Fluffy white clouds, like freshly plucked tufts of cotton, dotted the pale blue of afternoon sky. Aras stared up at these formations with eyes half-lidded against the glare of the sun, playing the foals game of trying to find shapes and patterns amongst them. Here he could see the plump body and long ears of a fat springhare, and there he discerned the features of a leaping, bob-tailed hillcat. Squinting, he studied another, and saw something…vague there, something hidden in the curls and mounds of white. But no matter how he stared, or cocked his head, or squinted his eyes, the shape eluded him.
All at once, as his mesmeric brown eyes still strained to 'see', the sky began to darken, going from sunny bright, to darkest gloom in the barest moments; and the swath of cumulous he observed began roiling and whirling, twisting and twining about itself until finally something began to form. A sloped head, skewer horn, the proud arch of a neck… it looked as though the sky itself giving birth to one of his own kind. The massive body of a unicorn seemed to leap out of the heavens…though its legs were rooted to the cloud that formed it. It was looming, hovering above him, casting an immense shadow upon the earth. The cloud-unicorn flicked open its eyes, through which the backlit glow of the afternoon sun streamed blindingly, and then the insubstantial creation spoke: "Aras…. Hist."
"Y..y..yes?" He stammered, voice meek in his own ears.
"Aras!" Tone demanding now, insistent. "Wake up."
With a startled snort, the stallion jerked awake. The dreaming vision of talking clouds vanished, dissipating from his mind like steam rising from a sweat-heated body on a chill morn. Blinking and uncomprehending, Aras looked up to see a shape silhouetted against the noon sun, staring down at him…and it was this shape who was speaking. "Honestly, Aras. I was beginning to think you'd sleep the whole day away." The figure stepped back, light finally casting across its features, and Aras instantly recognized his shoulder-friend, Larif.
Rolling to his side from where he reclined in the deep, soft grass, grunting as he did so, the white and crimson pied stallion merely stared balefully up at his companion. "I've not been asleep long, Larif. So you've no cause to torment me."
Larif danced back several paces on his light hooves, expression feigning mock injury at the others tone. "Torment you? Why Aras… I would never." The gray-flecked, amber stallion nickered laughter, tucking his chin to his chest and sending his spray of coal-dark mane scatting. Glancing up from under hooded lids, he met Aras's annoyed stare.
"Alright," he conceded, "perhaps I was tormenting you …a bit. But by the beard, my friend, it is well into the day and here you lay."
"Aye," The white-splashed scarlet unicorn agreed, then caviled: "But as I stood late sentry, and did not leave my post until well after moon dark, it is no wonder that I should need to rest a bit later than you." He slapped his white tail tassel against the ground for emphasis.
Larif snorted genially, not at all put off by his friend's dour demeanor. "List, my friend and still your thrashing tail. I know that you had late duty. And I'd not have woken you if the Queen herself hadn't requested our presence immediately."
"The Queen?" This prompted the stallion to rise. He did so slowly, groaning as sleep-stiffened muscled protested and aged joints creaked. Once standing, he stretched languidly, and then shook off the last lingering of sleep, withers, flank and barrel shuddering spasmodically with the motion. "I wonder what Halla wants of us?" He asked, and took several plodding steps forward.
Wheeling to join him, the amber stallion measured Aras's pace for a few slow strides, then shouldered his friend into a trot. "C'mon, ancient one." He teased, knees popping into a jaunty high-step. "I've no idea what she wants, but I don't want to be all day in getting there."
Aras shot his friend a momentary glare, but let himself be chivvied into the quicker pace.
Consigning himself to a light jog, a gait that would have less impact on his old bones, the milk-spotted stallion sighed. It was nothing for his younger companion to spring up from a dead sleep only to gallop miles across the rolling plains, then dance the whole night under the bright moon; but his own, declining body objected to being so ill-treated.
Studying his friend as they traveled, Aras smote down a rising flit of jealousy within his breast. Though only two seasons younger, Larif had weathered the drastic changes that their people had been through with greater ease. They'd fought shoulder to shoulder against the treacherous wyverns, and fled side-by-side from the curtain of flame that pursued them for unending miles upon the plains. Larif bore the scars of battle and their frantic death-run, the flecks of gray salt and peppering his back and shoulders where ash and cinder had singed away amber hair, but still looked to be a stallion in his prime.
Aras, on the other hand, fared worse. His right haunch still ached and hitched at his gait from the blow of a wyvern's claws, despite having healed, and his once handsome snow-white mane grew uneven, and unkempt down the length of his crest where it had been burned away by the flames. Other scars spoke of minor injuries and indignities he'd suffered, but there were other, even more aged mares and stallions who'd endured far worse and recovered far better. He grew old before his time and felt the years upon him as he never had before. Perhaps his body already knew what his mind still grappled with: that he would never 'belong' to this new world, this new circle and these new laws. Life upon the plain, seemingly ever searching for somewhere to call 'home', was taking it's toll on him… and he feared that the ultimate price was still due.
More and more these past days, Aras had found himself wondering if his doubts were simply due to fear of the future, or if he truly did not want to live his life this way. Lately he'd begun to feel trapped and confined, despite the fact that he and his fellows traversed a seemingly empty and endless stretch of the mare's back. There was a part of him that felt the pull of the unknown, the urging of something deep within him that ached to find fulfillment again. He did not know if he was alone in these musing, but he feared what might happen if he were to voice them. Times were strange now, amongst the Ring, and the Queen herself seemed to encourage the tightening and strengthening of its boundaries.
Many times, and even now as they strode beside one another, the pied stallion thought to confide in his shoulder friend, to confess the doubts that plagued him. But fear held his tongue. Fear that despite their many years of friendship, Larif would not understand… might even shun him for his alien beliefs. As much as he trusted and cared for the other stallion, he also knew that Larif was the epitome of the perfect Warrior of the Ring, and would probably not look too kindly at any views that cast doubt upon the Ring or its laws.
Shaking off his musings with a snort, Aras glanced ahead and, even from the span that still distanced them, could spy the incandescent form of Halla, their Queen standing just below a copse of stunted trees, upon a small ridge – her dawn-bright form reminding him for a moment of the wyvern's fire. Surrounding her were a group of her 'advisors'; those stallion's and mare whom she trusted for their council and companionship and capabilities. Zod the singer was among them, he realized as the distance halved and he marked the singer's milk-spattered coat. A few more lengths of the rocking jog and he had identified each of the unicorns standing with the young Queen by coat and color.
Next to him, Larif gave a piercing whistle, and the five heads of those waiting turned in their direction: ears swiveled and pricked, eyes staring and expectant. Grumbling, Aras felt even more ungainly and awkward under their scrutiny, feeling their waiting eyes upon him, knowing that they all judged his warrior's ability from his uneven, gimping gait. He swallowed down the discordant mumbling however, as he and Larif picked their way over the last few paces of yellowed, hoof-trampled grass and dusty earth to stand before the Queen and her council. The pair genuflected respectfully, lowering their heads until the tips of their skewer horns scraped the dirt.
