The road more traveled, part c.

Our pace remained the same boredom-inducing walk as the sun slowly slid to the east for what seemed an eon, and only when we came upon the long narrow fields that surrounded a town did I 'wake up' and come to myself. I looked 'ahead' and to the sides, and the sense of a 'town' seemed omnipresent.

“This one is decent-sized, isn't it?” I asked.

“It looks likely,” said Gabriel. “Do you propose to find those things here?”

“If I can,” I said. “I might find some small sheets of tin at the Mercantile.”

The town itself drew steadily nearer. The outlying farms began showing, with wide fields, larger-than-common barns – they looked bigger than I recalled – narrow 'lanes' to access them, fenced areas in the rears for 'livestock', and mounded rows of piled rocks to divide them one from another. For some reason, the fields themselves seemed a bit larger than those further north.

The first shop showed to my left, and its small size and obvious 'shop' aspect named it to be under the kingdom house's influence in some nebulous fashion. It was not a dwelling, or so I suspected, and when I passed it, I realized why.

It had a 'warehouse' of size to its rear, and that portion looked to be lived-in indeed.

That proved the only 'shop', however, and as I looked to the right and left, the aura and sense of 'prosperity' was flagrant. This town lived on the traffic running north and south as much as it did its local trade, and it showed in flat and smooth yards,red-painted pumps, well-kept and sizable watering troughs, and lanterns hanging 'proud' from every roof-beam. The sight of lanterns made for wondering, even as we came to the yard of the Public House itself.

The size of this yard, as well as its lack of 'traffic' – three freighting wagons, a buggy, and two 'saddle' horses – spoke of a lull in the 'action', at least from my perspective. A faint warning voice seemed to speak of an utterly different frame of reference, but this voice, and much else, was drowned out by groans, moans, and one faint oath.

“What did you say, Karl?” asked Sepp. I was checking the wheels for warmth, and I hadn't yet found any that worried me.

“They used screws on this buggy,” said Karl with an irritated voice, “and I suspect they made them overly long for the wood. If I wash tonight and find blood, I will know they are that way.”

“Are you sore?” I said softly.

“That and more,” said Karl. “Now how is it you check these wheels?”

“I'd let him do that, Karl,” said Sepp. “We can water the horses.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, even as I wondered as to why for a moment. I somehow had the suspicion this had nothing to do with thinking me to be a witch.

Checking the second buggy showed both sides to be but faintly warm, and I 'secured' both tool pouches by hiding them under the seat. I then paused to look closer at one of the buggies, even as the horses were 'crowding' the watering troughs.

I recalled the wood of the buggy at home as being 'flimsy-looking' in its thinness, with most sections being around a half-inch thick. These seemed but slightly thicker, with clear-looking knot-free wood, plentiful flush-trimmed dowels, and 'oiled-looking' screws with small brass washers under them. I felt the top of the seat, and noted a smooth satin finish with no projections.

“He ain't used to riding much,” said Gilbertus, “and I can tell you aren't either.”

“I know,” I said. “I'm not that sore, at least yet.”

“I suspect you will be of a morning for a few days,” he said. “All of us will.”

I began checking hooves, starting with Jaak's. I noted perceptible wear on his shoes, with a bright surface ground such that the nails were but a modest distance sunken down. My hoof-pick was more or less idle, though a minute later Lukas wished to borrow it.

“Yes, you may,” I said, as I handed it to him. “Did you find a stone?”

“A small one, and it's wedged good,” he said. “It looks to have been there some time.”

“Lame?” I asked.

“I caught it soon enough,” he said. “Had we still been on softer ground, or it had been bigger, or... There, it's out. I'll have to tell him to look better.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Karl,” he said.

“That horse has been traveling unloaded for nearly half the distance today,” I said. “Might that explain the lack of lameness?”

“It would, come to think of it,” he said. I received my hoof-pick back seconds later.

The others of the party were busying themselves in one manner or another as those of us checking the horses finished, and when I came up to them, I thought I looked peculiar and strange, in fact alien. I was dressed in knit clothing, and when I came to near the end of the line heading inside, Gabriel spoke to me.

“Public Houses work well for food and meetings,” he said. “I wondered why Hendrik wanted you in front, and now I know.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I wanted to touch one of the sizable brass-sheeted lanterns.

“I think you look after matters while on the road,” he said, “and the king earns his wages inside these places.”

“And everyone else?” I asked.

“We field questions as they are put to us,” he said, as he turned toward the front.

The doors of the place seemed uncomfortably narrow, and as I 'squeezed in', the brightness of midafternoon vanished abruptly to be replaced by a well-lit and 'civilized' dimness. The wholesome aroma reminded me of the Public House at home, and as we came among the tables, the similarities increased.

The place was both larger and more crowded than I thought, and 'pie-eyed' diners were scattered among the tables near the front. Scraps of low-pitched conversation fluttered around my ears, and when I sniffed, I noticed the prominent odor of tallow candles. I then saw the 'holders', and marveled.

Wide sheet-brass saucers with polished reflectors behind them held thumb-thick flaring candles, and when I saw another of the tall brass lanterns on a table, I thought to speak.

“Where can we get glass pieces like what those lanterns have?” I asked.

“Those, I do not know,” said Karl, “even if my uncle spoke of lanterns like that. He said they were common once one went south a ways.”

“The fifth kingdom house?” I asked.

“Aye, there especially,” said a voice I had trouble recognizing. “Now why is it you want lanterns from there?”

“The glass pieces,” I said. “I've wanted to duplicate student's lanterns for some time, and glass-paned lanterns are fairly uncommon where I live.”

“That would be mostly on account of where they come from,” said Gabriel. “Many fifth kingdom products are less than good.”

“That also,” said a voice I recognized as that of Kees. “I'm hungry.”

Not thirty seconds later, a long and somewhat thin table showed somewhat right of center, and the 'column' ahead of me began taking places on stools bordering it. While I usually wanted a wall to my back, and out of the main 'roar' of a group no matter where it was, my preferences most likely did not count. Accordingly, I put aside such thinking, and doffed my pack, which I put between my knees in front of me.

“I look like some armed-to-the-teeth thug-cum-frontiersman,” I thought, “and carrying a rifle like I do doesn't help.”

I tried to arrange things somewhat better, and gave the matter up as a bad job about the time a 'waiter' came to 'take orders'. I could hear soft words speaking of beer, another voice speaking of wine – with a swift interjection, this latter the word 'unfermented' – and then more mention of beer. Gabriel spoke before me, and he asked for beer. I looked up to see an interested waiter.

“Uh, unfermented cider, or unfermented wine, please,” I said. “I cannot consume beer in quantity.”

“He falls asleep then,” said Gabriel.

“Is he ill?” asked the waiter.

“He lives with the best medical people in the area,” said Lukas, “and talk has it he is.”

That seemed to suffice for the waiter, and he promptly left.

“How much further?” I murmured.

“That depends on when this portion finishes,” said Gabriel. “I suspect traveling far in the dark, especially this early, is not wise.”

“I brought a pair of small candle lanterns for night-lights...” I paused, then squawked, “oh! The, uh, writing.”

“That especially,” said Hendrik. “Between that, and the other things you might need to do, I do not envy you.”

“N-need to do?” I asked. “As in injuries?”

“Those especially,” said Gabriel. “You've done much of an apprenticeship for medicine, and both Anna and Hans speak well of you.”

“But I cannot c-cut...”

