Bian -14- Willful and Wanderlick

Somewhere, rain falls on the Little Ooze in a land called...

by Erin Halfelven


Chapter 14 - Willful and Wanderlick

I considered what Lillakatye had said. It almost sounded like a joke that only someone from my time could have made. Before I could think of a probing response, Rotgar called a halt from the head of our little column.

“Folk,” he said, “we’re going to go off the road here. There’s a wide path that leads down to a cowford, and if we take it, it will get us to the South High Road without going through Munsby. Sooth, we’ll have to ford two rivers, first the Wet River and then the Little Ooze in another mile or two.”

Lillakatye and I both stifled giggles. “Clever names for waterways. Imagine calling a river ‘Wet,'” I said. Well, wet in Bloddish was–“blodde”. The whole country and people were all wet. I laughed harder, trying to be quiet and failing.

Rotgar looked at me with tolerance and amusement. “It’s worse than that,” he said. “Ooze is Cymru for wet. So we have the Wet River and the Little Wet.”

He chuckled and waited for the rest of us to stop making teakettle noises. “All done?” he asked.

After nods and grunts of agreement, he turned back to the trail and led us off the road onto a cattle track down to the river.

“Why do we want to avoid Munchburg?” I asked.

“Munsby,” Lillakatye corrected me. “Many of the Great House servants live there. The news of which way we went would make it back to your father within an hour. If we can get to the South High Road before any hunt begins, we have a hope of staying ahead of them long enough to reach Tremursby.” She meant Lundenna, London in my world.

We rode in silence for a bit. It being England, no matter what they called it here and now, it began to rain. The icy piles of leftover snow sheltered under trees and bushes made hissing and popping noises when droplets managed to find them. The cold bit at my face but in fact, wrapped in my lynx fur coat with hood up, and good gloves and boots on, I felt warm and comfortable, despite the wet.

Everyone else was also dressed appropriately, except Zenner had no gloves I noticed when I glanced back. He had tied the lead of the pack horse to his saddle and sat with his hands either buried in his horse’s mane or tucked into his armpits. He looked Gallically stoic, and I glanced away to keep from laughing at his expression.

Kilda, riding beside him, with her own packhorse lead similarly tied, ignored the Remish spy and called to me, “Art thou warm and dry enough then, chick?” she asked.

I felt my face go hot at being addressed as a child might be. “Aye,” I answered her shortly and turned back to catch a grin and a wink from Rotgar tossed over his shoulder.

The rain stopped for a bit just as we reached the first river. The ford was an easy one, the water hardly deeper than a foot or two and the current slow. Mist rose from the water, though, and trees came right down to the river bank. We picked our way across, single-file, and regrouped into our marching order on the other side where the cattle path we had been following wound in and out through a woodland.

It wasn’t silent like the desert I was familiar with back in Southern California, but the deep quiet of the forest had a chilly resonance that empty sand and scrubland could never achieve. Bird noises and the random dripping of water off branches emphasized the lack of other sounds in some way. The horses clopped along, blowing steam out of their noses like hairy locomotives. Oddly, it was a bit warmer under the trees.

We crossed the Little Ooze with hardly more trouble than the first river, except that Rotgar and his mount stood in the middle of the stream, directing us around a treacherous section. On the other side, we passed through another hundred yards of forest and came out onto the South High Road.

I had not imagined that it was called the High Road because it was built up above the surface of the land. It was also straight as a line drawn with a ruler, going out of sight both northwest and southeast, bridged over dells and cut through hillocks. Made of mortared stones, with gutters and drains and culverts over low spots, it looked so improbably out of time and place that I stared at it long enough for the others to notice.

Zenner spoke. “We built this road when Il Bian was a Remish province.” He sounded as proud as if he had laid the stones himself.

The center course was all of twelve to fifteen feet wide, or more, and the curbs on each side were a yard or more extra with ditches alongside so that the whole structure was twenty-five to thirty feet across.

Kilda snorted. “And it and other ways like it would have fallen to ruin if Henrik Blodde had not ordered them made new and kept up and set up fees to pay for it. The Remish left this land six hundred years ago.”

Rotgar nodded. “The Roadwards still gather the fees on this and other Ways across the land. We probably won’t be stopping at one of their Weghussen before Lundenna but here is one of them now.”

And so there was, a great busy mound of wood and stone beside the highway. We rode past the medieval version of a Howard Johnson’s, two stories tall in the center with a set of stables next to it and pens for other animals behind it. A low wall surrounded the compound, and a sleepy-looking man-at-arms sat on a tall chair beside the gate, an equally sleepy-looking horse tethered to his chair.

