My body jumps up and charges without a shout or sound. The Soldiers and unicorns freeze, confused. Prey don’t attack. I run straight for the unicorn and Soldier directly before me, leaping up and driving the dagger into the Soldier’s side before he manages to grab my arms and attempt to catch me. I twist mid-air, my body sailing over the demon’s horn and head, and keep flying by, bringing the Soldier down with me.
I think I lose consciousness for a couple heartbeats after crashing back-first onto the earth. As soon as I come to, I kick the man off of me, getting momentarily tangled in the grass and the damn dress while the Soldier struggles to orient himself. The beast-
That voice again!
-turns around and faces us. Seeing us where we shouldn’t be, he tries to turn his head to comprehend his empty back, but the bars on his neck prevent him from doing so. He turns his large eyes to me, questioning, unsure. The Soldier and I regard each other in much the same way, waiting for someone to make the second attack.
The demon rears up full, his deadly hooves inches above my head and sparkling silver and gold under caked mud. I flinch as he comes down, but to my shock, he unleashes his rage on his now former rider, pummeling what was once a man into the earth and grass, his grimy, mauve-colored fur now contrasted with brilliant red. Finally, the air sighs amidst the man’s and beast’s screams. Finally.
Dragons, I exclaim into my head, horrified. There is blood everywhere, vibrant as it beads down the edges of the grass around us. My eyes follow some drops’ poetically slow descent, and the whole world pauses to let me.
More terrifying than the screaming is the following silence, when nothing and no one even thinks. The unicorn is panting, staring down at what he’s done. I realize that I’m sitting, sitting very near the massacred, segmented Soldier and his newly-free, maddened demon. The beast remembers that as well and sharply redirects his attention to me. I shake my head clear and push to my feet, moving away very slowly.
The other unicorns resume fighting against their restraints, rearing and turning, their snapping teeth loud enough to hear over the wind. They twist and turn and rear, buck, but the Soldiers sit firm, use to such behavior. No longer concerned with me, the men beat their swords into the demons’ skin and their heels into their sides, only making them scream louder and fight against them harder rather than succeeding in regaining control.
My heart relocates somewhere in my head, beating loud and strong and definitively in my ears. All the unicorns are facing me. Their lowered horns face me. Chaos and odor and lude voices and Soldiers and hooves and someone everywhere. The unicorns and the men are all screaming and shouting. The smells of beast and man merge and sting my nostrils. Convulsively, I launch the dagger into the nearest man’s throat.
The Soldier yanks the knife from his right shoulder and flexes his hand, ensuring it works. How’d I miss so badly? Wind. I have to account for the strength and pull of the wind. How could I have forgotten that?
“Damn bitch! Get her now, Ernon.”
Ernon, already on foot with his demon tethered tightly against another beast, is a tall, ghastly thin man. His stench precedes him as he approaches me. He smells worse than the demons.
[That’s enough already!]
Greasy, long, ash blond hair sticks to the Soldier’s forehead and neck and down his back in thinning, sickly vines. He moves in slow, precise strides, expecting me to cower, anticipating his overly-confident walk will make me buckle and lay myself at his lack of mercy. He only makes my fists clench and release in anticipation with every drawn-out step he takes. I take a half step back and bend my knees, ready to fight back. He grabs again at his erect groin and the wind growls. I think it’s the wind. The demons are growing more anxious, pawing and grunting and shifting madly from side to side. Maybe I am the one growling. My legs are tingling with my defensive posture, but I hold it, thinking of my mother’s dragons, of their strength, of their fury, for I am the daughter of Elaar, who is the daughter of dragons, and I won’t die this way. Not by His or their doing.
He takes one step too close. My fist cuts through the wind and shocks it into silence before locking on stubbled jaw. The little needle-like hairs on his face slice through my knuckles. The snap of either my bones or his cracks through the hills. I don’t care. He doesn’t reel very much from the punch, but the fact that I had done it is the more effective blow.
[I’m right behind you! I’ll be there soon! Stall!]
Talking again. Wordless chatter around my ears. Taunts. Frustration. Anger. Confusion.
“Something different about you, woman.” The Soldier fondles his jaw. He says the word ‘woman’ as though it names a vile creature that slithers in the dark. His eyes devour me, rip through the clothes that aren’t mine, through skin I no longer know.
“Ernon, stop playing these senseless games! Jix, shoot her already!”
Explosion so loud you don’t hear it. You feel it as it rips through your body in that distant, odd, delayed sense of pain and injury. Your blood once vital and precious becoming sticky and grotesque. Vulnerable. Something tiny as a pebble so deadly, so costly.
The bullet in my shoulder ignites and throbs with thoughts of Talyn, reminding me of what I’ve lost and how I lost her. I won’t be shot again. Won’t be weakened by a tiny thing made from man.
Once so close and compact, nearly falling down upon me, now the Soldiers are spread further out, encircling me. An arrow is pulled taut, drawing my attention into its backward pull. Any second now it’ll launch free, make the air sing in the pitch only target and archer can hear (wind allowing). The suns reflect off the point; I see it from where I stand. Suns and the one moon reflecting in a tiny bit of stone aimed at my chest. My shoulder is screaming.
The dagger is in my hand again. I don’t question how as my father isn’t at my side this time to keep me armed. My fingers tighten, ensuring fact and grip and surety. As the arrow begins to slip, I throw.
