The road's ending, part d.

I fell asleep once I'd eaten, and when I awoke it was nearly dark. For some peculiar reason, Lys awoke within seconds after I had done so, and softly called, “Gisela. It is time.”

“Time?” I whispered.

“For traveling,” she said. “We must move at night as much as we can where we are, even in here.”

“Do you know why?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said shyly. “Those smelly black-dressed people.” She paused, then said, “they are not the ones that worry me the most, though.”

“Yes?” I asked. “Would these worrisome people be dressed like you or I, but wish to be dressed in black and ride coaches?”

She nodded, then stood up. I noticed a slight limp for the first two steps, then more or less normal walking thereafter, and when she returned, she was carrying clothing.

“This is not bad, given we had so little soap,” she said. “Someone washed some of your things while you slept.”

“Who?” I asked.

“I did,” murmured Kees sleepily. “You might have two more sets of clothing than I do, but you get dirtier than anyone I've ever seen.”

“And itchier than most people,” said Lukas with a yawn. “Shake your legs, you people. We've got traveling to do.”

And so we did with the coming of nightfall. Our time seemed slightly better than the night before, for some reason, and when I found the night's first spring, I learned why.

“That girl Lys can see better than I can,” said Lukas, “and her sister shows Gilbertus where my tracks run.”

“Is she seeing the, uh, trail?” I asked. “It tends to show in places as a faint bluish strip just above the surface of the ground.”

“I'm not sure if she sees that,” said Lukas, “but I am sure she sees where you've put your feet when you're not riding.”

By the middle of the night, I could feel a definite change in the area around me, so much so that I looked up in a gap in the canopy to see clear bright stars overhead, as well as a brilliant moon, and I thought to 'investigate' the region outside of where we were when we next stopped. Accordingly, I went to the walls of the 'ravine', and climbed up between the thick-growing trees in a small 'chiseled' place slanting left to right across the weathered face of the rocky walls – until my chest was level with the surface of the ground, and my head hidden in the thick undergrowth like brush.

From that point, I needed to crawl over and around the trunks of the plants that made up the 'brush'. Their thick nature and feeling of greenness was utterly unlike anywhere I'd been since leaving the fourth kingdom house, and when my head finally broke through the bush – I stayed mostly hidden just the same – I was astonished to find long swales of rolling heather dotted with sizable groves of trees.

“This is a lot moister than the waste I remember,” I thought, as I began worming my way back out of the undergrowth. “This almost feels like that area just south of the Last River.”

“That is because you are in a dry tributary of that river,” said the soft voice, “and this riverbed will join the main branch of the Last within another ten miles.”

“T-ten miles?” I asked.

“You'll be able to cross it under cover of darkness at a ford a short distance west of where the two join,” said the soft voice, “and I would run 'northwest' from that point until dawn.”

“W-where will that put us?” I asked.

“Within the safest part of the fourth kingdom,” said the soft voice. “I would avoid the temptation toward 'good meals' just the same.”

“Beer and bread, then,” I thought. “Or is that wise?” There was no answer.

I tried to puzzle matters out over the next hour while 'breaking trail, then during the next rest break – I could 'smell' and feel a sizable body of water within a few miles – I asked, “we're well into the fourth kingdom now, and we'll be crossing the Last river before long.”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “We'll be able to get food at first light, most likely.”

“The question is, how?” I asked. “We cannot afford to...”

“Best spread it out, then,” said Lukas, “and beer and bread only.”

“N-no good meals?” I asked. “I was told...”

“And I know about those,” said Lukas. “Those we did coming down were a primer.”

“Primer?” I asked. The word came out 'Prim-mer', with a trace of a 'j' on the end of the last syllable. “Like that one really noisy crowded place in the second kingdom...”

“Aye, and us making the noise,” said Lukas. “If this place ahead is where I think it is, then spreading it out will be the quickest way of stayin' fed.”

“Spreading it out?” I asked.

“Them two youngsters drop out with some money and fetch it along as we keep going,” said Lukas, “and we get the rest o' what we need when we stop for water.”

“With the goal of confounding the witches?” I asked. “Lots of jugs and loaves at any one place a dead giveaway?”

“Aye...” Lukas suddenly looked at me, then muttered, “I didn't think o' that.”

“Hence a jug and loaf apiece,” I said, “and do that perhaps every other town we come to?”

“Aye,” said Lukas. “We'd best get to going, as I'm getting a strong thirst just talking about beer, and the fourth kingdom's places open early.”

With each further minute's travel, I could feel and hear the sound of a wide and placid river flowing, while the ravine in which we traveled slowly grew wider and 'greener'. The sense of 'safety' I felt, while profound, was strictly a relative notion; for I could somehow still hear the braying of mules and the rattle of unlubricated bearings. I thought to ask about 'coaches' as we came to what I had begun to think of as 'the last mile'.

“Does this portion of the fourth kingdom...”

“It does,” said the soft voice, “and that contrary to what many believe.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered.

“Compared to nearly everywhere else on the continent, however,” said the soft voice, “coaches are rare in the central portion of the fourth kingdom.”

“And their occupants?” I asked.

“Either avoid the region entirely,” said the soft voice, “or practice a substantial degree of discretion.”

“As in?” I asked.

“You are not likely to see a coach in this part of the fourth kingdom,” said the soft voice, “unless you watch for them after dark.”

The two statements seemed to contradict one another, so much so that I felt greatly distracted. I then recalled the chief highways of coach travel.

“The Low Way?” I asked

“Receives the bulk of that travel in this area,” said the soft voice. “The High Way receives most of the remainder.”

“And?” I asked. “Stay off the roads still?”

There was no answer, save a faint glinting of moonlight from a short distance ahead. The trees to each side were taller and thicker, with foliage easily twenty feet or more above our heads. I wondered for a moment if we would have a path on the side of the river – and more, where the river itself was beyond 'somewhere ahead'.

The moon again showed bright and glinting a rumpled plain a short distance ahead, and this time, it remained visible for the moment. I looked up to see thin and fleece high clouds trying to hide the moon, which was well into the east. We looked to have another three hours of darkness, if that.

The 'rumpled plain' – the river in question – drew steadily closer, and I began heading more and more toward the left as I was able. The feel underfoot was that of sand and fine gravel, save where grass actually grew, and when the walls of the ravine fled away abruptly, I knew we had 'arrived'. I turned around, then said softly, “follow me.”

I now led to the left. The river – easily two hundred feet wide – flowed steadily with a calming sound, while somewhere ahead and to the west, a ford lay. I wondered as to the nature of this ford, even as the river seemed to become perceptibly wider with each minute.

“Is this like when I rode my bike across that one river?” I asked.

“Yes, save much less wet for the most part,” said the soft voice. “The ford's deepest place is half-way to the hubs of the buggies, and most of it is half of that.”

I drew closer to the south bank of the river, watching all the time for the ford that had been spoken of, when I suddenly saw an area of swifter water but a short distance further on. Jaak continued walking toward this location, and as I drew closer, I knew it to be the place in question. I turned to see the others following in my tracks beneath the silver-shining moon, and in the front buggy, I could see someone pointing at where I thought to cross.

