Chapter Seven: Just Like Old Times

The white-cloaked mountains loomed above the trail ahead, promising cold and treacherous travel conditions. The road Ingvar rode upon now wound through a river valley forested in aspen and the occasional cedar. The sound of rushing water was omnipresent, yet the barbarian king found it oddly soothing. The calm forest dappled in the sunlight of late summer made him think of Cara. He truly regretted leaving her behind, but she was city born and bred; she would be unsuited to the rigors of travel. He still wasn't sure how he had been talked into making this journey, but the Seeker had been very persuasive. Her threat of beating him over the head with his own axe would have been funny; except that he had the distinct feeling she had meant it.

He had to admit that he felt good to be out on the trail alone. There were many years of kingship, of burdensome responsibility between this day and the last time he had travelled thus. It almost made him feel young again. Now that he was away from the throne and active, he could be honest with himself enough to admit that he had been chafing at the responsibility and at the need to pretend to be something he wasn't. His men expected him to be a rough-hewn mountain warrior. His people expected a king that was wise and educated. The discontinuity caused him no end of stress on the best days. It was no wonder he had become afflicted with an aching head most nights. Thank the gods he had Cara to drive those pains away.

He missed her again suddenly. His mood darkening, he rode on in silence.

Cara rode through rolling hills toward the forested foothills. She was trying to catch up to Ingvar before he entered the mountain pass that would lead over the White Mountains to the forgotten lands beyond. She knew enough woodcraft to fend for herself in these gentle lands, but a mountain pass was something she had no experience with. Her plan, such as it was, was to follow close behind Ingvar until he was almost to the entrance of the high pass. She planned to catch him up as he left the tree line to make the climb. But what concerned her was that she didn't know exactly which route her lord would take.

She had taken a fast courier mount from the stables once she learned that Ingvar had gone off on this fool errand for the old woman. She still didn't understand how the crone had compelled Ingvar to make this trip; normally her lord would have laughed off a request like that or sent another warrior in his place. That was the way kings were supposed to act, in the world Cara knew and understood. But she told herself that Ingvar had been chafing under the mantle of kingship, and she had been thinking he needed some kind of adventure to relieve his stress. But why, oh gods, did it have to be this adventure, she thought.

She leaned low over her horse's neck and urged her to go faster. The palomino responded with a burst of renewed speed that thrilled her. Cara couldn't help but smile as she wiped wind-driven tears from her eyes.

Ingvar rode into a clearing in the forest to find a man waiting for him on the second day of his ride. The man was dressed in rages and bits of leather and fur, looking wild and unkempt. He was leaning on a longbow, and Ingvar could see arrows sticking up over his shoulder from an unseen quiver. He had a knife and a hand axe hanging from his belt. He smiled up at Ingvar appearing friendly, which immediately set Ingvar on edge.

"Hallo there, traveler," the man greeted Ingvar. "Nice day for a ride, eh?" Ingvar pulled Silvertip to a halt about ten paces from the stranger, lowering his hand to the sword at his side as a precaution.

"Nice day," he answered noncommittally.

"I bet you're wondering what a handsome fella like myself is doing way out here in the wilderness," the man continued.

"I have to say I honestly hadn't given it any thought," Ingvar told him. "You're not really my type." The man laughed easily. Ingvar started looking around as much as he could without moving his head, and listening for any sign that the man had friends concealed close by.

"Ah, that's a pity, make no doubt about it," said the man. "I suppose I will just have to take whatever things of value you carry then as a toll for crossing my mountains."

"Your mountains?" Ingvar asked. "Are you the famous Ingvar Goreson then? Because these mountains are part of Semaar last I heard." The man looked uncomfortable at the mention of Ingvar's name.

"Maybe I am and maybe I'm not. But these are my mountains, friend. Even Ingvar himself would pay my toll." There was a rustling in the trees off to Ingvar's left, and another man spoke hastily.

"Hap, you fool," he said. "Look at his axe!"

