A young girl undertakes a fantastic and perilous journey in a Medieval like world.
|The Lone Traveler
Lord Clynton stared at Elise with the eyes of a hungry predator. He sauntered over to her and slowly removed a sharp dagger from its sheath holding it up for her to see the sharp gleaming blade. With a quick motion he slit the piece of cloth holding her bonnet in place and flicked it to the trampled ground. “What have we here,” he stated, running the tip of the dagger along her left cheek. As his eyes slowly scanned her he noticed the cheap medallion hanging around her neck. Placing the point of the dagger through the loop, he held it up and scrutinized it.
“Where did you obtain this emblem, girl?” he asked in a demanding tone.
Elise quickly decided that half a truth was the best answer to give. “My lover gave it to me, my Lord. He was a soldier serving the Empire. His name was Duncan, son of Duncan the baker. He was killed in the battle at the village.”
“This is the emblem for the Baker’s Guild in Havenhall,” Lord Clynton mused, and there is a slim possibility that you and he were lovers, it’s quite normal for a lonely soldier to find comfort and pleasure with the local wenches. Why were you pretending to be a whore and asking about the girl captive I recently acquired and sent on to Havenhall?”
Ser Ryykon had taught her to think fast and react faster. “Was not the girl I am interested in, my Lord. There was a young boy with her by the name of little Jon. He is a close relative of mine and I am concerned about his safety. As to that girl, I could care less for I have never met her before and she could not have come from our village.”
Lord Clynton slowly walked around evaluating her general appearance and searching for nervous impulses or uncontrolled sweating. He was a master when it came to reading people and discerning the truth or inaccuracy of their statements. He slowly ran his dagger through her hair looking for lice then closely inspected her hands.
“On the surface your story seems plausible,” he smiled a wolfish grin. “Your hands are calloused from harsh peasant work, your hair is bobbed, probably because of a lice infestation which is common among you poor trash, yet you speak with a slightly more educated articulation than a common peasant girl might normally possess. There is something not quite in order here.” He turned to the guards. “I have more urgent tasks to attend to at this time, take her to the prisoner holding area and make certain she is well secured.”
The burly guards grabbed her by the elbows and carried her roughly from the tent, her feet never touching the ground. At the entrance to a stockade compound, they tied her hands with a stout leather cord and ordered a guard to open the gate. She was unceremoniously pushed into the compound which held several dozen female captives. They ranged in age from one and ten years to two and twenty and were all raggedly dressed denoting the general appearance of village peasants.
According to the position of the sun, twilight would arrive in about two hours. Elise knew her chances of escaping the compound in daylight were very slim, not only because of the alert guards, but the prisoners might create a ruckus like a flock of cackling hens thus alerting the guards. As she scanned the grounds she noticed three girls off by themselves against the stockade wall. A closer inspection identified them as the three she had met at the wagon. Some enterprising wagon master must have sold them for the slave collar. Elise pulled her bonnet down over her face and made a point of keeping away from them. It was unlikely they could identify her as the young soldier who gave them the coppers, but she could not afford to take a chance.
Just before twilight, the guards opened the gate and brought in a large black kettle of what smelled like soup. They also passed out stale loaves of dark bread and several rough men accompanying them retrieved the slop buckets from a ragged tent that served as their toilet. While the guards were watching, the men, or slaves, left to empty the buckets in the closest ditch then returned with the empties. One of the guards surreptitiously passed a piece of cheese to a pretty girl who took it with a wanton smile. She had clearly been offering her services to him for additional comforts.
When full dark set in, Elise made her move. Earlier she had noticed that the wall next to the privy had a small part hidden from the general compound. The wall was made of green, freshly stripped pine post driven into the soft earth and was around ten feet tall with the tops shaved to a sharp point. She casually walked to the wall and leaned against it waiting a few moments to see if anyone was paying her any attention. She quickly untied the cords binding her wrists, which she had loosened throughout the afternoon, and at the right moment, she quietly removed her dress, tied a knot in one end, and threw it between the wedge where the posts met. Within seconds, she was up and over the wall, pulling the dress behind her. There was no shout from either the guards or compound inmates. She rapidly donned the dress and strolled into the darkness.
