The unicorn could never say afterward how long exactly it took her to get home, and it was thus equally impossible for her to determine how long she had been back in her forest. It had been autumn when she returned she knew, but her return had hailed a hasty winter, which bloomed into the perpetual spring she had known so well.
It was not for her to wonder about her human companions, being once more immortal and the more pained for it, and she knew beyond all doubt that if Schmendrik became the longest living magician in existence he would not try to find her again. She would remember him, and Molly Grue, but in less painful means that what truly haunted her.
For how to forget the feeling of wanting to be touched? How to rid herself of that emptiness that humans feel the need to store and make last? Never had she desired company before, never had she been scarred with the feeling of loss or regret.
She could not bare even to look at herself, though sometimes she could not help but see her own reflection drinking from the stream or pools that gathered and flowed in the tides of the spring breeze. Because unicorns do not feel as humans do, the unwelcome feelings that are associated with them are regarded among their kind as something strange and indeterminable, and though she remembered what it was like to live the feelings in full, she no longer understood them like the mortal self would. They sat inside her, immovable and alien and with no way out. But they were nothing to the feeling of love, for what human who has been held in its embrace has not felt a hideous sense of loss after it has let go?
The woman who had been Amalthea no longer existed, nor ever would again, but still there was some small part of the unicorn that recalled the alias, that knew her in some slight and aberrant way, and despite herself, the unicorn recollected in painful detail the Lir that Amalthea had fallen in love with, from his eyes to his smile to the way he sang and danced and laughed. The humanity in this was unbearable, and it made her feel ugly and loathsome and yet she could not deny it as she once had.
She had known the exhilaration in aging day by day, the preciousness of life when it was so brief and sudden, like a turning wind.
There was no end to her thought, but for all she did she could not make herself understand what had happened. Unicorns were once again in the world, as wistful and elusive as they ever had been, and she had not lied to Schmendrik when she said it was a joy beyond words, and yet…
The forest was motionless, and the trees seemed to have taken on a stillness that surpassed any the unicorn had known since the day the huntsmen had passed through in search of deer, when what had led her to mortality had unfolded.
The unicorn knew even before she heard him calling. Lir was in her forest. She heard him, as soft and quiet as wolves stalking their prey, and flattered herself for a moment that it was not her that he had come looking for. But it was, and he stumbled through the brush with thoughts of her heavy in his head. She followed him on silent hoofs, watching, just watching, his presence both unsettling and welcome. Here he stopped and turned, muttering. There he would gaze silently at a spot between the trees ahead. Eventually he stopped and murmured, 'Forgive me. I had forgotten that you will not be seen by those who are looking.'
He bowed his head.
The unicorn was not surprised by how he had aged, hair greyed and thinned, but his eyes just as bright as she remembered them. She felt oddly separate from him, estranged and disconnected, as if she were seeing him and only vaguely recognising who he was.
His words were indistinct as he mumbled something to the ground.
She realised he was crying. It brought back memories of her own tears. Tears Amalthea had shed. They had been wiped from her memory until now, but she could suddenly recall how they felt, sliding down her cheeks, and how panicked Schmendrik had looked when he had seen them. She saw the sense in that. Immortals did not cry, least of all unicorns, they knew it was folly.
Humans did not, and Lir seemed so suddenly human the unicorn was all but ready to bolt, despite everything. It was too much.
But she couldn't. She swallowed her pride and stepped out of the trees before him. He looked up and saw her, as he knew he would at least one last time.
The silence that stretched between them seemed to take forever to pass, even for the unicorn. 'You are dying.' She said.
'Yes.' He replied, without weakness or hesitation. It was pointless to lie of course, and Lir hadn't a dishonest bone in his body. But she could not ignore the look of longing his eyes emanated as they gazed at her.
'I cannot give you what you have come here for.' She warned. 'I cannot return Amalthea to you.'
He prickled. 'I know it.' He said.
'And yet you are here.'
'A fool's hope.' He said hoarsely. 'I wanted a glimpse… something for me to… I don't know.'
The unicorn looked at him, and all his uncertainty melted. 'I knew I would see you at least one more time.'
He didn't approach or try to touch her, he just lay down on the ground and closed his eyes.
'I will wake and think this a dream.' He murmured.
'I will walk with you as you sleep.' The unicorn turned her horn downward and a glimmer of seashell light fell between them as she closed her eyes and folded her delicate legs beneath her.
'Will you ever love me?' He whispered. 'Will you ever be human enough for me to hold you again?'
She didn't answer, and she didn't have to.
He knew already.