Ulysses – Chapter 4

Chapter #4 ~ Ulysses

Adar, the voracious little pocket griffon and swift provocateur of destiny, had clung stubbornly to the yak and clambered around her body in pursuit of the beetle for several minutes, even as she bellowed and went careening the others into stampede. Shrieking angrily he had finally managed to catch the retched insect only to discover it did not taste anywhere near as good as it looked, and was forced to spit it out again. Disgusted, dejected, and thoroughly annoyed, he sprang away from the yak and took to air.

Once in soaring flight he glanced down and noticed that many of the strange yak creatures were running brazenly about, but that was of no concern to him; his stomach was giving an awful rumbling, and as the day was waning, he decided the best way to get a full belly was to find Lilaini and the others. They always food which they left completely unattended. Catching sight of the fleeting group he dove downwards, clicking his beak in hungry irritation and totally unaware of the pandemonium he had so recently caused them…

*

Arieon had just finished scrambling down the rocks that led away from the shuddering valley of the yaks when he heard Rhaine’s clear voice telling that all danger had pasted. Relief shuddered through him, passing over his riders too as his feet finally found level ground. He saw the small cluster of trees that the mares had begun towards, and smelled the water from a nearby stream. Sighing inwardly, he decided that he had better check the new perimeter and make certain that it was as well as it seemed; only then would he himself be able to rest. Foehn Miri was not far in front of him and he made his way towards her, keen to take her up on her offer.

“My most lovely Foehn Miri,” he began as he reached her side. “Now that we are out of harm’s way, I feel I must go survey this new location in order to ensure everyone’s safety.” He paused here as he became aware that during the flight, his mane had become incredibly knotted and tangled. Making a mental note to ask Rhaine if she would please unknot it later, he continued. “And I am inclined to think that these two young women have probably had enough of riding for one afternoon,” he nodded to Tia and Alison obligingly. “I am hoping to take you up on your offer, and leave their care with you?”

Liam sensed his cue and turned around to assist the young women. He was also rather relieved that the stallion hadn’t included him in the exchanged, though the stitching in wounded side was enough to make him wince whenever the stallion had lurched suddenly beneath him. His soldier’s resolution refused to acknowledge it, and in truth, he would be unable to rest either until he knew this new resting spot was indeed safe. Perhaps the stallion sensed their similarity, and for that, Liam was glad.

Arieon had pulled up beside the shorter mare, so the transition from one back to another was not nearly as complicated as it would initially seem, but Liam helped them as best he could so that they did not flop painfully onto Foehn Miri; once the girls were safely astride, the pair took off at a brisk canter to scout the perimeter.

By this point, most of the unicorns had made it safely to the grove of trees and were all catching their breath from their unexpected adventure. As they completed their circuit, the pale stallion’s eyes caught sight of Phae with Rhaine galloping by them, headed towards Gypsy, Lilaini and another black unicorn. Anger flared immediately in the stallion’s chest and he turned so abruptly that had Liam not been such a skilled rider, he surely would have fallen off. As it was, he made a rather disgruntled noise which the stallion ignored as he charged towards the group.

Ulysses had turned his head to regard the mare next to him. Gypsy was about to speak again when a thundering of hooves caused her head to whip around and regard the newcomer. Phae and Rhaine were standing next to Lilaini yet the copper mare had not noticed their approach, and now next to them stood Arieon as a rather confused Liam was sidling to the ground.

“So brother, you have decided to grace us with your presence at last? I am interested to see that your character has not changed much in your absence. Although I must admit I am not surprised. Instead of simply coming to us, you make us go wandering all over the wilds in search of you!” Standing tall, the cremello stallion glared at his brother, hardly even seeing the others around him.

His eyes glinted amber, shattering the light within them as he turned. His features were cut hard, muscles lean and ribs showing no excess or comfort. And now that he was standing still, Lilaini and Rhaine could see his colour – black, black of night, but scissored with white along his flank like scars. The rabicano stallion observed them in turn, silently, measuring one against the other, his gaze flinching between intensity then scooting away into the recesses of his mind. At Gypsy’s touch he shuddered, reflexively, before his eyes settled on her, falling back into place. He was about to answer when the rush of hooves announced Areion’s wake, and he coiled to face the other stallion in turn.

Liam had just lightly scrambled clear, ducking towards the Guardians’ side. Did unicorns fight? the alarm pursed him as he watched the stallions circle. A half-remembered vision projected from his boyhood, two stallions who once got fighting in the dell: in blindness they charged across two cobbled fences and through an old lean-to; the building they had taken down completely and one of the stallions died, a splintered board piercing him though his heart. His hand had fallen instinctively to the hilt of his sword and he fought the urge to pull it, placing himself instead between them and the ladies. Not that a sword would matter against two magnificent stallion should war-lust seize them, but even so every muscle in his body was tensed and ready. Phae had drawn near him, and others had frozen, all eyes on the brothers where they stood.

A sound rose in Ulysses’ throat, a low rumbling, and Areion’s eyes widened as he recognized what it was – laughter. Incensed, his nostrils flared and he stamped the ground, demanding an answer. “Have you nothing to say for yourself, O Wandering One?” he scowled.

The black stallion stirred. Even in unkept form he was easily his brother’s size and matched him for height and weight. “What would you have me say?” he snorted. “Greet you joyously as long-lost kin should, laden with good tidings and condolences, to Kal, to Kaedon, to this godforsaken isle you all abide… Or truly, wouldn’t you rather I fall at your feet and worry for forgiveness? and for what? the hurt feelings of a foolish young kor? You, Arieon, have not changed a bit yourself.”

The air was electric and would have snapped if not Gypsy lunged forward then, planting herself between the two. “Enough! Both of you,” her eyes were hard, ears curling back towards her head. In the motion she had cast a look back, first to the three humans pressed against Phae and then to the rest of the herd beyond the trees, all still in earshot. “This is no time to be squabbling like spoiled koros. We are all family, among friends, and have guests in our midst. We should act the part. And Ulysses, regardless of the time that has past, you are always welcomed on Kalidore. You know that. It is home.”

Ulysses’ attention had become distracted again, and he was staring at the humans, eyes brewing with old storms. “Home?” he chuckled sadly, turning to the mare once more. “What kind of a home is this? all asleep to be taken by night in our beds, dreaming of a dawn that never comes… children!” his voice grew harsh. “Companions! They’re only children! And – even you, Gypsy?” his eyes fell on her, tumbling with confusion and betrayal as he saw her concern drawn firmly and inevitable to the girl, “I thought you, surely, of all people would know better… after what happened the last time!”

* * *

Ali’s eyes had bleared, stealing looks at her surroundings when the commotion died down and everyone was in safe territory. She dropped her arms around Tia, feeling the soreness creep up to her shoulders. Had she ever held on to something – or someone – so tightly before? The girl hoped she didn’t do any real damage to the other’s mid-side… That would be a terrible thought. She barely even knew Tia to boot.

When the dark form of Foehn Miri approached, there came with her a comforting sense of familiarity. Eager to get off, even though she could clearly feel her legs not working 100 percent, she let Liam help her down after Tia. Unlike her new older friend though, who caught Foehn Miri as she came down when they moved out of the way, Ali just simple let her legs cave under, stumbling off to the side and sat down with an ungraceful thump. She didn’t really care, she was just glad everything was OK. And by the looks of it, as her eyes wandered around, all the unicorns, companions and other humans where here and accounted for…

Well, except for one, Ali thought melancholy, looking down and moving her arms mechanically around the older girl’s waist.

Trinity had held on as Tien continued to follow the others towards the clearing, Aurellie was close by so she didn’t lose sight of her companion. Trinity’s grip upon Tien’s mane was tight, but not enough to hurt the mare. She knew that in a time such as this, it was best to hold on and ask questions later. Lifting her head, she caught sight of the stallion the others wer following. She turned her head and looked to Aurellie, nodding towards the front. ‘He is the one we all came in search of, the one this quest was for it seems. I will tell you more later. For now hold on till we are all safe.’ came the reply to her mind.

As the rush came to a halt, Trinity slid from Tien’s back, resting her hand on the mare’s neck. “Sorry for the unexpected motion, but ye were the closest to me when that had all happened,” she grinned sheepishly. “M’name’s Trinity by the way. I’ve not met you yet.”

Tien Mu chuckled at Trinity’s words. With a wink she said, “Don’t think anything of it. To be honest I was up to mischief at the time, thinking to give your hair a tug or some such. I am Tien Mu and it is my pleasure to meet you.” She acknowledged Aurellie and her words with a nod and a smile.

Aurellie had came up beside her companion and leaned over, giving Tien’s neck a gentle nuzzle. “My thanks to you for getting Trinity out of there quickly. I wandered a bit further than I should have back there when we stopped,” Aurellie said softly. “At least we are all safe once more. We can all catch our breaths.”

Beside them, Foehn Miri was delighted to be of service. She found herself kinda prancing as she carried her two passengers, no matter that she was tired from the hard scramble over the rocky ridge.

As everyone gathered among the trees Tiponi slid her noodle legs to the ground, clinging to Luminista’s mane while her legs adjusted change in demand. With a shaky laugh she commented, “I think this riding stuff might take some getting used to. You are wonderfully agile, Luminista.”

Tia too was filled with relief when Foehn Miri came to a halt and she was able to hop off. Although, hopping off would not be the best term to describe how she managed to get from the mare’s back and onto the ground. She more or less slid off sideways, clutching the mare’s mane so she did not simply fall flat on her back. When her feet touched the ground, she staggered a bit. Her legs felt as if they had turned to jello at some point during their terrifying run and she was beginning to think this was only the start of the soreness she was going to be feeling.

“Thank you for bringing us over here,” she said to Foehn Miri once she was sure she was not going to fall over. “I can only imagine how sore I’m going to be tomorrow.” She looked over at the mare and the corners of her mouth curled up in a slight smile. Despite it all, she was in good spirits. They were alive at least, which she got the impression had been rather in question several minutes prior, so a bit of stiffness was a small price to pay in her mind. These thoughts were flitting around in her head just as two other unicorns with riders in tow, showed up on the scene. She bobbed her head in greeting to the newcomers.

Tiponi said to the girls, “That was quite a ride, wasn’t it.” It did not escape her notice that the liver chestnut was practically dancing as she drew nearer.

“Yes it certainly was!” Tia declared with a musical laugh. “I managed to stay on no matter how ungraceful I looked, so I’m deeming it a success.” She said in response to Tiponi. “But Ali are you fine as well?”

Still rather dazed, Ali roused herself enough to answer. “Ye… yeah, thank you. That was… well, I’m not sure I want excitement like that any time soon. Again, I mean.” Ali stuttered, feeling her dry throat tamper with her voice; or was it the fear washing away? She didn’t have a clue. “I think I’ll be ok. Just… not used to riding that hard. I think I’ll have some major sores tomorrow,” Ali winked, stretching out her legs and feeling the muscles under contract.

Foehn Miri had stood carefully still while her riders dismounted and (in Tia’s case) clung to her. The poor girl was out of her element. Foehn Miri wished there was some one to lend her some strength. As for the other one, Ali, the girl was obviously distracted and worried. Looking around, Foehn Miri realized Fiera was unaccounted for. She moved over to nuzzle Ali, hoping the girl recognized it for the comfort it was intended.

The tension crackling between the few unicorns up ahead caught their attention. The dark shadowy stallion was like a silhouette against the sky and Aerion, except for the bits of white near his belly. Ali listened and watched raptly, wondering if she’d ever seen this much hostility (minusing Fiera’s ever few snide remarks) between two unicorns. Beside her, Tia stared at the group for several seconds in wonder, before feeling like she might be eavesdropping and therefore averted her eyes. Looking around, she found a fallen log and walked over to it. Settling herself down, she sighed and decided that her hind end might prefer if she sat on the grass. The log was not overly comforting. “So, can someone tell me what exactly is going on?”

“I uh, actually. I would like to know that myself,” Ali shrugged, unsure what help she could be. “But I think any of the unicorns can give a better explanation. So uh… the crazy almost-being-trampled part or… just everything?” Ali let out her breathe, a bit too disoriented to really give an explanation of what she meant. She hoped Tia would understand what she meant by ‘everything’.

Tia stretched her legs out in front of her and attempted to rub the soreness from her thighs with little success. She was also rather conscious of the fact she was covered in dirt, and since she was wearing a rather short skirt, she was slightly concerned about just how dirt she actually was and where. Biting her lip she drove that thought from her mind; why worry about things you had no control over and no ability to change at the moment? One of the laces on her boot had come undone during their flight so she twisted around in order to lace it back up properly. She looked up from her task when Ali fell quiet again.

“Well I would like to know about the trampled part, but since I’ve only been here a few hours, I’d really like to know everything about what we are doing. Where are we going? What are we out here doing exactly? How long are we planned to be away? What are those two fighting about?” She said this as she made a meaningful head nod in the directions of the stallions. “And why are there such an….” she paused here, looking for the proper word, “….eclectic assortment of people here? I mean some people look as if they are coming right out of a book or a movie or something.” She was going to say a different time in history but that was just nonsense. Wasn’t it? She had stumbled into another dimension apparently, so maybe people being from different times wasn’t such of a reach. She looked hopefully back and forth between the mares standing nearby, hoping one of them could give some insight into this for her.

* * *

Gypsy’s ears flattened slightly at the black stallion before her, but she was not able to stop herself from flitting a glance in the direction of her companion. Memories flashed through her mind, causing her to shake her head as if to attempt to dislodge them.

“This is not the time or place for that discussion. We have many with us, and they may need to be looked after.” She turned from him, deliberately, towards the others. “Arieon, perhaps you and Phae should go and check on the unicorns, make sure that everyone is alright, and you three,” she inclined her head towards the guardians and Liam, “should go and check on our human companions.” She felt Lilaini’s mind brush against hers, letting her know she would not be far away if she was needed.

Ulysses stood silently, tail wiping from side to side belaying his agitation. But he nodded, a grudgingly “as you wish,” and even braced a curt nod Areion’s way. The cremello stallion struck at the ground with his front hoof but said nothing, not looking at the bronze mare as he turned; he was off at a brisk trot, nostrils still flaring and silken tail streaming behind him like a flag.

Phae had recoiled internally as the arguing began, her feet seemingly glued in place. Ulysses brewed like a dark cloud and the electricity of his charge snapped the air about her face like hornets. She realized she knew really nothing about him, this fierce Ulysses, the Lost Son, a mythic figure among the tales of kor. In truth, she had never paid attention to the details – that had always been Spirit’s role, Spirit who would come to her afterward and explain their lessons again, and then everything would make sense…. Inadvertently her thoughts tumbled, wrenchingly, and her focused drifted further away, barely noticing the humans pressed against her until Gypsy turned and parlayed orders of them, too.

It was Liam who reacted first, a soldier’s instinct penetrating even the dim of his broken memory. Taking orders gave him a sense of purpose, and the diffusion of the two stallions allowed the adrenaline to drain. He nodded readily, turning to the Guardians. “The Lady—” (and he meant Gypsy here; he was not sure what to address her as, Mare seeming too common-place, Unicorn too objective, and he didn’t feel exactly comfortable calling her by name) “—has hold of things here; we best be where we can be of most use. I shall accompany you…?” he let the offer hang, eager to set off but unwilling to overstep his boundaries before his superiors.

Rhaine had watched the exchange with eyes wide. The raw emotion had tumbled from them and into her, bringing with it strange dreams… a young white koros chased across the field, calling to the black ahead of him, but try as he might he couldn’t reach him and the other wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t answer, wouldn’t allow himself to be caught, and bit by bit the white kor began fall further and further away. Too little, too young, too foolish, you wouldn’t – couldn’t – understand! Go home and suckle your dam; I have no time for you… The vision flared and then was gone, but as quickly as she caught her breath the flood came again, stronger this time, piercing, fierce. There were no pictures, no words, only an impression of horror and then all was still…

“M’lady?”

