Friday, July 27, 2018

Cut Scene - TVB: "Jaranin and Arenen Discover Rehlor"


To help me gear up for Realm Makers Writers' Conference in July, I'm bringing you a series of scenes cut from The Victor's Blade. Be sure to check below for any other cut scenes you may have missed so far!

An alternate version of last week's excerpt, this is from an even earlier version in which I tried to intertwine more of Jaranin's father's story. Here Jaranin experiences the ruins of Rehlor in much the same way as his father had fifteen years ago. Only for Arenen, this was his home.

This will be the last excerpt you'll see for a while as I go back to my normal posting schedule, beginning with an anime post next week. Thanks for all your support and comments, and I'll see you then.

---

Jaranin strolled at the front of the group, his eyes roving over the ruins. His heart was hammering with panic, one that shrieked even louder and stronger than the terror he’d felt at the blades of the warriors who had chased them here.

Suddenly, Jaranin broke out into a full-stride run, sprinting straight for the dead city.

Arenen’s footfalls thundered on the stone-cold ground. A tremor of panic rippled through his heart. A shriek of denial echoed in his head. But his throat had been crushed by the overwhelming fear.

Jaranin floated through the cracked cobblestone streets. Mist collected at his feet. Chunks of stone protruded at sunken angles from the ground, echoes of a once-proud city wall.

Burned. It was all burned, from the blackened marble walls to the scorched sandstone streets, from the blackened grass and the smoking stumps of limber ash groves. Overturned carts were afire, and collapsed roofs were aflame. The green things were dead, and even the stones were charred.

It had all been burned to the ground.

Nothing grew here. There were dry, dead stumps from thin young trees that had been planted along the roadside. There was no sign of life in them—no rotting stumps filled with insects, no mushrooms gathered at their base, no bark covered with lichen, no moss or hint of green. Naught remained but the burnt husks of a few trees that might have once shaded passersby in the hot summer months. The road was shattered, but not a single blade of grass, not one weed, grew betwixt the splintered stone. Everything was dead.

Arenen put a fist to his mouth as he withheld a scream.

Jaranin uttered the first sound heard in the ruins for fifteen years as he pointed beyond the mist: a terrible, horrified cry that needed no words.

Piles of bare-boned corpses were strewn about the road ahead.

Arenen could no longer hold back the scream, and he yelled as long and loud as he could. His feet scattered the clattering debris as he charged down the street, a lone living soul amidst this city of the dead. The sole survivor wandered from body to body, kneeling beside women he knew, cradling the heads of familiar children in his lap, and passing friend after friend with a growing, shivering shock of fear and anger and dread. He knew them all… and they were all dead.

“What happened here?” Jaranin whimpered, his voice hoarse as tears poured down his cheeks. There was a skeleton not a foot away from him, a child whose skull had been crushed. There were two more ahead and to the left lying in a heap—a parent and babe. Five more bodies lay just ahead in the middle of the road, no doubt brave men who had tried to fend off whatever evil had attacked their home, fighting to the bitter end. Their bleached bones were broken into thousands of pieces, and the skulls were nowhere to be found.

“Who could have done this?!” the boy screamed, enraged.

“Who did this?!” the man roared, charging through the ruins like a beast, passing rubble where homes had stood and skirting bodies of friends who were lying slaughtered in the streets.

Set in the center of the city was a clearing where rubble had been stacked into one blackened pillar, a jagged, unnatural, staggering thing with a threadbare flag that still flapped and cracked in the imperceptible wind.

A bloodied banner sat in the center of the city. It bore the image of a black dragon belching crimson flame into the air. It was a symbol with which Arenen was all too familiar.

He knew now who had done such a thing.

---
[Cut content from The Victor's Blade; all content subject to change.]

Check out more cut scenes here!

From Him, To Him

Friday, July 20, 2018

Cut Scene - TVB: "The Ruins"


To help me gear up for Realm Makers Writers' Conference in July, I'm bringing you a series of scenes cut from The Victor's Blade. Be sure to check below for any other cut scenes you may have missed so far!

This is one scene I am incredibly sorry to see go, despite its intense content. This was initially the spark that served to set Jaranin off on his adventure... one that set the stakes for what will happen to his home should he fail.

Violence Advisory: This scene will contain dead bodies and implied acts of extreme violence and war. Discretion is advised.

