The road more traveled, part j.

The comments I heard did not make for calm, even as the three resumed circulating in the privy. I transferred my small copy of the 'map' to one of the large covered slates while waiting for Karl and Sepp, and when they finally came – yawning, sleepy, and fatigued – I asked, “any luck?”

“Sepp found the big refectory,” said Karl, “and it is open.”

“Food?” I asked.

“It is close to home that way,” said Sepp, “though I wonder about some things, especially how they were talking of the other one.”

“Other one?” I asked. “As in another refectory?”

“They said someone was killed there tonight,” said Karl. “Do you know about it?”

“Uh, not really,” I said. “I wasn't there when it happened, as they tried to pass off a lot of bad food in there, and I had to run for the privy.”

“Were there squabs?” asked Sepp.

“Those, penned quolls, and much else,” said Gabriel between yawns, “and after they began fighting in there, I decided I wanted no part of such surroundings – and since, I've decided I want no part of that food, either.”

“Why?” asked Karl. “That food is really expensive and hard to get.”

“It also causes corking,” said Lukas. “Now we all had best get to bed, those of us who can, as we got plenty to do tomorrow about this and that.”

“We aren't in that meeting,” said Karl, “so what do we have to do?”

“Supplies, for one,” said Hendrik. “I'm still corked with that food, and I'm on my third mug of uncorking medicine.”

“Two jugs uncorking medicine,” I thought. “One for while we're here, and, uh, one for the road.”

“Road?” I squeaked. “How long does it take to get, uh, those things out?”

“This food seems especially bad that way,” said Kees, “and needing to sit through those meetings tomorrow isn't going to help.”

“Then we may want to get what we can as soon as we can,” I said. “Perhaps...” I paused, then asked, “when do places open up in that town?”

“Shortly after sunrise,” said Lukas, between stifled yawns, “which means we need to leave the instant it gets light enough to not get shot for witches, and carry those good lanterns with us while we roll the wheels.”

“Do we need to, uh, take the buggies?” I asked. “We need to take most if not all of the horses, and I suspect we can, uh, bag up...”

“Now I know you would do as a freighter,” said Gilbertus. “Most of what we have can fit in those bags we use for clothing, and mine is out of clean clothing.”

“Hence washing,” I said. “That means...”

“I can find that, yawn,” said Gabriel, “and I suspect we can find the baths, too.” A brief pause, then “and I'm glad for beds.”

I was more than glad for a bed myself, and I fell deeply asleep once I'd had a small cup of dark beer. There were no dreams that night, even when I awoke to use the privy, and when I went in one portion of the 'two-holer', I could tell the other part was in use.

“Who's there?” I asked, as I came out.

“Gabriel,” said a very sleepy voice. “The corks are finally starting to come out.”

“The others?” I asked.

“Theirs also,” said Gabriel. “I'd get plenty of uncorking medicine tomorrow, as these corks seem stubborn.”

I awoke to deep-black darkness lit but faintly to the rear, and when I turned I saw one of the smaller candle-lanterns glowing faintly by the door of the privy. I could tell that not merely was that edifice still receiving regular attention, but also it was shortly before sunrise. I put on my clothing, then stoked one of the larger lanterns and lit the thing with the candle near the privy. As I brought it to the table, I could feel something happening above our heads, and listened carefully, even as the front of the room became better-lit.

“That's chanting,” I muttered. “I cannot make out what they're chanting, and they're completely trashed, but some people are chanting.”

“What is this?” said Sepp from behind me. “Is it time to get up?”

“It 'feels' like it,” I said. “It's about half an hour or so before it starts to get light around here, which means about three or four hours before that meeting is supposed to start.”

I sat down by the lantern making out my 'updated' list, then as I finished it, shadows came from behind. I turned to see Karl trying not to yawn and having no luck whatsoever.

“We can get food...”

“No, Karl,” said Sepp. “Grab some dried meat and a Kuchen, along with some beer, and then get that big pack. We're going to need those things to get our supplies.”

“What about you?” asked Karl.

“I brought my bread-bags,” said Sepp, “and this other big one I didn't know I had, and I suspect we can get some more larger ones at those Mercantiles.”

“That, and we'll need to bring the horses by that one farrier,” I said. “That makes for a decent trip, actually, so much so that we may want to split up.”

“If you plan that, then the earlier the better,” said Lukas. “The three of 'em were up all night spending time in the privy.”

“Then they can secure some plates for us,” I said softly.

“I'll do that,” said Hendrik, as he wobbled toward the privy.

I opened the door with a covered student's lantern, then beckoned to the others to come out. We drew up into a small group as I led the way to the main 'corridor', and from thence, to the stairs. Again, I paused at the doorway, and was astonished to see a sky still dark and showing stars.

“Now to uncover the lantern, so they know we...”

“That might not do enough,” whispered Lukas. “This bunch likes to loose powder and lead.”

“Then I need to go first,” I said, as I handed the lantern backwards.

Opening the door a crack made for wondering, as I could clearly hear voices, and when I came outside, I crouched in the darkness next to the wall. To my right on the walkway were a trio of guards, all of them with 'huge' tankards and slung muskets, and the flickering candles overhead shed a dim and ruddy light. I came to the edge of the walkway, then walked slowly and silently up to the three men. They seemed embroiled in gossip, so much so that when I slipped behind them, I could almost hear laughter from the doorway. I then gently touched the shoulder of the man furthest to the south.

He looked my way and nearly dropped his tankard, then spluttered, “who are you?”

I was about to reply when his 'fellows' turned, then remarked, “oh, it's one of them from the first kingdom.” He looked me up and down as he spoke, then asked, “now who are you? I know you aren't one of the commons, but you don't look like one of the betters, either.”

The third man looked at me carefully, then muttered, “I would not go by looks, especially with him. Talk has it he's done more than most can think of.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“Didn't you lead that group down here?”

“I was with that group, yes,” I said. “I am not sure I led it.”

“Were you front and left?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Then you led it,” he said. “Talk has it you were in that meeting yesterday.”

“After I took care of some important business in town,” I said. “And, speaking of business in town – when do those gates open?”

“As soon as the sun shows,” said the first man. “Why, what is it you need?”

“Supplies for traveling,” I said, as I drew out my slate and showed the man who'd asked. “Herring, dried vegetables, 'cooking supplies', soap, 'number one wax candles', and uncorking medicine.”

“How will you carry those?” he asked.

“We need to have all of the horses looked over at a farrier's,” I said, “and hence, we have enough to either carry the supplies or tie bags...”

“That's like them out traipsing,” said the second man. “They do things like that, as they go where buggies can't.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Besides, we need, to, uh, do some modest repairs to our buggies before we go further south.”

“What would those be?” asked the third man.

“I'm not terribly sure,” I said. “Mostly, I need to go over everything carefully, and then I'll know for certain.”

“If you are leading that group,” said the first man, “then why don't you...”

“Had they a third of the common number,” said the second man, “he could do that, presuming he trusted anyone to do that work. They only have eight, and unless I miss my guess, there are only two or three that are worthy of trust, even with close watching.”

I smiled, shook my head, and began walking back the way I had come.

“Where are you going?” asked one of the men

“Back to fetch the others,” I said. “I did not wish to take chances.”

While the others fetched their horses, I fluffed out Jaak's blanket, then laid it on one of the buggies. I examined the cones, noting but small areas of 'dullness'. The lantern was out in the field, and when I turned to the west, I noted traces of lighter blue which was beginning to wash out the stars, and I recalled what the farrier had said.

“May the stars shine on you wherever you go?” I asked. It seemed to fit.

