A few days later, Achara had made a full recovery and had regained her strength. She was back on her feet, moving around. It had been almost a full week since Achara and Camon had come to the camp. Early in the morning, Camon and Achara repacked their things and reclaimed their horses from among the corral. They also packed additional provisions provided by the Gypsies onto their packhorse, Tangmaw.
As they were about to leave, Jasnovi came over to Achara with Zboru, and she handed Achara a necklace laced with trinkets and other emblems. Jasnovi said something, and Zboru then repeated it back to Achara, “She says she wants you to have it. It’s the charms Gypsy Mothers use. She says they will help you.” Achara thank Jasnovi for the gift. Jasnovi, sensing her gratitude, came over and gave Achara a hug, who was not expecting that. Achara hugged her back and mounted Soam.
Camon went over to Zboru and brought out his coins to pay him, but Zboru objected, “Jasnovi will not have it. She says the girl is family. Family does not pay to stay.”
Camon put the coins away, “Thank you. For everything.” Zboru nodded, and Camon mounted Appon. He gave a light kick to the horse, who started cantering towards the road. Camon and Achara road west away from the encampment past pastures of grazing animals and herders keeping an eye on them. There were hundreds of heads of cattle spread out over the hills surrounding the encampment, and it took quite some time before it was just Camon, Achara, and the horses out on the plains.
Camon and Achara rode steadily over the next two months through the plains as they passed Imperial outposts and other Gypsy encampments. They found lodging in both. The Imperials were interested in the habits of the Gypsies as Camon and Achara described them the customs and practices to the Imperials, most of whom had never talked to a Gypsy before. Among the Gypsies, Achara and Camon were always welcomed when they saw the charm necklace about Achara’s neck, and she told them of her experiences with Jasnovi’s community. They accepted her as family, as Jasnovi said. Having favor among the Gypsies made the passage through the plains much easier than Camon had expected.
The rolling hills flattened out more as they rode west, and the grasslands gave way to scrublands. On the edge of the scrublands, they found more Gypsies herding animals like goats and camels to sell west than they did others raising horses and cattle to sell east. The scrublands themselves were dusty and dry, even in the winter, so Camon and Achara made a point to carry extra water, as much as they could spare between places of rest. As they got closer to the West Watch, evidence of a population center began to appear with an occasional village beyond the Imperial outposts. The villages were constructed of dusky yellow stones that were abundant in the region or fired adobe bricks. They offered the standard amenities that Camon and Achara had come to expect along populated routes: a place to stay and board their animals.
After two months of crossing the plains, they finally came in view of the West Watch one afternoon with the sun high in the sky. The city was wide with broad streets. They passed through a gate that doubled as a drawbridge. The city was surrounded by a wall made of dusky boulders that dotted the landscape, stacked without mortar. The drawbridge crossed a great moat that was dug around the outside of the wall. Instead of water, its bottom was covered with boulders that made crossing it with any speed treacherous and gave defenders from the wall plenty of time to throw down rocks or shoot arrows at any enemy that would attempt to cross it. Camon and Achara rode passed buildings inside the city that were much like the surrounding villages built from adobe bricks. But here, some of the buildings were two or three stories tall. The road west here went right up to the city and through it as a broad avenue. They rode into a large open plaza at the center of the city with a stele marking the end of the road at the West Watch. The road continued westward by way of trade routes, although they were not patrolled or maintained by the Empire. Two other roads came into the city as well, one from the south and the other from the north, and they too terminated in the plaza. At one end of the plaza there was a cathedral. It was large, but not nearly as impressive as the one in Rahtneua. It did bear a spire that featured the hand holding the torch, and atop the torch burned a flame. Otherwise, most of the buildings in the plaza were Imperial administrative buildings or businesses. One corner of the plaza was used as a market in the evening times for the bureaucrats and others working in the area to buy wares and food to take home.
