"Out! Get out! Now!"
The matron's shrill voice cut through the chatter in the white-washed dining hall of the orphanage and echoed in the silence. Every head turned to face the stout, red-faced woman in the tawdry lace-edged purple dress.
She was roaring at a girl of seventeen, with brilliant red hair that stood out even through the crowd. The girl's name was Aileen, and she was in trouble for trying to sneak out to see (and feed) her brother. Aileen stared at the matron with frightened green eyes, knowing that banishment from the orphanage was tantamount to a death sentence, especially now that the winter storms were beginning. She had nowhere else to go, and would die on the streets of Ainech, alone.
"OUT!" With this final scream, the matron ran out of breath. She sat with a plump on a heap of bags, fanning herself vigorously. "What are you looking at?" she snapped at an unfortunate girl, who hurried away.
Aileen ran softly to her room, crying while she did. There was literally nothing in the world that she owned except the clothes on her back and a few personal items. The forgotten food was still clenched in her hands, a piece of stale bread and moldy cheese. That, along with thin, greasy soup, was all she had eaten for sixteen years.
Her brother, Sam, was twenty, but barely remembered his parents, being only three when they died. Aileen was only a baby. Sam did recall being sent to live with their grandmother for a year, and then being sent to this orphanage. Aileen had never known anything else. Sam had named his sister. He was the only one who had ever given the lost little child any love.
She reached her room, or rather, the room she shared with seven other girls. Eight tiny cots were crammed into an alcove the size of a closet, with small trunks of clothing jammed beneath them. They were immaculate, as usual, for a spot inspection might be made anytime, and punishments given for a messy area. Still, it was the only home she'd ever had.
Aileen blinked away tears. Sam, who'd left the Chenian orphanage last year at nineteen, and promised to return for her, would never find her now. She dug around in her trunk, looking for the things in the best condition. There were a few sackcloth dresses, and one nightgown that might serve as a dress. Everything else was left behind without a qualm.
Before she left, she pressed a small panel in the wooden headboard. The hidden door swung open, and Aileen peered inside, relieved to find her treasures still there and intact. She took them out, carefully accounting for each one.
A small obsidian carving of a horse, with a hair from Surkaya's mane coiled around its body. A golden chain with a tiny horse dangling from it, along with her mother's wedding ring. A wooden carving of a carousel, and a silk rose. A tiny painted picture of her parents, a three-year-old Sam, and Aileen herself, just a little baby, made just before they died. Aileen packed them all in a sack made from a derelict dress, surprised to find so little she wanted to keep.
At last, she hoisted the tiny pack on her back, and headed for the stable to say goodbye to Surkaya, the orphanage's mare.
The old gray carthorse tossed her head and nickered in welcome as she caught Aileen's scent. "I'm sorry, old girl," she said quietly, patting Surkaya's neck as the mare inspected the pack. "I have to leave. Jessila will take care of you, and she'll have Maik take over when she leaves. You'll be looked after. I'll miss you." She buried her face in Surkaya's mane for a moment, the turned to leave the stall, eyes burning with more tears.
As she left, Aileen got a funny feeling in her head, and words formed briefly there: -I'll miss you too, hoof-sib.- They faded almost immediately after forming, but Aileen still turned in shock to stare at the mare. The gray's dark eyes stared back at her solemnly, and Aileen got the strangest idea that the words had come from Surkaya.
She shook her head, dismissing the notion, waved once more, then turned her footsteps towards the sea.
The pounding surf heralded another storm coming in. Aileen woke suddenly, sand in her hair and eyes and blowing against her skin in the gale-force winds seemingly sprung up out of nowhere. She blinked rapidly, clearing her eyes, as pelting rain started falling fast and hard, blinding her again. The summer storms were upon her.
She stood up, shakily, tried to peer through the wind and rain to find more adequate shelter, gave it up as a lost cause, and settled back down, hugging herself to keep warm and sheltering her treasures with her body. She felt the edges of her ribs through the thin dress, and shuddered; she hadn't eaten in days. Aileen was slowly starving to death. She forced herself to sleep. Maybe the cold would kill her painlessly.
She woke, or thought she did, to an insistent nose nudging her. Surkaya? Where'd she come from? Groaning, Aileen rolled over, and shoved at the nose, rubbing her eyes. -Ah, good, you're awake,- said a satisfied voice in her head.
Aileen froze. It was those words again, coming in her head. She had almost convinced herself that the last time was her overactive imagination, but now, she knew for sure it was no fluke. Oh no....
"Who are you?" she managed at last, shakily, but at least she could talk. The voice laughed.
-I'm Ahkiyata, but call me Kiya, and you'd better get on quick before there's too much rain for me to take off properly.-
"Get on? Take off? What are you talking about?" She frowned as a sudden thought occurred to her. "How are you talking about it?"
-To answer that last first, I'm MindTalking. It's really quite easy, once you practice. As for the rest, I'm a Pegasi...that's a flying horse, dear... and my marching orders are to take you to the Fellowship. In Lantica. You're needed there.-
"Needed? Me? But I'm just, and I quote, 'that idiot girl.' Why would anyone need me?"
