Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Ch. 11



How many escaped? I could only hope everyone did. Beings weren’t meant to be trapped in cages, especially by other Beings. The very idea enraged me, and I wished I could transform and trample the damn trolls. They’d disappeared, leaving only the stench of burned, oily flesh and singed hair behind.

I was tempted to hunt them, but I’d learned my lesson. The foals and Londe were more important than revenge. They’d be too stupid to track us once we left the area.

Jogging, keeping my senses open for any threats, I headed for the hill. It was difficult with a sword in one hand, but I wasn’t going to let it go. Not until we were all leagues from here, as far as our legs could take us in one day.

Crashing through the underbrush, less worried about stealth than speed, I raced for my family. I’d missed my mate and foals but thought my family had been safe, which made it okay to be away from them, until I learned otherwise. Losing them while I was off looking for a way to repair my magic shattered me. I wasn’t even there for them when they were taken, and I should have. I should have been there.

Gaining the spot where Londe should have been, my heart sank to find him missing. Him and the foals. No! Nothing could have happened to them already. That wasn’t possible. I wasn’t that cursed…

Searching the ground, I found what I’d missed in my rush and panic. Tracks. They couldn’t get rid of their hoof prints. I tracked them to the stream. Would Londe have traveled upstream or down?

It depended on why they ran instead of waiting for me. I wasn’t far behind them, and the foals had to know that. Why did Londe rush away with them? I didn’t see tracks on top of theirs, indicating another Being was chasing them.

Going upstream actually looked easier than down, at least if they forded the stream and walked in the shallows on the far side. They’d be moving away from the road, but that wasn’t a bad thing for a while. I sheathed my sword and shifted it to lie across my upper back and shoulders.

I splashed across the water, shivering and cursing as the icy water soaked my boots, then my pants, and then oh so gently caressed my nether region even as my parts pulled up as high as they could go to avoid the ball-numbing cold. I held one arm under the tiny furry Being I’d rescued to keep it dry. It was still in a ball, still inside my shirt and not moving.

If only I had my other form! The water wouldn’t be nearly as high, and I would be able to trot a lot faster along the bank. I almost wanted to go back in the water when the wind gusted against my face, my chest, and my drenched clothes, plastering them to my aching legs.

My feet burned, but I kept moving because I’d spotted a track in the muck on the side of the stream, half-buried under a bush that was covering part of the bank.

Accident?

Or a mark left on purpose?

Londe had to know I’d follow as quickly as I could. My brain raced faster than my feet, but I still didn’t know why they’d left me. Nothing made sense.

Running at least warmed me. I wished for a cloak or something to wrap around my torso, but I used the need to keep moving to spur me on to a faster pace. At the same time, I stretched the senses the body I had possessed, listening for some sound of them, some sight of one of their shining tails or spiraled horns.

I felt the cold breeze stinging against my cheeks, the tight wetness of my pants twisting around my knees, my boots drying around my aching feet, the fuzzy fur and warm ears of the Being in my tunic against my belly. The water burbled over rocks, the bushes and trees swayed…

A shaft of light broke through the clouds right as I saw a mishmash of tracks leave the stream completely.

A shining strand of hair was trailing off one bush and dimpling the water, marring the surface of the small eddy by the bank.

Finally! I’d found where they left the water. Reaching out, I pulled the strand off the twig. Short, just the length of my arm—it was one of the foal’s tail hairs then. Still, it was something they’d have had to tangle and get pulled out; unicorns didn’t just shed their hairs like a common horse. No, all of their form was the purest of magics, and this hair could be used.

Used against one of my foals, my young one? No. I did loop it around and around my finger and then hold the end over my palm, blocking the wind with my body. Using a few words of power, I waited. The hair swayed gently at first, then went completely still to hang straight down over my palm.

It quivered, vibrating with invisible tension back to its maker, the magic tethering it to my foal. Slowly, the hair lifted, pointing the way.

“Good lad. Such a good lad.” I could sense it was one of Marces’ hairs. He always paid attention to the magic I’d learned to develop after losing my horn, and he alone of the foals knew of my scrying ability.

Coiling the hair in my pouch for safekeeping, I took off at a trot. It was a pace I could keep up for some time without getting too tired. I pulled travel rations out of my pouch when evening started to fall and I still hadn’t caught up, though at least we were traveling in the direction of home.

What could possibly be driving them so hard?

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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Ch. 10



“Show!” Female troll demanded, spit spraying from her thick lips and over her chin and overly-large chest. “Want to see pretties.”

I only barely opened the bag, pulling out a single stone. Holding it between my forefinger and thumb, I exposed it to the light from their fire. The facets glinted, shining in a unique bright red with almost an inner radiance. “See the pretty. And this is just one.” I hefted the bag, then tucked it beneath my shirt, making a show of straightening my weapon belt at my hip.

