The road's ending, part c.


After the horses drank their fill, I continued boiling and cooling water until the tub was partially full, then I glanced upward. I could not tell the time, so much so that I walked out of our cozy 'bower' until I could plainly see the sun; and there, I saw it about halfway between zenith and the eastern horizon. As I walked back in, a thought train suddenly seized upon me.

“Another hour, no more, and then roust them,” I muttered. “What with meals, bathing, and the usual things, it will take an hour's time easily...”

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “Your estimate presumed they would wish to resume traveling.”

“They won't,” I muttered. “They'll probably want to sleep the rest of today and then all night, and then resume traveling in the morning...”

“No sane person stirs,” said the voice of recollection. “Everyone except you...”

“No, not quite,” I murmured, while suppressing a yawn. “Those two older men...”

And for some reason, I wondered why they bought my reasoning so readily. While they were older, and more experienced...

“There aren't many people living who are not marked who have endured as much as those two,” said the soft voice, “and both of them have been in the company of marked people a great deal.”

“Hence they might understand?” I asked.

“Not in that way, nor to that degree,” said the soft voice. “They know enough to follow your lead with few misgivings and little or no questioning, and that apart from what they hear and see.”

“O-old tales?” I asked, upon recalling what Hendrik had said about Charles.

“But a modest portion,” said the soft voice. “Their own experiences reckon larger.”

Rousting the others looked to be a problem, so much so that I was sitting lost in thought with a cup of beer in my hand when I heard steps. I looked up to find Lukas yawning.

“You look at that fish?” he asked.

“Look at it, no,” I said. “It smells edible, and it feels like it's cooking...”

Lukas had walked around me, and had knelt down near the pot. Using a knife I had not seen before, he lifted the pot's lid, then stirred the contents with a rag-grasped spoon.

“Looks decent,” he said. “Now for some camp-bread.”

“Cherries?” I asked.

“Those are decent still,” he said. “They'll wake up once that bread starts, so...”

Lukas then noticed the water-buckets, all three filled and ready.

“You got that right,” he said.

“The horses, too,” murmured Gilbertus. “He put more water to them earlier.”

“Uh, dusk?” I asked a moment later. I'd just used the privy.

“That, or just after,” said Lukas. “I had this dream about needing to get out of the fifth kingdom as quick as we can without getting seen.”

“And the fourth kingdom?” I asked. “Not much better until we're within a day's easy ride of that market town?”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “We'll have witches on us until then, and trouble with 'em most all the way.”

“Which means trouble when that second trip happens later this year,” I muttered. “We'll want to travel by water, then.” A brief pause, then, “what?”

“Now that sounds like a good thing,” said Lukas, “'cept for one problem.”

“Uh, what?”

“No harbors to the north past that of the second kingdom,” he said, “and that place is like the second kingdom house for witches, or so I've heard.”

“Uh, no harbor in the first kingdom?” I asked.

Lukas shook his head, then said, “not unless you call those places where those northern people land harbors.” A brief pause, then, “then again, not all boats are big enough to need a regular place.”

“Boats?” I asked.

“Those old tales speak of smaller things than what's common on the sea,” said Lukas, “and I've tried that when I was a boy.”

“Tried what?” I asked,

“A carved-out log,” he said. “It worked decent when the river was slow.”

“And when it wasn't?” I asked.

“It got lost,” said Lukas. “I came back the next year, and it was gone.”

“Good that it didn't dump you in the river,” said Gilbertus. “I've heard tales about logs.”

“It did that the first day I tried it,” said Lukas. “It took me two more times before I thought to try the river itself.”

“Uh, where did you try this log?” I asked.

“This place east and north of the kingdom house at home,” said Lukas. “It's like a big pond under those trees there.”

“Is this the one with the wooden platform?” asked Gilbertus.

“Aye,” said Lukas. “I don't know how that thing got there, or who works on it...”

“I do,” said Gilbertus. “My father was one of those people, and we got fish regular on account of it.” A brief pause, “and I hope those in the pot come good.”

The camp-bread's odor upon baking made waking the others but somewhat easier, for they seemed inclined toward sleep until Gabriel himself was awake. Lukas had to 'spoon' him with a cup of beer in his hand, much as Anna had had to, and once he'd gotten two cups down, the others seemed amenable to bathing and eating.

They were not amenable to continuing on at night, at least until Hendrik had spoken of our need to continue as we could while not being seen.

That silenced the audible complaints. I could still feel uncommon resistance to what we were doing, at least until we had been back out on the road for roughly an hour and crossed two more narrow ravines.

I heard snoring then, and turned back to see those mounted being 'herded' between the two buggies.

“They're asleep again,” I thought, as I returned my attention to the road ahead.

The coolness of the evening was not merely bracing, it also seemed to incline the horses toward travel, and the steady uphill grade provided but modest impediment. With the passing hours, I noted a decrease in dust underfoot and a thinning of brush to each side, while those trees and copses I saw became thinner and more straggly. The moon was now a brilliant disk that silvered our path with dim yet comfortable light, and I found I could see for some distance ahead and to the sides. About midnight, or so it seemed, I turned to my right to look – and there, I saw a wide and barren-looking expanse of desert.

“Over there?” I asked softly, while pointing with my arm.

“That's the table-land,” said Lukas. He seemed right behind me, almost as if the two of us were riding double. “We're in the coast-range, or close to it.”

“No more hiding,” I thought. “When the sun comes up...”

“If you hurry, you can make the trees ahead before the sun rises,” said the soft voice.

“Trees?” I asked. I could not see that far ahead.

“I would not stop there,” said the soft voice. “I would continue on as the three of you currently awake are able to do so.”

“And the others?” I asked.

As if to answer, I heard a faint shriek that blended into the slow-moving winds to then die out on a fading note – and behind, that noise was answered by moans appropriate to nightmares.

“Yes?” I asked, while still facing ahead. “There are thugs in the area, and...”

“You all had best wake up and move,” muttered Lukas, “or those witches will be putting the Desmonds to you all, and no mistake.”

“Was that..?” I asked. I then knew it was 'close enough' to what Lukas had spoken of.

“There aren't any of those worms around here, are there?” I thought silently.

“What the local witches do is easily as unpleasant to endure,” said the soft voice.

I found a 'spring' an hour later, and while the horses attempted to drain it dry, I and the other two older men checked both horses and buggies. I found that I again needed to top the oil reservoirs, while every horse save Jaak had at least one stone lodged. I glanced at the rock-strewn hard-packed surface of the trail, and did not wonder as to the reason why.

Once back under way, I could 'feel' the trees ahead. They were easily ten miles or more away, and as we came to the top of another rise on the north side of a narrow ravine, I tried looking ahead.

“It's still too far away,” I thought, as I looked out to the east to again see desert.

