Ulysses – Chapter 3.5

Chapter 3.5 ~ Elsewhere

Erilynn was walking back to her car from the theatre. It was after dark already, though only a little after 7pm, and she couldn’t help but think about how quickly autumn was moving in. The night was quiet, and the stars were bright in the evening chill. What stars she could see, that is. Not quite ready to return to her empty house, she decided to go to the park, just on the edge of the city. It was a large park, full of towering trees and quiet pools of still water. She’d only been there once, and had never gone as far as the trees in the center. Her life seemed too busy of late to allow for such indulgences. The night was brisk, and she finally arrived at her car. Pulling out her keys, she unlocked the door and got in, started the engine and pulled away from the curb. It’s such a lovely night. It would be a shame to waste it wallowing away indoors, she thought to herself. She headed towards the park, weaving her way slowly through the evening traffic.

A short while later, the trees of the park loomed in front of her, tall and stark in the evening moonlight. They looked almost luminous, the full moon shining down and the stars twinkling. They were easier to see out here, away from the city lights. Getting out of the car, she didn’t bother to lock it. It was unlikely anyone would come out here this late, the sights and sounds of the city behind her being of more interest, with i’s concerts and night clubs; the hustle and bustle of people living for the moment. Picking her way across the field, she headed for the tress closest to the center of the park. They towered high above the others, seeming to stand as sentinels, and she felt irrestibably drawn to them. She crossed a bridge spanning a small creek winding it’s way through the park, the water gurgling softly, seeming to want to tell her of all it had seen. Smiling at her whimsy, she moved on, soon coming to the treeline, and passed under the sheltering branches. She immediately felt a peace surround her, a soft, quiet assurance that this was she was supposed to be. It felt like, well, like coming home after spending a long time away.

As she neared the grove of trees in the center, a strange feeling of deja vu came over her. Despite that, she slowed her pace as she entered the grove, a great feeling of awe consuming her. A great weight of age descended upon her, almost crushing the air from her lungs. These trees were not merely old, they were ancient. As though they had stood as witnesses to the dawn of time itself. Glancing upwards, she was unable to see where they ended, they stretched so far into the sky. That puzzled her slightly, since they certainly hadn’t looked that tall from the car. Looking back down, she noticed that two trees, even larger than the others, stood in the center of the grove. The were ancient, venerable, and seemed to almost glow with life and energy. Entranced, she walked towards them, her footsteps silent upon the debris beneath fer feet. As she continued forward, she noticed that the trees themselves weren’t glowing, but rather, the space between them was lighter, as though it were still daylight. The nearer she came, the stranger it got, because that’s exactly what it looked like. Curious about this strange phenomenon, she walked forward, into the space between the trees. As she moved forward, the light grew, and the air grew warm around her. After what seemed like forever but was really only a couple of minutes, she found herself walking through a glade that was certainly nothing like the place she had just come from. It was like nothing she’d ever seen before. She glanced behind her, and there were the trees, as still and quiet in the night as she had left them, but they seemed faint, as though slightly fuzzy around the edges. Curious, but not frightened, she continued forward, and soon left the trees behind. She stopped and stared at the scenery before her, with no sign of the city. Or any kind of human habitation, for that matter. She continued to walk, looking all around her with a feeling of wonder, exploring her new surroundings. Maybe she was in some sort of dream?

*

Odin’s hooves marked a steady rhythm across the ground; his head was was tucked gently, chin parallel to chest, his mane rippling across his off-side in a stream of ebony. The unicorn was silent; this was his way. His rider was too, head bent in a similar fashion as focus was turned inward, drawn in contemplation. They passed trough clusters of sparce trees that gave way to meadows, meadows that flowed upwards until they became grey stone; the stone itself went unending until they had grown into mountains and these only buckled to the sky. It was an landscape of solitude, and the two passed silently, respectfully, and urgently to reach their destination ahead.

The Skyfields they had both known since their births, as many eons apart as those two events had been, and these rocks were familiar, so Tyden had allowed Odin’s good judgment to choose their course. It was an indulgence owed to the rider of a unicorn; he thought with amusement how well it would have gone over should he have attempted to try and steer. The man and the stallion worked together seamlessly, no need of cues or external aids, one completing a movement even before the thought had left the other’s mind. The symbiosis of it did take getting used to after having been away for long, but at the same time that majestic sense of being, awash with solidarity and resolve, worked to balance him and ground him in once again in the land of his birth. As far as he might travel, Kalidore it seems, insisted upon being called home; and Odin was always there and waiting for him, as if he knew this, regardless of how strongly Tyden had worked to disprove.

Of course he knew, Tyden mused. What little doesn’t he know?

His awareness returned with that focal point to the immediate activity of riding, and he noticed for the first time that Odin had veered from the worn goat trail and had gone slicing across a broad plateau. Tyden frowned, marking the sun at their change of course. His mind a question he was about to broach with words when the stallion pulled up short. “Timely,” he said.

His ears were pricked forward and head canted; the man turned to follow his gaze. And there, looking very much out of place in the billowing landscape was a woman.

She was wearing form-fitted clothing which made her look all the more wispy and insignificant against the great expanse of the hills; she looked a little bit confused, unsure of her footing, but this at least was to be expected. Truly, after everything else that had happened recently, this sight didn’t phase Tyden in the least – and, he reflected, it could have been much worse – it could have been a cave bear; this was only a girl. And then he winced, remembering Tiponi. Actually… his head tilted lightly, regarding her from another angle. Physically, there was even a similarly…

Erilynn, while entranced with the beautiful landscape around here, was starting to get slightly worried. Exactly where was she? “What is this place?” she thought to herself. “Where are the people?” Or, she thought ruefully, ARE there any people here? Suddenly nervous, she began walking in earnest, heading towards the mountains in the distance, hoping to maybe find some sign of civilization.

She’d been walking for what seemed like several hours, and her feet wear tired and aching. She wasn’t used to this much walking, and chided herself for not being more active. But really, as a fulltime teacher, and then working part-time at the local stable in her ‘realtively’ small hometown, she didn’t have alot of free time to go out hiking or walking the countryside. She was getting more worried with every step she took. The mountains were still a ways off, and she hadn’t found any water. She hadn’t recognized any edible plants thus far either, and was beginning to wonder if she’d make it to the mountains before fainting from hunger and dehydration.

“This was a wonderfull idea. This will teach me to go exploring when it would have been better to turn around and go home,” she berated herself. “Why do I have to be so curious? Why can’t I just be content with my life? I must be out of my mind.”

Her lips quirked up a bit at the corners. Afterall, weren’t her friends always telling her how crazy she was? Of course, this was a tad different. They called her crazy for working so hard and shutting herself away from much of anything resembling a social life. What was crazy was wandering around in a place where she had no idea where she was or even if it was anywhere near where home was. Although, given some of the strange flora, and the mountains, she was sure it probably wasn’t.

After what seemed like another hour or so, with the mountains seemingly no closer than before, she stopped, cocking her to the side? “What is that?” she wondered. She listened more carefully, and finally heard it clearly. It was the sound of hooves, the steady, pounding rythm unmistakeable even in this strange place. She’d know that sound anywhere, she was sure. After years of riding lessons while growing up, and now working in a stable, it was a very familiar sound. Looking around for the source, she spotted a figure in the distance, nearing as she watched. As it got closer, she saw it was indeed a horse. Even more exciting to her, though, was the rider on it’s back. “Finally! Another human being!” she muttered. She surprised herself, not having realized she’d spoken aloud until the words were out of her mouth.

Finally, the pair were close enough to make out clearly. Her focus was on the rider, a man, she could now see. He seemed to be a bit on the tall side, though it was hard to tell when he was riding. He’d at least be taller than her, she was sure. He had a pleasant, almost handsome face, with attractively windblown hair and cheeks slightly flushed from the wind. He also cut quite a nice figure, as well, his posture flawless, with nice, well defined muscles. As he rode closer, she glanced at the horse he was riding. A very handsome silver dun, she noticed, admiring the gleam of the sun on his silvery hide and the contrast of his black mane and tail. A very handsome stallion indeed. Then, looking more closely at his face, her breath caught in her throat, and her eyes threatened to bug out of her head. She blinked several times, hoping to clear her vision. When she looked again, there was no mistake. A long, slender horn graced the center of his forehead. It was a unicorn! Of all the possible creatures she thought she might encounter, she’d never have imagined this!

Before she had time to fully process, this, they had stopped in front of her. The Stallion had moved with a silent gait so that they were almost upon her by the time Tyden had a chance to sweep his reservations aside, holding up his hand in greeting. “Hello, there! You seem to have picked quite the desolated plateau for your leisurely stroll. I am Tyden; can I assist you?”

Erilynn smiled shyly, and replied. “Hello, Tyden, “I’m Erilynn. I didn’t exactly choose the plateau, I just sort of ended up here.” She pointed behind her. “I came from back there, out of some trees,” she explained. “I’ve no idea where I am, and have been trying to find someone to help me out.” She waited nervously for his response, hoping he didn’t think she was crazy. The last thing she needed was to be locked up in whatever this place used as a psych ward.

Well she seemed normal enough, Tyden reasoned, though he was sure he heard Odin snicker as he gave the woman a casual once-over (for hidden weapons) before dismounting; or maybe the stallion had merely snorted. “Well met, Erilynn,” he nodded at her offered explanation, “and welcome to Kalidore; it does have a way of sneaking up on you at times.”

He glanced behind her, tracing her path as it wove through the grass towards the trees, but of whatever Gate had brought her here there was no sign. He wondered, suddenly, exactly how many uncharted Gates had sprung up around the isle, and how many more people might be wandering through and lost. As the seasons shifted, the land grew harsh; it filled him with some foreboding of what could happen to a person up here, alone and in unfamiliar territory. The results were unsavory; surely Kal wouldn’t let that happen to one she had summoned…?

Realizing he’d been silent too long, he returned his attention back to the girl. “I will certainly do whatever I can to help you; you are quite fortunate Odin and I were passing through these parts – the Skyfields are rather expansive, and can be unforgiving when taken unaware.” He offered an encouraging smile, relieved to see that besides the understandable unease, she seemed fit and unharmed. He continued, “I am currently traveling to meet up with my party, they are about two hours’ ride away. And whatever you might need that I cannot currently provide for you, the Guardians can. Are you willing to travel, then?”

In retrospect, he really had no any idea what he’d do if she said no. He couldn’t just leave her there, but knew that what he was telling her probably sounded awfully strange. What grounds did she have to trust him? And the way she kept stealing looks past him at Odin, he was under the assumption that Unicorns were most definitely outside her kin, too. Of her own companion – for surely, why else would someone stumble into the isle? – there was no sign. Which meant, for all intents and purposes, Tyden was on his own.

Again.

Inwardly, he sighed…

Erilynn watched as Tyden dismounted, eyeing him somewhat warily. She glanced towards the unicorn, wondering just how intelligent he was. That he was smarter than a horse was without doubt. She could see the intelligence swirling deep within his dark eyes. Of course, she was also fairly sure he had laughed just a moment ago, though whether at her or his rider, she had no idea.

Looking back at Tyden, and when he turned his gaze back to her, she smiled tentatively. She glanced back at the unicorn and couldn’t help but think of the fairy tales. How unicorns only showed themselves to pure, untouched maidens, and were always white in color. She barely held back a snicker at the thought, as these two certainly didn’t fit the stories.

Her eyes twinkling with restrained mirth, she said, “Thank you. That would most kind, and I’d greatly appreciate it. I’ve no desire to spend a night alone out here.” After a slight pause, she asked curiously, “Who are the Guardians?”

