Seeking a Companion – Chapter 3

Chapter Three ~

Little SargentThe cool of evening began to creep over the land as the sun slipped towards the mountains to the east. Slowly, the desert began to come to life. The creatures that were silent at midday grew restless as the afternoon drew on, and as evening approached they couldn’t contain themselves any longer and burst into activity and song. The long golden rays of light seemed to make the whole desert glow with inner fire, hiding the day’s harshness. The light found a small adobe-style bungalow surrounded by a few small corrals, hard packed and barren, the wear of time showing through the weathered boards and bleached brick. It might have been a lonely place, so isolated and tucked out of the way, but the light brought it to life and made it bloom as if it were part of the living desert. And now, the sun-baked pastures around it were not empty, either – the sound of hooves danced across the field like an echo of the booming times past, the gentle whicker of mare to foal permeated the stillness with old lullabies, and the sleek silhouettes of those majestic creatures broke the gentle swell of the land like glorious statues of heroes past.

Except, to one who looked closely, gave it more then an absent stare, they would see that these were not horses… they seemed a thing out of fables, out of place in these surrounding yet at the same time one felt they should have always been there. They were also not penned and wandered freely around the place, explore the perimeter of the buildings, often coming to push their heads inside an open window or door.

To three of the four people inside the house, none of this phased them in the least (in fact, one of the youngsters, a particularly precocious golden dun filly, had wandered inside and set about to examine all the cupboards, taste the decorative indian corn that graced a small sideboard, before sprawling out on the living room rug to nap a while). The first three had taken all this in stride, and urged by their host, made themselves as comfortable as they could. One, the woman called Rhaine, had spread the kitchen table full of scrolls sprawled with strange markings and was peering through them in earnest. The second, Lilaini, had made some tea and seemed to be doing her best to make their host comfortable, or as comfortable as could be under the circumstances. The man, Tyden, had paced a little around the room before announcing he was going outside to check the mares. Their host, Raven, the only one who seemed slightly out of place with the odd group around her – and the irony of this was not lost on her, for this was her home! – was taking it all in quite gracefully, though hadn’t said much since their meeting earlier that day.

Outside, the mares milled about restlessly, graciously accepting the bit of hay their host had to offer (though it truth, they found it rather dry and coarse, very unlike anything they had eaten, and more could be heard to mumble something quietly about “earthen food” with grave reviews). As the stars began to prick the sky the band relaxed; they were the same stars that gazed down on them from Kalidore, and there was familiarity in that, and comfort. They stars gave them strength and courage, and soon the weariness of the day fell away and they were eager for whatever adventure lay ahead…

Fiera watched the bonding between Raven and Sierra. A touch of envy skimmed her heart, and it made her wonder if she’d find that special companion like these two had. She felt as if her heart was welding up, growing ever so heavier as each second, minute, ticked by…

No matter! Fiera wasn’t known to give up, it was certainly NOT the end. She would search for this special someone to her hearts content. But for now, the desert around her was undeniably harsh. It really made her yearn to be back where all was lush, green, and breezy Kalidore. Unlike this dumb heat, and not to mention the so-called food. It was horrible, though she hid her disgust with an impassive face.

Looking over and down to Xanthe… woah, wait a minute. Where did the Kore go now? She gave bewildered gasp, her head darting around before spotting Xanthe inside their hostess’ house’s window. She sighed by Pasiphae’s side.

The night was upon them, the stars were beautiful. Fiera was happy but inside, her hope was rejuvenated and certainly she would be up for their next adventure!

Llamrei had watched the bonding with great curiosity, though for now she shrugged it off, watching Fiera as she found herself a spot to stare up at the stars. Strange new world, but the same beauty of stars dazzled her… she mumbled a little about how it seemed that this world shared the same sky, like theirs. And although she had a tiny itch to wander off and explore, she planted herself down to star watch and rest a bit instead.

Tyden felt the breeze on his face and closed his eyes, memories of distant times skirting just beyond consciousness. Though he’d been to earth on numerous occasions, this was not a time he was familiar with… He’d been a worldly traveler for sometime now; he was not sure how the years had flown so quickly, or how it had come to pass that he hadn’t been this way before. An oversight, perhaps? Odin would chuckle when he told him. While some companions stayed close to their bonded – like Lilaini and Gypsy, the two were almost inseparateble – others were content to come and go. Tyden traveled; Odin did not. Stallions, unlike mares, tended to stay in one place, watching over their piece of the world tenderly and resolutely; it could be said, the stallions were bonded to the earth in the same way companion meets companion. They could travel afar, but why would they want to? Everything they needed was right here…

A wistfulness brushed against him suddenly, but it was gone before he could source it out. He could feel Odin’s presence in the back of his mind, like a gentle consciousness, there if he needed him even at so great a distance. There was nothing he should feel wistful about, nothing he was wanting or was in need of. He shook his head briskly and summed it up to worry about the quest at hand.

He looked out across the twilight at the band spread leisurely through the fields, some already sleeping, others trying to graze on the scarce turf, and several moving restlessly among the herd, obviously wanting to keep moving and frustrated by the delay. Mares, by nature, seem much more driven to adventure, at least more so then the stallions he knew. He admired them, and always enjoyed their company, even if he did have moment of feeling hopelessly out numbered by the opposite sex. He continued out to the paddock. “How are they?” he asked Mare Imbrium as he arrived.

“Well enough,” she replied curtly.

He’d known the black mare long enough to know better then to try and push something when it was obvious she didn’t want to share. Her first priority was the band, and they were fine, so whatever was bothering her seemed of more a personal nature. Probably it was just the situation at hand, the helplessness of being stranded her and not knowing what lay ahead; it was not a situation a lead mare liked to find herself in, but if there was anyone who could handle it, it was Mare Imbrium. He did give her a wide breadth just the same, and carried onto the others.

He was glad to see that Llamrei looked much better (she seemed to have come through the portal rather hard) and did a quick foal count out of habit (yep, they all seemed to be there, including the one asleep on the living room rug). The twins were wide awake and he couldn’t help get the feeling they were up to some kind of mischief or another. “I hope you two are minding yourselves,” he did his best to address them seriously, but couldn’t help the grin that pulled at his lips. Truth is, he always enjoyed a bit of chaos thrown into the mix, because it kept people on their toes. Nothing worse then getting too complacent, after all. He ruffled the hair behind their ears as he went by, a spot as equally delicious to unicorns as it was to their equine cousins.

He came upon Fiera, resting beside Pasiphae and Spirit, shifting her weight from foot to foot as if she couldn’t find a comfortable position. He frowned slightly, and hoped she hadn’t picked up a stone or something on their trek. He heard her sigh and wondered if perhaps she was feeling the pull of a companion too. “You okay?” he asked gently, resting a hand on the brilliant orange hide as if to offer some support.

Fiera’s stared deeply into the stars. They twinkled with a delicate gleam in the dark, black velvet sky. Her attention was pulled away to Tyden, who laid a hand on her side. At first, she shied away a few steps, surprised, though came back under his hand again. She gave a gentle whicker and gazed at the him with an impassive gaze. “I don’t know. I feel restless, though I doubt the presence or pull of my companion… yet,” Fiera’s voice was gentle.

“It sure has been one hell of day,” he remarked lightly.

She shook her head. Forelock fell over her eye, it looked like liquid silver though, blazing red and orange. “Apparently, more than you know. The heat is very much unbearable.” Fiera’s voice trailed off before she added solemnly. “I hope this wouldn’t be to long. I feel something amiss here… I miss home.” She gave a sly smiled.

“I think we’re all a little homesick,” Tyden agreed, brushing the forelock gently out of Fiera’s eyes. “As exciting a place as the universe is, there’s nothing quite that compares to Kalidore. Though…. ” his voice trailed off, and he seemed to entirely forget the mare was there, his consciousness drawn far, far away. He shrugged independently, drawing himself back.

“Maybe that explains the restlessness,” he began again, “the being homesick part, that is. Or maybe you do sense your companion… that’s why we’re here, so why not? You know… I don’t remember what that was like, I was so young when Odin first took me under his wing; he’s just… always been there. But if it’s anything like what Sierra felt…” he turned to the mare again, wanting to impart some kind of encouragement, or at least assurance, but seemed unable to find the words. After all, hadn’t he come out into the night seeking those very same things? This uncertainty was unlike him, and that was bothersome; he now understood why Imbri was looking so alert. Furthermore, he felt embarrassed that he could not be of more use to anyone. What then, was he good for?

Across the yard hooves clattered on stones as Xanthe woke from her nap and bounded outside to see the others, bored with the unexciting grown-up talk happening inside. She immediately went seeking Pasiphae and Fiera, but came up sharply when she saw Tyden standing. Reminded of her earlier blunders she backtracked hastily (she’d been doing a really good job of staying out of his sight, expecting a well-deserved scolding over the matter which she’d somehow managed to evade). Instead she came upon the rest of the mares and Sierra, and here her attention was once more perked. Tail flicking with excitement, she assessed the situation. After all, she really wanted to know what it would be like to have a companion, and she wondered if Sierra would tell her if she asked. Of course, being only a Kore, she highly doubted anyone in the group would take her seriously, so for the moment she decided to hide behind the stacked bushels of cut straw and listen in on the mares’ conversations…

~ * ~

~Meanwhile in Ireland in another time~

Trinity had still been asleep behind the bushes, near the tree she had found. Her satchel close, her cloak covering her, she easily was concealed from sight…so she thought.

Down the road came a small band of thieves, small as in five members, though they were part of a larger band. Stopping near the stream to let their horses rest and get some water, one of them started to look around. “O’er ‘ere lads! I found somethin’!” one called to the others. The other four gathered round what he had found, the sleeping for of Trinity.

Each one smirked at the other, before the one that had found her went back to his horse and gathered some rope. Walking back towards Trinity, he would look to the others. “She looks of age, she’ll mak’e a nice bonnie gift fer the boss,” he said. Quickly, three of them set upon Trinity, waking her from her sleep. Not one to go quietly, or easily, she fought, kicking out and punching at anyone near enough.

Grabbing her satchel, she flung the strap over neck and shoulder, fighting her way from the five that were intent on taking her away as a gift. Grabbing a branch large enough, she swung it like a club, cursing them in gaelic and laughing, hoping perhaps they would think her crazy. The thieves backed off well enough it gave her a chance to run, but instead of by foot, she ran towards one of the horses and flung herself into the saddle, grabbing the reins and kicked, gently, the horse’s sides.

The horse, a chestnut stallion, reared and took off from the spot, Trinity holding tight to the reins. The thieves would follow, but Trinity was far enough ahead, the horse at a full gallop, being able to run faster with Trinity’s lighter weight. The chase was on.

~ * ~
Lilaini moved next to Rhaine and glanced over her friend’s shoulder at the scrolls she had spread out across the table. Rhaine was looking through the scrolls and appeared to be deep in thought so Lilaini didn’t say anything, and allowed her friend to continue her meditation. Picking up the tea, she wandered over to their host Raven and offered her some. “We really do appreciate you letting us stay for the evening. The travel has been very tiring.” She smiled encouragingly at the young woman, remembering how it had felt for her in a similar situation so many years ago. It had been so many years since she had set foot on earth. Looking the young woman up and down she admired the interesting clothing she was wearing. In her younger days, when she still resided on earth, Lilaini had been from a well off family and she had had many of the finest material things at her disposal. Unconsciously, she looked down at her weather worn dress and pulled at a few of the small tatters that were currently in it.

“I really like your outfit…” she began, looking back up at Raven and then called to Rhaine over her shoulder, “Don’t you like her outfit too? It’s been so many year since we’ve seen new clothes…..” She paused again, and then continued without waiting for her fellow Guardian to respond. “Do you have more clothes here? Would you allow me to look through it? I’d love to see what types of things people are wearing these days. Rhaine and I must look terribly outdated…..” Her voice trailed off again as she smiled, but fingered at the holes in her dress.

Rhaine’s eyes flew across the mess of scrolls ceaselessly and without reward; maybe it was because she was so tired that none of it seemed to be making sense. She heard Lilaini talking to Raven, or was it her? Actually, she wasn’t paying attention to anything else so forced herself to listen half-heartedly out of guilt. The dull headache she’d had most of the day was making it difficult for her to focus on the instructions Muse has had imparted on her when the journey began. Now, so far away, she was hesitant to call upon the golden mare for help, lest it spoke poorly of the young Guardian’s ability to handle her duty.

Clothes? Lilaini was talking about…. clothing? Somehow, in the broken phrases she’d picked up on this made even less sense then spell scrolls to her battered brain. In fact, the more she thought about, the more she couldn’t figure out what Lilaini could possibly mean by “outfit” and “outdate” strung together in the same sentence like that, for surely the dress she was wearing was as in style now as it had been 300 years ago when it was made. Those kind of things were just classics… like spell scrolls… and Gaurdians of Kalidore being able to manipulate the Gates at will… With a tired sigh she tuned out and returned to the mess before her…

Fiera sighed lightly. Her weight shifted again, this time onto her side. “Interesting. I can’t decipher the feelings that I’ll have when I meet my companion. Will I know what to expect? Will I know how to feel, speak, react? These… thoughts have been in my mind all day, slowly invading to the front.” She gave a low uneasy whicker, as if it would be the best to deal with this little problem. Her eyes looked around to the glory. It was peaceful, everyone seemed to be resting. But Fiera couldn’t, not now. Maybe Tyden was right, she thought. She might be sensing a companion. Though where?

“I have an idea. Come, we will find out why I am not at rest. You maybe right.” Fiera’s voice was strong, as sudden as her idea was, so was the burning confidence in her voice. She backed away from the group quietly then said, “Well, it would be I, if you do not wish to come.” A faint note of amusement tinted her voice.

Meanwhile, a girl in her mid teens slumped towards the floor of her room. It was messy, clothing and books scattered around. She was exhausted and a bit irritable too. Today was horrible. Not only did she fail on her test, her classmates teased her. It wasn’t uncommon, but every time it got worst. It was humiliating. She knew that she day dreamed to much, dreamed about mythical creatures. It wasn’t her fault for having her head in the clouds so much.

Everyone seemed to be asleep, since it was late at night. She wanted to escape this world of reality tonight, when the stars were scattered so vastly across the skies. Slipping out the bedroom window, the girl ran through the forest then into a clearing where the moon shone brightly.

Tired, Silent slumped to the ground, this was her sanctuary, her heaven. This was her secret world that no one could find. She let her thoughts wander around. There were no limits here.

“Fiera,” Tyden said as seriously as he could, as if he were supposed to be a responsible member of the entourage, looking out for the herd and making sure that none strayed from the safety of the group. But he must have failed miserly because the dark amber mare kept going, that hint of amusement in her voice baiting his claim. He slipped through the others and to her side, having to jog slightly to match her pace. “I will state, that I think going off to seek your companion by yourself is a foolhardy and reckless thing to go and do. But I admire that in person,” he grinned.

“Thanks. Though I wouldn’t say reckless, though it might as well be. I just hope that no one will notice to much that we have disappeared. It would cause even more trouble if one of the Kore’s decides to follow.” Fiera’s mind scanned through all the different youngsters that came along, though her mind immediately jumped to Xanthe. From what Fiera reviewed over their latest adventure, Xanthe was almost found where trouble was. But it didn’t deeply displease her to have the Kore come along. Just for fun. The corner of her eye twinkled, maybe from the stars or something else, it wasn’t to be sure. The idea, Fiera decide, was to be kept to herself and not shared.

The ground beneath Fiera’s feet was cool, possibly warm from the days heat now fading into the cool night. For horses, their hooves seemed to clatter. For a unicorn such as herself, she barely made a sound. She wasnt so sure about Tyden though…

“What will we tell the others of our absence if we do not find my companion in time?”

Hidden behind the straw bales, Xanthe noticed an unexpected departure at the other end of the yard. Ears swiveling like satellite dishes she turned from the mares she was watching and back again. Oh, to be in two places at once! Why did everything interesting have to happen at the same time? She was waiting to hear what Seirra would say, but she just had to know where Feira was going….. !! She pawed the dirt with frustration a few times before making up her mind…

Silent hummed a tune, low enough to let her escape into her realm of thoughts. She stared up into the skies with a longing to leave the harsh reality of Earth behind. There was no proof that other worlds or even galaxies existed. There was just Earth where there was no such thing as dragons, wave riders, faeries or even unicorns…

Unicorns, she thought. A shiver went down her spine, causing her to faulter on the thought. Silent had read so many books about them, that sometimes, they just seemed real as any other animal of Earth

“With any luck, we won’t have to tell them anything,” Tyden responded to Fiera’s fears. “We’ll be off and back before morning, and maybe no one will notice we’re gone.”