It was more than what I could see, however. Somewhere in the general area were several smallish towns, none of which we wished to come close to, while the road itself would become steeper and more rocky just prior to entering the trees on the east side of the true coast-range. These were actual 'mountains', or what passed for them on the continent.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “They're perhaps half as tall as the two ranges that provide east and west boundaries for that valley to the east.”

“Uh, are they steep?” I asked.

“The first portion of the road is somewhat steeper than what you are currently on,” said the soft voice, “while the trees to each side provide effectual shade from the sun.”

“Hence easier traveling?” I asked.

“Once in the range, yes,” said the soft voice. “The mountains continue most of the remaining way to the border.”

“Hist, you,” murmured Gilbertus. I could barely hear his voice. “Listen to your animals so's you don't put a foot wrong.”

I turned to listen. I could hear pleas speaking of a desire to stop.

“He's right,” I said. “Don't push matters, listen closely, and go slowly right now.”

I then noticed the darkness was increasing, and I glanced up to see a thick fume clouding the once-brilliant moon. This oily-looking smoke seemed imported from hell, so thick did it seem, and as the darkness gathered quickly, I heard more faint cries to stop.

“And let the witches eat our flesh and drink our blood,” I muttered.

While that blood-minded thought put a stop to the crying, it did not affect those unspoken desires toward rest as far as I could tell. I but vaguely recalled portions of the book speaking of undue desires toward slothful behavior.

“They won't buy that,” I thought.

“He's right,” muttered Lukas. I wondered who 'he' was, at least until he continued. “We're on the west end of the table-land, and there are these towns like Badwater...”

“Then why are we traveling now?” I recognized the voice as Gabriel's. “We could be in a Public House...”

“Now?” I gasped. “Now? Only witches would be in those places now!”

“'Cept these towns ain't like Badwater for friendly,” said Lukas.

Again, I could hear a desire to find and visit these locations.

“If these places are those I've heard of,” said Gilbertus, “they're like mining towns.”

“So?” I could hear plainly the unspoken voice of derision.

“Not common mining towns,” muttered Gilbertus. “The really bad ones.”

“B-bad ones?” asked a quavering voice. It took nearly a second to recognize its issuer as Karl.

“Like that one town you spoke of on the way down,” said Lukas. “That one with the place that has services what has a rising sun on its front.”

And as if in a dream, I seemed to hear a distinctly spooky voice, one but newly erupted from an ancient grave; and it spoke of a house of ill fame, one located in a place I had but heard of distantly and far in the past. It was named most-appropriately, however, for its title and and that of the place being described were identical. My voice carried the import of this fervent nightmare when I next spoke.

Th-the House of the Rising Sun...”

I was not heard, or so I thought, for Lukas continued, saying, “they all hang these red lights on their fronts.”

“L-like in the Swartsburg?” I gasped.

“Aye,” said Lukas. “Just like that one place I spoke of.”

“The place with the services?” asked another squeaky and barely audible voice.

“The whole accursed town is like that,” spat Lukas. “I ain't sure if it was as bad as that place went through coming down House-Lane.” A brief pause, then, “talk had it this town might be worse yet.”

And to top all of this talk, I could feel 'trouble' ahead, so much so that I slid off of Jaak and began walking. Jaak came behind me as I felt the state of the road, and I hoped my footprints would be followed carefully as I walked among the ruts and rocks underfoot.

“Now this is trouble,” said Lukas from behind. “He's off and walking.”

The darkness was now such that I could see perhaps thirty feet in front of me, while Jaak was practically nuzzling my back in the velvety blackness. Behind him, I could 'feel' the horses of Lukas' team 'sniffing his tail', while between him and Gilbertus...

A faint oath came from behind, followed by another such outburst – then scrabbling gravel noises, and finally, a muffled thud. I stopped where I was, moved two steps to the side, then asked softly, “what happened?”

Lukas turned in his seat, then looked behind him. There was no light, so much so that when he dismounted and walked back toward the rear of the buggy, I saw him keep his hand upon the side of the thing as if walking blind.

I then looked around, and saw where we actually were. To my right, not five feet distant, was the beginnings of an ancient cut in a hillside, while to my left, I could see rocks studding a surprisingly steep hillside. I then sniffed, and smelled the spicy 'eucalyptus' scent of trees in the general region – and then I heard faint talk somewhere beyond the reach of my vision to the rear.

I could do little beyond wait, and I hoped that our wait would not be long. I could feel the sun coming up, so much so that I wanted to yell as the slow-squirming minutes ticked by. Finally, I could tell Lukas was returning, and when I saw him squeeze past the buggy on what I now knew to be the uphill side of the road, I thought to ask. He was muttering under his breath.

“Uh, who?” I asked. “Was it Gabriel?”

“He fell asleep,” whispered Lukas as he took his seat once more. “First, he wants to stop and get us all killed, then he rides his horse off the road while he's sleeping.”

“And?” I asked. I was glad we would resume, as I could again feel the coming light and warmth of the sun.

“Gilbertus has him tied good with a rag for his mouth,” said Lukas between sips of beer. “Some of the victuals went in bags on his horse so's he can lie quiet in the buggy.”

“And a good thing, too,” said Gilbertus as he came up the uphill side of the buggy. “He wasn't just trying to ride his horse down the side of the mountain, but he was trying to talk the others into following him.”

“While asleep?” My voice rose perceptibly with the sense of incredulity I felt.

“He don't sleep like you do,” muttered Lukas. “I've heard him speak then, and it don't sound at all good.”

“Uh, nightmares?” I asked. I then noticed how I felt. It was much as if we'd gained cover and safety already.

“Sometimes,” muttered Lukas as Gilbertus retreated into the darkness. “Other times, though... He reminds me of Freek before he gave up on being a witch.”

I turned about and resumed my path, and again, I noted how much subjectively 'better' I felt. It was as if a huge and massively heavy weight had been lifted off of my shoulders, and with each step upward, I felt better yet. I walked noticeably easier, with a longer stride, and my steps seemed lighter and more certain – and within moments, I noticed an overall improvement in our pace, even as I walked what looked and felt to be an uncommonly 'crooked' line.

We stopped to rest a short time later, and as I moved backwards in the still-thick darkness, the soft voices I heard encouraged me greatly. Everyone – there were no exceptions – now seemed inclined to continue, and when I found Lukas putting away a jug, he said softly, “now that about tears it.”

“Yes?” I asked. I wanted – no, needed – to hear something encouraging.

“We're moving faster, and making less noise doing it,” he said, “and I feel a lot less tired, and the same for everyone else, horses included.” A pause, then, “I suspect he needs to be trussed and stuffed every time he speaks wrong, and no mistake.”

