Something Wicked this way Comes... part four

We came back into the trees, and as I found a narrow disused track leading through the bunched tree-trunks, I heard whispers about how I was now taking trails.

“We're ahead of those messengers,” I said softly as I called a 'slowdown' to bunch up the horses for easier communication, then as I sped back up to my former speed, “and this trail will speed our passage and increase the distance between us and them.” I was glad for my compass, for I found the close-packed nature of the trees somewhat disorienting, especially when we burst out of them at a slow trot and came to another narrow meadow thick with knee-high spring grass. The aspect of solitude, even as the sun continued its plunge eastward and slowly downward, was unnerving; and when we once more entered the trees to find another disused trail, I wondered more. Was this a marked trail, only its signs were hidden from my perception?

“I used to use a needle and string,” I thought, as I consulted my compass once more. It seemed right now to be my one true and only friend, and it was all I could do to not hold the softy gleaming brass 'music box' close to my heart at times.

“Which is how most of Norden's spy-groups actually navigate when they're cutting new trails,” said the soft voice. “Compasses, what few of them Norden's people have, are purchased through multiple intermediaries via secret trade at truly astronomical costs, which is why pilot ships are still uncommon.”

“Uncommon?” I thought.

“There are perhaps eight of those craft all total at this time,” said the soft voice, “and while more of them are on the stocks, they've had a low priority of late compared to the ongoing rework of the main shipyards.”

“Especially given those working on those boats are not the usual for their shipbuilders,” I thought. “Those boats are actually 'decent', unless you compare them with those built at the better yards on the west coast.” I was thinking of Boeskmann's as an example, for that name had been told to me.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Only if you compare them with the places on the eastern portion of the southern coast that are run by witches using slave labor do they compare to those made on the continent as 'decent'.” A brief pause, then, “that's now. Norden's shipbuilders are still early on in their learning curve regarding new means of boat construction, and the bulk of the current crop of Thinkers – as well as those who are providing help to Norden – are hard at work improving such matters.”

“As in they'll accomplish in a few months what has taken years to do on the continent?” I asked.

“Closer to a hundred years, actually,” said the soft voice. “Those people are neither slow nor slack in their labors, and that help, while reckoned trivial by its suppliers, is not trivial for Norden's shipyards.”

“Meaning Norden's boats will become significantly more capable in the foreseeable future?” I thought.

“I would try to take notes of what you see in that cove, if time permits,” I heard – and as I heard this, I suspected most strongly that these notes would need to be written after I was once more back in a 'safe' place like the parlor at home. The area near the camp itself would be far too dangerous, and I would be far too busily 'engaged' to do much writing.

Currently, I was busy 'sensing' the situation ahead. We were perhaps halfway to their camp, with more woodlots interspersed with narrow bands of deep-grass untracked meadows, their grass now thick, luxuriant and green – and well poised to leave traces of our passage. I asked that it not do so, and as I led further to the left across the next such meadow, I could feel another path a short distance ahead, this one also disused.

Or so I thought until I saw the characteristic slash-cuts upon one of the trees. They were old ones, which gave me some little hope. I recognized them regardless, for I had seen their like before.

“I'm using a spam-trail,” I thought.

“A disused spam-trail, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Those cuts you saw are older than you are, as those Thinkers have taught their spy-groups to stay in the trees as much as possible since those marks were made, and then to stay near rivers when and where they can so the noise of the river masks their movement. They no longer go across meadows of any size, save when they must – and they try to cross all open spaces at night, even if doing so means less distance covered in the course of a day.”

“And I smell antifreeze,” I thought. The reek, though unmistakable, was so faint that I wondered if I were smelling it conventionally.

I suspected the tree-belt would be especially thick next to the river, but I could tell that there would be at least one more meadow to cross before we came to that thick collection of trees and 'brush' – and when we came out of the woodlot some ten nervous minutes later, I was amazed at the width of this field. Not a trail to be seen in either direction as I looked through the thick knee-high grass, or so I thought until one of those men wearing 'camouflage' said quietly, “over there is a trail, I think.”

“That one does not lead directly to their camp,” I said. “That trail” – the one to the camp itself – “is tricky that way, which is deliberate. Otherwise, those people would had been found out and dealt with by now.”

“No one would come out here,” whispered Gabriel – who now seemed to have lost most of his oblivion due to a sense of fear that he'd only last had during our breakout from the potato country.

“Come on,” I whispered, as I led off slowly across the wide and trackless meadow. “We're hours ahead of those stumbling messengers, and those people... Urgh! That's their drink, all right.”

There was no talk of any consequence from that point on during the meadow crossing itself, and as we moved through the tall grass, I put my compass away. I could feel the thugs now, and my path, while somewhat wobbly-seeming, was gradually turning toward the direction needed to reach their camp. These woods ahead were thick, thick enough with 'undergrowth' that we would wish to tether our horses but a short distance inside them and then walk the rest of the way; and once on foot, I would need to lead the group in single file.

I hoped and prayed those walking after me would walk in my footsteps. It would be much quieter for them to do so.

The denseness of the approaching trees was bordering on frightening as we came closer, and as I kept heading south while crossing the field, I could hear – or perhaps, feel – thoughts wondering as to what I was doing. I could hear Hendrik silencing those who were wondering, though he kept his voice down to a very soft whisper, and as I came to the place to dismount, I turned around. Putting one finger over my lips, I then said, as quietly as I could, “from this point on, hand signals if you know them. Otherwise, mouth to the ear, exhale first before speaking, and whisper your very softest. These people, at least some of them, are not trashed – and they have sentries out and watching.”

The huntsmen looked askance at me, then Hendrik whispered in the ear of one of them. This traveled throughout the group almost as if it were lightning, and as I led into the forest, an arrow nocked and ready – a hunting arrow, no less, not a war arrow; I now wished heartily someone had kept their wits enough in the hurry to leave to get some of those things – I could hear the noises behind me: three people who were truly quiet, those being the huntsmen; Hendrik, who was somewhat noisy, but he was becoming quieter very fast; Gabriel, who was easily the noisiest of the bunch, and seemed incapable of doing better, at least until he thought to step in the tracks of the person directly in front of him; and finally the two new guards. These last people surprised me: when they were intent upon their jobs and watching their feet, they were nearly as quiet as the huntsmen; but when they were not, they were almost as bad as Gabriel for the noise their feet made.

Unlike the others in the column, however, they were bursting with questions, and these they attempted to ask without observing even a shred of noise discipline. More than once I heard a soft grunt from the rear of the column as an elbow found a stomach, then when I called a halt in a very small clearing some two hundred yards from where we had left the horses, I was about to speak to them when Hendrik beat me to it.

“You've not yet seen the Hare,” he said as I saw him draw a common-sized knife from his bag, one of those I had made recently, “nor have you had Weidmansheil blown upon you. I've lived through both of those things, and bled in the process; and I tell you true: if you do not make yourselves silent, you accursed witches, I will silence you my-own-self, and that right here and now, and I will leave your bodies to rot where they fall.”

The unspoken portion of Hendrik's speech was “if Dennis does not kill you first because you're causing him trouble.” I heard that portion plainly.

As I once more led off, the noise had ceased from the speech-quarter at the least, though the same could not be said of Gabriel's clumsy feet; and the last two were in the column were now watching their feet with substantial care. However, I wondered for a moment: while Hendrik had seen those lightning hares we had encountered, I wondered about the other portion of 'seeing the hare' – until I recalled our time right after leaving the fifth kingdom house, and then our shortly-thereafter night traversal of a full-blown battlefield hotly contested by two rival combines. It might not have been blowing the Hall to hell, or blowing that one town, or even the bridge, or...

“You did not look that close at his eyes then,” said the soft voice. “He had something of a long stare after that episode, and that trip you led from the fifth kingdom house to where you live, while not an Anabasis like that of Xenophon for distance, was no joke.”

“And those witches using 'recon by fire' upon us while we hid ourselves in that sagebrush near the border was no joke, either,” I thought. “That grayed my hair some.”

“Hence he, and everyone else that went on that trip, Gabriel included, has 'seen the hare' – though I would watch Gabriel especially closely just the same.”

“He's not a guard?” I thought. “No training?”

“Neither is Hendrik, nor are the huntsmen,” said the soft voice. “It's more where he went for his schooling.” More was coming, and it was important. I strained to hear it as clearly as I could.

“Maagensonst students, while they do travel to some extent, tend to neither travel far nor fast. Most places they visit are close by the High Way, with the most distant locations needing perhaps a few hours of riding at an easy pace; they invariably spend more time in Public Houses eating and drinking than they do traveling – and in all cases, they start late and end early, as is appropriate for 'betters'.”

A brief pause, then, “while no spinner parlor is safe or easy, the ones he went to did not demand sneaking around in witch-held territory with dire consequences should one get caught. A pause, then, “that is an integral portion of the west school's traipsing, and Hendrik did his share of that.”

“Spinner parlors?” I asked, as I began feeling for the cloth bag I had put among my things this morning. I felt several squibs in the process, these being of that one truly evil batch we had last made – the former ones could pass for grenades if one stretched matters, but these things were the genuine article as far as I was concerned. It made me wonder about making another batch of 'Finnegan bombs', as I now called that original half-dozen I had made – only filling them with a sticky version of 'meal'. That was the next project on the bombing program: 'meal' manufacture, and then bomb-filling for the Abbey and possibly some few things for our trip overseas.

“That one border town had two such places,” said the soft voice, “and there were some others near the coast just above the fifth kingdom's borders; and while those places are dangerous enough, they don't hold a soggy candle to places like that one that blew up while you were leaving that one town down that way, much less those in real mining towns.”

“Like those places running spinners in the Swartsburg...”

My thoughts were cut short, for now, we were coming up upon the 'river road'; and beyond it, I could hear the faint gurgle of the river itself. Here, the river road went out nearly half a mile from the actual banks of the river and any coves and the like it might have; and its narrow shade-lined path wound its way through the trees running roughly north and south.

Calling it narrow in most places, though, was a complement: it was barely wide enough for a freighting wagon if one spoke of the section I could see, or two side-by-side buggies like Sarah's if the horses were on the small side and those driving them were careful. The road itself, thankfully, was deserted at this hour, for no one dared travel upon it save during that witch-approved period that started at the third hour and continued until the ninth. It was well past the ninth hour now, if still at least an hour or more prior to true dusk.

“What?” I thought, as the road began to show itself through the trees.

“The precise truth,” said the soft voice. “While this is not the Low Way, and it currently sees but a minute fraction of the coach traffic it once did, coaches still run on this road outside of those hours.”

“And the towns follow that one Sarah and I went to for their thinking,” I thought, “or do they?”

“Mostly, they do,” said the soft voice, “even if most of them are not working on becoming witch-holes.” A pause, then, “until very recently indeed, though, the river towns were among the favorite haunts of witches seeking to hide themselves for one reason or another.”

As I came to the boundaries of the road and its too-narrow roadside ditches, I glanced out to see sizable numbers of fresh-looking horse-turnips. That said one thing: some witch had recently been running a coach or a freight wagon.

“A coach, actually, and he was heading toward the north-tip at his best possible speed,” said the soft voice. “No money remained in this area for someone like him, and it's become far too dangerous to wear black-cloth as well, even in this area.” Another pause, then, as I looked once more each way before crossing the road, “expect another mad exodus headed north on this road once those bags and heads get planted at the major crossroads in the kingdom house.”

“Uh, why?” I asked silently. The road was safe for the time being, and I trotted across, with one of the huntsmen following in my wake. The whole group followed seconds later, even Gabriel, though I could tell something 'odd' was beginning to happen to him. I led off once again, and as I passed by a newer blaze mark left by an obvious spam spying party, that sense I had had of that something 'odd' seemed to grow.

There was no answer to my former question. I had another one.

“No one other than me brought anything remotely resembling traps, correct?” I thought.

While there was no answer, the recollection of what I had been told in the fourth kingdom seemed to grow upon me, with 'none of us, save you, can lay claim to the title of bomber' being the worst.

More, upon my recalling mention of a 'printing press', I knew that dissemination of my 'manual' was being contemplated at a 'high' level: and the only means being considered by those thinking on the matter were those that had been in use locally at the house proper for time out of mind. More, those doing this thinking – they did not include Hendrik; he had delegated such matters, as was appropriate for someone of his workload – were thinking of the house proper's current equipment for doing that work, and that equipment only. The fact that such equipment was not up to the task did not enter their minds; for the use of such equipment, while wasteful indeed of time, paper, and ink, was time-honored and witch-blessed, as was most appropriate for the stupid and backward slave-warren we dwelt in.

It was not ignorance: even I knew of other means that we could readily implement, and those using the materials and technology we currently had; and while cutting huge wooden screws was beyond me, even a badly worn version of Gutenberg's original press would be a non-trivial improvement upon the scrap-collection that was currently thought 'good' and 'excellent' in these particular circles.

The greenery now grew denser, and soon, the only person who could move through it with anything approaching genuine quiet was myself. Here, even the huntsmen made some noise, while the others... They were making noises more appropriate to stumbling-drunk elephants, and here the gap between Gabriel – he was noisy – and the others had narrowed drastically. I suspected now that training and experience were key issues; before coming here, I had learned to be 'quiet' in the forest to a modest degree, but since coming here, that capacity had grown – and that before starting guard training. Since that time, it had become greater yet.

This thick stand of trees, along with its 'jungle-vines' and dense undergrowth that I had not yet seen anywhere else, seemed to go on forever; and as we came to a small clearing, one of the huntsmen came up to me, exhaled, then whispered into my ear: “only marked people move that quietly in the woods.”

“Be glad they do not have pigs with them,” I said, in a similar manner. “Those have good hearing.”

Of a sudden, however, the smell I had noticed but faintly before became stronger and far more persistent, and I knew that unlike the first time, and possibly, unlike the second time as well, I was smelling Norden's 'antifreeze' conventionally. More, there was enough of this particular stink that I could tell that those imbibing that drink had been most intemperate in their consumption of it – which made me more than a little glad. I looked more carefully at the ground, and in the process, I moved slower.

It seemed to help a trifle, even if I could not find a truly quiet passage for the others, and as I moved, each step now cautious of noise production, I was surprised that no one had tripped and fallen sprawling like so many of my classmates had done during our first outings. The situation had remained troubling up until the very end of such training, at least in that class. The two after mine were yet an unknown.

“At least half of those people are dead, though,” I thought, “and those two that failed...”

“Will be dead soon enough,” said the soft voice. “Your suggestions regarding guard-hours and shift changes are now gospel in Hendrik's mind.” A brief pause, then, “what will happen tonight will change his thinking a great deal further.”

“No one learned noise discipline for beans in our group,” I thought morosely.

“Those that did anything that way learned strictly by observing and then following your example,” said the soft voice. “That Teacher completely ignores that aspect, as well as nearly everything you're demonstrating right now.” A brief pause, then, “and it's really making an impression upon Hendrik.”

