The road's ending, part b.


The bottom of the current ravine seemed to stretch on for what seemed an age, and the moon continued to descend in the east – until at the very 'bottom' of this wide area, I found a copse sheltering a small pond. While this water wasn't particularly cold, it did help the horses to drink it, and I wondered if we could – or should – rest beside it.

“No, best go on,” I thought.

“Especially given the insects living here,” said the soft voice. “You want to be out of this ravine before it gets light.”

“Insects?” I asked innocently. “What kind?” A second later, however, I gasped before squeaking, “flying bugs?”

“And not the usual for the fifth kingdom, either,” said the soft voice. “These are among the worst for both biting and sicknesses in the entire area.”

“Then why aren't they...” I then looked further into the gloom surrounding the pond, and noted an area some distance away but partly hidden by thick reeds and rushes. It looked like a swamp.

“Over there?” I muttered as I looked at a place at once both inviting and 'pestilential'. I could almost see a ghostly plague-sign hovering in mid-air among the nearest reeds. “People don't come here often, do they?” Another pause, then, “and if we remain here for very long...”

“We'll all come down with the red fever,” muttered Lukas. “I recall hearing about this place while I was mining, or one like it, and bad ain't the name for it.”

“Is this the Graaepensaan Rift?” asked Gilbertus.

Lukas began 'shaking' in what might have been fear, then gasped “that was what they called the place, and a worse place for sicknesses...”

“Is tough to find outside of some places in that valley to the east,” I murmured. “We'll need to get moving as soon as the horses fill up.”

Lukas' talk was heard clearly at the least, which sufficed for me. The aspect of 'fear' that had taken over the others was such that I marveled more than a little, even when the flat portion of the ravine ended and the uphill portion started. I was watching the moon carefully as it slowly sank in the east, so much so that I did not notice the slow-growing lessening of darkness in the west until it was prominent. I turned around where I sat and noted our progress.

“We've easily climbed hundreds of feet,” I thought. “How much further?”

“Enough that it will be a near thing,” said the soft voice. “You don't have much further to go.”

Faint humming noises came to my hearing what seemed minutes later, and as Jaak came what looked like an unusually wide tree-root, the noises 'vanished'. I paused to watch the others come up the last of the grade; and as the last men came, I noted them waving their arms around as if trying to drive off clouds of unusually persistent mosquitoes.

“Are they..?” I asked.

“They are asleep,” said the soft voice, “and that noise you heard was that of the insects beginning to forage.”

“That one place?” I asked.

“Was their breeding ground,” said the soft voice. “The Rift can be traversed safely if and only if one does it while those insects are inactive.”

“At night?” I asked.

Late at night,” said the soft voice. “Those insects do not become entirely quiescent until several hours after sundown, and they become active again some time before dawn.”

With the sun beginning to show in the west, I again led off. I could feel the town in question perhaps ten miles to the north, and when I pulled out my compass, I saw that our heading was still more or less what it had been the evening prior.

“A little closer to northwest,” I thought. “It was just about halfway between north and northwest the last time I checked it yesterday.”

Half an hour later, the sun now truly showed, and its rays showed plainly a thick gray fume miles away to the west. I guessed it to be easily twenty miles away, and possibly on the coast.

“Now that's grease-wood for certain,” said Lukas. “Someone must be...”

“Not one someone,” I muttered. “A lot of someone's – like that second group sent after us.”

Yawns to the rear, and a flat region to the front, and the soft sand underfoot drowned out the noise of travel to an astonishing degree. Yet still, there was firm footing for the horses, and the buggies rolled readily, or so I thought when we came to another gentle uphill grade. The plants were becoming 'scrubby' again, or so I thought.

“Fewer copses,” I thought, as I scanned the long-shadowed plains to the north and west covered with billowing 'waves' of sagebrush. I suspected ravines were the cause of the waves, and when the road suddenly seemed to disappear, I nearly fell off Jaak.

I slid off to the side just the same, and scrambled ahead to where the road had 'vanished'. The 'brush', I now realized, was nearly head-tall but feet from the margins of the trail, and I walked slowly to the 'edge'.

“Oh, my,” I spluttered upon seeing a wide flat expanse populated by buildings a few miles away. “There's that town!”

Jaak had come up behind me, and once mounted again, I led off down the abrupt right turn onto the descending grade. The town had hid itself once more by some devious means, for by descending ten to twelve feet it no longer showed, courtesy of the uncommonly thick brush bracketing the trail. A faint clanging noise had me turn where I sat to see the two horses hitched to the first buggy coming up slowly behind me.

“What was that?” I asked.

“A rock bounced off of the off front wheel,” said Lukas. “That's a tricky turn back there.”

“Which is why you and Gilbertus...”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “Hendrik might manage, and the same for one o' those youngsters, if the roads weren't so tricky for driving as they are.”

“Tricky?” I asked. “How?” A pause, then, “the loose surface tires the animals quickly if you're not really careful as to how you steer?”

“Aye, that specially,” said Lukas, as another clang spoke of a tire colliding with a rock. “We'd manage five to ten miles less a day, I suspect.”

“And I don't want to think of our mileage,” I thought. “I doubt we're managing that much.”

“More than you think,” said the soft voice. “The usual groups on 'marked' roads run short strings of light-laden donkeys, and they don't do that much better in the course of a day's travel.”

“Carts?” I asked.

“Not on this road,” said the soft voice. “Traffic needing cartage usually uses different routes.”

The road flattened out within another minute or two, and the head-tall brush grew thicker and more impenetrable – as well as perceptibly more green and odorous. I had never noticed the smell of 'sagebrush' beforehand, but its thick weedy aroma tinged with 'acrid' seemed to clear out the nose.

It also induced sneezing in everyone, and I was not immune.

After my the sneezing ceased on my part – it continued intermittently to the rear – I heard faint speech regarding 'leaky noses' and 'noses needing new leathers'. I could feel 'water' in the area, and over the next minute, I could not merely 'differentiate' the sources – at least two, perhaps three, and all of them close-by – but also, the sense of 'life' locally. It was close to that surrounding the Last river.

“I'm surprised the place feels as dry as it does with that much water,” I murmured.

“It isn't afternoon, either,” said the soft voice, “and while this location's bugs aren't particularly prone to inducing illness, they are both numerous and forthright in their desire for the company of people.”

“B-bugs?” I asked. “F-flying bugs?”

“And crawling bugs,” said the soft voice.

And as if to remind me of what kind of crawling bugs, an intensely foul reek began to manifest. While the source of this stench was some distance away – the odor's intensity varied markedly over the course of nearly a minute's travel – it was irredeemably pungent.

It also had a profound 'acidic' reek, much like the odor of 'oil of vitriol', and when I came to an abrupt turn in the road, I paused. I did not wish to run into the source of the odor, and when I turned around, I saw Lukas bringing up the buggy with one hand on the reins.

His other hand was holding his nose.

