After some time, Alcie sat down by a small stream to rest. She checked the pack and found a water skin, a loaf of berry bread, and a hunk of brynza cheese. As she was eating, a flash of white darted past her feet to hide underneath the raised root of a nearby tree. The white ball of fur squeaked, then let out a yip as she broke off a piece of bread and offered it.
With an excited bark, the creature ran forward, tripping over its paws. As it came over and licked up the crumbled bread from her hand, she saw that it wasn’t completely white. It was small—a baby?—and streaked with lavender and indigo and dusky blue tufts of fur, like the horizon at twilight. It wasn’t any one color, but a meld of several shades, and it looked different from different angles.
It looked a bit like an ysrei pup, but not quite. A cousin creature, perhaps? She had read about the creatures of the woods, and asked the Stabler for details whenever he went there for berries, but this was nothing like she had heard or read. Perhaps, she thought, noting how tame it was, it’s someone’s pet. Stabler said a few folk live out this way, on the edge of the woods.
It slobbered on her until her hand was dripping and the bread was gone, then plunked itself down at her feet and looked up at her, tongue lolling to one side, then back where it belonged between a jaw full of sharp, jagged white teeth.
As Alcione looked into a strangely human-like pair of wide, lake blue eyes, she had the oddest sensation of being judged. Slowly, she put out a hand to the creature as it stood still and continued its perusal of her. Her fingers gently reached to touch the soft white fur.
She scratched under its chin and the spell was broken; a short, rough pink tongue came out to lap at her hand, and then a wet black nose was being thrust against her chest as two big paws planted themselves on her legs. “Down!” she told the creature with a giggle, gently nudging it away. Obediently, it returned its feet to the ground.
“What are you?” she wondered aloud. “You’re not like anything I’ve ever seen before.” Checking its belly as it sniffed her, she found it was a he. “I hope your mother isn’t looking for you.” Or your owner, she added silently. I want more time to play with you!
Strangely, the creature shook his head, as if he knew exactly what he was being asked. Alcione knew that animals liked her, but this was ridiculous. They didn’t come up to you in the woods—at least, she didn’t think so. They were supposed to be scared of people. But this creature almost seemed human! They sat there in companionable silence for a few more moments, and the creature didn’t budge.
“Well, boy,” she asked, shrugging, “do you want to come along with me? I’m looking for my friend, Romi. He’s an arion, and he’s lost.”
The whatever-it-was barked happily, and Alcie fed him another piece of bread. Getting up, she put the rest of her food back into the pack and dusted the crumbs off to where the creature’s hungry mouth was waiting to snatch them up.
She turned to walk, and after a few steps it was obvious that whatever he was, he didn’t intend to leave. In truth, I’m glad of the company. These woods are bigger and darker than I thought they’d be! Smiling, Alcione continued her walk, slipping and collecting and calling out Romi’s name every so often.
Hours passed, and there was no sign of the stubborn arion. Alcione had been careful to stay in a straight line, and she took time as she walked to rearrange nearby branches in picture patterns to mark her path.
She was having a fine time, every once in a while taking a stick to toss for her new friend to chase after and bring back. She had named him Sola, an old, poetic word for “dusk,” and he seemed perfectly happy to stay by her side, only leaving every so often to mark the territory or investigate an interesting tree stump.
As he skittered ahead, all scrabbling claws and small, fluffy blue-purple tail waving, Alcie heard an encouraging sound: a surprised bark and an even more surprised whinny. Running forward, she burst into a small clearing.
There was Romi, all right! His fiery bay coat shone even in the dim light that filtered through the treetops, and his thick black mane and forelock streamed around his head and neck like shimmering curtains. His wings were streaked reddish bay, dark brown, and black. But for all his arrogant, royal presence, there was an unmistakable, charmingly crooked blaze streaking its way down his nose to soften the look.
Here, in the dimly lit woods, the mischievous spirit that blaze suggested seemed to have all but deserted Romi. His eyes wheeled, the whites of them visible. When Sola came close, Romi didn’t run away as Alcione expected, but tried to kick at the pup, hooves flailing in all directions.
Or rather, three hooves did.
Coming closer, Alcione saw that the arion’s right hind hoof was caught in a patch of dusa. The dark green plant had long, thorny tendrils that grew in shallow dirt and could trap unsuspecting animals if they accidentally stepped in the wrong place. Romi’s hoof was wrapped in its thin vines, and there was blood dripping down his leg where the thorns had pierced his skin.
“Oh, poor Romi,” Alcie whispered. The arion’s head snapped up to look at her as Sola scuttled back to her side to hide behind her, whimpering. “Easy, boy,” she said, speaking to both of them. Reaching slowly, so as not to scare Romi, she put down her pack.
She reached into it and took out some slices of guara, a small fruit with burgundy skin and peach innards that all arion seemed to love. Carefully, she proffered one with outstretched palm. In her other hand, she clutched the halter behind her back. She advanced toward him, and saw with relief that Sola had decided to guard the rucksack instead of her.
