Velda was awake too, crouched in the defensive posture of a cornered animal. The knight's eyes flicked across to her. "Helping intruders again, my lady?"
"She did not mean to come here and I do not believe she poses a threat."
"An exception to the rules, eh?" He dismounted in a swift, elegant motion, patting the horse's haunch as if to dismiss it, and slid one hand into the pouch on his belt. "We'll see about that."
With a sudden step forward, he flung some kind of powder onto the embers of their campfire, causing it to blaze up alarmingly. Gwendoline shrank back, turning her face away from the blinding light. The flames roared in her ear, though she could not feel them, and all she could do was wait to understand what was happening.
At last her vision cleared as the fire quickly and quietly died away. She was surprised to find herself now sitting on a paved floor. All three of them were in a vast hall, with gigantic logs that acted as pillars. Candlelight illuminated much of the scene but did not reach as far as the high ceiling, and left areas of the chamber in darkness.
"On your feet," growled the elfin knight, prodding Gwendoline with the point of his spear. She did as she was told, and his confidence visibly faltered beneath her fierce glare and superior height.
"Whom do you bring before me, Sir Rowan?"
The voice coincided with a gust of cold air that swept the sealed and windowless room, and Gwendoline looked around in search of the speaker. Unnervingly, his eyes seemed to glow with an inner light as he emerged from the shadows.
Standing in front of them was a pale, slender apparition draped in shimmering green silk, richly embroidered with golden thread. An array of gemstones sparkled in the band of gold that surrounded his crest of wheaten hair. Behind him a handful of courtiers shuffled into the light, but he remained the centre of everyone's attention.
The knight bowed to him. "Sire. I found Lady Velda taking care of this... 'lost traveller'."
The unearthly ruler's footsteps made no sound at all as he approached the two women. He was an imposing figure even to Gwendoline, who seldom encountered anyone tall enough to meet her at eye level. Her heart was beating so loudly as he drew near, it wouldn't have surprised her if everyone in that quiet hall could hear it. She sensed she was in the presence of something far more powerful than any elf.
"A traveller... or a huntress, perhaps?" His unblinking eyes passed from her longbow to her quiver of arrows and back to her face.
She tried to conceal her revulsion at the sight of the cape around his shoulders, clearly made from the skins of foxes. "My name is Gwendoline. I'm a Greenwarden; a protector of the forest."
"And I am Arawn, King of the Forest. It is forbidden for mortals to wander this realm. Trespassers, as all my subjects are aware, must pay with their lives." The tone of his voice boded ill for Velda, though he cast no glance in her direction.
Gwendoline could feel herself trembling, and had to make an effort to hold her own voice steady. "Forgive me if I have trespassed, but the woods I patrol have recently come within dungeon dimensions. Paths no longer lead where I expect them to."
Velda felt compelled to speak up. "This mortal also considers the Dark Lord to be her enemy. She has offered her assistance in repelling his monsters."
Arawn glowered at her. "My knights are perfectly capable of defending this kingdom without the assistance of outworlders." He pronounced the word with a curl of his lip as if it left a bitter taste in his mouth.
"All the same, I believe there is cause for leniency on this occasion." Velda bowed her head under his stern gaze. "If it please Your Majesty."
The Elf-King's eyes narrowed while he considered this appeal. After a time he silently turned his head towards a nearby counsellor; a balding fellow who looked more human than elvish, and who simply offered a nod of cautious encouragement. Gwendoline's mouth felt dry as he faced them again without a hint of compassion. She was fairly sure he could strike her dead with a wave of his finger if he felt like it.
"The offer of aid is respectfully declined," said Arawn, with a mocking inflection that suggested anything but respect. "Lady Velda will escort the mortal out of this realm as swiftly as may be. If she is still here after the next sunrise, I will not be as merciful."
Velda curtsied, as did Gwendoline, though she loathed having to feign reverence for a being who exuded such cruelty. As they turned to leave, he added coldly, "To either of you." Velda paused to acknowledge she had heard these words before hastening to the main doors.
Velda gave a short, sardonic laugh. "This is not the first time that I've displeased him. Suffice it to say there are many things on which we do not see eye to eye."
They reached the end of an avenue of oak trees, widening into a small clearing with a choice of several tracks. "Which way do you think we should go?" asked Gwendoline. Velda gestured straight ahead, and they walked on in that direction.
"Our best hope is the Dream Caverns, where many paths converge. Then again, we may chance upon a way out sooner. It is hard to say. We elves have no more control over this living dungeon than you humans do."
"Can anyone control it?"
"Not since Lord Dunshelm banished its creator to the Void." After a pause, Velda added: "The Dark Lord is gaining in strength, and knows of its secrets. I have little doubt in time he will seek to shape it for his own ends. For now it merely follows the ley-lines, claiming and twisting everything it finds."
"So we've discovered," Gwendoline commented. "Nothing's been quite the same since it came to our villages."
"What land is it that you defend?"
"I roam the whole of the Emerald Greenwood – from the inn at Greenshades to the outskirts of Wolfenden."
"Ah... that is said to be a fair country indeed," said Velda. "Know you why it bears that name?"
