The road's ending...
I was followed outside, and while Jaak followed me readily, the other horses seemed a trifle disinclined to leave their 'refuge'. I glanced at the doorway, noting its height – perhaps tall enough to pass Jaak, if but little more – then murmured, “we'll need to lead them out and mount once outside.”
I could hear something blooming regarding objections, and I whispered the following while opening the right door of the pair leading to the outside. It was time, for it was now entirely dark.
“If you must travel in a land controlled by witches, then darkness means safety, and that is especially true if one is a pariah...”
“Disgraced...” said a faint voice of unknown origin. I wondered if it had been heard by the others.
“And then, one must not be seen, either by witches, or the common people,” I whispered once outside, “and speed, concealment, and darkness are requirements so as to survive.” A brief pause, then, “hitch up the buggies. It's time.”
As the horses came out, each with their rider, I could hear whispers. Hendrik came alongside me as I stood by Jaak in the darkened shadows of the sulfurous night, and said, “I thought the worst of this trip was over.” A brief pause, a soft slurping of liquid, a quiet belch; then, “I spoke much too soon.”
“Aye,” whispered someone else – not Gilbertus, nor Lukas. “At least we can leave now.”
There were more such whispers as the last of the seemingly balky horses came out. I could hear someone – or some thing – speaking of great and abiding weakness.
“Nothing for it,” I thought. “If we don't leave tonight, we will stay down here until we die.”
And, faint on the wind, an answer: deep roaring clangs of a slow and merciless nature. The noise reminded me of huge cavernous bells, and I murmured, “for whom the bell tolls?”
The effect of this last caused the whispers to vanish completely, and the slight sluggishness I had felt to vanish as well. I leaped up on Jaak, the drivers took their seats, and I led off down the street as the door closed behind us with a faint dragging whisper.
There were no sounds beyond the near-silent clop of hooves upon cobbles, and I thought to look down at Jaak's hooves. I leaned out what seemed an impossible angle, and gasped silently at the sight of a poultice of rags tied around his feet. I then turned around and pointed downward, and someone came up beside me as we came to the corner of the house. I turned to see Sepp.
“Who c-came up with that idea?” I whispered.
“That woman,” he whispered. “We can take the rags off once we get out of this place.”
I silently thanked God someone had thought of the matter, as I recalled the effects of mule-dung upon iron and flesh. I glanced down once more, and was astonished to see the cobbles seeming to be clean of refuse.
“The dung-men came after the witches and swine were taken,” said the soft voice.
“And this road?” I asked. We were now headed south, and the smell of the place had acquired a definite 'salt' tang, along with a faint putrid-smelling breeze. I could feel – and see – fog coming in from the southern shore.
“Gets regular cleaning,” said the soft voice. “Much of your route out will be in and through regions that receive little mule-dung.”
“And hence the rags..?”
“Are a very wise idea,” said the soft voice, “which is why she was reminded of a common Veldter practice.”
Tall smelter-blooms flamed some distance to our right and rear as we proceeded 'in convoy' down the middle of the near-deserted street. I had the front to myself now for some reason, and the long line of our quiet passage seemed to be unseen, save by small groups of furtive scavengers hiding in the shadows. Long miles away, I heard a chorus of mule-brays amid the clatter and rumble of the realm's industry, and the mingled smells of the region seemed to make for a risible sensation in the gut.
I wanted to spew, and knew it was an especially bad idea – and that for my own sensing. Liza's speech regarding nausea and the reaction of witches only added to what I was discerning.
A faint shout from the left was answered by a gunshot, then two more gunshots – these were deeper-toned roars, which meant fowling pieces or 'muskets' rather than pistols – banged out. The silence descended anew, and with it, the smell of 'salt' grew stronger. I could almost smell fish drying slowly somewhere to the east.
The run of the southbound street neared its end, and I could see ahead long rows of buildings. A squinting instant into the darkness, and I knew them to be the Great-Alleys Liza had spoken of the night before. A whiff of distillate fumes billowed overhead like a thick cloud, and from far behind us, a thundering roar shed flickering points of redness upon us and our path. Darkness returned seconds later.
“That was a pressure-lantern.” I could not identify the person speaking. I was glad they had kept their voice down just the same – and I could speak similarly of gladness for the raised road I saw clearly but a few hundred feet ahead.
Jaak seemed uneasy, and I whispered to him words of encouragement. He seemed to do better, at least until we came to the juncture proper – whereupon he stepped upon it, and feeling familiar ground underfoot, he 'loosened up' noticeably.
“Yes, follow behind me,” I whispered softly. “The horses don't much like that cobbled mess back there.”
And with each such 'transfer', the overall tenor of the column seemed to change. It was almost as if we'd done the whole of our escaping already, and were in 'safe' territory. I was about to comment when the soft voice spoke into my mind.
“Not quite.” There was an instance of silence, then, “that area's curse was but recently broken.”
“Recently?” I asked.
“It came with that coach,” said the soft voice, “and broke when you took it away.” A pause, then, “that entire district is now a raging battlefield.”
“Will, it, uh, cause us trouble?” I asked.
“Your route will skirt its trouble by several miles,” said the soft voice. “There will be ample difficulty just the same.”
The change of scenery was as awe-inspiring as the effect upon horses and men. To our left, there were the alleys, tall two-story brick buildings of massive and lengthy nature joined cheek-by-jowl with one another in groups of five, while long roads ending in silvered 'mirrors' divided each such group from its fellows. To our left, however, the shops continued – though unlike those of the street we had left, these were set back some distance from the road, almost as if there were another street for local traffic in addition to the High Way. Faint moonlight shown down upon all of this scenery, and only now did I notice its silvered shading.
Another glance to the left, however, showed the same situation, at least while the groupings of alleys endured. I could plainly see a temporary respite some distance ahead, and as I reached in my bag for my water-bottle, I wondered what sights would show in the region ahead.
Two slow episodes of swallowing later, I had my answer: wide yellow-tinted sands crowding another road running parallel some distance south from the High Way, soft ruffling waves that might have come to half the height of my knees, what might have been groups of slow-moving white-sailed ships distant from the shore, and closer in, what looked to be piers. These last were vacant, or so I thought until I saw what might have been the blackened wreckage of a burnt-out ship next to one of these long stone constructions.
“Is that driftwood?” I thought, as I saw darkened clumps of jagged 'stuff' jutting up from the sands.
There was no answer, save that which I saw. The whole realm seemed mired in a darkened mystery, and when the alleys resumed their close-packed ways, I felt glad to be walled off from the sea and its mostly-hidden monstrous progeny.
The stinks of distillate and strong drink grew stronger amid the now intense 'smell' of salt, and when I saw a tall billowing cloud of thick whitish steam coming from an 'industrial region' on the right, I wondered as to what was being done.
“Boiling salt?” I asked.
“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “About another half hour, and you can turn right.”
The long column passed soundlessly by row upon row of shops. All of them had glaring cracks showing the multitudes within, all of them bent upon destruction and devouring of one another; and, perchance, enemies further distant. I wondered more than a little if the 'guests' – meaning us – were included in that last close-totted total; until with a sudden jolt, I recalled that very thing being mentioned earlier.