I could now not merely smell the high-octane drink that those of Norden swilled like water; I could now hear – this faintly; the trees blocked much sound yet – the crackle of an obvious 'roaring campfire', one of these things with a firepit big enough to burn a whole pig and a mound of blazing firewood tall enough to come to my waist; a small forest of irregular stertorous snores; and finally, two or three voices, these attempting slow off-key drunken singing of surprising volume. This volume suggested deep and abiding intoxication. This singing also gave some indication as to why our 'stampeding herd of buffalo' approach had not yet been detected.

“Yeah, right,” I thought. “People wait until the stinking pigs actually show and are wrecking the place and killing people before they do a stinking thing, and they don't do nothing at all then until somehow they get the message – and that's got to change. No doubt about it, it has to change, and change a lot.”

I moved slower yet, and miracle of miracles, the noise to the rear dropped substantially. It made for wondering: was it my pace through the brush that was causing trouble for the others? I thought to try moving at an even slower pace, and now I took a step perhaps every three to five seconds – and the steady crackling crashing appropriate to a trio of drunken elephants became an occasional snapping of a twig.

I could feel water directly ahead, and another minute's progress – another twelve steps, these slow, steady, and most of all, moving the brush aside slowly and watching where I put my own feet for the benefit of those following me – showed first what might have been water here and there, but still mostly hidden; then faintly, the outlines of a ship. I turned, my finger over my lips, then exhaled slowly and spoke into the ear of the huntsman directly behind me: “we're close. Find a spot behind a tree or other cover when I stop. Do what I do, and when I do it, do likewise. Pass it along.”

I had resumed my slow and cautious stepping, a step every few seconds while watching where I put my feet, when I nearly collapsed in my tracks upon hearing talking – not whispering; frank normal-volume talking, this having an insistent tone and a whining aspect – as well as a barrage of questions directed to everyone not the questioners. There were at least two speaking, and perhaps more; and though I kept my tongue as well as my head – barely – the same could not be said for my temper.

I wanted nothing more than to choke to death the people who were talking, and that on the spot. Only knowing that our work would be undone, and that utterly, kept my enraged mind upon its task. It made me think of one aspect the Teacher of Guards seemed to stress more than anything else during his initial training: blind unthinking obedience.

Blind obedience of that type, while in my mind a quick trip to disaster as a general rule, both for smaller actions and the larger picture, had an occasional place in the 'military' scheme of things; and our current activity happened to be one such instance. Everyone – the huntsmen possibly excepted – was in far over their head; and our success as a group depended most strongly upon me doing all of the thinking here. At least I had some idea as to what to do, and a possible way of achieving a desirable outcome; and I prayed with great fervor that the spams would be entirely too trashed to hear those idiots who were now sabotaging our attack.

I then tried to ignore the talk, and succeeded in part, chiefly as to its preventing me from thinking; and as I glimpsed a clearing some short distance ahead – distances were weird here: ten feet later proved to be thrice that, and the same had already happened in reverse on the way in – I halted, my body seeming to worm its way through the undergrowth such that it hid itself behind a too-narrow tree, and as I knelt down, this movement as slow as a glacier, I saw through a gap in the thick foliage the outlines of the ship I had seen but partially before.

It made ignoring the too-stupid loud talk slightly easier, and as I crawled forward, this on hands and knees – I was within perhaps ten yards of the edge of the actual clearing, which was smaller than I had thought it would be – I was fascinated by this first example of a Norden-ship I had ever seen. It was drawn up high onto the gravely shore, and as I crawled closer, I found myself so completely astonished by the sight before me that I did not scream when someone first tripped, then yelled like a drunken fool – and then, with a thunderous crash, fell sprawling but a few feet to my rear.

I stopped where I was, then began reversing back toward the sound of the person now thrashing in the undergrowth. Someone other than me was about to actually unpack a club and beat the offender to death, and when I had reversed out of my tunnel, I actually saw a thick and knotted cudgel poised to strike in one monstrous blood-stained hand...

A cocked revolver, this example from only God knows where, in the other...

And I shook this nightmare off to then learn what had actually happened. However, that did not stop my thinking in the slightest, for had it been possible, I would have needed neither club nor revolver to kill the person in question. Rage and my bare hands would have sufficed, just like it had with at least two traitors of the twenty-six I'd killed thus far.

“Later, you wretch,” I thought. My voice was beyond snarling, if unspoken. Only a few times in speaking to the assembled traitors had it sounded more violent and vicious. “If there is a later, I will throttle your witch-loving curse-chanting carcass and burn it as an offering to that reptile you call Brimstone so as to send you off in style, you stinking witch. Now be silent, and do what I told you to do, fool!”

The noise ceased, and I once more reversed direction, this time back toward the clearing. My orders – they had been that, and explicit enough to be understood that way, or so I had thought – were to do as I was doing; and as I began crawling slowly, I could hear not merely the utter ceasing of all talk – that crashing fool had put the wind up everyone's backside, not merely my own, I now realized – but as I crawled my way further into the dense undergrowth, I began to see the ship closer. I'd been told it wasn't the usual for Norden-ships, and when I got a clear glimpse of the thing, this from within cover and perhaps a dozen feet from the actual edge of the hard-trodden ground of the clearing, I wondered just what was seeing.

It was not a Viking ship. I knew that instantly. Those were supposedly built far better, at least for their workmanship, than this clumsy-looking thing was.

It was easily eighty feet long, with a wide beam, a nearly flat bottom, and a very shallow draft. It might need three feet of water to float, and that fully loaded – or so I guessed. I then knew our boat would need knee-deep water to sail in, if that – and at high speed, such as with a sail even close to full, it would lift well up out of the water, much like a hydroplane.

Its bow was rounded and bluff, with a distinctly bulbous aspect; it had a narrow 'board' for a keel that terminated in a tall and spiky-looking extension carved to resemble a thick-headed and clumsy spear.

Finally – and this portion matched what I had been shown in that one dream where I awoke smelling of burnt lard – the wood seemed to be all of a piece, much as if the individual planks had lost their once-individual status and had submerged themselves in the whole by growing themselves back together. This had obvious advantages, chiefly in the realms of strength and leak-tightness. Such wood needed no caulking to be leak-tight, which saved Norden's builders a great deal of time and trouble.

I crawled further forward, perhaps another four feet, then stopped to look further through the relatively thin brush that separated me from the clearing's ground. I could now see the masts, these two in number, and each of them was formed like two fingers shaped to form a narrow letter 'V'. I thought this a clumsy species of sail, but I was no sailor. I then saw what formed the sails.

“Leather, and badly tanned mottled brown leather at that,” I thought. “Maybe that's why they do those things that way: their available materials lend themselves to that shape.”

With each further second, more details surged into my mind: the masts could be readily dropped back at a substantial angle, and the two of them were at an estimated forty-five degrees to the vertical. This allowed the ship to come into the cove and there beach itself upon the gravel and sand of the shore, where it now 'lay' under the shadow of the thick canopy of new spring leaves.

High on the hull, I began counting the leather-lined holes that passed for oarlocks, and as I came to the last of the eighteen oars on the side of the ship I could see, I noted the oars were tied in place with thick leather lashings. They would not be dropped that way, no matter how drunk, clumsy, or stupid the rowers were at their seats; and as I once more surveyed the whole, I marveled that the boat was not merely able to float, but that it was able to sail from Norden and come a good distance up a somewhat turbulent river without sinking like a rock-weighted sieve.

“Such crudity,” I thought. “Still, it got here intact, and it got its people here in one piece.” I then recalled who was building the things, and realized, “whoever designed these things must have done something right to use that kind of builder and get a boat that actually floated, much less could be rowed and sailed any distance.”

As I backed out of the smallish tunnel I had formed for my passage, I could feel someone – this time, moving very carefully; normally, they were incurably and hopelessly clumsy, this to such a profound degree that their parents had noticed this matter in infancy and decided a suitable path for them at a very early age – coming closer, then a soft voice, barely above a whisper, spoke in my ear.

“Sorry that I tripped,” whispered Gabriel, “but I've never been much good in the woods.”

“You?” my question was unspoken. I then wondered as to what I had felt earlier about him – about his 'incurable and hopeless clumsiness, this showing as an infant and growing steadily worse as he became older'. I would ask later, as now was a very bad time for such questions.

“I was being as careful as I knew,” he whispered. “Still, it was no good.”

I turned to him, then put my finger over my mouth. Now was indeed the time for hand-signals, and once I got back to the house proper – that, I understood, was a given; I would get out of this alive and most likely in one piece – I would ponder long and hard about those signals we used, both as to their small number and their completely counter-intuitive nature. I was noticing a great deal right now that I had not seen during my own time in training.

I drew an arrow from the pouch, this nearly silently, then pointed at the ship and moved the arrow side to side. For some odd reason, that seemed to be understood, and as faint noises came up beside me, I could hear the huntsmen explaining what I was most likely doing.

“No, not quite,” I thought. “These thugs are not deer.”

And as a reminder of my 'unseemly' attitude, the question came to me: “since when were you not charged by a deer, or for that matter, an elk?”

“Those things are dangerous, but they are not spams,” I thought.

“Neither are cape buffalo,” said the soft voice, “and you haven't seen an irritated full-sized elk yet, either. Those men have – and all of the huntsmen have dealt with full-on charges by such animals.”

“What?” I asked silently.

“No, an irritated full-sized elk isn't black, nor are its horns curved like those of a cape buffalo,” said the soft voice, “but when one of those gets onto you, you'll be glad you've got a rifle able to stop it.” A brief pause, then, “these men have put arrows in such animals at close range – in some cases, spitting distance – and lived to tell about it.”

“Elk-musket,” I thought, as I began to dart arrow after arrow into the dirt and the firing line began to take shape. I had the impression that now, at least, the huntsmen had some idea of what to do – or so I thought when one of them snuck up on me and nearly scared me out of a month's growth.

“We shoot all as we are ready, or on your signal?” he asked in my ear. I turned, then said in his ear after exhaling, “you'll hear me shoot. Till then, make ready. It'll be a few minutes.”

I had put twelve arrows in the dirt within seconds more, and the nearest person in the brush – it thinned out roughly chest high in my area, but I could tell there were lanes of fire open in places, so one could shoot from cover – was to my right. This was Gabriel, and while I wondered if he could pull one of the two recurve bows we had received from the fourth kingdom, I wondered more about the thoughts I was getting in my mind.

Such strange thoughts, also, as I began to carefully rub the arrows that I had spiked point-down in the dirt, this one at a time. Gabriel was wondering what I was doing, but someone on his other side – I had the right flank position – was indicating he needed to be ready, and what I was doing made sense.

I concentrated closely upon what I was doing with the arrows, each stroke gentle, yet long and straight. I wondered if this was thought 'fetish-manipulation', or merely a strange quirk, but as I continued rubbing, first one arrow, then another, then a third, I was noticing one odd thing happening to me: it seemed to help calm me down. I'd heard of the word used for such behavior where I came from, and there was no precise equivalent in the language I now spoke exclusively.

“Not quite true,” said the soft voice, “and there is a word, even if it's a poor translation. Sarah would think of what you are doing as fretting, and it's a common trait among those marked.”

“And in other languages?” I asked silently.

“You understand to some degree the language of the Valley,” said the soft voice. “While you might not have Rachel's facility with languages, nor can you learn languages as fast as an Iron Pig, you are able to learn languages fairly quickly now.”

“Th-the written format,” I thought. It had first seemed as obtuse as codified Bulgarian written in mirror-version Cyrillic, and now, I understood it – and all its varied complexities – easily. More, it had taken time, not effort. Unlike the several years of study I had needed for 'passable' proficiency in German and the eighteen months of harder labor for a smattering of Greek where I came from, I'd acquired a high level of proficiency in what felt like perhaps three months.

I began rubbing the bow itself, once I had finished with the arrows. For some reason, there now seemed no questioning in the firing line, and I suspected why: someone, Hendrik perhaps, was indicating that I was either figuring out exactly how to deal with better than three times our number of tin-wearing drunken thugs, or was doing something of a similar nature; and the huntsmen more or less knew about the ways of elk and deer. With an arrow, one needed to be certain of one's shot, as those animals had been known to hurt people badly when wounded.

“And kill,” said the soft voice. “They're only truly hazardous certain times of the year, but both animals, and elk especially, almost make up for their usual level of irritability during those six to eight weeks – and then, every roer able to fire in this part of the first kingdom stays warm, bruises or no bruises.” An unspoken aspect to this was 'you might need to work on some of those in the future'.

I continued stroking the bow, now conscious of a definite alteration in the wood. It was changing, and that in some impossible-to-decipher fashion. Looking closer at the area near the grip for a second, I seemed to see not merely long fibers of a strange type becoming longer, thinner, and also somehow twisted into shapes similar to coil springs, but also the wood itself was changing into a form of...

Plastic? Metal? A material I had no name for?

Whatever it was, it stored energy like an especially capable sponge soaked up liquid, and but a small portion of that energy was imparted by the shooter. It seemed to suck it up greedily from another dimension of some kind, and I felt reminded of one portion in the book where it spoke of a bow made of bronze.

“I hope this thing isn't going to be that hard to pull,” I thought, as I began to rub the upper tip of the bow where the string actually attached. That region was especially important, as was the other tip; and as I finished rubbing one of these tips, I could tell I was no longer rubbing mere 'wood'. It was too warm to be metal, I knew that much; and it did not have the usually slick feeling of plastic. I then began to run my fingers up and down the string.

There, I saw the change happen, with the white fibrous material darkening before my eyes and the fibers of the string compressing down and merging into a single black 'monofilament' of strength beyond my comprehension. This 'string' now actually felt deeply chilled to the touch, but as I touched the grip of the bow carefully afterward, the whole weapon seemed electrically charged, almost as if it were filled to the brim and beyond with the raw power of a massive bolt of lightning, one far greater in size and energy than the puny and feeble 'electrical discharges' of the world I came from. I wondered what it would do, beyond something I had difficulty imagining. I then nocked an arrow, looked at the others, then looked at the 'impact zone' to my front.

I could easily see numbers of these people, most of them asleep and lying on – and in; they were sewn coarsely into sacks of some type, almost like sleeping bags – mange-ridden furs of one kind or another. Some were still awake, though definitely trashed and getting more so; the singers – some few – were indeed sitting around a huge stone-lined fire-pit, one nearly five feet across and wafting a thick plume of whitish-gray smoke to form a thick and ghastly pall over the whole encampment. The camp had a distinct aspect of permanence to it, almost as if not merely had these people been here a while, but they'd come here before more than once.

I then wondered if there were thugs I could not see. There was the ship; and its hold could easily conceal a number of well-hid thugs.

The bow was ready, and so was its string. I looked to my left, seeing at least two people 'ready', with nocked arrows. Seeing further wasn't easy in the near-impenetrable brush, but my motions seemed to communicate to the others that it was 'arrow time'.

