Neena woke up to warm breath puffing on her face. Her brain faintly registered that something was missing. Something brushed her mind, and she welcomed it groggily. But this mind was not nearly as vast as Hirador's, or as comfortingly familiar.
Who are you? Where's Hirador? Neena asked, opening her eyes and seeing not the bronze wing that normally covered her, but the clearing that she and Hirador had decided sleep in, a little ways from the Varden. Sunlight streamed on the green grasses that tickled her cheek.
I have been sent to fetch you. A friendly voice rang in her mind.
Neena jumped up and immediately crashed into something warm and furry. She scrambled back on reflex. A large horse was staring at her, his brown eyes looking at her with curiosity. Neena reached out for Hirador's mind, groping blindly for the faint link that she felt connect them. Her dragon greeted her vigorously, feeling the slight panic that she had before.
Hirador, I woke up and you weren't there, someone contacted me-
I am coming. Hirador said, calming her with soothing mental images, while she felt him take off from an area that, surprisingly, he wouldn't let her see.
There is no need to be alarmed, dragon Rider. The voice said. Neena looked around, but saw none but the horse. Something in the back of her mind prickled, and she took a closer look at the horse.
"Turac! How did you get here?" she exclaimed when she finally remembered. The stallion was barely recognizable. His mane and tail were lifted with the wind, sparkling like the starlight sky on a clear night. His massive muscles rippled underneath a rich brown coat that shone like the sun, and he held himself proudly, though with the weariness of one who has traveled a long journey in great haste. She reached out to stroke his shoulder, reveling in the fine softness of his coat. Never had she seen such a magnificent horse-
I am no horse.
Neena's eyes widened and she drew her hand back, eyeing the stallion.
How did you-
Neena turned and ran to Hirador as soon as the bronze dragon landed, wrapping her arms around his neck and breathing in his scent. Hirador nuzzled her comfortingly, and bared his teeth at the newcomer warily. Turac stepped forward fearlessly, and Neena could feel a familiar aura radiating off of him that she couldn't pinpoint.
There is no need to be alarmed. I will not attempt to harm either of you. Turac said, and Neena recognized the ancient language. The stallion turned his head towards the side to see them more clearly, and Neena gasped. On Turac's forehead an ivory horn spiraled, extending at least three and a half feet from his head and ending in a point. The air seemed to waver around it. Neena finally pinpointed the aura that radiated from him, the answer coming to her clear as a bell. She wondered how she couldn't have recognized it, as she felt it from Hirador every day. The aura was magic, and powerful as well, almost as powerful as Hirador's.
"What are you?" she whispered, partly in awe and partly in her natural fear of the unknown.
The proper name for my race is Mah'nier, though your race calls us 'unicorns'.
Neena's heart missed a beat, recognizing and remembering some of the tales that her father had told her of unicorns when she was smaller. They were creatures of heavenly beauty, horses with horns on their heads that could run with the wind and disappear into the forest as if they were part of it. When humans had first come to Alagaesia they had lived in every forest, though they were nearly never seen. Not even the dragons hunted them, as they were creatures of peace. They only showed themselves to maidens pure of heart, and to be friends with one was an immense honor. A tale once told of a young beautiful maiden who had befriended one, and had visited the creature regularly. Then one day the woman had fallen deathly ill, and the maiden's father sought out the unicorn for help. When finding him, the father told the unicorn of the maiden's illness, and the unicorn had at once gone to the maiden. The unicorn swept his horn over the dying girl, and she had been cured.
Word spread of the unicorn's healing powers, and many men sought after it, luring the unicorns into a trap with maidens as bait. Those who returned with the horns from the unicorns healed many and became wealthy, but the horns' magic died out soon after it was removed from the unicorns' heads. Many unicorns were killed, and one day the maiden that had been cured first went to meet her unicorn friend to find him slain on the spot where they usually met and his horn removed. She was never seen again, and the remaining unicorns disappeared the same time she did.
Neena grappled at the reality standing before her. A unicorn-no, she tossed that name away willingly, it sounded too silly. A Mah'nier had been living with her all the three years she had been a slave, it was unbelievable. A little too unbelievable she realized. And he had allowed himself to be ridden-something didn't add up. Hirador, reading her thoughts, eyed Turac with suspicion.