“Wants it,” Female troll said. She smacked the still grumbling troll that was rubbing his eyes on the head with one fist. “Gets it. Need new pretties!”

“Ow! Ger’off me! You gets it.” He picked up a stick and stabbed it in the fire, and the gem in my hand actually sent a shaft of red light bouncing around the cave.

She clasped her hands together, rocking from side to side. “Pretties for me, pretties for me.”

Dear gods, these things were stupid.

“I wants some too!” That was the other one, who’d lumbered up and around first. He was smaller than the other two. Younger, maybe? He fingered a hole in his thick ear, the rubbery flesh nicked and scored in several places. “Put it in my hole. Fill it up good!”

Choking back a sound I couldn’t quite suppress, I closed my fist around the gem when the trolls both got closer. The female had moved and exposed one cage with a very interesting Being inside. “Trade!”

“What?” Female troll waved her hand around the cave while smaller troll clenched his fingers and stared at my hand. “Armor? Swords?” She eyed my feet. “Boots?”

My shoes wouldn’t last long if I wasn’t on a horse, or unicorn, but I wouldn’t give any knowledge about me. “No.” I turned toward the wall where the foals were, but I didn’t ask for them. I knew better.

“All the Beings.”

The trio of gasps and grunts and bellows of outrage let out more noxious fumes into the air. I blinked, then shifted my weapons belt again.

“Ha! Ha! Ha!” The big troll laughed, ugly, hacking miserable sounds of amusement. It was fake, obvious by his instant sneer and sharp reply. “No.”

I moved closer to the fire, reaching for the bag inside my shirt. I loosened in and spilled a few more diamonds into my palm. The fire made them shine, and I squinted. The trolls moved in closer, drawn inexorably by the precious stones and their own well-known greed. “Are you sure? I have many.” A small flex of my palm sent a glitter of red over their faces, the walls, and the roof of the cave. “See how they are cut? How they catch the light?”

Their stench was nearly unbearable, but they hovered as close to me as I was probably going to get them. I thought I’d trade straight across for the foals, but now I knew I had to do more. Throwing up my free arm, I covered my eyes, then tossed the diamonds into the fire along with the handful of powder cradled in my palm under them.

Nothing like still holding onto my work supplies to deal with a sudden dilemma. The powder flared, catching fire in a huge bonfire of blue sparks. I’d jumped back as soon as I threw the gems, but the trolls, crying out at the loss of the sparklies, had moved forward.

Toward the fire.

And the sparks.

Greasy troll skin and hair catches fire and does not go out. They screamed and shrieked, blubbering as they ran for the exit and away from the fire. I ran toward the cages, skirting the fire and trying not to breathe in the fumes.

As much as I longed to get the foals, I needed help. I opened two cages with nimble-fingered dwarf women, deftly popping the locks with one of my swords. “Help get them out!”

“But the fire,” one croaked.

“Will spread like normal fire without those ignorant trolls stumbling around. I rescued you so you could help me rescue them. Just hurry.” There was so many cages, so many Beings. Many of the cages were wood, a few metal. I popped locks and let the dwarves open the cages with the Beings who had no hands.

In one, there was even a tiny Being I didn’t recognize. It was curled up, large ears folded over its face, fur covering its body. It refused to budge when I opened the cage door. Scooping it up, hoping it wouldn’t bite me, I ran for the pen. There was a faun, its hands shackled, also locked up with the foals.

“Help, help us!” A tendril of the fire was starting to burn along the nasty bedding the trolls had been using, and it wasn’t too far from the pen.

“Stand back.” They listened to my order, thankfully, and moved away from the gate. I reared back and pivoted on one heel, slamming my boot into the post holding the gate to the side of the fence. It splintered, then caved on the second kick. One hand still cradling the tiny Being to my side, I lifted the gate out of the post hole. It skidded across the floor and then stopped, leaving more than enough room for the foals to escape.

“Papa, Papa!” they cried.

Thank goodness they’d been smart enough not to say my name when I came in; I hadn’t even thought about that.

“Go! Your pater is waiting outside, hiding. Flee straight away from the hill and then veer left at the stream. He will be there.”

I tried to make sure there was no one else hiding or refusing to leave their cages. The rest of the abominable things stood empty, and the cave was rapidly emptying of everything but smoke.

Time to follow my foals. I’d finally saved them.

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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 9



“Wha—” Londe stumbled, his big body knocking into mine.