---
[After Kerlonkus kidnaps Isalaina, Jaranin tracks them down. As the fight between the two boys comes to a head, Elun rides in to break it up and save both Jaranin and Isalaina, scolding Jaranin for his reckless behavior, getting into a fight he can't win. Better to run away, Elun says.

Kerlonkus is hot on their trail, so the three ride higher and higher into the mountains, chased by Kerlonkus's mad obsession. But the children have been taught all their lives that the mountains are treacherous... and they'll soon find out why.]

Sensing their riders’ urgency, Firebrand and the other unicorns scrambled up the rocky hill to shimmy behind two large boulders that jutted from the earth. The rocks' sandy faces were large enough to hide a unicorn and rider behind.

Once behind one of the rocks, Jaranin dismounted and glanced around the boulder. Beside him was what looked to be a rugged path hewn into the mountain that went further up, and beyond the path sat Isalaina and Elun behind a larger boulder.

Twenty yards beneath them, Kerlonkus came galloping in. His mount had slowed by now, and he edged closer to the place just under Jaranin and his friends.

He’s going to find us! Jaranin threw himself behind the rock but was unsure what to do. Kerlonkus was coming, and if any of them moved from their position, they’d be spotted for sure. There was no way to know what Kerlonkus would do once he saw them. He was acting raving mad. All his animosity toward Jaranin had finally reached its peak.

As the hoofbeats tramped closer, Jaranin mounted Brand again. At the very least, they could make a faster escape while still mounted. Perhaps he could distract Kerlonkus and grant Isalaina and Elun time to escape. He glanced across the path to see that they had both remained mounted. He waved them away, hoping they understood his plan before doing the only thing that came to mind. He shouted in as deep a voice he could muster, reminiscent of his masterful storytelling entrance. “Who is this who treads with ill-intent upon Sinoan grounds?”

There was a moment of silence, and the hoofbeats stopped. Jaranin saw both Isalaina and Elun stiffen. Apparently they hadn’t understood his message to run.

And then the hoofbeats came again, this time riding faster toward them.

“Go! Run!” Jaranin shouted to his friends as cried for Brand to ride. Fully committed to his distraction now, Jaranin rode Firebrand out into the open path, where he met Kerlonkus face to face.

Kerlonkus cackled gleefully at the sight of his prey: Jaranin.

Emanír, Brand!” Jaranin shouted as the unicorn shrieked and dashed up the mountain pass. Kerlonkus thundered after him.

Jaranin lay down along Brand’s back, urging the unicorn faster and faster as they maneuvered up the treacherous path. The grass was fading away in favor of the hard, jagged stone. Brand struggled to keep his footing on the uneven and dangerous terrain, but still he rode quickly for fear for both their lives.

Jaranin chanced a glance back to see that Isalaina and Elun were following right behind him, and Kerlonkus was closing in.

“Jaranin!” Isalaina screamed, her eyes wide with fear.

Why hadn’t they run when he’d told them to? Jaranin spat with frustration and fear as they raced up the path.

Brand weaved his way up the mountain path, and it wasn’t long before Elun and Isalaina had caught up again. Kerlonku's mad laugh just behind them pushed the unicorns all the faster.

“We’re going to die!” Elun wailed, but Jaranin cut him short.

“Watch out! The path—!” Jaranin cried.

Firebrand whinnied as he skidded over the edge of a steep slope, followed by Dwyntail, Arvina, and all three of their riders.

#

Jaranin awoke with a groan. He scrambled to his feet despite the throbbing headache. He’d been unconscious? For how long? Where was Kerlonkus?

Jaranin looked about, but the landscape he found himself in was completely foreign. Mountain peaks, like jagged teeth, encircled the round fog-filled valley of grass he now found himself in. He glanced upward to see the path he and his friends had skidded down.

His friends! Jaranin whirled about, his eyes roving across what little space he could see through the fog. Stirring beside him, Firebrand struggled to his feet. The unicorn appeared dazed, but relatively unharmed from the tumble.

Jaranin hunted through the fog, calling for Elun and Isalaina before he heard their voices a short distance away. They were brushing off their unicorns, who also appeared relatively unharmed.

“Just a bit of a spill, that’s all, mate,” Elun snorted.

“Your shout warned us, so we had a bit more time than you.” Isalaina explained. “How’s Brand?”

Jaranin was about to respond when Elun interrupted. “‘Hoi, mates… where are we…?”

A few paces away from them, the grass died away to reveal earth black with soot.

