“I doubt you’d be able to afford it, waiter!” Tomlin shouted. “And a lame one at that! What did you do, trip over some history some time?”
Peter tried to step between them, but it was too late. Quicker than I would have thought possible, Old Tolly was over the desk. Or around it, or possibly through it, I couldn’t really tell, he moved so fast.
I got this limp in battle for the service of my king,” Old Tolly said through gritted teeth as he towered over Tomlin. “And don’t you forget it.”
I found. Telan had a queen, not a king. And the previous ruler had also been a queen. You’d have to go back at least 60 years to find a king. Battles, alas, were far more common, but still . . . I had thought Old Tolly was probably older than he looked, but surely not that old.
Unnoticed by everyone, they skies out the window had grown steadily darker as we had talked, and now a crack of thunder and flash of lightning appeared simultaneously, with a rattle of rain against the windows. Everyone jumped, and Old Tolly took a deep breath and limped over to the windows and looked out.
“It’s coming down gollywagners and hornfrogs,” he reported. We all went over and joined him. In the brief time since the rain had started, it had already gotten the whole ground soaked, there were puddles already beginning to form, and waterfalls running down the stairs on the other side of the parking lot.
“Did we get everything put away?” Jessica asked, her face puckered into a frown.
“I think so,” Peter answered, absently. His hand reached again to his pencil and sketch pad. “I hate camping in the rain. Everything always feels damp, even if it isn’t, and all my colors run.”
Tomlin stared glumly out the window, but didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what he was thinking. Me, I was thinking about Jasin out there, ‘enjoying the sunshine’. I hope he got to a shop or something and under shelter in time.
“We should be getting back,” Jessica said, pushing her hair back from her forehead nervously. ” Make sure that everything is securely fastened. I don’t want everything to blow–or float–away.” She was looking down at the debris floating down the recently formed river in the parking lot, and piling up next to the storm drain.
Old Tolly turned to say something to her, then stopped as another lightening bolt lit the room. It shown on Jessica’s pale hair, looking more wispy and fly away than ever, illuminating it almost like a halo, and reflected off the silver circular scar on her forehead.
He suddenly reached out his hand and grasped her arm, as she self-consciously reached up to pull her bangs back down over her forehead again.
“You have a unicorn mark,” he said, staring at her forehead.
“Well, yes,” she said, laughing self-consciously as she jerked her arm away from his grasp. “It runs in my family.”
We had mostly forgotten about Jessica’s soltanina scar. Some older folk still called it a unicorn mark, as Old Tolly had, but that term was frowned upon and falling out of favor. It had a long, complicated medical term, which I’ve long forgotten. It wasn’t particularly unusual to have one, lots of people had it as kids, and as Jessica said, it ran in families. Though it wasn’t unknown for one to pop up in families that hadn’t had one for generations. But usually, it started to fade at the beginning of puberty, sometimes sooner, sometimes a little later. It was unusual for someone Jessica’s age to still have one, but by no means unheard of. Most folks, though, were polite enough not to say anything if they noticed it. Some people said that having a soltanina scar as a kid gave a touch of brilliance to whatever a person did. I don’t know about that myself, it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy at most.
“I beg your pardon, miss,” Old Tolly said, pulling his arm back, abashed. “I oughtn’t have spoken so. It just took me by surprise, you see, after we’d just been talking about unicorns and all.” We all looked at him blankly. In spite of the occasionally used term “unicorn mark”, no one ever made the connection between real unicorns (even among people who still believed they had once existed), and a soltanina scar.
He looked at our blank faces and sighed. “It looks like it’s time for another story,” he sighed. He signaled to Peter, who was closest to his desk, “Would ye mind, lad,” he said, “getting me my crutch again? I fear that I won’t be able to get back without it.”
Peter, of course, obliged, and silently handed him his crutch again.
“Thank you, lad,” Old Tolly said, as he made his way back to his seat again. “I should have known better than to lose my temper like that. Especially at my age. It never ends well.” He gave a small self-depreciating chuckle. “Though I seldom get so angry I forget my crutch,” he said. “And I can’t go more than a few steps without it.”
We sat down again, and Old Tolly sighed again as he looked at us. The rain continued to pound away outside the windows, making the room still dim. Old Tolly reached into his desk drawer, and pulled out a remote. He pushed a button on it, and the lights came on.
“That’s better,” he said. “Dim light is good for telling ghost stories around a campfire, but I prefer not to have it mid afternoon, if possible.”
Tomlin sighed, and muttered under his breath, “Another story, and I still have no idea how much that medallion is worth.” But he subsided when I glared at him.
“You may think this is more of an old folk story than history,” Old Tolly began. “But once, long ago, when the unicorns roamed the Forest, they had a great need, so great that they over-looked their long term enmity with Man, and sought our help.”
“What was their need?” Jessica asked, leaning forward, resting her head on her hands.
“I don’t know,” Old Tolly admitted softly, looking out the windows. “There are several different stories about that, and, in fact, I tend to think that it might have happened more than once, for different reasons, over the centuries.”
Tomlin gave a snort over that, but didn’t say anything.
“As it was, though, the unicorns considered that the danger was too great for them to face alone, and so sought aid from the humans.”
“You said that already,” Tomlin said.
“And I’ll say it again, if you keep interrupting me,” Old Tolly retorted. “But they could not seek aid in their own forms, because of the long-terms wars between the two races. So their whole nation pooled their magic, all of them all together, and pointed their horns at two of their half-grown colts and turned them into humans, to walk among us, and talk to us, and ask us for aid.”
