Ingvar woke one bright morning to the smell of bacon cooking over a fire. At first, he thought he was back home in his parent's hut in their mountain village. The air was cold and had the unmistakable feel of mountain air. He raised his head from his blankets and saw Cara sitting beside the fire, cooking breakfast. He smiled and pulled himself up out of bed. Mornings were always hard for him; his old wounds and injuries hurt him, and took some time to loosen up so he could move. He moved cautiously now, groaning quietly as the pain hit him.
"Good morning, my lord," Cara said with a smile, or at least as much of a smile as her swollen mouth permitted. Her bruises were rather colorful this morning, he was sad to see. He took pain in stride for himself, but hated to see her hurt.
"Good morning love," he answered in his rumbling low voice. Cara smiled wider and then frowned as the smile pulled at her bruised lips. Ingvar sat next to Cara and kissed her gently. Cara leaned into the kiss fiercely, ignoring her own pain. When they at last parted, he took the dish she offered him, filled with bacon and eggs and some dark brown bread, coated with a thin layer of butter.
"Eggs?" Ingvar asked in some surprise.
"I'd found some along the way the morning before I caught up to you. I had them packed carefully so they wouldn't break," she told him. He smiled and began to eat.
"Are we moving on today?" Cara asked.
"I think we'd better," he said. "We don't have very many days until we have to be at the Tower."
"Do you have any idea how far it will be?"
"None at all, actually," he said with a grin. Cara slapped his shoulder and then laughed with him.
"I'll start packing while you finish eating," she said. Ingvar just grunted his agreement, his mouth was full.
Ingvar went outside with the dishes once he had finished eating. He used handfuls of snow to scrub the dishes clean and then took them back inside to store them away in the packs. Before long, they had everything gathered, and the horses loaded once more. Ingvar stopped in front of the hut with his hand on the lintel.
"My thanks to the one that provided this shelter," he said softly. "We are in your debt."
They mounted up and rode through the snow. The sun was in their eyes as the moved down from the pass into the narrow valley beyond. Ingvar wound a bit of a woven scarf over his face and looked through the weave. This helped to reduce the glare from the early sunlight. After a minute, Cara imitated him and found it a more comfortable solution than squinting into the sun.
The road that had guided them to the hut continued down a long slope at an easy incline and on into the valley below. The storm from the night before had erased or transformed all landmarks, only the road was clear to see. All else was a sea of white and reflected sunlight. The road led on through the landmark-free valley. Ingvar felt like he was travelling through a cloud; the sunlight was bright, and everything around him was white except for himself and Cara and their string of mounts.
By the time the sun had climbed high overhead, they were able to remove the scarves from their eyes and look farther around the valley. It was still mostly featureless, but Cara happily pointed out a ruined tower sitting on a rise near the end of the valley. Ingvar thought they could reach the tower in about an hour at their current pace, and saw no reason to hurry. He felt a sense of satisfaction at reaching the first milestone of his mysterious journey, and was looking forward to a better explanation once the old woman arrived.
He looked back along the path they had travelled and saw something curious. Their horses had cut a deep path through the snow where it covered the road, but farther back it seemed that their tracks simply disappeared into untouched snow. And off in the distance, near where the road had descended from the hut, were two black specks on the whiteness. He stopped his horse to get a clear look.
"I think we have someone following us," he said to Cara as she rode up beside him. She turned in her saddle to look back the way they'd come and saw two riders in the distance, and a smaller black shape moving along behind them.
"It looks like they have a dog or some other kind of animal with them, too," she replied. Ingvar grunted.
"Let's see if we can reach the tower before we have to decide whether they are a threat to us," Ingvar told her. He kicked his horse into a trot and Cara followed suit.
"I'm sure I saw other riders ahead of us," Mikey told Niall.
"If you say so I believe you," he answered. "I'm just saying that I couldn't see them." He was getting a little tired of Mikey's crabbiness. Ever since she had awakened in the hut the night before to find herself naked in his arms, she acted like he had taken advantage of her. I almost wish I had taken advantage of her, he thought. At least I would have the enjoyable memory to comfort me since I've been judged guilty anyway. He was feeling angry over the whole affair, and resented the fact that Mikey resented him taking her clothes off to save her life. All day, their comments to each other had a sharp edge, and they both examined the other's comments to see if offense was meant. It made for a slow and uncomfortable journey thus far.
