Buzzards, Hawks and Ravens
(Account of Six Friend's Life in the "Dark" Age)
The Gray Raiders
- Escaping to the Mountain Retreat -
The grey October night was over and the chilly morning breeze from the mountains made Ruwen shiver. He was tired out and sleepy after his duty as a guard at the east gate of the village. A lot had changed in the village after the incident with the false monk at St. Michaels Market. First of all the fortifications, especially the wall and the gates had been improved by villagers. Secondly the young man had established a secret retreat at a pasture high up on the mountains, which was big enough to accommodate the villagers at least for one week. Finally a watch duty was arranged with day and night shifts.
On his way back from the night shift, Ruwen decided to visit his mother at the graveyard. The grave of Ruwen's mother was at the very end of the graveyard by the small church. She had been buried close to the village wall because she died before she could do the last confession. The zealous priest had even denied her the last rites.
Her grave was without a headstone, but it still was the most striking of the little graveyard. All year long flowers were blooming on the small mound. Ruwen and Eileen had planted snowdrops, lilies, forget-me-nots, a big red rose for the warm seasons and a Christmas rose for the harsh wintertime.
Taking his way around the little church, Ruwen tripped over an oversized bundle lying under the low roof of the shed added to the church. The bundle came to life quickly and gripped Ruwen's left leg and threw him into the dirt.
"Damn, you idiot, you nearly trod on me! I am not a bag of grain!"
Ruwen got up, turned around and looked surprised into a pale, fat face. The face was round like his friend the full moon, but the cold stares of tiny eyes of the stranger frightened him and made him shiver even more.
Plucking up all his courage "Who are you stranger? You should know very well, that nobody is allowed to stay of the houses at night."
The stranger rose to his feet. It was a giant of a man in a monk's gown. His build was square and he was towering Ruwen by about a head.
Breaking into a wicked smile he smirked "Oh my lovely boy, I am a man of God, a friar! I am coming from far away. I came here yesterday night only, therefore you sure will accept that I am not familiar with the regulations around here!" Sneering at Ruwen with cold eyes "But what is a young man like you looking for at a graveyard so early in the morning?"
Since the incident at St. Michael's fair the guards had watched closely everyone who was entering the village. During the day the gates were open, but closely observed by the guards. Before sun down they were blocked and in addition rammed up by thorns.
Nobody had reported a stranger entering the village neither the daytime the day before nor in the evening. Therefore Ruwen was sure the man had entered the village clandestinely. He looked around. The only secret entrance to the village was a footpath leading through the creek at the western end of the village to a swamp and from there through a thorn hedge on the overgrown village wall into the grave yard. This path was only known to villagers and usually used by lads only, wanting to leave and enter the village unwatched.
With quick eyes Ruwen searched the thorn hedge for traces left behind by an intruder. He spotted the marks exactly where he expected them to be. Now he was certain the man in front of him was a spy of the Gray Raiders. It was the other spy, the fat one, the friendly one, not the skeleton like one who was spying at the fair. Someone must have given away the secret path to the false monk. He could guess who! It was the crook Tanko, surely.
Ruwen had to decide fast. He was too small to fight the big monk or arrest him. Therefore he continued the interrogation "What are you looking for in our village? Are you visiting relatives or friends here in our village?"
"Oh, no dear! My dear young man! I am a poor pilgrim on my way to the Holy Land. I am begging for alms to sustain my living and save the donations for the poor Christians pursued by the murderous Moslems in the Holy Land." With this he took hold of Ruwen's shoulder and tried to draw him into an embrace.
Panic-stricken, frightened and disgusted by the evil smell of the monk Ruwen jerked free and ran away.
Ruwen reached Klas's farm shaking. Nobody was in the kitchen. Noticing a movement in the stable he cried aloud "Dad, a spy of the Gray Raiders is in the graveyard, quick!"
"Is he dead?"
"No! He's alive and probably spying already in the village!"
Bastian hurried down from the hay loft. He put his arms around Ruwen and tried to calm down his shaking friend, "Cool down lil Bro! Tell us what happened! Are you sure it's the spy, the false monk?"
The next half hour Klas and his four sons discussed the necessary moves in secret. Unanimously they decided to inform only their most reliable friends and ask these to observe the false monk from a distance. They decided also that it seemed to be necessary to send a fast rider to the residence of the Prince-Bishop in Trescrossing to ask for immediate help. Without delay Bendrich mounted the fastest horse available and went off for a tiresome three days ride to Trescrossing. Bastian initiated the surveillance unit set up of the most discreet and inconspicuous lads of the village.
