Fantasy anthropomorphic unicorns

Bittersweet

By Renee Carter Hall
Feb 22, 2019 · 4,188 words · 16 minutes

New Forest Pony in the fog

Photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash.

From the author: Buttersweet and her two friends are ready for initiation, to have a chance at becoming true unicorns instead of pastel ponies. But can she pass the test, and live with what she learns?


The three initiates met him in the Rainbow Meadow, and Silverhorn sighed to see them. They were the same as always: giggling, prancing fillies in their pastel baby coats, their horns just rounded nubs between wide eyes. At least the fashion for wearing butterfly wings on their backs had finally gone out of style. He'd lost track of how many he'd torn off and thrown into the river.

He'd lost track of many things, including his own age. Decades certainly, centuries possibly. His silky white beard reached to his chest, the only external sign of aging a unicorn stallion carried. Beyond that, he looked the same as he had in his prime -- silver-white coat, slender legs, cloven hooves, graceful and powerful, delicate and strong.

He turned his attention back to the three fillies. It was like looking at a walking candy shop -- but of course, they were young, and they couldn't help how they started out. Now, though, he would see which of them could be more, which of them could bear the true unicorn's mantle.

He hoped at least one of them would pass. His kind were getting fewer and fewer now, and while he didn't mind being the eldest, he didn't want to be the last.

 

 

"He's so old," Starshine whispered. "How many springs, do you think?"

"A hundred," Whisperwind said. "At least."

"A thousand!" Buttersweet chimed in. "D'you think we'll ever look like that?"

Starshine rolled her eyes. "Well, we won't have beards, for one thing."

Buttersweet's ears burned. She should have thought of that. She hated when the others laughed at her, but at least they let her hang around with them, and if that meant laughing sometimes, she figured that was okay. She envied the others their curly manes that always swept just so, their slim legs and their perfect curves. Her legs were thick and stocky, her coat a boring pale yellow, and her orangey mane -- why couldn't it have been cotton-candy pink or sky blue? -- always fell flat, even when she tried to make it curl.

She'd looked forward to this day for season after season, dreaming of it, especially when things got bad and she worried the others didn't like her anymore. Starshine and Whisperwind had been best friends forever, and sometimes she caught them whispering as she came near, and she just knew they were talking about her. And not in a nice surprise-birthday-party-with-cake-and-punch way, either.

The stallion came over to them. Buttersweet ached at his beauty. Starshine and Whisperwind giggled over boys all the time, pastel-colored colts in shades of blue and purple and orange, who ran races and had jumping contests in the meadow, tearing through the flowers and sending up sprays of petals in their wake. This stallion moved slowly, deliberately. His hooves never so much as crushed the grass beneath him, let alone any of the little pink and blue blossoms that carpeted the meadow. But he never looked down to avoid them, either. It was like he knew where they were, the same way he knew where his legs were, as natural as breathing.

He stopped before them, looking each of them over in turn. Her stomach was full of butterflies as big as the fake wings they'd all worn the spring before, but when he came to her, she was determined not to look away, not to do anything wrong. His gaze held hers, his eyes clear, cool, and still, like a mountain spring at first light. His expression never changed, and then he spoke to the three of them, though it felt to Buttersweet that he was speaking to her alone.

"You come for initiation," Silverhorn said, "to take your place, if you are worthy, among the immortals of our kind. You come with a child's emptiness, to be filled with something greater. The tasks you must complete will not be simple, and they will not be familiar. If you wish to leave, and stay as you are, you are welcome to do so."

Starshine snorted softly, and Buttersweet looked over to see the pink filly rolling her eyes. Of course they'd all promised each other -- horn-cross, even -- that they wouldn't back out. They'd all sworn they'd go through whatever was asked of them, and of course, if they could, they'd go through it together. Best friends, forever. The only ones she'd ever had, unless you counted the chipmunk she talked to sometimes in the hollow tree -- and she wasn't quite pathetic enough to start counting talking woodland creatures among her friends.

Starshine tossed her head. "We're all staying."

