriel. “If I recall correctly, that river is called the Last, as there are no more rivers to the south of its ending.”

“No wet rivers, you mean,” said Lukas. “There are plenty of dry rivers, and some faint ones what run with lye, and then some that are dry mostly and flooded otherwise.”

“Otherwise?” I asked.

“It might not rain often in the fifth kingdom,” said Lukas, “but when it does rain, it rains by the bucketful, and then the place turns into mud.”

With the beginning of the Last river's reaches, I noted more farmsteads, meadows, woodlots – these were thick with trees and greenery – and also, faint scraps of singing. While I did not recognize the tune, or even the style of music, I knew of songs that sounded like what I was hearing. Faintly, I heard someone thump on a drum, then sing in a high-pitched mournful voice.

“Now that's bad,” said Lukas. “They're playing valley music.”

“Valley music?” I asked.

“It's very popular in the mining country, even if much else from the valley isn't,” said Lukas. “If they're abusing a clavier, though – it's awful.”

“Abusing?” I asked. “Uh, how?”

“It sounds like the player is striking the keys with a large hammer,” said Gabriel, “and the melody is both obnoxious and repetitive in the extreme.”

“It also makes people inclined to gamble and drink,” said Lukas, “and the slower it's played, the more that seems to happen.”

“Slower?” I asked.

“Twelve-time is the worst,” said Gabriel. “Sixteen-time is a bit kinder to the ears.”

“Aye, and the words, too,” said Lukas. “Lots of times the words are translated from what they speak in that valley. One song I remember hearing was about Death Adders, and this other was so strange I could never make it out.”

“What was that one?” I asked.

“It spoke of a great deal of twisted iron wire,” said Lukas, “and it ended with a question regarding the singer's woman. I can remember that part, if not much more.”

“And?” I asked. Another bridge was coming up, and the 'camping spot' was close to the south side.

“It went 'tell me, who do you love'?” said Lukas. “It was really strange to hear that song, and I got out of that place in a hurry once I'd heard it and paid my bill. It was a good thing, too.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Someone must have stoked the stoves in the back with southern garbage bugs,” said Lukas, “as the whole place went up in smoke not ten minutes later.”

“That sounds like what one of those places would do,” said Gabriel. “How is it you figure they used bugs?”

“The stink,” said Lukas. “It's hard to miss the stink o' those things when they explode.”

Another muted rumble blasted in the distance, and I looked to the left and ahead to see a huge whitish fireball climbing high into the sky to wink out in a reddish-yellow flickering.

“Now that looked like a bug exploding,” said Lukas. “I'm glad I'm here, and not there.”

“Especially with a bug of that size,” said Gabriel. “I've seen my share of one and two foot bugs, but that one looked to be the size of a buggy.”

“O-one and t-t-two feet bugs?” I gasped. “How big do those things get?”

“Big enough to be trouble,” said Lukas, “though I wonder about hearing about house-sized bugs. I think those are an old tale.”

“Two-foot bugs?” I asked.

“I have seen my share of those,” said Gabriel, “even if I never put caps to them.”

“Now why didn't you?” asked Lukas. The bridge was but a hundred feet away, and I could really 'feel' the camping spot. There was plenty of room next to the river, and but a short distance further to reach it.

“The first one I saw was giving off reddish fumes,” said Gabriel, “and I didn't know it was ripe. I shot it with my slingshot...”

“Aye, you learned about those things, then,” said Lukas. “I always stayed well clear of the ripe bugs, as they could go any time.”

“Ripe bugs?” I asked.

“They give off fumes like dynamite gone bad,” said Lukas, “and they're almost as touchy as the really bad dynamite when it turns.”

“Uh, 'Big Bang' dynamite?” I asked. “N-nine parts oil...”

“That stuff was fresh,” said Lukas, “and it wasn't that bad, at least compared to this one kind I've heard of. That stuff was said to leave the mill bad.”

“Uh, pictures on the box?” We were at the bridge, and I was slowing so as to look for the turnoff. I could tell there were several, and I wanted the one with the vacant spot next to the river.

“That stuff had one,” said Lukas. “It had a picture of this giant with a club on it.”

“Hans spoke of something like that,” I said. “He t-tossed it, and the stick exploded... What?”

“The worst dynamite is touchy that way,” said Lukas. “I've heard tell that oil will explode when dropped from waist-height, and that type with the giant has a lot of that oil showing.”

The first turnoff I found wasn't the one I wanted, and I continued on slowly. But thirty feet past the bridge, I found the second turnoff, and led down it at a slow walk. I had to duck my head to avoid the branches, at least until the 'path' broke out of the trees and edged closer to the river itself.

The wide slow-flowing tinkle I heard was a balm to a tired mind, and when the campsite itself showed – under the trees to the left, the path down the center, and the riverbank but feet away to the right – I wanted to first bathe, then eat, and finally sleep. I was entirely worn out.

Bathing renewed my energy, however, and once the camp was established, I began looking to set up to resume labor upon squibs. Lukas had found a smaller camp-oven with sticks piled beside it, and once the two older men had the pots steaming with dried meat and vegetables for soup, I knew my further portions would be dinner when it was ready and my guard-stint when it was time.

I borrowed one of the student's lanterns and set up my ground-cloth some thirty feet away from the other side of the tents, and there I resumed my grinding and filling. I filled several globes before dinner was called, and once I'd gotten a bowl of soup down, I resumed my labors. I periodically glanced up at the moon so as to have an indication of the time, and packed up my things once the camp had begun to quiet down. I had nearly filled half of the globes we had, and I wondered if that many would be enough.

