Abode of Delight
The King looked down into the cell and his lip curled up. With delicacy he moved the edge of his robe back from the filthy iron bars. Beside him, his Lord of the chambers did the same and then spoke for the king. "Is THIS," he waved a pale hand to include the five men sharing the dank and nasty place, "all you have?"
"Your Majesty asked for the common prisoners we have who are not your subjects. Strangers do not come often to Fair View," the Keeper of the Dungeon said with as much respect as he could muster. "In fact, they seldom come Lance Hill or River Twine. Few visit the Silver Tree Kingdom," he added, not mentioning that most people had far more sense. There was no reason to come here at all unless one was selling something the king wanted, and then the people with power were most likely to merely take your worldly goods and throw you into the dungeons.
"Well, if it is all you have, it is all you have. Bring them," the Lord of the chambers commanded, and he and the King turned and left, their cloaks of purple and red snapping out behind with the force of their going.
"As you command," the Keeper said respectfully to their retreating backs. He wanted to make a face, or a gesture, but he dared not. It was worth his life to mock the king or the king's chosen companions. "You, in there, get up! Up, now, and to the door. Jast! We'll need to scrub this lot. Jast! Where are you, boy! To me!"
Jast came, and the two jailers who had charge of this corridor, and the prisoners were prodded out and down to the Dungeon Hall, where they were doused with water and given rags to wash with. The scraps they were wearing were torn from them and whole clothing given instead. Boots, well used but whole, were provided. They were even presented with a cup of broth and a chunk of bread, and given the use of a pail so that they wouldn't in any way disgrace the Throne Hall.
The king was drinking fine wine from a thick and heavy cup of crystal made in the shape of a dragon. The lords and ladies in attendance drank from slender glasses in the shapes of beasts.
"What is this?" the Lord of the chambers demanded as the motley group was pushed into the room. They stumbled, blinking at the sight of daylight for the first time in many days.
"The prisoners you requested, Your Majesty," the Keeper said, and swept his bow very low.
"Oh. Yes. Step forward, that I might see you clearly," the king commanded, and the men were all thrust forward with the assistance of a lance in each back. "My wizard," the king said, "tells me a great well of Monsters has been opened at the base of Sunset Mountain, on the far western border of my kingdom. It spews forth a monster a day, and the lords are beginning to complain. I have decided to send a party to slay the beasts and close up the hole. I am sending my own son," he said, "to take care of the matter. He has asked for commoner prisoners to assist the servants. Balanz!" The king called his wizard, who stepped forward at once, lifting his golden wand. Sparkles of silver chased around the hem of his scarlet robe, and hid in his long white beard.
"I tie you to this quest. Listen, listen, listen," he demanded, three times. "You must obey Prince Willis in all things, staying near that you might hear his orders. This is so," he waved his wand in three small circles. "You shall serve as you are asked, even to the giving of your lives. This is so," he intoned, and drew three more circles. "You will in no way bring harm to Prince Willis or the party which accompanies him. This is so!" A last series of circles and he dropped his arms, as if weary.
"Good. Take them outside. The prince is ready to go." The king waved a languid hand and took up his dragon glass again, to sip at the purple liquid for a moment, his eyes already moving beyond the men who had languished long in his pits. Which of the ladies should grace his bed that night? There was no living queen, and he liked it that way. Estelline? He thought that would suit him. He smiled at her. Or... Bethany? Lost in indecision, he drank his wine.
It was high noon, crowds lined the streets and the inner court. On a prancing white steed, Prince Willis waited with four young men of noble blood, his friends, and companions on this quest. Ten fine mounted knights were ranked behind him, and on either side waited a force of twenty bowmen and ten axmen. Behind them came twenty servants, driving or sitting in ten full wagons, and a row of pack animals behind that.
Five men, former prisoners, were marched to the very rear.
Eventually, the crowds thinned, and were gone, and the company tramped through the farm country just outside the city walls. The sun was high, and hot, and the pace too quick, but eventually the line slowed. The five at the very rear of the procession at last had enough breath to use some for speech.
"I'm Kal," said the man first in line. "Bert," the second offered. "Tom," the next offered. He looked at the youth who was behind him. "You?"
"I'm Ray," the young man said, wiping sweat from his brow.
"And you?" Tom asked the old man limping along in the rear.
"Well met, then, for it is fortune to be out of that pit. I was there for three months, lads, and it was way and away too long!" Tom told them.
"Think you so? Mayhap you are right, then. Few leave the cells beneath that castle," Kal said. "I am from Thon, and I long to see those green woods!"
"Simple enough. Live through this quest, and you can return home," said old George. "The wizard tied you to this quest. When it is over, you are free."
"When we are dead, you mean." Bert laughed.
"perhaps. perhaps the wizard will become ill or die, and his magic unravel. Perhaps Willis will die, and free us all that way. There are many possibilities," said the old man, George.
"If there is food and water, and the open sky over my head, that is all I require for now," Kal said.
The young man, Ray, said nothing. He was a fair lad, with dark hair which hung in matted curls to his shoulders, and with green eyes and a mouth which, had it not been chapped and cracked, might have been called desirable.
The road was dusty, and the hazards of road apples and ruts made the going even rougher. Once, they crossed a stream, much fouled by the passing of their party, and in stepping upstream to find clear water to drink, they first felt the tug of the wizard's spell, so that in order to stay long enough to drink their fill, they were forced to suffer a headache, and pains in their limbs--and groins.
"A most cruel wizard!" exclaimed Kal, as they hurried to catch up to the line. Fortunately for them, the beasts of burden had been chosen with no more care than that given to other aspects of the quest, and it was easy to catch up with the poor halting horses and mules at the end of the line.
The day was fine, being at the beginning of summer, and it was well that it was not too hot, for the men on foot at the end of the line were almost exhausted by the time a halt was called for the midday meal. They were not allowed to stop and rest, as the soldiers and the nobles did. Even the servants, busy with setting out a meal, had the opportunity to sit down with their own food. The five from the prison were set to digging a latrine and hauling water from a nearby stream. Food was given to them, but the march started again before they had eaten more than a few bites, and so they were forced to finish as they marched.
It was an hour before dark that the party stopped again. George and Ray dug the latrine, and Kal, Bert and Tom were set to hauling water and finding and cutting wood for the fires. Long after dark, the five of them sat eating their meal, far from the dying fires the others had not offered to share, and when they lay down, it was without blankets. All were too tired to care, and woke stiff and unhappy with the first yellow light of dawn.
A hasty wash in cold water, a piece of bread for breakfast, and they were on the road again. George and Ray were given the task of covering the human waste in the long, narrow trench they had created the night before, so that they were again at the end of the line, carrying the heavy pick and shovel, when they began to march again. Kal, Bert and Tom had been moved a position at the front of the wagons, for their services were needed the moment the company halted.
