For several heartbeats, I sit paralyzed, trying to bridge the distance between The Alcove and here, trying to remember the journey, trying to comprehend. The whispers that had carried me to the lake trail on the air, carrying His promise back to me:
……I’m taking you Home. In the morning when you wake, that’s where you’ll be. I promise……
But that morning, I was not.
He was here, and he left me again. Again. Three years too late, He’s decided to fulfill his promise and bring me here? Why?
I crumple into a ball and shake, trying hard not to cry. The wind is screaming, the earth is quaking, but the full impact of what He has done rises up and I bellow louder than either. “Noooooooooo!” I drag the syllable out until I have no more breath, and the wind pauses again, seeming a little shocked at my reaction. I lunge forward onto my hands and knees, digging my fingers into the earth and throwing fistfuls of grass still attached to their roots down the hill.
“Bastard!” The wind whips my scream back and turns my tears into slivers of ice it drives into my cheeks. “No! No! No!” I dig and pull and scream until my throat burns. The rumble of the earth grows more intense, nearly knocking me off balance. I dig my hands in deeper, the dirt severing the skin beneath my nails. My body begins shaking so violently I have to stop, try to think, try to calm myself. I don’t want to be here anymore. I can’t be here anymore. Not now. “Bastard,” I whimper.
Why? Why now? Why not when He’d promised? Why not when His daughter was born? Or before she was taken? Why now?
And why here?
I’m not simply in Home. I’m in The Valley, my mother’s blasted, specific birthplace. This is the region of her human mother Anin as well as Anin’s Soldiers, the men who’d hunted my mother down and murdered my father, who’d attacked the home of Mom’s foster parents and forced her foster father, The Wizard, to exile her to Chi-ca-go.
I stare into the impassive blue sky, seeing the distance between Here and wherever I was before stretch out interminably before me. Instinctively, I reach to my throat and let my fingers close on the emptiness as though my dragon charm is still there. He’d taken it when He’d left me that night. Can I find my mother’s dragons without it?
The trembling in the earth is more demanding. I turn away from the place where the sky touches the hills miles and miles ahead. To my left, on the hills, a hoard of muzzled unicorns pauses not far enough away, with men astride their backs. Soldiers. And they’ve seen me, and they’re stampeding full speed towards me. They are the rumble in the earth.
The wind holds its breath before screaming at me, almost as if he is yelling RUN, Lira! Run!. Yet I sit. Mom had said the wind is feminine, but it seems very strongly masculine right now, shouting and pushing me. I sit, my mind moving from the wind’s gender to marveling at the pinpoint clarity that allows me to see every detail of every unicorn clearer than if they are right in front of me. Twenty eight hooves beat down the grass while hot steamy breath from seven mouths cuts through teeth and iron muzzles to replenish the wind. The raging stampede reaches my ears not in real time but from the echo off the hills. Mom would never paint a picture of a unicorn, she’d only verbally describe them to me as the demons they are; and yet, I can’t stop my fascination, can’t pull my eyes away and act on the danger I am in.
Soldiers. All my life has been a preparation of encountering them. No, not encountering: fighting them. They will take their time before killing me for being born female.
I am so tired of fighting, of the word, of the effort, of the attempt. I fought to protect my daughter, but what did it do? Those people still took her. I fought to maintain my faith and love for her father, but what did that do for me? And now, He’s brought me Home at last; yet once again, he left me before I could even open my eyes; left me, once again, to fight alone.
I put my hand on the buzzing spot on my forehead. He kissed my forehead before he left me. Left me to die. Was that his intention before? Did he leave me on that beach in the dead of winter on purpose?
Snap of metal reins makes me blink and focus again. The Soldiers are leaning forward and shouting, hitting their demons with barbed whips that rip long new gashes into dirty, deeply scarred hides of brittle, sparse, worn fur. They’re racing closer and closer. Unicorn grunts and growls escape metal muzzles that prevent their razor teeth from ripping into the human male flesh astride their backs. Unicorn teeth push out from thinned, cracked lips, saliva dripping as they gallop. Their eyes bulge thick with unspeakable hate and rage. There’s the smell of man above them.
Smell of man before them: on me, in me.
Suddenly, the comprehension of RUN falls upon me with a too-late sense of urgency. I trip on the damn dress tangled around my legs while trying to pull off a strange bag strapped around my shoulder, getting tangled in the bag’s strap in my panic. Once freed from both, I hurl the bag down the hill, not caring as what appears to be food tumbles free, because, I take off running as fast as I can. Though the wind seems to hold back in momentary respite, I stop breathing completely. Hoof beats abuse the ground so closely they upset my steps and make me stumble at every footfall. My back becomes singed by unicorn breath. I no longer hear the wind, I hear myself being chased. Feel not grass, not sunslight, but hooves clipping my heels, hands stretching out to grab me.
My lungs and throat burn, scorched dry as I pant and run so fast I have no awareness of what my legs and feet are doing. If I think, if I search for my legs I’ll upset the rhythm and I’ll fall.
I hike the dress that isn’t mine up over my knees, secure it in the grass belt around my waist that apparently holds a dagger, and run up and then down a snow-covered hill, never slowing on the hills that follow, sometimes propelling myself away and up on all fours, using my hands to grab fistfuls of grass to help me clamber up another hill. The Soldiers have dispersed, splitting into two groups to circle around and cut me off. But the next hill is wider than they have calculated and I come out yards ahead. But only by yards.
