Rika leaned against Lisa for support. She was so small that Lisa had thought her merely a girl, but even if she were a girl she had certainly reached her adult years. Not for the first time, Lisa wondered what it would be like to have breasts, and to be raised as a woman with a home and hearth to tend to instead of weapons and armour.
“Where is my armour?”
“I threw it away.”
“You threw –” Lisa was shocked. “Why?”
“Iron hurts me. And it blocks the flow of magic.”
Lisa snorted. “I’ve never believed in that. Magic is just superstition.”
“Magic just saved your life – how else would you explain your swift recovery?”
Lisa touched her fingers to the wound. It was a little tender to the touch, but barely more than a scar, and the memory of the crossbow bolt was still vivid. “I need my armour.”
Rika sighed. “I don’t know why. But follow me.” She tugged Lisa over to a spot as indistinguishable as any other. “It’s at your feet.”
Feeling around her, Lisa’s fingers brushing against pine needles until encountering the cold metal rings of the hauberk. “Just keep it wrapped up and away from me,” Rika snarled. “And hurry! The forest is restless and its shadows are deep tonight.”
Lisa stripped out of her tunic and undershirt. The latter was soaked with sweat and blood, and it was a relief to be free of it. Of the two, the tunic would provide much better protection against the bitter night. Thankfully there was no wind between the trees, but Rika was right to be concerned. She coiled up her armour and wrapped it in the undershirt. It made a heavy and bulky package, and would have been easier to wear than carry, but she had no wish to hurt Rika. “Ready,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Despite Rika’s earlier fears, Lisa found an easy path through the forest, mostly level with the occasional downhill, the distant whispering of the stream for company. But the going was slow, their only light that of the stars – what little pierced the canopy above. Cliff faces and increasingly dense undergrowth of sharp-leafed bushes edged the path, that must have been forged by deer or boars or other residents of the great forest.
More and more she was forced to support the smaller woman. Rika stumbled often, only her fear driving her on. “The shadows,” she whispered again and again. “Don’t trust the shadows. They lie.” Sometimes she broke into song, and although the words meant nothing to Lisa, the tone of desperation was unmistakable.
Until Rika fell to her knees, sobbing.
Lisa knelt beside her. “We have to keep going. We need shelter.” The irony that she now was the one urging them on was not lost on her. But both of them were now shivering from the cold as much as weariness.
“Why are you so blind!” Rika hissed. “You have taken us deeper into the forest than any human should dare to go. Can’t you hear them laughing at us?”
“Have a little faith, Rika. We have been following the river, descending always. Soon we will be more worried about those bandits than this endless night.”
Rika gave a long sigh of understanding. “Lisa is your true name. Isn’t it?”
The question startled her. “It’s not my given name,” she said. “It’s not the name my father gave me, or a name that any has known me by, except you.”
“But it is your true name,” Rika insisted.
Lisa hesitated, then confessed. “Yes.”
“Then the forest has both your blood and your name. There is no song that can see you safely to the forest’s eaves – at least, none that I can sing.”
Out of the darkness nearby, a man’s voice spoke. “Continue on that path, and you will not even see the sunrise.”
“Who’s there?” Lisa demanded.
Beyond the rambling hawthorne to her right, an oil lamp was unshielded, giving her a glimpse of a face withered with age. “Just call me ‘old man’. Everyone else does. Is that iron you have there?”
Lisa frowned, but could think of no reason to deny it. “Yes.”
“I will trade you for it. A bed for the night, food in equal measure to the iron, and maybe, just maybe, I have a little something to aid your quest.”
“My only quest is to escape this forest.”
The old man chuckled. “Hardly so simple. Do you accept the trade?”
Lisa turned to Rika. “What do you think?”
“Bards never trade with wizards,” she said, “but I would be grateful for a warm bed.”
“I have no objection to that young bard sharing your good fortune, if that is your wish. I enjoyed her singing tonight, though she has much to learn before she can best the forest.”
Reluctant as she was to part with the armour she had earned and had worn for years, what choice was there? Lisa nodded. “I accept the trade.”
With a wave of his arm that seemed to set the trees rustling as if in a sharp breeze – though not a breath of wind was felt – a passage opened up between two neighbouring hawthorne bushes that had previously been tangled together. “Come quickly,” he said.
“Yes,” Rika said. “Such anger!” She hurried through, pulling Lisa after her.
By the light of the oil lamp, Lisa finally got a good look at Rika. She was no girl, despite her diminutive size. If anything, she was older than Lisa herself. She had a pretty face, with golden skin, or at least golden brown in colour, and black wavy hair that was as tangled as the hawthorne had been. They were thrown into darkness again as the old man strode away, and they scurried after, eager for warmth and safety.