Descending the cliff, which they did by following a stream down through a crack in the rock, was like travelling to a different time and place. Instead of the pine forest with its carpet of needles, its holly bushes, hawthorns and brambles, they found themselves amidst oak and sycamore, cherry and horse chestnut, grand trees all of them with mighty trunks that soared into verdant heights. The cherry trees were past their blossoms, but the horse chestnut was in full flower.
Bright, vertical shafts of sunlight pierced the canopy, lighting the hard earth in patches. There was little undergrowth to impede their progress, though the ground was uneven and thick, gnarly roots created snares for unwary feet.
“It’s magical,” Lisa said, staring about in wonder. “As if time itself has no meaning here.”
Kari agreed. “Up above it was early Spring, and here it is almost Summer.” She plucked another hair and sang to it. “Drift upon my words like air, to the Oracle, take us there.” It lifted as before, but with reluctance, wavering and almost looping into knots. “And it is certainly magical.”
They followed Kari’s song-spelled hair through the ancient forest for hours, the sunbeams becoming fewer and fewer as the day progressed. They descended treacherous slopes into valleys, cut across swift-flowing rivers (that afforded them rare glimpses of open sky), and detoured in search of manageable paths up or around hills.
In all, it was a pleasant afternoon and an invigorating walk, the only troubling note being a concern of how the coming night would pass. “Hopefully it will be warm enough, and dry, that we can sleep beneath the trees,” Lisa said.
“Perhaps, but I do not trust this forest at night. Already I can hear its song changing. We are strangers here, and the forest has no love for strangers.”
A distant thunder was followed by roar of anger that shook the forest. Kari and Lisa scrambled into hiding behind a tree and peered round. Again they heard a distant rumble. “That’s a horse,” Lisa said, and Kari realised she was correct.
Moments later they saw it, a white stallion carrying a silver-clad knight, galloping between the trees. It turned abruptly and raced back, and another howl of fury echoed. A monstrous figure, like a man in shape but easily the height of five men with bulk to match, lurched into view. Taking a boulder in one hand, the giant hurled it at the knight, who swerved aside and circled at a safe distance. The rock smashed against a thick trunk, sending bark and splinters flying.
With a growl, it charged at the knight, the ground shaking with every step, and the knight retreated, looking behind every few paces. His path took him past their hiding place, and Kari sensed his shock at seeing them there. “Are you fools?” he cried as he drew to a halt. “Run! Or if you have weapons, then help me against this accursed beast.
His silver sword swept a shining arc as the giant crashed into him. Kari’s senses were overwhelmed with blood and magic and hatred and rage and agony all at once and she screamed as she clutched her hands to her temples.
“Rika! Rika!” Lisa’s shouts penetrated her awareness gradually. “Rika! What’s wrong?”
The world about her came slowly into focus again, though a lighting pain flickered and danced within her head. “I’m okay,” she said. “I think.”
The giant was gone, although his howls came from somewhere close. The knight lay sprawled on his back, and his steed observed him from nearby, apparently unharmed. Kari walked over and dropped to her knees by the knight. “At least you’re not wearing iron,” she muttered, “though why you would make plate armour out of silver…”
She looked up at Lisa who had picked up the knight’s sword and was studying it with a bemused expression. “His sword is silver as well,” she said.
The knight regained consciousness and coughed up a mouthful of blood. “Take my sword,” he whispered. “Take my horse. Kill the beast.”
As if in response, the distant howling transformed into a scream of fury, and a rock bigger than Kari’s head ricocheted off the tree beside her with a terrifying thud. It shot over her head, scattering fragments of bark all around, and narrowly missed Lisa.
Lisa’s lips tightened. “Kill the beast. Right.” She approached the horse with caution, adopting an unthreatening posture as she reached out to it. The stallion, however, was not shy, its nostrils flaring as it pawed the ground impatiently. As soon as Lisa pulled herself up into the saddle, it surged forward, carrying its startled rider into battle.
Kari stared after her anxiously, but there was nothing she could do to help – or maybe there was, but she had a more pressing concern. “Golden sun, your arrows bright,” she sang, “bless my hands to heal this knight. Bless my hands, bless my hands.”
She pressed her hands palm down on the silver breast plate and screamed as the electric pain in her head tore her mind apart.