The Tale of Rochelle

September 23, 2011

Once upon a time...

In a faraway land, there lived a girl. Normally, this girl wouldn't have a name, but today, we'll give her one. This girl's name was Rochelle. Rochelle had soft hair the color of russet, and eyes that mimicked the forest in their soft shades of green and brown and gold, enchanting any who came near. She was a sweet, kind-hearted person, selfless and charming. She also was not being courted, which might not seem relevant to this story but is actually, very, very important.

But we'll get to that later. Rochelle lived a busy life in a quiet little village in the land of humans, raising her younger sister and taking care of her step-father, who, due to a "bad leg" moped around the household all day and didn't do much of anything. Rochelle's mother worked the fields all day, leaving Rochelle on her own to run the house and be a mother to her younger sibling in their true mother's absence. It was a hectic life, and frequently Rochelle liked to get away from it all by going for a stroll in the woods, picking herbs to dry and store for when she needed them. The forest was a very old, mysterious place, and the villagers whispered that fairies and other magical creatures lived at the heart of it. Rochelle, being a sensible, level-headed girl, took no stock in these tales, and wandered the forest for as long as she could before returning to her home for the night.

One day, Rochelle was wandering around the forest, enjoying the last of the afternoon sunlight on her shoulders as she picked herbs from all of her favorite haunting spots. Hearing a rustling in the bushes in front of her, Rochelle brightened, hoping that she might be able to bring home a rabbit or a squirrel for supper that night.

Heading in the direction the noise had come from, Rochelle followed the sound deeper into the forest than she had ever been. Eventually, she lost the trail, and realized that in her tracking, she had lost her way back to the village.

Dark was falling, and Rochelle became worried about her sister, at home by herself as night came. She kept a level head, and tried to find her way home, but to no avail. Getting more frustrated by the moment, Rochelle eventually flopped down at the base of a tree and tried to make herself comfortable for the night ahead. Her family could survive without her for a night, she reasoned, and in the morning, surely she would be able to find her way out of the woods with daylight as her guide.

In the bushes, there came a sudden snapping sound. Rochelle, fearing the creatures that hunted in the night, took up a small paring knife she kept with her and stood slowly, ready to defend herself if needed. The snapping got louder and more violent, until the source of the noise hopped out of the bushes in front of her.

It was a small mouse, sniffing around her feet. Laughing, Rochelle bent down and offered a hand to the creature.

"Hello, little mouse," she said to it. "Are you lost as well?"

The mouse sniffed Rochelle's fingers and stretched up on its back legs, scrutinizing her. "Miss Rochelle, I have come to ask for help," it said.

Rochelle gasped with fright and stepped back from the creature. "A talking mouse!" she exclaimed. "And it knows my name! Surely this isn't possible! Are you some sort of fairy, or a witch disguised as a rodent?"

"Neither of those," the mouse replied. "Miss Rochelle, I have come to tell you that I can show you the way home, but I must ask a favor of you in return."

"What sort of favor is that?" Rochelle asked tentatively.

"I have a friend who is injured and is in need of great help. If you could tend to his wounds, I would be ever so grateful to you, and in return, lead you back to your village."

Rochelle considered this offer. "Very well," she said at last. "I will attempt to aid your friend, but I must get home as quickly as possible afterward."

The mouse nodded. "It will be done. Follow me, and I will take you to him."

Rochelle followed the mouse deeper into the woods, into a part that she had never been. Here, the trees were ancient and radiated a kind of power she had never felt before. It made goosebumps appear on her skin, and the hair on the back of her neck prickle. When she was a child, Rochelle's mother had told her stories of children wandering away into the forest and being snatched up by fairies and demons, never to be seen again. As she grew older, Rochelle believed that these tales were simply used to keep her from disobeying her parents, but now, she began to wonder otherwise. After all, if talking mice could exist, then surely all the other creatures of myth and fantasy could, as well?

The mouse reached a thicker clump of bushes and disappeared under them. Struggling to fight her way through them, Rochelle realized that they opened up into a small clearing surrounded on all sides by tall trees and undergrowth. The moon was nearly full that night, and it shone down brightly through the gaps in the trees, reflecting off of the water in a pool on the opposite side of the clearing. As she looked closer, Rochelle realized that a figure was lying next to the water, breathing slowly, as if asleep.

Rochelle moved and knelt down next to the figure. She quickly saw that it was a boy, and that his arm had been injured in some way. There was a clumsy bandage on it, as if he had tried to bind the wound himself. Rochelle gently lifted the boy's arm and began to unwind the bandage. As she did so, the boy winced in his sleep, turning his face toward hers.

He wasn't much older than she was, Rochelle realized. In fact, he looked to be a bit younger, though his life had not been full of luxury, if the state of his clothes and the premature lines on his face were anything to go by. She wondered who he was, as she had never seen him in the village before, and she knew she would remember a boy like him.

