Ulysses – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 ~ What Morning Brings

The morning broke heavy with dew. Moistness in the air meant the arriving day would be warmer, or, that it would rain. Liam rather hoped for the former as he stretched, working the stitching cramp down his back as he withdrew from his look-out perch on top the bolder as the camp below him began to stir.

Day was a pleasant change to the night before. As far as nights in Kalidore went, it had been an odd one, and that was saying something. While the group’s spirits has been bolstered by Tyden’s return, Odin’s subsequent abrupt departure with the mysterious Ulysses left a hole within their tight-knit fabric. And though nothing had been said out loud, Lilaini and Gypsy had stood for a long time by the side of the campfire, leaving no doubt to the soldier’s mind of the grave discussions that had silently convened.

For his own reasons Liam was most selfishly glad Tyden had returned, for, the quiet lad Ryan aside, it was nice to have some chummily male comradelier again, which he was much more used and suited to. He considered it luck that the arrival of the young child had made evading Rhaine’s succulent attention a relatively uncomplicated event; not that he had anything against Rhaine’s caring per se, just… he felt horribly out of sorts in the Lady’s presence – or worse! – and had concluded that the best course of action would be to avoid her completely. So as seating arrangements permitted he parked himself next to Tyden, and two had exchanged a polite but provocative debate on the continued importance of swordsmanship in the evolution of warfare while sharing some of Tali’s pheasant, roasted to perfection over hot coals.

After the bird had been divided and enjoyed, a certain small Viking strode up to the two men and informed Tyden she would be taking first watch that night. Arguing otherwise seemed futile, so Tyden was quite happy to let her have it. It was here Liam interjected he would take watch that night too, playing down the concerns his comrades had about his past injuries and need for rest. Because he seemed so earnestly insistent, Tyden also agreed, and it was decide Liam would take the last watch before dawn.

It was not far into the night that Liam decided dawn couldn’t come soon enough.

It started out as ordinary; he spread his bedroll near the fire, willingly leaving the occupation of the tents to ladies, and excused Phae to her regularly scheduled moping session in some remote corner of the camp. Sleeping under stars he was used to and the animal sounds that lingered up from the valley were unremarkable; he was soon asleep. He woke a short time later when rustling from one of the tents signaled the wee one had to make use of the latrine; this business was sorted and carried out and dealt with in short order, the camp fell quiet, and the soldier rolled over and resumed sleeping. A few solid notches of the moons later he woke again, this time because an unfamiliar sound touched his ears. It had ended by the time he was fully awake, so he only had the half-heard memory to go by, which had sent shivers down his spine. The moons were bright, and in this light he saw that Tali was also awake and sitting on the other side of the tended fire, gazing into the night. The wolf Liam rather liked, for he’d always been fond of dogs, and his early lessons in Kalidore had taught him to put whatever former opinions he had about other creatures completely aside. At the same time, he still looked… somewhat fearsome, backlit against the moons as he was. The wolf got up and trotted away. Liam settled back into his bedroll, feeling the usual stitch in his side at the injury’s site, and resolved himself back to sleep.

He couldn’t.

Try, try as he might, his mind seemed distracted and unwilling. It was then he began to think he was being watched. That, of course, was ridiculous. Firstly, a quick glance around camp put everything and everyone in order and accounted for, give or take the few figures of snoozing unicorns he couldn’t make out distinctions through the trees. Secondly, he knew Tyden was on watch and he trusted the man impeccably; if there was danger, he would have woken him, promptly. Thirdly, despite the affections of a certain cavebear, it did not go to prove that the deranged animals of Kalidore were drawn completely and unequivocally to him. That was just silly. Near by, a twig snapped.

Now Liam did not consider himself a superstitious man, at least no more then any parish-raised Irishman of his generation; he believed there was a certain divine order to the universe, through which all things were made explainable, generally by other people who were more suited to that kind of existential thought than he. Of Kalidore in general, it was to be believed simply because it was; whether this caused any flaw in his core dogma he defaulted to memory loss and resolved to ignore; Liam was not a complicated man. The solution to this kind of situation was simple: have a stronger shot of whiskey before bed tomorrow. He rolled over abruptly, determined to sleep.

The next time he woke the moons were so bright that in his sleepy stupor he thought it midday, that he’d slept through, and he was late, and they’d right be off shortly and – he blinked. The eyes blinked back.

The light hung between day and night, a surreal transcendence of place and time; Liam had no idea how long remained staring, if he was actually indeed staring and not dreaming or hallucinating and drunk off moonlight by fate of some ill-disclosed faery games. The image before him was veiled in the haze of half-consciousness and the details were indistinct; the eyes one moment seemed almost familiar, like a clear piece of sky, the next exotically inhuman and cut with silver, curtained as they were with silver hair (or was it gold?). They hung like two moons – or maybe they were the moons? – and it was in that moment he realized he was incapable of any real action or will of his own nor even the the foggiest notion what he do if he did. He blinked his eyes shut again. Opened them. The star-filled sky spread endlessly in his field of view. He was very much alone.

He was not sure how long he lay there, staring at the sky, before his brain began to thaw and started making suggestions on his behalf, like perhaps whisky before bed was NOT such a good idea after all, and mayhap if we still had feet, and they were working, a trip to the latrine would happy diversion right about now. Afterwards, Liam decided as he was not sleeping anyways, he would relieve Tyden of his post for the remainder of the night. This he did, brushing aside unimportantly any inquiries the other man made about the quality of his rest, and waited determinedly for morning to come…

There was stirring in the tents as the light filtered through the trees and reached them, warming them, and Liam strode towards the small ember’d glow of the night’s fire and began stirring it to roaring life again with more kindling; beside rested the water skins, and he gathered them all together, heading now towards the stream so that there might be hot water for the morning’s tea.

* * *

That night, Kyndrienn had slept the fractious sleep of a colt in throes of a massive sugar coma. After he had been introduced to the wonders of cocoa by the precocious little Lyonee, Kyn had tried his very hardest to consume his weight in the stuff – and was only slowed by the well meant chidings of Rhaine to stop before he gave himself a stomach ache.

Even those admonishments had fallen on (mostly) deaf ears, and it was only several cups later when Kyn became unnerved by the way he was beginning to burp chocolate that he admitted to himself that maybe it was time to put an end to it. Unfortunately for the buckskin colt, by that time his belly was round with the stuff – and his muzzle and and front was liberally spattered with large chocolate flecks. The cocoa had been warm, hot even, and at the beginning Kyn had found it a pleasant comfort against the growing chill of the night. However, now that he had consumed close to a gallon of it, the heat and the weight of it was beginning to make him overly drowsy – and despite the sugar content of the cocoa that had originally had him chattering like an overactive pocketgryph – Kyn soon found himself barely able to keep his eyes open.

It took some time for him to get comfortable – there was much squirming and rearranging of legs going on as he tried to find a position that was comfortable and didn’t press on his overly full stomach – but eventually he managed to contort himself into an agreeable enough way, legs akimbo and partially wedged under one of the logs dragged near the campfire as a seat, and was soon fast asleep and snoring loudly – much to the chagrin of those who had been still trying to have a conversation around the fire.

The cocoa did its work during the night – and Kyndrienn’s dreams were riddled with strange sugar inspired phantasm’s – strange chocolate monsters with gaping mouths and starfilled wings chased him across moving fields of rainbow colored yak-fur. So vivid and strange were the dreams, that the adrenaline rush they produced woke the colt from his slumber with a ragged whimper. The rest of the campsite was obviously sleeping – the fire banked, and only a faint glow visible from the coals. Despite the slumbering nature of the rest of the camp, his emotions still high from the almost nightmarish dreams (and the fact that the cocoa was beginning to press rather urgently on his colt-sized bladder), Kyn was unable to fall back asleep. Instead, clambering rather ungainlingly to his feet, he stumbled towards the edge of the clearing (managing to mostly avoid stepping on the many sleeping forms, and their corresponding limbs and manes).

Once there, slightly on edge from the strange shadows and sounds that echoed through the mountain nights, Kyn managed to scoot out far enough into the brush and go about his business in fairly short order. As he started to pick his way back towards the campfire, and eventual sleep a familiar form caught his eye. Pasiphae, the bay mare having allowed her snit with Ulysses to set her out of sorts for the night – had pouted her way into a lonely corner of the clearing, and had eventually drowsed alone under one of the great trees. Kyndrienn, having little head for such social politics, had neither noticed her pointed aloofness from the group, nor likely would have recalled it this late at night had it made an impression. Instead, remembering the bay mare as a companion of nights past, and not so secretly yearning for a little bit of motherly comfort after his night of chocolate debauchery (though he would never admit it aloud!), gravitated towards her without a second though, and nestled closely against a warm flank. His eyes grew heavy, and with a heavy, sleepy sigh soon he was soon unconscious again – but this time his dreams played out softer and sweeter under the protective wing of his perceived maternal surrogate.

Pasiphae, rousing slightly at the addition of the buckskin yearling, only opened an eye and noted his presence – too tired to consider moving, and really secretly appreciative of the company of another. When she closed her eyes again, she could almost imagine it another night of no-so-long-ago when she and Spirit would go a’wandering and sleep out together under the stars in the wild fields of Kalidore. The memory brought a faint smile to her lips, and she fell asleep, like the colt – amidst a sweeter field of dreams than she had before.

A stone’s throw away, Liam – on his watch for the night – observed the going’s on with a smile of his own – glad that both colt and his prickly traveling companion had found at least a small amount of solace and comfort in each other. (And selfishly hoped that the next morning would find Pasiphae slightly more pleasant as a result).

Indeed, early next morning, Pasiphae DID awake to a much better mood than the one before – not that, considering how foul a snit she was in, that was really saying much. Kyndrienn, ever the teenaged koros, was still soundly sleeping despite the growing noise of slowly awakening camp. Phae tried to cover a small snigger at his rather undignified pose, wedged as he was at her side, neck half contorted and legs practically waving in the air. She nipped an ear, tugging it gently. “Get up, you scamp. Otherwise some one will see you, and confuse you with one of the wolves, what with that silly way of sleeping.”

Kyn stirred, groggily, and opened one eye to stare up at the bay mare in total incomprehension. “Mrrgleflrrrrp….?” He gargled in question at her… at least she assumed it was a question due to the slight rise in pitch at the end, as it was otherwise completely unrecognizable in word or form.

“You.” She repeated, and pulled at one of his ears again. “Get up.” She punctuated the order with another tug, before stiffly rising to her own feet. “I think they’ll be breaking camp soon, and then we’ll be off to … well, wherever we’re off to. Don’t want to be left behind, do you?” She peered down at Kyn, who was still resolutely not stirring, and who had closed his eyes again as if in hopes the call to rise would simply disappear, or Pasiphae would. The bay mare rolled her eyes, and leaned down to nose him once more. “Up! Maybe if you’re lucky you can ask for a little more of that … cocoa you had last night. That certainly perked you up.”

The thought of cocoa definitely elicited a reaction from the colt – although not the one the mare intended – as the thought of more chocolate caused poor Kyn’s stomach to roil a bit, remember the massive excess from the night before, and he groaned. “Dun’ wanna… urk. Cocoa…s’evil, ’tis.” He muttered and shuddered slightly, the words garbled and barely understandable.

“Oh, stop being a baby.” Pasiphae snorted. “Might as well have stayed home if you’re going to act such… I’ve no time for this.” And with that the mare huffed and stalked off in search of breakfast, leaving the sprawled colt to his own devices. Kyn, resolute in his conviction that now was simply too early to be waking up, tried his best to return to dreaming… but with the lack of that warm, velveted side of the mare to curl up against, was having some problems succeeding.

