After a bath, I wandered to my bench, and when Anna finally showed – she came in through the front door, with a sizable cloth bag – I thought to ask if she'd used the sled. She didn't wait for my asking, but spoke of the thing before I could phrase the question.

“That thing works better than any sled I've heard of,” she said. “I went on my rounds today, and got some supplies, and I think I went nearly half again as fast as usually.”

“How fast was that?” I asked.

“Fast enough that I think I was moving faster than the post,” said Anna. “That thing weighs less than I thought it does, as I can carry it easily.”

“I think you might want to take it indoors when you can,” said Hans as he 'materialized', “as I have heard talk that people wonder why we have one, especially one that small.”

“What if someone is ill, though?” said Anna. “I cannot just let them suffer.”

“No, and that is what I said,” said Hans. “They stopped their lips then.”

“Did it work for shopping?” I asked.

“It works very well,” said Anna. “You might want to fetch the other bags.”

The other bags – there were two – seemed to provide ample 'ballast' for the sled, and when Hans took the horses in through the buggy-way, I followed with the sled itself. I was truly surprised when I came back indoors, and saw Anna cleaning a second student's lantern.

“Where did you get that?” I asked.

“That one second-hand store,” said Anna. “I needed to take some of the widow's tincture over that way, and another had showed. This one shows a bit more use than yours.”

“Perhaps boiled distillate?” I asked. “Dampen a rag and then wipe?”

When Anna did so, the 'dirt' cleaned off readily to show a faintly aged-looking 'patina', and when she put one of the thicker wax candles in and lit the thing, the brilliance was such that I marveled. It was slightly brighter than mine.

“Ah, that will light up the kitchen good,” said Hans, “which means less of those tallow things for light, and more for that grease.”

“Is tallow becoming a problem?” I asked.

“I am asking for candle-stubs in town,” said Hans, “and then asking for their scraps at the Public House, and then using the stubs I have saved, too. It might not sell like cough medicine, but Paul has bought some, and so has Korn, and then some few other people I know.”

“The color?” I asked.

“That is trouble,” said Hans, “and it is not just people thinking anything black belongs to a witch. Some people think it is fifth kingdom axle grease, and there is talk about that, as it is like that tool cleaner stuff. Some people say it will eat the barrel of one's gun, and when I clean mine to show them, they wonder a lot.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Not only does that stuff keep the soot soft, but it makes it easier to clean out the gun,” said Hans. “I use three patches now...”

“Hans, you'd best let him check,” said Anna. “I've used boiling water on mine, and that helps the soot come out.”

Checking Hans' musket, however, showed but little buildup, which surprised me greatly, and checking both weapons showed them 'well-greased' with what looked like 'oil'.

“What are you lubricating these with?” I asked.

“That stuff you use here,” said Hans. “I get a rag and dip it in your stones jar, and then wipe the gun down after each use. You didn't find any rust, did you?”

“No, no rust,” I said, as I began reassembling one of the guns. “Is rust a problem during the winter?”

“That is when it is worst,” said Hans. “I think that oil stuff you boil up is as good as anything to be had.”

After a 'long' evening at the bench, I went to bed, and once in that haven, I fell asleep. Regular sleep did not last long, however, for it segued to a strange dream of dark water and bleached-white ice. Cold wasn't the word for this dream, and not merely physical cold; the number of leather-sailed ships under oars among icebergs was a matter for chills, and the occupants of those ships more so.

I awoke in the darkness with a full bladder and a sense of unease, and it took some time for me to resume sleeping. Thankfully, those bare-headed people stayed out of my remaining dreams, as did their ships and the cold, and I awoke to a darkened room, much as I usually did. My bladder and its fullness seemed its own alarm-clock, and it was quite dependable that way – it needed emptying every few hours at the least, and more often when awake and consuming liquids.

I needed to wait until breakfast this morning, and as the Kuchen finished, I noted the oblivion I saw upon Hans and Anna; oblivion to what I was feeling, and oblivion to feeling much beyond a sense of sleep that wished all of their attention. Only my being awake, and my need to eat, gave them reason for being out of bed at this 'early' hour.

“No alarm clocks, so they go by the sun, and that means a four to five hour day this time of year,” I thought. “How anyone can sleep eighteen hours a day, and that day after day, is something of a mystery.”

“There are more of those people coming,” I said softly, “and this time, there aren't twelve or so. There are hundreds of them.”

I could tell I was not being heard. While 'oblivion' was usually a matter of 'wiring' – or so I suspected – there were times when it was partly a choice, and it seemed a choice now, and as I stood to gather those things I'd worked on the night before, I had a further intimation, or rather, recollection.

I had trouble deciding which it was, for it seemed buried in fog and shrouded in uncertainty, beyond it involved grave hazard of one kind or another, with enough blood...

Recollection strobed hard into my mind to show a sun coming up slowly over a body-strewn field of blood-reddened snow, with a chill arch of ice caked inches thick with frozen blood. The bridge was over troubled slow-flowing water reddened with the blood of hundreds of dead, and my weary steps...

“Now I remember,” I thought. “I was walking the battlefield afterward, much as if I were a ghost. It was odd, though, as I knew I wasn't a ghost, but solid, tangible, real, and fatigued beyond measure – and ghosts don't get that fatigued.”

As if to jerk me from my revery, Hans said, “I know that, which is why I put out the order for some more musket powder when Klaus showed during Festival Week.”

“Klaus?” I asked.

“He has a small powder mill to the south,” said Hans, “and I have not found better powder than his. He should be making it now.”

Hans paused, then said, “now why is it you want to make your own powder?”

“I've made it before,” I said, “and the stuff I've seen so far seems, uh, coarse and uneven, and there's something about how it's done, too – and then, both weapons I have prefer a finer grade of powder than is common.”

“Is that why you sift that stuff like you do?” Hans asked. “I've wondered what you do with the dust-powder, as you seem really careful about what you keep for your measures.”

“The dust goes in a large medicine vial,” I said. “I was thinking about a powder grinder, and making one would be easy. Turning it might be another matter, though.”

I had lost Hans, or so I suspected, until he said, “his batches tend to be smaller, but he can also make to order, and that powder tends to be hard, even as to grain, and less sooty. I usually put it in the powder-jugs for traps, and if I have some left, I use it in the guns. I didn't have any left last year, so I had to buy what I could when I could find it.”

“Those people, Hans,” said Anna. “He spoke about them coming.”

“That snow is too deep for them,” said Hans. “That pig was having trouble when there was half this much, and those people were staying to its tracks, so as to not be bogged by the snow.”

“Hans, he said they were coming,” said Anna. “I hope you have some traps done up.”

“I do, at least the fire-traps,” said Hans. “We need to know where they have landed so as to string them up, as I do not have many of them.”

“Many of them?” I asked, as I resumed gathering my things.

“I have ten filled so far,” said Hans. “I would have more, but between trouble getting lighter distillate, and getting time to do those things, I have not been able to do more of them.”

“That's more than you usually do for this time of year,” said Anna.

“I think those people up there are getting hungry,” said Hans. “Last year, they were after food a fair amount when they came, and that gave me lots of chances to set traps.”

Even as I set out with a full load, the unease remained, and as I poured bronze castings, filed on spoons, began raising the parts for distilleries, and swaged rivets, it remained steadily present. It only 'left' when I began final-fitting the pressure-pot with scrapers and 'bluing'.

“At least this bluing cleans readily,” I thought, as I wiped the mating surfaces clean for a round of further fitting.

The bronze scraped rapidly, and when I had the thing 'fitted' with its top, handles, weight, and clamps, I thought to take it home to present it to Anna. It was near lunchtime, and when I came out of doors, the hazy ball of light that was still tilted slightly toward the west was enough to cause wondering, even if the slow-drifting dust of snow wasn't.

At least, I thought it wasn't until I came home with the pot, a stand, and another heating lamp, and I set the thing up on the kitchen table. I was wondering how to tell Anna the pot's needing a 'gasket' of some kind when she suddenly came up from the basement.

“He has more of those jugs now,” said Anna, “as I've been helping him fill them. We filled seven more today.”

“Which makes?” I asked.

“He had three more that he'd hidden and forgotten about,” said Anna, “and his sums are still bad, so we have twenty-four of them.”

Anna paused, then said, “now what is that pot there? We already have a distillery.”

I opened the lid, then showed the clamps and the place that needed a gasket, which I indicated as needing leather or something similar.

“I can cut that shortly,” said Anna. “I'm glad for that knife, and I should have your belt done soon.”

“I haven't had time to work on it much,” I said.

“I would not worry about it,” said Anna. “You did more in those little bits than I've done in much longer ones, and those longer periods are not easy to come by, especially given knitting and how I'm trying to learn it.”

“Is knitting important?” I asked.

“Most women do some knitting,” said Anna.

There was an unsaid and somewhat nebulous context to what Anna had said, and once I'd crammed down a Kuchen and put another in a bread-bag, I left for the shop again. I was glad I'd finished another surgical knife and pair of tweezers the night before, and yet more glad Anna had them ready. I hoped she'd fit the leather piece to the pot soon, as it would need using...

“What am I thinking?” I muttered. “How do I know it will need such use?”

I was glad I could concentrate to some extent, even if it wasn't nearly as good as it usually was, and I left once I'd loaded the cooking cans in the oven and stoked it with a dose of charcoal and powdered coal. I'd used but two cups of the stuff, and closed the air-shutter mostly, in hopes that the oven would burn all night; and as I left the shop to trudge home in the slowly gathering twilight, the sense of disquiet and unease I had felt earlier in the day seemed to grow.

With the passing of the individual houses, I noted the thickness of the snow apart from the path, as well as its slowly 'packing' nature. I thought to put my foot upon the deep stuff, and as I gently pressed down, I found that the stuff crushed down slightly and then held. I put my other foot on it, and then began walking.

“What has happened to this stuff?” I thought. “This is acting like it's two inches deep, not ten!”

I hopped down onto the stone pathway again, and as I did so, I stopped and turned to look at my tracks. The gathering dimness of twilight seemed to shadow them faintly, almost as if they were coated in a slick substance, and in my mind, I had trouble recognizing it at first, until something came to me:

Footprints dressed in red.”

The footprints seemed to now be awash in a thick coating of blood, and I turned and hurried homeward. I was afraid that they would be chasing me, for some reason, and when I came to the door, I tapped twice, as I usually did. I waited until Anna opened the door, as I did not wish to rush in like a fool where mere mortals fearfully trod.

As I followed Anna inside, she asked, “why is it you tap before coming in? You live here.”

I began removing my shoes, then once I'd gotten them off and on the shelf in the bathroom, I said, “Hans said you sometimes have new mothers in here, and some were said to be very timid. I am too, and I would be horrified if I surprised you deep in conversation with another woman about, uh...”

“And I would faint if you were doing an examination,” I thought.

“I know that,” said Anna. “Still, there are women out there, and some are asking questions. One of them seems especially interested.”

I found a stool and collapsed upon it, dirt and all, and squeaked, “m-me?”

The thought seemed unthinkable, as no woman had truly been inclined toward me – especially someone that I was inclined toward. For some odd reason – personal foible seemed the most likely, but I wondered about the matter more than a little – I had always had eyes for short dark-haired women. More importantly, the more-common attitudes I'd seen and heard of were either terrifying, or off-putting, and most important of all, I wasn't even close to normal.

They all wanted someone like that, for some reason.

I gathered myself enough to fetch my clothing, and as I set up the boiler in the bathroom, I asked, “what is this especially interested woman like?”

“She is the only person I've seen up here with dark hair other than you,” said Anna. “She may be shorter than is common, but she makes up for it in other ways, and more than once, people have accused her of being a witch.”

As the heating lamp lit with a near-colorless bloom of flame, I turned with the candle in my hand to place it outside in its holder. I turned to see Anna standing as if she was waiting.

“She isn't a witch, though,” said Anna. “She reminds me of you that way, and they've been after her more than some preachers.”

“Why would they be after her, though?” I asked. “Does she need help?”

“I am not certain if she does,” said Anna. “One person tried for her, and she hurt him badly.”

The unbleached linen underclothing hung in long sheeting ranks over the faintly steaming tub, and as I washed carefully, I noted not merely the dirt coming off of my skin, but the soreness coming out of it as well. I was glad I'd remembered to latch the door before going further, and once my clothing was soaking, I noted what I'd brought down.

I had brought down bed-clothes instead of the usual things. I'd been severely distracted by the still-blooming sense of unease and disquiet, and now all that I had handy of a clean and dry nature was bed-clothing. I put the stuff on, and shivered faintly as the soft fabric brushed my skin. The stuff wasn't all that baggy on me, for some reason, and when I touched my arms, I shuddered.

