The road more traveled, part e.

A 'flagon' was passed to me, and I grasped it carefully with one hand while praying silently that it 'become more desirable'. Those were close to my exact words, and when I opened my eyes, the thing was not merely chilled to the point of being icy, it had ceased with its steaming. More, the odor...

The smell was no longer that of grapes, or distillate, but something utterly unlike any mere 'wine' smell I had ever endured. Most importantly, it was neither nauseating nor poisonous. I did have the negation of those words for it, even if otherwise I could not speak of what I was smelling.

“I don't know what that smell is,” I mumbled, as I looked for a spoon.

“I see,” said Gabriel. “Do you plan on tasting it?”

“I do,” I said. “It seems to be blocking out the stink of that other stuff passably, at least in this area.”

I found a spoon, and dipped it in the liquid. The color was neither purple, nor yellow-tinted, but a peculiar pinkish shade. The term 'rosé' came to me, for some reason, and I put the spoon in my mouth.

The taste was of such mind-boggling intensity I nearly did a backflip in place as I spat the spoon onto the table, and I found I now had words for it.

“I do not like wine,” I spat, as I wiped my mouth. The stuff tasted like an exotic chemical mixture. “That stuff may smell and taste unlike anything I've ever smelled or tasted in my life, but, I...”

Gabriel looked at me with seemingly crossed eyes as he dipped his spoon, then put it into his mouth. I was waiting for his eruption, only...

It did not come. Instead, he poured some out into his smaller cup, and closed his eyes in serene-seeming bliss. He then sipped it, and finally, spoke.

“I think your tastes run to something other than fermented wine,” he said. “This stuff is unlike anything I have ever had, and I have had a great deal of wine.”

“Well?” asked Kees from down the table. “What is that stuff?'

“Wine,” said Gabriel in a voice evocative of a love-sick swain. “It has a m-marvelous flavor, and the odor alone is intoxicating.”

“May I have some?” asked Kees.

For some reason, even as Gabriel filled Kees' mug, I sensed that to be the sentiment of a growing circle of people around our table.

“If they had this stuff regularly,” murmured Gabriel, “this Public House would never close, and patrons would never leave once they had tasted it.”

“S-sell their birthright?” I gasped.

“I would not be surprised,” said Gabriel.

“I am, and very much so,” said a vaguely familiar female voice from behind me. “That may be a common container, but that is no common wine.” She then came around, and touched the flagon.

“Nor is this chill common either,” she muttered, as she dipped a spoon in the container. “What gives?”

“I imagine there are wines that are best served chilled,” I said quietly. “If one is hot and overheated, I imagine it would help.”

“Then why aren't you drinking it?” she demanded stridently.

“He can stomach unfermented wine,” said Gabriel, “but he cannot endure that which has been fermented.” Gabriel paused, then said, “his tastes seem strange, as he found it to taste like...”

Here, Gabriel paused again, concentrated intently, then said, “like a chemical called o-toluidene, another called benzene, a third called tetrahydrofuran, and a fourth named hydrazine.” Gabriel shook himself, took another sip, and murmured appreciatively of what he was drinking, then supplied a suitable end.

“I have no idea what those chemicals are, or their use, but that mixture was what he tasted.”

“R-rocket fuel,” I spluttered. “That stuff is rocket fuel.”

The woman looked at me strangely, and for some reason, I had a most peculiar impression: she was not seeing me as I actually appeared.

What she was seeing was closer to a cigar-store Indian in full regalia holding sticks of dynamite instead of cigars.

She looked at the flagon, checked its contents – topping full – and then watched as Gabriel poured that contents into several mugs. She then checked again, muttered as if unsure of her sanity, and left forthwith.

“Who was that character with the feathers on his head and mining dynamite in his hand?” asked Gabriel, as I sipped my juice. “But for the feathers, I might think him a chemist.”

“What is this of a chemist?” said Karl.

“There was a strange person,” said Gabriel. “I've seen some pictures vaguely like this before. One was a picture on the side of a dynamite box I once saw...”

“What kind of dynamite?” asked Karl. “My uncle said it varied a lot.”

“I do not recall its name, only that picture,” said Gabriel. “It showed a club-wielding giant of fierce expression.”

“Was this other person like that?” asked Karl.

“No, not really,” said Gabriel. “I'm not sure he was from here, or even real.”

Karl thought for a moment, then said, “my uncle spoke of a chemist that once came to his shop and had the place filled with fool-hens.”

Gabriel's eyes crunched up such that I thought him to have acquired a migraine. He continued listening nonetheless. Karl grinned with the recollection of this tale, and it showed blatantly.

“By the time he'd cleared them out, the place was covered with feathers and mess, he'd gone deaf as a stone from the gunfire, he was covered with soot, and he was raving and out of his mind. He had a hat, and he pasted feathers on it.” Karl paused, then said, “does that sound likely?”

Gabriel shook his head to indicate 'no', then said, “I think this might have been a statue of some kind, and I thought he looked like a chemist. He was holding mining dynamite...” Gabriel paused, then gently slapped his head before speaking again.

“Now I understand,” he murmured. “He was a powder-mill foreman. Those people look strange enough if a powder-mill goes up on them, and if they survive, they tend to be ready for a long stay in a rest-house.”

“That chemist stayed in one for months,” said Karl. “I could not understand why, though.”

“You've not done much with fool-hens, have you?” asked Lukas. “If we run afoul of one, then you can handle it.”

“Why, are they hard to pluck?” asked Karl.

“It isn't the feathers that's the trouble with those things,” said Lukas. “It's mostly the beak.”

“So they make noise?” asked Karl.

“They do,” said Lukas, “but that isn't the chief trouble with 'em. Those things are mean enough that I could see a roomful putting a person in a rest-house for a year, gunfire or no gunfire.”

“It wasn't just the gunfire,” said Karl. “He would rave about the birds.”

Karl looked at me, then said, “now how can a bird make a person rave?”

“I'm not sure,” I said. “I've had little experience with birds here, and none whatsoever with those.” I paused, then asked, “food?”

“We should have someone here to ask us about it shortly,” said Gabriel. “Crowded Public Houses are not known for swift service.”

Thankfully, Gabriel proved right as to 'shortly', and when the person came to me, I stammered out something about 'roast' and 'vegetables', along with 'unfermented cider'. The waiter went to the others but seconds later, and again, I heard more-complex food requests.

“How many times have you been in Public Houses by yourself before this trip?” asked Gabriel.

“Once for the one at home,” I said, “and that was to ask a few questions.”

“And the refectory?” asked Gabriel.

“I've never ordered a regular meal,” I said. “I might get cider or unfermented wine regularly, but I've never gotten a full meal on my own.”

“I see,” said Gabriel, as he poured more wine from that one flagon. “I wish I could jug this stuff, as it clears my head completely.”

“It does?” I spluttered.

Gabriel nodded solemnly. I turned to my right to see Kees guzzling something, then resume writing as if 'inspired'.

“Is that why his writing is so bad?” I muttered. “He writes while he's drunk, and has me edit what he writes while I'm sober?” I paused, then said, “g-gallons of wine?”

“That will make for bad thoughts and worse behavior,” said Lukas, “and Kees had best cork himself shortly. I have a pole with me, and some lead, and I saw a lead-pot in with your things.”

“Loaded with lead?” I asked.

“Aye, those work well,” said Gilbertus. “I might have some lead, but I've not cut a pole recently.”