Half an hour later, Elise found the location where she had buried her clothes and knives. She quickly uncovered them, removed her dress and donned her soldier clothes, hiding the knives beneath her bloody jerkin, and placed the half helm on her head. She reburied the dress, shoes, and bonnet, and covered them with pine needles then strolled off to find a quiet place near one of the small campfires. She was hungry but decided that the mule meat she had previously eaten was long gone by now.
Early the next morning she ambled through the snoozing camp and found several items of food with which to break her fast, a piece of bread here, a chunk of cheese there, even an uneaten apple which had rolled from some soldier’s nap sack. Her next thought was to form a plan to get to Angalund. Lord Clynton had mentioned that the girl had been sent on to Havenhall, so obviously she needed a plan to join the next wagon train heading in that direction. She also knew that only select guards would accompany the trains, along with slaves for sale, possibly others to ransom, and perhaps a few wounded being sent back for recovery. Most nobles could care less about the wounded, but, a lucky few were always sent home to their families as minor heroes to peach the propaganda needed to trick more recruits into joining the service.
Elise had enough dried blood on her jerkin to simulate being wounded; however, she had no real wound to substantiate the blood loss. One way to correct that, she thought, pulling her jerkin off and a dagger from its sheath. She punched a hole in the jerkin then put it back on, then stabbed herself through the hole just deep enough to create a good blood flow and a shallow wound. She waited a while for the blood to congeal then headed off to find an Apothicarius station. She was certain that no soldier would be allowed to leave without prior approval from the medical team.
In no time at all she had been provided with an unusual looking chit which would allow her to return to Havenhall to recover from her wounds. A very busy Apothicarius and a bit of good acting and pretense had won the chit. She told the Apothicarius in a loud tone of voice so a nearby lord would here, how she could persuade hundreds of her fellow civilians to join the Army. The minor lord was hooked by her false enthusiasm and urged the Apothicarius to issue her a chit. Caltrop had taught her that if you don’t act real, you won’t look real, and he had used simulated situations to teach the squires the fine art of deception.
The small caravan left that afternoon accompanied by a full troop of cavalry. They would be met two days out of Havenhall by a squadron of Royal Cavalry and escorted the remainder of the way to the city. Someone had finally noticed that too many of their caravans were being attacked by a large group of brigands, so the extra security was established.
Before they were half a mile down the road, the wagon train came to an abrupt halt. Behind them, a half troop of cavalry caught up with the caravan and the young soldier in command ordered his men to search the wagons. Elise sat with the teamster on the driver’s seat. “We need to search your cargo,” a trooper stated. “Lord Clynton be missing one of iz girls.” He paid no attention to either of them but gave the cargo bed a thorough search. He then signaled the commander that all was clear and moved on to the next wagon.
When the troopers were satisfied that there were no stowaways, they remounted. A sudden loud racket behind them made them look past the halted wagons. Coming up quickly was a large covered wagon being pulled by four puffing mules. It was a mummer’s wagon, overloaded like most of them usually were with four dwarfs crowded in the teamster seat. Three riders without saddles followed the wagon bouncing on replacement mules.
“We have permission to join the wagon train,” one of the Dwarfs yelled, pulling to a stop next to the grimy wagon master and young cavalry commander. “He pulled a piece of wrinkled paper from his dirty coat and handed it to the trooper who quickly passed it to the wagon master. The troop commander obviously couldn’t read.
“We’re heading for Havenhall,” The dwarf continued. “We heard that brigands have been raiding the trains and we decided to accept your hospitality and security. We’re the best mummer troop in any kingdom, be happy to entertain you on occasion during evening stops.” The wagon master smiled and motioned for them to pull in behind the last wagon. There was something familiar about the dwarf, but Elise couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
When they camped that evening, Elise told the teamster that her shoulder ached severely and wanted to see if the mummers had a healer with them. She casually strolled over to the large wagon and observed the dwarfs as they unloaded items and set up camp. She smiled when a memory flooded back to her; it was a mental picture of Lord Ruolf Culloden as he stumbled into camp after his terrifying flight from Camalund. As she continued to observe the group, one of the normal sized members rounded the wagon carrying a box of supplies. Beyond doubt, it was Sean; she had spent enough time in the dirt with him while Caltrop put them through hell.
“What are you doing here, Dumb Ass?” she stated, using the training name that Caltrop had given him.
