As Cambriea walked through the woods, she searched the ground and bushes for plants to forage. Berries were abundant, along with hazelnuts and mushrooms. What she wasn’t seeing was animal tracks. She needed to hunt, but the forest was still today.
Cambriea crushed a raspberry against the roof of her mouth as she listened, but only heard rustling late summer leaves above her head. When she first took up residence in on the mountainside, the dense forest sat quiet like this, but over the past few months, she could pass through as if part of the environment. Something had changed while she had been in the village.
She continued her hike home, looking for what didn’t belong instead of what was missing. Any animal over two feet tall preferred the trail. Dense underbrush laden with the native goat thorns made navigating off the narrow game trail uncomfortable. The hoof print stopped her. It was unshod and equine, not a domesticated horse or wild goat. It belonged to something much bigger than any of the local horse breeds. Backtracking, she found no other tracks. She pushed into the trees, risking the caltrops of the underbrush. Cami navigated to her little home and arrived just at sunset, picking the painful thorns from her body. She would have to deal with her hair later. As usual, her breath caught seeing the sky painted with pinks and purples over the peaks to the west. The clearing by her house was also quiet. No evening bird song and the buzz of the large insects.
Daylight was fading fast, so she refocused and checked the magic wards she’d hung in the trees. It looked like the creature had not crossed the wards. Each one was still sleeping. Once it got dark, she went back to her cabin to retrieve the little light orb from its holder. It was one of the few comforts she brought from her mother’s house. It took a moment for the room to fill with a warm glow. She set her foraging bag down and put away the supplies as she checked that no one had been in her house.
Satisfied, she hung up the sword she kept on her back all the time. The hilt was a gold and pearl colored alicorn. The sword looked unwieldy for her, but she used it like it had been in her hand all her life. She kept it displayed on the edge of the loft where she slept. She dosed off and on, unable to fall asleep with muscles tense and her mind going over her fighting techniques.
The sounds of her bird and insect neighbors returned with the rising sun. Cami looked for tracks again as she went to the stream to bathe and get water. At the waters edge she found a set of large equine prints. The Yunequine were fighters, and alone she might not be a match for one this size. She moved back into the trees, her body tingling and heart beating in her ears. In case she needed to fight or run, she tied up her golden mane of curls. Sword drawn, the layers of white and black steel glinted in the sun like metallic lace. Hot breath on her shoulder made her freeze in place.
Each of Yunequine had a distinct scent; this one was hard to mistake. It was one of the first Yunequine scents she’d learned. Running with Daimyn was her first memory, and she trusted him above all others. But not today. She spun, putting her sword to where his neck joined his chest. She looked up at the huge Equine or what the humans called Unicorn. It snapped its sharp teeth, a greeting, and lifted his head, exposing the soft spot to her sword.
“Have you come to drag me back?” Cami asked, trying to catch the scents of their brothers.
He flicked an ear, the equivalent of an eye roll.
“Damn it, Daimyn.” She lowered the sword and walked out into the sun.
He went to the bucket by the door and picked up her brush in his teeth. She brushed him until his coat looked closer to the burnished copper she remembered. his Tune, or horn, black and bronze, had grown longer. He’d lost weight, but was now nothing but muscle. Daimyn looked closer to the feral beasts of human lore.
He put his head over her shoulder. Then, her tall fiancé was hugging her. His brown skin covered muscles she didn’t remember he hadn’t filled out as much has he should have.
Their bond hadn’t weakened; a year apart wouldn’t dissolve their life long friendship. Her mother thought she’d just accept a marriage contract to him. And when she’d declined, they tried to lock her away until she agreed.
“Cambriea.” daimyn whispered.
“I’m not marrying you.” she whispered back.
“That’s not why I came.”
She gave him a squeeze. “Then why?”
He shrugged. “I missed you.”
“You tracked me down because you missed me?”
He shrugged. “You were my best friend before our mothers meddled with our lives.
“You had nothing to do with that?”she tiled her head. and raised a brow.
“I’m not saying I hadn’t thought about marrying you. But that wasn’t our choice.”
Although arranged marriages were not common, the most powerful families still curated suitors for their daughters. It eliminated the chance of bringing human blood into the fold.
He nodded. “What if we pick up where we were before our mothers tried to plan our lives?”
“I’d rather take my chances with you than to be sold into another marriage contract.” He was picking up the longer hairs she’d brushed out.
“I haven’t seen you in a year.”
“I have no intentions of returning home.”
Cami took another step back. “Without me?”
“Ever. I’ll leave, just say the word.”
“Don’t do that. It’s great to see you again.” she looked up at him grinning.