“You might want one for times to the south, then,” said Lukas. “That next house smells like a crock of bad trouble, and I want to load my pole afore we get there.”

The talk gravitated away from poles to other matters, and I retrieved my small slate and began drawing. There was something that was 'drumming away' in the back of my mind, and as I used the front side to draw, Gabriel looked on with consuming interest. After a moment – I had sketched a full-circle crankshaft with drilled holes for balancing – he spoke.

“It wasn't merely hiding those council people were to do,” said Gabriel, “but also find likely people who are ready to change.”

“Change?” I thought. The term 'them changes' again recurred to me.

“When we return, there will no longer be a dozen persons who have bathed in that cloud,” said Gabriel. “There will be upwards of a hundred, and it will grow rapidly from there.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “More witches giving up on the matter?”

“Not them,” said Gabriel. “That cloud is spoken of in tales and on tapestries, and is referred to as the fire of cleansing. It's quite well known, in fact, and those who have run out of options are commonly the first visited by it.”

“Uh, is that written down somewhere?” I asked.

“In both Grim and on the tapestries,” said Gabriel.

“Are those trustworthy?” I asked.

“The tales are thought to be, though I have some doubts about much of what is written,” said Gabriel. “The tapestries are another matter, as everyone thinks them to be the best records of the past we have.”

“And if a matter is spoken of in both records?” I asked.

“We have seen that cloud,” said Gabriel mysteriously, “and we have seen what it does. That is no longer a matter of either faith or guesswork.” He paused, drank deeply, and I wondered if he was becoming trashed until he spoke again. “It is now a matter of acting upon the demonstrated proof, and that without cease nor stint.”

Gabriel then looked at what I was drawing, and tried to puzzle it out for a moment. Sepp, however, did not do so. Instead, he spoke directly.

“You might put that on paper. It's hard to draw something important on one of those small slates.”

“I have this handy,” I said. “I could easily copy it into... a... ledger.”

I then looked at Gabriel, and said, “now what do instrument-makers commonly look like?”

“That depends on where they live and who they deal with mostly,” said Gabriel. “In the fourth kingdom's market area, there are two types. Some look a bit like less-prosperous misers, but such people seldom have tools in their hands. Those that do tend to look closer to jewelers.”

“Could I pass for one of them?” I asked.

“You might,” said Gabriel, as if deep in thought.

“My attitude?” I asked.

“Again, you might convince many that way,” he said.

“Of course he would,” said Karl. “That's what he does.”

“I doubt he was speaking of just anyone,” said Gabriel. “Most people would need but a brief glance at his tools to draw that conclusion.” Gabriel paused, then emphasized the word 'most'.

“Then who would doubt?” asked Karl.

“Them what is the most trouble,” said Lukas. “They expect to see someone like themselves, with an attitude to match.”

“Who are these people?” asked Karl.

“Witches,” I muttered. “Black-dressed thugs, misers, and well-hidden supplicants.” I paused, “and in the second kingdom house, those supplicants are not merely very dangerous, but also very common.”

“Who are they?” said someone at the other end of the table.

“I saw a lot of them in the Swartsburg,” I said. “That one, uh, bad place had a lot of them, and the only way to tell them apart from the others was their dress.”

Our food arrived shortly thereafter, and again, I was surprised at a scanty plate. There were other plates, or rather, platters, however, and those had the roast and vegetables. I found myself to have a pressing appetite, especially for roast – though I did not spare the vegetables, and the chunk of rye bread next to my plate steadily diminished in size.

As we ate, I wondered as to the lack of singing in the place, along with the current aspect of 'melancholia', and when I glanced at the tables around us, I saw numbers of cloak-clad people looking in our direction. I could hear uneasy and stumbling steps from behind me, and when I turned, I was surprised to find someone bent in back and with many years come wobbling palsied up the nearest aisle.

A further glance at this man named him to be a sometimes silversmith, and like most in that trade, he had enough and no more. This was not a satisfactory condition for his wife, for even with no children...

“Hein-RICH!” screamed a shrill female voice in my ears. “Heinrich son of Jochen, where is my money! I must have more money, curse you to hell and gone! Damn your eyes, I want to spend a month in that market town and buy all that I see, and none of this trouble from you beyond bags of money in my hot little hands! Hein-RICH!”

“What?” I thought. “That woman...”

'Heinrich' was at Gabriel's shoulder, and though he'd bought enough of 'the cheap stuff' earlier to drown out her endless caterwauling and the echoes of the many neighbors she had manipulated, he'd smelled ours and wanted some. Gabriel filled his mug, then noted the flagon as being still quite full. The man upended his mug, and began drinking...

And within seconds, he brought it down and shouted. He was no longer trashed, nor oblivious, and it showed in his speech:

“Publican!” he roared. “Oh, publican! Where did you get this wine? I have never had such a vintage of wine.”

“You like that stuff?” I gasped silently.

Running steps came on the double amid the press of the crowd, then by 'magic' first the publican showed followed by that one waiter, and then the crowd turned itself inside out and began to press close with outstretched spoons and wagging fingers. They wanted to find out about the 'wine', unreal odor and and all.

“And this crowd is making me want a large cupful of beer,” I thought, as the first of a multitude of spoons went in the 'flagon'. But seconds later, I heard the publican speak.

“Now this stuff is fit for a king,” he said – and then for some odd reason, he looked at me.

I shook my head, then muttered, “he's down at the other end of the table.”

As the spoons continued to dip into the flagon, the king stood and began to speak, and I ducked out of the press to use the privy. As I wormed my way though the throng, I contemplated what Hendrik was doing, as well as my recollection of dealing with various stripes of witches and their ordnance, and decided within seconds that facing a close-up roer loaded with shot was preferable to 'standing and delivering' before a seething crowd.

“No salary is too high for what he's doing,” I thought. “None.”

I returned from my visit to find that one woman examining a clear glass of the 'wine' in front of an obvious student's lantern that had somehow showed on a nearby table, and I surmised she not only served the stuff, but also made and processed it. I had smelled a semi-familiar reek in the privy, and it wasn't the common privy-stench.

“That place smelled like the wine cellar in the house proper,” I thought, as I took my seat. I was then jarred from my complacency by Gabriel's speaking.

“Take this decanter,” he said, as he held the still-icy thing aloft, “as proof of what was told you as being the truth. That person which caused it...”

Here, I nearly ducked under the table.

“Was one of those who saw that coming invasion, and more, has seen those people multiple times.”

“Yeah, right, Gabriel,” I muttered, as I tried to guard my plate and try to hid under it at the same time.

“Who would that be?” roared the publican. He sounded as if he'd gotten into the wine as much as Kees, if not more.

His shout was echoed by many seemingly drunken patrons, and over all of these shouts, I heard that of the first waiter we had seen.

“I have heard him described,” he said. “He has dark hair...”

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “He's seen my hair.”

“And that kind of build...”

I wanted to hide. I wondered briefly if I could get under the tables.

And, in a different tone of voice, “this other portion cannot be, though.”

“What is it?” asked Gabriel. He sounded completely sober now.

“Would not such a person be masterful and strong in his entirety?” he asked.

The sense of overwhelming evil was too strong to endure, and the scream built from within and without my tormented mind. I wept and pleaded, and with tears spoke of not wanting anything to do with witches and their evil, and when a hand grasped one of mine, I sobbed more – until I looked up to see the face of the publican himself. He was looking elsewhere, and not at me.

