[Three and a half years ago...]<--Back Forward-->
"I can *not* believe this!" Linna shouted to her friend across a swirling, free-for-all game of tag. "I've only just turned 14, and already these kids are running me ragged!"
Ceridon looked at Linna from her lofty perch of one extra month and one extra inch. "You shouldn't spend so much time in the mage lab," she yelled back. "You wouldn't believe how many nice days you've missed by shutting yourself in there!"
"Can I help it if I've got ambition?" Linna shrugged as she was swept away by a knot of children.
A few moments later, she and Ceridon both took a breather. They stood at the edge of the back courtyard of the orphanage while the younger kids played 'Red Rover.' The bulk of the main orphanage building stood between them and the temple of Ashtara; it absorbed most of the children's noise, so if any worshippers came, they *probably* wouldn't be disturbed.
Linna surreptitiously studied her friend and wondered, with the teenager's first deep appraisal of such matters, if Ceri was beautiful. If she was, it wasn't a conventional type of beauty. She was a shade too thin and, even after her exertions and all her time outdoors, a shade too pale. But then, all the kids were like that, Linna admitted honestly. The orphanage of the Temple of Ashtara existed on donations, and they never received enough to feed the growing children quite enough of the right kinds of foods. Not that they ever *starved;* at least, Linna had never *heard* of that actually happening, although the kids liked to scare the newcomers with tales...
Linna smiled and looked at Ceridon again. What she really envied Ceri were her hair and eyes. Ceri's silver-blond hair, when unbound, fell to her knees. Usually she wore it braided and pinned in a knot at the nape of her neck. She led such an active life that she preferred to have it out of the way, though she couldn't bear the thought of cutting it. Her eyes were a deep, dark amethyst, the kind of eyes Linna imagined a lover would gladly fall into forever. Linna desperately wanted eyes and hair like Ceri's, though most people would not have considered her strawberry-blond hair and bright blue eyes to be detriments to beauty.
Linna leaned over and said quietly in Ceridon's ear, "Father Mingon told me this morning that a representative of the mage school at Lincala might be stopping by here tomorrow. If he does, we've probably got a good chance of going there as apprentices."
The orphanage of the Temple of Ashtara, lying just outside the village of Thracia, was a rather unusual orphanage. It was known for giving its kids the best education possible. As a result, merchants, mages, and craftsmen from many miles around often came there to find a child, one who had already received a good basic education, to adopt as an apprentice. The priests and priestesses made sure the child wanted to undertake the work that was offered, and that the person adopting that child would be a kind, dependable guardian.
Linna and Ceridon were both rather older than the rest of the children. They'd had opportunities to be adopted before, but they'd absolutely refused to be separated, and no one, so far, had wanted to take both of them. But a mage school would very possibly allow them both to come.
Ceri, however, only replied mildly, "Oh. That's nice."
Linna looked at her with a puzzled frown. "What's the matter? I thought you'd jump at the chance to finally leave here and train for a vocation."
"I'm not sure I want to leave here," Ceri replied. "I love these kids, and I love being able to help teach them now."
"But what about our plans? We were going to see the world together."
"No one can see the whole world, Linna." Ceri smiled.
"I'd sure like to try," Linna replied tartly.
"Well, you know I've never been as ambitious as you. I've never truly desired to become a mage--not like you. Besides, look at these children." Ceri gestured at the running group. "They're each a whole world in themselves."
Linna frowned and kept silent. Ceri didn't often talk about her feelings and plans, even to Linna. When she did, though, she could be awfully stubborn about them. It was mainly her persuasiveness and insistence that had kept them together all these years. But now, if that mage accepted them for the school, what would Ceri decide?
The children gathered around them, clamoring for a game of dodgeball, and Linna set her ruminations aside for the time being. No sense in borrowing trouble before its time. She and Ceri divided up the group into two teams (they were, of course, on opposite sides--that was only fair), and the game started.
Linna got in trouble early, and was sent to her team's jail. But she'd prepared for this. At a hand signal from her, five of her teammates concentrated their fire on Ceridon. While Ceri was busy dodging the onslaught, Linna caught a thrown ball from a teammate and blindsided Ceri. "Who's out of shape now?" she teased as she joined her team and Ceri continued on to her team's jail.
