Almost exactly a year after that day, when Elsbeth, now seven came with her, Maven found them by the stream near the grotto where the sheep were watering. Elsbeth liked to dance through the clearing. In truth, Elsbeth liked to dance as much as she hated to cook.
“Come along,” Maven said. “Bring your sheep up to the meadow. I have special treats for you today.”
“Elsbeth.” Margueritte called, but Elsbeth did not answer. Margueritte stepped to the clearing and reached out while Elsbeth danced. She took hold of Elsbeth’s scarf and pulled, expecting her sister to come along, but the scarf came free and Elsbeth stuck out her tongue as she continued to pirouette across the grass.
“She’ll be along when she’s hungry enough,” Maven said, as she turned to climb up out of the hollow. Margueritte shrugged but held on to Elsbeth’s scarf as she took her crop to drive the sheep to the meadow. Her old dog followed but he did not really help. He was more of a hunting hound than a sheep dog, and of an age where he had a hard-enough time getting himself up the hill without trying to drive sheep as well.
Atop the hollow, on the meadow’s edge, Maven huffed and puffed right along with the dog. Margueritte smiled as the sheep spread out to graze. “What special treats?” She asked, not really expecting an immediate answer.
“Heavy ones.” Maven feigned her need to sit and rest, as she always did.
“Well, as long as they weren’t cooked by Elsbeth, I am sure they will be good.” Margueritte joked, mostly to herself.
No sooner had Maven set down her burden by the old oak, and the dog prepared to curl up in his usual spot, a scream from Elsbeth pierced the air. Margueritte turned. Maven looked ashen and the dog perked up his ears.
“Elsbeth!” Margueritte shouted, but Elsbeth screamed again, and then a third time as Margueritte began to run. Maven waddled after as fast as she could, and the old dog paced Margueritte and began to bark wildly at something unknown. Elsbeth screamed again, but the scream echoed from some distance downstream. Margueritte and her dog turned to follow, but Maven raised her voice, and that alone was so unusual it made Margueritte stop in her tracks.
“Hold where you are!” Maven shouted as she puffed up the last few steps. “Someone’s taken her, that is certain, and I’ll not have you follow and get lost or taken yourself. Quickly, now, home to your father. Let him raise the men to follow proper and be quick. The quicker, the better.”
“No,” Margueritte protested and turned after her sister, but Maven grabbed her by her arm.
“I’ll not argue. And I’ll not lose you, too,” Maven said, sternly.
“But the sheep.” Margueritte reminded her. Maven paused and looked toward the meadow. “I’ll not leave them.” Margueritte pressed her words. “And I’ll have Ragnar with me to protect me.” She pointed at the dog.
Maven spat at the dilemma, but she let go and began to waddle at top speed toward the triangle, saving only enough breath to shout back. “You better be here and safe when your father comes, or it will be my life.” She knew the risks.
Margueritte did not really know what to do. “Elsbeth,” she breathed. She knew, especially if the kidnappers were on horseback, they were well out of her reach by then. She turned slowly, the dog panting beside her, and climbed back to the meadow with her head hung low. When she arrived, however, a surprise greeted her. The sheep were gone, everyone. Look as she might, she found neither sight nor sound of any of them. She wanted to cry, and might have, if a voice in her head had not said, “Leave them alone and they’ll come home.”
“Wagging their tales behind them,” Margueritte said out loud in a flat voice while she fingered the cloth in her hand. The dog barked. Margueritte took a closer look at Elsbeth’s scarf, the dog, and had an idea.
They went back to the stream and she rubbed the scarf all over the poor old hound’s nose. She repeated the word, “Elsbeth,” as she did. Then she let go, pointed downstream and tucked the scarf into her dress. “Elsbeth.” She said it again, several times. The dog was slow but got it in the end. He began to sniff the ground, round and round where Elsbeth danced, and he snorted several times at what was probably a strange scent before he at last settled on a direction. The dog trotted, and Margueritte had to trot along to keep up. A good hour passed before Margueritte wished she had brought some of Maven’s dinner with her, and another hour before she absolutely had to stop and rest.
