“I always thought unicorns were magical and special. They were like horse angels.
When I was a little girl, I wanted them to be real.” –Naomi Taylor
Naomi smiled down at the long glass case a little misty-eyed. She stroked the top and wished her grandfather had gotten the chance to give it to her as he’d intended, instead of her finding it while helping to clean out his place. Where he could’ve gotten a ‘unicorn horn’ was beyond her, but then again, he was always eager to go into junk shops and flea markets, picking up this and that as it struck his fancy. She lifted the horn out of the box and set it aside. She put the case in the soapy water to clean off the dust and grime. She glanced over at the horn on her kitchen counter and had to contain her chuckle. It certainly looked authentic. She wondered what it was made of. She rinsed off the case and placed it in the drying rack. She shook out her hands and picked up the horn to wash it next.
The horn was about eighteen inches long and was milky white. It had a spire that ended at a point, which looked rather sharp. She put her fingertip to it to test, and it pricked her. She jerked her hand back and put the wounded digit to her mouth. A drop of blood hung from the tip. Before she could move to wipe it off, the horn absorbed it.
There was a bright flash, and she dropped the horn. It broke in two on her kitchen’s linoleum floor.
But Naomi wasn’t there to pick it up.
It felt like an invisible trap door opened up beneath her, but the ground stayed firmly under her feet. She blinked and swayed as the vertigo faded. It was a nasty shock when she saw her kitchen was gone. In its place was a room with rough white walls and a packed earth floor. There were two broken benches and an overturned table. She didn’t have a chance to look around more because the strange building’s thatch roof was on fire.
She covered her mouth, but she was already coughing as she dashed from the single room building. She ran a couple of yards out and stopped. She bent over to gulp down some clean air. She tried to remember when she’d left her apartment and where she was, but no memories rose in her mind. She had no idea where she was or why she was there. Her confusion was cut short and replaced by panic when she was grabbed by her hair and wrenched upright.
A man with a smoke stained face and greasy hair pulled her nose-to-nose with him. “Well, aren’t you pretty,” he said through piss yellow teeth.
She reacted on instinct. She twisted in the man’s grasp and clawed at his hand. Her nails dug in deep.
"Let go, asshole!"
He hissed and shoved her away. She landed on her side. There was going to be a big bruise on her hip. She scrambled to get up, but the man moved in and shoved a bloody sword into her face. Sword? Her brain blinked at the choice of weapon, but pragmatism made her glad it wasn’t a gun. She could outrun a sword. He had his hand tucked against his stomach. She could see the edges of the angry scratches she’d given him.
“Gonna make you pay for that.”
“Who are you? Where am I?”
“The name’s Hammond. And you’re in a lot of trouble, lass. You’re gonna wish you’d been sweet to me when I’m done with you.”
Naomi didn’t agree. She thought she’d regret not going for his eyes. She began to inch back and gathered herself to spring up and run.
Hammond noticed her movements and moved in closer with the sword. “No need to go anywhere. We can have fun right here.” She went cross-eyed focusing on the bobbing sword point inches from her nose. Her stomach twisted at the way he said ‘fun’. She highly doubted his definition of fun synched with hers. She was proven right when he began loosening his belt.
Naomi had never been a violent person. Sure, she’d been in her share of schoolyard scraps, but those were far behind her. She didn’t even carry pepper spray. But she’d made a vow to herself long ago. It was something every woman considered at one point or another and that was what she would do if a man attacked her and tried to rape her. And Naomi had sworn to herself that she would fight. She would not be a victim.
Her hand closed over a fistful of dirt. She wasn’t going to let this gap-toothed, Renfest reject touch her. She waited until his belt was undone, and his trousers fell to his ankles. She couldn’t help noting the tiny tootsie roll bobbing so proudly between his legs. He leered down at her as he grabbed his minuscule member with his free hand and waggled it at her. She smirked back at him and threw the handful of grit in his face.
She hit him square across the eyes. He dropped his penis to wipe his face, but unfortunately, he didn’t drop the sword. He blindly swung out. She barely ducked it.
“You goddamn stinking whore, I’ll skewer you!”
She took off while Hammond struggled to pull his pants back up. She quickly made it to a street and raced down it. She scanned for help or someplace to hide, but every building she passed had all of their doors and windows boarded up. She also came across more men fighting with swords. She skirted around them and kept her eyes averted. She could see red in her peripheral vision, but she would not let herself turn to confirm. The screams were bad enough. She was positive that she was no longer in Atlanta. She doubted she was any even in Georgia.
