“Looks like the rest of the caravan is up,” Merrif said, standing up. People were packing up and moving about. Someone opened the door and the sun could be seen. Everyone blinked and shielded their eyes as the sun’s rays reflected harshly off the snow.
“A beautiful day,” someone called out.
“How does it look?”
“It looks bright,” the man who opened the door said. “But the road looks clear. We can leave today.”
“What if I don’t want to go?” Lylle asked, quietly. “That wagon is too bumpy and cold.”
“The horse isn’t that much better,” Raphael told him. “You’re still cold and you are sore in different places, is all. At least with the wagon, you have a cushion of blankets to sit upon.”
The sun shone down, reflecting brightly off the night’s snow. Men and women gathered around the wagons to ready them for travel; the horses were hitched, the wheels and axles were inspected, and the body of each wagon was searched for broken boards. While the work was started early enough, it was late in the morning before the caravan pulled away from the inn.
“At least the road isn’t too rough,” Lylle said from the middle wagon. Raphael and Merrif were riding horses beside him. Niatha, as usual, was sitting next to Lylle.
They were all bundled against the early winter weather, but the sun strove to heat the day and warm all. Near mid-afternoon, the snow started melting. People were unwrapping scarves and coats. Even the birds were out flying and chirping.
“How’s the wagon?” Raphael asked. “I’m numb to the saddle, but even were I not, the day is too fine to let anything ruin it.” The reins hung loosely in his hands.
“It is a smooth ride, today,” Lylle answered.
“Yes,” Merrif agreed, as his mare snorted. “Hmmph. Some of us think it’s a smooth ride. Opinions vary, I guess.” He laughed and then bent forward to rub the mare’s neck.
“I’m not getting crushed,” Niatha added. “That’s always a good –” The horses in the first wagon reared and Niatha stopped to see what was the cause of the commotion. The horses pulling their wagon jumped and pranced sideways, jerking the wagon about. Raphael’s horse snorted and started to rear, but he pulled the reins in sharply to stop it. Merrif’s mare just stopped, ears perked up and turning about.
“Illiena!” Merrif yelled, looking at the horses and wagons. “What’s got them riled up?”
“Wolf!” a man yelled from the first wagon. Immediately after, whispers and shouts of ‘wolf’ echoed throughout the caravan. The horses fidgeted and pranced. Men jumped down from the wagons to grab harnesses in an attempt to keep the horses from bolting.
Raphael’s attention was focused on controlling his horse, so he didn’t see the black wolf lope up to him. The horse reared, throwing him. He sailed in the air and landed heavily, emitting a loud huff. The wolf didn’t stop until it stood over Raphael.
Opening his eyes, Raphael squinted and blinked. Something was in his eye and he squeezed both of them shut instinctively. “A wolf upon me and I can’t even see it,” he thought. Sliding a finger across his eye, he removed the foreign object and started to sit up when he saw the shape of the wolf above him.
“Anam?” Raphael asked, looking up at the wolf. “You near killed me!” he yelled, recognizing the wolf. He had found Anam as a pup, the only survivor of his litter. Even his mother had died. It was during a time when Raphael had been searching for a cure for a curse that had afflicted Megan. Raphael had been tempted to let the pup die with the rest, but something about the pup had caused Megan to react. Hoping that it would help Megan, he brought the pup with them.
Anam licked his face. “That doesn’t change anything,” he sputtered, trying to hold in his delight at seeing Anam. “You made my horse throw me. Near blinded me with dirt and I could have broken my neck!” Anam licked his face again.
“Stevene save us!” a woman cried.
“Get the crossbow!” a man yelled.
“No!” Lylle yelled back, jumping down from the wagon. With the wolf standing still and somewhat away from the wagons, the horses weren’t as nervous. Raphael turned and knelt in front of Anam.
“I missed you, you big wolf!” he said wrapping his arms around Anam. Anam moved forward, upsetting his balance, and he fell over onto his back.
“It’s going to eat him!” a woman shrieked.
“It won’t!” Lylle yelled. “He raised that wolf from a cub.”
“He raised it?” a man asked. Murmurs and whispers scattered throughout the caravan informing all whom had not heard.
“Yes,” Raphael agreed, getting to his feet. “I found him alone in the woods, his mother dead from an arrow.”
“It won’t attack anyone?” a woman asked.
“No,” Raphael replied. “Although he might lick you to death.”
“Take it away from the wagons!” a man yelled. “The horses are skittish!”
“Aye! Take it away!” another called. Raphael walked away from the wagons and Anam followed him. Several horses stamped and pranced as Anam moved.
