The road more traveled, part m.

The first intimation of change as per attitudes came when we reached the 'gateway' to the plateau. Here, the place seemed all but deserted, and soft westbound winds blew away the stench of death. The doors opening on the 'passage' were closed; no one was cooking or preparing meals; and when we came out of the gap proper, I thought to ask a question.

“Did someone go ahead of us?” I asked.

“I am not certain,” said Gabriel. “I think...”

“So that was what made those fresh tracks,” said Lukas. “Someone rode out here at a good fast trot earlier today, and if I go by the tracks, they did so within the last hour or two.”

“Were those people watching for us, or..?”

Gabriel turned to me, then said, “for some reason, I find it hard to disagree with your suspicion, and no, it is not because of that pendant.”

“Uh, the behavior we observed?”

“That is much of it,” said Gabriel. “I've watched General's Row enough that I though I understood how that place acted, but since coming here, I know I was ignorant.”

“General's Row?” I asked.

“It gets called that by a fair number of people now, and for obvious reasons,” said Gabriel. “Those doors they have are in a row.”

“And they're always starting a row,” I muttered. “Did Hendrik get any kind of, uh, written document regarding assistance?”

“What you saw goes beyond that,” said Gabriel. “There is but little higher than a fraternal kiss.”

“Uh, is that what they did?” I gasped. “I thought it was, uh, a greeting of some kind.”

“It is that,” said Gabriel, “and much more. I would not concern myself with assistance from that quarter.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, amid echoes of 'all count on you now' ringing in my mind.

“Turning your back on one whom you have kissed makes for mobs at the least,” said Gabriel, “and that if you are what they name common. For someone in that position... I hesitate to think what would happen to them.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “and that does not include the effects of that pendant.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Might it do something?”

“That will mean a good deal more labor for me once we return,” said Gabriel. “I doubt I will be the only one looking to learn what that thing is charged with doing.”

We came by the 'blockhouse', and again, it was 'vacant', or so I thought until I found a trio of horses tethered in the shade and a small cooking fire in front. Here, I saw guards dressed in something similar to war-cut dress, and their activity seemed to be lunch. I wondered about the watchtower ahead, for some reason; both at our lack of a token, and also, where we would stop for the night.

My concern proved unwarranted: the watchtower's gun was gone, as were its occupants, and once back on the High Way, I looked to the south. There, I saw a continuation of what we had endured to the north, with one chief difference, that being what I was wearing.

“Would they object?” I thought, as we drew closer to another woodlot.

I was expecting to hear an answer of some kind, but I felt reminded of the time dealing with the witches. Instead of speaking of a coach and black-cloth, however, I asked a question entirely otherwise.

“What happened to those stinky firebombs?”

“Those things?” asked Lukas. “I packed them up in a bag, along with the distillate you drained. We might sell those nasty things somewhere to the south.”

“Uh, where?” I asked. “That third kingdom port? That market town?”

“I might dump them sooner,” said Lukas. “I was thinking about trying the first decent-sized town we come to.”

“But don't you need to be...” I nearly added 'wearing black-cloth and riding in a mule-drawn coach'.

“The way these people are?” said Lukas. “I doubt it, especially if I let them go cheap.”

“And they will think you a thief,” I muttered.

“A second-hand store might be better,” said Gabriel. “I recall seeing at least one in this area during my traipsing, and they tend to ask few questions compared to home.”

“Meaning they fence a lot of stolen goods,” I said, as I recalled where Georg had unloaded his light-giving firebombs after I'd removed their markings.

“Theft is less common in this area than one might think,” said Gabriel archly. “Witches might be accomplished thieves, but they only tolerate their own thefts.”

The first town showed about two hours later, and while I oiled the buggies and then checked the hooves, most of the others went into the Public House where we were watering the horses. The first intimation I had that something was different was when Lukas showed.

“They want those things bad,” he said.

“They?” I asked.

“That second-hand store up the road here,” he said.

I went to where Lukas had indicated the lanterns were hiding, drew out their bag, then walked with him to where the store was.

This town had what might have been boardwalks under 'cover' for perhaps a hundred yards worth of shops, and as I walked from first hard-packed dirt to worn boards and then back again, I wondered again how our four lanterns would be taken.

“I can only tell them the truth,” I thought. “They gave these stinkers to us, they smoke badly, they give a fluctuating light, and they're inclined to start fires.”

The door to the shop in question was partly open, and Lukas opened it to show a 'jaded-looking' middle-aged woman. While her appearance was 'common' enough, there was a disquieting aspect about her just the same, and removal of the four lanterns from the bag had her 'admiring' the effort that went into packing them.

“They had this grease on them,” said Lukas, “and he isn't the only one who doesn't like touching it.”

“Ah, then they are new,” she said. “Were they tested?”

“Yes, briefly,” I said. “They smell, they smoke terribly, they give a fluctuating light, and...”

She was busily unwrapping one of them, and once she'd removed the string and rags, she spoke admiringly of them before removing the top and smelling intently. The sickening reek of distillate turned my stomach.

“Tis true,” she said, as she replaced the top, “and they're marked good, so they'll bring good prices quickly. Now what is it you want for them?”

I was glad that Lukas was able to deal with the woman, for the mere sound of bargaining now reminded me of hell, and I slowly walked to the door. The two of them were deep in concentration, but even as I remained just outside the door, I could hear them talking.

“No, he don't bargain,” said Lukas, “and he's all of a piece that way.”

“Then how does he do what he does?” she said. “I could tell he was one the moment he spoke that way, and those won't do for that kind of work.”

“He's different, that's for certain. Now I'll go five guilders less, but that's it.”

“Done,” she said avidly. “Let me fetch it.”

Lukas came out a moment later with a hefty pouch, and once we'd left the store behind, I asked, “what did she think I was?”

“She said you had to be an instrument-maker,” he said, “and the usual for them is to do everything themselves. I told her you weren't like that, and she had trouble believing me.”

“Uh, she didn't have any of this other type of lantern, did she?”

“I doubt it,” said Lukas. “If you mean those things that burn your eyes out, she talked of them, but said there were but two places they could be found, and both are a good distance south yet.” He paused, then said, “she mentioned a special lamp-oil that had little smell and didn't act strange in those things.”

“B-boiled distillate,” I said. “They still smoke terribly, and the danger is but little less.”

The others were just coming out of the Public House when the two of us returned, and after stowing the food – loaves of fresh bread and beer figured prominently – we resumed travel. As we did, I felt reminded of what I had recently heard about El Vallyé's migrants.

“Some of those people are witches,” I muttered.

“Who are they?” asked Gabriel.

“They come from this valley...”

“I have heard of it, but know of no one who has been there,” said Gabriel. “It has a bit more space than Norden does in the Compendium, but not much more.”

“What do you know?”

“That valley's northern end starts about here,” said Gabriel, “and those mountains to the east provide its western border. It goes south to where the fifth kingdom mining country starts.”

Gabriel paused, then sipped from his cup. I wondered how he was filling the thing until I saw the jug in his lap with a thick 'string' tied to its handle. He was wearing the string over his shoulder.

“Those that live there are called Veldters,” he said. “They call themselves another title entirely, and they are said to run that valley to suit themselves. They own all the property, and those under them...”

“Those three masons,” I gasped. “Someone cursed them, and they spoke of misbehaving fetishes.”

“That means those people are witches,” said Gabriel.

Some of them are,” I said. “Those three people were most definitely not.”

“So three of them gave up on the matter,” said Gabriel. “Most believe everyone that lives there is a witch.”

“I doubt that,” I said. “A fair number of those people are not merely impoverished, but also treated much like slaves, or like Ultima Thule treats those not of her own specially-chosen coterie.” I paused, then asked, “is treating people like slaves common among witches?”

Gabriel had no answer for me, and but little more regarding El Vallyé. “Little is known of that back area beyond those people exist in fair numbers, it's as dry as a dead stick, most mules and straight-horned cattle come from there, and what I said about them.” Gabriel paused, then said, “and no one, other than those who live there, is crazy enough to go into that place.”