-You had better be quoting. Back to the question. Kit needs you. We don't question Kit; she always has her reasons. Sometimes she'll tell us, sometimes not. This is one of the 'not' times. She always has good reasons for what she does, though. Anyway, you and about six or seven others are to be the first of the Fellowship. More on that when we get to the Night Forest. Now, if you'll just get on, we can go. And you had better hurry. The rain'll soon be coming down too fast for me to take off without fouling my wings.-
Aileen got up, brushed the sand off her dress, gathered up her pack, and turned to face the mare. What she saw made her jaw drop.
Ahkiyata was beautiful in the truest sense of the word. She had a lovely iridescent mane and tail, whipping around a sleek white body. Her wings, of the same shade as her mane and tail, fairly glowed without the help of angry flickers of lightning on the storm-clouded horizon. They clung close to her body to avoid being ripped to pieces by the vicious wind. She had a graceful head, mounted high on a curving neck, with eyes like moonlit darkness. Impatient eyes.
Aileen shook off her wonder and awe, and mounted, just before the wings. Ahkiyata shook her body to settle the weight, then ran at the ocean. Aileen gasped and covered her eyes... then there was a lurch, and they were in the air.
-Do you know our mythology, youngling? It might be helpful someday.-
"Mythology? What's that?" asked Aileen, never having heard the word before.
-The myths and legends, stories of the gods.-
"Wow. You have a legend? We're just taught that there is a god and a goddess, and that's that."
-We have many more than the one. Your mythology is primitive, child. Our gods and goddesses live rich and varied lives, so that our storytellers are hard pressed to continue telling their stories without falling behind. Would you like me to tell you one?-
-Then I will start with the legends known to us all, whether we walk or fly, watch or heal. In the beginning, there was nothing, then the stars flashed, and from their light formed the White Stallion, father of us all...-
Aileen listened excitedly, lost in the realm of the gods. For the rest of the flight, she heard all the legends of the Pegasi, as well as the myths and legends of the unicorns.
Kiya concluded the last tale quietly. The silence hung for a few moments.
The mare spoke at last. -Child, I had hoped to tell you more, but we have arrived, and Kit will be angry with me if I keep you in the air much longer. You must meet the others, then rest. Perhaps we shall meet again, and I will relate the rest of the tales to you.- Kiya landed carefully, and Aileen dismounted, laying one hand briefly on Kiya's muzzle. -Seek the skies, hoofsister. May the wind never hurl you out of them.-
Kiya took off, and Aileen waved until she could no longer see her. Only then did she turn to meet whoever- or whatever - was in the clearing with her.
Six different pairs of eyes stared at her, awed. Finally, one girl with black hair plaited into hundreds of tiny braids, brown skin, and curious black eyes hissed something in a whispery language. Aileen frowned, and shrugged, to show she didn't understand. The girl shook her head, and switched to trade-tongue, which Aileen did know, asking, "Are you that Kit Sasi kept talking about?"
"No, I'm Aileen," she answered, mystified.
"Oh. Well, I'm Kalie, and that's Yessica. We're best friends," said the girl, waving at another girl in the clearing, with long, dark brown hair, honey-gold skin, and almond shaped eyes that matched her hair.
"We're Derek and Erick," said a pair of boys, both with identical strawberry-blond hair, sky-blue eyes, big ears, and trillions of freckles splattered across their faces. "Twins."
"Obviously," muttered Yessica. Kalie giggled, and Aileen felt herself smiling almost against her will. Every instinct she had was telling her to trust them, and yet her experience was telling her to distrust them. She really didn't know what to do.
"Kira," said a small girl with white-blond hair and ice-blue eyes over in the corner softly, then she retreated into herself again. Aileen recognized a girl who had been mistreated just as badly as she had, and made a mental note to talk to this Kira as soon as possible.
"And I'm Liam," finished a boy with mouse-brown hair, and brilliant green eyes matching Aileen's own. She felt a shock as their gazes connected, then quickly looked away, startled by the intensity of his eyes. He seemed just as surprised, but covered it better and faster then Aileen managed. After a minute he continued, "So. Well, all of us are from different places. Kalie and Yessica are from Southern and Northern Calypse respectively, Kira's from northern Selata, those two idiots here are from Mallen, and I'm from Lantica. Near Christiana, actually. So what about you?"
"Chenia," she replied softly. "Near the sea, in Ainech. Sam's still there. I miss him already." She looked off into the distance, her eyes wandering freely over the horizon, blinking fiercely to destroy any incriminating tears.
She turned her head back just in time to catch a disappointed look on the boys' faces.
"Aw, dang," said one of the twins suddenly. His twin elbowed him sharply, and the rest of the group broke into gales of laughter.
"Idiot!" choked Yessica. "Don't tell me you only came here to-to-" She was laughing so hard she couldn't speak.
"Chase girls?" suggested Kalie mildly, sending them into fresh hilarity. Aileen collapsed on the grass, wiping tears from her eyes.
"Well! Glad to see that you're all getting along so well, but we have a meeting to get on with, and I'd like your attention." The soft voice, speaking in trade-tongue but full of light and laughter, came from the tall, darkening trees around them.
Aileen stiffened, and every person's attention snapped on the verge of the forest. A young woman, about twenty-four or twenty-five, wearing close-fitting breeches and a tunic, dyed to suit the forest, slipped out of the trees. She had long, long silver hair, crowned with a golden circlet and confined to a braid stretching to her hips. Her eyes were the warm, welcoming blue of a cloudless summer sky, and a golden necklace with a tiny crystal and little gold cloud on the chain swung from the neckline, her only visible vanity.
