Buzzards, Hawks and Ravens
(Account of Six Friends' Lives in the "Dark" Ages)
- Veldegg -
- Anzo's Run for Freedom -
Anzo gasped for air. Clinging to the back of the panicking horse, he buried his nose deep in the mane of "Whirlwind" to avoid snapping the twigs of the alder trees and hazel-nut bushes along the fast running creek. Closing his eyes, Anzo thought back.
In the early morning light Anzo had left the castle with the hunting party to participate in the big fall battue high up in the mountain forest. His step-uncle, Count Menno, had not only invited his fellow noblemen of the countship Veldegg, but also his Bishop and overlord, to attend the traditional opening of the hunting season. The evening before, he had asked Anzo, with a voice sweeter than honey, "Will you take part at the hunt, my dear nephew? I invite you, and I'll bet you will enjoy it!" Noting Anzo's unbelieving face, he added, "That's not an order and it is my honest wish, and the wish of his Excellency, the Bishop, too! I know you like dogs therefore I am asking you to supervise the deerhounds."
Anzo was surprised by this invitation coming out of the blue. He smelled trouble and pondered about the real intentions of his step-uncle, Count Menno. He racked his brain, but couldn't figure out a reason for this sudden change in his uncle's attitude.
The answer was very simple, but it would be a while before Anzo would find it out. The evening before, Menno's spy had told the count every single step of Anzo's visit to the market. With great emphasis and in full length, he reported the reaction to the old beggar-woman calling Anzo `the hope of the country' and the applause of the young citizens. Immediately Menno's face turned pale in anger. He knew he had to act instantly and without mercy. The next day had to be Anzo's last day of life.
The opening of the hunting season was favorable for his intentions. Anzo had to have a deadly accident at the hunt, just like his father had suffered. Menno only had to make sure that his nephew's death looked like a hunting accident. He was happy about the Bishop's presence. The presence of his overlord could only turn into a big advantage, because he would be an unsuspicious witness to Anzo's death.
Menno's plan for the deadly attempt upon Anzo's life was simple and shrewd at the same time. He decided offer Anzo "Whirlwind" as his riding horse for the hunt. This horse was special in several respects. Last year the count had spent a lot of money for the horse, fascinated by the elegant looks and the references to it as a race horse. Whirlwind was one of the fastest racers near and far. It could surely outrun every other horse in the countship.
At the time of the Whirlwind's acquisition, Count Menno wasn't aware of his bad handicap. It was the perfect racehorse, but panicked as soon it smelled blood. For this reason, it was of no use to Menno, neither in battle or at a hunt. Menno was sure the stallion would startle with fright at the smell of bleeding boars or wolves, run off in panic, unsaddle the inexperienced Anzo, and drag him to death.
Menno smiled wickedly, bowed slightly and declared, "I'll even offer you my best horse to ride, to prove my sympathy. I will let you ride Whirlwind."
In the grey morning light Anzo was one of the first to be ready to leave the castle, before the cavalcade of hunters headed by Count Menno, the bishop and joined by the other guests. Anzo was wearing the dull outfit of a common citizen and had wrapped up well in a heavy cloak. He looked like the other stockman, but was in command of the three packs of hungry hound-dogs. At the gate, the stockmen had trouble taking care of the three packs impatient barking dogs. They were hardly able to keep the fierce dogs separated because the packs constantly attacked each other, fighting for dominance. The men tried to quiet the dogs by shouting and using whips with long cords.
Whirlwind was nervously scampering on the spot, and Anzo had a hard time keeping the race horse from kicking out or breaking away. Finally he was able to calm the horse down by whispering in his ear. The tension decreased as soon the cavalcade left the castle and was moving up the steep roadways into the mountains. After a while, Anzo took the lead and set the speed of hunting party. About two hours later, the now strung out party crossed through the last hamlet and began the steep ascent to the high plain and the mountain forest.
