Spying out the Swartsburg
The yawning segued to a desire to sleep, and while upstairs lying upon my bed, a vague plan seemed to hatch in my mind as to what I needed to do. This plan seemed to vanish with approaching slumber, however, and when I awoke to the long shadows of late afternoon, the plan seemed but marginally clearer for the most part.
The one portion that had cleared markedly was when to leave and how to travel to the general region of the kingdom house: leave precisely at dusk without those in town being the wiser, and go east perhaps half a mile before turning south.
“And treat the whole as if I were in the fifth kingdom house,” I muttered. “That wretch has really got to go.” A pause to drink, then, “and it's gotten noticeably worse since I got home.”
While there was no answer to my last comment, there were less-than-mysterious hints about how to leave town, and as the sun went down, I left the house by the rear door with a full pack and fully armed. I was glad I needed no saddle, and as I carefully checked Jaak over and then bagged up a sack of grain for a 'snack', I 'listened' carefully.
Roos wasn't utterly 'dead', even if our end of town was.
“Another few minutes,” I thought, as I walked out of the horse-barn into the gathering gloom. A glance upward, and I was surprised to see swift-gathering clouds.
“No moon,” I thought.
“For the most part, yes,” said the soft voice. “I'd stay off of all roads tonight.”
Minutes later, I was riding east. The sky seemed to have 'fallen', for the cloud-cover above had dropped to perhaps three hundred feet above my head, and the blackness I traveled in was but narrowly eclipsed by that time I had delivered Cardosso's coach to the fifth kingdom house. How I was now so certain of him once owning 'the great beast' was a mystery, especially as it was a copy of a yet-older vehicle used similarly, and that one a 'copy' of those before it.
And yet, 'animal-drawn coaches' seemed altogether incongruous with an 'advanced' society.
“Especially that society,” said the soft voice. “The chief matter that joined the two species of vehicles were the curses used. Otherwise, they were entirely different in form and function.”
I'd gone what 'felt' like half a mile, then turned south based on compass heading. Once started in that direction, however, I felt inclined to head southeast, and within moments, I could 'hear' the reason why.
“There are enough of those people out tonight, aren't there?” I thought silently, as I rode across a meadow in near-total silence. The cushioned nature of the grass helped.
“They are 'consolidating' their hold upon the region,” said the soft voice.
“And if the Swartsburg goes up in smoke?” I thought.
I received no answer to this question, even if I recalled speech regarding the difficulty of marshaling further witch-hoards. This lead to a further questioning.
“Are those people sited at the Swartsburg?” I asked.
“For the most part, yes,” said the soft voice. “The bulk of the remaining 'imported' witches have either insinuated themselves into the kingdom house near the Swartsburg or are planning to start other enclaves in the general area.”
“Surplus from their origins, correct?” I asked.
The sense was one of a correct 'guess', even if I suspected I guessed low as to the total number of witches involved.
“For current 'witches', you are fairly close,” said the soft voice. “'Misers' are more common, both as to numbers and distribution.”
“And those plain-dressed witches Andreas spoke of are the most common of all,” I muttered to myself. “There are probably three supplicants for every witch.”
“In this area, yes,” said the soft voice. “Supplicants tend to be more numerous elsewhere.”
“The fourth kingdom?” I asked.
“Has its share of well-hid supplicants,” said the soft voice, “and while 'witches' and 'misers' are seldom seen...”
“During the day,” I grumbled. “Those thugs are common enough after dark in that place, and not just on the main roads.”
My comment was ignored, or so I thought. “Plain-dressed witches are common in the fourth kingdom, and more than a few of them keep 'suitable' clothing in well-hid 'armoire chests' and 'cabinets'.”
A short time later, I 'felt' the familiar collection of houses and fields that I knew as Waldhuis, as well as something profoundly different in that area. The darkness had thickened, if anything, so much so that when I saw a constellation of lights to my right and ahead, I jolted in recognition.
Waldhuis usually had one or perhaps two lights showing, if that. I was seeing closer to twenty lights, and these were markedly brighter than I recalled – and more importantly, several of them seemed to be mobile. I stopped for a few seconds to watch, then resumed riding upon recalling the likelihood of long-range gunfire.
“Especially now,” said the soft voice. “Waldhuis recently received a pair of 'rotten cannons'.”
“Oh, no,” I muttered. “Why?”
“They were sent as 'gifts' by Koenraad,” said the soft voice, “with the goal of eventually achieving control of that area.” A pause, then, “Koenraad also knows you commonly take the back way in your trips to the house, hence his gun-crews have ranged all the roads within a mile of Waldhuis.”
“Roads?” I asked.
“He presumes you travel like most do in this area,” said the soft voice.
“He knows you do not have a buggy,” said the soft voice, “and hence 'must' travel with those who do – and while your current traveling 'habits' are a matter of conjecture, those of who you live with are very well-known.”
“Hence they presume I'm going...” I ceased in mid-sentence, then gasped, “the whole time I was going to the training...”
“Which is when they learned most of what they know about your traveling tendencies,” said the soft voice. “Few ride any real distance horseback in this area.”
“Conjecture?” I asked, upon realizing the 'accent' upon that word.
“They know you travel a fair amount,” said the soft voice, “and not always with Hans and Anna. Beyond that, they more or less are guessing as to how you travel.”
I was glad to leave the lights and darkness of Waldhuis behind. Knowing that the place had a pair of 'rotten cannons' ready-loaded with the goal of achieving my demise did not help my thinking much, and I wondered if I needed to detour further in the future when traveling to and from the kingdom house. Only my recollection as to what would happen when the Swartsburg was hit again made for wondering.
“They don't have an infinite number of those guns, do they?”
“No, which is why that pair of guns and their crews will go elsewhere once the Swartsburg is dealt with,” said the soft voice. “The majority of witchdom's 'ready reserves' are now in or close by that location.”
“Witchdom still has many in reserve,” said the soft voice, “but they aren't exactly 'ready' to 'move on up'.” A pause, then, “more than one witch has sold out his shares in the Swartsburg since you returned from that trip.”
“What?” I gasped silently.
“A common rumor in some of the 'lesser' drink-houses in and around the kingdom house is 'the Swartsburg numbers its days as the fingers, and it will not rise again'.”
“What?” This time, my gasp was audible, and I looked around in the darkness before listening.
“While some of those spreading such rumors are looking for 'deals',” said the soft voice, “more than a few witches are taking them seriously, at least to some degree.”
“Uh, those coaches?” I asked.
“Koenraad is not one of those witches,” said the soft voice. “Roos may be receiving more attention that way than any other town in the central portion of the first kingdom, but it is far from the only town to be cursed in that fashion.” A pause, then, “that group of thirteen coaches runs in one of several circuits, depending on the night of the week, and all of those circuits go through Roos.”
“His town is affected also,” said the soft voice, “even if it is not nearly as affected as Roos.”
“Planted people?” I asked.
“That location was not thought to need any,” said the soft voice. “You know about Korn's 'watchers'.”
“Maarten's now has m-more,” I thought.
“More of witchdom's 'ready reserve',” said the soft voice. “They'll begin leaving when the Swartsburg goes up in smoke.”
The thought that a single witch, and more, how a single 'relatively small' area, could have such an impact over a far more wider region seemed uncommonly hard for me to believe, so much so that it made for an extended rumination session, and only when I 'felt' the town I commonly stopped at for mid-journey watering did the feeling dissipate. I halted some distance away from the road at the edge of a woodlot.
“No, not there,” I thought. “That place is being watched.”
“Yes, during the day,” said the soft voice. “Remember, Koenraad's people presume you travel like those you live with, and they've been observed closely for years.”
