The children hadn't asked.
Some of the other caretakers had, though, forcing Emily into explaining the collar. Or rather, into not explaining it, since she had no explanation. It was clear that some of the others weren't too trusting of the Wanderer's story.
Still, it had caused no serious trouble. The children were good. There were no notable troubles in caretaking or in teaching. It being the season of the spring hunt and the sowing of the fields, many children were boarding at the manor house while their families were working for the community. Emily's arrival had been well-timed, but she gathered from the discussions she'd had on the matter that her help would have been welcome at any time at all.
Lunch and dinner had both been quite nice, and the evening was wearing on; there was about two hours of daylight remaining. Plenty of time for a leisurely stroll back to Harban's.
Except that Lessia and Emily weren't going back to Harban's. Over the day, whenever they had a private moment, Lessia had pleaded with Emily to go on to the Sage's dwelling, until finally, just before dinner, Emily relented, and Lessia had sent a message for Harban and her mother informing them that she and Emily would not be home that evening. There simply wasn't time to ask permission, after all.
Advice had been offered by the others at the manor house, precautions to take, what to avoid, dangers to be aware of. The forest past the manor was the Sage's domain, it was said, and the closer one got to the mountains, the more his influence could be felt. What exactly that "influence" was, was never made clear, of course; mysterious legends and vague innuendo abounded, but facts were in short supply.
Sages were even more rare than Wanderers, and even more mysterious to outsiders. There were rumours of a central governing body, and of schools for apprentices, and of great libraries in far-flung worlds, but the Sages tended to keep their knowledge and powers to themselves, for reasons that could only be imagined.
Emily was standing by the north entrance to the manor, waiting for Lessia to gather some supplies, their two packs sitting by her feet. Her hand went to the collar around her neck. Over the course of the day, the natural sense of it had intensified, or, rather, the feeling that it didn't belong there had faded further.
"Alright! I've got everything here!" Lessia bounded around the corner joyfully, carrying a bundle of assorted items in her arms. She immediately dropped to her knees and started to put the objects into their packs.
Emily smiled. "How do you still have that much energy after playing with children all day?
Lessia shrugged, not looking up from her work. "Just do, I suppose. Here, I got some rations, fire-starting equipment, a couple blankets just in case..."
"How far is it?" Emily asked.
"Through the woods, and, uh..." She shrugged again. "After that, no one knows."
Emily wondered, and not for the first time, if this was a mistake. But, curiosity is a key element of Wandering, and there were many times in the past few years where she'd questioned if she was making a mistake, and most of those times she hadn't had an enthusiastic companion at her side.
"No one really goes into the woods, anyway," Lessia said, standing up and hoisting the packs. "There's a path that goes partway in. Or maybe it's all the way in. Or all the way through."
"You know you're not filling me with confidence," Emily replied.
Lessia flashed a grin. "Ready to go?"
Emily nodded, shouldering her pack. It wasn't a whole lot heavier than it had been on the walk down, but the day's work had worn her down a bit.
"Ready to go."
Lessia gave a little whoop of celebration and started down the path. There were a few trees about, but clearly they became denser towards the horizon.
"You know," Emily says, catching up to her traveling companion, "there's an open philosophical question about when a collection of trees is a forest, and when it's just trees."
"Oh yeah? I guess I never thought about it."
"Well, the answer you get will depend on who you ask. When do you think a bunch of trees is a forest?"
Lessia thought for a moment. "I guess when they block the sun?"
Emily chuckled kindly. "That's a good answer."
"A little simple, though, I bet."
"It is a pretty plain explanation for a heavy philosophical question."
"Well, what do you say, O Great Wanderer?" Lessia shot back in good humour.
"Like I said, the answer you get depends on who you ask! At least, that's what I was told," Emily explained. "Sages, Bards, and Wanderers all say different things."
Lessia let out an overdramatic sigh. "Alright, Emily, tell me what they say."
The Wanderer took a breath. The collar felt warm around her neck, perhaps because of the late afternoon sun. "Sages, so I hear, will say that the forest starts when the living things within believe that it's a forest. Bards will tell you that it's at the point that the trees feel like a forest. And Wanderers..." She grins. "We say it's a forest when it makes a good story."