For some odd reason, a term came to me, as well as a picture, and while I could not describe the picture beyond 'dark hair and a serious suntan', I could speak of the term.

“So, El Jefe...”

“Their speech is said to sound like that,” said Gabriel. “Now who is it?”

“Th-those people that hold those, uh, houses they have,” I said. “They're rather strange... Uh, oh, and you do not want to anger them.”

“That can be said for witches in general,” said Gabriel. I then saw the ledger and pencil. “What else?”

“They like, uh, something resembling Cuew to a slight degree,” I said, “and are fond of large celebrations, and... Ooh, you really don't want to get those people angry. They'll drop everything and come after you, and then they'll break out the nasty stuff.”

Gabriel continued writing, then asked the question, “what is this nasty stuff?”

“Th-third d-degree s-sessions,” I gasped. “Some of them could make stone statues talk if they were inclined.”

“I see,” said Gabriel. “Is there anything else?”

“S-some of them have sizable beards and smell, uh, strange,” I said. “I was told about this plant called Veldter weed, and how it was prepared and then, uh, burned.”

“That is listed in the Compendium,” said Gabriel, “and I suspect I have smelled that weed at a distance once or twice. It's good that you have some knowledge of them, as we may well need to deal with them in the future.”

“Deal with them?” I asked.

“Most believe all of them to be witches,” said Gabriel. “I am willing to discount that, as what little is known of them is suspect.”

“The ones you need to worry about are bilingual,” I said. “They tend to be better educated. Most of those leaving that place aren't.”

“Do they know of witchcraft?” asked Gabriel.

“They know enough to want no part of it,” I said. “The three people I've seen from there spoke of getting on their faces and not budging until they heard from God.”

I paused, then said, “and given how they often have to live, I'm not surprised.”

“How is that?” asked Gabriel.

“They have to live as though they are marked,” I squeaked. “They have to become entirely different people so as to avoid being burnt as witches.”

A few minutes later, Gabriel asked, “when you said they spoke more than one language, I assume you mean they spoke the one commonly spoken for one of those languages. What would be the other?”

“The language commonly spoken in the valley,” I said. “They learn to read and write in that language, as well as a great deal else.”

“And make dried goat,” said Lukas from behind. “That gets sold down into the mining country.”

“Do they make dried goat,” I asked, “or do they sell the live goats to others who dry that stuff?”

There was a pause, then “I never thought of that. Everyone said they made the stuff.” Another brief pause, then “you might be right. I remember some decent-sized goat flocks being herded south, along with those cattle they raise, and the same for mules.”

“Uh, really hot,” I said. “Fresh meat turns in hours unless you can put it in the salt right away.”

After another hour of alternating woodlots and farmsteads, I felt another town in the distance. This one was slightly larger than the last, and when I looked at the sun, I wondered as to when we would arrive there. I wondered if Hendrik wished to stop for a meal at that town, and thought to ask about it.

“After all that happened,” said Gabriel, “I suspect we will want to put distance under our feet as best we can today.”

“And a place to camp?” I asked.

“That will need you finding one,” said Gabriel, “though we may wish to stop at that town's Public House to inquire about the nearest campsite.”

“Uh, no,” I thought. “I...”

Squelching this thinking was the idea of talking with Hendrik before doing anything 'rash'. I purposed to mention the matter at the next watering stop.

I wondered about the huge Public Houses mentioned as being by themselves, and as we entered what looked to be an unusually large woodlot, I smelled an intense fume of 'cooking'. Mingled in this smoke was 'wood', 'roast meat', 'bread', and 'beer' – along with 'spices' and 'wine'. The last made for dry heaves on my part, as well as a strange inclination toward beer.

“A swallow, perhaps,” I thought. “Now is this one of those places?”

The woodlot stretched on in what seemed an endless fashion, and after ten minutes or so, a huge clearing showed to both right and left. The left side was crowded with wagons and buggies, while the right had a massive two-story building of timber and stone.

“What is that place?” I asked, as I pointed at it.

“One of those Public Houses that is all by itself,” said Lukas. “That one smells decent, but none of those places is good.”

“Two stories?” I asked.

“They have beds upstairs,” said Gabriel. “I recall sleeping in a place like that further south once.”

“Just once, eh?” asked Lukas.

“It wasn't merely the noise, nor the wind, nor the dice game in the corner that lasted until dawn,” said Gabriel. “That bed had biters in it, and I had bites all over me the next day.”

“Biters?” I asked.

“They resemble the usual bugs, save they are much smaller and have no odor,” said Gabriel, “and they tend to hide in beds.”

“That's another reason I stay clear of those places,” said Lukas. “Biters, bad food, noise, stink, and witches.”

“Witches?” I asked. “What, do they show in those places?”

“They do,” said Lukas. “I wished I knew about those small jugs then, as I would have put one in my things.”

“Small jugs?” I asked. “Like what Sepp had?”

“No, smaller,” said Lukas. “Hans spoke of some that used medicine vials, and those were bad enough, but then there were these others what used cast-iron that were worse.”

“Swine-shells?” asked Gabriel innocently.

“These you could hide in your hand,” said Lukas, “and they were as bad as a regular jug.”

Gabriel looked at me slyly, then said, “I saw that empty ink-pot you saved, and I saved the other one that Kees emptied. Do you plan on doing something with those?”

“I did,” I said. “I've got the last two of those other things with me.”

What other things?” asked Gabriel.

“What he was talking about,” I said. “These are for tossing, though, not placing.”

“Tossing, eh?” said Lukas. “Those sound like trouble.”

“They're awful,” I said. “I tossed one of them while I was going after Koenraad's head, and its blast nearly tossed me.”

“Sounds like a good tosser, then,” said Lukas. “Are those troublesome to make?”

“Uh, not really,” I said. “I hope to get more of those things for ink, though. They're a lot less work.”

The next watering stop showed at the edge of the woodlot, and there, I thought to speak to Hendrik about 'captive' sites.

“That pendant might and might not change matters,” he said. “If you can find places, they'd most likely be better, at least in this area.”

“How far do you wish to go today?” I asked.

“We don't need to work on ledgers now, so that's less of an issue,” he said. “We started later...”

“So end later?” I asked. “Light the small lanterns at dusk, then start looking soon afterward?”

Hendrik nodded, then said, “I recall at least one smaller river south of here.”

Hendrik had confirmed my suspicions about a suitable campsite, and when we resumed, I seemed to sense where the place was. We would have a late-night bedtime, and wish to leave before dawn the next morning.

At the next town, the others went in briefly while Lukas, Gilbertus and myself went over the horses and buggies. Karl handed me another sack of dried meat, and the smell of this latest material was especially helpful. I noted Sepp carrying his pail, and I thought to ask him.

“What do you have in there?”

“Chopped beef,” said Sepp. “I'm not inclined to any of these places, no matter how clean they smell.”

“Uh, if I went inside..?”

“Manfred spoke of sending a postal buggy once he'd written the letter heading south,” said Hendrik, “and I've not yet seen the messenger's buggy.”

“Is that why?” I asked. “They don't know about the change yet?”

Hendrik looked at me, then nodded. He 'jolted' seconds later, and spat, “how could I have not seen that?”

“I didn't know that much,” I said, “and I'm not comfortable with going into any Public House in this area, pendant or no pendant.”

About an hour out of town, I heard a steady clopping in our wake that abruptly slowed, and once it matched our pace, I thought to turn around. I saw a postal buggy moving next to Hendrik as he drove, and but a minute after I resumed facing ahead, the buggy picked up speed and moved to our left as it sped up. Faintly I could see sparks coming from the hooves of the horses as it passed us, then steadily gained in speed as it went further south.

“Now to watch for that river,” I thought. “It's up ahead here somewhere to the right, and then a short distance west along its banks.”