He caught the hint of humour in her eyes and wondered briefly if she was gifted with mindsweep, but as her eyes grew perplexed again he decided not, which was frankly was a nice a change. (Indeed, life with Lily taught a person that thinking loudly could be hazardous to one’s health, particularly dependent upon the subject matter). He warmed openly, nodding assurance as she replied.

“We would not think of leaving you alone out here, unless it was by your request. And even then there would be arguments,” Tyden grinned. “The Ladies Rhaine and Lilaini are the proper Guardians of this isle, caretakers of sort, and keep mind over all its residence. Thus, while you are here, you too are under their protection. And mine.”

She blushed slightly from his scrutiny, highly aware of her disheveled state. Her jeans, while all the rage in fashion, were tight down through the knees before subtly flaring out. Her shirt, which was a tunic style often found in parts of India, was a vibrant emerald green, and went quite well with her green eyes and dark red hair. Sadly, both were looking a little the worse for wear, with smudges of dirt hear and there. “And I’m up for traveling, if you can keep a slow pace. I doubt I could keep up with you even if you stayed at a trot.” She hoped he wouldn’t think her weak, and stood there anxiously.

He watched as her face coloured, anxiety pinching the smooth features, and scrambled inwardly to deduct what could be the cause. His own grin began to falter when she spoke again; then he almost laughed. “Walk? Surely, you don’t mean – wait, my pardon, it never occurred to me – you cannot ride?”

This time Odin did chuckle, distinctly, and Tyden turned to him, his face a grimace *A lot of help you’re bringing to the table* he fumed. He didn’t wait for an answer and returned to Erilynn. “Truly you did not think I would make a lady fare on foot while I remained astride; Odin can carry us both easily. You will find no more fluid a gait, and he will take good care of you. Or, if you will it, then we will all walk. I would have it no other way.”

She watched him, wondering what he was thinking while looking at her like that, a sudden, somewhat apprehensive, look on his face. Then she turned her attention back to him as he started to speak. As he spoke, Erilynn’s eyes widened slightly, and a faint flush colored her cheeks. Even the unicorn, Odin, was laughing, obviously this time.

“I was 3 time National Junior Champion before my studies pulled me away from riding. Of course I can ride, you arrogant, assuming…” she trailed off, the full impact of his words hitting her. “You mean, he’d actually let me ride him?”

A grin started to spread across her face, a childlike glee and excitement overcoming her. To think, I could actually ride a unicorn! A real, beautiful, magnificent unicorn! she thought.

At the brunt of her outburst, Tyden recoiled politely, confusion marking his brow. He had no idea what a National Junior Champion was, or what relevance it posed now, or whether she was simply waiting for him to offer up his ride unaccompanied so he might trail obediently behind on foot. He was also firmly reconsidering his position on her state of mind, and was about to speak more freely on the matter when Odin brought his head down between them, thick dark hair falling away from his face with the motion.

“You may ride, so long as you do not kick,” the stallion said.

The mirth was still in his eyes as he answered her question, and in the moment Tyden rather hoped for a change it was directed towards the girl and not him. He had his doubts. His hand went to his own dark hair and scrunched it. *Now you speak. For one who claims never to pick sides, you darn well choose your moments. And what if I don’t want to ride with her anymore?*

Of course the stallion ignored him, and the girl’s face was lit with such a euphoric glow he wondered if he wasn’t a token of irrelevance already…

… par for the course, really, when you thought about it. He sighed, pressed himself to order and fixed his face with a amicable grin, conceding to the unicorn and turned to the girl once again.

When the unicorn’s head dropped between her and Tyden, Erilynn focused on him completely. When he spoke, she thought her eyes would bug out of her head. She blinked a few times, picked her jaw up off the ground, and smiled tentatively.

“I never kick, sir,” she said. “Kicking is for those who are ignorant and know no better.” Her eyes sparkled with merriment. Of course, she couldn’t imagine anyone kicking such a magnificent creature.

She turned back to Tyden, a nervous smile curving her lips. Um, I’m sorry I went off on you like that. I’m guess I’m more shaken up from being here than I thought. This all seems so strange, and I’m not sure how to cope with it all.”

Waiting for his response, Erilynn fidgeted slightly. He was obviously upset, and seemed a bit unsure of the situation. Which, she was sure, she hadn’t helped with. She felt horrible about it now, especially since he’d been so nice before. She hoped she hadn’t irreparably damaged their new, though currently undefined, relationship. It would be nice to have a friend in this place, since she was quite obviously out of reach of her other friends, and she wasn’t even sure if she would ever find her way home. At this thought, she lost her smile, a slight worry line creasing her forehead. That was definitely not something she wanted to think about right now.

Tyden watched silently as she spoke with Odin, the unmistakable wonderment and glee fixed there while answered him. She knew of unicorns, it seemed, but to her they were not a thing of flesh and life-fire so much as they were the transcendent element of dreams. He remembered, as a youth in Ardenburough, listening people talk of those “mystic beasts”, and the blush that filled him privately as he remarked how lucky he was then to know them. Sometimes, it seemed, the extraordinary became so usual that it took another person’s eyes to see the wonder right in front of you.

She turned to speak to him, and by now his frustration had given way and her words filled him with regret at his own temper. His smile was rueful, but genuine. “There is no need for apologies. You are a guest in a strange land, and it is a reflection of my own poor decorum that we have come to crosses. You must pardon me, my mind steals towards the rest of my party, and how long I have left them unattended, something I am ill at ease to do. But my duty is as much to you as is them, and I am in no way amiss by finding you here. In fact, could be a pleasant change of conversation,” he glanced at the silver stallion here with a wry grin.

He extended his hand. “Erilynn, then. If you are indeed eager to ride, then I hope you do not find it too forward on my behalf that I request we be off. The Guardians will be able to explain everything much better then I, so it would bode well the sooner we reached them anyways. Until then, you’ll just have to put up with me.”

At that quip he stepped aside, prepared to help her mount, wondering if even with this “juniour championship” did she have any notion about sitting an animal completely unbridled and untacked, save for the journey packs secured across Odin’s back. He saw the worry creep across her features as she stood fidgeting and inclined his head towards her gently. “You will be alright, and you will with your friends again soon. This I promise.”

At his words, Erilynn smiled faintly, wanting to believe him. But as he’d pointed out, she was delaying his return to his companions. With excitement, and some trepidation, she approached the stallion. She accepted Tyden’s hand, but declined his assistance with a slight smile. Lightly grasping Odin’s mane, she jumped, angling herself up and to the side, and landed lightly on his back. Sliding her leg over his croup, she pulled herself into a sitting position, then turned and grinned down at Tyden.

“Well? We don’t want to keep your friends waiting, now do we?” she said. “Besides, I’m quite eager to meet these Guardians you keep speaking of.”

She held out her hand, wondering if he’d take it, and waited for him to join her. She was indeed eager to get going, and couldn’t wait to feel the smooth, powerful muscles beneath her at work. Besides, Tyden was right. She would see her friends again, of that she was sure. But she was, at this moment, in a position to meet new people and make new friends. It was a journey she was looking forward to, now that she wasn’t facing it alone.

Showoff, Tyden grinned silently as she clambered lightly aboard, but kept his mouth shut; he was hardly familiar enough with the girl to tease, though restraint against nature was hard. Instead he shook his head. “I suppose we wouldn’t,” he replied gamely, taking hold of the dark mane himself. The offered hand a nice touch, but he aimed to give her as much space as possible as he gracefully avoided her legs and seated himself nearer the withers.

Erilynn smiled as he refused her hand and vaulted up in front of her. She grinned at Tyden, wrapping her hands over his belt, and said. “Are you kidding? Of course I’m all set!” If she was going to be honest, she was downright excited, if a tad anxious.

“All set then?” he cast a look over his shoulder. “We will reach them by dusk, if we keep a good clip. We’ll stop once we’re clear the following ridge if you need to rest. And I can also do my best to answer whatever questions you may have as we go, so simply ask.”

“Though his keeping silent for any length of time might be more challenge,” Odin chuckled, waiting instinctively until they settled then stepping forward, picking his way effortlessly across the uneven ground

Erilynn, hearing Odin’s comment, couldn’t withhold her laughter. Finally, wiping the tears from her eyes, she said, “I take it he tends to talk your ears off?”

Odin’s ears flicked at her question. “Only when I listen,” he snorted, his mane giving a playful shake, the movement rippling down his body.

Erilynn’s laughter, like warmed honey, sounded through the air at Odin’sremark. Her eyes sparkled with mirth. Still chuckling, she turned to Tyden. “So, how did you come to be here, in this place? Where are you from? How long have you been here? How did you meet Odin? Are there other unicorns around? Do you live around here? Exactly where are we going? How many people will be there?”

Erilynn paused, blushing slightly. She hadn’t meant to make it sound like he was being interrogated, but she couldn’t help herself. She had so many questions, and they just kind of ran away with her tongue. She hoped he wasn’t annoyed, or worse, thought she was being intrusive in any way. She was really starting to like this guy, and thought they could be good friends. She certainly didn’t want to do or say anything to mess that up. Withdrawing into a nervous silence, she instead focused on the fact that they were moving. Odin’s gaits were smoother than butter, and an absolute pleasure to experience. If this was how all unicorns moved, she needed to find one willing to let her ride it on a regular basis. It would be a definite step down to return to a horse, even one with the smoothest gaits in the world. She was sure nothing a horse could produce could ever equal this. Momentarily forgetting her embarrassment over all the rapid-fire questions, she began to relax.

Tyden rode silently through the laughter, doing his best to wear a serious face. It was obvious he had no hope in hell of besting the debate anyway, at least, not without proving Odin’s point vicariously. But as Erilynn began speaking rapidly again the dodging grin spread across his face unabated. “And we’re critiquing my penchant to babble!” he laughed openly, scooping a glance over his shoulder, catching her blush as the words ran out. “No worry – if you are wanting to ask, then I am willing to answer, and thusly – we can talk Odin’s ear off together!”

“Myself,” he began with a reflective shrug, “I have always been here. The Daiga raised me as her own, so Kalidore is my natural home. The Isle you see before you was created by Kala herself, the First Unicorn, as a haven for all her children; there are many who call it their home, unicorn and worldly creatures alike.

“Odin, who has been so encompassingly civil today, is my Companion. Or I am his… You see, there is a bond betwixt unicorns and humankind, and when two Companions keenly meet, the universe… aligns itself… in miraculous ways… The Gates are open to them… and things… happen. Good thing,” he added assuredly, wondering just how much he should say. She had to be someone’s companion to have found her way into Kalidore, this much he knew; she was one of them. But to explain Gates and Magic and the Great War…? It was not that he meant to withhold from her, rather that Rhaine and Liliani were just so much better at explaining then him. Plus they could use examples; handy that, explaining about the magic created between a bonded pair when you actually had it at your disposal…

He shook his head briskly, ridding the thought before it was completed. “It will all make sense when you meet the Guardians. We are set to meet them over yonder ridge–” he pointed towards the far rock-stuttered rise the sun and begun to sink towards. “I live back across from the plateau we first met, were you to follow it towards the woods. I was returning there for more supplies, which is how I was lucky enough to chance upon you. Our party is traveling deeper into the mountains in search of an old ally; best scenario we should return home in four day’s time. You are more then welcome to accompany us, if you choose; there a half dozen companions newly entered the isle too, I’m sure you will be in good company.”

As Tyden answered her questions, she listened closely, entranced. “So, this ‘Daiga’ raised you? But where did you come from, if you weren’t born here?” She thought about the rest of what he’d said. “So, you and Odin are ‘companions’? You said when a human and unicorn meet, they become companions? Do you think that will happen to me? That I could have a companion?”