“Good girl,” I thought, as Jaak turned toward the river. “Now we can cross.”

The feeling underfoot was slightly loose and more than a little chilly, and while Jaak seemed to not mind it, I knew that was but the seeming. I turned around to face my rear in the rough middle of the river, and was astonished greatly to see the entire group, nose to tail and bounded by buggies, crossing in my very tracks.

“Good,” as Jaak came closer to the north side. “We can clear their hooves once we...”

“Best wait until you're out of the riverbed,” said the soft voice. “You'll need to do so then regardless, and it's sand and gravel the entire distance.”

“How much distance?” I asked.

“The ford is used by the area's people,” said the soft voice, “hence follow the path to the riverbank.”

I was now looking for this path, and when Jaak finished crossing, he shook his hooves gently prior to standing upon the sandy shore. I wondered why for a moment until I thought to look.

“Not just water, but a couple of small rocks,” I thought. “Now where is this, uh... Oh, there.”

I turned to go, but for some reason hung back. The others had still to cross...

The first buggy crossed, followed by three horses in a line. The next horse, for some reason, seemed balky, at least until the one behind it caught up and began 'towing' it by its leather thong bridle. The second buggy brought up the rear, and once it was on dry land, the 'spell' – or whatever it was – seemed broken.

“Now?” I asked. There was no answer, save the road that I now saw clearly and the route across the sand and gravel which joined it.

Once on the bank, we checked the horses over quickly, then set out. I could feel sunrise coming perhaps an hour or two away, and by the light of the moon I check my compass as I led across scrubby meadows. No longer was there sagebrush, save as odd clumps here and there; we were traveling upon a coarse species of grass between irregular-shaped and sizable woodlots, and the springy nature of the turf seemed to lend wings to our travel.

There were towns to our front in a wide expanse stretching from west to east, and within perhaps ten minutes, I could 'feel' one but a little to our right. I altered course so as to intercept it and struck a road perhaps two minutes later. I could hear questions from my rear, even as the first of two rows of houses and shops hove into view.

“No, they aren't open yet,” I thought, “but that Public House does have two watering troughs, each with a well-maintained pump.”

Minutes later, I was at the place in question, and while our horses drank I went over the buggies. Each oil reservoir needed topping, and as I finished that task, Gabriel asked, “why do we not stay on the roads?”

I was about to answer when Gilbertus said, “hist, you. He's...”

“I was told to run northwest,” I said, “and I have doubts about these roads during the night.” A brief pause, then, “they're probably safe enough during the day.”

“And they're slower, too,” said Lukas. “I saw how he was going.”

“But the roads...” Gabriel was again sounding unreasonable, so much so that I wondered if I needed to do something. As I thought about the matter, Hendrik came up to him and said, “if you recall your geometry, then tell me this:” A pause for emphasis. “Given a point, and another such point some distance from it, tell me the shortest distance between the two.”

Seconds later: “a straight line.” Gabriel sounded distinctly uncomfortable.

“Good that you recalled,” said Hendrik. “I heard his instructions speak of proceeding, and that with all possible speed, toward the northwest.” Another pause. “Now, if you wish to proceed with all possible dispatch, you will choose the shortest distance possible between your point of departure and place of arrival.”

“And that ain't on these roads,” muttered Lukas. “I've driven 'em enough to know that.”

“I suspect he knew that, and was heading accordingly, at least until he knew of the watering troughs we are now using,” said Hendrik. “I also suspect he will attempt to resume his previous course when we finish.”

I wanted to reply as to what I knew, but I held my tongue, at least until the horses had ceased drinking. I then led out of town.

Hendrik, however overcomplicated-seeming his logic, was correct once I had gotten clear of the town, for I steered by sense and periodic compass consultation across wide fields and around woodlots. I ignored towns unless they were directly in front of us, and by the time the western horizon went from black-dark to dark-blue, I knew we had come a fair distance.

I could also smell someone cooking food, and the odor all but took over my mind – and, as if I needed reminding as to the matter of greatest importance in the time prior to dawn, I heard a faint rattling noise to the west, followed by the clang-clatter-clang of a cheap-sounding 'brass' bell.

“What is that bell?” I asked. I wanted to stuff it with rags so as to dampen its horrible tone.

“Morning prayer in a Monk-House,” said Lukas. “They have those places down this way, and friars start things early.”

“Someone is cooking,” I muttered, “and I'm getting hungry.”

“I suspect everyone is of the same mind,” said Lukas. “I'd go like you've been about another turn of the glass, then head for the nearest likely town.”

The bell's clang-clatter left off shortly thereafter, and with the coming of dawn, I heard yawning noises, these coming from what felt like all corners of the compass. They quickly acquired echoes from the group, and with each further moment, the yawning aspect gained.

“I'd best find a town, then,” I thought, as we came to a road. “Oh, a mile or so this way.”

The road – narrow, meandering, and rutted beyond belief – lead closer to north-northwest through wide 'cultivated-looking' fields and past woodlots that had a similar aura, and when the town itself showed, I headed straight for the Public House. I wanted bread with jam on it – oh, and beer, also – and once I dismounted, I looked at Lukas as if totally 'lost'.

“We'll water 'em here,” he said. “Two of you go to the Mercantile...”

Now he was lost, and I said, “I can find that place.”

With Gabriel and Kees in tow, I moved in that narrow region between the horse-troughs and the beginning of the 'sidewalk'. Gabriel thought to complain, but Kees followed behind me, walking as if my tracks were the only safe places to put foot. A minute walking like this, and he thought to question my reasoning.

“I'm not really sure,” I said. “It might be a habit I learned in that smelly place we just left, or...”

“It's more than that,” said Kees. “Gabriel thinks we're both crazy, but I know better now.”

I could tell the latter wished to speak to both of us, but I had another thought.

“The fewer of these people who can speak of us, the better,” I murmured, “and that boardwalk there is noisy enough...”

Gabriel had not listened. Instead, he had set foot upon the walkway, and the eerie-sounding noise coming from the wood was as if a damned soul had arisen screaming from the ground. He ceased with his attempts, while I had all I could do to not run like a frightened rat. Kees, however was furious.

“Hist, you,” he spat. “That woke up half the town.”

“They normally wake up at this hour anyway,” said Gabriel.

While Gabriel was 'technically' correct, this town was something of an exception, and his attempt to 'walk like sane men' had alerted people that were better off being ignorant of our presence. At the door of the Mercantile, I hissed, “we'll need to hurry and get out of here faster than I had planned because of that noise, Gabriel.”

“What did I do?” he asked. His 'innocent-sounding' voice was outwardly 'true', yet there was more to his talk than he was volunteering. Even I could tell that much.

“You woke up half the town with that brass-cone stunt,” muttered Kees. “I remember this town.”

“You what?” I whispered. We were near the rear counter, and I wanted some soap.

“This town,” whispered Kees. “It's like Boermaas.”

Gabriel went pale with such suddenness that I asked, “Boermaas?”

“Is about four Laengen to the north and two to the east,” said the clerk. “I hope you are not going there.”

“Soap?” I asked.

“We have that, and that place has no use for it,” said the clerk. “How much will you have?”

