What is this road called? part three.

While I wondered if Hans and Anna had eaten, I soon found that not merely had they not done so, but that one of the things that had come back with them from the Public House was a fresh crock of herring. That being the quickest and easiest 'edible' meal at this time of year, they had gotten some; and within minutes, we had a crowded table and a profound aroma of salted and smoked fish in the air. Again, I noted a difference in taste compared to what I recalled of these fish.

“Are these of the latest run?” I asked.

“They are,” said Anna, “only fish do not run.”

However, as Anna looked at me, I could almost hear her thinking: 'there are no fish that run here', or rather, 'I have never seen a fish run. Are there such things elsewhere, like across the sea'?

“I heard that there were periods where herring were very rare, and periods where the people catching them caught them in sizable numbers,” I said, “and Hans said these were among the first batch they did this year.”

“This crock is of those like that,” said Hans. “Why, do they taste bad?”

“N-no, I could just tell they tasted slightly different,” I said. “Almost as if they were somehow fresher, or something.”

“That is because they are,” said Hans. “The ones near the end are old and tired things, as they have dumped their eggs and stuff, while these are of the new crop of them.”

“They get this big in one year?” I gasped.

“I am not sure,” said Hans. “I have only been in that place a few times, and none of those times did I stay long, because there were a lot of these bad flying bugs there.”

“They eat those bugs, and that is why they grow so fast,” said Sarah. “This was just north of the second kingdom's waste, about ten miles east of the mule trail, correct?”

Hans nodded to indicate 'yes'.

“That is where those fish pile up,” said Sarah, “though they do not do what trouts do, as far as I could tell.”

“The water isn't nearly as clear, is it?” I asked.

“It's very marshy in that area, just like for the start of the West river,” said Sarah, “only those marshes are much larger, and hardly anyone goes there.” She more or less implied that I was right about the water, though I wasn't sure. Did she go in those marshes, or were they 'deathtraps' for swimmers?

“That you saw, anyway,” I said. “Was that place full of linen plants?”

“It was in places,” said Sarah, “though the more usual were these other taller and coarser marsh-plants that resembled linen. Then, there were these odd trees growing up out of the marshes, so it's quite shady in most places, and finally, the birds there are really strange.”

“Birds?” I asked.

“They swim,” said Sarah, “and they might not be as noisy as quolls, but they are not quiet, at least during the day.”

“They should be quiet during the night,” I said.

“They would be if they were common birds,” said Sarah. “Every bird that is able to swim that I have seen or heard of tends to have trouble sleeping, and that is because of their noise.”

“Noise?” I asked. I had the impression Sarah was describing waterfowl of some kind.

“You've heard Georg blow his witch-horn, haven't you?” asked Sarah. “They sound somewhat like that, only much shorter for their noises.” A pause, then, “that is not the trouble with those birds.”

“What is?” asked Hans.

“Those birds do not sleep!” squeaked Sarah. “They make some noise during the day, but at night, it's worse than hearing a hundred people who have had too much swine blowing witch-horns, and they do not stop!”

“How big are they?” I asked.

“Twice the weight of a fat fool-hen,” said Sarah, “with a long neck, long wings, strange feet that are like paddles, and a long and narrow orange beak that has teeth in it.”

“Birds with teeth?” I squeaked.

“Yes, they have teeth,” said Sarah. “Ask Anna if you do not believe me.”

I looked at Anna, who said, “I have never seen the birds she's talking about, but I have seen where something bit her just above her right ankle, and that thing, whatever it was, had the most unusual mouth I've ever heard of – and the most teeth of any animal I've heard of, if I go by the scar I saw.”

“That bestiary?” I asked. I just recalled it.

“Those things are not in that book,” said Sarah. “There are some birds that are similar as to their shape and much else, but those in that book are described as being taller than I am, and the birds in the marshes near the top of the Main river might come up to my waist for the larger ones.”

“Are they written about?” I asked.

“Yes, in the Compendium, unless the witches got into that printing shop then,” said Sarah. “That bird might have had short teeth compared to those of a rat, and it did not look like a rat, but it certainly acted enough like a rat to suit me.”

“Uh, charge?” I asked.

“It did that,” said Sarah, “and it was like a rat...”

“A white rat,” I said. “Like those two that tried for us.”

Sarah nodded, then said, “I blew off half of its feathers with my fowling piece, and that bird ignored being shot.”

“Yes, and what did you do?” asked Hans.

“I had to stab it repeatedly with an old knife my cousin had found at Boermaas before it would leave me alone,” said Sarah. A brief pause, then, “and that night, I found out those birds are not good to eat.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Their diet?”

“They taste worse than Karpfen,” said Sarah. “It was a good thing they tasted so badly, I suspect, as I had the runs for two days from two mouthfuls of that thing.”

“You cooked it, didn't you?” asked Anna. “Strange food usually needs thorough cooking.”

“Those things would need to be cooked until they were charcoal,” said Sarah, “and the pieces I tried cooking of that thing were greatly inclined to turn into that stuff. I had to be quite careful, in fact.”

“Inclined?” I asked. “How?”

“That sounds like they were not safe to eat, Sarah, as the only food that burns like that is food that has too much fat to be healthful.” I had the impression Anna knew about such food by experience.

“When pigs fly,” I muttered. “Those things might not have been pigs, but they sound like they were greasier than the hocks of a big grunter.” A pause, then, “so waterfowl are a bad idea, and while there are some of those things sheltering off of those islands near the north-tip, we'd best forgo sampling them.”

“Especially those,” said the soft voice. “The reason those birds Sarah spoke of are not on the butcher's list is because no one knew of them until her notes came into the west school, and while the witches didn't succeed in replacing her article in the Compendium set you have, they did succeed in keeping them out of the 'notifications' butchers receive about healthy and unhealthy animals in the fourth kingdom.”

“And that means no one else knows of them, as those notifications typically also go to the various kingdom houses,” said Sarah.

“Given that the only people who routinely go to that area are Veldters, its lack means little to those in the five kingdoms,” said the soft voice.

“They go there?” asked Anna.

“Yes, for cloth-fiber,” said the soft voice. “There was a lot more linen than Sarah thought there was, as what she was thinking of was 'false-linen'. Those larger and coarser plants that she saw were among the last stands of 'true-linen' that remain on the continent from long ago, and the Veldters both cultivate and propagate those plants in those marshes as much as they can.”

“What's the difference between those and common linen?” I asked.

“A slightly coarser fiber that's about twice as strong and five times as abrasion-resistant,” said the soft voice, “and given proper treatment, it results in clothing similar to that cloth called 'mule-skin' for texture that is both extremely durable and and very strong.”

“And when it is not given that treatment?” I asked.

“Then you get what is called 'fifth kingdom sack-cloth',” said the soft voice. “It is not only not made in the fifth kingdom, but it isn't really 'sack-cloth'. It's merely the usual cloth made by the Veldters before they 'prepare' it for making it into their garments. Then, there are their dyes.”

