Ulysses – Chapter 2

Chapter 2 ~ Into the Kaledon

Morning worked its way across the floor in long streams of light, but Rhaine didn’t wake until they fell across the bed. Then she was awake instantly, sitting straight up with a moment’s disorientation before judging the light across the wall with abject dismay. “Muse!” she cried, stumbling out of bed. “Why didn’t you wake me! The morning’s half risen and still have things to gather before we go – not to mention packing them, and grabbing luncheon—”

“Lana’s been cooking since dawn,” Muse peered her head through the sheer curtain that separated Rhaine’s room from the following chamber. “At this rate you’ll have enough food to feed the bunch of you for weeks. Besides, you were sleeping so soundly when I looked in earlier, I didn’t want to wake you. Who knows when you’ll next have the chance to sleep in your own bed?”

Rhaine made a grumbling sound as she threw open her clothing chest and rummaged for something that seemed to have worked its way to the bottom. “I still have to bathe, pack the bedroll – which is still hanging on the line, isn’t it? soaked with dew now probably, but it was so dusty from the last time… which ages ago, wasn’t it? And then there’s my remedy pouch, and I wonder if Lilaini will remember the bug repellent? not to mention the scrolls—”

“Here,” Muse flopped her bathing robe on top of the pile that was emerging from the trunk. “Go bathe. Your scrolls are packed, remedies are in with the scrolls, Lilaini will most certainly remember after that last time, and grab the rolls on you way in. Now,” she regarded the growing pile a moment longer, “what was this talk about packing light?”

*

Xanthe woke to the sun just breaking the crest of the hillside, washing the glade in opalescent light, cool, bright, and sharp. Snuggled as she was against Phae’s warm side she tried to squeeze her eyes shut again, but the light was intrusive. She yawned, rubbing her nose along her foreleg to brush away the dew. She rose gingerly, applying each limb in turn as if they lacked confidence; in truth, she was unused to the cold and rather spoiled. Since foalhood she’d spent the volume of her nights sprawled comfortably on the thick rugs of Rhaine’s bedroom floor, instead of out-of-doors and under stars like a proper unicorn should. Then again, her mother was not much different; a certain standard of creature comforts had developed for the unicorns of the Temple, noticeable mostly at times like these. Xanthe stretched and yawned again, feeling the chill leave her limbs with the motion. That was that. She was awake, and wasn’t going to be sleeping again soon.

She looked around the clearing, quiet now in the autumn dawn, the grass dotted with clusters of unicorns still sleeping and sprawled easily on the grass. Her eyes found the a few companions too, nestled alongside their partners with whatever coverings they had pulled tight against the morning’s cold. The great fire of the night before was only a smoldering patch of ash, still being tended by the appointed fire keeper, but asides from this there was no other movement.

On the other side of Phae Kyn was also asleep and apparently dreaming, his hind leg kicking out in abstract and nostrils twitching. Occasionally a murmur escaped his lips but no discernible words. Xanthe shook her head at the koros as she passed, starting across the clearing and to the forest.

Now that the light was back it nolonger seemed haunting, Dragon’s Ghost or otherwise. Plus, she knew that right about now Lana would be getting up and making breakfast, and with very little insistence this could mean oatmeal. Plus, she intended to give everyone an earful about her having been so erroneously forgot, as well find out just what news could have been so distracting in the first place…

*

The early morning rays had been slowly making their way across the floor of Lilaini’s home in what appeared to be an eager attempt to wake her. They continued across the floor and began creeping onto the bed before the Guardian fluttered her eyes open. She groaned slightly and squinted her eyes shut once more. Her head was pounding and her hand instinctively went up to rub her temple. It took a few moments to gain her bearings and images flashed through her mind from the night before, which only made her groan again. Forcing her eyes open, she looked around cottage and became vaguely aware that she should have been awake several hours ago. She lay there for several seconds more, trying to get up the courage to make an attempt at sitting up.

An angry twittering noise caught her attention and she twisted her head to look behind her just as a flash of red dived at the bed. The creature landed near her feet and angrily clamoured up the blanket towards her face. Pulling the blanket over her head she hid underneath from the creature’s angry glare. It paused its assault and seemed confused by her sudden disappearance. Peeking her eyes over the blanket she saw the pocket griffon turning around in circles attempting to locate where she had went to. Lilaini reached her hand under the blankets towards the creature, and slowly moved it around underneath enticingly. The griffon froze when it saw the movement, and crouched down low. It’s tail began to raise higher in the air and it’s pupil dilated as it watched the movement intently. It’s head bobbed back and forth with the movement under the blanket and it’s hind end began wobble in anticipation. At that moment, the small creature couldn’t stand it anymore and pounced directly at the Guardian’s hand and she laughed in delight and pulled her hands out of the way just in time to avoid the creature’s beak.

Unfortunatly, her laughter hurt her head and she again reached for her temple. “Oh Adar, I am so very fond of you,” she said reaching out to stroke the creature who was becoming aware of the trickery that had been played on him. He squawked in mock annoyance and flew off to sit on the table and glare about the room. He had been locked in the cabin all night which had put him in a rather foul mood, due to Lilaini’s state of mind she forgot to open a window for him when she had arrived home.

Finally sitting up, she looked around the room and was glad to see that she had decided to pack before she went to bed. Getting up, she strode unsteadily over to the herb cupboard and began pulling out a variety of containers and concoction. Normally these herbs were put into tea but she did not have time to be starting a fire to heat water for tea, so she did the more unpleasant task of crushing them and swallowing them quickly with a cold cup of water. Making a face, she shuddered violently and had to stop herself from retching, but after only a few moments her head began to clear. Satisfied this was the best she was going to be able to accomplish she moved towards the bags laying across her table and began to check through them to see if in her state of mind last night she remembered to pack everything that would be needed. The Guardian was almost satisfied with the contents when she noticed the bug repellent was still sitting on the shelf to her left and she wandered over to retrieve it. Rhaine would surely kill her if she forgot this again. Packing it away near her bedroll she next went off in search of something to wear.

She had had the foresight to pack her bags last night but apparently not enough foresight to not sleep in the clothes she had worn to the festival. Her travelling clothes were comfortable enough to sleep in but the corset she had worn to the ball was digging at her in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. Reaching around in an attempt to disengage herself from the contraption, she had her back to the door as it was slowly pushed open. She didn’t turn around because she knew it was Gypsy, and Adar squawked angrily and flew out the door the moment the mare had pushed her way in.

“It’s good to see that you are up and moving, I was beginning to wonder if the others were going to arrive and you would still be in bed.” The bronze mare’s green eyes were full of mirth and teasing. “Well then perhaps you should have come and woken.” The Guardian replied, “And would you be so kind as to please come and pull on these strings or I shall be stuck in this contraption forever.” Her companion walked across the cabin, tucking her head so as to not catch her horn on any one of the many vines and plants that was creeping across the ceiling. Grabbing the strings with her mouth, she gave them a sound tug and the tension was released. Lilaini began to squirm and finally was free of the binding clothing.

*

After clearing had quieted and everyone had set on their way to bunk down for the night, Bryn had set about making a lean-to of sorts with limbs and the like from fallen trees in the forest around the clearing. It was a slow process at first, and she had only thought to make it large enough for her. That is until she was joined in her efforts by a certain Irishman.

So this morning, with the sun beginning to crest over the horizon, she found herself waking automatically with the first light. She was, as a rule, a morning person and always prepared to take on the day ahead. This morning was not different, unless you count the small throb between her eyes… and the soft groan she’d uttered as she sat up and took a look around from her corner of the thrown together covering.

Slipping from under the safety of the lean-to, she felt the cold of morning and had to smile on it. She was at home in the winter weather, truthfully, and the feeling of it seemed to wipe away the after affects of too much wine all together. Rolling her blue-linen covered shoulders, she took a look at her fellow builder; still sleeping.

Thora woke, too, with Bryn’s movement, but it was only to register what was happening before she faded back out. Apparently Thora had been pushed past her usual bedtime and sought to sleep in, Bryn decided.

No matter, she manned herself with a grin and kicked at his boot with her own. “Time to rise, Liam. We’ve got hunting to do.” And unceremoniously dropped her sheathed axe onto his belly, before turning half her attention to raking her fingers through her hair and pulling it back into a much neater braid than when she woke.

“I get the iced water next.” Bryn warned Liam, as a little extra incentive.

So far, Liam awoke every morning in Kalidore to something strange and wonderful – and while the morning after the harvest festival proved to be no different, there was definitely a large dose of the familar. His burgeoning consciousness, grudgingly awakened with the kick from his blonde bunk-mate of the night before, was greeted with a skull-splitting hangover. A groan clawed it’s way out of his throat as the sharp throbbing finally registered. Liam lay very still, his eyes still closed, hoping that perhaps if he were very lucky he might be able to evade the horrible headache if he could just fall back asleep … only to have Bryn’s sheathed axe landed on his stomach with a hard thwack. The unexpected strike made him flinch and open his eyes – the jerky movement and sudden light a painful double blow to his already aching head. He grimaced in pain, and held up a hand to block the light from small lean-to’s opening.

“Och lass – are you trying te kill me then?” He groused at Bryn, clearly at odds with her perky morning attitude. He rolled onto his side, massaging the bridge of his nose in a vain hope to dispell the evils that drinking a bottle and a half of wine had reaped upon his poor head. At the mention of ice water however, Liam decided that braving the protesting aches of his brain were worth it in lieu of escaping an impromptu bath.

“Augh! I’m up, I’m up!” he rumbled, and managed to lumber his way (looking rather rumpled) out of the shelter and out into the open air – boots and mail in hand. (Liam felt at least comfortable enough in the area to not feel the need to wear his armor at ALL times. And besides – sleeping in chain mail is UNCOMFORTABLE. Not to mention the smell)

Bryn would have had to agree on that front, she had removed her armor as well, though that was more to appear… acceptable, rather than ready for battle with the people of this world. Not exactly the most friendly looking attire, her armor. And for this hunting trip she chose to wear only what she had on the previous night, though her cloak was drawn up into her hands and shook out. The rest of her protective layers was left for the sleeping Thora to guard.

Twin blonde brows rose together at his response. Kill him? “That would certainly make it easier than hunting.” What hand only been a grin before, now turned larger and flashed more teeth. “Luckily for you, I’ve never been one to take the easy route. Besides, I don’t think you‘d taste as good.” She quipped; amused.

“Hrmf. Easier, indeed. As for the other, I’ve never actually had any complaints.” Liam muttered as he finished lacing on his boots. He straightened slowly, taking a deep breath to try and clear his head (while it didn’t exactly work, he did feel the better for it.) before refocusing on Bryn.

He scrubbed a hand through his short blonde hair, and grimaced at his blonde companion. “Now … what was it you had in mind lass? Was it something about food? Hunting, ye said?” he queried, bending over to tug on his leather boots.

Nimble fingers finished in fashioning the metal brooches on her cloak to hold it in place. Bryn gave him a short nod in agreement. “I’m glad you were awake enough to hear that the, I was feeling bad for waking you.” Of course, with the smile on her face, she was saying otherwise; she hadn’t actually felt bad at all. “Yes, hunting… you do know how, yes? I do not have to teach you?” She eyed the armor that he held, tilting her head only moment. She’d have to examine that later, the technique was different; better.

Both blue and brown eyes perused him quickly, judging his readiness, while pale pink lips pushed into a pursed pose. “We should start that way.” She gestured toward the woods with her hand and turned the attention of her gaze there too, Bryn’s expression turned thoughtful a moment. What would the animals here look like? We’ll find out soon enough. She mentally shrugged before giving Liam one more glance and setting her soft-thudding footfalls into the appointed direction, with a sway of platinum braid.

Hopefully, he’d hurry along. Because it seemed like Bryn wasn’t going to wait for him to rub the sleep out of his eyes or settle in with his hang over.

“Awake enough, anyways.” He replied, and then grumbled loudly at her intimation that he might need her assistance to know the pointy end of a cross-bow. “I’ll have you know … ” he began, ready to boast of his handful of manly hunting encounters of the past, when he looked over and noticed that his blonde compatriot was already marching off into the surrounding wilds. He frowned, not enjoying the sensation of being so summarily discounted.

Detouring slightly to snag an apple from a nearby table, he rushed to catch up with Bryn, and was mildly impressed at the pace he was forced to take to keep up with her. “You know,” he remarked thoughtfully, “…as much as I enjoy a good roast, how exactly d’we know what isn’t well … off limits? I’ve enough problems to bear without eating a friend of one of our four-footed hosts.”

*

The sun was nearing second-notch when Odin stepped from the wooded vale to grace the shore, fracturing the lake’s mirrored surface as he sunk his nose in to drink. Tyden was silent, taking in the quiet beauty as he shifted his weight back, balancing against the saddle packs that had been slung across the stallion’s broad sides. When he was finished, Odin gave his head a brisk shake which sent water droplets scattering and his rider a playful jolt. “Hey-hey!” Tyden admonished cheerfully. “Dump me in the lake, and you’re the one who will be stuck carrying the very soggy load who will complain sullenly for the rest of the day.”

The great stallion seemed to chuckle, his black and silver mane shivering with the movement. “T’would be a change from another 27 verses of Urd-in-the-Hole,” he shrugged passively, and clipped up the rocky embankment toward the temple.

Kalidore’s sole permanent building rose gently from the rock formation as if had grown their naturally. It was a beautiful structure; peaked arches sprang from the rock to form windows and doors, the stone surface woven and carved into delicate organic forms as if it two were something alive and growing. Where there rock ended, plants had been encouraged to grow – trees encircled the garden walkways with their branches, stone trellis were covered in climbing vines, blooming deep crimson in autumn’s reign. The single crowning spire was the only thing that looks specifically manufactured, but so fitting with the scope and line of the rest that the building it stood a triumphant execution of elven architecture at its finest.

Across the wild-grown but elegant grounds they went, coming around the eroding outer walls and into the gardens proper. And there, in contrast to glorious examples of elven masonry and exquisite pastoral forms was Rhaine, somewhat bedraggled, wearing her bathrobe with hair piled untidily and tugging at heavy a canvas that had been thrown over a make-shift clothesline. This she seemed to be having difficulty with, a point accentuated by the participation of the large and rather presumptuous emu who darted back and forth under the line to nip at the fluttering cloth counterproductively. Now and then a loose reproach flew in the direction of the bird, and the girl nearly tipping herself off the apple crate she was balanced upon while she continued to pull stubbornly. Perhaps pastoral wasn’t too far off mark, Tyden considered in retrospect, a smile working the corners of his mouth. With an unspoken nudge Odin resumed his momentum and drew alongside. “Truly, it takes a certain kind of adventurer who takes on the wilds dressed in nothing but an old bathrobe,” Tyden addressed as seriously as he could.

Rhaine sighed heavily into the bulging tarp, shooing away the emu again half-heartedly. “My morning has been disapproving enough without a critique of my attire,” she bemoaned.

“Oh no, you have me mistaken – I’m a fan. Hugely! In fact,” Tyden grabbed hold of the canvas as Odin leaned against the line with his horn, “I think it’s attire that should be worn at length…. Just, perhaps not for the quest at hand. Here, I’ll pack this and you go get dressed; as much as I’d like to see you carry on as you are, I’m not sure it’s something we want to be sharing with all of Kalidore…”

“I will share it with whomever I right-well feel like,” she rejoined crossly, allowing him to draw the ends together and fold them smooth. The tent, she knew, Tyden would consider a luxury; she considered it necessity on account of the weather, which was unpredictable at this time of year. The dew had made it clammy and it was moving with as much delight as wet cat; at least Lana had the foresight to bring in the bedroll. In such a short time she’d been at the temple Rhaine and could not imagine what she’d ever done without her; nothing really pointed out what a scatterbrain you were like being around someone who wasn’t. She turned, using the emu for leverage as she climbed off the box. The emu gazed at her expectantly, batting it’s long lashes beguilingly.

“Fine, Edwina!” she sighed at last. “I’ll get you breakfast. And you,” she glanced back at Tyden, most of her annoyance begun to dissipate, “if you like I think you can find something for yourself in the kitchen; Lana’s been cooking all morning. I’ll be there as soon as I’ve changed.”

*

“You forgot me,” Xanthe deadpanned.

“Sweetling, I certainly did not,” Muse sighed, trying not to sound impatient. “I figured you were having a good time and wouldn’t want to come home yet. And if you called to me, I would have come and gotten you at once. Did you have a good time?” she looked up from Rhaine’s satchel, which she had been rifling through to make sure that everything had ended up where it was supposed to.

“Yes,” she sulked.

The palomino mare tried no to smile at her daughter’s impetuousness, and leaned over to plant a quick lick on the ear. Xanthe resisted grumpily, but with her stomach full of warm oatmeal it was impossible to stay truly wound up and found her interest drifting to the scrolls her mother had packed. “Why so many?”

“To be safe,” Muse replied. “As I shall accompany the Daiga home, I won’t be there if Rhaine needs to know something. So these are maps, journals, historic notes, and spells – everything I have on that vast region of the Skyfields. I hope it will be enough,” she pondered.

“So if you’re not going… does that mean I can’t go either?” Xanthe began slowly. Though she had not exactly been grounded – at least, not in so many words – after her last foray into the unknown her mother had been rather firm about her staying close at hand. And while Xanthe had sworn up and down to comply – without complaint, even – it seemed some cruel jest of fate that everything interesting seemed to happen in the regions just beyond. “I’ll mind Rhaine,” she pressed on longingly. “I’ll help her, even. I… I can carry the packs! I’ll be useful. And I will behave myself and not wander, not even a little. I will pay close attention to what I see, and make notes, for my studies – for new scrolls…. and, even, practice my spells…” *

Her mother had an unfamiliar look on her face as she observed her, her sea-blue eyes full of thought. Xanthe’s eyes, though also blue, were more like her father’s, crisp and clear with an element of sky. Her own gaze was unwavering, and at last, her mother sighed. “What good would I be as an advocate of dreams if I did not allow my daughter to follow her own?” Muse nuzzled the ear again softly. “So yes, you may go, and I hope enjoy your quest. And I will do my best not to worry so terribly about you while you’re gone.”

“Tyden will take care of me,” she assured soundly, feeling a bit awkward at the prospect of making her mother worry again. “He did last time. And soon, I will be old enough to take care of myself. Then you won’t have to worry at all.”

“I doubt it… that I would ever stop worrying, that is; for by Kal’s eyes you are growing so quickly…” Muse shook her head softly, but then she straightened, determined to be sensible and began packing again. “Well now, if you want to help, let’s see what we can get you doing.”

Eager, Xanthe followed her mother’s lead, delighted to be taken seriously and eager to be of service in anyway she could. After all, she was not some weanling kore (maybe the stories of her exaggerated adventure had lodged into a particular corner of her brain, and Kyn’s re-telling of them at length the night before certainly didn’t hurt!) she was practically a full-fledged adventure already. And they weren’t even leaving Kalidore, she thought with a shake of her head. Really, what could possibly happen?


* The last part was good deal of bargaining give on her part; in truth, Xanthe was a poor scholar when it came to spell scrolls. It was not that she wasn’t smart, or talented, simply, that she never seemed able to sit still long enough to make through any of her mother’s lessons. It was something that frustrated her mother to no end, and remained constant a sticking point between the two. If only they were to make useful spells, she huffed wearily, instead of silly charms to make plants grow or lull the emus off to sleep. Then maybe learning spells would be interesting…))

*

Brona didn’t sleep that night; she had little need to. Even had she needed to, she doubted she could have; her mind was whirling, pressing with questions she felt she needed to answer. How can I make a difference? I want –

After hours of thought, when the dark horizon had begun to shade into dark azure, she found a semblance of an answer. I don’t want to be a doll, a body with no purpose, a wandering spirit. I want something to believe in, to fight for. To not be afraid. To feel – something. Dream or not – I want to believe in Kalidore.

However, to make a difference, she had to learn to accomplish things, like walking. Mostly she could move on instinct – but while her body gave her the ability to touch things and be touched, it didn’t replace the sense of touch; the feet she stood on, the hands she curled into fists or patted her face with – had no feeling. It was odd – after years of dreaming, to be bound by gravity. She couldn’t float over dips and hollows in the ground, and the first time a stiff breeze shoved at her lightly, she lost her balance and fell.

Balance was a little tricky – she couldn’t rely on feeling her feet, and had to rely on visual cues to tell if she was leaning or not.

Entering the temple was easier – the ground was level, and there were walls she could place against them to steady herself. Stepping with exaggerated care, she suppressed a thrill of glee – her footsteps echoed! She was surprised to hear the clatter in the kitchen of food preparation, and headed for it. She couldn’t eat (and oh, how she missed being able to taste and smell! The foods at the Ball the night before had looked absolutely scrumptious!), but maybe she could help – what an exciting thought!

And besides, she wanted to see who was up, and maybe talk. And see how the inhabitants of Kalidore would respond to Brona’s new ‘body’. Hopefully better than they responded to the ‘ghost’ me, she thought ruefully, stepping into the kitchen, correcting herself a little awkwardly when her shoulder clipped the doorframe.

Lana bustled about the temple kitchen with a happy efficiency.* Her bare feet padded quietly on the warm stone of the kitchen floor as she moved between stove and counter-top; stirring the simmering porridge as she added a handful of cinnamon, cracking a few more eggs into a large bowl in preparation for a morning breakfast rush that she knew would be happening shortly. Out of the corner of her eye Lana caught a form lurking in one of the kitchen doorways, and she turned with smile to find Brona watching her.

Lana ducked her head in greeting, taking in the slightly exotic appearance of the golem-girl in stride**, and was about to gesture to the girl to come in and sit down when the oven-fire suddenly guttered. Lana eeped, flitting to the wood basket to grab another pair of logs to throw on the fire, and wrinkled her nose at the realization that the basket was nearly empty. She threw the rest of the wood on the fire, and placed the empty basket on a nearby table.

The fire taken care of for time being, she turned back to Brona with a wide smile.

“H’lo! Hungry?” she queried the golem-girl brightly, and gestured towards one of the many chairs that circled the kitchen tables in the room.

Brona thought her noisy entrance would alert Lana to her presence, momentarily forgetting the girl’s deafness. So mutely she watched Lana bustling around fixing breakfast, looking longingly at the food. As at the banquet, it smelled absolutely delicious. If she had had salivary glands, her mouth would have been watering. Still, food wasn’t an option.

She blinked at how rapidly Lana took her new form in stride, though it was a bit relieving – apparently magic was common-place enough here on Kalidore that strange things were accepted as a matter of fact! That meant, hopefully, she wouldn’t be something to stare at.

So she watched, bemused, as Lana dashed to throw wood in the fire. “Ah, I’m not hungry,” she said, raising her hands in a negation, remembering to frame her words carefully, so Lana could read her lips.

((* So far, her visit into Kalidore had been nothing short of awe inspiring and wonderous, and while she was greatly appreciative of all of the marvels that had awaited her – she also enjoyed the chance to slip back into the more commonplace activities that she had grown up with. Bit by bit, she found herself organizing corners of the temple – which soon grew into assistance with shelving and storing – and lately (having found herself to be one of the earliest risers of the group) temple “chef” of sorts, and took great pride in providing all temple visitors with a warm and savory meal.

**Honestly, after telepathic unicorns, travelling gates and a new magical land – a visiting golem wasn’t a big hurdle for her brain to process in comparison with the wonders it had been faced with so far.))

*

The night had passed and Aurellie watched as Trinity had started to doze, then ushered the girl on to her back and taken her to a glade she called her own. It was simple enough for her since she had always bunked alone. The glade was made of trees, enough to shelter where she lay and such, keeping it dry. It had a bit of a stream running through it, so she always had water to drink. She knew she would have to find something better though for Trinity, now that she had the girl.

As the light from the sun peeked through the curtains of willow boughs and washed over Aurellie’s face, the mare woke, then looked to see Trinity still asleep. She knew the girl hadn’t had much to drink, but still she was tired, thus she let her sleep for now. She shifted slowly, allowing the girl to lay on the soft cushioning of bedding she had, then moved towards the stream for a drink. Once she had her fill, she walked back over towards the girl and nudged her softly.

“Come on Trinity. Time to wake and greet the day,” she said and nuzzled her cheek.

“Mmrpghmmf…five more minutes ma…” she muttered and rolled back over, pulling her cloak over her head and curled up like a cat; she acted like a little child that didn’t want to get up, which she didn’t.

Head tilted slightly the mare shook her head. She walked back to the stream and took a mouth full of water, then walked back to the girl and dropped it on her face, causing her to sputter and cough.

“Och! Aurellie!” Trinity squeaked as she sat up and wiped her face. “Did ye ‘ave te do tha’? Least yer mouth is clean.”

“Well I wasn’t about to let you sleep the day away, it’s already mid-morning,” the mare said with the best smirk she could make.

Trinity stretched, then rose and walked over to the stream to wash her face clear of the spit and water. Once done she parted the willow boughs a little so the sun could fully hit her.

“We need to find a better shelter for you,” Aurellie said as she came to stand beside Trinity.

“Whut? Wha’ about ‘ere with ye?” she asked.

“Here is fine, I know, but you need more than leaves to help. I’m sure we can find something large enough for the two of us,” the mare grinned.

“Ye’d leave this fer me?” Trinity asked.

“I’d live in a cave if I had to, so long as you had a better shelter or a proper roof over your head. Now come on, we’ll see if we can find someone to help in that area.” Aurellie moved from the glade, Trinity soon following, satchel at hand.

* * *

Tiponi awoke early from an uneventful night. Before rising she watched through the leaves as the sky brightened, all the while listening to the sounds of the forest. Hearing nothing to cause alarm, she stretched, got up and gathered her few belongings. She slid the long dagger she carried down her back into its soft, pliable scabbard then strapped on the ones she carried on each thigh. Her living blanket was quickly rolled and slung across her back and over one shoulder. Checking the fire to make sure no coals or even heat remained, she scattered the ashes. A few loose leaves scattered about and soon there was no trace of her presence except a few small bones scattered under near by shrubs.

Turning mostly west she headed out. Late a couple of evenings before she had spied a lake with a building nearby and some activity around it, but she had shied away from there having no wish to encounter anyone. Looking about she had decided west seemed as good a direction as any.

* * *

Luminista stood gazing off toward the forest intent upon something only she could see while near by Foehn Miri quietly grazed on the dew covered grass. The mist of early morning still covered the plains and those just beginning to stir from the previous night’s revelries. Foehn Miri bent around to scratch her ear with a rear hoof when she noticed Luminista’s distraction.

“I would accuse you of daydreaming if you were not looking so intent,” she commented to the red chestnut.

With a humph Luminista shook off her distraction and set to grazing, hoping Foehn Miri would let the subject drop. She didn’t want to explain something she didn’t understand herself. Why was she feeling this pull into the forest? It had never drawn her before. She wasn’t sure when she first noticed the discontent or discomfort or whatever it was. It hadn’t been long though, a couple of days maybe.

“Did you enjoy the festivities last night?” Foehn Miri continued. “Acheflow is sure a joy.” Grabbing another mouthful of grass, Foehn Miri studied her friend as she chewed. “A maned bear is coming our was. I think he wants us for dinner?”

“Mmmm,” Luminista replied. “Sounds good.”

With a shake of her head and mumbled comments about distracted companions Foehn Miri went back to grazing.

Mornings always made the frisky kore… even more friskier than any other time of day. Thus Acheflow was seen bounding around the clearing, sticking her petite nose into whatever was deemed interestingly noticable to her. Of course, she didn’t make a mess of everything (if there was anything to make a mess of), although she couldn’t restrain overly curious thoughts from darting around every so often.

When she woke up, sleep was without a trace. Although it wasn’t long before the spotted filly started to become hungry. Turning to the first unicorn, or at least form of ‘authority’ and certainly NOT Fiera or Amaterasu or even that strange human girl, she cried out, “Umista! Umista!” whom she spotted outside alongside Foehn Miri doing something that Acheflow didn’t really care for.

Romping over to face the two older mares, Ache looked a little uncomfortable… or was it hunger? “I’m hungwee!” She cried, expecting anyone of them to solve her problems or at least give her some human food. She liked that sometimes. Especially the sweets. But Ache didn’t wait for answer, instead she bounded off to check if anything was edible around in the clearing.

Allison had woken up slightly groggy. She scanned the area, to see what she’d missed or even how late she woke up. Surprisingly, it was still pretty early and by the look of the sun, wasn’t quite noon yet. “Good.” She muttered. Looking about, she discovered that Fiera and Amaterasu were off somewhere, but she didn’t know exactly where. *Hey… where are you? Or you two?* Ali thought, trying to see if her thoughts would carry between their unknown distance apart.

*I’ll be back soon dear. Just thought that we would move around in the early morning.* replied, Fiera who seemed to be smiling through their connection.

Ali hadn’t eaten much last night so a bit of breakfast wouldn’t quite hurt her either. Nearing closer, she saw that everyone else WAS awake and that little Acheflow was crying out in hunger. She waited a little bit before the kore made off, coming closer to Luminusta and Foehn Miri with a perplexed look.

“So how do we go about actually trying to feed her? If she keeps bounding around like that?”

*

Cheri woke when the warmth of her Companion left her with a rough jostle. “Hey,” she mumbled groggily. “Tryin’ to snooze here.” Kip had always told her she wasn’t exactly a bright and shining gem in the mornings. Of course, it was getting harder to be nocturnal in a place where she didn’t sleep in a darkened room with a snuggly bed. Not that her new friend wasn’t snuggly, but the sun shining in her eyes didn’t help the whole sleepy thing.

She rose with a grumble and a stretch and shook the dew off her hoodie, which she’d been using as a blanket. She slipped it on and rummaged for the food she’d tucked away last night while helping clean up the table the drunken Unicorn had tumbled last night. Cheri was still highly amused by the prospect of dancing, drunken Unicorns. They sure knew how to have fun in Kalidore, that was for sure. As she nibbled she looked up at Alcyone. “So, what now?”

Alcyone gazed at the irritating little human before her. She’d had to cajole her into sleeping last night – er, early this morning – after handling a barrage of questions. She hadn’t sent so much in one night in… well, ever. And she’d been trying to rouse her for the last hour. Now, however, Cheri looked up at her with her big, blue-green eyes like she was her guiding star, crumbs from her nicked cakes hanging onto her lips, and Alcyone’s heart melted. Outwardly, she merely snorted and looked around.

*Something’s happening,*
Alcyone told her, remembering the departure of the Guardians last night. *Curious. We wait.*

Cheri stood and patted dust off her jeans. “Well, i guess in the meantime we can…” she trailed off when she noticed the singer from last night and her Companion emerging from a nearby glade. Alcyone had heard Cheri humming along last night, too shy to get up and actually sing, and wondered if she might have a kindred spirit there. Besides, she needed to make friends. With a mental shrug she shoved Cheri in the pair’s direction. It took several insistent nudges for Cheri to make a stammering introduction. Behind her Alcyone sent the other Unicorn an impression of good will.

“Um, hi. I’m Cheri. I, uh… i really enjoyed your songs last night. You have a lovely voice.”

*We have company Trinity*
Aurellie sent to her companion.

Trinity turned as she heard the voice in her mind, though also as she heard Cheri. “Thank ye, been singin’ since I was little,” she said and smiled as Aurellie bowed her head in greeting to Alcyone. “I’m Trinity. T’is nice to meet ye Cheri.”

Cheri smiled at Trinity. Well, at least she seemed friendly. “This is my friend Alcyone. She has the idea that the Guardians are plotting something, so we’re hanging around until… well, honestly i’m not sure what we’re waiting for.” Alcyone snorted and Cheri grinned at her. She felt close enough to her now to dole out some good-natured teasing. “Oh, right. Your curiosity is all important.”

Cheri turned back to the pair. “Trinity, you or your beautiful companion here wouldn’t happen to know what’s going on, would you? Cheri nodded to the golden unicorn reverently. “I mean, i just assumed you were her companion. No offense.”

Trinity looked towards the pair and smiled softly. It was nice to make new friends. “Aye, we’re companions. ‘er name is Aurellie,” she said and nodded, then looked to Aurellie. “But I’m sorry te say tha’ I’ve no idea. Yer guess is as good as me own.”

*

She didn’t leave Liam behind completely; she slowed down just on the other side of the forest’s line, perhaps not by choice. Mismatched gaze gaining a better feel of these unknown woods with the dim glow of the first light’s rays. Even here in this new world; it worked the same. Things often looked vastly different with light shed on them and it was a small comfort to her. So true, too, was the grumbling of Liam; it made her grin. Apparently her morning and forward ahead nature didn’t make things easier one him… the teasing probably didn’t help either, but she didn’t seem to be thinking about stopping.

A brow cocked upward when he presented his thought to her aloud, though her stomach rumbled softly in response to the word it found as key. Brynja found herself nodding in agreement as she stepped over a fallen log they had missed in the dark. Too bad; it would have been perfect. She frowned slightly at it, before turning her di-colored attention to him and replying. “Mmm. In truth, I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” She shrugged, tiling her head thoughtfully and allowed her gaze to go back to panning the scene of the woods. Actually, she hadn‘t thought of it at all. She had been more interested in feeding herself. But not that he mentioned it; what kind of creatures could these woods possibly host? It was actually enough to cause a subtle raising of hair on her neck. “But, perhaps, we could give up meat this morn and find something else?”

She paused for a beat, mid-stride, and looked hard in the right direction while her arm flung out to seize his arm and bring him to a halt. Her fingers nor grip were as soft as a normal woman, but the like of a warriors; calloused and strong. “Did you hear that?” She whispered to him on a puff of breath; still staring out into the woods. Just as sudden as her stop, she grinned to him and charged off further into the woods at a run. She had heard a bird’s squawking in the distance. Where there are birds there are two things; either there source of food (hopefully something they could eat also) or their nest. Either of which were fine by Bryn.

Liam barely repressed another groan as Bryn bounded off into the woods. While he admired her refreshed exuberence in theory, his hangover was making it hard to appreciate it in practice. However, unwilling to be left behind, Liam gritted his teeth and jogged gamely in her wake – unfortunately too fixated on the pain behind his eyes to properly appreciate the view such tailing afforded him.

Fortuitiously enough, it was a short journey later that Bryn’s sharp ears (and fleeter feet) led them to a neat little glade a within the forest – rife with bird call and thick green bushes. The birds themselves seemed unafraid of the human visitors, and trilled merrily as they flitted and flirted amongst the upper boughs of the trees and surrounding brush. Liam eyed a few of them thoughtfully, plump little feathered things that they were, wondering vaguely exactly how MUCH trouble eating a single brace of them would cause – when his eyes settled on a bush nestled close to the base of one of the grander old trees of the area. The bush itself was rather unremarkable – rather short and squat, covered in a dense foliage of round waxy leaves – but instead of being covered in only leaves and prickles like the majority of the other bushes of the glade, it was also covered in fat, succulent clusters of berries of a deep purpleish hue. The birds seemed to think them a great treat, and were clustered on the bush and the ground almost thicker than the berries themselves.

Liam’s stomach rumbled. “Well, what d’yeh say about those berries there? The winged things hereabouts seem to think them good enough …” he asked his blonde companion. Scarce waiting for a reply however, he walked over to the berry (the many birds scattering raucously to the trees above at his approach), and picked a single berry from one of the clusters. He peered at it for a few moments – a strange specimen, round and fat and as large as the first joint of his thumb – before popping it into his mouth and biting down.

A burst of tart sweetness washed over his tongue as the berry popped between his teeth. There was a slight crunch of small seeds at the center – barely noticable amidst the otherwise powerful flavor and slightly chewy flesh of the fruit. Liam reached out to pick another couple as the initial taste began to fade, and the incredibly bitter aftertaste* set in – so powerfully base that he gagged a bit, unprepared as he was at the sudden shift in taste.

“Och!” he cried, grimacing and glaring at the bush. “What an awful, hideous plant! Can’t say I think much of these bird brains’ taste if THAT’s what they consider fine dining.”

Bryn spared a look back to see how Liam fared with the berries, deciding that would not do. Dipping around a small tree she had entered the glade with some surprise. It was beautiful; though she only spared it a once over before she saw what she’d hoped. A nest. It was somewhat high in the tree though, and her small stature would not aide her in that. However, climbing was an option.

Mismatched eyes trailed up the tree’s rough trunk, thoughtful of it’s boughs and branches, with her hands resting on her hips in balled fists. Liam’s question had come about the moment she’d stepped in the direction toward the tree that harbored her soon-to-be breakfast. A few steps more and she was standing beside the tree’s base, with her hand on the first limb of it.

Craning her neck around to see what he might have meant, she cocked her head to the right; watching him eye the fruit carefully, then watched him crunch down on the berry itself. While all that wasn’t the least bit interesting or amusing but what was, was the sound and face that he’d made afterward.

She felt it in her gut, first. Just a twitch, there. Then at her mouth, a tweak of her lips upward. And then… she simply roared with laughter, seemingly scaring some of birds that watched them still from throughout the trees. Hand to her stomach, Bryn bent over and tried to catch her breath. “I’m sorry, truly.” She began when she could breathe once more, though she was wiping the tears of laughter that had gathered in her eyes. “But… you had to have seen your face.” A small chuckle escaped and threatened for more with only the remembrance, but she sucked it down for fear of making him feel bad. If she hadn’t already. She turned back toward the tree and frowned over it.

Gripping the tree’s branch once more, she hefted herself upward and used the leverage that she had to pull and walk herself up onto the tree’s branch. Only one more and she’d have her prize that lingered within the nest. “There’s a nest just there, perhaps eggs would be better than those berries.” She nodded and pointed as she worked her way to the next branch that would aid her climb, point with a free hand. She shook the branch to test it’s healthy and ability to hold her, then hoisted herself upward once more. That put her level with the nest and she’d only have to foot her way outward a couple feet before she’d have it.

Her eyes gleamed with an unachieved triumph as she balanced and toed her way toward the slowly bowing branch. Finally, she had reached it. But what she didn’t expect, for one reason or another, was that it was occupied. Or at least, she hadn’t expected it to be occupied that moment. Two beady black eyes peeked over the edge of the nest and down to her. The surprising menace in those two eyes shocked Brynja into a halt of her actions and she simply watched the bird.

Licking her pale lips she brushed away the feeling of impending doom and reached out toward the bird. It did not move to attack, instead it squawked at her in a loud trumpet. She could have sworn that there was knowledge in those black eyes that stared back at her. While in later consideration she would deem it completely probable; for the moment she was in shock. Squawk. Squawk-squawk. Then her ears, not her eyes told her that the ruffling of feathers she heard wasn’t because of this bird; but the other’s that had surrounded her.

Oh, yes. She found that she recognized that sound; a war cry. Sparing a glance at the boughs around her, she stepped away from the nest. “I understand.” Her words were for the birds, trying to speak as soft and non-threatening as possible. It seemed to work. Well, until she managed to hit the second branch down and then they decided to fly at her, in unison.

With Liam’s words of wisdom(though she was sorely questioning them) echoing in her mind; she would not make a feast out of someone’s friends. Though, some feast they would have been. She managed the thought as she broke out into a run with feathered wings beating the air and harsh cries bugling through the glade from multiple bloodthirsty mouths!

“Suddenly not so hungry anymore!” She huffed as she past him in a run. Though, she was sure he was either already laughing at the face she was making, or running for his own hide as she.

*Actually, as it was the crushing of the berry’s seeds that produced the bitterness, had Liam simply been more careful his first encounter with the <as of yet unnamed Kalidore berrybush> would have actually been rather pleasant.))

*

The temple kitchen was a central room, and the warm smell of Lana’s cooking filled the whole building with a cheerful hominess. Tyden followed the smell to its source, ducking around the main entranceway to greet the spread of buns and biscuits that had been set on the counter to cool. Lana was beside the stove, tending something in one of the cast iron pans, and he drew close to investigate further.

“That smells wonderful,” he touched her gently on the back, partly in warmth of greeting but also so that she would turn to him as he spoke. “You spoil us all terribly, you know that. Whatever are we going to do out there in the wildness without your cooking? Though,” he glanced at the assortment of goodies already to be wrapped and pack, “you seem to have thought of that already. When we return, I will take it upon myself to see that some such feast is prepared for you,” he nodded decisively.

“Aah, s’no need for a feast,” she shook her head plainly. Her words were still a little oddly formed, but with Spirit’s daily lessons and her determination sometimes it was easy to forget she couldn’t hear. “I … I like doing it. S’ even better when I see people enjoying what I’ve made.”

“Then I will continue to enjoy them wholeheartedly,” he nabbed a small biscuit from the row and savored the warm mouthful appropriately.

There was movement at the main doors again as Spirit’s graceful wheaten-and-ebony form slipped through the cast sunlight causing the dust motes dance. Her ears were pricked forward and eyes bright with pride as she found Lana. *Aren’t you becoming quite the little chatterbox!* Spirit sent Lana with a smile, her mental voice thick with love and approval. “Isn’t she doing well? By the end of the season, she’ll be talking your ear off, like as not!” the mare remarked aloud to Tyden as she squeezed herself past him to nick a scone from one of the wooden cooling racks.

Lana snorted and rapped her nose lightly with one of her spoons. *You already ate six of those! No more, or they’ll be nothing left for anyone ELSE for breakfast!* she rebuked the wheaten mare. Spirit, seemingly unphased by the rebuff, batted her long lashes at her Companion and dribbled crumbs on the floor as she chewed. *And could you please ask our other guest what she’s in the mood for? The muffins will be done soon, but if she wants griddle cakes or eggs… those aren’t quite ready?* Lana sent, nodding her head at the golem-girl in the doorway.

At Lana’s direction, Spirit turned her head attention towards the figure in the far doorway, her sudden change of focus drawing Tyden’s attention. As his gaze tracked along the counter to the end, he and noticed for the first time the other figure who had been hovering in the doorway. He assessed her curiously for a moment, not recognizing her, taking in the odd, unnaturally monochromatic cast of her pallet at face. “Oh, hello there. I don’t believe we’ve met; I’m Tyden. Come to partake of Lana’s delectables, I’m sure?”

Brona tried to step forward and spun – a little wobbly, she’d forgotten about that strange thing called inertia – as Tyden strode in without noticing her to greet Lana. She listened to their exchange in the cosy kitchen, watching enviously as Tyden munched a biscuit. Then she glanced at all the food Lana had packaged. Great fewmets – she packed enough to feed all Kalidore til a blue moon! How will we all carry that? Her eyes bugged at the mountain of parcels before Spirit’s arrival derailed that train of thought.

“Heh, I’m Brona – I tried to tell Lana earlier that I can’t eat anyway, so….” her words trailed off, she felt uncomfortable being the centre of attention. I wish Neely was here, she thought, unbidden, and quashed the thought back down. I have to stand on my own two feet – at least I can actually stand now.

He returned his attention to Lana before he began again, grown used to her reading lips (and while not nearly as prone to drift his focus away in the mid-sentence as at first, he still did it on occasion to the point that Lana had likened his attention span to that of Adar’s, something he would probably have been sore about had not Lana been so honestly sincere). “Is there anything that can be done to help? You should at least let us be useful, after everything you’ve done here already.”

She glanced at the spread of ingredients on the table, and then the stores beside the fireplace, marking off in her head what she needed for her next task – omelettes – and finally concurred. “Firewood,” Lana indicated the basket she’d set on the table, “And … hrm … ” she looked towards Spirit, obviously at a loss as to the correct pronunciation and phrasing of the other half of her request.

Spirit quickly stepped in on Lana’s behalf. “She was thinking that fresh basil for the eggs would be nice – might as well use the greens until the frost gets at them.” she finished for the girl, and Lana nodded happily, giving them both a wide smile (and Tyden another biscuit) returning to the stove-top.

Temporarily resolved of her translator-duties, the wheaten mare ears pricked as she eyed Brona with renewed interest. “It’s Brona, is it not?” she asked the young golem-girl curiously. “Muse mentioned you to me this morning, that you were staying with us in the temple … weren’t you …” she paused for a moment and cocked her head, considering Brona from another angle. “Weren’t you at the festival last night? I’m fairly certain I heard your name … but I don’t think we’ve met.” she ducked her head slightly before continuing. “You can call me Spirit, and behind me here (as you’ve doubtlessly figured out) is Lana. And this oaf, who’s already introduced himself, is indeed Tyden.” Spirit remarked, unsuccessfully trying to keep the laughter from her voice at her final introduction. Behind her, Lana clucked her tongue reprovingly, and swatted the mare in mild disapproval of her verbal sparring.

Spirit coughed, and schooled her long face into a more serious expression. “Ah, yes. Sorry – anyways, ’tis a great pleasure to make your acquaintance. But if you don’t mind… do you think you could give me a hand in the garden? I can always send the oaf here … err … Master Tyden,” she grinned, “to do the heavy lifting when it comes to firewood – but while I can FIND the basil – Lana is most disapproving of using herbs that have been partially covered in unicorn drool. Picking things with ones teeth does seem to have it’s drawbacks.” she chuckled dryly.

“Aren’t you lucky to have yourself a resident oaf,” Tyden sighed, mock with rue, “here to wait on you and provide all the niceties of life… firewood… functioning hands… your companion…” He ducked as the point of her horn lowered playfully in his direction, scooting out the small side door in the same motion. But he did hold it open long enough for the others to follow, heading out into the garden beyond. Then off he went to the woodshed, mind set on having a good helping of those eggs and griddlecakes when he returned.

Brona jerked here attention back and forth as Spirit and Lana relayed their requests. “I can help carry wood, but….” Sweet Kala, how can I admit I don’t know what fresh basil looks like? I’ve only used the dried stuff that looks like grass! “Maybe Tyden could get the basil, and I could get the wood? I might crush the basil – I haven’t gotten the hang of fine movements yet,” she suggested quietly, hoping they wouldn’t deduce her real reasoning, but was mostly unheard in the preparations.

She turned to Spirit, smiling despite herself, hand moving towards the lodestone hanging around her neck. “I wanted to make a difference here in any way I can, besides haunting kores.” A rueful, sheepish grin slid over her face when Spirit mentioned finding the basil. I’ll only have to pick it! “Oh, I’m glad to hear that!” She said, “I was afraid to admit I don’t know what fresh basil looks like. We always bought dried basil! Though if I pick it, it might be a bit crushed. I’m still a bit clumsy with these – ” she held up her new hands, “Will that matter?” She asked, following Spirit out the door and sidestepping (almost neatly, she thought) out of the way of the small door swinging shut behind her.

The sandy bay mare nimbly squeezed through the side door behind Brona, and into the temple garden beyond. The garden was a riot of greens and golds, thick leafy bushes and fruit laden trees arranged in dense clusters around little pools of close-cropped lawn.* Smooth hewn stone ran in small rivers between them, creating pretty little walkways that flowed naturally from one arrangement to the next. Here and there, invisible amidst the foliage, a bird trilled merrily – obviously delighting in the crisp morning air and the streaming sunshine.

“Crushed or no would be fine – as it’s all to be chopped and simmered anyways.” Spirit replied to Brona’s query with a chuckle. “Just as long as we keep it out of my mouth, I don’t think Lana will have any issues…” She winked at Brona, and grinned, before eyeing the stone paths that eddied around them. “Now if I recall … most of the cooking herbs are over on that hillock there and … oh!” Surprised, Spirit’s verbal ramble cut off sharply as a small equine face pushed itself out of nearby bush. However, upon identifying the owner of the dark chocolate colored muzzle, she gave low laugh and leaned forward to nuzzle the kore fondly.

“Ha! You silly thing – I didn’t know you were still here! Thought your mother was due to pick you up a few days ago. Guess she’s still out and about on her ramble then, hrm? Have you had breakfast yet?” Spirit asked, gazing down at the knock-kneed little unikore with amusement as she extricated herself from the bush.

The kore nodded up at Spirit and waggled her little tail happily before moving past the mare to investigate the more interesting person now in the garden. She snuffled the golem-girl slowly and solemnly, before staring up into Brona’s face with her wide green eyes.

Spirit laughed again. “Well then, it seems like you’ve made a friend there, Brona – she’s not generally so forthcoming with strangers. Now … about that basil …”

Brona didn’t seem to hear, staring down at the weanling kore with a look of startlement, caught off guard by the luminous green eyes. Then she reached out with a hand, to touch the blaze of white on the kore’s forehead. “Not at all taken aback by someone as strange as me, are you?” she asked the kore, not expecting much of an answer.

“Your appearance comes as a surprise to me; you are more … unusual than I expected,” she said to Brona formally but proudly, words coming slowly as she struggled to express exactly what she meant, no more and no less. She nodded to Spirit with as much dignity as possible, trying to not show her severe disapproval at being called ‘silly thing’, before locking her emerald eyes again on Brona. “I have dreamed about you,” she said, in the grave seriousness that only the young can manage, “I had to come find you. I – ” she frowned; she had imagined meeting her companion ever since she first understood that humans were companions, had practiced and memorised speeches for just this occasion. Only now that her companion stood before her, her mind was strangely devoid of clever turn-of-phrase (but oooh, she liked the word ‘devoid’, it made her shiver with its implications of cold, lonely barren-ness!). “I would greet you with a song or poem, but my memory fails me,” she said, hanging her head a little, before giving in to her irritation and shooting a look of exasperation at Spirit.

“My mother knows I was waiting for my companion here; I told her about my dream,” she said politely, “and while I am not a – a paragon of gracefulness, I am definitely not a ‘silly thing’,” she said, inching closer to Brona and leaning against her, before looking up at her ‘human’.

