“I will do it,” I said, as we approached the wall. “It must be my job.”
“No,” Jessica said, much to my relief. Her eyes were filled with the same dread and uncertainty the rest of us were feeling, but with an undercurrent of excitement to it as well. “It is my job. I was born for this.” She pointed to the silver scar on her forehead, now almost glowing in the strange glow that was emanating from the wall.
“Don’t talk abut destiny to me, I snapped at her, then instantly regretted it. “I mean, our family has been fighting destiny for all our lives. It is a load of crock.”
“No, An” she said again. “I don’t know if it’s destiny or not, but it falls to me.” She pointed again to her forehead. “Your family does not bear the mark, and you do not bear the mark. I can’t deny it, I’m descended from unicorns.” She turned and looked over at Peter. “I’m sorry, Peter. I don’t know what will happen to me if I do this. But I must open the door. I might be killed, or anything might happen to me.”
“Oh, Jessica”, he said, using the same oddly accented form of her name as he always did, “I wish, I wish,
She reached out to him, and they collapsed in each other’s arms. Tomlin and I looked at each other, and then both turned away, letting Peter and Jessica have a few minutes of privacy, what little they could get. Jessica was almost sobbing, but was able to contain herself. “What is done is done,” she said. “Let’s get on with it.”
She turned to face the cliff wall. “You best get out of the way. It could be dangerous.”
I couldn’t know for certain, but was pretty sure that the wall was right against the cavern Tomlin and I had found, with the unicorn horns all stacked and arranged, pointing at the one wall. If so, there was a lot of magic focused at the keyhole we could just barely see in the center of the wall. The air was fairly crackling with it. Jessica’s hair was all static with it, the wispy whiteness of it looking more cobwebby than ever.
Tomlin, Peter, and I rushed to scramble up the rocks to the side of the bare rock-wall face. Funny that no one had ever noticed the blank smoothness of the wall before, with all the rough rock cliffs surrounding it. Even we had not noticed it when we first entered the park, and picnicked right in front of that wall, was it two days ago? But this was just Ringgelf Forest. Everything that was to be known was known about it long ago, nothing interesting happened here, and hadn’t since the unicorns that no one believed in anymore had left. How long ago was that? A thousand years?
Jessica waited until we were well hid behind the rocks, then put her hand up to her neck, and pulled out the ivory key on its chain. Now we knew it was made of unicorn horn, not really ivory, as had long been thought. She held it in front of the almost glowing rock wall. The magics in the air whipped around her, blowing her jacket and hair. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and plunged the key into the keyhole.
The wall in front of her instantly dissolved into a glowing circle of light, expanding as it did so. For a minute or so it looked like we might have not gotten far enough back from it, but it did not quite reach us. Thick beams of white magic flowed out of the circle, clearing paths down the hill, out of the rocks and trees. Jessica screamed as one of the beams caught and enveloped her, hiding her from our sight with its brightness. Her screams went on and on, changing until they almost sounded like a horse’s cry. When we could see again, there was a pure white unicorn standing where Jessica had been moments earlier. But we had no time to figure out what was going on. The white circle was now filled with thunderous sounds, and a strong wind came from it. Shadows filled it, which turned first into horse-like figures, and then more clearly, unicorns, breaking out of it, and rushing down the paths. Many, many, unicorns flowed out of it, the air was filled with the thunder of their hooves. The white unicorn stood pawing the ground in front of the circle, which now was obviously a portal of some kind, while the other unicorns raced around it. Bright sunlight could be seen through the portal, overwhelming the soft moon and starlight of the tree-filled valley. Still the unicorns came, filling what could be seen of the valley, continuing to flow out under the trees. I don’t know how long they continued to come, but I could still see the white unicorn standing, its horn pointed to divide the unicorns in two groups as they passed it, though they joined together again once they did.
At last, though, the flow of unicorns stopped. The ones nearest the portal turned to look at the unicorn still standing there. It turned from the portal, and faced the crowd of unicorns. I could see it shivering.
Out of the multi-colored mass of unicorns, three picked their way to the front, and came and touched their horns to the ground in front of the white unicorn. One was a dark roan, with a creamy colored horn, one was dappled brown and white, with a white horn, and the third was pure white, but with a black horn and hooves, quite striking in their contrast.
We figured that it might be safe to come down now, since everything was starting to calm down. So Tomlin, Peter, and I clambered down over the rocks. The white unicorn that had stayed by the gate rushed over and put its horn on Peter’s shoulder. “Oh, Peter, I’m so scared. What’s happened to me?” it said, with Jessica’s voice.
Peter started back. “Jessica?” he asked. “Is that you? You’ve turned into a unicorn?”
The three unicorns from the crowd arrayed themselves around Jessica the unicorn.
“Welcome, child, and thank you,” said the dappled unicorn.
“You have opened the gate for our return,” said the white and black unicorn.