Finally, head lolling and unsteady with sleep, he climbed to his feet… of a mind to stagger a bit closer to the newly stoked (and warmer) fire towards the middle of the campsite, and resume his nap. On his laborous way there, however, he noticed one of the tent’s had a half open door flap. He managed to focus his eyes long enough to notice that it was the Lyonee’s curls on the pillow inside… and decided that the opportunity of a nice, warm, noise-sheltered sleeping spot was just too good to pass up. Stumbling over to the tent, he managed to collapse (in a not TOO loud a fashion) in a bonless heap at the entrance… and semi-sort of wedged himself inside.

It was warm, and wonder of wonders – even had a spare supply pack to rest his head on. Kyn, sighing contentedly and mentally commending the little girl for being even more wonderous to befriend than he had previously imagined, soon found himself fast asleep on her tent floor.

* * *

As the sun gathered intensity outside, Rhaine blinked a few times against the light before giving up and rolling over, rousing herself to the day with a yawn. Liliani was already up and rummaging around inside her pack, but the rest of the campers seemed off to a slow start. Lyonee in particular was still fast asleep, nestled against Kyn who’d managed to sprawl with Xanthe at the flap of the tent; Xanthe was currently nowhere to be seen, but Kyn seemed to have wedged himself mostly into the tent, making use of a spare supply pack for a pillow. Rhaine decided to leave the child sleeping for now; the night had been quite restless for her, and she worried her spirits would droop if she was overly tired. Instead she followed Lilaini’s lead and turned to find her bathing supplies, and a change of clothes; she dreaded the thought of the cold mountain water on principal, but after spending two hard days riding, it was unavoidable. At least, if she still wanted to be welcomed in the company of her peers!

“We should see about putting some water to boil before we go, if no one has seen to it already,” Lilaini looked up as she sensed the other’s movement. She had two garments in her hand, a green riding top and a teal one, and was currently scheming which of the two to wear; regardless of situation, it was beyond Lilaini to conduct herself without some attention to style and personal up-keeping, two points she had tried to instill on her fellow guardian with limited success; Rhaine, after all, was still wearing Tyden’s old shirt. She shook her head. The green blouse worked to set off her eyes, but the teal was tailored so nicely to her figure; it was a bit of a quandary!

Rhaine had already stashed her selected clothing under her arm and nodded as she made her way carefully around the sleeping figures in the tent. “I’ll do that now,” she replied, found her shoes, and slipped outside.

*

Tyden woke to the faint sound of someone muttering.

It was an odd sound, broken into several languages, none of which seemed to be pronounced very well. The sound went on for a while, until there was a bit of lull, followed by and incantation, followed by a small but distinct *poof*, followed by an expletive. Tyden rolled over and propped himself up on an elbow. Around the campfire was quite still, the rest of the camp barely stirring and Liam hadn’t made it back with the water yet. A short distance away stood the source of the muttering, a certain golden dun kore currently haloed by a strands of dissipating smoke, scowling over a spell scroll. Tyden rubbed his eyes, then made it the rest of the way out of bed; sleep was over-rated anyways. He shook the debris from his boots and pulled them on, fastening his belt as he made his way to Xanthe’s side. “You’re off to an early start,” he greeted wryly.

The kore tensed at the sound of his voice, but when she realized who was speaking the ears drooped down and she snorted. “Well, you know what they say,” she said morosely

He glanced at the spell scroll, but in truth had never really paid attention to them himself and couldn’t offer anything beyond encouragement. Actually, he was quite impressed Xanthe was being so keen about her studies, and marked this as the first spark of maturity; he’d be sure to relate this to Muse upon their return. “I’m sure with a bit more practice they’ll work for you,” he replied.

“Maybe,” Xanthe seemed doubtful, but took the comment to heart nonetheless. After all, the spell she was working on was quite advanced, and she but a mere apprentice; the fact that she’d snuck it from one of her mother’s old silk-bound Elven volume she hoped would not come back to bite her in the bum later. It was a very important spell after all. A Truth Spell. And if she could successfully cast it – why then, the solider would just have to tell everyone his dastardly intentions! And if she was lucky, it would make everyone else see the truth as well. She wasn’t exactly sure how it worked, truthfully, but she had great expectations. After a failed go on Liam the night before (he’d woken up in the middle of it; luckily, she didn’t think he’d seen her) she was all the more determined to have it working before night fell again.

As the kore returned to her studies, Tyden returned to the fire just as Rhaine appeared, still blinking against the morning but looking fairly determined. “I suppose someone has already gone to fetch water?” she remarked at the absence of the skins.

Tyden nodded, handing her the kettle as he began to gather his belongings and roll them back into packs. “I believe Liam did; which reminds me, I still have a change of clothes for him. He tried to tell me last night he didn’t need it, that the one shirt was most generous; I can imagine what the customs of the typical soldier may well have been like, but hopefully he’ll realize that on Kalidore, we afford the luxury of bathing regularly.”

“Oh Tyden, you’re being cruel,” Rhaine chided, ignoring that engaging grin as she set about a spot for the kettle securely over the flames. Undaunted he straightened, regarding her most thoughtfully for a moment’s silence. Eventually there was no alternative but to query. “Now what?” she frowned.

“Well,” he began, the grinning now insatiable, “had I been more attuned, I’d have brought along a little extra for you as well.” At her baffled look he shrugged innocently. “What can I say? You look far better in my clothes then he does.”

Rhaine didn’t answer, but that was because her attention had been drawn elsewhere. Up the trail from the creek Liam came, whistling a cheerful tune and only straining slightly under the weight of the waterskins, slung in a makeshift yoke across his shoulders.

“Liam!” she exclaimed, dropping what she was doing and barreling towards the soldier with haste. “You shouldn’t be exerting yourself like that! The strain – it could tear open the lesions, and then where would you be? By Kal, you silly man! Now let me see–”

One moment he’d been happily trudging up the hill, his thoughts on breakfast and what possibilities that might hold, the next he was met with baffling bombardment of feminine concern. He stopped in his tracks, letting the yoke slide sidelong as she arrived, and, with intention rapt, began arguing with his clothes.

Now, there were any number of ways Liam could consider the proceedings. There were many proceedings going through his mind about the proceedings too, the cumulative effect threatening to cause his brain to short circuit in fear of revealing exactly which proceeds it might land upon. The mortification of this – and not so much the attention itself, except in relation to that – coloured and subsequently paled his features with such velocity as to make any cuttlefish proud. Liam, utterly frozen, was helpless to do anything to more then just stare.

Luckily Rhaine, for all her enthusiasm, was first and foremost a trained empath, and realized quite quickly that her patient seemed ill at ease. Assessing the situation again (by this time the camp had come mostly to life, as the travelers emerged from the tents and set about on their morning routine) she realized ruefully what must be the matter. “Oh, I beg your pardon!” she conceded, apology written all over her features . “Would you prefer rather that I undress you in privacy?”

Liam was never sure why he didn’t die right then there; it truly seemed the only plausible solution to the situation…

Tyden had watched the scene unravel with a myriad of expressions on his face. When it at last came to a stalemate, he roused himself into action with inconclusive motivation. He arrived beside them and assisted Liam with the waterskins. “Now, now Rhaine, see here: he’s barely broken a sweat, there’s no harm done. I think you underestimate the poor bloke.”

Liam, who was at the moment sweating profusely, nodded enthusiastically at this suggestion.

Rhaine looked torn, but Tyden’s deadpan was absolute. A flush bit her cheeks and she nodded. “Aye; maybe I am a bit forthcoming.” She released her grip and straightened the garment as best she could. “My pardons again, I shall let you be, and see instead to my own toiletries this morning. Feel free to carry on as you were,” she dismissed the pair, and curtly turned and was away.

Just the same, Liam felt horrible as she turned to go; somehow, surly, he had disappointed the young Guardian. Again. Recouping his ability to speak, he turned to apologize after himself, when a brisk unbalancing of the yoke had him spinning around in the other direction. Tyden had relieved him of half his load, specifically the load on his left side.

“You heard the Lady,” he quirked nonchalantly, swinging up the skins with ease. “You think that’s unpleasant? Wait until Lilaini discovers there’s no hot water for her morning drink – would rather have another go at that cavebear, mark me!”

With that he started brightly for campfire, and Liam thought the better and hurried after.

*

Tiponi stirred in her sleep, snuggled up next to Luminista near the edge of camp. The subtle sounds of an awakening camp penetrated her consciousness . Groggily her eyes drifted open, falling upon the campfire and the man squatting there. She tensed before realizing it was the one who had been injured. Li-, Li-?

*Liam.*
 
Glancing up at the red mare who had supplied to name to her, she muttered a thanks and good morning. She rubbed her hands across her face then excused herself before setting off into the trees.

More of the group were stirring about as Tiponi returned to camp. Looking about for the packs containing supplies for the group, she made her way to them thinking to begin preparations for the morning meal.

Hearing approaching footsteps, she glanced up to see the two men approaching with full water skins. Tiponi returned her attention to rummaging for ingredients, but could to avoid the tension that radiated through her being.

*Breathe, Tiponi. Just breathe. There is no threat from them,* her companion sent and Tiponi worked on following instructions and trying to take to heart the reassurance…

As the sun slowly rose from the horizon, it left Iole rising up equally slow. If not slower. The girl had never been used to waking up early except on Saturday mornings, otherwise it was school and who wanted to get up early for school? No, usually her father or brother woke her up instead. Besides, the sounds of the night and the fact that she was sleeping in a tent was all new to the young lady. Sure, she had gone camping before but that was with family and only for a few days. How long would she be staying in Kalidore? If only she knew…

A mumble tumbled from the still sleeping girl’s lips and she rolled restlessly in her sleep. In her dream she was lost, time her only companion in a forest of dark trees and endless walking. Her whole body felt…strange. If she had given herself time to think about it she would have realized that she was dreaming but then something new happened. A figure bathed in light appeared at the end of the dark forest. A black stallion, not a mere koros, but a true Son of Kaedon stood before her with his horn raised as if to touch her brow. He motioned her to follow him and she obeyed, lost as she was she felt that this etheral creature was all the hope she had. Then he increased his pace to trot, a canter, and a gallop. “Wait!” came the cry that escaped from her lips as she chased after him. But…he was gone, leaving her lost and alone once again in the dark forest of black trees, solemn and still.

Iole woke suddenly then, a chill come upon her. She blinked rapidly and hurriedly rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. It was a new day…and she was still in Kalidore. A realm of unicorns and people out of past ages. Strange, exciting…different. She yawned and stretched, cat-like, before struggling to make herself presentable. After failing in what she presumed was epically, she shoved a piece of gum in her mouth, chewed it, and then thrust herself out of the tent and into the sunlight. Still sleepy she looked about, eyes glazing over everyone as the camp became active. She had no clue what she was supposed to do…

While sifting through the contents of the packs, Tiponi came across a fire-blackened pot. Pull it free from the other things she held it, staring vacantly at it while she pondered Luminista’s words.

Finally, she cast a glance at the fire. Seeing the stones about the dancing flames already set up from last night’s service to receive the pot, she steeled herself before turning to the nearer of the two men (Tyden) and held out the pot to be filled.

She crouched on the ground at the man’s feet almost and it was all she could do to stay there. Tension still ratted from her, but Luminista’s words echoing in her head were encouraging and soothing. The muscles in her jaw still jumped and twitched as she fought to maintain her position. She was so vulnerable there! The pot trembled as instinct warred with reason.

Luminista meanwhile had barely started toward the stream for water and to break her fast on the tender grass growing alongside when her new companion’s tension had registered. While on one level the red mare was quite exasperated by Tiponi’s whole “men are evil” attitude, she had been able to share enough with the girl that she could understand why the attitude was there.