"My name is Kit. Well, actually it's Kiatha, but I was called Kit for most of my life, and I prefer to be called that now. You are currently in the Night Forest, on the Lantican side of the border, not too far from the capital. This is the current home of the Fellowship, and you younglings are the first of our HealerMages."
"So she's Kit," muttered Yessica.
"Kiatha...Kiatha..." muttered Liam, clearly trying to remember something. Then he snapped his fingers. "Aha! You're the crown princess of Lantica! And the heir to the throne, I might add!"
Kit made a face. "Until such time as Mariya marries and reproduces. Sadly, everything you just said is true. Wish it weren't, but, oh well. I'll tell you all the entire story some other day. As for the Fellowship, I intend to make us legendary. Your job," here she pointed an accusing finger at the teenagers, "is to help me with it. I can't do it all myself. All right, it's getting late, and the story's much too long to tell now. We'll give you the assignments tonight, and tomorrow morning, I'll tell you everything. Cloud?"
A unicorn mare stepped out of the shadows, shook her mane, and stared at each and every one of them. -Okay, line up. Now, lads, lasses, out you come.-
Aileen gasped. A stream of unicorn fillies and colts pranced out, tossing their heads and switching their tails. One in particular caught Aileen's eye. She was a beautiful young filly with a pure white coat and a silver mane, tail, horn and hooves. She romped along the line, ears pricked, happily tossing her head and once "accidentally" nipping the colt in front of her and darting behind him when he tried to retaliate. Aileen fell in love with her at once. She noticed the others watching the line of unicorns as well, and wished passionately that none of them liked her unicorn.
-Well. We seem to have some matches already,- commented the mare Kit had called Cloud to no one in particular. -Just to open this fiasco, I'm Cloudchaser, known as Cloud to my friends. I want it on record that this was all her idea.- The mare snorted accusingly at Kit, who only looked amused and said, "Get on with it."
The mare continued, -You will be paired with one of these juvenile delinquents here, the rest will be explained in the morning, and none of this was my idea, as I said before. First, Aylissa. You get Yessica over there. The one with the dark brown hair.-
Aileen bit her lip, then relaxed when her unicorn remained in the line. The one that stepped forward was an even younger filly with a golden thread in her silver mane. She stepped forward, sterling hooves dancing over the moss, and switched her silver tail restlessly, mischief in her eyes. Her horn glinted in the sun like a solid moonbeam, with little lights playing up and down its surface. She skipped up to Yessica, whose shining eyes betrayed the fact that she'd fallen in love with the filly just as Aileen had with hers.
-Daisy, you get the girl next to her...Kalie, was it?- Kalie nodded mutely, eyes locked on the lovely young filly. The mare was identical to Aylissa, except that she didn't have the starkly showing golden thread in her mane. She trotted gently up to Kalie, and butted her hand affectionately. Kalie raised her hand and scratched between the filly's ears, slowly, as if in a dream. The filly nickered with pleasure, then pranced off under the trees, following the path Yessica and her unicorn took. Kalie followed, a dazed look in her eyes.
-Snowstorm...Snowstorm...Yo Snow! Quit admiring yourself and listen to me!- A breathtaking mare two or three years Cloud's senior jumped, then turned sheepishly. Cloud looked at her for a few minutes, then nodded briskly, and continued, -Snow, you will be partnered with Kira over there. Be nice to her, she's an abused and mistreated little girl.- The mare bowed, then walked up to Kira and nudged her gently. She knelt, Kira climbed stiffly on, and the mare got up and walked off into the trees.
-Oh, brother dear!- Cloud's mental tone turned evil. -I have a partner for you!-
-Great,- muttered another mindvoice, but he said nothing more.
-Right,- said Cloud, her tone turning businesslike again. -Windsong, you and Liam will work together well, I think.- A unicorn stallion, close to Cloud's age if not the same, paced deliberately out of the forest. He bowed to Liam, silver horn touching Liam's palm, then pivoted neatly on a hind leg and walked off into the forest, Liam following behind.
-Blizzard? You've got Erick, and that friend of yours...whatisname, Skydancer, is with Derek.- Two colts sauntered out of the line, shaking their manes and looking for all the world like a pair of boys trying to look nonchalant and innocent. One, with a gold mane, tail, horn, and hooves instead of silver, like his companion, walked over to Derek. He snorted at Derek, blowing some strawberry-blond hair off the boy's forehead, and twitched his head, flipping his forelock around. He turned and walked off, turning back when he realized that Derek wasn't following him. With what seemed to be a sigh of annoyance, he planted his nose in the middle of the teenager's back and shoved, pushing him towards the forest. Derek went. A similar performance took place between Blizzard and Erick.
-Well, that leaves only one possible pairing. Glory?-
Aileen gasped as her beautiful filly stepped forward. -Yes'm?- Her mindvoice was high and cheerful, pleasant to hear even if it was only her imagination.
