Roger awoke with the feeling of sunlight on his face. He had been having a dream where he was walking down a never ending path. Every time he took a step, his body would crack, click, or tick. With every rusty tick his legs and feet would become more sore, and his hips would cramp.
The sunlight was filtering in through a small window, the shutter of which had just been thrown open by the goodwife of the home in which they had stayed the night. She went and sat back at her spinning wheel. It made the exact clicking sounds that he had been hearing in his dream as she spun a ball of fibers into thread.
After deciding to tag along with her the day before, Ari had led the three of them to a manor. It had not been in the direction that Roger or Hannah thought it should have. There, they had found a family that was willing to let them stay the night. In exchange for a few of Ari’s coins they had gotten a warm dinner, a few blankets to curl up in, and a roof over their head. Roger had been so glad to finally stop walking that he had almost immediately fallen asleep without really paying attention to where they were. Adventure games never simulated how exhausting it is to walk all day.
The house was small, but functional. Roger assumed that it was made of wattle and daub, but he didn’t have any real experience with that kind of construction so he wasn’t completely sure. Large timber beams supported the house, and the areas between the wood were filled with a dry, hard substance. Small windows were cut in the walls which had been closed once night had fallen. At one end a fireplace was built into the wall. Roger remembered seeing several children of various ages the night before, but they were all missing now.
Hannah was already awake, doing her morning exercise routine, and Ari was nowhere to be seen. Roger rolled over and pushed himself to his feet.
“Oh. Good,” Hannah said, working in words between squats, “We’ve. Been. Waiting. For. You. To. Get. Up,”
“You could have woken me up if you were impatient,” Roger replied sullenly.
Hannah finished her squats, and relaxed down into a lunging pose with her arms held out in front of her. “It hasn’t been too long. Besides, you were so tired last night. We thought you might need the rest.”
Roger just grunted in reply before stepping out of the small house. The sun had risen a bit above the rolling horizon, and the world was illuminated with the moist, fragrant feeling of morning. A path ran away from the door past a small field or large garden. The children Roger had seen the night before were working there, pulling weeds and diverting water from a ditch. Beyond that the path met up with a larger road that connected all the peasants’ plots of land together.
From how warm it was, and how far along the growing crops were, it looked like it was late summer. If he’d been at home, Roger would have said that it looked like August, but he didn’t know exactly how the calendar worked in this world. He even had the sensation that the days may have been slightly longer. That could have just been the effect of having to walk all day, though.
He spotted Ari walking down the lane, and she turned onto the path and came up to him.
“Good, you’re awake. Are you ready to go?” she asked.
“Sure thing,” he said. After saying it, he realized his answer didn’t exactly match her question.
Hannah appeared out of the door behind him. “We’re all ready then?” she asked, holding Ari’s pack in one hand.
“Yup. Just give that to Hrothgar here, and we’ll be going,” Ari said.
“I’m a priestess,” Ari said, trying hard to look serene while the wickedness in her smile slipped through the cracks, “You wouldn’t want to look as though you aren’t a devout follower of Oir while on a pilgrimage, would you?”
Roger gave her a long displeased look as he shouldered the bag.
Hannah said goodbye to the goodwife and the three of them walked out to the road.
“Look what I made,” Hannah said, excitedly holding out her hand. In it was a small length of string rolled into a ball. “The goodwife couldn’t believe that I’d never never spun thread before, so she let me try it out. It was fun!”
Ari just gave her a sideways look, as though Hannah had just said something absurd. Roger just nodded in a noncommittal way that was supposed to communicate a “I’m listening, but you haven’t said anything I care about yet” kind of feeling.
“Well, I thought it was fun,” Hannah said, tying the bit of yarn to her finger.
The three of them walked along the road, passing the houses of the peasants on either side. Many of them were like the one that they had stayed in, sturdy little houses with thatched roofs, and large gardens next to them. Others were less well put together, on smaller plots with sadder looking people.
“Why do some of the peasants have so much more than others?” Roger asked nobody in particular.
Ari took up the answer. “I don’t know how it works where you come from, but there are different kinds of peasants here,” she explained, “The ones we stayed with are the better off variety. They get to live on the manor by their own choice, can move to a different manor if they want to, and have a field that they can work for their own income. The lower level are bound to the manor, can’t grow their own food for income, and only live based on the good graces of their lord,” she trailed off, “Oh, and there are slaves, but I don’t really think of them as peasants. They’re just kind of like… I dunno. Cows. Or pigs.”