“Yes?” asked Hans. I suspected he was wondering that way before he asked, as I knew he had some small 'jugs', all neatly labeled as being 'dye' – and while I had not looked in those jugs, I had looked at the various spots of what looked like paint on their corks. I suspected those color-chips indicated the color of what was in the jug. He had every color represented except black, almost – as there were a lot of those small jugs in that set of shelves.

“The Veldters commonly do not dye their own clothing, as the treatment process bleaches it to a modest degree, and that off-white color works well in the Valley,” said the soft voice, “but if they sell it to others, they can – and do – dye it to order.” A brief pause, then, “most 'common' black-cloth is actually made by the Veldters.”

“That names them witches,” said Anna.

“Not really,” said the soft voice. “They would much prefer other colors, but given their best-paying customers demand black or a very dark brown, that's what they commonly run for dyes.” Another brief pause, then, “and when I said 'prefer', I meant 'they really do not want to run black or dark brown dyes in their equipment.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“The saying among them is, 'black dye poisons the vats and makes the clothier sick',” said the soft voice, “and dark brown tends to be nearly as hard on both people and equipment. After every run of that stuff, they not only must clean everything especially well, but in some cases, they must have a priest come and 'clean' the vats and – along with a doctor – 'cleanse' those working with such cloth before they can actually dye more cloth.”

Anna looked at me, as did Hans, then Sarah – who was the first to speak: “what is a priest?”

“I'm not sure what that term means to those people,” I said, “beyond that person is most likely not a witch like those around here.”

“You understated the case,” said the soft voice. “If you think what those three masons did when they first set foot in a church is 'odd', you should see what happens if a 'priest' sets foot in a church.”

“What is it they do?” asked Hans.

“Those people do not need to hear any sermons,” said the soft voice. “While most from the Valley might need to hear one common sermon, or maybe two, if a 'priest' sets foot in a church – sermon or no sermon, it does not matter when or where – that man or woman will not walk three paces from the threshold before they fall to the floor and start screaming and crying as if they're on fire in hell.” A pause, then, “given that all Veldter 'priests' are marked – it's a requirement to be a 'priest' in the Valley, in fact – that should not surprise you.”

“T-that w-was what I did,” moaned Sarah. “T-th-the first time I walked inside a church, I fell on the floor not three feet from the door, and I was crying as if I was going to die right there and land on Brimstone's dinner plate.”

“How old were you?” asked Anna. Hearing Sarah talk that way reminded me of what I endured, and how I needed no preaching whatsoever to become certain of my doomed status – and how I had reacted to the very first such invitation I received: the speech of 'I'm going to hell', the compulsion to speak the words, the abrupt tears upon saying them...And then the reactions afterward, as if something had indeed happened, something I could neither explain nor deny.

“I'm not certain,” said Sarah, “but I am certain that my parents left me alone until I was right, which was three hours after I fell down. I was able to walk, and I could use the privy then, but I know it was before I could read – and I was reading out of the book before I was three.”

“How is that?” asked Hans. “No school will take a person who is that young.”

“M-mother was once a lecturer at the west school,” said Sarah, “and she taught me as soon as I showed interest in what she was reading.”

While the talk had flowed thick and fast, we had still managed to eat more; and once the food was put away – I was most glad for those fish, as I was noticing that my gut was becoming more and more 'finicky' about what I put in it, and herring, at least, didn't 'gripe' me – it came the turn of the boxes. Anna, however, had definite ideas as to which items needed addressing first; and the first box on her well-hidden list was a small, neat, and somewhat heavy box with dovetailed joints, brass hinges and latch, and a thin yet even coating of what I guessed to be varnish. It had a yellow tint with a hint of brown, it brought out the grain of the wood especially well, and it seemed to resist scratching passably.

“Open that one,” said Anna. I could almost 'feel' the surprise hidden in her voice.

I came to the table, then tipped the latch. The lid 'sprang up' perhaps an eighth of an inch, and I carefully felt the edges of the box, much as if it was rigged. Once satisfied, I opened it further – and then looked at Anna with astonishment.

“What is this?” I asked.

Sarah was at my elbow, however, and she gently moved the box away from me. With great care, she lifted out a round satin brass 'object' about four inches in diameter and three inches thick, with two knurled circumferential dials, several 'machined' legs with adjustable 'feet', and a aura of precision that matched the very best tools I had. I then saw the three 'X' marks on a flat place on its side. Again, I had the question I had asked foremost in my mind, only Sarah seemed to have the device to herself. I then thought to ask her the same question I had asked Anna.

“Dear, what is that thing?”

“A Heinrich magnifier,” squeaked Sarah. “Only that small-seer we have is stronger.”

“D-did you c-clean that thing?” I asked.

“Yes, I did,” said Sarah, “and Hans helped me some. We had to do it outside, as that distillate was the worst-smelling heavy distillate I've ever used.”

“Do I need to go over it?”

“Yes,” said Anna, “but not now. It's clean enough for me to be able to learn to use it, and I wish knitting was as difficult.”

“It's hard to use?” I asked. I was wondering if there was a 'manual' for the thing Sarah was examining.

“Not now it is,” said Anna. “It might be a little blurry in places, which is why I think you might want to go over it when you have time.”

“Before you need it to save someone's life,” I said. “That means, uh...”

“I would look at that thing there first,” said Anna. “Hendrik ordered it at the same time he ordered the books, and some of the papers we received from those people with the donkeys need to stay here until they can go to the right people.”

“Papers?” I asked, as I stood from the table. I needed to use the privy.

When I returned, however, I had a peculiar question, only now, Anna had taken my seat. Sarah was showing her how to use the 'magnifier', and as I watched from the other side of the table, I noted just how much the thing 'unscrewed' as Sarah adjusted it. Its upper portion came out nearly half an inch.

“Those Grim volumes have pictures, don't they?” I asked. “Does that thing have a manual?”

“No,” said Hans. “I was going to try looking in those instrument-maker's books, but Anna warned me off of them.”

“I doubt it matters much, as these things are not like that m-micro...” Anna was trying to choke out the word, and after several more attempts, gave up. “That small-seer needs one. This is much simpler.”

“It looks much simpler, because it has fewer adjustments,” said Sarah. “It took me several long days to learn the tricks of these things, and those I used were at school. This is not one of those, and I suspect it's either easier to use than those were, or it is much harder than it seems.”

“Uh, how is it different?” I asked.

“It's a restricted one,” said Sarah, “and it has two adjustment rings. The ones at school needed you to adjust their legs to get the clearest picture. This one adjusts with this ring here, and then its power of magnification varies with this ring here – and one adjusts its legs so it is steady, unlike those at school.”

How strong is it?” I asked.

“This one is stronger than those at school, and not a little stronger,” said Sarah. “If you put bread with white-thread on it under the ones at school, you could see the individual stalks of the little trees that were growing, and if it was bad, you could see the trees had turned into these strange things that I've only seen a handful of times.”