You have been keeping an eye on my Rider, haven't you? Even before she found my egg, he stated suspiciously, and Neena could feel his anger bubble as he recounted memories of the stallion kicking out at Neena and biting her on several occasions.
Yes. And the reason for that will be revealed in time. I am certain many questions burn at the edges of both of your minds, however, the answers to many of those questions I can not tell you, as I have sworn upon it.
Hirador snapped his teeth in agitation.
"What can you tell us?" Neena asked, speaking the question Hirador had been about to ask. Turac flicked his ears towards her and pawed the ground with one hard hoof.
I can not understand your language. Turac said patiently, and Neena hastened to revert to the ancient language once again. Hirador beat her to it though.
Tell us all you can, and do not toy with us lest you wish to find yourself dead beneath my talons. Hirador growled.
I have been sent by the elderly one, the one who mourns for a lost soul.
Both Hirador and Neena stiffened, and Turac seemed to take note of that before continuing.
You both have taken longer than expected, and you have not come to him. His strength wanes from an old wound, and he is too weak to contact you again from his position. His wish is to train the both of you before entering the void. Turac's voice was filled with sadness, and Neena felt sympathy automatically fill her, and she left Hirador's side to stroke the Mah'nier's cheek comfortingly.
Hatchling, be cautious.
Hirador, I think we can trust him. Neena said, deciding right then with fierceness she didn't know she had. The bronze dragon contemplated this, and Neena asked another question.
If he's injured, can't you heal him with your horn?
Turac's eyes shown with regret clearly.
The wound he suffers from is not from battle, but loss. I am unable to heal heartache.
Oh. Neena said, dropping her gaze.
Hirador, we should go with him. She said, her voice quiet. Her heart dropped with disappointment from the realization that she would not be able to learn how to sing like Faeyna on such a tight schedule. At least not well. Hirador watched her carefully, and she could feel him calculating her emotions.
You are certain? The Varden will be suspicious if we leave, and unwilling to allow us to do so.
Neena knew exactly what he was doing. He was giving her a chance to back out, to do what she wanted to do. She shook her head.
I know that. But there's someone out there that wants to teach us, and I want to help him be at ease before he sleeps.
Hirador surveyed her more, before silently agreeing. He turned his gaze to the Mah'nier.
"We'll leave in a few days, to give you time to rest from your journey," Neena said, being careful to speak in the ancient language. Turac raised his horn to the sun, and his entire body began to glow with magic. When the glow faded, he was noticeably smaller and his horn had disappeared. His coat still shown magnificently, though.
It would be kind of you not to reveal my presence here, as it would attract unwanted attention. Turac said simply, before drawing out of her mind. Neena could feel Hirador's disapproval of the Mah'nier hiding what he was.
Easy. There aren't many of his kind left. He'll tell us what he can when the time comes. Neena assured the dragon. He twitched his tail, unsatisfied and frustrated.
Hatchling, I feel as though we are being driven too deeply into dangerous waters. I do not enjoy feeling so helpless.
Hirador's head whipped up, and he hissed a warning at the trees. From their link, Neena felt his instincts telling him there was an intruder coming towards them, but then the wind changed direction and the scent of Faeyna filled their nostrils.
I never knew Faeyna smelled like that. Neena noted idly, enjoying the flowery scent from Hirador's point of view.
The elf slid into view, her movements smooth as silent as ever. Her face seemed to be glowing with joy when she spotted Hirador and Neena. Neena's eyes slid to the side when Turac let out a loud sigh. Of what, though? Relief? No, that wasn't it. She saw Faeyna's eyes slip briefly to the 'horse' and then back to Neena and Hirador.
"My friends, I have come as I have said, with my decision. I would be enthralled to teach you the songs of life. Though as you are not an elf, the effects will not be as dramatic," Faeyna said. Neena didn't mind. She had expected as much if she actually took the lessons. She had already deduced that elves were stronger, faster and altogether more magical than humans by her encounters with Faeyna and Arya. Neena took a deep breath, getting ready to set Faeyna straight. For a moment she was tempted to just learn as much as she could, but she decided against it. It wouldn't be fair to Faeyna.
Wise as always, hatchling. Hirador stated, and Neena felt his pride at her decision.