Ray did not mind being at the end with old George. Indeed, there were advantages to being with the canny old man, who pointed out green plants which could be eaten, and even found them a small patch of wonderful tiny strawberries, on which they feasted rapidly, until the tug of the wizard's command tore them away.
The second day's march was much like the first. The prince and his friends rode once from the front of the line to the rear, and Ray had a chance to envy them their fine horses, with water bottles hung from the saddles and cloaks tied on behind. All were young men just beyond their youth, with beards on their cheeks, and all were given to laughing and joking.
As they approached, old George whispered, "Keep your head down, and do not look at them directly. It is best not to gain the attention of Prince Willis." So, until they were gone, Ray kept his eyes on the dusty road and bent under the weight of the pick he carried.
"At last," old George said, as the horsed thundered on up the line.
"They treated us as if we were not here," Ray marveled, for the hoof of one of the steeds had grazed his calf as they whirled around the end of the line.
"Best it be so. Prince Willis and his lot are not above taking a likely lad to bed, or so I've heard, and the march would be agony if you had been ill used the night before."
Ray paused to rub his calf, and asked, "Used? What do you mean?"
"Used, of course, in bed," old George said. He was impatient at times, especially when his own leg ached, and he did not suffer fools gladly. He'd been happy enough to see the other three prisoners find a new place in line, and had said so at the time.
"I don't understand," Ray persisted.
"Don't play the virgin with me!" George snapped, and at the other's red flush he stopped dead in his tracks. "Never tell me you are untouched! However could that happen? You've a fair enough face, under all that dirt!"
"I was raised far from town, and grew up living with an old aunt, for there were so many children in my family that my parents could not feed them all. There was no one near to.. .learn from," Ray said, hesitantly.
"Dragon's blood! Then how did you come to be under the stone at Fair View castle?"
"When my aunt died, a cousin came to live in her house, and there was no room for me, and so I was on my way to the village when I was set upon by traders. It seems they did not have enough money to pay the trade tax, and so they traded me to the taxman, saying he could have a year of my labor to pay for it. No one listened when I insisted I was a free man, and not of their party. The tax man knew if he did not take my work in payment he would not make his quota--and he wanted the help. I managed to run away a month later, but was caught, and put in the king's dungeon for evading the king's tax."
"A sad story. Such a thing would not happen in Five Towers, where I am from. We have good rulers, and a fair kingdom," said the old man.
"Five Towers is to the north of here, isn't it?" the lad asked. They were marching north, as it happened.
"Aye, and I hope to make my way home when this foolish business is finished. You might give thought to going with me, Ray. This place has not served you well."
"Is there a place where I can get work, where I can live quietly?" Ray wanted to know.
"You can work for me, if you like. I've no children of my own, and would welcome the company. It would be well enough for you--if there's none at home as needs your care?"
"Oh, no! There are more than enough children to see my parents into old age, for they produced seven sons and seven daughters, and most all lived to their majority."
Old George looked suddenly more alert. "And would you, then, be the youngest?"
"Oh, no! My sisters, Bet and Mag, the twins, are younger than I!" Ray exclaimed.
George was smiling, a thin lifting of his lips that never the less seemed to convey vast amusement.
"Perhaps I shall be home sooner than I thought," he murmured, and then said, "so you are a virgin? Then it is my duty to explain what such might mean to you. You know what transpires between man and maid?" he demanded.
"They...uh...no," Ray confessed. "Oh, I know of mating, for I have seen the animals, but I am not quite sure about... about..." Ray was blushing again, and looked everywhere except at his companion.
"It's easy enough. More or less where you have your shaft--you have got one, I know, for I saw you use the latrine last night!--women have an entrance to their body. 'Tis there you would put your shaft, if you wished to make love- -or babies." At Ray's raised eyebrows, he nodded, "Yes, and your parents must have been rare fond of it, to make so many of you!"
"My father greeted my mother every day at noon with a kiss when he came in for mid-day meal," Ray recalled. "Are kisses part of it?"
"They are, indeed, lad."
"I thought so," Ray said, with a sage nod.
"What? You've never kissed, then?"
"I think I should LIKE to," Ray said, thoughtfully.
"I've no doubt! But kiss none here, or seek their bed. This is what I've been trying to warn you about! Listen! Tis long been known that if one does not want the babies, one has other alternatives. One method is to use the other passage down there instead of the slit above."
"But that's...." Ray began, his face expressing severe doubt at the very thought of such a thing.
"If done right, it is not without its pleasures. Done wrong, or by someone uncaring and cruel, it's a matter of pain and crippling. I tell you now, the young prince and his lords might seek to shaft you, and like as not one after the other, caring nothing for your pain, or even your life. Do you see now why I tell you to be careful, to bring no attention to yourself?"
Then take my advice. Leave your hair the tangle that it is--I've seen you trying to comb it out with your fingers, but it is best to leave it so. Keep your face averted--it's pretty enough, as I've said. Above all, do not bend over that they might see your arse, which is almost as pretty as your face!"
"You are teasing me!" Ray laughed.
"Dragons! I'm not. When you dig, keep your rear from the crowd, lad. If even I, who am not that way inclined, can see that it is a fine arse, then your must know that the prince will think so as well!"
"How very odd," Ray mused, still only half believing what was told to him. He shifted his pike to his other shoulder, wincing as his muscles protested.
"I've an idea, Ray. Best served if I have a word or two with the marshal before we stop for the noon meal. I will leave you for a bit. Remember, keep watch for the young lords!" With that he strode ahead, using his shovel as a sort of staff, and making better time than Ray had imagined he could.
Left alone, Ray spent his time searching beside the trail for the green things George had taught him could be eaten, and he was chewing on wild onion when a low sound caught his attention. Looking around, he finally decided it could only have come from the miserable beast which was last in line of pack horses, the animal being only a few yards in front of him.
It was a sad looking beast just bigger than a pony, with untrimmed hooves and a long, elf-knotted mane of dirty grey. Ears and nose and legs were black, and the body was flea-bitten grey. Old scars covered it head to toe, his tail mere wisps where part of it had been torn away, and half-healed wounds peppered the body. The worst one was on his forehead, mostly covered by the fall of the hair over the eyes, which was crusted with filth. Despite small protection of the coarse hair, the flies had found the wound, buzzing round it with interest. Whenever the poor animal was annoyed to action, and tossed his head to be rid of them, he tightened the rope which fastened him to the large beast in front of him, who took exception and lashed out with his hoof, and so the horse had accumulated yet more cuts and scratches on his front legs, which the flies also found.
As he looked at it, the beast turned its head as far as the rope would allow, and it made a small sound deep in its throat. The huge dark eyes were fastened on the stub of onion Ray was chewing on.