At dusk, we stopped to light our small lanterns at the edge of a woodlot. We were in a meadow, and a short distance to the south I saw a strange winding thicket that traveled erratically into the darkness. I suspected that was the river in question, and when we resumed, I was looking ahead carefully. Not ten minutes later, my vigilance was rewarded.

“Is that a bridge?” I thought. “It looks like one.”

The distance between our position and the bridge proved deceptive, for the minutes steadily wore on and the bridge seemed to remain a fixed distance from us, much as if it were moving and staying far distant from us. I wondered briefly if I were seeing a mirage, then dismissed it as very unlikely.

“Any colder, and I would want my cloak,” I muttered, as I looked ahead to the bridge. “How far away is that thing?”

The distance again deceived me, however, for as we came closer, the bridge seemed to move toward us at a frightful speed. I slowed, then went to the right margin of the road such that I could 'inspect' that side.

I came to the north terminus of the bridge, where the tarred gravel abruptly ceased to be replaced by stone, and I leaped off of Jaak. The gloom was such that I had to look carefully as I walked to the ditch. It seemed too deep to accommodate the buggies, and I walked back to where I had originally left the road.

The bridge was easily seventy feet wide, with a crowned arch leaping up perhaps three feet to then fall on the other side. Jaak followed me as I walked along the waist-high stone wall between the half-dozen pylons supporting the bridge, and when I came to the roadside ditch on the other side, I looked carefully again.

The ditch was about half the depth of the other side, and wending through the trees was what looked like a very narrow road.

“I found it,” I said softly, as I began walking ahead on the leaf-strewn path.

The closeness of the 'avenue' I had found matched that of the last 'hiding place', and the gloom was nearly as bad. It felt like the sun had gone down entirely, so much so that when a light flared behind me, I stopped and turned to see Karl coming horseback with a student's lantern.

“That light will draw thugs like a magnet, Karl.”

“Yes, if they see it,” he said. “We are a good ways from the road, and it is as dark as an unlit copper mine here. I can barely see my hands.”

I took the lantern, then resumed walking. I soon learned that I was not the only one; everyone who wasn't driving a buggy was walking their horses also, and as we continued, I recalled our tracks.

“Can those become invisible?” I asked.

For some reason, I knew now that were as safe as we could be anywhere in this part of the second kingdom. I now needed to find a place to camp along the winding river. The trees began thinning out steadily, then a grassy meadow showed with a clear view of the river amid reeds and 'bamboo' thickets.

“This is...” spluttered Karl.

“Is it good?” I asked, as I put the lantern on the ground. “Nice river. I wonder if there's fish in it?”

I began looking over the horses once the buggies were 'in laager', and after I checked each hoof carefully, I thought to begin 'water drawing'. I found one of the larger pots and went toward the river itself while being careful to not become 'bogged' on the riverbank, and carefully filled the bucket.

That bucket went on the stand over the heating lamp, while the tents went up and the other lanterns were lit. I dug the 'privy' behind a tree, then handed the spade off to Lukas. Gilbertus was off near the river after something.

“We want a good fire-pit here, as we'll need to boil all of that water afore we use it,” he said.

“For bathing?” I asked.

“Gilbertus is finding out if that water's decent,” said Lukas. “That, and I think he's after some stones for this pit here.”

“How do you tell if the water is decent?” I asked.

“Mostly its smell, that and what creatures are in it,” said Lukas. “If you find fish with fins and scales, it's not bad, and if they be trouts, then it's safe to drink without boiling.”

“There are no trouts in that pond,” said Gilbertus, “even if there are fish fit to eat.”

“Herring?” I asked.

“Those, and this other type that only shows south of where we live,” he said. “That bestiary calls them 'ever-hungry', or Grossmoend-fisch.”

“Big mouth fish?” I asked.

“I've caught those things before,” said Sepp. “They need a slower river than trouts.”

“Are they edible?” I asked.

“They are, but trouts are much better,” said Sepp. “At least, they are near home. They might be different here.”

Using 'all-boiled' water for bathing promised to make for a slow business, or so I thought as I went back with Gilbertus to fetch more rocks. We each filled a bag quickly at the side of the river, then brought them back to Lukas. He'd already dug a decent-sized hole, and firewood was steadily mounding nearby.

“That first pot of water is about ready,” he said. “The tub's behind the tents.”

I poured out the bucket of water, and as the steam billowed up, I watched it climb lazily into the cooling air.

“I'd fill that bucket if I were you,” said Lukas. “The other one will be ready quick enough.”

'Quick enough' proved to be but minutes later, and once I'd bathed, I felt much better. I had been feeling sore before bathing, as well as uncommonly fatigued, and now I felt much less of both. I bailed out the bulk of my water just before Kees came with a steaming pot.

“You next?” I asked.

He nodded, then said, “it should go faster once Lukas builds his oven.”

Oven?” I asked.

“It looks like one,” said Kees. “He should be firing it shortly.”

I went around to where the 'oven' was under construction, and gasped.

Lukas had built the stones into a semicircular mound with a flat top having three holes, and as he mounded the dirt back onto to the stones, I asked, “how does that work?”

“You build a fire in front,” he said, “and you put your pots on the first two holes. The smoke comes out of the third one in back.” Here, he paused, then said, “and once your oven's set, it's good for keeping a camp warm, too.”

“And camp-bread,” said Sepp. “I've cut a few of those canes for poles.”

“Fishing?” I asked. “At night?”

“There's a way to do that without watching your pole,” said Sepp. “I've done it a fair number of times near home to catch fish for my family.”

“Hooks?” I asked.

“I still have a few,” he said. “I started with two, and I finished with twelve. We had fish fairly regularly.” He paused, then said, “I never thought I would like herring again, but I do.”

“Those taste better when they're crocked,” said Gilbertus. “Fresh herring isn't much for taste.”

While Sepp prepared his poles, I began helping with the meat. I began cutting the stuff up carefully using the mess-kit's cutting board and putting it in the smaller pot, while Karl fetched something else. I guessed he was going to whittle until I saw him working on a cane.

“Are you going to try setting a line?” I asked.

“I can do that right now while I wait to bathe,” said Karl. “That oven will be a lot faster than that lamp.”

“And we really need more than one pot for dinner, don't we?” I asked.

“That too,” said Karl. “I am glad there are herring.”

I had finished the meat and dumped it back into its original pot when I turned to see a flaring billow of fire come from the oven amid clouds of black smoke. Lukas was tossing wood into a flaming holocaust in front of the thing, while fire billowed thickly out of all three holes.

“Uh, that looks hazardous,” I said. “How long does it take to set?”

“I put some distillate to it,” said Lukas, “so it should set in a short time. We'll be able to bathe a lot quicker then, and then start dinner.”

The 'oven' was pronounced 'set' but twenty smoky minutes later, and when both pots went on it, I noted 'bubbles' forming on the bottoms of both pots within less than a minute.

“That will make for quicker bathing,” said Lukas, “and for cooking, I'll need to be careful.”

“Uh, too hot?” I asked.

“I suspect so,” said Lukas. “It's already taking the chill off.”

The remaining four bathers managed baths within half an hour, and once all had bathed, I stowed the tub near the buggy it went in. I left it upside down so as to drain, but upon looking at it, I thought, “this would make a passable table.”

With the meat boiling for 'soup' – it received wine, both honeyed and otherwise, dried Goben flakes, dried vegetables, a small amount of powdery corn meal, and spices – I wondered what next to do. I thought to examine the bestiary while waiting, and I took up a position near the mouth of one of the tents after laying out my bedding under the nearest buggy.

I did not have to wait long, for the meal started without the soup being finished. The first course was herring, which was dished up a fillet each, followed by beer. Again, I had a distinct inclination toward beer for some reason, and I filled my smaller cup. I took a cautious sip – and merely felt somewhat calmer.

Yet still, I did not wish to fall asleep in the middle of dinner, so I waited. I then saw the 'dutch oven' being loaded.

