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Camon and Achara road steadily for several days as the road followed the river upstream to the West. The terrain was generally flat and rocky with stands of trees and large outcroppings of granite. After a few days, the road split off from the river and turned more south-southwest towards hillier terrain. The weather warmed significantly, which enabled Camon and Achara to start sooner and ride longer for the days as they crossed the eastern forests. After a week or more of riding, the forests of the east began to give way to woodlands then to stands of trees surrounded by grasslands that were browned from the onset of the cold. When in the open, there was little in the way of protection from the wind that blew from the North. Likewise, population centers were smaller, fewer, and further apart the further west they rode. While there were fewer, it was not such that they were any more than a day’s ride between two villages. The traffic along the road also thinned from the local traffic to the more sparse traffic of travelers. As they pressed westward, travelers, traders, and Imperials were practically the only traffic they saw along the road. As was their custom, they stopped and stayed in villages with whatever accommodations they could find. Sometimes these were a little more than a stall alongside the horses while other larger villages offered more proper accommodations. Camon and Achara, however, never complained as they rode on day after day.

After a month of riding, they were well into the plains beyond the eastern forests. The plains were drier, and vegetation other than grasses was much sparser. There was very little in the way of agriculture or settlements. The prairies though, offered a wide-open view of the world around them as they road. And the one constant along the way was the Imperial road that climbed up one hill only to go down the backside then up another.

One day after nearly two full months into the trek west, Camon and Achara crested a hill that gave them a view of the surrounding lands for miles. The land sloped gently downwards into a broad, flat plain. At the center of the plain was the junction of the Pilgrim’s Way and another north-south route that went northeast to Krunglek in the North and towards Rhattaay in the South, creating four quadrants. In the northwest quadrant was a round hill that stood above the rest of the plain. A small, round fortress with grass-covered earthen ramparts for walls topped with a palisade topped the hill. The northeast quadrant had a village with several narrow streets. The buildings were conical and made of bricks from the base to the pinnacle. Smoke drifted southwards from the tops of the buildings. A network of pastures and fences occupied the other two quadrants with large ponds dotting the landscape. Most of the pastures were empty, and the ones with livestock were sparsely populated.

Camon and Achara rode down the hill towards the village. “Welcome to the edge of the world,” Camon said, “well, at least what some consider to be the edge of civilization.”

“This must be Kankahkoh,” Achara noted.

“Yes indeed,” Camon said, “but it’s hardly the edge of the world. It’s more or less the edge of what we’re used to. Beyond here is the Domain of the Gypsies. And beyond that, there is still even more until you get to the Western Sea.”

“Is not the West Watch the edge of the Imperial world?”

“It is,” said Camon. “But the Empire’s reach politically and militarily extends well beyond its reach culturally. Gypsies don’t go much further than this, although in recent years occasionally you can see them more in the East. The prejudices run deep against them.”

“It seems odd that they would be so welcoming of the Empire if they are so hated,” Achara said. “But you do see stuff of Gypsy origin all over the Empire, especially livestock and wool.”

“It’s not the Gypsies that are the problem,” Camon said. “We are. We, being those from the east, that is. Not that all individuals look down on Gypsies, but by and large most people do. But the reason for Gypsies having a strong affinity for the Empire stems largely from Gypsy culture. Generally speaking, the Gypsies prefer to live in peace with their neighbors. Invaders from the west plagued the Gypsies for centuries. Invaders would come and conquer the land and hold it for a few years. While pacifists, the Gypsies didn’t like the invaders pushing them around and are quite formidable in battle. They would rebel and pushed off several of these invaders time and again.

After the Empire formed, some of the oligarchs didn’t like the arrangement of having the balance of power favor the Eastern and Northern provinces because of the affinity these two had with the Church. They pushed for the creation of an additional province. When an emperor who favored the plan was elected, he sent several legions to the West Watch, which at that time was hardly more than a trading post. They transformed it into a city and declared the area under Imperial control. After a decade of this, the oligarchs moved to create the Western Province that would incorporate the Gypsies’ Domain. They sent a delegation to the Gypsy conclave to make the proposal. Surprisingly, the Gypsies liked the idea so long as the Empire would provide protection from the outside invaders and let the Gypsies live as they had for centuries. So, the Empire built the roads and built outposts along with them, and the Gypsies roamed the land as they always had. Bringing the Gypsies into the Empire consequentially opened up a vast market for the Gypsy goods. As you noted, lots of the livestock and wool in the Empire comes from the Gypsies.”

“Seems like a deal with Darkness to me,” Achara said. “Finding protection in the presence of your enemy can only seem like it can go one way.”

“‘Enemy’ is a bit of a strong word, I think,” Camon said. “There may be a prejudice among the citizens of the Empire. But the Empire nor anyone in the east has acted aggressively against the Gypsies beyond much more than skirmishes in all of history. There’s never been an outright desire to conquer the Gypsies’ lands or even settle them. Easterners find them too inhospitable. But because prejudice exists, the Gypsies like to keep their distance. Kankahkoh is about as far east as they go. And the Imperials got their province, so they are motivated to maintain its security and prosperity.”

“Then they’re second class citizens at best then,” Achara said.

“That, I would agree with,” Camon said. “At least they are in the eyes of the Empire. The Gypsies concept of government, rights, community, property, and many other things makes being in the Empire more of an arrangement of convenience than a formal arrangement. Very little changed for the Gypsies and the Empire tends to tolerate these differences for the sake of convenience too.”