“That is not commonly done,” said Gabriel. “I believe she told you as to the limits of medicine as practiced here.”

“That would be where we live,” said Gilbertus, “and in and around that fourth kingdom market town. Elsewhere, there are people what name themselves medical and dress in black-cloth, and they are the purest thieves and liars to be found, bar none.”

“I would have trouble stating the case better,” said Gabriel. “Once the food is ordered, you might be able to check for what you are after.”

“The food?” I asked. I could hear the place becoming more crowded.

“We came during a busy time for the kitchen, unless I miss my guess,” said Gabriel. “The Public Houses along the High Way tend to present drink first, as the bulk of their customers tend to desire it initially. They ask regarding meals once their customers are not as dried out.”

“Makes sense to me,” I said, as I looked across the room.

We seemed to be receiving more attention than was warranted, and I felt a twinge of unease. I'd heard of – and encountered – enough witch-operated Public Houses to be leery of such watching, and while the questions were not forthcoming, I was still expecting them. I then realized I only really knew one such location, and there, I was seldom seen alone.

“And there, you are well-known,” said Gabriel. “This type of attention is common for strangers.”

“I was, uh, watching...”

I paused in mid-sentence, then turned to my left. As I was the last person at the table, I had a near-unobstructed view of the door. For some reason, there was trouble beyond it, and I tensed amid the demure rumble of the Public House's conversation. I strained to hear what was about to occur, and when the chord erupted, I was nearly tossed to the floor.

Twooonggg!” roared the guitar, and the doors opened wide to admit more people.

“Oh, no!” moaned Gabriel. “They've come here!”

From outside, I heard the hideous squall of a badly-blown horn. The sound recalled the horrid 'Blah-Hee' sound of a brazen-throated witch-horn, though this was in its own league regarding vileness, and I felt a gut-rumbling upsurge that wished to spray the area with the remnants of well-chewed dried meat. The horn-noise, however, did not persist.

It was usurped by a deep-pitched sonorous yodeling, and the words were these:

Oh bury me not,

Down deep in your heart,

For the swine are coming,

God help us all...”

Only the intensely nauseating feeling that the melded words engendered once blended with horn and guitar made laughter impossible. As it was, I nearly laughed just the same.

Karl was sitting next to Gabriel, and his serious expression made for wondering until he spoke of my reaction:

“Why do you laugh?” said Karl, in utmost seriousness. “They sing that song commonly where the pigs have shown much.”

I could not speak, for speech was impossible given the sonic assault: Too-ooo-oon, ton-ton-twap-twap, twong, t-tw-twoooong! 'The Swine are Coming'! Blah-Hee! Twang! 'Load the cannons'! Twong, Thump-Thump-snap-tinkle. Blooooh-hooo! 'The witches are upon us'!”

“Karl,” I murmured. I wanted to plug my ears. “Listen to that horn, that guitar, and that wretch that is screaming of fire and sword. God help us all indeed if we must endure that!”

Karl paused, turned his head, then returned his attention to me, saying, “so? What is wrong with it?”

“That guitar is out of tune with itself, that horn, and that singer,” said Gabriel. “Can you not hear that?”

Karl shook his head.

“I can, and I have heard few things sound worse in my life,” said Gabriel.

The horn now subsided, then cut loose with a shrill squalling 'Blaaaaah-Heeeeee' that made my teeth wish to leave my mouth and take refuge behind one of the stoves in the kitchen. As it was, I was reaching for them with opened mouth and shut eyes, and as the horn was overwhelmed by the howled climax of the song – a big grunter in full charge, the guns firing, round-shots missing the pig, and the pig screaming like a runaway locomotive in search of a train-wreck – I shook my head. I was also surprised greatly.

Not only could I tell what was wrong with the instruments and singer, I understood precisely what Gabriel was speaking of, and I agreed with his assessment. Awful wasn't half of their playing, and as they finished their first 'number' – red flames, a ruined town, mounded body parts and corpses, and a pig swallowed by the trackless darkness and heading into the great after-dark unknown – I wondered if I had changed regarding music.

“I thought noise-spirits were bad,” I mumbled, as the horn and guitar combined into an even more horrible instrumental. “Did these people receive their lessons in hell?”

“I still have trouble believing that,” said Gabriel, “and I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears.”

A rattle came from the right, and I turned to see mugs and jugs showing. A small jug came to the person sitting next to me – Lukas – then a mug passed it to arrive where I was.

“Unfermented cider,” said the waiter. “Who wanted that?”

“He did,” said Karl. “Is that beer dark?”

“That ran out yesterday,” said the waiter. “The freighters came in swarms then.”

“And today?” I asked, as I sipped from the streaky brown and black mug.

“Yesterday got most of today's crop,” he said.

The waiter went back to the head of the table, and while I heard orders being given, I tasted the cider again. A piquant bite seemed to invade my mouth within seconds, and I carefully sniffed the stuff.

“This stuff is different, somehow,” I muttered.

Gabriel took my mug, smelled it, then said, “I'd be sparing of that cider.”

“W-why?” I asked. “Has the yeast jumped the barrels?”

“No,” said Gabriel. “They reused a barrel, and not a cider barrel, but a wine-barrel. This cider has begun to ferment.”

“Ugh,” I spluttered. “I'll need to use the mess-kit and boil water for drinking.” I paused, then said, “why did they call it unfermented, then?”

“It is far from fully fermented,” said Gabriel, “and I suspect they would have used fresh barrels if they had them.”

“No, that isn't it,” said Lukas. “Unfermented cider isn't a common thing along the High-Way, especially if you are speaking of a busy Public House that does much traffic with freighters. They might have had but one barrel for those asking for it.”

“Reusing a wine-barrel?” I asked.

“A place like this might well try that,” he said. “They might just take off the top, clean it good, and douse it with aquavit and set it alight.”

“Burn the barrel?” I gasped. “W-won't that...”

“They burn them but a short time,” said Lukas. “If they burnt them good, they'd be fit for bad brandy, and that only.”

“Like they sell in the mining country?” asked Karl. He would be ordering his food next.

“Aye, only they name it differently,” said Lukas. “The worst stuff is called forty-chain.”

“We do not have that drink here,” said the waiter. “What will you have?”

I was completely tongue-tied, and as Gabriel ordered, then Lukas, I tried to think. I then recalled that such requests on my part tended to be the simplest things imaginable – and far more commonly, I was included in someone else's order.

“Yes?” asked the waiter.

“W-what they are having,” I gasped. “P-please, n-no High Meats or squabs.”

“We do not have those, either,” said the waiter. “It should come presently.”

I looked at Gabriel, who rubbed his face and made choking noises.

“What is your trouble?” asked Karl.

“Those birds,” gasped Gabriel. “I had heard of them before, and that many times, but I never really got a good smell of one until I went to the council chamber that last time.”

“I normally spew when I smell those things,” I said. “It usually comes up green.”

“I've heard of that sickness, and it's bad,” said Gilbertus. “It won't stand certain foods, and those stinky birds are the worst for it.”

“Can I go see about my supplies?” I asked.

“I'd not take too long,” said Gabriel. “That food should come quickly.”

I left the Public House after dodging numbers of added diners, then once outside, I moved steadily toward the Mercantile. The sun was dropping surprising fast, for it was true midafternoon now, and the shadows were growing longer by the minute. I produced my slate at the Mercantile's door, opened it, and walked inside.