“I do not wish to run into whatever is making that stink,” I murmured. “I'm not certain if it...”

I looked at the nearest foliage, and for some strange reason, its deep gray-fluffed green began to vibrate as it acquired a dangerous-looking neon orange-red color around the edges. I reached for my water-bottle as I resumed traveling, then gulped thirstily at the contents while the foliage began to resume its normal hues. I could still see traces of orange-red, as well as a sickening light green and a brilliant eye-burning blue.

“Th-those colors were s-slimy,” I thought, as I felt the beginnings of a headache appearing. “I hope this isn't a hypoglycemia attack. I never had things get that scary-looking.”

I wished to leave the stink behind me, and Jaak had similar ideas, for he sped up apart from my urging. Turning around periodically on the path showed the others keeping up readily, and when my headache finally cleared some ten minutes later, the path had become somewhat wider.

It also had become more 'convoluted', and caution seemed to catch ahold of me stronger than it had since the time of our leaving the fifth kingdom house. I almost expected the road to suddenly 'dry up' or narrow down to something appropriate for a half-grown goat, and when we came to a small and rocky streambed filled with a trickle of water, I did not pause for a second.

“No, that water's bad,” said the voice of Lukas from behind me. “I think it's got lye in it.”

I was not certain about lye, even if I had the distinct sense of this water causing trouble for our horses. Our water thus far had been marginal in that way, so much so that I had given serious thought to boiling their water as well.

“And had we time and fuel, I'd do it in a trice,” I thought. “I just hope this place up ahead has decent water for them.”

The town was ahead, I knew now; and also, it was close by. Somehow, however, it seemed hidden, even as the road continued to play its games with my mind. I wanted to look for side-paths, and roads leading to nowhere, but the path remained still to the front, and inviolate; while to each side, the thick brush – it was now as much trees as brush, and the stubby thick gnarled trunks looked like transplanted telegraph poles – hemmed us in such that we could not leave our destined route.

I was beginning to feel panic. 'What if there is no town' was a chief thought, while its closest competitor was 'what if this town is a copy of the departed Swartsburg? What will we do then?' I shrugged off both of these troubling accusatory thought-trains as well as their supplicating hordes of added doubting questions, and bent myself entirely to the road ahead.

At least, I tried to. The tormenting thoughts were still most-present, and I heard faint whining noises now and then at the edge of hearing. I wondered if I was going insane.

The road widened more, such that there was sufficient room for perhaps two buggies, while the trees seemed to be in retreat. They were mostly replaced by tall and thick clumps of gray-green sagebrush punctuated by clumps of dark-green bunch-grass growing knee-high in thick luxuriant sprays.

“That stuff looks edible,” I thought.

“It is if you are a goat,” said the soft voice. “Look carefully at the inside of the next right turn.”

The 'next right turn' showed but another twenty seconds later, and I paused to look at the ground. The brush was uncommonly thick there, so much so that when I found the ax-bitten stump I nearly fell off onto the ground.

“W-what?” I asked. “How did...”

“The town-dwellers cut wood for fuel and lumber,” said the soft voice, “which is why this stretch of 'the southwest road' is wider than that further to the south.”

“Next to the road?” I asked.

“You are feeling some of what is the dread reality for non-marked people on this road,” said the soft voice. “They don't just wonder about getting lost on it.”

“What happens?” I asked.

“Look at the next turn to the left,” said the soft voice.

I continued on with the fearful aspect of leading a group of people into an earthbound species of hell replaced by a dire curiosity. Faintly, I smelled an odor of sickening nature, one that I but vaguely recalled as to its precise type of source, and while the road slowly twisted back and forth among an irregular-looking sea of tall brush and straggly trees, I waited for the turn spoken of while noticing a slowly growing sense of 'moisture'.

The tree-lined 'chasm' shielded us mostly from the morning sun's rays, and our traveling remained in deep shadow. I was still waiting for the left turn spoken of when it appeared with terrible suddenness. I paused at the apex, wondering if it were safe to proceed. That smell had grown noticeably stronger, and I felt sick to my stomach.

“I need to go on,” I thought. “The others...”

Jaak seemed to have heard my thinking, for he resumed moving, and as we went around the radiused turn, that smell seemed to grow yet stronger. I began looking for the source as the road straightened out with the same suddenness that it had begun its leftward turning.

“G-gah!” I spluttered at the sight of a tree cleared of branches to perhaps twelve feet off the ground with a limb jutting out straight as a signpost. “That's horrible.”

From behind me, faint noises came, and I had to continue moving. The sight before me was sickening beyond words, and the smell, such that I was having trouble holding my gorge in check. We would pass within a dozen feet of the dread sign and symbol now hanging from the outstretched branch.

With each second, the sensation acting upon my mind increased and added to itself: faint noises, these of the ancient and honorable 'old outboard' collective known colloquially as 'flies'; slow drifts of either smoke or steam from parts of that which hung amid scraps of torn darkened cloth; a sense of white-bodied black-headed insects now forming in great serried masses within their new-found territory; and over all, the sense of evil compounded...

“Now that's a sight,” muttered Lukas amid the faint jingling of harness from the rear. He seemed to be slowing his buggy. “Hanging a witch out to dry like that in these parts is something I'd never thought I would see.”

I turned backwards, even as the black-clad corpse drew closer, and shuddered involuntarily before resuming my forward facing – that being the road itself, and as far away from the dangling bullet-ripped body as I could turn my head. I wanted out of the area, and that quickly, and Jaak seemed to sense what I was feeling.

Or was he feeling his own discomfort? It seemed likely. Black-dressed thugs were not decent company, and that irrespective of their current state.

I was most glad when another turn beckoned, and once behind its cover, both sight and smell rapidly diminished. Here and there, I saw further evidence of wooding, for now stumps showed with some frequency, and narrow 'paths' led off to the sides of the road into the brush. I wondered as to their purpose until a 'frisky-looking' goat showed in the mouth of one of these openings.

“They graze goats in this area,” I thought. “That town must be...”

A turn lay but a short distance ahead, and a sense went with it, one of immense surprise; and I strained to 'hear' and 'see' what lay beyond it.

I did so in vain. I would have to wait and see what showed.

The turn seemed to be at once far away – as if in a dream, and I in a dream-world both blessed and damned by the powers of sleep – and close by, such that I could see the ends of the current suspenseful state. In a state of seeming time-stampeded lethargy, Jaak took his time reaching the turn, and when the turn 'came to pass' – it was another of those radiused things, with a narrowed passage but barely wide enough to pass the two horses pulling the buggy behind me – I came from out of it to nearly fall prostrate upon the ground.

“That's...”

The faint jingle of harness coming from behind made for a desire to move to the side of the current road, and there Jaak relieved himself in the roadside ditch. The transition between the two states of being could not have been more abrupt, even if they had been the changing of states of a switch. Lukas pulled up beside me as Jaak finished his business.

