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At the edge of the carefully cultivated parkland which surrounded the summer palace of the rulers of Harkera, just outside the white-walled city of Cressida, lay a huge expanse of woodland in which nature was given great freedom of expression in return for allowing the monarchs of Harkera and their chosen guests, the privilege of hunting there. Not that the privilege was granted freely – it had to be earned. It was a playground for those whose reactions were fast and whose sinews were strong – those who wished to be tested against the wild.
Karlynne knew that it was not a proper wild forest because there were men who took care of it – vergers and warders, gamekeepers and huntsmen, employed to make sure that the main paths were always kept clear and that there were always plenty of wild game to be hunted by the monarch’s noble visitors. But it was almost a proper forest, such as the ones she had read about in her books where winged ponies and talking animals lived. She had been told never to go there because it was home to dangerous animals, tizarts, therloons and seminarls and dangerous men – land-pirates Turla called them – men who would come to steal the animals and who would be just as happy to steal young girls who were foolish enough to wander into the hunting park alone.
But today the forest did not look at all menacing or dangerous and it would not be the first time Karlynne had ridden there alone with no one any the wiser. It beckoned to her, mysterious and inviting beneath the early summer sky and Turla was sitting in her room resting her aching bones having told Karlynne she should do as she pleased for the afternoon.
With a brief and ephemeral flash of guilt, she reminded herself that was not strictly true. Turla had told her to take one of the grooms if she went riding, but when she had got to the stables to find her favourite pony, Mischief, all the grooms had been busy. Being far too considerate to interrupt their work for her own pleasure, she had sent one of the boys for Mischief’s tack and had saddled him herself, riding out unnoticed.
It was a glorious feeling to canter across the park alone, she who was never allowed anywhere unescorted, and the simple joy of freedom made her laugh aloud. In truth, she had not really intended to go into the forest at all that day, but once she had reached the edge of the open parkland, the fringe of trees with its inviting paths had beckoned her in. Now, she rode beneath the canopy of leaves, thrilling at her own daring and filled with a delicious excitement. Her books and Turla’s tales from nursery days onwards, had always been full of enchanted forests, with magicians, talking animals and handsome young men who always turned out to be the long-lost son of some noble who invariably needed rescue from a dire enchantment, by the hands of a beautiful princess. After which they would fall in love and live happily ever after.
Karlynne decided that she was the perfect heroine for such a romance. Turla had often told her that she looked just like her mother, who everyone said was beautiful, so she must be beautiful too and at nearly twelve years old she was certainly young. Every credential met, she was bound to find adventure, romance and true love sooner or later – and where better to look than in the forest? Not that she expected talking animals and magicians here, of course, they were only in stories – but you never knew and the forest certainly seemed a place for adventure.