The road more traveled, part x.
As I resumed looking at Brumm's corpse, Sepp came out with the destroyed remains of a floppy gray-black hat. Gabriel glanced at it, then as Sepp went to the side with his burden, Gabriel said, “his hat holds his brains and the back of his skull.” A brief pause, then, “wood is too scarce down here to burn him.”
“Wood?” asked Karl.
“Distillate to spare isn't common, either,” said Gabriel.
Brumm's chest showed two ragged and discolored long-healed wounds, which was a cause for wonderment. The sizable red-outlined swastika tattoo, however, wasn't. I pointed to the wounds, and asked a question.
“W-what are those?” I asked.
“I think those are old bullet wounds,” said Gabriel. “I am surprised you needed to ask.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Anna said you had some of your own,” said Gabriel.
“I-I never saw them,” I spluttered, while putting Brumm's clothing back in place. “I somehow doubt they look like these.”
“You're right, they don't,” said Gabriel. “Anna spoke of yours as being the least noticeable ones she has ever seen, and that by a wide margin. Most might not notice them, even if they looked at them closely.”
“Then how did she..?” asked Karl.
“Both she and Hans are accustomed to looking for injuries,” intoned Gabriel, “and they know what such wounds as those look like.”
As I finished putting Brumm's clothing back in place, I noticed another tattoo on his upper left arm, this one the 'double-lightning. Sepp then took the knife.
“Uh, do you want that?” I asked.
“No,” said Sepp. “I am putting it in the wash-tub. It isn't that good of a knife, but still, it might come in handy later.” A brief pause, then, “worst thing, we might use it for digging sinkholes if the spades are in use.”
While I wondered about Sepp's use of the word 'sinkhole', I did not wonder when I saw a dark brown uneven cylinder a few feet away. I then noticed the stink.
“Atrocious isn't close for that thing,” I murmured, as I picked the 'cylinder' up so as to toss it out into the road.
The sensation that leaped upon my hands was so intense that I tossed the thing forthwith and dived for the ground with my hand feeling as if it was crawling with maggots. The sense of 'dirt' was enough to drive me out of my mind, and I rubbed my hand on Brumm's trousers until the itchy-dirty feeling was mostly gone.
“Was that his, uh, 'cigar'?” I thought, as I looked around. I could scarce recall the bulk of that thug-populated dream – save for that portion. I recalled that part particularly well.
“What do we do with him?” I asked.
“No trees, so we cannot hang him up by his legs,” said Gabriel. “They will pick him and the others up later, or so said the publican. Besides, we need to go inside and eat.”
When we had arrived, our party had been more than half the clientèle. Since dealing with Brumm, the number of people inside had increased markedly, or so I guessed as I walked back towards our table. I moved the revolvers to the side, sat down – and immediately noticed a jug near to hand, and a mug at my place.
“Beer?” I asked, as I pointed to the jug.
“Aye, and decent,” said Gilbertus. “Talk has it collecting the reward for Brumm and his people will be hard.”
“Who cares about the reward,” I muttered. “That wretch was trouble.”
“That may well be true,” said Gabriel, “but finding those witch-markings upon him confirmed all that I heard.”
“What was that?” asked Karl.
“He had over a hundred corpses to his name,” said Gabriel, as he turned to me. “You may wish to look closer at those weapons, as they are not like those you prefer.”
I gingerly touched one of the pistols, and now noticed further details I had not seen prior.
“I think those to be new,” said Gabriel, as I looked for markings, “as they commonly... No, wait a minute. May I examine one?”
I wordlessly passed one of the revolvers to Gabriel, then resumed looking closer at the one I had retained. Gabriel brought out his magnifier, and as he muttered about poor light, I thought to bring out mine.
“No, best not,” I thought, as I looked carefully at the cylinder.
I had yet to see a fluted cylinder on a domestic revolver, and these examples were no different in that aspect. However, all previous weapons of that type had no adornment or maker's markings beyond cryptic-looking letters here and there.
This example showed an engraved ten-legged horn-bearing reptile, and I mouthed the word 'dragoon'.
“Is that what those are?” asked Lukas. “I thought they might be.”
“Dragoons?” I asked.
“Those are trouble,” said Gilbertus.
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“They aren't normal pistols,” said Gilbertus, “and not just for them being larger in most ways than the common. They were said to be difficult to hang on to.”
“D-difficult?” I asked, as I set the pistol down and began massaging one hand with the other. The numbness had been replaced by a sultry ache amid faint tingling. I then glanced at the bore.
“No wonder these things acted like they did!” I spluttered. “They take, uh...”
Lukas took up the pistol I had set down, then removed the cylinder. A glance and a nod, then as he slipped the cylinder back into the frame, he said, “I'd bet those things take musket balls.”
“Musket b-balls?” I asked.
“He drilled five with this one,” said Gabriel, “as I see his markings. He made them small, so I suspect he was intending to use these a great deal.”
“F-five?” I gasped. There was Brumm himself, that one wretch that lit up the night sky, the thug across the way...
Gabriel counted one through five on his fingers, then said, “perhaps they were not his kills, then. I wondered how those marks got on there – you did not have time, so I assumed he put them there.”
I wanted to scream, but could only whimper, “no, please, I don't want to be a witch, and th-that sign was chanting at me, and all of those things outside, and... and... and sh-shooting those thugs...”
“I see,” said Gabriel. His 'oblivion' showed forth blatantly. “There might well be more such marks before the end of this trip, as that tyrant to the south may wish our bodies in his private graveyard.”
“Was Sam a hired thug, then?” I asked. “Do you think that, uh, person sent old...” Here, I gasped, recalling the name of a particular comic character. “...Yosemite Sam here to cause trouble?”
Gabriel nodded, and as he slowly indicated the word 'yes', I nearly screamed. His oblivion had seemed to reach a new level. He then spoke.
“I heartily wish we were dealing with that inept rascal instead of that wretch you shot,” he said. “The king hereabouts had an understanding with this group of thugs – one where he paid them a stipend so that they would keep him in power.” A brief pause. “They, and others like them, helped get him where he is, and he remains there by their labors.”
“And this group of thugs?” asked Karl.
“They were among his most-trusted retainers,” said Gabriel. “Eduwart the third-rate lecturer will not appreciate their collective demise.”
“B-Blackbeard?” I asked.
“A more-than-passable description,” said Gabriel. “Didn't you name him thusly?”
That seemed to provide impetus toward dining. But minutes later, however, Hendrik interrupted the food.
“Brumm might not have looked like a common witch at home,” he said, “but he was burning witch-weed.”
“Witch-weed?” I thought.
As if he'd heard my thinking, Hendrik continued. “It grows commonly in the Valley, and is said to be worse than datramonium. Witches there burn it as he did, and when he spoke, he spoke as a witch.” A brief pause, then, “what he said meant he wanted you dead first, and then the rest of us for 'sheltering' you.”
“Why?” I squeaked.
“But very simple,” said Gabriel. His assured voice was both maddening and astounding, and the aspect of oblivion I heard was well-beyond troubling. “Every person named a witch desires your death, and hence, they confirm matters. Retribution is at hand, and this is that day of infamy spoken of in tale and tapestry.”
The room and all within it gathered a hush unto itself, and from behind and to my right, I 'felt' several people jumping to then vanish from our ken. I slowly shook my head as if to clear it of confusion.
“I am not surprised,” said Gabriel. “Oh... Look at your sword.”
I looked down, then thought to stand so as to look more carefully. Once clear of my seat, I drew the sword slowly out of the scabbard, and as the upper portion cleared the leather, I nearly fainted. As it was, I had trouble hanging onto to it.
I had never seen a flaming sword before, even if I had heard of such things.