Ruwen tended to his daily chores at Aliah's homestead, looking for the wellbeing of the Wise Women and her livestock, preparing elixirs and medications and waiting for the sick to come for aid. During the last six years Aliah had grown old and weak. Now she looked more and more like an old witch and not like the proud Wise Women she was all life long. However she was happy because she had found her follower as a Healer, her Ruwen, and therefore she was ready for dying without regret.
Around noon Ruwen was alarmed by a persistent knocking at the gate of Aliah's small estate. Expecting a villager seeking medical aid he hurried to the door, but there was the giant monk, the Grey Raiders' spy! Shying away from the sight of the crook he was greeted by the man's booze flavored breath "God bless you dear boy! You are a beautiful example of Heavens grace. God bless you! May I enter?"
To Ruwen's relief the seemingly drunken friar hadn't recognized him and pursued his lame speech "I come from far away and collect alms for the poor Christians in the Holy Land." Overbearing, he pushed Ruwen aside and went straight up to the entrance of Aliah's small house. At the doorstep he stopped riveted to the spot. His booze reddened face turned pale at the sight of the runes at the door frame, of URUZ, that is richness of soil and the fierce force of the aurochs, of LAGUZ, that is the swiftness of running water and cool lake, of SOWELO, that is the warming sun and the victory of light, of MANNAZ, that is the kind moon and the wise man, and finally of TIWAZ, that is the piercing spear and the prowess of the fighter.
"Witch craft! Witch craft!" he exclaimed "Oh Lord, Have Mercy! Wipe out your adversaries! Wipe out these pagan hellions!" and he retreated hastily back to the dusty road, muttering unintelligible imprecations.
Later on the two lads observing him reported the false monk had speeded down the road furies-ridden and then had taken off over the shallow ford of the river through the ice-cold water. To their great disappointment the two pursuers lost his track in the dense forest half-way up the southern mountain range.
Klas remembered the order of the Captain of Prince-Bishop troop clearly, "If you suspect a raid ahead take the people to the retreat and inform the Prince-Bishop without delay". The second part, informing the Bishop, was easy to be followed and Bendrich was already six hours on his way across the mountains to Trespassing. The first part wasn't as easy. Klas himself had no problems to accept the order. For him the sudden visit of the monk was warning enough. But did the other villagers agree to swap their comfortable homes for lousy shelters in the barren basin on the other side of the high mountain ridge? In late October it was cold up there already, eventually it was snowing even, because the retreat was situated more than three-thousand feet further up the mountains than the village.
He needed the full support of all elders for a smooth and fast evacuation of the village. Therefore he called for a meeting of the elders in the little church.
"You all have seen the beggar monk today, I guess! He is not a pious monk he pretends. He is the spy of the Gray Raiders. The way he entered the village by the secret footpath convinced me, as well as the way he was preaching from house to house. I am sure my friends, as sure as I am the provost, the Gray Raiders will attack our village at the next New Moon. This date is only three or four nights away! We have to retreat to our hide-out immediately and leave the village this very night."
"How do you know? Who told you? Did you read the stars? Provost, who told you the Grey Raiders will attack us at all and why in three days?" the black-smith asked in a provoking way and got support by other doubtful villagers.
"Wasn't the false monk at your place, blacksmith? He turned up this night out of the nothingness. He was sneaking into the village on a path only known to insiders! How could a stranger know that secret path?"
"I saw this guy the first time today. He is no insider, that's true. But my wife liked him at first glance and the wife of the wainwright, too. They were so enthused about him. He is a poor pious pilgrim! He is not a robber in disguise!"
"Are you sure he entered the village during the night, maybe our guards missed him when he passed the door at daytime!" the wainwright backed up the blacksmith, "And, he could have entered by another way!"
Ruwen interjected furiously "He used the secret path! I am sure about that! I saw the tracks the crook left in the thorn hedge of the village fortification behind the grave yard and later Bastian traced his tracks down to the brook! I am pretty sure who told him about the path! It was Tanko that evil crook!"
The prudent miller considered the situation carefully "I agree with Klas. I really do not like to run away and leave behind my mill, my house and my other property, but loosing the life my precious family and my life would be much worse! And if Klas isn't right about the imminent raid and nothing happens, I wouldn't bother me too much! I would be happy then and donate a big candle to the Virgin Mary!"
The discussion dragged on longer and longer, because everyone wanted to express his position. Klas decided finally, ending the fierce discussion. "As the one responsible for the village I decide; we will leave for the secret camp at early dawn! If someone wants to stay behind, it's his decision! I can not guaranty for his life."