I blinked several times, my stomach churning. The world had righted itself, no longer moving in bright streamers of color and music and scents and sounds like all the magic of the universe had coalesced around us and swept us off our feet and into a maelstrom. “What was that?” I finished Londe’s question. It hurt my own ears to hear it, almost as much as it hurt to say it.

My body still felt as if I’d left parts of it behind in the whirlpool.

“You are here.” The lilting voice hurt, even as quiet as it was. “Our gift to you.”

I groaned, then gripped my head when all the little voices giggled. “Some gift…”

“Open your eyes and see, Mr. Not Unicorn.”

Ugh. Still, I didn’t like being vulnerable, and I needed to get my bearings. Looking around gingerly, I gaped. I recognized that hill, that road… I blinked again.

“You traveled us?”

“Yes!” Their voices echoed, and I winced again.

“Shh, if you please. So… we’re here?” So close to where we needed to be, when I’d been worrying if we would arrive in time or not. So close to our foals. My heart began to race, to patter in my chest. I almost thanked them for their gift with blunt words.

“Your magic is quite powerful and amazing,” Londe said before I could do that. He had his eyes open too, the lashes wet. His sides trembled, but he bowed his head toward the assemblage of tiny fae. I took his lead and bowed low, a flourish with my arm as I showed the back of my neck and left myself vulnerable in this form those who had actually helped us.

“Yes, yes… Now we go. More to do, more cheer to bring!” A gust of wind, a tinkle of bells chiming furiously, and the tiny fae were gone.

“I can’t believe they transported us days along in our journey,” Londe said quietly. “You said we were here. The foals are near, yes? It’s like I can feel them.”

I could feel them too. “Yes. We don’t have to worry about the humans or the vampire either; there was no way they could catch up to us now.” Once we freed the foals, we could travel on until they were safely home, protections in place I had neglected before.

Never again.

We stopped so I could clean up; I had to appear as if I was a rich human, someone who’d have the gems needed to get near the foals so I could magic them away.

“Wouldn’t they expect you to have people? A retinue. Guards?” Londe asked.

“Not many like to deal with trolls. It takes a certain type.”

I could be that type. Anything to get the foals. Besides, trolls were easy to deal with compared to humans. And I still wanted to find out who’d stolen the foals. That Being was at the top of my hit list.

“You stay here. Not like with the Duke, not when you rode to my rescue at the vampire’s, you can’t do that. These trolls won’t trade with me if they’re chasing you. And they have a nose for treasure.” Speaking of that… It killed me, but I pulled my horn from the custom-made sheathe along my spine. “Can you k-keep this safe for me?” It was like losing it again, but I knew my mate would protect my horn.

“Yes,” Londe said softly. He dropped his head next to mine, nuzzling my cheek. “With my life.”

“Thank you,” I managed in a choked whisper. His ear flicked, but he stood stock still as I slid it into the pack on his back. “Be here when we get back.” I couldn’t take anything else going wrong.

“I will. Be safe. Bring them home.”

“I will.” The magic I had the trolls would sense but not be able to sniff out as something to barter; my swords were normal metal vessels until I held the hilts and touched the runes I’d charged them with to channel my magic. They’d like the gems far more, and I had plenty of them.



Approaching that hole in the hill sent waves of nausea shuddering through me. I’d recovered from traveling, but the smells… noxious didn’t begin to cover it. Rotten, moldering, foul air wheezed from the tunnel, and I had to enter that.

The thought of the foals in there gave me the courage. I entered with both hands away from my weapons, calling out to the trolls in their guttural, grunting language. “Trade. Trade.”

One warty, gray-skinned Being with thick legs and short arms rolled to his feet with a grunt and grumble. “We sleep. No trade.”

“Pretties to trade. Sleep later.” I jangled the bag on my belt. The unmistakable sound of stones against stones caught another troll and had him up. Or maybe her. This one was wearing a tattered skirt that didn’t cover nearly enough of that rough, bumpy skin with their greasy folds.

“Pretties?” she wheezed. “What pretties?” Her thick lips blubbered over the words.

“Red Diamonds.”

The final troll sat up, grumbling, rubbing his eyes with a ham-fist, dirty-broken nails looking like they were covered in fungus. “That all?”

“That all? Red Diamonds, my thumb.” I held up a hand, tiny compared to theirs, but still large for gems, especially these usually tiny ones that were found so rarely.

Female troll stumped to the fire, grabbing a stick and stirring it up so the light flared. I looked around the cave and nearly lost my mind. There were my foals in a pen nearly too small to let them move. Stacked along the wall, in what I could only assume was their larder, were even more Beings in cages.

Dear gods, what was I going to do? How could I save them all?