Slower to rise than his younger companion, Aras looked up to find himself the subject of some examination by each of the councilors. A bit defiantly he raised his head higher and directed his attention to Halla. "You called for me, Queen Halla?" He asked, both cordial and curious.
The radiant mare gave a delicate bob of her head, "Aye, Aras. I did indeed. Thank you for coming so quickly."
Aras inclined his horn at her gratitude.
She took a moment to greet Larif in kind, and then hastened to business. "The reason that I have summoned you both is because I have need of your assistance." Her gaze intensified, narrowing to match her tone in urgency. "One of our scouts, the mare Gara, has gone missing."
Aras backed a step, eyes going wide, but held his tongue while Halla continued. "She had scouting duty two days past and has not returned." The flame mare's tone was steady, but cut with an undercurrent of worry. For one so normally reserved and taciturn as the Queen, it was an almost glaring indication of her concern. Formerly prone to projecting strong emotions, the recent tragic events affecting the unicorns had changed the dawn-hued mare. No longer outward with her feelings, she kept her reactions well-schooled unless strongly provoked. With a sighing snort, she turned her attention to one of her advisors, a blue-maned, gold stallion whose muzzle was starting to gray with age, called Vesif.
The venerable stallion dipped his head to the Queen, and then turned to address Aras and Larif. "Gara and Tresh were sent on a scouting mission, as the Queen mentioned, two days past. It was after noon halt that they separated, both heading East. According to Tresh…"
"Wait." Larif broke in, bravely facing the disapproving stares that were directed his way for having interrupted. "You mean Tresh is back?"
"Aye." Vesif nodded. "He returned as instructed, yesterday evening. We questioned him thoroughly and in his accordance, they split from one another about a league from here, Gara going on a more Southerly course, Tresh to the North. He has not seen Gara since they parted ways. She did not meet him at the rendezvous as they planned the following morn." The aged stallion shook his head as if displacing a fly, but it was a jarring, frustrated motion. "He heard no sounds of pursuit or battle and even after following her tracks for half the remaining day, saw no sign of struggle or indication that she may have encountered an enemy. Nor however," he added somewhat hopefully, "have there been kites circling over as far as he could see in any direction." He paused then, his gaze looking past the pair for a moment as he seemed to loose himself in thought.
"Did the tracks stop?" Aras asked quietly during the silence, not quite as brave as Larif to directly interrupt an Elder.
Again Vesif gave that frustrated jerk of his head, unsettling his hoar-streaked, sapphire mane. "Her hoof prints were easy enough to follow on the hard packed earth where forage was sparse, but the haycorn grows long and wild only a few miles out and her tracks were swallowed up by the thickly growing grasses, so he could not follow them further. Nor was he able to follow any trail in the bended grass, so wildly does the mares back blow."
"He would have continued to search further, but knew that he should report back, lest we find ourselves sending searchers after the both of them. So after losing her trail, he turned back, and had to run hard to reach us at the appointed time." He frowned.
"Is that what you wish of us, Elder?" Larif questioned, almost eagerly. "To search for her?"
"Aye, Larif." Vesif nodded, as did the Queen and Zod next to her. "We'd send out Tresh again as well, but he's still winded and spent from his long journey. It will be a day or two before he is capable of venturing that far out. But each of you is skilled at following a trail, and with Tresh's report to guide you, we're hopeful that you'll be able to find some sign of her."
Here the milk-spattered singer, Zod stepped up. "Yes. You, Larif, and you, Aras, are both very skilled warriors and trackers." His melodic voice grew cadenced as he went on, gaining a singsong quality. "Also, I have seen a mere glimpse of the future in a dream, and though much is veiled to me, I dreamed that a feather of pink-speckled gray floated on the wind."
Aras was puzzled by the seer's words, until he recalled that Gara had a pale gray coat that was sparsely dappled with rose. The lilting voice of the singer interrupted his thoughts. "It drifted alone for a time, but then two more feathers fluttered on the breeze, mingling with the gray. One of red and one of amber." Zod shook his head as if to clear it of some fog, and then gave the barest of smiles. "Though we've a few other's in the herd whose coats might echo those colors, none that I could think of would float so close together. I feel it to be a sign that the pair of you are meant to find our stray mare."
A shudder passed through the pied stallion then, as if something in the seer's words held an almost ominous chill, despite the warmth with which he spoke them. Snorting softly at himself, little more than a windy exhale, Aras schooled his thoughts and his expression enough to voice a reply to the waiting Elders. "When do you wish us to leave?" There was no need to formally accept the charge. It was their duty to the Queen and to the herd; and, beyond that, Gara was a dear friend.
Larif obviously felt the same, as he stayed uncharacteristically silent, and merely stepped forward a few paces to stand at Aras's shoulder in a show of solidarity.
Halla spoke up again, her mien distant, but commanding; no sign of distress marring her regal bearing. "Right away, Aras. It will take you some time to reach the marker where Gara and Tresh parted. I should think that you and Larif would rest there for the night and continue your search the following morning."
"When do you wish us to return?" The pied stallion asked, his mind already calculating the length of the journey and the time frame involved. If they were required to return to quickly, he worried at the possibility for success.
As if reading the thoughts that played over Aras's face, the Queen replied: "You will rejoin the herd on the eve of Moondance, with or without Gara as that is all the time we can spare two of our able-bodied warriors. However, be mindful of the fact that the herd will have moved on. We shall be leaving this site tomorrow, and following in your path, though it will take us far longer than a span of hours to reach Tresh's marker. But when you return, return to us there."
With a sigh of relief, Aras felt his shoulders loosen and an unknown tension leave his body. They'd just seen moon dark three days past, which meant they had nearly a fortnight to seek out their missing herdmate. His hopes for their success increased tenfold. Beside him, he could feel Larif breath a bit easier as well.
Things got moving quickly after that. The pair of stallions were taken to meet with the scout Tresh, who rested in the shade of a small hillock, his body still evidencing signs of his exertion. Although they spoke for some length, Larif and Aras gleaned little more than they'd already been told by the council. Following directions that Tresh provided, they'd set out to reach the marker he'd left behind. It would take them the rest of the day, and that at a steady gallop, to reach the horn-scarred sapling that had marked Tresh and Gara's meeting place. Their leave taking was done without ceremony, Zod and Vesif escorting them to the edge of the herds encampment, providing a few words of encouragement and the blessings of Alma from the singer-seer, then they were off.
The red and white stallion kept an even pace with the amber, the pair coursing over the plains, shoulder-to-shoulder in a steady, cadenced gallop. While not as fast as either could go, the pace was designed to eat away the miles and not sap at the body as much as a short bursts of hard running or a tiring sprint. Larif stayed unusually silent as they ran, and Aras found himself biting his tongue several times before asking what was bothering his shoulder friend. He'd be poking his horn into a nest of bees if he was to ask, and trying to keep up a conversation with the black-maned stallion while galloping was not something he looked forward to attempting. When they stopped for the evening, to graze and rest, he'd gently try to coax the mood from his shoulder-friend.
