She wondered how much leisure time would be available once the quest season began. With dungeoneers expected to pass this way, Gwendoline would be required to assess and assist them, on top of all her regular duties. The discussions about it reminded her of the young knight-errant she had met when she was fifteen or so, asking her for directions as he rode through the forest. He was on his way to Knightmare Castle, he said – back in the days of its previous owner. He told her he was on a quest for the Grail itself, and when he found it, he would bring it back to show her. She could still picture his handsome face; the carefree smile and eager blue eyes. She'd never forgotten the way he winked at her before riding away. For weeks afterwards she had wandered up and down that road in the hope of seeing him return, with or without his prize, and at first she felt disappointed and a little hurt that he seemed to have forgotten about her. Only later did she find out that no adventurer who had gone to that place was ever seen again.
Things were different now, of course. The quests were safer with challengers from other worlds, who could return home unscathed even if they died here, and they had plenty of support from the Powers That Be. Apparently the dungeoneers were much younger these days. What a pity... the chances of anyone sweeping her off her feet seemed rather slim this time around.
Her attention was seized by the powerful aroma of the wild garlic, which along with the bluebells formed a mottled carpet of purple and white on either side of the track. She especially loved this time of year, when the hawthorns were in blossom and the woods were full of life. It was all so lovely that she was almost tempted to walk the long way home just to soak up every detail. But thirst and aching feet persuaded her to opt for the shortcut, and she turned off the main ride onto the old elf-path. Before long she was stepping through the portal that would take her straight to the village.
Gwendoline stopped abruptly in her tracks. Instead of coming out by the stables, she was in a dense patch of forest. It wasn't the first time a portal had unexpectedly changed its destination – in fact it had been happening a lot lately – but she usually found herself in places that were easier to recognise. What was more, it seemed as though several hours, or even several months, had passed in an instant. Gone was the warm sunshine; the sky here was leaden and largely obscured by the foliage overhead, creating a general gloom that made it hard to tell if it really was getting dark already. Had she overshot the village and ended up somewhere in Tangle Wood? Her instincts told her no... it just didn't smell right. She knew every fragrance from the flora and fungi right down to the soil, and none of them were present here. Instead a sweet, putrid odour hung faintly in the dank air, stirring some primal sense of dread that she could not explain.
It took her a minute to realise what else was wrong: there was no birdsong at all. The sound was normally so ubiquitous that she barely noticed it unless she stopped to listen, but its absence was startling. The whole place was eerily, oppressively silent.
"Where in the Underworld am I?" she murmured aloud, her breath forming visible clouds. Perhaps, indeed, she had just answered her own question.
She turned to go back through the portal, only to find it wasn't there. Wonderful. Of all the times to blunder down a one-way path.
Well, there was nothing else to do but search for another portal, or at least someone who knew the area. For some time she made her way along a winding footpath overgrown with brambles in many places, hearing nothing but her own exertions and the occasional distant cawing of crows. It eventually connected to a broader, more frequently used bridleway. With no signs of civilisation in either direction, she picked one at random and began walking.
For the third time she halted and turned her head suddenly, thinking she sensed someone nearby. But she was still alone on the path, and peering between the trees she could make out no figures, nor detect any sign of movement. Her mind was playing tricks on her, or this wood was full of ghosts – she didn't know which. After a while it dawned on her why she felt like she'd been here before. It reminded her of the dream forest in which her most terrifying nightmares always took place.
At length she came to a junction, forcing her to turn either right or left. Another blind decision... there were tracks of riders leading both ways, along more-or-less identical paths. She was beginning to despair of ever finding a way out of here.
Deciding to try the left-hand branch, she had only been on it for a few minutes when a rustling sound up ahead made her stop. Moments later, a pair of goblin scouts emerged from behind some bushes, facing away from her and conferring among themselves.
"Oh, that's all I need," Gwendoline growled under her breath, plucking an arrow from her quiver. She neatly dispatched one of them before it spotted the danger, and managed to hit the other as it retreated. She only hoped no others were lurking nearby.
But her wish was no sooner made than denied, as the blood-curdling blare of a goblin caller shattered the silence. Scurrying footsteps could be heard in response, and Gwendoline's body tensed at the sight of an entire goblin pack bursting out of the undergrowth, racing straight towards her with a high-pitched jabber of excitement. She loosed another arrow in the vain hope it would deter them, but still they surged forward, brandishing an assortment of clubs, swords and daggers. Even with her formidable archery skills, she couldn't possibly shoot them all fast enough, and taking on that many in combat would be suicidal. There was nothing to do but turn and run.
The track was reasonably wide, but uneven, and Gwendoline was intensely conscious that if she tripped over a tree root or slipped on a muddy patch, she might never get to her feet again. Many a lone traveller had been dragged down and ruthlessly dismembered by a horde such as this. The awful sound of their hunting horns seemed to echo through the woods all around her.
She could see a brighter spot at the bottom of a downward slope. As she ran out into a large clearing, she realised the noise might indeed have been coming from multiple directions. Ahead of her a second group was coming, fanning out to try and cut off possible escape routes. Rigid with panic and gasping for breath, Gwendoline could hear the others not far behind her. This was not the way she wanted her life to end...
Before she could even begin to think of a way out, a distinctly un-goblinlike figure ran out from the trees to her right, bellowing what sounded like "ELVANDIS!" at the top of her lungs. The woman had shoulder-length, wavy dark hair and was dressed in shades of green and brown. She was holding aloft a silver crossbow, which she quickly put to use against the approaching goblins.
