Camon intuited what she was going to say next, “You’ve been dreaming again?”
“Not really dreaming…more like daydreams,” she said, “but this time, it’s not random. It’s all about Ratana.”
“Ratana? Please tell me…” Camon said, trailing off.
“Ever since she went into her coma, I’ve been having visions about her.”
The look on Camon’s face was concerned now. “Premonitions? What’s the nature of your dreams?”
“Visions from when I don’t know, but they are always there. The recurring theme is an ocean, and Ratana is soaring over it like a bird. Then, she circles back towards the land. When she comes close to the land, she turns into who knows what and then starts ravaging people and places that I know. Not knowing her personally, I don’t know if she has ever seen these places or not. However, it was places like Rahtclang, Rahtneua, my mother’s home, and many other places in between.”
She went on, “While I’ve been caring for her, I’ve noticed that her catatonic state is not like others. It would seem to me that her mind is still awake, not as is if she was in a state of sleep, though not responsive to external stimuli either. I think I’ve even heard her mutter a word or two in her state.”
“Your connection to her seems to be strong. Any idea what brought it on?” Camon asked.
“For obvious reasons, I haven’t tried reaching out to her. Her mind, so it seems, is in a precarious place right now, hanging in the balance. All I’ve done is touch her to care for her needs, which, as you know, are many when you’re in a state like she is.”
“Sometimes, all it takes is a touch. I wish there was more I could do to help you understand this, but seeing gifts are beyond me. Yours, though are natural,” Camon said.
“That’s what scares me,” Achara admitted, “I don’t know if I’m ready for this.”
“Magic, as it is, never asks us if we’re ready. Some want it so bad they would do anything for it, while others have it so naturally that they fear it because it comes so easy. For me, it was somewhere in between,” He said.
“There’s something else,” Achara interjected.
Camon looked at her, intently, “Go on.”
“Ratana is pregnant,” she said without expression.
Camon’s brow furrowed, “Pregnant? Are you sure? How do you know?”
“I don’t know how I know, but I do. And of this, I’m positive.”
“Did you see it in a vision?” Camon asked.
“No,” she replied, “rather more of an intuition. A sort of revelation. Ratana didn’t ‘tell’ me this, rather showed it to me, and she was scared.”
Camon said nothing for a while as he walked. He wrung his hands and bit his lips and sighed many times, “This certainly complicates matters.”
“I’m not sure, but it makes our errand to Rahtneua all the more important and all the more expedient. Does Lamai know?”
“I don’t think so. Should we tell her and Rune?”
“No, well, at least not yet,” Camon said, “The complication is not with Ratana, rather the timing. The priests in Rahtneua can give us a clearer understanding of this. This is one of those times where I wish I had a better answer for you for my justification for not telling them, but because I don’t know, I think it’s best to maintain the status quo.”
“I agree with you,” she said. “How I know would likely raise more questions than we have answers for.”
Camon smiled, “Do keep a close eye on her. And please let me know at the earliest possible convenience if anything changes – her state, visions, and anything. And for clarity, try and remove yourself from the context. This will help give more clarity to your visions.”
“I will,” and she darted off to the front of the mule train.
Camon kept his pace as they continued the trek south. They walked the better part of the afternoon without much in the way of breaks or rest. The farms they passed were more numerous now, and they saw more activity on the highway headed south with farmers going to and fro loaded down with food and supplies. Near sunset, they crested a hill and came into a valley that was all but cleared of trees and covered with fields of recently harvested crops. The road sliced through it like thick thread and was teeming with people, animals, and carts. A small river ran west to east across the valley, and at the very center where the highway intersected the river, was a town. At the center of the city was a palisade fort in the middle with a tower displaying a bear’s head banner visible from the mule team’s distance. “Hubkeaw,” Camon muttered. Camon looked for Rune and spotted him at the team’s head, looking out over the valley. He walked up, and Rune acknowledged the presence of the Paladin. Camon started, “You’ve managed to get us to Hubkeaw quickly considering the cargo we’re carrying.”
“I think it’s a personal best. I’ve been doing these runs for a couple of years now for Somchai. I do one in the summer, and the next is now this one. We have a delivery to make at one of the taverns here that serve our brew. Fortunately, it’s on the highway just on the far side of the bridge, so we won’t have to make any special arrangements to offload to a local carrier to deliver the kegs. We’ll get them off the wagon, into the tavern, then be out of town. We do need to refresh some supplies, and of course, the local tax collectors will be there at the bridge wanting to collect tolls and tariffs.”
The mule team worked its way down the shallow grade into the valley as Rune and Camon walked. Camon added, “We’d best not linger any longer than we have to. News of what happened in Neuasut has reached the ears of the Imperials here. I’m sure there will be inquiries, so we’ll want to keep our business short.”
“Agreed. With loads like this, we almost always have to deal with inspectors too. They’re always looking for smugglers and other such stuff in large cargo wagons like ours,” Rune said. “They usually don’t give us any trouble, but with Ratana in the back, I am expecting questions. We’ll camp on the edge of the valley tonight and make our way through in the morning.”
As they reached the bottom of the hill and the ground flattened, Rune gave the signal to the driver, who directed the mule team off the road onto a flat grassy area. The footmen, along with Rune, Achara, and Camon, went about the work of unhitching and caring for the mules. Lamai prepared a meal of dried meat, cheese, and bread for the travelers, and they ate it, not taking time to savor it. Camon had grown a bit tired of the same thing day in and day out, but he didn’t complain. He did enjoy a good flagon of ale to go with it, though, one of the perks of traveling with a brewer.
