The Bard, as Bards tend to be, was an excellent raconteur, a skill no doubt practiced in the public houses and taverns of multiple worlds. Three people in a rustic, unadorned cabin hardly makes an inn, but that didn't make the stories any less interesting.
Nothing that Emily hadn't heard before, though of course the specifics had changed, but most Bards had very similar stories; what mattered was how they told them, and Grant was an animated and excited speaker. Especially, Emily thought to herself wryly, with two beautiful women hanging on every word.
Grant also proved a helpful hand, offering to clean the dishes as a small gesture of thanks and apology. "Not that there's time for me to truly thank you or apologize to you enough," he'd said as he walked out the door, leaving the two women at the table.
Lessia giggled the moment they were alone. "Told you he wants you."
Emily laughed in reply. "He's just being a Bard. We're an audience to him, nothing more."
"Oh, I think it's more." Lessia leaned on her elbows, putting her chin on her fists. "You're another off-worlder, you're fun and exciting and gorgeous..."
"You're fun and exciting and gorgeous, and as far as he's concerned, you're an off-worlder too, you know," Emily replied, blushing a bit. "You're buttering me up."
"I'm teasing you," Lessia clarified with a giggle. "Emily, admit it, you know he's hot for you."
Emily's protests died before she could speak them. "You're right," she said, internally grimacing at the collar. "He wants me." She bit her lip. "But he wants you, too, you know."
Lessia smirked. "Maybe because you want me, you think everyone does." Her smirk soured a bit. "I can tell you that's not true."
Emily raised an eyebrow.
Lessia sighed. "There are so few people here, and it's because of an aftereffect of the war, and I'm not one of the lucky one-in-five women who can be..." she made a disgusted face. "What did Grant call us? 'Breeding stock'?"
Emily nodded, understanding.
"So," Lessia continued, "I live with my mother, and I help out around the village, and yesterday," she grinned and winked, "just like when I was eight, I ran away."
"Hey, you did good work yesterday, don't forget," Emily said. "You're great with children."
She shrugged, but the pleasure and warmth came back into Lessia's expression all the same. "Been working with them since I was one, I guess. I mean, not up at the manor, but I was always the big kid who took care of the little kids."
Emily nodded in understanding. "Yeah, that was me, too. Part of what I like about being here."
The door opened, and Grant strolled in, carrying Emily's cookware. "Not all that used to doing my own dishes anymore, must admit," he said as he nudged the door closed. "I think I got it all. Isn't there some kind of Wanderer charm to clean plates or something?"
Emily shook her head. "Clothes, yes. Dishes, no. Something to do with the materials and..." she shrugged.
The Bard put his small load on the table. "I spend most of my time—or I did—in places where other people did the dishes, and I just had to find some way to pay them?"
"And how did you pay them?" Lessia asked innocently.
Grant grinned. "Well, Bards don't often have a lot of coin..."
Lessia laughed. "Let me guess. You sang for them?"
"A lot of the time, yes." Grant winked. "Occasionally, there's an amenable innkeeper who will accept payment in more active form."
The younger woman laughed out loud. "The two of you have a lot in common."
Emily shook her head. "That was different. Grant seeks it out, it was happy coincidence for me." Seeing the Bard's confusion, she clarified. "During my time with the Greys, I fell in with a human noble, and he bought me time off my service as a gift."
"Nice, I wish I'd thought of that," Grant said, sitting down. "I did my full time, and then an extra three months because I kind of liked it. See, there was this cute Grey gardener, and—"
"Much as I would love to swap xenophilia stories," Emily interrupted.
Only to be cut off herself by Lessia. "Xeno-wha?"
"Tell you later," Emily replied, grinning. "Anyway. We have to get on with the day. We're supposed to make our way to the Sage's home, after all."
"Right, of course." Grant nodded. "Which way, then?"
"North," Lessia replied. "Through the forest, and halfway up a mountain."