"Do you think that tower is where we are to meet Melissa?" Niall asked tentatively. Mikey shot him a look that nearly made him flinch. "I'm only asking a question Mikey, not trying to take your clothes off. Remind me to just let you die next time, alright?" Mikey looked like she was going to fire another salvo in their morning-long disagreement, but then she gave a great sigh and stopped her horse.
"I'm sorry, Niall," she said quietly. He was going to make her repeat it, but he saw tears in her eyes and felt very small. "I believe that you were doing what was best for me. It just shocked me to know I had lost awareness and that you had done so much without me knowing. That's a hard thing for a thief. Can you forgive me?" Her eyes were shining at him, and he would likely have given her anything she asked at that moment.
"Yes, my love," he said at last. "Of course I forgive you, and hope you will forgive me." She smiled shyly and moved her horse closer to him, leaned out and circled his neck with her arms.
"So now that you've seen me naked, I'm your love, eh?" He spluttered and tried to make an excuse for a clumsy tongue, but Mikey just smiled at him and then kissed him. Niall leaned into her, feeling like his world was tilting out of control. When Mikey released him, he discovered the reason for that feeling as he fell out of the saddle and into the snow. He lay there a moment, and then began to laugh.
"I suppose that serves me right for trusting a thief," he said with a grin.
"You are learning, aren't you?" Mikey said as she rode off. Niall got back on his horse and caught up with her again. They rode on side by side to the tower, with Sapphire cavorting around them.
"It looks like two men on horses with a big black dog," Ingvar said as they watched the newcomers approaching across the untracked snow. The phenomenon of disappearing tracks had followed them right up to the tower, so that minutes after Ingvar and Cara arrived at the ruined tower, the snow was as fresh and clear as if no one had ever been there. Neither of them knew what to make of it.
"What are they doing now?" Cara asked. The two riders had stopped and seemed to be talking. She saw them come together suddenly, and then one of them fell off his horse.
"I could've sworn they were kissing," Ingvar said in disgust. Cara looked at him in amusement. Men loving other men was a type of relationship that her lord just could never accept. It wasn't a common occurrence in Semaar, but she knew it happened. Most folks didn't think anything of it, but Semaar was rather cosmopolitan about many things that Ingvar had trouble accepting. She chose not to discuss it with him, and just let him deal with it himself.
Ingvar and Cara had concealed their horses on the far side of the tower, and now were waiting for the strangers, half hidden among the tumbled blocks at the tower's base. They watched the two riders approach, and one rode close to the other and slipped some snow down his collar. The resulting whoop of cold shock made Cara look much more closely at the victim. "I think that one just might be a woman," she told Ingvar.
"With that short hair and wearing pants?" Ingvar asked her. "That's not too likely, love. That's a man, if you could really call either of them men." As they discussed the genders of the strangers, the black dog stopped and Cara saw its hackles rise. The pair stopped and looked at them, the one still fishing snow out of her shirt.
"Hello," called the man in the lead. "Nice day."
"You could say that," replied Ingvar slowly. The other rider finished removing the snow and rode closer.
"We were told to meet a woman here," she said. Definitely a woman, Cara thought with a smile. "And she told us to expect others."
"We were given similar instructions," Cara called down. The man looked at Cara and smiled, and then his smile tightened into an angry look directed at Ingvar. Oh this will be a merry camp, thought Cara. He thinks Ingvar gave me these bruises.
"We've just arrived ourselves," Cara called. "Why don't you come up and we'll get settled?"
"Sounds good to me," said the man. They rode in closer and dismounted, coming closer to extend hands in greeting. "My name is Niall, and this is Mikey."
"I am Ingvar Goreson," said the large man as he took Niall's extended hand and squeezed. "And this is my woman, Cara." Cara shook hands with Mikey and pulled her aside as the two men struggled.
