unishadow

A realm of fantasy and adventure created by author Bruce Coville

Bruce Coville
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Dark Whispers

Chapter 1

Words From the Past

LUSTER: Autumngrove

Cara and Lightfoot were walking quietly beside the bank of a stream that bordered the eastern edge of Autumngrove. Cara had her hand on the unicorn's side so they could speak mind to mind.

“It's the waiting that makes it so hard,” said Lightfoot. He shook his head, causing his mane to ripple over his shoulders like silver water. “Now that the Hunters have gained one of the queen's amulets, we know they're going to try to invade Luster. But when? And where? We don't even know how many of them there are!”

“We should have asked my father about that when we had the chance,” said Cara ruefully.

Lightfoot shook his head again and muttered, “Your family is such a strange tangle!”

“It's your family, too,” replied Cara, a trifle sharply. “We are related, after all.”

“I never thought I would have a human for a cousin!” answered Lightfoot, his bemusement more clear to Cara because of the way they were connected.

“And I never thought I would find out that my grandmother was a unicorn trapped in human form! I still don't know what to think about it—what to think about myself! I mean, what am I?”

They had come to a place where the stream widened to form a pool. Without a word passing between them they decided to stop. Lightfoot stretched his neck to nibble some late ripening fruit that hung from a gualpa vine. Cara pulled off her boots and waded into the sparkling water, enjoying the feel of the mud as it squished between her toes.

“We should go back soon,” she said after a while, forced to speak aloud now that she no longer had her hand on Lightfoot's neck.

“I'll let you ride when we do,” he replied. “We'll get to court faster that way—which means we can stay a little longer now.”

“I'd like that,” said Cara. Though she loved riding Lightfoot she would never actually request the privilege; the very idea felt presumptuous somehow. So she always waited for the prince to invite her.

She was still amazed at the fact that the young unicorn—young by unicorn standards, for in truth he was nearly a century old—was a prince. She had first met him in the wilderness, when he came to the Dimblethum's cave to heal her. Of course, that was shortly after she had jumped into Luster, back when she knew nothing of unicorns, least of all that her own grandmother was one of them. Then again, even Grandmother Morris had not known that startling truth until a few days ago.

Cara stripped off her shirt and tossed it onto the bank. Then she dipped her face in the water, which was so clear she could have counted the tiny silver minnows swarming around her legs, if they had only been willing to hold still. As she began scrubbing at her brow and cheeks the minnows flashed away, swimming as if they were one creature instead of many.

Cara lifted her face, shook the water from her hands, then waded back to the edge of the pond, where she plucked up her shirt and used it to dry herself. She loved being in Luster, but it was not always easy to keep clean in a place where there were no washing machines or hot showers, in fact none of the conveniences she had taken so much for granted in her old life back on Earth.

On the other hand, neither was there the noise and crowding and pollution that she had also taken for granted—much less the teasing and bullying she had come to accept as the price you had to pay for being a slightly dreamy kid with bright red hair.

After pulling the damp shirt over her head, Cara wandered beneath the drooping branches of a lacewillow, which overhung the pond and formed a kind of blue curtain. The sun dappling through the fluttering, blade-shaped leaves cast a pattern of light and dark on the water. Idly, she began braiding three of the slender branches, thinking—as she did so many times a day—of her mother and wondering how they would ever find a way to free her from the Rainbow Prison. She had given her father the great scarlet gem, originally a gift from Grimwold, that had first let her see her mother's imprisonment. Now her father was doing what he did best: hunting. Only this time he was hunting not for unicorns, but for his own lost wife.

Cara longed to know where he was, how his quest was proceeding. She loved being here with the unicorns, but longed even more to have her family back together.

So lost was Cara in her thoughts that she didn't notice the slight rustling above her until a furry creature dropped onto her shoulder. She gasped in terror, then rolled her eyes as a high, squeaky voice cried, “Hotcha gotcha! Squijum found you good. Bad girl long gone without Squijum. Naughty, stinky, hidey girl!”

Her heart still pounding from the surprise, Cara snapped, “Squijum, don't do that again!”

“Be nice!” cried the Squijum, swatting at her with a three-fingered paw.