“When you see my arrows fly, or hear their noise, then it is time,” I whispered. It was time, now. I tried pulling the bow, and its stiffness was astonishing. It was far beyond what I recalled from when I had last tested their 'pull' in the fourth kingdom.

“Perhaps it will be as stiff as David's,” I thought. “He said he could bend it anyway. God, please help me.”

I looked out of my 'cleared' area, and moved aside some brush. As I did, a leather-and-tin clad thug wobbled closer to the fire with a corked jug of Norden's finest; he was drunk to the point of stupor. I could feel the stupefaction of this man; and while he was thoroughly trashed, he was also among the most sober. I drew back smoothly, sighted instinctively, settled into the bow a trifle, and then released.

The deafening explosion of the jug into a massive roaring fireball of near-colorless flame submerged the sound of releasing my arrow, but as the fireball billowed out to ignite not merely the thug but everyone around the campfire and the undergrowth that was closest to it, I was reaching for another arrow. The sleeping thugs began awakening, this slow and stiff as the fire bit through first their 'sleeping bags' and then deep into their flesh, and as they began to truly awaken, their flaming leather-clad companions began running crazily in all directions. I sighted, drew, relaxed, and released.

This time, I heard the sound of the arrow, and it was not the strident-sounding hiss I had expected. It was a brilliant-sounding gunshot-like crack that left a faint smoke-trail as the arrow vanished to leave a fist-sized smoking hole in the tin-covered chest of one man, and as I reached for a third arrow I heard the high-pitched hissing sounds of normal arrows launching from the others' bows.

One of the sleeping thugs that was not on fire rolled out of his bedroll, then unsteadily took up one of those shorter swords carried by 'spy-groups'. I instantly drew and released, aiming instinctively for his head, and his head disintegrated in red-and-gray slow-motion as he was flung backwards and out of his bedroll to there lie motionless on the ground in death.

Another thug ran by, this example with a gray-feathered shaft embedded deeply in his back. I fired again, this time at his side – and his entire upper body seemed to disintegrate in mid-stride, his head tumbling forward on its own as his upper body came apart at the seams, while behind him, another thug, one I had but partly seen, toppled forward to hide the massive blood-spouting hole in his chest by burying it face-down in the damp sand of the river's shore.

The screaming thugs were running around, save for a solitary individual. This man seemed to be a 'leader' of some kind, and he received my fifth arrow as he waved his arms. The arrow vanished as it centered the upper portion of his gut, and as his abdomen ruptured in a haze of red mist and assorted strangely-colored gore, a massive green-tinted fireball erupted behind him to then engulf him in its faintly reddish but otherwise near-colorless flames.

It also set the holder of the jug alight, and those seeking to imbibe the contents of the jug he was holding were fed to the blazing flames as well.

Another thug was running away from the source of the arrows, or so I guessed, and I hit him in the upper back. From the base of his neck down to the bottom of his rib cage, his chest all but exploded, meat flying amid a cloud of blood turned into a red mist, and as he came to earth near the water's edge, he slid like a toboggan on the shore's sand and gravel to then submerge with but his feet still above water. He twitched, and lay still, with the water finishing what I had started.

Those other arrows, while they were still flying with feral hissing noises, seemed not merely sluggish for their rate of fire, but also terribly slow for flight. Their effectiveness seemed lacking in the extreme, and my rate of fire – as I thought this, I centered another thug and almost blew him in half when the arrow struck his side several inches above his waist – was easily equal to that of the others combined.

Yet another leather clad thug showed, this one running for the trees at the northern edge of the clearing. He was easily seventy feet distant, yet as if I practiced for years, I drew, relaxed, then released. The arrow hit him in the back, and as he twisted before he fell, I saw the massive gaping hole my shot had made in both his chest and his thin 'tin' breastplate.

Too fast for thought, I drew and released at another thug, this example but eight feet from the edge of the clearing and closing fast on my position with a full-sized sword in his hand and ready to strike. I hit him in the upper part of the chest, just below where his neck joined his body, and as his head flew backward to tumble behind him, he did a header and slid to the edge of the brush.

I then dropped down like a vanishing missile, for I had fired most of my shots standing in the open, each time dropping down to fetch an arrow. I looked at my depleted line of arrows, and breathed a short sigh of thankfulness as the other arrows gradually ceased with their flying.

I was down to my last arrow, if I did not count the one I had nocked. I set down bow and nocked arrow, then began rubbing the remaining arrows in the pouch. There were fewer remaining than I thought there would be.

The only noise that I could now hear clearly was the crackle and popping of the 'monstrous' campfire, and I felt reminded of the comparisons made between the small cooking fires our party had used during the trip and the huge and roaring fires witches supposedly preferred. There was nothing of the supposed about this monstrous blaze, and calling it 'large enough to burn a bacon-sized pig to charcoal' wasn't an exaggeration. I wondered, this for but an instant, if spams were hypothyroid like witches supposedly were upon the mainland. I then saw that all of the spams that I could see lay immobile upon the ground.

“The ship,” I thought, as I wormed out one of the 'nasty' squibs. I got it free of my possible bag, and in my thoughts, I 'spoke', “into the ship, please, and flush those thugs out.”

The squib seemed to 'think' for a second, then slowly lifted from my hand. It rose nearly two feet above my head, then as I watched it, it dropped lower to the ground once it had cleared the brush where I had begun to place the arrows I had rubbed into the quiver.

The bomb, small and brightly colored to the point of near-gaudiness, with its fuse protruding at a jaunty angle and yet unlit, seemed to have a most definite idea as to how to proceed; even if its rate of movement along the ground might have been as fast as the slowest walk I could easily manage. As it reached the side of the ship, it stopped its horizontal movement; then as if pulled up by an invisible string, it began 'climbing' almost straight up. About four feet off of the ground, the fuse lit with a flash and brief puff of smoke, then it climbed yet higher. I seemed transfixed by the slow-burning fuse, even as the bomb went over the gunwale and vanished from sight.

That could not be said for the smoke of the fuse, for that continued drifting up in slow and lazy clouds of bluish smoke. I could feel a commotion starting within the ship, then as a guttural bellow rose to a deafening scream, a thunderous booming concussion with crackling overtones blasted dust, dirt, chunks of old leather, and a thick bloom of flame-blazing black smoke out of the hold

The blast that had seemed to stuff up my ears ceased, and as my hearing came back up I could hear a chorus of high-pitched screams. I nocked the arrow I had laid aside, shouldered the quiver, and waited, ready to rise up and shoot if a target showed itself.

I had first heard a chorus of screams, this number easily close to a dozen; but within seconds, they had all more or less ceased. I watched, waiting expectantly; and soon, soft steps, these seemingly suffused with blood, began to thump awkwardly on board the ship. I then saw the blood-spattered head of a spam.

More and more of him showed, his moving slow, jerky, indicative of severe injuries, the furs he used for clothing now matted with fresh blood, the remains of a shattered jug in one of his hands, his bare skin looking as if a razor had worked it over at length; and with each slow and aching movement, I noted more:

He was wobbling; hurt badly was a decided understatement.

He turned his face in our direction to show us more: a face that looked as if an enraged long-haired cat had spent an infuriated minute and a half working it over; an missing eye – this utterly gone, with a red-lined eyesocket remaining to dribble blood down his face; a face missing so much flesh that not merely were many chipped and splintered bones showing, but all of the teeth were showing on that side of his face – what of them remained. He was missing more than a few.

He stagger-stumbled to the side of the boat, his steps steadily weakening, all the while looking as if he might jump down to the sand some eight feet below, when suddenly, with no warning at all, he dropped the shattered jug to the deck of the ship, collapsed face-forward – and then rolled like a shattered barrel of mud to splash in the waist-deep water and then sink like a rock.

I resumed rubbing arrows. It seemed wise to wait for a short time, as more thugs might show; and I wanted as many 'rubbed' arrows as possible, as I had no idea how many more times I would need to shoot. I was telling those arrows I had rubbed from those otherwise by feeling their wood. A question bloomed unspoken in my mind: “are there more thugs?”

There was silence, and not a trace of an answer; and as I rubbed the last arrow I could tell I had and replaced it, I took up bow and nocked an arrow once more. I didn't have more than ten arrows remaining, to the best of my knowledge, but every one of them was now rubbed. The near-empty pouch went over my upper left arm. I then stood, and slowly, I began to move through the few yards of chest-high undergrowth that separated our mostly-hidden positions from the enemy's hard-packed clearing.

As I did this, I understood at an instinctual level that I was doing what had not been done in hundreds of years, if not longer; more, I was going where no man, not even the very bravest that lived upon the continent, dared to go; and the others sat where they were, dumbfounded, much as if they were seeing something that was beyond not merely their wildest old-tale-educated dreams but their capacity to even contemplate as a theoretical exercise.

At the edge of the clearing, with but a few short feet to go, I was entirely aware of a total absence of any kind of backup whatsoever. Like at the bridge, I was completely on my own; I would need to watch myself with exaggerated care. The others – all of them – were utterly useless; if I failed, they were but fit to drag my disgraced corpse back to the kingdom house, there to add it to the batch of traitors with the label of traitor and arch-witch; and that, simply because I had cursed them by failing to do the job they themselves would not – and could not – do.

The ways and thoughts of the witch could not be escaped, even if the witches themselves were now scarce in the area. I had been told as much, so I paid it no mind. I had work to do, and that needed my very best efforts.

I paused, stopped, listened carefully. I then saw movement in my peripheral vision, and with the speed of lighting, too fast for coherent thought, I drew and loosed; and only when I had recovered from the state that I found myself in did I see the single tin-wearing spam, chunks of his tin now ripped off and flying like disturbed bats along with scraps of its fur covering, his full-length sword falling from his nerveless hand, then his body falling knock-kneed to collapse upon the ground face-first at the north edge of the clearing but a foot from where he'd emerged from the thick undergrowth.

His rear armor – also fur-covered at one time, but fur-covered no longer – neared the thickness of true 'tin', and while it had not slowed my arrow in the slightest, I knew that it most likely stood up well to cuts from all save the very best larger edged weapons.

“And muskets, unless one is fairly close and uses something bigger than a number four musket, and that with a patched ball,” I thought.

His back-tin, however, showed an eruption-mark easily the size of a dinner plate for diameter and a medium-sized mixing bowl for overall size. He would do no more in this world, and I nocked another of the remaining arrows as I resumed my cautious searching.

I began to walk about the periphery of the clearing in a counterclockwise direction, placing my feet carefully for minimal noise. There were enough scattered bones and 'trash' laying around these people's campsite that I had to watch that issue carefully, and as I did so, I remained at the edge of the undergrowth in case I needed to dive into it to dodge arrows – or, possibly, dynamite. As I walked this perimeter, I could hear the voices of spams: low and rough-edged, these voices coming from the other side of the ship. I went back to the edge of the clearing, wormed my way back into the undergrowth, and began crawling to my left, moving around the clearing until I was able to get a clear view of the ship's other side.

“Three spams, all of them tinned, and two of them bloody,” I thought, as I nocked another arrow. “They're passing that jug and getting ready for trouble.”

I rose up from my hiding place, drawing as I did, and loosed the arrow a fraction of a second later.

The jug vanished, and its replacement was a massive green-tinted fireball with orange-red edges that tossed all three men in slow-tumbling arcs to land flaming upon the ground several feet away with heavy and boneless thuds. There, the still-burning datramonium tincture began to char clothing and flesh with equal abandon. I heard clumsy steps, then a splash, this on the other side of the ship. I broke from cover, tossing all semblance of quiet as I leaped over the brush separating where I stood from the clearing, then sprinted toward the campfire. I leaped the still high-blazing firewood to land on the opposite side amid the still-glowing coals of its edge, then ran toward the other side of the ship. As I cleared its bow, I saw a bleeding thug running out into the water to where it was deep enough for him to swim, and I nocked, drew, and loosed in one smooth motion.

My arrow hit the base of his neck, where it joined the body, and his head went flying in a crazy arc to hit the water with a feeble splash some few feet upriver, while the ragged remains of his now-headless body gouted blood and then collapsed to stain the river bright red as it slowly drifted downstream for a short distance – until, finally, it sank to never again see the light of day.

I now resumed my search, doubly wary, ready to shoot the slightest sound or movement. I could feel the abject fear of the others; they were seeing a monster at work, one of those ancient beings who lived only to kill, and they but scarce dared to breathe in my presence; for the tales which spoke of such beings did not just speak of them blowing horns.

They also spoke of them shooting at the slightest noise or movement when they were embattled, and they did not worry about who got hit as long as their target didn't survive.

The chiefest matter – from their perspective – was that they were absolutely right. More, I would not be sorry in the slightest if I shot one or all of them. They knew the rules, and they had already broken every last stinking one of them more times than I could count. I now knew I would have been far better off to simply add all of their corpses to the mound of body parts that lay rotting on the lawn at the kingdom house, and then gone to do this particular job alone. It would have been far safer for me – certainly no worse than either attempt upon the Swartsburg – and I would be a good portion of the way back to the house proper by this time.

I then noticed that my lips had been moving in silent prayer the entire time I had been out in the clearing, and my prayers, thus:

Praying that the others would remain 'as silent as corpses' and not interfere with my needed work by talk or other noises.

Praying that their lengthy and hard-won witch-training and potent long-hoarded fetishes would not cause them to show themselves to the spams like the over-fools that they truly were.

Praying that the spams would be both too drunk and too stupid to realize that there was only one person who could actually do anything to them, and that the remaining people were nothing more than waiting meat on the hoof, fit only for butchery and then eating like the witch-bred and witch-purchased sacrifices of raw meat and steaming blood that they truly – and entirely – were.

I lightly toed each thug I that found, and when satisfied that they were either already dead or unconscious and would die in short order, I decided not to 'ax' those thugs that retained their heads. I wanted their bodies as intact as possible, for I knew that there were more thugs coming within a fairly short time. At the least, there would be the traitor-runners – and at the most, who knew?

I felt in my possible bag for the traps, and as I slung my bow and unbuttoned my revolver holster, I looked around for the best places to rig the three traps Hans had given me so as to achieve maximum destruction and loss of the enemy's life.

The pouch of arrows on my shoulder that was once more than half-full was now near-empty, for all save the huntsmen had 'panicked' and not brought anything beyond those supplies and equipment they could find on 'double-quick' notice – and those things that they 'usually' took when given 'no notice' – if there were such things.

In some cases – Gabriel and the two newest guards – that wasn't much at all. The huntsmen had just gotten back from a 'scouting' expedition, and as they traveled nearly as light as possible while making such trips – they rarely went further than ten to twelve miles out from the house proper, and were back indoors under bright lighting before nightfall – they didn't have much on their persons beyond their common 'scouting supplies'. Hendrik, at least, had his 'travel bag' more or less ready-packed, it being the sizable satchel he had taken on the trip.

