Characters: Julia, Mariah, Lasher, Avatar (Male, mentioned in passing)
Pairings: Julia/Avatar (unrequited)
Author's Notes: I came of with this piece around the same time I was writing "Irrevocable," and while it touches on similar themes, it has a significantly softer and less melodramatic feeling. Inspiration was drawn from both Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (obviously) and Eugene O'Neil's Moon for the Misbegotten.
"It's a bloody deer, Mariah. Not every idiot mooncalf with a tale to tell's going ta' lead us to a quest's end."
The tinker shot her companion an exasperated look as she measured the cloven footprint with her fingers. It was obvious that she'd lost patience with the current course the journey had taken. As if to add to her frustration, a brisk spring wind picked up unexpectedly, throwing her short cropped red hair awkwardly over her face.
"Isn't that mess long enough to be tied back yet?" Mariah laughed, glossing over Julia's statement entirely.
"Di'ya think I'd be leaving it like this if it were?
Her fingers left smudge marks across her pale face as she tried to smooth out her tresses. Mariah dusted off dead leaves from a fallen log and took the opportunity to sit down.
"Do you think we could domesticate deer, Julia? At this point it might be easier than wishing for horses."
Her tone had a girlish sing songishness which often accompanied Mariah's forays into theoretical thought. Julia sighed as she prepared for a lecture.
"I mean within a few generations, they'd probably bulk up a bit through selection, and there are a number of instances of other cervids which exist as herd animals. It's not impossible to imagine riding a large hart, now is it? If you could create a fertile hybrid with a disrupted escape response..."
She leaned back to look skyward, counting out numbers to some unspoken equation on her left hand as she remained oblivious to her friend's baffled stare.
"Right then. Mayhaps thou couldst channel up old Sutek while yer at it and see if you can't get them an extra set of legs."
Mariah shrugged and replied in complete seriousness, "An additional pair of legs wouldn't make biological sense for a creature of that bodymass, Julia."
"Right. I give up."
The tinker picked up her knapsack and nodded her head to the West.
"So, should we keep hunting this one if ya fancy riding it back to Trinsic or we ken start back on foot?"
Mariah smiled warmly, absent-mindedly twisting a node-covered grapevine between her fingers, "Let's camp at least this evening. We ought observe the area over the course of full day."
"So long as yer the one on watch," Julia sighed, "Although I think yer wastin' our time."
Mariah stirred the fire. She had eagerly agreed to her companion's terms, finding herself relieved she hadn't being forced into awkwardly volunteering to sit up all night. For all her profession would have her cleave to honesty, she was markedly good at deception when the extent of her lie could be told in remaining quiet, and this fact stung more than a little at her conscience.
They weren't searching for a horse. As compelling a quest as it might be given the state of the kingdom's ploughsmen, she knew better than to take the tales spread by the poachers and fishwives of Dawn at their face value. Peasants were the backbone of Britannia, to be sure, but most lacked the schooling to know what to make of a bearded white stallion whose footprints were cloven.
She rolled the word around in her mouth before she whispered it into the flame. She had heard tell that he had once met one sometime during the long years of her madness, but she had never seen one herself, and loathe as she was to admit it, she was willing to let somebody be gulled for a time if she might have such a chance. Academic curiosity aside, she wanted something to affirm she was still young enough to be an adventurer... although she'd gone on afterward to second-guess her personal motivations for the expedition more times then she could count.
As for Julia, she admitted that there was something experimental about her role in situation. It might even prove a catalyst for change in the grim adventuress, but she couldn't be certain as to what that change would entail or in what temper it might leave her - although she was truthfully willing to accept a few cuffs on the head for this stunt if it meant that Julia was better off. The handful of years since the Ascension had not seen her happy.
It hadn't exactly seen her sorrowful to be honest. She had never wept about his departure, nor spoken of any sadness, but it was clear to any who had known her before that she had changed. She'd shorn of her braids and left Britain the same night she returned from Covetous, not wanting to be party to whatever celebrations followed the "final victory" of Britannia's champion. It was evident, even when she resurfaced, that something of that time still hung over her, and that it the pall it cast over her was not soon to be lifted.
She hoped... she wasn't certain what she hoped, or even what exactly she thought might happen should Julia meet such a beast. She'd heard legends that they could heal any wound - on the body or in the brain - but legends were stuff for scribes and jonguleurs, and she'd had more than a dozen fables prove flatly disappointing when met in person. And even if such creatures could heal a broken heart, Julia wasn't a woman to take kindly to anyone -even friends- meddling in her affairs. Who knew, though? If all else went awry maybe giving the woman a good excuse to knock her about the pate and scream at her would be a step in the right direction.
