Anja and the Druid

Chapter 8


Ten days to the south of Rhiannon and Adun, Anja and her still slightly nervous companion Margrit awoke next morning to a thoroughly damp landscape, the rain however reduced to occasional squalls. The villagers darted between doorways as yet another sweep of rain passed over. They descended to the bar where the landlord served a good breakfast of oatcakes and tea. Just before they finished a young woman broke into the room.

"Ah, you are still here" the girl wasn't quite sure how to address the sell swords so resorted to a quick curtsey, and then went on. "Do you look for employment?"

Anja replied for them "No, we travel to the low country"

"Oh" The girl was obviously disappointed, then she brightened. "My father is looking for protection for his wagons, they are also going south, perhaps you could take the job, after all you would be well paid for the journey instead of paying out all the time."

Although Anja thought the proposition made sense she thought she had better confer with Margrit before accepting. However there was no harm in finding out the details first.

"What are the terms then?"

"Oh good, now lets see, the train is ten wagons plus livestock, the waggoner's are armed but you would be in charge in case of attack. Pay is two pieces a day plus your food, you sleep with the wagons, we go to Aachenvom, it should be about a weeks trip."

Anja took in the detail and the last part fell in well with her own plan, they would certainly have a better financial footing for what may follow if they took the job.

"Let us talk a moment" Anja motioned for Margrit to join her a few paces from the girl.

"You're not seriously considering this are you?" Margrit asked.

"Why not?"

"Well I don't know about you but I'm hardly a bodyguard, despite this thing on my back I haven't got a clue how to use it"

"That's what I thought last time," Anja interjected, "but I bet you can wield that thing like an expert and it would certainly be worthwhile tagging along, Aachenvom is where we're headed."

Margrit could see that Anja was set on joining the wagon train and being more experienced in this place knew more of the risks so with a sigh she replied "Ok, I'll take your word for it, lets get on with it."

They returned to the girl, who had watched them throughout their conversation, she was already beaming before they reached her.

" My name is Ren Moy, father is Sutaron Moy"

"We are Anja and," Anja indicated her friend, "Margrit, we accept the offer."

"I thought you would" Ren replied, "come I'll take you to father."

They bid the innkeeper farewell and left the hostelry and followed the quickly darting girl to an enclosure hidden behind the main street where the wagon train they were to protect was forming up. Men and oxen were everywhere, manoeuvring wagons, cursing and encouraging but all intent on their work.

"Wait here" Ren instructed as they reached the gate. She dodged out of sight behind a nearby wagon and soon returned on the arm of a grizzled man, red hair to match his impressive beard and ample girth. There was something that Anja could not put her finger on but there was something odd about the man, the way he looked at the two women.

"Greetings, greetings, I am, as my daughter has probably told you, Sutaron Moy, trader and father."

"Anja and Margrit" Anja again named them.

"Please come closer," the man asked and when they were at arms length he reached out to feel their faces each in turn. That was it thought Anja, he's blind.

"You must excuse me for the inconvenience ladies, but a blind man needs to 'see' who he employs." Sutaron gave a quick chortle before continuing. "Ren has told you the deal yes?"

"Yes" Margrit answered.

"You have accepted?" he again questioned.

"Yes" Anja replied this time, "our swords are at your disposal."

"Good, good, come"

Sutaron, with Ren guiding, led them into the yard and to his office. "We leave in one hour" he instructed, "Ren here," he pulled his daughter's arm, " comes too as my eyes for this trip."

Margrit and Anja exchanged glances but said nothing.

As their employer said, it was. An hour later the wagon train departed the merchants yard and nosed its way out through the town. Despite the dismal weather many children and a few waggoner's wives cheered and waved as the collection of wagons passed out into the open countryside.

Sutaron had a man checking the road ahead for treacherous surfaces and also to keep an eye out for trouble. It was not unknown for complete caravans to disappear, hence the old man's delight at procuring not one but two sell swords for the trip, they hadn't even asked for a bonus or anything!