“Yes?” I asked. “They don't do much traveling once the sun goes down, correct?”
“Not while they are in this area,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, that depends on where they are – in the forth kingdom's market, they travel like most do in that region.”
“And after dark in this town?” I asked.
“Is as dead as where you live,” said the soft voice. “It will resume its former ways soon.”
After watering Jaak – the town was indeed as described, and the aspect of 'death' gave me the involuntary shivers – I resumed my path by going out of the other end of the town instead of reversing course as I usually did. I wondered anew if it would be wise to vary my route of traveling.
“It would not merely take longer than traveling in a straight line, but be unneeded once the Swartsburg is dealt with,” said the soft voice. “I'd stay at the house proper tonight.”
“And deal with the place tomorrow night?” I asked.
The sense of 'laughter' I heard and felt would have been unnerving had someone else done so, for I could 'feel' multiple thoughts and phrases. One of the chief aspects was 'best to keep them guessing', while 'they won't expect you to act so soon' competed with it – while trailing in third place was 'they really wont expect you to do that'.
“It almost sounds conventional,” I thought. “Long trip, so he starts from a place that's a lot closer, and then the witches watch it close...”
“Not now they don't,” said the soft voice. “Between 'graduations' of one kind or another, 'skilled' witches are most scarce in the house right now.”
“Uh, not just graduating in earthly status?” I asked.
“Lukas and Gilbertus have both added notches since returning,” said the soft voice, “while Karl wonders if he should start a notch-stick.”
“Stick?” I gasped. I wanted to scream.
“Another witch tried for him,” said the soft voice. “He's really wondering about that one privy.”
“Not that same one?” I moaned. I kept my mouth shut somehow, such that no sound emerged.
“The same,” said the soft voice. “Then, there is what those witches in the house actually do 'after hours'.”
“D-don't tell me,” I mumbled. “They hie themselves over to the Swartsburg, or places near it...”
While I received no answer, the sense I had was that I would get a great many useful bits of information before the night was through; and also, that I would have a long enough night to make sleeping in the house proper a most wise idea. I wondered then if I could or should attempt exploring the place once I woke up.
“I would keep hidden as much as you can while in the house,” said the soft voice. “While skilled witches are most scarce currently, Koenraad's reach carries well into the house proper.”
“He's cursed that place?” I gasped.
“No, but there is the Teacher of Guards,” said the soft voice, “and Koenraad has been watching him for years.” A pause, then, “granted, that watching has been by proxy, but Koenraad does know how to piece together intelligence garnered from various sources.”
I silently shuddered until I heard, “Andreas beats Koenraad handily there.”
“What?” I gasped.
“Andreas' sources are better,” said the soft voice, “and also, Andreas himself is better at putting together information.”
“Is about as capable as you are likely to find in witchdom at this time,” said the soft voice. “Witches with that much savvy, at least currently, are exceedingly rare.”
“And they won't replace him easily, will they?” I asked. The question seemed to define the concept of 'dumb'.
“They will not be able to replace him,” said the soft voice. “Witches that capable don't happen more often than one or two per generation in the five kingdoms, and they don't have another generation.”
“Oh, my,” I muttered. “Koenraad goes up in smoke and...”
“The witches will be most discomfited,” said the soft voice. “That will help the cause to no small degree, and not merely in the first kingdom.”
“I'll settle for having my home back and the shop usable again,” I muttered. “That wretch probably has Johannes and Gelbhaar working for him.”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Koenraad had too many irons in the fire at that point, and only realized his error once they'd gone out of his ready reach.” A pause, then, “they read much into those suggestions, and rode accordingly.”
“Read?” I asked. “As in they thought he was telling them to 'get lost'...”
I ceased with my silent questioning, for I had heard faint in the distance the rattling wheels of a coach, and with no urging upon my part, Jaak moved from our current shadow-swathed path into the trees of the woodlot making the shadow. There, I dismounted and rubbed him briefly, and crouched down to watch the nearest road.
That lay but two hundred yards away across a grassy meadow, with the road hiding itself behind the boundary of another woodlot some further distance away. The noise I had heard grew steadily louder, while the clouds overhead seemed to rapidly move.
Shadows shot across the meadow at astonishing speeds, while the light of the moon became steadily brighter, and my formerly 'dim' vision – it hadn't been that dim for me, even if I had needed to guide Jaak a good deal – acquired depth and color.
“I can see color by moonlight?” I thought. I had never noticed that aspect before.
“Part of it was that you were too busy keeping yourself and those with you alive to notice what you are seeing now,” said the soft voice, “and another sizable portion was that the moonlight during the trip home wasn't nearly this bright for the most part.”
“And the rest?” I asked. “Your doing?”
The sense I had was I needed to watch carefully, and I did so from my crouched position. Faint yellowish gleams showed from the edge of the woodlot, then suddenly the first mules of a team of eight showed, followed by an unusually long and ungainly-seeming coach. The coachman was shredding the air over his straining charges as they attempted to gallop and trot at the same time, while the coach itself was but the first whip-cracking example...
Another showed behind it, then another; and as the first team of mules drew opposite my hiding place, I noted the exact speed of the vehicle.
“That thing's not much slower than a postal buggy,” I thought, as the mules thrashed and 'roared' amid the groans of unlubricated bearings and the ceaseless snapping of a collection of whips. I was up to seven teams so far.
“They are still relatively fresh,” said the soft voice, “and unlike a large percentage of mules in the first kingdom, every animal of those thirteen teams truly has 'full odor'.”
“Truly...” I thought as the intense stink invaded my nose. “F-full odor?”
“A great many of the first kingdom's mules are sold to witches as having full odor,” said the soft voice, “but they have been secretly 'deodorized' prior to sale.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. The twelfth coach had just showed, and another was behind it.
“The third kingdom's idea,” said the soft voice. “More than a few Veldters leaving the Valley escape upon mules, then sell their animals for food once they reach the third kingdom's back country – and the third kingdom's rules about mules are more strict than those of the first kingdom.”
“And inspected,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, they are shot and burned when found, and the same for those owning them.” A brief pause, then, “and mules are very common in the third kingdom's back country.”
“Hence some take them and sell them north...”
“Via the 'Mule-Trail', in fact,” said the soft voice. “It runs north and south through the foothills of the Red Mountains until they end in the second kingdom, then continues on north through the northern waste until it ends some forty miles south and east of where you are now.”
“Was that what I was feeling in the second kingdom?” I asked.
“The 'Mule-Trail' runs further east,” said the soft voice, “and is more apparent visually.” A pause, then, “those people you were sensing were on one of the second kingdom's marked trails.”
Once the thirteenth coach had passed where I knelt, I let it travel another minute before standing; and only once it had gone another two minutes and around a bend in the road did I think to remount and resume my trip. My travel through a 'virgin' region was such that I now wondered exactly where I was, even as the clouds resumed their covering overhead to give a dim and patchy moonlight.
“Oh, another few miles before I come to the house,” I thought, as I 'felt' the kingdom house proper some distance away to the south and west.
“Head due south from where you are and you'll cross the Oestwaag about half a mile east of the house,” said the soft voice. “I would go no further west until you're at least a mile south of the house proper's southern boundary.”
I took this advice to heart, and rode with my hand clasped upon the compass' chill metal when I wasn't consulting it. I did that frequently, perhaps every few minutes, all the while listening carefully. With the passing minutes, I not only seemed to 'hear' the kingdom house – it was snoring, and that loudly – but also, 'smell' the place.
“Drink,” I muttered. “Why do I smell the place now, and why does that smell remind me of high-test?” A brief pause, then, “don't tell me – those imported witches each brought a jug of El Serpente and two jugs of deworming medicine.”