"Yes Hap," Ingvar said ominously. "Have a close look at my axe." With that he reached back and drew forth the Ravens from the sling on his back, holding the massive axe easily with one hand so that everyone in the glade could see it clearly. "I believe you were claiming to own my mountains?" The stranger looked very uncomfortable now.

"Ah, easy there friend," he said, edging backwards a bit. "That's a most unusual axe you have there. I've heard people talk about the king's axe and it was described very much like that." He swallowed audibly.

"Let me pass without needing to work up a sweat and we can have peace," the king told him. "But if you force me to start killing folks, getting all sweaty, and most importantly, making me sharpen my axe, and I will not be a happy person. Do I make myself clear?" Ingvar sensed a threat from his right and rolled out of the saddle to the left just as an arrow passed through where his head had just been. Silvertip responded according to his training and ran the man down in front of him, taking him out of the fight as well as giving Ingvar room to fight.

He swung the ravens back over his shoulder in an arc, hearing as he did so the metallic ringing of two more arrows striking the head of the axe. He ran for the edge of the trees to get close to the men hidden there and to make it harder for them to shoot at him without killing their own men. Their leader was getting back up on his feet and Silvertip knocked him down again, adding a few well-chosen steps to cause him more pain. Ingvar would've laughed if he wasn't busy. Silvertip enjoyed his work a little too much sometimes.

Ingvar found one of the archers, a young man who hadn't yet seen his twentieth year, and slammed the ravens against his head. He would live, but would have a serious headache for days. He moved on and similarly dealt with two more archers. He could hear the sounds of one or two more men fleeing through the bushes. Then all was silent but for Ingvar's heavy breathing and an occasional snort from Silvertip. Not a bad fight, and I won't have to sharpen the Ravens tonight, he thought. He walked casually back to where the leader lay upon the ground. The man's eyes were wide with fear as he silently watched Ingvar approach.

"Now, we were discussing my toll," Ingvar said lightly, nonchalantly flipping the Ravens. "Or were we trying to find a good reason for me to let you live?"

"Toll? Why would my lord ever be asked to pay a toll?"

"I see," answered Ingvar. "So the discussion must be on the merits of your continued breathing."

"Have mercy, most gracious lord," Hap said pitifully. "We was only trying to make a few coins to buy supplies to survive the winter." Ingvar actually felt sorry for the man. He knew what it was like to live the life of a bandit, and this man spoke well enough that he must have had some education along the way. He might be salvageable, Ingvar thought.

"Hap, I managed to avoid needing to sharpen the Ravens, and that always puts me in a good mood, so I tell you what," he said. "I will overlook this encounter on the condition that you find another way to make your living. You seem bright enough to earn an honest coin, and there are a few who appear to follow your lead. Why not go down into one of the towns and see if you can't find some work?"

"Thank you for your kindness, lord," Hap answered. He didn't look pleased at the idea of honest work, but seemed to realize that he wasn't in a position to argue.

"However," Ingvar went on. "You knew there would be a however, didn't you Hap? If I ever find you again troubling any traveler in my lands your life and the lives of your followers will be forfeit. Do you understand me?" Ingvar's voice sounded like a pair of granite boulders grinding together as he grated out his conditions.

"Yes lord, I understand you clearly."

"Very well, you may go," Ingvar said after a moment of staring the man in the eyes, memorizing his face in case they met again. Hap struggled to his feet and started to move off into the trees. He began to run wildly when Silvertip feinted toward him, whinnying. Ingvar laughed loudly at the sight; it always amused him to see the ugly horse enjoying himself. Ingvar looked at the sky and gauged the amount of time left before darkness. He decided to press on a bit more and try to find a source of water nearby and then make camp. He slipped the Ravens back into the sling on his back and then mounted Silvertip once more. The horse pranced a bit, apparently their exercise had agreed with him. Ingvar leaned down and patted the big horse's neck affectionately.

