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The Torchbearer's Quest

By Mandy Moore All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

NIGHT OF THE UNICORN

Rohan was on final watch duty, propped up on his elbows by the fire in the center of the small glade.

“Morning,” Willow said, rising to her elbows as well.

“So...” he said, letting the word hang in the chilly morning air.

“So?” she asked tentatively.

“How’d you sleep?” he asked casually.

She exhaled heavily.

“Willow, are you alright?”

“Oh, right. Yeah, I’m fine. I slept well, but I had a really strange dream.”

“Oh, yeah? What about?”

“Um...well, you actually.”

“Yeah? What happened in this dream?” he asked, his interest clearly piqued.

Willow’s mind spun. Something about his interest prompted her to be a little less than truthful. “I don’t really remember all the specifics. Kind of hazy, you know.”

“Oh,” he said, obviously disappointed with her lack of details.

What did he want her to say? She was reading too much into things that morning to process things clearly.

“How are we doing this morning?” Devon asked, stretching his sore muscles

Willow had been so consumed in her thoughts that she hadn't notice him get up until he was standing right beside her.

“Oh, we’re good. We were just going to wake you, actually.”

“Perfect timing, then. Looks like the weather is in full cooperation today.”

“Yeah, it’s really beautiful out,” Willow said, genuinely thankful for the early morning sun and its promise of warmth.

“We have quite a few miles to tread today. Shall we get started?” Devon suggested.

“Ready when you are,” Willow said.

“Excellent. I’ll prepare the horses, and then we can be on our merry way,” he called over his shoulder.

Willow and Rohan stared at each other awkwardly -- a foreign tension hovering in the air. Willow refused to be the one to break the silence first, and it appeared that Rohan had resorted to the same tactic. Willow fidgeted nervously under his scrutinizing gaze and let her eyes drop to her boots. Finally, after an eternity, the silence proved too much for Rohan.

“So...” he began again.

“So?”

“About last night...”

“Yes?” she asked hesitantly.

“Well, what I was trying to say was...” he continued to trail off, clearly struggling to find the right words.

If this dragged out too much longer it might have proved too much for Willow’s sanity. “I’m listening,” she encouraged.

“Well, here’s the thing...Willow, I...”

“All set?” Devon interrupted once again.

Rohan mumbled angrily under his breath. Willow caught the words, “Simply impeccable.”

He sulked over to Bellefire.

“What’s eating him?” Devon asked, his eyes perfect windows of surprise.

“I’m not sure,” Willow answered honestly.

Devon shrugged his shoulders and asked, “Shall we, then?”

“Sure,” Willow said distracted by this new dilemma.


It was impossible for any of them to stay in a foul mood for long. Once they traveled beyond the glade and through another tract of woodland, they reached wide, flat plains where stretches of grassland created a park-like atmosphere. A dark forest laid to the west, but before them was only vast, open country. A cool breeze complemented the brightly shining sun pleasantly. Insects of every kind and color darted to and fro, buzzing in delightful harmony.

Rohan’s aggravation dissipated in the cheery weather, and the trio enjoyed a truly splendid day of blissful travel.

“Now, this is more like it!” Rohan commented, his voice animated.

“Tell me about it!” Willow agreed wholeheartedly, so thankful that the uncomfortable tension between them had disappeared that she was eager to keep his spirits up and the carefree conversation flowing.

“What do you think they are doing at Credo right now?”

“Ha. Probably stuck in homeroom daydreaming of adventures just like this one,” Rohan laughed.

“I know one thing for sure.”

“What’s that?”

Your classes are exceedingly less eventful due to your absence,” Willow jested. “Your classmates are probably counting down the days till your return.”

“Yeah, I bet! They are probably going stir-crazy without my regular dose of fires and floods. I know I would be. It’s the only thing that makes going to class actually worth it.”

They fell silent for a minute reflecting on some of Rohan’s more elaborate escapades.

“Hey, you think someone took my place? You know, a stand in trouble maker,” Rohan asked.