“You mean the more-temperate individuals,” said the soft voice, “and those being the jugs near them in the coaches while riding.” A pause, then, “a good deal more has arrived since, and that's for the imported drink.”
“That place must swim with potable paint-remover, then,” I thought, “and those cattle...”
I could almost hear chortling audibly, and I nearly giggled in reply. Somehow, the idea of drunken cattle causing mischief seemed all too amusing.
“Especially as those cattle will not confine their mischief to the Swartsburg's interior,” said the soft voice. “They will take their concerns to the enemy, and that no matter where that enemy is hidden.”
“As in, uh, the encampments to the south and east?” I asked. I had spoken unthinkingly.
“And in the house, and in the surrounding settlements,” said the soft voice. “Moreover, while the effects of alcohol will wear off within hours, the same cannot be said of those herbs.”
“Yes?” I asked. “Those animals will be psychotic for, uh, days?”
There was again nothing in the way of an answer, even if I now had an idea as to why I wanted to stay well clear of the house's southeast quarter.
“To the limits of drink and datramonium,” I thought. “That whole area must be...” I paused, then thought, “I wonder what datramonium tincture does to those cattle?”
“That material is both much less common and far harder to get to,” said the soft voice. “Those dispensing it in the Swartsburg keep it under close and heavy guard.”
“Hence it's...” Another pause, “and the drink?”
“A large supply is within easy reach of the cattle pens,” said the soft voice, “and more importantly, once loose, those cattle can consume a great deal more with little trouble.”
“Meaning they'll stay trashed for a while,” I thought.
“And get more intoxicated as well,” said the soft voice. “Miura has a very low tolerance for alcohol.”
“Meaning if he gets a little bit, he'll, uh, become obstreperous?” I asked.
“Sarah needed but one jug to cause that entire herd to become destructive,” said the soft voice, “and they found more drink within minutes of the first flush of intoxication.”
It was all I could do to not laugh insanely, for all of those peculiar 'movies' seemed to run together in my head – and in every case, Miura and his helpers were sniffing out further supplies of booze in the process of destroying their surroundings.
I 'felt' the north edge of the house proper some minutes later, and continued on. The sense of slumber in the town ahead seemed impenetrable, save for a handful of areas that I could localize with fair precision within minutes of noticing them.
“One's that bad place on the northeast edge of town,” I thought, as I skirted the west edge of a long woodlot, “and that other, is, uh, south and west of it...” I then thought, “and I have not been in that area, either, as this isn't that big stink-hole just off of Kokenstraat...” Another pause, then, “and I had best be marking up that map some, also.”
“I would do that while you are hiding in the house proper,” said the soft voice. “It will be most helpful in the coming months to have such a map.”
I moved a little further east upon sensing what seemed a huge accumulation of houses and property some distance ahead, and when I saw the boundary stones of a field some distance to my right, I knew I had 'drifted' west in some strange fashion – or so I thought as Jaak moved southeast and the 'mess' still remained 'localized' to my front.
“How far did I get off of course?” I murmured.
“You did not,” said the soft voice. “Large witch-camps need sizable amounts of firewood.”
“Sizable?” I asked. I then ceased speaking, for I had an intimation about witches and cooking. “Large fires?”
“Those also,” said the soft voice. “Recall the cooking fires you've seen in camp – how 'small' they seemed?”
“Y-yes?” I thought. I had not noticed their size at the time, at least while cooking seemed a matter of little consequence. It was otherwise for the trip back, and I was glad for the quick and easy flame of the heating lamp then.
“The cooking fires of witches, should they cook in that fashion, are much larger,” said the soft voice, “while the preferred means of cooking witch-meals are even more profligate in their use of fuel.”
“Uh, hungry oval stoke-holes painted with teeth,” I asked. “Stoke hard and fast, to give the hell-broth the taste it needs?” A pause, then, “what?”
“The rule for distilleries and ovens in witchdom,” said the soft voice. “That black book is much less clear as to why.”
“Then why did I f-feel 'houses and property' ahead?”
“Because not all of those witches plan on living in the Swartsburg,” said the soft voice. “They've claimed areas for building nearby.” A pause, then, “you noticed something similar on your way out of the fifth kingdom house.”
And as if to remind me, I then smelled a tremendous 'fume' of cooking for what seemed an eyeblink of time.
“H-huge P-Public Houses,” I gasped. “T-two stories tall, and full of thugs and b-biters...”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Those take months to build, not a handful of weeks.”
Only then did I notice the trail to my front. Its narrow width seemed a marvel, for it was barely wide enough to pass a buggy, and when Jaak actually came to it, I marveled at its sunken and hard-packed aspect.
“It gets a sizable amount of traffic,” said the soft voice as we crossed the 'trail' and headed for the shelter of the nearest woodlot to the east. “Not everyone wishes to take the Oestwaag out of town.”
“That road?” I asked.
“Is a bit less than a half mile ahead,” said the soft voice. “The trees are more or less solid on both sides, at least where they still stand.”
“The witches cut more of them down every day,” I muttered.
“And gather what fuel they can, and purchase the outputs of every charcoal-burner within fifty miles,” said the soft voice, “and that does not include 'burned coal', cooking fuel, and distillate.”
“D-distillate?” I asked. “Cooking?”
“The smoke and smell,” said the soft voice. “Recall that one dream, and its speaking of 'distillate-fueled sanctity'? And how Hieronymus was said to like the odor of distillate?”
“Urgh,” I muttered. “Why didn't I notice that stink?”
“You were too sick from smelling the food to notice the fuel's especial reek,” said the soft voice. “That level of nausea is a potent distraction.”
“Why did no one else notice?”
“Their beliefs, for one thing,” said the soft voice. “Between those and the curses commonly used while preparing High Meats, only those marked are fully aware of the nature of witch-meals.”
“Urgh,” I said. This time I but barely managed to not speak. “Don't witches know what they're eating?”
“They do, but only the strongest examples have a high level of awareness,” said the soft voice. “Most witches eat by 'faith' and endure the consequences of those beliefs in secret.”
I could more clearly feel the town to the west now, and as Jaak traveled south next to the trees, I seemed to be making a list within my mind of what I was sensing. The dead aspect – that would change soon, I now knew – was nearly as strong as that of home; and the town being dead, the witches felt emboldened to an astonishing degree. This was so much the case that they were treating the entirety of the kingdom house as if it were enclosed within the walls of the Swartsburg.
“They hope to do that in the months to come,” said the soft voice.
“And what I am feeling?” I asked.
“Is partly their desires, and the remainder their drastically increased activity,” said the soft voice. “There still is a substantial gap between what is practiced and what is wished, even if that gap is but a fraction of what it was a week ago.”
“What is wished?” I gasped. “Like the fifth kingdom house's more Medieval regions?”
“Further than that,” said the soft voice. “Witchdom doesn't have what it wants entirely, even in those regions it thinks it owns.” A pause, then, “a latter chapter in that black book speaks of the world they want – or rather, the world they think they want.”
I glanced ahead, and noticed the meadow that I was currently riding upon was coming to its end in a thick and impenetrable-looking wall of trees. I glanced to the right, and saw the trees there becoming thicker as well – and then, once more, I looked ahead.
“The Oestwaag,” I muttered. “It's in the middle of this woodlot.”
The lack of sticks and 'duff' underfoot was a help to quiet travel amid the closeness of the trees, and when a wide dirt road showed immediately ahead, I did not hesitate, nor did Jaak. He sprang from cover to land nearly in the middle of the road, and two more leaps saw him land just short of the roadside ditch. He ignored that – he'd gone twice since setting out – and shot into the trees like a deer without any urging on my part.
