"Sheldanon evestinane, Cerberus! Be gone!‚" I heard before a bright light blinded me from seeing who had spoken. The voice vibrated through my chest and the crushing weight of the dying dog above me vanished, the white light fading slowly leaving the dark forest in my sight. "Hurry, take the girl and follow me."
I sat up, my sword bathed in dark blood, pain shooting through my legs where the dog had been. I blinked rapidly, trying to understand just what had happened, knowing at least that the old man with the glowing staff who was standing over us had something to do with it.
"Now!" the man urged us fervently, and I fought to stand and not be sick, quickly pushing aside the branches that covered Tandy. She was more pale than before we had lowered her down, and when I called to her she didn't answer. Dennison was beside me after just a moment, and together we pulled her gently from the hiding place before following the wizard. Dennison and I found ourselves falling a few steps behind him, suspiciously. He was obviously a magician, judging from the jewel that rested atop his staff and the long braid of his beard that flipped back and forth with each step he took.
"Hurry now," he urged us to follow him, through an overgrown path towards a destination we knew nothing of. To trust him was certainly a gamble. All the while he sung to himself an unfamiliar tune, the jewel of his staff glowing in the gloomy light of the forest and fog.
After what felt like miles with Tandy's lifeless body in my arms, we came to a small house leaning against a tall tree. The roof was of thatch much like the smaller houses at Alden, the walls of his home covered in the filth and dirt of the forest. His front door was ajar, and half off of it's hinges, opening to darkness through which I could see nothing. We could be walking from one ambush into another.
I held her close to me instinctively, wary of the man and his home. He turned to look at us over one shoulder when Dennison and I stopped walking, silently looking to each other in indecision. "Come, come now, you must get her inside," the old man reminded us, his toothy smile anything but reassuring.
A strange feeling had begun to grow in the pit of my stomach from the moment the dogs had disappeared. I was wary of magic and sorcery, however it was used, a fact that Dennison knew well. "Treat her out here," I called to him, gently lying Tandy down in the smooth dirt of the path. She moaned, her eyes still shut, clutching her shoulder with her one working arm. The fever that had begun when I held her close on my horse had worsened, sweat forming on her forehead even as she shivered. Without help she would not last the night.
"No, no no, that will not do," the man shuffled his way back towards us, hunching over Tandy with thoughtful eyes. He did not seem deceiving. "Dirt will only make her worse, please, bring her inside." He turned and disappeared through the front door, leaving it open behind him. After a moment a faint glow could be seen from the windows, making the house seem a bit more inviting. Still I was cautious, even as Dennison and I lifted Tandy off the ground and into the home, realizing quickly why the outside seemed to bleak.
Inside the wizards home was bright and clean, a stone floor and wooden ceiling luxuries that none but the king of Alden himself could afford. The shuffling man shut the door behind us and locked it with a key he pulled from his belt before turning to us and shedding his coat. I gasped and stepped back, narrowing my eyes and before us the hunched old man transformed into a young maiden.
The curve of her back disappeared as she straightened, the white hair of her beard disappearing. She smiled at the three of us with white teeth and shinning brown eyes, her long curls now thick and luxurious. She wore a simple robe that fell past her knees, and the same sandals as the man had worn, but now young feet instead of old gnarled ones inhabited them. She held out both arms and bowed slightly as if to illustrate her harmlessness. The staff she had held now leaned in the corner.
"Please do not be afraid," she instructed us, looking mostly at me as she spoke. "I find it safer to disguise myself in a wood like this, especially when I never quite know who I may come upon." She stepped closer and pointed to a tall oak table, which Dennison and I carefully rested Tandy on. "I felt the disturbance the wolves had created when they entered Fiercewood and knew they were chasing someone," she explained as she carefully undid Tandy's dress enough to bare her sleeve. Dennison turned away, his cheeks turning red at the sight of my maiden's bare chest. "It was lucky that I found you when I did," she smiled to me, pointing at my bloodstained clothes before taking Tandy's arm.
"Who are you?" I asked her, frankly, watching her every movement as she handled my maiden. The woman seemed gentle enough, straightening Tandy's arm and resting the palms of her hands over her broken shoulder. Tandy grimaced and moaned at the pressure the woman seemed to be applying, and I tensed, ready to attack her, sorceress or not.
"Please, hold still," the woman said to Tandy, who's eyes fluttered open as she nodded, her breaths short and sharp. "Sir, please, fetch us a pail of clean water," she said to Dennison who nodded, glad to have a reason to be out of the room for a few moments. He seemed to trust her easily enough. "You'll find a well around the back of the house."
