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art by Jason Stirret

To Maintain the Balance

Jamie Lackey earned her BA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. Her fiction has been accepted by over a dozen different venues, including The Living Dead 2, Daily Science Fiction, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her fiction has appeared on the Best Horror of the Year Honorable Mention and Tangent Online Recommended Reading lists. She reads slush for Clarkesworld Magazine and is an assistant editor at Electric Velocipede, and helped edit the Triangulation Annual Anthology from 2008 to 2011. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is now availabe on Amazon.com, and you can find her online at www.jamielackey.com.

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."
The unicorn laid the edge of its horn against her neck. It was flesh--warm and smooth. It pushed against Ellandra's throat, forcing her toward the throne.
"This isn't what I wanted!" Tears streamed down her cheeks. She wrapped both hands around the horn and tried to move it away, but her wasted arms didn't have the strength. The unicorn pushed her back, step by step.
The backs of Ellandra's thighs hit the throne. She stared into the unicorn's gentle eyes. They were the bright purple of spring crocuses.
"Is it really the only way?" Ellandra whispered.
The unicorn nodded once, slowly.
She thought of her people, dying. Of her land, dry and wasted. She wondered how much strength she had left. Would it be enough?
Ellandra sank into her throne. Cold strength flowed through her limbs, and a gale swirled from her throne. It ripped dead leaves from sickened branches, and new buds burst forth. Soft rain fell, and the land greened. Flowers sprouted around the unicorn's feet. It bowed, dipping its head and scraping its horn against the ground. Then it turned and ran, away through the recovering forest.
Ellandra watched it go. The flowers spread across the clearing. She reached down and picked one--a perfect yellow tulip.
She inhaled its scent and closed her eyes.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Author Comments

I have a deep, unabashed love of unicorns in all forms. The Last Unicorn has been one of my favorite movies for as long as I can remember, my husband got me a vinyl unicorn that I could color with permanent markers for Christmas this year, and if I ever get a tattoo, it's going to be a unicorn. I'm so happy to be able to share this story, and my love of unicorns, with you.

- Jamie Lackey
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