To Ride a Uni: Companion and Steed - Part One
“Tatch got himself grounded!” laughed Buko the white Uni as he trotted up to his friend, Kanine. His little sister, Chari, huffed at his heels with the effort of keeping up.
Kanine, a spotted Uni, looked up from where she was grazing, alarmed. “Grounded? What for?”
“I don’t know!” laughed Buko, “I just heard it from Ado. Tatch has to stick around the Main Pasture for an entire week!”
“It isn’t funny,” interrupted their friend Sara, who had clearly overheard. “Tatch did something really awful and improper! He deserves to have to stay around home.”
“Oh, Tatch wouldn’t do something really bad.” Buko chuckled. “He’s usually in trouble, but it’s just because he’s too adventurous.” Chari nodded from his side. She always agreed with her big brother.
“Well, he really did it this time,” said Sara huffily, swishing her blue tail and flipping her mane. Sara was well known in the Meridell Uni herd for being a know-it-all.
“Well,” said Kanine, “What DID he do?”
Sara looked around quickly to see if anyone was in earshot, and then leaned in toward her friends. They all put their heads together, little Chari listening aptly from where she had been squeezed out of the circle.
“You know his friend, Chip, that Kacheek who lives in the forest? Yeah? I heard they were going down to the stream, and... and, well, they didn’t have a lot of time, so, Tatch let Chip ride on his back!”
Buko blinked and Kanine looked puzzled. Chari looked at her brother to see how he was reacting, and when she saw nothing, she just stared at Sara.
“You guys aren’t disgusted?” said Sara, shocked. “Unis never let anyone ride them! It’s positively shameful!”
“He was just helping out a friend,” said Kanine. “I really don’t see a problem with that.”
“I can kinda see it,” said Buko, “if it’s more to do with the fact that our species has a history of people trying to ride them. It doesn’t help that that carousel off on Roo Island has Unis! But really, Chip wasn’t trying to be disrespectful; he and Tatch are friends!”
“Exactly,” agreed Kanine. “Tatch should be allowed to let Chip have a ride if he wants. It’s his back, after all.”
“He’s setting a bad example,” hissed Sara. “If one Uni does it, what’s to stop everyone doing it? Then everyone will go back to thinking we’re just work animals!”
Kanine understood where her friend was coming from, but she still shook her head. Everyone was free to do what he or she wanted, right? They all lived in such a beautiful place—the countryside of Meridell. No one had ever bothered them here. The Kaus on the far side of the fields lived peacefully without anyone thinking they were farm animals, either. The world wasn’t coming to an end because of this one incident. She was about to tell Sara just that, when the blue Uni started speaking again.
“If you won’t believe me, let’s go hear what Mare Lilian has to say!”
Mare Lilian was the dominant Uni. It was she who governed the Meridell Herd, and she was very well respected for her leadership and guidance. Her word on the matter would be final.
“Fine,” said Buko.
“Alright,” said Kanine.
“You guys were talking about me, weren’t you!”
It was Tatch himself. He trotted up to them, looking glum.
“We’re going to see Mare Lilian to ask her what she says about Unis being ridden,” said Sara, “You should definitely come, too.”
Tatch looked woeful, his white skunk mane and tail drooping, “My parents are really mad at me; I don’t need Mare Lilian knowing, too!”
“Oh, she knows by now, don’t worry,” said Sara, to which Tatch looked less than reassured. She started to go, “Come on!”
The colorful group of four teenagers plus sibling took off running across the field. They weaved in and around the grazing adults, who did not bat an eye at their boisterous passing, and jumped over the pastel lumps of foals resting in the grass. Away on the highest hillock, Lilian’s pale pink shape came into sight. The gang slowed as they approached her and her mate, Delion, grazing watchfully from their hilltop.
Lilian turned to greet them as they came up. She seemed surprised, but not unpleasantly so. Her expression was gentle, welcoming them to speak. Kanine thought it best if Sara didn’t get a word in, or she would slant the argument in her own favor, so she spoke first.
“Mare Lilian, we have a question,” she began, and at a ready nod from the regal Uni, asked, “We want to know if, under any circumstances, it is permissible for a Uni to be ridden.”
“Of course,” said Lilian without hesitation.
“What!” exclaimed Sara. “It’s deplorable!”
“It is deplorable for others to wish to ride a Uni, not for a Uni to offer a ride to a friend,” said Lilian calmly. “We are proud creatures, and we are strong. It is not wrong to offer that strength to help another.” She gave a knowing smile to Tatch, who looked very relieved.
Sara looked flustered, but kept her silence.
“These are important things to think about,” Lilian said, looking away to the distant Meridellian capital with something akin to worry on her gentle face, “I fear there is something brewing between King Skarl and that dark city floating above his kingdom.”
