Bakwa's uncle is king. He is also under the curse of a wizard and to save him, Bakwa must venture deep into a magical forest to locate the rare flower that can save him. When she is set a series of tasks by the guardians fairies of the forest, a river spirit offers to help her complete them—for a price.
Bakwa looked down to the ground as a group of travellers walked past her, and her hands tightened on the knot of her cloak to bring the hood down on her face. A ridiculous move that must have made her more suspicious, but she had done it without thinking. She wished she hadn’t. If she was recognised, Bakwa knew she’d be sent back to the palace, to watch her uncle wither and die, powerless.
She didn’t think she could succeed where so many knights had failed. The black rose that would save the king was almost impossible to reach, everyone said so, but she still had to try. She had read stories in her youth about that flower and the creatures that guarded it, perhaps more than anyone else had read, because they so fascinated her, and she thought few people knew fairies better than she did. The knights who had entered the old forest in quest for the black rose had forgotten that fairies did not much like grown men, least of all those who came to them bearing iron, so they had all come back empty handed, when they came back at all. But fairies did have a fondness for children, and sometimes also for pretty girls.
Bakwa was not a child anymore, and she wasn’t quite pretty, but at least she was a girl. One who was too tall, gangly like a teenage boy, mouth too big and eyebrows too thin, hips and belly too large when her chest was too small. People complimented her skin for its pleasant dark colour and its smoothness, her hair for their beautiful curls… but that was just because she was a princess and they had to find something nice to say about her, hadn’t they? Fairies didn’t quite look the same as humans though, or so she’d read, even if she’d never truly found a good description of them. If she was lucky, maybe she’d somehow be pretty to them. If she was lucky, they’d easily give her the flower, touched by her dedication to her uncle. If she was lucky, she’d come back with it and it wouldn’t be too late…
It was such a foolish thing she was doing. Bakwa knew she shouldn’t even be trying, but she was once again listing to herself why she had to run away, why she had to look for a flower so rare it might never have existed, why she would succeed where others braver and stronger and wiser had failed. She had already forgotten about the travellers going the other way when one of them called out for her. A man between two ages, strong and carrying himself in a way that betrayed a former soldier. Some of them turned to protecting travellers after their time of service to the king, and if that one had seen her before, if he’d recognised her, there would be trouble.
“Where are you going alone like that?” the man asked. “There’s the Dirindur woods that way. You shouldn’t go there. There’s fairies and worse things living there.”
“I don’t believe in those,” the princess retorted haughtily, the way her second cousin did whenever anyone dared to speak to him now that he’d turned fifteen. “They are only old tales.”
The man looked her up and down, and shrugged. It was not his business if a fool was going to her death. Giving a warning was his only duty as a fellow human, wasn’t it?
“You won’t be the first to die looking for a black rose for the king, kid,” he still warned her, turning back to his group. “You won’t be the last either. Bet you won’t even make it past the river with that sort of attitude.”
The princess was tempted to ask him about the river, and what exact dangers laid in it, but she thought better of it. If she’d started acting as a cocky young thing, she had to stay that way, or she might seem suspicious. Still, a little more information would have been nice. For all of her readings, she hadn’t even known there was a river in the woods until that man mentioned it. Then again, how long had it been since humans had had any frequent business with the queer inhabitants of the Dirindur woods? Bakwa didn’t know of a single person alive who had met a fairy, not unless they’d been very drunk, and that didn’t quite count.