Icy blue-white ethereal flames licked up the blade, even as I carefully touched it. There was a subtle warmth, as well as a slightly 'abnormal' aspect that made me wonder as to what was so 'different' beyond what I was seeing. I replaced it in the scabbard, then reached inside of my somewhat damp shirt to touch the pendant.
The first thing I felt was a faint near-electric thrill, then as I watched long icy blue-white flames traveled up my arm to leave a frostbitten chill and erect hair. I then looked around.
I was no longer present in the Public House.
Above my head the chill ice of a smoke-smudged cavern showed the feeble light of smoky lard-fueled lamps, and below my feet I saw the black water of a long and dismal lagoon. Cumbrous flotillas of wooden ships swarmed with fur-clad bodies, and hammers rang relentlessly as they beat upon chisels and other tools of iron. The bestial groaning of sundry unlubricated 'axles' provided a backdrop for the furious maritime preparations of Norden, and to my front, I saw teams of black-dressed dirty-haired 'women' who swung long writhing whips while chanting hideously-accented curses.
They were lashing vast numbers of straining fur-clad tin-wearing men as they pushed on a near-finished ship. This ship was currently on the stocks, and was due for its water-test.
“Oh, my,” I thought. “All of that wood...”
As I thought, however, I suddenly knew: if something used a non-trivial quantity of wood in Norden, that wood came from a Giant Conifer tree. A faint groan, the ship shuddered slightly, and then began to slide slowly down the ways toward the lagoon. The men continued pushing as the ship continued downslope.
One of them slipped, then somehow slid and fell simultaneously to fall in stunned shock onto the ways as the ship slowly gained speed. The chanting now swelled in long echoing hoarse rumbles, and I saw superimposed upon the ship the following bright-colored label:
As the chant swelled – those chanting drew out their syllables long and full – I saw more men fall in the path of the oncoming ship. With unerring accuracy, the ship crushed their heads, such that gray mush foamed up ever higher to 'lubricate' the ways, and the ship rejoiced in greater speed thereby.
One of the black-dressed women – a chant-leader of some kind, if I went by her high-pitched shrieked words – spat a high-pitched shriek-squall that meant the following:
“Brains! More brains! Brains for the greasing of the Great Witch and her ways!”
My point-of-view slowly changed such that I passed over the ships next in line on the stocks, and in the process, I saw much of the rest of the massive cavern. Each set of stocks was long enough to accommodate more than a dozen ships, and as I went lengthwise, I again saw worrisome details about Norden's shipbuilding.
“That... Did those Thinkers come up with that?” I gasped.
Ultima Thule had somehow gone well beyond her previous use of shipbuilding teams, for here, I saw true 'assembly-line' work: each man, or group of men, did a single simple task, with a screamingly frantic witch lashing them with a whip while chanting without cease.
A closer look showed numbers of 'cross-eyed' individuals laboring among the tin-wearers, and when one of these men received a splinter in his hand, he looked at the bleeding wound dumbly until he collapsed face-down upon the icy floor of the 'factory'.
A witch came, saw his shuddering body, and began dragging him by the foot to a small channel normally used to float completed parts to the stocks; and with a guttural 'laugh', she pitched him in. Those individuals towing parts attached a hook to his corpse, much as if he were just another post or beam or carving, and walked stolidly 'downriver'. The witch then hitched, turned away from the scene...
And toward me, where she screamed as if newly set alight.
She did not remain stationary, however: she ran frantic for the lagoon and stumble-jumped into the dark water, where she splashed for a few seconds prior to submerging beneath the surface of the lagoon. She was unmissed, and unlamented; the only person deemed irreplaceable by Ultima Thule was she herself, the slaveholder; and all other beings – those she named her slaves – were lesser creatures, easily bought, sold, replaced, and eaten as per her inclination of the moment. The world then went dark over a count of three, and the lights came back up to show the Public House table surrounded by people.
“No wonder that Abbey needs such labor,” said a voice buried deep within the crowd. I recognized it as that of the publican seconds later. “That is but one of the places they have, and each of them drops two or more of those boats a day. Only fools and the ignorant can speak of too much preparation given what those people do.”
I saw a mug before me on the table, and I sat down to embrace it thirstily. I drained the thing as if dried beyond endurance, then as I finished it, I recalled the tincture. I dosed myself, and when I had finished, again the mug stood before me brimming full. I drained it as well – and then, my eyes slowly began to focus. I gasped for breath, coughed as if deathly ill, then softly moaned.
“Th-that place is h-h-horrible!” I shrieked. “Those witches are too evil for words!”
“I had no idea there were people like that in Norden,” muttered Gabriel.
“W-who?” I asked.
“Those people with crossed eyes,” said Gabriel. “To abuse such as them is the acme of evil.”
“What?” I spluttered.
“Some few like that live beyond infancy,” intoned Gabriel. He sounded as if preaching. “They are cared for with great diligence, and all that is possible is done to help them.”
“Uh, what?” I asked. My voice was faint, and for some reason, I felt as if choking.
“That is true, though,” said Karl. “I once knew such a child, and he was looked after carefully, until...”
“Until what?” I asked.
“Until the witches killed him and his family one night,” said Gabriel. “They burnt the house, also. While that is rare at home, it is more common in the other kingdoms, and where we are heading...”
I paused, breathless. The matter was important, I now realized.
“It is very common indeed,” said Gabriel.
While the food was present, I had endured far too much of a traumatic nature recently to desire it, and I concentrated on a liquid diet. My nerves were well beyond 'shot', even as first Karl, then Sepp, and finally Lukas and Gilbertus excused themselves briefly to return shortly thereafter with small lumpy sacks of supplies.
“Where did you go?” I asked, when Karl had returned.
“The Mercantile,” he said. “Those places stay open late here.”
A minute later Gabriel interrupted my 'soaking' with a question.
“Why did they build ships in that fashion?” he asked.
“It needs much less thinking,” I said absentmindedly, “and if done properly, is much faster than the, uh, usual ways here.” I paused, then said, “it's very common where I come from.”
“Witch-methods,” muttered Gabriel darkly. “Witch-methods, and minted in hell...”
“That's about the only way they can achieve true numbers with the people they have, though,” I said. As I said this, however, I wondered if that situation was limited to Norden. I then recalled the mention of 'assistance' during that dream. Gabriel was still muttering.
“While assembly-line construction is boring to a fault,” I said, “it does work. More importantly, however, I really doubt Ultima Thule's people came up with that idea independently.”
“You mean..?” asked Gabriel. He had come out of his 'funk' abruptly.
“I was told they received assistance,” I said, “and while I wasn't told who provided it, I have a few ideas.”
Between attacks on the nearest beer-jug, I slipped bread and dried meat in my bread-bag, and without thinking, I gnawed on a morsel of the bread. While its flavor and texture were appetizing enough, the act of chewing caused a horrific flashback.
The bread changed from a sturdy brown slab into a bleached white wafer, and the beer in my mug changed as well. I stood in church, with all of the congregation sitting, and while they 'ate and drank', I drew attention unto myself by my refusal...
“The fagots lie without, ready-piled for burning,” intoned the black-clad preacher, “and those who refuse the supplied refreshment name themselves people of difference...”
“Burn the witch!” screamed a disembodied voice. “There he is! Burn him!”
The slow-turning faces of the congregation rotated noiselessly to show fixed staring eyes, bloody mouths, and long blood-smeared claws. They turned, even as I backed toward the door. To turn and run would have them charge and chase me down...
“No!” I moaned. “I don't want to be a witch, and that food and drink...”
“Talk has it you don't touch that stuff,” said a voice near my elbow which I could not identify. It made for a question, even as the recollection of the flashback was still potent in my mind.
“What do they provide at church 'suppers'?” I asked. My voice was faintly distorted, and seemed to echo. A second dose of the tincture had seemed wise upon the flashback's fading.
