The Valley Road to Madden Bridge was well made and wound through the valley’s length, connecting a number of small communities and a couple of modest forts. Three well built and regularly maintained bridges of stone spanned Little River which ran through much of the valley, it’s source was in the hills to the west. At many points one could see up into the hills along either side, though for most of their second day travelling the Valley Road the hills to the east were not in sight. The western hills were only a green-grey smudge in the distance, above the pastures and planted fields.
Most of the villages and hamlets shared an uncommon feature that Berri had not seen elsewhere in the freeholds. The houses were all built in a central area in relations to the crop fields and winter pastures the people relied on and in all cases were surrounded by a thick stone wall. The shortest wall they saw was around four paces in height, most of them were closer to ten paces. There were a few traditional, isolated, homesteads. Though they also had higher and wider walls, often of finished stone rather than piled river stones.
During one of Berri’s rambling musings about this and that, she had asked, “Why would they choose to live so close together like that? This part of the hills seems better off than most.”
Surprisingly Ijah had responded, “There are two other related issues you have not mentioned; first, there are often large communal barns built within or as part of the walls. Secondly, most folk we’ve seen in the area are always armed or at least their weapons remain in easy reach. All of these thing are indicative of a people who are regularly under attack. Likely for many generations past.”
“Who attacks them?”
“Well, I’d imagine to some extent, their neighbours. Most of the other places I’ve seen in the Madden Hills indicate a lack of proper education, the folks are typically desperately poor and, often as not, they seem to be in a situation where hunting and gathering are their main methods of acquiring food. Also, the edge of the Sudakkar Wasteland is around a couple yateer from here, raids from the orc tribes likely still happen. We’ve seen a number of goblin corpses in the hanging trees. Then there are all the rumours about the undead.”
“When you put it that way, it makes sense. Kind of. Why not move elsewhere? The freeholds are huge!”
“All too often the life we are born into becomes the accepted norm and in any population there are only a few handfuls, each generation, who think or even dream of things further afield. My sister-wife, Anjarah understands these matters better than I.”
Berri had spouted a vast number of further questions and speculations. Sadly, Ijah had not been interested in further conversation and had eventually asked her to consider the silence and suggested it was a good time to practice a walking meditation.
They had camped out in an unused pasture, even though they had been close to one of Goody-Thorns relatives. It was late the next day before they came in sight of Madden Bridge, the hilltops to the east and south were bright orange from the setting sun.
Madden Bridge was located near the point where Little River and East Madden River joined to became the Madden River. Little River ran right under the wall, into the city, some of it being diverted to fill a moat that partially circled the town. The walls of Madden Bridge were on average twenty-five paces in height. After the two of them had passed through the West Gate, the high walls and narrow streets between the stone buildings had turned the beautiful evening into a twilight of maze-like passages. Sounds echoed oddly through the streets.
There was not much light, there had been a large brazer just inside the gate and a couple smaller ones at the two intersections they traversed. Sometimes a candle lantern or pitch torch lit a doorway. Torches were also being carried by some of the people moving through the streets, occasionally someone had a small oil lantern. Most folks seemed intent on returning to their homes, no one paid much attention to Berri or Ijah as they moved along.
Eventually they heard music and the sounds of carousing, the noise lead them around a corner where a brazer was bright with burning wood and large lanterns hung to either side of a narrow doorway. Above the door was a simple sign, Bee’s Bonnet. A number of men stood around the brazer, smoking pipes and talking. A stone stables was across the street from the tavern, there was dim light within and a youth stood near the door with a lantern in hand.
Berri lead Horse over to the stable boy, “Is this where the tavern’s patrons stable their horses?”
The youth held an unlit pipe between his teeth and affected an attitude similar to the men by the brazer. At the sound of her accent the boy’s eyes showed curiosity. He removed the pipe, spat to the side and answered, “It be, that most do.”
Behind her, Berri heard some of the men making suggestive comment to Ijah and laughing among themselves. She asked the youth, “What’s your fee?”
He eyed her and Horse, likely trying to assess her worth, “For you, ten weight copper.”
“What! Why not just hold me at sword point and rob me? It’d be more honest!” Ijah said something to the men around the brazer and there was more coarse laughter and jests.
The youth, shrugged, affecting indifference, “You’re welcome to stable you horse elsewhere. Though, I’m sure we could negotiate some sort of understanding.”
Berri glanced behind her, Ijah was facing the men and she could not see her expression, though she had adopted the calm stance she used just before people started to die. She returned her attention to the stable boy, “Look, stop messing with me. We came here looking for a place to sleep and eat, not to get robbed.”
The youth smiled slyly, “Well, a quick tussle in the loft would knock half the weight from the price.”
Berri thought she had misheard him, but no, the suggestive look and leering smile were plain enough. From behind her Ijah’s voice rang loudly, “Touch me at your own peril.” That was followed by the men laughing and making a condescending chorus of “Ohhh!”
The stable boy seemed to find what the men behind her were doing funny. He returned his attention to her, “What of it missy? Best offer you’re likely to get.”
“Fuck you!” She punched the kid in the nose as hard as she could. He staggered back, tripped and the lantern he carried crashed to the stone street. Horse panicked and made a break for it, heading off down the street they had come up. The lead burned Berri’s hand as it was pulled away, “Ow!”
From behind her there were a few surprised exclamations from the men, briefly followed by a moment or two of relative silence. She heard the pop and crackle of burning wood in the brazer, merry music from within the tavern and the receding clatter of Horse’s hooves on the stone streets. The spilled oil from the stable hand’s lantern swooshed as it caught fire. Berri glanced back in time to see Ijah explode into motion, the man to her left fell with a shriek from a well placed kick to the groin. The man to Ijah’s right took the hilt of her sword to his head and staggered back.
The kid she had punched started to scream, she glanced at him and saw that his sleeve had caught fire. He was sitting up now, waving his arm around wildly. Angry men bellowed their rage. Berri hopped over the pool of fire and kicked the kid over as he started to get to his feet, then she was on top of him and forcefully wrestled him out of his tunic. He struggled and after she had removed the shirt his fist cracked into her jaw. Angry, she punched him twice more times in the face. He stopped struggling. She rolled away and came up to her feet, she tossed the scorched tunic onto what remained of the burning oil. Then she moved to help Ijah.
A half dozen men were down, crawling away or writhing in agony. A few of the remaining men had started to back away cautiously. Another half dozen or so were still trying to get their hands on Ijah. The Kereshi was shadow in motion, she easily moved around them, knocking their attacks to the side. When she had an opening she kicked or struck with her still sheathed sword. One of the bigger men gave an angry bellow and rushed Ijah with his arms spread wide. She stepped towards him and ducked, he started to topple over her, as she stood he was sent careening into the side of the brazer. Ijah moved away from another attacker and knocked him upside the head.
The remaining men started to move back as another group came crowding out through the tavern’s door. From some of the other buildings shutters were opened, people came out onto the street to see what the ruckus was about.
Ijah moved over to Berri, “Under the present circumstances we may be better off calling for the guards. Further violence will avail us nothing.”
Already people were raising a cry, many called for the guards. Berri gave a nod, “Alright. Let’s hope none of those men are part of the guard.”
Berri and Ijah retreated to the door of the stables, angry locals moved to make sure they had no route of escape. It was not long before the guards showed up and took them into custody.