Cambriea crushed a sweet raspberry against the roof of her mouth as she stalked the woods, foraging along the ground and bushes. Berries were abundant, along with hazelnuts and mushrooms. What she couldn’t find was animal tracks. She needed to hunt, but the forest was still today. The wind lacked its normal multitude of smells.
When she first took up residence on Lanidar Mountain, the dense forest sat quiet like this guarding its secrets and watching. It had taken an entire spring and summer for the dense underbrush to accept her as its own.
She stopped looking for what was missing and searched for what didn’t belong, navigating to one of the world root trees to check her hawk wards.
A hoof print at the tree’s base stopped her.
It was equine, unshod, and much bigger than the local horse breeds, leading her to believe people from home had finally tracked her down. Her body tensed remembering her days under guard for refusing an order from her matron.
Cambriea pushed into the underbrush to see if she could find any other traces of the creature. She emerged with deep scrapes along her brown arms, a torn shirt, and goat thorns stuck in her tight gold-and-platinum coils. Trying to dislodge the caltrops from her hair only fixed them more securely; she would have to remove them later.
Checking her hidden sentry, she found the thumb-sized hawk carving nestled against the tree trunk asleep. It squawked a lazy greeting but went still again. She didn’t need to check the others since the clutch of figures would all screech if a stranger crossed the perimeter. People from home knew not to step past world root trees and could mask their own movements using magic they all were born with.
In case she needed to fight or run, she tied up her golden mane of curls, stabbing her scalp with the thistles. She drew her weapon from her back. The Yune blade, with its long gold-and-pearl-colored alicorn, was a comfort in her hands. Layers of white and black steel glinted like metallic lace in the light filtering through the trees. She gripped the hilt and continued searching the ground.
The creek that ran down the rocky the mountainside was nearby, but outside the perimeter of her wards. It was the only water source up here and a good place to search.
She wouldn’t wait for her kin to overtake her.
The thought froze in her mind, and her knees locked—there was a full set of tracks by the creek. As a Yunequine, she trained as a fighter, but even so, alone, she might not be a match for another so large.
Hot breath on the back of her neck made her skin pucker with goosebumps. She twisted and held her blade to the burnished brown neck of what the humans called a unicorn.
She’d expected her brothers and cousins to come for her. Instead, her fiancé was here, snorting at her. She hadn’t said goodbye to him when she’d run away, and guilt burned her chest. He’d been her first and best friend long before he’d been her fiancé.
His smell, moss and crushed quartz, filled her head with memories of them playing foal games in the clover meadow of the Yunequine Enclave.
Still, here he was, standing over her, nostrils flaring. She shook the thoughts from her head.
“Have you come to drag me back?” Cambriea 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 back to her cabin, reaching up and touching a ward to let him through.
He went to the bucket by the cabin door and picked up her curry brushing his sharp teeth. She brushed him until his coat was closer to the burnished copper she remembered. His Yune, or horn, black and bronze, had grown longer. He’d lost weight and was now nothing but muscle. Daimyn looked closer to the feral unicorns out of human lore. Touching his warm hide released the emptiness she had in her chest, and her throat felt thick.
Once she finished, he rested his chin over her shoulder. Then her tall fiancé was hugging her, in his bipedal form. His brown skin carried new scars, and he looked much too thin. He hadn’t been taking very good care of himself at all.
A year apart couldn’t dissolve a lifelong friendship.
Their mothers thought they could exploit this relationship in a marriage contract to benefit both families. So when she’d declined, they tried to lock her away until she agreed.
“Cambriea,” Daimyn whispered, arms still tight around her shoulders. “It was weeks before they told me you’d left.”
“You just didn’t notice?” Her voice was flat.
“I had to break out of my house, and then I got caught searching your rooms to find out what they did with you.” He released her. “It took me a few more weeks to get away. By then, your trail had cooled, and it was hard to follow. But then I heard about a bunch of unicorn sightings. A beautiful golden unicorn with a coiled white mane and tail.” He tossed his own dark curls.
It was easier to travel long distances in her equine form. Being sighted was sloppy on her part.
He flourished his own matte black-and-copper Yune blade before sheathing it over his back. He’d always been a show off.
“I’m still not marrying you.” She crossed her arms.
“That’s not why I’m here.”
He shrugged. “I missed you.”
“You tracked me for almost a year because you missed me?”
He shrugged. “You’re my best friend. And you were having a grand adventure without me.”
Her face lit up, recalling the promise to share all their adventures. They’d only been six at the time, but it had been a solemn oath sealed with spit.
Cambriea dragged Daimyn by the arm to the overlook. “The sunset here is amazing.”