Maddie paused in cleaning, her heart skipping a beat. Relax. You heard that wrong. She turned off the vacuum cleaner. “What was that, Jayne?”
Jayne skipped into the kitchen, long hair flying. “There’s a unicorn in the backyard! Are there any apples?”
Or not. Calm, calm. She’s just playing make-believe. “That’s nice,” she said, because that’s the sort of thing mothers say. “There’s apples in the vegetable drawer. What’s it look like?”
Maddie breathed out a sigh of relief. Of course. All unicorns are white.
“With blue dots on his back. He wants to see you.” Jayne came back into the family room, holding one granny smith apple in each small hand. “Do you think he’d like an apple?”
Maddie stopped breathing again. She stared at her daughter’s tanned complexion, earnest brown eyes framed by unruly dark ringlets. “Oh,” she said, after an eternity. “I guess I’d better see him, then.” She held out her hand, and Jayne gave her one of the apples. “Will you wait in here for a minute, Jayne?”
Jayne pouted. “But Mo-ooom! There’s a unicorn!”
“I know, pumpkin. You can see him again in a bit, I just need a few minutes first. Understand?”
Jayne screwed up her face. “No! I want to play with the unicorn!”
“In a few minutes, sweetie. Mom needs to talk to him first.”
“No! I want to play with the unicorn now! You always get what you want!”
Maddie gritted her teeth. “That’s because I’m the mommy. You can buy that dragon costume for your avatar in Fairy Princess World if you’ll go upstairs now,” she added, hating herself for resorting to bribery.
Jayne still looked mutinous. “And then I can play with the unicorn?”
“When I come get you.”
“Okay … “ She backed off, still looking suspicious, then turned around and skipped upstairs.
Maddie let out a breath and went to the back door.
The unicorn stood amidst crab grass and dandelions, next to the empty birdfeeder and the deck with last fall’s leaves blown into its crevices. Tiny cornflowers bloomed around each silvery cloven hoof. Seventeen hands at the shoulder, with a wavy mane of cornsilk tumbling down a long elegant neck, matched by lush fetlocks and a tail that fell to the ground, curling at the ends. The hide was iridescent white, except for the dappling of blue and indigo along the spine, spreading at the withers. The single spiral horn like twisted pearl rose from between deep blue eyes set too far forward for a horse’s.
Maddie stood on the deck in baggy jeans and a stained t-shirt, with most of her hair back in a ponytail and the rest fraying around her face. The apple dangled forgotten in her hand. “You said you’d never come back.” It wasn’t the first thing she wanted to say. It just came out.
“I did not think I would be able to.”
She walked down the steps of the deck. Her hand shook as she gripped the handrail, as she let it go, as she extended her empty hand to the unicorn. “Augustin.”
He stepped forward to press the side of his nose, warm and soft and velvety, against her palm. Fresh flowers sprouted where his hooves touched the ground. “Madeleine.”
She blinked back tears, and then she threw herself forward, wrapped her arms around his neck, buried her face in that silken mane while old memories flooded through her. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”
Augustin dipped his regal head to nuzzle at her hair. “Nor I you. I am sorry.”
Which was terribly unfair. “It wasn’t your choice.”
She drew her head back, straining to hear rebuke in his voice, to see it in his eyes, but it wasn’t there. “It was mine,” she said, because it had to be said.
A dip of his head, and the side of his horn stroked her cheek. "How have you been?"
"Well." That was inadequate. She didn't know where to start. Maddie smiled suddenly, cupping her hand over the base of his horn. "I married Kenneth, did you know?" That was stupid, of course he didn't know. "We've had two kids. And bought this house. You, how have you been?"
"Well. Mirage and I have been reforging the Communion. We've thirty-three now."
"Wow, thirty-three? That's incredible. How is Mirage? And Shaden? And Princess Elayne -- I mean, Queen Elayne. She's queen now, isn't she?" A feeling like homesickness filled her, which made no sense. She was already home. Wasn't she?
"She is. She's been working to establish a Parliament."
Maddie cupped her hands over her mouth. "Oh no, she never did!"
"I assure you, she did. A House of Lords and a House of Commons, just as you described. She was quite taken with the idea, especially after her first year as ruler. It has been ... interesting. Lord Vale was elected Prime Minister last autumn."
Maddie giggled into her hands. "I imagine it has. Lord Vale's a good choice for the job."
"He seems happier in the role than Her Majesty was. Shaden has been ... restless. He's been in the Upper Fringe for the last year and a half, and in touch only sporadically. We've been trying to reach him through the new Communion for the last few weeks, but we've not been able to make contact."
That silenced her giggling. "You don't think something's happened to him, do you?" she asked. Augustine raised his head, and she could read the answer in his eyes. "Oh God, you do. That's why you're here, isn't it? That's why you could come. Something's gone wrong."
The unicorn dipped his muzzle again, eyelids lowering. "It's the Gloaming."
"No!" she protested, her voice cracking with disbelief and tinged with fear. "We destroyed it! We slew the Sorcerer and made peace with the Goblins! The Goblins can't've -- "
Augustin shook his head. "No, the Goblins remain staunch allies. You were right about them, Madeleine. And the Sorcerer is dead. But the Gloaming has returned, nonetheless. There have been rumors all season, but there have always been rumors and we thought little of it. Until a fortnight ago, when the Gloaming took a sky city."