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Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Wednesday Briefs Unicorn Quests Chapter 8



Well that stung. Not even the tiny fae recognized my magic anymore. I’d muddied the waters of my soul too deep. Not-unicorn. I swallowed hard and looked away from the small fluttering wings that chimed like bells in the breeze they created.

Bells.

“Have you been following us?” I asked.

“Yes.” The tiny Being didn’t even try to deny it. Fae were capricious, tricky, but they did not lie. Not outright.

“Why?”

“Why not?” So it would not lie but not tell the truth then either.

“Are you alone?”

“You are with me.”

He’d heard more bells than just one tiny fae’s wings could make. There were many. So where were they? Still on the road? Behind us? Before us? What mischief were they planning?

Because that was their whole existence. Mischief. What trouble could they cause, who could they annoy most in their immediate vicinity?

Unfortunately, today that was us. Oh, happy day.

Why did we keep going from the frying pan to the fire then jumping right back into the pan to serve ourselves up to the capricious gods of trouble? Karma, bad energy, pissed off a witch in a past life… I seriously did something wrong somewhere or sometime.

And my loved ones were suffering for it.

“Are you the only ones following us?” Some of the tiny beings were winged. “Or don’t you know because you are only capable of hiding here in the woods?” I hid my smile at the scowl that crossed the miniscule lips, turning them down. His arms crossed.

“Of course we know. We can avoid humans on the road.”

Ahh, so it was humans. That was the sound before the bells. The strike of shoes on stones, horses. The metal ring was different from Londe’s hooves; that must have been what woke me, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

But was it the Duke’s men? Or someone else? There was no way to tell without waiting to see them. Better to just avoid them altogether.

I faded backward through the bushes, making no noise as the branches slid past my body. The fae had disappeared, but as soon as I reached the spot where Londe had hidden, my eyes widened. At least a dozen of the tiny fae were all around him.

They were petting him, two were plaiting his mane and tail, and one was flicking away little burrs from his sides.

“They said they’d help us!” he exclaimed eagerly.

“Shhh.” Several hushed him.

I rushed to his side. “There are humans on the road. We need to go. Your coat and horn is too distinctive.”

“Not a problem.” The same tiny fae, his blue and white wings flapping in the air with rapid beats, hovered near us. “We have protected him.”

The braids in Londe’s mane and tail held small objects; I looked closer. Acorns, amber, Anise… the combined magic urging me away from him nearly made me sneeze. I backed away. Protection against psychic attacks, physical harm, and warding off the evil eye; they were the magical gifts of the fae tied to mortal emblems and freely given. It was powerful magic.

“Why would you help us?” It was outside of their nature to do things without recompense. Or was this a trick? I narrowed my eyes. My magic, compared to theirs, even with Londe’s… it wouldn’t be enough.

“A gift, for this day and night! We travel, make merry, gift those Beings and humans who are our friends. You did not try to harm me, or grow angry when I refused your question.”

I shrugged. “You’re fae.” One could not force the fae, not even one of the tiny Beings.

He grinned and several others cheered, scampering about on the ground, Londe’s back, and in the air. “We’re fae, we’re fae, come to make merry this day!”

It had taken me all this time to realize they were in colors green, red, gold, and silver. Glitter dotted their skin, and some carried branches of evergreen and bright red berries with green leaves tucked into their hair.

“Oh…!” Now it made sense. Time ran differently in the fae realm than it did here, and their magic let them choose. The fae were celebrating their midwinter.

“Merry tidings! Gifts to bless and keep you safe!” One tiny fae woman said, her wings chiming like the highest, purest of bells as she flew up to me and tapped me on the forehead with a branch from her hair.

No. Not just the forehead. I closed my eyes, feeling the aching chasm deep into my soul, the answering twist from the horn sheathed along my back. She’d touched the spot where my horn had been sheared, the magical connection broken. I held in a sob.

Then a nose nuzzled my cheek. I reached up and held onto Londe’s neck, needing to hide my face for a moment. “It’s okay,” Londe soothed me.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered in a broken voice. All this, it was all my fault. Our damaged bond, the missing foals, the magic gone and all that had changed inside me.

“Stop. I’ve never blamed you. We will get the foals back in time, and we will find a way to fix your horn.”

“We can help!” came a chorus of voices.

I looked up, still not sure if we could trust them. They were behaving so oddly for their kind; fae just didn’t offer up magic and help for nothing. Whatever they were getting out of it had to be big, even if I couldn’t figure it out yet.

“Nothing you do can harm me or Londe, or anyone as a consequence,” I warned them. “Agreed?”

“Agreed!” They rose up, dancing and flying around us, the bells growing louder and louder, until I grew dizzy. I closed my eyes, grunting as my stomach churned, and a loud crack broke the air, the concussion knocking me into Londe.

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