She turned to the sound of his voice, but it was a moment before she realized who spoke and what she was being asked. Liam reached out and took her arm before she realized her balance swayed. “Just a vision,” she smiled fleetingly, a touch of colour returning to her cheeks “and it now has passed. And yes, let us be on our way – we need to get the fire going before it’s too dark, and I should see that no one has been hurt. It has been… such a day.”

There was no argument on this point, and Liam wasn’t about to argue either if perhaps she should take a moment for herself as she began moving forward then and he hastened into place alongside. He glanced at the Lady Lilaini but the woman seemed beckoned to her mare, and he knew enough by now to suspect they were speaking with that strange internal link some humans and unicorns seemed to share. This caused him then to glace at Phae, but the red unicorn was still brooding; perhaps it was just as well no link lingered there!

In the clearing Xanthe stood while the jelly worked its way down her legs. She didn’t dare take another step, because she didn’t quite trust her feet, and was just glad for the moment to be breathing. In her little moment of zen voices waffled in and out of attention, first the new girl, Tia, then Lumanista and her companion, then Ali and then Tia again. The arguing stallions penetrated too, but in her exhausted state she didn’t light on it, instead storing the memory for further scrutiny at a later point. She sighed deeply, feeling the fatigue seep from her body. Gotta get these packs off, she thought. By Kal, they weigh a tonne. And they itches…

She took a tentative step forward, and found her legs did indeed hold, and with that smidgen of relief began forward again, in search of a pair of hands. Rhaine was just coming through the trees, and she would have her first choice if not for the burr at her side which was Liam. Lilaini was only a few steps behind, but dun korè was already discouraged and distracted. She ignored their queries to the others – was everyone okay? anyone hurt? – and their request to gather wood for the night’s fire. She turned, the weight of the world on her back, and stumbled into the surprisingly small Viking instead.

“Oh, pardon me, I didn’t–” and she sidestepped, regaining footing, but for some reason the moment of the packs seemed to keep going, her hoof caught a stone, and in the most ungraceful manner possible tumbled into a tangled heap of packs and tired korè…

* *

Iole’s hand tapped against her thigh as she hummed to herself and walked slowly, pack in hand, swinging her arms as she sang the song stuck in her head repeatedly. A smirk was upon her pink lips and there was a twinkle of laughter about in her golden eyes that sang of mischief and each step was like a little dance. She resisted the urge to twirl about and instead just smiled, as innocently as Iole could allow herself too. She was walking home from a sleepover at a nearby friend’s house late last night and was prepared to spend the rest of the day tucked neatly onto her bed with a book latched to her hand, strawberry milkshake resting on the little wooden table resting by her bed, lamp light on.

She was in a good mood of yet and hopefully it would last throughout the day and night otherwise someone was going to end up with their midnight snacks replaced with healthy snacks and oatmeal bars with raisins. Iole brushed away a bothersome lock of wavy brown hair and squinted up ahead. It seemed that she was soon to be home.

Iole quickened her pace, steadily, and a look of determination crossed her face of getting home before her mother who was probably finishing up a busy day or work right now. Darcy had said she would be home earlier today….and Iole hoped she would keep her “promise.” Her purple leopard-spotted jacket slapped against her slim form as she raced forward with glee in her bright eyes. She could smell the waiting apple strudel already. Unless Takuya had eaten all of them…

Her little brother was quite the annoyance at times and that was why she used her “art” in assisting the greater good of the lessons an older sibling had to teach a younger. A little friendly bump here and a not too hard at all shove there. Nothing too it. The 17 year old rounded the last corner in anticipation of seeing her beautiful big sky blue house but instead found herself…

…in a world of trees and dirt and other plants. For a moment she just stood there and stared around in shock. Sure, there were bunches of bushes (including some neatly trimmed rose bushes) and little flowers popping up from the soil at her home in Arizona but it wasn’t like this. And she frowned as she stared up at the sky. The time of day was all wrong too! It should be early afternoon with the sun still bright against the sky, not beginning its descent into the horizon, releasing the colors of the sunset!

As Iole frowned she put both hands upon her hip, pack forgotten and swinging still at her side. She was in a bad mood now. Her lips curled up in a grimace and she rubbed her side angrily before swinging her pack of sleeping over equipment over both shoulders and the purse connected to it by a thin cord. “Helloooo?” she called softly at first. “Heeellllooo!” This time it was louder. She listened for a moment and sighed in impatience as no answer was returned. There had to be a logical explanation for this! The girl bit her lip and made an angry gesture. This could be some payback of a practical joke of sorts but this didn’t seem that type of all. How could someone just make a whole place like this appear out of the middle of nowhere? Everything felt real…

She briefly touched the trunk of an old grizzled tree and felt the rough bark against the palm of her soft hand before releasing it and running the hand through the tips of her long hair. In annoyance she snorted and a smirk began to appear again at the edges of her lips as they twitched. What if this place was all real and she had been magically transported? Iole snickered at the idea and doubted highly that aliens had kidnapped her too. She dismissed both ideas for the moment without much further thought but like demons they lurked at the edge of her sharp mind and considered further thought.

Her ears strained for any sound of intelligent life and for a moment she thought she heard voices whispering in the wind and headed for that direction with a confident expression upon her partly pale face. This whole thing could be a dream for all she could know…

* *

At the camp Rhaine and Lilaini realized Fiera was amiss with sharp efficiency. A gentle mind probe on the latter’s part related that, luckily, she was still well and not lying trampled beneath the surge of a thousand cloven hooves; this did not do much to elevate her mood, regardless of how many suggestions Rhaine came up with as to why she might have wordlessly taken off, and Lilaini moved about the camp with marked agitation, her cloak flapping angrily behind her. Rhaine had turned to Liam at this point with a sigh and suggested he fetch water from the stream; this he did punctually, and she set about to tend the fire.

The flint starter was in the packs, which were still attached to Xanthe, who at that moment tumbled most ungracefully down at Bryn and Thora’s feet. Rhaine went to the Kore’s aid, inquiring whether Bryn had fared well too, a vague worry creasing her brow when she recalled she had last seen Tali in their company, and yet he was no-where about now. She was certain he’d made it clear the stampede, and could only hope he, like Fiera, was seeing to his own business. And when they were through, they would return in due time, as would Tyden, and with luck none would be worse for wear. These thoughts consumed her as she worked to relieve the filly of her packs that she didn’t realize she’d been speaking until the tapered end of her horn inclined back and jabbed her arm.

“Ack! Little cactus, what now?” her reproof.

“You’re ignoring me,” was the reply.

Rhaine sighed, the last of the straps coming free; the kore shuddered blessedly as they fell away, the hair wet beneath it and soothed by the cool air. “I have many things to see to this night, sweetling, and I regret that my attention can not be solely upon you. But when this adventure is over, I assure many long hours in the temple garden with baked apples, a good book, and your scratching stick.”

“We still have get back there first,” said Xanthe grumpily, even though the thought of Lana’s baked apples – so often crumbled with walnuts and honey-drizzled – did improve her mood just by their mention. She looked up the path to where Gypsy and Ulysses had stayed. “It’s not going so well, is it?”

Rhaine really didn’t have an answer, and at this point, had found the flint starter. “Would it be quite so much fun were it easy?” she pressed a wry smile.

“I could do with slightly less fun, I think,” was the kore’s revelation. Rhaine ruffled her forelock and was on her feet, headed back towards Lilaini.

* *

Knightly Cadence was in the middle of a good roll when a sound caught his attention. He paused, legs poised in an exaggerated upwards position, and listened. His human companion Ryan was not far away, unraveling his tent as daylight began to wane. He was quietly whistling to himself as he set about his task and was about to ask his new friend a question when he caught sight of the frozen stallion. Raising an eyebrow, he restrained himself from speaking and stood quite still with the tent half unfurled in his hands. The stallion abruptly relaxed his position and rolled over onto his side before righting himself. Shaking off small bit of grass and twigs he turned to address his puzzled looking companion.

“There are other’s nearby, let’s go and see who it is.” The sound of faraway voices were now reaching the young man’s ears but his look was one of slight exasperation. He had just begun unpacking everything, and not to mention that his hind end was killing him (that that he was going to mention that part). But he could see that this was something his traveling companion felt they needed to do, and since he was the expert on this place (Kalidore he called it), Ryan figured he had better pack everything back up.

Running his hand through his sandy blond hair, he sighed and then began rolling the tent he had only moments before unfurled, and stuffed it back into its bag. Having completed that, he hoisted the bag onto his back and (ungracefully) swung astride the awaiting stallion.

Cadence chuckled to himself as he felt his rider swaying gingerly on his back. He walked very carefully, trying to jostle the young man as little as possible. How much had changed in the last several days, he reflected to himself. One moment everything was as it had always been, taking a good roll or having a run across some grassland, the next, he stumbled across someone vital he had never realized he was missing. When he had found Ryan, the youth was beyond confused and inexplicably lost. He had explained he had been hiking through the mountains with several human friends when he wandered off the path to get a clearer picture of a deer and suddenly was unable to find the path or his friends again. Luckily for him, he had stumbled through a gate with all his camping gear, and therefore had a tent and several changes of clothes with him. Not to mention some cooking implements and wonderfully enough, a toothbrush! The unicorns arrival had been rather shocking to him at first, since he viewed Cadence as a mythical being and all. But both of them felt a rightness about being together so the decision to travel together had been a natural one. Cadence had admitted he had no idea how to locate the gate that Ryan had obviously crossed through, but that they could search out the Guardians who might be of some assistance. And so, the pair had set off, but the idea of returning home had seemed less and less important the longer Ryan was in Kalidore. He had never felt so drawn to a place before, although all this riding was certainly going to take some getting used to.

Both unicorn and human were lost deep in their own reflections when they came to the outskirts of the clearing. Cadence stopped and surveyed the situation. There were so many humans! Never before had he seen so many humans in one place, and he pricked his ears forward with interest. Ryan look slightly startled yet excited at the same time. He had always been a very social kind of guy, and he was glad to see that there were other humans in this land. He had never really thought to ask the chestnut stallion that, but he was relieved now that he knew he was not the only one.

“There are the Guardians that we are in search of,” Cadence said bobbing his head in the ladies direction. “Lady Rhaine is the woman with the curly brown hair over there, and Lady Lilaini is the woman with straight brown hair beside her.” Ryan looked in the direction the stallion indicated and took in the women’s appearances. They both looked dusty, and Lady Rhaine appeared to be wearing a man shirt? Lady Lilaini’s cloak was flapping after her in a most harassed looking manner yet the two of them seemed to radiate elegance despite any of these other factors and he could immediately see these two were defiantly well respected women.

“So, do we go in? Are we welcomed?” Ryan asked in a hushed voice, not wanting to draw any attention to them. He slid off the stallion’s back and stood next to him, his eyes trained onto the strangers. He was therefore startled when a rumbling laughter broke from the stallions chest.

“Welcome? Of course we are welcome. This is Kalidore, and these are family. All beings are welcomed here. Come, let us see if we can be of any assistance.” With that, the stallion stepped into the clearing and headed in the direction of the Guardians. Ryan hesitated for a moment before quickly darting after the chestnut stallion. They wandered over to the two woman and stopped before them.

“Greetings Lady Rhaine and Lady Lilaini,” the stallion bobbed his head in greeting. “We have come to see if we can be of any assistance to you?”

Ryan also smiled at the two woman warmly and introduced himself. “Hi there, I’m Ryan. Just let me know if there’s anything at all I can help with around here and I’d be glad to do it,” he said, motioning with his hand at the surrounding clearing.

*

Tiponi shared a chuckle with Tia as she thought of her own lack of grace in the mad dash over the ridge. She was glad the girls had asked their questions, she had been wondering much the same thing although really it didn’t matter to her where they were going or if they were just wondering aimlessly. She knew though that they had been traveling with purpose, so it was nice to know why. Since her legs had remembered how to hold her up and allow her to walk she moved over and settled herself on Tia’s log as the girl moved herself to the grass.

“We have been traveling in search of that dark stallion over there,” Foehn Miri explained to the new girls, indicating Ulysses. “He has been gone…,” she paused to ponder. “Well, almost forever.” Foehn Miri let her gaze wonder over the group of unicorns and people, trying to see them from the eyes of a newcomer; not too difficult, since most of the humans were new to her as well. “As for the humans, I am not sure I understand the question. They just look like people to me.” She had personally wondered about the coverings they each chose to put on and why they wore such odd things, but who was she to criticize?

As she listened, Tiponi’s restless gaze was caught by a strange man who was making his way into camp with a lovely brown unicorn (were any of these unicorns not a sight to see?). Her eyes narrowed in suspicion as she watched him make his way to Rhaine and Lilaini. Before she knew it, she found herself along side the ladies, a cuff knife held low in her right hand, ready for whatever he might instigate.

Tia managed to stifle the amazed reaction she was still feeling at having something that was no human speaking to her. She did not let any of this show on her face, but the idea was still quite startling when you really got down to thinking about it. Listening to what the chocolate mare told her, she made an attempt to digest and retain it all. She had a few more questions about why this stallion needed searching for and where he had been, but she got the impression that the mares before her did not have that information. It was sounding like quite a mystery.

“Well, what I mean about the humans…,” she paused, flailing to find the right words. She looked at Ali and then Tiponi hoping maybe they would understand what she meant. “….well, no one looks like me here that’s for certain. But the…Guardians…they don’t look like they are even from the same era as me. Same goes for quite a few others. Why is that?” She wondered if that sounded rude, and a rare frown crossed her face. “I mean, not to say I’m the standard for looking normal,” she laughed as she fanned herself with her hands, “because I’m certainly not! But…” She broke off abruptly as Tiponi, who had been sitting behind her, suddenly vaulted off the log with a knife drawn and rushed off towards some newcomers.

“What on earth…?” she exclaimed looking around slightly bewildered.

Lilaini had looked up as movement in the trees revealed Knight Cadence and who appeared to be his companion. Rhaine had just returned then too, with the firestarter in hand. The first thing she made note of was that the youth seemed to have fared well, despite his change of surrounds, and was well-mannered and pleasant; the next was that Tiponi was at her side with knives bared. Working to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible – hopefully, before Ryan noticed; what an introduction to Kalidore THAT might be! – she stepped forward with outstretched hand.

“Greetings to the Isle, Companion of Cadence; your offer is most appreciated as we are settling camp for the night, and more hands make short of work. If you like, you can help carry water from the stream; Liam has begun the task and will show you where the waterskins are if you ask. We will have some supper in a short while that you are more then welcomed to join. Tiponi will see to the fire,” she turned and handed the bundle of kindling she had just gathered to the woman pointedly, Rhaine taking direction and offered the lighter as well. She figured, the more things she had in her hands, the less likely she was to wield the knife!

Ryan was slightly startled by the woman who came rushing up behind. Unlike the two Guardians, this woman’s expression was not friendly or welcoming. Luckily, he did not see the weapons she carried in her hand because the Guardian with straight dark hair stepped in front of her just then. The young man was slightly flummoxed as Lilaini extended her hand to him. Normally he would have shook it immediately, but he wondered if she was some type of royalty here and he was supposed to kiss her hand or ring, or whatever that weird custom was. Or maybe that’s what you did with the Pope? Was she some type of religious figure maybe? Well how on earth was he supposed to know what custom called for in this situation? He’d only been here a few days. His eyes flitted briefly to her hand and to his relief he didn’t see any rings, so he reached out and clasped her hand in his own and shook it gently. Cadence snorted in what suspiciously sounded like amusement and the young man momentarily glared at him before turning his attention back to the young woman.

“Sure! No problem,” he was about to mention to her that he also had a tent with him if they had need of that, but with orders settled, everyone else seemed to be hurrying off. Setting up camp with this many people certainly would take some organizing, he mused as he turned in the direction Cadence had indicated. He quickly found the man who he assumed must be Liam, since he was the only other man he’d run across at this point, and told him he was to help carry the water. The two talked easily as they carried their burdens back to the clearing and deposited the water where the Guardians had asked. Looking around, it did not take long for him to find the chestnut stallion and he jogged over to where he was grazing. Picking up the backpack he had dropped before going to retrieve the water. He once again began unpacking his tent and various other items.