The pace although quite brisk was not overly tiring and the two women occasionally rode a short way on one or other of the wagons. Any attack would likely be by surprise so although the advance scout and the two sell swords kept a look out for trouble the best they could really do was identify potential ambush points.

As Anja had guessed, Margrit fell into her role with ease and was soon confidently offering advice with Anja. By the end of the first day the terrain had changed from rolling to quite hilly, the regular patchwork files replaced by ranges with sheep and cattle in profusion, the habitation too had gradually given way to the occasional farmhouse.

About an hour before dusk Sutaron halted the wagons and with Anja and Margrit offering assistance as they could the train was assembled into the traditional circular defence. The whole crew ate together, twenty-five all told, after which Sutaron and Anja selected watch parties consisting of two pairs each watch, the watches kept deliberately short, Anja and Margrit would alternate throughout the night in addition.

As the first watch started the others began the traditional storytelling and rations of ale were issued. Anja had taken the first watch so Margrit sat by Ren and Sutaron listening to the tales and occasionally adding her voice to a chorus when the singing started.

The first night although quite cool was otherwise uneventful and all hoped that the next week or so would be equally quiet. They moved out shortly after dawn on a drier but windy morning, their route now winding up a succession of valleys and low pass's into the hills that circled the lowlands. By mid-morning the ranges had given way to open moorland, windswept and covered in purple heather and occasional stunted birch trees marking the way of a stream.

There were few others travelling this way and apart from a wagon becoming bogged down around midday the days travel was untroubled. The blind owner of the train called a halt after they dropped in to a more sheltered hollow and the evening and night passed much as the previous one. Tomorrow they would reach BackgŁte nestling in the heart of the low mountains known as the Ring.

Dawn came upon them and found a grey sky but a much decreased wind chased the clouds around. Their route took them back up onto the moors before starting the difficult descent to BackgŁte. All the waggoner's expertise was required to manoeuvre the carts an oxen around the sharp corners and hairpins on the narrow trail which later in the year would wash out in the first autumn rains.

By mid-afternoon they were collecting the wagons in the corral outside the town. Sutaron and Ren departed for the town leaving the two sell swords in charge. The waggoner's, themselves all capable men and women, for several couples worked the wagons, gave respect where due but bore not fools lightly. Margrit and Anja had shown intelligence and wisdom thus far and gained the waggoner's confidence.

When the boss returned he announced that apart from the watch they could go to the town for the alehouse if they wished. The scout, a sober lad, told Anja he would run the watch as he was otherwise excused the duty, so both women joined the rest of the crew in 'The Bakers Oven' where an evening of singing and drinking was already underway.

They staggered back to the corral after midnight and after Anja checked the watch, hit the proverbial sack. Sore heads or not the watch still changed and more than one grey face emerged from the covers next morning. Sutaron announced that he had made a deal in the town to unload a good amount of their wares. Soon they were all loading a cart belonging to the BackgŁte trader and by the time they had backfilled and consolidated the remaining load found a wagon surplus to requirements.

As it was almost certain several wagons would run home light from the lowlands anyway, Sutaron elected to leave the ox and cart at the town but take the crew as their help could well be useful. By the time all this was arranged most of the morning had passed, they lunched early and set off on the long climb back onto the surrounding moors.

They managed only twenty or so kilometres that day, almost three quarters of which were uphill. That night they utilised a sheep corral for some shelter from the ever present wind which did however prevent a widespread frost. Ren busied about her father, Anja and Margrit practised a little swordplay- Anja, mindful of the druid's warning of Tolgarth, borrowing a blade. As they parried and thrust in earnest with each other they acquired some spectators and soon found most of the train stood about shouting encouragement to one or other. After the best part of an hour Anja called a halt and the rest of the evening was spent discussing technique and strokes with impromptu displays by enthusiastic swordsmen.