The mountain peaks were obscured by thick clouds and the forest edge was hardly visible in the fog rising from the damp plain, grown over with heather and low pine shrubs. The dogs were panting heavily now because of the fast pace on the steep ascent and seemed to have forgotten all about their rivalry. About halfway across the stone covered plain the rivalry erupted again, as the scent of wild boar wafted over from a huge clump of bushes ahead. The dogs began to pull on the leashes feverishly. Count Menno, alerted by the sustained attempt of the hound dogs, ordered the blowing of the hunting signal. The dogs were freed from their restraining leashes, and raced forward to chase the first game of the day.
Whirlwind panicked instantly, surprised by the sound of the hunting horn and the barking dogs suddenly overtaking him. The horse shied, broke away and raced down hill towards the edge of the forest. Anzo pulled the reins but couldn't bring the horse to a halt.
A fast running brook coming down from the glacier had burrowed a deep cleft into the stony plain, parallel to the forest edge. The boars fled into the gulch and took off in the fast running water followed by the barking dogs. Whirlwind broke into the gorge too, and being faster than the boars as well as the dogs, was now in front of both the horde of boars and the packs of hound dogs. The noise of the wild chase frightened the horse even more and he sped downhill using the bed of the brook as a race track. Whirlwind was already out of sight of the hunters, when the dogs finally caught up with the boars and a bloody slaughter began. However, the smell of blood drifting downhill with the chill wind along the brook frightened the horse even more.
Anzo clung to the horse's back, with his nose in Whirlwind's mane, praying to remain in the saddle. "Ber-rit, Ber–rit, Ber-rit", the hooves of Whirlwind hardly touched the ground. He was flying towards Berrit, Anzo was sure of it. Go faster, go faster Whirlwind! Don't let the Count's bailiffs catch us.
Yesterday, when he and Berrit had met unexpectedly at the marketplace, Anzo had said, "I have to go back to the castle tonight, for last night, dear Berrit!", and they had exchanging kisses. "I have to go back, God knows how much I would like to run away with you immediately!" more kisses. "But you have to realize, I am Menno's captive and his spies are on my heels! But tomorrow I will have a chance to escape, either during the hunt, or while Menno is away from the castle for the hunt!"
Berrit didn't like this idea and wanted to take flight immediately. Anzo however, reassured Berrit, "Stay in Veldegg till the market is over tomorrow morning. Then return to the bridge over the river forming the border between the countship of Veldegg and your Duchy. Wait on the other side! I will arrive there at night!"
Now he was on his way. The escape has been easier than expected. Anzo's heart pounded "Ber-rit! Ber-rit! Ber-rit!" in the rhythm of Whirlwind's galloping strides.
When the brook left the forest and cascaded down about ten feet into a moor, Whirlwind came to a stop from his full gallop. Anzo, being absentminded for just a heartbeat, lost his grip on the horse's back and went headfirst over Whirlwind's neck and to the ground. He skidded down the waterfall and ended up in the icy water in the basin at its foot. Whirlwind neighed, turned and trotted away along the edge of the forest.
Anzo bobbed up and hastened down the brook and into the moor. He had to find a hiding place and be out of the sight of pursuers coming down the brook. He didn't heed the pain in his left ankle till he reached a thicket of willows and alder trees. There he left the brook and concealed himself behind the bushes. Nervously, he watched the edge of the forest narrowly. After a short time some hunters showed up at the top end of the waterfall, with hunting dogs. Noticing the hoof prints along the forest edge they left the brook following Whirlwind's tracks.
Once they were out of sight, Anzo decided to try an escape and left his hiding place, carefully avoiding cleared areas. His escape was facilitated by the fog swirling in the fen. Slowly he limped from cover to cover, using a stick to relieve the weight on his aching ankle. By the late after the fenland had changed into pastures, constrained by trenches and hedgerows. With caution he made his way down into the valley, where there was the road connecting the countship of Veldegg with the shire of Berrit's father, the Duke of Quentisburry. Luckily the pastures were deserted; only far to the left could Anzo see a shepherd who was herding his sheep. Under the cover of a small wood he kept a close watch on the roadway. He counted four covered carts drawn by horses coming from Veldegg. After a while, two more carts came, hauled along the slowly rising road by worn-out horses.
