* * * * * *
Renee’s head spun as she ran away from what remained of King Jesterous’ labyrinth. She twisted her way through the Dark Wood without any consideration of which direction she was headed. The wound that the Lord Asher Dark had imprinted upon her forehead with the Stone of Truth burst asunder when she furrowed her brow, and the blood that flowed blinded her vision when it streamed into her sky blue eyes. No matter how hard she rubbed at them, the blood stung like acid.
I am lost, I am lost, I am lost.
This was more than a literal assertion of her situation. She had lost the Sword of Power when the Lord Asher Dark took it with him down the fissure that opened up beneath his feet. She had lost her only friend in the world when she blamed Guy for her failure…poor Guy. Every time Renee reflected upon her departing words to him, she twisted her flaming red hair in her hands as if she would pluck herself bald. I should not have lashed out at him like I did. I was foolish. I would not have gotten as far as I did if it were not for his help. Perhaps I should return to him and apologize. Renee turned around, but she wandered so randomly in the Dark Wood, she had no idea where she was in the thick of it.
The world around Renee spun like a toy top. Her eyes tried to keep up the pace, but she just became dizzy. In the distance, she thought she could faintly hear the laughter of the Lord Asher Dark beneath her feet. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she saw no more.
* * * * * *
I am lost, I am lost, I am lost.
The world around Renee was so wholly dark, she was uncertain if she had opened her eyes at all. It was for the best that the night hid Renee from the nocturnal eyes of the world, for she was such a fright that even the boldest dire wolf would have whimpered back to his mother upon the sight of her. Her Quester’s outfit was slashed from her duel with the Lord Asher Dark. A few of the high buttons that ran along the outside legs of Renee’s brown leather pants were missing, and her green tunic was spotted with gashes that matched the crimson sash wrapped around her waist. Her face still bore the red streaks where the Lord Asher Dark inflicted Megan upon her. Renee wrapped her fingers around Megan’s red hilt, and assured herself that the diamond blade was back on her belt again. Renee still had her diamond dust cloak upon her, and she wrapped it tighter around herself. It was the only thing upon Renee that was unscathed, for it was just as Bonder the Wonder had told her when he gave it to her, in that the durable cloth would never tear or soil.
Whether Renee had been unconscious all day, she had no way of knowing. Only the warm breath that nuzzled Renee’s neck made her fully aware that she was still alive and awake. Renee jumped onto her feet when that snorted air grazed her skin. When her eyes adjusted, she saw the nuzzler was the lead horse for the Lord Asher Dark’s carriage. The horse nearly jumped out of his own skin when Renee suddenly bolted back to life. The beast reared, and the others followed their captain as he sprang away from the screaming red-haired demon who sprung out of the grass he chewed upon. With what little wit Renee had at her command, she jumped to the side and let the carriage pass, but not before she grabbed onto the handle of the side door.
Renee wrapped her arms around the gold handle. The cool air of the late spring night bathed her as wind swooshed by. Renee soaked it in and felt fully revived as a true Quester. The smile she bore, though, was ripped from her face as a low tree branch scratched her cheek. She instinctively clutched at her fresh wound with one hand just as the carriage ran over some rocks. The force of the bumps caused Renee to lose her balance, and she slipped from the carriage.
Renee’s fingers curled around the handle. But her gripped loosened and her height did not do her any favors as her torso bumped upon the ground like a stone that skips across a pond. She had just enough strength to crawl up the handle bar until she locked her elbow around it. That got her muddied torso off the ground, but her feet still dragged.
“Stop running, you jerk face horses!”
The horse captain paid no heed to her call, for she was not his master, and since he did not deem her worthy of controlling their fate, the other horses would not listen to her either.
“Stop, I say. Stop, halt, desist, augh!”
That last cry came about when the carriage made a sharp turn and almost slammed Renee into a tree trunk. Fear from the close call caught her breath but only for a few moments.
“Enough of this.”
Renee’s full fury burst from her heart as she made a bold jump to the front of the carriage. Renee stumbled and, for a few moments, she found herself running alongside the carriage as she struggled to maintain her grip upon the railing. Her feet twisted into each other underneath her, but with a sharp kick against a passing tree, she shot over the railing and into the driver’s seat.
“When I say stop, I mean stop!”