“Excuse me, but you don’t look like I had dreamed you. So I was caught off guard, and came to look at you before you saw me, but got entangled in the bush there. As for the basil, it was in front of the bush, but some of it I ate, and some of it I accidentally trod on trying to – essric-extric – dislodge myself from the bush. I apologise,” she explained to both.

Brona looked dumbstruck, then shook her head. “I want to ask you about your dream, and more, but – I’m really your companion?” Even though she couldn’t feel it, she couldn’t help tracing her finger over the white patch on the kore’s forehead.

“Yes, of course – can’t you tell? It’s a knowing, an intuition, I think,” the kore replied knowledgeably. “I know you’re Brona – I overheard the others talking about you, you don’t mind, do you? – but you don’t know my name, do you? I am Liria,” she added, with a vague note of self-importance. *Now pick some of the basil, we’ve an adventure to go on,* she added bossily, for Brona’s ears alone, nudging her over to the bush which still had a small amount of basil – and some of the trod on basil was salvageable, as well.

This Brona gathered up gingerly, still feeling a bit dazed at a companion. Neely, would you believe I’m committing to living in a dream world as a golem and a companion to a weanling kore who has a vocabulary as good as yours?

*Neely is your family?* Liria’s voice was quiet and unobtrusive, and yet Brona felt she could tell the unikore anything and she wouldn’t judge her for it.

“She is my only family,” Brona said softly, shaking off dirt and dew from a last few pieces of only slightly-mangled basil.

*I am your family now, too. Your Kalidore family. From now on.*
Brona struggled to not laugh aloud at the firm, unequivocal tone Liria used.

Brona stood and moved to exit the garden, cradling a double-handful of basil and with Liria following her closely. “Think this is enough, or will she want more?” she said over her shoulder to Spirit, “We should probably move on, though – Oh, look,” she said, stopping in her steps suddenly, trying to hide her disappointment, “Is the Daiga leaving?* I never did properly thank her for helping me…” her words trailed off, and Liria leaned against her legs in unfelt reassurance.

*The Daiga understands, because she is the Daiga,*
Liria said calmly in an exemplary example of circular logic, *so if you don’t get a chance to thank her, she will know you meant to anyway. Or you could ask Rhaine to tell Muse to tell Daiga, maybe.*

*

By the time Rhaine made it to the kitchen she had re-packed her bag three times and would have a forth if not Muse prodded her, firmly, in that direction; the rationalization that she had already repacked twice the night before too did not seem to pacify the girl, who probably would have packed the whole temple before her needlessly worry was appeased. She found the kitchen bustling and full, in the midst of final preparations. In the centre, Lana was packing the result of her morning’s activities snuggly into Xanthe’s saddle packs while the young unicorn stood proudly in place, not even tempted to steal nibble, so resolute was she in her duty.

Tyden stood beside the table, contemplating the delicate map which Muse had provided, another plateful of Lana’s scrumptious omelets balanced in one hand. He looked up as Rhaine drew near, moving to give her space to sit and pushed the craft of hot porridge into view. “Dressed the part, I see,” he greeted benignly. “Now eat something before we head out.”

Rhaine shrugged the offered bowl away, swinging the long braid behind her back as she leaned over the table. She was dressed simply in dark pants and tied boots, her embroidered shirt long and loose and gathered about the waist with a sash. Her heavy red cloak was under her arm; too warm to wear now, but no doubt it would be needed later. She considered the old elven map thoughtfully. “Any luck?”

“Well, it has some of the old mining sites here, and here,” he pointed. “But otherwise it’s completely useless. Could do better without it, I think; I know this first section of hills quite well anyways. Eat,” he proffered a spoonful of eggs towards her.

“And what of the other sections? where we’re expected to find the ruins?” She hesitated a moment longer before taking a bite.

Tyden waited while she chewed and then prepared another. “We’ll follow the mining trails. If there was a settlement in the mountains, it would make sense that it was to supply the mines. The visual cues of the surrounding area should be more telling then any dusty old map. We won’t need it.”

“I will be glad we have it,” she quipped lightly, “for as good as your natural instincts may be, I seem to recall a certain incident involving the search for elven gold that ended rather abruptly when—”

“Chew,” a large spoonful was pressed forth with gusto, giving her little choice in the matter. Tyden passed her a cup of water to make sure it went down. “I was twelve; surely you’re not still sore about that. And I would have gotten us out well enough, had Mare Imbrium not arrived just then.”

“We’re taking the map,” Rhaine said firmly, once she had swallowed.

“Fine; take it, if there’s any room left in your pack,” he smirked. He noted a certain glint to her eyes and decided now would be a good time to go check on those pack. He placed what was left of his plate in front of her and grabbed another bun from the rack on his way through.

Beyond the kitchen’s main doors opened the great central chamber where Muse and Odin stood beside the Daiga, talking quietly. The old woman turned and smiled at his approach, reaching way up to place her hands gently on each side of his face; Tyden stooped slightly so she wouldn’t have to stretch. “So you are ready then, my boy?” she began, regarding her adopted grandchild fondly. “May you have good weather for your journey and Kal’s smile upon your back. Take care of the others, but also, mind yourself. And never take the mountains for granted, no matter how unpresuming they may appear; it is often the clearest peaks that hide behind them storms.”

“Aye, Dai’… you’ve been telling me that for years. When has it ever got the better of me?” He shrugged, allowing her to plant a kiss on his forehead before letting him go. “I hope Ulysses lives up to the stories you have all spun about him, or at least what you’ve implied, through omission,” he quirked at the unicorns. “And frankly, what possibly have we to worry about within Kalidore’s boundaries?”

“The Gates are open now,” the Daiga reminded gently, “and while we here are blessed by Kal’s governance, we are no longer hidden from the rest of the world.”

“Hidden or not, what difference?” Muse was thoughtful. “The Gates were open before, and it was not so terribly different then; in fact, those were good times, as I recall… the war passed, the universe full of gratitude and good will… surely those days can be reclaimed! And truly, you don’t think that we of Kalidore were ever meant to be cloistered?”

“Nay, you are correct,” Odin’s ears pricked forward. “Our seclusion was incidental; that we grew used to is circumstance. What lies ahead of us now is what shapes the future. By that alone, we should welcome it.” He turned as there was movement in the doorway, the others emerging from the kitchen, the last of the bundles now secured on Xanthe’s back and all that was left to do was get going. “And we do that well prepared, I see,” he greeted the dun kore as she bounded forward, prancing in circles around the adults. “Think you can keep that pace all the way into the sky lands?” he chuckled.

“I could dance up the mountains and back down again!” Xanthe cried, wheeling to a stop and twirling to make the tiny bells that adorned the straps jingle; Lana had even braided a few into her mane, and she was terribly fond of them.

They went through the temple’s main doors together, the bright autumn sunshine beaming welcome. Muse lowered herself on one knee so that the Daiga could climb easily astride, and Tyden mounted Odin with ease. Once settled he turned, “a lift?” he posed to Rhaine.

She glanced over her shoulder to where the golem was emerging from the garden towards the edge of the group. *Nay, I’ll walk with Brona* she sent cheerfully, and Tyden nodded. Odin pulled along side Muse and the Daiga, pausing to keep everyone’s attention.

“Our brothers will meet us in the clearing. From there we will follow the northerly trail up into the lower skyfield. With luck, we should be in the mountains by dark. Good travels, and may Kal smile on our backs,” he encouraged them all, and off they slipped into the trees on the well-worn forest trail that led to Lilaini’s small cabin in the woods, and beyond that the clearing of the festival’s site the night before.

*

Aislinn awoke near the clearing of last night’s festivities, Persephone grazing nearby. As she got to her feet, she dusted herself off, her dress slightly damp from the morning dew. Stepping around Pan (who lay sprawled on the grass still) she made her way over to Persephone and rested her hand on her shoulder in silent greeting.

*Good morning my Aislinn,*
Persephone sent as she raised her head and rubbed it against her companion. *Did you sleep well?*

*I did at that, and I see Pan sleeps still, did she enjoy last night?*
She asked, turning her head to take in the sleeping weanling only a few feet away.

*I believe so. She came and joined us again shortly after you fell asleep, still full of exuberance and excitement even though she was three quarters asleep on her feet.*
Persephone too turned to watch Pan, affection in her gaze and mind as she talked of her kore.

*Well thats good. I’m glad she enjoyed herself*’
Stifling a yawn (without much success) Aislinn retrieved her cloak from where she had slept, and located some left over food she had placed their last night, offering some to Persephone, who with a brief shake of her head returned to her grazing. Shrugging slightly she took a mouthful and started to eat her own makeshift breakfast.

*It’s possible this is closer to lunch*

An easy laugh came from Persephone, startling a small bird from it’s perch.

*

Halcyone and Kinoren had also spent the night in the clearing, since neither had any reason to leave to search for a secure night’s rest. Hal was the first to wake, and decided to take the opportunity to graze in peace while her friend slept on. Despite herself, she had enjoyed last night. Enjoyed the dancing and the songs sung by others present. Not even the slight concern she had felt when the guardians, their companions and the other stallions had left had been able to tarnish the rest of the evening. This surprised her, she usually had no tolerance for these things.

With a slight groan, Kin finally woke up, eyes bleary as she looked around the clearing. Rubbing them as best she could, she blinked a few times, trying to clear them. When her vision started to return to normal, she got to her feet and went over to graze with her friend.

“Good morning Hal,” she almost sang the greeting, her energetic behavior returning along with her sight. ‘Do we know if there are any left over honey buns, or any of the sweets from last night?’

“I doubt it Kin, even if there were any left, are you sure you should be eating any more of them? You wont fit through some of the narrower paths if you’re not careful.” Hal replied, a teasing tone finding it’s way into her voice, removing any sting that her words might have caused.

“If that’s the case, I will just have to race you over to the far valley, and the winner will get first choice of all the sweet grass and clover. Are you game? Or would you rather surrender now instead?” a smirk on her face, and an excited gleam in her eyes as she prepared herself for her latest game.

With an exasperated sigh, Hal started walking in the direction of the valley in question, taking a small lead on her friend.

“Alright, come on then. If you want to make it before lunch time we’d better get a move on.”

Kicking up her heals, Kin turned and cantered until she was next to Hal, only slowing until she had coaxed her into a faster speed, and soon the pair were leaving the clearing behind them.

*


“Umista! Umista!”

Luminista’s head popped up at the sound of her name, glad for the distraction from her restlessness. Foehn Miri noticed Luminista’s instant attention and couldn’t help a chuckle. With a flick of her ear Luminista looked at her friend. “What?” she asked.

“You totally tune me out, but as soon as that little imp calls you, you are all ears. Can’t help but find that amusing. Shows me where I rank in importance, too.” Another chuckle slips out as Foehn Miri thinks about Luminista’s soft spot for little ones, not that she was any more immune.

Together they watched the foal bounce around the festival grounds. At Ali’s question they exchanged equally perplexed looks with each other and the companion. “Do you think we could tie her down long enough for her to actually graze?” Luminista asked with a laugh.

“Wonder how thorough the clean-up crew was?” Foehn Miri put in. “Do you think maybe they could have missed any oat cakes or honey cakes or apples?”

About that time a couple of unicorns disappeared over a slight rise. Gazing thoughtfully after them Luminista said, “You know, there is some sweet clover over where Kinoren and Halcyone seem to be going. Maybe we could entice her over that way.”

“Hmmm. Sweet clover sounds pretty good to me, too,” commented Foehn Miri. “Care to go for a gallop with us, Ali?” She waited, giving Ali a chance to mount while Luminista dashed off to challenge Acheflow to a race that would get them to the clover.

Allison gave a low chuckle at the thought, her chest shuddering at the little thought of tying such a frisky kore down. Although no matter how harsh it seemed on one so youthful such as her.

“We could. But I don’t think she’s in the favor of leafy greens yet.” Just to be logical, the girl replied. Staring off after Acheflow, she wondered if all young unicorns were like this. Then the mentioning of apples made her stomach slightly turn, for the worst to add. Just about over a week ago, she and Fiera had munched on apples to their fill when they were new to each other. It wasn’t like 2 weeks were a short time or long time, but she felt whole with her fiery chestnut companion near.

Now onto other things than wandering thoughts, Ali surveyed the area to see of any signs of food for the spotted filly. “Maybe the Guardians will have something when they get back?”

But then seeing the offered up ride from Foehn Miri, the late aged teen grinned broadly, almost shivering with anticipation. It wasn’t that she hadn’t ridden a unicorn before, but something about a new… mount (because she couldn’t find a better word) made her giddy. Which brought her mind reeling back to before she left earth and her younger years of horseback.

“May I?” She asked, grabbing a handful of mane delicately, just incase that she didn’t hurt Foehn Miri and because it was only a polite way to say it.

“Sure, we just need to get Ache here.” Ali paused a moment before calling out, not quite getting on Foehn’s back yet. “Acheflow! Get your little butt over here! Hurry!”

Acheflow, whom still sauntered about in search for food, heard her name. Flicking her ears towards the voice, she realized that the smelly human wanted her. But Umista was there, and she didn’t want to give up her friend yet, so she bounded over in a hurry. “Coming! Coming! Waaaaiit!” She wailed out.

Luminista romped around Acheflow as though she were the foal, tossing her head and kicking up her heels. At Ali’s call and Ache’s response she loped along side the young kore. As they covered the ground she started laying the groundwork to enticing the kore into eating something good for her. “Hmmm, you know what would be really good about now? Some good, sweet clover. Have you ever had sweet clover? It’s about the best stuff you could have.” On and on she went extolling the culinary virtues of sweet clover in terms to entice a young kore. Silently she sent to Foehn Miri that she would have the kore ready to run when she was.

“Sweet clover? Is it like uh honeybun?” Ache inhaled loudly while trying to fit in all the information about sweetclovers in her naive mind. “Does it taste like gwass?” The kore couldn’t comprehend the thought of eating something that tasted like grass. Then again she’d never tried grass before… but it wasn’t something Acheflow wanted to start at anytime soon. She much more preferred the taste of human food against anything else.

“Can we go? Can we?” Acheflow jabbered on excitedly, kicking her heels and wielding forward in a few steps then around in exuberant circles.

*

In the festival clearing, Pasiphae and Kyn still snoozed soundly – completely oblivious to the murmurs and awakenings going on about them. The yearling, snuggled close to the blood bay mare, twitched slightly as he dreamed of high-adventure and strangely familiar golden dun fillies in distress (whom his dream self had set out to rescue). The mare, on the other hand, was still – but murmured softly, her dreams being of a slightly more intimate cast as the heat of the morning sun warmed her flanks in way not unlike the heated flush from a cream-coloured coat from the night before…


* * *

Sitting on an outcropping of rock soaking up the sunshine Tiponi looked out over the small clearing below where a massive, hairy elephant-like creature was browsing on some low-growing brush along a slow moving stream. She wanted to call it a mammoth, but according to the school discs she had studied growing up mammoths were extinct.

As strange as many of the sights she had seen had been, she was liking this place she had found herself. Yes, she had seen some people, but not very many. She had no use for people. They always seemed to cause her trouble, one way or another. She couldn’t help but shudder at the few fleeting memories she had of others of her kind. Hands grabbing and holding, the metallic taste of fear, twisting and struggle. Not all the memories were bad, the rest was just indifferant–people passing this way and that without a thought, care, or word.

Nevermind, she told herself, it doesn’t matter. As few as there seem to be here they should be easy enough to avoid.

She continued to watch the big bull below, listening to the birds in the trees around her. Soon a few deer-like creatures came timidly out of the woods to graze on the grass in the clearing. Contentment with the world around her seeped into her being.

* * *

All throughout the forest trees were wrapped in crimson and gold, the last of the green fading quickly into warmer hues. Sunlight dappled the forest floor, and the sound of hooves were muted by the thick spread of fallen leaves. The path to Lilaini’s house wound through what had once been an old deer trail, widened by years of travel by unicorns, and finally tidied by the young guardians into a nicely functional trail.

The house itself was a small log-and-sod cabin with a thatched roof, nestled so well into the surrounding woodland one might miss it on first glance. It was overrun with climbing vines and encircled by shrubbery, which during the summer were heavy with roses; this time of year the bright red rosehips dotted the dark green, attracting even more bird then usual. Around the back was a cleared area that she used for her garden, though truthfully most of the plants in surrounding area were useful herbs of some kind or another (Lilaini was also a skilled herbalist, having apprenticed vigilantly under the Daiga’s guide). A small stream-fed pond, complete with a family plump dabbling ducks completed the picture. It would have been a perfect example idyllic tranquility except… there were a myriad of rather vocal and adamant woodland creatures clustered hopefully around the cabin, which Lilaini on account of her hangover had not yet fed, and who were growing increasingly impatient with the situation. Upon the arrival of new people they turned optimistically, hoping that someone here might rectify the situation.

An insistent protoceres tugged at Tyden’s pant leg, batting doe eyes at him. He gave it a polite shove as he dismounted which did little to discourage to creature who in turn prodded at him firmly with its broad tri-antlers. “Go on now, I haven’t got anything,” he scolded lightly, wondering wryly if he should tell food-laden Xanthe to make a run for it should the mood of the crowd suddenly change.

Lilaini’s door was slightly ajar and he wove his way through the others – more deer, several pheasants, an assortment of large rodents that included badgers, porcupine, and an anagale, no less then six foxes, a warthog family, a aardvark, and an okapi. Lilaini tended to everything in the forest that was injured or sick, and generally, even once well, they never did leave (then again, Lilaini continuing to serve breakfast was a pretty good incentive). When at last he reached the door he stopped, considering his options carefully, before breaking out into a smile. He threw open the door with a flourish and announced at full volume, “Honey, I’m hom—”

Instantly a commotion erupted from inside, started by Lilaini, still in varying stages of undress and screaming something unintelligible, and propelled back in his general direction by Adar, who’d returned to the cabin only moments before to see about his own breakfast, and was sure this noisy intruder was part of the reason why his demand had not yet been met. He flew at Tyden’s face screaming blue murder. Tyden only half managed to throw up his arms before stumbling back, just missing the brush Lilaini hurled at him but catching full the flung corset (which she’d struggled out of just moments before). The door slammed shut, courtesy of Gypsy’s hind foot, leaving him to contend with the horribly offended pocket griffon who continued to dive at him and shrieking all the while. “Adar!” he exclaimed between dives, “not the face! Not the face!”

Initially, Adar’s assault on Tyden had been provoked simply because of his intrusion of the cabin, mixed in with the empty rumblings of the pocket griffon’s belly. After several swooping attacks though, the small creature realized who it was that he was attacking and upon this serendipitous discovery, redoubled his assaults. His little eyes narrowed and claws extended outwards as he shrieked and flung himself back at the flailing young man. Tyden ducked this onslaught but Adar tucked up his wings and dropped out of the air, landing directly on Tyden’s back. Digging his claws in to get a hold, the little red nuisance was directly out of reach of Tyden’s reach and clung there, squawking angrily. He began to peck hungrily at his back as the door to the cabin once again flew open.

Lilaini strode out the front door, finally dressed. She was wearing a pair of close fitting black pants with calf high laced boots. Her emerald green shirt was fitted but comfortable, allowing for movement and was hidden underneath a muted green cloak. Her hair was swept up away from her face in a ponytail and her green eyes narrowed as she surveyed the situation on her doorstep: Tyden was currently howling as he ran around in circles attempting to dislodge the red creature that was shrieking and clinging to his back. Her previous annoyance was erased by the hilarity of the performance in front of her and her laughter rang out and she ducked back into the cabin for something to quell the hunger of those around her; returning with several bags of grains and herbs she began to litter the grounds in front her of.

She intentionally produced Adar’s meal last, amused as she was by the display between him and Tyden, so once she had fed all the other hungry critters, she retreated again to the cabin and returned with a sticky bun in hand. “Adar!” she called, “Come look, I have something for you that is much tastier than the man you are currently sampling.”

At the sound of her voice, the small creature’s shrieking subsided but he did not yet loosen his grip. Cocking his head in her direction he inspected what she was holding in her hand to assess whether it was worth dislodging from his advantageous position. When he came to understand it was a sticky bun that was being offered to him (a rare delicacy around Lilaini’s house, as she felt they were not healthy for him to eat), he chirped excitedly and scrambled up Tyden’s back and onto his shoulder before launching himself back into the air and swooping over to the Guardian’s side. Landing neatly on her shoulder, he balanced himself on his back legs and grabbed the sticky bun with is claws and began to inhale the delicacy in case Lilaini should change her mind and take it away from him.

Gypsy emerged from the cabin carrying the saddlebags that her companion had placed upon her and noted the pleased-looking griffon and a scowling Tyden. “Tyden, why must you anger him so? You certainly do know how to provoke him into attack.” Her face was serious but her eyes were laughing mirthfully as she walked closer to the group.

Lilaini followed her, equally as amused. “Well, really he gets what he deserves, trying to walk in on young ladies as they are changing. Everyone woman in Kalidore is going to need a pocket griffon in order to protect them from his peeping tactics.”

Tyden, who had been busy trying to inspect the wounds on his back looked at the pair in mock protest. “I did no such thing! Perhaps when a young woman is changing she shouldn’t leave her door ajar, inviting anyone around to enter.” And leaning closer so only Lilaini could hear he grinned and continued, “besides, as things were going before the summons, mayhap I instead of Gypsy would have been the one helping you dress this morning.” Then, being the smart man that he was, he quickly ducked out of arm’s reach.

In spite of herself, Lilaini’s face coloured as visions of the ball raised to the surface of her memory. “Why you…..” she began as she turned to march after him, Adar dangerously near finishing his breakfast.

Gypsy grabbed the young woman by the back of the cloak and held her in place. “Peace. Come let us head to the clearing and gather the others who wish to join.” The Guardian stopped and assented, shooting Tyden a look before turning and mounted. The pocket griffon clung to her cloak and appeared to have decided to join them on the journey, or perhaps it was because his next meal was currently mounting a silver stallion…

As they had approached Lilaini’s cabin, Brona tried to hang back, of habit – also because she was still a little self-conscious and when she thought too hard about her new body she was clumsy. But Liria wouldn’t hear of it. “What does it matter what they think of you? I’ll admit you’re not what I expected, and you look different, but think of the advantages you’d have in a game of hide-and-seek?” She impressed Brona with a mental image of herself pretending to be a sandcastle on a beach, and Brona couldn’t help giggling a little, but she followed meekly along the trail, which was thankfully clear of obstacles.

Brona’s eyes widened when she saw the animals gathering around the cabin; many of them, she had never seen before. “Are all animals on Kalidore tame?” she asked Liria uncertainly. There were a bunch of animals she recognised – like ducks, badgers, porcupines, deer, fox – and other, odd looking animals that she had a sneaking suspicion had never been seen on earth. A strange deer-like creature with three antlers instead of the usual two –

*That’s a protoceres. And no, they’re not found on earth as far as I know. But then again, neither are unicorns, really.* Liria nodded to the small rodent-like creatures that looked like a rabbit crossed with a ring-tailed lemur. *Those are anagales. And – * She switched to speaking aloud for Xanthe’s hearing as well, since she was rather proud of her jokes, “Oh look, looks like Tyden’s run afowl of Adar,” she giggled, maturity pushed aside to show the childish side of the weanling.

Brona watched, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, as the colorful package of feathers, beak, and talons continued to hound Tyden around. “Liria, is that – a gryphon? Like the legendary beast?”

Liria managed to smother her giggles, and fell back into her ‘guide’ mode. “That is indeed a gryphon – a pocket gryphon, to be precise. He’s Lilaini’s, and he’s rather grumpy before he’s eaten. Tyden is,” she added, “very good at, er, ruffling his feathers. I can’t imagine why!” They fell into step again as Gypsy and Lilaini had joined them and the entourage continued on their way to the clearing.

As the group began to move forward again, Xanthe gave herself a shake (this was to set the bells in motion, of course) and fell neatly in place at the back of the procession. While the hungry animals had fallen upon Lilaini’s hand-outs with gusto, one of the protoceres continued to trail her for good five minutes, prodding the packs hopefully with its curved rear horn whenever it drew near. “Off with you!” Xanthe told it sternly, flicking her tail at it impatiently. She took to walking sideways for a bit, so that she might keep a better eye on the deer. The deer eventually withdrew, but not before it tried to snipe a bit of one of the packets, causing Xanthe to detour around a clump of small trees.

Finally rid herself of that nuisance she peered up the trail at the others, a short ways ahead by this point and sighed. At first she was cross that no one had come to help her with deer, but then she realized, as an Daring Adventurer (even in her mind, the title always had capital letters) she had to rely on herself. In fact, other people were relying on her… The notion made her bells jingle, just thinking about it. She picked up her pace, moving at a brisk trot towards the others, when a strange noise caught her attention from within the bush. Slowly, Xanthe came to stop again, peering intently. Odd, she thought, sounds like… a lot of birds…

Carefully she made her way down the gentle gully just off the trail, towards the sound. As she mounted the next slope—

Two figures were hurdling over the crest at a run, a hoard of rather indignant blackbirds in pursuit. One she recognized instantly – really, it was hard to forget the soldier, what with the events surrounding him engraved permanently into a small corner of her mind; also, from where she standing, he was coming right at her, and he was holding what looked to be an axe (the fact that Bryn was also there, and also holding a weapon, for some reason didn’t register with the same ferocity). Xanthe felt her hair prickle and stood for a good 12 seconds it utter disbelief, and possibly would have been flattened by the two if she didn’t suddenly remember she had legs, and turned on them, quickly, barreling back up the gully with all the bells jingling at once.

“Rhaaaaaaaaaine! Tyden! He’s after me! Again! I told you soooo!”

All heads turned as the Korè came flying up the path, their attention drawn quickly to the pair keeping a good pace behind her and the swarm of birds that, while obviously enjoying the thrill of the chase, were ready to descend with healthy motivation at a given cue.

For Bryn, running through brush and frond proved only slightly easier than trudging through snow, but it did not have her bounding quite as swiftly as she would have liked. Though, there was nothing more invigorating than dodging trees and ducking from evil birds with blade-sharp talons and teeth–er, beak, she had to admit this wasn’t any fun. Not when she could have at least taken a couple down to show the rest of the flock she was her own force to be reckoned with by roasting and eating their comrades.

Sharp di-colored eyes spotted the other party moving across her future path, though soon honed in on a fleeing unicorn. Oh, she recognized that one, she did. She’d tried to make friends with her, sticky bun and all. Narrowing her gaze on them, still a bit further away, She wondered if the unicorn had a fear of masses of squawking birds. The thoughtfulness in the midst of the insanity caused her foot to hook beneath a root and throw her into a stumbling gait, which she managed to even out rather bulkily, the birds swirling above her head.

As Xanthe swept by, Rhaine gathered her self and faced the birds with intention. A hundred squabbling minds brushed against her and she let them come, taking each of them under her governance. *Peace* she sent to them. The sway of all those minds were nearly overwhelming but she held them, gently, letting a flood of quietude wash over the flock, blanketing them, lulling them. *Away now, good people – home to your kin; there is nothing for you here*

The flock circled, momentarily disorganized and obviously somewhat confused by their new directive. Then, one by one, a few began to turn and coast along the trees to home until the vast majority of the birds had spread and disappeared back into the forest.

Rhaine let out a breath, the last of the hurried minds leaving her in a rush; she rested her hand on Brona’s shoulder for a moment while she retook stock of herself. Then she turned to meet the cause of the commotion, her eyes lighting on the pair with gentle humour. “Rather early for this amount of trouble yet, don’t you think?” she greeted warmly.

It took only a moment for the miniature half-Viking to recompose herself before the others, in a thankful manner. Briefly she glanced to Liam and then toward Xanthe, before leveling both blue and brown eyes on Rhaine, mirroring the same humor and nodding. “Trouble? Was no trouble. Just keeping Liam, here, on his toes.” She chuckled, glancing again to Liam with the humor lighting her eyes, momentarily wondering if he‘d ever speak to her again after that… adventure.

“I’m Brynja, companion to Thora.” She spoke confidently, thrusting out her whole arm for the complete gesture; a friendly forearm grab-greeting to Rhaine. Then allowed her gaze to widen it’s appraisal of everyone else within the party. Making certain to meet all the available eyes with the same warmth and confidence she had for Rhaine. And then returned her gaze to the woman who’d spoke first. “Were those friends of your’s?” She asked to the woman closest to her, but gestured with a sweep of her eyes upward toward the now flying away flock of confused birds, hoping upon hope that she’d deny it and that Bryn could march her butt back into the woods and make herself a blackbird feast like no other ever before.

Rhaine took Bryn’s enthusiast arm shake in stride and was impressed by the small woman’s strength. “Well met, Brynja; I am Rhaine, and welcome to Kalidore. I saw you at last evening’s ball, but didn’t get a chance to say hello. I hope the Jumbie Birds didn’t bother you too much; they are a rather voracious bunch, and don’t make friends easily,” she glanced at the receding flock. “Tamed, they make quite charming pets, as Lilaini will attest to, but taking them en mass…. probably not something you want to do…” she glanced at Bryn’s armor and reconsidered, “at least, not before breakfast.”

She glanced beyond the Viking to where Liam stood, panting slightly from the brisk run, her eyes lighting playfully on her dance partner of the night before. “It seems your lot is to be kept short of breath by the woman of Kalidore,” she laughed. “Though sadly, I haven’t any wine to refresh your palate with this morning. However, I’m sure there’s something we can find for the both of you – have you eaten?” She didn’t wait for the answer and turned to find the food, which had made itself scarce and was hiding behind Muse and Odin.

“Nay, not yet.” Liam replied to the dark-haired Guardian’s question. “This young lass dragged me out into yon woods in search of summat t’break fast on – painfully early, mind, considering last night an’ the state o’ m’head this morn. But all we found were a handful o’ berries, and the birds they’d best be left to…” He continued, at first following Rhaine as she turned, but then trailed off as he came to a stop, not wanting to trouble the golden kore further by getting too close.

“Come now Xanthe, let us offer our guests some breakfast,” Rhaine coaxed, lightly but firm.

“Mm-mm,” The bells jingled in concurrence; both unicorns on either side exchanged glances that clearly said ‘she’s you’re daughter’.

Rhaine frowned slightly, reaching out with her mind as she made gently towards her. *Sweetling, surely you do not think Liam means any harm to you?*

*One never can tell* the kore responded briskly. *You never saw the look in his eyes*

*I saw his eyes well enough the night before and of what happened, there’s no trace… only broken memories. ’Tis a sad thing, really, when you think about it* She reached the kore’s side, placing her hands beneath the dark muzzle so she could regard her fully. *He does not remember you*

Xanthe’s eyes fixed, marking the solider with a sidelong glare. Not… remember! The trace of white hairs on her neck burned; how could he not remember? How could he, who had caused her such distress, have no memory of the event at all? It was not fair! She worked her back molars as Rhaine dug through the packs but did not say a word. Well, of course Rhaine didn’t care; she liked everyone. She probably even liked this rogue, even after what he’d done. And that… hurt. But she pulled the feeling deep down inside herself so that her empathically sensitive sister would not know; despite what everyone else said, she didn’t trust him at all.

She barely acknowledged the light kiss the woman planted on her cheek as she went by, back to offer the food to the guests. Xanthe’s eyes narrowed. Even if no one else saw the need, she’d keep her eye on the solider, oh yes she would…

Catching the glare Xanthe directed his way as Rhaine rustled through the packs, Liam gave the kore an uncertain smile and ducked his head, and was about to begin a stilted sort of apology for startling her, but unwilling to commit another faux pas by interrupting, Liam scrubbed a hand through his short hair and transferred his attention back to Rhaine instead as she returned.

“Sausage buns,” she pronounced, handing a wrapped bundle to Bryn and Liam in turn, “or as Lana calls them… ‘pigs in bed’, I think?” She frowned slightly, the name escaping her, and finally shrugged. “Tyden’s quite fond of them, so you might as well have some now before they’re all gone. We have some cider as well, but I think that might have to wait until we catch up with the food again.”

“Rather well packed, I’d say, for just a morning picnic.” He remarked, eyeing the bulging packs on Xanthe and Gyspy in turn. “I do hope the urgent news last night wasn’t about ‘aught amiss.” He peered at the woman concernedly as he accepted her breakfast offerings.

Her eyes had followed Xanthe’s departure up the trail with solemn forbearance, but unable to do anything for the grumpy kore in that moment she didn’t dwell on it for long. Rhaine sighed, returning to Liam’s attention as he spoke again. “Aye, it was unexpected news; but nothing you as our guest need to concern yourself with.” The concern there traversed her features briefly, but again she brushed it aside in favour of more tangible things. “Come now, eat up; we’re headed to clearing to meet up with the others.”

If there were only one way to warm the little Viking’s heart, it would be through food. And when Rhaine spoke those magical words ‘have you eaten’ Rhaine then had Brynja’s undivided attention. Platinum brows lifted and she gave a small cock of her head toward Liam, glancing very briefly there, and then back to grin wide as Liam explained what had happened.

When she received the little sausage in a bun she bowed her head in thanks over it, and then she took a bite quickly. Savoring the fluffy crust of breading and then the plump snap of sausage skin. Bryn’s mouth watered around the bite. But she was not so distracted, mind you, to catch what else Liam had to speak about the heavy packing.

Bryn’s features frowned a moment as she scolded herself inwardly for not noticing beforehand. Chewing her bite thoroughly, she glanced among the unicorns that were packed with things, mismatched gaze following after Xanthe for a lingering moment, with a frown touching her lips still. Then, slid back to Rhaine again.

She hope it was nothing too serious, but she decided that if it were… she would offer to come. As protection if nothing else. “I can walk and eat.” She winked, glancing between the two. “Thank you much for the food, it is delicious. I will go catch up to Thora and see if she is yet awake.” Again her blond braided head bobbed in thanks and continued to eat.

Brona meanwhile, was content to amble along, enjoying the midday sunlight streaming down through the branches overhead. She had watched with amazement, again, as somehow Rhaine convinced the birds to give up their pursuit of the duo. “Are things like this a common occurrence?” she asked aloud, unsure who to direct her question to.

Liria snorted. “Life is unpredictable at best; Kalidore, however wonderful, is no exception to that. Good morning, Rhaine!” She exclaimed cheerily, as the Guardian placed a hand on Brona’s shoulder, cueing Brona to the touch (since she couldn’t feel it). Brona smiled briefly at Rhaine, before the Guardian’s attention turned to Xanthe. While Brona eyed the duo – she’d never seen anyone like Brynja – Liria eyed the young kore during her silent exchange with Rhaine, and then nosed Brona. *Xanthe doesn’t look too happy about the soldier being here. If I recall correctly, she had a bad run-in with him before he came to Kalidore, so maybe she would appreciate some company.*

Brona’s lips twitched in a smile as she turned to look at the kore herself, standing behind Odin and Muse. “As you recall, huh? Like you’d forget anything!”

*I forget plenty. I just try to not let anyone know when I forget things.*
Her tail flicked with annoyance – at having to admit to any kind of inferior memory. *I am better at remembering words than histories. I like words. I don’t like histories.* Her tone, too, showed her dislike of memorising histories, and Brona shared a sympathetic grin with her as they reached the kore, and Brona turned her smile to Xanthe, though she paused to say good morning politely to Odin and Muse.

“Morning, Xanthe! Liria says I have a lot to learn about Kalidore, and suggested you could help tell me about how things are here,” she said easily, with a friendly smile. “Like those strange animals at Lilaini’s – those proto-deer creatures, and those animals that almost look like rabbits! Are there other animals like that here that aren’t on earth?”

“Protoceres and anagales!”
Liria said indignantly, stomping a hoof. “Honestly, and you make fun of MY memory!” Conspiratorially to Xanthe, she mock-whispered, “Between you and me, I think it’ll take both of us to get anywhere teaching her!”

“I heard that!” Brona complained, though she flashed a smile. “Still, the – the protoceres – what’s the use of having an extra antler pointing the wrong way? What do they USE it for? Is it just for looks? For hanging their hats on? Scape bark off trees in winter – oh, does Kalidore even have a winter season? And – ok,” she laughed, raising her hands and cutting herself off, “maybe I should ask one thing at a time? If nothing else, it’ll help pass time as we walk.”

Her thoughts brooding and dark, Xanthe barely noticed Brona and Lira until they had gone on at length, and seemed insistent on continuing to doing so. She drew her attention to the golem and young kore with some effort, listening to their babbling with half a heart.

“I believe the creatures of earth and Kalidore share some similar origin,” she shrugged at the golem’s first question. “From what I understand, in the dawning the two worlds were much closely linked, and so the creatures of the lands were shared; at some point, we drifted further into the mists. Because of that, animals thrive here that all but vanished from earth, or developed unique features on there own. I believe both the anagale and ceres are of earth origin. But I could be wrong; Falling Star really is the one to ask, he seems to know everything, and is happy to go on about it at length….” She frowned slightly as Brona’s cascade of questions failed to cease, and glanced back to where Rhaine was offering food to Bryn and Liam. She shivered.

“It will be winter soon, in some parts of the Isle,” Xanthe turned her feet towards the great clearing. “That’s why we must hurry into the Skyfields. Or at least, that’s what I was told,” she shot a look back, somewhat accusingly. “So I dunno what everyone’s waiting for. Let’s get moving, travelers!” she lifted her voice. “No time for dallying! Difficult quest ahead and all that…” she trailed sulkily down the path, not bothering to see if the others were coming or not.

Rhaine watched the pair inspect the small breakfast eagerly, and smiled with satisfaction at the results; contentment filled her, and her mind wandered, up the trial after Xanthe and onward to the journey beyond the Skyfields. From where they stood the crowning mountains were all but masked by the golden-bough trees, yet she sensed them – huge and immovable, sleeping giants whose great presence hung over the world, silent and thoughtful. She had always been somewhat tentative of the mountains. They always seemed so huge and endless, so easy to get lost amongst; sometimes she felt so small. At the same time she was a surprised by her own eagerness to begin the journey. Maybe the recent expedition to earth had reminded her of how much she’d loved adventure as a child, whether playing with her cousins back home, or exploring Kalidore on those first forays into the new world. The memories warmed her, and she held them a moment longer before releasing them like butterflies back into the bright and beaming warmth-filled morning.

Her empathy keened, she felt a disturbance nearby, a dulling ache that pressed against her temples. She then noticed the way the solider had favoured his head, the tension still taught across his brows. Then she recalled his first remarks, and chided herself for not responding earlier. “Liam?” she began courteously, peering up at him, “your head. May I?” To the look of confusion that rushed his features at her request, she responded by reaching forward and laying her fingers gently on his temples, smoothing down the coarse sandy-coloured hair.

Liam, having accepted the offered breakfast from Rhaine gratefully and smiling his thanks at the brunette before setting to with healthy appetite, was taking a large bites of the pastry wrapped sausage, savouring the salty bloom of flavour on his tongue before chewing slightly and swallowing. The food was quite good, unexpectedly so, for travel fare, Liam mused as he took another bite. Good enough that, combined with the mystery of the traveling party’s destination, he was almost able to forget the throbbing pain that nestled behind his eyes.

At Rhaine’s address he stopped. “Ah, my head….?” he began, at first confused as to her reference, but upon realizing her meaning, opened his mouth to dismiss any worries that she may have had – he was no stranger to a hangover, after all, and knew that the food and fresh air would go far towards fixing the problem. But, before he could manage to explain any of this, the young Guardian moved forward and took his head in her hands with a casual indifference to the close contact that he found arresting.

Liam stood, stock still, as her slim fingers brushed the sides of his face – and found himself at a complete loss as to how to react.* His eyes searched desperately for a safe place to rest. Staring off into space seemed callously rude, while deeply into Rhaine’s eyes seemed inexcusably intimate – but as the comely young Guardian’s face filled up the majority of his field of vision (and a good bit of the rest of her took up another large portion, and damned if he was going to stare fixedly at THAT in public) – Liam was confounded as to an acceptable alternative. Finally, his brain desperately settled on a compromise, and the soldier stared determinedly at the top of her head from his handful of inches of superior height.

Moments later he felt a strange tingling heat centered at her fingertips. At first he chalked it up to being curiously attentive to the Guardian’s touch. She was, after all, a very lovely woman and Liam was neither unappreciative, nor insensitive to her charms – and combined with her almost proactively close proximity** he assumed that the heat was likely due to a untimely flush. Uncomfortable enough with such an embarrassing possibility, Liam found himself willing to risk her displeasure by stepping backward and breaking their contact. He was about to do so when the warmth furiously spread and, for the moment, Liam lost all attempts at cohesive thought.

As the golden glow flooded his brain, its warmth fast unraveling the knotted tendrils of pain that had wound themselves through his head and surrounding muscles. Dazed by the sudden lack of pain that was almost a pleasure, Liam’s stunned gaze slid downward until it finally met the Guardian’s own as she opened her eyes, smiling.

Warmth tingled on her fingertips as the magic ebbed and flowed through them, and after a moment passed she sighed heartily. “There,” Rhaine concluded happily, and flexed the fingers, relaxing her hands. “How is that?”

“I … I … errr.” Liam faltered in reply to her question, as Rhaine removed her hands. “Ah … err … quite. That is to say … uhm … good. ” He lifted a hand and slowly brought it to touch a spot at his temple, where the tingle from the magic was only just beginning to fade. Staring at her for a further few seconds, he then continued, “That was … quite … … impressive, Lady. I err … thank you. Yes, thank you.” he said, and upon completition of the sentiment, Liam was moritifed to feel the more tell-tale sensation of a heavy blush upon his face.

Quickly turning, the soldier moved at a smart clip towards the rest of the group in the direction Bryn and Xanthe had gone. “The clearing you said?” He spoke over his shoulder, not wanting to face the young brunette in his current state, “Not far then? Just down this path a ways? We’d best get moving then … I’m sure Pasiphae will blister my ear for leaving without letting her know …” he said, walking so fast that he barely kept himself from breaking into a run…

((*Something that was becoming disturbingly common on Kalidore.
**Liam was not used to women, that is to say high ranking women, being allowed – or allowing themselves to come in contact with working men such as himself. Festival dances, and taverns of course being the exception.))

*

Morning was bright and full as Falling Star paused to nibble a late sprig of blooming thyme hiding between the coarser greens. Breakfast had been light, and in truth, he wasn’t all that hungry. He’d spent a good deal of the night talking with Arieon, and the younger stallion could be a bit of drain – especially when he was unsure of himself and ungrounded. Falling Star had done his best to reassure him, but when he too did not know all the answers, it had been a frail attempt; at least, it wasn’t what the cremello stallion had wanted to hear. He sighed. As the youngest of the brothers, and while certainly the king of his element, once removed it became apparent how world-weary Arieon actually was, and a little fool-hardy to boot. At the same time, Falling Star in no way doubted his brother’s resolution or drive, and once he put his heart into something. He hadn’t seen him yet today, and wondered if he would return in time to see Odin off.

Movement by the edge of the glad answered his question, as the sound of bells announced Xanthe’s arrival, the others emerging from the trees a short distance behind. Still no sign of Arieon, but ah well; Falling Star stretched briefly, running his nose along his foreleg to discourage a fly, and trotted down towards the others. “Good morn to you, brothers and sisters of Kalidore!” he greeted brightly, his voice raising to announce their arrival to any parties still asleep in the grass. “How does Kal greet you this fine day?”

“Well enough this morning,” the Daiga smiled, laying a hand on the spotted head as he drew near. “She sees fit to bless us with warm days – good traveling weather for you young folk, to see you off into the mountains.”

“And then pray the weather holds; the Skyfields… can be temperamental,” Tyden grinned wryly, and dismounted to adjust the girth belt on Odin’s packs. “I for one am hoping we can find this Ulysses and be home again in a week’s time.”

“Perhaps, if you meant to fly,” Odin bumped him with his nose, making the job all the more difficult. “You’d need yourself another kind of steed entirely to make that sort of time.”

“We could get lucky,” he maintained. “It’s four days travel to the ruins, and if this business concludes quickly enough, we could be home before the leaves fall.”

“That’s providing we find both the ruins and Ulysses in the timely manner you suggest,” Lilaini’s finely shaped brows arched with annoyance at his audacity. “And that we don’t run into any trouble on the way there.” Tyden dismissed her worries with another grin, which flustered her even more; he does it on purpose, she thought with grievance, feeling the energy prickle on her face as she resisted the telekinetic urge to throw something at him. A week or naught, this is going to be one hell of a long journey…

“The worst thing we’d meet might be an ornery cave bear, and even they are only in the most secluded parts of the mountains; probably all sleeping this time of year, too.” He gave the strap a final tug, and ran his fingers along the length to make sure it hadn’t buckled. Odin sighed with contentment, and turned to Falling Star. “Are you coming with us?” he inquired lightly, knowing well the stallion’s affinity for journeying – at least, from all the tales he told to the kors.

The spotted stallion smiled. “I go where I am most needed. And Kalidore needs—”

“Giant mammoths!” Xanthe came bounding back to the elders with the flush of a new idea bursting across her face. “They have those in the Skylands, too right? And we’ll be able to see them, and even speak to them, like in the tale of the Kal and the Red Moon, wherein she brings the different seasons to Kalidore and makes the mammoth queen Keeper of Time, but then the griffon steals the pendulum stone and—”

“Peace, daughter,” Muse nibbled her gently into calm. “Mind when others are speaking; and whether or not you see mammoths depends where in the mountains the journey leads. Do not,” the golden unicorn spoke slowly, and with emphasis, “try to lead it there yourself. Are we clear?”

“Yes mum,” the kore managed astutely, swallowing the other half of her thought whole. She bobbed her head briskly to the others before slipping away lest anything else come out. It never failed to amaze her how grownups could so casually over look the really exciting things in favour of the straight and narrow; it was moments like these that made her never want to grow up. I will follow closely, she assured them all silently with a sigh. After all, she’d made a promise. And I will listen to what they have to say. Even if I have to miss the mammoths because of it. Oh well. There were bound to be other exciting things on the journey, and now that they were edging closer to the mountain’s shadow, the excitement was starting to build. But since lavishing it upon her mother seemed a futile move, she looked around for company elsewhere. She spotted Kyn, still snoring in the grass. She grinned playfully and bounded up to him in a rush of tinkling bells.

“Hey Kyn, guess WHAT?” she crowed.

Kyn startled awake at Xanthe’s cry, “Whoza… whu..? What’s going on?!” He goggled about blearily, the remnants of dreams still flickering in the corners of his vision. He peered up at the golden dun filly in confusion. “Xanthe? S’that you …? What are you wearing?” Kyn asked, finally awakening enough to notice the bulging packs that lay across the unikore’s back.

Intent on inspecting the curiosities a bit closer, Kyn clumsily moved to stand. In his awkwardness, however, he managed to shove at knee or two into some rather tender spots of the mare sleeping by his side – who promptly awoke with a grunt. “Ergh. Bit of a rude awaking there, eh?” Pasiphae grumbled at the koros. “Don’t suppose you could’ve just SAID something instead trying to spit me on those sharp little joints of yours.”

She blinked at him reproachfully, and Kyn had the good sense to look properly abashed for a moment, mumbling out a hasty apology, before turning back to Xanthe. He snuffled at one of the packs, and nosed a bell in Xanthe’s hair, setting it to tinkling merrily. “What’s it all for?” He asked, peering at her curiously.

“The adventure at hand,” said Xanthe pointedly and with reserve, as if it were a known fact and explained everything. The bells on her body jingled as she practically vibrated with excitement; enthusiasm frothed over and she couldn’t contain herself any more. “We’re going to the Skyfields to find Ulysses! He’s… some kin of ours, been gone for YEARS…. fought dragons in the war and EVERYTHING! And now he’s here, on Kalidore. And so we’re going to find him,” she repeated, just to make Kyn got that part. “It’s simply something that adventurer unicorns must do.”

She spun around as Kyn buried his nose in the packs. “Ah-ah! those are provisions…” she relayed with great importance, feeling something swell in her chest as she watched his eyes grow wider with each notched addition to her parlay. “They the most important thing to take on such a journey. Asides maybe a sword, if you’re apt to carrying one of them.” She glanced over to where Tyden stood beside her father, his scabbard hung at side; on occasion, he’d parried playfully with her in the garden, teaching her the basics of deflecting blows with her horn. Generally, unicorns didn’t uses their horns for defense, but they could, and the results could be quite devastating.

She turned back to the koros with a last heartfelt sigh. “I can’t wait to get going; I think it’s the kind of journey any kin of Kal would be falling all over just to be a part of. It’s not for everyone though,” she added with brief flush of levelness, “it is, after all, pretty wild up there in the Skyfields, and certainly not the adventure for the faint of heart.”

Kyn’s eyes widened with every sentence Xanthe uttered, until finally he started looking not unlike a strange sort of owl rather than a slightly sleep-addled unikoros. After a few long, bug-eyed seconds, his brain finally roused itself enough to get him to blink, although shortly after returning to it’s wild imaginings.

An adventure! In the Skyfields.
And they were leaving, now. And something about wars and dragons and swords and provisions and … his small koros’ brain overloaded with the information and possibilities. Bits and pieces of his dreams blazed to sudden life in the back of his mind. Here was his chance! After all, if Xanthe was going, heroine or not – she wasn’t THAT much older then him … so it’s not like the others could really object. And surely he was as strong! And as fast! And … and …!

“I’m want to come!” Kyn blurted out, unable to contain himself any longer. “I mean … if it’s so dangerous and … stuff. Then .. well, you’ll need more help! I’m not scared!” He blurted out, and puffed out his chest a bit, trying to look serious and imposing.

