Bethany was kneeling in the strawberry bed, pulling up weeds, when the unicorn leapt over the brown wooden fence to land a couple of yards away. Where his silver hooves touched, cornflowers blossomed. Bethany jerked her head up, falling backwards and catching herself on one hand as she stared up at the unicorn. Her mouth opened but no sound came out.
The woman riding bareback on the unicorn slid down. “It’s all right, Mom,” Maddie said. She held out her hand to help the older woman to her feet. Bethany was a stout, middle-aged woman with long gray-streaked brown hair bound back in a ponytail.
Bethany took Maddie’s hand and stood, still staring at the unicorn. His hide gleamed white in the bright afternoon sunlight. Dots of indigo and blue dappled his back and spread across his withers. After a moment, Bethany realized her mouth was open and closed it.
Maddie coughed. “Mom, this is Augustin. You remember him? The unicorn that brought me home from the Mended Lands. Augustin, this is my mother, Mrs. Bethany Gerstein.”
The unicorn dipped his head and curled one foreleg up while sliding the other forward to bow to her. Bethany tried to speak, failed, cleared her throat, and tried again. “Yes, I remember. Not the sort of ... person one forgets. Although as I recall we weren’t actually introduced the last time I saw him. Do you have to do that thing with the cornflowers, Mr. Augustin? I’m growing strawberries in this bed, not flowers.”
“My apologies, Lady Gerstein.” Augustin sprang lightly out of the bed, his tufted feet landing on the lawn instead. New flowers bloomed in the grass around his hooves. “For the circumstances of my last appearance, as well. The Gate did not permit me to pass through at that time.”
“That’s Mrs. Gerstein, thank you. This is America and we don’t need any of your fancy titles here, Mr. Augustin. And what about the first time? It let you pass through to take her away, didn’t it?”
“It did -- ”
Bethany cut off whatever he was going to say next. “But you couldn’t be bothered with introductions then either, could you? No, it’s all glide in while no one’s looking and steal my daughter away without so much as a by-your-leave.”
“Mom -- ”
“Without even a note!” Bethany shook her weeder at the unicorn for emphasis. Augustin had the grace to look embarrassed.
“I did leave a note! We went over this -- ”
“This isn’t about what you did, Maddie! It’s about your friend here abducting a sixteen year-old girl without even consulting her parents!”
“Mom, his world was at stake -- ”
“So you’ve said! But I’d like to hear what he’s got to say for himself,” Bethany said. Before Maddie could speak up again, Bethany raised a hand. “What he’s got to say. Not what you have to say for him.”
“I am sorry.” Augustin was still bowed, his head lowered until his horn nearly touched the ground.
“Are you now?” Bethany sniffed.
“Augustin! You don’t have anything to apologize for -- it was an emergency, we didn’t have time for explanations and permissions,” Maddie protested.
“There was time enough to explain it to you and ask your permission. There would have been time enough to explain to your parents and ask theirs as well.”
“But they were at Danny’s school play and it’s not like they even had a cellphone, much less would’ve had it on, and we were like a mile from home when you found me. It would’ve been hours before you could talk to them.”
Augustin ducked his head, then straightened to meet Maddie’s eyes. “And we planned it that way.”
Maddie stared at him. “What?” Bethany folded her arms across her chest and glowered at the unicorn.
“The Communion chose the optimal time to approach you. At that time, we felt that it best to approach you alone, when there would be no one to interfere. We feared that if your parents were present, they might convince you not to join us. When we realized we had the opportunity to catch you alone and far from your relations, we took it.”
“You planned that?”
“And you never told me?”
The unicorn turned his head to one side. “I am sorry, Madeleine.”
“You’re sorry?” Bethany clutched the weeder against her folded arm, indifferent to the dirt being ground into her shirt. “How do you think we felt, weeks turning to months and no trace of our daughter anywhere in the world, wondering what had happened to her, fearing she was dead or worse?”
“He was trying to save an entire world here, Mom.”
But Augustin was shaking his head. “No. Your mother is correct. Doing evil in the name of the greater good does not turn it to good, nor does it excuse it. Madeleine was an adult as my people reckon such matters -- ”
“She was sixteen!”
“I was almost seventeen!”
“ -- but not as yours do. We were wrong to solicit your aid without consulting your parents as well. I regret our error. Were it in my power to rectify it now, I would. But I fear all I may do is strive to do better in the future.”
Bethany tapped the dirt-stained fingers of her gardening glove against the opposite bicep, scrutinzing the unicorn’s expression. “Are you just saying that because it’s what I want to hear, Mr. Augustin?”
Maddie added, “And he didn’t try to catch me alone this time, Mom.”
Bethany sucked in her breath. “So that’s why’s he here! I should’ve known! You’re not going to let him to take you away again, are you? It’s not my permission you should be asking for that, not now.”
“Well ... um ... ” Maddie glanced at the dappled unicorn.
Augustin dropped into another graceful bow. “It is not your permission, but your aid that I seek this day, Mrs. Gerstein.”
The middle-aged woman took a step back. “My aid? With what?”
“My world is once against threatened by the Gloaming. Without the White Fire, all of the Mended Lands shall surely be consumed. Only a female of your line may wield the White Fire.” Augustin rose from his bow to watch Bethany’s face as he finished. “Will you travel to the Mended Lands with me and lend us your power, ma’am?”
Bethany touched the fingers of one hand to her chest. “Me? But ... but ... Maddie?”
“I ... I don’t want to leave Ken and the kids, Mom. They need me.” Maddie raised her hands. “I know, I know, you and Dad and Steve and Kilroy needed me too twelve years ago, and I left anyway but ... this is different. Or maybe it’s just the same and I’m different. I don’t know, Mom. I just thought ... well.”
“Mph.” Bethany put the weeder in her pocket and peeled off her gardening gloves. “Let me just grab my emergency bag and I’ll be right back.”
“Then -- then you’ll do it?” Maddie asked, hastening to follow as Bethany strode towards her house.
Bethany glanced back over her shoulder. “It’s his whole world at stake, isn’t it? Of course I’ll do it!”