And I was more than a little glad I was so far 'east' of town, for now, I could feel – and hear – the wall-topping sentries of the Swartsburg. Unlike my last time in the area, these men were most numerous, and their drunken singing – this in obvious Underworld German; I recognized part of one line, this being “...Treuhecken sind...” – competed with the frantic and ceaseless bellowing of a huge number of irate-sounding cattle.
“How many of those things do they have?” I wondered silently, as I rode through the trees.
“Enough that the price of 'beef' has gone up markedly in the first kingdom and much of the second,” said the soft voice.
“And when those things get loose?” I asked.
“Better flavor, as well as a precipitous drop in the price of 'beef' once they start showing up in Public Houses,” said the soft voice. “Close-penning that breed of cattle does not help with either behavior or taste.”
The drunken singing faded in and out within my ears as it rattled my mind, and I kept a nervous eye to the west while dodging tree-trunks. I could see reddish torch-flames here and there far in the distance both ahead and to my right, while the trees themselves seemed to be thinning. I came upon the first ragged-cut tree-stump but a minute later, and from that time, such stumps became steadily more common to the right of my path.
This made for a thinner-seeming forest, and I looked carefully to the west in hopes of seeing something 'unusual'. This was so much the case that I nearly rode out into a clearing before I saw the end of the trees less than thirty feet away, and I slid off so as to walk ahead alone. A thick stump seemed to beckon at the ending of the trees, and when I trotted up to it, I learned why.
“There's a rock on this side,” I thought, as I took my place behind the jagged waist-high lump with the beginnings of the forest once more at my back. “This...”
The eastern wall of the Swartsburg showed perhaps five hundred yards distant to the west, while the area between where I sat in hiding and that wall was filled with witches and their property. All that remained of the trees that had once grown here was a vast collection of raggedly-chewed stumps.
I first saw the mule-pens, these of vast size and intense reek, their tall and barren walls of peeled tree-trunks and their occupants fractious beyond belief as they milled about in crowded groupings within the pens. Outside the nearest such pen on the far side of an obvious 'gate', I saw two collapsed mules, while on the near side of the gate, I saw three more deceased mules.
“They do go hooves-up,” I muttered, upon seeing a bloated stiff-as-stone mule 'bucking in hell', with the other two of its group much the same for color and position. All three of these animals had faint hazings of redness limning their mottled ash-gray bodies; while the area in front of that pen and the others like it showed small groups of black-dressed thugs marching stiffly with shouldered arms. Their drunkenness was blatant, and their talk horrible to hear.
It was mostly Underworld German, and that salted liberally with the sounds of individual runes.
These obvious guards packed fifth kingdom muskets and roers, and their stiff true-step tramping mingled with drunken 'ardor' made for wondering – at least until one member of the closest thug-group left the two of his fellows and true-stepped over to a nearby parked coach. There, he procured a jug; and once more raising his boots high and slamming them down upon the hard-beaten ground, he marched rapidly back to his compatriots – who then ceased with their 'guarding' and fell to drinking as if parched.
“G-green-striped jug,” I thought, as the jug was passed from one thug to another. “Is that deworming medicine?”
While there was no 'audible' answer, the stink of mingled bitter herbs and alcohol came to me quickly enough, and I thought to move – at least, until I saw what else remained for me to take note of.
That coach was but the nearest example of a huge and straggling park of the things, and as I swept my vision over the whole crazed multitude, I saw coaches seemingly everywhere, all of them parked in crude-looking yet definite patterns. The thought then occurred to me so suddenly I gasped.
“There's a definite plan to this mess,” I murmured, as a swaggering group of witches emerged from a clump of coaches parked in what looked like a crude and circuitous 'laager' formed of coaches with their horse-poles facing outward. “Where are those thugs going?”
I had my answer but minutes later, for they joined up with another such swaggering group and began passing jugs among themselves while walking more or less 'westward'. In the distance adjoining the wall of the Swartsburg, I saw what looked like a hugely wide and unbelievably long lean-to fashioned of logs with their bark still on; and when a door...
No, two doors, each wide example of them side-hung, so they flapped too and fro like the wings of a deceased butterfly being tormented by a small child...
The doors blasted open with an echoing bang; and the glaring light from within, yellow-tinted, pulsating and smoky, showed a packed interior thronged with thugs.
The noise but added to that impression; the stench...
“Bleah,” I said quietly. “That place smells horrible.”
Something grabbed my attention to the right of the huge 'building', and I glanced to see a raised region of mingled earth and stone easily two hundred feet in length and of a width similar to the lean-to. I seemed to 'smell' and 'hear' vast numbers of pigs, even if I was initially unsure if I was hearing and smelling the animals conventionally. Only when I heard a deafening shriek did I know for certain, and the purpose of the raised region – I was looking at the above-ground portion; the earth 'gluing' the rocks together had come from its interior, which made the walls head-high to me from the floor of the enclosure – became clear to me.
“That's a swine-pen,” I muttered.
“Only the two that are inside the Swartsburg's walls are larger,” said the soft voice, “and that is so for the entire first kingdom.”
“And th-that place?” I asked.
“Is one of five 'outside' drink-houses that have opened in the last week,” said the soft voice. “Another 'lean-to' is on the south wall, and the other three freestanding structures are in the cleared area to your left.”
I looked to the south, and my eyes glazed at the sight. Here, I saw not merely three huge single-story buildings, but around them, I saw what looked to be a vast field arrayed much like the area directly in front of me. I retreated back to where I left Jaak and moved back further into the trees to first head some distance east, and then turned further south.
I stayed close enough to the wavering edge of the still-standing portion of the woodlot that I was able to ascertain where the first of those huge buildings came even with my current position, and I once more dismounted to move through the trees. I stopped perhaps ten feet inside the tree-line and went to my knees next to the trunk of a 'larger' tree.
“That place is huge,” I gasped softly. “What is that next to it – another swine-pen?”
“It is,” said the soft voice, “and they are stoking the 'ovens' so as to begin roasting the evening meal.”
“R-roast pig?” I gasped.
“Pigs,” said the soft voice. “All of those places will dish their meals up at 'the witching hour', which means their roasts...”
The center of the building suddenly billowed a massive cloud of faint reddish flame which then subsided to be replaced by a growing column of thick and sooty black smoke. The odor of burning lard became steadily plainer, and my stomach wanted to revolt.
“They just put the pigs on the spits,” said the soft voice. “I'd not tarry in the area if I were you.”
I put that advice to heart and remounted while trying to hang onto my gorge, and only when I had ridden perhaps another half-mile south did I think to assay checking once more. A turn to the right, ride perhaps two hundred yards west, then dismount to walk perhaps another fifty feet to the further edge of the clearing.
“Oh, my,” I gasped. What I was seeing warranted gasping at the least.
Here, I saw two freighting wagons 'arriving', while more 'freighters' were in the process of unloading several other such wagons. Their teams – groups of six and eight mules – were being led away by high-stepping individuals dressed in dark clothing, and while those people were walking in darkness, the same could not be said of those unloading the wagons. Their lighting equipment showed forth hard-edged shadows amid glaring brightness.
“F-four, five, s-six...”
“All Infernal lanterns, also,” said the soft voice. “The demand for those in this area has been sufficiently great that their price has more than doubled.”
“In this area?” I asked.
“Wherever those lanterns are found,” said the soft voice. “The witch-owned manufactories of the fifth kingdom are running 'full out' at this time to supply that demand, as well as many others.” A brief pause, then, “much of the southern half of the witch-camp outside the walls of the Swartsburg is composed of building supplies.”
