"Daughter?" Linna exclaimed. She glanced to the side, where Ceri seemed to have turned into a statue of herself; only her eyes held life, burning amethyst staring at the two.
"Come back with us," the man said, gesturing to an alley that led back behind their bakery. "We have a lot to talk about."
The rest of the group, stunned into silence, followed the two into the passageway. Ceri didn't move at first, but when Linna laid a hand on her shoulder, she moved forward, walking as though in a dream.
They entered a small, paved courtyard. A shed at the back was filled with wood. Two smaller sheds flanked either side of the courtyard. The bulk of three large ovens protruded from the back of the main bakery; this arrangement allowed most of the heat to escape to the outside, keeping the bakery from becoming an inferno. There was just enough room for everyone to sit in a circle, on blankets that Nicandra brought from inside; even Ceri settled down, folding her legs beneath her and huddling down like a fawn hiding in tall grass. Linna laid a hand on Ceri's shoulder again. Ceri didn't seem to notice. Her mind was completely closed to Linna, an occurrence that had been very rare in the three years and more of their mental joining.
Keron glanced at Nicandra, who nodded and started speaking. "I suppose I should start with how our ancestors came here, and how they met the unicorns." She signed once, glanced around the circle, her eyes lingering on Ceridon, then began the tale.
"Our forefathers used to live far to the east, at the western edge of a kingdom. This kingdom had suffered for a few generations under a series of despotic rulers. Though they lived in a fairly sizable town, our ancestors knew they'd never be able to fight against the king's army. So, about 200 years ago, after the tax collectors and guards had passed through in the fall, but just before they were isolated by the winter snows, they simply packed up and left, heading west.
"They followed the edge of a mountain range for many, many leagues, keeping on the northern edge of one kingdom after another. Finally, they reached a large valley southeast of here. Those few living there said they were nominally part of a kingdom, but the territory to the northwest was unclaimed by anyone, as far as they knew.
"You see, our ancestors had had enough of monarchs and kingdoms, and were determined to establish a freeholding of their own, one that was as self- sufficient as possible. So they traveled into the mountains until they found this valley--close enough to establish some trading connections, but isolated enough to keep them free.
"Things were very difficult at first--it isn't exactly easy to build an entire new town in the height of winter, especially in the mountains. They were already suffering, and some of the elderly might well have started dying. But, a week after they arrived, they saw a truly amazing sight--unicorns walking out of the forest and approaching them. Twenty-eight unicorns, of many shades and sizes, who came and stood in a semicircle before them.
"We grew up with the regular sight of unicorns," and Nicandra exchanged a glance and a smile with her husband. "It's difficult for us to imagine what our forefathers felt when they first saw the entire herd approaching them. We've been told, in old family stories, that reactions ranged from awe to terror. But before anyone could act much on those reactions, one of the unicorns, a white mare who was in the middle of the semicircle, stepped forward and began speaking mentally to everyone there.
"She told them that the herd lived a bit further up in the mountains, and had been there for nearly 700 years, guarding--well, something. They've never been particularly forthcoming on that subject. And not for lack of trying on the parts of curious youngsters through the years." Nicandra smiled a bit ruefully. "Our ancestors thought for sure they'd have to leave. But the mare, who gave her name as Merinen, said that she and the other unicorns were willing, even eager, to have humans living nearby.
"She explained that, if our ancestors were willing, the eldest and youngest adult unicorns would mentally bond with two humans of their choice. In this way, either group could call upon the other whenever the need arose. Neither group would keep track of who had helped whom more often--help would be given freely and fully. The only exception to this would be when a member of one group lost his or her life while helping the other group. In such a case, the group that suffered loss could make any demand on the other, which would be honor-bound to fulfill it."
"Has that ever happened before?" Linna asked, fascinated by Nicandra's story.
"A few times," Nicandra replied soberly. "In fact, my great-grandfather died while helping to save a unicorn foal during a flash flood. Since the village was in no great need at that time, even with the flood, the only reciprocal demand made was that, when the foal who was saved reached adulthood, she would choose a descendant of my great- grandfather as her bonded one."