So far she had ignored my question, so I asked her again, this time with a hand on my sword. "Who are you, woman?"
"I've never known a woman knight," she replied, looking me over as she concentrated on Tandy's shoulder. A bright violet light had begun to emanate from her hands, obviously her magic at work. I stepped back, disturbed by the sight. "There's no need to be afraid," she informed me, letting go of Tandy's shoulder after a moment. Tandy was awake now, and she looked from the woman to me with wide eyes, the hand that had been holding her broken bones no longer necessary. She sat up slowly.
"You healed me," she seemed in shock. "Thank you, my lady, you saved my life."
The woman nodded with a smile and then looked to me. "My name is Tallyn, Sorceress of Fiercewood Forest," she introduced herself to me proudly. I'd never heard of a sorceress living here before. "Please, will you dine with me tonight?"
I was taken aback by her forthrightness, but when I looked at Tandy who seemed completely healed, it was impossible for me to refuse. I bowed low after a moment, as a knight should to any lady. "Sir Whelan of Ainsley, Champion of the King of Alden, at your service," I introduced myself formally, and Dennison who had just returned with the water. She could see that I was more then confused.
"Please, sit, allow me to bring food and explain myself better," she asked and I nodded, not before looking to Tandy, who nodded to me, a look of relief on her face.
The woman disappeared into an adjoining room and I stepped closer to Tandy, laying a hand on her once broken shoulder. "Are you alright?" I asked her, and she nodded, showing me her shoulder, still uncovered. It was a struggle not to look at her with lust.
"I'm perfectly fine," she smiled, her eyes bright. "I don't feel any pain at all."
"I don't like it," I replied, confiding in her my fears. "I never liked magic, you know that, Tandy."
"But this magic may have saved my life," Tandy countered, and I couldn't disagree. I frowned, promising her that I wouldn't let my guard down.
Dennison had been listening from across the room where he stood, looking out of place. "Besides, Whelan, we couldn't have fought those dogs ourselves."
"At what price?" I asked her, half under my breath as the woman reappeared. I helped Tandy off the table and the four of us sat at Tallyn's bidding. I could hardly keep my jaw from dropping when the woman snapped her fingers and a feast appeared before us. Dennison was quick to descend upon the food, and Tandy moments after him, but I was still wary, wondering if the magic food was bewitched and we would wake up in chains or worse.
"You don't trust me, Whalen?" the sorceress asked, looking at me with a sparkle in her eye. "You think I'm going to trick you?"
I smiled with the corner of my mouth and nodded, deciding it was probably best to be straightforward with the woman. Dennison stopped eating and looked from the woman back to me, furrowing his eyebrows. His right hand moved to the pommel of his sword as he watched the two of us interact, his dinner less important then our relations with this woman.
"I don't trust you or any magician," I told her the truth of the matter, hoping she wouldn't take it personally. She watched me for a long moment, the light in her eyes sparkling at me. I wondered what response she would come up with to my accusations, and waited for her to talk.
"And you're probably well off for it," she nodded to me, pursing her lips as she cut the meat off a leg of turkey and reached across to the corner of the table where a tiny kitten sat anxiously waiting. "I've already deceived you once or twice, right?"
I nodded, just waiting for her to finish with a witty response.
"Well, if I really am a witch, lying and tricking you, don't you think you'd now it by now?"
I nodded again, not wanting whatever answer I gave to be outwitted by this woman and her word games. It wasn't supposed to be a test of wit. Dennison and Tandy were both supposed to pay attention to me when I felt it was better to go. I said as much. "We are going to carry on through the night," I told the three of them, waiting impatiently for Dennison and Tandy to catch my meaning so that we could be off.
The woman stood before we had a chance to gather ourselves, holding out her hands, her eyes locked with my own. "Please, what can it hurt to stay just one night?" she started to beg.
"Why must you keep us here so badly?" I responded, my sword already drawn. If it came to magic, however, my sword would do little against her spells.
She looked shocked to the point of sadness that I would pull a weapon on her so quickly. "Would you shed my very blood to leave?"
"If you deceive me, then yes," I answered quickly, not lost to the fact that she had avoided my question completely. I slowly shuffled towards the door, my hand wrapped tightly around Tandy's wrist. She looked scared more than anything, her eyes wide in surprise and confusion. I hoped she would follow my lead and not make me half drag her out the front door. "Now, answer my question."
"I only wish you safe passage through this enchanted forest," she smiled warmly to me as if I was not threatening her life. "Is that a sin?"