Pasiphae tried desperately to conceal her laughter at his “pose” that had him looking more like he had a bad case of gass than any sort of bravado. Choking the majority of her snickers down, she managed to force out a few words in a hoarse wheeze. “Another ‘adventure’, eh? Who’s the ‘we’?” she asked, trying to peer around the golden dun filly and take stock of the rest of the party.

Nearby, Luminista looked up from trying to convince Ache of the merit of clover (an argument she was quickly loosing to the honeybuns, it seemed) as the group of burdened unicorns and guardians began to appear for the forest drawing Luminista’s attention. Curiosity took hold. She slowed to a trot and then moved closer.

“Journey? Skyfields? Ulysses? What’s going on?” she asked of no one in particular and everyone in general.

Foehn Miri, catching Luminista’s sudden distraction focused in on the emerging group. She wondered over (with Ali in tow) in time to catch Luminista’s question series and waited to see if an answer was forthcoming.

As Bryn entered the clearing, she was already greeted by the blue eyed, star-dappled mare who had evidently been up for some time. The Viking had taken notice, also, of the small gathering of other unicorns aimed to greet those that she had met while fleeing from the birds, and those still sleeping as well. She tilted her head toward direction of Thora, with up lifted brows.

Heavy packs, traveling garb, and a farewell party, looks like. Any word?
Brynja’s words were only for Thora’s mind as she unicorn mare neared her.

You sound so grim, Brynja. As if they are going to war!
The mare chuckled through the mind link to her companion. It is not so serious, my Brynja. Listen with those itching ears of your’s, I know they are curious. She finished, swiveling and ear toward the gathering group.

They listened quietly to the talk that went on within the group and extracted much information, though soon all attention was lost to Xanthe with her exuberance that drew a smile for them both.

You see, dear? No wars for us this day. Still the mare held a chuckle on the edge of her voice as it found Bryn’s mind.

Yes. I see. Bryn nodded though her brows knitted together and her lips turned down slightly, completing her frown.

Were you hoping for war?
Thora’s head butt up against Bryn’s side roughly, though she still smiled.

No. Of course not.
Bryn frowned even harder at the unicorn.

For a long moment, silence passed between them, with only Thora watching Bryn and Bryn watching the group. And then Thora abruptly broke off from her companions side, causing Bryn’s expression to shift to slight confusion. The unicorn’s hooves lead her closer to group, stopping just before she bowed her head in a silent greeting and then spoke. “Brynja and I will come along, should you find it benefit.” The mare turned her head back to look at her companion with a smile.

You left your amour and weaponry at the lean to. She informed the warrior, who’s curious and slightly confused features twisted into something of horror at the revelation of truth before Bryn whirled quickly in place and made off for the lean-to.

Liam stood, awkward and uncomfortable, a few dozen feet from the edge of the clearing and the path. After his extremely brisk walk, he had made it to the festival clearing quickly enough – arriving shortly after Xanthe and Brynja, and had watched as the rest of the party had pooled in a sociable little knot around the spotted stallion he recognized from the night before.

He considered approaching the group, but balked – unsure of potentially breaching some sort of protocol on what obviously (judging by the elderly woman that seemed to be advising them, and to whom he had not yet been formerly introduced – or rather, introduced at all) a council of some sort. Liam released a heavy sigh – frusterated with himself and his seemingly constant hesistation – something that seemed to increasingly plague him since his arrival on Kalidore.

Liam grumbled. It just wasn’t like him. After all, he was a soldier. Waffling and dithering was something he had had (literally) beaten out of him early on … and yet, here in Kalidore, every action (or lack) plagued him with uncertainties of consequence. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the place, or even the people – even as odd as it all was – but between the newness of things, the total lack of regulation and, he winced just to think of it, the looming menace of past actions he didn’t remember – he hadn’t felt on solid ground since his awakening under Odin’s and Pasiphae’s peering gazes.

Drawing in a deep breath, Liam shook his head, trying to dispel the whirlings and forebodings that saught to clog his brain. Ruefully he rather wished for the hangover to return, painful as it was, more at ease with the idea of weathering of physical ills than emotional. “Bah.” he muttered. “If you’ve a problem, lad, there’s naught to be done by sitting here stewing. Either fix it, or find something else that needs fixing to distract.” He murmured to himself. He nodded decisively. Act now, brood later. Preferably alone, and over a pint of beer. But for now … Liam scanned the clearing, eventually settling on the familiar form of a blood bay mare.

He began to move forward, but belatedly noticed Xanthe standing before them, nattering excitedly. Liam stopped abruptly. “Act on something else first, I think.” He muttered, grimacing – his newly discovered confidence still too small to be up to the task of confronting the dun filly. Turning, he moved towards the party instead, angling his approach so that he came to stand beside Tyden and his silver’d Companion.

“I don’t suppose that whatever ye have planned might have the need of another swordarm?” He queried, his voice rough as he dove in without preamble. “Well that is … err … arm, really. Keep forgetting that I lost the blasted thing.” Liam laughed, a bit sharply – embarassed by the public admittance of his poor care of the weapon. “Sword or no, I would … like to be of service, if ye’ll permit.” he said, and quirked a small, wry smile.

Odin had bobbed his head gracefully to Thora’s remark, looking from the star-dappled mare to her companion, standing with such a look of complexity on her carved features. He chuckled lightly, and answered the mare, “you are both welcomed to come along. Mayhap your companion will find something to keen her interest on along the way.” The last part was said warmly, an understanding of the disorientation felt by those who came to Kalidore by uncertain means. His gaze also found Liam making his way towards the party, and stallion gave his own companion a small nudge so that he was turned in time to greet the man as he started speaking.

Tyden returned the soldier’s smile, sizing him up with quick appraisal to file against what he recalled from the evening past; indeed, the morning had given certain clarity to the night before, or at least made the events seem more trivial, even silly. Nor was Tyden one to dwell on things, especially things that didn’t make sense under scrutiny, and had dismissed most of the proceedings as the effects of wine. Plus he really did feel for the guy, what with being abruptly dropped into a world very different from his own and left to flounder. There was empathy there, an understanding, and when it came down to it, they weren’t really that much unalike. Also, while he adored Rhaine and Liliani to no end, there was something to be said about the comradeship of another male that was refreshing, especially when the other parties were being – he glanced to where the Guardians were conversing quietly, Rhaine’s features still bearing a hint of confusion while Lilaini wore a trace of the scowl– well, difficult.

“Another arm is always welcomed,” he assured him, and turned to work on something in the bundle of packs. “So long as you don’t mind a bit of trudging along the way. Mind you, I can’t say a great deal of it will even be interesting, but help is appreciated for any moments that are. Ah – here we go,” he found a long cylindrical roll and began unwrapping. Metal glinted as he pulled the cloth free to reveal a plain leather scabbard topped with a sensible hilt; he pulled the blade clean and arched it gracefully to attention. “Nothing to look at, but she’s well balanced and the blade is true; I thought maybe this could tide you over until we have a chance for some real outfitting. That is, if you plan on making a point of these crazy quest along with us.”

He lowered the sword and presented it, hilt first, scabbard in the other hand, towards Liam. “It’s yours, if you like,” he said.

*

To the edge of the clearing Aurellie shifted, her head lifting a little. She reached to Trinity’s mind softly. *Something stirs child*

Trinity looked to Aurellie, the mare nodding softly. Trinity in turn nodded back, though she grinned, a glint in her eye that asked if it was something that would do with an adventure, again Aurellie nodded. The mare then closed her eyes a little and tried to send a thought to Muse. *If we are allowed, may Trinity and I join? I assure we would be no trouble and I believe my companion would enjoy seeing a bit more of Kalidore.*

Muse turned as Aurellie’s thoughts brushed against her mind. She smiled in greeting. *While I am not partaking the journey myself, I’m sure there would be others here who would enjoy the company. If you are up to it – the Skyfields can be a little unpredictable* Her gaze drifted until it has settled again on her daughter, talking up a storm with Kyn and Phae; she schooled her attention back to the buckskin. “Why don’t you come and meet the others?” she spoke out load. “Then they can explain the journey in more detail, and you can properly pledge yourself to the cause.” Her blue eyes sparkled mirthfully on the pair.

Aurellie and Trinity weren’t the only ones with their mind attuned to the mission ahead. “I’d like to try tha…. adventure? What’s an adventure? Is it like one of those biiiiggg things in stories?” Acheflow gushed out questioningly, cutting off from one trail of thought to another within a split second. She looked at the coming unicorns. Xanthe with the provisions, while Kyn was nosing around the packs.

“I want to come!” she decided after a few moments of mulling, but something struck her instantly. “What about Umista? Umista coming?” she asked, desperation and sadness flooding her voice. The kore concluded that an adventure wouldn’t be an adventure if her best friend of sorts wasn’t going to come along.

Ali, who was still atride Foehn also heard the questions from Luminista and Acheflow. She too wondered herself about this… journey. And speaking of Ulysses, didn’t someone mention him last night in a tale? Gently, the girl slid off Foehn’s back, landing with a soft thump. They weren’t going to look for anymore clovers as Ache didn’t seem interested in breakfast anymore; she was already making her way towards the others.

“Hey, what’s this I hear about departing soon? I must be missing something,” Ali mulled sheepishly.

“Well that depends dear, were you paying any attention to what they were talking about?” Fiera chuckled, coming up behind her companion with such soundless movements, the hair on her back raised at the sudden voice. “Count me in, I’d love a good tale to share to future generations of Kalidore. And life’s not interesting enough without a good bit of traveling,” she mused, a sly look flickered across her face.

“Oh… okay. I just hope I find myself useful to all of you. Is there anything I can help with right now?” Allison inquired, her excitement bubbling at the thought of not totally being alone. “Is there anything I can help carry?”

Silently unobserved, Falling Star’s ears pricked at his small daughter’s voice as the group emerged into the clearing. His adventurer’s heart was quieted by something even deeper and more profound. He watched the kore as she bounced between the mares, her spindly legs carrying her across the ground like a deer. Mottled ears swiveled, and silently he slipped from his brother’s side and towards the small group.

“Good morning sisters,” he greeted the mares, and his cream-and-honey mane tumbled down as he brought his head to level with the kore. “And how is my little ash-flower this morning?” smiled warmly, nuzzling the black and white blossom-mottled rump with tender affection. “Indeed, what’s all this talk about a silly adventure? I believe we have one of our own to see to, mmm? Some sweet clover and warm milk, and maybe a bun or two when you are done?” He watched the little thing as he worked her over with his tongue, dislodging a burr that had stuck itself on the soft baby’s hair. She was probably starving; an un-weaned and orphaned kor was an unusual business, one that needed immediate attention and care.

He looked to Fiera and Ali, his spring-green eyes soft but serious. “I know a sister or two who can feed her,” he began, “it will not trouble them in the least.” He quieted, and reached out to them silently, *I will stay, and keep her at side. The Skyfields is no place for an infant, and no father would I be to leave my daughter to harm’s chance.*

Fiera wore a content look on her elegant face, acknowledging Falling Stars’ silent appearance. It was a find morning it is indeed, though how wise it were to do be leaping so eagerly into this journey would remain to be seen. When he turned his question to the spotted kore, Fiera fell into a thoughtful silence, diverting her attention to Ache with interest. She was exuberant for a kore, thrilled about life and naive to the most extremes at times.

Upon spotting her dear father Acheflow came near, sticking close to Fiera’s belly, on the opposite side of Ali. “I’m hungry,” Acheflow admited, taking a little glance at her belly before returning her eyes back to her father and moving closer. “But Umista will find me some sweet clover on the journey.” When he was nuzzling her back, she tried to process his words. Something in his voice didn’t sound right, a bit sad even, but she thought it was if he was hungry too. “Daddy? Is Umista coming with us? Are you hungry too? Why do you look sad?” She paused for half a second before launching into her questions, forgetting the thoughts seconds before. “Bun? Clovers? You know where they are?”

It was just when Acheflow’s empty stomach sounded a slight grumble, obviously showing that she was hungry. Ali laughed out loud at it, reaching out to scratch the kore behind the ears. At least attempting it, before the spotted-rumped filly shied away to her father’s legs. But what made her stop dead in her amusement was Falling Star’s clear voice in their minds. Her heart choked at the thought of leaving the kore behind, but his sure voice moved her to agree solemnly.

It was Fiera who sent back the thought, as Ali was still incapable of projecting thoughts to others just yet. *We understand. A father’s duty to his kore,* she simply replied.

Falling Star bowed his head solemnly at Fiera’s concession, and again to Alison in turn. But when Ache began on a slurry of questions he turned, rousing himself with boisterous grin to match her own. “Honey buns, in fact! By the dozen – but only to good little kore who have finished their milk and greens!” he gave her a playful nip on the rump to get her moving, matching her baby’s bouncing stride with his own. “Mayhap we find some for Lumanista too?” he winked. “We shall ask Lana for a whole basket full, how about that? Now, will you race me there?”

He tossed his head over his shoulder towards the other, a silent farewell and wish of luck; it was best to get Ache moving now, before she saw the others leaving. His spotted coat danced beneath the dappled light of the trees as he led the way into the forest, his daughter a shadow in ash and ivory at his side.

*

Trotting along the edge of the forest Tien Mu considered the clear skies, the sounds of life coming from the forest, and the smell of change in the air. She liked this place. It appealed to her on every level.

As she came around a point of trees she saw a gathering of unicorns and companions on ahead. Her ears pricked forward. There was Foehn Miri and Luminista among them. Stepping up into a slow lope, tossing her head and kicking up her heals a bit, she moved across the grass to join them.

She greeted Foehn Miri and Luminista. “What’s going on?” she asked.

Luminista’s attention had bounced from one group to the next, catching this bit and that. As she considered all that was being said her gaze drifted again toward the distant mountains and the pull she had been feeling of late. Acheflow’s excited gabber registered distantly while she mused on Skyfields and Ulysses and adventure in the general direction of the pull. Her attention refocused on those around her as the spotted stallion approached and spoke. Casting a glance between the stallion, Fiera, and Ali, and a wink at Acheflow, she stepped back and over to Foehn Miri where she began a quiet consultation with her friend about the upcoming adventure. Should they go or not?

“From what I can gather we are headed to the mountains to find Ulysses,” Foehn Miri answered. “Would you care to come along?”

Casting her gaze toward the mountains looming over the forest then looking over the assortment of unicorns and companions gathered about, Mu considered the possibilities. “A chance to get to know other residents of the island and adventure to boot. How could I possibly resist? Count me in.”

Foehn Miri made a point of catching the silver stallion’s eye. Upon gaining his attention she managed without any stammering (or quacking for that matter!) to say, “Luminista and I would like to join your party on this journey.”

*

Xanthe had to snicker at Kyn’s posturing, which made the bells in her mane ring; but she bumped him chummily (which caused some of his puff to escape with a small “oof”) and considered his offer. “Well, if you think you’re up to it – I can’t see why not. But you’d best ask one of them to be sure,” she chucked her head back to where the elders were gathered still. Excitement over the adventure had washed away all her pervious gloom and she was feeling her regular, outgoing self – quick to appropriate, and eager to add as many facets of complexity to the mix as possible. Plus she genuinely liked the kor; his eagerness for adventure was refreshing, and a nice change from so many of the others who seemed content to sit and graze and sing about stars. She leaned into him then, her voice low, “best bet you ask Tyden,” she whispered cannily; at least in her experience, there wasn’t much she couldn’t get out of Tyden, at least when compared to her mother and Rhaine.

At Phae’s voice her grin expanded even further. “You’ll be coming too, won’t you? Then it can be – like last time! Well, maybe like the good parts of last time… more exploring, less running for our lives…” She’d already told Kyn at length the night before how Phae had bravely stood ground and held the soldiers at bay, while she and the others could escape; she considered for a moment whether it bared repeating again, just to sure.

Another thought struck her, and she turned again to the red mare with a knitted look. “Did you know that one of the soldiers is here? on Kalidore? You must feel just awfully putout by that too,” her pale blue eyes were clouded both with sympathy and concern; for surely, if anyone was to understand how she felt about the situation, it would be Phae, and she welcomed the bay mare for that forged kinship.

Pasiphae winced at Xanthe’s casual reference to the chaos of the last adventure. “Ah, yes – that WAS a bit harrying. I think I’dve rather stuck with that horrid scrub in the desert than have another run in like that.” She said, and shot a wry smile at the golden dun filly. “And as for the soldier, yes, I err … heard about that.” She released a heavy sigh, trying to determine the best way to break it to the precocious young unikore that she not only knew and was on speaking terms with the man, but was the actual reason he was here in Kalidore. Fortuitously enough, Kyn’s youthful exuberence came to her aid.

“Truly?! A soldier? From … from beyond the Gates?” He gasped, all astonishment at the unexpected revelation. “What’s he look like? Will the Guardian’s fight him? What’s going to happen?! Surely he isn’t going to stay?!” Kyn panted, peppering Xanthe with questions in a quick succession.

Pasiphae used the koros’ chatter as distraction to quietly come to her feet. “I’d best .. err … have a quick chat with Tyden, I think. About the journey …” She murmured, leaning forward to snuffle Kyn and Xanthe in turn, before moving towards the Guardians and the knot of individuals that surrounded them.

Kyn’s enthusiasm all but drowned Phae’s answer and Xanthe’s ability to stay focused on the bay mare in the first place. At the light snuffle she did turn, but the direction of Phae’s departure only worked to incite the sharp gleam that had come to her eye sky-blue eyes.

She nodded gravely, indicating Kyn to lean in close while she whispered again. “He is already among us, infiltrated our ranks.” A certain far-off look came into her eyes. “They say he has… amnesia, and is without memory of his past. They also say he’s harmless, but I’m not convinced; for truly, does a saber-cat loose it’s bite were you to take away it’s spots? So we must be on guard, even if the others aren’t – nay, especially so! It could well be for the sake of Kalidore, after all!”

Warmed to her own poetic waxing, she schooled the colt around to gaze her in direction. “See him there? talking with Tyden? as if everything were well in the world? And notice the way Tyden seems to taking in everything he says. How unlike Tyden! He must have… magic power. Yes, yes – that would explain everything… the rope, the fight, and crossing here unopposed…” She mused, not quite willing to admit her bit about apple to Kyn just quite yet. But if she’d been enchanted, well… She watched Liam again, tilting her head to scrutinize the man more closely, ears straining to catch sound of his voice… He was a warlock.* Had to be.

“This,” she began slowly, as full weight of the revelation took hold, “might be even more difficult then I thought…”

*((Xanthe had read about warlocks in books; it seemed that on earth, every now and then, a human would arise who used magic without the help of a Unicorn companion. The majority of the books seemed to cast them in a most dreadful light, and the young kore believed she was quickly discerning why… ))

*

Liam was feeling just a bit more the soldier again as accepted the short sword with earnest solemnity, truly touched at Tyden’s gift and the assumed trust that accompanied it. He gripped the hilt solidly, raising the blade to admire the balance and solid shine of the metal. Testing the edge with his thumb, Liam couldn’t suppress an almost childlike grin as it sliced it neatly, a few beads of blood welling up along the cut. Lowering the sword, he placed the tip of his thumb in his mouth for a moment before fully turning his grin on Tyden.

“It’s a fine blade. I’d be honored to carry her, sir.” He replied, inclining his head slightly as he touched his forehead. “And honored as well to accompany your party where e’er ye might be headed. I could do with a bit o’ hard work – can’t have myself going soft with too much wine and dancing. As enjoyable as it all is…” Liam finished with a chuckle. “So then – what exactly is this ‘crazy quest’, if ye don’t mind my asking? I think I heard something of mountains?” He asked, curiously glancing at the many faces that circled the group.

Tyden had to grin at the obvious delight on the man’s face at the sight of the sword. He folded the canvas roll and shoved it back into Odin’s sidepack, glancing up as more mares emerged from the woods to join. It looked like the beginning of quite the expedition. He turned as Liam spoke again, allowing a small chuckle of his own. “Truly, sometimes I think dancing is more a hazard to one’s heath then facing off cave bears. Not,” he added for qualification, “that there’s much likelihood of running into one of those at this time of year.”

He chucked a thumb towards the mountains that framed the sky beyond the forest. “They’re called the Skyfields; quite a pretty piece of land up there, but occasionally temperamental. Towards the north central lays the ruins of an old elven mining city where quite possibly a functioning Gate remains; one of Kaedon’s sons has supposedly linger’d nearby, and so we are going to seek him, if fate wills.”

His eyes traced the saw-toothed peaks with mounting fervor; he had grown up in those hills and knew none of the foreboding that governed the others, only the pull of the promised adventure and an eagerness to be underway. At the same time, he wasn’t ignorant to the dangers. He glanced again back at the growing circle, young mares eager to follow and newly-made companions at side, even, the Guardians. He knew he shouldn’t worry about them but he still did – at least, he thought ruefully, it gave him something to do. Perhaps that’s why this journey was so appealing; while he loved Kalidore and considered it home, choosing to reside here permanently was not without a certain restlessness, and occasionally, a wistfulness… He drew his thoughts abruptly back to the present. In no way did he regret his choice. If Kalidore was in trouble, he would be here to protect it, to serve it, and those who had Guardianship of the Isle. This was his calling, and one he embraced fully.

His mind focused again as he heard Odin speak, the stallion’s ears pricked to Foehn Miri. “We welcome you both,” his companion spoke, nodding with approval to the mares. Tyden returned his attention to Liam.

“Truly, we do appreciate all the help we can get.”

Cheri stood awkwardly a short distance away, not knowing what to say to Trinity. She was never very good at small talk. Alcyone, of course, was quite comfortable with the silence and nibbled at a dandelion she’d spied near her hoof. After a moment, Trinity and Aurellie turned away, and they saw a small band of unicorns and folk approach. Cheri made to step foreward to hear what the golden mare said to her, but Alcyone nudged her toward the only two men in the group, who were chatting and admiring a sword. She heard something about Skyfield, Gates, and Kaedon’s son.

*Tyden would be best to ask, if we are to join the party.*
Alcyone told her.

*Joining?*
Cheri sent back. *What party? Where–* Alcyone cut her off with a more forceful prod. She stumbled foreward, almost colliding with the short-haired man holding the sword, catching herself before she got impaled. Not her most graceful entrance.

“Uh… hi,” she said, her smile a trifle less uneasy than the one she had given Trinity. Cheri always felt more at ease with guys. They were so much easier to understand. “So, uh… Alcyone – she’s my companion, by the way,” she said, gesturing to the sky blue mare, who nodded in greeting, “Oh, and i’m Cheri, nice to meet you. Oh, anyway, she think there’s an adventure afoot and was wondering if we might be able to help out.” Cheri thought about all of her travel necessities that were in the bag slung over her shoulder. Basic camping materials, toiletries, change of clothes, a few notebooks, cell phone, mp3 player, $100 cash, passport and an extra credit card. Not much help, she didn’t imagine. Her handgun always stayed in the apartment for hers or Kip’s protection, but she was a damn fine markswoman. With all the weaponry about, she was beginning to wonder if she should have brought it along. “I don’t have any armor, and have never handled a sword, but i learn quickly. I do know how to cope in all sorts of terrain. Kip and i took survivalist training in preparation for World War Z.” And she was blathering again about things these people had never heard of. She could tell by their blank stares. “Um… can i… carry anything?” she asked, blushing. She could swear she heard Alcyone snicker behind her.

Liam startled as Cheri stumbled towards him, coming perilously close to his sword in hand. He quickly dropped the point and, wrapping it in the edge of his cloak, stuffed the blade under one arm – reaching out with his other hand to assist in steadying the young woman should it be needed. However, as she found her balance on her own, he withdrew his hand and released a relieved breath.

“Bless me, lass – gave me a fright there. Was m’own fault, bandying this about unsheathed… but Heaven help me, definitely wasn’t expecting someone to try and spit themselves on the other end.” Liam shook his head and gave Cheri a shaky sort of grin. “Guess I’d best put this away a’fore it gets my in any more trouble. May I, m’Lord?” He asked Tyden, gesturing towards the scabbard the man held in his hand.

Tyden silently passed Liam the scabbard using the moment to school his expression into something more serious, or at least less like he was all but laughing at one who so obviously was trying her best to be serious too. Hands free, he offered one warmly. “Welcome to Kalidore, Cheri, I am Tyden; and, just call me Tyden,” he glanced back at Liam shortly, “goodness that makes me sound… old…” He stressed the last bit, but from the look on his face was clearly nothing he was taking heart, rather, it seemed to humour him; he returned his focus the young woman again.

“With luck, we won’t be needing the swords anyway. They’re mostly for show, you know, to make us feel… bigger about ourselves,” he quirked. “But we are quite happy to have you and Alcyone as well; a practiced soldier of any field is always a welcomed ally, so there’s no need to worry about one’s short-fallings. Besides, the rest can be learned later; I would be quite happy to share the art of swordplay along the way if it suits you.”

Clipped hooves made them turn when Gypsy pulled near as Liliani had evidently lost none of her earlier reservations but was now waning patience. “All for good effort, were you to ever make it to the skylands; for one who was so eager to go, seems you’re just as likely to sit and chat about it for the next four days,” she directed at the man. Her green eyes flashed cool jade as she baited her next quip, still lugging annoyance. “You really are all talk these days, aren’t you…”

Gypsy ducked her head to hide the laughter, already responding to her companion’s unspoken command and breaking into a light canter. They pranced away, her shell-coloured hooves nimbly picking through the leaf-covered ground, up the path and toward the mantle of the mountains.

“Odin,” said Tyden quietly, after a moment and several shades of expression, “I think we are obligated to give chase.”

“Likely you would want to mount up for that,” the stallion nonchalantly scratched a shin with his horn.

“Everyone’s a critic,” the man shook his head, taking the withers in hand to mount with familiar ease. He turned to the newly-made partisans, ducking his head in the direction of the hills. “The Skyfields, yonder. It seems we had best not keep them waiting. Muse, Dai… Rhaine…” He called over the field, lifting his voice to all those who had gathered around them, “follow lively; we should get as much ground underfoot while the day is with us.”

Before moving forward, Odin keened his head towards the field. “Sisters, brothers, we take our leave to seek one who lingers deep within the heart of our isle. To come, to seek, or to wish us well – Kal’s will is yours to follow as you wish, and by her grace we will be with you all in a Dragon’s moon!” And the great stallion rose languidly on his haunches and hung there, motionless, save the silver rippling of his muscles as he pawed the air, horn canted to mark the sun’s crossing in the sky; he came down again in whirl of windswept steel and ebony, his rider seamless with the movement. Then they were off, towards the mountains, towards what secrets held deep within those somber grey and rocky folds.

Foehn Miri’s gaze followed Odin intently. “Isn’t he absolutely wonderful,” she sighed.

Luminista and Tien Mu exchanged amused glances. Deliberately misunderstanding Tien Mu replied, “I suppose. If you go for two-leggeds that have to carry steel horns in a sheath at their belts.”

Luminista turned her giggle into a cough then returned her attention to the situation at hand. She cast a look in the direction Falling Star had disappeared with Acheflow. She was going to miss that little imp. Looking over the others collecting themselves to follow the silver stallion and Gypsy she said, “Looks like we’re off.”

“No need to dilly-dally then, is there?” Tien Mu put in before tossing her head and taking off in a gallop after those ahead, the other two lunging after her throwing up clods of turf behind them.

*

Now, it hadn’t been very long since the star-mottled grey mare and the small Viking woman had parted ways; only a matter of minutes, in fact, but by that time Bryn had already managed to change into more… suiting traveling clothing, pack her sacks and roll up several of the furs she’d had. One thing was for certain, Thora mused, was that Bryn was definitely use to moving around. And then a second thought occurred to the mare, she was going to have to carry it all… again, she let out a sigh on a chuckle and bowed her head to the squatting Viking.

“They are going, Brynja, we best be quick, now.”

The small woman glanced up from one of her furred packs to Thora, platinum brows raised with her silent question and then she nodded. And just like that, with the same intensity she did any important task, she set about arranging the two packs onto Thora, and then herself.

“Are you all right? It’s not too much with me too, is it? I could walk?” Bryn’s worry was evident in her words.

Thora snorted and shook her head. “I’ll have you know I could run all the way to the Skylands like this, with very few stops.” The mare grinned as her hooves took up a quick pace to follow the other’s, as if to prove her point.

Bryn laughed softly, burying her fingers into the base of the mare’s mane, and glancing ahead. “Hang back a bit, Thora, if you don’t mind. I’d like to keep watch of the rear, I think, just in case.”

“Of course you would, dear.” Once more, Thora grinned and chuckled softly.

*

In the woods, matching close beside Acheflow’s rollicking gait, Falling Star heard the sound of his brother’s herald in his mind’s ear. He closed his eyes briefly, his thought flowing out to them, blessing them all with Kal’s love and Kaedon’s strength; if the little one noticed his hesitation, he brushed it aside, quickly grabbing her attention.

“Let’s sing something, shall we?” he chimed, and raised his head again in song, his singer’s voicing carrying far beyond the forest, over the blowing fields and across the green, green isle:

“Good travels to all, ye children of Kal,
Who dance beneath her blooming moon,
And sing songs high unto Kaedon’s deep sky,
Until we shall be together again soon!”

Ache nodded, she could already taste the sweet honey of the buns in her mouth. And her father wasn’t holding back the opportunity for her to try those sweet clovers that suddenly tugged at her stomach and attention.

“Yes! But I eell beat you daddy, be sure of it!” She let out merrily, kicking her tiny hooves into the morning air, following Falling Star if not trying to beat him.

With this, Acheflow seemed to have forgotten all – Luminista, Feira
and Ali, her own father, even. Watching them go Ali sighed, the kore flying away on tiny hooves. She was adorable and would one day be a pretty young unicorn. But that could be years from now as the human didn’t really quite know the growth rate of unicorns. She brushed the bangs from her face, eyes lingering in the disappearing speck of kore and stallion.

“What are you looking at dear? It’s time we get moving, they’ve already left us behind.” Fiera snorted lightly, laying her behorned head atop her companion’s shoulder while diverting her eyes from the moving unicorns to Ali. A flicker of excitement rushed across her features. Ali gasped at the sudden invasion of personal space with a laugh, but it was Fiera who again spoke, “Well then, if you’re not still longing after Acheflow -cause she’ll be in capable hands- and ready to go, get on my back and we’ll be off. Are you sure you haven’t left anything?”

“Ye…yeah. I’m ready.” Ali smiled lightly, wriggling out from under the unicorn to grab a hand full of mane. Whisking herself up and landed lightly on the orange back. “Let’s go!”

Just as they were about to be off, someone called out. “No! No! Wait! Fiera, wait, I’m coming too!”

Odette came sauntering at the duo with an unbalanced gait. When she finally made it without tripping on anything, the beflowered mare stood awkwardly. Ali marveled the beautiful grey mare. And the flowers she found last night were woven through the unikore’s silken hair.

“I promise to not be a bother, really I do.” Odette added in, hoping to disperse any doubtful thoughts. Her entrance was neither extraordinary (for her, anyways) and nor was it timed well; the clearing was quickly emptying as the unicorns left one by one. But despite that these last minute decisions always seemed to deliver the worst, this time she was hoping for better…. at least, better then last time…

“Well then come along child, we’re ready to be off.” Fiera said, glancing from the grey unicorn to Ali with a wicked glint. Allison swallowed hard, before being wisked away into a whirlwind of mane, tail and flowers close by as they followed the others.

*

Rhaine swallowed the small bloom of disappointment as her friends raced ahead without her, but busied herself with seeing to the others joining the precession and making note of those who were in danger of being left behind (Xanthe’s distractedness had not been forgotten, but she was glad to find the dun koré talking with Kyn. Perhaps having someone near her own age to talk to would do better for her then what she and Muse could accomplish through trying on cue; Xanthe had always made more friends with elders then other kor, and Rhaine wished well them). So she smiled to Brona and Trinity who were still on foot; she wondered, too, could the newest companions even ride? It troubled her that she still knew very little about them; they had not been here long and already they were volunteering themselves on an epic quest! They had certainly come to answer Kalidore’s calling, and Kalidore had a way of drawing those of both eager and courageous hearts.

And then there are those who fall in haphazardly,
she sighed, if for no other reason then the Gates seem to like them. I am pretty much an exalted doorkeeper, really. She shook her head at the folly, because she knew that was hardly the case; at the same time she felt the distinct lack of Lilaini’s drive of purpose or Tyden’s conviction for things to simply turn out right. She had to keep fighting the part of herself that wished to be back in the temple, copying scrolls… There was something affirming about forming each perfect letter, one after another, and bringing a crumbled and faded manuscript into life again between new covers. It was very predictable. And safe, save for the occasional paper cut.

Another of those drowsy, yellow butterflies bumbled across her path and she brushed it aside to keep from swallowing it unwittingly as she opened her mouth to talk. “Xanthe,” she called when she could safely speak, “look lively, we’re going!” and beckoned her way after the others.

Reaching Muse’s side, the golden mare began a gentle amble, mindful of her agéd rider. “I suppose we should catch up; with all the excitement, they might not notice us missing until they’re halfway through the skylands,” the mare grinned at her companion, reaching to nibble at the girl’s thick braided hair. “Though I think, after a day’s travel at that pace, and they are going to decide promptly that taking the whole quest at a gallop is not a favorable pursuit.”

The mare chuckled, considering the way a good companion acted as both teacher and guide, but still allowed their bonded to make their own mistakes, and learn from them. She glanced again at Rhaine, her heart ripe and thoughtful. Perhaps I coddle her too much, she mused. She is always to me my daughter first; what choice did I have but to be mother to her, the wee thing she was…’Twas never something to be regretted, at least, no regret of mine…

She felt the Daiga’s hand reach to stroke across her pale mane and the small knot of worry fade. There minds brushed against each other and she smiled. In turn she reached out and bumped Rhaine again. *You’re quiet, sweetling*

*I am thinking*

*You do a lot of that; what now?*

*I’m not sure yet* she answered truthfully. The palomino mare smiled knowingly and nuzzled her, exhaling with a deep, hearty sigh. Then she dropped her head over her companion’s shoulder as they continued along, bringing up the tail-end of the traveling party.

Xanthe’s ear swiveled at Rhaine’s herald, noting the departure through the clearing. She glanced back at Kyn. “Horseradish! They’re leaving – without us!” she jolted guilty to attention, turning towards the small departing group. “We’d better keep up; I promised to stay close, and I will,” she nodded with decisiveness. “Though… we should still keep an eye… on certain things… just in case…”

She gave one last beguiling look to the buckskin koros then trotted briskly after the others, not wanting to be left behind or face her mother’s scrutiny, not sure which of the two was a worse fate.

*

Alcyone felt pleased when she saw Cheri give Tyden her best i’m-a-girl-but-not-a-pushover handshake and remark that she would, indeed, like to learn swordplay. Cheri seemed to feel a little more comfortable in her own skin every new hour, and Alcyone began to feel secure that her new companion would find happiness in her home.

When Gypsy and Lilaini approached impatiently and urged them to move on, Cheri didn’t miss the “all talk” remark that was pointed at Tyden. *Whoa,* Cheri sent her, *I take it he doesn’t pay enough attention to his girlfriend?* Since the contact was mind-to-mind, there was no mistaking what Cheri meant by “attention,” but Alcyone just snorted. She could be such a crude little woman– but then she had to bite her own thoughts back, lest she be a hypocrite. While the silvered stallion wasn’t normally the type to catch her fancy (Alcyone was far more drawn to the stallion whose sweet voice echoing over the hills was currently trying to burst her heart), she still couldn’t take her eyes off of Odin’s display. One had to admire perfection, she thought with a sigh.

Cheri’s low whistle seemed to echo her opinion. After a reverent second, Cheri clapped her hands once and began to remove her hoodie, since the day was beginning to warm. “You heard them. Let’s blow this pop stand,” she announced, tying the sleeves of the sweatshirt around her waist and slipping her bag’s shoulder strap over her head. She started toward Alcyone, then hesitated, meeting her dark amber eyes in a question. They’d never really talked about riding. Appreciating her consideration, Alcyone sidled to her in a gesture of acquiescence. She was pleasantly surprised to feel an experienced rider swing onto her back. Before she could inquire about Cheri’s knowledge, she received a questioning mind-nudge and a brief image of the man with the sword. Alcyone considered, then decided that if the Guardians thought him friend, she did too. She almost shrugged, but then, mindful of her rider, gave a tiny nod.

“Hey there,” Cheri said to the man, “you look like you’re by your lonesome. They said they want to cover a lot of ground today and you don’t look the type to be wantin to be left behind. You need a lift, or do you already have a ride?”

Liam had stowed the sword away upon reciept of its scabbard, pausing only a few moments to appreciate the solid weight at his hip. He patted the pommel softly, an easy slow smile blooming as he unconsciously relaxed – the constant niggling lack of having finally been abated. His stance loosened, Liam grinned at Tyden’s dismissal of the term “Lord”, and made a mental note of it’s effect on the man. At his sudden (and rather dramatic) exit, Liam raised an eyebrow and tried to quash a small snicker. “Aye – not a Lord, he says – and then he goes and makes a royal show like that. Quite a matched pair those two.” Liam murmured as he watched the man and his silvered stallion race up the path.

Hearing the soft rustle movement behind him, he turned, and found himself looking up into the face of the young woman now astride her brilliant blue mare Companion. At her question he smiled, and wavered for a moment – being definitely of a mind to be more social and acquaint himself with some of the other Kalidore visitors. On the other hand – Liam had little idea of how far they would be travel, and soldierly training aside, riding pick-a-back at length with a woman he scarcely knew and on a mare he had just been introduced to seemed more than slightly scandalous to his (admittedly) archaic sensibilities.

He shook his head. “I thank ye for the offer, ladies, but I’ve yet te’ talk to a certain travelling companion o’ mine. It’d be remiss o’ me te’ not consult her first – e’en if it results in a fair bit more running than I had o’erwise wagered upon.” Liam grinned and touched his forehead at the pair. “If ye’d be so kind as te’ excuse me.” He offered, ducking his head respectfully before scanning the small crowd for a familiar blood bay mare. Once located, he moved towards her at a fast clip.

Pasiphae stood still, having watched the exchange between the blond soldier and the bonded pair with no small amount of amusement. She waited as he approached her, a small half-smile tugging at the edges of her mouth. “Why, hello there stranger.” she greeted him in a deadpan drawl. Liam stopped before the mare and flashed a slightly sheepish grin. As his grin deepened however, Pasiphae noticed a merry twinkle in his eyes that belied the slightly sheepish cast of his features.

“Forgotten me already, lass? Only a morning gone, and already I’ve slipped from your fair mind! I thought I had given a better accounting o’ m’self then that …” Liam struck a slightly woeful pose, “In the journey ahead I must resolve to fall into twice as many mud puddles, and ask thrice as many questions – so that I can make a lasting impression this time….”

Pasiphae snerked. “As a obnoxious lout. And besides … I’ve not agreed to any journey quite yet.”

Liam, abruptly ceasing his playacting, stared at the mare in concern. “Truly lass? In that case … I had promised a hand, but I’m sure I can give my apologies without too much concern. T’was right daft of me te’ go and pledge without checking with ye and all…” His face paled suddenly, and he placed a hand on the pommel of his newly acquired sword. “I suspect they’d be needing this back too … well, there’s ‘naught for it…” Liam grimaced slightly, and began to unbuckle the scabbard from his belt.

Pasiphae, finally taking pity on the man, moved forward just enough to nose Liam’s shoulder. “None of that then. If you promised, you promised. And while I hadn’t yet decided to go … we can’t exactly having a rakish lout like yourself wandering around unsupervised.” She chuckled. “So, hop to, and let’s be off.”

Liam raised his face, beaming at the unexpected “gift” of sorts from the mare, and fell into step beside her. The two of them trailed along with the rest of the on-foot party making it’s way slowly up the forest path.

*

Arieon had spent a better part of the morning preening and picking large twigs out of his luxurious hair. It had been a long time since he has spent a night away from his home, and he began to further appreciate the sandy beaches and the lapping waves of the Sea. There was not nearly so much foliage there as there was here and never so many things ready to attach themselves to your mane. He frowned in mild annoyance as he managed to grab the last of the hitchhikers with his teeth and spat it into a nearby bush. Now that he was sure he had gotten everything he looked down into the puddle he had been using as a mirror to satisfy himself he didn’t look too much worse for wear having spent the night in amongst the trees. He had thought it would be a rustic change, and therefore had declined asking one of the Guardians to stay near their shelters, but he had decidedly changed his opinion on that topic. Glancing up at the sun, he realized he must assuredly be quite late. Luckily, he had not stayed too far from the clearing and went as fast as he could in that direction while ensuring to steer clear of any braches which would attempt to lodge themselves in his hair and undo his hours of hard work.

He entered the clearing just as the group was heading out. He was relieved to see that they hadn’t gotten too far ahead for he would hate to have had to run through the forest after them as he was sure he wouldn’t have made it unscathed. His cremello coat gleamed in the sunlight as his eyes searched the group for a familiar face. His brother must have been at the head for he didn’t see any sign of him amongst all the lovely mares. As he got closer he noticed Rhaine walking amongst the others. He knew Muse had no intention of attending their journey and had therefore made up his mind to make the young Guardian an offer. Trotting briskly towards her while still ensuring to nod in greeting to all those that he passed, he pulled up alongside the young.

“I am terribly sorry for my delayed arrival! You wouldn’t believe what I had to go through this morning just to make myself presentable enough to join you all.” He looked at Rhaine in such a way that he was sure to have incited pity before continuing. “But,” he continued, “as I know that my your normal traveling companion is not attending this journey I’d like to ask, nay, insist that you give me the honour of being your mount for this journey. I couldn’t be considered a gentleman at all if I allowed a young woman, and a Guardian no less, continuing on foot.” His soliloquy completed he continued walking by the young woman’s side waiting for what he was sure would be her acquiescence.

Muse suppressed a chuckle at Areion’s address, lifting her head from Rhaine’s shoulder to nip playfully at the cremollo’s sleekly tended hair. “How gallant of you, brother!” she grinned. “We truly weren’t expecting you to come along.”

Rhaine smiled, catching the mirth in Muse’s eyes and was sure to add levelly, “You do look very fine this morning, Areion, and we are most glad to have you with us. And that is a most generous offer on your behalf; though she won’t let on, I’m sure Muse is quite relieved as well, she does worry about me too much!”

There was no way the stallion’s pride would accept refusal either, even though Areion had never had a rider in his life, and they both knew this. The Guardian and her companion exchanged glances again, before Rhaine finally came to a stop. She turned to the ivory stallion in full. “I do not mind walking, but I am touched by the offer; why don’t we ride until we reach the foothills? We must be certain not to tire ourselves out the first day, after all.”

She thought she saw the stallion positively glow under her gaze, and reached up to cup her hand over his withers; he was taller then Muse, but she sprang lightly aboard without too much extra effort. “There we are; and how is that?” she addressed Arieon, settling into her new vantage point. As an after thought, she discreetly wound her fingers through the silken mane, just in case.

Arieon was very pleased; he began positively beaming when Rhaine complimented him on how he looked, quite relieved that she did not find him disheveled looking. He would not be a fitting mount for her at all if he was, and he was glad that he had taken the time to clean himself up before joining the group. He did silently scold himself however for not paying closer attention to how one must move when carrying a rider, but pushed it aside as there wasn’t anything to be done about it now,

He reached out affectionately and touched Muse’s muzzle. “Ah, of course I was coming! How could you possibly think otherwise? I solemnly swear to take the very best care of your dear companion here. Taking care of females is of course, something I do very well.” He began to pick up his pace, paying extra careful attention to make his already fluid movements moreso. As long as his attention wasn’t divided or distracted, he would fully concentrate on being as accommodating to his new rider as possible

Rhaine swallowed her laughter whole as Areion positively strutted with pride, setting the ivory plumes around his feet a-swirl with the motion. He truly was a gorgeous stallion, which is probably why he never came off as sounding obstinately boastful, even if he was a bit vain; and he did have a marvelous gait, too. He moves like Mare Imbrium, she thought, and considered the graceful black mare contentedly, a familiar daydream. She would probably be a great dancer too, the next thought came, though truth be told she could never recall Imbri dancing. She never seemed to be around for the festivals or gathering times or any time at all when the other were set for celebration. A pity that, she sighed inwardly and the dream shook itself away.

She glanced around to quickly count heads, surprised by the number who were coming. We are quite the welcoming party, she considered ruefully; I hope Ulysses will be glad to see us, or if not, at least is not completely overwhelmed at the very sight.

She was glad to see Xanthe and her friend finally slip into the following, passing Thora and Bryn who seemed to have stationed themselves at the very back; the rest of the unicorns and companions where scattered along the trail, each finding their own pace. At this point Lilaini and Tyden were mostly out of sight, taking up the lead. Rhaine had to shake her head; occasionally, the two of them could get so fixed on the notion of who was doing the actually leading that the direction they were heading was completely forgot in the scuffle; that was when she would silently steer the course, and lure everyone back on track without anyone noticing so much as a bump. This was the way it had always been, and how she liked it, and she was content. Mostly. Sometimes…. they really annoyed the heck out of her when they left her behind. Ah well, there wasn’t much trouble they could get into on the way to the Skyfields…

*

Fiera made her way pleasantly after the others, preferring to stay behind a little while she watched the young Odette through the corners of her eyes. *She’s fairing well, I’d say,* Fiera commented mentally, rather impressed that such a pampered unikore would even think about coming with them.

Ali seemed to fair well too, relaxing comfortably into the pace, interlacing her fingers through orange mane. Yet in all honesty, she didn’t believe to be much use on this journey. She was not entirely sure what she could offer, or even what she was doing there. Perhapse, even, that she would just get in the way…. At least, if that wound up to be the case, well, they weren’t too far from home… And Fiera will understand, she concluded mildly. At the same time, the thought continued to prick her, and sighed.

Beside them Cheri rode easily, idly weaving tiny plaits in Alcyone’s silky mane. True, she was used to riding on horses with a western saddle, and hadn’t even done that with regularity in years, but her mount’s back seemed made for her, like the two of them fit together. Of course, Alcyone’s consideration for her rider helped, too. She was just a little rusty.

As they made their way through the sun-dappled forest Cheri regaled her with tales of her riding experiences, recounting her favorite steeds and describing the California beaches they usually traversed.

“Then we moved to Chicago. I didn’t know anyone there, especially not anyone with a horse ranch. There are some stables around, but I don’t know…” She shrugged, considering how different one day was from the next, her life before, and now here she was with Alcyone on Kalidore…

Liam walked contentedly beside Pasiphaë, excessively pleased with his new toy (although he’d never call it such) and his new purpose – vague though it was. He strode in silence, enjoying the simple pleasure of a fine fall morning and pleasant company (disregarding her occasional barbed quips) – at least until the commotion of a cream-coated stallion arrival attracted his attention. He nudged Pasiphaë with an elbow. “Tisn’t that your partner o’ last night, lass? The one with the fancy footwork? Had ye in a bit o’ a lather if I recall …” Liam grinned, relishing the chance to tease the mare after being the recipient of her jibes for most of the last week.

Pasiphaë feigned indifference. “Hrm? Who?” She cast about for a moment, pretending to have trouble in locating the subject of Liam’s interest. “Oh, Arieon? Yes, we danced. Briefly.” She replied, barely suppressing a slight shivered tingle at the memory before focusing on the still stinging pang of disappointment at his abrupt abandonment the night before. “I suppose he’s coming with us … and … carrying Rhaine?” She blinked, momentarily surprised at the choice.

Liam’s attention perked at the mention of the brunette Guardian, and turned his head to regard the pair. “Is he her ‘bonded’ then? She chose well if so … he’s a rather fine looking fellow. A bit … flashy, if you like that sort of thing…” He slid a sly glance at Pasiphaë before continuing, “Definitely built for speed, that one, but looks like he could keep a good pace … ouch!” Liam frowned at the mare, and rubbed his arm where she had nipped him sharply through the soft fabric of his shirt.

Pasiphaë huffed at Liam in irritation. “Can’t you remember anything? Her bonded indeed! I’ll have you know they’re nothing of the sort.” She said, and sniffed primly. “Muse is Rhaine’s Companion, if you must know, although I’m sure I’ve already told you. And neither of them chose – it just happens.”

Liam quirked an eyebrow at the mare, and then turned his head to regard the pair again. “Ah. I see.” His eyes roved the rest of the group, trying to pick out which of the other unicorns seemed to ‘fit’ as Rhaine’s Chosen. All of them seemed other wised paired up, or uninterested in the woman except … Liam cringed at the connection. “I … err … I don’t suppose, ‘Muse’ is another name for the young lass with the packs?” He queried, almost afraid of the answer, as he nodded his head toward Xanthe.

Pasiphaë snorted. “No, although I suppose I should give you some credit for trying. Xanthe, ” her tone softened a bit at the filly’s name, “… is Muse’s daughter. Muse is carrying the Daiga. Honestly, Liam, she’s right next to Rhaine, I don’t understand why you’re having so much trouble…” And she began forward again in earnest, just fast enough that the foot soldier had to keep lively to keep up.

*

Sunlight streamed through copper coloured leaves and turned them gold, smattering the forest floor in harmonies of amber. Through this Odin’s hooves clipped a merry pace and he pranced, like a lively young koros, causing his rider to shift skillfully to keep his seat and the leaves to dance and scatter beneath them. Crisp autumn air filled his nostrils and let out a hearty sigh, easing his pace as Gypsy slowed ahead of them. The forest muted all sounds, and for the moment the mountains were hidden from view; behind them, the others were beginning to pull up, one by one, joining them in the cheerful solitude.