Looking back at the girl and reminding her to breathe, the star-dappled mare just watched at first. Without conscience thought she soon found herself moving closer, past the water toting Tyden. With the pot extended and trembling, the girl vibrating with her tension, Luminista moved up beside her and almost wrapped her in an embrace – the kneeling girl at shoulder level with the red mare and the mares white-snipped nose nuzzling gentle at the back of the girl’s neck, warm huffs of air flowing down the human neck.

Tyden set the waterskins down and searched for the kettle Rhaine had discarded in her haste; he found it rolled across the ground and under a bush. Dusting it off, he propped it upright and filled it, then returned it to its hanger above the fire. Soon it was crackling merrily as heat permeated the vessel and the water began to warm. Straightening, he nearly tripped on Tiponi stiffly crouching with pot, Luminista hovering behind. He reached for the waterskin again. “There should be some dried barely meal in one of the bundles; it will do for a quick porridge this morning before we’re off,” he suggested benignly, addressing the pair. He returned his attention to the fire, and set about poking the rocks back in place for the pot.

There was movement across the camp as Lilaini emerged from the tent with packs in toe, looking quite radiant in her fitted teal top and not like someone who’d spent the last two nights sleeping out-of-doors. She paused at the flap, holding it open with her free hand, and shortly a small figure emerged, the child Lyonee. Tyden received the rundown the night before, but his misgivings about having a child in toe were quelled by the notion that really, what else where they supposed to do with her? As soon as this business was concluded, they would see the Daiga about finding her a gateway home. It also seemed to Tyden that either Rhaine or Lilaini should have been able to do that kind of simple summoning, but after the last Gate fiasco both seemed reluctant, so abidingly, he didn’t press it. Not like he had anything to offer towards the situation either. Just the same, it made for one more thing he had to worry about; fate really seemed to have it in for him these days…

Lyonee peered around at the damp, dew-laden glade and frowned. The trees looked… terribly ordinary in the morning light. Had she been up earlier, she would have caught the mist before it was licked away by the climbing sun, and that would have quite satisfied her notion of Fairyland. As it was, Lyonee hadn’t slept well last night, and some of the thrill of adventure was beginning to wear thin.

She wasn’t going so far as to say she missed home – well, she did miss the idea of Nanny bringing her breakfast, two slices of strawberry jam on toast; and she was feeling guilty that Nanny must be beside herself by now wondering where she was. The night before, the Lady Rhaine had explained that time worked differently in Kalidore, so that while it seemed like such a long time to her, only a few minutes might pass for the people back home. This made sense, for Fairyland did do strange things to a person; she just hoped the Lady Rhaine was right, and that time wouldn’t work the other way – bringing her home to find everyone else grown and aged, while she was still a little girl! That would have just been adding insult to injury.

It was still chilly, so she clung to her blanket, draped over her head like a little monk and trialing on the ground behind her. Her hair was a bit awry, without Nanny to have put it in papers the night before. She stubbed her toe in the dirt, and glanced around the rest of the campers from the corners of her eyes. At this moment, she didn’t recognize any of the people or unicorns in view; Lady Lilaini had left to see about packing preparations, as one by one the tents were dismantled and went tumbling down. Lyonee was too little to be much help here, and she was still cold besides, so she headed towards the fire hoping that maybe there might be more cocoa.

A strange woman and a red unicorn were contemplating a large cooking pot, while a tall man tending to the coals. She remembered him from last night, and her eyes danced at the memory of the wonderful silver unicorn. She glanced around again, but saw no sign of him this morning. Curiosity spurred her, and she turned towards the gentlemen; besides, he seemed to be in charge of the kettle, and that was one step closer to hot chocolate!

“The silver unicorn,” she began haltingly. “He’s your friend… isn’t he? Will he… will he be back again today?”

Tyden turned towards the small voice. Her cowl had fallen away and she looked almost angelic crowned by the messy golden hair. Nuisance or not, Tyden had a soft spot for children, though he likely wouldn’t admit it. He smiled down at the girl as he replied. “Yes, I suppose you could say Odin is my friend. But he’s also quite an independent fellow, and had business to attend to elsewhere. I cannot say when he might be joining us again.”

He watched her face fall as he delivered the news. Well, that wouldn’t do; he certainly hated to disappoint a lady, and crouched down to her level to make amends. “You’re Lyonee, aren’t you? I heard about how you fought off Adar yesterday – goodness, that was brave of you! I must admit Adar makes my stomach turn on the best of days; he’s quite a naughty little beast, isn’t he?” He caught the beginnings of a grin and continued gamely. “I also hear you will be coming along with us on our adventure. My name is Tyden, and I shall be your guide throughout Skyfields,” he offered a hand to shake. In background, he was sure he heard Lilaini snicker, but the child grasped his hand with spirits renewed.

“Do you think we’ll see Fairies on our adventure?” she gleamed. “Or perhaps even a sea serpent?” In her eagerness she stepped forward onto the end of the tattered blanket nearly tripping herself in the process; Tyden caught hold of the garment and managed to free the girl, setting her back onto her feet.

“Well, I am not sure about fairies or sea serpents, but I suppose if you’re lucky you might see a mammoth or two. But first we’ll have to do something about this,” he straightened, holding the cloth in one hand and retrieving his pocket knife with the other. While the girl watched curiously, he made a small cut in the material, then tore it neatly into two. The tattered half he discarded over his arm and with the other he turned to the girl. Laying it across her shoulders, it now came down just above her ankles; no further worry of tripping. “There we are: a suitable traveling cloak for our young adventure. Lily, my dear – would you have a spare cloak pin for this dashing young lady?”

Lilaini looked like she was about to say something, most likely that she could use a little more help with the packing, but a spare cloak pin was something she surely had. Silently she retrieved one from her pouch and passed it to him. Tyden fastened the garment expertly, then stood back to admire his handiwork.

The pin was polished steel with a bright green glass stone in the centre, though to Lyonee it was surely emerald. She felt warm and secure in her new robe and quite ready to face whatever challenge this adventure would bring. If this was A Test, which she was sure it was, she finally felt with utter confidence that she would succeed. And then, what a story would she have to tell Olivier when she got home!

“Well done, oh most perspicacious guide… now why don’t you be a dear and help Tiponi feed these people so that we might not start our day on an empty stomach.” The guardian’s green eyes flashed, and refused to make contact with his just the same; this was mostly because she was sure he was laughing. She ignored him outright, turning to child and nodded her approval. “It suits you very well. Have a seat, and we will get you some porridge shortly.”

Up the path she saw Rhaine returning from the creek, cleaned and wearing a change of clothing which Lilaini considered equally unflattering but well suited for the day at hand. She motioned to her to not to dawdle so and turned again to address the camp at large.

“We’ll pack as much as we can while breakfast is heating; then I want to make sure we all eat heartily, for we may have quite a ride ahead of us today. If you are not sure what you should be doing, come see me; we could use a hand organizing these saddlebags. The rest of you, carry on as you were.”

*

Brynja’s presence, on the surface, had been a bit meager. One could always correctly assume that the little viking was on guard; especially when quiet. It was no different when she had taken the liberty of appointing herself as first watch; nor was it when she was relieved of it.

And while she had only rested her eyes the previous – this night she allowed herself some much needed rest. A warrior could not neglect sleep or themselves for too long – otherwise they would be useless in battle. Brynja’s knowledge of this was quite possibly the sole reason she allowed herself to sleep. Well, aside from Thora’s sleepy urging. Though all true and sincere, Brynja had still woke well before sunrise feeling quite refreshed and ready for whatever lay in store for the group.

And unfortunately for the viking she seemed to be very much the only early bird aside from those on watch. And therein sparked her task for the morning, along with a grumble – or roar, rather, of her stomach. She would fetch a decent breakfast, and this time she would be more discrete about her choice. Oddly enough it was Tali’s example from the previous night that had left a huge impression on the little woman. She had watched him trot into camp with his kill and, as a fellow hunter, she had to examine the bird and familiarize herself with the species – obviously this one was not off limits and became the logical choice for her hunt.

It took patience and knowledge to hunt any animal. Luckily for Brynja the fowl of Kalidore seemed little different in the way of roosting habits, from those from her own world, or at least these had. In the end she had found two; both of which had given themselves away by the ruffling sound of their feathers as they burrowed into themselves for comfort against the cool morning.

Thora had stirred and eventually woke sometime between when Brynja had stoked her own fire (so that she would not disturb those that still slept) and propped the plucked pheasant’s on a make-shift spit over it, allowing Brynja to return to the others’ camp and check on them. Though, mostly to keep an eye on Tiponi. That girl still set her to worry. Even more so when she found she hadn’t been in camp upon one such inspection. But absence was better than stirring up trouble, she supposed. Or rather told herself so as not to go stalking off into the woods in search of her.

Which was precisely why Tiponi received the brow-knitted look of mixed concern as Bryn returned to camp with her own version of well-cooked breakfast to share. Not that it took the keen eye of the warrior to notice that the girl was literally twitching in nervousness, but she had not missed the behavior. Puffing out a sigh, she veered around the apprehensive woman with her freshly filled pot and toward Tyden – presenting a pair cooked pheasant still warm on the stick.

Clearing her throat she rolled her eyes off to the side to steal another glance at Tiponi, then returned her attention to Tyden. “Another day dawns – let’s hope it remains peaceful through out.” It was a greeting as much as it was a prayer. Glancing toward her morning’s work, she nodded in it’s direction. “I am more skilled in the manner of eating than cooking, though I know enough that it’s done through. I hadn’t any spice or seasoning, but good for keeping up the strength for travel.” It was not entirely a pretty thing either; burnt a bit on the skin and likely dry meat below. But at least it was all edible, in her opinion.

Tyden’s face positively brighten at the sight of the birds, and the little Viking filled with esteem. “Now that is what I call a breakfast of champions,” he grinned, “and by that token, I have all the more faith in the day ahead. Come now, let us all eat before we loose the heat – there’s little more to find in those mountains beyond.”

*

Sapata was roused from her sleep by the commotion of the camp coming to life after it’s nightly lull. She yawned, her jaw stretching till the muscles ached, then rolled out of the nest of blankets her new-found company had provided.

She found her mind already reaching out for Asarte, with a query on her whereabouts. Sapata had wanted to stay with the unicorn when she bedded down, but Asarte had insisted that people needed shelter from the damp night air, and that the idea of a full grown mare tying to fit into the little tent Sapata was to occupy was out of the question.

Now the mare answered Sapata’s mental touch with the rather irritating suggestion that she come and find her after she’d had some breakfast. Sapata still felt unsure of herself among the people of Kalidore, and she wasn’t looking forward to having Asarte constantly push her to interact with them.

So it was in a bit of a huff that the young Indian maid left the confines of her sleeping quarters. She jerked the tent flap back with a snap, thinking black thoughts about her companion, and stomped out so quickly that she very nearly ran over the dark haired girl she’d talked with at the fireside the night before.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Iole!”, she stammered. “I didn’t see you there. I’m afraid I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

Iole never saw Sapata coming, she was much too busy staring at the suddenly active campsite with narrowed eyes. And when the girl did notice, it was easy to see the Indian maiden was not in the best of moods the way she almost trampled into her. “Oh,” she began in the midst of confusion. “It’s quite alright! I often am lost in my own thoughts myself and forget to watch just where I’m going.”