“Strange things?” I asked.

“Witch-tables,” said Sarah. “They look really strange.”

“Those are trouble,” said Hans. “You do not want to touch them, much less eat them, as they are worse than datramonium for craziness.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “I once picked some with bug-picker's tweezers and bagged them, then when I went to visit my cousin that year, we put some of the crumbled-up dried ones in a jug of strong drink. That jug was inside a coach, so we figured the witches would enjoy those things.”

“Yes, and what happened next?” asked Hans.

“Every one of those witches were sucking on sticks of mining dynamite within a turn of a glass,” said Sarah with a trace of a giggle. “I guess those witches thought they were sucking on weed-bundles, but they soon learned of their mistake when one of them tried to set fire to what he was sucking on.”

“Uh, what happened next?”

“The fuse lit,” said Sarah, “and they all exploded before I could count five.” A pause, then, “there. Now, Anna, look at that thread.”

Sarah moved over, and Anna took her place. The gasp of astonishment Anna made a second later was such that I wanted to take a look myself.

“That is thin thread,” said Sarah.

“It's bigger than my finger,” gasped Anna, “and it's like some bad third kingdom rope I've seen a few times. It has these nasty bristles coming out everywhere.”

“That small-seer..?”

“Is much too strong for thread,” said Sarah. “The most troubling things in bad water are too large for it also, but they show up well with these things.”

“Is that why we got it?” I asked.

“I'm not certain,” said Anna, as she began twisting the knurled rings slowly while holding a small platform – or, perhaps, a handle – that folded down. “Oh, my. It's now taking up the whole window here.”

“You can see some of the smaller creatures in water with this one, then,” said Sarah. “That small-seer is almost too strong.”

“Watch that it does not grow legs,” said Hans, “as Anna likes that thing.” A brief pause, then, “now, there is this other thing, and you will want to see it before that trip, same as this other thing that is coming up on the next donkey train. It was not ready yet, is what one of those people told me.”

Here, Hans fetched another such box, this one but a trifle smaller, and put it in front of me. Again, I tripped the latch, the lid sprang up – and this time, I opened it with but little less hesitation. For some reason, I was still expecting a bomb of some kind to be present in these boxes.

“You didn't see what happened to my small compass, did you?” I asked, as I carefully removed a much larger example – one nearly four inches across. This too was of satin-finish brass, and its aspect of precision was nearly as great as the magnifier. A look on the bottom of the squat brass instrument, however, had me gasp.

“Three 'X' marks?” I asked.

“Now that I can speak of,” said Hans, “as I have seen things like that one there. That is not like your small one, as ships want one that is bigger so they can read them easy when it is dark.”

“Those few ships which travel after sundown, you mean,” retorted Sarah.

“Yes, those use this type,” said Hans. “There are others that look like this, but they have fewer markings, and they are shiny all over, not like this one.”

“Would this finish work for a sextant?” I asked, as I touched the outside of the compass.

“I think so, as the two I have seen were like that for their finish,” said Hans. “The one you are doing has three rings, so it might need to be different.”

“Shiny?” I asked.

“No, you do not want those things shiny, especially in certain places on them,” said Hans. “That pilot said the shiny ones were worthless, as you cannot get a good read on them if the sun is at all bright, and if you do not believe me, you can ask Anna, as she used one of those things a few times.”

“You what?” I gasped.

“The pilot let me use it while he was running that boat down from the second kingdom port,” said Anna, “and Sarah is right about most ships stopping before it gets dark, as all of the ones I saw did that.” A brief pause, then, “and the one we were started late and quit early, and it was as slow a boat as any I've heard of.”

“Old, too,” said Hans. “We did not have our buggy that first trip, though, so it was that boat or walk, as none of the others smelled decent.”

“The others smelled?” I asked.

“Yes, as that was the second kingdom port,” said Hans. “Talk has it that it is worse now than it was then, as that was nearly ten years ago.”

“Eleven, Hans,” said Anna – who was now looking at my box. I passed it over to her, and she squeaked, “no, he did not have one like this.”

“What did he have?” I asked.

“It had but sixteen points, and no numbers,” said Anna. “This has thirty-two points, a needle that is very free and lively, and then it has a total of...” – here, Anna began counting. It took her almost a minute. She then exclaimed, “all one hundred and twenty graduations.”

“His has more numbers, though one wants a small glass to read them, they're so small,” said Sarah. She then looked at the compass that still lay in the box. It seemed a fitting place for it, as I had felt the 'padding' that surrounded it. “Still, though, if we sail at night, we want this one, as I can tell it's going to be easier to read for most people.”

“Uh, not everyone can drive a boat?” I asked.

“I suspect you'll be doing much of that, at least at first,” said Sarah. “I might have made two sea-trips, and I know the two of them have made at least one, but I know neither Karl nor Sepp has even seen the ocean, and I doubt Gabriel has.”

“He has,” said Anna. “He's been to the fourth kingdom's harbor.”

“That is not what I meant,” said Sarah. “He is as ignorant of it as the other two, then.”

“I've not seen it, either,” I said.

“You have not been on it, you mean,” said Sarah. “You have seen it, and more, you have driven that boat.”

“I have?” I asked.

“Yes, though not the way most people would think,” said Sarah. “I've had similar dreams about some of my trips, and in those dreams, it was as real as if I'd actually done the thing to come, and when it came time to do what I had seen in my dream, I knew everything that was going to happen, almost as if my dream was fully as real...” Sarah paused, then, “remember when you woke up with that smelly stuff on your hands?”

“B-burnt lard?” I gasped.

“Yes, that time,” said Sarah. “I had a dream that same night, and I remember much more of it now. It was about those northern people, and they burn swine-fat in their lanterns, and if you're floating around those things, you're going to smell like burnt swine-fat. Then, there were dreams involving the Swartsburg, especially that second time you went.”

I noticed Anna was looking at me.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Was that what happened when you were on post that one time?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Then maybe you can answer this question,” she said. “I found this one picture in one of those Grim volumes, and it's bad enough that I wonder just what it shows, even if I can read the writing under it.”

As Anna fetched the volume in question, I began to look at the compass once more. I felt reminded of 'my' magnifier, so much so that I went to my possible bag, then retrieved it in its small leather pouch. By this time, Anna had brought the huge book to the table, and as she began paging through it, I asked, “are those books too heavy for you?” I did not wish Anna to be injured, especially if it was readily avoidable, and the same for Sarah. Sarah might be uncommonly strong for someone of such slight build, but I still worried about her. She looked more than a little 'fragile'.

“If they weighed much more, I'd say yes,” said Anna. “They're about as heavy as anything I'd want to pick up on a regular basis, but they are not as large as some books that I've seen or Sarah has told me about.”

“Uh, what would those be?” I asked.