"Come on old friend," he said to the horse. "Let's find a place to camp."

They hadn't gone on more than ten minutes before Ingvar heard the sound of running water near the trail. He turned off the trail to the right, seeking higher ground where he could see the trail and surrounding forest without being as easily seen. He wanted to have a fire tonight, but he also wanted to keep its light concealed from the bandits in case they had stopped running. In the old days I would have simply killed them all, he thought. I must be getting soft.

He found a suitable site for his camp about twenty yards from the trail. It was a slight rise, about the height of a tall man, surrounded by trees on three sides and a large boulder on the fourth. It was a short walk from a small clear stream, so water wouldn't be a problem. He unsaddled Silvertip and began brushing him down. When he finished he gave the horse a handful of the oats he'd brought along, rationing them against future need. He figured the horse deserved a treat after that performance. With Silvertip munching happily, he settled down and made a small ring of stones to contain and conceal his fire. He found some branches and deadfall that would burn without too much smoke. He used his camp knife on the smallest pieces to make tinder, then made some small pieces that were larger than the tinder, finally adding some pieces that were about a foot long and as big around as his thumb.

He took out his container of precious matches, another invention of his engineer, and took one out before carefully closing the lid of the container to keep the rest dry. When all was arranged, he lit the match and held its flame to the pile of tinder material. The tinder caught quickly and he then carefully added the next larger pieces. Finally, when the small pieces of wood were burning well he added the first few pieces of the larger wood. Within minutes he had a nice campfire burning, and enough wood laid aside to last through the night if he kept the fire small.

Ingvar grabbed the small kettle he had brought and walked down to the stream to get some water. Once there, and after he had carefully observed the forest before stepping into the open, he knelt beside the stream and splashed some water over his face and neck, then taking time to wash his hands and arms. Not as good as a bath, but it will have to do, he thought. He filled the kettle and then turned back up the small hill toward camp. He was pleased to note that the fire could not be seen. The last task he undertook before relaxing was to string a very fine yet strong thread around his camp at a distance of about ten feet. Every few feet on this thread was a small silver bell, blackened so they would not be visible in darkness. If anyone crept up on him while he slept he would have some warning.

Ingvar ate a bit of the bread and freshly cooked meat he'd brought. This meal marked almost the last of the fresh food; within another day or so he would be eating dried meat and hard bread. It would be good if I could catch game or perhaps some fish before too long, he thought. Ingvar poured himself a small cup of mead and drank it slowly while watching the fire burning low. Eventually, he spread a blanket on the ground, using his saddle for a pillow, and fell asleep.

In his dreams he heard the sound of hoof beats coming closer to his camp. At last they went silent, troubling his dream no longer, but rather than sleeping soundly Ingvar awoke feeling that something was wrong.

Cara entered the clearing shortly before sunset. She had been riding hard all day trying to catch up to Ingvar before he got any higher in the mountains. She and her horse were tired and sore, and she was looking for a place to camp. The clearing was nice, with its grassy floor, but it felt too exposed to her. The woods ahead were getting very dark, however, so she decided to make her camp just inside the trees on the far side. She found a good spot within a few feet of the clearing, surrounded by trees and looking like she would find wood for a fire easily enough.

Before tending to a fire or any other need, she poured some of her water for her horse. Cara knew that the horse would need more water, and she thought she could hear a stream nearby, but a more filling drink for both of them would have to wait for enough light. She gave most of the water to the horse, leaving a cup or so for herself. Then she poured out a double handful of oats and removed the saddle while the horse ate. She gave the horse a quick brushing, silently thanking him for the good ride and promising better care once they found the king.

She gathered wood for a fire from the woods around her, and settled down to cook a bit of porridge for herself. She was breaking up a bit of brown sugar to add to the pot when her horse nudged her shoulder. "So you think you've earned something sweet?" Cara laughed. She broke off a small lump of the sugar and fed it to the horse. "You did well today, so I guess you did earn this."

