Last of the UnicornsbyOnyxwolf©
Authors Note: This story is long and will take a bit of time to read. It's closer to short novelette than short story. Enjoy!
The morning dawned misty and quiet, the birds hushed and the wind stilled in the presence of magic itself. She walked deliberately and slowly from her thicket in the depths of the wood, moving down the time traveled path toward the mirror like surface of the deep black lake at the center of the wood. Her passage made barely a sound and her tracks were non existent with the light deftness of her steps. She paused at the edge of the dark water and waited, the silence was deafening as the time drew near.
She slid to her knees at the waters edge and bowed her head as the first rays of the sun streaked across the black water. The twisted spire of her horn dipped into the water and began to send ripples across the flat surface. Light spread from the tip of her horn and flashed outward beyond the lake's surface and into the forest to usher in a new season of growth and prosperity. The unicorn got back to her feet and looked out over the forest and surrounding mountains, another year past.
Sir Gavin de Mocrief never believed the stories that these woods were overrun with demons and spirits but he still felt uneasy when riding through them. His men at arms flanked his desterier following in a column two deep, enough men to fight off a sizable force but the unease remained. Gavin was tired; the long ride back from spending months in service to the king had left him achy and disgruntled. Before long they would need to stop and rest for awhile, trap some game to eat and rest the horses. They wouldn't reach the castle before dark fall.
The squall of crows alerted the animals of the forest to the intrusion of men in their sanctuary. The unicorn lifted her elegant head and turned her ears to the south pass where the procession of men passed through her forest. She snorted and lashed her long lion-like tail against her flank; men were never a good thing.
Gavin called a halt in a small meadow that broke the expanse of forest for a few hundred yards. The horses were hobbled and unbridled to allow them to eat; saddles were left on in case a rapid exit was needed. The men set about making a small make shift camp, spreading out to eat and rest for a few hours before they would begin the last leg of their journey.
"My Lord Gavin." A young squire approached quickly. "Shall we set out to seek game for the fire?"
"No Lucas, I believe I could use a bit of a diversion for awhile, I will see what game I can bring down." Gavin smiled and picked up his crossbow and quiver of bolts.
Gavin walked slowly into the quiet forest, listening for the sound of birds and the chatter of squirrels and other small animals. Nothing. The entire forest was as silent as a tomb aside from the soft crunching of his footsteps. Gavin felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and a slow creeping chill run through his body as he stalked deeper into the woods.
He had walked for several miles and seen neither hide nor hair of a single animal. Not one fox, rabbit, squirrel, songbird, or deer had crossed his path. He had seen many tracks and spore from different animals, but not one live animal had crossed his vision. Gavin's feeling of unease was growing rapidly as he stalked through the scrub bushes. He paused along a game trail and settled down into a stand of thick bushes, rubbing mossy mud over his skin to help mask his scent he settled down to wait.
Time could be very subjective of a thing but Gavin knew it had been at least two hours and not a single animal had crossed his field of vision. He looked down over the game trail and down the slope of the hill to the creek running below. Not even fish seemed to be in the bubbling stream, it was as though every animal within miles had taken to ground at the sight of them. Gavin was puzzling over this when he heard the snap of a branch and the sound of hoof beats. He knocked a bolt into the crossbow and waited silently.
The young deer was nervously moving down the game trail. Its hide was still sprinkled with the fading white spots that had helped him hide as a fawn in the dappling light of the forest. The young stag had the beginnings of velveteen covered antlers atop his head and the big brown eyes of innocence all deer retained. Gavin waited for the deer to move into a shot, following his progression with the crossbow. The deer was just steps away from being in the perfect firing position.
A high pitched scream broke the silence and the stag bolted back into the woods, double timing it as he flew over the hill and out of sight. Gavin cursed violently and jerked his head toward the source of the sound. The crossbow fell to the ground forgotten.