“A Gustaaf word-book is larger,” said Sarah, “and every version of those I've seen had a place so it could be closed, locked, and then chained up, and all of those at the west school were on special wheeled carriers.”

“And at the house proper?” I asked.

It's in Hendrik's room,” said Sarah, “and it's on a carrier, same as those at school.” Sarah paused, then, “or, I should say, that carrier looks like those at school did, only I think it was built at the house proper, as not only is the wood different, but I think it's better wood.”

“Hendrik did the same thing to that fetish as he did to his portable writing desk,” said the soft voice, “and were he planning on using that writing desk again, he'd have it redone by Dennis so it worked properly.”

“I d-don't do wood very well,” I said. The obvious exceptions to that, of course, were some patterns and small pieces; but when and if I could, I handed off such work to the local carpenters.

“The metal portions of that desk,” said the soft voice. “Those were the chief trouble with that thing, if you recall correctly. The wood parts he can readily have done over if needed.” A brief pause, then, “and if Andreas had had worse luck with the metal portions of that 'book-holder', he'd put in an order at the shop for those metal pieces, also.”

“It isn't too frustrating for him, is it?” I asked. I then caught the word 'fetish', and nearly screeched: “Is that word-book a witch-manual?”

“No, but witches like to steal word-books in general and that type in particular, and when they cannot steal the entire book, often they do so piecemeal,” said the soft voice. “Hence those particular word-books have provisions for securing.” A brief pause, then, “however, if you find a book set up in that fashion that is not a Gustaaf word-book, there is a very high probability that it's not merely a book written by and for witches, but it's also very old and very cursed as well – which is why the book-stand that came with the Gustaaf was a fetish-grade piece, and priced accordingly.”

“Those who made it thought like witches?” I asked.

“Mostly because they were witches,” said the soft voice. “They are now where they belong.”

“Here it is,” said Anna. “I cannot make it out at all, at least for the picture.”

Sarah left off what she was doing, then went to Anna's side. While I had not spent any 'real' time in these huge books – I had glanced at the day they arrived, and had looked a few times briefly since then – I had been far too busy to spend 'hours' in them. Anna, on the other hand, had – or so I guessed.

“Are pictures common in those books?” I asked.

“Not in the Grim Collection,” said Sarah. “There are perhaps twenty for the entire seven volumes. Now if you speak of the Compendium, there you will find pictures – and better ones, as well as more of them, even if most of what that set has are drawings.” A pause, then to Anna, “which picture is that?”

“I have no idea, but it says here, quote: 'Here a Witch-Soldier tosses a Bomb at his Target'. Finish-quote.” Anna then looked at me, for some reason, and I thought to look at what she was actually seeing. Sarah, on the other hand, had more to speak of. She showed an obvious familiarity with both text and the picture.

“That picture is very hard to understand,” she said, “but no current witch is a soldier.”

“Witches are not soldiers,” said Hans. “That is an old tale.”

“That was what I meant,” said Sarah. “That tale is difficult for me to follow, and it wasn't mentioned in any of my classes, not once and not ever. Still, though – that picture reminds me of some I've seen on tapestries.” A brief pause, then, “what is a witch-soldier, and where is his target, and where, especially, is this bomb he's supposedly tossing?”

I stood and came to Anna's side, then from over her shoulder, I looked at the picture. It seemed some kind of etching, as far as I could tell; but its thick lines, its seemingly ink-blotched surface, and the aspect of sheer crudity made me wonder if the printers involved were sloppy to the point of horror when printing it.

At least, I felt this way at first. As I looked at it more closely, however, I saw the details of the 'palm-sized' print seemed to be more conjecture than all else, and this due to the picture's horrific crudity.

“That thing looks like it was copied five times in a row by a bad photocopier,” I thought.

As I stared at it, however, some few details began to come out of the ink-blotted Rorschach I saw before me: there were a number – perhaps as few as five, and as many as seven – utterly strange-looking 'beings' traversing some kind of a hillside somewhere, and the beings – or creatures, perhaps – were hugely fat, faceless, thick-limbed, and dressed in clothing of some kind. I paused, this to look harder. Then I realized another deeper portion of what the 'drawing' was trying to hide.

This clothing, the stuff worn by these beings, was vaguely military as to cut, and indecipherable as to all else as of yet.

A closer look yet: a solitary member of this small group had something in his hand, and he looked as if he might throw or toss it. I then noticed the growing headache that was starting to pound like a rapid-fire drum between my eyes. Only that 'drum' in that one dream pounded harder and faster, and for some reason, I thought of 'machine guns' once more. I then actually read the caption under the 'drawing'.

“Just what Anna said,” I thought. I then looked closer at what that one 'thug' was about to toss.

“That thing is a squib!” I squeaked. “He's going to toss this, uh, grenade...”

“Those blue-dressed thugs did not like those things,” said Sarah, “and I have seen that word on several tapestries. It is not in that tale, however.”

“Would this g-grenade be called a bomb?” asked Anna. She then squeaked, “how did I say that word?”

“I'm not sure about how you spoke that word, but I have heard about – and seen – grenades,” I said. “Granted, they were in museums, or they were, uh, deactivated so they could not explode, but I have seen pictures of real ones before, and I've talked to a number of people who've tossed real ones – including some few who had tossed them in combat.” A pause, then, “I've tossed squibs before of one kind or another, and then dodged the smoke and flames that came after they exploded – and those could pass for grenades, at least some of them could have.”

“Were they witch-soldiers?” asked Sarah. She meant the people I had spoken of.

“I really doubt they were, dear,” I said. “These people did not look at all like those printed here – the military would either toss them out in a hurry or run them around until they were thin as fishing-poles if they were that fat, as being fat like that causes real trouble if you have to run much – and if you're being chased or shot at, you want to be able to run.”

“I know about that part,” said Sarah.

“So do I,” said Anna. “Before you came” – I understood I was being spoken of – “I might have had three bullets come close enough to make me jump for the dirt, and I suspect two of those at the least were accidents. Since then, I've lost count of how many times that has happened, and that's before I went in the hall and got my own lead for a change.”

“It was trouble getting it out of her,” said Hans, “as it was near her bottom, and Anna does not like me looking there much.”

“Especially with shot-tweezers, Hans,” said Anna reproachfully. “You kept pulling out my hair and missing the shot, and it hurt badly every time you did that.”

I put my index finger on the drawing, and began to gently – and carefully – rub it. Within seconds, I thought to look at my finger, and drew it away to see what looked like oily and gritty grime.

“Yuck,” I spat. “I need some aquavit to clean this nasty stuff off.”

After cleaning my finger, I noticed a slight clearing of the picture, and I rubbed more. Every ten seconds, I needed to clean my finger with aquavit; but as the minutes passed, the coarse and crude-looking lines gradually narrowed; and as this occurred, more details – shading, cross-hatching, 'realistic-looking' perspective, accurate proportions – became more and more noticeable. With the twelfth such rubbing, I left off, and once more, as I cleaned my finger of 'filth', I looked at the 'drawing'.