“Aye, that's the town I heard of,” he said. “It's decent as towns go.”

“For the fifth kingdom?” I asked.

“For all of 'em,” said Lukas, as he looked to the side. The 'cleared' aspect – but few trees, irregular clumps of sagebrush, and a distinctly 'cultivated' aspect to the thickly-clumped bunch-grass – was remarkable, and as we continued on, that sense but grew stronger.

The first houses showed perhaps a few hundred yards further on once we rounded another turn, and as we passed the first examples, I could smell both cooking food and an aspect of labor among the buildings. Long somewhat straggly mounds raised up a foot or more from the supporting earth showed abundant crops of sundry kinds, while trellises showed here and there near the houses themselves. I was more than a little surprised to see wide expanses of cloth covering them.

“Bleaching cloth, and s-shade for the crops at the same time,” I murmured.

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “This location is a good deal more unusual than it was spoken of being.”

“And those trellises?” I asked.

“Hops,” said the soft voice. “This location is known for its beer in the fifth kingdom, and that with justification.”

The vegetable plots surrounding the gradually thickening houses seemed the very picture of 'farming', for they showed blatantly the signs of intense cultivation. I could feel someone coming up along side me, and I turned to see Karl.

“What...”

“My uncle spoke of how they grow things in the fourth kingdom,” he said, “and that looks like what he spoke of.” A pause, then, “I do not think we are in that place. Are we?”

“I doubt it,” I said, “even if this place...”

Faintly, somewhere far distant, I heard a tinny-sounding whistle-screech followed by a irregular yet rapid banging noise. I turned toward this new sound – it was to the west – and saw in the far distance a faint column of black smoke starting to move slowly into the sky.

“That is a mine,” said Karl. “He said...”

“Aye,” said Lukas from behind. He'd drawn up closer. “That one's just started with its hoisting, most likely.”

“Hoisting?” I asked.

“Damp mines need hoisting all the time,” said Lukas, “or they drown.” A brief pause, then, “most mines just need hoisting while they have people in 'em.”

“Hoisting p-people?” I asked.

“Those go up and down,” said Lukas. “Ore and water just go up, 'cept when the cable breaks.”

“Breaks?” asked Karl. I could hear the shuddering in his voice.

“I've heard that happens,” said Lukas with a lowered voice. “I've never actually seen one o' those cables break.”

“Gabriel said...”

“I'll give him that,” said Lukas. “I saw marks on the roof-beams more than once of places where cables were said to have lashed when they broke, and all of those places had rust going from the wire.”

The houses to each side – flat-roofed, wide, somewhat rambling-seeming, thick-walled of mingled wood and stone – grew more and more common. The spaces between them now seemed crowded with long raised vegetable plots, while to their rears ran more such plots. Some of these latter had head-high green shoots bristling thickly with long floppy leaves, while others had solid coatings of hand-high green 'fur'.

“This is just like the fourth kingdom,” said Lukas. “That must be the town itself.”

My attention jerked from the side to see an obvious town but a few hundred yards ahead as the road steadily curved to the right. The width of this town, and more, its buildings – uncommonly like those close to home, even as to the two stories and steep-pitched roofs – made for wondering, both as to its 'compact' nature, and also, its climate. I was amazed that the sun was not yet baking us.

“That happens later in the day,” said the soft voice. “If you remain much past midmorning, you will want to remain until nightfall.”

“The heat, no doubt,” I thought.

“That, the humidity, and the bugs,” said the soft voice. “Besides, this town's 'siesta' starts early and runs late.”

“Siesta?” I asked.

“The hottest part of the day,” said the soft voice. “Every building in town has a crowded below-ground region then, and the above-ground parts commonly seem 'deserted'.”

“Do they continue working?” I asked. I counted at least three streets branching off of the 'main' street.

“Those businesses amenable to doing so, yes,” said the soft voice. “Those businesses that are otherwise do much of their work after dark.”

The first of the 'town' buildings proved to be a sizable 'livery stable' of sorts, and while I was not looking for horses, the stench of 'mule' almost put me onto the rutted 'main street' from where I sat. A hostler came to the doorway as we slowly went past, and while I watched in my peripheral vision, he seemed to 'vanish'.

“I hope he does not get kicked,” I thought, as I recalled the behavior of the mule at the kingdom house.

“That animal was sold two weeks ago,” said the soft voice, “and is now in the second kingdom.”

“There?” I asked. “How..?”

“It was purchased by an intermediary and then sold to a witch the next day,” said the soft voice, “and that mule is causing no end of trouble for that pack train.”

“H-horses?” I asked, recalling the unhousebroken habits of those I had seen in the Swartsburg.

“As part of a group of mules,” said the soft voice. “He was told it had 'full odor', and is now learning of that aspect.”

“Full odor?” I asked. “That animal smelled badly enough...”

“Full odor speaks of non-deodorized mules,” said the soft voice. “He thinks he received one of those animals.”

“And that witch is peeved, no doubt,” I said.

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “He's lost standing, custom, and income – and that on top of what that mule has cost him directly.”

The next shop – all of these places were on the left side of the road, with the right side a wide grassy 'field' of sorts running the seeming length of the town – showed a sign indicating it was the office of a freighting company. A small open area showed to its right, this being a smooth-raked surface with a pair of freighting wagons seemingly 'ready to go' – and to the left of that space, another shop, this one with no sign or indication whatsoever.

It had people in it, by the sounds I heard, and their business was a good question – one that seemed to slowly gather substance, at least until the first of several northbound streets showed.

“T-this place is b-big,” I muttered. “That's easily got to be a quarter mile...”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if this town is the second largest in the fifth kingdom.”

Another three shops showed, each with an open space beside it showing faint ruts and what might have been drifts of dust, and then an obvious Public House. I didn't have to think as to what needed to happen next, while Jaak seemed to have eyes for but one thing.

He didn't wait for me to get off when he reached the nearest watering trough, and I slid down to land on ground gone 'soft' with dampness. I stretched, yawned – and then saw an obvious copper pipe trickling water into the trough.

“Not merely boiled, but distilled,” said the soft voice.

“G-good,” I spluttered. I wanted to dampen my face in the worst way imaginable, and I was at the end of the trough with a rag by the time Jaak had company at that trough.

There were two other troughs, and they rapidly acquired attention as well from thirsty horses. I began checking Jaak's hooves, and I soon had company once both buggies were unharnessed.

While the three of us checked horses and buggies, the others vanished; and when I'd finished topping the buggies with oil, I straightened up and looked around.

“I hope they're not planning on staying here all day,” I muttered as I looked at the Public House's stoop. “Did everyone go in there?”

“Two did that I saw,” said Lukas. “Not everything we need is in there, and I know I wasn't the only one to hear about staying here long.”

“Uh, where else?” I asked. “A Mercantile?”