In the meantime, Aras kept his dark eyes scanning the world around them, ever alert and searching for the slightest sign of the missing mare. Beside him, he could tell that Larif did the same, and he occasionally caught a glimpse of the others' ebon-tipped ears swiveling to and fro. Once, early on, he thought he caught the remnants of a whinny on the wind, but the direction was wrong and the sound faded into silence, not to repeat. Likely the straying sound of one of the herd… at least he hoped.
Tresh's timing, it turned out, had been quite accurate. He said they'd likely reach his marker before dusk, and there ahead of them was the horn-rubbed sapling. They trotted over to it just as the burning disc of the sun began to slip beneath the horizon. The near-twilight sky blazed brilliant magenta in the wake of the setting sun, fading to pale blue as it spread outward, and the low hanging clouds that scudded across the sky were dipped along their bottom edges in salmon. Panting slightly to catch his breath, Aras jogged in a vague circle to loosen himself up, easing the tension that had gathered in his weak thigh, before settling down to rest and he studied the sunset as he did so. Despite the glorious beauty of the day's end, the crimson splashed stallion felt little joy. Since hearing Zod the singer's words, an uneasy dread had been growing in the pit of his stomach, and even now the feeling lingered.
"Hist, Aras." Larif's voice intruded upon his thoughts. He stopped his perpetual motion and looked over to see the amber face staring at him quizzically. "You're like to fall over dizzy if you keep turning in circles like that."
He gave a nickering chuckle at the dun's expression. Whatever troubling thoughts that had kept the amber-warrior silent during their travels seemed to have dissipated, or at least been put aside for the time being, as Larif seemed his usual, if someone trying, self. Warm brown eyes rolled up in mock annoyance. "Larif you are such a foal, at times." Aras chided. "I'm simply cooling off slowly, loosening up so I don't wake up aching on the morrow. You've been on long patrols long enough to know that you'd be wise to do the same."
"Ach." A snort and a wink. "Your old bones need it more than mine. I'll be fine."
"Old bones?" Aras echoed, tone rising in feigned disbelief. "Why you mangy cur. I'll show you old bones." And with a laugh, the pied stallion half-heartedly lunged at his shoulder friend.
Larif met his horn with a deft twist of his own, deflecting the elder stallion's mock-attack. Again the red and white stallion pressed his assault, striking out with a fore hoof and aiming for the general vicinity of an amber abdomen, but catching only empty air as the other sidled out of range. Twice denied, Aras, scrambled back a pace, but then surged forward again, ducking beneath defenses of a lowered head and bared teeth, and caught his friend on the flank with the flat of his skewer. Having scored the first blow, he danced backwards out of reach of a return strike.
"How's that for old bones, you bandy legged, cliff-climber?" He laughingly panted, though less from exhaustion than exhilaration.
Looking sufficiently chided, Larif chuckled and bobbed his head. "Alright, my friend. You got me that time." He waggled his brows dramatically, "But next time you won't be so lucky."
And despite the warm humor in those words and the voice that uttered them, Aras felt a chill run down his spine. Sobering, he jerked his chin towards the ground. "C'mon, my young friend, we should get some sleep." He managed a grin to stay the question that he saw spring to Larif's lips. "Long day ahead of us tomorrow and perhaps these old bones aren't as forgiving as I first supposed..." Folding his legs beneath him, Aras dropped to the ground.
Aras saw the other stallion stare at him peculiarly, looking for a moment as if he was going to speak, then simply shook his head and lay down. Reclining near the elder stallion, Larif flipped the heavy tassel of his tail over his flank for warmth and tucked his nose deep into the bend of his knee. "Don't you worry," he heard his friend whisper in a voice already blurred at the edges by sleep, "we'll find her."
Aras, who was rapidly following his friend into the realm of dreams, only blinked in agreement, and he didn't have the heart to tell his companion that, at that moment, finding Gara had been the furthest thing from his mind.
The next morning Aras awoke to near darkness, the eastern horizon barely aglow with the promise of the suns arrival. Rolling up just enough to bring his legs under him, he glanced over at Larif, whose amber coat was leeched of its color in the dusk, making him appear as little more than a charcoal lump in the grass. From the way the other stallion's sides rose and feel so slow and even, Aras knew his friend was still slumbering, so he let his gaze be drawn skyward, knowing he had time to appreciate the serenity that enveloped him.
Despite the gloom, he could see the dim shapes of clouds in the sky, blobs and dollops of hazy gray against the black of the heavens. And as the bright orb of the Sun stallion slowly breached the horizon line, its light painted the edges of the clouds, outlining them in shades that ranged from fiery orange at the easternmost to dark violet at the west. The burgeoning light caught every little dip and sway and ripple in the scattered billows, adding detail and dimension and depth that enhanced their potential.
For the pied stallion this was the perfect time for cloud gazing. Though it was considered a foalish pursuit, Aras had never been able to break himself of the habit of studying the skies and looking for hidden things among the clouds. He stared upward at the brightening formations, picking out shapes here and there, some simple some more complex, but he silently reveled in each one he found.
A rustle of grasses and a softly grunted exhale as the stallion next to him shifted told him that Larif had just woken, but he did not look away from the cloud that had captured his attention. There was something about the way that the top of it wafted and then tumbled down that reminded Aras of his dream the previous morning. The shape looked vaguely equine, and the way that the light shifted across it suggested that the looming cloud was emerging from its fellows.
"Looking for shapes in the clouds again, Aras?" Larif's voice interrupted, though sleep slurred and soft, it did little to disturb the stillness of the morning.
A small grin curved Aras's red-velvet mouth. "Aye, Larif." He continued to gaze skyward, watching as the sky brightened at a nearly imperceptible pace. He heard the crunch of grass being crushed and the sounds of a body shifting indicating that Larif too had settled up onto his belly.
"Tell me, Aras," Larif said, keeping his voice low, "What do you see?"
Aras chuckled, "You always want to know what I see, Larif. Why don't you just look for yourself."
A soft, but amused snort sounded. "Because, Aras, I do not see the same things that you do… nor do I see them as well."
If he detected a strange tone behind the words, Aras could not say for sure, but he wondered at their meaning for a moment. Dismissing the confusion, for it was early yet and his friend had just woken, Aras described some of the things he beheld. "In that patch there is a stalking pard, hiding behind an outcropping of rock." He pointed with his horn. "And over there are wings of a kite that is just taking flight." He continued for a few minutes, pausing to find new things and then carefully describing them to his friend.
"Is that all?" The amber stallion asked when he was done, again as if there were some veiled meaning behind the question.
Turning to look at Larif with puzzlement, Aras replied: "Aye, my friend. That is all the clouds have shown me." He continued to stare at his shoulder friend, but could not discern any further meaning behind the question, nor was Larif offering any explanation. "Come, Larif." He finally said. "We've tarried to long here. We've a long day of searching ahead of us."
The other stallion nodded and surged to his feet in a quick motion. "Aye." He agreed after giving himself a shake. "We should take advantage of the cooler morning air while we have it. I imagine the day will heat up soon enough to make travel uncomfortable."
With a heave and groan, Aras lifted himself off the ground, once again feeling just a tad envious of his friends' youthful vigor. He shook of the clinging dirt and scratched vigorously at an itch on his flank. "You're probably right about that. What say we head back to that small stream for a drink? There was some nice green grazing around there too. Then I suppose we should split up and begin our search." He looked over to Larif, who nodded in agreement.