She was peering around a corner to gauge the safety of going down a new thoroughfare when someone grabbed her hair again from behind. Hammond jerked her back against him. She clawed again at his hand, but instead of letting her go this time, he raised his sword. She froze when the blade touched her throat.
When making that oath to herself, she’d shied away from really thinking about bodily harm. It was one thing to swear to fight, but it was another thing to consider dying, but she had to consider that now. The sword was very sharp against her throat. She was scared to struggle in case it cut her.
“Now, are you going to be a good girl or a dead girl?” he asked.
Her eyes swiveled as far as they could to look back into his bloodshot eyes. She couldn’t help it--her teeth began to chatter. She couldn’t bring herself to consider either option.
“How about a good woman? The world could always use more of them,” said a female voice from behind them. Hammond lowered his sword as he tried to twist around to see the newcomer, but before he could fully turn, a loud crack sounded, and he went limp. The sword fell, and he released her hair.
She whirled around to find him crumbled to the ground before a pair of granny boots. Her eyes traveled up over a long brown skirt and white peasant blouse to arrive at a wrinkled face with a pair of steady blue eyes peering at her.
The old woman hefted up the frying pan to consider it. “And I don’t even like to cook.”
Naomi giggled with a touch of hysteria at the old woman holding the frying pan, AKA her savior. She smacked her hands over her mouth to hold in her panicked mirth.
“Are you okay, girl?”
She nodded still covering her mouth.
The old woman looked down at the sword. “You gonna pick that up?”
She thought about shaking her head. The sword had dried blood on it. But she could hear distant, angry, male shouts, indicating more Hammonds in the area. She picked it up. With the sword in her hands, her panic dropped a few degrees. She took a deep breath and asked the skillet-wielding woman, “Do you know anyplace we can go that’s safe?”
The old woman nodded. She grabbed the sleeve of Naomi’s sweatshirt and pulled her down the street. “Why didn’t you leave with the others?” she asked.
“What?” She stumbled as she struggled to fall in step with the old woman.
She stopped to peek around a corner. “Damn it, they’ve probably blocked every road,” she muttered. Naomi took a quick peek too. There was a barricade blocking the street. A couple of men stood sentry at it.
“Where am I? I just want to go home.”
“You can’t go home. You have to escape, but the every way is blocked.”
“What? Where is this? What’s going on?”
The old woman turned to her with narrowed eyes. “What do you mean, ‘what’s going on’? The town’s being pillaged by Tavik and his hoard! If you don’t get out of here, you’ll become a spoil of war. I’ve managed to get all the other women and children out. Where have you been?”
“I just got here! One minute, I was in my kitchen, and then I was in some burning building. I don’t know how I got here. Or where here is.”
The old woman’s eyebrows rose. “You got here by magic?”
She threw up her hands; the sword waggled in the air. “Yeah, it was magic. Poof! I’m here. Where is here?”
“So you’re a witch?” the old woman asked.
“You’re a witch?”
She began to think that the old woman hadn’t been joking about the magic. “No, I’m not a witch.”
“Did a witch send you?” She really didn’t like how seriously the old woman was interrogating her about this.
“No, and there’s no such thing as magic or witches.”
The old woman crossed her arms and drew back to coolly look down her nose at her. “Then how did you get here?”
“I don’t know!”
“Then it could’ve been magic.”
“There’s no such thing!”
“Then how did you get here?”
She felt like she’d gotten stuck in some strange comedy sketch routine. “All right! If it makes you happy, it might've been magic.”
“Believe me dear, I am not happy about this at all. You are in grave danger.”
She slumped. “How are we going to get out of this?”
The old woman cupped her chin and appeared to go into deep thought. Naomi waited. The old woman’s eyes would lift slowly up every few seconds and then quickly fall back to the ground as she muttered to herself.
After a few minutes, the old woman shook her head. “I don’t know, but I promise I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
For some reason, Naomi felt like she really meant it. She may be crazy, but a determined crazy person could accomplish surprising things sometimes. She stuck out her hand. “Thanks. My name’s Naomi.”
The old woman eyes snapped to her. “What?”
She nodded. “Um Naomi, I was named after my grandmother. What's your--” The old woman grabbed a fistful of her sweatshirt and started dragging her again.
“Where are we going?”