Hungry, no doubt, Ray thought, his eye sweeping over the bumpy vista of its ribs and the gaunt hollows of the raw- boned body.
"You'll not want this," Ray said, popping the last of it into his mouth. He looked around, spied a clump of grass to one side, and detoured to pull up some of it, which he offered to the horse. The soft lips moved across his hand awkwardly, and because they were both moving, half of it fell to the ground and could no be retrieved. The rest disappeared at once. Ray found another plant, a bit of weed, and offered it. The horse practically inhaled it.
"Horse, I have a bargain for you. Laden as you are, you may not care for it, but if I were to put my pick into the pack you carry, my hands would be free and I could gather you much more to eat. Is it a bargain?" Ray laughed as the animal bobbed his head. It was but the work of a moment to slide the pick into the pack, taking care that it was balanced and did not put more weight on one side than the other, for it was clear at a glance that the pack had worn sores into the poor thing's hide.
It was both more work, and less, to drift from one side of the dirt road to the other, pulling up the plants of all sorts. Some were accepted, fell untasted to the dirt, and Ray soon knew what his companion preferred. Soon it was time to stop, and Ray retrieved his pick and trudged up to the camp to begin digging. The rest stops only meant harder work for him!
George joined him there, working to form a trench proper for lords, who, standing with a leg on each side, could piss, and then squat, in relative comfort. All were required to use the pit when in camp, for the lords did not want to sully their fine boots with the waste of common folk, and whipped those who left such hazards about. The lords used the trench first, and then the others were free to take advantage of it. Most did.
Ray finished the job by cutting the pile of greenery which was stacked at hand for the fastidious and the lords, and then he was free to wash in the bucket provided. He joined George at one of the cook fires, and there the man who was in charge of the flat trail bread handed him a rucksack, and another to George.
"What's this?" Ray asked as they headed back to their place in line.
"Our meal, lad. I've struck a deal with the marshal. I told him I'm a herbalist, the son of a hedge witch, and that's true as far as it goes. Can you imagine setting out to battle monsters, and they've sent no healer along? Oh, there's a bandage master and a cauterizer among the pack, but none who knows of plants and poultices! I've asked for the use of a beast, to carry water and that our tools might be transported and we might more quickly reach the camp once we stop. I've asked we have no other duties but the digging and filling, except to gather herbs. The marshal granted this. He is also providing a blanket, and clean rags to tie up the herbs in."
"A beast?" Ray asked, most interested in that.
"He'll let us have the poor wreck just ahead of us in the line. He knows it is close to breaking down with the march, and hopes to keep it going a bit longer by giving it lighter work."
"I like him," Ray said.
"Ach, he's a match, that's true, for he's in worse shape than the pair of us!" George indicated that they sit, and opened his rucksack. Inside was a clay bottle of water, quite heavy, and a cup, as well as cheese and bread. It was more than they had the day before, when scraps left over had been all there was.
Ray ate heartily, drank his fill, and stretched out to rest, but scarce five minutes had passed before the call came. Groaning, he got up, and they went to fill the trench and join the end of the line as it passed.
The horse wore the pack, over which was tossed an old and filthy blanket, and was still tied to the end of the line. George untied him, and they filled his pack with their shovel and pick, with water jugs and Ray's rucksack. George carried his own bag, tucking things into it from time to time, although most of what he collected went into the pack the horse carried. The beast guided easily enough, and followed where they went, off the road as often as not. It snatched mouthfuls where it could, and was happy to stand when something was added to the packs.
When the line stopped for the night, they went first to the cooks, who accepted with gratitude the fresh herbs and wild onion which had been gathered, and then to their digging. Food was provided at the fire of the chief cook, a gnarled man of middle years who answered to Zander. There was stew, and if the portions were not large, at least it was tasty, and there was trail bread to fill the corners.
While it was still light, they searched the bit of wood they were near for more green bits careful always to stay within sight or sound of the camp, and when night came they bedded down at the edge of the group, sharing the blanket and close by their horse, who lay down beside them, they were warm that night.
Before dawn, Ray woke up and went to use the latrine, leaving old George the blanket and a few minutes more peace. He led the horse to the stream, and they both drank deeply, and then Ray took off his boots and led the beast into the cold stream and began to wash off the caked sweat and dust which covered the animal. Forbidden to clean and comb his own locks as he might wish, he worked instead on the tangles in the coarse mane. There were sticks caught there, burrs and bits of straw and mud. The horse stood, unprotesting, as it was fussed over, not even protesting when Ray pulled too hard or touched an open wound. When they were out, and as the camp roused, Ray went to beg a bit of grease from a cook to rub into the galls on the shoulders and sides of his friend.
Ray had never known a horse before, and he was enthralled by this one. He liked the way it nuzzled him, liked the soft sounds it made, sounds that were only for him. He loved the soft feel of the lips as they drew up an offering of leaves, loved the soft bits at cheek and ear. He liked touching. Since he had gone to live with his aunt at age seven, he had touched few living things. His aunt had not been affectionate, and there had been no other person in the tiny shack she called home. Aunt Tat had cared only for her weaving, although she had been kind to the lad who did all her chores and cleaning, and though she had rewarded him with a warm place by the fire and plenty of food, she had not been a toucher.
He had missed it, for he had come from a place where the children had wrestled and tumbled freely, and the adults gave out occasional hugs. It was not until he had spent several months in the dungeon that he realized how much.
And now he had a living breathing creature to tend, one who seemed to love his touch, one with almost human eyes which followed his every move with flattering attention. By the time the bath was over and the grease rubbed into the galled places, Ray was besotted.
Breakfast over, and party once more upon the trail, George and Ray filled in the trench, washed and took one last drink from the creek, and hurried to catch up, for the nagging pull of the wizard's spell kept them from lingering. They found a great deal to collect that day, for the way was through lush meadows until noon, and after that, through a bit of a swamp. It was later than usual when they finally reached high ground and stopped, and Ray and George dug their trench in near dark.
"Soon we will turn west into the hills," George said, as they sat over their beans and bread. "It will be colder then."
"How far is it?" Ray asked, as soon as his mouth was free. The horse was standing behind him, and it nuzzled his neck, causing him to giggle and offer it a bit of his bread, which it politely nibbled up from his fingers.
"To the Well of Monsters? Another ten days travel, at this rate." George sounded disgusted at the delays.
"Do you know of it?" Ray asked, settling down to listen to one of George's stories. He knew ever so much about the world, although his opinions about many things reflected a sourness which showed his experiences had seldom been what he would have wished.
"That place? It's older than the kingdoms. It is at the base of a mountain. The valley slopes down steeply, the grass ceases to grow and in the middle is a dark hole."