“And we gave it to them?” I asked, incredulously.
“Indeed, yes, though it was a hard sell, according to the stories,” Old Tolly chuckled. “Though of course, it ultimately made no difference in the Unicorn wars.” He smiled again, a bit sadly, then continued. “It took perhaps a year, perhaps only six months, to complete the task, but it was too long for the unicorn children. They were too old to be changed back, and had to spend the rest of their lives as humans. The unicorns considered that to be a huge sacrifice.”
He stopped, apparently considering that to be the end of his story.
“But the soltanina mark?” Jessica asked. “Where does that come in?”
“Oh, bless me,” Old Tolly said with a start. “Don’t tell me I’ve forgotten the whole point! The unicorn children, the ones that were changed, all bore the mark on their foreheads from where their horns had been. Though it faded as they became fully adults. They married humans, and had children, many children over the years, who also had that mark. As did their children, on to this day.”
“So, I have unicorn blood?” Jessica said, highly amused. She punched Peter in the arm. “Did you hear that? I’d say that unicorn blood beat out trolle blood any day, wouldn’t you?”
We all laughed, even Tomlin, though Old Tolly looked on with tolerant, though puzzled, amusement. He couldn’t know, of course, that Peter and Andrea had one grandmother who claimed that one of her ancestors was a trolle. If true, it was a very small portion of their heritage, for they hadn’t even needed to get any hormone treatments when they were infants or kids to keep their hair from growing, or a muzzle from forming. Though, if you knew what you were looking for, you could see some signs.
There was stall some prejudice against trolles, though no as much as there had been in past eras, so Peter and Andrea’s family didn’t spread the knowledge out wholesale. And, of course, prejudice against trolles wasn’t nearly as great as it had been against orges. We all knew about it, of course, having all grown up together, except for Tomlin.
No one tried to explain the joke to Old Tolly though. Our habit of secrecy was too great. Though I expect if anyone could keep a secret, it would have been Old Tolly.
We again turned our attention toward Old Tolly. “So, you see,” he said, as if continuing a thought, “when the unicorns left, they didn’t all go, they left some of their kind behind them. They just all had the appearance of humans. And of course, in time, they forgot, or never learned their true heritage.” He looked over again at Jessica. “And you, child,” he said to her, “if the old stories were true, I’d say that by some accident or design, the blood of the unicorns must run nearly true in you. To have kept the unicorn mark when you’re so fully grown, and not have lost it young, that must be a sign that you are almost a full-blooded unicorn.” He leaned forward and caught her eyes. “And one thing that is said,” he said confidentially, with the feeling of great weight and power behind it, “One thing that has been said, is that when the unicorns left, they went though a door, no one knows where or how, and then locked it behind them. And the door may only be opened again when it is unlocked by a unicorn on this side of the door.”
We all hung on his words for a powerful long moment in silence. Then came another bolt of lightning and peal of thunder, and the spell, whatever it had been was broken.
We all breathed a sigh of relief as the air thinned again, it had seemed to grow thick and heavy, with the weight of centuries pressed down upon it. Almost, I felt like laughing at the release of it all.
“They say?” Tomlin said, belligerently, into the general relief. “Who is ‘they’, and why should we listen to ‘them’? And how would anyone know about this? If the unicorns existed at all, they left no records, nothing to tell us where they’d gone, or why, or how. And that business of magic is utter nonsense, anyway.”
Old Tolly still seemed drawn into the spell he’d seemed to weave earlier, and didn’t respond to Tomlin’s words or tone. But gradually he appeared to become aware of us again, and stared at Tomlin for a long moment, as his thoughts collected themselves again.
“My apologies, young man,” Old Tolly said. “I fear that I have allowed myself to become distracted by these other topics and have not answered you fully in the quest for which you sought.”
“Finally,” Tomlin muttered, not seeming to notice the excessively formal tones with which Old Tolly spoke.
“May I see the pendant again?”
Tomlin again drew it out of his pocket, and silently placed it on Old Tolly’s desk, right in front of him, not in Old Tolly’s outstretched hand. He glanced at Tomlin, but then turned his attention to the medallion in front of him, carefully and gingerly running his fingers over the surface of it. After a moment, he pulled out a magnifying glass, and examined it even more closely.
“Yes, I’d say it was genuine,” he remarked. “I know several people who’d love to buy this. If you handle it right, you should be able to get at least 600 tolthan for it, maybe more if you put it up for auction, and manage not to alienate your potential purchasers. I can contact Telthban Auction House for you, if you’d like. I know several of the upper managers there. They’ll take a percentage, of course, but more than make up for it in service.”
I took in a sharp breath. Six hundred tolthan was more than four times what my parents made in a year. Not incredible riches, but more than enough to live comfortably on for a long time, if you were frugal. And Telthban Auction House, in Haranbeth, was known for only handling the highest quality items, from all the way back when Ester Telthban had founded it two hundred years ago. Even Tomlin looked impressed.
He and Old Tolly talked for a few more minutes, exchanging information. I got up and wandered over to the windows again. The lightning and thunder had moved off, coming further and further apart, and being more of flickers and rumbles in the distance, not bright blinding flashes and deafening cracks. But the rain was still coming down thickly and steadily.
“I knew we should have traveled down to Notor, or somewhere else nice and warm,” Peter said, glumly. “Not to mention dry.”