“Those are no rumors, Louw,” he said. “It's true, and I'm glad.”

From somewhere, however, I heard the question, “but will not such weakness fail against the witches?”

And from elsewhere entirely, another voice, one that I did not recognize, said, “were he as you think proper, he would become an overmastering arch-witch, one truly to be reckoned with, and we all would become his slaves to serve him as per his inclination of the moment.”

“But that is like Brimstone in hell,” said a third voice.

And over all of this, I heard the king speak. “Yes, that is him, and I would not speak of that loudly, for our safety and that of this trip is much in his hands. He's already protected us once since we left but two days ago.”

The king resumed his description of what would occur, while the hand that had clenched mine released its grip. I wondered as to what had happened, even as I looked upon the remnants of my plate to see a puddle of tears. I sobbed quietly, and drew a rag from my bag to blow my mucus-clogged nose, and once the press had cleared somewhat, I left my seat and wormed my way clear.

I wished to head back toward the privy, as I needed to rinse out my 'handkerchief', and once inside the place and washing, I heard faintly the sounds of a rolling wagon coming south on the High Way. It was lightly laden, and its dry bearings rattled behind its underfed team.

I returned to an uncommonly noisy Public House, one that roared and rumbled as if a rocket engine was being tested in the kitchen, and when I came to our table, I wormed my way back to where Kees was 'drowning his sorrows'. I removed the cap from my rifle, and said, “could you hold this, please?”

He seemed to hear me, and I leaned it against the wall next to him. I moved back toward where Karl was sitting, then whispered in his ear.

“Please, fetch Sepp,” I said. “We have visitors out by the buggies.”

Karl tried to reply, but one look at my concerned face and he knew something amiss was about to happen. I began moving toward the front of the place, now and then dodging truly pie-eyed diners. Still, one pie per table seemed the rule, thankfully, though the pies were a trifle larger than the usual nine inch things at home.

I quietly opened the door, and noted perhaps an hour of sunlight remaining, if that, with long shadows crossing the road to put the Public House in deep shade. I could clearly hear the wagon, and when I went outside, I moved just to the side to wait for the others. They were not long in coming.

“What gives?” asked Sepp, when he showed less than a minute later.

“I suspect we have amateur, uh, thieves,” I said. “These people thought a bit more than the first group, which is why they have five individuals rather than just two.”

Karl then emerged from behind the doors.

“I spoke to Gabriel, and he was speaking to Hendrik,” he said. “Now what do we do?”

“You have, uh, those little surprises I gave you this morning?” I asked. Both nodded, and Sepp drew the butt of his out of his pocket.

“You may wish to have those handy should these people object to my proposal,” I said. “Given the future being as it is, we need people able to fight, which means a burn-pile is a bad answer regarding attempted theft.”

“Then what is a good one?” asked Karl, as I led off to where our buggies were parked.

“Uh, godliness with contentment is great gain,” I said. “I think that's how it goes in the book.”

“So what does that mean?” asked Karl.

“The usual?” I asked, as I turned to face him. “What is the usual for suspected thieves?”

Karl looked at me, then at Sepp as he passed him, and finally continued after the two of us.

I took my position in the shadow of the nearest buggy, and indicated Karl and Sepp needed to do likewise with the other. Once they had done so – I could hear the wagon coming audibly now, though it was still some distance away – I knelt down and indicated they do likewise.

“They're going to come on that wagon and stop in the road,” I said, “while two or three individuals are going to jump off and come over to where we are. This is a quick one, such that they will not spend much time.”

I paused, then said, “that is their plan, anyway. You two collect up the individuals that come for the buggies, and I'll go after that wagon.”

As if anticipating my plan, I heard the loose-bearing rattle-clang-rumble of a farm-wagon coming slow behind the snapping clop of horses needing new shoes. The noise from the wagon provided cover, and I moved slowly among the crowded horses as the thing came to a halt. But twenty feet away, I paused to hear low voices, then first one thump, a second, and finally, a third. I resumed moving, then when I saw the wagon as I crawled between two horses, I paused. I could hear and feel the three heading toward our buggies, and I poised to spring.

I could feel Karl and Sepp tensing, then as one of the men placed his hand on my washtub, I heard the faint click of a revolver going to full cock. It was time.

I squirmed frantically between the two horses, which parted for me, and I stood up, took a large stride, then a second, and then jumped for the front of the wagon as I heard a yell behind me. I seemed to go up higher than I imagined possible while turning around in the air, and when I saw where I would land, I drew my sword. Time was slowed to the point of inducing nausea, and I landed next to the driver with my sword in my hand.

Dust billowed from around my feet as my legs collapsed partly, and the man and his passenger turned toward me in stiff-seeming jerks. My sword-point was ready and waiting but inches from the driver's throat.

“Stop the wagon,” I said sharply. My voice seemed to echo, for some reason, and when I heard two snapping crashes, I involuntarily turned to the right.

Karl and Sepp had all three men in a line with their hands raised high and marching closer, the Public House's doors were open and a crowd was billowing out, and I had the two on the wagon petrified with fear. The driver softly moaned, and when I saw where the sword's point was, I understood why.

A trickle of blood was dying his shirt a bright red.

“Now listen, you people, and listen good,” I said testily. “Farming might have a measure of chance to it, but theft is much worse that way – that, and it tends to be hazardous to your health.” A brief pause, and I licked my lips. “You all will head north in the morning and present yourselves to the nearest magistrate to there confess your intentions, and then abide by his or her ruling.”

I paused again, then said, “do you understand what I say?”

I withdrew the tip of my sword, then carefully placed it near the driver's face. I had more to say.

“I can tell if you do what I say,” I said. “Should you do otherwise, I will find you, and then...”

“Then what, fool?” snarled that accursed witch-voice of memory.

“Should you not do as you are told, gentlemen,” I said in an icy voice, “you will regret it, and that greatly.”

“I have seen him do things like that,” said Karl. “I would do what he tells you to.”

I stood, then leaped into the air while somehow turning. I hit the ground with a thud again, and from my bent-knee position of landing, I straightened up and motioned to the three with my sword. They took their places among the boxes and bags of their wagon, and as the wagon backed and filled for turning, I returned to where Karl and Sepp were. I found a rag, and began cleaning off the driver's blood.

“This is getting old,” I muttered. “I hope this rubbish ceases quickly.” A brief pause, then “did they object?”

“Not when I put my pistol next to his head,” said Karl. “The others saw that, Sepp did likewise, and he told them to raise their hands.”

I turned to go back inside, then as the others fell in line to the south, I said, “I'll need to draw a picture of a better way to do that. You want their fingers together and their hands on top of their heads.”

“Why?” asked Karl, as we wove our way through the horses.

“I think I know, Karl,” said Sepp. “If you have something hidden in your clothing, it takes a bit longer to get to it.”

“And they cannot conceal something in their hands as easily,” I said, as we broke through the horses and came onto the stoop.

The aspect of the interior crowd had changed in some difficult to fathom fashion, and when I reached for my rifle, I noted Kees was sitting asleep next to it. I wondered if he needed to be 'sobered up' prior to traveling anywhere, and as I took my seat, I thought to ask.

“He'll learn,” said Lukas. “Now how is it you got on that wagon-seat so quickly?”

“I d-don't know,” I said. “Did you see?”