Lessia thought about that a few moments, as they walked down the road. "So... huh."
"Sages study the worlds, so they think about the things in the worlds. Bards make art, so they're concerned with the emotional... resonance, I suppose, of the space."
"And Wanderers gather stories?"
Emily nodded. "But also, we expand on them. The few trees here? When I tell this story in ten years, maybe we're already in the forest, you see? If that's the best way to tell the story, then that's what I'll tell."
"Oh! Yeah, I understand." Lessia exclaimed. "That's really interesting, actually. So what does it say about me that I said that the trees have to block out the sun?"
Emily laughed. "I don't really know. Maybe that's when you feel trees get scary enough to be a forest?"
Lessia shook her head. "I don't think that that's a scary moment, really. I think that's when the forest becomes a magical place." Her voice took on a wistful tone. "That's where the rest of the world goes away, and I can be alone with my imagination."
Emily paused in thought before responding. "Now that's more interesting. What do you dream about?"
"In the forest?" Lessia shrugged easily. "Anything and everything. Magic. Wandering. Aliens. Mystical beings. Princesses and dragons. Finding a purpose." She turned to Emily then and winked. "Girls."
Lessia's interest in the Wanderer had hardly been subtle through the day, and being unsurprised, Emily was able to maintain her composure.
Lessia kept talking. "How about you? What do you dream about? Ooh, wait, you had a dream last night before the collar appeared, right? Hey Emily, tell me about that one."
That caught her out and made her blush. She felt the warmth rushing down to her neck. She takes a deep breath and speaks slowly, carefully, naturally dropping into her storytelling voice and cadence. "I got up from my bed. In the dream. I walked into the snow. It was winter, I suppose, or somewhere cold, but it didn't bother me, for whatever reason. I walked through the wind and snow for what felt like hours, maybe days, but in a dream, time doesn't really matter. I found myself outside of a great gate made of crystal, shining in the sun. I don't know where I am, or what's on the other side of the gate, and I don't care; all I know is that I'm there to serve whatever's inside."
Lessia swallowed. "To... to serve?"
"Were you wearing the collar? In the dream."
"No," Emily replied. "I wasn't. I wasn't wearing anything at all." No longer embarrassed, she was simply telling a story. "The cold didn't faze me in the least. Neither did the snow. It was easy walking."
"Wish that I could have..." Lessia's voice trailed off.
Emily turned to her. "Seen it? Been a part of it?"
Lessia nodded, mystified. Her breathing was shallow, and she was as red as Emily felt.
"Walk with me," Emily said.
"Huh?" Lessia sounded confused, no doubt because the two of them hadn't stopped walking.
It was a Wanderer's charm, a simple spell. She gently took Lessia's hand. "Walk with me," she said again, watching as the younger woman's eyes widened.
Lessia gripped Emily's hand tightly and shivered, still taking step after step down the forest path, her eyes focused somewhere past the horizon. In her mind, Emily knew, Lessia was walking through the dream, through the snow and wind, to the crystal gates.
"Wow," she breathed. "I didn't know you could do this."
Emily kept them walking straight down the road, not letting Lessia run into a tree. "In time, all you'll remember about it is a very vivid story. You'll remember me telling the story so well that..."
Lessia nodded. "That it's like I was actually there." She blinked her eyes for the first time in a few minutes, and her vision came back into focus. "But for now I remember the magic."
"You will, for days. Maybe weeks, if you stay with me. But eventually, memory of the spell fades away." Emily smiled. "Faster if you're younger. It's useful for telling stories to the children. It would be more useful except that we have to be walking and holding hands."
Two things they were still doing.
"It's getting dark," Lessia pointed out.
"Sun's going down," Emily said. "And the trees are closer together."
Lessia smiled. "I think we're in the forest. What do you think, Emily?"
Emily chuckled. "I think it makes a good story." She looked at Lessia. "What are you dreaming about?"
"Magic. Wandering. Mystical beings." Lessia looked back. "Girls. One in particular."
Emily grinned. "Think Harban would ever forgive me? Or your mother?"
"I don't think we have to tell them." Lessia smirked and squeezed Emily's hand.
"Speaking of magic..." Emily stopped walking and retrieved her hand from Lessia's grip. She muttered a quick incantation and her hands started to glow.