I removed the bag with the box traps, and drew out the first of these paperback-sized boxes. I was more than a little surprised at the traces of still-soft tar seeping past the seam where the lid had been screwed down, as well as at the screws themselves. I felt reminded of what Andreas had said about his 'special machines', and I suspected I was looking at some of their work. Such small neatly-done screws were an easy twenty minutes apiece on my lathe at home, presuming I used 'special' tools, the 'screw-fixture' I had made, and the appropriate gages for a given size of screw.

“Not just screws, either,” I thought. “I bet he could make a lot of the more common revolver parts.”

“Yes, if he can get suitable tooling and has the time to set up for them,” said the soft voice, as I looked around carefully. For some reason, the bow of the ship seemed to especially stand out to me, and I walked over toward it, dodging corpses twice in the process. There, I found a surprisingly wide gap, one that I could readily wedge the bomb into securely once I'd added a largish pebble, but as I gave a brief glance at the wood close to where I stood, I noted once more my former impression: the wood seemed to be truly all of one piece, and there were no other gaps to be seen – and hence, no need of caulking. It also gave a very good reason why these boats managed to float, given their 'crude' construction.

“This gap's well clear of the waterline, so it doesn't matter unless they're about to sink already,” I thought. “I wish I had a camera so I could take pictures for evidence.”

There wasn't such a thing to be had at this time, though as I began looking for places to lay the trip lines, I had an impression: a camera of some kind would become available in a few months. More, this boat was a 'test-bed', rather than a 'full production' model; they would have those soon enough, once this design had been 'debugged' adequately by Norden's standards.

“No, actually Ultima Thule wants a dedicated harbor for constructing this type of boat,” said the soft voice, “as the larger boat is both less maneuverable and deeper-drafted – and somewhat less seaworthy into the bargain.”

“This size can't haul half as much, though – or am I wrong?” I thought. “What does she want this type for?”

“Fish-transport, for one thing,” said the soft voice, “and then fishing with hand-lines on the way to and from their home ports. Those people are getting desperate for food right now, so if it floats and can sail well enough to do the intended job, it's wanted – and the more of such boats, the better.”

The box was now wedged tightly in its hole, and as I laid out my trip-lines, I noted the obvious places to tie their free ends, those being the bodies and weapons of spams. I ran three such lines, one to the arm of a dead spam, the second to a better-than average sword part-buried in the dirt of the clearing, and the third to an intact jug of drink with its cork still in place. I then tied these three lines into a single one, and as I reached back into my possible bag for the small bag of detonators, I wondered if I should set all of the traps.

“Time, mostly,” I thought, as I looked out onto the slow-moving waters of the river on the outside of the cove. I would need to hurry, as I wanted us all out of here. Our remaining treason-messengers would arrive soon, as would at least one sizable hunting party.

The wax-dipped detonator inserted readily once I tied the trip-line to its iron loop with a foot of slack in the line, then as I stepped away, I wondered where else I could put the two remaining bombs.

I began gathering drink-jugs, and as I gathered these misshapen hand-thrown lopsided things – they were both numerous and sizable, and while some of them were not corked, most of them were – and when I counted well over a dozen more jugs than the number of bodies I saw or knew of, I knew we had not gotten all of those drinking 'antifreeze' that were based at this camp. The messengers would but add to that total.

I primed both of the remaining bombs, then tied a length of string to each detonator assembly; and with especial care, I stacked the jugs in a lopsided pyramid atop each such bomb, taking care to make both pyramids as stable as possible while not putting any jugs atop the lines. The handle of the top jug for each stack received the opposite stack's trigger line, and I then branched those lines out further: some tributary lines went to bodies, others to weapons, and yet others to the nearest solid-looking portions of the surrounding undergrowth.

I used up all of the string I had in the process, making up what looked like a badly-done spiderweb. With that job finished, I knew it was time to leave: leave the dead behind us, there to bury their own and take the rest of the enemy with them in the process.

I then walked toward the others, and as I came to one of the huntsmen, he stood slowly, much as if rapid movement would cause me to shoot without warning. The others, upon seeing him stand, did likewise, and as I led off on the trail back to where we had 'parked' the horses – I was not trying to be especially quiet now, but move quickly while not making a lot of noise – I could not merely feel a palpable sense of relief among those all but running to keep up in my wake, but also, a lessened aspect of noise compared to our ingress – at least, until I got halfway to the 'river road'. I then noticed other noises as well.

The noises of birds and wild animals, which I had not heard on the way in. That said live thugs were scarce hereabouts, and I sped up yet more.

The weariness in the others seemed to grow by leaps and bounds after my further increase in speed, so much so that when I called a halt about a hundred yards into the trees once we had gone past the river road, I could hear everyone except me breathing as if I'd led them at full speed for several miles up a long and steep hillside – and that while carrying fifty pounds of rocks apiece. Gabriel got his voice back first, for some reason.

“If those northern people think to return to that site,” he said, “they will be frightened enough to wish that drink. Hans told me about those bombs you set.”

“Yes?” I asked. “He didn't test them, did he?” Hans invariably presumed his bombs would work as he intended, and unless I was present to 'compel him', he usually did not test an example before setting those like it. The fact that he changed his 'formulas' so little probably had something to do with his behavior.

“He made four of those things originally,” said Gabriel, “which is somewhat unusual for him when it comes to bombs, as is making up genuinely new ones.”

“I told him about most of their details,” I said, “and I made a number of detailed drawings, labeling everything as clearly as I could in the process.” A pause, then, “I suspected Sarah helped him to no small degree.”

“That might be why he managed without you watching over him the entire time,” said Gabriel, as I led off once more, this time at a moderately fast walk. I felt we had enough distance between where we were now and the cove to have gained further safety. “He said there were stronger things that he has seen, but they tended to be much larger.” A brief pause, “and that squib you tossed was the worst one I ever saw.”

“You did not see what happened to General's Row,” said Hendrik quietly. “Now put a cork in it, and move your shanks. We're not out of the privy yet.” Hendrik speaking in the manner of Lukas was a bit surprising, or so I thought at first – until I thought, “he has seen the Hare. That will do something to a man – presuming he lives long enough to learn from the experience, of course.”

The weariness I had sensed became more apparent in all of the others when they came up to their animals, and all of them – Gabriel now being the worst of all – had difficulty mounting. As we crossed the long field, the sun was dropping fast, but about mid-field, I could feel we were being watched from somewhere behind us. I slowly reached for an arrow, feeling among the few remaining examples for a rubbed one – I had somehow missed two or three in my last rubbing session – then when I had found a rubbed arrow, I saw that the nearest 'safety and refuge', that being the western woodlot, was noticeably closer. A few yards further toward it, then suddenly, I wheeled Jaak out of line, drew from the quiver that one rubbed arrow, nocked it, drew, and released as I caught the glint of tin in the center of the silver ring on the side of the bow.

The crack of the arrow launching was as if a stroke of lightning had shot down out of the sky and hit the ground beside me, and in the gathering twilight, I saw what might have been a thin smoke trail that suddenly showed where the arrow had traveled; the arrow had seemingly vanished from sight. The ring stayed centered the whole time upon the glint I saw, even as the 'tchank' came back to me of metal striking metal a second later, and as I wheeled back into line, now to once more take the lead, I thought, “the dead can bury their own, can't they? It says that in the book.”

“How did you do that?” asked one of the huntsmen as we came to the trees. I was all for not wasting time in getting home, yet I felt we had enough time to spend a few seconds for brief answers now.

“I think this ring-sight works,” I murmured softly. “The idea for it came on the southbound leg of our trip.” A pause, then, “I kept his tin centered from release until a second after I heard the arrow hit.”

While a further pause seemed unwise to me, Hendrik held up his hand; and my questioner galloped off toward the small shiny dot. I soon found out at least one other reason why Hendrik had called a halt: he had a long 'glass' bottle, this about half the size of a 'common' wine-bottle, and well-wrapped with rags; and when he uncorked it, I smelled beer. I felt reminded of what Liza had used. I suspected now that we could wait another minute or two, but not much longer, for both messengers and hunting parties were due at the campsite about nightfall.

“And it's getting there fast,” I thought, as the man went reached the side of the shimmering metallic piece in the distance.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Those messengers found the tracks of your horses over an hour ago, which means they're heading to one of the river towns some miles north of here where they've hidden their escape things so as to go further north and then get a boat to cross to the east side about fifty miles further north of that town.”

“And finding them is going to be trouble,” I said. “No real...”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “You were far too busy getting information out of those traitors to realize just how much you actually got.” A brief pause, then, “That Thinker laid out for them precisely what they were to do if the plan was blown, including which town to go to, who to ask for information, where to hide their escape materials, and a suitable itinerary – one that presumed they were walking, as that would attract less attention – with the goal of linking up with another northbound-headed group of spams on the east side once they had crossed over.” A brief pause, then, “what he did not tell them, though, is just what will happen to them shortly after they link up with that group.”

Treachery being a most-common trait of witches, I was about to make a suggestion when I heard, “if they follow that plan, that witch that was 'over' that Thinker will sacrifice them to Brimstone shortly after that group brings them to her, suitably bound and gagged and ready for her knives.”

“As would have eventually happened to all of those traitors had matters succeeded,” I thought, as the huntsman returned with the charred and blackened shaft of an arrow. It was a good deal shortened, for some reason.

“Keep that piece of wood and your thoughts for later,” said Hendrik to the man who had just returned. “He wants to go, and when he's inclined that way, we'd best follow. I've learned my lesson.”

Hendrik had not underestimated how I truly felt, and as we rode into the trees, I noted that for some odd reason, everyone – even Gabriel – had gained a measure of intelligence and care since leaving the cove. The clumsiness I had noted during the time of our approach and stalk was gone, and the others' current behavior, even overlaid heavily with fatigue, made for wondering.

“They've lost a lot of their seeming idiocy,” I thought.

And by its seeming absence, that time of barely-suppressed anger upon my part steadily became more apparent to my mind, especially now that the clumsy and unthinking idiocy on the part of the others was nearly entirely gone. Only as we came back into familiar country, with the sun nearly gone from sight and the now-obvious shadow of the house proper in plain view, did anyone think to speak a word at any volume.

The first speaker was that huntsman who had gone to fetch the arrow, and as we slowed to a steady walk – it was the last half-mile, unless my distances in the dark were truly far off; the rear hedge of the house was but a few hundred yards to the west of where we were – he said, “every time you loosed an arrow, I heard a high-pitched crack, much like what you shoot is said to make. Then, you fired more arrows by yourself than all the rest of us together. How could you do so?”

I had no answer for the man, and shrugged my shoulders, but he was insistent that I tell him my 'secret'. It mattered not that there was no such thing; his beliefs said insistently that I had one, and he wanted to know it; much as a lesser witch would hold another witch under a dread curse so as to coerce his superior into telling him the way and world of the arch-witch, and that in deep and dark detail.

“I'd managed two, and was about to fire a third when all of them were on the ground – and that time was perhaps long enough for me to count to five if I hurried myself.”

“Anna spoke of the sound of your forging,” said Gabriel, “and while I have not actually heard you swinging a hammer, I have an idea as to how your forging sounds now.”

We passed the gate without comment from those guarding it: we were recognized, our reason for going inside now plain, if not blatantly obvious; and our uninjured return spoke of hoped-for success. Gabriel, however, still had questions for me.

“Do you know how fast those arrows were traveling?” he asked. I then saw he'd gotten the charred shaft from that one huntsman and was feeling it with his fingers in the darkness. Our party was going close by the boatwright's shop on the north side of the place, so as to avoid the odor of death and destruction which I had left some distance from its south side.

“No arrow does that kind of damage I saw yours do in that clearing,” he intoned. “Not even what you commonly shoots does what I saw today.” A pause, then, “though if we can get weapons similar to those you shot before coming here...” Gabriel shook himself, then shuddered.

“Why?” I asked.

“Those were known for their lethality, much as what you commonly shoot is known far and wide for its range and killing power,” said Gabriel, “only their rate of fire was similar to how fast you were shooting those arrows.”

“And no mere arrow scatters heads and chests like witch-jugs, or rips the heart clean out of a tinned man of Norden at three hundred or more paces,” said the huntsman. “What you shoot otherwise might, and it might not – but somehow, I think those arrows you were shooting were worse than your bullets.”

“How?” I asked, as the lights of the horse barn hove into view.

“That wretch was spiked to an oak-tree, and I broke off the remnant of the shaft that was sticking out of his tin,” said the huntsman. “It was almost as if he'd eaten one of these round bombs that I've heard talk of, as the rip in his back tin was bad. My fist could fit in that hole easy, it was so big, and there was blood and bits of meat behind that tree for several paces.”

“Round bombs?” I asked.

“You used one to drive that one man out of that ship, didn't you?” said the huntsman. “There are said to be two types, one a bit worse for its blast than a Harvest Day squib, and the other worse than a jug for blast, and not a little worse – and that one you tossed looked like one of the latter.” A brief pause, then, “most won't touch those things, as they're scared gray of getting one of those bad ones.”

“Why?” I asked, as we dismounted at the entrance to the horse-barn.

He came to my side, then as he began removing his saddle, he said, “you might know enough to not get blown to hell by one of those things, but most people have no business touching them, and that is because they are not bombers.”

“For the weaker ones,” said Gabriel. He seemed mired once more in deepest oblivion.

“For those like you tossed, though,” said the man with a tone I could only describe as 'cosmic dread', “there might be a handful of people in the whole of the first kingdom who can handle them and not get blown to hell, and other than you your-own-self, I'm not sure who they might be.”

“And the same for most traps that work consistently,” said Gabriel. I suspected he knew about Hans' all-too-limited repertoire of such things and their poor track record when I was not involved.

“Those who are not among those few experts, even if they be bombers, are over-fools if they think to touch such things,” he said, “and they would sup with Brimstone same as I would if they tried.”

I wanted to reply, especially regarding the last portion, but I realized as I shook out Jaak's blanket and then looked him over carefully prior to making sure he had all he needed that I was dealing with witch-nourished belief and not carefully-tested fact. It was no use to contradict that truth, one which the majority had duly accepted as Gospel, even as I knew night had fallen and the profound unease I had felt in the others with the dropping of the sun was now gone; for they were now indoors, among the flickering light of a multitude of mostly tallow candles, and basking deeply in the apparent safety implicit when among such godly fat-fueled sanctity.

And with this, I had a sudden – and horrible – realization: would Sarah have me as I had now proven myself to truly be? Would she endure a monster? I reached toward that one vial of honey, drained it, then got a slug off of the other, and washed the honey down with the last of my beer.

“They wanted all of us dead, though,” I thought – and that thought seemed nothing more than the foolish and stupid thinking of rationalization. That was indeed their goal, however, and even though 'six and sixty' guilders a month was a more-than-decent 'stipend' for most tradesmen, it was not just that: these people had nourished petty grudges, grudges that had festered and grown mightily; and that Thinker and his agents had used those grudges to recruit them fully as much as doubling their income – and then, he had nourished those grudges sufficiently over time to change them into true-witches indeed.