“I was the first at the door,” said Lukas, “and when I get there, I hold it open just a little, as most of these people haven't dealt much with thieves. I see this wagon stopped, and those three looking, and I hear a click like a pistol being cocked, and then you just jump up and land on that seat with your sword out ready to slice those people up.”

The sun had dropped a good deal further when we 'finally' got out of the place, and as I hung the two small lanterns, I had an intimation as to further travel. We did not wish to park too close to a town, I sensed, and once under way, Gabriel asked me where we would stop for the night.

“That was a long stop, Gabriel,” I muttered, “and Kees got trashed on that stinking wine.”

“He is awake now,” said Gabriel.

“Is he riding, or trussed like a log and tied in place on a buggy?” I asked.

“He is riding, though unsteadily,” said Gabriel. “Why, do you propose to do something?”

“Will I need to?” I asked. “Doesn't wine induce hangovers?”

Gabriel looked at me, then asked “what does wine have to do with hanging?”

Snickers came from behind, followed by laughter, then Lukas said, “why, witches like to get drunk, and they commonly get hung out to dry, so that should be obvious to you.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “This is when you get trashed during a night and wake up with a most-severe headache the morning after.”

“That is not common with wine,” said Gabriel. “It is common with Geneva and things stronger.”

“It seems to do that with Amontillado,” I said, “and I was having the horrors looking at that wine in there.” I then muttered, “perhaps Kees needs to have a lengthy visit by one of those birds.

“What manner of birds..?” asked Gabriel.

“Aaaagh!” came a scream from the rear that took seconds to recognize as that of Kees. “N-no! Stay away from me!”

I turned, then muttered, “now what is wrong with him?”

As if to answer me, I heard a faint and distorted electric-sounding cawing noise, then fainter-yet drumbeats.

Or, at least, they seemed at first to be drumbeats. I turned back toward the front as I heard another scream, then asked amid the growing gloom, “are there birds that peck holes in trees?”

“No, there are not,” said Gabriel, as the faint drumbeats resumed. “Why is it you ask?”

“Such birds exist where I come from,” I said, “and though...”

I recalled Karl speaking of the effects of the tincture: “a huge black bird showed, and it pecked my head.”

The distorted-sounding cawing noise came again, though this time it echoed in my mind, and it was mirrored by equally distorted hoofbeats upon the road to my left. These hoofbeats were coming closer, almost as if the rider was a prince named Metzengerstein...

I turned left to see a long shadow surrounded by pale 'flames', and I turned yet more to see Kees coming. He was the utter picture of misery, and moaning about wine and something else too garbled to discern – until he came up beside me, turned away, and spewed onto the road.

I faced ahead, and the tableau laid itself before my eyes just the same.

Yet the misery of Kees was not all I was seeing: I saw his 'ledger' laid before him on the back of the horse he rode, and upon it lay a crude and noxious drawing of a blood-flag. The raven was not now contained by that red rag, however, for the bird had flown, and was flying; and both of Land-Ravager's long black beaks were busy ripping flesh from Kees' slow-drying head as it took pride of place upon a death-pole.

And, there was more. Surrounding Kees as the object of adoration were massed ranks of tinned spams, each one with his mortar-encrusted trowel; and ahead of the whole vile marching crew was a squadron of witches massed four abreast and carrying a long and painted banner showing Ultima Thule sitting upon a throne of ice with a long and bloody razor tight-clenched in her hand.

I looked at this horrid banner and saw her named wrongly, for her name, now spelled in common letters, was Ulalume – and her country, spelled likewise, was named Weir instead of Norden.

“And the place is well and truly haunted by ghouls,” said a shudder-filled voice from another time and place. “Enjoy your horrors, wretch, and wash yourself in the chill arctic waters of west-Norden's primal maelstrom.”

“Am I that wretch?” I thought, as I again looked to my right and saw nothing present. “Or is it Kees?”

There was no answer.

I blinked my eyes, and now noted the rapidly increasing dimness. The road ahead lay through a long section of farms and orchards, with malodorous fields to each side. Now and then, I saw small huddled masses of strange and straggly 'things' that could not make up their minds as to whether they were to be bushes or trees. I recalled my first night here, with the strange gophers that dug crazily and sent skywards massive fountains of earth.

“I do not want to play with gophers,” I muttered. “An eight inch gopher is trouble, and one five times as large would be worse.”

“You might look in that Bestiary,” said Gabriel from my right. “Now what is a gopher?”

“A small gray-colored rodent known for its digging ability,” I said. “They tend to be nocturnal, at least where I came from, and I've seen animals like them here.”

“Did those animals dig rapidly, such that their digging sprayed dirt?” asked Gabriel.

“They did,” I said. “There were much larger animals that looked similar, only those did not dig.”

“Were those larger animals showing among crops,” said Gabriel, “I would think them to be marmots. The smaller animals sound like burrowing rodents.”

“Uh, cabbages, I think,” I said. “How big do cabbages get?”

“That would depend upon the cabbage and where it is grown,” said Gabriel. “Near home, cabbages tend to be upwards of a foot when ripe, and half again that much is not at all rare.”

“R-round things in rows?” I asked.

“Those sound like cabbages,” said Gabriel. “If you saw one of those larger animals among them, then I would be certain you had seen a marmot.”

“I would watch for those things,” said a voice from the rear. “They're likely to show at this hour in the fields around here.”

After what seemed close to an hour of fields and farms, they came to something like an end, and a deep, dark, and somewhat mysterious-looking woodlot showed ahead. I could feel at least one clearing in the place that was unoccupied among a number of such clearings, and the postal hostel in the middle lay across from a Mercantile and Public House.

“I hope this one isn't too bad,” I muttered.

“What is it?” asked Gabriel.

“There are at least three... No, more than three. At least five clearings up ahead, with two of them occupied. That isn't the problem.”

“Then what is?” asked Gabriel.

“There's a postal hostel in the rough middle of that woodlot,” I said, as I pointed ahead, “and then across from it, a Mercantile, Public House, and I think a shop or two.”

“That sounds like it would work well, then,” said Gabriel.

“That Public House might not be that large,” I murmured, “but it's crammed with freighters.”

“Still, it sounds like it would work well,” said Gabriel. “We can readily secure food while we pack in the morning.”

“Not from this Public House,” I said. “Those people in there are eating whole pies each and drinking a lot of really bad wine, and the owner is a black-dressed curse-chanting thug!”

Gabriel looked at me, then said, “where are the clearings?”

“The occupied ones are closest to that stinky Public House,” I said, and those otherwise are at each end.”

“Stinky, you say?” asked someone from the rear that sounded like Lukas. “I'd stay clear of it, as sleep will not happen otherwise.”

“We will need to stop as soon as we can,” said Gabriel, “as those documents need attention still.”

“If this place is as I suspect it is,” I said, “we can either stay well clear of it, and spend perhaps an hour writing, or we can camp closer to that place, and spend the whole night listening to screaming, yelling, curses, and perhaps dodging gunfire. Which would you prefer?”

While I heard no answer, I could feel a disgustingly intense desire for 'camping' as close as was possible to that horror of a Public House, and I resolved to not find such a place. Were we to camp in the woodlot ahead, I wanted to go to its southern edge, where I felt a 'good' camping site lay unmolested. More importantly, the over-full and drunk freighters would not start until 'midmorning' at the earliest, and they would not sleep until dawn.

“And before they sleep, they will try to cause trouble,” I muttered. “Anywhere within two miles of that smelly place is a recipe for no sleep.”