“Looks more like an old black and white photograph now – it's a lot sharper, a lot clearer, and...”

Before my eyes, the 'drawing' more or less became what I had spoken of, and the details of the picture became truly astonishing.

“Oh, my,” squawked Sarah. “Now it is as clear as anything that I've ever seen in those old books downstairs.”

“No, more so,” said Anna. “This is almost like seeing what happened as it was happening.” A brief pause, then, “can you bring that magnifier over here, as I think what I'm seeing here is really important.”

Hans did so, and Anna began adjusting it, I continued to look over her shoulder. What was now obvious to me about a 'magnifier' like what we had received was there were many things that needed the capacity that only it could provide – and as I looked into the 'blown' up details the 'screen' of the thing was showing, I gasped.

“That's a...”

“That looks like a small pear,” said Anna. “I've never seen a bomb like that, but it has this small pin like a friction igniter, a handle – that wretch is holding that in his hand so it doesn't explode – and... That thing looks just like a small pear.”

I looked closer at the now 'thumb' sized object – before it was but slightly larger than a period at the end of a typical printed sentence, and then at the person – the 'witch-soldier' – holding it. He was, in my mind at the least, an obvious – and thoroughly nasty – thug. I then had a question, for I had never seen pears here.

“What is the shape of a pear here?” I asked.

“Mostly round, with this small plump knob with the stem where they attach to the tree,” said Anna. She was slowly moving the magnifier over the picture.

“I've heard of grenades like that, and seen non-explosive models of them,” I said, “though those models I saw were a bit larger than what that thug there is about to toss.” I then looked closer, and asked, “could you reduce the magnification, dear? I wonder about that wretch, and I want a look at him, not just what he's holding.”

Anna did so, and the first thing I noticed was a lot more detail: the witch-soldier with the grenade seemed 'morbidly obese', with a huge barrel chest, a massive belly, uncommonly thick arms and monstrous legs – and on the back, a huge and blocky square-edged object that was obviously not a pack. It was merged into his body far too seamlessly to be anything but a portion of who this person was. I then saw his weapons, and nearly gasped.

“I've seen things like that, too,” I said, as I noted a fairly conventional 'rifle', complete with a long and slightly curved magazine. This weapon was obviously military in nature, just like those I recalled having similar magazines.

“That wretch has a big-enough knife,” said Anna. “The handle looks like one of those used down in the fifth kingdom, and the same for that sheath it's in. I've seen them look just like that, in fact.”

“It isn't a color picture, so it's hard to determine where this is at, and I bet it was long ago, also,” I said.

“That was just before that war started,” said Sarah. “I figured that much out when I read that one during my third term, and I have an idea as to roughly where it was happening.”

“Where?” I asked.

“The east foothills of the Red Mountains somewhere near the second kingdom's border with the first,” said Sarah. “It was near the very top of the Valley, in this place most call the northern waste.” A brief pause, then, “you might want to rub that picture some more.”

Anna took away the magnifier, and I carefully rubbed the picture. This time, I barely touched it, and when I did so, there were several small white 'flecks' that had not been there before. Anna replaced the magnifier, and began to work the two dials so as to focus on these latest developments.

“You might want to read this, Sarah,” said Anna, “as some little white signs showed up. This one here is...” Anna paused, then, spat, “now I know why those thugs were called witch-soldiers. That wretch is trying to blow up a marked person with that bomb!”

I looked at the place in question, and mouthed the words, “entrance to hiding place of marked person.”

“Disgraced,” said Sarah with finality. I then looked up from where I was and saw upon her face an expression I could only speak of as 'intense horror'. I then wondered if my words were adequate to describe Sarah's feelings.

I then asked, “may I try that thing?”

Anna let me sit where she was, and I now had three people crowding over my shoulders. I focused the thing 'sharper' than Anna had had it – she had had it 'close', but I got it 'right on' – and began moving the thing around. I had to touch the magnification ring several times, as well as adjust the focus periodically, but the next caption, this being near the waist of the bomb-tosser, was the following:

The witch with the bomb is calling the marked person a

DISGRACE in the common language, while the other witches

with him are chanting virulent curses in a 'witch-language'.”

“Witch-language?” I asked. “Are they speaking of what those black-dressed witches like to curse and swear in, or something else?”

“In that tale, I am not certain,” said Sarah, “even if the most common one spoken by witches in the Grim Collection seems to be close to what they speak now.”

“Underworld German, then,” I muttered, as I recalled what the larger black books were entirely written in, as well as when those books were supposedly originally written. “That wretch was...”

Here, I moved it to another caption, and noted, “this was a 'special' language thought to have power over those marked.”

“Do witches believe that about Underworld German?” I asked. “Or do they just like the way that nasty-sounding language sounds?” My third question remained unsaid: “were they speaking in that language, or in another one that we don't know about?”

The other captions identified not merely the weapons as being 'large-bore rifled weapons of uncommon destructive power, as were commonly used by witch-soldiers for hunting those marked', but also the area. Sarah was reasonably accurate as to her assessment, though when I read on another tag, 'the Curse changed the landscape markedly', I wondered, “how?”

“Decreased the land-mass of the continent to no small degree, and actually moved many of the features of the portion that remained above water,” said the soft voice. “More, certain then-currently unknown land-masses actually vanished from sight, and finally, that place across the sea lost most of its land due to rising water.”

“That explains that picture,” said Anna, as she moved away the magnifier. “I've been bothered by the Abbey, though, so I think you might want to read that tale called 'The Horned Dragoon'.”

“Bothered?” asked Sarah. “Has that dragoon gotten into your dreams?”

“Either it or this other tale I've heard of,” said Anna, “but both of them speak of dragoons, and this thing was awful.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It smelled horribly,” said Anna, “and it was very large, and then its fire! That was so bad I'd not want to be within a hundred paces of it when it decided to spit flame.”

“Spit flame?” I asked.

“It did not 'breathe' flame,” said Anna, “but it spat it. This stuff caught fire almost the instant it hit the air, and then it carried for at least ten paces before it went out.”

“Did it fly?” I asked.

Anna looked at me, then shook her head to indicate no. “Let me fetch that book.”

While Anna removed the one volume and brought back the other, I wondered as to the time. Was it yet my bedtime? Wooding took three hours, perhaps four, and I needed a nap before posting, then the day after for church, and one day...

“No, best make it two,” I thought.

And as I did that, I suspected most strongly we did not have two days. Karl and Sepp would need to 'roust themselves' and gather the things on the lists given them, because bright and early on 'Monday', we would need to gather ourselves unto the Abbey, and there, we would do as we must.

“And what of Maarten and Katje?” I asked.

“They were not the only people who heard what you heard just now,” said the soft voice. “The reason you need to do the Abbey that soon...”

“But those bombs?” I gasped.