“Camp-bread?” I asked.

“Yes, for in the morning,” said Gilbertus. “We'll want an early start, so if it's ready, it just needs to be put on the fire once it's stoked a little.”

“If it don't have a good mess of coals in it still,” said Lukas. “I might put that thing close-by so as to get it in the mood for working early.”

The next portion was bread, this thick-sliced and smeared with either jam or cheese-spread. Lukas dug out an odd-looking wax-covered cheese and began peeling the wax free.

“Is that fire-cheese?” asked Gabriel.

“It is,” said Lukas. “This is a small one, so we should manage to eat it in one go. I bought three of these in the second kingdom house, while Gilbertus bought these odd things that I've seen and never tried.”

“Those are field-biscuit,” said Gilbertus, “and they aren't all that good, even if they do beat the third kingdom's worms.”

“Worms,” muttered Gabriel. “Do not speak to me of the third kingdom's worms. I had enough uncorking medicine recently to last me for a month.”

The fire-cheese – put the cheese on a skewer, put it near the mouth of the oven, turn it for a minute, and then 'butter' a slice of bread – was delicious, with a smooth and creamy texture unlike anything I'd ever had. It had a pronounced buttery flavor that went especially well with rye bread, and while our bread was slightly 'stale' – it was most likely yesterday's baking – the fire-cheese seemed to bring it to life.

“Are those cheeses expensive?” I asked.

“Where they are common, not particularly,” said Lukas. “They're made mostly in the northern portion of the fourth kingdom.”

“The fourth kingdom's food is not cheap,” said Kees.

“Cheese in general is that way,” said Lukas, “and outside of that stuff used for spread, it's not merely costly at home, but hard to find.”

“Where is that stuff made?” I asked.

“Cheese-spread is commonly made where there are cattle that provide milk,” said Gabriel, “and the cattle most commonly kept in the first kingdom are best for it.”

“It's difficult to make anything else from their milk, you mean,” said Lukas. “Cured cheese, which is the spread, fresh cheese, which goes bad in a hurry, and vlai, and feeding calves and kittens, and that's about all that can be done with that stuff.”

“Fresh cheese?” I asked. “What is that like?”

“White, like the milk,” said Lukas. “It's about like vlai for consistency, only it has all these little round lumps in it, and it tastes strange. The only thing that tastes stranger is that yellow stuff that rises to the top sometimes.”

“Yellow stuff?” I asked. I almost said the word 'butter'.

“Now that you want to fill your calves with,” said Gilbertus. “It makes them grow as if they think themselves weeds.”

“Especially that,” said Lukas. “It's worse than badly-done vlai for causing spewing, and that at both ends.”

The soup seemed 'done' shortly thereafter, and once it was downed and the servingware set to boiling, it seemed time for sleep. I noticed my part-full cup of beer, and hazarded another small sip.

I only felt somewhat calmer, and upon refilling it prior to taking cover under the buggy I'd selected, I wondered more – at least until I drank it. I fell asleep promptly as per usual.

The 'morning' had a dense fog seeming to cover the ground, and once awake, I knew it was still dark. I began rolling up my bedding, then lit one of the student's lanterns from one of the night-lights. I put it near the mouth of one of the tents, and within moments, I heard stirring.

The bustle of the camp as it roused itself was quite remarkable, and as I continued with my packing, I could hear a commotion over near the river. I turned to see someone walking closer with a thrashing armload of bags.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I caught four of these big fish,” said Sepp. “Once they're still, I can let you look at one.”

“Don't you need to gut those things?” I asked.

“I will,” said Sepp, “but you don't want to gut fish until they are still. I've had them try biting before.”

The bread was put into the still-warm oven, along with some small sticks, and as the tents went down, I smelled not merely the fresh wood-smoke, but also the smell of the bread itself. I felt still full from the night before, and used the privy while I was waiting.

The fish Sepp had caught were sizable 'bass', with large mouths, silvery undersides, dark-blue upper bodies, and wavering stripes running down from the dark to the light portions. Each was nearly two feet long, and weighed ten pounds or more.

The beheaded and gutted fish went in doubled dampened sacks, and from there, into the largest pot as packing finished. I was given a chunk of camp-bread smeared with warm cherry jam, and began munching it as I led our party out of camp back the way we came.

It was still mostly dark when we reached the High Way, and once mounted, we slowly resumed our now 'normal' trekking speed. I wondered where the next town was, and when I 'felt' it, I marveled.

“There might be three of those 'independent' Public Houses and two small towns between us and it,” I thought. “Otherwise, that distance is such that we won't get there until midmorning.”

“At least that town is decent-sized,” I murmured, between sips from my water-bottle.

“Which town is this?” asked Gabriel.

“There are three of those Public Houses,” I said, “and two small towns before we get there. Otherwise, we have about twenty miles to go before we get there, which means mid-to-late morning.”

“We may want to stop there, then,” said Gabriel. “It should be safe, what with Manfred sending that messenger south.”

“The king?” I asked. “What will that do?”

“Give us safe passage, among other things,” said Gabriel. His voice sounded somewhat mysterious. “That pendant has something to do with it, most likely.”

The first 'independent' Public House showed in the next large woodlot we encountered, and as we left the woodlot behind, a clattering from the rear spoke of someone coming rapidly. I turned, expecting a postal buggy, and was astonished to see a coach running six horses. I had no idea as to what to do other than remain where we were, and I reached for the flap of my revolver's holster.

The snapping whip came steadily closer, as did the reek of bad meat and strong drink, and I now noticed the groaning of bearings. I was expecting that noise to be louder than it was, for some reason, and as it came up even with me, I looked at the hubs.

They were thickly smeared with a black substance that churned steadily and muffled sound.

I kept my eyes straight ahead for the most part, and when the coach left us behind with no noise beyond what it had made before, I wiped my brow.

“I had no idea as to what to do with those people,” I muttered. “I almost fainted.”

“That is a good sign,” said Gabriel.

“That I nearly fainted?” I asked.

“They did not trouble us,” said Gabriel. “We would have normally gotten our fill of abuse, if not more.”

The next clattering noise from the rear proved to be a postal buggy, and once it had passed us, I began looking for more traffic.

“This is about what I would expect at this hour of the day,” said Gabriel. “I might expect to see freighters before the day gets much older.”

The first of the 'small towns' showed a 'buried' Public House, with its yard packed with the teams of freighting wagons and the wagons themselves lined up in rows north and south on the road. I could almost feel the consuming gluttony of those devouring the food within the place, as well as the harried aspect of the publican and his staff.

“They don't want to hear answers that don't please their fancies, do they?” I asked idly.

“Who would that be?” asked Gabriel.

I pointed at the Public House, then said, “those people in there. They're just about at the yelling point right now, and...”

A gunshot cracked, then two, then a swarming mess banged the doors of the place open to splash in a watering trough as more gunfire crackled within the building. A cleaver-waving cook came out to meet one of the 'freighters', and when the 'thug' tried to punch the cook, the cook swung on the other man and dropped him instantly.

I wanted no part of that mess, and I was glad when we had left it behind. I briefly wondered as to why the cook had 'gone' after that particular thug, at least until the reek of dung grabbed my nose. I turned toward the nearest farmstead and noted long narrow fields that seemed to head off for nearly half a mile, and all of the fields showing what looked like sickly green grass emerging from a thick coating of manure.

“Is that wheat?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” said Gabriel, “and soft-wheat, most likely. I think those cakes in that one refectory were made of it.”

“Cakes?” I asked. “Those things that looked like, uh, sickly white corpse-boxes with rune-curses on their undersides?”

“What?” gasped Gabriel. “I had no idea those were done that way, even if I know now that food wasn't fit for eating.”

“Those things that looked like, uh, heads?”

“Noegen?” asked Gabriel. “Those?”

“Sculpted pastry figurines made in special molds,” I said, “and then stuffed with High Meats and bad greens before baking, and liberally flavored with bad wine. Now what were those things you named Schalatplinken?”