“And no cover remains,” I muttered. The trees were gone. “I'd have to go through a half-mile of that stinking mess just to reach one of the south-wall gates...”
“I'd try the northwest gate,” said the soft voice. “It currently has the fewest and least-experienced witches watching it.”
As I walked back to where I had dismounted, I wondered again just 'how' I would sneak into a realm all but crawling with witches – and that by traveling through the house while the witches were abroad in numbers.
“No, no trees for cover,” I thought. “There is cover of a sort.”
“Much like the fifth kingdom house had,” said the soft voice.
“Only a good deal less dangerous,” I thought.
“Not quite,” said the soft voice.
“It's as dangerous as that nasty stinky place was?” I gasped as I leaped to remount.
“It is less dangerous than you think it to be,” said the soft voice. “The witches are dangerously overconfident.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“Every guard with greens is currently having a 'field day' in the northern portion of the house,” said the soft voice. “That 'ready reserve' is not only new to its current level of privilege, but also inexperienced in general.”
“Hence they think they...”
The matter suddenly dawned upon me: calling this place 'an egg that's about to turn' was nothing but the truth – and Koenraad's removal would make the whole 'house of cards' collapse with a shuddering bang.
“Do not give the witches more credit than is warranted,” said the soft voice.
“What?” I gasped.
“Eggs that are about to turn have very fragile shells,” said the soft voice, “and the more rotten they are, the less handling they're able to endure.” A brief pause, then “recall what Kees said? He was correct when he spoke. The situation has gotten perceptibly worse since then.”
“That sounds like...”
“It won't collapse of its own weight,” said the soft voice. “It does need some help.” A brief pause, then “those witches that speak of the Swartsburg not rising again speak well of a bad situation.”
“What?” I gasped. I was heading south once more, as the night was yet young and I needed to learn more before I headed north.
“It will not rise again,” said the soft voice, “and that in spite of all that witchdom has done and will do to raise the place.” A brief pause, then, “Koenraad extended matters to the very limit, and not merely financially.”
“How else did he extend things?” I asked. “Leave straw out of the bricks?”
“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice, “and that does not count for the supplies that have been going inside of that place.”
“Uh, what kind of supplies?” I asked. My interest was greatly aroused by the emphasis on the word 'inside'.
“Recall when you shot his lantern?” asked the soft voice. “How the entire Swartsburg went up?”
“Yes?” I asked. I was more than a little nervous upon recalling what I had seen.
“I would be very careful as to where you choose your rest when you set up for that shot,” said the soft voice. “The building supplies are chiefly on the surface, while the munitions are being stored underground.”
“Munitions?” I asked.
“The still-intact basements,” said the soft voice. “Rebuilding atop near-intact foundations is much faster than building from scratch.” A brief pause, then, “and when those munitions go...”
“Oh, my,” I gasped. “It will take as long as it did to build the place the first time.”
“While witchdom thinks otherwise,” said the soft voice, “and that with justification, they do not have enough time to do more than think about rebuilding that place that way.”
“Th-think?” I asked.
“No strong leader, so everyone fights over what resources are available,” said the soft voice, “and then the foundations of the place are ruined, so they have to start entirely from scratch.” Another pause, “and they do not have that much time.”
“Even if they drop all else..?”
“Which is why matters will improve for a time,” said the soft voice. “Every miser and black-dressed witch within a day's hard traveling will be glued to the place, more or less.”
“And the plain-dressed witches..?”
“They and their supplicants will have their hands full,” said the soft voice. “Not only will there be more demand than they can supply, but they will have difficulty dealing with the overall situation.” A brief pause, then, “another chief difference between 'dressed' and 'undressed' witches is the length of their hours.”
“D-dressed witches?” I asked.
“Wear black-cloth, or miser's clothing,” said the soft voice, “and because 'dress' sets them apart from the 'commons', their hours tend to be substantially longer.” A pause, then, “plain-dressed witches, on the other hand, need to 'blend in' better – which means 'common' hours for the most part.”
“And they will have trouble with 'life in the fast lane',” I murmured.
“For a time, yes,” said the soft voice.
The unspoken portion of what I heard seemed to be 'they will eventually improve in their capabilities', and I let the matter 'rest'. I had the impression that the quantity of improvement in the area at large would be tremendously helpful, even if it was of short duration; for I could 'feel' drastic changes close at hand that would change 'everything'.
“Those won't help them much,” said the soft voice. “The important thing is you'll be able to labor in relative peace between now and the time you next travel.”
“And the others?” I asked. I wondered briefly about my coworkers.
“Will return within a few days,” said the soft voice. “They will take notice of the Swartsburg going up in smoke.”
“They didn't do that the first time?” I asked.
“In a fashion that made a difference to most people, not really,” said the soft voice. “Talk spoke of the Swartsburg's ready repair before you left, and what they've heard since has added to what was spoken.” A brief pause, then, “and seeing you 'crush' the place with such ease twice will give them a sizable dose of the fear.”
“The fear?” I asked.
“Is spoke of in those tales,” said the soft voice. “Charles was said to be 'the fear, that being embodied and mobile, and fully formed in its unrelenting manner' – and the second instance of the Swartsburg's destruction will cement that image in the minds of a great many, with your coworkers chief among them.”
“Compared to Ch-Charles?” I asked.
“Such comparisons are already being made in some places,” said the soft voice. “What happens in the next few months will but add to what is currently happening.” A brief pause, “then again, Charles was not given to a pendant.”
In my mind, however, the phrase 'a pendant' was transmuted to 'the chief pendant, and that by the failure of those beforehand'.
“True,” said the soft voice. “Very true.”
At the end of this lengthy-seeming conversation, I wondered briefly where I was in relationship to the end of the house. The recollection of the map showing the southeastern corner of the 'house' being formed by the presence of the Swartsburg seemed to compete with what I had seen and heard, and when I tried 'listening' in the distance to my right, I heard the braying of mules and the groaning of unlubricated bearings.
“Every road is likely to have witches on it,” I thought. “Still, I wonder – am I a mile south, or not?”
There was no answer, save for my inclination to head west while exercising caution as I was able, and I began doing so as cover permitted. I passed around two more woodlots, all the while listening; and when I came out of the southern shadow of the second, I saw to the south the first buildings of a town that I had heard of but never visited.
“And I had best find water soon,” I thought.
“There is a small river ahead,” said the soft voice. “Knockenplats might well be deeply asleep, but the Suedwaag runs through the middle of town.”
“And the freighters are coming up the Suedwaag,” I thought.
Yet still, I needed to stay within observing distance of the road, so much so that when I began to cross the field that lay to the south of the second woodlot, I could feel the town spoken of just past a gentle rise that lay directly ahead.
I also felt naked, and Jaak must have felt much as I did, for he moved faster.
The rise was taller than I thought it might be, for at its top, I saw the Suedwaag running south-to-north perhaps four hundred yards to the west. There was but the barest glimmer of moonlight overhead, while some distance to the south, I saw another line of flickering lights emerge from a darker mass. The question: was that darker mass the town – or was it a woodlot?
I could not tell, not in the current darkness; and on the back side of the hill, I discerned the river but some distance further ahead. It made for wondering, first as to its size, and then as to where I could cross it.
“It has no bridges,” I murmured.
“It isn't that big of a river,” said the soft voice, “and save for the portion that shows in this area, it runs mostly underground.”
I could feel the river drawing closer with each minute, while a woodlot showed to the right some distance ahead. It seemed likely for hiding, for some reason, much as if Knockenplats would show the other matters I needed to see.
“No, it's further south,” I thought. “There's a trail a bit east of here, and...”
