Chapter Three: The Unicorn



by

Josie Beaudoin







Morgan and Galen walked back to the main camp after Jasper was settled in and had his arm set. He had steadfastly refused to even discuss going back to the others. The Ria were none too happy to learn that he was using the same water source they were, and upstream of them, but tolerated it for the time being.

“Magister,” Galen said as they walked, “How are we going to get back to Avyn?”

“Well really we can’t without the Ria. I won’t abandon my brother and the Ria won’t have him - it’s a quandry, I’ll admit.”

“What if we have to leave Jasper?”

Morgan glared at Galen.

“I told you I’m not leaving him,” he said. “There’s a way, and we’re going to figure it out. In the meantime, we need to get everyone moving, find a city and a port. I wish I knew where we were. A map of some kind would be nice, but probably too much to ask. I didn’t see Jasper grab any of his papers, so I have to assume they all went down with the ship, and we haven’t seen any trace of natives here.”

“They’re here, Sir.”

“Do you sense someone? Are we being watched?”

“No, not in the immediate vicinity, but there are people in this land. Several of the Ria say their mothers were from Fremere, and even you speak some Fremerian. We’re not alone on this continent.”

“Galen, that has got to be the stupidest thing you’ve ever said. Of course there are people living on Fremere. We just haven’t seen them yet, and I don’t know where to find them.”

“Are you looking to evade them or join them?”

“An excellent question, and one that I don’t know the answer to. We need help, this is obvious, but whether the Fremerians will give us that help or not is the main question. We’ve got to get an answer as soon as possible.” Galen could sense that Morgan was near his breaking point again. The shipwreck, the baby, Jasper’s self-imposed exile - they were getting to be too much for the man who strove to present such a serene countenance to the world. Not for the first time, Galen wondered what Morgan had done to so displease the Gods that they should give him such a miserable life.

During their absence, another longboat of bedraggled Ria had arrived, and this one entirely unexpected. The boat that Jasper had sent out to pick up Pearl had made its way to camp. They were very warmly greeted by the other survivors, and Morgan and Galen returned to what nearly amounted to a party. The Landers stood off to one side while the Ria gathered around the campfire which they had built up into a bonfire.

“I’m glad to see you all alive,” Morgan said when the situation had been explained, “but do you have someone out gathering wood for the fire? Bonfires are fun, but they do eat up a lot of fuel.”

“Don’t be so gloomy, Morgan,” Coi said. “Life should be celebrated!”

“Celebrated!” Brand cried. “Half your crew is dead, and you’re celebrating?”

“We cannot help the dead,” came the answer. “But life is full and lush. Surely there is something in your life which is not mournful. Be grateful for your blessings.”

“My life is not overfull with them,” Morgan answered. “And besides, somebody has to be responsible here. Now go and find more firewood.”

“I’ll do it,” Galen offered.

“You’re not helping,” Morgan said irritably. To the Ria he said, “During my imprisonment in Gurthiri I learned a few things about pain. Get firewood before I demonstrate on you! Go!”

Shocked, Galen watched as the subdued Ria shuffled off in different directions, ostensibly looking for firewood. He had never seen his Master threaten like that. Morgan’s temper was frayed more than Galen had guessed. Abruptly Morgan turned to his Lander companions.

“Have you eaten?” he asked his sister gruffly.

Paige nodded that yes, she had.

“And the rest of you?”

Nods all around.

“Good. Galen,” he jerked his head and walked off. Galen followed after him, and the two were soon lost to sight from the Lander group.

Once he was out of sight, Brand let out his pent-up breath and said, “I do not like him. Why is he always bossing people around? Why is he in charge?”

“Because he’s been trained to be in charge.” Paige defended her brother. “Morgan may not be a magician anymore, but he’s still the Shield. He still knows everything he knew before. He’s the equal to father, you know that.”

“I do not know who your father is, Opari, and neither do you. I wish you would remember your place in all this, Aiyana. He does not treat you - either of us - with the respect we are due. He could at least pretend to be sorry about Reina.”

“Oh, Brand, don’t start that Erlayan nonsense all over again. I thought you were through with that. As for Reina...” Paige broke off, her voice quavering. Brand closed the gap between them with a few quick steps and took Paige in his arms, smoothing her hair and making comforting noises. She sobbed into his shoulder, incoherent except for the occasional “I want my baby!”