Tethering the horses in line with the four of us in front made for a long 'string', and once out in front of the house, I led to the south. I wanted to follow that road we had gone in by, for I had seen it join the other, and at a steady walk, I looked out over the darkness.

The pylons seemed lit by ghostly phosphorescence, while the grape-arbors seemed conjoined into fields of death. Lukas was behind me with the shielded lantern, while the others were towing strings of three and four horses. I hoped we could do what was needed in time, and I had a sense that...

“Arriving at the moment of the gates opening is an old trick of independent freighters,” said the soft voice, “which is why those Mercantiles and that Public House will be open when you get there. There won't be significant traffic out in the streets until 'the third hour' of the morning.”

“Which is?” I asked.

“About four hours from now,” said the soft voice. “You will not need to split up to save time in a 'dead' city.”

Once on the east-running road, we sped up slightly. I wondered about horse-grain, and added it to my slate, then also 'whatever else that looks likely'.

With each minute, the road ahead became steadily more distinct, and the light from behind became greater. A quick turn showed a perceptible blue behind and a midnight blue ahead of us. I looked closely at the still-distant town and saw what might have been thin columns of smoke and flame.

“The witches were out last night,” murmured Lukas. “I see those fires.”

“Do they start fires?” I asked.

“They might, but it's usually those coaches,” said Lukas. “Those things are said to burn well, and...”

“You mean explode,” said Sepp. “I've heard enough talk...”

“Who was doing this talking?” asked Gilbertus.

“Hans,” said Sepp. “He saw two of those things go up, and that in the last few months.”

The town ahead felt truly 'dead', and as we came up the road toward its gates, I 'felt' someone – or something – off to the right some distance away. It was moving at a steady pace, neither hurrying nor wasting time, and its goal was not the city ahead of us, but rather a location further to the north. Most importantly, it needed to be out of this particular area before the locals 'woke up'.

“It isn't a witch,” I thought, “as those people aren't active at this time of day.”

“Precisely why this time is best for what you need to do,” said the soft voice, “and migrants from El Vallyé have need of caution when moving.”

“Uh, travel at night and sleep during the day?” I asked.

“Much like those marked, and for much the same reasons,” said the soft voice.

Before the gates themselves were a pair of pack-horses with 'drovers' sitting beside them, and I gave these men a wide berth. They looked to be asleep, for some reason, even as the air around us began to lighten markedly. Noises ahead of us spoke of someone 'waking up' in one or the other of the two 'gate-shops'. I wondered who it might be until someone looked over the gate proper for a moment, then began dragging one of the 'leaves' open.

The effect of this noise upon the 'drovers' was astonishing, for both of them shook and woke up, then stood. They began walking forward with their horses by the time the gate was entirely open, and I led off in their wake.

The sense of 'dead' in the town redoubled, even as we cleared the 'gate-shops', and our steady progress afterward left the drovers behind. I sniffed, and shuddered at the smells that now seemed endemic, smells I had not noticed yesterday.

“That stuff is forty-chain brandy,” said Lukas, “and someone got deworming medicine, and I smell a lot of bad food around here.”

“Where?” asked Karl. He was riding further back.

“Over there,” said Lukas. “See, someone tossed that expensive rubbish in the ditch.”

Amid mounds of gray-green mess to the left I saw what looked like a new tin plate covered with 'gourmet food', and the mingled reek of food and dung was enough to churn my stomach violently. Jaak moved further away from it once I'd learned what it was.

“Aye, and a mule-trace,” said Gilbertus. “That would be those black-dressed people.”

A broken wheel showed on the right but a short distance further, as well as a sizable smelly place nearby – it was thick with the leavings of mules – and when I looked to the right at the nearest intersection, I saw a faintly billowing fire sending smoke into the air. It might have been half a mile off, if that.

“What is burning out that way?” I asked.

“Most likely a coach,” said Lukas.

“And not wise to speak of witches in a city they own,” I thought. “No wonder this place feels like the Swartsburg.”

The first Mercantile showed shortly thereafter, and here, I wondered as to what was best. Lukas seemed to know his way around the place as if he'd lived here, while Gilbertus was but little less 'knowledgeable'. In contrast, if I was forced to do things conventionally...

“Now what do I do?” I asked softly.

“You might mind the horses,” said Karl. “Those two gaffers might be shopkeepers for what they know, and you can tell if there is trouble.”

“And you?” I asked.

“We can carry things,” said Sepp. “I know you do not bargain.”

“I tend to get certain things in Mercantiles,” I said, as I recalled some of what I'd purchased. “About the only thing edible...” I paused, then spat, “that other Mercantile sells greens!”

“Good,” said Sepp. “I could stand more potatoes and carrots.”

Rodents,” murmured Karl, as he followed Sepp into the Mercantile. “Everyone is turning into a rodent.”

“Except you, Karl,” said Sepp sarcastically. “That Cuew went to your head.”

I waited for what seemed a handful of minutes, then heard steps coming out. The four men either had sizable bags or bulging 'packs', and after two of the bags were tied firmly into place on the backs of horses, they remounted. I led off toward the Public House with a question that escaped from my mouth but seconds later.

“Did you..?”

“Everything except the dried vegetables,” said Lukas. “I knew about those, but him telling me about the fresh ones decided me. Now what do they have?”

“Much of what is common at home, as well, as, uh, some really strange things.”

“And what are those?” asked Lukas.

“These, uh, round yellowish things that are grown in the fourth kingdom,” I said, “then some of these long green things that look like weeds of some kind. They're like Gobens for flavor, if not much else. Then, fresh Gobens, spices...”

“That sounds good,” said Lukas. “We'll want to lay in as much as we can, as between here and the fourth kingdom sounds like a bad place for food.”

“Uh, that place ahead dries a fair amount of vegetables,” I said, “and they dry them daily, so they're...”

“Those are what you want if fresh is not to be had,” said Gilbertus. “They taste decent if steamed.”

“St-steamed?” I asked.

“I found a wire-basket in that place,” said Lukas, “but it was done badly, and they wanted thrice what it was worth.”

“And the place ahead?” I asked. “Something about a...”

“I think you might go in for that one,” said Lukas. “I might do the things at the counter easy enough, but I'm lost finding things.”

Karl stayed outside at the Public House, and here, I went inside in his stead. He had a full mug of beer and was working on draining it between munching dried meat.

The Public House was remarkably similar to the one at home for decor, even if its size dwarfed that place, and the musty smell of bad tallow candles was melded with that of several varieties of fermented wine. I smelled what might have been Geneva at one of the tables as we passed it by, and at the rear counter, Lukas asked for the food.

Oh, that dried meat,” I said. “This type is best for cooking.”

The 'publican' looked at me, then said, “we ran out of pepper when we did that batch.”

Jochen put too much salt to it, too,” shouted a woman further back in the 'kitchen'.

That's fine,” said Lukas. “We can use it for cooking. How much...”

I left that portion off, and looked around as Lukas finished 'dealing'. When I turned again toward the 'counter', I was handed a sizable bag. The smell in my hands spoke of bread.

Those are some of his loaves from yesterday,” said Lukas. “He's still stoking his ovens.”

Hot bread will be handy back at the house,” I murmured, “and we'll want to stow that when and where we can just before we leave.”

The next Mercantile was also an adventure, for here both Karl and Sepp remained outdoors setting on the stoop with a jug of beer between them. Their obvious dehydration made for wondering on my part until I glanced at the surly red disk of the sun as it poked its way up past the horizon.

Hot weather,” murmured Sepp, as he pointed to the reddish glow. “I'll want to soak as much as I can.”