Jaranin took a step into the fog. A wind whistled about his ears and billowed the mists away in a moment as if by enchantment.

Looming just ahead, lying in the mists and the shadow of night, lay the charred remains of a ruinous city. All three young riders gasped.

“But Kerlonkus—!” Jaranin turned to look, but the path they’d fallen down was silent and still. Nothing remained around them but the silent, still city. They waited a few breathless moments, watching and listening, but there was no sound here but the wind.

“Maybe we lost him when we tumbled down the pass…?” Elun hissed, barely daring to hope. None of them were bold enough to raise their voice above a whisper now.

Jaranin shook his head. “He was nearly on top of us the whole ride. If he hasn’t come down to follow us, he must be waiting at the top.”

The three had little choice. Either sit here at the edge of the path in the open… or enter the ruinous city before them.

“Well, there’s naught for it,” Jaranin heaved a deep sigh and marched toward the ruins. His companions quickly followed.

As they drew near the dead city, the three grew more and more quiet. Even the garrulous Elun was silent. Despite the fog clearing, a death-like stillness yet hung over the valley.

“What is this place?” Elun dared to whisper as they passed through two ruinous columns of stone that had once been the main city gate.

His companions had no reply.

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash

Jaranin strolled at the lead of the group, his eyes roving over the ruins. He felt as though he were floating through the cracked cobblestone streets like a spirit. Mist collected at his feet. He, Elun, and Isalaina passed through a ring of sunken stone, echoes of a once-proud city wall.

Nothing grew here. There were dry, dead stumps from thin young trees that had been planted along the roadside. There was no sign of life in them—empty of all insects, no mushrooms gathered at their base, no bark covered with lichen, no moss or hint of green. Naught remained but the burnt husks of these few trees that might have once shaded passersby in the hot summer months.

The road was shattered, but not a single blade of grass, not one weed, grew betwixt the splintered stone. Everything was dead.

Jaranin uttered the first sound that may have been heard in the ruins for fifteen years—a horrified cry that needed no words—as he pointed beyond the mist.

Piles of bare-boned corpses were strewn about the road ahead.

“What happened here?” Jaranin whimpered, his voice hoarse as tears poured down his face. There was a skeleton not a foot away from him, a child whose skull had been crushed. There were two more ahead and to the left lying in a heap—a parent and babe. Five more bodies lay in the middle of the road, no doubt brave men who had tried to fend off whatever evil had attacked their home, fighting to the bitter end. Their bleached bones were broken into thousands of pieces, and the skulls were nowhere to be found.

“Who could have done this?” Jaranin’s voice nearly failed him.

“Look…” Elun whispered, pointing ahead.

Set in the center of the city was a clearing where rubble had been stacked into one blackened pillar: a jagged, unnatural, staggering thing with a threadbare flag that flapped and cracked although there was no wind. Upon the flag was the image of a black dragon breathing crimson flame in the air.

Jaranin felt his heart begin to hammer in his chest. He knew that emblem, although he was unsure how or why. A panic deeper than any he had ever felt before, even stronger than the fear he’d felt of the warriors’ blades, poured down his skull into his veins.

He pulled at Elun’s shirt sleeve. “We need to go.”

---
[Cut content from The Victor's Blade; all content subject to change.]

Check out more cut scenes here!

From Him, To Him

Friday, July 13, 2018

Cut Chapter - TVB: "Isalaina Kidnapped!"


To help me gear up for Realm Makers Writers' Conference in July, I'm bringing you a series of scenes cut from The Victor's Blade. Be sure to check below for any other cut scenes you may have missed so far!

Looking back, this chapter was a mixed bag for me. While there are some elements I definitely am glad to be rid of, there are some parts I genuinely liked. For instance, I felt Kerlonkus's "attraction" to Isalaina was over-the-top and too dark for The Victor's Blade. And I see I wrote this was before I started to do research into the medical repercussions of injuries (Jaranin really should probably be suffering from major brain trauma if he got knocked out for an hour).

But I actually love Jaranin in these scenes. He has a lot of self-motivation and drive that I find myself struggling to get back into the current draft. It's nice to see him take charge and make things happen. I've got to remember to have him use these tracking skills in at least one entry in the TVB trilogy...

You'll also notice that this chapter ends before a fight. That's because I never wrote the fight scene!

