A young farm girl undertakes a fantastic and perilous journey in a Medieval like world.
|The Lone Traveler
Pieter and his friends were shocked at the horrible scene that had just unfolded on the parade field. King George was dead, assassinated by a villein while the King’s Protector was recovering from his Trial by Combat. They were certain that Ser Thoragild had spotted them and they were hastily making their way through the packed milling crowd. They were wanted fugitives and the one person who knew them by sight had unexpectedly spotted them. How their old school master would react, they did not know and could not afford to find out.
They slowly made their way to the thick forest several hundred meters away, taking advantage of a small caravan which was leaving the festivities in route to one of the great noble’s holdings. Mixed among the servants and guards, if seen, they would appear to be members of the departing cavalcade. Once inside the forest, Pieter, Sean, and Oengus quickly put distance between themselves and the city. They knew that once the shock and awe of the assassination had calmed down, the countryside would be scoured and searchers would be out everywhere looking for accomplices, even though the assassin had been caught.
After several hours of a steady but grueling pace, around the massive trees, through rugged gullies, and thick underbrush, they arrived at the new camp that had been chosen as their home site. It was located in a secluded valley at the base of a steep ravine. A small clear stream meandered along the bottom of the ravine providing access to cold fresh water, and a decent sized overhanging cleft half way up the ridge provided both shelter and concealment. Mounted knights and cavalry could not enter the steep ravine and men-at-arms would be reluctant to venture into the thick thorny underbrush.
As the three approached the campsite, they spotted one of the alert sentries waving to them from a concealed positon along the cliff front. They had learned to take precautions in case one of the King’s Dragon Riders was unexpectedly hovering above the area. Over the hidden smokeless camp fire there were a large number of messenger birds and several spits with sizzling venison, rabbit, and other game slowly roasting. Their numbers had increased by eight and ten, expanding the size of the outlaw gang to five and twenty with most of their members Khelti warriors. The Khelti people were fiercely independent and relished tweaking the noses of the royal snobs even when hired on as mercenaries.
Sean handed off a sack of fresh fruit and vegetables, Pieter a large bag of fresh breads, and Oengus threw a small keg of ale, that he had liberated from a wagon in the caravan, to one of the strapping warriors sitting around the fire. They sat down on a large round log which had been drug into the campsite, and leaned forward to catch their breath. The two hour journey had been very demanding but they could see the anticipation on the faces of the others who were eager to hear the latest news.
Pieter quickly recovered and ran his fingers over his dark sweaty head. His fair hair had been died with, haws, the juice from hawthorn berries combined with other ingredients, thus providing him with a dark reddish colored mane. The casual observer would mistakenly identify him as either Kelti or someone from far away Nordlund as they shared the same general physique and coloring.
When Pieter glanced up, he was surprised to see Etain standing in front of him holding a bulging water skin, a bright inviting smile lit up her beautiful face. For some reason the Khelti girl, warrior actually, had been favoring him with choice bits of food, gentle coy smiles, and playful bantering. Pieter also noticed that her close companion, Aideen, had lately been giving him the cold shoulder for some unknown reason. He assumed he had insulted her in some manner but could not figure out how or when. He gratefully accepted the welcomed water and took a long heavy drink. The cold sweet liquid soothed his dry parched throat, and he passed the skin to Sean who also drank heavily then poured the cold water over his sweating head.
Arthfael and Carrick soon joined them near the fire. As they waited for the remainder of the band to join them so they could tell the news to all, Pieter glanced at the hot coals in the smoldering fire. They had named themselves, The Frei Folk, or free folk, and each member had taken the pledge previously adopted by the original nine. “That pledge, ‘All for one and one for all’ was a catchy one but they also took it very seriously.
Pieter suddenly noticed that Carrick wore a special chain around his neck consisting of unidentifiable coins. He leaned forward to see if he could recognize in what realm the coins had been minted. “You’ll nae find them from any known kingdom,” Carrick stated, noting Pieter’s silent interest.
“I was just curious,” Pieter replied, returning his gaze to the burning embers.
“My Sire and I were oot hunting for our supper one frosty day when I found them,” Carrick continued. “I was following the trail of a fat ewe along a hillside covered with thick bramble and old shale rocks. I slipped on the damp shale and fell into a hidden crevice. Thank Cernunnos it wasn’t a deep one or I may have wound up with a broken leg, or worse. There were odd decaying pieces of things I could not understand or identify piled in one corner, and the place felt like it belonged to the ancients. It was a chilling and dismaying place to be in.”