Hearing the phrase 'trussed and stuffed' reminded me remarkably of a roast fowl, and this peculiar image remained with me for some time, even as I picked my way up an increasingly steep and rocky incline on foot. There was but little noise beyond the faint crunching of my boots and the near-silent grinding of the wheels upon 'gravel' now and then, while speech seemed to have completely vanished; and this continued on until as I felt the lessening of the uphill grade, the darkness vanished over the course of seconds to be replaced by a pleasantly dim 'twilight'.

“What?” I gasped, as I looked around to see a narrow road perhaps ten feet wide in the wider places winding between thick and numerous tree-trunks.

“The sun just rose,” said the soft voice. “Continue on as you can, and stop when you feel tired.”

Over the next short time – perhaps half an hour – the light became somewhat brighter and the details of our surroundings much clearer. The trees were tall, thick, deciduous, and leafy, while thick accumulations of fallen leaves carpeted the ground thickly save upon the road itself. This last was rock-strewn, rutted, and more than a little bumpy, and while I had resumed my mounted position, I needed to watch the ground closely and communicate with Jaak frequently.

The first stream showed roughly an hour later, and its thin trickle was only exceeded by its near-icy chill. Every bucket came into play then, and only once the horses had consumed as much as they wanted did we continue. I knew then that we would find such a stream near where we would rest, which buoyed my spirits more than a little.

I did not notice anything remotely like fatigue until what 'felt' like late afternoon. I began 'looking' for a stream, and within perhaps two to three minutes, I could 'feel' one some distance ahead. I hoped it was bigger than the two we had seen thus far.

Our road had become slightly 'undulating' as to its side-to-side path, for it followed the mountains closely as it wove its way around their sides with but little change in elevation, while the rocks were small and numerous. I marveled at how few of them now needed to be pried out when we stopped, so much so that when the 'camping area' hove into sight, I thought to ask about our path.

I waited, however, until we were boiling water for bathing to actually ask questions, as my skin had acquired a most-serious itch. The location's stream was but slightly larger than the previous examples, save in one area where it formed a small mud-banked pool.

“An oven?” I asked, as my water boiled over the heating lamp's softly luminous flame.

“There's a small firepit,” said Gilbertus, “but it ain't been used much recently.”

“Used much, or used much with firewood?” I asked. “I'd look carefully at that place to see if the dirt's been crusted by fire.”

A moment later, Gilbertus returned to where my water was now beginning to steam. I had two buckets of cold water already in the tub.

“It's been used recent,” he said. “Whoever was using it, though – he was careful with what and how much he used.”

“Cooking fuel mixed with coke?” I asked. “We didn't need much to do what we did, did we?” A pause, then, “perhaps use it for, uh, cooking?”

“Best save that stuff for later,” murmured Lukas. “This thing's easier when you don't need much boiled.”

Lukas proved right, as one bucket each sufficed for everyone save Gabriel – who seemed not merely disinclined to wake up once everyone else had bathed, but also disinclined to bathe at first. When he did feel inclined – during the middle of meal-cooking, this being as the shadows of nightfall grew longer among the trees – he not merely demanded his bath post-haste, but also demanded the water be more than lukewarm.

He wanted it hot, and that now, and became petulant when told to wait until after our meal was prepared. Only when he attempted to gather wood – there wasn't any to gather beyond a small handful of half-rotten sticks – and then boil his own water did Lukas break down and use the firepit.

He seemed happy then, which made me wonder, at least while he was getting ready to bathe. Once he'd gotten wet, however, matters changed.

“This water is c-cold,” he said with chattering teeth. “It feels as if it came straight from Norden's winter.”

Only boiling two more buckets and dumping them in the tub would have him bathe. Once he had done so, I thought to check my tub. Only then did I notice the faint smell of rotten meat.

“Why does this smell so?” I thought, as I looked to where he'd gone. “This stink seems to have come straight from Kossum's.” A moment's reflection, another sniff – and the smell seemed to have become buried among the faint odor of damp wood.

I fell asleep within minutes after finishing two bowls of 'dried meat soup', and as I lay under my cover sheet upon my cot, I did not dream. I was utterly worn out, fatigued beyond measure, and my sleep was a comfort to me, one I much needed. Only when something 'shook' me did I awaken in the still darkness of night.

As the cover-sheet slid down into my lap, I noted a near-full bladder, and faintly, I heard soft steps coming from the direction of the road. I turned to their direction, and then saw outlined a figure limned softly in ghostly gray. This cloak-muffled figure was striding along the road with a string of four uncommonly small 'mules' in his wake, and at the end of this 'mule train', I saw a near-copy of himself bringing up the rear. I marveled at the near-complete silence of the passage of both animals and men, as well as their uncannily diffuse visual sense.

“Am I awake, and seeing normally,” I thought, “or am I dreaming?”

I then recalled I needed to breathe, and did so.

“Who were those...” My voice strangled upon itself. “Were they, uh, marked?”

“Exactly so,” said the soft voice. “You were too tired to see the two earlier pack trains.”

I used the privy, then returned to sleep to reawaken during the time just prior to the abrupt-showing dawn. I then went among the huddled-together cots resting between the two buggies, all the time wondering, “now who is who here? Is that one Lukas, or is it, uh, Sepp?”

The man stirred, and Lukas poked his head out from beneath his covering. “The sun about up?”

I nodded, and while he roused the others, I began our packing. We left with the remains of the evening's camp-bread in our bellies and our eyes ahead on the road.

Our path was now in deep dense shade, and nearly as cold as home had been when we left, while the air was now a near-desert dryness. I had kept the buckets handy for when streams showed, and when the first one showed about two hours later, every horse received both water and grain. I was glad we had so much of the later, at least until Lukas spoke upon our resuming travel.

“Grain by itself ain't that good for the animals,” he said. “They'll want grazing when and where it shows.”

“Which is not that likely... No, I take that back. There are places between here and the fourth kingdom's market.”

“Good,” said Lukas. “Now I hope they're not too bad or far apart.”

“There's one in these mountains before they quit,” I said, “and then some places once in the fourth kingdom.”

“We might need to lay by near that market town, then,” said Lukas. “The horses will become weak if they don't get enough grass.” A brief pause, then, “and I hope our food holds out, too.”

Lukas had spoken of the one matter that entirely concerned me, and when we next stopped, I noted a small clearing some distance from the road. I thought to look at the sights visible from that location, and as I walked toward it, I heard steps coming from my rear. I turned to see Lukas.

I had no words for him, at least until I came to the clearing itself. There, the sun shown brightly, and in its near-blinding glare I looked to the north and east.

“I wish I had the use of a telescope,” I muttered, as I shaded my eyes with my left hand.

“That's the table-land for certain,” he said, pointing to the desert area, “and those there are the back sides of the red mountains.”

“Another two days, then,” I muttered, as I turned to go back whence I had come. “I hope our food and, uh, drink holds out that long.”

“Just two days?” asked Lukas.

“Two more days to the end of the coastal range's cover,” I said. “The border might be thirty miles north of there, and there's enough brush among those smaller hills to provide...”