#

Jasper sat in his makeshift camp. He had nothing except time to sit and think about his disgrace, his death. It was nearly unbearable, being dead. Jasper had been an exemplary Rian, looked up to by his colleagues and friends. Prince of the Ria, blessed in every way, now fallen and disgraced forever, dead to his people and banned from the sea. Morgan did not understand that. Neither did Galen. They treated him as though he were simply a man with a broken arm. It was unnerving the way they ignored his plight, treating him as they always had. Treating me like a Lander, he thought. Well, now you are one, so you’d best get used to it, great Prince.

Nothing in the world was more sacred to the Ria than an oath given, a promise made. If a Rian broke a promise, that person would no longer be a Rian, she would be dead, exiled to land, forever cut apart from her people. And Jasper had broken a promise. He was now and forevermore an Oathbreaker, no better than Laric himself.

Suicide was not uncommon among Oathbreakers, the shame of disgrace being too great to bear. Jasper had considered it from every angle and decided that suicide was the coward’s way out, and chose to bear the pain no matter what. He did, after all, deserve it.

“Never make a promise when you’re happy,” he muttered. “That has to have been the most foolish day of my life.”

So far, his mind added.

#

“Magister,” Galen said softly, “I have a question.”

The two were walking together on the shoreline in silence, Morgan fuming and Galen biding patiently at his side.

“Can it wait?”

“It can, but it might prove to be a fruitful thing.”

“Ask me your question, then.”

“Since our arrival here, I have noticed strange feelings in this place. My Vada tells me there is magic here, but I cannot place it. It seems almost to be coming from the trees themselves. Do you know what this is?”

Morgan was silent for a while. He had to concentrate to clear his mind of the grief and anger he was feeling so that he might answer his apprentice. Morgan was trained to teach. Magic coming from the trees? What oddity was this? Could it be? His heart began to flutter in his chest.

“There are two possibilities,” he said at last. “Either a magician died here alone and the trees absorbed his magic, or the trees themselves may be magiferous. Whichever it is, you’re right to ask. This could be very helpful.”

“Magiferous. You’re referring to those plants and animals which are innately magical?”

“I’m pleased you remember. We didn’t go over it in much detail.” Morgan was nearly quivering with excitement and striving to conceal it, but he could not fool Galen for a moment.

“We’ll have to gather all the ingredients,” Morgan mused. “Everything but our writings went down with the ship. I wonder if the Ria would give me some shark’s teeth, or whether that’s some sort of sacrilege to them. With the Ria, you never know.” He turned and began walking back the way they had come. Galen followed after him, catching Morgan’s enthusiasm and wondering what he was going to learn now.

#

They returned to the main camp a few hours later, both discouraged. The shark’s tooth, willingly given, had not helped. Morgan remained powerless, and both men remained at a loss to explain why. The power Galen had sensed in the trees, whatever its source, had gone by the time they finished their spell, but no one knew exactly where.

“I’m going for a walk,” Morgan said. “I think I’d like to be alone for a while.”

“Are you quite sure that’s safe, Archard?” one of the Ria asked.

“Thele, you live your lives in close quarters on a ship,” Morgan answered. “You’re not used to solitude. I, on the other hand, have had just about as much of company as I can stand for a while, and need a little time to myself regardless of the dangers, which I feel are few, and manageable. At any rate, it’s less dangerous than my need for a bit of solitary reflection.”

“You mean people are alone on purpose, willingly?”

“Just drop it, alright?”

“As you wish, Archard.”

“And don’t call me ‘Archard!’ That’s a title for a magician!”

Morgan turned on his heel and strode out of the beach camp as resolutely as the sand allowed. He went north, away from the longboats, the giant boulder, the stream, the survivors, and the questions. One thing he could not escape was the pain. On his left, the sea had tossed up flotsam from the wreck, and it dotted the beach as he walked. Once out of sight of the camp, he turned east, inland, to escape the sight of the water. Still the pain followed him, lodged deep in his heart.

So intent was he on leaving signs of human habitation and the sea behind him that Morgan entirely failed to notice where he was going until it was almost too late. Had his powers been intact, he would have never made such a careless blunder, but instead extended his Vada into the surrounding landscape, as he had taught Galen to do, but this day, he was on his own. He did not stop to think that the path he found must have been made by something much larger than himself, but only found it convenient, and so followed it. He did not consider that something that much larger than he was might have also been dangerous. He only thought that being on a path would allow him to move more quietly through the forest and attract fewer predators. At least in this he was right.

