The road more traveled, part d.

As we headed south, I wiped my eyes with a small rag, and drained my mug of cider. I had filled the water bottle, and munched some more dried meat.

“C-cut them to p-pieces?” I muttered.

“Much like you did with that witch south of where you live,” said Gabriel. “The Grim describes such as a sign and a warning to others, and in the times of those tales, suspicion and the crime were synonymous, and no distinction was made between the two.”

Gabriel paused to sip from his mug, then continued:

“If one wished to live, one did so in a fashion that did not incur the least moral taint. Otherwise, one did not live long, and in those days, preaching was done as much with the blade, the rope, and the bludgeon as with the sermon.”

“Th-that was a question,” I sobbed, “and...

“And what?

“I felt like a witch to speak such evil,” I said. “It was nearly as bad as after I'd gone after Koenraad, or the third ditch, or that one stinky magistrate, or some of the other times.”

“Is that why you slept under the buggy?” asked Gabriel. “Do you have nightmares?”

“He has those bad,” said Lukas.

“You are not a witch,” said Gabriel, “no more than Charles was.”

“Charles?” I asked.

“He cut up many evil people during the time of those tales,” said Gabriel, “and he did much more besides to save us all.”

Yet still, I felt horrible. The blackened stones of the High Way seemed slippery with blood, and the pounding rumble of horror-drums seemed to crack and thrash in time with the blows that fell up my back. I had been caught, accused of multiple 'defined' crimes – I had not committed wrongdoing; the person beating me said I had done so, and that sufficed for him – and now, I was being flayed as that person laughed at my suffering. The crimson stain of the road coalesced into deep ruby pools of blood, and the horror-chant I heard in my mind was from another time and place.

Or was it? I had heard it here before:

I see a red door, and I want to paint it black.”

The blood-pools beneath me writhed in time to the words of the statement, and from far away, I heard words speaking of the widow's tincture. I mechanically took a dose, then as the 'fog' fell away with shuddering abruptness, I heard Gabriel speak of an especially evil curse.

“I had no idea you were so tormented by the idea of hurting people,” said Gabriel, “and that curse of seeing a red door become black is spoken of on one tapestry at the least.”

“I-it is?” I asked.

“That tapestry showed the door in question, also,” said Gabriel. “Most people that are hurt that much become hardened to evil, and they embrace it with delight.”

“How?” I asked. “I wish nothing to do with things that look evil.”

“Which is why I said most,” said Gabriel. “There are people described in the Grim Collection that reacted as you do.”

When we came to the end of the woodlot – it was easily a mile wide from our camping spot to its southern end – I noted a wide field to both right and left. I looked to the right to see the sun just beginning to show far in the distance on the horizon, and I asked, “when will that magistrate be up?” My question was scarcely audible.

“I hope Kees stays out of the wine,” said Gabriel. “I drank a small cup when the book-dust became too bad for me, as did Hendrik, but he consumed three to our one, and his cup was like yours.”

“Which cup?” I asked. “The drink-cup, or the beer-cup?”

“The one you usually use,” said Gabriel. “I would not mind one like it.”

After another short time, I began to feel boredom setting in again, and I wondered for a moment if I could do notes while mounted. I thought to ask Gabriel, and to my surprise, he not merely had his ledger handy, but also a cloth bag.

“I might read those to you,” he said, “as I suspect you might have trouble if you assay reading while riding.”

“I need to keep my eyes ahead?” I asked.

“Hans has spoken of how you are while working,” said Gabriel. “I do not wish you to fall down, and he's seen that happen with you.”

“Perhaps a quieter Public House?” I asked.

“That would be worse,” said Gabriel. “Even with that widow's tincture, I'd not try it.”

“I'm bored enough to try notes,” I said.

After fifteen minutes, however, I found that the added burden of 'language-cleaning' on top of watching for trouble and other important things was unworkable, and I resigned myself to long periods of boredom mingled with brief spurts of watchfulness.

“Still, I can ask questions, and fill them out,” said Gabriel. “I might manage two or more pages that way between now and our camping.”

“And I need to look at the countryside,” I thought. “It's not like I'm familiar with it.”

I could feel a town 'some distance' away. In the mean time, there were side-roads heading east and west, orchards – those were becoming more common, for some reason – farmer's fields, and single houses surrounded by barns. The sun seemed lethargic in its climbing, and I resolved at the first watering stop to put on my cloak. I was wearing my second set of knit clothing, and I still felt chilled for some reason.

Another such 'clearing' showed in the middle of a woodlot, and here, I was surprised to see half a dozen freighting wagons harnessing up their teams. The horses seemed indisposed, for some reason, and we left them and their wagons behind shortly thereafter.

“Why were those horses like that?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” said Gabriel. “Had I a need to guess, I would try more grain, or sweetened grain.”

“Is that why those places tend to be as large as they are?” I asked.

“I suspect so,” said Gabriel. “I know that part of road-maintaining is looking after the turnouts and reseeding them as needed.”

“That g-grass...”

“Is not common grass,” said Gabriel. “It's grown from seed, and reseeded as needed. Some grow hay with it, in fact.”

“And our fire-pit?” I asked.

“Was a bit smaller than usual for students,” said Gabriel. “The ones for freighters tend to be larger.”

“Unless they're of a mind for cooking,” said Lukas from behind us. “You want a smaller one then, especially with one of those pots like he has.”

“Pot?” asked Gabriel innocently.

“He said it was smaller than the usual for its type,” I said. “He also spoke of preparing Cuew with it, that and bread.”

“Camp-bread?” asked Gabriel. “What kind?”

“I'm not certain,” I said. “Anna packed some drowned Kuchen...”

“As did the house,” said Gabriel. “I'd think it likely we'll want those for the days ahead.”

The town showed sometime later, and while four went into the Public House, I and the two older men stayed outside. I was watching for Kees when not checking hubs and topping oil, and once I had finished that, I checked over Jaak's hooves. I had just finished that task when I listened carefully to the north.

“He's coming,” I murmured. “I hope he comes quickly.”

“Is he going like a postal buggy?” asked Gilbertus.

“He's walking the horse between spurts,” I said. “He is hurrying, and he stayed clear of the wine – at least, he stayed mostly clear of it.”

“Mostly?” asked Lukas.

“He filled his mug,” I said. “He went in there to inquire after the magistrate, and he had to wait long enough for an answer to get something.” I paused, then said, “perhaps he needs to drive for a while to rest his horse and his bottom.”

“That is good,” said Lukas. “Now do you have shot?”

“I do,” I said. “Three pounds in my usual bag, and five in another. Why, those muskets?”

“Those would be good for game,” he said. “Besides, Kees needs something. He's only got this small knife, and no thug will respect such a little thing.”

“That depends on the knife,” said Gabriel, as he came from the Public House. “I found some truly unfermented wine in there, and I bought a jug of it.”

“Uh, could...”

“I am not the only person purchasing it,” said Gabriel. “I saw Sepp purchasing a jug of dark beer as well as unfermented wine, and I think Karl might be getting some dried meat.”

“Do I need to go inside and...”

“Your jugs are still mostly full,” said Gabriel. “You would be purchasing a jug as well as its contents.”