I was tongue-tied, so much so that as I struggled to think Kees said, “a bundle, if you have so much – that, a jug of aquavit, and perhaps some goat-sausages.”

Gabriel looked at Kees with an expression I thought beyond him, then whispered, “why”?

“We might have more trouble,” whispered Kees. “Besides, the Public House has 'proper' food in this town.”

“And that is doubly so if it's like Boermaas,” I said. “That place isn't a normal fourth kingdom town, and, uh... No, not quite.”

With our supplies in three bags and us walking back along the road, Kees asked, “I know this isn't a normal fourth kingdom town, but what did you mean?”

“It is neither a common fourth kingdom town, nor is it like Boermaas,” I said.

“Boermaas is worse,” muttered Gabriel. “Much worse.”

“Outwardly, yes,” I said. “It is.” A brief pause, then, “regarding how it affects us, there is less of a difference between the two.”

“How?” asked Kees.

“Were we in a town like Boermaas,” I said, “I would be most worried, as a town like that probably has ways of getting information to those black-dressed thugs quickly.” A pause, then, “they can do that here, but it's a bit more involved and a lot slower.”

“Slower?” asked Gabriel.

“I suspect Boermaas has wires,” I said, “and this place does not...”

Gabriel looked at me in horror, then shook his head in negation.

“It uses different wires,” I said. “Or, it might not use wires, but something about, uh...”

“What?” asked Gabriel. “I do not recall seeing wires anywhere near Boermaas.”

“It's a good deal faster than the post,” I said, “which means it's a good deal faster than we are.”

“And this town?” asked Kees.

“Moves much as we do,” I said. “We'll still need to hurry so as to avoid trouble.”

I was glad the others had busied themselves while we were gone, for it made for a rapid departure. Even so, I could feel prying eyes glancing at us from the part-shuttered windows of shops, and once out of town, I went by compass heading apart from the roads once more.

I was glad there was but little complaint of us doing so, for the ground was firm, the grass cool, and our breaks frequent, both to eat and 'rest' the horses. I resolved to find a woodlot to hide up in before mid-day, and spoke of the matter over a slice of jam-covered bread. I was enjoying the taste and texture of 'proper' food, and my stomach agreed with me.

“More beer?” I asked.

“Aye,” said Gilbertus. He was drowning himself in the stuff. “At least four more jugs afore we camp.”

“We procured a bundle of soap...”

“Best fetch another one later, if it's a smaller one,” said Lukas. “I'd stop twice more afore we camp for beer and bread, if we could.”

Accordingly, I went for the nearest town that did not have us deviate too much from our current compass-heading, and while the group passed through it at a steady pace upon the main street, Karl and Sepp left to return with a loaf and jug apiece.

The next town, however, I indicated I wished to 'skirt' while sending the two after beer and bread. Accordingly, I led to the outskirts of its fields and there waited, while the two rode the few hundred yards further east and then back to our line of march.

“We got two jugs each this time,” said Karl, “and two more loaves.”

“Which makes enough for a party of ten,” I said. “Or does it?”

“I think it should,” said Karl. He was riding beside me as we came to the shaded edge of a nearby woodlot. “Where will we camp?”

“Near water and shelter,” I said. “I've been asking for our trail to be covered, so I hope that throws those thugs off of our trail.”

Karl looked at me incredulously, then said, “how much more will we need to do that..?”

“Until we're within a day's ride of home,” muttered Lukas from behind. “I smell a bad town.”

“Boermaas?” I asked. Karl had taken up his place rearward once more. “It's close, isn't it?” I then noticed the smell.

“Urgh,” I gasped. “That smells like the dark side of the Swartsburg.”

I ran our course a bit more west, but only partly because of the reek of a foul-smelling region. There was water in this area, as well as cover; and when I came to a small stream, I led directly across it – and into the trees of a sizable woodlot on its other side.

The narrow aisle I had found led between tall trees and among a decent carpeting of sticks for a short distance, then widened perceptibly to form a small clearing. I dismounted, then began looking around. I could feel a spring nearby, and while the others stretched and yawned, I walked off to find it.

Ten steps, twenty; the trees and undergrowth became thicker with each step. I watched the ground carefully, wary for signs of other human presence. For some reason, I could feel that also, and when I came to the remains of a small rock-surrounded campfire, I knelt down to feel its ashes with a wary finger.

“They're still warm,” I thought. “Now if those people...”

“They left camp less than an hour ago,” said the soft voice, “which means you might well catch up with them when you resume this evening.”

“Uh, who?” I asked. “Those, uh, two miners?”

For some odd reason, I knew they were the ones in question, and I asked, “they're on foot, aren't they?”

“Which is why I said you might catch up with them,” said the soft voice. “Their presence would be helpful in the days to come, and they would appreciate riding rather than walking.”

The spring, however, proved uncommonly elusive, and only after another twenty minutes of careful hands-on-knees exploration did I find the small pool. While it had no odor, I knew its water needed boiling to be drinkable, and I brought Gilbertus back to its location so as to show him.

“There's been two miners here,” he said. “I saw their tracks.

“Uh, those two,” I said. “They camped here last night.”

“I thought so,” he said. “That spring might be small, but it will do.”

“And?” I asked.

“We'd best use it, rather than show ourselves with getting water from that river,” he said. “Both it and the river's water would need boiling before we drink or cook with it.”

“And the horses?” I asked.

“Lukas led 'em to the other side to graze,” he said. “Better grass and it's cooler, too.”

“And no rivers, no nearby roads, and several woodlots nearby so as to make them hard to see,” I said. “I'm about due for a nap.”

“Aye,” said Gilbertus. “It'll be a while afore bathing water's ready, as everyone is too busy eating.”

I found my cot already set up next to one of the buggies, and collapsed upon it to awaken 'some time' later. I went to my tub, and found it part-full of pleasantly warm water, which I used to bathe in. It was a relaxed and 'slow' bath, which I found especially helpful. I was sore, and that more so than I had thought possible; and once done with my bath, I used the privy someone had dug before returning to my bed.

I awoke once more at dusk, and here, I was the first one up. I could 'feel' the road ahead, it still being safe for tonight at the least; and I roused Lukas first. While he roused the others – he had help from both girls – I began packing, and we left shortly after nightfall.

The night was still 'young enough', however, for Public Houses and Mercantiles to be open, and we came to a town before the first hour was finished. Once we had procured some supplies – beer, bread, smoke-sausages, dried meat, and new-salted fresh beef at the Public House, and candles and soap at the Mercantile – we continued on. This time, I thought it wise to again run cross-country, for I could feel our two miners but ten miles to the north-northeast. They were making for the High Way, or so I guessed.

“And they don't know where it is beyond 'over there someplace',” I thought.

On second thought, however, I suspected that 'somewhere over there' might just work with an uncommonly lengthy road made of crushed rock and tar raised up a foot or more from the ground.

We passed near roads, but I remained off of them, now noticing that the two miners were avoiding them also. I wondered why to no small degree, even though I knew they had spoken of heading north after dealing with that one mine.

“Did their leaving anger the superintendent?” I thought. “Or did he toss them out and send...”