“The guide!” Niatha yelled, jumping down from the wagon. “That’s the guide!”
“What?” Merrif asked, watching the wolf.
“The wolf!” Niatha hissed. “It’s the guide! Remember? From my dream last night.”
“You’ll have to send it away,” a man said. “Can’t have the horses being spooked all the time.”
“I can’t do that,” Raphael replied. He was sitting down with Anam lying on his lap. “This is where I leave the caravan.”
“He’s right,” Niatha agreed, walking slowly towards Anam. “We all must leave the caravan.” Anam was watching Niatha intently.
“Niatha?” Merrif asked, his voice slightly higher than normal. “Be careful.” Niatha kept walking towards Anam in slow deliberate steps. Everything became quiet as the caravan people watched, also. Niatha reached Anam’s stretched out legs and stepped carefully over them. Anam lifted his head, pulled back a leg, and placed his paw on Niatha. The weight and force was too much and Anam’s paw knocked Niatha over.
Niatha rolled over and Anam’s paw stopped next to him. Niatha looked up, just in time to see a large tongue wash over him. “Augh!” Niatha yelped. Anam licked him again.
“Take the tongue away!” Niatha pleaded after yet another lick from Anam. He tried to get up and move away, but Anam placed his paw on him and licked him again.
“It isn’t right!” a woman said. “A wolf and a cat?”
“Mayhap it thinks it’s a cub?” a man asked.
“Whatever it is, it can’t stay near the horses,” someone else said. “Take it away!”
“Enough, Anam,” Raphael laughed. “Leave Niatha alone.”
“Strange,” a woman said. “I’ve never seen a wolf and a cat together.”
“You’ve never even seen a wolf,” a man laughed. Laughter erupted among the people.
“You’re a strange group,” Jeth, the caravan leader, said. “But if it’s here where we part ways, then take what food you’ll need and take an extra blanket or two. Don’t want you freezing out here.”
“We are leaving,” Raphael told him. “Thank you for the food and blankets.” Raphael stood, but didn’t come closer to the wagons for fear Anam would follow him. He did look at Lylle. Anam slowly got to his feet.
“Straight,” Lylle replied, understanding that Raphael wanted him to gather the food and blankets. Merrif got down from his horse and went to help Lylle.
“I hope you’re right, Niatha” Merrif muttered under his breath. “Being out here without the protection of the caravan and other people is dangerous.” Merrif and Lylle packed everything onto the two horses.
“You can ride my horse, Lylle,” Raphael told him. “I’ll be walking with Anam, from a distance at first. I’ll be out in front. I hope the horses get used to him, though. It’ll make traveling easier.”
“Ride the horse?” Lylle asked. “I’ve never done that. What if I fall off?”
“You get back on!” Raphael laughed. He pulled his straight cane off the horse where it was packed.
“Where to, Niatha?” Merrif asked as the caravan pulled away from them.
“I’m not the guide,” Niatha replied. “That thing is.” Anam walked in the opposite direction that the caravan was going. Raphael followed him, using his cane slightly. Merrif got on his horse and waited for Lylle. Niatha decided not to wait and started after Raphael and Anam. Lylle grabbed onto the saddle and jumped up. He landed with his belly on the saddle and the horse stepped sideways. Lylle slipped off the saddle and landed on his feet. The horse whinnied.
“I think we’ve given them enough of a distance,” Merrif said. “You can quit playing around and get on the horse now.” A small chuckle escaped his lips.
“I’m not playing around!” Lylle retorted. “I’ve never done this before.” He jumped again, but this time, he swung a leg around as soon as he landed on the saddle. Even though the horse sidestepped, Lylle managed to sit in the saddle.
“We’ll take it slow until you get used to riding,” Merrif said, seriously. “It won’t take you long. With Illiena’s help, you won’t have the time to get used to it before we get to the tower.”
“From the town to the woods, it’s to the tower we go,” Lylle said, waving his hand in a grand gesture. Surprisingly, he kept his balance on the horse. “Is this what they call adventure?”
“No,” Merrif answered. “This is called traveling. Adventure is what the bards sing about. Adventure is an illusion, a word used to make songs and tales appear more interesting than they really are.” Merrif urged his mare forward. Lylle’s horse followed the mare.
“Adventure wouldn’t be meeting Illiena at the tower?”
“Nothing is ever what we dream it. I follow Illiena in my heart and in my life, but no one has ever met a god. I don’t hold much to actually finding her there. But it’s what I hope. What I hope and dream.”