“That's why you need to get that wooding started early,” said the soft voice. “Look that book over quickly, then all of you get yourselves into bed and make an early start tomorrow – and make all possible haste with your gathering. If you catch the carpenters while they're eating at the Public House and unearth one of those bomb-castings, they can turn up a few disks in time for you to have them for 'the beginning of the week'.” A brief pause, then, “it will not be 'Monday', as that day is two days later during this week.”

“What do they call 'extra' days here?” I asked.

“They have no names for them,” said Anna, “as they've never happened before.”

“Wrong,” said the soft voice's emphatic tones. “They happened during the time immediately prior to and just after the drowning, then they happened around the time of the Curse, and because they're happening now, that should tell you just how crucial a time it actually is.”

“And how dead most people really are to such matters,” I said. “Even with days that have gained hours, and weeks... Three-hundred and thirty-six hour weeks?” I gasped.

Those will come later,” said the soft voice, “even if there are commonly more than the usual number of hours in the day at this time, and some recent weeks have had eleven days between church sessions.”

Reading 'The Horned Dragoon' was something that made me glad for Sarah's familiarity with the tale, as its language was archaic – not 'Ye Writtenn Formatte', but still amply 'weird' and 'creepy' as well – and its feeling was 'greatly convoluted' at best atop the sensations otherwise engendered. As we plowed through the pages of this tale – it was neither especially short, nor terribly long, according to Sarah, but its way of writing made it harder work than the usual for 'old tales' – I began to get an impression: the beast in the Abbey, while also a dragoon, was not the same creature as the one listed in the tale.

“This thing might be fearsome enough,” I murmured, “and hot enough when it flames, but it does not have much for range when it sends fire.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sarah.

“The one Anna spoke of could spew flames thirty feet,” I said. “This one's about as bad as the long-forge blown to a solid welding heat – fire about four feet for length at the most, but a lot of heat.”

“That one is trouble,” said Hans. “Those people do not like to get near that one if that blower is working into it, as it makes thrice the heat of a common forge.”

“You need to carefully adjust the blast with it,” I said. “First, run the blower as low as it will go, then move it to the right distance from the blast-hole – and then, that thing's fit for forging.”

“It still is much hotter than a regular forge,” said Hans. “If those people were smart, they have you make smaller blowers, or things like them, and tear down all of their old forges and put in those things instead.”

“They do not need to,” said Sarah. “That type of forge can easily do a lot more work than the usual type, as I've seen both of those men use it at the same time without any blast at all, and that's when they're not using the drop-hammer.” A brief pause, then, “and based on my most-recent notes with those people from the Valley, the usual use for such a forge is heating pieces of metal for a large drop-hammer worked by steam, one that uses special plates to make things directly to size.”

The conversation then drifted back to the animal in the tale, and as I resumed reading, I recalled what details I had 'received' about the one in the Abbey: lizard-shaped; long, mobile tail, one that it thrashed around like a whip when inclined; a long line of triangular spikes upon its back; horns of a sort, though calling these odd-looking spikes 'horns' was stretching matters; a mouth filled with deeply-entrenched fangs, and finally, a tendency to belch – and direct with its mouth and tongue – this foul-smelling gas that ignited upon contact with air to burn with long pale orange-tinted yellow-going-to-white flames.

“Now that was the dragoon in my dreams,” said Anna as I described the reptile in question. “You want to watch both ends of that thing, as it whips that tail around like a lash, and forget lighting that part as a fuse.” A brief pause, then, “I hope this thing is not named Smog.”

“Smog?” I gasped, upon hearing the name of the beast I had once endured.

“Now that is a name for a dragoon,” said Sarah. “Where did you hear of it?”

“I heard about that name from Gabriel,” said Anna, “but I tried to smell wine on him, and could not, so he was not intoxicated with wine.”

“Did he speak of who he heard it from?” asked Sarah.

“Him,” said Anna, as she referred to me. “It was the name of a dragoon, supposedly.”

“It was,” I said, “and that one not only flew, but it was larger than either that one in your dreams or this one here. Then, it flamed – and that thing spewed fire worse than the one in your dream and the horned dragoon put together. Finally, it could stand up to nearly anything resembling a weapon, save for one small place on its body.”

I had the rapt attention of the others. I did not remember much about Smog, but what I recalled was bad enough. I was about to speak of the pollution the beast produced, with especial emphasis upon the hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen, when Sarah interrupted me.

“Was it ever killed?” she asked.

“Yes, by someone shooting it with an arrow he especially liked,” I said. “He put that arrow in that one vulnerable spot, and that thing dropped like a 'hot brick'. It was spewing fire like a thousand jugs full of distillate the whole way down, and when it crashed into a lake, it turned the lake to steam when it burned.”

“I hope that one at the Abbey doesn't do that,” said Sarah, “as there was talk of them making a pond on the grounds once the building was well underway.”

Another few minutes, and the yawns began coming; and seeing as how we were told to get an early start, I headed for first the tub for a quick bath, and then bed. This time, I brought a jug with me, as I had developed a thirst from such reading, and I drank two cups of beer before retiring.

I had to visit the privy twice during the night as a result, and both times, even though I was half asleep, I could feel 'something' happening to the north and west. I wasn't sure what it was, but I now had a slightly better idea of why we needed to 'get a move on'.

“That, and those boatwrights are putting in added hours, as they've known for over a week of the need to hurry,” said the soft voice. “The next ten days are crucial, as you've got a narrow window of time where that place across the sea is going to be especially receptive.”

“And when we sail?” I asked.

“That window I spoke of is roughly five days wide,” said the soft voice. “Before you go, you need to go to Ploetzee, both to know where the place is and to see Rachel, as she has some valuable information beyond what you and the others have seen thus far.”

“Before we go to the Abbey, or across the sea?” I asked. I was still more asleep than awake.

While there was no answer, I somehow doubted that the Abbey was meant, even if I knew that work, as it was meant in my case, was more or less 'done' at the shop from now until we sailed. I'd be able to visit it for a few hours perhaps twice during the period mentioned, and there was something about trying to leave before that ten days was up, something about giving ourselves four days for the trip south, as it was a long trip. I did not relish the thought of being the only person able to drive that boat.

“Only a few ships dare to go that far of a distance,” said the soft voice as I sat on my bed and made ready to resume sleeping, “and more, you want that extra time, as some people are not inclined to hurry.”

“Gabriel?” I asked.

“He might be somewhat laggardly going to the Abbey, but the experience of clearing that place will scare the 'sluggishness' out of him for a time,” said the soft voice. “Write in your notes that Karl or Sepp will need to spoon him with beer like Anna did, and that will get him going that morning.”

“Who, then?” I asked. Hearing such matters was not comforting, as that put the onus of the whole matter strictly upon me. As sleep once more overcame me without an answer, I wondered, at least until I was completely unconscious.

