The road's ending, part e.
A glance upward spoke of a moon just east of zenith, and when I looked beneath where I sat, I saw definite traces of a 'deserted road'. I could tell the road would soon 'vanish' once more, while the grass underfoot – real grass, not the bunched stuff of the third kingdom – was firm, yet perceptibly moist. To the right and 'closer' was a sizable woodlot, while to the left and 'further away' I could see another – and dead ahead, perhaps two miles distant, lay a small stream.
“Water,” I thought. “The horses need it, and I, uh...”
I reached for my water-bottle, shook it gently, then pulled the cork. I drained the thing in a trice, and felt noticeably better once I'd finished drinking.
I felt better yet when I had dismounted at the banks of the stream. The horses were drinking as if dehydrated, while I was working on draining 'my' jug. Lukas came to my left, then put a rag-wrapped 'lump' on the bag next to the jug's hiding place. I thought to ask what it was.
“Bread,” he said. “I'll cut off a lump of cooking fuel when we get to camp.”
“B-bagged,” I gasped.
“I'll use one o' them smaller ones,” he said. “I know you have some bags in your things.”
The riverside stop was a bit longer than the usual for such things, as we all had need of food. Grain went out for the horses, the two small lanterns were stoked with candles and lit, and an overall 'inspection' carried out to see if anything had broken or vibrated loose.
“These shoes still look decent,” said Gilbertus, as he finished up with one horse's shoes and went on to another's. “These softer roads will help.”
“With the shoes wearing, you mean,” said Lukas. “They might not help with us making time.” There was a brief pause, then, “he's not up to doing that much more.”
“Tonight?” I asked.
“Between now and getting home,” said Lukas. “You do that much more, and Anna will have a fit with the way you're getting.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. I then felt my stomach.
“That's why,” said Lukas. “You look like someone who's not had enough to eat for a month straight, and that while working in a copper mine.”
“Those are trouble,” said someone's voice from behind me. “They work you hard, and pay you little, and no one stays long unless they have more money than sense.”
I turned to see Antoon working on draining a cup of beer, and I resumed draining what I had in my hand as well.
The road underfoot continued for what seemed another two hours, and with further drinking of beer from my water-bottle, I felt somewhat more revived. Nonetheless, I knew finding a suitable camping spot seemed wise, and when a woodlot showed to the front with the moon midway between its zenith and the eastern horizon, I made straight for the place.
I smelled a spring, also, and that made for a yet greater desire to hurry.
Once 'installed' in that woodlot, with the spring 'located' – it took me fifteen minutes of yawning and struggling to stay awake while looking, then showing someone else where it was – I went to bed to awaken just prior to dawn. I was feeling more than a little itchy.
“Perhaps a bath, then some daytime travel, at least until we find a town with, uh, food,” I thought. “Would that work, or do we need...”
I then recalled the instructions about traveling 'mostly' at night, and asked, “when do the Public Houses open in this area?”
“Similar to where they do at home,” said the soft voice, “though they close at sundown, or sometimes a bit earlier.”
“So move on at dawn, then find another place to, uh, hide?”
There was no answer, and as I stood stiffly, I heard soft speech. I turned to see Lys moving among the others and beginning to wake them.
She was seeing no small amount of resistance while doing so, however, and as I drew my own water out of the spring and began boiling a potful over the heating lamp, I heard someone grunt, then mutter.
“Come on, you people,” muttered Gilbertus. “This may be closer to home than we've been recent, but it ain't home.”
“Uh, no,” I said, as I adjusted the lamp. “We'll need to hit two or three towns today to replace our beer at the least.”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “Shake your legs, people. There's trekking to do.”
It was about an hour after sunrise before we left the woodlot, and there were many groans and sighs of fatigue. I was mostly able to hide my groans, but one or two escaped nonetheless, and when I found a road heading 'north', I cut onto it.
“Now you go on the roads...”
I glanced down, and saw but few ruts, and these faint amid powdery dust. I recalled the prior talk of becoming mired, and as I looked to the sides past the roadside ditches and into the wide grassy fields, I wondered if they were 'gooey' enough to stick the buggies.
“Best not chance it,” I thought. “I have no idea how we didn't get bogged last night...”
“That 'road' more or less continued to where you stopped,” said the soft voice, “and while most of the current area's fields are able to support the buggies, there are small isolated patches which are softer.”
“And I would need to find our path around them,” I said.
“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “Roads require no such effort on your part.”
The straight nature of this road was a marvel to me, and while it was narrower than what was common at home, I was glad for its smooth surface. As we crested a slight rise, I saw far in the distance what might have been a pack train, then from somewhere behind, I heard the clopping sound of a trotting horse. I looked over my shoulder, and did not believe what I saw.
Someone was coming rapidly, and while this person wasn't a witch – I could see nothing of a black nature for clothing – I wondered more than a little as to who might be riding at such a pounding rate. I turned back toward the front, moving toward the right side of the road so as to give the person passage as the steady clopping came quickly closer.
“Who is riding like that?” I asked quietly as the hoofbeats came quickly closer.
There was no response. I turned – and again, I had trouble believing my eyes.
The rider was a young girl, and the horse a coal-black creature that looked remarkably like Jaak. I could tell, however, that there was a fundamental difference in temperament regarding the oncoming horse, and when the horse shot past in a clattering hurry, I nearly fainted at the sight.
“N-no saddle,” I squeaked as horse and rider seemed to vanish in a swirling cloud of dust.
“I can answer that question now,” said Lukas. “That girl was a messenger.”
“No h-harness,” I muttered, “and that horse was...”
“A racer,” said Lukas. “It was bronze-shod, and I suspect it was a mare.”
While I had wanted to speak of the horse's temperament – it was more than 'mettlesome'; it was as ill-tempered as that late-departed mule, and inclined toward bucking as well – I found that I needed to keep my attention on the road in front of me. I could feel a town in the area, and as the road curved slightly, I not only caught sight of the 'pack train', but also knew the town in question was but a mile or two past where the pack train currently was.
“Which means about four miles,” I thought. “I hope that place has, uh, shot, as....”
With no warning, the strident sounds of a flock of quolls shattered all semblance of peace in the area, and the birds shot across the road at bullet-like speeds. Even so, their clumsy flight was evident, and when they had shot out of range to the right, I marveled at their behavior.
“Those noisy things don't come in to land on the ground,” I muttered. “They crash!”
The sight of several dozen tumbling quolls was nearly too much to endure with a straight face, and only the absence of the pack train ahead made for wondering on my part when I tried looking for it. The town was much closer, however, and I suspected the horses would enjoy a thorough 'dowsing session' at the watering trough of the Public House.
I was correct about the enjoyment, once we had arrived, yet deficient as to its magnitude; and on the way out, I noted the pack train 'parked' in front of a commonplace-looking shop. All four animals were donkeys, and while they were eating grain and hay mixed, I marveled at their appetite.
“Those eat nearly as much as a horse,” I thought.