“That is a great secret,” said Gabriel. “No one at the hall will speak of it.”
“That white material is a complete unknown,” said Gabriel. “As for that wine, they could at least procure decent stuff.”
“Decent w-wine?” I said.
“What they use is the worst I have ever heard of,” said Gabriel. “Even the worst third-kingdom mule-tainted wine is better.”
“Wine?” I shrieked. “That stuff isn't wine, it's blood, and those people who demand we drink it are witches.” I sobbed, sniffled, then moaned, “they want us all to become witches, and kill those who refuse to drink it.”
“That thought never occurred to me,” mumbled Gabriel. “That white stuff? What is it? I doubt it is paper, even if its taste reminds me that way.”
I burst into tears, then moaned again before making choking sounds. Faintly, I said, “cheap flour made of bug-infested grain, the rendered fat of corpses, the c-cooked flesh of swine and sacrifices, and the whole mess rolled out and baked in ovens like those in th-that chapel!” I sobbed more, then said, “it is sold cheaply by its makers, and it keeps well, and th-those making it are among the most evil witches that live.”
“And those who buy it?” asked another questioner.
“They know all of this, and buy it deliberately with full knowledge, both food and drink,” I sobbed, “and, and...”
My voice abruptly changed, such that the tears vanished, and it became firm, strong, and immovable. The words came afresh, and they were not mine:
“The witches speak of true racial purity. That means
that all of those who still live are witches,
they are entirely devoted to Brimstone,
and they serve him only, and that without cease.
This state is achieved by serving all that live
the raw meat and steaming blood of sacrifice.”
For some reason, as the 'state' receded, I could tell that I had been heard. I seemed to 'feel' Hendrik looking at me, and seconds later, he spoke.
“That will need to wait until we arrive at home,” he said. “There will be changes.”
“And?” I asked.
“This last portion of the trip promises to be the most dangerous of all,” he said. “Our safety is in your hands, and depends on your careful watching. We need to leave now, as there is no time to waste.”
The fire-blackened place to the north of the Public House smoked faintly as we left in full darkness, and once again on the road headed south, I felt a brewing sense of urgency. Previously, I had felt it in Hendrik now and then, and perhaps Kees and Gabriel once or twice; but now, that sense had grown in both strength and numbers.
“That has indeed changed,” said Gabriel. “You addressing those thugs may have had something to do with it.”
“As in I am no longer the only one hated?” I asked. “That enmity has spread?”
“You might be close, though you are likely to be underestimating the width and breadth of that enmity,” said Gabriel.
“And miles to go before we sleep,” I thought, as we left the outskirts of the town behind with its faint and flickering lights.
The darkness of the road, however, was not absolute, for the remnants of the moon shed feeble light unobscured by trees or clouds. Deep shadows left by high craggy rocks lay to the right and left, and in the darkness, I felt as if traveling on the moon.
I could hear – or perhaps, feel – coughing in our wake, and as we came out of a particularly narrow 'chasm' into a wider one, I saw the first watering trough since we had left town. We came to a stop, and began watering – and before I had gotten two wheels checked, the pump began groaning as it lost prime.
“Hoogh-Roagh,” I muttered, as I took hold of the chill dirt-encrusted wood and began steadily stroking the rust-spattered iron 'workings'.
“Now what is that?” asked Sepp. He was to take over once I got the thing primed, as I needed to check the buggies. That task was mine alone, unlike checking the horses.
“The noise these things...” I was interrupted by a prodigious gush of water that all-but sprayed into the moss-ridden dregs of the trough.
“Now you have done it,” muttered Karl, as he led a pair of horses to drink. “It is working of its own.”
I left the pump forthwith, and returned to my labors. The oil levels were remaining surprisingly high, even with 'full-open' screws, and the sense of smoothness I felt upon touching the hubs was only exceeded by their aspect of chill.
“Not even warm any more,” I thought, as I put the cap back on the reservoir I had just checked. “That red-paste must really work.”
The chill that abode upon the hubs became that of the air, and as the 'chasm' of the pass steadily opened out onto a high plateau, the vegetation changed yet again. Nowhere did I see trees of any kind, and the dry and dessicated nature of the brush seemed an unbroken carpet. I wondered briefly if there was grass of any description in the realm of 'the high plains'.
“If you want grass around here, you need to bring it with you,” said Lukas, between sips on a mug. “I'm glad we could get another sack of grain in that last town.”
“That last watering trough?” I asked.
“It was gnawed down into the dirt,” said Gabriel. “At least this portion isn't that long.”
“Long?” I asked.
“About a day's trip with a freighting wagon,” said Lukas. “The grass starts showing again on the back side of the tableland.”
“And?” I asked.
“It's mostly a downgrade, then,” he said. “About a day's travel and part of another, and then the kingdom house starts...”
“Along with its trouble,” muttered Gabriel. “Still, there are worse things than camping on the tableland, at least in this area.”
“This area?” I asked.
“Has few active mines,” said Lukas. “There are a few to the west, and most of 'em to the east.”
Another watering stop showed shortly thereafter, and after finishing with its watering, I wondered how far we would wish to go. There seemed no good answer, what with truly bearable temperatures for the first time in days and a scene brimming with trouble behind us...
“Were those five the only men in that group, or were there more?” I asked softly.
“I suspect those men to be but the leaders,” said Gabriel. “Why, are some coming after us?”
I shook soundlessly, then spluttered, “not yet they are.” A pause, then, “will they come after us when they learn?”
For some reason, I heard both Gabriel and Lukas speak at the same time. While Gabriel indicated he expected the thugs to drop everything and come at their best possible speed, Lukas spoke of hunting up a salon or two before doing anything.
“Did that town have one?” I asked.
“Two that I know of, though they're small places on the west edge of the town,” said Lukas. “Those laagering places are in that area.”
“Did Gabriel speak?” I thought. There was no answer, and a glance to my side spoke of a possible reason why.
Gabriel was swaying slowly in his seat with closed eyes, and a faint whisper of snoring came now and then from him.
“He's asleep,” I thought. “Now I hope he doesn't fall down.”
The 'tableland' continued to widen out relentlessly with the passing minutes, and a glance to the right showed far in the distance a massive eruption of dust that hung lazily in the air. From near the base of this huge cloud, a faint dust-trail began traveling north and east at a steadily increasing rate. Gabriel jerked awake and I reached out to catch him. He shied away from me, then looked to the south and west.
“First, the brigands try at the border,” he mumbled, “and while they were not first-term students, the ones that came later were prime examples indeed. We get shut of those people, and now...”
“Now?” I asked softly.
“Now we have a dust-storm starting,” he mumbled. He looked again, jerked, then muttered, “though this is strange. I've seen dust-storms, and hid during dust-storms – and no dust-storm travels that quickly.”
The dust-trail steadily increased in length, so much so that its maker seemed to all but fly, and as I watched in rapt fascination, I heard a muffled rumbling explosion followed quickly by a bone-jarring thud. I instantly recalled the noises – I had heard them before, and that recently – only there was a less-than-subtle difference present, and I knew not how to name it.
At least, not yet.
The thudding noises both grew in frequency and volume with each second, and faintly mingled with them was a rushing sound of something accelerating frantically. The thuds quickly conjoined themselves into a booming rumble of thunderous proportions, and as the noise grew steadily, the dust-trail drew closer – until with an abrupt 'flash', the source of the dust seemed to explode with a blue-white electric crackle to raise another massive dust-eruption.
The dust-trail, however, continued unabated on the other side, and as I watched, I knew the 'maker of dust' had made an abrupt direction-change at speed. Its new course would have it come closer.
Amid the thundering rumble I now heard several distinct whining noises. One pulsated regularly, while another seemed to remain at a constant pitch, and a third rose and fell like a fire-siren.