“Another reason why leaving tonight is the best idea,” said the soft voice. “You should be out of the city long before daybreak, which is when they expect you to leave.”
“Which accounts for much of what we are seeing now, no doubt,” I murmured softly.
“It accounts for more than 'much',” said the soft voice. “Nearly every witch within a mile of the house proper considers 'the guests' to be the source of all of the most recent difficulties.”
“And further away, they have their own difficulties,” I muttered. There was no answer.
The slow and sullen-seeming minutes ticked off one by one, and the shops continued in their close-butted fashion. Now and then, narrow streets branched off into the still-built-up region to our right, while on the left, the Alleys no longer brooded over the sands. The dulled light of the moon showed the silvered sea but half a mile away, if that. I could no longer see ships, for some reason, even if I knew there were numbers of them at sea in the region.
“Oh, for a telescope,” I thought. “We could really...”
“Hendrik ordered one shortly after the bridge,” said the soft voice, “as he suspected one might be needed in the near-foreseeable future.” A brief pause, then, “and his written instructions spoke of a desire for a truly useful instrument.”
“I hope so,” I thought.
“He has paid accordingly thus far,” said the soft voice. “More, he was not the only person thinking one would be needed.”
The shops began to gather space between groups of two and three buildings as the High Way curved steadily to the right. Some distance away, I could see what might be brushy fields, which made me wonder. Did we turn there, or was our turning to be sooner?
“More-open region,” I thought. “That sounds like where we first left the road last night...”
The shops continued thinning, with spaces between the groups now twenty to thirty feet. The brushy regions seemed closer, and more, they weren't just to the front now. I could tell they were to the north as well as the west.
“Perhaps another minute,” I thought, as I turned around in the saddle to see the others stretched out in a long and winding column. “We'd best bunch up more before we leave the road, and then stay a good deal tighter than this.”
I could hear what might be grumbling behind me, or perhaps faint snoring, and when the buildings gathered further space between them a minute later, the coincidences between last night and now were too great to ignore. I rode off of the High Way, pausing while Jaak 'dumped', and waited some further distance ahead as the others slowly came along.
“Close up,” I whispered, as Sepp came along. “Pass it on.”
And from the group, I could hear – or perhaps, feel – a question.
“The town's thinnest here,” I murmured.
I was not believed, or so it seemed as I led off along a softly silvered 'path' leading into clumpy brush and bunch-grass. Buildings showed to right and left, with 'yards' to their sides and rears mounded and piled with the supplies they needed to do business. Clouds overhead part-blanked the light of the moon, while the former muffled clopping had been replaced by faint scrunching noises from wind-packed sand.
“That's an estate,” I thought, as we passed within a hundred yards of a huge 'compound' with tall walls that but part-hid several sources of tall and luminous clouds of smoke.
The stink was appalling, beyond horrible, close-knit, and illness-inducing, and now to the right, more tall and ghastly columns of smoke spewed into the sky. Our 'path' meandered along the brushy region between these larger 'estates' and sundry scattered buildings, and the faint scratchings of an abandoned road seemed to fade in and out beneath our feet. I turned in the saddle, and was astonished to see the buggies keeping up readily. One of them was but ten feet behind me, in fact, with two riders, one to each side. I heard Lukas softly speak as I turned once more to the front.
“This is no-man's land,” he said. “Two combines want it, and they fight...”
Faint grumbling seemed his answer from all save myself – I didn't know about this particular area, even if I knew feuds were common enough in the current district – and the thickening fog seemed to swallow up all such speaking but a minute later as the mingled 'industrial' stenches increased yet more along our 'path'.
For there was a path, I now saw, and I could feel the regions to my front. I wormed out the compass, holding it as steady as I could, and noted our path to be 'oscillating' midway between 'N' and 'W'. I put the compass away, satisfied that we were indeed traveling in the direction we needed.
The fog grew thicker, such that now, I could but discern buildings if they were less than a hundred feet away, and the moist miasma seemed to block out much of the moon's light. Faint, from behind, I heard words regarding the fog.
“It stops our noise, too,” muttered Lukas. “Now hist, you-all. He knows where he's going.”
I was glad I wasn't on foot just the same, for our path was heading up a slight grade. The buildings and estates seemed to be gaining height with each minute of travel, such that over the course of fifteen minutes, I started seeing ghostly-looking rooftops here and there atop the still-gathering fog.
The buildings were not merely growing taller, however; they were growing further apart, and further away, while our path seemed to now be leading into a broad shallow ravine. A faint splash some distance ahead and to the left, and I wondered if we were coming to a river of sorts.
The smell was now beyond belief, and through a small and mobile clearing in the fog, I saw another 'estate' some three hundred yards distant. The tall columns of smoke and billows of multi-colored flames belching up intermittently seemed a fit backdrop for a region on the outskirts of hell, and only another faint splash had me looking away from the mesmerizing tableau.
I looked downward, and then knew the source of the splashing.
“We are beside a river,” I thought, “and we will need to cross it soon enough.” A pause, then, “I'd best look for a place to ford it, one with a decent layer of rocks on the top of the, uh, water.”
“No, Karl,” said a faint voice from behind. “Stay out o' that stream.”
The 'stream' seemed to have its own ideas, however, for now narrow 'walls' seemed to grow to each side with the passing minutes. Our path was now obvious, and narrowly circumscribed, for chest-high brushy banks rose but ten to twenty feet to the right and the river ran but scant feet to the left. The river's other boundary was a similar chest-high brush-topped wall, and faint splashes and gurgles masked the sands beneath us and their sapping soft pull upon horses and buggies.
“Why are we not mired?” I thought. There was no answer, save the obvious one of scant inches of sand atop piled and mounded stones.
“Not inches,” said the soft voice. “There's barely enough sand to cushion the horses' hooves.” A brief pause, then, “there's a shallow ford ahead.”
I wanted to ask 'how far' when my mind suddenly 'alerted'. The ford wasn't that much further, and the fog was thick enough that I would need to watch close.
A shaft of moonlight suddenly blasted through the fog like a searchlight and showed the surface of the river to be a strangely murky fluid topped with iridescent pools of what might have been a species of oil. The river-water's reek now separated itself from the other smells, and the stench seemed to scream the word 'inflammable'.
The light now moved ahead at a slow pace, but somewhat faster than we traveled, and paused briefly to show what looked like an uncommonly porous 'dam' that held back a wide and noxious pool 'upstream'. I felt in my possible bag, now wondering why I was doing so, and as I reached for my water-bottle, I felt something cold, hard, and cylindrical. My fingers ignored the water-bottle forthwith, and I removed a grainy-feeling cylinder of cast iron plugged with a wooden 'cork'. The light blinked out as if turned off.
“What?” I thought. “I thought I used up all of those things.”
Yet I had the last bomb in my hand, I now knew, even as I recalled moving bombs and hearing of them vanishing. This was a sign, and...
“And I need to rig it on the far bank of that dam,” I thought, as we steadily drew closer to the place where we could ford the stream.
At the east side of the dam, I dismounted, and began walking back along the column. I did not have to walk far, thankfully.
“We've come to a ford,” I said softly to the first buggy, “and we'll need to cross on the rocks.”
