One of the rest stops mentioned before was but a mere piece of land circled by a wall of log. The land had a deep well from which travellers and merchants could procure fresh and clean water. The past two rest stops were devoid of people. Fallen leaves piled up like hills and Oask only let his horse rest a bit while he fed them water and wheat. They left each of them after some ten minutes.
The third rest stop was chock full of people. Hundreds were there to take rests. A few soldiers dressed in garrison-like uniform asked around and revealed they were escorting workers from a labour camp in Chanyalar to Whitestag. A garrison band was put in charge of the whole troupe of ten or so carriages of supplies and the labourers. Unlike Claude, who travelled in a carriage, the labourers walked all the way. They had been walking for more than ten days and it would take them another two to arrive at Whitestag.
Claude found that the labourers didn't look as pitiful as he imagined. While their clothes were rather old, they weren't completely torn. They also looked to be in decent condition, obviously being fed rather well. While they would often be scolded by the garrison soldiers from time to time and were prevented from surrounding the carriage, they could be heard talking about Oask's carriage and cursing it occasionally.
When the bandsman heard that Oask and Claude were trying to travel quick after a short rest there, he looked at the sky and shook his head. He believed that it would be best for them to spend the night at the rest stop because they heard a lot of howling wolves from the previous rest stop they stopped at. The skies were getting darker, and it was approximately five. It would take at least two to three hours to travel from their current location to Blackwood Town, and traversing the forest at night wasn't the best idea.
However, they decided in the end to continue rushing. Seven or eight wolves weren't a threat to Claude. Even if he didn't use a gun or crossbow, he was confident in taking them on. Oask on the other hand believed that staying the night with a group of forced labourers was even more dangerous. He wasn't that worried about his own safety. Instead, he was concerned that the villains would steal his goods during the night and he wouldn't be able to get on their case since they were on a rush.
After they resumed their journey, Claude asked, "Uncle Oask, didn't you say that the labourers were harshly guarded? Those garrison soldiers only look half serious to me and they didn't even set up a security perimeter. It's like they let the labourers go around freely."
"It's a light punishment camp, so the labourers are mostly caught for thievery or brawling. They're only sentenced to three to five years of labour at most, so they aren't watched that tightly. These labourers know that it'll be over if they can endure their term. If they try to escape, their punishment will only grow and it won't be worth getting sentenced to a decade more if they end up recaptured. The reason I insisted on not staying with them was because I don't want to have anything stolen from us while we're asleep."
<i>Ah, so there are labour camps for different magnitudes of crimes...</i> What Oask meant was that labourers who usually tried to escape were usually punished for far more serious crimes and sentenced to decades of labour. That was why escaping was the only choice, since their fates wouldn't change much if they were recaptured, anyway. The heavier sentences made no difference to their already long terms.
Nothing eventful occurred at the first rest stop after that. The next one would be the last rest stop on the path in Blackforest and there was only one or so hour left before the town would be reached. They were estimated to arrive at around seven. There was almost no light in the surroundings, especially taking into the fact that they were in a forest, and it felt really oppressive. The two horses trotted a little unnervedly in the rest stop. When Oask brought them some water, they only took a few sips before stopping.
Oask made the decision to tell Claude, who was standing guard alertly at the entrance, "Let's go. We'll leave immediately and not rest here."
As expected, not long after they left the camp, the overlapping howls of wolves could be heard. Claude stood up and looked back but didn't see any wolf tailing them from behind.
"We left early. The horses broke into full run and the wolves are quite smart. They knew not to continue pursuit after failing to surround us," Oask said, "It's fine already. This is the last stretch. We'll rest at Doghunt Tavern in the town and there we can have a good meal. They're famous for their roast hare there. It's stuffed with fresh mushrooms before the roasting and the juices of the meat are all absorbed by the mushrooms. Each bite causes it to ooze oil. It's a great delicacy."
It was already around nine at night when they reached Blackwood Town. Unlike Whitestag, the place had a long wall built from cobblestone surrounding it. The moss on it gave the impression that it was built a long time ago. The garrison soldiers at the entrance of the town asked them a few simple questions. Seeing that they came from the path in Blackforest, they asked whether they encountered any wolves and let them inside.
Oask was quite familiar with the town as he had to pass through it every time he took a customer to their destination. He drove his carriage and quickly found his way to the tavern. After handing the carriage and horse to the stableman and servants, he joked around with them before bringing Claude into the hall.
Late as it was, there were still quite a number of people in the hall of the tavern. Ten or so guests were still chatting and drinking there. In a corner of the hall were a couple of men surrounding a table for a game of cards. Claude listened in and found that they were gambling. However, the bets weren't large; they were only a sunar or two each bout.
Quite a few of the guests knew Oask. They greeted him along the way as he walked to the counter. "Old Pete, give me a big room and some delicious things to eat! Any roast hare?"
