Levani heard the shout of her master and threw herself into the harness. She pulled with her whole mind, her whole being, knowing that she alone could wrestle the giant log to the top of the mountain. When it reached the crest, it would be cut neatly and nailed together into more profitable goods.
“Good work Lev!” Jeremy shouted. Levani glowed with pleasure. It wasn’t quite the breathtaking awe her grand-dam could conjure up when she helped the humans, but a mention was nice.
Sure the humans could have pulled it, if there were several of them, but they would struggle all day long, and half of them would pass out before they were quite through. It was much easier for her to lend a helping hand. She heard another shout and stopped.
The loggers crowded around, hammering stakes into the loose soil so that some of the weight was taken off her. She rubbed her horn on her knee, polishing it to a higher luster and then arched her neck. No one would mistake her for a common filly now that her horn had developed, she thought proudly. Everyone would see that she was a unicorn, full grown.
“One more time Levani,” Jeremy said, and once more she lunged forward, glorying in her own strength. She was almost to the top, there would be only one more rest before it was there, and then they would quit. She would graciously accept gifts from the humans as she had seen her friends do countless times before, then disappear in the quiet way that they did. She hoped fervently that when the time came, they wouldn’t see Levani tripping over her own feet as she tried to slip away.
“Lunch break!” Someone called as she came to a stop once more.
The yard boss scowled. “Shouldn’t you have two blocks on that log?” He asked.
Jeremy shook his head. “The unicorn holds most of it; as long as she’s here we won’t need to use the other one.” He gave her a sloppy slap on her haunches. “You’ve helped us a good amount Lev, thanks!”
She had only been there for an hour, and they were already calling her Lev. What was it about her that made people so comfortable? No other unicorn was called by a nickname. Maybe the situations were a little too different, but surely manual labor for a logging boss was more impressive then healing talents on a king? It was more work anyway, that was for sure. Maybe she would look in on the logging boss’s wife. She’d been told that the woman had a cold, and she had sent Levani a bucket of cookies as soon as she had heard of the unicorn’s help. Anyone who made ginger snaps as good as Linda deserved healing.
She lifted her nose from the grain bucket and turned to her human friends to suggest it, but stopped when she saw their expressions. A familiar look had spread from one to the other. A look of wonder. She turned her head the other direction to see who it was.
Shavar was standing at the very edge of the woods, waiting. He did not need to say a word to the humans to get them to move. They hurried to put extra blocks down and strip the sweaty harness from her body. “Thanks Lev, we can manage from here,” Jeremy whispered to her as he pulled the collar off.
Levani dipped her head in acknowledgement and headed for the place where Shavar was standing. He tipped his ears back slightly when she came close enough to smell, and it made her flush in embarrassment. Unicorns were not supposed to sweat.
“Their logging horse was injured,” she said by way of explanation. “I offered to help them finish their days work.”
Shavar winced. “You wasted your day Levani. Those boys won’t throw garlands on you during the Good Works Festival. They don’t even go. You will never get on the junior council if you don’t win any garlands.”
Levani hung her head. “I know, but they really did need help. I’ll find someone who goes tomorrow.”
Shavar shook his head and walked into the forest without another word. After a moment Levani followed him, but she no longer felt good about herself. She hadn’t thought to ask whether the loggers went to the festival or not, and the other unicorns might not even think they were worth helping. Some of the unicorns did not like sharing the edges of their forest with the loggers.
Shavar stopped her just as they reached the communal clearing. “Don’t worry too much about it Levani, just do your best to look for a good person tomorrow. I’m sure if you tried you could find one.”
Levani nodded and watched Shavar push out of the bushes to join his friends. He seemed so confident about everything to do with the council, and Levani wished she could be just like him. She never seemed to get these things right.
One of his friends turned to look in her direction, and she quickly backed away from the clearing and towards her personal thicket. She needed time to think about just the right thing to do to earn garlands.
By the time the sun rose over the tops of the trees on the next day, she had made up her mind. She would go to the big city on the far side of the woods and solicit her talents there. Surely the city-goers went to the festival, and it would be unseemly to go and not thank her properly. It was the perfect way to catch up.