The pleasant sense of familiarity I found in the place put me at ease, and I went to the rear of the place without stopping. A single clerk was busy with a customer, and I put both money-pouch and slate on the varnished countertop so as to better wait. I did not have to wait long, for a short woman seemed to 'materialize' but seconds later.

“Do you have sheet tin?” I asked. “That, musket powder, lead, shot, linen-waste...

“I might have some of those,” she said. “Let me ask first. May I?” She indicated my slate.

She went to the busy clerk, and supplied an interjection that had him look at my slate, then speak of certain areas while she wrote them down. She then vanished, and I wondered how long she would be.

The other customer finished up a minute later, and the second clerk vanished as well. He returned with a trio of modest tins, and as he set them down on the countertop, the woman arrived. I then saw their familial resemblance. I guessed them to be brother and sister.

The woman brought forth a sheet of tin about a foot square, and I looked at it. I put it aside under the money pouch, as she left for something else.

“We just received some linen waste,” he said. “I have powder and shot, but no balls. You'll need to go to a gunsmith for those.”

“Ingot-lead?” I asked.

“I might have two pounds to sell,” he said.

“Two pounds, then,” I said, “a pound of shot, and perhaps a pound of powder.”

“Why so little shot?” he asked.

“I'd heard it was scarce,” I said.

“We don't get much call for it,” he said, “so our bags have sat some, and it's piled up.”

“Four pounds?” I asked. “I might be able to bag that much.”

“Five pounds gets its own bag,” he said.

“Five, then,”

I had the whole 'mess' bagged up minutes later, with a gold monster coin left as payment. The prices seemed a bit high, which did not surprise me, but I now had most of the supplies I needed. I then wondered about a 'common-sized' bullet mould, and went back into the Public House.

My brief absence had made for further crowding, and the 'troubadours' were seated over in a corner amid plentiful food and drink. I did not begrudge them their food, for their eating was near-silent. I sat down in my place, and sniffed.

“A few minutes?” I asked.

“That seems likely,” said Gabriel. “Did you fetch your things?”

“I did, save for a few,” I said. “Does anyone have a bullet mould in their things?”

“I do,” said Sepp. “It seems to work.”

“Is it the common size?” I asked.

“I was told it was,” said Sepp. “Why, didn't you bring yours?”

“For balls in that size, no,” I said. “I brought what my equipment takes, and a slug-mould for the common size of musket, but not one for balls in that size.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl.

“Ball moulds are much harder to make,” I said. “A special fixture is needed to make the cherries.”

“I have yet to see a gun take a ball the size of a cherry,” said Karl. “Not even a roer can swallow one of those things.”

“The mould cutter is called a cherry,” I said. “It looks a little like a reamer or milling cutter, and without one of those fixtures, round ones are very hard to make.”

Karl looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language, and dismissed my statement by drinking from his mug. I tasted mine again, and nearly spewed.

“I think you might ask for unfermented wine,” said Gabriel.

“I would not,” said Kees with surprising vehemence. “I tasted what they name unfermented wine in this place, and it's beginning to foam.”

“Why was he s-so disgusted?” I asked.

“Few are those who can endure wine while it is working,” said Gabriel. “Most prefer it one way or the other.”

The food indeed arrived minutes later, and as the plates were set out, I noted not merely their contents, but also, the odors. I was surprised more than a little when mine arrived, for it was nearly barren.

“Why is...”

“Public Houses along the High Way tend to set loaded plates,” said Gabriel, “and supply the other things in the usual bowls.”

“Other things?” I asked. “Potatoes? Carrots?

“There's roast down this way,” said Sepp. “Pass your plate down, and I'll load it up for you.”

I did so, and as my plate went down the table back to me, it had comments in its wake. Chief among those speaking was Hendrik.

“Anna spoke of you being ill,” he said, “and I do not doubt her, but this food...” He paused, then as I began eating, he muttered, “first, you lose most of your hair in that cellar, and now you eat fit for a monk-house.”

“I do?” I asked incredulously.

“That, or like out of an old tale,” he said. “You haven't had time to read of those, have you?”

“Not really,” I said. “Besides, I like this food.”

I could almost hear the comments of 'tasteless' and 'bland', and I drank a swallow of the vile cider before speaking.

“What I was able to eat where I came from commonly tasted terrible,” I said, “and more often, it caused great distress with my insides. It was rare that I did not feel very sick.” I paused, then said, “after feeling that sick all the time, I am not inclined to go looking for illness-inducing foods.”

“Perhaps you are like a farm animal that way,” said Karl. “I have heard of cattle eating different food and the farmer finding them stiff and dead the next day.”

“Those mean black ones are bad that way,” said Gilbertus. “I hope we don't see loose ones.”

“Then, there is talk about how you act when you are given beer,” said Karl.

“That is more than just talk,” said Gilbertus. “I was there when those three stinkers had scared him out of a year's growth, and they dosed him with Lion-Brew in the refectory.”

“Yes, and what happened?” asked Karl.

“He needed carrying outside after a cupful,” said Gilbertus. “Anna said he was sick, and I saw the proof of it then, and I helped carry him out into their buggy.” A brief pause, then “and I'm glad those stinkers are gone, too.”

I wished to hide badly, and only my now-raging appetite prevented my ducking under the table and crawling off somewhere. But minutes later, my gut squirmed, and I made a beeline for the back of the Public House. Here, I was glad for a familiar layout, and after doing my business – both noisy and smelly – I cleaned up and returned to the table.

“What was it?” asked Karl. “Wind?”

What?” I squeaked.

“If you had wind, you should have saved it for lighting the campfire,” said Karl.

What?” I gasped.

“Fritz was famous for smithing,” said Karl, “and he commonly lit his fires that way.”

I went for seconds of the vegetables, and as my plate came back, I could almost hear the unspoken speech. I began working first on the potatoes, and when I looked up, I saw Karl grinning.

“Are you sure you didn't come from the potato country?” asked Karl.

“I doubt it,” said Gabriel, “and I would not think to name him a rodent.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Potato farming involves a great deal of digging,” said Gabriel, “and hence, that term is a common one in those parts.”

Rodent?” I asked. “Do those dig?”

“Have you not seen burrowing rodents?” asked Karl. “They're common enough.”

“You'd best hope one does not take a fancy to your leg, then,” said Kees, “as if your leg is broken, he will be working on it.”

“I have helped with a broken leg,” I said, “but the cause was a bull.” I paused, ate more carrots, then said, “what do these rodents look like?”

“Most are less than a foot tall,” said Gabriel, “and their usual color is gray. Beyond that, I would have trouble describing them, as they are seldom seen by people who do not farm.”

“I have seen them many times,” said Karl.

“How much farming have you done?” asked Gabriel.

“With my family,” said Karl. “We have the usual amount.”

“Then you have done enough farming to see them,” he said. “The last time I did farming chores was when I was a young boy, and since, I have only seen a few of those rodents.”

“I have this, uh, book,” I said, “and it was called a Bestiary. Would it have those animals?”

“If it is a Hoelm's, then it will,” said Gabriel. “If you wish to understand the written format as taught at the higher schools, I would suggest that book for starting. It's commonly used that way, in fact.”

“What?” gasped Kees. “He does not... How?”

“He more than makes up for it in other ways, and that is for writing,” said Hendrik. “More, I suspect he does understand it if he reads it, even if he has difficulty writing that way.” A brief pause, then “I suspect you'll learn of his talents that way soon enough with that report.”

“Does he do those?” asked Kees.