Another course-change, another massive dust-cloud arose, and the dust-maker shot out of the cloud on a near-intercept course. I estimated its current distance as 'a few miles away and closing fast'.
The thundering was now at its highest pitch, with a wide range of sonic rumbles and roars that melded every loud and frightening noise I had ever endured into a cacophonous whole. There were vast drum-kits being thumped by maniacs, and rocket-engines, and large-displacement racing engines, and huge shrieking machines crammed full of whining gears, and erupting volcanoes all melded into the largest-ever buffalo stampede – with the hundred-thousand-animal herd composed of twenty-ton electrified prehistoric buffalo traveling at triple-digit speeds.
With each passing second, the source of the noise came steadily closer. I could now see details of the massive object, and I noted a long and billowing fluffy white mound at its rear. This was set off by mottled gray material speckled with black, and this integument covered the whole of the beast.
“I think this is an animal,” I thought, amid the deafening noise it made. Thinking was difficult and becoming harder with each second that passed.
Further details stood out: long gray poles that resembled tree-trunks for shape and size on top of the creature; a black-hole near the end opposite the fluffy white mound; what might have been tombstone-sized gleaming white blocks near the front...
“Are those ears?” I thought, as I looked at the poles. They seemed to be joined to the animal's head.
With each second, all of these things grew more distinct, until finally at a range of less than a hundred yards to our right, the animal shot past us with a blinding electric-arc flash, an explosion-like roar, and speed-blurred features – and as it vanished into the darkness amid the drifting dust cloud that now tried to choke us, I recognized it for what it was.
“Since when do jackrabbits get that big?” I muttered, between coughing up balls of dust. “Gabriel? I think I know what was making those tracks at the west school.”
There was no response, even as we began leaving the dust-cloud and thundering roar and shriek of a huge rabbit behind.
“Gabriel, they have huge hares here,” I muttered, “and that was one of them.” A brief pause, then, “Gabriel?”
I was answered by a soft moaning noise, one replete with shudders and trembling, then a terrified voice said, “th-that n-n-noise. That noise! It was the noise at school...” A pause, a hacking cough followed by spitting, then, “and I s-s-saw a hare too big to believe.”
“The Grim did not speak of their size,” said Gabriel.
“Well now you're a proper miner,” mouthed Lukas, between spitting episodes. “They have lightning-hares in these parts, and they talk about seeing the hare.” A pause, then, “and I'm going to want to see a wash-tub when we stop, as that thing scattered enough dust for two dust-storms.”
Amid the slow-settling confusion, I somehow put together what Lukas had spoken with a vague recalled memory, and as I mouthed the phrase 'seeing the elephant', I thought, “elephant? That rabbit made an elephant look small!”
We continued moving, even with the dust slowly settling round about, and as the rumbling roar became a muted backdrop muttering, I noted an abundance of side-trails. The others still seemed 'inclined', and as I looked ahead, I saw no good camping spots within at least ten miles. As we crested a gentle rise, I heard faint voices on the soft wind, and smelled brush-smoke. I began sweeping the countryside right to left, and after several such 'sweeps', I noted a faint and flickering yellowish light some distance away to the left.
I focused closer at the light-source, and saw what might have been a 'miner's cabin' over a mile away.
“That cabin, yawn,” I said pointing at the light. “Is it partly buried?”
“It likely is,” said Lukas. “I'm glad it's cool right now, as there ain't many places to stop on the tableland.”
“Do many live outside of the mining towns?” I asked.
“If they don't have steady work, they do,” said Lukas. “Most of those people are hunting mines, if they ain't being hunted themselves.”
“This area?” I asked.
“They might be staying quiet,” he said. “Otherwise, I'd guess market-hunters. They might stay out nights in the tableland, if they're heading north or south. Game's pretty scarce hereabouts.”
“Are thugs scarce?” I asked.
“Only places that have those on the tableland have mines or towns close by,” said Lukas. “Freighters don't commonly pass this way when it's dark.”
“Uh, stopped?” I asked.
“I usually did,” said Lukas, “and never on the tableland, unless I had no choice.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “No feed for the horses?”
“That and the bugs,” said Lukas. “For every bug the waste has, the tableland has at least three. That's for the bugs.”
“Do they have other things?” I asked. The echoing roar of the lightning-hare was barely audible.
“Hares, mostly,” said Lukas. “Then, there are Valley-goats and escaped mules.”
“Mules,” muttered Gabriel. He seemed asleep.
“And on the south side of the tableland?” I asked.
“Like the waste, 'cept moister,” said Lukas. “Most escaped Valley goats head for that part of the fifth kingdom.”
“Grass?” I asked. I was beginning to feel fatigued, and the next watering place was easily four miles further.
“That, and browse,” said Lukas. “You sound like you need some more beer so's to stay awake.”
“Next watering stop,” I muttered. “About half an hour or so.”
I seemed to be swaying where I sat, so much so that when Jaak stopped, I wondered what had happened. The sea of yawns about me made for wondering further, at least until I got down on solid ground.
“What happened?” I muttered between yawns.
“Here, drink this,” said Sepp.
“What, an Orc-Draught?” I murmured.
“No, beer,” said a faint voice. “Lukas says the tableland drops down in about three more hours, and we can rest there.”
The beer helped with wakefulness, to my completed surprise, even if it helped less with the sense of fatigue. This had been the longest day of the trip so far, and once back on the road southbound, I could both 'hear' and 'feel' a profound longing for rest in most of the company. Only those familiar with the area and myself knew it was inadvisable to stop in the tableland – and as for myself, I had but little idea as to why beyond what I had heard bolstered by a clear sense of danger.
About an hour later, however, I felt a subtle change, and in the darkness far ahead I could see another 'range' of mountains. The moon above spoke of a late hour, though how late I could only guess; and our arrival at the campsite...
“Is that why?” I asked. “There's a decent one somewhere near...”
“Yes, if you don't mind sleeping under cover inside a played-out mine,” said the soft voice. “Unlike most such mines, this one is not merely safe, but large enough to permit the horses to rest properly also.”
“Is this mine truly played out, or merely a dry hole?” I asked.
“The indications were decent, but never led to the main ore-body,” said the soft voice. “It payed fairly well for a new mine, at least until the vein pinched off.”
“Vein?” I asked.
“Gold-bearing quartz,” said the soft voice. “There's still some present, in fact.”
“Oh, no,” I murmured. “They'll all want to stay...”
“They won't know about it unless you find it for them,” said the soft voice. “More than one marked person has stopped there in the last forty years and found enough gold in a few hours to get into the first kingdom comfortably.”
“Comfortably?” I asked.
“Adequate food while traipsing overland into the fourth kingdom, and then a ride on a freighting wagon the rest of the way,” said the soft voice, “with clean clothing, good shoes, traveling supplies, and money for traipsing upon arrival.”
“Uh, gold-dust?” I asked.
“You did not ask for the scale in that Mercantile,” said the soft voice. “Crude-gold works as well as coin in most of the fifth kingdom and the southern half of the fourth.”
“Most of the fifth kingdom?” I asked.
“The western seacoast tends to not have scales,” said the soft voice.
For some reason, I had the desire to actually find a small amount of this particular gold, and with the passing minutes, I wondered why. Faintly, I recalled Anna's hands...
“That gold ring she has,” I thought. “Perhaps Sarah...”
Again, the 'desire' manifested. It was especially 'fitting' to use that particular gold, seeing as how it had saved lives.
This proved something of a distraction, which helped while away the endless-seeming road. The moon steadily moved toward the east, and at each watering stop, I drank beer between working the pump.
None of them would hold prime longer than a minute, which meant my remaining close.