Abreast of Anzo, the carts were overtaken by five mercenaries on fast horses. They stopped the carts, searched them and then moved on towards the border. Anzo was sure Menno's soldiers had orders to look for him.
Anzo retreated to a small grove at the edge of the road, carefully avoiding the open land, to avoid the attention of possible eyewitnesses. Resting in his hideout, he soon began to feel cold because his body was soaked with water from his fall into the pool, not to mention the sweat due to his big hurry during his escape. His situation was worsened by his trousers which were kept soaking wet up to the knees because he had continually used small water-runs in his flight, to deceive the tracking hounds. Despite his thick coat his teeth chattered and his stomach rumbled. After a while Anzo calmed down, but now became much more aware of his aching ankle. A look revealed that the ankle was already swollen. Lacking a bandage, he used part of his shirt to strap up his ankle.
Soon dusk fell. During the afternoon, Anzo had observed three more convoys making their way to the border-bridge, but none of the carriages displayed the sign of the healers. Berrit and his friends must have left Veldegg early in the morning to get to their meeting place across the border. Anzo decided not to wait any longer. As the next convoy drew closer he limped down to the road and waited behind a big tree. The first two carts belonged to merchants. Anzo eyed them suspiciously, because he had never trusted salesmen. The third, and last, cart lagged some length behind. It seemed to be special. The approaching darkness didn't obscure the colorful canvass of the covered cart because it glowed like a lantern from a flickering light inside. It was the car of the traveling company that had caught Anzo's eyes the evening before at the market.
Anzo limped forward to block the way of the wagon. The driver, caught off guard by the suddenly appearing shadow, uttered a disbelieving grunt and struck at Anzo with his whip. While the tired horses drew to a hold, he bellowed, "What the hell are you doing here in the dark, frightening poor travelers? The horses nearly knocked you down! Get out of the way! Quick!" and again he used his whip against Anzo. Four additional pairs of eyes darted out of the wagon into the dark and then the small voice of a boy demanded, "Stop using your whip, Beo, you are not supposed to scare off poor strangers!" Then the deep voice of an old man asked, "Who are you stranger? Are you approaching us with friendly intentions? We are poor legerdemainists, poor actors coming from Veldegg!" than chuckling to itself, the voice directed to Anzo, "You chose the wrong wagon; the money bags are carried in the cars in front of us!"
"Could you please give me a ride, sir?" assured by the man's chuckle and his last remark, Anzo asked with a confident voice, "I left Veldegg this morning, but I sprained my ankle at and now can't walk anymore. Please give me a ride to the border-bridge!"
While the grey-haired man offered Anzo a hand to help him into the cart, the young man driving the cart objected, "Father, the horses are tired and we need to hurry because of Minnie, remember she is due tonight!" Now the voice of a young girl chipped in on the discussion, "Remember Beo, strangers are our friends; weren't you a stranger too, not long ago, and now we are one heart and one soul?"
Anzo tried to settle down in the cart crammed full of requisites and costumes for the plays. There was hardly any room left for him. There was the grey-haired man, evidently the head of the traveling company, a friendly, a witch-like woman, probably his wife and a girl with blond hairs and a small boy. Beo, the strong young man on the box seat, cracked the whip and the horse took off again.
Anzo had to squeeze himself between the girl and the boy, who was clad in colorful clothes like a little prince. Now he got the meaning of Beo's words, "she's due tonight!" The girl's belly couldn't be any more prominent. She looked as if she had swallowed the biggest pumpkin ever grown. She was pregnant, and even Anzo, the former novice, couldn't miss this.
There were a lot of questions asked, as they rode together. "What did you do in Veldegg?...Oh, looking for help from the healers?...Could they cure you?" and on and on the questions went. While the two women tried to pump information out of Anzo, the man eyed him warily and finally asked, "Have you heard of the hostage who escaped from Count Menno's castle? The young count? He would be around your age. The constables are searching for him everywhere. Haven't the bailiffs questioned you?"
