Before Sheila could catch her breath, the warrior-women on their swift unicorns had surrounded her in a blur of color and noise. Choking on the dust the prancing hoofs raised, Sheila spun around and around, seeing fierce faces glaring at her on every side, trying to ward off the warriors; weapons, terrified that she was going to trip and be trampled.
A hand grabbed her arm, clamping down with painful force.
“Hey! Let go!”
Sheila, struggling wildly, glared up at her captor, a women with wild red hair, a broad-featured face, and a solid body that reminded her of the gym teacher she had had in sixth grade. I never did like that teacher! thought Sheila. She punched at the hand holding her as hard as she could. The woman grunted, but didn’t release her, As the other warriors laughed sharply, Sheila was pulled off her feet and thrown across the saddle of the red-haired warrior’s palomino unicorn. One warrior, a beautiful young black woman whose armor glinted with gold, called out something in a melodious language. The others shouted in agreement. With that, the unicorns eagerly leaped forward.
For a time Sheila was just too dazed to move. But the saddle’s pommel was digging painfully into her middle, cutting off her wind. And the sight of the ground whizzing by under her helplessly dangling head wasn’t helping her stomach at all. Sheila squirmed around till she could slap her captor’s leg.
“Let me up!”
“Hey, come on, please, just let me sit up!”
The woman muttered something that was plainly “no,” her voice as rough as the rest of her.
Sheila took another look at the dizzying blur of ground and groaned.
“You’d better let me up, or–or I’m going to be s-sick all over your leg!”
Her captor glanced down at her. Even if the woman didn’t understand her words, one look at Sheila’s green face got the message across. TO her relief, she was dragged up to sit sideways on the saddle her captor’s arm like a bar of iron holding her in place. Sheila glanced warily around. The first thing she noticed was that the palomino unicorn wore no bridle. In fact, none of the unicorns wore more than simple saddles. And the saddles don’t even have stirrups! thought Sheila. The women didn’t seem to miss them, sitting their mounts with practiced ease. In addition to her gruff captor and the black woman, Sheila noticed a brown-haired archer, quiver slung over her back, and a slender, dark-haired girl about her own age who kept giving Sheila hostile stares.
“Don’t blame me!” Sheila said to her. “This isn’t my idea!”
Her captor gave her a shake and a frown that clearly meant “Keep quiet.”
The unicorns streamed down a gulch and into a flat little valley. Sheila saw a few earth-colored, patched tents before her captor gave her a shove that sent her tumbling off the palomino to the ground.
“Hey! What’s the idea?”
But the red-haired woman wasn’t paying attention to her. “Pelu!” she called. “Ho, Pelu!”
A slender young woman appeared out of one of the tents. Unlike the warriors, she wore no armor, only a simple white tunic and worn leather sandals, and her ash-blonde hair was coiled up in braids on top of her head. As the others spoke to her, she studied Sheila with quiet blue eyes, then approached the girl. She said something in that melodious language, and Sheila sighed and shook her head.
“Sorry, I don’t understand.”
Pelu nodded thoughtfully. Reaching into a pouch at her belt, she took out a gleaming blue gem. Before Sheila could move, the woman touched the gem to the girl’s head, lips, and heart.
“Can you understand me now?”
“I–hey! Yes, I can! What did you do?”
“The touch of the Gem of Speaking gave you our language.”
Sheila stared, thinking wildly, Boy I’d love to have something like that in school! “But–but how does it work?”
Pelu looked at her as though she had asked something stupid. “Magic, of course.”
“Oh, of course,” echoed Sheila weakly. “How foolish of me not to have known.”
But she was speaking to air. Pelu had rejoined the others, who were arguing fiercely. Sheila heard her captor, who apparently was named Myno, insisting, “She is my prisoner.”
“Ridiculous!” cut in the black woman, Nanine, with a haughty toss of her head. “We all found her.”
“Who found her isn’t important,” said Pelu quietly. “I vote we simply hold her till Illyria returns.”
“Don’t I have any say in the matter?” began Sheila, but she was drowned out by Myno’s shout:
“No! She’s my prisoner.”
The dark-haired girl, Dian, gave Sheila a withering glance. “Why would you want someone like her?”
“Because . . .” Myno’s voice dropped to a mutter. “Because after all my years of slavery, I want a servant of my own.”
“Hey, I’m not going to be anyone’s servant!” said Sheila indignantly. “Look, who are you? What makes you think you can just kidnap me?”
The women ignored her.
“I think we’re making a mistake.” The archer, Kara, plucked at her bowstring suggestively. “Think about it: a girl, all alone in the middle of nowhere, just happens to be walking right toward our camp. Sounds strange, doesn’t it?”
“She’s no warrior,” Dian said in contempt.
“Maybe not. But who knows what weapons she’s hiding in that pack of hers? I say she’s some sort of spy.”
