As the troop of warrior-women rode on, the scent of the sea grew ever stronger. If Sheila listened carefully and the wind was right, she was sure she could make out the distant sound of waves. And surely those birds soaring by overhead were gulls, just like the ones at home.
Home. With a pang of guilt, Sheila realized she hadn’t thought about her own world for days. This was the real world now; that other one of homework and softball games, that place without magic where she was only Sheila McCarthy, schoolgirl, seemed more and more like a dream.
But just then Morning Star gave a nervous little buck jarring Sheila out of her bewildered thoughts. “Hey, easy, girl! Nothing to be afraid of.”
Morning Star wasn’t alone. All the unicorns were growing more and more uneasy with every step they took.
“They’ve caught the scent of their captive friends,” said Nanine. “And of Mardock and his evil sorcery, I think.”
Illyria nodded. “Even Quiet Storm is nervous. I doubt the unicorns will let us ride them much farther.”
“Well, we’re not that far from the city now, are we?” asked Sheila.
“Not far at all.” Myno’s eyes were dark with memory. “I should know,” she added under her breath. ”I escaped from Campora over these hills.”
Sheila winced at the bitterness on the ex-slave’s face. Poor Myno! How she must have suffered! “Well,” Sheila said with forced cheerfulness, “we could hardly ride the unicorns right down Campora’s main street, anyhow.”
Myno only grunted. Sheila tried to think of something else to say to rouse the woman out of her unhappy memories. But just then Morning Star reached the top of one particularly steep hill, and everything Sheila was going to say went flying out of her mind. All she could do was sit her unicorn and stare.
The land fell sharply away from where they paused, sweeping away to the rolling sea which glittered sapphire blue in the sunlight, a blue sea dotted with ships bearing wide sails of bright white, and yellow, and red. At one point the land curved in to form a wide harbor. And there, where sea met shore, stood a city that could only be Campora.
Sheila gasped. Maybe the capital of the empire wasn’t as large as New York or Chicago, but-oh, how beautiful it was! Campora was a confusing mixture of sweeping walls and elegant palaces, graceful towers, domed pavilions and buildings with so many columns that they reminded her of pictures of Greek temples she had seen. All the city seemed to be made of marble, or at least of some type of smooth, sleek stone that gleamed white in the sunlight. Ornamental traceries of gold reflected the bright light back again, till Sheila, dazzled, had to blink and look away.
“It-it’s like something out of a fairy tale!” she breathed.
Muttered Myno grimly, “From up here. Down there, thanks to Dynasian the usurper, that pretty fairy tale turns into a horror story.
Sheila stared at her. “What do you mean?”
Myno shrugged. “Where do I start? Only those with a lot of gold live comfortably there. And even they, the nose-in-the-air aristocrats, can’t relax altogether. They never know when Dynasian may decide one or the other of them is a traitor, fit only for the executioner’s ax. As for the poor-well, it’s not difficult to wind up poor in Campora, because even those with only a few copper coins to rub together still are taxed heavily by Dynasian. He has to find some way to pay for his pretty games.”
“Games?” asked Sheila warily.
“Why, gladiatorial games, girl! Man against man, man against beast, to the death, all for the amusement of the emperor. And those who can’t pay his taxes wind up sold on the market block as slaves.”
Something in Myno’s eyes told Sheila that that had been her fate. Sheila shivered. “I-I see.”
Myno grunted. “The only people who wander Campora’s streets freely are robbers and beggars-until Dynasian’s soldiers round them up, too-for the games.”
And we’re going in there? Sheila thought wildly. To get the unicorns away from Dynasian?
Heart racing, she fought a fierce battle with the panic that was screaming to her to drop everything and run for her life. But running wasn’t going to solve anything!
Sheila braced herself and calmly took stock of her condition. Her jeans were still in pretty good shape, although they were ragged in some places and patched in others. Her shirt, though, was so shabby and stained that even a punk rocker would have scorned it, She glanced around at the others.
They didn’t look much better. Only Illyria and the elegant Nanine had ever had anything like full armor. The others wore whatever unmatched bits and pieces they had been able to pick up along the way, though Kara had managed to add some turquoise ornaments, and Myno did wear a few pieces of bright copper. There were a few other brave attempts at beautification. But beneath those weather-beaten leather scraps of armor and ragged cloaks, nobody seemed to be wearing anything that didn’t have at least five patches. Even Illyria’s once-elegant red tunic had been mended to the point where the sleeves were now barely long enough to cover her shoulders. They looked like beggars themselves.
That’s it! Sheila thought. “Robbers and beggars, eh? Well, we may not be robbers, but we’re certainly dressed like beggars! We shouldn’t have any trouble getting into the city.”
