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.