"What happened to him?" Rochelle asked, carefully cleaning the wound. It wasn't very deep, but it had become infected quickly, and the disease had already begun to spread up his arm. Aware that this was not the kind of wound that could be healed with fresh dressings and medicinal pastes, Rochelle rebound the wound with a kind of heaviness in her heart, hoping that the boy would pull through the infection and be able to keep his arm.

"He was attacked by a dark unicorn," the mouse said, hopping over and examining Rochelle's handiwork. She frowned at the small rodent.

"What's a dark unicorn?"

"A dark unicorn is a unicorn that has been twisted to do evil and malicious things," the mouse told her. "Because a unicorn is normally a creature of purity, for it to do something cruel, it must be in extreme, torturous misery. Their horns become a weapon of destruction instead of an instrument for healing. My friend got himself hurt by one. He has perhaps four days to live."

"Then why did you bring me here?" Rochelle said in confusion. There was a shifting beside her.

"Do not tell her," a new voice said. The boy was struggling to sit up, his arms shaking with the effort. He was much weaker than Rochelle had first thought, but he made it into a sitting position without her assistance. "I told you not to bring her here, Brody."

The mouse, Brody, made a huffing sound. "You're going to die without help," he said. "And if anyone can save you, it is her."

"I will not let her die for someone as insignificant as I," the boy responded firmly.

"No one is insignificant!" Rochelle chimed in, surprised at the boy's words. "And no one certainly deserves to die in as lonely a place as this. Have you anywhere to stay tonight?"

The boy hesitated, but shook his head. Rochelle stood briskly, brushing her hands off. "Well, then," she said. "You may stay in my home."

"But there is no way-" the boy began to protest, until Rochelle cut him off.

"I will have no disagreements," she told him firmly. "You are welcome in my home tonight."

The boy still looked reluctant, but he nodded, and Rochelle helped him into a standing position. Brody the mouse led the way through the forest, with the boy leaning heavily on Rochelle for support.

It was nearing dawn when they at last made it back to the village. Rochelle never thought she would be so relieved to see her shabby little cottage before. She gave the boy a soft pallet on the floor in front of the fire, then set about tidying up the mess left by her family as they went to sleep that night. She offered the boy some food, but he declined with a small shake of the head. This worried her, because she knew that he would need to keep his strength up by eating so he could fight off the infection in his arm. She wondered how long he had been sitting out there in the woods, alone but with no one but a small mouse to keep him company, refusing treatment because he wanted no one else to be put in danger by his mistakes. His chivalry touched her heart, and she impulsively decided that she would find the cure for the boy herself.

It was a crazy thought, she knew, and one filled with danger. Still, she felt she owed it, somehow, to this sad, lonely boy who thought himself unimportant enough to let no one try to save him.

Rochelle waited until he had dropped off to sleep, and then set about preparing for her journey. She packed a rucksack full of food and a spare set of clothes, and left two notes: one for her mother and one for the boy, whose name was Alyx, according to Brody. The notes explained her disappearance and reassured them that she would take the utmost care to return to them quickly, and with an antidote for Alyx. She left them sitting next to their two recipients, and then, with Brody on her shoulder, she left quietly and shut the door behind her.

"Where am I meant to go?" she asked Brody, while walking to the forest.

"Deep in the forest, so deep that few humans have ever been there, lives a man, an old healer," said the mouse. "He knows the antidote to the dark unicorn's poison, but reaching him is difficult and fraught with danger. This is why Alyx did not want you to go."

"Why is he so concerned for me?" Rochelle asked in puzzlement. "He has never met me before, yet he speaks as though he would be greatly upset if I were hurt."

At this, Brody looked almost embarrassed, twitching his whiskers and swiping his paws over them a few times. "Alyx knows you, but you do not know him," he said at last.

"How is this possible? I have never seen him."

"When you go for walks in the forest, Alyx and I will sometimes see you," Brody answered. "He has taken a liking to you, though he would never admit it to me."

Rochelle was strangely pleased at these words, though she was unsure why. He was a rather attractive boy, she supposed, but she had no time for courting and fun like the other girls of the village did. She had too much work to do for that.

"I see," was all she responded with. "What kinds of dangers are there on the way to this healer's house?"

"There are three major obstacles," Brody said. "The first is the Bridge of the Stone Trolls, the second is the Mermaid's Sea, and the third is the Elder Forest, the deepest, oldest part of this forest. I can show you the way to the bridge to begin your journey, but from there I cannot follow. I do not want to leave Alyx on his own for too long, despite the hospitality you have shown him."
Rochelle accepted this, and on they walked through the woods. The trees became larger and more widely spread, and the undergrowth became less difficult to navigate. After a time, the mouse called for a halt, and jumped down onto the ground.

"Just ahead lays the Bridge of the Stone Trolls," Brody said. "The Trolls will not attack you when you approach. Instead, they will ask you to play a game. They enjoy riddles, and they will ask you to give them a riddle that they cannot solve. If you are able to do this, they will let you pass."