“No, not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if they do consume twice as much relative to their weight.”
“Hay and grain?” I asked.
“Are not as necessary as with horses,” said the soft voice. “Donkeys are much like mules regarding the quality of their food.”
“And the quantity?” I asked.
“Be glad 'Francis' was not a donkey,” said the soft voice. “He would have eaten more.”
The town had had a modest amount of shot, but it was of poor quality; the same situation applied for its powder, while candles had been strictly of the tallow variety. They smelled worse than usual.
“Those things were bad,” said Lukas. He had gone to the Mercantile.
“At least we have wax ones,” I murmured. “Beer? Bread?”
“Aye, some of each,” said Lukas. “Antoon here says there's another town on this road about five miles on.”
“Is this a special road?” I asked.
“Not the way you're thinking,” said Lukas. “I've heard talk about roads in the second kingdom's back country, and lots of them are like this in the southern part.”
“And north of here?” I asked.
“They're more like home for traffic,” he said. “This place might well be like what we went through last night, at least for people.”
The next hour – I was now glad we were on a road, as I was truly noticing my fatigue once more – showed a day perceptibly cooler than the one before, as well as a greater degree of perceptible dampness in the air. About half a mile south of the next town, the fields started, and here, I was amazed at seeing the long more-or-less straight rows of crops, with hand-high sprouts showing nearly everywhere.
“That isn't wheat, is it?” I asked.
“Wheat has little market in this area,” said the soft voice. “Those are third kingdom grains, as well as some of the hardier varieties from the fourth kingdom.”
From far away, I heard the boom of a musket, then two more. I suspected someone was hunting, and I thought to ask.
“Ain't much down here for deer and elk,” said Lukas. “You know about some o' the birds.”
“Some of the birds?” I asked. I did not wish to have another run-in with a peeved fool-hen.
“Quolls, fool-hens, buzzards, and wood-pigeons,” said Lukas, “and that's for the common ones. They got some others down here that don't come up around home.”
The next town: beer, bread, some dried meat, and a small bag of potatoes. These last were not merely half the size of those at home, but also a deep beet-red color.
“Fourth kingdom potatoes?” I asked.
“Aye, and decent, too,” said Gilbertus. “Those things usually don't get that big down there.”
I began 'looking' for a suitable woodlot to hide in, and could not find one nearby. There seemed to be but little to do beyond continue along the present road.
I was glad for the road's seeming desertion, so much so that I was 'jolted' when I saw movement in my peripheral vision.
“What?” I gasped, as first one donkey passed – it had a girl for its rider – then another, this one laden with bags, followed by two more, and finally the last one of the string with another girl sitting on it. Both girls seemed half-asleep, which did not surprise me much given my current state of fatigue.
What did surprise me was the frantic blurry motion of the legs of the animals, which moved with a rapidity that reminded me of a hummingbird's wings as the donkeys continued on their way. Their blurred hooves tossed thick spurts of dust with each rapid stride, and the dust rose wafting in clouds behind them.
“How fast do those things go?” I mumbled.
“Fast enough that some of those bags have letters in them,” said the soft voice. “The bags will be changed over to a new pack-train about noon.”
“And I'd best find a place to stop by then,” I murmured. “I cannot find one, though.”
The thought suddenly occurred to me, however: if we were going to stop for the 'afternoon', did we need the usual amenities? But for a few hours resting, then continuing at nightfall?
“There are places with water,” I murmured. “They are common enough, and towns...”
“Will become much more common within about ten to twelve miles,” said the soft voice. “I would stop at the next woodlot you see, and leave about two hours before sundown.”
'The next woodlot' showed not two minutes later, and ten minutes after seeing it, I was leading the way into it on foot. The ground seemed soft enough to worry about miring the buggies, and when we stopped in the middle of a small clearing, I noticed both older men looking for sticks.
“Is this for a fire?” asked Karl. “It is warm enough...”
“For under the buggy wheels,” said Gilbertus. “This ground is soft enough to worry me.”
With the wheels 'propped' under a bed of sticks, the cots came out. But minutes later, I was on one of them and deeply asleep – to then awaken 'some time later' to the smells of cooking food.
“How...” I murmured.
“There was a spring,” said the soft voice, “and Lys found it about ten minutes after you went to bed.”
“Are those common in woodlots?” I asked.
“In this area, no,” said the soft voice. “They are more common elsewhere.”
Bathing happened before food, and once our things were stowed, I wondered about moving out. The buggies had sticks under their wheels, and once hitched, the horses pulled them off readily. I hoped the wheels would not get stuck, even as I mounted Jaak.
“They won't if we move,” said Lukas.
Accordingly, I led off. I felt a good deal better, even if there still was a residuum of fatigue remaining, and once headed north, I felt a town but two or three miles distant. It was late in the afternoon, with long shadows casting down from each tree to color the grassy fields a dark and mysterious blackish green, while the road itself was often in similar darkness. We passed by a small grove of trees that threw such shadows, and to my surprise, a portion of the shadows moved.
I was about to turn around – the Public House lay ahead, and it would keep for the moment – when with a ear-crushing clattering noise, something huge and dark leaped from the bounds of the tree. Amidst flapping noises appropriate to a condor, the mobile shadows shot down the road, and as the sunlight of late afternoon came once again, I saw their too-alive source.
It was a huge black bird some distance ahead, and it was turning to land upon the field to our right.
The landing of this bird was clumsy enough to make me think it had been tutored by quolls for some time, and as the bird recovered from its near-catastrophe with a trio of short hops, its shape became clearer to me. The long pointed beak, the darting snake-like head as it walked in stately fashion, its unhurried gate, its plumage a glossy sable color, the brilliant bead-like dark eyes...
The bird turned to me, and with one ear, I heard its hoarse croaking call; while with the other, I heard a word at once familiar and dreadful:
“Nevermore!” shrieked the now-obvious Raven. “Nevermore!”
“T-that b-b-bird,” I moaned. We were now abreast of it. “Th-that bird..?”
There was no talk to confirm the dread import of such a 'stately' bird, even though the bird carried its head well past my knee. It looked to weigh an easy twenty pounds, and when it 'launched' from the field with huge eagle-like blasts of its wings, the sound and the fury spoke of a bird like no other. I shuddered as it left us below and behind, and once more looked toward our front.
The town's Public House was still open, thankfully, though when we made ready to leave with several filled jugs, Lukas said, “they were starting to clean up when we got there.”
“Clean up?” I asked. “As in closing?”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “They would have been open another glass, if that.”
“Meaning no more, food or..?”
“I'd check at the next town we come to,” he said, “but after that, no.”
The next town's Public House was still open, though again, there was talk of getting ready to close among those who came out with filled jugs and bags, and once under way again, I noted where the sun was. It was close to 'down', with twilight coming rapidly; and I thought to hang out our small lanterns when we next stopped.
“Or is that wise?” I thought. “Best wait and see what the moon does.”