The owner was a white-haired old man with a lanky build. He wore a pair of round, black glasses. Taking a look at Oask and Claude, he asked, "Where are you heading this time? Oask, we still have rooms, but I'm not sure about the hare. I'll have to check the oven first."
"Kafreizit--" Oask patted on Claude's shoulder, "--This fella here got conscripted by Bluefeather. I gotta send him there to report for duty."
Pete pushed his glasses up and looked closer at Claude. "Poor fellow... You just turned adult, right? Yet, you're going so far away to serve in the military... Just sit down over there. I'll get ya guys somethin' to eat."
Not long after, Pete served them some white bread, blackwheat ale, baked potatoes, beef, bacon, and a few other dishes. At the centre of them all is a shiny, roasted hare.
Claude wondered, "Uncle Oask, aren't there maidservants in this tavern? Why does the owner himself serve our food?"
Oask laughed. "This is when the maidservants earn their lion's share. You'll know a little later. Or... how about we find you one to spend the night with you? It'll only cost three riyas..."
It didn't take long for Claude to realise what he was talking about. One maidservant came down from the first floor where the guest rooms were with her face flushed red. A lone guest waved for her to come to him and they negotiated for a long moment before settling on a price. The maidservant then took him upstairs and the other guests didn't bat an eye about it.
It was Claude's fault for not having stayed at a tavern late at night while he was in Whitestag. He didn't know that this was a common side job for maidservants. Those of them who didn't rely on offering such services like Kefnie's sister were exceptions rather than the rule.
Oask opened the hare with some force and the stuffed mushrooms spilled out like he said they would. Claude forked some and stuffed it into his mouth while nodding. The mushrooms were indeed great. Even though they weren't meat, they had a meaty taste that spoiled his taste buds.
Just as he was in the midst of enjoying his meal, the tavern door was bust open and two constables entered, walking towards Claude's table. The elder one greeted Oask. It seemed that they were acquaintances. After that, he took out a folder from his black leather briefcase and took out a registration table.
Oask hurriedly got Claude to get his conscription order and the passport Whitestag City Hall issued him before handing them to the elder constable.
As the documents were in place, the constable had the younger one behind him copy Claude's passport number down into the form. After that, he stamped the passport with the words 'Entry Approved, Blackwood Constabulary' on it.
Oask treated the two to a cup of ale before they left.
Claude asked, "Uncle Oask, why didn't you need to be registered?"
He laughed and replied, "I know them and they know that I'm a dignitarian. That's why I didn't have to be checked. Even if I go to a foreign location and run into a check, I just have to show my dignitarian identification and that would spare me the registration. So, I don't have to request anything like a passport from the city hall either."
That was perhaps the largest difference between the rights of a dignitarian and a peasant. Dignitarians had relatively better freedoms, and it was much easier for them to travel around. All they had to do was to carry their dignitarian identification with them. An adult peasant on the other hand had to get a passport made every time they wanted to leave for another place. The details of their trips, such as time of travel, duration of stay and date of return had to be clearly stated.
Official matters were simple affairs. Claude wouldn't be troubled with the conscription order in hand. But for trips made for private reasons, they required a guarantor of dignitarian status. Additionally, they would have to be searched and checked all the way along their trip and as annoying and frustrating as that was, the peasants could only smile and endure it.
That was why apart from peasants working with a trading convoy, most peasants didn't want to leave home. They would rather concern themselves with providing for their family at home and they hired others to run their errands for them if really necessary. They couldn't migrate to other places for better job opportunities like Claude formerly thought. Only in the event of an inevitable natural disaster could people move to a place other than home and start a life there.
It was only because Oask was going to pay the expenses for the trip that Claude was willing to hire him for the high cost of two gold crowns. Their meal was rather decent by his standards. Apart from the roast hare, the other dishes were similar to what he usually had at home.
After the meal, Claude followed Oask to the backyard of the tavern where a well was. The two of them cleaned their bodies with the water from the well before bringing their luggage to the first floor to their room to rest. They had to wake up early to continue the trip.
The large room Oask asked for was for two people. There were two single beds placed on opposite sides of the wall. Either it was due to the foreign environment, the loud sound of humping from other rooms, or Oask's incessant snoring, Claude wasn't able to catch any sleep that night. He practically tossed around in bed till the sun rose.
After drinking a bowl of wheat porridge down the next day, Claude made up for lost sleep in the coach as Oask continued their way. Oask was right about one thing: the roads between Ambruiz and Kugria were built and maintained well. The terrain was flat, and the roads were even. The coach didn't rumble much.
During the night, they lodged at Whiterose Tavern in the prefectural capital of Kugria. Claude realised that the prices were at least double those of Doghunt Tavern. On the third day, they crossed Chanlayar and stayed in a tavern in a small of Krusig. This time around, Claude paid extra for his own room. He couldn't stomach losing sleep because of Oask's snoring anymore.
And during the morning of the fourth day, the carriage arrived in Limasosya.