"Well, if it comes to earning something sweet," a man said from the darkness beyond the firelight. "I would have to say that my day has earned it." Cara drew her dagger and stayed close to the horse, thinking that perhaps she could vault to its back and get away if necessary. That plan was foiled when another person behind her slapped the horse on the flank, startling it into motion. Cara threw herself clear and rolled to a place where she could get her back to a tree.

"Who are you?" Cara demanded. The man who had spoken first stepped out of the night across the fire from her.

"My name is Hap," he answered calmly. Cara was surprised to see bruises and dried blood on the man's face. She felt pity then, and thought he might be a traveler that needed help, until three other men also stepped out of the shadows. "And these are my friends. We would like some sugar, my dear."

"Take it," she said, holding out the package of brown sugar with her left hand, keeping her dagger hidden.

"That isn't the kind of sugar I had in mind, though it might be nice after I've had my fill of you." The others laughed, and Cara suddenly darted to her right trying to get away from the light and hoping she might hide from them. The man that was to her right grabbed for her and she slashed wildly with her dagger, drawing blood and a curse from him. They were faster than she expected, however, easily catching her by her arms and pulling her back to the firelight. Feeling trapped, Cara started to panic, her heart was racing. She knew what was coming next and was hoping they weren't the kind of men who liked to hit and cut before raping a woman. That illusion was shattered when Hap hit her hard across the jaw. The firelight dimmed, or maybe that was her vision. Cara screamed "Ingvar!"

Two of the men held her in place against the tree, while Hap began grabbing at her clothing. Cara was silently cursing herself for coming on this journey, thinking she could deal with things on the trail without her lord. The fourth man was standing by the fire watching, when he suddenly flew backwards out of her sight with a wet thud.

"What the hell was that?!" the man holding Cara's left arm shouted in fear. Hap stopped what he was doing and stepped back to look. Cara had a clear view of what happened next.

The fourth man was pinned to a tree about three feet off the ground, the massive shape of the Ravens protruding from his chest. Hap was suddenly lifted from his feet and thrown over the fire, where he struck a tree and fell limply to the ground, stunned. Ingvar then grabbed the remaining two men by their throats and began to squeeze. They let go of Cara, and she collapsed at the base of the tree she'd been pinned against, watching the king's justice. They were both clawing at Ingvar's arms, their faces turning purple and then blue as he crushed the life from them. When they were both hanging limply from his massive hands, he let them fall to the ground and then turned to deal with the leader. Hap was just beginning to recover when Ingvar lifted him by his collar.

"Well, we meet again highwayman," the king said in a calm voice.

"My lord," said Hap fawningly. "We were just enjoying our woman's charms, we did nothing wrong." Cara didn't say anything at first, but felt her anger rising. Before she could speak or act, Ingvar ended the charade.

"This is not your woman, Hap. Nor was she agreeing to share any 'charms' with you and your toadies."

"Now, my lord, how can you accuse me of such a thing?" hap whined.

"I accuse you because you have laid your filthy hands on the woman I love," Ingvar said angrily. Cara's retort died on her lips and she looked at Ingvar in wonder.

"I told you this afternoon," the king continued, "that if I ever saw you harming another traveler your lives would be forfeit. It is time for you to join your men, Hap." He set Hap down on his feet, and the bandit turned around wildly seeking his men. He saw the two that had been holding Cara first, lying in unmoving heaps to either side of the woman. Then he saw the man hanging from the tree, and he screamed. He screamed until Ingvar reached down and casually snapped the man's neck. He threw the body down beyond the fire and turned back to Cara.

"Cara, are you hurt?" He was quite concerned when all she could do was stare at him. "Cara?"

"I'm the woman you love?" Cara finally said in wonder. Ingvar looked at her, sitting against the tree, her lip swelling, holding her torn clothing up to cover her torso, and thought she had never looked lovelier than she did then, in spite of her injuries. Her eyes were burning bright with her love and wonder. He lifted her tenderly and held her in his arms until she stopped shivering.

