The next few days passed as the weather warmed almost to an oppressive heat. The road east was almost deserted in most places as they moved beyond the influence of Rhaattaay to a more sparsely populated area with only an occasional homestead and even rarer, a village that had more than a dozen families or so in it. Imperial outposts were common, passing one about every other day or so. They would stop at these posts to report in with the officer in charge and make any reports of anything they had seen along the way that Imperial patrols needed to address. However, the road was always the same width, and they clamored on along the smooth stones used to pave it. It went up one hill then down the back side only to repeat this over and over again. They crossed creek bottoms that generally flowed south towards the river, and they passed through meadows and forest all along the way.
Camon made it a habit to help Jorn with clearing his mind. Jorn continued to work on the exercises that Camon gave him, but only out of boredom because there was nothing else to do as they plodded along the backs of horses for day after day. “If you keep this up, you’ll keep repeating the same thing over and over without learning anything new,” Camon rebuked. “You need to challenge yourself rather than doing the same thing.”
Jorn just stared ambivalently ahead down the road. “Does using magic really require this much navel-gazing? At least with a sword, I can move about and build strength and skill.”
“Learning magic is an exercise of the mind,” Camon said. “If you’re not willing to try exercise, just like in swordplay, you’ll never get better at it. The only difference is what you are learning.”
“How do people ever learn this, though? It’s skull-numbing to sit and be idle with nothing in my mind.”
“When you can clear your head of anything, then you can begin to shape the magic.”
“When do we get to that part?” Jorn asked.
“In due time. I want you to be able to hear me without slipping completely into the void. This allows you to walk the line between sense and thought needed to connect the void to reality.”
“But I keep going there, and I see and hear nothing. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Yes. You need to experience that first, but you also need to learn how to not go in all the way.”
“I’ll keep trying.”
“It helps to isolate a sound sometimes, like a bird singing. Or sometimes a motion like the rocking of the horse.”
“The horse is lulling,” Jorn said.
“That’s a good thing because it makes it easier to follow. That’s what you want.”
“You’ll get it eventually.”
Camon nudged his horse and went further ahead and looked about the column of riders as they went about. Achara was close to the middle of the riders at the rear while the wagons led. She was talking to a woman until she saw Camon and she fell back.
“What is it?” Camon asked.
“Oh, nothing. I thought you were looking for me,” she said. “How’s Jorn doing?”
“About as well as you might expect. He wants to use magic without having to learn to use it. But for you, it’s easy so I don’t think you could relate to that much at least.”
“Learning to fight martially was hard for me. I got beat up plenty of times,” Achara said.
“So maybe you can relate then. It’s like that, except in your head.”
“Sounds like torture.”
“To him, it is.”
Just then, there was a commotion at the head of the column. Camon stretched his head and tried to see what was going on, but he couldn’t because of the wagons’ covers. The wagons came to an abrupt stop. Nakroh jumped from his seat and down to the ground with his sword drawn. Out of the woods nearby came four men charging the Inquisitor who clashed steel with one of them, while the other three quickly cut him down, and he fell out of sight among the tall grass. The four men then came up to the wagons and stood about thirty feet off the road and drew bows and held them pointed at the wagons and the column of people.
Camon fell back to the rear of the column with Jorn and Achara. Jorn was about to draw his sword on his horse, but Camon reached out and touched his shoulder and nodded. Camon lifted the hood of his robe over his head and slumped on his horse, leaning forward slightly with his head down.
“Nobody move!” one of the men shouted. “Do as we say, and nobody gets hurt today.”
Khumah then raised his hands, “Good sirs, you do realize this is a caravan of pilgrims. We have nothing of value.”
“I beg to differ!” the man said. “There are at least a dozen or more horses here. Not to mention several young women who would fetch a fair price out west.”
“We are defenseless, and we only seek to serve the Light,” Khumah pleaded.
The man laughed, “I don’t care, priest! I serve money. The Light won’t save you here. So just do as I say, and nobody will get hurt.”
