by Shannon Leasara Robertson
©2009 Shannon Leasara Robertson
Its difficult to tell exactly where this story starts, though it did begin with an immortal being immeasurable years before mankind would find their way to her land. The unicorn, by most estimations, was a happy creature. She watched the seasons pass while tending to the land and the animals that made their home within it. Her joy was found simply in the raising of a new sapling or the mending of a squirrels wound and the relief that brought the frightened animal. After such a long life, the only thing that ever gave her pause to wonder was the relief sometimes visible in other creatures around an injured compatriot. Over a time more easily measured by her trees than by those that lived in their boughs, this wonder grew into active curiosity. What was it, exactly, that could cause such distress in an uninjured creature? They seemed to have some sort of affinity for each other, a kind of emotional bond, which was obviously part of the answer. Therefore, to better understand the phenomenon, she began spending more time in the forms of the creatures whose well-being she oversaw.
Given her long and detailed memory, she could truthfully say she had always enjoyed taking on other forms. However, where she might once have spent only a few hours wheeling through the sky or cold evenings deep in a rabbit burrow, she now began spending weeks and months living among various communities of her fellow forest residents, the foremost thought in her mind being that she might be able to discover the root of the strange occurrence. For the most part, the other forest dwellers she joined kept her at a quiet distance, the way they always had. Some seemed to do it out of fear; others out of a kind of respect that she had learned to accept in spite of disliking it. Of course, the young among these groups were as much fun as they ever were. In fact, they even started to develop a kind of friendship with her that she imagined might be similar to the cause of the shared distress, though it was obviously not the root itself.
With the friendships she forged among the young, it should have come as no surprise when one of her new acquaintances, a raccoon, began to draw closer to her than most. He was well out of adolescence, but retained the playfulness and irreverence of his youth; both qualities she found quite refreshing, almost charming. The unicorn had been aware of him for some time before they actually met. She had been staying with a hare that was his friend, and the bunny introduced them. After that, it was a startlingly short period of time before they formed a fast friendship, and even more suddenly that they drew much closer.
As it happened, a lone wolf came through the vale late one evening. While the unicorn and her rabbit friend were safely away, the raccoon had a very narrow escape. When he recounted the tale later, she could feel the pall of genuine fear for her dear friend; the unwelcome sensation closed around her heart, even though three weeks had passed before she heard the story. Fear was in a category of emotions that she had never come close to experiencing. She found it very unsettling, and wasnt certain what she might have done had he actually been injured beyond her ability to mend. Finally she understood the shared pain but she was too concerned for the raccoons health to rejoice in her discovery the way shed imagined at the outset of her little experiment.
The shock left her rattled for weeks. She knew the raccoon was as well as he had ever been physically, but he was visibly shaken by the memory every now and again. The healer in her longed to be able to soothe his pain as easily as a a pass of her horn over an injury could mend flesh. If she could, she would make it as if the wolf had never visited their little valley and that thought worried her, as well. For her home was all the land, in all its vast entirety; never before had she felt as though she belonged to any one place within it. From the ocean on one side to the ocean on the other, from the ice in the North, where the trees grew no taller than her shoulder, through to the narrows where the two oceans almost met before being driven apart again, she would wander it all and knew every aspect of the land that had passed under hoof. She had traveled and tended to the needs of the land since she first became aware in the far reaches of the North. There had been others with her then, but each of them was imbued with the knowledge that they were guardians and cultivators of Life, and each was drawn by primal instinct to separate areas of the world that would need their influence. Now, after all the innumerable years, she was torn between the duty she had assumed at birth and a surprisingly powerful impulse to stay in the dell shed shared for such a short time.
And she did stay. At first, she told herself she was merely making sure the raccoon really was uninjured. That same excuse also served to allow her more and more time spent in the raccoons company, speaking with him of everything and nothing at all. It wasnt until one of these little conversations that she realized it was him she couldnt bear to leave, not the strip of river bank she had come to think of as home. This was an entirely new sensation. It came over her just as suddenly as the fear had, but it was even more unsettling and carried something so far beyond any joy she had ever felt, it could only be an affliction she had only been aware of in rumors: Love. And her newfound love was a problem. So far as she knew, none of her siblings had ever fallen in love. She even found herself considering whether she might share the raccoons company in a much more intimate fashionbut she knew the acts she envisioned were unutterably outside of her very nature as an immortal creature. She began to discuss this with the raccoon, but he confessed his love in almost the same moment she had confessed hers. All her worries were lost in the flood of emotions that were then unleashed. She had existed since time immemorial, but she believed it was only in that moment when she actually began to live. It was as if the raccoons affection had brought spring to her spirit, ending a winter which had endured so long that shed accepted it as her natural state.