“The situation in the kingdom house helped them as much as it did you,” said the soft voice. “Miners leaving that region of the mining country without appropriately signed papers are commonly treated as if they were escaped slaves.”

“Appropriately signed?” I asked.

“By their 'governors' in the fifth kingdom house,” said the soft voice. “That coach has killed four of those men thus far, and most of the others are entirely preoccupied by the current state of their home district.”

“Which is?” I asked.

“It is nowhere near as wrecked as the Swartsburg was,” said the soft voice, “nor is it nearly as depopulated.” A brief pause, then, “that area is not doing well.”

“Was?” I asked. I had noticed the past-tense referral.

“You will wish to check inside the Swartsburg's walls once you return,” said the soft voice. “The information you acquire there will be invaluable.”

Another town showed, and I cut the road running through it so as to stop for watering the horses. We attended to them by the flickering light of the Public House's many lanterns amid sounds of jovial singing coming from within the building, and once suitably 'fortified' – loaves of bread, dried meat, three more jugs of beer, and a trio of modest-sized fire-cheeses – we continued.

“Another stop like that, and we'll be good for beer,” said Lukas as we came out of the town and I took to the fields once more.

The two miners were become steadily more localized as both distance and bearing, and the silvery moonlight shown down upon a realm at once abundantly verdant and yet pleasantly cool. I heard bugs whine and buzz, but none of them seemed to come near me; and when we cut another road heading northeast, I thought to follow it.

The comments behind spoke of my coming to my senses, at least for a short time; and when two moving dots showed some distance ahead, I did not wonder as to who they were, even if I wondered if they would hide or not upon hearing us. Accordingly, I thought to go on ahead, and Jaak sped up until just short of a trot.

His speed was astonishing, for it ate up the distance between our parties in what seemed moments, and when I came to the rear of the men, I softly called to them. One of them stopped and turned in his tracks.

“Antoon?” I called softly.

“That is him,” said the man – who was indeed one of the miners. “Now how is you know us?”

“Th-that Public House,” I said. “S-Sam Brumm came, and I had to...”

The other miner turned, then said, “if that is your train, then we would join it if we could.”

“I hoped so,” I said. “The area to the north...”

“That we know to at least the potato country,” said Jan. “Past that, all we know is the word of them who spoke it.”

“And the potato country?” I asked.

“I am glad we were not called rodents by the miners,” said Antoon, “as the both of us were from that place, and we did a lot of digging.”

“I hope you two can ride, then,” said the voice of Lukas as he came up. “I might know most o' the west side of the first kingdom like the back o' my hand, but I ain't been in the potato country for years.”

They could, and did, with their bags going into the buggies. Neither man had much to carry beyond a few clothes and a tinned copper cup apiece, and I wondered how they had eaten. I resolved to ask when we next stopped.

I resolved to stay clear of the High Way, however, and accordingly I swung back to a northern heading on the compass. Again, I began heading cross-country, and when I 'felt' a town in the distance, I now 'ignored' it. It was late enough to make food a bit unlikely.

“Especially as you are near the northern portion of the fourth kingdom's 'business district',” said the soft voice. “Once outside of it, Public Houses, especially those which are less busy, will close earlier.”

“And that one?” I asked.

“Was not merely less busy, but also short of suitable food for traveling,” said the soft voice.

With the moon at its zenith and beginning to head toward the east, I found what looked like a 'deserted' road, and I cut upon it. The hard-packed and un-rutted nature of this road was unlike anything I had seen so far in the area, and our speed seemed to increase slightly. Faint from behind, I heard talk speaking of the Low Way.

“This ain't that road,” said Lukas. His voice sounded distant and slightly muffled. “It's too far west. Besides, you can smell the sea from the Low Way, and that ain't anyplace around here.”

The road – perhaps ten feet in width – seemed preternaturally straight, and I wondered if I could withdraw the pendant and 'get into the cloud'. I then recalled the exhaustion it had caused me to endure, as well as that of the others.

“No, try it,” said the soft voice. “Just don't do so for very long at a time.”

Accordingly, I did – and nearly collapsed upon the back of Jaak as the pendant abruptly gained weight. It took me a minute to sit straight up again; and then, I saw us to be within the cloud, with bluish-white mists rapidly accumulating to each side to form a mobile and somewhat threatening luminous wall.

There was an eerie silence to my rear, and as I looked to the side to see speed-blurred terrain, I had a vague idea of what a lightning-hare's vision must be like. I tucked in against the weight, knelt forward – and with an abrupt lurch, time seemed to 'grab another gear' and launch like a wayward missile.

Time was now going backward, and I forward; and the speed difference was enough to cause a feeling of indigestion while my stomach caught up to where I was. I grasped the pendant, now noting its anvil-like heft, and began to slowly withdraw the thing over a course of what felt like minutes but was actually closer to seconds, these being stammered out by a strange and round ticking clock sitting just above my left ear.

The mist left, and the country seemed changed. To our front, perhaps two miles away through deep green fields of 'heather', was a wide and slow-moving river, while the countryside about us felt 'deserted' to an astonishing degree. I thought to consult the compass – still more or less north, perhaps a little to the west of the 'N' – and then put it away.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“About thirty miles north of where you took out the pendant,” said the soft voice, “and that river has a bridge slightly to the west of your current position.”

The road, however, had more or less 'vanished', or so I thought. The heather seemed to part for us readily, and I seemed to see faint signs of a path of sorts. About a mile further on, and I thought to stop for a 'breather'. I was more than a little fatigued.

“Now that helped,” said Lukas, as I walked back to where I had secreted 'my' beer jug. “I made certain that jug got filled up.”

“Th-that jug?” I asked, as I found the thing's neck and pulled it up. “This one?”

“Aye,” he said. “Town's are scarce out this way, even if the people are decent enough.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“That river ahead,” said Lukas. “If it's this big one with a three-pile stone bridge, then it means the border's about another thirty miles north.”

“Border?” I asked between thirsty gulps of beer. I had become severely dehydrated.

“The third kingdom's,” said Lukas.

“Roads?” I asked.

“Those are rare in that place,” said Antoon. He'd seen what I was doing and seemed similarly inclined. “I recall two towns there...”

“Not on either of the two main roads, correct?” He nodded.

“And there are roads in that area,” I said, “but they're strange roads, and what few people in that area stay well clear of them. Correct?”

Again, he nodded, then said, “that is if they live in that place. There are some people who do not live there that use those roads commonly.”

“S-some people?” I asked.

“They are not brigands,” said Antoon. “They are usually in small groups, two or three, with either strings of special horses or small trains of donkeys.” He paused, drank from a small tinned copper cup, then said, “and those people travel strangely, also.”

“Strangely?” I asked.

“I am not sure if they did what we just did,” said Antoon, “but I know they travel mostly at night.”

“That's strange?” I asked.

“Most think it strange,” said Antoon. “Then again, they have not had the pfuddaarn after them.”

We resumed shortly thereafter, and upon reaching the river's wide and sandy banks, I turned left. Faint in the seeming distance under cloud-ruffled moonlight stood a long and delicate-seeming bridge, and as we drew closer, I wondered where we would stop for the night. I was really noticing how tired I felt, but I wanted to press on.