Camon and Achara came down the hill towards the village. The village was busy with people doing chores about their homes. “We’ll stay here tonight. But we are going to have to get some supplies to get to the West Watch. This is the last place we can expect to find overnight accommodations. East of here, there will be Imperial outposts and Gypsy camps, but no villages or permanent settlements.”

Camon found accommodations from a local family that owned three other homes they rented to travelers. Camon and Achara took one and then boarded their horses in the family’s stable. After eating a hot meal of beef stew with turnips and bread, they went out of the village down towards the pastures with a few people out tending herds.

“At points in the spring and summer, this place transforms into a tent city,” Camon said. “The Gypsies bring in their herds and wool, and the eastern buyers come to bring back horses, sheep, wool, and cattle. It’s almost circus-like. But we’ll have to take what they have now.”

They came to some holding pens where there were some horses caged. Camon waved to one of the hostlers who acknowledged him and came to greet him. He was short in stature but stocky with a square jaw and a short, coarse beard. He was covered in dirt and mud from his head to his feet.

“May I help you?” the man asked.

“I’m looking for a pack animal,” Camon said. “Got anything that could do that?”

“Pack animal, eh?” the hostler said. “Matter of fact, I think I got a couple of things you might like.” He walked over to one of the pens and brought two animals. The first one was a well-fed chestnut mare sixteen hands high. The second animal was a bay mule slightly shorter than the mare. “This mare will do you well and can be ridden too. I’ve had this girl for about four years now, but I was thinking about selling her because I’ve gotten a couple of new ones to break in. This mule has been my faithful friend for ten years. But like everything, I’ve been raising some new ones, so I need to make room.”

“Your mule,” Camon said. “Has he done much traveling?”

“Him? Yes. He’s as strong as an ox and has pulled for me on teams as far east as Rahtclang and back making deliveries.”

“And the mare?”

“Her? She’s mostly been ridden for herding. She’s pulled with a team, though.”

Camon and Achara came over and inspected both animals. They examined their teeth and hooves, then rubbed both them on the nose. Both animals responded well to him. Camon then asked Achara and in a low tone, “This is one time I could use some input. He seems honest enough, but is there anything that he isn’t saying that you can pick up on?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Achara said. “I’m not so sure about that mule. He seems edgy, but the mare is as friendly as they come.”

“I was leaning towards the mule,” Camon said. “Are you sure about him?”

“Yes,” she answered. “But the hostler, though, is harmless, I think. He’s eager to get rid of either one of them.”

“Then we should be able to make a deal then,” Camon said. He went back to the hostler. “What do you want for the mare?”

“3 gold pieces for either one,” he said.

Camon looked at him, skeptically, “I’ll give you two for the mare.”

“If you’re looking for a horse out here, you’re going to be limited, my friend,” the hostler said. “I’m the only one with anything for sale this time of year.”

“Not trying to be rude, but three for any pack animal would be steep. I don’t need the horse as much as you want to sell it. And I don’t see buyers lining up to buy animals either.”

“But here you are, aren’t you?” the hostler said.

“You’re right. I’m here. But when those new horses come along, and you’re still here with the horses, and your only buyer will be long gone by then. I’m afraid she’s going to be left out in the cold, and you’ll be lucky to get one piece for her at that point, so you might as well take two while you still have the chance.”

“Okay, I’ll take two,” The hostler said.

“Done,” Camon said as he reached into his pocket and produced two gold coins. He handed them to the hostler, and the hostler helped bridle the mare. Camon then took the reins and led her away to the village, where he boarded the mare alongside Appon and Soam.

“What do you want to call her?” Camon asked.

“Tangmaw,” Achara answered.

“Tangmaw it is then,” he said, giving Tangmaw a rub on the nose.

“He wanted to try and take advantage of us, didn’t he?” Achara said.

“Yes, horse buying isn’t something that happens every day this time of year, as you can imagine. He probably thought we were desperate or something. I can’t blame him for trying. When you make a living off of selling livestock for a few weeks, then have to live the rest of the time off what you do those few weeks, it makes planning hard. It’s not a steady income for sure.”

“How is it that Paladins make money?” Achara asked. “You seem always to have money for everything you need but never work for it.”

“I figured you’d ask eventually,” Camon said. “Paladins get paid several ways. A lot of it comes from gifts from parishioners. But the provisions for the Paladins were laid down during their inception. The elves crafted collection boxes for the Churches to use for alms, which were secure and immovable without the right magic. The Church liked the idea of securing their gifts, but built into the box was a way for Paladins to receive a portion of the gifts. The lore for this is largely forgotten, but it still works. Many of these boxes are still in use in some of the older Churches throughout the Empire, so I will take what I need when I’m near one. Out west though, these don’t exist, so whatever coin I have with me has to last their and back.”

“Like the hostler between selling livestock,” Achara noted.

“Something like that,” Camon said. “We need to get some supplies.”

Camon and Achara went around the village shops buying things for the journey. They bought dried meat, cheese, dried fruit and vegetables, and some canvas in case they needed to make a shelter along the way and blankets and a sundry of smaller items to make the journey west. After buying them, they went back to where they were staying and organized, and packed the things.

Camon and Achara bedded down for the night and slept and awakened early the next morning before dawn. They gathered their things and went to the stable to saddle and load the horses. After a brief exchange and breakfast from their host, they set out in the crisp morning air over the frost-covered ground. They climbed up out of the plain and beckoned Kankahkoh goodbye.

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