“To the castle.” She pointed up the slope. What formed in Naomi head when she heard the term castle was the Disney trademark. What was on top of the hill was a cluster of stumpy stone towers with a wall around it.
“Do you think we’ll be safe there?”
“Yes, I know someone.”
“So they'll be able to hide us or get us to safety?”
“Don't worry. I have a plan.”
She had a plan now? How about sharing? “So what's the plan?”
“Don't worry about it.”
“Does it involve witches and magic?”
The old woman threw a not so friendly look back at her.
That had been kind of snarky. She decided to stick to safer topics. “So what's your name?” She half expected another preposterous answer. Maybe she'd say E=mc2 or Looney, actually that would be a pretty good name for her.
“And where are we?”
“Harold’s Pass.” That didn’t tell her anything.
“How far’s that from Atlanta?”
The old woman shrugged her shoulders.
“What’s near here?”
“The Akron Mountains, the road to Ravant.”
“Do you really not know how you came here?”
She started thinking about what she could remember. There’d been so many immediate things to worry about, mainly Hammond, that she hadn’t had a chance to really think. Here she was on a footpath headed to a castle, dragging a sword with someone else's blood on it with no clue how she got into this mess or how she was going to get out of it.
And to think, her day had started out so normally…
“We shouldn’t just get rid of this stuff in a yard sale.” Her mother had asked them to come over to help set up, but she felt like this was some sort of betrayal of their grandfather. He’d loved all his stuff, and the clutter had been a beloved part of him.
Bobby, her younger brother, bent down to pick up a box from the floor. “It would’ve suited him. Someone will come today, see a little treasure where we see junk, and take it home to love just like Grandpa did when he bought this stuff. Anyway, you do not have room in your apartment.”
“I know.” She sighed and knelt down to open a box. Chipped dishes with pale flowers painted on them were nestled inside. “His old ‘china’!”
“No,” Bobby said. His tone was clear. She was not taking it home.
“Someone should keep these.”
“They aren’t worth anything. They’re cheap and cracked. Anyway, you don’t have pretend tea parties anymore. At least, I hope not.”
Naomi smiled as she gently picked up a saucer to examine. She remembered a small kitchen table with teddy bears seated around it and an old man and a little girl clinking empty cups in a toast with pinkies in the air. She sighed and set the saucer back in the box. She knew that if she took the dishes, they would just stay in the box, be put in an already overcrowded closet, and would never see the light of day again. Hopefully, someone would buy them, give them a good home, and maybe let some little girl play with them.
“I want to go through the boxes first and make sure we’re not selling anything that we may want to keep.” Bobby looked like he wanted to argue but just set down the box he was holding and took the box of dishes instead. He left to take it down to the front yard. Naomi began digging through more boxes.
She thought the footsteps she heard coming up the stairs belonged to Bobby returning for another box, but it was her mother who stuck her head in.
“What is taking so long?” She saw her answer. Naomi sat on the floor with crumpled newspaper around her and partially empty boxes.
“No,” her mother said the same way that Bobby had said earlier.
“But Mom, I want to keep something.”
Her mother looked at her with wry amusement. “Fine, but you can only keep three things. The rest has to go. Your father and I are already keeping a lot of stuff that your grandfather treasured. You can keep three mementos.” Naomi nodded. She knew her mother was just trying to keep her from weighing herself down with memories, but she wanted to keep a few reminders. Three would do.
Bobby came and took boxes as she was done with them. So many things were stamped with memories. Naomi didn't know what to choose. She finally settled on an old overcoat that Grandpa Harry had worn for years and had the smell of his cologne still on it. She would not wear it, but it would always be in her coat closet so that she could rub her face against it and smell him for years to come. Next, she decided on his ‘dressy’ cuff links. They were small garnets. She remembered him wearing them when she graduated from college. He had been so proud of her that day. The third and final piece was difficult to choose. She took longer and longer with each box. Bobby had begun to wait for her to pass him one, but finally, after digging through tens of boxes, she found one that looked as though it had been packed by Grandpa Harry. The cardboard was discolored and weak.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked Bobby, who stood leaning against the doorway.
“No.” He came to stand beside her.
She opened the box carefully and peered inside. “What is this stuff?” None of it was recognizable. She began to unpack it to see the items better.
“Oh gross,” she blurted and dropped one item. It was a shrunken head.