"Let them speak for themselves." There was no rebuke in the stallion's voice, but Buttersweet saw a flash of something like annoyance in his eyes, just a moment before he gained his composure again. He looked at Whisperwind. "Will you leave, or will you come with me?"

Whisperwind glanced at Starshine, then gulped. "I -- I'll come with you."

Then he turned to Buttersweet. "And what of you?"

"I'm coming too." She was surprised at how firm her voice sounded. It almost didn't sound like her voice somehow. She felt suddenly proud of herself -- she had looked him in the eye, and now she had answered him without stammering or looking away or trying to act brave when she was really faking it. Because Starshine, she realized now, was faking it. When Starshine ran hard through the meadow or got excited or nervous, the soft breeze was filled with the scent of apple blossoms, and Buttersweet was smelling enough of it now to have been standing in the middle of an orchard.

"Very well," the stallion said. "Follow me."

He set off at a trot, without looking back to see if they were following. Buttersweet ran after him, and Starshine and Whisperwind followed. It was hard for their shorter legs to keep up with him, and Starshine's apple-blossom scent started to take on a fermented tang after a while, but Buttersweet forced herself to keep moving even when her legs burned and her heart pounded.

He led them through the meadow, and even at a trot he kept the same gentle stride, as if the flowers and grass and stones moved aside for him, as if he were dancing instead of running. The gentle slope of the valley hills grew steeper and rockier as they went, and though he slowed to a walk, each hoof was still placed just so, never dislodging stones or stumbling. The three fillies straggled behind.

"I wonder where we're going," Whisperwind said softly. Buttersweet wasn't sure they were supposed to be talking, but he never looked back at them, so they figured he didn't care.

Starshine was panting between breaths. "I hope -- it's not -- much farther."

Buttersweet was breathing hard, too, but it felt good, like it was part of the test and she was doing okay.

"Easy for him," Whisperwind grumbled, "with those long legs."

"If you like -- that sort of thing." Starshine managed a giggle, though it ended in a wheeze. "Never been much of a -- leg girl myself."

Anger flashed through Buttersweet, sharp as a thorn. To talk about him that way, as if he were one of the stupid cloud-headed colts that hung around Starshine all the time--

She decided to pretend they weren't there. She ran ahead, staying as close to the stallion as she could, imagining that it was just the two of them on this journey, that she was accepting this challenge alone.

The terrain grew steeper and rockier, and she realized he was leading them into the mountains that ringed the valley. It was colder here, as if spring hadn't quite made it all the way up the mountainside yet, and though the grass was new-green in the valley, up here there were still slicks of ice in the shade. Some of the trees were still bare, though there were enough evergreens that it didn't feel completely lifeless. It was a landscape that seemed to match the stallion himself. He was made for crags and the desolate, breathtaking places of the world -- and they were soft, made for a world that was always warm and nice, where snow was fluffy and sparkly but never truly cold. The snow up here could kill you; she felt that without question. But there were things to be seen from this height that she knew she'd never see anywhere else.

Could she be what he needed her to be? Could she be more than fat, slow, going-along-with-it Buttersweet, too shy and stupid to find better friends?

The stallion climbed higher, and at last the trail leveled off. They'd come to a cliff, bare and windswept, looking down over the valley. Buttersweet gazed out at it. Everything she'd ever known was down there -- all the other fillies and colts, all the meadows they played in, the flowers they wove into each others' manes, the animals they played games with, the dawdling little streams they'd splashed in on summer days. She'd never seen it like this before, laid out like a picture of somewhere she'd never been.

She hadn't thought it could ever look so small.

The stallion faced them again. Starshine's raspberry-colored mane had gone frizzy, and Buttersweet bit back a smile, knowing how much the filly cared about keeping it just so. Whisperwind had smudges of mud on her sky-blue coat; she must have fallen somewhere along the way.

Not paying enough attention, Buttersweet thought. Someday, she vowed, she'd be able to walk like the stallion did, knowing where each step would fall, knowing the rhythm of her body and everything around it. She already felt more awake, more alive than she ever had before. All the apple blossom and cotton candy and strawberry milkshake scents that had surrounded her all her life were blown away on the crisp, chill air. She breathed it in deep, filling herself with it, imagining that it made her different, made her new, made her stronger with every breath she took.