She left the unicorn clearings right after breakfast so that she would have plenty of time to visit the city and return through the deep woods before dark. Most of the unicorns passed through that section of forest on a daily basis, but no one really liked being there at night. It could get very spooky.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a banshee-like wail from deep in the brush. It was unlike anything she had ever heard before, and it rooted her to the spot. What sort of creature was lurking in the undergrowth? The sound came again, and suddenly a human child came stumbling out of the growth. It was running full tilt and it did not stop until it ran right into her knees. She caught Levani’s knees to steady herself, craned her neck to look up at her, and then began to cry.
Levani had never had to deal with a crying foal before, let alone a human one. She had not even the slightest idea of how to handle it. She observed the wailing child for the first couple of moments helplessly until one of the more piercing keens jarred her into a sense of action.
Awkwardly, she reached down and touched the child’s silken hair with her nose. What did one say to reassure a human? There, there, your fur will grow back soon?
The girl attached herself to Levani’s knees and only screamed louder. This time, at least her words made sense.
Levani was relieved. If she knew what the problem was she could fix it.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“I dunno,” the girl sniffled.
Levani wanted to stamp her foot impatiently, but the girl still had her knees locked together. “What does your house look like?”
“Like here, but with a house.”
How helpful. Levani put her ears back and tried to think of another way of wording her question. “Is there anything different about it?”
“Flowers. Lots of them.”
Levani gave the matter careful thought, and finally gave a small nod. “Yes, I think I know where you live. Would you like me to take you there?”
The girl put her thumb in her mouth (ghastly habit) and nodded. She still clung to Levani’s legs however, and after the child stumbled for the third time, Levani decided she would have to take action.
“Suppose you ride on my back?” She queried.
The child’s face split into a grin. “Ok!”
Levani knelt down in the cool moss and squished herself as flat as she could. Despite this, the girl ended up stepping on every tender part Levani had. “Ok pony!” She said when she finally settled.
Levani rose to her feet and began walking again. It was a lot faster, but she didn’t dare break into a trot for fear that the girl would fall right off. As it was she had to stop several times to let the child get her balance again.
It took them an hour to get to the flowering road even though it was only a mile from where they had begun. Once they got to it, finding the house was easy. The girl barely waited for Levani to lower herself before she flew off her back and ran into the house.
Levani supposed that they were having whatever joyous reunion that was necessary, and turned to go, but the girl came flying out only moments later. “They’re not here! I’m alone!”
Lev sighed. “You’re not alone. I’m still here. They’re probably out looking for you. I’ll stay with you until they get back.”
It was a long wait, but not an unpleasant one. The girl showed Levani around the grounds, and even let her look around the two room cottage as best as she could considering her size. The girl’s parents did not return until well after dark, looking so tired and exhausted that Lev could not help but feel glad that she had decided to stay instead of go to the city. They were overjoyed to see their daughter again, and hugged and patted Levani almost as much as the kid.
She was half way back to the unicorn camps before she realized she had not won any garlands that day either, and there was only one more day left till the fair.
Levani returned to the camp feeling depressed and annoyed. It seemed like every time she tried to do something good she was punished for it. To make matters worse, she couldn’t avoid her friends when she passed through the communal clearing.
“Hi Levani! Did you get any garlands today?” Deborah asked her as soon as Levani entered the field.
Levani did not know what to say. Deborah could not keep a secret. If she told Deborah about the girl all the other unicorns would know in a heartbeat. When was the last time a proper unicorn let someone lesser than a king sit on her back? No. She couldn’t tell Deborah.
“I didn’t make it to the city today,” she answered. “Something came up.”
Being too secretive with where she had gone was a mistake. Deborah’s eyes stretched wide with imagination. “What came up? You can tell me! I promise!”
Her shrill words caught the attention of the other young unicorns, and they came over to see what was going on. Their attentive expressions made her want to sink into the floor. Why did Deborah have to talk so loud?
“Not in front of everyone else,” she hissed before they came into earshot. Deborah glanced around as if seeing them for the first time. “You can tell me later,” she said before bounding across the clearing and into the forest.