“Now you spoke of knives,” said Lukas. “What is it you meant?”

“If that knife were a common one, then I would agree with you,” said Gabriel. “Tell me, does this knife have a bronze hilt?”

“It does, that and the same metal for the pommel,” said Lukas. “It might be small as knives go, but the work is the best I've ever seen.”

“Does this knife have a mark on the hilt?” asked Gabriel. “Something of a triangle with one line going in and three coming out?”

“Now that was strange,” said Lukas. “It does have a mark, though it's a small one, and it's like that. Why?”

“Because knives like that make up for their smaller size in sharpness,” said Gabriel. “A clerk at the house borrowed mine the day after I got it, and he ran afoul of a miser.”

“So that miser has it,” said Lukas.

“That miser is supping with Brimstone,” said Gabriel. “He was drunk, as is the usual for such people, the clerk accosted him, he drew his knife, and that clerk dumped his guts on his boots.”

“S-st-straight-h-horned b-bull,” I gasped.

“What is this about a bull?” asked Gilbertus.

“He sliced one of them up with a very small knife,” said Sepp. “Now I hope this wine is unfermented, as that fermented stuff isn't fun to smell in the morning.”

“How small was this knife?” asked Lukas.

“Small enough to work well for close wood-carving,” said Sepp. “I've seen him use it several times.”

“Uh, if a marmot shows, I can skin it,” I said.

“So Hans has said,” said Sepp. “Talk has it they've been trouble to the south of here, where they've started planting.” Sepp paused, then said, “what do you use for skinning? Those small knives?”

I nodded, then brought out the tool-roll. I opened it and showed Lukas.

“Now that is a neat thing there,” he said, as he touched one of the knives, “and those knives are common in the fourth kingdom.”

“Not like those,” said Sepp. “That size gets the special iron.”

“Uh, most knives get that stuff now,” I said. “We have plenty of it.”

I had the impression that Lukas was fond of the common size of knife, and when Hendrik and Karl came out with bags and jugs, I looked to the north one last time.

“He's coming, isn't he?” asked Hendrik.

“He is, and he's not wasting time,” I said. “If we wait, we can... Oh, my. He's maybe a mile behind us.”

“That little of a distance, it might be wisest to wait, then,” said Hendrik. “It will give us time to stow the food and drink.”

“And breakfast?” I asked. “Perhaps slice up some bread? Cherry jam?”

My questions were answered by a slice of bread thickly piled with such jam, and I munched the stuff avidly while examining the muskets. I wondered as to the contents of the weapons with absorption, so much so that when Kees came back with a winded horse I was nearly jolted to the ground.

“Here are your ropes,” he said. “Those men will be paying baskets of corn for a few years.”

“Baskets?” I asked.

“Ten large baskets each for the next four years,” said Kees, “and they forfeit their muskets.” He paused, then said, “now if I could just have one of them handy, I'd feel a lot better.”

“Fowls?” I asked.

Kees' eyes grew wide. “But don't you...”

“Not with what he has,” said Gabriel. “Were he to shoot at a quoll or fool-hen, it would be scattered.”

“Are you concerned about uninvited boarders?” I asked.

“What?” asked Kees. He had helped himself to a slice of bread.

“Uh, real brigands, in contrast to those wayward farmers?” I asked.

Kees nodded, then said, “I was scared enough when I heard of those thieves.”

“I think I should check those muskets over before, uh, issuing them,” I said. “If necessary, I can let you borrow something that will drive off any likely thugs.”

Once underway again – I had donned my cloak – Gabriel spoke of my 'tact' regarding Kees, saying, “I think that wise, given his trouble with weapons.”

“His trouble?” I asked. “Why, does he tend to shoot things he doesn't intend to?”

“That is the chief matter,” said Gabriel. “While Pump has a market-hunting gun that never fires, I dare say Kees could cause it to fire were he to handle it.”

“Uh, pull the trigger carelessly?” I asked.

“With him, it is not likely to matter,” said Gabriel. “I've seen muskets fire upon his touching them.”

“The lock?” I asked.

“About midspan of the barrel,” said Gabriel. “The first time, I thought it a fluke, but when he did that three times in one short day, I knew it to be otherwise.”

“Thimbles?” I asked.

“He's bad about that,” said Gabriel. “I would not let him use one of your pistols, as he'd loose every hole in the thing the instant he touched it.”

Some few miles out of town, I again smelled wood-smoke, and when I looked to the right, I again saw a huge and fuming gray barn sited a mile or more away in the middle of a wide green meadow. The meadow soon took its place behind us as a woodlot swallowed up the road.

This woodlot had three of those camping places, and while two were empty, the third had a most unusual buggy in one of the corners. I pointed to the thing, and Gabriel identified it as a tinker's buggy.

“Is that a stovepipe I see?” I asked. The length of the thing was a good three feet beyond that of a postal buggy. Otherwise, the outward similarity was substantial.

“I suspect that to be the case,” said Gabriel. “That tinker looks to be better off than is common for such people.”

“Does he live in that thing?” I asked.

“If he has a stove, then I suspect so,” said Gabriel. “I do not see his team, so he may be hiding them somewhere.”

I wondered for a moment as to why a 'tinker' would wish to hide his horses, even as we left him behind. For some reason, I could feel someone of interest in the next town.

“Ah, there's a gunsmith there,” I thought. “I'll need to get some of the larger musket balls in his place, and maybe some shot.”

The boredom resumed to a modest degree shortly thereafter, even as the sun slowly climbed higher. In the middle of one woodlot, I noted direct sunlight starting to touch the left side of the road. It might have been midmorning, or so I guessed, and I brought out the water-bottle for a sip.

Faint in the distance I heard a steady rattling sound coming rapidly nearer, and as we came to a gentle bend in the road, I saw the straining four-horse team of a postal buggy. The wheels scattered sparks here and there as the springs jounced slightly, and the sense of nearly being 'out of control' was a marvel.

“They don't always go that rapidly, do they?” I asked.

“They do not waste time,” said Gabriel, “though that pace is a bit faster than they manage for long.”

“Hence trouble?” I asked.

Gabriel had no reply for me, and I began to look carefully ahead. I could feel – or, perhaps smell – something, and when we entered another woodlot, I wondered more; more as to the motive, and also, more as to where he'd come from.

With each second and yard of progress, I could feel this 'something' better, and I felt for my revolver. I carefully undid the flap, and began looking closer ahead, and more, to each side. I almost expected something to 'jump out at me', so much so that when the 'clearing' showed on the right side, I looked toward the place as time slowed to a crawl.

“What is it?” I thought, as I rapidly scanned the 'clearing'. There was nothing there.

And yet, there was something present. I looked on the margin off of the ditch, and there, I saw buggy tracks. I slowed, then went closer.

“What is it?” asked someone from the rear of the column.

“There's these, uh...”

I turned back to look at the first of the buggies, and I saw differences right away. The width between the two tires was easily a foot wider for the tracks I was seeing, and yet the tire-tracks themselves were nearly the same for width. Jaak backed up slightly, and as I looked at the dirt laying on the track where the vehicle had crossed the ditch and slid luridly onto the road, I noted a definite 'gap', most likely made by the welding process. I began counting the distance between one gap and another.

