art by Jason Stirret
To Maintain the Balance
by Jamie Lackey
Ellandra followed the unicorn deeper and deeper into the dying wood. She saw it only as flashes of white in the sunlight that filtered through the brown leaves, but it had to be a unicorn. Unicorns maintained the balance in the world, and her land was dying before its time. They couldn't allow this to continue.
Ellandra stopped to rest at every tree, her thin chest aching with each breath. Her legs trembled beneath her, and her hands were weak and clumsy, clutching at crumbling bark.
Once, she'd won daily footraces against crowds of eager suitors.
But one of them had reacted badly to being scorned, and had cursed her, her people, and her homeland.
The unicorn could lift her curse and heal her land. She had to catch it, had to plead her case.
She pushed away from the tree, careful not to stumble on its twisting roots. She couldn't afford to fall. There was no one left to pick her up. Everyone else was dead or dying, wasting away, drowning on dry land.
She thought of her father, gasping and writhing in his sick bed, never once uttering a word of blame.
She should have just married one of her suitors. But none of them had pleased her, and she had no desire to mother babies and stand behind the throne.
She swallowed the ache in her throat, coughed against the heaviness in her chest, and forced her feet forward, step by awkward step, struggling from tree to tree, following sporadic flashes of white.
She stumbled into a clearing. The undimmed sunlight stung her eyes, her knees gave out, and she clutched for something, anything, to keep her from falling. Her fingers brushed soft horsehair, and she clung to it.
The unicorn stood next to her, shining in the sunlight like fresh snow. Its horn glowed with a pearly, white light, and it smelled like peonies, cinnamon, and lightning. It huffed warm breath against Ellandra's cheek.
"Hello," Ellandra said. Her voice sounded strange in her ears--rusted and wilted and crumbling, like everything else she'd once loved.
The unicorn stepped back, pulling Ellandra forward, and she glimpsed the chair behind it, in the shade at the fringes of the clearing.
It was delicately carved from thousands of tiny bones, and pure white as the unicorn's coat.
"What is that?" Ellandra asked. But she knew. It was a throne, built for long dead queens to rule from.
Once a queen sat down, she never rose again. She ruled with perfect authority over her land until her strength failed. Then her bones became part of the throne, her life part of their legend.
The unicorn nudged her toward the throne, but she clung tighter to its mane.
"No, wait. I don't understand. I--I want you to heal me. Please. You have to undo this. I--I never meant for this to happen. It's not my fault. I don't deserve this."