Neither man had an answer for me, and once the horses were entirely 'cleared' – I'd pried more than one rock out of a hoof, and I suspected both Lukas and Gilbertus had done the same – I thought to go 'find' a Mercantile. I left on foot, for Jaak had crossed the road and was 'grazing' with the other horses.

Within seconds, I could feel not just one Mercantile, but three of them; two were smaller places similar to those at home, while the third was a 'south-style' place where one could find almost anything of a salable nature. I went in the direction of this last, and I had not managed a hundred yards before Karl and Sepp caught up with me. I then noticed the morning's growing warmth.

“Yes?” I asked. “I'm off to find this one, uh, Mercantile.”

“Those gaffers sent us after you,” said Sepp. “I'd just gotten a loaf when they came in.”

“Did you all go in..?”

Karl nodded, then said, “they wanted to...”

“They, or he?” I asked pointedly.

“It was mostly Gabriel,” said Karl. “He wanted to get into what he called a good meal, and...”

“And what else?” I asked. “Did that sound like a really good idea?”

“It did until those two came in after us,” said Sepp. “I was almost too hungry to listen to anything except my stomach until then.”

“And you're not that hungry now, are you?” I asked.

Karl shook his head, then said, “we should not have been that hungry, but we were.”

For some reason, however, I still had a measure of misgivings, even when I felt the nearby presence of the Mercantile; and once I'd found the place – it was two shops north from the west corner on the third street we crossed, and I was 'looking' until I actually saw the place's sign not twenty feet away – I wanted to ask some more questions, these being chiefly about what constituted a good meal. The place's doubled doors beckoned as a refuge from the morning, and we went in.

The change from heat to chill was abrupt and staggering, and while I looked around aimlessly at the piled shelves to both sides of the central aisle, the other two went on ahead to the rear counter. I could hear them asking for supplies as I came along to join them. I stopped at the counter to the right of Sepp, who was to Karl's right. He was doing the ordering, or so I guessed.

“No, Karl, they don't have herring here,” said Sepp. “They might have dried fish.”

“My uncle said these places have everything,” said Karl. He looked at me then.

I shrugged my shoulders, then said, “while they may have herring, I think we want something a bit less, uh, inclined to go off in this weather...”

My voice had trailed off, and Karl used that for a starting point for his comment. It did not make sense, however:

“Those things are not dynamite, so how can they go off?”

“They do that,” said the clerk, “and no, we don't have herring.” The man's tone of wistfulness was obvious to me.

“Why is that?” asked Karl.

“They might be tasty where they pack those things to the north,” said the clerk, “but they're only fit for the manure piles when they get down here.”

“They're High, aren't they?” asked Sepp.

“High is no word for those things,” said the clerk. “High for the price, and high for the stink, and high for the corn and potatoes.”

“Those things do not get High,” said Karl.

“Put bad fish to 'em when you plant your seed, and give 'em water down here, and they get twice as tall as you,” said the clerk, “and if that ain't high, I'm needing a brass bucket for my head.”

The misunderstanding took another few seconds to finally reach Karl, during which time he was silent and Sepp began asking about 'journey-food'.

“You do not look likely for prospecting,” said the clerk, “and you are not from...”

“Hist, Johan,” said another man. His voice named him older. “Tis not wise to be too prying about business, especially when it involves people you do not know.”

“Prying?” I asked. “We are headed north...”

The older clerk came to Johan's side, looked at me – and nearly fainted, or so I guessed. He recovered soon enough, though his sidelong glances made for wondering. I was becoming nervous, even if Sepp seemed to have the matter of 'supplies' under control.

“Soap..?” I interjected.

Sepp turned to me, then mouthed the words “I forgot.”

“You leading that bunch?” asked the older clerk.

“L-leading?” I asked. “In w-what way?”

“Finding the trail for 'em,” he said. He then glanced at Karl and Sepp. “They look to set their boots out to catch firebugs, and that nightly.”

“Are those things trouble here?” I asked.

The clerk nodded, “them and the stinkbugs, though someone said we might get stinkers down this far.” He paused, then said, “I doubt that, as this town turns into a bake-oven of an afternoon, and those things would cook with the fur they have.”

“Finding the trail?” I asked.

Karl looked at me, then nodded. He remained silent otherwise.

“The trails running out of here are not easy to run,” said the older clerk, “and that is when there is someone leading who is familiar with them. You people do not have donkeys, but buggies...” He paused, then reached for a glazed pottery mug to drink, then continued after a moment's swallowing. “And they do not make those things in the fifth kingdom, so that means you had to come from points north of here.”

“Uh, I...” I was surprised by the man's observation.

“I have seen very few wheeled vehicles on that south road,” said the older clerk, “which means that at least one of you is an uncommon man for capability.”

“The road to the north?” I asked.

“Depends on how far you go along it,” he said. “That trail is not an easy one to abide, and that is for what it does to most people's heads.”

“I can only endure that portion closer to town,” said the younger clerk.

“That is because it has witches on it,” said Karl.

The older clerk looked at Karl, then dismissed his outburst with a shake of his head before speaking.

“No, it is not that,” he said. “It was no one from these parts what hung that wretch out to dry, and the same for those heads that were spiked.” He paused, then said, “though if you do not have someone with you what can guide you, you might wish to be where witches belong instead of on that trail.” Another pause, then with lowered voice, “I am not sure which is worse, strong drink or being on that trail alone.”

“I did not like Geneva...” said Karl.

“That is best for sicknesses and sore places,” said the clerk. “We have some here, in fact.” Another pause, then, “I meant what the witches like for drink, especially that stuff with the green stripe on the jug.”

“Green s-stripe?” I murmured. I had just recalled seeing jugs with such stripes – and more, Liza mentioning something of that name.

“Some witches like forty-chain more,” said the older clerk, “but many witches, especially those preferring black-cloth, commonly consume it.”

“Its usual use?” I asked.

“We do not have any of those cattle here,” he said, “at least not in live form. We might have some salted portions...”

I was now at something of a loss, so much so that when Karl asked about cheese I was tongue-tied. Sepp wasn't much better, and the two clerks seemed to be confused. Thumping steps came from the rear, and I turned to see Lukas.

“They done any ordering yet?” he asked.

The older clerk 'jerked', then shook his head sideways to indicate no – and I began to wonder if I needed to stay nearby. I had a strong feeling that I needed to see more of the town in the hour or so before we left, and I turned once more to see Lukas bringing out a small copper-covered slate. He opened it, then began 'ordering'.

“Uh, soap?” I asked.

“Got that,” he said. “You might look around more about this town, as Hendrik said it might be wise.”

By the time I'd gone back outside, I knew that I'd been misled as to the importance of 'taking in the town' – it was truly important, especially as to the road ahead; accordingly, I resumed my walking, this time staying in the shade as much as I could.

As I walked, I could faintly hear noises indicating labor of sundry types: the clanging of hammers upon anvils, the noises of files and saws, what might have been grinding wheels, and an overall undertone of other noises that I had last heard in the fifth kingdom house. I came to a shop with an open front door, and looked inside.

