Unicorn country

On Mondays I post background material on the Shine Cycle, my fantasy series in preparation.

Ephemia, a character I’ll post a profile of in a week or two, spends most of her history in “unicorn country.” That allusion would probably merely fly by or confuse most of you, so I’d like to expand on it at some length now. I think the original idea for this was sparked by Karen Baker when I was in eighth grade; thanks!

“Unicorn country” is a small country—I haven’t decided whether it’s a medium-size island tucked away a couple of thousand miles to the north of the two continents or merely alone in its universe like the peninsula in “A Backwater Rebellion”—that is discovered by the Shine and Wild Empire only four years after the arrival of the Chosen. It has been known to the Dragon Empire for several decades.

The country is somewhat mountainous and blanketed with dense, lush evergreen forests. Its climate is rather cold, enough that there are even a few valleys where snow rarely melts, but still easily habitable. It is home to perhaps a couple of thousand people.

Many of the people of the country live a nomadic life, moving through the forests without making any permanent encampments. But far more people live in and around towns fortified with strong walls and protected by imposing castle-like fortifications, called the Manors. Another segment of the population of the country lives in semi-permanent fortified camps. These are the people associated with one of the unique features of the country: the unicorns.

The unicorns of unicorn country are similar in many ways to what we think of in our legends (and to those known elsewhere in the world of the Shine Cycle), but are also markedly different. They are equine creatures, standing on average 16 hands high, with a brilliant white horn at least three feet long. Their coats vary in color from a dark gray to a pure white.

Unicorns (these and all unicorns) are very intelligent creatures, capable of thinking, reasoning, acting on their own or in cooperation with others, and of understanding human speech and language. Further, in this kind of unicorns, foals within a month after their birth, and on rare occasions adults, can form an empathic partnership with a human being of pure heart. A unicorn with such a partner, or whose partner has died, has various metaphysical powers for the protection, healing, and defense of the unicorn, its rider, and others.

When the Dragon Empire discovered this country, it planted a colony of evil dragons nearby with instructions to attack, invade, and try to conquer or at least occupy it every so often. The society of the country has developed in the shadow of that threat: other than the nomads, who aim to avoid any trouble by not being found, the society is rather hierarchical and more militaristic than one might otherwise expect.

The unicorn riders and their followers, who work and train to support them, live in the forests in semipermanent fortified halls that they could fall back to at need, but they are highly organized, forming a military force during the periodic invasions and an auxiliary police force in peacetime.

Within the towns there are at least three independent hierarchies: of military and political leadership within the Manors, of leadership within the craft-halls (similar to medieval guilds, but somewhat less closed and restrictive—and the pressures, economic and otherwise, that affect them are not the same as those that affect guilds in the Shine and Wild Empire), and of mages. The mages (who call themselves “the Master’s Servants”) are organized independently because even in the shadow of impending disaster political power tends to corrupt, and they need organization because they tend to be individually quite weak. (And their power tends toward healing and defensive workings anyway.) When Christianity is introduced (after the Shine and Wild Empire discovers the country), the Church forms another independent hierarchy.

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