Tyden nodded gamely at her onslaught of questions. “The Daiga is the original Guardian of the Isle, and Kala’s own Companion. She is the only family I know, as my parents died shortly after I was born. I actually don’t know a lot about them, only that there was a war; Dai said Kal brought me here. I never really asked, because it always seemed to make Dai so sad.” He shrugged, indifferently; there were no hard memories there, no regrets; Kalidore had always been good to him.

At the mention of his parents’ death, she felt a stab of pain, and empathy. “My parents died just a few years ago. I miss them very much, but at least I knew them, grew up with them. I’m very grateful for that, and can’t imagine what it might have been like not to have had them there.”

Her voice trailed off, as she wasn’t sure what else she could say, but Tyden had already moved on, grinning at her question about companions. “Well, I guess that depends if any unicorn will have you…”

Instantly intrigued, Erilynn was silent as she mulled over that possibility, thinking of what it might be like to have a unicorn companion. The idea was very appealing. After all, who wouldn’t want one? She was eager to meet these Guardians he spoke of. She was sure she’d have many questions to ask them.

Tyden glanced backwards again, trying to read her face for some sign of how she digesting what he told her, as fragmented and incomplete as it may have been. Erilynn had lapsed into silence, and in experience, the silence of women could mean any number of things, most of them resulting in no end of headaches on his part. He was about to speak again when the air was cracked with a harsh, trilling cry.

Odin pulled up short, his movement graceful even as hooves churned the earth, changing pace in mid-stride. Dust scattered as he stalled, horn canted and ears pricked in the direction of the sound. The trilling cry echoed harshly through the air. Startled, Erilynn stared in the direction the sound had come from as Odin skidded gracefully to a stop. Eyes wide, her grip on Tyden tightened.

“What was that?” she asked, her voice faint.

The noise brought his head around even as Odin was turning. It had come from beyond the next ridge, and close. As Erilynn’s grip tightened he had to admit that some of his confidence in rescuing damsels was returning, and when he answered her there was a certain quality to his tone. “Oh, that was skycat… from the sounds of it, large one. But they’re mostly harmless, so long as you don’t get on their bad side. They like to hunt the hora that wander from the forest to graze, or goats up higher in the mountains… probably followed one of the traveling flocks into the valley. But they don’t bother anything else really, at least, not maliciously; they’re more a nuisance then anything else. ”

Still unnerved about the shrill scream that split the just moments before, she listened silently as he explained what it was. As he seemed unconcerned, she relaxed, breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Turning back to him, she asked, “So, what exactly is a skycat?” She was imagining a big cat, maybe like a cougar, with wings. Erilynn wondered what such a creature might look like, but believed she’d be perfectly fine never seeing one.

Another bellow cut the air, but this one was low and guttural, undulating and lamenting until retreating again into silence.

Tyden considered. “And that was a mammoth. Also, mostly harmless. Not common in these parts of the mountain and generally not found in the company of skycats. It is the time of year they migrate… but they tend to keep to themselves; perhaps this one got separated from it’s herd. There was—”

And another noise broke the afternoon with a short fluted trumpet. Now even Tyden looked a bit confused. “A cerewynne. Alright, I can’t explain that one. Even I haven’t seen one in years.”

Having tensed again, Erilynn relaxed as Tyden again related what it was. She thought of the incongruity of mammoths living here, in such a temperate climate before the other cry split the air yet again. Caught by surprise, Erilynn jerked slightly, and her grip on Tyden, which had loosened, tightened convulsively. Embarrassed , she loosened her grip once more.

He turned in his seat, nearly clunking into Erilynn who was fixed in place, distress obvious in her troubled eyes. “You don’t really think either Odin or I would let harm befall you? Besides,” he grinned appealingly, “it’s just over a two hour ride until we catch up with the others; could probably shave some time off of that if you’re up to some hard riding. Plenty of time check this out. Besides – when are you going to get the chance to see a cerewynne again?”

She smiled slightly, hoping she didn’t look too unnerved. “No, I know neither you or Odin would let anything happen to me. Those cries were just…unnerving is all.” Briefly wondering what exactly a cerewynne was, she smiled in relief at the mention of how close they were to the others. They would easily make it there by nightfall. “I’m up for about anything you can dish out,” she said, grinning.

Her smile faded, however, as Tyden continued talking. “Are you kidding me?!” she said incredulously. “You want to go and look for it? What if we run into the skycat and mammoth as well?” she asked. She bit her lip nervously, sure she didn’t want anything to do with such a crazy venture.

Tyden nodded his head solemnly, as if seriously considering Erilynn’s concern. This lasted for about 12 seconds. Then he grinned. And if by this point Erilynn hadn’t realize that this was generally the beginning and of all things, then she’d learnt nothing since arriving on Kalidore.

“You did say anything,” the man reminded pointedly, as if this accounted for everything, and before she could protest further on the matter Odin was striding forward again and towards the noise.

Erilynn’s eyes widened in anxious dismay as Tyden and Odin set forth in the direction the cries, shreiks, and bugles had come from. Biting back her protest, knowing it would do no good whatsoever, she wrapped her arms a little more snuggly around Tyden’s waist.

As their steady pace drew them closer to their as yet unknown destination, Erilynn let herself be distracted by the warmth of the strong back in front of her, the way the muscles rippled with the slight, subtle movements needed to maintain balance while riding. Erilynn jolted back to herself when she started to breath in his scent. She shook her head, somewhat dazedly. “What on earth am I doing?!” she thought. “I hardly know this man, or anything about him, or this place he calls home. I can’t allow myself to be attracted to him. I won’t be attracted to him! For goodness sakes, he might even be married, or seriously involved, for all I know.”

She continued to berate herself as they rode, keeping herself stiffly away from leaning against him. Up over top the rise the stallion’s hooves made short work, and when they crested the sight that met them was… perplexing. All Erilynn could do was stare. Even Odin gave a surprised snort, but didn’t break trot as he came down the slope towards them.

In the middle of the clearing sat a young bull mammoth, his tusks indicating his age to be only about 15, a mere teenager in the life of mammoths. Every now and then he let out a bellow, and this was because of the skycat that was harassing him from above. The skycat was the largest of Kalidore’s griffons, a lythe and sinuous animal, not unlike the offspring of an osprey and a cheetah, should ever those two animals have agreed to amorous nuptials. The creature was spotted widely, indicating it to be a female, and therefore also lacked the male’s more impressive mane. Her beak snapped with irritation as she hovered, every now and then letting loose a volley of insults the mammoths’ way. When she did, the mammoth shuffled, as if beginning to rise, when a sharp yodel from behind interrupted him. And there was a the cerwynne – a huge, stately white stag, easily bigger then any example of the species known to earth, complete with utterly decedent golden antlers that swept back over his body to in a great spanning rack to curl again towards him at their conclusion. It was the ends of these which were curiously but completely stuck in the thick mammoth’s hair. Thus every time the mammoth rose, the Cerwynne would kick reproachfully, and the mammoth would settle with a sigh, and griffon would begin affronting him again.

The onlookers had unwittingly come to a stop, and even the Unicorn wore a look of baffled confusion. Tyden’s gaze followed one to the other as the scene played out another time, and when it returned to the skycat’s part once more he was suddenly sliding to the ground and across the turf before either of his two companions could wager otherwise.

Erilynn, really, could do nothing but continue stare. The sight that greeted her eyes was, at once, baffling, wondrous, and amusing. However, not sure of the intelligence of these creatures, she refrained from showing her amusement, lest she anger them. Her eyes were drawn first to the skycat, who bore a rather close resemblance to the griffons portrayed in stories and myths on earth. Quite a lovely, lithe creature, if a triffle upset at the moment. Next the mammoth, and a great furry brute he was. Yet, she felt that, for all his size, he had a gentle soul. And last, but certainly not least, the cerewynne. Oh, he was marvelous to behold! He bore a great resemblance to the deer she’d seen, though on a larger scale. The resemblance ended there, however, for this creature looked like silver snow, with magnificent golden antlers sweeping gracefully over his head. Erilynn couldn’t help but wonder how these three creatures, so different from each other, had come to be in such a predicament. Unexpectedly, Tyden slid off the unikorn’s back and was striding towards the group. Erilynn stared as he moved closer, wondering if was a fool, brave, or a bit of both.

“Hold up!” he shouted upwards, waving his arms to get the winged fury’s attention. All heads turned (well, the cerwynne turned as well as he could, his rack as snugly attached to the mammoth as it was). “I have no idea how you all came to be here in this… predicament, but I assure continuance is not helping anyone. What’s happening here?”

The creatures seemed to exchange glances. The cerwynne sighed. “You might as well start—” he began to the mammoth, when the skycat broke in with sputtering angst.

“Mmmmmy shiiiiiiny! It’s sitting on mmmmy shiiiiiny!” she hissed.

The mammoth sighed, long golden-red lashes closing over tiered eyes.

Tyden’s hand had landed on his head and scratched there absently as he assessed the situation. “I will assume there is some truth in that…. though I am not sure I completely understand how…” He turned to the great hind who had spoken first, awaiting further explanation. The hind eyeballed him furiously.

“He’s stuck,” the mammoth finally replied.

“Well of course I am! Any dimwit with half a brain can see that! And if you had the other half a brain you’d have seen me there in the first place—”

“He’s a bit touchy,” the mammoth sulked. The cerwynne stamped repeatedly, a fluted snort piercing his lips. The skycat reeled, coming in to swoop again, and Tyden leapt forward, swinging his arms out again.

“STOP! By Kal stop it, all of you!” The creatures fell silent, but their body language clearly stated that this was only temporary, and if he had a point to make, he’d better do so quickly.

“You –” he turned to the griffon, “won’t get your shiny back until our mammoth friend here decides to stand. And he can’t do that until you have got your antlers out of that mess,” he viewed the cerwynne again. “SIT!!” he spun hastily as the griffon careened in for a swipe at his ear. He’d unsheathed his sword in that movement too, and the steel end hissed by the beast’s hooked beak. “If you don’t, you are not going to get your shiny, understand that?” he spoke very seriously. The skycat squalled one last time, but finally folded its wings and lighted beside them. She continued glare at him however, the feathers around her neck flaring grumpily.

Tyden concealed his relief because he needed to maintain some semblance of being in control. He looked to the mammoth again. “Now… how say we all… get to the bottom of this?” he began. The animals looked expectant, but with reservations, and the bull met him dejectedly with large, doleful eyes. He turned slightly, catching Odin and Erilynn in the corner of his view; the Unicorn was unmoving and his rider seem similarly put, which seemed to suggest they were both waiting on him too…

Tyden swallowed. He had to admit, that just perhaps, this was a little more er, mammoth a problem then he had initially anticipated.

Erylinn had sat stock still as he spoke to them. So, they were intelligent; she was grateful she’d kept her amusement to herself. Her eyes bugged slightly in her effort to keep her face straight. She felt somewhat bad for being amused, as it was obviously not amusing to the parties involved, and she did feel sympathy for them. Perhaps she’d just been teetering on the edge of hysteria after finding herself in this strange new world, and was finally starting to fall apart. She pushed those thoughts away, however, when she heard Tyden shouting. Faster than she knew what was happening, the skycat swooped towards him, swiping at his head! Next she knew, he had his sword out, and very obviously meant business. She caught herself admiring the way his clothes fit him, all lithe, sleek muscle and sinew. Shocked, she looked away, furious with herself. She did have to admit, however, that he cut a very striking figure. Like some hero out of a storybook, rescuing the damsel in distress. The fact that she would rather die than be called a damsel was of no matter. She turned back to the scene before her just as Tyden glanced in her direction. She felt herself blush slightly. Scowling slightly, she slid off of Odin’s back and cautiously made her way to his side.