To my surprise, I burst out laughing, followed closely by Jessica. This whole trip had been his idea, after all. Not that any of us had had any objections to it. But it was his enthusiasm that had driven the trip.
“None of this was forecast.” I pointed out. Even that morning’s forecast had shown nothing worse that partly cloudy, with a slight chance of isolated showers. Well, what I saw out the window was definitely more than a ‘shower’, and I doubted that it was ‘isolated’.
The river down the middle of the parking lot hadn’t grown any worse in the time we’d been seated there, but at least most of the debris had been washed down it. Peter pulled out his sketch book and made a couple quick pencil drawings capturing the dimness and wetness of the scene.
In a couple more minutes, Tomlin and Old Tolly had concluded their discussion, and shook hands almost cordially. I think they probably still disliked each other, but at least they were willing to work together. For the moment, anyway, which was all that mattered.
We gathered our things, and got ready to go. I rather wished I’d thought to bring along an umbrella. Or even a rain poncho.
Jessica, of course, pulled a small compact umbrella out of her purse. Somehow, I wouldn’t have thought her purse large enough to carry even a small one, but she always was one to think ahead, even to unlikely circumstances. It was only barely large enough for her and Peter, however. She hadn’t packed one large enough for the rest of us. Oh, she probably had, somewhere, but if so, it was doubtlessly back at the cam, not with us.
Belinda, who was currently manning the front desk, cheerfully informed us that though they didn’t sell umbrellas or rain ponchos, the stores on either side of them did. Unfortunately, that meant going out in the pouring rain to get one. There wasn’t even an awning between the stores to protect us. But at least it wasn’t windy.
We collected Andrea from the kitchen, and headed over to the shop next door. Even in that short a distance, we got completely soaked. Except for Jessica, and Peter, of course, and they were still soaked from about the knees down.
Fortunately, the store was warm, and we had our choice of brightly colored rain ponchos to choose from. Even Jessica and Peter chose ones to supplement their umbrellas. I called Jasin, hoping he’d managed to get out of the rain before it came down too hard, and was dryer than we were.
He had, he’d been an a store looking at crystalline figurines, when the unexpected downpour started. This was in a row of shops that all connected to each other, so he’d been able to work his way down the row, looking at things he found interesting, then got a drink in a fast-food shop, and sat waiting until he heard from us.
Back at the campsite, we surveyed the damage. It wasn’t as bad as Jessica had feared. She had, of course, had all of us pack everything up before we left in the morning. We had even covered the firewood, so that if this rain ever stopped, it would be dry enough to have a campfire. If it ever stopped raining.
“Well, at least we didn’t pay extra for a river-side site,” Jasin said, having, for reasons unknown to the rest of us, tromped over to edge of the riverbank and back. “The creek’s risen all most to the top of the river bank. The sites down there all flooded out.”
“Maybe we should just give up and go to a motel,” Tomlin said. “Even if it stops raining, it’ll take days for everything to start drying out.”
“Nonsense, it’s an adventure, man,” Jasin said, giving him a hearty slap on the shoulder. “Would you like to tell your grandchildren that you gave up and stayed in a motel?”
“As opposed to telling them that I wasn’t smart enough to come in out of the rain?” Tomlin retorted, rubbing his shoulder. “I think I can live with that.”
“Boys, let us be peaceful,” Andrea said, going to the zipper of the kitchen tent. “I have a new recipe I’d like to try out. Fortunately, I’ve got all the ingredients. Get the camp stove and awnings set up, so I don’t have to cook in the rain. And be glad there’s no wind.” She vanished into the tent, and we could hear her singing tunelessly as she moved things around and started chopping. We all looked at each other, and started laughing. What more could one ask for?
Peter and Jasin set everything up like she said. I wandered around the camp site, picking up all the small branches that had fallen and messed things up. My toes started squishing inside my shoes, as my socks wicked up water. I longed for somewhere dry to sit down and get off my socks and shoes. But I wasn’t ready to go in the tent yet, since if I did, I wouldn’t come out until morning, and there was no way that I’d miss whatever new recipe that Andrea was trying out.
I did wipe down a picnic table bench under the awning, and sat on that, though. I was still soaked, even with the rain-poncho, but at least I wasn’t being rained on any more. Tomlin came and sat beside me.
“I wasn’t kidding, Ni,” he told me, “about that hotel room. Couldn’t you talk the rest of them,” he waved his hand vaguely, “into it?”
“Call me An,” I said, automatically. I’d told him that before, many times. “And, no. Perhaps in the morning, it it’s still raining. But packing up in the rain is far worse than camping in the rain. You have to pack up the tents wet, and they’re far heavier. And then you have to set them up again at home and let them dry, or else they’ll mildew. And that stinks,” I concluded. When he still didn’t look convinced, I added, “Literally.”
He scowled again, then got up to wander aimlessly over by the river bank, and stare glumly down the stairs we had climbed down this morning to get to the creek.
I debated getting up and going over to follow him, or staying where I was. The choice between being rained on again, against the probability of being pressed into work as soon as Andrea came out of her tent again. The sound of Andrea stopping singing decided me, and I stood up.