Relived to find that she was not the only person feeling out-of-place that morning, Sapata looked about and took in the scene of busy preparations for the day taking place around them. “What are we supposed to do, I wonder? I had the idea that I might see about making myself a knife after I’d eaten if I could find the supplies I’d need… but there looks to be much to do. Perhaps I should ask Asarte where I’m needed. If I can find the fickle thing, that is.” The last part was muttered under her breath.

Ryan awoke to very hot breath rushing over his face from the muzzle in front of him. Blinking, he didn’t move for several seconds as he tried to get his bearings. It seemed to be quite early in the morning, and he had quite a stiff neck. “I thought you were never going to wake up,” Cadence said with some amusement.

Ryan reached out and pushed the stallion’s muzzle out of his face. “And you could use a mint,” the young man replied with a laugh. The camp seemed to be coming alive slowly, and several people had made their way out of their tents. Ryan had refused a tent on the grounds he didn’t want to take one away from one of the ladies. He was fine to sleep on the ground he insisted. His neck was currently informing him otherwise. Yawning, he shrugged out from beneath his blanket and sat up. Cadence was standing nearby and for whatever reason seemed to be amused with his companion. Ryan figured he must have really bad bed hair or something.

“You’ll be hungry I’m sure, food’s being served by the fire,” the stallion responded to a growling noise that emitted from the young man’s stomach before turning away to go in search of his own breakfast. Ryan watched him go, and then determined there was nothing to do but rouse himself and begin the day. He got up and began rolling his blanket and sleeping bag and shoving all other odds and ends of his personal belongings into the make shift saddlebag he had. Once finished he ran his fingers through is hair several times, attempting to control what he assumed must be quite the disarray of hair and then made his way to the fire. The smell of breakfast cause his stomach to gurgle angrily again and he settled himself on the nearest log.

Tia had passed her evening in one of the borrowed tents. The night before, after hobbling around the camp in her boots, the guardian they called Rhaine had stopped her after looking over her attire, and gently suggested she speak with the other guardian about extra clothing and footwear. Apparently, she was the only one in camp who thought to bring things like extra shoes. She had done as she was bid, although she did not imagine the much taller woman having anything that would fit her. They’d went into the woman’s tent and rummaged through bags that rather shocked Tia; she never imagined someone could pack so many things into such a small space, but the guardian had done this somehow and despite the rummaging seemed to know what she was looking for. She had found her a skirt.

It was meant to be a shorter skirt on the guardian, so falling mid calf, but on Tia it was skimming the ground. Yet she wasn’t tripping over it, and it was several feet longer than the one she was currently wearing so she couldn’t complain. The skirt was a simple, done in dark blue and you couldn’t even see the boots for the length of it; the boots too were a bit big, although not as big as she assumed they would be. She had insisted on wearing her own shirt for now, feeling rather ridiculous in the garb as it was. But at least it was practical, which her attire certainly was not.

All this passed through her mind as she slowly resumed consciousness. She wondered where they were headed now, and how much more walking her feet could handle. Most of the other humans seemed to have what they called unicorn companions, who were willing to carry them if needed but she had none. She was not out of shape but she was used to driving where she needed to go, although the prospect of riding for several hours probably would leave her hobbling too. Seemed this was a loose-loose situation. Sighing, she rolled over and quickly dressed into her new outfit and exited the tent. She looked around and saw that many of the tents had been broken down so she began to break her’s down as well. She used to camp with her family so she had a rough idea of how this was done, although she was sure it did not look quite right. It would do though, and with that she wandered over to the fire to investigate what it was they were going to be fed this morning.

*

Gypsy and Lilaini had spent much of the night before off together in deep discussion. All the others had been sleeping when the Guardian had finally returned to her tent to get some rest. Gypsy on the other hand had went off by herself and had not yet reappeared, though Lilaini could feel her companion’s mind as she’d set about making breakfast; she was not far off – just wanting to be alone, it seemed.

Wandering around the camp and supervising the disassembly kept her busy. As things began slowly but surely to fall into place, she sought out Rhaine and sent a thought-message to her and to Tyden: come, we must talk before we set off. And she walked some distance from the group so that the others would not overhear.

Tyden had been sampling another piece of meat by the fire, but caught the tone and followed. Rhaine diverted her direction and quickly joined the other two. Lilaini relayed all of what Gypsy had told her the night before. About the dragon’s that were supposedly in Kalidore, and Ulysses’ idea to destroy all of the gates.

“Gypsy feels this is a bad idea, because the gates have been around since the dawn of time; certainly, they are there for a purpose,” the Guardian continued in a hushed voice. “She said he made mention of Al’therwen, and thinks this is likely the point of entry for the dragons. If there is an open Gate, this needs to be looked into further, and as we are unsure of what Ulysses plans on doing it, seems wise for us to arrive before he does,” she concluded, and looked back and forth between the two, worry projected from her emerald eyes.

Tyden, his mind still mostly on the meat Bryn was divvying up by the fire, shrugged at Lilaini’s concern. “I hardly think Ulysses could destroy all the gates if he wanted to; where would a unicorn get that kind of magic? Besides, it’s not their way.”

Rhaine’s eyes had clouded, deep in thought. “There were times in Kalidore when magic was more prevalent then it is now. Al’therwen is the ruins of an Elven stronghold – only stories remain of what once flourished there, and even those are damaged by time and incomplete. Including the location of the ruins; lucky then, that I brought the map?” she looked pointedly at Tyden, but he likely didn’t notice. “I will fetch it.”

As she scampered away, Tyden (who had noticed but was still firm in his opinion of the map in question) returned his attention more fully to the other guardian. “The next question that comes to mind; what exactly would you have us do when we get there?”

Lilaini did not like Tyden’s tone one bit. Her eyes flashed as she turned to glare at him. She may have not known exactly what they had to do when they got to Al’therwen but she felt compelled as her companion did to go there. If Ulysses had returned to Kalidore because of this threat, then certainly it warranted to at least be investigated. And if he managed to slip away from his brother and did go to attempt destroying the gates, certainly they should be there to try and stop him?

“Well,” she said in calm annoyance, “Rhaine and I have not been training all this time for nothing, but perhaps you will be able to chase Ulysses away from the gate with your sword while Rhaine and I use our Kal given gifts to kept the gate safe, since you utterly lack any other magical means of being of assistance to us.”

In all honestly she had no idea, and hoped Rhaine might have insight buried in that thick sack of scrolls. But for the moment she seemed to have shut Tyden up, and there was some sense of accomplishment in the small victories…

Rhaine dumped out her satchel a second time. She’d also overturned the packs she’d stacked neatly this morning, and even went so far as to poke at Lilaini’s strategically packed luggage. Unsympathetic to her frantic searching, the satchel yielded nothing this time around either. Rhaine stopped in mid-scoop, brows knitted and tracing the day’s past events through her mind. I had it with me in the valley, when Lilaini and I rested beside the yaks. It was in my hand. And I put it back into my satchel, I did, for then there was the stampede… She dumped the satchel a third time, worried fingers probing the loose buckle that even now came undone too easily in her hands. Heat prickled her cheeks as she rummaged again, but eventually, even she had to conclude that the ruins map really wasn’t there.

Her face was pale as made her way back to the others. “I… I seem to have misplaced the map,” she said quietly. The Daiga’s words, Muse’s careful guidance, and the net of carefully laid-out plans came jumbling undone before her. She couldn’t bare to look at them, and her eyes wandered across the camp, seeking out other plausible sacks and supply packs she could rummage through, even though it wouldn’t help. But at least it would keep her busy…

Lilaini kept her face blank despite the uncertainty she felt. With no map, how were they sure to know in which direction they should be heading? Al’therwen was not normally a spot that was much travelled nowadays, perhaps Gypsy would remember the way….her mind drifted with these thoughts, before her companion’s mind touched her own. She was still a moment and then turned to the others.

“Well, standing here will do us no good. You and I looked at that map just yesterday, I think we have a general direction to go with. So let’s get everyone moving.” She touched Rhaine’s arm to let her know that is was not her fault the map was gone and to not fret. They would make do without it. She hoped.

Setting her focus on the tasks certain of accomplish, she strode away from the others to finish breaking down camp. When she neared the fire she spoke to those nearby.
“We are setting off as soon as everyone is done having something to eat, so please get everything gathered together and ready to go once you have finished.”

* * *

The little piece of gum thrust away most hunger but it could never stop it entirely and there was nothing like a full meal of sausage, egg, toast, and a cup of hot cocoa. Mmmmmmm….Iole’s eyes closed in pleasure at just the thought of it. Of course, when she opened them, the reality was a little more bleak. But the fire was crackling and something smelled pretty good, actually. “Breakfast, perhaps?” she turned to her new friend.

Sapata nodded in agreement. “Something to eat would be nice…” She turned her head as the Guardian spoke. “Ah, so it seems we will be heading onward soon…. do you have any idea exactly where it is we are going? I’m afraid I just joined up with the group, and made the mistake of not finding out more. I don’t suppose it matters much though; where else would I go? I certainly don’t know how to get home from here, and my time alone in Kalidore was a bit of a mess.” She paused, and looked towards the firepit thoughtfully. “I think I’ll get some food, and then come back to take down my tent. I don’t really have anything to pack up, as I lost it all shortly after getting here.”

Iole turned her gaze back to Sapata, “I have not a clue as to where we are going, but I’m sure the guardians have a plan. We wouldn’t be walking just nowhere. At least I hope not….” The idea of getting quite lost did not appeal to the girl and a frown crossed her usually nearing happy face. Unconsciously her right hand moved up towards her mouth as an old habit she nibbled a little at the pointer finger’s nail. The once full white area of the shiny nail diminished in size. Then she blinked and nodded quickly to the indian girl. “I’ll be right there.”

Without another word she slinked away, cat-quiet, with a grace of much practice and slipped into her tent. She didn’t have much to work with as a trash can so the gum was spit back out into the little piece of paper that had once had hold it, crumpled it up, and placed it towards the bottom of her bag away from the most important stuff. She surveyed the arrangement, zipped it all up, and wished that she had brought extra clothes. One pair she was wearing, the other yesterday, and the only other clothes were pajamas. She sighed and closed her eyes, black eyelashes coming down to help block out everything. Iole smoothed out her clothes before coming back out to eat. She fell in step behind Sapata and hoped that whatever the food was it tasted good.

As Sapata neared the camp’s cooking fire, the smell of food wafted to her.
There was a bubbling mash of grains, and a small bird glistened brown beside it.
She looked around, found some bowls sitting nearby, and served both herself and Iole a bit of each.

“I don’t see any spoons.”, she said apologetically, in between blowing on her porridge. “We’ll just sip from the bowls. Everyone’s too busy to bother. And it’ll just mean less to wash up, anyway.”

She took a nibble of the meat while she waited on her gruel to become bearably hot. “Umm, it’s good. Taste’s just like pheasant. Too big to be the Adar, but still very good,” she giggled, her mood vastly improved by the food, and the company of someone she was at least familiar with.

“I have to say that Kalidore is more like home than I thought at first.”

Just then a pair of Unicorns trotted by. “Well… in some ways, at least. I wonder where Asarte is…”

*

On her way to the fire, Tia noticed Tiponi and Luminista standing off to one side and made a bee line for them. Tiponi seemed bothered by something, perhaps she just needed some breakfast. The young girl’s stomach growled in response to this thought and she picked up her pace slightly. The Guardians words only urged on her pace more as she did not want to miss breakfast before another long day of travelling.