Faintly in the darkness I could see a rim of jagged rocks stretching from left to right with a few gaps showing. Our road led through one of these gaps, and as it began climbing again – not much of a climb, but still perceptible – I wondered as to where exactly the mentioned mine was. Somehow, I had the impression that it wasn't at all far past the 'peak of the pass', and as I looked with sleep-ridden eyes, I seemed to get further impressions.
“About half a mile... No, a little further, and then down this one side-road,” I thought. “There's a small well-hid spring near the place, and the whole area is g-green with brush...”
“The area immediately south of the tableland tends to be much greener than that to the north,” said the soft voice, “and such small springs are quite common.”
“Uh, like the Last River?” I asked.
“It isn't quite that green,” said the soft voice, “but it is green enough to have plentiful supplies of game animals and birds.”
“Rain?” I asked.
“Unlike where you are currently,” said the soft voice, “the area immediately south of the tableland receives regular rainfall. Granted, sparse rainfall, but it does rain.”
“Crops?” I asked.
“Contrary to common belief, there are people who grow crops in the fifth kingdom, and not merely on the southeast coast,” said the soft voice. “Several dozen 'hermits' make passable livings growing fourth kingdom crops on the south side of the tableland range.”
“Passable?” I asked.
“Small plots of vegetables,” said the soft voice. “Intensive agriculture, ample fertilizer, irrigation, and year-round good weather makes for surprisingly large yields, and the lack of real competition means good prices for what they sell.”
“Fresh food?” I asked.
“That especially,” said the soft voice. “While they do dry some food, that tends to be for their own use.”
The 'range' of rocks grew steadily closer with each glance that way. For some reason, I was looking more to my right and left than earlier in the evening, even though the sense of 'silence' seemed to be at its absolute peak. The reek of brush-smoke was thicker, and when I saw what looked like a 'black hole' near the ground but two hundred yards from the road, I silently jolted.
“Another reason you do not wish to camp on the tableland,” said the soft voice. “Lukas underestimated the number of thugs in this area.”
“Are those people..?”
“While thugs are scarce in this area, they do exist,” said the soft voice. “They are not confined to mining towns or mines.” A brief pause, then, “and there are freighters that run the tableland after dark.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“In most cases, they are hauling contraband,” said the soft voice, “and those that pass successfully run this region during the wee hours of the morning, as you are doing.”
“Is that when it is?” I asked, between suppressed yawns.
“But another hour to go,” said the soft voice, “and you all can bed down in one of the safest places in that part of the fifth kingdom.”
“And a good long rest,” I thought.
“I'd time my leaving at dusk, in fact,” said the soft voice. “That will permit arrival in the fifth kingdom house shortly after dawn.”
“Which is a good time, doubtlessly,” I thought. There was no answer.
The rocks now seemed to hem us in more, even as the wide portion of the tableland seemed to pinch down relentlessly. The 'sagebrush' steadily became replaced with rocks, and I feared for ambush. I prayed silently, even as I continued looking around, and the weary group behind me kept in line as if struck dumb to life and dead to the world. Only the steady clopping sound of the horses reminded me of life.
And yet, I could feel the campsite clearly now. It was, indeed, but a short distance past the 'peak' of the pass, and the road that passed by it was sufficiently traveled that it was plainly rutted with the hooves of horses and mules, as well as the wheels of some uncommonly narrow buggies.
“Carts,” said the soft voice. “Several of those 'hermits' live within a mile of that mine, and they use donkey-carts for hauling produce.”
As if to accentuate matters, a jagged streak of lightning flashed across the sky, and faint among the rumble of distant thunder I heard the drip-patter of rain.
“Oh, wonderful,” I thought. “Now we get damp...”
“That dampness will cool off your shelter and erase most of your tracks,” said the soft voice, “and the 'hermits' will remain indoors. Hence, you will not be bothered during your stay.”
“And if we leave at dusk?” I asked.
“More rain will come then,” said the soft voice. “You'll pass out of it within an hour or so and leave no traces of your presence.”
“For further escapes?” I asked.
“So you are not bothered,” said the soft voice. “The fourth kingdom isn't the only place that has a telegraph system.”
“They have one here?” I asked.
“They do, and it's far more widespread than is commonly known,” said the soft voice. “Only the lack of skill on the part of its users prevents it from being better utilized for communications.”
“Lack of skill?” I asked. We were getting closer to the turning place with each minute.
“Poor sending, poor receiving, poor equipment, and a poor attitude,” said the soft voice, “hence delayed messages, garbled messages, and often, missing messages. What was sent regarding your party had none of those things occur.”
“Where?” I asked.
“That town with the lynching,” said the soft voice. “Your description was sent on ahead of you, and reached the kingdom house proper within two hours of its initial sending.”
“Do they..?” I asked.
“I would watch myself closely in the kingdom house,” said the soft voice. “The top of the pass comes within two more miles, and less than a mile past that is the turnoff.”
The road steepened yet more. I could feel a watering area nearby, and as the road 'jogged' around a massive rock planted square in the middle of the path, I wanted to halt and find it. For some reason, however, I had an impetus to ignore my sensing and continue on – and with misgivings, I did so.
“That water you were feeling isn't safe to drink,” said the soft voice. “But another mile, and you'll reach the top of the pass.”
That 'last mile', however, promised to be completed torment, and the sounds of heavy breathing – no, panting, and that for water – seemed to hem me within and without. My own tongue seemed to be swelling by the minute, such that it entirely filled my mouth, and the sense of dehydration grew steadily stronger. I reached for my water-bottle, and could not find it – and then, with a sudden jerk, my eyes fluttered open. I had been asleep without knowing it.
“How could I feel water, though?” I asked. There was no answer, save the obvious one of more beer.
I reached for my water-bottle, and this time, I found the thing, and proposed to drain it. The liquid therein was not merely beer, but especially refreshing, and after replacing the cork, I thought to ask a question.
“Why does beer help me wake up?” I asked.
“While beer here uses similar-looking ingredients compared to what you remembered, and the process is very similar to what you recalled, the resulting brew is not the same material,” said the soft voice. “You might be surprised to learn what it actually has in it.”
“Uh, alcohol?” I asked.
“Less than you might think,” said the soft voice. “Much less, in most cases.”
I was too fatigued to think further on the matter, so much so that when I came to a narrower-than-usual portion of the road, I stopped without thinking. Mechanically I looked to the left, and came upon this sign:
“What?” I gasped. My voice was barely audible.
There were no answers, save the obvious one: push on, watch for the road going to the right and get under cover before the predawn rounds of the 'hermits'.
“At least one of those people is a spy,” said a strange voice inside my head, “and while those telegraph senders and lines do not come down in this area, that person knows where one is within an easy hour's travel.”
“Hence we need to hide ourselves,” I murmured, as we left the sign behind.
Topping the 'high-point' seemed to give my eyes added vision, and far in the distance under the waning moon, I saw what looked to be a huge fog-bank obscuring a vast outpost of humanity. Beyond this haze, and to its sides, I saw a vast and ongoing dappled mirror that reflected light in a dim and regretful fashion. The sea knew its own abuse at the hands of witches...
“What am I thinking?” I muttered, as the rocks that hemmed us in began to precipitously retreat to each side.
The wide moon-silvered vistas I saw were somehow 'tarnished', and as I looked down upon this gray-green blanket that went as far as I could see, a chilled wind blew into my face to deposit a hint of moisture.
“The rain?” I asked.
There was no answer, at least in the manner I expected. The hint of moisture, however, became more noticeable, and seconds after I licked my dried and parched lips, the night sky flashed again amid sounds of thunder. I looked ahead, and but a few miles away I saw coming rapidly a thick near- impenetrable mist.
“I hear the sound of a heavy rain,” I mumbled, as I looked down toward the ground.