“One, two, three... Eight, nine, ten, eleven, eleven and a half feet.”

“That tire's got to be more than three and a half feet across,” as I came back to where the others were waiting, “and it's about as wide as what we're running. Any ideas?”

Lukas looked at me from the seat of the first buggy with narrowed eyes, then spat onto the road before speaking.

“That was a stinking coach,” he muttered. “Where's it going?”

“Uh, south,” I said, as I turned around and resumed. “I can feel something wrong around here, and it's bothering me.”

Not a hundred yards later, however, I saw scrape-marks going sideways toward the ditch, and when I looked in their direction, I saw the remnants of a broken-up wheel. The scrape-marks promptly ended, and as I looked down the 'avenue' made by the trees, I seemed to feel the trouble steadily receding.

I continued looking around, and my caution was rewarded by the sight of another postal hostel. This example showed a postal buggy in front, and as I looked closely, I saw what looked like a soot-blackened portion near the rear of the fabric cover.

“Someone shot at the post,” growled Lukas.

“That coach's people, most likely,” I thought. “I wonder where that stinky thing went?”

At the end of the woodlot – it stretched some distance, with another two 'clearings', neither of which was occupied – I began looking for side-roads, and within a minute, I found a wide one running down the middle of the field. The aspect of dust that hung in the air was such that I marveled, until I looked far in the distance and saw a mobile dark dot about to hide in a woodlot.

“There,” I said, as I pointed with my right arm. “What is that thing?”

“I think that is the coach,” said Gabriel. “I'm surprised to see one of them running on the High Way this far north.”

“They stay off of this road?” I asked.

“The fifth kingdom sees coaches openly, as does a sizable portion of the second, but most other places don't,” said Gabriel. “Coaches prefer smooth roads with a measure of depth to them.”

“Uh, breakdowns?” I asked.

“The High Way has little depth,” said Gabriel, “and coaches tend to avoid it save when there is clear advantage otherwise.”

“It's smooth,” I said, “or is it?”

“This section isn't bad,” said Gabriel. “Many portions of this road are rougher, and that is when they are in good repair.”

“And dirt roads?” I asked.

“The main road north of Roos is a good example,” said Gabriel. “The Low Way is a bit wider, and a trifle smoother, but if a coach needed to go to the far north, it would be hard pressed to find a faster road.”

“Does the Low Way get coach traffic?” I asked.

“It does,” said Gabriel. “Coaches, desperate freighters, and people who need to go there so as to deal with those shops located off of it.”

The town with the gunsmith showed shortly thereafter, and after checking and oiling the buggies, checking Jaak's feet, and then measuring the bore of one musket with my 'calipers', I went to the shop in question. I could tell the town's Mercantile was being checked also, and while the horses were eating grain in the yard of the Public House, I knew at least one individual was inside the place.

“I hope someone gets dried meat,” I thought, as I looked for the shop of the 'Gunsmith'. “Now how do I...”

A house with a small separate shop to its side seemed to monopolize my vision, and as I drew closer, I noted a carved wooden musket hanging from its eaves. I came to the door, tapped twice, and slowly pushed it open.

The uneven wooden 'panels' of the walls showed many small darkened places, much like the wood of the church in Roos, and beneath my boots were 'pegged' wooden floorboards. For space, it was much like the shop of that first jeweler I had visited, and the atmosphere seemed similar, even down to the feel of the place. A nondescript gray and brown striped cloth hung over a doorway in the rear of the room, and the varnished counter looked familiar. I was about to lean on this last when the cloth went to the side and a slightly taller version of Hans with a dusty apron showed.

“Could I purchase some shot and balls?” I asked.

“Depends on the balls,” he said. “Shot is scarce, so I can't sell much.”

“The 'larger' size of musket?” I asked. “It's a number four, middle to large of the range.”

“Do you work on guns?” he asked.

“Among other things,” I said. “I did not have the usual gages with me, so I used another of my tools to measure the bore.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “My number fours are about half a line small of middle, so you might take up the slack with an old rag rubbed with tallow. How many would you like?”

“Uh, forty?” I asked. “T-two pounds of shot?”

I brought out my money pouch as the man 'vanished' behind his curtain, and I laid the possible bag on his countertop. I had another shot-pouch inside my bag, and he returned with the items in question as I was removing it.

“Now that is a... Are you a tinker?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said. “I'm traveling south with a group of eight, and we received two larger muskets this morning. Hence, I need balls for them, as well as what shot I can find.”

“Powder?” he asked.

“That I seem to have,” I said. “Thank you just the same.”

I purchased the balls and shot, and after bagging them up, I returned to the Public House yard, where Kees was trying to 'hide' a jug in one of the wagons. He wasn't having much luck.

“What is that jug?” I asked.

“Wine,” he said, with a trace of raving in his voice, “and not the common for wine, but honey-sweetened. I've not seen it in months.”

“Do you know where...” I paused, then said, “is that stuff good for cooking?”

“I have never heard of it being used in that fashion,” he said.

“I suspect it works well for adding moisture,” I said. “Where is everyone?”

Kees stood up – he'd hidden his jug – and looked around, then spoke in a stealthy whisper, “I think they're in the Public House.”

“Did you see them in there?” I asked.

“N-no, I didn't,” he said. “I heard about this wine, and I went after it.”

I resigned myself to a lengthy wait, and drew out my smaller slate. I sat in the nearest buggy, wiped off the slate, and thought to draw something. I had barely managed three lines when I heard steps coming closer, then a gentle bump. I looked up, and saw Gabriel looking at what I was doing while several of the party were picking up grain-pans.

“Do you want to try driving this buggy?” he asked.


“Were it anyone else, I would say yes,” said Hendrik. “With him, it might be unwise.”

“I'd probably drive it straight into the nearest ditch,” I muttered.

“I doubt you would do so, actually,” said Hendrik, as he took his seat. “Your eyes and ears keep us safe, and you'd have trouble doing that anywhere else than where you usually are.” A brief pause, then, “besides, if you sat there for very long, you'd want both cushions and your pillow.”

“They're a bit thin?” I asked.

I want both cushions,” said Hendrik, “and I sit at a chair much more than you do.”

I stood up, and as I moved to where I had hung the blanket to air out, I was met by Karl. He had a small cloth sack in his hand, and held it out to me.

“This is some peppered dried meat,” he said, “and it seems especially good.”

“Did you get it here?” I asked.

“I did,” he said, “and I know how you chew on this stuff when riding. I'm starting to do the same.”

I took the meat thankfully, then mounted. We left the town behind but minutes later.

As we headed south, I glanced up at the sun and realized I had overestimated the time of day. It was now true midmorning, and once out of the town, I looked at the trees.

The previous pale-green sprays of leaves were now a shade of deeper green, and the size and number of leaves had increased noticeably, such the trees actually provided shade on a portion of the road. I then recalled a matter that I had heard of before leaving, and in a near-panic, I squeaked, “the bolts! Did someone check the bolts?”

“They were,” said Gabriel. “You were busy last night with those notes while they were checked.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “and I did my portion for this stop.”

“What?” I asked.