Smiling at him gamely, she asked. “So, what are we going to do about this little…conundrum? We can’t very well just leave them here like this.” She paused, eyeing the situation before them once more. “Although, exactly how we’re going to fix this is beyond me.”

The feathers on the back of the skycat’s neck bristled as the second human approached, for as far as it was concerned, everyone was competition for the wonderful shiny that lay at the bottom of this mess. But as Tyden’s sword remained keen, so the did the griff, and merely hissed when Erilynn approached. In response the sword canted slightly, as Tyden moved to keep between them. “My shiny,” the skycat grumbled, just as a reminder.

Tyden had caught the hint of a scowl just before the woman dismounted and frowned inwardly; mayhap this was not the best introduction to Kalidore a person could hope for. At least there were no cavebears. On further reflection, he had a hunch the Guardians might scold when they caught wind of this side adventure, too. But Erilynn was smiling again by the time she spoke, and what was life without a little excitement anyways?

“My concerned is that our spotted friend may be difficult to dissuade if a solution is not efficiently met,” his voice kept low, hoping that Erilynn had sense enough to keep her distance from the gryff. Adding another element to the mix he had to worry about was just icing, really, in the face of this bizarre Mexican standoff; was it he who had remarked, just the day before to Odin, how he was eager for whatever challenge Kal threw at them? He would have to remind Odin to bite him if ever said such a thing again. “I believe this means we need to first take care of the cerewynne…”

“Brilliant,” snorted the buck sardonically.

“Oh, hush,” Tyden strode forward. “It is by good manners alone our mammoth friend hasn’t hauled himself to his feet and you with him; I believe he will be just as cordial to assist in our helping you.” The play-on-words of a great hind stuck to a great behind nearly made him snigger, but out of respect for the parties involved he remained mum.

She met Tyden’s eyes as he spoke, serious now and intent upon his words. At the cerewynne’s remark, she turned a steely glance his way. She followed behind Tyden as he approached the entangled pair, keeping a fair distance back. Catching herself admiring his backside, Erilynn quickly jerked her away, focusing on the mammoth and blushing furiously. What is wrong with me? I’m here in an unknown world, surrounded by strange new creatures, and a stranger I’ve just barely met. There is no logical reason for me to be even remotely interested in him, she thought.

The cerewynne stamped and fell silent, eyes roving backwards while its head skewed at an odd angle, fixed as it was by those great horns worked into the hair. Winter’s growth had come in thickly, and the mammoth was enveloped in the densest pelt of any Kalidorian mammal. The snag was taught and it was deep, and Tyden reserved cutting it all for fear of leaving the animal with a bare patch, so close to winter. “I think I can work it loose if you lean towards me a little, good sirs.”

The mammoth shrugged compliantly and rolled towards them, enough to spook the cerewynne who nearly bolted. “Whoa there,” Tyden grabbed for the near antler, and with a deer the size of a unicorn, even for him that was a stretch. Hot air pursed the hind’s nostrils and froth spattered around the corners of his mouth; whatever was left of the creature’s stately reserve was wearing thin. “Steady him?” Tyden pressed to Erilynn, sheathing is his sword so he could grasp a handful of thick wool. The smell of the beast was pungent, but a familiar odor for one who had grown up in the skylands, and his hands disappeared into the auburn mass as he worked, expression scrunching to belay the progression of the knots. And they were a doozey; how nature could so casually design ties that man took years to perfect always amazed him. The mammoth too had shut his eyes as if deep in mediation. Even the skycat remained unobtrusively still, though her tail rapped and eyes marked his work with scrutiny.

Looking somewhat skeptical Erilynn had nonetheless done as he asked, moving cautiously forward and placed one hand on the cerewynne’s neck, the other on his side, near the flank. She marveled at the feel of his pelt. It was smooth, soft and as ethereal as gossamer silk, and she couldn’t help but smile in delighted wonder. Turning her head to watch Tyden untangle the unruly mess of hair and antler, she became so engrossed that, without thought, she started to stroke the hair beneath her hands in a slow, soothing manner. Much the same way that she would reassure and sooth a horse.

At last he had to reach for his sword to cut away the final few strands of hair. The release was spontaneous and the cerewynne stumbled forward and onto his knees.

It was by grace of Kal that the beast managed to flail away from both humans, scrambling as he was to get his feet beneath him again. A few haphazard steps and he rightened himself, snorting loudly, throwing his magnificent antlers about to ensure they really were free. Tyden cheered, the mammoth sighed, and even the skycat looked marginally impressed. The cerewynne regained his composure with another snort, and turned to the small crowd. “I am most grateful for your timely assistance; I dear say we should all be fortunate to never again find ourselves in such a fix. Good day sirs and madams, I will now take my leave; I am most, most anxious to put this day’s event behind me…”

At the word ‘behind’ Tyden did snicker, but it was brief, for just as quickly the skycat was aloft and squalling again. “Now up!” she demanded the mammoth. “Promisesssd! My shiny—”

“Sit and desist!” he turned on it again. “I did not forget about your shiny, but we’re going to do this with a bit of civility, hear me?” Infuriated the griff snarled, weighing options, but eyed the man’s sword and dropped to the ground again with a hiss. Tyden glanced over his shoulder to ensure Erilynn was still okay, then gave the mammoth a reassuring thump with his hand. “Stand clear;” he addressed first the party, then “you are free to rise at will.”

A mammoth rising to its feet is a measured ordeal; first the great weight shifted, rolling back as the front legs and tucked and braced against its chest. Then momentum swung the other way and the back end shuddered. The young bull dug the ground with his tusks as he lurched forward, pausing in mid movement as if time suspended, blood working its way back into cramped and tingling limbs. He rumbled, deep in his throat, before finally, delicately, with the grace of a dancer, rose to his feet with the whisper of woolen red hair.

If sitting the size of the beast was impressive, standing it was all the more; even more so when given that he was certainly not full grown. It had been so long since Tyden shared proximity with a mammoth he couldn’t suppress the boyish grin as the beast turned at last to regard them. He was about to speak when a noise from the skycat had them turning, and from the pitch in her voice it was clear she unwilling to play along any longer.

“My shiny! NOWWWW! Wherrrrrrrrre issssssss it? Wherrrrrrrrre did it goooooo—” for daylight revealed the space beneath the mammoth contained only damp and trampled grass; the cat was beside itself.

He felt his stomach sink as the realization dawned, instinctively reaching back to make sure Erilynn was behind him as he countered the griffon with his sword. Its had regressed to name-calling, squalling profanities like a harpy, marking each and every one of them as conspirator and thief. Further reasoning would be futile. Tyden sensed Odin was now standing beside them, horn leveled, and he was scrambling for a way to end this standoff without bloodshed when a flash of colour caught his eye.

There – stuck fast in the thick fur of the mammoth’s underbelly something glinted; no one else had seen. It flashed again as it caught the refracted sunlight off his sword.

Now, there were certain lessons the Daiga had driven into him as a boy, such as: don’t converse with cavebares; bathe regularly, but not near urdvoggens; and, never under the belly of a mammoth go. In the face of it all he didn’t see another option; besides, he probably already smelled like mammoth anyways. He glanced to Odin, then spun and thrust the sword into Erilynn’s hands. “Pointy end that way!” he shouted, and ducked underneath. The mammoth hiccupped. The skycat crouched, preparing to pounce.

Finding the sword suddenly in her hands, Erilynn stared as the owner disappeared beneath the mammoth. She was quite offended at his assumption that she didn’t know how to handle a sword, and was debating whether or not to stick him with it when he returned. A wicked smile crossed her face at the thought, and a mischievous glint sparkled in her eyes.

“SHINY!” Tyden exclaimed, emerging from below with a dazzling red object hoisted above his head. At its appearance, the skycat recoiled in mid leap and landed short, a few inches away from the startled group. Its whole demeanor changed. Its pupils dilated as it fixed on the object.

“Mmmmmmmmmine?” it purred.

“Yes,” said Tyden, heaving a sigh of relief as he thrust the glinting object forward. For the first time he got a good look at it – a large scale, sharp-edged and thin, smooth and sleek as polished stone but weighed nothing; when the sun caught it, it gleamed with every hue of orange-red garnets, sometimes ruby, sometimes plunging into the rich of burgundy. For a moment he was mesmerized, a memory tugging at something very old and very vague, and he was not sure how long he was transfixed until Odin’s mind brushed against him. He blinked. The skycat was looking at him. He brought the prize all the way down and placed it before her. With a thrumming purr she licked it up into her teeth, and quick as scoot was bounding away. Another leap and she was aloft, wings spread in the direction of her nest, eager to add the beautiful new shiny to bright collection that adorned each and every griffon’s roost. It was not until the skycat was out of sight did the mammoth sigh, and everyone realize just how still they had been holding.

“Thank you,” said the mammoth.

“You’re welcome,” was all Tyden could muster in the moment.

The young bull extended his trunk, testing the wind. “My herd is that way.” He made to move forward, then stopped, turning his great head again towards them. “There was something, I saw it; and then I did not. And then here we all were,” he replied, in answer to the unspoken question smarting on the tip of all their tongues. He shrugged. “So I will go.” And the mammoth ambled away.

More questions tumbled through Tyden’s mind, but there were no answers. His hand found Odin’s nose, and he stood there silently until the unicorn spoke, “We has best move on now, if we want to reach camp before dark.” The man nodded, awakened to his duties. A pang of guilt stuck him as he turned to Erilynn again.

“I can assure you that not every day on Kalidore will be this… exciting. In fact, a lot of them are downright boring. I promise. But at least you get to tell all your friends you saw a cerewynne?” He managed a faint grin. “And I thank the lady for the good care of my sword; why, a few more lessons and we’ll make a regular warrior out of you! Though… I must humbly request it back now, so that we may mount quickly… Erilynn…? You are all right? Here, let us get ourselves moving,” he extended his hand towards her.

For some reason, as Erilynn ran the mammoth’s comment over in her mind again, a strange numbing drained her heart and seemed to seep into the marrow of her bones. She just stared, off in the direction the mammoth had taken. As Tyden called to her, she heard, but was, for whatever reason, unable to respond.

Slowly, a small, shrinking feeling was filling the place of that almost euphoric reprise which followed the creatures’ happy departure. Tyden swallowed slowly. “Erilynn?” he tried again, hoping for a reply or any kind of response really, even that strange, erratic babbling about National Junior Champions as when they first met. But as she continued a blank, it was futile. “I think… she’s in shock,” Tyden said. “A little help?” he dipped back to silver and ebony unicorn behind him.

“Take the sword,” Odin nudged him aside, and as the man worked the metal gently from her hands, returning it safely to his scabbard, the stallion brought his nose up to level with her face. He breathed, deeply. Her eyes fluttered. And then she went down.

Startled, Tyden scrambled to catch her before she met the ground, glancing at the stallion with alarm. “She’ll be fine,” was all Odin said, calmly, and with utter self-assurance. In fact, he looked downright impassive. “We’d best be going now.”

Of course. Because that makes it so much easier this way! Tyden’s eyes on him were incredulous, but the stallion had already moved and was waiting for him to ready himself. He glanced down dumbly at the comatose woman and tried to constitute a reasonable course of action when he heard the stallion sigh, and ever so gracefully get down on one knee. Tyden took his cue.

