At the City of a Thousand Stories the Pilgrim Route leaves the Imperial Highway and enters more uncertain territory. Prudent souls rest a while whilst those in charge of their safety engage such protection as they can afford.
The best assurance of security lies in the cadres of pensioned-off Imperial soldiery, although they cannot be hired cheaply.
One such group of battle-hardened veterans was under the leadership of Caleb Cross, a thickset plain-faced ex-sergeant of some forty summers. He was a man characterised by few illusions, alongside proven courage and integrity. He and his men had enjoyed a brief furlough in the fleshpots of the city and they were now ready for the road. They sat at their ease at one of the pavement cafes that border the slave market and awaited whatever clients the City Watch might send their way.
It was something of a surprise to see one of the Captains of the Watch escorting a tall cadaverously thin character in a snowy white pilgrim robe towards them. Caleb’s second whistled.
“Some money must have changed hands there,” he said quietly before spitting a gobbet of something truly vile into an adjacent humidor.
“Indeed my friend.”
Caleb stood up and watched the two men who approached him through narrowed eyes.
The Watch Captain looked as if he wasn’t much enjoying the company in which he found himself, while the pilgrim had wealth, privilege, and entitlement ingrained in every lineament of his almost skeletal frame. He stared at the group of soldiers in their stained leather breastplates and his mouth formed a sneer.
“Is this the best your city can do?”
The Watch Captain sneered right back. “That depends what you want. If you want spit and polish obviously not. But if you want to get to the Dragon Temple safely then, yes, they are the very best.”
The pilgrim must have been less of a fool than he appeared, because he dropped his superior act and looked carefully at the score of men who lounged at their ease under his scrutiny.
“How much?” he asked brusquely.
Caleb answered with a sneer of his own. “It doesn’t work like that. There are a few things we have to get clear first.”
The pilgrim looked down his high bridged nose. “What is there to get clear? I pay. You do as you are told.”
Caleb sat down.
“Come back when you are ready to listen.”
He turned his back. Nothing happened for some appreciable time and in the end he turned back to where the rigid pilgrim stood in silence but with his jaw out thrust.
“I’m listening,” the man grated.
“First thing. Everybody walks.”
“But we have just bought sturdy mules.”
“I don’t care. Where you want to go people walk.”
The pilgrim’s eyes glittered angrily, but then he drew himself in. “If I am buying your expertise I suppose I have to listen.”
“You do. And no women.”
They eyed each other for a long cool moment before the pilgrim gave a thin smile.
“Very well. No women.”
“Finally. I’m in charge. I won’t make an issue of it, but if I take your money I’ve put my reputation on the line.”
The pilgrim actually seemed amused. “You are welcome to a task that I have found akin to herding cats. Now. For the second time. How much?”
“How many pilgrims?” Caleb was pretty sure he knew the answer, but he asked anyway.
The pilgrim drew his dignity about him once more. “We are one and twenty, as the Holy Book sets out.”
“Thought you might be. The price is one hundred gold ducats.”
Caleb just looked at him.
The pilgrim turned his cold gaze on the Watchman who leaned against a stone pillar grinning.
“You man. Would you pay this rabble a hundred gold ducats?”
“Whether I wanted to get to the temple and back with my skin in one piece or not.”
“Very well. You are hired.”
Some worm of unease was scratching at the base of Caleb’s brain and he was tempted to refuse the contract and wait for the next caravan. But a hundred ducats would see them all through winter in comfort so he nodded.
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