“You be nice!” She took a breath, then said more gently, “Squijum, with everything going on right now—with all of us waiting for the Hunters to attack—you just can't act like that. Someone's going to poke a stick through you if you're not careful.”

“Hotcha stinky pokey-pokey girl,” muttered the Squijum sulkily. But he clung to her shoulder anyway. She didn't really mind. She was very fond of the little creature, which looked something like a cross between a squirrel and a monkey.

“Don't be too angry,” said a mellow voice. “The queen did send us to fetch you.”

“Finder!” cried Cara happily. “How did you know where we were?”

The big unicorn—the tallest Cara had met since she came to Luster—was standing beside Lightfoot with a gentle smile on his face. “Why do you think they call me Finder?” he replied with a chuckle. “I would have left you in peace, but something has come up, and the Queen wants you both back at court. We need to hurry.”

“Is it bad?” asked Cara nervously.

“I don't know. I just know that your grandmother asked us to gather the inner circle. Everyone was close by—except Lightfoot and you. I don't have to tell you that Moonheart made some comments about that.”

“Is there anything I do that my uncle doesn't make comments about?” replied Lightfoot, somewhat sourly.

Finder laughed—a deep, musical sound that Cara found both soothing and beautiful. “He wouldn't fuss so much if he didn't care.”

“It would be fine with me if he didn't care at all!” replied Lightfoot. He sighed. “All right, let's go see what this is all about. At least it's not an attack.”

Not having time to dry her feet, Cara tied her bootlaces together and slung the boots over her shoulder. Then she climbed onto Lightfoot's back and they started toward court, both unicorns moving at a swift trot.

#

Whenever the unicorns stayed in Autumngrove, the Queen's Council always met at the base of a small waterfall, where the stream widened to form a pool about twenty yards across. The moist rocks glistened in the afternoon sunshine, their reddish surface dotted here and there with patches of bluegreen moss. To the left of the waterfall the land sloped up in a gentle curve, like the sides of an enormous, shallow bowl. That slope was now populated with about two dozen unicorns, and nearly a dozen humans, an unusually large gathering. Among the humans Cara saw several she knew, including Jacques, the old man who might or might not be her grandfather. Standing near him was Thomas the Tinker, who was the first human she had met in Luster. He felt like an old friend now.

At the edge of the water stood her grandmother. When she was a human she had been known both as Ivy Morris and “The Wanderer.” Now that she had been returned to her true form, she was revealed as Amalia Flickerfoot, the newly recovered queen of the unicorns.

To the queen's right stood Grimwold, the old dwarf who was keeper of the Unicorn Chronicles. He wore a coarsely woven, earth-colored robe. At the queen's left, and nearly twice as tall as Grimwold, was the elegant, ebony-skinned woman named M'Gama. Also known as “the Geomancer” M'Gama was a master of earth magic. In contrast to Grimwold, her garments were bold and vivid with color. Golden rings sparkled on her dark fingers.

Cara, Lightfoot, Finder, and the Squijum entered at the top of the bowl. The queen nodded when she saw them, and said in a clear voice that carried easily above the sound of the falls, “The last of our members have arrived. We shall begin.”

Only a few of the unicorns looked back. One of them was Belle, the fierce warrior unicorn who had accompanied Cara on her journey to fetch her grandmother. Belle was standing near Lightfoot's uncle, Moonheart. Cara expected Moonheart to look back, too. But he remained rigid and alert, staring at the queen—who was also his sister.

“I do not need to tell you all that we face great danger,” began the queen. “Now that Beloved has gained one of the amulets, it is only a matter of time before she and her Hunters enter Luster. We must prepare and guard against that, which will not be easy, because we do not know where their invasion will take place. Until recently, we did not know when, either. Fortunately, M'Gama has solved part of that riddle for us.”

She turned to the tall woman, who nodded slightly and stepped forward. The hint of a breeze rustled her brightly colored robes. When she spoke, her voice, rich and deep, rang out across the basin.

“I have consulted the stones and soil, questioned the bones of the world, and I am confident that Beloved cannot open a new gate before the next full moon.”

“Blood Moon,” murmured Lightfoot with a shiver.

Cara put her hand on his shoulder so they could talk mind-to-mind. “What do you mean, `Blood Moon'?”

