The dust blew up and over and around the wagon. At times, the dust seemed thin and light while at other times, it was thick and gritty. The lead wagon in the caravan caught part of it, the second wagon caught more, while the third and last got all the dust.
“I’m beginning,” Lylle choked out, “to hate traveling.” He was in the third wagon and no matter which way he twisted or turned his thin, wiry-framed body, he couldn’t escape the dust.
“Sit still!” Niatha yelled, then coughed as the dirt-filled air rushed into his mouth. He was sitting next to Lylle and every time Lylle leaned his way, he got crushed between Lylle and the seat. Niatha looked like a large cat with glistening velvety fur and a long tail. What he had that no cat had was a pair of wings. Lylle, Raphael, and Merrif were the only ones who could see Niatha as he truly was. Everyone else saw a common black cat.
“Did you say something?” Merrif asked, riding up next to the wagon. He was riding an old mare that would stop every so often and munch on some grass until Merrif could get her head up and get her moving forward. The dust didn’t seem to faze the mare at all, but Merrif wasn’t so blessed. He moved her away from the wagon to escape the dust.
“I said that I hate traveling!” Lylle answered.
“Not you,” Merrif said. “I was asking Niatha.” Lylle started to say something, but instead he sucked dust into his mouth and choked.
“He’s crushing me,” Niatha complained. “Why can’t I ride with you?”
“Because Rilla would get upset,” Merrif explained. “Wouldn’t you Rilla?” He bent forward and patted the mare’s neck.
“She wouldn’t get upset if you shot her full of arrows,” Niatha retorted.
“Merrif!” Raphael called. He was riding a horse, also. His horse was larger and more energetic. It was so energetic that Raphael had his hands full controlling him. “We’ll stop soon.”
“So soon?” Merrif asked. “We aren’t getting anywhere with stopping all the time,” he complained. His long brown hair whipped around in the wind and dust while his scraggly and bushy beard protected part of his face. He was tall and skinny, but against the wind, he slumped forward. Merrif was impatient because at the end of this journey he was hoping to find the goddess Illiena.
“Straight,” Lylle choked out. “I can’t wait to stop,” he said.
“Get this human off of me,” Niatha complained.
“The caravan has a set route, Merrif,” Raphael answered. “They don’t deviate from it unless they have to. We stop soon.”
“Thank Illiena!” Niatha spouted. Merrif whipped his head toward Niatha and in the process lost his balance. He nearly fell off Rilla, barely managing to grab her mane in a last, desperate attempt at holding on to something. “Wha … what did you say?” he asked after he righted himself.
“I didn’t say anything,” Niatha replied.
“No, I heard you say something. Was that a prayer to Illiena?”
“No, it was –” Niatha was interrupted as the wagon bumped and bounced. Lylle was tossed in the air and bounced back down, landing partially on Niatha. “Ouch!” Niatha yelled. “Stop this wagon! Anything has to be better than this!” The wagon stopped. “What?” Niatha asked, surprise showing on his face.
“They’ve stopped,” Merrif said.
“So they have,” Niatha replied sarcastically. “I’m glad you pointed that out. I might not have noticed.”
“Get down and shake the dust off,” Raphael told Lylle and Niatha. “I’ve got to help set up camp.” He turned his horse and rode to the front of the caravan.
“Get down,” Lylle mocked Raphael in a high pitched voice. “And shake the dust.”
“Quit whining,” Niatha retorted. “You weren’t crushed most of the way.”
“He can’t hear you Niatha,” Merrif said.
“I know that,” Niatha hissed. “So tell him to move so I can get down off this wagon!”
“Niatha wants you to move,” Merrif explained. Lylle turned and looked down. Niatha’s brows were drawn down and his eyes were narrowed. The tip of his tail was flipping back and forth and his ears were laid back.
“He looks angry,” Lylle said. He turned back towards Merrif and started to climb out of the wagon. Niatha stood slowly, letting each leg stretch out before putting weight on it. Lylle grabbed onto the wagon tightly as he climbed down, groaning with every move.
Merrif leaned over and swung his leg around as he got off Rilla. He held onto the saddle to make sure his legs would support him. While it hadn’t been a long day of riding, it had been a while since they’d left Dargon, and he still wasn’t used to the traveling.
“I recall riding being easier,” Merrif groaned as he took Rilla’s reins and patted her neck. She enjoyed the attention and stepped closer to Merrif, pushing him back a step. “Easy Rilla. You’ll knock me over.”
“How much longer did Raphael say this trip was going to be?” Lylle asked.
“It’s already one sennight too long,” Niatha replied.