"And do monsters really come out of the hole?" Ray wanted to know.
"Aye, one a day, at dawn, some strange thing emerges. All are strange, though some are not fearsome. There was a wizard's spell on it for three generations, but after the death of the wizard it wore thin, and the monsters began to emerge again."
"What sort of monsters?"
"Flying ones, leaping ones, beasts with too many fangs or with poisoned breath. The dragons go there to hunt, for they like the challenges they find. Each beast is different, and all big enough to make a dragon meal. I suspect the king hasn't given thought to what will feed the dragons once the well is closed!"
"So there are dragons to watch for, as well?" Ray said. "Are they as big as a house?" he wanted to know.
"If it's a small house!" George stopped to fill his mouth again and Ray filled in the time while he was waiting with rubbing the soft nose which dipped down to wuffle his neck.
"And they fly?"
"When they choose to. Some grow so heavy they cannot, but those are wise old beasts, for the most part, who no longer need flight to have their needs met. Be mindful, Ray. A dragon prefers other meals to mankind, but is not averse to a little snack. They've a yen for conversation, however, and will spare a clever man."
Ray tugged a bit of his hair from the horse's lips and finished his food. He yawned as he cleaned his plate and returned it, along with George's, to the cooks. They drank water and settled down for the night, George on one side of him, the hobbled horse on the other.
Ray hated the hobbles, but put them on as required, waking up early, when he could force his body to it, that he might remove them as soon as possible. It was true that the animal now followed him like a dog. In fact, George hissed at him once that such behavior attracted too much attention, and Ray tried to spend his private moments combing or washing the horse under cover of darkness, and training him to stay when commanded.
The stubborn old horse could manage it for a time, but always, eventually, the word wouldn't hold and he would break away to search Ray out. He had no use for the others in the company, however, and stayed well away from them. When Ray was sitting around a cook fire, eating, or talking for a moment with one of the others the horse grazed--or at least pretended to. Care agreed with Ray's four-footed friend. His coat improved and became less straw-like, and he no longer moved as if there were rocks tied to his legs. Ray, too, was looking better, regaining muscle he had lost while locked away below ground, and tanning such bits as were exposed to the sun.
The weather, which had been pleasant so far, turned on them the next day. They moved off into mist which slowly became a steady rain. Cold, uncomfortable, unhappy, they were not allowed to take shelter, but had to march along in the clinging mud. The soldiers had oiled cloth, the lords and the prince had magic-ed cloaks, the servants could huddle in covered carts. The five from the dungeon were not welcome in the crowded carts, and had not even a hat to keep the rain away.
Noon they halted for a cold meal. The trench had to be dug, and it was a messy, muddy business, and for all that it was scarcely used. George suffered silently, although his lips moved, sometimes for hours, and his expression was grim.
Ray stayed close to his horse, tramping along with one hand buried in the sodden mane, head down that the worst of the rain did not get into his eyes. That night, after digging the trench and eating the too little, they huddled under a large tree, the blanket over them while they were pressed--George rather reluctantly--against the warm side of the horse.
Morning did not bring relief, but by noon the sky began to clear, and at noon the party did not move onward, but stayed on the spot, drying out both man and beast.
Ray and George, after digging a better, longer trench--heavy work in the water-logged soil--found themselves free from drudgery for the first time since the march began. They went into the woods to gather what they could find. Bloom and new growth abounded, and they filled their bags quickly. George took them back to the cooks, while Ray stretched and began, as usual, to groom his pony. Most of the sores were healing well, but not the one on the forehead, which, although it had scabbed over, was swollen and hot, as if infected. Ray washed it with wet grass and rubbed at it, since that seemed to ease the beast. When George came back, Ray called him over at once.
"Look," he said, pulling aside the fall of hair which usually hid the wound. "George, something's wrong with Sunshine."
"Sunshine, is it?" Although George could appreciate why the lad chose that name, his tone said he found it a singularly inappropriate one. "Let me...." George's voice trailed away. "Dragons!" he swore, and let the forelock fall back over the angry looking lump.
"What...." Ray began, but George waved him silent. "What a fool I am," George informed the world at large, and he began to pace back and forth, almost stamping in his fervor. "In front of my eyes, it was, and me not able to see. Blind!" he insisted to the world, "Can it be I am as old as that, to not see, not remember...."
"George?" Ray asked, quite tentatively.
"Sorry, lad. It explains much, you see, and is of some use. What I tell you, Ray, must be a secret. Do you understand?" When Ray nodded solemnly, he insisted, "Swear it!"
"On Sunshine's mane," Ray swore, his hand clutching the mingled white and black strands as he spoke.
"Well enough, I suppose. This is not," he paused dramatically, "a horse. This is," he paused again, "a unicorn!"
"A unicorn? But, all know they are shy monsters who scorn to be near mankind. And.. they have great white and silver horns growing out of. ..their...."
"Aye, lad, you see? Tis obvious this poor beastie had his horn wrenched from him by violence. The are magic, you know, unicorn horns, for they can detect both poison and enemies. The horn was probably sold for five hundred gold coins."
"So much?" Ray gasped. A gold coin could feed a man for a year, if he were a careful man.
"At the very least. How he came to be among the nags at Fair View castle is a story he must tell you one day."
"Tell me? But...." Ray looked confused.
"Oh, they do not speak, but they have a way of making their thoughts known. He cannot do this now, for his horn is not yet reborn. As the horn grows longer, its power grows. There will be little to give us away at first. Fortunately, it looks to be a few days yet before the horn emerges, for we would not want those louts," he waved at the camp, "to have any inkling of it. If luck is with us, though, it will come forth before we reach the Well of Monsters. With the aid of a unicorn, we may yet live to see another year!"
"Sunshine will be able to talk to me?" Ray said, focused only on that wonderful idea.
"And he'll tell you his name, which will like be some uncommon, odd one. The unicorns were always given to fancy and frills. And," George remembered, "virgins, as I recall. No wonder he finds you such a delight! Most like, you are the only virgin in this company!"
"But I thought t'was maidens the unicorn favored," Ray said, unhappy at the thought that he was second best, that his Sunshine might, given true choice, leave him for the fair sex.
"Oh, some, but it's the innocence they look for, Ray, and not the sex. Life partner, they want. They look for one among the children of man, for those have hands, which they do not. It is a good partnership, with value to both sides. They want the innocent, for once a man has been with a maid, or a maid with a man, they have certain expectations, which they will yearn for again. If they come first to the unicorn, then that is the pattern they will learn, and they will not dream of the other. Tis a hard thing for a unicorn to lose a partner, Ray. They sometimes die with the loss of their loved one. Be very careful how you proceed now. Should you go with the unicorn, be very sure of your heart. It would break his own heart, to lose you, then."
