Tara drew to a halt, and turned to look at May expectantly. As they’d journeyed together over the past few days she’d felt that there was something left unspoken, a secret, perhaps something worse. Her friend’s reassurances left a nagging suspicion at the back of her mind.
“May, if you’re not going to tell me what’s on your mind, I think we’re going to have to part ways,” she said.
“No. I can’t leave your side now, Tara. Please, don’t leave me behind!” May begged her.
“Then give me an honest answer, and we can be on our way.”
“Fine.” May took a deep breath to compose herself. There were a dozen different ways she’d wanted to say this, and even more times that she’d almost said it. But as she distilled her thoughts down, it was really quite a simple thing.
She confessed, “Tara, I love you.”
May punched Tara playfully in the arm. “Hey! I just confessed my undying love for you. Don’t be like that!”
“Sorry.” Tara took May’s hand and squeezed it affectionately. “I love you too, May. But I have to admit that I had no idea you felt that way about me.”
“Well, I have been trying to conceal it from you, haven’t I?”
“Yes. Why, though?”
“I was worried that it would be a distraction.”
“From what? My quest?”
Tara smiled and shook her head slowly. “May, if I’ve been distracted for any reason at all, it’s because I can’t help but notice when those I care about most have a burden they won’t share.”
Then she kissed May on the cheek, turned around, and swaggered off down the road. “Come on. Daylight’s wasting.”
Caroline Trueman looked up from her book as the the door to her quarters whooshed open.
“Just me,” Rhona said with a smile, casually disappearing into Caroline’s bedroom to leave her overnight bag there. She returned to the living area and sat down next to her friend, casting a glance at the book in Caroline’s hands. “What’s that?”
“Tara Morgan and the Mausoleum of Mordilon.”
“Ah. Hmm. That’s the one about young witches, right?”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“Rhona, if I walk into your place of work, there are these things called pistols and rifles. They might be similar, but they’re not the same.”
“Alright then. Is it interesting?”
“It has a romantic sub-plot.”
“I expected as much, if you’re reading it. Do they have epic magic battles? Against dragons?”
“Maybe.” Caroline marked her place in the book and set it aside. “When I’m done with it, you can read it and find out.”
“Fine. I’ll do that. Now, what are we doing tonight?”
“Adventures in virtual reality. I found something that should be a bit more challenging than our last one.”
During their last adventure the two of them discovered a sorcerer locked in one of the cells of the villain’s castle. He’d been tortured to the point of insanity, and was restrained and gagged. They released him, he thanked them profusely for freeing him, and then promptly dashed upstairs and cut a swathe of revenge through the castle, powerful magics tearing through anyone or anything which stood in his path.
With the walls collapsing to rocks and dust around the madman, Caroline and Rhona ran for the main gate, fighting through the courtyard and stealing some horses. They made it far enough to clear the blast radius of a huge magical explosion. When they looked back, all they could see were the ruins of the bottom of the castle.
“That was a strange ending,” Rhona said, recalling the experience, “but I like being surprised by what other characters do. And I love seeing your expression when they don’t do as you expected.”
“Of course you do.”
Truth be told, Caroline didn’t mind that the characters in their adventures had their own agendas and personalities. Sometimes, she really was surprised when a character revealed their true allegiance and motivation. Otherwise, she was equally amazed by their lifelike behaviour. Even if some adventures were short and sweet, they were entertaining.
She and Rhona were adventurers in real life as well. Their quest to explore the galaxy had taken them far from Earth, further than any human had ever gone before, and there had been a number of interesting discoveries along the way. Orion, the starship which they lived and worked aboard, was not of Earth design, but had been retrofitted for use by humans in the years since its discovery.
Despite the abundance of things to explore and learn about, eventually everyone needed a bit of downtime. Rhona and Caroline had their virtual adventures, and the other members of the crew had their own ways of unwinding.
Rhona hopped up from the couch and came back momentarily with the headsets and world box. A world box was a portable computer no larger than one of Caroline’s books, which ran the virtual world. The headsets provided a safe neural interface with the world, meaning that either of them could disengage from it without suffering harm.
“You didn’t say exactly what you meant when you said that this would be more challenging,” Rhona said, handing Caroline one of the headsets, “so, would you care to elaborate?”
“Oh. Tonight’s adventure was written by Evelyn Cooper. Have you heard of her work?”
“The name is familiar, but I can’t say I’ve heard of her work, no.”
Caroline smiled, recollecting what she knew. “When I was still a student, I played through one of her other adventures. I considered myself to be a seasoned virtual adventurer at the time, but it proved to be a humbling experience.”
“It was more like Argh but, yes, you get the idea. Shall we?”