"It's apparently not as impressive or daunting as it sounds," Emily added.
"Well, good," Grant said. "I'm in better shape than I remember being, but I still don't really feeling like mountaineering."
"We're not really equipped for it, either," Emily pointed out. "Not a piton in sight."
"Pretty sure I've got rope, if we can ever find where I've left my things."
"I'm willing to bet that that's not what you used the rope for," Lessia said with a giggle.
Grant raised an eyebrow. "A gentleman would never tell."
"And a Bard?" Emily asked archly, getting to her feet.
"Most of the Bards I've met have been a little looser with their tales," Grant admitted, also rising. "What preparations need to be made?"
Lessia shrugged. "I think we're all pretty much packed up, we just have to put Emily's cookware away and get going, I think."
"Really do appreciate you washing them up, before I forget to mention it," Emily said, fetching her bag.
"Yes, well, I appreciate your saving me from... all that." Grant picked up the pot and spoons and between them. Lessia grabbed her pack as well. "Least I can do is help out until I can do more."
The three of them made their final preparations slowly, in relative silence. They left the cabin to stand in the warm morning sunlight a moment.
Grant was the first to break the quiet. "Any idea what the Sage has to protect himself?"
Emily shook her head, and Lessia gave Grant an inquiring look.
The Bard smiled. "Sages usually have vast storehouses of information and ability to answer questions and solve problems, but every one I've met or heard of protects themselves lives well out of civilization and protects themselves with... well, with something. Strange creatures, dark magics. The idea is that they don't want to be swarmed with constant requests for help with every little problem."
"They want to keep building that knowledge base," Emily continued. "Gather more and more power, more and more information, and you can't do that if you're constantly being bothered for love-charms and weather interventions."
"So," Grant concluded, "Sages usually put obstacles in the road for travelers such as we are, that we will have to traverse, in order to prove that our requests merit such a serious reply."
Lessia nodded. "I guess we'd better get going, then?"
"Probably best. Think we can still make the Sage's home by nightfall?" Emily asked.
Lessia laughed. "I think it'll be a good walk."
The other two agreed and they set off.
The forest seemed enough of a barrier. The three travelers were able to walk shoulder-to-shoulder a while, with Emily in the middle, but the path narrowed and soon Lessia and Emily were hand-in-hand with Grant walking ahead, and then the three were moving single-file through a path that was barely wide enough even for that. Their conversation had started out lively, but as their space had narrowed, the discussion had narrowed as well, and the friendly chat had turned to Grant telling tales, to occasional warnings of low-hanging branches or treacherous footings and simply listening to their footfalls.
When the path opened up into a small sun-dappled clearing, similar to where they'd met Grant, it was a notable relief. Lessia, at the back of the small train, immediately sat down with a sigh.
"I think it's a good time for a break," Emily said.
Grant nodded, breathing heavily. "Yes, I think I need to stop." He sank to his knees. "I wish I knew what I'd been doing the past few months, but before that, I don't think I've ever had to hike uphill through the thick forest like this."
"Yeah, didn't you notice?" Lessia asked. "It's pretty subtle, but..." She let out another deep breath.
Emily shrugged. "I guess I'm just more used to it."
"You walked two miles every day to the manor house, and two miles every day back. I hang around the village and do whatever people might need me to do. I've walked more in these past two days than in any week I can think of. Plus there was all the exercise last night..." Lessia grinned.
Grant raised an eyebrow, looking up at Emily, who laughed and blushed. "I'm not a Bard, I don't have to tell stories."
"Well that explains the clothes everywhere in the cabin," Grant replied with a grin. "Too bad I didn't stumble on you two the night before."
"Could've been fun, except for the kidnapping and shipping us off to be slaves in a foreign world," Lessia pointed out.
"Never going to let me live that down, are you."
Emily laughed again. "Grant, it's only been a couple hours!" She sat down near to Lessia. "You tried to grab us just after sunrise, and it's not even noon!"