“What was that all about?” Asked one of the new unicorns.
Levani gulped and tried to think up an excuse, but before she could say anything else Shavar was there.
“If Levani doesn’t want to tell you, I don’t see why it should be your business,” he said firmly, and with a gentle prod of her horn he herded her back towards their families clearing.
“Thanks Shavar,” Levani said in relief.
“Don’t thank me. All those unicorns are going to think you’re just lazy if you don’t get a garland soon. What stopped you this time?”
Levani knew Shavar wouldn’t laugh at the story, so she felt safe telling him about the girl, and waiting for her parents. She thought perhaps he would say the same thing he had about helping the loggers, but this time Shavar seemed sympathetic. “I wouldn’t have left a foal alone in the Deep Forest either,” he admitted. “It was kind of you to stay once you got her home. You should tell the Elders about it. They might give you an honorary garland.”
Levani thought it over, but then shook her head. “I don’t think the Elders like the festival much. They always find some reason to call one of the unicorns away so he or she can’t go to the festival. Maybe I’ll go this time. At least I won’t have to walk in the parade without a single flower to my name.”
There was a rustling in the bushes next to them, and Deborah’s head popped out. “I heard the whole thing! You’re not going to have a garland? I can’t believe it! Wait till I tell everyone!” And with another of her characteristic bounces, she was gone.
At that point, Levani wished the earth would open up and swallow her whole.
Shavar gave her a friendly nudge. “Don’t worry about Deborah. She’s only setting herself up for embarrassment. I’ll talk to the Elders if you won’t. Just stick it out.”
Levani felt grateful for Shavar’s confidence. “I’ll try.”
By the next morning, everyone knew Deborah’s version of what had happened. When Levani joined the other unicorns at the forest edge for breakfast, several of the lesser unicorns began to tease her.
They said things like, “Hey look. It’s Lazy Lev. Managed to get any garlands yet?” Or, “Are you going to take a nap in the deep forest, or are you going to actually do something?”
It was all meant in fun, mostly to show her that they knew her secret, but it still hurt Levani’s feelings. Deborah naturally was nowhere in sight. Levani guessed she didn’t want to feel Levani’s reproachful glances until her rumor mongering had died down.
This was her last day to get some kind of garland, and she knew already it would be too late. All the unicorns would be making their way to the city on this day, so they could be at the festival bright and early, and so they could gather last minute garlands from hopeful people waiting on the roadside.
Even now the Elders had put their noses together, and some of the early risers had finished eating and were lining up for the trek.
Levani didn’t feel very hungry after the constant teasing, but she didn’t want to line up until close to time to go, so she found Shavar and began grazing with him. No one would bother her with him around.
Shavar, oddly enough, didn’t say much at all. They ate together in companionable silence until it was almost time to go. Shavar had already graduated from the council, so he would not go again until he was old enough to join the regular council.
She lined up with the other unicorns, pleased that the call for silence had already been given. She watched quietly as the Elders assembled, and held her breath. Would the Elders have something for them to do?
“We need a volunteer to stay behind this year,” the Elder said. He looked around at the crowd of youth. “This time it would be useful if someone stepped forward.”
Levani’s heart beat faster when she heard the news. The Elder’s request was the perfect excuse to avoid the festival. She started to raise her head, and then noticed that not a single other unicorn had their horns raised. Fear stabbed her heart. What if everyone laughed at her for avoiding the fair? She held her head down too and saw several unicorns looking at her out of the corner of their eyes. Hah. She had been right!
“It is very important,” The elder added when no one stepped forward to claim the task. He turned his face in her direction, and felt the unicorns on each side of her squirm under his gaze. They both wanted to go, and they had a reason to go. Why should she prevent them when she didn’t?
Levani took a deep breath and stepped forward, raising her horn to indicate that she was willing to go.
To her relief, nobody stifled a snort when she was the only one to step forward. The Elder didn’t say anything either but gave her a minimal nod and indicated that she should follow him to the group of older unicorns.
