When journalist Nicola Jenkins heads up to her uncle’s farm, she finds the scoop of a lifetime galloping on top of a hill.
Author’s note: Back in the 80s and early 90s I had quite a nice little earner writing horse stories for a magazine. Given that the readers were often horse-crazy girls well under sixteen, the only thing that ever got mounted was a horse (unlike some of the stuff I’ve written since!). This story is one of the less saccharine ones, and doesn’t rattle on about dressage tests, one day events or show ring competitions. It was first published in The Horse Magazine in 1990, but I’ve reworked it slightly. And yeah, only the horses get mounted. Sorry! CS
Nicola saw the gate ahead of her and braked with a sigh of relief. It had been a long drive from Sydney and she was too tired to take much notice of the high brick house and intercom at the gate, which were way out of place this far out from town. The nameplate said “Tom Jenkins” and “Darius Stud Farm”, and that was all Nicola cared about. The glaring “Trespassers will be SHOT!” sign she totally ignored, since she wasn’t really a trespasser.
She stretched out of the car with a sigh and began to open the gate. The intercom buzzed at her. “Who is it?” said a wary female voice.
“Nicola Jenkins. Is that you, Kellie?”
“NIKKI!” The voice stopped being wary: it was her cousin, Kellie, and Nicola heaved a sigh of relief. True, she’d turned up uninvited, but then she’d always had an open invitation to visit; until now she’d never had time.
“Nikki, what are you doing here?”
“Visiting, I hope,” Nicola said, amused. “If you can fit me in. I’m out of a job and thought I’d take a break for a week or two.”
“Oh. Hang on then, I’ll let you in. Just follow the drive straight up to the house.” Kellie was bubbling.
Nicola grinned. Driveways were pretty straightforward things as a rule. The gate opened up and she drove into another world. Uncle Tom was rich – and a touch on the eccentric side, other relatives said – however, Nicola wasn’t prepared for the sparkling white fences and green, lush pastures of Darius Stud. The surrounding countryside was scrubbier: goat country, sheep country. But Darius Stud reeked of care and money in its verdant, rolling perfection. Nikki caught her breath.
She drove slowly up to the house, noticing stables, stallion yards and a round yard. What a dream of a place! Why hadn’t she visited before? She felt a brief ache for the show riding she’d gradually given up as her career in journalism unfolded and took over her life, especially when she glimpsed, as swift as a fantasy, a grey horse gallop up one of the hills on the other side of the house, toss his head like a stallion in a storybook, paw the ground and take off again, vanishing over the rise of the hill.
“Like something out of a myth,” Nikki murmured to herself, wondering if she’d seen him at all, and wondering why there was something about him that didn’t…quite…fit.
Not wishing to disturb the peacefulness of Darius Stud – heavy broodmares looking content, birds twisting and diving overhead, the sky a deep spring blue – Nikki drove up to the house as quietly as she could. When she reached it she heard her uncle and cousin arguing and her ears went out on stalks when she heard her name mentioned. Silently she opened the car door and crept up the stairs to the front door.
“Kel, I know Nikki’s family, but she’s a journalist, understand? And I don’t want our story leaking out!”
“The world has to know sometime, Dad!” Kellie sounded like she was crying. “You can’t turn her away, she’s driven all the way from Sydney and she’s out of a job! Anyway, she’ll only be here for a few days. You can keep Darius hidden. In fact, he’s fine where he is! From a distance he looks perfectly normal.”
“How normal to a girl who rode in shows like Nikki did? She’ll pick him straight away.” Tom was angry.
Darius? she thought. The grey horse, the one out of a myth. Yes, Tom, there was something about him, but she wasn’t quite sure what. He’d been some distance away when he pranced on the hilltop.
Kellie said: “She’ll be here any second!”
Nikki jumped off the balcony and slammed the car door, whistling cheerfully. She opened the boot and dragged her huge backpack out, fixing a smile on her face.
Kellie galloped out of the house, her eyes bright and nose red.”Got a cold,” she said, and hugged Nikki tightly. They hadn’t seen each other for five years. Kellie was twenty now, Nikki twenty five.
They chattered non stop into the house, both talking at the same time, both struggling to hear what the other was saying, both laughing. Nikki forgot about the mysterious Darius as she caught up on family gossip and complimented her uncle on his farm.
“Now I know why you retired so early,” she said in admiration. Tom was a qualified vet who’d held a high research position in an animal health company. He’d made a small fortune on the stock exchange and had given up the research to concentrate on breeding, he said, “the perfect horse.”