While there was no answer, the wind supplied a type of one. Even as I noticed the still-gentle downslope of the road and the greening of the surrounding countryside, the wind grew both fresher and damper. Hints of droplets began to fall in the region near me, and with each passing minute, they became more obvious to hearing and vision. I reached up to touch my hat, and found it damp; and when I touched my trousers, they were in much the same condition. Finally, as I reached toward my face, I felt the sky 'drop' like a falling safe and the rain proper began falling in its wake.
While I had moved in the coarse wet night-fog in the first kingdom on a number of occasions, this stuff wasn't even close to 'fog'. This was honest rain, and its steady soft dripping woke me up in a hurry.
It also seemed to add impetus to our travel, which had grown slower with the climb from the tableland into the pass. Now, we had a downgrade of sorts, and I needed to watch closely for the trail I wanted.
Each rock and bush now acquired the glossy sheen of rain, and behind me, I heard yawning and what might have been moans. Someone spoke of bathing with their clothing on.
“Hist, you...” muttered Lukas. “I don't much care for it getting damp like this, but I know enough that it helps if they are after you.”
“They are?” I asked numbly. My voice was very quiet.
“There's something about a wire here,” said Lukas. “I knew about the one they had in the fourth kingdom, but I'd only heard rumors about the one in the fifth kingdom.”
“Rumors?” Again, my voice was very quiet.
“That last place had people talking about it,” said Lukas, “and I thought them speaking gossip until I saw one of em's thumbs up close. I knew better then.”
“Thumb?” I asked.
“People what send a lot on those things get strange thumbs,” said Lukas. “That wasn't all, though.”
“What else?” I asked.
“I saw one o' the wires,” said Lukas, “and it was buzzing like it had juice to it.”
“Where?” I spat. I was wide awake now, and I could feel the side-turn but a short distance ahead. It needed close-watching so as to not miss it.
“On the way out of that town,” said Lukas. “It was well off of the main road, down a side street, and that house had those wires coming and going to it.”
“So what I heard was the truth,” I muttered. “We can't outrun electricity.”
“No, but you can outrun flattened batteries, inattentive clerks, bad insulation, poor instruments, and thieves with wire-cutters,” said the soft voice. “When that telegraph works, it works well.”
The emphasis on the word 'when' was enough of a distraction for me to nearly miss the turnoff when it showed. I slowed, then dismounted and began walking along the dim trail, while the others pulled up and stopped.
“Come on,” I whispered. “I need to walk here, so as to not miss details.”
Jaak came close behind, and as I looked around on the darkened trail, he nuzzled my back. I turned slowly, so as to ask a question; but as I did, I had a strong impression.
The place wasn't nearly that hard to find, for some reason, and we had need of haste. Some of those 'hermits' were early risers.
I remounted and led off. For some reason, I now was certain as to my path, unlike how I had been prior, and as the trail wound slowly through the encroaching brush the rain steadily increased in strength, such that the dripping screened the noise of our movement.
The trail abruptly bifurcated to the right, and I kept on our original track. The brush was surprisingly thick, and when I passed a clearing to the right, I sniffed and nearly sneezed. I turned to see a neatly-cut garden plot nearly a hundred feet square.
“That whole thing is, uh...”
“That isn't the only such plot in this area,” said the soft voice. “Each one of those 'hermits' has one or more itinerant 'helpers' in addition to his family.”
“Hermit?” I asked.
“From the fifth kingdom's society,” said the soft voice. “Not everyone who lives in the fifth kingdom enjoys its pleasures.”
“And those helpers?” I asked.
“Some have more than the usual number of toes,” said the soft voice. “They often stay in this area for a few months to regain their health and prepare for the trip north.”
The 'main road' began to gently curve to the right. I could feel rocks nearby, and faintly hear the tinkling of a spring or small river of some kind. The brush grew closer, for it was now mingled with short scrubby trees, and when I looked down at the ground itself I noted hummocks of grass.
“You'll need to gather that,” said the soft voice. “While the hermits will be indoors, the same cannot be said for any market-hunters in the area.”
“They will talk, won't they?” I asked.
I received no answer, which did not surprise me much. I looked to the west, and saw what might be the faintest beginnings of lightening amid the thick undergrowth. The mine, thankfully, wasn't much further.
Or so I thought when the brush abruptly 'lessened' to show the path running through a small clearing with the remains of furrows still showing plain underneath a thick carpet of well-gnawed grass. I did not waste time investigating the matter; I hurried along the path as best I might.
Jaak seemed to have gotten the same idea, for he needed no urging on my part. The path led past another such fallow field, then a third, and finally a fourth to then bury itself in the brush again, and I continued past all of the fields and into the brush once more.
As I did so, however, I felt the mine. It was very close, so much so that I wondered if I had passed it, and when I stopped to 'think', I nearly fell off of Jaak in surprise.
I had found what 'looked' like a trail, and I turned back around to face my track.
The others were coming slowly, so much so that I knew my fatigue was little compared to theirs, and I needed to wait for them to 'catch up'. There were faint snoring sounds amid wheezing and grunts, and when the first horse came, its rider – Gabriel – had open staring eyes. I looked, and shuddered visibly.
No one was at home.
I dismounted, then moved to the beginnings of the trail. The brush seemed to part for me, and as Jaak followed, I heard soft voices to my rear. Lukas and Gilbertus had their hands full dealing with the others, I now realized.
The narrowness of the trail was astonishing, so much so that as I walked, the brush seemed to cling to my clothing at first before it released me. Gurgles underfoot spoke of either a river or stream, and when my foot splashed, I glanced downward to see rocks with a trickle of water among them.
“A small stream or spring,” I thought, as I continued on.
There was a gentle upslope amid steadily growing brush, which now reached to my shoulders. Trees stood up taller among the endless green sea, and as the rain continued, I thought to turn to look at the others. They might need help.
I was checked abruptly. The others could keep up. I needed to find the mine.
I was so caught up in this thinking that I nearly stumbled when the brush suddenly fell away on both sides to be replaced by a near-solid wall of trees some distance to each side. Grass, long, green, and 'fragrant', lay underfoot, and my weary stumbling steps were now cushioned by its soft density. The upslope grew greater, and a narrow rocky 'path' began showing clearer with each step. I began to hurry – and again, I was 'checked'.
Hurry wasn't a good idea, especially now.
The path lay ahead, but for some reason, I walked well to its side. I felt something hidden upon it, and I turned briefly to see my tracks. I hoped the others would see my turning to the side and walk in my tracks carefully.
I turned back toward the hills ahead. The trees of the 'bay' were now being replaced by sizable boulders, and my route meandered around them. Still, there was grass underfoot, and while the path had vanished, I knew my sensing was correct. The mine was just ahead.
I came to a huge rock and walked to its right, then under its sheltering 'aura', I found a brushy screen. A touch, and I felt a wooden framework, which I grasped gently and then pulled. It was like that one hiding place in the second kingdom, I now realized.
“Th-this is a door,” I spluttered, as I opened it wide to show a darkened 'hallway'.
I walked inside, now cautious, and as my eyes adjusted, I became utterly dumbfounded at what I had found.
“This place is huge,” I whispered.
“Those working the mine lived on-site,” said the soft voice, “as is the usual for miners. Unlike most mines, however, these people lived in the mine itself.”
“What?” I asked. “Didn't they get smoked out from the powder...”
I then looked up, and marveled more.
“Yes, a naturally occurring chimney for ventilation,” said the soft voice. “The spring is to your right.”
I began slowly moving in that direction. Faintly I could hear the others coming up the path. Aching joints made for faint groans among them, and all of them cried like infants for sleep.
“Follow my tracks,” I mumbled, as I went down on my hands and knees. I wanted to wash my face in the worst way imaginable, and the tinkle of water was an irresistible lure.