Renee unsheathed Megan, the diamond eyes embedded into the carved image of the intertwined snakes shining in the moonlight like beacons. Renee smacked the rumps of the two horses in front of her with the backside of her blade.
It had the opposite effect she had desired, and the horses tripled their speed. Before Renee could curse at the beasts, the carriage sped beyond the border of the Dark Wood and into a clearing.
Renee’s blood chilled when she saw that the entire landscape before her stop suddenly and become nothing but sky.
The horse captain saw the same, and he let out a sharp cry as he buried his hoofs into the soft earth beneath him. The other six horses behind him did likewise, and the carriage slowed down until the horse captain stood at the edge of a cliff.
The force of the sudden stop caused Renee to drop Megan upon the driver’s seat as she lunged forward like a warrior’s spear. Renee bounced upon the backside of the horses, and she flew over the head of their captain. Her arms flailed about, but Renee’s fingers found their grip around the captain’s collar, and she stopped falling. Renee glanced at the emptiness beneath her dangling feet. She knew not how many thousands of feet of sky were beneath her, for the bottom was shrouded by fog, or perhaps clouds, for all Renee knew.
“Stupid horse,” Renee muttered under her breath. The horse captain understood what she said and gave a snort in disapproval. “There are no magical planks here to make you fly this time,” Renee snorted back. “Unless you can sprout wings and fly, I suggest you lead your team into a backward trot.”
Although the horse captain did not want to obey Renee, he understood that he and his fellow horses would fall to their death if he did not. The horse captain kicked the shins of the two horses behind him. Those two did likewise, until the furthest two horses walked backward. Within moments, Renee found solid ground underneath her feet again, but fear of her sudden possible death forbade her to loosen her grip around the horse captain’s collar.
The horse captain did not enjoy having a human adorn his collar, and he shook his head with such a force that Renee felt her guts perform summersaults. Renee’s grip finally gave up, and she was thrown back toward the edge of the cliff, but her own feet kicked up enough dirt to prevent her from flying over. Renee turned back around and saw the horses dart back into the Dark Wood, although not from whence they came.
The horse captain took it upon himself to head eastward, but he misjudged the space in between the trees, and the carriage was wedged tightly in between tree trunks. The horses shrieked upon the realization that the carriage was stuck and they could move neither forward nor backward.
Renee examined the carriage, and caution would not approach the horses until she was certain that they were wedged without hope of escape. She found Megan resting comfortably in the driver’s seat, and the horses kicked and screamed upon seeing the blade flash behind them.
Renee’s face was as grim as stone. “I cannot help but think that you horses were trying to slay me,” Renee said as she made her way to the horse captain, “for perhaps you love your master so much that you would finish what he tried to do back in the labyrinth. As the Lord Asher Dark perished before I could extract revenge on him, I shall inflict my vengeance upon you. Think of this as a mercy killing, for you shall certainly starve after you nibble the last blade of grass beneath your hooves. I shall start with you, captain of the horses, for you would have gladly seen me fall to my death for the sake of your late master.”
The other six horses screamed and kicked up dirt in protest, but the captain of the horses showed no fear. He had always been a horse captain, and he knew in the back of his mind that, one day, he might go down with the carriage. This night was as good as any to die in the line of duty as far as the horse captain was concerned.
The horse captain stretched out his neck, accepting his fate. Renee drew the flat side of Megan’s blade across his neck and goose bumps pricked his skin. The horses behind him screamed and thrashed in protest, but a loud cry from their captain silenced them. The other horses bowed their heads and looked away.
Renee took aim at the horse captain’s neck, but as she drew Megan above her head, she could not convince herself to strike the fatal blow. The captain was shocked when instead of feeling the cold taste of Megan’s blade, he felt instead the warm touch of Renee’s hand as she stroked his neck. His honey-colored eyes watched Renee with suspicion, but Megan was safely tucked back into its sheath and gleamed no more that night.
“I cannot slay you,” Renee said as her tears dripped upon the horse captain’s golden coat. “It would be unjust for me to slay you in retribution for your master’s misdeeds. I took out my anger upon Guy because of my own failure, and what good has that done? I am lost, Guy is lost, and now I have gotten you lost. We are all lost, horse. We are lost, we are lost, we are lost.”
