The Grey Unicorn
There are two kinds of unicorns, black and white. Though there is no strife between them that men can see, many suspect it is there nonetheless. The groups never mingle. It isn't that they avoid each other; they just never seem to meet. Men in the north, where the winters are cold, say that the white unicorns are the essence of purity and goodness, and the black ones symbols of evil; whereas the men in the south, where skins are darkened by sunlight, believe the opposite. Elves hold that the fair unicorns are beyond good and evil, but then elves say that about many things. In this case however, maybe they are right.
Dersil was no elf, but he had lived in the forest for a great span of years and he looked at the grey unicorn with curiosity. It wasn't just the unusual colour that sparked his interest: he had seen many things, and little could surprise him in his old age. What caught his mind’s eye was that the unicorn was alone. Unicorns normally live in great herds that gallop through the forest, unseen by eyes closed to the secrets of the world. Legend said that lone unicorns were omens - although legend could never quite agree whether the omens were good or evil – and givers of quests to the greatest of heroes. Dersil knew he was no hero and he had long ago learned to read past the words of legend. So he wondered. Would unicorns, like so many other creatures, cast out those they saw as different and was this why the grey was alone? He doubted it. Slowly he got up, trying not to scare the beast. He needn’t have worried; the unicorn didn't stir, just looked at him patiently.
"You're waiting for something, aren't you?" Dersil said, finally. "I can tell." To himself he added, "But what for, I wonder."
"Where's your herd, where're your people, oh prince of the forest?"
The unicorn didn't answer. He hadn't expected it to. He didn't know whether unicorns could speak at all, but without needing words, this one was making it very clear he wanted something. Dersil wondered what it was. He looked the unicorn in the eye and tried to open up its mind, but all he could see there were waves. Not the waves of the sea, but the wave of the herd galloping, the wave of the treetops in the wind, the wave of life. This was what unicorns were: motion; unchanging, but never twice the same. Dersil smiled.
"What is your name, Grey One?” he asked. The unicorn just looked at him, but its eyes widened and for a moment Dersil thought that in those depths of motion he could see … hope.
"Ah," smiled Dersil, "is that what you are looking for? A name?"
The unicorn nodded its head.
Dersil pondered. He knew that names were important; he couldn't just make something up on the spot. Names created legends, and a unicorn was shaped by legend more than it shaped them.
He started walking towards his home, a hut a bit farther up the hill. After a few steps he heard the unicorn falling in line behind him. The sound chilled him ever so slightly; no unicorn’s step should sound so colourless.
The hut stood alone in a clearing. No roads led to or away from it, nor were there any places where frequent travel had created a path. Dersil didn't get many visitors. The inside of the hut gave the impression of chaos, but in an orderly fashion. It was clear that whoever lived here knew exactly where everything was, or at least would be able to find anything with less effort than it took to clean up. A large bookcase was half-filled with books, the rest of its contents carefully spread across the large room, the only room in the hut. There were two books lying on the oaken table, three lay next to the rocking chair in the corner, no less than five were lying next to the bed, and a small pile lay on the floor, leaning against a wall on which a polished wooden lute hung. When Dersil opened the door the breeze plucked the strings of the lute, which whispered the ghost of a song.
"Don't mind the mess," Dersil said apologetically, more for form than for the unicorn, whom he knew wouldn't know the difference anyway.
From his library he chose two books and started paging through them. The unicorn waited for a short while in front of the open door, then walked in and kneeled in a clear spot in the middle of the room to lie down.
Dersil read through the night, working at the small desk lit by candles, getting up only to rummage for a different book.
When the first rays of sunlight pierced the windows and cut the darkness in the hut like a knife, Dersil was fast asleep. The unicorn woke. It saw him still sitting at his desk, his head on the table between two books. The first one showed a richly decorated drawing of a white unicorn on the left-hand page, with its black counterpart on the opposite page. Each image was accompanied by a text in human lettering describing their most striking characteristics. The other book was elvish and showed only the black variety, the white one was described on the other side of the same page.
The unicorn looked for a while and then went outside to eat some leaves from a nearby tree.
Dersil woke shortly afterwards. Sleepy-eyed, he scanned the room. Even though the unicorn was nowhere to be seen, he knew he hadn’t dreamt it. He had made a good living selling dreams, and had learnt to recognise not only his own, but the dreams of others as well. He glanced at the lute on the wall, recalling as he did so the memories of laughter and song, then got up and walked to the door. The unicorn was standing at the edge of the clearing. For a while Dersil watched him. "What do you need me for?" he wondered.