Mikey noticed that Cara had swollen lips and bruises over one side of her face. She guessed this was what had set Niall off toward Ingvar. Niall felt very protective over women and frequently had gone to great lengths to see that an abused woman obtained justice from the man that had beaten her. That was another thing she loved about him, if she were honest with herself.
"It looks like you had some trouble on your way here," Mikey said quietly to Cara. The other woman just nodded and smiled a bit.
"Mikey, I think our men have the wrong impression of each other already," Cara said. Mikey laughed.
"Men usually do," she answered. Cara and Mikey smiled at each other.
"My bruises came from some bandits, and not from my lord," Cara told her. "Ingvar saved me from them but not before I'd taken a beating."
"That explains why Niall seems angry, he hates to see women beaten," Mikey said. "But why is Ingvar so hostile? Is he usually like that?"
"Only to enemies, and people he doesn't approve of," Cara said with a chuckle behind her hand. "He thinks you're a man, and saw the two of you…"
"Oh my," Mikey said, flushing bright red. The she began to laugh as well. "Do we tell them? Or let them figure it out and entertain us in the meantime?"
"Mikey, I think you and I are going to get along just fine," Cara said, smiling.
"I think I understand now why Melissa told me to bring a skin of mead along to smooth things over," Mikey told her new friend. They both laughed again.
"Alright boys, first one to setup camp gets to help me open a new skin of mead," Mikey called.
Ingvar and Niall were each sweating, red from exertion, and smiling to show the other that the grip didn't bother them. They looked at Mikey and Cara, and stepped apart suddenly, glaring at each other.
"I could use some mead," Ingvar said. "Perhaps we can get along for that?" Niall raised an eyebrow at his peace offer.
"Aye, perhaps we can at that," he told Ingvar. They turned away from each other to go about the work of setting up their camp. Mikey nearly laughed out loud as she saw both men shaking their sore hands to restore circulation.
They found a building behind the tower that reminded each of them of the huts they'd found in the mountains. This one was larger, though, with plenty of room for the four of them and then some. The barn was larger as well, having space for all of the mounts. As before, there was a supply of wood for a fire and feed for the horses. The four travelers settled their horses inside the barn, brushing them and storing their tack. And then they went inside to start a fire on the hearth and see about drinking some mead.
Inside the hut they found several small rooms connecting with the main room. Apparently, this house had been intended for people who desired some privacy. Ingvar moved his and Cara's things into one room, while Niall started to do the same with his and Mikey's. Niall stopped and looked questioningly at Mikey, and she nodded to him to take her gear into the same room. He smiled and she glared at him. He looked abashed and went about his business meekly. Cara smiled at Mikey as though she understood what was going on between them rather well.
Sapphire had been darting in and out, observing everything, but suddenly she stopped, listening to something in the distance. She sniffed the air carefully and then went outside quickly. Mikey had been watching, and she followed the dog outside. She found Sapphire standing beside the tower, sampling the air and watching across the valley. Mikey could see three more riders approaching across the unmarked snow.
"That is so odd," Cara said as she walked up beside Mikey. "Your tracks have disappeared just like ours did when we got here."
"This journey has been strange, that's for sure," the thief answered. "That should be our hostess and the last members of our group, I hope." The men came out to join them. Together, the four stood and watched as the other riders approached. They could see two women, one with shockingly white hair, and one man. There was another shape moving around them that fooled the eye, finally resolving into the form of a white wolf. Sapphire whined a little when she saw the wolf, but her tail wagged a couple times too. Mikey resolved to watch her, but wasn't overly concerned.
As the three riders came closer, Mikey recognized Melissa and called a greeting to her. Melissa waved, and the three dismounted at the foot of the hill and led their mounts up to meet the four waiting.
"Hello Mikey, Niall," said Melissa as she approached. Ingvar had his hand on his massive axe, and was watching the newcomers carefully. Cara looked puzzled as well, Mikey could see. "Well Ingvar, are you going to greet me or use the Ravens on me?"
"I do not know you, so greeting you would be difficult," he rumbled. "I haven't decided about using the Ravens yet."