“Half a dozen wax candles,” he said. “I would have purchased some tallow ones also except for your odorless material.”

“Tallow?” I asked. “For what?”

“Shoes and boots, mostly,” said Gabriel. “Had you asked me a year ago, I would have had more use for such things, but since encountering tallow that looks like wax and distillate that does not smell, I've seen the error of my ways.”

“More grain?” I asked.

“At least one small bag,” said Gabriel. “I bought a small slate like you have for errand-notes.”

Fields and orchards alternated for nearly mile south of the town, and as we crossed a wide meadow, I noted the deeper green of the grass. I suspected the ground had firmed up markedly, and after an hour or so of travel, I thought to try the dried meat Karl had secured. I reached into the bag, and brought out a piece.

The smell said 'fresh-dried', and when I bit into it, the texture was chewy, with a hint of moisture amid the slightly smoky salt-and-pepper taste. Only when I'd gotten a mouthful down did I notice a clear difference.

“What is this meat?” I asked.

“Why, is it bad?” asked a voice from behind me.

“N-no,” I spluttered. “It's not the usual dried meat, but something different. Karl, did you ask them as to what it was?”

I heard the grinding clop-clop sound of someone coming up the road on my left, and when I turned, I saw Karl wearing an ear-to-ear grin. He also had a small sack on a string around his neck and was gnawing the stuff hungrily.

“Sepp said they'd gotten one of those mean black bulls in yesterday,” he said, “and they'd just finished a batch of the dried meat. Do you like it?”

“Y-yes, I do,” I said. “I thought it was just the common stuff.”

“We bought as much as they would sell,” he said. “Talk has it you have a good soup recipe.”

“I would not call that soup especially good,” said Gabriel, “even if it is hard to ruin.”

“That is a good recipe, then,” said Karl. “Anna said any recipe you could cook and have food fit to eat was a good one, and I have some of my mother's recipes with me.”

“Can you cook?” I asked.

Karl looked at me with a worried face, then asked quietly, “can you?”

“To a modest degree,” I said. “Anna makes me look worthless.”

“She makes a lot of people look bad that way,” said Karl. “We have plenty of that meat, so eat what you want.”

Karl dropped back to where he'd been before, while I enjoyed some especially tasty dried meat. While I had an appetite – more than the usual, for some reason – it tended to be easily satisfied with modest amounts if I nibbled food regularly. After several such pieces of meat, the thought recurred to me regarding feathered game.

“Who among us does well on birds?” I asked.

“What kind of birds?” asked Gabriel.

“Uh, quolls?” I asked. “F-fool hens?”

“I suspect most anyone, except Kees,” said Gabriel. “Why?”

“F-fresh dinner?” I asked. “Especially to the south where either the food is bad or it's scarce?”

Gabriel looked at me, then asked, “did Anna pack any corn-meal?”

“I am almost certain she did,” I said, “even if corn-meal did not occur to me.”

“I did,” said someone from behind. “Why? It's common enough stuff up this way.”

“There is a meal prepared from fowls and ground grain,” said Gabriel, “and if spiced properly, is nearly as tasty as Cuew. Unlike Cuew, however, it is very filling.”

“That?” said someone from the rear that sounded like Gilbertus. “I know that one, both with corn-meal and that other flour.”

“Other flour?” I asked.

“It's much lighter in color,” said Gabriel, “and comes from a different species of grain. That type is even better than that done with cornmeal.”

“Which kind of fowl works best?” I asked.

“Both of those you spoke of work well,” said Gabriel, “but there is a better one still.”

“Yes?” I asked. “What is it called?”

“The common word is 'Turkey',” said Gabriel, “but most who have tried for those wily birds name them otherwise.”

“Why, are they hard to get?” I asked. I then recalled Hans speaking of them that way.

“They are,” said Gilbertus, “and I suspect I know why, too.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Those things run their own distilleries,” he said, “and they drink enough brandy to run a drink-house.”

“What?” I asked. “They're drunk all the time?”

“That is a rumor,” said Gabriel.

Faintly, on the edge of hearing, I heard a sound that made for wondering for several seconds, and I was about to speak of it when another example – this one much closer – responded. The second version sounded like an amalgam of 'hyperactive turkey' and 'someone slurping noodles'.

“Did you hear that?” asked Gilbertus. “That was a turkey!”

“Uh, load up the fowling piece?” I muttered.

“I doubt it would do much good,” said Gabriel's melancholy voice. “Turkeys are so strange, and so wily, that they are commonly thought to be drunken, and even so, they act uncommonly intelligent for birds.” Gabriel paused, sipped from his mug, and continued, saying, “when a big brown and white one lands on one's haystack...”

Faintly I heard the boom of a musket, then another, then two more, then a steady banging and booming that lasted for several seconds.

“I think it happened again,” said Gabriel.

“Again?” I asked.

“Turkeys draw a great deal of hot lead when they are discovered,” said Gabriel. “One landed on our haystack when I was a boy, and it sounded like...”

“B-boom-boom-BOOM-bang... B-bang-bang-bang...”

“Like nine large covens of witches had showed,” said Gabriel, “and the privy had a good deal more ventilation once the gunfire had died down.”

“Did the privy smell worse?” I asked. Another fusillade erupted in the distance.

“The privy always smelled badly,” said Gabriel, “but all of those holes made it very drafty and leaky, and we had to endure it until we had an attached privy put up. Then, there was the lead.”

“How much lead?” I asked.

“Nearly four pounds of shot and assorted musket balls in the house alone,” said Gabriel, “and another several pounds in or near the privy. The stuff coming in the house was the worst, though.”

“Uh, how,” I asked.

“The first eruption sent a ball close enough to my mother to part her hair,” said Gabriel, “and it drilled through the rear door of the house beforehand. She dove for the floor, and the rest of us followed, which was a good thing.”

Gabriel paused, again sipped from his mug, and continued, saying, “then, the upper part of the door went to kindling, and three of our jugs went to pieces. One of them was a jug of Geneva kept for wind, and the smell was enough to drive the whole family into the basement. We stayed there until the sun went down.”

A final blasting spate of gunfire erupted, and then silence once more shrouded the area. We had drawn closer to the source of the noise over the last few minutes.

“Turkeys are awful that way,” said Karl. I looked to see him on my left. “They're tasty once they've spent time in the oven for a few hours.”

Gabriel looked at Karl with an expression I could not fathom.

“Then, you need to dig the shot and balls out of them,” said Karl, “and that is trouble. My uncle got one once.”

“How?” asked Gabriel.

“He used an old market-hunting gun,” said Karl, “and he, or someone, opened up the muzzle some so the shot would spread more.”

“A blunderbuss?” I thought. “They do have things like that here.”

“At least, he said it that made the shot spread more,” said Karl. “I am not certain it did that.”

“How much did it take for powder and, uh, lead?” I asked.

“Two handfuls of each,” said Karl, “and he used mixed shot. Some was the usual size, and most was a bit bigger, and that buzzard had a lot of lead in it.”

“I guess so,” I muttered.

“Some of that lead had been there a while,” said Karl. “Not all of it was his.”

