Seeking a Companion – Chapter 5

Chapter Five ~
Persephone couldn’t wait any longer and started trotting over to the road, barely aware of anyone who may have been following. Her mind was finally starting to clear now that she was taking the action she knew she needed to take, and she would’ve continued clean on to the village all by herself, without stopping, without looking back, but she ran into an unforeseen problem and was brought up short. Somebody else was already using the road, and as far as they were concerned she was no more than a loose horse.

‘Woah! Woah there girl!’ The man was short and bent, years of hard labour clearly visible in his current condition. With him he had a small cart, empty, and he was headed in the direction away from the village. As Persephone came flying down the muddy track towards him, he set the cart down with an easy swiftness that contrasted his years and planted himself in the road. Surprised, the bay unicorn came to a skidding halt, and with that same remarkable speed he quietly reached up and grabbed a thick handfull of her dark mane. “There girl,” he crooned kindly, his eyes sparkling with a certain joviality, “Now where are you going in such a hurry?”

The sound of hooves made him look up, and he saw a small trio hurrying his way, a number of horses following obediently behind. The horses were all finely built, not the shaggy, short-legged kind you usually saw in these parts, and the old farmer could appreciate a well-bred animal when he saw one. Their clothing gave them away as being not from these parts, and he imagined they were probably headed to the village for the market sale. There timing was good – with the army in town, they were always looking to pick up a good war horse, though probably not for the price they would be wanting. If they held thier ground, they might just entice one of the generals to loosen his purse strings. The farmer smiled again, and patted the bay mare’s neck.

‘Hello there, young travelers! This mare, she be one of yours then? If you fancy keeping her I’d recommend a rope or something, she seems to be of a mind to take off on her own. Where you be headed? if you no mind me asking o’ course.’ He remained standing beside Persephone in the middle of the road, blocking her if she choose to continue forward.
 
Oh dear, he thinks I’m a horse, and apparently a free one is considered unusual. Of all the timing! My companion is down there! Why wont you just leave?! Persephone continued to glare at the man as he gazed towards the guardians in particular and the companions in general.

Ali smoothed out the hems of her shirt and straightened up when a man came into view. She tilted over slightly to say briskly, “To late. He could be an unexpected problem I’m afraid.” The young girl scooted back towards Fiera with small steps, slow and steady, trying to keep attention from drawing to herself and then to the orangey red mare.

“I think it would be best to stay quiet. Last time… didn’t turn out so well.” Ali wrapped her hands through Fiera’s mane. They could have done the mind-to-mind thing apart, but something about being in physical contact with your other side was appreciative.

“I’ll bet. It’s strange how the common human thinks we’re all horses. Interesting, but strange….” She was still twitchy, but she suppressed her temperament for a moment to add, “I’ll stay quiet.”

Ali stroked the unicorn’s strong shoulders happily. “Erm, greetings sir. I don’t think she’ll be needing a rope, we’re in a hurry.” she said briskly. Her voice was barely loud enough to be heard clearly, but it was still a manageable volume. Warmth crept up her face, causing Ali to look down. Fiera made a soft whicker, amused yet keeping her face composed as possible. She shifted her weight around, a little impatient to continue forward.

Tyden noted Fiera’s clamped teeth and had to grin. And he admired Ali’s reserve and fortitude; was it possible she had even grown taller in the little time they had been together? To be honest, when he first laid eyes on her, Spirit’s initial reservation had held truth – she was just a child, and even he was unsure of her place on this journey. And here now, a mere two days later… if this was the work of Companions met, then he was grateful he’d had the opportunity to see it happened, and that Ali and had been given the chance to bloom.

He nodded briskly but warmly in her direction, and strode forward, coming to stand beside the gentlemen and Persephone. He gave the unicorn a quick look, silently explaining he understood her urgency, and hoped she’d wait long enough to let them help her. “Thank you kindly, sir. She does have a habit of leaping headfirst into things, but she usually has a good reason,” he placed his hand on her withers, showing he had her, and the farmer nodded and released his hold. Persephone snorted impatiently, doing everything she could to keep from blurting out loud.

“Fine animal indeed,” the farmer agreed. “Ay, maybe only twice now I’ve seen finer, that’s your compliment,” he chuckled gently, glancing at the other horses behind them. “I bet you are in a hurry – headed for the market sale, I imagine?”

“Huh? Oh – no, not the market,” Tyden shook his head. “We’re…” he swallowed quickly, “we’re traveling…” he floundered for a convincing story.

“Performers,” Lilaini interjected from behind. “Circus performers – On horseback.”

Tyden glanced back at her frowning, but she only shrugged pointedly. He turned back to the old gentleman farmer again, warming to the story. “Yes. We’ve been taking our show all over these parts, perhaps you’ve heard of us – Lilaini’s Flying Circus, the Finest Equine Stunt riders.. on Earth,” he added hastily, realizing he had no idea *where* on Earth they might actually be. “That village yonder was our next destination.”

‘Ah, so you be headed to the village then? Might not be the best time for performers, they have entertainment a’plenty there for once. The Inquisition finally caught themselves a witch, by the name of Brádaigh i think. Been after her for awhile anyways, so they’re all for making a big show out of it, her execution and all. Would’ve liked to stay myself, but crops don’t wait you see, disappointing that.’

A cold shiver had started to run down the length of Persephone spine as she listened to the man’s tale, the reason behind her distress coming ever clearer. Her companion. Caught. Her companion, to be killed? A show? Some spectacle meant to entertain? The cold shiver had reached her tail and was soon replaced by the heat of rage, and then another bout of cold as sheer panic started to set in.

Tyden felt Persephone shiver beneath his hand, her whole body quaking with shock. Her feet danced and he had to watch his toes; she was eager to be off and running and he didn’t blame her. He knew about the witch hunts, had heard about them first hand from people who had lived through them, and that such horrors were capable by humankind never failed to sicken him. He knew the Guardians were distraught too, and there was no way they would leave some innocent person to suffer such a terrible fate. And were she Persephone’s companion… no wonder the mare could barely contain herself. At this moment he was practically ready to take on the whole inquisition, too.

He grabbed hold of the dark mane and launched himself astride, hearing a surprised exclamation from the mare as he did so. *Excuse my haste, but I believe we have someplace to be* he thought to the mare, and saw her eyes light with first realization and then gratitude. Behind him he heard Rhaine and Liliani mount too.

Rhaine swung her leg over Imbri with fleet grace, all the while her stomach swimming with the news. Can we reach in time? she thought desperately, her eyes flowing across the greens to where the village lay, a good two miles away. In the distance, a bell tolled, steadily, solemnly, but without remorse. *What if we’re already too late?* she didn’t dare breath out loud.

*We can only trust that Kal would not lead us here to be mere bystanders,* Imbri’s ears were laid back against her skull. *And the bond between Unicorn and Companion is strong – even when the companion is unaware.* The mare’s moss-green eyes flickered dangerously, *and do not think that a unicorn would let a fate befall her chosen, while she is alive in the universe and able to take Fate by the teeth…*
 
“I hope you’re right,” Rhaine said grimly, and turned to where Ali and Lana stood just beside them. “Ali,” she spoke low enough so the farmer wouldn’t hear, still not sure how much Lana could follow, but knew Spirit would fill her in, “the both of you. We have to go quickly, and I want everyone to wait here for us as I do not know what horrors await in that town. Try to keep yourselves inconspicuous – if someone comes, you must play the part of shepherd, and these horses are your flock. They will help you of course, but it is best if you do not speak – any of you,” (this last part was directed more at the unicorns). “Will you be okay?”

There wasn’t really and answer the girls could give, really nothing more she could offer them, but it had to be enough. And Unicorns were by no means helpless either, but she sensed they were terribly alarmed and confused by the unfolding events. “We will return shortly,” she concluded, and Imbri turned dancing towards the town and their fated companion, her black hooves dancing across the muddied ground.

“Thank you for the advice,” Tyden tipped his head to the old farmer gratefully, doing his best to keep Persephone in one place. “If it’s just as you say, we’ll simply ride in for some quick supplies before carrying on to the next village. You should come and see us if you pass that way. I’m sure you’d enjoy–” he caught his balance as Persephone lunged forward urgently. “Keep thee well!” he called in parting, already headed to the village, the bay mare unable to hold herself any longer.

‘Well, I’ll be on my way then. You might have better luck at the next village beyond this one, tis bigger too. Should only be another day of travel, maybe faster since you have horses and all. Good day and good luck.’ With that he dipped his head in acknowledgment and continued on his way, satisfied that he had helped the young travelers find the work they were looking for.

Ali blinked rapidly and repeatedly for a moment. Gone. They were gone. Getting on the unicorn’s backs, riding off, the kind man just leaving. She stood there stunned, taking it in slowly if not taking in any at all. “Ok, so now they’ve left. I guess I’m – we’re, just gonna sit her and wait?” Ali asked after a deep breath. “Maybe we should follow… or not. I don’t know!” She slumped down onto the road, crouching with her head against Fiera’s leg.

“I personally don’t think you should be going anywhere near something as crazy as getting burned at a stake.” Fiera retorted, shaking her head in dismay.

“But witches aren’t real. Remember what kind of time line I come from? Machines and science and all.” Ali waved her hands around, emphasizing what she meant a little more.

“No… I haven’t been on earth for more years than you can count dear. Time passes by so quickly on Kalidore.”

Ali slowly clambered back on Fiera’s warm back, adjusting herself a little. “Hmmm, forget that. I just hope they return well and with our newest member.” she softly said, while burying her face in sweet orange like silk mane. Now they just had to sit and wait. Wondering if all would turn out well when everyone was back together again.

“C’mon dear, let’s move out of this road. Everyone else too.” The orange mare started off the path and into some of the greenery around, nudging the others along too.

Lana’s eyes went wide at Spirit’s translation the talk of an execution.
 
‘He really can’t mean … I mean even if she WERE a witch … can they really just kill her like that? And they call it entertainment?’ Lana sent Spirit worriedly.

Spirit flattened her ears against her skull and stamped. ‘I don’t know, sweetling. I’ve not really heard of anything like that before but … the Guardians don’t exactly look surprised.’
 
‘That’s … that’s just HORRIBLE. Surely there’s something we can do….” She replied aghast.
 
‘Maybe … I’m sure the Guardians won’t leave her there, I’m certain they’ll think of something …’ Spirit’s sending trailed off. ‘And she says we’re to stay here, and to be quiet.’ she sent as the small group headed off in the direction of the town.

Lana wrinkled her nose at that. ‘Just sit tight? I … I guess so. I suppose mostly I’d just end up getting in the way, and I’d hate to cause them even more problems – they’ll have more than enough to deal with right now.’
 
‘I’d wager they will have to move fast – but I’m certain you wouldn’t get in the way, I wouldn’t let that happen.’ Spirit replied determinedly. ‘It’s not your fault you can’t hear. That’s just the way things are, and you’ve worked around it admirably! So, no deprecating, alright?’
 
‘Yes’m.’ Lana replied, and buried her face in Spirit’s mane. ‘… I hope they’ll be alright.’
 
‘Me too, dearling. Me too.’ Spirit replied as she watched the bay and black mares and their riders disappear from view.

“Hssssst. The others are leaving.” Pasipahë muttered under her breath at Spirit. “We should follow along – I don’t want to get left behind in this awful place. Execution! Argh!”

Spirit nodded silently, and the two mares and their passenger followed along behind the rest of the group.

* * *

The guard lit her pyre and smoke started to obscure her vision, a log cracked somewhere behind her. Raising her eyes for what she new to be the last time, Aislinn looked towards the outskirts of the village and the lands beyond. A group of travelers had just entered the village and she realized the pain of her injuries and the smoke inhalation must be causing hallucinations, for she could have sworn the horses had horns, but no matter, her mind was sinking into darkness and all would soon be over…

*

Persephone couldn’t remember running so fast, let alone with someone like Tyden on her back. Her lungs where burning, her legs aching from the exertion and still the village seemed just out of their reach. She didn’t realize she had entered it until she felt the hard jarring of cobbles against her hooves, a start contrast from the dirt of the road. Throwing up her head, Persephone skidded to a halt, an exclamation of surprise from Tyden as he nearly came flying off her back in the sudden change of momentum.

Breathing heavily, Persephone glanced at Tyden as he pulled himself astride again. ‘She… is… here…’ Looking down to meet her gaze, her stress and exhaustion evident in her stance. ‘Find her.’

Raising her head to see over the crowd, she finally saw the person she had been searching for, Tyden following her gaze. For the briefest of moments unicorn and companion eyes met, Persephone’s emerald green and Aislinn’s ice blue, until smoke obscured the vision, making Persephone’s eyes water and Tyden’s throat burn. Blinking rapidly, Persephone tried to clear her sight, managing to look back just in time to see her companion’s eyes roll, her head fall and her body slump as she fainted.

Forgetting everything, Tyden on her back, the crowd before her, she whinnied a challenge and bolted forwards again, nearly losing Tyden again in her charge. Knocking people aside, oblivious to their cries of outrage and shock, she fought the crowd for room to move. Glancing at the officials as they called to the guards to seize the intruders, Tyden starting yelling orders at the crowd himself, trying to get them to move out of Persephone’s way, whose entire focus upon the mop of curls, as red as the flames ever gaining momentum.

Clearing the crowd, Persephone ran at the two foot soldiers standing between her and her companion, hitting one with her shoulder while Tyden kicked the second aside. Jumping through the billowing smoke, Persephone and Tyden landed amidst the logs and kindling, causing sparks to fly in all directions. Persephone didn’t care, she was finally at her companion’s side. Exhaling with relief, Tyden placed his hand on Persephone’s shoulder. “She is still alive.”

* * *

Liam Teague groaned loudly as he lost the last of his coins to his comrades. They’d been assigned to watch the eastern entrance to the village. It’s name already lost to the tedium of the task. In an attempt to pass the time, they, himself, his superior, Conner Brogan, and two brothers Aiden and Brendan Ruan, had started a game of dice, a fair attempt he’d thought, until he started losing.

Conner was in a decent mood for once, probably due to his current winning streak. He’d been in the army for the longest and was not adverse to allowing himself access to ale and women, all on the currency of his rank. His perks, or so he called them. Aiden was a decent sort really, this lifestyle hadn’t touched his nature yet and he hoped it wouldn’t for awhile. Brendan had been assigned to their squad only recently. More boy than man, fresh out of training and eager to prove himself.

