The hooves of fifteen horses thundered along the road for the remainder of the night. Camon, Achara, Jorn, the Gypsy girls, and the prisoners all made excellent time along the way. Before dawn, the road started to slope gradually downward and making broad, sweeping arcs that zig-zagged through a series of wide switchbacks. Camon noticed the air temperature go up as their altitude went down. After ten miles of descent, they came to the final waymarker that was still tall and glistening in the moonlight. He drew the riders to a halt, and Jorn and Achara came alongside Camon.
“If circumstances were different, I would say stop here,” Camon said. “But, we best keep moving to get off the mesa and out onto the plains to contact the Gypsies.”
“I concur,” Achara said. “But, we need to rest soon.”
“Let’s get to the bottom of the mesa and see what our options are. We can take a break there.”
They started again, and they noticed a marked difference in the road now. The road on top of the mesa was cleared of debris and had no overgrowth, but the road leading up to the mesa was strewn with loose stones and had many plants that had started coming up. Camon sent Jorn to scout ahead to find the path more clearly, as there were no more markers along the way. The rougher terrain and uncertainty on the course slowed progress on the descent, but not enough to stop them from pressing ahead with full determination.
The sky began to grow purple on the eastern horizon, and they knew the morning was near. The early light of dawn helped scout the road and made the descent pick up the pace more. Just as the sun peered over the horizon, Jorn shouted out that he could see the road level out into a clearing below. Camon and Achara caught up with him, and in the morning light, they saw two pillars standing at least thirty feet tall on each side of the road.
“That must be the end of the road we’ve been looking for,” Camon declared. “Let’s go down and inspect it.” Camon led the party down the embankment towards the pillars. As they got closer, they noticed a barricade built between the two pillars that was overgrown with thickets and brambles. On either side of the pillars was a chest-high rock wall that had fallen over in a few places. They noticed twenty feet to the right of the right pillar was an opening large enough to pass a horse through. Camon led them through the opening, which opened up into a clearing with hardened dirt strewn with rocks. He dismounted and looked around the dirt.
“There’s been a lot of activity through here recently,” he noted. “Many of these hoofprints are fresh, not even a day old. We’d best not tarry here for too long. Take a break, but stay vigilant.
Achara went over to the Gypsy girls and relayed the intent to take a break. The girls dismounted the horses, drank from water skins, and ate whatever provisions were in the saddlebags left by the slavers. The sun was up in its entirety now, and Camon could now see the pillars in their full details as they faced east towards the sun. He noticed an inscription on one of the pillars, and he went over to read it. Achara came with him.
“What is it?” she asked.
“There are two languages here,” he explained. “One is Elven script, which I can read. It’s a warning not to enter the road, saying it’s been cursed, and those who attempt to travel upon it risk death. The other is in a language I don’t recognize.” He paused for a minute. “I’ve seen this somewhere…” He stopped and thought for a moment, then recalled, “This is the same script in a journal I found on the ledge in a saddlebag. I think I still have it. I almost forgot about it.” He went back to his horse, looked through his bag, found the small book, and brought it over. He opened it up and compared the scripts. “Definitely the same characters,” he said. “I can only assume that whatever the Elven inscription says is also what the other language says. He flipped the journal to a blank page in the back and then went to his horse and got ink and a quill. He carefully copied down the elven script, then character by character copied the inscription from the other language in the journal. Writing the script he wasn’t familiar with was not easy. However, he double checked it after he was complete and was satisfied with his copy.
After letting the ink dry, he flipped the pages and landed on the map in the journal and studied it. He noticed a road running along the base of the mesa. Then there were two circles drawn on the east side of the mesa. “This must be where we are on this map,” he said, pointing to the circles showing Achara. He pointed to a trail leading off to the north. “That must be the road whomever this journal belonged to was mapping out. It runs all the way to the west lands across the desert. I suspect this the route that the slavers use to send their captees west to avoid entanglements with Imperials and trade caravans not sympathetic to the slave trade.”
“It’s a dangerous road, no doubt,” Achara said. “But the trade must be worth the risk to go through all this trouble.”
“The only question now then, is where do we go from here?” Camon said.