This draft of TVB was highly experimental: I was writing it at the same time I was deeply revising key aspects of the plot and pacing. The transformation from this draft to the next was probably one of the most dramatic and brought the narrative to more or less where it's at today. For context, this version was TVB 3.0. I'm currently on version 6.0. Needless to say, the story's come a long way.

So while I was in the process of rewriting these scenes with Kerlonkus, I came to the realization that I wanted to significantly change the plot and pacing of the beginning chapters in Sinoa. This meant that all the scenes leading up to the fight were no longer going to be in the story. And, since I hate writing fighting scenes (I'm certainly no fight choreographer), I used it as the perfect excuse to never write it out. :P

Also, advisory: This scene will NOT contain any sexual acts, but it will imply intentions of such. Discretion is advised for those sensitive to such issues.

---
[While out riding to celebrate Isalaina's birthday, Jaranin and she encounter a riderless unicorn meandering around the forest. Jaranin instantly recognizes it as Kerlonkus's mount, but where is its rider...? Their suspicions are up immediately, but it's already too late for them to foil the birthday surprise Kerlonkus has planned...]

As soon as Jaranin had dismounted to check on the riderless unicorn, Isalaina had felt a chill tickling her flesh.

Something isn’t right here… She was opening her mouth to say so when she saw a figure stalking toward Jaranin from the forest. “Jaranin, behind you!”

Too late. A rock in hand, Kerlonkus struck Jaranin on the head. He crumpled to the ground.

“Jaranin, no!” Isalaina shrieked. She threw herself off the unicorn and raced toward them. “Kerlonkus, you beast!” she roared, throwing her fist back for a strike. She’d waited for this chance for a long time

“Now, now, birthday maiden,” Kerlonkus turned to meet her, grinning wolfishly. “I’ve got a gift for you, too—”

She slammed her fist into his face, and the brute went reeling. “You leave him alone!”

Kerlonkus took a step back to regain his balance. He cursed with a laugh as he held his eye, where she’d struck him. “You hit me! You actually—”

Isalaina drove her knee at his stomach while he was half blind.

This time Kerlonkus stepped backward. With her balance off, Isalaina stumbled forward. He took the opportunity to snatch her by the wrists and pull her body up against his.

“My!” His face twisted into a hungry grin, “You’re a marvel when you’re all fired up!”

Isalaina stomped her foot down on his boot. The beastly howl he unleashed was mildly satisfying, but he wouldn’t let go. His grip only loosened enough for Isalaina to twist one wrist free. She swung her fist at his face again.

With a thump, her fist landed right in the palm of his open hand. He’d anticipated this attack too.

Isalaina shot him a dark glare. He smiled back charmlessly and raised their fists. Before Isalaina could move or break away, both fists were flying at her head. Then, her world was swallowed by darkness.

#

Jaranin shot awake, scrambling to his feet. “Isalaina!”

He swooned. His back slumped against a tree trunk. Jaranin bowed his head and winced, clutching his forehead.

A unicorn whinnied nearby. As soon as his head stopped swimming, he looked up to see Brand at his side, with Arviña close beside. They waited expectantly for their riders, and even their faces betrayed concern.

The forest was darker now. He must have been out for an hour. There was no sign Kerlonkus and Isalaina had even been there.

“We’ve got to find them…” Jaranin muttered, struggling to his feet. What would Kerlonkus do to her? Jaranin stubbornly pushed aside the horrific images that filled his mind. No. He’d save her in time.

As he knelt in the dirt to look for tracks, he winced as Isalaina’s frantic scream flooded his head. “Come on, give me a sign… Where did he take her?”

He should have known it was a trap. Kerlonkus’s unicorn, riderless, in the middle of nowhere? And he’d known Kerlonkus was chasing them.

Jaranin smacked his fist into the ground with a grunt. Right beside the three sets of footprints that rested in the moist dirt.

He stared at them intently, tracing patterns with his fingertip. The footprints were all mixed up, indicating a struggle. How long had Isalaina fought with her captor? But it was impossible to tell where the two of them had gone; there was a jumble of prints, and none of them broke off to wander back into the forest. He’d have to fan out wider.

He found the track after weaving through the trees for several agonizing minutes. A single set of hoofprints, leading north through the trees. Arviña and Brand were here; it had to be Kerlonkus’s mount. But there’s nothing north except more plains… And the mountains…

Jaranin whistled for Brand and leaped on the beast’s back, urging him into the trees. In the fields there’d be no more tracks to follow, but at least it was open riding until the foothills of the mountains.