Ray nodded, understanding how important that was, but not understanding something else. "What is it the unicorn wants, what is it that happens...."
"That, lad, I cannot tell you, for that is the secret only the unicorns and their mates can know."
"Best get busy, now, Ray. The kitchen was pleased with the greenery--some of it will even be served to the prince this night--but they would have more if they could. And I would like more of the herb with the fuzzy leaves all in a line, which here is called snakeheart, but in my country, hen eggs. Too, there might be here a certain mushroom, which you must not eat, with yellow stem and red underbelly, which can be used in wounds to slow the flow of blood. Too, I should like...."
As he listened to the old man, Ray never took his eyes off Sunshine.- A unicorn! He had thought unicorns to be smaller, slender things, and Sunshine, although not as tall as a true horse, was heavy of bone and had a strong back. His head seemed too big for his size, short, his cheeks chunky and his neck thick.
Sunshine nuzzled Ray's shoulder, and then blew on his skin, getting him all damp and causing him to first laugh and then attend to business. Ray picked herbs with a will, and even found a patch of mushrooms of the edible kind, of which he picked a huge amount. He, too, was welcomed warmly when he arrived with them at camp, but he did not stay. Hurrying back to Sunshine, he went on with his collecting, eating the bits of fruit he found, and the tender leaves of the new dandelions. He picked a wild rose, pink as morning, and tucked it into Sunshine's mane.
"You deserve garlands and pearls," he whispered in the ear which turned in his direction. "You should have red silk ribbons braided into your mane, and be brushed with the finest boar bristle brush!" Such is love that he meant every word of it. He did not see the scars, the abused body, the pack sores, or the feet which were sometimes swollen at the end of a day. He only saw his Sunshine, and felt himself unworthy to companion a unicorn. And, too, in the deepest part of his heart, he was wondering what it was, exactly, that unicorns did with their chosen ones....
That night, uncomfortable with the still damp ground on which he lay, and uncovered, for the blanket had not dried enough for use, he lay against Sunshine's warm shoulder and wondered what the future would bring. How could they slay the monsters and close the well? No doubt the prince and his companions sat around the fires and made grand plans, but what did they know of fighting monsters? He had no doubt that they would send in their armed men, and sit back and watch the battle, and lay bets and laugh. Perhaps they would take back the heads of huge beasts, to be mounted on the castle walls. The prince could return, after all. Every one of the party could return--except for the five who had been criminals, who had no stake in the fight and who were not going for glory or money.
What the wizard had said had bound the five of them to the quest, and of those five, Kal and Bert and Tom were but ordinary men of little imagination, and George was not young. A terrible conviction came to Ray.
He was going to have to figure out how to kill monsters and block the well. He was, he thought with growing horror, the true hero of this quest, the one on whom the others needs must depend.
The thought made him positively ill. He was no hero, marching into the fray with armor and noble steed, flags waving; he was only a country boy, inexperienced. Of course, he had Sunshine, but what could a poor damaged unicorn, who didn't even have a horn yet, do to help?
Sunshine leaned down, running his soft muzzle the length of his arm, reassuring him. Could Sunshine understand his worries? The head bobbed, and Ray felt warmer, and happy. There was no solution that he could discover, but sharing it with Sunshine lifted his heart. He kissed the velvet nose and settled down for a full night's sleep.
It was a good thing he had Sunshine to be the center of his interest, because George became a very unsatisfactory companion. He had taken to mumbling to himself, and often, staring at the sun or the stars, and then drawing numbers and odd figures in the dirt. George didn't want to talk, and he snapped or cursed if interrupted in his calculations, and Ray was happy enough to leave him alone.
The land had begun to rise, and soon they were in the mountains. It was colder as they moved higher, and the one blanket was not enough, even when the warmth of a unicorn pressed by Ray's side. It was harder to dig a trench in the stony mountain earth, and there were less herbs to find. With less to supplement their diet, the men were offered bland fare, of which they complained. Rations were smaller and everyone was often hungry--except for the nobles, who had all they desired--and there was less, too, for the unicorn.
Still, the air was fresh here, alive in ways Ray had never known before. The scent of pines on the air invigorated him, and the wind in his hair seemed to ruffle his spirit as well as the tumbled curls. Every morning and every night he would stand beside Sunshine, rubbing his hand over the swollen lump on his forehead. Ray could feel the shape of the horn under the tender skin, and knew that it would not be long before it would break free. Sometimes, too, in those dark moments when they were all alone, the unicorn would lick him with his tongue, delving into ticklish spots and nibbling there as well. It felt strange; and Ray would stand, shivering half from the cold and half from the strangeness of it. very often, where Sunshine nuzzled, his body would warm in a most unusual way, and he would long for things he had no name for.
One morning, as he stood in the dawn's first light, his unicorn licking at his nipples and his toes curling with the delight of it, he was distracted by a sound. Looking up, he saw, at the edge of the clearing, a huge vague shape. It had, perhaps, horns, and also, mayhap, a long tail. It definitely had teeth. It was descending on the pack animals, who were scrambling up or away with the first hints of panic in their white eyes.
Ray screamed, loudly, calling for help, and the guards were shouting, and arrows flew. The monster was chased away into the forest before anyone could even get a proper look at it. The soldiers were sent after it. Shouts, orders, noise. The people were fed and marching on the trail for over an hour before the soldiers caught up with them. They bore no trophy, but spoke loudly of the chase, giving their story to the lords with much embellishment and description. George listened to all they said, but when he came back to Ray he mumbled on about what fools they all were, and went back to his calculations and mutterings.
Ray and Sunshine were forced to stay closer to the group, to their mutual annoyance. The road was now a trail, barely wide enough for the wagons, and at the end of the day, that had dwindled to a path only wide enough for a horse. Therefore, the prince decided to make a permanent camp in the middle of a wide meadow. That night, they chose the best place for a semi-permanent camp.
The wagons were pulled into a circle, the cook-fires in the middle. George and Ray began to dig their trenches, one within the circle for the use of the nobles, and three long lines outside, for the use of the others. In the morning, the prince and a force of fighting men prepared to go on to the Well of Monsters, which was a half day's travel away. Leaving only a few bowmen and axmen behind, with one knight to be in charge, he rode off at the head of his small army.
Everyone else left at the base camp kept busy. Even though the prince had ordered his spell-bound servants to stay behind, it was uncomfortable for them when the prince rode away, for the spell tugged at them, insisting that they were to be within hearing distance of the prince. The prince's own voice had ordered the opposite, however, and the magic, which also demanded that the prince be obeyed in all things, gave in to the pressure, although with poor grace.