“One of the fillies volunteered,” he said to the crowd as soon as they were within hearing distance. “I didn’t even have to pull the old rank trick to get ‘em moving.”
The other Elders looked at her, and Levani felt herself flush with embarrassment. If they only knew why she was coming. “What is it I’m supposed to do?” she asked to cover up her discomfort.
“There’s a fishing village north of here that has many sick. It’s quite a gallop. They sent a runner to us here in the forest asking for help, but the man was hardly fit for the trip either. We need you to carry him when we go help.”
“Can’t you just heal him?” Levani asked reluctantly. The child was one thing, but a full grown man on a proper unicorn’s back? It was undignified to say the least.
“We can heal his sickness yes, but he still needs to recover. His body is weak, and no amount of healing will return his vigor until he has rested. Will you carry him?”
Levani fidgeted under the Elder’s gaze and nodded. What else could she do?
“Good. Wait here until I’ve collected the herbs, and then we will go.”
He turned and began walking back the way he had come, then paused and turned his head. “The runner is over near the trees, if you wish to get acquainted.”
Levani looked where the Elder had motioned and saw a man with a tanned, salt-scrubbed appearance leaning against a tree. She sighed and began trudging over for a better look at the creature. Why did she always end up with the bad jobs?
He didn’t seem interested in her presence till she was almost on top of him. Then his first reaction was to put his hand up to block the sun while he regarded her. “Are you the unicorn who will be taking me back?”
Levani gave a somewhat doubtful nod. “How far is it anyway?” she asked.
“About thirty miles. I’m afraid they’ve made a mistake. It’s a difficult road, and I’m not sure you’d be able to make it and carry me.”
Levani tilted her ears back in resentment. He did look heavy, but he had been sick when he made the journey. It couldn’t be that hard. “How did you get here?” she asked, eyeing the extreme stillness of his body.
The man gave a tiny smile, as if guessing her thoughts. “I rode in a boat. It’s not so hard if you take the river, and the current is gentle. Unfortunately it won’t carry me back.”
Levani thought that over. “There are no other unicorns to take you. They are all at the festival,” she said at last.
“Well we’ll just have to do our best then,” the fisherman answered. He closed his eyes as if that finished the conversation, but Levani remained where she was, mulling it over.
“Perhaps I could pull the boat,” she said after a moment.
The man opened his eyes again. “How?”
“Stay a moment, and I will see.”
Without another word, she turned and ran back the way she had come. A few of the Elders turned to watch her go, but oddly enough no one said anything. It didn’t matter anyway; they would see what she was up to soon enough.
She quickly made her way through the unicorn campsites and down the trail she had come up the first time she had visited the logging camps. Would they even still be there?
They were still there, unhitching the horse and getting ready to go home for the day. Jeremy looked up when he saw her and smiled. “Hello Lev! Weren’t you supposed to be at a festival?”
Levani flushed. “I couldn’t go. The Elders want me to take a man back to his village. He is too heavy for me to carry, but I am good at pulling. If I could borrow your harness–?”
“Of course. We’re almost done with it anyway. Try to bring it back before dawn though, ok Lev?”
“If not, I can always help you more!” Levani answered cheerfully. “Thanks Jeremy!”
“Any time girl,” he answered. He picked up the harness and even helped put it on her. “How are you going to get this attached to the boat?”
Levani paused for a moment. “I don’t know. I’m sure we will think of something.”
Jeremy grinned. “Don’t bother. I’ll come help you hook it up. You’ve been very kind to us.”
Levani looked around to make sure the forest was still deserted before giving Jeremy a quick hug. “Thank you. That would be a big help. Let’s go!”
Jeremy walked a lot slower than Levani wanted to go, but they got back to the Elder’s clearing in fairly good time. Levani held her breath. Would they be angry for her leaving?
The Elders looked at her curiously. “What is all that for?”
“To pull the fisherman’s boat,” Levani explained. “It wouldn’t be good if he left it here anyway. Jeremy is going to help tie the harness to the boat.”
The fisherman smiled. “That is a good idea, unicorn. Thank you.”