They were huge things, and as I came to the doorway itself, I noted how little room I had to each side of my shoulders. My sole thought on the matter as I came out into the kitchen was one of horror, and looking at my forearms was enough to make for moaning.

“Oh, no,” I moaned.

“What is it now?” asked Anna. “I'm glad I had those made looser than the common, as I knew you would put on meat.”

“F-feel my a-arms,” I moaned. “N-now no one will want me.”

Anna did so, and looked at me, then said, “I think that is why so many of those women were interested, actually. This might be more than is common for smiths, but given how you work, I'm not surprised.”

Anna paused, then said, “now did you forget your clothing upstairs?”

I nodded, then went toward them. As I climbed the stairs, I noted how I felt in now-clean bare feet, and when I came to my darkened room, I saw the clothes I wanted clearly, almost as if the student's lantern was shining brightly within. I was about to reach for them when I hesitated.

The front door downstairs opened with a faint creaking sigh. It needed lubrication.

Someone had come in. I turned, no clothing in my hands. Time seemed to stand still as it poised on the tip of a mountain's peak and was about to slide down into the pit of madness.

Faintly, I heard screams, cries, and the clash of steel upon steel echo in my mind.

And, as if to jolt me from my revery, I heard the panic-filled voice of Hans.

“Come quick,” he said. “This man is hurt bad.”

I reversed course and came down the stairs in a few bounds, then turned abruptly to see a man in torn clothing and without shoes. The disquiet bounded upward with each step I took closer, and as I came within a few feet, I noted cut and bruised feet – and, as I looked closer, I saw superimposed upon his torn clothing a wide stand of trees, and some people I had never seen before walking upon the snow as if it were solid ground.

As the image coalesced and became more solid and real-looking, I saw further details: odd blue-black helmets with short wooden 'horns' coming out of the sides like the horns of a straight-horned bull, leather-strapped blue-black scale armor, swords...

And axes.

Double-bladed axes, ones straight from that nightmare in the liquor store that was now returning to haunt me, as I stood looking out of the window in the quickly gathering darkness.

From behind, Anna moved around me with a jug of beer, and when she knelt by the man, I saw a small tinned copper cup in her other hand. I briefly wondered where it had come from, as I had done numbers of such small cups in the preceding weeks. She began to give the man something to drink, and as he gasped and spluttered, I wondered why Anna was trying to force it on him.

“This is one of the guards from up on the hill,” said Anna, “and he had to run for it. I've seen this before, and I have no idea how far he ran. Do you?”

“No, I don't,” I said. “Hans spoke of a river.”

“That sounds likely enough,” said Anna, “as they usually land along one or the other.”

Here, Anna paused to try to get some liquid down him again, and he shook his head and gasped more. He needed to sit up, and for some reason, Anna had not thought of the matter. It was obvious he needed a pillow or two behind his head, and I turned to go fetch mine.

“Hans has gone for the sheets,” said Anna. “He'll need thorough bathing, then these bramble cuts will need cleaning out with that one tincture for wounds. Can you see anything?”

I wanted to say 'no', as the matter wasn't a volitional one with me, but within perhaps a second or so, I said, “there's nothing that a good bath and ample liquid won't help. The rest, you know about already.”

“He'll look like a dust-clout, though,” said Anna. “We'll need to swath him in bandages, and he'll be sick and unable to move for weeks.”

“No, not weeks,” I said. “Unless something is done, we don't have weeks.”

“Why is that?” asked Hans from behind me, as he came with the bandage-carrier. Both he and Anna seemed to be operating according to an ancient program, one that needed no real thinking; both of them were oblivious to all save the superficial condition of the man himself.

“He may be in poor shape,” I said, with a faint shudder in my voice, “but he's fine compared to the others. They're missing their heads, and their bodies are freezing solid, while those people are camping near their boats – and yes, there are hundreds of them.”

“Are there swine?” asked Anna.

“No, no pigs,” I said. I looked at my hands, and saw them beginning to twitch, almost as if I was about to have a hypoglycemia attack. “That test told them those weren't good in current conditions, and since then, the snow has become deeper yet.”

Anna turned, then looked at me. She seemed to have questions in mind, but did not know how to say them.

“That snow may be deep,” I said, “but at least along the path, it's compacted enough that one can walk on it. I did it coming home this evening.”

“But that is not possible,” said Anna. “How?”

“I'm not certain,” I said, as another feeling seemed to come over me in some strange fashion. I had never felt this way before, not like this. I had had brief flashes of 'insanity' where I'd done things I'd regretted later, but this was so different I knew not what it was. My eyes briefly seemed to unfocus, then focus again, and as I looked at the window, I knew roughly where the place was, as well as its direction.

The near-pitch of the outside sky seemed to swirl like a mirror, then showed a firelit 'camp' of such huge proportions that I wondered if 'hundreds' was accurate as to how many people I was seeing. What wasn't a matter of guesswork was the gruesome 'drinking cups' that were being passed around: someone had cut open the heads of the fallen, removed the brains, and had filled them with a foul-smelling species of potable paint remover – and with the camp's growing drunkenness, the singing was becoming louder and more frightful.

“Th-that drink has datramonium in it,” I murmured, “and those j-jugs are huge.”

“That sounds about right for those people,” said Hans. “Much of the time they are really drunk, and the rest of the time, they are pickled.”

Hans paused, then said, “now this man needs a lot of attention, as he is cut up like pie filling, and then he is dry. So, we need to get liquid in him. There, Anna, now he can drink without you drowning him.”

A few seconds later, however, Hans said, “and I think you need looking after, too, as you are shaking like a tree when hard rain is coming down out of the sky.”

“H-hard rain?” I gasped. I could not keep the tremor out of my voice. “H-hard r-r-rain?”

I was neither given to stammering nor stuttering, but what I was now seeing was utterly real, almost as if I were again hearing the command to walk with sand under my bare feet and an impossibly deep precipice ahead of me, just like the times in church years ago. Again, I felt the fear: the fear of walking, and the fear of disobedience, and both seemed equally formidable to me.

And now, I had a choice of some kind, which was the reason this recollection had come to me, and for some reason, that choice seemed all but made in advance. There was but one small point where I could say 'yes' or 'no', and the consequences...

The screams and flames of a burning town came to me, and with a single drawn-out breath, I said the word 'yes'. The sights and sounds abruptly fled, to be replaced by something worse – and as this 'thing' seemed to gather itself, I thought, “what could be worse than walking out over a chasm a mile deep with sharp rocks below and no visible means of support?”

I looked at the man, and as Anna was holding the cup to his mouth – he was propped up by sheets, so he could drink now – he spluttered, then took the cup in his hands and drank slowly. He drained it, handed it back, and Anna refilled it. Three times this happened, and when he drained the third cup, I nearly screamed.

I felt as if I'd been ripped by broken glass over the whole of my body, and as the shivering pain forced a moan from my lips, it was abruptly replaced by a sensation I had never felt before, at least since I came here.

I had felt one like it elsewhere, though.

It felt as if my hands, and indeed, my whole body, was crawling with small electric worms, and the electric feeling was such that I closed my eyes briefly, then opened them. I nearly jolted with the sight of seeing a fine fishnet composed of blue-white fire wreathing my arms, even as my skin crawled yet more.

“Oh, no,” I softly murmured. Time seemed to be slowing.

“I know, and there are widows,” said Anna, “and some will wish to swim to the depths of the nearest river to hide themselves until the thaws,” said Anna. “I'm glad Hans has plenty of that tincture and fresh Valoris root.”

I thought to pray, in hopes that the strange state would decrease, but each syllable made it increase, not diminish. I then thought to try something else, something I had not done since the night of my leaving. It did not diminish the strange state in the slightest.

It made it explode.

I wanted to scream, sing, and howl at the moon, and all of those things at once; and with a voice once removed from the ravings of mania, I spoke some poetry writ long before I came:

Montressor woke me out of sleep so sound

So drunken, I could not tell,

Said a rare vintage I could not wait to try

Was hiding down in Hell.

And the dogs all barked and bayed at the moon

And we rode on in cloaks of night,

Searching, ever searching, for Amontillado.”

Involuntary tears came lurching steadfast from behind my closed eyes, as again I prayed silently. I could not pray aloud, for my teeth were chattering, and I felt flushed in my head. I tried gritting them, but that had no effect – until I spoke.

Is there such a wine, one called Amontillado?” I gasped.

“Why would you want that cursed wine now?” said Hans. His voice was a distorted ringing snarl with a trace of electronic feedback. “You are shaking so much the breeze is astonishing, and drops of your sweat is making puddles on the floor... floor... floor...”

The last word of Hans' oblivious diatribe echoed in time and in my mind, for all else had fallen away. I saw a black-dressed witch, dirty-blond hair hanging down in coarse and straggly braids tied with the rotting intestines of her many victims; and as this bent and twisted witch sat upon her carved chair of ice, I saw her chair-pad; her pantheon of idols surrounding her throne; her fire-blackened and rust-traced iron scepter; the smoke of a multitude of lard-burning lights; I smelled the aroma of burnt lard, evil, swine-dung, death, destruction, hatred...

The witch now chanted in a long-droning sonorous language full of hollow-sounding vowels and grotesque consonants, and as my 'field of view' expanded, I saw redly etched into the dirty black-brown jagged walls of her 'throne-room' long snaking red lines of rune-writ curses.

As the field of view increased and I was 'led by the hand', I saw more of such red-inscribed curses and messages, and when I did not see such inscriptions – they were everywhere – I saw vast hordes of people wearing furs and armor. They clotted the innumerable halls of the place such that it was difficult to move.

I was jerked back from my 'guided tour' by the hoarse shouts of the witch, and as she held forth her scepter as if toasting a monstrous sacrifice with its own blood, she screamed loud and long the command to 'go forth and conquer'. Thirty groups of twenty-nine armored fur-clad bodies marched in rigid lockstep from among this mass of humanity and toward a harbor, with each such group led by a pair of torches billowing thick black smoke.

The smoke only added to the soot-blanketed ceilings of the place. Montressor's cellars may have been miles deep, but the soot covering the ceilings wasn't far behind.

The rigid lockstep of the marchers was not the true-step of domestic witches, however. Their 'marching' reminded me much of the military and its way of foot-travel; and by each such group, and behind, and to the front and center, black-clad 'beings' shrilled out commands. I knew not who they were, even as one of them unsheathed a huge blunt-tipped chef's knife writ with blood-red runes on its blackened blade, and screamed out a long something in a language beyond my comprehension.

At least, it was beyond my conscious understanding. Something came to mind unbidden, and I gave it the voice it wished:

“They wish to ride the Snake, and sup with the Lizard King, though they are fools to call that serpent a king. It might be sufficiently fat in the head to want worship, but it was never a king.”

“What?” said an eerie and faint voice. I barely heard it.

I now opened my eyes – they had somehow become closed – and I looked to see a world both at a standstill and flying simultaneously at the speed of light. The scenery to my front melted to vapor to leave behind a shattered death-cold darkened waste cluttered with tall trees shaped like mountain-sized conifers. Each one of these horror-trees – they warranted that name – had sentient roots that burrowed mole-like into the permafrost to the north, until a root broke through to feel that place's icy winds. There, it made a copy of its sending tree, and the dark green spiky foliage ripped the air and all life apart as the new tree grew inches an hour in the unending sun of summer to the region of uttermost north, that land called Ultima Thule. Where that name came from was as mysterious as what I was seeing.

The head-witch of that realm was as the land itself, her and it being the precise same under the wide and spreading glaciers, and all of that realm not a portion of her body was an extension of her scrabbling hand with its black-painted claws – and so, its name was hers, as it was with all of these witch-queens: her name, and the name of her land, the two names were but one and the same, and they lived by the power of each other conjoined into a single spreading nightmare laced with evil.

My attention was now jerked back from this unfolding nightmare to the occupant of the couch.

He groaned faintly, even as Hans began wiping him with rags, then in a feeble voice, he said, “who are you? I know them, which is why I made for their house first, but I have never seen you before.”

“His name is Dennis,” said Hans, as he continued cleaning the man's feet. “We do not know where he came from, but he is good at many things, including caring for the sick.”

Hans paused, then said, “what happened?”

The man wept uncontrollably, even as he shook as if in a fit or fever. I could feel his terror, and inside, something seemed to become a raging volcano. Words came in my ears to answer it, then upon the panes of the window frosted red-tinted letters began writing so as to engrave them for all time:

This is the end,

My only friend,

The end,

Of all that stands,

The end...”

I grit my teeth, even as the scream welled up inside, and even as I tried to hold back, it came out from my tortured lips as a near-silent whisper:

“No! You cannot have them, nor can you have me!”

