Thirsty, Ashton slid to the ground at the water’s edge. He shivered in the cold, and sank to his knees. After drinking his fill, he splashed his face. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Silren lift his dripping muzzle and stare out over the glassy surface.
He startled when the Unicorn’s call broke the eerie silence, and almost toppled into the water. A seal bobbed to the surface a distance out, its dark eyes unblinking.
Silren continued to speak in a liquid language. The seal cocked its head, then slid back into the water.
I think I’m too hungry to care. Shaking his head, he stood up and stumbled away from Silren. The rocky beach gave way to a dry alpine meadow. He plopped down onto the scratchy grass and groaned. The sun had sunk behind the craggy peaks before they had made the water’s edge, and the chill in the air made Ashton think of Fall. Too bad it’s the height of summer at home, and that my clothes reflect that.
Twilight leached the color from the countryside. The crunch of hooves echoed across the silent lake. Opening his eyes, he looked up at the Unicorn standing over him. “I’m hungry, Silren.”
They stared at one another. For the first time, with the leisure to take the other’s measure. “I want to go home.”
“Also, unsurprising. But the answer remains the same. It’s too dangerous.”
“It’s not just a want. I need to go home, Horse. Look, I can’t just disappear. People will be worried, my Mom for starters. And there’s my job. And even if I go with you, I need some clothes.” He tugged his summer weight t-shirt for emphasis.
“The Nightmare can find you there.”
He sat up, and hunched around his raised knees. “That doesn’t seem to be any different than this morning.”
“Maybe not, but here we can cross to another veil and stay one step ahead of him. At your home veil, I can’t be close enough to keep you safe.”
“That doesn’t change anything…” Movement down the beach drew his attention from the conversation.
A young man approached. He wore loose brown pants and shirt. His wet hair was slicked back from his forehead. He held a string of fish in one hand and a bundle of wood in the other. He laid his burdens to the side then started to move rocks making a depression on the beach.
“Hello?” Ashton rose to his feet.
Silren stepped in front of him. “He won’t understand you Ash. Besides, Selkies tend to be quiet.”
Silren said something in that strange language. The man looked up from his task, and Ashton met liquid brown eyes. After a moment of study, the stranger nodded his head and went back to building a fire.
The Unicorn stepped aside and moved closer to the newcomer, so Ashton followed. “Dafydd will cook you some fish. After a couple of good meals, and a solid night of normal sleep, you’ll feel more like yourself.”
His stomach growled. Damn it, he’s right. He needed to recover his strength to gain any hope of convincing the horse to take him home.
The stars twinkled in the cloudless sky. Ashton pulled the rough wool blanket tighter around his shoulders and settled back against Silren’s side. The fire, that he had just added wood to, blazed up. Pleasantly full of warm fish, his eyes started to droop shut.
“We should be safe from the Nightmare here tonight. As a rule they aren’t overly fond of large bodies of water.” The rumble of Silren’s voice woke him back up. “When he sent you dreams, what were they about?”
Ashton spent a moment rocking a better depression in the gravel to give himself some time to think. “I’m not sure about all of the dreams. Most of them were just night mares, you know. Disturbed my sleep, but I don’t remember the details.”
“What about when you received the mark? Do you remember that one?”
He shivered. Oh yeah, I remember that one.
The silence stretched for a moment, then Silren asked, “Ash? Please? Can you describe it?”
“The dreams had become…” He cleared his throat, “more disturbing. I was having trouble staying awake by that point. I found myself somewhere else. That’s the only way to explain it.”
He pulled the blanket up higher. “It was all rock. Heat and cold. There was nothing alive that I could see, except a noise came from behind me. When I turned, she was there. A giant black horse. A very pregnant horse. She reached out, and breathed on me. The pain woke me up, and I had this mark.”
“You had an actual night Mare? And she was pregnant?” The Unicorn asked.
“Either that, or she was really fat. She didn’t seem fat to me though.”
“That’s not good.”
The dream world still remained crystal clear in his mind. With an effort, he turned his thoughts back out to the real world. “What does it mean?”
Silren’s tail flicked. “How does the mark feel now? Does it still burn?”