He glanced back at the house, looking so warm and cozy against the thin night air. Perfectly confident that he could handle whatever challenges lay ahead, he was also sure he could explain the events to Rhaine quite reasonably, and that Lilaini would most likely be unreasonable no matter what he said. But the woman were busy, and Fiera was driven; after all, wasn’t this quest about collecting the companions as quickly as they could? And that is what he was helping to do.

His feet crunched the soft earth as he kept pace beside. “Now, have you a sense of where you companion might be? What direction, and how far? Depending, we might need to find ourselves a Gate, and that might be the real challenge for the night…”

Fiera nodded, relief rushed through her at Tyden’s reply.

For a moment, all was quite while she pondered about this companion. Would this human be shy or outgoing? Would this human be tall or short? Not like it matter much, all humans looked the same aside from the some of their physical differences.

Fiera snapped out of her mind to answer Tyden. “I have a feeling towards the south… east. Do not ask me specifically where, but it looks like somewhere on the outskirts of human civilization. In an earthy area and as for how far it is-” Fiera shook her orange mane is dismay, “I don’t think we’ll make it on foot on time to make it back in the morning.”

“I don’t think I could keep up with you anyway if we tried that,” Tyden remarked dryly as they pulled up to a halt. “At this point, I think it’d be easier if we found that Gate.” He caught hold of Feira’s mane as he caught his wind, and stayed there for a few moments just breathing. His side stitched slightly but was nothing compared to the rib earlier; he had forgotten how skilled a healer Rhaine was, and how profound was her touch.

Fiera ignored Tyden’s remark but played attention to his words. When he grabbed her mane, she halted without flinching or side stepping. She swung her mighty head over towards his direction, nodding. “Agreed.” was all she said.

When he straighten, his focus returned and was unwavering. He closed his eyes for a moment, briefly, letting his senses flow through the land around them, feeling the subtle ebb and flow of latent magic, very old and very deep, undisturbed and sleeping. How many centuries had it lain here untapped? It surprised him, actually; he had known that Earth had turned away from the Old Ways, but he had never imagined it to this extent. It was stubborn now, unyielding, and skirted from his inquiry like restless birds. It could evade him, this old magic, but it could not hide.

Eyes opened, his gaze was drawn to a point at the end of his field of view, a rocky outcrop that sprung from the brittle earth. Here, sheltered from the harshest weather a clump of trees had taken root centuries ago and grown strong. Their bark was coarse, branches thick and stubbed with short, spiky plumes bursting at conclusion. Some called them Joshua Trees, some said they were sacred. To the people of Kalidore all trees were, for they transcended the ages and stored the old stories deep within the rings of their being. Their roots reached down deep, tapping the soul-waters of the earth, while weathered arms reached upwards as if to gap the distance to the stars. They were noble creatures, trees, and where they stood, so stood magic strong.

They were also the most probable location to find naturally occurring temporal portals. If there was any place that Tyden could convince a Gate to open for them, it was here. He may not have been a Guardian in title, but his powers – even in their weakened state – were keen and true. He addressed the grove’s magic plainly. He whispered to it, gently, like dawn seducing the sun to rise, and it responded, just as softly, with a barely detectable shiver of its own. Encouraged, he urged it more firmly this time, the way spring awakes the ground after winter’s reign with with tales of former glory in years gone passed. And the Gate blossomed, bloomed, coming alive with every subtle colour and hue, before taking on an appearance of material contentedness.

“What do you think?” he said.

Spirit roused out of her fitful dreaming at the sound of Tyden’s and Fiera’s movements out into the surrounding brush. Her head still muzzy from sleep, she shook her mane as she arched her neck, pricking her ears in the direction of their leave-taking.

The night wind wafted fading snippets of their conversation, and at she caught mentions of companions and leaving and … Gates …?! The mere mention of the latter caused a spike of adrenaline to course through her system, finally bringing her to full consciousness with a snap. Leaving … so soon? And by Gate? Alone? She shivered at the prospect – still unnerved by the morning’s travel, and did not relish the thought of further use of (what she considered) a fairly violent means of travel. But to go off alone … ! Her unease at the notion grew, and she stamped a hoof in frustration. Better they go as a group – even if she was sure that, in a magical pinch, she had little to offer in the ways of expertise or ability.

She turned towards Pasiphaë who dozed beside her – apparently oblivious to all but her dreams. Spirit, nudging the mare softly with her muzzle, whickered quietly. “‘Phaë, wake up! We have to go!”

Pasiphaë’s shoulder twitched where Spirit’s nose touched her, but otherwise remained inert. Spirit huffed, and shoved a bit harder, and hissed again. “‘Phaë!”

This time, Pasiphaë roused just long enough to crack open a red-rimmed eye and glanced at Spirit exhaustedly before closing it again. “Go ‘way, Spirit . I dun’ want to talk ‘nymore…jus’ wanna sleep….” she murmured, her voice trailing off into a slight snore.

Spirit , awake and annoyed, huffed in frustration. Pasiphaë had been unusually stubborn since they had arrived, and had (rather clumsily) been avoiding all of Spirit’s attempted probes to find out what was troubling her – instead of actually ADMITTING there was something wrong, she had either avoided Spirit completely, or talked Spirit’s (or any surrounding person or mare) ear off about any and every sort of inconsequential nonsense. (How someone could talk for two hours straight about the exact shade of dirt here, and how it compared to the dirt in Kalidore was mind boggling to her – had Spirit not actually been a living witness, she would have discounted the idea as complete folly.)

Spirit gritted her teeth, and frustratedly looked in the direction that Tyden and Fiera had left. She was convinced that she couldn’t afford to wait any longer, not and make it to them before they gallivanted off across the cosmos through a Gate. “Fine then.” she snorted. Hopefully she’d be back before ‘Phaë even noticed she was gone, but if not … “Well, at least she won’t have to work so hard at avoiding me.” she sighed.

“Alright, no second thoughts – time to move!” She turned, and headed out into the night at a brisk trot – steeling herself at the thought of rushing headlong through another Gate, and hoping (if a bit morosely) that she hadn’t missed them leaving quite yet…

The orange mare said nothing more, just watched Tyden open a gate. What turned from an unreadable expression was now unmistakable interest. She’d seen the other guardians open a Gate back on Kalidore, but was never this close to one before! “I… I think… it’s genius…” was all she breathed. Not only through surprise and interest, but she nudged the guardian’s shoulder. “We have a follower!” Fiera’s voice was no longer hard, but playful. She would have said ‘free loader’ but that wouldn’t have been all that nice. “Welcome aboard, though, I wouldn’t have thought anyone could have heard us.” She greeted Spirit with a delightful pawing of the ground and bright, burning eyes.

“Wait!” came a cry from the edge of darkness, and the small group turned to see Xanthe burst from the mess of tumbleweed and scramble towards them. She came to sliding stop between Fiera and Spirit, her head hanging slightly to avoid Tyden’s gaze. “I’m really sorry about the Gate before… I didn’t know what it would do. But… I’d really like come with you. And, I can help! I’m good at finding things, too – and, and… Mother says I’m incorrigible… that means brave, right? So you know I won’t let you down… Though, I’d understand if you sent you me home,” she peered up at them hopefully, her ears akimbo like a newborn Kore.

Tyden glanced between the two mares and back again. He turned slowly, hand resting on his chin as if he was in deep thought. “Welll…” he began “I suppose that would depend on a few things.” (he saw the Kore wince here, and worked to keep a serious face) “First, if you’re coming with us, you will have to stick close – no more flying through Gates unexpectedly, or wandering through the night by yourself; as much as I enjoy the element of surprise, you’re heavy, and I’d rather not have to rescue you again if I can help it. Second, you will need to ask as many questions about every possible. That way, we’ll know where you are at all times. And thirdly,” he said most seriously of all, “you must continue to be just as incorrigible as you can. Think you can handle that?”

Xanthe remained frozen, digesting the list. She heard one of the mares snicker, or maybe sneeze. Carefully, she looked up at Tyden in full. He kept his lips tight but his eyes were laughing. And not at her, in the way some grown ups did, even if they tried not to let her see. She felt herself melt in place, for she had been pardoned – and the relief was enough to make her spring into the air and run in circles bucking and springing in delight! But she managed to stay perfectly still, and answered very primly, “I’ll do my best.”

There was laughter in earnest and Xanthe felt a chummily bump on either side. Tyden gave her poll a quick scratch and tussled her forelock. “Welcome aboard.”

With that he turned back to the Gate and whispered some final words to coax it into full being. Rooted deep by the Joshua Trees, it would wait here for them. It shimmered slightly as if in moonlight, though it was still too early for the moon.

“Let’s go quickly,” he said.

Gypsy had stayed near the back of the herd as they had continued their journey towards Raven’s home. The bronze coloured mare had kept a keen eye on the herd pulled up near Meadowsong and Aquila. Watching as several of their company wandering into Raven’s house, she kept her gazed fixed there momentarily and then dropped her head to investigate the forage that was available. She nibbled at a few stalks of grass and then glanced up at the unicorns near her. “What do you think of this place?” She asked them softly.

Meadow Song had watched in amazement as the first of the unicorn herd found their companion, their other half so to speak. She sighed wistfully, hardly being able to wait until she’d be able to forge the same connection with her companion. Her thoughts were interrupted by Gypsy; she smiled and replied, “It’s very different from our home of Kalidore, but not so unpleasant I suppose. And what do–” She rolled her eyes as a small voice below her cut her off.

The young Kore was just barely asleep, the sound of voices above her making her stir in her sleep. Both were voices she recognized. Blinking blearily she awoke to find her mother and Gypsy conversing. She smiled brightly and made her presence known, not noticing that she was interrupting Meadow Song. “Gypsy! Hello! Did you see that other unicorn find her companion earlier? Wasn’t it so awesome!? Where’s mine? I want to find mine now more than ever!” For a unicorn that had just been asleep, she was amazingly full of energy.

While Aquila talked to Gypsy, Meadow Song noticed that some unicorns seemed to be wandering off. She watched curiously, because she knew that both of the Guardians were surely still in the house…weren’t they? She gently nudged her foal to quiet down. Once she did Meadow Song looked to Gypsy. “I hate to ruin this conversation, but where is everyone else going?” She asked the mare, quite perplexed.

Gypsy looked up in the direction that Meadowsong had indicated and saw a few members of the herd just diseapering from view. She stood still, her mind reaching out to see if she could gather where they were heading. She wasn’t able to get any concrete thoughts so she nodded to her current companions and turned to follow them, with the intention of bringing them back to the herd. Gypsy hadn’t travelled far when a change suddenly occured, she stopped and stood perfectly still, a bronze statue standing in the middle of the dunes. Shaking her head in annoyance, she realized there was no longer any point in following after them as they were now very far away. Turning, she headed back towards the house and out of the corner of her eye saw Mare Imbrium heading in the same direction. Focusing her thoughts, she reached out to Lilaini.

Spirit – having seen the Gate shimmering translucently in the distance – had turned up the speed, convinced that the duo all but left already. As she neared the gate, she shut her eyes, willing herself not to think about the actuality of traveling through the Gate – it wasn’t ’til she felt her hooves sinking into soft grass and loam that she let herself crack open an eye to peek at her surroundings.

Behind her an amused snicker made her start – and she whirled around to find the Gate still open, and Fiera and Tyden staring at her, both still definitely on the other side. Spirit, ducking her head, smiled a bit abashedly at Fiera as the coppery mare crossed over and into the lush greenery (How she managed to cross with such aplomb and self-possession, as if she were totally unaffected by the fact that she was crossing through a GATE spanning time, or worlds or whatnot, was extremely impressive for Spirit. She had no idea how she managed it).

She had just opened her mouth to attempt to explain her presence when Xanthe suddenly appeared out of nowhere…! Apparently the feisty Kore was fairly determined to accompany the party – Spirit, while mildly uneasy at the prospect, could scarcely object – seeing as her own premise for accompanying them was founded on the idea that a larger party was to be preferred when venturing out in the unknown. However, at Tyden’s deft handling of situation – she breathed easier – and even had to choke down an amused snicker herself at his list of “requirements”.

Finally, he said, it was time to go. “Oh yes, quickly please,” Spirit replied. “Although – where are we going exactly? Can’t say this place doesn’t exactly have massive perks compared to THAT… ” Spirit nodded her head at the barren wasteland they had just left, “but it would be good to know that there is a definite destination in mind.”

Tyden chivalrously stepped aside to let the others pass before him into the portal, so he could guard its stability until they were all through. “We definitely have a destination,” he assured Spirit gamely. “Though it’s Fiera who can tell you all about it,” he gave the copper mare a wink.

“I don’t care where we go,” Xanthe spoke blithely. “If we’re going on a companion quest, we’d go wherever we had to go, wouldn’t we? No matter how treacherous or terrible, we’d go to the ends of the earth, nay, the universe!” her eyes grew bright and star-filled. “Just like in the Old Tales, when Kala first sought her Companion, and brought the Daiga to us.”

“I don’t think it would be quite as difficult as all that,” Tyden gave her rump a pat as she went by. “At least, I’m hoping as much….”

Fiera was still snickering about Tyden laying down strict rules and requirements for her safety. Amused and about to burst out in giggles, the orange mare turned her head away, trying hard to suppress her laughter. But it was just so darn funny!

Once calmed down enough to look at the others without laughing, she made an aproach to the Gate and waited for both of them to cross over. “I should be surprised that you’ve decided to tag along and not a good thing if the Guardians or others found out…” She trailed off, apparently shaking her head in disbelief before her eye glinted, “But hey, oh well.”

Fiera went over to Spirit’s side with quiet and quick steps. “That barren wasteland is what we will have to return to the mourning. I just hope it’s not as hot in the morning!” Dislike colored her voice, the thought made her shiver at the thought. Even when the thought was about heat – strange.

“C’mon guys. Time to go.” She urged the rest quietly, feeling a strange tug at her chest – now stronger than ever. Fiera made small quick steps away from the gate. Apparently, she was a bit impatient.

Silent shivered, something felt different. As if some godly world air graced itself over Earth’s mists. She couldn’t explain the feeling, so her mind immediately snapped out of her thoughts. Maybe it was wild carnivorous animal out their in the dark? It was most unlikely since there were no wild animals here except squirrels, rabbits and deer. Maybe an occasional owl that prowled the night, but those wouldn’t have made her feel… so open, strange.

She shook off the thoughts as nonsense, before returning back into the stars and the fantasy world of her mind.

The air was instantly changed. That was the first thing Xanthe noticed, now having to the time to savor her experience through the gate, and taking in everything with great detail. The sensation of walking through the gate was not exactly unpleasant, but it sent your senses into a bit of a spin. Motes of energy clung to their fur like dew before evaporating as soon as they had stepped clear of the threshold, and the world focused again, as if one had been looking at it through a mist. Xanthe struck the turf with hoof, as if testing it, and it gave to her advance, for the ground here was surprisingly rich and loamy. Much like the forests on Kalidore, the Kore realized, and began gazing around at the forest in earnest. Wild and grown, it did remind her of home, but it was still… just a bit different.

Of the desert, there was no sign, save for a few grains of sand that still clung to her person. Here, twilight still lingered in the sky too, and smudged it the darkest shade of indigo; it was at least an hour earlier then on the other side of the portal.

“Where are we?” she asked. “Do we get to find a Companion now?” Instantly her attention was drawn to a noise to her left, and she turned abruptly to notice a path ran along side the thicket they had emerged in. The path was hard and packed – a great road? she wondered – for it was more worn then any she had seen. It was just wide enough to allow a pair of unicorns to jog comfortably side by side. It meandered through the trees and disappeared down a small embankment. From below, she heard the sound again. Footfalls.
*Someone’s coming!*

Spirit had smiled wanly at the mention of the Guardian’s possible disapproval. “It’s true, I suppose – but I just … couldn’t let you leave on your own. Goodness only knows what could happen through those Gate’s, and … well … I’ll shoulder my part of the blame if it comes.” she finished, nodding decisively. “As for returning in the morning…” she looked around at the dense forest, closed her eyes and breathed deep – savouring the heady green scent of it all. “Well, even a night in this place and away from that dry scrub-land is worth a thousand tongue-lashings from ANY Guardian!”