“Some of us,” Illyria corrected. “’The smaller the group, the less attention we’re likely to attract. We’ll split up. Yes,” she said over the chorus of nervous comments, “we will split up. Myno, I’ll need you with me; you know where to find the royal stables.
And Sheila, you will be coming with me, too. I know you’re still an apprentice sorceress, but if we have the misfortune to run into any of Mardock’s spells, you just may know how to cancel them.”
Sheila almost choked. “But I don’t-I can’t-“
“I might have known you’d be afraid,” said Dian contemptuously. “Illyria, take me with you instead. I’m not afraid!”
“Then you’re foolish,” Illyria told her shortly. As Dian stared, openmouthed with shock, the woman continued. “I want you and Pelu to stay with the unicorns. Try to get them down to the beach if you can; if we’re cut off on land, we still may be able to make a break for it by sea.”
“Assuming, of course, that we can convince a herd of frightened unicorns to board a ship,” murmured Pelu wryly.
“As for you, Kara and Nanine,” said Illyria, “and-yes, Darian, you, too, I haven’t forgotten you-you’re to wait.”
Darian frowned, disappointed. “Wait? Just wait? How long?”
Illyria stared hard at the city. “It should take us a day to get into Campora, another day to find the captive Unicorns. . . .
Give us three days’ grace. If you haven’t heard from us by then, I want you to forget about us,”
“Yes, brother. Forget about us and try to rescue the unicorns.”
She looked at them all. “Any questions? No? So be it. Remember this, my friends, for the sake of the land and everyone on it: Whatever else happens, those unicorns must be freed!”
As Sheila went off with Illyria and Myno, her thoughts were fixed on Campora and the dangers of their mission. She did not look back at Darian and the others who waited with the unicorns.
“I still don’t like this,” Darian said as he watched Pelu and Dian prepare to drive the unicorn herd to the sea.
Pelu sighed, sitting her unicorn comfortably. “I know you don’t. I don’t either. But your sister usually knows what she’s doing. And with any luck at all, we’ll all be back together again-with the unicorns-soon enough. Till then, good luck to you, Darian, Kara, Nanine. Dian, let’s go.”
Pelu and Dian hadn’t ridden very far before Dian gasped. “Pelu, look! The eagles!”
“You’ve seen them before, Dian.”
“Not this close!”
Pelu glanced up and gasped in spite of herself. The great birds did seem to be diving right toward them. “They’re curious, that’s all. Come now, Dian, you’ve seen them at fairly close range before.”
But Dian was staring up into the heavens. “Look out!” she screamed, and whipped out her sword.
Deadly beaks gaping open, sharp talons outstretched, the eagles were attacking! Pelu hastily drew her own sword, wondering how two swordswomen were going to be able to beat back so many winged attackers. Their fierce screams rang in her ears, the wind from their wings buffeted her, but every time she tried to strike at an eagle, it managed to fly up, just out of her reach.
It-it’s almost as though they’re trying to keep us from leaving, the woman realized, almost as though they’re herding us!
Just as she thought this, the leader of the eagles, a magnificent, fierce-eyed bird, shrieked out a sharp cry.
Now, that sounded like a command! thought Pelu, wondering.
It was. All the unicorns, including those she and Dian were riding, turned as obediently as trained ponies, despite the warriors’ frantic protests, and trotted nicely back to where Kara, Nanine, and Darian stood stunned, their mouths open. Kara grabbed her bow, hastily fitting an arrow to the string. She drew the bow- And a unicorn gently pushed the weapon aside with his horn.
“I-I don’t believe it!” the archer gasped.
“Believe it,” Pelu told her dryly. “Come on, Dian. Better dismount. I don’t think we’re going anywhere just yet.”
The eagles continued to circle, skimming so low that the wind they raised stirred the manes of the unicorns. But now there seemed to be a definite pattern to the way they were moving.
“It looks almost as though they were trying to tell us something!” exclaimed Nanine.
“Campora!” cried Darian suddenly. “That’s it! They want us to go to Campora!”
“We don’t know that for certain,” said Pelu. “What about Illyria’s orders?”
“These eagles, or whatever magical birds they might be, have followed us all along to be sure we accomplished the mission. They know something about what’s happening in the city and they’re trying to tell us. They’re telling us to go to Campora and help Illyria rescue the unicorns!”
To the women’s surprise, the eagles all screamed in unison at that, as though they were trying to say, Yes! That’s it!
“I ... think I’m beginning to believe this,” said Kara slowly.
Pelu nodded. “The eagles have been mixed up in this from the beginning. And I can’t believe they’re creatures of evil.” She sighed. “Well, are we all in agreement? Yes? Then, Campora it is.” Half in jest, she turned to the unicorns who had been following them. “Here’s where we say goodbye, my friends. We can hardly take you into the city with us.”