“I dream of being somebody some day,” Lylle said.
“Not who, but somebody. Somebody that everyone knows. Somebody that has power, that doesn’t have to live on the streets, doesn’t worry about starving. Somebody.” Lylle had a faraway look in his eyes.
“Living on the streets is hard,” Merrif said.
“Very hard,” Lylle added. “You’re less than nobody. People look at you with contempt and disgust and horror. You have to swallow what little pride you have so you can beg for food or money. People walk out of their way to avoid you.” His voice was hard and tinged with anger. His grip on the reins tightened. “They never look you in the eyes. I don’t want to live like that anymore. I want to be somebody.”
“Is that why you’re here?” The two horses were plodding along.
“No. I’m here because Raphael is here. The first time he saw me, he looked me in the eyes. He treated me as a person. I’m here because we’re looking for Megan. She not only looks me in the eye, but she smiles. She’s happy to see me. She’s beautiful. She’s –”
“You love her,” Merrif said, interrupting him.
“Yes,” Lylle said quietly.
“Does he know?” Merrif asked, tilting his head toward Raphael.
“Not how much. Besides the shadow boys, they’re the only two who cared what happened to me. I’d walk half of ‘diar for either of them. That’s why I’m here.”
“We each have our reasons,” Merrif said. “What was it you said?” he asked, changing the subject. “Out of town, through woods to the tower we go?”
“Straight!” Lylle said. “To the tower!”
“Does this hill go on forever?” Merrif groaned, putting another foot in front of the other. He grabbed onto a tree in front of him and used it to haul his body farther up the hill. The snow on the ground didn’t help.
“It stops at the top,” Raphael laughed. He gripped his straight cane in one hand and used the other to catch himself when he slipped on the snow or ice.
“Where is Anam?” Lylle huffed. Pulling both horses behind him, Lylle was having just as much trouble as Merrif climbing the hill. “Do you think Anam would pull me the rest of the way up?”
“Only after me,” Raphael answered. While he wasn’t as out of breath as the other two, he was breathing hard. “I don’t think he’s going to help either of us, though.” Raphael pointed up the hill to the left, “He’s over there with Niatha. They’re having a grand time of this hillside.” Lylle and Merrif used the distraction as an excuse to stop and catch their breath. They looked to where Raphael had pointed.
Anam was chasing Niatha around trees and through bushes. Niatha hopped over a limb, making a sharp turn as he landed. Anam ran straight into the limb, brushing it aside as if it was nothing. Closing the distance rapidly, Anam prepared to pounce. Niatha gave a short hop and as he landed, he bunched his strong back legs. Pushing upward, Niatha launched himself high into the air, snapping open his wings.
Anam lunged, but came up short as Niatha leapt out of range. Niatha’s wings beat hard and fast in an attempt to gain height. Although he didn’t get much higher, his wings held him in the air long enough for him to reach the closest tree. His wings quit flapping and folded back out of the way as his four paws reached out and grabbed the tree.
Anam never slowed from his lunge as he, too, gathered his strength and jumped. He hit the tree with his front paws and lifted his mouth toward Niatha. Gravity pulled at him and he slid down the trunk to the ground. Niatha climbed higher.
“You missed me!” Niatha taunted. “Catch me now!” Niatha jumped high off the branch and opened his wings again. He glided out and away from Anam.
“Are you sure they’re just playing?” Merrif asked, concern for his friend etched his features.
“Anam won’t hurt him,” Raphael reassured. The three of them, resting on the hillside, watched Anam and Niatha play some more. Anam finally caught up to Niatha, and the two of them reversed roles. Niatha chased Anam while Anam tried to get away.
“Can I get some of their energy?” Merrif asked, starting up the hill again.
“The top of the hill isn’t that far,” Raphael huffed, plodding ahead with his cane.
“I hope this tower is close,” Lylle yawned, just waking up. “I’m cold. The ground is cold. The snow is cold. The air is cold. Dargon never felt this cold.”
“Come over to the fire and warm yourself,” Raphael told him. Raphael was huddled over a small fire, attempting to build it up. It had burned out during the night. He fed small twigs onto the embers, blowing the fire after each one to get them started. Once there was a small flame, he added larger branches and finally a small log.
The others were up by the time Raphael was finished. Merrif unpacked two pots. “I have some Daera roots left for tea,” Merrif told them, digging them out of his pack.
“I’ll gather some snow to melt,” Lylle said, grabbing a pot. “Hot tea sounds good.”