Hot weather?” I asked, once inside the Mercantile and its mingled myriad odors.

For here, that isn't hot,” said Lukas. “Sun showing like that at home, though – you don't want to be outside then.”

Uh, heat?”

That especially,” he said. “I've been looking for another hat, as that one's about fit for making paper, and no mistake.”

And no such hats worth buying have showed,” said Gilbertus. “You might chase those dried vegetables and those other things.”

I went 'in search' of the things mentioned with Gilbertus in tow, while Lukas went toward the rear counter. While I felt hesitant at times in regards to what I was looking for, when I found the room with the fresh vegetables, Gilbertus whistled.

It would have taken me twice the time. Now can you find the good ones?”

I proved something of a failure once I'd actually found the articles in question, for the first three potatoes I picked up Gilbertus tossed back on the pile after speaking of 'bad odor'. I handed him a fourth one, and he exclaimed, “now what is a seeded potato doing in a pile of eaters?”

Seeded?” I asked.

He held up the thing, and in this instance, the lumpy exterior was a marvel. It looked like a domestic potato with a severe case of hives.

Those are the seeds,” said Gilbertus as he pointed to the lumps. “Were I a potato farmer, I'd keep this one in my barn as a reminder of what and when to plant.”

Gilbertus knew his potatoes much better than I did, and while I could find the things in question quickly, he had to pick out the examples that were 'good'. I then led out of the main 'root and vegetable' area, and went straight to the dried vegetables. These were bagged, and here, Gilbertus was lost completely. The bags concealed their contents well.

I wondered if I were in the same predicament as previously when I touched the first bag. It felt 'cold' and 'clammy', and I went for another. It felt much the same. The third one, however, felt 'fresh' and 'dry', and I removed it.

I hope that one's good,” he said. “I've heard about this stuff.”

I found five more such bags, and gave them to him, then looked over toward the other side of the store.

What's over there?” he asked.

S-soap, candles...”

We have plenty,” said Gilbertus. “Now what is this stuff here?”

Gilbertus had found something that reminded me vaguely of 'hardtack' as described by Civil War chroniclers, and touching the dessicated-seeming 'bricks' made me wonder.

Didn't they call these things 'teeth-dullers'?” I thought. “They do look likely.”

Gilbertus swept up a tied bundle of the 'stuff', saying they were better than 'worms', and while I agreed whole-heartedly, I wondered what kind of worms he meant.

Are there worms people eat?” I asked.

Aye, in the third kingdom,” he said. “I've had them, and needed uncorking medicine afterward to clear out the corks they left behind.”

Did we get some?” I asked.

Aye, two big jugs full,” said Gilbertus. “Now someone said we needed a jug for the road, so I made certain that one was a good sturdy jug.”

Lukas had been busy while we'd been 'away', and he'd secured another 'small' cooking pot as well as a wire basket. While his description was 'common' – Anna described the smallest one she'd had before I came that way – it was easily larger than my 'large' cooking pot.

That will shield one of those jugs,” he said, as we came out burdened with three sizable cloth bags. “If we must cook our meals, we want another larger pot for washing and meat.”


Cold water twice, then salt so it keeps,” said Lukas. “I bought a decent-sized bag of salt, though that stuff Sepp brought is better for cooking.”

Aye, and to the taste,” said Gilbertus. “That common stuff tastes like like fifth kingdom axle grease if one's used to the good stuff.”

Tying down the bags took but minutes, and I led off again toward the farrier. I felt the urge to hurry, for some reason, as if the thugs nearby were plotting an early rising, and when I heard first one echoing explosion, then another, I flinched violently.

That was a fowling piece,” said Lukas. “I hope that wretch got his.”

Uh, why?” I asked.

I seem to smell witches in this place,” said Lukas as he came up beside me, “and I saw some pointed boots in that last Mercantile.”

Where?” I asked.

They were next to a wall behind the counter,” he said, “and the heel of one of 'em was bloody. That's as sure a sign of witches as anything short of seeing one of them handy.”

Uh, somewhere on this road I saw someone use a roer on one of those black-dressed thugs.”

Did it get to that witch?” asked Lukas.

That thug went down and didn't move,” I said, “and the same for the person shooting him.”

That's about right for roers,” said Lukas. “Now that farrier's place is up ahead, but one wants to be tricky about getting there if it's the usual time of day.”

Tricky?” I asked.

Don't turn direct onto his road, but pick one a few streets early, so's you can dodge this bad section,” said Lukas. “It might be possible to not need to do that now, as it's still quiet.”

I think I might have done that when I found him,” I said. “I don't hear anything up ahead. It sounds like everyone got into the fermented kerosene last night and is still asleep.”

Now what is this k-k-stuff?” asked Lukas. “I cannot say that word.”

A form of distillate,” I said. “It's like heavy distillate, except lighter in color, a good deal thinner, less hazardous to use, and much less smelly.”

Is it boiled?” he asked. “I'm glad for that boiled stuff, as it works good for keeping rust down.”

I'm not certain if it's 'boiled',” I said. “Boiled distillate is closer to a light oil where I came from, and that 'oil' used on the buggies would be considered a common lubricant for consistency.”

I went past the place where I had turned the day before, and continued on until 'the street of the farrier' showed. Again, the entire absence of road-signs made me wonder why the only place I'd seen them so far was in the Swartsburg.

Out on the fringe of town, however, the dead-seeming aura was much less, and the noise of life was well under-way. I noticed a busy Public House, followed by a smaller Mercantile, and the smithy I had noticed yesterday was smoking markedly. The gray billows spoke of ample kindling.

They've lit the wood recently,” I said.

What time do you light yours?” asked Lukas.

If I do it, about half an hour before it starts to get light,” I said. “Otherwise, I'm not certain. I doubt those people will start as early if I'm not present.”

They're more likely to spend most of their days in that Public House,” said Lukas. “I doubt they'll do much without you there.”

Uh, why?” I asked.

Were I like most,” he said, as the farrier's log signpost hove into view, “I'd say it was because you weren't handy to tell them every little thing to do so's to keep them out of trouble.” A brief pause, then “it ain't that. I might not know much more, but I can say it isn't what it looks like.”

They've thought me to be a witch more than once,” I muttered. “Does that figure into it?”

That would be part of the common way of thinking, especially among smiths,” said Lukas. “A fair number of smithies down this way do a lot of business for coaches and those riding with them, and...”

Lukas paused in his speech and came closer, then said, “that place you spoke of has a coach hid in the back area.”

Wonderful,” I thought. “Either that place is under the control of those thugs, or they just barged in and said 'fix me' with guns in their hands.”

That does sound likely,” said Lukas. “Now that farrier is up here shortly, and... There's his sign. It's him.”

Pulling into the yard of the farrier made for wondering if he was indeed open, for his door was still closed, but once I'd dismounted, the door opened. He did a double-take upon seeing me...

And did something I'd never seen done here before when he saw Lukas.

While the two of them 'greeted each other' – it involved a strange-looking 'fraternal' handshake, followed by a close embrace – the rest of us began removing bags and packs. For some reason, I had a peculiar idea regarding 'assembly-line work', and when Gilbertus asked me for my hoof-pick, I gave it to him. I was even more surprised when the farrier handed me what looked like a small pry-bar.

I suspect you can remove the shoes and nails,” he said, as he pointed to the first horse. “It'll take less time that way.”

I did so under his watching gaze while Gilbertus held the hoof. I pried gingerly, and as the shoe came loose, the farrier nodded appreciatively.

Good, most of the nails are coming out with that one,” he said. “I'll get the rest of them.”