"Perhaps you would prefer a more familiar appearance for me?" Melissa asked. She shimmered and transformed into the bent crone that Ingvar remembered from the throne room back in Semaar. "Maybe I should beat you over the head with your axe after all." The Melissa-crone cackled wildly, and Ingvar smiled, lowering his hand. Melissa changed back to her normal form. "When I came to Semaar to find you, I was bound by my husband's view of me in your world. Now that we are outside of your world, I can take on the form I prefer once more."
"What do you mean, outside of my world?" Ingvar asked her.
"Let's discuss that after we've all settled for the night, the story will take some time I'm afraid," she told him. "This is Ronin, and this is his daughter Celora," Melissa said, introducing her companions. Then she turned to Celora and Ronin and introduced the others to them.
"Well, have you four had time to make yourselves comfortable yet? And did you find the supplies I left for you alright?" Melissa asked them as they all went into the house.
"You were responsible for the houses and the supplies?" Mikey asked her. Melissa smiled and nodded. "Yes, thank you very much. Those supplies saved my life I think. Either that, or they gave Niall a chance to remove my clothing without my permission, I'm not entirely sure which yet."
Melissa stopped in her tracks and gave Niall a shocked look. "She was freezing," he answered. "We had gotten very wet and then the snow started. Mikey wasn't responding when we got to the hut, so I did what I had to to get her warmed up."
"Ah," said Melissa. "We call that hypothermia where I come from. Yes, my dear, he very likely did save your life then with his quick thinking. Don't stick him full of daggers, yet." She smiled sweetly at Niall, and Mikey laughed.
"And what about you?" Melissa said to Ingvar. "It looks as though you let Cara get hurt." Ingvar looked uncomfortable, and Niall muttered something behind him.
"She wasn't supposed to come," he said gruffly. "She followed me and ran afoul of bandits."
"Ingvar saved me, possibly even my life," Cara said softly. Niall looked uncomfortable to hear that he had misjudged Ingvar.
"May I?" Celora said, stepping close to Cara. Before Cara understood what was happening, Celora's lips were moving in a silent prayer of healing, and her hand brushed Cara's jawline. Cara stepped back in surprise, but not before the spell had done its work. As they watched, the swelling and bruising faded from her face.
"What did you do?" Cara exclaimed.
"I'm sorry, did that cause you pain?" Celora asked her. Cara flexed her shoulders and felt her face before replying.
"No," she said. "There isn't any pain at all now, it's all gone. Thank you."
"My pleasure to serve," said Celora with a bow.
"I think you can probably guess that Celora will be quite valuable to have along," Melissa told them.
"Indeed; this lady would be worth her weight in diamonds in my kingdom," Niall said in an amazed tone.
"Your kingdom?" Ingvar asked.
"Perhaps I should have made more formal introductions," said Melissa. "King Ingvar Goreson of Semaar, may I present King Niall of Kor Opan." The two men nodded to each other speculatively. "Lady Cara of Semaar, Baroness Michaelina Bartolli of Kor Opan." The women smiled at each other. Ingvar muttered "Baroness?" The two women laughed.
"High Priestess Celora Witchborn of Arluun and her father Ronin, hunter of the Haunted Hills."
"My lady, I'm not the High Priestess…" Celora began. Melissa cut her off by laughing.
"Celora my dear," she said, wiping tears away. "You should wait until you return home before saying that to me." Celora blushed. "I believe the surviving priests were about to elect you before we even left the Cathedral."
"In terms of abilities, Mikey and Niall can do a lot of damage in a melee fight. Ingvar can hold the attention of a large number of enemies at once. Ronin is a master archer, and our canine friends can nip around the edges and serve as sentries for us. Celora can keep us alive, and she is a terror on the battlefield in her own right."
"Oh," Melissa said suddenly. "I almost forgot. Mikey is a master thief and expert assassin, so check your belongings once in a while in case she feels the need to practice." Mikey sighed, and then reached into her pocket and removed a small bag of coins, which she handed to Ingvar.