“It is safe to unpack this time right?” he said with mock sarcasm to the stallion. “You aren’t waiting for me to get this half put up before informing me we are spending the night elsewhere?” He watched as the stallion rolled his eye and laughing, and continued to work.

As people scattered with purpose, Rhaine was thoughtfully still. “Lily, can you oversee the dinner?” she turned to her friend. “There’s one more thing I need to tend to,” she explained, glanced where Foehn Miri was still tending to silent Ali.

The girl looked utterly forlorn and lost without her companion, and the sight pained her deeply. Did she really take off and leave – just like that? Something must have been terribly amiss… otherwise, a companion would not leave their companion thusly – would they? Rhaine felt herself shiver, night falling like cold stones upon the ground and needed a moment to regroup before she arrived.

Quietly she arrived at the girl’s side, one had resting again Foe’s deep chocolate coat, and the other going across the girl’s shoulder. “The thing about having a companion… is that even when they’re not with you, they are never far at heart. Or mind; as your powers hone, you’ll be able to send thoughts and feelings to one another even at great distances. Fiera can be a little autonomous at times; I imagine it might take a while before she remembers she’s supposed to tell someone where she’s going before she ups and goes… And you’re completely allowed to scold her firmly on that point when she returns,” she gave the girl a brave smile.

“And Foehn Miri is correct – Ulysses has been away from home a long time. We have come to discover the business for which he returns, and welcome him home. It looks like we have assembled quite the welcoming party too; I believe we’ve overwhelmed him somewhat,” said Rhaine decisively.

* * *

Gypsy stood quite still and watched as the others retreated before her. Arieon had trotted off as she asked, and the others seemed all too eager to extricate themselves from the situation. Her eyes wandered after her companion fleetingly as the young woman busied herself with dinner preparations. When everyone else seemed to be engaged she felt herself relax slightly, as if her body had been coiled, ready for anything. The black stallion next to her had not moved since the group had dispersed and she turned to look at him.

“It has been many years Ulysses since we’ve seen one another. You are looking no worse the wear for your travels.” Her voice was somewhat guarded and she chose her words carefully. She felt the stallion had not meant to show himself to them when he did, but the peril the group had been in had forced him and she did not want him to leave when they had only so recently found him. “What brings you back to the Isle after so long and absence?”

The stallion’s attention seemed fixed on some point in the distance, weather it was of significance, or just conveniently not where Gypsy stood it was hard to tell. Her company seemed to perplex him, but at the same time seemed unwilling to turn and leave altogether. Every now and then he stole a look back to the clearing where the others had gathered, but whenever he did the storms in his eyes seemed to brew over. So he stood, back to her, and brooded.

To her pleasantries he merely snorted, flicking his tail without commitment. The fact that she already knew the answers to everything she asked irritated him all the more, and he refused to give her credit by answering. So he continued to stew and fret, letting her words fall silently, until her final remark his resolve failed. “Ha! Always the same, the whole bunch of you – wanting me to remain with the rest of you here, like happy little sheep…. what folly that is,” he spat, striking the ground with his fore. Then he seemed to catch himself, and bit his anger, but the stink of it remained on his breath.

“I came back, because some idiot was good enough to open all the Gates of Kalidore… I thought, years back, when they were first closed, that maybe – just maybe – you had come to realize just what lies beyond that grey sliver of dawn…. I should not have been so disappointed. So now you’ve opened the Gates, and let great evil into the Isle anew.”

The bronze mare fought to control her anger when he insulted the others. She controlled herself and got a memory flash of him all those years ago before he had left. He was so young, she thought to herself. No wonder this has happened to him. What he said next left her quite silent for several minutes. Her eyes darted back to the group of ever growing humans in their midst and a worry she had at the back of her mind came forwards.

“All the gates are open?” she paused letting this spoken thought work itself around in her mind. She shifted her weight uneasily, but pushed that thought away to address something else he had said. “What is this evil you speak of?”

“Now, now, Gypsy – playing dumb was never your lot!” the stallion goaded, “nothing would disappoint more as to discover that!”

Laughter rose in his throat, but it was cold, sad, a broken sound trembling wantonly forth. “And yet you took a companion… whatever did Imbri have to say about this? ….yet I noticed she is not with your group; perhaps that is self-explanatory.”

“As for evil—” he pressed forth, not allowing the mare to interject with an almost cruel toying, “—what other evil then that in it’s most primary form? Or had you not yet realized their were Dragons on Kalidore? By that look on your face I say nay…. well, mark me, isle-sister – you soon will.”

“Imbri is not nearly as pig headed on the subject as you are and she happens to know a great deal more about it. Perhaps you should speak less about things which you have no experience in.” The bronze mare kept her expression neutral but her eyes blazed. “I would have stood by you had you stayed and helped you when I could, so why you speak to me with such malice in your voice I can only guess.” She paused to ensure she was still composed before continuing. The mention of Dragons had shocked the mare and she had not had sufficient time to wrap her brain around this idea. The creatures had not crossed into her thoughts since the end of the war, so well over a thousand years. Old feelings of fear and worry flashed through her body as she was standing there digesting this information. Dragons could be cruel and violent creatures, although she knew not all dragons were like this. Kal and the Daiga had always taught them tolerance and about finding the good in everyone. Knowing this, she was unsure what the dragons intentions could be for coming here. Friendly? Or hostile? Ulysses was going to jump to the negative conclusion, perhaps they were here on a good will mission. Come to make a call on their neighbours. Worries about the occurrences in the Kaledon flitted through her mind before she realized she had been standing there without speaking for many moments. “Where have you seen dragons on Kalidore, Wanderer?”

At Gypsy’s rebuke he flinched slightly, but not enough to concede. Ulysses did, however, remain silent until she had finished, and the silence between cooled them both. He was not willing give that his anger had been misdirected, but perhaps his words had been somewhat harsh; he watched her sidelong, measuring memory against silhouette, and not sure in that moment which one was more real. When she spoke of dragons, he closed his eyes.

“I followed them here,” he said. Or did they follow me? “Three moons hence, through the Gate at Al’therwen’s ruins. Where they have gone hence, I cannot say, but wherever they go, night will follow. It always does. I should know; I have been chasing it since the day I left Kalidore, all those years ago.”

* * *

Instead of going straight to the clearing, Areion veered off towards the stream; there he plunged his nose into the cold water and drank, one ear cocked stubbornly towards the sound of voices beyond. When he had his fill, he began grooming. His hair was a mess! Where twigs had come and tangled from he didn’t know – considering asides from the small wooded oases, the trees on the plateau were thin and far between. And the dry dust of the canyon floor had coated every inch of his coat, so that he was not an ivory stallion, but merely a sullied off-creme. And that would never do. He set to work feverishly, splashing around noisily in the water and working the most stubborn knots with his teeth. As he worked, he began to feel better, for really he had found no better way to clear the mind then to clean the body. Not to mention that a gleaming coat did wonders for his sense of self too. As the light fell, the golden glow of sunset made his sleek hide gleam, and he sighed. He realized he was quite content to leave Gypsy to deal with their brother; he had more important things to tend to anyways.

He gave himself a final shake, relishing the cool evening breeze. Craning his elegant neck back he set a few wet strands of mane into place, then turned his sites towards camp and the mares. He had only gone a few paces when noise in the opposite direction caught his attention. Nostrils flared he stopped again, but after a moment’s scrutiny he relaxed. “Greetings, Sisters of the Isle! What brings you here this fine evening?” he called.

“Same to you, good sir!” Gwyniera called out jovially. “As a matter of fact we come looking for YOU! Fiera has been kind enough to bring us here, as we are seeking the Guardians. Along with Astarte, a foundling or two is in our midst, and we are thinking of their well-being; and, if we have found you, the others must be close at hand. So, a fine evening it is this indeed!”

“Ah, Gwyniera, it is always a pleasure to see you,” the cremello stallion said as the mares came into view. Arieon waited dutifully as the group approached, game to escort them. “And it certainly is a fine evening if I am to understand that you all will be joining me on my way back to the clearing.” His face gave the impression that nothing else would have pleased him better, and he inclined his head in the direction they were to take.
“Greetings foundlings,” he addressed to the human too with good humour, all the irritation from the confrontation with his brother having, for the time being, left him. “I am Arieon, and it would be my pleasure to welcome you formally to Kalidore. As you have already learned, you are among friends, and there are many more waiting to greet you tonight.”

With this the pale stallion turned gracefully, picking the smoothest way back to the clearing, going at a pace he felt was slow enough not to cause the mares to jostle their riders.

*

Lily applied herself to her chores with agitation. Her mind was rife with thoughts of distant dark stallion, the strange turn of events, their most recent near-disaster, and the prospect of what to make for dinner. She found the packs which contained their food stores and began to inspect the contents. Lentils seemed to be the logical choice for this evening’s feast. The lentils were stored in the bag next to the spices, so the guardian scooped up all the required items (including the cooking pot) and headed towards the centre of the clearing. Setting the pot down, she began measuring out the lentil spices as Tiponi saw to the fire.

With the brief eye contact as she taken her charge, Tiponi registered what she had done and the Guardians’ unspoken message. Blushing, she’d returned the short blade to its sheath in her cuff and turned to collect some fire wood. She started out with her back purposefully to the strange man, but she just couldn’t bring herself to maintain that stance. It went too much against her experience to leave her back to any male of her species. She understood from every female she had encountered here that the men in Kalidore were the polar opposite of what her life’s experiences had taught her and really she was trying. Earlier in the day she had been patting herself on the back for being able to ignore completely the two men that had been traveling with them.

Unbeknownst to the effect he was having on a certain woman, Ryan meanwhile had just stood back and surveyed his handwork. The tent was set up and ready to go. Feeling rather accomplished he stretched and yawned slightly. The stretch brought his sore leg muscles back to the forefront of his mind and he silently wished he had packed some pain meds in his bag. Ah well, nothing could be done about that now. Lots of people road horses, and he was sure unicorns must move smoother than horses did, and those people managed; he concluded it was simply a matter of getting your legs and your hind end used to it. Cadence had wandered away to mingle with some of the mares, so the youth decided he would leave him alone and started off in the direction of Liam. As he started out, he came instead upon Tiponi, carrying a rather large bundle of wood. Feeling chivalrous, he hurried over to her side.

“Hey, good to see you again. Can I give you a hand with that? I’ll carry it wherever you were headed.” He smiled at her, sure the hostile expression he had thought he seen before was just an exaggeration.

Luminista was watching carefully as Tiponi moved about collecting the wood. She could feel the girl’s embarrassment and self-castigation, but she didn’t interrupt – until she saw the new man approach, then she made haste to join the two even as Tiponi stiffened. *Easy now, she sent to Tiponi as she said to the newcomer, “Greetings. I am Luminista and this is my companion, Tiponi.” With a look at Tiponi that was loaded with meaning, she continued, “I am sure she would be happy to accept a little help with her load.”

Tiponi struggled with herself. He is not a threat, he is not a threat, running over and over in her mind. Making an effort at a smile she managed pry her fingers from their death grip on the wood and release it in silence to the man.

“If you could just bring that wood over by Lilaini, that would be fine,” Luminista instructed when Tiponi failed to do so, and off they set, Tiponi trailing behind.

*

Iole felt like she was just getting lost now as she wandered through the forest of brown and green trees, wondering where in the world the first sign of civilization could be. There had to be real life somewhere around here…didn’t there? She couldn’t be the only thing smart enough to create a fire or whatever, the only human being? She saw signs of animal life and once and a while her skin prickled and she thought she saw a squirrel or something like it go scurrying by. She could even see hoof prints where wild herds of horses could have passed through.

The lost girl took a deep breath and noticed something about the air; not the quality of it but how there was a hint of delicious food about it. All she had was bubblegum and a water bottle which wouldn’t last her long. She looked forth eagerly and heard it again, the whisper of voices carried about by the wind. Breathed into the steadily turning colder air of night and sounding into her ears. Iole started forward with new strength and listened with her head cocked to the side. Feet beating against the ground, the dark soil of the earth, Iole heard the sharp voices of what could only be humans.

And what was that soft beating sound, hoof beats? Perhaps it wasn’t a wild herd at all that she guessed must roam through here but tame (or at least as tame as horses could be) that were the regal steeds of these people. Maybe they could tell her where she was and send her hurrying on her way. No problem at all for the golden-brown eyed girl. Hopefully they were friendly enough to let her stay for a bit to collect some food while she was at it.

Iole passed by a tree and her smirk had a smile to it now. She wasn’t going to be hopelessly lost anymore. Then her eyes widened in surprise as she passed into the grove and surveyed the sight before her. A strange mix of oddly garbed humans and astonishing colored horses of marvelous colors with what must be fake horns upon their heads! The horns sparkled in the fading light and the humans seemed busily making camp for the night and Iole played with the shoulder strap upon her pack. She hadn’t figured that she might need it for another night.

She peered forth, eying the unicorns proud and wondering why they had put the horns upon them. A traveling circus band of sorts? And why weren’t they tethered then and she saw no tents or anything. This ragtag band was certainly odd. She saw people who looked like they belonged back home, others more from some sort of castle in Ancient Europe or other places.

She suddenly felt odd and the one out of place as she gripped the smooth bark of a nearby tree, just watching. Surely one of them would spot her by now anyway. Might as well go greet them herself. Iole exhaled and spotted a stately young woman (Lilani) making ready to prepare dinner. As she started walking, slowly, she noticed that the “unicorns” seemed to be talking! This made her pause for a moment but she was clearly out in the open and unprotected and with reluctance went forth again.

Iole wanted dearly to hide back away in the trees now. “Excuse me?” she asked only sounding a little timid in an effort to keep her voice strong. “You wouldn’t happen to know where this is, do you?” She eyed the forest uneasily and a small smile played upon her face. “I’m sad to admit that it seems I’m lost after turning a corner in my home in Arizona….” “I’m Iole,” she added after a brief pause.

Filling the pot from the waterskins, the happy burble of the water begining to heat was familiar and soothing, and as steam began to rise so did Lilaini’s mood. She picked up on someone approaching her several seconds before the young woman actually spoke, and she looked up from her task to see another stranger. She smiled warmly at the newcomer as she expressed her confusion.

“By Kal, we have had many newcomers these last few days who’ve accidentally found their way to us. It’s very nice to meet you Iole, I am Lilaini, one of the Guardians of Kalidore. And that is where you have found yourself, on Kalidore.” She paused briefly to give the youth a chance to process what she had just told her before continuing. “But please, do stay and have something to eat. No need to feel anxious, we are all friends here.” The Guardian gave the girl a reassuring look when she read the concern from her mind.

Iole was a little confused as Lilani spoke to her and she rubbed her hand against her thigh, a little nervously. Who was Kal? And why did Lilani guard this place she had called Kalidore? From whom? The questions jumped into her mind and begged to be asked but Iole said nothing of these questions, instead she asked a more important one. “Where is Kalidore?” Her voice was quiet but she felt more reassured and her lips curled upward in a half-smile of wonderment.

It seemed logical to assume Kalidore was still on Earth, but after what the young woman had seen so far it seemed…different. An untamed wilderness that didn’t abide the natural rules of human habitation. A place filled with nature….and magic? Iole had once hoped dearly that magic was real but as everyday went on back in America she had given up on it, mostly. Still hoping but not truly believing. Fairy tales, for children. They had science and the only thing of magic she believed in were miracles and sometimes prayer. Almost completely different things.

Again, she pulled back a strand of hair and her eyes flickered to Tiponi as she approached Lilani, a “guardian of Kalidore.” She then eyed one of the supposed “unicorns”, a what she supposed must be a handsome stallion from the way he held himself. Again, she could have sworn that the unicorns seemed to be speaking. And what was that little bird-creature flying about? How puzzling…And even more unicorns and humans seem to be entering the grove or Iole had just not noticed them before.