She chuckled slightly, and finally started to relax – finally at ease with her surroundings now that she was away from the dry and dusty desert, and all had crossed (and closed) the Gate without incident. However, at Xanthe’s unexpected shift in focus, Spirit tensed and turned as well, and as her ears pricked towards the path she caught the unmistakable sound of movement.

“There’s something OUT there…” she hissed at Tyden. Whatever it was – it didn’t SOUND big – but goodness knows what sort creatures could inhabit this place – wherever they were. She kept her eyes warily on the path, tense and unsure of what to do …

Last through the gate, Tyden brushed aside Spirit’s first worry casually, and paused only to see the shimmering close with a gentle sigh behind them. He held out his hand and could still sense it, even though it was closed, and nodded with satisfaction. “Don’t worry about the Guardians,” he addressed the golden bay. “The only one they might find fault in is me, for leading you this far away. They can’t chasten you for doing what we came here to do…. though I suppose our methods are a bit… unorthodox…”

Xanthe’s sudden thought broadcast interrupted his thoughts, followed by Spirit’s concurrence. He chided himself for not having been more alert, coming right out of the gate and into a strange land. “Stay back,” he whispered to the others, “they might not know of unicorns here. Best I address them first…” That, and he knew the guardians would kill him, if something befell his green companions. Not that he would have let anything happen to them himself. He gazed into the twilight, trying to make out the shape from shadows.

“Who goes there?” he asked. “Are you friend or foe?”

Fiera wasn’t as cautious as the others, she didn’t know why. This puzzled her to no extent, though she didn’t voice her worries. There was something out their and no one was going to risk anything. The orange mare stood ready to run if they had too, her muscles flexed if anything sudden were to happen.

Silent, this time, heard talking. What the…?? She could have sworn that no one had followed her! Everyone was asleep and no one lived near the house. Maybe they were bad people… no, impossible. She knew these woods by heart and if they did turn out that way, she would run for her life.

In the split second to make her thought, Silent got up, slowly brushed the dirt off her pants and slowly walked to the voices. Being quiet was a challenged at night, twigs snapped her and there which made her cringe. It would give her away! In the short distance, she spotted a few blurs of color. It was hard to make out in the thicket of the dark.

Upon closer inspection, it seemed to be… horses? No wait… something was different about them, something that kept her in awe. She couldn’t fight the urge to stay hidden behind a tree, it was to strange and calling! Slowly, Silent threw her hands up and stepped out from behind the tree.

“Friend… but… but what about you?” Her voice wavered at the male’s question, afraid of impending doom for herself. But she couldn’t help but challenge him quietly.

Fiera suddenly felt different. She was slowly realizing something but before anyone got hurt, “Wait Tyden! Don’t do anything dumb, let me get a closer look at this… human.” Her voice was soft – low, but loud enough to travel to everyone’s ear. She approached the human, flaring her nose and ears pricked delicately forward. Silent gasped, the mare looked like she was dancing! It was beyond this world, and when Fiera came to inspect her, she couldn’t breathe nor could she blink. The mare smelled her from head to toe, before nipping the young girl’s hair.

“My heart is at ease…” Fiera whispered into the little girls ear, even nuzzling it a bit. Something clicked in Silent’s head. Something she should have noticed before! This… this… being was a unicorn. Her mind raced, the days torture and embarrassment seemed to have melted away. It was nothing now but a mere mere memory. With her hands still up, she slowly rapped it around the unicorn’s great silky neck, afraid of anything, it would scare this beautiful creature away. Feira didn’t move a muscle, she was stone still. A very warm stone at that.

Spirit eased slightly at the sound of a girl’s voice that called out in reply to Tyden’s query, but it wasn’t until the girl finally stepped out from under the shadows of the old fir, the she finally allowed herself a heavy sigh of relief. Spirit stayed put as the girl moved closer, not wanting to make any sudden movements that might startle the poor thing further. Instead she shifted only slightly, using the movement to let her muscles relax a bit.

And then – wondrously, she watched as Fiera approached the young girl slowly – but without caution or hesitation – as if she no more aware of her forward movements than of her continued breathing. It was instinctual, and inescapable. Spirit found herself holding her breath as she watched Fiera snuff at the girl’s clothes and hair, almost crying out with joy when the mare finally lipped at girl’s hair spurring her on to lean into an embrace, burying her face against the velveted neck.

Xanthe’s nose quivered. She eyed the strange girl with interest, and didn’t realize she’d crept forward until she was nearly within shadow’s fall. There she stopped respectfully, watching with awe as companion met companion for the first time. Around them the air danced, fragrant with the light scent of magic, like air charged before a storm; this magic was something that had always been a part of the two, but it seemed that only in their coming together did it truly become known.

The golden Kore watched in total fascination, eager to see and learn everything she could. While she didn’t feel within herself the same “draw” that some of the others felt on this journey, the idea of a companion intrigued her all the same. It seemed like a pretty good deal, the kind of thing a unicorn would like to have. After all, her mothers’ companion Rhaine she’d known her whole life, and very much liked the Guardian’s company and guidance. Maybe she could ask Rhaine to be her companion too, she thought cheerfully.

Filled with ideas, she bounded back to Spirit and Tyden, butting the former playfully with her still-dull weanling horn. “Is Fiera’s companion going to come back with us to Kalidore?”

Tyden smiled at the foal’s enthusiasm. “I guess that would be up to h–” but before he could finish, the golden dun had bounded back to the pair with gusto.

“Are you coming?” she asked brightly. “Because I think you would like it there – and we have forests, just like this one, not like that desert place where the others are right now… and I can’t wait to tell the others!”

“Soothe, Xanthe,” Tyden laughed, “let the poor girl be… I think we’ve given her a turn enough as it is….”

Spirit was startled out the watched reverie by Xanthe’s frolicking and questions. Oh yes, there was no question in her mind that the two before her belonged together … and yet … she stepped a closer to Tyden, and pitched her voice low, not to meaning it to carry to the boisterous Kore, or the clearly enraptured duo.

“She is not … very young, is she, Tyden?” Spirit pricked her ears towards the girl and tried to make out her age – but, having little experience with humans besides the Guardians, found it very difficult to hazard a guess. Ordinarily, she would not have questioned the addition to their party – and yet, the idea of stealing away so late in the night with some human mother’s ‘Kore’ unsettled her more than she wanted to admit. Possibly it was wrapped up in her own recent awaked longings for motherhood that, as of yet, been unfulfilled. She looked towards Tyden, hoping for a reply to set her mind at ease.

“She is young,” Tyden whispered quietly, his eye meeting Spirit’s were distant and deep. “But we were all young once…” Xanthe had come bouncing back to them, and he gently rested his hand on her head, feeling her settle, her excitement ebb as if borrowing some of his calmness. Leaving the two there with another weighted look, he approached the companions for the first time.

Fiera opened her eyes and nudged her new companion softly. Before wriggling out of her embrace to answer Xanthe. “Maybe, I would really dislike staying here on Earth… no offence.” She directed the end of her opinion to Silent, who still kept an arm around her velvety orange neck. The girl nodded, what looked like a dazed out expression which was really shock. They can talk, she was thinking to herself. This was all so strange! So new, put she refused to give it up.

Silent laughed tiredly, it was getting somewhat late, she had no idea what to do. “Um, I guess. But… what about everyone else? What will they think?” She laughed shyly, her voice low and innocent. “I mean, my family and school and…” She was waving her hand around, emphasizing what she’d leave behind, “you get the point.”

“Hello,” Tyden greeted the girl. “I see you have met Fiera, and that you have been expecting her for sometime. I am Tyden. I don’t believe you’ve shared your name… I’m sure this is all very new and rather startling, and we apologize for coming upon you so suddenly. Magic works in unusual ways,” he chuckled lightly, and thought he saw the girl’s eyes light slightly at the mention. “I will do my best to answer any questions you might have, but I’ll tell you a bit about ourselves, as is only fair.

“We come from just beyond your world, through the mists as they say, a place called Kalidore. It is the home of the Unicorns – and a few of us Companions, too. You see, it happens, every now and then, that a unicorn finds herself drawn to a particular person from the world beyond… and it is said, that when Unicorn and Human Companion come together that the great potential of the universe can be unlocked between them. It is because of this potential that ancient wars were fought, won, and lost. It is for that reason that we’re here, that Fiera was drawn to you, for the potential within you. Don’t be afraid,” he added quickly, “for Kala will see that one never has use of more power then they can handle, and your Fiera will be your constant companion in the quest. But I would be very surprised if you were completely unaware of the stirrings within your own self,” he grinned.

“I won’t lie to you,” he continued, sobering. “I don’t pretend to know what may be in store for you; Fate can be cruel and her methods indecipherable, and being a companion is not without its price. Many have suffered heavily,” he voice grew quiet. “What I can assure you is that through the Gate, I can bring you back before we even leave, and your family will not be left to worry. But, I cannot guarantee it is the same person I am bringing back to them…” he looked seriously into the girl’s wide eyes.

Silent was hesitant for a second, her uneasiness easily vibrating and sent through Fiera who felt it too. Though, she only wore a contented look on her long, delicate face. To ease her new companion’s fears, the mare nudged the human a little. Taking a deep breathe, she said softly, “Of course….. you can call me… Silent, but my real name is Alison.” She quickly added in. It was a strange name, for one to call another Silent but in this new world, that name didn’t seem unusual.

The girl stood quietly, her eyes growing wide while she fought the urge to add in small comments here and there. It was hard to digest what Tyden was saying. Really. How was it that this… fantasy had come true for her? Everyone always thought things like this were just fairytale stuff. Thing made up to make the time go by quicker.

Disappointment and uneasiness crossed her face. She couldn’t get her final words out, maybe hoping that Fiera was able to do so. “Indeed. Fate is a cruel things sometimes. But don’t worry, I’ll find a way for you to visit every month or year or so.” Fiera said, after a few moments of thinking. Turning back to Tyden, she said, “I don’t think it’s quite possible though. It would be almost disastrous to open so many gates in one year. But we can try. Anyhow, the girl is probably fine coming with us. I don’t think you’ll miss much.” The mare gave a sly look.

“Ok, but can I at least leave a note? I’m bit scared actually, of what might happen when I’m gone. Plus, I don’t want a huge search party and so.” Silent said slowly. She was liking that idea the best so far. “Then we must return to the others.” Fiera added happily.

Tyden nodded to Fiera’s concerns, Silent speaking through them. He did his best to put them at ease, without downplaying the seriousness of the events to follow.

“It’s true… you won’t be able to come and go through the gates as you please, for that takes a kind of magic that is years honed, and even then, not everyone can forge them. I cannot say how long you will remain with us on Kalidore – indeed, that is partly your choice. You will not be trapped there, or held against your will. You do not need to remain there at all, if you choose. After all, Kalidore is not quite used… to human residence. We have no cities, only trees; ours is a rustic existence and free of many amenities you are used to.

“And time moves somewhat differently on Kalidore as well. No matter how long you remain with us, only moments will pass away on Earth. Your life here can exists along side your life in Kalidore without others taking any notice of it at all. You will not loose age or time. However, you will change… your thoughts and ideas about the world may change very much, and you might find that things on Earth become more difficult for your having known Kalidore….”

He watched her digest this all, and knew it was a lot for the girl to take in, but she needed to know. And he believed, she wanted to know. He suspected she had been, deep down within herself, awaiting Fiera as much as Fiera had been seeking her. He continued, measuredly. “As a chosen companion, you have a role to play in greater destiny. That means, when you are summoned, it is for you to answer… for if not you, then who? The universe is bigger then us all. I realize you are young, but I know that none is given this opportunity who are not ready to grasp it.

“Think carefully, Silent. This is your choice, and you have been chosen. Trouble brews that larger then both our worlds, and we are all a part of it. I cannot say what darkness lies before the dawn, and I do not know when that dawn might comes. But I do know it will always come, for there are those like us who see it through to the end.

“When this has passed, you will be returned to your home, your family, your world. There you remain until you are summoned again. Such is the way with companions.

“If you accompany us to Kalidore, we must do so quickly, there is little time to loose. I would advice against leaving a note, because there are many here who are not ready to know of Kalidore, and who wouldn’t believe you anyways. In this matter, silence is your virtue, young Silent; it is better this way.”

He looked at her, so small against Fiera’s powerful form, and almost did pity her for what he had just presented her with. At last he spoke, “If you feel you are not ready, we will not hold it against you. If this is too much for you to bear, you know it best.

“All you need to do is turn and walk back down that path, and we will be gone….”

Silent sighed, contemplating what Tyden had to say – was saying. “I don’t believe that I want to stay here as much. But I think you’re right and if you say that time there goes by much quicker than it does here, than I won’t miss much. Or at least, Earth won’t miss much.” She grimaced at the thought in a low quiet voice. That was always her nature, quiet enough to think while talking. Of course, opposite to how Fiera was, somewhat loud and boisterous.

In truth, Silent wasn’t ready to give up Fiera yet, no matter how selfish of a gesture it was. Without quite thinking, the girl weaved her fingers through Fiera’s burning orange mane. It was cool and soft as the finest silk. The orange mare stood there contently, her eyes closed and hummed peacefully. She was feeling her companions feelings and it pleased her so to have solving her restlessness. Lost within her own ancient thoughts, she really did think about the thought of staying on Earth. Though, cringed at the thought. As much as Earth was home, she would eternally miss Kalidore.

“No. I won’t turn back. I’ll come along with you guys I want to.” Silent’s voice was firm, after a moment. Her decision was final, and it knocked her over for a moment before composing herself again with a small smile. “Then we must go quickly.” Fiera snapped out of her thoughts, having her eyes return to Tyden.

Fiera took a few steps forward, physically telling everyone that she was eager to go back and show everyone her new companion.

“Welcome aboard!” Xanthe exclaimed, nipping playfully at the girl’s sleeve, delighted that she was coming along with them. “I think you’ll have lots of fun with us, and when we get home, I can help Fiera show you around, if you’d like,” she rattled on, glancing at coppery mare for approval, as if Silent were Fiera’s kore.

“Here, get on my back, it’ll be quicker.” Fiera nudged Silent to her back. The girl grabbed the orange mane, wounded it around her hands tightly and pulled herself up quickly. She had hesitated a bit, wondering if it hurt Fiera in anyway. She couldn’t stand that, not when there bond between them felt so close to heart. A silent laughter erupted from Fiera’s throat, “Don’t worry, I’m tougher than that.” But deep within, something hurt. It was a little insulting in a way but she quickly brushed it off.

Silent sat delicately on Fiera’s back, it was like riding something out of this world. Then again, she thought delightfully, a unicorn was out of this world!

As Xanthe bounded by she gave a low nicker towards the Kore. “You somehow get into trouble the most. To be everywhere the action is.” She laughed, “But I’m glad. Of course you can, I wouldn’t mind some energy along the way.” Silent looked down for a moment before looking over Xanthe with bright eyes. “You don’t know how much I’d like that.” She said with a small smile.

Tyden shook his head at the antics, and gave Fiera a knowing smile of his own. Then he turned back towards where Spirit was standing, just to side of the portal gate. “It’s time we move along,” he said, noting the girl’s determination with satisfaction. He realized he’d been holding his breath, and let it out, making his way over towards Spirit. The portal was silent and nearly imperceptible, but with a soft whisper and sweep of his had he brought it back to life, like a camp fire awoken and crackling with gentle tending. “Ready to head back to the ranch?” he grinned at the wild bay mare. A final incantation and the portal was stable and full. Beyond the desert awaited in all its harsh yet strangely beautiful glory.

“After you,” he stepped aside, so that Spirit might lead the way.

~ * ~

~Meanwhile in Ireland in the year 984~

Dawn, it had finally come and Trinity still sat upon the back of the stallion that she had ‘stolen’ from the thieves that tried to capture her just the night before. A steady walk was the horse’s pace after he had been at a gallop through the night to carry Trinity away from the place where she had been sleeping.