-You and Aileen here will be a twosome, okay, love?-
-That's fine with me. Okay, pardner, let's get a move on, okay?- The filly stepped around her and gently nudged her back, propelling Aileen forward into the shadows. As they walked away, Aileen caught one last comment from Kit. "I guess I'm stuck with you, then, eh, sister mine?" Cloud snorted, then they were out of earshot.
She noticed as they walked that the shadows seemed to recede when the filly walked into them. With this in mind, she asked, "What's with the light? Are you carrying one?"
-No, it's my horn. All my dad's children have it. Seems to come with being the Black Stallion's daughter. I can dim it, or occasionally put it out altogether, but not for very long. I prefer to just leave it, so I don't waste my energy.-
"Energy?" Aileen's interest was officially aroused. Kiya had spoken of this "energy" several times during her narration of the ancient equine legends, but never fully explained the reference. Now she could get a complete definition, and where learning was involved, she never let up until she fully grasped the concept. "What's this energy?"
-Psychic energy. You're born with a certain amount of it, and usually your body needs all of it just to run itself. But sometimes a person is born with a surplus of energy, and they are the Mages. The different disciplines depend mostly on your personality, like a destructive person is usually a WarMage, or very rarely a DeathMage, and a calmer one is the opposite, a HealerMage or a LifeMage. That's what you humans all are. HealerMages, I mean, and maybe one LifeMage. You have to be, to get into the Fellowship.-
"What's a DeathMage and a HealerMage and the others?"
-A WarMage can wound people or set things on fire, or other warlike things. A DeathMage is a specialized WarMage, and exactly what it sounds like, but they're mostly dragons and other magical beings. Most humans simply don't have enough energy to be a DeathMage. There were rumors for a while that the Evil Magician was a DeathMage, but he was only a very powerful WarMage. A HealerMage is exactly what it sounds like, and a LifeMage is a HealerMage who can bring living things back to life. Again, most humans aren't LifeMages. Those are just the four main types, though. There are a lot of offshoots, like Prophecy and IllusionMages.-
"Are there other organizations, for the different lines, I mean?"
-Yes. At least for some of them. The Mercenary Federation attracts most of the War and DeathMages, since they get paid for killing there. Healer and LifeMages usually join the priesthood. Some of them don't, though. Two of the most famous HealerMages are a married couple, King Danilion and Queen Aikyla of Lantica, Kit's mother and father. Very nice people.-
"Wow. Do they live here?"
-No, but they visit occasionally. Oh, my, it just occurred to me that you don't know my name. I'm Morning Glory, usually known as Glory. And you?-
"Aileen. I'm from Chenia, from an orphanage, and...oh..." Her face fell suddenly, as she remembered Sam. He must be frantic by now.
-Oh, what?- asked Glory shrewdly. If there's something wrong, you should tell me. We are partners, after all, and we're supposed to be friends.-
"It's just that..." Aileen hesitated. "Well, I have a brother, goes by Sam, and he left the orphanage last year, when he was nineteen. He promised me he'd come back and get me, once he had a job, and I know he went to Lantica. But he didn't come back, not for a year, and now I'm here. How will he find me?" The face she turned to Glory bore tear-streaks and woeful eyes.
Glory thought for a moment, Sam's name having stirred a memory. -Well,- she said at last, -I seem to recall eavesdropping on a conversation between my mum and Kit. Something I probably shouldn't do, but can't resist,- she added in a mischievous tone. -Anyway, they were discussing the prospects for membership, and your brother's name came up quite a lot. Of course, the names of you seven came up a lot more, but I would guess that Sam is earmarked for the second batch if you lot work out the way Kit hopes you will.-
"So Sam's going to be with me?" she asked hopefully.
-I would think so, yes. Oh, wait a second, there's the stream.-
At Glory's mention of a stream, Aileen remembered that she was dirty, soaked with seawater and sweat, with sand in her hair, her dress and plastered all over her body. "Oh...Could I take a bath?" she asked timidly.
-That being the reason we came here in the first place.- Glory noted her partner's expression and hurried to assure her, -I'm sorry, that came out wrong. I meant that I took you here so that we could both get a bath. I need one too, you know...I weigh a great deal more then you do, and it was hot today.-
Aileen nodded, pacified, and slid in without even undressing, as Glory disappeared somewhere. Her dress...nightgown, actually...could use the cleaning just as much as her skin could. Once underwater, she scrubbed the sand out of her hair quickly, then surfaced, gasping. As she shook the water out of her hair, Glory returned with a towel, soap, and clean clothes. She took the soap gratefully, ruthlessly scrubbing away any speck of sand or dirt.
She climbed out of the water and toweled off, then examined the clothes Glory, who was now happily splashing around, had brought. There was a soft white cotton shirt, and tan leather breeches. A pair of sturdy riding boots stood next to them, as well as supple leather sandals, all with the mark of the Fellowship stamped into their leather. A soft wool nightgown lay alongside the breeches, and Aileen pulled this on, as well as the sandals. There was also a necklace with two charms on it. One was a crystal unicorn, and the other was a flat little gold flower. The unicorn glowed when she touched it, enough to see vaguely but not enough to show through the relatively thin shirt and give her away.
"Glory?" she asked, holding the chain up. "What are these for?"
