Flowers opened to greet the dawn, as Rickard rode out the gates of Evilbane. He had spent the night praying and fasting in the chapel, meditating on the object of his quest, and now that the appointed hour had come he set out on it, astride the charger Alfbert.
Three orders of knighthood were there in the land, and the most exclusive were the Chaste, champions of the Queen; for it was not enough to be a doughty knight of good character and skill at arms, but one had to prove themselves of worth by a quest. When Rickard had begged the honor, the white-whiskered grandmaster looked at carefully with those kindly blue eyes of his, and asked if Rickard was prepared for the perils that lay ahead.
"I will sacrifice body and spirit, sir, to honor the queen!"
The kindly old eyes bored deep in his soul, and he light harrumphed. "Yes, perhaps you might. We shall see." Then the elder of the Chaste held up his right hand, and burning there on the fourth finger was a ring, a plain band of steel. "Know you young Rickard, that these rings are the symbol and the virtue of our order; they protect only the pure of heart - and in turn, they help keep our hearts pure, burning with cold fire when we threaten our solemn oaths. So long as we wear them, we are mighty in battle. Yet we are not invincible," and the older main pointed at the scroll of the fallen, chiseled in stone upon the altar.
"Brave Sir Alice fell defending the queen's honor - in which there is not shame - but her ring was never recovered. Return it to us, Rickard, and we will welcome you as our brother-in-arms, as one of the Chaste."
From Evilbane ran a road of the old Empire, still in good repair, the white stones shone in the dawning sun; Rickard could follow that road to the town of Beauville, and beyond that the great city of Isle-of-God, and beyond that the road went along the coast and over mountains to the heart of the old Empire itself. Yet Rickard took not this road, but after some miles he turned off on a path obviously little-used, for the paved stones gave way at last to packed earth, and then creeping grass covered that, and only a pair of rutted tracks gave evidence of the road as he entered the Red Forest.
The Red Forest was a second-growth wood, Rickard knew. The trees were spindly pines, the tallest no more than twelve or thirteen feet tall, the undergrowth still filled with smaller trees, and beneath the layer of red and brown needles would be the black and gray of ashes and charred wood. Once, all this had been cultivated fields, fruit trees, and hedges; four small thorps had sheltered in the valley, and a stream had run through it. Then had come the terrible fire, which burned the trees and buildings and crops to the ground, a flame so intense that the stream had dried in its bed and stones had cracked and turned glassy. In the aftermath of that blaze, a new growth had taken root...
Rickard marked the shadowy mounds which marked the stone foundations of house and barn, now covered with ruddy moss and the creeping thorns of rose vines. Scarlet squirrels chittered and leaped from branch to branch, and once a great cat crossed the path ahead of him, its orange fur untouched by white, pausing warily to look at him with yellow eyes before it dashed once more through the spindly bush.
At noon, he reached the Red Creek, so named because the clear water showed the reddish stains of iron its rock. He stopped to let Alfbert drink his fill, and then drank himself. As a boy, he had heard the water praised, and that its ultimate source was a spring up the mountain; his father had talked of a mine that was to be dug there...but all such talk had gone off years ago.
"Ho, fair knight," a breathy voice called, and Rickard looked up from his knees. A peasant woman stood on the far side of the stream - a face anywhere between thirty and forty, long copper hair tied back in a plait, freckled arms, well-muscled bare to the sun. She wore a leather tabard, cinched at the waist by a thick belt, and pale freckled hip and thigh poked out from the sides, her legs disappearing into high boots. Yet what took his attention was the long messer in her hands.
"Good day," Rickard said, carefully shaking his hands to dry them. "Forgive me, but I find myself unsure how to address you. I am Sir Rickard of Evilbane."
The swordwoman laughed. "A knight in the Red Forest! It has been some time since one of your kind came through here. She was a pretty thing, like you, though not so young I think. You may call me Foxwife. The Red Forest is mine, and I take a toll from all who come through it."
Rickard's brow creased. "By what right do you charge a toll? This is not your land, Foxwife. There are rightful heirs to this fief."
"Rightful? What is rightful in sitting by while this place burned, while the forest grew up without them? My right is the right of arms, poorchick. Pay me in silver or pay me in blood, whitemail or redmail, I will have my due." So saying she raised her sword vertically in both hands, the right near the guard, the bottom gripping the pommel, and her pink lips twisted into a smile.
Rickard's hand fell to the hilt of his own blade. The creek at this point was a ford of loose, smooth stones, narrowed to perhaps ten feet across and five or six inches deep. Once, there had been a bridge; but the fire had seen to that.
"Poor footing for a duel," he noted.
"Only for the one who crosses the stream."
"I could be on my horse and away."
"Oh sir knight, I did not think you one to flee a woman's challenge!" She sneered.
"I thought only of avoiding needless violence," he drew his own sword - shorter in the hilt, and in the blade than her own weapon, but doubled-edged - and from his saddle he took off the small buckler tied to Alfbert, gripping it tightly in his left hand.
Holding his blade low, and shield high, he advanced cautiously into the stream.
"I will say this, poorchick." The Foxwife's eyes narrowed. "What you lack in years, you do not lack in courage."
The rocks of the ford were slippery under his feet, and Rickard's brow was creased in concentration. The Foxwife stood on dry ground, and had in addition the longer blade, though she would have to contend with his buckler, her mail, and his helmet; that would mean a thrust - maybe not enough to kill, but enough to injure, or to keep him off the bank, since without armor reach and better footer were her greatest assets. And Rickard knew that he could get half-way, then suddenly jump, but she would expect that...no, better to proceed straight, and trust in his skill with the buckler to fend off the worst of her attacks.
All this the knight thought to himself as he edged nearer the bank, where the Foxwife was waiting expectantly...and when he was almost within a stride and a stab of the far side of the river, Alfbert gave a kind of snort, and Rickard spared a glance behind him...to see another woman with red hair rifling his saddle.
A blade tapped his buckler.
"You are too honest," said the Foxwife, who had come forward in the moment of his distraction, blade held before his unarmored face. "I wish you well on your quest, poorchick. But no-one goes through the Red Forest without paying the toll."