Liam got to his feet while the other three continued the game, determined as they were to find the winner. Walking back to where they had picketed their horses, he rummaged through his packs, in a vain hope that he might have dropped a few extra coins among his belongings. A rustling to his left made him look up to see a foal gazing back at him from under a tree. Staring at it in shock, the foal merely gazed back at him, a strand of grass hanging from her mouth, head cocked slightly to the side.

She was a stunning foal, noticeable even at her young age, well proportioned with a fine bone structure. A remarkable colour too, one Liam hadn’t seen before in all his years of experience with horses. Grabbing an apple from his pack and cutting it in half, Liam offered it to the foal.

‘C’mon now beautiful, wouldn’t you like some apple?’ Coaxing the foal ever nearer. As she took a few steps towards him, Liam reached into one of his packs and slowly pulled out one of his ropes, determined to catch this fine foal…

With all the excitement surrounding Persephone’s poor companion’s precarious predicament, Xanthe was pretty much forgotten, which meant, about five minuets after that, she was bored. And although she had made a promise to herself – truly and wholly and completely – that she was going to stay out of every lick of trouble, she decided there was nothing wrong with giving an inviting patch of clover a quick little lick of her own. The clover was located just over that crumbling little stone wall, not far at all, and the rest of the group seemed too troubled already to bother telling. Besides, Pasiphae had seemed a bit grumpy and preoccupied ever since they’d got back from Georgia, and Fiera was too busy worrying about Ali’s well-being to notice the golden dun Korè slip quietly away.

She did feel a small stab of guilt as she leapt the wall, but in the end, the clover was delicious, and completely worth it. Plus then she spotted a clump of alfalfa grown through with climbing vetch, and that had to be sampled to. This brought her down a small slope where a scraggly little tree stood, a low branch protruding at just the right height to scratch her rump. This she did, and then discovered the timothy. And a row of tethered horses. And the man.

Mouth full of greens she snorted, startled at first, but then curious. Unicorns were not horses, after all… when something surprises them, they don’t run – they stop to asses the situation. Xanthe did that thoroughly. The man seemed nice enough, and the horses he was with didn’t seem to mind at all (not that she trusted a horses’ opinion of anything; in truth, Xanthe had never met a horse in real life, but was under the impression that they were stupid). He also had an apple. And a rope. Xanthe wasn’t an idiot, but the apple looked awfully juicy. Hmmph, she thought. He thinks I’m a horse! Indeed. Do I really look that slow and dim-witted? Well, I’ll show him…. She would. She’d slip down, snatch the offered fruit and scamper away faster then he could blink. Surely he wouldn’t be expecting the lightning-quick reflexes of a nimble unicorn!

Nose quivering, she took a small step forward, imagining she was a timid foal, her ears swiveling from side to side to express her unease. The man continued to stand quietly, making cooing noises, the apple outstretched. She kept her eyes on his other hand, twisting at the rope behind his back.

“There girl, atta girl,” Liam held his breath as the remarkable foal came in arms’ reach. He admired her eyes, which were wide and clear blue, as unusual as the rest of her. The apple was motionless in his hand, and he just waited. Slowly, she leaned forward and lipped the apple.

It was juicy, and possibly, one of the best apples she’d ever eaten. The surprise registered on her face, and more so, the fact that the man hadn’t made a move with his rope yet. She began to chew slowly, then nearly darted back as his hand moved, but he was only providing more apple. She took this too, delicately this time, and munched in earnest. Odd. Well, maybe he wasn’t a bad guy after all. She flicked her tail, licking the last of the apple juice from her lips, and wondered if he had any more. The others would probably like apples too she thought, and suddenly realized she must have been away for sometime now. She wheeled to go, and as she did, a rope fell over head and around her neck. Surprised, she blinked at it incredulously a moment then reared up, intent on loosing it, and felt rope quicken as she did.

“Whoa there, easy you pretty girl,” Liam pulled the rope quickly, snugging the knot in place. “Stay still–”

“I most certainly will NOT!” Xanthe exclaimed, “you – barbarian!”

The foal squealed, pulling hard, and Liam was surprised by her strength, digging his feet into the ground and loosing the grip he had on saddle. He realized, he probably should have tied it there first. The young horse squealed again, high-fluted and somewhat unearthly sounding, and he almost thought she was speaking at him. But that was a brazen thought and he dismissed it quickly; instead he called for back-up. “Ho, you fellows! Done yet with that damn game of cards?”

The commotion had indeed ended the card game in lieu of something much more interesting – calling bets on their fellow soldier.

“C’mon, Teague! Reel that one in,” Connor Brogan laughed, “are you going to let a little filly get the best of you?” To his credit Liam was trying his best, but the foal was unruly. He danced as she lunged at him suddenly, whirling the rope around in the follow through. The brothers Ruen were also laughing, clutching their sides as he side-stepped, and none of them were being very helpful.

The line spun around him as the foal double-backed on herself, and Liam watched with dull amazement as he clearly saw where this was going to end up, and in his stupor, seemed incapable of preventing it from happening. A sudden tug, and the filly had him roped – and he went sprawling as the loop tightened around his legs. At that moment he also lost his grip, and as she wheeled, the line slid through his fingers with a nasty burn, and she was free. The Ruen boys were on the ground laughing, and Brogan slowly sauntered over to investigate.

He peered down at Liam, still lying on his back in the mud. “No wonder you can’t keep a woman,” he grinned sardonically, “if a little filly can lick you that quick.” Liam grimaced, making low noises in the back of his throat. Brogan continued, “Now are you just going to lie there, or shall we go after? I think it would be a matter of pride for you at this point,” he finally lent down a hand to pull him up.

“What about the patrol?” he groaned.

Brogan shrugged. “The way I see it, a horse means farm, and a farm means a warm kitchen, and I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. Farm girls too, if we’re lucky,” he added boorishly.

At this point the brothers were already packing up and Liam nodded easily enough. The mounted their horses and started out in the direction of the strange golden foal…

* * *

The rope was trailing, and it caught, twice, in scraggly underbrush. Xanthe tugged at it desperately, wrenching it free, and went flying over the final stone wall with room to clear. For a brief second she didn’t see anyone and it felt like her whole body was going to break in two. Then she spotted the group moving slowly from road, and went scrambling after at a run.

“Everybodeee!” she cried. “They’re coming, help, they’re coming – right now!”

Fiera was moving slowly off the road when she heard a squeal. Fiera and Ali immediately shot their head’s up and looked around questioningly. A moment passed before they looked at each other, then to Lana, Spirit and Phae.

“Who… who was that? God, I could have sworn that I heard something that didn’t come from a horse!” Ali breathed in, her muscles a little twitchy incase they were introuble. Probably deep trouble.

“That sounded like… I think I know who that is.” Fiera said sternly, mixed emotions welding up her throat and chest. Ali, sensing Fiera’s temper, slid off the mare’s back hastily, obviously avoiding a surprise ride down the rode. The orange mare looked around, inspecting the current situation. Everyone else was gone down to the town and they were supposed to stay here. But a sense of responsibility chose a snap decision. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” The other’s couldn’t possibly return to a member missing.

Fiera made a cautious lope down the rode, picking her steps with a care to keep a minimal amount of dust and rock from flying. However, she halted in surprise when Xanthe was running to her, nimble legs taking her pretty far. The mare looked quizzically at Xanthe, wondering what kind of trouble she got herself into now. “Who’s coming? What are you talking about? And where did you go?” Fiera asked sternly while herding the Kore back towards the herd or unicorns and humans. Her mixed emotions began to rise again. She should have been looking after the Kore, but she shouldn’t have left! I’ll think about it later, she decided.

Ali jogged to Xanthe with worried eyes. “Are you ok? And…. who are they?!” She looked from Xanthe and Fiera then to gathering dust and hooves billowing their way. “Oh, god. What now?” Ali asked before laying a hand on Xanthe’s back softly. Fiera turned around to glare at the coming humans.

Xanthe buried her face into Ali’s chest. “Take it off,” she pleaded quietly, the rope still trailing and her skin flinched uncontrollably wherever it chaffed. The skin had been worn raw in places too, but the real hurt was from knowing she’d brought the men straight towards them. “It’s all my fault,” she sobbed. “I just wanted a taste of apple, that’s all…”

The sound of shod hooves on pack dirt flung with stones made their heads turn. As the soldiers mounted the crest, their commanding officer slowly brought the company to a halt. “Well, what have we here?” Brogan grinned through jagged teeth, one missing from brawl some years ago. A small herd of elegant horses were clustered on the rise, crowned by the small trees. It was the kind of scene the countryside had plenty of – rambling meadows scattered with flocks, simple country folk going about their daily routine. He actually liked it, in a familiar, folksy sort of way. “And look, what did I tell you?” he inclined his head towards Liam – “Farm girls.”

There were two of them, standing among the herd. Brogan gave the fellow officer a thump on his chest as he gestured. “Perhaps we’ll even have some fun…” He chirped his horse forward, the others falling into stride behind him. “Hello, darlin’s!” he called out loudly. “How are we doing this fine day?”

Lana and Spirit had whirled around at the first sound of Xanthe’s hoofbeats, wondering what on earth could be happening now. When the foal finally came to a wailing stop, Lana’s eyes then drifted to the plumes of dust that still rose behind her – and her brows knitted together in concern – this did not look good. It was either Tyden and the others or …. the figures of definitely not-Kalidore folk finally crested the hill and Lana winced. No – this did not bode well.

She sat poker-straight on Spirit’s back, eyeing the men that had come to a halt before their little group with (what she hoped) was an imperious and displeased expression. She noticed their lips move, but frustratingly couldn’t make out what the words.
 
‘Spirit, what’re they saying?’ she hissed mentally at the mare – Spirit translated, grimly – and Lana winced again. She had seen her father and brothers deal with these sort of men before, and it was often a very tricky business – why, even one of the neighbor’s girls had been caught out and alone by a gang of them before and … Lana pushed the thought from her mind. There was no way she was going to let Ali OR herself end up like that. Ever.
 
‘Nor I.’ Spirit sent, her mental tone fairly snarled. Lana tried to subtly pat the mares neck reassuringly. ‘I doubt it will come to that but … how fast can you run? Can we all run? In case things get ugly …?

Spirit waffled. ‘I … I don’t know, but I’m fairly certain if we scattered – most of us could outrun those moth-eaten beasts, but that could still be a bit touch and go…’
 
‘Well, we should probably try and do that if it comes down to it, but – in the meantime, how about this?’ And Lana quickly outlined her plan. ‘Can you help me with that?’
 
‘I … I think so.’ Spirit huffed worriedly. ‘But we’d better keep it brief, and simple. And hope that Ali & Fiera pick it up from there….’

Lana held her breath slightly, and bit her lip – Spirit’s coaching ringing in her mind. ‘Well, here goes nothing…’ she thought wryly, and schooled her expression into the imperious expression of before.

“Thank you … sss..sirs. We had … missed that one.” she gestured at Xanthe, and nodded, frowning. “We’re looking for … town?’ she said – loudly, if not exactly clearly, the less common words burred and strange in sound. But it was understandable, and her tone was cold (more in burgeoning fear, than anything else).

As Lana was building her courage to speak, Pasiphae eyed the men with an unfriendly eye, and quickly moved herself alongside Fiera and Ali, angling her body so that the foal was mostly hidden from view from the newcomers. … she had NO idea how they were going to get out of this, but if they tried anything, there was no way she was going to let them get off easy. She lowered her head and glared at them, stamping unhappily.

Working with quick fingers, she was trying to untie the rope from poor Xanthe’s neck. The darn knot was tied shut, there must have been somewhat of a little struggle and pull, Ali thought. When it was finally off, she threw the rope aside, a repulsing thing to look at as of now. “Hmmm, I wouldn’t know what say when the rest come back. But you could have asked in the very least.”

Ali stood up to look back at Lana and Spirit for some help. She was dwindling in size, her courage to talk to these guys anyways. Her hands began to feel moist, her heart pounding on her chest at uncertainty.

To her relief though, Lana managed something, and it calmed her down somewhat. They had a plan even if she didn’t quite know it yet.

Fiera snorted, standing in front of the girls with distain in her eyes. She didn’t say a word and obviously trying her hardest to act like a horse. But there was no way she could hide those intelligent eyes of a talking being.

Swallowing loudly, Ali sent Xanthe back a little before calling Fiera back too. When her mare companion grudgingly turned around, she took a deep breathe before talking. “Greetings, erm… Sirs. We’re actually on our way out of here soon. Though did you happen to know why she,” tilting her head towards the Kore, “had a rope around her neck?” Her voice was a little edgy, but she tried her best to sound merry.

Brogen pulled his horse in, giving the reins a short check when the creature’s head bobbed restlessly. He considered the two girls, the one who talked first seated on the back of the big bay mare. Her voice was broken and stressed, odd-sounding, and he wondered if she were a simpleton. No matter, she was pretty; her face full of freckles and the perked nose was rosy from the air. The other girl was dressed in pants, but was just old enough for a disguise as a peasant boy to be completely useless. He had to grin a little at that. He’d seen the trick done a few times, girls dressing like men, and generally it came to no good. But at the same time… it almost intrigued him. He leaned on the pommel, peering down into her serious eyes.

“You’ll have to ask my fellow over there about the rope. He tired to catch her, but I fear he’s not very skilled with the fillies,” he winked suggestively. “Surely now, wherever you’re going, you’re not in such a hurry?”

Behind him, the men had moved in closer, but for the moment content to let their superior handle things. Liam’s eyes remained restlessly on the group, feeling something was amiss here, but unable to pin a finger on exactly what was wrong…

A cold finger of fear trailed down Lana’s back as Spirit translated Brogen’s words. This was not a man that they would be able to deal with lightly. Men of his kind usually heeded violence or money – and often that coin would just escalate the violence to greater heights. She daren’t try to buy them off now, with what little coin she had on her – a gift from her family.

While she knew that, in a pinch, their little herd could likely protect her and Ali with flailing hoof and horn – she knew that it would result in some casualties. She had noted what looked like swords at their hips (strange a realization as it was), but could not tell if they had any ranged weaponry of any kind. Regardless, they looked comfortable enough with the scabbards on their belts that she wagered that they knew how to use them. She wondered, despairingly, if the story-book tales of the magical healing properties of unicorns were true – she supposed they might find out soon.

Spirit felt the fear radiating from Lana grow in waves, and she lashed her tail angrily. These coarse men had no cause to be bothering them – no right to cause her Companion such anxiety. How dare they accost Xanthe and insinuate such vile filth in conversation with her bonded. She would not stand for it.

She channeled her anger into a sending to Pasiphae – she had always been weak at such things, but the rage and familiarity with the blood bay mare bridged the gap that often troubled her.
 