Rochelle nodded, her mind already searching for ideas. "Thank you, Brody," she said to the small creature. "You are a very brave mouse, and I hope to be able to return to you with the antidote as quickly as possible."

She gave Brody a piece of bread in thanks, and decided that it was high time for lunch herself. After all, one did not want to go facing Stone Trolls on an empty stomach.

Rochelle took her time about the meal, savoring every bite. When she finished, the packed up her bag, stood up, and braced herself for the trial ahead of her.

The forest abruptly ended about ten feet from the edge of a large ravine, slicing through the center of the forest. It resumed again on the other side, but the only way over appeared to be a large bridge, spanning the gap. It was made from large pieces of rock that looked as though they would take ten men to lift. There was no one in sight, and Rochelle took a few hesitant steps forward, hoping that perhaps the trolls would not notice her, and let her pass.

No sooner had the thought formed in her mind than three large, misshapen creatures appeared in front of her, as if having melted from the rock itself. They all had the look of small mountains with appendages, and they towered above Rochelle impassively. Three pairs of small black eyes blinked down at her, and were the only things that distinguished the creatures from the stone around them.

"What business have you at the Bridge of the Stone Trolls?" the middle troll rumbled with a voice like an avalanche.

"I need to cross your bridge," Rochelle answered, keeping her voice level.

There was a grinding sound, and the troll to the left spoke to her. "Very well. But, to pass, you must first defeat us in a battle of wit."

"You must devise a riddle that we cannot answer," the third troll grumbled. "You will have three chances to do so. If we cannot solve your riddle, then you may pass."

During this exchange, more trolls had silently fallen in around them, and what had before been an empty field now looked as though it were heaped with piles of rubble. Rochelle realized that when the trolls said "we" they meant all of the creatures around them. She found that unfair, but did not want to question the trolls' rules, so she nodded.

"Good. Let us commence," the trolls said as one.

Rochelle gave them her first riddle, drawing on tales her mother had told her as a child.

"A box without hinges, key or lid,
Yet a golden treasure inside is hid."

The trolls grumbled and groaned amongst themselves for a while, until one in the back spoke up, giving the answer. "Eggs."

"Next riddle," the middle troll said, sounding pleased. Rochelle bit her lip and thought harder, coming up with a trickier riddle than the first.

"This thing all things devours,
Birds, trees, beasts, flowers,
Gnaws iron, bites steel,
Turns hard stones to meal,
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats tall mountains down."

It was a bit morbid, but at first, it seemed to do the trick. The trolls had to deliberate for longer before an answer was put forth.

"The answer is time," the left troll said at length. "You have only one chance left."

Rochelle took a deep breath. She was not going to give up on the first challenge, she told herself firmly. Alyx needed her to do this, or he would die. What kind of riddles did she know that would confuse the trolls?

At last, an answer came to her. It was a riddle in a book she had once read. It had taken her a long time to figure out the answer, but when she did, she had memorized it to tell to others. Now, it floated back into her mind, a last-ditch effort.

"Hung with my mates in summer's heat,
With no drop of rain or well,
'Til the strong man came and pulled me down,
And threw me in a cell.

He kicked me, bled me, beat me,
Out of pleasure, not of rage,
Then threw me in a darkened tomb,
To wait and seethe and age.

But now I am the one laughing,
For I bring the strong man down.
I make the w**** look like a queen,
And make the king a clown.

I cheer the soul, turn cowards brave,
Cause long-dead hope to wake.
And Hell's own fire cannot inspire,
The chaos I can make.

What am I?"

Rochelle held her breath, waiting. The trolls' rumbling grew louder and angrier, but still, no answer was achieved. Rochelle dared to let a tiny spark of hope light in her heart, that perhaps she had finally outwitted the trolls.

The rumbling stopped abruptly, leaving a strange stillness in its absence. The three trolls stared down at Rochelle, who felt her heartbeat speed up.

"We are unable to find the answer to this riddle," the trolls said. "You may pass."

Letting out her breath in a sigh of relief, Rochelle stepped forward as the trolls moved aside to let her pass. As she crossed the bridge, all the trolls melted back into the ravine from which they had come, leaving the clearing behind her empty of any life.

On the other side, Rochelle found a small canteen. Picking it up, she found that it contained wine. Smiling to herself, she placed the canteen in her bag and continued on her journey.

A large path made of stone lay in front of her, stretching out into the forest. Brody the mouse had told her that the obstacles would all reveal themselves to her in time, so Rochelle took the path through the woods, hoping that it would lead her to a signpost or perhaps a small settlement, where she could ask directions to the Mermaid's Sea.

Eventually, the stones ended, and a small, dirt-beaten track was left in its place. Rochelle continued to follow the path as it meandered through the woods, slowly becoming narrower until it was little more than a deer track. At one point, Rochelle realized that she was having trouble seeing the path in the dark, and decided that it was time to stop for the night.