A freighting wagon was undergoing an 'overhaul' or something similar, as three men were busily engaged in removing parts from its underside. I heard mention of 'rework' and 'Knaadelmann's shop', which made me wonder as to what Knaadelmann's did.

“Which means I need to find the place,” I thought. “Is it around here?”

The noise of files and saws grew more prominent once I came to the 'bend' in the road. A sizable shop lay at the border of the 'green field' on the right, and as I drew closer, I saw the jutting log 'signpost', then what was written upon it.

“This is the place,” I thought. I then noticed the smell.

The odor was that of burning coal, though its lack of intensity was astonishing, and the 'moisture' in the general region more so. One of the place's doors – doubled, just like the shop at home, even if this building was easily three times as large for its dimensions – was part-open, and amid the sounds of files and saws I could hear faintly other noises...

Noises that caused me to recall their source in the house proper.

“That engine,” I murmured. “They're using one...”

And on the tail of that thought came others, chiefly, “what are they powering with it?”

The opened door beckoned, and as I came closer, the 'hiss-chuff' of an obvious steam engine became louder, along with several others I but vaguely recalled. One was a gentle humming noise, while another pulsated with a screeching undertone. I came to the door, and looked inside.

“Th-that's a lathe,” I spluttered, “and th-that's a...”

I could not recall what the tool's name was, even if I clearly recalled what it did. My shop at home had a small and elderly example, in fact, and it was invaluable for cutting deep narrow grooves.

The other tools I took in over the course of seconds: another lathe, this one half the size of the first one; a head-tall vertical-spindle lathe; several grinding wheels, none of them larger than two feet in diameter; a horizontal-shaft milling machine...

“Ugh,” I muttered. “That thing was awful. I'm glad I bought what I did...”

...Two vertical-shaft milling machines, several arbor presses, another of the strange-yet unnameable tools, this one twice the size of the first example; and finally, several tall and spindly-looking drilling machines, with the whole connected by long flapping leather belts to a complicated-looking overhead system of lineshafts. For some reason, I could see no one, even if the noises still continued. I now wondered if I were hearing them conventionally.

“Now where is that engine?” I thought. I did not think to intrude, for it seemed very unwise. “Perhaps around back?”

I began walking around the back side of the stone-and-timber building, and as I came to the nearest corner, the hiss-chuff noise grew louder; and as I continued around the corner, I became aware of another noise – a low shuddery moan – that also grew steadily in volume. The last corner showed; I came to it, looked around – and was promptly shocked by what I saw.

“They're all back here,” I gasped, at the sight of an obvious foundry session underway, “and the engine-house...”

The engine-house – a smaller 'lean-to' near the opposite corner from where I stood – seemed to all but vibrate with power, while a head-tall mound of 'coke' lay piled next to its east side. I took in the following in an eyeblink:

A shorter and somewhat fatter version of Georg's 'submarine' belched flames and modest amounts of smoke, while next to it a waist-high 'blowing-barrel' steadily moaned to provide 'blast'. Both of these edifices were close to the lean-to.

The foundry-yard had numerous sizable casting flasks, all of them clamped and ready to go, while the half-dozen people I could see sweated in thick 'full-coverage' leather aprons and leggings. One older man held an iron bar with a point on the end, and he looked 'into' a small place on the furnace from time to time.

“That must be the gaffer,” I thought. I then recalled hearing that term used for such people before coming here. “And that pike he's holding...”

Gaff,” said the soft voice. “Hence his 'title'.” A pause, then, “he currently runs the shop.”

“Knaadelmann's?” I asked.

“Is well-known in the mining country,” said the soft voice. “Most miners swear by their products, and swear at those made further to the south.” A slight pause, then, “what is commonly less known is that many miners have but little better opinion of much that comes from the fourth kingdom, at least regarding mining tools.”

“As in, uh...”

“Looks don't mean much in a mine,” said the soft voice. “When Antoon spoke of a mining pick going to rusty scrap metal and sawdust in three and a half hours, he meant one made in this shop.”

I left the 'foundry business' to its patrons, for I knew to ask questions when a pour was imminent was a good way to injure people, and I walked slowly back around the building to its front. I then crossed the road at an angle toward the west, thereby avoiding a sizable 'vacant lot' at the meeting of the wider 'through-town' road and the narrower one that came up in front of Knaadelmann's. This open area continued between a smaller building and one twice its size, and as I came to the rutted street itself, I heard music playing – faint yet clangorous, with a definite blues feel.

“It isn't the same,” I thought. “This has a much l-lighter feeling.”

The music grew louder with the passing minutes as I crossed the street and went around the northernmost of the buildings to my front. I could begin to make out words amid the piano-pounding rhythm, words that spoke of smuggling, of all things.

“Smuggler's Blues?” I thought, as I came into a rutted open area. “What's this with witches? Do they smuggle things?”

The beat grew stronger and more 'ferocious' sounding: “twang-twang, twang-twang-thump,” twice repeated, then “twang-twang” repeated three times to end with the piano's player hitting first the lowest-pitch key the piano had, then the highest in rapid succession. It seemed to grow on one to hear it, especially as the player obviously knew his keyboard well. More, it fit the words, which I could now discern with but modest difficulty:


“The witches came one night,

Full-loaded and black-faced,

Their drink craved for a fight,

And we obliged 'em.


'Twas a short and bloody fray,

And they left on break o' day,

and that's when we learned,

O' smuggling trouble.


For while the witches rule,

People need things, yes 'tis true,

And they die without a hope,

If they don't get 'em.


So if you see a witch,

Sure as shooting, find a tree,

And tie and hoist that snitch

and then he'll let you be.


“What?” I gasped.

“The chief business here,” said the soft voice, “is not mining equipment, nor is it decent food for the mines, nor mining caps that work consistently, nor much else that people speak of when mentioning this town's labors.” A brief pause, then, “go in that Public House, and ask the publican about the roads and the traffic they most commonly receive.”

The Public House – a long one-story tile-roofed building, easily twice the size of the place we'd first stopped at – was across the next road I came to. Another road went along side of it with a sizable 'field' in between the road and the building, and across that road, I saw another 'livery stable', two unmarked shops, another shop whose sign spoke of cloth and clothing, and a small building whose sign indicated involvement with assaying.

“They do a great deal of business,” said the soft voice.

“Uh, why?” I asked. “They actually do assays with chemicals and muffle furnaces, rather than chant out of that black book before writing a bunch of rubbish?”

“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “Not every mining superintendent wants a witch-authored pack of lies in lieu of an honest assessment of his ore-samples.”

“Witch-authored pack of lies..?” I was becoming confused, and the renewed piano-pounding rhythm of 'Smuggler's Blues' didn't helm my confusion much.

“Some mining superintendents wish to ride coaches and wear black-cloth,” said the soft voice, “and those people see such 'assays' to be expedient means of achieving their desired end.”

