In the moon’s thin light the world had turned gray and grainy. Ludwilla knelt on soft moss that sank by a few inches beneath her weight. She squinted under the low branches of a tree. She could feel the cool wetness of the moss seeping through her dress but she didn’t shift. She held her breath.
A dim light illuminated a grouping of leaves some way off. She heard nothing yet but that didn’t mean much. The light flickered on again a little closer, only for a brief moment. She made out part of a dim sillhouette this time.
This was it. Months of searching had led to this moment. At long last, despite all odds, she was going to see the mythical, impossible…
“Is that it?” hissed a voice from behind her.
Ludwilla wanted to groan in disgust, but even now, knowing that all was lost, she watched in silent hope that by some miracle the unicorn had not heard Kimmet’s oafish whisper. There was no more movement and no more light. She sighed and rolled back on her heels, turning a glare on her brother.
“I told you to stay at the camp,” she growled, rising to her feet and brushing dirt from her palms.
“I wanted to see,” Kimmet said sulkily.
“So did I,” Ludwilla said through her teeth. “I almost did, too. It was right there.”
There was no use in yelling at Kimmet, no matter how much she dearly wanted to. He was young and impulsive, and just as eager to find a unicorn as Ludmilla was, though Granna Vah had told him he wasn’t ready for that quest yet.
“Come,” she sighed, “at least we can look for hoof prints.”
They found none, of course. There were marks that something large had come through the wood, but whatever it had been, it had stepped carefully, making its way on exposed roots and dry ground.
Granna Vah smiled sympathetically when Ludmilla and Kimmet returned to camp with gloomy expressions.
“Eat,” she ordered, pointing to a boiling stew hanging from a thick pot over the fire.
She hummed while the children ate, gazing at the starry sky with old, milky eyes. She hooked her age-worn pipe into her mouth and lit it, puffing thoughtfully as her gaze now took in her grandchildren. They both knew that she could barely make out their shapes anymore, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t see plenty.
“You’re going about it the wrong way,” she decided.
“I’ve done everything that you did, Granna Vah,” Ludwilla said.
“Hmm,” Granna Vah hummed as she puffed thoughtfully. “Perhaps that’s the problem,” she mused. “Why would we assume that unicorns don’t learn from their past as we do? They have been hunted and hurt by so many. Wouldn’t you grow more careful if that were your fate?”
Ludwilla scowled. Was Granna Vah intentionally comparing their life to that of a unicorn? Did she wish for Ludwilla and Kimmet to feel guilt over their pursuits? She had assigned them this task in the first place.
When Granna Vah had arrived to claim them after their parents had died, Ludwilla had suspected that her wild tales of touching a unicorn in her youth had been meant to distract them from their grief. That and to make the long journey away from what remained of their destroyed village more bearable. They traveled in her patchwork wagon by day and set camp each twilight, most often in the sheltering arms of a dark forest rather than taking chances near cities or villages. War threatened everywhere and if robber gangs didn’t strip you of your possessions and possibly your life, the authorities likely would.
It didn’t take long before Ludwilla also put it together that they were being pursued. Granna Vah’s careful listening was attuned to something specific. Every time they heard the distant sound of hooves her head cocked intently and then she’d relax, seemingly satisfied. They had hidden from all kinds of travelers in their days on the road, from wide-eyed families fleeing the war to cool-eyed thieves to armored soldiers with large, terrifying weapons. Whatever Granna Vah feared, she considered it worse than the thieves and soldiers.
Still, Granna Vah made it almost easy to forget these things with her magical tales by day and small quests for the children before bedtime. Each night she sent them into the shadowed forests seeking one thing or another. Often it was for herbs or mushrooms for the supper stew but sometimes they were sent out in search of more illusive things. Mythical things. Granna Vah was clear in her instructions on those occasions that should they spy one of these beings they were meant to watch, not to touch. Unless they happened upon a unicorn, that is.
“If the unicorn allows you to touch it,” she’d say, “by heaven, don’t be rude. Give it a caress along the neck and introduce yourself using all of your best manners.”
Ludwilla and Kimmet had come upon many forest creatures in those searches but none of them mythological. Funnily, none of the wild animals had bothered them. Not even wolves, which Ludwilla had been taught to fear from a young age. Just as they seemed protected from troubles on the long winding road, they seemed also accepted by the watching creatures of the forests.
It wasn’t until Ludwilla made this observation that she began to take Granna Vah’s words more seriously. There was something about Granna Vah that made the impossible seem like it might spring out around the next tree.
Ludwilla began to dedicate her efforts to learn from the old woman with earnestness. She learned how to employ the arts of silence and patience. She began to catch glimmers of light through the trees when she went questing alone. Granna Vah stopped giving Ludwilla anything but the unicorn quest. It was as if she sensed, as did Ludwilla, that she was getting close. Recently, what struck Ludwilla as odd, was that the near sightings seemed to happen nightly now, no matter which forest they searched. For such an illusive creature, they seemed to be everywhere.
Ludwilla’s mind swam with images of nearly sighted lights as she and Kimmet curled under blankets in the wagon and closed their eyes to sleep. She had nearly drifted into larger dreams when the sounds of distant hooves pulled her back. It was late for a single rider to be traveling at such a leisurely pace. The clop clop was steady and unhurried in its approach. What sent jangles of fear thrumming through Ludwilla’s nerves was that the small sounds of Granna Vah’s movements around the fire had gone utterly still. Ludwilla knew, with certainty, that this was the pursuer Granna Vah’s listening had anticipated.
