The roar of thundering hooves reverberated within Autumn's soul. Her black, shoulder length hair swirled around in wild disarray as her horse streaked through the forest.
"Good girl!" Autumn whispered to Moonbeam, gently stroking her silky mane. The mare responded by lightly leaping a small creek and dodging several low-hanging branches.
The year was 1142. Autumn and her magnificent horse were on a mission. She had a message from the Emperor to deliver to General Yue Fei, whose northern expedition force was winning battle after battle against the rebellious enemy soldiers of the Jin.
Though the Generalís camp was more than a dayís ride away, Autumn had promised to deliver the Emperorís message before sunset. She hoped she would not be too late. "Faster, Moonbeam! Fly like the wind."
They had already covered more than half of the distance to the front lines. Moonbeam had a smile on her finely sculpted equine face. If horses could talk, would she be saying: Autumn, thank you for allowing my spirit to run free?
Moonbeam was by far the most powerful horse in the kingdom and Autumn was honoured to ride her. Autumn allowed herself a brief moment to relive the scene of her departure. The Emperor's words would be forever etched on her mind. "The fate of our country rests with these twelve brave heroes," he had solemnly proclaimed.
"I won't let you, or the people, down," Autumn had promised.
The other eleven riders had been left behind many hours ago. Autumn pulled out her map and checked for the landmarks she needed to follow. A diamond-shaped peak was her next goal. Ah, there it was, straight ahead. A fast-moving river was suddenly in front of them. Moonbeam hit the water and barrelled through, never slowing her pace.
"That's my girl," Autumn breathed into Moonbeam's right ear.
The icy waters poured into Autumn's soft leather riding boots and quickly froze her feet. Moonbeam's powerful legs found traction on the sandy riverbed and out of the water they leapt. Autumn spotted the narrow pass they had to use to get over the mountains. She gently steered Moonbeam in the right direction using light tapping movements with her feet.
As they sped through the pass, small rocks tumbled down from the unstable slope above her. Something sharp struck Autumn on the right arm and she winced in pain. She wrapped the reins tightly in her left hand and calmed her breathing so she could ignore the burning sensation in her right biceps.
Moonbeam launched herself out of the mountain pass like a forcefully discharged cannonball and they scrambled down the winding trail to the forest below.
"Slowww!" Autumn commanded several minutes later. The trees in the forest were denser here, almost like a wall.
The forest parted in front of them and Autumn found herself entering a moss-covered glen. Moonbeamís ears perked up, and Autumn pulled sharply on the reins to stop her.
"What is it, girl?" Autumn asked. The hushed silence of the clearing was unnerving.
There was a small emerald green pool of water in the middle of the glen. Autumn gently coaxed the horse towards it.
Moonbeam looked nervously back and forth as she leaned over to drink from the pond. Autumn pulled out her flask to do the same.
There was a slight shimmering in the air and suddenly an animal appeared. It floated gracefully over the pond.
Moonbeam peered anxiously back at Autumn. "It's okay, Moonbeam," she whispered softly, entranced by the quiet majesty of the beast before her.
It had the body of a goat with the shaggy tail of an ox. Its under-belly was yellowish and the rest of its body was multicoloured, having five of the most gay and perfect colours: red, yellow, blue, white, and black.
It was a zhi, the legendary Chinese unicorn, the most auspicious of all the animals. Zhi were often associated with the delivery of premonitions that would soon come true.
Autumn finally found her nerve. "My name is Autumn Jade and this is my horse Moonbeam. I'm sorry if we've disturbed you."
The zhi looked directly into her eyes. The voice Autumn heard within her own mind was sweet and delicate, like the ringing of a small silver bell.
"One will die so another may live. Remember, a messenger is only as truthful as the one who creates the message . . . "
"But what do you mean?" Autumn began, but the air was shimmering again. The zhi disappeared as quickly as it had come. The sounds of chirping birds and buzzing insects suddenly filled the air.
"Let's get out of here!"
Moonbeam required no further urging. Her pounding hooves chewed up the moss as she charged headlong through the forest.
"Almost there, itís just a little further," Autumn sighed. She could see signs of the General's army on the other side of the valley. One last hard push and they'd be there!
The final hour was a weary blur. Autumn was finding it difficult to ignore the growing pain in her upper arm. After what seemed like an eternity, she pulled up as the rear sentries challenged her approach.
"The eagle flies over the kingdom!" Autumn shouted out the Emperor's pass code. "I carry an urgent message for General Yue Fei."
Moonbeam walked quietly through the encampment, a light sweat glistening on her spotted coat. Soldiers looked up from where they were resting to observe the magnificent animal and her beautiful rider. Autumn quickly found her way to the General's tent.
She dismounted and hugged Moonbeam's broad chest. "You're the best horse a girl could ever have hoped for," she said. Autumn passed through the front flaps of the tent and waited to hand the message cylinder to the General.
The General nodded for Autumn to approach. He unrolled the scroll and began cursing. The message was an edict from the Emperor ordering the General to avoid the decisive battle and withdraw to the South. The General stared long and hard at Autumn. This was the same man who was said to have defeated an enemy 500,000 strong with only 800 soldiers. Autumn suddenly saw that her message was not what the General wanted to hear.
"I judge you to be an innocent pawn in all of this." The General dropped the scroll and crushed it under his boot heel. "I will be ignoring the Emperor's wishes in this matter. It would appear that the treacherous Emperor and his jealous Prime Minister want my head on a pole, but Iím not going to make it quite so easy for them. I plan on winning this final battle as a gift to the Chinese people. You may go."
A shocked Autumn quickly left the tent. The zhiís message suddenly made sense to her. If the General was correct, he was an unwitting victim of political treachery, and Autumnís valiant ride had been for nothing. The pain in her right arm was almost too much to bear. Autumn decided to look after Moonbeam and then tend to herself. They both had a well-deserved rest coming, even if her journey had been pointless.
* * *
I awoke from a sound sleep, the remnants of the dream still fresh in my mind. "Ouch!" I cried out. My Australian Shepherd dog, Watson, was still enthralled in his own dream world. One of his hind toe nails was digging into my right arm. That explained part of my dream, anyway!
Over the course of the summer, my vivid dreams of a baby abandoned on the docks of old Shanghai had gradually been replaced by epic stories of battles from long ago and other dreams about China's magnificent history.
I'd been doing a lot of reading while my leg was mending, most recently about how Emperor Gaozong had sent his General twelve orders to stop the war within a single day. General Yue Fei had no alternative but to obey or else be charged with insubordination. Unfortunately for him, Emperor Gaozong and his Prime Minister had already surrendered to the Jin. They falsely accused the General of treachery. At the age of 39, General Yue Fei was executed while in prison. Not really a cheerful story to be dreaming about!
I rubbed Watson's exposed belly. "Come on, you big lump, time to get up. We have a lot to do today."
My friend Vanessa and I were leaving the next day for two weeks on Mayne Island. We were helping out at a real horse ranch! I quickly dressed, took care of Watsonís toe nails, and then headed down for breakfast.