‘ ‘Phae. Get Ali on Fiera. Don’t let them NEAR her – tell them, and Xanthe – to be ready to run if we need to – try to get to the gate, if we can. If not that – than we follow the road to that farmer. He might help. Be ready to scatter on a word – mine, if need be.’ Spirit sent, her mental tone brittle and cold.

Pasiphae’s ears lay flat against her head in disgust. These men were filthy creatures, she had decided, in both body and mind. She drew her front lip up in an almost human-grimace, and stamped again – raring to assault these unworthy beings, but unsure of how to go about it without ruining everything. At Spirit’s sending, however, she went still – and, catching the golden bay’s gaze out of the corner of her eye, nodded her head in agreement.

She sidled a bit closer to Xanthe and Ali – arching her head around (but still keeping her eyes on the soldiers) to murmur in hushed tones Spirit’s message to the trio. Message delivered, she swung her head back around and eyed the men with an unfriendly glare. Mounted upon horses, she wondered if she might be able to spook their beasts with a shrill scream and a sudden mild attack. A horn scratch on a flank or two, and a loud noise might just give the rest of the group long enough to get away … it had it’s risks, she mused darkly, eyeing the swords – but the cost of her skin for the rest of the herd? A bargain.

But such a plan need wait until everyone was ready to bolt, so she fretted, and glared at the men as she waited.

Lana spoke again, her last attempt at diplomacy frayed with fear, her words cracking and only barely intelligable. “No. We must … go. They wait … for us.”

Liam came to attention when the lass astride mentioned looking for town. The only town in this vicinity was the one they were part of the guard squad for. The town where the witch Brádaigh was currently being executed for her crimes against the church. The town the church expected the witch’s allies to attempt a rescue. Were these lasses a part of that rescue?

Suddenly suspicious of these lasses, though not threatened by any means (they were just a pair of lasses after all) he started taking note of details that had previously eluded his attention. He refused to acknowledge that the reason they had eluded his attention was due to his now very injured pride, the lasses were handling the foal as if it was nothing, as if she was the quietest of quiet and well handled foals. Instead he focused on the fact that the lasses were handling the horses without the use of any tack or equipment at all, even the foal and the extra mare. That the horses were all of the finest quality he had ever seen, clearly strong and fast, and the fact that the lasses were in odd attire as well, not the mounted one as much, but the lass on foot was wearing men’s clothing, an attempt at a disguise? If that was the case, she should have given that one up awhile ago.

Bristling at their tone of voice and gaze, he saw his comrades were doing the same. Brogan was going back to his usual grumpy self due to the lasses rebuke. He leaned back in his saddle, a smug smile on his lips. Liam had seen this smile before; it never boded well for the receiver. Hearing his name snapped him back to the conversation, his gaze and comments directed primarily at the lass on foot, but his gaze flickered between her and the lass astride.

‘Well, as for the rope, the filly was loose. People tend to use rope and halters when traveling, and tack for that matter, but yet you pair don’t have anything that even looks like horse gear. Care to explain yourselves? While you’re at it, you can also explain why these horses have no brands.’ His tone was flat, with just a hint of contempt. Unconsciously, Liam rested his hand on the hilt of his sword, a comfortable and familiar position.

As he waited for their reply, a hardened glare started to encroach upon his features. He was gaining certainty that these lasses were affiliated with the witch and her rebels, and if what they said was true, others had already left for town to initiate their rescue attempt.

Ali watched the men closely. How they gave a rundown of her cloths then looking back to Lana while she try to speak… They must be thinking that I’m not from here… darn jeans. Women must be wearing dresses around this era, Ali thought chillingly.

Phae soon sidled over to murmur in her ear, she quickly sent the message to Fiera. Fiera backed up a little so her companion could grab a handful of mane and hoist herself up. Ali did that with ease, she’d gotten so used to bareback riding that it seemed part of her now. Fiera in the process stayed stock still. Unwilling to even flinch at the slightest.

“Our… companions,”(she struggled on whether to call them horses or not) “do not need any halters or tack. They find it very uncomfortable, so we rather not use it. They, as you can see are very well behaved. They follow us much wherever we go, so no need for the brands. The foal is with us, you shouldn’t be tempting her with apples in the first place.” Ali almost chided in her tone though it fainted back to fear and worriment. To prove her point, she patted Fiera’s shoulder lightly while the mare stayed still. Only her silken mane occasionally rippled in the soft wind.
 
Why does it matter to them? Can’t they just leave us be? Fiera wondered. The thought echoed through Ali’s head, “Why does it matter to you?” She blurted.

Brogan’s grin was a hard, cold thing. It curled his lips, showing teeth. “That is hardly the tone to be addressing a man under duty of King and Church,” he leered at the girl. “As such, everything matters to me. I’d watch that tongue of yours, if you want to keep it. Be a shame, on such a pretty little thing…” He shifted his weight in the saddle, fingers drumming on the hilt of his sword. “But what is this important business you have in town?”

Brendan, the younger brother, had been sitting quietly on his horse, watching his commanding officers with drifting interest. Barely older then Ali himself, he was eager for the adventure the job had promised – most of which had not been lived up to mile after mile of empty green countryside. At this point he was almost sorry he’d been assigned to this company, because he imagined that things were much more interesting in town. He’d never been to a real burning before, nor had he seen a real witch. He’d heard the stories, of course, but figured those were embellished. He sighed, realizing he’d drifted again, and pulled himself back to attention.

This time he tried to focus by watching how Brogan and Teague handled the questioning, figuring he could learn something. His eyes followed from one girl to another, bemoaning the other great rues of the job – that it would get girls to notice you – because really, it didn’t. At least not him, anyway. Brogan seemed to have better luck, but had apparently rolled a bust here. He listened to Liam’s questions, and his eyes drifted to the horses last of all.

They were definitely odd. The more he thought about it, the more something seemed… problematic… about them. The way they stood watching intently for instance, was very un-equine-like. And the way the girls moved about them, without ropes, without tack… his gaze found the little one Liam had tried to rope earlier, and his mind fixed on something very strange…

The girl was answering, “Our companion…” she began.

The wily, blue-eyed foal looked right at him, her soul full of trouble…

Brendan choked.

His brother Aiden turned curiously, surprised to find Brendan’s face had gone grey. “That little one… she…. and the apple…. but they couldn’t know…” he stammered hoarsely. Before Aiden to could query the boy had pulled out his lance and was holding it above his head. “Companions…!” he cried shrilly. “Familiars! A covenant – they’re witches!”

~ * ~

Trinity continued on her way, seeking out another place. The horse from the thieves was still with her, thankful for such a companion for the trip and a better way to travel than by foot. Days had passed and soon she found another village and a place to stay for a little, give the horse a bit of a rest. She helped where she could, earning her meals and not seeming to mind. At night, she would entertain by way of singing or playing a song on her tin whistle. She knew there was a place out there for her, one where she would fit in. She couldn’t help think of her family though and often found herself looking at the emerald heart necklace her parents had given her years ago. She missed them, but she had to go, had to find the true place she belonged. Often at night her hand was wrapped around the unicorn pendant, knowing and believing.

~ * ~

After the initial shock of his brother’s outburst had waned, Aiden turned his attention back to the girls, his earlier amusement at his superior’s attempts at conquest lost entirely.

Unsheathing his sword, he turned to his attention back to Brogan, wondering how his captain would play this unforeseen (at least on his part) hand they had been dealt. Witches? Do we capture them for interrogation by the inquisition, or do we kill them before they can use their magic against us? Aiden didn’t like this situation, it had all of a sudden become far too real for him. Usually, he didn’t have any problems with army life, his happy-go-lucky nature, and his strong belief in his own invulnerability had always made the battles he had fought an adventure. A fun game, filled with dashing heroes and heinous villains, with him on the dashing heroes side. The battles themselves had always been filled with attacks insignificant to his own, thwarted by the moral high ground he held and would never willing surrender to his opponents.

The idea of attacks he couldn’t see, let alone defend himself against, scared him a little. He was ashamed to admit that he very easily might be afraid of two young and unarmed women, simply because they might have another way of defending themselves. An unnatural way, as far as he was concerned. His mount was starting to react to his unconscious behavior, new for him as well, and just as unsettling. It took Aiden a few moments to get him fully under control again, slightly relieved about being forced to change his train of thought.

Turning his attention back to his superiors, Aiden couldn’t help the taste of bile rising into his mouth. Gulping quickly, he hoped he could swallow his unfamiliar nerves along with the bile.

Ali stuttered in her seat upon Fiera’s back with wide eyes. At the soldier’s accusation, everything went whirling around her head. She pulled her hand back to push herself against the mare’s rump so she wouldn’t fall off, not now. Just not now. Fiera went wild eyed took, absorbing Ali’s surprise as much as her own. Witches? Witches?! What on earth? Ali thought.

Ali turned around to look at Lana, Spirit, Phae and Xanthe with dismayed eyes. This wasn’t what she intended to happen. Me and my big mouth, Ali thought. “How could we not know? The foal as apple juice and pieces all over her mouth…” she said in the almost-last-attempt to remain civil as possible but failed miserably when her voice nearly yelled at the men.

Ali let out a string of curses under breathe before sending her quick messages to Fiera. Get others from town…. make gate… jump through gate… hurry… not time… I don’t think, she thought shakily. Quickly, the mare relayed it to the others during at the moment wondering why they shouldn’t just have said it aloud. It would have saved some time from a headache and thinking. “Because it’s not good to let down the act if they haven’t totally bought it yet.” Ali leaned over to whisper in Fiera’s ears.

Fiera backed away slowly, flicking her tail at Xanthe’s rump to get her moving along. How long would it take to make a clean run to town and then make another run to a gate? She didn’t make any sudden movements before everyone was truly ready to go.

The whites Spirit’s eyes flashed at the shrill yells of the boy-soldier. She glanced quickly at the rest of the herd, noting their tense readiness, before sending to Lana. ‘That’s it, hold tight, sweetling. We must run, and we must run NOW. There is no reasoning with these folk.’

With that, she reared and thought-cast as widely and as loudly as she could, accompanying the cast with a sharp wordless yell. ‘RUN! SCATTER! DO NOT LET THEM TOUCH YOU! MAKE FOR THE GATE’ Not waiting to see the results, she followed her own orders, and whirled around and broke out into a cold run – stretching her gait as long and as full as was physically possible.

Lana hunkered down, a small and almost invisible passenger on the wheaten bay mare racing over hill and valley. She clung tight to Spirit’s neck, and convinced herself that the wetness that clung to her face was the result of the stinging wind and not of the abject terror that sought to tear any semblance of coherent thought from her head…

Pasiphaë stood stunned for a moment at the boy’s sudden yell. Witches? What nonsense was this …? But then he drew his lance, and another of the soldiers his sword – and she forgot everything else.

Her lip curled in anger and she stared at these men that menaced her herd-mates, their only thoughts seemingly of violence. She would stand these threats no more!

When Spirit’s sharp call rang out, she moved as well, but not away from the men as the rest of the herd seemed to. No, she threw herself at them, a scream wrenching itself out of her already tense throat.

She dashed into the middle of their little knot, flailing with horn and hoof, and scoring at least a handful of hits upon equine flesh. She bit and snarled, danced and lunged, trying to harry the horses as much as she was able – knowing innately that if she could just manage to spook the dumb beasts, then the men would find it hard to follow the herd.

At Brendan’s cry, Connor Brogan turned sourly in his seat muttering something under his breath about rookies. The boy was brandishing his weapon like it was flagpole, making a great show of himself. His attention turned back to the girls as the dark-haired one stammered, her voice loosing all the forced bravado it had before. He was about to tell her to dismount when the mare the other girl was riding reared suddenly, casting out a high-trilled kind of rallying cry. When her feet landed on the turf again she took off, the other unicorns scattering around her. Brogan frowned. His eyes met Liam’s, and there was no disagreement between the two. “Cut them off. We don’t want to loose them in the trees.”

Another sharp peel made him turn suddenly, to narrowly miss the flying hooves the blood bay mare as she went charging past him, moving to land a few blows on his mount as she did so. His horse sidestepped wildly, but Brogan swung his head, causing the dumb mount to spin around. When he stopped, his sword was out, and the horse seemed to have regained his wits, battle-hardened as they were, and trained to resist the equine urge to run away. Looking up he saw Liam and Aiden had controlled their mounts too, but young Brendan was flailing. He’d brought his weapon down as mare charged him, but it was uncertain whether he was able to land any blows before it was parried out of his grip and to the ground. Brogan had seen horses fight before – there was a man in town who fought stallions on Sunday for small wagers – but this mare’s tactic seemed governed and precise. It almost did make his neck hairs rise until he realized the foal Liam had roped must belong to her. He gritted his teeth at the hassle of it all, and his eyes moved back to where the other rider was getting away.

“Aiden!” he called briskly. “Follow!” he gave the command, deciding Liam could deal with this mare and the rookie solider, while he and the other Ruen boy gave chase. Naturally, Brogan had always been one for the thrill of the chase.

At his word, Aiden snapped to attention, momentarily startled by the squealing mare. When she dove towards him he and his horse stumbled backwards, him batting at her vaguely with the flat of his sword. When she dove to bite he lashed out again, and was surprised by the harsh reverberation that came through his sword as he hit something solid. Maybe he’d landed a blow. It hadn’t seemed to phase the mare as she fell at him again, and kicked his horse forward, lunging past Branden who seemed shell-shocked in the saddle and now empty handed. “Look sharp!” he yelled at his younger brother, who looked at him blankly, but there was little he could do as he drove his horse towards Brogan, already heading after the girl and her wheaten mare.

A grown unicorn, unhampered and fit, could easily outrun a horse and then some. But unicorns, unaccustomed to and concerned for riders, plus flanked by awkward half-grown kore, were another matter entirely. Xanthe plunged under Fiera’s legs, instantly chastened by any thoughts of bravery and it took her a whole thirty seconds to pull herself back together. “We need Rhaine!” she cried, half of her wanting the sisterly comfort and familiarity of her mother’s companion on selfish grounds only, and the other half knowing that if they had a hope in hell of getting out of here, they were going to need some serious help. “We need to go get them!”

Fiera shook her head and wheeled around after Spirit made off with Lana. Her mane got tossed in her face and it rubbed against Ali’s bare arms like silk. The girl grabbed a handful of mane, situated herself hastily and leaned over Fiera’s neck. This had been one of those many lesson she’d learned at horseback, many years ago.