Ray and George went over the meadow for herbs and food plants, wishing to glean what they could before the horses trampled or ate what was there. They dug up a bed of wild parsnips and washed them in the tiny stream which meandered through the grassy meadow. Several of the servants went out to hunt, and brought back three deer.
Ray and Sunshine retreated to the edge of the forest, for it distressed Sunshine greatly to see the poor beasts disemboweled, skinned and cut up. It was there, in dappled sunlight, that it happened. Ray, as usual, reached up to rub the itchy swelling on Sunshine's forehead, and--it broke. Sticky clear liquid cascaded over his fingers, as well as a thread of blood, as the flesh parted. It looked painful, but it must have been a relief, too. A startlingly white nub, with just the barest tracery of silver banding it, now poked out of the fall of the forelock.
It was beautiful, even in its infancy, and Ray reached up, hesitatingly, to touch it. Sunshine like that, rubbing it against Ray's fingers to urge that the human massage the tender area. Ray cooperated, fascinated by the hard surface that seemed to glow with an inner light.
Then, a voice Ray could not hear, but which came through his bones, through his blood, whispered, "Ray...."
"Sunshine?" Ray asked aloud, confused, for he knew instinctively that this was the unicorn's voice.
"My name," the whisper voice continued, rich as cream, light as air, "Is Abode of Delight."
"Abode of Delight?" Ray whispered back, enchanted. "Abode- of-Delight," he said, more quickly. He came closer, so that he was pressed up close to the unicorn. The almost-horse smell which he liked so much ticked his nostrils, and Ray rubbed worshipfully at the emerging stub of horn and gazed into the dark eyes. For the first time he saw that they were not merely dark, but a deep midnight blue, fringed with lush dark lashes. "You are beautiful," he told his friend. "The most beautiful thing in the world!"
The unicorn acknowledged that this was true, but offered also praise for Ray, whispering how strong and soft his hands were, how lovely his face and grass-green eyes. Caught up in mutual affection and admiration, they did not at first hear George approach.
"So, it has happened." George did not sound happy about it at all.
"Go away, wizard. Leave us in peace," Abode of Delight demanded.
Wizard? thought Ray, confused.
"Best clot that hair with mud and disguise it," George was ordering. "Come along!"
The two followed. "Wizard?" Ray asked aloud, as they paused at the stream and he daubed mud over Abode of Delight's new horn. It was a shame to deface such beauty, but he could see the wisdom of it. It also looked stupid. It would hide the horn for only a day or two, if the horn was growing--and of course it would.
"Wizard?" Third time made the charm, even without magic involved. George looked up, his face dour among the wisps of his ginger beard.
"Not at the moment, lad," George said.
"Tell me," Ray begged. Beside him, Abode of Delight twisted his neck and let his eyes ask the question as well.
"Little to tell. I was court wizard to the king and queen of Five Towers. An evil magician attempted to take over the kingdom, and to fight him, I was forced to draw on more than my magic. If I had time, I would have sent for help, or built a crucible of power--oh, any number of things! The plot was well advanced when I stumbled over it by accident. I had time only to strike, at once, if I wished the king and queen, and their baby girl, to survive! I drew on my power, and it was not enough, so I called on all I knew, all I had, and drew upon my power of the future! It caused a great explosion, and the magician was blasted to bits, but I, too, suffered. I was whirled away to the edge of the world, where the endless sea meets the first shore!
"I've no idea how long into the future I robbed myself, you see. I will be without powers until I live through the time I stole. Meanwhile, I have been making my way back home, living as a common man, making my way ever northward." He sighed, loudly. "It has been well over a year! Every morning, I wake, hoping... and am disappointed." He held out his hands. "Not a tingle! At times I despair. I've no use for the poverty, either!"
"But surely, even with your powers gone, you are wise," Ray began.
"Aye! If I wanted to settle down I could build a business, or even work at a trade or two I've knowledge of, but then I would be far from home. Without me, they are unprotected from magic. If I am home, then the moment the power comes back, I will be able to serve." He sighed again. "They might, of course, have found themselves another wizard."
"But, surely, none as good as you," Ray said, with honest admiration.
"I thank you for the thought, lad, but at the moment I am only an old man. Still, as you say, even without powers of my own, I have knowledge. Did you know, Ray, that as seventh son, you can take seven blows before one has the power to truly harm you?" Ray looked amazed.
"The eighth, of course, is a problem," George muttered, and Ray laughed at the tone in the old man's voice. "Too, you have a unicorn for a friend. Unicorns have their own power. I am not quite sure yet how to..."
It was almost dark when the nobles returned, and they were missing men from their ranks. One of the knights was gone, and three of the axmen, while numerous others were wounded. Everyone clustered around to hear the tale.
They had found the well easily enough. It lay at the base of Sunset Mountain, and it was in the shape of a huge funnel, with bare rocks on the slope of it and a huge black hole at the center. A foul smell rose up from the hole, and there were sounds coming from it, odd booming calls and hollow shrieks. The knights described it in hushed, awed tones.
The group had barely arrived when the ground trembled and the dark maw disgorged a monster. The beast had a thousand legs and a head with sharp teeth, while on the other end a stinger as big as an ox was curved. The beast headed straight for them. Battle had begun at once. The bowmen had aimed for eyes and body, the axmen had hacked at legs and torso, the nobles and knights had charged it with their horses and lances as it came up over the rim. After an hour of furious fighting, the monster had been hacked nearly to bits and its strength had failed. It had flailed and screamed, but gravity had taken it down the slope and into the mouth of the well again. Sounds of death and feasting had floated up from that darkness, and then there was silence.
The company had returned to base. Wounds were bandaged, and then food and rest were the next priorities. The camp fell into sleep early that evening.
All except Abode of Delight and Ray, who lingered at the edge of the woods, engrossed in one another. Ray, who had traded a cook for a comb in return for giving the best of the parsnips to a certain pot, combed out more of the tangles from Abode of Delight's mane. He rubbed the emerging horn, and kissed the soft cheek. In return, the nibbling lips of his beloved friend wandered across his torso, causing trails of fire. It was late when they went to bed, sleeping in a heap under a sheltering pine, the proud unicorn head bowed protectively over the slight human form.
The prince and his crew went again to the well the next day. The beast which emerged to fight them this time was an enormous bird, which swooped and dived, so that three knights and their horses, and several bowmen, were knocked down, to flounder and fight to clamber up the steep slopes of the well, only to fail and disappear into the waiting maw. The bird eventually took enough arrows through its leathery body to cause it to exhaust itself, and it, too, went tumbling down the slope at last into the darkness.