“At least I’m alive,” she muttered to herself and looked behind her, something she did now and then to see if the thieves had ever caught up, which they hadn’t.

She continued along the dirt road, wondering where she would end up next and if there would be a place she could get a proper meal, bath, and a soft bed. She didn’t regret leaving home, she was glad she had as she knew she didn’t fit there. The sun began to rise as she came over a hill, looking over a peaceful valley. Pausing for just a moment, she took in the sight before her. How the hills rolled from one to another, how the green of the grass was like a gem in a facet of jewelry. With a gentle nudge to the stallion’s flanks, she would continue her journey.

As the day began and morning turned to after noon, she found a stream to stop near, allowing the horse to get a drink and graze. She in the mean time took to fishing, catching three fish and cooking them up for herself. After her meal, she took out her tin whistle and began to play a bit, letting her mind wander in one of her many day dreams of unicorns and faeries.

~ * ~
Spirit listened to Tyden’s cautions with a quiet solemnity – determined to commit every detail to memory. Her experience with gates and Companions was woefully lacking, she admitted to herself with a mental sigh. All this about gates, danger and the passage of time on Kalidore… it was all so much to take in, but – and Spirit gritted her teeth – if she ever wished to have a Companion of her own, she owed it to them to know all the intracacies and responsibilities that were connected. To do less would be irresponsible – something that Spirit prided herself very much on NOT being.

During the lecture, she often glanced at Silent and Fiera wistfully – it was hard not to envy the immediate connection the two obviously felt. To find someone so wholely meant for you, that nothing would deter them from staying at your side – not danger, nor strange happenings, nor even traveling through those eerie and fantastical Gates! Spirit watched the two cling to, and cuddle each other for a moments longer before turning her attention internally. What would a Companion meant for her, be like?

Her mind searched for some strange and identifying quirk in herself, in her thoughts or personality, thinking that if she found what made her unique, that perhaps it might give a clue of what complimenting feature might exist in her Companion. After a few moments, however, her first inventory of strange traits resulted in a woefully short list – and nothing that seemed to give any insight (unless it was perhaps that a perfect Companion would have slightly longer nails than usual, meant to finally put an end to that constant and irritating itch that always seemed to settle just between her withers …). She brooded and mulled over different possibilities for several minutes, only faintly aware of Xanthe’s exuberant antics.

However, at Gate’s sudden revival, Spirit started, jolting herself out of her internal questioning. She snorted at Tyden’s side remark, and smiled wryly.

“Of course. How could one NOT want to return to that warm and inviting place of sand and sun?” she shot back, her eyes sparkling with a sarcastic amusement. “And through that lovely gate of yours too, ah – what joy is ours!” she chuckled, and flicked her ears.

Spirit shivered slightly, and pranced nervously in place for a moment, staring at the gate with growing trepidation. She wasn’t sure what it was, but there was something about that portals worried and nagged at her. But, no matter – it was either through the portal – or staying here (as nice as it was, it was no Kalidore) alone. So – through the portal it was!

She tensed, focusing on all the brilliant and good things she had waiting for her if she crossed through the Gate again: home, ‘Phaë, a Companion… eventually. At the litany of reasons, she nodded once, determinedly, closed her eyes and flung herself through – landing on the other side without incident.

At the feel of ground beneath her hooves again, she released a heavy sigh, and smiled to herself – opening her eyes and starting to turn around, meaning to watch the rest of the group follow her through. However, at the sight that greeted her eyes, she stood still – her joints locking up in shock.

She tested the ground, gingerly, with a hoof – and snuffed at the air, certain that it was a hallucination of sorts. Why – moments before, the Gate had shown the desert, just as they had left it! And now … now, this was DEFINITELY not desert. Warm, and dry to be sure – but divided into large pastures and long stretches of strange bushes dotted with white. Spirit whirled around to face the Gate, her eyes wide and panicked, and hoping, desperately – that the Gate was as it had been, and that it hadn’t disappeared as well…!

“C’mon, time to go.” Fiera’s voice was a flat, she didn’t want to get back to the desert yet, no matter how beautiful it may seemed at times. She nudged Xanthe’s rump before following along after Spirit and Tyden. When her distaste finally slipped away, in it’s place was joyous bonds. In through the Gate with ease, for Fiera that was. Silent was caught in a tingling sensation that felt strange.

But she picked up the groups hesitation quickly after stepping a few away from the Gate. As fear swept over the others, so did was she. This was strange. Not a desert but grassy lands. “I thought… that… didn’t we just… where are we?” Fiera demanded. Secretly, she liked this place but she’d rather be safe than lost here. As for Silent, she was quiet, in utter awe and confused with the emotions jabbing at her from Fiera. “Is this supposed to happen?” she said in a worried voice.

Xanthe sprung through the gate as lightly as a fawn and collided directly into Spirit’s golden backside, who had stopped short just beyond the opening. She landed with an audible “oouff!” and sat down hard. “Could have warned me,” she grumbled, blowing the mare’s long black tail out from her eyes as she began to untangle one limb from another. “I thought you were happy to be headed back–” and she champed down on her words as the hair fell entirely from her face and the world unfolded around her. Even from her vantage between the mare’s legs she could see she was no longer in the forest, but she wasn’t in the desert, either – wide, grassy fields rolled right up across the horizon to meet her. “What did you do, Spirit?” she breathed in wonderment.

A step behind, Tyden pulled up and nearly tripped as he went to grab the edge of the portal instinctively to stop his forward momentum; despite its fantastic abilities, the Gate remained a thing of little actual substance, and the shimmering ripple only skirted through his fingers. His first reaction was surprise, which slowly settled into shock, and fluttered around his chest before sinking into the pit of stomach as dread. This isn’t right, he thought in stupor. This shouldn’t happen…

He’d always been good at coaxing Gates open – the Daiga had said so, and the Daiga wasn’t loose with her compliments. And Odin had watched over him while he’d practiced as a youth, summoning the magic and peering through each opened window into other places and time with flawless precision. Always where his intention went, so had the Gate followed… “I… I don’t understand,” he stammered. “It was right here – the desert – I saw it before we stepped through…”

Spirit stared out over the rolling fields – her mouth opening and closing, yet still seemingly unable to speak. She turned her head towards Tyden and caught his gaze, her eyes wide and panic-stricken.

“I … I did nothing..” she choked out, her voice low and rough. “I just went through, just … just like you said. I don’t understand, Tyden, did I … was it … what happened?” she looked at him desperately, seeking reassurance as she tried to quash the seeds of hysteria that grew within her, threatening to burst into a full, and terrible bloom.

Spirit snuck a glance back out at the hills, and the queer twinge of anxiety flexed deep within the pit of her stomach. She flinched at the strange sensation, and turned back towards Tyden, half-panting with the effort of keeping the waves of apprehension and unease at bay.

With the last of the party safely through, the portal closed in on itself with a sigh. Tyden put his hand out, half sick with worry that it would be completely gone, and with it there ease of escape. But to his surprise the portal was there just as before, dormant but alive, and waiting to be summoned again. That discovery helped dispel some of the initial dread, and slowly, he took a breath and bid himself to look at the situation logically. Panicking wasn’t going to help anyone, and he had to be strong for the others – they were looking up to him. He wasn’t going to let them down.

He took another breath and let it out steadily. “Well. So we’re not in the desert,” he said. He could feel the mare’s eyes on him, scrutinizing him blankly. Obviously they were expecting a lot more from him. “The gate is still here, we can still get back to the others.”

“Are you sure?” Xanthe expressed the worry none had dared to speak out loud.

“Yes,” said Tyden confidently. “Gates work in strange ways. They take you to where you want to go most of all. Apparently…. that place wasn’t the desert,” he allowed a thin smote of humour. “It seems, someone’s desire was so powerful it over-road my handiwork. Where we are now, I cannot say, but I think one of us here has a better idea then I do…” his gaze followed to the wild bay mare, standing panting in the knee-high grass.

“Spirit,” he began gently, “what are you feeling right now?” he asked.

Spirit let out a ragged laugh at Tyden’s question. “Feel? Right … how do I feel? We jump through that Gate to no one knows where and we’re talking about feelings?” her eyes flashed, white and frenzied – and she unthinkingly kicked at the ground with a rear hoof in her nervousness – narrowly missing Xanthe.

She fretted, and pranced nervously – moving farther away from the dreaded gate to better overlook the faded green expanse. After a few moments, and forcibly working to clench down on the fluttering and butterflies that squirmed within her gut, she turned back to Tyden. “Honestly? I’m … feeling … more than a bit lost and terrified. This place… that gate … the whole thing is making me almost … ill.”

Spirit stared at Tyden, her jaw clenched and eyes slightly narrowed. “So, what are you saying? That I WANTED to come here? I don’t know this place… I don’t know of any reaso…” her voice trailed off sharply, and eyes widened. She chanced another look out at the fields, the feeling in her stomach reasserting itself instantly. She shivered, and continued to stare, silently in search of whatever it was that unsettled her so.

Fiera shook her head, though could not suppress a sigh. Whether it was of frustration or because of the misfortunate turn of events, it couldn’t be determined. Silent who was still atop Fiera’s back dwindled into silence, all to intrigued to even talk. Then, she bent over to lean on the mare’s orange and velvet neck, burying her face. In truth, she was frightened. No doubt about it.

Fiera had blinked with wide eyes when Spirit’s hoof norrowly missed the Kore. She was about to clamped her teeth down when she felt something touch her mind. But whatever it was, it flinched away quickly, drawing her into her thoughts. After a moment Fiera asked, “What, what is it?” Her voice was encouraging, but she knew all to well what Spirit might be feeling right there and now.

Silent shivered down her spine. What a strange interaction between them. The girl’s eyes tried to see what Spirit was looking at, then squinted after awhile but could not see anything.

Xanthe scrambled to her feet, out of the way of Spirit’s restless hooves, and bounded back to Tyden and Fiera, seeking comfort in familiarity. “I’m thirsty,” she said quietly, betraying her youth with the small quiver to her voice, uncertain and alarmed by her elders’ distress. She rubbed her face against Tyden’s chest, prodding him with her dull weanling horn. “And hungry,” she added for good measure.

Tyden took her face in his hands, his eyes lingering on Spirit for a long moment. Then he turned his full attention to the Kore. “Your mother will scold me for how late past your bedtime we’ve kept you up,” he murmured, brushing the soft, still-curly foals’ hair from her eyes. “I’m sure everyone is a bit hungry and thirsty… I gathered that the food at the ranch was not up to snuff. Since we know the gate is still here, I see no harm were we to rest a while. Let’s find something to drink, and then you may graze before we return to the others. Would that do?”

She nodded, the tension draining from her as he spoke. Underneath it all she found she was tired, and yawned reflexively. “I would like that,” Xanthe smiled. “And you know what? I think if Rhaine can’t be my companion, then I will ask you to be instead.”

He chuckled as she turned away, already nosing the lush greenery with temptation. He looked up to Silent, still astride Fiera, and hoped she wasn’t too put off by her first foray into the unknown. “How about you? Are you hungry too?”

Just to edge of those long pastures he thought he saw light dimly shining between the trees. A house, perhaps? Possibly another farm, and with it the promise of a well and even refreshments. He turned and made his way over to Spirit, still standing and quivering, gaze fixed and drawn to that distant sight. Softly, so as not to startle her further, he placed a hand on her shoulder. “I think we’ll all feel better with something in our stomachs,” he spoke carefully. “How about we try for that light ahead?”

Spirit let out a long shuddering breath at the touch of Tyden’s hand on her shoulder. Forcibly slowing her breathing, she let her head droop, and her eyes close – trying again to quash the nervousness that continued to flutter uncomfortably in the pit of her stomach. Unfortunately, the more she focused on the feeling and what it must MEAN only compounded the twinges of anxiety.

She drew a ragged breath and raised her head again, determined that if she couldn’t control the apprehension, at least she could control her response to it. Spirit craned her neck around and took stock of the others – they did LOOK tired, and Tyden was right – a bit of a snack and a rest, and more time to prod at whatever was within her, would do them all good.

“Yes. We should eat. Or drink.” She nodded, and was grimly pleased to feel her anxiety fade slightly, as if it the decision had distracted it, or held it at bay. Well – if action would help undo this horrid fretting, then active she would be! Spirit flicked her tail and set out at a brisk pace, scarcely pausing to ensure that the rest of their small group would follow her.

The small farmhouse was hushed – the family having gone to bed only shortly after sunset, exhausted as usual from another hard day toiling in the fields. It was a small house, old yet sturdy, it’s weathered grey wood shining almost silver in the moonlight. An ancient rocking chair squeaked, rocking slightly in the night breeze, accompanied only by the faint melody of clay chimes moved by the same breeze.

Around the house, the yard was worn and threadbare; few patches of hardy, grey-green grass clung together in clumps – small islands of vegetation that had only just survived the constant foot traffic that stamped out the rest of such greenery. Farther away, the grass grudgingly returned, and the dirt pathways narrowed into smaller rivulets of past activity that moved now with specific destinations – the well, or nearby barn, or farther fields.

All was quiet and dark, except the lone lantern that burned, bright and flickering, forgotten on a wayward post next to the barn. Its light, almost invisible in the early dusk, now burned like a beacon – illuminating the barn and surrounding areas with its dusky golden glow. The smaller night creatures, frightened by this uncharacteristic light, had avoided the area – seeking instead the comforting darkness of the surrounding fields as they searched for food.

The blanket of night was softly upon fields, grass clung with dew and insects chirped in rapid succession – except directly where they passed, Tyden noted absentmindedly. His eyes were forward, following Spirit, but he paused now and again to make sure the others were keeping pace. Poor Xanthe, for all her exuberance, was looking really worn out now, and walked quietly beside Fiera letting the red mare’s long tail brush over her as they went, much like her own dam would have if she were here. Occasionally she stopped to glance at a strange noise or a lightning bug, but her desire to go chasing everything new and interesting seemed to have waned – at least for now.

Tyden too felt the brush of fatigue and bid it gone, and this second wind had to hold him until they returned. Spirit’s restlessness bothered him, but there was nothing he could do to help her, and he knew that; he could only be here for her, should she need him. It was a pretty hapless position to be in – not being able to do anything – and this frustrated him. As well, his thought flew with more and more frequency back to Rhaine and Lilaini… how were they doing? were they okay? had they discovered them gone yet? what were they thinking of all this? Part of him chided himself for having left them, realizing in retrospect how foolhardy that might have been. If anything happened to them while he was gone….

He shook his head. Thoughts like that would help nothing. And by this time they had nearly run out of field. Light spilled across an open yard, illuminating several building just enough to separate them from the dark. He wondered if Spirit would stop when she got to the yard, so focused she seemed on her trek once she had begun. He glanced around the barnyard from signs of activity, but everything was empty, still. Noises from the barn, but probably animals. The house itself was quiet, dark. And there, midway between the two – a well. A small bit of relief came with that discovery, and Tyden crossed there first, eying the dark, cast-iron pipe that jutted from the ground, topped with a gracefully curved handle that counter-balanced the protruding spout.

“What’s that?” Xanthe was on his heels.

“It’s a pump,” he explained, “to bring the water up from the ground.”

“How does it work?”

He was already looking around for a bucket, and found two just to the side, placing the larger just below the spout. He clasped the handle in both hands and brought it down, forcefully. The arm was well-oiled but still creaked slightly, and came to a stop with a clunk at each end. Oblivious to the noise momentarily, Tyden gave the arm several more wagers until, finally, a gush of water gurgled from the spout and into the bucket.

“Water!” Xanthe exclaimed gleefully, as the first sputter caught her in the face.

Fiera sighed, her eye halfway closed. Atop her, Silent leaned over the warm unicorn’s neck. Her silken mane made it all the more comfortable. Like a fluffy thread pillow. “I’m pretty tired. Even if Fiera did most of the walking.” She grimaced, somewhat ashamed that her new companion would do that for her. “No, I’m not to hungry. But I could use a drink.” She looked ahead at the approaching light with thoughtful eyes with a patient demeanor.

Fiera stayed quiet, despite her thoughts, which were and could be as loud as her personality. Her head lay low, looking down at the ground and the path ahead. Occasionally, her eyes would dart to Spirit with amused eyes. Her friend’s restlessness was much envied in a way. But the night drove on.