Jaranin gritted his teeth as he wound his way through the forest, riding as fast as he dared. “I’m coming, Isalaina…”

#

By the time the sun was setting, Jaranin had covered a great deal of ground. The forest and most of the valley was long behind him. Rocks began jutting out of the earth at haphazard angles. The ground was quickly sloping up. Jaranin stared up the incline. Cliff faces glared down at him.

Brand snorted nervously and sidestepped. Jaranin stroked his neck and patted him gently. “There, there, boy. Easy does it.” Though as they approached the feet of the mountains, Jaranin swallowed.

Photo by K on Unsplash
This was it—the mountains Sinoans called “the Jaws of the World.” It was a sharp, jagged range. The mountains towered above the clouds and formed a ring around the lands of Sinoa, Wilyan, and Embraeth—broken only in the south where it collided with the Xagimn Ocean. And even that place was well-known as a graveyard for ships. The mountains were the only thing keeping people in… and the outside world out. It was little wonder, then, that so many myths floated among the villages about the accursed mountains and those unfortunates who trespassed upon them.

Jaranin scanned the edge of the cliff, searching for any sign of Kerlonkus and Isalaina.

There! Out the corner of his eye, Jaranin saw movement high above. A unicorn with two riders staggered from behind a rock. They were heading for another boulder. Kerlonkus had had a strong lead, but now that his unicorn was slowed by picking out a safe (and hidden) path, Jaranin had a chance. The perils of the mountains were forgotten. All that mattered was getting Isalaina back.

Emanir, Brand!” Jaranin hissed as he urged the beast onward.

#

Isalaina swung her arms blindly as she felt herself floating back into consciousness. “Teach you to…” she slurred, “…ruin my birthday…”

Kerlonkus’s hoarse laughter greeted her. Isalaina closed her eyes, wincing. Something hurt—and when her hand brushed against a lump on her head, she knew what.

She lay on her stomach across a unicorn’s back. She tried to squirm off, but a powerful arm clamped around her middle, pinning her down. She wasn’t going anywhere.

“Now, now, you just stay right there.” Kerlonkus growled, giving her back a none-too-gentle push.

She swung her elbow back in reply, but Kerlonkus just batted her elbow away like it was light as a feather.

They weren’t in the forest any more. All she could see was a rocky slope to their side. She couldn't wriggle around to see what was on the other side. None of this looked familiar, but she knew where they were: they were riding up into the treacherous mountains, miles away from Sinoa or any civilization.

Isalaina couldn’t fight a shiver of fear. “W-what are you going to do?”

“Why, Snow fairy, I should think that’d be obvious,” Kerlonkus crooned. “You’re always so cold…”

She swung her elbow again, this time rewarded by contact with bone. Her elbow tingled and Kerlonkus grunted with pain.

Not enough pain, though. He only sounded more giddy when he replied, “Except when you’re angry.” His mouth loomed so close she could feel his breath puffing on the nape of her neck. “Ohhh, that flush in your face is so… tantalizing…”

“Let me go!” she shrieked.

A shrill whinny in the distance made Kerlonkus sit up straight.

Her heart thrummed in her chest. “JARANIN!” Isalaina hollered. “I’M H—!”

Kerlonkus clapped a hand over her mouth. “What, you want your precious Jaranin interrupting our moment, eh?” He cursed under his breath. “Should’ve hit him harder…”

Isalaina craned her neck to look up at him. But he’d turned his head away from her, gazing over his shoulder. She could just make out the edge of a wolfish smile. “Maybe that’s not such a bad idea…” He turned back to her, eyes glittering. “I could give him a nice little greeting. Then tie him to a rock. After all, you and I will have so much fun. Why shouldn’t Jaranin get to watch?”

Isalaina blanched. “Y-you can’t be serious!”

He spurred the unicorn on, still smiling.

Anger and fear mingled within her, vying to be first to get out. She writhed beneath his vise of an arm. “Kerlonkus!” she roared. Apparently anger had won. “You are an absolute monster!”

He freed one hand to rub his ear, wincing in pain. “Now, now, birthday maiden. What’s the matter?” Kerlonkus donned a mock pout. “You don’t like my plans for a birthday surprise?” He opened his lips, showed off his sharp, white teeth. “It’ll be far more of an experience than a little pony ride. You’ll enjoy it… Trust me.” Kerlonkus kicked the sides of his unicorn again, and they made their way higher up the rocky slope.