She unrolled her blanket and stretched out on it, staring up at the stars and letting her mind wander. If it weren't a matter of life or death, she might actually be enjoying this trip, Rochelle mused, her last thought before drifting off to sleep.

In the morning, Rochelle packed up and followed the track once more. She wanted to hurry, as Alyx was running out of time. She took up a brisk pace, and soon the track began to widen slightly, returning to its former dirt-path glory.

The tree line ended a little before midday, opening out into a spectacular sight. For as far as she could see, a body of sparkling blue water stretched out in the distance. The morning sunlight sparkled off its surface, creating a second sun that Rochelle had to squint to see past. There was a faint black line on the horizon, which she took to be as the other side. It looked awfully far away, especially to a girl who had never seen a body of water this large in her life.

Rochelle looked around, but there was no boat in sight. The lake was clearly too large to walk around, so Rochelle assumed a boat would be by to ferry her across.

The sun was hot, so Rochelle took off her shoes and dipped her toes in the water. It was pleasantly cool, so she waded in up to her ankles. The mud squished pleasantly between her toes, making her giggle. What about this was an obstacle? Rochelle wondered idly. Certainly, it was a large body of water, but compared to the experiences of the last obstacle, she was distinctly unimpressed.

She should have known better. There was a rippling in the water, and a young girl emerged from beneath the water. This took Rochelle by surprise, as she didn't recall seeing any other person when she had first arrived.

"Hello, there," she said to the girl. "What's your name?"

The little girl smiled at her, showing a mouthful of sharp, razor like teeth.

Rochelle's blood ran cold, but it was too late. Two more mermaids appeared out of the water and dragged her under before she could protest. Rochelle had enough sense to hold her breath and her bag as she went under, but she quickly ran out of air, forcing her to open her mouth and suck in a lungful of water...

Rochelle's eyes popped open in surprise. She took a tentative breath, then another. Somehow, she was able to breathe under the water as though it were air. This took a bit of getting used to, as her body still felt as though it were under water, so every breath was a bit frightening to the girl. She quickly became used to it, however, and began to wonder where the mermaids were taking her.

It seemed as though the mermaids would never let her go. Down they sank, into deeper and deeper water, changing from the lighter, greener hue of the surface to the navy of true depth. Finally, Rochelle could see the bottom of the sea rising up swiftly to meet her. The mermaids set her down on the bottom, departing nearly as swiftly as they had arrived. Rochelle watched them as they left, their iridescent scales shimmering in the diluted light from above. If she hadn't been able to see their human halves, she might have thought them harmless fish, drifting about beneath the waves.

Looking around her, Rochelle guessed that she had been dragged to about the middle of the lake, as there was no sign in any direction of an elevation that would lead her to the surface once more. Letting out a sigh, she turned her feet in the direction she had been taken and began walking.

It was very lonely underneath the water. An occasional fish would drift by, notice her, and flee in the opposite direction, and sometimes she would see the shapes of strange creatures in the distance, staying far out of her way. The bottom of the sea was mostly sand, with a nothing but small rocks and random dottings of seaweed to interrupt the vast stretch. Rochelle kept walking, hoping that she would see the surface again soon. She worried that she might not make it in time before the spell that had been placed upon her that allowed her to breathe underwater ran out. The thought filled her with a sudden panic, and she picked up her pace considerably, hoping to soon see her way out.

After a time, the ground began to slope upward in a gentle incline, and Rochelle was filled with hope. New growth began to appear on the hillside, brightly colored patches of coral and exotic undersea plants she had never encountered before. Fish of all shapes and sizes began to appear, swimming right past her without giving her a second glance. Rochelle moved up the hill ever faster, hoping to soon see the warm sun once more.

Above her, the hill leveled out into a flat ledge. Climbing up onto it, Rochelle was confronted with a sight that made her heart sink in disappointment, yet fill her with awe.

She had climbed up onto a ledge that was level with the tip of the tallest building she had ever seen. It was as tall as five of the tallest trees in her home woods, and it took up more space than the entire perimeter of her village. It looked as though it were created from all different kinds of coral, a multicolored sculpture that took her breath away. She could see that the building was sunken down into the seabed, creating a huge crater in the ground with raised sides that had fooled Rochelle into thinking she was nearly out of the water, and there were many holes and doors in its sides, allowing for mermaids to come and go as she pleased.

Realizing that this must be the home of the mermaids, Rochelle felt a knot form in her stomach. As lovely as the sight was, she could not stay, for fear of the mermaids noticing her presence. She didn't know what they wanted from her, and she had no desire to find out.

Rochelle decided to stay on the lip of the crater, but as far away from the edge as possible, hoping the mermaids would pass her over. She tried to swim as they did, but the spell that had been cast on her seemed to prevent her from simply swimming though the water, forcing her to walk on the bottom, as if on land. It was agonizingly slow, but she began to make progress.