He gathered Erilynn up in his arms, and as efficiently as he could without jarring her, swung them both over the stallion’s back. She was settled before him, secured with one hand and the other looping through the unicorn’s dark mane. Odin lurched to rise. “We will not reach them before sundown,” the stallion rumbled quietly, picking a careful pace over the uneven ground. “I shall do my best.” Tyden nodded silently.

A sigh left him, but it was mostly relief, that they were moving, and at the very least, Erilynn would be okay. He was content with the silence too, his mind flitting over the event unfurled, the sleek, shimmering shiny still glinting in his mind’s eye…

~ * ~

Far away, in another part of the vast and tumbling Skyfields, Fiera bristled between the trees, silent, save for her long tail flicking back and forth. She followed an invisible path, weaving herself among trees, plants and plenty of jutting rock. She walked with a proud stance, her hooves soundlessly colliding with the ground beneath. On a few instances, she’d shake her head absently or rub her nose on a nearby tree.

Anything, just anything to get her mind off that past friend… Looking doubly up at the sky, the unicorn wondered if it was wiser to turn back now or keep moving forward. After all, her thoughts were getting no where and the tiny spark of worry for Allison was planted deep inside.

Fiera snorted irritably and kept moving forward. At first her legs were moving in no particular pattern, until a slight zing of unawareness made her step a little livelier. She shook her mane then eyed for something itch her back on. The bark of the tree near to her shoulder would do just fine, she thought.

Elegantly Fiera made her way over but stopped dead in her tracks as a certain… noise…. reached her. Not really a noise, but talking. A light chatter carried in the wind, she noticed when her ears pricked forward. “That cannot be right.” said Fiera with a flash of irritation. Yet the disturbance of her peace flew by, being replaced just as quickly with genuine curiosity. Alert, the chestnut mare moved forward, rustling the vegetation soundlessly, save for a few branch snaping here and there.

She followed the noise until at last she was nearly upon it. Fiera blinked at the site before her from a distance. She halted cautiously, surveying the strange sight. For there, alone and seated on a bare crop of rock and talking to – what appeared to be a plant – was a little girl…

With a heavy sigh, Lyonee plunked herself down on the rock and let her feet dangle over the edge. Climbing up the steep, rocky hilltop had been such hard work and she’d lost her sunbonnet; now her hair was a mess, plus she had fallen once and got her apron dirty; the governess would scold and scold her when she saw the sorry state of affairs; and that would be on top of the scolding she’d receive for wandering off in the first place. That on its own was enough to have the girl stay put, even if she hadn’t been so tired from the climb. She sighed again, wistfully, eyes drifting across the serene but very empty green and grey rock-cropped landscape.

The worst part was that the climb had been all for naught; what she had heard turned out not to be another person calling to her, but a plant. Yes, a plant! A very odd, and rather chatty, bright green and supporting three little snapping heads (though only the largest of the three ever said anything), but a plant none the less. And though he had amused her thoroughly for the first few hours, now his self-indulgent diatribes on the imperviousness his royal lineage, the Kalidorian aphid conspiracy, and a play-by-play of the weather (which was cloudless and blue) were all beginning to bore poor little Lyonee to pieces. On the other hand, he was the only thing here; and faced with the prospect of being lost and alone verses lost and in the company of egocentric vegetation, she had chosen to remain, mind the pun, planted.

At the same time… her gaze wandered downwards, not looking forward to the climb that met her there, when her eye picked out a glint of flame among the greenery. She peered at the speck, which from a trembling flicker made itself out to be a solid form, picking its way up the embankment. “Something’s coming!” she exclaimed.

Movement in the green beside her, and a pod-like head craned itself down as if to see. This was the talking plant; she had seen in one of her father’s botany books a picture of a Venus fly trap, and had inquired upon their first meeting if he was of a similar type. The plant answer in the negative, emphatically. What he had called himself went on for several stanzas so she had taken to calling him Mio for short. Mio had objected on principal only, but after deliberation had relented on the grounds that having someone to talk to was better then naught, even if they clearly weren’t intelligent enough a creature to master the sounding of one’s own name.

“Is it a yak?” Mio fretted. “I do disfavour yaks intensely; they are forever nipping at this leaf or that and are wholly indiscriminate of the sensitive flora.”

Lyonee peered at the creature. “I don’t believe so. It rather looks like a horse.”

“A horse?” Mio seemed consider this. “I am unfamiliar with the animal. Is it very large? And prone to grazing?”

“Quite,” said Lyonee, and “it is.”

“Fie!” he lamented, wringing his smaller head with dismay. “If it comes, I shall be forced to defend myself. And warn you I am fierce! Fear the capacity of my bite, the sting of my nettles, for I am Kaus Phaeo-Mio, son of Pharon, son of Udun the Fierce, son of Kaiso, who ate Parthor, son of Hon—”

Lyonee was no longer paying attention. Her eyes were fixed on the horse, who continued to climb the steep path towards them. It was a rather unusual sort of thing for a horse to do, especially one without a rider. As it approached, she was beginning to suspect it was a rather unusual horse; it was still hard to tell with any certainty from this distance, but it looked as though in had something stuck on the front of its head. Another hundred paces and the doubt was removed entirely – it had a horn. It wasn’t a horse at all. It was a unicorn.

Fiera quirked the corners of her eye, giving on some sort of questioning facial expression. “For a wee thing you say a mouthful, plant. Not very polite in greetings I see, so shall I attempt to eat you?” she challenged, moving closer to the now apparent duo and not just single child. She really would eat him, but then again, it might not end to well on her behalf, Fiera thought amused. He looked rather prickly, the sort of plant that would provoke indigestion. Her eyes quickly darted to the very young girl, wondering how she ended here of all places.

“Child, what are you looking for?” inquired Fiera. To ask if she was lost was too obvious because obviously, the girl was. Thus she tried another approach around. “And may I ask how you came by to find… him.” A touch of sarcasm dripped in her voice however she maintained a pleasant if not cautious mindset.

“Eat… me?” the plant recoiled, not so much in horror as indignation. “Do you have any idea who I am? I am a seed of Hoth, the First Plant, and from who’s maw the universe grew like the first spring! I am he who snaps the furious dragonfly from the air and terrors the field with the sound of my voice! – and… and, I shall bring a pox upon your head should but one LEAF of my handsome foliage be marred, oh most vile and wicked creature…”

“He hasn’t any manners,” Lyonee explained simply, her eyes beholding the unicorn with a mix of curiosity and wonderment. She had read about unicorns in books, and the pictures depicted them mostly as gaunt, forlorn creatures the colour of smoke, who came to the aid of stranded maidens then promptly died honourble deaths. She didn’t think that she was quite old enough to be a maiden, and this unicorn certainly didn’t look forlorn; Lyonee rather hoped it wasn’t about to die either, because it was a huge improvement over the plant.

At the creature’s query, her thoughts were drawn back to nanny, who must be beside herself by now. “I was just… looking,” she shrugged, a flush of colour crossing her pale face. She didn’t quite feel like admitting she had been running away from her nanny on purpose, for no other reason then she had been crossed with her. The nanny had insisted that Olivier come with them for their afternoon walk, and Olivier was such a nasty little boy, always shouting and throwing things at whatever they met along the way. Lyonee had really wanted to go bird watching, and with Olivier there, there wasn’t a bird in sight. And so when they’d stopped for lunch, and the governess had spread the cloth and begun unpacking, Lyonee wandered off.

She’d promised herself not to go far, and she thought she hadn’t… and yet she was here, and she had no idea where here was. She looked up at the unicorn again, feeling a little bad for lying. She scratched her head, which felt hot from the sun, and remembered. “My sunbonnet! I lost it. I’m looking for my sunbonnet. Because Nanny will scold if I’ve lost another one… if I can find Nanny again,” she added bemusedly, oddly startled to find she really did miss the cross old governess. She still couldn’t say quite the same about Olivier, however… she looked up abruptly.

“Since you’re a unicorn, that means you’re here to rescue me, aren’t you? I’m ready to go now,” Lyonee said.

* * *

Not far away from where the exchange between plant, child, and Unicorn was taking place, in a tiny cave, the Indian maid Sapata was deeply sleeping against the warmth of a unicorns flank. Her dreams were colored with images of her new found companion, and the world she had so recently become a part of. The small bay unicorn mare Asarte was dozing as well; half her mind aware that others were nearby, the other half wanting to prolong her friends rest as long as possible. Goodness knew the poor girl needed the break…

Ever since she had fled the creek’s waters at the arrival of far too many strangers at once, Sapata had been having a rather rough go of it. With nothing in her mind at the time but getting away from the scene, she’d left all the provisions she’d had with her. She’d fully intended to go back and get them when the party of intruders had moved on, but as night had fallen she’d become aware that her headlong flight had left her disoriented, and with no light to go by she had been unable to follow her own tracks back.

The fall air was chilly come darkfall, and though making a fire would be preferable, without her spear for protection she’d decided that being cold in the treetops was better than being warm yet vulnerable on the ground.

She’d had a rather sleepless night.

It didn’t help that when she finally did nod off she was awakened almost immediately by a chilling rainstorm. It wasn’t a particularly violent storm, and it didn’t last long, but the rain came down in drenching amounts. With only her thin leather dress for cover Sapata had sat, wet and shivering, in the tree until dawn. When she went to climb down from her perch, she’d slipped on the wet bark and fallen the last few feet. Luckily she wasn’t badly hurt, just a little bruised- her ego more so than her body.

A fire was out of the question, as there was no dry tinder to be had, and without her spear there wouldn’t be anything to cook over it anyway. She’d made her breakfast on some rather unpleasant tasting slug-like creatures… they were dull gray, and though they tasted awful they didn’t have the bitter acidic taste most toxic animals and plants had, so she assumed they were safe enough. Within a mile or so Sapata was heaving violently into the bushes, and regretting each and every slimy bite… they didn’t taste any better on the way up than down.

The rest of the day didn’t get any easier.

In between trips into the undergrowth so battle with the slugs, Sapata had kept moving onwards. Near dusk, she’d found a patch of bushes that were thick with fat purpleish berries. She was reluctant to try them, but when she observed some of the local birds stuffing on them she’d decided that she’d give them a go. However, no sooner had she scooped up a handful, than a crashing in the foliage to her right had alerted her to the presence of something rather large. She’d made a hasty exit with only that small reward for her troubles. She had no idea what had made the commotion, and liked it that way.

The orange rays of sunset fell on her again, bringing with them the realization that she was about to spend another long cold night alone. It was more than the usually stoic Sapata could stand. Her hungry belly, raw throat, her aching and tired limbs, all the ground she’d covered without getting anywhere… and the longing for her family, and the world she knew combined at that moment so strongly that she plopped down onto the drifts of dead leaves at her feet, and promptly burst into heartrending sobs.

Sapata had been crying for a good long while, when suddenly there was the sound of someone clearing their throat above her.

“Ummhuum. Excuse me, miss, but are you quite all right?”

Sapata’d been so consumed by her grief, that she hadn’t heard anyone approaching. She looked up with red and swollen eyes, and saw, back lit by the last dying light of day, one of the horned beasts that seemed to roam everywhere in this land. It was a smallish chubby one that didn’t look as if it could pose much threat… except for that single spiral horn that looked wickedly sharp. Her first thought was to flee again, but she was so miserable and tired, and the creature spoke with such kindness… she just didn’t have in in her to run. And the way her life was going at present the thing could eat her for all she cared. As it was, the very fact that a talking animal was being nice to her after all that had happened thus far was enough to send her into fresh gales of tears.

“Oh, dear… I can see that you most certainly aren’t all right.”, the beast said in a fretful voice. “Well, what to do? What to… Aha! I know just the thing. If you’ll just leave off crying for just a moment…” The one-horn knelt before the girl, and nuzzled her ear. “There, there, it can’t be as bad as all that.”