For a span, time seemed to pass much slower than usual, to the unicorns reckoning; other creatures took notice, as well. The bunny was the one who first remarked about the new radiance of the unicorns coat, and the joy that came over other creatures just by looking at her. Though the lovers were too smitten to notice, the rest of the creatures found that autumn had stalled after its first forays into summers domain, giving them several more weeks of temperate weather. Still, one day led into the next, and before too long she could feel a call back to the North, to the place where she had first accepted the charge of caring of her swath of earth.
Whether it was resisting this call or the thought of leaving her raccoon, she couldnt tell; either way, an ache that was almost physically painful took hold in her chest, increasing its pressure daily. Soon it agitated her to the point that her friends could tell there was something amiss with the unicorn, and with a little coaxing they had the cause of her unease from her. The winged folk suggested it was the same thing that drove them north when it was getting warmer and south when it was getting cooler, while most others insisted that it was the call for the beginning of the mating season. For her part, the unicorn was inclined to believe the birds, though their explanation still didnt sound quite right. As fidgety as he usually was, the raccoon might have worn a hole through the heart of the tree he called home as their conversations continued.
After another few weeks, the unicorn finally resolved to obey the impulse that was drawing her northward again, though she would greatly miss the Raccoons company. Even so, it took another day and a half to muster the fortitude to bid him farewell. Raccoons have never been terribly active creatures, preferring to live closer to food and water instead of commuting long distances for a meal, so it was with some little surprise when he declared his own intention to accompany her to wherever she was going. Together they bid goodbye to the rest of the vale before setting off. For the rest of the animals, this place was home, though the bunny did mull over the idea of taking the trip with her friends. But in the end, the raccoon and the unicorn left with only each other for company; being generally solitary creatures, this suited them well.
For the first leg of their journey, they headed west across a great river where the unicorn carried her companion on her back. Never before had she borne another creature as would a mundane horse! She should have gotten used to balancing his shifting weight before attempting to swim across the fast water, but as this was a new situation, she hadnt fully considered the merits of caution. Raccoons are very strong swimmers, on the whole, but their fur does not shed water as easily as other creatures that are more often found swimming. So when he finally fell from his mount, he acquitted himself well for one that had grown up with only a shallow stream to wash his food in. Even so, the volume and speed of this rivers flow would have proven too much for him, had the unicorn not become a large turtle and caught him from underneath. Finding it easier to hold the front edge of her new shell, they made it to the opposite bank where they both collapsed from exhaustion. The water had been cold, and once the heat of his exertions wore off, the raccoon began to shiver. Returning to the form shed known since her birth, all the unicorn could manage here was to lie close to him, sharing her warmth. Their trek continued more cautiously the next evening, with the unicorn taking care of a slight fever the raccoon had developed while they rested.
Before them now was a flat and windblown grassland that stretched onward, seemingly forever. However, the unicorn knew it would eventually lead to another wide river. After the adventure on the previous waterway, she worried how the raccoon might feel about traveling along its banks, and they discussed it as they drew closer. Fortunately, her fears were unfounded, as he appeared genuinely happy to return to running water after their time crossing a land nearly devoid of trees or streams. They passed the time in easy conversation, the raccoon telling her of all the wonderful things he had done and witnessed while growing up, and in the mornings he showed her interesting foods that were often pleasingly different from the grasses she knew. The path seemed to fly by under them, until they came upon another river which flowed eastward. This they followed upstream to the west a short ways, and then around a bend that channeled the water from the north. The nights grew noticeably cooler as they progressed north along the rivers banks, and the hours of daylight grew shorter as well. Now she carried the raccoon more often, covering distances in a day that would have taken them weeks at the pace shed set for his comfort. He marveled at her ability to run, though it was still an easy pace for her and they were able to continue their conversations. His stories surprised her time and again; how little she knew about the diverse and storied cultures of those she considered friends! It shamed her to think she was so detached, but the raccoon was a veritable fountain of current knowledge and trends, and she found his stories increasingly interesting.