“P-perhaps on the other side..?” I asked.

“That road does resume there,” said the soft voice, “but if you put out the pendant, you will be...”

“Like I was in the third kingdom house, correct?” I asked. “How would be best to use it, then?”

While there was no answer, the bridge supplied a small measure of reassurance. For some reason, I was expecting something on the verge of falling apart, and when I saw the well-maintained structure and its sturdy planked floor, I tossed the bulk of my misgivings.

“This is that bridge,” said Lukas as he drove onto it. “Space yourselves out some crossing this thing, or it will dump you.”

“Uh, weight?” I asked.

“Some of the planks are not as sound as they appear to be,” said the soft voice, “and more than once, overburdened freighting wagons have broken them.”

“Did they swim?” I asked, as I looked out over the side at the river.

“Some cargo was lost, yes,” said the soft voice, “and three horses were injured, but no one actually swam then.”

I waited on the north shore, praying silently the whole time, then as Gilbertus drove the second buggy across to bring up the rear, I resumed my place at the front. Within minutes, I found traces of another 'deserted' road, this one running north-northeast.

The traces became more plain and apparent with the passing minutes, and the road itself began to slowly curve back toward 'due north'. Somewhere far to the right, I could see slow-moving lights that seemed to faintly vary in strength, while to the left, complete darkness prevailed. For some reason, I wondered about the second kingdom.

“The southernmost third has more of those roads,” said the soft voice, “as well as a surprisingly sparse population, while that portion between that area and the potato country, while comparatively dense in population, is very poor.”

“And b-backward,” I thought.

“Outwardly it looks to be otherwise, but you are correct,” said the soft voice. “Its poverty also makes it unattractive to witches, which is a good thing.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“The ground is soft enough at that point to make for a likelihood of bogging if you run much off of roads,” said the soft voice, “and the further north you go, the worse that tendency gets.”

“Especially with our loads,” I muttered.

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “I would still travel mostly at night.”

“Mostly?” I asked.

“You will need to get food,” said the soft voice. “That part of the second kingdom is dead once the sun goes down, and most shops open late and close early.”

“Like they do at home?” I asked.

There was no answer save that of the road which lay ahead, which ran more or less straight through wide fields of heather. Woodlots came to the very edges of the road, but they did not attempt to usurp it, nor did they cause it to bend – and again, I noted its hard-packed and straightened nature. I wondered if it continued across the border.

“No, best crash before the border,” I thought. “Tomorrow promises to be a long and tiring day.”

The moon looked to show perhaps two more hours when I began to look for a hiding place, and when the road's direction went due west, I turned off of the road and went cross-country in a northerly direction. The heather again seemed to part for us readily, and in the distance – perhaps half a mile – lay a sizable woodlot basking in now-brilliant moonlight. It drew closer by the minute, and as it did, I could 'feel' water, shade, and grass – and more, all of them passably hidden from prying eyes.

“Good,” I said in a haze of fatigue. “Don't want no prying.”

By the time I had reached the woodlot itself, however, I was having to keep my eyelids pried open, and I almost blundered into a decent-sized pond once I'd dismounted at the edge of the place.

“B-bed,” I moaned. “N-need b-bed.”

Someone took my hand – who, I could not decipher – and led me to a soft cloth stretched between two sawhorses. This contraption, while not a proper bed – those were thicker, much softer, and mounded with pillows – was adequate to the task, and I toppled over like a tree with my hands folded and my eyes closed, there to 'sleep like unto a log'. The phrase was an old one from long ago in my past.

I had indeed crashed, and that most hard, and waking was slow, difficult, and laborious. I was more than a little surprised to smell a delicious soup or stew when I actually 'woke up'.

And before tasting it, or learning anything more about food, I wanted a bath.

I wandered through the camp, dodging ropes hung with drying clothes, until I came to the tub itself. A small 'oven' lay next to it, along with three pots brimming full.

“W-what is this?” I thought hazily, even as I felt the 'oven'. It had the remnants of a fire in it, or so it felt.

“Stir up the coals and add a few small sticks,” said the soft voice. “The others got up before you did so as to bathe and wash clothing.”

“Are they still up?” I asked.

“Most of them went back to sleep after breakfast,” said the soft voice. “One person at a time remained awake by washing and drying clothing.”

“And now?” I asked.

“There, that should do it,” said Antoon, as he suddenly 'materialized' with an armload of sticks. “You are up.”

“I think so,” I murmured. “I was really tired last nigh...”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “You needed to be led to your cot, you were so tired.”

After receiving my bath – Antoon had gone to 'ruffle the clothes' – I wondered about 'food'.

“That is bread, jam, dried meat, and beer, at least for now,” said Antoon as he put a small stick in the 'oven'. “One of those older men made something like this, only much smaller, and he's got a pot going.”

“Dinner?” I asked.

“Yes, before we leave,” said Antoon. “Now I need to do my clothing, so I have something clean to wear for next time I bathe.”

“What did you eat coming up here?” I asked.

“Mostly dried goat,” he said. “It might not be as small for carrying as goat-sausages are, nor keep quite as well, but it can be eaten without cooking, and that while one is walking.”

Just dried goat?” I asked.

He paused for a minute, looked around, then, “I might have dug a few potatoes from a garden patch once or twice.”

“You were starving,” I said flatly. “Dried goat isn't very filling.” I then asked, “were these places at the corners of the plots?”

He nodded, then said, “I heard something about it in a sermon once.”

“It is written that way,” I said. “You're not supposed to go over your fields twice, or reap entirely to the corners, and that's exactly why.”

I wandered to the edge of the grove of trees, and there found the horses grazing. Another woodlot started perhaps two hundred yards away, and as I came out into the area between them, I startled abruptly at the sight of a town not half a mile off.

“Th-that town?” I gasped.

“Is not merely large for the area, but also well-provisioned,” said the soft voice. “I would leave just prior to dusk so as to get further supplies for the road ahead.”

“And, uh, spread matters out?” I asked.

“I would get what you need,” said the soft voice. “Until you get well into the second kingdom, 'decent food' and 'absent thugs' will be tend to be mutually exclusive situations.”

And, as if to remind me, I heard another one of those awful-sounding brass bells begin to ring and clang. I reached for my pouch of vegetable fiber and stuffed both ears in hopes that the noise would not jangle me unduly.

It was of little help, and when I returned to camp, I found the others beginning to stir. I made comment of the town, then asked. “they're ringing another of those awful bells.”

“If that is a Monk-House bell, then it rings thrice a day,” said Hendrik.

“And that town, uh, has provisions...”

“Good,” said Lukas. “I hope they have herring, as these goat-sausages are beginning to gripe me.”

“Cooking fuel?” I asked. I wanted a small chunk for 'emergencies'.

“If they have it, we might get some,” said Lukas. “The third kingdom don't have much for wood, and a lot of it's that greasy stuff what smokes...”

Eew,” said Gisela. It seemed a most appropriate remark for a mid-teens girl, or so I guessed her age to be. “That stuff stinks.”

“And smokes a lot,” said Lukas. “You burn it much?”