The interior of the Public House was cool and welcome, if otherwise noisy with a singing throng of 'miners' and 'freighters', and the scent of 'beer' was both potent and helpful. It aroused a thirst in myself, so much so that I first paid for a jug of the stuff before I did anything else.

“Now that is a neat cup,” said the publican, upon seeing my cup in use. “Where might I get more of 'em?”

I nearly choked on what I was swallowing, then gasped in a faint squeaky voice, “I made this one.”

“You did, eh?” he said. “Then I'd best ask as to where you come from.” He paused, then said 'conspiratorially', “you can speak of matters plain here.”

“Uh, how?” I asked. “The business here?”

“Is more than what you see,” he said. “There aren't ten people in the whole town who aren't involved at some level, and I ought to know about that.”

“You're the p-publican...”

“Aye, and a right fetcher, too,” he said. “I've fetched my share o' things in the past.”

“Fetcher?” I asked.

“You ain't from around here,” he said, “so I'll keep that in mind.” He paused, then looked at me in a long and puzzling fashion, then said, “I'd guess you're from about middle of the first kingdom. Correct?”

I nodded nervously.

Again, he looked at me closely, then touched my hands.

“You do a lot of work with your hands, but no dirt,” he said, “so that speaks of it being close work. No stains, so you ain't a chemist, either.” A brief pause, then, “so that means you most likely make instruments...” A long pause, another look at the cup, then, “and not common ones, either, but good ones.” Another pause, then, “like Bart himself did, afore the witches got him.”

“Bart?” I asked. “I've heard that name before...”

“He came down regular as the big bugs,” said the Publican. “Every year, he'd show with his buggy, and get a load of sand from Joosten's up the road to the north.”

“Joosten's?” I asked. “Sand?” A pause, then “foundry sand?”

The publican nodded, then said, “so I guess someone will need to go north so's to fetch cups like you have that way.”

“Fetch?” I asked. “Uh...”

Smuggle,” said the publican. Again, he whispered. “Everyone in this town, least if I know 'em, they do that.”

I then recalled needing to ask about the roads – and more, about my currently dehydrated state. I needed two more cups of beer and a visit to the place's near-odorless privy before I could ask.

“That road going south?” I asked.

“Depends on which road,” he said. “The one you came up usually gets donkeys and people walking, and things that are small that bring decent money, like good thimbles.” A pause, then “like those they make at Foustmaan's, in fact.”

I wondered for a moment if we needed more, then thought, “best to get them while the chance is present,” before returning my attention to the publican.

“The roads going east and west join up with other ones,” he said, “and people go south in boxes, then.”

“Boxes?” I asked. I then recalled Liza speaking of 'large boxed freight'.

“Aye,” he said. “The bigger boxes are best for that business, especially if they're done right with spy-holes and doors on the off-sides.”

“And the road to the north?”

“That one gets people and donkeys mostly,” he said. “Lots o' times people stop hereabouts for a while, 'specially if they're short.” He paused, sipped from a clay mug, then said, again in a whispered tone, “lots of places to hide around here, and plenty to do for work.”

“Work?” I asked.

“Aye,” he said. “About half the buildings around here have busy basements, this one included.” He paused, then said, “and if you must hide yourself for long, this place is as good as you are likely to find in the fifth kingdom.”

On the way back to where we had parked the buggies, I thought to find Foustmaan's. That location proved to be perhaps a hundred feet out of my way as I made as close to a straight line for where we had parked, and when I stopped at the modest-sized shop, I bought two 'large' tins of 'first quality thimbles'. A brief glance showed them to be nearly as even for size and shape as those I had done at home.

“Given they use a well-maintained set of Heinrich dies and an arbor press like yours,” said the soft voice, “it is not surprising.”

“And what they put in them?” I asked.

“Hans' are a trifle better for consistency,” said the soft voice, “if not numbers. Foustmaan's has him beat handily in that aspect. They are nearly identical for strength, with Hans' being slightly 'hotter'.”

“And sensitivity?” I asked.

“That too is very close,” said the soft voice. “Hans' latest formulation is about as sensitive as is feasible for long-term storage, while Foustmaan's is a trifle less so.” A brief pause, then, “given they do 'thimbles' in real quantity, that isn't surprising.”

I had nearly come to the 'main street' by this time, and once on it, I only needed to pass perhaps three or four shops before arriving back at that one Public House. To my entire surprise, the others had retrieved their horses and were getting ready to resume. I went to Hendrik, who seemed surprised at my return.

“How you knew we were done is beyond me,” he said, “and it was a near thing just the same.”

“Near?” I asked. I could feel the heat growing once more, and I looked carefully for a place to hide 'my' jug in the nearest buggy.

“We all wanted to stay in the Public House here,” he said, “and I was as bad that way as anyone.”

“A good meal?” I asked.

“Three courses, and that at the least,” said Hendrik. “At least, they're that way on the High Way.”

“Where?” I spluttered. I recalled nowhere being like that – at least of those places we had visited.

“That's the second kingdom's ways,” said Lukas as he came along side me. “Someone spoke about thimbles, and that Mercantile's weren't very good.”

“I bought two tins,” I said. “They should do, unless we do a lot of shooting between now and where we can procure more.”

“We might need to do that,” he said. I then showed him one of the tins, and his eyes opened wide in surprise.

“We don't have enough powder to bust that many o' those things,” he said. “Did you learn about the roads ahead?”

“Somewhat,” I said. “How many courses to a good meal..?”

Five,” muttered Kees. “We'd best get going before we get ridden again.”

I finally stowed 'my' jug, then looked for Jaak. I was not surprised to find him 'waiting', and once mounted, I again led off in the now-sweltering heat of midmorning. It seemed to make for a drowsy feeling, so much so that I but barely noticed the fumes coming from Knaadelmann's 'back lot' as we passed the place.

“That's iron,” muttered Lukas from behind me. “They must have just poured some.”

Faint speech spoke of that being acknowledged by those coming from behind, then as we 'left' the town, I noted several sizable 'hills' next to a building nearly as large as that of Knaadelmann's. To its front, the carved vertical sign said 'Joosten's', and the front of the building showed, painted in black letters upon the building's whitewashed stone and timber frontage, 'fine-grade foundry-earth'.

“Did that stuff Georg got come from...”

“Yes, it did,” said the soft voice, “though he had to pay a sizable premium and multiple inducements to get it.” A brief pause, then, “Bart came down in person so as to hand-select his own supplies.”

“Does that stuff vary?” I wondered more than a little after what I just heard.

“It does, though not as much as is commonly thought,” said the soft voice. “Joosten's tends to be quite picky that way, unlike many such suppliers.”

“Hence Bart's trips...”

“Were double-headed,” said the soft voice, “as is the usual for such trips from the fourth kingdom.”

Another brief pause, during which time the road remained at its former width, and 'farms' showed once more to right and left, then, “did he follow those instrument-making books...”