Grace personified the unicorn was a vision out of a fairy tale. Long legged and gracefully built the mare stood watching him, her long gold horn lowered and her ears pinned in a purely equine show of anger. The long lion-like tail cut through the air behind her like a whip as she watched him. Her hide was an ethereal dappled gray, reminiscent yet more beautiful than any horse he had ever seen. The unicorn snorted and pawed the turf with a cloven hoof; her eyes never left Gavin's. Gavin stepped back from the forgotten crossbow. The unicorn snorted a final time and pirouetted and vaulted into the forest, disappearing down the game trail.
Gavin picked up his crossbow and returned to camp. He ordered his men to saddle up and move on, they would not spend any longer in her forest.
Castle Ravens' Keep was an ancient pile. Gavin grimaced at the sight of it, even set against the darkening sky with the fires burning low the disrepair and crumbling of the castle was easy to see. Gavin loved and hated his ancestral home, his father had never bothered to care for the home that would be passed down to Gavin, but then again his father had never cared for anything but himself. Lord Russell de Moncrief was long since departed from this world and sometimes Gavin only wished it had been sooner. His mother still lived in the castle, if one could call her existence living at this point, she was so far into her own dementia that she rarely recognized or remembered Gavin. Russell had broken her spirit and finally her mind, Lady Guinevere de Moncrief was only a shadow of the proud woman she had once been. Gavin rode through the crumbling gates of his home and dismounted to see to his horse.
There was no real greeting at the lord's return, Gavin had no expected there to be. The great hall was dark and cold, the rushes that covered the floor of the hall were several weeks old and very dirty if the smell was any indication. Gavin sighed and turned left heading up the crumbling staircase into the east wing of the castle. His footsteps rang hollow on the dirty stone floor and he turned and entered his chamber, the last one at the end of the hall. Gavin stripped off his leather over tunic and dropped it as he entered the threadbare chamber.
Gavin looked over the chamber. It had been over five years since he had last been home and everything was still exactly where he had left it the night he answered the king's summons. The bed covers had not been changed since that night, the coverlet still tossed back across the bed as he had leapt up from sleep to answer the call to arms. He would see to having the linens cleaned and the chamber aired tomorrow. Tonight just being home made the bed the most appealing in the world.
The unicorn stood on the edge of an outcropping of rocks high atop her mountain home. The breeze was cool and scented with growing things as she gazed down across the forests. In the distance the castle sat in darkness, a decaying monument to the men who had intruded into the quiet valley that had long since been a wilderness refuge. The castle's inhabitants rarely ventured into her forest, they hunted and gathered in the forest on the other side of the river instead. That forest had long ago lost its guardian and was no longer protected by the magic that had kept the men at bay.
The unicorn remembered her sister. Golden in the sun, her sister had been a beautiful creature and a powerful adversary. Her sister's death at the hands of the first lord of the castle had been a blow. After her sister's death the men pillaged the forest for wood, killed the biggest and best trees, hunted the animals of the forest, and gathered food that the surviving animals needed to make it through the winter. The forest across the river was a shadow of its former self, struggling by the day to remain standing.
The unicorn looked to the full moon high in the sky. It was not long before the gathering of the unicorns would begin and the breeding season would be initiated. Each year fewer unicorns arrived in the meadow, fewer still successfully brought forth new unicorns into the world. The unicorn sighed softly. She was the last of her family left alive, Alorna of the Graymoon. She hoped that this year she would be able to breed and bring forth a new generation to protect the forest.
Gavin got up early after a long night of troubled dreams. His mind kept circulating back to the animal in the woods. He strolled down the east wing and turned to walk down the west wing to the quarters his parents had once kept together. To the left of their room was a painting his great grandfather had had commissioned, and it was this painting Gavin sought out this morning. He paused before the painting and studied it in silence, it had always fascinated him as a boy and now it was even more intriguing.