“Aye, best to do so,” said Lukas' voice. “That ain't no common river.”
“How?” asked another faint voice. It might have been Kees.
“It looks to be half distillate,” said the voice of Hendrik, “and the remainder does not look like water.”
“Hence it will not help our feet or that of the horses to bathe in it,” I murmured. “I'll go first so as to test the ford's firmness.”
By this time, the column had 'fully' bunched itself, and the sense I had was a restive one. It wasn't just our group, also; there was something else in the area, and I was not sure of what it was beyond 'I do not wish to be near it'. I turned back toward the ford, and began walking with Jaak behind me.
My first step on the rocks was astonishing, for their firmness seemed that of being set in mortar, and my second step, likewise. This gave me added hope, and I walked slowly across what was now obviously a dam of some eight to ten feet in width.
Jaak had but little trouble following me, and mid-span I stopped to listen as first one buggy came onto the path, then the other, followed by two horses one after the other. I resumed my steady pace, now watching and wary, for I could feel the presence of a gathering storm in the general region.
“Mind that water,” I murmured softly. “You do not want it on your clothing or skin.”
The far bank seemed impossibly far away amid the fog, and when it showed suddenly I was greatly surprised, so much so that I continued on past the end of the rocks onto more gritty-feeling dirt. The change was so abrupt that I reached for the bomb I had found and drew it forth as the first of the buggies came onto 'hard ground' to pause at my side.
“Why the trap?” asked Sepp. He'd been in front of Lukas' team.
“That water,” I muttered. “I bet it's inclined toward burning.” A pause, then, “that, and we're been followed.”
I had help from Sepp and Gilbertus while Lukas checked the buggies, and once the trap was set – three strings heading off some distance, such that the west end of the ford was 'covered' – I remounted and led off upriver. I was glad for the 'wall' diminishing in height with each further minute, for I wanted to be well clear of the massive pool we were traveling along side, and when a 'cut' showed, Jaak walked up it with but little urging on my portion. I waited briefly while the buggies and other horses 'came up' before resuming my leading.
We were still in a wide ravine, however, and as the 'trail' wound slowly through the brush, I noted the yet-further distances to the nearest buildings. They had become scarcer and smaller, while some further distance away to the east – perhaps five hundred yards away – I could see the beginnings of a heavily built-up area.
There was nothing like it to the west or north, thankfully, and our route was again heading uphill. It had been nearly flat in the 'riverbed'.
A faint noise seemed to ring loudly in my mind from the west to be answered by another such noise from that built-up region I had just seen, and I kept my mind to the trail amid the steadily thickening brush. Copses had begun to show to the left and right, while the fog now cluttered the landscape to give a near-black darkness with but traces of shadow. The moon overhead showed but little light amid the twinned sulfurous stenches of burning powder and hot lead.
“Hot lead?” I muttered.
And as if to answer my question, a horn, far-distant yet still strident, blew a single dire note. I recognized the horn's sound instinctively, and my mouth twisted into the shape of the battle-call. I then spoke the dread word itself.
“Weidmansheil,” I whispered. “Weidmansheil.”
And another voice, this one I could not place, seemed to echo both my words and the sentiment beloved of horn-blowing witches; and to answer that voice, a massive white flash lit up the sky from behind and to the east.
Red lurid flames, these tinged with the colors of rainbow, now boiled into the sky from the river, and red flashes came from the east in syncopated rhythm. I wanted to duck, but dared not, for more such flashes came from the west and slightly south amid shouts and screams.
“Another feud,” I muttered, as gunshots began to flash and echo in the area we had just left behind. “Please, hide us...”
This last plea only enraged the combatants, for the fog abruptly thinned and the brush to our west became alive with muzzle flashes amid a moving black-clad throng. I could almost hear the crashing of hard-soled pointed boots, then lurched back where I sat as a strange hazy-looking fireball shot past but scarce feet away with a hissing roar.
“Rockets,” yelled someone from behind, as more of those crazy wayward fireballs sailed overhead amid the roars of more cannons.
The screaming sounds of shellfire seemed to blot out all the noises we might make, and the charging witches we were now among seemed to have caused hell itself to manifest upon the surface of the planet. I saw a group of witches carrying a stretcher laden with jugs and bundled dynamite but thirty feet away as they 'ran' down the side of the ravine, then as another group of hazy fireballs lit up the overhead region, I saw a small pack of uncommonly mangy dogs running in full gallop with sparking flames at their sides. They had a date with someone to the east, as far as I could see.
I now bent my attention to the trail fully, and Jaak seemed to sense this, even as the open warfare to the rear increased in both violence and noise. The gunfire was now a steady crackling roar punctuated by cannons firing and shells erupting redly, while the fireballs of rockets sailed overhead in a near-ceaseless stream. I was expecting something else, however, and as the path continued northwest, I turned to the east to watch for it. I did not have to wait long.
The first sign of 'trouble' was a green streak of light that flew from the northern tip of the now brimming-with-battle ravine, and then another such streak. Two more sources joined the first, then suddenly a fourth spat a swarming shower of green flames toward an oncoming 'object' of sorts. This last stalled, hitched, then upended itself in a white-tinged red ball of flames to roll downhill tumbling for several seconds – and I turned from it just in time as a massive white flash blasted into the night and the hot wind of a huge explosion washed over our group.
To the east, however, there was another such war far in the distance, and its violence, while but a shadow of what we were now seeing, was covering a much wider area. I saw several massive white flashes in the space of a minute's time coming from that region.
“More of that Weidmansheil nonsense, no doubt,” I muttered. “That coach has really gotten under their collective skin.”
The brush was now uncommonly thick about us, and between the fog and darkness, close-packing of the group head to tail seemed the only answer. Accordingly, I halted in the shadow of a copse with the war not half a mile off.
“Now this is a fine mess,” said Gabriel when he came up.
“It might be a mess,” said Lukas, “but it will keep those witches busy back there, so's they can't follow us.” A brief pause, slurping noises, a soft belch as the remnants of the group came up, then, “I expect our trail is faint enough.”
“Where it shows,” said Hendrik. “Those witches are trampling all over it.”
“We'd best move,” I murmured. “Keep close up on my trail, and keep your voices down.”
The path now ran closer to north-northwest when I next checked it with the compass, and as we topped a rise some twenty minutes later, I paused once more. This time, I wanted a breather for both men and horses, and as I began looking at the hoof-coverings, I began retching and coughing.
Blob after blob came up as I went to my knees, and I soon found myself joined by several others doing likewise. Only when the coughing and spitting noises 'ceased' did I feel it wise to head 'downhill', and as the others made ready to leave, I sat upon Jaak looking toward first the north, and then the west.
“No, more north right now,” I thought, as I set out down the hill along an obvious-looking path bracketed by sagebrush. The fog would swallow us up again within a minute's time, or so I thought, and seconds later, I knew I had been generous.
We were enfolded thickly in the pestilential-smelling mists, and the conjoined reeks of the various odor-sources common to the fifth kingdom house now seemed to be enlarged again as to size and stink. I wanted to spew, but did not, for even in this area, there were witches to be concerned about; and I could feel their presences close enough to be concerned.