"And since then, we've shared a meal and walked about five miles together. I think I've earned my forgiveness," Grant replied with obvious self-deprecation.
"Oh I'm sure you'll make it up to us," Lessia said, pushing her hair over her ear.
Grant raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I'm very good at apologies. When you've had as much practice as I have..."
"Bards getting into trouble? Never." Emily grinned and stretched languidly. The sun felt warm and comfortable. She put her pack down. Lessia, beside her, did the same. The two of them shared a look.
Grant took a slow, deep breath. "Can you feel that? In the air."
Lessia's fingers curled around Emily's. "Feel what?"
"There's a spell here. In this clearing." Grant sighed and looked around.
Emily nodded and squeezed Lessia's hand. "There is, and it's lovely."
"A spell?" Lessia asked, inching closer to the Wanderer. "What kind of spell?"
Grant shook his head, watching the two of them. "I keep getting distracted when I try to think about it."
"Distracted?" Emily shifted closer, her arm slipping around Lessia's shoulders.
"By thoughts about the two of you." Grant slid a little closer himself. "And just how I might apologize for my boorish behaviour this morning."
Lessia moaned as Emily massaged her shoulders. "Just how might you do that?" the Wanderer asked.
"Bards develop certain skills," he replied. "A natural extension of our training and..." He paused. "We should..." He looked around. "Probably get out of here. But I don't see the path."
Emily looked back to where she thought they had come into the clearing. "You're right."
Lessia slipped from Emily's care and stood up. "We just came from... uh..." she walked over to the edge of the clearing. "Uh. Wait." She walked across to the other side as Grant and Emily watched. "Wasn't the clearing... bigger?"
Emily got to her feet, too. Certainly the space seemed shadier than it should have. "Is it closing in? Is that the spell?"
"Spell?" Grant asked. "Oh! right, the spell. That... I suppose that could be..."
Emily offered Grant her hand and helped him up. She looked in his deep blue eyes, and he looked back at her. Their arms wrapped around one another, and they shared a tender, warm kiss in the fading noon sunlight. Her hands slipped under the hem of his shirt to caress his back, and she felt him shiver, felt him push closer.
Grant's hands were wandering, as well, sliding down to hold her bottom through her skirt as his tongue danced around hers. His fingers were just teasing the edges of the waistband when—
She was suddenly very wet and cold.
Grant gasped in shock, about the same time Emily did. Both of them looked to her right, where Lessia stood with the pot from Emily's pack. "Did that break the spell?" she asked.
Emily looked around. The clearing was gone, the trees had closed in around them. She stepped back from Grant, embarrassed; the Bard, for his part, looked equally ashamed.
"I think so," Emily answered, brushing cold water out of her face.
"Sorry," Lessia said. "I just didn't know what else to do."
"You did just the right thing," Grant replied.
"Who knows what would have happened if we'd..." Emily continued. "Anyway, uh. We should probably keep going."
"Do you think the Sage put that there to keep people away?" Lessia asked.
Grant nodded. "Certainly I don't think it was a naturally occurring spell. This doesn't seem to be the sort of world with magic just blooming up everywhere."
"It's not," Emily confirmed. Her shirt was clinging a bit. "Too bad about the clearing, the sun would be great right about now. Where did you get the water, Lessia?"
"There's a creek a few paces that way. It seemed easier than dunking your heads in it."
"Probably was," Grant agreed. "I'm going to suggest that we're on the right path, then. And I'm going to add yet another debt I owe you both."
"You'll owe us your head before long," Emily chuckled, wringing out her hair. "Did you have to fill the pot?"
Lessia grinned. "Had to make sure it worked, right? Couldn't just keep going back for more until the two of you were hard at it." She wiped the bottom of the pot with her sleeve, checking it to see if it was dry.
"Should we keep moving?" Grant asked, wiping his eyes. "This would seem to have been our first trial."