Mariah had plenty of time to mull over her motivations again and again as she watched Julia sleep through the night, guilt still nipping at the borders of her conscience but never really catching hold firmly enough to force her to abandon the plan. Time passed. Her decision remained unaltered. In the first hours before dawn - when the stars were still visible but you could hear the first scatterings of birdsong - Mariah doused the flames and silently took to the hills in search of a good vantage point.
Julia woke up to the scent of Spring rain and the dull bitterness of dead embers. She thought at first that she was dreaming when she saw it, lying its head gently in her lap like it had taken its pose from a tapestry. It was smaller than any of the legends said, more like a large hind than a horse, with a face a touch too narrow and legs a touch to thin. It's eyes opened as hers did, a glassy graying white that matched the rest of its mien.
Her breathing quickened as she sat up, flustered.
She half called out her friend's name and soon after fell silent as she realized that she and the creature were alone. The unicorn raised its head.
"Little maiden? Do I remember you?" It's words were warm, but it's voice trembled as it spoke. "I have not had the sight of my eyes for so many years, but I think I have scented you before."
"I..." She fumbled for a response as she tried to shake off the haze of sleep and the surprise at her situation "I think... I mighta' saw something like ye once but... oh I'm sorry... but were ye' ever one ta' lodge near Dungeon Despise?"
It nodded. She squinted her eyes as she tried to remember the meeting.
As she spoke its name, the hoary creature flared its nostrils, and it's lips turned upward in the semblance of a smile. Dead leaves crumbled from off its tattered mane and beard as it shook its head.
"Oh! To have somebody remember my name is a wonderful feeling! I had thought that my race had all but been forgotten – and here I am not only named "Unicorn" but "Lasher"! You do me a service, virgin!"
Julia blushed as the beast once more drew attention to the exact role played in this fabular scene. She was happy, for a moment, that he was blind.
"My apologies that I do not know what to call you, good lady. I am old and I admit I had little etiquette for names and faces even in my younger years... and now it seems I have only one by which I might recognize you."
"Julia. I don' think we spoke. I was travellin' in a large company when I met ye."
"A large company? You weren't with that moonstruck boy who dragged me across the sea, were you?"
Her brow furrowed as she tried to puzzle out what he was talking about. "Nay. I was... I was in the company of the Avatar."
Her voice dropped when she spoke the last two words. She felt silly, not even wanting to speak the title which might lead her brain back to his name.
"The Avatar? I should know that word well enough for how often men speak of it. He was the one who set me on that lad's path was he not?"
"Aye... I... think... ya' mean that idiot what needed ta' prove his purity to a bar wench fore he could get married? He traveled with a gargoyle. Cosmo was it?"
The unicorn whinnied and showed its teeth as if grinning.
"Oh yes! That was a venture I cannot help but remember! I was never so much a fool for quests, and I suppose had he been a huntsman he and his crew might have taken my blood and my horn... but still... Ah! Dealing with that youth might number amongst my fondest memories in this too long life, good Julia! To think I rode three days and nights in the belly of a ship so that a virgin boy could ride me through the gates of a city."
For all that the strange creature made her wary, Julia could not help but laugh. The image of Cosmo riding a unicorn into Jhelom was too much for her not to.
"He didst what now!?"
"His friend even found a little golden bridle to fit me with, although I told them I'd bite their fingers off if they tried for a bit. The look on his fair lady's face though - that was worth any thousand indignities they might visit on me!"
"Pah! The jade deserved everything she got, if'n I recall!"
Lasher snorted, but his voice softened.
"I admit I did not stay to see the aftermath... whether it ended in an unhappy marriage or a broken pact it wasn't something I cared to involve myself in. I'd had enough of such scenes to last me an eternity."
He stopped and sniffed the air and then they both grew quiet for a span.
"Tell me, Julia. Why are you alone in this glade?, he said, changing the topic, "There isn't a brace of men and hounds waiting in the trees, I do hope? You don't seem the sort to hunt unicorns."
"I... well... we we're hunting horses actually."
"I had a friend with me."
"Interesting. Whither did she go?"
Julia considered for a moment that she ought be worried as to wherever Mariah had gotten off to, but the dead fire and the absence of her companion's gear lent credence to her growing suspicions that she had been purposefully abandoned.