“He does, and expertly,” said Hendrik. “More, his writing is clear, exact, and to the point, unlike much of what comes from those going to the higher schools.”

“Then where did he go?” asked Kees. “The west school?”

“Somehow, I doubt it,” said Hendrik. “Wherever this place was, I suspect it to be well beyond anything on this continent.”

“How is it you know?” asked Kees.

“First, his writing,” said Hendrik. “One often needs the use of a word-book to follow it. Then, there is what he does at that shop.”

“Instrument-makers commonly go to the higher schools, don't they?” asked Kees.

“They do for a start,” said Hendrik. “There were three of them in my year, and all of them were on the lists the whole time – and I never saw more serious students than those three. Not even Boermaas students work that hard.”

Hendrik paused, then said, “and then, after they'd finished at those schools, they did their apprenticeships.”

“Seven years?” I asked.

“At the least,” said Hendrik. “Unlike most trades, instrument-making has no fixed time interval, and one is ready when, and if, one is ready. The rule is ten years, save in certain cases, and all of that time is filled with labor.”

“Certain cases?” I asked.

“They're marked,” said Hendrik. “At least one of those three was that way, he apprenticed at the Heinrich works, and he's still there, the last I'd heard.”

“Is that apprenticeship purely practical?” I asked.

“It involves much more than the usual kind,” said Hendrik. “I've heard it involves some truly unusual mathematics, as well as many other things that are seldom taught, and that on top of what most people think is involved.”

“Unusual mathematics?” I asked. “What kind?”

“I suspect you know,” said Hendrik. “Talk has it you showed some of them to the people you work with.”

“I did,” I said. “I have trouble doing those, also.”

“Now what do you have trouble with?” asked a woman's voice.

I looked to my left and suddenly knew what she needed. Without hesitation, I removed my money pouch, then found first a large silver piece, then a second one. I put them on the table, put away the pouch, and then pressed the coins into her hand.

“What is this for?” she asked.

“They need shoes,” I said, “and it is hard to afford shoes and food.”

The woman took the coins, and as she pocketed them, she began weeping. Gabriel looked at her, then fetched out two more such coins and placed them in her apron. As he did so, he said, “clothing isn't cheap, dear, especially when you have two gnippers running around in the mud like they do.”

The woman was completely undone, so much so that I surreptitiously removed my money-pouch again and dug out a trio of gold monster coins, then dumped the heavy brutes into her apron. I heard steps coming from my right. I turned to see a worried-looking publican with flour-dusted hands.

“Gertje, what is wrong?” he asked.

“I asked,” she said in a tear-stained whisper, “and I was given more than I thought possible. I had hoped for shoes, and now I have enough for those and clothing for the boys.”

I paused, for there was more. She spoke again amid her sobs.

“The swine were bad that year,” she said, “and most of the men died in Brootjigen when the pigs came.”

I was now truly tongue-tied.

“That is why we are traveling,” said Gabriel as he looked around the room aimlessly. “They are due to come soon, and in large numbers, and the whole country needs to be raised before they come.” He paused, then said, “and unlike in the past, we shall be ready for them when they show.”

Gabriel then looked at Hendrik, who stood and began speaking. Within seconds, not only did he have the rapt attention of everyone in the Public House save myself, but I found myself fighting an intense desire to hide. I huddled down and tried to finish the remnants of carrots and potatoes on my plate as he spoke, then after clearing the thing, I put a pair of larger silver pieces on the table. As I did, I overheard portions of his spiel, and with each further period of exposition, I found myself further terrorized.

“They are betting the farm next year,” he said, “and when they come, it will not be half-measures they will be holding. They will desire our destruction, or die trying to make it happen...”

I seemed to faint, and awoke seconds later, this time hearing “if they win, we are done, and if we win, they are done. It behooves us to win if we can, for then we shall be free of them for ever.”

While this speech continued for but a few minutes more, I heard references to the third ditch which made me cringe and squirm, blood-flags that made for vague filmy-looking flashbacks where the two-headed ravens had one-word rune-spoken arguments with themselves, drunken tinned thugs labeled profligately as 'Spam', and enough 'big grunters' and gunfire to make me long for overblown witch-horns, bad guitars, and worse singers.

We left but moments later, with a small mound of silver going back to the rear 'bar' carried by the two nearest that end of the table, and in my case, leading off toward the door. The bedlam of pie-eyed diners was such that I marveled until I came to the door, which I opened as if afraid of the prospective darkness. I was glad to still see an hour or more of sunlight left, and gladder yet when outside.

As Lukas filled the oil reservoirs of the buggies, I dug out both of the smaller lanterns I had packed, and I sent both of them in to be lit once I'd stoked them with wax candles. I had the buggy-hangers partly out when Sepp returned with the lit candles glimmering.

“What gives with those?” he asked.

“Firstly, we have ready lights of a sort,” I said, as I fluffed out Jaak's blanket, “and then, we need not concern ourselves with starting huge fires just to see by once we camp.”

“How is that?” asked Karl, as he untied his horse, and Kees made ready to take the buggy in question.

“Uh, I still send sparks in 'the general direction', even with a lot of practice,” I said. “I try to use candles for the forges at work if I can.”

Once underway, however, Gabriel had a question for me.

“I have wondered for some time as to what was meant by spam,” he said, “and I now have an idea.”

“Yes?” I asked. I was looking ahead, and we were still in the town. It was larger than I thought. “It was one of those illness-inducing foods I spoke of.”

“How was it that way?” asked Gabriel.

“It had a great deal of fat in it,” I said, “and otherwise – I think – it was commonly made from swine. I am not certain as to its precise ingredients, but that was listed as being one of them.”

“That sounds like an accursed food,” said Gabriel. “The Grim Collection speaks of the foods of witchdom, and swine are high on their list.” He paused, then said, “was it labeled with witch-writing?”

“It used commonplace writing for its labels,” I said, “that, and a fairly misleading picture as to what the stuff looked like.”

“How was it misleading?” asked Gabriel.

“The picture looked far more edible than the uncooked product itself,” I said. “Then, it was marked as being inspected, and as to what was in it.” I paused, then said, “it was canned, so it kept well under less-than-ideal conditions, which was one of the reasons I bought the stuff before I had trouble with my insides. Later, there was another version which was made with fowls.”

“Did that cause trouble?” asked Gabriel.

“It eventually got to the point where everything other than flavored water mingled with that place's version of sugar-tree sap caused trouble some of the time,” I said. “I still bought it now and then, as I could eat it occasionally and the containers it came in were especially useful.”

I looked ahead through the wide swathes of fields on each side of the road to the woodlots in the distance, and murmured, “I have had quolls here, and I had no trouble with them.”

“Those were wild quolls, and not penned ones,” said Gabriel. “Penned quolls are common to the south.”

“P-penned quolls?” I asked. “What are those?”

“Nearly as bad as squabs,” said Gabriel, “as they are commonly fed table scraps, and the same for chickens.”

“Broiled on a spit, or cooked like dried goat?” I asked.

Gabriel seemed to not hear me, for he spoke of something I had trouble recognizing.

“There are special heavy copper or bronze pots with tight lids,” he said, “and they seal up tight with leather gaskets. The food goes on a close-woven screen, with water below it, and it is cooked over a slow fire.” He paused, then said, “camp cooking, when done right, is very good. Done wrong, it is abominable. When I assayed it...”

Gabriel paused again. He seemed to be relishing his tale, for his voice had changed so as to create an atmosphere of dread and suspense. I could easily see and hear him narrating the works of Poe.