She bit her lip, suddenly drained of energy from the tramp through the forest and wonderment of all that was going around here. She still didn’t know if this was but a dream or living reality. And the girl did not like not knowing what was going on and happening. She much preferred being the boss of things then the lost lamb.

Pulling out jumble of greenery from a bulging pocket, Tiponi handed the bundle over and managed to get out to the Lady, “I found these while hunting wood and thought they may go good in the beans.”

“Why thank you Tiponi,” the Guardian said with a smile, taking the savory greenery from her hands. “These certainly will go good with the beans.” She glanced from the young woman to the young man who was standing behind her with an armful of wood. Her eyes flicked back to Tiponi and while she seemed a bit agitated, she was maintaining her composure. Your doing well, she mindspoke to the other and gave her and her companion an encouraging look before turning back to the supper she was preparing. Turning back to the youth who was standing with her she address her queries.

“Kalidore is not on Earth, but the two places are connected by the gates which you have come here through.” The Guardians eyes followed Iole’s which were studying the unicorns with a mixture of awe and disbelief. “Talking Unicorn’s must seem like a bit of a shock to you,” she said with a smile. “Why don’t you tell me about where you are from while I continue to prepare the meal.”

Not on Earth? Instantly more questions tumbled into Iole’s mind only for the girl to shove them away again. “A gate, huh?” she spoke suddenly lost in thought. So, she had tumbled, no, stepped through an invisible gate connecting her home in Arizona to…Kalidore? Not even on planet Earth? It was quite unbelievable and she highly doubted that the laws of science could explain this phenomenon. If she started suddenly talking about unicorns back home her mother would simply start smiling and shaking her head while Takuya would crack up and probably tease her all day about it. And talking about real unicorns outside of her family? The horror….

“A shock? No….” Iole couldn’t help but add the sarcasm in there. It was a natural habit. She watched Lilani prepare the delicious food, trying her best to ignore everyone but Lilani and herself. Harder than she thought when you were surrounded by…talking unicorns! She calmed herself with a deep breath and was only too happy to oblige telling Lilani a little about her home in Arizona.

“Well….I suppose you have actually never been to Arizona before seeing as Kalidore is probably in another galaxy entirely….but Arizona is on planet Earth, green and blue which you seem to know a bit about. Where I live is located in North America on the west side of the world up toward the north….then zoom in a bit more on the middle and you get the United States of America or simply U.S.A. Next, imagine going toward the west area of this land mass and stopping about short of the coast and a little downward.” Iole paused for breath, annoyed at how difficult it was to explain things such as this. She rubbed away a fallen eyelash from her cheek before continuing to the guardian. “Sorry, it is so hard to explain!” the young women added.

“Anyway, Arizona is a land of deserts, a hot, sandy climate. I originally came from California, a little to the west of Arizona and a land of hot summers and beaches.” A wistful sigh came from Iole’s lips like a breath of air then. “Summers are very hot in Arizona, up to a 100 degrees and beyond. Arizona is known well for the Grand Canyon, a great colorful gorge with a winding river through it. It is a breathtaking sight and one I am able to see often now when my family goes on camping trips. The city I live in is nicely populated, but still steadily growing.” A sudden smile brightens up her face beside the normal smirk as a sudden idea comes to her mind. “No talking unicorns, sadly, but when I was younger I did have a horse until….we had to sell her when we moved.”

A slight frown replaced the smile and Iole looked thoughtfully at Lilani, preparing the meal still. “Hopefully I didn’t sound too boring, like my History instructor.” She rolled her eyes at this where the woman couldn’t see it. Her History teacher was always one to make kids fall asleep in class and drone on and on.

*

Adar had scowled when he realized the food Lilaini was preparing was some type of beans. Bleh, who wanted those? He was certain there were tastier things to eat hiding around this camp somewhere. He just had to find them. His beady eyes scoured the camp, looking for anything someone had left unattended, as Arieon and three mares entered the clearing. Two of the three mares carried humans, and the other carried a bag. Well, this certainly appeared promising. Giving a shriek of anticipation, he launched himself into the air and flew in the direction of the newcomers….

Sitting atop Asarte, Sapata was vaguely aware that little Lyonee kept glancing her way.

She wanted to speak to the girl, but wasn’t exactly sure what topics to bring up… the fact that at first Sapata had thought that the youngster might be part of the native fauna, perhaps a race of diminutive dwarfs, seemed rather rude.

And when it became clear that, in fact, Lyonee was a child, and a stranger in the land as much as Sapata was, that took out asking her questions about Kalidore. Bringing up where exactly the child was from might just drive the tired young one to tears, and the weather didn’t interest Sapata unless it directly affected her. It was also out of the question to ask if her looks were normal to her people or the result of an unfortunate illness. The girl was alarmingly pale… every bit of her but the eyes.

The truth of it was, Sapata hadn’t ever really had any conversations with children since… well, since she was one herself. In her tribe the youngsters just were. The tribes elderly cared for the gaggles of children. Adults didn’t really pay attention to them until they were about thirteen seasons old. Before then it was just too likely that they might not make it to adulthood to bother much with them when there were plants to gather, deer to hunt and skin, shelters to make… life was full of busy days, and the children just had to stay out from underfoot.

Asarte herself had fallen oddly quiet in the presence of the fire colored Fiera.
Sapata wondered at the change in her companion. She’d ask about it later when they were alone. Sapata still wasn’t sure exactly how the mind-to-mind communication worked, or if other unicorns could listen in.

Her train of thought was interrupted when the little rag-tag group suddenly met with a gleaming cream unicorn. Sapata was surprised to see that this particular unicorn was male… of course if she had thought about it it only made sense that there were male unicorns, it was just that thus far all those she’d met had been female.

Gwyniera took over introductions, and the stallion Arieon agreed to lead them to a camp. Sapata sincerely hoped that camp would have food of some sort; after all she’d had only a bit of flat bread, and an apple in two days.

As they arrived, Sapata just had time to get a glimpse of a multitude of people, surrounded by unicorns of every color, when Asarte gave a sudden snort, and sort of hopped. The mares’ pack bags bumped into Sapatas’ knees rather painfully leaving her to wonder what in the world her companion kept in those things…

It was all so new and exciting for Lyonee that in the moment it transcended all fear, worry, and doubts she had about being here, by herself, on Kalidore. Well, not completely alone… She eyed her traveling party with interest; she had gathered that unicorns here were a common enough thing, while however humans remained quite scarce. This made sense, for obviously in a fairy-tale land like Kalidore such a ratio was completely natural and to be expected.

Her human traveling companion was a woman who looked like the pictures in the history book of the Americas her father had in his study. These were full of crude illustrations of indigenous people, many engaged in ungodly acts such as strolling about naked, scalping frontier men, and in some special cases, boiling them alive. Olivier had declared one day he would go to America so he could hunt savages, while their father laughed and told him by the time he was old enough to do that, their likely wouldn’t be any savages left. This had disappointed Lyonee greatly, because she had always thought it would be neat to see – not so much for the scalping, hunting or boiling alive, but rather because she thought she might like living in the wilds. So long as nanny came along too and drew hot baths for her each night, after a day of scampering through the woods in animal skins was filled with all sorts of undomesticated fun. When she had said this her mother was appalled, her father laughed all the more, while the governess declared SHE would never set foot in the colonies and crossed her self, twicely, on behalf of the child.

Lyonee was too shy to speak to Sapata, though a hundred questions bubbled in her head. Did she really eat buffalo? Could she dance and make it start to rain? She also wanted to ask about the scalping, but honestly that just didn’t seem polite, so they rode side-by-side in thoughtful silence.

This is when Adar had landed solidly on the bay mare’s rump (this being the reason for Astarte’s bunny-hop), then scurried towards the woman in front of him when he realized these packs had no food. He latched onto her clothing and snuffled around quick as a wink in search of any interesting food smells. It didn’t take him long to realize this human did NOT have any food either. Squawking in annoyance he leapt from the bay mare onto the chestnut mare and began his efficient search of the small human there.

Now, Lyonee was a very brave child. After all, today she had gotten lost in the woods, misplaced her sunbonnet, spent the lot of her talking with a snappish plant, and was riding a unicorn. All this, and she hadn’t uttered a peep of dissonance or remorse, not even when Mio bit her fingers or bump-bumping on the unicorn’s back made her bottom ache. But when that frightful creature flew at her and began to scramble over her clothing, that was more then the girl could take. She shrieked, throwing her hands about her head, feeling its million prickly claws pinch at her skin – she was horrified all the more to see that this bird had far too many legs and a lank, sinuous tail like rat’s – until mercifully it left her with flurry of angry shrieks. Lyonee burst into tears.

Utterly unaware of the further havoc left in his wake, Adar had landed on Gywneira’s satchel and had made its way through the flap. It smelled of spices, and certainly, had to contain something good – if only he could push aside all these leathery leaves…

“Great suckergnats! What vile evil is THIS?” Kaas Mio furled his leaves about him in shock and dismay. One moment he had been almost sleeping, dulled by the want of drink and hypnotic rhythm of the ride when suddenly he found his space invaded yet again. This time it was a beast of the most depraved kind – a bird, sharp with beak and claws to peck and scratch – not, perhaps, as all-encompassing a problem as say, a yak, who et you in one bite, but certainly far more annoying, because they tended to only eat the tender bits. And those were the parts that always hurt the most. Most concerned for his vittles, furiously the Kalidorian Flytrap set about with a cacophony of squalls and hissing of his own, first sounding like a skycat, then tasseled weasel, and finally a goshawk for good measure. The smaller heads that could only hiss could also bit, and they did, repeatedly, up and down the startled griffon’s flanks. They had hardly enough vim to do any real damage, but the effect was pretty disconcerting to say the least, all the while the dominant head letting loose a barrage of insults Adar’s way.

Now, Sapata hadn’t seen the Mio as it had already been secreted away when she’d joined the group, but it suddenly dawned on Sapata that perhaps the Mio was a very important object, and that the unnatural creature was some sort of demon or witches familiar sent to steal it. Her suspicions were confirmed when, as the imp pushed itself into the pack, a most terrible din of noises issued forth mixing with Lyonees’ sobs.

Sapata had had ENOUGH. Without thinking, she lept from her perch astride Asarte, and with quick strides came to the rescue of the Mio.

She plunged her hand into the pack, determined to either wring the beasts’ neck or, if it be immortal, fling it away till she could secure the Mio.

Adar was having a bad day. No, he was having a very bad day. First, he spent half his day chasing after a beetle, only to catch it and have it not be the delicacy he had thought it would be. Then he flew back to find Lilaini so that she could comfort him, and feed him, only to have her completely ignore him. And now this! Two humans who had NO food on them whatsoever, and now he was fighting with some type of shrieking plant.

The plant, upon closer inspection, did not taste good at all, and it bit him also, which all seemed entirely like too much considering the confided space he was in. The pocket griffon decided this was enough and began to try and extricate himself from the bag he had crawled into only to find a hand darting into the bag after him. Well good, it was about time someone decided to help him out. The griffon quickly latched onto the hand and scurried up the humans arm squawking out all his woes at her. He was past the point of being annoyed. He was scratched and bit and very empty bellied, and feeling all together rather detjected. He scuttled up the woman’s arm and attached himself to her shoulder. His feathers were sticking up all over at odd angles, and made him appear quite pathetic. Clicking his beak in distress he sat there, flicking his tail, ears down and eyes half closed, hoping she would either feed him or give him a good scratch.

When her companion plunged from her back, and took off towards the commotion surrounding Gwyns’ pack, Asarte couldn’t have been more surprised. She momentarily was baffled as to the reason for Sapatas’ swift reaction, but when she caught a glimpse of her companions face, the bay mare balked. There was murder written all over it, pure and simple.

“Sapata! Sapata, stop!” Asarte called out, but she saw that the girl was intent on fulfilling her mission, and paid no heed to the unicorns cries. As the Indian maid thrust her hand into the leather pouch Asarte did the only thing she could think to do. She called out though her mindlink as loudly as she could: *Sapata, STOP! He’s a friend, for goodness sakes!*

The mares mental voice broke through Sapatas’ mindless bloodlust. But she was already wrist deep in the pack, and the “friend”, as Asarte called him, attached himself to her hand, then scuttled up her arm. As the little ball of fluff and feathers made himself at home on her shoulder, Sapata was afraid to move… she’d seen the beak on him, and rather feared for her ear. He was just out of her line of sight, and though she couldn’t see what her was doing, he was making some rather ominous clicking sounds. She felt soft feathers puff against her neck with every breath the animal took as he sat in the nest of hair that fell over her shoulder.

Sapata turned her wide fearful eyes to Asarte, as if to ask how she’d managed to get herself into this situation… one moment ready to pluck the creature bald, the next afraid that he was about to do the same to her.

She tried to hold her chuckles in, but Asarte finally broke into gales of laughter. She could feel Sapatas’ unamused glare on her, but she just couldn’t help it. She was so relived no lasting damage had been done to anyone. For a moment she had been sure only bad things were about to happen. And Sapata looked SO funny with the disgruntled Gryphlet swooning and venting his irritation at her nape!

The arrival of the small group in the clearing had been remarked with relief from Rhaine, the bright chestnut mare returning with as little fanfare as when she had left, and the woman gave Ali another squeeze. “Well, what have we here? It seems Fiera has brought us more visitors!” And that was true – because she had two mares in toe, and two riders astride. Rhaine lighted on each in turn, delighted to have more people to share their company with.

Adar’s arrival, however, was something not to be missed by anyone. Chaos erupted everywhere the griffon landed, before finally it caught up with him in Gwyniera’s sholderpack, but Rhaine’s attention was struck by the now sobbing child and was already moving towards her. “Goodness, sweetling, that must have been a fright! Did Adar hurt you?”

Through the tears Lyonee became aware that someone was speaking to her. At first she ignored them, engaged with her own misery as she was. Curiosity won, eventually, and she peeked through damp curls to see a woman standing at Fiera’s side. She was a strange as the rest of the world, her appearance foreign and dressed in odd clothing, her voice too had a different cadence from any the girl was used to; it made Lyonee all the more homesick, and she felt tears prick her eyes again. “I do not like… adars,” she spat the title which must have been for the little winged beast. “I do not like them at all!”

“I understand,” the woman nodded reassuringly. “We will see that he doesn’t bother you again. Did you want to come down?”

Lyonee considered this. She realized, she had found a sense of security sitting up and high on Fiera’s back, as sore as her bottom was as a result. But the unicorn stood by placidly, and it occurred to Lyonee that maybe a unicorn had other things to do, too. She swallowed her disappointed, because it was childish to have thought that this unicorn would say with her forever; everything ended, in its time; even fairytales. She slowly nodded.

The woman outstretched her hand, smiling encouragement, and caught hold of the child as she slid down. And she kept holding, all the way to the ground, which was good, because Lyonee was surprised to find her knees had gone to jelly. She held onto the strange woman who smelt like forest and spice, glancing around her sleeve to where Sapata had gone to deal with the adar. She didn’t want to see what happened, and buried her face again while the woman remained patiently quiet while she found her balance.

“Better?” she finally spoke. “You must have had quite a day,” she smoothed the hair out of her face. “Now what do they call you, sweetling? I am Rhaine.”

“Lee-”she sniffled sharply “Lyo-nee.” The exoticness of everything stung, sick like too much candy, and all she wanted was something – anything – that was ordinary, familiar, plain. She wanted her nanny; she wanted to go home.

“You’re shivering,” Rhaine said, and swept her corner of her cloak around her. “How about we get you some hot cocoa to drink?”

Cocoa? Cocoa was normal. In fact, cocoa was better then normal, because on further reflection normal meant things like Olivier putting beetles on her pillow and nanny brusquely brushing the tangles out of her hair before bed. “Can Sapata have some too?” she asked.