“Forget that, we’re going to run. These creeps are just irritating me,” Fiera snorted and turned around to make a clean gallop. However, Xanthe’s sudden dive under her legs tossed her off balance. Annoyed at trying to avoid Xanthe and untangling her legs, Fiera turned around to see that Aiden and Brogan had left for Lana. What she also saw was Phae in a bloody face-off.

“C’mon, don’t just stand there, we should go before those guys catch Spirit and Lana!” the orange mare cried loudly, her voice clear and almost shrilling. To any foreigner it might have sounded very much enchanting, but to Ali, it was very much the same voice she was accustomed to hearing.

The girl watch brutally when Phae took a bit at the horse’s flank. “Poor thing.” She thought quietly, “even if they aren’t unicorns, they are animals you can grow fondly of.” She finished to look away from the beast with a twinge of regret, but this was her life and she wasn’t about to loose it anytime soon. With a sudden jolt, she felt Fiera approach Liam’s mount from the side and shove it down. “Let’s go!” She said one more time before turning a full circle and head down to town after Spirit, Lana, and those two men.

Fiera’s study legs absorbed the shock and impact of her hooves pounding against ground. her neck stretched out to gain more speed. They were going to catch up and then run into town to find those Guardians…

Drawing his sword in practiced ease, Liam swung the flat of the blade at the blood bay mare who seemed determined to harass their efforts, unwilling to injure such a fine horse, even if she was intent on hurting them, but he missed as she moved beyond his reach. I must be loosing it, horses don’t use tactics in a fight, they’re animals, they use instincts. He was having a harder time convincing himself as the fight continued and the ferocious mare was trying every move he would have himself. Gaining a slight distance between himself and the mare, Liam turned to Brendan and bellowed at the new recruit ‘Retrieve your weapon! Strike from the left! Lets try chasing her back to her herd mates!’

But he was too slow. In that instant, the blood bay mare charged him. Cursing loudly, Liam tried to get his horse to move out of the way, and thought he had succeeded. It surprised him when a sharp flash of pain seared just below his left shoulder. Forced to drop his reigns, Liam started to guide his mount with his knees, his mind a complete blank as to how his arm had been cut. The blood running down his arm didn’t allow him any other explanations. Looking back to the mare, Liam swore he could see not only a look of triumph on her face, but what might be his blood flowing down something ever closer to that face. He hoped it was the blood loss that was making him see these things.

The beginning of the fight was all a blur to Brendan, it all happened so quickly. It took him longer than the others to regain control of his mount, his greenhorn behavior making him flush with shame. He’d also dropped his lance, and was certain it had been knocked from his grasp, but by what he didn’t know. He wasn’t certain he wanted to know.

Just as he had himself regrouped and was searching for his fallen weapon, Brendan’s brother Aiden flew past him to go with Conner after the girls who were fleeing, the mare still causing havoc having created a diversion for them. That realization made him shudder. Witches! If I get out of this I will never, ever, complain about being given boring tasks to do ever again! Brendan located his weapon just as Liam started calling orders, and leaned down with an acrobats swiftness to grab his lance, bringing it up just as Liam was injured.

With an incoherent battle cry, Brendan charged towards the mare, hoping to at least make it retreat from his bleeding superior.
 

* * *

 
Meanwhile, back in town…

The smoke stung his eyes and the heat of the fire was building fiercely, radiating up the pyre and licking at exposed skin. Persephone’s feet skidded on the logs, and Tyden gripped the mane again until she found her footing. It hurt to breath. He turned again to the woman before them, letting go of his hold to reach for her, swaying slightly with the momentum. Her head was bent forward, dark red hair covering her face, and his hand went to her neck to check for pulse. It was still there, but faintly. He pushed back the curls but her eyes were closed, mouth slightly agape and lips bloodied. Her arms were bruised. Her hands were tied behind her, wrapped right around the pole and secured there, bound in place by thick wreaths of cord and impossible to untie quickly. Tyden felt his own heart race, fighting the nausea of the heat and the horror of what happened to this woman. He needed to get her out of there. Persephone needed him to. He cursed his hasty immersion into this adventure that left him without any useful tools – not even a pocket knife! He pulled at the ropes with no avail. Good god, what use was he? He gritted his teeth, leaning closer to pole as Persephone teetered again, fire dancing around her hooves.

A sound made him turn, and he spotted Rhaine and Lilaini standing between the mob and the pyre. Metal clacked and swords flew, the girls and their dark mares flying between them. I need a sword, he thought desperately. He turned to the bound girl as the ground shifted again beneath him, his voice broke through in his angst, cutting the hot air through his throat as he cried, “I need a sword!”

Gypsy, Mare Imbruim and the two Guardians had flown along behind Persephone and Tyden. Gypsy’s long strides ate up the distance that stood between them and the town, Lilaini low to her companion’s neck, vaguely aware that everything around them was nothing more than a blur. Despite the renowned speed that Gypsy possessed, Persephone’s pace was not to be matched today, let alone overtook. The bay mare, with Tyden astride therefore reached the town well before the Guardian’s and their companions. When the two of them entered the town and were lost from sight, Lilaini bit her lip and looked at her friend astride the black mare. Rhaine was the empath but Lilaini did not need to possess that gift in order to tell her friend was also worried.

Tyden and Persephone had been lost from sight for several minutes by the time the copper mare and black mares hooves clattered onto the cobblestone street. They pulled up suddenly as they found themselves in the midst of a sea of people. “Where are they?” the young woman asked in a strained voice. “Do you see them?” Her voice faltered. “Oh dear Kal, are they on the burning pyre?”

It hadn’t taken long for her eyes to find what they were looking for. There was pyre in the middle of the square which was beginning to catch fire, atop of which stood Persephone, Tyden and a young woman who must be the person they searched for. Lilaini again turned to Rhaine and a look passed between them that said they both knew what they had to do. Gypsy and Imbri surged forwards and pushed their way through the startled and confused crowd until they were next to pyre.

The guards nearby seemed to have recovered from their initial shock and were now rushing towards the intruders. Tyden’s voice, laced with desperation broke through shouts of the mob. He needed a sword. Lilaini’s eyes fell upon the face of the poor women he was attempting to save, and her anxiety turned to anger. How dare they she thought. Brutish horrible people. She did not need to look far to locate one, she turned her flashing green eyes upon the leader of the guards. Reaching out mentally, she ripped the sword out of his outstretch hand and sent it sailing towards Tyden. “Tyden!” she yelled outloud so the young man was aware of the sword hurtling towards him. When she was sure he had safely grabbed the sword she turned her attention back to the rest of the guards who were now faltering again, her mind reached out for the cold hard steel in their hand and violently ripped their swords away as well. Turning the blades around in mid air she mentally pushed the blades right up against their owners throats. “I suggest you stay where you are,” she said coldly to the now helpless men, daring them to move.

The sword sailed through the air in graceful arch, gliding measuredly, as if in slow motion. It graced over the heads of the crowd before it began to descend, careening towards the bay unicorn, her rider, and the girl. When it was almost upon them it quivered, nearly stopped, and Tyden reached up to seize it from the air. The sword fit neatly into his hand. It was a good weapon, balanced and well-cared for, the blade clean and eager. He regarded it for a moment, then cast a look of thanks to Lilaini, who on receipt turned back and to crowd. Tyden shifted his weight, gripping Persephone with his knees and swung himself towards the girl. With precise movement he cut the ropes, grabbing the falling weight of her with his other arm and letting momentum bring her across Persephone’s back in front of him. “Got you,” he said surely, “you are with friends now…” Her body was still lifeless, but he thought he heard small, unconscious sigh escape her cracked lips as her body pressed close to her Companion.

The harsh snap and clacking of burning wood crackled around them, and the fire leapt around the unicorn’s legs like hungry orange tongues. The sickly smell of burnt air joined the fearsome sent of the flames, and the heat was unbearable. “I think it was time we took our leave of this place,” he addressed the mare, his eyes following through the crowd to where Lilaini had the guard cowed, at least for a brief moment. He gripped with his knees again, his right hand brandishing the sword in an easy manner, his left keeping the girl snuggly in place. “Though if at all possible… you might want to take it a little easier this time?”

Below in the crowd, the murmuring sea of people had grown still and army had come to a tentative halt. Silence hung in the air, the only noise the fire. All eyes watched as bay mare stood amongst the flames, arching her crimson-dappled neck around to find the girl, breathing slow and filling her wide nostrils with the scent of her. For one moment there was no fire, no army, nothing but Unicorn and Companion newly met. Then a log cracked, the fire shifted, and sparks flew as the trio went cascading down the side of the burning mound.

Rhaine felt her heart convulse as she watched them go down. A cry escaped her lips, and Mare Imbrium sprang forward wordlessly, tracing along the edge of the pyre. On the other side they found Persephone had miraculously kept her feet, and her riders still settled. Fire had eaten away at her tail and the tattered fringes whipped around her furiously, extinguishing the last of the flames. But the mare seemed not to feel any of it; her eyes were bright and her face elated. She sensed their approached and turned, her ears flicked in greeting.

“Nicely done, you two – but this is hardly the time to reminisce!” Imbri gave a snort to clear the ash from her nose. “Keep moving!”

Tyden nodded silently, and the bay mare leapt forward, slowing her pace lightly in retrospect as she adjusted to the new challenge of her unconscious charge. “She lives?” Rhaine’s eyes fell upon the girl’s ghostly pale face.

“She’ll be fine,” Persephone intoned, no trace of doubt.

Relief lit her features and she buried her face into Imbri’s dark mane. She leapt through fire for her, her head swam with heady awareness.

*Did you ever have doubt?* she felt Mare Imbrium brush against her mind. *For you, we would walk through the very fires of inception…*

Noise flooded back into the world as the crowds took stalk of the situation at hand. They’d come to see a show – and show they had certainly got. But now, as the event unraveled, a new feeling began to breed, took root and grew. Witches. The Church had come and told them all the things that they must fear, and the abominations that would stand before them and the path to righteousness. In troubled times never was death far away, and the looming unknown ever dark and foreboding. Witches. The word chilled, filled with mysticism and misunderstanding it rallied them together against a common ill, gave a name to discontentment and singled out a culprit. Weather it was the right one – nay, it mattered naught. It gave them something to focus their anger towards, something to shutter and distrust. Something to banish, in hopes that by doing so, it exonerated themselves.

“Witch!” the cry went up from the crowd, slowly at first, then growing louder, and more eager. The startled army, stayed by the showy display of the Guardian’s power, now felt their strengthen returning, their intimidation turning to disgust, urged on by the swelling chant of the crowd…

Gypsy and Lilaini had watched in horror when Persephone fell through the pyre. They had surged forward with Mare Imbrium and Rhaine, forgetting everything else, Lilaini had let the swords drop with a clatter to the ground in front of the guards. Relief washed over them both as they saw no severe hard had come to their friends. Persephone’s tail was a bit singed, but the bay mare did not seem to notice. Nothing mattered to her at this point other than her Companion. For a few seconds it was as it time has ceased moving, the din of the crowd disappeared and it seemed like no one moved. Seeing the bond firmly established between human and unicorn was something awe inspiring. Lilaini reached down and hugged Gypsy neck tightly, knowing the feeling the other two were experiencing.

The moment suddenly passed, and the pair became increasingly aware that the crowd was no longer silent and the guards no longer stunned. Lilaini’s eyes whirled around saw the guards bending down, gingerly picking up their swords, as if they were unsure whether to use them now that they had been tainted by witch magic. Movement to her left caused her to avert her gaze and she saw several archers clambering onto nearby rooftops, and the crowd began pressing in towards the Unicorns. “We need to go.” Lilaini said turning quickly to her companions. “We need to go NOW,” she said again turning towards the others. “GO!” she yelled towards Persephone and Mare Imbrium and she and Gypsy turned to take up the rear. She felt herself calm and reached out for the magic that was flowing around them, coaxing it towards her she created a divide in the crowd by hurling everyone in the centre backwards, leaving a path for the other two Unicorns to follow.

Mare Imbrium dove into the sea of people, finding the path Lilaini had parted through crowd. Townsfolk scattered out of their way, and only twice did she have veer sharply to avoid trampling an unwitting stander-by. Rhaine threw a look over her shoulder to Tyden, astride Persephone with the unconscious girl propped sideways across the mare’s back. His sword was drawn, eyes keenly on the crowd, lest one of them chose that moment for religious heroism.

The crowd had turned. No longer passive watchers they had taken up whatever was nearby – spades and pitchforks, flagpoles – and joined league with the church’s army. Tyden gritted his teeth. Peasants, farmers, common folk, all of them… what were they doing here, in this mess, when they should be going about their simple lives, untouched by such madness? He did not relish wetting his sword on any of them, what when the true culprits – the men in their long robes and gabled hats – had already retreated to the sanctuary of the church; while they were determined that blood would be shed, it wouldn’t be theirs.

He saw the archers on the roof, and prodded Persephone swiftly on the right side. She veered away from the pressure, nearly taking Imbri out with the sudden movement. “Through there!” he shouted, pointing to an alleyway through the houses. Rhaine nodded, casting a thought back to Lilaini to update her on their progress. She’d lost sight of her friend in the crowd, and only hoped Lilaini knew what she was doing. She cursed her own lack skill; she could neither wield a sword nor Lilaini’s brand of swift magic. She was utterly useless to her friends in their time of need.

They carved through the maze of shambled houses, the clatter of hooves on cobblestone resonating through the empty streets. That sound swelled to thunder as a flank of mounted soldiers came around the next block, squaring them off from the side street. “HALT!” the guard called. “Cease now, pagans, and let the graciousness of the lord redeem your souls to heaven!”

“Seriously?” Tyden quipped, sliding in beside Imbri and Rhaine. “But what if I’m still using mine?” The guard shifted uneasily, horses champed their bits as silence fell.

Persephone snorted, eyes fixed on the soldiers with grim disgust. “I went through fire. I will go through them,” she warned.

“Not if we can help it,” Tyden gazed around the street for an opening. There was only one – and it was the open door to small building. “That will do.” His eyes flashed to Rhaine, and she nodded briskly. In a unison the mares turned, as graceful as deer, diving into the dark maw of the hall with the sounds of surprised soldiers fading out behind.

Plunged into darkness, it took Imbri a moment before she could see. The room was dimly lit at best, and by this time she was already halfway across, having scattered a small table and set of chairs in her wake. She heard Persephone give a wincing cry behind, blundering into them with her burnt legs. “There –” Rhaine felt her way through the dark with mind, passing the imagery on to the unicorn in turn. “It’s a door, you’ll have to—”

“Hang on!” Imbri plunged her head forward, bearing herself at the port head on. The impact was muted, Rhaine flinched as timber shattered easily enough, and the door gave way. She heard Tyden call out, but couldn’t answer, teeth clenched and fingers locked until sunlight flooded back into view. It was a carriage house, and beyond the wide open doors, the light of day.