Emily shook her head. "Bards like lyrical and theatrical devices. Three trials is a pretty standard literary trope."
"They are as fundamental rules of the universe," Grant explained, once more clearly self-mocking. "There are no doubt two more dramatically related, but significantly different, tests of our courage, resourcefulness, and cohesion as a group in front of us, and the sooner we can reach and traverse them, the better off we'll be."
Lessia looked thoughtful. "What... happens if we fail?"
Emily blinked. "I don't know."
"So if you two had kept going, had progressed to... what would have happened?"
Emily and Grant looked at each other. "Any ideas, Bard?"
Grant scratched his damp chin. "Well, the penalty will vary from Sage to Sage. I've met a couple, you see. I joined a group headed to meet one, once, and they turned back after their leader shrunk six inches. He was fine with it, except for tripping over his trousers several times on the way back."
Lessia giggled. "That doesn't sound too bad."
"There are other, darker stories, too," Emily said.
Grant nodded. "That's how I wound up working for the Greys. That was a different Sage, and..." he shrugged. "Well, that was the payment for the answers I wanted. Either I accept two years of service, or I don't get the information."
"And did you?" Lessia asked, wide-eyed.
Grant nodded. "Brought back a document pad for him, too, as requested. And dug up the little bits of esoteric history I was after, which were very important to me and utterly meaningless to anyone else." He laughed. "That's what most Bards are after, anyway."
"I went searching for a Sage once," Emily said, shouldering her pack, "and decided not to go on when I saw their guard-tigers."
Lessia got her own pack. "Tigers?"
"Like a bear, but if it was a big housecat, instead."
Lessia scrunched up her face, clearly trying to imagine that.
"Not something I wanted to tangle with, anyway. I heard rumours that those were actually transformed petitioners and pretty harmless, but my concerns weren't really all that important."
"Huh." Lessia looked around, then pointed. "I think north is that way? And I'm not sure I want to be a horse-sized housecat."
Grant shook his head, turning himself in the direction Lessia indicated. "I've never heard of a Sage that's done any permanent harm to peaceful petitioners. It almost seems to be against their policy. And it looks like I'm going to miss the narrow path we were walking on."
"Let the Wanderer take the lead, then," Emily said with a smile. "This is what I do, after all."
Grant let her pass with a small bow and fell into step behind her.
They paused for lunch about an hour later, after moving through some fairly dense but hardly impassable woods. It was the trackless aspect of it that kept slowing Emily down, not so much because it impeded her travel but because she had to keep slowing down for Grant and Lessia to keep up. The grade of their walk had become more evident, enough that Emily was feeling the effects of the more hilly terrain.
They stopped as the trees were starting to thin out, near a small artesian spring where they startled a rabbit having a midday drink. Lessia still had supplies taken from the manor house, enough for the three of them in dried meats and fruits when taken with the berriers from Emily's stock that they hadn't used with breakfast.
"Should we be suspicious of the spring?" Grant asked. "Not that I really minded the effects of the last trial."
Emily opened her pack and took out her porridge pot. "Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn't, but I'm thirsty, and I bet you two are too, more than I am." She put the pot under the small trickle from the rocks, letting the water collect there. "Should be enough water in a few minutes to have a good drink each and refill containers."
Lessia spread a small towel on the ground and laid out their remaining food for consumption. "I could sure use a drink. Even if it turns me into a big housecat." She giggled. "Think Harban could use a guard?"
"Probably not," Emily replied, kneeling down beside the food display. "But no doubt they would take excellent care of you." Seeing the food laid out made her realize her hunger, as well as her thirst. "Thank you for this."
"My pleasure," Lessia said around a piece of jerky in her mouth.
Grant soon joined them, and conversation slowed in favour of a meal for the second time that day. The silence was short lived, though, as Grant saw Lessia's expression.
"You're looking thoughtful, Lessia," the Bard commented.