"Aras," The amber stallion asked as they began to jog towards the nearby stream they'd marked the evening before. "You know you can talk to me, don't you?"
For a moment, Aras felt as though his mouth was a dam and were he to open it, words would come pouring out, rushing past his tongue and teeth and spilling out every secret desire and every hidden dream that he'd longed to share. But as he glanced over at his friend and could again, not read the meaning behind the question, he swallowed down that urge, and merely replied. "Aye, Larif. Of course I do." And if his tone was flat and his expression somewhat downcast, he could only hope that Larif would not read too deeply into them.
The amber stallion merely nodded, albeit a bit sadly, and said. "Good. That's good." And said no more as they reached the bubbling brook.
Each day began the same, with either stallion selecting a direction to begin searching, moving by degrees in each sector, and each night the pair of stallions met up in some predetermined location, chosen that morning on a whim. More often than not it was the most obvious landmark within eyeshot and something that would stay visible even at quite a distance. . "See that hillock, over there? The one with the crooked tree. Looks to be a good spot." Or. "Can you remember your way back to this creek? It would be a good place to bed down tonight."
Four days passed by in rapid succession. Four days of endless searching. Four days of galloping over repetitive plots of land until the eyes couldn't stay focused from their nonstop exposure to blurring scenery. Four long days of nothing but tepid air and limited water and only a mouthful here and there of crisply drying haycorn. And when they settled for sleep on that fourth night, Aras dreamt of an impossible-to-reach horizon, and fields of nothingness that spanned forever in every direction.
Late afternoon on their fifth day, Aras plodded along in a course that was just a fraction more westerly than his previous day's wanderings. He'd not seen Larif for several hours, wasn't due to meet back up with the amber stallion until much closer to sunset, and was considering the possibility of breaking off his aimless, fruitless searching; possibly settling in for a well-deserved rest in the shade of some sparse aspen trees, when something caught his attention.
An incongruity. He almost missed it, as he was coursing almost hypnotized over the wide expanse of open nothingness. If he'd kept his eyes canted to the left for just a moment longer, he would have galloped right by. But then he straightened his head, and in the right-hand periphery of his visual field, Aras beheld a smudge of darkness against the endless sheets of pale gold and barely green.
He drew up abruptly from the rolling canter, nearly skidding in the grass as obsidian hooves sought purchase against the smooth blades of grass, and then spun adroitly to find the shadow that had caught his eye. Not a shadow, he realized after a moment of squinting, but a silhouette: a black shape whose edges were fuzzy and indistinct from the halo of light surrounding it. But it was definitely a familiar shape.
"Gara?" Aras cried out. Hopeful. Disbelieving.
He galloped closer, watching the blur of distant gray firm and resolve until finally, at last, he realized that it was indeed the missing mare who stood so still before him. "Gara" He called again eagerly, and wondered why she did not turn. He loosed his most piercing whistle to get her attention, and hoped that Larif was within earshot as well.
Still he stared at the slope of her back and the steady swishing of her tail tassel as he jerked to a stop only a few feet from her. Tentatively and with and unknown fear biting at his breast, he called out once more. "Gara?"
"I'm not coming back with you, Aras." She turned to face him finally. The look on her rose-spattered face was one of stony resolve.
Perplexed, Aras could only stare as he tried to comprehend what she was saying.
Wearing a kindly but firm smile, the gray mare repeated herself.
"What do you mean?" Aras asked, after finding his voice. "I've come to take you back to the herd. Tresh said you were lost… I don't understand."
"Not lost, Aras." Gara explained, sighing almost angrily. "I volunteered for that scouting mission for one reason. So I might get away from the watchful eyes of the lookouts, to a place where I could slip away unnoticed. Once Tresh and I parted, I deliberately hid myself away from him. I had hoped that he'd assume me dead and head back without me." She gave a wry snort. "Apparently he did not believe the former."
"I don't understand, Gara. We thought you lost and we've been searching for you for days. Why would you deliberately steal away?"
"Because I meant what I said, my old friend. I'm not returning to that suffocating ring and its binding laws. I'm going to make my home out here, on the mare's back."
"But how, and why?" A multitude of questions sprang to Aras's mind, the few he managed to blurt little more than single words, but one sentence did make its way from the stallion's lips. "Gara you can't live out here on your own.
The mare gave a peculiar smile. "But I won't be alone, Aras. There are others out here… Unicorns, just like us who've never known the ring or its laws." Seeing the confusion in Aras's eyes, Gara explained. "I met a pair of strangers on a patrol a few moonturns ago. I thought them fellows who got lost when the herd scattered after the scourging at the Hills. But they spoke in a manner different from ours, and when I asked them about what they were doing away from the ring… they'd no idea of what I spoke of! Other's remembered tales their sire or dam had told, of how they'd fled the Ring to seek out a better life" She sounded both incredulous and excited at the prospect. "Don't you see, Aras, there are other children of Alma out here, upon her back, who do not know law or the binding of a ring. They are free, and live true to themselves and the Mother-of-all."
The pied stallion felt his jaw drop, and his eyelids parted wide. He didn't know which surprised him more; the revelation that there were other unicorns, or the fact that Gara wished to join them. "But…. But…. Gara." He finally managed to sputter; working his jaw tentatively as if afraid it would never properly shut again. "You can't mean that. The ring of Alma is our world… By the word and the law we are meant to live." But even as he said those words, he felt no conviction in them.
"This is not how we were meant to live, Aras!" Gara quailed. "Being so tightly bound to this ring and these laws that our every action is watched over like a ravenous kite circling eagerly for death. Slowly and over time this circle is going to tighten, coiling around us like a viper strangles its prey, and it is going to kill our people, and I for one can't watch them suffer, nor will I let myself suffocate and die with them."
"Gara, do not say such things!" His already wide-eyes showed white at the rims and he stared at her like a mad-thing. "'Tis treason to speak so." Again, despite his vehemence, a part of what he said felt rote, as if someone else were speaking with his tongue.
Gara snorted disdainfully. "Aye, 'tis treason. But I'll bite my tongue no longer. Aras, you are my friend… do not force me to return."
The pied stallion backed up a step. "How can you ask me this? It would be just as treasonous for me to let you leave. I cannot do this." In his mind a voice said: Or can I?
"Please, Aras." Her tone was suddenly plaintive, her eyes desperate. "It would not be treason on your part if they don't know the truth. Tell them you didn't find me… tell them you saw no sign. I beg of you, do not betray my secret."
The stallion's head drooped, parti-colored red and white mane curtaining his face, and he realized that Gara truly meant to stay upon the plains. To leave the Ring. Forever. While it was a startling realization… a shock, what came as more of a shock was the fact that Aras finally understood and finally accepted. Because in truth, her words echoed things that he'd been feeling, and denying, for so very long.