“It was much worse yet.”

“How?” I asked.

“It caused severe cramping and tremendous bursts of wind,” he said.

The sun was dropping steadily, such that the left portion of the current woodlot put our party in deep shadow, and the cheerfulness of the two candles seemed to be helpful to those behind their respective buggies. I could feel that aspect behind, and the camping place ahead, and I thought to look up into the sky overhead. There, I was surprised to see the moon, and its peculiar aspect made for wondering.

It was more than perceptible as to its oval shape, and when I looked down, the dimness was blanketed with feeble moonlight that sent shadows down from the overhanging branches above our heads.

“How far is that camping place?” I asked in silent questioning. “We've easily got an hour or two's work after we set up.”

While there was no answer to my questioning, I again felt the place but a handful of miles away, and as if I were there, I could see its layout: a wide 'cut-out' portion to the left amid a woodlot, deep soft green grass, a pump and water-trough, and more, a current lack of use. That last portion, I suspected, was crucial, and I again looked up and overhead.

“Th-that thing's stretching,” I gasped. “What is it?”

“That would be the moon,” said Gabriel. “Why, have you never seen it?”

“I never looked at it closely before,” I said. “What, are there two of those things?”

“No one says there are two,” said Gabriel, “but I once watched it through a glass. It splits into two and reforms within a slow count of ten.”

“There are two moons,” I muttered, as I brought down my head to stare into the slow-gathering darkness to our front. “I hope it will be bright enough to set the tents.”

“Is that why you put those candles on these?” asked Sepp. His voice seemed directly behind me. “They really help a lot when it's dark like this.”

“Uh, we have brighter lanterns,” I said. “Those will help us get them lit easier, though.”

“I thought so,” said Sepp. “I hope my watch is an early one.”

“I'd get a nap, then,” I said. “I can tell at least three of us will be up for a while after we camp.”

I again glanced upward, and let out an involuntary cry, for here, I saw the moon actually split into two distinct parts and join itself back together but seconds later. I had never seen anything like it, and when I brought my head down to see the road ahead, it was almost as if I could see our camping spot shining out in the darkness ahead of us.

“It isn't much further,” I said. “Perhaps another twenty minutes, if that.”

My statement, though it seemed optimistic to me – I wasn't that certain of the distance – proved pessimistic to a fault, for not three minutes later, the woodlot in question showed. A minute's further travel showed the 'bay' I had seen, and I slid down off of Jaak to walk onto the deep green grass. The ground seemed firm enough, and as the others slowly rode in, I said softly, “drive onto my tracks, please.”

“Will you set up a laager?” asked Sepp.

“Perhaps,” I said, as I found 'the' spot. “What is a laager?”

“That is where you have buggies or wagons tongue to rear in a circle,” said Sepp.

“No freighters bother,” said Lukas. “One of 'em walks out where the dirt's soft, so the wagons don't get mired, they form up so's they can get out easy, and then they set down.” A pause, then, “you never did that before, did you?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “I've heard of buggies getting mired in soft ground enough to try to find places where that won't happen.”

After arranging both buggies in something like a semicircle, I wanted to sit down. I felt I could not, however, for all seemed to depend upon me – or so I thought until the tents began going up.

“What?” I asked. “How do those..?”

“Karl and I practiced yesterday,” said Sepp. “I'd find a good spot for a privy, as I know how you can see in the dark.”

“A spade?” I asked.

I was promptly handed one, and I went toward the nearest edge of the trees. There, I began digging a small hole after removing the sod and laying it to the side, and once I'd done so, I tried it out. I felt better afterward, and I turned to see three lanterns shedding light on one nearly-erected tent and another going up next to it.

“They must have really practiced,” I muttered, as I headed back towards the campsite. “I had nothing but trouble with those things when I tried them in the past.”

I wondered what next to do with the spade, even as I came back to the campsite, until Lukas took the spade and began digging a modest hole but ten or twelve feet from the tents.

“You might dig out your cooking things,” he said. “We might not want food, but warm water would help with the travel-itch.”

I did so, and within a few minutes I'd set up the heating lamp under the larger pot. I then called for help with the tub.

“Where are you?” asked Gabriel.

“The rear of the first buggy,” I said. “I'm unloading my tub.”

I soon had help setting up the tub on the backside of the tents, and by that time, I had boiling water. I fetched my clothing, poured the hot stuff into the tub, fetched another potful, dumped it, and set a third potful on to boil. I then called out softly, “who bathes first?”

“I'd get your bath, if you're ready,” said Hendrik. “I'm almost ready with some of these notes.”

I bathed hurriedly, then bagged my dirty clothing and retreated to the buggy with my dirty clothes. I could hear more boiling water, then from my right and near the pot, I heard a soft muttered oath.

“Now what do I do with this firewood?” muttered Gilbertus. “This little glowing thing's boiling water just like a stove.”

“Uh, bail out the water from the tub...”

“Done,” he said. “I'm glad I brought that other pot.”

“The bath-dipper will work for bailing,” I said. “I wasn't sure if someone wanted to...”

I heard a splashing sound, then a soft moan of comfort.

“What?” I gasped.

“Someone drew warm bath-water,” said Gabriel, “and it really helps.”

“Wonderful,” I thought, as I went to the nearest tent and looked inside. Hendrik wasn't in there.

He proved to be in the other tent, and over the next half-hour, the camp settled down. The heating lamp was put in front of the paired tents, where it steadily simmered under a pot of water. The sounds of bathing came steadily from behind the tents, while soft speech and softer footsteps spoke of activities pertaining to camping. A glimmering light outside to my left spoke of a flaming campfire.

Meanwhile, I went over the notes presented to me, with Gabriel making 'corrections'. Hendrik bathed, then Kees, and the whole time under the lanterns, I was being plied with notes amid yawns. Someone shortly brought in a jug, and set it by me.

“What's this?” I asked.

“I think that is cider,” said Gabriel.

“Maria spoke of at least two jugs of it,” said Hendrik, “and that looks to be one of them. I knew about the scarcity of unused barrels in the south of the first kingdom.”

I filled my mug, and drank deeply.

“Here,” I said, pointing to the notes I was holding. “I might want to read this at length.”

“What is it?” asked Gabriel.

“I never saw a 'real' history of weapons before,” I said. “Those lectures...”

“Are not worth their time or effort in that way,” said Kees. “Besides, he isn't that fond of reading.”

“He spoke of those tales,” I said.

“There are digests of those tales in some of the book-rooms,” said Kees. “The Grim Collection isn't particularly small.”

“Nor is it quickly read,” said Hendrik. “Those digests can be quite helpful.”

I went through the pages of notes hurriedly, paragraph by paragraph, such that each of the three men scattered eraser-crumbs steadily between bouts of writing. I wondered for a moment if the documentation needed inking.

“If time and facilities permit, then yes,” said Hendrik. “The second kingdom house might take us two, or perhaps three more days, and we'll need these usable by then.”

“I hope I'm able to do my portion,” I said.

“The way you do this?” spluttered Kees. “I can tell you're not wasting time.”

“Uh, I'm trying to do three at once,” I said, “that, and some of this language is really convoluted. It may well take more than one pass to get it right.”

“I never saw anyone do a report that quickly, just the same,” said Gabriel. “You took perhaps twenty minutes to do almost a third of what he needs.”

“Enough to get him started,” I said. “Now this part is touchy.”