“Yes of course, we’ll ask her,” Rhaine smiled, turning her attention to where the young native American girl had finally got a handle on that rouge griffon, the frazzled animal now shrieking his way up her arm. “What a terrible nuisance you are,” she reprimanded the griff sternly, noting Lyonee clung even tighter as they neared. She smiled at the woman apologetically on the shameless griffon’s behalf. “He is intolerably spoiled I am afraid; ‘tis all Lily’s fault and one day it shall truly get the better of him. I hope he caused you no real harm. Do you need a hand?”

The look in Sapata’s eyes were answer enough even before she managed a stiff nod. Rhaine’s gaze fixed again on the diminutive griffon who sat squalling for pity, but she remained firm; *Off with you, silly one, you’ve quite worn out your welcome. Lilaini will see to you now* Adar hesitated another moment, and then with a most melodramatic and dejected squeaking, took off in search of someone far more receptive and indulgent to his most important and pressing needs.

“Better?” Rhaine smiled.

“I’ll say!” Mio lolled his head out of the bag.

At the Guardian’s surprised look, Lyonee supplied helpfully, “he always says; he’s Mio.”

“Kaus Phaeo-Mio, son of Pharon, son of Udun the Fierce, son of Kaiso, who ate Parthor, son of Hon…” the plant corrected dourly. “And woe, woe, and woe betide, such is the fate of a Seed of Hoth to parish here, apart from clan and colony, hung ‘round the neck of a unicorn to be mauled by beasties and extinguished by thirst…”

“Goodness!” Gwyneira’s ears pricked forward as the alarming realization dawned. “Water! I forgot – he must be parched, all those hours… excuse me to the stream, good ladies!” the mare spun off before Rhaine could make mention of the water skins. She was still rather puzzled about the business with the plant, but a questioning glance at Fiera revealed nothing. She did recall reading about sentient vegetation, but had never come across them herself (if memory served, they lived to the far northern forests where she had not been since youth) and wondered if Liliani in her study of the isle’s botany would have more insight. Her thoughts were interrupted by a tugging at her sleeve.

“Sapata wants hot cocoa,” Lyonee informed her. “Right Sapata?”

The Guardian laughed. “Yes, I’m sure she does.” She turned back to the young woman and extended the invitation. “Come and get warm by the fire; the water will be boiling soon, and there is plenty to eat for dinner.”

Meanwhile, Adar arrived by the fireside only to find that – oh anguish of anguishes! – both Lilaini’s arms were full, still currently in the midst of making dinner as she was. Steam swirled around her head as she bent over the lentils and stirred torn handfuls Tiponi’s greens into the mix, the savory aroma of the herbs permeating the legumes and the surround air. And just when he was about to forgive her for taking away his lovely, most beautiful pink shiny this morning, and leaving him to find his way from the yaks by himself, and having nothing to eat but boilled lentils…. The griffon had no choice but sprawl at her feet, between Tiponi and Iole, and wail his lamentations to the people above like a strung cat…

Iole was clearly surprised as Adar landed beside her to woe and scream his unhappiness. She stared uncertainly at the creature as the delightful aroma of the dinner treat that Lilani was currently making reached her nostrils and made her belly rumble in hunger. It ached for food now and to help stop its grumbles she stuffed a piece of bubble gum in her mouth, strawberry flavored. She chewed as her mouth was instantly delighted with the sweet flavor and she continue to eye what seemed a very pathetic and spoiled feather ball below her.

The young women could barely resist not to instantly dive to the creature’s rescue, it seemed so unfortunate and her natural instincts to help hapless animals surfaced and gnawed at her open mind. But there was something about this creature that seemed….vicious or something of that sorts. Finally she couldn’t resist his Cries and for Adar’s sake went through first her pack and then her purse in search for some little morsel of food or something of that sort she had overlooked.

Suddenly the crackling of what only could be a wrapper reached the sounds of her sensitive ears and she withdrew her hand to find a small packet that contained a dark chocolate and blueberries. No wonder Iole had overlooked such treats! She disliked dark chocolate with a passion, it gave her such a thirst. And blueberries had an odd flavor to them from Iole’s point of view and her often picky taste buds. She doubted dark chocolate was very healthy to a bird-creature such as Adar and so, offered the crying creature that sounded like it was being strangled the few blueberries from the packet.

Her golden-brown eyes stared hopefully at him in the hope he would stop crying and take the few blueberries the girl had.

Adar was terribly upset. He had such a bad day, and then Rhaine had yelled at him! He had certainly done nothing to deserve that, and yet here he was, looking for sympathy and all Lilaini did was talk to him in that voice he liked and tell him she’d see to him in a minute when she was done with supper. This only increased his upset chattering, when finally, finally, someone paid him some attention. A girl who had been standing nearby seemed to recognize the starving state he was in and was digging through her bags. His squawking ceased as his beady eyes followed her movements. When she stepped towards him with something offered in her hand he gave a loud shriek of delight and hurtled towards her.

Scrambling across the ground, he reached the girls offering and sniffed it over. He smelled the blueberries and quickly determined these were indeed edible. Grabbing the fruit with his beak he smashed the berries against the room of his mouth and licked the girl’s hand to get anything accidentally left behind. He was about to crawl into her arms and demand she scratch him and fix his ruffled feathers, when smelled something else on her arm. Something very, very sweet. He paused, and sniffed the girl’s hand again. She was holding out on him. There was more food somewhere. It smelled sweet and delicious, the way sticky buns smell sweet and delicious. He must have it. Must! Diving forwards, the griffon plunged into the bag he had seen the girl digging through and began to root around looking for the source of the smell. Finding it, he clamped onto the chocolate with delight and began breaking it apart with his beak before the girl could take it away from him.

Iole watched as the bird-creature hurled himself at her hand, desperate to have the offered blueberries. He seemed to feast himself on them like a hungry jungle cat gorging itself after not having eaten in weeks. Poor thing…she couldn’t help but think. When his slimy bird tounge tickled her hand she resisted the urge to draw it back and wipe the licked hand upon her clothes. Instead Iole waited patiently for Adar to make his next move. What she had not expected was for him to smell the dark chocolate on her and hence tackle her purse in pursuit of the sweet treat she had purposely held away from him.

The young women stifled a cry and hoped he wouldn’t get sick because of the chocolate. This was no regular parrot or other type of bird like back on Earth after all. This looked like a mini….gryphon creature of sorts. She picked up the bag that the delighted Adar rested in as he chomped down greedily upon the hapless chocolate, it had never stood a chance. She gently carried it upwards to peer at the creature better with a small smirk and the hint of a smile pushing up at her lips. “What’s his name?” she softly asked Lilani.

*

Free of packs and relieved of duty, Xanthe was feeling much better. She’d had herself a good roll and a drink from the stream, and while the guardians set about to prepare the dinner and settle everyone for the night, she wandered off to graze. Asides from the commotion caused by a small urdvoggen which had been accidentally packed into one of the saddlebags, the humans seemed to be adjusting cheerfully and without incident. Xanthe grinned to herself. She rather liked humans; having grown up in the temple with Rhaine, they as a species completely fascinated her. Not only did their wonderfully dexterous hands allow them to do all sorts of amazing things, but their way of thinking was so unlike that of a unicorn; you never knew exactly what a human was going to say. That and the whole thing about fun and adventure that tended to follow, or maybe that was more just following Tyden; she wondered suddenly when he and her father would return.

In the distance, she could hear muffled strains of conversation from Gypsy and the great dark stallion. She longed to move closer and know exactly what was happening, but had a hunch this was one of those things her mother would frown upon, and had she had been so very, very good after all. She was rather proud of herself for that. As she grazed, she contemplated the journey so far, and wondered what direction tomorrow would bring, now that Ulysses had been found. A small pang of disappointment bit her at the thought of the adventure’s end and return to normal life in the temple. Xanthe sighed. Above, the first stars of twilight were piercing through, the orange glow of sunset giving way to evening’s silver and indigos.

Bored with grazing she headed back towards camp, hoping for some rolled oats and maybe even a honey bun. She came around one of the many protruding rockheads that sculpted the landscape and suddenly froze in place. There, a mere stride’s length away, was him… the soldier. Waterskins were balanced over his shoulder, and he was humming a tune under his breath as he picked his way back in the falling light. Oh, he was horrible! Her whole body shuddered at the shock of finding him there, in such close proximity and alone; the scars on her neck seemed to burn again at the sight of him. She didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath until he turned the corner of the rock and disappeared, which meant she had to scramble quietly if she wanted to keep him in view. He moved somewhat stiffly, actually his movements were downright grotesque she determined, and he had no sense of musical harmony at all. And his smell… her nostrils flared to catch wind of the odor, as best she could while still keeping a short discrete distance behind undetected. The soldier seemed oblivious anyways, probably busy scheming about his next dastardly deed, and it pained her that the whole came was so unaware about the imminent danger except her… and she stepped on a twig.

CRACK.

Liam paused in mid-step, the hairs on his neck prickling at the noise. Instantly alert he listened fiercely to the sounds of evening, but there was nothing else. So late in the season there weren’t even crickets, and laughter from the camp drifted up to tickle his ears. Ach, ye old fool, he chided himself. Now you’re imagining there be beasties in the trees… Shrugging the waterskins back into place he resumed him tune with determined fervor, and hurried to where Rhaine and Lilaini were putting more pots upon the fire to boil.

When he was gone, Xanthe poured from behind the rock she’d wedged against with a huge sigh of relief. She felt a little giddy, and had to school herself the proper procedures, lest she go running off to Rhaine now and spill all her trepidations in a mangled heap. Rhaine, she knew, was utterly unaware; so was Phae, and she thought better then bothering Lilaini. Really, there was only her. And maybe Kynn (tho she had left him at camp poking the urdvoggen; sometimes koros were just so… small picture). She wasn’t entirely sure what she was going to do, or how she was going to do it, but somehow, somewhere, she knew… she was going to have save them all… from Liam…

It was then she realized her subject was completely out of sight, and that she was wholly slacking on her duties. With an anxious meep she scampered back to camp as quick as she could, so quick in fact that she couldn’t quite put on the brakes in time and slammed in to Astarte’s backside….

Sapata was just starting to feel a bit better after the woman had relived her of the bird-like animal, when a voice rose from the pack on Gwyneria’s back. Turning to see who spoke, she was alarmed to find that it was a plant, of all things, that gave utterance.

She was even more baffled when Lyonee explained that the rather upset piece of vegetation was, in fact, the Mio which Sapata had so recently tried to protect. She’d been envisioning a valuable artifact, perhaps a rare magical item, not a seedling!

Her face colored as she realized what a fool she must look to the group, who had probably all known the Mio was in no danger at all from the unruly winged beastie.

Her embarrassment was interrupted when little Lyonee piped up, “Sapata wants hot cocoa, right Sapata?”

Sapata had no idea what hot cocoa was, but if Lyonee liked it Sapata thought she probably would too, and when the lovely lady mentioned a fire and food she was more than pleased to accept the offer.

“Thank you, and a fire sounds wonderful. I’m afraid I lost most of my things when I…” she paused remembering just how she’d lost them, and grinned sheepishly before she continued, “first got to Kalidore, and my shawl was with them. A meal sound even better… with hot cocoa of course.” She turned to Asarte. “Coming?”, the girl asked hopefully.

“Actually I think I saw a nice little patch of grass that the frost hadn’t gotten to over that way… you go on, I’ll be there shortly.”, the bay responded with a wink and headed off. She knew full well her companion just didn’t want to be left with the strangers, but she was in more than capable hands, and the unicorn reasoned that the sooner she was tossed among them, the sooner she’d find herself comfortable.
Besides she really HAD seen a clump of greens, and with winter coming on you just didn’t turn your nose up at something like that!

Asarte had just located the spot they were growing in when – “Ooof!”
Something collided with her rather large rump. The mare turned around and was surprised to find a pretty dusky colored kore panting, and looking up at her with big blue eyes. “Well, hello there. Where are you going in such a hurry?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.

*

While Tiponi’s eyes followed Liliani’s movements her thoughts were far away. Okay, maybe not so far. She was very aware of every move this new stranger, Ryan, made as he moved about making himself useful. Really she should be doing the same, but as her skin rippled with apprehension she just couldn’t focus long enough to figure out what needed doing even though she could set up a night’s camp with her eyes closed (so to speak).

Moving quietly up beside her new companion, Luminista rubbed her cheek gently against the girl’s arm. As much as she wanted to take away the pain she sensed in the girl’s past she knew that Tiponi would have to work through this issue largely on her own. Still, she wanting her to know that she was there for her. Meanwhile, she would lend her whatever measure of calm serenity she was able.

Her eyes shifted as Liam came into view carrying the water skins and another layer of unease washed over her only to dissipate upon recognizing the man. As she realized what had happened surprised overcame most of her unease. Her head cocked to the side as she stared openly at this oddity (a man she could be in the company of without being overwhelmed with wariness). She gave a slight start of surprise when she heard Luminista chuckle beside her, but other than that and moving her hand up to rest high on the red mare’s neck to scratch idly she gave no acknowledgment. Instead her eyes began to shift back and forth between the two men as she pondered her different reactions to each. She could discern no physical reason why one would be less of a threat than the other, quite the opposite in fact. They were both men in good physical condition which to her translated to Threat.

Absentmindedly, Tiponi returned to her work, thinking better then to dwell on it further.

As he bustled about the camp, Liam was actually surprised to find himself fairly… content. Here was a job that he knew well – and all other irritations and problems faded to the background as his years of experience kicked in and he moved practically on auto-pilot. A sea of stampeding yaks, or a particularly prickly unicorn were problems he was unable to solve – but setting up a camp? Simplicity itself!

Granted, he was a little warier than normal as he wandered out of camp to get water, recalling the LAST time he attempted to help this group situate themselves, and the unfortunate and embarassing mauling that had resulted, but after the second such trip to the stream without incident he found himself fairly assured of both life and limb for the night.

With every trip back into camp, he was amused to note the continuing increase in population. For such an undeveloped land, these Kalidorians veritably seemed to pop out of the woodwork. He was particularly pleased to note, however, the addition of another man to the group. As pleasant as the Guardians and the rest of the ladies seemed to be, with Tyden’s absence Liam felt a bit odd to be the only human male in the group as both protective escort and assumed traveling companion. The younger man seemed to be of the solid, upstanding sort, and just the extra balance of testosterone had him breathing a bit easier.

Putting down the final set of filled waterskins on a rock near Liliani, Liam too a moment to stretch and eye the now bubbling pot of vittles. He sniffed, and was pleasantly surprised by the rather pungently appealing aroma. “Och. Now that’s a sight better than the ol’ shoe leather my ol’ lot was use te’ on our scouting circuits.” He inhaled deeply and smiled before addressing Liliani as she continued in her dinner preparation. “Lady, ye folks certainly have a magic about ye when it comes to yer cookin’…” Liam said, and chuckled before continuing. “Now m’self mind, I ‘ken cook well ’nuff not te’ kill a person, but that’s all I ‘ken promise! So consider yerselves fair warned!” With that, he touched his head respectively before ducking off into the woods again – of a mind to get any and all latrine preparation done well BEFORE dinner completed.

The guardian smiled at Liam’s culinary praise, laughing when he commented on his own cooking skills. . “Ah friend, I am sure your cooking is better than all that. But it certainly does help to know which herbs and spices can make even the most meager of fairs seem like something more.” As he retreated again into the woods, her eyes drifted to the ridiculous manner in which the griffon was acting upon Iole’s shoulder.

“His name is Adar, although a name which referred to mischief or perhaps gluttony would have been more appropriate for him.” Her voice was laced with mock exasperation, but her gaze was one of adoration.

