By dawn, they had left the plateau but were still following the road as it zig-zagged back and forth in a series of switchbacks down the slope. Tome explained that it was built this way to avoid it being too steep for carts to get up or down.
In the distance, Arthur could see a narrow ribbon of road stretching out across the plain towards a town nestling on the shores of the sea. Tome told him that this was Port Camaaloth and that although it looked close from this height, it would still be another two days before they reached it.
Arthur’s spirits were both raised and dashed by the news. So close and yet so far! Nevertheless, with the help of the slope, they made valuable time, and by late morning they reached the flat plain below.
“Please, Tome,” said Arthur. “Can we stop for just a little while? My legs are really hurting. I’m sure that I’ll be able to go much quicker after a rest.”
Tome looked down at the boy’s anguished face and saw his pain. He was tired himself, and he was used to walking long distances. It must have been very hard on Arthur, and yet he hadn’t complained even once.
“All right,” it’s time we had breakfast anyway. But just a short rest, mind. Don’t you go dropping off to sleep on me, will you.”
“No, of course not,” promised the boy. I just need a little rest, and I’ll be fine.”
After they finished the last of their rations, and some of their aches and pains had faded, Tome led them back on to the road. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the surrounding landscape changed from packed dirt with just a few scrubby trees to grasslands with healthy trees and bushes on either side. Even the surface of the road changed from packed earth to one made up of compressed gravel. The going was now much easier. As they walked, Tome showed the boy how to select and pick berries and nuts from the trees on either side of the road.
“Never eat the red ones,” he told him. “They may look good but, more often than not, they are poisonous. At the very least you will end up with a nasty stomach-ache.”
“Ah, now here’s a bit of luck,” he went on, walking over to a small tree, its branches laden with dark purple berries. These are Juneberries. They taste a bit like blackberries or blueberries, but they are much sweeter.”
He picked a bunch from the lower branches and handed them to Arthur.
“I’ve never heard of Juneberries,” said the boy, placing a couple in his mouth. The taste was amazing, and he began picking more.
“Don’t eat too many,” cautioned Tome. “Juneberries aren’t like other fruits. Each one has the goodness of a whole bush of blackberries. Eat too many, and you’ll be sick.”
“When he thought about it, Arthur did indeed feel like he had had a full meal. He popped a couple in his mouth and put the rest in his pack for later. As an afterthought, he picked a few more bunches and added them to his stash.
“That’s right,” said Tome approvingly. “Best stock up while we have the chance. No telling when we will find something decent again.”
By late afternoon they could smell the tang of the sea in the air and could almost anticipate the end of the journey. Just then they caught the sound of running horses behind them and heard a shout.
“There they are! Quick, we have them. Ten crowns to the man who brings the farmer down.”
Tome and Arthur spun about. Galloping towards them were six riders dressed in black and dark masks concealing their faces. Tome drew his sword and motioned for Arthur to stand behind him. Wolf came running up to stand beside them, lips pulled back to show his teeth. He might only be a cub, but he had the heart of a full-grown wolf.
One rider had outdistanced the others, and now he swung his sword at Tome, intending to lop off his head. Almost casually, Tome leaned back to avoid the below before his own sword whistled through the air to send the assailant spinning from his horse. Quick as a flash he grabbed the horse’s reins and leapt up onto its back. Then, pulling Arthur up behind him, he dug his heels into the horse’s flanks and galloped off towards the sea with the remaining riders close behind them.
Tome was an excellent rider, but he was a big man, and the horse had to carry Arthur’s weight as well. Before long, it started to tire, and the pursuers began to gain. Soon they were so close that Arthur imagined he could feel the hot breath of the horses on the back of his neck. In desperation, he undid the straps of his pack and let it fall to the road behind him. He then had the satisfaction of seeing the leader swerve to avoid the bag only to collide with the second-place rider.
It was only a momentary pause, but it was enough to enable Tome to gain a few valuable yards. As they careered around a pile of large boulders, he pulled hard on the reins to stop the steed and leapt down, pulling Tome after him. Then slapping the horse rear to send it galloping on, he grabbed Arthur’s hand and dragged him up the rocks.
As the riders came around the bend, Tome picked up a smaller boulder and hurled it down at them. It caught one rider square on the head, and now there were four. Dismounting, the reaming attackers drew their swords and fanned out planning to attach their enemy from all sides.
Before they could complete their manoeuvre, hurled his axe into the chest of the first, and then jumped down, sword in hand, to face the rest. They attacked in a rush and charged in with their swords raised high, chopping at Toms exposed neck and arms. His own blade was a blur, slashing left and right, as he fought desperately against the uneven odds. Steel met steel in a flash of sparks and the brigands cursed as Wolf snapped at their heels, distracting them.
Parrying a mighty blur, Tome counter thrust, and took his attacker through the heart then took another man out with a backhanded sweep, before continuing the movement to block a savage downward thrust from the third man.
Arthur cried out in alarm as he saw the fourth rider had worked his way behind Tome and was about to stab him from behind. Without a thought for his own safety, the boy leapt from the rocks to hurl himself on the man’s back, and the two of them fell to the ground. The rider cursed and raised his sword, intent on cutting Arthur in two. Before he could land a blow, his face contorted in horror and he fell forward, an arrow quivering in his back.
Arthur looked up in time to see Tome dispose of the final attacker, then turn to face a new party of uniformed soldiers who came riding up. This time there were too many even for Tome to fight, and he lowered his sword in surrender. The leader of soldiers rode forward and raised his own sword in a salute to the boy, the Farmer and of course the brave Wolf.
“Congratulations,” said the leader. My men and I have been tracking these bandits for days, but you seem to have wiped them out on your own. Well, apart from the one that my archer took as he was about to slice your son in two. I salute you.”
“Permit me to introduce myself. I am Second Mark, Gawain. My men and I are members of the Camaaloth Patrol. It will be our pleasure to escort you into the town. Just in case there are any more of the bandits abroad.”
With a sigh of relief, Tome gratefully accepted the invitation.