My hands first found gravel mingled with sand, which grew moist relentlessly, and finally, I put my right hand in cold clear running water. I knelt at the edge of the 'river', and got both hands wet, then wiped my face.
The chilled water made for wondering, and I brought out my cup to drink. I then heard noises, followed by muffled speech.
“Where did he go?” I heard the words plainly, even if I could not recognize the speaker.
I scooped up a cup of water, and while retracing my steps to the rear, I cautiously sipped it. The flavor was that of a clear and cold spring. I put my hands on the door-shield, pushed...
And came face-to-face with Lukas.
“I wondered where you went,” he said. “What is this place?”
“I was told it was a mine,” I said. “It seems clean and cozy enough.”
Within minutes, there were five huddled masses of humanity on the floor inside, while the three of us who remained awake transferred our things inside from the buggies. I found a brushy 'hideaway' in which to hide the two vehicles not thirty feet from the door, and on my return, I found Gilbertus coming from between two boulders.
“This place has its own privy,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“It's old and made of stone,” he said. “The door may be old and weathered, but it's still hanging.”
“Oh,” I said tonelessly. I wanted a bath, then beer, and finally, the tincture and bed.
The two of us came into a surprisingly large and well-lit cavern amid a chorus of faint yet echoing snores, with the heating lamp lit and a pot of water beginning to steam. I suspected the three of us would bathe before bedtime.
“This place is as good as anywhere to rest,” said Lukas. “People been living here on and off for a while, I suspect.”
“Uh, I was told that was the case,” I said.
Once I'd gotten my bath – a quick one, with lukewarm water – I went to the 'doorway' and looked out through the 'screen'. It was beginning to lighten outside, and I could feel stirring in the general region. The rain was continuing its soft dripping, and I yawned.
“A rainy day, and best to sleep,” I mumbled, as I came back toward the main room.
Even with the room being sizable, twelve horses made for a close existence, and all of our buckets were filled with water prior to bedtime. The last thing I heard before falling asleep were the slurping sounds of a drinking horse.
There were no dreams, especially at first. After 'some time', I heard soft voices, and I thought to speak to the speakers so as to warn them of our danger. We needed to remain unseen while here, and that meant...
“You want to use a string if you go any distance,” said one voice. “This place is tricky that way.”
“Quit speaking like a baby with the colic,” said another voice. “You take the string and pay it out after you, and if you're too dumb to try that, then just go back to bed with your thumb in your mouth.”
The second speaker was silenced. Another thought to take his place, but he too was silenced by someone willing to put action to the words of the first speaker. But minutes later, he spoke again.
“It worked,” he said with a note of quiet triumph. A rustling noise spoke of his gathering something...
“No, no brush,” I muttered while part asleep. I did not wish to be smoked up.
“'Taint brush,” said the first voice. “'Tis forage for the horses. It ain't safe to be outside, not with people like...”
I awoke abruptly, and scrambled to my feet. I needed a privy in the worst imaginable way, and as I ran for the doorway, I nearly collided with someone bringing in a large sack of something. I only realized who it was when I had found the 'privy'.
“What was Karl doing with that sack,” I thought, “and what time is it?”
The time was a difficult matter to tell, for the area near the mine was so brushy and covered with trees that perpetual shadow seemed its lot. Between the brush, the boulders, the greenery, and the overall solitude, I found it very easy to believe in people being unable to find the place without supernatural assistance. I opened the 'door' to a covered region behind one of my ground-cloths.
“W-what..?” I asked.
“Bathing,” said Sepp. “All of us went to sleep about an hour out of that last town, except for you and those two gaffers, and how they stayed awake...”
“It is no mystery,” said Hendrik, between gulps of beer. “They knew of our danger, and the rest of us did not, at least until a short time ago.”
“Someone fired a roer at this place and narrowly missed the doorway,” said Gabriel.
“No, no roer,” said Gilbertus. “That was a market-hunter, and he was hunting something.”
“Yes, us,” said Gabriel. “He could not...”
Lukas shook his head, as did Gilbertus, while Hendrik felt his goatee. I wondered what he was thinking – was he wondering as to Gabriel's thinking?
Or did Gabriel's speech speak of reality?
I still found it much easier to believe the idea of a market-hunter chasing 'game' and missing than someone hunting us, and when I went to get some water at the 'spring', I was indeed surprised.
“Who put this candle here?” I asked, as I filled my cup.
“That was easy once we'd woken,” said Sepp. “This place is as snug as anything, and it's cool, too.”
“The horses?” I asked.
“No one wanted to go outside at first,” said Sepp. “They were all as afraid as small children in a darkened house, except for those two.” Here, Sepp indicated Lukas and Gilbertus. Both of them had jugs handy. “I had to go out first with the string, and a good thing, also.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“You cannot find this place without it, not if you go further than that privy they have here,” said Sepp. “I'm glad that's as close as it is, as I had to get Gabriel when he went to use it.”
“What?” I asked.
“He went three feet from the door there and he could not find his way back,” said Sepp, “and most of us aren't much better, even if we are careful. We can manage the privy, but no more.”
“Uh, grain?” I asked.
“Plenty,” said Sepp. “This place has got a privy for horses, only you have to go down one of the halls to get to it.”
“Passages,” muttered Gilbertus. “Haven't you ever been in a mine before?”
Sepp turned, shook his head, then asked, “if this is a mine, then where are the things for mining?”
“They don't leave those,” said Lukas. “This place had its share of indications, but they ran 'em dry without finding anything decent.”
“And they took the equipment with them,” I murmured. “I imagine it was either readily sold or... What time is it?”
“That's hard to say,” said Gilbertus. “I suspect it's after lunchtime.”
While 'after lunchtime' was a vague concept, my recollection of what I 'needed' to do was not in the slightest, and after munching bread for a moment, I thought to 'look'. But ten steps in the direction of the 'horse-privy' with one of the small lanterns in my hand gave the sense of 'getting warmer', and when I came to a side-passage, I went down it without hesitation. Another twenty steps, and I stopped and listened.
No one was following me.
I turned and continued. The feeling of 'close' was growing rapidly, and when I passed a side-passage, I turned to go down it.
“Not much further,” I thought, as I felt for a small leather pouch. “I wonder how much is needed for a ring?”
The passage seemed to steadily narrow, then 'dead-ended' with astonishing abruptness. I held the lantern higher, and was astonished to see a mound of spoil laying on the floor.
“Is that it?” I asked, as I knelt down.
The crumbling 'rock' felt like fine gravel in my hands, and I brought out a handful. Pouring it out on the floor of the passage showed one or two dully gleaming 'flakes'. I used my pincers to pick out one of them, and in the feeble glow of the lantern, I was astonished.
“T-that's a nugget,” I gasped, as I held the dirty greenish-gold lump close to my face.
The piece was about the size of a flattened pea, and after putting it in the pouch, I resumed 'gleaning'. With each handful of gravel, I found at least one such 'nugget'; and as the 'used' spoil accumulated, the bulging heft of the pouch grew also. Finally, I felt I had enough.
“My, this thing weighs as much as five gold monster coins,” I thought, as I hefted the pouch. “Is crude-gold really impure or something?”
“Less than it looks to be,” said the soft voice. “The melting process will remove most of the impurities, and those that remain will cause little trouble.”
“And the stuff in gold monster coins?” I asked.
“Tends to be a good deal harder to both find and process,” said the soft voice. “Most of those coins are very old.”
'Lunch' came after another nap, and was followed by a pistol cleaning session and then a third nap. I awoke from this last nap needing to use the privy outside, and as I came from the place, I looked up. The sky seemed to be darkening, albeit slowly, and when I came inside, I asked, “do you want to travel tonight?”
“It might be best,” said Hendrik. “We can rest at the kingdom house proper, if rest is indeed possible in this place.”