"Faeyna, I'm sorry, something came up," Neena said. The elf's smile faded a little, and waited for Neena to go on. Neena squirmed under the elf's disappointment, and felt Hirador's mental reassurance.
"Hirador and I have to leave in a few days," Neena finished lamely, bracing herself for the suspicion surely to come. Instead, Faeyna's gaze landed on Turac. She walked up to the concealed Mah'nier and closed her eyes, running her hand up Turac's muzzle to his forehead. Her hand stopped where his horn would be, and she seemed to be concentrating. Turac stood stalk still. Suddenly Faeyna's eyes snapped open and a grin leaped up her face. She embraced him. Neena's heart fell. Faeyna knew. And if it was that easy for her to tell Turac was a Mah'nier, he might as well take the spell off of himself and strut into Galbatorix's castle.
Do not be so certain, hatchling. You forget elves are magical creatures.
Am I magical? Since I'm bonded to you? Neena asked. Hirador nuzzled her, his soft warm breath calming her.
Of course you are, hatchling. Even if we were not bonded, you would still be an extraordinary human.
Thank you, Hirador.
My wish is for you to be happy, hatchling.
Neena rested her hand between two spines on Hirador's bended neck. Faeyna turned to her.
"I will accompany you, Hirador and Turac on your journey. Turac has contacted his herd members and the protector approves. It will also cause less suspicion among the Varden of our departure if I come," Faeyna said. Neena reached out for Turac's mind, and Hirador watched her carefully.
Who is the 'Protector'?
It is another name for the one who called you. Turac answered.
Have you told the elf more than us? Hirador snapped, and Neena was surprised at the venom in his voice. Turac must have sensed this too, and tried to calm the dragon in his reply.
Be at peace, Fiery one. She knows less than you and your Rider.
Hirador snorted, a stream of angry smoke flaring from his nostrils. Neena felt his puzzlement at the name Turac called him.
What made you decide to invite her? Neena asked the Mah'nier, curious.
She has a kind soul, not unlike yours. Responded Turac simply. Neena pulled out of the contact, flattered.
"Now, my young friend, I believe it would be wisest to pretend that Turac is your horse for the remainder of our stay at the Varden. For that, I believe he requires a halter," Faeyna said brightly, and she walked over to a tree on the outskirts of the clearing. Neena watched, fascinated, as she began singing. Though Neena was too far away to make out what the elf was saying, she knew it had to be in the ancient language, because a thin branch sprouted out of the side of the tree, twisting and lengthening until it formed a halter and lead rope. Neena stared, still not quite used to the odd talent the elf had, and the halter and lead rope broke off of the tree into the elf's delicately waiting hands. Faeyna stroked the trunk of the tree, and whispered a few words-Neena assumed-of thanks.
I want to be able to do that. Neena told Hirador in awe. He backed up a few steps and rested his head on top of hers. Neena shifted under his weight a little, the realization of just how large Hirador was hitting her full force. Faeyna walked over to Neena and placed the halter in her hands. Neena examined it, amazed. The wood underneath her hands felt as flexible, soft, and smooth as leather. She tugged on the noseband. It held fast under her hands, and she was sure that it would take nothing short of setting it on fire to destroy it. Even then, with the elf's magic tightly woven in its strands, she wasn't sure fire would destroy.
"Thank you," Neena said breathlessly, causing Faeyna to smile wider. She turned to Turac, who lowered his head for her. For a minute, Neena fumbled with the halter, throwing the lead rope over her shoulder. There was no buckle. Then she noticed a loop on the crown strap from which a chin strap was securely tied. Sheepishly she went about untying it, aware of Turac waiting patiently beside her, Hirador ready to give her instructions at any time, and Faeyna watching her. She let out a loud sigh when the knot evaded her attempts to be untied. She looked at it, trying to understand how it worked. Then Neena noticed that the thin part of the throat latch dangling out of the knot seemed to be connected to a loop inside a loop. Triumphantly, she pulled it towards her instead of down, like she was accustomed to, and to her satisfaction it came apart easily.
"I did it!" she exclaimed excitedly, earning a small smile from Faeyna.