“Thank the Lord you are old and can hardly move fast,” she said, as she patted Ragnar’s nappy head. He had never wavered in his trail. They left the stream behind and headed right through the woods called the Banner. These were much wilder and untouched than the woods of Vergen. There were no roads here at all, and no sign at all of human encroachment. The terrible rocky soil made it impossible to farm, and the ridges of rock that broke it up made it worse. The greatest ridge was Banner Bein, and people said it was full of caves where kings of old were buried. This was not a place Margueritte wanted to be alone in the dark, but as it turned only an hour or two beyond noontide, Margueritte imagined she had plenty of time yet before she should have to worry.
“Okay.” She got again to her feet and gave the dog another good whiff of Elsbeth’s scarf. “Time to move. Elsbeth,” she said. “Elsbeth,” she repeated, and then she realized that two hours of her own dress pressed against the scarf might have the poor beast confused. Still, he picked up a scent of some kind and started out, and Margueritte stayed right behind.
At one particularly rocky place, the dog stopped. It appeared to be confused. They were in a small dip covered with eons of fallen leaves. All around were rock facings, boulders of various sizes, some that seemed to grow right out of the ground along with the trees, both birch and pine.
Margueritte screamed several times while dog and bear went at each other. The dog got a good hold of the bear’s shoulder with his old jaws, but the bear knocked him off and with a great paw swipe and sent the dog into the nearest boulder. Fortunately, the bear seemed to have had enough and rushed off down the hill to lick its wounds. The dog, however, did not move when Margueritte fell on it. The dog stopped breathing, and Margueritte began to cry as her foolishness suddenly came to mind with a vengeance. She had gotten herself utterly lost in the Banner, and it would be dark soon enough. She became wracked in tears, and for Elsbeth as much as herself, and she stayed that way, crying on the poor dog’s face until something rather sharp poked her in the side.
Margueritte jumped back. She thought for a brief instant that the bear had returned, and her quick motion almost frightened off the beast. It pranced a little but settled down to stare at the girl with sad, deep-set and intelligent eyes. The one, long horn that grew from its’ forehead looked silver in color, while the beast looked white, yet the horn sparkled ever so slightly, and the beast glowed a bit in the shadow of the trees. This told Margueritte that this was a creature not entirely of this world.
“Will you help me?” Margueritte asked, with great hope in her voice, and never doubted for once that the unicorn would understand exactly what she asked.
The unicorn nodded and shook little sparkles from its mane. It lowered one leg to invite the maid to ride. Margueritte did not hesitate. Faith guided her. She got up on the unicorn’s back and immediately the unicorn started out at a gentle pace.
“Are we going to Elsbeth?” Margueritte asked. The unicorn nodded again and Margueritte said “Thank you,” and cried some more into the unicorn’s glorious mane.
Another hour passed of up-hill and down, through the trees and across unexpected meadows. One meadow showed signs of a recent fire, which might have been a ritual fire of some kind. Margueritte did not want to look too closely.
At last they came to the face of a rock outcropping on Banner Bein and stopped. Margueritte got the message and slipped off the unicorn’s back. She faced the rocks and saw writing of some kind, but it looked like runes—clearly pre-Roman. She squinted at it, but the runes made no sense except for one name: Danna, Danu or Don, depending on the accent. “This is the place where kings are buried,” Margueritte said and the unicorn nodded and stomped its’ foot. “And where gods of old were buried in the time of dissolution,” she added, and again the unicorn nodded and stomped. “But how may I get in?” She asked and stepped aside while the unicorn stepped up. The unicorn touched the very name of Don and stepped back. Something creaked, groaned, and it sounded like rocks scraping against rocks, but slowly a door opened in the hillside. The opening stood ten feet tall and eight feet wide.