“Those were stuffed cabbage rolls,” said Gabriel. “I hope I never eat another.”

“Especially when they are stuffed with a mixture of chopped swine and squabs,” I said. “Those, uh, things... They looked loathsome. What were they?”

“Either Nudeln, or Baaswitschen,” said Gabriel. “I feel sick just hearing you speak of them. Why now?”

“Because some wretch may try stuffing us with that rubbish between now and the border with the third kingdom,” I said. “Those things were long and stringy, and uh, looked like intestinal parasites.”

“Those would be Nudeln,” said Gabriel.

“Wheat flour,” I said, “eggs on the verge of High, High Meats – especially High Fish – for the sauce, and some really weird spices. Those last things were as bad as anything I saw.”

“Baaswitschen,” muttered Gabriel. “Food fit for Brimstone, and prepared in hell.”

“Fine minced pork,” I said, “hung until it falls rotten to the ground, formed into small spheres, heavily spiced, and then boiled long hours in a diluted version of what is used to make Jellies – and finally, several types of Cuew, all made with High Meats.”

Gabriel's face had turned a less-than-delicate shade of green, and he turned and made a faint spitting noise. He turned back to me while wiping his mouth.

“As the stomach churns,” he said. “I hope I never eat any of those things again.”

The town became more obvious with each passing minute, and at our third stop for water of the morning, I seemed to feel something else of importance in the place.

“I wonder if he has chains made up?” I thought, as I topped up the oil reservoirs.

The next ten minutes had a strange and unpleasant odor coming from ahead, and with each further minute, the smell seemed to redouble in intensity. It made for gagging, and when I came to the huge open area of an independent Public House, I nearly spewed. A thin plume of smoke, this coming from a mostly-hidden chimney at the far end of the place, seemed the primary source of the stink.

“Th-that s-s-stink,” I gasped. “What are they doing, roasting a pig?”

The smoke suddenly vanished, and was replaced by a fiery red jet of flame that shot nearly forty feet up from the roof of the place. The roaring rumble of this hungry flame was a revelation of some kind, for when the flame died down seconds later, I could hear – plainly – the screams and howls of an angry multitude. I moved faster, and the others followed my lead as the stink rapidly declined; and some minutes later, I turned back to look.

The flames were now totally absent. In their place, thick black sooty billows of smoke drifted lazily among the trees. The chimney appeared to have been destroyed.

“Were they cooking a pig in there?” I asked.

“An especially fat one,” said the soft voice. “It is now charcoal, as is most of the kitchen and two of the more-initiated cooks.”

“More-initiated?” I asked. “As in bones?”

“Sizable sacks,” said the soft voice. “The clientèle are not amused.”

“If they were desiring High Meats,” I said, “then perhaps they will wish to use the privies.”

Within seconds, I heard a muffled eruption, then a spattering of gunfire. A stray bullet whizzed well overhead, and I turned to see more black smoke billowing up from the now-hidden Public House.

Gabriel looked at me, and slowly nodded before saying, “you may wish to watch what you say, especially when witches are involved.”

“Even my questions and jokes?” I asked.

“I was not aware of any such things,” said Gabriel. “You spoke of them roasting a pig, and that pig caught fire and burned like a jug full of light distillate. Then, when you mentioned the privies, all of those people ran for them and began fighting among themselves.”

The second small town passed quickly, for it was indeed small; it included a small and crowded Public House, an obvious postal hostel, a Mercantile, and a 'stable'. Once on its south side, I noted the changes.

Every farmer's fields had at least three large wheat patches, and often it was the sole crop currently growing, while grape-arbors were frequent and large. Wide grape-fields spread far into the distance, with numbers of small groups working on them at a slow yet measured pace, and other plots of one type or another were under cultivation. There were many teams plowing, with the usual being a team of two horses towing a plow made mostly of wood save for the fittings.

“Fifth kingdom plows?” I asked, as we passed another farmstead with three teams out plowing.

“Those need more than two horses to pull,” said Gabriel, “and are entirely of metal. They are said to cover more ground in a day, given a good team.”

Gabriel paused, then said, “and assuming they don't break. I've heard there are better parts available for them in the fourth kingdom.”

“Do they use those in the fourth kingdom?” I asked.

“Some of the larger holders might,” said Gabriel. “They give a smoother surface in fewer passes.”

“Is that how they save time?” I asked.

“That might be one of the ways,” said Gabriel. “A fifth kingdom plow has strange metal wheels that ride on the ground, as well as three rows of sharp metal stakes, and the farmer sits on the platform while driving his team.”

The third 'independent' Public House showed nearly an hour later. We had watered the horses during that hour, as well as set grain and refilled mugs and cups, and once past that last 'hurdle', I sensed my figure of 'twenty miles' had been low. It was late-morning now, and the place was still some distance ahead.

“About another hour,” I said.

“That would be the common time for lunch,” said Gabriel. “I would guess us to be near the middle of the second kingdom.”

“No, that's further south,” said Lukas, as he came to my left. He had resumed horseback, and someone else was driving. “If we do good, we might reach the middle tonight.”

“And the day after?” I asked.

“On our days spent traveling, we do a bit better than the usual for freighters,” he said. “The days get longer to the south, so we should manage somewhat better days then.”

“And if we didn't stop in Public Houses, we'd...”

“Make at least another ten to twelve miles a day, most likely,” he said. “Much more than that tends to cause trouble for horses if they do it steady day after day.”

“Especially on this type of road,” said Gabriel. “That was another reason to avoid it when traipsing.”

“That, and long stops in Public Houses,” I said.

“That cannot be avoided,” said Gabriel. “We need to stop in at least one per day.”

“I know,” I murmured, “and spending less time than two to three hours to do what needs doing will not work out.”

“How?” asked Gabriel. I sensed genuine curiosity, which surprised me.

“First, they tend to be busy, and they have very definite methods of serving,” I said. “They set out wine as soon as you're seated and they notice you. Then, they do other things while you 'soak', get your order for your preferred drink once you can 'talk straight and not waste their time', then they get the food order a bit later, they cook the stuff, you spend perhaps half an hour eating, and then Hendrik earns his pay. Finally, everyone needs to do their business prior to leaving.”

Gabriel had been counting on his fingers during the whole of my halting explanation, and he muttered upon my finishing. He then said, “I guess you are right after all. I did not realize just how long we spent, as we didn't spend hours actually eating and talking among ourselves.”

“What?” I asked. “You mean that if we did things the usual way it would take longer?”

“I suspect strongly it would,” said Gabriel, “and if we had the common size group for such a trip, we would...”

“We would never leave home,” I spluttered. “It would take so stinking long to 'get ready' to go anywhere that we'd manage perhaps an hour's travel before needing to stop again because a good percentage of the crowd would be ready to eat.” I paused, then said, “how long do these trips normally take?”

Months,” said Gabriel, “with long stops at each house.”

“Long stops?” I asked. “How long?”

“Enough for every guard inclined to intoxication to sample every seller of drink within three hours riding,” said Gabriel, “and for at least a few to be injured by fights.”

“Screech-dragging swords?” I asked.

“Based on what I've heard,” said Gabriel, “that was the rule for guards on these trips, and the same for those otherwise, and fights, stabbings, murders, and robbery were very common.”

“Our people doing all of that?” I asked.

“I recall that being the case for the last one,” said Gabriel. “That was the person before Hendrik, and he lived but a few months after making that trip due to a wasting illness he acquired while traveling.”

“Too much High Meats, most likely,” I said.

“Given he enjoyed such food, that is likely,” said Gabriel.

I was now noticing a perceptibly drier aspect to the countryside. We had passed another stream-bridge, and apart from the woodlots, meadows seemed few and small. Farmsteads, however, were sizable and many, and their borders substantial rows of mounded rocks. All of them seemed busy with planting, and the 'sickly looking grass' of starting wheat seemed the most common crop, with grapes a close second.