*Sweetling, are you alright?* Mare Imbrium nudged her.

*Yes – but you?*

She heard the mare laugh. *Hard-headed I was called before you were born! Now open your eyes and tell me if you can see the road over that wall*

Rhaine raised her head in the direction Imbri had indicated and saw, crowning the grey limestone, the rolling green of the countryside. The wall itself was sturdy and wrapped snugly around the small yard, coming to conclusion at a high iron gate. But the gateway was open, one rusted hinge creaking in the wind. The soldiers were still fighting their way around the outside of the building, their angered cries spilling into the yard from the street beyond. “That’s the way,” she nodded as the others pulled up beside her. “But what about Lilaini?”

“She’ll come,” Tyden assured. “Let’s leave this place.”

A brief moment of hesitation, but Imbri urged her on; they were off, out the iron gates and already galloping up the hill by the time the army had made it through…

Gypsy snorted, ears lay pinned against her neck, ready to last out at anyone who was silly enough to try and come near them. She pranced in place, as she watched Mare Imbrium dive into the sea of people in front of them. Persephone had not needed any encouragement, and the singed mare followed close at her sister’s heels. Once the others were clear of the crowd, Lilaini loosened her grip on the magic and let it flow where it would. The stunned people began picking themselves up from where they lay, and the Guardian saw them begin to take arms. Pitchforks and spades were being raised to their never ending chant. It is time we should follow, hang on. Gypsy’s voice rang inside the young women’s head before the copper mare too charged into the midst of the crowd. Her hooves clattered off the cobblestone and she surged through the crowd of people. *Watch for the archers!* Lilaini’s voice urged to her companion.

*I see them* Gypsy replied allowing her eyes to move and along the rooftops, the archers were taking aim and began loosing their arrows. Gypsy leaped this way and that, easily avoiding the rain of arrows that raced towards her and Lilaini. The mare continued her breakneck pace through the crowd and followed her friends into the alleyway. Just as she was about to break free of the crowd, a frantic child came running out directly in her path.
“Gypsy!” Lilaini yelled aloud, terrified they were about the run the child over. The mare lurched to the side trying to avoid the collision, but in doing so lost sight of the archers arrows. A bellow escaped the unicorns lips as she felt not one, but two metal tips bite deep into the flesh of her hip. Lilaini was fighting to stay seated on the mare, as they narrowly avoiding trampling the child and slamming into a wall. Gypsy ignored the pain that was coursing through her legs and back and plunged ahead, her hooves eating up the distance between her and their friends.

Lilaini looked behind them, and saw the child was unharmed, but also saw two crimson arrows painfully protruding from her companions hindquarters. A thought from Rhaine rubbed up against her thoughts, showing her the path they were taking. There were solider’s close behind them, yelling for them to halt, and up head the group that had followed close behind Persphone was standing staring stupidly at a building. Gypsy’s pace did not slacken as she charged towards the group of men. The soldier’s confusion rose and they began to shout as they saw the mare and rider hurtling towards them. Waving their hands in the air they tried in vain to get the pair to stop; but at the last minute they abandoned all hope of that and dove out of the unicorns way. Gypsy turned on a dime and clattered through the room the others had entered moments before, wasting no time in exiting through the door Mare Imbrium had “opened” for them. Relief washed over them both as hoof again met soft grass, their friends came into view once more.

*Are you ok?* Lilaini asked, feelings of concern washed over her as the feelings of pain from her companion continued to wash over her.
 
* I’m fine, they will have to do much better than that to hurt me* came the reply.

Inspite of herself, Lilaini smiled, but this look quickly retreated when she looked behind them and saw the army had finally organized itself and was again in pursuit. *Rhaine, they are coming, we must hurry* was all Lilaini could send to her friend.

* * *

When Fiera began running, Xanthe was determined to keep up. She didn’t know where they were headed, but anywhere was better then here. Phae’s peals of battle curdled the air as they danced around the sparing soldiers on their way by, her gangly foal’s legs scrambling over the rutted mud, nearly felling her. She fought balance, and leapt on ahead, as fast as her heart could take her.

If they could only get to town, and get to the Guardians…. and then everything would be okay, she told herself. Everyone would be safe again. They’d get back to Kalidore, and then her mother would nuzzle her all over and tell her what a brave little Korè she had been. There would be much rejoicing. They would look back at this all and laugh. And she would never, ever eat another apple again, she swore up and down and sideways. Kal, just let me see my mom again, she pleaded softly, and I will try desperately hard never to get into any more trouble…

*

Liam felt the world sway slightly as he clamped his hand over his arm to try and stay the flow of blood. It was hard to do and keep a hold on his weapon. Branden’s yell made him turn, and he watched the boy hurl himself at the bay mare, determination making up for inexperience and driving the animal back. They yelled again, boy and mare, falling in on each other. In that same instant movement caught Liam’s eye and he turned his head, feeling pain shoot down his arm and making him bite hard. The red mare and small rider flew past, and he was unable to do anything to stop them. Blood pounded in his ears as he turned again, “Solider!” he called out sharply. “See to the girl!”

“Sir!” Branden swung about in his saddle, pulling in the horse fast. “But what about–”

“They can’t question horses,” he coughed. “Get after them!”

The boy solider stood for a moment, confliction wrote across his face. Then he pulled himself up and nodded sharply, craning the horse around with one hand on the reins and the other flourishing his weapon. He wheeled away, kicking his mount into flight over the broken ground.

Liam let out a pained sigh, wishing the boy would do well. He knew he should be there with him, not sitting here on his horse like a stuck pig, hapless and bleeding. He released the pressure on his arm tentatively, watching another swell of red seep across the thick grey fabric of his sleeve. That was a lot of blood, and it made no intention of stopping. He was going to have to tie it soon, or he wasn’t going to be able to do much at all. He grimaced, moving his sword hand away when the sea-blue eyes of the bay mare caught him again in their sights.

“You again,” he murmured softly, turning his horse around with his legs to face her. His sword rested across his thigh, the motion taxing, each breath finding new pain and driving it deep. His eyes never left the ungodly horse. “Tell me now, nameless one, how is this going to end?”

*

Branches snapped under hooves as the horses scrambled through scrub, the girl and her wheaten mare barreling forward to the trees a good two paces ahead, but the distance was shrinking. Brogan’s horse was shorter and had half the stride, but he knew these parts, and his feet found footing as nimbly as a goat. For all his faults, Brogan was a good rider. He rode fast, and rode hard, Aiden another pace or two behind him.

Underbrush crunched and goaded them, thin branches wiped back in their faces. Their pace slowed, and Brogan raised his sword out to cut the shrubbery from his way. “Enough of this,” he spat, turning to the other. “There’s no place for them to hide anyway. You follow here. I’m going around. We’ll drive her back to the others.”

Aiden nodded agreement, and plunged by him into the trees. Brogan wheeled his horse around and cut across the gentle slop at an angle. The girl was making him work. He hated working. When he caught her, he’d make her sorry. The thought brought a cruel smile to his lips, and he licked them, eagerly. Brogan liked making people sorry.

Around the next slope the ground cleared and he kicked the beast forward into a gallop, cutting back sharply towards his pursuit and closing in…

*

Fiera was breathing hard, her heart in her feminine chest. Her legs were straining to glide over the ground with a smooth gate, avoiding road hazards here and there while she took them to the their escape. Ali was feeling the same, except she was more concerned about staying astride on this jarring ride. She was focused too, but something was tugging at her mind. “I wonder what will happen to Phae? And what about that soldier? I want us to escape, but he seemed like… like near death. That would cause some guilt, I’m afraid. It’s just all so much to even…”

The sounds of horse’s snorting and hoofbeats cut her off from her thoughts. Ali had a bad feeling about this, but she turned around to take a peak, even though she suspected who it might actually be. Behind them, one of the other soldiers was riding up and gaining on their tails – fast. The girl sucked in her breath sharply and briskly forced out, “Someone’s catching up on us. Do you think we could find a route to take us a little ahead of Lana and Spirit?”

Fiera’s ears flickered back, picking up the sounds and her companion’s voice. “Into the trees then.” Suddenly, the orange mare produced a sharp turn off the rocky dirt road and into the trees and shrubs. “C’mon Xanthe, time to take a detour,” Fiera snorted sarcastically. The duo jumped over a few fallen trees here and there, dodging trees that posed a potential collision with. Twice had they not drifted off into thought, they would have run right into a tree too!

Quite suddenly, everything cleared and the trees surrounding them were no more. Fiera slowed down a bit into a canter, so her legs could take a little rest. Everything seemed better, that boy wasn’t even in site. Ali was looking ahead up the road while Fiera was looking down at the road, watching for hazards too. Something caught the girls eyes and her modo lit up a bit. “Look! I see an iron gate, maybe that leads to the town? Perhaps the others are there?” Ali inquired while they sauntered closer to look.

Suddenly as they had appeared on the road, Fiera half reared in surprise. Ali clung to her neck tightly, obviously aware of falling off. When the unicorn finally landed, the could see Imbri, Tyden, Rhaine, Persephone and someone unknown to her all clustered together. “But where’s Lilaini?” Ali asked briskly before they were all forced on the run again. “I wouldn’t go that way! Spirit and Lana seems to be on the run. Phae is last one standing battle with that boy soldier. And us? We’re on the run too.” Fiera craned her head around to prick her ears at the coming Branden.

“And I think he’s coming right now.”

*

Slipping in and out of consciousness, Aislinn became aware of a few things very quickly. The first being the presence in her mind, nigh euphoric at her wakening state. *Dear one! We’re here! You’re awake!* Relief flooded into Aislinn’s mind from the sender.

*What…? Who…?* her mind still wasn’t clear, and it made reaching out for the source of the new feelings and sensations difficult.
 
*I am Persephone, and you are my companion.* A loud crash, the sound of splintering wood, made her flinch. We’re almost clear of this place, just a little longer. The warmth of sunlight, and a fresh breeze hit her face, blowing her hair into her eyes as she struggled to open them. “Tyden!”she heard the voice again, out loud this time, “She’s waking up!’

As Aislinn opened her eyes, she finally saw Persephone, her bay coat, her black mane, her silver horn and a glimpse of the emerald green eyes she remembered from when she had been in the town square. With a sudden moment of clarity, Aislinn new she would never be apart from Persephone, and that knowledge filled her with a relief and contentment all of her own.

“How are you feeling?” a new voice broke her consciousness. “You were in a pretty bad way when we found you.”

Turning to see who it was, she found herself face to face with one of her rescuers, sword in one hand, his other arm holding her in place. Tyden, she thought to herself as she remembered the name Persephone had called. She could see another women and unicorn over his shoulder. “Feeling?” Glancing down she saw the physical marks the last few days had left her with, but they looked weeks old, not days.

*Unicorns have healing abilities, my Aislinn, and I was not going to allow my companion to suffer any longer than necessary. Not when I can help it* Gratitude was all Aislinn could feel, not only for Persephone, but for everyone, all responsible for the fact that she still had her life before her.

“My name is Aislinn, and I owe you all a debt of thanks,” she sighed, and meeting Tyden’s gaze with one of her own, Aislinn replied “I think I’m alright now.”

Mounting the shallow summit, Imbri’s keen eyes caught movement. “Ho! look there – it seems the others are on their way!”

Rhaine craned her neck to find what the dark mare had spotted, and sight of Fiera and Xanthe barreling across the green towards them made her instantly glad. The feeling lasted only for a moment before she was swept up by the sheet of panic that surrounded them, and saw, only a few short paces behind, a soldier in pursuit. She could only hope that Spirit and Phae were close behind, just out of view. If there were more soldiers in those trees…. *Fiera* she reached out with her mind *Keep running! We’re here…* She didn’t wait for an answer, and re-focused her thoughts towards Lilaini and Tyden, bringing them the news. If we can stay just out of reach, then Lilaini and I can summon a Gate, she thought breathlessly. There was no time to reach the old one, and the alternatives seemed to dwindle by the moment.

Over her shoulder she saw the town blossom with the eerie flicker of torchlight as the people spilled out onto the road. They followed the mounted soldiers on foot, the cruel song of their crusade growing louder and louder as they neared. The chanting gave the soldiers strength, it gave them courage and bravado, and even as Lilaini continued to fling wildly with her power at them, it had begun to loose its initial shock value. All about them the air seemed to change, as if holding its breath, and the grey sky began to fall, heavy, cold, and unrelenting…

As soon as he was satisfied Aislinn could ride on her own, Tyden gave Persephone a nudge forward and swung his leg over and down. He landed on the ground cleanly, bringing his sword up and around to feel the balance between his hands. “Keep moving!” he shouted as the bay mare whinnied sharply, Aislinn looking back with a blank expression of horror. “Get to the others!” The unicorn heeded him, and the sound of hooves trailed away. He turned to where Lilaini and Gypsy cut down the distance between them, the cavalry following ominously behind.

“Tyden!” Rhaine had urged Imbri around, the look on the dark mare’s face echoing her own. “What are you doing?” she cried, skidding to a halt beside him.

“You get the others and get out of here,” he said plainly. “We’ll hold them off,”

“With a sword?!” Rhaine was incredulous. “I’m not leaving you here!”

“There’s no time for this – I’ll be fine – you need to lead the others,” he met her eyes, dark and furious, biding her to go. When she still didn’t move he swung around to smack Imbri’s rump soundly with the flat of his sword. “Go! You’re of no use to me here.”

The truth of that statement stung; even has Imbri lurched ahead with an indignant snort Rhaine was recoiling, the ground beneath them a turning to a muddy blur. “When we get through this all, I will kick him,” the mare declared. “Soundly. Twice.”

“Just make to the others,” the young woman said softly, weaving the dark mane between her fingers as she adjusted her hold. She set her gaze forward, finding the rest of the herd galloping headlong over the sprawling green which no longer looked so majestic or enchanting.

* * *

Pasiphae fair snarled in irritation. The rest of the herd had disappeared amidst the grey-green woods, with the majority of the soldiers close behind – it seemed her spur of the moment plan had done little to delay the men as a whole, and she fretted at being so far behind.

