Song of the Wanderer
A Meeting With the Queen
“The queen will see you now, human child.”
Cara scrambled to her feet. She had been sitting beneath a large quilpum tree, enjoying the spicy smell of its bark while she watched the unicorns graze in the meadow ahead of her. The afternoon was warm, and she had been drifting at the edge of sleep. Now she was totally alert.
Laughing Stream, the unicorn who had spoken to her, watched with an amused expression as the girl began brushing leaves and twigs from her pant legs.
I wish I had some better clothes, Cara thought anxiously. I'm hardly dressed to visit a queen!
Indeed, she had been wearing the same jeans and t-shirt since she had first entered Luster a few weeks ago, and they were filthy. She put a hand to her long red hair and sighed. It was even worse than her clothes.
“Ready?” asked Laughing Stream.
She nodded. “Ready.”
“Then follow me.”
Though Laughing Stream was trying to be serious—this was important business, after all—the unicorn was not able to hide the hint of amusement in her voice. Cara would have been offended, except it hadn't taken her long after meeting Laughing Stream to realize that the unicorn found almost everything amusing. Her name had been well given.
Besides, the girl had no energy to spare on being offended. Her thoughts were all on what would happen when she saw the queen. It was a conversation she had been eagerly awaiting since she arrived at Summerhaven three days earlier.
She had already seen the queen several times, but always in a very formal way. Today, at last, they were going to discuss how Cara would return to Earth to fetch her grandmother, Ivy Morris, whom the unicorns knew as “The Wanderer.”
The last time Cara had seen her grandmother, she was ringing the bell in the tower of St. Christopher's church, to help open the gateway to Luster—the gateway through which Cara had fled with the amulet she now wore around her neck. From that moment Cara had ached to know if her grandmother was safe, if she had survived that horrible night.
So intent was Cara on her thoughts that she paid no attention to where she was walking and soon stumbled over a root. She managed to keep from crashing to the ground, but just barely. Laughing Stream snorted, then tried to hide her amusement. Unicorns rarely stumbled.
They came to a circle of trees that reminded her of weeping willows, save that their trunks and leaves both had a distinct bluish tone. Their long, slender branches swept the ground, creating a kind of lacy wall. Laughing Stream led the way through an arched opening in that wall.
In the center of the trees shimmered a pool of crystal clear water. A scattering of leaves, silver-blue and shaped like the blades of spears, floated on its surface. Standing at the edge of the pool was Arabella Skydancer, queen of the unicorns, sometimes known as “the old one.” She was small, her shoulder no higher than Cara's. Her mane was like the foam on the crest of the long ninth wave, her spiral horn like a lance of pearl. She held herself with a sense of ancient dignity that Cara found almost overpowering.
The queen nodded to Cara, and stared at her for a long moment. Finally, in a voice like soft summer wind whispering through daisies, she said, “It is time for us to talk.”
Cara lowered her head and made a kind of curtsy. Only a few days earlier she would have had to be touching the queen in order to understand her. But now that the dragon Firethroat had given her the gift of tongues, she could speak with ease to any of the intelligent creatures of Luster.
The queen laughed. A kind laugh, sweet and gentle. “No need to be so formal with me, child. Come, sit beside me. We will speak of what needs to be done… and of things you need to know.”
Folding her slender legs, the queen settled to a bed of young ferns. She was very old, but her age showed only in the way she was beginning to fade. Sometimes you could see right through her, as if she were already part ghost. Yet now, lying on the ferns, she looked as much like a young foal as an ancient queen. Except for her eyes. They were so deep and so old that looking into them made it hard to imagine anything had ever been young.
Cara settled beside her.
“Have you recovered from your adventures?” asked the queen.
Cara thought before she answered. Her journey through Luster had been harrowing. But here at Summerhaven, safe and well fed, her body had quickly regained its full strength. As for her heart… well, that was a different matter. It was only days ago that she had discovered that the man who had chased her and Grandmother Morris into St. Christopher's had been her own father. She still stung from the knowledge that he was a Hunter, one of the ancient clan sworn to stalk and kill the unicorns. Even worse, through her father she herself was descended directly from the strange woman known as Beloved, the greatest enemy the unicorns had ever known.
These things ate at her, but she didn't know how to discuss them with the queen. They were painful, and embarrassing. And frightening. Given her family history on her father's side, sometimes it surprised her that the queen and the other unicorns would talk to her at all.
Yet her grandmother had been a great friend of the unicorns—such a good friend, according to her father, that she had stolen Cara away, kidnapped her, rather than let her fall into the hands of the Hunters.
But if that was so, why had her grandmother never spoken of it? Why hadn't she prepared her for all this? Cara loved her grandmother, and longed to see her safe. But she also had some hard questions to ask her.
“I'm not sure I'll ever recover,” whispered Cara.
“Each wound has its own time for healing,” replied the queen. “The wounds of the heart are much deeper than those of the flesh.”
Cara nodded gravely.
“Now, let me speak to you of Luster,” said the queen. “If you are going to journey across our world in order to fetch The Wanderer, there are things you should understand.”
Cara looked at her in surprise. “I thought I would use the amulet to return home.” As she spoke her hand crept to her throat, and the chain that held the amulet her grandmother had given her—the amulet that had opened the way for her leap into Luster.
“Certainly the amulet will carry you between Luster and Earth,” said the queen softly. “But unless you make the crossing from the right place, you could still end up very far from your grandmother.”
Cara felt suddenly weary. “Does that mean I have to go all the way back to where I was when I first got here?”
“Alas, if only it were that simple. But ours is an oddly patchwork world, Cara. We touch old Earth in a hodge-podge of places, connections that change with the passing of the seasons. That's why the first stage of your journey will be to the home of the Geomancer.”
