The convoy advanced through the rural countryside, on the road towards its next destination. Alicia and Rosalia were on the last of these wagons and without any suspension system to speak of every bump on the ground could be felt with full force. They had to share their seat space with cargo and crates containing goods for delivery and sale. Thankfully the convoy moved at a leisurely pace out of concern for the integrity of the goods. Had it not been for that, the journey would have had a lot more jostling and jumping. The hay cushioning from underneath them absorbed some of the force but it was still inadequate for a comfortable ride. Two more people were riding along with them on the insides of the wagon, part of the escort party hired by the merchant. One of them had their self bow carried on their sling. While for the other, Alicia noticed the blade in its scabbard resting beside him and a round shield on his back.
They were the chatty type, poking and prodding with questions. Where were they from, where were they heading. As much as Alicia preferred a silent sightseeing ride, it couldn't be helped that she had to answer some of their questions in the most uncompromising way she could. However, she also saw an opportunity to gain some insight into their profession.
- "What about you, are you an adventurer party then?"
- "I wish! No, I am just an agent for the guild. Though I do want to go out exploring sometime in the future too. "
Answered a man who seemed to be in his mid twenties.
- "Agent?" 'What's the difference?"
- "I… don’t actually know what it means, the clerk woman reading out some papers called me so. We are just acting on behalf of the guild. Taking on commissions and odd jobs where I can to earn my bread and beer for the day. I think the common folk just call us workers. I, for one, think the word agent sounds better even, don't you agree?"
‘Even if you don’t know what it means…?’
- “What kind of work besides escorting?”
Scratching through his messy tawny hair, racking his memories he answered after some humming and hawing.
- “Eerh. Clearing out some monster infestation problems, patrolling roads, investigating rumors, informing the guild about interesting stuff, delivering things. At least those are the things I have done in the past. There are madcaps that seek the thrill of danger… They often make big names but the next week you’ll hear about where they went missing or how their corpse was found. Still, a few make it big and live a life of luxury with all that gold and glory.
Me, I’ll be happy with a full belly and a glass of drink with my head still over my shoulders.”
‘Uh huh, sounds adventurer-y but everything is… slightly sideways? Closer to a mercenary I suppose. Speaking of which… why guess? Let’s just ask the person.’
- “So what makes you different from a mercenary?”
The man’s face turned sour and before he could answer his partner gave an impassioned answer for him.
- “Loyalty! We pay fealty to our city and it’s guild. We’ll work for our town’s betterment without a pay if we must! Mercenary bands won’t even bat an eye to a town burning down without a bag of gold at their feet and good arselicking. And they’re happy to stab you in the back if they find someone who pays even a single crown higher. Phtui!”
In disgust the man spat out of the wagon.
‘Should’ve bought a defuse kit for this bomb… right let’s change the topic…’
- “I see… You said you wanted to become an adventurer, what would you do?”
- “After getting enough money to my name, travel of course. There’s a whole load of the world to go around. They say this wanderlust comes for everyone. I might return home or settle down elsewhere with a fine lass, who knows. Many share this dream, me thinks, to escape their tiny village sometime.”
‘Right… For most people of this world and the current age your village is your entire world… You’re born into the community raised in it, your home is there and so is your job. You’re likely to find your spouse in it or from the village over and build your family, again in the same village. Time flies and then if you’re lucky enough not to die from dysentery you’ll rest your bones in the very same village you were born in. Some find comfort and security in this kind predestined life.
Others loathe and despise it, abandoning their homes in search of something greater. It doesn’t help that there aren't many recreational activities in the villages either, most have a saloon for drinking and feasting or a parish. And without those… sexy time is the only thing they can do to pass the time. No contraception… Well no, comfortable and easily accessible contraception and with whether or not your child is surviving the year until fifteen or so is decided by the invisible coin toss by the whims of life, why not go for more?