Caroline blinked and rubbed at her eyes, cursing under her breath for weeping over Tara and May’s love for one another. She tried to continue on but her blurry sight left her struggling to find her place on the page she was reading.
Finally she blew out a frustrated sigh and set down her book, sniffling as she tried to hold back the tears.
This wasn’t the first time she had been apart from her wife but it seemed like every time they said their farewells, they were unsure if they would see one another again. She could still remember the warm and loving embrace of Wilma’s arms as they hugged and cried together.
Her tear-blurred gaze came to rest on the holo of Wilma which stood proudly on top of the bookcase. The snapshot smile of her wife was heart-warming of course, but no matter how long she stared at the holo she still felt lonely.
Interrupting her almost sob-fest, she stood from her armchair and crossed the room to the comm unit, thumbing it on and calling a friend.
“Hi Rhona, are you busy?” she inquired.
“Not really, just doing a bit of maintenance in the armoury. What do you need me for?”
“A shoulder to cry on would be nice.”
“Say no more, I’ll be right down.”
Caroline and Rhona had a long history, starting with Caroline’s first deep space assignment as a security officer. They worked well together and over the years they had kept the hides of many an away team safe from harm. Their friendship was a source of great comfort during each long hyperspace journey.
It had been six months since they had first engaged the Orion’s hyperdrive, with the goal of exploring parts of the cosmos that until now had seemed too far away to send a manned expedition. In the shipyards back home, other starships were being retrofitted with some of the Orion’s technology but by the time they were ready, Caroline and her crew would already have quite a head-start.
As part of their mission, they had already deployed a number of hyperwave communication relays along their route but even so it would now take weeks for a report or letter to make it back, and the same for a reply. Caroline had already received several letters from Wilma and replied.
Of course, video messages were rare and limited due to the bandwidth requirements, but now and then when Caroline was on an exploration tour, she would get a new and amusing or risqué holo to add to her collection.
The door to Caroline’s quarters whooshed open to admit her visitor. ”Here I am,” Rhona said as she stepped in and made herself comfortable on the sofa. She was dressed casually, but still had her long red hair tied back.
“You were really maintaining the armoury when I called?” Caroline asked, raising an eyebrow at Rhona’s attire.
“My duty shift was over hours ago. I was bored and needed something to do,” Rhona answered with a dismissive shrug. ”What’s that you’re reading?” she asked, noticing the discarded book.
“Tara Morgan and the Mausoleum of Mordilon.”
“Really? I thought you weren’t all that interested in fantasy stories.”
“I’m not, but it’s got a romantic sub-plot and I’m dying to see how it turns out,” Caroline explained. Then she canted her head to one side and amended, “Well it’s more like torture at this point, but I’m three books in now, I might as well finish the series.”
“So, how are you feeling?” Rhona asked delicately.
Caroline sighed. ”Lonely, as always.”
“You should have said so sooner. I’m happy to come by any time, you know.”
“As much as I love having you here, you’re not really the woman I married.”
Rhona laughed softly. ”No, I suppose I’m not. Though I wonder sometimes why you took this assignment, if you knew you would miss her so badly.”
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. There was some tense competition just to get this command. Unfortunately as much as I love deep space assignments, they also sort of drag on for a while.”
“They do at that. I remembering thinking that I would like to spend more time with my wife and I was all ready to turn down your request to transfer me here, then I remembered how lost you would be without me.”
“What do you suggest I do then?”
“I’d suggest that you retreat to the bedroom with those racy holos and make the best of it, Caroline.”
“Believe me, I have. But a holo can’t give you a cuddle or a kiss.”
“Well, I can’t help you there. Will a hug be enough?”
“I guess it’ll have to do.”
Rhona wrapped her arms around her friend and squeezed gently. ”You could be a little more enthusiastic about it, you know.”
Caroline returned the affection and gave a sigh. ”So how are you holding up, Rhona?”
“Actually, I’m feeling lonely as well,” Rhona admitted. She pulled back and slouched sideways against the back of the sofa. ”You’re not the only one missing someone back home.”
“I guess we’ll just have to find some way to amuse ourselves.”
“I hope you’ve got something here besides books then.”
“Well let’s see,” Caroline said as she opened a box full of assorted games and devices. “Oh, look how about these?” she suggested, holding up a pair of lightweight headsets.
“What are they?”
“Headset interfaces for a virtual reality entertainment system.”
“What, really? You couldn’t have mentioned this about five months ago?”
Caroline turned back to the box and tugged out a slim rectangular device as well. She shrugged and explained, “They’re new and I was worried in case the novelty wears off quickly.”
“Well, worry not. We can have lots of fun with these,” Rhona assured her, then exclaimed, “Oh, I know! We could go on a adventure, just like in that Tara Morgan book you’re reading.”