Gypsy slowed her pace from a canter to a trot, and then down to a walk allowing the others to catch up to them. *We don’t want to travel alone* she said to her companion. *Best wait for the group now that we are on our way* Lilaini said nothing but agreed silently and waited for the others to draw up beside them. A leaf, glinted gold in the sunlight, gracefully fluttered from its tree as a slight breeze picked up. It changed from gold to a copper as it brushed next to the mare’s mane. Lilaini reached forward and sent the leaf back on course to finally find its rest on the forest floor.

Tyden laughed as Odin broke into a high trot, matching pace beside the dark mare and her rider. “You really mean to unseat me before this day is done, don’t you?” he brushed the stallion’s mane across the wrong side, so that it turned from silver-and-black to simple ebony.

“I would do no such thing,” the Stallion replied. “I would hardly be the one at fault for the fact your riding of late has been more accustomed to horses then unicorns; a shame for you to have gone all soft.”

“I assure nothing of the sort,” he grinned . Behind him the trees rustled, then hushed again into silence like the whisper of wind.

Lilaini caught the exchange and a grin spread across her face. “Ah, yes that really would be very….unfortunate.” She hesitated to allow the last word to gain impact. “Where would the fun in that be I wonder?” Gypsy just shook her head and scoffed slightly at her companion. It appeared her mood from the night before still lingered despite the display first thing this morning. She noted that Tyden did look slightly less steady then he normally did, although that did seem to happen after he just returned to the isle from his many travels. Liliani mused quietly; despite everything that had happened while they gathered the companions, she realized in the grand scheme of things, he hadn’t been back that long at all. And if he was truly here to stay… well, that might take some getting used to…

Shapes flickered, weaving between the falling leaves as silently as shadows; silver flashed among the gold, glinting, and a moment gone. Tyden cocked his head, his focus drawn, observing the woman sidelong as she spoke, her tone forfeiting any shred of subtly. He swallowed, carefully, shifting in place as if considering his footing. “Perhaps, if you weren’t so keen on running off all the time…” he shrugged dismissively, settled comfortably forward and allowing the stallion’s longer stride to keep a little ahead of them. “Granted, that would be assuming you actually knew how to have fun….”

The wind laughed, briefly, and was still again.

Lilaini’s green eyes expressed her amusement more than her mouth did. They flashed green as she met his gaze and held. She paused, not looking away from him as she replied. “Well I don’t recall running anywhere, unless of course you mean when you came wandering in this morning while I was getting dressed. You should have to try harder then that I would think.” She paused again, momentarily distracted by a noise to her left, but she quickly refocused. “And I could assure you I do know how to have fun, but it’s always something that is more believable when seen for………” her voice broke off abruptly as Gypsy’s mood intruded upon her.

The mare’s ears were flicking back and forth attentively, catching sounds the young woman couldn’t hear yet. Her pace had slowed to almost a standstill as she looked into the trees around them.

His attention sated, Tyden’s focus didn’t shift until Odin came to stop also, breath escaping through his nostrils in hot grey plumes. Gypsy’s cautious movement broke the mood and he found his own breath left him with a flush of relief. At least for several seconds; as Liliani fell silent he was suddenly aware of how still the forest actually was – no birds chirped, no rustling of squirrels and nut-mongers in the trees; the silence had become encompassing and complete. He straightened, turning forward and sitting tall, his eyes addressing each slipped shadow and twitched bush with weary admission. His hand had instinctively moved to the hilt of his sword, fingers curling around the familiar metal and finding easy reassurance there. And yet… this was Kalidore, the hallowed isle; had things changed so much from the night before that the forest was no longer akin to them? or was it him who had been gone so long that he was changed, that it was he who no longer belonged? Movement caught his eye, unmistaken this time, silver’d shapes that ran along the shadows and among the trees.

*What is it?* his thoughts reached towards his companion.

*Be still* Odin responded levelly. *Wait. Listen*

The wind meandered through the treetops then, causing a light shower of leaves to fall. They settled around the unicorns, drawn instinctively still behind their leaders, all ears pricked and eyes forward. Laughter, short, brief, and gone. And then another cry, high and arced, falling off just before one could discern a source. Tyden turned his head, away from the unyielding trees and towards the group, catching Lilaini’s eyes – serious now, like his own – and moving beyond them to seek the others. The last of the party were in sight, and silently, he willed them to stay where they were.

He turned back to face with Odin, and suddenly saw they were not alone: where only shadows stood a moment before was filled now with all the dusky colours of the earth and wood, silvered and banded, snow-ticked and dark as slate, and each set off with glint and gleaming golden eyes. The Wolves of the Kaledon stood before him, and if he dared to turn he knew he’d find them flanked on every side. The largest wolf he had ever seen – a huge animal in grizzled steel who’s head would come easily past his waist alone – yielded less then a half-pace away from where Odin stood.

It fixed him with amber eyes, lips curled as it spoke. “What meaning is this transgression?!”

* * *

She lay back on the rock allowing the sun to dry her after her swim/bath in the deep pool of the stream. This was one of the few times Tiponi had her hair loose, and as it dried without its own weight to pull it down it began to curl gently. She was feeling so at peace listening to the symphony of the forest, the wind rustling the the leaves and sighing through the pines, the birds twittering and squirrels (or some such) chattering.

The mountains rose above her in their majesty. Her camp was set up just inside the trees far enough from the stream that no animals would be disturbed when they came down for water and where the trees would shelter her from the weather and help dissipate the smoke of her fire, the last important in helping to hide her presence. The habits of a lifetime, even a mostly forgotten one, were hard to ignore, and remaining unnoticed was something she had learned to value.

As she laid there she considered. There were wild onions growing just up from the stream in the small meadow and some watercress growing here as well. She had stumbles across some other herbs, too, that had a pleasant scent and added a nice flavor to last nights duck. Still, another day, two at most, she would need to move her camp. As comfortable as this one was she was wary of what might be drawn to her camp. A fresh camp would have no lingering scents of cooking in the air.

* * *

Rhaine had been day dreaming, enjoying the sunshine and the unicorn’s fluid gait when sharp finger of fear jabbed her chest, and she caught her breath between her teeth. It was gone in a moment, but there was no mistaking where it had come from. *Arieon* she leaned forward, digging her knees tight against his ivory hides. *Trouble ahead; we must reach the others, quickly*

The stallion needed no explanation or urging; Arieon wordlessly bounded ahead as Rhaine’s thoughts slammed into his own. The urgency noted in them was unmistakable, the worry had transferred along with her words. He ducked his head in affirmation, feeling the girl’s fingers tighten in his mane and they took off up the trail like streaming sunlight. The cream coloured stallion effortlessly zigzagged his way through the mares, the movement swift and graceful, his careful concern over his rider pushed to the back of his mind in his effort to reach his brother ahead. Had his rider been anyone less skilled than the young woman perched upon his back, she certainly would have had a difficult time staying on. Especially as stalled group ahead brought him sliding to an unexpected halt.

The trio of friends had kept pace with the group, general chatter and banter floated around them like the leaves. Luminista listened with only half her attention thinking instead of her recent restlessness and how it seemed to be increasing with every step she took.

At first she didn’t notice that the others had stopped until she had nearly run into Gypsy. Stopping abruptly to avoid a collision she first cast a glance over her shoulder to see Foehn Miri and Tien Mu standing at attention a full length behind her. Head up, ears forward, nostrils flared Luminista took stock of her surroundings for the first time. And both saw and scented the pack of wolves that surrounded them. She couldn’t quite keep a shiver of nervousness from sweeping her from nose tip to tail tip. There were so many of them and there was nowhere to go that did not lead to wolves!

She caught sight of Arieon coming up quickly from behind and debated for a brief moment upon which way to move in order to make room for him. She quickly decided against stepping to the right for a rather large dust-colored wolf sat there staring at her. Instead she stepped back and to the left a couple of paces for the wolf on the left at least stood further back and wasn’t focused on her.

The stallion pulled up fast between Luminista, a fiery red mare he hadn’t seen before, and a dusty coloured wolf. His mane and tail took half a second to catch up with him, and he had to toss his head quickly to the side so he could once again see. Not that wolves frightened him of course, but he was left wondering as he eyed up the wolves closest to him if they were always this hostile. The leader appeared to be standing in front of his brother, and he pricked his ears forward to hear their words, keeping an eye resting on the wolves nearest to him and the mares around him.

Phae had also come to a sudden stop as the Arieon and Rhaine vaulted forward down the path, and she caught the murmurings of … something in the wind. “Something’s not … right. Get on.” She hissed at the soldier.

“What?” Liam frowned, his hand automatically going to the pommel of his sword. He peered down the path, before Pasiphae’s last words registered, and he looked up at the mare in confusion. “On? Ye don’t mean …”

“On me. My back. Obviously.” Pasiphaë snapped at the man, her temper fraying further at his delayed response.* “Unless you’d rather I just … left you here?”

Liam bit his tongue, recognizing the futility of pointing out the contradiction of her words to earlier orders to the mare. If there was one thing he had learned in the last week, it was generally better to let Pasiphaë work out her anger on some one other than himself. He laid one hand upon her withers, and vaulted easily aboard, and settled neatly – if a bit nervously – upon her back.

For all her bluster and bite, Pasiphaë wasn’t exactly ready for the sensation of a rider on her back – and barely kept herself from startling at Liam’s quick response. She clamped down on the impulse to bolt, and stood, quivering, for several long moments as she tried to force herself to relax.

Liam sat, keeping as still and relaxed as he could, and tried to provide as little distraction as possible as he felt her tense under him. He was very nearly going to chalk up the whole situation as a very, very bad idea – and was mentally cataloging the painful ways in which it would end – when the mare gave a single shiver and sprang forward down the path at a fast clip.

Luckily for both the mare and the man astride her, Liam’s skill in the (invisible) saddle was good enough that he was able to compensate for her abrupt and sudden movement, and was able to refrain from being left in a pained and bruised heap on the ground behind. He found himself unconsciously leaning forward, hands buried in her mane, as he kept his knees locked tight against her ribs. While the sensation of being astride the mare was comforting in it’s familiarity, Liam definitely felt at a loss as to how to proceed from here. Attempting to direct Pasiphaë (at least at the current time) seemed like a potentially suicidal course of action, yet the idea of riding without any sort of control was disconcerting to his well disciplined calvary officer training. It was going to … take some getting used to, Liam admitted to himself ruefully.

Fortunately, Liam was saved further broodings by Pasiphae’s equally unexpected stop. The mare had rounded the path, and angled herself to come to a stop beside Arieon, and several of the other unicorns. They were all staring at something … he peered around Pasiphae’s head and barely kept his mouth from falling open. Wolves. A large pack of the largest wolves he’d ever had the (pleasure? misfortune? – his mind boggled) of seeing. “Hsst. ‘Phae.” He leaned forward to whisper at the mare’s pricked ear. “Now what?”

“We wait.” She replied tensely, her ears swiveling back to pin themselves flat against her head.

((*To be fair, his reticence wasn’t entirely his own fault. During their trek to the festival, Pasiphaë had made it QUITE clear how she felt about … riders. Or at least, Liam riding (partly due to guilt, and partly due to disgust at the possibility of being compared to a horses she knew he was well acquainted with). The man had taken it in good grace, after all … riding a beast that talked BACK was a strange enough to be a deterrent. However, her convictions, along with a rudimentary understanding of the whole ‘Companion’ process (which, to be honest, Pasiphaë had done a rather poor job in explaining despite her prim assertions otherwise), had led him to believe that only person a unicorn would allow upon it’s back would be their bonded. To find out otherwise … took some getting used to.))

*

Gypsy stood close beside her brother and watched as the wolves emerged from the cover of the trees. She was almost unaware of the near collision that happened behind her, so intent was she on the forest. Her ears flicked backwards, listening for the ones she was sure were also on both sides and probably behind as well. Her emerald eyes took in the expression of Tayo, the pack leader who had just spoken. Her companion’s mind rubbed up against hers and it appeared they were thinking alike.

Lilaini was confused. Had she been in a different situation, her brow would have furrowed, but she did not allow her face to betray any of what she was thinking to the pack. This was not normal behavior for the wolves. She lived peacefully in the woods and knew of the wolves well – they preferred to keep to themselves, but there was no dislike between them and unicorns. She cast a glance towards Tyden and saw he was intently staring into Tayo’s eyes. Big mistake. The wolves did not like to be stared down – it would be considered a challenge, and at very best incredibly rude. Hoping to clear up whatever the misunderstanding seemed to be, she turned back to the steel coloured wolf who stood before Odin.

“Sentries of the Forest,” she began, and bowed her head slightly as a sign of respect to their leader. Her eyes searched out where his fellow leader and mate was standing nearby and she bowed again. In her peripheral vision she could see Tyden still staring in the wolf’s amber eyes. *Stop staring at him!* she mentally hissed at him. *That is Tayo their leader, and his fellow leader and mate Vora is standing directly behind him. Something is wrong, this is not normal behaviour. Do not insight them, we have Kore and new companions with us.*

She collected her thoughts while the man hastily obeyed, diverting his gaze, her silent command ringing clearly. Lilaini continued out loud, “We were not aware we had made any transgressions…. what have we done to offend you?”

Tayo’s amber eyes broke from the man and turned instead towards the woman. His hackles were bristling and ears moved in wary circles as he sized her, noting the bowed head and indirect gaze; the hairs along his back lowered slightly, but he remained glowering and squared. He swallowed, tongue slicked over long incisors. “This is not the season Unicorns travel,” the words grated from his throat. “All wrong, all of it, and we have suffered enough! There shall be no more acquiescence–”

“In sooth, Tayo!” spoke the dark she-wolf behind him, leaping forward to stand beside her mate. Her eyes were palest gold and her coat brindled with all the colours of earth. “Do you not know to whom you speak?” Her eyes moved about the traveling party, as fleet as birds. “Tis the Guardians of Kalidore, and Kal’s first born ’imself! Right good you ’ould do the likes of us all to bare teeth at ’em!” She turned, formally, towards the others, lifting her ears as she faced them. “Greetings, Children of Kal and Guardians of the Isle. I am Vora, and this be my mate, Tayo with the eager teeth. Sooth – we meant you no harm. But ’tis not an easy moon to be Sentinel in the Kaldeon, and we are well within our right t’be weary.”

“Well, indeed!” the grizzled grey sneezed in disgust. He waited until his mate was done before taking up again, though did well to hold the bite back in his voice. “Mayhap, I was hasty. Yet, are we to believe this is not a party of war? Unicorns, and Companions astride… there are songs we Moonsingers tell of such times, though none believed they would come again. But stars do not lie. And yet, ’tis not our war – and yet again, here it is on our threshold. We are the Sentries of the Kaledon and will fight for her unto death, but truly – how much more of our blood would Kal have us shed?”

His words curled into a sharp howl, and all around the forest lit up with cry of wolves, their voices melding and cajoling, channeling together as one. The song lifted through the trees and sent shivers down Rhaine’s spine, there was such sadness there. *Something terrible has happened here* her thoughts spread out to touch those around her, anyone who was open to the call. *Great sorrow, great loss; this is nolonger just about us, but all of Kalidore. We are not alone*

*

Kyn had bounded jovially forward alongside Xanthe at Rhaine’s call, his young mind a-whirl with a myriad of romantic visions of the adventure to come (romantic only in theme, not in purpose – Kyn being no where NEAR an age where exploits of a more intimate nature held any sort of appeal). It was all so exciting he could scare contain himself! As fell into step beside her he couldn’t help but pepper the golden filly with small bursts of questions: Had she really ever met a mammoth? If Liam was a warlock (and what exactly was one?) what were they going to do about it?

His attention, so eagerly rapt on Xanthe’s potential answers, caused him to miss the sudden mass exodus of the rest of the group. It wasn’t until Xanthe quickened her own pace beside him that Kyn looked up and noticed how far behind they had fallen. He accelerated his own stride, ears perked and curious as the the reason for the sudden hast – when he finally rounded a corner of the path and was startled to find himself surrounded by more than a score of the wolves of Kaledon.

Kyn stared at the pack, wide-eyed with surprise, as the adrenline and excitement coursed hotly through his young heart. At first the surprise of their sudden appearance kept his tongue still, but as the first few moments dragged on with little more than talking, his young body betrayed his eagerness for … something, and he bridled slightly, pacing fractiously in place. He opened his mouth, meaning to remark in an aside to Xanthe on how much LARGER they seemed than their descriptions in the stories he had heard as a weanling, when the air was rent with the lead male’s heart-rending howl. Shocked into silence yet again, Kyn barely resisted the urge startle and fall back on his haunches and, quivering, watched the remainder of the exchange wide-eyed with astonishment.

Odette hadn’t been far behind the duo in front. Her grace was no where to be found, gait choppy and more than once she nearly tripped from sudden mini obstacles in the grass. It made her stress about breaking something, more specifically, something attached to her her, and she kept her head held just so, to balance the wreath of flowers hanging delicately in her mane and around her horn. Fiera shook her head, but at the same time something like bubbling confidence filled her chest when she observed the grey. At least she was trying. She smiled privately, mind at ease, well, until she froze, stark still and tensed.

Halting behind Gypsy and Lilaini, however, Odette was terrified.

Only then did Fiera realize some static tension in the air. She slowed down to a stop, her ears pricked forward and her pupils dilated some, although her outward appearance remained calm. Ali on the other hand, wanted to claw at that calm, her distress was clearly visible. *Stop fidgeting dear. You’ll most likely fall off and be food.* Fiera snorted, a bit of sarcasm dripping into her human’s mind. Ali mumbled something unintelligent under her breath.

“Odette, child, come here. Next thing would be for you to fall somewhere.” Her voice was soft and crooning, although it was commanding. The grey mare however, didn’t even flinch.

“What’s wrong?” Trinity asked as she and Aurellie pulled up alongside. Looking ahead she could see the others stopped and staring.

“Wolves,” Aurellie whispered. “Stay on my back and all should be cleared soon” Trinity didn’t answer, but she stayed where she was, fingers winding around the black mane.

Cheri’s first thoughts had turned immediately toward the young ones, wondering if Alcyone could move in front of them without spooking the wolves. She saw they were ringed with mares and breathed a touch easier. As Tayo and Vora spoke, however, she had to wonder: what wars had these creatures fought in? And what side were they on? The sound of their grief chilled her and she shivered. Under the howls she heard Alcyone’s breath come hard and fast through flared nostrils and looked down to see white ringing her eyes. Slowly, softly, she leaned foreword and caressed her neck, breathing soothing noises into her ear. *Don’t worry,* she sent to her friend, *We’ll be fine. They’re talking, not attacking. That’s a good thing. Sounds like they need our help more than our blood.* She continued stroking her with fingers, voice and mind, all the while listening intently for the wolves’ next words.

*

Some of the colour drained from Lilaini’s face at the word’s the pack leaders spoke. She felt Gypsy stiffen beneath her at their words as well, and vision’s flashed in the pairs mind of the previous war’s carnage. The young woman cast a glance at Rhaine as the wolves began to howl in grief. Something terrible certainly had happened here, but what? The stars do not lie, he had said. Feeling slightly unnerved, she looked back at Tayo and Vora, knowing she must speak, but paused to choose her words carefully.

“You are correct, this is not the normal time for Unicorns to be traveling; but this gathering was not intended as a party for war.” She allowed her emerald eyes a fleeting glance at the two wolves to whom she spoke, but held it there for only a respectful amount of time before dropping it again. Intermittent eye contact was what they appreciated. “We come in search of one who has been gone for many long years, one who we learned has recently returned to Kalidore. It is Ulysses for whom this party has gathered. But it seems that more is going on than we were aware. Pray, tell us what has happened within the forest which the Sentries protect?”

She was unable to hide the distress in her voice. She and Rhaine were supposed to be the Guardians of Kalidore, not simply the Guardians of the Unicorns. There had been so many years of peace that it seemed as though there was nothing to fear on Kalidore. Now guilt was welling up at the thought of some misfortune befalling any of the many creatures she loved on the Isle.

Arieon’s ears flicked back as the sound of approaching hooves came from behind him but he did not turn him head, too engrossed was he in the conversation. The muscles underneath his gleaming cream coloured coat were taunt, ready to move in an instant if required. He saw the grief plainly written across the faces of the wolves nearest to him, and it was impossible to miss in their song. He glancingly noticed that the mare who had pulled up beside him looked vaguely familiar, but was momentarily confused by the man upon her back. When she flattened her ears back threateningly at the wolves, the expression awoke a familiar vision of the night before; she was Phae. Before he could pondered more about who the human man was, his attention was pulled forward as Lilaini began to speak again.

As the young guardian fell silent again, Tayo’s eyes rested on her for a long time, unmoving. He was the King of the Forest along side his Queen, and like the Guardians he saw it his duty to mind all creatures who habited there, not only his kin; the pride of that office was thick in his voice, and when he spoke again it was shot through with the pain of being unable to fulfill that duty, to protect his people. “Thee nights long,” he began, and could say no more.

Vora made a small noise in her throat, not unlike a mother to her pups, and quietly licked the grizzled muzzle of her mate in silence. The unicorns and their companions were perfectly still. At last she turned. “Three nights long, the sky fell, and it had teeth,” she said. Behind her the wolves’ ears ducked with assent, snarling, worrying to one another, tails clamping between legs. The shewolf’s voice grew, strong and clear, a signer’s voice, the wild cadence of her song painting the gay forest into somber tones of night bled crimson as she sang.

“The stars foretold of such things, for we are Moonsigners and know the Old Songs; and yet, there were those among us who would doubt those tales. And in that ignorance we became complacent, lulled like blind whelps and unprepared for when Ag’anae fell down upon us all ….. The woods howled that night, and it was not the wolves, for Ag’anae comes with hunger and without digression. He flew by darkness and struck, and killed… we found the bodies of the protoceres and hora first, but by the dawn, t’was our own who lay crushed and bleeding along with the rest. Those who fell can nolonger sing of battles fought and lost by the waxing moon… oh, Great Aiya, to have turned your eye from us, your children, your chosen! We have failed her, and so she has forsaken us!”

“Nay, ’twas not our fight,” Tayo breathed, “not our gods, yours.” He looked to the unicorns, his eyes still glint with cold anger. “The stars told a’such time when he who breathed the First Night would return to swallow the Moon, and until that time we Sentries of the Forest would stand guard o’re all ye see… We, the people of the woods who stood at Kal’s side when the world was braced against the abyss of eternal night, many a brothers and sisters claimed back by the stars. For our help, we were granted sanctum here, and the promise of peace on the isle. But again Ag’anae comes for us, for all of us. If you are not preparing for war, mayhap you should be. And if it is… this Ulysses… comes riding Ag’anae’s wings… it may already be too late.”

Astride Areion, Rhaine sat as one entranced. Cold sweat caused her to shiver, despite the heat of the unicorn beneath she could not feel warm. Visions pooled across her field of view and the forest was gone…. She was one with the wolves and their song carried her, moving through ghostlike trees a heart’s pace across the ground. The moon lured her, a happy omen and she felt the urge to sing, for she had paws and silvered hair like the rest; she moved among them sharing there song, dancing beneath the opalescent disc when suddenly, the moon was gone. Night swallowed; horror, confusion, fear… Image gave way to raw emotion, intangible and untamed; all about her the voices sang, different voices, older songs, primordial, primal, urgent, dying, gone… silence…. and laughter. A new presence, oddly shaped, brushed her consciousness. The wolf body was no use to her now for she found it broken on the ground. Again she shivered, but could not draw away; the unnamed consciousness filled the void before her. It was not entirely unfamiliar, but in that moment utterly untraceable all the same. She keened towards it, drawing near, closer, and then –

Searing, blinding, light bloomed in her mind’s eye and the vision was gone. Rhaine felt the wind leave her felt her face against Areion’s polished mane. She hung there for a moment, fingers wrapped in the thick silken shocks, allowing his solidarity to ground her again. She had no idea how long it had been, perhaps, only the first verse of the song? For Vora was quiet now and Tayo had just finished speaking; she watched as he fixed his gaze on Odin, Tyden still motionless astride with hand frozen on the hilt.

Sky fell. Too high. All wrong…
Broken phrases rollicked through her head but suddenly she was moving. She released her grip on his mane and slipped down before Arieon barely noticed the difference. She landed lightly between the unicorns and the grey wolf beside them, silver-faced with black tracing along his nose and ears. Gold eyes set against inkwell black and they blinked as the girl sunk to her knees before him. Head ducked, her hand went out and pressed below his muzzle.

——————————————————————————
Historian’s Note: The wolves’ tales speak of two mythic beasts, Aiya (AY-ah) and Ag’anae (a-GAH-nay); they are fierce rivals who will one day destroy each other and the world will end. Yet they are also described as valued equals, consorts, and gave birth to all existence. These myths speak to the harsh reality of a predator’s existence, a tenuous balance, but also to the sublime understanding that everything – good and evil, life and death, all – are parts of one great whole.
——————————————————————————


Lilaini had sat entranced, listening to the wolves. Neither she nor Gypsy moved as they listened, when sudden movement caught her eye and she turned to where Rhaine sat astride Arieon beside her. Alarm flooded as she saw her friend gasp and fall forward, almost as if she was in a daze, her feet hitting the ground and she reached out to the grey wolf in front of her.

Scrambling, Liliani dropped from of the bronze mare’s back towards her, but even as she reached forward, recognition met the gesture. She hesitated only a second then she too dropped to her knees with head down. She was lost for words at this point and wasn’t sure what else to do. Without looking at Tyden she spoke to him, *Dismount, and come next to us. Rhaine’s right, we shouldn’t tower of them on the back of our companions. And take your hand off your sword, we are not here to fight.*

There were several things Tyden expected when he pledged to Kalidore; he expected the quiet solitude of the isle in contrast to the bustling kaleidoscope of ports beyond the gate, the serene and often zen-like tranquility of the unicorns with their philosophic-reflective take on the world around them, he expected the occasional tussle of negotiation among some of the isle’s other clans or even neighbours, the faithful battle of wits that permeated life with Lilaini, and even that Rhaine, at least once, to completely and utterly confound him.

So far, he’d been there barely two moons and already those expectations had been exceeded, trod over, at length and with gusto, gleefully rubbed in to him how ridiculous he’d been to have ever made them in the first place. The past few weeks in particular, filled with forays through gates and running amok with some of Kalidore’s most exceptional unicorns (not to be mistook – he adored Xanthe, and after gate-hoping through the earth-time continuum with the korè he adored her all the more, but could not be entirely convinced the event hadn’t shaved a few short years off his life). Then there was the talk of Ulysess and allusions to old wars… and now, wolves… large, numerous, and distantly unhappy examples of the species.

Tyden knew wolves; growing up in the skyfields had made him familiar with most of Kalidore’s creatures, though the wolves tended to keep to themselves in the lowlands. Wolves and unicorns long shared and easy camaraderie, and there had never been distress between the two; the wolves of the Kaledon were very amicable. Very different, mind you, from the wolves he had known as a young man in Aurdenborough, but it was with some degree of shame that he realized his instinct still rested there, a prejudice ingrained, as Liliani’s fair warning burst across his consciousness. He recoiled inwardly as she spoke, chiding himself, especially as his body seemed unconvinced by the news and remained taut and battle-ready. Tayo and Vora’s recount of some beast in the forest did little to settle his pulse either, and at this point Odin’s unflinching calm was infuriating. He had, of course, been schooled too long to break to impulse, and so sat there solidly through the exchange. Besides, Lilaini was handling things better then he would have, and he was glad; at the same time, it did nothing to restore his own stock in his ability to truly be useful to Kalidore. Guard the guardians… it had really seemed a simple premise… except… they really didn’t look like they needed guarding…

And then suddenly Rhaine let go of Areion’s mane and was tumbling headlong into one of the wolves.

In retrospect, he discovered in what could only be described as his own personal moment of zen-like clarity, that a second was really an immeasurably long length of time. Sprawlingly long, and uncharted as to the amount of things the human body and mind were capable of processing in that time, especially when all those functions decided to cease functioning, all at once. That was also how long it took for him to realize his heart was beating again, and by that time Lilaini’s command pierced his head and he also remembered to breath. And because he knew acting on any of the instincts that were coursing through his person right then could only end horribly, horribly wrong, he was glad for excuse to push them aside and followed her lead.

He threw his leg over and landed heavily, furthering the movement downwards as he kneeled and bowed his head. From the corner of his eye he watched Rhaine and the wolf, but made no motion towards them; when it came down to it, he did trust her, absolutely, even if her methods often left him at complete loss.

He just… couldn’t say he felt quite the same way about the wolves…

Nearby, Liam fidgeted a’top Pasiphae’s back, frustrated by the lack of acting options before him, and proved that Kyn wasn’t the only fractious audience member of the exchange. The scene playing out before him was seemed surreal that he had a hard time connecting. It wasn’t until Rhaine dropped from Arieon’s back and to her knees before one of the great wolves, that his heart came to a shuddering halt, and brought everything into painfully sharp focus.

His eyes fixed on the young Guardian, Liam leaned forward to hiss urgently in Phae’s ear. “What now …?”

Had it been possible for Pasiphae to flatten her ears further, at Liam’s comment she would have done so – but already tense from the situation with the wolves (and her unhappiness at the fact that Liam was astride her), her ears were already pinned so close to her skull as to be practically indistinguishable. “Hush!” She snapped, her voice low and rough with strain, “They’ve things well enough in hand, which is more than you’d be able to boast.” However, as Pasiphae watched Rhaine, the strangeness of the situation gnawed at her, and her worries glutted themselves on her unease and grew into dark, ungainly beasts. While she knew that the wolves had long be allies of the Unikore, if their disturbing tales told true … then there was much that was not right – and pain and loss and hardship did strange things to folk, well intended tho they may be.

Fortunately she was distracted as Liam fidgeted again atop her back. “Be STILL.” she whispered at the man, “Do not attract attention. Your sword will do no good here.”

Liam, grudgingly recognizing the wisdom of her words, tried to silence himself and sit motionless atop her back. However, his resolve was tested yet again as he watched Tyden drop from Odin’s back and follow Rhaine’s example. With now not one, but TWO of the leaders of the small group that he had just (at least internally) sworn himself to help protect prostrating themselves before giant TALKING wolves – Liam chafed uneasily at his lack of options. ‘Och, lad. Ye’ve _much_ to learn if ye intend to make yerself useful here. Or not go completely barmy.’ he thought to himself grimly.

Trinity too had remained silent as she watched what was going on, keeping to Aurellie’s back, for now. She had never seen any wolves in Ireland, so she didn’t know what they looked like, till now. Aurellie could feel Trinity’s curiosity as she waited, shifting now and then in her stance, but didn’t dare move.

*You seem curious Trinity* Aurellie soon spoke to her companion.

*I’ve ne’er seen a wolf b’fore t’is all* Trinity answered simply.

*Never seen a wolf? Did they not have wolves where you came from?*
the mare asked and looked back to her companion.

*No. We had dogs an’ if there were any wolves, I ne’er saw them, nor heard them,*
she said and shifted, trying to get a better look. “They look li’e some o’ the dogs back home,” she said, loud enough for Aurellie to hear, though if the wolves heard, she hoped they wouldn’t take it in a bad way.

Thora too had noted the sudden stillness of her companion, and rider, though thought little of it and continued on talking about the weather in the skylands and how it might match Bryn’s ideal comfort in atmosphere– a bit more than the lower lands, at least.

Brynja, however, had been pulled out of the conversation and fastened her eyes upon the leaders of the group. At first, it had been an idle curiosity… to look and see, but quickly developed into concern and had her constant smile and good humor fading into cold calculation as she caught the threatening words of greeting on the downwind and found their creator.

Instinctively her hand touched the nearest weapon on her person, the sword’s pommel palmed, and fingers curling around the hilt in a tight grip. Wolves. She had been pitted against wolves before, in the harshest of winter, when food was scarce. They could be as ruthless and cunning hunters as any Viking. One worse, where there was one— there were likely ten more hidden and waiting. A knot had worked it’s way into her shoulders and her jaw was tight with anticipation.

But it was the howling song that filled the air that caused her to shift quickly on Thora, preparing her dismount. At the moment that Brynja meant to slip from the star-dappled mare’s back, the mare herself perceived Bryn’s intentions and dodged herself. Though this quick drift to keep her rider on her back conveniently, and very humorously for those were watching, the other way entirely— backwards even.

So with a sudden quiet yelp and a flailing of arms, the little Viking landed with a surprisingly heavy thud upon the ground below.

Within Brynja’s mind, she heard the gray unicorn gasp as she turned quickly and doubled back to her. Both brown and blue eyes were leveled on Thora and lips were thin.

“Are you all right, little Brynja?” There was a strained seriousness in the mare’s eyes and on her voice, as if at any moment there might be laughter. When Bryn chose to remain silent, and on the ground in silence, Thora couldn’t contain the laughter anymore. She did not belt out a bellowing of amusement, though, and settled for a soft chuckle. “Come now, I only wanted to keep you from rushing off into a precarious situation, Brynja, and possibly making it worse.”

It seemed to Brynja herself that she had developed a rather healthy, or unhealthy if you asked her personal opinion, skill for drawing misadventure. Apparently it was that the little luck she might have possessed, if any, had been in her favor when she chose the back, and it was unlikely that anyone had caught her latest instance in her quickly accumulating string of misfortune…

*

Silently, Lilaini bit her lip, the only visible sign of the anxiety that was coursing through her body. She realized that her two friends were not going to speak, and she searched desperately for words to comfort the pack but found none. “Sentries of the forest…we can not begin to express the regret and despair we feel at hearing this. We truly had no idea, which does not excuse the fact we have slacked in our duties. We have become too complacent in the peace of the Isle it seems. We grieve greatly for the losses you had sustained, and for what it is worth, had we been aware, we all would have been here by your side to rally with you.” Her thoughts tugged her away again, as she dissected everything she had just heard. This was turning out to be much more of a mission then any of them had been aware.

“I am not able to heal the wounds of the past, but as a healer, I pledge my services to you in any way you may find them useful in the future. My door will always be open to you, and if you desire I will be most willing to keep you informed of all that goes on in the future. Kal has not forgotten you.” She concluded her speech and realized it was not much to offer, but what else did she have? Looking up her green eyes met the wolf’s amber ones.

Tayo’s eyes had followed the Companion’s movement to the floor, and when Lilaini was done speaking their eyes met. They remained there the briefest moment before he moved, coming forward to stand before all of them. At his side Vora pressed silently, catching her slick tongue across her mate’s face as he addressed them. “Your words are heart-touched, Guardian, and we Sentries of Kaledon feel the conviction of that heart… but surely, you must see that what my people have undergone, you of Kal’s blood could not possibly understand—”

“Say now…perhaps, we are not so different,” another voiced considered softly, and Tayo’s attention marked the grey wolf beside them, who stood contemplating the dark-haired woman who had landed at his feet. She had relaxed her hand but it remained stationed there as her dark eyes sought upwards, gently, and she kept perfectly still.

The grizzled pack leader regarded him with measured patience, though around the edges it wore thin, “Tali,” he began determinedly, “it is not your place to speak—”

“Aiya’s moon,” Vora broke, her eyes brightly twinkling. “’E’s your get, and a’hardly think either of you will be kept silent a’long; allow him speach,” she winked at him. Her mate looked from one to the other as if some sort of silent communication happened there; wolves did not use mind speak, but the subtle nuances of posture spoke volumes to them making such other means unnecessary. At last the old male nodded, and the silver-grey wolf continued, his voice gentle with his dam’s soft cadence, but words honed carefully like his sire.

“If the old tales hold true, did not they rally then at our defense, shed their blood for our kin along side their own, and loose their pups too? Surely then, that is proof enough, and of sorrow… we have all our share of them, why welcome more? If, by chance, our clans joined may prevent further loss…” Tali dipped his head, and his tongue flicked, lightly, across the woman’s cheek.

Vora flagged her tail, shouldering her mate as she nudged past him towards her son. She landed a quick lip on his ear and slipped past him. “’E’s right, by the moon,” she chirruped, and came to stand in front of Tyden. “The Kaledon is but a’part of a larger Isle, and we are one of many who makeths a’whole. Who’s fault this is matters naught, only so that we face it a’together.” She reached out and contently licked the man’s face.

Tayo’s eyes registered the events quietly, the worry still fixed in his mind but he could not deny what his mate and son professed. It was his duty to care for the people of the Kaledon, just as it was the Guardian’s duty to care for the isle as a whole; it was easy to believe the two were unalike and to shoulder the task selfishly and call it duty, to blame another for your troubles and then refuse there help for a solution on those grounds alone. But none of these would help the people of Kaledon, and as much as his pride hurt him, Tayo knew this to be true; the future of Kalidore relied on solidarity, and this was bigger then them all.

He trotted forward and stood before Lilaini, his voice thick as he spoke. “Aye, ye children of Kal have always treated us well, and in return we have met you with the same kindness. Please do not let this day colour your memory of the wolves, as we have acted here in grief and despair. What you have pledged to us is more then we rightly deserve, and we are most grateful. And, if the Sentries of Kaledon can aid you in anyway, you need only ask and our service is yours.” He hesitated one last moment and reached up, licking the Guardian’s face kindly.

Rhaine was silent as Tali licked her face, but the small creep of a smile had begun across her features. The wolf’s haloed eyes continued to contemplate her with a mixture of curiosity and what could only described as canine amusement, though weather this was directed at her, or for the unsettling affect it had had on his father, Rhaine was unsure. But she broke a grin all the same, brushing her mind against the wild one’s. *Thank you*

Tali blinked, unused to the sensation, and his ears swiveled distractedly until he realized where the voice had come from. He looked at the woman again, one ear perked and head cocked slightly askew, his face a question. It was a completely puppish expression and she giggled, ducking her head again with esteem. “I beg pardon, Sentry of Kaledon, if I startled you; I have not known many wolves, and the depth of your customs are still learning to me.”

“Then I would say you are a quick study,” the wolf’s tail bobbed lopsidedly, and touched his nose to her again. “I confess, I have not met many companions. So we meet then on common ground. I am called Tali.”

“And I am Rhaine,” she grinned openly. “Tali, well met.” Instinctively, her hand had gone to the wolf again, pausing as he worked his nose across her fingers and then moving to trace the dark fur up behind his ears. She sunk into the soft fur and scratched gently, her face a picture of gentle contemplation. Tali’s, on receipt, slowly curled into happy expression of bliss.

Odin had watched the proceedings silently, and at last he spoke, inclining his head to the dark shewolf who stood beside his companion. “While we may see little of one another, our lives are indeed entwined, something we should not to be take for granted; as we tread through the forest, we will always be mindful of your clan.”

“Aye, and we will one better that!” Vora laughed. “Safe passage! We will grant you our best guides until you leave the Kaledon, a token of our goodwill,” she danced back to her mate’s side starting up a cascading yodel, and the wolves around them joined in song.

“We are much obliged,” the stallion bowed his head, and as he did so nudged his companion. “It is time we took our leave.”

The urge to wipe his face was being contained, barely, on the grounds that sullying a gesture of goodwill was frowned up in almost any culture. Tyden took hold of Odin’s mane as he rose to feet, glancing again towards the guardians. While Lilaini was rightening herself beside Gypsy, Rhaine was still sitting in the ground with the wolf lolling his head happily as she rubbed shoulders. Tyden swallowed. He looked up at Lilaini in hopes she’d say something but the woman remained silent, returning his gaze with a pursing one of her own. In the end, it was Areion who reached down and touched Rhaine’s sholder and she rose with an almost unhappy reluctance and climbed astride. Tyden turned away, his focus returning to the open trail ahead. Odin waited as he mounted, and as soon as they walked forward the bulk of the wolves dispersed, swallowed back into the forest as silently as shadows. As promised, a few appointed guides remained, clipping along side at an easy pace.

As the unicorns fell back into step behind them Lilaini sighed, feeling Gypsy’s warmth and reassurance bathe over her. *You did a great good there,* the unmistakable swell of pride was in her bonded’s voice, and only then did she release the knot of trepidation she had been holding so tightly in her stomach. The events still swam through her mind and she had no real answer although she really wanted to refute; she felt Gypsy chuckle at that response and sighed again.

“Well done,” the Daiga said.

Lilaini looked up to find Muse had pulled along side, and the old woman’s dark brown eyes hand found her and held her own. She was smiling, and her face broke into dozens of well-worn wrinkles, each one marking a reason why Lilaini couldn’t disagree. Without a word the young woman bobbed her head with reverence, and they continued up the path in silence.

Abrutly, the surrounding temperature seemed to increase as the tension broke with the she-wolf’s and Liliani’s final words. Even Phae managed to unclench her ears from the back of her skull. Liam leaned back slightly, and breathed a heavy sigh of relief as first Tyden, and then Rhaine re-mounted and the group began to travel down the pathway as if little had happened – save for the addition of a few fuzzy sentinels.

Pasiphae, having fallen into step beside Arieon as the moved up the path, was close enough to the cremello stallion and rider that Liam was able to address Rhaine at an easy volume. “Ye make …. interesting friends, Lady.” He said as they rode, but in glancing at the woman was troubled to note the unusual pallor to her features. His brows knitted in concern and he frowned. “Are ye well, Lady? Ye’ve not been harmed … ?! Should I call for a rest, or aught else?”

Beneath him, Pasiphae snorted at this sudden tumbled display of distress, and had a biting quip ready to mock the man – but upon looking at the woman herself, stayed her tongue, as she noted Rhaine’s complexion did look unusually pale.

She saw trees only as broken bands of light and shadow as they passed, her focus drawn inward and lulled by the rhythm of Arieon’s gentle stride; he moved all the more carefully now, his full focus on his rider, though occasionally his gaze would catch one of the forest sentries as they slipped almost silently through the brush along the trial. Now and again there would be a short call, and one or another of the wolves would answer, so passed the time with an air of contentment, even eagerness at moving again, and a sense of duty renewed. He cast a look towards his brother ahead and following brightly behind the lead sentry as they began picking up the pace; he noted that Odin also had his head tilted, as if listening. Speaking to his companion, no doubt, thought Arieon attentively. The ivory stallion frowned, wondering if there was something he ought to say to Rhaine, but before he could come up with anything reasonably interesting or profound, Phae and Liam had pulled neatly alongside them.

It took a moment for Rhaine to realize Liam was talking, the words filtering through the tangled threads of half-remembered dreams. She pulled herself from them, shaking her head and a touch of colour returning to her cheeks as she spoke. “My father had a great many dogs; he kept them for hunting, and his best used to sleep in the tent along side him at night. Once, I snuck a puppy into bed with me, and oh, was mother furious when she found out! It had… chewed through her best brocade and piddled in the centre of the rug, not to mention eaten all of cured meat hung for the morrow’s meal… I… hadn’t thought about that in years,” she finished, dismissing the memory with a sigh.

Bringing her attention to Liam in full, she noticed the troubled look on his face and registered the rest of what he had said. “Oh, nay, I’m fine!” she insisted with another brisk nod of dismissal. “’Twas just a little vision, it caught me off guard, is all… no need to concern yourself, or anyone else.”

She considered the event again, and glanced to the forest, picking out the sentries that flagged them as they rode. “And look – we have made friends anew,” the smile coloured her expression further and washed the last stains of distress away. “Tis the first step, towards setting things right again.”

Alcyone tramped along in a huff as Cheri snickered in her ear. Honestly, you wouldn’t think one little startle would garner such mirth. She briefly wondered if a little buck might sober her rider.

“I don’t mean to laugh at you, really i don’t. I just have a hard time believing that’s the scariest confrontation you’ve ever been in. You wouldn’t last a week in downtown Chicago. Seriously though, if we’ve embarked upon some dangerous journey you’re gonna need some tougher nerves.”

Alcyone almost laughed aloud. That was the dandelion calling the daffodil yellow, now wasn’t it? Coming from the girl who was too shy to approach the buffet table when she first found her, wringing her hands at the edge of the harvest feast. Alcyone sent her that image.

“Um, does the phrase social anxiety disorder mean anything to you?” Alcyone shook her head in a negative, ignoring the implied sarcasm. “Oh, well, i guess it wouldn’t. The key word is ‘social.’ I may not be much of a fighter, but i’ll kick some ass if i need to. At least, i’ll try.”

Alcyone sighed. She supposed she was a little sheltered. The girl was right. There would be more dangers on this journey than some grief-stricken forest dwellers. She glanced side-long at one of the sentries that paced near. Then again, grief could make creatures do strange things. Especially creatures with fangs like those. She surpressed a light shudder and traveled on, her step a bit gentler.

She felt Cheri nudge her in the direction of Tyden and Odin, and she oblidged. She wouldn’t mind walking near such a fine stallion. When they approached Cheri addressed the man.

“Hi again. Cheri. Impressive diplomacy, by the way, but i’m not sure i followed. So, am i to understand that there’s some foul beastie in the woods picking off innocents? Are we out to catch the thing before we go find the… what was it… Son of Kaedon? Because that goes against every slasher movie rule i know. I mean, not that we’re walking away, i’m just curious as to what we’re actually doing.”

Alcyone wasn’t sure if she’d ever get used to Cheri’s strange pattern of speech. She made a mental note to ask her sometime what the “slasher movie rules” were.

Tyden turned as the sound of Alcyone’s hooves drew near, dipping his head to Cheri in acknowledgement. His attention broke from his own wallowing and was drawn back to the new companions, as if remembering them for the first time. A new awareness struck and he suddenly became alert to the silent concern that spread across their faces, or hushed exchanges with the unicorn; this was probably not the best introduction to Kalidore, or in particular to the other clans, and no one had taken the time to explain any of this to them. While talking wolves might be common enough here, chances are the experience was new to many of them, and probably, rather unsettling. His eyes roved over each again in turn, but it was with some relief he realized their bonded had taken the first steps in this direction, and would be there to help and guide them along the way. It was something, he realized, he probably took for granted; Odin’s resoluteness had always grounded him, a thing of welcomed familiarity whenever he returned to the isle. What then, for one not bonded…? He abruptly thought of and sought out Liam, finding him having drawn alongside Rhaine and they were talking. His gaze rested their a few moments uncommitted before turning back to Cheri in full.

“Er, thanks,” he shrugged mildly at her nod to diplomacy and conversational small talk. “I… suppose, some parts of the Kalidore day-to-day might take more getting used to then others. Not that this sort of thing happens daily. Or even frequently… really, if at all… I like wolves,” he tried to sound reassuring, but decided that rambling incessantly probably wasn’t instilling confidence. He sighed, and offered a wry smile instead. “To be completely honest, I am not sure I followed all that much of it either.”

He hadn’t heard of her particular Code either, but saw where the concern stemmed from and nodded receipt. Odin had filled him on Falling Star’s concerns, and while he felt it was something best held from the group (at least, until proven) he saw Cheri as an ally, so the information could be pertinent to her. And yet… was it a fair burden? He chose his words.

“There is… something… amiss in the woods,” he began quietly, noting the ears on one of the following wolves flick as he spoke. “One of our sisters went missing – little Acheflow’s mother – and a unicorn does not simply leave her young korè; coupled with what has happened to the wolves, there are… concerns. To ignore it would be foolish, but truthfully, we have no clue what we’re up against and to blunder forth blindly would be equally unwise.” He regarded her carefully, measuring her reaction as he spoke. He had no real expectations of her combat skills, only that if she was willing and eager, he wouldn’t patronize. Tyden continued, “I am unconvinced that Ulysses’ arrival on the isle now is coincidental, and since that is the direction we have been pointed in, we will follow through. Perhaps finding the first will help resolve the other; at least, we can hope.”

What he didn’t say, and hadn’t even let the notion grow firm enough in his mind that it might reach Odin, yet at the same it pressed even though he knew, truly, it made no sense: What if Ulysses’ arrival was not so much a kin to the events as they were the cause?

*

Xanthe had stood watching the wolves with wide-eyed wonderment. She’d never seen one this close before, and the distress of the animals alarmed her into silence alongside Kyn. Her eyes darted back and forth as Vora and Tayo spoke, feeling her hair prickle at their tale…. a beast, loose in the woods? that was… eating people? She found her self taking a few small steps towards her mother unaware, her imagination flying out over the forest and discovering potential in each nook and fleeting shadow.

When it was over, and the wolves dispersed, she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Her ears twitched as she watched the few sentries fall in step beside them, some pausing to sniff causally at the unicorns as they passed, and she considering them in turn curiously. Rhaine’s conversation with Tali had fascinated her, and questions she could ask a wolf were starting to bubble away her reservations about the animals. As Muse moved off towards Gypsy, she turned to find Kyn again.

“I wonder what it’s like to be a Forest Sentry,” she thought out loud. Tali was following alongside Areion, and she figured if she was going to ask a wolf anything, it would be one whom had allready been befriended. And then Phae pulled up with Liam, and Liam began talking to Rhaine, and that plan was quickly quelled of interest. Xanthe frowned, mostly because of how oblivious poor Phae was. I must… rescue her, she thought determinedly. She realized however, if she was going to do that, she was going to have to polish up on her spell scrolls. She had, on good word to her mother, asked Lana to pack a few books into her packs, but on reflection she wasn’t sure how spells about remotely lightly moon orbs or dispersing urdvoggens were really going to be of much use to her now.

Useful magic, it seemed, was hard to come by…

When they started moving again, Fiera fell into a smooth walk, her body relaxed. Her mood lifted quite noticeably too. Although her rider quirked her eyebrow, wondering if trusting the chestnut’s ability to sense the situations was an accurate one. They moved near the edges of the group, slowly and carefully picking their.