Khumah said nothing else.
“Now, all you on the horses, dismount!” the man commanded.
Everyone complied, getting off the horses, and the man gestured for one of his companions to collect the horses. The man went about grabbing reins and leading the horses away from their owners into the grass nearby. Camon dismounted, and when he did, he picked up a stick lying on the ground next to the road and stood leaning on the stick.
“Now, everyone in the wagons, off!” the man commanded. The pilgrims slowly got off the wagons “Now line up, shoulder to shoulder, facing me!” the man commanded again. The pilgrims lined up, standing shoulder to shoulder along the edge of the road facing the man. He relaxed his bow while his three companions kept theirs drawn. He drew his sword and walked along the line looking at the pilgrims. To the young women and girls in the crowd, he said, “You,” and he pointed for them to form a second line at the column’s front. After walking down the line, he came to Camon, Jorn, and Achara.
He looked at Camon, leaning on his stick with his head down with the hood of his cloak covering his head.
“Old man, look at me!” the man shouted. Camon looked up, and the man stared him in the face.
“Do I know you?” the man asked.
Camon didn’t answer.
“Answer me!” the man thundered.
“Please sir,” Camon said feebly.
The man swung his sword at Camon’s stick, and it snapped in the middle, and Camon went down to one knee. He looked at the stick. It broke along the grain of the wood and formed a pointed end on one of the halves.
“Get up, old man!” he bellowed.
Camon started to rise, and then the man knocked him back to the ground. Camon landed with his hands near one of the halves, and he then gripped it in both hands.
“Having trouble standing?” the man laughed.
“No…” Camon said. “But you might.” He then took the sharp end of the stick and plunged it upwards into the man’s gut, with the sharp end coming out the man’s other side. The man never got a word out. His eyes bulged as his mouth gaped. He dropped his sword and gripped the stick with both hands, then fell to the ground.
The man’s companions watched in horror, then loosed arrows towards Camon. They went wide while Camon grabbed the fallen man’s sword. The three other bandits threw down the bows and charged Camon with their weapons drawn. Achara turned and let a flurry of knives loose at one of the men, catching him under the chin with one of the blades, and the man went down. The remaining two faced off with Camon, who was joined by Jorn. Camon tossed Jorn the sword, and he picked up the other half of the stick he had used. Jorn then met the charge with the blade and entered into a duel with one of the bandits. Jorn drove the man back into the grass off the road. The tall grass hindered the man’s movement as he backpedaled against Jorn’s advance. Jorn pressed his advantage, and the man lost his balance and fell backward, dropping his weapon as Jorn held him at point.
Meanwhile, Camon met the remaining bandit with the stick. After a few clashes with Camon, he had cut the stick down to nothing but a nub. Camon threw the stick at the man who was distracted long enough for Camon to tackle him, throwing him down into the grass. The bandit lost his weapon, and Camon and the bandit exchanged several punches as they rolled and wrestled in the tall grass off the road. Eventually, the bandit got the upper hand and was on top of Camon, pummeling him with blow after blow. In one final effort, the man clasped his hands together and brought them down hard on top of Camon, and when he did, he went still, laying on top of Camon. They stayed that way for several seconds until Camon pushed the man off of him, revealing one of Achara’s knives in the man’s chest. Camon stood up. His face was bruised and bloodied, and his left eye was swelling. The white robe he was wearing had a large bloodstain on the chest. He staggered forward, breathing heavily, then leaned forward, putting his hands on his knees panting.
Khumah came to the back of the column with the remaining Inquisitor leaning on his shoulder, limping along. The Inquisitor wore a crude bandage around his leg as Khumah helped him forward. Khumah stood looking at Camon, bruised and bloodied, and Jorn, who held the remaining bandit at sword point. Achara came to Camon’s side, assessing the wounds.
“I…I don’t know what to say,” Khumah said.
“I do,” Tahaan blurted out. “Who are you to attack these men, much less kill them.”