“I don’t know…” Caroline started, with an unsure expression.
“Come on. I’ll let you be the dashing heroine,” Rhona said with a soft chuckle.
“Oh all right then.” Caroline offered Rhona one of the headsets, slipped hers on, and relaxed on the sofa. “Now I have to warn you, according to the specifications we’ll only get a couple of hours at a time. In between, they need to recharge.”
“I guess the manufacturer also didn’t want people stuck in virtual reality for so long that they starve to death, huh,” Rhona commented, sliding her headset on and taking a seat. “Ready?” she asked, glancing across.
“Let’s do this,” Caroline said, turning on her headset. Gradually, her quarters faded out of her field of vision, replaced by blackness and then by another world entirely.
They found themselves standing in a run-down tavern with worn plank floors and walls.
“Well this is a cliché,” Caroline commented.
“Not as cliché as your outfit,” Rhona said.
“What?” said Caroline, lifting her sleeves up and looking down, noticing for the first time that she was clad in red robes which fell all the way to her ankles and wrists. ”This has got to be some kind of a mistake.”
Laughing softly, Rhona shook her head. ”There’s no mistake. You’re a wizard.”
“Whatever you are, you rely on magic rather than swords.”
“So what are you then?” Caroline gestured to Rhona’s dark leather armour.
“I am a woman of the wilds, protector of the forest realm, bane of orcs and goblinkind,” Rhona said with a shrug.
“You’re also an elf,” Caroline added with a nod and a smirk.
“Oh! This isn’t right! I am going to make a strongly-worded complaint about this when we get back!” Rhona exclaimed as she touched the points of her virtual ears.
“It could be worse. Much worse,” Caroline said, folding her arms. She casually surveyed the fascinating characters occupying the tables and the bar. ”Now, who do we talk to so we can begin this adventure?”
“Let’s start with the innkeeper,” Rhona suggested.
Standing behind the counter was a tall woman with fair hair and plain clothing. She gave them a smile as they approached and asked, “What will it be, ladies? I have rooms upstairs if you’re weary from your travels.”
“No thanks, we’re not really tired.”
“I can yell at the cook to whip up some stew if you’d like.”
“Actually, we were looking for some work. Do you know of anyone needing the help of a pair of adventurers?”
“Plenty of work going, but in case you haven’t heard, the King is offering a substantial reward for the rescue of his sister, Princess Irena.”
“It’s his sister that needs rescuing?” Rhona asked with a curious frown.
“Of course. As the firstborn daughter of the late Queen, when she comes of age she will be the new monarch. That’s how it is around here.”
“Interesting. Well it sounds like just the job we’re looking for,” Rhona said, giving Caroline a nudge with her elbow.
“Thanks. We’ll go and seek an audience with the King then,” Caroline said to the innkeeper.
“Before you go, you may want to increase your number. I heard he was specifically looking for a party of four, not two.”
“Right. Thanks again.” Caroline took another look around the inn.
“How about those two over there?” Rhona quietly suggested, flicking her eyes over to a small table at the back of the inn, occupied by two women. One was decked out in metal armour, while the other was garbed in what seemed to be a leather jacket and comfortable clothes, with a longbow and quiver slung over her shoulder.
“I don’t know,” Caroline shrugged, “they look a little inexperienced.”
“Caroline, twenty years ago they could have been us when we signed up. Give them a shot.”
“Well all right.”
Purposefully striding across the inn, Caroline flashed a smile and addressed them with her offer. “Well hello there. We’re looking for two more for a royal rescue mission. By chance, are you looking for a job of that description?”
Tugging on the lapels of her jacket, the archer replied, “Well I would be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued. But I’m surprised a wizard and an elf are seeking work in a place like this.”
“We’re new in these parts and haven’t looked very far,” Caroline said. “My friend Rhona here said that you two seemed promising.”
“I thank her for her good judgement. This is Dawn,” the woman replied back, introducing her steel-clad companion, “and I am Levine. What should I call you, wizard?”
“Just Caroline is fine.”
“You’re rather modest for a wizard,” Levine grinned.
Caroline smiled and simply shrugged. “I have spent too much time with my books to be interested in the fancy titles of the world outside.”
“Well that’s a relief,” Dawn interjected. “One time we hired on with this rather arrogant man who insisted on being introduced with all four of his unwieldy titles.”
“Needless to say, it did not work out,” Levine added with a frown. “He was arrested and hauled away for a misrepresentation offence.”
“I suppose you won’t be getting a reference from him then,” Rhona said.
Levine rose from her seat and straightened her jacket. “Come then, shall we be off?”
“Lead the way.”