The distraught Sapata blubbered out between sobs, “But, it IS. I’m lost in some strange and awful world, and I’m alone, and I feel awful. I always knew how to get along back home, but here everything is different, and… I’m cold, and hungry, and thirsty, and I ate these terrible slug things that made me sick. And now I’m sitting in wet leaves talking to some animal that I don’t even know.”

“Well,” said the creature in a chipper voice, “I think we can take care of some of that. My name is Asarte; I’m a Unicorn. And the world you’ve come to is Kalidore, which though it is often strange, is usually more wonderful than terrible. I’m guessing you’ve had a bad go of it, but if you’ll just climb up on my back I’ll see if I can’t do something about the rest. Mind my bags though, please.”

Sapata hesitated for a moment, then thinking that going with the Unicorn Asarte was better than sitting here in the forest by herself, slowly rose. She moved over to the unicorn, and sat gingerly down astride her broad back, taking care not to disturb the two large oilcloth packs that hung on either side of Asartes’ shoulders.

The mare craned her head around, and with a sparkle in her big blue eyes, chuckled. “If you’ll be riding along with me, I don’t suppose you’d care to share your name, would you?” she asked.

“Oh!”, Sapata blushed at her faux paus. “I’m sorry… I’m Sapata.”

“Well, Sapata, hang on tightly, and try not to doze. I’ll go easy for you, but I don’t think you’d care to fall off. My legs aren’t as long as most, but it’s still a ways down.” With that, the unicorn eased herself up, and sat off at a merry trot.

As they moved though the trees Sapata ventured to ask where they were headed.

“Just a little place I know where we can stay warm, and get some food in your belly. It’s a nice place for us to take a nap too… get you back into top shape in no time!”, the mare replied happily.

The journey there took most of the night, and gradually the rocking gait and the heat of Asarte beneath her lulled Sapata into a relaxed state of mind.

She actually found herself liking the stocky bay unicorn quite alot, for as they passed the time talking about Sapatas’ past few days, the mare made little jokes about the things that had happened and made them seem comical rather than disastrous. When Sapata told Asarte about running away from the other unicorns and their riders because she thought they might be spirts of some sort, Asarte laughed so hard it was all the girl could do not to lose her seat. In between the comical comments, Asarte told Sapata a bit about Kalidore, and the Gate that had brought Sapata here.

They were having such a good time that Sapata was actually a bit put out when Asarte announced they had reached their destination.

“It’s so dark. I can’t see a thing.”, Sapata grumbled. “Where exactly have we come to?”

“It’s a just little cave here in the forest, really not much more than a carved out place in this bluff here, but it’s warm and dry. You’ll have to walk from here though, the ceilings too low to ride.”

“Alright, give me a moment…” Sapata half climbed, half slid off the mare, and moaned.

Asarte spun around in an instant. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing really… I just didn’t realize how SORE I was from sitting all this time until I stood!”

The unicorn giggled. “Oh, that! Yes, it does take some time to become used to a long ride, but you’ll learn soon enough.”

The pair made their way into the cave, and after rumminging in one of her packs, Asarte produced a sort of flat bread, and some apples, which they made short work of. Then, bellies full, the two curled up in the nest of leaves that had blown in through the mouth of their shelter. The cave was quite small, and body heat soon warmed it comfortably. The unicorn curled around the girl so that her head rested on the mares ample belly.

Sapata was just drifting off when she heard a voice.

*You poor thing… so worn out. I do hope you sleep well…*

Sapata yawned, and answered, “Oh I will… thank you, Asarte.”

She didn’t see the look of surprise that crossed the unicorns face, or hear her mummer, “She heard my thoughts… she’s the one?”

…for Sapata was already asleep.

*

Sapata awoke mid-morning to the sound of bird song, and the light of the sun slanting softly through the caves entrance. She blinked her bleary eyes, and stretched her limbs. The melodious voice of her new friend issued from behind her and inquired, “Feeling rested?”

Sapata craned her neck back to look up at the mare. “I am, thank you… have you been awake long? I hope you didn’t stay bedded down just to be my pillow.”

Asarte laughed, a peculiar sound half whinny, half nicker, but all merriment.
“Well, I’ve been sleeping off and on, and I did linger a bit longer than I might have otherwise, but I wouldn’t have woke you for all the spring grass in Kalidore. You looked so sweet nestled against my belly!”

With a sheepish grin and a giggle, the girl gave Asartes’ girth a little poke.
“I have to say you’re quite comfortable… I haven’t slept that that in ages. As for me being sweet… I don’t think I’ve ever been that. My mother always said that she should have named me after Coyote instead of Bear. Coyote is the trickster, and Bear the symbol of strength. As a child I was always getting up to no good, and then talking my way out of it…”

Sapatas’ memories were interrupted when a unbelievably loud grumble rolled through the unicorns stomach. When the initial shock had passed, the pair both shook with mirth.

In between whooping for her breath, Sapata trilled, “I think Wolf is in your belly, Asarte, and hungry! We’d better find our breakfast before he decides to come out and get it for himself!”

The two rose from their bed, and headed out into the daylight.

Asarte instructed Sapata to gather wood since it was a task far better suited to someone with hands than hooves.

“I still have a bit of trail food left yet, but I think we better save that for when we really need it. I’ll be back in just a little bit… don’t wander off too far looking for that flame fodder, dear.”

The Indian girl flapped her hand in the universal go on, go on gesture while grabbing up limbs in the other and the unicorn cantered into the trees to see what edible items she could rustle up…

It was possibly the last blooming clover of the season and Gwyneira had her nose buried deep within, munching happily on the sweet greens and flowers. She was a dusty hued unicorn, the colour of warmed honey-milk, and just a little on the plump side. This she always claimed to be baby weight, for Gwyneira was nothing if not a doting mother to her ever-growing brood; on the other hand, it might have had more to do with the clover, or possibly the timothy, honeysuckle, and grapevine that had been eaten earlier that morning.

The afternoon found her by herself, a rather unusual state for the social and family-oriented mare to be in, but an errand to the Daiga’s hut could not be avoided, nor had any of her kore wanted to make the trip. So Gwyn had gone alone, meandering up the familiar trail, munched some of the fine wild sorrel that Kaledon’s Keeper grew outside her door while packages were exchanged, and rubbed shoulders with Muse before turning her way home again at a leisurely pace.

Over her shoulder a satchel was slung, an old one of Rhaine’s; the strap was modified to snugly fit the unicorn, and the often-mended sack was taught and bulging. Besides the small wrapped package (this contained scented mineral salts, which were both a delicacy and a thing Gwyn coveted and used liberally) she had picked up a few additions along the way. There was a strikingly spotted feather of a skycat (one of the smaller griffons of the mountains) two large pine cones, a dried sprig of iridescent mountain indigo and a particularity smooth yellow rock. Gwyn was a bit of a collector. She really had no rhyme or reason to it, just objects that caught her eye and intrigued her.

A rustling in the nearby trees brought her head up, more out of curiosity then anything else. A unicorn emerged, browned like earth beneath the sun, and it took Gwyn a few more chews until recognition dawned.

“Good morrow, Astarte!” she called out, bobbing her head gamely as she spoke. The satchel shifted, and swung down and around to thump against her chest. She tugged it back into place with her teeth again before going on, “so… what brings you out to the hills today?” In truth, Gwyn only knew the mare in passing, and had no idea if she frequented these hills or not. Simply, company of any kind was always welcomed, and the round little mare stopped chewing all together as she waited for the reply.

Asarte had no sooner left the clearing outside the cave, and gingerly made her way though the first patches of undergrowth, when she was hailed. Lifting her head to see who spoke, she saw that the voice belonged to a creamy colored Unicorn mare. Though they were almost unknown to each other, Asarte recalled that this particular mare was named Gywneria, because she had often admired the pretty Kore the mare produced. Asarte had quite the soft spot for Kore, though she had none herself yet.

Asarte replied to the greetings with her own. “And good morrow to you, Gywneria! How go you? As for myself…I’ve had an interesting couple of days.
I’d simply went out for an afternoon walk to study some plants I was rather intrigued with. Thought they might be of some use as a Urdvoggen repellent… but nevermind that!
Well, when I was looking for a place to bed down for the evening, I heard some terrible noise which I felt compelled to investigate. Turned out to be a human girl; calls herself Sapata. She’d found herself in Kalidore unexpectedly, and had a bad run of luck.
So I picked her up and brought her with me. The two of us are camping in a little cave back there…” Asarte tossed her head in the general direction for whence she’d come, “And now my foundling is well rested, and hungry as a cave bear waking from it’s winter’s rest. You wouldn’t happen to know of anything here about that a human would find edible would you? I’m afraid I’m a little behind on my human nature studies… spend far too much time with my plants I suppose!”

“Goodness, a human foundling!” Gwyneira’s eyes widened. “You know, I did hear that a good many have been appearing this past week! I haven’t stumbled across one myself, though I sent my children scouring the woods just in case…. the poor darling, lost and in a bad way, you said? How awful!” the kindly mare was visibly upset by the picture; Gwyn made it her business to care for everyone and everything (usually, whether they wanted to be cared for or not!) and felt pains when something had obviously been over looked, even through no fault of her own. “How fortunate for you to have come across her, Astarte dear. We must do all we can to make the visitors feel at home.”

She digested the rest of the bay mare’s tale while swallowing a last mouthful of greens. Human behavior and habits she and observed from aside, the little patch of woods she made her home being not too far from the Temple’s garden (indeed, the temple gardens Gwyneira was quite fond of in general, and this was from an aesthetic viewpoint, not lunch) (Mostly). She felt she quite confident in her knowledge about them, and was quite eager to assist in any way she could.

“Humans have very peculiar diets, you should know, and even so the diet varies widely from person to person. Master Tyden, for instance, has an aversion to vegetables; I am very glad I do not have such a kor as him to try and keep – spurn veggies, indeed! Mistress Lilaini is quite skilled in the herbal arts – I often borrow snippets from her garden whenever my stores are getting low. And the Mistress Rhaine is known to keep the most delectable sweets in the temple larder… not that I know where….” the mare looked a bit consumed here, and there was probably a story behind it too. But she steered her focus back to Astarte with a grin.

“Why don’t we go looking? I’m sure we could, between the two of us, find something to fill your little foundling.”

“Goodness… they really have tastes that differ that much?” Asarte said in a worried tone. “I wasn’t aware. Mine ate some flat bread and apples last night, and she said that she ate some slugs, but they didn’t agree with her so I think those are out of the question. I don’t see how they eat meat like they do… plants are so much cleaner, I think. I myself once swallowed half a caterpillar that happened to be inside a lettuce I was eating. I never want to go through that again I can tell you! I would surely appreciate your help in finding her something… I don’t where to start.”

The mare grinned and flipped her tail towards her protruding middle. “I have no problem filling my own belly though, so perhaps we can start by considering some of the things I like.”

“A clever prospect, my dear,” Gwyn heartily agreed, and the two set out to explore the greens.

* * *

Fiera watched the plant near her hooves, a smug look crossing her face. “And who are you to believe that you can bite me? I am more than twice as big… and certainly am not afraid of getting the pox.” Conversing with the plant, the unicorn thought. Never in all years had she thought something like this would happen. Fiera wondered if Ali had ever had encounters with talking plants on her home world.

The sudden voice of Lyonee snatched her attention, her eyes glancing over back to the much younger girl. She wondered for how long the child stayed here. By the looks of her, Fiera concluded, possibly not terribly long, though she had no real way of telling.