The griffon had finished licking the chocolate from his beak and wore a rather triumphant expression. He began clicking his beak at Iole who was holding the bag that the griffon had attached himself too. “He would like you to fix his feathers. It troubles him terribly when they are sticking out at such odd angles, he likes them to be laid out smoothly.” Lilaini explained as she turned back to her dinner preparations, a slight grin pulling at the corners of her mouth. As if he was agreeing, Adar clicked his beak louder and chattered at the girl expectantly.

She turned to stir the pot again, then let the food simmer; another . She was glad to see everyone seemed to be settling in and that their recent misadventure hadn’t seem to negatively affect anyone.   More movement had her looking up again to see her fellow Guardian approach with more newcomers in tow. She studied the expressions on the two newcomers faces and briefly locked eyes with Rhaine with a quick nod. “Welcome,” she said warmly. “You two look as though you could use some hot cocoa…” and wandered over to a nearby pack and began digging through it’s contents.

*

Tia had watched the strange way Tiponi had hurtled off and looked at the others in the group questioningly but they all seemed to have the same expression she did so she shrugged and tried to stifle a yawn. “Hrm…maybe sitting down isn’t such a good idea for me. Haha, I feel like I could fall asleep. Does anyone want to wander closer to the fire?” She stood up and dusted herself off, picking a few stray blades of grass out of her fishnet stockings and looked at the others in the group.

Ryan too had remained slightly confused by Tiponi’s continued apparent displeasure in him, but with no concern reflected from Cadence, he thought best to brush it aside and let it be. Cadence was grazing quietly nearby; he was giving Ryan the chance to have some human interaction. The stallion had thought the young man would have difficulty adjusting to everything that had happened in the last few days, but he seemed to take it in stride, he wondered if it was always like that for humans. Finally, as there weren’t any outstanding task needing to be done, Ryan sniffed the aroma that was swirling off the dinner pot decided to sit down on a log near the fire and just relax.

His hind end had barely touched the piece of wood when Rhaine appeared and Lilaini got up in search of hot cocoa. He quickly sprang back to his feet, not wanting to take the nearest seat when three more ladies had just arrived. “Here, please sit,” he said with a smile looking from the guardian to the two newcomers. “I can pull it a bit closer to the fire if you’d like.”

*

Kyn had grown bored of pestering the Urdvoggen. After the flight from the sea of yak-doom, somehow poking the large smelly reptile paled in comparison, despite the fond remembrances of the activity from the night past. He harrumphed and looked around for some other sort of entertainment… but Xanthe was currently nowhere to be seen. The yearling let out a long suffering sigh, and scanned the rest of the party for someone else who looked interesting enough to accost.

When his gaze lighted upon some of the newcomers…. particularly the very SMALL human that accompanied a small party that also included what looked like a talking… plant? Kyn blinked and moved closer to investigate. As he neared, however, the plant was whisked off in a hurry by the Gwyneira (whom Kyn only knew through the interactions with several of her bountiful kore). The yearling considered following after, and investigating the curious creature, but was distracted when the small girl talked. So small! Kyn had never seen a human so small, and was extraordinarily curious.

He inched forward, trying not to spook the wee one who clung so charmingly to Rhaine’s hand. Stretching his neck out eeeeeever so slowly, he snuck out his muzzle and tried to snuffle at her hair, wondering if she smelled like the others did, or of something entirely different. He was just about to take a nice loooong whiff, when Xanthe seemingly flew out of nowhere and collided loudly with Asarte’s rear, and Kyn startled with a yipe – forgetting all attempts at stealth.

Xanthe blinked, staring up at seal bay mare, embarrassment pinching her features. Beyond the large rump, and to her dismay, she noticed Liam was quickly getting out of sight, and discretion at this moment was totally blown. “I was… securing the camp for the night,” she answered truthfully, because the way the mare was looking at it she had a sense of her own mother, and that concocting a story would probably get her no where. “Can never be TOO safe you know,” she smiled up helpfully.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Liam disappear into the trees and inwardly she groaned. She looked around for another source of distraction and noticed Kyn, engaging with a remarkably little person. She carefully pushed her feet beneath herself. “Sorry about that,” she directed to Astarte. “I suppose I got… a little too into it. And also this area looks quite secure already,” she nodded with approval. “So…I had best be… securing some more over there.” She gave her most heartful and genuine smile, then bid her leave. She slipped to Kyn’s side beside the fire.

“Hssst! Kyn! Quickly! He’s up to something – I know it!”

Luckily for Liam it was not Xanthe who wandered upon his path next, but Gwyneira, returning from the stream with a slightly sopping satchel and a rather rain-drunk plant, who was singing something about “the fern with extremely green leaves”, or as much as could be made out through the slight slurr in his speech. She happened upon the solider digging behind a large tree.

“Oh, helloooo there!” she greeted brightly. “You are one of the new companions, aren’t you? I am Gwyneira, I don’t believe we’ve made acquaintances yet. It looks like quite a lovely little adventure you have set yourselves upon – what fun! My children will want to hear all about it when I return home. Goodness they didn’t hear about it before hand, for then they’d be all rearing to go! and then where would I be? left home… alone… and childless…” she sighed heavily, purging this thought by remarking how good her luck was to be in such opposite a position.

“….aaaaand the wind o’er the trees, for the fern (hic!) with extrem— extre— extremely green leeeeeeeaves!” gurgled the dripping satchel loudly and off-key…

* *

Beyond the edge of trees and below a clear, cold sky, the three unicorns stood as still as night. Pasipahe sat in mute silence for several minutes, processing all of the harsh words of the arguments and the snarled rebuttals. Slowly she worked through the myriad of revelations – the existence of Ulysses, the negativity against Companions (and the thrill she felt at finding feeling that paralleled her own!), and finally…. Dragons? She shivered, and at the dark stallion’s further words on the subject… Night followed?

“The wolves.” The thought slipped out unbidden. She looked about, unsure if any had heard her – and loathe as she was to get into the middle of another fight of sorts, the mare felt the need to have the connection known. “The wolves of Kaedon. They said the sky fell, with teeth. During the night… surely that wouldn’t have been….?” She waited on a response, sure that she’d be told her thought was nothing but folly. Surely dragons wouldn’t have made it so far into the heart of Kalidore ALREADY….

Gypsy had all but forgotten the presence of brooding Phae until she spoke, and found herself startled to discover the mare a short distance away. Am I really that distracted? she shook her head ruefully. So many thoughts and questions tumbled through her mind – not only about Ulysses’ spanning journey, but new ones about the war itself, and what had happened in all the years between. At the mention of Al’therwen memory stirred, and she lunged to catch hold of it before it slipped back into darkness. It was told, centuries past, before the war when the universe was at peace and trade throughout the Nations of Gates, elves had enjoyed a healthy commerce with the isle, mining in the mountains for precious ore and exchanging their wealth of knowledge and ideas. It was then that the Temple Library was built, and so was Al’therwen – the City Among the Clouds. High up in the mountain it severed as a hub for the mining communities surrounding, and a centre for export and trade. It was also one of the first places struck when Thaedor’s Night first fell, and plunged a city of light into eternal darkness.

Ages pass, and dust to dust returns; of Al’therwen now, a kor’s story. And yet had not the Daiga spoke of ruins that night? There was no doubt it was Ulysses whom she saw there, nor was he alone; the gates are open, the stallion had said. I followed them here…Night fell, and it had teeth…

And that was Phae, and her thoughts derailed, even before the stallion turned and spoke.

Whether Ulysses noticed the red mare or had merely ignored her he remained indifferent, but when she ventured, his attention pivoted slightly, and his eyes fell across hers, burning fiercely as if daring her to flinch. But when she didn’t turn and run immediately he reconsidered. After all, misery did like company! So instead he snorted. “You doubt what a dragon is capable of? Many did, in the early days; they did not see the end of the war. You and your companion should be wary,” he spat the word between his teeth, recalling the dark-haired girl who had ridden up on the bay mare’s back. “And into the Kaledon you say? ay, maybe I am already too late.”

Pasipahe met Ulysses glare squarely, unblinking – but when he snorted as if to question her offered thoughts, her neck arched and that angry tickle from earlier flared back to life. The mare pawed at the ground in irritation. “I may have not seen war – but I hardly think that is my fault.” She spat back at the black stallion, “As to the rest, you could not be more wrong. I’ve no doubt. No companion. But I refuse to allow there is any ‘too late’ for anything regarding the expulsion of such foul snakes from Kalidore…!” Phae punctuated the last with a stamp, and a toss of her head. “I imagine such doings, however, will go more smoothly with your direction instead of your portendings of doom, and so I anxiously await your instruction…” She finished with a fake simper, her hot-headed temper easily overcoming her fairly anemic social common sense.

Oh, the stubborn glare, the snitty pawing of her hoof! it was all so terribly silly, sad and naive that Ulysses had to press his eyes shut against tears of laughter. We really are done for, if unicorns are reduced to this. Only the good die young, and so we are left here a feeble race, bridging senility, to try with failing limbs to do the work of giants….

…Why did I not relinquish life then, too?

Aye, fool… for you were not The Good; your curse then, to see the universe die twice over…

He inhaled sharply, the night air cold in his lungs, and opened his eyes. The mares were still there, staring at him. He wasn’t sure now how long he had turned away, how long the night had been falling around him, and looked again to measure the two moons rising into the velveteen sky. “There is only one way to save Kalidore,” he said quietly, “and no, I cannot even with this measure guarantee her fate. But if we are to have any hope in hell, it must be done. We must destroy the Gates.”

* * *

As they neared the fire, Lyonee wrinkled her nose at the strange smelling brew that bubbled in the pot. Her stomach growled in response despite her reservations, and she deducted that this must be gruel – an integral part of any fabled adventure, and while not particularly appetizing it would provide the hero (or heroine!) with all needed fortifications to take on the next day. Her hand still snug around Rhaine’s, she was starting to feel much better again, and decided it wouldn’t be much of A Test if she went on crying for home the first night out; also the prospect of cocoa seemed to make everything better.

She was glad Sapata was coming too, because for the time being the young Indian woman was the most familiar human to her in the group. It further pleased her to find Sapata didn’t think much of the Adar either, and eyed the new woman who stood their babbling at it as if it were a small pet. The sight recalled stuffy Aunt Germaine, who had a little white dog that would sit on her lap at the table and steal bits off her plate. Her mother and father both disapproved, but one really couldn’t say no to Aunt Germaine – she was a lady of society, after all! The dog itself was similarly ill tempered, and had bit Lyonee when she went to pet him. Germaine said it was because he didn’t like children; Lyonee rather thought her auntie didn’t like them either.

She was about to inquire whether the Adar also had fleas (most miserable creatures seemed to have them, thus Lyonee was convinced that it was bad humour that attracted them and not the other way around) when a small wuffling sensation at her ear made her turn. There she met the soft whiskery nose of a young unicorn – or what she presumed must be young, weighing on the blunt horn and still rather unruly hair that refused to fall neatly onto one side – who was extending his muzzle towards her most cautiously when the commotion had erupted behind them (or more pointedly, behind Astarte) and it yeeeped.

The look on his face that followed was so comical that all thoughts of the awful Adar left Lyonee and she laughed. She tugged on Rhaine’s sleeve again. “I like this one; does she belong to anyone?”

Rhaine glanced up from the sachet of cocao Lilaini had just retrieved to asses what the child wanted. She smiled. “His name is Kyndrienn,” she said gently, hoping that Kyn didn’t take it personally that Lyonee had mistaken him for a filly, “and unicorns don’t really belong to anyone, just like you and I; but I am sure he would like to be your friend, if you were to ask him.”

The child took confidence from her response and turned to the young Koros again. “Pleased to make your acquaintances, Kyndrienn,” she put forth her most proper and courteous front. “I am Lyonee Ameline Lassier, of France. Formally,” she added, as an addendum. “Would you like to be my friend? We are having cocoa, and the Adar is not allowed to bother us anymore.”

The guardian chuckled to herself as she turned from them, attending now to Ryan who had just spoken. “Goodness, stay where you are and sit yourself! There is plenty of room for all of us. You and Cadence have been traveling a while, have you not? Now’s the time to rest while we can.”

Even as she spoke her mind had nudged Liliani again, awareness slipping out to beyond the trees. *Ulysses is uneasy; it makes me uneasy. I wish Mare Imbrium was here, there is so much I would ask her…* she broke off for a moment, redirecting her focus. Out loud, “have you noticed Tali? I have not seen him around camp; I do hope he faired well this afternoon.”

Iole gazed at Adar with a mixture of love and thoughtfulness, a hint of a smirk pulling at her face. “Really, well… I think it’s a good name, what do you think Adar?” She could tell from the way Lilani spoke about Adar that she actually loved him and knew all about what he needed. “And of course we can’t have any feathers sticking out no,” she said almost thoughtfully and grinned.

The girl quickly reached a hand into the baggage the griffon almost regally rested in after finishing the once hidden piece of chocolate off. If Iole ever got back to Earth she would have to remind herself to bring more chocolate for special treats. Not that she wanted to go back to Arizona for at least a while now, no. Kalidore seemed like a much more exciting place and where could you find griffons and unicorns on Earth? Except in stories of course.

She began the work of smoothing out the ruffled feathers of Adar gently, each stroke careful and graceful. Iole’s lips had curled up into a smile as she worked and was almost expecting the griffon to purr like a cat, he certainly had a sort of manner like one. She still chewed the piece of bubblegum in her mouth but failed to notice it much more and the flavor was already slowly vanishing. She scarecly noticed Rhiane and the two newcomers as they came, so content was she with helping out Adar. This was why she missed having a pet, a companion and friend besides a human back home.

Hot cocoa? the girl thought suddenly. An image of breakfast mornings on Saturdays flashed into her mind as a young girl back in California when her mother hadn’t been so busy at work and the two children would sip their hot chocolate happily and gorge themselves upon the eggs and toast before them like a feast. Iole was saddened by the memory knowing that it almost never happened anymore. The aroma of the steadily cooking food reached her nose again and her belly stirred in hunger. Yet, she never paused smoothing out and Adar’s feathers and wondered if he would accept a petting after the work was done. A sudden question jumped to the girl’s mind and she couldn’t help but ask it.

She turned to look at the Indian girl and quietly asked, “Where did you come from, back on Earth I mean?” Her brilliant eyes burned into Sapate’s and she hoped she hadn’t sounded rude. She would ask the other girl in a second, once she knew more about the Native American Indian. “I’m Iole,” she offered then almost apologetically. Suddenly she remembered that she was forgetting about the ball of feathers in her purse below and turned to look at the griffon. “And this is Adar, a little demon sometimes isn’t he?”

A deep thrumming noise was reverberating out of the griffon, and it caused his whole body to vibrate slightly. It wasn’t like a purr of a cat, but perhaps that is the closest comparison that could be given. If one didn’t know better it might actually sound somewhat alarming if not for the contented look on Adar’s face. He was thoroughly enjoying himself when the the girl turned and started speaking to someone. Glancing up with little interest he saw several humans one of which was Rhaine, who we was quite sore with for being so terribly mean to him not long before. Clambering out of the purse, he scurried up Iole’s arm and jumped onto the other arm, forcing the girl to hold him across her chest. He began to make the thrumming noise again, waited expectantly to be petted more.

Iole was surprised to hear Adar make an almost feline purring sound as she finally finished smoothed out the last ruffled feather. She felt his sharp little claws as he climbed out of the purse to rest upon her other arm and obediently bent down a little to drop her baggage onto the dirt floor. Her free hand then went upon his little feathered body to stroke each soft feather lovingly, each thrumming noise vibrating into her own body. A soft smile was upon the girl’s face and the ache for not having a companion and pet herself eased and was soothed by this special little moment with Adar. The indian girl was not forgotten, nor Lilani or anyone else, but they did fade out of her world slightly and the only thing that could bring her back was a voice addressed to herself. Iole scarcely noticed that her gum has gone bad, needing to be spit out and tossed away (she distantly wondered what was the closest thing to a trash can here on Kalidore) with the chocolate wrapper and blueberry container. “See,” she whispered softly to the pocket griffon. “You just needed someone to smooth out those feathers of yours and pet you and now look at you, King above all.”