I stopped speaking, for we had somehow returned to the road faster than I could have believed, and with my heart in my throat, I resumed speaking. “We will need to travel at night then.”

“Until we reach the border, you mean,” said Gabriel. He sounded both oblivious and full of himself. “We can travel like sane men, then...”

Gabriel ceased speaking with an abruptness too sudden for words, for Gilbertus grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him over backwards until he collapsed onto the ground. Lukas swarmed from around me, and within what seemed mere seconds – far too fast for Gabriel to object, and nearly too quickly for me to react in any way – he was not merely gagged, but tied firmly with damp leather thongs and hooded. This last act was done by Kees, and the three of them began dragging Gabriel to the buggy Gilbertus drove.

“Even in the fourth kingdom...” I spluttered.

“You spoke of us all being pariahs,” said Hendrik emphatically, “and how we not merely needed to avoid the eyes of the witches, but also those of the common people if we wished to survive.”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “I might not know much beyond that, but I can tell there ain't anywhere near safe this far from home.”

Another stream showed about midafternoon, and after giving the horses their fill, we pressed on. Darkness came, and still we continued, even though the rock-strewn and rutted path became narrower in places. I often had to dismount for short periods and walk in the thick darkness so as to find the path itself; and during the rest breaks needed, one of the small candle-lanterns was pressed into service so as to check the horses' hooves.

After prying out the third such rock in as many hooves, I looked around, then mumbled, “best stop when a decent place shows.”

“Aye,” said Gilbertus. “This ain't easy for you to be walking, and it's slow, too.”

“Better spend the time sleeping?” I asked. I then yawned in spite of myself.

“I heard that,” said a voice in the darkness. “I hope there's a place up ahead.”

The road curved to the left, then went straight for about a hundred yards or so – and then, suddenly, it branched to the left. I paused at the entrance to this branched place, listening carefully; I could feel 'grass', and more, 'water'. I wondered if the latter were drinkable, so much so that when I walked three paces and put my foot in a small 'stream', I jolted.

“It's like ice,” I spluttered, as I yanked my foot out of the rocky place I'd put it.

“What?” asked Lukas.

“There's a stream here,” I said softly, “and then... This is that place with the grass!”

“Good enough for camping, then,” he said. “Now what else?”

“There's a, a pond where the water's accumulated,” I said, “and a privy... Oh my... This place not only gets used regularly, but it gets used a lot.”

“Is there grass still?” asked Lukas.

“Yes, but it may take some doing to get enough for the horses,” I said.

The feeling I had as I led the others into what felt like a tall tree-walled tunnel was beyond the definition of strange, for I could hear a vast number of whispering echoes with each soft footfall. The harness' soft jingles made more echoes, as did the grinding hiss of the wheels; and amid all of these noises, I could feel a faint wind ruffling the leaves of the trees. This all was a distraction of the most intense sort, so much so that when the light of the moon suddenly 'lit up' the whole region to the front, I gasped involuntarily.

“Oh, my,” I murmured. “There's a nice big grassy field, and...”

And some distance away, I saw a small flickering glow that quickly vanished from sight. I turned to face Lukas.

“We've got company,” I said, “and I doubt...”

“They are in much the same position as you all,” said the soft voice, “and they covered their campfire in case you might be inclined toward trouble.”

“Witches?” I asked.

“Do not know of this route,” said the soft voice, “and the same for all save a few who are not marked.”

“Would those few be troublesome?” I asked.

While there was no answer, I suspected more than a little the answer was no, and I cautiously continued to 'break trail'. Within moments, the fire ahead began glowing again, and I deliberately thought to give it 'ample room'.

“That privy is closer to this side, anyway,” I thought. “I bet it's bait.”

“Yes, for larger pack-trains,” said the soft voice. “There are several campsites, with the one you sensed being the best suited for larger groups.”

“Larger groups?” I asked.

“That pack train you saw earlier was close to average for size,” said the soft voice. “Thirty-animal trains are currently very rare in this region.”

With the light of the moon present, I mounted Jaak, and slowly made my way by 'feel' toward the campsite in question. Periodically, I glanced in the direction of that one small and flickering flame, and felt cheered by its continued presence. Somehow, I suspected those by it knew we would not trouble them.

“Or will we?” I thought. “If Gabriel's inclined to act strange...”

While there was no answer, the phrase 'better safe than sorry' seemed to pound in my mind, and when I stopped next to the privy itself – an ancient stone-walled edifice with a leather-hinged wooden door that had seen better days – I wondered just how we could 'deal with him'.

“Leave him tied up, and walk him to the privy?” I muttered. “Spoon-feed him mush like a squally infant?”

“That does sound likely,” said the voice of Lukas from beside me. “I suspect we'll want those small lanterns for checking the horses and buggies afore we do much else.”

With those lit, we went about our business. Gabriel remained bound and gagged, and when I checked on the progress of the others, I was amazed. Previous stops had shown them seemingly incapable of doing much beyond the simplest tasks, while now...

“Everyone seems to have gotten an added measure of smarts,” I thought. “This is almost like it was coming down here while still north of the third kingdom's border.” A brief pause, then, “how much longer do we need to take precautions with him?”

There was no answer beyond that which had already been decided and acted upon, and while I did those things that I needed to do, I noted that the others seemed to have something workable in mind. After dinner – Gabriel was laying gagged and trussed under cover on his cot, and the others were getting ready for sleep – Lukas came up to me. I had just bagged my boots, and tied them to the upper rail of the nearest buggy.

“I'm glad for the grass,” he said. “Our beer, though – that worries me.”

“Uh, running low?” I asked.

“Half of our jugs are done,” he said. “If we have two more days...”

“Perhaps that much until we get to where we can get them refilled,” I murmured, “and then again, it may take longer.”

“Then, there's grain, soap, and bread,” said Lukas.

“Bread?” I asked.

“What we got at Badwater,” said Lukas. “They didn't have much soap for sale.”

“How many changes of clothing?” I asked. “I know I've got perhaps two more...”

“That sounds about right,” said Lukas. “We might need to drown what we have so's to get by.”

“Drown?” I asked. “As in boil them...”

“Had we a big enough pot, yes,” he said. “Otherwise, it's hot water and the tub, and maybe a big carved stick if one shows.”

Talk died down shortly after that, and I fell asleep to awaken suddenly 'some time' later. It was a bit before dawn, and as I sat up under my cover sheet, I felt abruptly the loneliness of desertion.

“They left,” I murmured.

“Had you woken five minutes sooner, you would have seen them pass by,” said the soft voice, “and no, they were not the only people that left.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Did something frighten them?”

“No, but they're heading north also,” said the soft voice, “and they mean to cross the border as soon as it is dark enough for them to do so.”

“Dark?” I asked. “We'll want full darkness...”

“True,” said the soft voice. “You will.”