Pain lanced through Aras' heart as he spoke his next words. "Gara, I would do that for you if I could, even though it is against my heart's desire to lose you. But, alas, I cannot. I am not alone in my search for you, Gara. Larif is upon the Mare's Back as well… and I've already called for him." He struck at the earth with a cloven forehoof in frustration. "I didn't know… I saw you and I called for him. I never thought…" He trailed off, went silent for a moment before meeting her eyes with unflinching frankness. "He'll be here soon. Even if you leave now, he'll see the signs, he'll know that we've talked. I don't know that he'd feel the way that I do…that he'd be willing to make the same choice."
The gray mare snorted and slapped her rose-streaked tail against her flank in determination. "Dissuade him. Tell him you were mistaken, lead him away from here and convince him that you were imagining things."
"Gara." Aras sighed. "Larif is no fool. He will not believe me. I will not be able to convince him of anything. And once he spies the mark of your hoof in the dirt, he'll know that I've betrayed him, and the Queen."
"For the love of Alma, Aras." The mare's tone grew anxious, desperate. "Just turn around and run to meet him. Stop him before he reaches this spot and lead him away from it. You can do this… I know you can."
"Gara… I don't know… I…"
"Please, Aras. I can't go back."
"Gara. I'm sorry."
"Aras," She pleaded, "Let me go."
The aging stallion studied the mare he'd called friend for so many years. They'd been foals together, of the same age and initiated to warrior-hood side-by-side. They'd even shared in the bond of looking over the mere at their own destinies on the same moondark eve. Her mate, lost to the wyvern's only a few short months ago, had been his cousin; their sires brothers. She was more than a herd-mate to him and her well-being weighed heavily upon him.
He could almost see the weight of the circle pressing down upon her slender frame and the longing in her eyes for the mysteries of what lay beyond. He understood. It would kill her, this new way of life, just as it was slowly killing him. Was the price - betraying the Queen and the Ring, deceiving his shoulder friend, possibly abandoning the gray mare to her death upon the vast and empty plains - too large to pay?
"Go." He urged in a hoarse whisper.
Gara blinked, staring at him as if unbelieving.
"Go." He blurted again. Louder and commanding. "Now! Go!" And he struck out at her with the flat of his horn.
Gara shied as the skewer caught her on the flank, and then, sparing only a fraction of a heartbeat to lip at his neck in gratitude, the rose-flecked mare spun away and fled as fast as her hooves could carry her.
Aras watched Gara go. Watched her bolting form grow smaller and smaller against the horizon until at last the black speck of her shadow vanished from sight. And it seemed that just as the drumming of her hooves faded to silence, the rising thrum of Larif's sounded his approach. Gathering himself, blinking quickly to quell the moisture that threatened the corners of his eyes, Aras turned and plunged forward into the grass, hurrying to meet the amber stallion before he reached the spot where he and Gara had just stood.
"'Ho, Aras?" Larif called out, winded, as he galloped towards him. "What news?"
Schooling his face to a mien of regret, Aras shook his head. "I'm sorry, my friend. I'm afraid I hailed you without cause. 'Twas nothing. A trick of the eye or my imagination." He paused as the other stallion reached him and dropped his head to catch his panting breath. "Forgive me, Larif. I've made you run for nothing." He glanced sideward, letting his gaze go distant. "I fear I'm going mad out here." He chuckled wryly, all too aware of the truth threatening in those words.
Once he'd caught his breath, the amber stallion gave his own chuckle. "Aras, what am I to do with you?" He chided gently, shouldering the stallion in mock-recrimination.
Jostling his friend in return, Aras pointed his horn in the direction Larif had come running from. "List my friend, why don't we head back to the creek and call it a day. My eyes clearly need a rest, and that run did you in. We're both spent for searching today and we can catch a well-deserved rest this evening and continue fresh on the morrow." He hoped that his entreaty seemed genuine and did not belie the desperation he tried so hard to hide.
If Larif suspected something, he did not let on. "Aye, my friend. That is definitely a good idea." He gave a shuddering sigh then turned to head back. "I could definitely use a night of good grazing and untroubled sleep." He picked his hooves up into an easy jog.
Keeping at Larif's shoulder, Aras nodded. "Aye, that would be best for us both." He exhaled a deep sigh of relief as they continued their slow pace away from the trampled grass. "You know." Aras began; feeling relaxed enough to manage some meaningless chatter. "I wonder what…"
"Hist!" Larif cried suddenly, coming to an abrupt stop.
Scrambling to a halt next to him, Aras peered closely at his friend. "What is it, Larif?"
The amber stallions' nostrils were distended and he inhaled a great draught of air. Finally he gave a snorting exhale and turned a direct gaze to Aras. "Don't you smell that?"
With panic rising in his breast, Aras imitated his friends deep inhale and though he tried to sort through the myriad smells that fragranced the air, the scent of his own nervous sweat occluded whatever it was that the other stallion had found so obvious. He attempted a grin. "Nay, my friend. I smell nothing. Perhaps your nose is playing tricks on you as my eyes were on me."
Larif shook his head so vehemently strands of his ebon forelock twined round his horn. "I do not think your eyes were playing tricks on you after all, my friend. Come, follow me." He turned on his heels and began backtracking their path of bended grass.
Hesitating a moment, Aras struggled to come up with a reason to steer Larif off of the path, but nothing came to mind. Desperate, he plunged after the amber form. "Ho' Larif, what is it?" He asked as he neared the other stallion's flank. "What did you smell?"
"Gara." Came his short reply.
Aras hurried to bring himself abreast of Larif. "Are you sure?" He gasped out, still frantically trying to scramble for an excuse to turn his friend away from the inevitable discovery.
Larif gave a second curt retort. "Aye." His attention was focused on following the scent and Aras knew that no amount of cajoling would turn the amber stallion away from his course.
They reached the small clearing where he and Gara had treated in very little time - Larif was nothing if not a skilled tracker - and Aras's heart fell as he spied the evidence that remained so obviously imprinted upon the earth.
For a few moments Larif said nothing, merely snuffling at the different hoof tracks and studying the bended grasses, but after his examination, the amber stallion turned to glance questioningly at the red. "Aras?" He gestured with his horn to the trampled grass and two pairs of hoof prints in the dirt. "What is this?" His eyes were wrought with emotion: confusion, worry and doubt commingling with suspicion and the slightest spark of anger waiting to be kindled by the truth.
Aras thought to make light of the situation a moment, perhaps even attempt to convince his friend that the tracks were their own, made earlier in the day. And though he knew in his heart he knew that no mere words would fool the other stallion, whose churning thoughts were already likely leading him to the correct conclusion, Aras feebly asked, "What do you mean?"
"This, Aras!" Larif barked, and thrust his horn angrily at the markings in the dirt. "Those are Gara's tracks. Her scent lingers in the air." Now the eye that was fixed on Aras narrowed in anger. "And it is not alone!"
Scrambling back a pace from the unbridled fury, Aras could only gape silently, like a fish out of water, gulping at air.
"You were here, Aras! With Gara." As suddenly as it had come on, the blaze of anger seemed to extinguish, washed asunder by a torrent of sorrow and confusion. "You lied to me, Aras. I don't… I don't understand." Larif stared at him then, his eyes as much as his voice, pleading for an explanation. "Why would you lie to me?"