There were no dreams for an answer, either, and in the morning when I awoke, I found that I was the last one to wake. I hurriedly dressed, then left out the rear door to see Jaak waiting with his blanket in his mouth. As I fluffed it out and then folded it, I saw that the sky was still the darkness of night, and I guessed then that an hour remained before it became light.

“We aren't going to do much wood-gathering in the dark, are we?” I thought, as we went up the streets of a still sleeping town with our noses and animals headed south. The night-chill was strong, and I wondered about Sarah's part-hidden cargo. I came along side of her, then asked, “we'll be there before light, won't we?”

“I doubt it,” she said. I could hear a distinct shiver of cold in her voice. “They're barely awake, and I'm surprised you woke up.”

“Why, uh, this early?” I asked.

“Because night means slower travel,” said Sarah, “but if this works the way I've planned it, we will get to that one woodlot just as it gets light enough to see by.”

“N-no,” I said. “Those carpenters don't stay in bed much. You almost have to gather wood in the darkness, and we need to really hurry.”

I then truly woke up – only how I had managed to get my clothing on and get out the door and then take the lead of the column was an utter and complete mystery. I turned around, this yawning, then asked, “did I wake all of you up?”

“You did,” said Sarah, “and I brought some of those special lanterns you made like you said to, also.”

“Gathering wood in the dark?” I asked.

“We won't get back in time otherwise,” she said – and from behind, I could hear mutterings about witches owning the night.

“They think so?” I asked. “There aren't any near here. Maybe thirty miles south of here, they might be hiding themselves while trying to sleep, but they aren't...”

I paused in mid-sentence, for now I felt it clearly. The witch-messengers had not only not been idle, but the effects of rough living, potted arsenic-laced pork, assorted other 'choice viands' of putrid nature and lethal efficiency, and fights over scarce-and-rapidly-growing-scarcer funds were forcing the surviving witches to come to a conclusion:

Die for certain in the wilderness, or possibly die at my hands, assuming I caught them. After all, I was supposedly human... Even if I was reputed to be able to find witches readily, had a weapon that had the range and lethality of artillery, and was known for killing whoever or whatever I happened to go after, and that irrespective of the weapon I happened to use – if I bothered to use a weapon.

And yet, none of that really mattered. What mattered chiefly to witches was their own beliefs, and that educated my next thoughts:

“No, you idiots, I'm a really bad evil spirit, so I can travel like lightning and strike you dead whenever and wherever I have a mind to.”

We had just turned onto that one west-bound narrow and rutted road, and the horses were starting to 'loosen up' in the still-chilly air when I saw the first dot of white red-tinged fire suddenly erupt and wink out somewhere on the horizon, then as I watched, over the course of two minutes or more, I counted no less than thirty such small flashes over a surprisingly wide arc. More, I knew these flashes to be but a signal, as there were many more flashes than those I saw.

“What gives with those lights I just saw?” whispered Sarah. She had come along side me.

“The witches that had gone out were thinking that being centered in my rifle sights were a better deal than slow but certain death out in the middle of nowhere,” I said.

“Wrong as to the slow part,” said the soft voice. “They were dying in droves, and the survivors had started back toward here, which is what you felt last night.”

“And what happened?” asked Sarah.

“The witches now have good reason to believe him to be an 'especially nasty evil spirit', as all of those people he was thinking of had their coaches explode,” said the soft voice. “That will put the fear into those people coming from further away once they learn of it, as only a few pre-war witches could come close to doing such a thing.”

“What?” I asked.

“Suffice it to say that the need for hurry for domestic reasons of a witch-nature is dealt with,” said the soft voice. “There still is a narrow window of best opportunity across the sea, and there are individuals you will encounter who are utterly unused to haste.”

“Gabriel is like that,” said Sarah. “I'll need to finish copying your notes, and remind both Karl and Sepp to wallop him with the largest cook's spoons they can find if he says or does anything of a lagging nature the morning we do the Abbey.”

“I would worry less about him and more about that third kingdom port,” said the soft voice. “That's the main reason now why you want to give yourself an extra few days.” A brief pause, then, “the Abbey's clearing will settle Gabriel's sauce, at least for the immediate future.”

“It might bake him, also,” I muttered. “It's more than just a big lizard and a bigger-yet Desmond.” How much more – that was the rub.

As the horses continued to 'loosen up', we increased speed; and with each such increment of speed, the feeling of haste increased yet more. When we came to the first town – it was still asleep, even at its Public House – I began downing some of the beer and eating a piece of bread we had packed, and as we resumed travel minutes later, I noted one principle advantage of riding in a buggy.

“Easier to carry beer jugs,” I muttered. I then recalled something. “Kuchen!”

Sarah came up beside me, then said, “I heard that, and I'll need to get onto either Anna or the house to make up a large batch of those things. If we do them” – mutterings from behind at such speech – “then I hope you can endure the tasting of drowning syrup, as it pinches my lips shut.”

“It was awful the last time I tasted some of that stuff,” I said. “Perhaps some honey will help.”

“I can get another jug of it,” said Sarah. “I can do that today after wooding, possibly.”

At the woodlot, however, I had to lead the others in on foot, and this after lighting the lanterns. I hoped our lights would not draw fire, but I soon found that the best way to gather wood by lantern was in teams, with one person holding the lantern and the second one gathering – and I gathered wood while Sarah held the lantern for me.

“I can gather a larger armload,” I murmured, as I picked up sticks and added them to the bunch I had already. I was glad they were so numerous.

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “I might grab them faster, but my arms are not as big as yours.”

“That is why he said that,” said Hans. “Now I have this bag here, and I wanted to use it as a drag, but it catches on the sticks.”

“I think that's why he led us so close to the edge of this place,” said Anna – who was kneeling down and helping Hans gather his armload. “How I wish we had a small wagon like Andreas has, as then we could do this quicker.”

“We'll only have to do it a few times more,” I murmured. “Between this load and the last, you'll have enough for a month, as the chill isn't going to stay much longer.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans, as he stood up with a huge armload. “I am thinking we might want to not get as much as last time, as this is slow.”

“I think we have time,” said Sarah. “We'll want to leave when it starts to get light.”

“Starts..?” I asked. “You mean 'when the black starts to turn dark blue in the west'?”

“About a third of a glass after that,” said Sarah. “We'll get back home about the time the Public House has food ready, and you can go straight to the shop and dig out one of those things to show them while the rest of us wait to speak to those people.”

“Or just take the pattern... No, cast iron here shrinks some,” I spluttered, “and I don't know how much it shrinks, and these need to be a 'stuff-fit' – and they'll all be slightly different.”

“They will need paring with knives, then,” said Sarah. “Hans might manage that part, if he is careful.”

“And fuse-plugs for those shells,” I said.

“That is easy,” said Hans, “as they have those dowels done already for the swine-season. Now what is it you need – a hole for a cap?”

“Yes, for a stiff one,” said Sarah, “and if you take them one for size, you want to pad it carefully with rags and let them measure it but once, then remove it as soon as they have done so.”