“Would those people n-need...”

“Were you traveling alone,” said the soft voice, “you could most likely cross after you'd looked the area over from a distance, and that irrespective of what time of day it was. Those people who just left plan on crossing once the sun goes down, and being out of danger by this time tomorrow.”

“And this group?” I asked. “Not only full darkness, but further concealment when and as possible...”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “You'll be able to relax to a modest degree once you're about sixty miles north of the border.” A brief pause, then, “the danger will not decline much further until you are a good deal closer to home.”

Ugh,” I muttered.

“I heard that,” said the voice of Gilbertus.

“What, my disgusted tone?” I asked.

“No, what you were told,” he said. “Is it time to get started?”

“It's just before dawn,” I said. “We need to cross that area at full dark, so I suspect... No, we'd best not be laggardly...”

“Lest we get bit,” said Gilbertus. “Laggards draw firebugs like drink draws stinkers.”

“Is that how that goes?” said Karl's sleepy voice. “My uncle said something like that once.”

I wondered for a moment if it were wise to let Gabriel attempt to ride, but when he was tossed into the bed of the buggy and then covered with a cloth, I let the matter go unspoken. I could tell there would be enough trouble ahead without him adding more to it by attempting to get us all killed.

I soon learned of another issue: scanty meals. Our bread was indeed running low, for I received a chunk the size of my hand covered with jam prior to actually setting out – and while it sufficed for me, I could tell it was thought marginal by the others.

Thankfully, they did not complain. I suspected Gabriel would have complained loudly and at length had he been able to do so.

The road remained in entire shade until some hours after what 'felt' like noon. Each of the three streams we had crossed had been icy for chill and but modest for size, with the buckets going into play while the horses and buggies received their due attention. Again, I noted a near-complete absence of retained stones, while the oil levels remained 'decent'. I thought to look ahead when the trees began to become less dense to the 'off' side.

From the still-shady vantage point – a projecting spur perhaps ten feet wide and twenty long – I could not only see what I suspected was the 'waste', but also, widely-separated low hills nearer to where we were. On the way back to the group, I wondered aloud how much further we could go while still having cover.

I had my answer but twenty minutes later: the road was beginning to both slope downward in places and show more to the off-mountain side, even if we still had ample shade. I suspected it would end before long, and when we next checked the horses, not only was there no stream, but the nature of the road itself had changed.

“This is dirt,” I muttered, “that and sand.”

“So we're in the waste,” said Lukas. “Sun's up for another few turns of the glass, most likely.”

The descent flattened out for short periods, even while the trees became less dense and scrubbier, while the road itself became softer and less packed. It also became a trifle wider, with the rocks now few and far between. Our speed seemed slightly greater, while the long shadows of afternoon seemed to help our hiding among those trees which remained downslope from the road.

At the next stopping point, the thrashing that came from the buggy where Gabriel lay was sufficient for Lukas to lift the cover and then drag his 'inert-seeming' body out onto the ground. It proved wise, as once Gabriel was untied, he ran off the side of the road with Lukas behind him – until seconds later, Lukas returned muttering.

“He about soiled himself,” he said, then turning in the dimness to Gabriel: “you need trussing still?”

There was no reply, not until Gabriel showed once more a minute later, his face etched deeply with an expression I had never seen before. He seemed 'cowed' or frightened, and I hoped he would behave appropriately.

He seemed to do so once we were back underway, for the others kept up and remained quiet, even as the shadows grew longer and the shade from above became replaced by moon-silvered darkness.

There were still trees to our right and left, while the road was now dirt and sand with but a few small rocks underfoot. Ahead, I could see low sunburned hills amid a near-unbroken sea of brush, and I knew our 'hiding' among the trees was nearly ended.

Yet still, there was but the one answer, that which was ahead to the north; and as the road began flattening out, the trees grew shorter, scrubbier, and further apart – until finally, the road itself went from perhaps ten feet wide to the width of a goat-track.

“Single file,” I said over my shoulder. “Follow me.”

While there was moonlight, there was also shadow; and I used this last as much as I could. The moon was still well to the west of its zenith, thankfully, which meant the east sides of the hills lay in deep darkness. I made my crooked path from the backside of one such hill to another, while using every copse and thickened place in the sea of brush that I could find – until, after perhaps an hour, the 'path' that I had taken became steadily more obvious to my eyes.

And not merely mine; Lukas spoke of seeing the beginnings of a road under his wheels.

This path, thankfully, took the way that felt and seemed to be darkest as it meandered among the hills and brushy places, and the soft sand surface drowned all sounds. I had a question, and it remained unspoken, if still asked.

“Is this another marked trail?”

There was no answer to this question, or to the half-dozen other questions I wished to ask and kept silent about as the moon climbed slowly into the sky amid scattered and thin high clouds. Its luminosity gave me enough to see by, but no more, which I found strangely cheering. It took more seconds for me to recall the likely abilities of witch-vision during darkness, especially when strong drink was being consumed.

“Sober witches?” I thought. “Not likely...”

And as if in a dream and viewing a miserific vision, a broad and black shining ribbon showed itself some distance ahead amid a near-absence of hills or other means of cover. Seeing it – and knowing it to be the High Way – spoke of not merely where we actually were, but also, our likely trouble.

“No cover, nowhere to hide, and...”

My unspoken words ceased, for with seeing that road, I could also feel witches – and far away, faint enough to make me wonder as to how I was hearing it, I heard the braying of mules and the rumble of coaches.

“Thugs,” I muttered. “There are thugs in this area.” I then glanced to the right, and did not believe my eyes.

Faint lights showed amid a see of dusty brush far in the distance, and as we crested a small rise, I discerned yet more clues as to what I was seeing. Another minute, and I knew that place as well.

“That's that border town,” I thought. “We're just south of the border...”

I turned my eyes away from this now-distressing sight, and faced the road ahead. Wide sweeps of vision, first to the left and then the right, all the while staying in the firm-packed sand of the now-obvious trail, and in my thoughts, I had a peculiar digression that seemed at once disagreeable and yet wise.

“I hope someone keeps a loaded gun in plain view,” I thought. “Gabriel will want to...”

I heard an audible click, then another; and faintly, as if on the wind, I heard a whispered command – one that spoke of the dispensing of hot lead.

“...I'll air out your smelly hide, you wretch...”

This was spoken by a person who meant every word, and his command was not to be ignored without great peril. While I wondered who had spoken, and who was meant for a target, I was again somehow relieved. We had enough trouble without the traitorous efforts of witch-slaves wishing to curry favor with witches.

“That does not happen,” I thought. “Those people tend to be the first among those sacrificed to Brimstone when the witches show.”

And yet, the road ahead drew closer. I asked for the clouds overhead to become darker, all the while hoping that it might happen while simultaneously expecting the precise opposite. Again, I heard mules and coaches, and then...

