When we finally landed some hours later, I found my legs unwilling to support me as I clumsily dismounted the giant bird. I would have collapsed to the ground if it weren’t for the sudden appearance of a dark-haired gentleman at my side, holding me up by my arm. “Careful,” he cautioned with a bit of an amused smile. “It takes a while to get your land legs back.”
I wondered where exactly he had come from, but as I looked around and saw there were five other gentlemen, I suddenly realized something.
“They are my brothers,” the proud Queen strode towards me. “Luckily for you, one of them was willing to carry you all this way.”
“My lady.” I fell to my knees. At this moment, I was truly terrified for my life. “Had I known that these unicorns were yours, had I a chance to do this all over again—“
“What would you do, young hunter?” She asked quietly, watchfully.
“Let them go,” I answered, truly ashamed how I had hesitated to do so just days before.
She said nothing for a moment, before nodding. “Then rise, Hunter. You shall do that now.”
Obediently I followed her to where the unicorns stood, comforting one another. She looked at them with a gentle expression before turning steely blue eyes upon me. “Undo their shackles, hunter.”
“But the key—“ I looked down at the irons, wondering what to do about them.
The Queen touched her wooden staff to metal items that bound the girl and child. With each touch, I heard a small click. And then with an eyebrow raised, she turned back to address me. “You do not need a key anymore.”
With all eyes upon me, I knelt before the two unicorns. I reached out with trembling hands towards those metal irons, then stopped — paralyzed by the decision of who to free first.
“Hunter,” the girl breathed softly. “The little one first, please. He said the metal hurts him so—“
Lily’s compassion for my apparent indecisiveness was humbling. As gently as I could, I removed the shackles from the child who was watching me with rounded and slightly fearful eyes. But when I finally freed him, the fear vanished and he made a small joyful sound. While he began to dance in place, I turned as quickly as I could then to undoing the metal pieces on the girl. When finished, I sat there on one knee, frozen and unable to look up from the ground.
A set of hands came to rest lightly on my hair. “Mister Hunter,” the young lady patted my head. I looked up at her face and regarded the kindest, purest eyes I would ever see. “Do not worry. This was the way it had to be.” Her words were mysterious then, but in time I would come to understand them.
With the girls’ last words to me, the Queen bid me to rise. My judgment had finally been issued. My punishment was delivered. And somehow, I had received mercy.
With the matter between the girl and I addressed, the Queen turned her full attention to the girl. “Now free creature, do you know who you are?”
“Yes, my Queen,” Lily’s expression was grave.
“And is it your wish to be changed back to your true self?”
A look of uncertainty crossed Lily’s face and, for a moment, I saw her hesitate. But when the younger unicorn took her hand into his, she nodded. “It is my wish, my Queen.”
Solemnly, the Queen answered, “Your wish has been heard. “ She leaned over then to kiss the girl on the cheek. That act was followed by the brothers each stepping forward to kiss the blushing girl’s hand.
When they had concluded the ritual, the Queen smiled as did her brothers. “Your wish has been witnessed.” She then tapped her staff on the ground once before raising it to the sky. With a large voice, she spoke to the air. “And your wish now will be granted.”
At those words, the winds began to blow violently. In that sudden storm, Lily stood with her eyes closed and her face upturned towards the sun. As for the rest of us — I looked around me and saw the varied shades of expectation playing out on faces– young and old, sad and placid. Like her, we waited for something magical to happen.
“Do not look away,” the Queen spoke, directing my attention back to the girl. “Now you will see a miracle that few other humans have seen.” I turned my gaze upon the lovely creature’s face, noting the scar on Lily’s forehead appearing to close.
The wind stopped then and there was a ripple of childish laughter, a bubbling sound emanating from the younger unicorn to break the silence. He hopped about, changing from child to beast in an instant. The Queen’s brothers laughed as the small horse ran excitedly about the lovely girl in circles of ever changing size.
Lily followed, testing her unchained feet. She ran cautiously at first, unused to the experience of freedom. But then she began to run with great laughter and great strides, running until she fell into a ray of sunlight streaming through the canopy of the forest. As the warm light fell upon her golden hair, I caught a glimpse of a fully formed horn on her forehead. And then I finally understood the Queen’s miracle.
For a moment, I shielded my eyes against the sudden light that reflected strongly from the unicorn’s white dress and her yellow hair. After I moved my hand out of my sight, I saw her no more. There was no human girl there — only a white creature chasing a much smaller horse into the forest.
The woman in blue drew up alongside me, watching the unicorns disappear like ghosts into the trees.
“It’s a beautiful sight,” the Swan Queen said.
I swallowed, deeply moved what I had witnessed. “The unicorns?”
She took my arm then, performing a very human gesture. “Unicorns are beautiful no matter how many times you see them. But there is something more wonderful a sight than even the unicorn.”
I wondered truly what that could be – for it was unimaginable to me that anything could be so purely beautiful as those creatures.
Her eyes took on a very far away look. “Today the greed that took her horn away was undone and Lily was restored to her true self with her memories intact. Today, she was also restored to a family she did not know.”
“That was due to your intervention–”
“No.” She looked off into the woods. “The credit goes to the child. He wandered out here to look for his lost sister. One of my subjects had spotted him while flying a while back and we came here looking for him, concerned by the sight of a small unicorn so far away from the others like him. We would have reached him had your troupe not caught him.”
Although she had not likely meant to cast blame, when she said those words I felt a queer sort of anger that we… I… had interfered. A band had caught him, but one man had failed by letting that happen.
As if she could read my thoughts, the woman known as the Swan Queen turned me to face her. “Do not worry. The girl is right. Things had to unfold this way for a reason. ” With a mysterious smile, she looked back east. “When you return to the capital, you will see that the restoration continues.”
Branwen would later tell me that hours after we had fled the city on the wings of swans, the people had been galvanized into action, punishing the cruel king and vain queen with exile, and putting the ridiculous court magicians out to sea. The restoration that the Queen spoke of not only was to the lives of two creatures, but to an entire nation. But not knowing this, I could only naively ask, “Will it be safe to go back?”
The Queen held her staff tightly for a moment before answering. “If necessary, we will make it safe, my brothers and I.” And in that moment I saw deep sadness in her face as she turned to look at her brothers, now six swans again. In response, the six men — now swans — bowed their necks, solemnly laying witness to her statement while the sound of their feathers rustled in the wind.
There was something more to that statement. I could hear the allusion to a deeper purpose for those seven. I did not ever have a chance to ask what that might be, for they flew away a few minutes later.
The Queen and her brothers disappeared completely from our lands shortly thereafter. As she had foretold, a balance was restored to the kingdom I called home. With a new, more peaceful ruler in place, I retired from the service and took the noble Branwen as my wife once I convinced her to have me.
It is at her insistence that I commit this story to paper. It may seem peculiar to some that I do so, but I do this because I want people to remember that something special once happened in our now quite ordinary kingdom. And so I write this epistle from the table in our little home that we built near that special place where we caught the unicorns. We settled here to be far, far away from the mischievous kings and queens of this world and closest to the magic that we believe still runs through this land.
From time to time, I roam the western paths with my sons in tow. Occasionally when we walk these green trails, I think I see a flash of white out of the corner of my eye and hear the sound of laughter on the winds. When the children ask why I pause in my walk, I think of Lily and her brother playing again upon these green trails.
I tell them to whisper as we stand, looking at the sunlight streaming down through the forest canopy. I tell them to be quiet, lest we scare the unicorns.
And when they — round-eyed and innocent– look up to ask me if I believe in unicorns, I smile as I tell them:
“Yes, the unicorns walk among us.”