The Soldier’s beast rears up at the same instant. I’d thrown for the man’s throat, but the demon moved! Then, as soon as he senses the coming weapon, the beast’s screams die and he descends in time for the knife to sink into the Soldier’s ribs. Man sneers. Then looks down, sees his blood, and slips to the ground.
I stand relaxed and waiting for this second beast to come charging at me. Touched. I’m Touched. Hills and hills and hills all around. Talyn is gone. He- not the people who’d invaded our house- He has taken her from me. Him. Bringing me here, having me killed or not, he’s taken her from me. So tired, so worn, so destroyed. Stamp him out. Take all trace of him away from me, I beg the unicorn. Stamp him out of me.
The center of my vision whitens out the monstrosity of hills and clear blue sky, and Talyn is there, suspended out for me. Yes, I cry to the unicorn, letting it feast itself on the agony that bleeds into my eyes and face. Yes, with Talyn all around, Take His scent away. Set me free.
Yelling, yelling, for this second unicorn is also now free. Ropes are being thrown over my head. But the demon’s eyes are changing. Black and bloodshot slacken into something that understands pain, understands the intense desire for escape. Any escape. Black and red softening into silver and I begin to weep, Pleeeeee-ase.
Two more chains cross his neck, grinding against the bars around his throat. Just a little rise, but he turns away from me. Broken, muddied hooves hesitate over his rider only in my mind as I struggle to process that he’s not attacking me either.
My leg feels odd. Wet. Hot.
Ropes flying. Men shouting. Unicorns angry. Wind howling. Grass bowing. Green, beautiful green grass. Under a sky too perfect, too false. The unicorn is already full into his attack, stamping his hooves down upon what remains of his former rider over and over while the restrained unicorns watch in glee and the Soldiers try hard not to see at all.
Two Soldiers dead.
Thin things tighten unexpectedly around me, pinching off my air, locking my arms against my side. Something about my throat, clamping tight. And a face, a too-white, toothy face under sticky greasy hair too close to completely see.
“I think that’s enough,” Ernon sneers, his voice low and toned with malice. “Get them tethered!” he roars, his fingers on my throat flinching, tightening, lifting. The unicorns are not compliant and they are short two men. The man I’d struck but missed struggles to stay atop his ride and the one restraining me leaves three to handle seven perpetually enraged unicorns. “While I loved the chase, you can’t run anymore. Feel that?” He reaches down and yanks on something imbedded in my leg, sending fire up my thigh. I gasp, choking down the scream.
An arrow is suspended in the air before me.
He twists it further in and I glare right back into his eyes, not flinching though the pain is nearly blinding and my head is going numb.
The point of an arrow is lodged in my right thigh……but the dress is now somewhat blatantly red, from the thin shaft of the arrow down into the grass blades that won’t help cut.
No, it’s not that the dress has decided on a color. It’s my blood. The last Soldier. He’d hit me. There’s an arrow in my thigh!
A cold foreign solidness begins to pierce into my awareness. The arrow has severed into my muscle, the tip is grinding into my femur. Nerves shoot pain down to my toes and up to the crown of my skull while ropes burn into my wrists, cut into my arms. My arms press into my ribs, constraining lungs that wish only to expand. But even if they could, the Soldier’s grip on my throat is tightening and I can’t bring air into or out of my lungs.
The sky around us is that even, detached blue, except where streaked by veins of night that never go away as the moon’s constant presence keeps the suns from taking complete control of the sky. Stars still shine in the triangular segment of night, looking helplessly down at the scene below them. But the loss of air is making earth-bound stars dance in my sight much nearer than they should be. The blank-faced moon, the searing suns, the raging wind, the hills and brightening stars and loss of air and the pitch black unicorn standing before me- I feel like I’m suffocating in a jumble of dreams and nightmares.
The noise, the chaos, the pain ends after my eyes track back to my right where an eighth unicorn stands. Behind him is a deep canyon of exposed, dark brown earth scorched into the grass and hills. By his hooves?
“Now you’re afraid, aren’t you?” The Soldier leans in so close that his lips scrape over the edge of mine as he speaks. He then realizes that I’m not staring at him, that I’m not acknowledging him, and that the unicorns aren’t grunting or shrieking, they aren’t dancing from one foot to another. The Soldiers aren’t struggling with them, and they aren’t yelling at me any longer. Even the wind seems to have retreated. It is deadly silent.
He whips his head around and gasps, his head tilting back to see the whole of the new unicorn’s head towering over us. Something as large and seething as he should surely have made some sound. By the layer of sweat on his skin, the unicorn had been galloping, though none of us had noticed him, heard him, been aware of him at all until he slid into the earth and stopped.
[That’s a lie. You’ve been ignoring me!]
I know this Soldier-less unicorn. I’d had a nightmare of him just before Talyn was taken. That’s also the name Mom would refer to him by: The Nightmare. And this panting, fuming nightmare stands before me now, snarling, his head lowered, his horn pointed towards me.
My brain has trouble processing him. He’s wrong. His color, his body. It’s all wrong. Blue sky and fresh green grass, somewhere behind me is snow. I remember running through snow at some point. Natural colors. Normal natural things. Under the dirt and grime and scars of these other demons, they bear normal colors. But The Nightmare is ruthlessly black. A black hole that draws in life and smothers it. In sharp contrast, his mane and tail are a dark red. Not the comforting red of my mother’s hair or the rare beauty of the moon That Night, but……the color of something once vital and necessary turned sickly and grotesque.