"You sure did," the elf encouraged. Hirador lifted his head from Neena's and spat a small stream of violet flames into the sky to celebrate her victory. Smiling happily, Neena slipped the halter over Turac's waiting head and retied the knot. Relieved, the stallion brought his head back into its normal proud position. Neena stepped to the side of the Mah'nier, examining how it fit him. It seemed to fit snugly under Turac's jaw, while allowing a small amount a small bit of release the halter and his throatlatch and jaw. She slipped her hand under the halter and between the throatlatch and jaw, and found that while her hand fit, the halter still pressed against the back of her hand satisfactorily. She removed her hand, and on impulse stroked Turac on his cheek. The halter fit perfectly. She told so to Faeyna.
"That is good," Faeyna said, a bit of humor in her eyes. Neena flushed, realizing that the elf had asked the tree to grow a halter that fit him perfectly. Of course it fit.
There is no need to be embarrassed, hatchling. Hirador reassured her. That helped a little. Not much, though.
"How does it feel?" Neena asked Turac. She felt his mind touch hers, and he shook his head experimentally. It didn't budge.
It feels much more comfortable than the halter I wore before. He told her. Neena smiled. The halter that he had worn back when she was a slave had fit him horribly. The crown piece had been too far back, the chin strap too tight, and the throatlatch nearly choked him if it wasn't loosened as far as possible.
"Neena, I have a few questions I wish to ask you, so I might understand better what you must be taught. First however, I ask you if I may have the pleasure of training you until we reach our destination," Faeyna announced, and Neena noticed the business-like tone the elf had taken on. No doubt Neena was to answer these questions as clearly and quickly as possible.
Be cautious not to sound naïve, hatchling. Hirador reminded her gently.
I will try. Neena replied. To Faeyna, she answered gratefully, "I would love to have you teach me. I'm eager to learn."
The beautiful elf smiled, her startlingly white teeth contrasting against her dark red hair.
"This is good, not many humans have that trait. It shows that you will learn quickly as well, since many find learning easier if it is enjoyable. Now, can you ride horses?"
Neena blinked, then answered yes, puzzled.
Now that's a silly question. She thought.
Not as silly as you think. Remember, slaves don't ride horses. Hirador responded immediately.
I guess that makes sense-wait how does she know I was a slave?
I told her. Hirador said, as if it was obvious.
Hirador! You know I didn't want anyone to know that.
Keeping secrets will not help you stay under the protection of the Varden, hatchling. Hirador pointed out. Neena stared at Hirador, bewildered. She thought Hirador didn't want her in the Varden.
You are correct, hatchling. But nearly losing you caused me to realize that I can not protect you on my own. This is a war, not a mere battle. Galbatorix's troops are cowards, hiding behind their numbers.
Unfortunately, that makes them far more powerful than if they were to fight one at a time. Neena said, aware that Hirador would prefer to fight one at a time.
It is a terrible strategy. Hirador agreed.
And as long as they use it, we will be forced to use the same strategy to avoid being killed. I don't like being caught in a war, Hirador. There's so much pain and misery. Neena finished hopelessly.
Hatchling, even when we defeat Galbatorix-
If we defeat him. Neena said glumly, remembering the ferocity they had been attacked with during their last battle. Hirador snarled, a light reprimanding growl rumbling in his chest.
Do not let doubts fill your mind, hatchling. If we are not determined, all is lost! He snapped, banishing Neena's glumness at once. She began to think of how things would be after the war. Peaceful. She and Hirador would be able to explore the world, free of fear. She was surprised to find that she no longer wished to live out her life with her parents. Her dreams now consisted of flying into a clear blue sky on Hirador's back.
Hatchling, pay attention, the elf is speaking to you.
Neena jerked out of her daze to find that indeed, Faeyna was speaking to her, just as Hirador had said.
"That's very well, that you can ride, that will make our journey easier," Faeyna said.
"Won't I be riding Hirador?" Neena asked, puzzled.
"I think it would be wisest if you did so only at night, as we will travel the hardest at that time. During the day, you will ride Turac, under the concealing spell of course," said Faeyna. Hirador snorted.
Your plan is foolish.
"Hirador!" Neena snapped sharply. The bronze dragon went on.
