Their parting, at the edge of the forest, was wordless, both afraid to admit that this was the end, a parting of ways. Lisa kissed the tears from Kari’s cheeks and wrenched herself away, feeling she had left her heart behind and would never love again. Tears blurred her vision as she strode through the tall grass, and when the effort to not look back was too great, it was a relief to see the dark figure of the bard still watching from the trees.
There was no choice. She had to leave. Her princess was dying. Her brothers were in the hands of slavers. The Oracle had said that all would be well, but had not said who would make things well. “I am the hero here,” she muttered, “though I received my reward in advance.” A few precious hours with Kari. A happiness she had never known before, and would never know again.
The sun was well into the sky. Soon she would lose the beauty of the fairies’ gift. She had wanted to set off before she did, so that Kari’s last memory of her was as a woman, with a woman’s body. Already she had lost the gift of the fairies’ speech, and her hand ached with the memory of dragon fire – though the hand itself had healed, and its grip on her maidsilver sword was firm.
The sword sang in her thoughts whenever she held it. The fairies had made Lisa a scabbard for it, for which she was grateful, because its song filled her with unwary confidence and eagerness for battle. It made her wish she had the knight’s silver armour as well, to make her invincible – not that it had saved the knight himself in the end.
Kari had guided her well. The Bnekissi encampment was not far from where Lisa had emerged from the forest. Sword in hand, she charged in amongst the warriors with a yell. They leapt to their feet and grabbed their weapons, but she dispatched four to the afterworld before they had their wits about them, and made swift work of the rest. The Bnekissi had, perhaps, grown too used to ambushing their enemies with crossbows. And while she herself was unarmoured, and thus free of the weight and constriction of ring or plate, her opponents’ armour was little defence against the maidsilver’s fury.
Not that she escaped injury entirely. Crimson blossomed at her side where a blade had cut against her ribs. Lisa glanced at the sun, a little surprised that she hadn’t yet changed back – but not as surprised as her brothers when she released them, and several other captives, from their chains. “Who are you?” they demanded. “You look very much like our lost brother.”
“My name is Lisa,” she said, “and I am your lost sister returned to you. In the depths of the Carwe, the great forest, I met the Silver Queen. She gave me her last tear.” She showed them her necklace. “You must take this to the princess.” At last the words of the Oracle were clear to her. The old woman had told her everything she needed to know, though only now it made sense.
Her brothers looked at her in amazement, and dawning comprehension. “You are not returning with us?”
“No,” she said. “My heart belongs to the forest.”
Once she was sure that her brothers were well, and once her side had been bandaged properly, she bid farewell to them and gave them messages for their parents, of the sort she had only ever imagined in her wildest dreams.
She freed one last captive, a grey mare that greeted her with affection. “Come, Sal,” she said. “A forest of wonders awaits us.” Were it not for the pain in her ribs, they would have raced through the grass, all the way to the forest. Instead they endured a gentle pace, and by the time the Habnesk plain gave way to the trees of the Carwe, the silver birch here packed so closely together that she was almost forced to dismount, the sun was setting behind her.
For a while the sense troubled her that she was following a path laid out for her, much like the one she and Kari had followed their first night in the forest, but then the birch trees thinned out and she found herself amidst maples and walnuts, shot through with streaks of moonlight. A path ahead was lit by magical lanterns that floated mid-air, twinkling many different colours.
“Well, Sal,” she said, “this doesn’t feel like a trap, and if the forest wants us dead there’s not much we can do about it.” The grey mare snorted impatiently, and Lisa laughed. “Onward, then.”
Onward they went, climbing ever higher, the forest turning to oak and cherry, sounds of fairy song in the distance. Dismounting to cross a river, Lisa found herself in the arms of a gold-haired goddess. “I knew you’d come back for me,” the naiad said, and the temptation to drown in her beauty was nearly too much for her.
Lisa pushed her away. “I’m sorry,” she said, with utmost sincerity. “Not tonight.”
“Tomorrow, then?” the naiad called after her, and Lisa laughed at how impossible she was.
Onward they went, the song of the fairies leading them on, and suddenly the forest blazed with light about them, hundreds of fairies dancing and singing and celebrating. Acorn flew down and landed on Sal’s head, and cast a spell that made stars twinkle about Lisa’s head. “We knew you’d be back,” she said. “Follow me, Dragon Slayer!”
Lisa followed Acorn, and all the other fairies followed in grand procession, to a clearing on a hilltop where Kari and her mother stood waiting.
Kari stared at her in confusion. “They said you were back, but… The spell should have ended by now.” She turned to her mother. “I don’t understand. Only the tears of the Silver Queen can make fairy magic permanent.”
“That’s true, my love, but it wasn’t my tears she drank.”
Lisa understood at once, and knelt in front of Kari. “They were yours, Your Majesty.”
The confusion slowly eased from Kari’s expression, and with a rueful grin she dropped to her own knees. “Stay with me,” she whispered.
“Forever,” Lisa whispered back, and kissed her.