“No, best do all I can,” I thought, as I drank a last cup of beer before retiring.

Once on the road the next morning, I learned that I had had a secret audience while laboring.

“Will you test those squibs?” asked Sepp. He had come to my left side from his normal place further back in the column.

“I hope to,” I said. “I wonder if I put enough fuse on them.”

“I think you did,” said Sepp. “I've wanted to learn bombing, but some people...”

“Uh, what?” I asked. “I'd be willing to teach you, if you were at all serious.”

“I know,” he said. “There are some people, though, that think you need to spend years at the higher schools and learn to be a chemist first, and not an ordinary chemist, but an especially good one...”

“I know of two people otherwise, and one of them isn't a chemist, either,” I said.

“He gets advised when needed by someone who is,” said Gabriel, “and Hans is the only exception to that rule that I'm personally aware of.”

“What rule?” I asked.

“Chemists, if they be worth much, need the full six years in one of the higher schools,” said Gabriel, “and then a long apprenticeship after, and both of those preceded by their family's schooling.”

Gabriel's talk had more than a trace of that 'infernal' medieval tone that I had grown to dislike, and I muttered, “'if they be'? That sounds like...”

“Since when are you talking like the Teacher?” asked Sepp pointedly. Gabriel had no answer.

“Come to think of it, he may have something there, though,” I said. “Ivo mentioned something similar being the case for his schooling, and I suspect Korn did the same.” I paused, then asked, “then why is Hans so different, and why does it reflect, uh, badly on his part?”

“That is something of a mystery,” said Gabriel. “I suspect it is because he has medicines and other needful things that actually work.”

“And me?” I asked.

“I have no idea where you went for your schooling,” said Gabriel, “but if I were to guess, it would make the west school seem trivial, and that for what I myself have seen you do.”

“Are there 'chemists' who did as you spoke,” I said, “and then produce medicines that d-don't work?”

“Aye, and many of them, especially in the second kingdom,” said Lukas, “and most of 'em are bad for speaking and strange things.”

“Like Ernst?” I asked.

“I expect so,” said Lukas. “I think the hard part of being a bomber is like being a powderman in a mine, actually, and I know few 'o them went to the higher schools.”

Lukas paused, then asked, “now why would you be wanting to teach him that stuff?”

“He was interested,” I said. “This talk reminds me of pigs, for some reason. I've heard they can travel for hours at an especially good speed.”

“They can, though much of the time they don't,” said Lukas. “They move slower if they're in an area that hasn't had swine recently.”

“Then there's no time to waste chasing them,” I said. “Those doing so will want compact, good-tasting meals that can be cooked and eaten quickly.” A pause, then, “that was why I was asking about spices, in fact.”

Scratching sounds from the right, then, “I see. I had no idea that you were thinking of such matters.”

“We might come on some towns big enough to have more than the commonplace today,” I said, “and hence...”

“Karl was looking when and where he could yesterday,” said Sepp. “I told him none of those towns had much beyond salt and pepper.”

“Do you know why he was looking?” I asked. I could feel a town of some size about an hour south of us.

“He heard you might want some for Anna,” said Sepp, “and everyone knows how good of a cook she is, even if you are not.”

“This is what I was speaking of,” said Gabriel. “Not merely is Anna thought a good cook, but she is said to know people who are even better.” A brief pause, then, “though she has spoken about you having ideas regarding food.”

“And beer,” said Sepp. “I forgot about that.”

“So if he can do beer, how can he be that bad of a cook?” asked Lukas.

I was about to reply when Gabriel said, “I know of many cooks who have recipes they avoid like High Meats...”

“Yes?” I said. “Go on. You gave me a very good answer, over and above 'I need to test this cookware'.”

“How did I do so?” asked Gabriel.

“While I might not be particularly good at many aspects of common cooking,” I said, “I do have many ideas regarding it. Recall that dried meat 'soup' I mentioned?”

Gabriel did with a grimace, then nodded.

“Somewhat bland to the palate, but you were able to prepare it without ruining it,” I said. “Correct?”

Again, Gabriel nodded grimly.

“Hence, I wish to 'experiment' regarding meals, their flavorings, their preparation, and much else,” I said. “Somehow, I have the impression that Sarah performed many experiments regarding food, and I suspect you did as well.”

As I watched, Gabriel's lower jaw slowly fell open with an audible click.

“That is part of chemistry as taught in the higher schools, isn't it?” I asked.

“Y-yes,” said Gabriel. “I purchased, tested, and tasted a number of spices, among other things.”

“As in some poisoners might assay heavy spicing to more effectually hide the flavor of arsenic among their partly-decomposed viands?” I asked with a wry voice. “Handfuls, even?”

“Who spoke of arsenic?” asked a voice from back in column. It took seconds to recognize it as Karl's. “I have been looking for that stuff, and it has not yet showed.”

“Now Karl,” I said, while attempting to sound droll. “If you want El Porko to eat arsenic, you have to disguise that nasty metallic taste it has. That means spices, proper technique, and possibly other things.” A brief pause, then again, in droll voice, “I've shot some of those things, so I guess that makes me somewhat qualified.”

Here, I contorted my voice, so as to attempt to sound like Black-Cap, then I spoke in as close to the 'written format' as I thought I could manage:

“Methinks I need to find ye spices which art especial good for ye hiding of ye swine-poison, and that be ye work of ye bombers.”

Gabriel nearly fell off of his horse in a state of prostration, and he looked at me with eyes both unfocused and goggling for at least half a minute before speaking.

