It was with a great deal of trepidation that Geraldine and I rode into the forest. The sun had been low in the sky but, I swear, by the time that donkey had all four feet on the path we were traveling in darkness.
"Spooky, huh?" she whispered. "Look, I'm sorry about getting all sloppy back there. We were given strict orders to stick together, so you just hold on tight and I'll try to catch us up. Ready?"
I agreed and Geraldine galloped off down the path like the Enchantress had set her tail on fire. I crouched low in the saddle and clung to her neck to avoid getting stung by stray branches. My bag was jammed between my breasts and the animal's shoulder blades and I was instantly aware of the feel of every object I'd been given: candlestick, spectacles, anchor, unicorn medallion, and wings. I could even discern the outline of the map and an unidentified round object similar to the medallion but thicker.
The sound of her hoof beats thundered through my ears and echoed through my very bones for so long I thought I would scream out in pain and then more hoof beats, but slower, until Geraldine eased to a canter and then a casual trot and we found ourselves in the midst of our sisters again. Donkeys and humans greeted us with great affection and relief, but the lead donkey, an older animal, wiser and grayer in the muzzle than the others, conferred with our guide and the two insisted that we hurry on our way.
Black trees in gloomy silhouettes loomed over us, their leaves whispering ancient tales. No air stirred, no living thing crossed our path. Clip-clop, clip-clop, the monotonous beating of dozens of hooves began to make me drowsy. I vaguely heard Geraldine murmur, "It won't be long now," and instantly the hooded riders were upon us, swooping out from behind huge trunks, cutting us off at a bend in the path, sending braying donkeys panicking in all directions. I heard screams as the women were carried off and then complete silence as Geraldine stopped dead in her tracks and we faced the largest horse and rider I've ever seen.
"you will come with me," a hollow voice from deep inside the hood ordered.
"I would prefer a choice," I answered, shocked by my own bravery.
A rumble of laughter greeted my insolence. "You have no choice."
"You've got to go with him," Geraldine whispered urgently.
"I know, Dear Heart, get home safely." I caressed her neck and dismounted. "We'll meet again, my friend, don't worry." I walked over to the giant horse and stroked his shoulder. "Hello, Firestarter, it's nice to meet you. And you must be Fabio, I presume?" I asked as I reached my hand up to the rider.
Again that rumble of laughter. "Not in this life my dear, and not for a woman of your age."
He lifted and swung me onto the saddle in front of him. Even for a woman of my age, the feel of his arms around me was not unpleasant. He took the reins and we sped off into the forest. How does time pass when you're in the midst of an adventure, when it is dark and you have no timepiece to refer to, when there's neither starshine, nor moonlight? It simply passes.
"We'll stop to eat," he said eventually as he guided the horse into a small clearing. How he could have kept his sense of direction or located the clearing was beyond my comprehension, but it was not an accidental find. When we dismounted he went immediately to some sticks that had been left in a pile and lit a fire. He took a coffee pot from his saddlebag and some packets of food and giving the horse a pat on the rump, told him not to wander too far.
"Roast beef or ham and cheese?" he asked.
"Ah, I have a choice--ham and cheese, please." I smiled at him and beneath the hood I know he smiled back. "I was really expecting something more exotic than sandwiches." He laughed and I found it gave me great pleasure to hear it.
"Got a question for you," he said. "How is it that you managed to--adapt--so easily to the present situation?" He took a bite of his sandwich, then poured out the coffee into tin cups
"Well, I'm old."
"Forgive me for that remark, but really, how is it that you're not afraid? Been there, done that?"
"No, not really. But I'm not young and I've seen death and felt pain and survived it all. More to the point, I suppose, I'm a writer and this is my story."
"So, you're in charge. You know everything that will happen?" He finished off the sandwich and started another.
"No, just that it will end well." I put down my empty cup.
He grunted and gave a nod. "Time to leave, I'm sorry to say."
"What's this?" I asked when he handed me a piece of black silk.
"Blindfold, this time. It will be light soon."
He whistled for Firestarter who answered with a whinny and soon poked his head through the trees and joined us. We didn't speak on the rest of the journey, which was over too soon. Secure in his arms I think I slept awhile, but at some point I noticed the ground beneath us had changed, was softer, and the horse's feet were sinking. Sand! The air had lost the forest scent of green and leaf mold and I smelled the salty tang of the sea and heard waves breaking on the shore!
"You can take that off now," he told me, but loosened the knot himself, then helped me down onto the sandy beach.
"So, I guess I'm on my own now," I said, knowing it was the truth. "any parting words of wisdom?"
"You need to get to you destination quickly. I took the long way and your people will be waiting for you."
"I'm not very good at maps."
"You won't have a problem. Look around and you'll know where you are. It's simple to get to your destination when you know your starting point. Use one of the gifts from the Enchantress, if you need help."
"I've enjoyed my adventure." I could sense him smile.
"Remember what you told Geraldine," he said and then without removing his hood, he bent his face to mine and kissed me.
When I opened my eyes, my rider and Firestarter were gone, the map and gifts from the Enchantress laid out on the sand on top of the blindfold. I put on the magic glasses and saw the Abbey perched atop the cliff behind me. I picked up the objects one at a time and fingured them. Holding the anchor in my hand, I saw an old sailing ship near the horizon. It wasn't for me this day, but I knew the story it belonged to. The unicorn and candlestick remained a riddle, but on the map I saw a flock of ravens encircling a building near a body of water at the foot of a mountain. I tied the silk scarf around my neck, folded up the map and put everything back in my bag but the wings. Holding the charm in the palm of my hand, I closed my eyes and flew.