“Yes, I can certainly see; no manners indeed! I should just eat him… but indigestion is very uncomfortable,” said the mare with a playful wink. He was spunky, she had to give the plant that, an attitude Fiera found absolutely delightful.

When the conclusion to Lyonee’s distress culminated with a missing sunbonnet, Fiera frowned. “A sunbonnet?” she repeated, not exactly have the slightest clue to what that might be. She guessed it was something humans wore, preferably the females, in their hair to make their appearances… better? Fiera veered up into the sky, suddenly wondering how long she had gone… Probably not all that much time has passed, she thought. It wouldn’t hurt to leave for a quick excursion.

“My child, to rescue… I do not know. To rescue you from Mio, I am not sure even about that. But I shall help you… wherever you plan to go.” She leaned her horned head down to Lyonee’s eye level, a little sparkle in it. A flick of her tail silently gave the notion that she too was ready to go; just being a little rather impatient. “Alright then, up on my back! And do bring Mio along, I do not see why we should leave him here,” the side of her mouth twitched, what would have been a grin if she were able to smile.

Lyonne gazed up at the fiery orange mare as she spoke; her voice had a lively cadence to it, and her speech was melodic, reassuring, and yet somewhat cryptic. Exactly how she imagined a unicorn would be. She could hardly wait to get back to her governess and tell her that! Lyonne frowned; if her governess could be made to believe her…

She was considering different ways she could do just that, such as convincing the unicorn to return with her; she had read in another book about a noble unicorn guardian and wondered if this unicorn might now be under some sort of oath towards her, and therefore possibly willing to come back to the villa. As fanciful an idea that seemed, it also seemed unlikely, because the girl reasoned that if that were the case she should have seen other unicorns around the villa by now; Lyonne was after all a smart girl, and read a lot, and knew that because there were so may stories and books on the subject she surely couldn’t be the first to happen upon—

So lost in thought she almost forgot she was supposed to be listening to the unicorn that suddenly thought she heard her say to climb aboard. And. bring the plant. The plant?

Startled, Lyonne looked up at the mare again, but the unicorn was silent now, a wry smiled playing at her lips. Unicorns smiled. The child dropped her gaze quickly because suddenly she felt very hot, and nothing to do with the sun. She did not know exactly what the unicorn meant, but she knew better then to ask for clarification. She knew this strange request about the plant was probably A Test. One didn’t ask about A Test, one did them quickly and smartly as possible. Because if you failed…. she didn’t want to think about that. Not that she really wanted to think more about the prickly plant. And climbing on her back? Lyonne had only ridden a handful of times by herself, and that was on Guimauve, Olivier’s nasty little Shetland pony. Mother had never been partial to her riding and said it was unladylike and bad for her health, besides of which she might fall off and break her head. So Lyonne had only rode when they were out-of-sight of the governess, and after the pony had succeeded in bucking Olivier off. Both she and Olivier fell off quite often, and neither had broken the heads; Lyonne figured her mother was probably incorrect about it being unladylike, too.

“T-take me with you?” Kaus Mio was sputtering again. His leaved ruffled in the most menacing fashion – well, as menacing as a 12-inch plant could possibly be.

The girl did not feel encouraged as she turned to him. “Well, would you rather we left you hear?” she replied tartly, casting about for something – anything she might use to carry the plant in. She had nothing – not even a sunbonnet. She glanced down at the clean, white smock of her dress and wondered how badly Nanny would scold on top everything else.

Mio reconsidered. Truth be told, he was a social plant, and living alone on that rocky crop had truly been the result of a lost zygote; and while plants processed emotions very differently from you or I, it had occurred to him he rather enjoyed talking at the girl, rather like a warm sunny day. It hadn’t occurred that she might leave, and he’d be alone again, and while he pondered this undesirability he loath to admit he was agreeing more and more with the mare.

He turned to Lyonee prickly, “well, if you must… I suppose I will submit to it. But I will have you know this goes VERY far against decorum! A descendant of Hoth – being picked! Now mind you don’t actually pick me, for then I shall truly perish! You need to take care of my roots. It’s much too shallow up here anyway; I could never really get a good grip in this rock, and the ground is so stale here…. I think you should find me a nice fertile plot and let me really take root – then I shall show you how fine I shall grow!”

His leaves trembled at the thought and the tickled Lyonee as she gently reached towards the roots. One of the smallest heads nipped at her, hissing horribly, but the girl blinked against the pinch and didn’t say a word. People didn’t cry on A Test anyways, this much she knew. She was very careful to work her fingers down into the loose sandy soil and pry the roots from the rock. She had watched her father transplant tomato plants, and knew she had to keep as much dirt as possible. With a final tiwst, the plan came free. Mio squeeked in surprise and the smallest head bit her again, but Lyonee neatly placed the bundle in her apron smock, and gathered up the bottom to make a sort of pouch. The leaves spilled over the top, Mio all the while shouting directions and advice and for great the Great Seed’s sake would she not jostle him quite so much? But the girl’s face was almost smug as tied the ends securely and admired her handywork. She turned to the unicorn with a grin, looking for any hint of approval…

…oh, right. Climb on.

She seized up the unicorn again. She was easily taller then any horse she had ever ridden, with or without help. The unicorn seemed to sense this and silently moved a little closer to the outcrop, so that Lyonee could use it to step up. Taking great care not squash her prattling pouched plant, Lyonee took a handful of mane and pulled, swinging her leg up in the motion.

There! She was sitting on a Unicorn’s back, and had a talking plant in her lap! She was probably grinning ridiculously too, but didn’t say anything. She was sure she had past The Test, and this meant – well, this must meant she got to go home. The unicorn began walking forward, picking her way down the embankment as smoothly as if it had been over flat ground.

“Gracious!” came a voice from below, “I must be the first Seed of Hoth to ever ride a Unicorn!” when a wash of Fiera’s vibrant flame-coloured mane covered him in sputtering silence.

And Lyonee just grinned, living for once in the moment.

* * *

While Asarte was off procuring some food, Sapata busied herself with wood gathering. As she worked, she took in her surroundings completely. If she was to reside here for a time, she must learn as much as possible about this world. Some of the trees in the forest were familiar to her; others were of types she had never encountered. Several limbs she picked up were covered in moss… but mosses unlike any she’d ever seen.
There were the normal grayish greens, and spring green varieties she knew, but scattered among them were bright reds, vibrant blues, even a long fuzzy purple strain that seemed to favor hardwoods.

Sapata was careful not to come into contact with them for too long, as she was unsure what toxins they might harbor, if any.

Underneath the branches, nestled amongst the loamy soil, were myriad species of insects, from thick shelled beetles to soft pink worms. Sapata had a moment of disgust when she disturbed a nest of leggy centipedes. The nasty creatures writhed and roiled over each other in a tangled ball. She dropped the half rotted log back on top of them and went in search of easier pickings.

When she’d collected a goodly amount of tinder, she decided it was time to make her fire.

She carefully stacked dry grasses, bark chips, and a few fallen leaves into a mound, and then surrounded them with first twigs, then limbs, in a tepee-like stack. She’d lost her flint back at the creek a week ago, so she would have to use the old standby of sticks rubbed together. It was a labor intense way to get a flame, but at the moment her only option… and with the prospect of food to cook she was willing to give forth the effort. A hot meal sounded wonderful.

Sapata carefully wrapped some of the brittle dead grass around itself until she had a loose circle shape. She then crumbled a couple of dry leaves into the center of the orb. This she placed close to her fire stack so that when the ball of tinder caught she could transfer it quickly to the more substantial pile.

Now she had to find her sticks… well really just one stick. The other half of her handmade “matchbox’ would be a sort of socket in which the spinning of the stick could make a spark.

Remembering a fallen pine she’d seen Sapata made her way into the fringe of the forest. She hoped to find a good sized pine knot to use as her socket. The tough pine wood paired with it’s sticky pitch made some of the best fire stick bases… Ah ha! There was the dead fall, and she could already see the perfect place to find a knotted limb.

It took almost an hour, and several smacks with a rather large rock before the pine yielded it’s treasure, but visions of warm soup or perhaps roasted apples kept Sapata going at it. Now the hard part was over. Prize in hand, she went back to her fire pit.

Now Sapata fitted a springy length of wood into her pine boles center, arranged the fluffy ball of grass at it’s base, and began to spin it between her hands; slowly at first, then faster and faster. As she spun the woods together fine dust puffed from the knot, and stuck to her brow where droplets of sweat were beginning to emerge. Soon her hands were only a blur of brown against the darker earth. In only a short time she had a spark, and then, with careful blowing and adding of bits of twigs, a nice little fire was flickering merrily. But when she gently placed the flame into the stacked wood Sapata got an unexpected surprise. For where the fire licked at those limbs with the unusual mosses, it’s orange glow became a flickering tint of whichever color the moss happened to be. The blue moss even gave off tiny showers of white sparks that crackled wildly as they burned. It was quite a display even in the afternoon sunlight, and Sapata made a mental note to collect some more of the lichens so that she could see the show after nightfall.

Sapata lazed by the fire for a bit, enjoying the colorful images it made, and wondering what Asarte would return with.

Whatever the little mare was bringing Sapata hoped she brought it soon… all the work of building the fire had made her hunger even more acute…

*

Gwyn was nodding eagerly beside Astarte, looking across the still-green pastures of early autumn. “I’m sure we can find something that agrees with her… failing that, I think the Guardians are traveling in these parts today, or so I heard from Muse when I dropped in on the Daiga; they, surely, will be able to feed her. And Rhaine usually has sugar cubes….”

She had unwittingly licked her lips at the thought, but quickly refocused herself and began picking away through grass. She kept her eyes peeled for the herbs she knew humans tended to favour, but especially for any clumps of late berries or fruit trees who’s fare would be even more appreciated. She remembered seeing some scraggly crab apples, back along the ridge, and was about to suggest they try that way, when something caught her eye. Descending from one of the small rocky slopes was a unicorn and rider. As they came nearer, she recognized the mare.

“Oh, look, Astarte! It’s Fiera – and she’s got her companion, what luck!” the mare was almost trotting towards them. “She will be able to help with your little foundling, I’m sure. I met Fiera briefly, after her return from the Gates, and she told me all about journeys beyond, and how she found her wee thing. Ellie, I think her name was? Ollie?” the mare frowned as called on her cluttered memory. “Anyways, she’s a sweet little girl, and I know she would help us. I say this is a fine turn of luck.”

As the mare headed towards them, Gwyn’s curious gaze focused all the more. It fixed on the small rider, and her head tilted curiously. “You know, I only met them once, but I don’t recall Ellie ever having such curls….” Nonetheless, she nudged Astarte to keep up as they bounded towards them. “Good morrow, Fiera! Just the mare we were hoping to see!”

Gwyn’s pace was a little quicker than Asarte was used to… her short legs pumped to keep up with the creamy mare’s longer ones. She didn’t know the mare Fiera, and was glad that Gwyn would be there to introduce her; Asarte wasn’t the best in social situations that required her to meet those she didn’t know. Once she got to know someone they wouldn’t have a better friend, it was just that she was always a bit afraid she wouldn’t be liked at first.

As the two groups came together Asarte stood aside, panting lightly, and let Gwyn do the talking while she observed. The thing she noticed first was that Feira’s companion was rather… small. And that she was clutching a most curious plant. Asarte stretched her neck towards the girl just the tiniest fraction, not wanting to alarm the little one, but her interest in all things botanical was just to much to prevent her from trying too get a closer look at the odd bundle of leaves. She’d never seen anything quite like it, and if she didn’t know better, she’d thing it was actually looking back at her…

The odd trio approached the two mares, but it wasn’t until they got close did they the realize there were two riders – a rather small girl, with a rather snappy little plant tucked inside her apron. Fiera smiled wryly at Gwyn’s greeting. “Was I now? How fortunate for you!” she chuckled.