I couldn’t see Jasin anywhere. Peter and Jessica were sitting in the van, with the door open. Peter was flipping through his sketch book, stopping occasionally to add or erase a line, or pencil in some shading. Jessica had a notebook out, and was writing something. Probably a list of things we needed to do or grab if we decided, or were told that we had to evacuate. In spite of what I said to Tomlin, there was always that chance that we’d have to pack up and move, anyway. But it would be a pain. And it’d be dark soon, and the only thing worse than packing in the rain was packing in the dark and rain. That was also the only thing worse than packing in the dark.
With a sigh, I got up and wandered over to where Tomlin stood by the stairs. There were only three steps visible over the swirling water. The banks on the other side of the river were quite a bit lower than this one, and it was just below the top of it. That helped my concern that the river would continue to rise into the camp ground. It’d take much more water to raise the water level another three feet than it had to raise the water level the six feet or more it had already. As far as I could see on the other side of the river, there was only woods. I knew that somewhere over there was the caves and ranger buildings, and tour/gift shop buildings, but I didn’t know exactly where they were from here, whether uphill or down.
I looked out over the water, speckled with raindrops, and idly wondered why there was no wind We all had remarked upon it, after all, a thunderstorms like this one typically had a lot of wind. But then, a large storm like this one typically didn’t raise out of “isolated showers”, either.
I leaned up against a tree, and continued to watch the water swirl by. There’s always something soothing about watching moving water. When you’re not being rained on, and the water isn’t out to get you, of course.
I knew that shortly past the river bend downstream, there the river banks opened out on both sides, which is where the riverside camp sites were. There was a little bridge to drive across, a couple of rest-room/laundry buildings, things like that. There had been no one camped there when we left in the morning, though there had been when we arrived a couple of days ago. If the rain continued, I expected that it would put a crimp in our tentative plans for the next day, which were to take a picnic lunch and head over to Unicorn Hill, and either explore the caves (different caves than those across the river), or go rock climbing, and having a picnic lunch in the park on top of the kill, not far away from the climbing cliffs, though a sturdy fence separated them. The view from the top of the hill was spectacular. If it wasn’t rainy, or foggy, of course. Then you tended to see isolated batches of trees and hills that poked up through the clouds. Or, in really rainy weather, like now, just a lot of greyness. We could still take a cave tour, though, I suppose. They were fun. And mostly dry. Drier than the rain, anyway. But with everything else so wet, probably everyone else would be going along, too, which meant a long wait.
I picked up a stick and was doodling in the ground, much as Tomlin had done this morning. If it weren’t so wed, I’d have gone over and sat on the stone steps, but there was a big puddle collected right in the middle of the top step, where it had worn down, and looked like it’d be hard to wipe off. And then it’d just get collected again, of course.
But Andrea called me over to help her finish dinner with everyone else. I had to clear off the collected water on the awning, which always collected no matter how well you set it up to drain off. I did manage to do it without splashing anyone, despite being sorely tempted by Tomlin walking by.
Andrea had out done herself this time, again. Even more than usual. We had a good, thick soup, warming and filling in this chill weather. Everyone put full attention to the soup, while we sat at the picnic table under the awning, and watched the rain continue to come down. Fortunately, it was gradually getting lighter, even as the sky was getting darker, as somewhere behind the clouds the sun was setting. We couldn’t se any other sign of it, though, the clouds were too thick to let any color change through them.
We sat there, and talked and laughed about the day, as we gradually got sated on Andrea’s cream soup. I think a large part of it was mashed potatoes. And there was mustard in there, too. Just a touch.
By the time we had done the dishes (Jessica had even ensured that we’d have dry towels to dry them), the rain had stopped entirely. This let us hear the much louder than usual sound of the swollen stream, which the rain had completely drowned out. “That’s a relief,” Jessica remarked, looking out at the dripping trees and tents in the circle of our lanterns. I almost was afraid it’d never stop.”
“I told you everything would be all right,” Jason said, as he dried the last dish, and handed it to Andrea to be put away.
Peter took the dish pan, and took it over to the edge of the campsite to dump out. He came back with two forks and a knife. “I’m just glad we aren’t really trying to keep a schedule,” Peter said. “It’d have really been dorst up today.”
“Well, at least we can still go up to Unicorn Hill tomorrow,” Jessica said as she made sure everything was made secure again for the night.
But it wasn’t to be. The sun rose the next morning, and woke us up. At least we could see it this morning. It was still mostly cloudy, but you could look through breaks in them and see the blue sky beyond.
I got up before the others in my tent, stretched, yawned, and dressed the best I could in those limited confines, and stepped outside, trying not to wake Jessica and Andrea.
It was a glorious morning. I took a deep breath and looked around, glad of the sunlight. Something had changed, though. It took me a while to figure out what it was. Our little cluster of tents sat, just as it had, in the campsite, and I could hear the small burble of the creek, no longer sounding as engorged as it had the night before.
The sunshine was new, of course, after yesterday, but I didn’t think that was it. I stood blinking in the sunlight, looking around foolishly, trying to figure out what was giving me that odd feeling. I heard the other start stirring and arguing sleepily, so I started wandering over to the edge of the banks to see how far the water had sunk overnight, and of it was down again from where it’d been yesterday.
It was down, once again confined between the two riverbanks, but still not down to where it’d been before the rainstorm. It fully covered the area between the two riverbanks, not down into its bed. From the heights of the rocks and such, I figured it probably was at least two or three inches deep across the bottom. Deeper in the creek-bed, of course. One could probably wade it, if one wanted to brave the cold waters. I went over to go down the steps, then realized what I had not been able to figure out before. The steps weren’t there anymore. Well, the top four or so were, but after that, they had collapsed into a hole where the muddy water swirled darkly. I think that swirled sound of the water must have been what I heard. I couldn’t tell how deep it was, though it obviously had a bottom, for the water continued downstream from there like it always had.