She stopped abruptly, craning her red orange head up to look at this “pump” that Tyden was working at. When water filled the bucket and Xanthe bounded to it, the orange mare couldn’t help but take a look. A little laugh escaped her, watching the Kore with amused eyes. Silent leaned over even more, taking in the sight for herself.

Inside the farmhouse, a dog began to bark. Heads turned with surprise, and Tyden felt a thin shard of apprehension pass through. In his brief experience with Earth and settlements, dogs had never been a good thing. Better to make his presence known now, then let them send the dogs out to investigate…

“Stay here,” he told the others, wondering if they would actually listen this time. A light flickered to life inside the house as he made his way up the stoop to the door to knock.

Fiera slowly nodded, twitching an ear when Tyden left for the house’s front door.

* * *
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Rhaine let the scroll slip from her fingers to the floor as she cupped her head suddenly, squeezing her eyes shut against the oncoming wave. It passed as quickly as it had come, releasing her instantly and she straighten, her heart beating rapidly the only tell that something out of the ordinary had just taken place. She took a deep breath to try and slow the fluttering heart.

She could feel Lilaini brush against her mind questioningly, her gaze upon her from across the room, already aware that something had transpired. “I… I don’t know…” she began with effort. “Something happened… something is happening…. somewhere…” She shook her head, straightening her thoughts. “I don’t know, but I think we’re headed for trouble…” she sighed helplessly. The vagueness of it all was infuriating…

* * *
Lana awoke with a grunt, an elbow shoved sharply in her side. She grumbled, shoving back at the rogue arm before attempting to resettle back into her comfortable and heavy sleep of moments before. She had only just begun to drift off again when another elbow edged its way between her rubs, followed shortly by a kick, another elbow, and soon a mad scramble of activity. she kept her eyes squeezed shut, silently hoping that the commotion might just go away and allow her to fall back asleep. But, after a few moments of continual shifting and finally an insistent finger poking in her side, she sighed and opened her eyes.

Both her younger sisters were wide awake, their eyes wide and frightened. The youngest, Marta, huddled against Lana, trembling and visibly upset. Lana frowned at her uncharacteristic unease and murmured soothingly, holding her close as she petted and smoothed her hair. Mia, not to be ignored, pulled insistently at her sleeve. Upon looking up, she found her sister chattering and gesturing wildly – so fast that she couldn’t keep up.

Lana spoke sharply, using the few words of her remembered verbal vocabulary. “Stop.” she frowned at her sister, and made a cutting gesture with her left hand. “Slow.” her words strangely accented, if understandable.

Mia abruptly slowed her speech, and Lana concentrated on trying to read the words on her lips. She frowned as she caught the word strangers, outside and horses. If it was true, and the pair weren’t just starting at coyote noises again, then her parents should definitely be notified. She nodded, and pressed a finger to her pursed lips, telling Mia to hush. Her sister quieted, and Lana shifted, tucking the worn flannel blankets around Marta and dropping a soft kiss on the top of her head before moving to the edge of the bed.

She stood up, her bare feet landing quietly against the hard dirt of the floor. She made her way quickly out of the small room she shared with sisters, and out into the main room of the house. The room was dark, but she could make out the silhouette of Brute by the lone back-window, his legs and posture stiff with tension, and hackles half-raised. She wrinkled her nose and moved to the door to her parents room, knocking sharply upon it – if Brute were that interested, it was likely more than just coyotes.

Lana knocked again, and soon felt movement from within; her father stumbling to the door, opening it wide, his eyes half-closed and still muzzy from sleep. He looked at down at Lana, and slowly (if sleepily) mouthed the words “What Lana?”.

She pursed her lips, trying to decide how to best communicate the concept. Finally, too sleepy to think of anything complicated, she reached for his hand and pulled him into the main room. Pointing at Brute, she wrinkled her nose, cupped her hand around her ear as if listening. “Mia. Marta.” she pointed again, insistent.

Her father rubbed a hand through his hair, and shook his head, and sighing heavily before replying. “Again? Are you sure it’s not just more coyotes, Lana?”

Lana harrumphed, frustrated at being only able to catch the references to her name, and coyotes off his lips due to his pace of speech and the darkness of the house. She turned, meaning to go back and retrieve Marta to better explain, when she caught movement near the window. Brute, his hackles now fully raised, had his feet on the sill – his mouth opening and closing in what she assumed to be loud baying and sharp barks.

Her father, dropping her hand abruptly, gestured for her to wait and went to retrieve her brothers. Soon, he had Thom roused, and a lantern lit – her sisters, younger brothers and mother all clustered and watching from their respective doorways. Suddenly, all seven turned towards the door, and Lana bit her lip as she followed suit – wondering what exactly it was that had caused them all to turn together. Brute had left off at the window, and now scrabbled and snarled at the door. Her father turning to pick up the old shotgun that leaned on a nearby wall, and handed it to Thom before gesturing for him to follow.

The pair moved towards the door, Thom reaching for Brute and pulling him into a sit-stay by his side, his hand resting lightly on his head. Her father opened the door slowly, carefully – using his body to shield the rest of the family from whatever it was outside. However, in a few moments, his tense posture visibly eased, and Lana caught a small half-smile on the her brother Thom’s face.

Lana sighed, frustrated that she couldn’t make head or tails of what was going on – her father and brother almost completely blocking her view out the front door. She crept silently forward, ducking her head to try and catch a glimpse of whomever or whatever it was. A few feet further, she could make out the clear night above her father’s head – the stars bright and clear against the gorgeous blue-black velvet of the night sky. Ducking her head she caught sight of a young man on the porch, engaged in what looked like curt conversation with her father. His face and speech pattern was unfamiliar, and Lana found it difficult to read his speech from his lips – but she was certain she caught the word “horses”, and she perked up at the thought.

New horses would be a treat to see and admire – their own (well-beloved) pair were off for the time being, having only lately been borrowed by her aunt and uncle for trade journey up-state, and Lana had felt the lack.

All too soon, her father shut the door, and turned to gesture for all his children to return to their rooms and to bed. Lana pouted, disappointed at the inability to fully satisfy her curiosity. Her father, noticing her expression, smiled and swept her into a bear hug – ruffling her hair fondly. “Good girl.” he mouthed at her, tilting her face upward so she could read his lips. “Very good.”

He gave her another squeeze, and turned her towards her room. “Sleep!” he mouthed, and pointed. Lana stuck out her tongue at him, and he laughed, and she scrambled, grinning, to avoid a swat that he aimed at her backside. He pointed again, and mimed sleeping, before shaking a finger at her in mock exasperation. Her mother, in the doorway of their room, smiled as she rubbed her eyes, and reached for her husband’s hand to draw him back to bed.

Thom, setting Brute in a stay-watch stance by the door, gave Lana a sleepy smile and quick thumbs up before shoving her two younger brothers back into their room. Lana chuckled silently, and as she moved towards her own room, paused slightly at the back window to see if she could catch a glimpse of the errant visitors – but made out nothing more than the fields and the faintly lit side of the barn. Shrugging, she gathered up Marta and Mia, and after tucking them back in – settled in beside them, soon falling asleep to dreams of rivers of magnificent horses prancing through vivid green pastures in the bright sun….
A few moments before ~

On the other side of the heavy door the dog was beside himself, but there was little alternative now then to knocked; the sound hushed the noise for only a moment. Now the flickering light flowed into the front room and finally at an uttered command the dog was still. Tyden held his breath, and the whole night seemed to pause with him. Then the door opened. Light spilled from the sputtering lantern and eclipsed the figure behind it. “What’s your business?” the voice was gruff, firm, but not antagonistic.

“My apologies for waking you,” Tyden squinted into the lamplight. “We were traveling most of the day and were caught by nightfall. The horses were tired and thirsty, and we saw your light.”

The figure brought the lantern forward, and the light pooled out over the stoop. Tyden could see him now – he was an older man, worn but strong, much like most of his surrounding. Just behind him a boy, nearly grown, had his hand on the dog’s head, the other gripping something – a shotgun, maybe? The room behind him was small, and another figure hovered just out of eyesight.

The man was peering into the darkness, where he could just make out the figures near the well. “How many are you?”

“Just myself, and my cousin, sir,” he paused short of introducing the unicorns, out of habit. He figured in this light the man couldn’t see them for what they were, if he could see that at all. “We were just looking for a place to rest,” he finished. “We meant no harm.”

The man turned to him again, taking in the high-collared shirt and buckled vest with grim indifference. “You’re not from around here,” he concluded.

“No sir,” he asserted, and then gamely offered his hand. “I’m Tyden. We truly didn’t mean to disturb you, only to trouble your well for some water for the horses. Then we’ll be on our way.”

The man considered this a moment, his gaze drifting from the man to the group again. He could see the figure of the second person huddled on one of the horses, and foal peering curiously from behind the pair. It was awfully late in the season for a foal. He rubbed his brow with his free hand as if considering something, or simply a gesture brought on by sleep delayed. “Awfully late for you carry on; ‘specially if you don’t know these parts. After you’ve had your drink, you can rest in the barn. There’s an empty box stall at end. If you don’t make a mess of things, you can stay there until morning.”

“Well, thank you sir, but we don’t mean to–”

“Nonsense, your cousin looks ready to fall out of the saddle,” he nodded his head. “Thom, get a cup so that these people might have a sip too.” The boy in his shadow ducked out of sight, the dog following at his heels. His gaze returned to traveler on his stoop. At last he took the extended hand. “Geoffery Madsen. Well met, Tyden.”

Inside the barn was heavy with the smell of animals and hay. It was comforting, actually. In the dim light Tyden made out the shape of a few woolly sheep and an old dairy cow; he could hear pigs grumbling in their sty below, and the occasional rooster let out a cautious cluck to his hens. There had been horses here once too; he could smell the rich sent of them, and the oiled leather of harness and straps. He wondered where they were now, perhaps another building beyond this one. At the barn’s length there were two open stalls; fresh straw was stacked at the end of the row, and a small latticed window let in the breeze. “This doesn’t look so bad,” he spoke out loud.

Xanthe stepped from between Fiera and Spirit cautiously, starting at the strange smells and sounds of the barn. She’d rarely been *inside* before, save her mother’s airy temple, and this building was cramped and claustrophobic by comparison. She skittered to Tyden’s side and stood there knock-kneed and unsure. “If you say so,” she said grimly.

Tyden sighed, but ruffled her forelock anyway. Then he set about to spread the straw and make it as comfortable as possible. Lastly he took off his cloak, laying it over a plush pile of straw. “Here, Silent, for you…. you can sleep there beside Fiera. I’ll be keeping watch tonight anyway. Spirit and Xanthe can share the other stall. We’ll be snug enough until morning.”

Spirit shuffled into the barn with the others, her eyes glazed with exhaustion, but still fidgeting continually under whatever the unknown tension that was threatening to drive her to distraction.

” I … I don’t know if I can sleep. There’s something that I’m missing – something we .. I .. have to DO.” she muttered, half to herself and to the group at large. “If … if it truly WAS me that brought us here, that is, and not some horrible cosmic joke involving those awful gates.” she huffed again.

“Do you even know where we are, Tyden?” she stared at his back as worked to arrange the stall in a more comfortable fashion.

Tyden considered Spirit’s question for a long time before answering. The fatigue was creeping into his limbs as much as he tried to fight it. He had found an old milking stool and placed it at the end of the stall, and finally sat down. “I guess…. we’re where we need to be.” He shrugged, because he knew it was pretty lame answer, but he didn’t have any more in him now.

Fiera fidgeted to the side. ‘Wasn’t so bad’ could have been a bluffing statement! She wasn’t human, so this enclosed space could potentially spell out danger. The only up side to this was an interesting experience. Her glorious eyes wandered around the place. From straw, to ceiling, to wood, to the ground and animals. Her nose wrinkled at the clustered smell but wordlessly continued all the while shifting her weight around on her slender legs.

Silent was beginning to feel the weariness seep upon herself. She slid off Fiera’s smooth back with ease. Those riding lessons a few years back did come in handy! She accepted her drink happily, taking a few sips first before taking some more. When she had her fair share, she returned to her new companion’s side. “Thank you.” She slightly bowed before Tyden left, an old habit she picked up from greeting the elderly in her family. She pulled her hair back and out of her face before running her hand through it. Soon after, Silent lay down on the cloaked straw bed. It was comfortable and inviting. Her mind tugged her into the deep darkness of sleep, but fought to stay awake. A burning desire to talk to Fiera masked everything else. “Can I ask you something?”

Fiera came walking back to the girl’s side and slowly got down on all fours. Not before long, the brilliant orange mare was laying on her belly right next to Silent, head hovering close to her companion and offering the warmth of her bodice. “What is it that you wish to ask me?” She smiled, her eyes sparkling. Silent started off on simple questions, such as what was Kalidore like? Did she have any siblings? What about foals (She was a little hesitant to answer that question however)? Until they got more personal, like did she like anyone (Fiera didn’t understand this at first. So it took awhile and many strange answers before she understood it. And by her tone, she could have blushed, but Silent doubted that unicorns were able to do so)?

Finally, after sometime, Fiera would answer no more. “Sleep. I think we make our leave in the mourning. And it would be best.” She said softly. Silent shook her head. “But you’re life is so very interesting! I want to know more.” She pressed on but still, her companion would not budge. “A later time. You’re to tired. Now go to sleep.” Fiera nuzzled her human’s hair. With a grunt, Silent let sleep take her away into the welcoming darkness. The last thing she heard before drifting off was the soft humming of Fiera…

Xanthe hankered down into the straw, stretching her legs out with her head beside the open door so that her nose came to rest against his boot. “I miss my momma,” she said very quietly.

Tyden studied the korè for a moment before getting off his stool and sitting down on the straw beside her. She nudged her head into his lap like a large puppy dog. “Better?” he smiled, running his fingers along the length of her mane, as if to make it lay down on its side like an adult’s; the unruly foal’s hair refused to stay, so fine and soft as sheep’s wool. He felt her shudder, or sigh, but she didn’t answer. She was already asleep.

He turned his gaze back to Spirit. “Were it that easy for all of us,” he sighed. “If you’re not sleeping, you can always keep me company. Though I’m not sure how much more of my company you might want right now. I suppose I haven’t been the ideal guide, now have I.” He was quiet, closing his eyes for a minute to regroup himself for the long night ahead. Outside, the sounds of night surrounded the small barn, full of whippoorwills and nighthawks, the uncanny screeching of a bob cat and the stark and lonely ballad of a distant coyote’s cry.

The cry sent shivers down his back, but he wasn’t fearful; more, it was a recognition in the lonesome call that bit deep into the marrow of his bones. His eyes opened to find Spirit where he left her, and gave his shoulders a small shrug. “If it makes any difference, I am sorry for getting you all into this mess. Or not stopping you…. one or the other… I’m sure that would have been the responsible way to have done things. I’m sure Lilaini is going to tell me so with great resolve when we get home. Repeatedly. And then some more. And I might actually deserve it this time…

“I… shouldn’t have left them, either. Not that they can’t take care of themselves… but if something were to happen… and I wasn’t there…” He shivered suddenly, a chill blown in from the small window vent and through stalls. He rubbed his arms with his hands, his head starting to nod slightly in spite of himself. “Spirit, we ARE getting home, just so you know,” he began again, more firmly. “I promise you that. And we will find out mystery behind that gate flux; Fate might have a bitter sense of humour but she’s always right (and truthfully, the sooner you accept that fact, the easier she is on you, too) So there’s a reason. We’ll find it. Mark me on that one. Besides… we have to get home soon enough… the Harvest Festival’s just around the corner, and it would be a shame to miss that… fireworks for the bonfire this year and everything… Xanthe hasn’t even seen a Harvest Festival yet… she will adore it, and I wouldn’t let her miss it for the world… And I was going to… to tell Rhaine…. ” his words trailed away as his head slumped to the side, exhaustion won.

Spirit smiled at Tyden’s sudden onset of sleep. “Well, at least you got your wish.” she murmured softly, “Let us hope that I can follow suit.” As quietly as she could she shuffled into the stall and lowered herself, rather heavily, into the straw. Despite her shifting and accompanying small groans, neither Tyden nor the kore seemed to notice, the latter even beginning to snore slightly. Spirit smiled at the noise and closed her eyes, trying to quell the whirlings of thoughts that ran at dizzying speeds through her mind.