Another town showed about noon, and here, the 'routine' occurred: check the horses and buggies, then split up to go into either the Mercantile or the Public House, then return quickly with supplies. I remained seated in the buggy drawing something that I but dimly recalled, and once resuming travel, I brought it out and looked at it.

“What is that?” asked Gabriel when he saw it.

“A spark plug,” I said. “It goes to a type of engine.”

“I hope you do not plan on making one of those distillate-burning things,” said Gabriel.

“Distillate?” I asked. “I hoped to use aquavit, actually. It's much better behaved.” I paused, then asked, “more candles?”

“I found three,” said Gabriel, “but they were not particularly good, so I left them lay. We'll want to lay in a decent supply of them for tonight and possibly tomorrow evening.”

“Uh, how much further is the border?” I asked. “About sixty, seventy miles?”

“That sounds likely,” said Gabriel. “Do you know when?”

“Tomorrow?” I asked. “Mid to late afternoon? Where is the kingdom house?”

“We don't want to go there tomorrow anyway,” said Gabriel.

“They won't be, uh, open?” I asked.

“They will be, but it will be worse than at home for that day,” said Gabriel. “Very little happens in the second kingdom house outside of the usual working hours and days.”

“Unless you wear black-cloth or are a miser,” said Lukas. “Those people think every day is alike, and they live all of their hours as if living in Kraag.”

“Perhaps it's for the best, then,” I said, as I recalled Hans speaking of the place mentioned. “If the place is shut down, then there should be less traffic.” I paused, then said, “this isn't a normal level of traffic for this road, is it?”

“I was expecting more,” said Gabriel. “Then again, we're still in the first kingdom, and plowing hasn't started yet.”

“It will start soon enough in this area,” said Lukas. “I'm surprised I haven't seen people spreading manure yet.”

“Is that spread...” I paused, then listened. Faint on the wind, I heard a deep-pitched cackle. I turned my head to the right, where I saw deeply green copses and the lush grass of the brink of springtime. There was an aspect of expectancy, and when the copse stirred, I marveled.

At one level, I marveled. My right hand went for my holster and unbuttoned it just the same.

The copse stirred again, and another deep-pitched cackle came from it.

“Is that a chicken?” I asked.

“I do not want to find out,” said Gabriel. “If it is...”

The cackle sounded again, then the copse erupted in a frenzied cloud of greenery and flapping red-brown feathers as a massive bird tumbled end-over-end through the air to land and hit the ground running. It seemed terminally confused, so much so that when it found its bearings, it saw the road and ran frantically for it.

The bird had not accounted for the ditch, however, and the abrupt change in the landscape caused a tumble and course correction that sent the bird to the southeast across the road in a low and frantic arc. It hit the ground on the other side, leaped into the air, squawked, and vanished instantly in a stand of trees.

“What was that?” I asked.

“A chicken,” said Gabriel. “I suspect it was driven off of its nest.”

“Eggs?” I asked.

“It's too early for eggs,” said Lukas, “even for those things.”

“Y-year-round eggs?” I asked.

“Chickens don't lay when it's too cold for them,” said Lukas. “The pens they use are heated to keep them laying longer.”

“How much do they lay?” I asked.

“Up here, if they're in a proper well-heated barn, about eleven months of the year,” he said. “If they're not in a heated barn, they lay when crops are in the ground.”

“Do they eat crops?” I asked.

“If they get loose, they do,” said Lukas. “That one probably eats more than a dozen laying pairs of wood-pigeons.”

“Rye?” I asked.

“They should be setting that out shortly,” said Lukas. “Much south of here, though, they start planting wheat.”

“Ugh, wheat,” said Gabriel.

“Bread?” I asked.

“It can be made into bread of a sort,” said Gabriel, “but unless wheat is but a small portion of the dough, the resulting bread tends to be closer to a stiff species of glue than anything else.”

“The taste?” I asked.

“That also resembles glue,” said Gabriel. “Not even starving people make to eat food made entirely from that grain.”

“And rye?” I asked.

“That grain is much preferred,” said Gabriel. “Rye grows well in much of the first kingdom and the upper portion of the second, and even to the south, where mixed grains are common, rye still predominates in most areas. Only in the fifth kingdom and the central portion of the third is rye scantily used.”

“What is wheat used for, then?” I asked.

“It is said to make decent animal feed,” said Gabriel, “but there it is mingled also, and then there is paper paste, and finally, strong drink. It works passably for that use.”

“Is it cheap, or expensive?” I asked.

“That's the strange thing about wheat,” said Lukas. “In the first kingdom, if you're far enough north and you don't buy a lot of it, it's as cheap as any grain you can buy. Go south further, and it becomes more expensive, and then if you get close to the second kingdom house, it's dear indeed, and it stays that way until fifty miles from the third kingdom's border, where it becomes cheaper again.”

“And in the third kingdom, they grow other grains entirely,” said Gabriel.

“The fourth kingdom?” I asked.

“They import much of their grain, save for what they grow locally,” said Gabriel. “They have strange grains down there, and stranger-yet bread.”

“Rye bread?” I asked.

“Is very popular, but is seldom entirely rye,” said Gabriel. “It tends to taste good just the same.”

“And the fifth kingdom?” I asked.

“Except for small places on the southern coast, very little of an edible nature grows there,” said Gabriel. “Most of the fifth kingdom's food is supplied by market-hunting and fishing.”

Over the next hour, I saw a definite trend: more charcoal-burners, orchards, fields under cultivation, while the woodlots seemed to house 'clearings' with greater consistency. Meadows tended to be less common, though were larger when they showed, and roads going to east and west were two and three a mile. Copses showed in the meadows, and while farms were plentiful between towns, their size – chiefly more and larger outbuildings – seemed greater than near home. Finally, the sense of 'traffic', though still invisible to the naked eye, was growing.

After passing through another charcoal burner's billowing blue-gray fog, I looked ahead again. The town I had sensed an hour ago still seemed far in the distance, and a woodlot was coming up quickly. I wondered if it were wise to stop and check our wheels, and asked, “should we stop and look matters over at the next 'clearing'?”

“I doubt it would hurt,” said Gabriel. “Why, where is the nearest town?”

“About two hours or so at our current speed,” I said, “or about twelve miles. We should get there about the same time of day we did yesterday.”

“Is this town a sizable one?” asked Gabriel.

“The biggest today, I think,” I said. “Is that what we want for a meeting?”

“I suspect so,” said Gabriel. “Tomorrow's stop might want to be earlier in the day, unless your distances are far off.”

The woodlot had two such locations, and I halted at the first of them. After doing 'my' usual – all of the hubs were cool, and I topped them up – I looked at the surrounding forest amid the slurping sounds of drinking horses. I could tell the ground was drier and firmer, while the trees were in 'early spring' mode.

“A day and a half south is good for a month easily,” I thought, as I shook out Jaak's blanket. “I wonder when we'll see plowing?”

'When' proved to be less than ten minutes out of the woodlot's south end, for several fields had a furry brown coating on them that reeked of manure. I noted this as we came closer to a widespread 'farm', and once past the main buildings, I was surprised to see someone walking slowly behind a pair of tired-looking horses. The north edge of the nearest field was lined with narrow furrows.

“Is he plowing?” I asked.