Venturing outside, Caroline and Rhona found the rest of the street to be in better condition than the tavern they had vacated. The actual road in the centre was paved in cobble; here and there it seemed that fresh stone had been laid to keep it in good repair.
The buildings lining the street were constructed in several different ways, suggesting that over time some had been torn down and replaced. As they passed, it seemed that these were home to various shops, traders and lodgings for travellers. Occasionally they had to move aside to make way for a horse-drawn cart or a carriage.
At last they neared the end of the street and then turned onto a much wider road, which ramped up gently in the direction they were walking. They weren’t the only ones though; it seemed that a many people on both sides of the street were going that way.
Gazing off to the distant end of the avenue, Caroline and Rhona took in the sight of a splendid palace that stood proudly over the tallest buildings they could see, with great metal gates providing an entrance for the throng of people pouring into its grounds.
“Where’s everyone going?” Caroline asked.
“You wanted an audience with the King. Well, he’s going to address the people and call for brave adventurers to come forward. You just need to convince him that you are suitable for the task,” Levine said.
“And how do we do that?”
“You’re a wizard. I’m sure you’ll think of something to impress him.”
“You could black out the sun and make day into night,” Rhona suggested with a smirk.
Wrinkling her nose and shaking her head with disapproval, Caroline said, “Thanks, but I’m sure that would more than likely get me arrested.”
Rhona gave a shrug and leaned in to whisper, “I just hope you manage to cast some sort of spell, otherwise this is going to be a very short and sweet adventure.”
As the mass of people stood in the grounds of the palace, a cheer went up as the King stepped outside into the bright afternoon. At first, because of their place near the back of the crowd, Caroline and her merry band couldn’t even see him, but then he stepped up onto a platform to speak.
This King was not the epitome of royalty. He dressed in a plain shirt, brown pants and a waistcoat, with no frivilous adornments. However he had the bearing of a leader, burdened with both the joys and sorrow of command.
Caroline had known that burden for just over a decade and although at times it seemed a deep-space command was the loneliest role in the universe, it also challenged her and gave her life the meaning she needed.
Gazing at this unassuming man reminded her of the importance of the mission, the joy of discovering new worlds and new civilisations. Life abounded in all forms, from single cells to sentient beings.
“My countrymen,” said the King solemnly, “you know why I speak to you now. Your future Queen – my dear sister – has been taken from us. Her kidnap has not resulted in a demand for ransom. Wherever she is being held, it can only be to the detriment of our great country that she is incarcerated instead of taking her rightful place as monarch.”
“As you know, our laws concerning succession are very clear. When the daughter of a Queen comes of age, it is her time to rule. There can be no exceptions. So in three days, whether Irena is returned or not, I must step down and appoint a Regent.”
He paused a moment to let that sobering fact sink in. “While it is my hope that our country will endure this setback,” he continued in a steady voice, “I would rather that we don’t have to.”
“I know that there are those among you who would do anything it takes to see Princess Irena’s safe return. But I will not needlessly throw away lives in the pursuit of such hope.” As anger briefly roused in the crowd, he held up his hand and said, “I will send only the best, the bravest and the most cunning to find her! If you are not all of these things, then do not step forward now.”
“Oh, he’s good,” Caroline murmured. She could see now that there were groups of like-minded adventurers pushing their way to the front. In front of her, Levine had pulled a hood up over her head and was making her way forward with Dawn at her side.
“Come on, Wizard Caroline, you’re up,” Levine called over her shoulder.
Caroline glanced at Rhona and gave a shrug. “We’re off to see the King then,” she said with a faint smile.
By the time they reached the front of the crowd, the other adventurers were already being heard. Still standing on the platform, the King listened to the testimony of their deeds and talents on the platform and measured them with a creful gaze, allowing his advisors to ask the questions.
When one of these advisors asked her to make her case, Caroline took a deep breath and said, “I am the wizard Caroline, and I wish my party to be the one to rescue Princess Irena not for the fame or for a reward, but because I too have a sister and if she were missing I would do anything to ensure her safe return.
“What of your deeds, wizard?” asked the advisor.
“I am not known for my deeds in these lands. I have come here from far away, with my friend Rhona. As you can see, she is an elf. Ask her why an elf would travel with a human, if you will.”
The advisor asked Rhona, “Why does an elf travel far from her lands with a human?”
Rhona glanced at Caroline and smiled. “Caroline is skilled in battle and a learned wizard. And yet she does not seek to conquer others with her power, only defend and protect them from harm.”
She continued, embellishing a little for effect, “But wizards have enemies that can kill them while they sleep. So I have sworn myself to her side as protector and guide. She is also my friend.”