Beside her, Sapata was not sure she held the same opinion. She wrinkled her nose. So the thing had a name did it? Well this Iole could let it crawl all over her, but Sapata could still remember the feel of it’s claws in her shoulder, and she didn’t envy her at all. Now that she saw it close up it was sort of pretty in a way, but still… this Iole was fawning over it like it was a baby.

She chose to ignore the Adar, and answer the girl.

“I’m Sapata… and I’m of the Miwok tribe of Broken Rock. I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean by where I came from… we are all from the Great Earth Mother. What tribe are you?”

She thought the girl had a Blackfoot look about her, with her golden brown eyes, and long chocolate hair, though her skin color was all wrong of course. Perhaps the sun just didn’t shine as strongly where all these people were from.

Iole looked up at Sapata as the girl spoke and smiled at the mention of the Indian’s name. “You’re from the Miwok Tribe?” she asked then in thought. “I think that tribe is in California, the state that I was born in…” That question having been answered she shook her head as the Indian girl asked for her tribe. “I don’t really belong to a tribe…but I am a citizen of the town Kalahari, the closest thing to a tribe.” She still thought the Native American girl had come from her time in the modern world but lived in one of those special reservation areas for Indian tribes. Still believed in the Miwok tribe’s religion too from the sound of ‘the Great Earth Mother’ stuff.

Iole then as she thought about it remembered the name of an Indian tribe that lived in Arizona and some of the ones in California. The young women had done a project on Native American Indians and what she remembered was from that project. “We do live near the Hopi tribe though,” she tried to add in. “And the Washoe Tribe of California is nearby where I was born.” Though trying to sound helpful she just felt that she was confusing Sapata even more and smiled apologetically. She decided it was time to move onto another subject. “So,” Iole asked as she smoothed back some chocolate brown hair behind an ear before returning to petting Adar. “What do you think about all of these unicorns?”

Just in case the Indian girl hadn’t caught on (as far as she recalled Native American Indians didn’t call unicorns, unicorns, or even have them in mythology) she waved a hand at the magnificent mares and stallions nearby. Ugh…. Iole thought. This conversation isn’t going as well as I thought it would…

Sapata was doing her best to keep up with Iole’s train of thought as it dribbled through her life story and cooed at the Adar alarmingly with distraction. She wasn’t sure the girl hadn’t lapsed into another language, because most of what she was saying made absolutely no sense. Still, she tried to look interested, and when the conversation turned to the unicorns she was relived.

“They are very intriguing… I’ve really only met a few, but they were kind. That bay mare that just got knocked about by the baby unicorn befriended me. Asarte’s her name, and she has made me glad to be here in Kalidore.”

She sipped her hot chocolate and looked around the fire. There she saw the first man since her arrival to this land. Kalidore seemed to be overrun with females; both unicorn and human tribes were predominantly filled with ladies… at least from what she’d seen so far.

She looked the fair colored man up and down in her strait forward way. He was finely built with a glow of health and youth, and though he seemed to defer to the women, she found herself wondering if perhaps these people’s society was like that of herd animals, with a principle male bonded to a group of females. If so, she best stay on his good side. It’d be a disappointment to be kicked out of the group before she had a chance to learn more about these people, and also she was rather fond of the cocoa …

Shaking herself out of her introspection, Tiponi moved closer to the fire and the others that were gathering there. “If there is enough, I would take some of that beverage as well,” she put in with a faint smile for the others gathered about. She had decided to return to her earlier approach: ignore the men of the group. Meanwhile, she needed to get to know these others that seemed to make up the population of this place.

Luminista was glad her companion was making an effort to open up some even if she was closed to the men. Muse’s Temple was not built in a day. it had taken a lifetime for Tiponi to build her defenses against men in general, she would not be able to overcome them in just one day. With quiet contentment she moved over a bit from the fire and settled herself down, close enough to catch some of the radiant heat of the flames but not so close she would overheat. It was curious to her how the dancing blaze offered her some comfort when really for her it didn’t serve much purpose otherwise. Well, it was with fire that those wonderful honey buns were produced…

Cheri walked side by side with Alcyone through the trees in silence, comforting her with her presence. The blue mare had been more shaken by the yak’s revolt than her regal demeanor had let on. Cheri herself had been scared stupid, but the adrenaline rush had left her elated rather than trembling. Once they had been safe she’d let out a whoop of excitement before she noticed the terror in her friend’s eyes. She’d dismounted and laid a kiss on the mare’s nose, giving her a buck-up smile and assuring her everyone was safe. She’d lent her the strength of her thoughts, which seemed to bolster Alcyone’s mood. Then she’d suggested a walk to clear both their heads.

As they walked she recalled what Tyden had told her on their journey here. The large black stallion that the two mares were speaking with must be the Rogue he’d mentioned. Although the conversation didn’t seem to be going well, she surmised that he wasn’t the one murdering innocents in the forest. He was the kind that looked like he had better things to do. And besides, he had saved them, after a fashion, right? She longed to edge close enough to eavesdrop, but didn’t dare.

*Ulysses* Alcyone’s mind whispered to hers. It was the first word she’d, well, spoken since the valley. *The lost Son of Kaedon. He left Kalidore when even my father was very young* She nodded toward the disgruntled ivory stallion and went on with what looked to be a warning gleam in her eye. *They will tell us what we need to know. And when.*

“You have too much confidence in the government,” Cheri muttered, and got a blank look in return. “Never mind. I wasn’t going to go snooping, anyway. I was, however, thinking about the grumblies in my tumbly. Looks like soup’s on over there. Shall we?” Besides, there were new people to look over, including a couple new specimens of manflesh. About time, too. With the amount of estrogen flowing through these lands Cheri was surprised there weren’t catfights erupting hither and yon. Maybe it was all the wide open fresh air that made everyone so friendly. Or maybe everyone was too tired to squabble after the journeying they’d been doing. She knew she could use a rest.

Cheri hovered at the edge of the circle around the fire, not ready yet to inflict herself on the folk gathered there. No sign of Liam, and Tyden for sure wasn’t back yet. She hoped he was okay. There were lots of new people about, one (Iole) playing with the pocket griffon, a Native American-looking chick, and… hold on, was that a kid? What in blue blazes was a little kid doing out here in the middle of god-knew-where? From the looks of her she wasn’t some stray ragamuffin, and she didn’t look to be from Kalidore. Poor thing must be terrified… but Cheri shook her head. She was absolute rubbish with children…

Cheri found herself pitched to the ground with a curse and ended up sprawled in a tangle of arms and legs. Some were hers, some were… ah. New guy. Figures. She flushed scarlet and tried to right herself.

“Are you okay? I’m sorry, I wasn’t watching where I was… whoa!” She slipped on the log he’d been sitting on and landed on the poor unfortunate man again. By the time she’d managed to disengage from him and introduce herself, she was desperately trying to hold back laughter at the absurdity of the situation. As long as she hadn’t cracked the poor guy’s ribs, she was sure she would lose that particular battle.

Ryan had been busy looking between the Guardian and newcomer; he would never sit down and leave a woman standing so he quickly went around to the opposite side of the log and gave it a good push. It rolled easily a few feet closer to the fire, and he went and pulled it back slightly so as to not be too close. Too close would make the heat uncomfortable. He had just worked it into the perfect position and taken a seat on the far end when another young lady collided with him. He was sent sprawling backwards over the log with the woman landing on top of him. They had become entangled in the fall, and he was about to begin apologizing when she managed to almost right herself. Unfortunately, she slipped again and landed back on top of him. At this point, he felt the best way to assist her was to do nothing and allow her to disengage herself. It took a moment but she managed to do so at which point she introduced herself as Cheri. Sitting up, he dusted himself off and stood up.

“Nice to meet you Cheri I’m Ryan, and there’s no need for you to apologize. Please, let me offer you my seat.” He indicated the spot he had been sitting moments before and tried to see if the predicament had offended her. It wasn’t everyday when a woman accidentally fell on top of you, and he hadn’t been sure how to react at first, let alone assist her.

Cheri laughed and smiled at Ryan. He was certainly a chivalrous one. Cheri normally didn’t trust chivalrous men, but she figured here in Kalidore she could probably give him the benefit of the doubt. “No, please. I can’t run you over then kick you out of your seat. I’ll be fine here.” She crossed her legs and sat on the ground beside the log. She gratefully accepted dinner and tea, then noticed the young woman sitting on the other side of Ryan. “Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, I’m interrupting. Please, don’t mind me.” She sat quietly and ate her meal, surreptitiously inspecting the pretty Native American-looking girl. She thought about introducing herself, but didn’t want to interrupt further. Besides, she wasn’t sure the girl spoke English. But then, everyone else did, which now that she thought about it was patently absurd. Maybe Kalidore was permeated by airborne babelfish…

Kyn blinked. He tried to make the mental shift from small human child with the most INTRIGUINGLY candy-like scented hair (his mouth watered to give it a small nibble) to Xanthe’s hissed warnings about … someone. ‘He?’ Kyn eyed the girl in front of him. Surely the little one was not a boy… he had heard about these things, and she was definitely clad in a ‘dress’ which was supposed to be for -girl- humans. He thought it was, anyways… but then Xanthe seemed so sure….

The yearling tried to eye Lyonee with a slightly larger measure of distrust and skepticism, and to stop his embarrassing drooling over her hair. She (he?) seemed nice however, and even introduced herself (himself? Kyn was confusing himself roundly here) formally in such a polite respectful way that Kyn was rather taken with her. (her! It must be a her! Kyn decided.But Xanthe had said -he-…!)

He peered at Lyonee for another few moments, trying to act as grown-up as her polite introduction had made him feel, but soon the questions grew too numerous that he, unused to delayed gratification as he was, was unable to stop them from seeping out. “What is France? Of course I’m a colt! Are you a colt … ehrr… boy too? You don’t look like one. What is cocoa? Can you eat it?” He sidled closer to the small girl again, and tried to discretely lip at her hair a bit, but really only succeeded in drooling on it.

Lyonee giggled as the hot air rushed through her hair when Kyn tried to lip her again. While she had never been the type of child to goo over kittens, she did like animals, a kind of quiet appreciation that had inspired her once to announce that she would like to be a naturalist, and sail like Darwin around the world and study birds; had the meeting been on better footing, she would even have been fond of the naughty Adar too. She grinned at his flurry of questions.

“France is the place where I live. Where are you from? Does your home have a name? And of course I’m a girl – boys are not nearly so pretty!” A touch of pride coloured her cheeks at that remark, not because she had stock in whether or not she was pretty, but rather because to compare her to a boy only brought to mind images of her dreadful brother. And truly, there was no comparison!

But it was his last question that keyed her attention most of all – “you’ve never had cocoa?” her face was appall.

Well! There was no remedy but to correct it immediately, and she tugged on Rhaine’s sleeve again, delighted to have for the moment such an easy fix.

Xanthe, meanwhile, had been watching the exchange with an expression of withering dismay. It had started out quite bright, downright aghast really, that Kyn was not leaping to attention and attending at her very beck. This simmered into curious confusion, to confounded clarity, until finally settling a blank look of complete and utter incredulousness. At the word cocoa, she knew she’d lost him completely, casting a dubious stare at the wee one who was currently more interesting then an urdvoggen, but not, in her opinion, then saving the world. The world!

Silently Xanthe withdrew, slipping between the gathered unicorns and companions to find a patch of grass and invest in some serious contemplation-grazing, biting off the grass in huge clumps and ignoring the little twigs and flecks of dirt that were hauled up in the process. Xanthe, a notoriously picky eater, didn’t even notice them. She was too busy thinking…

Rhaine handed another bowl to Lilaini to fill, and dinner was served. The thick soup was offered with some of Lana’s buns, still deliciously soft after two days on the trails. If the amount of people they were now serving and amount of food they had packed had begun to worry Rhaine, she kept her worries concealed, ensuring each person had a good share and was content. Besides hot cocoa, strong tea was served, something from Lilaini’s special blend that would ensure a restful and rejuvenating night’s sleep, to prepare for whatever found them tomorrow.

And what of tomorrow? Her gaze traced through the trees, but the elders had not returned and Gypsy had given no word to Lilaini. Curiosity bit her, but there was nothing she could do the bronze mare couldn’t, and probably better, so she remained. Anyways, seeing to dinner was duty enough, and that fulfilled, Rhaine was satisfied. Well, mostly. The missing members of their party still worried her, even though there was no logical reason; Tali had been caring for himself in the wilds long before their coming upon him, and Tyden – well, Tyden was Tyden. She starred at the bowl of lentils in her hand, realized after a moment that it was her own dinner and it was getting cold. She sighed.

She was about begin when a small hand tugged at her sleeve again. This of course was Lyonee, the young French girl who couldn’t be more then ten years old. About the age I was when I first came to Kalidore, the thought touched her. Was I really so small then? Goodness, no wonder I worried them all so!

“Are we to sleep out-of-doors tonight? Like pioneers? And in a tent? As if we were camping?” the child wanted to know. “I have never been camping. Olivier went once with papa, but I was not allowed to go because Mother said I would catch my death, and then what would become of her? I do not think I would catch my death; I am not sure if death would even know where I am.” She looked quite satisfied by that notion, and took another swig from the tin mug. Cocoa painted her upper lip and she licked it happily.

“Indeed we shall, and I quite assure no-one will be catching their death tonight if I can help it,” Rhaine replied cheerfully, thankful that Ryan had seen to all the tents before the light had given out completely. With dark, so came the cold, and she shivered; she had given her cloak to the child. She turned towards the crackling fire, and began to eat.

Staring upwards, Lyonee had just noticed that Kalidore had two moons, a very curious fact that she intended to press for more information when rustling in the trees nearby brought her attention around. The sound of more voices, laughter, and the delicate plunking of unicorn’s hooves upon the stones, she looked down from the moons to find the most beautiful unicorn she had ever seen. He looked to be made out of moonlight itself, for he was black and silver like the sky. She barely noticed the two riders on his back, or the large dog that plodded along beside him, while the rest of the camp broke into activity around her.

Odin emerged through the trees, steam rising from his nostrils against the chilled night air. In the light of the campfire it turned from silver to flame, and one could imagine he breathed fire himself. Beside him was Tali, looking quite pleased with himself as a large scrub grouse of some kind was dangling from his mouth. And astride Tyden also looked pleased, giving his riding companion a brief reassuring pat on the shoulder before leaping down to address the group.

“Greetings and good eve’, fine people of Kalidore! I trust I have found you all well? Though… ’tis a bit off the beaten path for a camp, you think?… It was luck we came upon Tali who led us through the pass or we might not have been here until moon’s high. And not only that, he comes baring a delicious gift of pheasant to roast for the evening’s meal!” (here Tali’s tail thumped with satisfaction, thoroughly warmed by the reception his offering met this time around; Tyden grinned at him and continued). “And certainly I did not come empty-handed either… more provisions, blankets, waterskins, medical supplies, clean laundry, and,” he had turned, rummaged through the saddlepacks for an example of each, “a little something for our thirst as well…” He found the carefully wrapped bottle among the bundles and gave it a quick once-over. It wasn’t the finest vintage but it was strong, dry, and would bolster the blood against the cold and happily dull whatever ailed you; plus it doubled as an antiseptic.

Rummaging had brought him into proximity of a curvy panted leg which he’d absentmindedly rested a hand upon while considering the bottle, and upon that realization, realized too this was probably a faux pas in any culture, regardless of the immediacy of the ride he and the lady had just recently shared. Also he realized he hadn’t yet introduced her. He took a step back and cleared his throat. “And this is Erilynn; was wandering around the midland plateaus all by herself, so I’m sure is very glad to be rid of my company by now and be back among civilized people. Erilynn, the Ladies Rhaine and Lilaini, Guardians of Kalidore, and our friends.”