Lessia nodded and swallowed. "That's because I'm thinking."
"Of course. What about?"
"Well," she began slowly, "you say there's usually three trials, right?"
"That's... well, according to legends, yes," the Bard said, taking a piece of hardtack.
"What if you were the first one?"
Grant inhaled, surprised, and coughed out crumbs. "Me?" he said.
Lessia shrugged. "Just a thought. I mean, you could be, right?"
"I ... I guess?"
"The Sage seems okay with you being out here."
"And there was a consequence to us if Emily didn't break the horn."
"A very permanent consequence," Emily pointed out. "Not the sort of thing a Sage would do."
"Oh." Lessia frowned, still thinking. "Unless he's lying."
Grant blinked. "I... I could be, really. I wouldn't know, would I? If the Sage was using me that way."
"If you can't know the difference, there's not really anything to worry about," Emily replied, her hand subconsciously going to her neck. "Just keep doing what you think is right, because you'll never know if it's your own mind or someone else's making the decisions, and questioning it will just make you crazy."
"Sounds like you've had a little experience."
"Might've." The Wanderer smiled mysteriously, getting up to retrieve the water.
Lessia leaned in, interested. "Any good stories?"
Emily laughed. "I wasn't some sort of spy or anything. The experience isn't all that fun from the outside, I don't think. It's more interesting when it's happening to you." She grabbed the pot, a good two-thirds full, from beneath the spring, and turned back to her companions.
"Or at least when you can look back on it," Grant added. "Although this last time was just sort of a meaningless blank spot, which takes a lot of the fun out of it."
"For me, too," Lessia nodded. "The blank spot, I mean, not the fun. But the idea is kind of fun. If it wasn't for what you were planning to do with us."
"Sort that out for me?" Grant laughed as Emily sat back down.
Lessia flushed. "It's just that I could see how... uh... how it could be... you know... fun to have that power... or... Emily help me!"
Emily felt warm, too, handing the pot to Grant so he could have a drink. "It's alright, Lessia, you're new to all this, I'm sure. Before you heard the horn this morning, I'm willing to bet you've never been out of control."
"There's a lot more like the spell in the clearing than like the horn," Grant said, passing the pot along. "Most people don't use this sort of—"
"Wait, Emily, you said that last night I got a little hypnotized," Lessia jumped in. "That the Sage worked some mind-magic on me. Is that... is this what you meant?" She took a drink herself.
"There's lots of different mind-magics," Grant explained. "Since the Great Law came down, it's much more valuable to be able to control people than to be able to hurt them."
Lessia nodded, handing the pot back to Emily. "It's very good, much better than the well in the village." She seemed about to say more, but stayed quiet.
The Wanderer looked at her two companions. "Not feeling any strange side-effects? No one changing shape? Feeling sleepy?" Both Lessia and Grant shook their heads. "Alright." She put the pot to her lips and drank the fresh water. Lessia was right, it was better water than she'd had in months.
Grant grinned. "If we're cursed, we're all cursed together."
Emily put the pot down and took some jerky and hardtack. She hoped that dinner would be easy to come by. They were going to eat their remaining stores, except for her oatmeal, before they continued on their way.
"I think this is good company for a curse," Lessia giggled, picking up the water pot.
Grant shook his head. "I think maybe it's just a good place to stop, and a normal artesian spring." He got to his feet. "We should probably get going, though. We want to find this Sage as soon as we're able."
Lessia drank the rest of the water from the pot, got up, and replaced it under the trickle. "Let's refill out waterskins before we go on. I don't want to get thirsty heading uphill again."
Emily remained seated, thinking. Even though Lessia hadn't used her name, even though she didn't fully trust Grant, she had to fight the urge to rush to pack up, as the Bard had suggested, and to just grab her water container and put it under the artesian spring because of what the local woman had said.