The path weaved through clumps of grass and around copses, and here and there, I noticed traces of goat-hair. I could feel at least one goat-flock somewhere nearby, and as I scanned the 'horizon' in an attempt to locate it, I recalled our need to not be seen by anyone, good or bad.
“Those witches would just as soon kill those people as they would us,” I thought, “and the only way for us to be safe is if they don't know.”
“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “The herder's camp is about two hundred yards to your right, and its size is such that all of you would be expected to remain until first light.”
“Size?” I asked. “Is this a large camp?” I asked.
“Larger than is usual for this district,” said the soft voice. “The flock normally pastures some distance to the west and north, where there is more and better browse due to nearby rivers.” A brief pause, then, “the next built-up area will give chances to water your animals prior to leaving the boundaries of the kingdom house.”
“I hope it isn't that much further,” I thought. I then noticed the air's chill.
“It isn't,” said the soft voice. “Night travel does have its advantages in this area.”
The brush began thinning roughly half an hour later, and in the distance amid the smoke and fog, I could see another built-up region approaching. A check of the compass showed our path to be between 'north-northwest' and 'northwest', and my sensing was 'the city ends in about five to seven miles'. The feeling of 'reply', however, called this an optimistic figure, for some reason, and at the next 'breather' – perhaps three hundred yards from the road that formed the new district's boundary – I thought to mention it.
“That sounds about right,” murmured Lukas. He sounded tired, or so I thought. “I'm glad we've got decent store of beer still, as this trip back is making me thirsty.” A brief pause, then, “and I'm glad for that other stuff what turned up.”
“Other stuff?” I asked. I was listening for 'people', and I could not hear any nearby.
“Three decent lumps,” said Lukas. “It smells fresh, too.”
“Is this cooking fuel?” asked Karl. Lukas nodded, then resumed sipping from a small copper cup.
The lack of other drinking containers was a matter for marveling, until I recalled talk about how we could expect rough roads on our trip back. Our current road had been bad enough that way, or so I suspected.
“Less than they thought it would be,” said the soft voice. “There will be sections ahead, however, that will make up for this portion's lack that way.”
At the juncture of brush and road, I led off with the column now stringing out nose to tail in single column, and the cobbles underneath again made faint clopping noises. Within less than a moment, however, I could feel the presence of a Medieval region ahead, and within two more moments, I noted the sense of 'dead' in the region. It wasn't like any species of 'dead' I had felt in the fifth kingdom house prior, for I could feel an aura of life but faintly hidden.
“No, they don't have witches in this place,” I thought, “and...”
“While there are no witches,” said the soft voice, “there are a great many scavengers. More, this area ahead is where many of the fifth kingdom house's scavengers actually live.”
“Live?” I asked, as we turned from a 'normal' looking street onto a 'Medieval' one. It was heading northwest, which sufficed for me after hearing of the absence of witches.
“And work, and sell a fair percentage of what they find and repair,” said the soft voice. “There was a worse-than-usual outbreak of plague in this area two years ago, and the witches still think the region a deathtrap.” A brief pause, then, “which it is, if one is a witch or wishes to be one.”
The sense of panic I then sensed in the column was enough to cause me to turn around where I sat, and I whispered as Jaak came to a stop, “that doesn't apply to us.”
“Th-that sign,” said the fear-laden voice of Gabriel. He seemed about to scream, while there was no seeming about his current state of panic. “That's a plague-sign, and...”
“Hist, you,” said Lukas. “Didn't you hear?”
“It does not apply to us,” I said calmly, with a voice just above a whisper. “I was told there were scavengers living here, and I think us to be closer to them than to witches.” I then turned to look at the sign itself.
The reddish haze that gathered about the 'trident' made for wondering, as it was not merely thin, but 'off-color' referenced to that of the fetishes I had seen recently. I suspected this haze to be but the outermost portion of what the thing was choosing to show – and yet, still, I wondered. I recalled a certain copy of a money-metal, one that had but little power.
“As is that plague-sign,” said the soft voice. “Most of that red haze you are seeing is red paint applied by scavengers to scare off potential competitors.”
“Most?” I asked.
“The witch in question was but newly initiated,” said the soft voice, “and quite ignorant, which is why his first rune-curse was also his last.” A pause, then, “a virulent case of plague didn't help him or his fellows much.”
We left the plague-sign behind us, and not two streets further into the maze-like region, we came to a line of part-filled watering troughs. I could feel the presence of people nearby, so much so that when I touched the nearest of the two pump-handles, I jerked my hand back.
“That is trouble,” said Karl. He'd seen me. “Are these things cursed?”
“N-no,” I gasped. “Someone was pumping on this one recently. It's warm to the touch.”
Karl took hold of it, then pumped a single stroke. Water gushed out into the trough, and he continued pumping as the horses began drinking as if dehydrated.
“Aye, this one has recent prime too,” said Lukas, as he tried the other pump. “Now to put the grain to these animals while they're drinking.”
“And the food to us,” murmured Hendrik. “At least we have some dried meat still.”
I was glad I had some remaining in my possible bag, for I only now noticed my hunger as well. A glance up into the fog-shrouded sky spoke of a near-zenith moon, with the quietest time of night in the house being perhaps an hour or two in the future. I was more than a little glad, as the last portion of the house would be the region most populated by witches.
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Still, it will help.”
We resumed perhaps twenty minutes later in single-file column, and the noise of rag-muffled hooves seemed to faintly echo off of the tall-walled narrow Medieval streets. More than once, I noticed furtive movements in my peripheral vision; I ignored them, for there were no active telegraph offices within an hour's reach on foot.
“And no scavenger in this area is inclined to visit such a location,” said the soft voice. “The one on your way out is closing now for the night.”
“Good,” I thought, as I turned from one Medieval street to another such winding road. The place we were in was trying to imitate a maze, and I was glad my sensing of the correct streets was as strong as it was at this time. More, there was another place to water the horses near the end of the current 'district'.
“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “The 'last' district will be perhaps a mile in width.”
“You hear that?” said the voice of Lukas. “We're almost out of the bad part.”
Faint noises that reminded me of snoring seemed to provide an answer, as well as part-hid grumbling, and I reached for my water-bottle. I needed some beer myself, even though I had previously been as sparing as I could manage since we had left the house proper, and I swallowed a fair amount prior to replacing the cork.
“Now I hope there's a fair amount jugged,” I thought. “I recall seeing at least ten jugs marked 'beer', and I hope they were filled.”
“They were,” said the soft voice, “and there are three more jugs than you actually counted.”
“Th-thirteen?” I asked.
“Seventeen,” said the soft voice. “Gilbertus managed to locate new five jugs yesterday.”
Hearing the hour as being 'midnight' helped more than a little, as I could feel the next watering stop but a short distance away. Three more cross-streets, and it showed abruptly amid renewed fog.
“The stink is worse,” said Karl, as he pumped on one of the three pump-handles, “and this handle is cold.”
“Yes, that one,” said Sepp. “Someone used this one recently.”
“Aye, all of these have decent prime,” said Lukas, “and I'm glad those rags are holding up decent.”
“Uh, wear?” I asked.
“They'll manage, I suspect,” said Lukas. “I can see a few places where there's iron showing, but only a few.” A pause, sounds of drinking, then, “and they're small places still, so they're likely to not grow that quickly.”