-What? Oh...the necklace. It's to identify you as a member of the Fellowship, and as my partner. The unicorn is the Fellowship symbol, and that particular charm is modeled after one Kit's mother gave her a long time ago. Something like twenty-four years ago. Kit only found out what it was seven years ago. You know, she'll tell you the whole story tomorrow, so I won't go into that. Suffice it to say that only Kit can make those so they glow, well, make that Kit and her daughter. Elayni's only three, though, not quite old enough to be reliable, so Kit's the one who makes them.-
"And the flower?"
-It's a morning glory. That's a bit self-explanatory, but I'll tell you anyway. It's my symbol, and it will allow you to identify yourself as my partner if we get separated.- Glory looked up at the sky, and added, -By the way, it's dark, which means bed. Follow me.-
More then a bit confused, Aileen followed her partner away from the stream and into a small glade, overhung with apple trees, willows, and evergreens. A small cabin stood in the center, with a large door. Aileen went inside to find a small bed next to the door, with cotton sheets and thin blankets the lovely blue-green of the sea, and a wool blanket folded at the foot that was dyed a deep green. An abundance of pillows adorned the head of the bed, all the same color as the blanket with little white unicorns and multicolored butterflies chasing each other around the rim. A stall with its floor covered in honey-gold hay stood next to the bed, clearly meant for Glory, and a small bedside table standing on the other side. Aileen carefully set her treasures on the table, then fell into the bed, her eyes closing almost as soon as her head touched the pillows.
Glory stamped and Aileen woke, bleary eyed, to find bright golden sunlight shining right in her eyes. With a groan, she pulled the covers over her head. Glory, noticing her partner waking up, said cheerfully, -Rise and shine, sleepyhead! Can't stay in bed forever!-
"Try and stop me," Aileen muttered, wriggling deeper under the covers. Glory promptly pulled them off. "Oh, Lord, why did I get stuck with a unicorn who's so bloody cheerful in the mornings?" she asked the ceiling above her head.
-'Cause you did. Wake up! I want my breakfast, and I don't get it until you do!-
"Great. It just gets worse and worse. Not only is my unicorn insanely awake, but she also has a bottomless pit instead of a stomach."
-Learn to live with it, dear, because you're stuck with me until you retire. Maybe for the rest of your life. Now, about that breakfast...- Grumbling, Aileen sat up and rubbed her eyes, then froze. Wait a minute, the rest of my...
"The rest of my life? Glory, what's that all about?"
-Kit will explain, after breakfast. C'mon, I'm hungry!- Glory pleaded. She was dancing around, leaving an interesting trail of hoofprints, and looking as anxious as an equine face could look. Aileen smothered a giggle and threw off the covers.
Breakfast was served in a large forest glade, with one oversized table in the center, covered with food and drinks. Thick chan porridge, with milk, honey and sugar to sweeten it, dominated the tabletop, along with platters of fruit, plates of cheese, and pitchers of milk. Alfalfa for the four-footed members of the Fellowship was in a large barrel next to the table, and quite a few unicorns were stealing food from their human counterparts as well. Aileen took a bowl of porridge, smothered it in honey and milk, and looked around for a place to sit.
Everyone from the night before was already present, chattering and laughing, along with a few new arrivals. One was a young man a year or two older then Kit, and another was a tiny little girl who couldn't have been older then four.
The girl was listening wide-eyed to some tall tales the twins were telling. Liam sat near them, struggling to keep his face straight and failing dismally. Yessica and Kalie were chattering together in the hissing language Kalie had first spoken in and giggling over something; Kira sat alone, talking quietly with Snowstorm in a harsh, guttural tongue that Aileen recognized vaguely as Selaten. Kit sat with the brown-eyed young man and a few unicorns absent the night before. Yessie and Kalie were obviously discussing inside jokes, and Kira looked as if she'd rather be left alone. Aileen preferred not to join the adults, so she sat down next to Liam, the twins, and the little girl while Glory sailed off to join most of the fillies over a breakfast of alfalfa and gossip.
"...so I grabbed that ogre and wrestled him to the ground, while Derek snatched some rope, and tied him to a tree! So my heroic brother and I saved the town, and became heroes," concluded Erick, in trade-tongue. He had just finished one of his false tales of daring-do.
"We were getting rather tired of it, so we decided to come on over here for some new stuff," added Derek.
The little girl stared at them, sucking her thumb, then she clambered over to Aileen. Taking her thumb out of her mouth with a pop, she asked, "Are they tellin' the truth?"
"Nope," said Aileen, holding in her laughter. "Those two are just big fat liars, so don't you believe a word they say."
"Hey look!" cried Derek (or maybe Erick. Aileen couldn't tell them apart yet) suddenly. "Somebody wrote 'gullible' on the tree!"
"What's gul-ee-ble?" asked the girl, cocking her head.
"It means easy to fool, which I am not. That's the oldest trick in the book, lads." Aileen put her hands on her hips and glared at them. The boys started laughing so hard their porridge drizzled out of their mouths.
"That's not very good manners," observed the girl. "Oh, and I'm Elayni. My mommy's over there, with my daddy."
"So, how old are you, Elayni?" asked Aileen, shooting several Looks at the twins, with the direct result of harder laughing.
Elayni thought for a minute, then said, very solemnly, "Three," at the exact moment that Glory said something very rude to her uncle. Aileen snorted her bowl of porridge, and got a puzzled look from the little girl.