She stayed in her spot, nibbling on the last of the dried berries, refusing her own urges, just to prove to herself that she could, until she realized that Grant and Lessia were doing all the work of packing up. Collar or no, it would be rude of her to let them carry on without at least helping, so she got up and contributed to the task at hand.
"Is the sun setting early?" Grant asked. "I guess I don't know what time the sun is supposed to set."
Lessia frowned. "You're... you're right, though. I think." She shivered. "It's getting a bit chilly, too."
Emily had noticed, too, and looked up at the sky. "It's not going to storm. It's cloudy but it's not rainy."
"But it's too dark," Grant continued.
Lessia nodded. "I don't like it. This feels wrong."
"Should we go back?" Emily asked.
"Not now, Emily," Lessia laughed, although there wasn't any joy in it. "We're not turning around after all this."
"Probably just the Sage trying to scare us off," Grant said. "We'll show him." He made a dramatic display of flourishing a mimed sword. "Charge!"
None of them actually charged up the hill, but Emily did smile. She took Lessia's hand in her own and gave it a little squeeze. Lessia gave a tentative squeeze back.
An uneasy silence followed the joke. Grant and Lessia were both showing signs of being tired, but clearly neither of them wanted to stop. That made conversation a challenge. Emily admitted to herself that she was starting to wear down, too; she was used to the walk to and from the manor house, but while she was working, she had the opportunity to take breaks, and the children were energizing, and there was a definite endpoint to the trip... This was different. And colder.
There was a malicious tinge to the wind, and the darkness, whether it was or not, felt unnatural. The way that Lessia was clinging to her hand suggested that she wasn't the only one to have that impression.
"Are you alright?" Emily asked softly as Grant forged ahead into the cruel wind.
Lessia bit her lip. "Fine," she replied, with a strain in her voice that suggested that she was trying to conceal or push through whatever was distressing her.
"It's too dark!" Grant shouted as the wind picked up. "Something's not right!" He turned back to face the women. "I think it's another spell!"
Emily nodded. "You're probably right."
"What does it do?" Lessia asked, her grip on Emily's hand tightening.
Grant shrugged. "Damned if I know."
Emily could tell that Grant was worried, despite his turning back into the wind and forging on. Lessia was badly shaken, though she was bravely pushing through it. She could almost feel the magic in the air, too, and it felt oppressive, distracting.
"Emily?" Lessia's voice sounded small. She came to a halt. "I don't think I can keep going."
"What's wrong?" the Wanderer asked.
"It's... I can't really explain. I just... There's nothing there, but I'm hearing... feeling... I don't know. I just can't."
"Emily?" Grant's voice came from ahead of them. "Are you two alright? I think the spell's taking hold."
"Can you go ahead?" Emily called back to him.
"Yeah, I can block the effects to myself but I can't really help you."
"That's fine, we'll catch you up."
"We will?" Lessia whispered. She was shaking.
Emily's free hand went to her collar, and she recalled the Sage's words. That keeps me from influencing your mind. "We'll get there," she said to Lessia with more confidence in her voice than she was feeling.
The villager let out a sigh. "Alright. We can do this." Her grip on Emily's hand tightened. "It's... not like there's anything actually out there hunting us."
"No, we're perfectly safe."
"Then why do I feel so..." Lessia trailed off.
"Just one step," Emily said. "That's as far as we have to go right now. One step."
"Okay. Okay." Lessia nodded and put her right foot forward.
"Good. One more."
"You said just one." Lessia grinned despite herself, and took another step.
Emily giggled. "Walk with me," she said.
Lessia gasped as Emily's charm took hold.
Emily recalled the night before, how Lessia's fingers had trailed over her body, had gently, tentatively removed clothing until the two of them stood naked together, how Lessia's touch made her feel, made her move, made her want. And she walked on with that image in mind, letting it give her companion strength and energy, letting her focus on the dream of last night and not the nightmare they were walking through.