The 'river' suddenly showed with a faint gurgling flurry some twenty paces distant, and I dismounted to walk closer in the darkness. I could feel Jaak right behind me, and when I came to the riverbank, I carefully tested the damp soil to find the firmest places.
It seemed especially important, and when I saw the nature of the river itself, I knew why.
“It might be eight feet wide,” I softly gasped.
“And is too deep to ford at this location,” said the soft voice. “Go east about three hundred yards, and cross there.”
“The trail?” I asked.
“That also,” said the soft voice. “Knowing about it will help in the future, if not tonight.”
Once Jaak had drunk – and I had checked all four hooves – we headed east. I wondered why I had not 'felt' the trail before, at least until I actually 'found' it.
“Barely visible,” I thought, as Jaak went upon it. “It might be wide enough for one horse, if that.”
“Or donkeys,” said the soft voice, as I looked ahead to see the trail heading straight for a woodlot. “This trail doesn't get much use currently.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Is it a m-marked trail?”
There was no answer, at least until the trail went into the woodlot. I turned around, and to my surprise, a faint bluish haze seemed to streak far into the distance.
“How far does that thing go?” I asked.
“About forty miles north of here,” said the soft voice, “and about ninety miles south.” A brief pause, then, “one of the first kingdom's hidden telegraph lines roughly parallels it for nearly that whole distance.”
“How many of those are there?” I asked.
“Two on this side of the Main river,” said the soft voice, “and one on the east side.” Another pause, then, “and that east-side run is the longest one on the continent.”
“How do those lines connect one to another?” I asked.
“Commonly by horseback messengers,” said the soft voice. “Contrary to what you might believe, sending messages that way is chiefly a matter of security rather than speed.”
“It is faster than the more-common means,” I said. “Or is it?”
“It is about twice as fast as the post,” said the soft voice, “which means about three days end-to-end under usual conditions.” A brief pause, then, “another benefit of the wires is information dissemination – every sounder on the path alerts its keeper when a message runs.”
I rode perhaps another ten minutes through the woodlot, then broke out into another wide and grassy meadow. The grass here was perhaps knee-high, save upon the path itself; there it was beaten down to form a silencing cushion. I then had another question.
“Where do they put all of those mules in the daytime?” I asked.
“In the Swartsburg,” said the soft voice. “They work well for road grading and compaction.”
“Compaction?” I asked.
“Rollers,” said the soft voice, “as well as modified snow-drags for grading.” A brief pause, then, “about half of the damaged cobbles have been replaced, and most of the undamaged ones have already been relaid.”
“How...” I gasped, even as I recalled mention of drink, datramonium, and slaves.
“Two overlapping shifts,” said the soft voice, “and each shift is sizable, well-equipped, and driven ruthlessly by their taskmasters.” A brief pause, then, “over ninety slaves have died due to overwork since the rebuilding commenced in earnest. That was less than three weeks ago.”
“Ninety?” I asked.
“That number is due to simple overwork,” said the soft voice. “It does not include deaths due to other causes – which are much higher – nor does it include the deaths of 'free' workers or the witches themselves.”
I looked toward the west once more, and there saw the Suedwaag. It seemed to be nearer than before, and as I looked further south, I saw first one 'train' of freighting wagons, then another grouping some distance to the rear, and finally a third such 'train'. All of these 'trains' glowed in a less-than-subtle manner, and as I looked carefully at the yellow flickering masses, I seemed to 'smell' distillate. A woodlot lay ahead some distance to my front.
“Well-dried distillate, at that,” I murmured, “and that in wick-lanterns.” I could almost see the thick greasy trails of smoke billowing up into the sky when I spoke of the matter. There was no 'almost' regarding the fluctuating light intensity that I had initially mistaken for 'flickering'.
“They did a poor job of boiling their fuel,” said the soft voice, “and their lanterns were chosen on the basis of their markings, not their construction.”
“Uh, construction?” I asked. “Are there some wick-lanterns that aren't firebombs waiting to explode?”
“There are,” said the soft voice, “but using distillate as fuel is clearly labeled as being most unwise.” A pause, then, “those take a special lantern-fuel that is almost unheard of outside of the Valley.”
“Special lantern-fuel?” I asked.
“Had you used that material in those 'light-giving smudge-pots' Georg purchased,” said the soft voice, “you would have had twice the light and perhaps a tenth of the smoke of boiled distillate.”
“And they would have eventually blown up the shop, also,” I thought.
“The Veldters commonly poke two or three small holes in 'domestic' wick-lanterns should they be forced to use them,” said the soft voice, “and they avoid using distillate entirely.”
After passing through the woodlot – again, the trail led among the trees, and its nature was difficult for me to discern – I came out the other side to find another wide grassy meadow, complete with faintly visible 'path'. In the distance, I could hear the braying of mules once more, and ahead – perhaps three miles – I could feel another town.
Another dead town.
“Did those wretches curse that town also?” I asked.
“Different wretches, same curse-collection,” said the soft voice. “There are several such groups from here to the area just north of the border with the second kingdom, all of them running circuits so as to permit what you're seeing to happen unimpeded by town-dwellers.” A brief pause, then, “I would set up a watch-point at the edge of a woodlot about two miles south of that town, and do so as close to the road as you can manage safely.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “The other big thing?”
There was no answer, save a strange and unanswerable sense of knowing. I would see something of great importance, and more...
“More important than that,” said the soft voice. “It may take a while to make entire sense of what you see there, but when you do, it will provide many important answers.”
“And provide a conundrum in the meantime...”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Some of what you see will be of use now or in the very near future.”
I could feel the town drawing steadily closer as I followed the path across the field, then into another woodlot. Once out the other side, I gasped involuntarily at the sight of the town. Its size – easily half again as much longer compared to Roos – and apparent 'wealth' made for wondering, at least until I thought about the area itself.
“That place is the center of attention for the area,” I thought.
“It also has a sizable church, a better-than-average Mercantile, a well-stocked greengrocers, and a well-stocked second-hand store,” said the soft voice.
“I'd best keep it in mind,” I thought. “Is it...”
“I'd avoid it until after the Swartsburg goes up,” said the soft voice. “Its people are unusually vulnerable to that curse-collection, and a particularly strong plain-dressed witch currently lives there.”
“And that witch is g-glued to the Swartsburg,” I murmured. “Will he..?”
“He will,” said the soft voice. “His demise will 'unchain' that town – which is a good thing.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Good candles?” I asked.
“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “Hans is not the only person short of 'good wax candles' – the house proper is dipping into their reserves, and Hendrik is worried about resupply.”
“Uh, perhaps borrow one of Andreas' lanterns?” I asked.
“He does not know Andreas has them,” said the soft voice, “as he and Maria were the first to be shown the refurbished jewelry area, and those lanterns arrived within the last eighteen months.” A brief pause, then, “and given the nearby location of General's Row, it isn't a good idea for him to use them.”
“Spies,” I muttered. “Spy-passages...”
“He knows of their existence, if not their precise locations,” said the soft voice, “and hence takes precautionary measures.”
The fields surrounding the town seemed of uncommon size, and the long narrow rows I saw spoke of plowing being in progress. Ahead in the distance lay another woodlot, while to my right, the Suedwaag had gone further to the west. It was now nearly half a mile away.
“A bit less than that,” said the soft voice. “Those fields are a bit less than the usual for length.”
“And they're wider?” I asked.
“In places, yes,” said the soft voice. “Those that farm in that town typically have 'other jobs' that consume more time than is the usual for the first kingdom's town dwellers – and those who farm exclusively, relatively speaking, have more fields than the usual.”
“Prosperity?” I asked.
“Three upgraded fifth kingdom plows,” said the soft voice, “and shared four-horse teams for dragging them.” A brief pause, then, “the apprentices' families live there.”
