Lisa woke to bright daylight as the wizard ambled about opening the windows. The inside surfaces of the shutters were polished silver, and they fell open at an angle that reflected the blue sky above. Rika slept on undisturbed, nestled within Lisa’s arms.
It was the only bed in the wizard’s house, as far as Lisa knew. Maybe there was another on the top floor where the wizard had spent the night. She had awoken often, uncomfortable in the too-short bed but secretly thrilled by Rika’s warm proximity. Lisa had offered to sleep on the floor, but Rika refused to hear of it. “If anyone should be on the floor, it’s me,” she’d said, not that she’d shown any inclination to do so.
“I’ve brought your clothes up,” the wizard said, pointing to the pile on a chair near the bed. “They’re dry now.” Rika had thrown them all into the bathtub while Lisa was drying herself, and washed them clean, or almost. “Best let the bard sleep,” he said. “Come upstairs and we’ll talk.”
Lisa waited until the old man was gone before slipping carefully out of the bed and dressing herself. The last time she had dressed herself, she had been with her brothers, preparing for a day’s hard ride through the tall grass of the Habnesk plain. “Is there no road through the Carwe?” they’d asked, that being the name given to the hills and valleys of this ancient forest. But they had been warned time and again not to trust any path through there.
She wished she could look out across the forest to the plain, and perhaps glimpse her brothers there looking for her, or at least see them and know they were alive. But of course, even if they were alive, they’d be long gone now. A full day had passed now since those bandits – Bnekissi, Rika had called them – ambushed them.
Lisa studied the sleeping bard. She had never seen anyone with such dark skin before, though she had heard tell of people far in the south who were as black as night itself. Regardless, Rika was beautiful, and looked so fragile as she slept, so different from the confident woman who had bared her all without shame and demanded that Lisa join her in the bath.
There was no bed upstairs, though a comfortable armchair sat near a fireplace. Between the windows, shelves full of books of various sizes and colours, many of them faded and ancient, obscured the walls from floor to ceiling. Workbenches clustered with unrecognisable tools, some iron, some apparently gold, were worn with age and scarred with use. Even the grand dining table in the centre of the room was burned and cracked as if it had survived a war.
“Just how old are you, old man,” Lisa asked as she took a seat at the table and helped herself to a bowl full of porridge flavoured with honey.
He laughed. “I am only the last of a long line of wizards who have tended to this place. I have barely scratched the surface of its secrets.”
“Until yesterday, I laughed at the idea of magic. But Rika healed me of a fatal wound, and you… The forest fears and hates you, branches slithering about like furious serpents.”
“You Tayiini, isolated on your northern isles, have forgotten the old dedications. You talk of a god as if there is only one and think the rest of us are barbarians. Of course, we think the same of you.”
“Have you been there? Your Tayke is fluent.”
“I travelled there often in my youth. The isles are rich in iron and other metals, but though your people deny magic you are fearful of wizards – with good reason too!”
Lisa sighed. “We are a superstitious people, for all that we claim to be rational.”
The wizard lifted a backpack onto the table. “Fresh water. Bread, fruit, honey. Some biscuits. Not much variety, I’m sorry, but the best I can do.”
Lisa peered inside, and nodded. “A fair trade, though I am unhappy to part with my armour. It has served me well. But I am grateful for your kindness and for aiding us. We are very lost in this forest.”
The wizard nodded. “The forest has your blood and your true name. Your only hope is to find the Silver Queen.”
She cried out in surprise. “It is for the Silver Queen that my brothers and I came searching. And we are just three of many.”
“Then fate smiles on you. But what dire cause could send Tayiini knights on such a desperate quest?”
“Our princess is dying.” Only eight years old, and loved by all who ever met her. “Her physicians have lost all hope, and say she will not live to see Midsummer. But we still remember the old tales that tell of the Silver Queen whose tears will cure any illness.”
“Her tears do not fall easily.”
“But she is real?”
The wizard shrugged. “Perhaps. If so, a bard is more likely to find her than a wizard.” He turned and took a rough leather-bound book from a high shelf. “I said I might have something to aid your quest.” He opened the book near the end, at a sketch of a tall woman with long hair and a crown, a single tear falling from one eye. “I cannot read the words, for they twist inside my eyes, but this can be none other than the Silver Queen.”
Lisa pulled the book towards her and tried to focus on the writing, but the letters slithered like worms in mud wherever she looked. She closed the book in disgust. “My head hurts just looking at it.”
“Your bard will find it easier to tame.” The wizard slipped the book into the backpack. “And now you should go.”
“But wait – Rika will be hungry. Can she not share this meal with us?”
The wizard shook his head firmly, but not unkindly. “If you do not take her from this place – and soon – she is unlikely ever to wake again.”
Alarmed, Lisa shot to her feet. “Why didn’t you say so!” she cried. She snatched up the backpack and hurried down the stairs. Rika slept still, but shivered now as if feverish. Lisa wrapped her in a blanket, not bothering to dress her first, and carried her downstairs and out through the iron door that opened at her approach.
The wizard followed them out, carrying Rika’s dress and boots, and he led the way out through the wild bramble. Its movements in the daylight seemed sluggish and far less sinister than they had in the night.
Down through the trees he led her, to a clearing at the edge of a cliff. Ahead of them was a sea of green, the forest canopy rolling over hills into the distance like great, unmoving waves.
“See?” the wizard said. “She is better already.”
And indeed, Rika no longer shivered in her sleep. Lisa laid her gently on a patch of grass bright with sunlight, and the wizard placed her clothes next to her.
“Good luck with your quest.” he said.
“Thank you, old man,” she said, as he strode away back up the hill.