“I know,” said Gabriel. “It is not easy to write about the activities of those people at Norden.”

“While trying to use the formal form of the indefinite article every sentence one can?” I squeaked. “Gabriel, where did you get such language? Can you not simply describe what that witch looks like, and how nasty she is?”

Gabriel shook his head, then said, “then again, I did not see that witch, so I had to use what you said.”

“Did I say that?” I asked. “Here, let me phrase this.”

I then gave a description of Ultima Thule, including her goals, her 'attitude' – vindictive, enraged, cunning, spiteful, and impatient – and then a paragraph-length description of the interior of one of Norden's ice-halls. Gabriel had needed a page and a half to do what took me a third of a page, and when I passed it off to him to let him write and took up Hendrik's document, I heard the latter mumble.

“I might be able to write in a less-formal fashion,” he muttered, “but I cannot come close to what you just did.”

“And most others?” I asked. “If they write, there are twenty instances of 'Ye' to the page?”

“Most of the higher schools demand such writing,” said Kees. “I could write when I started, though not very well, but after two years at Ginnedaag, I could only write one way, and that is still the case.”

“And strange usage of nouns, verbs, and adjectives?” I murmured. “Writing as if the desire was to confuse the issue, such that those not 'well-educated' cannot understand it, those that think themselves to know it read a pack of fine-sounding lies, and the true import of the document is known only to a small and select group?”

“I would not be surprised if you are...” Hendrik cut himself off in mid-sentence and slapped his cheek. He then screeched the single word “what?”

“This writing almost reminds me of a cipher of sorts,” I said, “where this word 'sore', for instance, has one meaning to most...”

“I am learning about that meaning of sore, thank you,” said Gabriel.

“And then, another 'archaic' meaning to you all, one that took a long time to decipher...”

“Go on,” said Hendrik. “You're answering a question I could never get a straight answer to.”

“And then, to this select, uh, group, it has a third meaning, almost as if it was a code-word that only that group knows the meaning of.” I paused, then said, “almost as if the people in question wanted to write in this nasty-sounding speech I've heard of and didn't have the confidence to do so openly.”

“Nasty-sounding speech?” asked Kees.

“I've heard it spoken a few times,” I said. “All of the speakers were domestic witches.” I paused, then said, “those, uh, secret markings on second kingdom house documents and a really bad form of the written format?”

“Were this of less importance,” said Hendrik, “I would need to send everything to a clearing house for such 'grooming', and at substantial cost.”

“Which makes it a complete waste of time,” I said. “People that demand that incomprehensible rubbish will only see what they wish to see, and that subterfuge you called a clearing house is used to extort money from supplicants desiring the favor of their masters.” A brief pause, then as I resumed 'translating', I mumbled long and slow the single phrase “ugh!”

I worked for what seemed an age grinding through tedium expressed on paper, and with each further bout of exposition, I marveled at both the progress made and also the 'density' of expression. Much of the verbiage used seemed intended to conjure an imposing 'style', as if that conveyed the true importance of the document, and the smokescreen engendered by misused words and 'archaic-sounding' language but added to the high and lofty sentiment.

“This stuff almost seems to scream for preeminence,” I muttered. “It's as if it's an entry chit to the realms of power, where the truly important stuff is discussed verbally and in private over bad meals and worse drink.”

“I've suspected that to be the case among Generals and people like them,” said Hendrik.

“The second kingdom house?” I asked.

“I would watch for those people there,” said Kees. “Now look at this portion.”

I did so, and reduced his latest attempt further. He was making progress.

“I would almost resign myself to the position of scribe,” said Gabriel when he looked at what I was reworking. “If you can only write as per the demands of the higher schools, you but make more work for him.”

“I guess so,” said Kees. “I'm hopeless at this part of a report if it has to say something worthwhile.”

“Your notes are decent,” I said. “I can fill them in somewhat from what I've seen.”

Outside of the tent, the others sat or lay around what was now a glowing campfire, and I could hear someone telling an obvious 'yarn' of some kind. I begged off for a moment, went to my cook-gear, put up the pot, stand, and lamp, and fetched the dutch oven. I brought it back to where the others were, and laid it on the grass.

“Now what is that?” asked Gilbertus.

“A small, uh, camp oven,” I said. “If you have some cooking oil, it needs wiping all over and then setting near those coals.”

Lukas reached in his pack, and brought out a medicine vial, then began wiping the pot and its lid down. A minute later, he used a stick to arrange three rocks at the edge of the fire, then deftly set the pot on them.

“Now it'll cure proper,” he said. “They make those things down in the fourth kingdom market, and they work good for camp-bread.”

“They do?” I asked. There was a note of surprise and incredulity in my voice.

“That, and they're a better substitute for making Cuew over an open fire,” he said. “That one's about the smallest such pot I've seen.”

“There are larger ones?” I asked.

“Aye, about twice that big for tall and wide,” said Lukas. “Those things like that are heavy, though, so packing them horseback needs a horse just for the pot.”

“A good horse,” said Gilbertus, as I headed back into the 'study-tent'.

The writing continued for roughly another hour, and then, I thought to look to my bed. The tub was upended for draining fully next to the buggy, and when I found my 'bedroll', I was astonished to find not merely the waxed ground-cloth, but also a thin and somewhat gauzy cover-sheet. This last smelled especially good, and after laying out my things ready to hand under the buggy, with boots off and socks inside them, I drank a small cup of beer and fell asleep.

I awoke with a start to complete darkness. Fog was about in the land, and I touched the surface of the buggy to reassure myself that I was not in a coffin. I felt under the cover of the blanket, and touched my sword, then gently thrust the cover-sheet and blanket aside. I could feel something amiss, and it was coming slowly from the north.

I crawled out from underneath the buggy, and as I knelt to withdraw my sword, I noted a definite dampness in the air that muffled sound. I turned toward the tents, and saw them darkened; the 'campfire' slowly smoldered, with a faint aroma of wood-smoke; the smaller candle-lanterns were either out or missing; and I could faintly smell the aroma of fermented wine.

“F-fermented kerosene,” I muttered. “At least it is not Amontillado.”

I sheathed my sword in silence, and then stood up. I felt my possible bag, then beneath it, my holstered revolver. My thinking was to awaken someone who could then alert the others, and I went toward the 'other' tent.

Within lay four sleepers, and when I looked at the next tent, I was surprised to find not merely three men asleep, but both small lanterns faintly glowing. The odor of wine was profound, and my thoughts were of 'book-dust' as I returned to the other tent.

“Now whose toes are these?” I wondered, as I slipped into the center of the second tent. “No bug-fly, no cover sheets, no... Is this Sepp?”

I gently touched the face which showed the beginnings of a mustache, and tapped the person's chin. It took several seconds for the person in question to awake, and I put my finger across his mouth when he awoke.

“Please, wake another person,” I whispered. “We have trouble to the north.”

“Trouble?” whispered Sepp.

“It isn't very serious, at least yet,” I said. “I should manage, but I might want some help – oh, and whose watch was it?”

“Kees', I think,” said Sepp. “He was still up working after everyone else had done theirs.”

“That campfire?” I asked.

“I was asleep then, and I took the first watch,” said Sepp. “I'll wake Karl.”

“G-good,” I said, as I turned and left.

I moved at a rapid walk to the north and west portion of the clearing, and from then, I went along the side of the road at the edge of the woodlot. As I did, I could feel something about what was coming.

“Now what are these farmers doing out hunting this early in the morning?” I thought.