There is no place to run to. Hills and hills and more hills. No shelter. No place to hide. No one to help. He’d sent me to The Valley for a purpose. This is that purpose. Bastard. I pull the dagger from its sheath and launch it. It sails through the air, turns slowly back and slides itself home into its casing.
Home. I am in Home.
I yank the dagger out and pitch it harder, grunting, screaming, crying. It returns quietly.
Just as I top another hill, I trip on the damn dress that has freed itself from the belt. For one brief moment I fly- it feels as though wings have sprouted from my back and suspend me, will glide me to safety.
Yet too quickly I crash into the ground and begin rolling. Twenty eight heavily muscled unicorn legs with blade-sharp hooves rip holes into the earth behind me as I somersault downward. Their hooves and legs are use to this terrain, use to running and chasing and attacking and killing. The beats of their hooves echo in my head, in whichever part of me that smashes onto the earth as I tumble and spin down the hillside.
I shut my eyes and protect my head, waiting to reach the bottom of the hill and for it all to be done with. Seven Soldiers. Seven sweating bodies lewdly growing more and more excited with the chase. Seven pairs of eyes already shredding me apart and seven revolting voices shouting at me from all around. I hear their voices now in-between crashes and rolls; quick escapes of syllables immediately inhaled and swallowed by the wind, which doesn’t want me to hear what they’re saying.
Abruptly, I stop rolling.
I lay still, unable to move or breathe, staring upwards at the double suns and the single moon, taking count of my body to be sure all of it has followed the descent. I hurt in places I never knew I had. My lungs have exploded and there’s no use in breathing. But……two suns shine overhead. Two suns. Because I am in Home. I am in Home.
I hold the sob in.
[Are you alright? Just stay where you are! I’m on my way!] The panting voice forces its way into my head, jolting me into consciousness. I shake my head and swat at my ear. The voice leaves.
The Soldiers are closing in. I sit up and they’re before me, no longer galloping or running or really even moving at all. A few Soldiers unhook barbed ropes from their sides. They are laughing, jeering, tugging their crotches, their lips drawn over snarling teeth as they kick their beasts to walk towards me. I know what Valley men are, how twisted they’ve become. I know what they’ll do to me, and I know how much worse they’ll do if they learn who I come from.
The wind lets out a long, angered yet helpless howl.
Cracked, bleeding, wind-torn Soldier lips move but what they spit out the air shreds and still won’t allow me to hear. I can’t feel my legs and I worry that since I’ve stopped running, I will not be able to run again.
The unicorns are completely crazed. They fight against the Soldiers holding them back, their eyes fixated madly upon me. There are long, metal braces around their necks to prevent them from turning their heads and attacking the men. Blood drips down the metal where the sharpened tips repeatedly stab them as they keep fighting to move. The only real way for them to release their immeasurable fury is to go after whatever they can that holds the scent of man. And now, that is me. In this part of the world of my parents’ birth, with Soldiers and Anin and unicorns, I would be called Touched.
Which is laughable, as we had done much more than just touch. Bastard. Curse him for what he’s done to me, for what loving him has cost me. I’ve already been cursed for it. But I will not be captured. I will not fall prey to anyone again, especially them. Mom had said the world has good it owes me, but they are all owed for what they’ve done.
I am not dreaming. I am in Home. He’s cast me at their feet- as punishment for losing his daughter? Who gave Him that right? To continue to do as he wishes with me?
My fingers lightly caress the hilt of the dagger. I grit my teeth and unsheathe the blade that seemingly won’t leave my side. The knife’s sound- the metal sliding slowly against a metal case, like a hiss, a purr- dances through the wind. And the wind actually allows me to hear it. The old, sickened feeling returns to me with the sound: the repulsion, the regret over using a weapon; but the sound, the motion of freeing the dagger frees me from my own sheath, my own metal skin that’s been keeping me weighed down. My blood is tingling, humming, knowing I have accepted that I’m going to fight. Again.
I’d fought against my parents’ lessons to no end. As a child I had believed I would never be a warrior like they. Now, though, I know that I should’ve listened more. Should have fought harder. I would have saved Talyn if I had. If I had killed them all.
The blade knows that I have finally accepted it as well, and it vibrates excitedly in my fingers. Close your eyes and listen, Lira. Do you hear it? It’s speaking to you, was in one of Mom’s early lessons, immediately after I had been taken when I was little. I’d been angry and instead of following her direction, I’d launched the blade into the wall and stalked off. My father, Mihn, had been pretty proud of that. From then on he’d insisted that knives were my weapon. And now I’m in Home, and one small knife is all that Talyn’s father has left me with.
Who gave Him any right? He set me here for others to kill me for him. What about what He’s done, what He’s caused?
My blood is beginning to boil, gurgling back to life, feeding me. I allow the rush of pain that comes with feeling again. My body is screaming in agony, yet anger is a sensation we can manage. My eyes fix on those before me. My parents’ distant voices flood the hills with instructions and encouragement. Fight. Fight. Always fight. Because of men like these, that’s all my parents had known. Simply because my mother was born, and her birth mother, Anin, the Lady of Ravery, felt that her birth was punishable by death.