I did the second hoof on the front slightly quicker, then as an afterthought removed the remaining nails with the pincers. I glanced at them and recalled not being able to wipe them down fully, and once I'd finished hoof number two, I paused to wipe them completely with an oily rag. I was glad there wasn't any rust.

I heard tell about boiled distillate,” said the farrier. “You know anything about it?”

I wasn't sure who he was speaking to, and as I resumed work on the left rear hoof, Lukas said, “that you can get up north. I have some, and might spare a little if you have a place to put it.”

Talk had it came from the fourth kingdom,” said the farrier, as he began to 'clean' the first hoof. “I didn't know it could be had up there.”

It can be, and most likely cheaper,” said Lukas. “You'll want to write to Hans in Roos.”

Ah, him,” he said. “Now how did he get the secret for it?”

From him what's pulling the shoes,” said Lukas. I wanted to hide.

Did he get it from the fourth kingdom?” asked the farrier.

He ain't been down there yet, so I doubt it,” said Gilbertus. “I never saw anyone do that this quick and neat, Markus excluded.”

Markus?” I asked.

That would be me,” said the farrier. “Were you to apprentice, I suspect, it would take you very little time to learn the business proper.”

Proper?” asked Lukas.

He acts like he's been around mules some,” said Markus. “Horses, unless they be abused, are not inclined to kick.”

M-mules?” I gasped. I nearly said, “Genuine Mexican Plug” instead.

That one at the house should be gone before we return,” said Lukas. “If it ain't, it'll eat some hot lead at my bequest.”

You'll want something that provides sizable doses if you do,” said the farrier. He was on the third shoe, and I'd started on another horse.

A r-roer?” I asked.

If you can find one, I'd use it,” said Markus. “Mules are almost as bad that way as swine.”

What he has stops pigs,” said Karl around something he was eating. “Do you think it will burn today?”

No worse than it usually does,” said Markus. “Why, is some witch hereabouts thinking to become an incendiary?”

No, the sun was red this morning,” said Karl. “That means it will burn.”

Not here,” said Markus. “If you saw it just as it came up, then that's common.”

Why is that?” asked Karl.

I'm not terribly sure,” said Markus. “I suspect it's because of this area to the west of the High Way a few miles where most of the kingdom's important people live.”

What are they like?” asked Sepp. He was slurping down something of a liquid nature.

Most of them wear black-cloth,” said Markus, “and if they don't run coaches, they run these other fancy things that are like them.”

That sounds like the Swartsburg,” said Sepp.

I've never been more than about twenty miles north of here,” said Markus, “but when I go, I want to know where that place you spoke of is.”

Why?” asked Karl.

I want to stay well clear of it,” said Markus. “Even this part of town has its share of trouble with witches.”

Most of the Swartsburg burned recently,” said Gilbertus, “so it's not likely to be as troublesome as it was, at least for a while.”

If it's like that place over there” – here, Markus pointed to the west – “it will be trouble until it is completely gone.”

With each horse's shoes done, Karl and Sepp reloaded its burden, or so I thought until I glanced to see the bags and other things carefully parceled up into smaller bags. I had the impression that an even burden on the horses not being ridden would make for faster travel, and once the horses were done – I slipped Markus another gold piece, on top of what he'd gotten for the work he did – I found that to be the case as we headed south.

And now we need to go along that one path,” I murmured, as we went down a street that showed the beginnings of 'traffic' and open shops doing business. The first right turn was up ahead.

The street we turned onto was still a good deal less crowded than I recalled, but as we went west along it, I smelled many of the odors I had smelled yesterday – and, once I'd turned left onto the other cross-street, I heard a familiar sound. The 'babies' seemed especially sick, and their tormented 'quo-wall' sounds made for shudders.

What is that noise?” asked Karl.

Those sound like glutted quolls,” said Lukas. “You don't want to eat 'em, as they'll cork your backside just like a...

A screech-chorus interrupted Lukas, and he spat – first, onto the roadway, and then an oath. “Like those accursed things you just heard.”

What were those?” asked Karl.

Squabs,” said Lukas. “Do you believe me now that this place is like the Swartsburg?”

Lukas' outburst did not merely silence Karl's question, but seemed to put an impetus to our travel that was previously not present, and once onto the main road, we picked up speed slightly. I somehow doubted we would be leaving 'today', even if I had a definite impression about tomorrow. Tomorrow sounded uncommonly likely, for some reason, though 'when' tomorrow was a very good question. Something would happen today – or, perhaps, tonight. I'd heard 'two more days', and the manner of figuring made for wondering.

Two more days, and then the third day?” I thought. There was no answer, save the looming gate and the road beyond it.

There was a short line heading into the gate which we passed at a 'rapid' walk, and I counted several decrepit-looking buggies drawn by 'downtrodden-looking' horses. These last seemed uncommonly dispirited, and when I looked into the fields to right and left, I found further groups of people and similar buggies. All of them were laboring steadily, yet there was something missing – and another group of things added – compared to the attitude of those who worked that way at home.

These people seemed to be expecting a well-hid taskmaster to suddenly materialize with a whip, and then lash them into bloody pulps because they weren't working as per that being's inclination of the moment.

As if they were, in truth, well-hid slaves.

The plausibility of the matter pounded on my head. Slave-run pack trains hauling goods into the Swartsburg, with the goal of each slavemaster proclaiming the superiority of his 'wares' while marching the true-step...

It was otherwise, I knew. In truth, slavemasters considered slaves to be less than property – slaves were extensions of their own minds, wills, and emotions, in fact, such that all such beings thusly owned were perfect mirror reflections – and could thereby be relied upon utterly to unthinkingly obey the slightest whim of those in control without hearing a shred of command or instruction. They knew what was desired.

Failure to do so, of course, meant an 'uppity' slave, and gave the master an excuse to vent his sadism upon his unresisting 'fool' for the pleasure of his whim and the joy of slaughter.

The road and its dust jolted me clear of such thinking as we came even with the rear of the house proper. I looked up at the sun, then gasped.

“I thought the 'third hour'...”

“Is in roughly an hour's time,” said the soft voice, “and as is common for most 'morning' meetings, this one will be somewhat tardy.”

“Will they become irritated at lateness?” I asked.

“Such that it shows markedly, not really,” said the soft voice. “Besides, a fair percentage of that group yesterday has been sipping uncorking medicine while plotting how to avoid that 'fancy' refectory.”

“'Custom' demands consumption of that food?” I asked.

“Recall that 'small handful' Hendrik spoke of regarding 'conviction'?” I mentally nodded. “They demanded such food be consumed, and hence, it was prepared.”

“Which reduces or eliminates contributions from those not accustomed to its consumption,” I muttered.

“More than that, actually,” said the soft voice. “The goal was to effectively close down the series of meetings and preserve the existing conditions in the house proper. That disk has changed everything. What happens next, however, will make the disk's effects seem as nothing.”

“Should I speak of plain food?” I asked.

“You would be but adding your request to a very long list,” said the soft voice, “with Hendrik's name at the top of it. More-wholesome food has been requested.”

“And sabotaged the same way, no doubt,” I murmured.

“Which is why most of those not inclined toward bad food have secured 'note-taking' satchels and secreted bread and peppered dried meat in them.”

“Perhaps if I mention my, uh, apprenticeship..?”

“You might speak that way if the food is 'inedible',” said the soft voice. “The king isn't at all happy with what happened last evening, and Hendrik spoke of your 'training'.”

“Did he eat any of that stuff?” I asked.

“Much as you did,” said the soft voice. “He spoke of being ill beforehand, and hence 'invalid food' was reserved for him.”