Odette, the beflowered unikore, seemed at a rather lost for words. The poor thing seemed frightened beyond belief, despite her size in comparison to the wolves. Her movement was a lot more stiff than even she normally was. Pampered… Fiera sighed mentally before reaching the other unicorn’s mind, *Child, loosen up. Talk to one of the sentries, I bet they’d make such a great conversation with you. This IS why you decided to come after all, wasn’t it?*

Odette gulped rather loudly, then nodded, mane staying smooth against her side. She sidled closer, keeping a good 3 feet apart from a rather large wolf. She didn’t know his name, maybe it was Tayo, but she didn’t get a good look at him from her earlier standing place. Plus he didn’t look like he’d bite… at least not from their earlier confrontation.

Quietly, she spoke with an edge of nervousness paling her voice. “So about… how long… I’m Odette. Greetings to you, erm…” she trailed off to hint that she was unsure about names. Or salutations in general. “…What is this… what kind of events have transpired?” The unikore mare felt like chewing on her lower lip, or biting her tongue back for such a plain question. But neither action seemed right for the occasion, if she was to prove herself in Fiera’s eyes.

The large wolf cocked its head, pale yellow eyes regarding the beflowered unicorn sidelong. She – for yes, it was a she, Odette’s inexperienced appraisal aside – was a younger wolf, and the responsibility of being a sentry was something she relished and took seriously; at the same time… Her eyes flitted over the traveling party and came back to the unicorn again, her nose wrinkling with curiosity.

“Greetings, daughter of Kal, I am called Oro. We should not to speak of Ag’anae’s flight, lest we lure him upon us,” her eyes darted skyward briefly, then back to the unicorn. “But fear not, we will keep him from your heels so long as you are in the woods. We sentries promise that.” She licked her lips with satisfaction, as if the idea of a challenge captivated her, and turned her eyes forward again. But eventually her focus trailed back to Odette, considering the mare’s headdress and glancing towards Fiera and Ali just beyond. “If you don’t… mind my asking,” she began carefully. “Why do you unicorns adorn yourselves with flowers… and jewels? Must be… so very cumbersome. And… the Companions – to cover their whole body in… colourful… wraps,” she struggled, at a loss for words. “It just seems… uncomfortable.” Oro shrugged.
Odette breathe in quietly, still wishing and or even hoping that she had not just made a fool of herself. Oh all the places to be! She paced herself for a moment, trying to shrug off her uneasiness. Her crystal blue eyes wandered off for a moment as a young sentry came nearer, replying.

“And I, you,” was all the beflowered mare could manage when she heard Oro’s second half about pulling attention from ‘him’. Even after the sentry’s promise of protection, her chest stirred with uneasiness. Of course they’d protect the group well, but with Odette’s chance with luck – that didn’t seem likely. And still she pressed on to make a decent conversation.

“I… I can’t possibly speak for the others or why they choose to wear what… they wear,” she stammered a little. With her voice low and all with honesty she replied, “A… habit? I guess? I’m not the surest of why I have flowers placed in my mane. Maybe I try to make myself seem more capable of earning the respect from… from Fiera? Aside from her looking at me as if I was a pampared kore. I… I try to impress. Impress who, I do not know.” She shook her delicate head, eyes closing for a moment. It kind of hurt to admit that, especially to a stranger. “But not the point. I guess when you’re a unicorn, one would enjoy the festivities. I dont know about you guys if you ever celebrate anything.” Odette quickly added in, feeling blood rush across her face at her pathetic finish.

Oro’s tail gave an earnest wag as the beflowered mare spoke. “Aye, we do have, as you call them, festivals. The Feast of Aiya was this night past… or would have been, save for Ag’anae Flight.” The young wolf paused at the mentioned name, respectfully, but it was her own youth betrayed that she sighed wistfully over the gala missed. “We don’t dress up for them,” she continued, “but there is much singing and dancing and rejoicing – and feasting, too. When we have all sang our thanks to Aiya’s Moon, the elders will tell the old tales into wee hours of the dawn. It is quite a lot of fun actually,” she grinned, showing a straight row of gleaming teeth, “dressed or not.”

The other part of Odette’s speech she didn’t understand, for wolves had different ways of earning and showing respect among their peers, and what the mare was saying made little sense to Oro. She shrugged it off, bobbing her head politely as she took her leave; her presence seemed to be making the unicorn a little ill at ease, though she wasn’t sure exactly why. “I will be resuming my watch; should you need me, just howl,” she yodeled, scampering forward as she caught wind of a commotion ahead.

*

Luminista was glad to be moving again. Somehow this encounter with the wolves made the restlessness she had been experiencing of late seem more urgent. Move. We must move. Forward. Go. The chorus repeated itself in her inner-most being. While she did not understand it she was still driven more and more to obey.

Warily she eyed the dust-colored wolf that still ranged along side. She felt the need to break the ice and start a dialogue with the beast, but try as she might she couldn’t come up with anything to say. Beautiful weather we’re having just didn’t seem to cut it.

Foehn Miri and Tein Mu moved easily together along the trail discussing the lupin encounter and how unusual such and encounter was. As Luminista listened inspiration struck. Clearing her throat she addressed the wolf, “Since it seems we will be traveling together for a time perhaps it would be appropriate to introduce ourselves. My name is Luminista. The two behind me are Foehn Miri and Tein Mu.”

The other two nodded in turn as the wolf’s gaze rested on each. An abrupt “Greetings” was his only reply, but he continued to keep pace with the three which Luminista decided to take as encouragement.

“Do you think it will take long to find what is causing such a disturbance?” she asked in a further attempt at conversation.

The dusty fellow didn’t even glance at her but continued to pace them with eyes forward. Luminista’s temper was sparked. Without ever missing a step in her stride she ducked her head. With her horn she caught raked a clump of fallen leaves and flicked them over at the unsociable wolf. He reflexively dodged them, but upon realizing what he had dodged turned a glare upon Luminista. This time instead of shivering in fear the red mare glared right back.

Foehn Miri caught the exchange of glares and in an aside to Tien Mu softly said with a light chuckle, “Look out, here comes classic Luminista in all her glory!”

“In case you missed it,” she fumed, “I am trying to be sociable here since it seems we will be traveling together to some unknown amount of time. It would not hurt you to extend the same curtsey. And I heard that, Foehn Miri.”

She wasn’t quite sure, but Luminista thought she heard a “humph” from the wolf who continued to look forward and trot steadily along. Before she could make any further moves in that direction though Foehn Miri moved forward and placed herself between Luminista and the wolf.

“Just let it go for now,” Foehn Miri told her. “If the beast wishes to be rude, well, maybe he just doesn’t know any better, bless his heart.” The liver chestnut might wrap the sword of her words in velvet, but they could still cut. Sympathy had dripped from her tone as she had spoken.

‘The beast’ had been enough to raise his hackles, but the ‘doesn’t know any better’ not to mention that ‘bless his heart’ brought him forward so he blocked the mares’ progress. A growl rumbled deep in his chest as he said, “Manners I have in plenty. Who they are bestowed upon is my choice!” With that he spun around and loped forward to resume his place in the van.

The three mares exchanged a look and a chuckle then continued on their way with the group, all of them content since they had gotten ‘The Beast’ to speak more that one word.

*

Lilaini had never known how to accept compliments. Generally, she would brush them off with a sarcastic comment but when the compliment came from The Daiga, this just did not seem appropriate, even to her. Her cheeks flushed slightly as she could feel the same sentiments emanating from the mare she was riding and she quickly looked away from the two of them. Until then she hadn’t realized how nervous she had been, but now she felt the wave of relief wash over her. This expedition was going to be much more involved then they had originally planned. She sighed quietly and tangled her fingers into Gypsy’s mane as she thought.

Gypsy was amused by her companion’s reaction but did not bother her further. Instead, she turned to her golden sister and smiled warmly. It seemed like ages since they had had time to speak to one another. “So you are sure you don’t plan on joining our expedition? By the sounds of it, it’s going to be quite the adventure. We have hardly even embarked and look what has already happened.”

The bronze mare had a bemused look in her eye as she realized the truth behind her words, and she wondered just how much trouble Muse’s daughter would manage to get herself into this time.

Muse laughed easily, but her eyes skirted Gypsy’s gaze as she replied. “What want have I for adventure? You try keeping the library of Kalidore in order for a week!”

It was half in jest, but which half made the palomino mare sigh and toss her head, the bronze was pressed to know. Truth being, Muse was simply more at home amongst her books then out in the wilds of Kalidore, content to have her adventures in ink then gallivanting with her brothers and sisters. It had always been her way. She was a quiet soul, lighthearted and infinitely optimistic, with the keen ability to make everyone else just as excited about those books as she was. That was a gift, and one not to be understated.

And yet…

Her gaze rested on Rhaine and Arieon, and she had to smile at her brother’s fastidious attention to the placing his feet, all the more exaggerated now that he had a rider on his back. “Look at that peacock,” she nudged Gypsy fondly, the amusement and admiration for her younger brother unmistakable in her voice; of the children of Kal, she and Arieon were closest in age, and they had grown up side by side. “Who knew he had it in him to pay attention to another creature besides himself for longer then it takes to groom that lovely tail?”

Gypsy followed Muse’s gaze as she spoke of Arieon. Her lips curled at the corners as she suppressed a smile. “Yes he does certainly seem to be taking the responsibility seriously,” she replied as she watched the ivory stallion moving even more fluidly then he normally did. “Despite his carefree attitude, he can be responsible and take care of others when his mind is to it. I think we all, but especially our brothers, don’t often offer him much in the way of opportunities to do so. Odin and Falling Star are just more like that by nature. It gives Arieon a lot more leeway in the obligations department.” Her eyes followed him as he moved gracefully with the young woman astride his back. “Having a rider suits him,” she mused, “makes him look even more… grand. Although certainly do not tell him I’ve said that.” She laughed allowed before she was quieted by Muse’s expression.

The golden mare had chuckled, then sighed, her face growing serious. “You have no idea how glad I am that he’s with Rhaine. It will make the journey all the more easier – well, for me, anyways! For I do worry,” she turned to Gypsy again in earnest. “I worry about that girl; oh, I worry about Xanthe too, but in a completely different way – more, I worry about the rest of you, at the mercy of her antics – but Rhaine?” Her voice trailed off as her eyes became distant and inwards. “Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t done her a terrible disservice, keeping her with me in the temple… so cloistered… I wonder sometimes if her diffidence is more on account of my follies, then something that comes naturally to her person. if Imbri was here, it’d be different…. but, she’s not… And no point fretting about times past, now is there?”

The bronze mare listened to her sister as she spoke of her worries. She was different in her worries for her daughter. Cosmic Radiance did not crave the adventure and travel that her mother did. Gypsy was a wanderer, and was generally never in one spot for one, although this had changed slightly since her companion’s arrival. The two of them were often off wandering the far reaches of Kalidore, but Lilaini had wanted to set up a permanently residence regardless; so time was often spent there. Cosmic on the other hand was not a wanderer, she preferred to stay with others and not stray too far from what she was familiar with. Gypsy wondered momentarily whether she would worry if her daughter too wanted to join in these now frequent adventures. She was pulled from these thoughts as Muse continued, but this time speaking of Rhaine. She hesitated as she listened to her sister and eyed her curiously for a moment before she could compose her expression again. She did not verbalize the questions that had risen to the forefront of her mind and instead let them swirl around inside her mind, noting the change in the palomino mares face again as she changed the subject again.

Muse turned her focus forward, fixing on the ivory stallion. “Isn’t he doing just dandy?” she said.

Arieon, who would have been pleased to know he was being so admired, was walking at what seemed an extraordinarily slow pace behind his brother, but this was because he paid such attention not to jostle the young woman on his back. This having a rider business certainly did seem to require a lot of attention. He wondered if it began more second nature the longer you did it, or if all the unicorns had to pay this much attention to where they were placing their feet. This was somewhat exaggerated in his mind, because even as far as unicorns went, Arieon was an extremely smooth stride.

The cremello stallion had been paying so much attention to the way he was carrying himself that he had forgotten the mare who was walking next to him. He glanced at her from underneath his forelock, which had fallen over his eye, and noticed she looked rather annoyed. He mulled over why this could possibly be, but abandoned that quickly as he had never been very good at understanding what others were thinking. There had been some intention in his mind to speak to one of the mares on the other side of him but they seemed engaged at the moment, so despite the air of irritation that radiated from the bay mare next to him he turned to her and spoke in his most annoyingly enticing voice.

“So, is it by chance that I find you here next me again? Or, perhaps Kal is favouring me again today with your company, although I’m not sure what I have done to deserve a boon such as that.”

* * *

Tiponi crouched in the meadow harvesting some watercress when she sensed movement behind her. She froze. Waiting for some sense of threat or danger she slowly, very slowly, turned her head. Looking over her shoulder she saw about 40 feet (12 meters) away some deer-like creatures. It was a doe with two fawns that were just about old enough to be loosing their speckles. They were grazing contentedly, either unconcerned or unaware of her presence. Tiponi went back to her watercress.

* * *

As the three mares continued on they bantered with each other and discussed the mundane. Each of them kept half and eye on the anti-social dusky wolf and each plotted silently the next encounter, for next encounter they would make sure there would be.

Moving along with the others it was all Luminista could do not to push up behind Arieon and Phae in an effort to get everyone to move faster. The internal push to go, to get to…something was getting stronger with each step…

*

The sun was beginning to dip closer to the western mountains as the party made their way through the trees, the sentinels still flagging them on either side, and more darted amongst the forest’s shadows, just out of sight. The ground began to change; the loamy turf gave way to dryer soil and the occasional hewed stone jutted upwards, like the trees, as if growing from the earth. The trees were changing too, the frivolous red and golden canopy receding into impassionate evergreen. Even the birds were different, and the air took on a crisper quality and wind was cool and fresh, swept in from perma-frozen mountaintops high, high above.

The Daiga brushed her hand along the silver the mane, tracing the soft tresses against the golden hair. “At this pace, you shall have me home by starfall,” she addressed the mare warmly.

Muse tipped her head back towards her rider. “Sooner, were Odin to pick up the pace,” she teased.

The old woman smiled and turned to Lilaini, “Then I will be taking my leave of you all shortly, if there is nothing else you require of me here. Not that I haven’t seen every reason to believe such assistance would be obsolete,” her eyes twinkled at the young woman as she spoke.

Now that all was quiet again, a small and almost forgotten creature rummaged its way around inside a young woman’s pocket. A small black beak and red tuft of feathers peeked out from the inside the thick green cloak to survey the situation. Despite the coincidental timing of his reemergence, Adar had actually been sleeping throughout the recent interactions with the wolves. Which was probably a good thing, as the protective creature probably would have attacked one of the wolves before Lilaini could have stopped him, and as can be imagined, that would have been much more of a hindrance than a help.

He assessed their current surroundings and noted the wolves who were now traveling with them, but as they seemed to be posing no immediate threat, he quickly lost interest. He clambered the rest of the way out of his hiding place and perched himself on one of the saddlebags. His feathers were sticking at all sorts for bizarre angles from his tight sleeping quarters and this gave him a slight appearance of violent insanity. He began attempting to smooth and correct the feathers, placing them roughly back into their proper positions. As he reached behind him in an attempt to smooth a particularly unruly tail feather he stopped, and his beady eyes narrowed to a slit.

Several feet in front of Gypsy, was Odin and Tyden conversing with some others. Tyden’s head bobbed slowly up and down unprotected as he engaged into the discussion he was having, and the little griffon’s head bobbed up and down in unison as he watched. He quickly turned so he was facing the small group and crouched low, still clinging undetected, to the side of the saddlebag. His behind lifted slightly in the air, his tail sticking straight up like a beacon. It trembled slightly from side to side in anticipation before suddenly with a low shriek Adar launched himself like a missile towards the back of Tyden’s head…

Cheri mulled Tyden’s words over, feeling a strange thrill. She had scads of murder books, crime dramas and thriller movies filed away in her noggin and here she was, smack dab in the middle of a mystery. She felt elated, excited… and a bit frightened. This could be suspense, psychological thriller, or, she sivered a little, outright horror. Who knew how this would end up? But that was the fun part of mystery, now, wasn’t it?

So, as far as she could tell there were three major components. A missing mommy, a rogue stallion, and a trail of dead forest critters. Now, why would a mommy go go missing? From what she could gather the unicorns were very tight knit, and one probably wouldn’t leave a foal willingly. That ruled out her running off with the stallion. Unless, of course, the others were in denial about their own good natures, which was possible. She didn’t know them well enough to be certain about that. Well, except for Alcyone, of course, she thought with a fond smile at her companion, then went back to her thoughts. Maybe Mommy went nuts. Did unicorns get post partum depression? Nah. Even if they did, the victim was usually the offspring, not random innocents. Cheri sighed. She’d just have to keep her mind open on this one.

The Rogue. Sounded like he was a prodigal son of sorts. The evil son, maybe? Could this semi-new comer be responible for the murders, even kidnapping? Or maybe something else came with him, something malevolent–

Cheri didn’t get any farther in her thoughts, because something whipped past her face. Cheri jerked to the side and cursed, almost falling off her mount.

The griffon hit his mark, and was immediately intertwined in the young manes hair as he continued to shriek with delight at catching his favourite prey so unawares.

“Holy buckets, what was that?” She looked around and saw a red bird-like creature latched onto Tyden’s head and squawking at him. “What the–” She tore off her hoodie and urged Alcyone closer, stretching the black fabric wide. She tossed it over the thing (and, incidentally, Tyden’s head), trying in vain to catch it.

It came out of nowhere.

One moment Tyden was riding along quietly, minding his business and talking with Cheri. The next moment something hit him from behind. Whatever it was it was prickly and noisy and latched onto the back of his head while continuing to squawk and riddle him with needle-sharp claws. The thought “pocket griffon” nearly made it through his head when the world suddenly when dark. Now, having an angry pocket griffon stuck to the back of your head is one thing. Being stuck under wraps with the same angry griffon is something else entirely. And while the bird part of Adar probably would probably would have sat quietly until the light returned, it was the cat part who took venturously to the challenge of ‘getting out of the bag’ and began looking for an out. At all cost. And taking no survivors. And severely punishing those who had done this to him in the first place. He squiggled around until he found something fleshy and bit down. Hard.

A muffled yelp under the hoodie permeated the quiet afternoon as Tyden tried to rid himself of both adversities, but the griffon had a integral hold on both his ear and the hoodie and the two refused to part. He swung his leg over to dismount, an action that would have been more graceful had Odin been saddled, or at least just wearing stirrups; he remembered the small omission about mid-way through but by then momentum had already taken hold. Odin pulled up just in time to watch his rider tumble down.

Tyden landed on his back with a thud. Adar had clambered loose in the freefall and flew up to nearest tree branch, an angry red and black puff of ruffled feathers as he continued to screech. He pulled the cloth slowly free. The forest had become rather quiet, and the thought briefly crossing his mind to simply lay there, and never get up again. That would have made everything much more simple. He felt Odin’s probing gaze upon him, and what was unmistakably the breath of one of the forest sentinels wafting close at hand. He winced. “Lily, griffon…” he mumbled sorely.

Tien Mu’s head came up and her attention focused on the sudden commotion just ahead. She was just in time to see Tyden slide and tumble off of Odin’s back and a flash of red fly up into a nearby tree. Prancing closer, Tien Mu nipped and tugged playfully at Tyden’s shirt and commented, “Nice dismount, sir.” She then took the lump of black cloth from Tyden’s hand, lifted her head, and looked around.

Stretching her head over Odin’s back she “handed” the shapeless cloth to the rider of the blue unicorn. With a merry winkle in her eyes she played a brief game of keep-away with Cheri over the shirt, but relinquished it after only a couple of feints.

Once her mouth was free, Tien Mu chuckled and said to Cheri, “When you get a chance you may want to give this fellow a few pointers on how to dismount without landing flat on your back.”

Impatiently, Luminista chastised Tien Mu from her place behind Arieon, “We need to move on, Tien Mu. Quit causing more trouble and get out of the way.” At the look of surprise and disapproval on Foehn Miri’s face she defensively muttered, “What? You heard the sentinels. There is trouble afoot. We need to move on!”

Arieon sidestepped nimbly with all the grace of a dancer as Luminista came up determinedly behind; a skilled rider, Rhaine anticipated the movement and flowed with him seamlessly, even if he had forgotten his charge in the moment. To his credit, Areion recovered quickly, craning his neck back to ensure both that his rider was okay and source of the issue, meeting Luminista’s fiery presence blunt on. “At ease, good sister,” he spoke gently, aiming to sooth the red mare’s agitation, a feat he considered himself gifted in to begin with. “We will make a good pace yet, Odin shall see to it,” he reassured her.

His head tilted slightly then as Tyden landed on the solidly on ground, wincing at how that could have so easily been Rhaine moments earlier. He squared his ears and turned back to the mare who was still determinedly glaring (really, it had to be something in the wind today – first Phae, now Luminita!) “And truly, trust that nothing will befall you here in these woods, if I myself should be required to stand valiantly at your defense.” He allowed himself a polite nod here, the beginnings of a bow, but willing to sacrifice a bit on custom for the sake of his rider.

Lilaini turned from the Daiga as squawking pulled her attention forward. She watched as the scene unfolded, concluding with Tyden laying flat on his back with dust swirling around him. Her hand flew to her mouth to try and suppress the laughter rising in her throat, but to no avail. The laughter burst forth as her gaze roamed from the disgruntled looking man on the ground, to the even more disgruntled looking griffon in the tree nearby. The creature continued to squawk angrily at Tyden, as though he was blaming him for the current disarray his feathers were in.

“Adar, I had nearly forgotten you, you naughty creature. Do come here and I will smooth your feathers for you,” she called up to him as she outstretched her arm. He ruffled his feathers again in annoyance and shot one parting glare at the young man and the young woman who had thrown the garment on him, before flying over to the Guardian and landing gently on her arm. He sat there very still, looking as annoyed as ever as she began to slowly smooth his feathers. Try as he might though, he could not stay angry, the caresses were too enjoyable. He began to make a very strange drumming noise which he often did when he was content. He turned and raised up one wing, offering up the soft feathers underneath, meaning that he wanted the young woman to give him a good scratch. She giggled again as she complied and his beady eyes closed with pleasure.

Turning to look back at Tyden who lay unmoving on the ground she said, “Really Tyden, I do not understand what it is you do to insight him so.” She fought back the grin which was again working its way onto her face as she raised the contented creature up high so that everyone could see how very harmless he was. “Did you need help up? Or were you planning on taking a nap?” she called down to him.

Tyden groaned. Incite the griffon? “What about your griffon inciting me?” he gathered himself into a seated position, fending off the offers of help and made his way gingerly to his feet. “Griffon pot pie is considered a delicacy in some places, y’know. And they go terribly well with fried onions. And stuffed.”

Odin stood obligingly still while he mounted, a comparably more graceful maneuver than his decent. He ignored the woman’s quip outright and glanced meekly at Cheri, his voice low. “Between you and me… I hate pocket griffons,” he said.

Cheri was grinning at the playful mare and eyed her torn hoodie. The claw marks were somewhat small, if nasty-looking, and she was sure she could fix it with a patch. With a shrug she tied it back around her waist and returned Tyden’s meek expression.

“Sorry ’bout that. I’ve caught bats that way, but bats don’t have giant beaks. I couldn’t get a grip on the back of its neck. Do all… er, pocket griffons hate you, too?”

Tyden ran his fingers through his hair to dislodge a few stray leaves and dismiss any remnants of griffon, prodding the sore ear tentatively. “Mostly just that one,” he answered Cheri. “Let’s say we pick up the pace? Night falls fast on this side of the mountains, and I’d like to find us a campsite before dark.”

Odin seemed to chuckle, or maybe that was just late season gnat buzzing under his nose; the silver dun unicorn picked up his pace, passing beneath the thinning trees contently.

*

Trinity had fallen into conversation with Aurellie and the time passed with hardly a notice, yet she continued to look around and take in the beauty of land. The commotion ahead bought her attention and she squinted, taking in the proceedings with amusement. She noticed Adar as he flew back to the Gaurdian, a chuckle coming from her as she came to figure it was the small griffon that had caused this. Then something else seemed to catch her attention. Sliding from Aurellie’s back, she made her way into the bushes and trees.

*Where are you going young lady?* came the question in her mind. It was Aurellie.

*I heard something* was her reply before she turned right, then left, heading for the sound.

Rhaine was grinning from the event unfolded, and was about to interject when her attention was drawn towards another happening, nearly unnoticed amongst the commotion. Trinity had slipped from Aurellie’s back and into the woods. “Oh, what now?” she murmured, preparing to dismount herself when Tali appeared again at her side.

“Keep yourselves together, I will fetch her,” the wolf relayed, ears pricked forward with attention, and before the woman could say anything further, he had bounded off into the brush.

Fiera gazed up into the sky. How open it trully was. And when night set in, she wondered if the stars were as clear as the night before. Ali’s rush of amusement and suppressed giggles snapped her out of her reverie. The mare’s eyes darted forward and she would have raised an eyebrow, if unicorns had eyesbrows; actually she looked kind of smug. In all honesty, she had to give props to Adar for hitting his mark.

She turned abruptly as the girl named Trinity stalked off, catching from the corner of her eye the sentry went after her. Now that was smart… wonder where she’s heading?

Aurellie stayed where she was, watching the woods, but she stamped a hoof and shook her head, muttering to herself. She hadn’t thought of going after Trinity herself, but as she saw Tali go after her companion, she chuckled; the girl would surely come back if the wolf went to get her!

Trinity, in the meantime, continued towards the sound she had heard, keeping in mind the way she had come so she wouldn’t get lost. She had nearly gotten to it when Tali suddenly came before her and with a slight jump, shriek, and stumble, the girl was on her butt staring at the wolf.

“Ho there,” he landed in stride, appraising her quickly with pale golden eyes. “The woods are not the place to be wandering alone. Best be headed back to your friends – they are eager to make the foothills by nightfall.”

“Sorry, I guess curiousity got the better o’ me,” she said, standing to brush herself off a bit.

Tali watched Trinity as she got back to her feet, his eyes fixed. “Aye, curiosity and the woods do not make for good bedfellows,” he replied, his tone gentling ever so slightly. “at least, not alone. And even then, ’tis the time to be most wary.”

The girl looked one last time in the direction of the noise, but with the wolf in front of her, she thought it best to head back. Turning she scampered back untill she was greeted by the glare of Aurellie; she flashed a sheepish grin as her she climb astride.

Tali waited until the young woman had mounted her companion before he returned to the Guardian’s side, a look of fulfillment on his face. Oro, who had moved to fill the gap in his absence gave a quick bark of acknowledgment and dropped back again as the silver wolf regained stride.

“Thank you, Tali, the forest sentinels have been most kind to us this day,” Rhaine addressed him formally, but the smile on her face was warm.

The wolf shrugged, but a slight wag of his tail showed he was pleased as well. “It is what we do,” he grinned, “the least we can do, while you are in our forest. See how the trees are changing now? We are nearly at the edge of our range, and we will be taking leave of soon.”

“Will you?” her face fell, but even as she spoke she schooled herself, and spoke again. “We are grateful for all you have done, and we only wish we could have done more for you. We will certainly seek you again when return, and bring news of what we learn from afar.”

Tali’s eyes swept up to the mountains, turning golden in the falling sun. “I would like that,” he said. “It is not often we wander from our territory, or hear from those outside the woods. Our songs sing of distant packs in Skyfieds; should you happen across any during your journey, bring them greetings on behalf of my father and mother, and all the wolves of the Kaledon.”

“We shall,” Rhaine promised, unable to not be saddened at the thought of loosing their new traveling companion, even if they had only been known to each other a few short hours. As Tali returned his gaze forward, she drew herself back to road ahead too. The sun was sinking fast into the mountains; night would arrive sooner then expected in the shadow of the skyfields. She sought out Lilaini, a few strides ahead, and nudged Arieon forward.

“The wolves will be departing soon,” she said softly when she arrived. Her friend was busy crooning to the small red and black griffon and she waited patiently for her attention to turn. “How long do you think we shall continue tonight? While we could ride a good number of hours past dark, I’m not sure our guests could manage; it’s been a long day for them already.”

Lilaini finished smoothing the last of the disgruntled griffon’s feathers into place. She turned her attention from the griffon and looked up at the sky overhead. Yes, night was fast approaching, where had this day gone? “Yes, you’re right. We should begin looking for a place to camp, I’m sure I can find something suitable nearby.” As she spoke, she caught a look in Tyden’s eye which suggested that he had every intention of locating the perfect campsite himself (although she had not overheard his conversation with Cheri about doing so); before she could object however Muse and The Daiga were also beside them, and her attention turned to old woman.

Muse slipped in beside Arieon, first giving the cremello stallion a doting nibbled then reached up to fondly companion nuzzle her. “We’ll be leaving you now,” she said.

“These bones are too old for camping under stars,” the Daiga smiled on both of them, creasing the wrinkles around her eyes. She looked from Rhaine to Lilaini, then brought her gaze up to Tyden a moment before speaking again. “The three of you can manage without any assistance from me anyways,” she sighed gently, the warmth thick in her voice. “Pretty soon, you won’t need me much at all. And you know what? I look forward to the rest!” she laughed, eyes sparkling.

Muse had turned her head, ears pricked towards another member of the traveling. “Exanthea,” the began as her daughter felt the mental nudge and drew near, the bells on her packs jingling as her mother leaned over to nuzzle her turn. “You will mind Rhaine?” It really wasn’t so much a question.

The dun kore straightened to her full height – which still wasn’t quite as tall as her mother’s, but slowly getting there – and nodded emphatically. “Yes mum. And I will study! And stay close. And … be on guard, at all times.” (She cast a quick, significant glance towards Liam here.) “You really don’t have to worry about me at all, honest!”

“Then I suppose I’ll content myself with worrying about everyone else,” the mare laughed, but it didn’t completely mask the concern. She looked from Xanthe to Rhaine again in turn and sighed heavily, but outwardly she smiled. “May you have good weather and Kal’s smile upon your back… and all hurry home again safely.”

Lilaini nodded when the Daiga said they could take care of things themselves, although it hadn’t really been a question. They stood motionless as the palomino mare and the aged rider upon her back disappeared into the fast retreating daylight falling quickly into dusk.

Gypsy shifted her weight from foot to foot as she watched pair retreat, then back to Rhaine as she studied the young woman for a moment; she did not say anything as she felt her companion brush up against her mind. The wolves too were getting ready to take their leave, and she pressed closer, although Rhaine had already expressed their gratitude for the wolves assistance.

“I would again like to thank you for guiding us through the woods, and remaining with us for how you have,” Lilaini spoke earnestly. “If there is ever anything you need from the the Guardians of Kalidore, please do not hestitate to come to us.” She spoke formally but smiled warmly, and one by one the furry sentinels began to dissolve into the twilight covered forest, and the Guardian turned back to her traveling companions. “We really should find somewhere to set up camp now, I’ll go and try and find a good spot, I’m sure there’s one nearby.”

Rhaine sighed herself as the Daiga and Muse disappeared into the trees. They had a good few hours walk ahead of them before they reached the Daiga’s hut, but she could certainly appreciated the warmth of one’s own bed to the cool forest night, especially on old bones, as the Daiga had put it. She wasn’t sure exactly how old the Daiga was, because age was an allusive thing to one who had spent most of their time on Kalidore, but it seemed she had always looked that old, ancient. Yet she could help but wonder if it didn’t seem the old woman’s action had begun to get slower, her bright enthusiasm more content to sit and observe these days then be right in the thick of things, as Rhaine remembered from her youth. She new unicorns lived an unfathomably long time. But what of humans of the Isle? And what happened to a unicorn when their companion died? A cold shiver went down her back, though the air was still tepid. She shook these thought free as Lilaini spoke, and nodded as the bronze mare slipped into the woods.

*

Adar, meanwhile, quickly lost interest in what was occurring around him when Lilaini stopped stroking him. He was becoming drowsy as light faded, but a gnawing, empty feeling was emitting from his stomach and the creature looked around for something to satiate it. His beady eyes fell upon Xanthe who was carrying the bags that smelled of food, but the young Korè saw that stare and met it with a just as determined one of her own. Miffed, he looked away. Surely, someone else here must have something to eat!

His eyes came to rest on a small human and a star-dappled gray mare. He gave no parting glances to the woman who’s shoulder he was currently occupying and took to wing in the pair’s direction.

Brynja, though it seemed no one in particular had noticed her flailing descent to the ground, still sulked over it. After the whispered declarations from Bryn that had Thora been a boat, that would never had happened, and Thora’s own amused quiet chuckles at her companion, Bryn had settled once more astride Thora.

Her body was still a little too tense, her face a little too stern and serious, and her hand (to sooth her nerves), was resting once more upon the pommel of her sword. Slow, she had began to relax. Her spirits were easily lifted when she bared witness to the fiasco that the little winged creature had wrought with ease.

“See there, Brynja. Even a skilled rider finds himself troubled at times.” Thora did not laugh, though mirth still laced her quiet words, as much as the soothing tones she’d added.

Brynja snorted in a low tone also. “But he had a spur from that little creature and that woman’s clothing to aide him in his.”

“And you had the baying of wolves and my attempt to keep you seated. Really Brynja, I fail to see the difference.” At this point her neck had twisted ‘round so that she might look more evenly upon her rider, blue eyes were patient and waiting.

“I am a warrior, Thora. We are meant to be stable, at all times, no matter what terrain or manner of travel. We are stable and dependable. My falling like I did is unacceptable when—”

“Brynja…”

“— we could have been attacked at any moment. I would have been unready and failed the whole group. It is simply—”

“Bryn?”

“— disgraceful for me.” It took a moment but the little Viking had realized that Thora had been saying her name and platinum twin brows lifted in a questioning arch at the back of Thora’s head. “What?”

“Adar is coming.” Thora pointed out to her companion.

“Adar? Who is—” And then she realized who it was, in her quick search. The little red hurricane of feathers and fury was heading their way with a vicious speed she was certain. His attack on the man, Tyden, had been not enough for the little beast, he had to try her too! This time, though, she would not fall from her mount. Once more her body grew rigid, though her hand that previously cupped the pommel and moved to Thora’s mane to further cement her place there. As if the little griffon had the force to simply knock her from Thora’s back with a single blow of his wings.

She was relieved, as you can imagine, to find out the little creature did not command destruction. He landed gently, gracefully even. Once he had a firm grip he scuttled forward and began nosing around in the clothing she was wearing. Certainly there must be something in there! He made his pleasant thrumming noise, although it wasn’t the same as the contented one he made when he was very happy, this was more a soothing strum to show he was being friendly. He drew up near the woman’s arm and shoved his head forcefully under her head, indicating that if she had no intentions of feeding him, she had better at least stroke him.

Thora’s grey head had twisted around once more to watch curiously, while Brynja’s hands both found the air to give the creature room to do as he wanted to do what he wanted, hopeful it was peacefully. But once he had thrust his head close to her jaw, she quickly got the picture and one of those calloused hands dropped down to give a firm but gentle massage to the feathers and skin below. And she soon found herself making soft cooing noises to the little beast.

“I believe he was searching you for food Brynja. Did you happen to eat all you had earlier?”

Shaking her head, Bryn reached for the small pouch attached to her belt. Small and nimble fingers were quick to retrieve a bit of the sausage in breading that she had been hoarding and to offer it to the little critter.

Adar’s pupil’s dilated when he saw the human pulling something delicious smelling out a pouch. He knew he had smelled something in there. He scurried towards the piece of food and snatched it with lightning speed out from between her fingers. The movement was startling, and he wasn’t being overly careful, but luckily he did not nip her fingers with his sharp little beak. The thrumming noise changed, and turned into a deep guttural noise which caused his whole body to vibrate. If the young woman had ever seen a cat, she would have compared it to purring. He arched his back as her fingers ran through his feathers and he snuffled around wondering if she had any more of that wonderful food hiding somewhere. He scuttled around to where the pouch was and nosed around in it but didn’t find anything else so he returned to demand more scratching. He perched onto her arm encouraging her to scratch him with her free arm with a series of squawking noises. The thrumming noise continued but his contentment also caused his claws to dig in and out occasionally which he did not mind, but was probably rather uncomfortable for the owner of the arm he was perched on.

Really, he couldn’t be all that bad, now that she was getting a better look at him, Bryn muse softly. Maybe the man rode about as well as she? That made her feel even better, true or not. And as she stroked the little Griffon and held for him some of that sausage in a biscuit, she began to forget that she’d been so ashamed of herself only earlier.

*

Gypsy moved forward without any encouragement from her companion as they began scouting through the underbrush. They had disappeared for a few good minutes before returning, Lilaini with a triumphant smile upon her face. “I’ve found the perfect spot! Come let’s go and get settled.”

Tyden, a good several paces ahead, had also left the trial briefly, scanning the scraggly pine and exposed rocks for something that would offer the group a bit of shelter. He worked quickly, because as soon as the sun hit the mountains, night would fall shortly afterwords. He and Odin emerged from the brush looking satisfied, pulling up alongside the group again. “I’ve found us a place to camp,” he announced, completely independent of Lilaini’s proclamation. “Let’s get ourselves settled in before night falls.”

Lilaini’s smiled wiped off her face and her eyes narrowed to slits. She turned her head sideways to observe the intensely annoying man who was sitting astride Odin next to her. Thoughts ran through her mind of ways in which to eliminate that self satisfied smirk that was plastered across his face but Gypsy’s soothing thoughts intruded upon these other less pleasant ones.

“Well it’s nice of you to join us, but if you had been here and were paying any attention you would have heard that I have already found us a place to stay for the night. Right over there, it offers just enough shelter for the group I would think,” she said in the most scathing tone possible as she pointed in the direction of the camp Gypsy and she had found.

Tyden shifted his weight so he could turn to her full on, the look of satisfaction changing into something else, distinctly, amusement. “Oh, really now…?” he began with purpose. “Do I have to remind you what happened the last time you picked the camping spot? Though, granted… who knew urdvoggen had a migration route…” the expression paled somewhat at that memory. He shrugged it off and continued. “Regardless, I think this might be something best left to someone who’s at least a little more familiar with the territory. And who doesn’t think wildlife crawling into bed with them is a good thing. Because, truly, there are better things that can be had in b—”

“I hope that wasn’t your attempt at an invitation,” she whispered through clenched teeth. “Because if it was, you certainly need more experience at how to entice a woman,” she finished ensuring to keep her voice low enough no one else could hear as she glared at him in annoyance. “And there is nothing wrong with the spot Gypsy and I have found,” she continued louder this time, returning her voice to a normal level. “It’s got everything we can need, or at least as much as we can expect in this area. And we are VERY familiar with his territory, in case you’ve forgotten we tend to travel, and the last camping problem we had was at least as much your fault as it was mine!” her voice rose slightly of it’s own accord as she glared at him once more.

“Invitation?” he grinned, “Nah, I think I’d rather chance it again with the urdvoggen – better odds at making it through the night in one piece.” He pressed Odin forward as he watched her pupils dilate dangerous and beckoned to the trees. “Very well. Let’s see this camp of yours.”

It was entirely Gypsy who had the duo move forward and head through the soft fringes of evergreen towards the clearing; the ground was soft here, sheltered against the wind by a smooth-faced bolder that rose out of the ground like a newborn mountain, just starting to grow. A deer trail marked that there was water nearby, and doves had begun to settle in the trees, cooing softly to one another before dusk. “There,” was the only word Lilaini managed, keeping her voice in check.

Unfortunately, the grin on Tyden’s face did not subside at all. She turned to him, slowly and precisely, daring him to find any fault with the place. Go ahead… give me an excuse. Any excuse… she could feel the crackle of energy play at wisps of her hair as her powers bided instinctively.

“It’s a lovely campsite,” he said genuinely.

“And…?”

He paused, unable to reel in the smirk. “It’s the one I found.”

Areion and Rhaine chose that moment to pull in between them, and from the sounds of it the rest of their party was right behind. “Oh, this will do us well!” the young woman exclaimed brightly, already slipping from the stallion’s back to explore the grounds better on foot. “And the sky is clear – no hint of rain; we probably won’t even need to pitch the tent. I’ll find the stream,” she turned eagerly. “Then we’ll need some firewood. And we must remember to tie the food packs in the trees tonight – no need in attracting more company then we need.”

Ali sighed, quietly watching the three guardians bicker back and forth. She didn’t voice any of her thoughts, for the fear of drawing too much attention to herself. And picking sides, especially about camping grounds, wasn’t on top of her mentally noted agenda anyways. Then again, watching Muse and the Daiga leaving left her a little uneasy. The groups’ sheer number was like a barrier against troubles and problems, but the uneasiness of the duo leaving and scattering of the wolves back into the forest left her in a swirl of intangible emotions and thoughts.

Fiera seemed to sense Allison’s uneasiness with some compassion for the young girl. The orange red chestnut mare used her presence to comfort her companion some, and then deciding that their guides had finally settled on a camping groud, offered up their services to the group, “If we are in need of firewood, I’m sure Ali and I could search for some. We won’t wander far.” It wasn’t really a suggestion, more of a statement and Fiera didn’t move. She waited for a response from either of the three guardians.

Allison tilted her head and slid off the unicorn’s back to stretch her legs. Clearly, her horned companion was attempting at a distraction, futile as it was for a few moments. However, she needed it. “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind. I need to walk around anyways.” She offered a sheepish grin.

The last of the wolves had now turned and faded into the forest so that only Tali remained. He wagged his tail, a gesture used not only a greeting but also in goodbye. “You should be safe enough here,” he spoke to the Guardians. “This is the boundary of our territory, and none would dare break that truce in these uneasy times. At least, none of our following.”

Rhaine sunk to her knees beside the silver wolf, his face lined with ebony. She placed her hand beneath his chin, her head bent. “Thank you again, Tali,” she said. When he reached up and licked her face, she couldn’t help but smile, and Tali seemed to grin too.

“Safe journeys!” he called, turning suddenly and like a hawk’s shadow disappeared into the trees; a final yodeling cry echoed through the forest, and the Wolves of the Kaledon were gone.

Rhaine looked up from the dark green of the trees as Fiera and Ali drew near. She straightened, slowly, letting the stiffness from the long ride on an unfamiliar mount work its way out of her limbs as she stretched. “A walk will certainly do some good; truly, we should have breaked earlier in the day… we forget sometimes that not everyone is as familiar to riding as we are.” She smiled sheepishly, casting a glance to Lilaini and Tyden, so that they might take note of it too. New traveling companions, new riders… they would have to be sure to pick the smoothest route, once they started to ascend the mountain. The first hills weren’t terribly steep, and they could certainly wind their way up the well-worn goat trials; it could take a bit longer, but it would be easier on them all.

She turned back to Ali and smiled warmly. “If you like, come along with me; I’m sure we’ll find us some kindling on the way to creek.”

After Trinity returned to Aurellie’s back and the trek continued on, she fell silent as she listened to Aurellie’s lecture about running off suddenly like she did. Like a scolded child Trinity heeded her companion, following each little bit with a silent nod of ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no ma’am’ when the motion was ripe. Once the camp was found and settled, Trinity slid from Aurellie’s back and with a nudge from the mare, walked over to where the guardians were. She cleared her throat, rubbing her left arm softly.

Lilaini slipped from Gypsy’s back, relishing the change of movement. A seasoned rider, she could have kept going well into the night, but had assented to Rhaine’s point about the new companions, and chided herself for not making note of it earlier. She turned as Trinity approached.

“I’m sorry fer doin’ wha’ I did back on the trail…goin’ off inte the woods. I should learn to rein in me curiosity sometimes,” the red head bobbed in apology, though she did grin sheepishly at the light joke she had tossed in. “I’ll be more careful.”

Lilaini nodded carefully, considering the girl’s words. As guardians, it was their place to guide the new companions, protecting them as they did all creatures of the isle. At the same time, there was something to be said about letting one learn through their own mistakes. And then dealing with the consequences. And Trinity coming face-to-face with a very determined forest wolf seemed to be a good example of that come full circle.

“We just want everyone to return with us in once piece,” she smiled. “For that reason, wandering into the woods by one’s self is to be avoided if possible; if you need to stretch your legs a bit, do stay near to camp.”

“And loosing a body so soon after the Daiga has departed would look very poor on a one’s guardianship summations besides,” Tyden quipped, dismounting with ease.

Gypsy was amused as always at how easily her companion became infuriated. It made the mare feel young to have such intense emotions swirling around in her head even if they weren’t her own. Her companion murmured something unintelligible, still attempting to smother the anger that was threatening to unleash itself.

Lilaini turned her back on Tyden as she began pulling at the straps which held the bags onto Gypsy. She quickly freed the mare, and then turned to look for Xanthe who was on the other side of the campsite attempting to pull at the straps herself. In spite of herself, the young woman smiled. She found Tyden less infuriating when she didn’t have to look at him, and the kore simply always had the ability to make her smile. She beckoned to the dun filly so that she could free her from the baggage she was carrying, and got to work.

Three friends had also made their way into the clearing and were looking around. Tien Mu had watched the dust colored wolf disappear with the rest of the Wolves of the Kaledon with a measure of regret. She had been plotting some mischief involving that particular canine.

While her two friends were striving to make themselves useful in getting camp set up Luminista stood off to the edge casting glances in the direction they had been traveling. It was all she could do to keep herself from pawing the ground in impatience. Why must they stop? Surely they could travel further before stopping for the night. Without realizing it she had begun to pace back and forth along the edge of the camping area. “Can’t we go on,” she muttered to no one in particular. She didn’t question her inability to settle, all she knew was she couldn’t stop now.

Casting another look at the others all moving about doing what was necessary to make ready for the night Luminista quietly slipped away, proceeding in the direction they had been traveling….

Both Brynja and Thora, and by the affection Brynja seemed to be offering freely, Adar, hung back at the rear of the line. While Brynja fancied herself with the amusing little critter that seemed to think of only three things: affection he could receive, food for his belly, and possibly the hatred of all things male. Though she had little to worry about in the way of missing fingers, she didn’t mind sparing her attention his way.

Though Brynja amused herself with this little Griffon, soon she heard Thora’s voice break the silence. “Did you see the way she looked?”

“Who is that Thora?” Adar was the distraction in her voice, her fingers still smoothing over the little critter.

“That mare there. She’s separate from the group.” The grey’s head nudged in the direction of the path. “She seems in a rush. Though, I know here is not the place to be rushing off to. Perhaps we ought to follow her?”

“It seems unlike you to want to go off to be nosy, Thora.” As she finished, she looked up grinning, while her fingers stilled upon Adar.

Thora huffed impatiently. “I am not being nosy.”

Brynja stared after the red mare for a moment and nodded, though Thora could not see her agreement. “You are right, Thora. Let us watch over her. While I am all for good fun, eavesdropping is my limit.” She tacked on the playful barb for Thora as the mare set her speed to match the other’s, but kept some distance between them.

Adar, who was thoroughly pleased with himself for the choice he had made in visiting this human because she was very acquiescent to his needs, continued thrumming happily, his eyes half closed when suddenly the pace he was moving changed. Opening his beady eyes, the forest was rushing along both sides of him, and the human hands had stopped moving. Annoyed, he squawked at her but she paid him no mind and they continued to race through the forest. He yawned again, feeling very drowsy, but the happy thrumming noise in his chest had stopped and he squirmed away from her. Clambering down her arm, he let himself into her pouch deciding now would be a good time for a nap if everyone was going to ignore him anyways, and disappeared from sight.

*

Arieon had stood very still while his rider dismounted, and once she was clear himself a great shake. How odd it felt carrying something around on your back he thought to himself as he smoothed out several sections of his mane. Once he felt sure he had himself looking acceptable again he glanced around to see where he could be of use. Rhaine had already disappeared into the forest in search of firewood, not that he would be of any use gathering that sort of thing anyways.

His eyes continued to roam around the grouping when he noticed several mares trying to busy themselves off to one side of the camping grounds. Ah, this defiantly looked like the group who needed his assistance! He gracefully trotted and bowed low in the most respectable way possible. Arching his neck slightly he looked back and forth between the two mares from beneath his cream coloured forelock.

“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with either of you ladies so far on this journey,” he greeted Foehn Miri and Tien Mu. “I am Arieon, and am at your service. What can I help two beautiful mares such as yourselves do?” His voice sang, all the more enticing when it wasn’t being followed up by his spotted brother’s, the dying rays of sunlight glinted of his pristine coat and gleaming of ivory.

Foehn Miri considered the cream-colored stallion skeptically. It seemed fairly obvious he didn’t recall what little interaction the two of them had had in the past. Truly, it wasn’t much, but still. On the other hand she was nearly certain he hadn’t met Tien Mu.

Unaware of her companion’s musings, Tien Mu looked over the new arrival with interest. She was almost certain the ‘interest’ wasn’t what he had in mind though. His obvious infatuation with himself brought out the imp in her – not that much was required to do that. “Hello, good sir,” she replied. “We are not too sure what we are doing either, but since you have offered, I do have this terrible itch along the right side of my withers.”

Foehn Miri gave Tien Mu a startled look. Catching the mischievousness in her friend’s eye a burst of laughter nearly escaped, but she managed to quickly turn it into a cough. “Um, er, pardon me. A little trail dust in my throat,” she stammered. The words were barely out when the ominous sound made its way across camp bringing both of their heads around with alert interest. Suddenly the missing presence registered. “Where is Luminista?” she asked as she quickly scanned the camp. “I don’t see her.”

* * *

Tiponi looked around her campsite. Some large boulders sat on the north side of camp between her and the looming mountains, place just right to block the early morning air that slide down from the heights. The fire burned cheerily with the evening meal simmering in bark bowl carefully balanced above (it doesn’t burn as long as no flames reach above the water-line). Water flowed near by but not so close that her presence interfered with the wildlife coming to drink. Her bedding was spread in a rock-free area with needles beneath to further cushion her rest. All in all it was a cozy setting in which she should be thoroughly content. So why wasn’t she? Why was she so restless? As she thought about it she realized the restlessness had existed since her arrival in this strange, new land. She hadn’t noticed it so much because of the lovely isolation.