“They must really like that nasty bread,” I thought. “Why else would they grow something that otherwise has so few uses?”

The woodlots themselves seemed slightly more open, with more space between the individual trees present. The aura of overhead shade was still much present, even if it was 'lighter'. We were entering such a woodlot, and the feeling of the town being just ahead was hard enough to ignore.

There was a jeweler there, and he had mostly-made chains in profusion. More importantly, I could smell smoke, even if I could not plainly see it, and the scent was unlike that of Cuew or common roasting meats.

“Now that smells like Barbecue,” I thought, as I heard faintly the sounds of forging. “Is this town located in the middle of this woodlot?”

The woodlot stretched on for what seemed like an hour, then suddenly gave way to show the town. Unlike any such town I had seen before, this example had short cross-streets between its houses. I passed one, then another, then turned straight ahead. There lay the Public House, and its busy yard spoke of its numberless occupants.

The others went in first while three of us looked over the horses and buggies. As we finished, I spoke of needing to fetch something, and both Lukas and Gilbertus went inside. I heard singing when the door opened, and the thought put wings to my mind.

“We'll be the rest of the day in that place,” I muttered. “Understaffed, crowded, and no one wants to resume working. At least the publican is coming out of it passably.”

“Passably is right,” said the soft voice. “No publican enjoys being overworked to that degree, no matter how much he earns.”

A glance at the building itself showed a long and wide low-slung single-story stone building, with a wide overhanging stoop supported by a multitude of poles. The roof was nearly flat, perhaps ten degrees of slope per side, and covered with brilliantly red tiles shaped like open books. Their shine, even in direct sun, was uncanny.

As was the attraction to the jeweler's shop. It was but a short distance away.

I began walking there, and as I did so, I recalled the near-total lack of jewelery on the hands and necks of people. The only common things I had seen were uncommonly thick gold rings on the index fingers of most women.

“So why would he have chains, then?” I thought. “Is it common to hide such things? And stones?”

While there was no answer, I knew he had them, and more, I knew most jewelers, outside of those individuals who worked in and for kingdom houses, had trouble earning more than subsistence wages.

“And this man especially,” I thought. “He needs the money. Now they called this thing a pendant, but its shape..? What is it, a..?”

The word 'brooch' came to mind, along with its pronunciation of 'broach' – and that triggered what broaches did.

“First, they would cut too shallow, and then they'd bind, and then cut oversize, and finally tapered slots,” I muttered. As I prepared to continue raving about the obnoxious nature of the broaches I had endured, the nature of what I was wearing 'jolted' me.

“I know enough about clean and unclean foods to know I need to learn as much as I can, and it's not just food. It's everything that feels, uh, 'bad' that way.” This thought-train was soon dismissed, for few things in my life had engendered more frustration than broaches.

“A larger lathe, and then a dedicated milling machine,” I thought, as I came to the door of the 'shop'.

Since the 'shop' appeared to be part of a dwelling, I tapped thrice on the door. Rapid steps came, then the door opened to admit a short man with thinning gray hair, a rounded belly, and an overall appearance that seemed to conjure the word 'dwarf' in my mind, even if his actual height was comparable to that of Andreas. He beckoned me inside, and then put an iron bar in the 'staples' that went across the door.

“I have a fair amount of trouble with thieves,” he said, as I looked around to see a shop done similarly to the other jeweler's shop I had been in, and the voices I heard in the background spoke of at least two others being involved.

“Is jewelry a family business?” I asked, as I began feeling for the thong.

“It tends to be,” he said. “What may I get for you?”

“Do you have a, uh, silver chain about as thick as this...”

I was having some uncommon difficulty bringing out an end of the thong without showing the pendant, and he came to my side and looked carefully with piercing eyes. As he did, I could hear yet more voices, and I knew he had a decent-sized family.

“I believe so,” he said. “That which is on that thong is a fairly heavy thing, isn't it?”

“Uh, that and...”

“And you have it hid, which is wise with uncommon pieces in these parts,” he said. “And then, you do not look the type for wearing mere jewelry. Am I correct?”

I nodded nervously, and stammered, “I do not feel as if I am good enough to wear this thing, and I was given...”

“Were you given this piece, or were you given to it?” he said pointedly. “Who presented it? The king?”

I gulped and nodded nervously.

“It has power bound to it by its consecration ceremony,” he said softly. “Jewelers tend to be discrete as to such matters, much as do midwives and chemists. May I look at it?”

I struggled more to remove it, and at the back of my mind squalled some kind of alarm.

“I will not touch it,” he said. “Those are but to be worn by them they are bound to, and for others to touch them is very dangerous. More, if that one is what I think it to be, it will not abide the touch of evil. Only those things written of in the book regarding the meeting-place were worse, and them but a degree.”

My eyes were now bugging out, even as I finally managed to remove the pendant, and my embarrassment reached a level that I had not known existed.

“That is the last one,” he said, “and it is even more special than the others. All jewelers know of them.” Here, he paused, then said as I worked at replacing it, “they were made by one particular individual just after the Curse, and empowered later by another man.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It had to wait for someone able to do so,” he said, “and while that man survived that portion, he was killed later for what he did. That level of dedication isn't common, and neither was he.”

“What did he do?” I squeaked. Mingled with fear curiosity crowded my voice.

“He blessed each of those pendants,” he said, “and that one especially. There are tales associated with it more than the others.”

“Tales?” I asked. I wished to ask as to what type.

“Some years after that man blessed the pendants, the ruler of the south became full of himself and crowned himself great,” said the jeweler. “The one who blessed the pendants had headed north from where he'd done that work.” He paused, then said, “it was a good ways north of here, perhaps as far north as the first kingdom house.”

Here, the jeweler again paused. He seemed to be thinking.

“That ruler was not merely evil, but also a witch,” said the jeweler, “and he wanted that man's head on a pole...”

“So witches do spike heads,” I thought. “Is that why it's so common?”

“And his heart on a silver dinner-plate. The ruler therefore sent out a group of his guards, along with a captain over them. They never returned.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“They were burnt to ashes where they stood when they tried to take the man who blessed the pendant,” he said, “and the same thing happened to the second group and their captain. The third group...”

“Why does this sound like something that happened to Elijah?” I thought. There was no answer.

“Were not inclined to act like their master, so he went with them. They had a long march south, and they traveled some days, until the day after they reached the kingdom of the south, the most evil people that ruler had, all of them arch-witches, waylaid that group and killed everyone of their party save for their prisoner. Him they captured, and that man was dragged while bound hand-and-foot all the way to the court of the king of the south.”

Here, he paused and drank from a tinned copper cup. He set it down, then muttered, “and for every village in their path, they drove the people indoors, and to be seen looking upon what was happening meant being taken to the court of the king to be dealt with in likewise fashion. They had a big mob of prisoners by the second day, and there were more such mobs of prisoners with each day's further travel.”

“Once in the courts of the king of the south, they spent ten long sleepless days torturing him to death. That man who spoke the blessings held no secrets, but still, to be questioned by one named the Black Fiend...”

“Black F-fiend?” I asked.

“That ruler was named that in secret by his people, because he was so evil,” he said. “After that ten days, that ruler had a new head for his pole, and he ate his victim's heart after long cooking – or rather, he tried to. He choked to death on the first bite.”

“Grim?” I thought. “That tale seems an apt definition of the word.”

Such thinking made for an outburst of sorts: “I recently received a collection of books called...”

“If you speak of the Grim Collection, then that is where I read of that tale,” he said. “Now, for another matter. There is this place to the north I have heard of called an Abbey, and it is filled with monsters, supposedly – that, and it was the one to the west of the four that once existed. It won't be ready for some time – months, most likely – but then, I'm not leaving for it tomorrow, either.”

He looked around, then said, “I've no firm offers for this place yet, but I expect to hear them soon.”

He paused, drank from his mug, then continued: “the swine are coming, both what most call those things and those with but two legs...”