* * * * * *
Renee was unable to free the carriage the next day. Try as she might, it was wedged more tightly than a baby elephant in a housecat’s door. The only way Renee thought she could free the carriage was to cut down the trees around it. As sharp as Megan’s diamond blade was, it made a poor substitute for an axe and could barely make a dent in the tree trunks. Renee then tried to set the horses free from their bonds. However, they were held not by leather but chains made of solid gold, which no diamond blade could cut. Renee was never one with skills for horses or carriages and could not figure out how to release the chains. The horses seemed welded into the gold, and Renee had not the fire power to melt the chains. As such, Renee took it upon herself to care for the horses until she could figure out what to do.
“I shall not abandon you,” Renee swore to the beasts, “and I shall not leave your sides until you are all free from this entrapment.” The horses were uncertain if they should be glad of this, for it was (in their opinion) her fault that they were trapped in the first place.
Renee found a stream nearby that trickled little water, but it was enough to sustain them. The horses had no trouble eating the grass around them, but Renee was not as easily satisfied and found hunting game to be cumbersome. Megan was not made to shoot across and bury itself into the heart of a stag. She was not swift enough to crush a rabbit’s skull before it darted away toward the safety of its burrow. Renee had nothing better to eat than the acorns and small berries that she knew were safe to consume. She thought often about the little bow and arrow set the Lord Asher Dark had seized from her, and how useful that weapon would have been at this particular moment.
If it were not for the occasional attack of the wild dogs upon the trapped horses, Renee would not have consumed any meat at all. Vicious and hungry, the desperate mutts lost from their traveling owners were bold in their attacks, but Megan cut them down as if they were nothing more than weeds before they could harm the horses. Although Renee was glad to eat what she slew, she found their meat to be stringy and with a bitter aftertaste that rose from her throat like bile.
It was not until the third day before the horses trusted Renee. The circumstances of their meeting had made them cautiously paranoid of her doings. As time passed and they found that Renee was their only source of water and protection, they let their guard down one by one. Renee took it upon herself to name them, for they had no proper tongues to speak the common speech of man to tell her of their true names. The horse captain she named Star, for he bore a white mark like a star upon his forehead. The two behind him she named Snotty and Bity, for Snotty often wiped his snout upon her back and Bity would nibble her neck as a sign of affection. The two in the middle she named Desire and Bolden, for it seemed to Renee that they longed to move up to the front of the pack. The two horses in the back she named Rump and Stump, for all she could see of those two horses were their backsides. Rump’s backside was more rounded and Stump’s was more stout. Renee felt sorry for Rump and Stump, as they bore the brunt of the odor from their fellow horses’ droppings, but she found a hallow log she was able to use to scoop such messes away.
Renee found just as little comfort sleeping at night as the horses did. She could not enter the carriage, for the doors were barred between the tree trunks. The windows were paneled with golden bars only a ferret could squeeze through, if it sucked in its gut. The trap door on top was designed to be too slender for any enemy to slip through unawares, and Renee could not worm her way inside. Renee could have slept in the luggage compartment, but there could still be more murderous nuns about, and Renee could not risk being so easily ensnared while she slumbered. Renee slept by the horses, but when Snotty almost crushed her skull with his mighty hooves, she propped herself against a tree.
The rain did nothing to ease her suffering. The oncoming storms brought great pains to the old wound in Renee’s arm, and the lightning only frightened the horses. The rain poured down like a widow’s tears, and Renee’s diamond dust cloak barely kept her dry. Renee leaned against Star during such storms, for the other horses emulated their captain, and if he were calm, they would remain calm as well. Much to Renee’s surprise, she found great comfort soaking her tears in the golden horse’s neck. Star did not mind and would often nuzzle Renee’s neck. He had grown fond of this female creature, despite his former training to love only the Lord Asher Dark.
Upon the fourth day, lightning crashed into the tree that Renee usually leaned up against for sleep. It crashed down upon the wedged carriage, trapping it beyond hope of recovery. Renee could not even comfort Star, until the clouds dissipated and it rained no more.
“This is all the Lord Asher Dark’s doing!” Renee said as she kicked at the wrecked carriage but harmed nothing but the air around it. She dwelt on how the Lord Asher Dark took everything away from her: her tiny bow and arrows, her gifts from Gerald the Generous (the Lion’s Claw and the canteen that magically purified any water poured into it), and the Sword of Power. In her rage, Renee jumped into the driver’s seat and unsheathed Megan. She hacked at the remains of the carriage, caring not for the futility of the action. She barely inflicted any damage upon the great vessel, but she was so full of wrath, she did not stop until her strength fully left her. Her arms became limp with weariness, and Megan fell to the ground with a soft thud. Renee followed soon after.