The exodus of the villagers to the mountain retreat began at the break of dawn. More than a dozen wagons and carts inched up on the steep and muddy way to the mountain retreat. Only the two four-wheeled wagons were hauled by horses, while bullocks or cows were yoked to the two-wheeled carts. The wagons and carts were overstuffed with the most valuable possessions of the villagers in wooden chest together with sacks full of grains, with fowl cramped into narrow cages and hog-tied piglets. Only some space was left for toddlers and old people, who were expected to be too slow or get short of breath at greater altitudes.
The wagons hauled by horses advanced faster than the carts heaved by oxen or cows. Soon a gap arose in between, in which most of the women and children filed in carrying some vitally important items and additional cloth in backpacks. The men who were not in charge of driving the wagons and the some of lads were chasing the livestock at the end of the convoy, - the cows, calves, bulls, sheep and goats. Because of their short legs, the pigs were herded separately and driven by a herdsman and some bigger boys to a remote beech grove north of the village.
Klas, the blacksmith and the miller supervised the convoy, while Geroldt took the lead cracking his whip to press his horses forward. Bastian, Ruwen and the oldest son of the wainwright were in command of the rearguard, consisting of sturdy young men armed with swords, spears and clubs. About halfway up the mountain range the rearguard split in two. The bigger part continued the hike up the mountain road to the hiding camp, while Bastian and the miller's son Mauro returned to a small hideout just above the village. There they had to stand sentinel for the next two days and report to Klas as soon as the Gray Raiders arrived or, as everyone hoped for, the soldiers of the Prince-Bishop.
Ruwen was sad, not only because of leaving home. It was the separation from Bastian, which caused him the greatest distress. For the last seven years he and his blood brother had spend every day together.
He couldn't imagine spending a day, save a night, without Bastian. At the parting he took Bastian's hand and dragged him wayside. Behind some dense shrubs, sheltered from the sight of others, he embraced his Bastian tightly. "I can't stand the thought of being without you, Big Bro, not even for a day and now we have to separate for two days, maybe longer! Oh, Big Bro, I miss you already! Please be careful, don't take any chances with the enemy! I want you back safe!"
"Oh Lil Bro, it's just an observation post, not a post for fighting! I promise, I will keep cool and not fight with the raiders. Just wait and I'll be back quick."
"Please Bastian don't forget to look after Aliah. Say greetings to my dear Aunty. I still can't understand why she wanted to stay in the village! Sure, she's ill, but she was ill all year long. We could have carried her to the hiding on the cart. But she stubbornly refused to leave! I think she's preparing for heaven."
"I will take care of her, Lil Bro. You know I love Aliah almost as much as I love you."
The voice of the miller's son was heard, "Hey Bastian, where are you? Hurry up we have to be back before noon!"
Bastian kissed Ruwen good bye. Ruwen was taken aback. Bastian had never ever started kissing as the first one that, has been Ruwen's privilege always.
In the hide-out on the mountain ridge the weather was uncomfortable for men and animals at the end of October. A moist cold was crouching in the basin-like pasture. Even at noon the pale sun was not strong enough to melt away the fog, neither the cold breeze. The water of the small pond tasted brackish, the grass was sour and unpalatable. Soon enough the cattle refused to feed off the grass and milk began to run low. At the second morning the shelters were covered with snow flakes. People grew slowly weary of staying at such a rough place. At the first day the young boys had enjoyed the adventure, but now they got tired of the odd place. The first people started to complain to Klas.
Ruwen had set up his own small shelter of branches away from the others. During the daytime he didn't feel lonely because of the all the chores he had to attend to, but during the night he missed Bastian resting alone on his hard bed of damp reeds.
Late in the afternoon of the second day, Bastian returned from sentry duty to the retreat. The fugitives gathered immediately and demanded information impatiently.
"Everything is calm down at the village," Bastian informed the impatient. "Nothing of importance has happened so far; neither the Grey Raiders showed up, nor traders or visitors. So far we have waited for the Prince-Bishop's soldiers in vain too."
"Yea, the earliest date the mercenaries will arrive from Trescrossing should be the day after tomorrow. Bendrich got our fastest horse to get to the residency, but he needs at least two days to get there. He is no bird!"
Talking to the Miller's wife Bastian added "It was more like recess than surveillance. Mauro, your son is just fine. He asked me to deliver his greetings to you and the whole family... Oh, I nearly forgot, Mauro asks you to fix him a square meal for tomorrow. He is already starved to death!"
Then Bastian turned to Ruwen," Mauro is waiting for relief tomorrow afternoon. He hopes you will be there early in the afternoon, as he wants to arrive here before dark."
"Sure, I will depart tomorrow morning when the cocks are crowing. It's not because of Mauro; I am much more worried about Aliah's welfare! How was Aunty?"