“That is right,” said a soft voice. “They cannot have them, nor will they have you. Your request was heard then, and it lives now. You have but a few minutes to learn what you need. Find out what you can, and I will help you. This is why you were brought here.”

I came closer, knelt down, and took the man's bramble-ripped hand in mine. I held it gently, and within seconds, I felt something happening, even as I closed my eyes and prayed silently. Faint words seemed to hover in the air around me, words speaking of heat, of steam, of smoke...

“Yes?” I said softly in some strange fashion. “We do not have weeks for him to heal up enough to tell us what happened, nor will we learn anything if he dies from infection.”

“What did you say?” asked Anna as I came to myself. “You were speaking something, and I could neither understand it nor hear it properly.”

“That is not important,” said Hans. “There was a soft voice, and I think I know who it was. Those northern people have gone too far this time, and this is their doom.”

“What are you saying?” asked Anna. “First I cannot understand him, and now you speak as if you lived in a rest-house. What is happening?”

“Look, dear,” I said, as I turned loose of his hand. “He might not be well, but at least he can talk now. Tell me what happened, please.”

The man swallowed, then whispered, “thirty ships, and they ambushed us, even as we saw them start to land. Those thugs came over the side in swarms, and their swords and axes were terrible. We volleyed, they ignored the balls, and the captain told me to run as they came for us. I need to tell the king, so as to raise the country.”

“Did you see swine?” asked Hans.

The man gasped, then said, “I saw none of those.” He gulped, then drained the cup Anna was holding. “They had sheafs of arrows piled higher than my head, huge stacks of jugs, black witch-cauldrons, death-poles, and many other things I've never seen before. This is no ordinary raid.”

“There is no time for the jugs, then,” said Hans, as if he were stating the obvious. His oblivious-sounding voice was exceeded only by the near-scream of the man on the couch.

“Who are you?” he shrieked. “It is as if I see you, and many behind you, all of them taller than any trees or mountains, and your eyes burn like the winter sun.”

I knew but little more, and I had but little time to remain 'human'.

“At least he is better now,” said Anna. Her voice reeked of terror. “I wish I could say that of you.”

She paused, then seemed to at once scream and whimper, “I am frightened out of my mind, as I can feel the flames! They are not of hell, but of someplace worse, and...”

“I do not have much time,” I whispered. “But he said enough. I must go, so that I do not frighten you more.”

I leaped for the door, found the handle, opened it wide, and seemed to vanish and faint at the same time as I fell into the darkness.

This was a strange darkness, for it traveled like a shade over the ground. It was a leaping and laughing thing, for it was no nightmare; instead, it was a release. I had held in check what everyone had spoken of as evil all of my life, and now...

Was this evil?

“No, it is not,” said a soft voice that sounded as if full of love. “None that are born are made badly, even if evil paints its own labels upon those not as it is, so that they may be destroyed, or worse, corrupted.”

“Was I corrupted?”

Does broken glass mixed with soot sharpen iron?” said the soft voice.

I had no answer for a moment, then recalled the possibilities of what was meant. There seemed an aspect of a joke of some kind, even among the seriousness of what had been said.

“It might well do that,” I said.

To a sound of what might have been faint giggling, I rushed onward in the darkness, even as my sight became normal again.

It wasn't 'normal' normal, however. This was much like the time in the volcano, yet even sharper and clearer, and I was heading roughly west and slightly south across snow-covered fields at a steady 'lope'.

I stopped after what seemed a few minutes, and took my bearings. All around me were wide fields covered thickly with snow, woodlots near and in the distance, and what might have been the faint lights of a town some distance away. There were no roads, nor were there any landmarks beyond the sense that where I needed to be was ahead and slightly to my left. I then looked at my tracks.

They were nearly ten feet apart, and but barely made impression in the snow.

I resumed my running, and as I threaded between the woodlots, I kept the area in question to my front. Some places had bramble patches, and as I cut the trail of the man – he had crashed on through them in a fatigued daze, and had hurt himself in the process – I noted his much shorter strides.

I crossed a road, then continued on heading west.

I paused but a few minutes later between two woodlots, then knelt down and ate a mouthful of snow. I felt thirsty, and as I ate several more handfuls, I marveled at how warm I felt, and then, also, the color of the snow itself.

It looked like a sparkling black endless mound of dust, and when I heard noise to my left, I turned to see an obvious deer show with all the colors of the rainbow as it melted away into the forest. I resumed after another two mouthfuls of snow.

I wondered how I would manage with food, even as I continued west, until I recalled someone who had hanging meat. Maarten and Katje's house was on the way to where I needed to go, and as I headed west, I altered course slightly. I could feel their location readily – it was but seven miles or so distant, or perhaps thirty minutes at my current pace – and the place where I needed to go about twenty or so miles further on into 'uncharted' territory.

I came to the huge woodlot, and now ran through it. I needed to slow slightly as I weaved around the snow-dappled trunks of the trees, and as I altered course slightly, the thought came to me as to the invaders: they wished to cut all of the trees down.

“But that's stupid,” I thought. “Don't they know the animals shelter in the trees?”

I stopped and glanced briefly at the trees themselves, and seemed to know them better in some hard-to-explain fashion. I wondered at the lack of stumps, even as I resumed running. I suspected those cutting wood here were careful as to what and where they cut the stuff, and for firewood...

“Is that why?” I thought. “Just like the wood for a still is to be carefully chosen amid rituals and curses, then cut with specially cursed tools, then seasoned for months, such that it becomes fully dead? Is that the witch-way? Destruction for its own sake, and that alone?”

While there were no answers, it somehow made sense, even as the dream of witches while 'hunting' their victims made its own perverted sense during the time of dreaming – and then my speaking to the witch I had shot:

“You are a very stupid man, witch.” The ice-like tone of recollection seemed especially appropriate.

I came to the end of the trees but minutes later. The snow seemed to stretch for miles, and as I traveled across it, the sky seemed to be slightly brighter, then suddenly a veiled moonlight began showing. It gave all that I saw a frosty glinting whiteness, and in the now dim light – it had been volcano-dark before – I could see clearly for miles. Infrared worked best for much shorter distances.

The left-turning road, I now realized, added nearly a mile to the straight-line line of travel I was making, and as I came close to the town proper, I saw that save at its north end – that place where the big house full of black-dressed thugs lay – the place was more or less dead.

I came to the rear of where Maarten and Katje lived, and listened carefully. They weren't yet asleep; they kept later hours than the common, partly due to Maarten's work, and also...

“Good girl,” I muttered, as I extruded a claw and began cutting a piece of frozen elk. “She's plotting how to cause trouble for those thugs – and speaking of thugs, here comes one. I'd best hide.”

I darted to my right, then went around the corner of the house. Here, I noticed not merely a thick clump of bushes, but also a trio of well-hid sacks of pre-cut wood. I then saw the manure-pile, a small stack of neatly cut wood – that was the bait, I presumed; someone figured things needed to look 'normal' – and what looked to be a pile of cast-off junk that had been tossed out.

The thug – black-dressed, pointed boots, brick-hat, and bad aroma – came wobbling up with a huge knife in one hand and a sack in the other. He began hacking at the hanging meat, and as he swung, he missed a fair amount of the time. I gathered up snow with my hands, then began packing it tightly. I added more snow as the ball compacted under my hands, until I had a ball the size of my fist. I then waited until the thug tried to wedge off a piece of frozen meat, and threw it at him.

The snowball hit the thug full in the face and blasted him off his feet into a crumpled immobile pile. I waited for a minute, perhaps more, then cautiously came closer. I saw what might have been trickles of darkness coming across the man's face, and when I knelt down at his side, his ragged-sounding uneven breathing made for wondering.

I had knocked him unconscious.

I found his knife – a huge crude 'Bowie' type thing, with a foot of thick and clumsy blade – and after hiding that in one of the wood-sacks, I returned to the thug himself. He was still out cold, and his slow deep breathing made for wondering, even as I began searching his pockets.

His clothing was uncommonly bristly-feeling, as well as stiff, and I felt reminded of that horror-dream as I first removed an Arkansas toothpick dagger of 'decent' construction – not the best, but its edge was passable – then a revolver with all six nipples capped and the hammer at half-cock, and finally, a sizable and greasy-feeling money-pouch. This last felt so horrible that I carried it off by its strings and hid it, along with the other supplies, in another of the wood-bags. I then turned the thug on his side, so he wouldn't smother if he vomited.

As I did, however, I knew he wasn't merely 'out', and the trickle of blood I saw coming from his ear confirmed it.

“What did I do?” I thought. “That was only a snowball. I'd best drag this wretch somewhere.”

After dumping the thug out in the street – I asked the tracks to be erased, so that Maarten and Katje would not get in more trouble than they were – I returned to the meat. I found that the 'hack-marks' of the thug's blade were good starting points, and as I cut slim strips off with the claws in my fingers, I began chewing them.

Raw elk wasn't the tastiest meat, even if it seemed to satisfy my hunger passably, and after eating what seemed a fair amount – perhaps ten or twelve 'jerky-sized' strips, plus a 'few for the road' – I used one of my claws to mark the side of meat with the word 'thanks'.

I then had an idea: perhaps Katje needed to know about the gun, knives, and money, and I brought them to the stoop around front. I tapped on the door, then leaped off of the stoop and hid behind the side of the house.

Katje didn't come to the door, however; Maarten did. When he saw the piled booty, he looked around, then seemed to scratch his head before going to fetch his wife. He left the stuff lying there on the stoop.

I noted that their stoop was the only place in town that was lit. No one else practiced hospitality in that town, and hence they wanted no light wasted upon the darkened frontiers of their spaces.

Katje came, and looked closely at what was present. She touched the bag with a degree of distaste, then the knives, and finally the revolver. She looked at Maarten, then said, “why is this here? Do you know?”

“Perhaps one of those people gave up on the matter,” he said. “We can always keep the things for in case someone comes to claim them.”

Katje then saw the thug lying on his side out in the road, and took up the dagger as she went out to look at him. She knelt by the man, then returned to the stoop, saying, “I think that wretch got his just reward, and these are his things. I might use this knife in the kitchen” – here, she indicated the monstrous 'Bowie' – “and I know we can use the money. There's a fair amount of that here.”

“The pistol?” asked Maarten.

“Perhaps I can have Dennis look at it,” she said. “He has one like it. Worst case, he might want it for use.”

“Yes, dear,” I thought. “I think you need to be shown how to use one, and have it handy – that, and perhaps a fowling piece.”

After the door closed, I left on my journey, and at my next rest stop – about two miles further on – I ate the rest of the meat, along with some snow. I used the stuff to rub my hands, then went into a copse. I had in mind to use the brushy place as a privy, and after emerging, I took my bearings again.

“Over there,” I thought, as I looked to the west under the pale moonlight. I set out again seconds later.

My pace was such that I marveled, and as I ran, I began to have impressions as to where I might 'stop' the thugs. The bridge of my dreams was but a few miles from their camp, if that, and its narrowness – as well as the 'river' it flowed over – meant that either the thugs crossed there, or they traveled some distance north or south. How far north and south was a good question.

Further impressions implied a degree of planning was involved regarding the landing site and camp, as well as the planned 'campaign'. I had little idea as to the precise nature of this planning, beyond the following: firstly, these raids were planned to a certain degree, and secondly, that degree of planning was thought to be beyond the capacity of these people.

“Maybe some of them are that dumb,” I thought, “but not all of them, not if I go by that pig-armor. Besides, a certain level of 'density' helps with some activities.”

The 'uncharted' realm before me had more and thicker woodlots, which spoke of watercourses nearby. However, it left me with a quandary: either I went through them, and slowed down, or I went around them, and went further at a more-rapid pace. I thought to try going around them, as if Hans were correct, I had but twenty-five miles to go...

“Was that by road, in a straight line, or was he adding figures and coming up with a meaningless number?” I thought, as I stopped to eat some snow. “I wonder if the woodlots get thicker?”

The intimation I had, however, was while they didn't get 'thicker', they did cover a greater portion of the area between here and where I needed to go. More importantly, time was of the essence. I needed to get to the camp itself, and potentially spy it out, as these thugs weren't about to waste time in the open when they had plunder nearby for the taking.

“Meaning they're resting in camp because they have to,” I thought, “not because they want to, and they don't give two figs for the customs around here, especially the one that speaks of not doing anything when it's dark.” I paused for a second, then thought, “besides, darkness gives me a good deal of an advantage – and with close to nine hundred tinned and pickled thugs in the area and no real help available, I need every one of those I can get.”