The boy was Anzo's redemption, "Granddad, does he look like a count? Does he look like a kingly hostage? I look like a prince and they didn't suspect me to be the wanted boy!"
The old legerdemainist chuckled again, "Who knows? Appearances are deceptive! Just look at you, Thimus! You look like a prince, but you are just a poor orphan!" and, turning to Anzo, "What's your name lad?" Thimus repeated, "Yes, what's your name?"
"Mine nearly sounds like yours, Thimus! My name is Timotheus, it's a Greek name!" Anzo used the name he had as novice, hoping that the bailiffs were not familiar with this name.
"Then let's be brothers!" Thimus proposed. "I want a big brother!"
After a while Anzo's stomach grumbled. The grumbling even overpowered the rumbling of the wheels on the rough road. Noticing the questioning looks, Anzo addressed the old woman softly, "I haven't had a bite since yesterday! Can you spare some food?" Seeing her reluctance, he added, "I'll pay for it! Here, look, is that enough?" With that, he pulled a small coin out of his pocket and offered it to her. She snatched the coin, bit on it and realizing it was of silver, she answered, "Well, that's not much money, but I guess you need some food! All I can offer you is some smoke-dried meat. I saved it for Minnie, my daughter. Right now we are out of cheese and bread!"
Saying Grace silently, Anzo noticed Thimus' yearning looks, "You would sure like to share my meal, wouldn't you, little prince?" Without waiting for an answer, Anzo divided the small piece of meat and gave one half to the amazed boy. "You saved me, little prince, by ordering your family to put up with a stranger!"
At the gateway to the forecourt of the bridge, the border-guards and mercenaries of Count Menno, all armed to the teeth, were intercepting the carts. The old legerdemainist managed the situation in a blink of an eye. Without a word he flung Anzo to the floor of the wagon, covered him with clothes and curtains used for the performances and ordered Thimus and Minnie to sit on top of the big pile. Minnie, being a perfect actress, started immediately to make whimpering sounds like a woman with birth pangs. The guards and soldiers were so deceived by her performance that they waved the cart through the gate, while they painstakingly searched the carts of the traveling salesmen. But Minnie wasn't really acting. Just about two hours later she was the proud mother of a pair of twins.
In the travelers´ wagon, set apart from the other wagons, yet still beside the tavern before the bridge, Minnie gave birth to two healthy boys. The wagon, being the home of a new family, was now so over-crowded that Anzo and Thimus decided to move out for the night. Thimus, in the strange outfit as the Little Prince and Anzo disguised by the colorful cloak of a king, searched the forecourt for the wagon of the healers. Returning from their foray, without success, they fetched some straw at the barn and made their bed underneath the cart.
Early next morning more than a dozen wagons waited in line to cross the border-bridge between the countship of Veldegg and the Duchy of Quentisburry. The cart belonging to the traveling company was next-to-last. The crossing-point was alive with guards and mercenaries checking every cart painstakingly. Again, Anzo sought shelter underneath a pile of clothes and curtains used for the performances. The search of the travelers´ cart was again without result, because this time the pile was crowned by a cradle with two wailing new-born boys.
In the early morning light of the day of the big fall battue, Bastian had harnessed the horses, and the healers´ wagon began a hurried journey to the border of the countship of Veldegg. Berrit was worried to death. The evening before, he had finally been able to hold Anzo in his arms. His lips were still burning from the hot kisses they had exchanged. But that hugging and caressing had needed to come to an end after just a few heartbeats. Faking a severe medical treatment, they had mapped out a plan for Anzo's flight. There were two possibilities. Either Count Menno would keep Anzo confined in the mercenary's quarters during the hunting spree, or he would invite the hated son of his dead step-brother to take part in the hunt. In either case, Anzo was determined to take flight. Either he had to get over the walls of the castle with the help of a rope ladder, or he had to escape on the way to hunting grounds in the mountains. Anzo and Berrit were aware that both possibilities could end in a disaster. However, Anzo insisted, "Berrit, dear Berrit, I can't live without you anymore. I tried hard, but I can't. My heart tells me, we will be united tomorrow night!"
