The road had been straight and shadeless for most of the morning, and Zhanh arrived at a boundary copse shortly before noon with a huge sigh. He dropped his pack, set his back against the largest tree, and prepared to have some lunch. He began by pulling out his handkerchief and then drawing the dagger in his belt sheath, being careful not to touch any part of the dagger with his bare skin. He stood the dagger in the ground within easy reach, and glanced at it occasionally as he collected his food and water.
The dagger was a problem. It was a beautiful thing, a forearm long with a minimal guard, the whole apparently carved from a single piece of ivory. It wasn't ivory, or carved, for that matter; it was alicorn. It was lighter than water, and harder, stronger, and more flexible than steel; it had been shaped by magic from the horn of a unicorn, because no known tool could effect it at all. It was also haunted.
It turned out that unicorns carried their souls in their horns, and that after they died, they could choose to remain in their horns as long as they wished, and they had magic to make their lives as ghosts fairly tolerable. They could communicate, and share limited sensory information, with anyone whose flesh touched the alicorn. They could bond with a willing partner and have easier communication, and better senses, and the partner would then have access to the unicorn's healing and persuasion spells, and the combat abilities of the alicorn.
Or at least that was the way the ghost in question told the story. Zhanh had no particular reason to doubt him, except that he was a supernatural creature who was trying to talk Zhanh into making a lifetime bond, and THAT set all of Zhanh's alarm bells ringing. Unfortunately, there was no way to determine the truth without making the commitment FIRST.
There was also the fact that, even if everything the unicorn claimed were true, Zhanh had grave doubts about establishing a long term relationship with this particular personality. Fiddler, as he called himself-- he said the name came from a fiddle shaped mark that had adorned his nose in life-- was a typical unicorn, to the best of Zhanh's knowledge. That is, he was arrogant, vain, self-centered, and relentlessly lecherous. On the positive side, though, he had a decent sense of humor that included an ability to laugh at himself, and he knew a great many good stories, and he told them well. Zhanh found that he liked the ghost fairly well, in small doses, but a lifetime partnership was another matter altogether.
Of course, if Zhanh didn't accept the bond, there was the matter of what to do with the dagger. Burying it or otherwise removing it from circulation would be cruel to Fiddler. Selling the dagger had an appeal that faded on examination. It was certainly a valuable thing, and he was long past tired of being poor, but Zhanh suspected that it might be so valuable that he would himself end up dead before the sale could be transacted. There was also the probability that the high bidder would be some sort of crazy collector who would put the dagger in a glass case on a shelf, which would once again be cruel to Fiddler.
Fiddler's own first choice would be for Zhanh to give the dagger to a young woman who was just setting out on the Glory Road. That had a certain appeal, except that Fiddler's love of story telling had revealed that he had been down that path several times already, both as unicorn and ghost, and that it always ended with the woman being completely dominated by the unicorn, and dying in some pointlessly heroic manner. Zhanh didn't want to take responsibility for that.
Zhanh finished his lunch and packed his things, then picked up the dagger with his bare hand. "Hello, Fid," he said.
"Hello, Zhanh," the answer echoed in his mind. "Where and when are we now, and is anything happening?"
"Ten miles and four hours away from last time," Zhanh answered. "We could be in Khazan by midnight, but the gates will be long closed by then. I intend to camp around sunset, and arrive in the city about this time tomorrow."
"And then?" Fiddler asked.
Zhanh shook his head. "I have no idea. Life goes on. Or at least existence, in your case."
The ghost emitted a psychic snort. "You owe me a brothel."
Zhanh sighed. "I owe you no such thing. I might just buy some gold wire, tie you to a rock, and throw you into the harbor."
Another snort. "You couldn't afford it. And I would find a mermaid, and engineer a way to pay you back."
Zhanh grinned. "You really think you would be willing to associate with the kind of mermaid who lives in Khazan harbor?"
There was a pause, and then Fiddler said, "Necessity makes for toxic bedfellows."
Zhanh laughed. "And on that note, the road calls. Until next time." He sheathed the dagger, rose to his feet, and shouldered his pack.
Sunset found him on the edge of a small town; he couldn't really afford an inn, and decided to keep walking until he found a place where he could camp with a reasonable chance of being undisturbed. Another hour brought him to another boundary copse, and he cut through it and began to set up his camp under the tree furthest from the road.
"This will do nicely," said a voice in the darkness as Zhanh finished taking off his boots. "Leave your things where they are, drop your purse and that dagger on the bedroll, and keep walking."
Zhanh located the source of the voice and sent a tendril of magic at the thief, preparatory to launching something deadly, but the magic wouldn't connect. Zhanh dropped his hand to the dagger.
"Figured you for a wizard," said the thief. "Nobody travels alone in these parts without magic. But I've got me a Mage's Blight, and that means you do what I say."
Zhanh clenched his teeth and tried not to panic. He hadn't encountered a Mage's Blight before, and had no contingency planned. Fighting without magic wasn't an option; the thief out-weighed him by 50 pounds, had a sword, and wore a mail shirt. And Zhanh had never been much of a fighter in any case. But trying to survive while broke and barefoot was almost a death sentence as well.
"We can take him," came Fiddler's voice. "Take the bond, and touch him with the blade. His little charm won't even slow my magic down." Zhanh rose to his feet, and drew the dagger.
"You are NOT thinking of fighting me, Little Wizard," said the thief. "You are NOT. I will kill you, and I will make sure that you don't die fast, or easy."
"Are you certain?" Zhanh said aloud.
"Yes," said the thief with a sneer.
"Yes," said Fiddler, and Zhanh could hear a trace of bloodlust in the ghost's voice.
"Yes," said Zhanh, and he dropped into his best fighter's crouch; he felt a flare of magic, and his perception shifted slightly.
Zhanh was outclassed. His opponent was heavier, stronger, better trained, and better armed than he was, though Zhanh was just a touch faster. That small edge in speed made the difference. They engaged briefly, accomplished nothing, broke off, engaged again. Zhanh dodged a feint to his weak side, and was taken by surprise by a drawing stroke on the return. Pain flared in his left side, but he managed to catch the thief's wrist with the dagger blade as he was being cut. Magic flared, and they disengaged again.
Zhanh clamped his left arm against the gash in his side, and looked at his opponent. The man's right arm dangled boneslessly at his side. His sword trailed in the dirt, dangling from a lanyard from the man's wrist. His eyes were wide and frightened, but he still held a dagger in his left hand.
"Run," Zhanh growled, feigning ferocity he did not feel. "Run, and I will let you live." The thief hesitated a moment, and then staggered away; his sword fell to the ground after a few yards, and he did not stop to retrieve it. Zhanh followed him to the edge of the road, and then leaned heavily against a tree trunk.
"Well, Partner," he said softly, "I believe that you said something about healing magic?"
I have been working on this story as my primary writing project since I finished "The Oakbridge Oak", nearly ten months ago. I have written every word of this story in the last week. Such is the nature of my affliction. A great deal of material has come and gone along the way, most of it dialog. Sometimes it really IS better to tell it than to show it.
This is my second experiment with the idea of "haunted alicorn dagger". The first, in "Storybook Orc", went unfinished with the rest of that story. This one, who knows? I have other Zhanh tales to tell, at any rate. And there is still the (dim) possibility of a contemporary fantasy in which the holder of the dagger is female. For today, I have finished a story, and that is enough.
Edited to change the main character's name from "Plimsoll" to "Zhanh". 12/27/2015