As I trotted into the forest – a straight line would be marginally quicker, I now decided – I wondered if there were 'just' eight hundred and seventy thugs. The mention of arrows and other supplies, as well as 'their swords and axes were terrible' implied that there might be more thugs than the numbers I'd 'seen' thus far – as historically, people who wore armor and used edged weapons didn't shoot arrows, and archers commonly used arrows as their main weapons.

“And him speaking of those thugs ignoring being shot says they're tough thugs indeed,” I thought, “or that armor is passable at stopping bullets. I wonder how close those thugs were when they volleyed?”

And then, of course, there was the matter of transport. Did the tinned thugs sail their boats, or did they have people to help out with that issue? I wondered more than a little if they had 'transport specialists'. That would again add to their numbers, and the reality of dealing with potentially closer to two thousand or more armed thugs of one stripe or another was enough to give me pause.

“Blotches, maybe,” I thought. “I doubt their plate is striped, even if it does seem to use scales a fair amount. Now where will they go when they decide to break camp?”

My steady trotting through the woodlot now paid off, for I broke out into an open field. To my right, I saw what might have been a town some distance away, and ahead, perhaps four to five hundred yards, I saw the beginning of another woodlot. The gaps between woodlots would most likely shrink to a degree between here and that one wide field of ice.

About mid-field, I cut an obvious road, and I paused briefly. The moon had risen fully, more or less, and there was more light. It was still quite dark and dim, however, and the thugs had rowed far upriver.

“So that's why they're tired,” I thought. “They've rowed a long distance, they need to rest, get some sleep, sleep off that stuff they drank, perhaps get a meal going – no, the 'auxiliaries' are doing some of that work. Not everyone's asleep in that camp, and they're going to move as soon as they can see enough to move by – and if I can move in this light, I bet they can also.”

I crossed the field and entered the woodlot, and here, I sped up slightly, such that I was 'hurrying' as I moved between the trees, and within moments, I nearly came to grief as a deer burst from hiding and sent me sprawling as I tried to avoid it. It ran off uninjured, and as I came to my feet, I shook my head before resuming at my former 'in the trees' pace.

“Besides, if that man came from that far away...” I thought. “How fast did he go? Are those thugs still in their camp? I saw them drinking and 'partying' – was that in real time, or have they already..?”

The intimation was too strong to ignore: even with hardened and pickled thugs who were used to cold weather and hard labor, they didn't get over a long period of rowing and chopping ice overnight. Further, they felt 'secure' in their camp; the party that found them was neither large nor...

“What were they doing out in that area, especially in this weather?” I thought. “Is it common to run 'river patrols' during certain seasons of the year?”

Somehow, that seemed unlikely, unless those chosen for the task were truly unusual individuals. I broke out of the woodlot less than a minute later, and came to a long corridor that ran straight for what looked like miles.

I turned to the left so as to intersect this corridor, then as I shifted onto it, I found that it had a road running in its rough center. The width of this snow-billowed 'passage' might be a hundred or so yards wide at its widest point, and as I found the road itself, I wondered precisely where it went, other than 'west'.

I ran by the side of the road, for the surface of the road was deeply rutted and hard on bare feet, unlike the untracked snow to its side. That was like running on soft grass, and the steady swishing strides that ate up the distance slowly lengthened. I could speed up here, and I did so, until the wind began to whistle in my ears and the trees to each side became blurred.

The corridor didn't last, though, and at its end, it went left narrowly, as did the road. Ahead of me was a thick woodlot, one that went for miles, and I needed to slow down. Just before I came to the woodlot's beginning, I turned, and was stunned.

A long thick whitish trail of dusted snow hung glistening in the pale moonlight, and as the cloud spread and slowly settled, it seemed like magic 'fairy dust'. I paused, ate some more snow, and just inside the trees, I urinated.

“And I hope no one thinks I'm marking my 'territory',” I thought, as I finished up going. I then turned to resume my 'forest' pace.

That wasn't particularly slow, I now realized, and while my brief spurt bought me a modest amount of time, I doubted it saved me much. Still, it was useful knowing what I could do on a wide field with a clear passage should I have need to do so. I suspected such issues would be very important, and when I came to the first 'gully' in the forest, I accelerated and leaped the thing with plenty of distance to spare.

An avenue seemed to show in the forest, and I accelerated to a modest degree. It was important to hurry when I could do so safely, and this three hundred yard stretch was wide-open – or so I thought until another deer erupted from the margin of the path just as I came near it. It tripped, fell – and my right foot hit it in the ribcage and flung it twenty feet downrange to wrap itself around a tree.

I came to an abrupt halt, and just as abruptly burst into tears.

“I'm s-sorry,” I moaned, as the poor thing twitched and died in a welling pool of blood. “I h-have to st-stop these people, as they want all of us d-dead, and, and n-no one else c-cares. Please, forgive me.”

My tears welled up deeply, even as I sobbed, and I gently closed its now-dead eyes. There was nothing I could do beyond not go so quickly in the forests, as it had hidden itself deeply in snow for a blanket and I could not see it in time.

I resumed travel, even as I continued sobbing. I felt as if I had failed, as if I had done something so evil and horrible that it was impossible to describe, and as I continued, the thought occurred to me that I might well die in the process of doing 'my' portion of the business. I had seen three towns so far, and I suspected there were more towns nearby that I hadn't yet seen.

“And those thugs will trash the first one they come to, plunder the place and kill everyone they can, and then go to the next one, even if they can't tell the difference between Xenophon and Brimstone – and with these people, if they can see at all, they'll either be en-route to a town, or trashing a town – and I'll bet they'll use torches of some kind. Now why are they here now, and what is their 'larger' goal?”

I was sufficiently distracted that I didn't see the next 'gully' until it was nearly underfoot. I burst out of the snow and almost cleared the thing, and as I scrambled up the bank to fly out on the other side, I became horribly muddy. I rolled in the snow so as to get the nasty-feeling stuff off, and as I finished, I heard breathing all around me. I looked, and saw faintly glowing yellowish eyes in a wide semicircle.

“No, I'm not a witch,” I thought. “Now who are you all?”

As if listening, the eyes came closer, then came out from among the trees joined by large shaggy gray furry bodies. I looked eye to eye with these animals, and wondered for a moment as to what they were.

“They look like wolves, but they seem a lot, uh, fluffier,” I thought, “oh, and bigger, too. I wished I had something to give them.”

I counted noses, and numbered fifteen of the animals at first, then when the larger 'adult' examples had come out, other smaller individuals came. These last often had small 'children', usually one or two in their wake, and as they came closer, they sat on their haunches. I sat down as well, and again, suddenly, I burst into tears.

“I'm s-sorry, I k-killed a deer,” I muttered. “Please, forgive me.”

Strange pictures seemed to come into my head, and for some reason, I understood their meaning – chiefly this:

“I wondered what I was smelling on your trail. Now why were you bathing in that snow? Does dirt bother you?”

I formed pictures myself, thinking as I did so, “figures, I cannot understand people very well, but I understood that perfectly.”

The pictures I formed – swords, axes, thuggish people, falling trees, animals killed for 'sport', a long trip at a breakneck speed, nearly colliding with one deer while trying to hurry, then hitting another, the need to go as quickly as possible, the enemy camp with a red line through it, then getting muddy – and a frenzied itch-scratch-torment caused by the mud amid weeping for the deer's demise.

“That explains a great deal,” I understood as a reply. “Those things that come like that might look like people – more so than you do, in fact – but they don't act like people, and neither do you.”

A big blooming question-mark erupted in my mind, then I muttered, “how?”

“I did not mean that negatively,” came the reply. “I meant that most of them do not converse as you do, nor do they feel sorrow so deeply. Only a few of them do, and I've met several.”

Again, the question mark in my mind came rushing forward.

“They tend to have people chase them, much as if they were those smaller foul-smelling animals,” was what I understood, “and they do things like you propose to do. At least they have places where they can hide from those chasing them.”

An abrupt strobing flurry of pictures ran through my mind, almost as if I had had a seizure, and again, a reply came.

“If life for them were as that place's, none of them would survive. That place is far worse than here.”

I pointed north, then a picture of that iron-sceptered witch-queen showed in my mind. Here, the picture was more detailed: I saw what her seat-cushion was made of, as well as three long dark-wooden poles with carved niches. Each of these niches had what looked like a rotting head inside.

“No, no more,” I said. “It is bad enough they hate those like me.”

What I saw now 'zoomed in' to show further details of one of the poles, and as I watched, first one skull grew flesh, then another, and as they did, I learned the answer as to their small size. That witch-queen went after those deformed as if those people were talismans of especial power, and when they were found among her people, they were killed on the spot, irrespective of age or capacity. The view 'zoomed out' to show the queen herself, and she folded her arms across her bony and barren chest while she chanted hideous words.

While I did not understand her precise language, a 'translated' version came into my mind, and its words were these:

Hail great Brimstone! We shall destroy those who are not of this world,

and make it pleasing to you, and those that are most hated, they shall die

in great pain with screams that you delight in. First shall be those who

have no ears to hear you, then those with no hands to serve you, then the

rest of those misshapen evils, and then the rest that do not wish to have

your will in their hands and your voice in their ears. Hail Brimstone!”

I watched the witch now move her hands as if marking out a circle, then in the circle, a swastika-like symbol formed. It began whirling around amid thick gray billows of smoke, and as the thing turned amid the smoke, I knew its purpose:

It sowed the wind, and reaped the whirlwind, and as the witch and her infernal scythe-like machine faded from sight, I was swarmed with a family of wolves. Pictures flooded into my mind in a seeming chorus, and my understanding of the message was “they hate all of us! Let us fight together and make them leave us be!”

“They desire your deaths,” I said quietly, “but that is only their lying master saying that to take your lives increases theirs. You are merely prey. I am their enemy, and hated all the more because of it.”

For some reason, I knew that I was accepted among this family of wolves, and by extension, all of them. One of the females licked my foot. It tickled greatly, and made for giggling – as well as a desire to thank her, which I did. I relished such attention.

“I smelled dinner,” she seemed to say, “and could not resist. We are all hungry, and I smell it over yonder. Shall we go?”

“Please do,” I said quietly. “I need to go on ahead so as to stop those people, as they want to kill all of us. That may be stupid, but only their deaths will stop them from doing what they wish to do. Please, warn those in the towns, but be careful so that you are not hurt.”

I then had a picture of dogs in my head; huge shaggy-furred things that looked as if they came from the pages of an old novel I had once read, and as I saw their numbers, I wondered if these were the dogs spoken of as being at the king's house proper. The picture then changed to show a huge building, then the building's rear 'yard', then a long low 'stable' showed in the center with one of the dogs in question showing next to it.

“Yes, please do,” I said.

What showed next, however, was a truly startling animal: it too was a dog, with a long wagging tail, a powerful build, ferocious teeth and a vise-like bite – and red ears. These dogs were mostly an off-white color, and as the picture changed to show one of them in full flight, I was startled even more.

Unlike the previous dogs, the red-eared hounds did not bay when on the trail, as their 'commitment' was beyond belief, and their speed even more so – or so I thought when one of them came upon an armor-plated thug and bit through the leather trousers he wore – for a start. The thug didn't stand a chance with that dog after him.

“Yes, them too,” I said. “I need all the help I can get.”

Pictures formed of the deer, then the family splitting up and fetching the dogs – and finally, someone bringing a haunch of deer. This last I gathered to mean “war is a hungry business, and you can expect food later.”

“And a red business, too,” I thought sourly. I needed to go on.

I resumed my path west, now wary for further examples of those gullies. I could sense one ahead, and this one, I saw in time, hence leaped the thing, and then resumed my previous pace. I wondered just how much further I needed to go, and more, how much further the woodlot went.

The woodlot came to an end about five minutes later, and when I burst out of the trees, I saw that another was but a few hundred yards away. I continued at the same pace, neither slackening nor speeding up, and when I went into the next woodlot, I could feel the river. It was less than ten miles away, which meant the bridge in question wasn't that much further. I stopped, urinated, and continued on, now at a slower pace.

At the now steady 'trot' I was managing, I tried listening for the enemy camp. The sense I had was one of deep slumber; even the 'auxiliaries' were asleep or getting there. Start would be in a few hours, most likely, which meant reconnoitering the place and assaying trouble as soon as I could manage.

I passed through the woodlot, then into a slightly wider region of snow. The snow seemed deeper here, and a bit more powdery than it had been prior, such that I sank in a bit more, at least until I crossed another road. I came into the next woodlot, and as I did, I knew this was the last one prior to that one wide field of snow with its bridge. I stopped for a moment, ate some snow, and then continued on at a rapid walk.

