Strained Welcomes

Ceridon moved quickly through the streets of Abydos, heading toward the western edge and the forest there. She desperately wanted to get away from the inquiring, though friendly, eyes that she felt on her everywhere. She reached the gap in the palisade in short order, and followed the path that led from it into the forest.
Once out of sight of the city, however, she slowed down to a leisurely amble. This was partly to give the others time to eat, but mainly to savor the feeling that washed over her when she entered the forest. Every bird, every tree, every bush, every blade of grass, every shaft of sunlight through the leaves--they all seemed familiar, and they all seemed to welcome her home. For what seemed like the first time in her life, she felt like she truly belonged somewhere, and she reveled in the feeling as she ambled along the path.
Suddenly, she paused as a familiar pressure began building inside of her. Another step, and her form shimmered and shifted into her human guise. She tried to change back, and couldn't. ::We were right,:: she sent to Linna. ::I just changed into a human. The unicorns must be near.:: She picked up the dress from the ground where it had fallen, and slipped it over her head. On bare but callused feet, she continued.
After just a few more minutes, she spotted a clearing up ahead. ::That must be the one my mo--Nicandra mentioned,:: she sent, knowing that Linna was watching through her eyes. With a deep, nervous breath, she stepped forward into the sunlight.
Minutes passed. The wind teased the grasses into waving, and birds sang and flitted about in the pines and beeches. But Ceri saw neither hide nor hair of a unicorn. ::I know they're nearby,:: she sent to Linna. ::Why don't they show themselves?::
::I don't know,:: Linna replied helplessly.
Suddenly, Ceri stepped forward, words that were aching to be said crawling out of some recess of her brain. She declaimed them with both voice and mind.
"I have come. "And coming, I call upon the Four: "Allisan and Allican, "Ariban and Aritan. "Earth and Air, "Fire and Water. "Knowledge and Imagination, "Emotion and Serenity. "And calling, I give them my name: "Ceridon."
::Where did *that* come from?:: Linna sent with a wealth of surprise in her mental tone.
::I don't know,:: Ceri replied with equal surprise. But that surprise turned to satisfaction as she continued, ::But it seems to have worked.::
There was a stirring at the far end of the clearing, as a group of shadows emerged from the trees and resolved themselves into a group of unicorns. Twenty-seven unicorns stepped through the clearing to form a semi-circle around Ceri. But Ceri had eyes only for two of them. One was the large bay stallion in the center, the one that must be called Vannan. The other was a young mare at the left edge. She was as white as Ceri was in her unicorn guise, but her mane and tail were a fiery red, and there was a skiff of small black markings across her muzzle, looking for all the world like freckles. There was also a friendly, mischievous gleam in her green eyes that warmed Ceri's heart.
Her attention was grabbed by a mental voice speaking, one that she somehow knew belonged to Vannan. ::So. You have come to us at last, Ceridon.::
"I've come," she said quickly, "because of the curse you put on me."
::Curse?:: Vannan asked, ears laying a bit flat in surprise.
"What else would you call it?" she asked, telling them what life had been like after her change. When she finished, Vannan looked over at the white unicorn on the end. ::That is *not* how the spell should work,:: he sent publicly.
::So I improvised a little,:: replied the mare, whom Ceri felt sure had to be her mother's Chosen One, Cedony. ::It brought her to us, didn't it?::
Vannan glared at her a bit, then turned back to Ceri. ::Yes, we did place that spell on you. We did it because we need you to accomplish a task for us.::
"Wait," Ceri said nervously, holding up a hand. She was suddenly very unsure about how to deal with these unicorns, and she knew that, above all, she did *not* want to hear about this alone. "You should know that I did not come to Abydos alone. There is a group of humans, and an elven sorceress, with me, including someone whom I suppose you'd call my Chosen One. I want them to be here to hear this, too."
Vannan laid back his ears again. ::These words are *not* for outsiders.::
"And I'm *not* an outsider?" Ceri replied with a touch of sarcasm.
::She's got a point there,:: interrupted Cedony, with a wealth of humor in her tone. Ceri swiftly sent her an amused glance before looking back at Vannan. "Besides," she said soberly, "we did not have an easy time getting here. Many of my friends were injured, and one is *missing.* I think they deserve to know what they've been risking their lives for."
::She's got a point there, too,:: Cedony said, with no humor this time. Vannan again looked over at her, but this time, Ceri couldn't *quite* make out what they were saying--their mental conversation seemed just out of reach. But finally, Vannan turned back to her. ::They may come,:: he sent, but with no good grace in his tone.
Ceri contented herself with a respectful nod, even as she sent the word back to Linna. ::Tell the others what's happened so far, and that you all can come here. But tell them to be careful. Things are a bit…on edge.::
::You can say that again,:: replied Linna. She relayed what she'd learned to the others, even as she began to pack up the belongings she'd brought into the courtyard. ::By the way, did we ever decide what would happen if you were in the presence of humans *and* unicorns?::
::No, I don't think we did,:: replied a startled Ceridon.