“Especially given there's a brushy region between the end of this part and the start of that other,” I said quietly. “It isn't that wide.”
“How big is it?” asked Kees.
“Smooth, flat, at least one 'road' width path, and perhaps three quarters of a mile at its widest point,” I said. “They put mule-teams there, but we can move around them.”
“How?” asked Kees. “Those things tend to notice almost anything...”
“I should have said, “they commonly put mule teams in those, uh, places,” I said. “All the freighters went into the nearest section of town.”
“And are getting into some strong drink,” said Hendrik. “Are there watches put over the mules?”
“Yes, but those people have their own jugs of high-test,” I said testily, “and they're drunk and getting drunker.”
“Which means we should have little trouble,” said Hendrik. “No loose mules?”
“Uh, none save what the freighters rode into town on,” I said. “Otherwise, they're penned up, and none of those pens are particularly close to one another.” A brief pause, then, “which means we can go through that place more or less unnoticed.”
The Medieval section came to its end within five minutes of our resuming travel, and the transition between 'close-and-noxious' and 'wide-open-spaces' was the width of a single dirt road. The fog had grown yet worse, and its noxious dense clouds seemed to cling to man and beast while we negotiated the roadside ditches and left the road behind.
The stink of 'mule' was now potent and localized, and amid the fog I felt confident of avoiding the 'mule pens'. Nonetheless, I kept my eyes open, and listened for braying and the other noises common to mules until we had reached the road I had known of.
Our pace picked up slightly, and I was glad for the fog burying the noise of our movement. The buggy wheels hissed faintly, and now and then jolted lightly over a part-hidden rock; the horses' hooves thumped at a barely audible level; and in the distance, I heard the pounding roars and crashing of a multitude of 'evil engines'.
“No, I cannot see smelter-flames in this murk,” I thought, “and I've got my hands full staying clear of those mules anyway.”
Within moments, however, I saw places churned well by the spiked shoes of mules, and glancing to right and left showed the largest-yet 'goat-pens' I had ever seen. These were easily two hundred feet across, and parked around them in straggly rows were heavily-laden freighting wagons. The mules, thankfully seemed asleep, for I heard none of their noises.
“Mash and bull formula,” I thought, as I recalled what the hostler had dosed his with. “I wonder if they do that down here?”
There was no answer, and when the dirt 'road' came to a roadside ditch, I paused briefly to listen. I could 'feel' estates in the area, as well as drink-houses and alleys; and as I listened, I seemed to hear rattling coaches, gunfire, snoring, and drunken curses.
“Another mile,” I murmured. “Follow me.”
I crossed the ditch, and once onto the road proper, I turned right. The fog was now so thick I could barely see more than twenty feet conventionally, and my ears had but little added range. A glance at the compass spoke of east-northeast travel, and when a road heading left came, I turned onto it. Another compass-glance spoke of heading northwest.
“Good,” I thought, as a potent whiff of 'mule' blew from east to west. “This road is in the right direction.”
The group now seemed to huddle closer to me, almost as if it were composed of terrified children in the midst of a forest filled with wild animals, and I continued northwest along the road. We passed estates, these being huge high-walled places with wrought-iron letters arched over their gateways, and rows of obvious shops and drink-houses intermingled with long tall brick-rows of alleys. The sounds of raucous 'revelry' mingled with curses and occasional bursts of Underworld German seemed to come from every clump of shops, while the silence of the alleys and estates seemed to speak of new-dug hosts of graves. Far to the east, I heard an echoing roar and rumble, then another; and when we came to a side-street heading west and east, I stopped to listen.
“That's a coach,” I murmured to myself, as the clattering noise of trotting mules merged with the rattle and rumble of unlubricated plain-wood axles and hubs. “I hope it doesn't turn...”
The coach was upon us, and its barely-visible form rumbled past at a distance of perhaps twenty feet. The reek of strong drink was so intense I wondered if the vehicle was distilling forty-chain, and when it passed, I noted I had been holding my breath the whole time.
“That was close,” I murmured softly, as I resumed forward progress at wary yet faster speed.
I now realized I wanted out of this above-ground witch-hole as fast as could be safely managed, and the others seemed inclined to catch ahold of my clothing, such that I might drag them out of danger quicker.
“No, no galloping now,” I thought. “Only another short distance, maybe ten minutes at this speed, and we can relax a little bit...”
I looked around, and noted the alleys had been left behind, as had the shops and estates. There were buildings remaining, but none were closer than a hundred yards distant. Most were yet further away, and their distance from both road and each other was increasing quickly. From behind, a final booming volley of gunshots from somewhere far distant, and the muffled clatter of hooves upon cobbles gave way to the softer sounds of hard-packed dirt.
“Just a bit further,” I thought, as the fog seemed to block hearing and sight yet more than before. “We're almost clear.”
“No almost,” said the soft voice. “You are actually out of the city.”
“Because this area is being plotted over by witches,” said the soft voice, “and they plan to build upon it within a few months.”
“And how far does this portion go?” I asked.
“About another two minutes at your current speed,” said the soft voice. “The fog will start thinning then.”
The others remained bunched up, and from somewhere, I could hear voices like frightened children speaking of witches and their myriad desires for the raw meat and steaming blood of sacrifice. I thought to speak to such fears, but held off; for somehow, I knew that with the lifting of the fog, such fears would be alleviated to at least some degree.
One minute passed, then two; and as if by magic strange and potent, the fog began clearing. It cleared so rapidly, and to such a phenomenal degree, that I felt amazed by the third such minute; for now, it was but a thin misty dampness that jeweled the light of the moon as it shown palely upon our road.
That was something of a marvel, for the regions to each side of the road itself were populated by short ragged stumps mingled with close-grubbed grass gnawed clean into the dirt, while the road itself was sunken nearly a foot below grade and floured thickly with dust. First one sneeze, then another came from behind me.
“Hist, you,” whispered Lukas. He seemed uncommonly loud after the muffling effects of the fog. “No more of that sneezing.”
The gentle upgrade caused the road to both rise out of its 'channel' and the dust to dissipate within a fairly short distance, and for some reason, I began looking on the left margin of the road. I could feel someone perhaps two or three miles away coming south at a steady trot, and the faint braying noises I heard spoke of a mule-team. The brush was growing steadily thicker to each side, which meant going 'off' needed to happen soon.
“Or does it?” I thought. “I know I don't want to run into those m-mules... What? What's this?”
I rode toward the left side, stopping at the juncture of brush and narrow dust-filled ditch, and began pulling at the brush itself. The others began gathering behind me, and I could hear faintly the voiced questions as to what I was doing.
“There's something here,” I murmured, as a thick branch suddenly 'folded' aside to show a narrow-seeming 'path'. “Oh, come on. Follow me.”
I led onto the path, with Jaak following me, and behind me, I heard the first buggy enter the narrow place with soft rubbing noises. I went on ahead, continuing to listen, then as the second buggy passed the isthmus, I began counting people while walking back around the column among the bushes to each side.
“Where are you going?” asked Gabriel. He seemed to be almost shouting at me.
“I need to close that, uh, doorway,” I said. I added, this portion unseen, “and I need to ask our tracks to vanish, also.”
