Malinda’s mother used to say that Malinda came out of the womb clutching an animal. The kind of animal changed in each telling. Sometimes it was a kitten, sometimes a puppy, and several times Malinda’s mother even boasted that her daughter came out of the womb with a unicorn pony. This was Malinda’s favorite version of the story, although she also loved kittens and puppies (and birds, and reptiles, and hamsters, and any other animals that crossed her path).
Malinda’s childhood friend, Samara, says that Malinda’s bedroom was decorated in all things animal related. Malinda didn’t have just a bed in her room; no, she had a water filled mattress concealed inside a whale that spouted a gauzy dome of water over its occupant. Samara agrees that her friend was spoiled as a child, but her parents were often gone and Malinda was left to an unfeeling babysitter and her growing menagerie.
Grow the menagerie did, for whenever Malinda’s parents returned from one of their many alchemical ingredient trips they brought Malinda a creature from the area they were gathering in. Eventually when Malinda was old enough and her collection large enough, Malinda’s parents bought a private section of land to better house all the animals and, most particularly, their recent acquirement.
The neighborhood was astir when Malinda’s parents returned home with a pearly pony so brilliantly colored that the neighbors whispered about sunglasses. Malinda’s parents only had attention for their daughter’s wide eyes and parted lips though, and they beamed as they led the prancing pony to their daughter. Malinda shyly traced the nubbin of a horn that twisted like a small spiral staircase from the pony’s forehead. The animal nudged Malinda closer. Malinda smiled.
Samara says that from that the unicorn stole Malinda’s heart that day. The bond between girl and unicorn seemed to supplement most things. Malinda’s lackadaisical minders, Malinda’s absent parents, Samara, and even Malinda’s other furry friends became less important. Food and sleep were also minimized by the bond. Samara observed her friend’s frail figure and bruised eyes worsening through alchemy school, graduation, and alchemical breeding certification. Whenever Samara mentioned it though, Malinda shrugged her friend off. In Malinda’s world it was more important to spend several hours polishing her unicorn’s coat than it was to spend them sleeping.
Therefore, Samara was never more surprised than she was when she heard that Malinda had a new passion in her life. It had been ignited in the fire swamps while Malinda was carelessly—probably sleepily—collecting a Boulder specimen for work. Rumor had it that a man had swept Malinda off her feet to save her from a terrible burn. The process of doing so must have spooked Malinda’s unicorn, Saga, into a corner of Malinda’s heart because from the gossip Samara heard Malinda and Tony couldn’t keep their hands off each other. This must have been true because a wedding invitation followed soon after rumors that Malinda was pregnant.
The rumors of Malinda’s condition were confirmed when Samara attended her friend’s wedding in the rainbow marsh. Her friend galloped down the aisle on her pearly steed, and the wind generated by the speed at which Saga and Malinda flashed by at caused the material of her friend’s billowy dress to press around a small abdominal mound. Samara was pleased to see Malinda better fed and rested than Samara had seen in a while and, even though Malinda’s hand remained magnetized to Saga, her other hand gravitated around Tony Beltza.
A couple weeks later, Samara heard that the newly formed Beltza couple had evolved early into a family. Still a few weeks later, Samara witnessed her friend hurrying with a pink-faced infant. Samara’s heart sank when noticed both Mother and daughter appeared tiny. It was understandable that the early arrival of Cassiopeia Beltza caused her to be a frail baby, but Malinda’s baggy clothes and gray face were a stark contrast to her wedding day and startled Samara. However, as mother and daughter drew nearer Samara could hear a repetitive, thin but high undulation coming from young Cassiopeia and she reconsidered her friend’s bone-weary expression.
Samara couldn’t shake her friend’s face from her mind though, so she started visiting her friend regularly despite the fact that her friend’s greetings lacked warmth and energy. She started bringing food to Malinda and even offered to babysit. Malinda would shovel much of the food into her mouth during Samara’s visit, but Samara never saw her friend gain any weight back.
Sometimes when Malinda frightened Samara enough, Samara would broach the topic of Malinda’s health. It was hard not to regret doing so however, since Malinda would usually grow upset. Sometimes the emotion overspilled in sudden tears and other times fierce words and a shove out the door.
As of late, Malinda had developed a stare. The stare made Samara uncomfortable. Her friend’s eyes reminded her of looking into a well.
One night Samara received an urgent late night missive from Tony: his wife and daughter weren’t at home. Samara grumbled about the hour—it was very late—Tony shouldn’t be leaving his wife alone for so long while he pursued a new line of work. Samara promised to help him though, especially because she had a good idea where the mother and daughter would be. For before Malinda met Tony and before Malinda had Cassiopeia, Malinda would often stay with her animals and her most common bed was with Saga.
Tony and Samara went together to Samara’s private paddock. To Samara’s surprise, Saga was still outside. As they approached, they could see the unicorn was standing in the moonlight carrying two riders.
The unicorn was bigger than Samara remembered. It seemed bigger than any horse Samara could recall, its muscles bulged, and its spiral horn looked long enough to be a sword. Adding to Samara’s reserve, Saga looked restless. The unicorn bobbed its head and stirred small clouds of dirt with its shifting hooves.
Even Tony seemed slightly uneasy about the unicorn. As Tony and Samara pondered how best to approach the agitated unicorn, it calmed itself. With a throaty whiney, Saga lowered its horn to the dirt. Its sides still heaved with heavy breathing, but Saga, although tense, was still. Malinda placed a hand on Saga’s lowered neck and Cassiopeia patted the top of her mother’s outstretched arm, echoing the smile on her mother’s wan face.
The moment was shattered by an explosion of white light, the high-pitched squeal of an equine, and the wail of an infant. Tony’s white face surged past Samara’s, but stopped at the paddock fence where the light became too blinding to make any further progress. The infant’s whimpering was drowned out by the peculiar noises Saga was making. There were grunts overlaid with squeals that escalated in volume until the light faded away, leaving tears streaming from Tony and Samara’s abused eyes. The fading light revealed Malinda curled around Cassiopeia’s crying form in the dirt. Tony climbed the fence and rushed to his fallen wife and daughter. Samara froze however at the sight of her friend’s unicorn.
The unicorn was not alone. In a pool of blood and mucus, another equine form stirred. Its legs were spindly, but it rose on them easily. A tiny, sharp horn protruded from its head like a dagger. Its luminous eyes reminded Samara of Saga’s, but Saga was there too. Malinda’s unicorn was barely staying on its feet and its coat was dark with blood. Still, Saga ambled closer to the unicorn pony and licked its nose. When the parent and baby were this close Samara realized that Saga was not just weakened, but physically reduced too. The unicorn pony was only slightly smaller than Saga. The unicorns looked like they could be siblings.
Samara looked more closely at the spot the unicorn pony had appeared in, but the fluids made it difficult to spot any irregularities. A shudder crawled up Samara’s spine, and she couldn’t shake a hunch that an alchemical recipe had been preformed that night by Saga. It would have been an old recipe. One from the very first unicorn.
The unicorns washed and merely watched Tony and Samara remove an unconscious Malinda and bleeding Cassiopeia from the paddock. Tony and Samara lost track of the unicorns as they moved mother and daughter to the hospital, where Tony paid for discreetness.
Previous to the paddock incident, Samara had been uncomfortable with lying. However, she told her neighbor that the Beltzas were getting an alchemical treatment on their sickly daughter’s tonsils. Also, when Malinda later awakened in the hospital Tony and Samara told her that she and Cassiopeia simply had a fall from Saga and that the unicorn had bolted.