She saw a look flash from Kellie’s eyes to her father’s.
“I’m breeding Andalusians,” Tom went on blandly, “To me they’re the perfect horse.” The smile on his face held a private joke. Nikki had been a journo long enough to pick the signs.
“How many foals do you expect this year?” Nikki took a long, long sip of the icy chardonnay and moved closer to the warmth of the open fire. The big old stone house was cool inside.
“Not many. We’re just getting into it. There’s only Kellie and I here at present and she can’t handle too much work. She’s still studying but she’s on holidays at the moment.”
“Vet science?” Nikki frowned, trying to remember.
“Yup,” Kellie confirmed. “I don’t mind saying I’m doing well, either.”
“Your Dad’d kill you if you didn’t,” Nikki said frankly. Kellie had grown up with vets and had read her father’s text books as a teenager, to the rest of the family’s amusement.
In seemingly no time at all it was time for evening feeds. Nicola roused herself from the fire and wine. It would have been good to sit there and get the last week firmly out of her head – the massive fight with her boss, the storming out of the office, the embuggeration, really, of her career if her snide boss put out rumours she was “difficult”. But the thought of seeing more of the mysterious Darius made her help Kellie measure the fragrant grains and lug biscuits of hay.
“We’ll go riding tomorrow,” Kellie promised. “There’s a lovely track up in the hills out towards the National Park.”
“I wouldn’t mind riding around the farm first,” Nikki said quickly. “Or having a go on that dressage arena you’ve got.”
“It’s only half finished,” said Kellie from behind one of the feed bins. “The ground’s all uneven. You won’t like it.”
But I bet you can see the hill where the grey horse was from the arena, thought Nikki. “Oh, that doesn’t matter. It’s been so long since I’ve ridden I’d prefer to ride in an enclosure till I get the feeling back,” she said brightly. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve done a flying change or figure of eight?”
“The horse you’ll be riding won’t do a flying change on command,” Kellie grinned.
“No fully trained Andalusian?”
“Dad’s stock horse. He’s a pig.”
“Don’t mention it.” They stuck their tongues out at one another as they used to do when they were children.
Nikki was detailed to feed the broodmares, which were located – surprise! – on the opposite side of the house to where she’d seen the grey horse. Kellie, who’d undoubtedly tended to the ever-so-secret Darius, caught up with her when she was stroking the silken muzzle of the last bay mare, and cleverly drew her back into the house, chatting at her side.
* * *
Nikki, knackered after the long drive, the huge plate of spag bog and the bottles of wine they’d sunk to wash it down, fell into bed early. She was vaguely aware of the very quietness of the place as she drifted into sleep: there were no city noises, no cars, no sirens…
She woke at two with a raging thirst and tried to summon the energy to go to the bathroom and get a glass or sixteen of water.
Nikki groaned and got up, opening her door to hear the voices of her family break through the silence of the house.
“Kellie, it’s Maya. She’s foaling.” Tom was calling from the stairs.
“Oh, DAD!” Kellie squealed. “Our first! Darius’ first!”
“Ssh, not so loud.”
“I hope it turns out, I hope it’s a Darius!”
Kellie had never been a quiet person and now she thundered through the house, down the stairs and out the door.
Drink forgotten, Nikki struggled into her jeans and hiking boots, dragging a warm sweater over her head as she stumbled down the stairs after Kellie and made her way to the stables.
The cold spring air bit into her lungs, like diving into a pool of icy water. It sobered her up immediately. She bolted for the warmth of the stable block, loving the smell of fresh straw.
Kellie and Tom were scrubbing their arms and getting hot water. Nikki saw the open stable door and peeked in.
A grey mare lay on her side, lifting her head briefly to focus on Nikki, then dropping it, disinterested. She groaned. Two tiny forelegs were sticking out in a wet membrane from under her tail.
Tom said: “Nikki, it’s freezing out here. Why don’t you go back to bed?”
“And miss the special foal, Tom? Darius’ foal?”
Tom glared at her. “What do you know about Darius?”
“That he’s different. He’s special. And you spent years researching genetics and God knows what else, and I think this foal is going to be the oddest one I’ve ever seen.” Her direct blue eyes locked with Tom’s. Nikki unconsciously raised her chin; it was a look editors knew, the look that meant she was onto a story with the tenacity of a bulldog.
“You ARE a good little journalist, aren’t you? Who leaked? Who sent you up here?”