“Unhappy about the food..?” I asked.

“That and the injury that occurred,” said the soft voice. “Those people were not supposed to be working that late.”

“Does he know why?” I asked.

“He has suspicions,” said the soft voice, “but no proof – and in this house, proof is needed to proceed against witches.”

“What if one of them, uh, shows, and he's spouting curses with a sword in his hand?”

“That is ample proof,” said the soft voice, “at least for someone in your position.”

“Uh, position?” I asked.

“It goes further than what those guards implied,” said the soft voice. “You were in that meeting, and hence are one of the 'betters'; and your 'business' in town speaks of 'responsibility' to the majority, and darker things to the rest.”

We passed the gate to the house proper without incident, and once the horses were looked over, we began 'portaging' our supplies indoors. I was carrying the uncorking medicine, and as I came up the stairs, I spied one of our group some distance away to the left.

“Uh, help?” I murmured softly.

I was surprised to see him 'jolted', then run quickly and vanish, even as I turned back to the path to where we were quartered. I could feel something untoward there, something about a group waiting at our door.

“Why didn't they just go inside?” I thought. “They have pass-keys, don't they?”

“They are afraid to do so,” said the soft voice, “as they do not have your permission.”

“My permission?” I asked.

“Recall what you heard about one of the party being thought an 'arch-witch'?” said the soft voice. “About who wrecked the Swartsburg?”

“Do they think I did that?” I thought.

“They know about the heads,” said the soft voice, “as well as some of the first kingdom house's gossip, and between that and what they saw last night, they not merely think you to have wrecked that place, but also killed all of the witches in it as well.”

“And hence I'm no mere 'arch-witch', but something closer to Brimstone himself,” I thought acidly. “Why are they..?”

I stopped in mid-sentence, and smelled faintly the reek of distillate, and for some reason, I started seeing all that I was doing in a strange fashion. There was nothing of mystery in what I was doing; instead, it was a matter of mastery, and that mingled with extreme cunning. All that I did resonated with witchcraft to the utmost degree, and everything that I touched was as cursed an object as could be had in the five kingdoms.

“No, I don't want to be a witch,” was all I could think and say.

My common-seeming clothing was more potent than black-cloth embroidered with blood-red rune-curses, and my speech was unspeakable, for all of it was a well-hid curse-collection, and that proven by its difficulty of pronunciation. My boots were more potent than any mere weapon-sheathes, black or otherwise, and my writing...

“But that is not in the written format,” I thought.

“That does not matter to those who think according to what you just learned,” said the soft voice. “Writing among witches is a good deal less meaningful than Kees made it out to be, while few and rare are the witches who can hide their curses in plain sight. Hence, writing that presents an especially convincing case is thought to have especially potent curses.”

“And my going into town?”

“Is thought purely a matter of witchcraft among those people,” said the soft voice. “Of course you had business in town – you had to pour out your curses to make the place your property, then lead your slaves in to do your bidding, and then curse the place for all time once you had satisfied your inclination of the moment.”

“What?” I spat.

“Their beliefs,” said the soft voice, “and hence their 'gifts'.”

The 'train' behind me had grown noticeably during the conversation, and when I paused and turned, I noted twelve people hurrying to catch up. I wondered as to their significance until I heard Kees shout something unintelligible.

“Must you?” I thought, even as Karl and Sepp passed me. I didn't need to hear shouting.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I think someone saw us coming back,” said Sepp. “Now I hope those people don't get lost.”

“How did you avoid that trouble?” I asked.

Sepp smiled, then said, “one of those small lanterns, chalk, and a damp rag for the trip back.”

“So you could see?” I asked.

“That, and chalk shows up better with a candle-flame,” said Sepp. “I bought another three sticks in that first Mercantile, that and my own soap.”

“Soap?” I asked.

“We might need to wash our own clothing,” said Sepp. “If not here, then the next house. Gilbertus said the dust could eat you alive there, and clean clothing was something you needed.”

As if to supply an answer, the first of the twelve 'porters' came up, and I was surprised to see Gabriel with a sack in his hands.

“I had no idea you did that,” he said, as I fell in beside him. I wondered as to his meaning. “We have keys to the baths, and arrangements with the laundry.”

“Where is the laundry?” I asked. Our room was some distance yet; perhaps a hundred yards to the corner, then further to the room itself.

“The south-east corner of the building,” said Gabriel. “It runs day and night, with only the first post of the day not covered, and there are rumors that one or more people remain there then.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Too small for the number of people in the house?”

“It is not that,” said Gabriel. “I could find out little more than where it was and how we could use it, and the same for the baths.”

“Are there other baths?” I asked.

“There are, but they are either especially well hidden, or are reserved for certain persons,” said Gabriel. “The ones I was told of are the preserve of students and people like them.”

Like them?” I asked.

“Special messengers, envoys, and perhaps certain junior clerics,” said Gabriel. “Otherwise, it seems most visitors are as we are, or as those who started that fight last night.”

“Uh, better food?” I asked.

“They can have it,” said Gabriel. “If I go in that place again, I plan on fetching the fowling piece and my own food, thank you.”

Gabriel paused, then asked, “why is it I smell distillate ahead?”

I searched my thoughts for a moment, then said, “light-giving firebombs, unless I miss my guess.”

I turned the corner onto the long passage, and ahead in the distance I saw a dark-shrouded group of indeterminate number. Most of the candles that had been glimmering faintly when we had left were now extinguished, and with the occupancy of this region being those like us alone...

“That is not it,” I thought. “Not if these people think I'm one step down from Brimstone.”

The steps coming from behind me seemed to form themselves into a steady 'tramp', much as if the 'porters' had been drilled for months in synchronized stepping. I could hear the boots being raised high and slammed down in the true-step, even as my own boots...

I looked down, expecting to see pointed black things, and saw merely what I commonly wore. I then took a longer step, thereby altering the rhythm of the 'march'.

My aberration was copied precisely by those behind me.

“What do these people think I am?” I thought.

There was no answer, save precise duplication of my every movement. Even my breathing was copied precisely as to its depth and rate, and dread synchronization with all of my actions was the byword.

Only then could slaves be fully owned by their master.

Knowing this was a nightmare fastened down upon further nightmares, for now all that I did was seen as the actions of a witch. I felt trapped, and doomed, and only when the stink of distillate grew especially strong did I think to look ahead.

The group now numbered four, I saw clearly, and their stiff and motionless standing at 'attention' made for further nightmares atop what I was enduring. Their expectations were legion, and...

None of that matters?” I thought. “I can do with them as I feel inclined, and speak what I wish..?”

I then knew this to be true. Peremptory behavior was the mark of the witch, and the four of them stood motionless with their smelly burdens in their hands as I reached for the door's knob.

The lock clicked at my touch, and I flung wide the door to show a badly-lit room, while the long 'coffle' of my slaves now true-stepped inside with feet lifted high and slammed down in precise unison. The witches holding the lights remained without, and I looked eye-to-eye at each of them fixedly. None of them dared endure my gaze, and I then knew I had them 'controlled' fully as well.

When the coffle had gone in, I shouted harshly the single word 'halt!' in dire clipped tones, then motioned the four witches to march within. The first one raised high his boot, then brought it down, and the others followed afterward in precise choreographed perfection, until they came to the table, where they laid down their cloth-wrapped burdens.

“Unwrap those,” I spat.

The four 'applied themselves' to their burdens, and when the first of the 'firebombs' was ready, I motioned the witch aside. I then touched the adjusting lever, felt the cold chill of a full reservoir, and then snapped my fingers over the top.