“And mayhem,” said the soft voice. “Your take on gunfire was accurate.”

With that, I began looking ahead carefully, for the northern border of the woodlot was but a few hundred yards distant. The sun had just gone down entirely, and the stars were showing above our heads, as was the moon. It was just that time of night when matters were at their dimmest, for the stars had not taken their full brightness, and the moon, though shedding light, was still pale.

At the northern entrance of what was beginning to feel like a trap, I checked my revolver, then replaced the cap on my rifle. This last I slung more to my front, in case I needed to reach for it quickly, and the previous murmur of conversation died out quickly once we had crossed the threshold that barred unwanted traffic from without this second kingdom enclave.

Within moments, I could feel deep and darksome secrets within the forests to each side, almost as if the forest itself was a monument to Brimstone, and the stains upon the road itself faintly fumed and whispered evil secrets. The ditches to each side had small amounts of debris, unlike those of the previous many miles, and the tall straight trees seemed to be waiting for dangling corpses.

“Do witches do that?” I thought. There was no answer.

There was silence to each side, and faint noises from the rear, and fainter still noises from somewhere ahead. Within a few minutes, the first of the clearings showed, and when I looked at it, it was as if I saw it on two levels clearly, with the first level showing a desirable surface 'gloss' to attract the unwary, and a deeper subsurface portion like a bottomless pit. Going there meant for bogging at night, and jeers at the least in the morning.

Though for some reason, my thoughts ran to rabid and smoky sheets of gunfire from fowling pieces.

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “Those men are in a body, and they have deliveries for the rebuilding of the Swartsburg.”

“Rebuilding?” I asked. “How long will that take?” I paused, then asked, “how long did it take to get it to where it was?”

“The Swartsburg is a symbol of the recovery of witchdom,” said the soft voice, “as well as its renewed status. The two support one another because they grew up together.”

“M-many years?” I asked. “How many? Eighty? A hundred? Two hundred?”

While I had no answer of a direct nature, what I had heard spoke of the likely rate of repairs to the place, as well as a need to survey it in the near future, and when I turned to look to my right, I was astonished to see another clearing. It too was unoccupied, and altogether like the first one, complete to the superficial attraction that lay like bait upon the surface of a trap.

“The last one at the south end,” I said, “or if needed, the next place we find to the south. We do not need to have witches trying to kill us in our sleep.”

Gabriel was beginning to turn my way when I spluttered, “what? What did I say?”

“The truth, I suspect,” said Gabriel, “and I must confess my blindness to all save that which I myself needed to do.”

“Reports?” I asked.

“You will not finish those reports if you sup with Brimstone,” said Lukas from behind, “and if those people are bringing stuff to rebuild that witch-hole, then they're witches. I don't need to speak of what they're likely to do.”

“How bad is the Swartsburg damaged?” I asked.

“I've looked from across the Oestwaag for a short time,” said Gabriel, “and it seemed to be substantially damaged. That blackness that hides it was barely showing, and the streets were almost empty.”

“Now that is good to hear,” said Lukas. “That means that place is in a bad way.”

“For that area,” I said. “I suspect the dark side of town is a big mess, and a fair percentage of the rest is damaged to at least some extent, and I know the population is a good deal less.” I paused, then said, “what I don't have is a measure of specifics.”

“What would that be?” asked Gabriel.

“Those two, uh, places that provide, uh, services, for example,” I said. “I've heard they're still open, but doing much less business. How much less business? Are they burnt-out shells that have only a few people in them, or are they mostly in need of cleaning and paint?”

“I suspect they need more than cleaning and paint,” said Gabriel. “That place was smoking heavily for well over a week.”

“Do those...”

I ceased speaking, for I smelled a too-familiar reek. I began looking ahead along the arrow-straight road, now wary for trouble, and when I saw the next clearing, I was stunned.

The place was nearly awash with freighting wagons with a pair of coaches in the background, and the odor of mules was pungent and thick. I wondered for a moment where the animals were hiding, even as I scanned the vast herd of horses, until at the southeast corner I saw a mule at the edge of the clearing.

“And that Public House is chock full of those people gorging themselves on High Meats,” I thought.

The reek of mule diminished slightly, even as another odor came to take its place, until on the left, I saw what at first looked like another clearing. I seemed to pause in place to take it in.

It was the Public House I had sensed earlier, and with a glance, I recognized the resemblance to the place on Kokenstraat. It was all there, right down to the book-shaped tiles on its roof and a huge yard, only in this case, the yard had a large number of heavy-looking ornate buggies hitched to four-horse teams and three more coaches.

“You sure you want to go to that Public House now?” I said testily.

“Where is the postal hostel?” asked Gabriel plaintively.

“On the other side of the road,” said Lukas, “along with the other places. I doubt they do much with that place handy.”

I glanced to the left, and there, I was shocked. There, I saw the Mercantile – closed, no lights, a sense of dreary dullness best described as servitude, its personnel bordering on slaves, its goods few, high-priced, and of poor quality – and then, the postal hostel.

That place looked as if it had just finished a stint in a war-zone, for its lanterns showed a multitude of bullet pocks and burn-marks on its embattled walls. There were no buggies to be seen, and the massive door showed thick iron hinges of a sturdy-looking sort.

“Why do they shoot at the post?” I asked. “Don't witches send things that way?”

“Freek wrote somewhat more at length before he left,” said Gabriel, as we passed the two shops that looked to have been closed for months. “He said that there are multiple paths for goods, services, and messages among witches, with the post and conventional freighting being but two of them.”

“Hence they can kill postal drivers with little worry of affecting themselves?” I asked.

“It is not quite that simple,” said Gabriel. “Witchdom places an emphasis on time, and the post is one of the quicker ways to send information.”

“One of?” I asked.

“He spoke of means quicker yet, but knew little beyond what he needed to access them,” said Gabriel. “He wasn't quite high-ranking enough to deal with them directly.” We were coming up on another clearing, this one to the right.

“However, he was able to send smaller packages and mail that way,” said Gabriel, “and for a modest surcharge, he was able to send such things overnight as long as the distance wasn't too far.”

“Uh, how far?” I asked.

“He indicated that he could give the bag to Koenraad's mail-person late in the afternoon and have it delivered to the recipient in the second kingdom house by early the next morning.”

“Th-the post?” I asked. “It's not that fast, is it?”

“Even messengers don't come close to being that quick,” said Gabriel.

The clearing on the right was filled with more freighting wagons and horses, and in this case, I did not smell mules. I had a further intimation, however, as when I turned to the front again, I saw the end of the woodlot in the distance – and I knew it wasn't far enough to stay out of trouble.

“We'll have to go on to the next one,” I thought. “I hope Kees sobers up by then.”

While another pair of clearings did show, they both were less than half a mile away from the last one – one on each side of the road – and when I looked, I seemed to see a thick grayish-green film covering the whole of both clearings. The film suggested itself to mean either 'poison' or 'a first-class bog situation'.

“Those look bad,” I said. “What does grayish-green slime mean?”

“If it has that, then we don't want it,” said Lukas. “That place is poisoned with mule-dung.”

“I did not smell mules,” said Gabriel.

“I'd trust his eyes over your nose,” said Lukas. “If... How much of this stuff did you see?”

“It was covering the whole surface of both lots,” I said. “It was almost as if someone had taken all of the obvious 'bad' out of mule-dung, removed its stink so as to fool the unwary, and then dumped the remaining stuff all over that camping area.”