“Here we are,” Camon said. “This really is the edge of the Imperial world. Beyond the west gates is the desert.”
“This seems rather bustling for a backwater town,” Achara noted.
“It is, but its kept alive because its importance militarily, politically, and economically. This is the terminus for the Empire where caravans wishing to travel out or into the Empire have to pay duties and tariffs on whatever goods they are carrying. It also is the hub of activity for the military this far west. The commanders of the Western Legion reside here.”
“Why build such a cathedral, though. That seems a bit out of place, doesn’t it?” Achara said.
“They built it to appease those against annexing the Domain of the Gypsies and creating the Western Province,” Camon stated. “It’s importance though is largely accidental because it has served as an important center of missionary efforts throughout to the west beyond the Empire’s borders. They staff the cathedral with numerous Healers, and people from all over the western world come here to see them.”
“Something is amiss here,” Achara said. “I’ve been sensing many presences here with malintent.”
“Many bandits to the west beyond the borders of the Empire have agents here on the lookout for targets,” Camon said. “The Empire doesn’t patrol the trade routes through the desert, so they are full of tribes that prey on caravans making the crossing. There’s also many mercenaries for hire in the city that make a living escorting trade caravans crossing the desert.”
“It would seem that the cost of doing business for the caravans outweighs any potential profits with that kind of danger,” Achara commented.
“You would think so,” Camon said. “It’s too risky for my blood. But what the caravans carry from the west to the east and east to west are highly valued among the wealthy. Those that run those routes are among the wealthiest on both sides. If you can stomach the risks, a few successful trips across the desert means you can retire young and live in luxury for the rest of your life. Many of done so, but even more have failed.”
“We’re not going further west, are we?” Achara asked.
“Actually, southwest into the Pustos Wastelands,” Camon said. “If we told anyone where we were going, they would say we were on a suicide mission. It’s probably best that we spoke to no one about who we are or what our errand is, even in riddles. I think it’s best we keep to ourselves.”
“I also have been sensing the tracker again,” Achara added. “I thought we had lost it once we left Jasnovi’s encampment, but I started noticing it again as we have gotten closer to the West Watch. I wasn’t sure until today. I believe whoever he or she is, is in the city.”
“Even more reason to be vigilant,” Camon said. “We need a place that is enclosed with stables to board the horses. I could ward it, but I don’t know what I’d be warding against.”
“Is there any way that you could teach me to ward?” Achara asked. “If I knew how I could set one for him.”
“I know how to set wards that can be triggered by magic,” Camon said. “It’s an old Paladin art. I could teach you, but I am not sure how you would use it to detect someone who isn’t using magic. And as we know, mixing magic without careful study is dangerous.”
“I’ll do the best I can to keep tabs on it then,” she said. “My ability to locate the presence is still very general, especially when we are in a populated area like this.”
Camon dismounted his horse and asked around for options for an inn. He then led the horses down a street off of the road coming in from the north and found a place called Sleep n’ Stalls. Camon went in and met the keeper who came out and showed Camon the stables and their rooms.
“I want you to stay here,” Camon said to Achara. “I’m going to go get some supplies in the market for our crossing.”
“What kind of things?”
“We’re going to need a cart that can haul as much water as we can hold,” he said. “It will take at least a week from the last source of water to where we are going, and there are no water sources along the way.”
“How will we get there without a road?” Achara asked.
“There’s a way,” Camon said. “It’s not easy to find or easy to use, but it’s navigable by a horse-drawn cart.”
“Good luck,” Achara said.
“I’ll be back before you know it,” he said. “Hopefully, no one dies this time.” With that, he left and went back down to the stable and got Tangmaw, unloaded her, and walked her out of the stable. He led the horse to the edge of town, where he found a dealer who sold things to travelers and locals looking for transportation. He led the horse into the shop’s yard and looked around. He found what he was looking for, a small, two-wheeled cart, and he inspected it. The shop owner came out and greeted Camon, “Good day, sir. Looking at the small one, I see.”