The lamp blazed instantly into brilliant light, and the thick black smoke of its burning began billowing upward from its tall brass chimney.

The other witches now hurried their duties as the first light began to pulsate, and I performed the same duty upon each lantern as they finished. The smoke, smell, and soot made a ghastly cloud that hung thickly all around, and the emotionless masks of the witches looked at me, waiting for my command. I noted the stiff brown cloth of misers, the mingled reeks of strong drink, bad food, and unwashed bodies, and above all, their utter and complete sameness of appearance. All of them were cut from the same cloth, just like their clothing.

“The four of you, leave instantly,” I spat. “I will deal with you fools later.”

The witches ran for the door in a clumsy mob, banging and thumping as they struck each other with fists and feet as they crowded the doorway, then the door banged shut once the last of them had left.

I then turned down each lantern one by one until the room was shrouded in darkness. I found a student's lantern, and walked toward the privy among motionless stiff-as-stone bag-holding 'statues'.

The candle I'd seen earlier in the day was nearly out, and I used its meager guttering stub to light the 'full' candle in the lantern. As I did, I recalled the soot the other things had billowed, then looked up at the ceiling.

“They must burn those things in here with some frequency, if I go by that mess,” I muttered.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “Those four are the first such gifts in nearly two years.”

“Then those stinkers made all of that soot?” I asked.

“They haven't cleaned the roof in a very long time,” said the soft voice. “Too-tall ceilings and a dire shortage of tall-enough ladders doesn't help much.”

“At ease!” I yelled.

To my complete astonishment, all of the porters 'relaxed', and I began retrieving bags. As I did so, I churned over questions in my mind, until I came to Kees. I then noticed his greasy face.

“Did you eat bad food again?” I spat. “If you did, get in the privy and don't come out until you are no longer corked!”

Kees ran stiff-stumbling for the privy, where seconds later I heard grunts and moans amid rapidly-increasing stink.

“I have no idea as to what it will take to teach you people that I am not a witch,” I spat, “so all I can do is order those not of my, uh, party to leave in an orderly fashion when I tell you to.”

I retrieved all of the bags, then told the 'porters' to leave. They did so as they had come in, with boots lifted high in the true-step and a long line forming a 'coffle'. Once the door was closed again, I spoke to those of our group not in the privy.

“Wake up!” I spat.

The gasps and goggling eyes, as well as the yawns, made for marveling on my part, and when I'd lit the second of the three student's lanterns, I heard a question. I was working on lantern number three when I answered.

“Why are those lanterns in here, you ask?” I stated clearly as an answer. “Some 'important' people in this house think me to be an especially nasty and dangerous witch. Hence, they 'served' me with my 'due'.” I paused, then said, “and those things are about due for an accident.”

As if to remind me of the intrinsic nature of light-giving firebombs, a shuddering boom came from upstairs that sifted dust down upon my head. It also awoke entirely those still standing.

“Where's Kees?” asked Gabriel. “What are those lanterns doing here?”

“Kees is in the privy,” I said. “He still has a substantial appetite for the food of witches, it seems, and... Is all that he did to 'repent' a sham?”

“An attempt at manipulation by feeding him 'specially',” said the soft voice. “Gabriel and Hendrik were too busy to be found, unlike Kees.”

“And cursed food has a substantial 'hold' upon him still?” I asked. “Or is it more than merely food?”

“He gets ridden easy,” said Lukas, “and I thought I was not as easy to ride as that was.”

“If there is one individual like that in a group,” I murmured, “it seems to affect everyone else to a lesser or greater degree.” I again smelled the distillate of the lanterns, and retched.

“How did those get here?” asked Gilbertus.

“They were brought by witches,” I said. “I'm not certain what the rules are in here about light-giving incendiary smudge-pots, but...”

The door tapped, and in came Hendrik, followed by another individual who took me seconds to recognize as one of those who had been at the meeting yesterday evening.

“Now who brought those?” spat the visitor. “Those things are good for trouble, and nothing but.”

“Four witches were waiting for me outside the door,” I said deadpan, “and...” I paused, then asked, “do you think I'm a witch?”

The man seemed taken aback. He looked at Hendrik, who shook his head slowly.

“I don't know you that well,” he said. “If he says you're not, then you're not.”

“Then how did you light those things like you did?” asked Kees from the other direction

Our visitor turned to Kees, then me before he said, “now if I had to pick a witch from among those here, I'd pick that man there over you.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“He was here a fair amount during his traipsing, and he was asking a lot of questions,” said our visitor. “While students usually do that, they don't ask questions of that nature.”

“If they go to the west school, you mean,” said Hendrik. “He didn't.”

“Which one did he go to, then?” asked the visitor. “Boermaas?”

“No, he did not go there,” said Hendrik. “He had an offer from here prior to his finishing, and he came up to the first kingdom instead.”

“And that offer was a decent one,” I said.

The visitor looked at me, then nodded. “Those Generals were the ones making it, unless I miss my guess. They tend to do most of that type of hiring.” He paused, then “now what is this with lighting those?”

“He made this noise with his hand above the chimney,” said Kees, “and they lit, each of them in turn.”

“I felt inclined to try it,” I said, shrugging my shoulders, “and I'm surprised it worked.”

I went toward one of the lanterns, picked it up – and promptly set the thing back down as I began hunting for a rag. Only dousing the rag with aquavit and scrubbing vigorously helped get the tormenting sensation off of my hands.

“Those things are cursed,” said our visitor. “Is that it?”

“With him, perhaps,” said Hendrik, “though I have heard certain sensations are tormenting on his hands.”

“L-like lard,” I gasped. “Those things are coated with lard, and... Kees! They fed you pork! Back in the privy until that rubbish comes out!”

Kees was about to reply, but he doubled up retching and nearly collapsed as his trousers acquired brown stains in a great hurry. I then turned and looked at the door. Seconds later, there was another tap.

I went to open the door, and when I moved it aside, one of the 'pages' showed. He spoke of it being the third hour – and then, to his side someone outside said, “best figure on two more turns of the glass before showing. Some of those people had a fire in their room, Johan.”

“Fire?” I asked.

“One of those lanterns they prefer became angry with them,” said the second voice, “and it showed them its anger by setting them alight. Several of them were burned and had their clothing ruined.”

“Was this clothing, uh, dark brown and stiff?” I asked.

“For several of them, yes,” said the second voice as it came closer. “The others wore black-cloth...”

And here, the speaker came to where I was standing and looked closely at me.

“Why aren't you wearing that kind of clothing?” he asked.

“Because I'm not a witch,” I said. “Does everyone say I am?”

“Those that are betters do, especially if they dress fancy,” he said. “Most commons believe what their betters say.”

“Because they say it, correct, not because it's been tested to find out if it's right or not?” I said.

He nodded solemnly.

“That way will have you believing lies,” I said. “Test everything...”

The two of them looked at me with widened eyes, then the first 'page' said, “they were lying to us, Gijs. Witches don't go to church, and they don't speak of sermons, and he just did.”

“Good,” I said. “Now spread that rumor, because it's the truth.” I paused, then said, “and four of those stinky things were delivered here. Do you know where I can dispose of them safely?”

Neither 'page' had an understanding of the matter, and after they left, I thought briefly. For some reason, I thought it wise to 'jug' the lanterns' distillate.

“Do we have a spare jug?” I asked, as we began unpacking the morning's supplies.

“I might fetch one for you,” said our visitor. “What is it you want it for?”

“Draining those stinky things so they aren't a fire hazard,” I said, “and then, perhaps, carrying the distillate with us. It might come in handy later.”