“Where it made sense to do so, yes,” said the soft voice. “He went in person because it made a difference in the final outcome.”

“Uh, is this like I can sometimes tell with metal?” I asked. There was no answer, save that of the road ahead.

My nose soon apprised me of another issue, however, for I could but faintly smell a now-familiar dead-meat odor. The road bent itself, first to the right, then the left; and when it came out of the second curve, the sources of odor showed themselves in a line of five.

“S-spiked heads,” I gasped, as the black-smeared faces seemed to quiver and shake with the attention of the flies covering them.

I wanted out of that area, and I wanted to spew, and it was a near thing to see which would happen sooner. I almost fell off of Jaak before reaching the next bend in the road, and once past it, I did not fall off...

I nearly leaped off, and Lukas came up as I finished watering the bushes with the contents of my stomach.

“They're asleep again, unless I miss my guess,” he said. “Those stinkers get to you?”

I nodded shakily.

“I hope I don't have nightmares from 'em,” said Lukas. “I'd get into some beer if I were you.”

Over the next hour, the road slowly climbed as it became steadily narrower. The farms had given out before encountering the heads, while the brush and trees grew thicker and closer once we had passed them. More than once, I heard faint buzzing and humming somewhere in the vicinity of my head, and while I turned around so as to see what the source was, I did not see any insects.

I did not see any insects, nor did I feel any. I wished I could speak that way of the odor I had endured on the way into town, for it had resumed to a minor degree. It was nearly as bad as that of the heads for intensity, if otherwise for character.

“That's no bug,” muttered Lukas. “Those things don't move that fast.”

“What is it, then?” I asked softly. Lukas was but a short distance to my rear, if I went by his voice.

“That's a stinker,” he said. “I hope we don't get stunk up.”

“S-stunk up?” I asked.

“That's bad,” said Lukas. “I've had it happen once.” A pause, then “everything gets red around the edges, and all slimy-looking, and you feel crazy, and that's if it's not that bad.”

“If i-it's bad?” I asked.

“I've but heard about what happens then,” he said. “Everything gets all red, yellow, and blue, and all sharp-edged and scary, and these blue people show up, and...”

“B-blue people?” I gasped. The road had now gone back to its 'barely wide enough to pass two hitched horses' width. Recalling various people speaking of people with blue 'paint' was more than enough to cause trouble – and that without seeing that one particular dark-haired witch.

“Their clothing, mostly,” said Lukas. “Talk has it they're taller than trees when they show, and they talk strange.”

“Strange?” I asked – and for some reason, the next phrase came out unbidden. “Do they, uh, chant?”

“I'm not sure what they do,” said Lukas. “I ain't ever got stunk up that bad, and I hope I never do.”

I suspected we would need to camp as soon as it could be managed, for the heat of the day was becoming well-nigh unendurable – and that, coupled with fatigue, was enough to cause both yawning and a feeling of illness on my part. I began 'looking' closely, and within less than a minute, I knew where the nearest place was.

“About two miles more,” I thought, as the road began curving once more.

“You'll want to get clear out of this ravine,” said the soft voice, “unless you desire the company of bugs.”

“Is that place...”

I instantly knew it wasn't, and we would need to go further.

“About a mile and a half further, in fact,” said the soft voice. “I would remain there until dusk at the least.”

“Cooler traveling,” I murmured.

“That, less insects, and about ten miles a day more,” said the soft voice. “Only certain portions of that valley to the east get hotter than where you currently are.”

“That about tears it,” said Lukas. “If they want to keep complaining about traveling at night, I'll tell 'em that.”

“Uh, how much do we travel a day?” I asked,

“Enough that you need that added ten miles,” said the soft voice.

“I thought so,” I muttered. “Every day has to count, and we can't afford to take longer coming back than we did going down... What?”

While there was no answer, the next two miles seemed to beat upon my head as if a club-wielding giant were thumping upon me, so much so that the abrupt steepening of the trail caught me by surprise. I turned around just prior to going up another 'steep' incline, and asked, “will we need to push?”

“I hope not,” said Lukas. “I'm glad we had a chance to rest afore trying this part.”

“We'll have another such chance after, also,” I said. “It isn't that much further.”

Jaak turned around again, and for some reason, as he went up the narrow 'zig-zag' run, I thought to pray. My ears were listening as I did so, so much so that when the second such reversal suddenly turned to the left, I almost did not notice the wide gray 'tree root' that formed the boundary.

“What?” I gasped. Sweat was trickling down my back, and I wondered if it was making it down to where I sat. A damp blanket sounded like trouble for Jaak.

Behind me, however, I heard the muted jingle of harness, then as Jaak moved down the road past the 'tree root', I turned around in my seat. I was more than a little surprised to see Lukas so close behind.

“I followed your tracks,” he said, “but it was still a near thing.”

“Will Gilbertus..?”

“He's eating my dust,” said Lukas. We had both continued moving. “The others are behind him.”

“And not liking it,” I muttered. “They could push...”

“Once they wake up,” said Lukas. “They're all working harder at staying awake than riding.”

While Jaak once more resumed, I could hear 'labored' breathing behind me; and I bent myself toward finding our resting spot. The 'breathing' was no small distraction, so much so that I had to resume praying for another five minutes while the road flattened out and widened slightly, and only once I was done praying could I actually 'look'.

I found the place within seconds.

“Only another short distance,” I murmured. “Another twenty minutes.”

While there was no answer – only a muted thumping upon the now-dusty road, and faint whispering noises – I could look around me, and did so. The dusty gray-green of the thick brush bracketing the road was now more gray than green; more, I could feel a dryness in the air, such that I no longer felt as if in an overly-humid bake-oven.

“The humidity is less,” I murmured. “A lot less.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “That isn't the only thing that's less.”

“Uh, what?” I asked.

“Go closer to that camping spot,” said the soft voice, “and you'll feel the difference more.”

Accordingly, I did so. The road was now noticeably straighter, so much so that when I next turned, I saw both buggies plainly, as well as the others. Those driving had 'corralled' them, much as if they were wayward animals and needed close-herding to avoid becoming 'lost'.

“Are they all asleep?” I asked.

“Yes, they are,” said the soft voice. “Being ridden causes no small amount of fatigue, and that irrespective of the cause.”

The camping spot drew closer with the passing minutes, as did the feeling of 'safety', and more, restfulness. I began yawning, and when I saw an obvious 'fork' in the road, I took the right-leading branch without thinking.

The branch began curving steadily as the brush to each side grew taller and more green, then suddenly the light of the sun vanished from overhead. I was now in deep shade, and the road itself began widening.

“Come on, you people,” spat Lukas. He was not in good temper, and more, I was not surprised much. “He's found somewhere for you to rest your lazy bones.”

The road suddenly broadened out to form a small 'room', one perhaps twelve to fourteen feet wide and perhaps twice that long, and as I slid off of Jaak, I wondered about water.

