Tales of a Horse Thief, Part 3d

Tales of a Horse Thief, Part 3d

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He walked through the night, leading his horses, Even when the dawn came he did not feel inclined to stop and rest. Instead he mounted Tingy and road on. He wanted to put as much space between himself and the strange witch as he could. It did not seem as if he would ever stop running; The Tannican armies, the caravan with a disgruntled lord and now this witch. Such seemed to be his fate.

When it came down to it he was unsure of what had happened last evening, specifically he could not piece the events together in a way that made sense to him. The women could have been hiding in caves or underwater or maybe in underwater caves. Maybe the wild-haired witch gave him hallucinogenics. Loden also knew some forms of magic could affect the mind, perhaps it had all been illusions. Even at that though, none of those things seemed to explain why two beautiful women, such as he saw, lived in isolation by themselves. They had not even had a proper house, at least not that he had seen. Then there was the strength of the women, their reaction to his drawn blade, and the way the one woman had just floated down from the swing. He kept puzzling over the encounter as he road along.

The morning passed quickly enough, sometimes he passed through the edge of the woodlands, at other points the trees receded eastward and he could see rough hills to the west. Here and there he spotted narrow cart tracks and foot paths that cut away from the main road, mostly along the east side of the road. Near midday he passed a ruined homestead. It had been burnt to the ground, both the house and the barn, though a few outbuildings still stood.

A short way past the burnt out homestead Loden’s tired brain remembered some of the scary stories his grandmother used to tell him when he was a young child. Stories about other-world creatures tricking and seducing humans into the fey realms. The fey, those two women had to have been fey. A chill of fear ran up his spine and he stopped and looked back the way he had come. He spent some time looking at the world around him, nothing seemed out of place or unusual. As far as he could tell he was in the real world. Thinking of the way they reacted to his sword when it was first drawn he remembered something about cold iron, the steel of his weapons were made with iron. How did one get cold forged iron? After a long while he gave a mental shrug and continued on his way.

Near mid afternoon he spotted a camp ahead of him amongst the trees, a score of people were in the area and when they noticed his approach they seemed to become guarded. Some of them casually picked up bows or staves a small handful gathered on the road to confront him.

Loden reined in a few horse lengths away from the group and raised a hand. “Good day.”

“And to you traveller.” A big burly fellow with a bushy beard returned his greeting.

Loden noted that nearly everyone here was armed, the camp looked temporary and it appeared as if the group had been making a stockpile of arrows. A couple of dogs but no horses.

The burly fellow continued, “We have food on the fire if you are hungry, we seek news from the road.”

With all the bows he saw, Loden was unsure what to do for a moment, but his stomach gave a gurgling plea and he decided to accept the invitation. He tied Tinging to a young sapling and left his coat over the saddle. Everyone seemed to note his harness and swords. He, in turn, noted that most of the crew were lean and tended to be a bit grimy as though they had been living close to the land for some time. Both men and women were armed and the majority of them soon returned to the task of making arrows.

The burly fellow and a few of his crew joined Loden at the fire, pulled a couple roasting hares off the flames and broke up the meat amongst the group of them. Loden thanked them and proceeded to eat the hot flesh.

“What is the news from the road?” a mean faced, whip-thin woman asked.

“Other than a caravan I passed some days back I’ve seen no other travellers.”

“Was it a large caravan?”

“I’d say. Likely from West Port.”

He noted a few satisfied looks between the crew. He overheard someone a bit off from the fire comment, “Just as Remder said.”

The burly fellow asked, “Where are you headed?”

“Cof Crossroads, then on to Freeton.”

For whatever reason this seemed to reassure them. “What is you business in Freeton? If I may ask?”

“Just trying to escape the past.” This statement was greeted with nods and knowing looks. They offered him some quince and asked if there was anything he was in need of.

He accepted a swallow of quince, truly he loved the distilled drink, but politely declined further aid and thanked them for their hospitality. He was surprised when they let him go. Loden was also sure that this crew was going after the caravan. Bandits. Though it was not his concern and given the fact there was only about a score of them he doubted they would have much success, regardless of the number of arrows they made over the next few days.

A few yat further down the road, with forest to either side, he came to a low laying area that was still soaked from yesterday’s rain. He spotted tracks of various sorts in the muck, going in both direction. There were also tracks from many dogs, mostly heading north. It seemed likely Remder had come this way. It also seemed there were more bandits along the road than the group he had left behind. He did not know for sure but he thought he saw goblin tracks as well, just a few off to one side. He wished he knew more about tracking.

Loden felt tired but thought it best to keep moving.

Later that afternoon, with wispy clouds high across the sky, the road turned westward and ran along the edge of the ragged hills near the river. He spotted a ruined keep on top of a commanding peek. Towards the end of the day he was more asleep than awake, riding along hoping the horses stayed on the road. The way forward crossed an open slope, declining eastward down to a gully and fast running brook. There was another camp. Maybe as many as fifty people. Loden had already come out along the road far enough to be spotted, it appeared some of the folk were watching him, though at a quarter yat it was hard know for sure.

There was no point sticking around here. He encourage Tingy to step up the pace. He waved down to the people who seemed to be looking at him, a couple of them waved back. No one seemed inclined to follow or give chase. Though he did notice another ten or more men and women coming out of the treeline above the opposite side of the gorge, heading down to the camp.

Tingy kept pace until the road took them back along the hills, the camp was no longer in sight. Tingy came to a sudden stop with a snort of protest. Loden pitched forward but stayed in the saddle. His nose took the brunt of a glancing blow as Tingy tossed his head back. Stunned, he sat for a few moments and dealt with his bleeding nose. Tingy had moved to the side of the road and started munching on some grass. Loden dismounted, shortened BigNose’s lead and let the two of them relax for a while. He looked around. Between the nearest hills he saw the top of another hill further towards the river, a large standing stone was bathed in the light of the sun while the lower hills had already slipped into twilight. He thought he heard singing in the distance but also figured that his tired brain might be playing tricks on him. Loden wondered who had put that stone there and why, but most present in his mind was how close he was to fifty or sixty bandits, how tired he was and that he should have switched mounts a couple of times through the day.

With darkness encroaching Loden led his horses a bit further along the road which angled towards the northeast and came down out of the hills. As the threes started to appear along the eastern edge of the road Loden stopped, stripped the horses of their gear and settled to the ground not far from them. He was asleep before he had even laid out his bedroll.


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