I would need to rest as much as I could prior to trying to cause trouble, as I suspected from the time I started things until the end of the matter might be as short as a few hours – a frenetic few hours, at that. The thought occurred to me that dealing with the whole swarm at once was not the wisest use of my limited resources.

“Hence cause trouble in camp, then cause trouble when and where I can prior to that icy bridge place,” I thought. “I'll need to get some weapons if I can, as otherwise, I won't be able to do much.”

The trees began thinning minutes later, and as I came to their end, I saw the field proper. It was easily five miles across, with a faintly glistening arch of ice showing a bit past its apparent middle. I sent out in that direction, now at a trot again.

The snow was deep enough to make for wondering, so much so that I sped up to the 'wind-whistle' speed, and as a lark, I tried abrupt turns. I was surprised I managed them as well as I did, and when I slowed to cross the bridge itself, I was stunned to see another huge cloud of icy air behind me – and snow nearly to my knees until I came to the bridge itself.

The claws in my feet extended without my thinking, and I walked easily across the bridge. It felt uncommonly slippery otherwise, and as I saw its arched and crowned surface, thought, “if they try this two at a time, at least one of the two is going for a...”

I paused and looked over the side to see ice-sheeted water, sharp rocks, and an easy fifteen feet drop. The bridge itself was nearly thirty feet long, and when I looked up, I saw how far the 'river' ran.

“That's got to be at least four or five miles,” I thought, as the 'river' seemed to vanish far away in the dim moonlight.

Yet as I thought of the matter, and looked the other way to see a similar distance, I knew the distance was a great deal more. They either crossed here, or they spent a full day's travel before they came to where they could cross readily.

The obvious occurred to me: what was so interesting about this particular area?

I knelt down, scraped up some of the snow on the bridge, and made a snowball. I tossed it down, and saw the ice break as if thin glass and then slowly float downstream to the north. I stood, then resumed traveling west.

The snow on the west side of the bridge was the same as on the east side, and I needed to move rapidly so as to not bog down in it. I came to the trees on the other side but a few minutes later, and as I entered them, I listened carefully, even as I began walking.

A vast snoring multitude was less than a mile away toward the south and west, and as I angled left toward the 'camp', I wondered just how to 'cause trouble' – until I smelled smoke.

“Fires,” I thought. “I was told they had a lot of jugs, and I...”

I nearly gagged at the reek of high-octane drink that seemed to billow around me. Each of these thugs had brought his own jug, if I went by the smell, and 'pickled' sounded about right for the less-intoxicated individuals.

“Perhaps a big fire,” I thought. “I'll need to see what they have.”

The trees were sufficiently thick that I had good cover, even as I drew closer to the camp proper, and with each minute, the snoring grew louder. It sounded like a collection of tired sawmills, and when saw the first 'watch-fire', I was astonished.

Not merely was there a huge 'fire-pit' crammed with smoking logs and glowing coals, but the thugs lay on leather 'sleeping rolls' in a wide circle around the fire – and not only did each thug have his own 'extra-large' jug, he also had his own weapons, a sizable leather satchel or pack, and what looked like another bag full of odds and ends.

“And another stack of such jugs nearby,” I thought. “Perhaps I can look at them.”

'Tiptoeing' through the camp made for fear amid wonderment, and uncorking the topmost jug on the nearest stack was enough to cause acute illness. The stuff wasn't weak, and pouring out a small amount on the snow showed it was as green as antifreeze and nearly as strong as aquavit.

The fire-pits seemed to have been present for longer than a day and a half, and when I came to several black-iron waist-high cauldrons, I glanced at them. The contents looked unsavory enough to not look further, and as I checked my gorge, I wondered if there were other things of a useful nature. I seemed to sense a likely location some distance further in the camp.

As I moved silently toward this location, I noted several crude-looking tents, more stacked jugs, and what looked like mounds of spare weapons, including many sheafs of arrows. I had the impression this location was to be a base camp of some kind, and the thugs would foray out from it and then return, where they then would rest between such forays.

“And making the place untenable will not help them much,” I thought. “I wonder if that's distillate I'm smelling in that tent over there?”

I stopped at the entrance, and to my surprise, not merely did I find a number of other crude-looking jugs, but also a sizable varnished box profusely studded with coppery-looking nails. I went inside, and carefully opened the box.

The thing was full of capped sticks of dynamite, each with a short length of what looked like fuse. I removed three such sticks, then put down the lid as the headache began. I laid down the dynamite, then uncorked one of the jugs.

The reek of distillate was so intense I nearly laughed and vomited at the same time, and when I replaced the cork, I wondered how to 'start a fire' and then propagate it.

There were three more such tents, each about a hundred or so yards apart from one another, and as I came to the last one, I had an idea. I uncorked three jugs, upended two inside the tent, and then began dribbling the stuff behind me from the third jug as I trotted around the sprawled drunken thugs. I kept well away from the fires, and when I came to another of the tents, I did the same thing – dump out two jugs, take a third one, and then run for another tent with the jug dumping distillate behind me. The stink was becoming intense, so much so that I hoped it would not go up before it was time, and when I came to the third such tent, I dumped my jug inside it, uncorked two more, upended them, and got a third one.

“One more such tent,” I thought, as I began leaving my distillate trail.

The tent itself was but another two hundred yards further, and there, I uncorked the last three jugs. I took the uncorked one, and now ran for the trees, all the while dribbling the distillate behind me. The last fire of the camp beckoned ahead of me, and I tossed the jug at it as I passed – and then I really ran.

A blazing fireball eruption seemed to toss me into the trees a fraction of a second later, and as I recovered, I felt rather than heard an explosion of such magnitude that I stumbled and fell again. I came to my feet, and then another two huge blasts erupted one after the other – and now, I had need of speed, as the camp had woken up.

The screams and yells of enraged thugs behind me was the soundtrack of hell, and when I glanced behind me, I saw not merely the hungry red flames of a distillate-fueled holocaust, but billowing bursts of flames that showed tinned thugs being broiled by green-tinted fire as well. More explosions followed of lesser magnitude, and as I paused, I had an idea: the thugs would wish my hide, and would come looking as soon as matters 'calmed down' enough to permit travel.

As I resumed running, however, I knew 'calmed down' was a relative thing, meaning they'd start out the minute they could muster any real number of effectives. I needed to discern their line of march, then find a hiding place.

“Why am I thinking that way?” I thought. There was no answer, beyond the sense it was important – and then, the recollection of thinking about acquiring weapons. I needed those, as I'd used up the dynamite, the strong drink, and the distillate.

I slowed, then turned to my left. The thugs had camped here before, possibly a number of times, and they had definite egress and ingress routes. One of the former was to the left, and as I moved quickly, I could hear the flames beginning to die down, even as further soft blooms spoke to my ears of fireside jugs igniting.

“How did that happen?” I thought. “Did the shockwaves rupture all of those jugs and spray the contents into the fires?”

A glance back the way I came showed still-burning flames, as well as a thick and pungently acrid cloud of vapor that seemed to hover low to the ground.

“Wonderful, that stuff puts out datramonium fumes, which means... Drunk, and uh, trashed. I'd best find a good hiding place.”

As I came closer to the egress path, I asked that my tracks be erased, and when I cut it, I was astonished, for it showed not merely well-trimmed and old stumps, but also ax-cut 'blazes' on the trees. I felt one of the 'hash marks', and thought, “they don't need to see particularly good with these. They can feel their way along just fine if they're not in a hurry.”

I soon found what looked like a sizable snowdrift about two hundred yards from the edge of the forest, and when I began digging on the back side, I found foliage, and then dry leaves. Someone had dumped the limbs of the trees by the side of the 'path'.

The nature of this 'bower' – it was snug enough inside, with little snow in the interior – was such that I marveled, and once inside, I asked that all sign of my presence be erased. I then began to make a small viewing port such that I could watch the oncoming group.

Faint cries, screams, and deathly moans seemed all around me, and I wondered as to the nature of the march and its size. I wondered as to the archers, as well as the 'auxiliaries'; I suspected the group coming out would be a token-sized one, as the casualties would need looking after.

Within moments, however, I could hear someone thumping on what might have been a kettle, then two more someones, then several additional individuals joined in to make a cacophonous racket that seemed to have little to recommend it beyond it might provide a good marching cadence. Otherwise, it was simply a great deal of noise.

I wondered as to the precise nature of what I wanted, at least until the first of the thugs came along. This man bore a torch in one hand, and a sword in the other, and as I looked at the sword, certain things stood out clearly. I 'saw' grainy-looking slag inclusions running the length of the blade, with dings, coarse file marks, and an irregular cross-sectional form freckled with rust. As the surface proper of the blade gave way, I saw black 'cold shuts' and rusted places where forge-welds had been attempted, as well as small yellowish globs and what resembled mounds of foul-smelling 'dung'.

“That one's not up to pig-plate standards,” I thought. “Was that pig a typical example, or do they have grades of plate for those too?”

The next two thugs, again, had torches in one hand, and swords in the other – and again, poor weapons. One blade was noticeably bent – perhaps warped by a too-severe quench – while I saw what might have been a sizable notch in the blade of the other.

“Still, though, bad swords are better than no swords,” I thought, “and most edged weapons I've seen locally aren't very good, even if they superficially look better than what I see here.”

The next thugs had axes hung from their backs as well as swords, and after watching perhaps another twenty thugs pass, I noted another individual was coming. Unlike the previous people, who had bad leather sewn with long thin scales, this person had plate, a helmet like those I'd seen at home, and what 'felt' like decent weapons. He was still far at the back of the growing thug-swarm, and had a number of sundry thugs ahead of and to each side of him – and a sizable and growing swarm behind.

The number of scrap-metal wielding thugs steadily increased, with over half of them wielding torches as well as swords. Most of these men had scrap-metal swords or axes, though I was beginning to see a pattern with what they had: it wasn't intended to 'look nice', and its production spoke of no wasted time. I thought as to the likely use, then suspected the 'obvious':

“They aren't using those things on armor-plated thugs like themselves,” I thought, “and they don't expect them to get heavy use. I wonder if they treat those weapons as 'semi-disposable'?”

I paused, then as that one individual came closer, I noted a trend: the nastier-looking thugs tended to have somewhat better weapons. A thought occurred to me.

“Perhaps if one returns from a voyage with bloodied weapons, they're reworked into better ones,” I thought. “Maybe these people expect a lot of casualties, and hence commonly issue 'cheap' weapons to untried recruits – and those that have proved themselves get better gear, as they're more likely to give it heavy use.”

The man with the good stuff showed but a minute later, and when I saw his equipment, I gasped involuntarily: good sword in long scabbard, sizable ax on his back, dagger on his belt, and well-articulated mottled blue-black plate on his entire torso, along with a helmet identical to what I had 'seen' – and those behind him were arrayed in similar fashion. I made ready to come out of hiding, digging my feet in to gain purchase, then with a sudden explosive eruption, I leaped from hiding and ran at my target.

The aspect of surprise I'd achieved was complete, even to my hitting the thug in the side and sending him and those to his right sprawling as he slid and tumbled in the snow as I went after him. He fetched up against a tree, and as I came closer, he tried to get up. At the very last second, he raised his dagger.

I slapped it aside with the back of my right hand, then raked his throat with the return swing. I only saw the chain mail 'gorget' at the last instant.

The claws of my right hand ripped through the stuff like soggy newsprint and shredded his throat. I was instantly sprayed with blood, and as his dagger dropped, I grabbed it before it hit the ground. That one went in my teeth, and as his blood inked the tree and the ground, I yanked his sword from his sheath with my right hand, then kicked him up in the air and on his back to get the ax in my left hand. I then turned to face the oncoming enemy, and began running toward them.

The oncoming thugs had still not reacted, or so I thought when I came to the first one. I swung on him with the sword and sliced deep into his side, then as I continued – the sword would free itself in time, I merely needed to pull – I swung the ax on the next person I came to.

He lost his head, and as his head and helmet flew to the side, the sword came loose with a vicious yank that caused it to swing around and slice deep into the leg of a third man. It didn't hang up this time, and when I swung the ax next, its 'hooked' tips ripped through the scales and bad leather of the nearest victim's gut and embedded itself deep in the side of another. It came loose readily, and now, the press of thugs grew close – and I began to feel as if out of my mind, for everything had gone bright as daylight and as red as blood.

Each swing of ax and sword seemed to send body parts flying, and as I advanced, the press became closer to a semicircle. I seemed to have eyes in the back of my head, as well as uncommon dexterity, and backhanded thrusts and slices were ridiculously easy, even as I gave the thugs to the front the bulk of my attention. They had trouble getting around me, and I moved to the side to avoid the bodies that began piling up to my front.