“It wasn't just the money,” said the soft voice. “He also got them a lot of 'deals' regarding many of the necessities of life, hence that stipend bought closer to a hundred guilder's worth of services, and their usual income bought more as well.”

Tripled their income, then,” I murmured as I bent closer to my current task, now certain that 'clerk's wages' weren't trivial by the standards of the first kingdom house's people. Jaak had gotten a rock, it was well-wedged in his right front hoof, and it needed careful prying so as to remove it without causing pain. I got it out quickly enough, then did some quick math in my head as a test of my 'sanity'. I wasn't impaired by hypoglycemia now – and yet still, that thing that was now shattered once more reared its ugly head.

“No, I don't want to be a witch,” I thought, even as the noises of men and animals seemed to gather to themselves homeliness and sanity in the well-lit barn.

I now could feel those things I had told to go to hell earlier that day, and they now were coming back to me, this thinking slow, yet as inexorable as the grave – and I wanted to scream. I was no better than Ultima Thule at her very worst, and I had shown this by the bloodstains and by the screaming agony of my many victims during my insane orgy of torture and death this afternoon. The recollection of my evil behavior caused a feeling of self-loathing so intense that it was all I could do to not scream as if being sawn apart for the pleasure of my tormentors, and through this wave of self-loathing, I saw that in some horrific fashion, I had, indeed, derived great and abiding satisfaction from what I had done.

Or had I?

That availed but little, and mattered not at all: I had done so, and I had, by my actions, proven myself evil beyond the bounds of language. I began weeping, this at first but scarcely audible, and I felt horrible; horrible, ashamed, and so evil that I knew that I needed treatment worse than the combined outpouring of wrath I had dumped upon those traitors – for it was by my fault that they had become traitors; I had coerced them into such behavior by main force; and that to do my will, not their own.

After all, they were fully-owned witch-slaves, which meant that the witch that owned them – namely, me – treated them like objects and controlled them utterly, much as if he were manipulating the cross-sticks that animated a puppet.

“Some wonder about Charles,” said the voice of Hendrik from somewhere nearby, “but it was him or his people, and he kept those entrusted to him safe, in spite of their contrary behavior at times.” A pause, this to drink, then, “that kind of work was neither cheap nor easy to do then, and the price seems much the same today.”

I now blinked back my tears, and looked at my hands. Their calluses seemed surrounded by blood, almost as if they were acid-bitten iron but newly streaked with rust, and as I looked at them, I noted my clothing. While undamaged for the most part – there were some few tears and rips that had not been present before I had put it on – the bloodstains were still present, if muted; and the streaks and stains of redness seemed to crowd out all of the multi-tinted green aspect of foliage that normally greens represented. The formerly musty scent of vinegar had vanished like the wind, and now, I could not merely see the remains of blood: I could smell it also, and that reek, now intense within my nose and mind, made for dry heaves and an added sense of revulsion.

Another voice, this one possibly as well-meaning but now stinking most loudly of oblivion, spoke: “those you killed desired our deaths, and that for a primer.” That last word was spoken 'Prim-mer', as was the usual in such situations. “It would not have ended here, but it would have spread as those people would have done far more than just kill Hendrik; and while they were not running with swine, nor dressed as those who come with the swine, nor were they armed with swords – those were their differences, and those only.”

A pause. I could hear drinking. Most of those who had gone had not thought to bring liquids, as they were not told to do so explicitly by someone 'in authority'. This concept was witch-inculcated, both in its complete dependence upon one's master in regard to all thought and direction, and the individual's unrelenting slave-like manner of unthinking obedience to such commands. Without commands, such slaves did nothing whatsoever; and their inertness when not 'commanded' proclaimed loudly the awesome power of their master.

“Otherwise, they plotted secretly, much like a Death Adder lies in wait for its next victim, and they used their trusted positions in the house proper to the fullest advantage possible. Now they lie with the rest of the traitors, in hell where they belong, and Brimstone is gnawing them as his vouchsafed meals.”

I had no words for his answer, but only for someone else; and I was sobbing. “But will she accept me this way? I feel so horrible and evil that I have no words to describe how I feel, sniffle.”

With the others leaving the stable, I found myself wishing to hide, and as I myself left the stable, the reek of gore and slaughter was overwhelmingly strong and nauseating. As I stepped slowly through the now-haunted grove of trees ahead, I could hear – and this plainly – low-pitched chanting of singsong nature. Its words were arcane; its pronunciation, inexpressible – and its meaning all too plain.

“Death! Death! Burn that witch and his evil! Death! Death!” came the screams of this mocking chant, and as they echoed among the trees and in my mind, the only answer I had was this:

“I-I don't want to be a witch,” I sobbed.

I now actually entered the trees themselves. Before, I was in their eastern outskirts, there to be warned clear by unhidden signs that were visible only to the righteous, but I had now passed the sign above the clanging gate that spoke of abandoning all hope to those who entered the realm that lay past it. I had heard it close behind me with a ringing crash of mocking iron, and now in the trees, I saw beings, faint and wraith-like, these hiding behind trees with arrows nocked and ready for assassination. Their silence, it at once horrible and howling, was like the depths of hell itself; but I knew them to be but the outriders.

The true ambush lay ahead, laying in wait for me like a Death Adder, coiled and malevolent, ready to strike without warning.

A long mound, this ghastly to behold, quivered upon the edge of visibility as it took over the whole of my right eye's vision, and to the left, another formation like it took over the seeing I could manage with my left eye. Between the two, this using a third eye I had been specially issued for this very hour and minute, lay a smoking waste, its clouds of sooty smoke thick and noisome, the place itself reeking of the grave and its worms that never rested; and the putrid fumes arising from this waste but propelled smoke and worms squirming in torment high into the darkened sky of hell and into the grave that lay beyond all of time and space.

It was my path, this waste, and there was no escape from its treacherous ways.

The trees themselves now gave the inescapable impression of being alive, with arms that twitched and shuddered as they held swords and axes. These weapons swung of themselves – they needed no strength-bulging arms to wield them – and while I at first thought what I was seeing to be the products of my imagination, I realized my imagination was lying to me after I heard the meaty thunk of a blade striking a tree behind me after I fell prostrate to duck a flying double-bladed war-ax.

The mound and the formation drew closer with each halting step I made. Time itself had changed, much as if I were seeing a world of difference, one of moral inverses that labeled all of which I had learned over many years to be good, right, and true to now be evil, wrong, and lies. In that world, the chief goals of those living there were the acts of murder, killing, and torturing, and that for everyone present; and a faint sound, this the thunder of drums, seemed to pound its bumptious way into my mind:

Boom-Boom, Boom-Boom-BaBoom-Boom.”

The pounding drums seemed to have but one mission; and as they exploded like a stick of bombs within my mind, I heard words to go with their relentless thunder:

“Our day devours the night,

Our night destroys the day,

If you try to run, you can not hide,

We broke on through to the other side.

Came on through to the Spirit Side,

Rushing on like a coal-black tide, yeah.”

Ahead of me lay the miasma of good intentions arising from the bloody ground. That, and that which had made it bloody – no, that had not been cleaned. It had been left as a reminder. I saw at my feet the faint steaming tracks of a multitude who had come from all over to see and learn of my evil ways, and as I came closer to the mound, I saw what looked to be stains upon it that I had not seen prior. More, I could see other details now showing upon the mound – the mound, and the formation on the other side of my path.

I stopped in my tracks, then looked around. The filmy forms with swords, arrows, and axes had vanished. Ahead lay the chiefest danger, and safety, what of it there was for monsters such as myself, was not to be found save by first traversing this monstrous corridor. As it was fitting for a monster, I moved ahead. There was nothing left unto me to do.

The mound itself, however, was furtively mobile, and from it issued a chorus of low and horrible moans imported from the nether regions. I came close to the faintly squirming mound, and found it to be a collection of blood-sopping cloth bags, each expertly tied shut with heavy twine, and upon each such bag, tied by more such twine, lay a stamped tin tag. The letters themselves, stamped into the metal, each half an inch high, were slightly askew one from another; and their long and wavering lines showed letters blackened by the application of paint and then careful wiping of the plate itself. I looked closer at the placard I now held in my hands in the near-sepulchral darkness, and as the sign's paint took on a fiery red shadowing, I read the following:

This be Ye entire remains of a Traitor and Witch,

whom have cursed God to his Face by his way and

his existence. Ye bag shall Hang until it falleth Rotten

unto Ye Ground, and that of its own Way and Inclination.

To touch It means to Join It whereof it Hangeth, and

that by Ye same Means and Manner. Lookest thou

Ye upon it with great Fear, and Tremble Ye yourselves

dire, and mend Ye yourself Your Heart and Your Ways.”

Piled to the left of what I now saw to be a collection of dismembered and bagged corpses were numbers of cut saplings, each of them easily ten feet in height and nearly the diameter of my upper arm, with their points upon each end cut carefully with first a common ax – one from the carpenter's shop, most likely – and then smoothed with a chisel or plane so as to more readily impale them into the cobble-bared ground at the specified points in the house, with the heads spiked atop them and the bodies hanging bagged and dripping just below the spiked heads.

What lay next to those saplings, however, was cause for rank terror upon my part, for my 'samadh' had been retained for public viewing, and upon each of these heads – there weren't close to the right number of heads needed for a true samadh, that being a hundred and two – there were the grim and brutal markings made by relentless and unweeping torture applied with the greatest imaginable liberality. My horror was then broken by a low and faint sound coming from the right of the 'samadh'. I turned that way.

From a thick and gore-clotted rope, dangling head down, a slow-swinging body dripped a messy and twitching curtain from its midpoint that all but covered the lower portion of the corpse-to-be. There was an occasional faint twitch, and raspy breathing, slow and stertorous, that spoke of this thing yet being alive – though death was not far away. I could hear it coming, like a slow and inexorable glacier of star-chilled ice, and with it came also the demons I had summoned to bear this man to the plate of Brimstone for devouring.

I could hear the 'death-rattle' coming slow and steady with each such irregular breath, and as the slow dripping of blood continued like a badly-made metronome to time this horror-show and its rattling breathing, I nearly fainted in horror.

I was neither to run, nor to hide. This was my handiwork, the work of my hands alone; I alone was to blame; and now, I must rejoice upon seeing my instructions, what of them were practicable in a realm of limited and flickering lighting, carried out as per my express wishes. I was now a Power among men, and I courted Fear, and I used Terror and Death as my greatest and chiefest weapons.

When I did not use other means so as to cause such fears as these to grow.

I was not God; but among 'Godless Men', I was feared, at least locally, far more than any conceivable notion of 'that stupid fiction whom fools waste their Sunday mornings on when they could be earning money and growing drunk in the process' – and somewhere, I knew, I was to relish this process of getting and increasing such Terror.

Just like that sign in the fifth kingdom that spoke of private graveyards, it showing after I'd used a pair of heavy dragoons to kill a number of fools who had crossed me by interrupting my meal. I poured out my curses upon them afterward, just like any other arch-witch with a cemetery all his own – and that sign proved it, as it only showed itself plainly to those who'd earned the right to see it by that particular means.

Again, I could not run, nor could I hide. Ahead lay the abyss; and I was to 'walk its way' while plumbing its deaths. It had many of them, and today, I had added to their number in a mighty way.

Beneath my feet, a ghostly mirror-smooth surface of glass-like sheen now showed below me sunken and hallowed depths, with grimly pallid death-lights shining down soft shafts of inverted night. There, I saw deeply garlanded and thickly draped long-haired beings, their shining tresses composed of threaded night, these beings moving slow and stiff like rusted mechanisms as they laid grim smoking meats upon the carbonized stone slabs for those night-crawling devourers that named themselves 'assassins'.

There were many tall and deep-shadowed monuments of stone below my feet, and this ghostly mirror-surface that I walked upon dinted slightly with each placing of my bloodstained steps. It seemed far too transparent – it made clear glass seem murky – to be merely a veil, if veil it was: for as I watched, grim and endless warfare played out in the sunken depths below me, and I saw there a profusion of slaughter, such that the paths were slick with blood and mounded with body parts.

Butchery was the rule in that place, and long rotting lines of death's heads, all of them labeled and spiked upon poles, formed guideposts and milestones to mark the unceasing ways of the vengeful.

My tears flowed freely amid soft and terrible sobbing, but neither sign nor symbol belonged in this realm – and more, they could not enter it. It would not have such signs of weakness. Here, strength was the byword; strength, and bright-honed blades, and the vindictive slaughter-arm that sought death unceasing for its meat and its drink.

I came now to the end of the abyss itself. Ahead lay a huge rock, its shape that of an anvil, and the markings chiseled into it spoke of it being prepared especially for such work. Behind this rock showed light, at once feral and reddish, light that silhouetted the massive black-stone anvil with dark and mocking red flames. A steady clanging thunder came from behind – and beyond – this rock; and as I rose, relentless as a column of flame or like a puppet upon a string, I saw atop the anvil its deep-chiseled squared letters burning red to form words, and from thence, burning thoughts that roosted like tired fowl within my mind. My lips gave those thoughts credence and permanence but a second later:

The anvil of the damned?”

No answer was given. Ahead, I saw an indistinct shimmering light, this leading possibly to a hotel of horrible name and worse reputation, but I shook off that nightmare upon seeing the one that lay in wait beyond the light and that of my mere recollection from long ago. That was merely an evocative song with a veiled species of truth for those who could see it. This ahead – this was the real truth, the full truth, and the entirety of truth – and it could not be escaped by changing the station.

This light set off the darkness of the last few of the trees that lay before me, and as I emerged, walking slowly, arrayed with all the weapons needed to do endless grim battle in the land of war and killing, I saw the very end of a prison building of monstrous proportions. Again, I was a monster, and such a prison was the right place for me, even as faint guard-chanting made for a rhythm that I could see and touch as well as hear, and when I came unto the bright-marked stone threshold, I looked up to see the sign of the prison blaze forth in all its horrible glowing colors:

And I heard the chant as the colors flashed before my eyes, this being the hiding curse, beloved of all witches, and chanted without cease in this hell-hole: “Yoh-Ki-Hogh! Ya-Gogh-Nagh!”

I froze in my tracks. Was this a place where witches lived, the abode of someone too evil for mere words?

“And if so,” I thought, “then it is my home.”

I walked forward, crossed the threshold – and the entire building fled away with a subsonic tearing rumble that laid me face-down upon the hard stone coldness of the floor.

Awakening – at least, it felt like awakening – was a slow process: and once I had awoken enough to move from up off of the chilly platter that I lay upon, I saw rows of dim and flickering candles that lit my way. The place ahead was deserted, and I felt utterly alone; alone, and that entire; alone with the evil that made me earn and keep the name and title of 'monster'.

