|Brave Companion of the Road|| The Last Unicorn -- novel and character -- belong to Peter S. Beagle, as do Molly and Schmendrick. No profit made, no copyright claimed, only your basic grovelly type of worship.|
The title was suggested by Nanci Griffith's song of the same name, though there's no direct connection, just an echo in my head.
Molly dreams of her, tonight. When the fire has gone low and Schmendrick has wrapped them both tight in his robes, because he's too lazy to get off his scrawny arse and feed it, she dreams of the unicorn. Perhaps it's the cold. She's old, now, and the cold gets in easier.
Molly dreams that she has slid out from the death-grip of Schmendrick's arms, him holding her so tight she can barely breathe, so tight that she sometimes wonders if it's her he's holding, or the memory of that time when what they were doing meant something. When there was only one, and she the last, and he had magic yet to discover.
Molly dreams that she has looked back at him, not with a fond smile -- for she was ever about having lemons in her mouth instead of strawberries -- but with a certain twist of her face, which is all she ever needed to make him turn red and swell up like a puffer-fish and sputter at her, and it would always end with them pulling leaves out of their hair and needing to mend their clothes. *Her* needing to mend their clothes, for five hundred years old or not, the man never learned to do more with a needle than prick himself.
Molly dreams that she tucks his robes tighter around him, and sees him shiver anyway, so she goes to the horse and pulls down the extra blanket, the one they use to pad the saddle because someone's bony arse hurts, these days, from bouncing about too much. She's not sure whose bony arse that is. She dreams she places the blanket over him, and turns to stir the fire.
Molly dreams that she is there, standing on the other side of that fire. That she is shining, ghost-white in the orange glow of the flames, and nothing has changed. She is mane and flank and hoof and horn and tail, muscles like silk spread out on the sea, when she shifts from hoof to hoof, impatient. When she tosses her head, her eyes flash the color of water in moonlight, though the sky is dark. There is nothing reflected in them but the fire.
Molly dreams that nothing has changed except herself. That she looks down at hands that were always made of tree-bark and spit, and sees that the green has left the wood, long ago. That she raises a kindling-hand to her face, that was never more than sandpaper even back then, and feels weathered rock. She dreams she tries to cry, and nothing will come, for even in dreams, you can't squeeze tears from a stone.
Molly dreams that the fire flares up, and in the fleeting light, she can see someone else within the unicorn's shape. Forever trapped there now, a thin pale girl with a mark on her forehead, like blood or a star or a smudge of ashes over a burn. She tries to frown, and wonders that it's been so long since she's done so, for the folds on her face don't twist that way, without more effort than she cares to make.
Molly dreams the unicorn steps around the fire, the movement a dance Molly has forgotten she ever hummed the music to, and says to her, "She is always within me; I cannot cast her out. For forty years I have loved and hated her, and still she aches at me from inside my skin. I am sorry if she causes you pain, if she reminds you that time has passed. I think I might age, if I could, only to stop her from complaining. I cannot, though -- but I am sorry."
Molly dreams she shakes her head, a little sadly, but not so much, and reaches to touch the muzzle with trembling fingers-- soft. So soft, still. If it was blasphemy, forty years ago, for a unicorn to let Molly Grue scratch her chin, what is it now? "That doesn't hurt me," she dreams she says.
Molly dreams the fire sinks low again, and the unicorn is looking at Schmendrick, his comedy wizard's face relaxed in sleep. He looks no more than a hundred -- two? He looks like he could last another century, at least. Molly knows he will be gone in a month. He coughs too much, and hides his handkerchiefs from her now, though she's washed every piece of cloth he owns, for years.
Molly dreams the unicorn says, "Are you coming with me?" but will not look at her. She is sad, for this. Not sad that the fire is dying, nor that Schmendrick is. Not sad that her hands are sticks and her face is wind-bleached rock. Not sad that she cannot cry, anymore. Only sad for this, that there is a unicorn in the world who can look away from her, as she speaks-- who has learned how to do that.
Molly dreams that there is no need to answer. That there is nothing to say to him who lies by the fading fire, under their patchwork blanket, rag-darned together from scraps of his old quilted cloak. She dreams that she places her hand on the unicorn's back, and they walk slowly, talking of nothing.
Molly dreams that behind her, she can hear Schmendrick stirring, shivering, getting up to put more twigs on the fire, and finding that he's been holding a bundle of them all along. She doesn't look back. She just keeps one hand on the soft skin of the unicorn's back -- so soft that it feels as if it is wiping the years and the stone and the scratches from her own skin, as they walk. The unicorn says, "He will follow, you know."
Molly says, "I know. He was always a big-nosed fool. Nothing's changed -- he's just an old fool, now." She makes that lemon face again, and realizes it's something like a smile, after all.
Schmendrick wakes, and sits up alone. There are ashes in the firepit, and Molly is gone. Just like the last fourteen mornings. He coughs into his handkerchief, and forgets, for a moment, that he doesn't need to hide what he sees there.
He smiles, and puts on his hat, then gets up to fold the blanket. Perhaps tomorrow night.