She awoke to something wet nibbling at her face, which was accompanied by short breaths blowing in her face. She felt a sudden sense of relief even though her body ached in every spot imaginable, for the thing attacking her face was definitely a horse. Reesha hadn’t run off from her for good at all. With a groan and a half smile, she opened her eyes and lifted her hand to the horse’s muzzle, gently stroking it.
She startled not only the horse but herself as well, since as she learned upon opening her eyes, the horse was not Reesha at all. Instead a pure black face reared up and away before Reniko’s eyes even had time to focus. She sat up instantly as she heard the horse rearing and bucking.
By the time she had fully righted herself, the horse was already galloping away into the forest. Reniko watched as he left. He was a thing of beauty, a pure black Trakehner stallion in his prime, with a spirit that radiated like sunshine. She watched him until he disappeared from view and her world came crashing back around her. She was alone in an unfamiliar wood, her body was bruised in every place she could imagine from falling down a cliff, and her only way out of this mess had run off to the sound of wolves.
In no condition to give another horse a chase through the woods, she put aside the thought of the wild beauty and instead checked her own condition.
The fall had not caused as much damage to her body as she had thought. Where the cliff had collided with her stomach a gigantic bruise was beginning, blue and black and sore to the touch. Her hands had the worst damage: most of the skin on her palms was raw and blood trickled from the deeper cuts. She cringed at the sight.
Her clothes had sustained the least amount of damage. Only the soft leather pants she had chosen for this trip seemed to have been damaged. Even so, it was just a small tear where one of the sharper rocks had sliced through on her way down.
She decided to deal with her hands first and gently pulled up her shirt and, with tears in her eyes, she tore the bottom of it into strips, her hands stinging and throbbing from the effort. Once her hands were securely wrapped she looked up into the sky, which thankfully had decided to stop raining down on her, trying to figure out how long she had been unconscious. Since the sun was out, she had at least slept through the night on the hard wet ground, and seeing as her clothes were still wet the sun hadn’t had long to dry them. She assured herself that she had only been set back a half a day or so and turned to the cliff in search of a way back to where her provisions lay.
After backtracking her way beside the cliff, it didn’t take her long to find the path that she and Reesha had been following the previous day. The cliff became level at this point in the forest and it was not a very long hike back to the large evergreen where her things lay.
The wolves, as she soon found out, had passed by her camp, as was seen by the large mess they had made of the two saddlebags that had contained most of her food. As for her backpack, it had been nearly untouched, mostly just pushed around by a few of the curious wolves, which left most of her remaining items intact. The map and compass were amongst those items that the wolves had regarded as unimportant. Although her food supply was now scant, she counted herself lucky that she had not been around for the encounter. From the numerous tracks she gathered that it had been a large pack and even though she could have defended herself against the predators she was relieved that she didn’t have to kill meaninglessly.
Gathering her supplies she thought about the long trip ahead. She most likely would not lose too much time going by on foot rather than horseback, not with the pace she had set with Reesha, but it also meant more work for herself, which in turn made her aware that her food was low and would need to be replenished often.
“No use dwelling on what’s past. I can be thankful that I still have my hiking shoes,” she muttered under her breath as she started down the trail, hefting the large bulky pack and her sword Imako onto her back. Hands throbbing and weighted down, she began her journey anew, hoping that no more disasters would befall her between here and Rownie.
She camped that night by a trickling brook. She had decided to camp earlier than she normally would have so she had time to tend to her wounded hands and acquire some food. The frigid stream that was the result of the recent thaw was refreshing to her raw hands. Her makeshift bandages were also washed in the tiny stream and applied back onto her hands still wet.
After she had treated her hands as best she could, she kindled a small fire and went out in search of food. She came back with a small fowl and while it hung in preparation for eating she pulled out the various herbs she had gathered to ease the pain in her hands. Milla had provided many books with illustrations and descriptions of the various plants in the area and Reniko was grateful for the knowledge. Now that she was wounded in the middle of nowhere, knowing that there were healing agents all around her was a reassuring fact.
She pulled out a small wooden bowl from her pack and a grinding stone and threw the herbs in, slowly grinding them up as best she could with her damaged hands. As she began cooking the fowl she gingerly applied the salve she had created. It stung horribly as it came in contact with her wounds, but soon she felt the effects of healing as the herbs numbed the pain and gave her relief.
She spent the night in alertness, still wary of the wolf pack that had caused her so much aggravation. She had gathered plenty of wood for the small campfire she had built and steadily through the night she fed it, aware that it was one of the few protections that staved off the creatures of the night.
She awoke in the morning surprisingly well rested and realized that despite her efforts, she must have fallen into a heavy sleep. She got up and ate a quick breakfast, which consisted partly of the fowl she had left over from the evening before and a handful of berries that she had located by the stream.
After the light breakfast, she stretched trying to work the abuse from the fall out of her muscles and checked her hands. The herbs had helped to make healthy scabs over the deeper wounds and where the skin had been scraped away it was no longer red and raw. Reniko was relieved to see that they were healing so well and after applying the remainder of the salve to her hands she bandaged them securely and hefted her pack onto her shoulders.