“He is,” said Gabriel, “though given the day and time, I wonder why. A property of that size would have several hired plowmen.”

“The normal work-week and times?” I asked.

“Plowing near home is especially demanding,” said Gabriel. “I am not certain about this area.”

“They might want to get a jump on it,” said Lukas, as he came along side me. “This area is one of them that can manage any of the northern crops.”

“N-northern crops?”

“Rye, corn, potatoes, turnips, cabbage, and other things,” said Lukas. “By the time we camp tonight, we'll be in a place where corn and rye do poorly, potatoes do best, and wheat can be planted and not have it rot in the fields.”

“Potatoes do best?” I asked.

“They do better in the potato country,” said Lukas, “but they grow decent from a bit north of here to just south of the second kingdom's border.”

“In this area,” said Gabriel. “If you go west about thirty or forty miles, potatoes do better further north and further south.”

“That's because you're in the potato country, then,” said Lukas.

“A question,” I asked. “Do we have turnips?”

Lukas looked at me and made a face, then said, “no, we don't. I don't much care for those things, and I doubt anyone else does either.”

“I'm not complaining,” I said. “I just thought someone had packed some.”

“About all they're good for is stuffing birds,” said Lukas. “I'd rather use potatoes any day if they're to be had.”

“We have those,” I said. “I recall there being a bag filled with them.”

“The house added two more bags before we left,” said Gabriel, “and since, I suspect some have been bought.”

The sun slowly went eastward as we went south, and the town I had felt hove into view about when I had spoken of. The road had become perceptibly wider over the last mile of farms and fields, and when those gave way to shops, I gasped.

“This place has real shops, and not just one or two of them,” I said.

“I know,” said Gabriel. “I remember this town from my last trip down this way, and the Mercantile had plenty of wax candles.”

“I'd get a fair number of them, then,” I said. “Does the second kingdom carry those?”

“Outside of the house and maybe two towns on the High Way, no,” said Gabriel, “and I suspect it's worse yet in the third kingdom.”

I reached in my trousers for my money pouch, extracted a gold monster coin, and then handed the thing to Gabriel.

“What's this for?” he asked.

“Candles,” I said. “I'd like some too.”

“This many?” asked Gabriel.

“I have a suspicion about the miles ahead,” I said, “something like we want plenty of them – oh, and we will need them at the second kingdom house, also.”

“Why?” asked Gabriel.

“We'll have two choices,” I said. “Either bad tallow candles, or light-giving incendiary smudgepots.”

“But the last time I was there they had wax candles,” said Gabriel.

“The, uh, chandler is a different person,” I said. “He puts the wax candles where he must, puts the bad tallow candles where he can, and he puts the firebombs where he thinks he can score an advantage with those he thinks receptive.” I paused, then said, “and within hours of our showing, he will think us receptive.”

Us?” asked Gabriel, as we came to the yard of the Public House.

“I'm not sure,” I said. “I may be overlooked, at least at first...”

I then stopped my talk in mid-sentence, for off to the right near the edge of the Public House's yard were no less than five black bulls.

Each of the stupefied-looking animals – they were roughly the size of steers where I came from, with humps over their shoulders that reminded me of buffalo – was tethered to iron rods driven into the ground near its head and tail, while its horns were padded thickly with rags tied with rope. The bulls had that section of the yard to themselves, and as it was a large yard, I had the initial impression that we had plenty of room. I then looked at the wider picture.

“Tunnel-vision strikes again,” I muttered. “This place has more horses and buggies and wagons than the dark side of the Swartsburg at night!”

I then saw another of those infernal bulls, and the gaze the animal gave me seemed to burn through both myself and Jaak. I could almost hear the blare of trumpets as 'Miura' took the arena with blood in his eye and the scent of the matador in his nostrils – and 'Miura' was parked not twenty feet away.

“Bull formula, indeed,” I thought, as I looked to the left to see a modest flock of 'well-groomed' sheep tethered in line next to a row of three freighting wagons piled with sacks and boxes.

I dismounted once closer to the door of the place, and after fluffing out the blanket and draping it over the end of the 'hitching rail', I began to thread my way through the 'mob' of animals tethered by long leads. Most of them had grain-pans with remnants of grain, and the slurping sounds of drinking horses seemed endemic.

“And if I check Jaak's hooves now, I will get kicked,” I muttered, as I wove my way through the press while avoiding the members of the 'Miura' clan. Horses, even Kung-Fu horses, seemed preferable to those animals.

Once outside of the main press of animals and vehicles, I felt the buggy hubs, then noted the others as they dismounted. Again, I heard moaning and groans, but there were no oaths, and when I turned around, I found Jaak. I had room, so I went over his hooves.

I also found a small rock, which I removed promptly, and with that signal, I began going over the hooves of the other horses.

“Good that you're doing so,” said Gilbertus. “They're going in to fetch us a place, those of them that are going inside now.”

“And?” I asked.

“Two are heading toward the Mercantile in this place,” he said. “This town has a big one.”

“Candles, I hope,” I asked. I'd found another small rock, and was learning of complacency in action with 'penance' upon my knees.

“There was talk of getting those good ones,” he said. “The second kingdom has those, but you have to know the right people and give them an inducement just to talk to you.”

“The right people?” I asked, as I went to another horse.

“Most of 'em either wear black or dress like misers,” said Gilbertus. “It only gets better when you get near the border of the third kingdom, if you stick to this road. The third kingdom has its own trouble that way, though, so getting enough to last until the fourth kingdom is a good idea.”

“Them and food,” said Lukas. “I'd just as soon avoid long stays in the privy with that bad food those places sell.”

“Bad food?” I asked. “What kind?”

“High Meats, if you speak of the second kingdom,” said Gilbertus. “The third kingdom's food tends to be strange for taste and lacking in variety.”

“Bread, meat, and not much else, and beer of any kind is a rarity,” said Lukas. “At least the meat tends to be fresh.”

“It goes High in a hurry there,” said Gilbertus, “and the smell of High Meats means a burn-pile in that place.”

“What?” I asked.

“The third kingdom is oft-times called the kingdom of fire,” said Lukas, “as burn-piles are more common there than anywhere else. Your name... I'd watch it there.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Those old tales, especially some of them, mean a lot to those people,” said Lukas. “There, that does that one. I think we can go in, unless you've still got hooves to check.”

I finished the last hoof a minute later, and as the horse was led away, I noted the thin 'thong' used as a rein. It seemed utterly insubstantial, so much so that I asked, “what kind of harness was that?”

“What you use for a horse that won't tolerate the usual,” said Lukas. “That type wants a thin silver wire twisted fine, and one of those thin saddles, and better shoeing than the usual.”

“Bronze shoes?” I asked, as we came close to the doors.

“That type of a horse might benefit from those,” he said, “though they'd wear fast enough to need a lot of attention.”

“What's there is wearing fast enough to want a farrier's work soon,” said Gilbertus, as the doors opened wide.

The cool-feeling dimness of the Public House seemed to 'jolt' me for a second, but as my eyes adjusted, I saw details in a clustering swarm. This place was the largest Public House I'd ever been in, and the straggly rows of tables seemed to stretch for hundreds of yards in each direction. We were in an aisle of sorts, and this pathway through the throng bustled with waiters of both genders.

