For the next couple days Loden road through the hills, slowly catching up to the caravan that had gone before him. The weather had been fair. The terrain was much as it had been before, rough hills to the west, tree covered hills to the east. Sometimes he would spot a ruined building, typically only the foundation was left but once he had seen a series of ruined walls on the cliffs along the river. He had also spotted a few deer and some coyotes, plenty of birds and a number of large hares he was unfamiliar with. There were also plenty of insects, but they rarely bothered him.
He had eaten what remained of his food and his tobacco had started to mildew though he would still take a pinch every few hours and stuff it into his cheek. Spitting every few dozen paces as he continued to travel northward.
The never ending forest to the east amazed him more than anything else, he had not seen so many trees of such size before. Back home there were few tall trees, most of the lumber had come down the North Sister River from the foothills of the Great Barrier Mountain Range.
He came to an area of the road that had recently been repaired. There were obvious signs the caravan had run into troubles here. They had been forced to stop, likely stuck on the road for a couple days, some of them though had camped on the hill he had previously passed. The road had been repaired along a stretch of nearly thirty paces, stone, earth and trees had all been used to repair the damaged section. Likely a result of the spring rains having washed away the lower corner of this hill where it met the edge of a brook.
Seeing the repaired stretch of road reminded him of better days.
Years before the Tannican advance, his first trip with his father along the Owder Trade Road and the following couple of years had been the best of days. His old man had been stern and a bit of a drunkard, yet he knew his business and was happy to have his eldest with him on the road.
That first summer had been beautiful, warm and mostly sunny with light, regular rainfalls. Being away from his own home, travelling the trade road with his father and their heavy wagon, had felt like a grand adventure. That year they had done a few regular runs into Tisp, taking trade goods from the local markets and from southern merchants, then bringing back cloth, tobacco and booze. They had done very well that year and Loden had learned how to handle and care for the team, fix a wheel or axle, run accounts in his head and how to read at a basic comprehension in three languages.
There had also been a lot of the Pwhanna on the move that year, tribes of them heading north, heeding the call of their great war leader. He and his father had also traded horses with the Pwhanna, folks would pay a generous weight for them, favoured by travellers though too small for most team work.
The trade roads between the Free River Cities had been his first experience of life outside his hometown, so many new and interesting things. His father had encouraged his curiosity, Loden had been drunk for the first time, had his first sexual encounters and had learned what it was to be a man, trade and travel freely.
The year before the Tannicans had come had been a rough year. When he and his father had arrived at Tisp and gone to their usual Rashammon contact they were to learn that The House of Rashammon would no longer be doing business with them. They had lost their tobacco and booze contact. They had made new contacts and secured their cargo for the return trip, but the markup was not the same and some of their clients had demanded their weight returned rather than take the alternative.
Looking back it seemed like the best of times. Though Loden could remember there being small hardships, it was not until the following spring when the Tannican armies showed up outside his home town that he began to experience true hardship.
That night from his camp he could see a couple of fires a few yat away, surely the caravan, and if so then he would likely catch up to them sometime tomorrow afternoon. Which was good, he had eaten very little the last few days, at least the hills contained plenty of fresh water, though he had only a small pinch or two of tobacco left.
The following morning, near midday, he caught up to part of the caravan. A couple of ass drawn wagons and a few grungy folk, as well a babe and young child trailed the caravan and collected the dung from the horses and whatever else fell by the wayside.
They were a dirty bunch and looked at him suspiciously as he approached.
He in turn was guarded, more used to war and desperate folks fleeing war, he found it difficult to leave his hands clear of his weapons and keep a friendly smile on his face.
One of the men stepped towards him with a raised hand, “Peace be with you traveller.”
Loden looked the group over, spat to the side, “Peace be with you.”
“What brings you to this place?”
Loden looked around at the trees and the hills, wondering what he should say.
One of the women with the group, sitting on the back of one of the wagons, said, “His horses Gert, his bloody horses brought him here.”
The crew laughed at that and Loden could see most of them were related, maybe one family though more likely two branches of the same. He smiled, “As the lady says, these horses. And war.”
They gave him another critical look, reassessing him and his horses. Some seemed to be getting nervous and Loden was aware of how they were moving apart from one another and how the grip on their tools changed ever so slightly.
The first man spoke up, “Fighting the Tannicans then. From the west by the sound of your words.”
Loden turned his head and spit before replying, “Yes. The west. How far do you trail behind the caravan?”
There was a curious look that crossed the man’s face, though he followed Loden lead and replied, “A few yat. A leisurely ride on such a fine beast as your horse.”
“Who is the master of the caravan?”
“More masters than you can shake a stick at, but two main merchants. Lord Gainsly out of West Port with over fifty wagons and the other joined from Rasken’s FreeHold, merchant Horthram, with twenty wagons. There are others, like us, that join the caravan for work and some smaller merchants as join up for the protection of a larger group. They’ve done this every spring for the past decade or so. Up to GreensBridge and back again each trade season.”
“There and back again, eh. Not much time for trade then.”
“Plenty of trade, they’re usually in GreensBridge or there abouts for a month. Just its warmer in the south, so they start out earlier and have a couple extra eight-days on the return as well.”
Before he moved on the woman on the back of the trailing wagon spoke up again, “Sir, the Tannicans? How far from the river are they? Can we stop them? There is word from up north, near Swampdon, of a vast army of freeholders and Pwhanna, they have been fighting the Tannicans for two years now.”
Loden looked bleakly at the woman, “I’ve fought the Tannicans for near three years now. There is no stopping them, their scouts are near to the western bank of the river, their armies will be here by the autumn. Or, next spring at the latest.” He saw the fear in her eyes, she made a sign to ward off danger. He spat.
Loden thanked the man for the info and moved around the group, bringing his horses to a faster pace. He was hungry and wanted some good smoke. With the caravan only a few yat ahead of him he could be there in short order.
As the man had said, the caravan was not too far ahead, he caught up to them near the middle of the afternoon. He manoeuvred his way along the edge of the caravan where the road allowed. Greeting people and inquiring who he should talk to for the selling of an animal or to buy tobacco.
Along the way he had lucked out and had received a generous pinch of tobacco from one of the teamsters. In short order he had stuffed his pipe and using a Maldorn fire-stick, also provided by the friendly southerner, had lit the tobacco and puffed contentedly. The friendly fellow had also suggested he would want to speak to Master Belmadda about selling a horse or two.
He did not reach the front of the caravan before they had started to pull off the road onto an accommodating hillside to camp for the night. The back half of the caravan moved down into a little valley between the hills. The merchants and their families and most valued retainers camped on the hill with the more expensive cargo while the majority of the teamsters, labourers and lesser merchants with the less valuable, or heavier, cargo were between the hills.
When he asked for Master Belmadda folks pointed uphill. So that is where he went.