The sun had risen only moments before and Reniko could still feel the icy chill of early morning, so it was a relief for her to get her muscles moving for a steady supply of warmth to her body.
The day passed with relative ease and she again camped, hunted and ate. This routine continued for three days. Reniko’s hands were well enough by this time for her to discard the ragged bandages. She now felt only a slight discomfort when the itch of healing started.
Along with her healing hands she had become quite confident in her hunting skills and very thankful to Milla who had given her a dagger along with the gift of her blade, Imako. She had not been without food since Reesha had deserted her and the wolves had taken her provisions. She smiled at the thought. Dertrik had taught her so much about the woods, and thinking back to that she remembered how reluctant she had been.
Reniko had been ten at the time, training with Dertrik now for nearly four years. He had taken her into the woods surrounding his estate to teach her how to locate herbs and other helpful items that grew naturally on their estates. Reniko was as usual eager to learn, but was puzzled by the purpose of this exercise.
“What are we doing out here, Dare?” Reniko said running to catch up to Dertrik.
“I thought I told you already.”
“Well, yes, but why do we need to know what grows out here?”
“You’re in dangerous training. Do you think that you are going to go unscathed forever?”
The questions caused Reniko to stop. “You’re going to hurt me?” The thought terrified her.
Dertrik paused and turned back to look at his young pupil. Her teal green eyes were wide with fright and her breath was coming out in panicked gasps.
“I think I want to go home now,” she finally said and began to turn around. Dertrik trotted after her and grabbed her arm gently.
“You have to learn to trust me Reniko. I would never intentionally hurt you. You should know that by now. I only mean that regardless of how hard you and I try there is a possibility that we could get hurt. I just want you to be prepared if that does happen.”
“You want me to take care of my own wounds?” Reniko questioned, still confused.
Dertrik smiled. “Not unless it’s the only way.”
“When would it be the only way? If we get hurt isn’t it best to go to the hospital or at the very least use medicine to heal it.”
Dertrik shook his head. “Are you always going to question me like this?”
Reniko scrunched her face in concentration and answered, “Most likely.”
Dertrik laughed. “Okay, I want to teach you every alternative so that with all the knowledge you have in that head of yours you can make the most wise decision. That and I always feel a person is better off knowing what surrounds them. Would you rather be ignorant to that which surrounds you?”
“Well, no not really,” Reniko said. Dertrik smiled and began his determined pace once again. Reniko ran after him, her short legs working much harder than Dertrik’s. “You really scared me though, Dare. Don’t tell me you’re going to hurt me again, okay.”
“All right, those words will never be uttered again.”
“Promise?” Reniko said.
Dertrik looked down at her. “I promise.”
They had spent the remainder of that day in the woods. Reniko had come back to her home muddy and grass stained. Her mother had been enraged by her appearance, for as was usual Reniko was late for some party her mother was hosting.
Dertrik had been right to teach her, though. It wasn’t long after that, maybe a year, when Reniko had gotten lost in the woods, sprained her ankle and had had to improvise until help came. Dertrik had been amongst the search party when they had finally found her. When he was close enough to her and she was sure her parents would not overhear, she had whispered softly in his ear, “I understand now, Dare, thank you.” She had understood. Even though help had come, she had treated her wounds so well with what she found in the forest that the doctor who had come to look at her was astonished by how well such a bad sprain was healing. Even now amongst the branches of an unfamiliar forest, she could still see familiar plants that she would not have known had Dertrik decided that she had been right and there was no reason for her to learn about her surroundings.
Her reminiscence carried her a far distance on that fifth day of travel since Reesha’s disappearance, and when she finally came out of her thoughts and back into the present she was staring out over another cliff where the landscape below was well into spring. While the rest of the forest slept on silently, in this small valley spring had long ago awakened. To Reniko it seemed as if she had stepped into a different forest altogether. A field spread out below her, lush green grass swaying in a gentle breeze. A waterfall stood at the opposite end of the valley, spilling down into a large pool. Trees in full bloom bordered the valley as well as scattered along the valley floor. A gust of warm air from the valley sent Reniko’s deep brown hair flying backwards, enticing her to step into this oasis of life. She agreed with the breeze and began making her way down the cliff using a narrow path cut in its side from years of use by whatever beast happened upon it.
Reniko was halfway down the cliff when she saw the Trakehner step out from the shadow of a willow that stood near the creek, its boughs grazing the surface of the water and hiding whatever passed through the leafy barrier. She watched as three more horses stepped from behind the leafy veil, all an untainted white. She sucked in her breath sharply and squinted in an attempt to see if her eyes were deceiving her, for she thought she could see horns spiraling out of the forehead of each.
“I must be seeing things!” she said. Or not, she thought as she made her way down the rest of the cliff and quietly slipped nearer to the pack. I guess it shouldn’t be all that surprising, at least not when I’ve been transported inexplicably to another planet where dragons already exist, why not unicorns? They’re not Trakehners at all!