“Remember to pack the snow down tight,” Merrif said. “If you don’t, then we won’t get much water.”
“I remember!” Lylle called back. “You’ve told me every time I’ve gone to get snow. Just because I didn’t do that the first time!”
“Careful of the rocks. They’ll be slick,” Raphael warned. The hillside they were on was covered with boulders of all sizes. Large, tall pine trees grew in between the rocks. In some places, oak trees dotted the landscape. The area they had camped on was fairly flat and most of the way up the hill.
“How many more hills do we have to climb?” Merrif asked. Lylle returned with the pot full of snow. Merrif carefully set the pot on top of the log. The fire hissed and crackled as the snow on the outside of the pot melted and dropped water into it.
“As many as Anam decides to climb,” Raphael answered. “I hope he’s taking the shortest way there.” Merrif dropped the Daera roots into the water. Lylle stood next to the fire, warming up while Anam was curled up and asleep. Anam’s body was curved around with his tail covering his face. Niatha was also asleep, lying in the middle of Anam’s curled body.
“Who’s going to wake them?” Lylle asked. “And what food is left to eat?”
“Biscuits,” Merrif replied. “That’s all we have left. Plenty of them, though.”
“We’ll have to hunt for some game later today,” Raphael said. “How good is Niatha at hunting?”
“He’s horrible at it,” Merrif said, his voice steady and serious. A grin covered his weathered face as he taunted Niatha. “He’s the worst hunter I’ve ever seen. Even small mice can elude him.” Merrif dipped some tea out of the pot into a cup and handed it to Lylle. He handed the next one to Raphael.
“I heard that,” Niatha said. He rolled over and stretched out his legs, pushing Anam’s tail away. Anam felt his tail move from his face and opened his eyes to see what was happening.
“Good morning, Anam,” Raphael called from the fire. Anam shifted and pushed his legs out, moving Niatha in the process. Niatha slid along the ground until Anam was done.
“Aw,” Niatha moaned. “Did you have to make him move? I was warm!” Anam lifted his head and moved forward to lick Niatha. “Augh,” Niatha groaned. “Now I’m cold and wet.”
“You can’t sleep the morning away,” Merrif told him. “Especially if I can’t.”
“Is there some of that tea left for me?” Niatha asked, standing up. He walked stiffly over to the fire.
“I saved you some,” Merrif said. “Here.” He placed a cup full of tea on the ground in front of Niatha. Niatha sniffed the cup and tentatively licked the top of the liquid.
“It isn’t very hot,” Niatha complained. “But it does taste good.”
“Eat and drink,” Raphael told them. “I’m going to see if we can get Anam started earlier today.” He walked over to Anam and ruffled the fur on Anam’s back. “Straight, Anam?” Anam answered by rolling over onto his side. “No, no,” Raphael laughed. “Time to get up, not go back to sleep.”
“Time to start packing up, too,” Merrif added. “Here’s some biscuits.” He placed seven of them on a rock before he turned and started packing.
“At least the wind isn’t blowing on this side of the hill,” Lylle said as he helped Merrif. Raphael poked and prodded Anam. Anam stood up and shook his body.
“Is there any tea left?” Raphael asked. Merrif handed him the pot. Raphael looked down into it and saw that there was only a small amount left. Gathering more snow, he filled the pot and waited for the snow to melt. Taking the water to Anam, he let Anam drink what he wanted.
“I didn’t think Anam would want any,” Merrif said.
“I don’t know if he likes the tea, but he’s probably thirsty and this is a good way to cool the pot and get him some water,” Raphael explained.
“It isn’t such a long climb to the top this time,” Lylle said as they walked up the hill. He held the reins of the horses and walked ahead of them.
“That’s because we climbed most of it yesterday,” Merrif said. “I recall all your complaining then.”
“Save your energy for the next one,” Raphael suggested. “Who knows how many are left?” He was almost at the top.
“Anam does,” Niatha said. “But he isn’t talking.”
“Yes,” Raphael softly said. He stood at the top, looking down the other side.
“What is it?” Lylle asked, rushing up the hill.
“Illiena!” Merrif moaned. “The tower!” He was standing next to Raphael.
“There it is,” Lylle said as he finally reached the top. Looking down the other side, into a small valley, he saw the tower. It wasn’t an impressive thing. There was the tower itself, which stood three stories high and was built of stone. It looked in good shape and had no vines or moss growing upon it. There was a main building built of wood that was attached to it. The area around the tower was cleared of trees and shrubs.
“That’s it?” Niatha asked. “Doesn’t look like much of a home for a goddess.”