Lessia's smile looked positively mischievous in the dim light. Without warning, she stepped close and put her hands on Emily's shoulders. "I'd like to kiss you," she said confidently.
"I'd like you to," Emily replied.
Lessia pressed her lips to Emily's, gently, and Emily responded, wrapping her in an embrace. They held their position a moment before separating and smiling at one another.
"That was nice," Lessia said.
"Mhmm," Emily agreed. "It's getting late, though, perhaps we should find shelter." She released Lessia and held her glowing hands out, the right over her head and the left in front, illuminating both the path forward and the canopy.
"That seems like a handy spell."
"Most spells are, in one way or another."
Lessia snickered. "Probably shouldn't ask to hold your hand right now, right?"
"Depends on how much light we want. You're welcome to take my arm, though."
Lessia accepted the invitation, wrapping her own arms around Emily's and putting her head on the Wanderer's shoulder. She lifted her head once they started walking again, but maintained her hold on Emily's elbow.
"What are the odds are of finding shelter?" Emily asked.
Lessia thought for a moment. "No idea. No one ever comes in here, so why would there be shetlers?"
"If no one comes in here, then who made the path?"
Lessia opened her mouth, then closed it. She looked perplexed. "Maybe... the Sage?"
Emily nodded. "Which suggests to me that maybe we're being welcomed."
"Or led into a trap."
"That's possible, too. Wanna go back?"
"Not on your life," Lessia said. "I'm not stopping halfway into an adventure."
Harban's words drifted back to Emily. There's a saying, around here, about Wanderers and their dreams.
"We're not too far to reach the manor house," Emily pointed out.
Lessia shook her head. "Only way I'm going back is if you promise me we head back this way at dawn."
Emily brushed Harban's words aside. "Forward it is, then!" They didn't stop walking.
An owl hooted nearby. Trees rustled in the breeze. Lessia's touch felt warm. There was no fear in the woods for the two women walking together.
"What other magic can you do?" Lessia asked.
"Just the basic sorts of Wanderer things," Emily replied. "Bits of spells to entertain, useful cantrips for exploring, like these lights, and the Ritual that lets us travel between worlds."
Lessia pursed her lips, thinking. "If you can travel between worlds, how did the Greys keep you in slavery?"
"Well, the Ritual takes about four hours, and I was never alone for that long, for one thing," Emily explained. "But the Greys also have technologies that mess with bigger magics like that, and I worked on a ship, remember, so I wasn't often on a world to begin with."
"Oh. Oh!" Lessia exclaimed. "I didn't realize you meant starship."
Emily nodded. "I guess that's one reason the dark doesn't really bother me. The view out the windows was always dark. Gave me lots of room for dreaming and imagining."
"How about now," Lessia asked, pressing closer. "What are you dreaming about, in this darkness?"
"Honestly? Wandering, a warm bed, this mysterious Sage, and girls." Emily grinned at Lessia. "One in particular."
"Mmm, tempted to ask for another kiss..."
"... but we need to find a safe place," Emily finished for her.
Lessia nodded, then pointed. "I think I see something."
Emily strained, looking down the path in the dim light. "I don't know what you're pointing at."
"That's because you're not from around here." Lessia let Emily go and jogged a few yards ahead, to the edge of the light, then pointed to a large rock protruding from the ground at the side of the path. "See here, there's a mark painted on it. That's not a natural colour for a rock like this, and the mark is a glyph for 'house'."
Once Lessia had pointed it out, there was no mistaking it, but Emily might have walked right past without Lessia being there. The same mark was on signs for the manor house, and over the door at Harban's. Most people spoke the same language on most worlds, or close enough to it, but writings, signs, and symbols varied wildly from place to place.
"I don't think I ever would have seen it," Emily admitted. "Thanks, Lessia."
Lessia flushed with pride. "Emily, bring the lights, let's see if we can find what it's here for."
Emily felt a little warm herself as she walked up to the rock Lessia was pointing out, leading with her glowing hands.
Lessia pointed again as soon as the light was handy. "There," she said, pointing off the trail into the woods. "I see it. A cabin or something."
"I don't, so... lead on!"
