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“I’ll race you!” Mahn declared as he rode to the top of a hill with Tolkuva not far behind him. He stopped and waited for her to catch up on her horse as she pulled alongside him. She pushed back her dark hair and adjusted the dark green woolen poncho about her that covered her and a good part of the horse she was riding.

“Racing a horse like this for fun spends the horses,” she objected. “We can go further if the horses aren’t tired.”

“We’re a few days from home,” Mahn said. “What’s there to worry about?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I grew up here and this place can be full of surprises. You should know that after having spent the last five years here.”

“What’s the matter? Don’t you ever have fun?”

“When it’s appropriate,” she said. “Why not get off the horse and race me on foot?”

“Is that a challenge?”

The girl got down off the horse, removed the cloak and the sword at her side, and looked at him from the corner of her eye.

Mahn smiled. “You’re not kidding. You still think you can win?”

“Let’s find out,” she said. “The first one to the bottom of the hill wins.”

Mahn got off his horse and set aside his cloak and sword. Tolkuva stooped down and picked up a rock, threw it high into the air, and waited for it to hit the ground. When it did, Mahn and Tolkuva took off down the hill along the Imperial road, paved with stones. Mahn broke out in an early lead, but Tolkuva soon caught him and passed him as they came down the hill. They reached the bottom and slowed to a stop, both of them panting for breath.

“See,” she goaded.

Mahn grinned. “Well, maybe we should try uphill then?”

“Are you a glutton for punishment?” She chided.

“You’re on,” and with that, Mahn dashed away back up the hill towards the horses, and Tolkuva followed. She never managed to catch up, with Mahn having and maintaining the lead for the entire time. When they got to the top, they stopped and were even more out of breath than before. “You see, you got lucky.”

“You cheated,” she said. “You didn’t even have a proper start.”

“That’s what they all say,” Mahn said with a smug grin on his face. “Besides, weren’t you able to read me and tell exactly when I was going to start?”

“Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I always have to do it,” she said. They both waited for a moment and drank from their water on their horses before mounting back up. “Camon would think that such foolishness is a waste of time.”

“I don’t see Camon around here to tell us what he thinks. Do you?”

“Nope,” the young woman said. “I’m just saying. You know how grumpy he can be about silliness like this.”

“So, you think it is silliness and foolishness when you lose? Is that it?” Mahn asked.

“Oh, spare me,” she said. She kicked her horse in the flank, the beast shot off down the hill, and Mahn followed. They trotted along the road for a way, going up and down the rolling hills towards the east. After riding for another hour, they crested a hill and saw a broken-down wagon off to the side of the road with someone pushing against it. The two stopped and looked down the hill. “Looks like someone could use some help with that,” Tolkuva remarked.

“Yeah,” Mahn said. “Let’s hope that they can actually make that thing roadable again, or else they are going to be out of luck.”

“Easterners from the look of it,” she said. “Kind of odd that they would be this far west, but everyone has their reasons, I guess.”

The two rode down the hill towards the wagon, and as they approached, they saw another man and a woman in addition to the one they had seen from the top of the hill. Tolkuva and Mahn stopped, and the three persons came around and looked at the two riders suspiciously as they approached.

“We saw you from the top of the hill and were wondering if you might need some help,” Mahn said.

The three had their stares fixated on Tolkuva at the moment but then looked back at Mahn. “Odd for one like you to be riding with one like her,” one of the men said.

“What do you mean?” Mahn asked.

“She’s a Gypsy. You’re an easterner.”

“Yeah, so? Do you want help or not?”

They were silent for a moment, then one finally spoke, “The boxing came loose on the rear-right wheel, and it fell off. We could use some help getting it back on.”

Mahn and Tolkuva hopped down from the horses while the three people stared at them. They walked over to the side of the wagon. Along with the others, they gripped the corner of the wagon box. They then, in a concerted effort, attempted to lift the wagon that was weighed down, but it would not budge.

“You’re going to have to lighten it,” Mahn said. “Even with the five of us, this thing isn’t budging.”

“We were afraid of that,” one of them said. “But we’d be vulnerable out here. There are all sorts of riff-raff crawling over these hills.”

“The only ones out here that would hurt you would be bandits from the east,” Mahn commented.

“Or Gypsies. They’re the ones that live in these parts,” one of the men said.

“When was the last time you heard about Gypsies attacking anyone for anything?” Tolkuva quipped.

“So you can speak our language,” the woman said.

“Yes, and a few more,” Tolkuva said with a smirk.

The three travelers looked at one another, then started unloading the wagon, placing things on the ground. Mahn joined in, and Tolkuva followed. The travelers watched her every move as she unloaded things from the wagon and placed them next to it. The Gypsy girl knew she was being watched, but she paid no mind to them, instead focusing on the work of lightening the load. It took them the better part of an hour to unload the wares from the back of the wagon into the road before they thought it might be light enough to lift again.

“Some stuff you have there,” Mahn noted. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were peddlers dealing in novelties from the west.”

“You know something about the west?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, we’ve been there,” Mahn said.

“You mean you and the Gypsy girl?” the woman said.

“Well, she’s been there a few times. She’s a translator for her people; thus, the reason she knows your language and a few from the west, too.”