Sean turned quickly at the mention of the name, almost dropping the box in the dirt. He slowly walked over and looked at the grubby, blood stained, and skinny little soldier. Walking completely around her, he finally remarked. “If I dinna know better, Oi would say a pretty little lass was a hidin’ beneath all that dirt and solder’s git-up.” He then grabbed her in a bear hug and twirled her around.
“You’re hurting me, you beast!” Elise quickly shouted, but a smile of joy covering her features. The rest of the mummer troop was looking at them as if they were crazy, wondering why Sean was hugging a filthy little enemy soldier.
“Sorry,” Sean blurted. “I dinna know the blood was yours”
“Just a little bit,” Elise grinned. “Is that by chance Lord Culloden of the Sidhe with you?”
Sean grinned. “None other, fair damsel. We also ave Ser Allanack, Ser MacLurig, Arthfael, Oengus, and Aideen, with a dozen volunteer Aelfen flown in by Talina. They’re me neighbors to the south o’ where we Kelts live. We’re off to find and help you rescue Analia.”
“I have heard mention of the Aelfen before,” Elise stated, “but I thought they kept to themselves and flatly refused to get involved in human affairs.”
“We did too,” Sean returned. “One o’ them turned up at our camp and volunteered to join us in a findin’ the fair Lady, Analia. How they even knew of her, I dinna know. But, everyone knows they practice the strange magic of the wee folk.”
Lord Rolf’s curiosity finally overcame him. He walked over to the two and looked closely at Elise. “By the gods, child, tis squire Elise hidin’ in some dingy soldier’s clothes.”
“It’s great to see you too, Lord Culloden,” Elise grinned.
“There be nae lords here,”Ruolf replied. “We’re just a sneaky troop of mummers on our way to perform for the Angalund nobles.” He gave her a wink.
“We must get you out of those clothes,” Sean stated. “You’ll join the troop as our princess fair.”
“What about the wagon master and troopers and the teamster?” Elise asked. “Won’t they identify me? They may also become suspicious should the wounded soldier simply disappear.”
“I dinna even recognize you until you yelled, ‘Dumb Ass,” Sean replied. “By the time you change into proper Ladies attire and clean yourself a mite, they will think you ave been with our troop all along. As for the lost soldier boy, I’ve born witness to how much they dinna care about their poor soldiers, they’ll figure he wandered off and died somewhere and nae spend the time or effort to look for him.”
Elise quickly climbed into the large wagon which was completely covered on all sides like a box and stripped the dirty clothing off but kept her boots, daggers, and undergarments. The rest she handed out to Ruolf to throw in the blazing fire. Rummaging in a small box, she found some frilly women’s clothing, much too flamboyant for her tastes. She realized they were show clothes kept for the use of whoever acted the part of the damsel in the mummer plays, men or women. They were a tight but serviceable fit.
When she stepped down from the back tailgate, she received several jocular catcalls. Ruolf bowed to her as she rejoined them at the fire. “You look exquisite, my Lady,” he stated. “There be a pail of clean water oer by the wheel if you would deign to remove the dirt from your pretty face.”
“You nae look like a soldier enny more,” Sean smiled. “I’m thinkin’ all that’s left o’ the poor lad is that pile of ashes in the fire and a metal helm we oft use in the mummer show.”
“Where’s your manners, Sean,” Aideen interrupted. “You ave nae introduced the lass to us.”
Sean gave her a churlish look. “For sure, this lass lambasting me is Aideen, oer there be Arthfael an Onegus, me close mates, and I believe you know Ruolf. Those other fine lookin’ gentlemen with Ruolf are, Lieur and Anolf of the Sidhe. The gentleman standing by the wheel is Cleatus; he used to run a mummer’s troop until it broke apart. He’s the leader of the troop and is teachin’ us the trade. He is also a jester and very good juggler.” He stood for emphasis and pointed both hands at Elise. “This is me friend, Elise. She is a proven squire of Ser Thoragild and, despite er looks, the deadliest fighter and best tracker in the whole great army. I seen er make a large squire cry with a quarterstaff and she can skewer a runnin’ chicken with those daggers she carries.”
For the first time in a very long time, Elise actually blushed. It felt so good to be back among friends. She never dreamed while living alone in the wilderness that she would ever care for others as much as she did her friends. “Where are you hiding the Aelfen,” she asked, glancing around the camp.