Sure these rural peasants are vulgar, brutish and lascivious but can you really blame them? They are molded by their environment, is it not natural for the water to turn into ice if they’re placed in the freezer? Men like him are the ones that reject turning into ice. Sedentary life doesn’t fit them. They seek fire and the flames so that one day they can reach for the skies, riding the vapor of their sweat, blood and tears. But just as many clouds swim through the welkin, countless more fail to reach it, consumed by the flames, singed and forgotten. Their bodies buried far from their home, if even found at all… Everyday is an adventure, but not every adventure has a heroic ending…’
- "What about you n' your mate? What's your story?"
- "We're but travellers on a homeward journey. Forgive her reticence, she doesn't do well with strangers."
- "Really? Cause you talk like em city folk."
- "My, what nice a thing of you to say."
With a hesitant laugh the man pulled back to the side of his colleague, elbowing his companion to get their attention. In a hushed whisper he asked;
- "Hey…! did you get what she said?"
To which his partner answer;
- "I don't know…! I think that means she likes you."
Alicia pretended not to have caught any of their talk and decided to simply shut off their ongoing conversation and let them have their confused fun. The convoy steadily carried on towards the town…
'Smells like trouble this one…'
The news she received from her huntresses was worrying. The wagons were about to pass through small woodlands and there wasn't any settlement close by. What concerned her were the reports of upright naked mole rats, humans in this case, loitering along the path they were about to pass through. Although her Araneae weren’t apt at differentiating men from women they still managed to figure out that there were all men. According to them, there were about thirty of them, perhaps even more. Most were wielding a variety of ‘iron fangs’ with a small number of them having ‘crooked sticks’.
‘Too many to be a hunting detachment… Besides, however poor, I doubt humans around here are THAT savage to use swords for hunting rather than a bow and arrow, or even a spear. The number of bow users is also too few for a hunting party… Bunch of men, away from human settlements, just loitering in a thin forest…? Now where have I heard this story before…? Ah if it isn't my old acquaintances again… What do I do now hum… The escort party is outnumbered but they’re definitely better equipped than some crooks hanging out in trees. If we’re assuming they’re evenly experienced - which is a big assumption especially considering the other side is a collection of thugs - in one on one at least, the escorts will always win due to their superior quality equipment.
Now things get muddier if they’re surrounded or have to deal with two or three guys at the same time from the get go. Being down just a single person quickly tilts the odds against their favor. But the same should hold true for the thugs too… few of them, if any, have the resolve to fight until the bitter end. Their confidence stems from their numbers… but if few of their allies start hitting the dirt, that confidence quickly shatters and if one starts to panic and another will too. Fear is infectious. Both sides don’t want a real fight. Escorts just want their pay and carry on with their life. The bandits want to intimidate the opposition to shake down any valuables they have for food or drinks, anything. However if both sides don’t want to back down… We’ll have a situation… and considering what I already covered… it could go either way…’
- ‘Can be aggressive… not…?’
- ‘They could be non-hostile? Well that would be the best outcome for us then. We’ll just go on our merry way. But do you really believe that…?’
- ‘Yeah… well I appreciate your input and optimism Alice. Let’s hope they are…’
‘But if the push comes to a shove… what do I do? Technically we’re still ‘just some girls travelling.’ If I intervene, I doubt some hobos will be giving me much trouble but that’s not the point… whichever way I do it, it’s going to get attention from my driver and my travel-mates. Not sure if I want that… Do we bail out now? In the worst case scenario we’ll be on foot again for no reason but we won’t have to get involved in any confrontations. Should I break the news to Rosalia… no that’s out of the question. If we’re whispering to each other and leave just before they get into trouble… now that just looks like we set them up doesn’t it…?