“Proits!” the guardsman called on seeing Rotgar. “Where be ye bound, lad? And with a draggle a-hind ye?”” He grinned at all of us.

I remembered vaguely that Proits was the name of Rotgar’s father’s lands someplace on the continent. It occurred to me that the man was being very familiar in the way he addressed our young nobleman. Myself, I pulled my hood lower on my face in case someone might also recognize Alenna.

“We’re off to Cannamurr!” Rotgar announced cheerfully. “There’s a haligman there who can cure a sore head.”

The guard laughed. “Cat been playing with your liver? What you need is cabbage soup made with lots of swine fat and rosemary. That’ll make your parsnip rise up and bay at the moon.”

The few people going in and out of the gate laughed at some gesture or expression Rotgar made that I couldn’t see. “You’d best have my share, Nye-Kanodle, my root is willful and wanderlick enough.” That got more laughs.

I’d understood most of that intercourse; it reminded me of the kind of banter jocks and cops made with each other in my time. A haligman was a healer, sort of a witch doctor. Cannamurr, I vaguely recognized as the name of a town, not Lundenna, so a bit of misdirection. Nye was maybe the guardsman’s name? Kanodle was his rank, roughly a corporal. Literally, it meant “small knot,” for the loop of cord worn as insignia. The rest was just jokes about drinking, hangovers and randiness.

Amazing how much easier understanding the world had gotten in just a few hours. It worried me a bit. I still had no trouble remembering who I really was but being Alenna and knowing what she should know without asking kept feeling more and more natural. Would my sense of myself as Deputy Gus Gallant begin to fade at some time?

I preferred to think that maybe I would remember how to work the magic that Alenna had used to reach my world so I could go home, find her and take my body back.

Zenner spoke before I could follow that thought any further. “Best pick up the pace, Alter-Nobbe. Bad luck that he knew you, but he’ll tell anyone hunting us that we passed here and when.” He nodded at me when I looked back at him. “And only an adelkvinne would be wearing a cloak such as yours, lady.” Alter-Nobbe meant “Old Boy” but also was slang, approximately, for “boss.” Adelkvinne meant “noblewoman.”

But I liked my lynx coat. It was both warm and stylish. I sighed.

Rotgar grunted, and our speed did increase by half. His tall steed could walk very quickly, but my smaller horse kept having to break into a jog trot every fifty yards or so to keep up, and behind me, I heard Kelda’s mount doing the same. Beside me, Lillakatye’s horse revealed itself to be a pacer, shifting to that gait and easily keeping up with the leader. Zenner dropped back, staying at a walk for longer then cantering to catch back up. It was a wearisome way to ride because trotting was not comfortable on my stiff-legged pony.

“You’re going to clabber our lady innards with this poxey bouncing along,” Lillakatye called ahead to Rotgar. “Let’s walk for a mile and canter for half. It will go easier on our bones and the horses, too.”

I looked at her gratefully as Rotgar went along with the suggestion, slowing down to only a medium fast walk. Honig, my horse, had to stretch a bit to make that speed, but she could do it for longer without switching to a trot. “Tanka-du,” I said to Lillakatye. She winked back.

There seemed to be one of the Weghussen every six or eight miles along the road and about every other one also had a village or town around it. The road went right through the middle of the settlements, like Route 66 through a New Mexico whistlestop. A half-hour or so after sunset, we turned in through the gate of the fourth Weghus we had reached. The horses needed a rest, and we might as well be warm and eat something before we started a night march.

“How much further to Lundenna?” I asked as Rotgar fetched me off Honig’s back. I hadn’t expected him to do that, but I felt stiff and sore and ended up appreciating his help.

“Two more Weghussen and the marches between, so about twenty miles to the walls of the city,” he said.

Zenner looked back along the way we had come. “Your father is probably at least an hour or two behind us, unless he’s willing to kill his horses.”

Rotgar, Lillakatye, Kelda and I all shook our heads. Adelwalt would never injure his animals to chase me down since Borgifu would have told him that I went willingly. “Maybe he got fooled and went the wrong way,” suggested Rotgar. “That was the plan.”

Zenner shrugged, like a man who knew that things never went as planned. Actually, like a Frenchman who knew that jelly bread always lands jelly-side-down.

Rotgar grinned. “Let’s all go inside and see if we can get some of that renowned cabbage soup.”

We snickered at the weak joke and followed him through the gate, leading our horses. He paid the toll to get inside, a farthing for each person or horse, so three pennies, total, no matter how long we stayed.

But none of us had thought about what if my father had given the chase to Valto instead of leading it himself....

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