“We have names for each full moon of the year. The next one is called the Blood Moon.”

“What an awful name!”

“It's not called that without reason. Two reasons, in fact. First, it often has a red cast over it. Second, it falls closest to the day when Whiteling and Beloved's father fought and killed each other.” He shivered again. “It is not my favorite night of the year.”

“This gives us three weeks to prepare,” continued M'Gama. “I will do my best to discover where the gate may appear, but I cannot guarantee success in that task.”

She stepped back beside the queen.

“The reason I have called you together now,” said Amalia Flickerfoot, “is that another matter, also urgent, has arisen. We all know that Beloved's hatred of us grows from a tragic misunderstanding. We know that the Long Hunt has been fueled by the broken tip of Whiteling's horn, which lodged in Beloved's heart when Whiteling was attacked by her father while he was trying to heal her. We know that that piece of horn has kept her alive these many centuries, constantly healing her even as it is constantly wounding her. Yet some of us have suspected that there must be more to it than that. For this is a long hatred, and nothing has dimmed its passion through the years. What keeps her anger so alive? What gives it such strength and fire? Is it only the pain? Or is there something more?” The queen shook her head. “I do not have an answer. However Grimwold has discovered something that may offer a clue.”

She nodded to the dwarf beside her. Cara noticed now that he was clutching a piece of paper.

Grimwold stepped forward. He took a moment to look across the bowl, as if drawing each unicorn into what he was about to tell them, then said, “While Cara and the others were searching for the Wanderer, I was searching the Chronicles. In one of the earliest of the scrolls I found this passage.”

He held up the paper, unrolled it, and began to read.

“In the darkest hour
of their darkest day
The unicorns must face their own darkness.
What was their crime?
For what must they pay?
That is the riddle they must unravel.
Have they forgotten? Fled from the deed?
The Whisperer knows.
So, perhaps, do the delvers.”

* * * * *

When he had finished he re-rolled the paper and tucked it into the front of his robe. Cara could hear the unicorns muttering uneasily to each other.

“What does it mean?” asked Moonheart. His deep voice, rising clearly above the others, sounded scornful. “What crime have we committed? What have we to do with the delvers?”

The very mention of delvers made Cara uneasy. She had been attacked by one of the vicious creatures only minutes after she first entered Luster and the nightmare memories of that attack—of cold fingers clutching her throat, of the creature's bulging eyes and clammy skin—still sometimes woke her from her sleep.

“I do not know the answers to your questions, Moonheart,” said Grimwold. “But messages such as this do not end up in the Chronicles by accident.”

“There was another name in what you read,” said the Queen. “One I did not recognize. Who is the Whisperer?”

“That I do not know. I have searched the older Chronicles for any other mention of the name, but—” The dwarf paused, looking uneasy.

“And… ?” prompted the Queen.

“I believe I found it in two places.”

Believe you found it?” snorted Moonheart. “What does that mean. Either you found it, or you didn't.”

The queen shot him a glance and he lowered his horn, acknowledging that it was her right to do the questioning.

Grimwold said, “In one of the oldest records, I found a passage that had been blotted out.”

At these words an uneasy murmur rippled through the glory of unicorns. Cara could tell that some of them were horrified, some frightened, some angry.

“The Chronicles are sacred,” Lightfoot informed her, speaking mind-to-mind. “Nothing should be blotted from them. Ever.”

Grimwold waited for the disturbance to die down, then said, “The words of this page have been covered over with ink, something I have never seen before. I examined the page carefully, shining light upon it, then holding it up to a candle to let light shine through from behind. Though I still could not read it, I could make out small parts—enough to make me believe that the name `The Whisperer' is written there several times.”

“You said you found it in two places,” said the queen.

“Not actually found it,” said Grimwold. “In another of the ancient books I discovered that two pages had been torn out! Like the blotting, this is something I have never seen before.”

Another uneasy murmur rippled through the unicorns.

“From what story were the pages taken?” asked the Queen.

“It was a story about the delvers, from the time they first appeared in Luster, or at least the time they began to be a problem for the unicorns.”

The queen raised her head. “Have any of you heard of this before?” she asked. “Does anyone among us know of this Whisperer?”

After a long moment of silence a dry, husky voice said, “I do.”