“Nah. There is only one Rohan Brewster. Anyone else would just be a cheap imitation.”

“Thanks!” he beamed.

“At any rate, I can think of a few people who might be thankful for a break in your antics -- your teachers.”

“They may be thankful now, but I’m going to have to step things up a notch when I get back to make up for lost time. Besides, they don’t know about my secret weapon,” he said with a wink.

“Secret weapon? What’s that?”

“You, of course!” Rohan said laughing. “I told you, they won’t know what befell them!”

Willow laughed along, ecstatic with the turn the day had taken.

Rohan’s lifted spirits survived the evening. An hour or so before sundown, they found a nice quiet tributary stemming from a much broader river that cut across the plains. They dismounted after agreeing to camp there for the night and enjoyed another dinner of wild rabbit, chatting happily about the day’s travels. Devon and Rohan laid back in the downy grass close to the fire, while Willow took the first watch.

She decided not to dwell further on the unresolved issue. When he was ready to tell her, really ready, he would find a way -- Devon’s interruptions notwithstanding. Until then, she would attempt to keep things as light and carefree as possible. After all, their friendship had survived the last ten years with this buried secret, who was to say it could not survive an eternity without disclosure?

With that firmly settled, her mind drifted unwilling to the ever mysterious Devon Riley. Willow had never before put much thought into defining the ideal man and therefore did not have much to go by, but Devon seemed to meet all the obvious prerequisites. Attractive, strong, handsome, protective, beautiful, intelligent, gorgeous, charming, fit. Before her thoughts traveled any further down this path, she quickly cleared her head. He was too perfect -- a man of his equal could never be destined for her. What could she possibly offer a man of his stature -- nothing of equivalent value that much was certain.

Sounds of commotion reached her ears, and she jumped anxiously to her feet. Her eyes fell upon the slumbering boys who were sleeping peacefully before flitting to the horses. She could just make out Bellefire’s pale silhouette -- Apollo’s ebony hide made him all but invisible. She appeared to be straining against her lead and braying in agitation.

Instinctively, Willow’s mind fanned the flames. She grabbed Devon’s bow and a hand full of arrows. She was not sure of any real danger, so she stifled the voice that told her to wake her companions. No need to be the silly weak girl who woke the strong brave boys all in a fright for naught. That would be the last of her watch privileges -- Devon and Rohan had already expressed that they were not keen on her taking a shift at all.

Bow and arrows in tow, she raced towards the horses, her eyes struggling to adjust to the bleak night. The stars and moon provided her with her only source of light -- the fire’s comforting glow did not reach that far. Intuition guided her, leading her to release the horses from their bonds, though she was not sure why.

The horses galloped towards the dark forest they had flanked all day. Willow instantly regretted her decision, silently cursing herself. She ran after them, keeping up the best she could and praying that they did not stray too far. That was all she needed...to lose the horses right after losing the journal. She was proving to be more of a detriment than an asset on this quest.

As soon as she entered the tree line, her muscles burning and her lungs heaving, she caught sight of Bellefire and Apollo, and could it be? A third horse? Willow’s mind recalled Caper. Could it be him? The dense canopy blocked out the limited light, so she could not be sure if her eyes deceived her. She lifted the tiny torch that hung from her neck and willed it to provide only enough light to see and no more.

The horses were at a standstill. Willow took her time attempting a silent approach, but every step sounded loud in the still night. The soft glow of the Everflames kept her fears at bay. Upon closer inspection, the third horse was clearly not Caper. It was foolish of her to even have considered the idea. This horse was pure white, much like Bellefire, but so many times brighter, with a goat’s beard, a lion’s tail, and a grand, sharp, spiraling horn protruding from its forehead.

“A Unicorn,” she breathed, her lips finding the word before her brain could process the image.

The Unicorn towered over Bellefire and Apollo. Willow recalled learning about the melancholy plight of the Unicorn in her history class at Credo. They were once a plentiful and flourishing species. They were well renowned for their indomitable constitution -- vehement yet honorable, altruistic yet aloof, and always enigmatically breathtaking and astute.