“Yes, for starting campfires,” said Karl. “I've heard it is good for that.”

Sepp shook his head, then resumed looking in his bag.

Our visitor left shortly thereafter, and within perhaps twenty minutes, he returned with not merely another person dressed similarly, but also a wheeled cart. This last proved to have bread, peppered dried meat, cheese spread, and cherry jam, and those of us not busy packing our 'victuals' found pieces of what had been supplied. For some reason, I thought to ask about eggs.

“Those tend to be very scarce in this area,” said our initial visitor. “Why?”

“That other refectory had those as part of its first course,” said Hendrik, “and he found some. I suspect he found the only food that wasn't High on that table.”

“There are High eggs,” said our visitor, “but hiding them is nearly impossible, unlike most High Meats.”

“R-rotten eggs?” I gasped.

He nodded, then said, “they are not good to eat when they smell.”

“Then, there was this red sauce...”

“Did it attempt to set your mouth alight?” he asked.

I nodded, then said, “it helps with nausea.”

“That we do have, and I can see about it being brought here,” he said. “Hendrik said you were ill, and that might help somewhat.”

Kees needed to fetch clean clothing before we went to the meeting, or so I suspected when Hendrik made ready to go, but when Gabriel gathered the documents, he said, “he's still making a stinky mess in there. He may need to remain here for the first portion.”

“First portion?” I asked.

“That would be from the start until roughly lunchtime,” said Gabriel. “I suspect he will not be the only person still indisposed.”

“That, and he is out of clean clothing,” said Hendrik. “We'll need to attend to clothing later today.”

The meeting-room proper proved to be empty of all save a few when we came, and I fetched unfermented drinks for the three of us. I thought to ask for 'cold' while handling the 'flagons', and when Hendrik sipped his grape juice, he shuddered briefly before speaking.

“What happened to this stuff?” he asked.

“I asked for it to become colder,” I said. “Why, is it different?”

“It's cold enough to give a headache if consumed rapidly,” said Hendrik.

“Perhaps less chilly, then,” I asked. “Now where...”

I stopped in mid-sentence, for the king filed in, followed by over a dozen people. These individuals to a man looked more than a little ill, and when one of them stood and moved rapidly towards the door leading to the privy, the king looked about aimlessly with a jaundiced eye. He then stood and moved toward us.

“I'll not have bad food served in here again,” he murmured, “as it wasn't just you people it put in the privy. The only people that didn't spend most of the night there set fire to their rooms earlier today.”

“What do you know about distillate-fueled lanterns?” I asked.

“They are said to be brighter,” he said. “Beyond that, I am not sure. I've never used them.”

“It is good that you do not,” said Hendrik. “All three of us know of their tendencies toward fires, and him most of all.”

“Have you used them?” he asked.

“I have, but not as light sources,” I said.

“How, then?”

“I once tossed one in a place a witch had cursed and thereby deeded to Brimstone,” I said, “and I heartily wished I had not done so when the explosion tossed me.”

“Then I wish no part of such lanterns,” he said.

“There were four of those stinky things delivered this morning by, uh, people wearing this stiff dark brown clothing,” I said. “Do you know where I might dispose of them?”

“Beyond sell them in town, I'm not sure,” he said. “If they were delivered by people like you speak, then it is probable they would sell readily at high prices.”

“Those people?” I asked.

“Are commonly very wealthy,” he said. “Beyond that, I am unsure as to their motives, even if I am quite sure as to the importance of what you have to present.”

Once the king had retaken his seat, I whispered to Gabriel, “he isn't one to trust much, is he?”

Gabriel nodded, then began arranging his documents. Hendrik had left, and when he returned, I noted the odor that had returned with him.

“I wish I had one of those copper vessels like you have,” he said. “I'd fill it with uncorking medicine and sip from it.”

Still feel corked?”

“Less than this morning,” said Hendrik, “but I'm still feeling corked to a degree.”

Gabriel betrayed himself to be similarly indisposed but minutes later, and once he'd returned, I looked over the room to see several more persons had entered. One of them was the 'announcer', and a few minutes more had this individual give a short 'address' in the manner he had done so prior – complete to 'waxing sore and heavy' and 'giving proofs, and answering rightly'.

“Answering truthfully, or telling one's questioners what they wish to hear?” I thought, as Hendrik 'took the stand'. There was no answer.

While there was no answer regarding what the itching ears of those around me wanted to hear, there were answers regarding 'muskets', and here, I 'showed' first my rifle, then the pistol. The 'poor' finish on the latter I explained by saying it was 'an experiment', and I followed this statement by “I'm trying hard to find this formula used in the fourth kingdom, and so far, I have some likely leads.”

“Does this formula give a dark bluish-black color?” asked one of the men on the left side of the table. He seemed interested.

“Supposedly it does,” I said. “Most importantly, that coloring can easily be made non-reflective...” The murmuring that ensued on both sides of the table was enough to make for wondering, as seconds later I heard first one 'polemic' about the need for mirror-polished weapons, then another. While these polemics were more 'polite' than the outbursts I had heard the day before, they were just as ill-reasoned.

“What, don't animals notice shiny things and run off when you are hunting with such weapons?” I asked.

“They never did that with me,” said one of the arguers.

“What did you use?” I asked.

“A good fowling piece from the fourth kingdom,” he said.

“Those are darkened like he spoke of,” said Hendrik, “and while those coloring them seldom speak of why they do so, I have wondered for many years.”

I could not 'prove' matters, or so I thought, and I was about to sit down when the local king indicated he wished a 'demonstration'. I looked at Hendrik, who was of no help, and then went to this other man.

“What would you wish to see, sir?” I asked.

“How your equipment works,” he said softly. “I suspect you may be correct about animals noticing shiny objects, as few people wear anything that stands out while in the fields or forests.”

“And if animals notice shiny objects...” I murmured softly, while putting my things at an open space in the table.

“Do swine?” asked someone else.

“Those pigs tend to notice anything out of the ordinary,” I said, “so what concealment that can be done is very important.” I paused, then said, “and, finally, 'bright-metal' finishes tend to show rust readily.”

“That... That may be for the best, then,” said one of the polemic-issuers. “Shiny or not, weapons need to work. They're worthless otherwise.”

My 'demonstration' was brief and to the point, as I had but little idea beyond 'I do not know the manual of arms, and they don't do that in the first kingdom anyway' and 'this weapon thumps people badly if it's fired in a confined space'.

After reassembling both pistol and rifle, I had more questions to answer, chiefly as to why I was able to do so so quickly. I indicated the barrel bands for the rifle, as well as its fitting, and with the pistol, I showed the finish on the internal parts. The temper-colors seemed to stand out especially well.

“I've wondered about your tools,” said a man who I had seen yesterday. He'd been silent then, and now assayed making up for it. “None of them shine. Why?”

“Part of that is the colors help tell me if a tool needs especial care in handling or not,” I said, “and then, it helps with organization, and finally, I'm reassured by seeing those colors.”

“How?” asked this man.

“With a mirror-polished tool, the thing can either be too soft to use, like many of mine were when I first received them, or too brittle to use safely,” I said. “If I see a turnscrew that's a nice medium blue, then I know it was tempered such that it will stand up to some prying. My drill-bits barely show any color, and they tend to be brittle.”

“You mean the shiny surface might hide mistakes?” said one of my 'accusers'.

“Come to think of it, it just might do that,” I said. “I want tools that work good. I have ample trouble otherwise.”

A short time of further discussion about weapons, that one boring person showed, he spoke at some length, and we were dismissed 'until the eighth hour'.