The night once again gave way to day undisturbed, the sun choosing this day to show its face and add a bit of colour to the grey landscape they had become used to. As if the sun's presence was the cue, skylarks sang high above and grouse and quail scattered into the heather as the remaining nine wagons wound their way across the huge moors. They passed divers sat on moorland lakes and kite hovering high above on the lookout for game.

The day turned pleasant all round as the wind dropped to a breeze allowing the stowage of capes although the temperature remained on the low side. Tomorrow they would drop down to the lowlands and from time to time they caught glimpses of the patchwork of fields and ponds that covered the huge sea level plain known only as the lowlands.

Their last night in the Ring again passed without incident unless you call losing a man in the cesspit action, however his attempts to wash did provide some amusement for his colleagues. Margrit talked for a while with Sutaron who told her more of his business, although he did some trading himself a trip like this was only viable if he had paying goods on board. Thus his business was now almost as much a carrier as merchant. He didn't usually accompany his wagons but this time he had business at the other end that he would not trust to another.

Later as this was repeated by Margrit to Anja, the latter stated that she thought as much and indicated five of the remaining wagons which held a variety of goods but none that were readily traded, these obviously being the paymaster goods for the trip.

Morning came again and brought with it a frost, the lack of wind permitting its formation in the sheltered hollow they had camped in. Today the way wound slowly down to the plain below and soon they were dropping down a series of valleys much as they had climbed into the Ring, however on this side instead of foothills they would descend all the way to sea level with no intermediate level, no ranges for cattle or sheep just open moorland until patchwork fields took over with just a short scrubby area separating them. As it was evening when they reached this 'no mans land' they agreed to camp together there and a sixth night went by without incident.

The way forward was now mostly on good roads atop dykes, fishponds alternating with rice fields and where the water table allowed other crops. More traffic used the roads here to service the fields and ponds and several times that day they had to make their way past farm carts on the narrow dyke tops.

Herons stood waiting by the waterways watching for eels and in the distance the boom of a Bitten could occasionally be heard. The drains fascinated the two guards, the locks and siphons reminding them of their true home to which they knew not if they would return. Mid afternoon found a slight change in the landscape, an 'island' in the surrounding fields, a small village occupied most of its surface and on Sutaron's knowledge of the area stopped and drew up on part of the remaining higher land which was nominally the village green.

Never one to miss a chance the old trader was soon busy selling to the villagers a variety of goods from his wagons. A few from the village joined in that night's entertainments and contributed liberal doses of the local rice wine. Although not expecting any trouble the watch was posted as usual but the night passed much as its predecessors on the trip.

With only three days remaining before reaching their destination a mogwach appeared as they lined up that morning and presented itself to Anja. The woman read the note that the Druid had despatched, the mogwach disappearing as quickly as it had arrived but not before Ren could see it. The girl approached the sell sword cautiously to ask of the note, but Anja was already summoning Margrit to the rear of a wagon and the girl decided to leave it for the time being.

"Well at least we're in the same time as before" Anja thought as she beckoned Margrit to the rear of one of the wagons. She re-read the Druid's note. Dinaant where they were to rendezvous was less than a day from their current destination. Her companion joined her and Anja explained to the other about the arrival and contents of the note. The Druid, by his note, seemed concerned for her safety but did not give away specifics although Anja surmised that he referred to the Kelacker.

Margrit seemed a little uneasy and it had also put Anja a little on edge. They returned to their immediate jobs and the wagon train was soon on its way. The two women were extra vigilant that day but the surrounding countryside offered no refuge for attackers and by mid afternoon they had relaxed enough to join in with the singing.

That evening they were forced to camp by a fish farm, but were unable to encircle the wagons in the space available. Bandits and highwaymen in fact rarely troubled caravans this deep in the lowlands as cover was so scarce, but the watch's were kept as usual as much for discipline as for real fear of attack.

The penultimate day of their journey started with a widespread fog, a weak sun not making much impact until well into the morning. They regained the road and were soon making good progress, the roadway being in good repair on this stretch. In late morning they had to wait whilst several barges sailed down the river Din, the bridges in the lowland were mostly of the lift variety. The bridge swung back into place and Sutaron's caravan trundled south again.