“Forty-chain,” I muttered. “I smell that stinky paint-remover.”

“Aye,” whispered Lukas. “That means witches.”

Silence descended once more, and as we came from the shadow of one of the last hills, the moon overhead suddenly dimmed markedly. Faint on the wind – there was a wind now; I could feel it physically on my sweat-chilled skin – I heard a guttural oath in Underworld German, then what might have been a chanted rune-curse.

The darkness ignored what I had heard, and grew thicker yet. I could again feel thugs, these people closer than those cursing miles away; and I kept my mouth shut. They would be close enough to hear unguarded speech, or so I suspected.

“They more or less own this area,” I thought, as the area directly to my front became a trifle lighter amid darkness that continued to thicken elsewhere.

While I could see well enough to keep our way, my ability to judge distances accurately had all but vanished, so much so that when I again caught sight of the High Way it seemed but a few hundred yards off. I braced for its effects in the coming minutes as the path wove through the waist-high brush of the now-blatant waste – until, with a sudden flourish, it 'appeared' but ten feet in front of me!

I turned where I sat, and waited while Lukas slowly drove up. I dropped off, my boots hitting the sandy soil with a faint crunching noise, then walked back as he slowed to a stop. He looked at me in what might have been fear, at least until I whispered into his ear.

“The High Way,” I said. “It's just in front of us.”

I left him, then began walking back to where Gilbertus was. The others had formed up in a silent nose-to-tail line, each horse all but touching the one in front of it, while in the rear...

“Just four horses?” I thought. “Where's the fifth..?”

The fifth horse was 'parked' next to the buggy, and its rider was completely silent. I went to the other side and leaned in. Only then did I see the fowling piece in his lap.

Both hammers were at full cock, and Gilbertus had his hand upon its stock. He turned to me as I whispered, then nodded his understanding. The figure beside him neither made sound nor stirred.

I nearly ran back the way I had come, then led past Jaak on foot. The darkness around us was now near-total, and with each foot, I felt for that raised hard surface that I had recalled from what seemed ages ago. Finally, I felt it, and I lifted up to then stand upon the pitted and uneven surface of what felt like a badly-maintained asphalt road.

Jaak went first, then Lukas. The latter somehow drove around the worst of the potholes with little more than a faint grinding noise in a few places and soft clopping noises from the two horses in front and the one tied to the rear, then on the tail of that animal, Hendrik, Sepp, Karl, and Kees. Finally, Gilbertus with Gabriel at his side, and with this last, I ran ahead along the side of the trail.

I wanted to get out of that area quickly, for I could feel someone coming, and once remounted, Jaak seemed to feel as I did, for we moved with renewed speed in the near-total blackness on a north-northwest track. This last I checked some minutes later under a faint shaft of moonlight as we passed over a disused-seeming road.

“No, not this one,” I thought, as I left it behind for the trail ahead. “Those stinky thugs use it.”

“Especially as that road leads more or less straight to the Low Way,” said the soft voice. “I would stay well clear of all roads tonight.”

“Because they all lead to thugs, no doubt,” I thought.

“Especially in this area,” said the soft voice. “While they do not 'own' this region, that one search party came to this area, and is currently bolstering the numbers of those thugs native to this district.”

“North?” I asked.

“Past the Last River,” said the soft voice. “You can get supplies in that region without undue danger.”

“And rest isn't going to happen around here,” I murmured to myself. “We dare not stop until we find cover.” A brief pause, then, “is that why those people who left before us planned to continue on?”

The answer – 'of course' – seemed 'obvious' to me, but I had been wrong before with such things. The thought then occurred to me to ask that our tracks be hidden, and I did so.

Over the next hour, the moon continued to be darkened, with but few and fickle feeble shafts of moonlight showing themselves in the area around us. The path ahead became more and more obvious as well as wider, with occasional places where twin ruts showed amid the knee-high sagebrush we were traveling through.

The stuff to each side, however, was closer to waist-high, when not higher; and when the first copse showed not thirty feet away, I almost squeaked in surprise. I turned around where I sat, and saw that the moonlight was now shining down some distance away to our rear.

And a trio of coaches were rumbling down the High Way from the north, pulsating lanterns glaring their evil jaundiced rays into the darkness and their mules trotting in near-silence. They seemed much closer than they actually were, for some reason.

“Light-giving f-firebombs...” I thought.

The pulsations of one of the middle coach's lanterns suddenly grew drastically in magnitude, then the entire three-coach tableau vanished before my eyes in a brilliant center-right-left white eruption that spread red-and-white flames billowing thick and high into the air for a count of five, while the noise washed over us half a minute later as the flames settled down into a furiously-burning holocaust.

Now do you see why we can't take the roads?” spat Lukas as the explosion's roar seemed to rumble and shake the ground.

Another half-hour, another two miles further or so I guessed, and the moonlight began to shine once more where we actually were. It did so faintly at first, and after passing another road and leaving it some distance behind, I called a halt so as to rest and take stock. The first matter that proved troubling was learning that we were nearly out of beer.

“Half of our jugs..?” I whispered.

“I either counted wrong, or someone's been drinking like a dried-out mule,” said Lukas. “We've only got a few that have beer in 'em.”

“And those are but part-full,” said Karl. “I have been careful with mine.”

The same refrain came from everyone, for some reason, and I knew we would be drinking our share of water along with the horses – and more, that meant either finding a town...

“No, that won't work,” I thought. “There aren't any towns out this way, and if there were, they'd be unsafe for us to visit.”

The sand now grew deeper in places, sufficiently so that I needed to lead the way across such stretches of sand on foot and the drivers of the buggies needed to walk in front of their vehicles so as to stay where I indicated the firmest portions were. The brush to each side made this an especially difficult matter, for it gave but little added room beyond that needed to pass the horses. Another road showed, this one with deep tracks made by an obvious coach, and once across it, I asked that our tracks be erased.

The moon was well past its zenith and heading eastward when I finally 'felt' water somewhere ahead and to the east, and over the next hour, I led in that direction. The brush grew steadily thicker and more 'clinging' to the sides of the buggies, and when I actually 'found' the spring, I had to warn the others so as to not accidently trample its friable walls into a morass of mud.

“We'll camp here,” I murmured, as I began 'exploring' the brush. The stuff was close to head-tall, and a narrow depression of several feet in depth looked possible for hiding both buggies and horses.

By the time the west began lightening, we had not merely set up camp – tunnels cut through the brush where one could crawl upon hands and knees, other places where cots went head-to-tail in a straggly group, a crude 'oven' made of rocks and mud by the light of a single small candle-lantern – but also had bathed ourselves and watered the horses. The oven with its small coke and cooking fuel fire continued to boil pots of water, which we cooled and put in the tub for the horses, while I sat upon my cot, boots off and hung on the branches of a scrubby tree, listening carefully for trouble. We were down to scraps of dried meat and husks of bread for food we could eat without cooking.