On the third day, an insect dragged a big, pulsing body from the hole. Wings unfurled, fangs emerged, and it took to the sky with an angry buzz. It was faster than the bird, and more maneuverable, and it had an nasty temper. Again, the bowmen won the day, piercing it in a thousand places so that yellow liquid oozed from the wounds. The nasty stuff burned if it touched the skin, and the beast was shivering and screaming as it died, tossing the acid far and wide so that even the prince's cheek was scored. The insect tumbled off into the forest to die, and the band, diminished by the loss of yet more men, staggered back to camp to tend to wounds.
The bowmen were almost out of arrows, and they were wearily trying to piece together more of them. The servants, directed by George, were binding the wounds. When the meal was over, and the nobles were discussing what to do next, George humbly approached and asked for audience with the prince.
"With a latrine digger?" the prince asked fastidiously, but he allowed the old man to approach. "What do you want?" the prince snapped, after George had made his bow.
"If it please you, I have a suggestion. If one piled up rocks and logs on the perimeter of the pit, many such, all around, and then, all at once, if they were pushed down, would there be enough to clog the mouth of the well?" He paused and appeared even more humble, a task as hard as any he had ever undertaken. "I am just an old man, but in my time I have filled in poisoned wells. Tis not easy, for oft times it takes a great deal of earth, but eventually they fill. Perhaps, if there is enough pushed down it, this well, too, will fill."
The prince opened his mouth to reject the offer, but stopped himself. It was true that fighting a monster a day was depleting his troops, and at this rate, he would eventually find himself in the front ranks as well. He wished the glory which would come to a monster killer, but had little appreciation for dying in the process of attaining it. He considered. The peasants would do most of this work, after all, and if it failed, they were out nothing but time. He did not fancy returning to his father as a failure.
"Just the plan I was working on!" the prince exclaimed. "You are wise, old man. Yes, tomorrow everyone, with every tool and every beast, will go to the well. The soldiers will guard against attack by monsters, and the rest will pile up a great deal of debris. Yes, this is what we will do. Begone, old man, and prepare!"
George bowed his way out of the presence of the great man, his head bent, if not in respect, then at least so that his expression could not be seen. Everyone at once began to talk. George brought the shovel and the pick he and Ray used on the trenches. These humble tools were now some of the most valuable they had, and they were packed to be packed onto pack animals first thing in the morning. All realized that those who did not have tools would be doing all by hands, and so there was much cry and claim as the people tried to decide who would do what job.
After a meal of bread and venison, the camp at last settled down to sleep. Ray stood in the shadows, his arm thrown over the wide back of his dearest friend. Abode of Delight nudged and teased, but there was something wrong, and Ray could sense it.
"What is it, love? Something is wrong," Ray whispered into one curved ear, while his hand scratched just the right spot under his dear Sunshine's jaw.
"I must leave you tonight." The soft regret echoed thought Ray's mind and lodged like a stone in his heart.
"No!" Ray cried out, too loudly, and then froze, listening to discover if any had heard and would come to investigate.
"Tomorrow they will round up all the beasts and put packs upon their backs. They will see what I am--if I do not go."
Ray choked back a sob. Abode of Delight would leave him, and he could not follow, for the force of the wizard's spell held him tight even now. Still, he would not have his friend hurt--hurt again, he amended the thought, remembering that someone must have wrenched the horn from Abode of Delight's head.
"Keep... Safe," Ray whispered.
"I'll not go far. we will be together," the unicorn promised, licking the tears from his dear Ray's eyes. "I must go now," he said, and he was gone between one breath and the next. Ray slowly let himself down to the ground. The moon was full that night, and he thought he saw in the distance a flash which was moonlight off Abode of Delight's soft hide. He struggled to hold back a sob, vowing to be brave. He believed what Abode of Delight said, but there were monsters in the forest, and in his heart he feared he would never see his darling again. How could he live without that warm body near his, that tickling, teasing touch? And most of all, he regretted that before he left, Abode of Delight hadn't taken him into the forest and done to him whatever it was that unicorns did to virgins. He ached for it, and longing for it made his breath tight in his chest. Oh, Sunshine.... He must have eventually slept. He woke with the first light, and went to eat his simple breakfast of oat cakes and water. Soon, they were all marching along the path towards Sunset Mountain. He trudged along at the end of the line alone, for George was at the front, where Prince Willis could speak with him if needed. Indeed, Prince Willis was busy taking every idea the old man offered, and putting his own stamp on it, so that when they arrived at the well, the prince was able to lay out an entire plan, just as if he had created it himself!
Ray was put on the crew which rolled boulders to the rim of the well. Ray hated being close to the rim as they positioned the great rocks. It would be so easy to slip and fall. The inner surface of the hollow which held the well was covered in loose rock and other items he disliked to study. There were skulls there, picked clean by the birds, and part of a wagon, pulled over at some point so that the human cargo spilled into the center and was lost forever. Over everything was a greasy film, which not only made footing difficult but tainted the air with sourness.
After hiking all morning to get there and working all the rest of the day, he was exhausted when evening came, but the job was not done. A monster had emerged once from the well, but by blind luck, an archer had loosed an arrow at it just as it poked a massive head up through the hole, and as it floundered and scream, other monsters from below had taken advantage of its wounded state and dragged it down from below.
Night came, and the prince did not let them stop work. It was bright from the moon, which had been full the day before, and there was enough light for the choppers to fell trees and the others to roll rocks. Food was brought, hard dry bread and the last of the cheese, also hard. Ray wolfed his portion, hungry beyond belief, but tired as well. At dawn, George came to see him, pulling him away as if the prince had need of him, but taking him instead far into the woods. Shushing him, not allowing Ray to speak, George took him to a bit of a meadow, where a lake had formed.
Abode of Delight was there, drinking the water. He lifted his head when Ray came near, and suddenly Ray was so in awe of his friend that he could not force himself to approach. Abode of Delight paced towards him, head up, and the last of the moon gilded his back and his horn, and glittered in the drops of water that still fell from his lips.
Abode of Delight had changed. He no longer looked horse- like. His horn had grown several inches, and a spiral had developed, a twist that was white outside and gleaming silver within. His mane and his body were whiter, his hooves were now golden. He was enchanting.
"Wash yourself in the lake, lad, and rest a bit. Look after him until I return for him," George said to the unicorn, and it was half question, half order. Abode of Delight nodded and began to urge Ray towards the water. They played in the cool water, and then Ray cleaned himself, and when he took out his comb to untangle the bits of mane in disarray, Abode told him to see to his own wild mop instead!
How peaceful to sit here on the bank, his back against the sturdy bulk of his dearest, at last working out the tangles and muck from his hair. It hurt, sometimes, but Abode of Delight was there, to lick the pain and the tears away--and to tease his long tongue into Ray's ears and whisper about the delightful things they would do together when the quest was finally over and both were free to be together forever.
The sky was less dark than it had been a moment ago. George came, saying he needed Ray, and Abode of Delight, with a reluctant whicker, stepped back.