"Nicandra was that choice," Keron said, clasping her hand for a moment.
Nicandra smiled and continued. "With the help of the unicorns, our ancestors were able to firmly establish this city, with trade connections reaching as far as Montfort, and we've helped the unicorns over the years with a number of projects. Our situation was calm and peaceful all that time. The city grew, but we took care that it not grow too much--this valley can only support so much, after all. We're comfortable, but not what anyone would call rich--we've never really wanted to be, and we never wanted to become a target for thieves or bandits. Those who want more from life generally leave the valley and try their luck elsewhere.
Twenty years ago, just before we got married, Keron was chosen by Merinen, who was still the eldest of the unicorns. A year later, I was chosen, and I soon learned that I was pregnant with my first child. Five months after that, everything changed."
Nicandra bowed her head for a moment, then looked back up at them with burning eyes. "It was a normal day, with all of us doing our normal tasks. But with no warning, a large group of armed men rode out of the forest , sweeping down toward the town. We didn't stop to ask questions--their demeanor told us everything. Keron and other men and women grabbed what weapons we had, while I helped to gather up the children and elders and steer them into the woods to the west. There's a clearing about a mile in that direction--it marks the edge of the unicorns' territory. We knew we'd be safe there. And, of course, Keron and I called our unicorns for help."
"We knew we couldn't beat those men," Keron took up the tale. "We were just fighting them to buy the others enough time to escape-- and for the unicorns to come. And come they did--that first charge of the unicorns took out most of the men. It wasn't long before there were only a few left, and they fled. But the unicorns followed--Merinen told me that they didn't want anyone taking word of their existence back to the world at large. Those were the last words I ever heard from her. A few minutes later, I felt the bond between us snap as she died."
Keron stopped, tears standing in his eyes. Linna took a chance and glanced over at Garber. Except for a slow flush that burned his neck and cheeks, his expression gave nothing away. She turned her attention back as Nicandra spoke again.
"Cedony, my Bonded One, told me about Merinen's death--and the death of another unicorn. She was absolutely furious--I could feel it resonating down our bond. Then, suddenly, nothing. She closed her end of the bond down completely--except for a brief word telling me that it was safe to go back to town.
"We kept expecting the unicorns to come, knowing they'd have to come to make their demand. But for three days, we saw or heard nothing. Finally, on the morning of the fourth day, they all came to the center of town, and waited for us to gather.
"They'd formed an arc, with Cedony in her usual spot on one end. But then she stepped forward into the middle of it, and called me to stand in front of her. As the other unicorns watched and, I think, fed her magical power, she touched her glowing horn to my stomach. I could *feel* the magic sinking through into my womb. Finally, Cedony stopped, and stepped back into her place. The unicorn at the center, a bay stallion named Vannan, suddenly spoke mentally for all of us to hear, saying 'When your daughter, Ceridon, is born, bring her to us.'
"'What are you saying?' I asked, shocked.
"'She belongs to us now,' he replied. 'She will be raised with us.'
"'But surely we'll be able to visit her?' I was close to tears.
"'No. She belongs to us. Resign yourself to that.' With those harsh words from Vannan, the unicorns left.
"Keron and I shut ourselves in our home and talked for days. We were, from the beginning, firmly resolved that we would not give you to them, Ceri. While we loved our unicorns, we just *couldn't* hand you over to them, and let you be raised without human contact. We finally decided that there was only one thing to do--to leave Abydos.
"We slipped away one night, leaving a note for Laessa to pass on to the rest of the town. We went as far and as fast as we could, worried that the unicorns would follow. But they didn't. Cedony never even tried to contact me down our band. We never could figure out why. After a few months, we reached Montfort, where we tried to settle down. But even after I'd given birth to Ceri, we had a difficult time. Montfort was going through one of its periodic times of chaos, and jobs were hard to come by. We also felt…well…guilty for leaving. As Chosen Ones, we were part of the leadership of the town, and we'd left our duties and friends behind. But we knew if we returned with you, Ceri, we'd have to give you up.