And it wasn't long before the sun shone through again.
A pathway of crushed stone, wide enough for three to walk abreast, stretched out before them. Grant sat directly in the middle of it, waiting. In the distance, Emily could see something like a white fence.
"I think that might have been the second trial," Grant said.
Lessia came down from Emily's spell, flushed and breathing heavily. "Or third," she replied with a grin.
"If there's a third trial," Grant continued, "it's this." He waved his hand towards the horizon. "No matter how much I walk here, I get no closer to the end."
Emily let go of Lessia's hand. "That's odd," she said.
"Odd, yes, but true. Try going a little ways up the road."
Emily shrugged and walked a few paces away. She turned and looked back. Grant and Lessia were where she'd left them, a few steps behind her. "What's so strange about this?" she asked, turning back to walk a little further.
"Oh!" Lessia exclaimed in surprise.
Startled, Emily looked over her shoulder. Lessia was right there, and Grant was sitting on the ground, neither of them apparently having moved.
"But that doesn't..." Lessia scrunched her face up, trying to make sense of it. "You were walking forward, and you... you never stopped walking forward, but you wound up..."
"Don't try to figure it out," Grant said. "I haven't a clue how it works and I've been sitting here for an hour trying to make sense of it."
"An hour?" Emily asked, surprised. "But we were only a few moments behind you."
Grant pointed up at the sun. "It's just after noon. Again."
"Oh!" Lessia exclaimed a second time. "What's going on?"
"A Sage," Grant said as if that was a complete explanation.
"Apparently one who likes to play with space and time," Emily added. "Can you go back?"
Grant shook his head. "Same thing. Just trapped here in this little spot. Sun hasn't moved in that time, either, by the way."
"Well alright, it's not like we're seeing a lot of danger here." Emily looked around. "No evidence that people have been stuck here and starving to death. We could just wait it out and see what happens."
"What if we all ran in different directions?" Lessia asked.
"Go ahead," Grant offered. "I'll watched."
With a shrug, Emily set off down the road as Lessia headed back towards the cold wind. The two of them passed each other moments later. Grant laughed.
"It's strange to just watch it happen," he said, getting to his feet. "I don't know how the Sage does it without teleportation, there's just a moment or a place when the path bends around on itself without actually changing."
Lessia seemed confused. "It's disorienting. Completely. I have no idea which way is which any more."
Emily nodded, looking around. "Have you tried tossing a rock down the road?"
"Sure have, they seem to get by just fine, not that I can really be sure where the road is." He bent down, picked up a stone, and threw it with some force well over Emily's head. The two women turned to watch it land and bounce down the pathway.
"What about off to the side?" Lessia asked.
"Same thing. Seems the spell or whatever it is doesn't affect rocks." The Bard stretched up tall. "Any ideas, Wanderer?"
Emily scratched her chin. "Hm, well, my first thought was a little pocket dimension, maybe with an illusion cast over it so we don't see the backs of our own heads, but then the rocks would cycle around."
"That's an interesting idea, I didn't think of that."
"I don't even know what that is!" Lessia giggled.
"Could be perceptual, then," Emily continued. "Have you tried walking forward with your eyes closed?"
Grant shook his head. "Not sure what good that would've done when I was by myself. Couldn't tell if I was getting anywhere."
"We could use that rope you mentioned earlier," Emily said.
Lessia giggled. "Maybe it's not quite the right time for that..."
"Or maybe it is!" Grant said, starting to untuck his shirt. "We don't have rope, but we can tie our clothing together."
Emily laughed at the idea. "Just want to see us naked, huh."
"Doesn't hurt," he grinned, pulling of his top and tossing it to Emily, then starting to work on his undershirt. "I think I know what you've got in mind, though."
"What are you thinking?" Lessia asked, confused.
Emily started to take off her own shirt. "If we tie ourselves to one another, and maybe to something else, we might get an idea of where and how the dimensional warping is working."