Isalaina was getting paler, and it wasn't due to the altitude. “Kerlonkus, you can't do this! Turn back!”

He simply shook his head, the smirk of victory spreading wider and wider across his face.

“You can’t climb to the summit!”

“I’m not aiming for the summit, Love,” he snapped. Then his face smoothed back into a smile. He draped the reins over his arm a moment to tickle her chin with a free hand. “There’s been paths cut through these mountains before. I came here all the time as a child.”

Isalaina scoffed. “You'd be the first in years to cross the mountains. As if I'd believe that. I'll bet there is no plan; it's all you can do to keep ahead of Jaranin.” She tilted her chin away. She may not have been able to fight back any more, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t use her tongue. “You’re getting desperate.” She glanced behind Kerlonkus as she talked. Hope welled in her heart as she saw a cloud of dust rise in the horizon. And there, in the center of the dustcloud, riding far faster and harder than they—

Jaranin! “And he’s catching up now—Ah!” Isalaina winced in pain as Kerlonkus's iron grip went from around her waist to crushing her chin. She struggled to pull her head away, but he pinned her to his knee.

“You let me worry about him,” Kerlonkus whispered. His voice was low and so calm it made her shiver. It was like a thin layer of ice over a deep, dark lake. “Concern yourself with what you’re going to do once I’ve cleared the mountains and I have you all to myself, leagues away from anyone who can hear you scream…”

Isalaina swallowed the lump of fear that had lodged in her throat. Kerlonkus simply chuckled and spurred his unicorn higher and faster.

#

They were right ahead of Jaranin now, and he'd driven them between a steep cliff and a giant boulder. The path wound too high and steep to go fast up ahead.

Jaranin had Kerlonkus cornered. “Kerlonkus, stop!” he ordered.

He wasn't actually expecting Kerlonkus to listen, but to his surprise, Kerlonkus complied, pulling his mount to a halt and turning in the saddle.

Kerlonkus shot Jaranin a crooked smile.

They both knew what was coming now.

Jaranin and Kerlonkus dismounted as one, their feet crunching on rock and gravel. Kerlonkus tied the reins around Isalaina's wrists before she could slide off.

Jaranin held his hands palm-out toward Kerlonkus. Better to look as non-threatening as possible. Because if he goes over that mountain, it’s done. They'd never make it over the mountains; it was too dangerous.

Kerlonkus sneered. “You know, this whole chase could have been avoided if you’d just left us alone.”

Jaranin felt his face flush. “I couldn't let that happen.”

Kerlonkus snorted. “I should have just hamstrung your unicorn when I had the chance...” He balled his hands into fists.

Jaranin did the same.

---
[Cut content from The Victor's Blade; all content subject to change.]

Check out more cut scenes here!

From Him, To Him

Friday, July 6, 2018

Cut Scene - TVB: "Isalaina's Birthday Gift"


To help me gear up for Realm Makers Writers' Conference in July, I'm bringing you a series of scenes cut from The Victor's Blade. Be sure to check below for any other cut scenes you may have missed so far!

---

Jaranin stopped at the low white fence that guarded the house and opened the gate for the maiden. “Good morning, Isalaina.”

“Morning, Jaranin.”

He began to stroll beside her as she headed down the path east. “Are you going somewhere?”

She eyed him slyly and chuckled, “Well, yes, I’m heading to the weaver’s. Just as I do every morning.”

Jaranin could no longer remain stoic, and he beamed as he replied, “Ah, but there’s no work for you this morning!”

“What?”

His heart began to drum as Jaranin eagerly explained. “I told Anna it was your birthday, and she decided she would offer you a well-deserved break. She said to consider it her birthday gift to a very special young maiden.” Jaranin then stopped smiled sheepishly as he—to his great dismay—felt himself blush. “And now I was—well, I was wondering if… if you might like to…” Jaranin stopped and stammered. What if she laughed at him? He was doing this all wrong, he just knew. If only Elun were here—

“Yes?” Isalaina waited, her curiosity growing every moment.

“Would you… like to take a ride with me?” There. He had said it.

“Well, with work out of the way for the day,” Isalaina giggled, “I’d love to!”

“Very well, then. A unicorn ride for the Birthday Maiden!” Jaranin and Isalaina headed to the north, arm in arm.

#

Isalaina laughed in delight as she and Arvíña mounted another hill. Jaranin, who had chosen to ride Brand, was at her side in a heartbeat.