As I closed with the two men, I sensed their substantial clothing – they were wearing enough of it to muffle much of their noise – their ordnance and its disposition, and more, their possible goals.

“I doubt they are h-hunting,” I thought. “Do they have snipe here?”

The thought of 'snipe-hunting' nearly jerked an involuntary giggle out of me, and as I moved closer to the men, I could hear whispers. I stood still and listened, as the men discussed our party. They had been customers at the Public House the evening before and lived in the area, and thought to assay theft.

“They don't do this often, do they?” I thought. “If these people are brigands, then I'm a rodent.”

They drew steadily closer, and at a distance of perhaps thirty feet, I noted a hazy aura surrounding them that spoke of heat emission. I stood still, and slowly drew my sword. Its silence was swallowed up in the stealthy tramp of the men's hobnailed boots, and when the men were close – perhaps six feet, or maybe eight – I leaped abruptly to land directly in front of them.

My abrupt 'appearance' was so startling that one of them dropped his musket onto the road, while the other screamed as if terrified. I waved aside his musket with the flat of my sword and put its tip close to his face.

He screamed louder, and the other man joined in.

“No, no screaming,” I said calmly. “What are the two of you doing here?”

I heard running feet coming from behind me amid the terror-stricken screams of the two men, and I removed the musket from the one man and laid it on the ground. He seemed to be in a state of waxen paralysis, so much so that I lowered the tip of my sword and looked at him in a state of unabashed curiosity. I then noticed the other man had covered his musket by fainting and falling on top of it.

“Cease with the screaming, sir,” I asked. “There are people trying to sleep around here.”

From behind me, I heard a distinct clicking noise, then a pair of them, and finally, a sleep-suffused voice asking as to what was happening.

“These, two, uh, people...” I spluttered quietly.

The screamer abruptly fell silent, then yelled hoarsely the single word “help!”

“Who are they?” asked Sepp. I moved slightly to the side, as I did not trust his pirate-special pistol.

“I think these people assayed thievery of some kind,” I said. “They do not look to be, uh, vendors.”

“What are vendors?” asked Karl.

“Fresh bread, cheese-spread, cherry jam, and jugged beer?” I said. “Please, one of you, tie the person who is standing, and then do likewise with his companion. I'll watch them while you do so.”

“Do you have string?” asked Sepp.

I reached for my possible bag, and removed a pair of coiled pieces of rope, then handed it to Sepp. “Not too tight, now,” I said. “I'm not entirely sure who these people are.”

“They look to be thieves,” said Karl.

“Yes, they do 'look' that way,” I said. “We also do not have proof. Acting on suspicion can lead to later regrets.”

After tying both men, Karl and Sepp collected up their muskets and I sheathed my sword. Both men walked quietly ahead of the three of us, and as we returned to the clearing, I plainly heard snoring.

“Did you wake anyone else up?” I asked.

“I tried,” said Sepp, “but those two gaffers sleep like rocks. I had better luck with Karl once I spoke of thugs.”

“I am not sure these people are thugs,” said Karl. “They smell like farmers.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“I think one of them has damp underwear,” said Karl. “I've been around enough thugs to know they hold their water when in trouble.”

As if to reply, I heard a ripe-sounding 'gaseous emission'.

“Thugs do not loose wind like that, either,” said Karl.

“That is because thugs are corked with bad food,” said Sepp. “Now what do we do with them once we get back?”

“Perhaps tie them one to a buggy wheel?” I asked. “I'd just as soon everyone get a good look at them before we do anything serious.”

After securing the 'farmers' to one of the buggies, I fetched one of the small candle-lanterns and found the two surprises. I handed one to Karl, and the other to Sepp.

“Now I'm set for those rats,” said Sepp.

“Rats?” asked Karl.

“If you ever do much exploring at the house, Karl,” said Sepp, “you will want one of these. The other type isn't much good.”

“Leather?” I asked. “A holster for each of you?”

“I brought some of that stuff,” said Karl. “I think there is enough for two of them.”

“You think?” I asked.

“I asked for two, and those people at the leather place cut them to size,” said Karl.

“For those, uh other pistols, or..?”

“For ones like you have,” said Karl. “I asked them to cut the pieces oversize, as talk has what you made is better for use.”

“The top portion?” I asked. “The rear part with the rivets?”

“I told them about that part,” said Karl. “Now do you have your things?”

“I do,” I said. “I wasn't certain about what I'd be doing of leather, but I knew I would be doing leather work.” I paused, then said, “I'll load and cap those before we go.”

“Good,” said Sepp. “I don't trust that other pistol much.”

“What did you have in it?” I asked, as I tried my little finger in the muzzle of one of the muskets.

“A half-charge of shot,” said Sepp. “Gilbertus said that was best for close-work on trips like this.”

“H-half charge?” I asked.

“Half of the usual measure,” said Sepp. “I've had trouble getting shot, so I was glad I only had to use half as much as I thought I would need.”

“You have some?” I asked.

Sepp produced a small pouch, then put it away.

“The other things?” I asked.

“We have a pair of powder measures,” said Karl. “Neither of them is that good.”

Karl then looked at the other musket, and said, “that is a large musket, and I think that other one is too.”

“Good,” I said. “I've heard those work well for game.”

“Do you have shot?” asked Sepp.

“I had some when I left,” I said, “and I bought more yesterday. I'm not sure what Hendrik has, but I suspect another smaller purchase of shot and, uh, larger balls might be in order.” I paused briefly, then said, “perhaps we can tidy up our mess while we wait for our sleepers.”

I assumed stockings and boots, then retrieved the 'dutch oven'. A brief glance showed an even browning of its interior, and I dusted off its blackened outer surface. After putting it away, I fetched a shovel and began to fill the campfire pit. I could hear someone lighting a student's lantern, then packing the tub up into the buggy. I then cleaned up my bedding and put it away.

It took but fifteen minutes for us to clean up those portions of camp that were possible to perform without undue disturbance, and I then retired to the 'other' tent to load both revolvers. I found that I needed to answer a fair number of questions, few of which dealt with the task at hand.

“Why did you sleep under the buggy like that?” whispered Karl.

“I had a dream about it,” I said, “that, and I suspect I brought more bedding than you two did.”

“You did,” said Sepp, “and I think I know why.”

“Why I brought more bedding, or why I slept under the buggy?” I asked.

“I was cold last night, and that in the tent with three others,” said Sepp. “I might try sleeping under a buggy when it gets warmer.”

“What was this?” said a groggy-sounding voice.

“Where he slept,” said Sepp. “Are you up?”

Lukas stirred, then reached for a cup and began drinking from it. He soon spoke again, and this time, sounded awake.

“I am,” he said. “Now, I can answer as to why he slept out that way like he did.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“I was on watch after the two of them went to bed, and Gilbertus was after me,” he said, “and I could hear someone talking and moving softly. I wonder what it is, and I go a-looking, and I find you under that one buggy.”

“What was he doing?” asked Karl.

“I've seen swine,” he said, “and shot guns, and cut on witches, but what I heard him speaking was enough to scare me white for a year.”

“What did I say?” I asked.

“It was about witches,” said Lukas, “and I don't know nothing about 'em, if I go by what I heard.”

“Uh, do I thrash?” I asked.

“No, not much,” said Lukas, “but people what moves like you do when you sleep need a fair amount of room, and they don't want crowding.”

He then turned to Gilbertus, and pinched his toe, saying, “up, you rascal. Shake a leg.”