Those ringing round these plain-looking varnished tables tended to wear cloaks, much as I did, and their chief attention, when not their sole interest, was upon their meals. Thankfully, 'entire pies' seemed scarce, though pies themselves seemed common enough.

The lighting was the malodorous type, with thumb-thick tallow candles flaring steadily as they gave their all for lighting, and when I saw our table – three of the common square things stood end to end with one end abutting a wall, and a low bench to the side I saw – I began moving closer to it through the press of waiters and patrons. All the while, I was trying to 'watch', but maneuvering through the crowd took all that I had.

“This one is about crowded enough to make me think it's in the second kingdom,” said Lukas, “even if it don't smell much.”

“I'll take a crowd over a stink any day,” said Gilbertus. “Now I just hope we can eat in peace.”

We made our seats but seconds later, and I sat next to the 'open' end of the table. I removed my hat for a moment so as to see what was happening to it.

“I'll need something here...” I muttered. The crisped places from that last fetish had worn through entirely.

“I'd patch that thing before we hit the second kingdom,” said Gilbertus. “You have needle and thread?”

“He has those, and not merely for leather,” said Sepp as he came in with Gabriel. “We almost cleaned those people out.”

“Candles?” I asked, as I replaced my hat. I wondered as to the propriety of wearing one indoors, but I coped poorly with 'baldness'. My hair was still a bit scanty on top.

“Two sizable bags,” said Gabriel. “Did someone ask for beer?”

“It's coming,” said Kees. I looked to see a ledger being written in.

He might manage,” said Gabriel. “This crowd would make for a headache if I were attempting to write.”

“What would he be doing, though?” I asked.

“Most likely trying to improve your work,” said Gabriel. “It seems he'd brought one of those volumes with him, and has been adding information as he's found it.”

“Volumes?” I asked. “I brought those three incomprehensible books and that bestiary.”

“Good that you did, then,” said Gabriel. “I might be able to make sense of what is in there should you have trouble.”

“I might, and I might not,” I said. “Just going over those reports is giving me some insight as to what that stuff means.”

The 'roar' of the crowd was enough to wish vegetable fiber for the ears, and I put my fingers into mine. It helped with watching, at least from the front, and when I saw a waiter coming closer, I knew what my request would be. I wanted unfermented cider – real unfermented cider – and when someone tapped my left shoulder, I nearly leaped out of my seat. I turned to see another waiter.

“Yes?” I asked.

“You're the first person with dark hair I've seen since I started here,” he said. “Who are you?”

His question was of such intense vagueness that I felt undone as to what to tell him. Did he want my 'position'? What I did when not at the house? What I did with Hans and Anna? My name..? My history? Or was his request one of those that had an answer I was unable to supply?

From the other end of the table, Karl blurted out my name, followed by “don't you know who he is?”

The waiter's eyes flashed wide in shocked recognition and then rolled back in their sockets as his legs went slack. I stood and grabbed his collar such that he fell to the floor without injury. Quick steps came from my right as a burly man shouldered his way through the throng, and I turned to see someone in a gravy-spotted apron coming quickly. I knew our visitor to be the publican himself, and concerned was an understatement regarding his state of mind.

The publican came to where I was now kneeling and raised his hand as if to slap me until he turned to see who else was at the table – and then, his arm dropped quickly enough to make for a snapping clatter on the floor. I then saw the cleaver.

The thick blade showed a deep hollow-grind, and the wavy 'grain' of the metal, as well as its clean and bright appearance, reminded me of talk regarding butchers and their tools. I was about to pick the thing up and hand it to the publican when he bent at the knees and picked it up.

“You were not going to slice on him with that, were you?” asked Gabriel.

“I was, sure enough,” said the publican. “Now who is he?”

The king motioned to the publican, who waded into the crowd. I could tell he was still 'concerned', and more, suspected me of foul play. I could hear words going back and forth between the two of them, with an interjection supplied by one of the other parties at the table, and as I felt the unconscious waiter over for injuries, I could hear and feel the publican returning.

“I had no idea as to who it was,” he said apologetically. “Did he faint?”

“He did,” said Karl. “He asked him who he was, and he did not speak.”

“And you did,” said Sepp.

“I've had some, uh, training in medical matters,” I said calmly. “Perhaps I can help him.”

My hands then located a bump on the back of his head, which responded to touch and silent prayer, and after lifting him to a sitting position, I asked him to wake up.

The waiter's eyes opened abruptly and he nearly fainted again.

“No, I will not hurt you,” I said, as he broke out in a cold sweat. I helped him to his feet, where he shook like a tree in a hailstorm. I needed to say something, and I knew not what to speak – at least, speak to him directly.

“Someone, please, tell him I'm harmless,” I asked.

“He is that,” said Sepp. “You're not a witch, or a pig, or a miser, or one of those that run with the swine.”

“What happens then?” asked the waiter dumbly.

“That depends,” said Gabriel. “Mostly they sup with Brimstone in a great hurry, although how they get there varies.”

Karl snorted, then said, “hurry? Before I could count to four!”

“What happened?” asked the publican. He seemed primed for 'tales of derring-do'. I wanted to hide.

“A witch tried for him,” said Sepp, “and he sliced that witch up.”

“What?” asked the publican. “What was this witch doing?”

“Spewing bad curses, and that loudly,” said Sepp. “He came for the two of us with drawn sword.”

“Did you cut him?” asked the publican.

“N-no,” said Sepp. “He asked that witch to leave us alone, the witch tried for him and the witch was cut up.”

“N-no,” I moaned. “Please. That wretch was awful.”

The publican looked at me, then said, “so the stories be true, then, and you've paid the price. Witches ain't common in these parts, and those northern ones are thought good stories by people who haven't seen them. I have, and the same for those pigs.” Here, he lifted his other arm, and the sign of a well-healed burn scar went from his wrist up into his apron sleeve. “I got that tossing a fire-jug at those pigs, and once I'd healed up some, I had to leave town.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Some of those black-dressed people came in a coach, and they called me a witch,” he said, “and it was a near thing that day. They didn't stop there, though.”

“What did they do?” asked Karl.

“Two nights later, they fired the house,” he said, “and as we left, they shot at us. They killed my daughter then, and I've been down on 'em since.”

“Where was this?” I asked.

“About forty miles west and north as the quoll flies,” he said. “Those pigs don't go down that way often except if they're after potatoes.”

“Which means they show yearly, if not more often,” said Gabriel.

“Aye, and with no warning as to the day,” he said. “They otherwise are predictable.”

“How?” I asked.

“If you know when the potato harvest starts,” he said, “then you want to make up your jugs and traps. The pigs come between one and three weeks after the harvest begins, and they usually come late at night or early in the morning.”

“About an hour before dawn?” I asked.

“That's a common time, though I've seen them come after daylight, too,” he said. “They're usually in small groups when they come, and they come at a gallop.” He paused, then said, “you'd never believe anything that big could move that fast and that quiet, but they do.”

“Do they wear plate?” asked Kees.

“Those I've seen did,” he said. “It tends to be the better plate for that place.”

“How is it any good, though?” asked Kees. “All that Norden makes is worthless rubbish.”