“Darigan Citadel?” Buko looked at it, too. “There’s been peace there for quite some time.”
“Yes, but you children probably don’t remember much of the original conflict. The battle was an effort on everyone’s part, even us, though we do not live within the kingdom proper. We served as both companions and steeds to the brave knights who would befriend us and ask for our help. That was not so long ago.” She sighed and swished her long straw-colored tail. “That citadel used to be just another part of the scenery, but in these past weeks I have felt something stirring.”
She looked distressed. Kanine shared her worry-filled gaze as she looked at the ominous city drifting over Meridell. If something worried Mare Lilian, it sparked outright fear in Kanine’s heart. At the same time, she wondered, what was it? What would it mean for her and her friends and family?
A powerful ‘thump!’ jarred her from her thoughts, causing her and the other four to simultaneously jump in fright. Chari scrambled behind Buko. Mare Lilian whirled around, staring at Delion, who stomped his front hoof again, sending shivers through the young group beside her, and gestured toward the open country.
From the direction of Meridell, something or someone was clearly gunning straight toward the hill in leaps and bounds. Alerted by Delion’s warning stomps, a few nearby adults came galloping up the hill, grinding to a halt around the huddled youths and looking at Mare Lilian for direction. She merely nodded to the ground-eating speck approaching their position. Kanine struggled to see around the adults, not being quite fully grown herself.
Delion came to stand next to them all, watching with equal attention. “It’s a messenger from Skarl,” he said quietly to the curious teens as the shape was within a few hundred yards. Lilian nodded and stepped forward from the group, she glanced back once, as if considering sending the young Unis away, but clearly dismissed the notion as she turned her attention to the royal male Cybunny bounding up the hill.
He stopped just short of Lilian’s hooves and gave a bow, breathing heavily and adjusting his cap. She waited patiently for him to catch his breath and straighten up to look her in the eyes.
“Mare Lilian,” he began to read from a scroll he produced, “Ruler of the Meridell Uni Herd—I bring you ill tidings of a hostile advancement from the Darigan Citadel toward the Kingdom of Meridell. This sudden animosity has come in a peaceful time, and as such we were caught off guard by an announcement to attack. We are as yet constructing hasty defenses, but the training of advanced warriors is of utmost importance.” The Cybunny paused to take a breath and look imploringly at Mare Lilian before continuing, “You and your people have been great allies to the forces of Meridell in the all-too-recent past. When we extended a plea for your strength and agility to aid the fight against the forces of Darigan, you responded readily and mightily to fight for the land we all call home. We ask you, therefore, to consider our situation once more. We humbly ask you for any willing fighters to serve as companions and steeds for a company of cavalry to be made of our best knights. What,” he lowered the scroll, “is your answer?”
Mare Lilian stood very still, but turned her head away to look out over the herd grazing peacefully behind. Kanine tried to understand what she must be thinking. She did not doubt Mare Lilian knew the Unis would be willing to help, should she alert them to Meridell’s plight, but would she let them? Kanine felt a thrill go through her. A chance to go to Meridell! A chance to aid a fight against Darigan, like the stories she had heard! But to be partnered with a knight? She wondered how she would feel about that. She perked up when she realized Mare Lilian had begun to speak.
“You have the support of the Uni Herd,” she said resolutely. “Go ahead and read the rest of the corresponding message now.”
“There is no end to our gratitude,” said the Cybunny, and from his sigh of relief this was clearly the case. “Please tell us when to send our warriors for training. But please keep in mind our haste, and do not delay any longer than you find necessary.” He lowered the scroll again, clearly awaiting her answer.
“Send the knights as soon as they can gather their supplies. Those who fought in the last war will be paired with Unis accordingly; those who need training will also be paired accordingly and detained a week further.”
“Understood,” said the messenger, and turned to deliver this news to the capital.
“One more thing,” said Mare Lilian, and he turned around promptly to face her. “What was the answer to be if I said no?”
“There actually is no written answer in the case you declined,” said the Cybunny, turning the scroll so she could see.
“That arrogant Skarl,” snorted Lilian. “He really thinks we are so eager to serve under him!”
“Please do not be angry, my lady,” said the Cybunny, “It was not King Skarl who sent you this message, but Sir Jeran who assured me with nothing but the greatest admiration that the Uni would never turn down a cry for help.” He unrolled the scroll once more and held up the signature for her to see. Indeed it was Sir Jeran. Mare Lilian looked at ease immediately.
“Very well,” she said, “Go, and give my best to him.”
The Cybunny bowed once more, and then returned to all-fours and shot away down the hillside.
“Spread the word and assemble all volunteers at the base of this hill,” said Lilian to the other adults. To the teens she said, “Go back to your parents, and consider your options well.”
While the adults galloped off, the group of friends walked slowly away down the hill.