“Yes, in Eisernije,” said Lys. “One wishes to burn it outside, like most brush, at least until it makes coals.”

“Not much for coals,” muttered Lukas. “We'd best eat and get going, then.”

That happened faster than I thought it might, especially given I was but minimally involved beyond consuming two bowls of delicious 'stew' and a chunk of bread. The sun was low in the east when we started west toward the town, and as we came closer, I smelled an uncommonly sharp and biting odor.

“That isn't manure, is it?” I asked. It seemed related to that smell more than anything else.

“It is,” said Lukas. “It's chickens.”

“Chickens?” I asked. I but vaguely recalled the monstrous bird I had seen what seemed a year ago, and my ears strained to hear the cackling noises appropriate to such birds. I wondered where they were, as in this instance, I knew we would see more than a handful if they showed.

The smell grew steadily stronger as the town drew closer. I could see a road some distance away that ran through the town, and I altered course somewhat to the south so as to intercept it while clear of the town's fields.

“Those are bigger than usual for this area, aren't they?” I thought. “Those are almost like those of, uh, home.”

“The bugs are not quite as bad in this area as in the central portion of the fourth kingdom,” said the soft voice, “and hence fields can be larger without unacceptably low yields.”

“L-low yields?” I asked.

“The bugs devour the crops,” said the soft voice. “Small raised plots are easier to manage when one must 'pick bugs' two and three times a day.”

“Pick bugs?” I asked. That task sounded distinctly loathsome.

“Is the usual way of dealing with crop-devouring insects,” said the soft voice. “Such insects are rare north of the middle of the second kingdom, which is a good thing.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because the animals are much more common,” said the soft voice. “Deer and elk are rare this far south.”

“And they are not rare around home,” I muttered. “Figures, down here the bugs devour the crops, while to the north, the deer and elk...” A spluttered gasp, then, “is that why those things are so common?”

“Among other reasons, yes,” said the soft voice. “Most farmers in the first kingdom, if they grow corn, figure 'a third for the corncrib, a third for the mill, a fourth for the animals, and the rest for seed'.” A brief pause, then, “that is for corn. Other crops receive similar if not greater depredations from animals.”

“Marmots devouring cabbage...”

My speech was cut off by the need to navigate a badly rutted roadside ditch, then steer around the ruts in the road itself while 'breaking trail' for two buggies and a group of horsemen. Once I had done that, the sun was beginning to 'hide itself' in the east, and I led north along the road between thickly-sown raised-up rows of crops – most of which reeked strongly of 'chicken'.

“Where are those birds?” I thought, as the first shops began showing. One man had just come out to light his 'night-lanterns', while most of the other shops – open doors, lights from within, softly glowing windows – looked likely to do the same in short order.

The Public House showed itself across from a larger-than-common Mercantile about mid-town, and while I looked over the buggies and then an assortment of horses, most of the others vanished. Lys and her sister, however, remained with the three of us.

“Now why aren't you going around?” asked Lukas. He was checking hooves, and had already removed one rock.

“I want to learn what you are doing,” said Gisela. “I think Lys is afraid to go around much still.”

“Can't say I blame her much,” said Gilbertus. “This place may be fairly safe, but...”

I straightened up at the sound of a faint cackling noise, which subsided as quickly as it had begun. I looked around to see several more lit stoops, with more lights being lit as I watched. The town wasn't close to shutting down, and neither, it seemed, were the chickens.

Another cackle rang, this one closer, and I turned in its direction. Not two hundred feet away, a waist-high red-brown fowl strutted stiffly, much as if it was observing us with beady black eyes.

“That was the other reason,” said Lys. She'd drawn next to me. “That is not the only one of those things around here.”

“A chicken?” I asked. “Are those birds, uh, irritable..?”

“That kind is trouble,” said Lys. The bird leaped into the air to land on a 'hitching rail', then cackled loudly. “I hope it does not call other birds like it.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I noticed the Public House doors opening, and several members of the party were emerging with sizable bags and jugs.

“A rooster might show,” said Lys.

As if to give credence to what Lys had just said, faint on the wind I heard a flustering noise, then a strident crowing seemed to split the air asunder like a bolt of lightning. I looked around at the others – our entire party had now returned – and the lines etched deeply upon each face spoke of a degree of terror I thought more appropriate to a full-grown Iron Pig.

“Y-yes?” I asked.

“We had best leave,” said Hendrik. “I recognize that sound.”

“Aye, a rooster,” said Lukas, as he began digging near my tub. “I hope it's a smaller one.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I fluffed out Jaak's blanket. The others were mounting as we spoke.

“A full canister from one o' those dragoons might drive it off,” said Lukas, “assuming, of course, I can hit it solid.”

Talk came from behind as we resumed our course out of town, and little of it sounded good. I was acquiring the impression that our party feared roosters more than black-dressed thugs or brigands, and when the town and its odor was some miles to the rear, I felt a palpable air of gladness.

“I'm glad that thing didn't show,” said Lukas at our first stopping point. I was looking for another 'deserted road'.

“Are roosters that bad?” I asked.

“Aye, the red ones are that,” said Lukas. “The black ones, though – those things are too bad for words to tell of.”

“Uh, I hope I can avoid them, then,” I said. “Did someone get cooking fuel?”

“Three big chunks,” said Lukas, “and two crocks 'o herring, and some red potatoes, and some other things I disrecall, and that's for us.” He paused, drank deeply from his cup, then resumed. “Three decent sacks of horse-grain for the horses, and then some more wax candles.”

“We aren't using the lanterns that much, though,” I said.

“No, but we are using 'em,” he said, “and I have a feeling about the road ahead.”

“As in we will not only be able to use candles, but have the need of doing so?” I asked.

Lukas nodded, then said, “and decent wax candles ain't at all common north of here.”

Another hour and it was fully night, with a brilliant moon low in the west and bright stars overhead. There was little talk to the rear as I led across country, looking to the right and left in a steady sweep so as to locate towns and other possible sources of trouble. Faintly, I could smell strong drink upon the soft winds endemic to the region, which reminded me to also be wary of thugs and those wishing to be like them.

I could feel something to the front, which caused a minor course change, and we passed woodlots to each side while headed nearly 'straight' north. The grass and 'heather' was becoming drier now, with a faint 'trail' being visible to the front now and then. I lined up upon this trail, then continued looking for the 'something' I had felt.

That 'something' drew steadily closer, then as a woodlot showed to the front some distance away, I altered course so as to go around it. The 'something' was either in the woodlot, or next to it, and with each minute, I could feel it drawing closer.

An odor came to mind, one redolent of rotten meat and strong drink, and I wondered if this woodlot hid something we did not wish to encounter. The smell redoubled in intensity, so much so that I wondered if I was smelling matters conventionally. I thought to give the woodlot a wider berth, yet for some reason, I refrained.

“No, this is important,” I thought. “Perhaps it involves, uh, ruins...”

And as I thought this, the woodlot seemed to faintly move under the moonlight. Soft motes of light drifted over the trees composing it, such that it showed their varied foliage in sudden strong relief, and as I neared the place, the aspect of 'woodlot' seemed to fade to be taken over by another sense entirely.