"I assume it's the vibrant colour of the trees." Gwendoline's face lit up with childlike joy as she pictured it. "The sunlight through the leaves in spring is magical... as beautiful and precious as any jewel."
Velda smiled. "The fair folk called it Taur Edhelhern. Emerald Greenwood is one translation, but really it meant the Forest of Elvenstones." She stopped and produced from her belt pouch a large green beryl, the like of which Gwendoline had seen on market stalls from time to time. It shone in the gloomy copse like the very sunlight she had described. "One of our greatest jewel-smiths created them while he dwelt there. They have great healing powers. Most of them were gifted to others, but it's said that a few remain buried in the forest, sustaining its vitality and radiance. If the stones were ever to be found and removed, you might not notice such a difference between that forest and this."
"I had no idea," said Gwendoline, gazing in wonder at the gem in Velda's hand. She had arrogantly believed she knew everything about the land she grew up in; it was becoming clear that humans still had much to learn from their mysterious elders. "Can't you use that here? Bring some life back to this place?" she asked, glancing around with an involuntary shiver.
"And make it more inviting to outsiders? King Arawn would not want that – and neither would you." Velda put the stone away and continued walking.
"Another time, I'm walking through the Wolfglade when I find this shifty merchant laying purse nets over the rabbit holes. Now, when I confront him, he swears blind he just found them and was taking them away – claims to be a 'concerned animal lover'. Meantime I can see something wriggling about, so I ask him what he's got down his sleeve. 'I don't know what you mean,' he says. Next thing you know, a ferret pops out of his tunic! 'Oh, that!' he says. 'He's just my little pet, Frank. I have to take him out for some fresh air or he goes a bit crazy. I told you I was an animal lover!'"
Velda interrupted with a hand on her shoulder. "Stop! Someone is coming."
Gwendoline could hear the sound of hoofbeats on the bending road ahead of them. An armoured knight on a black horse came into view, carrying a broadsword. His face was covered, but he was too bulky in stature to be one of the elves.
"Hold, stranger, and name yourself," commanded Velda, taking hold of her crossbow.
The rider stopped some distance away and regarded them wordlessly. After a few seconds he dismounted, and faced them again without speaking or lifting his visor.
"Who are you?" Velda called out, growing breathless with anxiety.
To the alarm of both women, the knight began marching mechanically towards them, swinging his sword as they backed away. Velda raised her weapon and shot him in the chest, somehow managing to penetrate his plate armour. He fell to his knees before sprawling on the ground, making spasmodic movements.
"It will soon repair itself. Let us be gone before it does," said Velda, leading Gwendoline off the main track and down a steep slope through the trees. They hurried along the densely wooded valley in single file until they came to a place where the pale grey sky could be seen. With a thick carpet of moss, it was a comfortable spot to rest their feet, and they sat down and shared the water.
"That was one of the Opposition's frightknights, wasn't it?" said Gwendoline.
"Aye. Those wretched things." Velda still sounded shaken by the encounter. "His master used glaschwights to do his bidding, until their weakness became known. Then the Dark Lord created these warriors with some new blend of magic and machinery. They act as living beings, but they have no essence of life, and cannot be slain. We do not fully understand how they are made, nor how to unmake them."
"I've heard people call him the Technomancer – among other things. Who knows what horrors he'll invent next."
Velda's eyes widened. "Did you hear something?"
A metallic clanking sound became audible. Before either of them could speak, there was an almighty roar from behind them like that of an angry bear. Springing to their feet, they turned to see the frightknight step out from the shade and advance with sword at the ready. Gwendoline instinctively yanked her baldric down her shoulder and reached across to draw her own sword, but Velda stopped her as she grasped the hilt: "No! It will never tire. We must run!"
Pushing the sword back into place, she lunged to grab her bow off the ground just before it reached her, then fled after Velda with the monster in hot pursuit.
Athletic as Gwendoline was, she struggled to keep up with the nimble elf. There was no clear path through the wood here, and she found herself hindered by vegetation that Velda could skip over with deerlike grace. When they came to a stream she was astonished to see Velda cross it with a single vault. After splashing through it and scrambling up the rise on the other side, Gwendoline looked round to check how far behind the frightknight was. Although it had powered through the ferns and shrubs without difficulty, she saw it come to a halt on the far bank, where it remained swivelling back and forth with an air of indecision.
"It won't enter the stream," she observed. "Perhaps water can harm them."
"Then we are safe for now," said Velda. "Onward. This way will take us longer."
"Oh! You little..." Gwendoline rushed after it, as it scampered down a different trail leading off in the wrong direction.
Concerned that she may become lost, Velda set off behind them. She had only gone a short distance when she froze with a sudden gasp, startled by the shape of a cross on the ground where a pair of large sticks were lying together. When she tried to look away from it, her eyes fell upon a whole row of them, laid out deliberately right across the path. This was no mishap. She had been lured this way.
In her peripheral vision she saw two more goblins approach from either side. Utterly paralysed, there was nothing Velda could do about it. Even her voice had deserted her.
A twig snapped behind her. It was followed by a low chuckle.