As soon as I saw the hole, I stopped, of course. I had gone down two steps before my sleepy brain realized what I was looking at. I didn’t trust the steps any further down. As I stood standing there stupidly, I saw chunks of mud fall off the sides of the hole, and disappear into the swirling waters. I turned around, and was just going to step out of there, when the step tilted under my feet, and, with a loud cry, I slipped, and fell into the water.
*** Lookie! An actual logical place to put a chapter break! ***
I landed knee deep in the swirling water, and probably about ankle deep in the mud. But somehow I’d managed to land on my feet, even though now my whole body was smeared with mud. I put up my hand to try to push the hair out of my eyes, doubtlessly getting even more mud on my face as I did so, and looked frantically around. I didn’t think that I could climb out of there, the wall were sheer mud, no convenient roots or anything to hold on to.
“An!” a voice called out. “Are you all right?” I looked up, and saw a row of worried faces looking down at me.
“I’m fine, I think,” I said, with a little half laugh, at the ridiculous situation, and how foolish I must look. “Though I think I might have jammed my knee when I fell. But I don’t see how I’m going to climb out of here.”
“I’ll get a rope,” Tomlin said, as he disappeared from the circle. “Seek, where are the ropes?” he called out as he left. Jessica also disappeared from the circle of faces.
“I’m going to the office,” Andrea said. “Bring back help.”
“Don’t try to climb out of there yet,” Jasin warned as I limped over to the clay wall. The mud pulled at my feet, but didn’t quite succeed in taking off my shoes, yet. “We need to figure out how to get you out of there, without bringing those other stone steps down on top of you.”
“Good point,” I said, backing off again. I worked my way around the side of that round hole, seeing if there were any convenient tree roots to grab hold of once they came back with a rope. As I was feeling along the wall, suddenly my hand went through it, into a little hole I hadn’t seen. Through the mud, which collapsed around my hand, I could feel something hard, cold, and long, and my fingers automatically closed around it, and pulled it out. Tomlin yelled out as he and Jessica came back with the ropes, but I didn’t pay them any attention, instead looking at the muddy item in my hand. It was a unicorn horn.
*** Lookie! Another natural place for a chapter break! ***
I stared at it in disbelief. It had to be a fake, of course. There had been a lot of fakes made over the centuries, and even those historians who believed in unicorns said that the last one believed to be real had vanished into dust centuries ago.
I rinsed it off in the muddy water, and shoved it in my pocket, as Jasin and Tomlin figured out a spot they could lower the rope and fasten it, without danger of the other steps falling on me. I cautiously put my hand back into that hole in the wall, and pulled out a couple of other, smaller, horns, and stuck those in my pockets as well. As far as I could tell, the hole was now empty, as Jasin and Tomlin lowered the rope down to me. Peter, annoyingly at the moment, was making a comical series of sketches of the whole incident.
I climbed out, with the rope fastened around me, and Jasin and Tomlin providing a solid pull on the other end. The greedy mud kept hold of my shoes and socks, so I was barefoot as I regained solid ground. Those were the only shoes I had brought with me, I reflected ruefully. Doubtlessly, if it had happened to Jessica, she’d have had half a dozen pairs of shoes around to replace them.
The boys helped me back to the campsite, and over to one of the tables, and I sat down painfully. I could bend my knee, or put weight on it, but not both at the same time, which made walking difficult. Not to mention the fact that for some reason I felt very cold for some reason, and sat there shivering with my teeth chattering. Jessica wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, and dared venture into Andrea’s kitchen to make me some hot chocolate. I gratefully wrapped my hands around the warm mug, and gradually stopped shivering.
After I had relaxed for a few minutes, wondering what I was going to do next, and if it’d be worth all the pain and effort to head over to the laundry and showers, Andrea showed up with some help from the front office. They efficiently took charge of the situation, bundling me off to the clinic in town, and putting up yellow barrier tape to keep people from accidentally trying to head down the stairs, asking a whole bunch of questions, etc.
I forgot about the possible unicorn horns in my pocket in all the fuss. At the clinic, they figured out that despite all the mess (and when I finally saw myself in a mirror, I was a big mess), the only thing injured was my knee. They gave me an elastic wrap for it, and advised me to keep off of it the best I could for a couple of days, but after that I should be fine.
Jessica, and everyone else, showed up at the clinic with some clean clothes and other things that she’d figured I need out of my stuff.
“I hope I brought everything,” she said, worriedly.
“Oh, bless you!” I said, seizing the bundle. “They’ve got a shower here I can use, then I’ll feel somewhat human again out of all this mud.”
No shoes, of course. But Jessica had found some slippers, so I at least had something for my feet. From the size, I figured that it must be one of the boy’s slippers, but no one owned up to them.
It wasn’t until I was cleaned up and redressed that I remembered the horns in my jacket pocket, and braved the mud again to try to pull them out.
“What do you have there?” Tomlin asked, after I rejoined the group, and we went out to the local fast food place.
“I’m not sure,” I said, putting them on the table. “Looks like unicorn horns to me, but . . . ”
“Nonsense, there’s no such thing,” Tomlin said.
“I know that,” I said, impatiently. “I just said that’s what they look like.”