Ludwilla pulled her way slowly to the patchwork curtain and peeked out. The fire had been extinguished. Small patches of moonlight speckled the remains of their camp. She couldn’t see Granna Vah. Their mare, Ulsa, was no longer tethered to her tree. The sound of hoof-falls were close on the nearby road now. Ludwilla’s stomach dropped when they finally broke from their steady rhythm and slowed.
“John,” Ludwilla heard Granna Vah say in way of greeting.
She heard a man chuckle. Ludwilla couldn’t take it anymore. Using every ounce of stealth she’d learned in her quests she crept from the wagon and across the moss of their temporary camp then followed along the small path they’d negotiated for their cart back to the road. They had covered the track with tangles of wild roses and Ludwilla crouched behind this screen in silence.
“You still can’t have it,” Granna Vah said to the looming shadow of a man on a dark horse.
“Vah,” the man said through a smile, “I’m not here for the unicorn just yet. When the time comes, I’ll be the one to kill the last of its kind. I’ve told you this. And here I am, looking the same as when we last spoke, thirty years ago, to prove to you that I meant what I said. I exist outside of time as you think of it. My statement about the unicorn was not a threat, it was merely a truth that has happened for me already, but not yet happened in this strand of time.”
He slid from his mount and approached Granna Vah, kneeling before her and raising his face into a patch of moonlight. Granna Vah reached out and caressed his face, shaking her head.
“How?” she asked.
The stranger, John, took one of Granna Vah’s hands and kissed its palm.
“You’re still beautiful,” he said.
“I can’t leave them yet,” Granna Vah said.
Ludwilla’s eyes went wide as Granna Vah wrapped her other arm around John’s neck and stepped closer to him. There was such intimacy between them, this young man and her grandmother.
“I’m afraid it is time,” John said almost sadly. “Ludwilla is strong and will look after them. You’ve taught her well.”
“It will fall on her to keep you away from them and I haven’t warned her yet about you.”
“She’s watching us right now,” he said.
Ludwilla gasped and rose to her feet.
“Come,” John said, looking directly at her and waving her forward.
He had a wide, easy smile on his face that did nothing to ease Ludwilla’s worries. She moved past the screen of wild roses and stepped onto the cart grooves of the forest road. Granna Vah released John and moved to Ludwilla’s side, taking her hands and giving them a warm squeeze.
“It’s up to you now,” she said. “You’ll look after Kimmet, I know you will. And you’ll keep this man away from the unicorns.”
“Why are you nice to him?” Ludwilla demanded. “If he’s saying he’s going to kill off the last of the unicorns why would you tolerate him at all?”
“Because she still loves me,” John said in a soft voice.
Granna Vah’s eyes closed and her head drooped.
“That isn’t a good enough reason,” Ludwilla snapped. Granna Vah flinched but she didn’t care. “Not nearly good enough. If you know they’re in danger, from him, then it’s your duty to protect them.”
John’s smile broadened.
“That’s my girl,” he breathed.
Ludwilla’s head swiveled up. “I am not your girl,” she said icily.
“Mm, but you are,” John said. “In a handful of years we’ll speak again and you’ll be ready to listen. Until then, think over these words. When I do kill the last unicorn, it will be to transform it into something new. Something this world and many other worlds need desperately. I will do this with the unicorn’s consent, and it will be you who helps me. But your duty as sentinel will not be finished. There will be a remnant of the unicorn that you and your family will have to protect from the world, and it will be a far more difficult job to do.”
He approached and set his hands on Granna Vah’s small shoulders. Granna Vah’s milky eyes met Ludwilla’s and in her gaze was kindness, love, and that look she gave to tell her grandchildren that she believed they could accomplish the quest she had given them. Then they were gone. Ludwilla stood alone on the cold dark road spotted by bits of moonlight.
Ludwilla ran. She didn’t care what noise she made as she crashed through the dark forest. She gave no thought to safety against night predators or any of Granna Vah’s teachings. What had those been worth anyhow? She ran until her lungs hurt and she could no longer see through the wall of water in her eyes. Then she fell to her knees and wept properly.
She didn’t notice the light until something brushed against her shoulder. Looking up, she saw the long white face of a horse, its soft lips nuzzling her cheek. A long spiral horn angled over her from the unicorn’s forehead. From somewhere at the back of her mind she remembered the instructions to be polite.
“I’m honored to meet you,” she said through her tears. “My name is Ludwilla.”
The unicorn bowed lower, brushing its horn across her shoulder. Instantly her grief was gone. She felt strong and clear-minded. She rose to her feet and brushed her hand along the unicorn’s neck.
“I’m going to protect you,” she said quietly. “That man John thinks he’s going to come along and kill you but I won’t let him. I won’t let anyone harm you.”
Wisdom gazed out of the unicorn’s dark eyes. It rubbed its head against her in an almost playful manner before turned and cantered out of sight. Ludwilla returned to her brother and their patchwork wagon, and their mare, Ulsa, who was nearby munching on grasses. Everything looked different to her somehow. Perhaps it was she would was different. She didn’t feel the traveling child anymore. She had a purpose in her heart and she’d stop at nothing to achieve it.
The unicorns would live. They’d live. She and Kimmet would make sure of it.