“If it's like that, then it's going to go rotten and die in a hurry,” said Lukas, “and that sounds like what a pack of witches would do.”

“Those were the last clearings in this place, I think,” I said. “There might be another one at the very end of this place, but if it's within a mile of the two we just passed, I don't want to camp there. Those thugs are going to...”

An eruption of gunfire came from the rear, followed first by one huge explosion, then another, then finally a third titanic blast.

I turned and saw the entire area behind us ablaze with crimson and yellowish flames, with what looked like a rivulet of fire coming slowly behind us in the distance.

“Uh, bad place,” I muttered. “Let's get out of here before those thugs light us on fire.”

I did not need to say more, for the column picked up speed to a modest degree. We passed the end of the woodlot without seeing any more clearings, and on the south side, we came into a soft grassy meadow that seemed a mile or more in width.

We went along under stars that were now full and bright, with a brilliant moon that lit up the road and the grass on either side. Faintly to the rear, there was another muffled roaring blast, and I turned to see a massive green-white-yellow fireball climb up into the sky.

“Will that load do much for the Swartsburg?” I asked.

“They will do well to salvage a modest portion,” said the soft voice, “and what makes it to the Swartsburg will be fought over at length.”

“More fighting than building?” I asked.

“That, and such fighting tends to happen in the less-damaged areas,” said the soft voice. “The end result is that for every building which is repaired, another building is damaged to at least a small extent, and that apart from fires, explosions, and pillage.”

“Does the Swartsburg still smoke?” I asked.

“It does,” said Gabriel, “and not like it did before you went there.”

“What?” I asked.

“The manufactories smoked to a small degree beforehand, but that smoke is mostly gone,” said Gabriel. “It has been replaced with that of burning buildings, explosions, and distillate.”

“Th-that place is still burning?” I gasped.

“That is strongly suspected,” said Gabriel. “Much of the smoke seems to show in the northwest portion, which is thought to be the least damaged.”

I then realized a trip into the Swartsburg was a requirement, if only to discern the state of the place. I filed this in the back of my mind, even as I continued looking steadily in an arc facing south.

The meadow came to an end, and was replaced by farms, fields, and orchards, and as we passed one area walled head-high with thick blocks of mortared stone I heard a distinctly irritated bellow, then another.

“Cattle?” I asked.

“I suspect so,” said Gabriel. “They'll become more common further south between here and the northern border of the third kingdom.”

I was more than a little astonished to find an obvious 'clearing' carved out of an orchard, and its aspect of 'clean' and 'fresh' recommended it to my nose. I leaped off at the edge of the road and began walking, and the instant I stepped out of the ditch, I marveled. This area felt like the dirt under my feet the night I came here, and I indicated the ground was 'safe'.

I stood still as the buggies came around me, and after a brief feeling of the hubs, I took one of the shovels with the goal of digging a 'privy'. I was more than a little surprised to find a small wooden building with an obvious painted door.

“Is this a privy?” I thought. I then opened the door.

The darkness was sufficient to make for wondering until my eyes adjusted slightly, but the smell told me enough. It was indeed a privy, and more, it was used a fair amount.

“And why that place smells less than most privies is a mystery,” I thought, as I went back with the shovel.

The tents were already going up, and I moved off to the side to start water boiling. I set down the lamp and its fuel about twenty feet from the ascending tents, and on the way back to it with the large pot full of water, I nearly tripped as I stepped into a small hole. I stopped, and looked closely.

“This place has a ready-dug fire-pit,” I blurted. “It just needs clearing the grass away and some fuel.”

Within twenty minutes, the tub and water was ready, and I bathed. This time, I put on some lightweight clothes, and after, I wanted my cloak badly. The still-warm water steamed steadily in the cooling air, and when I came back to drain it, I found Gabriel again ready to use it.

“I used that,” I said. “You'll wish to drain it out and then fill it.”

“Why, is it cold?” he asked. “It seems warm to me.”

“You will not get clean,” I said. “I put a fair amount of dirt and sweat in that tub, and I doubt you wish to wear that stuff. You're already wearing my last night's grime as it is.”

Gabriel shuddered, then left post-haste, as I went for my 'study' supplies. Once I had found them, I went into the 'study' tent, where I found Kees still slightly sleepy, or so I thought until I shook his leg. He then jerked to life with a faint screech.

“Yes?” I asked. “You have something for me to work on?”

He shuddered, then held his head in his hands while I listened outside. I had brought the heating lamp closer to the mouth of the tents, and someone had already begun trimming the grass from the mouth of the firepit.

“Don't trouble that lamp,” said Gilbertus. “It will heat that water quick enough.”

“Who is it?” I asked.

“He got your dirty water last night, and now wants hot water,” said Gilbertus. “I fetched another pot at that one big mercantile, though it seems less good than the one setting on that stand you've got.

“Perhaps a small fire to heat water?” I asked.

“Aye, as soon as this is trimmed and those two fetch some wood,” said Lukas. “I've gotten this thing mostly done now.”

“Uh, lighting?” I asked.

“That I do good,” he said. “Hans told me about priming powder and candle stubs.”

“I'd wish he told us,” said Karl. “I found a decent number of sticks in those orchards, but they are small and scarce.”

“They'll do,” said Lukas. “Now go and fetch some more, so I can get this bathwater to heating.”

Hendrik came in but a moment later with his documents, then Gabriel managed once he'd had his bath. I began 'translation' thereafter, and after a few minutes, I turned my head to sneeze. I was offered a cloth, and then a jug.

“That was book-dust,” said Hendrik. “You'll wish a mug before resuming.”

I downed a half-full mug once a jug of grape juice came, and then resumed labor with a will. Now and then, I glanced outside when I did not listen to the sounds of bathing, and soon Hendrik bathed, and finally Kees. I was astonished at the last when he returned, for he began writing steadily, and Hendrik looked at what he was doing.

“You'll want to put that in the Norden report,” he said. “Where did you find it?”

“I was barely awake after that last Public House,” he said, “and my head was swimming with wine. I had brought out that one set of notes, and was leafing through it while trying to ride...”

“That is most unwise, especially when drunk, Kees,” said Hendrik. “I'm amazed you still have your documents and your head.”

“I am also,” he said. “I thought I could manage, at least until the papers showed.”

“What was on these papers?” asked Gabriel.

“They were quite old, and there were three sheets,” he said. “The first one showed a clear drawing of a blood-flag, only this one was somehow different. Here, let me show you.”

He produced the three sheets of paper, and when I saw the one showing the blood-flag, I said, “that one is...”

“Is a type listed on several tapestries,” said Hendrik, “and until recently, the ones used by those northern people were much cruder. Those thirty they had this last time were done to this pattern.”

“Which means something has changed with those people,” I said. “I doubt it bodes well.”

“It did not for me,” said Kees, “as that bird came out of the page and started pecking flesh off of my head!”

“That sounds like that tincture,” said Hendrik. “Did anything else happen?”

“I was sacrificed,” he said, “and my head put on a death-pole, and the rest of me carried by those people that have killed before. They had strange swords, though.”

“How were they strange?” said Hendrik. “Were they the usual pattern, or those worn by their spies?”

“N-neither,” said Kees between sobs. “They had h-huge triangular blades caked with gray stuff, and were big enough to need carrying like a market-hunting gun.

“Those would be spades, then,” said Gabriel.

