The Forbidden Wood’s ebony thickets clamored at the moon, stealing half its light. Plumes of dust galloped toward it along the East Road.
Luren. He would murder her mother like the others. So clever in other matters, why had she insisted on devotion to the King?
She pressed her lips onto the chilled flesh of her father’s forehead. “I will save her.”
With embalming instructions left for the shop assistant, she mounted her family’s Shire horse. The abandoned East Road undulated eight miles to the forest’s edge.
“Be swift, Hazum!” She kicked her heels at his girth, desperate to catch the violet-armored knights gathering at the martyrs’ post. By the time she neared, smoke roiled from the site. Sleek royal stallions barreled north in the distance.
Kardia dismounted. She grabbed a dagger and blanket from her saddle. Squinting through ashy gusts, she raced toward a writhing figure on the pole. Flames clawed at the silhouette’s waist. Kardia unfurled the blanket and pounded back the fire. She tromped into the smoldering straw. Acrid fingers of smoke gagged her. Heat seared her arms. Her mother’s weak moans stayed her focus. When she sawed the final rope, her mother wilted into her arms.
“Mother?” Kardia dragged her to fresh air. “I came to save you.”
Her mother wheezed and croaked. “I’m already saved.” A smile crackled the grime over her burned cheeks. She patted her steaming faerlight amulet. Sparkling silver rivulets streamed through its crossed pattern.
Kardia gasped. “They didn’t take it?”
“They tried. An enchantment protects it. I alone can relinquish it.” She turned aside and coughed, black spittle drizzling onto the dank earth.
Kardia stroked her singed hair. “You’ll be fine.”
“Yes, but not as you hope.” As she labored for breath, her lips formed the words, Love you. She mouthed a rune. Her mother’s broiled flesh turned still and silent. A stony monument lacking resemblance to her once-vibrant form.
A melody whispered into the distant breeze. As three twinkling orbs neared, voices clarified in their glissando songs. Iridescent wings emerged from each sphere as they stretched into woman-like shapes. The tallest fairy was half Kardia’s height. Beside her, a rotund creature chimed an exclamation at the heavens. The sky puckered and a narrow column of starlight descended among them. Wings flitting, the third fairy alighted. Six feet up from celestial beam’s base, she squeezed the column and pinched the section off. The sky rebounded as they unrolled the starlight. The resplendent trio lifted her mother’s body from Kardia’s arms.
The tall fairy’s voice tinkled like charm bells. “Leave her to us, dear.”
Her mother vanished as they wrapped her in the invisible coverlet.
“Where are you taking her? I wanted…Can you save her?”
“She’s already saved. We’re taking her to the King.” The round fairy pointed through the Forbidden Wood as they hoisted their imperceptible package. “You’ve heard of his castle on the other side of these thickets?”
“Let me go with you.” Kardia rose and followed them to the forest’s edge.
The tall fairy extended a new faerlight amulet toward Kardia. “Only followers of the king can wear his amulet. These thickets are impassible without it. What say you?”
A slate-grey cloud floated across the moon, obscuring its remaining light. “How do I believe in a king who allowed my parents’ death?”
The other two fairies beckoned as they tugged her mother’s cloaked body to the wood.
“Has Prince Luren tainted your mind?” The tall fairy shook her head. “They shall live. If you followed, you would see.”
“How do I know?”
The stout fairy chimed as she broached the thicket’s prickly tangles. “Belief weighs more than what you know.”
“A pure life sacrificed itself to create this amulet, forging new life for all in the king’s castle.” Wings flitting, the tall fairy held out the faerlight as she backed toward her companions.
The faerlight’s shimmering rivulets triggered memories. She’d seen that sparkle…in her father’s eyes as he nursed her to health, in her mother’s as she fed hungry neighbors.
The third fairy peeked back from the forest threshold and shook a finger. “You’ve glimpsed the king, have you not? I can tell.”
Kardia studied the fairies’ grip on the intangible shroud and nodded. “Yes. I believe I have.”
The tall fairy gestured to the slithering black thorns behind her. “The adventure is costly. Even demanding your very life. What say you?”
“If the king cannot be found, I have no life worth saving.” Kardia grabbed the amulet and marched toward the howling darkness. “I’m in. Make way.”