"Okay, so why not just use that long cloth around your chest for that?"
Emily opened her mouth, then closed it. "Right. That's definitely long enough for two of us anyway."
"Good, then I don't have to get out of my dress." Lessia laughed.
After a moment, both Grant and Emily were topless, and Grant's two shirts were tied together with Emily's to make one chain while Emily's breastband was set aside for another. Grant at least made an effort not to stare.
Lessia made no such effort.
Grant was in decent shape, but his years of spending his time playing in taverns definitely showed. "Hopefully," he said, "we won't need more than that..."
"I think someone's hoping that we do," Emily said, nodding towards Lessia, who laughed in embarrassment. "Okay, so I'll tie my arm to Lessia's waist with my breastband, and we'll do the same for Grant's waist to mine with the shirts."
"Makes sense," Lessia said, picking up Emily's undergarment and wrapping it around her midsection.
Grant did the same with the short rope of shirts. "The idea is to walk close together until the ropes either snap or drag us along somewhere."
Emily nodded, tying herself closely to her companions. By the end it felt something like being in a three-legged race; none of their makeshift ropes left them a lot of wiggle room. Emily's right arm was around Lessia's waist, and Grant's right hand was on Emily's right shoulder. She was very aware of the warmth of the other two, and the reactions of her body to their presence, especially after recently having recalled the very arousing events of last night.
With Grant just behind her to her left and Lessia just in front to her right, Emily nodded. "All ready to go?"
"Then let's see if this works."
"Let's step together," Grant instructed. "Left foot first, in three, two..."
And they were off. Slowly at first, with Grant carefully counting out each step, then moving a little faster as the rhythm became more comfortable, and soon Grant's count was more a formality than anything as the three of them moved together.
"It's getting closer," Lessia said, pointing awkwardly at the horizon while keeping in stride. "Or I mean we're getting closer."
Emily's mind flashed back to the recurring dream. There was no snow, and she wasn't nude, but the collar was hot around her neck, and there was no fear, no confusion. She was marching confidently forward, the bodies around hers almost forgotten in the easy, comfortable pace, everything fading around her as she took step after step until—
She walked into a great hall, stripped as she was to the waist, her feet bare on the cool stone. A long table sat in the middle of the room, with a dozen chairs arranged in pairs and a thirteenth at the head. Lessia stood beside that chair, nude, her gaze following Emily's path across the room. The soft sound of a lute filled the space, and without looking, Emily could tell that Grant was in the corner behind her, playing.
—Emily gasped, stumbling a bit, but getting back into the pace easily enough.
"Everything alright?" Grant asked, moving to compensate.
Emily nodded. "Yes, I'm fine. Just tripped on my own feet." Her shoes felt uncomfortable, as though her feet weren't expecting them to be there. They continued to distract her as she walked, forcing her to pay close attention to the way her feet—
moved across the floor, how she approached that one chair at the head of the table, quickly but reverently, and finally examined the figure sitting in it, masculine and tall, with sharp blue eyes and shoulder-length dark hair.
"Don't stop walking," he said. "Keep your pace."
Still she moved to his side and knelt down.
"You'll catch up to yourself in just a moment."
—The ropes had come undone somewhere behind her. She was walking alone. She kept her pace, past the white wooden fence they had been walking towards, through the small treed garden, up to the door of the small cottage where she knocked gently.
The sound of a lute drifted out through the window. The door opened. Lessia stood there, naked and vacant-eyed, and waved her into the building.
She was walking alongside Grant and Lessia once more. They were approaching the fence. "Emily, we're almost there! Let's go in!" Lessia exclaimed, not knowing the power of the order she gave.
But another did.
Emily knelt at the Sage's side. He smiled kindly.
"Welcome," he said. And Lessia said. And Grant said.
"Thank you," Emily breathed. Her mouth quirked into a bit of a grin. "Mind telling me what the heck's going on?"