“Good morning!” she called to the pair as she approached waving. “We really should go and get a seat by the fire and have something to eat before we set off. One of the Guardians just said we were leaving like asap.” By this point she had reached them and came to a halt. She felt slightly awkward in the weird retro attire she had on, but at least she still had her own shirt and thank the fates that she had had a small supply of makeup in her purse when she found herself here. Her eye shadow was done in vibrant blues, silvers and blacks to match the new skirt with all manner of accompanying black eyeliner. And as luck would have it, her newest spiky hairdo was one that didn’t need much doing, as it was intended to stick up at rather odd angles. So after sleeping in a tent all night and not having any product for her hair, it did not look too terribly different than the day before. At least from what she could see.

“Come on, we should go get something,” she said with a smile and motioned for Tiponi and Luminista to come with her.

Tiponi gave the girl Tia a tentative smile and followed her to the fire. The flat spot in the hair on the back of the girl’s head made her think of her own hair. She should probably take it down and put it back up. Surely there were stray strands that needed recaptured. This girl did not seem to be accustomed to making do out in the woods for she had taken the time to fix her make up. Tip, herself, didn’t bother with such. Why, when usually there was no one around to see? She chuckled to herself as she looked over the camp with its many (at least to her) people. Okay, so there were plenty of people here to see.

Taking a bowl of breakfast and finding a place for both herself and Tia to sit Tiponi gingerly felt of her porridge to determine its temperature, poking a small portion to one side where it could cool and allow her two-finger spoon to scoop up the lump without burning the two fingers.

Once done with her meal she turned to Tia. Motioning to the girls hair she asked, “Would you like some help with the flat spot in back? Out here in the wilds it can be difficult keeping your hair. Although for the most part your hairstyle seems to be doing well. That is why I keep mine long,” she added with a half smile. “No bed-head.” With a bit of a chuckle at herself she fingered some of her own stray locks. “On the other hand, these stray strands can make you look rather ragged.”

Luminista, who had tagged along for moral support, wondered if Tiponi had realized how long her speech had been. By far it was the most Luminista had heard the girl speak to anyone since there coming together. To this point Tiponi had only really spoken when necessary. Granted, Tip was not exactly relaxed. Luminista had noted the semi-wary glances Tiponi cast periodically to each of the men in the company.

*

Foehn Miri and Tien Mu made their way back to camp after spending the early morning hours out breaking their fast on rich mountain grass. As they pushed through the last line of foliage and broke into the camp proper they both paused to take in the scene. Everyone seemed to be up and stirring about. In fact, some of the tents had even been collapsed and/or packed. People were gathered about the fire eating. How they could eat that nasty smelling meat was beyond either mare, but to each their own. The cooked grain smelled good though.

The girl-child (Lyonee) that had joined the group was also by the fire breaking her fast. Foehn Miri had noticed her last night when she came into camp. Now curiosity claimed her. Making her way to the girl, she wondered how best to open a conversation. She was not familiar with the young of the companions. She hoped her size wouldn’t intimidate the child.

Standing behind the girl, she lowered her head so it was at the child’s level and beside her. “Good morning, young one. Is your breakfast as tasty as it smells?”

Still seated on log, Lyonee was NOT enjoying her porridge. It was unsweetened, unsalted, and lumpy. Lyonee didn’t like porridge on the best of days, so bland and slopped into a bowl made for a most unappealing of entrees. When the long dark face of Foehn Miri appeared beside her, inquiring about the gruel, she seized the opportunity.

“Oh, the porridge quite fine, I am simply not hungry; you are most welcomed to it if you like,” she held it under the mare’s nose.

Of the unicorns, she was now completely at ease with, and considered her arrangement to be here and talking to them quite natural. She was looking forward to the promise of riding, made to her by the smokey cream mare Gwyneira, the one who had taken to wearing the talking plant about her neck. That nolonger seemed like a curious sight either, and she was eager to start. She cast a quick glance towards the Lady Rhaine, who was set to ride with her, and hoped she would not make a speech about riding on an unfilled stomach. It was just the sort of thing her Nanny would do, if she were here. Luckily the Lady seemed preoccupied so she hoped this all went without notice. Her gaze returned to the dark coppery unicorn beside her. “You can finish it all,” she said obligingly.

Foehn Miri’s mouth watered as the delightful aroma of the porridge drifted up. Oh, how she longed to take a big mouthful. She eyed the barely touched meal and the slight form beside her consideringly. Granted, she knew nothing of human young, but she could not imagine they were that different from kore.

“You have hardly touched your meal, little one,” she said. “Whether you are hungry now or not you will need the energy it will give you for this day is sure to be long and arduous.”

The young girl’s face fell in disappointment prompting a chuckle from the mare. “My name is Foehn Miri and I once had a kore who did not like to eat her breakfast clover. She much preferred Lana’s sweet honey buns, still does for that matter. But it was only by eating her clover that she is now a strong, healthy yearling.

“I am just guessing here, but I suspect you would like to be a lady such as the Ladies Rhaine and Liliaini. For that to happen you will need to eat good things such as this mornings porridge.”

Foehn Miri could tell the girl was not too happy with her speech. Murmuring words of comfort she nuzzled the Lyonee. “Come now. Eat up.”

Lyonee was crestfallen (though somehow, not entirely surprised) when her offer of breakfast was refused, leaving nothing to do but eat it herself. While Foehn Miri stood looking over her shoulder, the child managed a large spoonful into her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. There. Now to do that about twenty more times and she’d be done with it…

* * *

‘Rhaine and I have not been training all this time for nothing, but perhaps you will be able to chase Ulysses away from the gate with your sword while Rhaine and I use our Kal given gifts to kept the gate safe, since you utterly lack any other magical means of being of assistance to us….’

Tyden’s eyes had hardened when Lilaini spoke, but he didn’t speak, and then Rhaine returned and Lilaini moved away to deal with the rest of packing. Just as well. He moved away from the group, pausing only to collect his bags and the store of packs resting against a nearby tree. A saddle blanket was slung across one of the lower branches and he reached for it, pulling down and giving the coverlet a brisk shake; it was dry, and supple to the touch. “Arieon,” he called briefly, turning to collect the rest of the harness that was hung on the branch above.

It had been agreed upon the night before by an insistent Areion himself that he should clearly take up his brother’s place and bare the packload; as Rhaine had expressed interest in riding with Lyonee (and the motherly mare Gwyneira had warmly invited the tot to ride with her) it had all fallen tidily into place. The ivory stallion arrived eagerly, his coat newly preened and gleaming, looking forward to the weight of duty before him. It almost made Tyden smile. Almost; he was still far too riled at Liliaini to take pleasure in anything. His gaze traveled back to the campsite while his hands passed briskly over the stallion, efficiently smoothing away any disorderly hair with a quick brush in anticipation of the tack.

The Guardians were seeing to the breakfast, insisting it upon anyone who hadn’t yet eaten. Tyden hadn’t finished, but currently was without an appetite. At this rate, it would be another half hour before the meal was done, and a half hour again before they were truly packed and ready to go. A whole hour before they were on the trail, and the sun was rising determinedly; it felt as if the day would be unseasonably warm. Hot sun, blanching wind – it made for a hard day of riding across the exposed hills. Not to mention that half the party couldn’t seem to ride…

Rhaine’s face remained utterly morose over the loss of her silly map; of all useless artifacts to have pinned one’s hopes to! Tyden knew the hills as well as anyone, and trusted his sense of the mountains far more then any old and crumpled piece of parchment. No, he’d never been to the Ruins of Al’therwen, but he did know where old elven glyphs were cut into the rocks, marking vanishing trails into the outer regions. There too, lay the remains of the mines. He used to play inside some of the old tunnels before age and experience taught him how ridiculously dangerous this was. If memory served, they were only a three hour’s ride from there. Four maybe, with the current company… five, if there was any continued lamenting about that lost map and tending to each and every whimpered booboo that occurred along the way… Beside him Arieon snorted politely as the girth tighten a little enthusiastically. Tyden paused, then let it out a ring; the stallion’s long face pardoned him easily, clearly saying he was most accepting of any and all discomfort, were it for the good of the whole. The good of the whole… A whole lot of damn good he was being to them right now…

The saddle pack secure, Tyden stepped back, thoughts deep and funneling, and when his decision was finally made he caught up and handful of ivory hair and mounted skillfully. “Let’s scout the trail ahead, find ourselves the easiest rout for the others to follow,” he said crisply, his voice loud enough for the others to know his intentions. Then under his breath to Arieon, or maybe just himself, “we’ll be back well before they break camp at this rate; I’ll secure the rest of the packs when we return.”

*

Cheri dragged a comb through her wet hair and packed her toiletries back in their little baggie, which she then tucked into her backpack. The cup of tea she’d snagged earlier wasn’t quite enough to start her day off right, but a quick head dunk in the icy cold stream nearby woke her up a little more. She longed for a mug of coffee, black as an old witch’s heart and twice as strong, but didn’t suppose they’d be passing a Starbuck’s any time soon. She eyed the breakfast offerings and decided on a small bowl of porridge. Cheri wasn’t much of a breakfast eater, but she supposed today would be a long day and she could use the extra boost.

She’d finished her small meal and was dabbing on a bit of eyeliner when Lilaini told them all to move their butts. *Hear that?* she sent to Alcyone, whom she couldn’t see but must be nearby.

*Aye,* Cheri heard. *Ready when you are, but it doesn’t seem the rest of the camp is quite moving. Perhaps you would like to meet the talking plant I spoke of?*

Okay, in what world would a talking plant not be cool? But from what she understood the mare that carried it was friendly with the little girl, and Cheri wasn’t sure she was quite ready for that level of awkward. At least, not without coffee. Speaking of awkward, here came the girl with the pretty name – Iole, was it? – and the Native American girl she had almost met last night. Cheri still felt stupid for blundering into her conversation with Mr. Chivalry… who, she realized, was sitting on the other side of the fire from herself. Ryan must have come over while she was fiddling with her makeup. Cheri shoved her eyeliner in her bag and hopped up to find Alcyone. She was sure they were nice people, but right now she’d rather face the kid.

It didn’t take Cheri long to find the sky blue mare. Once they had greeted each other with a mutual morning nuzzle Cheri looked around. “So, where’s this verbose foliage you– hey look, there’s Tyden!” The man in question was tacking up Arieon and seemed preoccupied. She hadn’t had the chance to speak to him last night, and she was quite curious about the goings-on with Ulysses. Would that, along with Ulysses and Odin’s subsequent departure, account for his stormy mood? Maybe he just needed someone to talk to. Well, besides a narcissistic stallion, anyway. Not that Arieon had no right to be vain. After all, he was Cyne’s sire.

Tyden told Arieon, rather loudly, that they’d scout ahead. Cheri looked at Alcyone. Alcyone looked at Cheri. *We’re following them, aren’t we, Cherry Blossom?*

*Not so far back they can’t see us, but not too close, either. Sometimes a dude just needs his space, y’know?*

Alcyone didn’t know, she hadn’t much experience with “dudes,” but she was willing to take Cheri’s word for it. Once Cheri was comfortably mounted, Alcyone started off after the pair’s already retreating form.

Elsewhere in camp, Liam, having finished his (and the rest of the camp’s) morning preparations to his satisfaction – took the lull as the rest of the rabble awoke and breakfasted, to get in a bit of sword practice. It had been a good while since he’d has a blade of his own, and even longer since he’d put himself through his soldierly paces, being mostly occupied with either goggling at the Kalidorian surroundings or being laid up wounded by its inhabitants.

Having spent the early morning hours during his watch musing on his inefficiency thus far on his adventures in Kalidore, he was of the strong opinion that he was LONG overdue for some training. Therefore, calculating that he had at least a half hour before he’d be needed again, he took the opportunity to get in a bit of back and forth with some invisible foes at the far edge of the clearing. Nothing too strenuous – mostly just testing the edge of his reflexes and flexibility with his new wound, and nothing too loud so as to hopefully avoid too much attention (especially from a certain dark haired Guardian).

