Garber sighed silently, then clucked to the horses and shook the reins, trying to get them back to a trot. He knew it was hard on them, but he was feeling more than a little paranoid at this point. And he wasn't the only one--everyone in the group was feeling the strain, even Elwynn. Their nerves were on edge, their senses strained to detect any sound. This aura of nervousness communicated itself to the horses, keeping them high-strung and preventing any true rest when they stopped. The humans hadn't been getting much rest either, despite their fatigue. Worry over the possibility of another attack, perhaps something even worse than a band of orcs or those Sleestaks from the previous evening, kept them wakeful, watchful.
Garber straightened up suddenly, shaking off his ruminations. The way the road rose to the ridge before them; the sight of the mountains rising beyond, snowcapped even at this time of year; the gnarled oak tree, looking like a hunchbacked old wizard; all these were triggering memories of his trip to that ill-fated raid. He smiled, though, and swiveled around to the others. "We're almost there," he said with satisfaction. The wagon horses, hearing his confident tone, sensing the relief emanating from him, actually trotted of their own volition to the top of the ridge, where he pulled them up to take in the scene.
There were differences, of course, between the scene before them and Garber's memories. The fields and pastures extended a bit further through the valley. The town, too, was a bit larger, and there was a wooden palisade surrounding the houses, its logs still retaining a hint of raw, peeled newness. But the crops were the same, and people were tending them and the flocks of sheep as they had been eighteen years ago. The forest still hugged closely to the eastern side of town. And the mountains, serene, eternal, still rose majestically from the north side of the valley.
He stayed silent as the others came up beside and behind him, each reacting in their own way to the view. Finally, he said softly to Ceridon and Linna, "Whenever you're ready." He could only imagine the conflicting emotions they were feeling.
He looked up from Midnight's mane, taking in the end of the village they were approaching. The settlement didn't surprise him... the odour of it had wafted their direction for a full fifteen minutes. But the details told him something of the residents' mindset. Palisade... meant they had enemies of one sort or another. But fresh, unburned crops... meant they probably had come to terms with those enemies in some way or another. "Well," he sighed aloud, "we'd best get on with it." He encouraged Midnight forward with a couple clucks, and tried to keep in line with the group.
Linna looked down on the peaceful scene, enjoying the sight. Isolated it might be, but it was also beautiful, the sort of place she didn't think she'd mind making her home if the opportunity arose. As she continued to gaze, she wondered, with a rather sharp pang of conscience, what sort of trouble they might be bringing down on the heads of those villagers.
Ceri sighed mentally as she felt the trend of Linna's thoughts. For her, at least for now, the village meant only a possible answer to her problems, nothing more. 'When did I become so self-centered?' she wondered as she followed Garber and Sherwood down the path toward the fields, in full view of those who were working there.
"Well, " Dwynn contributed. "I don't know about all of you, but I'll be glad to have a roof over our heads, possibly an Inn with ale." It was hard to detect the slightly worried tone in his words as he looked over the peaceful scene and rode up to the village after the others.
"Come on, folks, we've got four more fields to go over before we're done," Laessa told the others with her. The group had assembled to inspect the crops that would feed most of Abydos when winter came. "And take good notice of how far along it is. We're going to need plenty of help when it's harvesting time, hopefully they will not all go at once."
Laessa watched as the four others spread out in the field, carefully checking as they moved through. They were still learning, but they had a good eye and were quick to pick the details up. One of the women motioned to her, and she brushed a bit of dirt from her hands as she moved to look. "No, Thyssa, you need to look fo...."
Her words broke off as she spotted a group coming down the trail. "Oh, a party of merchants must have finally gotten here. Or lost travelers," she muttered to Thyssa. But with a second look she froze, still holding a leaf back, her eyes fixed on the group as they approached. The others in the field were starting to look up, their work forgotten, anxious murmurs erupting.
"Quiet!" Laessa bellowed. "Go back to your work! All four fields!" The others bent their heads, stealing glances, but returned quickly to their work. Laessa moved through the field to the road and watched as the party came closer and halted before her. She opened her mouth to speak, but words faltered for a moment. Her eyes just drank in the sight before her.
She looked Ceridon over from head to toe, and then back again. A bit of wonder and joy mixed in her eyes, she started to raise one hand out as if to touch Ceridon, but pulled it back quickly. She mentally shook herself and brushed off her dusty work clothes, bowing her head formally.
"I greet you, travelers. You must have been on the road long. I assume you are here to see the Chosen Ones of Abydos...may I show you the way?" Laessa raised her eyes to look over the rest of the assembled group, casting a second, puzzled glance at Garber, but turning back to Ceridon.
Sherwood noticed the villagers' obvious interest. It was, he supposed, normal for a group of field hands to take notice of folk approaching on horseback. Actually, remembering back to his own childhood, it wasn't "normal"... it was vital for survival! His father had taught him well enough to size up strangers from only stolen glances... and this group seemed quite adept at that art. He made sure to casually adjust his weapons so they seemed less visible -- less lethal -- and hoped for the best.
But the spokeswoman had more than usual interest in them. Or, rather, in Ceri. He _thought_ to her, "She seems to know you! I wonder how..." and never quite completed the idea, leaving it hanging like mist in the vale.