All their strength rested in their horns -- Alicorns, as they were referred to. It was said to have had the power to transpose poisoned water drinkable and to restore health. Those horns became a source of greed and envy among the early pioneers of Tutis. All prized the magical Alicorn. Convoys of pioneers scoured the woodlands looking for these wild beasts. But Unicorns were extremely nimble and incredibly swift. They would utilize their horn as a formidable weapon -- a built-in lance for charging at foes -- and their hide could repel even the strongest of spells.

The pioneers never stood a chance, until one fateful day a man unknowingly discovered their only weakness. He and his young and beautiful daughter were picnicking in the woods. He heard a noise and went to investigate, leaving his daughter behind. When he returned to her he received quite a shock. A Unicorn had submissively laid its head in her lap and his daughter sat stroking the beautiful white muzzle as she awaited her father’s return.

News of the event spread like wildfire and that was when the disappearances started. Hunters stole young and beautiful girls who were pure of heart from the very beds in which they slept. They were deposited into the dark depths of the woods and used as bait.

The hunting of Unicorns was strictly forbidden, of course. But poachers were rampant in those days and before the Council could gain control over the slaughter of the species, the majestic creatures were all but lost to extinction.

It was said that a Unicorn only appeared as a favorable omen -- a sign of pleasant times ahead -- to humans embarked on vital journeys. They became an international symbol for all things good, pure, and graceful.

Before Willow’s astonished eyes, Bellefire and Apollo bowed before the magnificent beast. The Unicorn dipped its head in response and the horses converged. Willow took one last fleeting look at the marvelous wonder, before racing off at top speed to wake the boys.

Willow’s eyes were wild with excitement, her face flushed with exertion. “Rohan! Devon!” she called though she was still several yards away.

They boys stirred. Devon took in Willow’s frenzied appearance first as she ran frantically toward them. He reached for his bow automatically before realizing that it was missing.

“What’s wrong?” he cried, jumping to his feet.

Rohan followed suit. It took Willow a moment to catch her breath and even then the words came out in little gasps, “A -- Unicorn -- come -- quick!”

“A Unicorn? Are you sure?” Devon asked skeptically, relaxing immediately.

“Positive! Bellefire and Apollo are with it now.”

Rohan chimed in. “Which way?” he asked eagerly.

“Follow me!” Willow said, already taking off again.

But before she covered even half the distance, she caught a glimpse of Bellefire and Apollo making their way back to camp. Disappointment flooded her veins, and she came to an abrupt halt. Rohan slammed right smack into her.

“Ow!” they said together.

“What gives?” Rohan asked.

“It’s gone. Look,” she said, pointing to the approaching horses.

“Ah, man. I’ve always wanted to see a Unicorn. Are you sure it’s gone?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Rats,” Rohan said deflated.

“Willow, Unicorns are incredibly rare. Are you sure that’s what you saw? The moonlight can be deceiving,” Devon said patronizingly.

“I know what I saw,” she said defensively.

“Well, I believe you,” Rohan said, glaring at Devon, desperate to be perceived as the good guy in the equation.

“I believe her, too. The only reason I pressed the issue is because I didn’t want to get my hopes up for nothing.”

“What does that mean?” Rohan asked between gritted teeth.

“Unicorn’s are portents of good things to come. Maybe that Leviathan will remain simply a myth after all.”

“Oh,” Rohan said, at a loss for a rebuttal.

“Well, enough excitement for one night. We still have a long day ahead of us tomorrow. Willow, I’ll take over watch if you’d like?”

“Sure. I’m pretty beat,” she said, still trying to calm her racing pulse.

“Oh, and Willow?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I have my bow back?”

She shrugged the bow off her shoulder to hand it to him. “Sorry,” she said meekly.

“No worries, my lady.”

They secured the horses again and Willow welcomed sleep with open arms, visions of brilliant Unicorns and thoughts of good omens dancing in her mind.

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