“Wow,” said Tatch.
“Yeah, wow,” agreed Kanine.
They walked in silence for a while, each thinking his or her own thoughts. Buko broke the silence.
“So, you all gonna...”
“Fight?” asked Kanine.
“Oh,” Buko looked at his hooves, “I don’t think I’m gonna. I can’t afford to get hurt, I have to look after Chari, with Mom gone and all...”
“Yeah,” said Sara. “You shouldn’t go.”
“What about you, Sara?” asked Kanine curiously. She remembered Sara had been so adamant this morning about not being ridden; there was no way the blue Uni was considering it!
“Why not?” sniffed Sara with a characteristic toss of her mane, “It’s going to be the talk for years to come. I’m not going to miss it.”
“Well, if even you’re in, I’m definitely in!” said Tatch.
“What’s that supposed to mean!”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Tatch, smiling. “What about you, Kanine? You could totally fight.”
The speed of Kanine’s answer surprised even her.
“That makes three of us!” said Tatch happily. “If, um, I get ungrounded to go save Meridell.”
“You guys be careful,” said Buko anxiously. “And you guys be tough. Those of us here will probably be looking after a lot of foals and I’m going to tell them about you three and how strong you are, so they won’t worry.”
“We still have to ask our parents first,” Sara reminded them all.
“Not really,” said Kanine. “Of course we have to tell them, but we’re of legal age to make our own decisions, and we’re big enough to carry a rider. Even Tatch, who’s grounded, is only obeying out of deference to his parents, right, Tatch?”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said. “I really hadn’t thought of it that way. I didn’t have any reason to question their punishment, because I knew I was wrong. But it’s desperate times now, and they’ll have to understand.”
“Right,” said Kanine, stopping as she spotted her parents nearby, looking worried. “I’ll see you both by the hill tonight. Buko, even though we’ll be here for a week, we might be too busy to see you before we leave.” She gave him a hug and a smile. “You take care here.”
With that, she left and walked toward her parents to tell them her decision.
The moon was high and bright by the time Delion’s powerful stomps alerted the herd to the arrival of the knights. Kanine left her parents, having said goodbye hours before, and joined the large group by the base of the hill, mixing in with the younger crowd and finding Tatch and Sara. The three of them watched intently as the elder Unis and soldiers paired up, geared up, and took off. It was the first time any of the young Unis had seen a saddle and bridle.
The remaining group of knights looked dignified, even though they wore less armor than their counterparts who had just departed to the frontlines. They were all different kinds of pets and colors—some that Kanine couldn’t even identify, especially in the dark. Her life in the countryside was so isolated. She and her friends rarely saw more than Cybunnies, Kaus, Kacheeks, Xweetoks, and the occasional Quiggle by the river.
Mare Lilian and Delion were among the group of foreigners, asking them a few questions and telling them one by one who to go with. At a meeting earlier, they had taken stock of the volunteers, and while they were clearly upset by the fact that Kanine and her friends had decided to go, they could not dissuade them. Kanine wondered how they were deciding who to pair with whom.
Tatch was the first to get a partner—a short fellow with dusky fur, pointed ears, and hair like a Uni’s mane. Kanine would later learn that it was a shadow Kyrii. Sara got a pet that reminded Kanine of a Xweetok somewhat, but with larger ears and an even larger bow around his waist. He looked very pale in the moonlight. Like the Kyrii, she would later learn it was a striped Usul.
Her two friends and their new training partners walked away to find a place to spend the night. In the morning, they would begin to train together, getting used to each other’s ways and equipment. Kanine stood in a dwindling group of older Unis, unsure what to make of her situation. She felt so calm, but at the same time so uncertain about what the future would hold. Oh—what had she gotten herself into!
“Are you Kanine?” asked a sharp female voice in front of her.
“Why, yes,” said Kanine, a new panic arising within her as a strange pet with large feet, long ears, and a few spikes down her back held out a paw. Kanine raised her hoof awkwardly to shake it.
“Daze,” said the pet, by way of introduction. “Where are we going?”
“I thought, um, the field just beyond this one would be a good place to start,” said Kanine bashfully. Now that she was with this strange pet she seemed unable to articulate in her usually thoughtful way.
“Sounds good to me,” said Daze, hefting her pack over one shoulder and picking up her armor with her free hand, “Let’s go.”
Kanine stood still only a moment after Daze took off the way she had indicated, before rushing to catch up to her long stride. Wow, this girl was efficient! Kanine found herself following her lead, even though it was she who knew the way best to the field. When Daze dropped her pack, said a solid goodnight, and fell right asleep on the ground, Kanine was left awake a while longer.
Under the harsh light of the high moon, Kanine lay down nearby her new partner, looked up at the stars and wondered what in Neopia she was getting herself into.
To be continued...