Sojo looked again at her bags, marvelling that anything so small could contain the foundation of life. Food, travelling clothes, cheap weapons, decent crockery, expensive maps, rope, leather, water, medicine; everything an expedition could need. She felt the unfamiliar bounce of her grandmother’s ring and necklace against her collarbone, a gift for her imminent departure.
Her companions, having finally arrived, were steadily adding their bags to the wagon pile. Brehen placed his heavy pack beside his personally prepared food stores, his quiver and bow in wood frames to protect them during the trip. After giving the straps a final adjustment, he stepped back and looked down at the rest of the stored luggage. Mirrel’s stores were a more standard type of ration. Rather than Brehen’s peculiar combinations of meats and cheeses, individually packaged to keep the flavours from mixing, Mirrel had bought large bags of smoked meats, an enormous package of nuts and dried fruit, and two large cheese wheels.
Their wineskins, filled with what may be the last trustworthy water they would soon find, lay next to the three large barrels of water and a smaller cask of alcohol, each bearing the sigil of the Corinthian Scouts.
As the last bag was loaded onto the wagon, Sojo wracked her brain for anything she might be forgetting. There would be a couple weeks of slow travel before they couldn’t be sure of bartering for those last items, but somehow she hadn’t been able to stop worrying for the last few days. All through serious conversations with her travelling partners and deliberately jovial nights with her family, plans and possible pitfalls had never been far from her mind.
“No second thoughts, I hope?” Eyn asked her, breaking the trance before Sojo could get too deeply entrenched.
“Just wondering what we’ll find!” She replied, watching Eyn sway under the weight of baggage. “Do- do you need me to grab some of that from you?” Sojo stepped forward with arms raised as Eyn teetered towards the wagons, dumping her packed goods unceremoniously onto them.
“I’ll be fine, now,” Eyn said. She climbed onto the wagon and began packing things more securely. “I didn’t want to go back for another load. I’ve been ready to go for days, and we’re wasting time waiting around here.”
“I’m not saying I like waiting, but I think it might be important still.” Sojo replied. “Hey Brehen! What do you think? Could we have gone without today’s load of food?” She called out.
“Can you even call it food?” He asked, looking anxiously at his foodstuffs nearly crushed into a gap between barrels. “I’m still not convinced, I’ll tell you that much.”
“I think you’ll have to change your mind, by the time we get properly settled.” Eyn quirked an eyebrow at Brehen’s bow. “How long do you expect your arrows to last you?”
“He’ll get tired of missing out on my meals long before he runs out,” Mirrel cut in. “Besides, I’m going to claim a good portion of anything he does manage to get. We’ll be longing for fresh rations soon.” Mirrel walked towards the back of the wagons, checking over the loaded gear. “The horses are ready to go, is everything loaded?”
Sojo nodded. “I think so. If we’d forgotten anything, I think we’d have noticed by now.” She looked out at the distant arch marking the edge of the city. “Once we pass through, we can’t be turning around for anything. This is the last chance: are we ready?”
Sojo looked at her companions as each nodded in turn. “Let’s go.”
The wagon rolled through the cobbled roads, gathering only cursory glances from the vendors. Groups collecting supplies to venture out were becoming more common with each passing week, and the money flowing through the eastern-most cities of the empire was invigorating the merchants more than in living memory.
The soldiers likewise paid the travellers no mind. Any military member in the east was only glad not to be fighting in the endless northern wars, and scoffed at any rumours about actions elsewhere. The steadily increasing size of the military presence in the east was of far less interest to them than the rising food costs they were causing.
In fact, the only eyes that focused on the passing wagon belonged to other travellers. Many were jealous, fretting that anything worth finding would be found before they made their own departure, but these were common woes, no stronger today than any day before. Some were gleeful, seeing other groups as a safety measure, meeting any dangers well in advance of their departure, or as a potential source of resources should disaster befall them on their travels. These were fewer, but discomfiting in their mere existence. Very rarely, though, tired eyes would track their passage. These belonged to the travellers who had returned from the east, and only wished someone would have listened to their tales of the emptiness they had found. These eyes were only glad when facing west, and none would be following the wagon as it finally passed below Porian’s blessing, through the city’s eastern gate.
Sojo looked out on the plains, shielding her eyes from the sun beating down from the azure sky. This near the city, the only evidence of trees were the stumps left behind; few enough grew healthily that no efforts to replant them had been made. The long horizon was still broken by the common shrubs growing and tended for their berries, but for the most part there were only fields of drought-resistant crops.