"Anzo, my Anzo, let's try a less dangerous attempt! Your step-uncle is vile as the devil, but he is even more avaricious than vile. I will pay whatever ransom he demands, in order to free you!"
"No, my dear Berrit, I can't wait any longer. Wait for my arrival tomorrow, at the border-bridge!"
Ruwen and Bastian had tried to console Berrit throughout the whole night, after the market had closed, around . In the morning he was pale as a ghost but as determined as ever. On their way to the border, Berrit got more worried with every passing mile. He became even more nervous when they learned from the bailiffs about the escape of a hostage, which had taken place when Count Menno and his party were on their way to the hunting grounds.
"Anzo has made a successful escape, Berrit! Be happy! We have to try to pick him up on our way to the border." Ruwen reassured Berrit. At the time of receiving the news, the healers had already traveled halfway to the border. Berrit and Ruwen mounted their horses and patrolled the road before and behind the wagon, while Bastian slowed down the pace of the wagon to improve the chance of intercepting Anzo on the way. But in vain. They didn't meet Anzo. At dusk they crossed the border to the Duchy of Quentisburry and a long sleepless night began for Berrit, but not only for Berrit, since Bastian and Ruwen suffered with him.
Ruwen had searched for Anzo at the Veldegg side of the border till late into the night. He went from wagon to wagon checking for Anzo, hung around in the tavern, searched the stables and barns; he looked everywhere, but completely in vain. When the tollgate closed for the night, Anzo crossed the border as the last pedestrian and he reported to Berrit, "I couldn't find anybody over there that looks like Anzo. I checked everybody. I even checked the travelers´ company cart while the young actress got her babies! I assisted at the delivery of her babies. I told everybody I was looking for my friend; I even approached the guards and mercenaries, but nobody has seen a lad looking like Anzo. He has vanished from the earth like a rabbit down a hole!"
In the morning Berrit was in a desperate state. Anzo had promised to be at the bridge by the evening before and now it was morning. Berrit went to the tollgate to survey all the wagons and carts crossing the bridge. He counted more than a dozen wagons, with about fifty people, but no one looked like Anzo. But where was he? Was he already in chains in the Count's prison? Was Anzo dead; slaughtered by his step-uncle? Berrit's heart told him that Anzo was around, somewhere. He was close; he could feel Anzo's presence. But where was he?
The last of the wagons crossed the border. Berrit was in distress. He decided to return to their wagon, take his sword, then cross the border and search for Anzo in Veldegg. When Berrit pushed his way through the crowd and around the wagons his progress was hindered by two people in fancy clothes, a lanky lad walking with smaller one holding his hand. They seem to be searching the place, but both seemed to be happy and excited at the same time.
Berrit got angry, "Get out of my way, you kids! I am in a hurry! Play your silly games elsewhere!" The lanky lad let go of the smaller boy's hand, whirled around and flung his arms around Berrit's neck! Without paying attention to the people around, he began to kiss Berrit! "Berrit, my Berrit!" he exclaimed with loud voice, "Berrit, my beloved Berrit!"
Later that day, the wagon of the healers left the border with four happy lads and a small boy, now dressed like any other common boy of his age. "Can I stay with you, Anzo, Bastian, Berrit, Ruwen? Can I stay with you and have four big brothers?" Thimus had begged the four, earlier that day. "My grandparents can do without me for the winter, and next spring I can rejoin the traveler company if necessary!" Happily for all, the grandparents had agreed to this, having just gotten two more mouths to feed.
I would like to express my special thanks to B. for doing a wonderful job by correcting all the wrong expressions and the punctuation used by a non native English writer.
Comments, reviews, questions and complaints are welcomed. Please send them to Ruwen Rouhs. And I would like to add, thanks for reading.
Copyright Notice - Copyright © 2008
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form – physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise – without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.