In the distance they could see the expanse of the Dinaant forest that lay between them and the town of that name. They would need to either camp before the forest, which was the only significant stand of trees in the lowland, or press through and camp on the far side. This, Sutaron knew and advised his hired guards was potentially a dangerous stretch - the lonely place where outlaws could take refuge for some distance.

The day bore on and they reached the edge of the forest, however the scout had not been seen for a couple of hours. Anja knew that he would normally wait for them at such points on the journey and was a little perturbed when he was not about. As it was still fairly early and several hours' light remained, Sutaron brushed aside caution and ordered the wagons on.

The forest was mixed, oak, beech, pine, lime, elm, sycamore and several others that Anja could not identify. The road was cobbled on this leg although not in good repair and the wagons produced a reassuring rumble as they passed woodsmen who mostly exchanged greetings with those on the wagons. After around an hour of woodland travel the forest became denser, and still their scout had not returned.

Anja started to feel a trifle uneasy and made Sutaron and Margrit aware of her feelings. However at this point, if there was danger at hand, it would be of no advantage to retrace as they were midway through the woodland. Several times she thought that she saw movement in the undergrowth and ordered the wagons to close up.

They continued on at a steady pace, everyone on their guard with weapons to hand, the oxen would not be able to outrun attackers, even on foot, so defence was their best hope. Anja and Margrit gave instructions for the wagons to form three small circles if attack occurred, as that would be easier to defend and more practical in the confines of the forest. Everyone was now on edge, but fate waited only a short way ahead.

Sutaron's scout, some two hours ahead of the caravan reached the forest and after checking the first few kilometres turned to return to the forest edge to await the train. He re-passed the woodsmen and could see the forest edge when two men jumped out on him. After a brief defence the lad was bound and gagged and led off into the forest. By their attire and demeanour it was obvious the men were part of a larger group of outlaws. Sure enough after fifteen minutes they led him into a small clearing already occupied by around twenty others.

After a brief exchange he was escorted to a nearby fallen tree where he was made to sit. He didn't rate his chances of surviving this encounter as very high, but only a few minutes later he was on the move again, he guessed by their direction that they were moving parallel to the road. Now and then the men signalled others beyond sight with birdcalls and several times men disappeared and others arrived unexpectedly from the undergrowth. The young man was still running escape plans through his mind when they stopped under a large yew tree. His guards again urged him to sit and it occurred to him that they had used only minimal force, even in capturing him, they most likely needed him for some reason, then it clicked, bait.

The wagons trundled on, the roadway weaving amongst the mighty trees, all aboard keeping watch on the surrounding timber, several times movement was seen to one side or the other but they could just as well have been deer as marauders. With Margrit stationed with Ren and Sutaron, Anja set herself with the last wagons in time to provide a rearguard.

A tall man dressed in black, with beard and hair of similar raven shade, questioned the boy briefly about the caravan, his answers as ungiving as he could manage. Mostly the man was confirming that which he already knew, although he was surprised to find nine not ten wagons, this raid was obviously well planned. The man left and he was offered a pear and water whilst they waited.

After around an hour, he couldn't be sure, he was taken with only a small guard into the dense forest and soon arrived at the road. One man took him out onto the road, then without warning another drew a knife and deftly hamstrung the young man who collapsed in agony onto the roadway. As he writhed in pain, the captors disappeared back into the trees after first relieving him of gag and bindings. In the distance the lowing of the oxen pulling the wagons could be heard.

Regaining his composure somewhat the lad bound his wounds and prepared to try to warn his colleagues of the danger that they were fast approaching.