“Cool.” Bobby picked it up and slipped it into his pocket. She shuddered and looked warily back into the box. A necklace of animal teeth came next. Both siblings passed on it. The box contained snake skins, bird feathers, crystals, and at the bottom of the box, there was a glass case.
“What can this be?” She lifted it up. They both peered at it. The case was long and narrow and resting inside it appeared to be a bone.
“There’s a slip of paper taped to the bottom.” Bobby plucked it off. It was old and discolored like the box. “It says ‘A unicorn horn, for Naomi’s twenty-fifth birthday.’”
“A unicorn horn?”
“Probably a carved piece of bone made to look like a unicorn horn.”
“Do you think Grandpa really believed it?”
“No.” He showed her the note. ‘Unicorn’ had quotation marks around it. She smiled at the glass case. It would certainly have been a unique gift. This was her third memento, the gift he meant to give her. She felt an ache in her chest then. It was so like her grandfather to think of the dearest things to do or give to his family. A unicorn horn for a woman who had recently reached adulthood but still felt like a little girl sometimes. He had known that the innocence and fantasy would have appealed to her.
“You can take the rest of the boxes. I’m not looking through anymore,” she said.
“Are you sure?” She nodded and took her three things downstairs. She couldn't look at anymore. It was becoming painful.
At home, the coat went in her closet, the cuff links went in her jewelry box, and the unicorn horn was to go on her coffee table right after she washed the dust off of it. She opened the case and lifted the horn out. It certainly looked ‘authentic’. The horn was about eighteen inches long and tapered to a sharp point. She set it aside and filled the sink with water. She'd just clean it up nice and have a relaxing day at home. She'd planned to go through her mail, do the crossword, and maybe watch a little television. Yes, just a nice, relaxing, normal day.
When they reached the castle, they had to skirt past more fighting men in the courtyard. The two women slinked through a large pair of wooden doors into an enormous room. There were people talking loudly and running everywhere. It sounded like they were looking for someone. Agatha stuck to the wall and led the way to a staircase. After several twists and turns, they ducked into a bedroom and closed the door behind them. The furniture was large and adorned with ornate scroll work. It looked like someone important slept there.
“Whose room is this?” she asked, not for a second thinking it was Agatha’s.
“Does it matter? We’re safe for now.” The old woman went over to an upright bureau and began rummaging through it. Naomi leaned against the wall. She hoped someone would show up soon to help them. She couldn’t wait to get back home.
“Here put this on.” Agatha took the sword and pushed a gown into her hands.
She took at it in befuddlement. “Why?”
“For a disguise! You need to look like one of us.”
She nodded thinking it sounded like a good idea. She did stick out in her jeans and sweatshirt. She quickly stripped off her clothes and threw on the gown.
“How do I look?”
Agatha nodded with approval. “Like a lady.”
“Is that good?”
There was pounding at the door. Naomi jumped and looked at it in trepidation. “Where’s the sword?”
“You won’t need it.”
“What should we say to them?”
“No, ack, don’t, let go! That sort of thing.”
Before she could demand further explanation, the door burst open, and a group of men with swords streamed in. One turned back and shouted into the corridor, “Alert the others, we’ve found her!”
“Found who? Wait! What’s going on?” They grabbed her by both arms and began to drag her from the room. The men pushed Agatha back.
“Don’t fear, Lady Naomi. Everything will be all right!”
The men hauled Naomi out. She kicked, and yelled, but the men wouldn't let her go. She only knew one thing. Agatha had set her up. That just went to show, never trust crazy old women. They’ll give you up to medieval throwbacks every time
The men took her back into the large hall where now there were more men, but thankfully no fighting. The men hauling her muscled their way through the others until they reached the dais at the end of the hall.
One man broke off and stepped forward. He knelt on one knee and announced, “Sir, we’ve secured the Lord’s lady. The castle is yours.”
She looked up at the dais to see who the soldier was talking to and gaped. The man that stood above her had on some sort of full-head mask. The mask was made of a dark metal and shaped like a demonic skull. It had a perpetual ghastly smile. Like Skeletor but scary. The eyes holes were black and empty. He had on full armor which had wet splashes of red still on it. In one hand, he gripped a massive sword. It dripped red too. All he needed was a severed head in his other hand to complete the picture. When he turned toward her, she felt the weight of his gaze like a shroud. She hoped her head wasn't supposed to complete the picture.
She gulped and said, “I really think there’s been a mistake.”
Continue to Chapter 2