"I think she took off," Julia replied.
"She? Was she another pretty maiden such as yourself, then? My. My. I'm sad to have missed her."
Julia gritted her teeth. She was unaware of the mage's intimate history, but she suspected that most women who lived to see five centuries didn't remain chaste for the duration (with one obvious exception) and that Mariah had purposefully retreated in light of this very fact.
"I don' know. Look. Do ye have some pressin' business hoverin' oer me in particular? I mean.. I'd love ta' frolic in a meadow or whatever it is ye folk do... but I'm thinkin' I really ought be after those horses I mentioned."
Lasher's sightless eyes seemed to widen.
"The horses are dead, little virgin. Every beast of the field and bird of the sky knows it as such."
"Well," she continued tersely, "Ya' could 'ave fooled me at a distance. You cannae blame folk around here for a bit o' confusion."
Lasher gave Julia a skeptical look.
"Very well. I have no power to keep you here. Leave if you wish it, although I have enjoyed the conversation."
"I don' mean no rudeness... but..."
"Tell me, good Julia, are you a virgin by choice or by circumstance," Lasher interjected suddenly but firmly.
"What sort of question is that!?"
"The question a unicorn might ask. I asked it once to your Avatar, if you recall?"
"Look ye damned beastie! I don't care if you're the king of the Void and the stars beyond but I don't see how the matter's any of yer' accursed business."
He paused but a moment.
"Damn you!" She threw up her hands. "I hope the rest of you goes the way of yer eyes! Mayhap I am in the market for a unicorn hunt!"
"Once more, I cannot make thee stay, but it seems to me that this topic grieves thee, Julia - and if a maiden cannot confess her woes to a unicorn who might not live to see another midsummer, I cannot imagine who will hear of them."
"Did ya ever think that my woes are best left unspoken?"
"Hast not speaking of them made them lighter?"
She balked in the midst of thinking some new curse to throw in Lasher's direction. Memories of unspoken words and all too late confessions flooded her mind.
"No." Her voice was sullen.
Lasher's lips raised into another serene equine smile. He stood up and shook the dew from his coat.
"You are a strange one, Julia, as strange as that golden-haired man who drew near my fountain some two centuries past. Tell me, were the circumstances that never met you ones of lust... or of love?"
He began to walk. He was unsteady on his feet, but his gait was deliberate and unhesitating.
"I shall leave first if you do not wish to answer. I've left enough good ladies distraught for my lifetime."
She pried herself from her bedroll and stood up as if to follow him.
"Ye seem to know the answer already."
Lasher turned back and stood still. In the dim light of the overcast dawn, Julia could see how worn the ancient creature looked, and could make the outlines of his ribs visible on his mud stained skin. She faltered, knowing that the unicorn still expected her to speak.
"Fine! Love... it was love, ye dumb animal!"
Lasher nodded at the affirmation, and haltingly lowered himself to the ground once more. Julia sat down alongside him, burying her face in her hands.
"I know ye probably already know, because your a bloody unicorn and ye know daft things like that, but yes... I loved him and -no- he dinnae love me back... and he's gone, might as well be dead but gone's a better word fer it... and then even if he weren't he loved another. So I don't have anything else to say because there isn't naught else to be done. It's finished."
"And you loved no one else?"
"Nobody. Bloody nobody fer five bloody centuries. It was always him." Her voice cracked through her anger.
"Did you tell..."
"I told him! I'm a mewling idiot and I should have found some way not to but I did and it was foolishness - and what's to be done? Two months and he was gone. Nothing to say about it."
The unicorn lowered its head. It's horn brushed a patch of yellowing weeds. Julia continued.
"I thought of telling him again, of course, of begging him or yelling at him or explaining ta him how many damned awful nights I'd spent feeling like a hot coal was in the back of my throat... watching him wince when the bar molls tried ta pick him up or making a fool of himself not knowing what to do when that girl by the shrine pulled him down and kissed him... It was like ice-water ran in his veins... like he was so far away on his quest of the spirit that he'd become a sort of ghost himself... or I thought. I don't know. How do you love someone like that? How do you love somebody who feels like he's a million miles above and away from you? You don' is what ya' do. You keep well silent and you keep going."
"I cannot say much on the matter as love is something that was long ago forbidden me. But I'd hope there were many other men to love if you'd lived as long as this Avatar had."
"The Slasher and the ten hells of the Abyss can have "other men!" I only wanted him!"
Lasher's ashen face seemed saddened.
"And whom did he wait for?"