“Well yes indeed!” the smokey mare nodded. “Astarte and myself, we were trying to determined what companions eat, for Astarte has found herself a little foundling in the woods! And who better to help then a mare and her companion proper – what luck!”

Fiera said, “I am happy to help, but I must admit – my companion is not currently with me. There seems to be many foundlings a-foot today,” she turned to give the girl and warm nudge. “These are my friends, child. I believe we were never properly introduced ourselves. I am the one they call Fiera, and this is Gwyniera, and her friend… Astarte,” she indicated the mares in turn. “What do they call you now?”

“Lyonee,” said Lyonee very quietly, a bit overwhelmed by not just one sagely unicorn, but three! “I lost my sunbonnet,” she continued, by way of an explanation.

“Oh, poor dear!” the pale-coloured mare leaned forward to nose her. As she did, one of Kaas Mio’s lesser heads took a well-directed swipe at her nose. “Goodness!” the mare recoiled in surprise, but just as quickly moved in again for a better look, though not without a more cautious approach. “And what have you there?” she eyed the green wriggling bundle with interest. “A most curious bit of rogue vegetation!”

“Rogue?!” sputter Mio indignantly. “I, a rogue? to class me among the common weeds, a Seed of Hoth –”

“Mio,” Lyonee said quickly. “He bites.”

“He does seem at that type,” Gwyneira agreed. “How did he come to be sitting in your apron?”

“That would be my doing,” Feira admitted ruefully. “Despite his bark, it didn’t seem right to leave him there; so I collected both foundling…” *I am hoping the Guardians will know best what to do with them both* she spoke the last bit silently, just between the mares, so not to worry the child further with her own uncertainty.

“The Guardians are nearby?” Gwyn perked. “Astarte, what luck! Really, this has been a gracious morning.”

“They are,” the red mare continued. “And it’s fine time I return to Ali. And Lyonee needs a sunbonnet. And you said, there’s another new companion…?”

“Astarte’s, the poor thing. I would be—yeoch!” Gwyn exclaimed, as she had been absently nuzzling the girl, her mothering instincts all-inclusive, when another of Mio’s heads reached up and bit her on the nostril.

“He does that. A lot,” Lyonee sighed.

“So I see,” she blinked composure. “Perhaps we ought to find a better place for him. Might he fair better in my satchel, do you think?”

It was then that Lyonee realized the mare had a small carry-on strapped across her shoulders, an odd accessory, much like the White Rabbit and his watch. It made her smile, faintly. Also she did like the idea of prickly Mio being not quite so close at hand. The mare was rummaging inside the satchel and retrieved a small package wrapped in paper.

“The seasoning salts will have to go; they are not good for plants.” A reluctant sigh and the bundle was tossed to the ground; the mare pulled the strap up with her teeth to bring the sack to Lyonee’s height – a bit of a feat, for Fiera was quite a bit taller. “I shink, he’ll haff a bettah view in he-ah, any-hays,” she told the girl, mouth full; Lyonee had to giggle.

“Wha— what are you doing? I say careful, careful—” Mio squeaked as his world shifted yet again. He was feeling the vegetation equivalent to seasickness, what with the jarring and the uprooting and claustrophobia of his crowded constraints. He didn’t have much strength left to argue his point forcibly, which was lucky for Lyonee who barely got bit at all; and once he was settled in Gwyn’s pack, he had to admit, was nice to have room to breath; though what he wouldn’t give for a spot of rain right now…

“Very good!” Fiera remarked as the girl dusted off her apron (luckily the soil there had been quite sandy and most of it brushed away; however it was still quite – well, soiled – and she had a hunch her nanny would scold terribly anyways). “Now Astarte, how about you collect your companion, and we will be off. I sense Ali is worried, and that the group is setting camp up not far away. We should be with them in short time.”

Lyonee wasn’t sure who Ali was, or what a companion was, or what there might be at this camp – did Unicorns camp together? Or would there be others there? Maybe, even people? but for the time she was content to let this rescue go however it seemed fit. After all, this could still be A Test! And by now she was growing weary, and like Mio, found little urge to protest. Settling quietly she wrapped her fingers again in the bright orange mane, and waited for what was to come.

Asarte watched the exchange between the two mares with shy interest. She found the tall reddish mare a bit intimidating, she seemed very self assured. She saw too that she had, in fact, been correct in her feeling of being watched by the plant, who it seemed not only talked, but had a name, and possibly a title as well. He also apparently had a rather nasty habit of biting first, asking questions later. It seemed a small wonder that he hadn’t taken off one of the child Lyonees’ tiny fingers.

She came out of her musings at the mention of The Guardians, just in time to see Mio give Gywn a sharp snap to the snout. Asarte winched in sympathy, but the creamy mare recovered rather gracefully.

When Gwyneira mentioned Sapata, Asarte felt a flare of guilt. She’d left the girl alone for far too long already, and it was high time she returned to her, food or no food.
“I’ll go gather her up, and meet you back here, Gywn. She’s rather… skittish, so I best go alone; it’ll give her a bit of time to adjust to the idea we’ll have traveling companions. I’ll return soon!” And with that she was off as fast as her legs would go.

A short time later, Asarte paused at the edge of the glen where she’d left Sapata. She wanted to see how the girl had faired in her absence. She was pleased to find the girl was resting near a well stoked fire combing through her masses of long dark hair with a twig she’d split several times to form a crude brush. Asarte felt a moment of intense pride at her charges ingenuity and ability to use the forests gifts. It settled her mind a little to see that Sapata seemed to be adjusting to Kalidore. In a moment of uncharacteristic spontaneity Asarte decided to put her bond with Sapata to a test. The Unicorn called out to the young woman with her mind, *Sapata! I’m back.*

Sapata heard the words of Asarte so suddenly and clearly that she jumped, and whirled around. Her brown eyes were filled with wonder as she saw the mare standing there. “Did you… I thought… did I just hear your voice in my head?”

The bay nodded her head, mane tossing, eyes filled with mirth. *You did. When a Unicorn meets their companion a bond is formed, allowing thoughts to be sent to and from the other. You, Sapata, are my companion! And I have to say, I couldn’t have picked a better one myself. Last night, as you fell asleep I thought I heard you mindspeak to me. I had to be sure though… and I wanted to prepare you, because soon we’ll be in the company of others, and if you feel the need to ask questions of me you’d rather they didn’t hear, well… now you know how.

*Others?* Sapata asked, trying out her newfound ability.

Asarte gave a chuckle. “No need to look so grim about it, dear heart. Climb on up, and I’ll tell you all about them on the way. I promise you they are all quite harmless… well, maybe not Mio, but he’s rather small, and if he bothers you I can always threaten to eat him.”

“EAT him?”, Sapata replied as she kicked dirt over her fire rather glumly. That blaze had taken a lot of work to make after all.

“You’ll see what I mean. That reminds me… I didn’t find any food for you yet, but The Guardians have set up camp near here, and I’m sure they’ll have plenty of fodder to go around.”

*I certainly hope so… I’m starving.*, Sapata grumbled as she threw herself across Asartes’ broad back. She struggled a moment to get her seat as the mare chuckled again.

*Well at least I know you’ll get along with Gywneira as well as I do; she’s rather fond of food too. I don’t think we’ll have to wait long to fill our belies!*

And with that the pair set off to rejoin the group of wanderers and seek whatever adventures lay waiting them there.

~ * ~

Erilynn’s eyes slowly fluttered open, and then she squinted them closed once more. The light of the fast-sinking sun glared at her, and she turned her head towards the strong, warm chest of the man cradling her ever so carefully before him. With sudden realization, her eyes sprung open, and she glanced up at Tyden. They were moving, riding towards the mountains, and away from the glade in which that curious scene had occurred. Her mind drifted back, once more to the mammoth’s comment, wondering what it might mean, and whether there was any significance in it.

Suddenly realizing exactly what position she was in, she struggled to right herself, embarrassed to find herself being carried like a child. She looked once more at Tyden. “Where are we, and what happened, exactly?” she asked. She tried to remember what had happened after the mammoth’s departure, but couldn’t. Everything was wrapped in a dense fog. “I . . . I didn’t faint, did I?” she asked, her voice small. If she had indeed fainted, she believed she die of mortification. She had never fainted before, and if she had fainted in front of him . . . well, she couldn’t think of anything much worse.

Dreading what his response might be, she turned her head towards the mountains, which were now so close they loomed over them, rising into the sky like jagged teeth. In truth, she could hardly wait until they reached the camp he spoke of. Couldn’t wait to get away from him, and this strange effect he was having on her. Hopefully it was only because he was the only other human around, at perhaps the presence of others would negate it. She hoped.

His first notion that Erilynn was with them again was an off-sided elbow to the ribcage as she struggled to righten herself. Tyden winced, as it was the same rib Xanthe had broke earlier that month, which really had healed remarkably under Rhaine’s care and only ever came to his attention when he did anything particularly jarring or got elbowed in the chest (the latter happened a lot more then one might think, Lilaini’s temper being what it was). He brought his head back to clear any other flailing appendage, keeping his arm around her firm lest she manage to upseat herself from Odin completely in the process. However, once she achieved a meager vertical, and had a moment to asses the lay of things, she settled, sulkily mollified.

Relieved that onslaught of elbows had ceased, he managed a smile to her inquiring gaze, and answered curtly, “We are still a good hour’s ride from camp, but you’ve missed nothing of the scenery so far. If we’re lucky we might catch a glimpse of the mammoth’s herd when we cross over the next ridge; then it will be all uphill from there. As for what happened…” he caught the blush of mortification across her features, and his tone softened. “I wouldn’t call it fainting exactly…. more… an adverse reaction to magic. Yes. Like an allergy. To Odin. Sometimes I feel much the same way myself.”

He ignored the snort from the unicorn beneath them, and shifted backwards politely to allow Erilynn more room that she seemed from her body language to desperately crave all of a sudden. He pushed blithely through the awkward silence. “Anyways, if it’s any difference to you, I’d be happy not to make mention of that part again. I mean, my track record for rendering companions to the Guardians unscathed would be no worse for wear if we neglected to tell them certain details, aye?” he tried to catch her regard but Erilynn’s focus remained obstinately distant. He sighed. It made for a very long ride to dinner.

Odin’s weight shifted as he began to climb, the long shadow of the mountains chasing them forward. Tyden swallowed the silence as long as he could, which lasted until they began they crested the next rise. In the distance, lit by the last horizontal rays of sunlight, the mammoths grazed. From this distance they looked like large wooly sheep, ranging in hue from the usual ruddy browns and golden, to pale cream and ebony too.

“There,” Tyden pointed to the happy distraction. “Looks like it could be Wuuthalo’s tribe from the size, although I can’t make out any features in this light. She’s the most frequent to these parts at any rate, and that youth did look right enough for a grandson. When I was young, I used to escape my lessons to go follow the herds; I’m sure I drove Dai no end of batty! But really, scouring the whole of the Skyfields from atop a mammoth, or scouring a dull old faded manuscript about history of Atlantis? Truly no contest. Of course, there was the time I actually fell asleep on Wuuthalo’s back, and didn’t realize the tribe had drifted far to the west, and I had to make my way home through the hegglot marsh, alone… and if you’ve never run across a hegglot, you are lucky. So there I was…” and the tale began, Odin’s hooves marking an even rhythm over the ground, and sky lit the world in swirling hues of crimson and indigo…

~ * ~

Leave a Reply