Jasin reached over, and picked one up. “Odd shape, if it’s a unicorn horn,” he remarked.
He was right, of course. That was one of the smaller ones I had dug out of the hole. It did look like a unicorn horn, but a well worn one. It wasn’t sharp, the point was a smooth curve instead, and the spiral on it was worn down to a thin line.
“Odd,” Peter said, holding another one. His was even more worn down than Jasin’s.
“But this one seems to be fully formed,” Jessica said, reaching for the largest one. It gave off a spark that momentarily set her hair on end, and she jumped back. “Ow! It bit me!” she exclaimed, drawing her hand back and rubbing it. She reached out her other hand, cautiously, and this time the horn didn’t react when she picked it up.
“That’s odd,” I said. “None of them gave any sort of reaction when I first picked them up.”
“The other ones didn’t either,” Jasin noted. “So it’s either that horn, or . . . Seek.” He looked at her, speculatively.
“Me?” Jessica said, nervously pushing her hair up, making the mark on her forehead visible again. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Jasin said, “As far as we know, you’re the only one among us with ‘unicorn blood’. Maybe it recognized you.”
Jessica laughed nervously. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “That was just a story Old Tolly told. It doesn’t have anything to do with . . . well, with anything!”
Jasin and I looked at each other. “Old stories have an annoying habit of coming out,” I noted. “Especially if you don’t want them to.”
“But it’s fine now,” Jessica said, holding the horn out. “It must just have been some static, or something.”
As she held it out flat in her hand, it suddenly turned and pointed at Tomlin.
“What on earth?” Tomlin exclaimed. “Why are you pointing that thing at me?”
“I’m not doing it, it did it itself!”
“Walk around the room a bit,” Peter suggested. “See if it’s really pointing at Tomlin, or if it’s just pointing in his general direction.”
Jessica did so, holding the horn out as far out as possible, her hand flat, touching the horn as little as she could.
We all saw that the horn continued to point at Tomlin, no matter where in the room Tomlin was.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Jasin said, frowning. “You don’t have any grandmothers who claimed to be unicorns, or anything, Tom, do you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tomlin snapped, moving to be as far away from Jessica as possible when she came back to sit down at the table.
“I wonder,” Jasin said, thoughtfully, staring off into space.
Jessica glanced at him, then put the unicorn horn back on the table, being careful to turn it so it pointed away from Tomlin. It rolled around, spinning so that it pointed at Tomlin again.
“Blast it!” Tomlin said, jumping up and moving away again. The horn continued to turn, and kept pointing at him. “Seek! Stop it! Don’t point it at me! What does it want from me?”
Jasin turned and looked at me. “An,” he said, “how far away was this cache of horns from where Tom found the medallion?”
I frowned. “It’s hard to tell. That hole changed the appearance of things so much.”
I tried picturing things in my mind’s eye . . Tomlin sitting on the stairs, digging carelessly with that stick on the right side of the stairs . . . Me standing knee deep in the water, facing the stairs, moving off to the left, and putting my hand out into the whole in the wall. “I think it might have been close, about the same area. Why?” Though I could sort of see what Jasin was working towards.
“Tom, you’re still carrying that medallion, aren’t you?” Jasin asked.
“Of course,” Tomlin said, still trying to move so that the horn wouldn’t point at him. “But I’m not going to give it to you.”
“I don’t want it,” Jasin replied, “but I think that the unicorn horn might. It might be pointed at that pendant, rather than at you.”
Tomlin reached into his pocket, and pulled out the plastic baggie with the medallion wrapped in tissue paper in it, and practically threw it down on the table. The horn gave one more twist to lie pointing at the packet, and no longer pointed at Tomlin. With a sigh of relief, Tomlin sat back down at the table. The horn continued to lie quiescent.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” he demanded of the rest of us.
“What does it mean, Tom?” I asked.
“It means that the story that old man told us yesterday is a big branch of burning dorse, that’s what it means!”
“Why would you say that?” asked Peter.
“Just look at it,” Tomlin said. “If the pendant is connected to the horns somehow, then it’d have to have been around before the unicorns vanished, not after.”
“Assuming it was connected by the unicorns,” Jasin pointed out. He picked up the unicorn horns and packet and placed them right next to each other, the packet lying on top of the horns. They flashed once, then lay quiet.
“That’s really odd,” I said, staring at it. “How can they flash like that?”
“However it happens, it’s obvious they belong together,” Jessica said. “I’m thinking we need to go back to see Old Tolly about them again.”
“Why?” asked Tomlin. “If his story was bogus before, what makes you think he’ll have a better one this time?”
“I think his story was true, as far as it went,” I said thoughtfully. “But there might have been other things going on that he didn’t know about.” And I believed it, too. Whatever else Old Tolly might have been lying about, which I had the feeling was a lot, what he had told us about the medallion he had believed to be true.
“Maybe he’ll tell us more of what he knows this time,” Andrea said with a smile.
“This whole thing makes no sense,” Tomlin said. He reached out to pull back the medallion packet. As he did so, the horns once again started turning to point to it. “Possessive little things, aren’t they?” he muttered as he dropped the packet back into place next to them.
It took us a while to connect back with Old Tolly. But once we did, he had no problem setting up another meeting with us. We didn’t tell him what we had found, but did let him know that we had found something of interest.