A flash of a crowded city came to her with people bustling about. She saw a crowded store and looking at the outfit she was currently wearing. Next came the memory of making her way out of the city, the business giving way to houses and the houses giving way to fields. It took her a day and a half of walking before she got to a place where she felt the city was behind her. She thought that was about a week before she found herself here. No wonder the isolation had distracted her from the restlessness.

Crouching by the fire she stirred her meal and reflected on her day. Not too far away had been a patch of what reminded her of huckleberries. She had gathered just enough to satisfy her sudden craving for something sweet and ate them later by a stream where she listened to the water chuckle over the rocks and the sunlight dance upon the ripples. Later she had gotten with her sling a rabbit-sized creature with a long tail and short ears. This is what currently filled her pot along with some tubers she had dug and miscellaneous other ingredients she had found.

*

The tree creaked as he pressed his weight against it, groaning with the strain, but even so the infernal itch was unstopped, the furious rubbing doing nothing but leaving large clumps of reddish-brown fur littering the forest floor. Finally he desisted, stumbling blindly forward and into the thicket, whether to purposely try his luck there or simply oblivious to it presences was uncertain; old eyes were dim and encrusted, the forest around him moving in shapes of light and dark. It had been days since his stomach had had its fill, and then it had been half-rotten apples, mash enough he could get between loose and crumbling teeth. His stomach pricked him, and he clawed at the ground in agitations, but not even the scent of burrowed grubs or some other buried refuse rewarded his efforts.

A guttural sound uttered between his lips, expelling his frustrations. He was moving again, a laboured and blundering motion accentuated by sporadic tossing of his head, as if to dislodge an ill taste or sound or just an idea he couldn’t quite remember. The trees were wrong, the smells were wrong, and the sounds that met him were increasingly more unfamiliar. And yet he pushed forth, relentless, driven both by hunger and the disease which refused to let him rest. Frustration gave way to anger and he started to run, a jolted and lumbering clip that tore down the shrubbery in his wake.

And then he stopped. The forest became quiet around him and he listened, ears still keen where his eyes had failed. The skin around his nostrils wrinkled under the hard rim of his massive horn. Lips curled, sucking the scent up and towards his palate. The scent was irresistible. He began moving again, slowly, towards it, some of his old stealth awakened as he moved quietly through the trees. He sucked the air again. Another scent. This one was also unfamiliar to him, but appetite wetted it certainly wasn’t unappreciated; weeks of eating carrion had abated his hunger but not his drive. That sensation swelled through his muddled brain and drove him forward again, his actions become more precise and measured in his madness. The trees broke to a small clearing, and the source of his intoxication.

*

As she stirred her cooking meal a shiver of unease rolled down Tiponi’s back. Although she kept her motions smooth and unhurried she continued what she was doing while listening intently with all her senses trying to determine the source of her sudden disquiet. She heard nothing only felt malevolence. Pivoting on the ball of one foot while extending the other leg, she turned slowly to take in the camp behind her. She was ready to come to her feet quickly as the situation required.

There behind her, between one boulder and the next stood a huge bear with what seemed to be a horn protruding up from the end of his nose. The beast stood on his hind legs glaring down at her as a growl rumbled up from deep in his chest.

Tiponi eased her weight from one foot over to the other taking herself a few feet farther from the fire and the meal with its enticing aromas that simmered there. Softly she began to speak. “Hungry old one? Your timing is impeccable for your dinner is ready. I was just about to take it from the fire.”

The bear’s small eyes followed her movements as she shifted incrementally from the fire. Its ears remained plastered to the sides of its skull and the growl continued to rumble like rocks ground together. Tiponi stayed low and while she kept a watchful eye on her intruder she was careful not to make eye contact. All her efforts seemed to be futile. The bear remained hostile in spite of all her efforts to extend welcome. Never once did the animal shift its stare from her to the fire and the food that cooked there. She watched in uneasy fascination as its lips began to curl. Her hand itched to reach up and take the knife from down her back. It was the biggest blade she had, but its roughly 2-foot blade seemed woefully inadequate against such a large beast. She stayed her hand, not wishing to further incite the beast, but it was futile.

No sooner had the thoughts of her blade flitted through her mind than the bear dropped to all fours and lounged toward her with a roar. Tiponi came smoothly to her feet, her left hand pulling a blade from her boot while her right hand became filled with the back knife. With a shout she brandished her knives and feinted toward the bear hoping for some intimidation of her own before she danced back and put the fire between them. Of course her intimidation tactics didn’t work, she hadn’t really expected them to do so. The bear continued toward her.

* * *

An ominous sound curled around the trees, carrying on the still air to the camp nearby. Tyden had had just lifted the packs from the dun stallion’s back when Odin’s ears pricked, nostrils flaring to drink the wind. Gypsy was instantly alert too, making her way to his side as she caught the sound. “Someone is in the woods,” she began.

“It’s Ag’anae,” Xanthe said seriously, pulling away as Lilaini released the final strap (thus leaving the woman to scramble with the entire bundle as its resting place walked suddenly out from beneath it). Blue eyes grew very wide as she peered intently into the dim. “Or Thaedor’s ghost. One or the other, likely.”

“It is human,” Gypsy’s tone was decisiveness

“And they are not alone. Keep the others together,” the stallion was allready moving in the direction of the noise. Into his path stepped Tyden, catching hold of the black mane as he pulled himself fluidly astride.

“You weren’t planning to go entirely alone, were you,” his hand touched the hilt which still hung at his side.

Gypsy watched as the pair headed off in the direction of the sound. “We should stay here to protect the group,” she said to her companion, who had set the heavy bundle down with a soft thud and was moving quickly towards her, as if to follow. “That is our job. Let Tyden and Odin go and see what the trouble is.”

Lilaini stopped her advance and nodded. “Yes you are right. The group is our concern,” she said with some hesitation, eyes moving to make note of the others in turn. She knew Gypsy was right, but it didn’t appease all the angst. She glanced into the woods again before sending a mental nudge towards Rhaine.

*

Liam had continued the remainder of the journey to the campsite in quiet contemplation, smiling at Rhaine’s childhood story, and put at ease by her words. He rode along in silence, enjoying the comforting rock of Pasiphae’s stride beneath him that, step by step, was becoming increasingly familiar. As he mulled over the morning’s strange happenings, Liam watched the wolves as they paced alongside, gradually leading the group deeper into the forest and closer to the base of the rock giants that loomed in grayish blues and purples against the sky.

Sooner than he had expected, although longer than it seemed, the group came to a stop – Liliani and Tyden both striving to out bustle the other as they directed everyone towards the newly chosen campsite. Liam gave the clearing a quick one-over, agreeing mentally that it seemed to suit well enough. The ground looked pillowed with soft mosses and pine needles – and overhead was fairly well sheltered by the grand evergreens that rustled in the evening winds.

Liam – not wanting to look the lay-about – quickly slid off his friendly mount* and to the ground. He peered up at the mare, who was still glancing about the campsite with a curious eye, and lay a companionable hand on her shoulder. “Och lass, many thanks for the ride. Ye’ve saved an old geezer’s feet t’be sure.”

Pasiphae snorted in amusement. “As if after meeting the Daiga, you have any right to call yourself ‘old’. ” She said, and swung her head about to regard the soldier. “But you’re welcome enough for the ride.”

Liam grinned. “Well, let me give these folks a hand, an’ I’ll show ye the other benefit o’ keeping a grouch like m’self around. Some o’ these dry needles will do well ‘nough for a rub down – an’ ye definitely deserve one after lugging m’sorry self around all day.” He quipped, giving the mare a broad wink.

“Well, off with you then.” Pasiphae replied, her voice gruff as she tried to conceal the amusement, and the small pleasureable anticipation that perked at the mention of a rub down.

“Aye, ma’am!” The blond solider saluted, and strode off towards the rest of the group. Catching the mention of collecting firewood, from the lips of of his increasingly favorite Guardian no less, Liam made a quick recalibration in direction – and easily caught up to the duo as they started down a nearby deer path. “Mind if I tag along?” He queried cheerfully.

((*Actually – the long walk had done Pasiphae’s mood some good. The exercise had given her time to stretch a bit and she had to admit that, while conscious, Liam wasn’t half the burden she had been expecting (although she wasn’t about to admit it)))

*

Fiera gave a slight bob of her head, obviously having drifted off into another world; her thoughts came pooling back together in a jumbled mess. Something seemed to be astir, but she dismissed it as a slight sense of paranoia. The three guardians, in her unspoken opinion, seemed to run better as a trio.

Ali nodded, smiling but more to herself than Rhaine. “Sure, sure.” She replied, trailing after the guardian. “Where exactly is the creek, anyways?” She seemed to fidget after the question; Fiera wasn’t moving anywhere! Feeling a sickening nausea, she didn’t want to think what would happen if they were lost in the woods.

*I’ll be staying behind. Go on dear, and if you need me, just call. You need not worry dear.* Fiera seemed to say through their mental connection. It didn’t really help though, because as worries as she was Ali could hardly hear it through the clutter of her own thoughts. However, she did seemed a little less tense. Amused, the chestnut mare began picking her way around camp on her own.

Rhaine waited for Ali to follow as she headed down the gentle slope towards the creek. The deer trails thickened here, the animals gathering each morning and eve to drink. She could already hear the merry burble of running water grow louder as they approached, which it made her grin – it just sounded so cheerful! It was enough to ease away the wistful pang of loosing the wolves’ company. And they would see them soon enough, she knew, and she would make a point of visiting them, once they had returned home again.

“We’ll make ourselves a warm campfire, and tell stories before bed,” she said to Alison, pointing out a large fallen branch that was ripe with dry kindling just off the trail. She made her way towards it as she continued. “It can be our own little Festival Night, all over again.”

Ali quickly made herself useful and gathered a few things. A smile lit her face at the thought of another festival. After all, she did enjoy the last. “I don’t think some of them will be a problem to drag. Doesn’t look to heavy, I think,” she said, tugging at a few thickly fallen branches.

A voice made them turn and they looked up to find Liam was headed towards them. Rhaine beckoned gamely, prying loose a few dry branches from the tumbled tree, “not at all, if you intend to carry firewood.” She offered the bundle in greeting, not waiting for an answer as she stooped for some more. “There’s enough here to do us the night, if we can drag these logs in and make use of them. With luck, it shan’t get too cold tonight either; would do us no good to catch a chill the first night out!”

“Aye, and gladly! Our company could use a bit o’ warming up, m’thinks.” Liam replied, opening his arms with a smile to accept the hasty deposit from the brunette. Trying not to be too open at his admiration of the view, as the Guardian stooped to pick up more branches and sticks from the ground, Liam decided to remove the temptation and turned his attention to Alison instead.

“I do hope ye’ll pardon me as well lass.” He said, ducking his head in greeting and apology at the same time. “I dinnae believe I’ve formally introduced m’self quite yet,” Liam said, and half began a quick bow, before being forced to stop due to the awkward half armful of sticks. “The name is Liam, Liam Teague.” He continued, flashing Alison a broad grin. “Currently being minded by the lovely miss Pasiphae, until I get my bearings.” He chuckled, and was about to continue when he was abruptly distracted by the brunette Guardian, as Rhaine unexpectedly gave Liam more wood.

“Ah, thank ye, Lady!” Liam said, “We’ve a right fine start here, I think. But what you’re really after, I think, is at m’belt here. I’d err .. give ye a hand, but ye’ve got me right loaded up here….” He said, trying to rearrange his wood in a less awkward bunch. At Rhaine’s blank look, he huffed, and nodded his head to his waist. “Sticks are all well and good as kindling, true – but what you’ll really be wanting is a good stout log or two.” The Guardian blinked, and continued to look at him without comprehension. Liam quirked an eyebrow. “The axe, lass? Can’t hew a good log without an edge … what did ye think I was going on ’bout?”

“Oh, well aren’t you handy,” said Rhaine admirantly toward the brandished tool, realizing the potential with a curt nod. “And here I was set to drag the whole thing in! You do know how to make use of yourself, good sir. Though I think we have our hands full as it is, perhaps we should come back and–”

Her eyes suddenly flinched, expression blanked as her focus flew elsewhere. Lilaini’s summons brushed her mind, and nearly in the same breath awareness of the forest around her grew exponentially… Consciousness crept over the ground and wove between trees, becoming one with the rocks, the branches, the sky… through this things moved, danced and flew – a hurried robin, shy hora, drowsy green bottle fly – she felt them all. The sky spun and she reeled with it, and when it settled there was the red mare, fighting through the underbrush. She moved to speak but already the presence was pulled away and she was with another. White knuckles clenched steel and she felt the sharp pain of fear pierce chest, and instinctively looked to see the source of the matter. But she didn’t see, couldn’t, for by that time the essence had swallowed her and she found herself in darkness. Sickness swirled through her head and it was intoxicating; the world took on unnatural hue, careless and carefree yet wrought with desperation and in that light the girl before her was merely an after thought, a short one at that. And then — something drew her free, strong and resolute, and the trees fell into place around her. She saw the clearing, the girl, the bear, and the silver stallion and rider as they arrived…

She must have stumbled forward, must have said something, for when she tried to speak there were already words coming out of her mouth, but she couldn’t remember what they were. “Help,” she managed, and again, stronger now – “She needs help, and… Tyden… he doesn’t know….”

*

It wasn’t until they found them selves in the woods that Thora and Brynja both began to wonder if the other unicorn had heard or possibly saw them and was leading them around to toy with them. However, it wasn’t until they both heard that guttural sound of a beast that could not be anything less than a giant… at least to Brynja if nothing else. And the yelp of a woman. Both mismatched eyes narrowed on the woods around them.

Neither said another word about the mare, because it was obvious to them both that they red unicorn was already headed toward it, but followed it themselves this time. Brynja only hoped that whoever it was, was all right.

Her hand gripped her sword’s hilt and pulled it free. While her other worked to untie the shield that was fastened to the pack Thora carried with them after the mare.

Moving stealthily through the forest Luminista followed where the irresistible force had been leading her. She had not moved far from where the others were making camp when the vagrant scent of a fire came to her from ahead along with a sense of ‘almost there.’ She didn’t take the time to try to understand what was going on, she just moved forward.

Luminista had not realized she had picked up her pace until she stumbled over a root, her forward momentum nearly sending her to her knees. Pulling herself up she stood still and sniffed the air. What breeze there was still hit her in the face with fitful gusts, but no trace of a fire came with it. Confusion washed through her. For the first time she actually focused on the pull that had been tugging at her. It no longer led her forward. How had she missed that? Now she looked around at the darkening woods. Where was she?

Her confusion was short lived. Before panic could set in an ominous sound echoed across the forrest followed by a strained shout. Strain that sent a shiver of apprehension down Luminista’s spine and pulled her lips back bearing her strong teeth. Without any conscience decision she lunged forward, suddenly galloping toward the sound.

*

Arieon watched the unsaid interaction between the mares although he was rather certain they didn’t realize he noticed. The flaxen mare’s sudden coughing jag drew the stallion’s blue eyes to her and he realized she looked vaguely familiar but he couldn’t place from where. Turning back to the black mare who had spoken he paused before replying as he attempted to read behind what she had said, but he wasn’t very good at that sort of thing. Besides, he wasn’t too concerned with what that quick mischievous look to her friend had meant, he had offered his services regardless of the request. He knew how annoying itches were and he would never want anyone to have to rub themselves against one of the filthy trees that surrounded them. He nearly shuddered at the thought as he moved closer to the mare, managing a respectful distance while trying to alleviate the itch.

When the other mare spoke again, he paused and looked up with concern. Someone was missing? This indeed was alarming. No one should be wandering around in the woods alone, the night nearly upon them. “What does she look like? Perhaps we should inform one of the Guardians that your friend seems to be missing?”

All thoughts of mischief were immediately forgotten as worry for Luminista took over. Distractedly Foehn Miri answered, “She is the red mare you spoke with earlier, the one with the star dapples.”

The stallion nodded; yes, red with star dapples that did conjure up and image for him as he had been admiring her lovely coat which was a rarity amongst unicorns. He turned assertively and quickened his pace, his mane streaming out like pennants behind him.

Both mares fell into step with Arieon as he headed to the Guardians. Tien Mu, making note of how helpful the pale stallion was being, felt a bit guilty over trying to make him feel a little uncomfortable with her scratching request. He did a wonderful job of it, too. Even if her hair was still a bit ruffled where he had scratched. As if he had heard her thoughts, the stallion drew alongside. He didn’t slow further, but reached out and smoothed the jet coat gently with his velvety muzzle before glancing around again for one of the Guardians. Rhaine was nowhere to be found which worried the stallion even more, but he quickly spotted Lilaini and Gypsy and they headed towards the pair.

Lilaini looked over when she felt her companions attention drawn in their direction. She draped her arm over Xanthe’s neck in an absently protective manner, as if to tell the Kore close to her. But the dun filly seemed as interested in the small group’s approach as were the guardian and her companion, and she stayed rooted to the spot to see what the fuss was all about. Arieon pulled to a hasty stop in front of them, so concerned that he didn’t even bother to smooth out the bit of mane which had settled incorrectly onto his neck.

“I was just speaking with these two lovely ladies when they informed me that one of their friends seems to be missing from the group,” he turned from one mare to the next waiting for confirmation and further input into the situation. He wasn’t sure when they had last seen the red mare, so he was not of any further use to provide the Guardian with information.

Pulling up alongside Arieon, the pair nodded agreement.

“She was with us when we arrived here at the campsite,” Tien Mu put in, absently reaching over to lip the stallion’s mane into the tidy order he seemed to prefer.

“We, Tien Mu and I, were helping with setting up camp. I don’t know where Luminista may have gone,” Foehn Miri said. “Surely she wouldn’t have gone to gather firewood, what help could she possibly be at that?” Looking at Tien Mu she went on fretfully, “why didn’t we notice she wasn’t with us?”

Arieon sidestepped closer to Tien Mu and bumped her gentled with his muzzle in an attempt to comfort her. His eyes half closed as she fixed his mane for him, it felt so much better when someone else was fussing over your mane then when you had to do it yourself. His eyes reopened though as Foehn Miri spoke, and he found himself nodding again because he too had thought how little help he would be if he tried to help gather firewood. So where was the red mare? His pale blue eyes meet with the guardian’s green ones as she began to answer.

“Well this is certainly distressing news, but do not worry I’m sure she hasn’t went far. Tyden and Odin have just went into the woods to investigate a noise, and perhaps if your friend is missing she was the source of the noise and they will be bringing her back.” Lilaini reassured the mares as best she could, but wished that Tyden would hurry up and get back so she had a better idea what was going on. “I’ll tell Tyden to be on the lookout for her,” she replied when the anxious looks remained on mares’ faces, and she reached out with her mind and told him of the missing mare.

*

At Rhaine’s sudden swoon, Liam dropped his armful of sticks – the wood-gathering task all but forgotten in his concern for the brunette Guardian. He caught her shoulders as she stumbled forward, and listened with growing alarm at her words. He had to get them all back to camp, if there was danger about … a small creeping coldness itched at the base of his spine.

Liam loosened the ties of his sword with one hand as he spoke, holding Rhaine upright with his other. “Lady – you are not well. I hope that ye will forgive me for this … but if what y’say is true, it must be done…” And as the pommel of his sword was freed, in one smooth motion, Liam swept the still reeling Guardian off her feet and into his arms. Still apparently weak with the vision, she did not seem to protest the sudden liberty with her person, leaving Liam unsure as to whether he should feel pleased or even more worried. He did not waste thought on such trivialities, however, and turned to address the young woman that accompanied them.

“Miss? I’m sorry te’ be such a lout but – I think it might be best if we all return te’ camp. It sounds as though there be a bit o’ danger in these here woods – an’ I think we’d be best wi’ a bit larger escort.” He said, all grins and teasing from his features erased in lieu of the more somber and serious cast as befit the situation. “An’ if ye’ve got any knife on ye – now’d be the time to keep it at the ready, I think. Shall we go, then?” He continued, and started back up the path, trying not to jostle the Guardian he cradled against his chest too much – but willing to sacrifice a bit of her comfort for speed.

Allison blinked, shock flashing her face before it turned concern for Rhaine. She gave a quick nod, understanding the urgency to leave. The girl let everything go, and followed hastily after Liam. Her legs carried her out of the forest and back to camp, where he set the guardian down.
It was only a handful of minutes – long stretches of time though they seemed as Liam counted the rise and falls of Rhaine’s chest, and would have tried to count her heart beats too, had his own not been pounding so hard – before they reached the camp. Their entrance, punctuated by a burst of leaves that showered the pair as Liam pushed through (sideways, and always minding his precious cargo!) a particularly large bush that had blocked the path, caused several of the still remaining persons at the campsite to look their way. Liam was relieved to see Gypsy and Liliani still among them.

“She swooned.” He spoke, loudly, as he strode quickly towards them. “There t’was a vision – something about a girl in need o’ help, an’ Tyden … an’ then she stumbled. I thought … ye’d be the best te’ take care o’ her in this state … ” Liam’s words flooded out in a concerned rush, the speed of delivery betraying the nervousness at the Rhaine’s sudden visible illness that he was trying to suppress (not out of trying to hide any fondness for the girl, but rather out of a soldier’s long training. Emotions should not be allowed to get in the way of action and solution!) “She seems te’ be breathing alright – an’ her color’s coming back…” The soldier moved to set her down on a mossy patch on the ground – leaning her against a good sized rock for support.

Lilaini turned as she heard Liam enter the clearing. Her eyes flew from him to Rhaine who was being clutched rather protectively against the man’s chest. Hurrying to her friend’s side, she pressed the woman’s hand as she listened to Liam’s disjointed narration. She probed her friend mentally to see what had passed, but everything was just a jumble of thoughts, images and emotions. Putting her hand under her chin she tilted her face up so she could see into her eyes. Those were sometimes easier to read. All she saw in them was concern and frustration, it was a look she understood the meaning of, although it didn’t leave her feeling anymore reassured.

Without moving she reached out for Tyden’s. *I don’t know what it means, but Rhaine has seen something, and she has a bad feeling about it. Be on guard.*

“She’s fine,” she said reassuringly to Liam “Don’t worry, this is what happens when she has visions. She’ll be fine in a few moments.”

Liam nodded blankly. “The Lady said there was a lass in trouble – an’ Lord Tyden was need assistance … I’ll be o’ little use here,” he continued, unable to quell a sharp tinge of regret at the realization, “… but I may be te’ them.” He stood up in a smooth, trained motion, and was surprised to find Pasiphae at his shoulder.

“Och, lass – I’ve a favor te’ ask …” Liam started, but was interrupted by a shove of the mare’s nose.

“Get on. I saw where they went.” She said, wasting no time with her usual retorts and teasings now that real trouble looked to be afoot. The soldier mounted easily, and with a final look at the campsite (and a comforting lip and nuzzle at Rhaine’s hair), Pasiphae practically flew in the direction that Tyden and Odin had departed.

Arieon had been standing nearby throughout the course of events and once he was assured that Rhaine was indeed alright, quickly bid his farewell to the mares at his side.

“I’m sorry but I must go and help the others if there is indeed trouble a foot,” and with that he darted after the young man and the bay mare. His stride was longer than hers and as she hadn’t had much of a head start he quickly pulled up behind her. All of the normal comments that would have escaped his lips were muted as his concern over road everything else. He just hoped they arrived in time to be of assistance.

*

Tiponi watched in growing horror as the bear ignored the fire between them and continued toward her, never even sparing the aromatic, bubbling stew a glance or a sniff. The thing had zeroed in on her for some reason and was coming on.

Just when the next step would put the bear’s paw into the fire it absently side-stepped around it. Tipinoi made another lounge at the bear, shouting and waving her weapons, then darted quickly back seeking to again put the fire between them. She did a quick shuffle-step that became a wobble.

*Noooo!* she shrieked in her head as the world shifted around her. Her feet scrambled anxiously for purchase on something, anything, stable, but all they found were curved surfaces that gave and shifted and emitted the odor of crumbling bark. Her small pile of wood she had gathered for the night had become all tangled in her feet. A wild shriek made its past her lips that ended in an “oof” as she hit the ground. Feebly she tried to push herself further from the bear, but her wind had been knocked out of her.

Frantically she tried to focus. The bear was still coming. Where was her boot knife? He was at her feet! Trying to keep the panic at bay she attempted to look for the missing knife and watch the bear at the same time. She scrambled to get her hands and feet under her to crab-crawl back while still facing the bear and clutching desperately to her back knife. Where was that other knife?! Why wouldn’t he understand she was no threat if he would just leave her alone? At this rate, she was not much threat even if he didn’t leave her alone. Could she manage to reach across her body to get her other boot knife before he was on top of her?

*Oh, Lord, oh, Lord,
please don’t let me die*

*

Luminista ran through the darkening forest without a care to life or limb. Urgency spiraled through her. When a *Noooo!* ripped through her mind her urgency began to morph into terror. Terror for herself at the possibility of the loss of something precious, but mostly terror for The One she would loose before she even knew. Flattening even more she ran harder, dodging trees and jumping brush like the fleetest of protoceres.

Touching on a mind consumed by threat and fear, a mind both familiar and strange, the red mare for the first time in her life communicated mentally with one who wasn’t a unicorn. *No. You will not die on MY watch!* She wasn’t sure how much of her message had penetrated and felt helpless at the distance that still separated her from this One that meant so much to her.

*

Twigs snapped and branches fought their way for the stallion’s course through the trees was direct, his rider leaning close against the black and silver mane. They mounted a rising swell, Odin’s hooves carving deep into the loamy ground, leaping the shallow gully that followed with seamless effort. He heard the bear again and marked it, though his mind tried to balk at the notion – a bear was a familiar in the scattered low lands forest between the mountains, but utterly unheard of on this side of the rise. The beast’s guttural snarl was clenching, punctuated with a distinctly human yell. Distinctly human, and female. By this time his sword was free and he held it before him, paralleling the stallion’s tapered horn as they cut their path. The forest began to fall away again, bare-faced rock pushing through the underbrush, and as they rounded a dense thicket the trees gave way all together. They had found the clearing.

Odin plowed to a halt, and Tyden was momentarily taken aback. He’d seen many a maned cavebear, but even by standards this one huge – the horn alone rose a good two feet in front of his face, marking its impressive age with opulence. And he also had the girl cowed, her dwarfed figure all but eclipsed by the bear’s sheer heft. Lilaini’s warning hit him then, and it was all he could manage to grimace. *Bad feeling indeed. Tell me something I don’t know* he shot back to her.

And suddenly there was motion as Phae and Areion landed at his side. He glanced sideways, meeting the soldier’s expression in kind. “Draw the bear,” he barked, Odin already moving forward. “I’ll reach the girl.” If I can…

*

Lilaini watched the others dash off into the forest. Turning back to Rhaine she whispered in her ear with a smirk, “quick the dramatic entrance you made into the clearing.” She saw the woman’s eyes flutter and let out a short sigh of relief; she and Gypsy would stay here and guard the others. And Tyden would call if he really needed their assistance, wouldn’t he… her brows began to furrow again.

Awareness crept back in to reveal her friend’s troubled face before her own. Rhaine squeezed shut her eyes, trying to draw the fragmented events into order, but what had transpired stumbled over what she had seen, and for the first few moments she wasn’t sure which had happened, if either. “Dramatic?” she frowned, wondering what her friend meant, and then everything fell back in place – the vision, Liam’s porting, and now here. “Ooooh,” she rubbed her temples sorely, though not because any of it was physical distress. A watering canteen was pressed into her hands and she drank.

“Better?” Lilaini queried gently.

“No,” she declared. The other saw through this front and smiled with relief, patting her arm in comfort. Rhaine continued to frown, focus retreating to again sort through the jumbled vision. None of it made sense. The bear was wrong, the girl was wrong, and Tyden…? She bit her lip in frustration. What was the point of having a second sight if what you saw was rarely clear? Companion. She’d got that much. The girl was someone’s companion. That made sense. But instead of console for some reason her immediate reaction was jagged apprehension, and this didn’t seem right either.

“It’s Lumanista’s companion,” she said at last. “The call was leading her; I suppose we should have noticed. Too much happening, all at once…. She needs our help, and the bear is sick….” She shook her head, the last bit lucidly intangible. “But also…there is… Oh!” her breath drew suddenly sharp, and nails bit Lilaini’s skin where fingers clenched. But when she looked up Rhaine’s attention was already far away. “There was darkness before there was light, and it was a different sun, a different moon before this one when blood covered over the ground; flesh broken, cold steel, the taste of rust… And it was in the forest, another forest – but aren’t they all the same? they are all the same, they are— Tyden! Tyden watch out!”

*

The bear countered her blows like fly bites, a nuisance to be batted at with mitted paw; the knife was useless – and the girl probably knew this before she made the dive, but there was comfort found from having the familiar steel between her hands. Mortality flashed across her eyes and she screamed back at the bear, furiously, as he continued his advance undeterred.

Odin swept in like a hawk, the great unicorn’s feet weaving between the bear and the girl like a dance, raking the beast across the face with his horn. And from the other side came Phae and Arieon, the ivory stallion flanking the bear from behind and landing a volley of hoof falls against the ruddy hide. Liam brandished his sword, instinctively nudging Phae forward with his knees despite their future agreement not to have him steer, not that the mare had any issue with it now. She sprang lightly sideways, keeping alongside Odin and catching the bear as he turned. By then the soldier grabbed a thick handful of dark mane as leaned over, thrusting the sword into the mass of the beast’s mane. Weather he completed the mark he didn’t know, but it had the desired effect. The beast turned, rising up on its hinds as it surveyed this new disturbance, letting out a disparaging bellow.

Liam leaned back in his seat, causing Pasiphae to dance backwards as well, as he eyed the snarling monster of a bear. “Feck, yer a great bloody brute.” Liam grunted, and readied his arm for another sword slash – aiming for the bear’s face in hopes that he might goad the beast even farther away from his previously chosen meal. “Is that the best you can do?!”

Arieon danced gracefully, steering clear of the maned cavebear’s claws as best he could while still inflicting blows upon it. When it reared up, the stallion quickly retreated back several steps, and saw the bear turn it’s complete attention to the bay mare before him. The cremello stallion, unlike his two older brothers, had never much experience with fighting and proceeded to make a very silly mistake. As the bear squared itself up, preparing assault on the bay mare, panic surged through the stallion and he lunged towards the creature at completely the wrong angle, attempting to offer himself as distraction. But distance between them was too great, and the bear saw the stallion coming; turning his full attention in that direction, he snarled and struck out with his paw. The cremello stallion had so much momentum he could only hurl himself to the side as he keeled to miss the oncoming blow. He nearly succeeded, but the tips of the bear’s claws extended and raked across the creamy white hair across the stallion’s shoulder.

The flesh opened up and began bleeding immediately, but luck was on Arieon’s side, for he missed the full weight of the blow which would have crushed his entire shoulder if it had landed squarely. Nonetheless, he staggered from the shock of it, and nearly lost his footing. Scrambling, he managed to stay on his feet and turned to see Liam perched on the mare’s back preparing to strike. He immediately began feeling foolish; a mare could fight just as well as a stallion, not to mention this mare had a man on her back who was wielding a sword. Stupid, he thought to himself, but he quickly forced himself forwards and came up beside the pair, ignoring the blood that was angrily streaming down his leg, staining it red. He stood next to them and prepared for another onslaught.

Tyden had tossed his sword from one hand to the other, following Odin’s movements but his attention wasn’t on the bear. As the beast turned and roared he locked his legs around the stallion’s torso and let go of the mane. He swung himself over the side, reaching down to grab the hand of the girl still scrambling on the ground, catching her just below the wrist. “Ho there,” he addressed her. “You seem to be in a bit of a fix. Can I be—”

And at that moment two things happened. The first was Rhaine’s warning bursting through his mind, the chill of the encounter causing him to slacken his grip on the girl, focus flashed towards the beast but sensing even as he turned that the concern was misdirected. The second was the sensation was of the sudden grip on his arm – the girl’s, he realized quickly – and he turned, came face to face with furious blue green eyes. They held him for a moment, searing with unspoken hatred before momentum shifted, and instead of scrambling up she had planted her weight, locked her arms and was hauling him down…

*

Lilaini was listening, trying to decipher her friends ramblings, when she felt the young woman’s nails dig in to her hand. Looking up in alarm she searched the young woman’s face trying to understand what she was seeing. Her eyes flew to Gypsy, looking for some explanation but the mares eyes told her nothing.

“Rhaine, what’s going on? What’s happening?” she began urgently. “Are they ok? Should we go to them?” She felt at a loss, Rhaine’s vision’s were always so abstract and disjointed, she shared her friends frustration at not always understanding what they meant. She had followed up to the point of the human being Luminista’s companion, but after that nothing was making much sense. The young woman wondered whether Rhaine was yet able to stand and if she would be able to get astride Gypsy if they really were needed by the others.

*

Tiponi was so focused on the threat before her she had not realized the small clearing had become crowded with unicorns and people – worse, men, even when her vision was filled by a large silver and black body. When a hand wrapped around her arm and pulled her up she did not question The Fates, she went. It did not matter that it was the arm with the hand holding the knife only that now she was on her feet.

It was only after she had gained her feet that the words spoken by the owner of that hand sank in, or more precisely the pitch of the voice. It was male. Her eyes followed the grasping hand up to the attached arm and on to the face. The masculine face (Tyden).

With a gasp, the bear all but forgotten, Tiponi grabbed the man’s wrist with her free hand pulling him from his mount and breaking his hold on her knife-wielding hand. With a flurry of movement she had him on the ground, her intention being to pin him there at knife point. However, she was accustomed to the men of her ‘civilized’ world where battles were fought with great distances between opponents. This man was of a different breed for he never stopped moving. The fall became a roll so he ended up on his feet before her with a startled and guarded look in his eyes, but also a sword in his hand between them. A sword, she noted, with a longer blade than her knife – it was, after all, a sword not a knife.

Now what was she to do? She had never faced a man with a sword before. Knives, yes. She knew how to compensate for an opponent with greater arm length, but not arm and blade both. Reaching over with her left hand she released the switchblade hidden in the cuff of her right bracelet and extended its three-inch blade. It might seem small, but it would help her deflect blows.

With its “snick” as the blade popped out she lounged forward, bringing her back-blade up.

It had happened so fast he had reacted on instinct, a painful lesson ingrained many a years ago by his arms master, who always seemed to take great satisfaction in making him tumble from his horse. So he was on his feet again in a heartbeat, sword braced, scrutinizing his opponent with a mixture of bemusement and surprise. Surprise had glinted her eyes too as she continued to glare at him, features pinched and nearly unreadable. Tyden hesitated, drawing a quick breath as he assessed. Carefully, he lowered his sword edge and raised the other hand in an expression of heed, never flinching his gaze from hers. “Hang on there. I believe we have gotten this off to the wrong—”

And she lunged at him.

By Kal. He didn’t want hurt her; obviously, this was all a misunderstanding, and he had startled her, and if she was here on Kalidore, she had to be a companion – didn’t she? But also, he didn’t exactly want her to hurt him either. He was rather attached to all of his appendages, and on further reflect, a knife wielding loonies running through the woods wasn’t exactly something he could allow. Blades brandished in each hand she fell on him with a war cry and Tyden spun, deflecting the long knife with his sword nearly catching the switchblade across his midsection as he twisted. They broke apart as she carried on through, pulling up short on the otherside, already turning, already coming back at him for another go. Tyden inwardly groaned. Did it always have to be this difficult?

*

In answer to soldier’s query the bear had roared angrily, brushing Arieon aside as the stallion flew at him. When they regrouped, countering him in force, he dropped to all fours again, barreling straight into their midst.

“About!” Liam belted the order and the unicorns parted, skirting sideways and missing the end of that heavy, blunt horn as it arced towards them. He nudged Phae again and she spun on her heels, the soldier reaching over to land a square blow on the bear’s shoulder as he went by. “Well done, lass!” he hooted and withdrew the sword, the bear turning towards them only to have Arieon dart at him from the other side. Grimacing terribly the bear rebuked, lunging blindly and coming up only with air.

Liam caught movement from the corner of his eye and swiveled to see Tyden tumble from Odin’s back, the girl meet him, the glint of steel in falling light. They were up again and moving instantly, blades meeting and breaking apart. “Lord Tyden!” he began, but stayed his place – as long as the man was on his feet, he was in just a good a position as he was, and he had to trust the other’s skill with a sword. Not to mention the still outstanding issue with the bear—

“In coming!” Phae hissed, dancing backwards as the bear hurdled again towards them. “That sword you kept talking about – now’d be a good time—“

He already had it born, and shifted his weight forward. “Better chance I’d have if you weren’t running a’way from him,” he grinned, “hold steady lass, here he—”

The bear staggered forward, its movements indirect and laboured. Was that wound already doing him in? It seemed unlikely and Liam frowned, spinning with Phae to avoid him. The bear roared again, curling back lips, thick froth spattering forth with the effort. “Steady,” he pressed the mare, leaning forward, when the beast suddenly lurched again. Paws planted he bowed heavily, hefted himself forward with horn angling towards the mare’s soft underbelly. Liam saw the danger before Phae did and immediately switched motives. He swung low, batting the beast about the face. “Up here, ye lout!” he shouted.

The bear obeyed. His head came up, merely grazing the unicorn who was already dancing away, her rider still hanging from the blow. The massive horn slid between them, hooking the soldier beneath the breastplate; a second later and Liam found himself leaving the sanctity of Phae’s back and was sailing through the air…

*

Foehn Miri paced as Rhaine recovered. Worry over Luminista kept her in motion and her attention focused on the jumbled words of the Guardian. A companion? For Luminista? Why had the red mare not said anything to her, her closest friend?

*Luminista? Where are you? You have scared me half to death. What is this about a companion?* Foehn Miri tried sending. Foehn Miri stood motionless as she concentrated with all she had in her attempt to reach Luminista. Faintly she got back, *Not now. Later,* and a sense of urgency, of haste. What ever was going on?

Tien Mu tried to stay out of the others way as they hovered over the weakened Guardian. As Rhaine became more lucid and began giving orders she looked over at Foehn Miri and took note of her distress for the missing friend. Going over to the liver chestnut Tien Mu began pushing her after the two Guardians and Gypsy. “You should go with them. Maybe you can be of help. I’ll stay here and help keep an eye on things here.”

Nodding her agreement, Foehn Miri followed the three females as they moved out from the campsite into the woods.

*

Luminista was wrought with determination as she plunged through the darkening woods felt as though each second was a thousand years. Would she ever reach the side of the One who called to her? And when she did, would the One still be breathing?

*

Ali looked at the dismay around her – the fallen guardian, Lilaini’s obvious worry, and half the camp seemed oddly absent. Strange. Snapping out of her thoughts, Ali inched closer to the two guardians, hoping to be of use in any sort of way. Truly, she wasn’t going to be of much help to anyone just standing there. “Do you need anything? Or what about her?” she asked, nudging Liliani’s shoulder lightly.

The vision faded but this time a certain clarity remained, and already Rhaine was scrambling to her feet, allowing Lilaini to direct the progress until she was sure she the girl could stand on her own. “Lumanista’s companion – something terrible – she’ll kill him if she gets the chance,” the woman blurted, eyes imploring the other with urgency.

Lilaini nodded tersely, but her demeanor remained collected, if only for Rhaine’s benefit. “I highly doubt Tyden would be allowing anyone that chance.”

“We need to go,” Rhaine said. The other nodded again, and already Gypsy was pulling alongside. She prodded her temples with tense fingers, doing little to dispel the helpless feeling that had come with the last burst of sight; it wasn’t entirely her own, but even knowing that it lingered and filtered uneasily through her consciousness. When she looked up again she noticed the others for the first time – Xanthe’s quivering nose hovering a short distance away and Alison, with concern written all over her small face.

“Oh, Ali –” she began, her impulse to mother and protect persisting even through the impending need to reach the others. “I’m fine, sweet; I am sorry to have scared you like that, everything will be okay.” She touched the girl’s cheek lightly as she met her eyes, trying to instill some confidence there, or reassure herself if nothing else. “You and Xanthe should stay here and watch the camp, Fiera and the others will help you. You did brilliantly last time, and I assure you there are no prowling troupes here to bother you now. Lilaini and I must see to this immediately.”

She turned to the golden dun in full, catching the want in her expression. “You’re in charge,” she said simply.

Xanthe blinked. Every inch of her wanted to be bounding into the fray with the guardians, but what Rhaine proposed was equally halting. “In… charge?” the notion flitted across her mind, blossoming into purpose and responsibility like spring floods. Confliction lurked there too, but she brushed it causally inside. She quickly bobbed her head. “I’ll keep everything in check,” she said to Rhaine who was already settling behind Lilaini onto Gypsy’s back, the mare’s ears pricked forward to catch the sounds of conflict. “You don’t have to worry about us at all!”

They were gone in a sweep of scattered pine needles, with Xanthe left to assess the scene. A thought struck her and she turned, heading towards the packs Lilaini and left on the ground. “Here—” she called over her shoulder to Ali, “I need your help – your hands,” she began tugging at one of the tied bundles with prodding lips (oh, to have five working fingers sometimes…!) “There are spell scrolls… in my pack,” she spat between tugs, too impatient to wait and pulling the knots even tighter before Ali would arrive. “Must be… something in here… that can help us…” Or the others, she thought fleetingly, chewing the strap between her teeth.

*

The guttural roar that emitted from the darkening woods set Bryn’s attention sharp and Thora’s hooves into the ground below with an earth rending pace. The emotion riding on the mental link between them crackled with urgency, driving them with fierce intensity towards the ominous sound. Bryn, herself, had lost track of the red mare whom they had originally been tailing, they had likely passed her with Thora’s brilliant maneuvering; lunging over downed trees and weaving through still virile ones like she had been made for the challenge of carving their own path into the fray.

When they broke into the glade, shock ran sharply through them both. Thora slammed into a halt, the weight of rider and force of her stop nearly causing her rear to touch the ground before she sprang back into motion again – their vision filled with the massive bear that lay between them and their comrades.

On Bryn’s left arm a shield was now strapped tight and in her right hand was her favored sword. As Thora thundered closer to the bear, she pulled her shield arm tightly tightly against her body, preparing for the inevitable onslaught. However, while Thora’s attention was occupied trying to find an opening to attack and aid the others with the bear, Brynja’s gaze slid from the beast to what lay beyond. It took her mind only a fraction of a moment to process the new information.

While Brynja had never fought a bear that size of the beast before her nor frankly even seen one, the threat beyond that was well within her realm of expertise. An invisible flame licked at her back and set her straight, her eyes widening momentarily, before narrowing.

She dropped from the grey mare’s back silently, dodging around the bear with a warrior’s speed, and swiftly drawing closer to her new target on soft leather soles. It was with a Viking’s strength and intent that she huddled herself squarely behind her rounded shield, her body rigid against the wood and metal. She positioned it just above her chest and shoulder and rolled her right wrist, sending her sword’s tip in a wide circle.

The targeted girl seemed blatantly unaware of the Viking woman’s approach, and Brynja crossed the distance with a quickness to rival Thora’s, her movements containing a surefootedness that would never have been achieved outside battle. Here, she was confident in her abilities. Just like her father had taught her, she rammed into the well distracted girl’s side with a grunt, using every ounce of force her speed had given her.

Regardless of where the girl now went as result of the shield thrust, Brynja’s goal had been attained. Better if she had been hard enough to be sent flying, but even had she noticed Bryn at the last moment and dodged enough to only be shoved a few feet back, the viking now stood between her and Tyden, sword extended and posed to strike if there was a blade pointed at her, no matter the size. Narrowed mismatched eyes, bright with confidence of ability and assurity of her own righteousness, peered from beneath the horned helmet she wore, wordlessly daring the other to take a move against her.

There was no satisfaction here, though – no smug smile or mockery that she had caught the woman unawares. Brynja approached this fight with one thing in mind – her duty as a person, and towards her fellows. Trained in the art of battle from a young age, and genuinely willing to risk her life for another’s, she stood ready. Though she took no pleasure in bloodshed, and genuinely hoped that any battle would stop short of death or open maiming, she was primed for anything that might aid or protect these people in this strange land.

Tiponi did not understand this opponent’s hesitation. She knew no other man had ever given her a chance to catch her balance or regroup. They took every advantage. Regardless, she would not give him the chance to change his mind or take her off guard. She lounged forward to strike again. Only to be rammed from the side.

Tiponi staggered back two steps before regaining her balance and reversing course. As she started back to reengage she pulled up short as a look of shocked confusion crossed her face. Her new opponent was a woman, she stood as though she knew how to use the sword in her hand and with the Man at her undefended back. Knives at the ready, Tip kept an eye on the two before her while taking in the bear and those battling against it.

Using the switchblade to indicate those battling the bear she asked, “Who are you people, and why are you here?” Motioning to the helmeted woman she continued, “Why do you take the part of this man?” She eyed Tyden scornfully and disdain dripped from her reference to him.

Brynja blinked, momentarily impressed that the girl only staggered slightly at taking full brunt of her plow, but soon chalked it up to the girl’s weight being considerably greater than she looked. As the seriousness of the situation before her called for full and complete attention, Brynja’s mismatched gaze stayed locked onto the woman’s face, her sword still lifted with tip peeking out from around her shield, her guard never wavering. However when the woman, Brynja’s still obviously on her guard against her, turned her BACK on the viking to take a gander at the goings on behind her, Brynja began to wonder if the woman was daft, or possibly very confused about the situation at hand.

And then, to add further insult, the woman began to QUESTION her in snide and heated tones, all the while waving her little knife around, obviously not at all taking her seriously; Brynja’s face came to life from it’s previously battle-neutral expression. Fire flooded her person, her cheeks flushed hot and red, and that invisible and angry lick of flame trailing up her spine had returned. Her face twisted in a momentary snarl before her pale pink lips parted and she spoke.

“At present I am at a loss as to why I should tell you.” She replied, her voice level, but her growing irritation obvious in the clipped harshness of her words. “And I should watch my tone, were I you. By my count I could have killed or disabled you three times, just now, before you could have finished asking your questions, had I wanted. Once when you staggered, again when you turned to look behind, and yet again when you waved your only defense away in an attempt to punctuate silly questions.” Brynja rattled off, with an almost dispassionate air – as if she were the girls disapproving armsmaster. “And as we are many, and very obviously together, and seemingly aiding your problem, since last I checked that beast was not one of the ones with us, I believe we are here to rescue you. But instead of gratitude, or any other honorable reaction, you decide instead to attack a luckily timed friendly hand – I’m not certain on whether or not I ought to run you through on principle alone.”

Tyden had blinked as suddenly a bright burst of viking warrior barreled in front of him, knocking the other woman back and meeting her questions with measured resolve. The woman stood blanking at them, but her eyes on him still sparked with intolerance. He didn’t lower his sword all together but deflected the tip, carefully placing a hand on the small woman’s shoulder, both as a show of gratitude and, if needed, to hold her back.

He considered the girl again, and addressed her quietly but seriously. “I am not sure what ill I may have done to you, but surely it was not my intent. And Brynja is quite right, we heard your shout and came to offer aid – those are our friends who stand battling the bear on your behalf.” He was of half a mind to tell her she was welcomed to bear and leave it at that, but had a hunch the Gaurdians might not approve, and it was likely Lilaini’s rebuke would possibly be worse. He kept the hand on Bryn’s shoulder.

“Let’s try this again. I am Tyden, and you are in Kalidore; while you are here you are under our protection. And you would be….?”

The words of the small woman had Tiponi growling with offense and irritation. The small thing didn’t seem to realize Tip had never actually taken her eyes from the two of them, but if the horned female was foolish enough to underestimate an opponent Tiponi was more than willing to teach her that lesson the hard way. But before she could put her thoughts into action The Man began to speak and he didn’t help her confusion any at all. As he spoke, sincerity glowed from his eyes and tone, but it went against everything she knew. The silence between the three stretched as Tiponi considered his words and weighed her options.

“Men do not protect women. They use them. I will not be used,” she replied. “You use soft words, but I have found soft words spoken by a man to, in themselves, be suspect for they always hide another motive.”

Suddenly Tiponi’s attention was diverted. Over the man’s shoulder a red unicorn exploded from the trees and slid to a stop. At the same time Tiponi felt an electric tingle shoot through her, a curious awareness tied somehow to this new presence.

Luminista burst out of the trees into the campground and slid to a stop as she took in the over-all scene. The fearsome bear being held at bay by Pasiphaë, Liam, Thora, and (oddly) Arieon. Tyden and Brynja had their backs to her and were faced off against her someone, while Odin stood off to one side keeping an eye on all the goings ons. Relief flooded her at the sight of her human none the worse for wear and on her feet. Tension flowed from her, making her realize just how tightly she had been wound.

Aware only at a distance of the tension that ricocheted among the three, Luminista walked quickly across to Tiponi and gave her enough of a nudge to have the girl taking a step back before she settled her head against Tiponi’s chest. With a deep exhalation of relief, Luminista sent *You are unharmed?*

Tiponi’s knives both hit the ground between them as her hands, shaking with the emotion that consumed her, came up to grasp either side of Luminista’s muzzle. Taking a step back Tiponi looked over the face before her. The large, luminous eyes that held such intelligence, the horn from the middle of the forehead, the star and snip that decorated the beautiful red face. “I am fine,” she answered, not yet realizing Luminista’s question had not been vocal or that she could have sent her reply instead of speaking. Her head came forward until human and unicorn stood forehead to forehead.

