Berri had a dream about a pale skinned, dark haired, beautiful woman and crows. So many crows, dark skies, fields littered with the dead and water running red with blood. She woke slowly, confused by the sounds of many crows and memories of some of the battlefields she had seen over the past couple of years. It took her a moment to conclude that she was no longer dreaming though the trees above and around them were full of crows. Berri carefully slid out from under the blankets, trying not to disturb Ijah, who still slept. The crows took flight, dozens and dozens of them, they cawed and croaked as they departed, lifting skyward then circling away.
Ijah sat up from the bedrolls, “Is everything alright?”
“Far as I can tell. Just a big old murder of crows hanging around, I think I scared them off.” She swatted at a biting fly as it landed on her arm. In the distance the crows were still calling to one another.
Ijah stretched and stood, “I saw something similar as I crossed into the Madden Hills, there were hundreds of them, in the trees.”
“Like a winter moot, but in the summer?”
“Winter moot? What is that?”
“Something crows do, they gather in the trees around the winter solstice and talk about all the things they know and decide who will mate with whom. It doesn’t happen so much around the city, but out where my kin live, it happens every year.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Let’s get out of these woods first, the insects are relentless.”
They packed their gear and loaded Horse, walked a short distance and easily found the road again. Berri was happy to leave the twilight under the trees. It was brighter on the road and the sky was a clear and sharp blue, though the sun had not yet risen above the hills. The insects were not done with them yet and as they headed downhill towards Madden Bridge, the three of them swatted at flies continuously.
Later in the morning they came to a bridge of stone, it spanned a narrow gully and a modest brook wound through the rocks and jumbled dead-fall below. The road continued generally southwest, still with woodland to either side. It was nearly midday before they left the softwood forest behind and came to cultivated lands. Berri’s belly was grumbling continually and she was starting to get cranky.
Ijah pointed across one of the fields, “Look, a crossroads, near the big oak. Do you see it?”
“We should stop there and rest for a bit.”
As they followed the road around the farmer’s fields they saw homesteads and many folk out and about. The first people they approached were engaged in labour, they had dug up a section of the road and had a small cart of stones or bricks. As they came closer Berri could see they were working on an aqueduct of some sort. The men only became aware of them when they were within twenty paces. Work stopped, a couple men backed off a pace or two. They regarded the two women with suspicious looks.
Berri smiled and waved, “Hello, good day. What is that place?”
A number of them looked to where she pointed, as if unaware of the hamlet behind them. One of the older men, who had not looked, spat a squirt of brown liquid into the hole he was standing in, “Vot Crossroads.”
“Not Madden Crossroads?” Berri said in humorous tones.
“Nah, that’d be many days south of here. You two lost?”
“Ah, well. We’re actually on our way to Madden Bridge. Is there a roadhouse or tavern in Vot?”
“Aye, there be that and a farrier as well.”
“Oh. We’re hoping to get a hot meal.”
“Goody-Thorn’s the best cook around. Kitchen’s open ’til sunset.”
“How far is Madden Bridge from here?”
“Two days along Valley Road, due south from Vot. Or, take East Road until you get to Old Hill, then take the trail south through the pines along the East Madden River. It’s only a bit over a days travel through the woods, but some folks say there’s a troll through that area.”
“Lots of insects no doubt?”
“Aye, lots of bugs.”
“Well sir, you have been most helpful. If its alright, we’ll move past and go see Goody-Thorn about some food.”
The men nodded, two of them manoeuvred the cart from the road and they all stood to one side or stayed in the hole. They watched the women move past, most of them seemed pretty interested in Ijah. After passing one of the men made a comment, “See the arms on the dark one, she’d be a good digger.”
One of the others said, “That was no labourer, you saw that sword. She’s a warrior.”
Berri looked over to Ijah, who seemed unconcerned about what the men were saying. A while later they made it to the hamlet of Vot. Aside from a number of small homes crowded behind the sturdy looking stone wall, there was a lookout tower, the farrier, a large barn and the tavern. They hitched Horse next to a couple of her distant kin, then walked through the open doors of the tavern.
Despite being made of stone the tavern had an earthen floor lined with straw and seasonal flowers, the smells from the kitchen made Berri’s stomach rumble. There were a dozen or so locals here and a couple of travellers, likely the owners of the riding horses they had hitched Horse beside. As usual, folks were more curious about Ijah than her but most of them did not stare overly long.
A large woman bustled in from the back, her tray of meat pies still steaming. She saw the two of them standing in the door and loudly greeted them. “Travellers, welcome to Goody-Thorn’s. Sit where you want, I’ll be right over with a couple ale.”
“Thank you.” Ijah said and the two of them sat at the nearer end of one of the tavern’s long tables, giving polite nods to the folks sitting at its other end. The tables and benches were old and many were the marks and carved initials across the surface of both.
The big woman placed a couple of clay cups on the table and gave a friendly smile, “The first round’s on me, I can spare some soup and a bit of cheese if you’re short on weight. Though, if you have the coin, I’d recommend a meat pie. Folks say I make the best meat pie in the valley.”
“You are Goody-Thorn?”
“In the flesh.” She smiled radiantly at them.
Berri said, “I’d like a meat pie, with gravy if you have it and another cup of this delicious ale.” She smacked her lips together and set the empty cup on the table.
Goody-Thorn laughed, “Well for such a scrawny gal, you’ve quite the thirst. What of you, sword-sister?”
Ijah briefly showed some surprise at being addressed so, then said, “Same as the girl. We’ll want bread for the road as well, maybe some preserves or dried goods if you have any to sell. Thank you, good-wife.”
She smiled, “Hungry women then, the two of you.” In short order she brought a pitcher of ale and two hot pies with a bowl of thick gravy.
Berri consumed half her pie before she slowed enough to enjoy what was one of the best meat pies she had ever had. Her aunt BlackThistle made better pies, though maybe she was just missing the taste of elk meat. During the meal a few folks left and a couple more came in. Berri looked around at the locals, most of them were fairer skinned and darker haired than the folks native to the Swampdon area. For the most part though, they did not seem that different to her; different pottery, more hemp for clothing, hardly any leather garb, just belts and boots. From what she heard they talked about their kin, the weather and the crops. If she had been home she would have heard much the same thing from folks there, though everyone would have been talking about the war, first and last.
When they had finished eating, Goody-Thorn came back over and asked it they wanted more ale. They declined, but complimented her on the excellent pies. Ijah asked about the route to Madden Bridge, Goody-Thorn advised the Valley Road was the safer route and recommended a few of her kin who would be able to put them up for the night, between here and there.
When it came time to settle their tab, Ijah asked, “Is weight from GreensBridge acceptable?”
“Surely. Twenty copper weight for everything.”
Ijah gave her a silver coin, “Keep the difference, Goody-Thorn. We’ll be sure to speak highly of your establishment and your good nature.”
“Well, I’d never nay-say the generosity of others, but please, let me give you a jar of salve for those bug bites. It helps keep them away, as well.”
They accepted the salve, bid the proprietor farewell, collected Horse and were soon on their way south.