Each stroke seemed to find its mark, and in my peripheral vision, I saw thugs swinging wildly and crazily. More often than not, they hit each other; that seemed more a tendency of the people with the worst weapons, but the 'melee' aspect of sword-and-ax combat was such that there was a thick crowd of enraged thugs clustering in a semicircle in front of me, and I needed to cut my way out and through them. I could tell that much, if but little more, and when I finally saw a chance to run, I leaped out of the press and ran.

The period of combat seemed to have lasted minutes, but as I broke through, I saw numbers of numb-looking thugs standing still and holding torches while wondering what had happened, and as I went by them, I sliced at each man I could readily reach. I was aiming for heads and chests now, and the number of thugs I was slicing on was such that I marveled, until I realized I was going toward their camp, not away from it. I turned, then ran back the way I had come.

The still-numb aspect of the thugs in my path was so astonishing that I weaved around them while slicing on every thug I could reach, and the number of heads and other body parts that littered the ground from my wayward flight was astonishing. I was still removing heads and limbs as I passed the press of where I had cut and slashed for the first period, and as I went past this slow-reacting mob, I sliced more of them with the sword.

The ax was not idle, and with each such swing, I cut through arms, legs, and necks. The last torch-bearing thugs were ahead, and I burst through them followed by spraying blood and flying body parts. I now had a clear path, and I ran like the wind out of the forest and onto the snow. I had my weapons, and I headed for the bridge.

Behind came the screams and howls of the damned, and as I ran, I wondered why I wasn't being followed – and more, why I wasn't being sprayed with sheets of arrows. I wondered for a moment if the arrows and archers had gone up in smoke, even as the wind-whistle roared in my ears.

The bridge drew steadily closer, and I began slowing when it was close enough to see readily, until but thirty feet from the edge of the 'river', I slowed to a walk. My feet sank in the deep snow until I came to the bridge proper, where I walked across to the east side and laid down my new-acquired weapons on the snow.

I then turned around.

No one was coming out of that woodlot, and as I searched with my eyes, to the left I could see what looked to be thick billows of woodsmoke – and for some reason, I could really smell the fumes of datramonium.

“Perhaps they still have intact jugs,” I thought, “and are using the stuff as a wound-cleaner.”

I then thought about the obvious effects of inhaled datramonium, as evidenced by the dream.

“Is that stuff like, uh, atropine?” I thought. “If it is, those people are going to be as crazy as those witches were...” I paused, then thought, “or like I felt when they used that stuff on me in the hospital.”

I had had such horrible reactions to atropine – and indeed, all anticholinergic drugs – that I had avoided them when and where I could. Recollections of how I felt while under their influence – the dry mouth, the nosebleeds, the fear verging on panic – seemed to strobe through my mind, and as I recalled the horror of those times in the hospital prior to surgery as a child, faintly I heard voices in my mind:

“Let's eat this one, as it is asleep once we anesthetize it and then it cannot resist our knives and forks. Long pig is tender and tasty, especially this kind. This one is a Useless Feeder and is worthless save as our dinner.”

“Did they wish to devour me?” I thought. “I never thought that before.”

I paused for a second, then thought, “who was saying that? The doctors themselves?”

I gave my attention to the weapons, and as I walked back toward them, I noted a growing feeling of stickiness. I looked down at my clothing, and nearly fainted, for it was solid clotted gore – and without thinking, I leaped from the bridge to crash into the ice and the water below.

The initial chill vanished abruptly as I thrashed and scrubbed myself thoroughly, and only once I'd turned the water a dark red and stained the ice with blood did I think as to how I would get back up. The water was but waist deep, and as I continued splashing, I noted my clothing had its share of slashes in it. What I was wearing had been sliced on more than a little, and as I felt myself, I was astonished.

“Why am I not cut up?” I thought. “I cannot feel anything wrong with me.” I looked up towards the bridge, saw it was an easy twelve feet or more leap, and thought to try it. I gathered myself, then sprang upwards.

I shot out of the water like a rocket and flew upwards in an arcing trajectory to land on the bridge with a solid-feeling thud, then as I began walking toward my 'liberated' weapons, I thought to shake off the water. The clouds of rapid-freezing mist that billowed up and around were such that I wondered, and I wondered yet more as to the feeling of substantial fatigue. I knelt down by the side of the weapons, and with one hand, I ate snow while I looked at their blood-caked blades.

“I had no idea the 'red business' was so messy,” I thought numbly. My eyes were on the verge of closing. “Please, let me remain this way until...”

“You have work to do still,” said a soft voice that seemed blown on the feeble smoke-laden wind, “so you will remain this way until you are done. That is why you are here, remember?”

I lay down where I sat, curled up into a ball, and then fell asleep abruptly. It felt good to be clean of blood and the remaining traces of mud, and unconsciousness was a blessed relief from horror.

I awakened what seemed an epoch later, and as I opened my eyes, the aspect of moonlight was still dim. It felt like morning – my usual time of awakening – and as I sat up, the reek of datramonium was intense, nauseating, and enough to make for dry heaves. I looked toward the enemy camp, and shuddered.

Bodies had been stacked like cordwood, with four across one way and then four across the other, and four such layers comprising a stack. Only now was the camp 'under control' enough to consider it a camp, and the auxiliaries – those had been the people with scrap-metal blades, I now realized – were uncommonly busy, if they were still alive.

A lot of them weren't.

The numbers of plate-wearing thugs, however, had suffered an even more precipitous decline, for most of those people that had been resting around the fires were among the main force. While their leather 'undergarments' had protected them from the fires to a degree, many of them had received serious burns.

More than a few had been turned into charcoal, and had been piled into their four-high piles.

In addition to the flame-wrought carnage, there were numbers of individuals that lay 'incapacitated' by wounds. Not every person I had sliced on died on the spot; a fair number had survived thus far. In most cases, however, long-term survival was unlikely, as many of these individuals had lost considerable amounts of blood as well as body parts. The more-immediate issue, at least from my point of view, was the injured thugs weren't going to be swinging swords or axes any time soon.

The death-toll from my 'few minutes' of insane thug-slicing, however, was not trivial, and those auxiliaries that still lived were still mounding the bodies. There was talk – grim-sounding long messy words that seemed to conjure darkness and fright – of what had happened, and the attitude was one of unbelief mortared thickly with a great longing for revenge. Vindictive wasn't even close to the attitude I saw present among the survivors.

“And their talk makes the Black Speech sound good,” I muttered. “If a domestic pig could speak, it would sound like what they are saying.”

The juxtaposition of 'pork' and 'wearable tin' made for a flippant-sounding remark, and as I turned to the ax, dagger, and sword, I said, “canned ham? No, too, uh – I have some good memories of that stuff and eating it as a child. Those people should be compared to Spam – tinned, mostly fat, strange flavor, indigestion upon consumption, and then lengthy stays in the bathroom when it decides it wants to leave its consumer in the lurch.”

I paused, then looked at the blood-caked weapons, and thought, “lurch? Yeah, right. Those people do lurch some.”

I gathered snow and began scrubbing the weapons, and as I did, the caked blood steadily came off of them. The bloody snowballs went swimming in the 'river', or as I now thought of it, the 'canal'. With each such blob, however, the nature of where I was and the bridge itself became clearer: it was once a bridge that was solid, but age and neglect had made it porous – namely, full of holes – during most of the year. Only when a lot of snow had fallen was the bridge passable, and the 'canal'...

“Why am I so certain that thing is a canal?” I thought. “That dream...”

The dream had spoken of a 'nightmare holocaust', and while there hadn't been details beyond 'it was really bad' and 'there weren't many survivors when that war finished', the details of the past intimated the place was heavily built up at one time. Now all of that stuff was dead, buried, and...

Except for this 'canal'. It remained of that time, just like some of the other well-hid things that showed now and then. The further thought that occurred to me was what kind of canal it was – was it an aqueduct, a transport canal, an open-to-the-air sewer...

“No, it cannot be the last,” I said. “That would be a recipe for serious diseases, and in a large city, they would spread like a dread plague.”

I returned my attention to the weapons, and resumed dirtying snow and tossing red snowballs in the canal. Soon I had the majority of the blood off of the sword and ax, and outlined in red angular characters was the following:

The sight of runes made for a distinct feeling of discomfort, so much so that as I looked closer, I saw that all three weapons had the same chiseled inscription. I wondered if it was a curse, then began counting the individual runes.

“Three, four... twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven,” I said softly. “Either that is a very long-winded curse, or those people use those things to write with.”

As if to indicate what had happened, I saw a meteorite blast through the atmosphere, then be used for a source of alloy content – and as I looked at the sword, I saw a strange matrix seemed to superimpose itself upon the blade. I looked closer, and made out the following combinations of letters, followed by a short inscription:

“C, Co, Ni, Cr, Mo, Mn, Fe, V, Si, # 118, # 99, # 121+,” then “shock-resisting high-hardness 'exotic' alloy steel.”

“Uh, what is this equivalent to?” I thought.

As if to respond, the letters and words changed to the following: “they don't have this type of steel where you come from. Try rubbing it carefully.”

I did so, wondering if I would somehow conjure a Jinn, but within seconds, I had an intimation: I needed to press hard, and rub along the length of the blade from hilt to tip with my fingers while squeezing the blade. As I did so, the sense of dirt that seemed to cluster onto my fingers was appalling, and with several more such strokes, I needed to wipe my hand on the snow.

The dirt that came off was astonishing.

I continued 'rubbing', and as I did, I could somehow feel the steel compressing under my hand. I wiped every few such strokes, and the amount of filth that came off of my hands was still surprising. The blade shook in my grip as I pinched it and rubbed, and with each such stroke, the coarse grind-marks, the leavings of various files, the lumps and crudities, began to slowly diminish – and after a few minutes, its previously bright exterior was now a horrible-looking black-streaked grimy mess.

I scrubbed the thing with snow, then my hands, and as I looked at it, I noted it was much less 'crude-seeming'. It also had shrank slightly as to its outer dimensions.

“This thing is still huge,” I thought, as I looked at the three and a half foot blade. I'd been glad of its reach, and more, glad of its heft. It had to weigh at least five pounds, and when I looked at my arms, I wondered much less as to my capacity to swing the thing.

With further rubbing, however, I felt less dirt coming off in my hands, and as I wiped them, I wondered for a moment as to why the 'dirt' kept coming out. Was this a symptom of metallurgical crudity, or was it something worse?

“Are there spooks in this thing?” I asked. The term 'spooks' came from that time long in the past when I was dealing with evil spirits on a regular basis.

I then noticed the difference in feel. This difference was quite subtle, almost as if the thing had somehow lost weight and gained a 'spiritual' nature. It was still becoming dirty, however, and after cleaning it and my hands again, I listened.

Faint on the wind, I could hear hounds briefly.

I resumed stroking the sword. The metal wasn't nearly as inclined to move under my hands, and as I glanced at the dirt, I saw small matches, tiny piles of yellow powder, and brown malodorous piles of what might have been the metallic version of cattle manure. The stink was horrible from all of these – they were impurities, and I recognized the phosphorus, sulfur, and other 'crap' – and I did not wish to have them in these weapons.

A brief cleaning, and I resumed the stroking action. There was but little further movement, and as I looked at the sword while stroking it, I saw pictures of hands clasping each other while the sword shook slightly. Between the pictures of hands, however, I saw small black dots, which this further stroking seemed to be erasing.

“Is this metal becoming a single crystal, like some things I've heard of?” I could see a picture of a jet turbine blade in my mind as I said this. The improved metallurgical properties would be a tremendous asset if that were happening. I glanced at the ax and dagger, and saw vast numbers of such black dots, even as I continued working on the sword – until, finally, the thing was done. The change was quite noticeable now, and as I laid the sword down, I wondered briefly.

“Is this thing alive in some hard to perceive fashion?”

I resumed work, though on the dagger this time – and it went faster because of its smaller size. It wasn't a small poker just the same, and once its rubbish was on the snow and no longer inside of its metal, I began working on the ax.

That brute – ten pounds if an ounce – needed my holding it with my knees, careful rubbing with both hands, a great many cleanings, and substantial fatigue at the end. The moonlight was now truly fading, as was the darkness, and a faint gleam of light caught the edge of the thing from behind me. I turned and wondered as to the cause.

The thug-camp was still very much in 'recovery' mode, with most of the plate-wearers now asleep once more, even as the auxiliaries labored mightily and the archers seemed absent. The ability of the plate-wearing thugs to sleep at this time made for wondering – wondering as to why they were asleep, and wondering as to their actual goals.

“And even with that level of disruption, they aren't budging from their plans,” I thought.

