1300 words — 7 minute read
fantasy, high fantasy
‘Worra save me,’ Rono whispered, shying away from the monster in front of him.
Five decades had passed since Rono the Rogue had last seen a unicorn. Motionless, the creature stood half-hidden in the greenery. One gleaming, black eye fixed on Rono; the other shone a blind white against exposed, blackened flesh.
Rono took a step back while trying to look unthreatening to the beast. When he was young, his mother had taught him the legends of creation; the wonders of the gods. Unicorns were creatures of magic, she had said — gifted by the heavens to bring hope to humankind. Indeed, the animal he had met in his boyhood had been glowing with moonlight, its eyes full of life and wisdom.
What now stood before him had nothing in common with the regal creatures of legend. If this beast had ever been white and shimmering — to have become what it was now, it must have gone through the eight fires of the underworld.
Thin ringlets of smoke rose from the creature’s head. Of the ears, only charred stumps remained. The once majestic horn had broken off halfway down its length and ended in a jagged fracture. Exposed bone jutted from knee joints and shoulder blades. As Rono stared, the stench of smouldering flesh reached his nose, sharp against the crisp scents of the forest.
He put one foot behind the other, feeling his way backwards along the footpath. The beast stood motionless, watching him go. When he reached the cover of an old Yarmon scrub, he turned and ran.
Rono was no soft-bladdered city dweller. He was a brigand; a highwayman; a land pirate — but he had a healthy respect for danger. Differentiating between a risk worth taking and impending death was what he did for a living. The life of an outlaw either sharpened you, broke you, or impaled you on your own arrogance.
Now he ran, though he paid in aching muscles. Old injuries came to life, and fire burnt in his joints. He cursed his ageing body but did not slow down. Any other day, with any other adversary, he would have stopped along the way, found a good spot for an ambush, and waited for his pursuers to appear. But not today. Not this time. Not with this foe.
The memory of another autumn night overlaid the fading daylight. A night from his thirteenth year on Worra’s Earth. His mother had died not long before and left him begging and stealing on the cruel streets of Thinds. Visgar the Horse-Thief had taken him in; taught him how to fight, how to steal and, leaving civilisation behind, how to lay an ambush.
Rono and his mentor had only finished their new trap by the marshes when a rider appeared under the pale light of a rising half-moon. Trap her and rob her, Visgar had said, eager to reap the fruit of his work. The two of them, in the cover of darkness, against a lonely traveller.
And trap her they did. As she left the winding marsh road, their ropes tightened around the horse’s fetlocks and the mount fell, taking the rider with it. But before Rono’s eyes, the grey horse brightened to the whitest of white, luminescent in the moonlight. On its forehead, a horn appeared where before there had been none.
A unicorn, straight out of his mother’s tales.
Rono’s hands, slick with sweat, trembled on the hilt of his sabre.
‘Please,’ the woman whispered, spreading her arms over the unicorn, a living shield for the majestic creature who watched Rono with bottomless eyes. ‘Sheathe your sword. The gods will never forgive you.’
But Visgar urged him on, madness in his eyes and weapons in his hands. ‘You know the rules, boy. Do you have what it takes? Or are you the weak pup of the litter, who has to be put down?’
Shaking, Rono staggered forward to do what he was told. But when he struck, his feet slipped in the dewy grass. The sharp blade slashed the struggling unicorn along the side of its face, down the shimmering neck, and sunk into the woman’s shoulder, burying itself in her flesh, just above her heart.
Rono froze. His eyes met the steady gaze of the woman, who slowly slumped to the ground. A single tear caught the moonlight as it trickled down her cheek.
Blood, red and golden, covered the road and coloured the ditches, the liquid’s eerie glow lighting up the night. The unicorn’s shining coat faded, and its eyes, which moments earlier had held the wisdom of Worra, now burnt with the fury of Kwasu.
The harsh, cruel sound shattered the paralysis that held Rono captive, and he ran. Away from the bleeding unicorn; away from the woman’s sad eyes; away from the madman who had been his mentor.
In the fading light of another dusk, fifty years later, Rono obeyed the blazing pain in his ageing body, slowed his pace, and assessed his surroundings. The unicorn was nowhere to be seen. He rubbed his face with a dirty hand. Despite all he had seen and done in the years that followed, he had never been able to free himself of the curse of those memories. Even in the darkness of the night, as he ached for restful sleep, those two pairs of eyes haunted him and tormented him. He shook his head to clear his mind and took a deep swig from the water bottle he carried inside his leather coat.
A muscle behind his ear twitched. A warning.
He froze, one foot in the air, skittish thief-senses on high alert. Someone had spotted him. He crouched and spun, expecting to see the unicorn behind him, but the forest lay empty. The only sign of life was the cawing of a crow high above, nearly drowned out by the drumming of his heartbeat.
Fighting the urge to flee again, Rono gripped his sword and dagger and continued forward.
On the path ahead of him, a cloaked figure emerged from the greenery, followed by the blackened unicorn.
The creature fastened its one-eyed gaze on Rono. He shrank back but could not tear his eyes away. Along the beast’s head and neck, seared flesh parted in a long, deep gash. A sabre cut from long ago that had first festered and then been cauterised — but only Worra knew by what.
The woman pushed back her hood and parted her cloak to reveal a bare shoulder marked by a large scar above her heart. Rono’s eyes widened as he looked into the face that haunted his dreams for fifty years.
Wisps of smoke rose from the scorched beast by her side, undisturbed in the calm evening air. But no longer did the unicorn’s eyes reflect the fury of the lightning god. Instead, a somberness spread over the mossy knoll; the silence of mists.
Rono fell to his knees, his strength leaving him. He was once again a terrified boy, clinging to a sword he had forgotten how to use.
‘Rono,’ the woman said, her voice that of purling brooks and whispering winds. ‘It is time.’
Her face, though sad, was smooth and young and untouched by time. A demi-goddess, Rono thought, sent to do the will of the heavens.
‘You have a debt to pay, boy,’ the goddess said, ‘and we cannot wait any longer. You can come willingly and serve in life, or you can die here today and serve forever.’
Rono trembled. Fate had finally caught up with him.
He bowed his head and got to his feet, letting his sword and dagger fall to the ground.
‘No,’ the goddess said. A fierceness gleamed in her eyes. ‘Pick up your weapons, Rono the Rogue. Where we are going, you will need them.’
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