It wasn't until she was nearly all the way around the crater when the singing started. It floated toward her as if a wisp of smoke, faint and barely noticeable at first, but becoming louder and greater in strength. It stirred within Rochelle a deep longing, a fierce desire to turn back around and head into the heart of the coral tower, to stay with the mermaids and become one of them, joyful and free with her new friends, swimming around under the waves with a tail of silver...

No. Rochelle shook her head, trying to dislodge the singing as one would a drop of water stuck in their ear. She had to continue on; she had to make it out of the lake...

But surely, there was plenty of time for that? the song whispered to her. Surely, her journey could wait a day, maybe two? After all, it had been very hard work, and she deserved a break. She worked so much, for so long, why not rest a while?

Rochelle tried to resist, but her willpower was failing. She sank onto her knees in the sand, digging her fingers into it like it would keep her from being taken in by the music. She had to leave, had to get away from this place. For...for Alyx.

Alyx. Sweet, kind, unassuming Alyx, who wouldn't let her go on this journey because he thought himself unimportant. She needed to help him, to save him, or he would die.

With the last ounce of her strength, Rochelle jammed her fingers deeper into the sand, ignoring the pain as her knuckle was scraped on a rock under the sand. Her fingers touched mud, and she pulled, bringing the dark substance to the surface and shoving it into her ears.

The thick mud helped to block the sound of the mermaid songs, and Rochelle was able to think more clearly. Packing it in more tightly with her hands, Rochelle stood again and continued to walk, keeping her hands over her ears and focusing only on the pain in her knuckle and the ground under her feet. As she walked, the song faded slightly, reinforcing her determination. She barely noticed her progress, so when her head broke the surface of the water, it startled her into looking around.

She had made it to the other side. Rochelle had never thought the green of the forest would look so good to her. She quickly washed the mud out of her ears, wanting to be away as quickly as possible. Being absorbed in her task, she didn't see the young mermaid behind her until the girl tapped her on the shoulder.

Rochelle jumped back with a yelp of surprise, wary of the creature in front of her. It was the mermaid from before, who had smiled at her and had started this whole mess. The girl didn't look sad now; in fact, she looked rather remorseful, looking at Rochelle with dark, sad eyes.

She held out her fist, and Rochelle stared at it warily. The mermaid swam a bit closer and opened her hand. In it was a pile of small silver scales. Understanding, Rochelle took the pouch off around her neck and opened it, and the girl poured the scales into it.

"You will need them later, on your journey," the girl told her, in a voice that reminded Rochelle sharply of her younger sister, Arica. She nodded slowly, and the girl smiled, this time without teeth, as she disappeared back under the water.

Rochelle stepped out of the water and faced the forest. It didn't look particularly frightening, but she had learned enough on her journey now that she understood how things were not always as they seemed. Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward and into the forest.

Dark was swiftly falling, but Rochelle saw no point in stopping, as she wasn't sleepy and her pack and blanket were soaked from her excursion under the sea. Grumbling a little to herself about the courtesy of mermaids and their underwater spells, Rochelle decided to push on until she could go no more.

The forest was eerily quiet as she walked, especially for nighttime. Rochelle was used to the comforting hum of a busy nocturnal world outside her window every night, but in this place, it was as though nothing lived at all. Even the trees barely whispered to one another, as trees are normally wont to do when pressed so close together. This forest felt old, and dark, and Rochelle didn't like it.

After a time, she could barely see her own feet, stumbling through the undergrowth. Stubbornly, Rochelle kept walking, out of an unspoken fear that to stop would mean terrible things for her. She hoped that the healer kept a light burning in his house; otherwise she might just walk past it in the dark, and miss it completely.

This thought was so unsettling that Rochelle stopped completely, staring around blindly and trying to get her bearings. It was then that she heard a noise that stopped her heart. Something, very near to her, was breathing. And she couldn't see it.

Panic flared in her chest, but Rochelle forced herself to remain calm. Her legs were trembling, but she ignored them, trying to search the darkness as discreetly as possible to discover the location of her silent watcher. She could not find the source of the breathing, and that thought only served to frighten her more.

Finally, she came to a decision. If her watcher had wanted to hurt her, surely it would have done so by now. Seeing as it had not, Rochelle decided that it either was harmless- highly unlikely- wanted to continue keeping an eye on her for something, or, it simply couldn't see her either. In any case, Rochelle decided that it was safe to continue walking and pretend that she was unaware of the existence of her stalker.

She took a few steps forward and hesitated. The breathing hadn't changed, but it hadn't left her, either. Rochelle continued to walk forward slowly, trying to ignore the cold dread she felt creeping up her spine at the thought of an unidentifiable monster sneaking along at her back.

Rochelle frowned, squinting into the darkness. In front of her, it looked as though there were some form of light, perhaps a break in the canopy or a clearing, allowing some form of light to get through. In any case, it filled her with relief to see some kind of light, and she headed toward it as quickly as possible.