The moon arose less than an hour later, and its light, while dimmed by high clouds, seemed sufficient for traveling. I suspected 'inspections' would be otherwise, and at our next stop – a 'dead' town's Public House – I was surprised to see both of the smaller lanterns in ready use as I topped the oil reservoirs.
“Are those l-lit while we're traveling?” I asked.
“The girls hold them,” said Gilbertus. “Gisela uses a cooking pot for ours.”
“Not much light?” I asked.
“There is if you take it out of the pot,” said Lukas. “It helps some just the same when the moon hides itself.”
“It does?” I asked. I had not noticed anything that way.
Lukas nodded, then resumed checking the hoof he was holding while Lys held the lantern for him. It seemed to help more than a little, for we resumed traveling somewhat quicker than times before.
I could feel a sizable river somewhere ahead, though 'how far' ahead was a questionable matter. The chief thing that I understood was that this particular river, especially in the region ahead, was far too large to ford.
“If we have to do that,” I thought, “it would mean going nearly to the High Way.”
“Past the High Way, you mean,” said the soft voice. “It needed bridges on that road.”
“There are bridges,” I asked. I meant this as a question, regardless of the implied punctuation.
“Much as there was for the last river you came to,” said the soft voice. “You will need to cross them carefully, however, as they are not nearly as 'well-maintained'.”
“As in they're about ready to fall down?” I asked.
“The older portions are still functional,” said the soft voice. “The same cannot be said for the planks forming their floors.” A brief pause, “there are regular work-crews attending to each of those bridges.”
“Regular?” I asked.
“Twice a year, and monthly inspections,” said the soft voice. “It isn't through lack of effort that those bridges are dangerous to use.”
My question ceased at my lips, for now, I not merely had a quandary as to bridge-crossing, but also an issue regarding 'important information' which I would need to note. I suspected the rotten timbers...
“Those wretches put rotten timbers in those things,” I spluttered.
“One of the few areas the witches think to attend to consistently in this area,” said the soft voice, “and the 'curse of rottenness', while it needs to be manifested, is not to be trifled with.”
“The curse of rottenness?” I asked.
“Recall that evil-smelling wood-treatment Hans makes?” asked the soft voice. “Dry-rot is a serious problem in the first kingdom, and not much less of one in this area.” A brief pause, then, “not only do these people know nothing of wood preservation beyond what is done for 'furniture', but the witches have dry-rot 'cultures' they have cultivated for many years.”
“And they 'seed' the planks with rottenness,” I muttered.
“Planks that normally would last several years do well to retain adequate strength for months when so contaminated,” said the soft voice, “and more, the witch-cultures do not show appreciably in an outward form until the wood is entirely rotten.”
“Meaning the inspections do well to catch some rotten pieces of wood,” I thought.
“They catch more than 'some',” said the soft voice. “They stab each piece of wood with knives and awls.”
“And?” I asked.
“While that gets most of the more-rotten pieces, that witch-cultured fungus causes wood to literally 'go bad' over a week's time once it has gotten a good start.”
“They would need to inspect those bridges every few days,” I spluttered.
“Which they do not have time to do,” said the soft voice. “The bridges will need you finding paths across them.”
The idea of finding paths then seemed to chill my marrow, for I had no idea as to how to tell good wood from rotten. I thought to ask about furniture, more as a distraction than anything else.
“The better carpenters know about drying oil,” said the soft voice, “and they commonly apply it to their better pieces.”
“And otherwise, nothing,” I said.
While there was no explicit answer, my outburst seemed fairly plausible upon reflection. Hans had spoken of the cost of drying oil, as well as where it was made; and while his wood-treatment smelled horribly and was more than a little dangerous to make – it did work well.
At least the carpenters in town said it did, which had to mean something.
Two more towns, each an hour or so apart, and then a third, which meant stopping for water in front of the town's Public House. The 'dead' aspect – there were candle-lanterns glowing on most of the stoops in town, and the Public House had a pair of lanterns, each flickering softly in the gloaming – was profound and disquieting, and I could almost hear the chants and curses of a multitude of witches as I first checked the buggies, then worked one of the pumps for a period of time. As I refilled my water-bottle from that one jug of beer, I tried 'looking' ahead so as to find the river – and more, its bridges.
“Will we need to cross multiple bridges?” I asked.
“You will most likely manage all three bridges before sunrise,” said the soft voice. “The potato country starts about thirty miles north of the last bridge.”
“What is that place like?” I asked.
While there was no answer from that source, Jan provided one of sorts as we left the town.
“It is not like here,” he said. “It is more like some places in the first kingdom, or near that market in the fourth.”
“And here?” I asked.
“Witches might be scarce for showing,” said Jan, “but they are not scarce for talk and trouble.”
“Showing?” I asked.
“No one sees them in this area,” said Jan. “That does not mean they do not come here, nor does it mean they do not cause trouble.”
“How do they cause trouble?” I asked.
“That is hard to say,” said Jan. “Lots of people speak of things going rotten, and crops going bad, and people disappearing, and things similar.” A brief pause, “but that is not all of it.”
“Not all of it?” I asked.
“These people are really poor,” said Jan, “and that means more trouble by itself. Then...”
I looked at Jan, and could not determine what he was thinking. It seemed comforting in a way.
“Then, talk has it these people are lazy,” he said.
“I doubt that,” said Lukas. “This ain't the first kingdom.”
“Sloth?” I whispered. Jan had returned to the region between the buggies. I was alone once more; alone with the responsibility of finding a safe path, while answering to every curse and censure...
I shook my head of the obvious nightmare, and set my thoughts ahead to the potential example ahead. The bridges had rotten wood, or at least some of it was sufficiently rotten to not support our weight. I suspected that the horses...
“Dismounting?” I thought. I would wish to do that regardless in choosing the path, much as I had done several times in recent days. I looked up to see a moon a bit west of its zenith.
“That bridge,” I murmured. I felt sleepy, for some reason, and reached for my water bottle. Once I'd drank half its contents, I felt better, and I noticed the road beginning to curve to the left.
“North-northwest,” I thought, as I replaced my compass. “Is that it?”
Far distant I could see what looked like another of those ruins, and the road we were on seemed to head toward it. The straightness of our road seemed something of a marvel, for I recalled hearing of the roads of the area as being anything but straight.
“On second thought,” I murmured, “that was supposed to be true of the area just south of us.”
“You were on one of the few exceptions,” said the soft voice, “and this road is one of a handful in this area.”
“The rest of them?” I asked. “Are they like those near home?”
While there was no answer, I could see the road itself, and the 'ruins' to the front took on more-defined shape as well as an unaccountable solidity. I could see what might be piers of masonry, as well as long chains dangling down in tight-seeming arcs...
“The bridge,” I murmured, as what I was seeing became obvious to me.
The distance seemed 'off', however, for the moon came to its zenith before the bridge seemed much closer – and then, it came closer with a sudden abruptness. I dismounted at the 'threshold', then waited for the others to come up closer.