While I could not hear trouble, I could feel it in the area as the sun rose, and I gave each horse a small bucket of water dosed with the bull formula. It seemed to help markedly, and as I pulled my cover sheet up over the rest of my body, I could faintly hear in the distance the braying noises of mules.

“Please, let us stay hid,” I said silently in my thoughts as I fell abruptly into exhausted sleep – to then awaken to the sound of a coach rattling past not three hundred yards away. I could now feel the witches and their anger, and as I lay still, I listened carefully.

The rune-curse – I had heard it before multiple times – suddenly erupted with strobing colors between my ears and before my eyes, and I rolled off of my cot to hit the ground amid a torrent of gunfire that raked the branches directly above my body. I tried to find a hole to hide in, but it was no good, even as the bangs and booms of fowling pieces and muskets ceased amid the brays of mules and the rumbling noises of a coach leaving the area.

Twice more this same thing happened to interrupt my sleeping, and each time, I found myself 'eating dirt' as the bullets and shot ripped through the branches overhead. Finally, about dusk, I actually awoke – and marveled at my clothing, for somehow, it had become dusted with faint motes of sand.

“You up?” whispered Gilbertus. He was perhaps ten feet away and crawling closer in the gloaming.

“I think so,” I murmured. “How did I get all dirty like this?”

“Same as the rest of us, most likely,” he said. “The witches were after us, and now Gabriel knows we were telling him true.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“He almost got hit by some shot from a witch's fowling piece,” said Gilbertus. “They were driving by in their coaches and shooting at everything so's to try to scare us out of hiding.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“He didn't want to get dirty,” said Gilbertus, “and Karl had to pull him off of his cot.”

“And?” I asked softly.

“His cot's going to need fixing afore he uses it again,” said Gilbertus, “as that witch turned the thing into a pot-strainer with small pistol balls.”

While Gilbertus was correct about what had happened to Gabriel's cot, I had trouble seeing how a half-dozen scattered pencil-sized holes equated to turning it into a 'sieve'. Gabriel, however, was indeed shaken by the episode, and his behavior showed it by a near-complete absence of speech when we resumed traveling.

The same could not be said about Lukas, however, who asked me at our first rest-stop of the night regarding the horses.

“You dosed 'em?” he whispered. His admiring tone was astonishing to me, at least until I checked his buggy and found a place where a bullet had nicked the upper rail.

“Uh, yes,” I said. “It seemed like a good idea to do so when I had the chance.”

“It was,” he said. “I've found more than one loose bullet in this buggy already, and enough shot to load up a fowling piece.”

At the second hour of the night's travel – the path had once more faded out to near-invisibility – I could feel more witches in the distance. Lights showed their paths as they traveled in what seemed all directions of the compass some distance to our left, and when we next stopped to 'rest', I thought to ask about the matter.

“Is that the Low Way?” I asked.

“Aye,” whispered Lukas. He was speaking next to my ear. “We're some distance west o' the High Way, which means that other road is close.”

“And?” I asked.

Lukas had no answer for me, even if I was able to 'feel' a town some distance to the north within the next hour's travel. I wondered if it were wise to mention it, as I could feel things about the place that made it very unwise to visit.

“It's one big drink-house,” I thought, “and those thugs think it's another district they own. We'd best forget about getting supplies there.”

“Presuming you could exist upon part-rotten greens, High Meats and forty-chain,” said the soft voice.

Bleah,” I thought. “No thank you.”

And yet still, there were other things I could feel once we had passed the 'bad town'. One of these was a spring of sorts, and as we drew closer to it, I wondered as to where it would hide itself – until finally, the small pool showed within fifty feet of a disused-seeming dirt road. I had to wave the others clear of it.

“It's bait,” I muttered, upon recalling mention of poisons and arsenic, and when I heard the unspoken question 'how', I had an answer ready.

“First, it's easily seen, and that from a road... Was that road disused?”

“It has seen a good deal more use than you thought it had, and that recently,” said the soft voice.

“So it was seen,” I murmured. “Then, it's an alkali spring anyway...”

“So why would they foul it, then?” asked Karl. His pointed voice seemed to be accusing me of causing all of our current trouble.

“They thought it was drinkable,” I muttered. “Just because mules can cope with water...”

“Aye, those can drink water what would poison horses,” said Lukas. “What did they put in it?”

“Uh, arsenic,” I said, as I turned to go. “That, and, uh... I'm not sure about this, but I think they put arsenic and datramonium in it.” I paused, looked ahead, and seemed to see a changed aspect of the sea of brush ahead.

This proved to be a renewed path, and as I followed its heading – now more or less north – I seemed to feel another 'hidden' place in the area somewhere ahead and to the right. I was more than a little surprised when the path seemed to abruptly peter out within fifty feet of a sizable copse.

“That copse,” I thought, as I dismounted and began walking toward it. “There's something...”

I ceased my mental speech upon actually touching the copse's foliage, and reached in to draw a limb to the right. The darkness that lay past it was of such an astonishing character that I walked inside to there find the start of a stick-littered 'walkway' perhaps five feet wide. I turned around to see Lukas.

“Is that one o' those marked paths?” he whispered.

“It might be,” I said. “It's narrow enough that you'll need to lead your horses...”

I ceased speaking, for I had turned around once more, and began stepping carefully with trembling toes. Each step seemed to drop an inch further into the ground, and after a dozen such steps, I looked above my head to see a thick canopy of branches that seemed to grow yet thicker. I could hear faint voices coming from outside, and I turned and walked quickly to the 'entrance'.

“No time for it now,” I whispered. “Follow me.”

The 'door' needed holding open for Jaak, who went on ahead without me, then with some small stretching around the wheels, Lukas led in his team and buggy. The others had dismounted while we had done so, and with Gilbertus bringing up the rear, I went back outside. I could feel witches nearby, so much so that I prayed that our trail be hidden from them, and I pulled the 'door' to as I went inside.

The near-complete darkness now filling the doorway needed seconds for my eyes to adjust, and as I waited for that to happen, I moved along the column by touch and smell. I finally came to where Jaak was, and noticed a small area overhead where the 'canopy' had thinned markedly.

“Can I, uh, mount?” I though. “It's worth a try.”

I did so, and began leading off down the now-wandering track; and with the passing minutes and brief periods of moonlight, I determined we were in a narrow tree-hidden ravine heading roughly north. I was glad for the shade, for it hid us from the witches; and as the day began to break in the west, I was yet more glad.

We were in a surprisingly deep ravine now, its walls near-vertical for a distance of twelve to fifteen feet not counting the trees to each side that provided shade; and where the sun had penetrated to the sandy floor of the place, small plots of green grass commonly showed – and for those, I was especially glad.

“At least the horses can eat,” I thought. “Now we need water for them and... Oh, my!”