“Now you shall be our queen,” said the white and black unicorn.
“I don’t know how to be a queen,” Jessica said, her voice trembling. “I just want to be a girl again. What happened to me?”
“Only a unicorn could open the gate again, and it could only be opened from this side,” the roan unicorn said. “So, you took on the unicorn form. Did you not know that you were descended from the unicorn children?”
The dappled one sighed, and clicked her teeth. “I think you forget, friend, how long it has been since we were on this side of the gate, and how short the human’s memory is. We have memories in our horns, and the horns of the ancients, and memories of memories of our ancestors, kept for our children. But humans do not.”
“We’ve got books,” I said, not willing to let the unicorns have all the say.
“And pictures and paintings,” Peter said.
“And TV and computers,” Tomlin said. “Many ways to look things up.”
“But things sometimes still get lost over time, yes?” the roan unicorn pressed.
“Well, ye. . . yes, sometimes,” I admitted. “After a thousand years, many things get turned into legend or forgotten. Most people don’t believe the unicorns were ever anything more than myth. I almost didn’t believe it myself.”
“I didn’t believe it,” Jessica said, with a little shudder. “I’m not sure I believe it yet, even now. I’ll wake up and find this is all a dream.”
The dappled one sighed and touched horns with her. “You came into this all unexpectantly, child, didn’t you? We should have thought, but then we didn’t realize how long it would be before the time was ripe for our return. But we’ll be here to help you. And you now have your people to consider, and care for.”
Jessica tossed her head wildly. “Do you mean I’ll always be like this? And what did you mean that I’ll be your queen?”
The white and black unicorn came up to Jessica, and again touched her horn to the ground. “You have opened the door, so you are the one chosen to be queen, in this time, and this place. We are the matriarchs chosen to be your councilors, until you’ve learned enough to chose your own advisers.”
“But I don’t wish to be the queen,” Jessica said. “I had dreams, I had plans, I had things I was going to do.”
“We understand, dear one,” said the dappled unicorn. “But we can no longer change you back into your human form, even if we wished to. The ones who set up this magic returned to their ancestors long before we were born, and only the horns that set the spell can change it. And surely those horns turned to dust when the magic was tapped.”
Then Peter came forward, and knelt before the unicorns. “Then, if you cannot change Jessica back, can you make me a unicorn?”
“No, Peter!” Jessica cried. “I can’t let you sacrifice for me.”
“It’d be more of a sacrifice without you.”
“But you must not give up your art. Your paintings, your sketches, All the dreams we had for you, they’ve got to go on.”
“Why? What would be the point of them without someone to share them with?”
The dappled unicorn cleared her throat. “We are all impressed with your display of devotion, young man.” I could swear there was an undercurrent of amusement behind the obvious sincerity in her voice. “But, alas, it is of no avail. You are a man, fully adult. It is impossible to change you.”
“I’m only a couple months older than Seek,” Peter said, using the nickname everyone else called her, for the first time.
“Our queen was one of the unicorn children. Indeed, one who’s blood flowed nearly pure. It was easier to change her than it would be to change you, who have not a trace of unicorn anywhere in your heritage. And even so, I doubt that even within the year, perhaps even six months, that it’d be possible to change her.”
“Oh, Peter,” said Jessica.
He reached over and hugged her, and she rested her head on his shoulder, and they stood there for a long moment, not seeming to move, or even to breathe. The portal dimmed to just bare rock again behind them. The unicorns in the valley began to wander off to farther parts of the woods, vanishing into the park.
“Do not fear, child,” the dappled unicorn said, when Peter and Jessica at last broke their embrace. “You shall find that you fit into your new life.”
“But I know nothing about ruling,” Jessica said. “I don’t even know anything about being a unicorn.”
“We shall teach you everything you need to know. But there is one thing that you know that none of us do. That is what the people of this time are like, and how to get along with them.” The dappled unicorn sighed. “And we shall need that knowledge. If there is one thing that our long exile taught us, it is that we do not need humans as an excuse to go to war.”
After that, there seemed to be little more left to say. Peter, Tomlin, and I made our way back to our tentsite to sleep for what little remained of the night, and what little we could sleep.
I awoke before dawn, and found Peter seated by the fire, sketching, unicorn heads, horns, feet. “You need to rest, Peter,” I said.
“I can’t rest, I must get it down. I need to draw it.” His eyes met mine, with a determined wildness to him. “I must paint.”
And paint he did. When we returned to the city, he went to work, painting in every spare moment for days, not taking time to sleep until he was dead on his feet, only eating because his friends kept shoving sandwiches into his hands when he put the brush down for a moment.
You have seen the result, no doubt. It hangs in the Telian National Art Gallery, and copies of it are found in textbooks and art books the world over. “The Return of the Unicorns”, showing the white unicorn facing the lit portal, with the unicorns as shadows just barely visible in it. A masterpiece, But only a few of us know the truth behind it.