"You got it, Emily, follow me!" Lessia went walking carefully in between the trees, Emily trailing behind her closely, keeping the light up. After a moment of weaving through the underbrush, a wall of hewn logs came into view.
"I wonder if anyone's home," Emily said, examining the structure.
"One way to find out." Lessia walked up to the door and knocked.
There was no answer.
She tried the handle. The door opened. The two women looked at one another. Lessia shrugged and walked inside. "Hello?"
Emily walked in behind her, looking around. There were no coats hanging by the door, no boots on the mat. The cabin was a single room, as far as she could tell, with a large bed on the opposite side from the door. Lessia was looking into the kitchen, with empty cupboards over a basin and a large wood-fired stove.
"Looks well-kept," Lessia observed, slipping her sandals from her feet, "and like everything's here for someone to live, except..."
"Except everything," Emily concluded. "No food, no clothing. Furniture's all in place, and it's clean, and I bet that's because of magic."
Lessia nodded. "Bet you're right." She removed her pack and put it down on the small dining table.
Emily followed suit, also removing her shoes. She reached up and touched a glass half-globe embedded in the wall, similar to what she'd seen in the manor, and as expected, it lit the room, only slightly better than her glowing hands. "I guess that's more evidence that the Sage wants us here. Well, maybe not specifically us, but..."
"Mhmm. People. Maybe he's not trying to be a hermit."
Emily shook her head, letting her own light spell fade. "Sages are strange."
Lessia moved through the room and sat on the corner of the bed. "The floor looks uninviting," she said, "and the bed is comfortable."
Emily stretched, feeling the length of the day and the soreness from the walk in her bones.
"The bed gives me other ideas, too," Lessia continued, getting back to her feet. "I want another kiss, for starters."
Emily hesitated. "Are you sure, Lessia?"
The younger woman smirked. "Yes, Emily. Kiss me."
Warmth rushed through the Wanderer, and she strode purposefully across the small room, put her hands on Lessia's cheeks, and kissed her passionately. Lessia tasted Emily's lips, and their tongues danced around one another, and soon the two of them were on the bed, still kissing and caressing one another.
After a moment or two, they take a breath and lie side-by-side on the bed. "I..." Emily begins. "I didn't bring night-clothes with me."
"Me neither." She could hear Lessia's smirk.
"I had wondered."
Lessia rolled over and straddled Emily, her fingers stroking the Wanderer's cheeks, and then running over the silver collar. "What's that like?"
"Mhmm, what's it like, wearing it?"
"Honestly, most of the time I forget it's there. Feels really natural."
Lessia continued to touch it. "But it wasn't there last night."
Emily shrugs. "Don't know what to tell you. Feels like it could have been there for years."
"You sound like you want one for yourself."
She grinned. "Maybe I do." She stretched up tall. "Think I'd look good in it?"
"I think you'd look good in anything. Or, in nothing." Emily ran her hands over Lessia's sides.
Lessia slipped off the bed and played with the sleeves of her dress. "Want to find out?"
Emily sat up. "Yes I do."
Lessia reached up behind her back and undid the small hook behind her shoulder blades, slipped her arms from her sleeves, and let the top of her grey dress fall to her waist, revealing her generous bosom. "I'm not in the sort of shape you are," she apologized shyly.
Emily stood and took Lessia's hands. "You're beautiful," she replied, leaning in to kiss a cheek.
"Thank you," Lessia replied, blushing. "You are, too.""
"May I?" Emily asked, reaching out to untie the cloth belt that cinched the dress to Lessia's waist. She waited until the younger woman nodded, then undid the knot with ease and watched as the grey cloth fluttered easily to the ground to pool around Lessia's feet, leaving her naked.
Lessia stepped back, out of the dress, folding her hands in front of her soft belly. "Have you. Uh. Do you," she stammered, before falling silent.
Emily grinned. "Oh, now you're tongue-tied."
Lessia giggled nervously. "I just started to think of the worlds you must have seen, the people you've been with, how..." she shrugged. "How plain I must be."
Emily shook her head. "One of the things that Wanderers learn very quickly is to appreciate uniqueness, not to compare different things with one another."
"Am I different, then?" Lessia said, a bit of a playful edge in her voice.