Sweat trickled in small rivulets down her neck and brow – stinging sharply as it dripped into her eyes. She narrowed them into a glare, but dare not shift her attention from the mounted solider before her – wounded though he was – and instead shifted backwards, the shallow cuts on her flanks and back flared painfully as she moved. “Badly. For one of us, I think.” She spat out in reply to the soldier’s murmured question – too angry to remember she should keep her mouth shut. Her mind raced as she mentally ran through her options.

When the soldier’s blanched visibly – it seemed as if the heavy blood loss was finally catching up to him – Pasiphae tensed, and then rushed headlong at the pair – waiting until the last moment to dip her head low and slip her horn under the girth of the saddle, scoring a long cut along the ribs of the horse. The soldier’s mount squealed in pain, and whipped itself around biting deeply into the arch of Pasiphae’s neck before rearing. ‘Phae, wrenching her head and horn away from the barrel of the horse, the leather girth still looped flat against the base of her horn, heard the sound of stitching tearing and felt the band loosen before falling free from her horn.

She moved away only slightly before barreling back, shoving up against sore side of the mount, urging it to an even greater pained frenzy. The horse reared again and ‘Phae watched the saddle began to slide, the leather strap too loose and parting even further under the strain. Liam struggled to stay astride, but weakened as he was by blood loss, his sword soon clattered from his grip – and he fell heavily to the ground – managing at the least to fall free of the horse and the saddle.

The horse shied and almost bolted into the trees – but danced to a nervous stop several meters away, it’s head high and white-eyed, wary of Pasiphae, but trained well enough to not leave it’s rider. Liam groaned once upon hitting the ground, his voice low and raw, and then went disturbingly still. The unicorn mare glanced at him, and then at the trees – shaking her head to try and clear her eyes of sweat, and flicking her ears to as she sought to catch noise of the rest of the group – but she heard nothing except the heavy breathing of the nearby horse.

As ‘Phae tensed, ready to bolt into the trees in the general direction of the others and the gate, she felt an unexpected internal twinge that brought her to a shuddering stop. She stomped and pinned her ears to her head, fighting against the strange pang of guilt that lanced sharply through her. There was no reason to pity this strange, violent man – or her actions against him. They sought to hurt her herd, Spirit and Lana – her reaction was of simple self-defense … … … Pasiphae bared her teeth and glared at the boneless heap of a man that lay motionless on the ground.

And yet … she couldn’t bring herself to leave him. She moved towards him, warily, until she stood directly above him – staring down at the man, prone and still bleeding steadily, upon the forest floor. He was definitely unconscious, and his face had lost even more color. Pasiphae wrestled with herself, knowing innately that if she left him here, without some sort of miracle – he would likely die. As much as she despised the knot of soldiers and their threats of violence – she did not wish him DEAD.

Pasiphae cast about for some way to get him to safety, so that she could be rid of her guilt and return the others. Perhaps if she could just get him on his horse … she whickered, low and cajoling, and tried to approach his mount, hoping to lead it closer, but the horse shied away further – to wary of her to let anywhere near. She cursed at it and stamped, and eyed the man again.

There was no way around it then – she moved closer to him (first moving his sword well out of reach) – and pushed at him with her nose. “Hssssssssst. Wake up you awful beast.” She grumbled at him, noting his feeble groans beginning to grow in volume. “Get up. You need to get up.” Using her teeth she was able to pull him mostly up into a less prone sitting position, before laying down beside him and shoving her head and neck under one arm.

“Get UP you awful man. Hurry up, get ON already. Let’s GO.” She hissed at him. There was little way she was going to be able to get him astride her if he didn’t help at least a little. She thought he might be rousing a bit, for she felt one hand close on the hair of her mane, and waited blindly hoping that he’d come to enough to finally get astride so she could go.

*

Spirit burst from the trees into rolling green fields. Her ears pricked, her spirits lifing as the noise of the soldier pursuing them through the underbrush began to melt away as her long legs flew across the dew-damp moor. It seemed that perhaps the plan might work – if she could just get over the next set of hills – surely the others would have gathered by the gate by now …

Unexpectedly one of the soldiers came over the rise, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, and FAR too close for any sort of comfort. Spirit repressed the urge to shy away – not wanting to tax Lana’s already flagging strength (neither were used to riding in such conditions – Spirit unused to passengers, and Lana had rarely ridden faster than a half a mile canter, and never bareback – her parents were too protective of her). The soldier looked to be the odious leader, and she was sure she caught curses and other foul words on the wind – but was grateful that her heavy breathing and the wind muffled the most of it.

She veered sharply away – angling more towards town instead of the gate. His pace almost matched her own, his horse still fresh and his seat solid in the saddle – but a burst of adrenaline at his sudden proximity jolted her into a new burst of speed. However, despite the acceleration, there was no way she would be able to continue directly towards the gate – it was too dangerous.

We’re going to head towards town a bit, sweetling. She thought at Lana, her tone thin and brittle with the exertions. I think I can gain enough ground that near the outskirts we should be able to double-back and make for the gate. Just hold on.

Lana nodded into Spirit’s mane, and tried to mold herself to the wheaten mare – trying to move as naturally as possible – a feat that became successively harder to do as her legs had began to go numb with the unfamiliar gait. Just a bit farther … she hoped silently. Just a little while longer…
 

~ * ~

 
As morning came over the small village, Trinity was awoken by the smell of food being cooked. Quickly she rose and dressed, helped as sh had done before with some little chores. Once they were finished, she had a warm breakfast with the family sheh ad been staying with that night. She knew that she could stay and possibly find a home there, but she still had the want to wander and find the right place, the place where she felt she truly belonged.

The day passed simply and she had once again taken to helping where she could here and there, though as late afternoon came, she said her good byes and was once more on her way, though this time she had a bit more food in the saddle bags, thanks to the woman of the home where she had stayed and helped in. Horse had been fed and groomed and seemed to know that it looked better as it seemed to have a spring in the step.

As before she kept her eyes open for any signs of trouble, even though she knew that in the saddle bag there was a dagger, she hoped she wouldn’t have to use it…because she didn’t really know how to use one. As she rode along she hummed softly to herself, a tune she had heard once before in a dream. The dream had always been the same where she had been sitting in a glade under a tree near a stream, a fine light fog over the water. all around her though she could hear the tune being hummed to her, the voice a rich baritone, smooth and silken though. she never saw who it was th at was humming though she had called out many times asking who was there, the answer had always been the same of ‘I am someone you will meet one day, someone that you believe to be real.’ she knew she would find out, but so far, she had not found the being of the dreams.

~ * ~

Gypsy’s stride never faltered as she attempted to close the gap between her and Persephone. She was moving as if her hooves were hardly touching the ground, yet the sound of the villagers still reached her ears. Relief washed over both as they saw Fiera and Xanthe hurtling towards Mare Imbri and Persephone. She expected to see Spirit and Phae shortly behind, but she her attention was pulled back in front of her before she had time to see if they indeed were following. Lilaini stiffened as she saw Tyden leap off of Persephone’s back and come charging towards them on foot, sword drawn. What is he doing?! the thought burst from her mind. Mare Imbrium and Rhaine had turned and briefly spoke with him before turning and galloping back off towards the gate.

We’ve got to help him hold them off. He can’t do it alone. Gypsy’s thought of determination rubbed against her mind, and the Guardian felt the mares strides slacken as they approached Tyden. Lilaini looked behind her and nodded, the villagers were relentless. Circling behind Tyden, Gypsy turned and pulled up next to him, the arrows still protruding painfully from rump. Lilaini had offered to take them out telekinetically but the mare had refused, saying they must save their energy for more important things. This appeared to be what she was referring too, the young woman thought.

No cocky comments came out of the young woman’s mouth this time towards Tyden, the feeling of determination they were both feeling was much too great. She glanced at him briefly, watching the strained look that was on his face. “I’ll try and hold them off,” she said finally, “any that get past me you and Gypsy will have to take care of.” Reaching out the magic that was flowing around her she began hurling balls of energy towards the group of villagers, causing them to topple over or scatter. The results were not large enough though, and the amount of energy she was using to try and continue using her powers was exhausting. She abandoned this technique for something that was less draining, and began mentally picking up and hurling all the stones that were within view. Many villagers fell but more kept coming and she was beginning to feel light headed. Despite her best efforts more villagers kept advancing towards them. Gypsy began feeding more of her energy into her companion so she could continue with her efforts, but neither was sure how much longer they could continue…..

The first soldier who made it through came at them with sword drawn, urging his horse into the space between them. Tyden didn’t wait for Lilaini to turn, he swung his blade in a narrow arc, knocking the sword back and sliding outwards and down, passing below the stirrup. The soldier twisted in the saddle, trying to follow, but Tyden had already cleared and came around from behind. His sword was quick; the horse had lunged on ahead before his rider knew what happened and toppled down. There was no time to contemplate what had just happened, either; even as he turned Lilaini called out, another pair flanking up from the leaside.

She reacted instinctively, and caught the first with a ripple of power and knocked the horse clear into the other. Both went down, but the solider who fell clear was on his feet the moment after, charging back towards them with sword high overhead. His brows were furrowed and he was screaming something terrible. Tyden met the landing blow with his sword, stumbling back from the sheer weight of it. The man was huge. He saught for better footing, but each time he tried the soldier flailed at him again, using his sword like a hammer, driving him back. Their swords locked, and Tyden gazed his opponent in the eye. There was no mercy there, only grit, bent on driving him and the rest into them to the ground. Just as they’d done a hundred times before. Just like the would continue to do for a hundred years to come. For no reason other then that they were different. The notion sicked him, and cold hard anger welled in his throat.

He heard a cry and Lilaini was exclaiming something, but he didn’t hear. Willing all his strength he pushed free, using the momentum to follow through. When turned again the soldier was already around and charging, and he let him come, this time only glancing the blade as he went by. The oaf’s movements were powerful, but lacked grace; once pressed into action, he couldn’t counter. When the sword slid by him there was nowhere to turn as it slipped down and ripped across his side. Tyden wiped the sweat from his eyes with back of his sleave, disgusted to find blood and hoped not too much of it was his. “What now?” he called to Lilaini above the din.

“I see Spirit and Lana – someone’s after them!”

He braced against Gypsy’s warm side, catching his breath. “Well, I think you’re in a better position right now to help them than I.”

She would have scowled at him, weakened from the last blast, but was already focusing her energy on the figures that came into view – Spirit’s gleaming gold and black dwarfing Lana’s small form, the riders in persuit pulling closer with each stride. I don’t think so, Lilaini narrowed her gaze, and let fly a small but keenly projected rock at the leader of the two. It caught Brogan squarely in the chest, and was probably the shock more then anything that made him stumble back. He imagined he’d been hit by a cannon shot and recoiled dramatically, loosing his grip on the reins and stumbling backwards off his horse. “Ha!” Lilaini sang as Spirit went sweeping up the hill toward Rhaine.

“Nice one,” Tyden grinned. “Now do that a hundred times more and we’ll be out of here.”

*You don’t have the energy to keep doing that another ten times, let alone a hundred* Gypsy’s concern broke into her thoughts. *It’s time we left here while we still can*

“I don’t see Phae,” Lilaini spoke out loud. “We can’t leave without Phae!”

*

At the mount of the hill Imbri danced on her hinds, letting loose a wild and trumpet to the sky. *This way, sisters of Kalidore! Come, follow me!*

Rhaine waited until the mare had landed before she slackened her grip. “But where are you leading them? The gate’s back that way –” her gaze followed to where Spirit came, the soldiers – one fallen now, but still another astride – had joined the others scrambling up the hillside. For all the unicorns who were there, she noted with heartache that ones was still decidedly missing.

“We have to go back for her,” she prodded as Imbri turned, ignoring her cry altogether and starting out cross the plateau. “What are you doing? The Gate’s back that way –”

“And the soldiers too, or had you forgotten?” the mare snorted. “This way is much better.”

“But we can’t– and I won’t– and– and there’s nothing that way, unless you mean for us to sail off that cliff! I highly doubt–”

*Hush, small one* the voice in her head was terse, but calm. *We will be clear of this soon enough, you will see. Call the others to follow. You must trust me…*

Fiera received the guardian’s messages loud and clear. She made a labored breathing sound and closed her eyes, feeling the exhaustion of galloping on the run for such a long time and at such a fast pace – depleting. Ali, still astride, felt her growing anxiety for her companion’s state of health and the being of the other’s current state.

“Seems like I’m getting more than I bargained for.” She laughed cruelly, shaking her head at the thought.

“Probably. But hold on tight dear, we’re going to be on the move again, it seems.” Fiera said, glancing at Lilaini and Tyden’s direction to Imbri and Rhaine’s direction. “I’m just worried about Phae.”

The bright mare left no time or room for Ali to speak, instead she lurched forward at a steady pace. The soldier chasing them was fast approaching, thus sending everything in motion once again. “Gate. Run. To where? We’ll just have to see,” Fiera chanted to herself under heavy breathing, making their way up the hill and rocky dirt road. Sudden as it was, Lana and Spirit came into view, which gladdened Ali to sighing relief. But Fiera was more keen on where Phae was.

They made a lope towards where Mare Imbri and Rhaine were; approaching them was a mad idea, but something about staying close together tugged at their minds. Upon approach, Fiera first kept her distance; however eventually followed after. “I’ll get her for this after we get back. Staying behind to fight.” Fiera scoffed, her emotions a mixture of anger, anguish and genuine concern for her sister like figure. Her body tense with ears back, looking down to hide her expression behind forelock, digging up bits of the ground.

“How long will it take you guys to make…summon this gate? Everyone’s quite exhausted from this whole,” Ali let go do mane and waved her hands around, make gestures to emphasize what she was saying, “adventure.” The girl then let her eyes wander briefly around at the landscape. Such a pretty place but at such a bad time. Pity much? she thought dryly.

*

Both unicorn and companion were tired and sore from the days events, and craved time to stop and at least catch their breath. With soldier’s coming from more than one direction, and villagers still following from the town, they knew their wish was yet impossible and strove to keep up and avoid the soldiers.

Upon hearing Imbri’s call, Persephone, and Aislinn now astride, turned to join her and Rhaine in the growing, but not complete, group. Persephone fell in with the rhythm of the other unicorn’s gaits, the fast but steady beat soothing as sweat poured down her flanks and fatigue threatened to overtake her. Aislinn crouched as low as she could, trying to ease her new friends load as much as possible. Turning her face away from the stinging wind as they raced on, she watched the ground fly past, a green blur with an occasional flash of brown were the ground had been broken by the thundering hooves of racing unicorns.

‘They’re going to make another gate? The gate we arrived through is in the other direction.’ Persephone’s mind reached out to Aislinn with comfortable ease.
 