Linna waited a moment to see if Ceri would reply. When she didn't, she did so, while sending a wordless feeling of exasperation down their bond. "Chosen Ones?" she asked. "We need to see *someone* in the village, and I suppose they'll likely do, but who are the Chosen Ones?" Ceri suddenly started a slow walk toward the village, keeping a pace that the woman would easily match. The rest trailed behind, listening intently.
Keeping pace at the head of the group, Laessa looked back with confusion at the question. "You didn't come to seek them out? How odd...my apologies. I assumed after seeing your party that you were here to speak with the Chosen Ones. It is they who have been granted the ability to bond with the unicorns," Laessa continued, turning back and motioning towards the village. "They are also family...this generation, my brother and his wife were chosen for this task."
Laessa kept her gaze to the village and hoped none of the party could see her puzzlement. 'So many humans with this one...." she thought to herself, "...and that one. Where have I seen him before?....' She sighed with the feeling of a memory just out of reach, but continued to lead the way towards the village.
"May I presume to ask a question?" Laessa looked towards Ceridon as she spoke. "Why do you travel alone with this party, where is the rest of your herd?"
For a moment, Ceri rebelled against answering, but her own conscience--and some mental prodding from Linna--forced her into responding. ::I'm not part of any herd,:: she sent for all to hear. ::In fact, I'm not really a unicorn. At least, I didn't start out that way. I was--*am*--human, but I changed into this guise three years ago. I'm hoping the unicorns here can tell me why.::
Laessa stopped in her tracks and turned to look at Ceridon questioningly. "Truly? That is astonishing...I've never heard such a tale. None of our unicorns were created or changed like that...." she paused and shrugged, brushing a stray lock of her dark hair back. "But you can ask the Chosen Ones and tell them your tale. If anyone in these parts would understand such a story, they would."
Dwynn walks along smiling at the unfamiliar faces and keeping a close watch on Laessa's facial expressions. 'We don't know enough,' just keeps running through his head. With an eye out for the details of the village and its people he hides the skeptical feelings that flare up for now. 'We should have hidden Ceridon and agreed that we came to see the Chosen ones. Chosen by whom, I wonder.'
Sherwood rode on in silence, trying to catch the tenor of this group. They certainly weren't fearful, as he thought they might be. He sensed sincerity, though, and enough of it to slowly let down his guard. During an opportune silence, he offered, "My apologies, m'lady. If you have authority here in town, you should know that we seem to caught the attention of a... errr... nasty fellow. If you have guards here, it might be a good idea to alert them."
Laessa sighed softly, but her gaze grew angry. "More attacks? Every time they seem to stop, someone else decides to pick up the fight...ogres, then magical beings...what this time..." she broke off her words with an apologetic glance. "Forgive me, I had hoped they were done this time. That is something else you should tell the Chosen Ones of...although I would like to hear more after your meeting, if I may."
He wasn't _really_ surprised with the woman's anger; truth be told, he felt the same way. But Sherwood was still a bit cautious as he began to dismount for the walk into town. The leather of the saddle creaked as he swung his leg off of Midnight, and he replied, "We were strangers only a month ago, yet have joined on a mission to resolve the question of our uni... er, our lady's identity. For some unknown reason, this has attracted the attention of a magician -- a vile one. So far he has sent only minions to haunt our path, and non-magical ones at that. But with mages, you never know..." As his voice trailed away, he began to blush, suddenly remembering he was in the presence of at least two masters of the art, and looked over his shoulder at them with an embarrassed glance. A murmured, "Sorry 'bout that," was all he could muster by way of apology.
Garber chuckled softly to himself, but sobered as he caught, out of the corner of his eye, another glance sent his way by their guide. He didn't recognize her himself, but it was possible she might remember him from the attack. He just hoped that complete remembrance wouldn't come until after Ceri had had a chance to learn as much as she could.
They had all reached the gate to the city by that point, and continued their travel in silence. They were soon surrounded, however, by a softly- murmuring group of people, peering out of windows, emerging from homes and shops, a few even dropping bundles in surprise. But the purposeful walk of them all--or perhaps the air of walled-off reserve that seemed to have sprung up around Ceridon--kept anyone from trying to detain them with questions.
Laessa led them through the streets, which were relatively clean and well- kept. They had angled to follow one wall, where a variety of workshops lined the street. As they neared a bakery, a flour-bedecked couple emerged from its depths, called out by a child of nine or ten who had run ahead with the news of the group's arrival.
As she stepped up to the couple, she unconsciously moved to one side, not wanting to disrupt the intense gaze and surprise that was focused on the new group. She turned back to the group, "This is Nicandra and Keron. They are the Chosen Ones I mentioned before, those you should speak to...." she broke off and glanced back to her stunned kin. "This group came by way of the eastern road...I thought you should be the ones they spoke to."
Linna looked closely at the two middle-aged bakers, seeing something a bit tantalizing in their faces. Their eyes, however were fixed solely on the unicorn at her side, so she decided to forego introductions for now.
"It is on her behalf that we've come," she said simply, gesturing at Ceri. "Her name is Ceridon."
"Ceridon," the woman breathed softly, with a strange, mingled tone in her sigh--a tone that, along with her gaze, seemed to convey that the name was no surprise, that she had both expected and feared to hear it since she'd first laid eyes on Ceri. "Oh, daughter, what have we done?"
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