"You won't get me with that trick again," Ceri warned, grinning.
The game continued. At first, no one could maintain an advantage, but slowly, Linna's team started winning. Ceri was in the jail again, while Linna dodged balls from the jail and picked off another of Ceri's teammates. Suddenly, the few remaining kids from that side stopped dead, staring over Linna's shoulder. Linna glanced back, then spun around and took a step back.
Ceridon was standing completely still, an astonished look on her face. Her form blurred and wavered, as if she was standing in an oven. The kids around her backed away, clutching balls or each other's hands, fear and curiosity warring on their faces. Ceri cried out once, more in surprise than pain, and Linna watched as her body changed. Her arms lengthened into legs, and Ceri overbalanced and fell down to stand on all fours. Her hands and bare feet changed into cloven hooves. Her body lengthened and thickened, until the clothing she wore ripped apart. Her neck lengthened and thickened as well, and her hair ran down it to become a mane, then hide, then a tail. Her face grew into a muzzle. Lastly, and most astonishingly, a horn sprouted from her forehead; a spiraled horn, mostly white, but within which colors swirled and played. The only thing about her that stayed the same was her eyes, and those dark amethyst eyes looked at Linna with fear.
"Ceri?" Linna whispered. She suddenly took a step forward. She had to know if this was still her friend, though the suddenly-realized possibilities of the situation frightened her. "Ceri, is that really you?"
The unicorn stood there a moment longer, its eyes seeming to look inward and outward simultaneously. Then it focussed its gaze on Linna and closed the distance between them. Its horn stretched out and touched Linna, first on her forehead, then her lips, then dropped down to rest over her heart. The horn glowed brightly, and an echo of that light surrounded them. Linna felt as if her mind was stretching out, pressing against her skull. Then the light dissolved and the unicorn raised its head.
::L-linna?:: The voice echoed in Linna's mind rather than her ears, and it sounded very frightened, but it was definitely Ceridon's voice. ::Linna, can you hear me?::
"Yes," Linna whispered. "Oh, Ceri..." She threw her arms around the unicorn's neck, and they stood like that a moment, both trembling.
"Ceridon?" The voice of Father Mingon broke their tableau, and they turned to see him coming forward from the tight knot of children who had witnessed the transformation. "Ceridon? Can you understand me?"
::Yes, Father.:: Something was different in the quality of the mental voice, and Linna realized that everyone there had heard Ceri this time. Ceri threw her head back in astonishment. ::How did I know how to do that?:: Bewilderment brought her voice close to tears.
"Hush, child, hush." Father Mingon reached out and began gently stroking her neck. "It was probably instinct--the same instinct that led you to do...well, whatever it was you did with Linna." He abruptly turned around. "Children, please go and wait in the common room. We'll tell you what we can soon." They moved toward the orphanage in a softly murmuring group, looking back often.
"Now then," Father Mingon continued. "Tell me as much as you can about what happened."
::There isn't much to tell,:: Ceri replied. ::I was playing with the children, and suddenly I just...couldn't move. And I felt a--a burning sensation on my forehead.:: She dipped her head and rubbed the horn on her foreleg. ::You can see what happened to me after that.::
"Could...could someone have *done* this to you?" Linna was appalled at the idea, but she knew the question should be asked.
Ceri thought for a moment, then shook her head. ::I don't think so--at least, not *today.* This change seemed to come from...*inside* me somewhere.::
Father Mingon nodded briefly. "And what you did with Linna?"
::I don't know what prompted me to do it, but it seems to have given me a mental bond with Linna. I can speak with her very easily, and hear her thoughts, and...:: The mental voice trailed off for a moment as she concentrated her gaze on Linna. ::Yes, and even see through your eyes! Oh...oh my...:: Ceri's voice seemed both taken aback and pleased. ::*That's* what I look like?::
Linna realized that Ceri was seeing her new form for the first time, so she looked her over slowly, giving Ceri a chance to study herself. Her unicorn body was not small; she stood about sixteen hands high, and although she moved with an almost unearthly grace, she was also quite powerfully built. Her hooves were cloven, not solid, and were feathered above. Her hide was white, and her mane and tail were the same silver-blond her hair had been as a human. She had a well-shaped head, rather like an Arab's. Her spiraled horn tapered to a sharp point, and if you looked long enough, you could see every color in the rainbow, and many you'd never seen before, swirl up and around it. Linna knew that that horn, and those deep violet eyes Ceri had retained from her human form, would captivate anyone.