"Please, Larif. You must understand." He had no idea even where to begin with his account, other than trying to reassure the other stallion that his deceit was not deliberate. "By Alma, I did not mean to deceive you, my friend. Truly I didn't."
"Then what goes on here, Aras?" The other stallion asked hotly.
"I… it is not my place to tell."
Larif snorted in disgust. "Still you lie to me? I thought I was your friend, Aras?"
"You are, Larif. You are a brother to me… and I would never deliberately deceive you…"
"Then why have you? Why do you lie?"
"I do not lie." Aras retorted, his own voice rising in volume. "But I cannot tell you. Please believe me!"
A second snort sounded from the amber muzzle, and Larif's upper lip curled back in a scowl. "You ask me to believe you… to trust you, when I know that you've lied to me, are deceiving me? Aras, old friend, you ask too much."
Aras met the other stallion's accusatory stare unflinching. "I've given my word, Larif. I cannot betray that… even to you."
"Is it for Gara that you hold your tongue? Is it she who commands such loyalty?" Though the sneer was not visible on Larif's dusky face, it was evident in his tone. "How can you give her your trust, and not me?" Hurt too, echoed in the words.
"It's not like that, Larif… truly it is not. I just… I cannot tell you. I will not see you caught in the same web that I find myself in!" And that was the truth, as Aras would never want for Larif to face any kind of recrimination for concurring with the grey mares' 'treasonous' act. Nor would he have ever wanted to sully his dear friend's opinion of him by admitting the truth of his own feelings.
"What web is that, Aras?" Larif asked, now sounding genuinely desperate to understand. "I cannot help you if you do not tell me!"
"You will never understand, Larif. The secret I keep is not for Gara alone… it is for me as well."
Utterly confused, Larif could only ask. "What do you mean?"
"I cannot tell you! I'm sorry, but I cannot!"
Torn between his need to protect Gara and himself and the desperate urge to be honest with his shoulder friend, Aras found himself at an impasse. He needed to think, he needed time to decide what to do, and he needed to be alone. And the only way he could get that would be to go, just as Gara had. "Larif…I…. I have to go. I want to tell you, but I need to think… I have to go…" And with that he turned on his hooves and frantically scrambled to escape Larif's hurt and accusations.
"Aras, no!" The amber stallion lunged after the red, his intent apparently to stop Aras from running off. Cloven hooves pushed deep into the grass and dirt, leaving gouges in their wake as Larif pushed his body forward in a tremendous rush. His neck was extended to its full length, teeth bared as he sought to catch the other by the nape and haul him to the ground.
Aras felt, more than saw Larif charging towards him and he ducked his shoulder, going down to a knee, to avoid the charging stallion. He felt the impact as that massy, gold-hued body crashed into him, the strength of it jerking his head and horn back sending a concussive shock down the length of his spine. The splash of heat against his brow puzzled Aras as he tried to shake of the stunning effects of the blow. It wasn't until the warm damp dripped down to his foreleg that he realized what it was. Blood.
Panicked, Aras looked himself over, seeking the cause of the blood that trickled down the dish of his face and tickled one nostril. He felt no pain, but sometimes in the shock of an injury awareness of pain was suspended for a time. Finding nothing, the next obvious explanation struck him like a thunderbolt. Larif! He found the amber stallion quickly, standing only a few lengths away.
Larif's head was hanging low, almost as if he'd lowered it to graze, and the thick thatch of his coal-dark mane obscured much of the amber neck. But even as Aras scrambled to his hooves, ready to aid his friend, he realized that the dark glistening that shimmered over Larif's neck wasn't mane – it was the steady flow of blood.
"Oh, Alma!" He cried and surged towards his shoulder-friend. It was clear now, what had occurred. When he'd ducked to avoid the amber stallion's champing teeth, he'd caught the other with the edge of his skewer horn. The steadily trickling blood originated just behind Larif's jaw, and dripped like rain to the grass below. There was no doubt … it was a killing blow.
"Arrsss." Larif gasped and the wound that neatly severed his throatlatch gaped, a spray of blood gouting as he tried to speak. "Mmm…srrrrry…" His words gurgled as crimson bubbled at his lips.
"No… no…Larif, no." Aras's voice was desperate, his words a fervently chanted prayer. "Please, no!" He leaped to the tawny stallion's side, reaching him just as Larif's legs crumpled and his body toppled heavily against Aras. The pied stallion nearly stumbled at the sudden weight crashing against him, but held his footing and then carefully eased his friend's bulk to the ground. Then gently, he laid himself down next to the nearly still form of the other stallion, laying his head over Larif's crest so that his muzzle was near the other's ebon tufted ears. Though Larif's sides still rose and fell, the breaths were shallow, and growing slower and weaker and Aras knew his friend was not long for this world. He would be in the care of the Mother-of-All very soon, but Aras didn't want to let him go without the truth.
"Oh, Larif. I'm so sorry. I never wanted to hurt anyone; least of all you." Tears sprung up in Aras's umber eyes, brimming and then trickling down and leaving damp streaks in his patched fur. With his velvet muzzle pressed close to Larif's cheek he fervently confessed his sins to the amber stallion, hoping to give him at least some understanding in his final moments, and perhaps find some absolution for himself. "I just wanted Gara to be happy. She wanted to leave. Leave the ring and the Queen and to strike out on her own. And she asked me to keep her secret.
"And the truth, my friend, is that I understood her. I let her go because it was what I wanted as well. I've never felt the way you do about our life, Larif, I've wanted to leave it behind for so long… but I could never tell you for fear it would shame you and make you despise me. But I was wrong, Larif! I should never have kept it from you, my heart-brother. I should have trusted you. I've failed you my friend, and for that I will beg Alma's forgiveness for the rest of my days!" Gulping back a sob, he cried, "I'm sorry, Larif, I'm so sorry!"
Larif's mouth parted slightly, and in the barest voiced that Aras had to strain to hear he gasped, "Arrasss… forgive… you." The wheezing exhale the followed those words was the amber stallion's last. With a slight shudder, Larif's body went still, slumping lifelessly to the ground.
A scream of agony tore from the red and white stallion's throat; a sound full of grief and fury that echoed over the empty grasslands and carried far into the night. Wracking sobs followed, and Aras could do nothing more than huddle against the still form of his shoulder-friend, expelling gasping sobs until his body was spent from them and his eyes ran dry for lack of moisture. For many long hours Aras lay curled against Larif, feeling the heat slowly leach out of the amber stallions' body. Exhaustion overcame him eventually and he dropped off into a fitful sleep, his head still pillowed on Larif's shoulder.
A blinding ray of the morning sun's light cut a beam through the tall grasses. It streamed against Aras' face, finally waking him. He lay silent and unmoving until the soft crunch of hoof falls sounded nearby. A shadow interrupted the harsh glare of the sun. Slowly he cracked open one eye that was nearly crusted shut with salt from all the tears he'd shed. Blinking, he looked up to find Gara staring down at him, an expression of sorrow and horror on her pale face.
"Aras," The mare managed, gaping. "What… what happened here?"