Thoughts on Companions, worries about the gates, homes, and exactly how mad Pasiphae was going to be, swirled unendingly. Scarce would she shove one away from her conscious thoughts, than another would sneak its way in. As she let her head loll against the straw, despairing of ever actually getting to sleep, the exhaustion of the day and their strange travels finally caught up to her – and she slipped into a deep unconsciousness, and oh so slightly – began to snore as well.

Outside, the moon long risen, set; the darkest part of the night was the few cold hours before dawn…

* * *
In another night, another world away, Mare Imbrium stood with her nose wrinkled, blowing the electric sent of magic that clung to her whiskers with dismay. The Joshua Trees were silent, but she needn’t their vigil to know what had transpired. She pawed the caked earth restlessly, her ears set back and down. “Brilliant,” she muttered to no one in particular. “Just great.”

With that she turned heels and took off towards the ranch at a jog, dust stirred and sparkling just slightly when it lit upon the stray motes left dancing from the recent gate’s activity….

* * *
Lana awoke to a sky delicately flushed with the promise of sunrise. She smiled and stretched, looking out through the window at the fields and enjoying the quiet visual stillness of the soon-to-be morning. So peaceful, she mused contentedly. Refocusing her gaze on the bed, she regarded her sisters, sprawled across the bed like ungainly puppies, still sleeping soundly. She grinned and, happy to repay the rude awakening during the night, reached across to tweak the nose of each – waking both instantly, mouths agape and arms flailing. Lana laughed at their indignant glares, and attacked them both with unrelenting tickles.

Not long after they had all collapsed in a giggling heap upon the bed, Lana felt a cool hand on her shoulder. Turning her head, she looked up to see her mother standing above them, rolling her eyes amusedly at their silly antics. Seeing that she had Lana’s full attention, she mouthed the words “Up. Breakfast.” and smiled, before issuing further verbal instructions to Mia and Marta.

Needing no further encouragement, the trio tumbled from the bed and began to pull on their clothes in chaotic unison. Finishing first, Lana snickered at Mia and Marta’s small tug-of-war over a rogue sock as she ambled into the main room of the house.

Her father and Thom were already awake, amiably chattering over the small kitchen table while her mother bustled about in the kitchen cracking eggs and pulling bacon from the icebox. Lana gave her father’s weathered cheek a loving peck as she passed, earning herself a quick head-ruffle in return, and busied herself in helping with the breakfast preparations.

Soon, the house filled with the savory scents of cooking bacon and eggs, the rest of the family barreled forth from their rooms, and sat in happily, if hungrily, at attention around the now cramped table. The food served, everyone set too with a healthy appetite, soon finishing the repast with lightning speed. The tin plates were piled in the center of the table as each person finished, and while the boys stood and finished readying themselves for the beginning of the day – Lana’s mother drew her aside and handed her a pair of plates laden with some extra eggs and bacon.

Lana, confused, stared at the plates and then at her mother with a questioning glance. Her mother frowned at her and pointed at the plates and gestured towards the door outside. Lana, still utterly lost (having not caught, nor been explained, the conversation of the night before) stared at her blankly, but took a few half-hearted steps towards the front door.

Suddenly, her mother’s attention shifted to a point past her shoulder, her disapproving expression clearing to take on a slightly rueful and embarrassed cast. Lana turned and saw her father staring at her mother, with a serious expression on his face. He soon shifted his focus to her, smiled tightly and gestured for her to return her attention back to her mother. Her mother, having grabbed Marta and given her a milk bottle and a pair of cups, seemed to be explaining something in a curt fashion. Marta, brightening visibly during the explanation, looked up at Lana and grinned happily before bouncing towards the front door.

Lana blinked, and looked at her mother who, mouthing the words “Sorry Lana. Follow Marta.” at her, smiled at her contritely. Lana smiled back tentatively, and turned to follow her excited little sister, all the while cursing her handicap. Yet again, it had managed to ruin what had been a perfectly beautiful family morning. She sighed, and walked, footsteps falling heavily as they made their way out to the barn.

It was the act of waking was that tipped Tyden off to the fact that he’d been asleep; he woke to a dull weanling’s horn prodding his rib cage several times before he got his eyes open all the way. Dawn was chilly, but the air was moist; later it would be warm. He stretched, discovered the kink in his neck with a reflexive groan, and brushed his dark, untidy hair from his face begrudgingly.

Beside him, Xanthe yawned, jabbed him in the ribs one last time before groggily pushing herself into a half-seated position, nostrils quivering to take in the unfamiliar smells. “I dreamt I was in the great meadow, eating clover and thyme,” she sighed ruefully.

He pulled himself to his feet, stretching his arms way above his head and feeling every ache in his body with dull acceptance, monuments to the adventures of days past. “Perhaps we can arrange that for dinner,” he replied, his own stomach rumbling protest. When was the last time he’d eaten anyway? It seemed like days ago.

“Do you really think so?” she sighed. “And tell me the truth – I’m not some milk-toothed kore anymore, you know.” She flicked her tail decisively, snorting the air with emphasis.

He had to smile in spite of himself, and gave her neck a firm pat. “I wouldn’t lie to you, Xanthe. And I truly hope we will be home by this evening. It just might be a really long day ahead. Fair enough?”

She nodded, prancing happily at his honesty. After all, if he was going to treat her like a grown up, she’d have to do her best to act like one, and that meant making the best of the situation. So no more talk about missing Kalidore and breakfasts full of clover. However… “I am thirsty,” she said, almost apologetically.

Tyden glanced at the others, but heard no peep from them and presumed they must still be asleep; all the better for them, he decided. “Let’s go get you a drink,” he agreed.

Outside morning was in full bloom – sunrise sprawling across the eastern horizon and sky full of the symphony of birds. The rooster has been crowing since first light, and the animals had begun to make noise in anticipation of breakfast. In this new light, Tyden pause to take in the small barnyard – worn but tidy, the buildings well-kept against the of elements. Nothing fancy, but familiar, snug; a home. By this time Xanthe had bounded all the way to the well and stood waiting impatiently; he strode the rest of the way over and began working the pump arm again.

Once Xanthe had her fill he drank himself, then dunked his head under the spout. It was deliciously cold and refreshing, and he worked the last of the sand away with his fingers. Finally he straighten, drying his face on the front of shirt when he noticed they had company. Across the yard two figures had emerged from the house, making their way towards him. He hastily tucked his shirt back in and smoothed the slick hair back from his eyes. Beside him Xanthe’s ears were pricked forward and he put an arm around her neck to steady her. “Best I do the talking,” he hushed. “I am going to wager they aren’t familiar with talking horses around here…”

“Hors–” Xanthe started to protest, but he checked her, and they made their way forward together.

“Morning,” Tyden greeted the pair.

Upon following Marta out the front door, Lana quickly spied the reason for the extra plates of breakfast.
‘Of course, you ninny’ she thought, wrinkling her nose. ‘Father must’ve invited him (or them? she mused idly, staring at the second plate) to stay – if they came in that late at night, they’dve had a far ride to town. And of course we couldn’t let the poor things starve.’ She quickened her pace towards the foal and her companion.

Halfway across the yard, Marta began to slow, eventually coming to complete stop – allowing Lana to quickly overtake her. Puzzled, Lana glanced at her as she drew alongside, and caught her biting her lip, and staring rather wistfully at the young man they approached. Lana snorted, and arched an eyebrow at her obvious fascination, and likely burgeoning crush. “Marta. Come!” she said without preamble, and continued towards the duo.

While it obvious her sister only had eyes for the young man, handsome as he was, Lana was much more taken with the foal. She smiled as she walked, admiring the creamy dun coat with obvious pleasure. So poised and perfect – from her hooves, to her flanks, silky cream colored mane, to her pert ears and … Lana blinked as she came to a fairly abrupt stop a few feet away from the pair.

Apparently the perfection of the foal extended to the center of her forehead – where she could clearly make out a curiously strange hornlike nub. She blinked again, and shook her head, staring openly. So mesmerized was she by the foal, that she almost completely missed the fact that the man was addressing them. Lana, only just able to wrench her attention away from the (now even more incredible) foal, and thought she picked up a word of greeting from the man’s lips. But, unsure of exactly how to respond, simply held out one of the plates abruptly in his direction.

Marta, trailing behind, finally came along side, and started to chatter. Lana, assuming that Marta would handle whatever explanations were necessary, simply continued to hold out the plate and shifted her attention back to the kore – uncharacteristically ignoring their more human guest almost entirely. Yes, there was definitely a horn in the middle of the foal’s head … a small, twisted spire of ivory. All logical thoughts ceased at the revelation, and she stood staring, slightly agape (and likely looking much like a strange fish) in wonder.

Marta, completely oblivious to the distraction of her sister, was attempting to ingratiate herself to the young man, using all her (very limited) powers of flirtation. Which, being only twelve, mostly manifested as incessant babbling.

“Hullo! I’m Marta! That’s Lana, my sister. We live here! Who are you? Your clothes are very odd, are you with a circus? Are you going to town, or are you going to stay long? How many horses do you have? Who was the lady you were with? Is she awake yet? Would you like some milk?” she paused briefly to hold out the cups, with an implied offer to pour from the bottle, “Lana has the eggs, if you’re hungry. If that’s not enough, I can get more. I helped with the eggs this morning, I hope you like them. Did you sleep well?” she fairly panted, only ceasing the barrage of questions due to a lack of breath, but continued to stare up at Tyden with open adoration.

Silent woke up from a strange dream. Her eyes were wide, but she bit her tongue from yelping. Fiera was up and awake, examining her with worried eyes. Their mental link was something she had to get used to. “What’s wrong?” The mare said with soft words. Silent chewed on her lips, avoiding eye contact, wondering if she should share. Finally she wanted to keep the dream to herself, shaking her head slowly in a ‘no’. “Lets go see what the others are doing. Plus… I wonder if they have something small to eat. ” Silent grimaced at her lack of appetite at times, and trying to soothe her companions worry too.

“Oh alright. C’mon, let’s go.” Fiera led the way.

Tyden had to wait until the bubbly Marta ran out of breath before he could answer. His hand had come to rest cupping his chin and covering his mouth to hide his involuntary smile from her delicate young ego. “Glad to make your acquaintance, Marta,” his replied formally, with a polite bow of his head in return. “The breakfast does look wonderful, and I would love a cup of milk. And …” he turned to the elder sister, for the first time noting her fixation on Xanthe. His breath caught in his throat, because the look on her face was unmistakable. She was seeing her first unicorn.

Xanthe shuffled uncertainly under her gaze. *Hush* he willed his thoughts to the koré, wishing he was not so clumsy at it to guess weather it had reached her or not. *Mayhap she is why we are here* Xanthe’s ears twitched and she glanced at him, her posture relaxing in acknowledgment.

He quickly seized the plates from Lana’s outstretched hands (which had begun to tip just slightly, the eggs sliding precariously towards the edge) and was about to speak to her again when a commotion came from behind. Fiera and Silent emerged from the barn, and Fiera… was… talking…

She nosed past a few things before spotting a little girl, even younger than her Silent, trying to talk to Tyden. She chuckled and nudged past him, to take a better look at Marta. “Maybe you have a new fan, aye? And as for the lady…” She trailed off.

“You mean me right?” Silent yawned, coming to stay beside Fiera casually. “Would you perhaps have any apples or fruit? I’m kind of hungry. Oh and here you go Tyden, thanks.” She handed him his cloak, hoping it wasn’t to wrinkled or dirtied from the hay.

“Hush!” Xanthe turned to the mare with great importance. “We’re supposed to be—”
*QUIET* the thought-casting was perfectly clear this time. *And good grief, manners, Fiera!* He gave the red mare a withering look. He felt his stomach slide like the eggs and turned to greet Silent a little too enthusiastically. “Good morning, cousin! did you sleep well? Our hosts have been kind enough to share a breakfast,” he jabbed a plate at her pointedly. “Surely you have a more fitting way to greet such kind folks for their hospitality…”

He turned back to the girls, smile fixed, hoping beyond hopes that they had heard nothing more then a few scattered whinnies…

Fiera shied away as quickly as Xanthe’s warning than Tyden’s anger came. Or was it frustration? A few steps to the side in surprise, before it turned to a glint of anger boiling off her. Well, sorry if no one told me! I just woke up! She thought, her voice clear as Tyden’s but with a cutting edge. She snorted and walked outside stiffly.

“Wait! Fiera, we didn’t know. And I’m sure…” But nothing; her friend was ignoring her. Silent was not sure what to do, everything was going so fast. She staggered to the side at Tyden’s over the top enthusiasm. Truthfully, it was scary when people did that. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I say things that my mare would say. I guess it’s the kind of bond we have.” And it wasn’t all a lie, so she let a little smile slip. “But uh, I must attend her to her the moment. It appears that she seems to be angered by something. Thank you for your kindness, it’s greatly appreciated. I hope this… that this hasn’t caused to much of a disturbance.” Ignoring the plate of food, the older girl gave a deep bow, her head down far enough till her hair concealed her face. Then she ran outside in a frantic skitter.
*Fiera! Fiera, don’t be angry. We could have blown our cover! You know all to well that this could be worse if they got hints of us* Silent’s thoughts were pleading and crooning, hoping she could get through. She saw her mare laying down on the grass, staring off into the distant, shivering.
*Well, ofcourse I realized that. Maybe I shouldn’t have stormed out so* She thought back after a few minutes.
*Don’t feel bad. We all get angered by something, sometimes*
*I guess so*

“You had better go apologize once this is over.” She said firmly. Fiera only reply was a deep grumble. The right thing to due stabbed at her pride. Painful.

Their mind-to-mind conversation seemed to be safest since what happened in the barn. Both knew that it was also smartest to keep quiet. And as the silence grew on around them (despite the noisy thoughts back and forth), Silent entangled her hands in Fiera’s mane. Wondering if she could try braiding flowers into it like the stories of maidens had. How amusing.

As soon as the words left him he was sorry, and as Silent went scampering after Fiera he felt guilt stab him like a kore’s horn to the ribcage. And now his head ached, dull pain spreading from the temples to his eyes and he nearly moved to rub them before he remembered he was still holding breakfast, which at this point was getting cold. Tyden sighed regretfully. He had to admire Silent’s quick thinking, and made a mental note to tell her so… if she and Fiera would let him talk to them again. She would make a fine Companion and Protector of Kalidore in the days ahead.

Xanthe bumped him gently with her head. Fearing to what ends her youthful indignation might manifest itself he turned duly, but found instead that her cerulean eyes were very bright and serious. She blew the air through her nostrils in her best imitation snorting sound, then gave his shirt a curious tug with her teeth. She opened her mouth and let out a most contemplated and contrived whicker: “Meh-heh-heh,” she winked. He almost laughed – he couldn’t help it – and watched as the poised kore stepped firmly up to Lana, snuffling her with her nose in what she hoped was a very horse-like manner. How lucky you are to be surrounded by such brilliant women, he chided himself ruefully. Now hurry up get through breakfast before you screw it up entirely.

Tyden turned and his found himself back to Marta and her milk jug, wondering just what sort of explanation was going to get him out of this one…

Marta flushed bright pink with embarrassment at Fiera’s stray comment, reacting to the words before she had even attributed them to a source. Her eyes dropped immediately to the ground, and she shuffled her feet self-consciously. However, at Silent’s remark, puzzled at the sudden change in voice, she snuck a glance at the pair, but did not seem to make a connection between the fiery mare and the comment of before.

“There’s … there’s eggs.” she stammered, keeping her eyes downcast. ” An’ if you want fruit there’s an apple tree ’round behind the barn. Peaches too.”

At Xanthe’s sudden outburst, however, Marta started and looked up confusedly. She peered about, sure that someone else had joined their little group – but at finding no one, bit her lip and looked bewildered. She moved a bit closer to Lana, and unconsciously felt for her hand, unsure of exactly how to react.