I could feel myself slowly growing more and more engaged in what she was saying, falling victim to the words she spun like webs around me. If I wasn't listening to her, I could have been well out of the door by then. As it were I continued my creep, watching her closely as she turned to watch us leave. "You will see me again," she said to me, the smile on her face. It was no longer warm, but now contrived, and dangerous. I leaned against the door and felt it give, slowly, backing out of the door with Tandy behind me and Dennison in front. He appeared confused but resolute to guard me.
No sooner did we cross the threshold than I turned and went to our horses, readying them with haste. "Hurry, we must fly."
Dennison deigned not to ask any questions, and Tandy followed suit, climbing up into the saddle of her horse, one leg on either side of the saddle. She seemed not to care now that half her thigh was showing, and were I not so on edge I probably would have stared. As it were I spurred Firestone into action knowing they would follow. We passed by the house just as the witch was stepping out onto the porch, and she waved at us as we went.
We kept up at much the same pace we had traveled when being chased, still as unsure what would follow us as before. After a long while I slowed, Dennison and Tandy slowing beside me. "What was that?" Tandy asked, looking over at me curiously.
"That woman was dangerously odd," I told the two of them, shaking my head. I couldn't quite put a finger on what it was about the woman I didn't appreciate.
Dennison shrugged, accepting my explanation before sighing. "You could have waited until we'd eaten."
"I didn't trust her enough to eat her food," I told him, seriously. He accepted this, too, without protest.
I turned to Tandy who was hunched over in her saddle, her face twisted in pain. "What ails you?" I asked her, close to stopping.
"I do not feel well," she responded, clutching her stomach. It seemed almost on cue after we had just mentioned the dinner. Several minutes later Dennison started to wear the same look on his face, although instead of slouching he sat up straighter and took slow deep breaths, as if trying to ignore the pain.
Before we had gone more than a mile by my estimations, Tandy had slowed her horse to a deathly stroll. I watched her warily, wondering if bringing her along on the journey meant she would continuously be subjected to pain. I wished that no harm would come to her, ever, but it seemed my wishes went unanswered as she started to gasp and then be sick.
"Tandy?" I stopped short and helped her to the ground, grimacing as she emptied her stomach. Moments later Dennison was following suit, and I stood at watched the two of them shudder and shake. They were more sick then I had ever been. It was easy to draw a conclusion as to the origins of their conditions but when I mentioned the witch neither of them seemed to want to speak of her.
Soon it was easy to see that we would be going no further that night, not when both Tandy and Dennison were turning curious shades of pale green. "She's poisoned you," I fretted as I poured water from a pouch down Tandy's mouth, watching as she gasped and shook. Dennison was too sick to even drink, his short breaths and feverish skin worrying me deeply.
The darkness of the forest around us seemed to slowly swell until we were pressed at all sides, even the light from the fire I had quickly made doing little to push the dark away. The two of them rested uneasily beside the fire, sheltered by the horses and our packs from the soundless dark of the night. More than once I considered going back to the witches house, begging her to negate her spells and leave Tandy and Dennison alone. It was me she obviously had a problem with, not my friends. I would have to go alone, and leave Tandy and Dennison to defend themselves, which in their condition was probably foolish, but I could see no other way to save them.
Tandy begged me not to leave, the pain written on her face speaking more to me than her words did. I wondered how long she had left to suffer if I decided not to go.
"Let us just leave this cursed forest," Tandy begged me, motioning down the path. "Surely we must not be far from the end?"
I wanted to shrug, more unsure of how big the forest was than of the idea that leaving it would stop their pain. "I have no way to know," I told her, "We could still be days away from fresh air and open ground."
"We have to try," Dennison added, his voice more frail than I had ever heard it. "Perhaps she has no power outside of this forest."
I could understand the logic of that and nodded, deciding that at first light we would fly again for the end of Fiercewood. I could only pray that the two of them would last the night.
Through the night Tandy began to moan, clutching herself close, her clothes damp with sweat from the fever that had began to rise. I touched her forehead gently and often, feeling her grow ever warmer, much to my worry. Dennison too grew hot and soon I was pushing either of them up into their saddles, roping their horses to my own and setting the pace on our way out.
First light came hours later, but I dared not stop except to glance over my shoulder at my friends, who looked better with each step our horses took. Before long Dennison had tethered his horse and rode beside me, the thinning trees and widening path hopeful.
It wasn't until we burst through the thick fog that shrouded the edges of Fiercewood that Tandy was able to to ride alongside us. When I saw her bright smile and heard Dennison's hearty laughter I knew we had survived.