The painting displayed a golden palomino unicorn piked against a huge oak tree with hunting hounds around her feet. The unicorn was impaled by the lance his great grandfather had used to end her life and was displayed in a macabre pose. Her flesh was torn by the dogs and blood was freely flowing from her body while his great grandfather was depicted as the conquering lord atop his war horse in shining glory.
Gavin had long wondered about this painting as it had supposedly depicted a real event that had occurred when the castle was being built, the wood from the great oak tree made up the front doors of the castle and were the only thing in the castle that never seemed to age or decay. The place where the unicorn had died was a short gallop down the riverbank at the edge of the mighty river. The ground there was barren and supported not even scrub grass to this day. It was said that all of his great grandfathers dogs had fallen ill and died within months of the great hunt and his great grandfather had even been struck with a horrible fever he never quite recovered from.
Gavin looked at the golden unicorn in the painting and pictured the ethereal dappled gray unicorn he had seen the day before. He never thought they really existed and he wondered if it was a sign of bad things to come.
"Gavin my dear." Gavin started and turned to face his mother. "Still so fascinated by grandfather's painting. Such a pity that the beauty had to die. But you my dear boy should be downstairs with your tutor, surely you have lessons to finish for the day?"
Gavin smiled kindly at his mother. "Of course mother, I will go to my studies right away. Where is Cecilia?"
"She went to fetch breakfast I believe, such a nice girl." Guinevere wandered back toward her room.
Gavin looked in and made sure she was settled before heading downstairs. She did that sometimes, remembered bits and pieces and still believed Gavin to be a boy of ten. He stopped a maid and instructed her to see to his mother.
The great hall was filled with his men, rested and relieved to be home most of them had already begun to eat breakfast. Gavin smiled as he saw children and wives scattered about the hall, glad to have their men back as well.
"Good morning Lord Gavin!" Marcus his head of the guard cried cheerfully while eating eggs with one hand and bouncing an eight year old girl on his knee. "Did you sleep well my lord?"
"Decently enough." Gavin smiled. "I see Sonia has grown much since our absence."
The little girl blushed and giggled before sliding off her father's knee and dashing over for a quick hug around Gavin's leg. She smiled up at him with her huge blue eyes then darted out the front door to play in the courtyard.
"Indeed my lord. She has her mother's eyes and her father's spirit, mores the pity to that end. She will drive some poor young man to his knees if she doesn't end up trying to join the guard herself." Marcus rolled his eyes.
"I somehow doubt the uniform would suit her." Gavin chuckled. "I know we have been home merely hours Marcus, but I believe that we need to get the men together and see to repairs of the castle. It has gone far too long without cleaning and repairing. I intend to see to its repair first and foremost before any more urgent summons arrives in the night."
Marcus nodded. "Just what I was thinking my lord. It'd be best to start with stonework and move in, the cleaning can be worked on by the maids and women while we work on the masonry and check to see what carpentry is needed."
Gavin talked with Marcus over breakfast, discussing the details of repair work and hiring in some labor from a village down the river. They dispatched two riders to go to two villages within a days ride and recruit workers and began to organize the castle staff to cleaning.
By midday the great hall had been swept clean of dirty rushes, scrubbed to gleaming and the stones recovered with home woven rugs fetched from storage. While not elegant the rugs would cover the stones and be easier to clean and maintain than the rushes. He had the various inhabitants of their town and the castle itself help to scrub the walls of the great hall, clean the two huge fireplaces, polish the furniture and the candelabras, beat out the tapestries and air out the room in general. Gavin had also sent scullery maids to his chamber to see to the changing of the bed linens.
He worked all day with Marcus hauling stone and mixing mortar. The various cracks and collapses in the castles walls would require weeks to mend so they too had started with the great hall and intended to work outward from that central point. There was the East and West wings to check over and repair and also the servants' quarters and kitchens behind the great hall. The mill and blacksmith's shop also needed repairs as well as various out buildings and villagers houses. The walls surrounding the castle and out buildings needed to be completely rebuilt in some places and shorn up in many other spots. Gavin knew that even with extra help from two neighboring villages that it would take months to complete all the work the castle required.
