Dani and Percy walked around camp shaking everyone awake in the predawn darkness. The company mounted up swiftly; breakfast would wait. Again Tristan took the lead and Dani trailed the rear, watching their back.
The next day was much the same as the day before but travel was slower this time as the ancient road was almost engulfed by forest overgrowth. And this time Tristan heard the unmistakable sounds of being stalked, felt eyes on their back and saw flitting shadows. They had been found.
Towards late afternoon came the attack, if it could be called that. The knights already knew they were being trailed and it was an unnerving passage; trees and vegetation curled over them, turning the roadway into dark tunnels. Feet thundered after riders and horses spooked when suddenly missiles were launched around them, throwing up thorny nets and herding them into an enclosed spot. The company was forced to a halt, surrounded by impenetrable nets and barricades, facing scores of Woads with spears and arrows readied for launch. The knights drew their swords and lances, and Tristan his bow, knowing them to be futile gestures.
A tense confrontation ensued, and Tristan saw Arthur staring into the eyes of the Woad he had spared, just two days before. The knights had no chance, he knew even as he drew bead on a Woad warrior up in a tree, and tried not think of the woman somewhere behind him. A horn sounded imperatively and the Woad facing Arthur bristled. Very slowly the blue painted warriors backed away, leaving behind a company of very confused knights.
'Merlin doesn't want us dead,' said Arthur tonelessly before signaling Tristan to lead the way again.
By nightfall they spotted the distant shape of the three hills Trimontium took its name from. Rubble walls of an ancient fort gleamed in the moonlight near the foothills. The next morning they would look for the trail East to the villa.
That night the camp was less than cheery and out in the open. The pursuit had not left them, even though they were left unmolested. It was an eerie, unpleasant feeling to be watched so. The knights tried to sleep while Tristan and Dagonet took the first watch.
Tristan came upon a very awake Dani this time, and watched in silence while she checked her weapons, laced her boots and tightened her cloak, a look of concentration on her face.
'Where do you think you are going?' asked Tristan mildly.
'Oh, I have a few questions,' she replied, 'of the Woad sitting in that tree, third branch up.'
'Ah, the sentry,' said Tristan, sounding a little exasperated, 'the trees are thick with his friends, you know.'
'You're usually the one for direct action,' she said, getting up.
'When there is need,' Tristan reminded her reasonably, 'but they have not attacked.'
'Maybe they are waiting for us to return this way,' she replied impatiently, 'hampered with that Roman family we are to be rescuing. What will the Bishop say if we return with an Alecto full of blue arrows?'
'You have a point,' Tristan conceded, 'but it's not the reason you are going.'
'I want to know why Merlin attacked the Bishop's caravan,' Dani told him quietly.
'You liked him, I know,' Tristan said slowly. 'But they are Woads after all.'
'That's what Sassanids said of us, people of the free tribes,' she said looking serious. 'That we were just barbarians. It's what Romans say of everyone else, Tristan. Should we think like Romans, just because we serve Rome?' She waited while he said nothing, lost in thought.
'I am coming with you,' he said sighing. He decided not to pick up his bow - it might panic the watchers - and sighed once more. Walking into a company of Woads openly warred with his instincts.
'Look friendly,' Dani suggested with an impish grin. Tristan favored her with a dark look and casting a glance at where Dagonet should be, followed her straight to the thicket of trees in the distance, hoping the healer would have the sense to not follow.
The Woads must have been taken aback at their approach. For a long while the two scouts stood in a moonlit clearing in front of the thicket of trees, hands away from body, looking up into faces peering down at them. Tristan tried to not look threatening and wondered, as he heard the ominous sound of bowstrings being drawn back, what they were doing here. Rustling sounds announced company, and the two were beckoned closer into the trees - where it was easier to ambush them, thought Tristan sourly. He followed Dani anyway.
