Lisa stared at Rika, uncertain how to react to the calm intensity with which the awful confession was delivered. She had known of course that the practice of slavery persisted on the continent, but this was her first confrontation with the reality of it. How was it possible that raiders could destroy a village and sell its children? How was it that an eleven year old girl was forced to kill in order to protect herself?
And that girl was now this beautiful woman, passionate and sensual, free and fierce – and yet fragile. Lisa wanted to take Rika into her arms, to hold her forever, to protect her, but suspected Rika would laugh at her if she tried. Instead, she put her hand on Rika’s, and squeezed gently.
Rika sighed, and opened the book at the Silver Queen, reading intently, then working backwards, skimming pages until she stopped at another drawing, this one of trees and a river, fairies in the air. “The forest is a living creature,” she read, “and cannot be mapped and navigated. The fixed points are few, such as the Wizard’s Spite or the Oracle’s Glare.”
She leafed back a few pages to an illustration of the wizard’s iron-ringed fortress. “The Wizard’s Spite is as old as the forest itself, and it contained all the evils of the world until one day a man emerged from its darkness and brought destruction with him.”
A few pages further back was a drawing of an old woman withered with age and leaning on a staff; at the head of the staff was a huge, lidless eye. “The Oracle sees all. Past, present and future. No truth is hidden from her. She tells me my daughter will read these words and find me through them, though how that could be I cannot imagine.”
Rika snapped the book shut and thrust it at Lisa, her eyes bright with panic. “I need to think.” She stood and strode off, picking her way along the cliff top until almost out of sight. Lisa grew more anxious with every breath, wanting to give chase, fearing also that she was about to lose… everything.
But then Rika turned, and slowly worked her way back again, and her eyes when she looked at Lisa were calm. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I had a sudden fear that the book was a cruel deception preying on my deepest hopes. I had to get some distance from it to clear my thoughts.”
She sat heavily, and took the book back, but didn’t open it. “For years I’ve been telling myself that my mother is still alive, but it’s a long time since I believed it. I mean, everyone knows how dangerous the forest is. People get lost here all the time and are never seen again. My mother thought her skill as a bard would protect her, but she too disappeared! Of course she died!
“Except she didn’t. She may not have returned to me, but through this book she is speaking to me, telling me that we will meet again. I would say it’s impossible, but magic works in the strangest ways and perhaps not even this forest can keep a mother from her daughter.”
Lisa nodded. “Then we will look for your mother. How does the book end?”
Rika turned to the end, and read: “I have no song for you, my love, but I trust these words will find you and lead you to me, wherever I may be.”
“Not very helpful.”
“No, but it gives me hope. And I think if this book were false, it would lead us more directly into danger.”
Lisa looked out over the forest that stretched to the horizon and probably beyond. “We don’t know where we are,” she said, “and we don’t know where the Silver Queen is or where your mother is. Even if we did know, this forest would trick us and twist us around and around until we were hopelessly lost again. But we can’t stay here forever – look at the shadows, it will be midday soon – and even if I could find the way back to the wizard’s house and he was willing, you couldn’t stay there for long.”
“No, but maybe…” Rika opened the book at the drawing of the forest. “The Oracle’s Glare is a fixed point within the forest.” She turned to the page with the old woman. “And the Oracle sees everything, so maybe she can tell us where to find them.”
“Maybe, but how…”
Rika plucked a long, dark strand from her hair, and sang to it, holding it by the root. It fluttered up, as if blown by a stiff breeze, although the air about them was still, and pointed out from the cliff over the canopy below. “I think we can trust it,” Rika said. “It wouldn’t be this straight if there were conflicting magics.”
“Can’t you find the Silver Queen that way?”
Rika sang a different song, and the hair fell limp. “No.” A third song has the same effect. “Nor my mother.” She sang again, and the hair twisted itself into a tangle of knots. “And that’s the way out of the forest.”
Lisa winced. “The Oracle it is, then. If we can get down off this cliff.”
Rika grinned. “I found a path earlier, but it may be a little narrow for you…”