At the summit of a steep hill, the wizard’s lamp revealed an iron trelliswork, rusted with age and thickly entwined with sickly-looking bramble. Kari recoiled at the sight of it, partly from fear of the iron, but mostly from the black aura of hatred. The air was thick with the forest’s fury as it lay siege to the iron fortification.
The bramble slithered away at the wizard’s approach, clearing a narrow path to a gate, though it coiled restlessly, a nest of thorn-encrusted vines, some as thick as Kari’s arms. She held back as Lisa followed the wizard through the gate, then darted after them, more terrified at the thought of being left behind alone.
There was a reason bards never traded with wizards – iron was the enemy of natural magic. Wizardry was something else, however, harnessing dark spirits and dangerous powers from other planes of existence. Kari felt almost as if she were entering one of those other realms as she flung herself through the gate, and it slammed shut behind her.
The earth was barren within the iron fence that circled the summit, and even above the height of the fence the forest was unable to penetrate, so that the night sky could be seen clearly. Kari spied the blood star burning amongst them and sang, as she often did, “Ever near, though I go far, you dog my steps, you wandering star, where’er I go, there you are…” It echoed strangely within the wizard’s iron-soaked fortification.
The wizard looked at her curiously. “You shouldn’t be able to sing in here.”
“That wasn’t a spell,” Kari explained, “just a rhyme my mother used to sing.”
“She was a bard,” he said. “Like you.” It was a statement, not a question.
Kari nodded. “She was a real bard. She knew all the songs.”
The wizard laughed. “No one can know all the songs. But come. Let us go inside.”
The house had the look of a stone-built fortress, as if some mad duke had once thought it possible to build an outpost within the forest. It was three storeys high, wooden shutters sealing all its many windows, and it had a heavy iron door for its main entrance. This opened smoothly at the wizard’s approach, and warm firelight spilled out into the unnatural clearing.
This time, despite the threat of yet more iron, and the awareness of how hopelessly out of her element she was, Kari didn’t hesitate. She had never felt so cold or so weary in her life, and the offer of warmth was too seductive to deny. Lisa followed her inside, and they rushed over to kneel by the fire.
Something simmered in the large black cauldron that was suspended above the flames, and Kari recalled a fairytale her mother had once told her.
“Why are you smiling?” Lisa asked.
“That’s the sort of cauldron that an evil wizard might use for making bard soup,” she said, with a grin to show she wasn’t being serious.
“As I remember it,” the wizard said, “it was a witch that cooked the bard. With carrots and cauliflower.”
“We have this story too,” Lisa said, “except it was three witches, and they cooked the bard with apple cores and onion skins.”
“And yet,” Kari said, “every witch I’ve ever met has insisted, hand on heart, that she is a vegetarian.”
The wizard shook his head. “Fear not. This is water for a bath. I had intended it for myself, but your need is greater. You will find clean towels in the chest. Join me upstairs when you are done.” He turned and ascended the wooden stairs that were the only exit from the room save for the iron door that was once again firmly shut.
It was a large room, with chopped wood stacked against one wall, a furnace against the other with an anvil nearby and a barrel full of oily black water, many iron tools ensconced in niches. For Kari, to be surrounded by so much iron was a waking nightmare, but in the middle of the room, near the fire, a large copper tub half filled with water was a sight that banished all her fear.
“Me first!” Kari pulled her dress off over her head and kicked her boots off, and bent to test the water – it was cold, of course, but a copper jug sat beside the bath, and she used it to bring water from the cauldron until the tub was almost brim-full. With a sigh of pleasure she sank into its warm embrace and life breathed into her frozen flesh.
After a minute, she opened her eyes to see Lisa standing there awkwardly, and still clothed. “What are you waiting for?” Kari demanded. “There’s room for both of us.” She pulled herself up against the side to make space.
“I’ve never bathed with a woman before,” Lisa said, blushing furiously.
“Well I only ever bathe with women.” Kari suppressed a sudden urge to laugh. “Would it help if I kept my eyes closed?”
Lisa nodded, and Kari shook her head in disappointment. But she closed her eyes and kept them sealed tight until Lisa was sitting beside her. Water spilled from the tub, forming a pool on the floor around them. Despite her earlier words, it was a tight squeeze with both women sitting, especially since Lisa had a body that any male warrior would be proud of. Kari had no love for the male form, but did find herself curious about the woman within. She reached over to wash the dry blood from around the wound – a wound that she could still feel faintly within herself – and her fingers traced the edges of the barely visible scar.
Lisa covered Kari’s hand with her own, pressing it to her chest. “No one’s ever treated me the way you do,” she said. “Always I’ve had to be a man and to train for war. Whenever I’ve tried to explain who I really am, I’ve been laughed at, or beaten, until I locked it away inside myself.”
“Until I asked you to invent a name, and you let the truth escape.”
“It was dark, and we were two strangers alone. It was an impulse, one that I regretted immediately – but now I don’t.”
Kari smiled sadly. “I knew another like you, but younger, and very pretty when she dressed as a girl. But her master said, ‘Boy, if you want to be a girl, then we will treat you as a girl,’ and she was sold to the whorehouse.”
“Her master – She was a slave?”
Kari nodded, trying not to hear again the girl’s screams as they branded her.
“What happened to her?”
What had happened? They said she killed herself, but that made them no less responsible. Kari shrugged. “They killed her.”