“F-forgive me,” I whimpered, as I stumbled near-blind down this dimly-lit path to hell. “I ch-chose to do evil, and sought the lives of innocents. Burn me as a witch, for it's what I deserve, and killing alone is too good for me. I need to die wrapped in chains and doused with the flames of hell.”

There was no answer save the steadily growing flood of tears that now obscured my stumbling vision, with its two feet that tried with utmost effort to trip each other and once more put me face-down upon the floor. It was where I belonged, after all; I was lower than a Desmond, and I made one of those awful foul-smelling messy worms look a paragon of virtue.

I now wandered, hands outstretched, much as if I were but newly blinded as the first of the curses to be dumped upon me by an angry God. The light ahead seemed to slowly grow in brightness, then I felt, this by the wind of their passage as much as all else – someone come near. This person found my left hand, then put within it a soft piece of clean cloth. I wondered why this had been done for more than just a moment. I then knew that at least I could thank my benefactor. Perhaps I had encountered a 'virtuous pagan', one whom I could stay with for a time while I prepared myself for an eternity in the deepest regions of Inferno.

Thank you,” I whispered. The words but barely came out, and their softness was involuntary.

I then choked – both with the scream building in my throat, and on the mucus that clogged both it and my nose. I took this rag, and now blew my nose and wiped my waterlogged eyes. I blinked, then seemed to turn where I stood, this without moving my body in any fashion. Behind me, I saw a wobbling line composed of reddish-brown noisome footprints; and a soft wind, this coming from a place I could not sense, brought remembrance to my mind and ears.

The chorus swelled its lush words, this amid the muffled sound of a faintly dirty-sounding guitar, and the words that I now heard – I had heard them before while in this building – seemed clearer, more distinct, and greatly inclined to echo within my mind:

“Footprints dressed in red...”

A hand, this small, soft, and warm, grasped my reddened palm gently, and I was led forward, much as if I were blind. I could barely hear this being's steps, unlike the monstrous pounding thunder of mine. I had a question: was this a virtuous pagan, such as Virgil, Dante's guide – or was I being tricked again, and the soft hand was an illusion, one of the many that accompanied those doomed to the lowest circles of Inferno? I thought to ask. The worst I could be told was to shut my accursed mouth for the rest of time, and that in the speech common to the tormentors resident in hell's depths.

“Who are you?” I said, my voice weepy, weak, and tear-drenched.

“Just me,” said the soft voice of Sarah. Was she condemned also? “You have blood on you.”

I could suppress the scream no longer, and it started as a low and drawn-out wail, one of deep anguish, and as its pitch rose to an unearthly shriek that rattled the walls and made my own ears ring once more, I could now truly say that I had walked upon the anvil of the damned. And yet, there was no reproach.

My knees had given way, however, and as I sobbed, I tried to find my voice. It took nearly a minute to both resume walking and some aspect of speech; and then, I could speak – or rather, moan.

“Do you not loathe me and what I did?” I moaned. The sounds of the damned in hell were no worse than what I had just said, at least for tone.

“I have seen traitors dealt with before,” said Sarah. Her tone was beyond my understanding. “Kindness to such people usually means they try once more to murder those who let them live, and that quickly.” A pause, then, “a warm bath with vinegar in it helps when blood is bothering you, and if Jaak needs attention, I can look after him and then meet you in the refectory.”

I was then handed a vial.

“Drink this,” said Sarah. “It's honey, and I've had it ready for your return.”

I did so, and while the taste of the thick and viscous liquid had an odd tang, it seemed to go down well enough. Sarah left me, heading back the way I had came, and when I came to the 'main hall', I turned right. In that direction lay the bathtub reserved for me, a refuge otherwise known as the promised land; and I was more than surprised to learn of not merely of a bar of soap present next to the tub on a low table, but a slow-boiling bucket of hot water on the nearby stove.

“And a bar of that nice soap, too,” I thought as I saw the smaller rag-bundled bar. “Could it, just this once, become a disinfectant species of soap? I've got this nasty horrible stuff on me, and those people had diseases they didn't know about.”

I stripped off my clothing, and once in the tub amidst warm water and small islands of suds, the blood seemed to come off like magic when I scrubbed with washcloth and 'rag-hunk'. I first used the long thin bar, then once clean – even my hair came entirely clean – I used the brick-shaped bar of soap. The odor of this latter had changed ever-so-slightly, for it had a vague odor that reminded me of hospitals of some kind; and when I found clean clothing laid out for me, I was even more surprised.

“How many of these things did they make?” I gasped, as I slipped on the silky-feeling underwear.

“Any more, they make them on something resembling a schedule, one subject to regular and frequent updating,” said the soft voice. “You're very hard on your clothing.”

“I always was,” I muttered, as I pitched my bloodstained things in the tub to soak in the still-warm bathwater.

“Then it was because of the dictates of that place's Fashion,” said the soft voice. “Now, it's because you tend to get yourself involved in activities that damage clothing, more so than almost anyone in the Annals Hendrik has in his library.”

“Almost anyone?” I asked.

“For a brief time, just prior to his leaving the house and then the first kingdom, that one jeweler tended to have witches trying for him constantly – and they were using things you've more or less been able to disarm or avoid being hurt by.” A brief pause, then, “he wasn't, and more than once, he had to dig shot and bomb-splinters out of his own hide.”

“Just like I tried to do once,” I thought. That particular splinter had been very small, and the tweezers I had tried to use were not good enough. It was still in my upper arm, as far as I knew. The one in my stomach had just needed my fingers, as it was more out of the wound than in it.

“These metal objects were much bigger than either of those things, and he had much better luck, especially as at that time one of Liza's relatives was in a nearby town. She was able to help him more than a little when he was hurt too badly to help himself much.” I understood this to be the woman mentioned in the fourth kingdom, not the one in the fifth – even though both women of that name were now 'capable' practitioners of medicine.

“And Anna's relatives?” I asked.

“Were at or near the peak of their witch-phase,” said the soft voice. “It wasn't just Anna's mother, it was her grandmother also, at least on that side of the family – and Anna was very lucky twice over, as her grandmother did make her bones and started a very substantial coven – and her mother was a natural pupil, at least regarding how to think and act like a witch.”

“And getting 'blown up' more or less cured Anna of that nonsense,” I thought.

“Anna's violin had nearly as much to do with that as that ancient artillery round,” said the soft voice. “Hours of demanding practice daily, then time spent walking to and from the practice area, and finally school on top of all of that – and given that workload, her mother didn't get all that much of a chance to change her into a person inclined toward the things of witchdom. Then, Anna is not cut out to be a witch.”

“First one in two generations at the least for that side of the family,” I thought. “Any others?”

“Yes, her relatives on her father's side,” said the soft voice. “Once her parents were killed, she lived with them – and they got what witch-thinking she'd gotten from her mother out of her system.”

“All that remains is that common to the area, then,” I thought. I was really glad for the distraction, and gladder yet for the beer jug that I had just noticed minutes ago. I'd about half drained the thing within minutes of its discovery, and calling my current state 'dried out' bordered on fiction. I was parched, and as I put on the rest of my clean clothing – it was the stuff I came here with, most likely, I now realized; it had seen repairs, and showed slight wear in places – I thought to next check on the king's office.

“It still bothers me I made such a mess,” I thought. “I wish I could get a very nasty pistol of some kind, one that fires bullets that leave entrance holes the size of knitting needles and no exit holes at all. Pop-pop, down goes mister thug – and he's hurt too bad to cause trouble, so he can't object much to being removed from the premises. No muss, no fuss, just take him out to the manure pile, bury him so he doesn't smell or cause trouble otherwise, and get back to business.”

I came to the door, saw two people 'on' – it was a later shift – and to my surprise, both of them were carrying a guard musket apiece. While their weapons were half-cocked, I could tell both men were most definitely 'ready for business' should it come into the area.

“Powder?” I asked. “Shot?”

“Plenty of both in those measures that were with 'em,” said one man as he pointed to what was setting on the bench beside him, “though talk has it that that powder's mighty stiff, and the shot is that also.”

“Just dump it from the canister using that lever there,” I said evenly as I pointed to the powder measure. “That type of measure has measuring abilities built into it, and I set it for a load that's a bit on the light side for such weapons.”

“Them thugs will ignore being shot, then,” he said.

“Not at these ranges, Stefan,” said his partner. “If we shoot thugs, we're likely to put soot on 'em.” A brief pause, then, “you can go on in, if you want to see how they're doing in there.”

“Cleaning?” I asked.

“That especially,” said said the 'other' guard. Both men had been in the firing line at the hall's wrecking, so they knew something about the Hare and its more unpleasant side. I tapped twice at the door, and was let in promptly by an obvious cleaner. The soft nature of the taps told her the most likely 'tapper'.

“I thought it was you,” she said. She seemed to not be surprised in the slightest. “We'll need to get more vinegar tomorrow, but at least the mess is coming up steadily.”

“I'm sorry to have made such a mess, madame,” I said softly, “but the king was in danger, and...”

“There will be bloodstains remaining,” said Hendrik with finality, “and those would have been there no matter what you did – and had you not done as you did, this kingdom would be in the hands of Norden as we speak, as while the killing would have started in the house proper, it would have spread much wider very quickly.”

A brief pause, during which Hendrik gazed idly at what looked like a faint bloodstain upon his desk. I looked closer, and noted with a shudder that Hendrik had no need of a tsantsa hanging in the doorway now. That particular bloodstain that remained on his desk was plenty enough to convince me.

“All that you got from those people was recorded, and Thomas has been answering questions from both Kees and Gabriel – Kees before we left, and Gabriel as well since we returned. The whole shall be made into a report and sent by courier south to the eyes of all of the other four kings.”

To hear this nearly made for another scream, as Hendrik was proposing to write up a modern-day 'old tale', one in which I did things utterly unfit for anything beyond scaring masses of grown people into the privy for long periods. I tried to weep, but I could only sob. My eyes had dried up, and their gritty feeling made for a desire to scratch them until nothing remained of either eyes nor vision.

“Pl-please, d-do not speak of what I did,” I cried, “for I feel horrible, and too evil for words, and, and, it was all my fault...”

Hendrik shook his head, then said, “I am quite afraid that it was not all your fault. That was the worst treason plot we've ever had, if the Annals do not lie, and to have two of those things one right after the other means but one thing.”

“That witch to the north is dead serious about killing us all?” I asked.

“I think so,” spat Hendrik, “and now those people who thought our report rubbish in the second kingdom are going to know that what they were shown is as reliable as the book itself.” A brief pause, then, “while the information you acquired is going in as detailed a fashion as is possible, the usual, at least in these parts, is to regard the precise means of getting such information as privileged.”

“Privileged?” I asked.

“It stays here where it belongs,” said Hendrik emphatically. “It cost you twice too much to get the truth out of those smelly wretches, and I'll not have it cost you more by sending out such details.” A brief pause, then, “I'm not sure if you can stare long, but I tell you this; if you could do so, I suspect two miles is too short a distance for how far you would stare right now, and that to no small degree.”

I turned to go, my eyes once more filled with tears, and once out in the main hall I wobbled slow and unseeing toward the refectory. I now knew it wasn't just hypoglycemia that caused me to feel as I did now; if I did things of sufficient violence, I felt evil beyond the bounds of language. No one would meet my eyes when I could keep them open, and as I shuffled along, the recriminations continued. I had tried my best to be gentle, but the truth was important, and...

There was something more. With 'normal' people, those who had but little or no desire to be witches, such means were unneeded; while witches, for some accursed reason, needed such treatment in liberal measure to even open their mouths.

“Just like how the desire to become a witch induces hypothyroidism,” I thought. “It causes changes in thinking, also – so much so that the only way a witch won't lie to a non-witch when such a person is inclined to lie is if you break him down completely.”

“Especially given who those people were and just how they were cursed,” said the soft voice. “That Thinker picked those particular people especially, and not merely because of their 'especially privileged' positions in the house proper.”

“What else?” I asked. “Their particular susceptibility to Norden's curses? An innately obdurate nature once they became witches – even if they were witches more in theory than in truth?”

“All of those things and then some,” said the soft voice, “even if those attracted to witchcraft tend to be that way to a lesser or greater degree no matter who they are.”

And upon all of this, I recalled just how abnormal the thing had been at the start: I had been gentle in my asking; I was trying to get him to talk with soft words; then my sensing of danger that had grown steadily, my sense of horror at what was steadily brewing within me once I had gone past a certain point, and then, how I had prayed.

Yea, prayed with great earnestness, and that to be delivered from such evil as was growing inside of me. It was in the book, and I had followed the rules written therein, such as I knew and understood them to be.

And yet when it continued to come upon me, I tried to run, and could not. It made me wonder, and then wonder more: was I a witch in truth, as so many thought me to be? I asked myself this audibly, then sobbed, “no, please God. I don't want to be a witch.”

I all but tumbled into the refectory, my eyes weepy, my face tuned to mourning; but then, I smelled food. Hunger overrode all of those previous sensations, and when I'd gotten a plate of food, this being a species of pie with diced greens to the side topped with grated cheese, I noted first Sarah – she was working on a piece of leather, its dimensions too familiar to be mere coincidence – and beside her, making three out of four stools filled, Karl and Sepp were advising her on just what she needed to do with the sewing awl she had in her hands. I had the impression that while both men were familiar with swords, they were much less so with sewing; and as I sat down, I had a distinct impression – which Sarah promptly answered.

“They might know about how these are to fit swords,” said Sarah with no small irritation, “but they are not tailors, or even those who work in leather.”

“And you are,” I murmured around a bite of 'pie'. This was 'beef' pie, if my taste sense was working rightly, and I wondered for a moment if the beef in question had been dry or fresh when so prepared.

“They put pepper on that stuff when they dried it,” said Karl, “and they dried a lot of it while they had those things hanging fresh here.”

“Those cattle are still very much out in the forests, and will become much more common in the years to come,” said Sarah. “Now I might know how to sew this thing passably, but how does one wish its contents to fit it?”

“You do not want it dragging the floor,” said Sepp, “as that tells everyone who is not deaf where you are should you attempt to walk while wearing it. Then, you want your sword to stay put.”

“And no catch strap,” spat Karl. “Those things just get in your way should a witch try for you suddenly. I'm glad he made mine up without one, as Lukas says he's heard of people getting killed that way.”

“Those that work leather here, correct?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, they did so at first,” said Karl. “Dennis had to mostly redo it entirely after he redid the sword itself, as they made one that screeched on the floor, and they said that was the usual way to wear swords. Then, they could not figure his out, even with him telling them plain as day.”

“They mostly did work for black-dressed witches, then,” said Sarah. “Now such people are scarce locally, and when those things outside...” Sarah's voice had more than a little shudder, and no small amount of distaste. I could tell she was not fond of the mess I had made.

“Those are not things,” muttered Karl. “They are traitors, and those are bad trouble.”