I used this time to actually 'look' at the bridge, and here, I saw old-looking yet well-done masonry, as well as thick iron chains girding together the five massive-looking piers. The whole looked capable of supporting tons.
“And that wood looks like it might cope with a rat,” I thought.
I was not thinking of the monstrous dark-gray animal of that night 'months ago', but a much smaller animal, one similar to those I had raised as a young man. Lukas' team came up as Jaak moved to the side.
“I heard some of that talk,” said Lukas. “Now how you going to test that thing?”
I had no words for him. All that could be done now needed me doing what I could, and I set one foot upon the bridge with my heart in my mouth, then the other foot – and I began walking.
The crosswise planks seemed to shine faintly with a reddened glowing, and those which glowed most, I avoided. Faint creaking noises – the sounds of the ever-hungry grave – came from below my feet, while other places...
I saw the first clearly 'rotten' timber, and pointed to it soundlessly, then stepped over it, hoping all the while that the buggies would not get 'caught' if it broke under their wheels.
Another few steps, then another such rotten plank. I glanced down as I stepped over it, and noted its actual width as being but a trifle bigger than that of my hand.
More and more, I saw these planks, and pointed to them as I slowly trod the decayed boards of a bridge at once solid-looking and utterly unreal. The original bridge had used an iron lattice, and this, a centuries-old copy, had first used a similar array of strips...
Or rather, the copiers had attempted to use iron strips, until the long hand-dug mass grave had too many burnt-to-a-cinder laborers for it to hold. Contagion was rife in those days, and the witches worked long and hard to make that sickness into a dread plague...
“We'll use wood, then,” said a ghostly voice. I had just found another 'rotten' plank.
And the forging of iron, especially in that region and time, was thought especially potent 'magick' by everyone beyond a handful of itinerant individuals. Those that had died were thought to be inadequate in their mastery of witchcraft, and the accursed metal used – purchased at huge cost, like all true fetishes – had slaughtered them as per its inclination of the moment.
Wood, however, held no such dread ascendancy over its workers, and the planks were laid down, much as they were below my feet. The planks went rotten, at first after a period of years, then...
Two more rotten planks, these but separated by one 'good' one. I counted the knife-thrusts in the still-living plank, and noted but a handful, none of which penetrated deeply. For some reason, I thought of the game called mumbletypeg, and how it supposedly involved the use of knives.
And with the furthering of the years and the growth of witchdom, the planks died faster, until the life of a plank was thought equal to that of a corn-plant's. Every sowing, more planks burned in huge piles upon the river banks, and the same every reaping; while the bridge's fiery red-lined tooth-sprouted maw consumed more and more wood every time it was fed.
Trees needed to be killed that people might live, and the witches chanted longingly to Brimstone, hoping against their hell-bred hope that soon no green thing would dare to endure the hell-spawned darkness they sought to wrap the planet in.
“Two more planks, each of them rotten,” I thought, as I walked past the second pier. There were three more, and four more sections of bridge between them, all of the wooden portions red-hazed and brown-fuming, and many of the planks rotten.
I counted the dead planks while walking upon those yet tarrying upon the shores of 'life', while the grating creaks and groans continued from every point of the moral compass in my head. Nails started up from the boards as I walked, and their dark iron turned to a furious red-flashed rust with each step I made. They, like all things made by and for witches, did not wish my presence.
“Nails?” I asked. There was no answer.
There seemed to be a pattern to the rot: those planks which showed but few knife-thrusts were among the least rotten, while those with many such pokes tended to be 'more rotten'. What was unpredictable was the rate at which the rottenness progressed, for that varied drastically between the older boards – and the newer boards were not that common, due to the frankly indolent state of the workers. They could cut more trees, and they could saw and plane them into planks, and they could lay dead wood anew with the rising of each sun; but the witches had decreed otherwise, and the natives of the area, all fully-owned witch-slaves, could do nothing beyond hearing and obeying the witches' every word.
The witches had named them lazy, and they became fully conformed to the letter of their betters' decree.
The third pier, then the fourth; more rotten planks to be avoided while the grave and hell shouted at me, and the witches all gathered themselves so as to toss the most evil curses they knew. I was exposed, vulnerable, my open sores naked to the bated breath and hot knives of the witches; and every curse and every malediction was but a conjugation of my name. I was the focus of all cursing, and the eyes of every witch was focused upon the evil I was committing.
Even I knew it to be evil. So they had said, and therefore, it was true.
The fifth pier came and went in a blurry haze, and I trod upon the long plank leading to the ocean's hungry fish. These were large, of capacious maw and jagged teeth, and their death-spawned name suited them, for it described their behavior perfectly.
“Glürmph, Glürmph, Glürmph,” chuckled the fishes, as they gobbled down everything they could swallow.
I wondered if I would meet the chief of these fishes, and I looked to my side to now see it. A wide-open mouth, this large enough to hide in, opened with an eerie hiss; and from within that mouth, I accepted the proffered jug. It came to my lips, its fuming cork flying away in a shower of sparks; and I consumed the cough syrup it held with great shuddering gulps. Meanwhile, Yaws...
Was the fish named Yaws? Or was its name that of another dreaded malady – Goiter, perhaps?
No matter. The fish was named, and it was therefore real, and its teeth desired me. It was ahead, and its open mouth seemed to yawn complacently as I stepped further and further into its toothsome grasp. Someone – perhaps another fish, or even a fishwife – took my other hand, and held it closely, while Yaws and Goiter each made the final 'Glürmph' noise I would ever hear.
And I then awoke on the ground in a shivering fit, while my water bottle thrashed crazily in my hands. The cork jumped out to fly like a tracer bullet, and I began drinking down the liquid fire contained within the cocktail's container...
“Molotov, m'boy, Molotov... That's the name. Drink up, this round's on me...”
And the hammer cracked my skull, and I fell as if dead.
My eyes jerked open. Ahead lay nothing beyond a firm road, one lit by moonlight. To my rear, I felt horses, both stationary and oncoming, and I turned slow and rusted-mechanical to see the last of the group crossing the bridge ahead of Gilbertus' buggy. I then looked at what I was holding.
“It's empty,” I murmured.
“Aye, and that after I filled it twice,” said the voice of Lukas from somewhere in the darkness. “I'm glad I was following close, as you fell down not ten feet from the bridge, and you were about to have a fit when I got to you.”
From somewhere nearby, I heard talk of 'riding' and of witches, then suddenly, Hendrik spoke.
“That is not the acting of a witch,” he said.
“No, Gabriel,” said Hendrik emphatically. “Anna said he was sick, and so did that woman in the fifth kingdom, and she warned me at length to not let him go too long without food.”
“She?” I asked.
“Liza,” said Hendrik. “She spoke about how you needed close watching, and not merely for food.”
“Uh, how otherwise?” I asked.