* * *

Rhaine, despite Lilaini’s reassurance, felt no better about the lost map, and no encouragement could convince her to feel differently. Eventually, even Lilaini gave up, and moved on to more productive things. And certainly Rhaine herself was not being unproductive, but the gaiety had certainly gone out of the normally cheerful young guardian’s step. After one last longing look towards the bags, she set about to gather the used dishes and scour them clean with gravel; the waterskins would be filled again before they left camp so rinsed them in turn with the remaining water before packing them into the bags. She couldn’t help but notice how low were the remaining supplies; and how many days of trail lay ahead? While she didn’t partake of meat frequently herself, she was glad for Tali and Bryn’s offering to round out the fare. It seemed to bolster spirits, and proved that they wouldn’t starve out here, should it come down to it. That was both a comforting and unnerving thought. Rhaine shook her head firmly and turned back to the dishes.

Movement beside Foehn Miri announced Gwyneira’s arrival, finished with her own breakfast and come to see how things were progressing here. The sack around her neck was quiet; Mio had been up much earlier to complain about his state of being before falling silent again, Gwyn presumed, to sleep off the vegetable equivalent of a hangover. She wondered if the Lady Rhaine would be able to heal something like that, and would have given it a shot if the probable waking of the beast again hadn’t figured into the equation; sleeping peacefully as he was, it seemed a quality solution already.

“And how are we all doing this morning?” she greeted them warmly. “You look quite bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning Foe! I would have to say the fresh mountain air does you good; I, personally, have been finding the air a little thin… I think I might have well put on a little weight with my last kore and am certainly feeling it now… Ah well, nothing a vitalizing day of romping through countryside can’t fix! And how are you today, wee Lyonee?” she peered down to the child at their feet.

Lyonee had to swallow before she replied. She had surprised herself and made an impressive dent on the porridge, spurred on by her empty stomach. “I am well today, thank you,” she said, wondering what “thin air” was, besides what magicians made their glitter-clad assistance disappear into during the performance. If the air on Kalidore was thin, then that actually made perfect sense and explained how she got here; a pocket of thin air must have leaked onto earth, and she’d stepped in it, and poof! here she was. She swallowed her last spoonful of breakfast and asked, “shall we go riding now?”

That was when the Lady Rhaine arrived to collect her empty bowl, and giving a kind smile to the mare replied, “if you have eaten your fill, and Gwyneira is willing, then perhaps she might take you for a walk around the camp while the rest of us are packing. I will join you when we’re ready to move out.”

Lyonee turned from Rhaine to Gwyneira again, her eyes wide with want and the mare had to laugh, rubbing her head against Foehn Miri as she caught her breath. “I would certainly not want to be the one to disappoint,” she replied, reaching forward to wuffle the girl’s golden curls with her hot breath.

Rhaine found the exchange made her smile despite how terrible she was feeling, and moved to give the girl a mount up. Once settled, she watched as Gwyn walked a few neat circles until Lyonee had settled, then off they went to explore the camp. Rhaine sighed, and found her mind drifting to another blonde-haired youth. She turned to Foehn Miri, “Pardon me, but I think it is high time I checked on Xanthe…”

Tien Mu had watched Foehn Miri visit with the young one then wondered over to a near by patch of grass and began to nibble, making her way around the outskirts of the camp. She soon came upon the dun kore with her nose buried in a scroll. Grazing casually along she made her way closer until finally her nose was along side that of the kore’s. “Waff you thudyin’ there?” she asked as she munched her grass.

Xanthe looked up as Tien Mu’s mouthful of grass disappeared between nimble teeth. “Oh, the usual,” she sighed, which meant that all effort, spells seemed to garble into unintelligible and unusable knots inside her brain. Or maybe that was a sign she had done enough for today. Or at least for right now. Or at least until her grasp of the elven language was enough to properly differentiate the word for “truth” from “fruit squeegee”; the later sounded particularly unhelpful. She rolled the scroll back up again and placed it delicately back in the pack with her others. Just in time too! Rhaine was making her way towards them, and she would have certainly recognized the look of old parchment and start asking uncomfortable questions.

“Are you finished packing?” the guardian seemed quite pleased to find the kore so neatly putting away her study things, and began gathering the pieces of Xanthe’s own packsaddle which had be laid out the night before. Xanthe groaned inwardly at the sight of it, and wished she hadn’t been quite so eager to carry her share of the burden. However, the brush-down Rhaine gave her before setting the harness into place was scrumptious, and it seemed to her by the end of it that the load might have been a little lighter then before. She must be toughening up, she smiled with to herself with satisfaction; at least if she failed at spell-casting she’d always be a good pack mule.

“How’s that?” Rhaine secured the last bag and stood back. “Are we balanced?”
To prove the point, Xanthe danced forward a few steps (and nearly into Tien) before twirling lightly about. The bells in her hair jingled.

“Very good; now why don’t you see if Lilaini needs help? I’ll be along shortly.” As the core bounced away, she casually gathered up the few packs she’d omitted, resting on the other side of the broad black unicorn. “I think Areion or Gypsy will have room for these,” she grinned to Tien Mu. “I see no point in wearing out the kore, even if it does keep her out of trouble…”

Lilaini was tying the last tent bundle when a jingling yellow blur landed in front of her. “I’m packed!” Xanthe announced brightly.

The guardian’s green eyes careened over the rest of camp, making note of the bundles that still needed to be accounted for. Tyden, it seemed, had gone off and left them for her to do herself. Sure, he might have some decently altruistic motive of scouting ahead, but in the moment it was much more satisfying to be annoyed with him in lieu of the situation. She turned back to Xanthe. “Well, I am glad to see someone is,” she rose to her feet. “I am just about to load up Gypsy, and will need the cooking pots to pack. Then the water skins need to refilled for the journey—”

“I can do that! Well,” she recalculated, “I can find someone with hands to do that!” and was gone in a poof of energetic dust before the guardian could agree otherwise. She cantered over to the fire circle where the fire had been recently put out and doused with the wash water from the pot. “Lilaini needs the pots!” she announced to the gathered. “And we need to refill the water skins. And then we can go!” the enthusiasm lit her voice. Not, actually, now that Xanthe stopped to think about it, she had any real idea where they could possibly be going now; maybe that was part of excitement…

“Do you have a unicorn Companion, Iole?” Sapata had asked.

Iole, happy to eat, had accepted Sapata’s offer and was eating as heartily as she deemed still polite. She blew upon the hot meal, the last thing she needed was a burnt tongue. Pheasant? she couldn’t help but wonder. The closest thing to pheasant I’ve ever had would be turkey… She blinked dark golden eyes and smiled at the thought of being an indian girl, hunting for food with the spirits to guide her. “Ah, no,” the girl admitted. “I have not a unicorn…companion. I have just barely arrived and I scarcely have seen much of the unicorns let alone talk.”

Ryan had been sitting eating his breakfast when Sapata and Iole (who he did not recall meeting previously) settled themselves by the fire with their own bowls of breakfast. There was fortunately more than adequate seating near the fire, otherwise the young man was liable to wear his breakfast in his haste to make room for the young woman. As it was he stayed put and smiled warmly to both of them. “Good morning!” he said while self consciously running his hands through his hair. Pushing the crazy hair thought from his mind he finished the last of his breakfast before continuing. “How did you both sleep?” he asked amiably as he looked around for the means to clean his bowl. He realized the two had been talking quietly to each other and he had inadvertently interrupted. He looked apologetically at them as he located something to clean the bowl with.

Iole curiously looked up at Ryan as he gave them a friendly ‘good morning.’ “Fine, thank you,” came her short and not nearly close to the truth answer. Iole would prefer that no one knew of her nightmare, it was just that, a dream… and yet, with the fire crackling away and the fact that they were at a camp, she could almost imagine that they were simply on a camping trip with friends and had invited some strangers also to roast marshmallow or something by the campfire. And if she stretched it more perhaps there were nearby riding trails which would explain the ‘horses.’ But of course, these were no horses. They were intelligent, speaking unicorns of myth and magic.

Sapata also tilted her face to see who spoke. It was the fair young man she had observed near the fire the night before. Now that she had realized he wasn’t, in fact, a chief among these people, she felt more comfortable around him. So as Iole replied to his inquiry Sapata took a moment to study him in the light of day. Her impression was one of good health, and good cheer. She might even have thought him handsome had his coloring not been so off-putting to her. She supposed she would eventually get used to seeing other skin and hair colors, but for now it was still a bit shocking.

She answered him, “My rest was well… though I can’t say why there are so many tents. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have one or two large communal tents? In my village we winter that way, and the body heat from so many people keeps us quite cozy. I do not understand the reason people wish to be apart at night when I’m sure there are dangerous creatures in Kalidore just as there are where I come from.”

She shrugged. “But, never mind that now. I must learn the ways of Kalidore, since it seems I might be here for some time. Iole and I were just discussing Unicorns.” She turned to her female company. “Iole, since you haven’t bonded a Unicorn yet you’d be more than welcome to travel with Asarte and I, provided Asarte doesn’t mind the extra rider. I’m sure you don’t want to walk; who knows how long our journey will be?”
She turned her gaze back to the man. “What about you… I’m sorry, I don’t know what you are called! I’m Sapata, and this is Iole.”

“Yeah, there’s lots of things about Kalidore that take some getting used to,” Ryan agreed whole-heartedly. “I haven’t been here very long either. Oh, and I’m Ryan. I guess I should have mentioned that earlier. It’s nice to meet you Sapata, Iole.”

He nodded at them both in turn and was about to offer to shake their hands but wasn’t sure if they would think this odd and so he remained still. “And, thank you, I slept like a stone. I guess I was more tired than I realized,” he had turned back towards them and was slightly amused by Sapata’s unabashed once over. Unfortunately, the native girl’s look did not give the impression that she was checking him out because she thought he was handsome, but more as if he was some odd insect she’d never encountered before. Probably was the hair. Communal tents and body heat, this certainly sounded like an improvement to him as well considered the women here outnumbered the men by 10 to 1 but he was too much of a gentleman to say that out loud, although the grin might have given his lecherous thoughts away.

“And I am the Unicorn that Kal has suffered to be companion to this young man,” said a warm voice behind Ryan that caused him to jump. Knightly Cadence wandered up to the group with his usual look of joviality. Ryan gave the stallion a mock sour look and rolled his eyes.

“This is Cadence,” he said as way of an introduction and was about to continue when a certain dun filly came bounding into their midst announcing departure and the need for water. Ryan stood up quickly and offered to go and refill the waterskins. “I’ll go, I did this task last night and therefore know where I’m going. But perhaps I’ll catch up with you two afterwards?” He waved and strode over towards Cadence. Throwing his leg over, he managed to look almost as if he knew what he was doing and the two set off with the water skins.

Well, certainly someone was in a rush, Iole watched Xanthe with amusement. Her lips curled into a smirk that she hid behind a hand, stretching it out into a yawn. As Ryan and Cadence set off, it suddenly occurred to her that bonding with a unicorn, as a companion, was a most remarkable idea. Imagine, going back home with a unicorn at her side! The girl straightened and raised an eyebrow at the filly.

“Well…..pots then?” Iole said aloud to herself before looking at the indian girl. It seemed they were left to collect the pots, an easy enough business.

“Ah yes, I suppose pots it is…” Sapata agreed, “though since Ryan just took our waterskins it looks like we’ll have to do our best to get them clean without actually getting them wet.”

