Two days passed as they continued west. Camon and Achara occasionally passed other travelers and traders headed east as the three horses and two travelers rode west, but around midmorning of the third day out, the road was vacant. “I don’t like the feeling of this,” Achara said. “Something is wrong…”
“What is it?” Camon asked.
“There’s no one around, and there’s malintent in the air…”
“Keep vigilant,” Camon suggested. He loosened his cloak and laid it across the horse in front of him. He kept his hand on his sword’s hilt, tucked snuggly in its scabbard on the horse. Achara stopped her horse, but Camon didn’t notice. A moment later, two men popped up from the grass off the road bearing crossbows pointed at Camon.
“Off the horse!” one commanded. Camon indifferently got off the horse. “Now, back away,” said the bandit. Camon backed off with his hands in the air. “You too!” the bandit said to Achara. Achara did as she was told. The two men approached Camon’s horse who had been leading them. One bandit grabbed the reigns and walked away from Camon towards Achara. The second bandit kept his crossbow trained on Achara while the other one fumbled with his, trying to keep it pointed at Camon as he handled the horse.
“If you’re going to rob us, it would help if you loaded your crossbow right,” Camon said to the first bandit.
“What?” the bandit replied.
“Your crossbow. It’s all wrong. You don’t have the string cocked right,” Camon said again. The bandit looked down at the crossbow, and Camon then picked up a large stone and threw it at the man. The aim was true, and the stone struck the man in the head. The bandit dropped his crossbow, and it went off.
One of the horses unexpectedly reared its legs, kicked the second bandit, and knocked him down on his back. The horse continued to stamp at the man until Achara came to its side and calmed it down.
Camon rushed to the first bandit who was regaining his composure from the rock strike. Camon tackled him, then pummeled the man with his fists until he went out. Achara was holding the second man at knifepoint when Camon got to him. Camon put his boot to the man’s neck, “Who are you working for?” he asked.
“I don’t work for anyone,” the man said.
“Then why did you attack us?”
“Two travelers alone on this long dusty road are easy targets,” the man said. “You’re a fool if you think you can travel this way without this happening.”
“Who’s the fool now?” Achara asked.
“What are you going to do with us?” asked the bandit, whose voice was less defiant now.
“Tie you up and let the world have its way with you,” Camon said. “You’d best hope that the Empire finds you first because they are likely to be the most merciful.”
“You can’t do that!” the man exclaimed. “Wolves will eat us!”
“You should have thought of that before attacking us,” Achara said coldly.
Camon took the man’s belt and bound his hands and feet, then did the same with his companion and placed them about one hundred yards apart. He took their weapons and crossbows and then searched the surrounding area for any sort of hideout. Camon found a small hovel where he found several gold pieces and other items of value that he took. After gathering the things, Camon and Achara remounted and set off west again with the one conscious man cursing them as they rode off.
“Did you find anything interesting?” Achara asked
“Just some jewelry and some coins,” Camon said. “These two were amateurs. I suspect they don’t do this for a living.”
“My guess is they get tips for easy prey from Kankahkoh and lie in wait for when they pass,” Achara suggested. “Probably that hostler.”
“You mean the hustler,” Camon joked. “He was my first suspect. He didn’t like my price, so he figured he’d take the gold and get his horse back anyways, but we’re just speculating now.”
“There’s no connection to our tracker, I believe,” Achara said. “He seems to be keeping his distance by at least a day or two. I don’t believe that whomever he is has reached Kankahkoh in enough time to tip off a couple of local thugs.”
“Indeed,” Camon noted. “Your skills as a seer have gotten keener. You knew when we were about to walk into their trap. And it was you that incited the horse, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was,” Achara answered. “I told the horse that the man was a threat. Well, ‘told’ the horse in the way that I can.”
I think it’s time that we had you visit a master of the art,” Camon said.
“How can there be masters of seeing if it’s outlawed?” Achara asked.