“There are some” – here, I heard the accented word – “that would name you a witch with the goal of your death, and to become ill like that in their presence would be ample excuse for them to act.” He paused; then turning to Gabriel, he said, “I know you have heard Anna speak about his illness.”
The silence that descended was of such awe-inspiring nature that I was able to move about the statue-still throng to then fill my water-bottle fully. As I drained my second cup of beer, I wondered if I would be up to more bridges tonight. My head still felt strange.
And yet, within less than a minute, I knew beyond all dalliance and reason: we needed to continue.
The second bridge showed less than an hour later, and in this instance, I paused to eat bread and drink before crossing. The aura of nervousness I could feel in the others was difficult to endure, for they felt as if I might abandon them to the jaws of Brimstone. After all, someone important still thought I was an arch-witch, and that made for a most unpleasant train of thought.
“If I have been tarred thusly, then why must I not live up fully to the label?” I thought.
The thought of 'becoming' an arch-witch in reality seemed peculiarly fascinating, even to the eventual need to exist as an entire predator and eat only the flesh and blood of my innumerable sacrifices, and when I pointed out the first of many rotten planks, I thought, “let this plank burn upon the touch of the one who has named me evil.”
For some strange reason, this way of thinking did not register as 'wrong', and I spoke the same phrase upon each such rotten plank I found. There were many of them, so much so that when I smelled smoke in the air, I wondered as to the source.
At least, I wondered for a second's time. I had work to do, and it needed my doing it.
The second pier passed – this bridge was smaller than the last, with three pillars, each with a shorter span between them – I thought to turn about.
And a voice in my ears spoke of not only not doing so, but also moving more rapidly.
I accepted the first portion and discounted the second, at least until I heard sounds to the rear indicative of panic. I then moved a bit faster, still pointing out the rotten planks, and when I came to the very end of the bridge, I was nearly shoved to the side by first Jaak, then Lukas' team – and the whole rest of the column came on in a nose-to-tale rush with Gilbertus bringing up the rear. I was so busy dodging the oncoming traffic that I had no chance to look at the bridge until some seconds after crossing it.
“T-the bridge is on fire!” I spluttered.
“I know,” muttered Gilbertus darkly. “Some wretch is an incendiary, and if he thinks to try that again, I'll hang him out to dry the old way.”
I turned and pointed to myself soundlessly, and Gilbertus spat, “no, not you. I could see what you were doing.” He then looked at Gabriel, and muttered, “but once more, you wretch. Once more.”
“But...” I squawked.
“I would lead off,” said Hendrik. “The night is not getting younger, and...”
Faintly, a horn blew. I recognized it instantly – Weidmansheil – and spoke of its issuer: “Witches...”
“Them also,” said Hendrik. “Lys spoke of you laying a trap for them, and I know she was right.”
To know of our being followed in spite of all we could do otherwise seemed to both 'silence' the critics and lend wings to our feet, and when the third and last bridge showed, I dismounted and went across it at the best speed I could muster while still pointing out the bad planks. In this instance, there were fewer rotten boards than the first two times, and as Gilbertus drove out of the bridge proper, I thought to 'run' for Jaak.
I waited though, for I had something to say.
“No, no witches,” I said. “Let no witch cross this way, and...”
The entire track of boards at once began to billow thick and acrid gray smoke, and within less than a second, I saw red gouts of flame billow up chest-high from the more-rotten boards. Someone grabbed my hand as I stood transfixed, and I turned to see Lys.
“They will not manage to cross that one,” she said. “They were following us since an hour after we left the place where we slept.”
I shook soundlessly, then turned to go. Lys vanished into the darkness, and once I had mounted, Jaak hurried on toward the front of the slow-moving column.
The moon was 'two hours' east of its zenith, or so I guessed, and with the witches behind us, we now had 'reason' to hurry. The aspect of 'hurry', however, was unlike that of the previous days; for now, we truly did hurry, and the straightness of the road ahead seemed both a harbinger and a lash. The first town, we stopped but for water and checking of the horses, and as we came out of the town's northern side, I 'smelled' the presence of water.
A lot of water.
A lot of water, and reeds, and perhaps modern-day 'fenny snakes', and other things of an abidingly moist nature. I wanted nothing more than to leave them and their strangely moist smell behind, for we not merely had witches in front of us, but more had gathered behind. Faintly, another of those accursed hunting horns blew, this time to the west.
“Now do you believe me?” muttered someone from behind me. “No time for your rubbish, unless you want to sup with Brimstone.” A pause, “and if you try something, I will make sure you land on that wretch's dinner plate.”
Another town, this one but a few miles distant from the last. We passed through it at a rapid walk, and the coolness of the evening helped. Again, on its outskirts, I smelled more of a moist nature, then some miles later on, that smell reared its head once more.
Only this third time, the aspect of 'moist' was uncommonly widespread.
It remained to our left while we hurried on, and only when the sky began to become blue in the west did it recede to our rear. But ten miles, perhaps fifteen to our front, was a different place entirely, and at our first watering stop of the day – the town was still dead to the world, for the sun was not yet 'bright' – I thought to ask.
“It is just ahead,” said Antoon.
“It?” I asked. I had an appetite, and was eating as if starved.
“The potato country,” he said. “We can hide there, if we must.”
“As in you know people...”
“Everyone there knows each other,” said Antoon, “and between the pigs and the witches, they know they must stick together.” Here, he drained his cup, devoured a chunk of bread, then burped. “And, they do that.”
“Uh, good,” I said. “I smelled something wet last night. What was it?”
“Linen swamps, most likely,” he said. “There's one a bit north of here, in fact.”
The 'linen-swamp' showed but a half-hour later, and while we rode around it – the road curved slightly, such that a check of the compass now showed our path to be north-northeast – I saw numbers of people gathering mounds of reeds into small flat-bottomed boats. The aspect of labor, and more, how early these people had started, was something of a marvel, at least until we again stopped in a town.
The town's Public House was open, and we retrieved beer, bread, and dried meat. Just the same, our stop was a hurried one.
The nature of the country began changing with the next few miles. Clouds began to show here and there, while the sun seemed less 'intense'. Farms, these having unusually 'large' fields, showed on both sides of the road; and in the middle of a given grouping of fields, clustered buildings showed. These had an aura of not merely industry, but also fortification, much as if they were small castles under the threat of immanent siege; and when their inhabitants showed, I was surprised at not merely the number of persons, but also their apparent industry.
They also carried digging implements if they stood taller than my waist, and that irrespective of their gender.
“We're in the potato country, and no mistake,” said Lukas when we came to an unusually large town. “I suspect we can rest for a while here.”
“A while?” I asked. I was afraid Lukas was speaking of spending 'days'.
“A few hours,” he said. “You look tired.”
“I, uh, feel...”
“I suspect he's right,” said Hendrik. “At least, I have some idea what being marked is like now.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“Those horns,” said Lys. “Those were the hunting horns of the witches.”