"Yes, you are the woman I love," he told her softly. "By rights I should be thrashing you myself for coming after me alone as you did. What were you thinking?"

"What was I thinking?" Her anger burst forth now that she was safe. "I was thinking that you were a wool-headed idiot going off on the crone's quest without me, and that you would need me."

"Cara, that old woman told me to take no one with me, that was the reason I didn't bring you."

"She said 'take no man with you,' I was listening more carefully than you apparently." Ingvar started to respond several times, opening and closing his mouth without ever getting anything out. Finally he just stood there looking into her eyes.

"Well, I'm glad you're here, I just wish your arrival hadn't been so painful." Cara smiled up at him. "Why don't you put yourself together and I'll gather your things. Let's go up to my camp and leave this offal to the animals." Cara straitened her clothes while Ingvar packed her gear.

"But where is my horse in all this?" Cara asked him.

"He ended up in my camp," the king answered. "That was part of what got me moving. From there I just followed the sound." He threw some dirt on Cara's campfire and then went to the far side of the camp to retrieve the Ravens. He wiped the blades carefully on the clothing of the dead bandit leader. He then gathered Cara's gear and led her through the woods to his camp. They were able to hear wolves howling in the distance, perhaps scenting the blood.

"Careful where you step here," Ingvar said as he pointed out the thread surrounding the camp. Cara's horse was standing beside Silvertip, looking comfortable. Ingvar set her saddle down beside his, and laid one of Cara's blankets on top of his own to provide a softer bed. "Have you eaten anything?"

"Not really, but I don't feel like eating yet either," she told him. "I just need to get over the shock."

"Alright," he said simply. Ingvar stretched out on the blanket, taking the right side as he customarily did when they share his bed in the palace. He looked at her for a few minutes, silent. Cara stood where he'd left her, feeling unable to move. Part of her wanted to cry like a lost child, another part wanted to rejoice that this big man actually loved her. The shock from the bandit attack had left her shaking with wildly conflicting emotions. She felt paralyzed by the turmoil within her, and stood gazing at Ingvar without truly seeing him for long minutes. He seemed to sense all this and waited until she seemed to be present behind her eyes once more, seeing him instead of what she had just gone through. He patted the blanket and cocked one eyebrow quizzically.

Cara moved toward the makeshift bed, taking just one step, pausing, and then another step. He put his arms around her as she finally settled beside him, holding her tenderly without any thought of more than just being close to her and making her feel safe. It was a long time before Ingvar felt the tension release from Cara. Shortly thereafter he heard the soft sounds of her crying against his chest.

Eventually, they both slept.

They traveled two more days before reaching the edge of the high forest. They rode over rocky ground now, following a narrow track that led them ever higher to a high pass between the massive white peaks that seemed to loom over their heads. Their voices were hushed when the spoke, which was infrequent, as if this place demanded reverence. For Ingvar, it was like coming home in a way. His people had lived beneath peaks such as these when he was a child, before they had been murdered. For Cara, this was a new experience. She had never before been so high or so near the white peaks that formed this edge of Semaar.

Cara found it odd how sounds were sometimes reflected back at them, making her think that a score of horsemen were coming up behind them. But at other times, sound seemed to just disappear as if the mountains were drinking it from the air. It was cold, too, far colder than she expected. Ingvar was colder than he had anticipated being, too. He had given two of his furs to Cara to keep her warm, and now he felt the chill, but never complained. Having her here with him made him feel warm in other ways, and his body could withstand the discomfort well enough.

They were more than five days out from the capital of Semaar, and they had reached the northern border of the land they knew. Legends told of an ancient kingdom within the White Mountains, though the stories weren't clear whether the place they sought was within the mountains themselves, or in the land beyond. In either case, Ingvar thought they would have ample time to reach the Norn's Tower, provided they didn't go astray somewhere in the peaks. To his knowledge no one from Semaar had explored these mountains. Old women told tales of ghosts haunting the high passes, and while Semaar was a civilized kingdom, its people found no reason to test those old stories. Indeed, the track they followed appeared to be made by animals, and there was no sign that any human had passed this way. This might as well be the edge of the world, Ingvar thought.