Bastian was looking depressed "She was very feeble, much weaker than the weeks before. She is waiting for you urgently. She told me you have to hurry!"
Ruwen's tiny shelter was in the cover of dense shrubs away from the crowded camp ground. As soon as the sun went down the weary TIBs curled up under the thin blanket like kittens warming each other.
"I was missing your warmth the night before."
"I was too! I was cold the whole night. I didn't want to ask Mauro to share the blanket and warm me up. You are my hottie!
This night Ruwen slept well despite the bad news about Aliah's condition. He slept much better than the night before.
In the morning of the third day snowflakes were all over the place and the puddles were covered with a brittle sheet of ice. With his backpack full of food for two days Ruwen, left the campsite with the younger son of the miller, Malte. The sturdy guy was supposed to come along with him as the second sentinel. Bastian volunteered to escort the two up to the mountain pass.
Happily talking, the three hiked up to the notch in the mountain ridge. The day started happy however this was not their lucky day. When they crossed the mountain pass Malte slipped on the frozen ground, skidded down into a ravine and wrenched the ankle of his right leg badly. He tried, but he couldn't walk anymore. His ankle hurt like hell.
"Help me Ruwen, help Bastian, I can't scramble back to the pass!"
Ruwen checked the ankle. "It's not broken; the ankle is just wrenched. But you sure will not be able to hike down to the village with me."
"We need to get help, Ruwen, you shouldn't go down all alone!"
"There is no time to wait. I must be down at the village early in the afternoon. You Bastian, carry Malte back to the retreat!"
"You can't leave alone, it's too dangerous!"
"It's alright Bastian, don't be concerned. I will make my way down to the village without an accident. You know I am lightweight. I am light like a bird and if necessary I will fly like a bird. Lets bet, in two days we will see each other again, unhurt! God bless you!"
With these words Ruwen embraced Bastian, kissed him on both cheeks and began a fast descent to the village without looking back. He didn't dare to look back, because of the tears in his eyes.
With every step downhill the weather got better and the temperature increased. Ruwen had already shed his heavy coat when he met Mauro halfway down the mountain. "Hey, what's on Mauro? Everything's alright? Did you visit Aliah this morning? Is she alright?"
"I think so, no Raiders ahead, soldiers either! I didn't look for Aliah. You know I am sort of scared of your Aunty!"
Ruwen's mind was not at ease because of Aliah. He skipped the planed break and stormed down into the valley, "Greetings to the others, greet Bastian, tell him I'm fine!"
He had a first glimpse of the village when he left the forested area on edge of the U-shaped valley. The hillside declined gently to the valley shoulder about 60 feet above the valley bottom with the river meandering through the floodplain. The houses of the village on the shoulder were dodged behind the ring-wall crowned by thick shrubbery. Only the tower of the small church was visible and the smokestacks of the wealthier farms. The water-mill was built on the upper end village with the small creek powering its wheel. The houses of the blacksmith and the wainwright with their workshops were at the lower end of the village close to the river.
Ruwen crouched behind a hedgerow of hazelnut and sloes to observe the village and its surroundings meticulously. The valley looked like always, except that there was no smoke rising from the smoke stacks, there was no mooing of cows or whinnying of horses or cackling of chickens. The village looked familiar but non-the-less deserted. He checked the sky for the circling guardians but detected neither a buzzard nor a harrier close by. They all were circling the sky just beyond the sharp bend of the valley in the west. Suddenly one of the big birds changed the route of flight and set out for a long dive directed to the hedgerow. As soon as Ruwen stepped into the harvested field, the big bird touched down and paced up to him proudly. It was Buzzie, the guardian of the vale, now a grown up raptor. Holding his head slighty tilted he approached Ruwen with a courting "Meow! Meow!"
Ruwen crouched to be at eye-level with his friend asking "What's the matter Buzzie? Did you miss me? Did you see strangers around lately? Do you miss us villagers?"
"I missed you and the others and the livestock, I even missed the cats going after me. Where are you? Everything's calm, no strangers!"
"Do you want some bread, Buzzie? I haven't had time to catch a mouse for you!"
Buzzie checked the offered piece of dry bread, closed his eyes as if mulling over the present and left for the next tree with a wailing "Meow, Meow!"
Ruwen was relieved. There were no signs of strangers around. In the cover of the hedgerow he sneaked down to the small brook which flowed along the western end of the village to the river. The access to the secret path to the back of the graveyard has been blocked after the incident with the false monk. But Ruwen did know another way to the wall behind the churchyard.
I would like to express my special thanks to Paul and The Story Lover for doing a great 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.