“Yes, it’s the right size, but the wheels don’t look sturdy enough for my load,” Camon said. “Any way you could put something a little more rugged on that?”
“Could I? Definitely,” the shopkeeper said. “We’ve got some heavier wheels we use for cargo transport, but that would seem overkill for a dainty little thing like this.”
“It will suit me just fine,” Camon said. “What’s your price?”
“Fifteen silver for the cart, an extra ten for the heavy wheels,” the keeper said.
“I’ll give you twenty for the wagon and the tack for my horse,” Camon offered.
“Done,” the keeper said, accepting the offer. He called up the blacksmith working in the back of the lot to fix up the cart. He worked with the shop owner to change the wheels for some heavier ones, and the blacksmith set the hubs, boxings, and pins to hold the wheels in place. After changing the wheels, the shopkeeper sized up Camon’s horse and outfitted her with a harness. He adjusted the cart and showed Camon how to hook it all up. With that, Camon got up on the bench and popped the reigns, and his horse responded well.
“She’s pulled before, I can tell,” the keeper said.
“She has,” Camon said. “I think she likes it better than riding or packing. Here’s your twenty.” He then handed the man some coins, and Camon gave a pop of the reigns, and his mare trotted off out of the yard and into the street. Camon guided her down to a place that sold shipping supplies, where Camon bought several barrels and had them loaded onto the cart. He then when down to the market where he purchased fresh supplies, including feed for the horses and food for himself and Achara, and he loaded it onto the cart. By the time his errands were finished, it was near sunset. Camon took the supplies back to the Sleep n’ Stalls inn and he parked the cart in the courtyard outside the stables. He unhitched Tangmaw and gave her a good rub and fed her some hay before he went back inside.
Inside the inn, he found Achara in the common area where she was reading a book she had picked up off of one of the tables. She didn’t notice him walk in.
“Anything interesting?” Camon asked.
“Oh, hi,” she said. “Nothing particularly. Just a story about a prince fighting a war. I had only just begun.”
“We’re all set for the morning,” Camon said. “I got us a wagon with barrels. We won’t need to fill them until we reach the watering source I spoke of earlier. Any movement of the tracker?”
“None that I’ve sensed,” she said. “He or she is definitely here. But I wonder if he or she knows we are here?”
“My guess is that the tracker intuited where we were going and got out ahead of us while we were in Jasnovi’s camp. I suspect that he made haste to get here and has been waiting for us to show up.
“We didn’t attempt to hide ourselves when we got here, so if he or she is watching, I can only imagine that we’ve been spotted,” Achara said.
“It’s best then that we leave as early as possible,” Camon suggested. “We should backtrack east, then cut across country to the south where we will cross the highway south out of the Watch. From there, we can cut cross country west and pick up the way to the library that I spoke of. It will take us an extra day, but I think it will throw the tracker off a bit.”
“Do you think that the tracker knows we’re on to his or her presence?” Achara asked.
“Hard to say,” Camon said. “But if he or she knows we’re here, then I can only imagine that this place is staked out already.”
“Any attempt at deception would give us away then,” she said.
“Good point,” Camon conceded. “My other motivation for going back east was also to avoid some of the other malintent in this town.”
“Tough call,” Achara said.
“It wouldn’t be uncharacteristic to head back east, but crosscountry would be suspect,” Camon reasoned. “If we can get out early enough, I think that might work.”
“Good enough for me,” Achara said. “Wake me when you’re ready to leave. But I’m famished. I wonder what they have on tap here? I haven’t had a good mug of ale in ages.”
“I’m with you there,” Camon said. With that, Achara put the book down. They both went over into an adjoining room that served as a tavern that had a few patrons. Camon and Achara ordered some food and drink and enjoyed it. After the second mug of ale, they both turned in for the night and were able to sleep soundly until the next morning.