Renee’s wound upon her forehead would not stop throbbing. As such, she heard the voice that was deep with manhood, yet light as a maiden, as though the voice had no true gender at all.
So, is this what becomes of the great Quester, Renee the Righteous?
Verily, that is what it looks like, Renee replied without much thought. She was too weary for thinking of how odd it was to hear another’s voice in her head.
What happened to the fire that burned within your heart?
The rain put it out. What more do you want of me?
Stand up on your feet and take vengeance!
Vengeance? Renee’s laugh was so shrill the horses looked upon each other with questions of her sanity. Upon whom? Certainly not Guy, for he has more cause for vengeance upon me than I do of him, and I am far too embarrassed of my misconduct to confront him. Are you referring to the Lord Asher Dark? He is dead, deady, deady, dead dead—and since he took the Sword of Power with him, I have no chance of stopping Sister Ferriera.
The mysterious voice throttled her brain. Not all hope is lost while you still draw breath. Storm the Dark Castle and reclaim what you have lost. The knife and bow are still there, no doubt.
No doubt there is no point in reclaiming them, Renee snorted. I have no home to return to. Brother Rayel said I should not return to the monastery without the Sword of Power under penalty of death. As he is Head Monk, I have no choice but to accept his sentence.
Then make the Dark Castleyour new home. Take what the Lord Asher Dark loved the most as your own. Perhaps you can lead the monks there for sanctuary from Sister Ferriera’s wrath, and Brother Rayel shall dismiss his punishment.
That is the best suggestion you have ever said. Who art thou, stranger?
I am what you want me to be, but for the record, all my suggestions are great, the nagging voice whimpered in a hurt tone. If you would listen more often, you would know that.
I want thee to be the Holy Light, for I feel as though thou hast forsaken me but are now making up for it. Art thou the Holy Light?
Stop using the formal speech. It gives me a headache. Oh, and you shall want to roll toward your right, unless you want Rump to dump a steaming pile of waste upon your face.
Only the Holy Light would know what the future holds. I shall open my eyes and see if your premonition is true or false.
Renee’s eyes fluttered upon just in time to see Rump’s butt cheeks spread wide. Renee rolled just as Rump released his load, and she stood upon her feet like a tumbler performing a mummer’s show. Her smile reflected a similar mirth, and the horses cocked their heads at one another, uncertain of what to make of their new master’s sudden change of attitude.
“Do not fear me Star, Snotty, Bity, Desire, Bolden, Rump, and Stump,” Renee cooed in a motherly fashion she did not know even existed within her soul. “I had an epiphany from the Holy Light, and we shall move forward with a new resolve. We shall all return back to your home, to the Dark Castle.”At this the horses rejoiced in such manner as horses do, for they understood the word “home,” and they welcomed this strange but more becoming nature of their new master.
Renee jumped upon the driver’s seat and realized that she had inflicted more damage than she originally believed. The rods that held the horses to the carriage were almost loose from the splintered wood. As mightily as Renee swung Megan, it could not cut through the wood or rods entirely, and the soreness from Renee’s attempts of chopping up the carriage made her every arm muscle burn.
“Perhaps it is not a blade that shall free you,” Renee said as she sheathed Megan. Renee climbed gently over the horses’ backs until she planted herself squarely upon Star. “Pull, you mighty steeds. It is your strength that shall save you. Pull, pull, pull!”
Star obeyed with all his strength, and the horses followed his lead. Renee could feel Star’s sweat soak through her Quester pants as she sat upon his back. She yelled out encouragement, and it lifted the beasts’ spirits.
Although Renee was unable to free the carriage with Megan, she had worn down enough wood that the horses inched forward. The might of the steeds did the rest, and with a thunderous crack of splintering wood, the horses pulled the rods free from the carriage. It remained wedged between the trees as the beasts raced through the Dark Wood.
“To home,”Renee said as she wrapped her fingers around Star’s custard-colored mane. Renee did not need to know the way toward the Dark Castle, for Star was well trained to return his former master back home no matter where he traveled.