Not two minutes more showed a small 'river crossing', with a small pool of water on the 'upstream' side. The clean and odorless aspect of this water made for a line of thirsty horses, while the heating lamp came out for boiling our water. I thought to fill at least four or five jugs while we had the chance, and each filled jug went back in the pool to cool while the horses continued their drinking.

With the sun beginning to show both light and heat, the green patches on the floor of the ravine increased in both size and length – and where no green patches showed, I needed to get off and find a path. Often, I saw a faint and hazy bluish trace, and when I remained upon it, the ground was firm and able to carry the weight of our horses and buggies.

Going three feet to each side, however, usually meant uncommonly soft soil that reminded me of those few times I had attempted running upon dry beach sand – and when a horse did so, the results were often dire-seeming.

At least I thought so, though Lukas told me otherwise when we next stopped.

Resuming travel, however, made for a most peculiar sensation, and when the feeling grew stronger, I thought to investigate it. A pair of large rocks lay but a few feet from the 'groove' of the trail, and as I walked upon short green grass toward them so as to investigate, I wondered what I would find. I knelt down, reached in the cleft between the two rocks – and drew out a sizable string-tied cloth bag with a stamped tin label.

“J-journey-food?” I thought, as I tried to unsuccessfully untie the string next to Lukas' buggy. “Could you please...”

Lukas took the heft bag from me, and untied the string while muttering about grandmothers and knots. He then reached into the bag and drew out what looked like a short and somewhat dessicated brown bludgeon.

“On second thought, that thing looks like a wrinkled road flare,” I thought.

“You know what this thing is, don't you?” he asked.

I shook my head to indicate 'no', then said, “it looks edible. Is it?”

Lukas laid the 'bludgeon' on the seat of the buggy, then drew out several more like it. “These things are goat-sausages.”

“G-goat sausages?” I asked. 'Boekwoersten' sounded distinctly unappetizing.

“From the fourth kingdom's market,” he said. “They may be tough to chew on, and lacking in flavor, but they're about the best journey-food for hard going I know of.” He looked in the bag, then said, “fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen...”

“Enough for two each,” I murmured. “Perhaps some coins, and, uh, candles to replace them?”

Lukas looked at me strangely, then dismounted after handing me two of the 'road flares' – and when we resumed fifteen minutes later, I attempted to gnaw on one.

“These things are awful,” I muttered. “They look like road flares, and they do not want to chew, and they taste like, uh, sawdust.”

“You might want to wait until we camp, then,” said Lukas amid slurping sounds. I turned to see him drinking from his cup.

“Beer?” I asked.

“I wish,” he said softly. “This is that water you boiled.” A brief pause, then “who are those two?”

I turned around in stunned shock to see two young women coming from out behind a smallish boulder. One of them turned toward something or someone still hidden behind the rock, then vanished to reappear seconds later with a donkey laden with bags, followed by a second such animal.

“Are those s-students?” I thought, as we came closer.

I wondered more as to how to greet them, but I soon did not have to worry, for they went past me and straight to Lukas. I was surprised, and more, heartened – as they seemed to know him.

“Yes?” I asked, as we resumed some minutes later. Each girl was now riding in a buggy, and their donkeys tethered behind the vehicles.

“Seems they both saw me when I was down this way mining,” said Lukas, “and one of 'em got hurt in a manufactory last year.”

“Hurt?” I asked.

“A machine dropped its parts on her foot,” he said, “and it healed fine, at least for walking.” He paused, then said, “those witches found out about what happened and they tried to kill her, so they both left.”

“Those people never did like us much,” said the girl, “but when Lys was hurt, they wanted to kill her. We had to hide in Eisernije and help raise goats until she was better.”

“Better?” I asked. “Uh, did something happen?” I asked.

“She only has three toes left on that foot,” said the girl, “and when we left, she seemed to know where everything was and how to find it.” A brief pause, “and then, she knew how to hide from those stinky black-dressed people so they could not find either of us.”

“Uh, do you two have food?” I asked.

“Yes, some, though it is mostly things we have from Eisernije,” she said. “I've wanted to cook something, but she says it is a bad idea.”

“It is, if you use wood,” I said. “We have ways of cooking without it.”

We camped an hour later in a small 'bay' under the shade of a small grove of trees, and while I looked for and found a 'spring' some distance away, the others set up camp. The warmth of late morning seemed to make for yawning and a fervent desire to sleep, and once the 'bathtub' had been set up in the folds of a tent, we began bathing.

I also soon found that the others were not merely bathing themselves, but also their clothing. I had but one set left that was clean, which was one more than the others, and between cooking meals – both girls helped Lukas and Gilbertus, while I went over the buggies thoroughly – and bathing, noon came before we had our meals. The girls were grateful, and I was more so, for I had learned the secret of rendering goat-sausage edible.

“It don't take much for hot water,” said Lukas, as he forked a small bit into his mouth.” “Get your water to boiling some, chop it up small, toss it in, and let it set for half a glass.”

“And add spices,” I said. “And some dried vegetables...”

“Aye, if you have those,” he said. “I've heard of some of the students from the west school making seven-day trips with those things.”

“Do they cook them?” I asked.

“Aye, in small cups like what you have for drinking,” said Lukas. “If they find out about those things, or those smaller cooking sets, they'll bury you for work, and no mistake.” A brief pause, then, “and no student travels far without a lump o' cooking fuel.”

“I did,” said Kees, “but then, I did not travel like they do, and neither did Gabriel.” A pause, then, “are you having trouble?”

“Yes, I am,” muttered Gabriel. “This sausage seems to be made of wood.”

“Let it soak in the broth more,” said Gilbertus. “If that don't help it, boil it more on that lamp.”

“That is a strange lamp,” said Lys. “I wish we had one like it.”

I went to my things, then brought out one of the jeweler's lamps, which I gave to Lys. She wondered what it was for what seemed a few seconds, then twisted the wick adjuster.

“This is better for two, is it not?” she asked.

“I suspect so, unless you're inclined to large meals or in a hurry,” said Lukas. “Two of you, it should do passably with that smaller pot you have.”

“And it uses aquavit, does it not?” asked Lys.

“Aye,” said Lukas, “though if you go to that market town, there's this stuff like it what works better. It usually goes for these really bright lanterns they sell there.”

“Is that where you two are going?” I asked.

“Either there, or to the first kingdom,” said the other girl. “The fourth kingdom is closer, but Lys says the first kingdom has more work, and better work.”

I was about to reply when Lukas said, “I'm not certain about it having better work, but it is easier to get work there than anyplace I know of.”

“That is much of what I meant,” said Lys. “Do you know the way there?”

“We do,” said Hendrik, “and that is where we are going.” A brief pause, then, “and my wife would not mind looking after the two of you for a time.”

“Oh, my,” I thought. “They will be surprised.”