I cringed, then muttered, “uh, perhaps hot b-bread?”

“We have plenty,” said Lukas. “Your pot came good last night, so we can use it if at need.”

“Pot?” asked Karl.

“Aye, like those in the fourth kingdom,” said Lukas. “If we get fresh meat, I might try making Cuew in it.”

“That will be easy,” said Karl. “These two men came with large muskets...”

What?” yelled Gilbertus. “Where?”

“Tied to the buggy,” said Sepp. “They're most likely farmers, at least mostly.”

“Mostly?” asked Gilbertus.

“Who yelled?” asked a plaintive voice from the other tent.

I stood up, walked out of the doorway of one tent, and into the other not three steps away. It was still dark, though I could perceive it beginning to lighten, and when I came to the doorway, I was surprised to see Kees up.

“What t-time is it?” he asked

“Did you fall asleep on watch?” I asked gently.

He nodded, then said, “how are you up?”

“It seems we had nocturnal, uh, visitors,” I said, “and I woke up in time to greet them.”

“Visitors?” asked Kees.

“I suspect – no, that isn't true,” I said. “They were intent upon thievery, though their notions of the matter were ludicrous.”

“How, if they be thieves?” asked Kees. I could tell the other two occupants of the tent were beginning to awaken.

“These people overheard us in the Public House, and thought of a possible means of easy income,” I said, “so they came to investigate our site and see what small items they could, uh, remove for their own use.”

“What did you do to them?” asked Gabriel's sleepy voice.

“Took them back here and tied them to the buggy-wheels,” I said. “About all I could think of was to, uh, let everyone look at them.” I paused, then said, “Gabriel, fetch a cup of beer, and drink it slowly. Kees, you too. Hendrik should awaken presently, and he'll wish one.”

Kees looked at me quizzically, even if he did as instructed.

“Perhaps Hendrik will know what to do with those people,” I thought, as I left the tent behind.

The other tent had been struck and was being put away, and as I heard movement in the tent I had left, I wondered about the two muskets. For some reason, I wanted to retain those weapons, and as I looked over one of them, Lukas came to my side.

“I dumped the priming powder in both of those,” he said. “Now what is it you plan to do with those thieves?”

“I'm not sure, actually,” I said. “Until a minute or two ago, I wasn't certain they were thieves.”

“Loaded muskets and dressed like that?” asked Lukas. “I've seen enough thieves to know 'em, and those two are thieves.”

“Inexperienced thieves,” I said. “Somehow, I doubt they've done this type of thing before.” I paused, then looked down. Both men appeared asleep, or were possibly unconscious.

“Perhaps...” I paused in mid-sentence, then gasped as I recalled Georg's mention of a magistrate. “If there is a decent one,” I thought. “I do not want these people sent to one of those black-dressed stinkers.”

“You had an idea?” asked Lukas.

“I might,” I said. “Still, Hendrik is handy, and I wonder as to his thoughts.”

“Aye, that's true,” said Lukas, “and I suspect you're right about these men.”

I heard steps to my left, and turned to see Gabriel.

“I see,” he said. “Your precautions proved wise. I did not expect to see thieves this far north.”

“That's because we're on the High Way,” said Gilbertus. “Were we on the Low Way, we would see droves of 'em.”

“Grain?” I asked.

“I've set that out,” said Gilbertus. “We might want more in a day or two, at this rate.”

“Uh, check Mercantiles and keep track of the grain prices?” I asked. “Oh, there's this wire that's really shiny and is difficult to melt...”

“Hans mentioned that,” said Gabriel. “It's called glass-blower's wire, and he could use more of it.”

“Oh, I might use it also,” I said.

I busied myself with the muskets for a moment, then heard movements to the left. I turned to see Hendrik coming as the tent rapidly dropped. Only Gabriel was next to me, for some reason.

“Who are these people,” asked Hendrik, “as if I had to ask?”

“Thieves,” said Gabriel. I marveled at his assurance for an instant until I recalled speaking of them that way in the tent. “The usual?”

“The u-usual?” I thought. “What does he mean..?”

My thoughts then returned to what Hans had implied during my first days on the premises, and his mention of summary justice – 'a rope, a tree, and a prayer' with the outcome one or more dangling corpses – seemed likely. I shuddered, yet still, for some strange reason, I wished to know what 'the usual' was, and phrased my question as a statement.

“Is that cutting them to pieces, with their bodies left hanging in bags to rot and their crime pinned to their bagged remains?”

The instant I had spoken, however, I was horrified at the frightful evil of such a proposition, and it was all I could not do to scream at the top of my lungs “No! I don't want to be a witch!”

Hendrik looked at me and fingered his beard. I wondered as to what he was thinking, even as the ground went to bloody jumbled snow around me and my hand grew the haft of a blood-caked ax.

“That isn't commonly done,” he said. “The usual is to hang them out to dry.”

He paused for a moment, then said, “we have no ropes for that business.”

Again, he looked at me, then 'jolted' faintly. I wondered what had happened.

“That might be the best,” he said. “I've seen your handiwork on that score.”

The sense of terror I felt redoubled, and amid fumes of urine and dung I prayed silently with closed eyes. I felt responsible, as if the whole was my fault, and where that question had come was such that...

“That was a question,” I thought, “as I've little knowledge of thieves and how to deal with them. These people are amateurs...

The odors of dung and urine redoubled, such that I marveled. Was I the person leaking thusly, or was it someone else? The words of speechless horror continued, and I listened in awed silence.

“And rank amateurs at that,” I thought. “Smell them, if you do not believe me.”

There seemed to be a question posed to me, however, and I gave the only answer I knew:

“A magistrate, please. Send them for questioning to such a man or woman, and retain their weapons for a time at the least. They will not steal again.”

For an instant, I wondered if I had been heard, and when Gabriel next spoke, I was surprised.

“I wondered why you spoke of those men like you did,” said Gabriel. “Were they hardened thieves, I suspect you would not have gone to this trouble, and had they assayed mayhem, they would not be here tied up.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “besides, hardened brigands would not foul themselves upon hearing their ends discussed. Instead, they would curse us like witches until they were ended, and think us stupid to practice mercy.”

The stink was now so intense I began retching, even as Gabriel nudged one of the men with his boot.

“You farm, don't you?” he demanded. “This is your first such attempt.”

A screamed affirmative came later, even as I staggered away. I could almost hear the scrape-drag of a too-long sword grinding on a floor amid the Lurch-Pang noise of the true-step. I heard steps behind me, then a hand upon my shoulder. I turned, tears in my eyes, to see Gabriel.

“Now what?” he asked.

“Th-that town back there,” I sobbed. “K-Kees fell asleep on guard. Let him deliver those p-people to the m-magistrate there for i-instruction, and b-bring my ropes b-back. I c-c-cannot g-get more of them.”

Instruction,” mouthed Gabriel. “I see.”

I was left to myself for a few minutes, and as I 'came to' to see a lightening sky, I noted both men were missing, as was Kees. The campsite was nearly cleaned up, and as I blinked away my tears, I heard steps drawing closer. I turned to see Gabriel.

“D-did I do the right thing?” I gasped.

“I suspect you did,” he said quietly. “Still, in in times long past, your question was the usual, and suspected thieves seldom saw clemency of any kind.”

“In the past?” I asked.

“Then and now,” said Gabriel. “Most magistrates deal with indenturement papers.”

“G-Georg spoke...”

“I heard of that,” said Gabriel. “It is time we headed south again.”