I looked again at the edges of the weapons, and faintly, I saw what looked like rainbows. I recalled what sharp edges did with non-coherent light, and as I looked at the sword, I saw that not merely could I not see a reflection coming from its edge, but as I turned it in the pattern of the light, I saw the light seeming to bend around the edge itself.

“Th-these things are optically sharp,” I spluttered.

I heard again the faint baying of hounds, and as I did, I noted the slow lessening of the dark. It was still some time prior to true sunrise, and easily two hours more until it became 'apparent'.

“And no one will bother coming,” I thought. “It's too far, it's too cold, they don't want to be bothered...”

Something abruptly squelched such thinking, and the recollection of what I had been told – “I will help you” – seemed to banish it. The gleaming mirror-surfaces of the weapons showed what might have been a mound of snow with them sticking out of it, and as I looked closer, the word 'cryogenic' came to me – as well as the recollection of what it did.

“Increased toughness with no loss of hardness,” I thought. “It's worth a try.”

Mounding up a pile of snow took but minutes, and I put the metal parts of sword, ax, and dagger deep within it. I put my hands near the snow, closed my eyes, and began praying – and within seconds, the sense of chill beneath my hands began to increase. I prayed more earnestly then.

Even with closed eyes, I could see the steaming of the snow, and as I felt that familiar 'sinking' feeling that spoke of being no longer completely 'here', I prayed yet harder. The sinking feeling grew, and in my mind, I saw a vat of boiling liquid billowing thick white smoke in such a frantic manner I had trouble believing what I was seeing – until I not only felt 'submerged', but also covered with the crawling sensation I had felt hours before. I held up one of my hands, and a shattering roar blasted from out of the sky and knocked me flat on the ground.

“What happened?” I asked, as I opened my eyes.

“Too much electricity,” said the soft voice.

I looked straight up and saw dark gray clouds sundered by a faintly glowing hole overhead, and as this hole slowly closed, I wondered how it had appeared. I then looked at the mound of snow.

That had shrunk drastically, with the weapons almost hidden by dense white billows of 'smoke', and the visible portions of each weapon encased in rime and frost. I gently rubbed my head, got to my knees, and crawled over to the smoking hillock of ice and snow.

The ax came out readily when I pulled it out by its handle, and the ice coating the head went to powder. The previous shiny surface now gleamed like a mirror, and as I looked at the wood of the handle, it seemed harder, denser, much stronger, and far less coarse as to its grain. It had changed somehow, and as I tried recalling how it was before, I made the connection.

“The original wood came from those mountain-sized pine trees,” I murmured, “and now, it looks closer to what they use for ax handles here, only it isn't that stuff either. It almost seems resin-impregnated.”

The dagger also came out readily, but the sword proved difficult. I had to pull, wiggle it to the side back and forth, pull more, and then finally slowly draw the thing from the ice.

“Now I want a round table to recline on,” I thought, as I laid the sword down on the ground, “as that was as hard as pulling it out of a stinking rock.”

Looking up at the clouds showed slow-gathering light overhead. The moon was gone, and in the eerie gray of twilight, I could hear preparation to embark in the thug-camp. The tin-plated thugs were just waking up, and in most cases, they were topping their antifreeze prior to eating their 'rations'. For some reason, I could not merely smell this food – it smelled terrible and unappetizing, with a distinct rotten overtone – but also seemed to taste it. I wanted to spit, it was so bad, and as I gagged, I turned back toward the south and east.

Two small dots had emerged from the nearest woodlot and were now coming at a steady trot toward me. It took roughly a minute to recognize the two dots as wolves, and a minute more to recognize what they were bringing with them.

They'd saved me a sizable piece of deer meat.

The odor of antifreeze, however, was worse than nauseating, and its sole consolation was the knowledge that drunken thugs didn't fight as well as sober ones; as the wolves came closer, I recalled Elijah being fed by ravens.

“And if he managed, I can too,” I thought. “I'm hungry enough to eat raw meat right now, and eat a lot of it. At least it will be fresh.”

I paused, then thought, “and any more, I'm leaving meat for the wolves when I get something. I don't forget favors, especially this type.”

They arrived minutes later, and I sat down with the dagger in my hand, saying, “I imagine the two of you are hungry.”

A picture formed in my mind of a sizable plate layered thickly with roast meat and vegetables, and as the picture 'zoomed out', I noted familiar-looking details – rough-sawn boards, white paint, plentiful driven-in dowels. I pictured Hans' face, and both of them leaped on me. They seemed happy.

“I know them, and I live there,” I said softly. “How do you like your deer – filleted, minced, chopped?”

While I could use my claws for such work, I wanted to try one of the blades, and when I carefully cut the skin off of the haunch, I was astonished at how sharp the dagger's blade was – and also, how well it worked for skinning.

I got the skin off the leg, then began cutting long thin strips and chopping them up. As I did so, I noted not merely the thug-camp's state – they would start moving any time now – but also the oncoming dogs. Faintly, I could hear roaring howls as well as baying, and then, fainter yet, I heard a squalling nightmare brass trumpet.

“I doubt they're blowing that thing for fun,” I thought, as I cut up part-frozen deer and placed it in front of the wolves.

Once I'd fed them some, I began cutting up my own meat. I wiped the stuff off with snow to get the blood out of it as much as I could, then popped the surprisingly small pieces in my mouth. Again, the flavor reminded me of raw elk – edible, but not the best flavor – and I washed each piece down with a mouthful of snow.

As the wolves filled up, I ate my portion slowly. I needed as much energy as I could, and after a few minutes, I felt a stirring in my guts. I went off a short distance, dug a hole in the snow, went, wiped myself with a handful of snow, and then covered the mess and wiped my hands carefully.

Going gave me a renewed appetite, and I ate hungrily. I hoped I would not become ill, but as I ate the small bite-sized pieces I reserved for myself, I received a picture of a full belly and sleeping in a cozy 'den'.

“I have work to do first,” I said softly, “and that's going to be fairly soon. I need to eat, as I will be fighting again.” I fingered my sleeve, noted a small slice, then said, “I already did some work on those thugs. I'll need to do some more before they give up on the idea.”

I finished eating, then diced up some more meat 'for the road'. I had cut the haunch in half, so the wolves now each took a piece and went back the way they'd come while I cleaned the dagger and put it near the meat, then did likewise with the sword and ax. I then faced the egress point, which was where I expected the thugs to come out.

I could hear, and indeed, almost see the thugs as they formed up in column. With few exceptions, these people were thoroughly drunk, so much so that I doubted their capacity to start a car, much less drive it.

“Perhaps they are accustomed to being trashed,” I thought.

As I 'watched', however, the staggering swaggering crowd began slowly moving – and to my surprise, I saw first one man stumble into a tree and fall down while squalling like a burnt parrot, then another trip over a tree root. This second man became irate, swung his ax at the tree, missed it by feet, and then spun completely around and fell to the ground. In the process, he nearly removed several helmets from his comrades, and when he rejoined the column, he was dragging his ax.

He wasn't the only one dragging badly. Those who weren't dragging were the exceptions, rather than the rule.

“Why are they so tired?” I thought. “Didn't they get some sleep?”

My suspicions were now arisen, for in the distance, I again heard the dogs coming. The deep-pitched baying suggested truly large dogs, and the howling was now such that I sensed the dogs would be here once it became truly light. Real sunrise had happened a little while ago, while apparent sunrise would be within an hour or so – or so it seemed.

I hoped it would remain 'dark' until my portion was finished, even as I went to the middle of the bridge to wait the coming thugs.

As I waited, however, I had another intimation as to why the thugs hadn't gotten as much sleep as they could: they'd been busy hauling out their 'secret weapons'. I 'looked' and saw a number of trunks that had been emptied out near the burnt-out ruins of the camp...

I hitched, then looked closer. My jaw dropped involuntarily.

“I had no idea those fires and explosions wrecked that place that good,” I muttered. “They don't have a base-camp worth coming back to, almost – and everyone but the boat-drivers themselves is coming in the column.”

My view then zoomed back in on the trunks, and more, their former contents. That had consisted of a number of semi-spherical brass 'lumps' having grotesque appearances and a thick coating of blood, while a folded red flag and its dismantled standard took up the rest of the trunk's contents.

The flag had a two-headed raven, with red eyes, outstretched wings, and grasping claws, and superimposed upon the flag I saw 'imparted' a flaming sword under one claw and a skull covered with rotting flesh for the other. These banners had been assembled, and now thirty men were each carrying a red flag with the two-headed destroying bird from hell emblazoned upon it.

“Is that bird called 'Land-Ravager'?” I thought. “No matter. Those people aren't about to take anything less than all they want, or death in its place, with no quarter, no prisoners, and casualties be damned.”

Faintly on the wind I heard a sonorous chant. It rose and fell amid the sounds of banging kettles, and as I heard it, I felt reminded of an American Indian death song:

Náa Mansé Noshû ghanæ,

Seg a seór guin gagh,

Eh gange signeo manæ,

Seg a sa-ichi muon Nagh!”

While I could not understand what they were saying, I understood it on the intention level, and its meaning was thus:

We are getting what we came for,

And we are not coming back.

Let the ships burn bright for our funerals,

But we fools must die.”

When I 'heard' this, I barely suppressed a snarl, then growled, “given what you purpose to do, and what you have done, I will gladly make certain of your deaths.” I paused, then continued:

“Supposedly, in the days and lands where Vikings were common, there was a common subject of many prayers. While these people aren't Vikings, they do come from north of here, so that prayer fits passably. Its words were 'deliver us from the fury of the Northmen'.”

I paused again, the muttered, “ I wonder if these 'northmen' will pray to those idols some kind of 'prayer' along the lines of 'deliver us from the fury of the Aliens'?”

Such speaking seemed both strange and amusing until I recalled reading about not oppressing 'aliens'. These people did precisely the opposite: they killed every such 'misshapen evil' they encountered, as they were not a part of their world.

“And especially that head witch with her death-poles,” I thought. “Her real name is most likely something other than Ultima Thule, but that name works for her. Besides, speaking her real name might cause trouble.”

Some minutes later, the egress path showed flickering torchlight, then the front of the column emerged from the trees. The narrow nature of this mass of humanity – four to seven people wide, shoulder-to-shoulder, stamping down the snow, every movement telegraphing rage – was shocking, and only when I saw the first of the flags was the feeling of shock surpassed.

The banner had to be easily four feet high and six feet long, and the red eyes of the bird showed clearly in the twilight – and for some reason, 'apparent' sunrise was dallying.

No, it was not merely dallying. It was getting darker.

The thickness of the clouds, as well as their darkness, spoke of a resumption of the snow, and when I saw the next such red flag, I saw more torches.

I also saw another peculiar development, for the front ranks of the column gave way for those behind it, while the people formerly in front blended into the rows about a hundred feet further back.

The torch-bearers soon gave way to plate-wearing thugs, and as I watched, I thought to 'guesstimate' the numbers of people I'd seen emerge from the trees thus far. I could tell there was well over a hundred, but I knew – how, I didn't know – that well over half of the force was not up to fighting. Even if I did nothing more, I knew the raid had been crippled. How badly it had been crippled was a good question, even as the thug-column continued coming out of the trees. The front of the column easily had another mile and three quarters to go before they reached the bridge.

The plate-wearing portion of the column began abruptly thinning, then suddenly came to its end, and as the last of that first column left the trees, I was astonished yet more.

“Two thousand?” I gasped. “That might be a bit more than two hundred, and every seventh person has one of those accursed flags. Now where are those archers?”

Not ten seconds later, I saw another billow of torchlight, and out came another group of auxiliaries. These people seemed the least armored of all I had seen thus far, and when the lean and lanky mob of sundry thugs came after them, the contrast between them and the plate-wearers could not have been more profound.

Firstly, these newcomers were dressed with less armor than anyone so far, including the auxiliaries, and on their backs sprouted tall 'poles'. At their sides were thick 'pouches' sprouting sheafs of feathers, and in their free hands, I saw what might have been short thick spears. I suspected them to be the archers – and within less than a minute, they cleared the trees as well.

I recalled from history what massed archers did – clouds of lethal airmail that ranged for hundreds of yards – and while armor could stand up to it provided it was thick and all-covering, I did not have armor.

I did have substantial speed in soft snow, however, and that gave me an idea.

The separation between tinned thugs and archers implied the possibility of substantial antipathy between the two main groups, and as I watched, I discerned a definite pecking order. Plate and good weapons was the top of the heap, followed by auxiliaries attached to those people, followed much further by archers and their auxiliaries – and at the very bottom of the pile, boat-drivers, stevedores, cooks, and porters – assuming they had such service ranks and didn't press the auxiliaries into those positions.