“Look up there,” Achara said, pointing to another structure up the hill away behind the pillars. It was a small grotto hewn out of a large outcropping of rock with several runes carved around the edges. Inside the grotto was an altar with the remnant of an empty basket. “That’s a Gypsy shrine, and those runes are warding runes.” She removed her necklace from under her shirt and showed the specific runes to Camon. “The Gypsies probably placed those there to keep whatever curses were sown into this mesa from affecting their lands.”
“Indeed,” Camon said. “They wouldn’t have done so without good reason…” Camon reached in his pocket and removed his white stone, bowed his head, and started humming. He then waved his hand face down towards the pillars in a sweeping motion, probing the pillars with magic. He measured the response as the magic came back to him in subtle pulses. He then probed the shrine Achara had pointed out with the same magic and waited for the response from the shrine. It let out a high pitch note that was just barely audible. The pulses from the pillars began to interact with the magic from the shrine. The hair on the back of Camon’s neck stood up as did the hair on his arms. He quickly squelched the magic and placed the stone back in his pocket.
“What is it?” Achara asked.
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s full of bad omens. I think we best be on our way.”
“I think you’re right,” she said.
“Ask the Gypsies if they can help us find an encampment,” Camon instructed.
“I will,” Achara said as she turned and went to the Gypsy girls. They had all gathered around one another and were talking and laughing. Achara came up to them, and their chatter died down. Achara joined hands with one of the girls again and relayed Camon’s question. They talked among themselves for a moment, then spoke to Achara, who listened intently. After a few minutes, she came back over to Camon.
“They said there’s a camp about two days ride to the northeast,” she reported. “It’s across open plains, so it should be easy enough on the horses and us. Two of the girls are from that encampment and said they could show us the way.”
“Good,” Camon said. “Let’s make for it as soon as we can. I don’t want to linger here any longer.”
At that, Camon remounted his horse, and Jorn came over, “Where to now?” he asked.
“We’re going to a Gypsy encampment. It’s a two-day ride across open country. You up for that?” Camon asked.
“I don’t want to stay here. This place gives me the creeps,” Jorn said.
“You too? Well, that’s because it is supposed to. It’s cursed, which is why we are getting out of here.”
Achara relayed the message to the girls, who remounted as quickly as they had done so the night before. Camon gave the signal, and one of the riders from the Gypsy girls took the lead. She set a steady pace out across the open plain. The grass was matted from the winter, but signs of new growth were all around them as specs of green could be seen coming up amid the brown mat. The horses rode across the grasslands, not with the thundering noise they made atop the mesa, but still with a heavy rumble.
They made good time on the open plain riding up, down, and around hills. The girls seemed to know the way instinctively and rode with excellent efficiency and determination. By midday, they came to a small lake with a stand of trees adjacent to the lake. They stopped and rested here. Camon and Achara both noticed the effects of lack of sleep, but they did their best to stay awake. Jorn, on the other hand, took a short nap while they rested. When it was time to go, Camon gave him a quick nudge, and Jorn jumped up as if ready to fight.
“Calm down,” Camon said. “You were sleeping. Time to go.”
Jorn shook his head and gathered his composure. “You shouldn’t nudge me like that,” he said.
“Next time, I’ll throw some water on your face,” Camon joked.
They remounted their horses as did all the girls, and they set off again, riding across the plains. The horses were surprisingly resilient even though they had been riding for over sixteen hours straight by now. They rode through the afternoon and well into the evening and did not stop until the sun was low on the horizon in the west. The girls pointed to a stand of trees. Achara went and communicated with the girls again, and then relayed the message to Camon. “They said that stand of trees over there is a good place to spend the night. She says that many of the herders will use it whenever they have to overnight away from the encampment.”
“Sounds good,” Camon said.
They all rode to the trees and made camp there the best they could with as little provisions as they had. There was nothing in the way of blankets or bedding. Camon and Achara let some of the younger girls use their blankets. Camon however, discouraged building fires because he did not want to attract any unwanted attention.
Even so, Jorn complained about the chill, “You know you basically left a trail right to us with those horses, so why not build fires?”
“Because you can see a fire from a way’s off. It’s a dead giveaway. Besides, this weather is chilly, but not cold. You should be used to it by now.”