Wearily Aras lifted his head from his dead friend's shoulder, though he made no move to rise and his shadowed gaze dropped to stare desolately at Larif's body. "It was an accident, Gara." He croaked out, his voice rough and hoarse from ill use. "He was angry at me for lying to him… I tried to run. I needed time," he explained desperately, "time to think, to find a way to tell him the truth without hurting anyone. So I tried to run, and he tried to stop me." A sighed escaped his down turned muzzle. "It was an accident, but it was also my fault."
The rose-dappled mare fell silent then, not sure what to say. His words were so definite and final that Gara knew she'd never be able to convince him otherwise.
"How did you find me?" Aras asked her, cutting through the silence that had fallen like a heavy pall.
"I saw the kites," She explained in a soft voice. "I thought… I didn't know what to think. Or what I'd find."
Aras didn't reply.
In a sudden tearful explosion, Gara burst out: "Oh Aras, I'm so sorry. This is all my fault!" Her head drooped. "I should never have gotten you involved… Oh… by the Mother. I am so terribly sorry."
"No, Gara." Aras told her, speaking quiet and firm. "The fault lies with me. I made the choices here. Not you. I should never have tried to lie to him, never given him reason to doubt me. I should have been honest with him a long time ago." He sighed again, with profound regret. "But it's too late now. The one whom I loved as a brother, as my dearest friend, is dead. And I cannot change that. And I don't know what to do…"
"You can't go back, Aras." Gara said gently, but with finality. "Not after this."
"No, I can't, Gara. I can never go back." Aras agreed sadly.
"Then stay. Stay with me, out here. Come and meet the others that I spoke to you of." Though grieved, she seemed almost eager for the pied stallion to follow her. "You cannot go back, so there's no place for you to go except with me."
Looking up finally from the body of his shoulder-friend, Aras met Gara's eyes. "I cannot do that either, Gara."
Flinching from the intensity in those brown depths, and clearly puzzled, she asked. "Then where will you go?"
"Nowhere." The red splashed stallion answered in a strangely still voice. "Here is where I belong. Here with Larif."
"Aras, you can't stay here. They will find you."
"I know." He replied simply. "And I will face them when they do."
The rose-dappled mare whuffed in frustration. "Aras, that is madness. They will punish you. Perhaps execute you for this."
Aras gave a brief nod. "I know. But it is an honest response for what I have done, and no less than I deserve. Larif died because I was afraid to face him, and the truth. I deserve whatever happens to me."
"Then I will stay with you." She declared, putting on a brave façade. "I will stay here and meet them with you."
Aras shook his head sadly. "No Gara. You cannot stay. You need to go. At least one of us needs to live free, and because of what I've done, that will never be me."
Gara bowed her head, but did not dispute his words. "Isn't there anything I can do for you, Aras?" She asked.
"Aye." He said, in that same distant tone. "Before you go, you can help me bury our friend."
The speckled mare nodded even as she blinked away fresh tears. "Of course, Aras. Of course."
With a painful groan, Aras heaved himself to his feet. His joints were stiffened from the night spent in so awkward a position and blood plastered his fur like mud, nearly invisible in the red patches of his coat, but glaring against the white. He seemed to have aged considerably overnight, and moved like an elder, wavering on unsteady legs. But despite his own aches and pains, he was caring and gentle as he began to position his dear friends' body for the funeral rites. Gara joined him after a moment.
Together they laid out their fallen companion, Gara stamping the circle in the grass around him to represent the ring, and Aras laying out his legs and throwing his head back with care so that his coal black mane streamed out behind him. When they finished, each moved to stand out of the trampled ring of grass. "Would you…" Aras whispered roughly. "The rites, would you speak them."
Gara nodded again, and this time she let the tears come. Her voice quavered with them, but she spoke the funerary rights clearly and with passion.
"Fate has unspoken, one of the circle
Pride of companions, wonted of fame
Vouch for his valor, his heart of a hero,
Fellow of warriors, fallen in battle,
Rally, remember his name."
"Larif." Gara concluded in a whisper.
"Larif." Arus echoed.
The pair stood with their heads bowed for many silent minutes, each lost in remembrance of their friend, but after a time Aras raised his head back up and turned to the grey mare. "Gara, you should go."
Though she wanted to argue, Gara merely nodded. "May you find peace, my friend." She told him, "And should you ever find it, I will be waiting for you to find me as well." She brushed her downy muzzle against his cheek, rubbing softly, and then slowly drew away. "Farewell, Aras."
"Farewell, Gara." Aras replied, even as his gaze dropped once more to fix upon the dead stallion upon the ground. "May Alma be with you, always." He heard her final quiet sniff, the shift of her body in the grass as she turned to go, and then her hoof beats as she sped away from him. When the sound had faded to nothingness Aras once again lowered himself to the ground, lying just outside the grassy circle that contained the earthly form of his shoulder friend.
For the next span of days Aras neither ate nor drank, and only slept when fatigue and exhaustion forced him to do so. He held vigil over Larifs' body, letting neither kite nor prowling haunt, nor any other vermin come near enough to mar the dead stallion's peaceful form. Each day he grew weaker and gaunter, but he refused to move, knowing that sooner or later someone from the herd would arrive. It was a sorry state that the refugees from the Hallow Hills found him in that next moondark.
The next few days after he was discovered passed in a blur for the pied stallion. He'd been unable to speak when the others found him, so all that his fellows knew was that one of their own was dead, and another nearing it. The herd's healer, Takil, worked diligently to nurse Aras back to some semblance of health, and when he was finally deemed well enough, he was brought forth to tell his story to the Queen and her council.
He spoke in a voice that was as stony as the rock under his hooves, recounting his fabricated story for the assemble Elders. Gara's secret and his shoulder-friends life were both honored in his telling. The blame was his, he'd told them, that he and Larif had fought because he wanted to give up the search. He described the 'battle' between them fairly accurately, only changing his reason for attempting to flee. Larif, he explained, tried to stop him from running away from his duty, and the injury was an accident, but nonetheless his fault.
"I accept the blame for the death of my dearest friend," He concluded in the same cold monotone, "and I willingly offer myself for the Councils' judgment."
There were wide-eyes and startles snorts from all those assembled as Aras presented his tale, and near chaos erupted amongst the council when he was done. The Queen called for a break in the assembly so that she and her advisors might meet to discuss the appropriate response to such a shocking revelation. Word spread quickly through the herd about what had occurred, a crowd gathered to wait for the pronouncement, and there were whisperings and mutterings about what suitable punishment might be meted out.
Finally, the Queen and her council returned and the aged, blue-maned stallion Vesif whickered noisily to get the attention of everyone. When all had fallen silent, he turned to face the pied stallion. "Aras, for your treasonous actions towards the Ring of Alma and your careless actions that resulted in the death of one of our finest warriors, it is the decision of the Queen and this council that that you be branded as a 'Renegade' and exiled from Ring." Gasps sounded from all sides, shocked snorts and whinnies of surprise, but Vesif ignored them and continued. "Furthermore, let no one here offer succor to this traitor, nor show him any kindness. He will be escorted away from this place, away from the honorable citizens of the ring, and should he ever try to return, his life shall be forfeit."