Sutaron and his daughter took refuge amongst the foods on the first wagon as a sense of foreboding and danger passed down the line of wagons. All other eyes scanned the forest but it was Margrit who saw the boy lying in the roadway some distance ahead. Having seen them almost simultaneously he was waving his arms in warning. Margrit halted the train and Anja soon joined her at the head wagon. "What do you think?" Margrit asked her mentor. "Two possibilities I suppose, the least likely he's tripped and broken his ankle, or more likely he's there as bait" The blonde woman still looked all around her as she spoke. "The question is do we walk right into the trap or try and take some precautions."

The rest of the wagon awaited Anja's deliberation and after conferring with Sutaron briefly she passed back down the line issuing instructions. If all went well they might get through in one piece.

They started to move off, the waggoner's mates slipping back through their loads and proceeded to tether the oxen to the wagon in front so that effectively it was all one vehicle. Then as they trundled ever forward toward the figure in the road, Margrit and Anja took over the lead wagon and the other crews concentrated within two wagons that would give them an element of protection.

As they neared the scout they could see he was clearly injured in both legs and frantically signalling to them. However they continued to approach steadily until with just a few metres left Anja pulled the oxen to a halt. As if that were the signal a swarm of men leaped from the undergrowth around the caravan and made for the wagons. Anja jerked the oxen back into life and drew her blade, the mighty Tolgarth, at her side Margrit had her own blade in hand before their assailants had reached the roadway.

The injured man in the road saw what was afoot and dragged himself as quickly as he could to the road's edge. The outlaws, slightly slower on the uptake were at first disconcerted to find no crew on most of the caravans, but the defenders soon emerged, bows and short swords flashing into action. The oxen startled by the activity began to pick up some speed and were soon moving at a fast trot, which hampered the attackers' attempts to climb upon the high wagons.

Despite their apparent organisation in planning the attack when it came to a spirited defence such as this they turned into something of a rabble. The man in black came for Anja and soon they were exchanging strokes, with one hanging onto the wagon and the other trying to knock him off. They passed the scout and the attack continued with the attackers suffering several quick fatalities. The moving battlewagons were providing an excellent answer to the attack their numbers being two to one in favour of the attackers initially. Both Anja and Margrit were engaged in battle, some of the outlaws had gained the unmanned wagons and were attempting to break up the train but defenders arrows prevented the separations taking place.

They were now over a kilometre from the initial attack and the odds were now a bit more even as the oxen slowed back towards a walk. Although one waggoner was dead and two other men were injured the defenders were holding their own, the two sell swords were now afoot, Margrit having despatched her assailant was now taking on another whilst the raven clad leader of the outlaws still pressed Anja and Tolgarth. Despite what she had heard and been told of the blade, it offered Anja no extra assistance as she battled with the well-built man.

Then in a potentially winning move, the wagon train became two and the battle took a new turn. Anja stumbled several times on the cobbles, the fight was going from them, the defenders tiring more quickly than their assailants, and defeat was looking them in the face. Margrit continued to battle with vigour despite her stature, Anja's opponent seemed to have endless energy; again he forced the woman to stumble, this time she landed heavily on the roadway and was slightly winded. The man moved in to finish the job when from nowhere a brilliant light appeared and lifted Anja's attacker from the ground and threw him against a nearby tree, rendering him unconscious.

The woman regained her feet and looked for the source of her assistance, a little way up the road stood the grey figure of the Druid. Seeing their leader go down in such fashion broke the attackers resolve and within a couple of minutes the remaining outlaws were moving back into the forest. Anja managed to halt the oxen who had again been stirred to movement by the fire bolt and the survivors of the wagon train gathered by the lead wagon.

Margrit took two others and headed back down the road in a bid to rescue the injured scout whilst Anja went forward to greet the grey individual stood fifty yards down the road.

"You are a tenacious swordswoman," the Druid offered.

"Thank you, that was some trick you pulled there yourself"

"No trick but druid science."

"How did you come to be here when we needed you?" the woman asked.

"Just know that I knew, where is this companion of yours?"

"Margrit, she's collecting an injured man, she'll be back soon."

"Good, I will accompany you to Dinaant."

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