With a sudden ground-shaking rumble followed by a sundering roar, the boards of the ceiling vanished abruptly to be replaced by a roiling broth of blue-white fire. He looked at me, grinned as if out of his mind, looked up, and said – he looked to be out of his mind – “I have been waiting years for this...”

His 'jump' was unlike anything I'd seen before, for it was as much a lift from above as his leaping. I gathered he had an injury of some kind, and I was about to speak of helping him when I thought to wait on such speech. I then felt the area itself.

“Calling this place hungry for b-bloodshed isn't half of it,” I muttered. “They ought to call this town 'Thugville' or some such name. This place practically crawls with thugs when it's dark.”

“It is not the second kingdom house,” said the soft voice, “even if it is one of the more dangerous locations in the second kingdom.”

“Uh, dangerous?” I asked. “In what way?”

“Assorted thugs, mostly,” said the soft voice. “The usual coach-travelers tend to think this area a prime one for amusement. Then, there are brigands of various kinds, and finally, the mounted bilingual migrants from El Vallyé.”

“M-mounted migrants?”

“About half of those people are practicing witches,” said the soft voice, “with a good portion of those otherwise at least somewhat curious.” A brief pause, then, “those among them that are truly disinclined toward witchcraft tend to travel the eastern route for the most part, even though it has fewer amenities.”

As if anticipating my further questions, the man who had left now returned with a solid-sounding thump.

“Ah, those people,” he said. “They have similar ideas to mine.” He paused, then said in a conspiratorial whisper, “this may be a species of that place you named Thugville, but when it comes to thugs, I'd rather deal with a coach-load of drunken local fiends than a totem's worth of long-haired characters from that place.” He paused, then said, “and I need to make up that chain, and then my moving plans.”

I now noticed the man's build. While before, he reminded me of a 'dwarf', but now – he looked as if he could swing a pick all day and not raise a sweat, and his hands looked as if they could powder granite. I wondered if he was leaving holes in the floor from his weight.

“Now, there is something about stroking metals,” he said, “and I know about what you did at the third ditch.” He then looked at me, smiled, and said, “no, don't be so surprised. This has happened before, and not just in the book. It has happened here too, and I was really gone through in that place.”

He reached behind the counter and drew forth an old-looking musket. The shortened barrel – perhaps two and a half feet – and larger-than-usual bore made for wondering, at least until he began bending it. He laughed, then as he tied the barrel into a knot, he burped, then said, “oh, my. I had no idea I could do that.”

He tossed the gun into a corner, then said, “it was a bluff one, anyway. The lock was solid rust.” A brief pause, then, “that chain should be done before the end of what lies over yonder.”

Here, he pointed to the door, which opened slowly with a quiet creaking noise. I looked out into the midday sun, and saw what looked like a small tornado or whirlwind which had gathered leaves and dirt and was whirling them around crazily. I went to the door and watched the thing as it went south along the road, then turned back to him.

“S-sow the wind...”

“And they shall reap as what you see,” he shouted madly. “May every witch in Norden sup with Brimstone!”

I felt my money-pouch in my hand, and shakily dug out several larger coins, which I put into his hands. I didn't bother looking at them, for there was an atmosphere of cogent insanity in the region, and a crowded Public House filled with raucous singing and potential drunken thugs seemed preferable to where I now stood. I went for the door after giving the coins to him, and the instant my feet left the threshold, a cushioned thump spoke of the door's closing.

I knew he hadn't closed the door in the normal fashion.

I then learned anew of the whirlwind, for it had doubled back and was now assaying growth in size and dirt-content. I was glad it did not try grit-blasting me, and I walked across the road and south toward the Public House.

As I did, I noted loose stones and perhaps undulations in the road's surface, and a glance to the south spoke of further needed repairs. Checking for stones and wear would need to be done more often, and I wondered briefly if I could teach more of the group to look for trouble.

“Not enough tools,” I thought. “There's mine, and I think either Lukas or Gilbertus has one...”

My thinking was squelched by the Public House's yard, for it had become yet more crowded. The number of horses with 'full-loaded broadsides' was enough for trembling until I came where ours were parked in the corner of the lot. I was glad for the grain-pans still having significant amounts of grain present as I passed under the hitching rail and began treading the boards toward the doorway. I found the door, and opened it.

And nearly closed it due to the howling crew within.

I felt in my possible bag for vegetable fiber, and twisted up two lumps prior to inserting one in each ear. I then opened the door once more.

The dimly-lit 'cave' seemed to boom and rumble with sound, and the vast throng – every table was crammed, waiters and waitresses were scrambling with meals, there were calls for food and drink, and everyone seated seemed inclined to yell to each other person – was terrifying. Those not intent upon their meals to the point of fitting the label pie-eyed were roaring songs of one kind of or another.

I found what might have been an aisle and wove my way past groping hands and good-natured howls of laughter until I spotted our group sitting morosely at a table some distance away. I squirmed sideways so as to 'dodge' a waitress with two platters followed by a jug-toting waiter, and when I resumed trying to move forward, I was grabbed roughly and pulled into the space between two tables.

“Where's my wine, damn your eyes!” shouted a pair of 'freighters' in synchronized perfection.

“I have no idea,” I said. I tried to speak about my being a patron and not a waiter, but there was no chance to do so. These two were drunk, and that badly.

“You had best get one, fool,” said the taller of the two with an evil leer. “I'm inclined toward carving, and you do look likely.”

I had no words for this character – it was too close to use even my sword – and a fight in this environs did not seem wise. I glanced to the side, saw a waiter approaching with a pair of jugs, the shorter 'freighter' saw him – and I was completely forgotten as both men stood abruptly to unburden the waiter. I moved away from them at the best speed I could muster toward the 'isle of lessened insanity' some thirty feet away.

It took nearly three minutes of careful maneuvering to come to our table, and I sat down near its end with Gabriel opposite me amid the nauseating fumes of fermented wine. I noted the distinct 'dry' aspect of all seated amid the intense 'howl-yell-scream-laughter' of the place, and I slowly shook my head before speaking.

“First, the place is worse than the shop for noise...”

“What?” shouted Gabriel. He seemed almost as drunk as the two freighters. “I can't hear you.”

I took out my slate, and wrote with exaggerated care, “those fish?” I then passed it to him.

He looked carefully at what I wrote, then passed it to Lukas. The latter, to my complete surprise, nodded, then wrote something and passed it back to Gabriel – who then passed it back to me afterward. Lukas then whispered in Gabriel's ear.

“They bought them for a good price,” I muttered. “Now what's this about medical writing?”

I used the back side of the slate to write first of the noise and crowding, then of the two freighters mistaking me for a waiter. I passed the slate back, and saw the whole tableau play out all over again.

This time, Gabriel had written his own spiel, and I read, “it seems his mother transcribed the writing of people trained in medicine for years, he learned it from her, and he can understand your handwriting, even if I cannot.” A postscript was added to the other side, and there, I read, “for all I can tell, you might as well be writing in the language of Norden.”

I shook my head, then wrote, “drink? Food?”

When the slate came back, I read, “while they have unfermented wine and cider, they are buried worse than anyone I have seen.”

'Buried' proved prophetic, for I waited what seemed an age until the slate returned with writing upon both sides. I began reading it, and wondered at the advice.

“That jeweler but needed invitation, for he was truly desperate,” wrote Gabriel. “Also, he knows he is needed north.” A pause in the writing – turn the slate over – then “have that thing out when a waiter shows.”

I saw an obvious waiter not a minute later, and I began struggling to remove the pendant. No one seemed to notice my labor, most of all the waiter – he had people grabbing for him – and the thing suddenly leaped out of my shirt and onto my chest.

And just as suddenly, it gained forty pounds. I was dragged down so quickly my face nearly collided with the table, and only with effort and murmurs could I again raise my head. The strain brought strange speech to my lips.

“Wonderful,” I murmured. “Frodo, where are you?”