Father Mingon finally broke the silence. "When you were left with us, Ceridon, there was a note with you. All it said was, 'Her name is Ceridon. When the time comes, have her seek out the unicorns.'"
Ceri absorbed this information. ::Why didn't you tell me this before?:: she finally asked.
"We didn't know what it meant," he replied. "And we didn't think it would be good for you to be endlessly speculating about something that might not happen, for all we knew. Perhaps we were wrong."
::No,:: Ceri said absently. She turned her head away, looking off into the woods behind the orphanage. ::I...I think I want to be alone for a bit. Think about all this.::
Father Mingon nodded. Linna almost said something, but instead she watched Ceri step away from the remains of her dress and walk slowly into the woods, her head hanging low.
"Come, Linna. We should talk to the others." Father Mingon put his arm around her shoulders and guided her toward the orphanage and its common room, where the children and the priests and priestesses had gathered.
Linna listened dully as Father Mingon told the assembly what little they knew so far about Ceri's transformation. He warned them not to tell anyone outside the orphanage about it. "Until we know more about this, it shouldn't be bruited about. We should spare her from the curiosity of outsiders." The children nodded and murmured among themselves, and Linna knew they'd obey. The orphanage was rather like a separate village, and the kids usually didn't discuss their affairs even with people from Thracia.
Father Mingon led them in prayer to Ashtara--prayers for Ceri, prayers for guidance. Linna joined in, fervently but silently. Suddenly--
::Linna!:: Ceri's mental call was high and excited...and loud.
::Ceri? Wow! It sounds like you're standing next to me! Where are you?::
::Down by the creek. And just look! Try to look through my eyes.::
::I'm...trying...:: Linna followed Ceri's mental touch, and suddenly, as if some gears inside her mind had shifted, she saw what Ceri was seeing. ::Wow! I did it! And...hey! You're human again!:: Linna saw Ceri's human body reflected in the creek water. ::How did you do it?::
::It was simple, actually. I just thought about being a human, and I shifted back. Watch. I think about being a unicorn...:: The reflection blurred and wavered, as though the current had suddenly quickened. A few seconds later, it cleared, and a white unicorn with amethyst eyes stared back. ::Now I think about being a human...:: The reflection blurred again, then cleared to show Ceri's human body.
::That's great!:: Linna abruptly realized that Father Mingon had finished his prayer, and the others were filing out of the common room. ::Come back to the orphanage. I'll tell Father Mingon, and we'll meet you outside.::
::All right.:: Linna caught a glimpse of blurred trees as Ceri began running, before she broke her contact and turned to Father Mingon. "Father, can you come outside? Ceri needs to show you something."
"In a moment, child." He was staring at the far entrance, where a young man was waving a piece of paper and trying to wade through the sea of departing kids.
Linna nodded and left through the nearer door, which opened out to the playground. She stood there a moment, marveling at how swiftly Ceridon's world had been turned upside down. She wondered where it would lead them before the end.
::No!:: Ceri's cry came speeding down their bond, full of despair and anger. Linna dashed toward the forest, but skidded to a stop as Ceri, in her unicorn guise, stepped out of the last line of trees. She looked at Linna, misery filling her eyes.
::When I got within sight of the buildings,:: she sent in answer to Linna's unasked question, ::I was forced to change again. And now I can't change back.::
"Oh, Ceri, I'm so sorry." Linna hugged her, shedding a few tears for both of them. "Wait a minute," she suddenly said, releasing her hug and catching Ceri's eye. "That mage who's coming here from Lincala. Maybe *he* can help."
"I'm afraid not--at least, not tomorrow." Father Mingon joined them, briefly laying his hand on Ceri's neck. "That message was from him. He's received word of some trouble at the school, and he has to return immediately. Now what did you want to show me?"