By the time the men retired for the evening and gathered in the great hall for dinner the entire hall was a changed place. Freshly cleaned and aired it no longer held the oppressive air of decay and age. The wood gleamed at a high polish, the stones were scrubbed to their own original luster, and the candelabras and weaponry that hung in the hall were all polished to a high gleam. The tapestries had been replaced on the walls, their vivid colors more easily seen without the years of dust coating them. Gavin smiled as he ate his dinner, satisfied with the hard days work.
His chamber was warm and cherry that evening as well. Gavin noted the bed linens had been changed but also that the room had been scrubbed and the tapestries and draperies cleaned as well. The room had been aired and a warm fire set in the hearth casting its glow over the room to banish the darkness and the cold.
Gavin sat on the edge of the bed and looked over the room. The large chamber had been his since he had moved out of the nursery, the size of it had been the one thing he'd always loved about this room. But it seemed almost too large and too empty tonight.
The weeks had past quickly. Alorna cantered through the forest with elation in her heart. Tonight she would meet a stallion who would sire a foal of her own, a new chapter in her long life, a new beginning. She neighed happily as she dashed from the trees and trotted to the center of the meadow. She looked around herself and snorted quietly, none of the others had yet arrived for the gathering. Alorna grazed as she waited, lifting her head to search the valley as the minutes ticked by into hours.
Alorna felt a deep feeling of dread and fear growing in her as the hour grew late and still no other unicorns had arrived in the meadow. Surely she had not come on the wrong evening. Soon, soon they would arrive, it was just more difficult to travel unnoticed now that the men had become so many in the world. As the witching hour ended Alorna was thoroughly distraught, she whinnied and listened for a reply on the wind, pacing the meadow in frustration. Finally a lone figure broke from the forest and ambled slowly toward her.
The unicorn coming into the meadow was very old, its back was swayed and its legs bowed, the horn on its head was dull and chipped, its head was down and it moved with a slow precision. The unicorn Alorna realized was also a mare. Alorna trotted over to the old mare and gently nuzzled her side.
"Greeting my sister." Alorna greeted the old one.
"Greetings Alorna of the Graymoon." The old mare raised her head, her eyes were milky white and unseeing. "Josana of the Silverlake greets you."
Alorna bowed to the formal introduction and stood alongside the old mare. "It would seem we are the only ones to come this year Josana, though you should not have made the journey at your age."
Josana chuckled. "Alorna my dear, I had to come to set you down your path before I pass on from this world. Alorna, there are no others left to come. The world of man has spread to fast and the unicorns have fallen under that expansion. They are all gone Alorna, all but you and I."
"Surely not Josana." Alorna jerked as though slapped. "There can't be but two unicorns left in the world, who protects the forests and heals the earth if only we remain?"
'The earth grows old and tired Alorna. The scars humans put upon her remain unhealed and the animals die in the wake of the humans advance. We are the last and I am afraid I will not be here much longer myself. Alorna I came to speak with you. As my vision has retreated from me, the second site of our clan has replaced it. And I have had a vision of you my dear."
"Of me?" Alorna looked at the old mares' unseeing eyes.
"Yes, of you. Alorna of the Graymoon the path you must walk will not be an easy one, it is one fraught with pain and despair, a path that will be too painful to walk at times so you must crawl, you must survive to bear a new generation and teach them what they must know." Josana turned to Alorna. "Alorna you must perform the right of Sealing. You must venture into the world Sealed and return to the forest only when you carry within you a new generation. You will bear that new generation here in the forest and raise them to be the beginning of the return of unicorns in this world. Alorna of the Graymoon do you understand what I tell you?"
"Yes Josana I understand, and I will comply to save our race." Alorna lowered her head as she felt the hot sting of tears fill her eyes.
"Thank you Alorna, I know your sacrifice is great but I can pass on in peace for knowing you will save our kind from disappearing forever."