“And can you tell us of a time when Wizard Caroline has demonstrated her cunning?”
“Yes. As you know, my people live in faraway lands to the west. But even we must trade with a few of our neighbours for that which we cannot make or grow.”
“Our trade routes were plagued by raiders that would strike even when we tried to send our goods by different routes. Caroline, having no stake in any of this, asked to assist in putting an end to the raiders.”
“She decided that our best course of action would be to deliberately spread misinformation about the path of the next convoy. It was similarly attacked by raiders, but they were repelled by a surprise attack led by our warriors and aided by Caroline’s fearsome magic.”
“When we returned to my village, Caroline said that one of the raiders had named a conspirator among us, and amid the outrage she retired to regain her strength.”
“While she slept, a would-be assassin tried to take her life. Unfortunately for the assassin, this was all a ruse and I was waiting, watching from the shadows. While I restrained him, Caroline interrogated the identity of the traitor from him, for in truth we had not gained that knowledge from any of the raiders that day.”
“Caroline found a way to draw out that traitor and make them desperate enough to want her dead. And our trade routes have not been blighted by raiders in many years – I would not be surprised if their fear of wizards endures to this day.”
“An intriguing tale. And may we see a demonstration of this power?”
It took a moment for them to realise that this request had come not from the King’s advisor, but the King himself. He awaited their answer with a sceptical expression.
“With your majesty’s permission, I will attempt to locate Princess Irena with a spell,” Caroline suggested diplomatically. “However I’m afraid that I don’t know what she looks like. Might you have a recent portrait of her?”
He did not answer straight away, he glanced behind and to his left, spoke tersely to one of his aides, and waited patiently.
When the aide returned with a portrait of the beloved future Queen, he stepped down from the platform and personally handed it to Caroline.
“I hope that you can find her,” he said quietly, “for all our sakes.”
Caroline held the portrait at arms length and studied the face of the princess, burning it into her mind. Then she closed her eyes and took a few calming breaths, concentrating on her one goal, finding the princess wherever she might be.
It came to her in a vision.
As if she were a bird soaring over the land, she left the palace and flew over treetops, rugged hills, mountains and down through an icy valley, then over snow-laden flatlands where almost nothing grew. Then she was swooping down, down into a dark gaping maw in the ground.
Suddenly she was not a bird but a bat, with the ability to see without sight in the darkness.
Deep in the darkness she saw the princess. Her cheeks were tracked with tears, eyes glistening with fear, and Caroline wondered what it was that she was afraid of. And then she felt it.
Pure, malevolent evil. Formless, yet not impotent, it had dark minions to carry out its will. Those minions scuttled about in the depths, making ready for war. A war against the surfacers they hated so much.
Caroline woke with a start to find herself lying down on a bed with Rhona beside her.
“What? Where am I?”
“You’re in the guest wing of the royal palace,” Rhona said.
“Really? I don’t remember getting here.”
“Well, you passed out.” Rhona paused and with hesitation in her voice, she quietly added, “I was quite worried about you, was about to pull us out of here.”
“You might as well have! That spell was a disaster.”
“No, no it wasn’t. Caroline, we all saw the vision. We saw Princess Irena being held in that dark pit, and who was holding her.”
“Oh. Not a disaster then.” Caroline winced as she tried to sit up, and put a hand to her forehead, massaging the temples. “My head hurts.”
“Maybe it’s part of the virtual reality,” Rhona quietly suggested. “Like a downside of your great magical powers.”
“Wonderful. So now what do we do?”
“We go and rescue her.” Rhona paused and then asked, “You’re not thinking about quitting, are you?”
“No. No, of course not. I’m concerned that we have more than just a rescue to pull off here. We have to mount some kind of a defence as well.”
“The King is way ahead of you there. He’s already dispatched riders to spread the word and put out a call for arms and able bodies. Thanks to you, we’re not going to be caught off-guard.”
Levine cleared her throat and waved a hand to attract their attention. “Are you well enough to travel, Caroline?”
Caroline took a deep breath and gingerly eased off the bed, not standing too quickly. “I’ll have to be. We don’t have any time to waste. Where’s Dawn? Is she still coming along?”
“She’s on an errand, seeing about some horses and provisions for the journey. I said we’d meet her at the stables.”
“That’s using your initiative! Well, let’s go then,” Caroline said, indicating the door with an outstretched arm.
As the three of them filed out into the hallway, she cast her mind back to her vision uneasily. Despite the evil presence in the lair she had felt and the dark minions that she had heard moving about, something else troubled her.
Visions could be the vehicles of disinformation. Having shared one with all those assembled in the grounds of the palace, she had informed decisions by others that might unwittingly accomplish the designs of this enemy in the north. The King might gather his forces only to discover that the enemy had intended to destroy them all in one fell swoop.