Exasperated, he sighed. “No. The pain seems to be gone.”
“Good. I feared the poison leaching from it. I had hoped that when I lanced it, the mark would go away. I’m not sure why it has, instead, taken on this aspect.”
The fire snapped and sparks showered into the air. “Where are you taking me, since you won’t take me home?” He turned his head and met the Unicorn’s eye.
“From what I can tell, the mark has caged your power. Instead of releasing it with my horn, I punctured a hole, so it’s slowly leaking out. I’m taking you to someone who I think can help unlock it.”
“But I don’t want it unlocked. I was perfectly happy the way I was.” Mostly.
Frustrated with the stubborn beast, he threw another couple of logs on the fire, and then settled down for the night. Snuggled up in the blanket that Dafydd had given him, he drifted off. His mind wandered. Pathways stretched out before him. And no matter how much he didn’t want to go, something still shoved him down them. With no care for how ready he might be.
The crunch of a log hitting the fire, and sparks spitting, broke into Ashton’s sleep. He opened groggy eyes, and saw Dafydd gutting more fish on the other side of the fire. The mist from the lake had settled on everything. He blinked the water off his lashes and wiped his face dry with the underside of the blanket.
Silren heaved a sigh behind him and raised his head. His nostrils flaring. The stallion spoke to the Selkie, and oddly enough, Ash realized he understood a word or two. Dafydd paused in his skewering of the fish and tapped a grass basket with his foot, speaking at the same time.
“Ash, can you grab that basket please? Dafydd’s wife made us some porridge. Eat your fill first, and I’ll finish the rest.”
Unwrapping, he leaned across, and pulled the surprisingly heavy basket closer. He made eye contact with the Selkie. “Thank you.”
Dafydd cocked his head, just like the seal had, then slowly blinked his eyes at him. He nodded once and went back to cooking the fish.
Steam escaped from the fibers of the basket. He lifted the lid and took a whiff of the cereal. His stomach grumbled in the quiet. A small, flat stick protruded from the mound of grain. He pulled it free and took a bite. Amazing flavor rolled around his tongue. Visions of dripping honeycombs, and bursts of juicy berries blinded him to everything else. He ate until full and only then realized his single mindedness.
The unicorn laughed, “Done?”
Ashton felt his cheeks heat. He set the stick to the side and placed the basket under Silren’s nose. There was still plenty left.
“Don’t worry Ash. Dafydd’s wife is an amazing cook, and you have over four days worth of food to catch up on.” He stuck his long nose into the basket.
Ashton glanced across the fire and met Dafydd’s grin. His sharp, pointy toothed grin. I’m so not in Kansas anymore.
He stood up, letting the blanket puddle around his feet, and looked across the open meadow for a bush of some kind. Giving up he just walked a good distance away. By the time he returned, Dafydd had finished cooking the fish and had stuffed them into a couple loaves of bread.
Silren clattered to his hooves. “Dafydd says you can keep the blanket. So fold it up, and use it as a saddle pad.”
Throwing the folded blanket over the Unicorn’s back, he jumped up and swung his leg over. A very satisfying act. Not to mention a huge improvement over his strength yesterday. He settled his weight, then reached down and took the bundle of wrapped bread that Dafydd held out to him. He slung the grass pouch over his shoulder and settled it in the small of his back.
He smiled his thanks. Silren pawed the ground and bobbed his head, then turned to walk out onto the grass. His hooves thudded the ground.
Some distance from their camping spot, Ashton felt his mark heat and begin to throb. A glance showed that Silren’s horn had started a soft glow as well. So. I can feel a veil crossing. That’s what the pain means.
I wish I could go home.
His thoughts and feelings, memories of home filled his entire being. The mark continued to burn but he ignored it, engrossed in his own world. The longing so strong, and worry about what his family and coworkers would think of his absence, blinded him to his surroundings.
Silren stumbled, and he nearly lost his seat when the Unicorn came to an abrupt halt.
They no longer traversed an alpine meadow. The terrain had become forested again.
“Wha… This is not…” The Unicorn slowly turned his head and pinned him with a blue eye. “Ashton? What have you done?”