Linna explained what had happened, since Ceri seemed too despondent to reply. "I guess when she's with people, she *has* to be a unicorn," she summed up.
::But *why?*:: Ceri burst out. ::Why has this happened to me?::
"I don't know, child," Father Mingon replied. "The paths Ashtara sets us on are sometimes very strange." He paused. "Would you like me to send a message to the mages at Lincala? Perhaps someone can come when their troubles are over."
"But Ceri..." Linna was perplexed. "If they can help..."
::No.: Ceri was emphatic. ::The more people you tell, the likelier it is that this will become widely known. Then the story will become garbled. Before you know it, people will start believing I really *am* a unicorn, not an ensorcelled human. We'd have all sort of people coming here, half of them wanting my help, the other half wanting to capture or even kill me. You know of those beliefs about the power of a unicorn's horn--as a cure for illnesses, or an enhancement of a mage's power, even as an aphrodisiac.::
Father Mingon nodded. "Excellent point."
::There's only one thing to do,:: Ceri continued. ::Follow the advice of that note and find the unicorns.::
Linna nodded enthusiastically. "Just let me pack a bag and I'll be ready to join you!"
"Now wait a minute!" Father Mingon's voice was filled with equal parts amusement and consternation. "Neither of you are remotely ready to go haring off Ashtara-knows-where!" He pointed at Linna. "You will need to learn weaponry and woodcraft, as well as some more practical magecraft than you have been studying lately. And you..." he shifted his attention to Ceridon. "You need to learn more about the abilities of your new guise-- especially its mage abilities. You've done well with instinct so far, but instinct is a chancy thing to rely on."
"What do you suggest?" Linna asked, much chastened.
"A good friend of mine in Thracia--his name is Frankelin--he used to be a guard for a jewel merchant. He accompanied the caravans, acted as a bodyguard in the cities. I'm sure I can persuade him to come and teach you weaponry and woodcraft." He studied Linna closely. "The bow, of course, and knife fighting--maybe some hand-to-hand as well. And Ceridon, he may be able to help you learn to use that horn as a weapon." He laughed at their astonished gazes. "Don't look so surprised! I may be a man of peace, but that doesn't mean I'm unaware of the violence that can occur in this world. And I am going to make sure you are both ready to face it before I let you go."
"Aye, you're right, Father," Linna replied. Ceri said nothing, but finally dipped her head in agreement.
"Good," Father Mingon said. "I'll go visit Frankelin now. He'll be discreet, I know." He reached out and softly stroked Ceri's muzzle. "Don't despair, child. I know that doing this means you won't find the answers as soon as you want, but I'm sure you *will* find them." He headed off around the main building, toward the road that led to Thracia.
::I still wish we could go now,:: Ceri's mental voice muttered rebelliously.
"Ceri, you know he's doing what's best for us," Linna replied with some exasperation. "We'd face exactly the dangers you described if we left now, with no plan and ideas for survival or hiding ourselves if the need arose."
Ceri's mental sigh was coupled with a physical horse's snort, and she snorted again at their incongruity. ::I suppose you're right. But *gods!* I will be glad when we can finally leave here, find the unicorns, and get them to remove this--this blasted curse!::
"Do you really believe this is a curse?"
Ceri stared at Linna, her ears pinned back with anger. ::I am under a spell that will prevent me from interacting normally with others. They'll look at me and see only this unicorn body, not the human trapped within. If we can't remove it, I won't be able to stay here and help with the children, or--:: A sob briefly interrupted her tirade. ::Or perhaps get married and have children of my own. I would be forever cut off from my own kind. What would you call it?:: Ceri wheeled around and started toward the pasture behind the small stable--a pasture that housed three goats, two milk cows, and one long-suffering donkey.
Linna watched her, tears welling in her eyes again. She hadn't realized how much those tranquil dreams meant to Ceri. ::I'm sorry,:: she tentatively sent down their bond.
Ceri paused and looked back, the afternoon sun flashing off her horn. ::It's all right,:: she replied. ::I'm sorry, too.:: She continued on to the pasture.
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