The Road Less Traveled

Sikhandyn approaches Karn, Astaban and Annette, and, after some discussion, agrees with the monk's idea that he should ride in front together with the ranger.

Then, the young man quickly checks on Sofia and Wyngrad. Once he is certain that no religious dispute shall arise between them, Sikhandyn asks them to remain vigilant. Bandits, he says, sometimes surprise groups of travellers by attacking their last rows first...

The party begins its journey, following the suggested paths on the maps.

Current marching/riding order:
Karn - Annette
Astaban - Sikhandyn
Wyngrad - Sofia

You ride down from the hillside, your mounts carefully picking their way through the long, dense grasses. Despite the late hour, the moon is shining brightly and the going is surprisingly easy. There are no other travellers to be seen as you approach the dusty, rutted road that leads east from Astangard through rolling farm country.

After you have ridden for several hours at a gentle trot, the sky to the east begins to grow light. The road passes between two wheat fields, and you can see farm workers on either side threshing the golden grain with long scythes and loading up oxen-drawn carts with bushel baskets of the staple crop. The workers closest to the road stop and eye you warily as you ride by; it occurs to you that the only armed bands these farmers generally see are soldiers, tax-collectors, and bandits.

By mid-morning, the fields are buzzing with farmhands working to secure the early harvest. You start to see an occasional house among the rolling farmland, and the road becomes wider and more heavily traveled. You pass by a farmer with a donkey and wagon, slowly pulling a load of cackling chickens to market; the gaunt-looking man unconsciously reaches for his beltpouch as he sees the heavily armored Wyngard.

As the sun reaches its apex in the sky, you crest a hill and see the road slope downward into the riverside village of Sen's Mill. The mill itself is situated on the Tsennet, using the force of the moving water to power the millstones. A line of wagons, each full of wheat baskets, extends along the road from the mill towards the center of town. The small town square is alive with people, with dozens of farmstands selling produce and livestock, a blacksmith offering farm implements and horse shoes, and a few esoteric traveling merchants displaying wares from other parts of Astan.

The half-timbered homes that line the streets are well-kept, with glazed-glass windows and white-washed doors bedecked with wreathes. The streets, too, are clean and free of stones. Many children are playing in the road, laughing and shouting as they kick around a lumpy leather ball. They are perhaps the only people not to give you a suspicious look or two as you ride into town.

Sikhandyn turns to Astaban, and also involves Wyngrad and Sofia in the conversation.

"My friends, we shall soon need to stop for our lunch. Would you prefer to seek an inn and stay in this village, or continue and stop in a clearing somewhere in the forest?" the wizard asks, keeping his voice as low as possible.

"It seems we are not exactly welcome." he adds with a smile.

"On a different note: what if we bought some of the 'wares' sold by those merchants?" he asks, discretely indicating the improvised displays of the traveling merchants.

"Should we meet soldiers, we could then explain our presence on the roads by telling them we are heading to the newly occupied territories to assess the demand for certain Astan goods... and show a few samples to convince them." Sikhandyn concludes.

The wizard then leads his horse closer to those of Karn and Annette, and repeats the exact same proposals.

"Though there's plenty to gain by interacting with others, I think we should keep to the forest. I can catch us some dinner tonight. Did no one bring rations to tide us over until tonight?"

Annette looked to Karn, inquisitively, to see if he agreed. While she thought she was right, she wasn't exactly set in her ways, and could be swayed to another point of view without much effort. She was mostly embarrassed at how antisocial she had been until that point.

She turned and yelled to the rest of the group, "If anyone has issues with their horses, I'm...I'm fairly experienced at handling beasts of all kinds."

Sofia smiled at Nilah and looked at her horse gratefully, patting the beast on the neck.
"No, thank you. I think this one likes me - well enough not to drop me on the ground anyway." She giggled, then sighed looking at the hostile faces of the townsfolk. She wasn't used to be seen like an enemy - her whole life her faith made most people comfortable, not wary.

"I don't think we should stay too. It is better not to attract a lot of attention. Sikhandyn's plan might work though. We still wouldn't seem too convincing, but still..."

Astaban sits upon the horse as the group rides through the farm fields. He briefly glances upon the faces of the people, sees their scowls, and rivets his attention to the road.

As the group reaches the tidy town, Astaban looks the faces of the children at play in the street. He smiles briefly, perhaps recalling an earlier time in his own life when he would have been one of those children.

He seems to be snapped out of his revelry by Karn's speech, and turns his head towards him suddenly. At the same time that Annette speaks, Astaban begins to speak, then stops suddenly.

He waits for Annette to speak, saying, "I agree with Annette."

Sikhandyn nods.

"Agreed. Let me just check on those wares before we leave the village. I will be right back."

The wizard climbs down from his horse, hands the reins to Astaban, and walks towards the traveling merchants' displays to take a closer look at the wares and their prices.

The nearest group of merchants are selling dark red fabric--not the fine silk seen on nobles in Astangard, but the same hue in durable linen. Just beyond them, a muscled man in battered leather clothing is selling bronze goods. His rugged charm appears to be a hit with the ladies, who are clamoring for his polished cookware and table settings. He also is showing, in a glass-covered case, a unique collection of curved bronze knives.

The two nearby guards--local men, not the Prince's Guard--pay Sikhandyn little heed and appear to be more engrossed in their pipes and stories than the goings-on of the market. The rest of you are able to circle around to the far side of town without attracting too many more stares and glares.

"That makes sense to me too, Annette", Karn says.


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