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.