Carrick took a drink from another skin being passed around, this one containing a dark red wine. “I reached up to grab a small protrusion on the wall to help pull meself from the crevice and it broke loose. I started to throw it away but noticed a gleam of metal beneath a scratched place on the cylinder like rock, so I placed it in me game bag. After supper that evening, I remembered the object and took it over to the hearth to get a closer look at it. I used a cooking knife to scrape away the rock like mud and it turned out to be a roll of coins. Odd coins they were, silver in appearance, but like nothing I had seen before. There were forty silver coins in all and after they were cleaned and shined, I knew they would make a unique torc.”
Pieter looked closer at the shining chain of coins. Even though they appeared to be very old, the way they were made was a vast improvement over the lopsided and crookedly minted coins made by the many different kingdoms? On one side there was an engraving of an elderly, heavy set, and balding man with a large nose. On the other a great eagle spread its mighty wings. The writing on the coins was in an alphabet similar to the standard letters and numbers, but half were different and he could not discern the meanings of the words.
“I asked a scribendi what the writing meant,” Carrick noted, “Before I took them to a jeweler to have them made into me torc. “The numbers stand for themselves, 1930, which he thought may indicate the value of the coins. The words are from the Book of Mysteries and he identified them as being from a powerful kingdom that existed many thousands of years ago. I was offered a small fortune for them by the jeweler, but I think Cernunnos wanted me to keep them for good luck.”
A sudden commotion brought forth shouts of glee from those assembled. Talina had returned from some unknown and lengthy mission and flopped down heavily into Sean’s lap. They were playfully engaging in a public display of affection. Sean smiled at the joy on the face of his best friend. He had recently discovered that Sean and Talina had decided to become partners. Not quite like marriage, but close enough in the eyes of the Khelti that the difference did not matter. His glance wandered beyond the amorous couple and his gaze suddenly fell on the features of Aideen, who was scrutinizing him with what could only be considered, passion. Her wanton features definitely signified desire and lust. He was perturbed by the sudden change, as she had displayed nothing but a chilling attitude towards him over the past weeks. Pieter felt a flush on his face and returned his gaze to the passionate couple.
Talina stood and told the group about her secret mission. She had flown all the way to Alataria to help their friend, Analia. Her story was long and full of exciting twists and turns. Finally she turned to Sean. “I found another man,” Talina brusquely stated, as she giggled through the lavish kissing Sean was slathering on her neck.
Sean bellowed and picked her up. “I’ve been fooled by one of the aos sí,” he laughed. He turned her upside down and held her over the fire. “What shall I do with this deceitful wench?” he asked the group. “Shall I burn her as a witch as the Anglanders do, or drown her like the Nordlanders?”
“No!” the gang shouted. “Kiss her!”
Sean placed a long and breathless kiss on her inviting lips and held it until the chanting of the crowd begged him to stop.
“Bring him!” Talina yelled, finally able to breathe again. “My dragon frightened his horse so greatly; the stupid animal bolted and threw him to the hard ground, knocking him out. I had a difficult time hauling his weighty carcass close enough to throw it behind my saddle.”
Two strong Khelti warriors walked towards the group holding the arms of a young man securely between them. He was of medium height, approximately six and ten years of age, with an unruly mop of dark hair and a slim but wiry build. The hair above his ears had been closely cropped in the unusual style that Lord Alwaythe imposed on his family and subjects. He had a defiant look on his bold features,
Sean strolled over and inspected the anomalous young man, critically studying him with a wry grin and disproving stare. “What do you call him, love?” he asked Talina. “He looks and smells like an Alwaythe cur.”
“More like a fat purse!” Arthfael interjected. “Look at the rich clothing he’s wearing. I’ll bet his dear fat mum will pay a fortune in gold to ave him back in one piece.”
“He’s the fifth son of Lord Alwaythe,” Talina stated, “but he is a bastard son, thus not in the line of succession or inheritance.”
“Then, what good is he to us?” Arthfael returned. “No lord will pay good coin to have a bastard boy back, unless he has special talents, like warming the lord’s bed. We might as well have a bit of archery practice with him. Whyfor did you capture him?”
“I thought he might be a messenger from Lord Alwaythe’s estate,” Talina replied. “None of their messenger birds have made it through the cordon of Khelti bowmen surrounding the capitol.” She glanced at the juicy birds roasting over the hot coals. “I thought perhaps they had dispatched him with an urgent communique to his lord.”
“What say you?” Pieter asked the young man.
“Aye, I am David, the bastard son of Lord Alwaythe,” the youngster haughtily replied. “But, I am no groveling messenger boy. I left Lord Alwaythe’s estate in search of freedom and a better future. To remain there, was to accept a life of scorn and contempt. I watched daily as my half-brothers fought over the bones thrown from the master’s table, like a pet hound, each of them longing for a kind word or hopeful smile from our butcher of a father. I hope to find employment among the King’s Own Horse or even perhaps as a Captain of Foot. I am not without tactical and martial training. Even my corrupt father demanded that his bastard son be taught the ways of war.”
