Weekend Wind Down – In the Forest

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.
She had been riding for quite a while when she found the path had narrowed on either side so the trees and bushes seemed to press in on her and in places Mischief had to push past springy undergrowth and waving tendrils of grasping plant life. Karlynne realised it was getting towards the time she would normally share a small afternoon treat with Turla and began to wish she had thought to bring some food with her: adventuring seemed to make one feel hungry.
She was just wondering whether she ought not to turn back and see if Old Peddy in the kitchens had baked a seed cake for her today, when a bird flew up from immediately under Mischief’s front legs. The pony shied back, its stubby ears flattening and Karlynne, using all the horsemanship she had learned, took several moments to get him back under control with a firm hand and a soothing voice.
It was then she heard the noise – a sound in the bushes to one side, as if something were pushing through the undergrowth towards her – something big and heavy. For a moment she sat frozen in the saddle, scarcely daring to breathe, her mind full of every tale she had ever heard about ferocious monsters which lived in wild forests. In her mind, it transformed in rapid succession from a fire-breathing dragon, to a towering giant, to a hideous five-headed serpent. The silence that followed the sounds seemed to last forever and Karlynne heard the pounding of her own heart which seemed, suddenly so loud that she was convinced it must echo through the trees.
She was just beginning to reassure herself that whatever was there must have gone, when something erupted from the bushes close behind Mischief – something huge and dark, with long fangs that glittered yellow against its open black mouth.
Screaming with terror, she raked her heels into Mischief’s glossy flank, but there was no need. The pony had already sprung forward like an arrow released from a bow and was thundering down the path with the monster slavering at his heels. Karlynne clung on to the saddle, flattening her body along the pony’s broad neck to avoid the low branches that threatened to sweep her from his back. She did not dare to look back to see the reality of the dark horror she had so briefly glimpsed, but she could hear its rasping breath and the soft thump of its paws upon the hard earth track.
Mischief plunged over a stream and as he landed, Karlynne nearly fell, another scream forming in her throat, but she choked on it and all that emerged was a sob of pure terror. She closed her eyes and prayed to the gods with all her heart, willing the pony to run faster.

From Times of Change, book two of Fortune’s Fools Transgressor Trilogy by E.M. Swift-Hook

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