In all, it took the better part of five days travel upstream, around the river-bend to the west and up into the foothills of a range of mountains taller than anything the raccoon ever imagined. It was as if some hand had turned the land on its edge, he thought, and said as much to the amusement of the unicorn. The lands he had come from were completely flat compared to these mountains, and he wondered about their ability to cross them, but the unicorn calmed his doubts by turning north again and following their edge before turning into a natural pass. Climbing in towards the mountains did little to slow the pair, and they rested for the day in the lee of this pass with the scent of fresh snow carried on the wind. The next evening saw them on the bank of another north-flowing river before midnight, though by the time dawns rosy fingers broke over the horizon to the east, they were past where the water doubled back south on itself. The nights had grown steadily colder, and the snow on the ground only heightened the chill. Since the change in climate was so sudden, the raccoons winter coat was missing; they made frequent stops to warm him, not that the unicorn minded these delays in the least. Feeling his small form next to her belly as she encircled him to the best of her ability was rapidly becoming one of her favorite comforts. As well, she liked to believe that he enjoyed it at least as much as did she.
In the mountains, their pace had slowed from what it had been on the flatlands near the river, but now the advantage of carrying the raccoon was even more apparent. The unicorns gait had changed from long strides to bounding leaps that were much faster in the deepening snow, but were difficult for the pair to get used to with him on her back. Still, it was not so very long before he had learned to move with her, and by the end of the second night, they came to a frozen river that would carry them most of the rest of the way to their destination. The ice was slick but even, providing a nearly ideal path to the northwest, especially for the sure hooves of the unicorn. They still had to stop frequently to warm up the raccoon, but they were making excellent time again. To the west, the raccoon could see the mountains getting taller; before the end of their fourth day on the river, they could see their destination on the horizon to the south west. It appeared to stand apart from the mountain range at its feet, and was, she knew, the highest point on the continent.
The snow had blown across the surface of the ice for most of the way upstream, which allowed the unicorn to run like the wind. But after a nights travel it collected in deep drifts, forcing the unicorn back into her bounding lope and off of the frozen water for fear of finding a thinner area in the ice. It also meant there was no reason left not to head directly towards the mountain that was their destination. As they approached its base, the mountain was so large it played with the raccoons sense of distance. At the speed they were traveling, he was certain theyd run directly into its side at any moment. Still, he kept on his cheery conversation, though it was growing more one-sided as the unicorn diverted more of her energies to keeping her love warm and well. Though it wasnt noticeable yet, the unicorn knew the air was thinner this far north, and it would only get worse as they ascended towards the summit where she had first come to know the world. The days were also much shorter up here, lasting a bare handful of hours before the sun retreated from view, leaving them in the darkness of the night where they were most comfortable. And as long as they were, the nights were also bitterly cold, as the sun was nearly halfway through its own journey from autumn equinox to winter solstice.
Nearly the only thing that changed as they began their ascent of the mountain was the speed with which they traveled. As certain of her step as she was, the unicorn didnt dare rush the climb with her partner on her back. He wouldnt admit it, but even with her help, his hands were most often numb with the cold. Feeling their chill on her neck as he held her mane, she fought to banish from her mind any thought of him losing his grip. Now she stopped any time she could find a place large enough for them to lie down, and he didnt complain at all about getting to snuggle with her a little more. The truth was that as rough as the journey had been, neither one of them wanted to be anywhere else than with the other. By dawn their ascent was leveling out, and through the haze on the glacier the pair could see a verdant glow ahead. The unicorn now knew she was returning to the exact place where shed come into being, a foreboding place she had not visited since the day she and her siblings had departed. Only the quiet reassurance of her love gave her the courage to traverse the last remaining distance.
With each step, the wind quieted and the cold lost its edge. It was still freezing out, but the emerald light whose source they were nearing gave them both a feeling of warmth and peace. The glow emanated from a single being, one who had changed greatly since the unicorn had last seen her: This was Mother, the matriarch of all things that crawled or walked or stood on the Earth. When the unicorn had left, Mother bore the appearance of her kind, or so she thought; for all she knew, Mother could have looked differently to each of her siblings. Now Mother appeared as a creature the unicorn had never seen, but knew instantly as the current incarnation of Humans, the species that were already beginning to dominate the Earth. She had a sad smile on her face.