Tomlin said he wanted nothing more to do with the old man, but to remember that the medallion was his, no matter what we did with the horns. Andrea met up with her cousin in the kitchen again, going to spend another afternoon blissfully exchanging recipes. So around three o’clock the next afternoon, we bustled into Old Tolly’s office. He wasn’t there yet, again, so I wandered over to look out the windows. Jasin came up beside me and let out a low whistle.
“Some view,” he said. “I just thought we’d get a dirty alley.”
“You should see it when it’s raining,” I said. “All those staircases turn into waterfalls.”
“It doesn’t normally rain that hard that fast,” said a voice behind use. We turned around to see that Old Tolly had come in silently behind us. “So, all here again?” he asked. “I wasn’t really expecting to see you all again. Not as a group, anyway.” He peered around at our faces. Where’s that other chap? The most unplea–I mean the one that found the medallion.”
“Tomlin decided to walk around this afternoon, taking in the sights,” Peter said, as he came back and sat down again. “And this is An’s brother Jasin, he didn’t come last time.”
Old Tolly looked from Jasin to me, an odd expression on his face, as if he were trying to remember something.
But the moment passed, and he didn’t say anything.
“We’ve found something else in that same area,” Jessica said. She put a cardboard shoe box gently down on his desk.
Old Tolly opened it, and looked at the contents, the medallion, with three unicorn horns, two of them looking rather worn down. He gave the contents a puzzled look. “What’s this then?” he asked Jessica.
“You’ll probably laugh at us. I know that it’s impossible, but we think that they might be unicorn horns.”
We all jumped back as Old Tolly slammed the lid back on the box with an oath (at least, I think it was an oath, it wasn’t in a language that I was familiar with), grabbed his crutch from its holder, and hobbled out of the room, nearly as quietly as he had moved the day before when going after Tomlin. The door slammed shut behind him. We all set blinking at each other in astonishment.
“Well, that was rude,” Jasin remarked. “What on earth was that about?”
“I didn’t expect him to believe us,” Jessica said. “Everyone knows that the last unicorn horn disintegrated centuries ago. But I thought that at least he’d humor us, and tell us what they really were.”
We looked at each other uncertainly. “Do we just leave now?” I asked. “He really left us just hanging here.”
“Let’s see what, if anything, happens next,” said Peter. “If someone comes soon and kicks us out, then we’ll know. But he may come back, after he gets over whatever startled him.”
“Maybe.” I didn’t think so. I privately thought that he had looked almost frightened as he left the room. But what could be scary about three twisted pieces of old ivory in a box? Whether they were really unicorn horns or note.
(Change font for Old Tolly)
He leaned against the wall by the door of the office, breathing hard. He should have asked them what they thought they had found beforehand. He cursed himself for lack of forethought. It would have made thing easier. He could have sent someone else to look at it. Nearly anyone else. He hoped he hadn’t done irreparable harm to the horns, if they were really horns, by opening the box. By even being in the same room with them. Maybe even the same building. Was he far enough away yet?
Tolly stood up and shuffled further down the hall to his other office. He’d better call someone else to examine the horns, and find out what was really going on.
But it’d been so long since he’d seen or held any magical items. He hadn’t been expecting it. He shuddered, remembering the last time he’d been in the same room with a unicorn horn.
Several, actually. Of course, they were old and fragile at the time. But coming into the room, and watching five of the seven unicorn horns on display, that he hadn’t known were there, vanish into dust as he walked into the room was a bad enough memory. And, of course, the reason the other two horns hadn’t was because they were fakes, and had never had the slightest touch of magic to them.
When he had been young, ages ago now, the fact that he was a magic dampener hadn’t mattered much, after all, the unicorns and other magic creatures were still around, and magic was plentiful, like air or water. But now magic was scarce, and the few items that could reach it and bring it out were widely scattered, locked up, and hidden with a mass of fakes.
Perhaps these horns were fakes. That was a hope. They hadn’t vanished when he entered the room, or even when he opened the box. So either they were far more robust than they ought to be, given the age that those horns must be, or they weren’t real. But even as he grasped at that faint hope, he knew that it wasn’t true. He glanced at the mirror in his office, aghast at how pale he looked, orange freckles standing out brightly under his orange hair.
He nervously wiped his hands on his apron, and pressed the call button on his desk. The first thing to do was to keep them from leaving. What must they be thinking of him? He surprised himself by chuckling. It had to look weird. After all, there was motive to explain to him. It was his own fault, of course. He should have had the foresight to actually ask them what they were bringing in. He had just thought that it’d been another medallion, or something similar. He should have known, when things started happening, they usually continued happening.
Belinda poked he head in the room. “What’s going on, Uncle Tolly?” She asked. “You left those kids in the other office, and came down here?” She stood in front of him, arms akimbo, and looked down at him with frank disapproval. “I told you, you were spending far too much time on them. And then to invite them back!” She shook her head in disapproval.
Old Tolly threw back his head and laughed, once again the universe was in balance. “Don’t worry about that, you young whippersnapper,” he said, continuing to laugh. “Just make sure that they don’t leave. I had to . . . to desert them suddenly, you see, and they might be doubting my sanity.”
Belinda didn’t see, but said anyway, glowering at him, “They aren’t the only ones by far, old man.”
“Just, go, fledgling,” he said. “I can’t go back. There’s reasons for that, and they will hopefully change, but go, and call me from my other office.”
“If they didn’t think you were crazy before, they will now, Uncle,” she said, as she closed the door behind her.