I could hear griping, though I heard it apart from conventional means, and once the buggies were reloaded, I led off back the way we came. I paused at the point where I had gone off the path, and pointed it out.
“I saw your tracks,” said Lukas, “and the two of us herded the others off of that path so's to follow them.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “I suspected a trap, by the way.”
“I thought so,” said Lukas.
The rain again was steadily dripping, and save for its noise, I heard little. The air seemed positively chilled, even as the brush fled away to each side and we made the main road. The darkness was gathering steadily, and our only lights were the two small lanterns on their hooks as I led off.
Again, I heard snoring, much as if the all-surrounding darkness demanded sleep, and when I looked at Gabriel, he seemed asleep where he sat. Thankfully, the horse he rode did not mind, and he seemed in no danger of falling.
“Now this is fine traveling weather,” said Lukas. “We have a decent road, a downgrade, it's cool, and it's damp.”
“Meaning fewer water stops, at least for a short time?” I asked.
“Aye, that especially,” said Lukas. A brief pause, slurping sounds, then, “these others don't much fancy night travel, do they?”
“I guess not,” I said. “Why, is everyone asleep back there?”
“Not everyone, though I can hear a lot of yawning,” said Lukas. “I can tell Gabriel's asleep.”
“Did he rest much?” I asked.
“More than anyone,” said Lukas. “I'm starting to wonder about him, as he's acting a bit like Kees did before he gave up on being a witch.”
The rain ceased within an hour. During that time, we had passed no less than three watering stops, and at the fourth one, I checked the buggies while the two older men alternatingly checked the horses and woke up the others.
“Don't make me break out the spoon,” muttered Gilbertus. “Drink up this beer.”
Faint moans responded, followed by choking and spitting, and finally, an air-hungry gasping.
“Drink it, don't breathe it,” muttered Gilbertus, “and don't tell me about wanting to stay in bed until the sun is high in the sky.”
“Why?” asked a plaintive voice. “No one does nothing in the dark unless...”
“Precisely why we need to do what we are doing,” said Hendrik. “They'll think we will do as you spoke of, and watch accordingly, yawn.”
“And get to the kingdom house in the early morning?” I thought. “That's about the only time the place is quiet.”
“Kraag is never genuinely quiet,” said the soft voice, “but it comes closest during the hours just prior to dawn.”
“And dawn?” I asked. There was no answer.
Once moving again, Gabriel – he was awake now, if still stifling yawns – asked me as to why we needed to move at night. It took some moments of thought, as I had been told it was advisable and I had acted 'unthinkingly'.
“I think it has to do with being watched,” I said. “That, and it's cooler during the evening. I suspect we might travel as much as a third more, in fact.”
“More than that,” said Lukas. “This place isn't just hot, it's sticky.”
Gabriel shuddered, then said, “I forgot about that part.”
“Also, I was told leaving at dusk was the best idea,” I said. “There was at least one spy among the people that normally live in that region, and that person would communicate our whereabouts if we were seen.”
I could almost hear the 'so' attitude, so much so that I was about to answer when Lukas said, “none of that nonsense about us doing like witches, Gabriel. What's gotten into you?”
Gabriel was speechless, so much so that I said, “and you think this is bad. Wait until we head home.”
“How will that be worse than this?” said Gabriel.
“We will need to travel that entire distance more or less after dark,” I said, “and I most likely will need to find our path.”
“W-why?” asked Gabriel.
This time, I beat Lukas. “The pfuddaarn,” I said. “They're onto us, and want all of us dead, remember? It isn't just me anymore, and...”
“And what?” asked Lukas.
“I'm not sure if this is right,” I said. “Remember how the two of them were in the second kingdom, about how they wanted to go on to one of those stinky Public Houses and turn the rest of us over to be sacrificed?”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “Why, is he thinking to do that?”
“I'm not at all certain,” I said. “I am quite certain he – and perhaps most of our party – thinks night travel is something only witches and black-dressed thugs have any business doing.”
“You mean everyone except you,” said Gabriel crossly. “No sane person stirs from bed once the sun goes down, and no one dare rise from it prior to the sun showing plainly.”
“You ain't done much freighting,” said Lukas, “and certainly not as someone with their own team. You'd go hungry with that way of thinking.”
“There's more,” I thought. “I know there's more, only I don't begin to know what it is.”
Another hour, and another watering stop. The 'desert' had once more resumed, only this example seemed moister than the previous edition, and positively damp compared to that of the tableland. Here and there, I saw small glimmering lights, and now and then, I heard soft speech. I was more than a little surprised when Gabriel spoke without being prompted.
“There is sufficient work in this region for brigandage to be the province of those unwilling to work,” he said, “while those unable to work attempt to leave the area.”
“What?” I asked softly. The moon had arisen, and the whole of the area ahead of us took on a ghostly silvered prospect.
“Most who are otherwise dislike those unable to work, and that with great fervor,” said Gabriel. “Thankfully that way of thinking is seldom followed with action at home.”
I did not speak, for I could tell this was an important matter. Gabriel's speaking, while 'normal-sounding' for him, had an unnatural aspect, almost as if he were talking in his sleep.
“Too many in the first kingdom recall how those injured became that way,” said Gabriel, “and with each fresh instance of the swine, there is both a fresh reminder and a longer list.”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “Now you are talking...”
“They do not have Iron Pigs in this area,” said Gabriel. “Instead, they have pfuddaarn, which look less fearsome. Still, they are but little less dangerous, especially when they speak at length and loudly of those they name the 'disgraceful unfit'.”
“Disgrace?” I squeaked.
As if in a potent nightmare, all that I had heard on the matter seemed to provide the soundtrack for that one nightmare that portrayed human sacrifice in such an emphatic matter. Amid Anna's speaking – “to be found so might mean death regardless of behavior” – and “to be labeled 'disgraced' meant being killed without mercy” I shuddered involuntarily, and my lips moved to form near-inaudible words.
“U-useless F-feeders?” I asked. My voice seemed compounded of frost and dessication.
There was no answer, at least from Gabriel. He seemed to have resumed sleeping.
He did not remain so long, however. A muffled explosion came from the east followed by the thudding drumbeat of a huge rabbit accelerating. Each muffled crash came closer together, even as the eerie whining screeches attained their ultimate volumes as the rumbling roar grew louder. I could feel that rabbit coming directly at us, much as if we were square on the tracks of a freight train with the throttle wide open, and when the rumbling roar shook the ground and the giddy collection of screaming whines drowned out coherent thought, I ducked down involuntarily.
As if it had read my mind, a massive gray blur shot overhead like a furry streak of lightning to sling a thick cloud of dirt and brush on top of us when it touched down. The column stopped in its tracks and began coughing and sneezing as the noise of the rabbit but slowly diminished in volume. Amid the thundering echoes of its passage, I heard chattering teeth amid the other noises.
“They ought to call those things 'thunder-bunny' or some such name,” I thought, as I scratched my head. The dust had more or less left me alone. “Now why was Gabriel so bothered by them?”
“T-they prevented sleep,” he said between coughs. “Why am I covered with dirt like a turnip farmer?”
“One of those hares,” said Lukas. He sounded more than a little cross.
Our next stop was somewhat longer, for not merely did the pump not wish to hold prime, but someone broke out the bread and jam to go along with the beer. I myself tried some jam, and as I munched a piece of cherry-smeared bread, I looked toward the south. Again, I saw the vast mist-covered realm flanked on three sides by a tarnished silver mirror – and as I watched, a faint white flickering flashed for a fraction of a second.
“It's day all day in the day time,” I murmured, “and there is no night in Kraag.” A brief pause, them, “is that how it goes?”
“Aye,” said Lukas, as he dusted his clothing with his free hand. “I've gotten most of that hare-dirt out of my clothing by now.”