“Those horns did not stop blowing until we entered the potato country,” said Hendrik. “We dare not tarry overlong in this place.”
“As in the witches will come in here?” I asked.
“They might,” said Hendrik. “I am more worried about the region north of the border.”
“As in it's like the area we just left?” I said. “The witches think they own the place?”
“You might well be right,” said Hendrik. “I was worried about other things, but what you said adds to my concern.”
Setting up camp in an 'exposed' position did not seem right, or so I thought until an obvious 'farmer' showed. This man 'hitched' when he saw Antoon, and moments later, I learned why.
“I had no idea we were on your uncle's property,” I murmured. I was glad for the shade.
“The witches will not trouble us here,” he said. “They do not come here during the daytime.”
I wanted to say 'they do too', but refrained. In reality, the only place much safer than where we currently were camped would be home itself.
“And the north side of the potato country?” I asked, as I lay on my cot prior to sleeping.
“I would time your 'extraction' such that you leave the potato country at dusk,” said the soft voice, “and continue on without stopping for long until you are home.”
“This area?” I asked before yawning.
“Will take a day to ride through,” said the soft voice. “An easy day, mind you.” A brief pause, then, “you and the horses need to rest up before trying that long of a ride.”
We left 'camp' about midafternoon, then continued on until dusk. That put us some twenty miles further on, and again in a large town, one with a sizable Public House. I recalled what talk I had heard of about the potato country's food, and thought to smell the place's interior.
“It smells like the one at home,” I thought, as I withdrew from the doorway to resume watching our animals. “Now I hope Gabriel does not decide he needs 'a good meal'.”
“He knows enough about the potato country to know those are not available in this area,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, he will not give further trouble.”
“On this trip?” I asked.
“He has acquired the fear of hot lead and cold steel,” said the soft voice, “and more, he knows his fear is amply justified.”
“Is this a matter of suspicion – as in no distinction is made between suspicion and crime...”
There was no answer save my own thinking. For some reason, that did seem all too possible – and as if to answer me, the Public House doors banged open like gunshots and someone all-but-flew out to tumble upon the stoop. I went toward this person at a walk, wondering who it was until I saw the person to be Gabriel.
“What happened?” I asked.
He looked around as if terrified, then said, “someone spoke of no distinction being made between suspicions and crimes,” he said, “and I was not the only one to hear it.”
“Y-yes, what else?” I asked.
“It was no one of our party,” said Gabriel, “but if I doubt I will ever forget what he looked like. He had brown hair, was a finger's width taller than Karl, and looked to be stronger than anyone I've ever seen.”
“And?” I asked.
“He named me ill,” said Gabriel, “and he drew his knife so as to carve me.” A brief pause, then, “I ran for the door, and it was a near thing just the same.”
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said he” – here, Lukas indicated Gabriel with his eyes – “wanted to be a witch,” said Lukas as he came out the door. “I'd take that as a warning, if I were you.”
“His knife?” I asked.
“Someone spoke about suspicions and crimes as being synonymous,” said Lukas, “and I think half that place heard it, as there were other people in there talking about burn-piles and chains.”
“That one man?” I asked.
“Was a farmer from north o' here,” said Lukas, “and if that man ain't marked, I'll eat one o' these people's roasts.”
“Bland?” I asked.
“That ain't no word for 'em,” said Lukas. “They leave the spices out o' their food, and no mistake.”
“And what we were getting?” I asked.
“Little flavor, if otherwise edible,” said Kees. “I'm looking forward to getting home.”
“Bed at night?” I asked.
While that was an acceptable idea, the group seemed to have heard my instructions, for we continued on under the stars until three hours after the moon rose. I could 'feel' the border somewhere ahead and to the north, and thought to 'find' the eastern border of the potato country.
And within seconds, I knew that wasn't wise. The witches would be watching that area.
I began looking to the front, and saw what seemed like a solid wall of black-dressed thugs standing shoulder-to-shoulder from ocean to the High Way, and this in some depth. This was very disquieting.
“That many thugs?” I asked.
“Yes, tonight,” said the soft voice. “They are expecting you to continue on as you have the last few days.”
“And tomorrow?” I asked.
“Some of them will have returned to their usual districts,” said the soft voice. “You can 'break out' then.”
“Layers of thugs?” I asked. I suspected a well-developed 'defense in depth' strategy.
“Were the Swartsburg intact, there would be more of them,” said the soft voice. “Between that location's current activity, and the lessened number of able witches in the first kingdom, there's but one layer of security over most of that 'front'.”
“And tomorrow evening...”
The answer was obvious: the witches would have fewer numbers and be spread thinner.
“Much thinner in some places,” said the soft voice. “They're still too full of themselves to attempt anything like what you were thinking earlier.”
My mental voice thought 'huh?' as clearly as a chime, even as a woodlot showed ahead and somewhat to the left. Only after a minute's time did I fully notice the latter.
“A pond,” I murmured, “and good grass...” It was obvious to me.
After making camp, I felt restless. Tomorrow, we would start in the early afternoon.
“I'd leave about noon, actually,” said the soft voice. “That part of the potato country goes a bit further north and east than you thought it did.” A brief pause, then, “get as much nourishment and sleep as you can between now and then.”
I had suspected the first, and had been drinking and eating what I could; but the second part seemed elusive.
It was more than merely the witches, I realized. It was coming home, and back to a life at once familiar yet different in many ways.
“Especially Sarah,” I thought. I would need to tell her my answer, which was the only one I could think of.
“I'd take an extra dose, also,” said the soft voice.
I did so – and within a moment, I began yawning. I had no idea as to whether I was asleep before or after reclining on the cot, but I knew positively where I was upon awakening. The sun was fully up, and then some.
“Uh, what time is it?” I asked.
“Time for a late breakfast, if you are inclined,” said Jan. “Everyone has been eating as if they had had lessons from swine.”
“Y-yes?” I asked. “Do you know why?”
“This dream I had,” he said. “We would be traveling for half the day and all of the night, and that without stopping, almost.”
“So I heard,” I muttered. I needed to use the privy.
What Jan had spoke of seemed to have traveled, for everyone – there were no exceptions – knew of what lay ahead of us regarding traveling. I was not certain about people knowing of the witches awaiting us, though by the time I had bathed and packed my things, I knew better.
“There are witches to our front and back,” said Hendrik, “and if they have the chance, they will try for us.”
That statement seemed to sum up what the group felt – and also, seemed the limit of their knowledge. I knew more, but not much more; and when we set out with 'waterlogged' and 'grain-stuffed' horses, I felt slightly 'lazy' amid the afternoon's sunshine. The sun was at or near its zenith.
Our road had been heading closer to north than north-northwest the day prior, but now it headed north-northeast. Towns showed about every hour or so on our current road, and at every other example, we stopped to water the horses and get food.
Or rather, some food and what beer we could. We wanted our jugs and bellies full come nightfall, and each person who could manage with a handy jug.