"I don' think he was waiting... I mean... when they found each other it was so sudden like... almost fell out of the sky at him to be honest... a pretty orphan girl out of the Buccaneer's Den who he'd never laid eye on until the year he... you know. One day she's there. Next day his arm's around her waist. And the next... Virtues no! it wasn't what I expected. All those years. All those days and minutes I'd thought it enough to be near him and to let that be that. He wasn't the sort of man I thought could be loved, and I wasn't the sort... I mean..." She choked on a sob, knowing that she was going to look ridiculous if she cried. "I couldn't understand why."
"Maybe his blood was hotter than you'd imagined it."
"Don't start with me, beastie! I will not be mocked!"
Lasher sighed, "I meant no cruelty. I apologize. I merely wished to remark that no living man, however ethereal he might seem, is free from passion."
"Real bloomin' philosophical. I know that dunce!"
"What I'm trying to say is that this man stood on the earth, and could not have been so far removed from our earthly world as you eloquently imagine him. The distance between you... well.. I cannot say, but it from what little you tell me it seems to be one of your own making."
"I know I am a silly thing... a once proud race of satyrs' steeds reduced to a gelded parody of ourselves... but I've lived a very long time, my lady, as have you, and in that time I've seen more doomed romances than I have grey hairs in my mane. I've got them almost down to a science.
Your story... I cannot know it all, of course... I barely know the man of whom you speak... but it is nevertheless familiar to me. It fits a type. Truth, it's usually the other way around, though, than it is with you: men always putting women on a great gilded pedestal and pretending they're too aloof and removed to touch, but your case is a queer one. You seem to have put him beyond your reach and then lept up to find a pedestal of your own..."
"I'm not on any bloody pedestal! Just because I don't run off and find some random body to warm my bed..."
"There a whole great world of men between an Avatar and a random body."
"There wasn't for me!"
"Wasn't? You speak as though you're as long gone as he is."
There was a truth to what the unicorn said, but not one she would give herself leave to admit. She had felt utterly absurd throughout this entire conversation, and she loathed anyone or anything thinking her absurd. Her pride wouldn't let her be lectured by any creature that left her feeling like a daft little girl. She could count the contradictions in her pathetic story herself, but so long as Lasher was the one to point them out she wouldn't admit them.
"Maybe I should have answered yer' first question different for ya' then," Julia continued "Maybe it tis' by 'choice.'"
"If it's a happy choice, good lady, I'd never be one to dissuade another from making it... but you seem far from happy. Most maidens don't curse half so much at their unicorns."
"Mayhap most unicorns aren't self-righteous hogs-arses with a nose for what's none of theirs to mind."
"I wouldn't know. I haven't seen another unicorn in a long time, but if I remember my younger days as well as I hope I do, I can assure you that we had arses aplenty amongst us."
"So what's it you think I should do, unicorn? Pick up the next lout who makes eyes at me across a bar table? Cross one of those wild tzgany boys palms with silver and ask for a fling down by the fields at Lost Hope?"
"I think you should seek to be happy, but I know that's a task often simpler to say than to do."
"Happiness isn't exactly my virtue."
"Well, I don't know much about virtue, despite what the bestiaries and grimoires might say. I can't say I've really given a fig for it if it's end result is what I've seen... running you humans headlong to misery whenever you've found yourself falling short of perfection."
"Some folk could use a bit of misery. I think most would be better off if we learned ta' sacrifice a bit of happiness. Too many people... they' let their neighbors starve and the world run bloody when they don't look beyond their cups and gussets. Can't always live for yerself, you know."
"Does your unhappiness feed your neighbors, then?"
"You don't still have that bridle to tie around your mouth, do ye?" Julia said sarcastically. She was still frustrated, but she didn't raise her voice.
"I don't mean any disrespect to sacrifice, but I think it is best served when it has some higher aim in mind. Sacrifice and self-denial for their own sake leave a person thin and somber. I hate to see any being hurt without a good purpose."
Julia and the unicorn were silent for a long time after that. She wondered if the creature was really as ignorant of the Virtues as it claimed to be after it finished lecturing her about Sacrifice. She wasn't used to anyone telling her, of all people, about the niceties of that one of the eight in particular.
After some moments an autumn moth landed on Lasher's left ear, and he twitched his head to shake it off, sighing as he did. "I really am terrible at giving advice. I must be. Nobody ever listens to it."
"You're a daft old animal, and I shant listen to ye," Julia replied "but I think you mean well."