“And now you are a captive of The Frei Folk,” Sean stated. “Know you who and what we are?”
The young man looked puzzled for a second then cautiously replied. “I see mostly Khelti warriors but there are a few others who are obviously from other holdings.” He was looking at Talina and Pieter when he spoke the last words.
“We have named ourselves, The Frei Folk, because each of us have decided that we have had enough of greedy knights and conceited lords,” Sean stated. “You might consider us outlaws, but we are much more than that, and growing. Our aim is to eventually have a place of our on, with our own rules, our own freedom, and never having to bow down to kings and emperors.”
“You have a nice dream but a difficult road to follow,” David replied. “Without a powerful army at your beck and call you cannot hope to win your own kingdom. As it stands now, one troop of the horse guard will ride through you like a butcher’s grinder.”
“We have places where the horse guard and men-at-arms dare not venture,” Carrick enthusiastically joined in the conversation. “We will build our army. Every serf or slave who is browbeaten and whipped will flock to our banner. They will come in the hundreds, even in the thousands.”
“An army of farmers, slaves, midwifes, bakers, and drunkards, armed with pitchforks, shovels, axes, carving knives and rolling pins,” David replied. “They could never hope to beat the best trained and best equipped armies of any kingdom. Your happy dream is dead before it begins. It is an old fantasy told by wandering minstrels to soften the daily aches and pains of serfs and peasants. Even should you achieve such a fantastic feat, within time, others among you would proclaim themselves kings and become rulers over you.”
“We could use a man versed in the arts of war,” Pieter interjected. “There are very few of us who have trained as squires. If large numbers do start joining our merry band, someone will have to teach them. As you say, without such learning they will be no match for men-at-arms, much less knights and mounted soldiers.”
“An interesting proposition,” David replied. “What if I decide I would rather seek my fortune among the King’s forces as a freelance soldier, will you simply let me walk away knowing that I am aware of your intentions and location?”
“You are not a sworn member of the King’s army yet,” Sean stated. “And, you have nae challenged any of us in personal combat, so we have nae a quarrel with you. You are free to go your own way if that is your decision. As for your knowledge of our location, we would nae be here should you lead a contingent of men-at-arms to strike us.”
“May I guest with your merry band for a spell until I can make a proper decision?” David asked. “I have been traveling for three days and two nights and I could use a rest and some decent food.”
Sean nodded in approval, and then noticed that everyone was now gathered around the camp site, except for the security guards posted on the perimeter. “We have a bit of shocking news!” he shouted. “Bloody King George is dead.”
The milling crowd glanced at each other in disbelief. The death of a king was something that did not happen very often, especially to one as young and hearty as King George. Kings occasionally died in battle, but the war against Alataria had not yet started. Their new guest seemed more shocked than the rest.
“As you know, Pieter, Oengus, and meself, went into Lorainne seeking the latest news and to bring back a few items not available in camp,” Sean continued. “Nearing the end of the festival, Queen Denize obviously accused the festival champion, Ser Amadare, of something which made the King bloody furious. He challenged Ser Amadare to Trial by Combat, but the King’s Protector, Ser Thoragild, fought in the King’s stead. It was touch and go for a spell, but our great Headmaster, Ryykon, finally beat the bastard in the end. King George was still raving mad, so he slit Ser Amadare’s throat with his own dagger.” Sean halted to let the news soak in.
“How did the King die?” Carrick moaned. “For certain you’re going to tell us, nae?”
Sean took a long pull from the wine skin before finishing his story. “After the King killed Ser Amadare, he turned to head back to his carriage. A villein ran up behind him and stabbed him in the neck with a small dagger, which must hae been poisoned. It happened so fast, Ser Thoragild had not yet turned around. He captured the assassin and gave him to the King’s Own Guard.”
“The worst of it is, we think Ser Thoragild recognized us,” Pieter cut in. “We don’t know if he thinks we were part of the assassination plot, but he does know that I am a fugitive, and since Sean was spotted in my company, he is now a likely suspect.”
“Tell us more about the fight?” Arthfael yelled. “How did Ryyke defeat the great tournament champion?”
Pieter quickly pointed to Onegus to fill in the exciting and gory details. Another thing the Khelti loved besides fighting was retelling stories of old fights and battles in fervent detail and occasionally with pantomime, leaving no move or trick unmentioned. He was tired from the day’s exhausting activity and tortuous trip back to the hidden campsite.