The lines were too regular to be the results of random tree-growth. I had just noticed this, and more, upon looking down...

“Another of those deserted roads,” I thought, as the faint lines became visible under the still-present heather. “What is that thing?”

The 'road' would pass within perhaps two hundred yards of its edge, I now saw, and with each minute of further progress, more details showed: straight lines, regular spacing, the things that I had thought trees were now closer to 'towers' of singularly narrow form...

Only another few hundred yards. Those to the rear are silent, almost as if they have fallen asleep under the dread hand-sway of a most-powerful witch.

Rectangles, moss-covered, blazoned with cracks – these stared out from the broken-down shape of an obvious ruined structure, while a near-forest of iron beams gone to rust slowly crumbled amid the trunks of the trees. It was indeed a woodlot, one growing over a ruined town of some kind from far in the past.

And that road that I had seen before was now far plainer to the eye, so much so that my hand began reaching for the pendant. I heard words speaking of 'waiting', and I wondered whose words they were. They were not mine. I knew but little more.

The 'town' seemed to have an unanswerable attraction, so much so that I bullheadedly pushed on. Faint cries and screams now seemed borne upon the wind, which frightened me greatly, and Jaak responded with an increase of speed. Finally, my hand touched the pendant, for it had heeded that yet greater command, and with this touch, the 'hold' upon my mind seemed to fall away with a hissing rumble that grew into a muted whistling noise as the mists of 'time' began to once more gather themselves around us. I then 'tucked in' – and my stomach seemed to stand still as time shot forward like a shell from a cannon.

“Urgh,” I murmured, as the sense of speed vanished and I looked to the side to see sights at once clear and horribly speed-blurred. “How long does this go on?”

That huge ticking clock had taken up residence next to my ear again, and faintly ahead and somewhat to my left I saw a constellation of lights. I needed to alter course slightly to the right, for I did not wish to strike this mess, and as I did so, I saw another such mess of four staring green-streaked yellow lanterns. All of these pulsated madly in intensity, and I thought about firebombs and lanterns as first the one shot past, then the other – and in both cases, huge wayward red-orange suns flared behind us to then wink out seconds later.

“R-red shift,” I muttered, again hunkering down against the onslaught of time – and this time, my stomach was at the point of revolting as life and sanity blasted forward once more.

I could endure the nonsense but a handful of minutes more, and my hand began creeping toward the pendant so as to hide it from the outside world and its hatred. Seconds counted, even as my hand learned its chill iceberg manners and slowly crept up to the deeper-chilled gold and gems of the pendant, then slowly grasped the thing and bore it away to once again sleep its hidden sleep beneath the covering of my shirt.

And the mists then fled over the course of what seemed an hour, and I came to myself in a region that I had no knowledge of beyond its thick mostly-green bunch-grass punctuated by an occasional tree-stroked copse. From somewhere ahead, I heard faintly the sounds of goats. Jaak was traveling at his usual 'excursion' speed.

“Oh, no,” I murmured. “We're back in the fifth kingdom.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “You pulled out just in time.”

“Just in time?” I asked.

“About another ten miles on your current course would have meant swimming in the ocean,” said the soft voice, “and in the process, you would have scattered several large encampments of goat-herders.”

“Did I get crossed up and head west?” I asked.

“No, you did not,” said the soft voice. “You remained on a north-northwest course the whole time.” A brief pause, then, “the third kingdom port is at the east end of a deep natural bay.”

“And we would have, uh, ended up in it,” I muttered. “Wonderful.”

“Be glad you covered as much ground as you did, and as quickly,” said the soft voice. “You avoided some serious trouble by doing so.”

“Serious trouble?” I asked.

“Two parties of brigands to the front, and a witch-party coming from behind,” said the soft voice. “Those people you were worried about went to Boermaas instead of where they usually go.”

I shuddered soundlessly, then asked, “where is the third kingdom port?”

“We're in good cover, then,” said Lukas from behind me. “Antoon here says he knows of a road...”

“You do not want those,” said Lys. “Not here.”

“Then straight, save for around those goat-herds,” I murmured. “The High Way isn't that far from here, and the same for the Low Way.”

“That is why you do not want roads right now,” said Lys. “The ones around here go to those big ones.”

I soon crossed one of the roads Lys had spoken of, then not ten minutes later, another. The second example had tracks which were not only fairly fresh, but were also made by tires larger than those of our buggies.

“She's right,” muttered Lukas some seconds later. “We just passed some coach tracks.”

The goat-herds, however, proved to be too large to 'go around', and we moved slowly among animals asleep on their feet mingled with scattered 'sagebrush'. The first goat-herd was easily a hundred yards wide as it stretched to the limits of my vision to east and west, while the second example was a bit thinner and a good deal less wide. Upon passing it, however, I sensed the presence of another road ahead, this road being bracketed by thick greenery that would need us carefully threading our way through it.

More importantly, this road received traffic around the clock, and much of this traffic was composed of individuals I had no desire of meeting. A faint whiff of strong drink came over me, and I nearly spewed.

“That's the port,” spat Lukas. “I smell that stuff those people like to drink.”

“Uh, sailors?” I asked. I wanted to speak of 'rum', but refrained.

“They do that,” said Lukas, “and when they've a chance, they rob people, too.” A brief pause, then, “that's when they're at sea.”

“And, on l-land?” I asked.

“They act too much like those fifth kingdom stinkers for me to like it,” said Lukas. “I shot one last time I was here, and it was a near thing.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“He ignored the ball,” said Lukas, “and I had to carve him.”

Faint talk from the rear spoke of 'witches' and 'pirates', and as I 'adjusted course' – I could feel a 'decent' crossing place ahead, this being where the undergrowth was 'thinner' – I thought, “pirates?”

And upon the tail of that word came the phrase I commonly used to describe the flintlock pistols so common among guards working at the house. I continued ruminating on the matter, then suddenly lurched nearly to the ground as Jaak stopped abruptly.

I had come within perhaps fifty feet of a massive flock of sheep – and unlike the goats we had encountered earlier, these animals were so closely packed in their apparent slumber that going through them seemed distinctly unwise.

“Are these asleep?” I asked quietly.

“They are,” said the soft voice, “and this flock is large enough that you will need to go through it rather than around it.”

“How?” I asked. “Dismount and...”

The sudden thought was too hard to ignore, and I slid off of Jaak to hit the ground with a thud. I looked around as the rest of the column slowed and then stopped. It was time, and I began walking toward the herd.

As I came within ten feet of the soft woolly blobs, they seemed to 'magically' move to the side in a noiseless fashion, and Jaak followed after me. In his wake, I could tell the others were now following, urged on by Lys.

She needed to urge them on, it seemed, as even the two older men were 'spooked' by what I was doing, while the others wished nothing more to do than to go east or west and take up one of the two main roads of the region.

“That would get us killed,” I muttered. “First this big flock of woollies, then this road to our front that promises to be scary, and then after that, I'll...”

I looked up and saw the moon still west of its zenith. I thought to ask as to how much ground we could – or rather, should – attempt to cover. I recalled the speech regarding the third kingdom being 'especially dangerous' as I did so.