“Because they are not bombers, right?” I asked, as I dumped my wood. Sarah's buggy was nearly half-full.

“Because those men are not used to handling those things,” said Sarah, “and I have heard of caps exploding if mishandled.”

“Yes, if they are dropped, and that boy they have is clumsy that way,” said Hans. “I have dropped them once or twice, and if they land on anything hard, you will be picking bits of them out of your hide for days.”

“And that floor in their shop is hard,” I muttered. I now saw that there was some truth to what I had heard in the past. Some people simply weren't careful enough around devices that had no safety mechanisms, and as I recalled the devices I had used, I then gained a further appreciation of why some people had spoken as they had; bombing was an inherently hazardous undertaking. And yet still, I could clearly sense the profound levels of witch-thinking involved in those instances I had heard – witch-thinking with the potent force of whole-heartedly-believed-superstition, almost as if witches were believed to cause crops to fail suddenly and cows to dry up – with knotted tails, no less, so as to indicate the source of the cursing.

“They do both of those things,” said the soft voice. “Granted, they have to 'manifest the power' of both types of curses currently, but with the cow, 'drying up' is but the first symptom of that disease. The last one is usually death.” There was no mention of knotted tails, thankfully – as that one sounded fanciful in the extreme.

“And that is bad when they do that,” said Hans, “as it is usually not just the one cow. The whole herd dies, and if it is the worst kind of that sickness, it does not stop with that herd.”

“The worst kind?” I asked. I wanted to ask about cattle getting knotted tails, for some reason.

“Cows do not dry up if you milk them regularly,” said Hans, “and so, the usual is to milk them until the calf that starts the milk is half-grown. Then, they are rested for part of a year, and then they are in the mood.”

“The bull?”

“Those things get in the mood too,” said Hans, “though usually a cow that is ready needs to be in the same pasture for that to happen.”

“And otherwise?” I asked.

“Then they are not,” said Hans. “I am glad those things are not like elk that way, as they would be trouble.”

“How do they get?” I asked.

“They get close to the cow, and watch her close, then they do their business once it is night,” said Hans, “and the best ones need a barn for that business, as otherwise they will not roll themselves in the hay.”

“Roll themselves in the hay?” I asked.

“I think they do that after,” said Hans. “I have never seen those cattle do their business, as they do not want watchers.”

“When the calf comes?” I asked.

“Calves,” said Anna, “and those cattle need nearly as much help as women do. At least they do not become as swollen. There, Hans. That's enough for now.”

Anna was indeed right, for Sarah's buggy was mostly full, and I had been helping to fill the other after filling Sarah's. It was turning dark blue in the west as we finished up, and again, I led out to the road walking, still-lit lantern in hand, with Jaak first after me.

The horses needed once more to warm to their task due to the chill in the air, but once they had done so, we 'hurried along'. I could almost feel the Public House in Roos starting up their ovens, this first stoking lit from the overnight coals, and as we came up to that one town where we had watered, I could smell faintly the odor of wood-smoke in the place.

“They are just putting wood to their stoves,” said Sarah, “which means August has probably actually started his day.”

“He starts early, doesn't he?” I asked. We did not need to be especially quiet, but our voices were low just the same. I did not wish to be 'mistaken' for witches and then shot at.

“He does,” said Sarah, “and I would not worry myself much about being shot at. We do not have anything a witch would desire, and I can tell this town has had its people gleaned of witches and those inclined that way.”

“That would be most of the towns in the area, correct?” I asked.

“The only place that has any real places for witches to hide right now is the kingdom house,” said Sarah. “They can hide there if they are especially careful. Out here, though, there are enough swine to smell them out should they think to show themselves.”

“Domestic pigs?” I asked. “Do those things have long memories?”

“I suspect they do,” said Sarah. “There were tapestries speaking of pigs, and how the first person who fed them solid food became their 'eternal feeder' or something like that.” A pause, then, “that tapestry was damaged or something, as most of the letters in many of the words looked strange.”

“It was defaced by witches hundreds of years ago,” said the soft voice, “but the part about swine recalling who they were first fed by is more or less correct.” A pause, then, “Iron Pigs are much more that way than 'domestic pigs', but the ones running 'wild' around here do have good noses, and they will sniff out witches if they show in the general area.”

“Do the witches know that?” I asked.

“That was the main reason so many of them attempted to leave the central portion of the first kingdom once all those swine got loose from first the Swartsburg pens and then from those that were re-caught by the hall,” said the soft voice. “After about the first week or so, the smarter witches 'left', and as the pigs continued to sniff out their foul-smelling 'eternal feeders', the witches that survived continued to get out of the area – and as the pigs spread out into the countryside and the word about pigs finding witches did also, it behooved our witches to get out into the middle of nowhere so as to not get found out by their swine and then killed.” A brief pause, then, “that didn't help them much, so those still-surviving witches decided to come back after a short time – and now, they all are where they belong.”

“All?” asked Sarah.

“There were a lot more explosions than you saw, dear,” said the soft voice. “There were explosions as far as eighty miles away, including some fairly sizable 'encampments' going up – and that's really going to get onto those people coming up from the other kingdoms when they find out about that.

“Eighty miles?” I asked.

“It can go further, or will shortly,” said the soft voice. “There will be other times when you can't physically 'chase some wretch down' and need to deal with him just the same – and each such instance will increase your 'reputation' and your 'reach' that much more.”

“Ugh,” I murmured. That was the last thing I wanted.

Yet I knew of things I needed, and hence began thinking of such matters within a very short period of time – as Jaak was not wasting time, and the loads of wood we had gotten, while substantial, were somewhat smaller than our last time. Somehow, I could feel the 'chill' in the air – this was not merely a physical chill, but another kind as well that influenced it – leaving slowly but surely, but as we turned onto 'the main road', Sarah came along side of me. I had a question.

“What is this road called?”

“I am not sure if it has a name,” said Sarah. “It's not named on any maps that I have seen, and I've never heard its name spoken of. Why?”

“I just wondered if it had one, was all,” I said. “Now it might be a good idea if Hans jumps out at the Public House so as to talk to those carpenters, or at least wait for them to arrive, and then I can get out at the shop, and then... You can drive the buggies, or lead them into the back area, can't you?”

“I know I can,” said Sarah, “and I suspect Anna can also. I think once we unhitch the horses and look them over, then we might want to set breakfast out, as the two of you will wish it once you get back from talking to those men.”

“And I have a full day ahead of me,” I murmured, “and tomorrow is likely to be similar, and then tonight, and then the day after church, and the whole thing...”

“One thing at a time,” said Sarah. “First get that casting for a sample. Hans can talk to those carpenters once we drop him off at the Public House. I know where your latest ledger is, so I can copy it while Anna does whatever she plans for a meal.”

I thanked God for what Sarah had told me. Now all I needed was to keep watch until we reached Roos.