Finally, she broke through the tree line into a large clearing, a kind of meadow in the woods. At the other end, there was a tiny cottage with a single candle burning in the window. The sight was so shocking to Rochelle that she had to stop for a moment, dumbstruck. Was it possible that she had found the house of the healer at last, just in time to save Alyx? The thought filled her with such relief, she almost completely forgot about the breathing she had heard in the woods.

There was a snort behind her. Rochelle whirled around, finally laying eyes on the creature that had been following her through the woods.

At first glance, it appeared to be a large black horse, stamping and pawing in front of her. On closer examination, however, the horse was found to have a large, spiraling horn growing out of the top of its head, and eyes that were the misty white of death. Rochelle's breath caught as she realized what the creature must be.

"A dark unicorn," she said aloud. "Possibly the very one that attacked Alyx in the forest that day. Why have you followed me here? What purpose could it possibly serve for you to keep me from my goal?"

The unicorn reared and screamed, a sound that made Rochelle's stomach clench in fear, but also moved her heart in pity. This was not a creature of hate and violence, but of misery and desperate sorrow. She had heard a sound like that before, when a neighbor's horse had lost its colt when it had fallen down a ditch and broken its neck. The mother's agonized scream had rung out across the village, setting every dog howling. Even then, that sound was nothing compared to the degree of pain the creature in front of her must be suffering, to create such a noise. Rochelle's heart was filled with sorrow for the poor creature, and she wished there was some way she could help it.

The unicorn did not seem to notice her sympathy. It reared again, striking out with its forelegs as though the very air they breathed was the source of its suffering. It charged at her, pointing its deadly horn directly at her heart. Rochelle was transfixed, watching the instrument of her death hurtle toward her without making a move to stop it. A single tear slid down her cheek, not from fear of dying, but from extreme empathy and understanding toward the unicorn. This tear splashed onto the unicorn, awakening a new understanding within it. However, it was too late.

Rochelle fell to the ground, her heart pierced by the dark unicorn's horn. She was dying, but she felt no resentment toward the creature that brought this fate upon her. She understood the animal's pain, and accepted that perhaps it was her time to go. Before she slid into blackness, Rochelle thought of Alyx, and silently asked forgiveness that she could not save him. Then, she knew no more.

Rochelle was first aware of darkness. She supposed that the afterlife would most likely be fairly dark, but this wasn't really what she had been expecting. It was more like the kind of darkness found behind one's eyelids, which was odd, because wasn't she dead? She had felt the piercing stab of the dark unicorn's horn as it ran her through, ending her life, and yet...

Rochelle opened her eyes.

She was in a cabin. It was a tiny affair, consisting of one room roughly sectioned off into different areas based upon decorating and furniture choices. She was lying on a cot, covered with a thick, wooly blanket that was almost too warm to be underneath. There was a fire merrily crackling in the hearth next to her, and a rich, meaty smell was wafting through the air, making her mouth water.

Rochelle struggled to sit up, her whole body aching. A large hand suddenly appeared from nowhere, firmly pressing her back down onto the cot.

"Don't move," a gruff voice instructed. Rochelle turned her head this way and that, trying to catch a glimpse of the man who had saved her.

He was old, with white hair that sprung up in random places, like he had been standing in a windstorm moments before entering the cottage. He moved over to the stove and stirred the contents of the kettle briskly, barely sparing Rochelle a second glance.

She tried to open her mouth to speak, but discovered that her throat was quite dry. A glass of water sat by the bed, and she lifted herself up just enough to drink it.

"Where am I?" Rochelle finally managed to croak, her voice weak. The man glanced over at her briefly.

"My house," he answered shortly. Rochelle's brows furrowed.

"What happened to me?" she tried again. The man raised a bushy eyebrow at her and walked over, plunking a bowl of soup down on the table next to her. He helped her into a sitting position, still ignoring her question. Rochelle looked down at herself, and discovered her entire torso was heavily bandaged, and that she was wearing the spare set of clothes she had brought along for herself.

The soup was warm and delicious, with large chunks of meat and vegetables that were steeped in juices. Rochelle devoured it, realizing that the last time she had eaten had been before she went into the Mermaid's Sea. Once her stomach was filled, she set aside the bowl and stared expectantly at the man, who had taken a seat next to her while she ate.

He sighed. "How much do you remember?"

"I was stabbed by the dark unicorn," Rochelle answered. "Then I fell unconscious. What happened to me? I thought...I thought I was dead."

"You almost were," the man replied. "If I hadn't heard the screeches from that unicorn, you would have been a goner. After you fell, I came out and took you back into my cabin, gave you the antidote, and hoped for the best."

"What happened to the unicorn?" Rochelle asked, concerned the man had driven it off or injured it.

The man stared at her for a long while, making her nervous. Had she asked the wrong thing? she wondered. But what could possibly be so wrong that he hesitated to tell her?