The roads were well travelled here, and Sojo knew from their size and construction that this had once been intended to be a road for passing armies, should the empire ever decide to continue east. In the deepest wagon ruts, she could see slabs of heavy stone that were likely quarried far away, built to withstand far heavier loads than they’d received so far.
“How do the settlers expect to house themselves, do you think?” She called back to the trundling wagon. The rest of the group had started their midday meal and were resting their legs, but she’d kept walking. “I can’t see a useful thing to build with for miles in any direction.”
“Trade, maybe?” Brehen replied around a mouthful of cheese. “They’ll need to be trading food for tools and essentials anyways.”
“They’ll be starting under whatever boards they’ve carted in the wagons, covered with skins or canvas and walled with dirt.” Mirrel countered. “I doubt they’ll be expecting any luxury beyond that for a while.”
“They’ll stop near the most trees they can find,” Eyn decided. “Only the first ones will be able to make wooden houses.”
“Well, they won’t have any food surplus for a few seasons anyways, so I doubt they’ll need much space once they sell and trade their crops,” Brehen continued. “I’m still not convinced they’ll be able to grow much in this soil. At least it’s passably good for grazing.”
Sojo felt the soles of her feet aching and glanced back at the wagon. None of the rest had finished their lunch, so she pressed on and tried to ignore the dull pain.
“And in the long term? Assuming the settlers can get by, how far east do you think they’ll go?”
“Well…” Mirrel started, “the empire as it stands is over 400 miles from end to end, and the furthest survey ever attempted made it 250 miles east before running low on supplies. Since then-”
“Were those the ones that came back proclaiming they’d caught some powerful eastern mages?” Sojo interrupted. “I remember reading a story about that when the eastern push was first announced.”
“I’m not sure, I never heard of anyone being found by any of the surveys.” Mirrel began packing up his lunch.
“Leave something out for me?” Sojo asked, her eyes settling on a bag of small loafs.
Mirrel took one out, then packed the rest of the food away into the wagon. “Right, so the furthest survey made it deep into the east, but still never found anything of real interest. All I heard was that the land kept getting worse, and they couldn’t even graze their animals properly with how sparse things were growing.” Mirrel stepped off the wagon and started walking again.
“Damn, I’m stiff,” he commented. “I can’t believe it’s only been half a day so far. This is gonna be a real pain, isn’t it?”
Sojo laughed, ignoring the pain in her feet. “Are you kidding, it’ll only get easier from here on out.” Eyn shook her head before hopping off the wagon herself.
“If even the first half of the surveyed distance can be settled successfully, it’ll take a lifetime before the eastern push stops.” Brehen said, offering Sojo a hand in climbing into the wagon. “So anything we find out can be sold ten times over to the next wave of settlers.”
“Well first we have to find something, so keep your eyes peeled!” Sojo replied, staring intently at the horizon before breaking into a wide smile. “There could be secrets behind any shrub or blade of grass.” Brehen smirked, stretching his arms and legs before starting a slow stride.
Eyn turned to look at Mirrel. “250 miles… that’s doesn’t seem very far.”
“It isn’t, only a couple weeks of light travel normally,” Mirrel answered, “but they were going without roads, and not directly east either. They checked north and south to see if there was anything more interesting to find, but never came across anything unusual save some hills and valleys.
Sojo cut in, pulling out a map from her bags on the wagon. “With the roads built, we can make a much better pace, albeit with some zigzagging of our own. It shouldn’t be a month before we’re getting to the edge of the land they could have seen.” She held up the map and traced a line along the marked route. “If we follow these roads, we should be able to get to unexplored areas by midsummer. If there’s anything worth finding, we should be able to find it, draw some maps of our own, and be selling them back in the city before the winter weather really starts to come around.”
“So what do you expect to find then?” Brehen asked, checking over the horses. “What monumental discoveries will we make, to then sell for mounds of gold and glass?”
“An ancient civilization, full of potent magic and forbidden knowledge!” Sojo called out, her mouth sneaking back into a wide smile.
“A land of sumptuous spices and fertile soil!” Mirrel replied, walking more easily than before.
Brehen shook his head. “A valley of great beasts, each more sedate and delicious than the last, of course!” Mirrel laughed as Brehen pretended to bite into a horse’s neck, only to brush it soothingly with his hand.
“The edge of the land, and a new sea of islands to explore.” Eyn said, staring entranced at the long waves rolling through the fields of wheat and corn.
“So long as there’s something better than just more plains,” Sojo concluded, “I’ll be fine.”