“I would find another of those 'deserted' roads once you pass the port, and continue on as you can while it is dark,” said the soft voice.

“The, uh, thugs?” I asked. I could 'feel' some to the front, though they were not particularly close.

“That road will be relatively quiet,” said the soft voice. “It will not get much quieter tonight than it will be in the next hour.”

The 'flock of woollies' was of such breadth that I needed nearly five minutes to walk across it, then once I resumed Jaak's back, I noted the area ahead. Trees were becoming more common, and that in an unbroken-seeming line stretching the whole distance that I could see. I wondered more than a little as to how they 'endured' the region's endemic drought.

“Mostly as fog comes in from the port and dampens the area,” said the soft voice. “Much of the third kingdom's lumber comes from this region.”

“Do they, uh, cut paths through that region.?”

“Yes, many of them,” said the soft voice. “The more-used ones tend to be both wider and severely rutted.”

I hoped I was lined up on one of the less-used examples as the trees steadily neared, then at a distance of perhaps a hundred yards from the first 'lines', I saw what looked like a blue-hazed 'tunnel' of some kind perhaps twenty feet to the right of my current path. I adjusted course once more, then as I came to the mouth of this 'tunnel', it faded quickly to show a stick-carpeted pair of faint ruts in the middle of a narrow 'corridor'. I turned where I sat, and waved the others on prior to entering.

The darkness of these woods was that of a realm beyond time, and the primeval scent of the trees – some were 'eucalyptus', and others 'sandalwood', and a third something like a cross between 'Geneva Berries' and Raw-Deal powder – seemed to conjure a peculiar mode of thinking. It was needed, however, for people commonly 'lived' in this forested realm, and I did not wish to encounter them.

“Yes, woodcutters, when they are in the midst of felling a large tree,” said the soft voice. “Such people are not native to the region.”

“They aren't?” I asked.

“Usually they come from the fourth kingdom,” said the soft voice, “as no self-respecting third-kingdom dweller wants to be anywhere close to a haunted forest once the sun goes down.”

While the idea of a 'haunted forest' made for a mental snicker upon my part, I wondered how those we might encounter viewed the place.

“They do not waste time in traversing that road,” said the soft voice. I could feel moisture increasing in the air.

“And if it is foggy?” I asked.

“They do not attempt the road then,” said the soft voice. “Some of those thugs you felt are waiting at the east end of the forest for the fog to diminish.”

I never thought I would give thanks for 'superstitious thinking', but I found myself glad of the matter just the same as the 'corridor' slowly wove its way around a vast number of sizable trees.

“Three-foot trunks?” I mumbled. “What do they use these things for?”

“Ship-repairs, mostly,” said the soft voice. “Every port on the continent either repairs ships or builds them, at least to some degree.”

“Do they need repairs often?” I asked.

“Age and accidents are about equal causes,” said the soft voice. “Still, most 'ship-repair' shops commonly make other wooden articles so as to remain solvent.”

I could feel the road itself somewhere ahead, though the current forested realm warranted the name 'impenetrable' if one strayed much from the 'road'. The sticks I had seen earlier were much less common, so much so that I thought to look on the ground for tracks.

“Someone has been in here recently,” I thought. “Gathering sticks for fuel?”

“The other job of the region's woodcutters,” said the soft voice. “Trees are cut as needed, which is not that often locally.” A brief pause, then, “fuel, on the other hand, is always wanted.”

“Aye,” whispered Lukas. “The third kingdom pays good for decent drop-wood.”

I now remained silent, for the fog was filtering down from above. Its thick murk was astounding, so much so that when the trees ahead abruptly vanished to be replaced by an impenetrable wall of white 'wool', I dismounted and began walking.

I wanted to hold my hands out in front, for some reason, as I could see perhaps ten to fifteen feet ahead – and while that was better than that of the others, it was not a comforting thought to be so near to 'blind' on a dark thug-filled night. Jaak nuzzled my back then.

I was surprised I did not yell, it was so unexpected.

My feet found ruts in the road of their own accord, and I marveled more than a little that I did not trip and fall sprawling. Ten feet, twenty, and still the road held sway; twenty-five, thirty...

I narrowly missed colliding with a sizable tree-trunk, and I needed to move some feet to my right to again find the 'trail'. I turned, moved to the side, and waved twice...

And jumped aside as the two horses of the first buggy nearly collided with me. Lukas drove on ahead while I waited for the next people.

These were mounted, and I noted both of the miners seemed to be 'herding' the others across. I was more than a little glad for their 'cool-headed' courage – and when the last buggy hove into view, I was glad for Gisela giving Gilbertus directions amid the fog.

I ran by the side of the road to catch up with the slow-moving front of the column, and as I did so, I noticed a steady diminution of the fog's thickness, so much so that by the time I'd caught up to Jaak, the fog had become a moderately-thick mist that dampened the ground and the trees.

I did not waste time once mounted, and as the trees began thinning some twenty minutes later, I noticed another issue.

“Water,” I muttered. “Finding that stuff outside of towns in this area...”

“Is very difficult,” said the soft voice, “and that presumes you have time to dig for it.”

Accordingly, I began 'looking' for another of those oddly straight roads heading north. The moon was near its zenith, though still a trifle to the west, and its soft glow lit up a vast sea of 'heather' mingled with bunch-grass. I could 'feel' more animal herds, though they were not directly to the front, and while there were two towns ahead, they were both small, poorly populated, and the haunts of brigands.

“Which means stay clear of them,” I thought. “I can feel a road near here, and...”

I glanced down to see faint traces among the heather and brush, and within another minute's time, the traces became 'noticeable'.

“Another two minutes, and then...” I was not looking forward to the consequences of 'hustling', so much so that when the road's outlines became clear, I nearly did not put my hand inside my shirt.

I did so anyway, and as the region to the side became at once misty and murky, I saw some distance away a red flash, then another, followed by two more – and then seconds later, some odd whistling artifacts shot overhead to then vanish as I hunkered down and tucked in.

“Urgh,” I mumbled as the sinking sensation reached its peak. I could not bear to look to the side now, only ahead – it was blurry past the point of even thinking to compare it to anything.

Faint and ghostly, mists parted for me as I held on for dear life, while the ticking clock above and to the side of my head pounded out its metronome-like beats. I was glad I would not need to play this particular song much more, for now, I was noticing my steady and growing fatigue.

And Jaak's, also.

“But a little more,” I thought, as a wall seemed to take shape to the front. “Just past that w-wall...” We blasted through the 'wall' as if it were paper, and the shreds of former existence were now eclipsed by fluttering dark fragments of 'combusted paper' and 'goodwill'. Ahead lay an open realm, one but scarcely peopled, with narrow disused roads both numerous and winding. It seemed good for a story of some kind, and as my hand slowly crept back toward my shirt with the pendant held loosely, I asked, “how much more?”

There was no answer, save the feeling of 'safety' that slowly grew upon the dissipating of the fog. It was if we were home, or at least much closer.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “This is not home, even if it feels like it.”

“W-where are we?” I asked.

“The second kingdom's back country,” said the soft voice. “The border is nearly thirty miles behind you.”