As the sun dropped lower in the east, our route began to curve more in that direction as well, such that now, it was truly 'northeast' in direction. We would breakout on a further easterly direction, and then transcribe a wide arc...
“A wide arc,” I thought. “Is there one of those, uh, 'deserted roads'?”
“No, but there are roads where you could take out the pendant for shorter distances.”
“Shorter distances?” I asked.
“Enough to amply confound the witches,” said the soft voice, “and shave several hours off of that trip.”
“Several hours?” I asked. I had the impression that the trip would be a long one just the same.
“Several hours less in the dangerous section,” said the soft voice. “You'd arrive about daybreak where you live, and the others, perhaps half an hour later at the kingdom house.”
“And?” I asked.
“You'll want a bath and bed, then,” said the soft voice, “and I would expect to get both of those things.”
I wanted to ask why, but refrained. The sun had perhaps two more hours in the sky, or so I guessed, and the nonsense would start soon enough.
With each increment of time closer to sundown, the surrounding country seemed to change in vague and difficult-to-express ways. The woodlots became more common, as well as 'wilder'; the fields between them larger; the area under cultivation smaller and more clustered around the towns; the animals seemed quieter and more 'withdrawn', as befitted a place that had less settled work to do and more time to give chase; and finally, the houses and towns themselves seemed less and less 'fortified' and more like those of home.
The potato country would be at an end soon, or so I now felt. The road was now heading closer to east rather than 'northeast', and soon enough, would head 'due east' – presuming we took our current road.
“Or is that the best route?” I thought. Our current road was following it more than passably. “Or do the roads join each other, such that...”
The sun had ratcheted down another notch, and ahead, perhaps two miles distant, I could see a woodlot that curved around the road, which came almost into the trees.
“Perfect for an ambush,” I thought, as my hand reached toward the pendant.
The chill icy feeling upon touching it was such that I wondered. Was it too soon, or not the right place...
The fog didn't wait for such a determination, as it rose about us bodily, and the whole of life acquired a blurred and bluish aspect within an eyeblink's time. The woodlot drew closer with increasing speed, then suddenly we were upon it and shooting past the trees such that they formed a solid wall of checked and variegated green blurring.
And among those trees, as I had suspected, there were witches, with two coaches laying in wait.
“What?” I asked. “No animals harnessed?”
“The witches were asleep,” said the soft voice.
“And now?” I asked.
“They are awake,” said the soft voice.
“And?” I asked.
“They are engaged in fisticuffs, knife fights, and shootouts,” said the soft voice.
“Confounded,” I thought, as I tucked in and settled for a few minutes of disorienting nausea.
Within seconds, I not merely felt ill, but also knew I would need to withdraw within twenty ticks of that infernal clock nestling by my head; and at 'fifteen', I began reaching for the pendant. I touched it at 'twenty' and pulled it in.
We were on a deserted eastbound road, and the sun was just starting to truly go down. The stillness I felt – it went some distance in a near-circular manner – was at once both reassuring and appalling, and when the road began to curve slightly south, I thought to ask.
“What's ahead?” I asked.
“The West River,” said Lukas, “and you're about lined up with the best place to cross it.”
“How far is it ahead?” I asked.
“No towns, and about ten to twelve miles to the crossing,” said Lukas. “Towns are scarce on this road.” A pause, then, “is that why you took it?”
“Uh, no,” I murmured between slurps from my water-bottle. “I sort of have this, uh, route in my head... Like after that bridge, the road curves upward...”
“Not this road,” said Lukas. “There's one what joins it, and it does.”
“And the route then goes northeast, more or less, for some distance,” I said. “So far, that's what I know.”
“You'd best plan on going faster once you cross the river,” said Lukas. “There's a bad town not two miles away from it, and Lys here tells me it's likely to have waiting witches.”
“They'll be awake, too,” said a faint female voice. “Those in that woodlot were asleep.”
“Were they supposed to be watching for us?” I asked.
“They were,” said the voice, “but they often watch that road so as to rob people.”
I did not wonder at the need to 'go faster' when the chance presented itself, and I kept a close watch on the area around us as the sun dropped. I suspected we could 'water' at the west side of the river, so much so that when a small spring showed but a short distance off the road, I thought to ignore it.
And less than a second later, I knew better, as Jaak walked over to the pool.
Two and three at a time, we watered the horses; and while not actually watering them, we checked their hooves and sucked down what beer we could. I topped the oil reservoirs in both buggies; both were still partly full, which gladdened me more than a little.
“Now this is good,” said Lukas as we resumed a short time later. It was still not fully dark, and my suspicions were such that I wondered about the river crossing.
“Drunk witches can't see well after dark,” I murmured, “and no self-respecting witch is ever sober – or is that the case?”
“You had best be careful around those people,” said the soft voice. “Sober witches, while not particularly common, do exist.” A brief pause, then, “one of them was involved in coordinating the opposition against the group for the return trip.”
“And?” I asked. There was more.
“He is now where he belongs,” said the soft voice. “Your 'trap' on the second bridge caught most of that group.”
“But it was burning then,” I said.
“Those flames you saw were not conventional flames,” said the soft voice, “unlike those that erupted when the witches were actually walking on that bridge.” A brief pause, then, “and then, there was the third bridge.”
“What happened?” I asked. I could feel the crossing ahead in the darkness.
“It collapsed,” said the soft voice.
“Oh, my,” I gasped. Again, I could plainly feel the crossing ahead. It seemed hidden from sight in some fashion, which worried me.
“It did so while another group of witches attempted to cross it,” said the soft voice. “That whole area is now in an indescribably foul mood.”
“Their bridges,” I muttered. “I wrecked them.”
“They ascribe that to the witches,” said the soft voice, “and more than a dozen large burn-piles have resulted.”
“Oh, no,” I murmured.
“Especially as no less than twenty 'wealthy' families are now dead,” said the soft voice. “They, their coaches, their large and 'fancy' houses, their non-deodorized mules...”
“Mules?” I asked.
“Mules cause mobs in that area,” said the soft voice. “It isn't like the surrounding region.”
The crossing now concerned me greatly, so much so that when the road abruptly straightened to show a wide woodlot with a narrow gap in it roughly a mile away, I immediately thought of an ambush. I wondered if 'tucking in' was a wise idea while crossing water. It did not seem that way.
On second thought, however, I felt inclined to try it, and as my hand reached into my shirt, I seemed to see – in stunningly clear detail – the actual nature of the ford. There was a place, perhaps five to six feet wide, where the bottom was not merely smooth but also gradually changed in elevation.
“That just might work,” I thought, as my hand closed upon the pendant and began drawing it out.
The lurch forward this time was of such a frightful nature that I instinctively tucked in, then 'steered' – how, I was not sure, but it was possible – for that one place I had seen. It wasn't perfectly lined up, however, but a short way downstream of the actual opening – which was approaching at a frightening rate. Time seemed to be slowing, and that beyond my capacity to conceive.