After eating, it was dark, and the air got cool. This night, they started a fire for warmth, and they all welcomed it, sitting around it while they told stories and talked about things they had seen and places they had been. Before too long, they all turned in for a night’s sleep. They all woke before the sun was up and reversed what they had done the night before, hitching up the mules and packing up what gear they had used for their encampment. The driver climbed onto the wagon and gave a loud whistle. The team began to roll just as the sun was coming up in the east. They pulled back onto the road, which was already busy with people headed towards the town with wears and goods.
It took about two hours for the team to roll across the valley floor past the fields, and as they approached the edge of the town, they came to a market teeming with activity. Merchant and sellers alike were selling wares and food of all types. Rune ordered the team to stop, and he and Lamai went into the market to buy goods. About half an hour later, they returned with a porter who was carrying fresh supplies for the travelers, including some fresh meat and vegetables. Lamai also produced some prepared food, and they ate breakfast there while they stopped. It was a welcomed break from the same old dried bread and fruit they had been eating since they left Neuasut.
After eating breakfast, they continued to roll into town. The buildings were of wood construction painted in bright colors like blue, pink, and yellow and had window boxes full of greenery. Most buildings flew a banner of some kind displaying a family coat of arms or the name of a business housed in the building. The highway was broad all the way through the town, allowing for several carts to pass without trouble. Before reaching the bridge that crossed the river, the route fanned out into a broad plaza. At the west end of the plaza was the massive fort they had seen from the hill earlier that morning. The wooden structure towered over all the other buildings. Its gates were open, and Imperial soldiers were keeping watch over the entrance.
The mule team kept the course straight towards the bridge, which was a series of arches spanning the river. The team driver aligned the mules with the bridge, which was significantly narrower than the highway, allowing for only two-way traffic. After aligning the team, they pulled onto the bridge and crossed, moving more slowly and cautiously. Camon looked towards the bridge’s end, seeing a group of Imperials and two other armored men amongst them with long gray capes with a hand bearing a torch emblazoned on the back. “Shades! Inquisitors!” he said to Achara, who was walking next to him.
They continued forward, keeping pace with the team who finished crossing the bridge. The opposite side of the river was like where they had come: a wide-open plaza that narrowed towards the highway. The Imperials motioned for the wagon to stop, and the driver gave the command. The Imperials approached the travelers, and Rune went to meet them.
“Officers,” he greeted.
“Where you coming from?” one of the officers asked.
“Neuasut. We’re making a shipment south to Rahtneua,” he answered.
“Do you have a manifest?” the officer asked again. Rune handed him a bill, and the officer studied it, “Mind if we look around? “
Rune answered, “Of course.” But to do so otherwise would have been asking for trouble. “We are carrying a passenger too. We’re also headed for the Healers in Rahtneua.”
The Imperial acknowledged Rune with a nod and walked the length of the mule team and wagon. They peered in the back and under the wagon looking randomly. As they were inspecting the wagon, one of the Inquisitors came over and asked the Imperial about the shipment. He told them they were from Neuasut carrying legal cargo and a passenger.
The Inquisitors perked up at that revelation, “A passenger?”
He looked at Rune, “Are you the master of this group?”
Rune answered, “Yes. I represent the Brewmaster from Neuasut on this venture.”
“And who is your passenger?”
“She’s my wife,” Rune said. “She fell ill, and although she’s better physically, she hasn’t come out of a coma she’s been in since we left two days after the holiday. We’re trying to get to Rahtneua so the Healers can see her there.”
“The news coming out of the north is that there was some beast that attacked a girl on the night of the holiday,” the Inquisitor remarked. “And the beast was slain by a Paladin. Do you know anything about that?”
Rune looked at Camon and the others and then answered, “Truthfully, I was asleep when it all happened. My wife told me the whole story of how she was coming back from the brewery when she heard something behind her. It was the beast, so she told me, and it chased her into the square in the middle of town there. That’s when a man with a flaming sword appeared and slew the beast. Somehow, she contracted some infection. The next day the same man took her to our local chapel and performed a ritual to remove the infection because we haven’t had a priest in Neuasut in over a year. But the ritual put her into her current state, so he suggested we bring her to the healers in Rahtneua. Whether or not he was a Paladin, I am not sure, but that’s what was rumored.”
“Do you know what happened to the Paladin?” asked the Inquisitor.
“If you’re referring to the man that killed the beast and cured my wife, I don’t know,” he answered. “We left early the next morning for Rahtneua.”
“Your story corroborates the news we’ve heard from the other travelers passing through here that witnessed the events,” the Inquisitor said. “We’re going to have a look around.” At that, he went to the rear of the wagon and peered in. He saw Ratana lying on the litter and Lamai tending to her. He also inspected Camon, Achara, and the other staff with the team. Camon said nothing as the Inquisitor looked him over, as did Achara. The Inquisitor went back to Rune, and he wrote him a bill and handed it to him. “When you get to Rahtneua, take this to the Healers, and they will see to it that she gets treated immediately. As you know, there can be long waits to see the Healers there. Once she’s been seen, you will need to see our captain at the Inquisitor’s headquarters. He will have questions for you and your wife once she is well.”
“Thank you,” Rune said, accepting the bill. “We’ll see to it that we pay a visit there.”
“Safe travels, and may the Light bless you,” the Inquisitor said. He turned and went back to his companions.