“Oh, my,” I gasped. “And the curse of darkness...”
“Means those families are currently far too busy to turn the boys loose,” said the soft voice. “They'll manage fine without the boys' help once the Swartsburg goes, what with the longer days they'll then have.”
“As in they get up at the third hour, and cease at the ninth?” I asked.
“On the better days, yes,” said the soft voice. “That plain-dressed witch is not helping matters much – he's setting a bad example, and he's raised three mobs this year already.”
“B-bad example?” I asked.
“He doesn't 'show' before the third hour,” said the soft voice, “and he closes his shop at the stroke of the ninth hour, if not before – and no one in that town sees him otherwise.”
“Because he sneaks out after dark, no doubt,” I murmured.
“That, and how he does so,” said the soft voice. “His barn is connected to his basement by an underground passage, and he sneaks out of the back of the barn shortly after sundown.”
The woodlot was now closer, and the path seemed to vanish at its edge; and when I went inside of the place, I could feel the end to the south as being 'some distance' away – while the two mile figure would be somewhere nearby. I dropped off of Jaak and began leading him through the forest on a roughly southwest heading.
With each minute, I could 'feel' something ahead. I felt reminded of the small 'inlets' or 'bays' I had seen in woodlots on the southbound trip, as well as those individuals named 'vendors' and 'tinkers'. A brief gust of wind carried the odors of cooking.
“What?” I thought. “Who's cooking?”
There was no answer, save the recollection itself, and my own memories of the trip. I could almost smell something roasting on a spit – and while it was most definitely not High, it was not a species of food I wished to consume.
“Stuff would put me in the privy worse than a squab,” I thought morosely.
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Spit-roasting is one of the more popular means of preparing quolls, especially among those who live in the southern portions of the continent.”
“Quolls?” I asked.
“Are starting to become active in this area,” said the soft voice.
“Do those migrate?” I asked.
“Yes, in this area,” said the soft voice. “They return when plowing starts.”
With the passing minutes, the odor of cooking became more obvious, as did other odors and sounds. I first smelled an odor reminding me vaguely of mules, then a faint 'distillate' smell. A light wavered faintly somewhere ahead for a second, then vanished. I looked down at my feet, and then shuddered.
“They've cleaned out this woodlot too,” I silently squeaked.
“The people of the nearest town, you mean,” said the soft voice. “The Swartsburg doesn't go this far afield for drop-wood.”
“And that town has a charcoal-burner,” I murmured.
“A smaller location, yes,” said the soft voice. “Charcoal will become both much cheaper and far more common in the next few days.”
“Good,” I mumbled. “That cupola is going to want plenty...”
“The shop will use more for its regular work, also,” said the soft voice. “Having the fear will make those men significantly more industrious and the boys more attentive.”
“Uh, their hours?” I asked.
“Those will be somewhat longer, at least for a time,” said the soft voice. “Just the same, the increase of productivity will be substantial.”
I could now feel what might have been an encampment of some kind to my front, and I wondered just how I could 'hide'. More, I would want some kind of a nap, at least a brief one; and as I walked closer, I could feel a small pond ahead and to the right. I changed course so as to intersect it – and less than a minute later, I nearly shrieked when my boot sank to the ankle on the shore of an uncommonly small stream.
“What?” I thought.
“Not only does that stream keep the pond full,” said the soft voice, “it also provides water for that camping spot.”
“Fish?” I asked.
“Some few in this area,” said the soft voice. “The marshes some miles to the west have more.”
I turned to follow the stream, and as I did, I heard voices. I wondered if people came to the pond for water – and more, if they would see me. A glance at the ground showed a few faint footprints, then a glance 'ahead' spoke of safety.
“There's another such place at the roadside,” I muttered, “and a little place to, uh, hide...”
“If you are careful, you both can hide there,” said the soft voice. “Jaak will appreciate the grass.”
“G-grass?” I asked.
“Among the 'green stuff',” said the soft voice. “That watering place is nearest the road, while the bulk of those camping are somewhat further away – and that hiding spot is at the edge of the forest.”
I continued on through the forest, all the while watching ahead for movement, at least until I came to the pond. There, Jaak drank, and I sat to think. I reached for my water bottle, and then recalled what else I had packed.
“Thank God I brought a ground-cloth,” I thought, as I looked in my possible bag. “I wonder how readily I could travel if I had to?”
“You would not need much more than you currently have with you,” said the soft voice, “and that presumes you only stopped at Public Houses for beer and bread.”
“Uh, bathing?” I asked.
“Sponge-baths, mostly,” said the soft voice. “Ponds like this one tend to be a bit chilly this early in the year.”
“How far would I, uh, travel, though?” I asked. “Would I go as fast as I did on the trip?”
What then occurred to me was of such an astonishing nature that I nearly did not close my mouth in time. As it is, the involuntary gasp made for a slight hissing noise.
“M-more?” I asked. “That much more?”
“You would not be stopping for any real length of time,” said the soft voice, “and horses like Jaak are known for not merely their speed, but also their stamina.” A brief pause, then, “those old tales mention traveling upwards of one hundred and thirty miles a day on horseback, and that for days at a time.”
“A very few days,” I thought, as I resumed walking toward my 'blind'. I'd want a nap there, I now realized, as what I needed to see would not show right away.
“'A very few days' would suffice to travel from Roos to the fourth kingdom's market,” said the soft voice. “Hans and Anna commonly manage about half again as much as your best days headed south on that trip, and Sarah did better yet during her messenger days.”
“Better?” I asked.
“Better horses, for one thing,” said the soft voice. “Then, her buggy tended to be lightly laden compared to what Hans and Anna commonly pack for trekking, and then, there was the buggy itself.”
“Slightly enlarged medical buggy?” I asked.
“It had special sleeves,” said the soft voice, “as well as some other unusual parts and materials.” A brief pause, then, “your buggy will be better yet.”
“What?” I gasped. I was glad I had not actually spoken, as the 'hiding spot' wasn't that much further, and the nearest of the 'campers' was fairly close to it. More, these people were mostly still awake.
“It might use 'conventional' materials,” said the soft voice, “but those building it are very good at woodworking.” A brief pause, during which time I stopped to listen carefully, then, “between their 'tricks' and its smaller size, it will weigh a bit more than half of what Hans and Anna drive.”
“Oh, my,” I thought. “It isn't going to be slow, is it?”
“With the two horses that were rescued, not particularly,” said the soft voice. “Sarah has been looking at others just the same.”
The hiding spot beckoned, and I continued walking alongside the stream. The trees seemed to be larger than usual for a woodlot, with smooth-surfaced trunks easily a foot and a half across. The voices I had heard before were both more numerous and louder, and as I came past the trunk of a tree, I froze.
Someone was doing their business not a hundred feet away, and only when the man left with his spade did I think to continue. As it was, I was most circumspect, at least until the forest abruptly quit.
Only it hadn't really quit. Instead, its character had changed drastically, with the trunks both much more numerous and smaller; there was an open top to the sky and green grass underfoot. I paused to look to the side, and saw relatively clearly the nature of the campground.
“That's some camping spot,” I thought, at seeing a 'meadow' some two hundred yards across bounded by trees on two sides. I then turned around.
“M-more trees?” I thought. “Then why is this place the way it is?”
There was no answer beyond what I was seeing, and I continued moving cautiously. The thought occurred to me that if I could see out, those in the campground that still stirred could also see in.
“Yes, if they choose to look this way,” said the soft voice. “Those in the camp that are still awake are chiefly interested in occupying their beds.”