The Elder said something along the lines of ‘humph,’ but let the whole thing pass. “If you’re going in a boat then, you can carry the herbs too. I suppose you know where it is?”
Levani looked at the fisherman, and the man took the cue, and slowly got to his feet. “It’s this way. I tied it as soon as I saw the forest.”
The Elder nodded, and the group walked through the forest until the fisherman indicated a small brown boat pulled up onto the shore. “That’s it. Do you really think you can pull it unicorn?”
Jeremy frowned. “Her name is Levani.”
“I don’t know, but if the trip is as hard as you say it is this boat will make it a lot easier.” She raised her head in pride. “I can pull much better than I can carry things. Just ask Jeremy.”
Jeremy only grinned at that, and went to investigate the boat. “We can hook you up right here Lev, just back up to it so I can get at those straps.”
Levani did as she was instructed, and quite soon they had connected her to the boat and pushed it so that it was floating in the water. She could feel the current tugging pleasantly at her, but nothing much more. She turned her head to look at the fisherman. “Ready?”
He nodded and got into the boat, taking the herbs the Elder dumped into his boat. “Yes, ready.”
Levani nodded and lowered her head so that she could pull with all her might. She almost pulled herself into a heap. The boat slid easily across the water, much easier than a log moved across the ground, even with the current tugging at her legs and the thing she pulled.
Relief clouded her mind, and she turned to watch the Elders as they began following slowly in their wake. “Does it stay like this all the way?” she asked the fisherman.
“Yes. It is not so hard this way because it is very nearly flat, and, while it curves, it does not have to go out of its way to find a pass through the mountains. It is the pass.”
The fisherman was right. It turned out to be a fairly easy ‘road’ from the forest to the village, and, though her hooves were soft from the water by the time she finally climbed out, she wasn’t too tired to hold the boat still while the fisherman pulled it up and unhooked her. Her legs felt incredibly light after she stepped from the water and freed them from the icy drag of the current.
She skipped around experimentally, and then hurried to help the Elders when they gave her an annoyed look and began collecting bundles.
Everyone still walking in the village came out to greet the unicorns and the fisherman who had bravely made the journey to get them. They cheered and, to Levani’s surprise, threw flowers for them. She glanced at the Elders, but they seemed to take it all in stride.
Levani helped the Elders heal the sick. She herself did not yet have the strength to heal much, but she delivered the herbs to the medicine woman in case someone got sick while they were gone and helped bring the sick to where the Elders were working.
The village thanked the Elders in almost the same way the parents of the girl she had found had.
When they left, Levani had a lot to think about. Was earning a lot of garlands really what made a unicorn become so powerful?
The elder who had directed her the entire time came up to walk beside her as they followed the river back. “Shavar spoke to me about getting you an honorary garland. Do you still want one?”
Levani shook her head. “One garland won’t get me on the junior council, and I don’t want to get teased even more by my friends. They’ve all got dozens of garlands.”
“Those young whippersnappers don’t know anything about being a unicorn,” the Elder grumbled. “All they do is prance around wasting their time with training exercises. It’ll be moons before they realize they’ve trotted down the wrong path to glory.”
Levani stared at the Elder, even though she knew it was not polite. “What do you mean?”
“Garlands are just to teach young unicorns how to give. They can’t give without the reward. Unicorns can only be promoted from the junior council after they have learned to give without a reward. We give a special chance for the youngsters to do so every year, and you’re the first one who’s ever done it. You let your friends talk about their junior council memberships. They’ll be very surprised when they find out you’re going to the meetings with Shavar.”
Levani came to an abrupt halt when the Elder had finished speaking, too stunned to move. The old unicorn took no notice however and continued on his way without as much as a backward glance.
She felt the prod of an impatient horn behind her and scrambled to her place in the group at once, her mind a dizzying whirl of activity. Had she actually been right all along? It seemed too good to be true, but when she thought it over more carefully she understood. It wasn’t the garlands that made their gifts the right thing to do.
Her heart lightened as she discovered this, and she danced a couple steps in joy until the Elders reprimanded her for splashing them with water. She didn’t mind. She hadn’t messed up after all. She was a good unicorn.