“It was just on the other side of the hill from us,” Merrif whispered, too enraptured with his own dreams to realize that he wasn’t listening to Niatha.
“It was late when we camped,” Raphael said. “We couldn’t have made it.”
“We can make it now,” Merrif said, starting down the hill.
The valley wasn’t very far down, which made the trip fairly easy. There were still large rocks and boulders, so they were careful as they went. Reaching the edge of the cleared area, they stopped.
“Soon,” Merrif exhaled. “All our traveling, all our dreams, all our hopes …”
“Why are we waiting, then?” Lylle asked, stepping forward. He let the horses go while Anam ran ahead, toward the door.
“Yes,” Raphael said. “Why?” He started after Anam. Merrif and Lylle followed. The horses stayed where they were left.
“Megan?” Raphael called, pushing the door open. He took off his pack and dropped it on the floor. The room inside was almost bare. There was a table with four chairs in the middle of the room, but nothing else. In the opposite wall, there was a door. Anam brushed past by him and went to the other door. Lylle and Merrif walked into the room as Raphael reached the door.
“Megan?” he called opening the door.
“Raphael?” replied a woman from the other room. “Is it really you?” Megan stood in the corner, a broom in her hand. Dust slowly settled back down onto the floor as she looked to the door. “I’m not seeing more ghosts and visions, am I?”
“Megan,” Raphael whispered as he moved across the room to embrace her in a strong hug. His cane clattered on the floor as he picked her up in his arms and held her tightly.
“It is you!” she cried, wrapping her arms around him. “Don’t squeeze so tight!” she chided him. “You’re crushing me.” Tears cascaded down her cheek.
Anam stood in the middle of the room watching them. Merrif and Lylle walked in slowly. Looking around, they saw a room with shelves built on three of the walls. The shelves were filled with books. There was a bed placed against one wall and a fireplace built into another. On the opposite wall, a stairway went upwards into the tower. Niatha walked into the room and the air billowed and spun. Dust was kicked up and blown about. A figure of light appeared on the stairs and started down towards them.
“Illiena?” Merrif asked, taking a step toward the figure.
“No!” yelled a voice from somewhere upstairs.
“Yes!” the figure descending the stairs yelled. “We are free!”
“What?” Merrif asked, shocked and frozen. “You’re not Illiena!”
“You pathetic thing,” the figure on the stairs said. “No, I am not Illiena. I used your dreams to bring you here to set me free!”
“Nathrod!” yelled another figure of light, descending the stairs behind the first. “We are free! Don’t walk down the same road as before.”
“Do you believe,” Nathrod said, turning to look up the stairs, “Aechrose, oh, brother of mine, that the Eelail will let us go?”
“It has been a long time,” Aechrose stopped and replied. “They will never forget, but they may forgive.”
“They won’t! I will not be imprisoned again!” Nathrod floated quickly down the stairs and ran straight into Lylle, disappearing inside him. A glow of light now surrounded the boy. “Young again,” a voice said from Lylle’s body. “I’m leaving. Are you coming with me, brother?”
“I won’t let you go,” Aechrose threatened.
“The Eelail are close! Come, let us flee together!” Lylle pleaded as he started for the door. Aechrose flew down the stairs and stopped in front of Merrif.
“You must let me in,” Aechrose pleaded. “I can’t do anything to stop him without a host body. You must let me in.”
“They made me!” Niatha screamed. “I remember now! They created me!”
“Yes, little one,” Lylle answered as he went out the door. “We did and you are what set us free.” Lylle got as far as the other room and stopped. Dopkalfar warriors were standing in front of the outer doorway. “You are in my way! I am a god here!” Lylle screamed. “Die!” Flinging his hands outward, a funnel of wind swept straight for the door, heading outside, taking Dopkalfar with it. Bodies tumbled and crashed as the wind ripped them from the room.
“I can’t enter without permission!” Aechrose pleaded. “You must let me in! We can’t let him get out of the tower!”
More Dopkalfar stood in the doorway to replace the ones blown away. They held swords and daggers and behind them, there were more waiting to enter.
“Let them kill you!” Lylle yelled as he turned and flew up the stairs of the tower. “I will be free!” Dopkalfar streamed into the room as the tower shook with Lylle’s rage.
“We can’t let him get out of the tower,” Aechrose said. “The Dopkalfar will not be able to stop him alone. I need your help,” he begged.
Dopkalfar warriors sprinted toward them and the tower shook yet again.
“I … I …” Merrif stuttered.