He strolled out of the camp to get away from the annoying ribaldry and to enjoy the cold fresh air. The late winter weather had cleared leaving a beautiful deep blue sky with meandering white clouds. The soft wind blowing through the tree tops whispered a gentle melody of peace and tranquility. It was nearing dusk and he could barely hear the lonely howl of a pack of wolves in the far distance.
As he rounded a tall outcropping of rocks covered with lichen and dead limbs, he spotted Aideen beckoning for him to follow her. He was uncertain of her intentions and suddenly remembered the provocative look she had given him earlier. He was too tired to engage her silly whims, yet, her eager invocation and serious features indicated she wanted to show him something or someplace special.
Pieter followed her deeper into the thick woods. The oak and spruce trees had thinned out and the hawthorn grew taller and stouter. When he broke through a particularly dense area of underbrush, he spotted Aideen standing in a small clearing glancing up at a large tree. It was the biggest hawthorn tree he had ever seen, towering up a dozen meters or more. She beckoned for him to join her and pointed at the magnificent tree. There were numerous gifts hanging from the tree limbs and many bowls and jugs setting on the ground between its expansive roots.
“This is one of many portals leading to the land of the Aos si,” Aideen softly spoke. “We call it Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth. They are our ancestors and the spirits of nature. We leave gifts to show our respect and curry their blessings and good favor.”
Pieter was inexplicably drawn towards the beautiful tree. He was mesmerized by something coming from deep within the tree itself. A strong flowing of energy like nothing he had ever felt before, a vibration so intense and compelling it filled his every being with joy and delight. He felt, more than heard, the words ‘Tuath De.’ The words were repeated over and over again.
Suddenly, he was standing in a beautiful landscape, almost like a well-manicured garden which extended beyond his sight. The emerald green grass was rustling in the wind, beautiful oak, chestnut, hickory, and maple trees surrounded the small valley. A gentle crystal clear stream meandered at the foot of the valley, reflecting the sky which was achingly blue, with puffy white clouds chasing each other like sail boats on the sea. He was approached by a great number of young people; none could be older than six and ten. Their hair was long and flowed about their heads in the gentle sweet breeze. They were beckoning him and whispering the same two words, Tuath De, over and over again. Several kept pointing at a slight figure in the distance standing with her back to him so he could not see her face. He did not realize that he had fallen into a stupor, until the hand of Aideen hit him gently in the face.”
“Come back, Pieter,” he finally heard her words. She pulled her hand back to strike him again, and he reached out and gently stopped the swing. Aideen’s eyes were wide and she had a look of fearful concern on her face. “What happened to you, your mind was elsewhere? You frightened me, Pieter. You would not respond to my words.”
“I was in a beautiful, peaceful valley,” Pieter replied. “There were many stunningly beautiful people around me, all young. They kept repeating the words, Tuath De. What does that mean, Aideen?”
Aideen continued to stare at him with fear and wonder. “That is the name of the people who live in Tír na nÓg, the land of plenty. They are the ancient gods of my people, our ancestors, and they remain eternally young.”
“Why would your gods contact me?” Pieter asked. “I know nothing of them.”
Aideen continued to gape at him and then back at the sacred tree. “They only show themselves to those they consider very special or who display greatness,” she whispered. “Only once in recent memory have they spoken to one of the Khelti, that was Kaern MacKenzie, the great King who united all the Khelti holdings into one kingdom.”
“They must have made a mistake,” Pieter smiled. “I am definitely no one special. I’m just about as ordinary as a person can be. Why did you bring me here?”
“The gods do not make mistakes,” Aideen chided. “As for why I brought you here, the reason no longer applies. Your destiny is in the hands of the gods and I and my people must protect and defend you. The Tuath De have chosen you, come.” She held out her hand. “It is dark and we have been away from camp too long. Others may think us lost or fallen to our enemies.”
“We’ve only been out for half an hour,” Pieter quizzically replied, reaching for her hand which he could barely see in the pale moon light.
“We were standing in front of the sacred tree for well over two hours, Pieter. Why do you think I was worried that you would never awaken from your dream state? It is said that in the land of the gods there is no time. Perhaps the few minutes you visited there in your mind, was much longer here in the reality. There is a legend of a man who spent many years in Tír na nÓg. When he returned as a youthful man, he quickly shriveled up and died as an old grandfather.”
Suddenly, they could hear the beating of a multitude of mighty wings. The sound was steadily drawing nearer. Holding hands, they ran as fast as they could toward the distant campsite. Upon their arrival, they noticed that most members of the band were hiding behind the rocks and tree trunks in fear.
As they gazed upward, they saw the shapes of many dragons blotting out the carpet of stars.
If you would like to read more of Analia's continuing adventures, all chapters have now been posted. Chapter Nine at: