It was late in the afternoon when I stepped out of the loamy dimness beneath the trees and into the brightness of the low afternoon sun. It would soon be hidden behind the cliffs of the valley, creating a premature twilight.
A large animal called out from the trees. I looked back into the gloom but could see nothing. What kind of wildlife lived in this valley, anyway?
I considered going back to Carrie and Billy at the campsite, but it didn’t really matter if I went back now or later: it would still be dark when I got there. Perhaps if I returned later the noisy animal would be gone.
That decided it.
I continued on, hearing the falls as a distant hissing rumble. And then I rounded an outcrop of bare stone and there they were, the Magus Falls: a five-meter-wide sheet of water that fell sixty meters down the cliff. There was the roar as thousands of tonnes of water fell to smash apart into a boiling torrent at the bottom. Tiny droplets of water billowed out as a thick mist, blown away by the water displaced air. A small loch had formed beneath the cliffs which emptied into a river that flowed away to my left. The rocks that were hammered by the deluge were bare, wet and dark. The farther from the water the greener the rocks became: carpets of lichens and mosses covered the tops of boulders and the face of the cliff, thriving in the constant misty damp.
I stood on the path by the shore of the loch and watched the water fall.
On the right, the path curved behind the curtain of water. It was dark under there. Was that a cave behind the falls? If so, I wanted to explore it, but: one, I had no waterproofs; two, no change of clothes; and three, it was already late. Maybe I could convince Carrie and Billy to come back tomorrow with swimsuits and towels?
The mist coated everything with tiny droplets of water, including me. My jacket, jeans and hair were spotted with thousands of them. I licked my lips and they tasted salty and tangy with dissolved minerals.
Then the whole world began to sparkle with golden light.
I looked behind me and saw the sun had lowered enough to touch the rim of the valley, and the last rays of the day shone on the millions of water droplets.
It was like magic.
As the sun sank behind the cliffs, the golden sparkles winked out as the shadow crept across the valley floor and soon the light was gone and I was left in shadow.
I looked up, and there, rising above the undulating surface of the river at the top of Magus Falls was the full moon. It was the largest moon I’d ever seen, it almost seemed too big for the sky. It rose higher and grew brighter as the sun set. The roar of the falls and the misty droplets covered me like a blanket.
I blinked. Long and slow.
My hands felt numb with cold when I wiped moisture from my face. I tore my eyes free of the moon.
The sky was dark. How long had I stood there watching the moon rise?
I glanced at Magus falls and the breath caught in my throat. The moonlight shone through the mist and produced an ethereal bow of silvery light. The edges of the bow faded through the colours of the spectrum to darkness. The curve of the bow reached half-way up the falls and then fell down beyond the dark ribbon of the path.
Not a rainbow but a moonbow*. *It’s light there and not there at the same time. I didn’t want to blink in case it went away.
On the path, under the arch of the moonbow, a shadowy shape appeared from beneath the water curtain. It was shaped like a horse as it walked along the path and away from the crashing noise of the waterfall. When it reached the light of the moonbow it walked in front of the glow. After a few more strides the shadow-horse stopped. It lifted its head and looked behind it, towards the water tumbling off the cliff. It stood motionless for several seconds. But now, with no change that I could see, the shadow-horse looked tense, as if ready to bolt.
<Danger/death/fear,> came a voice in my head. <Flee/away/run.>
The head of the shadow-horse began to glow silver like the moonbow. Between one blink and the next, the shadow shape disappeared, as if it were never there.
My heart pumped hard in my chest, thumping, thumping as I tried to understand what had just happened. What had been that voice in my head? Was I still in a trance under the spell of the moon?
The moonbow darkened. No longer silver, but redder.
My hands curled into fists. I pressed my teeth together. It felt like someone was tickling the back of my neck as the hairs stood up.
Another shadow appeared under the moonbow and flowed along the path. Its shape changed as it moved. Not once did it look like a horse.
The shadow stopped and I saw its eyes glow like the altered moonbow: a dark muddy red.
A deep growl vibrated in my mind. For a moment I didn’t know what to do. And then I remembered that the other voice in my head, the one that spoke, had told me I should run.
So I ran.
The path back towards the trees and away from the falls was moonlit and easy to follow.
The growl turned into a howl. It was more than a terrifying sound because it was in my head and I could feel what it felt: I felt hunger, I felt excitement, I felt joy and I felt hate. Waves of emotions washed my brain as it began to hunt me.
I ran along the path and into the trees. The path beneath the trees glowed even without the moonlight. I sprinted through the darkness.
Through the mind-link, I felt the shadow-beast reach the place where I had stood near the loch. I could smell my own scent in its nostrils. I felt the saliva fill its maw.
I began to find it hard to breathe. I was running too hard. I had to slow down, I had to, I couldn’t keep going at this pace. I’d exhaust myself and the beast would have me for dinner. I would need my strength to fight if it caught up to me.
<Courage/bravery/grit,> said the voice in my head. <Look/right-ways/observe.>
I looked and saw a silvery light deep among the trees. The same silvery light of the moonbow.
In the stories, you’re told to never leave the path, but the glow was in the trees and I couldn’t see a path. I slowed to a jog (oh, how I wanted to run and run, faster and faster, not slower) and when I rounded a Rowan tree there was a narrow trail, edged by bushes, leading into the forest towards the light.
The hunger and menace and joy of the shadow-beast pressed into my thoughts.
I would be caught if I stayed on the path and I didn’t want to be caught. Leaving the path was my only choice, my only hope. I ran onto the narrow trail where branches slapped me, grabbed at me, tried to trip me. A branch whipped the back of my hand. It stung. The bushes were thorny and hemmed me in on both sides. They offered no escape, no place to hide, only ensnarement and scratches. I followed the trail as it meandered through the trees. Sometimes I’d be running towards the light, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. Sometimes I couldn’t see the light at all until I made a turn and caught another glimpse of the glow. I had no idea in which direction I was running.
The shadow-beast loomed in my mind as it gained on me.
The trail turned and straightened. A bright light shone through a tangle of thorny branches ahead. I did not slow down, instead, I ran faster. At the last moment, I lifted my arms to cover my face and leapt. Thorns scratched and pierced my arms and legs and belly, my legs got tugged away from under me and then I was falling.
I landed on my arms and belly on soft springy turf. I lay there and gasped for breath.
I could smell blood, as if from the beast’s nostrils, my blood, and from the dark trees there came a howl of manic glee. I scrambled to my feet.
I stood in a circular clearing in the trees. In the middle of the clearing stood a horse. The horse’s shoulders were taller than my head. She was the source of the silvery light. It glowed around her head and flowed in rivulets down her neck and spread across her whole body. She was lit not by moon or sun but by light from another world. The edges of her outline did not seem to stay still, they moved and pulsed as if she could barely keep her shape. She turned her head to look at me and that’s when I saw the horn growing out of her forehead. It was the source of the light, the source of her majesty and power, the source of everything. She was more real, more there,* *than the grass and the trees. She stood super-imposed on top of reality.
She was Unicorn.
My eyes would not look away from her horn. The light on it pulsed, like breathing. It soothed me. Everything else but the light went away: my heavy breathing, the trees, my aching muscles, the moon, my pain, the shadow-beast that hunted me.
She knelt, one knee after the other, like bowing, and positioned her head to look at me with one eye.
<Mount/live/escape,> she said. An image of muddy red eyes appeared in my mind.
She turned her head so that I could no longer see the horn. I blinked. My breathing stayed calm and easy as I approached her.
The muscles under her pearly iridescent coat twitched. The light played over her curves and shifted like crashing waves. Her mane was white. Jagged streaks of blue light ran down each coarse strand of hair.
I grabbed two handfuls of mane and it crackled. All the hair on my body began to rise as I was filled with electricity.
The hunger of the shadow-beast forced its way into my mind again and pushed aside my newfound calm. I turned and saw, through the tangled bushes, the shadow-beast attempt to enter the clearing. It followed no path but ran straight towards me. It crashed through the undergrowth, snapping some branches, but many, more supple vines wrapped around it so that it became entangled. It heaved itself forward inch by straining inch.
I tightened my grip on her mane and threw my leg over her back. She began to rise, which threw my weight forward, and I thought I was going to fall over the top of her head. The ground already looked a long way down.
Then she surged forward and my body jerked back, my arms whipped straight, my fists filled with her electric mane. I pulled myself forward to lie on her back. As my chest and belly touched her I felt pulled down, attracted to her by an invisible force.
In two strides her hooves drummed out a dum-dumdum canter on the turf.
The shadow-beast roared. The sound echoed in my mind and then a moment later in my ears. I screamed my fear and defiance back at it. Below me, her body vibrated against mine as I heard and felt her answering neigh: loud and strident like a trumpet.
She heaved below me and then I was weightless, I felt like I was falling, but I stayed stuck to her back. I looked down through a gap between my arm and her neck and I saw a tangle of branches below us. And then we were down, and trees, lit by her glowing horn, flashed past in a strobed silvery blur.
Through her mane, I saw another wall of branches ahead. She didn’t slow and she heaved below me and we were airborne again, flying for a long second, and then her hooves struck the turf and we burst out of the forest and into the moonlight. We thud-thud-thudded through the long grass and then we were back on the path.
I saw the moon before us, bright and high in the sky. We were heading back toward the falls.
“No!” I shouted. “The valley, the falls! It’s a dead-end!”
<Straight/winding/turning,> she said. <Past/future/now.>
I could do nothing, stuck as I was to her back. I was not going to fall off. I couldn’t. So I found the rhythm of her gallop and willed my hands to relax their grip on her mane.
<Scent/smell/hunt,> she said with a mind-picture of me. <Forever/chase/kill.> A mind-picture of the shadow straining to escape the branches.
The crashing sound of Magus Falls grew like someone had turned up the volume. The path was a blur beneath us. We ran towards clouds of water mist lit by moonlight.
And in those clouds, I saw the moonbow. It was dim, barely there at all, as it arced across the falls. She headed straight for the centre of the arch and galloped faster. Her hooves thudded on the packed earth and then all I could hear was the plashing of hooves on water. Spray soaked me as she ran over the surface of the loch.
The glow around her head brightened and the moonbow responded. It shone stark and bright, as real, as there, as my impossible mount. Rainbow colours projected out from the edges of the bow and painted the billowing mist in reds and oranges and yellows and greens and blues and indigos and violets.
The moonbow and the multi-coloured mist shifted colour again. No longer silver, but bluer.
The shadow-beast howled. Through the mind-link, I felt anger and disappointment. It didn’t want to lose the prey. All I wanted was for the howl to stop and for my mind to be my own again.
I felt her muscles tighten and bunch under me. They released their power and we leapt under the moonbow’s arch.
The mind-link with the beast cut off in mid-howl, one second there, the next, silent.
There was a moment of spinning, a moment of dizziness, a moment of confusion, a moment of nausea.
Then it was just bright, so bright I had to close my eyes and bury my head against her neck.
We struck ground (not water) and slowed to a walk: clip-clop clip-clop.
I opened my eyes. We were in the bright, late afternoon sunshine. The sun was warm on my skin. I held handfuls of her mane in my fists. There were no sparks. My thighs slipped and I realised I was no longer stuck to her coat.
She walked towards the trees and the roar of the falls diminished behind us.
“Wait, stop. The monster-,” I said.
<Un-truth/shadow-beast/behind,> she said. <Shadow-beast/future/ahead.>
“I don’t understand,” I said.
<Truth/girl-child/wisdom,> she said. <Come/hide/await.> A mind-image of me again. <Wait/clearing/pass.>
I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
She said nothing.
It was cooler under the shadow of the trees. We walked on the path for a while and then diverted onto a side trail (a different one, I think, there was no Rowan this time). The bushes and branches and thorns did not touch her as we passed. She followed the winding trail back to a clearing. She walked to the centre and then knelt without warning and I slipped forward, my arms and legs wrapped around her neck. I held on, fearful of falling over her head and touching the horn. Or being impaled on it.
Had this been her plan all along? Maybe it wasn’t the shadow-beast that hunted me, maybe it was her.
<Instinct/truth/perception,> she said <Moonbow/protection/fortune.> She tossed her head and I slipped further. <Live/Girl-child/safe.>
I relaxed my legs and fell off the side of her neck and onto the short grass. It was good to be standing on the ground again; to be able to decide, on my own, where to go and what to do.
She neighed, her message to be quiet was clear, even without mind-speak.
I recognised that neigh: it was the same sound I had heard earlier that afternoon when I had left the trees.
<Observe/girl-child/see,> she said. <Silent/hidden/mouse-like.> She nudged me with her soft muzzle towards the edge of the clearing. I shied away from the horn. I couldn’t look at it. I didn’t want to.
Around a tree at the edge of the clearing, I could see, by some luck or magic, a clear view all the way to the edge of the forest.
And on the path, right there, I saw myself. I was wearing the same red cap, the same blue jeans, the same walking boots, the same orange windbreaker.
It was me. A then-me.
Then-me stood on the path and looked into the trees. Was she wondering, as I had, what kind of animals lived in this valley? Then-me turned away and continued walking, having made her decision to go on to the falls. I lost sight of her as she became obscured by trees.
When I turned, the horn was right in front of me, a meter away and pointed at my chest. It was not glowing and it’s point looked infinitely sharp.
<Go/friends/return,> she said. <Silence/secrecy/ever-more.> The iridescent curving waves moved across her coat flared to brightness. She disappeared right in front of me.
<Girl-child/moonbow/life-gift,> she said and was no longer a presence in my mind.
I stood in the clearing and waited for something else to happen.
The trees around me were evenly spaced and large and old, and there were twelve of them. Between each trunk was the start of a trail, eleven in total. None had branches barring the way. Hadn’t all the trails been blocked by thorns and undergrowth last night? No, not last night, the night still to come. Maybe I wasn’t even in the same clearing.
I chose the trail closest to me and it led me back to the forest path where an earlier version of me had just walked. What would happen if I ran after her, to warn her?
I didn’t do that because that didn’t happen. I had no memory of meeting myself on the path. And if I didn’t remember then it didn’t happen. Right?
I hiked back down the valley to the campsite and my friends. I hurried and so made it back before it got too dark.
“How was it?” Carrie asked from beside the tent. Then she looked closer. “What happened, Jessie? You’re a mess!”
I looked down at the dirt and the grass stains and the bloody scratches. “Yeah.” I laughed, dragged my fingers through my hair. “I left the path and got lost. When I found it, it was too late so I came back. I never even got close enough to hear the falls.”
“Lost in the woods,” Billy said. He walked into camp with his arms full of firewood. “Well, I’m glad you un-lost yourself. Saved us the trouble of coming to rescue you!” Billy motioned at the firewood with his head. “Make yourself useful and grab a log.”
I took several large branches from the top of the pile in his arms.
“Let’s get up early and go see the falls tomorrow,” Carrie said.
“Okay,” I said, thinking of the shadow-beast. “Early is good. It’ll be better if we go together anyway.”
“Deal, as long as you don’t get lost again,” Billy said with a grin. “Now move it, we’ve got marshmallows to burn.”