“These were not s-spades,” said Kees. “I've seen their spades.”

“Were they trowels?” I asked gently.

Kees looked at me, then nodded soberly before moaning, “they had buried me in a tomb made of bricks with a single barrel of wine, and that witch to the north had a name I cannot speak.”

“Ultima Thule?” I asked.

“I can speak that one if I work at it and try hard,” said Kees. “This one was but one name, not two, and it had more 'U' letters in it.”

“Ulalume?” I asked. “Was Norden called Weir?”

“Y-yes,” he said, “and it was filled with these spirits called ghouls, and someone called me a wretch, and spoke of a m-m-I cannot say its name.”

“Maelstrom?” I asked.

“Did you see this?” asked Hendrik.

“I was aware of something like it,” I said. “I was irritated that Kees had gotten, uh, trashed, and...”

“First, you were far from the only one irritated,” said Hendrik. “I was of a mind to poke him, in fact. Now what was the second portion?”

“I suggested Kees be visited at length by one of those birds,” I said. “I meant one of those Ravens that show...”

Hendrik looked at me, then at Kees, then said, “I would be more circumspect with the wine in the future, and I mean for now. Later will be much worse.”

“In what way?” I asked.

“Something is to happen to you during this trip,” said Hendrik, “and though I yet have little idea as to what it is, I do know it is very important.”

“Does that nightmare have a meaning?” I asked. “It wasn't a normal nightmare, was it?”

“N-no,” said Kees. “There was a portion after, which I heard and did not see, and it explained what had happened to me and why I had caused it to happen.”

“You caused it?” I asked.

“Yes, by being intemperate,” he said. “Drunkenness may be uncommon among the majority, but the ideas behind what I did are very common, and if acted upon, the result is the same in all cases.”

“Impaired?” I asked. “Asleep?”

“Those and much more,” he said. “The witches rejoice in our stupidity, as it makes us fit slaves to serve them and then fit sacrifices for their altars.”

“Is this ignorance?” I asked. “Or do you mean 'stupid by choice'?”

Kees looked at me, then said, “you have the right of it when you speak of choice. I chose to get drunk.”

“That's serious, is it?” I asked. “Is it true that drunkenness is a most important portion of witchcraft?”

“I think you are right,” said Hendrik. “I'm glad I and Gabriel are writing this down, as it's filling many holes in our documents.” Hendrik paused, then said, “and I just hope our message is heard.”

After another hour of 'translation', it seemed time for either a break or bedtime, and I went outside the tent to fetch my bedding. The velvet softness of the night around me, as well as the brilliant light of the stars and moon overhead, meant I had little trouble seeing. The campfire was now lazily burning, and the heating lamp was off, with the empty pot setting on top of the stand. I came back by the other tent, and looked inside.

A gun and knife cleaning session was in progress, and I noted rouge-paste, leather polishers, and some 'motor oil'. I went back to the 'notes' tent, and I saw Kees had his knife out with a frown on his face.

“You have red-tallow, don't you?” he asked.

“That stuff is worthless,” growled Lukas from the other tent. “I thought you sobered up and quit thinking like a witch, Kees.”

“Uh, he's not the only person to say red-tallow is worthless,” I said, as I opened my bag. “I have what I use, and I can show you.”

After showing Kees rouge-paste – “just a little bit on your rag, and wipe it carefully, Kees” – I then wiped down his knife with an oily rag. The gleam of the thing was hard to fathom, so much so that I thought to begin rubbing the thing with my fingers. They grew a coating of 'dirt' almost instantly.

“What is happening?” asked Gabriel.

“I do not understand how this works,” I said, “only that I did it to those weapons I received at the bridge, they were drastically affected, and I was really tired after. With this size, it isn't too bad.”

After cleaning the knife off carefully with a clean rag, I laid it on the ground between my legs and prayed for it. The billow of clouds and 'smoke' that came up from it was such that the tent seemed to be within a thick cloud, and once I'd finished, I heard Hendrik ask, “what did you do?”

“A small demonstration of what I did with those weapons at the bridge,” I said. “Kees, you will need to be especially careful with that knife now.”

I heard steps coming, as well as a shuddering, and when Gilbertus showed, he had a blanket around him.

“What made it so cold all of a sudden?” he asked.

“He showed what happened with those weapons at the bridge,” said Kees, “and now, I need a leather pouch for this thing, as it cut through the rag I used of its own weight.”

“More evidence,” said Gabriel. “I think you might wish to go to bed earlier tonight, as I can see the way through the rest of this report now.”

Hendrik looked at Gabriel, then said, “I hope so. I do not wish to have him spend much of a day making these clear because we've made more work for him.”

“Perhaps an earlier stop tomorrow?” I asked. “A regular session of writing?”

“That may be wise,” said Hendrik.

That night, there were no dreams, and I awoke as Kees was walking toward the buggy. He bent down to look as I was crawling out from the covers, and turned wordlessly to his tent when he saw that I was up.

For the next hour or so, I wandered the campsite picking up equipment, and when the sky began to lighten, someone – Gilbertus, most likely – yawned loudly, then lunged out of the tent and went for the privy. He returned minutes later, looked around – and then went inside the other tent to 'roust' the others.

Getting underway went smoothly for the most part, though when Kees again spoke of red-tallow as the tents went down, Sepp said, “that stuff stinks, it's costly, and you need to be a black-dressed witch to get it.”

“How does it stink?” asked Kees.

“You've never seen that stuff, have you?” asked Lukas. “I have, and if anything draws swine, that stuff does – that, and witches.”

“The smell?” I asked. “It smells awful.”

“It's more than the smell,” said Lukas. “Talk has it that group what found that fleet had red-tallow on their weapons, and they all got killed on account of it.”

“Who sent them out there?” I asked.

“Those Generals, supposedly,” said Gilbertus. “No one really knew why, and they were all good people.”

“Uh, honest, want nothing to do with witches, or things witches like?” I asked.

“I'd say so,” said Lukas. “Between them all getting killed, and then the Swartsburg turning into a burn-pile, we lost about half of our people.”

“So that's why,” I thought. “Those people were sent out on a suicide mission, and they all had that stinky reddish mud on their weapons.”

“Unlike the stinky reddish 'mud' you saw in training, what the leaders of that group received was the 'witch-version',” said the soft voice. “Between that, a lack of training and skill in 'forest work', some additional well-chosen fetishes given by those Generals, the usual effects of guard-training regarding 'orders', and the orders themselves, those people were as lambs sent to the slaughter.”

“Is 'witch-grade' red-tallow an effectual fetish?” I asked.

“Most red-tallow is compounded by witches,” said the soft voice, “which is why it is difficult to get and expensive to purchase when it can be bought. While most red-tallow is quite weak as to spiritual potency, the version mixed up by a person of Koenraad's stature can have significant effects.”

“Did he mix up that stuff?” I asked.

“No, but one of those 'powers' to the south did,” said the soft voice. “It was nearly as strong as that 'money-medal' you removed from Hans in the Public House, and its effects were but little less.”

Once underway, I asked if we had any flint-dried meat.

“Some was packed,” said Gabriel. “Do you plan on soup this evening?”

“I just wondered if it was packed,” I said. “That border is maybe forty miles ahead of us, if that, and three towns between it and where we are.”

“How large are they?” asked Gabriel.

“That town we stopped in yesterday is the biggest one this far south on this road,” I said. “The town just next to the border is slightly larger than the other two, and then on the other side of the border, there are a few more towns...”