“I thought you wanted your answers,” Merrif teased. “Giving up so early?”
“No!” Niatha said emphatically. “We’ll get to your tower and then you’ll tell me where you conjured me from, why, and what I am.”
“I don’t know what you are,” Merrif answered. “I told you that. The rest I’ll tell you when we get to the tower.”
“I know what he is,” Lylle said, a small smile on his face. “He’s a cushion.”
“This ‘cushion’ is going to bite you next time,” Niatha promised, hopping down from the wagon.
“He said he’s going to bite you the next time you use him for a cushion,” Merrif told Lylle.
“It’d probably not hurt as much as riding in the wagon,” Lylle laughed.
“At least with our paid passage, we don’t have as many duties as the rest,” Merrif said.
“That’s only because they don’t trust us,” Lylle told him. “If they knew us, we’d be helping with a lot more chores.”
“Not me,” Niatha grinned.
“I’d send you out hunting,” Merrif stated. “And not let you back into camp without something bigger than a tree rat.”
“Have you seen some of them?” Niatha said, sitting up and eyes wide. “Some of those tree rats are twice the size of Dargon’s rats. I’d love to go hunting them.” He smiled, showing his fangs.
“I’m going to take Rilla to get some water and then rub her down,” Merrif said. “I’ll be back after that.” Lylle and Niatha watched him walk away, Rilla in tow.
“This would be better if I could hear you,” Lylle said, looking down at Niatha. “But at least you can hear me and understand what I’m saying.” Lylle stepped away, stretching his legs in the process.
“That’s a good thing?” Niatha remarked dryly.
“Ah,” Lylle groaned as he stretched his arms above his head. “Niatha?” he asked when he saw Niatha walking away. “A walk sounds like a great idea.”
“What is this?” Lylle asked, munching on a biscuit.
“It’s a biscuit,” Raphael answered, eating one also. He was seated, his legs stretched out in front of him.
“I know that! What’s in it?”
“Breb,” Merrif answered, a whole biscuit stuffed in his mouth.
“Huh?” Lylle said. “Oh, bread. Well, why does it taste different than last night’s or the night before that?” Lylle asked, exasperated with the two of them.
“From what I understand,” Raphael explained, “each family makes food for the journey. We get to eat something from each family every night. When they’ve gone through all of the families, they start over again.”
“I liked last night’s food better,” Lylle said.
“Get used to it,” Raphael smirked. “We’ll have it again and again until it’s all gone.”
“How much farther do we have to go?”
“We should reach Valdasly sometime in early winter.”
“Winter!?!” Lylle exclaimed.
“We’ll be climbing higher and will probably see snow before we get to Valdasly.”
“We could double up and go on our own,” Merrif suggested.
“Yes, why don’t we?” Lylle asked.
“Because we paid for passage,” Raphael said.
“Why did we have to go by caravan?”
“We didn’t have to. It’s safer and easier.”
“Easier?” Lylle asked, shock on his face. “You call riding in that wagon easier?”
“Yes. Easier than walking and easier than riding double.”
“I guess it would be easier than walking, but not by much.”
“It’s our turn to clean up,” Merrif said. “Finish up, Lylle and let’s get it done. I’m tired and would like to turn in early.”
“Maybe someone will actually strike up a conversation with us this time,” Lylle remarked.
“They’re a close group,” Raphael told him. “They don’t usually let strangers travel with them. It’s only because May arranged for us to be here that they agreed.”
“She’s an amazing woman,” Lylle said, finishing the last of his food. “She knows all kinds of people. I heard the duke stops at her place every so often.”
“Wouldn’t you?” Raphael chuckled. “She’s probably got the best food around. Not to mention the cleanest place.”
“What place is that?” Merrif asked, standing up.
“Spirit’s Haven,” Raphael said. “One of the finest inns in Dargon.”
“I don’t think I’ve been there,” Merrif replied. “When we get …”
“Merrif?” Raphael asked after Merrif didn’t finish his sentence.
“Are we going back?” Merrif asked, his voice quiet and soft.
“Where else would we go?” Lylle asked as he collected plates.
“I don’t know. I didn’t think of what we’d do after we got to the tower.”
“There will be plenty of time to think of that. If you don’t go clean up, you won’t get any sleep tonight,” Raphael warned.
“He’s right,” Niatha yawned. “Besides, I’m trying to sleep and you’re too noisy.”
“Come on Lylle. It seems we’re keeping Niatha awake.” Lylle looked down at Niatha, started to say something, but turned and walked away instead. Merrif followed him.