Ingvar felt the only serious threat to them was changing weather. If a storm blew this late in the season, it would likely dump snow on them. And snow added to the wind up here meant a blizzard, disorientation, and possible death. His cavalier attitude toward danger had evaporated when Cara joined him. Now he once again found himself shouldering the burden of responsibility for another's life.

They climbed a shoulder of the mountain and entered a narrow valley, so narrow it made Ingvar think one of the gods had used an axe to cut through the place where the two peaks joined. The floor of the valley appeared flat and clear at a distance, the hills above strewn with boulders and the residue of last year's snow. As they got farther in to the narrow valley, they were amazed to find that the floor of the valley was paved with large blocks of stone, still visible in most places, obscured here and there with rocks that had fallen from above. The road was wide enough for four horsemen to ride abreast with ease.

"I never knew this was here," Ingvar said in wonder. "Who built this road?"

"I don't know," said Cara. "I don't recall ever hearing of a road up here. Do you think it's safe?"

"Aye," he said, "as long as we're careful to listen for falling rock. It will certainly make it easier for the horses. I just hope it goes to the tower we seek."

Ingvar kept a worried eye on the weather. Toward evening, he could see high, thin clouds moving in from the west. He thought they might have snow by morning. They watched for a place to make their camp, hoping to find someplace that might offer them shelter from the wind that whistled through the narrow ravine. The road ran on ahead of them as far as they could see. The valley took a bend to the east up ahead, cutting off their view of what lay beyond. They had no way of knowing whether they were close to the end of the valley or not. Ingvar thought it would be better to camp outside the valley, where the steep walls would not funnel rocks down onto their heads, and said as much to Cara. She just nodded in agreement without speaking.

Ingvar still felt bad for Cara, her lips were swollen where the bandit had punched her, and she sported a collection of bruises from their rough handling. She didn't complain, but watching her he could tell that she hurt. "Feel up to riding faster for a while?" Ingvar asked her.

"Yes," she replied. "I'll do whatever it takes to get out of this wind sooner."

Ingvar kicked Silvertip's flank, urging him to a canter and heard Cara follow suit. They moved quickly through the valley, only having to dodge a couple of rolling rocks as they went. A short time later they reached the bend in the valley and saw the valley opening out before them. They had successfully passed through the narrow valley and into a wider mountain valley beyond. They slowed their mounts, now that the threat of falling rocks was past and set about looking for a place to camp.

It was Cara, with her sharp eyes, that spotted the small stone building near the road. It blended well into the surrounding rocks and withered grass, looking more a part of the terrain than a structure. It looked to be deserted from the distance, but they approached cautiously just the same. Ingvar called out a hello a couple times as they neared the building, but reply was forthcoming. They halted near the building, where they could see the front and back, and Ingvar dismounted. Cara held Silvertip's reins while Ingvar went closer to investigate.

The hut had one window, shuttered from the inside, and only one door. It sat with its back to the mountainside, and on the side nearest Cara there was a sheltered place for the horses to get out of the weather. It seemed an ideal place to spend the night and looked like it might have once served as a waypoint for travelers or guards. Ingvar ducked as he entered the door and then straightened again once he cleared the doorway. There was a single room with a hearth for a fire, and several stacks of wood piled in one corner. The wood seemed well dried as though it had been stacked here within a couple of years, yet not fresh enough to have been more recent. Ingvar guessed the chimney above the hearth was clear, since he could feel air flowing briskly past him toward the back of the hut. Not bad, he thought, almost like someone meant it for our use.

He went back outside and helped Cara settle the horses in their shelter and set out some feed for them. Then they both carried their gear inside and Ingvar saw to starting a fire on the hearth.