Old Tolly laughed again. Then he shook his head gravely. He did not know what was going on, but the patterns that were developing were strange, very strange, and when that happened, if it didn’t suddenly dissipate into nothingness, then everything changed, and he thought that this might be one of those times.
(Back to An’s font.)
As we were sitting there, arguing about what we should do next, there came a knock on the heavy door, which then opened again, and Belinda came in. She stood looking at us for a moment, with her hands on her hips.
“You again. I told Old Tolly not to bother with you again, since you upset things enough last time.”
“So,” Jasin asked, “Are you kicking us out then?”
“No,” Belinda said, “More’s the pity. But the old man really is interested in your find, whatever it is, for some reason.”
“He has an odd way of showing it,” Jessica said tartly, still stung by Old Tolly’s sudden removal.
“Don’t he just,” Belinda agreed, amicably. “But he sent me in here to look at it.”
“Pardon me, ma’am,” Peter said, putting his hand protectively over the top of the box, while Belinda reached for it. “Do you know anything about these sort of things?”
“What does that matter?” she said. She reached out and pushed a button on the desk, and a green light lit up. “Uncle Tolly’s on the other end of this intercom, and he’ll tell me what to look for.”
“That’s . . . not the same,” Jessica said, looking at the box with the light in some perplexity.
“No, dear child, it is not,” came Old Tolly’s voice from the box. “And at the moment, I dearly wish that I had a camera in that room, but we must make due with what we have.”
Peter and Jasin looked at each other, behind Jessica’s back. Jasin silently mouthed, “Dear child?” and they both almost broke down in silent laughter.
“I don’t understand,” Jessica continued. “Why can’t you come look at it yourself?”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible at the moment,” Old Tolly said, regretfully, but Leshanna should serve admirably in my place.”
“I’m Belinda,” Belinda said patiently. “Leshanna’s my mother. What do you want me to do?” I didn’t think that she understood why she was there any more than the rest of us did.
“He’s your uncle, and he doesn’t remember your name?” Jasin asked.
“Well,” Belinda said thoughtfully, “He’s not really my uncle, you see. We just call him that. He treats most of the town like family, you know.”
“Enough of that now, Belinda,” came Old Tolly’s voice. “I want you to sit down, and open the box, then tell me what you see.”
“Sit down? In your chair?” squeaked Belinda. “I couldn’t do that, sir.”
“It doesn’t matter whose chair you sit in,” Old Tolly said, with exaggerated patience. “Just pick one.
Peter pulled a chair down from the stack by the door, then stood over leaning on the wall, his fingers twitching. I could tell, from long experience, that he wanted to pull out his sketch pad, but didn’t think it would be polite to do so.
Belinda perched on the end of the seat, then took the box, and looked at it dubiously. “I’m taking the lid off,” she said. “Now I’m looking into the box.”
“What’s in there, what do you see?” Old Tolly asked. Don’t touch anything, yet.” She described the contents of the box adequately.
“Why did you bring back the medallion?” Old Tolly asked.
“Well,” both Jessica and Peter began. They stopped, the Jessica continued. “They seemed to want to be together. Every time we moved the medallion, the horn would move to point at it. Really freaked Tomlin out. And then, when we put them back together, they kind of clicked. Only it wasn’t a real ‘click’, you know just sort of felt like it.”
“And you found them at the same place as the medallion?” Old Tolly asked. “Hmm . . . I wonder . . . and within a day of separating them, we got that torrential downpour . . .”
“But how could they be connected, sir?” Peter asked. “By that story you told us last time we were here, they didn’t mint those medallions until sometime after the unicorns had left.”
“Yes, that is , , , odd,” Old Tolly said, his voice sounding somewhat embarrassed. “I’m afraid my knowledge of that . . . era is somewhat skimpier than it ought to be. I was given to understand that’s when it was made. Perhaps they minted it . . . precipitously, prematurely.”
“Now what, Uncle?” Belinda asked.
“Well, yes, take the horns out of the box, and set them down gently on one side of the desk. and the medallion out and put it on the other side. See what happens. You do have gloves on, right?”
“Yes, of course, Uncle Tolly,” she said, rolling her eyes as she pulled a pair of white gloves out of her pocket and put them on. We bit back chuckles. Then she pulled out the horns and medallion as instructed. Nothing happened. They just lay there on the desk, like they had nothing to do with each other. Belinda looked at us like we were crazy. I half wondered that myself.
“That’s . . . odd,” Tolly said, his voice sounding vaguely disappointed.
“What did you expect?” Belinda asked. “Well what next? Do any of you all have any ideas?” She glared at us all, but particularly at Jessica.
That reminded me. “Seek . . . I mean Jessica was holding the horn when it was turning like that. Though it did keep turning after she put it down.”
“I see,” Belinda said, sounding disbelieving.
“That’s right,” Jessica said. “And it bit me, or at least gave off a spark, when I first picked it up.”
“Hmm . . . interesting,” Old Tolly said. “Try the experiment again, child, if you would.”
Jessica wrinkled her nose at the word “child”, but obligingly reached out and picked up the largest horn. It didn’t spark this time, but glowed softly, but unmistakably in her hand. She moved it away from the medallion, and once again the horn started turning in her hand. She almost dropped it before finally finding a good balance point for it.
Belinda watched her with narrow eyes, as she made a report back to Old Tolly. “She’s not faking it,” she concluded, with what sounded like disappointment. “I thought maybe she would be, but I don’t see how she could.”