"I have never seen anything like it before," the man spoke at last. His voice was subdued, and had lost its gruff tone. "That unicorn was full dark, all evil. And yet, after you fell...something changed. It turned white, seemed to be completely cured. I thought that wasn't possible, but it happened right in front of my eyes." The man shook his head, looking impressed. "You've got something special about you, girl, though I don't know what it was that did it."

"I...I just felt so horrible, for that unicorn," Rochelle murmured. "It was in pain, and it was so alone..."

"Well, you saved it, too, that's the important thing," the man said briskly, standing up from his chair. "Name's Berkley. I live out here, away from the rest of you lot, but occasionally I get stragglers. You should be healed and ready to leave in about a week, so-"

"I don't have a week!" Rochelle burst out. Thoughts of Alyx flooded her brain. How long had she been out? Was there still enough time? Could she even walk, in her condition?

"Mr. Berkley, you have to understand. My friend is dying, he's been poisoned by a dark unicorn, too. I know you have the cure, you saved me-"

"I didn't just save you on my own," Berkley interrupted. "That changed unicorn had a hand in it, too. Did you know unicorn tears have special healing properties? Well, they do. That's part of the remedy, a unicorn tear. If that unicorn hadn't given up a tear for you before it left, you would have been dead, without a doubt."

Rochelle bit her lip, fighting to stay calm. "A-are you saying there's no way you can help him?" she whispered.

Berkley shrugged. "I can certainly try, but I'm not saying it's gonna work," he warned her. Rochelle nodded vigorously.

"Anything, any chance at all is better than none," she said.

Berkley nodded. "Fine. Do you have the wine from the trolls and the scales from the mermaids? I hope you do, because if you don't..."

"They're in my bag!" Rochelle responded, finally understanding the need for the objects gathered on her journey.

Berkley retrieved the items in question and stepped over to a little work stand in the corner of the cottage. He took down a bowl from a shelf above, and poured the wine into it. Muttering a chant under his breath, he shook out a few scales from the pouch and ground them up into a fine powder, sprinkling them into the bowl of wine, and shaking the rest in a circle around the bowl. Still chanting, he picked it up and moved carefully over to where Rochelle was sitting, making sure not to spill a drop. Setting the bowl down, he gestured for Rochelle to give him her hand.

Berkley pulled out a knife and pricked the surface of one of her fingers, squeezing out a small drop of blood into the bowl, his chanting reaching a pitch. He stirred the bowl twice with his knife, then clapped his hands together and said, "That's as much as I can do. I substituted your blood for the unicorn tear, as you still have a bit of it in you yourself. It may not do the trick, but it's the best I can do for you."

"Thank you so much, Mr. Berkley," Rochelle said warmly as the healer poured the wine back into the canteen and sealed it. "Thank you so much for everything you have done for me. I am forever in your debt."

"Eh, don't worry about it, Miss," Berkley shrugged, waving off her gratitude. "You're a very special girl, and you've shown me things I may have never seen with a lifetime of searching. So, it is I who must thank you. Now, seeing as you were unconscious for nearly a day, how much time do you have left to get back to this boy of yours?"

"None," Rochelle answered, fear filling her heart. "He only had four days at the most. This is the last."

Berkley looked very grave. "I'm afraid there isn't much I can do for you at this point, Miss," he said. "I can give you a horse, but that's it."

"I thank you all the same, Mr. Berkley," Rochelle responded, breathing deeply. "Is it possible that I might try and stand up? It would be a bit difficult to ride a horse if I cannot stay on, I imagine."

It was painful, but Rochelle managed to stand without wobbling. Walking was even harder, but she gritted her teeth and took the steps needed to make it to the door. Outside, it was a beautiful day, with the sun shining cheerfully down into the meadow. It was hard to believe that just a day before, she had been lying on the ground, bleeding to her death. Rochelle shook her head slightly to clear it of morbid thoughts, and took her first steps outside, with the full intention of being able to walk normally by the afternoon.

In the corner of her eye, there was a sudden flash of white. Confused, Rochelle turned toward the flash, only to come face-to-nose with a white unicorn.

Gasping in surprise, which hurt her ribs, Rochelle stared up at the creature before her. The unicorn looked much like its dark counterpart, except that the coat was the white of newly fallen snow, and the eyes were a warm, dark brown. Rochelle had the sudden impression that this was the unicorn that had killed her and then brought her back to life, though she couldn't say why she thought that. Tentatively, she reached up her hand, and the unicorn pushed its nose into it, snuffling softly.

"Well, there's a mount for you," Berkley said from behind her. Rochelle turned to find him leaning in his doorway, staring admiringly at the beast at her side. She nodded, smiling slightly.

"I think it would like to take me home," she said, though again, she was unsure of why she thought that.

"She," Berkley said in response. Rochelle stared blankly.

"Your friend is a she," Berkley repeated. Rochelle nodded in sudden understanding.

"Oh. I'm sorry, girl," she said to the unicorn, who whickered softly in response.