‘Gate? What’s a gate? Gate to wear?’ Aislinn sent back, her mind ever filled with questions about the new and unexplained.
 
‘A gate to Kalidore. A gate home.’ The feeling Persephone placed on the final word filled Aislinn with hope that such a place could exist for her. Most of her life had been spent on the move, never really settling anywhere.

Glancing behind them as Persephone surged forward, Aislinn took one final glance at the town that had almost been the setting of her final moments. In a way, she was sad. One part of her life had come to a close, all that was left now was forwards, forwards away from the soldiers and the pain they brought, forwards to Kalidore.

*

‘Phae pushed her way through the underbrush of the forest – her progress slowed by the slumped figured that threatened to topple from her back at any moment. She had managed to rouse Liam enough to get him mostly atop her – but much to her chagrin, once astride he passed out again.

“You miserable man, can’t make anything easy – can you?” she grumbled, but the venom in her voice had long ago dissipated. Truth be told, the energy expenditure from the fight had finally caught up with her, and her limbs and head felt leaden with exhaustion. “I do hope the others are okay – goodness knows I’m not going to be worth much when we find them. If we find them.” she sighed heavily. “And nothing personal, but if it comes between you and them … well … you might have to make friends with the ground again.” Slowly she stepped over a moss-covered log, careful not to jostle the unconscious man as little as possible. “It’s not personal you understand …” she winced as she pushed her way through the briar patch on the other side of the log, the large thorns cutting deeply into her flanks. “Hrrrrrrhmgph. Alright – so that’s a lie. It IS personal. But you can hardly blame me – or knowing you, you would anyways. Wretch.”

Pasiphae continued the external monologue for several more minutes before lapsing into a tired silence. Liam had gone disturbingly still and slumped farther down her back – and she fretted worriedly, as even the sound of his shallow breathing began to fade beneath the muffled sounds of her passage through the grey-green woods.

It felt like ages before they made the edge of the woods – and Pasiphae looked out onto the moor and cursed, her voice cracking with emotion. The hills stretched out farther than her eyes could see – all mist-hewn and rolling hills – with no sign of the rest of the herd anywhere.

* * *

As Spirit stood panting, her head hanging down, Lana detached herself slowly from her death grip on the wheaten mare’s neck. She glanced around, her eyes wide and still flighty, frightened by the harrowing chase through the hills – but seeing no evidence of any of the soldier’s still standing – breathed a small sigh of relief. Relief that – upon noticing Phae’s absence – vanished in a sharp ache.

Gypsy too was concerned for the whereabouts of Phae but she could feel her companion’s strength failing. Looking at Tyden she saw perspiration glistening off his forehead and he was breathing heavily. “Enough is enough,” she said outloud. “We are leaving NOW, while you too have enough energy left to hang on and while I have enough energy to carry you out of harm’s way.” Her green eyes flashed, and she turned so that Tyden could easily mount. “Hurry up, get on! Or so help me I will carry you in my mouth the way a mother cat does her kittens all the way to Kalidore if I have to. Hurry!” The forcefulness in the mares voice left no room for argument. Lilaini pushed herself forward, closer to Gypsy’s withers, and Tyden jumped up, being careful to avoid the arrow that was sticking out of her rump.

With the two humans in tow, Gypsy wheeled around and took off as fast as she could in the direction they had last seen Rhaine and Mare Imbruim. Despite the added weight, the bronze mares feet pelted the ground amazing speed. As the overtook a hill, the others came into view. Most of the group was far ahead of them, but Spirit and Lana were standing in the middle of the pathway, appearing to be frozen to the spot. *Go!* Gypsy yelled to them both mentally and continued to hurtle towards them. *We are not remaining here to wait, it is not going to be our future to loose our lives here, now MOVE* She was planning on herding them towards the others if they were silly enough to ignore her command but luckily they heeded the mares words and turned, heading off towards the others at a gallop with Gypsy and her two riders following close behind.

The earth flew beneath them, Imbri’s long strides eating the ground in ravenous blows. Rhaine threw a look over her shoulder to mark the others – they were a length or two behind, and already she could see they couldn’t hold this pace for long. Xanthe’s shorter legs had to work twice as hard, and try as she might, she was slipping backwards into the pack; the other Kore would fair no better. Her eyes sought out the companions, clinging to the manes of their steed with knuckles white and bodies braced against the wind. Liliani and Tyden pulled up the rear, Gypsy dashing from side to side to prod the rump that needed to move faster.

Behind her the legions came, pendants flying and horns blowing, each believing they were doing the will of their God and that made their pursuit insatiable, unyielding and relentless.
 
*Rhaine* the voice brushed against her mind. The girl turned forward, her attention drawn to the ebony unicorn beneath her. *You have to summon the Gate* Mare Imbrium said.

Panic-struck, fear pierced her chest and took her wind. “But I can’t–” she gasped, “not without Lilaini – and there’s no time…”

*Now, Rhaine. Make the Gate now!*
 
*I can’t!*

She felt the mare snort, her head tossed with annoyance. *Of course you can. You’ve been playing with gates since you were a babe, the least you can do is open one before we all perish—*

*But I didn’t know what I was doing then* she protested.

*Good to see how wisdom has expanded your mind thusly!* the mare shot back. Then sighed, and seemed to catch her anxiety between her teeth and swallow it down. *Amarhaine* she began softly, but resolutely. *I would never ask you to do more then you are capable of doing. You know that. And I know that you are afraid. But I also know you have it within you to do what is required of you. I would let nothing happen to you, ever. And I am always here for you, should you need me. Open the Gate; I am right here…*

Her words hung in the air, and there was no answer; the dark mare closed her eyes against the barrage of thoughts that tumbled through her mind. The air burned her nostrils and stung her ears. Behind her the others strained to keep pace, just a step ahead of the gloom. Please, she thought to herself, do not let her doubt like me. Let not the others suffer for my mistakes…

A shout made her eyes snap open, and what she saw nearly caused her to loose the ground. Across the dull horizon a beacon had appeared, a sharp apex of light that hovered and strobed, growing in strength and intensity and unwinding like a spring cut loose and thrashing. She shied against its brightness but couldn’t turn away – it held her like a creature transfixed. It breathed, this elemental light, rhythmically expanding, until a shudder and it went pealing across the horizon with a terrific blast. As it recoiled, Imbri saw what it was and gasped, shot with awe – it was a Gate, a wide, sprawling Gate, large enough to take in the whole flock in a single breath. *Well done, Rhaine, well done!* her spirits soared high above the battlefield. A cry parted her lips, half a laugh, a trumpet, to rally the others forward. “Through the Gate,” she sang, her voice carrying to the others on the wind, “through the Gate to Kalidore!”

Home… it stretched before the unicorns a wide and rippling shore of green and azure. Through the shimmering fringe the great meadow was spread before them, the knee-high grass ebbing with wild flowers all dancing in the breeze. With it came the song of familiar birds and the scent of flowers, of earth warm, rich, and full; it lit their hearts and dulled the pain in their legs. Nostrils flared and ears carved forward, whinnies bugling in delight.

For the companions, the green Isle of Kalidore marked something different, something new…but the kind of new experience that was welcomed, even yearned for. To them Kalidore was a promised land – a hallowed place. A place of new beginning, the chance to start again, to learn from, to grow… Even if only for a moment they remained in these green hills, each knew they would not leave there the same person they had been before. In that notion, there was trepidation; the unknown was spread before them wild and unyielding, and there was no turning back. Not that any of them wanted to… as the unicorns rallied to each other, it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement. Apprehension flew away in the wind and they crossed into Kalidore without fear.

As she passed through the Gate, Mare Imbrium felt the weight on her back shift. Her long strides had carried her deep into the green grass of the field and she slowed to circle, watching the others stream through the gate in unison. Beyond them, the army had skidded to a halt, transfixed and recoiling, breaking apart and scattering as solider after soldier turned to flee. Already, the edges of the Gate had begun to recede, but they were through…. exhausted but happy they came, grown mares prancing like young kore and the kore collapsed in gleeful heaps to kick their heels skyward and rub the smell of home back into their skin. The Companions too she saw were smiling. “Look, Rhaine, they feel as if they’re home too,” she murmured softly, and felt no response from rider. “Rhaine?” She craned her head around, but even as she did the momentum sent the woman sliding, and she had no way of holding her up. “Oh, help me!” Imbri cried out loud.

Gypsy had pulled through the centre of the band slowing to a jog just short of them, her attention jerked from the crowd to the struggling pair with dismay. Tyden was vaulting off her back before she came to a complete stop and Lilaini was a step behind. “Hold, Imbri!” she called out.

With what hands? Imbri’s mind burned until she realized she meant her to stop moving. She planted her feet, blowing hard and shaking all over, unable to do anything as she felt her rider slip from her back. Then Tyden was beside her, catching Rhaine into his arms with Lilaini there to steady them. They sunk down in the green, green grass, the warm sun of Kalidore bathing them in radiance.

“Rhaine!” Lilaini knelt beside them, her hand flying to her small herb pouch for smelling salts. Next to her the dark unicorn folded on her knees, her trembling legs giving way beneath her and went down.

“Does she breathe?” Imbri whispered hoarsely.

Tyden cradled the woman in his arms. His face was pinched and white as he fought against the panic rising in his chest. He brought her close, his head inclined. “She breathes,” he sighed, and the unicorn heaved an arduous breath and let it out all in a rush, the dread leaving her body like a spring flood.

Above them the sun beamed and the wind sang, telling all of Kalidore of the their return…

As the Gate stretched wide and open before them, Persephone and Aislinn hurtled through without a second thought or a glance behind them. Kalidore stretched before them, green and lush, with the brightest of blue skies crowning the field they found themselves in. Relieved to be home, Persephone slowed to a walk and then stopped, allowing Aislinn to slide off her smooth mahogany back. Keeping one arm across Persephone’s withers for support, Aislinn took her first steps in Kalidore, the first of many to come.

‘Welcome to Kalidore, welcome home my Aislinn.’ Relieved to be home again, the adrenalin began to ebb from Persephone’s body, she would need sleep and soon, but still had a few things to do before she would have time for that.

‘Home.’ Eyes wide with wonder as she took in her new surroundings, Aislinn breathed Kalidore in, trying to rid her senses of the horrors she had experienced. The filth of holding cells, the reek of the unwashed bodies they contained, the rancid oil burned in the lanterns where she had been held. A strong breeze blew past, she let it take the memories with it, may it do with them what it will.

Watching the other unicorns and companions as they walked, it took the pair awhile to notice the approaching hoof beats.

‘Mother! You’re baaaaack!’ Reaching them at a breakneck pace, Pandora nearly slammed into them as she tried to bring herself to a stop. It had been hard for her to stay behind, but she hadn’t felt the call for a companion like some of the other kore.

‘Yes Pan, I’m back. I would like you to meet my companion, Aislinn. Aislinn, this is my daughter, Pandora.’

‘Hello Pan, I look forward to getting to know you better.’ Walking over to the spotted kore as she spoke, Aislinn meant every word. The young unicorn in all her exuberance at the return of her friends and family was hard not to like, and she found herself smiling as she watched her.

Peering out from her mother’s side, Pan eyed the newcomer with curiosity.

‘Aislinn… huh.’ Closing the last of the distance between them, Pan thrust her nose into Aislinn’s face and began snuffling her hair and clothes, both streaked with ash and soot.

‘You smell… funny.’

‘Pan! Manners!’ With a snort, Persephone chided her daughter as Aislinn burst out laughing.

‘I never said that was bad! And I like her, I do! Please don’t be upset. I know! Come with me! There is this glorious patch of clover just over here…’

And with that she turned and trotted off leaving Persephone and Aislinn still reeling and struggling to catch up.

~ * ~

Trinity traveled onward along the path, soon coming there to a village. Finding a stable, she was able to place the horse, but when asked how long she would be staying, she had replied not for long, but she would not require the horse. The stableman was a bit confused, but nodded and said he would take care of the horse. She took the items from the saddle bag and wandered through town. It took the entire morning, but she had eventually sold off the items in the saddle bags and too the saddle bags themself. Now with food and money, she left the village and would once more begin to wander.

Wandering her way along the hills and path, Trinity would let her mind wander, but as she did, she hummed a soft song, one she had heard once in a dream. It was a tune she hummed often and often times she played it on her tin whistle. The day was for the most part sunny, but she could tell that perhaps rain was on the way.

The day wore on and eventually, so came the rain. Pulling her hood over her head Trinity looked around for cover and finding a stand of trees, she ran for them. They looked bunched together, so perhaps, there was chance that it was dry. Looking for a way to squeeze in as the trees were close together, she eventually finds one and squeezes through. It was dry indeed, the trees were old. There was space enough she could wander her way through, perhaps wait out the passing showers.

“Hopefully I can find my way through here and by then the rain will have passed,” she mutterd to herself with a smile.

As she wandered, she would soon see light through another opening. Perhaps the storm had passed already and she had found a way out. Moving towards it, she would look and see a rolling field. A smile came as she saw no rain and she would then begin to squeeze through the opening. Catching her foot, she would struggle a little bit, till she had pulled free. In doing so, she stumbled and fell head over heels down a grassy slope till she lay on her back, staring at the sky.

“Well…I hope no one saw that,” she muttered and just lay there, letting the sun warm her face, yet the grass wasn’t wet. “Perhaps the rain hadn’t come here yet…”

~ * ~

“I see the gate!” Fiera had cried out instantly, glimpsing the ethereal beauty from afar, her strides strained yet faster and more energy spilling into each step. Home is only a gate away,” she thought longingly to herself and to Ali, wanting to share every bit of her home to her new companion. Ali had squinted to see their gateway away from this place. Something about it seemed… celestial. But Fiera and all the other unicorns were celestial creatures, right? She couldn’t help but think.

No smiling and cheering yet until we get to the other side. Most definitely, Ali thought to herself. She felt her hands tightening on what was silky orange mane, her adrenaline rushing through her veins, causing the most noticeable heart thrum if they were somewhere peaceful and quiet. “I see the people are receding. Good to know,” Fiera snorted, rolling her eyes at all the trouble this place and those people had caused everyone. And good to be gone! Soon home where she’d greet her sisters alike.

The events that followed were close, quick, tight and choppy. First, it was through the gate of swirling madness. The once present tingling sensation was barely noticeable to the duo, as their excitement masked any uneasiness that was to be felt. Secondly, the land of Kalidore was beyond any place she’d seen on earth. Of course, earth had it’s beauties, but the vast and virgin landscape of Kalidore filled her eyes. She let her emotions go and let peace and relief fill her soul and mind.