“I’m no spy!” Sheila shouted. “Listen to me, will you? I don’t even know where I am!”
The warrior-woman huddled, murmuring. Sheila over-heard uncomfortable words like “Death to spies” and thought nervously, I don’t think I’d better hang around here any longer. No one was paying any attention to her, so she began to edge carefully away. She turned to run–and found herself facing a living wall of unicorns, all of them with their heads down and their long, spiraling horns pointed right at her.
“All right,” said Sheila softly. “I–uh–get the point.”
She backed carefully away, turned–and found herself facing a line of cold-eyed warrior-women. “Look,” Sheila began, “I don’t want any trouble. I only– ”
With a roar, they rushed her. Frantically Sheila rummaged in her pack, trying to find a weapon, any weapon. Her hand closed around something circular–soda! A can of orange soda! Wish I’d remembered I had this when I was out on the plain! thought Sheila wryly. Now the soda was too warm to drink–
Too warm! Of course!
Hastily she shook the can with all her might, pointed the opening at her attackers, and pulled the tab. A geyser of hot, sticky soda shot out, fizzing madly, and the startled women shrieked and jumped back.
“Sorcery! She’s a sorceress!”
Is that good or bad? wondered Sheila.
It was bad.
“Hurry,” shouted Nanine, “kill the witch before she works more evil magic!”
“No!” yelled Sheila. “I’m not a witch, honest!”
But they weren’t listening to her. Myno raised her sword. Kara fit an arrow to her bow–
The command rand out like a bugle call. Heads turned sharply. Weapons were lowered. Sheila, heart racing, whirled to find herself staring up at a magnificent unicorn stallion, shining white as moonlight. On his back sat the most gorgeous woman she had ever seen, tall and proud in the saddle. The woman, evidently the warriors’ leader, the missing Illyria they had mentioned, was clad in what had once been an elegant tunic of fiery red silk, now travel-stained and mended in several places, over which she wore armor consisting of a leather breastplate and a sort of skirt of leather strips that reminded Sheila of pictures she’d seen of Roman legionnaires. Silver glinted from ornamental inlays in that armor, and from the woman’s elegant armbands. Her legs were protected by bronze greaves, and at her side hung a dangerous-looking sword in a worn sheath and an equally dangerous curved dagger. The woman’s tanned, fierce face was framed by masses of silver-blonde hair come partly free from what Sheila guessed must have been years of braids wound about her head.
“She’s like a heroine out of a fantasy book!” thought Sheila, awed.
Piercing blue eyes held Sheila’s gaze, staring at her until Sheila felt sure Illyria knew all about her.
The woman turned to glare at her warriors. “What is the meaning of this?”
Kara said uneasily, “Ah . . . Illyria, the eagles warned us that something was wrong. We rode out, and sure enough, we found the girl out on the plain–and headed right toward our camp!”
“Sure I was!” cut in Sheila angrily. “I saw the smoke from your campfire. It was the only sign of life in the whole place!”
“Be silent, girl.” Illyria’s voice was calm. “You will have your turn to speak, Now, what about you, my comrades? Since when do we make war on girls?”
“She’s not just a girl!” said Dian. “She’s a sorceress!”
“Come now, Dian. She’s even younger than you.”
“It’s true!” the dark-haired girl insisted. “She tried to kill us with a magic potion. It’s probably some deadly poison!”
“It’s not poison.” Sheila couldn’t help giggling. “It’s only soda. See?”
She licked the last drops from the can she still held. Everyone stared. When nothing happened to her, they all drew back, murmuring in wonder.
Oh great, thought Sheila. They think I just used magic to keep the soda from poisoning me. They still believe I’m a witch, all right: they’re just trying to figure out whether I’m Glinda or the Wicked Witch of the West.
Kara seemed determined to prove that Sheila was an evil sorceress. “I’ve seen magic in my time–remember Mardock and his foul spells?”
“Yes, of course,” argued Pelu. “But magic can be worked for good, as well as evil. You’ve watched my healing spells and seen the Gem of Speaking.”
Dian shook her head. “Those are just small charms, everyday spells. You told me so yourself!”
“That’s not the point, Dian! If the girl really does have Power, can we afford to lose a magical ally?”
That sparked a wild debated.
“You don’t understand! I say get rid of her, now!”
“First we should learn who sent her and–”
“No! We mustn’t wait!”
“That’s ridiculous! We mustn’t–”
“Enough!” said Illyria at last. “The sorceress comes with me. I will learn the truth from her. Alone.”
“And I,” muttered Sheila, “will finally get some answers!”
Back To Chapter Listings!
Chapter 1: Swept Away
Chapter 2: Arrival
Chapter 4: Questions
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 11: Campora at Last
Chapter 12: Trapped!
Chapter 13: The Ghost
Chapter 14: Outnumbered
Chapter 15: The Battle
Chapter 16: Sailing Away