The stallion turned away from them, walked to the edge of the cliff, and reared onto his hind legs, striking out hard with his front hooves.

Something shattered, as if a pane of glass had been before him, and the fragments shimmered and disappeared. There was a low hum, like a steady wind far in the distance, and then a fog that coalesced into a swirling gray vortex blended in streaks of blue and green.

"This," said Silverhorn, "is the Chrysalis. This is where you will be tested, and if you are worthy, this is where you will be reborn." He surveyed the three of them. "Which will go first?"

They exchanged nervous glances. No one spoke, and when Silverhorn glanced away from them for a moment, Starshine nipped Whisperwind's flank. "Hey!"

The stallion turned back, fixing the blue filly with his gaze. "You, then."

Whisperwind glared at Starshine but went forward. "What do I have to do?"

"Walk forward," Silverhorn said. "The Chrysalis will envelop you, and your test will begin."

Whisperwind went forward, her pale coat getting paler, thinner, translucent as the fog swirled over and around her. And then she was gone.

"Next?" Silverhorn asked.

Starshine gulped audibly. "Um... Shouldn't we wait for her to come back? We don't want to... run into her."

"It doesn't work that way," Silverhorn said mildly. "Will you go, or shall I encourage you as you did your friend?"

Buttersweet savored Starshine's embarrassment. It only lasted for a moment, though, and then all her old arrogance was back as she tossed her head. "I'll go, then," she said, and disappeared as well.

Buttersweet walked to the edge of the fog, watching little tendrils of it curl at the tips of her front hooves. "Can I ask you a question?"

"You just did."

Buttersweet bit her lip. "I mean--"

It was only a hint of a smile that touched the stallion's expression, but it gave her courage. "Go on."

She wonderd how much he'd seen, how much he somehow knew about the three of them. He looked as if he knew everything, as if he could see every thought, every hope and frustration her mind held. "Do you think they'll make it? Pass, I mean."

The stallion tossed his head a bit in a shrug. "That is their choice, not mine."

"Do you know what's going to happen to me? The test, I mean."

"Whatever I could tell you would not help. It might even hinder. But I am bound from doing either. What happens in the Chrysalis is your own making. Go forward and meet it."

She nodded, and walked forward. The fog pressed against her, stealing into her nostrils and down her throat and into her chest, and into her blood. She felt cold, then warm, then cold again. The world faded, going grayer and darker. At last there was nothing but dark gray, and then fuzzy shapes slowly focused themselves. The gray turned green and blue and red and all the familiar colors, and she realized she'd been holding her breath.

The place she was in looked a lot like their meadow, except the grasses were more scraggly and varied, and the flowers scattered and smaller. She listened for birds and looked for animals, but there weren't any of either. It was silent except for the wind, the low hum of the Chrysalis.

She was alone. There was no sign of Starshine or Whisperwind -- but then, she hadn't expected there to be. This was her test, after all. And she wanted it that way. Whatever happened today, whether it turned out to be the best day of her entire life or the worst, she wanted it all to herself, without anyone else's comment or opinion.

Then she heard something. A faint cry, thin and high and shrill. She shivered but went toward it.

It was a rabbit, she realized, but she'd never heard a rabbit make a sound like that. When she got closer, she saw why. It had been caught in some kind of wire, twisted around its neck. Its fur was stained with blood. It eyes met hers, and she gasped. She knew this one; they'd played together in the meadow one day, a game of hide and seek that the rabbit always won. It didn't have a name, exactly. She'd called it Flufftail, just to have something to call it in her own head, but she wasn't sure the rabbit even understood the concept of a name.

She swallowed. She'd never seen blood before. It was darker, brighter, redder than she would have imagined. It soaked the fur until it shone wet.

"I'll help you," Buttersweet said, but she had no idea what she was going to do. She had nothing that could cut wire. Biting it would only cut her mouth. Tears burned her eyes, swelled in her throat. What kind of test was this? There was nothing she could do.