Liam earned one a minute later. Aileen recalled that he was partners with Windsong, which meant he said something right back to his niece. Probably something equally unrepeatable. Which sent her into greater hysterics.
"So," she managed finally, "you're Kit's daughter?"
The little girl nodded solemnly. "My mommy says I'm going to be a HealerMage someday."
"You probably are, considering your mother and grandparents," said Aileen. "Who's your father?"
"Daddy's our WarMage. He keeps us safe if there's a war, and he can even block a DeathMage if he has to. That's why we haven't been bothered by any dragons and stuff," she answered. She replaced her thumb, then took it out briefly, adding, "Except Fred."
"Fred? Who's Fred?" This was from Liam, who had evidently recovered from Windsong's remark and been listening in.
Aileen shrugged. "I don't know. Who's Fred, Elayni?" Both turned to look at the little black-haired child.
"He's a friend. Mama said he's coming today, so maybe you'll meet him. Or maybe not. Not until you get the talk." Something about the way she said the word talk worried Aileen, and she looked inquisitively at the girl. But Elayni only shook her head stubbornly, then ran over to the young man and crawled into his lap, thereby effectively putting herself out of reach.
Aileen sighed, and called mentally to Glory. It was time she tried this MindTalking herself.
-Yes?- came her answer.
-I was just talking with Elayni, and she said something about her father being a WarMage. Why do we have one of them in the Fellowship?- asked Aileen, throttling down her glee at having managed to MindTalk with great difficulty.
-Questions, questions, questions. Why do you ask so many? Don't answer that.- Glory shook her head, and continued, -He's here mainly for protection against dragons and suchlike, but also for enforcement. One of the things Kit decided early on was that the Fellowship would remain neutral in any war unless the entire group decided as a whole to choose a side. Bryon helps enforce that policy, and we couldn't do it without him. He knows it, too, which is one of the things that's kept him here.-
-What are the others?- Aileen was becoming interested now.
-Kit, Nightstar, and Elayni. Nightstar is his partner, and ever since he lost Elayni, they're more like brothers. Kit is his wife...oh, don't act so shocked. Elayni has to have a father, and she looks too much like them both to be adopted.-
Aileen was shocked, but deemed it wise, considering Glory's reaction, not to show it. -Wait a minute, you said he lost Elayni. But we...me and Liam, I mean...were just talking to her. How can she be alive and dead?-
-Easily. You see, Bryon had a sister by the name of Elayni, except she died in the fight against the Evil Magician. Well...she didn't die, exactly...she just...disappeared. With no warning whatsoever. Bryon was brokenhearted, and may well have been killed if it wasn't for Kit. They'd had plenty of time to fall in love before this, y'see, and Kit had it bad. She protected him with her life, and managed to save not only both of them, but her kingdom, her parents and her sister.-
-With a little help from you, of course.-
-Of course. Actually, I personally was all of one month, so Mom wouldn't let me anywhere near the actual battle. And before you ask, I'm seven in your years, which would put me at about your age in our years. Anyway, once he...he being Bryon...snapped out of it, he used everything he had defeating the Evil Magician, and promptly collapsed. He was out like a light for three weeks straight. The whole group assumed that Elayni was dead. I don't know if she is or not, but they certainly carried on enough. Turns out she was just about the only real casualty of the entire battle. There were a lot of wounds, though, and Kit near killed herself and us trying to heal them all. Her father helped, of course, and so did her mother, but they barely healed everyone. That was what got the idea started, and she won't let go of something when she's got it.-
-Like me,- Aileen put in with a grin.
-Like you. Anyway, y'all were hand-picked for the first batch of partners. We were hand-picked...or should I say hoof-picked?..as well, except it was just my mother and Kit doing the choosing. There were a few other people in on your side, but like I said, it was just Mom and Kit with us.-
-Ah.- Aileen left the conversation at that, and relayed what she'd heard to Liam along with a brief explanation of Mage types, while Glory returned to her gossip.
"Hm," said Liam thoughtfully, tapping his chin. "So we need a WarMage to keep us neutral, do we? I can't say I like the sound of that."
"Neither do I," she agreed soberly. "But that's not the main reason he's here. At least, not according to Glory. She said he's here mostly because of protection, like from dragons and who knows what else."
"Yes, that works. From what mythology I picked up from my mother before she died, many dragons are War and DeathMages, more of the former then the latter, thankfully. We HealerMages could probably hold off one of their WarMages for as long as necessary, but what about two? Or three or four? And what if they had a DeathMage with them?"
"That's a lot of ifs, but I see your point. Actually, if they had a DeathMage with them, we'd be dead very shortly after his or her appearance. I don't know for sure, though. I never ran into any supernatural monsters, where I'm from, but believe me, I met enough human ones to last me a lifetime." The black look on Aileen's face prompted Liam to change the subject.
"Ah. Well, I never had a real easy life either, but I never ran into any big problems. What I did run into was a young man by the name of Sam. He looked a lot like you, and he had a sister...never told me her name, though." Liam had been watching Aileen's reactions out of the corner of his eye while he said this, and noted the sudden interest at Sam's name.
"How...how old was he?" she asked hesitantly, as if afraid to reveal her worry. Liam could see it perfectly well in her face, however, and she was doing no good by hesitating.