Roger and Hannah both gave her horrified looks.
“Do they not have slaves where you’re from?”
“No, slavery is considered one of the worst possible things that people can do to each other,” Roger said.
“Oh. Here we have slaves,” she said simply.
The three walked in silence for a time. On one side of the road there was a low stone wall, and on the other a hedge of tall trees. Their branches reached upward and out over the path, granting shade from the summer sun. The dusty smell of the road filled Roger’s nose, and out in the fields he watched the peasants at work. They all had tunics and shirts, very similar to what he was wearing, often in shades of red, orange, and yellow. Many of them had peeled the tunics off, and left them dangling from the belts at their wastes, the collars of their shirts turned down against the heat. Roger noticed that several of them were women. Some of them young, fit women.
“You weren’t kidding about the gender equality thing, were you?” Roger whispered to Hannah. She glanced at what he was looking at, and punched him playfully in the shoulder.
“Stop staring, you perv.”
Ari noticed their antics, and shrugged. “If you’re followers of Oir, it doesn’t really matter. One of his main teachings is to ‘appreciate’ human physical beauty,” she said before adding fiercely, “Just another reason why taking a vow of chastity for him is utter nonsense.”
Roger and Hannah didn’t know exactly what she was talking about, but Ari didn’t seem to want to explain just then.
Before long the three had reached the top of a hill that overlooked the surrounding area. Below there was a sea of trees dotted by areas that had been cleared out to make farms. The large manor houses stood out in each of these, smoke drifting lazily from their chimneys. From this distance, the manors looked like little toy houses with toy farms where tiny toy peasants went about their tiny business.
“Right, so,” Ari began abruptly, “The route we’re on will take us through those mountains.” She pointed away from the peaceful scene of farms and forest away to the east. A wall of earth and stone rose out of the foothills. At their feet there were dense, wild woods, which transitioned into dark alpine firs broken up by the bright green leaves of aspens higher up. Continuing higher, the trees thinned out and above a certain point, the mountain peaks turned to slate grey broken up by layers of dusty brown stone.
Ari continued, “The shrine is in an abbey that lies in a valley on the other side. Normally, to get there we would work our way around and enter the valley from the north, but I’m in a hurry.”
“Ok,” Roger said. A sinking feeling was working its way down his body that had started when he first laid eyes on those mountains. If he’d thought walking between the little hills of these woods had hurt, how much worse would it feel to climb mountains?
“It won’t be safe,” Ari warned, “There are no lords to keep the law up there.”
“Even better,” Roger said. That sinking feeling got a few pounds heavier.
“Come on, Roger,” Hannah piped in, giving him a companionable slap on the arm, “Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing you came here for?”
Roger thought about that. On the one hand, she was right. An adventure in the wild was exactly the kind of thing he’d been hoping for when he’d heard that he was going to live in a place like this. On the other hand, most of the time adventurers had more than just the clothes on their backs.
“Should I get a sword or something?” Roger asked.
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Ari said, “Can you buy one?”
Roger shook his head no. Ari just shrugged and picked up a mostly straight stick off the side of the road.
“This will do then,” she said, handing Roger his new walking staff, “A weapon fit for, well, a vagabond pilgrim like you.” She chuckled a little bit to herself.
Roger gave her an annoyed look. The stick did feel pretty good in his hand though, and using it as a cane made walking a little easier.
The three of them wound their way through the foothills, heading ever higher. Roger was in a sullen mood. He was recounting what had happened ever since he had arrived in this world, and, to be honest, he wasn’t very pleased. If he was going to be honest with himself, he had thought that things would be more like what he had read about in the books. Maybe some kind of prophecy would be revealed and he would be given a quest. Maybe a mysterious old man would come along and tell him about some magic sword that only the pure of heart could wield, but no. The only similarity between this world and fantasy was the magic, the goblins, and the peasants. Roger’s body hurt in places that he didn’t even know were used for walking, and he had sweat more in the last two days than he had in the last two years. To be honest, he would rather have stayed home and played his fantasy computer games.
