They rode for an hour, twisting and winding out of the woods. They saw no one else, either in the woods, or back on the road when they found it. The half-dead woman, if she was about, was keeping herself well concealed. No other travellers seemed to have taken the road through the woods at all. As they trotted along the road, Caewen and Dapplegrim discussed things that the woman or the old man had said, but came to no definite conclusions about what any of it may have meant. Dapplegrim recalled vaguely that there were supposed to be three local goddesses who ruled at the Tor, and that one of them might have been concerned with the fallowing and destruction of things, but he could recall little more than that. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been this far south,” he confessed with the roll of his flanks that passed for a shrug.
Above them, the hundreds-upon-hundreds of roosting crows still crowded the woods, and talked to themselves in their cawing voices. Many more were arriving as the sun reclined westward.
It was only when the woods finally broke and the trees fell away on either side that they saw other travellers headed for the moot. It turned out that there was another wider and better used road skirting around the woods from the north. Everyone else coming from that direction seemingly preferred the somewhat longer path that run under open sky. From where Dapplegrim and Caewen were standing, she could see the great main road bending away gently westward and beyond it the river called the Blue Bergander, shining like wet sheet metal under the final afternoon rays. Westward, beyond the river, lurked some hills and fens, fading eventually into the pastels of mixed greys.
Caewen looked up and down the line of travellers that was passing before them from right to left. It was an odd assortment. Most were humanfolk of one creed or another. Some were dressed elaborately and rode horses, or other, stranger beasts, with rich trappings. Others were dressed in nothing more than simple travellers’ clothing and went by foot with heavy packs or bindlesticks. There were weirder sights. A rather overweight man eating blackberries from a bowl was carried past on a chair, held up by four sour-looking hairy boggarts, muzzles fixed into toothy, fixed frowns. A short thin person in head-to toe armour decorated all over with gold dragons came next, riding at the head of a procession of men and women in heavy black robes. A huge woman, something like a giant, Caewen guessed loped past with long strides, her bald pate shining in the late afternoon gold while endless rattling baubles of silver swung all about her frame. Then came a wagon with a large square object on it, draped with a moth-eaten velvet curtain. The holes in the cloth reminded Caewen that she needed to do something about the moths in her own clothing. The infestation in her bags was leaving holes in her woolens.
As the wagon passed, snarling and mewing noises arose from within the cage, and the rotund man who drove the wagon glanced over his shoulder as if he was not fully trusting to the securings under the sheet. On the far side of a wagon rode some folk who were closer to Caewen’s own age, and northerners too. She perked up, paying attention. She might be able to join them perhaps? The thought of someone friendly to talk to made her hopeful. She looked at them with a considering eye. There were two of the dark skinned Forsetti, tall and well built, who looked like they might be brother and sister. Behind them, riding at a small gap, were five or six of the sallow Dearg Modsarie. Both Forsetti and Modsarie traders had passed through Caewen’s village from time-to-time, although Caewen knew little about either folk, past roughly what they looked like and a few generalities of their customs. The Forsetti, she knew from stories, were castaways. They had arrived on the Rainswept Shore centuries ago in a fleet of ragged outriggers from a land of islands no one in the north had ever heard of. They settled in the Forsetti forest because it was empty. Other peoples who had tried to settle the forest had never had much luck, but the Foresetti seemed to fare better. They brought nothing with them on their boats but for stone and wood tools, cloth and foreign seeds, yet learned to smelt iron and work stone quickly enough. Though their language and customs were odd, in most ways they had grown to look much like other northern folk. The Modsarie on the other hand had a much more grim reputation. They worshipped some manner of water god in the lochs and rivers of their homeland, and there were endless rumours of human sacrifices and bloody night-rituals. Caewen looked at them, with more wariness and less interest in trying for friendship. At the head of the Modsarie rode a young, harsh-faced woman, with pinched features and alert eyes. Those riding behind her were probably retainers: they all carried shields with the same chalk-white kelpie on a grey-brown field. Where the Forsetti were probably best described as disinterested in the great war between the goddesses of day and night, the Modsarie were definitely night-worshippers, though and through.
Caewen looked up and down the line of travellers. “I suppose we should join the tide?”
Dapple was about to step down towards the main road when a clanging cowbell drew both of their glances. There was a man standing a little way from the crossroad. He was dressed in an outfit of red and tan motley, and was currently in the act of loudly clanging a bell. His face wandered somewhere on the road from skinny to scrawny, and a thatch of straw coloured hair escaped all over the place from under a leather skullcap. “Haello there!” he called to them. “Yes, you.” His grin was sort of manic and had an infectious quality.
“He doesn’t look dangerous,” said Caewen.
“Looks are looks,” said Dapplegrim, but they walked over to him all the same.