"Finally, one day in the Dragon's Inn, Keron heard someone mention the orphanage at the Temple of Ashtara, and how the children there were well cared for and educated. It took a lot of hard talking and thinking, but we finally decided to take you there and leave you." Nicandra looked at Ceri with pleading eyes. "It seemed to be the only solution--the only way to allow us to go back to Abydos and our duties, yet let you be raised with humans. It wasn't an easy decision, and, looking at you, I think maybe we were wrong, but it seemed the best solution at the time.
"We packed up and drove down to Thracia, taking our time, savoring every minute we had with you. But finally, the time came to leave you there. We decided, just before doing so, that we'd leave a note and a map, in case anything happened and you had to find us or the unicorns."
"A map?" Linna exclaimed. "Father Mingon showed us the note, but there was never any map!"
"I don't understand!" Nicandra said, confusion plain on her face. "We pinned the note and the map to her blanket."
"Wait," Linna said, holding her hand up for silence. Finally, the memory that was teasing her came fully to her mind. "I remember! Father Mingon once said that when Ceri was left at the temple, her blanket was infested with lice."
"It was? Ach, no wonder that woman sold it to us so cheaply!" Keron said with disgust.
Linna nodded. "Father Mingon had it and the dress she was wearing burned. Your map must have gotten caught in the blanket and burned along with it."
"Then how did you know to come here?" Nicandra asked.
Linna glanced over at Garber again. "Ahh, we'll talk about that later," she said hurriedly. "What happened when you came back here?"
"The unicorns were waiting for us," Nicandra said with a wry grin. Vannan simply asked us where Ceridon was, and we simply replied that we'd left her far away. At that, they turned and walked back into the woods. And from that day, we've seen or heard nothing from them."
Nicandra looked with pleading eyes at Ceridon. "Please, daughter. We thought we were doing the right thing. We thought that thinking us dead, or thinking we didn't want you, was a small price to pay to let you live among humans. If we were wrong, please, forgive us." She reached out tentatively, nearly touching Ceri's muzzle, before drawing her hand back.
Ceri said nothing, her eyes and attention completely turned inward. The silence seemed to stretch on for an eternity. Finally, Linna sent ::Ceri?:: down her bond. It was a quiet inquiry, but Ceri jerked her head back as if she'd been slapped. But she finally seemed to see them all again, as she gazed at each one of the group in turn, finally ending with her parents.
::I don't know,:: she sent to them all. ::I *can't* know. Not until I speak with the unicorns, and get the final pieces of this puzzle. And since we don't know how they'll react to the rest of you, I'd better go alone.:: She scrambled suddenly to her feet. ::I'll go now, in fact. The rest of you can rest here. Eat some lunch, or something.::
::Are you sure?:: Linna asked privately, even as she rummaged inside her pack, drew out a simple white cotton dress, and draped it over Ceri's back. ::Just in case,:: she sent. ::We don't know for sure what'll happen when you get near unicorns.::
::Quite sure,:: Ceri replied. ::You can keep in touch with me, and let the other know what's happening. But I need to do this, and I need to be by myself.:: With that, she quickly disappeared down the alley to the street.
Unwilling to have their erstwhile companion proceed alone, Sherwood mounted Midnight, intending to follow. He bounced once in his seat and kneed his faithful mount, intent on keeping Ceri in sight, yet careful enough not to hit the others nearby. He *thought* frantically, "Yet let me follow, Ceri -- many yards behind, perhaps, just enough so you're not there "quite" alone! Please!?" The strength of the emotion that flowed from him surprised him, and he wondered fleetingly what Eldronce his old mentor would have said.
Despite the narrow confines of the alley, Ceridon managed to whirl around, rounding on Sherwood almost fiercely. ::No!:: Then she seemed to take a deep breath. ::No,:: she sent more calmly. ::I'll be all right, Sherwood, I'm sure. But we don't know if *you* will be if you follow me. Linna will let you know what's happening.:: With no other word, she spun back around and exited the alleyway.