Disturbing as well was the ease with which she had seen into the blackened heart of that place. Why prepare an army of darklings to go forth and conquer if a wizard such as herself could know of it before it struck a devastating surprise attack?
“Wait. Before we go anywhere I need to speak with the King again,” she said abruptly.
Levine stopped, looking over her shoulder and frowning. “I thought you said we don’t have any time to waste,” she said.
“That vision of mine may not be as it appeared,” Caroline explained. “If we react predictably then we may fall victim to a clever ruse. And you wouldn’t want that, now would you?”
“You make a fair point. I’ll run along to the stables and make ready for our departure. Rhona can guide you there after you meet with the King.”
“This way,” said Rhona, taking Caroline’s hand and pulling her along towards the throne room.
They made haste through the hallway of the guest wing, emerging into an grand entrance chamber with stone columns soaring to the ceiling above. From there they ascended three sets of wide stairs to an archway which led to the royal throne room.
The throne room was of course a large chamber with tasteful adornments and long red carpets, but was otherwise subdued and modest. The King was standing with his advisors around a large table, rather than seated on the throne, and they were conferring over a map, presumably working out defence plans.
“Your Majesty,” Caroline interjected, “I was on my way to the stables to depart when it occurred to me that the vision I had may be a deception.”
“What exactly should I do then, if it is as you say, a deception?” he asked her.
“We know where the enemy lair is. But we don’t know how they plan to attack, or when, or what the end purpose of capturing your sister is. They may plan to simply wait for you to make the first move, or they may attack when you have brought all your forces together. This is a devious, cunning foe. They wanted you to see that they have an army of many, so that you will marshal one of your own.”
“You still haven’t given me an alternative course of action,” he pointed out.
“Divide the soldiers into smaller units. Move them into advanced positions in the forest where they won’t be so visible,” Rhona suggested, pointing to the map, “and send scouts ahead to watch for the enemy and report back.”
“When you know how many they are and where they are going, you can bring your forces together to ambush them,” Caroline added, “or if they come all at once, fall back to keep as many for a defence as possible.”
“Ah yes, I see now. We may be able to divide their numbers by harassing them from the sides,” he said, gazing at the map. “It is risky, but if we wait passively here then they could strike anywhere, including the villages to the east and west. I will notify my commanders immediately.”
“Thank you for hearing our counsel. I hope that it proves useful in the days to come,” Caroline said. “We’ll take our leave now.”
“Wizard Caroline, I thank you for undertaking the mission I have entrusted to you. Bring back my sister alive and well, and we will all be in your debt.”
“I will,” Caroline assured him.
Caroline emerged into the stables after another quick jaunt through the palace with Rhona guiding her.
Levine was filling the saddlebags of their horses with their provisions and a bare minimum of other supplies. “We’re just about ready to go,” she said.
“Thank you, Levine,” said Caroline as she mounted up, “I’ll let you take the lead since you probably know the lay of the land better than me.”
They rode off urgently, leaving the city through a tall gate in the stone wall. They soon came to a well-used track that stretched north and south as far as the eye could see. Levine turned north and the rest of the party followed behind.
After galloping across the grassy plains for a while they slowed the pace somewhat to pass through the forest. The road was partially obscured by fallen leaves which crunched softly as they passed. Overhead, tree branches and their remaining foliage occluded the afternoon sun.
By sunset they had made good time, reaching the northern outskirts of the forest. Caroline and Rhona set up camp in a small clearing which looked to have been used by travellers in the past, while Levine and Dawn tended to the horses.
“Something smells good,” Levine commented as she returned to find a fire going and above it, a small pot of simmering soup.
“Well Rhona made it, I just helped with the fire,” Caroline said.
“Thank you, Rhona, for going to the trouble to cook for us,” Levine said with a grateful smile and a sideways glance at Dawn.
“It smells delicious,” Dawn added.
“Well, you’ll just have to wait a little longer,” Rhona told them, giving the pot a gentle stir.
“Oh? It’s not yet ready? Very well then.” Levine sat by the fire and warmed her hands as she waited.
As they waited for the soup, Caroline curiously asked her, “So how well do you and Dawn know each other, anyway?”
“We go back a long way. Dawn and I were childhood playmates and as we grew up we became close friends,” Levine said with a fond smile and a glance upward at Dawn. “Why do you ask?”
“We’re likely to face adversity during our mission,” Caroline explained, “so I was interested to learn how well you two work together.”
“I’m sure that you’ve guessed that Levine is a crack shot with the bow, while I prefer to fight up close,” Dawn said. “We’ve learned to anticipate each other’s moves. Have to, really, unless I want an arrow in the back.”