Ugh… there’s no way around it now huh… Alright let’s see what I can do in the mean time to prepare… How do I reveal just enough to scare off some people without letting everyone else know too much…? God, it feels like I’m solving one of those logic puzzles from university again…’
As she was mulling over her options, wisps of faint light started to dance in front of her. Seeing as how one of them looked vaguely like a fish swimming in air, she had found her solution…
A boy in his teens came running to the gang of men waiting for him, his face was full of nervousness. He was tasked with keeping watch and letting them know of any incoming traffic. He knew the men were up to no good, but if he behaved and cooperated there would be times where he would be able to get some money rather than scraps of food they toss at him. Besides they hadn’t hurt anyone… yet.
- “People coming! Two carriages and four wagons. Looks like a merchant's convoy. I only saw a few escorts accompanying them.”
The leader of the group spoke up to rally his men.
- “About time. Get a move on you lards! Just like we planned.”
And the group came alive with movement at the behest of their leader…
As the small caravan steadily approached their position a tree was felled on the trail blocking their path. The horses pulling the wagons stopped neighing and their startled driver were obviously surprised by the event.
- “What’s the meaning of this!”
An indignant cry came from the merchant. Before they could understand the situation they got into, they were already surrounded. From the woods came the culprits, weapons drawn.
- “You’re gonna have to pay a toll to pass through here.”
- “Nonsense! I know no toll charge along this road. Begone, at once!”
The sudden unexpected halt and the commotion ahead alerted the escorts to a brewing trouble.
- “Oooh but there is, and it’s either all your gold or all your blood.”
The merchant had the option of running away leaving everything… But he would never recover from the loss as a small timer, it would be the end of his life as a merchant. To him it was the choice presented to him was to die trying now or die later in the muck. He had to push through whatever the means. One man from the escort party came representing most others’ thoughts.
- “Looks bad… what do you say?”
- “Can you make way?”
- “They don’t look tough but… quite a many of them around.”
- “So you’re saying there’s a chance? Then this is what I paid you for… Go!”
- “Thought as much. Well don’t hold it against us if you lose a few shipments here and there. Get in the carriage, you’re better protected in there.”
Many of these bandits were poorly armed with daggers, shortswords, hatchets and other repurposed farming tools. And almost none of them were properly dressed in protective garments. They were much better protected as well as having weapons with better reach maintenance. The escorts organized themselves into a tight semi circle formation around the wagons with their backs against it or each other. Although with their fewer numbers they couldn’t hope to protect every wagon. This meant a docked pay. However they needed to live through this predicament first before thinking of any payment.
An intense staredown ensued. A worry was spreading through the bandits, the signal shot they were expecting didn’t come…
‘What are those fools doing?!’
The arrows that they were expecting from their bowmen never came. Their hope was to take at least one of the guards down from range forcing them to charge out into them where they could pick them off one by one. The bowmen in question were positioned as far back as they could so as not to be found easily before they could take their shot and so that they were safely behind them. Ironically the positioning favoring their safety placed them in most danger. A danger far greater than counterattack from the defending party.
Alicia had made sure her Araneae wouldn’t be seen throughout the engagement. The bowmen were mistakenly situated out of sight which meant the Huntresses could dispatch them without anyone realizing. With their disorganized formation, the bandits had a number of outliers not being protected by the others. They were easily abducted by the lassoing web slingers out of sight where they could be dealt with discreetly. Due to their poor training and discipline along with the growing tension the brigands were anxious to charge.
From within one wagon emerged a man, bow already nocked and ready to loose. The arrow flew and hit at dead center one closer thug, causing him to stagger back before collapsing down clutching at his chest.
- “Bastard! GET HIM!”
- “No you idiots!-”
And that was the last straw, seeing their fellow die was the tipping point for them to start charging. Although the leader was pleased that his men didn’t run away just like that, engaging in melee wasn’t that much better either. But now that was out of the question; their bowmen didn’t make their shots, what happened to them? Regardless they had to make a move now lest they would be picked off one by one by the enemy archer. And pulling back his men who were already charging in with a battle cry now was impossible.