“No-one. I heard you and Kellie arguing earlier, when I first arrived. What is it, Tom? A foal with six legs, a foal with wings?”
Tom just glowered at her.
“I’m your niece,” she went on. “I might be a journalist but I promise, and I mean promise, I won’t let a word of this out unless you want me to. But when that time comes, you must promise to tell me before you tell anyone else. Whatever it is, I want to be the one to break the story.”
“You’re family,” Tom said finally.
“I’m family,” Nikki agreed, knowing she’d won. Her heart was thudding in anticipation.
Tom sighed. “Do you have a camera? A good one?”
“In my bag. It’s a Nikon.”
“Don’t care what kind it is. Run and get it, eh? One day I’ll want you to tell my story, and this foal will be part of it. I just hope you have friends in the right places who can develop the negs and shut up about it.” He bent to the mare, suddenly a vet and not Nikki’s uncle.
“I’ll develop them myself,” Nikki promised before she bolted to the house. A scoop, they called it. She had the feeling she was about to witness history in the birht of this foal. This is where the most important things happen, she breathed to herself, late at night and deep in the heart of nowhere. Grabbing her big 35mm SLR kit, she made it back to the stable in time to see the legs a bit further out and the foal’s muzzle – which looked perfectly normal – visible.
Kellie and Tom were inspecting the tiny hooves. “They’re good,” Tom murmured. “A proper horse’s hoof. Not cloven, not even a hint of it.”
Suddenly, with a groan from the mare which was almost indignant, the tiny black foal were lying in the straw in his entirety, struggling to breathe. Tom gently cleaned membrane away from the miniature nostrils, then he touched the foal’s forehead and grin burst across his face.
“Kellie, we did it! Feel!”
Kellie rang her fingers down the foal’s face. She was shaking and Tom pulled her aside as the mare twisted around and began to lick her baby clean.
With creaking knees Tom got up and turned on the stable lights. “Take some photos, Nikki. Can you get in close on his head?”
He looks a perfectly normal foal, Nikki thought with a sense of anticlimax. Perfectly normal. Maybe Tom and Kellie are BOTH eccentric. Be honest. Round the twist. Off their rockers. It’s two thirty in the morning and –
She gasped, not believing what she saw in the viewfinder as the foal turned his head and strategic shadows fell on his face.
Focussed sharply on the foal’s forehead, Nikki saw the small, unmistakable bud of a horn. She reached out a finger and the trusting little creature let her touch it.
She sat back in the straw, photos forgotten. “You’ve been breeding unicorns!”
* * *
It was two hours later. The foal suckled happily at his mother, who had apparently not thought anything odd about a foal with a tiny horn between his eyes.
The three humans were sitting in the stable office, polishing off their second bottle of Domaine Chandon.
“To unicorns!” giggled Kellie.
“To unicorns!” Tom clinked his vegemite-glass tumbler against hers.
“To unicorns!” echoed Nikki, unsure whether she was drunk or dreaming. “What made you want to breed unicorns?”
“Why not?” said Tom flippantly, looking ten years younger than he had that afternoon when she’d arrived. “Seriously, Nik, I’ve always been fascinated by the unicorn legend and wondered whether such a thing was possible. I worked things out – I’m not telling you how at this stage – and set about trying to breed one. Simple.”
“Simple,” snorted Kellie. “You should have seen what we’ve gone through all this time. It’s been heartbreaking… the experiments that didn’t work, the poor little foals that didn’t live or were born mutants. I wanted Dad to give it up, because it didn’t seem fair to mess with genes and life like some kind of god. Or at least ask for help from other scientists instead of this personal quest. Until one day…”
“Darius was born,” Tom finished. “From a female horse by artificial insemination. We helped him genetically, but he was born a unicorn. You’ll meet him later this morning. You see, I’ve seen other “unicorns” people have bred, mostly things like goats with a horn in the middle of their foreheads. Freaks. But Darius is a full sized horse. He’s about 15 hands. His conformation isn’t quite perfect, his rump is quite angular and little things like that. He’s from an Andalusian mare – we found Andalusians to be the only breed that accepted the unicorn genes, although we didn’t get around to trying Thoroughbreds. Andalusians are quite an old breed and quite pure. Thoroughbreds are relatively new in the scheme of things. We tried Arabs, too, with limited success. But if we keep breeding to Andalusian mares, and later, Andalusian/unicorn mares, we should get perfect conformation.”
“What about inbreeding?” Nikki felt as light and bubbly as the champagne.