Emerging from the shade of the forest, the path devolved into a bright, open space, and into this natural meadow Morgan strode without taking the time for his eyes to adjust to light. This is why he stumbled right into the flank of the monster without actually seeing it beforehand.

The great beast turned about, startled at the sudden intrusion into its private world. It fixed its beady eyes on Morgan’s and huffed in outrage. From the other side of the behemoth came a high-pitched squealing of indignation and outrage as what Morgan could only guess was the beast’s offspring was shoved aside. A mother protecting her child, Morgan reflected, is far more dangerous than almost any other animal in the world.

Slowly, Morgan began backing away. The disgruntled mother was having none of it. She followed him with her eyes, and the wisps of grass still protruding from her mouth were completely forgotten in her sudden rage. If he could have used his Vada, Morgan felt sure he could have reached out and soothed the pair, perhaps even made them forget they had ever seen him, but he was no magician. He took a few more hesitant steps backward. The mother monster followed him, stepping forward. Morgan gulped and glanced over his shoulder at the treeline. It had seemed like only a few steps when he had left the forest, but felt a mile away now that it was a beacon of safety.

Morgan stumbled, and the beast, startled by the sudden movement, bellowed. That was enough for Morgan, who turned on his heel and sprinted for the trees, the infuriated mother hot on his trail.

It was a good thing he was born to such long legs. Desperation gave wings to his feet, and he flew through the forest at top speed, abandoning the trail and praying the woods would slow down the gigantic protector. It did not seem to be stopping her at all. Morgan slipped between two trees, thinking it might catch her up, but she merely shouldered her way between them, uprooting both in her desire to trample the interloper. In his panic, he ran in a straight line, making an easy path for the angry one to follow.

All of a sudden, the forest cleared again, and Morgan stumbled to a stop, blinking. Though he could hear the ferocious mother bellowing and stomping behind him, he also feared running into another such creature in another clearing. What he saw this time was something different.

It was a riverbed, its waters long since moved to another channel, but deep and stony. In a sudden rush of inspiration, Morgan grabbed hold of the rocks at the river’s edge and climbed over. He found what he was looking for at once and waited.

He did not have to wait long.

The giant beast broke through the forest canopy precisely where Morgan had, and seeing his head poking above the river bank, charged directly forward at full speed. She did not see the riverbed in time to slow or stop her run, but instead went straight over the edge and became airborne for the briefest of moments before crashing to the stony riverbed below. Dirt and pebbles rained down on Morgan’s hiding place under the bank as he peered out at the monster, but she did not move. Though he was unfamiliar with the animal’s anatomy, he suspected that her neck had broken in the fall. There was no movement of breath on flanks, no screeching bellow, no moving of gigantic feet. The mighty mother had fallen to her death.

Morgan, breathless, scrambled back to the bank just in time to see a baby of the same species come puffing and waddling out of the forest following its mother. It was altogether round and looked nowhere near as ferocious as its mother had, though Morgan did not doubt for a moment that it could do him serious harm if it tried. Instead, it stood on the crumbling riverbank and looked down at its mother and repeated its indignant bawling.

“Oh, do hush,” Morgan told it crossly.

The baby paid him no mind.

“Do you want to bring every predator in this forest down on you? Be quiet!” he tried again.

The baby animal looked at him, looked at its dead mother, and looked back at him, then resumed its squealing.

“Now don’t even try to do that,” Morgan insisted. “She was going to kill me, and I meant neither of you any harm at all. I had to stop her. You can’t blame me for this. She wouldn’t listen to reason. Now go on, eat some grass and get on with your life.”

Morgan examined the grasses and weeds growing in the river bed. He concluded that it had last flowed east-to-west and must therefore end up in the nearby sea. He could follow it back to the coastline and then south to the camp. With a satisfied nod, he set off in that direction.

The orphaned baby monster followed him.

At first, Morgan simply ignored it, assuming it to be a coincidence on the narrow strip of open land between the forest and the dry riverbed. But after twenty or thirty of his long paces, he turned around and addressed it once more.

“No,” he said. “Go home. Go back to your mama, or to your clearing, and eat grass. Go on now. I’m not your mama.” He shooed it with his hand.

The baby ignored his words and flicked an oversized ear at his hand motion. It continued to stare at him expectantly.