Just before as bandits charged in, a person in a viridescent cloak came out of one of the wagons and stood out. The man who was just with them before shouted;
- “HEY! Get back in there, it’s not-”
- “Come my spirits…”
⟨ Conjure: Water Elemental ⟩
A feminine voice spoke. By her words a pool of water welled up from the parched grounds. Through the motion of her fingers the water swirled up like an eddy. By now the clash between the escorts and the bandits had just begun. With a torrential outburst rose up a geyser, but it did not return to earth like normal water. Instead, the shifting waters shaped itself into a torso of shape similar to that of a cresting wave of the oceans with two arm-like appendages. And though it had a head like feature, it lacked any facial details, reflecting only the blue skies and the face of its beholder. The bandits were taken aback, but they were too deep in to safely disengage from the escorts. The defending party too were surprised by the sudden arrival of a mysterious being.
- “…wash away the filth…”
Receiving its master’s decree, the entity let out a sort of cry similar to that of a wave of the ocean crashing against itself. With a swipe of its appendage an oncoming attacker was tossed away rolling on the ground. With another it shot out a stream of water smashing the bandits against each other and the trees sending them scattering. In desperation one of the bandits managed to land a strike against the terrifying being, but a blade through water ineffectively passed through, only to rust and dull the blade’s edge. Although harmless to it, the entity understood that it was under attack. And it responded in kind by engulfing and hugging it’s assailant, swallowing them whole inside them.
As the man was devoured screaming and fighting against the currents, the others could only watch helplessly in horror as they faced an enemy they didn’t know how to fight against. His muffled wails and his struggling eventually ceased.
‘Whoa, never thought water of all things would be this effective… I was just playing into the role that I was a sorceress who had a contracted water spirit.’
- “Hey, hey, hey! Spit him out before dies for real!”
Like a child spitting out a vegetable they didn’t like, the elemental threw out the man that was inside of it. The man washed up in front of the remaining bandits still remaining and that was enough to send them running in fear.
- “Don’t look back!”
And with that the encounter concluded with minimal losses for the caravan…
- ‘Alright, you can go back now.’
With the aggressors repelled the being dissipated. And the water returned to earth whence it came from, moistening the once dry earth leaving only a small wisp behind, visible only to a select few who had some gift in magic, one of which was Rosalia. To them it looked as if the faintly glowing wisp returned to Alicia, to Alicia a fish just swam into her hair.
- ‘Y'all freeloaders take note. My hair is a premium apartment with high rent. Better be ready to pay up.’
One of the men from the escort party came up to her and hesitantly asked her;
- “Y-You were a sorceress?”
‘Well that’s the role we’re playing into, isn’t it?’ The brief pause from her answer made everyone tense up in anticipation and slight fear.
- “Something like that.”
With those words she went back into the wagon leaving the others astounded with what just happened. Even the patronizing temper of the merchant - who had peeked out to take a look - had disappeared…
Before long the men managed to clear the path by hauling the tree away so that the wagons could pass. The one bandit that was spat out by the water spirit that everyone thought was dead woke up coughing up and choking on water. He was stripped to his underwear and taken in as a prisoner. Towns and cities often gave rewards for capturing and delivering these sort of roadside bandits, as through ‘questioning’ they can learn their allegiance, base of operations, numbers and active regions to stamp out outlaws as they, like in this case, often terrorized highways used by merchants and other travellers and damaged the supply lines and reputation of the region.
Even if they didn’t spit out with whom and where they were working, they would make for a fine slave in the fields. Regardless of the outcome, the one who brought them to justice could expect a decent recompense. Greater the number, greater the compensation. With all the trouble sorted out the caravan was ready to move out again. As they were about to move out again, a man came up to Alicia. It was the Merchant’s assistant
- “Master would like to express his gratitude and invites the misses into his carriage.”
‘Ugh… more nuisance… well I think the carriage has better seats than this wagon.’
Briefly looking at Rosalia and nodding to her to come along;
- “Understood. Take me there.”