The rabbit had gone silent, but it was still alive. It watched her, eyes unfocused, each breath bubbling in its throat.

She nuzzled the top of its head. "It's all right," she said, though it wasn't, it was awful, this was horrible, there wasn't anything she could do, she was helpless and stupid and angry and couldn't think, couldn't think, couldn't think... "It's all right," she repeated, though she wasn't sure now whether she was trying to soothe the rabbit or herself. "I'm here."

She listened to the faint, gurgling breaths. "That was a good game we played last week, remember? You hid in that patch of clover, and I never would have found you, but it took so long for me to look for you that you got hungry and started eating the blossoms. They were so good, weren't they? Like spring all in one bite, like a whole year's worth of sun stored up in those blossoms, just for us to eat..."

She paused, then nudged the rabbit gently, then waited and listened, to be sure. It was gone.

She'd never seen anything die before. She wasn't sure anything in their valley actually died. Or maybe she'd just never known, never paid any attention. That thought scared her. What else might be going on that she didn't see?

She stood there, feeling numb and stiff and empty. If the test was to save the rabbit somehow, she'd failed. She'd failed, and there were never any second chances.

"Of course you failed," a voice said behind her. She turned.

"Starshine?" It couldn't be, not with Whisperwind standing beside her too. Had they finished already and come to her somehow?

"I knew you would," Starshine went on. "And I'm so glad, because we both passed, so now we don't have to worry about you hanging around us anymore."

She had no idea what to say. "I thought..." She wasn't even sure what she thought. She couldn't say "I thought you liked me," because she'd always kind of known they didn't.

She'd always wondered, though, if maybe Whisperwind really liked her. One time Starshine hadn't felt well, and Whisperwind and Buttersweet tried to make soup for her, only it turned out terrible. Whisperwind had seemed different then, and the two of them had laughed so much that day, and she wondered if maybe Whisperwind didn't like Starshine all that much either. Maybe Whisperwind was just afraid of being alone, too, and that was why she always went along with whatever Starshine wanted to do. But once Starshine had gotten better, things had gone back to normal.

She looked at Whisperwind now. The filly looked... somehow empty in her eyes. She stood a few paces back from Starshine, almost in the pink filly's shadow.

"Of course we'll miss you," Whisperwind said, and Buttersweet's heart leapt.

"You will?"

Whisperwind glanced at Starshine. "Of course," Whisperwind said again, but her voice hardened, sharpened to a wicked point. "You were always so funny. We won't have a good laugh now for ages."

Tears sprang into her eyes, even as she was mad at herself for crying, for caring what either of them thought.

"Such a baby," Starshine said. "Isn't she?" And Whisperwind snickered and nodded.

"And the worst of it," Starshine sighed, "is that when we have our tea parties I'll just hate to eat any cake, because I won't have Butterfat to stand next to anymore to make me look slimmer."

Buttersweet heard her own breath and blood in her ears. Her ears burned, and she could feel her nostrils flaring. Her chest was tight with anger and sadness, swirling like the fog of the Chrysalis.

"My name," she said, "is Buttersweet."

Starshine batted her long eyelashes. "Oh, isn't that what I said?"

"No. And you know it. Well, I hope you enjoy it wherever you're going. The two of you deserve each other." She glared at Whisperwind. "I'd watch out if I were you. I bet you'll be next in line when I'm not around to make fun of anymore."

Buttersweet turned and stormed off. Somewhere underneath all the hurt, she remembered her desire to be able to walk like the stallion did, so gently on the grasses. Now she was crushing them under her hooves as she stomped away. She was crying again, and she couldn't see where she was going for the tears. Everything ran together, blurry and bright, then grayer, then darker.

I'm not stupid, she thought, though she knew she had been, to hang around them that long, just because she didn't have anyone else. Maybe calling the animals and birds her friends wasn't such a bad idea. They'd never hurt her, anyway, not deliberately. They didn't give her lies all wrapped up in shiny candy layers, until you couldn't taste the poison for the sweet.