“Laundry,” I thought, as I gathered my supplies. “I need to check that.”

While I went straight back to our room, Gabriel and Hendrik went to the largest refectory, and I had just finished transferring the last lantern's distillate into a jug when they returned. The lanterns went on the floor in a corner after I finished them.

“What happened with Kees?” asked Hendrik, as he brought in a second 'serving table'.

“He only comes out for more uncorking medicine,” said Karl, “and then he goes back in there to make more noise and stink.”

“He ate swine's flesh,” said Sepp, “as I've smelled it before, and I've smelled it on him since the three of you left.”

As Gabriel and I went in search of the laundry, I recalled from long in the past a threesome of books I had read many times. My thinking was this: “first, those people from Norden and what they speak, then that silver disk, and now we are going to the laundry in a place that f-feels like that underground place where those dwarves once lived.”

Such thinking made for wondering, and I almost ducked at an intersection, for I had suspected the presence of that one large fire-spirit that had showed in the council chamber. I did not wish to run into it.

“Are there such things as elves?” I asked softly.

“Neither tapestries nor Grim mention such beings,” said Gabriel. “Such as you are mentioned many times. Why”

“This trip reminds me of a story I've read many times,” I said, “what with traveling, and danger, and strange, uh, creatures, and nonsense in, uh, Public Houses...”

“You may wish to write that story down later,” said Gabriel. “It sounds like it would fit well in the Grim Collection.”

'The southeast corner', while it sounded descriptive enough, was not at all 'accurate', and once in that general region, I needed to actually find where the laundry was. I went down one hallway where I thought it was possible to reach the place, then stopped in mid-stride and reversed.

“What happened?” asked Gabriel.

“We need to go in the other end of that place,” I said. “That entrance is, uh, blocked.”

I went to the next hallway, and here I passed several closed doors before I came to the correct one: doubled, unmarked save by age, a dim-burning tallow candle in a 'sconce' to its right, a somewhat foul odor, and a feeling of moisture unlike almost every other place in the house proper. I tapped, and rapid steps came to open the door.

The chief difference between clothing as done at where I lived and at this location proved to be one of volume, for the methods I saw in use were identical, and the supplies, too close to what I recalled to tell them apart. In the left corner as one stood just inside the door, there were 'laundry carts' with tall sticks standing head-high in the middle and crossbars joining them, while closer to where we stood were stacks of 'laundry sacks' tied closed and labeled with tin or brass tags. Just ahead were long iron ovens heating pots of water, while tubs lay next to the stoves, and to our right were several long thin wooden pieces padded by folded cloths. To their right lay more ovens, and to the very rear, I saw an old-looking iron-bound door. There were no people handy, and I wondered about the door enough to try opening it.

I had found the drier, and I briefly stepped inside the room.

The tall-ceiling stone-walled room showed two rows of what resembled wagon wheels running its length to each side of where I stood, with a sizable 'oven' of bronze sitting atop a stone plinth front-and-center. This last had a smokestack of bronze heading up into an obvious chimney, and when I looked up, I noted an obvious size disparity. I wondered for a moment as to why a six-inch smokestack was working into a much larger chimney when I felt the nearest hanging trousers. I noticed their growing dryness amid the warmth of the room.

“That makes for airflow,” I thought, “and these will dry quicker.”

I then saw the hangers hanging on the spokes of the wagon wheels. They were much like those I had seen elsewhere, and when I turned the wheel, I noticed its ready turning. I turned to go, and then smelled the place.

“Dampened woodsmoke,” I thought, “with a lot of warm fresh air.”

The steamy atmosphere of the main room became more apparent when I returned to it, and I saw we were no longer alone. A short and somewhat thin woman of 'middle age' was speaking with Gabriel, while I heard other younger voices coming nearer. I reached for my money pouch, then brought it out. I thought to help this woman, and laid three of the larger silver pieces next to her.

“What is this for?” she asked.

“I don't much care for laundry,” I said, “and I have trouble doing it. This might help some.”

“Is some coming?” she asked.

Gabriel nodded, then said, “eight sizable bags from visitors' quarters.”

Once back at the room, I found I had a 'loaded' plate waiting for me, as did Gabriel, and once I'd eaten, Karl asked me about locks opening at my touch.

“I'm not sure how that works,” I said, “but given my trouble with losing keys...”

Karl laughed, then said, “so that is why you do that.”

“It is much more than that, Karl,” said Gabriel. “If you lost that much, and that often, it would be very hard to keep your face straight in that place. We might tolerate such behavior, especially given what else he does, but there? That's thought worse than being a witch is here.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “were you to go there and fetch ten people at random, it is likely that all of them would be witches, and of a hundred, more than ninety would be witches for certain – and that in the nicer areas.”

“What is this place?” murmured Karl morosely. “It must be hell itself to have so many witches.”

“There are many places there that imitate hell quite well for behavior, if not much else,” said Gabriel, “and in those places, finding but ten who are not as the most evil witches imaginable is impossible. Those cities like that are very large, but there are larger ones...”

Here, Gabriel paused, squinted his eyes, then covered them with his hands.

“One especially large and evil city is called 'The City of Evil Spirits', and it is a jungle walled with tall stone towers and streets filled with wagons that ram each other in a frenzy of rage. Those there are a people so vicious that they make those that run with the swine seem sober, calm, and pleasant.”

Our meals eaten – Kees could only consume uncorking medicine, and the noise and stink indicated he was still 'popping corks' – the three of us went back to the meeting chamber. I noticed the others were occupying themselves with stowing supplies and cleaning guns, and I checked over the leather pieces Karl had mentioned. I did not have time to get either holster started, unfortunately.

The 'afternoon' meeting had close to a full complement of people, and here, 'strategy' was 'debated' at first. I seemed to hear little audibly beyond 'everyone knows what can be done, which isn't much until those people show', followed by 'it's taken centuries to learn what works, even if it works poorly much of the time'. I knew all that was being said was entirely bogus, and that was purely for the 'audible' portions. Those 'inaudible' parts I heard were more enlightening, if less inspiring.

The first portion I heard was 'this is not our problem', followed by 'you have no proof of anything beyond a few samples that interest me', and the third – and most-damning portion – that being, 'if you are proper witches, then you have nothing to fear save from those who wish to take what you now have. Send them to hell as per your inclination of the moment, and be done with them'.

“What can be said to these people?” I whispered in Gabriel's ear. “They are blind and deaf to their danger.”

“Beyond what we have said, not much,” said Gabriel. “I still do not understand what I said about that place I named the city of evil spirits, and about these matters, less yet.”

Hendrik turned to me, then said softly, “this is one of the chief issues – no one has any ideas that aren't hundreds of years old.”

Hendrik paused, then said, “except you.”

“And if I speak?” I asked quietly. My voice was now less than a whisper.

Clear as a bell, I heard the soft voice speak: “if you speak now, you will not be heard.”

“Then when..?”

The sense I had was at first a sinking one, then hot on its heels was what I had been told to expect prior to leaving – and following that was a sense of something so vast that I could scarce comprehend it beyond 'those that do not listen then will only listen to Brimstone'.

The meeting adjourned earlier than I expected it would, with the 'boring person' dragging on at length with his spoken version of 'the worst' of the written format. He was trying to put as many instances of 'ye' in his spiel as he could, and his style and pronunciation showed his labor. While the meeting seemed a failure, I felt strangely buoyed up, as if the obvious was but the seeming, and the change would be heart-stopping upon the morrow.

It would also turn the second kingdom onto its head, and vanquish most of our worries regarding the rest of them.

I wondered more than a little about my worries, however.