The trees were nice though. He did like the trees.
The trail took them up into the hills between two great arms of the mountains. A creek ran beside them, bounding happily along in its bed. The land was rocky, and the river was filled with boulders that the water bounced off and around as it went on its way.
“Look,” Ari said, coming to a stop in a small meadow, “That ridge up there is the highest point of the pass. We should be able to get there some time tomorrow.” She was pointing at a saddle, high above them, that looked, in Roger’s opinion, to only be slightly lower than the peaks on either side of it. His thighs quivered in dread.
“You know,” Roger whispered to Hannah, “Maybe we should just do something else.”
“Like what? We don’t have any money or any food. Do you want to be a peasant farmer?”
Roger thought of the attractive peasant girls working the field. “There could be worse things.”
Hannah rolled her eyes, “Come on, you baby. This is adventure! The real deal!”
“Yeah,” Roger said, “I’ve never been very good at reality.”
They walked on, going higher and higher. The path took them up along the wall of a ravine cut out by a creek that flowed down below them. The air grew drier and thinner, and it gained a slight chilly edge to it. The trees soon turned from leafy and pine varieties to furs that preferred higher slopes. The path was stony and pebbles skittered across the ground as they walked.
After walking for several hours the group crested up over the end of the ravine. They were on the edge of a flatter area formed by the land caught between the shoulders of the mountain. Their path had taken them quite high, and they had passed under a row of lower peaks that fronted the mountain range. They started to head south, following a path that ran between the high spine, and these lower peaks. The wind was softly rattling the branches of the trees, and a fresh piney scent filled the walkers’ noses.
They walked along the side of a large rocky rise, and a cleft of stone forced the path around. On the other side stood a man with long blond hair and thin, short whiskers. He was relaxing with his back resting against the rock wall they had just come around.
“Hi Ari,” the man said cordially, “I thought you’d get here sooner, to be honest.” He stood up, resting his hand gently on the hilt of his sword. Roger’s eyes followed the action and became glued to the weapon. It was a simple, functional blade, and a buckler was set over the hilt for quick access. Roger was suddenly quite aware of how little he knew about how to fight with the walking stick he was carrying. He gripped it tightly in front of his body, all the same.
“Phaw, what hole did you crawl out of, Bire?” Ari responded, “You think you can threaten me? I’m a priestess of Oir, a better fighter than you, and, besides, my father would flay you if you did anything to me.”
“Why do you think I’d be out here if not for you father?” Bire chuckled, “Regardless, you’re going to come with us now.”
More thugs appeared from the trees and behind rocks, several walking up from the direction the three had just come. They were men and women in various colors and conditions of clothing.
“You see, Ari, your father was really very insistent that you come back home, and his only condition was that you’re basically unharmed,” Bire said, flexing his neck, “I don’t think anyone would notice a few bruises, though.”
“To hell with that,” Ari said. She charged forward, sweeping her staff up and thrusting the point toward the man’s face. He stumbled backward, ducking out of the way as Ari swept past him. Several other thugs ran toward her. A searingly bright flash of light burst above Ari’s head, blinding her assailants and allowing her to knock the woman that was blocking her path aside. Ari darted away, up the path.
Bire swore. “Well, hurry up! Get after her!”
The dazed group gathered itself and chased Ari down the path, several of them shouting as they went. Bire cast a glance at Roger and Hannah, gave a little scoff, and trotted down the path with the rest of them.
Hannah set her jaw, inhaled deeply, and started marching up the path with a determined attitude.
“What are you doing, Hannah?” Roger asked.
“Ari’s in trouble. I’m going to go help.”
“But there’s a mob of people with swords chasing after her.”
“And that’s why she’s going to need my help,” Hannah said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“But why? Let’s just go back to the manor, get some work in the fields and relax.”
“Look, Roger,” Hannah said, exasperated, “Sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to because your friendships matter more than making yourself happy.”
“Is she really your friend though?” Roger asked.
“I like her better than I like you.”
With that Hannah turned and started back up the trail again. Roger was surprisingly hurt by her parting words, but, then again, she was the only person who knew what he’d been through and had been with him the whole time. He sighed, suddenly feeling very lonely.
“Hannah, wait!” he called, “I’m coming too.” He chased down the path after her.