To her astonishment, the unicorns snorted, nodded their heads as though they understood exactly what she was saying, and galloped happily off into the hills. Only Quiet Storm and the other unicorns the warriors had been riding remained, prancing nervously
“Ah, it’s kind of you to stay,” Pelu told them uncertainly, wondering just how much human speech unicorns did understand. “But what are we going to do with you? Any unicorns who enter the city are going to be in danger.”
“Not if they don’t enter as unicorns,” said Nanine slowly. “In my land, we have all sorts of festivals involving masquerades. Wait, now . . “ Her deft fingers began weaving long grasses together into something that looked like a long, hollow pyramid.
“With your permission,” she said to Quiet Storm, and slipped it on over his horn, tying the cone in place with more strands of grass. “There! As long as he keeps his cloven hoofs hidden in the dust, he can pass as nothing more than a white horse wearing a unicorn disguise!”
Quiet Storm snorted, tossing his head uneasily. He caught sight of his reflection in a small pool and stared. Then he turned sharply away, obviously insulted, and the women laughed. “Sorry, my friend,” Pelu told him. “But you’re going to have to put up with being just a horse, at least till we free your mistress.”
Nanine was quickly plaiting disguises for the other unicorns. “But what about us?” she asked. “What are we supposed to be?”
Pelu looked down at her ragged self. “Why, poor wandering actors, of course! What else? We’ll be . . . Ha, I have it! From now on, friends, we’re the Marvelous Magical Unicorn Troupe!”
Illyria had been right, Sheila thought wearily. It had taken the three of them a full day to reach Campora by foot. At least they really did look like beggars now, dusty and travel-stained as they were, armor and weapons hidden under their tattered cloaks.
She craned her head back, staring up and up at the massive city wall, seeing the guards patrolling the top of it. As far as Sheila could tell, the only way into Campora was through those huge, heavy gates of what looked like gleaming bronze. The gates were guarded by grim, spearbearing soldiers in bronze-studded armor.
“Are they going to let us in, just like that?” Sheila asked uneasily.
Myno gave a short, sharp laugh. “Of course not. Campora has enough beggars of its own!”
“Then how . . . ?”
Myno glanced up at the sky. “Nearly sundown. That’s just about the time of day we want. See the crowds all around us, all headed toward the city? There’ll be a storm of people pretty soon, all trying to get in before the gates are shut for the night.” She grinned. “The guards aren’t going to have time to check everybody too carefully. And that’s how we’ll get in.”
It was, indeed. The merchant who brought his cartload of goods into Campora never noticed the three figures who slipped silently out of the back of his cart and stole away into the night-dark streets.
Sheila glanced eagerly around. Despite the danger, she had been looking forward to her first glimpse inside this exotic city. What wonders might there be? After all, there’d been such a wild mixture of costumes and languages in the crowd making its slow way through the gates! Peeking warily out of the burlap sacking under which she had burrowed in the merchant’s cart, she had caught glimpses of men and women and children of all colors and types, from poor farmers clad in simple brown or gray tunics, to wealthy folk barely visible through the heavy silk coverings of their elegant litters borne by sweating slaves.
But now that night was here, there was nothing to see but a maze of unpaved streets, smelling unpleasantly of horses and drains and things Sheila didn’t want to think about, faced on either side by whitewashed houses with barred, shuttered windows. Everyone but the three warriors seemed to have vanished up those streets or into those mysterious houses.
“Campora, here we are!” whispered Sheila. “Now what?”
Illyria tugged the hood of her cloak farther forward to hide the glint of her silvery hair. “Now,” she said, “We find the stables and hope that the unicorns are there.”
“And hope we can get ‘em out without rousing Dynasian’s whole army,” muttered Myno. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
It was an eerie walk. The moon had risen, casting a cold, silver light over the quiet city, making the empty streets look like something out of a horror movie, Sheila thought. The warriors kept to the shadows as much as possible, walking as warily and silently as cats. But then all at once, a hand snaked out from an alleyway! Sheila gave a little shriek as it closed about her arm and pulled her into darkness.
“Eh, what have we here? A girl!”
Oh, great! thought Sheila, seeing the glint of a knife. A Camporan mugger!
“C’mon, Raggas, what’ve you caught?”
Muggers, corrected Sheila, a whole gang of them!
She couldn’t get to her sword in the cramped space, so instead she brought her knee up sharply and got the thief right in the pit of the stomach. As he doubled up, gagging, Sheila managed to pull her sword free, just as the other thieves tried to rush her, Illyria and Myno joined her, steel flashing in the moonlight.
“Swords! They’ve got swords!” hissed one of the thieves. “Run!”