It was clearly a magical weapon, allowing her to shoot four or five of them in rapid succession without ever needing to reload. The silver projectiles it fired made them drop and roll over, clutching themselves in pain, but didn't appear to be lethal. Nevertheless, they obviously feared it. Those goblins who had shields cowered behind them, and within seconds of the attack, they all began to flee before it could be turned on them. The injured ones staggered along behind, as the woman rushed at them with a shout of "Go back whence you came, you stinking shadow-spawn!"
Before Gwendoline could thank her, the woman had spun around and trained the crossbow on her. "Lay down your weapons, human, or feel the sting of mine."
Gwendoline cautiously placed her longbow on the ground, then took off her sword baldric. She was normally the one giving such orders – but this was not her forest, and she must now abide by someone else's rules.
"Now, explain why you invade the realm of the elven kin. And make it fast!"
"Look, I don't know where I am or how I got here, and if I knew the way back, believe me, I would take it," said Gwendoline. "My portal was diverted--"
The elf-maiden threw up her hands with a cry of exasperation, as if she'd heard this too many times before. "The great Adversary may be gone, but still his creation spreads like a fire, shifting paths and borders as it pleases." Her voice was halfway between disgust and fear. "Meanwhile his successor sends ever more of his goblins and dooleys to plague us."
Gwendoline lowered her voice. "Do you mean... the Opposition?"
The woman fixed her with a suspicious gaze, aiming her crossbow once again. "How do I know you are not one of his servants? Was it you that brought those darklings here?"
"I serve the Powers That Be. It's my job to keep the greenwood free of vermin like that."
She gave a snort. "What would you know of the greenwood?"
"I know that I would lay down my life to protect it."
Hearing those words, the woman stared deep into Gwendoline's eyes for a while longer, apparently searching for any sign of dishonesty. She finally lowered her crossbow and hooked its strap over her shoulder. "Then we have some common ground."
"How about this," said Gwendoline, relieved to move past the hostility. "If you can get me out of this place, I promise to help you in any way that I can."
She considered the proposal briefly. "Very well, human. For now, we should make camp before we lose the light." Nodding her permission for Gwendoline to pick up her weapons, she led the way back towards the footpath she had appeared from.
"I do have a name – it's Gwendoline."
The elf glanced over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow. "Not all of us give our names so freely. But you may call me Velda."
Velda detached a waterskin from her belt and handed it to her. "Thank you." She gulped some down before passing it back, but the elf waved it away, saying, "You take it. We can find more in the morning."
The Greenwarden remained morbidly fascinated by the alien woodland they were passing through. Many of the trees were massive and strikingly gnarled, but unlike those in the Greenwood that she'd always viewed as wise old characters, in this place they looked like tortured souls. There seemed to be virtually no young trees; perhaps it was too dark for saplings to thrive. The forest floor was so devoid of colour, too. "There aren't any flowers," she realised, speaking out loud without meaning to – force of habit after years of working alone, conversing with herself or the plants and creatures she cared for.
"When I was young, many beautiful things grew here," Velda replied after a few moments, a sad smile flickering across her face as she turned towards her. "But the world is changing, and all things must fade in the end – however much we might wish to preserve them. Even the trees will not live forever." She paused beneath a mighty yew, glancing up and around with a wistful expression: "One day this will all be gone." Then she looked Gwendoline coolly in the eye and added, "I wonder if your kind will remember us," walking off without waiting for a response.
Gwendoline was still pondering what she meant when they came to a clearing that was obviously a well-used campsite, with stones encircling a patch of blackened earth and ash. A number of fallen branches had already been left there in readiness; Gwendoline gathered and arranged some smaller sticks while Velda found suitable tinder. The elf had only to whisper "Dosto" and the dry material began to smoulder in her hands. She blew upon it gently to kindle a flame before placing it under the wood pile.
Soon they were sitting beside a crackling fire, and the forest seemed a bit less bleak. The boughs of the surrounding trees formed a natural roof and it felt almost like they were huddled inside a cosy hut.
"Here. Eat this." Velda offered her some sort of elven-cake, wafer thin and wrapped in leaves. It tasted good and proved surprisingly filling.
"Do you mind if I ask you something?" said Gwendoline in between nibbles.
Velda had busied herself adding small items of fuel to the fire. "That depends on what you ask."
"When you came to my aid before, you shouted something in your language. What did it mean?"
"Elvandis – the Departed. She who is lost to us forever." Seeing her companion's interest, Velda continued: "She had other names in life. She was a great hero, beloved of all my people – no elf-child grows up without hearing the tales of her deeds. I pray for even a fraction of her strength and courage when facing my enemies."
Gwendoline looked thoughtful. "Can I ask what happened to her?"
"Why?" asked Velda, a little sharply.
She held up her hand in a conciliatory gesture. "Oh, I'm sorry... it's just I thought elves don't really die like we do. But I can see it's a sensitive subject, and it's none of my business. Forgive me."
Velda appeared to soften at this display of courtesy and respect. Returning to her task, she answered: "She left the world by choice. She would not be parted from the mortal she loved. Long ages have passed since then, yet her loss is still felt by all of the elven kin."
They spoke no more after that, and Gwendoline lay down beside the fire once she had eaten. Having spent many hours of her life sleeping on a forest floor, for necessity or pleasure, she had no difficulty drifting off in the reassuring presence of her guide.