I continued on, now less worried about observation. I could feel the road itself ahead, and noted how it bent around the projecting finger of the 'green' region. A small bridge crossed over the river, this being about a third of the size of the example near the Abbey, and then the road turned right abruptly to curve into the 'bay'. The other side of the road was a continuation of the forest, with but scant feet from the road's edge to the road itself – and the road was not particularly wide. It looked to be about average for 'back roads' closer to home.
While Jaak chewed grass, I found an area carpeted thickly with leaves, and laid out my ground-sheet and cloak. I put the latter on partially, then laid out pack, weapons, and possible bag on the groundsheet. My pack made a passable pillow, or so I found; and between what I was wearing, and the cloak itself for a blanket, I fell asleep with astonishing abruptness – to then awaken sometime 'later' to the sound of unlubricated bearings. For some odd reason, I was uncommonly cross.
“Stinking noisy coaches,” I muttered, as the rumbling noises grew slowly louder. I quietly sat up, the cloak sliding down to my waist, and I looked down to see not merely the cloak, but the groundsheet itself. Both seemed to faintly glow, and I looked up through the branches of the tree overhead to see a slowly-enlarging sliver of the moon.
I packed up the groundsheet and cloak, then urinated while kneeling next to a tree. That done, I listened carefully.
“All I can hear now is snoring,” I thought. “I think I had best move out into that camp.”
I moved silently through the trees, much as if I were but a breath of wind, and when I came to the edge of the green region, I was astonished to see still-smoldering firepits next to a number of pitched tents next to a small group of obvious vendor-buggies. I then moved out onto the grass.
The shadows and drifting smoke seemed to welcome my presence, such that their faint movements but added mine to their number, and as I passed first one 'camp' and then another, I listened carefully.
A mule brayed, then another – they were close – and once more, I heard the rattling groans of unlubricated wheels.
I continued moving among the camp, my steps slow, silent, and careful; and when I came to its end, I was astonished once more to find that another such 'camp' presented itself. I leaped across the gap separating the two, then continued moving as before.
The groaning became steadily louder as I moved among the various tents and buggies, and when it stopped, I listened closer. Faint on the wind, I heard voices, these sounding somewhat hoarse, and amid quiet speech – drunken speech, but still quiet – I heard another voice, this one seeming to single itself out from the others by virtue of its higher pitch and lesser volume.
I wondered who – or what – I was hearing, and I moved toward the sounds of animals and men, until I came to the darkness which lay behind and to the left of an obvious tinker's buggy. There, I knelt down to look to the front under an uncommonly bright moon.
A long and somewhat narrow-looking watering trough with a red-painted pump had been usurped by a brace of coaches, and while the mules drank – two teams of eight, and uncommonly quiet for mules – the passengers alighted to the surface of the road, and disappeared among the trees upon its other side one at a time.
Given the presence of mules and coaches, I had expected to see black-cloth, and when I saw it, I was neither surprised by its presence or its profusion.
What did surprise me, however, was the matter of its 'tailoring'.
While the overall shape of what these particular black-dressed thugs was utterly familiar – it was identical to that of the thugs I had seen hours before – there were many less-than-subtle aspects showing themselves blatantly, with the chief matter being a near-complete 'absence' of the 'crudity' I commonly observed regarding witch-dress – which made for wondering.
“What am I seeing here?” I thought. “These people look really wealthy, so much so that...” A pause, then “they make other witches seem as if paupers!”
There was more, I now knew, and the expectancy grew within my mind. I could not name it, nor discern much beyond its palpable presence, and beyond 'something really important will happen shortly', I could not describe it. I kept watch accordingly.
The coaches themselves were the longest examples I had yet seen, with an ungainly aspect that made for faint involuntary shudders, and when the door opened for the third time, I wondered who I would see.
The first two individuals to emerge from that coach had had 'black holes' for faces underneath their pot-and-saucer hats, and when this third person showed initially, that aspect was not present. The shadow hid their face well otherwise, so much so that when this person came to the rear of the coach and out of the shadows, I gasped silently.
The hatless head of this person was crowned with a pale and glistening whiteness, one that seemed the very reflection of the moon; and as I watched aghast, this being moved with slow and faintly tottering steps to the far border of the road.
“No swaggering,” I thought, upon watching this being 'walk'. “Those others could teach it.”
The third aspect of note was the cut of this individual's clothing, which seemed markedly different from that of the others, and I waited to see a hint as to why – until as the creature came to the center of the road, it turned broadside on so as to look toward the north.
I marveled at what I saw, for where the long and spindly legs joined the otherwise emaciated body, there was a sizable and rounded bulging protrusion; and upon the other side of the body, another such protuberance, this one nearly as large, showed just below where the neck joined the body.
Both of these bulging protrusions seemed firm and immobile, so much so that they merely seemed to supply an added aspect of stiffness to the already stiff movements of this creature, and when it turned once more to resume its walk, I once again noted both stiffness and emaciation.
“That thug's the thinnest one I've seen here,” I thought, “and he makes the other coach-riders of this group look fat.”
The next thing that I noticed was the behavior of the other coach-passengers. This strange being received uncommon favor and attention, along with no small amount of deference; and none of the black-dressed thugs dared to come too close – including the coachman, who waited in the middle of the road some distance to the side of where the strange being had vanished into the impenetrable wall of foliage. This remained so, even as the last example of black-dressed thug emerged to retake his seat within one of the coaches.
The strange being remained 'gone'.
I could feel an argument brewing, and with its steadily increasing sharpness, I expected the thugs to begin shooting at one another – until suddenly, a sharp-voiced command laden with brutality, its tones horse and drunken-sounding – rang out in my mind. The audible speech that accompanied it, however, was almost exactly the opposite for both tone and volume, even as it sent both box-hatted coachmen scurrying like burning rats to the other side of the road, where they peered into the foliage while whispering soft words of 'entreaty'.
I looked along the wall of greenery for a sign. None seemed forthcoming at first, and I waited watchfully until with a sudden abruptness, the darkness showing upon the forest-wall erupted some twenty feet north of the furthest-north of the two coachmen. Both men turned as one in obvious shocked surprise as their charge began to walk across the road, its gait perceptibly slower and markedly stiffer than when it had left their company. The shadows faded with each faltering step, and when a pale ray of moonlight dripped down upon the being's head, I looked on in shock.
The first portion I saw were the eyes of this being – and while they did not glow with the reddish haze of inhabitation, I instinctively knew that was but the outward seeming. A closer look at the eyes made for shuddering.
They were all-but-crossed, and the rest of the unfamiliar face seemed to partake in full measure of a benumbed near-stupor. Yet all of this was but the surface. It hid well that which lay below, at least for what seemed seconds – until with a sudden 'flash', I saw the truth laid bare: the first subsurface layer showed a glowering visage, one replete with unbridled cunning and an insatiable desire for raw power too intense for mere language, while the second layer, this below the one just described, spoke of a desire so intense – and unusual – that I found I was not merely ignorant of its prior existence.
I also had no words with which to describe it; and then, and only then, did I notice the smell.
As this last individual took its place in the coach whence it had emerged, a faint odor began to crawl up my nose. It took conscious effort to recall its origin as the coachmen mounted their seats and urged their steeds first into a walk, and from thence into a steady pounding trot; and as the coaches rattled and rumbled northward, the final and full import of the stench arrived in my brain and at my hiding place.
I was glad the coaches were gone, for I nearly fell to the ground in a convulsion, and the words themselves were all but wrenched from my lips. With a retching gut and revolting mind, I crawled back to the green region, my face the color of early spring grass and ghastly to behold. Only when I had knelt by the stream did I dare speak.
"S-Swartsburg b-b-brothel," I spluttered, between periods of retching.