*

Pasiphae hissed in pain as the bear’s jagged horn raked along her ribs, and shied away several steps before coming to a panting stop, horn lowered and on guard, before she noticed her lack of passenger. Strangely enough it was the cold that registered first – the air prickling against her sweat stained hide – where moments before there had been a solid warmth. Her blue eyes widened as the situation before her finally registered; “Liam, stay DOWN!” She cried, her voice raw and edged in fear, before launching herself forward at the great shaggy monster.

The soldier had landed with a bone-rattling thud after being thrown from the bear’s great horn. Though breathless and more than a little stunned, he retained enough wits (and battle experience) to know that staying prone was generally the worst possible thing to do. And so, struggling to rise, he grimly hung onto his sword in one hand – but unfortunately, ears ringing and vision filled with red starlike pinpoints from his impact with the ground, did not hear the mare’s cry. He had only just made it to his feet, when moments later, a giant paw collided with his side – several ribs cracking beneath the sudden crushing pressure, and as the claws extended at the apex of the blow they raked across his mail, scattering a broken rain of chain links and laying open the soft flesh beneath.

Liam fell like a stone – the weight behind the strike being far more than necessary to knock him from his feet and the remaining wind from from his lungs. He landed, face down, on the hard rock studded soil – blacking out from the impact and the lancing pain in his side. The bear, snarling and slavering, moved forward to finish off the bothersome pest – when a stabbing pain in his flank distracted him. Roaring, the beast tried to rise to his full height, but seemed unable to retain his balance long enough to do so.

Pasiphae danced backwards, panting, her horn awash with a red film of the bear’s blood. “Didn’t like THAT, eh? You great monster?” She snarled as he bellowed his frusteration and pain. She snuck a worried glance at Liam, who lay unmoving on the ground, before charging forth again – deeming his best chance at survival being their continued distraction of the bear, and hopes that some of the rest of the group might come to his aid. She shrilled a war cry, and lunged forward again, redoubled her efforts in using her horn and hooves to rip into the bear’s thick hide as best she was able.

*

Kyn sulked, kicking at a few small stones as he grumbled around the edge of the camp. Things were HAPPENING – big IMPORTANT things , obviously – and he had been told to STAY at the CAMP! He sighed heavily, and lipped at some low hanging pine branches absently, wondering if it would be worth risking the ire of Pasiphae to slip off into the forest and try and tail the group.

After all, he thought to himself – his tail a-waggle at the idea, she had nuzzled him and told him to stay and keep an eye on Rhaine. So technically … with the guardian gone off with the others … maybe it wouldn’t exactly be subverting the rules. He mulled this over for a few moments – wondering if it would be enough to pacify Phae – when he was distracted by the crinkle of paper and commotion in the middle of camp. His ears perked as he realized Xanthe was up to something – and if the golden filly was involved, the something very likely required further investigation. Kyn put a mental stay on his plans of escape, and trotted over to the filly and the dark brunette girl beside her.

“What’cha doing?” He queried, eyeing her tugging with some confusion before nosing nosed the saddle bags curiously, trying to catch a hint at what they might contain. They smelled dusty, Kyn sneezed.

Xanthe had managed, mostly through sheer will, to untie the straps with her teeth and spill the contents to the forest floor with a triumphant chortle. She glanced up at Kyn’s approach but fell to work just as quickly, rummaging through the mass of weathered scrolls with her nose. “There’s gotta be something in here,” she pressed, scanning each scroll in quick succession. “… protect roses from blight, nope, stave an vole invasion, nuh-uh, proof bread, dust-bunnies-be-gone, how to pacify squirrels…oh by Kal there has GOT to be something USEFUL in here!” Xanthe’s eyes crossed with frustration. Then she leapt back so abruptly she nearly bowled over Kyn, who had leaned in for a closer look.

Kyn eyed the scrolls with interest. He hadn’t actually any experience with magic or scrolls yet – but the stories always made it sound ever so interesting. His opinion of Xanthe skyrocketed – an amazing feat considering the rather towering, almost worship-like regard that the koros already held for the filly – as he realized not only did she know something about them, but seemed to actually know how to USE them. He couldn’t contain a small nicker of excitement as she began to mouth some sort of verbal gobbledy-gook, and he waited on a keen edge of anticipation for something to happen.

“This is IT!” she had a scroll between teeth, causing her to talk oddly in the process. She turned to Kyn and Ali, eyes bright and dancing. “This spell – used to ward off unwanted pests & protect the perimeter… and by pest they mean the aphids and perimeter they mean garden, but I think it’s really all just a matter of scale…..” She scrunched her face into an expression as she concentrated, drawing on her muggy recollection old language vocabulary and phrases. “Hothorawa ky alderbrot dyrigomus… vor allwatha, allwatha, armigoray!?”

No sooner then the words were uttered, the air around them ripped and sparked, causing their hair to stand on and energy to tickle their faces. Just as quickly it was go, and the world was still. The spell scroll fell quietly to the ground. Xanthe let out her breath, and glanced at the pair, who were both still standing and looking at her. They seemed to be waiting for her to respond. She swallowed. “Well, I think…”

“Voe-voggen?” came an odd sound from the fringes of the camp.
“Voe-voggen?” came another, this time from the other side.
“Voe-voggen?” the call came again, and again. And again…

Slowly Xanthe turned, blue eyes becoming all the more electric as she saw what was emerging from the scraggly woods. Urdvoggens. Dozens of them. Fat, lumpy urdvoggen, each one bumpier then the next, croaking and gallumping as they made their way forth. Her brain receded to a far corner of her head and made to stay there, even though she new Kyn and Ali were at want for a reply. But to be completely honest in the moment she didn’t exactly have one… “Oh cavork,” Xanthe said.

*

Brynja’s size had become of little consequence when it came to her fighting. She had been a trained from the moment she could walk, and was well seasoned at her relatively young age. She’d fought against full grown men, and won. Tyden would feel it, the stiff muscle under chain where softness ought to be. She did not openly acknowledge his action, though she was grateful for what it stood for. Brynja, unlike the other girl, wore many layers, the bulky look disguising her otherwise slight form, but was well served by their purpose. The linen lined the thick chain armor on both sides, and combined with her shield and sword … Brynja felt herself more than enough of a match for this girl and her little blade.

When the other girl made a harsh sound, Brynja tensed in her war-like stance, watching for the moment an opening would present itself for to pounce. If there was one person underestimating anyone in the current situation, it would not be the Viking; in battle she expected anything, from anyone – and this girl seemed to have less reason than most. It seemed more prudent to disable her fast.

With a slight roll of her shoulders, she readied herself for it. Saw the moment as she met the girl’s eyes… and then she was talking again. Brynja blinked for a moment, attempting to understand what was coming from her mouth. And then the realization struck her like Thor’s lightning breaking brilliantly from his hammer and anvil… the other woman really was crazy. A flicker of sympathy glimmered in Brynja’s eyes, and she grudgingly managed to forgive and ignore that she was, well… being ignored, in her earlier attempt to explain in her (admittedly) gruff way, that they, as a group, were there to save her. But, despite what tragedy had befallen her to ruin her in such a way, Brynja reminded herself as she eyed the woman silently, that even (or perhaps especially) those with broken minds were not to be trusted.

She was mulling over how to best proceed, in perhaps a slightly more kindly way now that she understood the girl’s situation, when she caught a red blur out of the corner of her eye. She did not turn her attention away from the girl, but angled so that she could better view whatever it was, and found the blur to be the mare they had been tailing earlier. As the red mare and the obviously addled girl locked vision, and embraced, Brynja took the girl’s lapse in concentration to quirk a brow, and turned her head ever-so slightly to the side to remark over her shoulder. “She is daft, you realize? And I would not trust my back to her, were I you or any other person in our party. Of course it is not my place— ” She broke off mid-thought, however, interrupted by a female voice yelling Liam’s name. Brynja inwardly warred with herself, not wanting to turn her back on untrustworthy foe to turn and assist with whatever was going behind her, wagering she better serving the safety of the group by keeping them safe on THIS front. However, as a second, and more worrying, sound split the air – Brynja’s heart practically rent itself in two with her concern and need to defend, and she angled slightly and saw it… the big blur of a bear moving closer, and swiftly!

Tyden was about to counter the girl’s world view with one of his own when Lumanista burst through the trees and landed at her side. The reaction from the woman was immediate, and the first thing that went through his head as he watched was “Oh, thank Kal!” uttered under breath. Better her companion to explain things then him, when obviously the progress here was going to be slow and angst-ridden. He had no idea where she had come from, but it sounded like a harsh and cloistered existence; understanding that Kalidore was a haven might take some work.

At Bryn’s casual declaration his lips curled into an unwitting smile and he gave the shoulder he still held a small squeeze. He was about to comment diplomatically when Odin pierced his thoughts with haste *–On guard, mind the bear!*

He was turning on instinct before the stallion’s thought was completed, reacting to the emotional urgency it had delivered. His sword came up, moving to shield Bryn and the newly bonded pair, wonder exactly what good that would do as the bear continued to pick up speed… Odin was already rushing forward but even as he moved something else was making towards them, a lick of silver light. And suddenly Tali had launched himself through the air, seizing fast the grim muzzle of the beast and throwing all his momentum into the hold. The bear’s head went down; the rest of the bear went tumbling after.

Silence broke for only a half a pulse, the dust whirling and marring the scene. Tyden suddenly found his concern had landed on the wolf, watching the jumbled mass of bear with mounting dread. But quick as dusk there was movement again and a familiar shape slipped from melee to circle back and worry the beast again. And the bear was moving too, its motions becoming more unmannerly and sporadic. It bellowed, an terrible sound, blood shooting out its gaping maw. Sickled paws raked at the air but came up empty, eyes empty and unseeing. It tumbled towards the group but the wolf was on it again, giving Odin and Aerion a chance to form an opposing front. But even so, the bear out-massed the three combined and then some, and even unguided made to do enough damage through sheer wrought. Tyden saw the impending danger.

“Move!” he shouted, releasing Bryn and made for the others, smacking Luminista on the rump and shoving the mesmerized girl to the side. The group scattered as the bear went thundering blindly through.

*

Gyspy’s hooves were flying across the ground so quickly it looked as if they weren’t even touching, yet the mare had this overwhelming sense that she was simply not moving fast enough. Surging through the trees with the two women close to her back, ducking to avoid oncoming tree branches, the mare leaped over fallen trunks and open animal burrows. After what seemed like an eternity, the bronze mare freed them from the underbrush and thickness of the forest and entered into the clearing.

Three sets of eyes quickly surveyed the situation, seeing the party broken up into two groups. Gypsy could smell the blood before she had to see anyone bleeding and her eyes darted towards to the huge cavebear which was still angrily charging. But it was not only the cavebears blood she smelled, she smelled unicorn blood as well. Her nostril’s flared at the metallic smell, it seemed to enter her nostril’s and fill her mouth as well; the tang become stuck on her tongue. * We must get the bear away from here,* she quickly said to her companion.

Lilaini nodded in unison. She quickly turned on the mare’s back and helped Rhaine to the ground; she was not a fighter so she did not need to be brought into the thick of things. *Check on the others* she said the other woman, before she and Gypsy plunged into the fray of things.

The great bear, eyes glassy with pain and madness, bore down on the bay mare as she goaded it into leaving alone the man still sprawled on the ground. When Tali suddenly burst seemingly from mid air, and landed snapping and snarling upon the brute’s face, the tide of battle seemed to shift. With Tali’s and the other’s pointed urging, the bear’s momentum took him stumbling away from Liam and the others – giving Pasiphae a moment to gasp a few laboured breaths of much-needed air into her raw and stinging lungs. Each huge breath was punctuated by a sharp edged pain in her side, as the wound left by the bear’s horn stretched and gaped with the expansion of her lungs. Pasiphae steeled herself to ignore it, but the pain on top of the exertion and worry for the soldier who had not yet risen, was starting to make her dizzy. She shook her head, trying to clear it, meaning to fling herself back into the fight – when a cry from Tyden roused her to alertness – and she saw the bear barreling down upon her yet again, his unseeing eyes and blood-tinged slaver that dripped from open mouth, making him seem made from the stuff of nightmares.

Phae stood her ground, Liam lying only a few dozen feet behind, and knowing she was the last thing between him and this nightmarish beast – chose to stay. She reared, trying to angle herself so that she could do the most possible damage before going down, and waited for the bear to come.

It only took several strides for the Guardian and Companion to reach the bear as advanced upon Phae, the creature’s red blood dripping from her horn; Arieon and Odin worked together to keep the beast at bay, and what appeared to be – one of the Forest Sentinels – was darting in and out amongst the fray. Gypsy slowed as they approached, and Lilaini gathered herself. A whoosh of energy rushed towards the pair, and those nearby would probably have felt the air churn with electricity if they hadn’t been so preoccupied with more important matters. A moment of doubt reached the guardians mind; this bear was gigantic, so much larger then anything she had tried to move before, but the urgency she felt as it came upon the bay mare sent adrenaline coursing through her.

She reached out with her mind as well as her hands. Grasping the creature’s huge mass with mind she heaved, and then hurled the bear in the opposite direction. A crack of energy ran through the pair’s bodies, and the bear was suddenly airborne and crashing through the trees, away from the others and flailing with much more force then she thought she was able to summon. She heard the sickening crack as it collided with aged old trees and her breath in took sharply when it landed, drawing it’s last breath.

The moments that followed seemed strangely silent for Pasiphae, a strange buzzing of adrenaline and almost electric signal burning through her ears. She watched as the bear, as if pulled on an invisible cord from the heavens, flew backwards and into the trunks a handful of massive trees. She dropped from her rearing pose back onto all fours, a burgeoning relief beginning to wash over her – although it was still not enough to calm the urgency that coursed through her system, and the heavy thud of her heart.

The forest was very still. Lilaini clutched her companion’s mane as the mare pulled to a stop. The effort had drained her and she swooned slightly, dizzy and light-headed, but the idea she had killed another living creature of Kalidore was the real cause of the swelling feeling of unease.

*Calm yourself* Gypsy’s soothing voice broke into her thoughts, *he was already very sick, and his heart stopped beating well before hitting the ground. He was dead before we got here; you only stopped him from taking others along with him*

The woman said nothing, not feeling much better despite her companion’s reassurance; she tried to re-gather herself turned towards the other potential threat in the clearing. The girl stood with Luminista beside her and blades on the ground near her feet. Bryn and Tyden stood in front of them, weapons in hand. She probed their minds lightly to see what was going on and both were receptive to her touch and gave her the information she was looking for.

“Luminista,” the guardian’s voice broke the quiet that had fallen over the clearing. “Please explain to your companion where she is and who we all are. I am glad you have found your other half, but I will not have anyone unnecessarily hurt, so please tell her so she may see none of us are a threat to her.” The eyes moved to the human girl’s and she had used a tone which was calm but very clearly one that was not to be ignored. Turning on the mare’s back she searched out Rhaine, eyes wandering over the rest of the party who had battled the bear, again feeling that deep pang of guilt that the bear had died as a result.

*

Allison has scrambled over to Xanthe to help with the scrolls, standing beside Kyn and watched with wonderment as she called out strange words. When a deep throaty voice rang out behind them, the koros startled somewhat, and whipped around – finding a large pair of amphbian eyes staring at them. A shudder erupted on Ali’s spine. Did she dare to look? Maybe just a peak…

And they were hideous looking little things. Ali squirmed, watching the lumpy things hop uselessly around.

“Hsssst. Xanthe?” Kyn whispered, and edged closer to the filly. “Those are those… urdvoggie thingies, right? Are they supposed to be the protector or the pest?” He eyed the growing ring of gigantic grotesque amphibians with a vague sort of distaste, wrinkled his nose – hoping to himself that these large green things didn’t have a propensity to biting.

“I wonder the same,” Ali’s face scrunched in dismay. “What are we to do with them now?” she asked hoarsely, the disgust for them stuck in her throat.

Xanthe’s eyes crossed slightly at Kyn’s question. “I really… cannot say,” she began slowly. Why why WHY must he ask such questions of her, right now? She wondered if the funny sensation she felt between her ears was her brain curdling. She replied levelly, “Kala is known to works in mysterious way; I follow Kal…”

“And urdvoggen certainly follow you!” said Kyn most admirantly.

Xanthe didn’t answer only because for a moment she seemed, inexplicably, at a loss for words…

Fiera watched with interest as the events transpired. Her eyes went wide at the sight of hopping critters, but she wasn’t easily repulsed by them as her companion. Taking a few steps towards the outer camp, she continued to keep watch after the guardians. “My dears, you had better have a good plan in mind for those scrolls,” Fiera called over her shoulder, her eyes forward and alert.

Nearby, Trinity looked over to see Tien Mu staring at something. Curious, she walked over to see the urdvoggen. Brow raised as she stood beside the other unicorn. “The devil is tha’ thing?” she asked. “Looks li’e someone puffed up a toad.”

Tien Mu chuckled and answered the red haired girl, “That, my dear, is the urdvoggen. Smelly creatures, each an every one of them. Would you just look at all of them we have about camp now.”

Looking around the camp at all the ugly creatures bouncing around and stirring up chaos a laugh began to burble its way up from her belly. Then her eyes fell upon Xanthe and her look of consternation and the laugh erupted in full. Knowing how a yearling would feel about seemingly being laughed at, Tien Mu tried to stifle the laughter, but all she accomplished was turning it into spitting and spluttering. Truly, she didn’t want to hurt the filly’s feelings, but the expression on her face and those around her was just too priceless.

*

Several heartbeats passed as Phae stood staring – almost expecting the bear to rise and come at them again – when she finally thought to actually go check upon Liam. She turned, finding him still sprawled out in the dirt, and she drew in a hissing, shuddered breath. Quick steps took her to his side, and she nosed one hand gently – it felt strangely cold to her almost feverishly battle-heated hide, and the percieved cold seemed to seep into her bloodstream – and she shivered. “Liam? Liam?!” She did not see him move, and Pasiphae’s head flew up – her eyes wide and white, “Help please …! He’s not moving …! He can’t be … he wouldn’t be …” She cried out, as her throat closing around the thought, as if by keeping her from voicing it – such a terribly possibility couldn’t be true…

*

The clearing was so terribly still. As Lilaini’s voice died away, the silence was complete. Slowly, Odin shook himself, setting his tossled mane into place and the birds in the forest began to twitter once more. He began towards the fallen bear. Tali was panting hard, tongue dripping red, but his ears cocked forward assiduously as he trotted quietly beside the stallion. When he approached the great beast his snout wrinkled, as if the pungent odor of it hit his nostrils for the first time. “Sickness,” he spat, trying to rid the acrid taste from his mouth. “Ai’agnu’s work. None will eat of this meat.”

Odin lay his horn against the huge tawny head. “Nay, not Ai’agnu, only time,” he said. And, “we should burn the body.” But his eyes remained troubled, distant. He turned to the wolf, observing his trembling limbs and laboured breath, and touched the dark smudged face gently with his tip of his spiraled horn. The wolf was still, feeling a warm shiver move through his body. When the stallion moved again away he found the pain in his shoulder was easing and already the shudder in his tired muscles had began to be still.

“I thank you, Son of Kaedon,” he was obviously impressed. “I had heard tales that unicorns possessed such gifts; now I know them to be true.”

“And I heard of the bravery of the Forest Sentinels; I think you have outdone even those tales today. We are grateful for you aid.”

The corners of his muzzle pulled into the small ghost of a smile. But it lingered only briefly, his eyes falling across the battlefield. “I did what I could, but not enough; mayhap your gift can see to the fallen companion*.”

In the centre of the trampled clearing Phae stood a morose figure of distress, her feet churning restless circles as she lipped the man who lay prone on the ground and unmoving.

*

As she’d run through the woods in close pursuit of Gypsy, Foehn Miri caught a hoof on a fallen log as she jumped causing her to stumble. She righted herself and continued after Gypsy and her two riders, but the stumble had affected her confidence. Her pace was not quite so fast as before and the distance between her and the others increased. When she came out of the woods into the battle torn campsite it was to find the battle over and Luminista alongside a strange human female.

“Luminista,” she said as she joined the group, “are you all right?” Her worry and relief both echoing from her words.

Giving her friend a considering look, Luminista stretched her head over to touch the liver chestnut mare with her muzzle and replied, “Yes, I am fine. I am sorry if I worried you.” Indicating the girl beside her she continued, “This is my companion. She was in danger only I couldn’t have told you that before, only that I had to keep going and quickly.”

Looking over the group, now taking stock, Tiponi was finally able to take in just exactly the make-up of the group and what they had accomplished here on her behalf. Unicorns. She didn’t bother to marvel over the existence of a creature that had only existed n the realm of mythology for her, her connection with the red one was enough.

Her connection. She didn’t understand it. All she knew was that now she was complete, some missing part of her was now filled with warmth and acceptance. As she explored that inside herself a hum began to echo within. A hum she soon realized came not from herself but the presence beside her.

*Yes,* Tiponi received. *It is the same for me. My name is Luminista, and with you I, too, am complete.*

Understanding that the words came from the red mare, she wondered, *Can I do that, too.*

Luminista chuckled and audibly said, “Yes, you can do it too, but it is unlikely you could do it with just anyone. Most humans can only do so with their unicorn companion.”

At Lilaini’s speech both turned to give her their full attention. Tiponi ducked her head as her cheeks heated. Maybe The Man had spoken true, they were only here to help. Meeting the girl’s eyes she nodded her understanding while Luminista replied, “Complete trust in everyone here will take some time for her. Meanwhile, between us, we will keep her blades sheathed.”

The words brought to mind the two blades at her feet. Tiponi, giving her former opponents a glance, crouched down to retrieve them. As she picked up the switchblade and wiped it clean before collapsing it and storing it away, she said to all who cared to hear, “My name is Tiponi, and I will do as Luminista has said.” Picking up her backblade she stood, cleaned it carefully on her garment then looking in a way meant to express her sincerity at the two replaced the blade to its sheath down her back.

Unable to resist that physical contact, she placed a hand on Luminista’s neck. She took in the jumbled campsite and wondered, *What comes next? It looks like there are injuries we could help tend.* The pair moved as one over to the those who had been fighting the bear, pausing only to pick up a surprisingly undisturbed water bag en route.

*

Through it all, Rhaine had stood with her fingers dug into the rough bark of the gnarled pine, heart pounding against her ribcage and in her head. Again that swell of uselessness – that she could do nothing to assist in the immediacy of the situation – filled her chest and the frustration of it webbed across her features. Am I always to stand and watch as those around me, those I care about, struggle alone against adversity? The pull was unbearable – to be out among them and helping, yet she knew she had nothing to offer here. Her private aversion to violence and combat yielded her untrained and inexperienced; she would only get in the way, become a liability. And while the visions may have passed, the emotional charge they left behind was still acute, and fear lanced her. Please Kal, let them all be okay…

She watched uselessly as the bear thundered past and then Lilaini was upon it, seizing with sheer mental will and sending the beast crashing through the trees; it landed heavily, and all was mercifully still. Releasing the tree Rhaine stumbled forward without direction, eyes darting about the clearing, picking out the familiar shapes and making account of each in turn. They arrived on the dark haired woman who now stood among them, newly companion’d to the fiery red mare. Her consciousness rested here briefly, sensing the confusion and awe that emanated from the girl; the fierce anger she had sensed before was abated, but hung there, unresolved. What would come to pass of this, only Kal could know, but with Lumanista at her side, there was hope. And of Tyden…? There he was – standing alongside Bryn and not looking particularly worse for wear. Relief flushed with an almost euphoric high and she sighed, breath escaping with a woosh as she wiped the last of the tension from her cheeks with trembling hands. Birds had begun to sing, night sparrows and whippoorwills, and dusk was cooling.

And she felt fear stab her chest again, but it wasn’t her own. Startled, she pulled her awareness to the source. Phae. And colour drained from her face when she found the mare, she was already running.

*

The first ones Tiponi came upon was the tall ivory stallion, his coat stained red from the gashing wound on his side. She held up the water bag and said, “You are bleeding. May I help you clean up?”

Arieon had been acting purely on instinct throughout the majority of the battle, what happened seemed almost a blur. As the fight finished, and the battle-worn began to tend their wounds, he stood breathing hard, drained and still on edge. He wanted to help, but the cremello stallion was not sure of what assistance he could have been anyways, as he wasn’t much good at healing such grave of wounds. He was pulled from his thoughts by a young woman’s voice next to him.

Before him stood the red mare and a human woman who apparently was her companion. He saw the water bag she was extending in front of her and after several seconds of silence he registered what she was asking him. Looking down, he took in the sight of his shoulder and had to restrain a shudder from wracking through his entire body. His beautiful, perfect, gleaming coat, was now marred by four deep lacerations. His leg below was stained red and he was mortified to think how on earth he was ever going to get that leg back to something even close to the colour it was supposed to be.

As he regained his composure, he looked back to the pair in front of him, and bowed his head. “How very kind of you,” he replied to her earlier query, and turned himself so that the wounded shoulder was easily accessible to her. He looked away as she began to clean the wound, gritting teeth against the pain.

Lilaini watched the activity swirl around her, but she felt strangely detached from it all.   Events moved in rapid succession and she tried to focus, to figure out what to do next. She saw Rhaine rushing through the clearing to Liam’s side, saw Odin and one of the forest sentinels seeing to Phae; the new companion and Luminista had hesitantly walked turned to Arieon and were cleaning out his wounds. Her eyes came to rest on Tyden and Bryn who remained yet unattended, and she trance-like she slipped off the bronze mares back with that intention. When her feet hit the ground, she had to grab a fistful of Gypsy’s thick mane to stop herself from crumpling all the way to the ground.

She swore quietly under her breath as she closed her eyes, trying to force herself to remain upright. She was much more drained from the effort of throwing the bear than she wanted to admit and was angry that her body was trying to betray her and illustrate the way she was feeling. Gypsy turned and nudged the young woman with concern.

“I’m fine,” she replied out loud trying to sound as reassuring as possible.

The mare’s green eyes studied her for a moment before bobbing her head slightly. “Very well, I’m going to go and see to Arieon,” she said slowly, glancing once over her shoulder as if to ensure the woman was still standing before she was entirely away.

Lilaini stood motionless for a second, trying to will energy to flow back into her drained body, but to no avail. Giving up she took a deep breath and tried instead to stay as steady as possible and began slowly towards Tyden and his protector. She reached the pair and looked at them both with concern. “Are you both alright?” she asked, moving her gaze from one then to the other. “Were you hurt?” She made to take a step closer but the effort overcame her and she swayed; cursing again, she tried to clear her head of the fuzziness that was trying to invade it and steal away her balance.

Even as Lilaini began to sway Tyden was reaching forward. He caught her casually around the waist and planted the tip of the sword into the ground so he could steady her with the other. It was a catch-twenty two; Lilaini hated to be reminded of her limits, and reaching in to help implied just that; she’d probably smack him for it after. On the other hand if he let her fall she’d kill him. Happily. He was really screwed either way but at this point in the night accepted his lot compliantly, and waited for her to regain her balance.

“Next time I need a giant bear hauled around, I’ll come to you directly,” he quipped lightly, but there was true admiration in his voice. “And we’re fine. A bit of a interesting encounter for a couple moments, but no lasting marks. Nothing we couldn’t handle… asides from the bear. Though I’m sure if you gave us a few more minutes we would have come up with something. Or been made fertilizer. Tough call. How are the others?” his eyes turned serious again. “That vision… Rhaine is okay?”

Across the clearing Rhaine was not okay, though not through any fault of her own, as she landed at the stricken soldier’s side. First there was the initial shock, the sight of the prone figure and the smell of blood, and then fear that made her want to leave before she even turned him over. Phae stood shuddering, favouring a hind foot but was oblivious of it, oblivious to the raked flesh along her side. Silent pleading filled her eyes and once Rhaine met them she couldn’t think to leave her disappointed. Not that she would have left anyways. Heart racing she swallowed her apprehension and leaned over him, hands fluttering as she felt for the flow of energy that sang through them all. She took the near shoulder firmly and rolled him.

Air escaped through his lips with the motion and she said, “Phae, he’s breathing; and pulse is good.” She’d laid her hand against his neck and held it there, brushing the litter away from his eyes with the other. “Liam?” she spoke again, her voice remained level and firming, “Liam, can you hear me? It’s Rhaine. You’ve had a fall, but you will be okay.” And that was true. She knew it; useless on the battlefield, unable to ward off the danger or hold it at bay, at least she could patch them up again when it was over. There was a small condolence in that, a glint of purpose, this was something she could do.

Her eyes flew down the chinked and broken armor, the mail laid open almost entirely by the bear. Everything was wet and red and as her fingers went to work it occurred to her she had no idea how armor went together, let alone how to take it off. She reached into a satchel for her pocket knife and began to cut the leather bindings one by one. “Here Phae, pull!” she instructed, slicing through knots, and the mare gripped the length in her teeth ardently. A shudder, and the suite came away, the mail landing in noisy heap where the mare let it fall. “Well done,” Rhaine murmured, already tugging away the tattered fabric that clung to the wound. She inhaled sharply, seeing three long, deep grooves that parted the skin, and they were still bleeding. Oh Kal, she thought, pinching her eyes closed. She had nothing for bandages.

*

Gypsy was faring better than her companion, but she too felt quite drained; Lilaini still needed to pull much of the energy from the bronze mare and it left her feeling out of sorts in her own skin. She reached the small group and looked over the woman’s handiwork. “You are very adept at cleaning wounds. Thank you for that, it makes this much better for Arieon.” Her lips curled up in an unicorn version of a smile and she stepped towards her brother.

She may have been drained, but she knew how mortified the stallion would be if he were to develop scars across his beautiful body, and, other than Odin, she was the only one here skilled enough to heal these types of wounds. And Odin had his hooves full as it was. Taking another step forwards, she lowered her head so that her horn came in contact with the stallions shoulder and the others watched in amazement as the wounds slowly began to heal and stitch and close, fading from deep red gashes to the bright pink of new skin.

“They will look like that for a little while, but never fear dear brother, they will disappear entirely in a short time,” she reassured him as he glanced down and saw the result of her healing.

“Certainly dear sister I can not thank you enough!” he replied enthusiastically, flexing the joints in his shoulder, testing to see if the pain had subsided as well. Gypsy could see his whole demeanour change and was glad for him. Chuckling, she turned and headed back towards her companion, knowing the girl was now too drained to be of much assistance to Odin and the others unless it was of great urgency.

Tiponi worked at picking up her jaw after watching the pale stallion’s wound heal before her eyes. Clearing her throat and casting a glance up at Luminista, she resumed her work cleaning the blood from the stallions leg.

“I want to thank you for your help in saving my companion,” Luminista said to Arieon. “As much as you will, I’m sure, look forward to your scars disappearing, while they are there I will remember each time I see them your valor of today and what it means to me.”

Foehn Miri still hovered worriedly by Luminista as the red mare fussed over the cremello stallion. She watched as the girl finished up with Arieon, stood, then looked around. She gave Foehn Miri a weak smile then, running her hand down Foehn Miri’s dark chestnut side.

*

Lilaini was about midway through swooning when she felt Tyden’s arm around her waist steadying her. Why on earth was he doing that? Couldn’t he see she was perfectly fine? She didn’t need help standing! The thoughts raced through her head even though she didn’t believe half of them, but why did he feel the need to make it obvious that she was so drained? Men, was what she chalked it up to. But on the other hand she probably would have fallen over if she was being honest, and that would have been rather embarrassing in retrospect; in the end she ignored her immediate urge to punch him squarely in the nose and allowed him to hold her steady while she regained her bearings. She closed her eyes, hoping when she reopened them the world would have gotten itself back into order.

A smirk spread across her face as he spoke to her. Opening her eyes she thought about returning his quip with one of her one but she was too tired to think up anything of any value and settled for just answering his question. “Well, we got here as soon as we could. Rhaine was not with me when she initially had her vision, so we were delayed in setting off because we had to find one another first,” she began, grasping his arm slightly with her hand as she felt the world slowly righting itself. “But you know how her visions are… she regained herself quickly and….”

Her voice trailed off and her head snapped in the direction of her friend. The distressed of her face and the words bandages hit her emphatically and she realized that the solider must be hurt much worse than she realized. Tugging on Tyden’s arm she began hurrying towards the pair, dragging him with her, both because she knew he would come regardless and because at this pace she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t do something silly like fall over. Gypsy intercepted them halfway, and quickly turned to follow, catching the urgency in her companion’s eyes.

They reached the guardian’s side, the bay mare overseeing the affairs in great distress. Letting go of her walking partner, Lilaini knelt down next to Rhaine and was taken aback by the sight of the man lying on the ground. Yes, he much worse then she had realized, or she would have come over here immediately. Reaching into her pouch of herbs, she instinctively pulled out a narrow tried root to offer it but could see the more immediate problem – that there was nothing to use for bandages. Looking quickly around, her eyes fell on the man still standing behind them. Rising swiftly she moved over to Tyden and began skillfully undoing his shirt and attempting to lift it over his head in the same motion. It would make perfect bandages!

He seemed momentarily unsure of what exactly she was doing so she hissed exasperatedly, “well what would you rather us do? Have Rhaine and I use our dresses for bandages so that we are running around the forest in our undergarments?” And she pulled the shirt over his head, intentionally refusing to make eye contact, because she was sure the look on his face would have her rethink her previous agreement of not hitting him squarely in the nose. But she did begin to pull much more forcefully on his shirt, attempting to perhaps strangle him in the undressing process.

Leaving Tyden standing in the middle of the crowd without his shirt, she began neatly tearing and handing the strips to Rhaine to use as bandages.

It seemed to Tiponi that the fallen one was well tended, but if she wasn’t mistaken the brown mare with the black hair was also wounded. Making a wide detour around the man she had fought, she approached the mare. “I would be happy to tend to your wounds if you would let me,” she said to the mare, “You were most valiant in your battle on my behalf against the bear for which I thank you.”

Hyper concentrated as she was, Pasiphae barely noticed the approach of the young woman at her side. It wasn’t until several words into her gracious offer that Phae even registered her existence, and a few more until the mare realized that she was the one being addressed. An ear flicked towards the girl, and her head slowly followed – although as her neck craned around, her gaze stayed primarily upon the fallen soldier until the very last second.

“What …?” She asked, very clearly not attending to the conversation as her eyes kept slipping back to Liam’s prone form. Her mind was able to finally process a handful of words from Tiponi’s earlier speech – enough at least to know she was desirous of offering aid – and almost immediately reprioritized it. “Ah .. I thank you … it’s just that … well .. you understand…” Pasiphae tried to verbalize some sort of polite acceptance but refusal (as she appreciated the offer, but thinking of anything but Liam at the moment seemed ludicrous), but her concentration was so obviously elsewhere that she couldn’t even formulate a proper sentence and kept drifting off mid-thought. A flicker of frustration sparked at the inability, and as the girl was obviously still waiting for an answer, and just wanting to be finished with whatever it was, Pasiphae spoke the first thing that came to mind. “No, I’m … I’m fine.”* And, satisfied that all obligation had been taken care of, and the discourse was at an end – the mare turned and focused all her attention back on Liam.

At least … for a few moments. Her brain, again twenty or so steps behind her mouth, finally caught up and Pasiphae put together Tiponi’s offered medical aid and Liam and … her attention snapped back to the girl. “Bandages.” She said, her voice so brusque and urgent that the word didn’t even sound like the question it was meant to be, almost a demand. “You said ‘clean up’ – you must … do you hav.. bandages!” Phae cried, her eyes growing slightly wild at her inability to seemingly do ANYTHING to help ate at her composure.

“Yeah, right. You are fine,” Tiponi said sarcastically to the bleeding mare. “That’s why your color is leaking onto the ground.” She started to grab the mare’s head to demand her attention and her need for attention when Rhaine’s quiet demand for blankets came to her.

“I have a blanket, let me get it,” she said as she hurried off across the battered campsite to find it. She paused by the fire and used her booted foot to push it back together as best she could, the grabbed up some of the scattered firewood to add to the smoldering mass. She looked around for her stew “pot,” hoping to get some water on to boil, but when she spotted it her hopes were dashed. The bowl was shattered among its spilled contents. Maybe just as well, she needed to get that blanket over to them.

With a sigh she moved on to the boulder alongside which she had earlier deposited her bedding. Grabbing up the tightly folded package of a blanket* she returned to the group, shaking out the blanket as she went. Quietly she placed the blanket within easy reach of the distracted healer, then returned her attention to the bay mare.

“As for you,” she said to the mare, “you are not ‘fine.’ You are bleeding yourself, and you do this one on the ground no good if you are weak when he needs you. Now stand still.” With that she proceeded to the mare’s side. “This needs more attention than I can really give it, but meanwhile we can get it cleaned up so when your healer is done over there your wound is ready for her.”

((*Truthfully at this point, the pain from her injuries had faded to naught but a background noise in her mind. Unconsciously she knows she’ll have to see to them eventually, but they are not life-troubling to change her prioritized list of things – so to her now is really just not the time.))

*

Fiera let her tension pass when she felt their surroundings finally breathe. It was like holding your breathe in, and suddenly letting it go when something lifted off your shoulders. They were safe, for now. She had no way of accessing the situation in the woods, as she was gracelessly stuck here on watch.

Allison shook her head and continued to watch the lumpy frogs croak and hop around. In all of her nearly 20 years of living, she could never find a love for toads. Slimy and creepy, they had always left a permanent scar of sorts. She sighed, wondering what they were to do now. The girl snuck a look at Fiera, and seeing that her companion was calm – let out a thoughtful yet silent sigh. She stared off absently into the trees, wondering back where Ache was. She knew Falling Stars had said a journey like this was dangerous for the kore, and she knew that too, by what had just transpired. But she couldn’t help but think back on the what if’s. What if Ache was here? What if she could have protect her? Alisson shook her head, it was hopeless and dreaming of what ifs wasn’t going to alleviate the fact of danger.

Odette’s mind wandered off for she didn’t really understand what was going on. Everyone seemed to have rushed off and left her behind except for a few others. She was young, just like Fiera’s human and had a lot to fill in. Even Xanthe had a purpose whatever that might have been, but she herself didn’t know her own. Frustrated, the beflowered unikore wandered over to the little group, ignoring the toad things. She pressed her muzzle against Ali’s hair and nipped it, letting her know the worries she felt were shared to at least somewhat.

*

Tyden staggered from the enthusiasm with which Lilaini removed his shirt, ducking slightly to help so she wouldn’t take his head off in the process. “Could have asked,” he informed her. “In fact, I think there was an outstanding offer. And besides, you canvassing the forest in your undergarments is not exactly a new look,” he was already on his knees beside them, taking a length of the material from her as she tore. “I seem to recall—”

“Hush,” Rhaine interject, and the silence was immediate and complete. Tyden quietly handed her the bandages and she pressed them to the wound, doubling the ends over again as they turned from white to crimson. “Hold here, please.” He did as he was told, and Lilaini handed her the next strip, Rhaine’s hands working quickly and efficiently, cutting away the rest of the bloodied and tattered garment away. The ribcage revealed was blotched with red and purple, the breathing barely lifting his chest. Her hands rested there, and she bowed her head. “Broken, and broken. And another, and…” she laid her flush while the onlooker remained still. Her face remained expressionless, the colour having left long ago. “Lung’s filling,” she said quietly. “I need to work on this so he can breath. And… I need blankets. And medicine pouch. Water. Quickly.”

The pair rose in unison, already unseen by the dark haired woman whose eyes were distant, her head bowed and lips moving as she quietly drew the magic of the forest around her into her being.

Pasiphae trembled on tenterhooks – fractiously moving and eyes flashing – awaiting the girl’s answer to her demand. However, at Rhaine’s stern plea for silence, ‘Phae flinched slightly at the rebuke and dropped her gaze back to the trio that was making marked progress in the cleaning of her* (still) comatose soldier. Interminable seconds dragged by, as Pasiphae stood as still as she was able – single-minded and almost unblinking in her fixation – occasionally shivering as the adrenaline continued to course through her system without an outlet.

She did not hear the girl’s eventual reply, nor registered her movement towards her – every inch of her instead rivetted on Rhaine’s catalogue of Liam’s injuries, tensing at each addition. Her frusteration continued to grow – working itself to an almost fevered pitch – and, as was natural with Pasiphae as of late, bled into pinpricks of self-loathing. To have hands – or HEALING magics – or only noticed his falling SOONER; Pasiphae spiraled in an emotional blur of wretchedness.

A shadow drew up along Phae’s other side, silvered like dusk. The great stallion was still, tending the silence, and shouldered gentle against the trembling bay mare without saying a word. His whole being was calm, it exuded and flowed from him, washing over the mare and beyond to her fallen rider. At his touch Phae shuddered, head sinking between her fore as if the strings that had been wound so tight suddenly broke. He inclined his head slowly, teeth working on the base of her withers, his gaze drifting to the pair below. He reached out to Rhaine gently with his mind. *I am here, small sister. In the absence of your Companion, I will hold her place. Let us do this together*

Gypsy was at her companion’s side immediately, and the young woman clambered aboard with some effort. She immediately felt better once she was in contact with the unicorn and she turned to offer Tyden a hand as well, when Arieon was suddenly next to them.

“I can see that I am not of much use here, but let me be of some assistance to you in lieu of my brother, who appears to be needed elsewhere at the moment.” The cremello bobbed his head as cast a glance at the brother of which he spoke, and Tyden didn’t hesitate, nodding accention and quickly grabbing a fistful of silky mane, threw himself aboard. Both unicorns quickly headed off in the direction of the camp to retrieve the items Rhaine needed, the ground flying away beneath their long, powerful strides.

The bronze mare’s pace slowed and her ears pricked forward with surprise. “Urdvoggens,” she said out loud although no one would have been able to miss them.

“Where did they all come from?” Lilaini wondered aloud, gazing at the immense amount of lumpy creatures who had taken over the clearing, currently invading sleeping bags and pouches that had been strewn hastily about the camp in their departure. She caught Tyden’s smirk in the corner of her eye she scowled, looking away from him. Gypsy had already turned her attention and the others followed her gaze, taking note of Xanthe standing amongst a pile of scrolls. Well that explains it, Lilaini sighed.

They pulled up alongside the kore and her companions, and Lilaini dismounted. She smiled lovingly at the filly who, upon seeing her approach had tried to place herself between the guardian and the scrolls, as if to hide that they had been unceremoniously dumped onto the ground.

“You wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with all these Urdvoggen’s hopping around would you?” she said with a forced smile, she didn’t want to let on to anyone just yet how badly Liam had been injured. She bent down and quickly whispered into the kore’s ear, “Make sure you get those picked up before Rhaine returns, you know how she is about those scrolls. I’ll help you if you need, as soon as I get back.” Turning she also addressed Allison. “Urdvoggen’s like warmth but are no great lovers of fire. So if you can, start a fire and feed it well it will hopefully keep them at bay. Check your sleeping bag before you get in as well. They are rather fond of those.”

“You would be the one to know about that,” Tyden had to quip, but she ignored him whole heartedly and turned to go in search of the med bag.

“Oh,” she said again to Ali before hurrying off in the other direction, “take these and sprinkle them on the fire. The herbs smell sweet when burned and the lumpy creatures dislike the smell.” She pressed a few herbs into the girl’s hands and quickly strode off to find her packs.

Allison’s eyes flickered at sight of Tyden and Lilaini’s whirlwind breeze through camp. They didn’t look at all to at ease, and it made her wonder if something severe had happened. But then again, she shook the questions bubbling on her tongue off instantly after Lilaini began issuing orders. Ali nodded, and looked around the camp. This was going to be a big mess to clean up, and she wasn’t sure if she could finish it. However, it wouldn’t hurt to try, Ali thought as she watched Liliani go, squeezing a bag of herbs into her palm before she left.

“Thanks, I guess.” Ali trailed off.

She first patted down the sleeping bags carefully through their fabric, and if she found anything unusual or moving, Ali would shake them thoroughly for the smallest Urdvoggens to fall out. Once that was over, she swallowed her disgust and nudged them towards the end of camp. She wouldn’t pick them up unless she had too… and she hadn’t needed to yet.

Making a fire to rid them would be so much easier, Allison mused. But she didn’t have any wood and worse yet, she was lacking knowledge of how to make a fire due to the fact that she rarely went camping at home.

Tyden had gotten silently to work, throwing some blankets over the unicorns’ withers when Lilaini reached them. “We’ll need water. There’s a stream over there,” she said pointing, “near where Liam and Rhaine were when she had her vision. Nearly gave me a fright when he came striding into the clearing with her in his arms. I thought perhaps she had been hurt….” her voice trailed off, eyes distant. “But it was a good thing he was there, otherwise I’m not sure how long it would have taken for Rhaine to recover enough to and find me herself. And Liam wouldn’t wait for us – he was so concerned to get to your side and ensure you were safe.” Shaking her head at the memory, she redoubled her efforts. “Why don’t you go down there and retrieve the water Rhaine asked for, and I will find the med bag. I know I packed one.”

She had already turned away from Tyden before he could answer, and he nodded blankly, darting towards the stream without a word, his expression unreadable. He hurried to complete the task required of him, busy hands keeping the mind at bay. He had just re-entered the clearing carrying several filled waterskins the same moment Gypsy triumphantly produced the bag containing the medkit from underneath a displaced blanket.

“Thank goodness,” Lilaini breathed with relief, quickly snatching the med kit and hopped astride. Tyden followed likewise on the cremello stallion, and the pair raced from the clearing again as quickly as they had arrived.

*

When a silver’d shadow fell across her vision , Phae did not look up. It wasn’t until a warmly muscled side leaned against her own that her head wrenched upwards for a moment and registered the stallion’s presense. Pasiphae tensed for a long moment, before finally allowing herself to sink into the calm he exuded, and take solace in his company. She shuddered – letting herself droop and eyes close for a moment as she focused on letting the heat from Odin push away the cold that had settled in her chest and joints. The adrenaline still surged, but the the anguish began to fade in intensity with each heart beat.

She concentrated on breathing, trying to keep herself quiet and not distract the proceedings. However, as Rhaine rattled off a list of items she needed for Liam – Pasiphae’s frusteration took the opportunity to flare again, as she keenly felt her uselessness. She watched as all but Rhaine and Odin dispersed to meet the Guardian’s demands, and drew in a shuddering breath as she tried to find a solid center again.

At the Tiponi’s return – Pasiphae unexpectedly found herself on the recieving end of some sharp and unexpected chiding. She was of a mind to pay the newcomer little heed, however – when she snapped to the attention as a handful of words the girl had flung at her registered, causing her self-loathing to rise to a crackling and full-forced blaze. She bridled and stamped – all attempts at level-headedness now shattered – as she ground her teeth and eyed the brunette with intense dislike.

“I. Am. Fine.” She snapped at the brunette, and leaned hard against Odin – loathe to depart his side (and her one small comfort at the moment), but wanting to stay out of this small insistant woman’s reach. “If you want to help ME, help HIM.” Phae growled, suddenly beset with a sharp-edged jealousy at the girl’s hands and other faculties that would allow HER to be of aid, but prevented her OWN assistance.

For Rhaine, the noise of the forest had long died away, the only sound a heartbeat. Each one stretched and seemed to last indefinitely; they were too slow, too far apart, and lengthening. The air seemed immeasurably cold. Then Odin’s affirming presence brushed against her and Rhaine bowed to it, welcomed it warmly, feeling the sharp edge of fear she had kept at bay disappear all together. She sighed, the first sound she had made in many minutes, and it sounded loud in the hushed clearing.

“We must work quickly,” she agreed.

When she breathed again, with Odin there and resolute, the magic flowed with each breath. She drew it in and it filled her, a coursing life blood, familiar and eternal. To the woman, the forest had fallen away entirely; of Phae’s exchange with Tiponi she heard nothing, the scatter of hooves as Gypsy and Arieon returned all but lost; she stood apart from it all, her focus absolute. Her hands moved over the figure, and where they rested, the air was golden. She moved on instinct, saw what to do without seeing, seeking each imbalance and creating order; where there was darkness, she simply brought light. The stallion beside her had not moved, his head inclined and watching, spiraled horned tipped towards them but did not touch; light reflected in his eyes and turned them from clear sky to his twin’s deepest earthen green.

At last Rhaine straightened, slowly, drawing breath again. She opened her eyes, and the whole forest before her radiated with light – each tree, each fleeting bird in flight, the unicorns with their ethereal violet glow, and turning, Lilaini and Tyden lingered for a moment in shades of indigo and ice. Focus drew, and colour drained from the world. It was another moment before she could speak. “He is resting now,” she said simply.

Her friends didn’t wait for instructions. They began unloading the blankets, covering the soldier where he lay. Lilaini had retrieved the salve from her pouch and began with a soft cloth on the smaller abrasions, cleaning wounds; they already seemed to be fading, and the bleeding had mostly stopped. Tyden stooped beside her place a bundle under Liam’s head, and when all the blankets were snugged, he placed the last across Rhaine’s shoulders. She didn’t notice.

“We can’t move him,” she began quietly. “We will make him as comfortable as we can for the night. I will stay. The wounds will still need tending.”

*

Cheri paced around the camp, longing for some way to help out. She knew something heavy was going on, but when she tried to run off with the others Alcyone had nipped the back of her shirt and hung on, insisting she’d just get in the way. Cheri had sighed, knowing it was probably true, but desperate to show her new group that she could contribute. For the moment, though, there was nothing she could do but herd stray urdvoggens out of the camp.

