There was blood in the water. Not enough that it could be seen, or even tasted, but it was there. Kari’s lips tingled with the potential for magic. All she needed was a name. Human blood. And something else. Something bitter. She turned to follow the stream through the forest. Sooner or later she would find clean water to assuage her thirst.
The sun was already low on the horizon, and the trees blocked what little light there was. The ground was a black carpet of soft pine needles and treacherous roots, and only the glittering, trickling stream kept her from getting hopelessly lost. It was her anchor to the real world, her path to safety – the forest was a place of powerful enchantments and monstrous dangers, and only her desperation gave her the courage to brave it.
Kari kissed the water’s surface. The sense of blood was stronger now. She could even taste it. Not for the first time it occurred to her that this was a lure, that she was walking blindly into a trap. “Sweet new-born lady pure,” she sang, “wash away deceit, you have the strength of mountains that no one can defeat.” The rushing water seemed almost to purr as it caressed her fingertips, but there was no sense of dark magic revealed or lifted.
She continued on, taking no more than ten cautious steps before discovering the source of the river’s contamination. A blond-haired, pale-skinned knight, in iron chainmail, lay motionless at the water’s edge, waves brushing against him as if curious. A crossbow bolt pierced the torso just below the ribs, blood soaking through the tunic beneath.
Alive or dead, he could wait. Kari knelt a little way further up where the water was pure, and she drank gratefully from cupped hands. “Thank you, sweet lady,” she sang afterwards, and bent to kiss the water’s surface again.
She returned to the knight, and pressed her ear over his heart. He was alive, but only barely. The iron stung her ear – it poisoned the air and earth, just as it had made the water bitter. Kari couldn’t do anything to help him as long as he wore it. Fortunately, the hauberk fastened at the front with leather twine; unfortunately, the crossbow bolt would have to be removed first.
“What are you doing here,” she muttered as she untied the bows and knots, “with nobody but me to help you? I might as well kill you as leave you, but like as not I’ll kill you if I don’t!” Grasping the protruding shaft of the bolt, knowing she had no choice, still she hesitated. Peering up through the branches at the dark sky, she caught a glimpse of silver and smiled. “Ancient goddess, noble maid,” she sang, “bless my hands so I may aid.”
With fresh confidence and strength, she returned her attention to the knight. With an effort that forced a cry from her lips, she wrenched the bolt free from reluctant flesh. The knight screamed with her, his blue eyes focussing on hers for an instant before he yielded to unconsciousness once more.
Her hands soaked in blood, Kari struggled to work the bitter iron mail off the heavy, unresponsive body. “Bless my hands,” she sang, over and over, blinking away tears that dripped onto the knight to mix with his blood. When at last she succeeded, she wrenched the hauberk away, throwing the heavy garment as far as she could.
The knight was fading fast. He had lost so much blood, and was losing more. His heartbeat was faint and rapid, his skin clammy and cold. It didn’t help that the temperature of the air was falling fast. “Bless my hands,” Kari sang, “so I may aid.” She pressed her hands over the wound and sang, channelling the loving light of the silver moon into the shadowy figure beside her.
The night darkened as she knelt there, the waxing half-moon falling from the sky. An echo of the knight’s wound blossomed in her chest, and through the pain she sang, “Forever stars who ever wheel, help my fragile flesh to heal,” until, exhausted, she sank onto the earth next to the unconscious man. He was sleeping now, she sensed. A proper sleep. His aura was faint, but steady.
He would live – if he didn’t freeze during the night. Already she was shivering with the cold. Although the season was changing, winter giving way to spring, there would be ice on the ground by dawn. “Wake up,” she said, shaking him by the shoulder. “We need to find shelter.”
He bolted upright suddenly. “Who’s there?” he demanded. A flailing hand struck her in passing, and returned to feel her, discovering her shape. “Who are you?” he asked, more gently this time. “Is this the afterworld? Is this all there is?” In a whisper he added, “Am I too unworthy for the feasting hall?”
His accent was unfamiliar to Kari, and she knew nothing of his beliefs, but the words were familiar enough. She had once had a lover from over the seas who had taught her, and Kari was good with words. “You are not dead,” she explained, “though whether you will live remains to be seen.” She forced herself to her feet. “We need to find shelter.”
“Ah, I remember now,” the knight said. “I was struck. I fell from my horse. When I awoke, my brothers were gone. My horse was gone, and my sword. They must have thought me dead, or…” He fell abruptly silent, and Kari understood. Or his brothers were dead. “Those accursed bandits were still there, camped for the night, laughing and celebrating.”
“The Bnekissi are fierce warriors,” Kari said, “and cruel. They hunted me for days. Now I know what distracted them from the search.”
“They hunted you? Why?”
Kari shook her head irritably. “You ask too many questions! We must go, and quickly! The forest is too quiet for my liking.”
The knight struggled to his feet, holding on to her for balance. He was barely visible in the dark, but his height and muscular build were impressive. “Answer me one thing at least,” he said. “What is your name?”
“You can call me Rika,” she said, “but shh…” She pressed her hand to his mouth. “Do not dare to utter your true name here, or you will be lost in this forest forever.”
“Then call me Lisa,” the knight said.
Kari laughed. “Amongst my people, that is a woman’s name.”
“Amongst mine also.”
Kari shrugged. “So be it.” She turned about, listening. “Too quiet! Where is the stream? Ah, what a fool am I!” Summoning her last reserves of strength, she sang, “Blessed forest! Mercy, please! Guide us through these noble trees, not wander lost until we freeze…”
“Why are you singing?” Lisa asked. “And what language was that?”
“No more questions,” Kari whispered, almost too weary to stand. “Find us a path. I’ve done all I can.”