"I really was just practicing. Honest," Mikey told them. Ingvar looked stunned.
"No one has ever lifted my purse before," he said with a smile. "I think I'm impressed."
They stood and stared at each other for several minutes, silently appraising and wondering about the need that brought them together. Sapphire crept out from behind Mikey to sniff noses with Bob. She jerked back, standing very erect, tail up, looking like she wanted to play. Bob growled low in his throat. Mikey started to pull Sapphire away from the wolf, but Ronin stopped her.
"Not yet, they need to decide who's in charge," he said. Sapphire was circling Bob, who was standing still but growling. Suddenly, Bob turned on Sapphire and pinned her to the ground by the scruff of her neck. He held her for a moment until she went limp, and then he released her. Sapphire sprang up and pranced around the wolf. Then the two of them ran off to explore.
"Odd, your wolf is bigger than Bob," said Ronin. "I was thinking that she might come out on top."
"Sapphire's just a puppy, I bet age had a lot to do with that," answered Mikey.
"That's a puppy?" Ronin asked, startled.
"Sapphire's descended from dire wolves," Niall told the hunter. "My family has been breeding them for hundreds of years. She will get quite a bit bigger before she's fully grown."
"How big will she get?" Celora asked.
"My lady, you could probably ride her when she reaches her full size," Niall told her with a perfectly serious expression. Celora started to laugh, and then stopped.
"He isn't joking, Priestess," Mikey told her. "Sapphire's parents scared the daylights out of me."
"Oh my," Celora responded. "I've never heard of wolves that large before."
"Why don't we go inside where it's warmer," suggested Melissa. "And then I believe some explanations might be in order."
The group moved inside and settled around the hearth. With the door closed, the only light in the little house came from the front window and the fire crackling on the hearth. They got settled around the room after removing various furs and blankets they'd been wearing against the cold. They left the door ajar so the four-footed member of the party could enter when they wished. Melissa brought out another skin of mead to add to the one already being passed, and soon they all felt warm and relaxed.
"Before we go too far in your story, Melissa," Cara said. "Can you explain why our tracks were disappearing as we got to the tower?"
"That is an interesting effect, isn't it?" Melissa said, smiling. "This place is a meeting place where three worlds meet. Each group approached this place from a separate world, and as we neared the tower, we moved from our own worlds into this between-place. The tracks disappeared because they were in the world you left. Does that make sense at all?"
"Yes," Cara said thoughtfully. "As long as I don't bother with things like 'that's impossible,' it seems to make sense."
"So will you now explain why we were summoned here?" Ingvar said in his rumbling voice. "And what it is we are asked to do?"
"That will take some time, and may not be fully explained today," Melissa said with a sigh. "It may help if you think of what I'm going to tell you as a story. It is all true, from my viewpoint, but we all have different ways of looking at the world around us.
"It all started just after my husband, Charlie, and I were married. Charlie is an author, a storyteller who writes the stories down for others to enjoy later. He was working on his first stories to sell in our first years together. He told me the stories as they began, wonderful tales of adventure and magic, and great feats by heroes. They were very exciting and he was very good at creating an image in my mind of the people and places he created." Melissa paused to take a drink or mead, thinking of how to tell them what they needed to know without revealing too much too soon.
"It has taken me a long time to understand this part," she continued. "But somehow the combination of Charlie's story and my imagining the people and places made the come true. I still don't understand why, or how exactly, but that's the only way I can really explain the things that happened." There was a sound at the door. They turned, startled, to see Sapphire and Bob push their way into the house. Ingvar, who was closest to the door, reached out and pushed the door closed again. Bob settled in an open place in the center of the room, while Sapphire came to Mikey's side and lay down panting.
"Charlie created stories about each of your worlds, but he never finished them," Melissa told them once the canines had settled. "When I approached each of you, your stories had gone to a point where something should have happened but never did. Almost as if you were merely repeating the same day endlessly. That was because Charlie had not written the things that came next in your tales."
"Are you trying to say that we don't really exist?" Niall said in disbelief. "That we are only in your husband's imagination?"