The fair maiden sought to absorb every drop of beauty that the surrounding scenery held. She looked around her, smiling and laughing even more. She absolutely adored riding Arvíña. It gave her so much exhilaration and freedom… it felt like she was flying!

As she looked upon the field of violets before her, the young maiden sighed contentedly and held the reigns loosely, whispering, “It’s so beautiful…”

Jaranin sat up straighter, “What is?”

Isalaina turned to him, her eyes sparkling with excitement, “Everything!” She laughed, and then flicked the reigns, calling to Arvíña, “Emanir, Arvíña!” The unicorn leaped into a swift gallop.

She heard a laugh over her shoulder and turned to look. The glance would prove that Brand was swifter than she’d thought. Jaranin and his mount were already at Arvíña’s hooves, but Isalaina was hardly deterred. She laughed and cheered Arvíña on. Her unicorn neighed a long, wild cry and shot ahead.

Emanir, emanir!”  Jaranin shouted from behind.

The unicorns sprinted across Sinoa’s knolls, valleys, and meadows, as their riders competed to be the winners of the friendly contest. Brand and Arvíña raced neck and neck, each whinnying with joy.

Eventually, Arvíña slowed to a halt, but Brand galloped right past her, still driven by the excitement of the race. It took a good deal of time and effort for Jaranin to slow the zealous unicorn and steer him back to where Isalaina and Arvíña had stopped.

Isalaina dismounted with a laugh and patted Brand’s neck, “I hereby declare Brand and Jaranin the winners of the race!”

Brand neighed, and Jaranin chuckled. “I’m not so sure.  It seemed like an even match, to me.”

“Ah,” corrected Isalaina gravely, hand waving majestically. “But ’twas I, the Birthday Maiden, who declared you the winners, and the winners you shall be.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Jaranin shook his head as he laughed.

Isalaina joined him in their breathless laughter. That is, until a sound made her turn. She could have sworn she heard hoofbeats. Isalaina’s laugh died as quickly as her smile.

“What? What is it?” Jaranin was asking. He rested a hand on her shoulder.

Riding over the horizon was a rider on a pale gray unicorn. She knew the mount; she recognized the rider better.

“Kerlonkus…” she muttered.

“What?”

She heard the clip of hooves through grass. She glanced over her shoulder to see Jaranin had led the unicorns back over to the riders. “Come on. Let’s head into the forest.” He nodded to the cluster of trees a few hills over, in the opposite direction of their unwelcome guest.

Isalaina nodded, and together they mounted and headed toward the evergreen trees to the north.

While they rode, however, Jaranin couldn’t shake the feeling they were being followed. He kept glancing behind them, but once they were under the trees, it was impossible to see more than a few yards back. The trees grew close here. And any sound Kerlonkus would make, were he still following them, would certainly be masked beneath their own noise.

Jaranin called for a halt, and the two waited in breathless silent atop their mounts. There were hoofbeats approaching, but it was impossible to say which direction they were coming from.

“I don’t like this…” Jaranin murmured. “Why would he be following us?”

Isalaina frowned. “Perhaps because he’s a brute.”

Jaranin grunted an assent and scanned the trees again.

“Look there!” Isalaina whispered, pointing to his left. Trotting toward them was a shaggy gray unicorn, its saddle empty. It meandered toward them, nickering.

Jaranin dismounted and approached the beast cautiously. “Kerlonkus’s mount… But where’s your rider?” He asked, stroking the gentle unicorn’s muzzle.

“Jaranin, behind you!” Isalaina shouted.

Something heavy struck the back of his head. His vision went blurry, and he felt his body hit the ground.

He heard Isalaina scream, but it sounded muffled, as though from far away. Footfalls rushed toward him.

“Now, now, birthday maiden…” he heard Kerlonkus croon. “I’ve got a gift for you, too—” The jeer was cut off by a heavy grunt.

“You leave him alone!”

The sound of a scuffle followed.

Jaranin struggled to rise, but his limbs refused to work. He raised his head and craned his neck. He could see Isalaina struggling against Kerlonkus, but his vision was quickly darkening. No, stay awake!

Jaranin watched helplessly as Isalaina freed one of her arms and swung a strike at Kerlonkus’s face. The brute caught her hand.

“Isalaina…” Jaranin slurred. Get up, you idiot! Do something! Anything…

But as Kerlonkus was smashing both his fists into Isalaina’s temple, Jaranin slumped, unconscious.

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From Him, To Him