“They nae like to come oot before twilight,” Ruolf replied. “They are most fond of the dark hours. You’ll see all dozen of em soon.”
While they were eating their supper meal of beans and bread, the wagon master dropped in to visit them. He was a short wiry man with a long drooping mustache and bulging eyes. “I don’t expect you to give us a show on the first night,” he stated, glancing wantonly at Aideen in her tight mummer dress. “But I hope you will entertain us at least a few days out of the week”
“Our pleasure, Ser,” Ruolf quickly replied. “We need the practice as we have a few new members to break into the show. I hope you will excuse any clumsiness on our part because of that.”
“We all need breaking in at times,” he replied, ogling Aideen with his real intent. “Which reminds me, one of my teamsters reported a young soldier missing. He was badly wounded in that battle back near the river or there about. Haven’t seen him wandering around here, have you?”
“Saw a cute cavalry trooper ride by a spell ago,” Aideen quickly stated. “Don’t think he was wounded though, he was sittin’ his mount quite well.” She licked her full lips which sent ecstatic shivers down the back of the wagon master.
“Not to worry,” he replied, wiping his sweating brow and getting up to leave. “Boy probably wandered off and died somewhere. No big loss, the Emperor has plenty more where he came from.”
“Bastard was undressing me with his froggy eyes,” Aideen spat, “Gave me the shivers just looking at his ugly pocked face.” She hunched her shoulders in a sign of chill.
“There’ll be many like him in Havenhall,” Ruolf growled, “Only most of them will be fat, rich, and powerful.”
Within minutes the sun set and twilight was slowly creeping into the surrounding valleys and thick woods. As Elise watched, a Dragon Rider swooped down and glided over the encampment. The rider waved as she passed over the mummer wagon and banked left behind the closest hill.
“Checking oot our location,” Sean stated. “They said they’d keep us posted on the news as we traveled. If they ave a message for us, they’ll wave a blue banner and wait until dark to drop it outside the camp. If we have a message for them we’ll display a red square on the flat top of the mummer wagon.”
Ruolf joined them around the small fire. He was carrying a box of food and a skin of wine and sat it down carefully on a flat rock. He removed a stack of small bowls and tiny drinking mugs. Within a few minutes, a group of little people jumped down from the wagon tailgate and ran for the food. There were eight men and five women, all dressed in gay bright clothing covered with forest green jerkins and wearing odd green shoes. They were perfectly normal, except in one respect, the tallest was no more than ten inches in height.
“Meet the Aelfen,” Ruolf smiled at Elise. “I think they will keep the noble snits busy while we dig around for news of Analia.”
Elise placed her palms in front of her face her eyes were bright and wide open. “They’re so…”
“Don’t say it!” one of the Aelfen yelled, waving his index finger at her.”
She glanced at Ruolf in consternation. He bent over and whispered in her ear, “Cute. They don’t like to be called cute. I would like for you to meet, Ayas, Uhor, Halee, Daka, Rhis, Ared, Droth and Thoden. The ladies are, Medee, Lym, Laur, Amara and Hilana. Thoden is in charge of the group by lot since the Aelfen do not have rulers or leaders as a norm.” Ruolf pointed to Elise. “This is Elise, a new member of our group. She is a warrior by choice.”
“Pleased to meet you, Elise,” the group of Aelfen replied in unison.
“You’re pretty, for a human,” Thoden bowed. “I do not particularly care for your choice of profession, however, you have a right to your prerogative and I shall not admonish you for it.”
“The Aelfen are very wise,” Ruolf stated. “They’re even smarter than the scribendi or Apothicari.”
“Intelligent, astute, even perceptive are much better terms than smarter,” Thoden replied. “But, I will not fence words with you, Lord Culloden, I am too far beyond your league.”
“You forgot to mention eccentric,” Sean humorously stated, sitting down next to them.
“The boy wonder,” Thoden replied. “How are you dear Sean? Tripped over your own feet lately?”
“Don’t mind Thoden,” Sean told Elise, “he enjoys irritating others, even his own friends.”
“Put a stopper in it, Thoden!” one of the female Aelfen yelled. “We’re trying to eat here not organize a debating club.”
Elise smiled and glanced up at the early stars.
“Life is great.” She thought.