After a moment of indecision, Romi’s neck snaked out and he snatched the guara from her palm. He bared his teeth at her, but didn’t try to bite. “That’s right,” she said soothingly as she fed him another slice. “I’m here to help you. You remember me, right?”
She left a few more slices of guara on the ground and waited for him to stretch his neck down to lip them up. As he did, she crept up close, took a deep breath, and reached out with her other hand.
Romi, sensing how close she had gotten, threw his head up and banged into her, sending her careening backward. Nearly tripping over Sola, she found herself hugging a tree to keep her balance. More irritated than hurt, Alcione stood up to take a second chance with the halter.
When she reached him, Romi craned his head around as if he meant to scare her away, but she gently nudged his nose back to the guara on the ground. “Don’t you try that with me, laddie,” she told him sternly, mimicking the Stabler’s usual reprimand. “I know your tricks.”
Sidling up to his neck, she reached one hand under it to hang onto him, and watched him eat. The moment he lifted his head, she slid the halter over his nose and one ear as he threw his head up again in protest. Alcie was left sprawled on the ground, the halter dangling over one ear. You look lopsided, boy! Alcie smiled wryly. I should have known it wouldn’t be this easy.
It took her another few minutes and nearly all of the guara in the pack, but she at last got the halter over the other ear, and the loop under his chin tied. She took the dangling lead-piece and tied it to a sturdy looking, low-set tree branch. She knew it wouldn’t hold if Romi really got scared, but it would have to do. Turning as he began to search for more guara, she approached his wounded leg, and tried to find the best way to set him free from the dusa.
“The vines aren’t all that strong,” she remembered the Stabler telling her when they’d found some in one of the paddocks one year. If she could break them apart, she could easily pull them free from Romi’s leg. Starting far away from his leg, she avoided the thorns and quickly broke the vines off from the ground. Now the arion could move away from the dusa, even though some of the vines were still tangled around his leg.
Getting up, she checked to make sure there were no more visible vine traps on the ground, then took out another slice of guara. “Come and get it,” she urged, as she held it out and took a step backwards.
Romi’s eyes began to widen even more as he inspected her, not trusting this new trick. Cautiously, he hopped forward on three legs and dragged the fourth, then pinned his ears back at the pain. “Sorry, boy!” she exclaimed as he tried to bite at her hand. She quickly moved it out of the way, and put the guara on a flat rock nearer to the end of the lead-piece attached to the tree.
Stepping back to where Sola watched with wary fascination, she let Romi take a few more hop-steps away from the dusa patch.
When he was occupied with another few slices of guara, she drew near to his injured leg once more. There were only three or four vines left. Deciding the quick way was best, she reached for a piece without any thorns, and yanked.
It was a full moment before she realized what had happened, and then her first sensation was pain. Romi’s kick had caught her squarely on her left side, and there was a searing burn in her gut then made her bite her lip hard to keep from crying out. Romi snorted and backed away, his ears flat back against his neck, his eyes rolling with fear and pain. Sola growled, standing between Alcione and the arion in a protective stance.
Alcione tried to move, then gasped as a line of fire seemed to shoot through her from her toes to her scalp. Her cap had gotten lost in the scuffle, and her long hair was spread out against the hard ground in all directions. Her hand was bleeding where some of the thorns had caught it as she tossed the dusa away.
“Ow!” she wailed piteously. “Romi, you great bully, that hurt!” As she lay on the ground, she tried to see whether she had gotten all of the dusa out. From what she could make out, only one small vine remained, two thorns embedded in Romi’s leg just above the hoof.
Lying on her back, she considered what to do. Sola was sitting down now, his glance darting back and forth between her and Romi with what looked very much like worry. She could try to get the last piece of dusa out, or hope that it came loose on its own. Romi, you’ll have to do for yourself, she decided. She didn’t feel like she could get up just yet.
Most of the blood on Romi’s leg was already dry and beginning to scab over, so he would probably heal just fine once she got him back to the Kayre. But, she thought with an uneasy feeling at the bottom of her stomach, could she get him back, with both of them now hurt?
Slowly, taking great care not to bend in either direction and accidentally stretch her side muscles, she tried to sit up. Even so, it felt like forever before she could even manage to get upright and drag herself over to lean against the trunk of her tree. Sola tried to help, standing close so she could lean on him, but he was still a baby, so he was too short for her to do much but put the tips of her fingers on top of his head for comfort.
At last, she was propped against the tree, Sola at her side, staring at Romi. The arion stared back, a mixture of remorse and resentment in his eyes. He seemed to want to come closer, his head cocked to one side, but he stood still as a statue, as if fixed to the spot. His wings were bunched in tightly at his sides, quivering with tension.
“You’re trouble,” she said to him, sighing. “It’s the word you’re named for, and it’s what you are.”