Two men, wholly dissimilar in appearance, faced the scouts. One whom Arthur had spared, a strapping Woad in blue war paint and leather, and a younger man Tristan estimated to be in early twenties. He was dressed in woolen tunic and braccae, and armed with a hunting spear. He looked like a Pictish villager, not a warrior despite swirling patterns on bared arms. The Woad – an older man of Arthur's age leaning on his war bow - wore the same look of furious pride that Tristan remembered. He seemed eager for a reason to use the bow, not that Tristan would comply with the thicket fairly bristling with reinforcements, though he openly kept a hand on the hilt of his dagger.
'Merlin sent you to watch us,' stated Dani.
'To keep you safe,' said the young man. He had a friendly, open face. 'I am Eagan.'
'Nervic's cousin's nephew,' remembered the scout. 'Trader of fine pottery.'
'In summer, I am a trader,' replied Eagan, with a small grin. 'In Winter, I am a hunter.' Evidently juggling dual professions ran in the family, thought the scout. His eyes went to the older man.
'This is Nechtan, son of Nervic's mother's sister,' Eagan said by way of introduction. 'My uncle.'
'We have met,' said the scout dryly, not taking his eyes off the man. 'Twice.'
'Three times for you,' said Dani. She addressed Nechtan, 'you were with Guin's party last Winter.' The man nodded once.
Now pieces of the puzzle started falling into place for Tristan, but he was still missing pieces. He let Dani do the talking while keeping eyes and ears trained on watchers hidden among the trees. He felt a familiar presence – the hawk – alight on a branch.
'Merlin offered us words of peace between our peoples,' Dani directed to Nechtan, obviously the leader. 'Yet you attacked the Bishop.'
'Rome deals with Saxons!' the Woad spat out. Dani and Tristan exchanged a blank look.
'Explain,' Tristan said and received another glare. Eagan put up a placating hand.
'Saxons have landed here in the North,' the young man explained. 'An army.'
'It seems common knowledge,' Tristan said dryly, common to everyone except Arthur and his men, that was.
'Arthur betrays his own people. He leaves them to slaughter,' Nechtan said bitterly. 'And we are to protect him!'
'Arthur knew nothing of the Saxon army,' Dani contradicted him quietly but forcefully, 'until two days ago.'
'Merlin believes so too,' said Eagan, looking towards a dubious Nechtan.
'You hate Arthur,' Dani addressed the leader. 'Yet it pains you.'
'My mother had two sisters, both married Romans.' Nechtan said woodenly. 'Nervic's father, and Arthur's.'
Tristan stared at the man in shock, seeing under the blue paint, wild hair and facial tattoos the same proud features, sturdy build, green eyes, determination and burden of responsibility. The two men could have been brothers, and the scout was suddenly glad they had spared each other.
'Arthur does not deal with Saxons,' Dani informed him quietly. 'We have fought them South of the Wall, and in Nervic's village.'
'That's why Nervic sent me,' Eagan interjected. 'He went to see you.'
'We met,' Tristan said shortly.
'Then you are to take the Roman family South?'
'More common knowledge,' grumbled Tristan, annoyed at so many holes in Arthur's – and his own – intelligence of what went on beyond the Wall. Woad network on top of wench network, he thought gloomily.
'You know the family,' stated Dani with certainty.
'Segedunum sends them supplies,' Eagan shrugged vaguely, sidestepping the question. Segedunum was the Easternmost fort on the Wall and next to the North Sea, where Nervic was stationed. Like the cavalryman, it had a large number of British born soldiers who had ties to Britain through their mothers. That's how Marius gets his messages to Rome, Tristan realized, messages that Picts are privy to, and Merlin as well.
'Guin is not here,' said Dani suddenly. Eagan became guarded. Nechtan's face clouded.
'We will watch over you,' he said, 'until you return to the Wall.' That sounded like a warning as well as a promise. The two men disappeared and the scouts returned to camp.
'Us vs them' is a recurring theme in human history, sadly between people who must share the same resources, e.g. land. The character of Dani is to provide a perspective to Arthur and his knights – one that is not Roman, British, Sarmatian or otherwise testosterone-encumbered!
I liked the Woad that Arthur came face to face with in the movie. Poor guy wasn't even credited even though he is in several key scenes. He even manages to mimic Arthur's machismo. I thought there was a story here. I hope you like it.