“You didn’t say it would get this cold!” Lylle yelled from the wagon. His hands were in front of his face, trying to block the wind. The wind, though, was howling down upon them all with a chilling ferocity that threatened to freeze them solid.
“Pray that it doesn’t start snowing. You’ll get wet, cold, and freezing,” Raphael yelled back. He was on a horse riding next to the wagon. A scarf was pulled around his chin and neck, a coat covered his upper body, and wool breeches covered his legs. A cap covered his head, but where his brown hair was blown back away from his forehead, the wind reddened his face. He blinked constantly.
“Sometimes it’s good to have fur,” Niatha replied from beside Lylle.
“It won’t be too much longer,” Raphael said. “We’ll stop at an inn this time.”
“An inn?” Lylle asked. “A real inn? One with walls, a fire, and beds?” He crossed his arms, placing his hands in his armpits in an attempt to warm his hands. Although he wore mittens, the cold seeped through them. The wind, unblocked now, blew into his face.
“Is there any other kind?” Raphael laughed.
“It won’t be soon enough,” Lylle gritted through chattering teeth.
“It’s too late,” Raphael corrected him. “Look,” he said, pointing ahead of the caravan. The horizon seemed darker and it looked as if the air swirled with something.
“What is it?”
“Snowstorm,” Raphael said. “I can’t tell if it’s headed our way or moving along in front of us, though.”
“How soon is that inn?”
“The other side of that snow, I think,” Raphael answered, his hands over his eyes trying to keep the wind out of them.
The three wagons moved slowly, even though the road was fairly smooth. The snowstorm was moving ahead of them, but slower than the wagons. They traveled into the edge of the snow before they reached the inn. Everyone worked together to unhitch the horses and then two boys took the horses to stable them.
“I’m cold and hungry,” Lylle said, heading for the inn. “I hope there’s a warm fire and some hot food.” Raphael and Merrif were behind him a few steps. Jeth, one of the leaders of the caravan, stepped in front of Raphael.
“Aye, boy, there will be both of those things in the inn,” Jeth said, slapping a hand on Lylle’s shoulder. “My thanks for the help unhitching the teams.” He stepped ahead of Lylle, opened the doors, and went inside. Lylle stopped and watched him go.
“Is the cold getting to me, or did he just thank me?” Lylle asked. Raphael and Merrif walked past Lylle.
“The cold will get to you if you stand there until night,” Raphael replied. Merrif said nothing as he hurried inside to the warmth of the main room. Lylle watched as a couple more people from the caravan walked around him. “He thanked me,” Lylle muttered before going inside.
The inn was getting crowded as the people from the caravan slowly filtered in from outside. There was a fire going in the fireplace. People were taking off cloaks and coats before sitting down to a table. Several women and one boy were bringing in bowls of food and mugs of hot liquid.
“Hot cider,” Merrif said, sniffing the air. “Smells good, too. I don’t know what’s in the bowls, though.” He was seated at a table, rubbing his hands together to warm them.
“Food,” Lylle said. “It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s food.” He took off his tattered, thin coat and then sat down at a table. Raphael unwrapped his scarf, took his coat off, and joined Lylle at the table.
“I see Niatha,” Raphael said, nodding toward the fireplace. Niatha was sitting in front of the fire, warming up. “So much for his fur keeping him warm.” Merrif chuckled and nodded his head in agreement. The serving boy was headed their way with mugs of cider.
“I don’t think anything could keep warm out there for long,” Merrif said.
“Does it always snow this hard around here?” Lylle asked. The boy set two mugs on the table.
“This hard?” the boy asked. “This is a light snow. I’ll be back with another mug.” He left to get the cider.
“This is a light snow?”
“It snows like this in Dargon,” Merrif said, sipping his hot cider.
“Yes, but it isn’t this cold and the wind doesn’t blow this hard,” Lylle replied, waiting on his cider.
“You’ve been out in the wind and cold and snow for days now,” Raphael said. “That’s why it feels worse than in Dargon. Once you’re cold, it’s hard to warm up fully.”
“The fire helps,” Niatha said, from below the table. “Fire helps.”
“Niatha?” Merrif asked, looking down under the table. “I didn’t hear you come over.”
“I’m hungry,” Niatha said.
“We all are,” Raphael told him. “Have some patience. They’re bringing food and cider around.”
“Cider?” Niatha asked, curling up on the floor. “Tired, too,” he added.