“We’ll breed more horses from AI, not using Darius himself, but using the way I bred him, so they won’t be related. We wanted to see if Darius could throw a unicorn foal, since he was our first and only. We just couldn’t wait,” Tom grinned. “There was evey indication Darius was a normal colt or stallion and could father foals – unlike mules, you understand – and with any luck this little foal will be the same. The unfortunate thing is that Darius isn’t fantastically fertile. This is the only foal we’ll have out of him this year. We had three other mares in foal but they miscarried early in their term. And I haven’t used AI this year, so this is our sole unicorn baby.” A fatherly smile played at the corners of Tom’s mouth, then he grinned again and clinked his glass with Nikki’s.
Kellie had gone to check on the mare and foal, and was watching the baby suckle. Her eyes were full of tears which Nikki interpreted as happiness. She gave her cousin a hug.
Kellie whispered, “We really did it!”
And outside, no fireworks blazed, no guns saluted, no trumpets sounded. And, thought Nikki ruefully, no front pages later today proclaiming the birth of the modern unicorn.
* * *
Nikki and Kellie ended up sleeping in a spare stable with clean straw on the floor. They were both too tired to wander back to the house, but paid for it when they were rudely awoken by the stable rooster shortly after dawn. Yawning, they checked the foal – does one call a baby unicorn a foal, wondered Nikki, or does it have its own name? – who was busy suckling again. Once or twice the baby turned to look at them with huge, liquid dark eyes,and now that his coat was dry the knobbly horn bud was quite visible.
“Wait till you meet Darius,” Kellie promised. “Just don’t let him rub his head up and down your back1” They grinned at one another, as if breeding unicorns was the most normal thing in the world.
“Now, if you want. It’s a bit of a walk though.”
“I don’t mind.” Nikki gathered up her camera gear and Kellie pulled a bridle from the tack room.
“He’s rideable?” Nikki said, surprised.
“Don’t tell Dad. He’s broken to halter and he lunges, but I’ve been hopping on him occasionally. He’s so tame he doesn’t really mind. That’s one thing we found with him. He tamed really easily. We thought he’d be harder. And he’s more intelligent than normal horses, too. He learns quicker.”
“What went into his breeding? Genetically?”
Kellie wagged her finger. “That’s a naughty question. You’ll have to ask Dad.”
“But you know.”
“Only some of it. Dad figures the fewer people that know the better. But I’ve got a fair idea.”
A top student, Nikki thought. Submits ‘Breeding the Perfect Unicorn’ for her final year studies and gets a high distinction! She stopped her giggle before it got past her teeth.
They trudged up the hills, the dew soaking into their boots, the long grass shining silver in the sunlight. Kellie was fit but Nikki, used to a fast food diet and too many liquid lunches, was gasping for breath as they hit the top of the second hill. She threw herself onto her back, letting the wet grass cool her down, and looked up at the cerulean sky.
She heard something rustling and thudding slowly towards her, and sat up to come face to face with Darius, the ruler of this hill.
She tried to concentrate on the grey horse’s muzzle as he lowered his head and sniffed her, all grassy breath and enquiring lips nuzzling her hands. but her eyes travelled upwards and there it was, in the middle of his forehead, half hidden by his thick Andalusian forelock – a grey horn about 10 centimetres long. Hesitantly Nikki touched it.
“It’s not cardboard or plastic,” said Kellie, amused. “He doesn’t mind if you examine it.”
The unicorn’s horn felt and looked much like a goat’s horn. Nicola’s eyes, remembering the way Tom and Kellie examined the foal’s feet, travelled to Darius’ hooves. They looked quite normal only perhaps a little more boxy than they should – like the shape of a pony’s foot instead of a horse’s.
Nikki stood back and eyed Darius as a whole. He was only young, three years old, but well developed. His neck was shorter than a typical Andalusians, with a lush black mane flowing down one side. His back looked wide and very, very rideable. It was hard for Nikki not to give into the urge to jump up onto Darius and ask him to gallop! Darius turned to look at the humans with the rather humorous expressions horses – and unicorns! – can achieve, with pricked ears and half closed eyes, as if laughing at a private joke or the human race in general.
“He’s gorgeous,” Nikki said finally, in awe. Once she was used to the sight of a horse with a horn fimly growing out of his face, Davius became the most beautiful, different beast she had even seen.
Kellie swiftly bridled him and adjusted the bridle carefully so the browband didn’t touch the animal’s horn. “He looks better without anything on him, but you can’t ride him without a bridle.”