“Careful, Karl,” said Sepp. “You might endure them passably, but not everyone does.”

“Myself included,” said Sarah. “More than once, I have wished wholeheartedly for a tincture that would cause witches to be incapable of lying, and it wasn't just me that wished for it, either.” A brief pause, then, “such a sight like that out back would have my cousin in the privy spewing for some time, and it nearly does that to me should I think upon it overmuch.”

I reached for the possible bag, then in front of everyone, I took an entire tube of the widow's tincture – and washed the evil-tasting stuff down with beer.

“I think it affects him worse than than it does me,” said Sarah. “Now, as I was saying, when they put up that horrible mess out back tomorrow...”

“They?” I asked.

“It will have to be people from the house proper, and there will need to be a number of them,” said Sarah. “Those two that were to do that vile business have run off, and if they have a nut's worth of sense between the two of them, they will head south and not stop until they're in the second kingdom house, where such witches as they are would be in good company.”

“Without ceasing?” I asked. “For any reason whatsoever?”

“That would do one of two things, especially if it is done closely as per those instructions you gave,” said Sarah. “It would break them down completely, and they would be fit for collecting dirty privy rags at the most afterward, or it would kill them – and were I one of those people, I am not sure which of those things I would wish more. I most likely would sup with Brimstone soon enough no matter what happened to me after I was done doing what you had spoken of.”

“I still feel horrible,” I said.

“I am not surprised,” said Sarah. “Swine are bad, and witches are worse, but traitors take the turnips right out of the pot and toss them out onto the road.” A brief pause, then, “and if there were things like I saw in some of my more recent dreams to be had, I would say you need to be bundled in bed for a week and dosed with both tinctures on a schedule.”

“I would make a mess, though,” I said. “Or would I?”

“Not with these things,” said Sarah archly. “They are so strange-looking that when I tried describing them to Anna, she could not understand me until I drew one for her and showed how they worked.” A brief pause, then, “and if one cannot make water, they are a gift from heaven itself.”

What?” I gasped. I commonly had trouble urinating after surgery – and several times, I'd needed help like Sarah seemed to be describing. “I might have had some of those things used on me.”

“Long, thin, many different colors, all of them assorted to size?” said Sarah. “This odd valve that causes this part near the tip to swell slightly so they remain in place?”

“I've had those a number of times,” I said, “and I was glad for having them inserted when they were used. They were called, uh, catheters there.”

“They were called drains in this dream,” said Sarah, “and they were used commonly. Then, they had these odd devices that needed power sources like those for that small-seer, and they kept one entirely drained.” Sarah paused, then said, “and that felt really strange.”

“Strange?” I asked.

“Like someone was rubbing you, only deep within the lower portion of your belly,” said Sarah. “It may of felt strange at first, but it was quite easy to learn to enjoy the sensation, especially when it was being accompanied by being entirely drained.” Sarah paused, then said, “and then, there is the portion they put in your mouth.”

“What?” I gasped.

“It goes into your mouth,” said Sarah. “What it does, I have not a clue, as I woke up shortly thereafter.”

“Breathing?” I asked, as Sarah resumed stitching. She was having trouble keeping the leather pieces in proper relationship to one another, so much so that she looked to need at least one additional hand.

“It just might have been for that,” said Sarah. “It was not for feeding, as that is a much smaller tube, and depending on what kind of food is used, it is either put into the stomach, or into a larger blood vessel.” Another pause, then, “the type used for the stomach is not liked much, unlike the other type.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It is very uncomfortable,” said Sarah. “Imagine being tubed, only the tube goes up your nose and not in your mouth, and it stays in there like a half-dead Desmond for the duration.” Sarah did not sound happy when speaking about this strange tube. “In contrast, the one that goes into a blood vessel is not uncomfortable in the slightest, and with that one, one can readily be fed constantly.” And in a lower-pitched voice, “I can think of at least one person that could stand to be fed constantly.”

“Who?” I asked.

“You, for one,” said Sarah, “and then me, possibly – though Anna is more inclined that way than I am.”

“She spoke of trying to stuff you,” I murmured around bites of pie. I was becoming full in a hurry.

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah with an aspect of nausea. “She thinks I can eat as if starving all of the time, not merely when I am genuinely starving.”

“That is often enough,” said Karl. “Now if you were to eat more, you would be able to catch...” Sarah glared at him, then said in a whispered half-snarl, “Karl, you tread upon thin ice. Put a cork in it.”

“Uh, no cork, dear,” I said, “but do I have something I brought you that you might like. Let me go fetch it.”

I went back to room 67, and there found the sword where I had secreted it. The feeling of the room, once a homey sense of calm refuge, however, had changed utterly; and as I made ready to leave, I could clearly feel the following: the overmastering terror the two 'guards' had felt, and that not because of the situation itself. There was another – and much deeper – reason for their terror.

Then, the worry of Maria. Maria – she had gone to the west school, and that for the whole time – while not in the same class as Sarah, was not one who frightened easily. Only a small army of hardened thugs could really frighten her; and any more, I suspected the same of Hendrik, especially since he had gone on the trip. He'd learned a lot then – and, he'd 'seen the Hare'. I suspected that was almost as big a matter as receiving a posterior full of lead and riding on regardless in making his reputation.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice, as I retied my knots. “Maria went to quite a few more places than you think she did.”

“Uh, where?” I asked.

“Who do you think Sarah got some of her advance information from?” said the soft voice. “Maria might not have gone to the central portions of the Blue mountains to spy on the Veldters, but she did get close enough to several of their dwellings on the back side of the Red mountains to put something into the Compendium – and while you have some idea as to Sarah's scars, Maria has a few of her own.”

“Did she?” I asked. I wondered if she'd ever had had 'lead'.

“Yes, some,” said the soft voice. “She was still frightened when she found out how much Hendrik had gotten from the trip. It wasn't merely where he sat that he received shot.”

“Did, uh, Anna tell her about how much lead I got?” I asked.

“Yes, and she wonders how you're still alive,” said the soft voice, “and she wonders but little less about Sarah.”

“And those two men were but recently bought, correct?” I asked.

There was no answer; yet as I returned to the refectory with Sarah's sword under my arm, the more I thought about the matter, the more such 'bribery' sounded more and more likely. While they did not belong to the coven, nor were they told much of anything, they were bribed in some fashion.

“All of that is correct, save for the size of that bribe,” said the soft voice. “They received more than you thought they did – enough that both men are now in the process of heading north and then east.”

“Not south?” I asked. “Not the second kingdom house?”

“Neither man would survive long in that place,” said the soft voice, “and both of those men know that. More, they could be readily tracked down then, especially by Tam – who has gone as far south as the fourth kingdom market town to 'deal with' traitors and the family members of those outlawed to the ultimate degree.”

“And then, the northern portion of the east side is not only a very cheap place to live, but also has very few people,” I thought, as I sat down. “It would almost take someone like me to track those wretches down if they get up into that region.”

“Could you be spared from the area, you would be sent after them,” said the soft voice. “Tam's the next best person, and while that area is sparsely populated, he does know how to find people.”

“It would easily take him months, though,” I thought.

“Yes, if he knew roughly where they were to start off with,” said the soft voice. “That's not a small area, and when he's gotten people out of the second kingdom house, it's taken him weeks – and that one time in the fourth kingdom, he needed over a month from start to finish.”

Sarah then looked at me as I came to the table, and asked, “I suspect I know what that is you have there, but is this other part about those two guards-in-name-only who left their posts under fire?”

I nodded.

“Were I them, I would go to the northeast end of the continent,” said Sarah. “There is nothing there, at least for towns of any real size, and there's as much work for willing workers as there is anywhere in the whole of the five kingdoms.”

“They'd show up readily, then,” I said.

“To you, yes,” said Sarah. “You'd find them inside of a week once you were 'released'. Someone like Tam would do very well to find them at all, presuming he could spend that kind of time away from his store.”

“And those stinkers know that,” I muttered. “The second kingdom house?” I asked. “Assuming they stayed clear of the bad parts?”

“That whole area is one big 'bad part',” said Sarah flatly. “It's nearly as dangerous as the fifth kingdom house.”

“The bad sections, you mean,” I said. “They could hide in Eisernije...”

“They would die most quickly if they went there,” said Sarah. “Eisernije may be poorer than bad farmland, but that dire poverty forces upon them a level of honesty and other desirable behaviors that this area would do well to copy – and when they learned of what those people had done, they would be sent back up here in a box.”

“Box?” I asked.

“A very smelly box, I'm afraid,” said Sarah. “Eisernije's rules tend to be those of old tales, especially those involving Charles, and suspicion and crime are thought to be one and the same in that place – and one must prove one's right standing daily in word, in thought, and in deed.”

“How is that?” asked Karl. “That place has no churches.”

“None outside of Eisernije, you mean,” said Sarah. “That place has more churches for a given number of people than this area does, even if their churches look like common dwellings so as to not stand out to passing witches. Otherwise, you're exactly right.”

Sarah then bent her attention to the strings, and as they came undone with the merest touch of her fingers, she said, “I'm glad you tied this thing so many times, as I misjudged your knots.”

“They held decent when he was tying those traitors, though.”

“Karl...” Sarah's tone was not cordial. “They worked well enough for this, I think.” Sarah was bundling the string, as I suspected she kept such things. It made for curiosity on my part.

“Do you keep string?” I asked.

“Yes, I do,” said Sarah. “String is not particularly cheap, unless you get old rotten stuff from a scavenger, and most people save it as and when they can.” A brief pause, then, “these rags, I'll bag up, also, unless you want to. I know you have none to spare since we did the hall, and you use many of them.”

“How is that beer?” asked Karl.

“Thank God it is not Lion-Brew,” I muttered. “It might be darker than some I have seen, but they did not stint the hops, and they did stint the malt.”

“Agreed,” said Sarah, as a glint of brilliance shone out from under the rags. She looked at me, then said, “just like you usually do.”

“Do you know why?” I asked. “It isn't because 'everyone does things that way', or even 'they're easier to clean',”

“That does make a difference if you're a butcher,” said Sepp. “Still, I'd like to know why.”

“Why others do it, or why I do that with what I make?”

“Both, if possible,” said Sepp.

“For others, I'm not certain,” I said, “but for blades, I tend to put enough carbon in them that they tend to crack if they're made of steel from around here.” A brief pause, as Sarah continued unwrapping her sword, “and if they're made out of this special steel that people who don't know better say is haunted, they tend to be... Careful, dear. That one's been prayed for, so it's especially sharp. That's why the edge makes that rainbow you see.”

Sarah made a noise like a mouse, then touched it. She looked at me again.

“Yes, it's real,” I said, “and that's the first of the new batch. Georg did not touch that one.”

“That might be what you need to do with those things, then,” said Karl, “as I have paid for all of mine, and I have not gotten it.”

“Karl, that would be most unwise,” said Sarah. “You've not seen him made ill by handling money, have you?”

Karl shook his head.

“I have,” said Sarah flatly. “Now Georg had his buggy wrecked by a pig, and I've seen the new one under construction. It has some time to go yet, and that's for the wooden parts. They've gotten such a backlog of orders still that the metal parts are not even started.”

“That, and those need to be of crucible steel,” I said. “Georg may have had a common buggy for size, but he loaded it sometimes as if he thought it to be a freight wagon.”

“So that's why he's been after two extra buggy horses,” said Sarah. “He's not plotting on becoming a miser.”

“With his money, he could be one of those things,” said Karl morosely.

“He'd be an unusual miser, then,” I muttered. “Doesn't have near the personality for it, isn't all that fond of money...”

“Why does he charge what he does, then?” asked Karl.

“Their costs, most likely,” said Sarah. “First, that new furnace was not cheap to build, and then, there are some of the more recent orders he's put out.”

“How did you learn of those?”

“The publican where we live,” said Sarah. “Anyone who sends that big of an order for 'first quality gun-barrels' south to the forth kingdom is going to need a heavy sack of coin for that purchase alone.” Sarah then unwrapped the sword the rest of the way, and the dazzling aspect of the thing seemed to draw matters unto it.

Or so I thought until I noticed people leaving us alone. Their own meals had their attention, just like mine tended to do when I was especially hungry.

“Well?” I asked. “How do you like it?”

All I heard was a faint gasp, then, “it's like out of an old tale.” A brief pause, then, “why that shape?”

“That stuff is bad for cracking,” said Karl. “Georg knows that much about it. Then, it will not stand markings, as it does not like those.”

“Again, because cracks start from such markings,” I said, “and that metal, especially if it's been, uh, well-stuffed with carbon, is really inclined that way. It's actually somewhat brittle, which is the reason for that blade shape.” I paused, then asked, “now Karl, did you ask for something with two edges, like what you have?”

Karl nodded, then Sarah looked at him fixedly before speaking, “Karl, you just had your question answered. You can either have them in this shape if you wish them quickly, or you can wait – quite possibly for a very long time.”

“Did you ask for markings on the blade?” I asked.

Karl shook his head, then said, “no, just two edges to the thing.”

“I was told by a most-reliable source that I was reminded of this precise shape because of its resistance to cracking,” I said, “and to do them otherwise would result in a blade that would break in use – and given the way swords are, it would most likely break when you could least afford it.” Another pause, then, “and if it's a witch you're fighting when your blade goes to pieces, you can guess what happens next – or can you?”

Karl shook his head to indicate 'no'.

“If you are lucky, that witch will not waste further time upon you, and kill you on the spot,” said Sarah. “If you are not lucky, then you will die in a witch-hole, and that as an offering to Brimstone.”

“You do not want that, do you?” I asked. “Nod 'no', please, as I don't know what I would do if a witch caused you trouble, especially now.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl.

“I'm not sure what happened to me in Hendrik's office this afternoon,” I said, “but one minute, I was treating that one man gently, and when I started thinking of how he and his fellows were going to start with Hendrik, and then go after everyone I knew...”

Sarah looked at me with huge eyes.

“Your name, dear, was the last word on my lips before I became a, a, monster,” I said softly. “The thought of some wretch or collection of wretches killing my friends was more than I could endure, and I just snapped, and only recently did I become, uh, normal again.” I wanted to add, “just like Georg was when the pigs came, and Hans said he had had too much swine, and Anna thinks I've been through worse yet.”

“What is this word you said?” asked Karl.

“It's in a number of old tales,” said Sarah, “and it's a word that was used by witches, among many others, to describe those marked.” A brief pause, “but during a certain period, from the time of the war's ending to the Curse, and for some time after the Curse...”

“Until the last few hundred years, dear,” said the soft voice.

“It was used to refer to those marked who could not hide what they were from either witch or those not as they were, and it speaks of how they were in battle.”

“As in they blew horns?” I asked. “Charles?”

“Was not one of those people,” said Sarah. “The witches may have called him one, but he was not one of those people.” A brief pause, then, “though at least one tapestry said such people came to join him.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“They were the most savage warriors ever,” said Sarah, “and it was said of them that when they went into battle, they became not merely insane, but that they would kill without stopping for anything until either they were the only ones left standing upon that field, or they had been killed themselves – and it was not easy to kill them.”