“We’re over halfway there, Niatha,” Raphael said. “We traveled south from Dargon, through Kenna, skirted the Darst range just a bit before turning into it and climbing higher into the mountains. Some of the forests around here have legends about them and so are avoided. That’s why we climbed into the mountains. It’s slower and colder, but according to some of the legends, it’s a lot safer. We’ll stay in the higher mountain area until we get closer to Valdasly.”
“We’re halfway there …” Lylle muttered. He was watching the boy bring his cider.
“Here’s the cider and a bowl of stew,” the boy said, placing both items on the table. “Where are you headed?”
“Valdasly,” Lylle answered.
“You’re not going all the way to Hawksbridge with the caravan?” the boy asked.
“We’re looking for a tower in the mountains,” Merrif said, taking the stew. Raphael looked like he wanted to say something, but he didn’t.
“A tower? There aren’t any towers around this inn that I know of. You’re going in the right direction, though. The closest place that would have a tower is Valdasly. I’ve only heard about it. Never been there, so I don’t know for sure.”
“We’re each searching for different answers,” Merrif replied.
“And the tower?” the boy asked.
“It holds them,” Merrif said. “At least our hopes are that it does.” Merrif sipped some more cider.
“When we get to the tower,” Niatha whispered from below. “It will reveal all.” He yawned and closed his eyes. The boy left to bring more food out to the people.
“I hope that this tower does hold all our answers,” Raphael said, looking down into his mug.
Scattered throughout the warm inn, most everyone was asleep on the floor. With the rooms full, most of the people from the caravan were camped in the main room. And outside, winter dropped snow down upon the ground in small, fragile flakes.
“Do you really think she’ll be there?” Lylle asked. He was lying on his back with a blanket covering the lower half of his body. His arms were crossed above his head as a makeshift pillow.
“It’s my hope, yes,” Raphael replied. Sitting up, legs crossed under him, Raphael was leaning back against the wall of the inn. “If she’s not there, then I’ll search elsewhere.”
“She must be something special,” Merrif said. He was lying on his side. His arm was propped under him, holding his head up.
“Megan is,” Lylle replied, smiling.
“You’d steal her away from me if you had the chance, wouldn’t you?” Raphael asked, a small smile on his face.
“If I thought I had a chance,” Lylle said. “But she loves you too much.”
“Why do Megan and I fight so much, then?” Raphael asked, but to no one in particular.
“Hmmph,” Merrif snorted. He turned over on his back and relaxed. Niatha, curled up next to him, unconsciously shifted his body to adjust to Merrif’s move. “If men knew that answer,” Merrif continued, “we wouldn’t ever have any problems with women.”
“That’s a bad thing?” Lylle asked.
“Ha!” Merrif chuckled. “I don’t know. It would be a very different world, though.”
“I think we enjoyed the fighting,” Raphael mused.
“What’s she like?” Merrif asked. Niatha pushed a paw out and muttered something in his sleep. Merrif reached down and stroked Niatha’s fur.
“Megan is all fire and energy. Her hair is red and sometimes, when we’re fighting, her eyes are red, too.”
“Red eyes?” Merrif asked.
“She’s got green eyes,” Lylle said.
“Yes, she’s got green eyes. But get her mad and you’ll believe her eyes are red, too. She isn’t as tall as I am … about to my nose. And I’ve seen fairer women in Dargon, but Megan … well … she’s just Megan. She won’t back away from anyone or anything. She has a temper, yes, but she can be tender and caring, too. Especially for things that can’t take care of themselves. Unless that thing is feeling sorry for itself,” Raphael said, closing his eyes. “Unless that thing is being a stubborn fool.” Merrif and Lylle said nothing and waited for Raphael to continue.
“It’s strange how life can turn on you. There was a time when she was cursed. She couldn’t move of her own free will, but she could still see everything that was going on around her. She couldn’t talk either, but her body functioned to keep her alive.
“I cared for her when she was like that. It wasn’t easy at first. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I fed her, cleaned her, put her to bed, did every little thing you do unnoticed and don’t ever think about. I don’t know how she lived through that, not being able to say or do anything.
“And then, when I killed the mage that cursed her, I lost the use of my legs in the fight. Megan was cured, though. But now, I couldn’t walk and she had to take care of me. It was a tough time for me. I thought taking care of Megan was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I was wrong. Living without the use of my legs was harder. I was used to doing everything and suddenly, I couldn’t do anything.
“She cared for me as I’d cared for her, except I could still talk and move. I didn’t like feeling helpless. We started arguing. The arguments got worse and one day she left. She told me she was leaving, too. Told me to come get her when I was ready. I think she knew that I wasn’t going to get better with our arguing. I think she knew that by her leaving, I’d have reason enough to walk. At least I hope so.”