Welcome home, child, the sentiment rang through the unicorns mind.
I am returned at your call, Mother, the unicorn replied through the same telepathy.
Yes. Do you know why you have been summoned? Mothers smile lost some of its joy, and the raccoon held his loves mane tighter.
The unicorn let the question hang a moment before answering. I believe I do, in part at least. Ages have passed since I was here last. During all that time I was always the same, but now I am different in some way.
Good. You have always held the potential for this change, as it must be for all that lives, but it was never meant for you or your siblings. Your immortality may be passed along to your offspring, and that would rapidly become a great problem. As you and your kin were charged by me to see that life was able to flourish, it was necessary that you be immortal, lest future generations slowly forget that charge, and so you were made as you are. However, a part of you that was never meant to bud is now coming into full bloom. This is a situation that was never meant to be, and I must deal with it. But at the same time, it would be unjust to both you and your raccoon, were I to act without your knowledge and consent. Therefore, it falls to you to decide on how best to solve the issue. There are two options: First, you may forfeit your love, you and the raccoon will forget the time youve spent together, stronger seals will be placed on your affections, and you may return to being a guardian. Second, you may forfeit your immortality, thus becoming subject to illness, injury, the elements, and eventual death.
After a time with no further words from Mother, the unicorn asked, Are there no further options?
The unicorn found herself unable to decide, so she filled the raccoon in on the conversation. Their discussion was short; neither one of the pair liked the idea of forgetting about the other, but the raccoon couldnt bear the thought of his part in bringing pain and an end to the unicorn. Seeing his concern for her again, the unicorn was finally able to make up her mind. I would rather live several years with the raccoon than spend the rest of Time without him, was her answer.
So be it, Mother replied. Her smile never faded, but there was sadness reflected in her eyes. Fearing the worst, the raccoon braced himself again. I shall make this as comfortable as I can, Mother said, placing one hand on either side of the unicorns deer-like head before kissing her on her nose. The unicorn suddenly recoiled from Mothers grasp, staggering a step or two before collapsing in the snow, sending the raccoon sprawling a few feet away. Mother crossed to where he fell and picked him up. Im sorry, little one. I should like to have given you time to climb down, but any delay would have left room for the seed of fear in your lover. The raccoon turned in Mothers arms and looked to where his love lay, convulsing in the snow. He could just make out fine plumes of blue-green mist rising up from her body, and in the back of his mind, he wondered if he must come next. Still, he wanted to make certain she was unharmed and he began clambering to escape Mothers grasp. She set him down on the snow, but not before exerting her will to thicken his winter coat to the point where he could easily survive in this frozen wilderness.
He ran to the unicorn and began petting her sinuous neck, trying to soothe her spasms. She quieted at his first touch, and before long, she lay still as the aquamarine mist pouring out of her thickened into ribbons that rose into those parts of the sky that are reserved for the use of the gods. He did not notice, or care, that he was inhaling the mist, but Mother noted that his quick little puffs of breath had taken on a crimson hue, a hue that was even now bleeding over into some of the aetherial ribbons. Eventually she joined the raccoon in petting the unicorn, and where her hands passed, the flow of the mist stopped. When the unicorn raised her head, the raccoon was there to hug it. And then he raised her head toward the sky, where the ribbons of his loves immortality were hung like a curtain for the whole world to see.
Now that the unicorn was again awake and aware, Mother explained it this way: What you see is proof of your love, and it will hang in the firmament for all the generations to come. This memento will outlive you both, though your lives will be long together. The raccoon has gained many years by his immersion in the streamers as they left your body; perhaps even more years than you have left yourself. I hope you will see this as a blessing more than a curse, but that is up to you. Your abilities and potentials remain, but may be diminished with your reduced connection to the lifestream. Finally, I want you to know that I am glad of the choice you made. In forfeiting your immortality, and with this new growth in your feelings, you have also given up your Guardianship. Your duties will be taken up by a replacement whose creation may have been inevitable. Had you taken the other option, there is a good chance that you would have lost all compassion, and I do not know how much use I may have had for a Guardian without the ability to love.