Hands over her mouth again, Maddie backed away, shaking her head. "No. Oh no. No no no no -- " she cut herself off before her voice rose to a crescendo of hysteria.
Augustin turned his head away, unable to meet her eyes. "We need the White Fire if we're to stop it." When she didn't speak, he looked to her. "We need you, Maddie."
She clutched at her stomach, gazing at the ground without seeing it. Memories filled her mind's eye, blotting out the real world. Blotting out this world. The Gloaming, a boiling mass of darkness like a slow motion avalanche filling the horizon. Riding bareback on Augustin, almost but not entirely unlike riding on a horse; more like flying, in one of those dreams where flying is as effortless as thought. Shaden, laughing at her expression when she tried amia for the first time. The warm-cold-sweet of the baked frice he offered her to make up for it.
The Sorcerer, the tangible aura of his power crackling around him like lightning of purple and black, his face so ordinary, except for the cruel twist of his mouth as he told her, "I used to be just like you, Maddie. Until I realized hw much more I could be."
White fire, flowing through her and intensely warm, as if it were possible to keep getting warmer without ever getting hot. Except it was hot, hot enough to burn ... whatever she wanted it to burn. White fire, burning off the Gloaming, lighting the sky, searing the mountains, turning the Sorcerer's spells to fire and white ash, encircling the Sorcerer himself, obliterating the front line of his Goblin army They broke ranks, turned and fled; she could feel their terror through the flames, hear their screams, and she wanted them to be afraid, wanted them to suffer. The white fire would destroy them all, destroy all of their kind, if only she asked. She wanted to ask.
But it was Shaden's arrow that slew the Sorcerer, Augustin's voice that told her Control the fire. Do not let it control you. By which he meant show mercy. He didn't understand that it wasn't the white fire that was merciless. It was her.
It would have been so much easier to kill them all.
But she didn't.
The door to the kitchen slid open. "Maddie, did you tell Jayne she -- "
Maddie turned to see her husband standing in the open doorway, their infant son in his arms. He stared at Augustin, mouth open, sentence dangling unfinished. "Ken ... this is Augustin," she said, weakly.
Ken hiked the baby onto his shoulder, and clutched at the door handle for support. "Hi. Oh God, you're going to take her, aren't you?"
Augustin didn't answer. The baby started to fuss, squirming against Ken's shoulder and screwing up his little face. As he started to cry, Maddie dashed up the porch steps. "No, no, shhh, it's all right." She took the baby, looking at him but not sure if he was really the one her words were for. "Shhh, shhhh, Oggie, Mommy's here." As the boy calmed, she turned to her husband. "No. I'm not going anywhere. I can't, Augustine. I have a family. I can't just leave, not like before."
"Madeleine ... " The unicorn raised his noble head. "Only the White Fire can turn back the Gloaming. There is no other way."
"There has to be." Maddie clutched at her son. Oggie started to fuss again.
Ken touched her shoulder; when she met his gaze, his brown eyes were full of fear. But his voice was steady and serious. "If you need to go ... go."
Somehow, that just made it worse. "There has to be another way."
"Only a female of your line may wield the White Fire, Madeleine."
Jayne's voice piped through the open door. "Mommy? Did you tell Daddy I could get the dragon costume yet?"
Her husband's eyes widened. "No. Not Jayne, for pete's sake!"
But Maddie had turned back to the unicorn. "My mother is still alive," she said, as calmly as she could. She jiggled her son a bit to settle him. "And in good health. You could ask her."
Augustine dipped his muzzle in acknowledgement. "Do you think she will agree?"
Maddie leaned back against her husband. "She's complained that she's been bored since Danny left home, and Dad passed away three years ago." A little laugh bubbled up inside her. "You know, I think she will. I think she will."
"Then I will go to her and ask. Thank you, Madeleine. It is good to have met you at last, Kenneth. I have heard so much of you." The unicorn gave them a courtly bow and turned to go.
Maddie put an arm around her husband's waist, then yelped. "Wait!" She thrust the baby into Ken's arms and dashed down the steps as her husband looked on in alarm. "Take me with you!"
"Just to Mom's house, I promise! She's moved, Augustin doesn't know the way," Maddie explained, as she climbed onto the unicorn's bare back. "And I need to explain stuff to Mom. I'll be right back. I promise!" She crossed her heart, and added as her daughter stepped through the door. "And you can play with the unicorn then, Jayne."
Ken shook his head, smiling. Maddie waved, and then she was riding away on the unicorn.
It was still just like flying.
I started writing this a few months ago, in response to this entry haikujaguar wrote. Short version:
Haikujaguar: So many fantasy stories start with the protagonist living a boring or horrible life, which they are happy to escape from to go on a Grand Adventure. It'd be nice to read a story with a protagonist for whom the choice to leave everything they know was actually a difficult one.
A Bunch of Readers (including me): But that would be so depressing!
Haikujaguar: I don't think it would necessarily be depressing ...
And after thinking about it a little while, I came up with this idea. Which I wouldn't want to make a whole novel out of, but it seemed a reasonable sort of short.