“I thought you might come up with an answer,” he said while trying to keep his teeth from chattering like castanets, “but why you wished to speak like a second kingdom councilor is beyond me.”

“Having to play games like those people do is silly,” I said. “At least now I can ask for samples of spices and foods with more than a faint hope of getting what I asked for.”

“And if you can speak that way, then you also can write that way,” said a voice from back in the column.

“Bad joke,” I spluttered. “Still, I hope it helps.”

Upon leaving the town I had noted, however, I wondered if 'help' was the best word, for a rank and powerful odor had descended upon our party. I wondered what it was. It smelled vaguely like my recollection of garlic.

“Krokus,” said Karl from behind Gabriel and I. “I got samples of all they had, all of them whole, and all of them bagged. Why?”

“Gah!” I spluttered. “That stuff would work as a pig-repellent, cough, gasp. D-did you, uh, hack, get any dried Goben flakes?”

“Those, and a fresh one,” said Karl. “Anna told me about those things, and what one did to you.”

“Frying chopped pieces in a little oil?” I asked.

“I did not know about that,” said Karl.

“Neither did Anna, until he showed her,” said Gabriel. “He managed that part fine.”

“Turnips?” I asked. “Are those grown down here?”

“Turnips are not very popular where they are common to the north,” said Karl, “and I am glad I no longer need eat them regularly.”

“Not raw turnips,” I said. “Cooked turnips, especially when used inside of certain noisy game birds as stuffing...”

I could hear a commotion to the rear of the column. I wondered what it was, so much so that I said, “now why are they... Oh, I know. Karl, there are quolls in the area.”

“Where?” asked Karl.

“That woodlot ahead,” I said, as I pointed to the slowly oncoming trees. “The flock starts about a hundred yards inside, and I'm surprised...”

The deafening call of the birds rang out crazily as a massive chorus, and it seemed to come from everywhere at once. For some reason, the birds did not fly out of their hiding spot.

“Ready all guns,” I softly spoke, as I undid the flap to my revolver holster.

As the seconds ticked off, I could hear furtive preparation, even as we continued forward. Again, the deafening noise rang out crazily, and yet again as we entered the woodlot. I was looking around, trying to see one of the infernal birds, when suddenly the trees erupted dumpy gray-feathered birds amid a fourth ear-splitting chorus.

I drew and began firing, and from behind, I heard the booms of fowling pieces and muskets. Someone else was firing a pistol, then a third person, and when mine 'ran dry' – the hammer went down on a busted cap – the silence, and more, the feebly flopping and immobile birds carpeting the roadway, was enough to make for fright.

“How will we deal with all these things?” I asked, as the column came to a halt.

“Here, take this bag,” yelled Sepp, as he rushed forward. I slid off slowly with the bag in my hands, while everyone else either dismounted or began gathering the birds. As I picked up my third such fowl, I heard excited talk about 'lunch' as well as 'pens'.

“Don't we have, uh, turkey feathers?” I asked.

“We'll bag these up for home,” said Lukas. “I know the house proper always wants the feathers, if not the birds themselves.”

“Do we cook them, uh, here, or..?” I asked.

My question was answered at the next water stop, as I was one of those busily pulling feathers out of the part-gutted birds. The plump carcasses were rinsed and then bagged anew as fast as they were processed.

“These will keep for a little while,” said Sepp, “as long as we keep the sacks damp. I doubt we can eat a third of what we have, though.”

“If we want glutting, we can eat that many,” said Lukas. “This weather's hot enough that glutting ourselves isn't a good idea.”

“Hence exchange?” I asked. “There is a decent-sized town about an hour or so away.”

Once underway, however, Gabriel confirmed 'rich food' to be unwise.

“These would normally go in the cold-room at the house proper,” he said. “Down this way, however, they have strange cold rooms that work by machinery.”

“What?” I asked. I almost said, “they have refrigerators here?”

“They need regular and frequent work to keep them running properly,” said Gabriel. “Home manages most of the year with ice from the ice-houses.”

“Those down here can freeze water on a good day,” said Lukas, “and that all of the year.”

“How do they work?” I asked.

“They are said to use one of the more-volatile portions of light distillate,” said Gabriel. “It is a liquid at low temperatures and a vapor at higher ones. They compress the vapor, cool the resulting liquid, and then let it go to vapor again within a special vessel inside those cold-rooms.”

We did not stop overlong at the town when it showed, and I went with Karl and Sepp to the Mercantile. I was recalling a need for horse-grain, and I wanted to ensure sufficient was purchased. I paused at the threshold to look down my shirt, for some reason.

“Now I know why you're wearing clothing similar to bed-clothes,” said Sepp. “I wish I had some like you have.”

“I suspected it would be warm down here,” I said, “but it's warmer than I thought it would be. Oh, there's some sugar-tree sap. We want a jug of that, also.”

We each finished with a modest-sized sack of grain and two small jugs of the sap between us, and once we'd packed the bags and jugs, Karl asked a question of me. The others were still in the Public House.

“Why do you put so much grain to them?” he asked.

“For here, that's easy,” said Sepp. “How much grass have you seen that's proper for horses?”

“That, and Jaak needs a lot of grain,” I said. “I had that impression the first time I saw him. Then, most people put down half what they should.”

“If that,” said Sepp. “I hope they get more of that peppered dried meat.”

“And potatoes,” I said. “I know those aren't common down this way...”

“Do you mean white potatoes, or those smaller red ones?” asked Sepp. “They grow the red ones down this way.”

“Red potatoes?” I asked.

“They aren't very big,” said Sepp, “but they stand heat a lot better than those of the potato country, and I heard most families in the fourth kingdom have a few potato bushes in their yards.”