Lana, broke out of her Xanthe-centric daze at the feel of Marta’s hand in her own. As she took in her surroundings, she became aware of Silent and Fiera’s recent addition to their small party. She turned towards them, slightly, meaning to smile and incline her head and greeting – and was immediately struck by presence of the horn that graced Fiera’s head as well. Her mouth opened and shut, and she glanced wildly back and forth between the kore and the red mare, before finally settling on Tyden – her expression dazed.

Then, as Fiera stalked off with Silent close behind, Marta stared after her, absolutely lost as to what had just happened. She blinked a few times, and then simply returned her focus back to Tyden.

” Your cousin … she seems …. nice.” she managed, lamely. “There really are apple trees out back, if she doesn’t want the eggs.” she seemed perplexed at this possibility, but shook it off before continuing. “Also, Mama said we could get your horses some feed and oats if you like. We have some sweet-clover hay too.” she stared up at him intently for a moment before smiling shyly – all strangeness of earlier obviously forgotten in lieu of her obvious preoccupation with their male guest.

Tyden let out an unconscious sigh of relief at Marta’s whole disregard of the moment’s strangeness. It didn’t surprise him though, because that was how most people dealt with things they didn’t understand – they simply decided they didn’t exist. He turned his attention back onto the two plates he was holding and replied, “Well, I think the eggs look wonderful. Would you mind if I sit here with you while I eat them?” There was a neat stack of logs beside the well, either for the winter’s fuel or the beginnings of a new out building, some big enough around that they reached his chest. The size of the tree felled must have been enormous, and it saddened him somewhat to think of the old roots and deep magic that had been lost with its cutting. He sat down on the nearest log, placing Silent’s meal beside him as he turned to his own. Truth be told, his head was really hurting him now, and he needed to rest and gather himself again. And the eggs did smell delicious; they tasted even better. He beckoned to Marta to bring the milk, determined to properly show his gratitude to these kind folk for their hospitality.

He did find it curious that Lana hadn’t spoken yet, but he knew she was seeing unicorns; perhaps the shock had gotten to her? He swallowed his mouthful and turned to her, while Xanthe continued to do her horsiest impressions for her and was now drolly scratching her head with her back hoof. “Do you like horses, Lana?” he asked. “Xanthe seems to have taken quite a shine to you” (Xanthe interjected with another self-cued wuffling of Lana’s sleeve here) “And I’m sure the mares would appreciate a bite oats. Your family has been so kind us, I’m really not sure how we can repay you.”

Lana, still in a slight daze, only smiled and shook her head at Tyden’s words; his pattern of speech too strange and too fast for her to read. She tapped her ears and then shook a finger, hoping that he’d understand her handicap.

Returning to gazing admiringly at Xanthe, she held out her hand – palm up and flat, hoping she might consent to being preened and petted at a slightly closer distance.
“So beautiful.” she thought wistfully. “Wonder how long they’ll stay?”

* * *
AND, back at the ranch ~

Lilaini. seemed as confused by the sudden feeling of change, she began to speak to her friend again and then stopped as she felt Gypsy’s.thought touch her own. “They are gone” was all she said, with a somewhat perplexed look on her face.

Rhaine was standing now, her eyes haunted and her hands scrambling to scoop the scrolls back into her satchel. “Gone?” she paused in mid-sweep. “Who’s gone…” but it wasn’t so much a question, at least not to Lilaini. She closed her eyes and her mind reached out, touching upon the unicorns in the fields beyond, then moving beyond the fields to the scattered dunes where one dark mare galloped towards them through pooling sand. Beyond even that, faintly now, she felt for them, pressed further, peering, seeking, finding… she caught her breath in her throat. “Xanthe,” she said. “And Fiera, Spirit. Tyden is with them. Not alone… My head,” she grasped her temple suddenly as if sharp pain ebbed behind her eyes. ‘If she can see unicorns, is she the reason why we have come? Our cover nearly blown, how many choices do we have left?’ the smell of bacon permeated her nostrils and she recognized the pang of hunger. ‘And what is to become of us if the gate does not agree….?’

Rhaine let her breath out all at once, and just like that feelings left her. Her head cleared, and as she opened her eyes, the cozy cabin greeted her, it presence grounded. “Lalaini,” she began slowly. “I think it is time we were away….”

* * *
Spirit groaned as she slowly fought her way back to consciousness. Apparently the debt of exhaustion had been greater than she anticipated, and waking was difficult and slightly painful. She pulled herself to her feet, and took her surroundings with a bleary and still slightly sleep-ridden glance.

“Mrrhm. All gone, are they?” she murmured, after shuffling out to take a look in the adjoining stall. “Don’t suppose you know where they are, hrm?” she eyed a inquisitive chicken nearby. “Or breakfast, perhaps?”

The chicken cocked her head at Spirit and clucked.

“Aha. You don’t say.” Spirit replied bemusedly, “Well, I hope you won’t mind, but I think I’ll go look for them myself. Maybe try to learn to speak bird while I’m at it, then maybe we can have a real conversation.” And with that she started towards the barn entrance.

Once out in the open, she winced slightly at the brightening sunlight, her eyes slow at readjusting from the barns darker insides. A few blinks and a headshake later, her vision had adjusted well enough – and it was only a few short seconds before she located Tyden and his small knot of companions.

Spirit recognized Xanthe easily enough, but could not place neither of the two girls with him. She frowned slightly, wondering why the entire group wasn’t together – Fiera and Silent seemed to be nowhere nearby. Deciding that asking might be the best way to discover any problems, she moved purposefully towards them.

She thought she had caught Tyden’s eye, a dozen or so yards away, when she almost tripped over her own hooves in sudden surprise.
*… beautiful. Wonder how long they’ll stay?* a clear voice echoed in her mind.

Spirit came to an abrupt stop, her eyes going wide at the mental sound. She flattened her ears, and glanced about the yard warily, confused at the new voice that addressed her with such clarity.
*Hello?* she sent back hesitantly, *Who’s there?*

One of the girls gasped, and abruptly turned around to stare at her – a hand held to her open mouth. The other girl, startled by the sudden movement, dropped the bottle she was holding. It fell to the ground with a solid thud, splashing milk on the entire group – but mostly on the poor thing that dropped it. She whimpered slightly, and glanced unhappily at the elder girl before flusteredly trying to mop up the mess off herself and Tyden – all the while babbling apology upon apology for her blunder.

The elder girl didn’t seem to notice, her eyes wide enough to mimic Spirit’s own expression, and just continued to stare.
*Hello?* Spirit tried again, taking a few steps hesitantly towards her. *My name is Spirited Away. May I ask who you are?*
*Lana* the thought was barely a whisper, fading almost before it reached Spirit.

“Lana.” Spirit mulled mentally. “Lana.” The name felt right, and abruptly Spirit found herself moving forward without conscious thought, stopping only when she stood before the girl.

*Lana* she whispered back in thought. *I’ve found you* and she arched her head down to place a warm cheek against the girl’s – closing her eyes with a tired and contented sigh.

“It’s allright, Marta,” Tyden smiled at her, placing his hand lightly on hers to the stop the flustered movement. “I’ll just have water. Would you pour me some instead?” he passed her the tin mug, making as little of the situation as he could. He didn’t really wait to see her reaction, for his eyes were on Spirit and Lana, each lost for the moment within the others’ thoughts.

He swallowed the urge to say “I knew it!” but couldn’t help grinning slightly all the same. “I see we have found someone,” he said. “Lana, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, as is Spirit here, I’m sure. I hope it doesn’t sound terribly odd if I said we have been looking for you. I’m sure you have a lot of questions too, so please, don’t hesitate to ask.” He waited expectantly for her to answer.

Marta, red with embarrassment, hesitantly took Tyden’s mug. She tried to plaster on a smile in response, but blushed when she belatedly realized he was no longer paying her any attention. She sighed, mentally kicking herself for being such a klutz and started to walk towards the well. However, at Tyden’s address, she turned and wrinkled her nose in confusion.

“Looking for …. Lana? Why ever for? Are you sure? I mean …. are you she’s the right person? She can’t even hear you, y’know. She can barely talk to us, and that’s only if you talk slow – she can read lips. And just … are you SURE?” Marta asked, looking back and forth between Tyden and Lana with growing bemusement. She eyed the horse that had apparently decided Lana was her new best friend, and wondered if that had something to do with it. Possibly they really WERE circus trainers…?

Spirit, reveling in the quiet contentment of close contact with her new Companion, fairly glowed with happiness. While almost completely oblivious to the goings on outside of their little pair, she managed to catch a few snippets of Marta’s little speech. Couldn’t hear? She opened an eye and wuffled softly in Lana’s hair.
‘Is that true, sweetling?’ she sent, eyeing Lana thoughtfully.
‘Mmm?’ Lana lifted her face, and smiled with muzzy contentment at Spirit. ‘S’what true?’

Spirit nosed her gently, concern growing slowly. ‘Did you not hear that? Your sister?’

Lana shook her head. ‘Can’t hear anyone. Was sick when I was a little’un, haven’t been able to hear anything since then… … … except for you.’ she sent back, and smiled blindingly before wrapping her arms around Spirit’s neck. ‘It’s hard sometimes, but I do alright.’

Spirit quivered slightly, and let herself be pulled into the hug. She tried her best to radiate calm affection, when in truth she felt anything but – she tried to catch Tyden’s eye, arrowing a frantic thought his way (hoping that Lana wouldn’t be able to catch it). ‘She’s deaf, Tyden. Can’t hear a thing, what do I DO?’

Xanthe had moved aside as Spirit melted into Lana’s embrace, and she now stood with her head jolting back and forth like someone watching a sport match, listening in on the conversation and broad thought-casting with keen interest. Deaf? How strange not to have working ears, she thought to herself, more intrigued by the notion then anything else. But no matter… at least you could always cast back and forth with someone for a conversation…. who really needed to speak out loud anyway? She wondered why Spirit looked so alarmed; it hadn’t quite dawned on her that most humans held little aptitude for even the simplest casting, if any at all. She bounded over to Tyden, hoping for an explanation.

Tyden was momentarily lost for words as he absorbed the information. That would explain it, he frowned; the pieces fell together quite tidily in retrospect. He listened to Marta’s explanation, his eyes remaining on Lana, and reproofed himself for not seeing it earlier. His headache had returned something fierce, and he squeezed his temples absentmindedly as he tried to determined the best thing to do. Spirit’s distress was radiating even if she hadn’t sent her thoughts his way. And at the moment, he didn’t entirely have the answer. It wasn’t that Lana’s being deaf was real problem – but it did present a new and unexpected challenge to this gamut of events they were already stumbling through.

He looked up, and saw Xanthe, Marta, and Spirit all looking at him expectantly. Lana alone seemed momentarily sated, her arms wrapped tightly around the bright bay mare with obvious delight.

“Well…” he began formally.

At that moment, the door swung open on the little farm house as Mr Madsen and Thom emerged brightly for the morning’s chores, a tin pail in Thom’s hands full of slops for the pigs and Brute the dog running joyful circles around them. When he spotted the group he stopped, but only let out one reserved “woof” to let them know he had his eye on them, and fell into a neat stride beside the boy. Thom whistled to him, his own eyes observing the fine horses almost wistfully but his sense of duty kept his feet moving , heading down the the sty with his offerings. Mr. Madsen tipped his hat genially. “Morning, Mr. Tyden,” he smiled.

“Good morning, sir,” he gave his head a small bob instinctively. “I wanted to thank you and your wife for the wonderful breakfast – it’s been some time since we’ve had a home-cooked meal. And your daughters have been so kind and courteous. Marta must be such a big help,” he glanced at the younger girl briefly. “And I’m so happy to have made acquaintances with your Lana,” he turned to the elder daughter in full, up to her arms in equine goodness. “Spirit seems to have taken quite the liking to her as well. I’m really quite glad we came upon her when we did – the timing could not have been more ideal.”

Mr. Madsen had begun by smiling, but now he was looking almost a bit confused. He glanced at Marta, who seemed to offer no explanation, and back to his eldest again. “Why, you are quite welcome, Mr. Tyden…. but pardon my not followin’… what’s this you say about Lana? She’s a special girl, our Lana is… not the kind of girl most people are lookin’ for.” His eyes were on Tyden now, and they had hardened, protectively, evaluating the man before him with weariness anew.

Tyden saw the look and flushed, and jutted out his hand in formal greeting. “We were not properly introduced last night, Mr. Madsen. I… am a teacher… my cousin and I are headed to my new post – a school for the blind and hard-of-hearing, sir… We teach people – just like Lana – to communicate. Speak. Read. It’s not impossible… I’ve seen it work a hundred times over, with… the proper instruction. I feel, we could do a lot for your Lana…” he could feel the gaze from the others like sharp teeth to the back of his head, but kept his eyes fixed on Mr. Madsen and sincere…. it wasn’t a whole lie, after all…. and he had absolute faith that once Kalidore, with the help of Spirit and the others, Lana could learn to compensate for her disability completely…

… if he could figure out how to get her there without having her fine and upstanding father run the lot of them off with his shotgun….

Geoffrey Madsen’s eyes narrowed as he listened to Tyden’s monologue. Upon its finish, he rubbed his chin pensively before replying.

“I’ve heard of a school up north that does that sort o’ thing, but we’re not rich folk – and sending her that’a’way would’ve us cost a prettier penny than we’ve got.” he glanced towards Lana with open regret before continuing, “It’s a right strange chance, you coming upon us then.” His gaze hardened suddenly, and his expression closed. ” ‘less you been talkin’ to folk in town n’ came on by after – you’d not be the first to try an’ sell us some sort o’ snake oil cure for my girl. I don’t mean to be unneighborly, Mr. Tyden – but how do I know I can trust yeh? This ain’t just a bed for the night that we’re talking about now, this is my girl.” He paused here, and awaited Tyden’s reply.

Spirit shifted slightly, and nuzzled at Lana almost absentmindedly – her ears flicking back and forth as she listened to the conversation between the two men. She had to commend Tyden for his quick thinking – she hadn’t thought that far ahead, so caught up was she in the simple finding of her Companion, and the startling revelations that had accompanied it.

Lana, mindlessly reveled in the strange and wonderful feeling of completeness that whispered through her in warm waves. It was several minutes before her mind finally caught up to the initial shock, and started processing again – the questioning thoughts fairly burst from her, and she would’ve laughed to realize her similarity to Marta minutes earlier.
‘Are you truly what I think you are…? Truly a unicorn? Where did you COME from? Are you staying? Why can you hear me? And what …. what exactly did you mean you said you’d ‘found me’?’ Lana gave Spirit’s neck a final squeeze before raising her head, wanting to meet the mare’s eyes while they ‘talked’. However, as she backed away slightly – she caught sight of her father and Tyden engaged in what looked like fairly serious conversation. She frowned, and looked back up at Spirit.
‘…. Spirit? (I can call you that, yes?), what’s going on? Is everything okay? Have I upset your … owner? Companion? That man?’ she nodded her head slightly in the direction of Tyden.
‘Mrrhm?’ Spirit tore her attention away from the conversation at hand, and focused back on Lana. ‘Owner? Whu…? Oh! Tyden!’ Spirit choked on laugh, trying desperately to muffle it into properly quiet and non-disturbing horse-like sounds. ‘Ahm, no dearheart, he’s no owner. Traveling companion, yes. He’s not upset with you at all, he’s trying to convince your father to let you come with us….‘ she cut off abruptly – belatedly realizing how much of the situation hadn’t even been broached – much less explained. ‘That is, if you’d WANT to come, after I’ve told you everything. We don’t have to go, if you truly, truly don’t want. I could stay here, or at least visit often – although, if you came with us, you could visit just as often, so you don’t have to worry about THAT…’ Spirit trailed off a bit nervously.

Lana smiled, relieved at Spirit’s use of ‘we’ in her nervous monologue, and reached up to pat her cheek softly. ‘As if I’d let my first real conversational companion in fifteen years escape me that easily.’ She wrinkled her nose in thought before replying. ‘I’d like to know more, obviously – about where, and what exactly is going on. But as long as you’ll let me tag along, I think I’d like to come. You can tell your ‘traveling companion’ that too, if it helps. And I can try and help with Papa, too.’ she nodded decisively.

Spirit whuffled her hair again, her anxious nerves easing slightly at Lana’s easy acceptance of the plan to return to Kalidore. ‘Oh, I’m sure you’ll love it there, sweetling. It’s gorgeous! And ‘Phaë! She’ll be wild to meet you, and we can come back here and visit whenever…’ she bubbled, fairly prancing in place with excitement.