“Uh, hard?” I asked.

“Very much so,” said Sarah. “Now I have had some small training with swords, but I have heard there are places here in the house that are especially suited for such work.”

“Now?” I asked.

“Now might not be wise,” said Sarah. “We both must get ourselves home, as Anna is most likely about to bite her fingers off with worry.” A brief pause, then, “and then, there is the matter of some questions I must ask you about a certain boat before you forget too many of its details.”

“How..?” I asked.

“I asked Hendrik while you were bathing as to what exactly you saw, and he was not able to tell me much more than I already knew about what those people sail in.”

Faintly, as if upon the wind, I felt a tremor shake the ground, then another, followed quickly by a third such shock.

“What was that?” said Sarah with alarm.

“I set out those, uh, things Hans did up,” I said, “and I think they just went off.”

“Hans said he did those up,” said Sarah. She implied that his talking so was as much lie as it was truth. “He may have worked on them to a certain degree, but I was at his elbow much of that time, and there were some parts where he wanted to cut his corners short where I wanted to thump him with my rat-club.” A brief pause, then “Anna did thump him when she found out what he wanted to try to close those things.”

“What, shortchange their wood?” I asked. “Not line them with pitch – no, don't tell me. He wanted to use bad nails, the kind that bend especially easily, and an old carpenter's hammer, one with a weird-looking lump on the end of its handle?”

“All of those things and much more,” said Sarah. “Anna thumped him when she found out about the nails, as he would have blown the house to kindling had he done so with that meal, as it gave me bad headaches indeed.” A brief pause, then, “though he did not use think to use an old carpenter's hammer, but one of those you made instead.”

Sarah re-wrapped the sword in its rags, as her scabbard was not anywhere close to done, and as she stood with a bulging satchel, I knew another matter: she needed a good leather belt, or so I thought until she spoke of having recently worked on one of those as well.

“For a sword?” I asked.

“That, and a pistol's holster,” said Sarah. “I've never done those, so you'll most likely need to show me.”

“And the back of that scabbard?” I asked. “You don't want it to be slit, but a leather piece riveted on so your belt goes into it readily.”

Sarah put her hands over her mouth, then squeaked, “you're right, and those people upstairs don't do rivets.”

“They do, but they ruin a lot of them,” I said. “I tend to have better luck with those.”

I was glad for the lightness of Sarah's buggy a short time later, for as we set out under a low-rising moon that was but an hour's time above the western horizon, I thought to stick to the quickest roads possible. I wanted to get home, but when I saw the two jugs in Sarah's buggy, I asked, “the jugs?”

“One of those is beer,” said Sarah, “and the other, a jug of heavy distillate from Houtlaan. I had someone from the house proper go there and get it for me while I went after other things.” A brief pause, then, “why do you ask?”

“Because of those two people,” I said. “I can tell that they've been sticking to roads, and they're well-nigh lost.”

“Do you know where they are?” asked Sarah.

“That way,” I said, pointing north. “About five miles out from here, on foot – these people have grown soft since their classes ended, and they never were all that hard for walking to start out with, so they're not going much further tonight without a certain amount of time resting at the least.”

I led off across the fields, now watching for soft spots, but as Sarah kept up readily just behind me and somewhat to the side, I suspected that 'two jugs, one sword, and a handbag' was a light load for her buggy. Both her horses were still fresh, also.

“This area is not bad,” she said. “There's a road up ahead.”

“Which is one of the ones they've tried since they've left,” I said. “They really wanted to go the long way, and get a ride while doing it, but they think that everyone goes that way and they'd be certain to be caught if they went along the most-traveled route.”

“Most people do,” said Sarah, “or rather, “most people do who are in a hurry, and everyone else does so as a matter of course – and those I speak of who are like that never hurry.”

“Even if the pigs show?” I asked.

“Those seem the only exceptions for most people,” said Sarah. “Now, are these people heading due north, or northwest so as to hit that one large north-running road somewhere north of here, or northeast so as to hit the river road?”

“They're lost, dear,” I said. “They're like most people around here – the night belongs to witches, and anyone still awake after sundown has no business being out of doors.” A brief pause, then, “at least, that's what most believe, and these people are much the same that way.”

“I'd ride money on believing that way keeping them alive until this date, then,” said Sarah, “as no one who believes that nonsense would dare to enter the Swartsburg while it still existed.”

Yet as we progressed, I seemed to be 'zeroing in' on the people in question. They'd planned ahead to a certain degree, thinking, “regardless of what happens to that man who paid us to 'act dumb', we'll be hunted down quickly if we stay close to the center of the first kingdom,” and they'd gotten together some few traveling supplies in the weeks leading up to today. Between their planning for trouble, and the substantial bribes they'd gotten – the amount was somewhere between sixty and eighty guilders each, which while it wasn't much by my standards, it was most likely 'decent' to an impoverished person like these people had been before the training.

“How much were those people getting paid?” I asked.

“You never received anything remotely close to a normal guard's salary,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, guard-pay depends on ability more than all else. The amount they were paid in bribe-money would not tempt Mathias at all, as he currently gets more than that much monthly. For people like them, though – it's closer to six month's wages at the house proper.”

“That sounds like they were paid about the least of any guard I've ever heard of,” said Sarah.

“The only reason they weren't discharged prior to this afternoon was that the house was critically short of people until very recently,” said the soft voice, “and then, that Teacher saw that they were among those most readily molded to his way of doing things, so he let their poor performance compared to the other people in that particular group 'go' without comment on his part.”

A brief pause, then, “their poor performance did not escape the eyes of Lukas, however, and he pointed it out to Hendrik. Hence, they were paid just enough to keep them 'present', the thinking being 'they're better than no one at all', with the goal of eventually easing them out of service once enough people had been trained to a 'passable' standard.”

Passable?” I squeaked. “Passable? Not after today. It will have to be a lot better than that now, not with the kind of rubbish I'm primed to expect anymore!”

“Were you to say that to Hendrik now, you would be a preacher speaking to his helper,” said the soft voice. “Before this afternoon, you would have needed somewhat more in the way of proofs.”

“And speaking of those people,” I said softly, “I've got a much better idea as to where they are now.”

“Where?” asked Sarah.

“Over there, about a mile and a half,” I said. “Up ahead is a road heading roughly east and a bit north, and...”

“It goes into a town,” said Sarah. “That Public House there might have decent food for their money, but about all that's truly decent about their food is its price.”

“Dirt-cheap meals, eh?” I asked.

“That describes the flavor of those meals, also,” said Sarah. “I'd rather spend two guilders for one person and get something that will not gripe me than pay one guilder for two people and have food that makes for a lengthy stay in the privy when it tries to escape.”

“Which these people know nothing of,” I said. “Now, while that is a lot of money for them – a lot of money for people who were living hand-to-mouth and sleeping wherever they could find shelter until they started training at the house – their habits that way have not deserted them.” I then had a question.

“So how do I go into a Public House without causing a big mess?” I asked. I was really wanting one of those nasty pistols right now – one of those that made very small entrance holes which scarcely bled, no exit holes – and dropped thugs, even tough examples, in their tracks.

“I would worry much less about any mess you might make and worry more about dealing with those people,” said Sarah. “I asked Maria a few questions while I was alone with her in the office while you and those others were gone, and what we were told about you wearing greens is nothing but the truth.”

“A reputation?” I asked.

“Yes, and quite a bit more,” said Sarah. “That does not include the work of that pendant, either. What she told me was, 'anyone who sees a dark haired man wearing greens had best treat him with due deference', as she put it – and that's most definitely not the case for people who are harboring those who are outlawed to the ultimate degree, as these men are.”

“Harboring?” I asked. “Does this mean, uh, if the publican objects...”
“Deal with him in likewise fashion,” said Sarah, “and that I heard from Maria her-own-self. She's angry enough at those two wretches that had she the chance to do so, she'd air out their smelly hides and then light them on fire.”

“And the same for anyone else who objects to the proceedings,” I murmured, as I crossed the first roadside ditch and waited while Sarah drove over it. I could almost smell the place ahead, and within ten minutes, I could hear its faint noises audibly. A plan began to form in my head: go to the stoop; wait until I had an idea as to where they were inside the place, then 'crash the door' and then cover them with my pistol, then escort them outside. Once outside, however...

“Kneecap them,” I thought. “One bullet per knee, and shoot both knees. Drag them out in the street. Douse them sparingly with distillate – we need to keep that stuff from Houtlaan for cleaning medical instruments – then toss a lit match at them from a distance, or speak... No, best not ask them to be set alight. They might explode then.”

“I'd use a tallow candle stub,” said the soft voice, “and toss it underhandedly from a distance of at least twenty feet.”

“Uh, otherwise?” I asked. I did not wish to do this in a crowded Public House if I could help it. I wanted to do – at least I thought it was called in some circles where I came from – 'a surgical strike'.

“The place isn't very crowded,” said the soft voice. “Have Sarah go around back to prevent them from leaving out the back door if should they think to do so.”

“It isn't that easy to do that, is it?” I thought. I was recalling the cramped and typically busy kitchen of Roos' own Public House.

“No, but these people have been in there a number of times before,” said the soft voice. “Between a lack of cooks at this hour, a lack of help in that place in general, and them being familiar with that place's layout, they could easily escape out the back door in less than ten seconds from where they are currently sitting.”

“I heard that,” said Sarah. “Now at this hour, that place should be nearly empty, as it commonly closes shortly after this time of night.”

“Yes?” I asked. “Not just cheap food, but a lack of custom, perhaps?”

“No, not that,” said Sarah. “It does as well as most Public Houses in this area, it's just that one can get 'meals' at beer and bread prices – and that isn't a common thing around here.” A brief pause, then, “normally, one must go well north or west of here to get 'meals' at those prices.”

“Awful taste, and poor ingredients, most likely,” I said.

“I suspect that publican uses food he would normally toss that way,” said Sarah, “and prices such food accordingly.” A brief pause, then, “were I that short of money, I would get beer and bread. Such food and drink does not gripe me as a rule.”

I came up on the Public House, and here, I leaped off of Jaak as Sarah parked her buggy. She ran around back, and as I went to the stoop, I waited.

I did not wait more than perhaps three seconds, until shouted words and thumping steps made for complete shock and unbelief upon my part.

“They tried to pay one guilder for two people for a two-guilder-apiece meal,” I murmured, “and the publican has run back to fetch his fowling piece!”

The steps approaching quickly caused me to move just a little out of the way of the door, my revolver now cocked and ready in my right hand. The door abruptly came open, and as first one man came out, then another, I heard heavy steps coming fast behind them.

I did not wait for the maker of those steps: I aimed, then shot the first man to emerge in the knee as he cleared the steps, and as he screamed to then fall down in the place's yard, the other man turned to me at a distance of perhaps five feet. He was unarmed. I shot him in the knee as well, and he tumbled down the stairs while screaming like the first man.

I then waited for the publican to show, which he did seconds later. He said to the two men as they writhed in pain, “that will serve you up proper, trying to run out without paying!” He then turned from the two men to look at me.

“What?” he squawked. His voice reeked of complete and total surprise.

“Just doing my job,” I said quietly. “Those two traitors...”

What?” yelled the publican. He'd heard the last word all too plainly; and it was plain to me he did not have a fond place in his heart for such people, even if his attitude was a far-more-conventional one than I suspected mine to be. Betrayal hurt badly, and not just if it was dumped on me; these people had deliberately endangered the lives of two of my closest friends, and that for mere money. That was almost as bad as being that first shooter in my estimation, I now realized.

I heard less and less of what he was now yelling, for the two wounded men were trying to limp away, first further into the yard and away from the stoop, then out into the town's surprisingly wide street. I trotted closer, so as to make certain I hit them in the near-complete darkness. Both were trying to limp away from me; I was seeing only their backs. At a range of perhaps eight feet, I put my third bullet into the intact knee of the taller man, and as he toppled forward, screaming all the while like a wounded Shoet, the second of the two turned slowly toward me, hands raising into the air as if I might 'relax my guard' upon seeing the sign of surrender.

I took this for the trick it was likely to be, and shot his other knee dead center. It buckled backward, and he fell heavily, twisting and screaming as he tumbled onto the ground.

As both men were now unable to stand, they attempted to crawl, this like snakes with their bellies dragging on the ground. I could feel the publican watching with interest as I trotted back to Sarah's buggy, then found the jug of distillate by its heavier sense and the cold chill it registered in my hands.

I could hear Sarah now coming, for with four shots, she knew I'd probably dropped both men; and when she showed next to the publican – who, while interested in the proceedings, was still in a state of 'eruption', spewing vituperation and oaths without cease – she began speaking so as to calm him down. I could but barely hear her, so intent I was upon my task, but the gist of what I was feeling is 'he knows what he is doing', and 'the queen her-own-self wants those two dead, and the king feels much the same about them'.

With a semi-practiced eye, I measured the distance between his stoop and the two still-crawling men – and then, I uncorked the jug. The reek of distillate instantly hit my nose, and I gasped mentally, “I forgot how bad this stuff stank!”

I poured out perhaps a cupful upon the back of the first man, and then trotted to the second, who received the same scant amount. I recorked the jug on the way back to the buggy, then as I put the thing away, I wondered just how far away I needed to be. Twenty feet sounded like a recipe for getting myself set alight, I thought, as I went back to where Sarah was now standing next to the publican. He'd uncocked his fowling piece, thankfully.

“They're not likely to run, are they?” she asked, as she handed me a fresh-lit tallow candle.

“Not the way he shot those two, not centering both knees that way,” said the publican. “I've had people with greens in here before, and one of 'em's spoken of that type of shot.” A brief pause, then, “traitors, eh?”

“Yes, and of a most vile species,” said Sarah as I left with the candle in one hand at a slow walk toward the nearer of the two traitors. “There was a treason-plot, and not merely were they involved at some level, but they repeatedly failed their king.”

“Those are traitors, right enough,” said the man – who again, I barely heard. Both men were trying to crawl away, and as I came within thirty feet of the rear of one of the closest one, I noted their steady divergence one from another. It made for a conundrum of inestimable nature, and I wondered silently, “now how do I set that wretch alight and then do that to the to other, now that they...”

Something seemed to warn me about fumes, and I tossed the candle into the air, then ran for my life as the massive flaming billow of red-flushed fire chased me all the way back to the stoop amid the sounds of the two men's horrible screams. I turned to see both men burning, their entire bodies now more or less engulfed in flames, and the screaming seemed unceasing as they both continued to burn like slow-moving torches.

“Now that's the first burn-pile since the swine last showed here,” said the publican. “Good riddance to them witches.” He then turned, the barrels of his fowling piece pointing toward the boards of the stoop as he held it in his plump hand, walked inside his place, and closed the door with a muffled thump.