"What do you need me for," Ray asked, stumbling because he was not looking where he was going but back at Abode of Delight.
"I need your help," George said, and led him to the rim of the Well of Monsters. "I need you to cut yourself, and let the drops of blood fall on these stacks of logs and piled boulders. One drop on each tree trunk or stone, if possible. Three times around the rim of the well, at dawn, Ray. It will be hard. You are tired, I know, and the loss of blood will sap your life. This is necessary."
"Is it magic? Have you got your power back?" Ray wanted to know, as George took a sharp knife he had taken from the cooks the day before and drew it lightly across the thick part Ray's palm. Blood welled up, black in the half-light.
"Oh, magic, but none of mine. We need the blood of a virgin here, to make this spell, and the seventh son is lucky, although not as lucky as the seventh son of a seventh son. No, not my magic here, lad, but magic none the less. Come," he said, and led him off. It was not easy going, and sometimes he had to climb, dangerously, onto the piles of rock or wood. Three times they went around, and Ray, half fainting, collapsed with the last step.
The people were up, and the prince had come to look over what had been accomplished. Just as the first full rays of the morning sun touched the rim of the Well, there was a screaming call from the other side. All looked up, and Ray, who knew that voice better than he knew his own, opened his eyes and tried to get up. George put a hand on his arm, holding him down.
"A unicorn!" all cried, standing, pointing. The morning sun made a blaze of his coat, and his horn seemed to pulse with light. The unicorn cried out twice more, and then began to run along the rim of the well. Perilously close to the edge he ran, leaping like a stag from rock to log, and every time a hoof hit the ground, a stream of sparks flew out to fall into the well like stars. Three times around he ran, leaping over humans foolish enough to stand in his way, and when he was once again at his starting place, he reared up, screaming, and came down hard, so hard the earth trembled. He did it again, screaming louder, landing harder, and then yet once again, even harder still.
With a rumble, the wood and rocks along the rim tumbled over, all at once and from every point. As they slid and skipped, they struck each other and bounced, and the sound it made became a roar which grew louder and louder. All the debris which lined the inner surface of the well was picked up and carried along, and clouds of dust billowed up and up, driving the people back from the edge and blocking everyone's sight. Then, there was only silence. The wind blew the dust away. Creeping to the edge, the people peered down. The Well of Monsters was gone. Now there was a sort of valley, in the center of which was something which might have been sculpture and might have been art. A giant puzzle of wood and stone, each piece so smoothly set into its neighbour that except for color it could not be told apart.
Part of the rim had been torn away, and over that fell a trickle of water, which became a stream, and then a waterfall. The lake was emptying into the depression which had once held monsters, and the strange sculpture was getting wet. It would soon be covered and a new lake would exist.
The people roused, and cheered and made a great noise, and Prince Willis was congratulated at every turn. At last, when order had been restored, they collected themselves and returned to their base camp. It was only there that anyone realized that two men and a pony were completely missing. Searches discovered nothing, and the prince did not prolong the hunt. It suited him well enough that the old man was not present, for he was already in his mind composing the great story he would tell the court upon his return. The advice of old men who dug latrines did not feature in it. He was rather sure the old man, and perhaps the filthy boy who had assisted him, had fallen into the well as the sides of it came down. A bit of a waste, that, but nothing to do with him. He ordered a feast prepared, and went back to thinking up the words with which he would set out this marvelous saga.
At the base of Sunset Mountain, the old man sat, chewing on a salad of his own concoction and resting. He was very tired, and eventually slept. The lake filled, enough so that when he woke, he could reach water to drink. It was night, and he scooped out a bit of a trench with a rock and relieved himself before going back to sleep.
He woke, in daylight, to the sense of someone standing over him. He looked up, and then sat up, a smile sitting oddly on his dour face. Before him stood the unicorn, beside him young Ray--but a changed Ray. It was not only that he wore almost nothing, that his shirt had been reduced to a scrap which clung to one shoulder only, and his pants had been torn off at the knee. Nor was it the tiny scratches and bruises which peppered his body, especially around the one exposed nipple and up the slender neck.
The change was in the glow in his eyes, in the way he stood and the happiness in his eyes. It was all too clear that Abode of Delight had taken his virgin away and done to him whatever unicorns do to virgins--and it was equally clear from the look in Ray's eye that his virginity had been lost in the process. Ray looked in no way distressed by this, and in fact, a bit of a smirk lurked at the edges of his lovely mouth.
George stood up, thinking with regret of his lost youth, and of the few times his own face had worn that well-loved look. Ah, well. He stretched. "Are you ready to go home?" he asked.
Ray looked at him earnestly. "If Bodie can come, too?"
"Bodie?" George asked.
"Sometimes there isn't enough time to say 'Abode of Delight'," Ray confided, blushing.
"Aye, it's a mouthful," George agreed, and watched the blush come again to Ray's cheeks. Why in the world was that, George wondered, but then he thought perhaps he knew, and his own cheeks received the first touch of color which had touched him for years. "Bodie it is. Of course he's welcome, lad. I've enough plans to keep you both busy for some years. You'll like it in Five Towers."
"Is it far from here?" Ray asked.
"Over Sunset Mountain, and a week's march at least. More, aye, for I'm an old man, and needs must go slow."
"I won't mind going slowly," Ray agreed, stretching as well. Beside him, Bodie nuzzled Ray's neck and whispered unicorn words into his ear.
"Let's start, then. I've a yearning to sleep in my own bed. I've a nice house built into the city wall, you know, with good big rooms and a cook who makes the best bread and cakes in the town." Assuming no young jackass had tried to take his position as wizard and his house as well. Still, that problem was one he would deal with when he came to it. Eventually his magic would return, for he could feel the shivers of it within his fingers. Soon. Perhaps even within a fortnight. He knew what he would first use it for. He owed a debt to the young man who had poured out his blood to defeat the Well of Monsters--and to the unicorn who had held off the consummation of his love for days at George's request. Perhaps a spell? He knew one which would bind the two of them together for eternity, so that no matter the cycle or what life they were born into, they would find each other again. Yes, he would offer them that, and he was sure they would take it.
He stepped forward to start off, and when he wasn't joined, he looked behind. Bodie had his neck arched and was flirting with Ray openly, swishing his tail and nickering. Ray had twined his arms around the strong neck and was whispering into Bodie's ear.
Humph. It would take months to get home at this rate! Still, George was hungry and not unwilling to take the time to find something to eat for breakfast. With one last look behind, George went to search for those tiny sweet strawberries one sometimes found in the mountains. He decided to look for enough for two while he was at it. For the time being, it was clear that any appetite Ray had, was not for food!
-- THE END --
Originally published in Other Times and Places 5, OTP Press, 1994