“We’re in the Gypsy’s land now. Things are different here. They have the finest seers of anyone I’ve ever met. Every Gypsy camp will have one. They sometimes refer to her as a ‘Mother’ as a title. She functions in much the same way that a priest does in the East as a spiritual leader or guide.”
“We haven’t seen any Gypsies yet,” Achara noted.
“Don’t worry,” Camon assured. “We will soon enough. Probably before nightfall.”
They rode the rest of the day. In the late afternoon, a camp came into view alongside the road. Twenty wagons were arranged in a large circle with an opening one wagon’s length wide to serve as an entrance. The surrounding lands were covered with cattle grazing and herders keeping watch over the animals. At the center of the encampment was a large firepit with a barbecue spit over it. Smoke drifted up from the pit from a fire that had been lit some time ago. The wagons themselves were essentially tall boxes on large, wide, iron-bound wheels. Each one was painted a different color, some bright while others were more muted. Each one was unique in its form, with doors and windows in different locations. Some had ladders to climb up while others had stairs. Almost all of them had stove pipes coming out of them, and a few had smoke streaming out of the pipes.
“We’ll stop here for tonight,” Camon said as they approached.
“Here? How?” Achara asked.
“The Gypsies are quite hospitable,” Camon said. “For a small fee or in exchange for work, they will let you stay with them. Though, most people either don’t know this or choose not to because of prejudice against Gypsies. There’s certain propriety though that we need to follow.”
“You seem to know a lot about Gypsies,” Achara noted. “How did you learn all this?”
“Before my first journey west as an acolyte, I read as much as I could on them,” Camon explained. “There was a journal of a priest who had been a missionary among the Gypsies some years ago in our library back in Anurak. He spent time among them learning their language and customs. It was a quintessential guide when I journeyed west. The team I was with didn’t want to interact with them and preferred to stick with the Imperial outposts, but we ran into some issues along the way. Knowing their customs endeared me to them, so we were able to get the help we needed.”
“Experience pays,” Achara noted.
“Follow my lead,” he said. Camon brought his horse forward and rode off the road towards the encampment. He was about one hundred yards from the entrance to the camp when he stopped. Achara came alongside him and stopped too. “They’ll see us here and send out a delegation in a moment to inquire of our intent,” Camon explained.
After several minutes of waiting, a group of six men came from the encampment. They were all wearing wide-brimmed hats and woolen ponchos with plaid patterns about their shoulders that when down to midthigh. They walked six abreast towards Camon and Achara, who was still seated on their horses. The men stopped about twenty-five yards in front of Camon and Achara and shouted out something. Camon responded in kind in a language that Achara clearly did not understand. The men came closer, then one of them spoke with a heavy accent. “Hello, and welcome,” he said. “What is it that you seek?”
“We seek lodging,” Camon said.
“Lodging. We will see,” he said. He spoke to the other men, and three of them turned and went back to the encampment.
“What did you say to them?” Achara asked in a low voice.
“Basically, ‘hello,’ and ‘I don’t speak your language very well,’” Camon said. “Most of the Gypsy communities will have several people that can speak our language because they trade with the Empire. But obviously, they are going to use their language among themselves. They went to fetch their seer, who will evaluate us and give a judgment on whether we can stay among them.”
A few moments later, the three men emerged from the camp escorting an older woman who wore a black feathered cloak about her shoulders. She walked with difficulty with a cane as she came towards them. The men kept pace with her until she stood among the rest of the men, who circled her. She gazed upon Camon first and looked at him for more than a minute, before turning her gaze towards Achara. Achara winced at the gaze and then froze stiff in her saddle on the back of her horse. She had a white-knuckle grip on the reigns as the seer gazed on her for what seemed like hours.
After some time, the woman broke her gaze and raised her hand and spoke something to the men, then she turned back and looked at Achara again before going back to the encampment. The same three men that helped her out helped her back to the encampment. After she had disappeared from view, the man that had spoken to them said, “She permits you. You are welcome among us. Come. We will make a place for you.”