“How did you start walking again?” Merrif asked.
“By pain and sweat and more pain and hard work. At first, I was outraged that she left. I used my anger to push me along. When I couldn’t move because of exhaustion, I’d think more about what happened and get angrier. I crawled and fell more than anything in those first few days, but slowly, and it was slow, I began to walk.
“In the end, I did walk. That’s when I asked May about Megan. May told me that she’d gone to visit family near Valdasly. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I’d thought she’d just left the inn and was in Dargon somewhere waiting.
“But she wasn’t. She’d left Dargon and me in it. I think I lost most of my will and strength in my efforts to walk. The news that she wasn’t in Dargon hit me hard and I left the inn. I lost touch with May and Lylle. I was almost living on the streets. But I was fortunate that Lylle found and helped me. And that wasn’t too long before we met you.”
“It sounds like you really care for her,” Merrif said as he rolled onto his back and relaxed. “I hope she’s at the tower.”
“It’s been a long day,” Raphael sighed. He had heard Merrif move and guessed that he was nearly asleep. Opening his eyes and looking, he saw that he was right. Lylle was already asleep. Niatha had been for a while. Raphael slowly slid sideways down the wall until he was lying on the floor. He yawned and pulled his cloak over himself.
“Wake up,” Niatha said, nudging Merrif. “It calls.”
“Wha …?” Merrif yawned. Raphael opened his eyes, as he had heard Niatha also.
“We must go,” Niatha urged.
“What are you talking about, Niatha?” Merrif asked, then groaned as he moved to sit up. Lylle was turning over to see what all the noise was about. Raphael stretched slowly.
“I heard them calling me,” Niatha said.
“Heard who?” Merrif asked. He was sitting up, all groans gone. His attention was fixed on Niatha. Raphael was also sitting up, attentive.
“They said they are sending a guide,” Niatha continued.
“Who said, Niatha?” Merrif asked. “Are you all right?”
“I saw them last night in a dream.” Niatha was standing, looking at Merrif. His tail was swishing slowly back and forth. His wings fluttered briefly, but did not open fully.
“You dreamt?” Merrif asked. “You don’t dream. I’m the one who dreams …” Merrif stopped talking and left his mouth open. “I haven’t been dreaming,” he said, closing his mouth. “I haven’t dreamed anything since –”
“I was outside the tower,” Niatha interrupted. “The door was open and I saw two men standing inside. They were tall, with long, light-colored hair. There was a shimmering in the air around the tower. It wouldn’t let me inside, but the two said they were sending a guide to bring me to them.”
“A guide?” Raphael asked. “Who?”
“They were familiar, Merrif,” Niatha said, ignoring Raphael. “I’ve seen them before.”
“What are you talking about?” Lylle asked as he got to his feet. He looked around the room and saw that other people were slowly stirring. It was morning and he could see some light streaming in around the door.
“Where did you see them?” Merrif asked, recovering from his amazement at not dreaming. He usually dreamt about the goddess Illiena. His long hair was a tangled mess and he ran his hands through it carefully in an attempt to straighten it out. His bushy beard was slightly flat on one side where he had slept on it.
“I don’t know. They just seemed familiar.” Niatha sat and used his front paw to scratch behind his ear. “The first thing I thought when I woke up was that I didn’t see Illiena.”
“You had that as your first thought?” Merrif chuckled. “I didn’t know you cared so much about her.”
“I don’t,” Niatha retorted, flicking his tail in irritation. “It was just something that came into my mind when I woke. Just as I remembered the dream.”
“Who is the guide?” Raphael asked again.
“I don’t know,” Niatha answered. “They just said they were sending one.”
“Will someone tell me what’s going on?” Lylle asked.
“Niatha’s had a dream about the tower and two people in it,” Raphael explained. “He said that the two people are sending a guide.”
“Convenient,” Lylle replied. “It sounds like someone wants us to get there, desperately.”
“We all have choices,” Raphael said. “We can turn around now and leave the tower behind us.”
“You could do that?”
“No,” Raphael sighed. “But it is a choice that each of us has.”
“Illiena is at that tower,” Merrif said. “I won’t turn back.”
“Those two were familiar,” Niatha added. “I don’t know why or how, but even if I don’t find out, I will get my answers from you. You’ll tell me how and why you brought me here.”
“Yes,” Merrif agreed. “Once we get there.”
“I came this far,” Lylle said. “If Raphael goes to find Megan, I’ll go too. If it’s stopped snowing, that is. If it’s snowy and cold, I’m going to stay right here until next summer.”