She realized there was nothing but gray around her again. Was the test over, or was she going somewhere else? She couldn't feel her hooves underneath her. She tried to take a step forward--

Falling. She was falling--

The valley was spread out beneath her--

She hit the ground hard -- or at least she thought it was the ground. Everything was still dark, still gray and formless, but bright pain flared in her legs, filling her vision with red.

Broken, she thought, and then there were no more words in her thoughts. The pain burned them away, took words and memories out of her mind, until nothing was left but bright fire behind her eyes.

Can you bear it?

The voice was in her head, but it was not her own.

No, she thought, but that was not her answer, not the real one; that was just the body part of her screaming in the only way it could. No, make it stop, anything...

Again the voice, gentle. Can you bear it, if you have to?

The red blood.

The false friends.

Anger.

Jealousy.

Pain.

Death.

Everything that had never touched her before today. Her life in the valley had been a smooth surface, shiny and pretty.

And so terribly thin. So easily broken.

Can you bear it, if you have to?

She thought of the stallion, the still waters of his eyes. Could her own ever look like that? Could she ever hold even a tiny drop of what filled his mind, to bring forth a spring in her own?

No. No, no, this had to stop, whatever would make it stop. If it meant hurting like this, she didn't want it. She didn't want any of it.

She heard something else then, so soft she almost couldn't make it out over the low hum that surrounded her, over her pounding heart and the rushing roar in her ears.

It sounded like a lullaby.

The images came dimly, faint vignettes at the edges of her vision. A human mother singing to her baby in a room filled with soft pastel shapes. A daughter feeding her father, spoonful by spoonful, slow and tender. She caught the scent. Applesauce.

As she absorbed one scene, another followed, and they began to overlap. She knew, suddenly, the devotion of mates each to the other, the safety and comfort of love layered over friendship, deep and true. She knew sacrifice, and trust. They were not hers, not to keep, but maybe they could be.

If she could bear the pain.

Slowly she tried to stand. She heard her own voice crying out in pain, in grief, in utter helpless fear. In the gray void, her legs bent, crumpled, and then, slowly, straightened again. She took a breath, pulling the air in gingerly, waiting for the fire to stab her chest and sides. It didn't come.

She raised her head. The grayness was lightening now, watery, like a window washed with rain. She breathed deeper. That feeling of the mountain air was back, now. She filled her lungs with it, filled herself with it. She felt whole. She felt strong.

Blue, then, in eyes like calm water. The stallion looked back at her, his gaze level with hers.

"So it is," he said quietly. "So it shall be."

She realized she was back on the cliff. The vortex of the Chrysalis swirled silently, faster and faster, collapsing in on itself, and then it was gone, and they were alone.

"What do you remember?" Silverhorn asked.

She swallowed something back, and her voice shook when she answered. "Everything."

He nodded. "Good."

"I don't understand. Did I pass?"

He didn't answer, and suddenly she realized something. She was looking at him. At eye level. Not looking up at him as she had before.

She looked down. Slender white legs. Hooves of cloven pearl.

"You have been an echo," the stallion said, "and now you are the sound. You have been a shadow." He smiled. "Now you are the sun."

She dropped her head, dizzy and overwhelmed, and saw at last the iridescent horn that spiraled to a sharp point, so different from the rounded stub she'd had before. This was sharp enough to draw blood, if she had to, now that she'd seen blood. Now that she knew all the depths of life, and at least some of the depths of herself.

She raised her head again. "What about the others? Where are they?"

He eyed her. "Does it matter?"

No. And--

"Yes." For their sake, at least. She remembered the pain and shuddered.

"They chose to remain as they were. They couldn't bear the waking, and so they chose the dream." He paused. "I thought you might be stronger."

She didn't feel stronger, not right now.

But she could bear it, until things were better. She knew that now. And if she could feel such pain, she could feel joy just as strongly. That was something to be strong for, when it came, however long it took.

"Come," the stallion said, and called her by a new name, her real name. "Bittersweet."

She took a step forward, slowly, lightly, and followed.

This story originally appeared in the author's personal website.