“I would never put an arrow in her back,” Levine said, shaking her head. “If I were going to shoot at someone that she’s engaged in battle, I would wait for a clear shot. I only have to watch for her circling to the left or the right.”
“Sure seems like there have been a few close ones,” Dawn argued, with a glance at Levine.
“Close? Are you talking about the time I bounced an arrow off your bracer?” Levine inquired, with her eyebrows rising.
“As a matter of fact, I am.” Dawn glanced aside to Caroline and Rhona and added, “The arrow skipped off and went right up a brigand’s nose. He died with a wide-eyed look of surprise.”
Levine snorted and shrugged nonchalantly. “That was a lucky shot!”
“Lucky I didn’t end up with an arrow through my arm,” Dawn muttered loudly.
Rhona interrupted before they could argue any further. “Hey, the soup’s ready!”
She served the soup into bowls and, with all four of them eating their share, there was quiet once more in the camp.
Afterwards, Levine suddenly inquired, “So what about you and Rhona, Caroline?”
“We have been friends for a number of years since the time I helped her people,” Caroline answered. “You were there when she told the story of how we came to meet.”
Levine smiled and shook her head. “I apologise, Caroline. I thought that perhaps you had also taken her as your mate.”
Caroline spluttered, “What?”
Rhona laughed softly and shook her head. “Alas no, I am merely a poor substitute for her wife,” she said with a quick glance at Caroline.
“Indeed you are,” Caroline shot back with a smirk.
Gazing towards Levine, who still seemed confused, she shrugged a little and explained, “We’ve both been away from our loved ones for a long time. Our friendship – irreverant as it is – is what keeps us going.”
“Very well then.”
As the night wore on, they decided to sleep in turns, so that someone could keep an eye out for trouble. Levine agreed to stand the first watch.
She carefully watched the perimeter, where the trees started, as the others settled down to rest. She listened to the forest noises for the tell-tale signs of an intruder, something which didn’t belong.
Sometime later during the night, Caroline heard the ringing of steel being drawn and a loud battle cry. She was awake and on her feet, immediately sizing up their opposition.
A pack of wolves. Levine, Rhona and Dawn were valiantly fighting them off, but for each one they struck down another lunged in to take its place.
Caroline found herself chanting the words to a protection spell before she could stop and think about how she knew them. That lack of hesitation probably saved their lives. Just after the shield shimmered into existence, several wolves leapt toward them and bounced off the barrier, yelping in pain. The rest stopped and circled warily.
“This won’t hold them back for long, so we should get to the horses and make a run for it while we can,” she said.
Dawn slid her sword home in its scabbard and knelt to pick up her bedroll. “We could have taken them,” she assured Caroline.
Quickly gathering her own travel gear, Caroline smiled as she considered the wolves just beyond the shimmering barrier. “I’m sure we could, but we need to conserve our strength,” she said.
As they hurried over to the horses, the wolves stalked them. Occasionally, one of the eager stalkers ventured too close and was turned away by the shield.
The horses were being harassed by a few wolves but were otherwise unharmed. Caroline cast the protection spell again, the shield this time encompassing a wider area, so that the four of them could mount up and be on their way.
The wolves gave chase as they rode off through the forest. With a clever spell which gave a phosphorescent glow to the moss growing on the trees, Caroline illuminated the path before them.
For a while they had to hold to a safe pace, the wolves never far behind. As they passed beyond the northern outskirts of the forest and urged the horses on faster, their pursuers soon fell behind.
“You think we’ve seen the last of them?” Rhona asked as the night of escape wore on into morning, the rising sun just beginning to light the grassy expanse around them with a warm glow.
Caroline glanced over and said, “I cast a spell to leave a false trail, so it may have thrown them off.”
“Well, just to be certain, maybe we should shake them the old-fashioned way too.”
“Very well. Follow me!” Levine led them off in a detour from their straight path north. She found a stream and they slowly made their way up that, making it more difficult to follow them.
After sloshing through the water for a while, the sun had risen some more and the cloudy sky to the east was cast in hues of red and gold. They turned back onto dry land and set a brisk pace, coming steadily closer to the hills Caroline had seen in her vision.
Though there were some gentle contours, the soil had over time been eroded away exposing bare rock. Levine had to slow down and steer them onto a safe path up and over. It was slow going, and as midday approached they took a short break to rest and eat.
Caroline unfurled her bedroll, lay down on her side and sighed with relief. She was a little bit saddlesore and sleepy. But Levine, who’d barely had a half-hour’s sleep all night, looked exhausted as she chewed her food.
“I’m going to close my eyes for a bit,” the archer said after she was finished with her ration, lying back on her bedroll with her arms folded over her chest and doing just that.