Once back underway, however, I could not merely feel a larger-yet town ahead, but also, a desire for a 'good meal' on the part of the group. The Last river still greened the environs to a degree, even though the river itself went no further south, and far in the distance ahead, I could see the resumption of the dryness we had noticed before. Beyond it, however, lay the desert proper – and that did not sound at all inviting. We would wish to stop when and where we could just to avoid burning up in the sweltering heat.

“Just a short time more,” I murmured, as we came to another watering stop. “I suspect this place ahead has a covered area for horses.”

“I hope it has a covered area for people,” muttered Karl. “It feels like it is burning.”

While I did not answer Karl, I almost agreed with his assessment of the local conditions, for now the heat reminded me of an oven. The glaring sun's rays came down like a river of fire upon my head, and with each stop for water, I dipped my cup in the trough and splashed some on Jaak and then myself. As we came to a large yet sparse-treed woodlot, I suspected the place to be within it, and with each minute's passing, I noted a further greening of the trees. The coolness of the woodlot itself was remarkable.

“This is much better,” said Gabriel. “I felt as though I would faint before we came into this place.”

“Uh, that Public House is just up ahead,” I said, as we came to the part-hidden outskirts of a town. The houses and 'shops' nestled close-by the trees, and as we passed first a postal hostel, then a Mercantile, I marveled at how the buildings were placed near the trees to provide shade.

“This place has cross-streets,” came from behind me as I began looking carefully for the Public House. I could feel the place; more, I could smell its cooking, and the heavenly odor spoke of Cuew and other meats.

When the Public House itself actually showed near the south end of town, I was surprised at its construction – neither tile nor shingles for a roof, but large irregular sheets of light-tan-going-to-gray rock with darker seams – as well as at its size.

To each side of the place, large covered areas teemed with horses, and when we pulled into the northern of these regions, I again smelled a faint but peculiar odor.

I had smelled this odor before, and my last exposure was a recent one. As I went over 'my share' of the horses – small rocks seemed to abound on the current stretch of road, which meant careful use of the hoof-pick – I almost panicked when I received a whiff.

“M-mules?” I gasped, as I looked across the shady area to see shaggy 'equine' legs. The proportions were all wrong for mules, even part-grown ones - though when I came out from behind the horse I was working on, I nearly jumped for cover.

Someone had a trio of the smallest – and least smelly – 'mules' I had ever seen. The ears gave them away.

“Th-those...”

“Are donkeys,” said Lukas. “They ain't even close to being like mules.”

“Do they, uh, buck?” I asked. My teeth were chattering.

“I've only seen a donkey buck once,” said Gilbertus, as he finished his horse's shoes. “It needed shoeing, and the farrier thought it a horse. He tried to ride it after, so's to check his work.”

“And?” I asked.

“He landed on his head,” said Gilbertus, “and once he'd recovered, he did that donkey up proper.”

“Recovered?” I asked.

“Aye, he was out for a week, and one of the apprentices needed to remove the shoes he'd botched.”

I looked over at the donkeys again, and noted faint coppery glints on their hooves.

“Do those take, uh, bronze?” I asked.

“They don't like iron,” said Lukas, “and given their speed, I don't doubt as to why.”

Speed?” I asked.

“They don't gallop,” said Lukas, “nor are they much for trotting, but if you have to travel, nothing will go further in a day – 'cept maybe an Iron Pig.”

“How?” I asked.

“You've never seen those move, have you?” asked Lukas. “They walk as fast as most horses trot!”

“And go all day and half the night,” said Gilbertus. “I've heard some students use those for traveling.”

“Aye, especially girls,” said Lukas. “They seem to understand mares better.”

I was sufficiently overwhelmed by first the donkeys and then the comments made regarding them that I all-but stumbled through the doors after Gilbertus, then nearly tripped down the trio of stairs leading down into the candle-lit 'womb' of the Public House. Ahead lay two long trestle-tables pushed end-to end partly occupied by the rest of our party.

My feet caught up with themselves about halfway through the timbered interior of the Public House, and as I sat down, I noted the 'decor': 'oak' paneling, numbers of roughly square varnished tables, three-legged varnished stools, old-looking yet clean lanterns with glaring candles hanging off of each thigh-thick varnished post – and an air of 'mining' too difficult to ignore.

This last was of sufficient magnitude that I half expected to see narrow 'mining' railways inlet into the floor, and while the jugs slowly 'made themselves' move closer, I thought to take out the pendant.

“I hope those have beer in them,” I thought, as a faint and vague odor of hops flitted in and out among the potent vapors of fermented wine. Most of the other patrons were consuming the latter, and as a massive 'hot-flash' roared across my fevered brow, I had a question that bore no relationship to anything I was currently feeling. At least, I hoped so.

“How do they look after the High Way?” I asked.

“They smear the road with the dregs of fifth kingdom distillate-stills,” said Gabriel, “and after a day's time, they pour sand and gravel mixed with that black slime into the road's damaged places. It usually gets set alight the day after.”

“If they're lucky,” muttered Gilbertus.

“If they're not?” I asked.

“It catches fire sooner,” said Gilbertus. “They get four or five cuts out of those distillate-stills, and that's the last one. If they don't cook it long enough, then it can pass for tool cleaner for stink and fumes.”

“What are these cuts?” asked Karl.

“The first one that comes is light distillate,” said Lukas, “and then heavy distillate, something that's used for greasing a lot of things in the fifth kingdom, this thicker stuff like it which is used for wagon grease down that way, and then that black stuff that's used for roads.”