Achara looked at the Inquisitor with scorn that would have burned a hole in the man, “All you Inquisitors are the same. These men just did what you and your friend failed to do – protect these people from harm. And you are questioning him?”
“You have no authority here, girl!” the Inquisitor said.
Camon straightened himself up and looked at the man through his right eye that was not swollen shut. His left eye was purple now. “Could we talk about this later? I could use some help…”
“Priest?” the Inquisitor said.
“We don’t have a table anywhere near hear…” Khumah answered.
“Fine,” Camon said. He then reached into his pocket and removed his blue stone. He started humming in guttural tones as he passed his other hand over the wounds on his face. The bleeding stopped, and the contusion over his left eye stopped swelling and even reduced some as he did the ritual for some time. Achara went and fetched a wet rag and brought it to Camon, who wiped his face of the blood crusted on his cheeks, forehead, and mouth.
“What was that?” the Inquisitor asked.
“Magic,” Camon said bluntly.
“You know that’s illegal, right.”
Camon looked over his left and right shoulder, then down the road and up the road. “Right now, I don’t see anyone that can stop me. No Imperial for miles. And you… definitely not you.”
Khumah looked suspiciously at Camon, who then put the stone back in his pocket. “Only priestly orders know how to use magic for healing…” the priest muttered.
“Yeah, so you think. Too bad they can’t raise the dead.”
By now, the other pilgrims had gathered around. They were staring at the dead men laying on the ground and Camon, Achara, and Jorn, who had brought the bandit from the grass, bound.
“You never answered my question,” Tahaan asked. “Who are you to attack these men, much less kill them.”
“Fool,” Camon said.
“I can have you arrested.”
“Your friend lies dead over there. Your leg is wounded. And you’re concerned about arresting me for what?”
“Wanton destruction of life, that’s what. You have no idea what these men were about.”
“Are you really that stupid?” Camon said. “These men are criminals, and they declared their intent. They planned on taking the women from this troop and selling them as slaves.”
“You should not have gotten involved. You endangered the lives of everyone here by your rash actions. The Empire would have tracked them down and had them arrested.”
“Would they have? Then tell me how all these men, who were in Imperial custody, not more than a few weeks ago, are now out attacking travelers on the road?”
“How do you know that they were in Imperial custody?”
“Because I put them there!” Camon said. Camon pointed to the man he stabbed with a stick. “That one I stopped on the South River in a raid on some innocent folks headed downstream. His companion lays right there,” Camon said, pointing to the one slain by Achara’s knife. “The other two were prisoners I transported upstream from an outpost on the Great River. Either they escaped Imperial custody, or somebody in the Empire let them go. Prisoners escaping custody is a capital offense in the Imperial army, and good luck getting out of one of their dungeons. So, my guess is that your Imperial friends let them go.”
“You lie!” the Inquisitor screamed.
“Ask him,” Camon said, pointing to the remaining bandit. The bandit looked at Camon, Jorn, and Achara and spit. “They are scum! They were responsible for the deaths of six of my other companions!”
“Sounds to me like you like wanton murder,” the Inquisitor said.
“You have no idea what you are talking about,” Camon said. “Do you want to lose that leg? Or should I just let it go gangrenous on you?”
“Keep your magic away from me,” the Inquisitor said.
“Oh, shut up,” Camon balked. Camon walked over to Tahaan, and he started his chant again with the blue stone. He then got next to the Inquisitor’s leg and moved his hand back and forth until the Inquisitor could stand on it some. Camon then stood and took several steps back, looking at Khumah and Tahaan, who were speechless at what Camon had just done.
Finally, Khumah looked at Camon and shook his head, “Then tell me, who… no, tell me, what are you?”
“Do you really want to know that?” Camon said.
“Yes,” the priest said.
“My name is Camon.” He looked at Achara and Jorn, then he stared at the Inquisitor who now had fear in his eyes and said, “And I am a Paladin.”