Reniko was looming behind a nearby tree, hidden beneath the shadows only meters away from the handsome creatures. The black she had awoken to was obviously the sire to the two young fillies that lounged by the lovely mare. He stood at an avid watch, guarding his small family. He spotted Reniko almost instantly, which unnerved her. He stood there staring at her, an angry rage building in his eyes. The mare, which had been lying beside the river with her two young, bolted up at the unease of her mate. Reniko came out from behind the tree slowly, heading neither away nor toward the small family, only making herself more visible to them. The stallion grunted his disapproval of her interruption.
It happened faster than the stallion could respond. Reniko heard the whistling of air displacing and had pulled Imako from its sheath. With a speed the unicorn could not even calculate, Reniko ran in front of the stallion and with blade flashing deflected the fatal blow. An arrow dropped to the ground near the mare who stepped back in alarm. The stallion whinnied loudly, a signal to his family and the three white unicorns ran for the cover of the trees surrounding the valley. The stallion, however, stayed, keeping his position behind Reniko. This baffled her. She had never in her lifetime seen a horse stand ground when danger appeared.
Reniko was intent on finding the source of deadly arrow. She found it as soon as she turned away from the stallion. Two Rük stood on the opposite side of the river; both looked very angry. They were both a deep green and for intimidation’s sake had extended to their full height, a staggering nine feet. Reniko dropped Imako to her side, still blocking the path between the stallion and the Rük.
“What are you doing, human?” The Rük on the right asked his voice riddled with contempt.
“I could ask you the same thing.” Reniko said with as much vehemence as the Rük.
“You dare speak back to your lords?” the Rük on the left said this time.
“I wouldn’t call you lords if my life depended on it.”
“Your life does depend on it, woman. Step away from the horned beast now, or you will die.”
“My blade says otherwise,” Reniko said.
This was enough to enrage the Rük on the left and he jumped over the small creek with amazing speed, drawing the sword from his side as he advanced. Reniko took up Imako, the yellow tassel swinging tauntingly, as she drew the sword up. The Rük’s gaze fell on the swinging tassel momentarily and with his gaze averted Reniko began her attack. It was swift. The Rük didn’t even realize what was happening until it was too late. By the time he finally swung his sword up in defense the fight was already over. Momentum brought his sword up and gravity sent it crashing to the ground along with the now lifeless body that Reniko had left behind. She turned with as much speed as she could to face the attacker she felt at her back, the second Rük, only to stop her sword inches from the hide of the unicorn stallion.
He stood there without flinching as Reniko’s blade stood ready to rend him in two. She was almost horrified by the sight before her. The black ivory horn that pierced the centre of the stallion’s forehead was dripping a thick liquid. A drop landed soundlessly onto Reniko’s blade and her eyes flickered from the soaked horn to the blade where a crimson red drop stained its surface, blood. She pulled Imako away from the stallion’s neck and glanced around the valley. She noted a still body near the edge of the creek, blood staining the life around it the same crimson red. She shuddered at the thought of the stallion piercing the Rük’s hide and froze as she realized that the same deadly horn was directly behind her and could pierce her flesh with the same ease.
Her breath coming out in short frightened gasps she slowly turned to face the sanguinary stallion. He stood as still as when Reniko had held Imako to his throat, she couldn’t understand what he was waiting for.
“What are you doing here? I don’t wish to kill you but I will if you attack. Go to your family, they must be worried about you by now,” Reniko said, breaking the silence. She suddenly felt foolish expecting the unicorn to respond.
The stallion’s eyes turned from fierce to understanding and he walked past Reniko to the creek. Reniko gripped her sword tightly as he walked by, waiting for the stallion to strike. Instead he walked away from her like she didn’t even exist and began rinsing the blood off his horn.
Never in all my life have I seen a horse act in the way this unicorn is. What sane animal would challenge a nine-foot tall beast with murderous intentions and ignore another potentially lethal creature like it wasn’t even there? She stood there bewildered, watching the stallion wash himself like a respectable human, another very odd thing for a horse to do.
“You can understand me, can’t you?” Reniko spoke in Vespian, walking closer to the creek bed.
The stallion looked up at her words and gazed at her for a few moments, then resumed his task.
“I may be mistaken,” Reniko said, sitting beside the stallion on the bank and taking off the pack that rested on her back. She removed an oiled cloth and an old rag and began cleaning her sword of the blood that stained it, “but I don’t think I am. My name is Reniko. I’m not from here if you haven’t guessed that already. I’m trying to get home but my horse ran off, scared by a pack of wolves that crossed our path. I guess that was the same day we first met. Thanks, by the way –” She stopped her commentary when the stallion stomped his foot in the dirt just inches from her legs. She looked up and saw the stallion looking at her, his eyes gazing steadily into her own. She read his meaning from that stare. She could almost hear the words form in her head. I should be thanking you. She could hear the words ringing in her head as she looked into the stallion’s dark brown eyes. I should be thanking you.