Berkley disappeared into his cabin, returning shortly with Rochelle's pack, an apple, and a mug of strong-smelling herbal tea. "That should help with the pain, and give you an extra jolt of energy," he said, handing the mug to her. "And this, of course, is for the lovely lady," he added, tossing the apple to the unicorn, who caught it with ease and munched contentedly.

The tea was so bitter it made Rochelle's eyes water, but she forced it down and handed the mug back to Berkley, taking the opportunity to pull him into a hug as she did so.

"Thank you," she whispered to him, pulling back quickly. Berkley shuffled his feet and shrugged a few times, making her giggle.

He helped her onto the back of the unicorn, where she sat uncertainly, never having ridden a proper horse before, let alone a unicorn. Berkley mimed grabbing onto the mane, which she mimicked, twisting the soft strands of hair around her hands and holding on tightly.

"Well, goodbye, then," Berkley said with a wave. Rochelle smiled down at him, and then the unicorn took off.

They were flying past trees so quickly that Rochelle was certain they were going to be hit by outreaching branches, but miraculously, they seemed to avoid every one. Rochelle kept her head low, just in case, and soon they were charging along the edge of the Mermaid's Sea. A boat appeared in the distance, and the unicorn leapt onto it without even slowing, and it took off at high speed, appearing to be pulled by a team of large fish of many colors, following the orders of a mermaid directing their course.

Rochelle took the opportunity to wonder how all of this was falling into place so perfectly, catching the eye of the unicorn. She snorted, and Rochelle laughed, hugging the animal's neck tightly.

"How can I ever thank you for this?" she asked aloud. The unicorn shifted and snuffled her bag. Chuckling, Rochelle rooted through and found a stash of red apples, freshly picked. She gave two to the unicorn, and watched for land in the distance.

The boat finally pulled to a stop on the other side of the sea, and the unicorn jumped out onto land, taking off without looking back. Rochelle barely had time to shout a thank-you to the fish before the forest swallowed them up, and green was all she could see.

The familiar path widened before them, and they raced across the Bridge of the Stone Trolls almost before Rochelle even realized it. No one was around to welcome them there, but the lack of their presence was a kind of welcome in itself, she supposed.

They were nearing the village now. Rochelle felt her heart speed up at the thought of finally being home, of seeing her family, and of whether or not she could actually save Alyx.

At the very edge of the woods, the unicorn slowed to a stop. Rochelle half-fell off the creature, which hurt her ribs terribly, but she put on a brave face and thanked the unicorn over and over again for her kindness. The unicorn nuzzled her tenderly in response, stole a few apples out of Rochelle's bag, and watched her walk back into her village. When Rochelle turned again, she was gone.

Rochelle ran all the way back to her house. Her family was there to greet her when she did, but she only had time for a brief hello before asking to see Alyx. Her mother's face was grim as she led the way into the bedroom, where Alyx lay.

He was pale and wan, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He was also uncommonly still, and when Rochelle checked his pulse, it was barely there. Biting her lip in fear, she brought out the canteen of the remedy.

"Let him drink some, and pour some on his wound," Brody the mouse instructed, having appeared beside her the moment she entered the house. Rochelle followed his directions, pouring some of the mixture down Alyx's throat, and unbinding his wound carefully to wash it in the remedy.

Everyone in the room held their breath. Rochelle watched Alyx's chest carefully, seeing it rise once, twice, then lay still.

Overwhelming sorrow filled her. She had failed him, then. After all of her work, all of her effort, she still wasn't good enough to save him. Oh, if she had only been quicker! If she hadn't been so weak! Rochelle's eyes filled with tears, and one dripped down onto Alyx's wound, mixing with the remedy and turning it crystal clear.

Alyx's chest began to move again with a great heave, and he coughed a few times, his eyes fluttering open. Rochelle stared in astonishment, and then threw herself at him, hugging him tightly. Alyx seemed confused, but his arms came around her as well, stroking her back gently as if to soothe her.

"I...I thought you were dead," Rochelle said, releasing him. Alyx smiled weakly at her.

"Me, too," he admitted, chuckling softly. Rochelle grinned at him, unable to stop herself.

"Miss Rochelle," Alyx began. Rochelle cut him off.

"Just call me Rochelle," she said with a smile.

"Rochelle," Alyx said slowly, as if testing out the lack of formality. "I cannot ever thank you enough. I am forever in your debt. Please, if there is anything at all I can do for you, would you let me know?"

"I'd like to see you again," Rochelle said without thinking, surprising herself.

Alyx looked as taken aback as she felt, but his smile was wider as he responded, "I think that is something I can do."

"Yay! Alyx can come back!" her youngest sister Arica shouted joyfully. Everyone laughed, and Rochelle realized something abruptly.

"Today's my birthday," she said aloud, smiling to herself.

The End.

The author's comments:
This was a story I wrote for a friend of mine, Rochelle, on her birthday. However, I'm afraid I cannot take credit for the riddles used in this piece! The first two are from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," and the third is from a novel entitled "The Sword of Attila."

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