“Well….that makes it hard,” Iole sighed in defeat and brushed her long hair away from her golden-brown eyes, wondering exactly how they would do that. She watched cuiously as Sapata bent to pick up her bowl, then Ryan’s. Dumping a handful of gravel in each, she swabbed the stones about with a clump of dry grass.

Peering into the curve of one, the young indian maiden said, “Well, that will do until we camp again… at least the pack it’s stowed in won’t be smeared with food.”

Sapata glanced up and watched the yearling watch her gather the larger kettle. “Excuse me…,” she addressed the kore, “But do you think you could go find Asarte for me? I’m Sapata, her companion. By the time Iole and I get the dishes done, it should be time to go, and I’d like to ask her something. She’s easy to spot; shortish and wide, dark brown… oh, and you ran into her bum last night.”

Trying to hide her smile from the young unicorn she turned quickly to Iole, and said, “I’ll get Asarte over here, and we can speak to her about traveling together… will you get the other bowls?”

Still musing over this method of cleaning and missing soap, hot water, and a good bath herself, Iole startled back to attention. “Oh, sure! Right away…ma’am.” She rushed to help gather the rest of the bowls, clumsily stacking themat first until they almost fell over and redid them quickly. Once this was done with, they could get going…

Xanthe nodded gamely to Sapata’s request, vaguely remembering the last evening’s incident. She trotted off in the direction the young woman motioned, and soon came upon the stout bay mare with her nose in the greenery. She admitted the round, bay bottom did look somewhat familiar. “Astarte?” Xanthe cleared her throat politely, and, using as formal a voice as she could muster, “the Lady Sapata requests your presence at the fire pit at your soonest connivance. We are to be heading out shortly.”

No sooner the words spoken then a summons touched them both, the guardian’s wishes conveyed efficiently to group. *Gather yourselves together, we are taking leave*

“Very shortly!” Xanthe’s ears perked in anticipation. She wondered if she was supposed to wait and accompany Astarte back (this was likely part of the job for the messenger, she reasoned, to ensure the message was completely delivered). Then again, she also had to report back to Lilaini to assure her that her request had been met as well. And, most importantly, she had to find where Liam was, and scout out a good spot along the line to watch him

“I – have to go!” the dun kore blurted to Astarte before dashing off towards camp leaving dust trails in her wake.

* * *

Away from the trees the air still had some bite to it, and Tyden hooked the last button on his dark blue tunic. Areion’s hooves traced over the tracks his two brothers had made the night before, until rock swallowed them back into the earth. Annoyance at Ulysses still coloured the edge of his mood, and the stallion once or twice brought his head around to test the wind as if to catch news of them. Part of him very much wanted to be with Odin, to question and press the prodigal son of Kaedon himself; the other half couldn’t have bothered to grant him such an audience. As it was, he was glad to carry on the quest with the Guardians and be working for the greater good of Kalidore. As a foundation stallion, this was his Kal-given duty after all, and not so often did it allow him such distance from his home range. He gamely enjoyed the change of scenery, even if the scenery inevitably played havoc with his carefully groomed attire. As they stopped on a rocky outcrop to survey the hills, Arieon discreetly went to work polishing his noble, dust-streaked hooves.

The ride at worked to clear Tyden’s head of the morning’s dissonance; while he had never in his travels happened across the robust man who said, ‘there’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man’ he would have agreed with him completely, though wagered that unicorn made for a very suitable substitute. Well, almost; horses were that less likely to talk back at you!

He’d also noted the echo of hooves behind him some time ago, but didn’t address them until the pair had stopped, and his gaze was drawn out over the valley. From here, the extent of the new rock slide which the others had met while fleeing the valley was visible; a fault line shifted its way through mountains. Such tremors were rare, but did happen from time to time as the isle shifted in its sleep. The quake itself – probably months passed by now – had likely been minor, but the cascade effect and worked to rearrange the lay of thing considerably, or at least shake to pieces his preconceived trail through the mountains.

“It won’t be easy going,” he spoke out loud. “I think our best bet is cutting straight along the top of the ridge, and following the string across the mountain. I was hoping we could have followed the ravine, but… there’s not much of a ravine left to follow.”

Admittedly, he was not familiar with route, but there seemed no better route to finding Al’therwen. If, of course, the mysterious ruins of Al’therwen felt ready to be found…

Alycone pulled up next to Tyden and Arieon at the lookout point. She nodded to her sire.

*Greetings, Arieon. You’re looking splendid this morning.* She knew she was pandering to him, but couldn’t help the friendly compliment. He’d been so helpful and willing to step into his brother’s hoofprints. It must be stressful, and yet he still managed to keep the gleam in his mane. It made her smile to see him not only embracing his new role and encompassing the needs of others in his view, but still remain the lovable stallion he’d always been.

The pair’s approach caused Arieon to hasten his fidgeting and by the time his daughter pulled up along side he was standing stately upon hooves that gleamed. He bowed his head elegantly at her greeting. *And same to you, my dear. Though I would say,* he added in complete modesty, *it is a gift of the splendiferous morning that brings out such qualities in her peers* Also, he needed to stall while he tried to remember the mare’s name. Some stallions (such as Odin and Falling Star) seemed to have no trouble recalling their various sons and daughter from multiple seasons past; and, even more astoundingly, their dams. Areion was not one of those stallions. He knew his get when he saw them – truly, they were some of the most handsome on the isle, if he did say so himself – but the finer details always seemed to allude him. Luckily at that moment Cheri began speaking again, and attention turned to the riders.

Cheri looked out at the landscape, not really sure what direction Tyden was planning on taking their little band of adventurers. He was certainly right about the ravine, though. She gazed at the fresh scree and didn’t think it would be conducive terrain to hoof or foot. Or paw, she thought, reminding herself of the wolf that accompanied their party.

“The ridge does look safer,” she replied. “I wouldn’t want to get caught in another one of those landslides.” Alcyone shuddered almost imperceptibly under her and she laid a hand against her neck. “So, that was the elusive Ulysses, I take it? He seemed to be pretty upset when he left.” Cheri didn’t want to ask him any outright questions. Sometimes it was better to let someone open up in their own time, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t prod him a bit. She turned to look at him for the first time since they’d started out, a little half-grin on her lips. “Must have been catching.”

At the remark, an expression slid sloppily across Tyden’s face. “Touché,” he bore the grin. Nothing like being called on one’s mood to bring to light how ridiculous it was, and he brushed it aside. Besides, it was not like he’d gone galloping off in a childish snit… he shifted shortly in his seat and cleared his throat.

“I will most definitely make a point of avoiding landslides,” he quipped, “and if we travel the ridge, we should reach the runic markers by mid-afternoon.” Whether we are any closer to Al’therwen by then will remain to be seen. He considered the other half of her question, and the fragments Lilaini had related from Gypsy. Odin, not unusually, had remained silent on what transpired between the two; if there was useful information to be given, he would, but until then the silence was natural but complete. “While we had hoped Ulysses might have proved more… helpful—” Arieon snorted loudly here, as if expelling a fly from his bronchioles “—I suppose his mood can’t be too surprising for one who’s held the experiences he has. Unhappy childhood,” he winked.

“Unhappy childhood my arse—” the stallion expelled in a low breath before a squeeze from his rider cut him short.

* * *

At the Guardian’s summons, Gwyn and her little rider turned and made their way toward the group gathering at the centre of the clearing. The Lady Lilaini was already astride Gypsy, and making note of each person as they arrived. Gwyn made her way to Rhaine’s side, bumping politely against the guardian’s arm to let her know they were there. “Where are we going to go now?” Lyonne chimed before the crowd.

It seemed to be the general query of the group, and Lilani smiled down at her. By this point everyone had arrived and there was no point putting it off further. “Good people of Kalidore and guests alike; our journey into the Skyfields has been full of unexpected challenges and revelations, and I must say I admire the strength and willingness of our group to meet them all. Last night we met with Ulysses, and Odin remains with him still; our quest if half-completed. All that remains is now to seek the ruins of Al’theren as the Daiga saw that night dreaming. There, I believe, we will find our conclusion.”

In retrospect, Lilaini wished she hadn’t quite used that phrasing; it was a little ominous, to say the least. She decided to blame this poor choice on account of Tyden, who had not yet made his return and was probably having fun somewhere exploring the route. She made it her mind that the group should catch up so she could put and end to this as swiftly as possible, and the thought worked to brighten her mood considerably.

Rhaine had her satchel slung over her shoulder and ready to go, and as much as she was still mourning the map, was determined to put her best face forward. She greeted the pair brightly, her eyes casting down to briefly source the sound of snoring that seemed to emanate from the bulging and leafy sack at the mare’s chest. “I’m glad to find you both eager to go. I think we will have quite a ride ahead of us.”

“Will do me well, undoubtedly,” Gwyneira primed, holding still so the woman could mount, easily seating herself behind the child. “I look forward to the exercise!”

“And I want to see the mountains;” Lyonee’s eyes lifted from the trees to what lay beyond. “Gwyneira said they are ever so beautiful this time of year. My family and I went to see the mountains, but only from a distance; mother was afraid the air would not be good for me, though farther said it was a cure-all. Instead we had a picnic by the river, and Olivier was stung by a bee. I’m sure the bee had good reason to,” she concluded.

“We shall have both, in multitudes,” Rhaine assured them both. Once she had settled, her mind moved throughout the group, sensing from them what she could; a little apprehension, and hint of worry, but for the most part there was eagerness to be off and for the journey ahead. The feeling warmed her, she turned to Lilaini. “Gypsy will lead us, and we shall keep watch over the back; if we take care of our pace, I see no reason to stop until noon-day.” Her friend nodded, and the bronze mare bowed her head in accession.

Through the trees the dappled sunlight glinted as the wind blew, stirring the branches and bringing to Gypsy’s nostrils a taste of the wilds beyond. The mountains lay emense before them, a labyrinth of rock and sky, and somewhere in their midst lay Al’therwen. She had been there once, when she was but a wee kore, playing still at her damn’s side. Then it had been a glittering and vibrant city, hewn by elven hands from out the stone; time rose, wars fell, and stone had claimed the city back again. Her nostrils flared, reading the hint of ages past that lingered there still; was it enough to bring her to Al’therwen? Then again, there wasn’t much of an alternative.

She felt her companion’s mind brush against her own, sensing her worry, and the mare brushed it aside. “Shall we find out what Arieon and Tyden have got up to?” she grinned, seizing the woman’s own mood instead. There was no need for further discussion, and with a nod to the others Gypsy and Lilaini set a brisk pace up the trail. Behind, the other unicorns and companions would fall in one by one.

Gwyniera waited until the final unicorns pulled in before falling into line; from here Rhaine could watch everyone. She spied Tali moving swiftly through the brush, unable to stick to the straight trail but needing to investigate everything along the way. His antics reminded her of Xanthe and she had to chuckle, her eyes picking out the dun kore settled not too far ahead. She imagined this placement was only temporary, she couldn’t imagine the filly anywhere but at the front of the line to greet everything at once. It was then her gaze found Liam (shortly finished from his calisthenics, which luckily for him the Guardian had not seen) securing his sword into its scabbard and straightening his boots for the march ahead.

“Surely the day has not found you short a mount?” Rhaine keenly inquired. The morning’s altercation had pressed on her mind, and the point, in receipt, still bruised her. “Tyden may well vouch for your health, but I for one would like that insured. However, in light, I can but bespeak that you are not tiring your self out so young in the day; the results would displease me. A truce then?” she appealed to the soldier benignly.

Liam froze at Rhaine’s address, sure at first that he was again going to be chided for taxing himself unnecessarily. However, as she continued, it was obvious that she had missed his (other) early morning exertions, and the soldier was momentarily relieved. That is, until she reached the comment about a mount… then he tensed again, and glanced about uneasily. Pasiphae he noted, cursing his luck, was of course no where to be seen.