“No, fool! Only nobles carry swords. That means they’ve got gold, too! They’re just women. Get ‘em!”
As one ruffian rushed Illyria, she skillfully parried his thrust, his long knife sliding up the blade of her sword with a painful screech of metal, till the two hilts locked. For a tense moment Illyria and the man strained against each other, breath hissing with the strain, each trying to tear the weapon out of the other’s grip. Then, with a mighty effort, Illyrla uncoiled her arm and sent the thief staggering back.
“You-witch!” he cried, and made another rush at her, knife raised. Illyria lunged. Sheila winced and turned away as the shining sword pierced flesh. She heard the man shriek, and looked back just in time to see Illyria quickly pulling her weapon free from his crumpled form.
“’Just women’?” Illyria asked wryly. “Come, fools. Come and die.”
But suddenly there was a wild commotion from the street behind them. “The guards!” yelled one of the thieves. “Let’s get outta here!”
“Good idea!” muttered Myno. “But there’s no place to run. The guards are all around us!”
Trying not to panic, Sheila glanced tip and gave a little cry of relief. “Look! Those balconies should hold our weight.”
Illyria nodded. “Hurry!”
Scrabbling frantically, trying not to make any noise, the three warriors climbed up and up, all the way to a slippery tiled roof.
“Down!” hissed Illyria, and they lay flat, watching the guards searching the streets below.
They didn’t see us! thought Sheila in relief. We’re safe! “Myno,” said Illyria softly as the baffled guards dispersed, “aren’t those the stable roofs I see, over there?”
Myno nodded, and Illyria grinned, her teeth flashing white in the darkness.
“How conveniently close together the houses all stand. I see no reason for us to risk our necks down there… “
“When we could be risking them up here, instead,” whispered Sheila.
“All right, let’s try it,” Illyria ordered.
As the guards continued to patrol the streets, the three warriors moved silently over the rooftops, leaping lightly from house to house, till at last they had slid over the stable wall down to the ground again. There in a large, well-guarded corral were-“Unicorns!” breathed Sheila. She started forward, but Myno caught her by the arm.
The three warriors huddled in shadow against a wall as a new squadron of guards approached to relieve the men on duty. The new guards were full of gossip, and the three warriors stole forward to listen. What they heard filled them with horror.
“Too bad about the unicorns.”
“Yeah, Pretty beasts. Feels good just to be around them. Too bad they have to die.”
“It’s that Mardock’s fault.” The soldier dropped his voice to a wary whisper, looking nervously about him. “Encouraging Dynasian to make pacts with King Kumuru of Samarna.”
“Kumuru of Darkness, you mean. Everyone knows he worships the Dark Gods! What does Campora need with the likes of him?”
The first soldier shrugged. “Kumuru has an army. Dynasian wants to join it to ours and conquer the world. It’s not our affair.”
As they strolled past the spot where the three warriors were hidden, the second soldier, the man who liked unicorns, muttered, “Not our affair, no. Not our affair that to seal the alliance, Dynasian’s going to send half that pretty herd to Kumuru in the morning-for sacrifice!”
As the soldiers disappeared beyond the stable wall, IIlyria straightened. “Sacrificing unicorns to the Dark Gods! I never imagined that even Dynasian would stoop so low!”
“We’ve got to free them!” gasped Sheila.
“What a pity you won’t succeed,” said a smooth, sly voice.
As the warriors whirled in shock, a shadow seemed to move forward out of darkness. It wasn’t a shadow, Sheila realized after the first, startled moment. It was a man-tall, lean, handsome in a cold, harsh sort of way-clad in elegant, silky, black robes.
His long hair and beard were black, too. And his eyes were as hard and cruel as ebony.
“Mardock!” cried Myno.
“Ah, I see you know me,” the sorcerer purred. “How flattering. Especially since I shall be the last person you see before you die!”
With that, he raised his arms, the wide sleeves of his black robes fluttering like the wings of some terrible night creature.
Sheila stared in sheer disbelief as she saw blue lightning flash and crackle about him. But then she heard Mardock begin to murmur twisted, ugly, alien words. And though she couldn’t understand them, she knew that this was the beginning of a spell-a spell that would mean her death!
Back To Chapter Listings!
Chapter 1: Swept Away
Chapter 2: Arrival
Chapter 3: Captured!
Chapter 5: The Quest
Chapter 6: Sheila Enlists
Chapter 7: Warrior-In-Training
Chapter 8: Rivalries
Chapter 9: The Rescue
Chapter 10: Illyria's Story
Chapter 12: Trapped!
Chapter 13: The Ghost
Chapter 14: Outnumbered
Chapter 15: The Battle
Chapter 16: Sailing Away