The unicorn turned its head towards him. Dersil would have sworn that its eyes sparkled.
"I can't find you in any of my books," he said at last. "There are white unicorns and black ones but you … you aren't in there." He wondered whether it was any use talking to it. Did it understand? It looked like it did, but he could not see past those eyes and that bothered him. He was used to reading the people he met.
"I cannot give you a name without knowing you better. Will you come with me? We will climb the mountain path where heroes are made."
The unicorn didn't move, it just looked at him. Dersil sighed. Those eyes again.
He started walking; somehow he knew the unicorn would follow.
For an hour they walked, through the forest and over the hillside until they reached the roots of a tall, solitary mountain. It seemed out of place amongst the hills it dwarfed, none of which matched its majesty. Nowhere in a hundred miles was there any peak even half as tall as this one. It was called ‘the seeing eye’ by the local elves because it made an excellent lookout. Dersil had never understood what exactly the elves were looking out for, since, for a hundred miles, there was nothing more interesting than what was right there. Then again, Dersil considered this to be the case no matter where you went. Always, you met people looking away from what you travelled weeks to see. In fact, often they looked at where you came from, the place you left.
"This is the path of heroes. They say only a true hero can reach the top, that it defines who you are," he said to his silent companion. The unicorn looked at him, then at the sand road carved into the landscape by the boots of thousands and finally at Dersil again, who laughed.
"There's no fooling you," he said. "Whatever they may say, I say that there's a good view at the top." To himself he added: “Maybe when we get there, we will see ourselves.”
They walked on in silence for a while, but hadn't got far when they found the road blocked by two of the most majestic unicorns Dersil had ever seen. The larger of the two was a white stallion that stood proud and tall, and looked at him unwaveringly. The smaller was a black mare, slender and graceful. It stood motionless and serene, radiating a calmness that seemed more solid than the mountain itself. The mare, eyes fixed on the young grey, was urging it to act by not acting, by waiting patiently.
"Ah," said Dersil, as he watched the magnificent animals, "that explains a few things."
The white kept its eyes locked upon him. Dersil avoided meeting its gaze, afraid that the stallion would consider it a challenge. He tried moving forward but the white moved to block him. Meanwhile the black mare pressed its nose against the grey's. Dersil wondered what was happening. The two seemed to be talking together, but he couldn't hear anything. He saw that the white had now shifted its attention to the other unicorns. It seemed to listen for a while and then whinnied. The grey looked at him and shook its head. The white reared, kicking the air. The pose reminded Dersil of a drawing of a unicorn in a children's book. The grey took a step towards the white, and looked it straight in the eyes. A few moments later, the stallion turned round brusquely, and galloped away. The black continued to stare at the grey for a while longer before she too turned round and walked away. Before disappearing around a bend in the road, she stopped briefly, and looked round at the grey.
The grey unicorn stood motionless for a long while after the two had gone, its eyes fixed on the bend in the road. Finally, it hung its head and started moving forward again.
"You have your mother’s eyes," said Dersil, who hadn’t moved. The waves in its eyes were slower now, and its bearing radiated an inner sadness as it stood, slightly hunched. "I think I'm starting to understand what you need me for," Dersil said. The unicorn turned its head, and raised it a little, so it could again see the bend behind which the other unicorns had disappeared.
"But now I'm not sure I can help." He paused. "Or whether I should."
The unicorn started walking again, continuing along the mountain path. Dersil sighed and followed. He should have known things were never as simple as they seemed, even if they didn’t seem very simple to begin with.
As they walked, the path started climbing and the forest around them thinned, until they were surrounded by grassland. They weren't alone anymore now: some distance to their right a herd of white unicorns followed quietly, while on the other side a herd of blacks mirrored them, step for step. The grey unicorn didn't look at either of the herds, but held its head low.
"It doesn't have to be like this," said Dersil, shaking his head, "You are free." The unicorn didn't react. "Your path may not be theirs, but it doesn't have to be in the middle. There is no middle."
They walked on in silence, followed on either side by a herd of unicorns. Despite the gloomy mood of his companion, Dersil marvelled at their beauty and elegance. It had been too long since he'd seen unicorns. The herds followed until the path took Dersil and the grey unicorn into a small canyon. When the rocks blocked their view of the other unicorns, the grey’s step seemed to strengthen. It didn’t speed up but Dersil heard the rhythm pick up. He had always had a good ear for rhythm. The unicorn raised its head a little and, for the first time in their short journey, looked around. Until then, Dersil realised, it had been wearing something akin to city horse blinkers, wrought not from leather perhaps, but from something stronger. Doubt, maybe.