“That is a way those pigs and people are tricky,” said the publican. “I've shot that plate with a musket, and the balls do nothing to it.”

“Well, of course,” said Kees. “Swine-plate is thick stuff.”

“This was what those people wear,” he said. “I used a large musket, and a full measure of powder, and at ten paces, the ball mashed flat when it hit that stuff.”

“Did it dent it?” I asked.

“It made a small one,” he said. “I've seen that plate dent more, but not much more.”

Karl looked at me, then grinned.

“You might want to try what he has on those people, then,” he said. “I've heard it drills holes clean through them at a hundred paces or more.”

“Now how is that?” asked the publican. “I put aside the large musket after that, and fetched a roer, and that just drove one of those wretches off when I shot him.”

“No blood?” I asked.

“No, that ball didn't penetrate his tin either,” said the publican. “Someone shot that wretch with a war-arrow later, so that's how I know.”

The publican then looked at my rifle, then at me, then at the muzzle of the weapon again. He began muttering about lunatics with too-small holes in their guns, then he turned to me.

“Now how does a ball that small do anything to what those people wear?”

“It does not fire balls,” said Gabriel calmly. “It fires elongated projectiles poured of printer's lead.”

I dug one out of the possible bag, then handed it to him. I looked to the side as he examined it, and saw what might have been jugs and mugs coming.

“Now this is a pretty thing,” he said. “I've seen corncobs, and I've shot corncobs out of guns, but I've never seen a lead one before.” He paused, then said, “how much powder do you put in that thing?”

“About two thirds of a measure for the usual amount,” I said.

“And that much will make you sore,” said Karl.

“Why, have you fired it?” asked the publican.

Karl nodded, then said, “I didn't want to shoot it twice. I'm not sure if it is a roer for kick, but it is like one for its weight, and it needs that weight. Johan said it tried to get away from me.”

“I had to catch it when he tried,” I said. “It isn't something you want to shoot much, even with the usual load.” I paused, then said, “when I shot that pig, it was like being inside a cannon when it fired.”

“Was this when you got that bad bruise?” asked Karl. “Anna had to rub me with Geneva so I wasn't so sore.”

I nodded, and had a very interested publican looking at me for a moment before he left, and but seconds later, the jugs and mugs arrived at our table.

For a moment, I wondered as to what was in the jugs, until first one cork was twisted to emerge with a percussive plop, then another – and then, the smell drifted over to where I was sitting. I doubled up and nearly spewed.

“Gah!” I spluttered. “F-fermented... Why did it come here?”

“We're far enough south that wine is commonly presented at the table,” said Gabriel. “They will come and ask us regarding other things shortly.”

“As the stomach churns, courtesy of fermented kerosene,” I thought. “I'd best be locating the privy in case I must spew.”

I glanced around, and the number of similar mugs I saw at the other tables was a marvel. Each of them – those at our table included, I realized with a brief shudder – faintly steamed in an ethereal fashion, and as I looked at the tablecloths, I saw stains of varying yellow and purplish color. Moreover, tall tinned-copper 'flagons' were very common.

I was dead to all save my misery of the moment when again someone tapped my left shoulder. I turned to see a tall and somewhat thin woman dressed as a waiter. She was asking what I wished to drink.

“Uh, unfermented wine, or unfermented cider, please,” I gasped, “or even boiled water.”

She made a note on a small slate, and moved on to the other side of our table.

I then saw something that I marveled at, for here, Gabriel was 'decanting' his wine. He was pouring from the flagon into his mug and then back into the flagon, while pouring something else of a clear and chilly nature into one or the other intermittently. I felt reminded of mixed drinks prepared by Hans in the midst of a chemical nightmare, and I thought to ask what he was doing once he'd finished compounding his 'elixir'. I wanted to spew just the same.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Watering this wine,” said Gabriel. “It helps the flavor.”

Disgruntled grunts seemed to come from the whole of the table at once, and when I looked further, I was but the only person not consuming the stuff – though half of the party was contenting themselves with small and infrequent sips.

“This is not beer, Kees,” spat Lukas.

“So,” said Kees. “We've had plenty of beer, and now we have wine.”

“You can have that stuff,” said Lukas. “Beer is what a man wants, not that ruined grape-water.”

“Do any of you feel ill?” I asked faintly, as I checked my gorge.

No one heard me, for some reason, and when I looked at my neighbor's 'flagon', I found the yellow-tinged purplish stuff to look like ink fit for marking up a nightmare. Mirrored in the sullen pool I saw Edgar and his favorite bird, and its one word cry of negation rang endlessly in my mind. I felt reminded of dank tarns, and haunted manses with cracked walls, and arctic maelstroms; and when a mug and jug usurped my frontal exposure, I expected to be walled up behind bricks and mortar by Montressor and his infamous dry sherry.

However, it was not to be, for the smell was that of unrefined and unrepentant grapes, and when I tasted the stuff, the sweetness was a balm to both stomach and soul.

“Thank you,” I said, as I slowly sipped the delightful grape juice. “This really helps.”

“I see,” said Gabriel. He was directly across from me, and how he had moved was a mystery. “This is quite good.”

“Uh, those on the council?” I asked.

“They changed their diet also,” he said. “Freek still managed a sip of bubbly-wine, but one sip only, and now prefers beer.”

The quiet of the formerly disgruntled members of the party was remarkable. I smelled beer in the area, and heard its avid consumption. Someone was very dehydrated.

“Bubbly-wine?” I asked.

“It tends to cause me to sneeze,” said Gabriel. “The grapes start in solid about thirty miles south of here, if I recall correctly, and from this point south until the border of the fifth kingdom, we can expect good wine.” Gabriel paused, then said, “and given our responsibilities, we will desire it, at least to a degree.”

“Uh, the smell,” I muttered, between sips of grape juice.

“Both fermented and unfermented wine,” said Gabriel. “You might consume more of the latter during the evening, as I can tell book-dust affects you to a degree.”

“What?” I asked.

“It not only induces sleep in most, but with some, it tends to climb up their nose,” said Gabriel, “and sneezing is not a good idea when doing manuscripts.”

What?” I asked again.

“Wine is good when one needs to clean book-dust out of one's nose,” said Gabriel, “especially if it is unfermented wine. That type is clearly superior if that dust is trying to cause sneezing.”

I wondered at Gabriel's comment more than a little until my nose wrinkled, and I reached for a rag. Thankfully, I caught the sneeze in time.

“See, it's cleaning that dust out of your nose,” said Gabriel. “I'm surprised you were not sneezing more last night.”

I sipped more juice, then caught another whiff of the 'bad-grape-cum-kerosene odor'. I spluttered, then mumbled, “that stuff is no joke.”

And, for some reason, a joke occurred to me.

“What if one of these stinking flagons doesn't run dry,” I mumbled, “and what's in it is the best these people have ever had?”

“That will help our cause,” said Gabriel, “and it will make many scratch their heads. Now how do you propose to do so?”

“Uh, could someone hand me a filled flagon of that, uh...”

“I thought you did not like wine,” said Sepp.

“He does not,” said Gabriel. “He spoke of doing something with it, and I wonder if it can be done.”