The woman mumbled under her breath, then one of the men gestured for them to come over. “Well, we’d better attempt to lift this thing if we’re ever going to get this back on the road.”

Tolkuva, Mahn, and two of the travelers went to the corner of the wagon and lifted. They easily picked up the corner of the wagon while the other man got the wheel, its hub, and the boxings all back in place. They then set the weight of the wagon back on the repaired wheel. After the wagon was back on four wheels, the five went to reloading the wagon. Again, the travelers were wary of Tolkuva any time she touched something. But she again ignored them, simply putting things back on the wagon and making sure that they deliberately saw her do it any time she did. Once the wagon was full and reloaded, the travelers tested the wagon with a push, and the wheel creaked under the load.

“You’re going to need to lighten that load or get a better wheel,” Mahn said. “That’s likely to happen again. This wagon is way too overloaded.”

“There’s no smithy until we reach Kankahoh, and that’s several weeks from now. And the Imperial outposts don’t usually staff smiths.”

“You could stop at one of the Gypsy camps along the way and have one of the smiths there look at,” Tolkuva suggested. “Gypsies are quite adept at building big, heavy wagons used for overlanding. It’s what we live in. The smiths would know how to make this one better than new.”

“Thanks,” one of the men said, “But we’ll take our chances getting back to Kankahkoh.”

“Just a thought,” she said. “Gypsies don’t bite.”

“No…” one of them said, trailing off. He then shook his head and thrust his hand out towards Mahn. “Thanks for your help.”

Mahn clasped it and shook it. “You bet.”

Mahn and Tolkuva remounted their horses and took off down the road to the east. The travelers hitched their wagon and then started back down the road to the east at a slower pace in the wagon that creaked and groaned under the load. Mahn and Tolkuva put some distance between them and the team when Tolkuva looked back over her shoulder one last time at the travelers and then back towards the east.

Tolkuva sighed, and Mahn noticed. “What was that for?”

“Some things will never change,” she said.

“Some things being what?” Mahn pressed.

“Those people back there…” She gripped the reins on her horse tighter.

“You mean their prejudices against you and your people?”

“Yeah, that… I mean, they could have at least tried to hide it, given that we were trying to help them and not take anything from them.”

“You can almost tell what they were thinking, so would it have really mattered?” Mahn said, turning towards her.

“Well, yeah. Like I said, they could have at least tried to hide it. But they didn’t even bother. First, they looked at us like we were going to murder them. Then when we did help them, they watched me like a hawk, thinking I was going to steal something from them. Third, when I suggested that they get help at one of the camps, they almost balked at the suggestion. Then after we helped them, they thanked you, not me.”

“I see your point,” Mahn said. “I hate to admit it, but I was kind of like that whenever I came to live among you all those years ago. Mom already knew what I know now, but I wasn’t so sure. It took actually spending time among you to come to realize that all the stereotypes that we have in the east are nothing more than that.”

“Well, our camp is somewhat odd, though, considering among us now there are four easterners, including Achara, your mom, your grandmother, and Camon. But truth be told, even we have our biases against those from the east.”

“Yeah, but not nearly as bad. You all generally see us as we really are. And the reputation is well deserved.”

“You said it, not me. But I guess I’ve gotten used to being around people from other cultures, especially the east.” She then laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Mahn asked.

“I had a bit of satisfaction blowing their mind back there. It is always fun to see people’s frustrations whenever you don’t fit into their preconceived notions about who you are.”

“How so?”

“Well, for starters, I was riding with you, an easterner. That was one thing that they didn’t expect to see.”

“They almost looked down on me because of it,” Mahn added.

“But it was still funny. And then when I spoke the eastern language as well as they did, that also gave them pause. I mean, that’s always fun to do in the west or in the east, but it’s even better when it’s people who think that they can say whatever they want and folks not understand them.”

“I’ve seen you do that a time or two in the past, and that little smirk of yours crosses your face,” Mahn said.

“True enough, but like I said, it’s even better when it’s with folks like that. And the look on their faces was even better when I touched their things. I could swear that they were ready to cut my hand off for stealing something.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t,” Mahn said. “You know, you should set up a roadside stand and sell tickets to a show or something where you blow people’s minds.”

Tolkuva laughed, “Yeah, that’s a terrible idea. I’m glad you’re a Paladin and not a merchant.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because your business ideas are silly, that’s why.”

“My father is a merchant,” Mahn said.

“Yeah? Well, my father is a cowherder. That doesn’t make me a good one. We should both stick to being Paladins.” She looked to the north. “Has Camon said anything else about you going to meet him?”

“He hasn’t mentioned it in a while,” Mahn noted. “But whenever he turns us loose on the world, I suspect that I will be making my way east to pay him a visit. Camon hasn’t seen him since that fretful day back in Poytaxt for Mom’s sake.”

“Can’t say that I blame him,” she said. “Your mom was hurt by him.”

“I know,” Mahn said somberly. “It’s why I don’t bring it up. It’s a sore subject, and even if I did go to see him, I wouldn’t tell Mom. She would get upset and berate me with no end.”

“Perhaps. But at least you have her and your grandma still. And Camon.”

“And Camon,” he said, turning back down the road. The two continued to ride on, and by the day’s end, they were miles beyond the wagon. They stopped for the night at an Imperial outpost and looked forward to being home within the next day or so as they continued their trek east.

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