"Absolutely unique," Emily replied. "And I've been across two dozen worlds."
"Feels good to be appreciated." Lessia grinned. "I think you should let me appreciate you, Emily."
Almost without a thought, Emily grabbed the hem of her shirt and pulled it over her head, exposing her abdomen and her breast-band. Lessia stepped a little closer. "Why are you covered?" she asked.
"It's a tradition, where I'm from. I wear undergarments, too, even when I'm not bleeding." Emily slid her skirt off to show the pale pink panties she had covering her nether region. "I don't have support built in to my shirt like your dress does.
"Seems like an additional step between you and the fun," Lessia observed.
Emily took Lessia's hands and lifted them up to her chest. "There can be a lot of fun in having someone remove them for you."
Lessia took her cue and ran her fingers around the unfamiliar garment to find where it was folded over at the back, then around to the front to see where it supported her breasts. "So, how do you..."
Emily smiled and turned around slowly. "There's a magnetic clasp hidden right there." she reached an arm back and tapped a bit of cloth by her spine. There was a soft, audible click and two ends of the cloth that hadn't visibly been ends a moment ago came loose.
Lessia didn't hesitate, taking an edge in her hand and unwinding the band, keeping her fingers as close as she could to the Wanderer's skin. In three passes, the once form-fitting item of clothing resembled nothing so much as a long scarf.
Emily turned, feeling the freedom of her bare chest. Malathian fabrics were expensive for a reason, and she'd never had any undergarment that was so comfortable (and so easy to clean), but it was still nicer not to be wearing it. Lessia wasted no time, pressing her naked body against Emily, kissing Emily's face again and again, hands wandering over Emily's spine. Emily took an involuntary step back and sat down. Lessia smiled wickedly and gave Emily a light shove on her shouders, and Emily let herself fall on the mattress, knees hanging over the edge of the bed. She could feel Lessia's warm hands sliding her panties down off her legs, leaving her naked.
Naked except for the silver band around her neck, and the iron ring on her thumb.
"You're right," Lessia giggled. "Slipping them off was its own fun."
"And there's more to come."
Lessia dropped down over Emily, her hands land on either side of the Wanderer's chest. "For sure," Lessia replied, kissing between Emily's breasts, then down to her belly, causing her to squirm in delight.
Emily put her hands on the sides of Lessia's head and made to draw her up, but the other woman shook free quickly. "No, Emily, you just lie there and let me do this."
Emily nodded as best as she could and let her hands and head fall back. The collar felt hot around her neck. Her whole body felt hot. She couldn't help but wiggle as Lessia's lips mapped her abdomen from her ribs to her hips, then kissed along the line of her leg to pause at her wet slit.
Lessia gave a small, almost tentative lick.
Emily shivered and moaned.
No other words needed to pass between them. Lessia moved back to her work joyfully, apparently indefatigable, seeming to relish every gasp and cry from the subject of her ministrations. Emily hardly noticed the hands gripping her hips; it was easier just to focus on the pleasure eminating from between her legs. And it wasn't long until that pleasure was all-encompassing. Emily's cries rang around the small cabin as her body released its mounting tension in an orgasmic wave.
When she opened her eyes, Emily could see Lessia leaning down over her.
"You've done this before," she said, when she'd caught her breath.
Lessia's eyes laughed before she leaned down and kissed Emily. The Wanderer wrapped her arms around her companion and held her close, revelling in the sweetness of the moment.
"Not sure I can reciprocate."
Lessia shook her head. "I'm having the time of my life," she replied as she let Emily go and stood up. "I'll get the blankets while you're having a rest."
Emily chuckled and scooched up onto the mattress. "We've probably got a long walk ahead of us in the morning."
"Mhmm," Lessia said, opening their packs. "We should probably save our strength. Don't know what it takes to get to the Sage."
Emily was already finding it hard to keep her eyes open. She yawned, turning on her side. "I think saving our strength would be a good idea."
Lessia covered Emily with a blanket, then snuggled up and wrapped her arms around the Wanderer, her hands on Emily's breasts. "Then go to sleep, Emily," she said, kissing Emily's shoulder.
Emily gratefully closed her eyes and let the dreams come, a smile on her tired lips.