“And all of them catch fire readily, correct?” I asked.

“That last one isn't that way if it's done proper,” said Lukas. “The others are bad trouble for fires.”

Another question came to me, along with the recollection of a thick curved needle and yarn-like thread, and I thought to ask about the matter.

“Uh, there were these three, uh, guards, and they got into some pork...”

Those stinkers?” muttered Lukas. “I'm glad they're where they belong, as they weren't worth much as guards.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Someone mentioned filling them with distillate...”

“The chief uses of lighter distillate is the burning of swine and witches,” intoned Gabriel ominously, “and while it is difficult to fill swine with it, it is not so for witches.”

What?” I gasped.

“Did you not fill those people and sew their lips shut?” asked Gabriel.

I shook my head, gasped, then spat, “I dosed one of those people with the stuff so he'd talk!” A brief pause, then “someone tried handing me a big curved needle with yarn...”

“Most witches want to poison those around them,” said Karl, “only they like to use things worse than distillate for it.” A brief pause, a slurping sound, then, “the reason most fill them with distillate is to cook them fit for Brimstone. Some of them might be leaky from having their smelly hides aired out, but no one worries about poisoning pigs or witches with distillate.”

One of the jugs paused in front of me, and as I reached for it, I seemed to smell distillate. I wondered if the conversation had affected my nose, so much so that I unthinkingly twisted out the cork. That noise was swiftly followed by the vile reek of wine, and I replaced the cork in a hurry.

“What is in that other jug?” I asked. “This one is full of wine.”

“By now, it has mostly air,” said Sepp. “It had beer in it.”

“Not much for beer,” said Lukas. “I was sparing of it, as I could tell there wasn't near enough for eight in it. Now is that one full?”

“I th-think so,” I said, as I began passing it back. “Now where is someone who might fetch something drinkable..?”

Shambling steps came closer, then a waiter 'arrived' with a shambling 'flourish'. I half-expected him to reek of flash-powder and be covered with soot. I pointed to the jug I had but recently uncorked, and asked for beer.

“While beer is available,” he said, “grapes grow well hereabouts, and wine is generally preferred.”

“F-fermented w-w-wine?” I asked. I nearly said 'kerosene' in place of 'wine'.

“That, and unfermented wine,” he said. “We have good store of Groessfuetchen...”

The glares the waiter suddenly endured from 'our' table were enough to cause him to turn tail and vanish as quickly as he had shown, and when he returned, both hands cradled jugs. One went at the other end of the table, while the second plopped down in front of me. I uncorked it, smelled it – beer – and filled my cup. The 'helpful' flavor helped my mood and hunger, and when I set the cup down, I noted a distinctly darkish cast in the remaining liquid.

“Thank God this isn't a copy of Lion-Brew,” I thought. The next sentence was audible, for it was a question.

“This beer – what kind is it?” I asked.

“That would be common beer,” said the waiter, between requests for orders, “for mining is thirsty work, and I suspect traveling to be likewise.” He paused, wrote down another order, then said, “hard rock does not mix with hard beer.”

“What?” I squeaked. He was 'too busy' to notice my outburst, or so I thought until he finished another order.

“That is double-true if the dynamite is made damp with such beer,” he said, as he moved closer to where I was sitting. His order-taking seemed temporarily forgotten. “It tends to explode prematurely then.”

He was now at my side again, and looking intently at me, as if studying a rare gem of some kind; and when he next spoke, I wanted to hide before he finished speaking.

“What is that you are wearing?”

I wondered as to what he meant for an instant, until he interrupted my thinking with a confused-sounding mutter:

“It cannot be!”

Those were some truly infamous last words, for but a second later, he yelled:

“'Tis Time, People! On... Your... Faces!”

I nearly dived for the safety of the hidden place under the table, while the uproar that descended – such screaming, yelling, shouting, and howling – was enough to convince me of the arrival of Hell. What came but seconds later was the diametrical opposite of Hell's showing, for the shuddering rumble of 'arrival' showed a vanished ceiling now replaced by thick and roiling bluish-white clouds. The uproar ceased abruptly, and to each side, my front, and rear, I heard the sounds of people launching upwards into the overhead clouds like frantic missiles.

To speak of them as being ready was to speak of them timidly, and I now longed for the sanctity of the privy. This longing, however, was cut short by a truly unpleasant reek.

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “One of those stinky birds!”

From points to my front and right, I heard a muffled thump, then heard a faint scream followed by a jet of black smoke that shot threateningly into the main room near the rear 'bar'. I stood up from where I sat, and as I began walking, I stopped in place mid-thought.

“They're about due, aren't they?” I thought, as my hand reached for the flap of my holster.

The first thud came from a short distance behind me, then another to my left. I began moving forward, then as the thuds increased in both numbers and frequency, I heard clumsy steps come running nearer – and then a black-dressed thug showed.

An instant's appraisal showed his 'black-cloth' to be but commonplace clothing suffused with soot. While his odor was foul – rotten pigeons predominated – it seemed confined to the region of his hands.

Someone 'returned' in front of him and he fell sprawling to tumble against a column. There, he lay still.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“One of the cooks,” said the returnee. “Why..?”

The man ceased speaking, then knelt down near him and 'smelled'. He turned to me with a face twisted into a grimace of torment, then began retching on his hands and knees.

“W-what?” I asked.

“Un-unclean,” said the returnee, with shuddering voice as he pointed to the sooted-up cook. “He has unclean meat on his hands, and...”

The 'black-dressed thug' abruptly awoke, staggered to his feet, and tried to run. He managed all of three feet before he was tackled and then dragged to the nearest door by a threesome of returnees. I wobbled along in his wake.