Thirdly, “We’re home dear. This is my home, and now it shall be yours too,” Fiera whispered, only audible enough for only her human’s ears to hear. She came to a circling stop, legs in knee high emerald grass while the warm cool breeze tousled her mane. The mare closed her eyes, and raised her muzzle to the sky, breathing in the very air that she had missed so much. A sudden flow of unicorns came rushing by in a fantastic roar to greet everyone who just came home. Ali noted that there were so many. But they all had one of two looks; astonishment and awe. And by the looks of Spirit, Lana Persephone and Aislinn, they seemed to be around her as well.

Ali wanted to get closer to see, so she slid off Fiera’s back, only to find that her legs were weak and unsteady from so much running just a few moments ago. “Are we really in another world? Seems, so… impossible.” She breathed, trying to regain her balance by using her companion for some support. The grass didn’t itch her arms when she felt it because it was rather soft and comforting. “I could get used to all this, certainly.” And she let a dumbstruck grin roll over her features. The beauty of this place! And them, unicorns and… and…

“You’re overreacting,” Fiera lipped up Ali’s hair playfully before sinking down to her knees, leaving the human girl standing to wander around if she pleased. Ali hesitated for a moment, watching Fiera fall into an almost exhausted slumber before looking around to find that Rhaine had collapsed and was now in Tyden and Lilaini’s care, and that Mare Imbri was on the ground too. She frowned at the site, but retained from moving any closer. She was pretty tired also and yearned for a good nap or rest. But not quite yet before she got a good look at Kalidore.

Lilaini was wafting smelling salts underneath of Rhaine’s nose, trying to revive the young woman. Slowly, her friend’s eyes flickered open and she regained some level of consciousness. Stroking the curls locks out of her face, Lilaini removed the salts and returned them to her pouch. “You had us worried there,” She said to Rhaine. A smile crossed her face knowing now that her friend was truly ok, simply exhausted.

Looking up to their friend beside her, she became alarmed with the look on Tyden’s face. ”Tyden…Tyden… by Kal loosen your grip, she’s ok, give her room to breathe.” The Guardian placed her hands on his arms reassuringly, but forcefully none the less, trying to get through to him.

Once Gypsy was certain the three humans were tending to themselves well enough she moved, slowly over to her fallen sister. “Imbri….are you alright?” The bronze mare nuzzled the black mare who was laying, exhausted and panting on the ground. Her mind was still racing from the events that had just unfolded and her thoughts lingered on the gate. The size of the portal had been nothing like she had ever seen, and her eyes flitted between the black mare and the 3 humans, as she slowly began suspecting what it might all mean…

* * *

Pasiphae lifted her muzzle into the wind – trying to scent any hints of the rest of the herd. The air was damp and green, and she could smell the loam in the chill air – but nothing warm or animal. She let her head droop before giving it a shake – trying to push off the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm thought of anything else.

“Just a bit farther now.” She murmured aloud, hoping that the man slumped low on her back might take some comfort from it, even if given the circumstances it was nothing more than a bold faced lie. She longed to lie down and have a good roll – or at least a long nap – but the sack of human on her back ruined all hope of such things – so instead she talked.

“Mmm. You know – if I end up with … what are those things called again … saddle sores? ‘Course no saddle … so, man sores … well, ANY sores. Whatever. If I end up with any of those … we’re going to have to talk.” ‘Phae gave a low chuckle in the back of her throat, amused at the irony of it all. “Talk. Heh. Wonder how you’ll take THAT.” she continued to laugh, low and tired, as she finally gathered enough energy to set out across the grey green moor. The ground was springy and easy to walk on – and she offered up internal thanks for the small boon.

The mist curling in pretty wisps around her hooves as she walked – it’s chill at first feeling pleasant against her heated skin – but soon turned clammy, and made her sneeze. “Ugh. You know … if we don’t find someone soon, maybe I’ll just go find a ditch somewhere to keel over in …”

Suddenly the air in front of her crackled with energy – the smell of ozone lancing through her nostrils – and Pasiphae narrowly restrained herself from startling, mindful of her unconscious passenger. In moments, a gate bloomed large and full before her, its mottled glass-like surface depicting what looked like the flowered fields of Kalidore.

Phae released a longing sigh – a breath she hadn’t been aware of holding – at the sight. “Ohhh … you are one lucky beast, wretch – I think we might just make it through – Seems like somebody is looking for us after all.” Pasiphae tensed momentarily and stepped forward – shivering at the tickle of magic as she passed through.

* * *

Spirit knew that the sun should fall warm on her skin, but in her mind all was cold and brittle. The sounds of joy that rang through the valley felt muted in her ears – and a sharp pang of guilt flexed deep in the pit of her stomach. Lana, feeling the dark emotions reverberate across her link with the mare, leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her neck, holding her tight.
           
‘We’ll find her – don’t worry. If you could find me … not even knowing who or where I was … we can surely find ‘Phae.’ Lana whispered across the link, her eyes squeezed shut as she willed herself and Spirit to believe her own words.

* * *

Pasiphae quelled the urge to buck and frisk like a yearling in the fragrant fields – still mindful of her barely breathing burden – but couldn’t help the slight spring in her step as she trotted through the grasses, looking for the rest of the herd that she was sure must be there. “You’re more trouble that you’re worth – aren’t you?” she snarked at the man on her back, although her tone was laced with amusement.

Her attitude soon shifted however, as after several minutes she saw no signs of the others. Surely this was Kalidore … she could swear she recognized the mountains that surrounded the valley, and the flowers and trees looked familiar … and yet no one came to greet them. Finally, as butterflies began to multiply in her chest, she opened her mind wide and cast as loud as far as she could across the fields.

”Lo? Is anyone there?! We need help. Help, please!’ she flung out, her mental tone stiff and rather shrill. Moments passed, and as she began to fear for the worst … she saw movement at the edge of the clearing, as a strong and stately silvered dun stallion raised his head from grazing to regard her.

The Stallion’s eyes were the endless blue-grey of the sky, calm and cloudless. Despite the Phae’s frenzy – or perhaps, because of it – his demeanor did not change as he strode measuredly down the slope towards them, a host of yellow and white butterflies dispersing in his wake. “Greetings, young Phae. It seems you have found yourself something…”

Relief flooded the bay mare at his words and she nearly bolted forward in urgency to meet him. She locked her knees just in time, but not before the shift of momentum sent her rider sliding, falling to the ground with a dull thud. A groan escaped Liam’s lips, and that was both encouraging and alarming – encouraging, because it meant he was still currently alive, and alarming because apparently it seemed her lot in life was to inflict injury on the man unintended.

Odin said nothing as he leaned down to consider the unmoving form, his warm breath spilling over him and smoothing away the lines of contortion in Liam’s face. He brought his horn against the man’s chest, his eyes closed; the air around them seemed to slow, sound draining away until there was nothing but the rhythm of breath and the slow, measured beat of life…

Liam’s eyes fluttered. Consciousness came back to him in a haze, like fog rolled thick over the moors. He became aware of his body first, and that it hurt, but not as badly as half a memory told him it probably should. His hand moved to his face, physically trying to brush away the clouds, and a voice said, “You had a fall, but will be well now, good sir.”

A fall? nay, a fight? bits of consciousness flickered but refused to piece themselves together in anyway that made sense. Images danced across his mind’s eye, and through the ether he made out hooves and flung manes, eyes that flashed true cerulean and a spangled, spiraling horn resting on the creature’s head. Liam swallowed, trying to clear the gravelly sensation from his throat and worked on opening his eyes, if only to make those crazy images go away. Whoever was there, he reasoned, perhaps they would have a better idea of what had happened. Better then him, at least.

Light first, and it was bright — too bright, he shut them, but refused to give in. So he opened them slowly, and the light of the seamless sky eased away as to figures formed in his field of view. Long faces, crowned with dark hair. Horses, he realized dimly. Odd. He closed his eyes once again before opening them all the way.

“You will be feeling better shortly,” the silver one spoke, his mane falling between his ears and along the length of his brilliant horn. His horn. “It has been an ordeal for you, but know you are safe, and among friends. You are most welcomed here.

“Welcome… to Kalidore.”

* * *

As Lilaini brought the salts under her nose, conscious fought to return, the struggle played out upon on her clean features. Tyden was barely aware of the hand on his arm until she squeezed. He looked up, blankly, but nodded with concession at her words. “Amarhaine,” he whispered softly, “come back to us…”

Awareness returned in a rush. Images flashed before her eyes until she forced them open, revealing only darkness until her sight returned. She gasped, words coming in a garbled flood. “The Gate—” she managed jarringly, “the gate opened—”

“Yes, it opened,” Lilaini cooed, “it was wonderful – magnificent!”

“They followed—” she choked. “Coming through—”

“Everyone made it through,” she assured. “You should have seen it!”

“Opened,” Rhaine struggled, trying to pull that tangle of awareness into fluency, “Everywhere….”

“Rest,” Tyden told her simply, but the word had weight to it, and she felt it sink into the churning well of consciousness and soothe it away. Her breathing became regular and for the first time she became aware of her surrounds, Kalidore, her home, and the faces of the people around her, the unicorns and their companions dancing in the green beyond.

“We’re home,” she sighed, and the world fell quiet again.
 
*I have good news* Odin’s voice suddenly brushed against Tyden, and his mind was pulled to a scene on the Skyland slopes – Phae and Liam, both alive and well. Odin’s gentle contentment at the fact seeped into him, and he felt his own heart slow, adrenalin ebbing and leaving thick exhaustion, but elation as well. “Phae is with Odin,” he heard himself say, awareness sweet and intoxicating, “We’re all okay…”

At Gypsy’s query Imbri opened her eyes, but it was a moment before she stirred, feeling Kalidore’s warmth seep into from the ground, bathing her, making her whole again. She pulled herself upright, but didn’t quite try to rise. “Winded, is all,” she said plainly. “I suppose I am not as young as I once was,” a sad chuckle pursed her lips. “I will be better momentarily.”

Her gaze drifted to the companions in the grass, her eyes lighting on Rhaine, now resting comfortably, safely delivered into her friends’ loving care. All’s well, she sighed, all’s well…

*

Trinity looked around her surroundings for a moment, taking in the land. The last she knew, she had been caught in rain, found a grove of trees and squeezed through to find shelter from the rain. She soon noticed a herd of horses further down a slope.

“A pasture…I guess I landed in a pasture on someone’s farm,” she said and would stand from where she had been sitting.

She started along till she would look at one of the ‘horses’ noticing something. A glimmer of light bounced of…a horn? That horse had a horn. Her eyes widened a little as she stood in awe of what she saw before her. Rubbing her eyes, then letting her hands rest over her eyes a moment, she just stood there.

“Dreamin’…I…I must be dreamin’. Tha’s it. I’m dreamin’. I hit me head when I came through the grove back there and hit me head on something,” she muttered to herself.

She kept telling herself to wake up, yet she felt awake already. She knew she wasn’t going insane, far from it. After moments of standing there with her hands over her eyes, she removed her hands from in front of her face and opened her eyes, once more looking at the unicorns that were there, grazing away.

“Unicorns…they…they’re real…” she whispered.

~ * ~

EPILOGUE ~

Laughter danced through the garden, bright and flittering like a bird on wing. Muse’s eyes were soft as she watched them, the three young people who were sprawled on the green, and a particularly lively golden-dun Korè who pranced gamely between them. Rhaine was propped upon a nest of cushions, and already the colour was returning to her cheeks, the tired look leaving her eyes as she watched her friend’s antics. Tyden was seated on one side, Lilaini on the other, and currently Xanthe had just tumbled down in front of them, enacting her harrowing adventure against the soldiers with much dramatic embellishment. Muse had to laugh, gently, and sighed, turning to the dark mare beside her to nibble the other with much affection. “I thank you for returning both my daughters to me,” she smiled warmly.

Imbri’s eyes had never left the scene, and she seemed very distant, her mind far, far away. It was a moment before she knew the golden mare had spoken, and when she did, drew her consciousness back into herself with a heavy sigh. The world around her rang with the merriment of youth, and she felt her age, wearily. “Twas the least I could do,” she conferred plainly. “My duty to you, and to Kalidore.”

“A bit more then that, I’d say!” the other laughed gaily, giving the dark mare a sound shouldering as she chuckled. “Goodness, that Gate! I’d never imagined –”

“Rhaine’s doing,” Imbri shrugged. “The Gates were waiting to listen; they just needed to hear the call.”

Muse sobered, observing her sister with reserve. Mare Imbrium refused to meet her gaze, eye forward and fixed. She conceded, for the moment, tossing her sleek silver mane to the side as she considered her words. “Having the Gates open again certainly makes for some getting used to. I don’t believe there are many here who recall what that was like. And the visitors – why Gypsy said she found three more again this morning – all wandered in! More companions… more bonding… who would ever have thought….?”

The earth-green eyes of the dark mare had never changed focus. They rested on the scene in the garden, drawn there and transfixed, haunted with the ghosts of ages past, songs once whispered, dreams spun and then broken asunder. The brightness of the morning, warmth of the clean fall air, all these were lost to her; time and sprawled out endlessly as one long ribbon of twilight, hung between a moon that did not set and sun that would not rise. She shuddered, heavily, breaking her gaze and turning to the other with distant eyes. “It is time I took leave of you,” she said.

Muse had followed that gaze where it led, and returned to the dark mare as she spoke. “Sister,” she began softly, “why don’t you—” but she caught the mare’s sharp look and caught her words, and sighed. All she said then was, “Must you?”

Imbri nodded, tossed her head with assertions and broke from her side. She turned to face the wind, tasting it with her nostrils, hearing it sing as it whirled around her spiraled horn. “This place is too rich for me,” she shrugged.

The other watched in silent bemusement. “A unicorn cannot live off wind and stars alone,” she sighed. “Perhaps you will come visit us for the Harvest Ball… who knows, you could possibly even enjoy yourself,” Muse quipped without much conviction. She glanced back to the garden, her eyes brushing gently upon the girl. “And no goodbyes?”

“Merriment is best reserved for those who are merry,” the black mare chuckled softly, already slipping like a shadow between the trees. “And what use are goodbyes? Time is endless, I follow time. Neither of us says goodbye.” She shook her dark mane and was off at a canter, disappearing into the woods beyond the temple like stars at dawn. Soon even the sound of hoof falls fell away entirely.

Muse watched until long after then mare was gone. Then laughter from the garden made her turn, and when she did she had to smile. With that the golden mare pushed away her somber feelings and went prancing down to meet them, her heart full and brimming with the warmth of her family and friends….

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