Here he paused to see if she required help dismounting, rather dubious that she would, and hadn’t quite thought far enough ahead to consider just how he’d do that with his hands full anyways. His gaze wandered back to group around the camp fire, looking somewhat larger then what he recalled. “So…. what did I miss?”

* *

Gypsy appreciated the bay mare’s fervour but now was not the time and place, and she could see how these two could quite easily bicker so she gave her a look which asked her to calm. She turned back to Ulysses and stayed silent, waiting for his thoughts to settle and for him to continue. He seemed to be afflicted by a swirling of thoughts or perhaps emotions, she wanted to reach out and offer him comfort but she knew he would not accept it. So she stood silently, waiting; and when he spoke, the words burned before her eyes.

The startle showed briefly on her face. “Destroy… the Gates? I do not think this is entirely a wise idea.” She let her thoughts reach out so that her mind gently touched upon the consciousness of her companion before she continued. “Or perhaps even feasible. Do you have any idea what kind of magic you would need to do such a thing? And I can’t believe that would be the only way to achieve our end.”

She stared at him, biting back her own bewilderment, wondering where this idea had come from. Destroy the gates? The gates had been around since the dawn of time. Certainly they were here for a purpose, therefore would it be wise to mettle with their existence?

Lilaini felt Gypsy’s mind touch her own, but the mare said nothing, only a shadow of uneasy emotion before the feeling retreated. This occurred just as Tyden and Odin entered the clearing. She was glad to see Tali was also with them and she looked over the newcomer. She listened to his little speech and stood up to help take some of the supplies from him. Her eyes momentarily flashing between him and the girl he named Erilynn as she approached.

“Miss? Nothing too important, other than us nearly getting trampled to death. Oh and Ulysses’ arrival,” she looked at him quite seriously, but her eyes were amused.

Despite all that, she was glad to see him returned safely. Turning to the newcomer she bowed slightly, “Welcome Erilynn, I am Lilaini. Please come and sit by the fire, we are just in the middle of serving dinner if you are hungry.” She smiled and nodded to both Tali and to Odin before reaching to un-tether some of the supplies.

Iole eyed Lyonee as the young girl chattered and giggled, so young but perhaps it was the right age to be “hanging” out with unicorns. For her it was still the age of imagination, magic wonderous and the thought as an explanation not discarded easily, the unexplained exciting at times. Iole felt a small pang at missing it, around the age of almost eighteen the only magic came from miracles, movies, and most importantly books. Saddening as it was, everyone had to grow up unless you were Peter Pan and he didn’t exist! Then again, unicorns existed though they spoke and seemed to all have very different personalities and perhaps histories and magic all on their own. Everyone was different, no one else could be exactly like them in the world.

Her amber eyes glittered as they settled onto what seemed a shadow in the darkness, a stallion. Proud and regal he stood, but there seemed much hidden away and locked in his heart. But maybe that was just his coloring…Iole paused petting Adar and gently set him down onto a nearby log. “Later…” she promised. Then she set out to catch some dinner. She gleefully bit into a warm bun and savored the taste, at least they wouldn’t starve. Hot cocoa was sipped delicately, silently she wished for some milk to have poured in and cooled it down. The young women could see steam rising from the top and making patterns in the air.

Adar squawked in protest when Iole put him down. At least his feathers were back in the proper spot, so they weren’t irritating him. He was about to scuttle after her and demand that she continue what she was doing when he heard that man’s voice. The griffon paused and looked around. He caught sight of Tyden at one end of the clearing with another human. The idea to investigate if this human had food crossed the griffon’s mind, but at that very moment, Iole placed a bun near him. He stopped, sniffed at the bun (which he came to find smelled delicious), and then pounced on top of the doughy delicacy, all thoughts of newcomers and Tyden forgotten.

The food was done, a bowl passed Sapata’s way, and all thoughts turned to her belly. Iole didn’t seem to mind the lapse in talk; she was once again busy spoiling Adar.
The contents of the soup were familiar, Sapata rather liked it. She’d never eaten a risen bread before, but the warmed rolls were delicious, and she sopped up the dregs of spiced juice from the bottom of her bowl with one. But the cup of cocoa was all that Lyonee had hinted at and more. Sweet and hot, warming the belly and exciting the mouth. She turned to tell the child that she did indeed adore the drink, but the girl was busily engaged in an exchange with a small unicorn. Sapata was glad to see the child had found someone close to her own age to amuse her, and was loath to interrupt, so she turned back to her cup. It was like nothing she’d experienced before, and her mood was suddenly improved tenfold. The warmth of fire, the company of others, the sating of her empty belly… this adventure was taking a turn for the better!

As the group relaxed and dispersed about the camp that was coming together (and with the return of Fiera), Foehn Miri wondered off to enjoy some cool, fresh water after that dusty run. While still stream-side she began to graze enjoying the relative quiet as well as the camp’s muted sounds-odd as that seemed. Leisurely she grazed her way back to camp where she continued to graze along the outskirts where she could catch all that was going on about the fire.

Upon receiving her steaming bowl of lentils, Tiponi moved over to where Luminista had settled herself on the ground within the fire’s glow. Settling herself among her companion’s hooves and leaning back against the mare’s barrel, Tiponi commenced to enjoy her meal in spite of the men present in the group. The cocoa presented she found to be too rich for her, but the tea offering was divine and the roll was a wonder. Such a delicacy in such a situation amazed her. As she savored her meal her mind drifted to the patch of berries she had spied earlier and made note to herself to gather some for the mornings breakfast.

When the silver stallion and his party entered the clearing Tip’s jaw clenched but that was the only indication of apprehension. The relaxed banter of both the new guy and this Tyden were so in opposition to what she knew of men. The steady chatter of the child that had joined them was a welcome distraction. She, herself, could not remember a time of such simple innocence. It was refreshing.

As the last pack was removed and the final trappings unbuckled and pulled away, Odin gave a hearty shudder that sent his ample mane swirling every direction. Once it settled he turned to the man and woman at his side, a gentle nudge to each. “I am glad we find you and the group well, Lilaini. Seems there are many unusual things about these days, the least of these being my newly-returned brother. It is for that reason I must take my leave of you, at least for the next leg of your journey.”

Tyden nodded, laying a hand quietly on the stallion’s neck. Odin had many responsibilities throughout the isle, and that he had accompanied them this far before duty obliged his presence elsewhere were circumstances to relish, so it was with remorse – but understanding – that they bid adiue to him now.

“I’m sure we will get along just fine without you, old boy,” Tyden chuckled. “You won’t need to worry about us in the least.”

“I wasn’t worried,” the stallion’s ears flickered. “Not about you, anyways.” He gave the man an affection bump on the chest (what with arms still full, caused a small stumble) and gazed about the campfire one last time. “Kal’s eyes upon you all,” he tipped his horn, and with a graceful sweep of his tail turned and disappeared through the trees like smoke.

* * *

Beyond the canopy of the firs, the two mares and an ink-coloured stallion stood opposing one another. The bay mare was scowling silently, possibly acknowledging Gypsy’s request for quiet, or possibly just silent because she was too furious at the rogue stallion to speak. Gypsy’s face was drawn with perplexity, her eyes upon the other bright. Ulysses watched her reaction and shook his head.

“As much as I expected. As much as I should have hoped for. After all these yes why am I surprised to find peace has bred such complacency among the unicorns?” Ulysses backed against the night, his gaze unflinching on them, and cold. “Destroying the Gates are the only way to ensure that it never happens again, that Kalidore will be safe, lest the insatiable appetite of Dragons swallow us whole…. if we had but half the courage all those years ago, we could have ended it then! But courage failed, and we failed, and now we find ourselves standing again at the brink of night…” Again, again, all over again…. Suddenly he swirled, rising on his hinds and feet striking forward with menace. “You have let this all happen!”

And then a silver shadow was beside them, shouldering hard, and knocked the thinner stallion back to his fours. “What is this that has happened, brother, that you must yell fault at our good sisters for?”

Ulysses had the wind knocked briefly from him, and that gave him time to focus on huge stallion standing at his side. “Odin,” he breathed between teeth. He straightened, slowly. “I would hardly expect you to understand.”

Odin never moved, his breath a ghost in the cold. “It has been many years since you and I have conversed; it would hardly seem fair to make allegation based on events happened so long ago. Besides, if there is danger to Kalidore, then it is my duty to know of it. What say you walk with me, brother, and tell me what pursues your mind this night.”

Their eyes met, silver-blue and gold, and above them stars tumbled. The wind sighed, and the night held its breath. Gypsy’s ears pricked forward as she watched them. Ulysses was so furious the air around him seemed to snap, and for a moment she thought he might strike out again; but Odin remained a pillar, resolute and unblinking, and at last the dark and storming koros recoiled into himself. He looked to the mares again, and returned to his brother. “Very well.”

Odin nodded, then tipped his horn to Gypsy, and again to Phae. “Kal keep you, good sisters,” he said on both their behalf, and without another word the two turned, the sound of thier hooves fading into the night.

At last Gypsy let out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. She have herself a shake, feeling the cold finger through her mane as it moved. “Come,” she turned to Phae gently. “Let’s see to the others.”

* * *

Contrary to his fiery-tempered travel-mate, Liam was actually in a fairly good mood. Water gathering taken care of, dinner on the way, and now the latrine preparations coming along in fairly short order – the soldier was actually feeling like he had hit his stride. His side ached with some of the exertions he was putting it through – but the sensation was almost comforting in it’s familiarity. Half-healed hurts was something he was well acquainted with, even within his broken memories, and Liam was enjoying the otherwise rare feeling of something commonplace.

Why, if there were just a few less talking beasts and women, and a bit more blood and bad food… he might almost be able to close his eyes and imagine himself home in Ireland on a patrol. Not that, necessarily, the substitutions here were a BAD thing …. off putting occasionally, so many women without escorts had him wondering when a angry husband or lord would turn up and find his presence offensive (and then justly attempt to separate head from shoulders). And the idea that his next attempted meal might reproach him with words and (possibly) REAL curses made him more than slightly suspicious of anything more than vegetables (which soon would ALSO be called into question after meeting a certain talking plant)… but all in all, things weren’t all too bad.

Providing of course he could continue to not almost get himself killed by wild animals and actual PROTECT the party he was riding with instead of just dying inconveniently and embarrassingly. The man finished the last of the latrines and surveyed it with a pleased eye. Nothing too fancy as he was sure the ladies were accustomed too – but measurably private, and near enough to a clump of bushes with large flat leaves that he had tested and SEEMED to not be poisonous to the skin. He nodded to himself and whistling merrily (and slightly off tune), and was about to start towards the nearby creek to wash up before inflicting his (currently very dirty) presence back on the camp when … he was accosted by Gwyn with her sopping (and loudly singing!) plant companion.

“No ma’am,” Liam gave a broad smile to the mare and touched his forehead. “But ’tis good te’ make your acquaintance. But te’ answer your question, no ‘ahm no companion. Just a straggler of sorts that was gathered up elsewhere…” He said, being purposefully vague, not really wanting to trot out the nastier particulars of his entrance to Kalidore when even he wasn’t quite sure of them. He was about to continue when Mio hit a particularly loud warble and Liam blinked, and leaned over slightly so he could make out the exact origin of the song.

“Och. Perhaps I weren’t quite all t’gether after all… this definitely has the makings of a fever dream. First all th’ animals ken’ chatter, but surely I must be off m’rocker te’ be hearing a bunch o’ green singing fit te’ kill….” He peered at the saddle bags in bewilderment – wondering if now was the time to go and ask Rhaine for help, or if really it was time to just wander off into the woods and be done with it (for SURELY he was on his last legs!) for good.

Gwyneira burst into a hearty belly-laugh at the soldier’s confusion, shaking the creature in her satchel into burbling silence. “Nay, no fever, as sure as we are all children of Kal! This is Kaus Mio; a more… unusual… example of rare Kalidorian flora that I actually had not been acquainted with before today. This adventure is proving full of all kinds of unexpected boons, is it not?” she nuzzled the somewhat baffled man cheerfully.

Liam’s eyes had really never left the protrusion of greenery at her chest, which was slopping around inside the satchel and emitting strange noises. Eventually Gwyn’s attention arrived there too. “I believe I may have given him an overly good soak, indeed, perhaps I have rather drowned him.”

“’sshaaal good,” Mio burped. “A good shoke, ish good for… for the… green leaves was my delight…” he lapsed into song again, unfurling his tendrils with a flourish and spraying sloppy mud everywhere, including the bemused faces of his captive audience.

Alcyone had wandered away from the fire, leaving her companion to the company of her kind. She seemed content. She shuddered again at the thought of how close she came to losing her today. Alcyone didn’t know what happened to unicorns if their companions died, but she did know she wasn’t eager to find out.

She shook her snowy mane. Enough of morbid musings. She’d only gone a short way through the trees when she heard a sound. Her ears swiveled to find the direction of the… singing? Strange and slurred it may be, but she she was certain there was a melodious note to it. She followed the sound to find Liam confronted with a mare whose pouch seemed to be what was making the noise. She turned to the mare.

*May I be of assistance?* she sent. *Your pouch seems to be… but oh, is that a plant?* Alcyone looked closer. *Is it sentient, or does it merely sing to attract prey or pollen carriers?* She tilted her head as the plant slurred on, terribly out of key. *Or mayhap it’s a defense mechanism?*

“Mayhap I should let him dry out a bit over dinner,” Gwyneira’s eyes crossed slightly as she tried to asses the dirt on her nose. She bobbed her head in greeting to Aclyone, then refocused on Liam and snorted in spite of herself. “Oh dear me! we had better get you cleaned up for dinner, too….” She was about to offer a warm tongue (mother’s spit being the thing of wonder that it was, even with all the magic of Kalidore) when the plant started into a particularly loud chorus that would have made the Irishman at home in any local pub.

“He’s sentient,” Gwyn answered the blue mare straight-faced. “Or was… and may still be in danger of loosing that ability if the ruckus keeps up…” She frowned, her gaze returning to Liam. “You wouldn’t by chance have a pocket knife on you? a few holes in the bottom of this sack might further the process along…?”

Liam, ever the soldier, had his sword on hand, and made quick work of the mare’s request. A few pricks, and the excess water had begun to seep away in a slow dribble. He straighten the strap across the mare’s shoulder while he was at it, and tucked the plant back again as best he could. “Perhaps to cover him for a while will help…” he suggested, mind recalling the case of an exotic African parrot he once saw in the royal barracks while stationed briefly there. The bird had apparently been a gift to the king, but its language so obnoxious (thanks, in no unsure way, to the garrulous ship’s captain who presented the treat) that it was banned from the castle indefinitely by the queen. Eventually it had wound up with the army cook, who could easily have talked the bird under the table himself, and the two got on regally. Every now and then, when parrot became too verbose even for him, a cloak was thrown over the cage and the bird was silent.   Despite Mio’s differences, Liam certainly saw similarities.

“Can’t hurt,” Gwyn seemed politely relieved as the noise dwindled to subdued musical burblings. “A night’s sleep will do him well. I dare say it will do us all well, and what a bright morning to look forward too!” Her gaze wandered back to the camp, the crackling fire and contented chatter of the companions, their unicorns, and the foundlings, no longer quite so lost. It made for a merry scene, and warmed her thoroughly. She turned to Aclyone and Liam again, her mood twinkling like the stars above. “Come, let us return to the group ourselves. With luck, Lady Rhaine will tell some stories, and I for one would not want to miss a word!”

They made their way through the trees, and world beyond them was still. The moons were rising, and turned the world silver, silver tongues licking the wilds awake with the night; owls whispered, distant wolves sang, skycats curdled while strange and beautiful bird calls echoed through the dark hills. To Odin it was a familiar lullaby, but the dark stallion at his side took comfort in nothing, the only sound between them their hooves, striking the ground in unison while they ran. Beyond the hills the night was wilder still, shot through with a thousand eyes that saw nothing but darkness, falling, falling to cover the isle…

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