“Go away. Eat grass. Live a long time and terrorize other people some other day. Leave me alone now. I feel bad enough already.”

Morgan turned on his heel and followed the river bank once more. Behind him, he could hear the baby keeping pace, snuffling and whining an eerie, high-pitched keening behind him. He stopped again.

“You realize you’re a grass-eater and I’m not, right?” he asked it. “Look, here is your food right here.” He pulled a tuft of grass from the bank and held it out to show it to the baby, which took the blades of grass between its lips and began munching contentedly. Morgan nodded in satisfaction and continued walking back to camp.

It was not long at all before he heard the baby keening behind him once more. It was an eerie sound, almost like a mewing litter of kittens, only much louder and filled with such longing and a slightly frantic edge to it. His long legs had taken him quite a distance, but the little one was quicker than he expected. Again he stopped and confronted the baby.

“Look,” he told it, “the people back at my camp are all hungry, and they all eat meat. You don’t want to come with me. Now run along and eat your grass. Stay away from humans and other predators. You’ll be fine, just go away. Now. Go on.”

With the body of its mother out of sight, the baby monster looked from Morgan to a lush tuft of grass and back again expectantly. It showed no signs of leaving.

“Why does nobody ever listen to me even a little bit?” Morgan asked nobody in particular. Of course, nobody answered him. Resigned to his fate, Morgan sat down in the grass. He plucked some and held it out for the baby, which accepted it solemnly and stared at Morgan while it munched. A quarter of an hour probably passed before the baby came close enough to nudge Morgan’s hand.

“What are you doing here?” Morgan asked it. The baby said nothing, but grunted and snuffled at his hand for more grasses. It was far calmer and friendlier than ever its mother had been. Not nearly as frightening or ugly, either, Morgan mused. Still, it was the height of a small pony, and the bulk of two of them, and could do plenty of damage should it decide to trample him. Best to get back to the group before deciding what to do about it.

With that, Morgan nodded to himself and stood, dusted himself off, and resumed his march back downstream. Without prompting, the creature waddled along behind him in much the way a baby duck follows its mother. After about an hour’s walking, the river did indeed arrive at the seashore, and Morgan turned south to follow the ocean back to camp. With his long legs, he covered the distance rapidly and was back at the campsite in time for a late lunch.

There was much astonishment at his infant companion.

“Morgan, where is this thing’s mother? Don’t you know if she finds us with her baby, she’ll gore and trample us all?”

“Thele, I had no intention of bringing it back with me, but its mother is dead, and it followed me.”

“Dead? How?”

“I killed her.”

The assembled Ria laughed.

“Archard, you’re a wonderful man, with a lot of skills at your command, but you did not kill a unicorn singlehanded,” Coi said as they wound down.

“Unicorn?” Several Lander voices spoke in the same moment.

“Oh no, this was a strange monster, I don’t know what it was called, but it was no unicorn,” Morgan told them.

“It was if this is its baby,” the Rian man replied.

Brand laughed.

“Well you’re joking, of course,” he said. “This thing doesn’t look anything like a unicorn. It doesn’t even have a horn, just this rounded knob, it’s nothing like a horse, it....” he trailed off, lost for words. He looked around to his companions, who, likewise confused, nodded in agreement.

“This is a baby unicorn,” Coi repeated, pointing to the monster that had followed Morgan back to camp. “They’re not born with horns. Can you imagine trying to birth something with horns? Anyway, this little one’s horn is starting to come in, you can see the knob.”

“But it’s so round,” Morgan said, bemused, “and the mother, that was no unicorn! Not by a long road. Look, I can take you there, show it to you. That thing was not a unicorn. I’ve seen them in bestiaries, this looked nothing like one.”

“Did she have a horn?”

“Well, I admit she did, but she didn’t look anything like... no. It was huge and grey and mean and meant to kill me.”

“Sounds like a unicorn to me, my friend. How in the world did you kill it, by the way?”

“I, uh, well...” Morgan told them the story.

“Stampede. Smart move. You’re extremely lucky to be alive. Come on, I want to see this before she’s eaten or claimed by someone else. We’ve got to get back to that carcass! Unicorn horns are worth a fortune!”

“What? No, I don’t want to go back there. Besides, I told you, that thing wasn’t a unicorn.”

But the Ria were already racing north along the coastline looking for the riverbed. It was with a mixture of confusion and curiosity that the Landers followed behind.














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