Crestfallen, but resigned, Sherwood watched his friend hurry off. When she was out of sight, he turned Midnight slowly and headed back to the group.
Dwynn looked around once more, tasting the laden atmosphere all around. "So, now that Ceridon is away for a while, how about that ale I was hoping for?"
He was barely within hearing when Dwynn made his suggestion and started back to a reality... but it wasn't a pleasant one. "Dwynn, we can't just go have an ale!" He jumped off Midnight and trotted to the group.
Confusion knotted his brow as he rounded on Nicandra. "Now that you've seen your daughter, what does this _mean_ to you? Has she been changed into a Unicorn forever? If so, will the herd accept her? I swear," he turned from her before hearing her answers, muttering under his breath, "even orcs run their families better than this!"
Dwynn stood up slowly and places his hands on his hips, looking over everyone and making sure he had their attention he turned to Sherwood. He delivered his words in staccato sentences seemingly cold, but smoldering. "Oh, can't we? What we really can't do is start to throw accusations or resentment around. Keep up this tension too long. Or decide what we are going to do until Ceridon has discovered whatever it is she is discovering now."
"It's perfectly natural to feel frustrated about this situation, Dwynn," Elwynn said, "after all, you don't spend so much time dodging rock slides and sleestak only to be left sitting on your hands so close to the end."
She turned and regarded Sherwood with a sympathetic eye. "However, we should respect Ceri's wishes. She needs to figure this one out by herself, and she's asked us to wait here. I would remind you, however, that there are still a great deal of unanswered questions. For one, what are orcs and sleestak doing so close to this settlement? They usually aren't this active. And there's still the problem of whoever was scrying us and causing all those obstacles to get thrown in our path. Those are issues that we can deal with, Sherwood. Those are the kind of problems Ceri can't face by herself."
Linna laid a calming hand on Dwynn's arm, though she spoke to Sherwood. "I do think Dwynn and Elwnn are right. There isn't much we *can* do right now, so we may as well relax a bit." She sniffed appreciatively as Keron brought out a tray of freshly-baked buns, and began digging in her pack for some dried meat to go with it.
Nicandra looked keenly at Linna. "You grew up with Ceridon in the orphanage?" At Linna's nod, she continued, "Can you tell me what happened--how she changed?"
Linna outlined the events of three years ago between bites of her lunch. Nicandra was silent at the end for a few moments, then quietly murmured, "Very strange." But then she snapped out of her reverie and turned to Sherwood.
"To answer your question, I don't know if she's going to be like this forever. But I truly don't think the unicorns had anything sinister in mind when they did this to her. I do think, though, that they were very self-centered, thinking only of themselves and not her. And if they don't accept her, we'll be more than happy to welcome her here, if she wishes to stay."
Sherwood turned back towards the group, having at least temporarily stopped his feet's unconscious tread back toward Ceri. Distress showed at the corners of his mouth, and eyes, worry lines etched deep into his face. "Dwynn... Linna... ALL of you. I'm sorry. It's just that, some days it seems like rabbits and squirrels have more sense than all the races of man combined." His sigh was a loud, defeated thing, and his chin sunk onto his chest. He bowed deeply to Nicandra and Keron. "And deeper apologies, I think, to you two. The heartache within _your_ decision is obvious. I must be a fool."
"Not a fool," Nicandra said with a gentle smile. "Just passionate. And believe me, there are plenty of times when I agree with your assessment of mankind."
He looked up, relief crossing his face, and acknowledged her gift of forgiveness, "I thank you for that, m'lady," and impulsively knelt at her feet. "I offer whatever poor services I have to you and the town for the duration of our visit."
"Of course it was natural to be frustrated. I felt it too. Elwynn knows best, I'm sure." Dwynn smiled sympathetically at Sherwoood and then more fondly at Linna, "Yes. Men can be great fools." And then sat down and quietly held her hand, watching.
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