The last of the horses had gone perhaps twenty feet from the doorway when I came to it, and as I pulled it shut, I silently asked our tracks to be hidden. Something happened, what I could not discern, and as I made my way back to the front of the column, I could hear once more sounds that I wondered about.
“Who's grumbling?” I thought. “Isn't it enough that we got out of, uh, Dodge? And in one piece?”
The path that I had found now began winding through head-tall brush and scrubby trees, and grass encroached upon two faint and narrow ruts churned into hard-packed dirt. There had been traffic of some kind along the path in recent days, though its traces were very faint; and while the night was dark and the remaining fog supplied clinging dampness, I was glad for my compass and its faintly glowing needle.
“North-northwest,” I murmured appreciatively, as we continued single file along the narrow track. “Those mules will, uh, wipe out the rest of our tracks.”
“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “You can relax to a modest degree now.”
Our trail wound and curved its gentle path on an intermittent uphill, and within perhaps an hour, the ground began perceptibly 'rolling'. The path wobbled down into the ravines by cutting crossways down their sides to then cross straight across the rock-strewn dried-out 'riverbeds', then it would again go sideways to climb the bank on the other side – and once on the other side, the uphill trend would gently resume as the path wound past stunted trees and copses amid otherwise thick and impenetrable brush.
Another ravine showed, then a third; and in the midst of this third rocky riverbed, I found a small pool of water. I thought to smell it carefully, and detected no odor; and then touched it, feeling it as if to test for oil or alkali. Lukas came beside me, and knelt down with his cup.
“Taste it?” I gasped.
“Aye,” he said, as he swished his cup in the water and then brought it up to his mouth. He did not swallow the water, at least at first. “Tis decent, though I'm most likely going to want a privy should it gripe me.”
“The horses?” I asked.
“They should manage,” he said. “You'd best get into some beer.”
Three cups later, I noted a sense of both increased alertness and lessened fatigue, and when I knelt down to check Jaak's hooves, I saw the rags had vanished. I wondered who had removed them, at least until I found Karl with a well-stuffed cloth bag. He was about to stuff it behind one of the buggy seats.
“Did you?” I asked.
“These rags are still decent,” he said. “We can trade them easy in the fourth kingdom.”
“For, uh, what?”
Karl looked at me, then said, “I did not think of that.”
“Did someone speak of the rags?” I asked.
Karl shook his head, then said, “only when I started untying them did anyone say much to me.”
“What did they say?” I asked.
“I could not understand some of what I heard,” said Karl, “as some of them were asleep, I think.” He paused, then said, “and until I got two cups of beer in me, I was mostly asleep myself.” A brief pause, then, “and this road has not had anyone on it for at least a ten-day.”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“There are tracks,” he said, “but they are very faint.” He paused, then said, “Gilbertus said they were donkeys, most likely, and not carrying much.”
“Fastest travel, no doubt,” I murmured.
“He said that was likely, too,” said Karl. “Now I hope I can stay awake and watch carefully.”
I wanted to ask why, at least until we came to the peak of the next rise. Our path had continued heading uphill, and the fog was no longer present. The moon now shed its light down upon us at a marked angle from its former vertical, and I knew the night would be over within a few hours.
“And camp in the first likely spot before dawn,” I thought. “I hope we can bathe, or at least wash up.”
Another ravine; a second; then, at the bottom of the third, I saw faintly somewhere to the west the merest beginning of the darkness' diminishing. We finished watering – another 'spring' had showed – and upon resuming our uphill travel once out of the ravine, I began 'looking' for a 'place to hide'.
“No, no traffic, not that I can feel,” I thought. “We're easily miles from the nearest road.”
“Well-traveled road, you mean,” said the soft voice. “This portion of the fifth kingdom has many 'back-roads', most of which receive little traffic beyond that of those living in the general area.”
“People live around here?” I asked.
“Goat herders, mostly,” said the soft voice. “Those vegetable-ranching hermits are further north and east.”
“And a place to crash?” I asked.
“Just past the next ravine,” said the soft voice. “There have been small camps, but you were not looking for them.”
I wanted to say, “duh,” but refrained.
“They weren't really large enough for a party of this size,” said the soft voice, “whereas the one ahead is.”
“Water?” I asked.
“A small sunken pond in the middle of a thick and unusually large copse,” said the soft voice, “as well as a pre-dug privy and small stack of firewood.”
“Which we do not want to burn,” I thought.
“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “Were there just you and perhaps one other person, you might chance using firewood for cooking your food, but not for a party of this size.”
“I just hope we can bathe,” I muttered. I was beginning to feel especially sore.
The uphill portion seemed impossibly long, and the tiresome minutes dragged past one by one. The light began showing more and more to the west, until just before sunrise we came to another ravine – a ravine easily three hundred rock-strewn yards across, with but a narrow hard-packed trail among sizable boulders.
The downhill portion – easily ten feet for height, and twenty yards for length, with a switchback in the middle – made for sighs and barely-suppressed moans, and the trip up the other side, screams of near-delirium. I wondered for a moment if I were hearing matters audibly or otherwise as I stood by the road to watch the buggies come up the grade – and if needed, help.
I was glad both buggies made the grade just the same, and I turned to go when the last of the party came out of the ravine. It took me nearly a minute to reach the front once more, and every man I passed, save for both older men, seemed dead to the world.
“How many more of these, uh, ravines are there?” I asked, as I began looking for the copse spoken of.
“Enough to provide efficacious cover while crossing the 'horn' of the fifth kingdom,” said the soft voice, “which is good, as the second group of people following you went along the coast-road.”
“Second?” I asked. I could just feel that copse. Calling it well-hid was an understatement. “What happened to the first group?”
“Those that still live of those people are currently too intoxicated to speak,” said the soft voice, “and should they survive that particular combination of severe burns, bullet wounds, 'witch-doctoring', and strong drink, they will not be believed by their questioners.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“No witch will believe a 'story' that speaks of the entire party vanishing,” said the soft voice, “even if many witches in the fifth kingdom house have heard of the disappearing tendencies of those marked.” A brief pause, then, “this road does not help much.”
“The reason it seems to be so little used is that it's a marked path,” said the soft voice, “and it needed you finding it.”
“And the same, no doubt, for this copse,” I thought. “Is that it over, uh, there?”
The 'copse' proved to actually be a sizable grove of trees clustered thickly around a small pond sunken into the earth, and between the shade of their foliage and the dampness of the pond, the place seemed an earthbound haven. The horses were turned loose first to forage, and then the tub came out. I needed a bath in the worst way imaginable, for I now noticed how itchy and sticky I felt.
“Is there enough water?” whispered Lukas. Gilbertus had gone down into the spring proper, while everyone save the three of us had collapsed upon their cots.
“I expect so,” he said. “At least the three of us can bathe afore we start sleeping.”
With sparing water and but traces of soap, the three of us got our baths. The others were now beyond 'dead to the world', and while I waited for the water to boil, I went over the buggies. All of them needed their oil reservoirs topped, even if their hubs were entirely cool to the touch.
“Those rocks do that,” muttered Lukas, “and I'm glad we're able to check the horses now.”
“Did you find rocks?” I asked.