Lana hid a smile, amused at Spirit’s barely contained antics. ‘True, but first, let’s get Papa and … Tyden, was it? … out of their mess.’

‘Ah, yes!’ Spirit replied sheepishly. Quickly she arrowed a thought at Tyden, ‘She wants to come. And to help. Just tell us how.’

Spirit’s message came to him with a slight headache but an overall twinge of relief. At least they were on board; that made things simpler in one regard. However, explaining this to Mr. Madsen in a way he would understand and accept was a different kettle of fish entirely. *Help me convince him this is a good thing…?* he thought back warily. *Here I am trying to be an honorable and upstanding citizen, and I don’t even know what year we’re in, what customs are exist, let alone what part of world…. so really, anything you can give me would be most appreciated….*
He turned back to the rugged farmer and spoke carefully, his eyes remaining on Spirit and Lana. “Perhaps it’s providence… I don’t begin to understand how we are all drawn together in this big world; such are things best left alone by us mortals,” he shrugged apologetically. “But I agree… the cost for the schooling can be expensive. That’s why we’ve been working with families and the community to try and place those who need it most, too – not just the wealthy. We offer time payments and work-placements for those who are in need. In fact, we think it’s a great boon to our students to be able to feel that they are supporting themselves – and are no longer a burden to their family. It’s about building independence. Lana seems… very in tune to the animals, sir. Perhaps she would welcome the opportunity to work with our horses…?”

Xanthe had crept forward, and Tyden moved instinctively to put his on her back, hoping she had no brilliant ideas of her own to let loose on the situation. “We breed horses at the school,” he gave her neck a firm pat, a firm suggestion to stand still. “Some of our students help train them, and we raise funds through their sale. We believe a kind hand is the best way to teach an animal – and a person. The results you can see here in our horses.” He gave Xanthe another firm pat for good measure.

Mr. Madsen stood silently for a few moments, pensive and solemn, obviously mulling over Tyden’s words carefully – running his hand through his hair as he thought.

“You seem sincere, Tyden. I’ll give you that. And I can’t say that a chance to set up my Lana good n’ proper isn’t dear to my heart. But it’s something that will take a bit of talking – and I’ve got some work to do yet, this morning. So, here’s what I’ll can do – sit with her ’til lunch – if you have the time, and see if you can’t work some of your teaching magic.” he gave a wry chuckle at this, and shook his head, before continuing. “I’m not expecting miracles – but if you’re true about this teaching business, I’d have you at least explain it to her – and convince her yourself. She’s not dim, not my Lana – she can do some readin’, and can watch your lips if you speak slow enough. Marta an’ Mia too – they have some hand words they use, that might be of help. And in the meantime, I’ll think on your offer, and come lunch we can talk a bit more. Fair?” he held out a hand, offering to shake on the deal.

As they shook on it, Tyden tried not to smile too widely until Mr. Madsen had started after Thom to the barn, pausing only to give his eldest daughter a light squeeze of her shoulder in passing. Then Kalidore’s first designated school master turned to the pair grinning like a fool. “Well, what do you think of that?”

“Are–” Xanthe began, then realized Marta was still with them and clammed her mouth shut with a cough. *Are you going to sell me?* she looked positively alarmed.

“Good grief, no sweetling!” Tyden threw his arms around the Korè as he laughed.
*Well, if it meant Lana could return to Kalidore… I’d have gone along with it,* she replied primly. *Sacrifices must be made by all, you did say… and I’m willing to do my part for the good of Kalidore. And besides, sure I could have snuck away later, and made my way back alone–*
*No one is leaving anyone anywhere* he assured her with a sigh, *so I’m afriad you’ll have to save your selfless sacrifice for another day.* Xanthe could be an odd one, that’s for sure. In some ways, she was kind of like her sister.

Xanthe shrugged indifferently, obviously still quite pleased by her own willingness. *If you say so. Would you like me to do something about that headache for you instead?*

It was his turn to frown slightly, because in the moment’s excitement he’d almost forgotten. Thought-casting always did that to him, and he’d done more of it in the last hour then he had in the past few weeks. Besides, Xanthe was still too young to have governance over a unicorn’s innate healing abilities…
*Am not,* the indignation rattled his brain. She peered up at him determinedly, and pressed the blunt end of her horn against his forehead, tongue pursed through her teeth with concentration. There was a sensation, a slightly vibration, and suddenly his head cleared.

“Ha!” Xanthe blurted out before she could stop herself, but pleased as punch as she was it didn’t matter. She bounced away kicking up her heels in exuberance, leaping and prancing, very much the young korè frolicking across the meadows at home.

Tyden rubbed his hand across his brow as if he didn’t quite believe it was true, or maybe action was in response to Xanthe’s antics, or maybe his own. He shook his head, and turned to Spirit and Lana in full. “So are you two up the challenge?” he asked.

~ * ~

Far, far away ~

The hours passed on and Trinity, still astride the horse she had taken from one of the thieves, continued on her way. She knew not where she was going, but wherever it was, she wasn’t home, thinking of where she should belong.

Soon she stopped near a small stream to let the horse drink. In the meantime, she checked the saddle bags the horse was carrying. Finding some food she said a silent thanks. Digging in more, she found jewelry, obviously stolen, and a couple of daggers. She knew that at the next village she could sell the items for coins. As she looked through the jewelry though, one piece caught her eye.

Looking it over, it was made of peweter it seemed, circular with a celtic knot trimming the edge, a unicorn in the middle. She placed the black cord around her neck and tucked the pendant away. She wouldn’t give that one up, even though she knew it wasn’t hers really, but sheseemed drawn to it.

After a few more minutes, she repacked the saddle bags and would continue on her way, feeling as if something were going to happen, but she wasn’t sure just what.

~ * ~
The morning passed for Lana in a blur. After seeing Marta back to the house, and a quick nod and a wave to Mrs. Madsen – Tyden, Spirit and Lana set to their little plan with a vengeance. It was frustrating at first, Lana admitted to herself ruefully, but with the boundless encouragement from the little group (and especially little Xanthe), she managed to surprise even herself.
‘Do you really think I’m ready?’ she asked Spirit for the umpteenth time, as she leaned against the sun warmed bark of the old apple tree behind the barn.

Spirit rolled her eyes and chewed at her latest apple. ‘You know I do. And so does Tyden. And Xanthe, and anyone else you’d care to ask.’ she swallowed, and leaned her head forward to nuzzle at Lana’s cheek – her muzzle sticky with apple juice. ‘You’ll do fine.’

Lana snerked, and pushed back at Spirit’s neck. ‘Hrmf. Well, I suppose I’ll trust you then, at least not to ask for another few minutes.’ she grinned at Spirit. ‘You know, you should probably stop eating QUITE so many of those. I’ve lost track of the count so far!’
‘I’ve not eaten THAT many. Only … six. Or so.’ Spirit sent, and harrumphed in her general direction – accidentally blowing bits of apple that clung to Lana’s face and dress.

Lana threw up her hands and glared at Spirit in mock exasperation. ‘Oh now there’s a way to impress Papa! Let’s cover me in apple bits! He’ll be laughing so hard he wouldn’t be able to agree to anything even if we ASKED!’ she stuck out her tongue at the mare, and tried her best to brush off the apple from her face and dress.
‘Marta is coming.’ Spirit suddenly sent quietly, and Lana looked up sharply from her brushings – the small knot of anxiety reforming suddenly in the pit of her stomach. ‘I think she’s come to call us to lunch. It’s time, dearheart – if you’re still up to it.’

Lana steeled herself, and took a deep breath. ‘I am.’ she replied, ‘Let’s get Tyden and the others.’

The little house and yard was a bustle of activity – the boys having just returned from the fields, and washing up by the well. The two younger girls had returned from their errands in the barn (Lana felt a small pang of guilt at having skipped at assisting with her usual chores. Even with permission, it felt … awkward), and were now assisting her mother table settings, and final food preparation.

Her younger brothers finished their latest task of finding a place for a bench at the table. The bench, a make-shift arrangement of a plank of smooth-hewn wood on top of a pair of milking stools, had been enterprisingly wedged into the already cluttered seating arrangements around the rest of the table, indicating that the family obviously expected their two guests to join them inside for the daily meal.

Geoffery Madsen – fresh scrubbed from the well, walked up behind Tyden and clapped him heartily on one shoulder, the expression on his face a slightly tired, if pleasant grin.

“Well, Mr. Tyden – about ready for that talk? Figure we can have a bit’o a bite first – and then chat a bit about this school of your’n, an’ try and see what Lana thinks about it all. Yeh did explain it my girl a’rights, yes?” He arched an eyebrow at Tyden – his curiosity and expression giving his question a bit more heft than his otherwise pleasant demeanor implied. While he waited for a reply, he pulled Lana, standing nearby, into a rough hug – but kept his eyes on Tyden.
‘Lana, sweetheart – do it now.’ Spirit sent hurriedly. ‘It’d be best if you do it before your father tries to have his ‘talk’ with Tyden.’

Lana wrinkled her nose and closed her eyes – burying her face against her father’s chest momentarily as she took another deep breath.

“Papa?” she whispered, the word tickled her throat, but she ignored the strangeness and tried again. “Papa?” she spoke louder this time – less awkwardly. Her father went still against her, still holding her tight in his heavy arms.

“Papa. Papa – listen.” she said, and pushed herself away from his chest, just enough to look up into his weathered face – which stared down at her in stricken wonder. Lana gave him a big (if nervous) smile, and closed her eyes to concentrate on the task at hand.

“Kind… ness is … the … lan…guage… that … the … … can …. hear … and … the … bl..ind … can … see.” she took a deep breath and smiled, opening her eyes again and looking up at her father who, strangely enough, had tears running openly down his face. “Papa.” she said again. “Papa, I … want to .. go.” and she hugged him fiercely – and was surprised to find her own face wet as well.
‘Well done, dearheart.’ Spirit’s voice in her mind whispered. ‘Well done.’

Tyden watched as the family converged around Lana, each hugging her in turn, talking so quickly she must have been having trouble following, but she didn’t seem to mind… that look on her face…. he smiled, for it was impossible not to be swept up in the feeling that filled the room. Lana’s mother had come running from the adjoined kitchen upon hearing Lana’s words, and after she had hugged everyone in turn, she threw her arms around Tyden, too.

“Thank you for giving my daughter back herself,” she whispered in his ear.

“It was Lana who did it all,” he shrugged, blushing boyishly. “I only helped her find the way.”

Mrs. Madsen gave him one more squeeze and then released him, turning to dab the corner of her eyes on her apron. “Lana must go to the school,” she said. “Whatever it takes. And you, Mr. Tyden, you must stay for dinner. You are no longer a stranger here, and are welcome to stay as long as you want.”

“That’s a very kind offer, Mrs. Madsen, but I’m afraid I’ve stayed about as long as I can spare,” he bobbed his head apologetically.

“Indeed,” Geoffrey Madsen clapped him on the arm again. “I reckon you have some ways to travel yet, and we have held you up nearly half a day. Let Adele pack some food to take, it is the least we can do. And we will try sendin’ Lana to you as soon as my brother has done use with the horses this fall….”

“Sir,” Tyden broached carefully, “Lana is more then welcome to accompany us now. She will be in good company to my cousin, and she can ride Spirit. She’s bonded with the mare so well allready, I have no concerns for her on the ride.”

“But Mr. Tyden–” Adele Madsen came to stand beside her husband. “Your own horse! And you walkin’ – we could never impose on you like that!”

“Walking is good for the soul,” he smiled lightly at Lana, who he was sure would delight at the idea. “That is of course, if Lana is ready to go now….”

The excitement that followed was even more frenetic then the first, but just cheerful, as the whole family leapt into action to get Lana packed and ready. Mrs. Madsen packed the biggest picknick sack of food Tyden had ever seen, while her husband fetched his map book and discussed travel routes (to which Tyden played as intuitively as he could). The boys had gone to gather eggs and fetch a cheese wheel from the cellar (Tyden hoped this was not for him… there was seriously enough food to feed himself, his traveling companions, and the guardians for the better half of a week) and Marta and Mia flew to task, sorting and packing everything they thought Lana might need into a worn but functional carpet bag.

Xanthe meanwhile had been sent to collect Silent and Fiera from the excursion into the orchard, (with the amount of apples the two of the ate, Tyden hoped no one would be complaining of a tummy ache later) and soon they were all together, gathered outside the front pouch of the little farmhouse one last time. Mr. Madsen had lifted Lana upon Spirit’s back as if she were one of the little girls, and mouthed something silently as he gave her a last firm squeeze. Her siblings were gathered around their mother on the stoop, having said their goodbyes and wish-you-well’s a hundred times over. The old farmer turned at last to Tyden, his voice gruff from the emotion and he found it hard to speak.

“I…” he began, then swallowed, and scrunched his hat up in his hand. “Take good care of my girl,” he said at last.

“On my life,” Tyden swore easily, no doubt in his soul. The two men gazed at one another a moment, and then shook on it. As different as the were, they understood each other completely.

* * *
“How far is it?” Xanthe whined.

“Almost there,” Tyden sighed. Since they couldn’t believably have set off for Tyden’s “school” straight through the middle of a cornfield, the little group had to take the dusty road until it meandered out of sight of the farm. Then, retracing their path as best they could, they wove their way through the crisscrossing fields towards the Gate. At least, Tyden hoped it was the way to the Gate… everything looked different in the light, and coming from a different direction didn’t help much either.

The sound of hoofbeats caught him off guard. “Quick — into the thicket!” he ordered to Fiera and Spirit with their riders. “Xanthe, come now!” he called to the Korè, as always, a bounding stride ahead. But Xanthe stood on the crest of a mound, her ears pricked forward and tail raised in query. “Xanthe, now!”

“Wait!” she exclaimed. Then she kicked up her heels and went bounding down the slope and out of site. There really wasn’t any other option then to follow after. “Look!’ she cried with delight. “It’s Mare Imbrium! And Rhaine!”

Mare Imbrium skidded to a halt as the little golden dun came bounding up to them, and already Rhaine was off her back and throwing her arms around the korè. “Well, they’re in one piece,” the black mare observed the stragglers come trudging over then hill towards. “And, they look well-fed, too,” she added dryly.

“How I missed you!” Rhaine buried her face into equine-sister’s coat. “Never go off without telling me again, do you hear?”

“Tyden said it was okay,” Xanthe said blithely.

“Did he,” she straighten, regarding the others in full for the first time.

“What, where’s my welcome?” Tyden grinned.

“I have half a mind to make you walk back to Kalidore yourself,” she said sternly, but the relief was written all over her face and she did hug him, briefly. Her gaze was drawn to the two riders, and her eyes widened when she realized what they were.

Tyden saw the look, and angled himself choicely between them. “May I humbly introduce Silent, Fiera’s companion, and Lana, who is companion to Spirit. Silent, Lana, this is Rhaine… one of the Guardians of Kalidore and all that.”

“I’m very glad to meet you,” Rhaine looked between the two. “The others are waiting for you just beyond those trees. We will have time for proper introductions and explanations when we arrive.”

Xanthe was already heading for the trees, and Rhaine allowed Spirit and Fiera to slip by to follow. Once they were gone she turned to Tyden again, her eyes wide. “How did you…?”

He had his thumbs in his pant pockets, head cocked slightly with a smug grin. “I guess I’m just talented,” he said.

She considered this for a moment, then decided to let him have it. “But you should never have left on your own, without telling, with Xanthe –”

“Have you tried to stop Xanthe from doing something she wants to?” But he nodded, “I should never have gone alone, I know, and I’m sorry.”

“Well, I’m glad everyone is okay,” she relented, turning to Imbri with a sigh. She grabbed a handful of dark mane and lunched herself onto her back, turning to give Tyden a hand.

“Me too,” he said honestly, and followed suit. Once settled, Tyden paused for a moment and then added, “though you know… if it takes two of you Guardians to find one companion in the time it take me to find two—”

“Saying things like that, is what makes Lilani throw rocks at you,” she cut him off primly, and with a stolen chuckle Mare Imbrium took of in the direction of the others.


Continue to Chapter Four ~

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