"Also, from here on, I declare that the criminal is not deserving of the True Name bestowed upon him, and will heretofore be referred to by his station of Renegade. Let no one honor this creature with the utterance of his former name, upon pain of banishment."
Aras did not so much as blink as his sentence was announced, merely stood with his head low and his gaze fixed upon the ground. He'd expected no less, and felt he deserved more. The noises around him - words of outrage, shouts of support, vehement curses – registered in the stallion's ears, but he heard them only as the buzzing drone of a bee hive, or the roaring rush of a waterfall.
Halla stepped forward then, and unlike her advisor she did not need to whistle or call out to encourage silence from the gathered throng, it simply fell in a hush as all eyes turned and ears twitched to hear what the Queen had to say. "Renegade, you have heard the judgment of myself and the Council of Elders. You will now be escorted away from Alma's chosen, for in your actions you have cast your lot against the Mother-of-all." The fiery-coated mare's voice was regal, but distant as she concluded. "Your fate is your own now." Halla turned her head then, and would not deign to look upon Aras, and in her example the rest of the herd followed suit.
With deliberate steps, Zod the singer moved in front of the Queen that she might see and acknowledge him. "I'd like a moment with Ar… the Renegade, if I may." The milk-spattered seer spoke softly so that his voice would not carry beyond a few nearby ears. "If you allow it, I will escort him away from here." If the fire-hued mare found anything strange in his asking, she did not indicate, merely granting Zod his request.
"Very well, Zod. You may escort the Renegade away from the herd." She fixed him with a commanding look. "But return here soon after, as there are words I would speak with you."
The seer nodded wryly, and then trotted over to where Aras stood flanked by two warriors. They drew away from their charge as Zod reached them, but stayed nearby as if they expected Aras to try to somehow escape. "Renegade, come with me." He ordered curtly, and then headed off in a trot in a direction that led away from the gathered herd. He never once looked back to see if the pied stallion followed.
Aras did, of course, jogging dutifully, if somewhat difficulty for his weakness, after the Queens' most trusted advisor.
Once they were out of earshot, Zod slowed his pace a fraction, allowing the pied stallion to catch him up, and when Aras came abreast of the blue stallion, Zod slowed even more. "There." The singer said in satisfaction. "I hope the slower pace better accommodates you, Aras. Please let me know if you need to slow further."
Unable to help himself, Aras startled at hearing the milk-spattered stallion speak his name, giving a snort of surprise. "I…uh… am fine." He said tentatively and gave a sideward puzzled glance at the stallion who jogged next to him.
"Please, Aras, I know of the Queen's pronouncement should anyone hear me refer to you as something other than 'renegade'… but I do not believe you to be deserving of such disrespect."
"You don't?" Aras was even more puzzled to hear this.
"Nay." Zod replied sadly. "For you see, I feel I am partly at fault for what has occurred."
Again, Aras could only gape at the seer-singer in confusion. "I do not understand."
"I will explain, Aras, but let us wait until we are out of sight of the others, so that we might talk freely and without the need to watch our hooves as well as our words." He fell silent after that, and for a time the two merely jogged further into the desolate plains.
When they'd put a considerable distance between themselves and the rest of the herd, Zod finally came to a halt, stopping near a tree that he leaned his shoulder upon heavily. As Aras took in their surroundings, he began to suspect that the Seer had deliberately led him to this place. The grass was rich and green here, there was a small copse of trees for shade against the sun and only a short gallop away he could see the twinkling ribbon of a small stream. Should he choose too, Aras could survive here quite readily. Had the milk-spattered stallion foreseen this place? Had he planned to bring Aras here?
Before he could ask, however, Zod began to speak. "The fates are a fickle thing, Aras, and a seer's life is wrought with indecision. He never knows when it is right to act upon a thing he has prophesized." He drifted to silence for a moment, staring off in to the distance, and then gave his head a shake as if clearing it. "And sometimes," He went on; "When he steps in to fix something based upon a brief glimpse into the future… he makes a mistake."
Zod's head swiveled abruptly and the gaze that fell upon Aras was wild and forlorn. "You see, after you and Larif left in search of Gara, the memory of the rest of my dream returned to me… I saw those feathers I spoke of, but I realized that in the whole of my dream, they never did all float together. It was the red feather and the pale rose that mingled at first, and then later the red and the amber…as the rose drifted away." The seer dropped his head in shame. "And then the wind grew wild and strong and both of the feathers were tumbled and tossed, and when the breeze finally stopped the amber feather grew still, fluttering to the ground. For a time the grey returned, until eventually only the red continued to hover above the fallen." Looking up at Aras through haunted eyes he explained. "Had I but tried to better understand my vision, I might have understood what was to happen."
Zod gave a self-deprecating snort. "I trusted only the smallest part of what I'd seen and could remember clearly… and I misinterpreted the reason that Gara's feather was drawn away by the wind. Had I just meditated upon my vision for a time… perhaps I could have prevented this all from happening… perhaps Larif would not be lost to us… nor you as well." He turned to gaze imploringly in Aras's eyes. "By the Mother, I am sorry, Aras. But I do not know how to change your fate."
Aras contemplated what the seer described, and there was a small part of him that wanted to rage at the evening blue stallion, screaming 'Why, why did you not warn us!' But in his heart, Aras knew that he could not blame anyone but himself. "Zod, I cannot know what you feel at such knowledge, but I do know this. My fate was of my own making. Had I made any number of better decisions earlier… had I but trusted the goodness and kindness of my dearest friend, perhaps things might have turned out differently."
For the first time in many days Aras smiled. It was a small thing, just the ghost of a true grin that was there and gone, but no less genuine for its brevity. "But Larif would have been the first one to chide me for such thinking, and he would feel the same towards you. So please, do not carry the burden of guilt upon yourself. It is mine to shoulder, and I must shoulder it alone."
The singer-seer studied him for a time with eyes that held mystery in their depths, and then gave a satisfied nod. "I will leave you then, Aras. And please know that I do not believe that the Mother-of-All has forsaken you." He turned slowly and began to walk back in the direction they had come. But then the milk-spotted stallion paused, and craned his neck back to look at Aras once more. "For you see, I had another dream this very morn. And in this vision I beheld your feather floating in this very place, tossed and tumbled and very much alone."
"But as the dream faded my sight drew away from this one spot, to take in many vast miles of Alma's back. And out there…out amongst the wavering grasses and glimmering prairies I saw many more feathers, of many varied hues and they floated free and unfettered, careless on the wind. And one those feathers was of rose speckled grey" Zod's voice trailed to significant silence, and he turned to face forward once more, dashing away with nary another word.
For a long time after the seer left his side, Aras stood silent and staring into the distance without really seeing. Then finally he sighed, and it was a sound of release and of a weight being lifted. He did not know how long he'd stay here, nor what he would do after, but for now he simply stepped out from the shade of the trees and lifted his head to gaze at the sky. And there, in the clouds tinged golden by the sun, Aras was sure he could see the noble body of a brave and proud unicorn, running eternally in the heavens.