"Bah. I'm as selfish as they come. I can't stand to sit around glades with crying virgins is all. It spoils the scene."
"Pah! I'm not crying anymore, am I? I've bested tougher monsters than an ill-mannered unicorn."
"You seem a tough one, yourself."
She smiled at the remark, deciding to ignore any double-meaning Lasher might have been implying. She cautiously put out a hand and laid it on the unicorn's haggard thin head.
Lasher nodded as he allowed her to pet him.
"This is a nice change, little maiden. I trust you aren't about to take a penknife to my throat."
"Nay. Not for the time being."
"Forgive me if I caused you any pain. I'm a rude animal accustomed to speaking my mind, and at this age my mind is probably as creaky as the rest of my body."
"It's no excuse, ye double-speaking plague... but I of all people shouldn't mind a little pain."
They sat there for a long time after that: an ancient maid holding an ancient unicorn. Julia, of course, thought about what Lasher had said, remaining stalwart that she wouldn't follow a word of it. She thought about a lot of things that morning: about how strange it was that she seemed so young while he (who was probably younger than her) seemed so decrepit; about all her past adventures; about her teary heartfelt confession in Covetous; about an old and wonderful grandfather clock that she never took out of its backroom; about drinking in Trinsic and hiking over the Bloody Plains; about skimming over the ocean on a magic carpet and watching the blue fade against the blue; about all that and about all the litanies of curses she really ought have ready for when she and Mariah met again.
After a time, Lasher left without a word of goodbye, bounding back into the dark of the trees. Julia thought that this seemed typical of unicorns, and did not follow or give any farewell of her own.
Mariah sat on a hill shadowing a nearby brook and watched as the while flitting shape disappeared back into the green. She had been able to observe very little of the interaction, and her eyes never seemed to quite be able to focus on the shape of the unicorn at this distance – it floated next to Julia, like a gauzy spectre one might see in the clouds or the sea foam.
She assumed, and noted as such in her journal, that it was likely some property of their curse. Unicorns wouldn't come to rest their heads in her lap, after all, not in however long it had been since a handsome fellow student at the Lycaeum asked her to meet up behind the gardens and let him copy her alchemy notes. It stood to reason that there might be some other properties to the relationship between unicorns and the ah... less than chaste.
She waited for a while before she sheepishly began the trek back to the campsite. By the time she made her way back, Julia had rekindled the fire and had put a pot on. Mariah quietly sat back down on the log she had used as a seat the day before.
"I hope the next daemon what challenges ye has the decency to cheat and damn me if it doesn't eat out your lying tongue when it does," Julia said calmly as she added the bones from last nights mutton to the boiling kettle.
"I deserve that," Mariah replied.
"That you do, you meddlin' witch."
Mariah cringed, "Julia... did you? I mean."
"Aye. I saw a unicorn. Ye guessed yet another way of the world I have less schooling in than you, then?"
The scholar nodded awkwardly.
"Well, although there are a sure sorry lack of witnesses in this wild wood, I can't say it was the worst thing that happened ta' me, so I s'pose I won't murder you... not at present at least."
Mariah was relieved - not only because she wouldn't have to have to find the funds for a healer when they got back, but moreso that Julia, far from looking angry, smiled quietly as she stood by the fire.
"It's a real shame it wasn't a horse, Mariah. It's going to be a long walk back to Trinsic."
"I'm sure we can find something to talk about."
Julia shook here head.
"I won't tell you about it, Mariah. Not a word. You go hunting with a virgin in on the con next time if you want something for the Lycaeum's vaults."
Julia nodded as she tasted the broth. "Honestly... tell me next time ya' want to pull a stunt like this Mariah. Wasn't it you what said honest word never hurts the teller."
"It wasn't me. Trust me on that. Whoever did didn't have the good sense to take into account the listener. Besides," she mumbled, "Is anything really that dishonest if it gets to a truth in the end? I think a lie of omission is worth honestly knowing that there are still unicorns in the world."
"Don't push it, Mariah.," Julia warned cheerfully. "I'm about to chop in an onion an' that'll mean I have a knife in my hand."
"Need any help?"
"You just clean up camp and think hard on whether any of that arrow of Falsehood's still stuck in ya. I'm making breakfast, and I'm happy enough to be doing it."
They did not speak on the long hike back to Trinsic, as she'd expected they wouldn't, but Mariah could not help but notice that Julia stepped lightly on the road back, humming snatches of old ballads now and again as she led them out of the shaded wood.