::Well, we'll find out soon enough.::
The delay chafed Sherwood visibly as they waited for news from Ceri. When it finally came, he fairly jumped up from the table and strode for Midnight's side, mumbling to their host and hostess, "By your leave, 'tis time to depart." Without waiting to see if the others were beside him, he saddled his mount with a single-minded determination and, when the last strap was in place, mounted the horse. The act was fluid, a single step into the left stirrup followed by a step up, followed by a back leg flung into place. He whirled Midnight's head toward the gate of the corral, and only then thought to look for the rest of his friends. "Midnight," he murmured to his mount, "We'll have to play it close to the vest when we see the other Unicorns. Are you with me, boy?" The grin that framed itself about the words was grim.
Then, still waiting for the others, he shouted, "What's holding you up? Linna? Are you ready yet?
"I'm ready," Linna called back. She then looked around at the others, wondering if they were ready to hear whatever the unicorns might have to tell them.
"I am always ready. One has to be sometimes," Dwynn said to Linna as he walked towards his horse. "After this one surprising visit, I wonder what we will be walking into now." With that he saddled his horse and placed his axe in its sheath. His hand covered hers a moment and he smiled as if to say, 'Things will be all right, you see.' and then he was mounted and ready.
"Your guess is as good as mine, Dwynn." Elwynn said, hopping up on the back of her dappled grey mare. "We should take Ceri's caution to heart, however. Unicorns are known to be extremely skittish, and they can be very violent on occasion. They are very noble beasts, however. Unfortunately, there's often a streak of arrogance that comes with nobility."
"Only a hint?" Sherwood grinned maliciously at the offering, and waited yet again for Linna to take the lead.
Elwynn giggled at her friend's joke. "Well, maybe more than a little, Sherwood. There's a wonderful story about a Unicorn and a Donkey that I should tell you. I think you might find it amusing. It provides a good moral lesson on the dangers of overestimating one's abilities."
Elwynn's smirk drew his attention like no other single thing since their friend's sudden departure. Yet its thrust treated his mood kindly, and he smiled as he said to her, "I think another time might be more appropriate... but a good story is always difficult to pass up."
Garber turned to their hosts. "You'll not mind if we leave the cart and horses here? They definitely need a rest."
"It's quite all right," Nicandra answered. "We'll give them a good feed, too."
Garber followed Linna out of the alley. He stopped momentarily at the cart, picking up his sword and belt, which he'd laid on the seat once they'd entered Abydos. Feeling better with it strapped at his side, he silently gestured for Linna to lead the way out of town.
Without Ceridon, Linna was on foot, but she felt more comfortable that way. She wasn't sure she'd be able to ride a regular horse these days--she was far too used to a mount who had a mind of her own. She led the group out of the gate, and entered the forest.
Remembering what she'd picked up from Ceri's walk through it, she scanned the forest, trying to see what it was that had affected Ceri so much. But, to her, it looked like any forest. 'We're really about to step into the unknown here,' she thought. 'I just hope we're ready for it.'
Midnight had picked up the restrained excitement emanating from the group, and tried to rear. Sherwood calmed him as much as he could. When he realized Linna was walking, he finally dismounted and led the stallion. "Looks like she wasn't moving very fast once she got into the forest," he mused to himself. Then he asked, "Linna, can you see Ceri's trail ok? Or is she _sending_ to you the direction she's gone and how to get there?" The trail, made up of recent hoof marks and the occasional broken plant stem, seemed obvious to Sherwood, but he didn't want to spoil Linna's party. Yet he anxiously offered his aid, "If you need any help, let me know."
Dwynn stayed close by Linna silently, an anxiousness creeping over him with their entry into the forest. "Everything depends on the next hour or so," he said softly to himself as he kept a watchful eye on the surroundings from just behind her.
"I was able to pick up the directions from Ceri when she went through here," Linna replied. "It shouldn't take us too long to get there."
It was a truly lovely afternoon. Sunlight, filtered through the leaves, dappled the ground on which they walked. Birdsong filled the air around them, as well as the rustlings of squirrels and, once, a doe with her half-grown fawn. But Linna, at least, noticed very little of that. Tension, comprised of nervousness and anticipation, hummed down her bond with Ceridon. She wanted all of this to be over, and yet she was afraid of what might be beginning.
Linna spotted the lightening of the air that signaled their approach to the clearing. Seeing Garber beside her, she said softly, "Do you think the unicorns will recognize you?"
Garber didn't answer right away. Instead, as they reached the edge of the clearing, he stepped ahead of Linna, so that he was the first of the group to be seen.
He'd been of two minds about whether he should even come to this gathering, wondering if his presence might jeopardize all. But he finally decided that he had to come. Ceridon wasn't the only one who had business here, and he was determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past, whatever the cost. If they didn't recognize him, he wouldn't reveal himself right away, but he would eventually, when the time was right. If they did...well, what he did would depend on what *they* did. So it was with his head held high, though with a respectful expression on his face, that he entered the clearing.
The reaction was immediate and unequivocal. Ears pinned back, hooves stamped and tore the ground, horns were lowered to point straight at him. "Off-hand," he replied softly to Linna, "I'd say so." Though his expression remained the same, he let his hand drift ever so slightly closer to his sword hilt.
What might have happened next, what he could have said to salvage or shatter the situation, would never be known. For at that moment, Ceridon screamed.

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