“Two so far,” he said, “and they were small and hard to remove.”
With Lukas bathing, I set a final pot of water to boiling over the heating lamp, and once it had sent faint wafts of steam into the air for several minutes, I turned the lamp off and covered the pot with one of my grain-pans.
“That's a good idea,” said Gilbertus. “At least we have water fit to drink now.”
“Uh, that and cooking,” I said between yawns as I wobbled over to my cot. My cover-sheet was in my hands, and I knew I wanted it badly.
I awoke sometime close to midafternoon, and as I put my legs down with the coversheet beside me, I listened carefully. Everyone else was still 'dead' to the world, or so I thought when I heard someone attempting to strike a light with flint and steel. I stood, and to my shocked surprise saw Karl attempting to start a fire.
“No, Karl,” I said, as I came to his side. “The smoke will...”
“This is dry wood,” he said, “so it will not smoke much.”
“You don't want smoke here,” said Lukas as he sat up. “Any smoke at all shows for miles.”
“And will bring trouble,” I said. “Especially given... Karl, how much wood were you going to light?”
“Enough to boil water for bathing,” he said. “Why?”
“You'd have the witches onto us,” said Lukas. “You'd burn all of that wood doing that.”
“So how will we bathe, then?” asked Karl. He sounded completely unreasonable, almost as if there was a potent fetish handy.
“Either tonight before we leave,” I said, “or when we next stop just before sunrise.” A brief pause, then, “between a bit of wind around sundown and darkness, the smoke should be dissipated enough by going through these trees.”
“And food?” asked Karl.
“That you'll want to eat cold,” said Lukas. “He boiled some water for drinking afore turning in.”
Over the next two hours, the remainder of the party awoke – and twice more, Lukas had to warn off someone from attempting to start a large and smoky fire with the firewood that lay nearly piled near an obvious firepit. Finally, I thought to demonstrate just how bad an idea it was to burn 'wood' prior to near-full darkness. I began cutting shavings off of one of the smaller pieces with my knife.
“Why are you making kindling when you speak of not burning wood?” asked Gabriel pointedly.
“This is not normal 'dry' wood,” I said. “It looks drier than it is, and it's, uh, smokier than you might think – oh, and it feels somewhat greasy, also.”
“Still, why are you making kindling?” he asked.
“That ain't kindling he's doing,” spat Lukas. “I think I remember what that stuff is now, and it's decent firewood, at least for heat.”
“Then why are we not burning it now?” asked Gabriel. He seemed to be inclined toward unreasoning behavior, more so than any time I had seen him since removing that strange black embroidered underwear, and his tone of voice showed it plainly.
“It makes decent coals, too,” said Lukas. “Trouble is, it makes a lot of smoke afore it's ready to do much otherwise.”
“So?” spat Gabriel. “All firewood smokes.”
“Not like this stuff,” I murmured, as I reached for my match tin. I had a rag handy. “Now watch.”
I lit the match with a hissing noise, and put the feeble yellow flame next to the shavings I'd piled up. The flame all but jumped to the shavings, which billowed thick gray smoke until I stomped the fire out with my boot. I used the rag to 'spread' the smoke before it went into the trees above my head.
“Now do you believe me?” I muttered. “That stuff should be called 'signal-wood', or...”
“Aye,” said Lukas, “only it's used for signals by them what burns it.” A pause, then, “they call that stuff grease-wood, on account of it smoking like burning fifth kingdom axle grease.”
“Smoke signals, indeed,” I murmured. “We'd best forget about burning it entirely.”
On second thought, however, I had a 'small' idea, and began shaving up more of the 'grease-wood'. Karl came over, his knife out, and he sat down beside me. Sundown would be 'shortly', unless I guessed wrong.
“Kindling?” he asked.
“No, no kindling,” I said. “We'll need to get bath-water for the five of you, and a thought occurs to me as to how to keep the smoke of this stuff down.”
“How is that?” asked Karl.
“We dig a hole, and line it with rocks,” I said, “and we start a small fire with cooking fuel. Our pot sits over the hole filled with water.”
“So we use cooking fuel that way,” said Karl. “Now what of this wood?”
“We treat it like coal,” I said. “Add a few small shavings once the fire's going with the other stuff, and then the smoke is a lot less.”
Karl needed no more explanation, and soon he and Sepp were helping me make shavings while Lukas was making an 'oven'. Our buckets had already been filled from the spring.
The 'oven' proved an astonishing success once its stones had heated, and the 'grease-wood' burned surprisingly hot with Lukas adding the shavings a few at a time. It still smoked somewhat, however, and I was glad for the wind blowing through the grove so as to dissipate the wispy gray fumes.
We left when it was fully dark, with but a scanty meal of dried meat and the remnants of our bread eaten out of hand while packing. A brief check prior to leaving showed sufficient 'mix' to make another two servings of camp-bread, and once underway, I smelled something 'fishy'. I asked about it at our first 'rest-stop' about an hour after leaving camp. A small part-hidden pool of water had showed in the midst of a narrow ravine.
“I've got some fish soaking,” said Lukas, “and it should be ready about morning so's to cook it.”
“Cook?” I asked. I wanted to ask 'how'. 'Dried fish' sounded very unappetizing.
“It needs slow-cooking,” said Lukas. “I hid a little bag of that burned coal in my things.”
“And I brought some from home just in case,” I muttered. “Another oven once we camp?”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “That stuff ain't cooking fuel, but it's near as good for not smoking and it burns a lot longer.”
“And we need to preserve what smokeless fuel we have,” I murmured. “That grease-wood was trouble.”
“Aye,” muttered Lukas. “I needed to wash my hands twice to get the grease off of 'em.”
The moon rose shortly thereafter, and without fog to diffuse its light, the path showed plainly. Atop one of the taller rises, we paused to rest both men and horses, and I looked out toward the west. For what seemed an impossible distance, I could see brushy terrain, then a narrow 'ribbon', and finally, the faintly silvery 'mirror' of the sea. Gabriel came up beside me as I continued looking.
“Good, there's the coast-road,” he said. “It might be ten miles away, perhaps twelve.”
“We'd best stay clear o' it,” said Lukas. A brief pause, then, “now how you getting that short of a distance to that road?”
Gabriel had no words for an answer, and left for his horse – or so I suspected. Looking to the south and west with compass in hand, I noted a wide scraggly-looking projection jutting out into the ocean.
“I have no idea how far away the sea is from here,” I murmured, as I passed the first of the buggies on the way to where Jaak was standing, “but I know it's further than ten to twelve miles.”
“Twice that and more would be close,” said Lukas. “I copied some maps down afore we left home.”
“Maps?” I asked. “You did?” I wanted to ask as to why we had not used them.
“Most maps ain't that good,” said Lukas. “These were as good as I could find.”
“Did you, uh, 'go upstairs'?” I asked. I recalled the instructor's maps, and their near-worthlessness.
“Didn't need to,” said Lukas. “There were these three books what had charts in 'em, and I traced those careful.”
“Navigational texts?” I asked.
“Aye,” said Lukas. “Maps ain't easy to find near home.” A pause, then, “at least I could put the corrections to what I traced from what I knew.”