The splash told me ample as my boot landed in the mouth of a small spring, and I leaped out to land upon my posterior with a grunt of pain.

“Now what?” muttered Lukas as he drove in beside me.

“I stepped in this spring,” I squeaked, “and it's cold.”

Lukas slid out of his seat, then came to my side. Kneeling down, he stuck his finger in the water, then smelled it.

“We'd best boil that stuff afore bathing,” he said. “It's about as stinky as any water I've ever smelled.”

“The horses?” I asked.

“He ain't drinking,” said Lukas, pointing to Jaak, “and that tells me enough.” A pause, “they'll want boiled water, and no mistake.”

Within minutes, the horses had formed a small herd closest to the 'darker' end of the copse, while the three of us who were still awake began setting up camp. Five snoring bodies lay upon cots, their gear dusty and laying beside them on the ground; while in a 'corner', between the trunks of two trees, Gilbertus found the remains of an 'oven'.

“This might need some work to fix,” he said. “I'm glad I kept two of those knives.”

“Two..?”

“Those we took from the witches,” he said. “They're decent for spading, and handier for things like this.”

“Best be using a spade for a privy, then,” said Lukas. “I'm about due...”

I had wandered away from the two men, for I was not 'about' due; I was past due, and I needed to go badly. Behind the trunk of a larger tree, I found the part-filled remnants of a hole, which I began watering post-haste.

“Did you find a privy?” whispered Lukas.

“It's big enough as it is for the three of us,” I said. “We might need to dig another once the others...”

“They can dig their own,” said Lukas. “They went to sleep.”

“I know,” I murmured, as I finished my business. “We have to make every day count, and...”

Lukas looked at me, then nodded before taking my place next to the hole.

Gilbertus followed the two of us to do his 'necessary', then the three of us resumed applying ourselves to the matter of bathing. I drew the first three buckets, and put them by the oven while the other two men prepared a fire. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw what might have been soap.

“That's...”

“Cooking fuel,” said Gilbertus. “I always tried to have some with me when I was freighting, as it lights easy.”

“If you have matches, most stuff does,” said Lukas. “Now if you don't, though...”

“I usually didn't,” said Gilbertus, “which was why I wanted to have this stuff handy.”

“How is it used?” I asked.

“Shave up some little pieces with a knife,” said Lukas, “and then put it where you want your fire. It don't take much to light, then.”

I watched Gilbertus do precisely that. When he flicked a spark, however, the flaring dot of light seemed to abruptly vanish among faint luminous flames when it neared the whitish shavings. A few more chips, these larger, then a small handful of coke granules on top of the flames – which seemed to nearly die before the telltale faint puffs of yellow-tinted smoke jetted up from the gray-black pile. Gilbertus looked to the side, saw the ready buckets, then nodded.

“About half a turn of the glass,” he said. “We'll be boiling for an hour, easy.”

“To bathe?” I asked.

“That will finish afore then,” said Lukas, “and tis a good thing, as we'll need that tub to water the horses.”

“They won't want boiling water, will they?” I asked.

Lukas looked at me, then shuddered.

“I have a possible answer,” I said. “Use that smaller bucket filled half-full to boil the water, then once it's boiled, use its heat to warm the next water for boiling and to cool what's just been boiled.”

Both men looked at me, and their expressions were such that I squeaked, “now what?”

“I never thought of that,” muttered Lukas. “If it works, we'd best do it.”

I got my bath first, thankfully, as I was wanting to scratch badly. Once bathed and in clean clothing, I knelt by Gilbertus, hoping to be tutored in 'fire management' while Lukas took his bath. I then noticed the 'sand'.

“That's from..?”

“This water's bad,” said Gilbertus. “I always wondered about that town's name, at least before today.” A pause to drink; then, “I don't wonder now.”

“It's name?” I asked.

Badwater,” said Gilbertus. “That Public House had three distilleries, and none of them were running drink.”

“That copper tube,” I muttered. “I was told that water was distilled.” I then looked again at the sand, and spat, “m-mineralized water.”

“That stuff they had there was worse,” said Lukas as he came from his bathing. “This mostly just smells bad.” He paused, then said, “that place must have mules using it for a privy the way their water stinks.”

“That, uh, sand?” I asked. Gilbertus indicated I needed to change pots, as one of the two was now managing a 'rolling boil'. The other was but steaming.

“They have piles o' that stuff, and no mistake,” said Lukas. “Now how you learning that fire?”

I was about to answer when Gilbertus said, “I suspect he'd manage.”

“Yes, with a heating lamp,” I retorted. “I might have to use one of those things there...”

“Anna's told me otherwise,” said Gilbertus. “You might be close to passable for cooking, but you ain't passable for running a stove.”

“Light the house on fire?” I quipped.

“No,” said Gilbertus. “It took me months to do what she saw you do, and that with no teaching.”

My recollection of stove-use seemed at odds with what I had just heard, but I kept the matter to myself while Gilbertus' water boiled. Once he'd finished, I demonstrated what I had meant about cooling and heating water.

It worked better than I had thought, so much so that we were able to pour water into the tub for the horses nearly as fast as they could drink it, at least after the thirstiest examples had gotten some down.

“We'll be boiling water another hour,” I murmured, as I noted a peculiar odor. “What is that smell?”

“That fish,” said Lukas, as he brought closer a small pot I had not seen before. “I put some fresh Goben pieces to it to help draw out the salt.”

“How much salt did they...”

“Dried fish is usually flint-dried,” said Gilbertus. “I'd give it an hour in there, then put it on to cook slow.”

I fell asleep before that, however, and when I woke up, I smelled a most-peculiar aroma. While it was not the vague and faint 'meat' odor of roast trouts, this smelled distinctly edible, and after visiting the privy, I went in search of the odor's source.

It was the one small pot next to the mouth of the oven, and the warmth I felt in my hands an inch away from the pot's sides and cover spoke of 'slow-cooking'. I then looked at the 'ashes', and found a smallish 'mound' of bright-glowing coals.

“Best get some more water boiling,” I thought. “I imagine the horses are thirsty again.”

They proved to be exactly that, and I was tending the pots and cooling off water when I heard yawns to my rear, then speech.

“What is that smell?” asked Karl.

“I think it is stewed fish,” I said. “It's been cooking steadily, since, uh...”

Karl had not answered me, and when I turned – I had another bucket of tepid water for the horses – I noted he was 'asleep on his feet'. I wondered what to do until he slowly shuffled back to his cot to there collapse upon it.

“We'd best leave when they get rested up decently,” I thought, “assuming that's possible down here.”

And with such thoughts, I both recalled our need of haste and knew 'letting them rest' was not a good idea. We would need to press on, and that just after dusk – and more, we would need to travel as much as we could.

“Every day counts,” I murmured.

“Especially while you are still well south of the fourth kingdom's border,” said the soft voice.