Who is to say my rider will not fall off the deer animal while fleeing from pursuers? I will not be close enough to assist. You ask me to put Neena's life in your hands when we have just met!
Turac pawed at the ground and swished his tail angrily at 'deer animal'. Neena watched Faeyna's reaction, preparing herself for the worst. Hirador had all but insulted the elf directly. Instead of being angry, however, Faeyna only looked thoughtful. Her response was in the ancient language.
"Your concern makes sense. I assure you that you can entrust your Rider's life with us. We will guard her with our life," Faeyna vowed. Neena hoped she had consulted Turac before making a vow like that. She suspected Faeyna had, as Turac was making no protests.
I refuse to remain miles away from my Rider. Hirador growled, smoke reeling out of his nostrils.
"Forgive me, Skulblaka. It was not my intention to cause you to be upset. However, you must realize that staying by Neena's side while we travel will draw unwanted attention," replied Faeyna in human language. She seemed genuinely sorry that she had caused Hirador's upset disposition. Hirador, taken aback by the apology and the truth in her words, couldn't find any way to respond.
"Is there anything else you wanted to ask me?" Neena asked. Faeyna's expression instantly brightened.
"Yes, however my questions will wait to be answered another time. I will begin teaching you the art of the life-song," Faeyna said, her voice absolutely bubbling with joy. Neena paused to tie the lead rope around Turac's neck like reins, and then looked up eagerly. Faeyna led Neena over to a particularly large tree at the edge of the clearing.
"Everything around you has a life of its own, and its own magic energy. This magic runs freely from the earth and can be influenced by thoughts or emotions. It is called wild magic. It is easier to show you than to explain. Put your hand here," Faeyna said, placing Neena's hand on the tree trunk. Turac and Hirador were standing in the middle of the clearing, watching with interest.
"Close your eyes and open your mind to your surroundings. Try to feel the magic's pulse."
Neena closed her eyes, wondering how she was going to 'open her mind' to her surroundings.
Clear your mind of all thoughts. Hirador suggested. Neena nodded, and took in a deep breath of air through her nostrils, letting it out slowly. Her thoughts slowly faded away from her as she repeated this process, calming her body. She tried touching the minds of several small animals, but felt nothing besides their thoughts and emotions. Retreating back inside herself, she tried something different. She let herself drift away, as though she was going to sleep. Her awareness of the world around her fell away, and she could feel her heart in her chest, creating a steady rhythm throughout her body. She became aware of a pleasant, blissful tingle humming through her body. Excited, Neena tried to explore it, and it faded. Disappointed, she tried again.
Neena forced herself to relax, allowing herself to drift away from her thoughts once again. The tingling began again, spreading through her body from the palm she had on the tree's trunk. The wind whispered in the trees, the blades of grass stretched for the sky. A river gurgled a ways off, the mountains even further away stood silently. The animals of the forest bustled around doing their business. A deer took its last breath and its spirit floated away. Neena felt neither happiness nor sadness, only bliss. She felt free. Time didn't seem to exist, just a never ending cycle of life and death. She became aware of a steady, sad throb that pulsed throughout Alagaesia, and beyond. Sadness filled her immediately. There was not as much magic in the world as there had been, and it was suffering.
The earth was mourning the great loss it had been put through. Each life shared its magic, forever connected with the earth. This magic helped continue death and rebirth. But, many of the creatures that were held most dear and shared the most magic had been lost. They were to bring happiness, and there were but a few left. With every death there must be at least one birth. But there had been more deaths than births. The fragile balance that kept the earth neutral had been disrupted, and there was too many who were in pain.
At the same time, the earth was rejoicing. There had been a few new births that had restored some of the magic that had been lost. Their love flowed through the magic and made it stronger.
Neena landed softly back into awareness with Faeyna's hand on her shoulder. She felt something wet on her cheeks. Tears. Yet there was a smile on her face. She didn't need to explain anything to Hirador. He had been with her the entire time.
"Did you hear it?" Faeyna asked.
"Yes," whispered Neena.
A/N: sigh I guess there's no point in waiting any longer. I actually had this chapter waiting since last Wednesday. I was waiting for two more reviews so I could give you guys a ten page chapter. Oh well. I guess this one is okay, though. Thanks for those of you who actually clicked the button and responded! Cya next chapter.