He screwed up his face, trying to remember. "Umm...eighteen or nineteen, I'd guess... but this was over a year ago. He's maybe two years older then I am, and I'm seventeen," he added.
"Sam! That's my brother!" she squealed joyfully.
There was silence for a little while as both ate, then Aileen asked suddenly, "Why did you go with the Pegasi?"
Liam thought for a minute. "I guess it's because I wanted an adventure," he said at last. "I mean, life was so bad at home, I'd have done almost anything to get away, but, well, an adventure just appealed to me."
"I guess picking up a sassy unicorn didn't occur to you," she chuckled. "It certainly didn't occur to me."
She ignored Glory. "I...I guess I went because I just wanted out. I was alone, I was starving, I was lost...then this flying horse just showed up, like the answer to my prayers."
Liam got the feeling she'd been about to say more, but Kit stood up just then, commanding instant silence, as Bryon deposited his daughter on the ground and slipped off into the forest.
"Now, I know you're all probably wondering why you're here," she began. "I promised you an explanation, so here it is. About twenty-five years ago, the Evil Magician took over Lantica. He murdered the king, queen, and youngest princess, or so it appeared, and married the eldest to cement his claim on the throne. Liam, I know you came from Lantica, would you care to tell something of that time?"
"Well, I wasn't born until well after the coup, but we were living under total control from the Magician. His wife, Mariya, was virtually invisible, except when he needed to show her off. I suspect he kept her locked up in her room most of the time..." He looked inquisitively at Kit.
"I can confirm that, from what Mariya told me. He never really had any interest in her except as a bargaining tool," she said, nodding.
Liam nodded, and continued, "Well, he really lost interest in her for about the last three years of his reign. She never appeared until after the revolution. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We were under total control. Any sign of rebellion was instantly and harshly crushed. The one time a revolt managed to actually get started, it was destroyed so completely we never dared to try again.
"After that revolt, which happened when I was three, the Magician got real paranoid. He conducted monthly sweeps of Christiana, and once a year, on the anniversary of his coup, he would indulge in a country-wide purge." Liam's tone got about ten degrees colder. "My parents, brother, sisters, and best friend died in one of those purges. I never figured out how I escaped, and I probably never will. That was when I was six, and I've been on my own and on the streets ever since. Turned to working my way just to stay alive."
"At six?" came a shocked whisper from somewhere in the grove. Kit looked very serious.
"I'm afraid Liam's story is an all-too-common one from the Magician's time on the throne, except most don't have his happy ending. Now, this is where I come into the story. I was raised by the unicorns in this forest. Cloud and Windsong, who, for those of you who haven't already guessed, are twins, were my brother and sister growing up. About three months after I turned eighteen, a young girl by the name of Elayni wandered into the forest. She was blind, but she also had the most powerful gift of Prophecy I have ever sensed in a human being. She had a Healer gift as well, but compared with the Prophecy, it was insignificant.
"However, Elayni didn't find me or the unicorns; her brother did. He and their MageMaster had gone to look for her, and he ran into me. That was Bryon, and although I had never learned to speak except mentally, he was a powerful enough WarMage that he could understand me anyway. I had Wind and 'Sea go find his sister and their Master, one Danil by name. That wasn't his real name, but I'll get to that in a minute.
"He and Elayni showed up in short order, and Danil promptly recognized me, or rather, my necklace, then lost no time in telling me just who I was, and how I got there. In a nutshell, he informed me that my name was Kiatha, that I was a princess of Lantica, and what did I think I was doing just sitting on my bottom ignoring the situation in my home kingdom. Cloud gave him a royal telling-off for that, with Bryon 'helpfully' translating, but she made the mistake of asking him just who he thought he was."
-Turned out he was the king of Lantica, no less. Kit's father, Danilion. He could hardly let that little tidbit get out in public, though, since he was hiding. Just flat out stood up, turned on all his royalness and dignity, looked down his nose, and proclaimed that he was King Danilion of Lantica, thank you very much, and he thought that he was at least entitled to tell off his daughter when she deserved it,- put in Cloud dryly.
"Gave me a fair turn, I can tell you that," said Kit wryly. "I just stood there gaping at him. He, on the other hand, just kept on scolding Cloud. Then when he ran out of tirade, and realized he'd just told us who he was, and that everyone was just kind of staring at him and gaping as their anatomies permitted, Father decided he'd better start telling us exactly what had been going on in Lantica, and not what the Magician wanted us to know."
"Question?" Derek raised his hand timidly. "Why do you keep calling him the Evil Magician or the Magician?"
"That's a good question," said Kit thoughtfully. "I don't think anyone knew his real name, possibly not even himself. I certainly didn't, Mariya never talked to him, Mother never saw him and Father was in Calypse. The name we called him by was probably his own invention. Call it another kind of propaganda, used to create fear. The Evil Magician never owned or knew of anything he didn't use. Even Mother was used occasionally, but I won't go into that. She didn't go into much detail, and I'm not sure I want to know.