The table drew quiet in some strange fashion, and I heard the following clearly: “Presh-shush! Ooooh, my Presh-shush!”

How Gabriel had managed to speak as he did – with high-pitched and mournful voice – and, how I had heard him, was a mystery greater than how he had divined what he had said. More importantly, I wondered as to who it might apply to.

“I was told this thing would not abide the touch of evil,” I murmured. “If Ultima Thule tried to touch it...”

“She would catch fire and burn,” said Gabriel. “You might not know what is in the Grim Collection, but that tale would indeed fit there. You might wish to write down what of it you can recall.”

I shuddered, then silently prayed something along the lines of “I am not able to bear this responsibility.”

The weight of the pendant abruptly receded to its former weight of ounces. I looked up, and saw the waiter but a handful of feet away. He seemed to be looking aimlessly until he looked at me – or rather, I learned a second later, what I was wearing.

“It can't be,” murmured the waiter, as what resembled a convulsion shuddered over his face.

“No, do not faint,” I said. “I'm as human as you are, I embarrass readily, and I was given this thing. I did not ask for it.”

The result was astonishing, for the waiter now seemed to plunge manfully through the crowd, all thoughts absent save a handful directed toward where we were sitting. I was beginning to look for a place to hide as he arrived.

“What will you have?” he asked. His speech seemed directed toward me – and me alone. I was about to speak when the chorus of 'Beer' from the rest of the table drowned out what I tried to say.

“Uh, unfermented wine, unfermented cider, or boiled water,” I said quietly. “Oh, and perhaps beer, too.”

The waiter turned and began plunging back through the howling press, and then I noted what Gabriel was drinking. He was assaying wine, though his facial expression spoke of a copious lack of enjoyment. After one gulp, his grimace spoke volumes, and I asked a question.

“Is that wine, or is it a bad species of vinegar?”

“I think it is wine,” he said. “I wish it were beer.”

“Hear! Hear!” shouted several people to my right, which was followed by a nauseated-sounding spitting noise.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“Kees,” said Lukas. “He's about choking mad for thirst, and he tried some wine.”

“And?” I asked.

“He nearly spewed,” said Karl. “I think he learned your taste for that stuff, as I know you do not like wine.”

“Do you?” I asked.

“Not very much,” said Karl. “I'd rather have beer, especially if it is what they call common beer. These places down here like to sell stuff that is closer to Lion-Brew.”

“Isn't that the rule for Public Houses?” I thought, until I recalled we had been able to get common beer consistently.

I brought out my small cup, and then looked toward the rear of the Public House. Not merely did I see the waiter that had seen me, but there were two more similarly-dressed people in his wake. All of them had jugs in their hands, and the roars, yells, and catcalls I heard spoke of a famished and dehydrated clientèle.

“Is that why everyone's so loud in here?” I muttered. “They've all gotten into some Lion-Brew and are now roaring?”

The jugs all arrived at once, and when I opened one of them, the odor of cider seemed to pick up my head. I thanked the waiter profusely, then filled a mug and began drinking. I was more than a little astonished to see my small cup filled with a dark liquid when I drained the house-mug.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Common beer,” said the waiter.

I looked up to see what he was doing, and I saw him draining a sizable tankard of the stuff. I thought to emulate him with the smaller cup, and drank it slowly, all the while wary for either insanity or the beginnings of feeling as if made of rubber. None of that came, for some reason, and the quieter aspect of the room was a matter for thanksgiving.

“I am glad you seem able to endure beer to a degree,” said Gabriel. “Perhaps that piece is why?”

The waiter had reacquired a measure of composure, and when I looked at him, he seemed to be silently waiting for either indication as to food or the crack of doom. I thought to try him regarding a bit of roast meat.

“Uh, do you have roast meats?” I asked quietly, all the while smelling the 'barbecue'. “I like carrots and potatoes.”

“Just like a rodent,” snickered Karl. “I am glad they are not as big as you, as none of those roots would be gathered for harvest.”

“If you have fowls, especially the fool-hens,” said Gabriel. “If you have mush, though...”

“Yes, a large pot of flour-mush, with the usual spices,” said the waiter. “That is common food.” Here, he looked intently at what I was wearing. “That which he is wearing wants something very different.”

I shook my head as if ill, then spluttered, “perhaps IT does. Must I feed it?” I paused, looked about aimlessly – the temptation was to look at the piece and examine it for a hidden mouth – then said, “honestly, I don't know.”

“Those are not fed,” said the waiter, “though they were said to be especially draining to wear, and those wearing them were said to be commonly ill with cares.”

The waiter then turned, along with three others, and the four of them headed in the direction of the kitchen.

“I hope I am to have easily-digested food, then,” I murmured, as I sipped a refill of cider. “This thing is making me feel queasy as it is.”

“That is one of the chief reasons I suggested the fool-hens,” said Gabriel. “That which is made from them is a species of broth commonly fed to invalids.”

“All the more reason to have it, then,” said Gilbertus. “Now I hope those people bring that and not something best put in the manure-pile.”

“If nothing else, then you might try more beer,” said Gabriel. “I can tell it helps.

I began sipping another small cupful of beer, marveling at both its calming effects and its taste, when the surface of the yeasty liquid suddenly went a peculiar shade of silver. I saw a red door surrounded by a black frame suddenly open to show hanging animal carcasses, which were ignored pointedly as the point-of-view advanced. The dirt and filth I saw was astonishing, so much so that when a crock was grabbed with dirty hands I gasped.

“What is it you are seeing?” asked Gabriel. I was too horrified to reply.

The crock was opened to emit a miasma of thick vapors, and a pair of bronze forks reached within to grasp out a strange-looking hairless creature covered with a multitude of small pinpointed bumps. The odd forearms of the thing, as well as its long neck, strange-shaped head, long pointed proboscis, and claws on its hind legs, made for wondering, until a knife came into view.

With frightening viciousness, the neck, forearms, hind-legs, and the previously-hid vestigial tail went the way of all flesh, and the resulting near-spherical object...

“What is this thing?” I murmured. The 'object' was being put in a special tinned-copper roasting pan. Someone was gathering spices by the handful, as it needed a lot of spices to come out right – and now, the mere contemplating of this creature and its immanent immolation made for nausea on my part. My stomach was churning as a prelude to rumba.

“N-no, not me, please,” I squeaked. “I would rather wrestle a pig than eat one of those things.”

“What is it?” asked Sepp.

“Th-this c-creature,” I spluttered. “It's about eight inches long, and the shape of a... Is it a bird? I cannot tell.”

“You spoke of swine,” said Sepp. “I hope it is not a Shoet they are cooking up.”

“W-what is a s-Shoet?” I asked. The word was pronounced 'show-ate'.

“A small pig still with its mother,” said Sepp, “and then taken and cooked entire for a witch-feast.”

“Urgh,” I murmured. “Th-this thing is awful, and I th-think it is H-High.”

The creature was now 'eviscerated' by the use of a long and somewhat rusted 'corkscrew'. This was screwed in one end, then ripped out with a spray of dark-brown green-streaked putrefaction. The instant increase in stink made for choking on my part, and once the procedure had been repeated at the other 'tip' of the creature's body, it was then grasped roughly and the mingled spices put to it with a wooden spoon.

“Th-they're cramming that stinky thing full,” I gasped.

“Full of what?” asked Gabriel, as he sniffed the air.

“S-spices,” I spluttered. “They were getting handfuls of everything, mingling them in a mortar, and now they're dosing this, uh, carcass...”

I recalled what I had seen that caused spewing at both ends in the house proper. While this creature wasn't quite the same, the resemblance...

“It's so fat it looks like a round-shot,” I spluttered. “What is this thing?”

“I have no idea,” said Sepp. “I doubt it is a Shoet.”

The stink had drifted closer steadily, and I smelled a modest portion. The reek was unmistakable, and I nearly spewed onto the table. The others seemed oblivious to the stench, for some reason.

“Are you certain it is High?” asked Gabriel.