The bank showed, and I led 'down' it with a hard right turn, then made an abrupt left turn when the 'ford' showed. The gravel bottom seemed to blast to each side of my path like a massive tidal wave, and the two tree-high walls of gravel-laced water shot away at frightening speed.
“Crossing on dry land?” I thought, as the far bank came closer with the each tick of that clock now roosting by my head.
Another jolting left turn at speed on the far bank, then an equally 'nasty' right turn when the other opening showed. It did not line up with the first opening, and as we shot past the trees, I could see the witches that were waiting for us – and these people...
As if in a dream, a massively thick and wet 'wave' flowed through the trees to carry sticks and stones ahead of it, and the witches – they were intent upon their guns – were flank-attacked by a head-high billow of sticks and stones mingled with watery mud and 'steam'. Our road continued straight, even as the 'tsunami' petered out behind us.
“Now curve to the left,” I thought, as the clock ticked off its slow and thunderous seconds.
A crossroads, this one strangely twisted; a slight course correction. Once made, I saw the road ahead, much as if I were a train and the road like a pair of shining steel rails, and I knew it was good for more time than the last instance.
I stayed tucked in for another thirty ticks of the strange and thunderous clock, and then drew the pendant back into my shirt.
The fog lifted slowly to show a deep and dark region, one that took seconds to recognize. It was not home – I knew that much – yet still, the resemblance was clear, blatant, and unmistakable.
As was my thirst and that of the animals. A town seemed a wise idea, and there was one but a few miles ahead.
“Was this road indeed as I had seen?” I asked.
“It is,” said the soft voice, “but long stints on dirt roads are a very bad idea.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Dust?”
“You 'dusted' another group of witches near that crossroads, and a third one several miles further on this road,” said the soft voice. “There will be burn-piles tomorrow on account of that dust.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
As if to remind me, I heard first one of those 'hunting' horns blast its deep tones, then a second, and finally a third, which ended with a spattering crackle of gunfire. I was glad the noises were from miles to our rear.
“The witches in that third group think a small village was the cause of their trouble, and are now seeking to destroy it.”
“Oh, no,” I murmured between gulps of beer.
“One slight problem,” said the soft voice. “At least, the witches will find it a problem.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“That village has one of Willem's friends in it,” said the soft voice, “and not only did he train with Willem, he also has charge of the region's guns.”
I was about to ask another question when a thundering roar echoed in my mind to be answered by two other explosions like it, and faintly – so faint I wondered how I was hearing it – I heard a chorus of screams.
“Swine-shells, with short-cut fuses,” said the soft voice. “That area has been having trouble with 'domestic' swine recently, and the reason why is now 'visible'.”
More gunfire, this time that of muskets, then another ragged volley of cannon-fire – and finally, silence, save for a handful of intermittent gunshots that slowly tapered off unto silence.
I felt fatigued; yet, mingled with this fatigue was a renewed sense of hope and of buoyancy. This region was sufficiently close to home that I could relax to a modest degree, and home...
“How many more hours?” I asked.
“How tired do you wish to be?” asked the soft voice. “You can manage one more stint, providing it is a short one.”
The understood portion, however, was that I would be uncommonly fatigued upon arrival.
“And better tired and alive rather than dead,” I thought.
“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “The town ahead is safe.”
“And the one beyond it could pass for that one bad place,” I muttered, as I recalled our misadventures with witches while gathering the local equivalent of 'quinine'.
“But one more reason to 'hustle',” said the soft voice. “You can truly relax once you're within twenty miles of the High Way.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Familiarity?” I asked.
“That 'district' belongs to the Swartsburg,” said the soft voice. “The new leader has called in every 'key' he can conjure.”
“And hence none of the witches are out, uh, watching for us,” I murmured.
“Not when that witch is awake and on duty,” said the soft voice. “He's glued to the Swartsburg.”
“Glued?” I asked. I wondered what it meant.
“Witchdom's term for 'tunnel vision',” said the soft voice. “Koenraad has a serious case.”
“What?” I asked. The town was less than a mile away, and I wanted to 'launch' once clear of it. I needed to suck down all the beer I could in the meantime.
“His 'cult-name',” said the soft voice. “He thought to partake of the newly-deceased leader's power and 'style' by 'taking' his name.” A brief pause, then, “and 'taking' names that way, at least in this region, means one is a witch to be reckoned with.”
“As nasty as Koenraad was?” I asked.
“He thinks himself stronger,” said the soft voice. “He is also mistaken.”
“Less nasty?” I asked.
“Chiefly less strong as a witch,” said the soft voice. “He almost makes up for his lack of 'curse-power' by other more-material means.” A pause, then, “he is about as 'nasty' as Koenraad was.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered, as the first of the town's fields showed to our left and right. “Another stinky witch.”
“Best to discomfit him before he gets too established, then,” said the soft voice. “You might look at one of their cattle pens.”
I was about to ask as to 'why' – I was tired enough to be more than a little 'dense' in the head – when the first of the homes showed on the right. I could feel the town's Public House, and I could 'smell' the watering troughs.
I was glad they were full when we arrived, for I had eyes for nothing more than a piece of bread and my beer jug. I was so involved in eating and drinking that I jerked when someone spoke to me.
“Best check those oilers afore we go,” said Lukas.
“W-what?” I gasped.
“About half of the horses are watered,” he said. “It won't take much longer.”
“And you, and everyone else, me included, wants to be home,” I said softly. “The whole trip home has been like playing games in a witch-hole.”
“No, not like that,” said Lukas. “Part of it is I miss my missus,” he said, “and then, there are the two girls.”
“Girls?” I asked.
“They're both about as old as the two we picked up,” said Lukas, “and both of 'em are chasing every likely boy they cast eyes on.”
“Those like that do not have much sense,” said Jan.
“And don't I know it,” said Lukas with a wry tone. “Don't I know it.”
As it was, I barely managed topping up the oil reservoirs before we had to leave, so great was my hunger and thirst – and while still in the town, my hand began reaching for the pendant.
Again, the hideous lurch followed by the nausea of tucking in, and by the end of the fields – I could see them, somehow – we were traveling fit for the overtaking of a frightened lightning-hare.
It also proved wise, however, as a sleet of gunfire raked the dust of our wake as the witches opened up from the knee-high cornfields to each side.
The roaring of their guns seemed to echo for a hundred years, each year corresponding to a third of a clock-tick, and when the noises died down, I drew the pendant back in. As the dust slowly fled away and the hazy fog lifted, I saw in the distance ahead a coal-black stripe running from left to right for what seemed miles.
“I thought I would never see it again,” came a voice from behind, one who I could not recognize. “T-that's the High Way.”
“And that means we are nearly home,” said another voice. It took me seconds to recognize it as Hendrik's.
Yet still, there was travel yet to do, and when I looked overhead, I was surprised to see a moon well past its vertex and heading east. Somehow, time had gone crazy in its travels, and I knew not the reason why.