The door went to the privy, and as I watched, the three dragging him produced a short length of bristly-looking rope, a sharp knife, and what looked like a single-shot percussion pistol. This last was held to the man's soot-covered head while he was trussed securely – and once tied, the three went to the furthest stall with him. The door opened, they went inside – and seconds later, I heard a titanic splash amid faint moaning noises. The three returned without their burden.

“What..?” I asked.

“That witch is where he belongs,” growled an aproned man, as he reached for his pocket. His other hand held the pistol. “That was a unripe pigeon he was cooking, and only witches eat those things.”

“The kitchen?” I asked.

“'Twill need a good cleaning, and that soon,” said another 'cook', “and perhaps much more, if he had well-hid High Meats.”

“A-are those served here?” I asked.

“Not any more they are,” growled the first 'cook'. “We ain't letting such people spread their evil, no, not any more.”

'Lunch' was somewhat delayed, and the reasons why became apparent with the passing minutes. I was the only one of the group who did not go back to the 'bar' to see what was happening, and with each person returning to our table, the 'tale of woe' spread further and in greater detail.

“That wretch had a crock of bad meat in there,” said Lukas, “and that on top of smoke-dried swine's flesh and three rotten squabs.”

“Did they serve those here?” I asked.

“Not openly,” said Hendrik. “I think that man kept such things for himself and those he knew especially well.”

“How did he...”

“That was tricky,” said Gilbertus, as he returned with a third jug of beer. “They have a cold-room back there that uses block-ice, and that witch had his things hidden inside it.”

“And hence, no smell?” I asked.

“He had his things drowned in ice,” said Gilbertus, “and he let them 'hang' somewhere else. They only smelled when he was actually cooking them.”

The talk of witches set Karl to muttering between mouthfuls of his meal, and once he'd finished both eating and replenishing his bread-bag, he spoke.

“I think I might dose witches with flower-sap,” said Karl. “It drives people crazy.”

“Are you certain witches will act the way you think they will?” asked Lukas. “They don't like the usual things.”

“They might carve each other,” said Karl, “or set themselves alight.”

While I wondered as to Karl's thinking, I wondered more as to what he was speaking of, and that educated my next question.

“Karl, what is flower-sap?” I asked. “Is it the stuff that pain tincture is made of?”

Karl nodded, then said, “there are many names for that evil stuff. Most of them have to do with what it does to people's brains.”

“Brains?” I asked. The hollow 'ringing' echo in my mind sounded closer to “Brrraaaiiinnnsss.”

“It has a lot of names,” said Karl. “My uncle spoke of them.”

“Names?” I asked. Again, I heard a hollow ringing echo. The word 'names' was stretched to the apparent length of a common sentence.

Dried Lunacy, for one,” said Karl, “and Brimstone's Dung, for another. Those are two I remember my uncle speaking of.” A brief pause, then, “most just call it flower-sap.”

With such topics of conversation, I was glad when 'lunch' came to an end and we resumed travel southbound. For some reason, our speed seemed a trifle greater than I recalled it being, and while I found that curious, I did not find the lessened heat curious in the slightest. I was indeed glad of the respite, so much so that it took several seconds to decipher what Gabriel said next.

“Life will be most difficult for many for some time,” he said, “as when life moves slowly, people become used to being both slow and wasteful.”

My wondering grew yet greater, for I had but little idea as to what he had just said, and its meaning seemed a complete mystery to me. He paused briefly while I tried to decipher his cryptic remark, then said, “I am very glad I had a chance to look at that document.”

“Which document?” I asked. The former statement vanished from my mind as if it had been lassoed and then winched upstairs. “The one mentioned at the last kingdom house?”

“Ten pages of fine-scraped leather,” intoned Gabriel. He seemed to be ready to faint, I now noticed, and that gave an intimation as to why he would spout 'gibberish'. “Neatly stitched, and written both sides with Hebrew. I asked for a copy to be sent up at the first opportunity.”

“And?” I asked. There was more; gibberish or not, much of what he said was important at some level.

“Rachel should manage it readily,” he said.

“The wall?” I asked.

“The document is written in the earlier form of that language,” said Gabriel, “and the common form, which is what showed on the wall, is clearer and easier to read. It is said to have nearly twice the number of special markings compared to the earlier form.”

“Those, uh...”

“They also make it easer to write,” said Gabriel. “The older form lent itself to a degree of ambiguity as to meaning and pronunciation.”

“And speaking?” I asked. My recollection was that of the 'brutal' and 'harsh' sound of Hebrew whence I came.

“It does not sound like the language you are thinking of,” said Gabriel. His voice had a definite shuddering aspect. “Only the language of Norden itself is worse-sounding than that one.”

A brief pause, then, “the common form has a very musical sound, so much so that it works especially well for singing. It is also the easiest type to learn, and so is most commonly taught.”

“And the older form?” I asked.

“If you learn the common form,” said Gabriel, “the older form is not that difficult to read. I suspect that learning the common variant would permit understanding of all forms of that language, even the version you were thinking of.”

The shuddering returned to Gabriel's voice, and he continued, saying, “I am not certain I would desire to speak that language, no matter what its roots.”

The time had progressed toward late afternoon. With each stop for water, the heat seemed to be lessening, and about dusk – we had left behind us several woodlots, wide vistas of drying heath, two small and sleepy-seeming towns, and the last traces of greenery miles north – I noted the 'beginnings' of the 'desert'.