"Yes, and no," Melissa answered patiently. "You are each very real, as are the things in your lives. But you are real because of some strange magic between my husband and I. And because he has not finished your tales, you are prevented from progressing any farther. If you think very carefully, you will realize that more has happened to you, particularly in terms of your relationships, since I summoned you to this quest." They each considered her words, coming to grips with the ideas in their own ways. Melissa still saw doubt on many various faces, but she also saw the beginning of comprehension there. She felt a small glimmer of hope.
"What happened to your husband?" Mikey asked in a small voice. "When he realized that what he was writing was becoming real somewhere, he snapped. He couldn't handle the responsibility that he felt to each of you and others in his stories. His mind broke, I guess you could say. I helped him to a place where he could receive healing for his problems, saw him safe and cared for, and then I returned home, exhausted. When I awoke the next morning, I was in Semaar in the form of the old crone you met, Ingvar. I hope you can imagine the shock that gave me." Melissa shuddered at the memory, the others smiled at the idea.
"Ever since that morning, I have been wandering and trying to understand what happened and what I could do about it," she said. "At first, all I wanted was to go home and see my beloved Charlie." She paused, her voice catching and tears starting in her eyes. Celora reached out a hand to comfort her, but Melissa pushed the emotion back and continued. "Later, as I began to figure out what we had done and what I could do in these worlds, I began to understand that I had a chance to not only get back to Charlie in my own world, I could also help each of you in yours."
"And what did you determine to do?" Ronin asked.
"I decided to find the people that can help me to resolve the key struggles that are preventing Charlie from regaining his health," Melissa answered. "When I tried to reach him myself, I was blocked by adversaries. I believe them to be aspects of Charlie's madness, and that if we can pass them we can heal him and eventually reach him. When we set him free, we can all have a chance to find the happiness we seek."
"I don't know what to say," began Mikey. "On one hand, it feels like you're trying to con me with a badly formed story. On the other hand, it feels true to my heart, and would explain much."
"I feel the same way," said Celora. "But I do not doubt Melissa for an instant."
"I think it might be healthy for you to learn to question me, Celora," Melissa told her with a gentle smile. "For all the responsibility I bear for your life, and all the power I may have, I'm still just a woman."
"It's difficult to question my Goddess," Celora said, smiling shyly.
"Am I supposed to be here?" Ronin asked. "I was never asked to come along."
"Actually neither was I," Cara said.
"You are very important Cara," Melissa told her. "Someone has to keep Ingvar in line, after all." They all laughed, except Ingvar.
"And no, I didn't ask you Ronin, I'm afraid I tricked you into coming along," Melissa said with an impish smile. "I merely dangled the one thing you'd been looking for where you would see it. Your heart did the rest. But I did want you to come. I wanted and hoped you would all come, though Sapphire was unexpected I must say."
Sapphire perked up as her name was mentioned. Mikey dropped a hand to her back and the dog looked up at her in question. "Then you don't know everything that happens?" Mikey asked her.
"Heavens, no," Melissa said. "I know a lot of things in these worlds and in the lands we must travel through, but far from everything I'm afraid."
"Well, you've told us enough to get started," Cara said, getting up from her place beside Ingvar. "Though I certainly feel like I need to think my way through this before I can decide how I feel about it. If no one objects, I think I might start cooking something for us to eat."
"That sounds like an excellent idea, perhaps I can help a bit?" Ronin offered. "I know something of camp cooking after long years of living in the wild." Cara smiled and nodded and the two of them started to put together a nice stew and pooling some of the food supplies they had all brought with them. The others just tried to stay out of the way or to provide things when asked for.
"So what is the plan? When and where do we go from here?" Niall asked. Everyone looked to Melissa, and she smiled.
"For tonight, rest and a chance to get acquainted," she told them. "Tomorrow I think we should begin our journey by stepping through the gateway of the Tower."
"What can we expect?"
"Well, you won't like it much, I can tell you that much," Melissa said. "Our first destination is Kor Opan, or at least a place that calls itself that and resembles your home. But it's very different at the same time. We need to understand why it's different and what needs to happen in order for us to pass through."