*They’ve been gone an awfully long time*,
she commented to her blue-hued other half. *I hope they’re all okay.* She was acclimating to sending and receiving thoughts more quickly than she imagined. Alcyone made what could have been a jarring experience quite comfortable. She felt the press of Alcyone’s mind against her own, a gentle breath of presence that meant she was about to reply, but before a thought could form Lilaini blew through the camp. Guess it was time to start a fire.

Alcyone cocked her head at her companion. *See? Now you can help.*

“Gee, thanks,” Cheri muttered, forking her fingers at her as she stalked away. Someday she’d have to tell her what that meant.

Alison grumbled to herself as she began to collect firewood for the second time that day, even if she had no idea what she was going to do with it. Maybe, she could put it in a pile, and when the Guardian’s returned, they could light the fire. It seemed the only course of action for the moment, at least, a course of action that didn’t put her directly in contact with one of the lumpy urdvoggen…

Dust was falling fast and she scooted around the edges of the camp, not daring to go back down the trail now that it was getting dark. She managed to get her shirt caught on a branch and walk into a spiderweb (which was horrible) and nearly had an urdvoggen leap into her lap while she tried to set the kindling in a loose pile. It looked utterly pathetic, and the even the urdvoggen seemed to agree. Frustration creased her brow and for the moment she would have been very happy to be somewhere else – anywhere, really, even though she very fond of Kalidore. She picked up another bundle of branches and stuck herself a splinter. Perfect, she groaned, sticking the finger in mouth. Just perfect.

In an instant Fiera was at their side. “What now, hon?” her eyes here light and cheerful, despite the girl’s own mood, which seemed to frustrate her even more.

You think your companion would understand,
Ali thought vilely, when another urdvoggen lumbered into path on onto her shoes. It looked up. Went “Voe-voggen?” And then it peed.

Cheri saw Allison gathering kindling, so had started gathering bigger branches to feed into the fire later. A few moments later she returned with a large armful, setting it near Allison’s pile of kindling and noticing that the other girl looked kind of lost, frustrated. And that the fire was unlit. Oh, right. She dug her Zippo out of her pocket. True, she’d quit smoking months ago, but she still kept the Zippo on her at all times. For luck, she tried to tell herself. She held the silver lighter up and tried to get Allison’s attention.

“Oh, hey, i’ve got — eeewwww…” She broke off when she realized what the urdvoggen was doing to her shoe. She was tempted to laugh, but switched gears quickly when she saw the hot anger on the girl’s face.

On top of the long day of riding, the worry over Acheflow and then Rhaine, the impossible task that Lilaini had put upon her, and now Feira’s mirth and now THIS… “Just great!” Ali exclaimed hotly, colour seizing her cheeks, and suddenly, the pile of kindling leapt into hungry flamesbeside her….

The flash of light and heat sent Cheri jumping back and into Alcyone’s side. She bounced off the unicorn and landed with a thump on her backside, staring into the cheerily burning fire. “Bloody hell,” she breathed. “How did you–?”

But Allison just stood near the crackling fire with an expression that shouted WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED? All the earlier worries seem to drift away, replaced by the warm flames on the logs and wonderment. The throbbing little pain in her finger numbed a little, sent to the back of her mind.

“I couldn’t have done that. There’s no way.” Ali muttered, watching in a hypnotic trance. “If I did do that, well, no one ever told me I could!” She felt frustrated, and no one was here to explain. Her own companion seemed to be lost in thought, and she couldn’t get anywhere in Fiera’s head. And if she had known that if she could do something like this, it would have saved her from the embarrassing incident with the urdvoggen at her foot.

Fiera’s first instinct was to inspect her little human for any serious injury. Finding none, she was drawn in by the fire. She was shocked alright, but not as much as Allison. For she knew of companions having magic abilities – just look at the guardians – but it she never quite expected her own companion to do that. Anyhow, the fire matched her pelt and coat quite nicely, she had to add.

The mare was snapped out of her reverie when she spotted a flicker of movement. “Where are you going dear?” Fiera called out, curiosity and utter innocence that betrayed none of her thoughts, entwined in her features.

“I’m going back to the creek to was my shoe. And then maybe I’ll ask one of the guardians to explain THAT—” she gestured towards the flames dancing across the logs hypnotically “—to me. Maybe you can, I don’t know. I just need sometime to myself.”

Not that you really need it, Fiera mused. They were quite alone in camp, and most of the urdvoggen had hopped away. The few remaining where most likely hiding somewhere. Sighing contently, the mare picked up the pouch of herbs with her teeth and tried loosening the sack. It was a futile attempt, so she put the whole thing in the fire and watched it burn with woosh. She called to her Allison, “If you need me dear, just let me know?”

Ali smiled a little, but didn’t stop. She was angry right now, and it wasn’t going to change. Not like it mattered, she was alone when she tried washing her foot in the water.

Xanthe sighed and began to push scrolls back into her pack begrudgingly, muttering to herself as she went. Urdvoggen, she snorted. All the scrolls of Kalidore at my house, and I’m still relegated to learning the Happy Homemaker’s Guide to Practical Magic! She sighed deeply again as the last of the scrolls disappeared into the pack, and looked about for Alison to see is she would tie them up again.

She caught the flash of flame from the corner of her eye and Ali’s surprised cry, and turned as the girl stormed off down the bank towards the stream. Xanthe frowned with wonder. Had Ali done that? She knew companions gained magic, but honestly – THAT? Her own spell scrolls seemed even more insignificant by the minute. She considered sulking about it, but she had never been good at maintaining a sulk to full mastery – usually she got bored halfway through. And well…. she was intensely curious to no whether or not Ali would do that again. So she turned tails and trotted down the pathway after her…

*

Katie had been sleeping peaceful nearby the camp. Despite all the ruckus she had chosen to remain solitary and continue her small happy existence. She was woken by a louder scream. Jumping and grabbing a nearby stick she looked frantically around. No one was there. She wiped the sleep from her eyes remembering her pleasant dream of finally finding a Guardian and frolicking across Kalidore. Like that was ever going to happen. Katie and Guardians seemed to be like to negative magnets, you couldn’t force them together. She stepped over her well used Monoply board she was going to investigate.

Creeping over tentatively to where the camp was, she saw a girl by a stream. Focusing on her she noticed she was washing her foot. “Now that’s and odd one.” she breathed. Still focus on her she took a careful step forward.

CRACK!

Katie cringed hearng the stick she had stepped on. There went trying to be sneaky. She whipped around not caring how much noise she now made and headed for the closest tree she could find. Her newly washed white shirt wasn’t helping to conceal her as she shimmed up a tree. her soft leather boots had almost no traction, but she still made it up the tree in good time, running mostly on adrenaline. She peered out from her leafy hiding place back down on the camp below.

*

Hidden further amongst the sweet scented leaves of a low bush, Sapata watched the girl collect branches. The odd one-horned deer seemed to be resting for the moment…

In the three days since she had entered this strange land, Sapata had seen many things that were unusual. The plants, and animals were often both foreign and familiar at the same time. Nights were filled with sounds she could not identify, and constellations she could not name. But this was the first person she had come across. Just a single female, unarmed, and out in the open. There had been no effort made at either concealment or defense. Sapata wasn’t sure what to make of it.

So far the wood gatherer seemed harmless, if a bit frustrated.

Sapata couldn’t understand what the girl found so hard about preparing to make a fire. Perhaps it was something else that made her so uncomfortable acting… But, no, for as she lifted a bundle of limbs, she actually sucked her breath in, making a small pained sound.

The single-horned beast moved to the groaning girl with graceful speed. And then it spoke! Sapata clutched her short spear a little tighter. What manner of Spirit Creature was this? Had the gentle looking girl conjured it up with some unearthly powers? Sapata was becoming truly nervous now. Her people, the Miwok, were a superstitious lot, and the belief in witches, Spirits, and curses was wide held. If it was a witch she had stumbled upon than it would explain the talking animal, and the lack of the camp’s protection.

As she watched, one of the ugly little amphibious things that swarmed the damp woods crept from it’s hiding place beside the trail, and onto the foot of the possible sorcereress. A look of anger flashed across the face above that foot, and then her mouth opened in a sudden shrill shriek. Immediately the pile of stacked lumber blazed up with fierce heat.

Shock settled over Sapata as she stared into the heart of the flames, her suspicions about the witch apparently confirmed by the warmth bathing the clearing. Her attention was brought back to the conjurer by mutterings of denial.

The girl herself was seemingly unsure if she had been the cause of the magic.
There was still a tone of bitterness in her voice as she told the animal Spirit she meant to visit the nearby stream.

For a moment Sapata was unsure if she should stay hidden, or risk discovery by following… then the thought came to her, that if the girl WAS a witch, then the murmers about not having created the fire, and perhaps even about stalking off to wash were probably meant to be heard by her. If so then she could be walking right into a trap…

Sapata bit at her lip in indecision. Perhaps she should stay here in the shelter of the bush, or go back into the woods and forget the whole affair? She shook her head… no. She was better off knowing just what sort of people she faced in this world so unlike the one she came from. She knew that they were already close to her destination…. she could smell the water of the stream.

With a cautious glance at the fire gazing creature, Sapata melted back into the forest to track her mysterious prey.

She moved from one area of shadow to the next, unconcerned about losing the trail of the one she was stalking. Though Sapata was taking the time to remain unseen, she had no trouble keeping up. Her entire life had been spent in redwood forests, and she was at ease in the wooded landscape.

They had only moved a little way from the camp, when the quarry she followed was momentarily lost from sight behind a thick corpse of brush. Sapata eased herself forward, looking for a better view when suddenly….

CRACK!

Off to the left, a twig snapped, and Sapata jerked her head towards the sound. There was a momentary glimpse of white and gold, and then, in a flurry of pumping limbs and crunching leaves, she watched another girl squirm into a tree.

Quickly Sapata ducked into the middle of the strand of brush, getting poked by a thorn or two for her trouble. Now, not only must she worry about the (maybe) witch, but there was a girl with the most unusual coloring she’d ever seen in a tree right above her. She alternated between watching the tree dweller, and trying to see through the twisted branches of her den to where she knew the other must be.

Her gaze returned to the tree when a series of high notes rang out. “Cree, cree, cree, creerit!” The voice had an warning tone to it. Out of a knothole in the truck of the now heavily laden tree, a feathered head emerged… and with a flash of mauve a small owlish looking bird winged it’s way from the hollow. It zipped around the head of the pale one, screeching that call: “Cree, cree, cree, creerit!”

It circled, and then came down to land on Sapata’s shelter. Pausing there, the feathery marauder took a thin twig in it’s rather sharp looking beak, and began to give it a sound thrashing.

She realized she’d been holding her breath… she tried to let it out quietly, and slowly… but the tiny madman must have had excellent hearing, for it turned to her with fury in it’s yellow eyes.
Finding not only its’ home invaded, but now the temporary perch as well, seemed more than the creature could stand. It plunged in among the thorny branches, and at once latched itself into Sapatas’ long dark hair.

It took all her will not to retreat from the attack… only the thought of being discovered stopped her. Though how long it would take for someone to take notice of the vicious demon birds’ cries if it started them again she didn’t know….

*


Just my luck,
thought Katie. Of all the places to be in a tree she just had to have picked the one where she was lying on a birds nest.

Cree! Cree!, the angry red mother bird didn’t seem to happy about Katie’s choice of spot either. The bird flew noisily around her head.

“Shoo!” hissed Katie waving the bird away from her head, then returning to her stillness. The angry bird left in a huff and promptly began attacking a bush. In Katie’s experience birds didn’t just randomly attack bushes, they went for prey out in the open.

Just as Katie was about to slip down and investigate the bush, she felt a sharp stab in her abdomen. Then another and another. The baby birds she thought, They must not be to excited about me laying on them. The stabbing stopped and Katie exhaled in relief.

Suddenly on sharp, especially painful stab pierced Katie’s skin. Wincing she wobbled on the branch then fell to the ground. Landing ungracefully on her tail bone, tears welled in her eyes as she bit her lip repressing the urge to cry out in pain. It wouldn’t matter she was kinda hard to miss now.

*

When Ali was finished, she look at her now cleaned shoe with some happiness. True, it was soaked cold, but it sure wasn’t going to smell or anything, at least. She set it down on a near by rock, then finding her own to sit down. Silence. It was a peaceful thing, often reminding her how she used to sit alone in the clearings back on Earth. And earth was so far away-

Crack!

Allison tensed, her body coming to a rigid stand. She stumbled a bit, but only to find that the rock supported her. The leaves and green were everywhere, how would she know if anyone was here? It had to be someone… or worse still, something. In little timid movements, the girl grabbed her shoe, which was now more a little damp, and turned around. Something was coming towards her, and she didn’t like it. Calling Fiera to help was… well, let her be, Ali thought. Just turn around and-

“Aaah!” Allison yelped, not really screaming when her mind registered a figure in front of her to be Xanthe. Her heart hammered against her chest, and the color drained from her face only to be replaced with a flush of red. “Oh, it’s you. My god Xanthe, don’t scare me like that!” she breathed miserably, running her hand through her hair to undo the invisible knots.

Xanthe nearly jumped straight up in the air but somehow managed to keep all four feet planted. “Gah!” she exclaimed in unison while visions of kore-eating dragon danced in her head, but was relieved to find it was only Ali. Even if she was yelling at her…

“No… no, what I meant to say is is that I think someone’s watching me.” Allison seemed to flinch at the thought. Stalkers were not what she wanted to have, especially on unknown lands! “But, I also think I could be loosing it.” She said, red and warmth seizing her cheeks. “You probably think I’m going crazy now-”

A sound of a bird of sorts made a screeching noise. It rang deep in Allison’s ears and she covered them. But looking back, something other than a bird came wooshing by… or down, really. It was another girl, younger than Ali was herself. She had a pair of fascinating blue eyes, which by the looks of it, were welding up with tears. And her hair wasn’t so bad either. Sudden anger and confusion flared in Allison’s eyes; so someone had followed her! The notion left an eerie question in her chest, but she pushed passed it. After all, the last time someone was following, someone accused her of being a witch and decided that he should hunt them all down, including herself!

“Um, excuse me? Who are you? Here, get up before you answer.” She sounded bitter, but it didn’t really keep her from lending out her hand to ease the younger girl up. Xanthe watched intently, positioned safely behind Ali, reeling in her own spiraling thoughts as the scene unfolded and almost had her heart beating normally again while the girls spoke. Fiera was suddenly there too, and her steady presence washed over them both. Dumbstruck, Ali wondered how her companion appeared out of no where. *Well dear, screeching and attacking birds, instant campfires, wandering fillies—* she gave a flick of her ears towards Xanthe’s direction *—and falling humans is pretty unusual, even for Kalidore atleast* she replied to Ali’s question, her eyes locking with her’s.

Katie had looked up alarmed to find the girl and her guardian standing beside her. She had to double-take as she looked at the fiery mare with a slender horn balanced on her forehead. Slowly blinking she replied, “I’m… I’m Katie, she said quietly, noting the other girls assertiveness, “I’ve been living over there,” she pointed off vaguely towards her shelter, “I here some noise so I thought I’d come investigate.” She looked up smiling.

Allison nodded a greeting, losing any physical contact she’d made with the younger girl earlier. She watched Fiera settle behind her back, nuzzling the skin on her neck and somewhat chewing her hair. “Nice to meet you, Katie. I’m Allison or Ali. And this—” she pointed at the unicorn lovingly invading her space “—is my other half. A.K.A Fiera.” The older girl seemed to relax, finally, from the events that had come to pass. Whenever she was close to her companion, in physical contact, the world seemed to slip away. Ali liked that feeling, smiling a little unknowingly.

“Well met, child.” Fiera greeted cheerily, looking over the new comer with an inspecting eye. The fire glinted off her coat and eyes, dazzling it as if the fire danced on her sturdy bodice. “We should get you back to camp. At least let Rhaine take a look at your back, you seem to be pained by it,” Fiera said, gesturing towards the short path back to camp.

“Never mind that, c’mon then.” Ali sighed, nudging the girl on the path back to camp.

* * *

Lilaini opened her mouth to speak, protest written thoroughly on her feature, but closed it again before the words came. Rhaine’s face was impassive; there was no margin of compromise and to argue would have been fruitless anyways. She sighed. “Well, you’re not staying here alone. I’ll return to camp and gather our things; I suppose this place is as good as any to pass the night…” her eyes rested on the fallen solider, then drifted to were the bear lay huge and immovable; both were gruesome reminders and the pang of it still bit at her stomach.

“The bear needs to dealt with,” said Tyden quietly. “I will see to that. There is no reason the others be submitted to what has happened here.”

As much as she wanted to argue, he was right. She frowned, sourly, but nodded. “I suppose that settles that. I’ll tend to the others. Rhaine, if you need anything, call me,” she directed her friends way, but the woman barely acknowledged her. She felt Gypsy press her nose against the back of her neck, the hot steam of her breath making her aware for the first time of how the temperature had dropped. “I must see about making a fire for us there, while there is still light.” With that she climbed silently onto the bronze-coloured mare, and slipped quietly away into the trees.

Night grew cold and pricked his skin; Tyden reached for the grey tunic he had grabbed from his packs with the waterbags, pulling the dull garment over his head with a sigh. When he was settled, he turned to the others still gathered. “We will need to gather wood; the bear must be burned so its sickness doesn’t spread. Phae,” he turned and addressed her gently, “while Liam is resting, you should see to those wounds. Then you can help us, or stay here and assist Rhaine.”

He turned to the woman who was the mare’s current target of angst, not exactly surprised by their misunderstanding as his own brief encounter made it rather par for the course. “And what about you – did the bear harm you at all? The sickness can be spread to humans, so you should be attended to as well. You are most welcomed to return to camp with Lilaini; there is food there, and other provisions.”

As he spoke, Odin and Areion had begun to search the grounds area for kindling, dragging each prize back to the lifeless beast. The tree it had rocked against had split and broken; the brothers combined their weight to lean against it, until, cracking, the damaged branched came crashing down. The core of the tree was hollow, and the old wood would burn well, if they found enough dry kindling to set the blaze in motion.

After dealing with the exasperating mare, Tiponi was almost relieved to turn her attention to The Man. She couldn’t quite help the glower that crossed her features as she looked at him, and the desire to draw a blade was almost overwhelming.

*Easy,* Luminista sent, drawing Tip’s gaze. As a sense of peace that she knew came from the red unicorn flowed through her, Tiponi was able to let the tension flow from her, at least most of it. Returning her attention to The Man, she said without too much hostility, “I am none the worse for wear.”

Glancing at the indicated lady before returning her attention to The Man, Tiponi considered. Her meal had been dumped on the ground during the battle, but there was much to do here to set things to right and take care of the carcass. And tending obstinate wounded unicorns.

“I will remain here,” she said.

That said Tiponi returned to the campfire, keeping in her periphial vision the small warrior who had yet to remove her eyes from Tiponi. Reassembling what little wood had previously been collected, Tiponi then turned her attention to her wasted meal. With a stick she pushed it all in the again burning fire. Her earlier gathering of the scattered coals and charred wood had resulted in a nice flame. With a sigh she noted it was almost perfect again for cooking, but her day’s gathering had only provided for the one wasted meal. Oh, well, she thought, one missed meal won’t kill me.

As she rose she watched with a measure of relief the small warrior walk away into the woods. Taking up her depleted water bag, Tiponi took herself off to the near-by stream and refilled it after which she returned to the healer to see if she could be of service there and to offer the fresh-filled bag. She just could not bring herself to gather wood with the others when it might bring her again into proximity to The Man. The healer might be tending a man, but this one was flat on his back and unaware, therefore he was no threat to her on any level.

Luminista, seeing her new companion settled alongside Rhaine, turned to Foehn Miri and suggested they help with the wood gathering. As they moved about the perimeter of the camp gathering what wood they could one stick at a time, Luminista kept a mental eye on her troubled companion, wondering how she could help the girl.

Thora had tried to aid in the distraction of the bear, but as it was she had barely managed to get in close to take her first strike upon the bear, before the bear was lifted and slammed into the brush around them.

Her first thought, though the sound of her own labored breathing, was to look for Brynja, when she‘d recovered from the small shock of the quarrel being rid of. Blue eyes settled on the Viking who still stood at attention, if slightly amused and surprised which her mind read. But the amusement, as she understood it, was not due to the girl they had been attempting to subdue, no that had been for the fact that Tyden had stepped in front of her. And the girl was, in fact… not subdued, but rather shooed away some.

You are well? Thora’s mind reached to Brynja.

Though the little Viking did not turn her attention toward the large grey mare, she did offer a curt nod. Thora’s own eyes followed her companions to the girl who seemingly was over her attack.

That was amazing, what that guardian did. Brynja intoned. Perhaps to stray from the subject she knew was coming. But Thora could see the gears turning in her blond companion’s mind, on several different levels. Actually, she could feel them more than see them. It made her smile inwardly as she approached, though it was not an entirely happy one.

You do not trust her?
Thora’s head tilted curiously. Did she do something other than attack unknowingly?

Brynja’s lips pressed together as she followed the other woman, slow and patiently, at a distance, but never did those eyes move from her. She knew that Rhaine and the others would see to it that Liam was ok. She hoped. She… knew what she did, I think. Brynja nodded again, this time narrowing her eyes. She appears to have issues with men, or people in general. And while I can understand that. I do not understand the quick turn around, from spewing harsh words and wielding a blade at someone to wandering about like a nursemaid to those same. People that have those issues, they do not suck them up so easily. It makes me… uneasy. Brynja’s shield arm reached out to Thora and touched her side.

You do not think that the Guardians have it under control?

Brynja took a deep breath and released a sigh before finally glancing, although very quickly, to Thora. Yes, after that display, I would not doubt them able to take care of themselves. There she was grinning as she turned her attention back to the girl. But I would like to be able to… catch it before anything happens, should it come to that.

Mm. I see. And you do not think that she might find it offensive that you’re following her about? Thora’s logic was sound and Brynja nodded in agreement.

Ah. She may. But I have little care if I offend her. These people have been more kind to me and accepting, in this short time, than my own people. I already treasure them whether they know it or not and will defend them and look out for them all, as if they were of my own… The words trailed off in thought as Brynja noticed they were nearing Liam and the others, then.

She couldn’t help but peer, without losing direct sight of the girl, over to the group where Liam lay prone on the ground. Her jaw tightened and so did her eyes, as if she were in pain also. Though it was not that. She had lost many people she cared about on the battleground, whether the camaraderie was returned or not, and while she might appear mostly placid and cold outwardly, she was ripped with worry inside.

They stood silently, Thora with her eyes on her companion and Brynja with her attention shared between the small group working on Liam and the girl in front of her. When she heard her conversation with the mare, not the girl’s own but the bay, she could not hold herself there any longer. Especially when the mare’s stress became even more evident in her words. She had been about half way to reaching the girl when she was addressed and took off for the blankets.

Even there, Brynja followed with slow steps and Thora at her side. The distance was more than reasonable, and hardly able to be considered entering her personal space. But it was also quite obvious to those that paid attention, she was following the other.

Will you follow her all continuously, Bryn?
The mare leaned into her companions hand at her withers.

For a while. I do not want to follow, Thora. But I cannot help it, not after what was said and how she acted, regardless of the reason. So yes, until I’m certain she means them no harm, I will watch her.

As they followed the girl back, lazily, and Brynja resumed splitting her attention to both Liam and the girl.

And if the guardians do not approve of your following her?
Thora questioned.

Brynja’s brows shot up and she looked to Thora for a long moment before speaking. Would they? Bryn’s voice within Thora’s head held a deep concern. I did not think it would be a problem to them… She began, but the worry that had been there previously was already slipping away and replaced with resolve and confidence. If they object I will listen, of course. And follow what ever order is given. Bryn allowed the truth of her words to be sent along through her opened mind and through her eyes before her attention was turned back to the girl, silently sending thoughts of well-being for Liam, while others went about making other arrangements to bed down for the night. But I will… distance myself more, to be sure not to offend the guardians, and help with the camp here and the ridding of the beast. She motioned toward the motionless lump with a tilt of her head. We can gather wood for their fire here, also. Care to help? A small smile tipped her lips upward half-heartedly.

Pulling her mismatched eyes away from the girl, Brynja gave a look to Liam once more, then followed up to Rhaine, and finally rested on Pasiphae a lingering moment before they moved off to aid in collecting wood and starting fires.

Through it all Rhaine sat a figure entranced, outwardly oblivious, measuring each breath from the fallen soldier against her own…

* * *

Trinity chuckled softly as she heard the unicorn beside her described the urdvoggen in detail. Brow raised with the laughter, then looked towards lumpy beasts and she too couldn’t help but giggle.

“I suppose we should try an’ help get these puffed up toads out o’ the camp so there’s not so much chaos,” she said, looked around to see how they could best possibly do that. “By the way, m’name’s Trinity. I’m Aurellie’s companion.”

She nodded towards her companion who was trying to shoo away one of the urdvoggens by nudging it with a front hoof, but the look on her face was clearly stating ‘ew ew ew ew ew’ as she tried to move it, but it wasn’t budging. Trinity, by time, couldn’t hold back the laugh and covered her mouth.

Tien Mu brought her giggle fit under control and said, “I am happy to meet you, Trinity, I am Tien Mu.” Following Trinity’s nod toward the light bay mare she had to giggle at the expression on the mare’s face as she tried nudging the invader along. “Yes,” she continued, “I suppose you are right. We should help get these creatures out of here.”

Putting action to word, Tien Mu began doing her own nudging to get the things out of camp.

*

The bronze mare and her rider emerged from between the trees only to find a basically deserted camp. There was a fire blazing in the centre, much to the surprise of both mare and woman, but all the travelers who had come with them seemed to have disappeared. Gypsy continued into the centre of the camp, glancing at the blaze. A snapping noise in the direction of the stream reached her, and she pricked her ears trying to determine the source of the disturbance. *I think they are by the stream, let us go and see what’s happening*, the mare’s voice echoed her companion’s thoughts, and the two turned and headed down the path which lead to the stream.

They did not have to travel far before finding what they were looking for. Ali and Fiera were headed up the path, Xanthe a few steps behind, but they also had someone neither unicorn nor companion recognized. Lilaini looked questioningly at the girl with them, but was also drawn to the upset and angered look that Ali wore across her face. The pair stopped in the middle of the path when the others became aware of their presence.

“Greetings,” she said warmly to the newcomer. “Welcome to Kalidore. I see you’ve made a few friends already; I am Lilaini, and you are most welcomed to join us around the fire, it’s growing chilly.”

“I’d love to come back to your camp,” Katie said in her chirpy soprano voice. “Could I get one thing first? I left something at my camp.” She hurried off before they could reply.

She ran, limped, and tumbled back to her small camp. She grabbed her parka which she had been using as a pillow as well, her dark and light green blouses and her other brown shirt. She hastily grabbed her three pairs of shorts and only pair of pants. Finally, she turned to a stuffed her well used Monopoly board into it’s equally well-worn box, which now read, M_NO_OL_. She turned and walked unsteadily back to the group as they headed for camp.

While Kate rushed off, Lilaini turned an understanding gaze upon despondent girl. “You must be very confused with what has happened. If I’m not mistaken you were the one who started that fire despite the lack of proper tools? I apologize for that, but I can explain more once we get back to camp.”

Smiling reassuringly, she motioned for the others to follow her back to camp as the temperature continued to drop. The fire would be a welcomed sight indeed. Sensing something, Lilaini turned slightly and searched among the canopy of leaves above them. She became aware of the girl perched there unseen, catching a fleeting glimpse as she struggled to remain unseen. Gypsy continued on towards camp, the hesitation was so short in duration the others more than likely wouldn’t have noticed.

*You are welcome to come join us at our camp when you are ready to show yourself. There is food, shelter and warmth there. None of us mean you any harm.*
She mentally relayed this message to the girl as they continued along their course, knowing that they had seen one another. She spoke with utter sincerity and hoped the mental intrusion, despite probably being very foreign, would seem comforting and not alarming. The woods were not a place for anyone to stay alone at night, especially not one who was a stranger in them. The small group continued on their way back to the camp, and the warm glow of the firelight which pierced the blackness that had now fallen around them in all directions.

Alcyone picked up a branch in her teeth – ever so delicately, of course – and plunked it into the fire. Her little companion had been peppering her with questions she couldn’t quite admit she had no answer for… questions like “Was that magic?” and “Is she some sort of latent Guardian?” Cheri had taken the herbs from Fiera, telling her to check on her companion before Xanthe put a calming spell on her and she slipped into a coma. She’d said it with a wink and a grin, though, meaning no ill will.

What had happened with the fire? She didn’t recall anything about companions doing magic… but Guardians were companions, right? Maybe they could do magic because they’d been here longer. This was definitely something she would have to ask someone… well, as soon as they got back, anyway. Rhaine would probably know.

A commotion near the stream drew her attention. She called to Cheri, who was putting the last of the herbs on the fire, and took a few steps towards the ruckus. Once again Lilaini swept through the campsite to investigate the noise for herself. *You may get your questions answered now, Cherry Blossom. And don your covering, the air has chilled.* When she was satisfied that Cheri had shrugged into her hoodie she turned her attention to the group on the trail.

Xanthe bounded into clearing, eyes darting about her expectantly. “Where’s Rhaine?” she asked eagerly. Her stomach had begun to growl and she figured dinner was the most appropriate next step; fatigue after a long day’s journey was setting in as well, and made her all the more grumpy and prone to whine.

“When’s Rhaine coming back?” she asked again when the campsite revealed no sign of her mother’s companion. “Lilaineeee, what’s taking her? I thought we were going to tell stories tonight by the fire. Lilaini? And she has to brush my hair. She always brushes by hair before bed. She promised.”

The last part was cast off rather sulkily, brought on mostly by the fact that Lilaini seemed too busy to pay her much attention and she was still disappointed and embarrassed over the failure of her spell-casting. Tyden wasn’t back yet either, and that displeased her all the more. Something interesting had to be happening elsewhere, and was still happening, and she couldn’t be a part of it. She sighed, heavily, and stood morosely beside the others.

Smiling, the Guardian reached down and knotted her fingers affectionately in the filly’s mane, but the smile faltered as Xanthe continued to question the whereabouts of Rhaine. Lilaini quickly regained herself and put the smile back where it belonged so as not to give away anything to the others; there was no reason for everyone to become alarmed or concerned, Liam would be up and moving again soon enough she told herself. She had great faith in her friend’s healing abilities.

“Rhaine won’t be coming back this evening,” she began as she met the filly’s blue eyed stare. “Luminista’s found her companion, but she’s not very trusting of us yet. She finds this all strange and new, and our good friend Rhaine has elected herself to remain with them and to explain about Kalidore. Tyden felt compelled to stay as he always does, so that he can protect us.” She bent down slightly and a mischievous look crossed her face. “As if we need that,” she whispered to the kore.

They had come to the centre of the camp, and once Gypsy pulled to a stop, the Guardian gracefully swung off her back and to the ground. “As for the other problems, I would have to say you are a wonderful storyteller and perhaps could give us the pleasure of one of your stories. Most of the new companion’s wont have heard them yet. And you know I would love to brush your hair for you before bed.”

She could tell Xanthe had more questions but the look on the young woman’s face was kind but impassive. The filly would get no further information out of her, that much was evident. Gypsy nudged the filly in the rump playfully and began to nibble down her mane to try and reassure her that everything was indeed alright as Lilaini had said.

*

The bear burned.

Plumes of dark smoke wound through the trees and hid the stars, taken up by the wind and carried – mercifully – away from the camp. Odin and Tyden stood to the side with the small figure of Tali seated beside them, squinting into the blaze. With so much green wood the fire spat and cackled, and carcass was relinquished noisily; every half hour or so, more wood was added, and that meant more forays into the underbrush and wider into surrounding grounds.

Arieon, at Tyden’s request, had returned to the main camp for his pack, and when he returned brought with him a large bundle of sausage rolls which Lilaini had secured to the bindings. And so the group had eaten (except for Rhaine, who shook her head blankly at the offer) and settled into a sort of uneasy rhythm: tending fire, fetching wood, checking Liam; the flickering light of the giant bonfire cast uneasy shadows across the darkness while they worked.

Tyden fought off a yawn, glancing up to mark the two moons rising into the sky. He turned from the fire, escaping the heat, and let his eye adjust to the night again. In the distance, wolves howled, and he cocked his head down to Tali. “Your tribe?” he asked conversationally.

The dark-faced wolf nodded. “They are signing songs of A’agnu’s flight, lest we so soon forget.” The songs were haunting, but mournful. “When I return, they will sings songs of the bear too.” He tipped his head back, and let sail a single, undulating note, and it surprised Tyden by the intensity of it at such close range. All heads around the camp turned, and that response Tali broke short consciously. “Mrrrmph, my apologies,” his ears skewed slightly with embarrassment. “I did not mean to startle your friends.”

“Nay, it’s just been… a long day. They are simply unaccustomed to it, for now. Hopefully, we will soon have more joyous songs for you to sing to us, and we will be looking forward to hearing them.” The urge to reach down and scratch the wolf behind his ears came lightly to mind, but Tyden was unsure how that might be received so simple shrugged. He looked towards the camp, catching sight of Bryn nearby, leaning against Thora with her expression grim. Her eyes had never left Tiponi, and the lack of discreteness with which she tracked her was slightly comical. He had to admit that the woman was a bit of an odd one (he meant Tiponi; well mostly), and didn’t know exactly what to make of it. She had stayed at the camp to help, she said, and then had spent the whole time avoiding wood gathering. Or maybe it was simply him. Now she was with Lumanista, near the small fire, and as far away from him as possible without retreating into the woods. He moved quietly towards the small Viking.

“You should rest now,” he said to Bryn kindly. “I’ll take first watch; there’s no reason both of us be exhausted in the morning. I will wake you just before moondark.” He had his doubts about whether or not she’d listen, but hoped she would. He wasn’t sure how much sleep he’d get tonight either. His eyes drifted across the camp again and came to rest on Rhaine.

Phae had done her best to be useful, and after Odin and seen to her wounds she had busied herself for a bit pushing sticks around distractedly into haphazard heaps. After a while she gave up and returned to Liam, and finally as night drew on she lay down, setting up vigil beside Rhaine. When Tyden approached she raised her head, but only sighed, placing it back down again and pretended to sleep.

The soldier was sleeping comfortably now, the wraps were clean; Tyden watched him for a minute in the flickering light before sinking down beside the others. “Rhaine?” he said softly. She didn’t respond, eyes half closed but she wasn’t asleep. He touched her arm, surprised by the warmth of it, and sat silently; after a while the eyes fluttered and she turned. “How are you doing?” he asked.

She thought about the question. “I’m… fine.”

He studied her face, but finally just shrugged and took a clean cloth from the pile and doused it from the waterskin. “Here,” he offered towards her. She looked at him, frowning confusion, and so he clasped her hand gently and drew it near. In the darkness it was impossible to tell they were still covered with dry blood; he began to clean them.

*

Now, in the midst of all the turmoil there was one small creature who had been utterly forgotten. He has been jostled and ruffled as he hid in Bryn’s pouch, much to his great annoyance. As a result, when the ruckus final subsided, and the pocket griffon made his way out of the bag, he was looking a great deal harassed. More than half of his feathers were sticking at incorrect angles and he angrily clawed his way out. He paid little mind to the woman to whom the bag was attached, for he held her personally responsible for taking such poor care of his sleeping quarters, and he squawked loudly at her as he was making his exit to express this displeasure.

Unfolding his wings, he took to air and searching the wind, caught the scent he was looking for. Arching towards it, he flew rapidly in the direction of the camp and the woman he knew would sooth his feathers and hear his grievances..

Brynja, though keeping her distance, still watched Tiponi carefully. Even then she allowed her gaze to stray, now and again, but this was because the woman could not make it across the distance to the men without causing some sort of sound, one that Brynja told herself she would easily hear. But despite these things, she had still propped herself up against Thora, with an arm slung lazily over her back. Here shield resting not far from her person and her sword only a little to her right, sheath and all shoved tip first into the ground, any tethers that held it from being pulled free were loosened for the easiest access, were she in a hurry.

She heard his steps before he entered her sight, tilting her head to the side before slowly prying her gaze away from the girl to address him. A waif of a smile touched her lips and she nodded. Her eyes cold with calculation softened and warmed some with understanding. It was nice, she had to admit that someone would come to offer her such a relief from the self appointed tedious task for Tiponi watching. “I’ve gone days without rest before…” She nodded. “But I will attempt it. There is no telling what other trials will come our way on the morrow.” She looked pointedly at the girl then returned her mismatched eyes to Tyden. “Thank you.” Once more her head bobbed, though this time in a show of her appreciation of the offer.

Once he had gone she settled back against Thora more comfortably, and slowly allowed herself to close her eyes. She nearly jumped out of her skin, though, when Adar moved from within her pouch. Her eyes popped back open and moved to her pouch about the time that the little creature had pried himself free of her pouch and gave her a disgruntled squawk. Brynja offered him a lop-sided smile, promising herself that later she would offer him a delicious tidbit of food to repair the damage done for her forgetfulness.

With Luminista at her back Tiponi sat close enough to the campfire to keep away the night chill, but far enough to keep from over heating. As the day’s stress took hold with a wave of exhaustion she took a deep breath and settled back against the red mare’s side without ever thinking about the intimacy the action implied. Her eyes wondered over the mite-y warrior without settling on her although her attention did not really move on.

*Who is the small, fierce one over there?*
she asked her other half. Luminista didn’t have much of an answer for her since the girl had not been in Kalidore for long and Luminista had not gone on the Companion-seeking Adventure. Tiponi gave a mental shrug, figuring time would give her the answers she sought.

At the howl of the near-by wolf, Tiponi jerked to attention with adrenaline shooting through her again. Instinct or habit had her reaching for a knife, but reality brought her actions in check before she had done more than caress the knob on the end. It was only the one who had appeared to help with the bear. The evening’s excitement had her jumpy. She was unaccustomed to the wildlife attacking her.

In the time it took her to recover from the adrenaline rush and relax back against the mare, The Man had moved from the bear-fire over to the healer. She watched in amazement at the obvious gentleness with which he dealt with the distracted woman. Behind her a chuckle massaged her back.

“I have not dealt with many men,” the mare said, “only those two in fact, and Liam , the injured one, only recently; but they have both always dealt fairly and gently with us all. Tyden – that’s his name by the way, not ‘The Man,'” here another rumble of laughter shook her, “has always been here in Kalidore except for his time of training (she did not feel it necessary or wise at this point to mention his various adventures on the outside). Gentleness and consideration for the well-being of others were a major part of his upbringing. Truly, Tiponi, you have nothing to fear from him.”

A lump formed in Tiponi’s throat at the sadness she heard in Luminista’s voice as the mare concluded her speech. Turning her eyes upon the hands in her lap, Tiponi considered what she had heard. And the foreignness of the concept that a man could be gentle and considerate. Finally, clearing her throat, she said, “I will try to not be so suspicious of him. Right now that is all I am able to give though.”

Foehn Miri, who had been standing three-legged on Luminista’s other side, reached across the red mare to lip at the girl’s pulled-back hair, tugging a little so that some came loose from the curious bun. “We will be here to help you when you need it, Tiponi,” the liver chestnut reassured gently.

*

Sapata hissed as the birds talons griped her scalp, and when the beak jerked a lock of her hair with a sharp tug, she moved to pull the creature off. No sooner had she lifted her hands, however, than a shout rang through the air… “Aaah!”

Was it the voice of the witch girl? Sapata thought so, but she had no time to consider what the reason for the yelp might be, for the girl in the tree lost her precarious perch.

Moments later the fire starter appeared. With her was a new horned Spirit, and the original one as well. They moved with haste to the fallen one, and with a curious mixture of contempt from the conjurer and care from the companion beast, began to move the dazed girl towards camp.

Sapata was rather happy to see them go; now she might finally be able to remove her painful feathered attacker. Relief was not so easily found, however, for suddenly two figures appeared on the path to the campsite. As they moved into view, she saw that the newcomers were a beautiful woman, and another of the horned ones that seemed to be everywhere is this land.

A moan caught in Sapatas’ throat; her situation just kept getting worse! Witches, Spirits, mad beasts, and more and more people that very well could be dangerous…

Her fears were calmed at the first sound of the ladies voice… there was unmistakable leadership in the tone, but kindness and concern as well. Even the
girl who had fallen from the tree perked up, and consented to follow her.

As the group turned to go Sapatas attacker finally gave up the fight, and wriggled free of her hair before winging back to it’s nest. The movement caused the lady to turn, and when she did her eyes locked with Sapatas’.

You are welcome to come join us at our camp when you are ready to show yourself. There is food, shelter and warmth there. None of us mean you any harm.

The voice entered her mind gently, and what could of felt like an intrusion, became only what it was… a warm offering of hospitality and perhaps, even friendship. There was no push, no urgency, only the invitation; even now the young woman turned away and followed her party up the path.

As Sapata watched them go she realized there was much to think on… best she start her own fire, and perhaps check that steam for fish, for the night promised to be one full of deep thoughts for her.

*

Chasing a particularly odiferous amphibian from camp, Tien Mu turned back to the camp as the activity that stirred around about. Her attention was caught by the Guardian as she spoke to Xanthe, the exuberant yearling looking a little more despondant then she generally did. Making her way over to the pair she concentrated on keeping her pace leisurely, afraid she would betray her worry if she hurried.

By the time the black mare reached the small group Gypsy was treating the dun filly to some attention. Delicately clearing her throat she asked, “Excuse me? Can you tell me…”

Suddenly a blur of red streaked up, landing on the Guardian’s arm. With a ruffle of feathers a pocket griffon took shape, a very scruffy pocket griffon that immediately captured the young woman’s attention. The young woman looked down and immediately understood the source of the creatures distress. His disheveled and harassed appearance spoke volumes of his mood, as she knew he was very meticulous about the positioning of his feathers. She began murmuring in a soothing low voice, and gently smoothed the feathers back to their correct positions.

Clearing her throat again, Tien Mu continued with a slight chuckle, “Well, can you tell me when the others will return?”

Lilaini looked at the black mare and wondered if there was some concern for her friends laced in with the question she asked. Placing Adar onto her shoulder she searched the mares eyes for a moment and put a reassuring look on her face.

“The others should return in the morning. It will be less overwhelming that way,” she said to the mare, hoping that would be enough to keep her where she was for the remainder of the evening. “We really should finish getting everything set up, the night is getting on. Who is hungry?” She asked, looking towards the newest arrival and then to the other humans who also remained in the camp wondering if any of them had had the time to eat in her absence.

“Luminista’s found her companion?” Ali echoed, suddenly looking up with wonderment. “Must have been an interesting meet, if the others aren’t returning tonight.” She nodded, black-brown hair falling on her shoulders when she leaned back a little. Her eyes drifted off to Gypsy giving Xanthe some extra attention; she deserved it anyways.

Her stomach growled suddenly at the Guardian’s next words. “Hungry? Well sort of, I guess. I hadn’t really paid attention to my stomach with… some recent events. My mind’s been elsewhere… Lilaini? I’d like to ask you something – when you have the time, of course. In the morning – well, maybe. I don’t want to be a bother too much.” She noticed that Lilaini’s eyes hadn’t left her, and they were lit with warmth and encouragement. It was enough to calm the fluttering in her stomach as she squinted into the crackling fire before them.

“Fire…” she began again, “how do you make fire? Not how but… I seemed to have… actually, I’m not sure if I did it but… I think I did something and a little blaze happened.” Allison frowned, her thoughts jumbling together. She had planned to ask any guardian about this since the blasted thing started, but it seemed to slip her grasp. A wave of embarrassment washed over her again, she felt like a fool.

Fiera stopped short in her ‘grooming’, eyes boring into the guardian’s. I’ll let you take care of this. I could help, but I know not as much as you do, she sent mentally, her voice gentle but strained with suppressed mirth. The mare returned to her activity, losing sight of Liliani and gypsy.

Lilaini didn’t need telepathy to recognize what was going through the girl’s mind, or Fiera’s level gaze to know what a great responsibility now lay before her. Once, she too had been had been a baffled young girl, new to Kalidore and not understanding the full implication of companion magic (until it presented itself to her in a simmiliar fashion, and with quite the florish as she recalled with a private smile). And just as the Daiga had once taught her, now it was her turn to guide this young woman to utilize and embrace the full potential of her gift.

She set down the pack she was rustling with and came to sit beside the girl. Ali had seemed to feel foolish at first for what she felt to be a blunder on her part, but the Guardian had explained, “Magic enters companions slowly; at first it’s fleeting and difficult to control, because you are as new to it as it is to you, and unsure of how to wield these new-found powers. But not to worry – Kal never gives a companion more magic then she or he can handle at once, and through practice, your confidence will grow, as will your power.”   Lilaini also reassured her that she and Rhaine would help her practice those abilities, and that she would get a better handle on them eventually. This she promised, repeatedly, meeting the girl’s wide-eyed wonderment. She hadn’t been sure, but she thought Ali seemed relieved by the information and hoped the young woman wouldn’t continue to feel self conscious about her new found talents.

New companions, new magic; the notion rustled through her consciousness, half-landing on fleeting thoughts and swirling away again before she was unable to fully grasp them. She felt Gypsy’s mind nudge against her own, and contact was grounding, reasureing. New magic and new companions meant the world was changing very fast, and the implications it presented were great, not simply for Kalidore. What it meant in the large picture she wasn’t sure, but dispite Gypsy’s gentle presence a chill blew through the trees and she shivered, though the night was hardly cold. If Rhaine were here, she might have known better, she thought ruefully, though in her heart she knew that was not true. Rhaine might have been earlier and more emersed in magic then she, but when it came to the bredth and understanding of their powers, the girls were equals; using that magic for the benefit of others was what they had been schooled in all their lives. This was the job she was meant to be doing, and she did it well, unquestionably.

And that nagging thought she couldn’t grasp… well, she would see Rhaine in the morning. And perhapse by then it would have dispersed, nothing that could not be fixed by a good dinner to warm one’s body and night under Kalidore’s dancing stars to set a soul in harmony with them…

* * *

Isandro woke with a start. Dusk had fallen, and the world around him was quiet. Almost.

‘I heard it too,’ a familiar voice to his left answered his unvoiced question.

His nocturnal habits had not changed since his arrival to Kalidore, and his eye’s quickly adjusted to the dimming light. Getting up silently, he walked over to Aljan, who had been grazing quietly while he slept. The noise that had disturbed the pair was a fair distance off, but it would have been loud at it’s source.*

‘What do you think that was? It almost sounded like an explosion… but not quite.’ Internally, Isandro cursed his own lack of knowledge of their surroundings. He’d grown up in a coastal city, he knew alleys, harbors… but not woods.

Ears still facing the source of the noise, Aljan raised his nose and sniffed the breeze coming from that direction. ‘Perhaps nothing.’

With a snort, Isandro quickly demolished any sign that he had been there. This he could still do irrelevant of his surroundings, and once satisfied, he turned and started walking silently through the tree’s, heading to the source of the noise.

*I didn’t live this long by letting things go as ‘perhaps nothing’, and I’m not starting now, even if this place is as you say. I’m going to check it out, come if you like*.

With a quiet chuckle at Isandro’s behavior, Aljan followed after his companion, not needing to see the thief to trace his path.

*Curious as a cat. Isn’t that the saying you told me?*

A small smirk appeared on Isandro’s face at Aljan’s silent comment.

*Yes, but hopefully not. Curiosity wound up killing that particular cat.*

Aljan’s only response was a small snort, but he was unable to stop the waves of mirth** from reaching Isandro, who pointedly ignored them, but he let it go. Just one of the many idiosyncrasies humans seemed to have. Personally he was content to let the world around him keep her secrets, apparently Isandro was not. His amusement continued as he followed his near invisible companion closer to the source of the disturbance.

((* Lilaini throwing the bear into the tree; ** Aljan is continuously amused by Isandro’s need to check things out – particularly unexplained noises))

* * *

Somewhere, not too far away…..

The tree creaked reeka reeka reeka with each motion and finally Orin opened his eyes, leveled with disgust, and attempted to stick his head under his paws. “For lord’s sake, Sess, would you quit that?”

The other responded with another fervorous reeka reek before grudgingly sitting back down. Wings folded crisply, the tree she had been brushing against with backside all but doubled over. “I itch,” she seethed at him. “I think… I’m allergic to hora….”

“Well, there’s a surprise… goes nicely along with diplomacy and commonsense, of which you also bare an aversion…”

“She attacked me! What would you have had me do? Let her skewer—”

“Because horn to mind-flare is such a balanced encounter. Or were you afraid she might sneeze on you and you’d catch ’quine flu? And the dogs—”

The other ruffled, and looked like she was about pontificate on the matter further when a noise had them both alert. Oriano peered into the darkness, but in the end looked disappointed. Sess just sulked. “I hate it here,” she declared.

“Then I suggest you stop communing with the native wildlife and do what we’ve been asked. The sooner we do that, the sooner we return home and his Lordship is appeased.”

“Because you’re making such progress on that front,” she hissed, but subdued into disgruntled silence. She closed sapphire eyes and curled herself tightly against the cool night wind. In the darkness she heard the other sigh and settle himself among the stones, not really sleeping, just mostly bored. The sentiments were shared, but there was less frustration on his part, only because there was less patience on hers; Sessatine quietly fumed. When I discover the source of my trouble and discomfort for being on this godforsaken rock I will eat it, I swear…

Above them, Luna and Kylindreal hung, two great eyes, watching from the heavens…

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