While there were still woodlots present, their sparse nature and small size – as well as their dessicated seeming – spoke loudly of scarce water, and when we came to a 'smaller' example an hour after lighting the two candle lanterns, I stopped to investigate the place.

After dismounting, I watched carefully where I was stepping. For some reason, I could 'feel' mules in the general area, and while I watched and 'sniffed' carefully, I was uncertain as to what I was feeling, at least until I came to the trees that hemmed in the inlet proper. I then saw the tracks.

“So someone had a mule here,” I murmured, as I knelt down to look at the crumbling impressions, and for the first time, I noted details regarding mule-tracks I had never seen before.

Along each branch of the broad 'V' shape ran evenly spaced holes plugged with obvious nails, while a sinuous wavy line went from one open end to the other of the shoe proper. I then noted a subtle difference between some of the nails and the others.

“What gives..?”

I ceased speaking as steps came from my rear, and I turned to see Lukas coming with a fresh-stoked student's lantern. He seemed uncommonly wary – he was sniffing the air, and watching his steps – and when he came to where I was, he jolted.

“That's a mule's shoe,” he said, “and I smell a mule-trace.”

“I have not found that yet,” I said. “Do you know about the nails these take?”

Lukas knelt down beside me, then gently touched the margin of the track. It gave readily, so much so that he then refrained from touching the ground next to it.

“This track is at least four or five days old,” he said. “Did you ask about nails?”

“They aren't the same kind as those for horses,” I said. “What Markus had were about half this diameter and square in cross-section, with square beveled heads. These are all round, and, uh, bumped.”

“If you are speaking of mule-shoes,” said Gilbertus as he drew closer, “then I can speak of what they use.”

“A lot of nails?” I asked.

“The usual number is either eleven or thirteen,” said Gilbertus, who was rummaging around in something, “and the nails look more like screws than nails.”

“There are a lot more than thirteen nails here,” I said.

“The rest of those things are studs,” said Gilbertus between grunts. “Ah, there it is. Here, look at this.”

Gilbertus had produced a battered gray object that took perhaps a second to identify as a twin of the one that had made the sandy impression I had found, and as I went over it, I noted a raised portion – badly worn, but still plainly obvious – dividing the shoe into two parts, then a number of raised conical projections. Comparing the shoe and track confirmed what he had said.

“Studs for traction?” I asked. “Do mules, uh, slip and slide around?”

“I'm not sure what-all they do,” said Lukas, as he turned back toward the parked buggies and the slowly evolving campground labors, “but I am sure those things want good footing. Mules ain't donkeys that way.”

“Nor horses,” said Gilbertus. “At least horses have some sense.”

I continued looking for signs of mule 'dung' for another few minutes while the camp assembled itself, and upon finding but a few gray powdery traces in and around the trees, I rejoined the group. There were no 'amenities' present in this area, and the pump's noises were enough for a nightmare. More than once, the pump 'lost prime' and I had to work the worn weathered handle half a dozen times until it began pumping again.

Once bathed, I felt somewhat better, and once dinner had started among the dancing shadows of tents and trees – a small campfire helped with light and ambiance – I thought to check the bows. It took some time to find the pair of them, and as I leaned back against the wheel of one of the buggies with the bow in my hand, I heard the start of a yarn amid faint popping noises coming from the dried brushwood as it turned to coals.

“Do they have sagebrush in that desert to the south?” I thought, as I examined the layered wood of the bow proper.

The layers numbered nearly thirty, and their alternating dark and light stripes showed blankly amid the flickers of the flames. I thought to first string one, and once I had done so, I tested the pull.

I had but little trouble achieving full-draw, and I lay the still-strung bow on the covered portion of the buggy's bed. Steps came from behind, and I looked up from the bag holding the arrows to see Gabriel.

“I see that you are checking those,” he said. “How are they?”

I indicated the bow itself, and as Gabriel picked it up, I removed an arrow. The shape of the arrowhead made for wondering, and as I looked at the dark mottled blue-black shape rimmed with the silvered edge of honing, I murmured, “how do they make these?”

“I would assume in the usual fashion,” said Gabriel dryly. “Why is it you ask?”

“I know how I did that batch for Sarah,” I said, “but I... These are, uh, done by the numbers, and, uh, these people use, uh, special equipment and techniques.”

“Why, didn't you?” asked Gabriel. His oblivious voice was indeed troubling, for now I noticed it.

“I didn't plan on turning out hundreds of arrowheads,” I said. “I made Sarah a batch of ten – about half this size, a different shape, and using different... Oh! They didn't use the usual material!”

Gabriel looked at me as if I'd lost my mind, and tried bending the bow he'd picked up. I heard faint grunting noises, and seconds later, he set the bow down.

“How come I could go all the way with it, and he was barely able to bend it at all?” I thought.

“When you said they did not use the usual material,” said Gabriel, “what did you mean?”

“N-not pattern-welded,” I said. “They used a crucible furnace, cast billets, a drop-hammer with dies, and then...” I paused, looked again at the arrowhead in question, then said, “and some other special equipment. Someone, I think Sarah, spoke of arrowheads as if the only ones worth bothering with came from the fourth kingdom.”

“That is said to be the case,” said Gabriel, “and those examples look to be better than usual for the fourth kingdom.”

“The colors?” I asked, as I 'felt' the mottled blue-black shining thing. The edges could stand further sharpening, or so I thought.

“Yours came out with such colors, didn't they?” asked Gabriel.

“Heat-treating artifacts,” I muttered. “I know something of how they got that way... There's something different about these – something about a different process that does not involve quenching with its possible cracks and warping.” I paused, then said, “it works especially well when you needed do hundreds of parts at a time, and this place does that.”