“She's a kind of… oh, an earth-magician. Her magic is that of soil and stone, of water and rock. She will be able to work out the best place for you to cross back to your own world.”
“Is it far to where she lives?” asked Cara nervously. This was turning out to be more complicated than she had expected.
“Only two or three days. And you won't be traveling alone. I've chosen a small glory to travel with you. Only three, alas. I thought long and hard about this, whether it would be better to send a large group, and seek safety in numbers, or a small group, and hope for safety in stealth. I finally decided that a small glory would be wisest. After all, the delvers are already aware of you, and a large group would be more apt to attract their attention.”
Cara shuddered at the mention of the delvers. The vicious, goblin-like creatures were sworn enemies of the unicorns. Her fear of them was intensified by the fact that one had attacked her shortly after she first arrived in Luster.
“I've asked Moonheart to lead the group,” continued the queen.
“That's nice,” said Cara, though the truth was that the idea made her a little nervous. Moonheart was one of the queen's nephews, and though he had been kind enough in the few days since she had met him, she found him distant and aloof. She suspected this might be partly because the very first unicorn she had met in Luster—and the one to whom she had really given her heart—was his own nephew, Lightfoot. For some reason Cara had not been able to discover, Lightfoot was not welcome at the Queen's court. And Moonheart in particular seemed to feel the young unicorn was a disgrace to the family.
Whatever the reason, Lightfoot and his big, lumbering friend the Dimblethum had quietly slipped away from their group just before they arrived at Summerhaven. Cara missed them both desperately. They had been her first friends in Luster; had helped her, taught her, guided her on her journey to find the queen.
Well, at least Thomas and the Squijum were still with her. She would see them later, after her audience with the queen was finished.
Suddenly Cara realized that she had let her attention wander—an old problem that had gotten her in plenty of trouble in school.
“I know Moonheart may seem a little… formal,” the Queen was saying. “But he is experienced in the ways of the forest and the mountain, and as brave as any unicorn you can find in all of Luster.”
“It will be an honor to travel with him,” said Cara quickly, feeling she had been terribly ungrateful to question the queen's choice. You're getting spoiled! she told herself. Not long ago, the idea of even seeing a unicorn would have been enough to make you think that your greatest dream had come true. Now you're getting choosy about which ones you want to travel with!
“You will need him, and the others,” said the Queen. “Luster is beautiful, but it is not without its dangers. Remember, our world is not developed in the ways that your world is. You will not find wide roads and solid bridges to cross this wild country. It will be a long journey on foot. And along the way you may find strange and ancient creatures, beings that you thought no more than myths, or legends.”
Cara grinned. “You mean, like unicorns?”
The queen laughed—a sound like distant wind chimes. “Like unicorns. But not only unicorns, child. We were the ones that opened the way, with the help of an old magician named Bellenmore. But once the gates were opened, others came through as well. Yes, this is the world of the unicorns, but—as you know—we have dragons here as well. Dragons, and other creatures, too—some of them kindly, others more… unpredictable.”
“Tell me more about the gates,” said Cara.
The queen paused for a moment, as if the subject was painful. “Seven gates link Luster to Earth,” she said at last. “Stepping through any of them will carry you from one world to the other. I have kept them open in the hope that the day might come when we could return to Earth, or at least visit more freely. Alas, I fear it was a fool's hope.”
Cara started to object. But the queen shook her head and said, “Oh, yes, child. Even a queen can be a fool—perhaps more a fool than most. Many in my court feel it is time to close the gates, not only for safety's sake, but also to bring full end to that old connection. But my heart speaks against it. Alas, the truth is, the choice may be beyond me anyway.”
“The ancient magic that formed the gates seems to be fading. It is possible they will shut of their own accord sometime in the near future.” The queen shook her head. “That will be a loss for both worlds. Anyway, for now, and for as long as the gates are open, each entrance to Luster is closely guarded at all times. And their location on Earth is a very deep secret—as it must be to keep the Hunters from passing through.”
Cara felt herself blush at the mention of the Hunters from whom she was descended.
The queen, as if sensing her discomfort, said softly, “I care much less about your roots than about how you have chosen to grow, child. You have demonstrated both your loyalty and your courage. I am satisfied.”
Cara felt a hot lump of sorrow in her chest when she thought of the moment in Firethroat's cave when she had been forced to choose between her father and the unicorns. But he had been going to open a new gate, so he could lead the Hunters into Luster where they would kill—She cut off the thought. She had made her choice; she stood with the unicorns.
Yet the memory of her meeting with her father raised another question, almost as painful: Where was her mother?
According to her father, she was waiting to see Cara again. The thought pierced her with longing. But was it true?
Again she had let her attention wander. With a start, she realized the queen was speaking.
“Tonight we will have a ceremony at which you will pledge yourself to the quest. Tomorrow, your journey will begin.”
Arabella Skydancer paused, and Cara could sense a deep sorrow in her. “May that journey be successful. An old wound separates your grandmother and myself, and I would like to heal it. Bring the Wanderer back to me, Cara. Bring her back, because I dare not finish fading until you do.”
“Finish?” asked Cara nervously.
“I am old,” said the Queen, and the sudden weariness in her voice seemed to crush Cara's bones. “Older than I should be. I yearn to leave this life behind and move on to what is next. But I have promises to keep, and wounds to heal, and I cannot go until I do. So bring your grandmother back, child, for her sake… and for mine, so I can rest at last.”
Cara felt a coldness in her heart. “Are you saying that if I bring my grandmother back—”
She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence. The thought was too horrible. But she didn't really need to ask the question. The queen had made her meaning clear: she was waiting for the Wanderer to return so that she could die.