"Oh thank the gods," Cara said. Ingvar turned to find her pushing a wooden door closed, shutting out the wind. "Maybe I can finally get some real sleep tonight." The fire flickered to life on the hearth, giving them light and a spreading warmth. Cara spread a couple blankets and a large fur on the floor near the hearth, and then sat on the edge of the makeshift bed to soak up some heat from the fire. Ingvar busied himself unpacking the supplies they would need that night.

"Are you hungry?" he asked her.

"I could eat," she replied with a tired smile. She watched him drop some bits of dried meat into the kettle, adding some water and a handful of rice. Then he took out a carrot from his pack and began slicing it up in small pieces and adding them to the pot. He pushed a couple of tall blocks of stone close on either side of the fire and then sat the pot on top where it could be heated from below by the fire.

It seemed to Cara like he Ingvar was gently shaking her shoulder only minutes later. She realized she had fallen asleep while watching him cook dinner. The hut was now filled with a savory smell of beef stew, and from the light it was completely dark outside now. The only light was from the fire. Ingvar handed her a steaming bowl, half filled with a dark stew and smelling wonderful to her. While she took her first couple of bites, nearly burning her tongue in the process, he poured a cup of mead for her. Then he sat beside her with his own share of food and drink.

"If only it could always be like this," Cara said with a contented sigh. Ingvar made a sound that was half grunt and half laugh.

"My cooking isn't that good," he said, smiling.

"Barely adequate," she said with a straight face. "I meant, I like being alone with you like this, away from the palace and all the things that have to be done."

Ingvar was silent a while, then said to her "I suppose we could just keep going when we're done. We don't have to go back to Semaar." She looked at him, startled.

"Of course you have to go back," she told him. "You're the king, and the people need you. Now, Skadi they wouldn't miss." They both chuckled at her jest. Ingvar thought about what she had said. He'd been serious about going away with her and giving up the crown. It didn't mean that much to him anyway. But thinking about the people needing him, that was different. Semaar had flourished under his care, and not just the artisans he employed. His appreciation of skill and talent led to a burgeoning merchant class, trading in the wares the artisans produced. Since he had become king, no one went hungry in the kingdom, and children received a good education. Much better than I ever got, he thought with a wry smile. And when people asked how he had accomplished it, he just smiled and said little.

The truth was, Ingvar valued his people; their skills and talents were all special to him. Because he showed interest and protected their right to create and trade, they prospered. Because he seldom interfered in their lives, when he made suggestions, they were taken seriously. He had suggested to some of the town elders that they might prosper even more if they passed along the best education they could to the children. Schools were created. When Ingvar suggested that all the children of the kingdom would benefit from this education, and not just the children of the merchants and lords, they talked about how to spread the schools. It was discovered, when the people began discussing this idea, that people were willing to give a portion of what they had to support the schools. As the children had grown and begun to work in the community themselves, everyone saw the benefits and more support grew.

He never had to pay for these things from the treasury, though he supported them in less obvious ways. He had found that the citizens of Semaar were quite capable of doing great things on their own. They just needed to be nudged in the right direction sometimes. And since they still thought of Ingvar as a barbarian, they wouldn't take his advice at face value when he gave it directly. He had gotten around that by asking a lot of questions, which encouraged them to think of the solutions themselves.

"Maybe they do need me," he said to Cara after a time. When she didn't answer, he looked at her only to find her asleep again. He smiled, took the empty dishes, and covered her with another blanket. She smiled in her sleep and pulled the blanket closer.

Ingvar went outside, quietly so as not to wake Cara, to check on the horses. He found them content in their shelter, drowsing after their long day. There was a spring of clear water at the back of the shelter that spilled into a trough, so they had water. This place is a perfect place to stop and rest, Ingvar thought. As he stepped back outside the shelter, he felt a soft wetness on his face. He looked up at the sky and felt a few more light touches.

Snow was falling.