I then had the intimation I had left out a group of individuals, these being women. This group didn't have them, but when they were present, the gulf between them and 'lesser ranks' was huge. Everyone of the opposite gender was inferior, as well as possibly a slave.

“Didn't someone speak of them?” I thought. “Someone said those women are witches – and if they are, they're at home polishing their death-poles and finding deformed children to kill.”

The reek of the approaching groups – datramonium, possibly vomit, and other smells nauseating to endure – made for wondering. I principally wondered if the archers indulged in antifreeze, at least until one of them stumbled and fell, then hurried to catch up.

“So they're trashed too,” I thought. “Drunk archers don't shoot as accurately as sober ones – at least, I hope these people are that way.”

As the line came within a mile, the darkness had increased to a dim twilight. I looked behind me at my weapons, and noted they might well give themselves away. I sprinkled snow over their tops while leaving their handles visible, then returned to my waiting.

Waiting was hard, however. It always had been, and as I looked at the oncoming ranks of the thugs as they trudged their way through the snow, I had an idea. It involved drunkenness and the resulting poor judgment of those imbibing, high speeds in snow, drifting powdery clouds of snow, and the antipathy that I suspected existed between the two main groups of fighters. The only thing left out of the idea was how they would form preparatory to trying for the bridge.

This made for thinking. Would they line up and fan in from a distance? Would they stay in column?

“I doubt they'll stay in column,” I thought. “They know that doesn't work.”

Still, there were many variables. All I had to go by was history, which said the archers stayed in back of the foot-sloggers and fired over their heads.

“And I would give my eyeteeth for a mortar and a bin of shells about now,” I thought. “Perhaps I can try making one later.”

I paused, then thought, “if there is a later.”

As if to remind me of the likelihood of a later coming to pass, I heard plainly – and audibly; I wondered about the prior examples – baying and howling on the wind. The thugs were less than half a mile away, and their torch-flames billowed redly in glaring sheets. I knew things would come to a head within fifteen minutes or so, and as I gaged the hound-noises, I knew the dogs would arrive within the hour.

The red business would be over before then, most likely, at least for me.

I took some consolation knowing that the raid was indeed wrecked. The column I saw – now, about six hundred yards off – was all of their current effectives. The total number, all included, might be as much as six hundred, and as few as four hundred. I hoped the archers would do a 'history-book' tactic, as then I could...

“They almost have to,” I thought. “If they continue shooting as their men charge, they'll get their own men. If they just try for the bridge, it gets even worse than in that egress path – and they know that's suicide. Their best shot – and about the only workable one, realistically – is form up in two lines, archers about a hundred yards in back of the tinned thugs and the thugs about a hundred yards from the bridge, they try to scare me while they get ready, the archers volley once, maybe twice, and then the tinned thugs charge and hope I'm dead, wounded, or driven off by the arrows.”

A brief pause, then “and the only thing going for me is the bridge itself. It forces the issue.”

I now had to wait the last minutes. The auxiliaries were becoming 'fatigued' enough that the tinned thugs were breaking their own trail more often than not, and as they drew closer, I noted the diverging of the path. No longer was the column narrow; it had grown wider, such that it was twenty or more people wide, and growing wider steadily as the thugs looked to try an encircling tactic. I just hoped the thugs were 'dense' in the head enough to permit my 'nonsense'.

“Oh, let them be like they were after I lit up their camp,” I muttered. “Please, let them be that 'impaired'.”

As I watched, however, I noted red faces here and there, and but three hundred yards away, I saw one tinned thug collapse to his knees and begin vomiting. The green stuff he spewed was clearly tainted with antifreeze, and I thought, “there goes his Prestone. Now he has to worry about boiling over.”

The thugs drew closer still. The 'wings' of the battle line were now easily fifty yards from end to end, and as they came closer still, I saw under the glare of the torches grim faces, dragging axes, red-rimmed eyes, bulging satchels...

“What is in those satchels?” I thought.

The question seemed uncommonly important, so much so that I glanced carefully at first one satchel, then at another. When I looked at a third, however, I was overjoyed. Not all the dynamite had gone up in the wreck of the camp.

“Torches, drunkenness, and fused dynamite sticks are a lethal combination,” I thought. “Now where did they get that dynamite? Do they make that stuff where they live?”

I could see the second portion fanning out as well, and I knew my idea was a good one. I began doing deep knee bends so as to loosen up. My signal would be the arrows flying, and I knew the path – run past the lines on the right, turn one hundred and thirty-five degrees left, run between them, then double back and come back to my starting point. The round trip might take as much as thirty seconds.

“And I just hope those archers shoot as much as they can,” I thought, even as I knew I was betting the farm and hoping it worked out like I thought.

The thugs were now banging their weapons together, with the thug-line some eighty to a hundred yards wide and about a hundred and twenty yards from the west side of the bridge, while the archers were still forming up. I saw first one thug turn and yell something at the archers, then a shout came from the archer-line – followed by an arrow that went whizzing low enough to the thug that yelled that I involuntarily ducked. It flew past me on my right to bury itself in the snow behind me.

The arrow told me plenty. If anything, I had underestimated the antipathy between the tin-wearers and the arrow-shooters, and within seconds, more yells began coming from each side. I sensed the beginning of the arrows, then when I saw the points flicker as they were loosed, I was off.

The acceleration I managed from the first stride was so tremendous that even as arrows flew overhead in a thick cloud I knew they were well behind me, and by the time I had counted 'two' I was past the right wing of the tinned thug line and was still accelerating. Three, four... Leap in the air, turn around, dive and begin running even as I fly backwards and into a massive billow of powder, then finally catch something solid and launch.

I blasted out of the powder cloud so rapidly that I nearly collided with the tinned thugs before I straightened out, and the hissing of arrows continued behind me as the wind screamed in my ears. The count of seven saw me past the left wing of the thugs, then I did an abrupt pirouette in midair, went to ground, began running the other way, and for a count of five all I did was sling snow into the air until I found traction again.

The snow I had billowed up was such that I could not see my hand in front of my face, and I went in a curving arc between the lines. I could hear sizzling noises as fuses were lit, as well as the steady humming and hissing of arrows, and more than once, I dived for the ground to avoid being hit. By 'twenty', I was turning hard, and as I shot out of the cloud, I narrowly missed the canal before I slowed down. I began braking just as the first explosion came from my right, and I ducked just in time as a stray arrow flew over me. I walked to the bridge, walked over it, picked up my weapons, and turned around.

A massive darkened billow of snow spread over nearly three hundred yards was filled with yelling, drunken screaming, flying arrows, and periodic flashes of exploding dynamite. I ducked down and waited, as the arrows were flying thick and fast and more than a few of them were coming in my general direction, and the dynamite eruptions were flinging more snow up and around to cloud the issue.

The ring of weapons against what might be armor, as well as the screaming, now seemed to steadily increase, and the arrows flew hot and thick. I had to dodge more than one of the things as it flew too close for comfort, and as the snow began settling, I began seeing bodies laying here and there on the snow. It was already getting bloody out there, even as I saw a pair of tinned thugs cut down a trio of spear-wielding archers, then one of the thugs got an arrow in his back and dropped to the ground. The remaining thug ran into the dissipating snow cloud after the archer that had shot his partner.

As the snow steadily drifted down to the ground, I saw thirty or more fights played out over a field stretching for hundreds of yards in each direction. Those tinned thugs able to move were chasing the remaining still-functional archers, while those individuals shot at everyone who wasn't of their group. The auxiliaries, however, were in the rough center of the surrounding fights, and there, the term 'melee' was grossly inadequate. They were thumping, banging, slicing, and brawling, and between the archers being chased into the middle of the mess and the tinned thugs slicing on anyone in their way while giving chase, the auxiliaries were dropping at the rate of two to three a second.

The tinned thugs seemed to be holding their own, or so I thought as they chased down the last of the archers. Those people still shot arrows if they had them, and while their accuracy wasn't the best, they attempted to make up for it with volume of fire, so much so that by the time the last archer was down and immobile, there weren't thirty tinned thugs that didn't have arrows sticking in them.

I laid my weapons on the bridge while I prayed silently. The thugs were dissipated and spread out all over the field, and while there might have been thirty or so intact tinned thugs and the same number of uninjured auxiliaries, everyone else that was still standing was either sliced, banged up, or arrowed.

Those able to attack ignored order, banners, and all else, and they came in straight lines at the bridge with weapons to the front in a gathering swarm. I picked up my weapons, with the dagger in my teeth again, and to my surprise, the thugs – tinned or otherwise – didn't hesitate in the slightest. They were as game a batch of fiends as existed on the planet, and I dodged a thrown spear from an auxiliary as that person tried to be the first on the bridge. He had his sword in his hand but a second after his tossed spear, and when he hit the bridge, he slipped, fell, and slid off the bridge to my right with a scream to fall down into the water with a splash. His sword followed after him, and landed with a clatter on the rocks below.

On came the thugs. I stood my ground, now knowing from history that this small of a number had failed to take a bridge held by a single resolute individual, and with no rest of the army locally, they were 'it'. The bulk of the thugs were red-faced, wobbling, and at the point of collapse; within the last hundred yards, I saw several fall face-down and not move.

Another auxiliary came, and I swung the ax. His head flew one way, and his body slid off the bridge – and as I caught another thug with the return stroke, everything suddenly became noonday bright and brilliantly tinted with red – and this time, it came in like an explosion.

Everything slowed down so much that I wondered what had happened, then suddenly, a great heat erupted in my mind. I then had only one thought.

I wanted to slaughter them, and I screamed loud and long like a maniac when they came for the bridge in a swarm to slide as if the thing was coated with ball-bearings and grease.

The faster they came, the quicker they died. I could think of nothing save their destruction, and all else in life fell away, all else save the enemy in front of me, and the tools to kill them in my hands. Mercy? That did not exist for me. I wanted them dead, and I wanted it to happen now, and the cost to me was immaterial. Another man came at me with a spear. I cut him in two with the sword, and went to the next one.

I was swinging the ax like a mowing machine, and blood sprayed over the bridge in a thick and pungent mist as the body parts flew crazily into the air. The bridge was becoming a solid sheet of red ice. I did not notice it, save as a brief glance.

The enemy was in front, and I wanted them dead, and I would not stop until they were all dead, or I was, and I did not care which of those things happened now. I hungered for their lives as if the most evil being in all of time and space, and I wanted them to burn for eternity in Hell where they belonged.

The thugs kept coming, and I kept killing them, and as the last of them realized they had no chance, the attack broke and those that still lived turned tail and ran. I went after them, for now, I was utterly and completely insane. Only their deaths would do, and I chased them down one by one.

One man dropped his weapons and raised his hands, and I took his arms at the elbows and his head with a single swing of the sword as I ran past him. I slashed another man with the ax, then spitted a third in the back with the sword, then turned around and saw the last three headed south. I launched at them and overtook them in seconds, with the first one losing his head, the second being sliced in half, and the third one having his legs cut out from under him. I paused, looked around, and saw a single man on his knees. I ran at him, and even as he screamed for mercy, I swung the ax with all my strength and cut him in two from head to pubis with a single stroke. The right and left sides fell apart like sides of beef.

I now walked the battlefield, and whenever I came to a thug with his head still attached, I removed it with sword or ax. I did not check for life; I wanted to be certain of death, and hence decapitated every thug I found. Once I had made the field red with blood and corpses, I went back over the bridge, stopping in midspan to see if any still lived. I was not inclined to check them, for they were all dead, drowned, covered with blood, and crusted with ice. Besides, the fury was leaving me.

I sat down on our side of the bridge, the road to hell paved with the slain lying in the bloody field to the west of the bridge, and I rubbed sword and ax with snow. Amid gathering slumber, I muttered the following words:

“Yes, Ultima Thule. Beseech Brimstone to deliver you from the fury of the Aliens, those you hate and kill without reason, for you have sown the wind, and now...”

I paused, gathered my breath, then continued, saying “the whirlwind shall hunt you down and destroy you, in the same way you have done to those not like you, only much more so.”

I paused again, looked to the north, then set my face like flint. I had words to say to that witch, and all like her, and all who wished to be witches. I was past caring now; I wanted them to know I was their enemy, and would pave more fields with their dead as I had just done.

“Die, witch,” I screamed, “and burn in hell, for the aliens, those who have no ears to hear Brimstone, and no hands to serve that lying snake, have landed on your shores, and will kill you all!”

As if to answer, I heard hounds baying and horns blowing, and I looked at my blood-clotted clothing. To the east and on my right, I saw a swarm of shaggy-looking animals burst out of the trees. I laid the weapons I had used at my side, and as I tried to wave, I fainted with exhaustion.