“Aaah… yes’m. Not that … ai’ve e’er had aught te’ quarrel wi’ ye Lady. An’ would hate te’ displease ye in any case. As such …. ai’ve a mind te’ find myself a companion o’ the four footed sort … so if ye’d excuse me….” And hoping that his attempts at reconciliation were good enough to distract the concerned Guardian from worrying about him further, the blond soldier hastened … elsewhere. Once completing his highest priority (simply getting out of verbal summoning range of Rhaine), he was of a mind to seek out his prickly bay traveling companion, or any other affable unikore… but should he not locate any of that sort, hoped to at least move with the group far enough away to be out from under the worrying gaze of the brunette Guardian.

Lyonee sat quietly through the adult’s exchange, her eyes mostly on the strange man below them. She had heard mention of him the night before, and during the morning’s organization. Apparently he was a soldier. Her face scrunched as she scrutinized him. He didn’t look like a soldier; the soldiers that marched in parades were always so clean and trim, matching in uniform and polish. This soldier wasn’t polished at all. In fact, he was downright scruffy looking. He was badly in need of a shave and haircut, and his clothing was simply not the sanctified soldier attire. She might have been frightened, had she come across such a stranger on her own, but sensibilities prevailed and said he did not fit the look of a Fairyland villain either. Besides, none in the group seemed abjectly unfriendly, if not a bit strange. She felt even more silly for being afraid of him, when after all, this could well be another Test.

When he was done speaking, bravado to counter this fear found her voice. After all, her father had always taught her to question fear; (her nanny had always taught that children should be seen and not heard, but that seemed a rather unproductive route here). So she queried, politely: “What kind of a solider are you exactly?” And then, thinking, that such an unqualified inquiry as that was probably unspeakably rude, she added for familiarity and warmth: “My great uncle was a soldier; he died.”

Liam, actually, was glad for the child’s deflection, the Guardian’s focus lifting from him with gentle amusement. He wasn’t terribly used to children, what with life in the ranks, but at least they didn’t baffle and completely undo him like the rest of the company. At her question he followed her gaze down to review his attire more critically, the borrowed shirt and hard-wearing trousers of which the least of its problems being it needed a good wash. “What kind, aye?” he considered, which in truth was a very valid question. A soldier he’d been some fifteen years now, a familiar life that had suited him and provided him with direction and purpose; after all, wasn’t that what a man should hope for in life? And with such a life, he’d felt contented, even fulfilled. Certainly he’d been wanting nothing. And yet now… he wasn’t entirely certain suddenly he’d be so terribly contented to go back. So just what kind of a solider was he – and then Lyonee related the predicament of her great-uncle. “Ack, sorry t’hear that…. hopefully a mite better ’un then he?”

At once Liam was properly mortified, remembering his company were not surly and crude-eared army men but a child and a Lady of Kalidore. He tried to formulate an apology, when he caught from the corner of his eye the grin which had spread across the youngster’s face, and Rhaine was speaking.

“Liam is indeed a fine soldier; perhaps one night he shall tell you of his battle with fearsome horned cavebear; we will have to pester him about that later!” There was no farce in her voice either – which is what Liam personally would have called that particular battle – and the child’s attention was drawn away and imagining just what miraculous beast a horned cavebear was. Rhaine glanced ahead now too as Liliani eased Gypsy into a lope and they broke ahead of the rest. “I suppose we had better keep up,” she addressed them all, giving Gwyniera a gentle squeeze with her legs (the mare, never having had a rider, nonetheless made quick work of the meaning a started forward). She smiled towards the solider once again. “Seems you should then be getting to that mount of yours too, before she takes it in her mind to go seek Ulysses herself,” and the trio trotted delicately away over the rocky soil.

*

Gypsy and Lilaini travelled in silence. The Guardian had made a few attempts at conversation, and while the bronze mare would engage and converse with her, she could tell it was forced and that the mare’s mind was elsewhere. So after a few attempts, she resolved to stay silence and leave Gypsy to her inner musings for a time. She would need to concentrate to be able to lead them back to the ancient city of Al’therwen. The mare had said she had not been there in an extraordinarily long time, but of their party, she was one of the few who had ever been there at all. Therefore, she was their best option.

Gypsy moved at a steady pace, one that was good at covering distance but one that would not quickly fatigue the human’s among them that were on foot. They had not been traveling long before they overtook Tyden and Arieon, who were standing inspecting the landscape with Cheri and Alycone. By the way that Tyden was easily interacting he was no longer as annoyed as when he left the clearing. Good, the guardian thought, because she had almost felt a bit badly about what she had said. But seeing as it wasn’t even affecting him, it saved her the ordeal of trying to apologize.

“So,” she began as they pulled up next to the others. “What has your scouting found for us?”

Cheri frowned at Tyden’s words. Unhappy childhood? She’d gotten the impression that dysfunctional families weren’t really the norm here in Kalidore. Besides, wasn’t Ulysses full brother to Arieon and Odin? They seemed fairly well-adjusted. Cheri opened her mouth to ask about it when she heard a voice behind her.

Alcyone tossed her head a bit when Cheri tried to shrink into her mane. *She asked a question, Cherry Blossom,* Alcyone reminded her. *She won’t bite if you answer.* Cheri regarded Lilaini, whose countenance exuded warmth and geniality. No, she wouldn’t bite. Cheri didn’t think the woman had it in her to be mean-spirited. Still, the question asked was one likely directed at Tyden, and Cheri didn’t think she wanted to intrude on them. At first she’d assumed they were a couple, but since she got funny looks whenever she alluded to it she was beginning to wonder. Never assume, right?

Suddenly it occurred to her that if they were an item, then she, Cheri, had just run after Lilaini’s man after he’d huffed off alone. Oops. Cheri herself was not jealous and wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but not many women were as tolerant as she. Maybe she should try to make friends with the Guardian, just to show her she meant no harm.

“The ridge.” Cheri cleared her throat as the entire group, unicorn and human alike, turned to stare at her. “Ah… follow the ridge to the, erm, runic markers, yes? Um, can I ask what we expect to find there?” Her face heated to what she assumed was a deep crimson as she tried to use the question to deflect attention away. She couldn’t help a sigh of relief when she felt Alcyone’s approval and reassurance nudge her mind.

If he’d sensed her approach Tyden gave no indication, and even when Lilaini pulled up and spoke, he kept his focus carefully tuned on the expanding vista ahead of them. But when Cheri rose to fill question he relented, a grin marked his approval. “That would be infamous Al’therwen,” he answered her. “What I expect to find is a whole lot of elven rubble, but if we’re lucky, a functioning Gate, and possibly a dragon or two to boot. Failing that… some of the rubble is quite pretty (or so it’s been told) and it’s a nice day for a ride anyways. Sight-seeing, really… just your regular ol’ magically-inert traveling tour group…” he gaze slid pointedly towards Lilaini.

The group at this point was pooling up behind them and Gwyn slipped nimbly through the mares to bring Rhaine alongside. The young woman caught strands of the conversation, her attention drawn to the advance of broken mountains beyond; they seemed so immeasurably vast, and the group by comparison so small. “If there is a waking Gate, likely Lilaini or I will be able to sense it once we are closer,” she added thoughtfully, missing the small but further pinching reaction the comment drew from cream stallion’s rider. “All the same, what I would do to have that map with us.”

“What I would do to have you stop calling that archaic and illustrative whimsy a map,” Tyden sighed, the comment meant mostly in jest but had an edge to it, which caused Rhaine to turn from the mountains and regard him. “Besides, following the ridge is the most suitable execution through the hills, prescribed route or not, short of gating us their directly. Which really isn’t a viable option.” He kept the implication from his voice, but it was there plainly enough for the telepath and the empath, who, despite Kal’s god-given gifts, were not without their limitations, too.

Lilaini’s delicate brows furrowed ever-so-slightly at the man’s remark. Ever-so-slightly her grip on the bronze mare’s mane tightened, and braced for recoil. *Now, my sweet* the calming swell of Gypsy’s presence touched her mind before anything transpired (there was a particularity good throwing rock, about two feet away, that the woman was cannily eying), *it has been a long night, and difficult last few days. You are all torn and tired, and we have a ways to go yet. Despite all, you have the same ambitions at heart, and besides, these petty squabbles will not bring the ruins any closer.*

Her eyes did not loose their steely look, but her fingers softened. *One small rock wouldn’t hurt… much* she huffed silently.

Gypsy chuckled, stretching to nibble at her bootlace. Her young rider’s flood of youthful emotion was always strangely refreshing, if only because it reaffirmed for the seasoned mare she herself was not so old, all things considered; the age of unicorns was at best immeasurable. She felt herself relaxing finally, not realizing what tension she’d held until it began to ebb away. Her ears pricked at something in her peripheral, but Lilaini had begun talking again and her attention wavered.

“Very well, the ridge it is. Gypsy and I can blaze the trail, and hopefully, the rest should be easy following.” Gypsy’s ears swiveled again, perking towards the west.

Tyden seemed set to say something, then settled back onto the cremello stallion leisurely. “Blaze away,” he canted towards the hills with a sweeping gesture of his hand.

Lilaini’s gaze was stony, but she turned from and instead addressed the rest of the group. “We have a good day of riding ahead of us, following the ridge. It would do well to follow closely, and watch your feet. Gypsy will set a comfortable pace, and I hope we will be at the foothills of Al’therwen by nightfall. Furthermore, it’s pertinent that we– hhuh—”

Gyspy turned abruptly, cutting Lilaini off in mid-sentence, and set out in the opposite direction. *Gypsy!* the though resounded in her head, *we are blazing the wrong way—” But the mare wasn’t paying attention. Her head was cocked, ears pricked, and her focus single-minded. No, her ears had not been deceiving her; the gully beyond muffled the sound until you were almost upon it: a most unusual sort of wailing, quite unlike anything she could place. And despite the duty that befell her to care for her companion and their party and perusing the mission at hand, something in that noise compelled her follow.

She ignored the questioning probing from her companion again and crossed the ridge, making her way down the pitted stones of the embankment. The pitch leveled shortly and spread into a scraggly crop of gnarly trees that clung to the stone and defied the arid soil by growing to full height – no mighty oak be sure, but a broad and crowning canopy that made the perfect seasonal abode for skycats. In the tallest tree a huge nest was sprawled messily, the circumference easily the size of Lilaini’s whole cabin. The ground below was littered thick with discarded bones and pellet casts, and orbiting above was the avifelis family themselves. This consisted of a spotted female and her azure-shouldered mate with the season’s three chicks, fully fledged now but still molting and looking rather scruffy in comparison to their sleek parents.

They were only half of the squalling, and the direction of their dismay comprised of the other half. That, was in their nest. Or through it, for even as the bottom end of the creature was projected up, tail and legs flailing, and another pair of limbs just visible below where they protruded through the nest’s brambly floor. There were also a pair of wings, but only one of these were moving, and only slightly, whenever the back legs lost footing and began flailing again. The tail, smooth and tapered, was spaded at the end and could do nothing more then helicopter the air uncoordinatedly as it tried to swat the griffons who flew by.

Gypsy blinked. The creature was gleaming indigo, licked through with silver, and even with its head buried deep in the mess their was no confusion as to what it was. Behind her she heard the group stumble into silence as the unicorns came to the same conclusion.

Lilaini had leaned forward into her copper mane, green eyes wide and incredulous. “Is that… a dragon?”

From the nest, the forlorn creature let out another up-side-down wailing. “I believe it is,” said Gypsy blankly.

Leave a Reply