Caroline agreed with the sentiment but didn’t follow suit. “I’d say you’ve earned it,” she commented.
Levine smiled. “As have you, Caroline.”
“I helped too,” Rhona said.
“Indeed. The wolves saw you and instinctually went for the short one,” Levine replied with a chuckle, her eyes still closed fast as the sun shone from overhead.
“The smallest of the prey is not always the weakest,” Rhona shot back with a grin.
Levine shrugged her shoulders and dozed peacefully.
Though it was only a brief stop on their journey, it was revitalising enough for them to carry on through the hills for much of the afternoon and early evening. Progress was steady, but slower than their dash across the plains.
Ahead of them lay yet another challenge – snow-capped mountains with a narrow and winding pass. With night falling, they decided to make camp before traversing that arduous route.
That night it was noticeably chilly and all four of them sat near the warm fire. It seemed strange to see Dawn in just a plain vest and pants after two days of seeing her only in metal armour.
“It’s very uncomfortable to sleep in,” Dawn explained, noticing Caroline’s curious gaze. She added, “And besides that, on a cold night like this I might as well be wearing a suit of ice.”
“It’s just that I’ve never seen you out of it, that’s all.”
“Well, that I can understand,” Dawn said with a smile.
Rhona stirred the contents of the cooking pot, a hearty broth to keep their strength up. “We could use some more wood for the fire,” she said, looking at the others.
“I’ll go,” Levine said, immediately getting up.
“How about I give you a hand?” Dawn asked.
“That would be wonderful,” Levine said with a grin, setting out to find something suitable. “See you two in a little while,” she added to Caroline and Rhona.
“I’ll just sit here and watch you cooking then,” Caroline said.
Rhona smirked as she tended to their dinner and replied, “I suppose Wilma takes care of your meals at home, does she?”
“I defer to her superior skills. If you want something burnt, I’m the expert,” Caroline said, deflecting the comment about her lack of contribution.
Rhona laughed and shook her head slowly. “I suppose it’s just as well you’re not rescuing this princess on your own. I mean, it would be terribly embarassing for you to serve her blackened offerings for the whole of the return journey.”
“What would you have me do, conjure up some roasted potatoes with a wave of my hand?”
“You’re a wizard. Isn’t there something you can do to make this journey a little easier?”
“Did you think that we would be sleeping in roadside taverns every night? With warm fluffy blankets?”
“No. Of course not. I’m just saying, if we’re to work as a group, then everyone has to contribute. Even outside of battle.”
“Fine. What do I have to do?”
“Oh, I know. Here’s something you can’t possibly mess up,” Rhona said, throwing Caroline a rag. “Dawn’s armour there, it looks like it could do with being cleaned. Get to it.”
“You’re enjoying this far too much,” Caroline muttered. She got up, sat beside the discarded boots, and proceeded to scour the accumulated dirt from the metal as best she could.
While she was still working on the boots, Levine and Dawn returned with modest armfuls of branches to feed the fire. They seemed out of breath, as if they had returned in a hurry.
“Something wrong?” Rhona asked them.
“No, we were just eager to get back and sample more of your fine cuisine,” Levine answered, laying down the wood and adding a little of it as fuel for the dwindling fire.
Dawn sat down, glancing at Caroline, who was still scrubbing away. “Oh, you didn’t need to do that,” she said, smiling her thanks.
“Rhona insisted that I do my share.” Caroline glanced up and noticed Dawn’s flushed cheeks. “Oh, you two really did come back here in a hurry, didn’t you?”
“It’s really cold out there,” Dawn explained.
Rhona cheerfully announced dinner. “Here, this should help warm you up.”
She filled their bowls from the pot and passed them out. Even Caroline stopped her menial work on Dawn’s armour to accept the offering with muttered thanks.
“I’ll take first watch tonight,” Rhona said while they were eating.
Caroline nodded her assent, as did Levine and Dawn, so after finishing her bowl of broth Rhona stood to patrol around the camp.
It was a clear night and the campsite offered clear views, so Rhona could give her companions ample warning if someone were to come their way. Unfortunately, it would also be much easier to find their camp by the light of the fire.
As she maintained her vigil and occasionally warmed herself by the fire, Dawn and Levine eventually settled down to sleep. Caroline turned in as well after finishing her task.
Rhona listened intently, and thanks to her ears she could hear much that the others could not. For now, what she heard were the sounds of nature all around them. It provided a good baseline to help her pick out anything unusual.
Thankfully, her watch ended hours later without incident, and she roused Caroline.
“What is it?” Caroline said, “is it more wolves?”
“No. First watch is up. Time for some fresh eyes.”