Camon dismounted, and Achara followed suit. The three men came to them. “My name is Zboru,” the spokesman greeted.
Camon replied, “I’m Camon.”
“And I’m Achara,” Achara followed.
He instructed the other two men to take the horses, and he led them all back towards the encampment. Before they got to the entrance, they stopped. “Take what you need from your animals,” the spokesmen instructed. Camon and Achara removed some clothing and other items. The other two men took the three horses away. “They will be well cared for,” Zboru said.
Zboru led them into the camp where they saw men, women, and children all looking at them. The stares only lasted a few seconds before they went back to what they were doing. The spokesmen hailed a woman standing near one of the wagons tending to chickens that ran about the yard. She came over and spoke with Zboru, who then said, “This is Zenna. She will help you to your places. Camon will stay with the young men. Achara may stay with Zenna’s family.”
Zboru left Camon and Achara with Zenna and went about his business. Zenna gestured them to follow, which they did. Camon and Achara followed behind her. She eagerly led them to one of the wagons, which was painted crimson. It was long with steps and a door at one end. Zenna gestured them to come, where she climbed into the wagon and removed her shoes. Camon and Achara did the same while Zenna closed the door.
The inside of the wagon was cozy and trimmed with woolen cushions, curtains, and sashes. There was a small stove in the corner with a fire in it next to the door. At the opposite end of the wagon were several bunk beds on either side of the wall stacked three high. In between, there was a long narrow table in the middle of the wagon with benches that ran down either side. Zenna invited them to sit and brought some metal cups hanging from hooks over the stove and set them on the table. She heated water on the stove, poured it in the cups, and then sprinkled some loose tea from a glass jar into the cups. She then gestured for them to drink.
Camon and Achara sipped the tea. It was bitter and earthy, but after a few moments, they felt the effects it had on them as they felt more relaxed, and the cold seemed less apparent. Zenna smiled. “Good?” she asked.
Camon and Achara both replied positively with a smile, “Yes.” After this, Zenna gestured to Achara, who smiled, then stood. She led Achara to the back of the wagon and pointed to a bunk bed on the top of one of the stacks. Achara placed her things on top. She then gestured for Camon and Achara to follow her. They left the wagon, and Zenna led them across the camp to another wagon, where she pointed at Camon and gestured him towards this one. Camon nodded and went into the wagon and came out a moment later without his things.
Zboru returned to them a moment later. “Is everything okay?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Camon replied.
“Good,” he said. He spoke with Zenna for a few minutes, then he turned back to Camon and Achara, “Please, see the camp. You are to eat with Jasnovi’s family. She is our Mother. Be there at sunset.”
“Again, thank you,” Camon said. Zenna and Zboru left.
“That’s about an hour or so from now. Truthfully there is not much to see around the camp that we haven’t already seen.”
“It’s quaint, but it feels like home,” Achara said. “I don’t understand why people would presume about these people.”
“People fear what they don’t understand,” Camon said. “But yes, this is home. Their home. And they are proud of it. The seer is interested in you. To eat with her family is a high honor.”
“She spoke to me the way Ratana did back in Rahtclang. But she has never met me before.”
“Her seeing gifts are much more developed and honed than Ratana’s,” Camon said. “She needn’t know you to speak with you. At least at that distance. What did she say?”
“She told me she was glad I had come and called me a ‘child of destiny,’” Achara explained. “She then told me she wanted to ‘walk with me.’ But I gather that she didn’t mean that in the literal sense.”
“Walking is an intimate process that allows her to see your mind and share your thoughts,” Camon said. Seers use it for many purposes. In the East, most people see it as fortunetelling, and a few false seers play the part of a Gypsy seer to tell you your future in exchange for money. But what she does is much more than that, and I can tell you it is real.”
“Have you done it before?” Achara asked.
“Yes, once a long time ago,” he said. “But I’ll never forget it. It was one of those moments that can change your life.”