"Back to the subject at hand. Father told us a more detailed version of Liam's story. It was a lot more graphic, and had more details about what the Magician did with the prisoners he took in those purges. Again, I won't go into full detail, the point here is that it convinced most of the unicorns and certainly me to come in on Father's side. It took the better part of two years to get the rebellion organized, which was more then enough time to teach me how to speak, and then we waited until just before one of those monthly sweeps. We here would be me, Elayni, Bryon, and Father along with Cloud, Nightstar, Aliyth, Jaltin and Fred under illusions. Apparently our Fred has a talent for working with illusions. He can make them three-dimensional and solid to the touch if he needs to. Very handy."
"Why did your father want the throne back?" asked Yessica. "Besides the obvious, I mean."
"Well, my father thought that the Magician had killed my mother and I. He wasn't too pleased about that, mostly because he and my mother truly loved each other. He was royally enraged and intended to get revenge."
"So we sneaked into the palace while everyone was busy hiding from, trying to resist or preparing for the sweep," said Bryon, who had reappeared from his mysterious errand sometime during Kit's story. "We got all set and ready, and when the Magician sent everyone away, we took advantage of the general emptiness, split up and found Kit's mother."
"Father didn't find out she was alive until after the coup, though," Kit put in. "You should have seen it! Ugh! Such sappiness you never did see."
-You and Bryon were just as sappy, sister-mine.- Cloud was putting her own two cents in. -Especially after Elayni was born. Gods!-
"Anyway," Kit went on, pointedly ignoring Cloud, "Mother told us where Mariya was being kept, and off we went."
-Nightstar and I with Kit, Bryon, Aikyla, and Elayni, Aliyth and Jaltin with Danilion and Fred on his own. The king was going to try and find the Magician and corner him, we were to find Mariya and join the others. Fred was just scouting.-
-Gading your bag,- came from behind the group, followed immediately by the sound of someone blowing his or her nose. Aileen turned around, followed by everyone in the Fellowship, and found herself staring at a dragon...
"Hello, Fred," said Kit calmly before anyone could panic. "Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce a very good friend of mine?"
-Hedo. By dame id Fred. Ecus de axent, I hab a cowd.- The dragon produced a handkerchief from somewhere and blew his nose loudly, then took off his glasses ...glasses?... wiped them off, and replaced them.
"For those of you who couldn't understand that, his name is Fred and he has a cold. A perpetual cold," Kit translated helpfully.
-Dad's nod wod I zad! Please ecus de glazzez doo, I'b-achoo!-nearzited.- Fred sneezed, and wiped his nose, and continued, -I'b vegetarian, and a conztant dizappointbent to by parentz.-
"Go figure," muttered Yessica. "Any dragon Kit introduces us to has to be an unconventional dragon. Lord help us all."
-Wad's wrog wid beig ad udcodbentional dragon? I like beig ad udcodbentional dragon.- Fred scowled. He apparently didn't like being insulted.
"Nothing's wrong with that," Kit hurriedly assured him. "She meant it as a compliment. Or at least, she better have. For future reference, all of you, one does not want to anger a dragon with a persistent flu and dirty glasses. It's not good for one's health."
"Of course I did! I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, oh wonderful dragon."
-Fladderer,- mumbled Fred, but he seemed placated. -Az you were zaying?-
"Thank you, Fred." Bryon took up the thread of the story. "As Kit was saying, we found and released Mariya, and Fred joined up with us shortly afterwards. He said that he'd found a few extra men, and had to incinerate them to keep word from spreading about our little coup, but other then that, no incidents."
"We got into Sir Magician's study without a problem, but, well, he was ready for us. He...he had a spell that...it..." Bryon sat down, obviously unable to continue. Nightstar walked up to him and stood beside him, occasionally whuffling into his hair. Elayni ran up and crawled into her father's lap, hugging him and glaring at the rest of the gathering (except her mother) like it was their fault.
Kit sat down next to him and slipped an arm around Bryon's shoulders, then shook her head and returned to the story. "What it did isn't important. You can ask your partner if you're really curious. The upshot of the story is, we defeated the Magician, and restored my parents to the throne. They may be old, but they've a long way to go." Kit laughed suddenly. "In fact, as my hoof-sister has just reminded me, my true parents, who are members of the Fellowship, and the parents who raised me are a set of partners, amazingly enough. You'd think they wouldn't get along, that they'd fight over me, and they're best friends. But that's beside the point. The point is now, you know a little of our background. So now you understand a little of what I'm trying to do here. Now that you know, do you want to stay? I should warn you: you're in this for life. If you say you'll join us, you can't back out, not for a long time. It's hard work, it's dirty work, and it's very dangerous. Does anyone want to leave?"
"Will we have to leave the unicorns?"
"Yes. We need them. Does anyone want to leave?"
No one said a thing.
Kit let out a breath with a whoosh. "Thank goodness. If you have any questions, you can ask now."
A hand went up in the back. "Why are our partners assigned?"
"Because I don't trust the unicorns to make the right choices, and I most certainly do not trust you to. Before you take offense at that, it is simply because we are matching power and personalities, not looks or names. Although names do have power, it's not the type we want. We're matching physical and psychic power, both real and potential. You don't need to worry about the assignments. If Cloud's right about the assignments, you already like the unicorn you've been assigned to, and if not, you'll probably be switched in a couple of weeks." Another hand waved. "Yes?"
"Are we going to have to train for this?"
"That's an excellent question. Mount up, ladies and gents, we're headed for the training grounds."
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