“Speak for yourself,” Jorn said. Achara and Jorn slept the first watch as Camon was awake along with two of the girls. They kept vigilant, watching, and listening for anything or anyone. They only occasionally heard birds or other wildlife, but no pursuant otherwise. After the watch was finished, Camon went to sleep, and Achara took the watch being no less vigilant.
Just before dawn, they were all awake and ate whatever they could either forage or what was left of the provisions, which wasn’t much. Achara went over to the girls and asked how far they had to ride today. She again relayed this to Camon, “They say we should reach the encampment just after noon.”
Camon’s worried look eased a bit, “Let’s make haste.”
They all remounted their horses and set out again. This time, the lead girl set a brisker pace than they had done the day before. She was resolute and focused on the path ahead. The country was familiar to her as they took a less straight path and weaved through hills and around groves of trees. She was keeping the ride as level and straight as possible to expedite speed. The horses were panting with the pace, but they were driven. By midmorning, they began to see evidence of the encampment with herds of cattle grazing in the grasslands. They rode quickly past the herds, and then they picked up a well-worn single-track trail that turned due east, following it with the horses riding in a straight line evenly spaced.
The morning sun gave way to the afternoon sun, but they did not stop until the encampment came into view as they crested a hill. The encampment was nestled in a valley between two hills near a stand of trees with a brook running through it. The wagons were circled as Jasnovi’s camp was, and they could see the large bonfire pit at the center of the wagons. This encampment was slightly larger, though, with about thirty wagons, all painted different colors and different accents. Even so, it reminded Camon and Achara of many of the other places they had stayed among the Gypsies.
The entourage of horses thundering over the hill got the attention of those in the encampment, who quickly came out of the encampment with a display of force. It wasn’t until the entourage slowed down that one resident, a woman, recognized one of the girls, threw down her machete, and ran screaming her name. The girl quickly dismounted and, in full sprint, ran towards her screaming, “Majka! Majka! Majka!” Camon could only assume that meant, “mother.” The two embraced one another, both wailing in tears. Then, another resident, a man, came up from the back of the line, and the leader dismounted and ran towards him. They embraced one another and started kissing one another on the cheeks, also sobbing in tears.
Camon, Achara, and Jorn dismounted the horses and approached the line. The Gypsies were no longer in a defensive position. They were celebrating the return of the two girls to the encampment. A murmur rose through the group as one of the girls pointed towards Camon, Achara, and Jorn. They were approached by a company of five men, three of them older and two younger men. Jorn started to approach them, but Camon grabbed his arm, “Wait. Let them come to us.”
“Why?” Jorn objected.
“Just follow our lead,” Camon said. “Propriety is different among the Gypsies.”
The party came forward to them, and one of the older men spoke. “Hello, friends. Our girls tell us you rescued them. Is this true?”
“Yes,” Camon answered.
“These other girls were with them too?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Camon said.
“Then we are in your debt. Not just us, but all Gypsies.”
“We also brought you their captors,” Camon said, pointing to the prisoners, “Those men bound on the horses were the ones who were holding them.”
“Again, we thank you. We will do justice swiftly.” The man shouted to a group of other men nearby. About twenty of them walked past Camon, Achara, and Jorn towards the freed prisoners. The Gypsies took them off the horses, and the men did not even try to resist. They prodded them and led them away from the camp over a hill. A few minutes later, there were shouts that were abruptly cut off. The men then walked back over the hill and returned without the prisoners.
“So just like that,” Jorn said.
“Just like that,” Camon said somberly.
“You sound as if you regret bringing them here,” Jorn commented.
“I did what had to be done,” Camon said as he watched the entourage of Gypsy men coming back towards them.
Achara put her arm around Camon. “You did the right thing,” she said.
Camon broke his gaze from the men and stared off into the distance. He swallowed hard, trying not to show any emotion, but it was not working very well. He then turned his head towards the sky, looked at the clouds floating by, and a tear rolled down the side of his face. A confused look came over Jorn’s face as Camon’s eyes watered. He then sucked back his tears and wiped them with his sleeves. He stared blankly at the hill where the men had been carried off to then said, “I know.”