Minutes after resuming, however, I heard faint speech from the rear, and while I continued looking ahead, I bent my hearing to the rear. It seemed Gabriel was still taking issue with our current road, and Lukas had a better idea.
“I heard talk about two groups following us,” said Lukas. “The second one's going that way.”
More mumbled comments, none of which sounded good; then, “this is a marked road, Gabriel.”
And still, objection remained. I resolved to speak to the matter at our next stop for rest, but upon reaching it – another 'damp-bottomed' ravine – I heard Gilbertus join in to make a three-way whispered conversation about our road. I thought to stay clear just the same, which proved wise.
“Enough of your speech, Gabriel,” said Hendrik. “We do best to stay upon roads like this as much as we can.”
“Aye,” said Gilbertus. “It may be a rough road, and a slow one, but it's lacking in traffic.”
“And it is a marked road,” said Hendrik. “A faster road will be of no use to us should it result in our deaths.”
The trip to the 'rise' after this last ravine seemed an uncommon distance, so much so that the moon reached its vertex with us still on a long and sluggish-feeling uphill grade. We had needed to rest twice since leaving the last ravine, and midway between the two rest-stops, I had begun to see – and more, feel – a distinct change in the air and scenery, one that spoke of less-frequent rains.
There were fewer copses, and these smaller, while 'sagebrush' had taken much of their room; and grass now grew gray and straggling in small clumps. These last were commonly well-gnawed by animals of some kind. I resolved to check the column as well as the buggies at our next stopping for rest – and I wondered when would be wise in this region of scarcer water.
“Another hour, perhaps?” I thought, as I finished the contents of my water-bottle. “I'm glad we're doing this at night.”
I glanced up at the moon periodically so as to 'guess' the time, and when the thing had shifted toward the east perceptibly, I called a halt. Our road was still an uphill one, at once rocky, narrow, and walled with brush, and as I walked down the trail, I paused to both feel the hubs and look under the buggies.
“This one is decent,” I murmured, as I nearly ran into Karl. He had his cup out, and looked thirsty, and on the way back, I noted him not merely less thirsty-looking, but also inclined toward a question.
“This is not the table-land, is it?” he asked. I could hear him shuddering in the faintly chilling wind.
“No, it ain't,” said Lukas, as he corked a beer jug and began replacing it in its 'hiding spot'. “Table-land's dryer. Then, this don't go much further north, if I suspect right.” A pause while Lukas looked 'east' into the near-impenetrable darkness, then, “the table-land is east of here some distance.”
“This road goes through a smaller town,” I said. “We should hit it, uh, near dawn.”
“Does this town have wires?” asked Karl.
“No, it doesn't,” I murmured. “No wires, no other towns within a reasonable distance – oh, and these people are desperate for paying custom.”
“Paying custom?” This was by Sepp.
“They don't get much for business,” I said, “and most of the people in the area live in and around that town.” I paused, drank from my cup, then said, “it's so isolated it behaves more like it's in the fourth kingdom than the fifth.”
“Then how does it remain?” Kees was investigating the other buggy some twenty feet down-trail, and he had asked.
“Miners like equipment that works,” I said, “and this places either makes that type of equipment, or repairs it.”
“That is done mostly in the house,” said Gabriel. He had somehow not merely come closer, but also, his voice sounded slightly 'unusual' for him – not the tone of 'oblivion' I had heard many times recently, but words somehow similar and yet quite different. “Why would they think to do such work there?”
“Because it is commonly done somewhat better than in the house,” I said, “and, I suspect, cheaper.”
“Miners like that,” said Lukas. “There are mines out this way.”
“Hence quicker and easier shipping,” I murmured. “That also saves time and money.”
The uphill grade continued for what seemed another hour, then began lessening. The region roundabout seemed yet drier than it had earlier in the evening, with 'sagebrush' tall and thick and copses few and small. Bunch-grass seemed rare, so much so that I knew we needed to get what grain we could at the town when we arrived, and the same for our food as well.
“And Lukas' fish?” I thought.
“It will make a passable broth once the bulk of the salt soaks out of it,” said the soft voice. “I would not waste time in that town just the same.”
“Continue on during the daylight?” I asked.
There was no answer – at least to that question. Another question – water, at least for the horses – had suddenly acquired an answer, and I began 'looking' so as to try to find it.
“There's a small spring ahead,” I said at our next stop.
“And that town?” asked Sepp.
“It's ahead enough that I know we'll get there some time after sunrise,” I said. “We'll not want to spend overlong in that place.”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “If there are towns out this way, they ain't fit to stay in for long.”
“Perhaps three hours,” I said. “Some of us can, uh, nap while others fetch supplies?”
“There are some people already napping,” said Sepp. “I have fallen asleep more than once since we've started tonight.”
The feeling of 'water' grew steadily stronger, so much so that I began looking to the sides carefully, and at the first 'decent' copse I had seen in hours, I stopped. While Jaak stood more or less still, I could hear words indicating consternation at my stopping, so much so that when someone came after me, I thought to turn around and tell them what I was looking for – at least until Gilbertus showed with a bucket and short length of rope.
“Did you find water?” he whispered.
“It's somewhere really close,” I murmured, “and it's hid good.”
“I thought so,” said Gilbertus. “The horses are getting dried out.”
“I know... There.” I ceased speaking as the copse seemed to 'open' for me, and I hunkered down to my knees so as to 'slide in' through the dense foliage.
And not ten seconds later, I heard Gilbertus whisper, “where did you go?”
“Right here,” I said. “I'm crawling... Ooh!”
“What?” asked Gilbertus.
“I nearly fell into the spring!” I squeaked. I began 'reversing', saying as I did, “I'm coming back out now.”
Once out, I had to show Gilbertus how to not merely 'get inside', but also exactly where the spring 'was', and after showing him, I had to show both Karl and Sepp. They had each brought a bucket apiece, and we formed a 'bucket-brigade' to first hand in the buckets, then hand them back out filled with water. The icy chill of the stuff was a marvel exceeded only by the thirst of the horses – and, I soon learned, the thirst of our group.
“That's decent water,” murmured Gilbertus as we passed in the second of three empty jugs. “It's as good as anything I've ever tasted.”
“I hope you do not get sick from it,” I murmured.
“Not when it's that cold,” said Lukas.
“Doesn't it need boiling?” I asked.
“Not down here,” said Lukas. “If you find cold water south of the third kingdom port, it is safe to drink.”
“Is that an, uh, old tale, or...” It had that sound to it.
“I had but heard of cold water down this way before this,” said Gilbertus. “Besides, water-sicknesses need to have people close to be troublesome.”
“And there might be ten o' them within a Laeng,” said Lukas.
The fish had its water changed out once the horses had their fill, and with renewed 'hope' we resumed. The horses were noticeably faster, for which I was glad, and when the grade started 'descending', I marveled more – partly at our increased speed, and partly at the growing feeling of 'moisture' in the air.
I did not marvel, however, when traces of fog began showing, and a glance to the left showed far-distant the sea showing as we crossed an uncommonly wide and shallow ravine.
“I hope the other side of this thing isn't going to be too steep,” I thought, as the brush grew taller on each side and copses again became numerous. “At least we still have a few cooler hours left before it gets warm.”