For many miles they walked the winding path up the mountain. Dersil didn't speak anymore, he was too consumed by thoughts, wondering what to do. It wasn't fair, he thought, that the grey unicorn tried to put such a heavy decision on his shoulders, but he pitied the poor beast. It was not its fault, after all.
Evening fell, and they stopped. The unicorn didn't seem tired, but appeared to understand that its human companion was. Dersil made a small fire and sat down. The unicorn lay down on the opposite side.
"Shall I sing you a song?" asked Dersil when night fell.
The unicorn shook its head.
"Shame. I have a good voice."
The unicorn nodded.
"Why me?" he asked, "Why come to me? I can't make this decision for you."
The unicorn looked up. Above them, in the moonless sky, the stars shone.
"The stars told you to?"
The unicorn nodded.
Dersil thought about this for a bit. "Oh, the elves?"
The unicorn nodded again.
"Elves give me more credit than I deserve: I am just an old man."
The unicorn now looked him straight in the eye, and Dersil sighed. "I cannot decide for you."
The unicorn continued staring.
Dersil frowned. There was something here that he didn't understand. He spoke no more.
The fire died slowly until the only light came from the stars and the unicorn, which seemed to glow in a soft silvery light.
The next morning, they set out again. They climbed the steep mountain path until they reached the top, shortly after noon. The landscape stretched out around them and, in all directions, they could see the horizon. What caught their eyes, however, were two galloping herds of unicorns, circling the base of the mountain. To Dersil they looked like rivers of black and white. To his surprise the grey unicorn didn't hang its head but stood proudly on the very top. “Like a king,” he thought.
The unicorn turned, and caught Dersil's gaze in its strange eyes. It looked at him expectantly, and Dersil sighed.
"You want a name now?"
The unicorn nodded. A soft breeze caught its manes and the sunlight reflected off its horn. It looked like a picture from a children's book again.
"A name that defines you, right? That tells you where you belong? You want to know where your place is?"
The unicorn nodded again. It looked excited.
"Black or white?"
Once more the unicorn nodded.
Dersil sighed and shook his head. "I cannot do that for you."
The unicorn's eyes widened for a moment, then it hung its head.
The unicorn turned, its head low, and started walking the path back down the mountain. Dersil watched it go, listened to its hooves on the rough stones. Tac, tactac, tac. There was a song in everything, Dersil knew that, but this song was the slow minor of life. There was no melody in those hoof beats, only monotone. No rhythm, only repetition. He shook his head, this wasn’t the Unicorn’s song.
"I cannot give you a name, but I can give you a legend."
It turned its head questioningly.
"I will sing your song, but you have to write it, I only know the beginning. Don't listen to elves, don't listen to me, only listen to your heart for it alone knows your destiny. You are the grey, the unicorn prince. You are not just both black and white, you are also neither. You are unique."
The unicorn raised its head a little and looked from Dersil to the herds below and then back at Dersil, hesitating. "I cannot foresee what you will do, I cannot name you, cannot give you what you want or tell you where you belong, because you belong not with white, nor with black, nor in the middle."
He stepped up to the unicorn and touched its nose.
"You must walk your own path, unicorn prince. Of all the unicorns, let you be the most free. I name you the prince of freedom, let no bounds hold you." Then he kneeled.
The unicorn walked to the edge of the mountaintop and looked down at the galloping hordes below. It raised its head and nodded. He gave Dersil a final look and then galloped off, straight down the mountainside.
Dersil got up, walked to the edge himself and looked at the disappearing figure. “So runs the unicorn prince” he thought, and he was glad for with that final look he had finally been able to read the eyes of the unicorn, and they had said, as clearly as any he’d ever read, “Thank you”.
Below, the herds of unicorns galloped away, each in different directions. It didn't surprise Dersil that those directions weren't opposites.
The next day, Dersil returned to his home. For a while, he sat down in his rocking chair, then, as if making a decision he got up and filled a sack with clothes and food. Finally, he took the lute from the wall and left the hut without looking back.
In the middle of the clearing he stopped and looked up at the darkening sky. One or two stars were already visible in the dimming light of the sunset.
"Well," he said to himself, "it looks like I have one more song to sing."