A brief touch of a file to the back side of the head spoke of an unusual level of hardness, one well beyond the full-polish wrench level, and as I looked at the arrowhead for a final time, I jolted with the sudden knowledge.

“They packed these in partly-processed coke!” I squeaked.

Gabriel looked at me, shook his head, and began turning back towards the tents. I left the buggy and walked silently in his wake, and took a place near the campfire.

“So?” asked Gilbertus. His question seemed directed toward the two of us. “Those bows decent?”

“The pull on them is frightful,” said Gabriel, “and he...”

“For you, I'm not surprised,” said Gilbertus. “That type has a harder pull than those common in the first kingdom.”

“Uh, how do they perform?” I asked. Something was stirring in the back of my mind, and I began reaching in my possible bag for something to draw with.

“If you can get full draw, nothing shoots like 'em,” said Lukas. “There are a few in those rooms at the house that get close, at least for a straight bow.”

“Longer, thicker?” I asked.

“Aye,” said Lukas, as he stirred the pot's contents. The smell was appetizing, and growing more so. “I'll be wanting one o' these lamps for cooking, that and a mess-kit.”

As dinner progressed, and the yarning continued – the aspect of 'desert' seemed made for 'yarns' – I had further ideas, and mid-dinner, I went close to one of the student's lanterns. There, I drew the 'ring-sight' that had come to a further level of germination. As I finished, I noted an audience.

“What is that?” asked Gabriel.

“A small ring, uh, of silver that goes on the bow,” I said. “I have the impression that using such rings might well direct the arrows.”

“Those northern people will not enjoy being arrowed when they think themselves safe,” said Gabriel. “I've heard you can do castings, so you might wish to...”

“Not silver, he ain't,” said Lukas. “What is it?”

I handed around the slate, and the grunts of approval, as well as the lack of speech otherwise, either spoke of an entirely mystifying concept, or...

“I'm not certain just how those work...” I murmured.

“I've seen things like them used for arrow-training,” said Lukas.

“Why did we not have them, then?” asked Karl.

The silence that descended was interrupted only by the faint muffled clanks of spoons upon plates as dinner progressed, and only during an 'intermission' did someone – Hendrik – think to speak of the matter.

“The cost of having them done might be an issue,” he said. “There were several at the west school, and talk had their price as exceeding that of the better grade of magnifiers.” A brief pause, then, “and, but a few places made them, chief among them Matthyssoon's.”

“D-dead soft full-polish wrenches,” I gasped.

“That place turned out more than those,” said Hendrik. “It also turned out a great many things beloved of witches, or so rumor had it, and more than once while I was at the west school, mobs formed with torches and distillate so as to burn the place down.”

“And nothing came of those mobs,” said Lukas. “That place might not be a witch-hole, but it smells too much like the fifth kingdom for me to like it or that district.”

“District?” I asked.

“That part of the fourth kingdom's market,” said Lukas. “The term is more common in the fifth kingdom.” A brief pause, then, “the camp-bread came good. Here, hand me your plates.”

As the steaming and fragrant slices of 'bread' went down to the accompaniment of mugs of beer, I copied my chalk-and-slate drawing onto the page of one of my ledgers. As I finished, I had an idea, one too 'important' – as well as potentially comical – to readily consign to paper without broaching it first.

“Perhaps we should anoint our arrowheads prior to firing,” I said softly. “Do any of you know of drugs that induce insanity in witches?”

“So that's why you asked for what Ivo had,” muttered Gilbertus.

“Witches are already crazy,” spat Karl. “Why would you want them more that way?”

I was about to speak when Lukas laughed, then said, “so's they act like people do in mining towns when they get too much forty-chain.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Crazy is no word for how they get,” said Lukas. “I've seen those people bathe in horse-troughs with their clothing still on, and that after pouring half a jug of distillate in the trough and setting it alight.”

“Aye, and bark like mad dogs,” said Gilbertus, “or buck like mules.”

“No, no forty-chain,” I said slyly. “Besides, all self-respecting witches like datramonium. If our arrows were well-coated with datramonium extract, then they should enjoy them greatly.”

“Especially as they would sup with Brimstone in short order,” said Kees. “The usual witch-load of datramonium is quite small.”

“Did you..?” asked Hendrik.

“I never tried it, but I knew of people who had,” said Kees. “Datramonium is quite tricky that way.”

“F-face grease?” I asked.

“Was said to have datramonium in it,” said Kees, “and talk was one had to get used to it. A little too much too soon caused stiffness, and but little more than that...”

“Causes death,” said Gabriel between a long yawn and one longer yet. “Dosing witches that way might well work.”

The yarns petered out but a short while after the dishes boiled, and after wiping out my share, I retired to my hard and 'rocky' bed. The dryness of the air, as well as its pleasant temperature, seemed to be a balm to my weariness, and I dropped quickly off to sleep after downing a final cup of beer.

I awakened with a full bladder 'some time' later, and as I walked slowly among the hovering fumes of a slow-burning fire-pit – someone had put a fresh load of dampened logs on the fire before retiring – I could 'hear' and 'feel' thugs. I found the hole, dampened it thoroughly – and as I finished, I heard the hoarse and echoing bray of a small 'herd' of mules.

I went to ground and rolled in the dust twice over, then turned around to face the noise. A group of horsemen had come to the watering trough in the dead of night, and as their dried-out mounts drank, the horsemen drank their own liquids. Chief among them was an intensely vile species of potable paint remover, and as I looked closer, I could see markings upon the passed-around jug.