“Yes, there are a few, and most of them are small between the border and the road to the kingdom house,” said Gabriel. “South of that road and the border of the third kingdom, they tend to be larger.”

“Is it true that there are a number of Public Houses all by themselves in the second kingdom?” I asked. “Not common ones, but really big places?”

“There are,” said Gabriel. “Most 'camping places' tend to be found fairly close to those Public Houses.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “We don't want 'captive' camping spots that are normally 'reserved' in advance in drink-houses and paid for in blood at the nearest Public House.”

“That is a rumor,” said Gabriel.

“I'd think twice about calling what he says about those places a rumor,” said Gilbertus. “I've heard tell it is that way, and I've stayed off of 'em when going through the second kingdom.” He paused, then said, “I know the good places, including them just off of the High Way that are quiet.”

Gabriel looked at me, then squawked, “where did you get the idea they were paid for in blood?”

I was about to speak when Gilbertus said, “now that is the part I could never figure out. How do they do that?”

“Most freighters that use those places are sited in either the second or the fifth kingdom,” I said, “and are run by large, uh, combines.”

“I see,” said Gabriel. “Injuries are common in manufactories.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “It's simpler than that. Some of those freighters are freighters by choice and assassins by extortion-inspired necessity, and the work of freighter provides a good means of hiding, just like it does for church-spies.”

“Assassins?” asked Gabriel. “Who do they kill?”

“In the second kingdom, that's usually decided by a black-dressed thug,” I said, “and that's for the common 'blood-sources'.” I paused here. “For those persons thought 'tough', they send such people after them with the orders, 'bring back their head, or I will take yours for my pleasure'.”

“So how does it work?” asked Gabriel.

“The freighters report to the nearest Public House, they are assigned their 'location', the assassins are given their targets, the blood-sources are dealt with, the heads delivered, and the freighters leave the next day with few if any of the surrounding community the wiser.”

“How do they know which Public House to stop at?” asked Gabriel.

“Do they have 'programmed' days?” I asked. “Such as 'this town on a certain day and time', the next at a later time, an 'official' quitting time and location for each day..?”

“That's how they do such things,” said Gilbertus. “It's better if you have your own team or are sited outside the second or fifth kingdom.”

“Your own team?”

“No preplanned route,” said Gilbertus. “Those route-lists are trouble if the road's busy, and no chance of a blessing by being early.”

“And if you are early?” I asked. “That kind of a schedule makes it difficult.”

“Then they make it your usual run,” said Gilbertus, “or they toss you out.”

After passing another series of farms and fields, I noted that one of the farms again had a grouping of strange and straggly 'bushes', though compared to the last example, this grouping was larger. We left them in our 'dust', and I asked as to what they were.

“Grape-arbors, most likely,” said Gabriel. “There are large fields of those surrounding the second kingdom house.”

“Large fields?” I asked. I wondered how large, for some reason.

“Much larger than any field used for lesser plants,” said Gabriel. “I suspect there to be miles by miles covered with those arbors in that area, and the house proper makes much wine.”

I made a gagging noise, then asked, “do they s-sell it?”

“That also,” said Gabriel. “The house wines are well-known and quite popular.”

“Honey-sweetened?” I asked.

“That comes from the fourth kingdom,” said Gabriel.

“I wonder if it can be used for cooking?” I mumbled.

Gabriel looked at me as if I had spoken a virulent curse, and spluttered, “that would be wasting such drink.”

“It would also help the flavor of stews and soups,” I said. “Besides, a mug to a pot is about as much as you want to use...”

I had noticed movement to my right and ahead, and as I unbuttoned my revolver holster, I noted the movement again. Something was hiding in a sizable clump of greenery near the side of the road, and when we came closer, a marmot shot out of the greenery and up the road. I moved to the side, drew, and fired.

The marmot leaped into the air screeching and fell on its side where it thrashed crazily. It showed no sign of ceasing with either screeches or thrashing, and I went out of line toward the animal. I leaped off next to it as the others came up, then fired once into its head to still its screams.

I stood away, now wondering what to do next, when Gilbertus came up with his knife unsheathed. He dragged the animal off to the side of the road as Sepp came up, and before my eyes, the two of them began 'dressing' the animal. I saw my intrusion would be unwise, and began reloading the two fired chambers of the pistol.

“Where did you hit this thing the first time?” asked Sepp. “I can see your second shot, but that first one...”

“He nicked its backbone, here,” said Gilbertus, as he 'ripped off' the hide of the gutted and beheaded animal. “That put it on the ground so he could shoot it again. That way, there's no ruined meat.”

“Is that one decent?” I asked.

“It's from last year's crop,” said Gilbertus, “and it looks to be decent.”

“Uh, trade it at a Public House?” I asked.

“I'd do that, especially one of these next three,” said Gilbertus. “I'm not sure what you would get further south.”

The marmot was rinsed at the next watering place that showed, and while the horses drank, I thought to look at the just-bagged carcass. The size of the animal was less than the few I'd see closer to home, but it still looked large enough to fill all of my cookware and the other pot heaping full.

“About a third of that thing would be right for dinner,” I murmured.

“Were it later in the day, I'd reserve some of it,” said Gilbertus. “Otherwise, we'll need to use those things what keep better than fresh.”

“Or if another shows,” I said. “These things are almost too large for us, even the smaller versions.”

At the next town, the marmot went into the Public House, and I went over the horses after the buggy. I noted Jaak's shoes were wearing steadily, with a trace of looseness present in one of them, but when I came to one of the other horses, I noted a definite wiggle in the left rear. I brought out my 'leather' hammer and a punch, then cradled the hoof with my knees.

“Please do not kick me,” I prayed silently, while I lined up the first nail with my punch.

“I'll hold him,” said Lukas. “Those ain't that good of shoes.”

“I'm just tightening this one up here,” I muttered, as I gently tapped the punch. “Now this one here... And that one. Do they clinch the backsides of these?”

“I'm not sure what they do, as I'm no farrier,” said Lukas. “I might have found another loose 'un over here.”

The shoe Lukas had found was indeed loose, and I needed to tap its nails back in as well. This time, there were more of them, and with each 'tick-tick-tick' of my hammer against the punch, I could almost feel the irritation I was applying to the horse.

“That's as neat a job as I've seen that way,” said Gilbertus as I finished the second hoof. I then turned to ask, “do farriers get kicked much?”

“The good ones don't,” said Lukas. “I'd say you could make a good farrier, as you seem to have the touch, but I wonder how you feel about doing it.”

“Uh, I was afraid I'd get kicked like this one groom who owns a mule,” I said. “It's kicked him at least twice.”

“More than that,” said Sepp. “He's sending it west and south soon, and it knows that, so it's full-loaded for trouble.”

Sepp paused, then said, “I hope you shoot another marmot later today.”

“Why,” I asked. “One that big would have glutted all of us.”

“I doubt that,” said Sepp. “Those things are deceptive about their meat, especially the younger ones.”

“They have more meat than one thinks?” I asked.

“No, about a third less than you might figure,” said Sepp. “That one would have filled both of your pots.”

“By itself, yes,” I said. “What of potatoes and other vegetables?”

“No, with the potatoes and vegetables,” said Sepp. “Most people are surprised when they first cook those things.”

“Corn-meal?” I asked.

“That's when you are short of meat,” said Sepp. “That thickens the soup or stew.”