Nikki grinned. “It does look a bit bizarre, seeing a unicorn wearing a bridle.”
“But not at all bizarre to see a unicorn without one,” Kellie finished.
She’s absolutely right, Nikki thought. And I think we must both still be a bit drunk.
With that she vaulted onto Darius’ warm, comfortable back and rode down the hill to breakfast, walking beside Kellie, enjoying the hill and valleys and pearliness of the morning, and the long, springy stride of the unicorn.
* * *
The next two weeks were among the happiest Nikki had had in years. She’d forgotten how lovely it was to get up and go for a long walk or ride before breakfast when the world was fresh and new. Her city mornings had consisted of groaning out of bed after an undoubtedly late night, sinking a couple of cups of strong coffee with Panadol to boot, and staggering into the office. At the end of the day she’d try and motivate herself to go to the gym, but all too often ended up at a bar with some of the other journos.
Tom’s pig of a stockhorse, Spinner, was her usual ride. Once she got used to the customary three bucks with which he liked to start each new adventure, they tolerated each other. Usually she rode up to meet Darius, of whom Spinner was very wary. She rode with a pocketful of oats, which drove Spinner crazy because he could smell them. She shared the oats between both animals at the top of the hill. Soon Darius was whinnying his strange, not-quite-horse whinny to her and cantering to meet her.
One golden morning when she was on foot Nikki took her camera kit with her, and took photos of him playing on top of his hill, pigrooting and bucking in sheer good spirits. She wished she were skilled enough to bring him to life on film, but knew that despite the courses she’d been on, she just didn’t quite have the eye of a true photographer.
During the day she helped around the farm, checking with Tom on the Andalusian mares who were in foal to genuine Andalusian stallions.”Have to make the place look legit,” Tom explained. “The neighbours all this I’m a bit of a weirdo anyway with my security fence, so if I provide some expensive livestock they might settle down. We’ll get more heavily into the unicorns next year, once we see how this foal gets on. After all, we’ve got all the time in the world. Kellie’ll learn how it’s done, and she’ll be helping me full time when her studies are over.”
“By then the world will know,” Nikki murmured.
Tom glared at her.
“Well,”she said reasonably, “You can’t keep it secret forever. If you have a whole herd of them someone will stumble on it one day. Even your distant neighbours.”
Once a journalist, always a journalist, Tom thought glumly. “Okay, I’ll tell you the whole story, on the condition that you don’t breathe a word of it until I tell you to. I’ll take you through the lab, let you take photos, look at my notes, and when the time is right, maybe in a year or so, when the program is well underway, you can publish it.”
Nikki knew a good deal when she heard one. All she had to do was to convince Tom to go public at the right time.
“I want sole rights to the story, Tom. We’ll have to get all this in writing and signed. Sole rights and mutually agreed release date. Hopefully before one of your neighbours crawls in under the fence to borrow a sack of oats, sees a colt with a horn on its head and calls the Sunday papers!”
“We’ve kept it secret all this time,” Tom said placidly. “It can stay secret a bit longer. But yes, a written agreement is essential.” He patted one of the Andalusian mares on her silky neck. “Tomorrow we start. Today, go for a ride with Kellie. She doesn’t usually have anyone to ride with apart from me and I’m sure I bore her stupid sometimes.”
After five hours in Spinner’s old saddle Nikki’s legs felt like chewed string. Kellie laughed as Nikki dragged the saddle off Spinner’s back and swore the first thing she was doing was having a red hot bath.
Nikki slept in the next day and missed her early ride to see Darius. Her legs screamed at her and she did some stretching exercises – which seemed to make them worse – before breakfast.
From the kitchen window she could see down to the stables and watched Darius’ foal prancing and playing around his mother, Maya, in the round yard. The little creature put his horned head between his knees and bucked wildly. Maya, unperturbed, munched hay.
“Apollo,” Nikki said slowly. “It’s a mythological name.. and the unicorn was always thought of as a myth. Besides, he acts like he has wings on his feet. Even though Apollo wore a winged helmet, it fits.” Nikki was aware the others were looking at her. “Er…that is, if you don’t already have a name picked out.”
“Dumbo,” grunted Tom through a mouthful of toast.
“Black Beauty,” mumbled Kellie, sipping her tea. “No, Apollo’s fine. I haven’t been able to think up a suitable name for him. Dad?”
“Only Dumbo.” Tom grinned as Kellie swatted him. He went on. “It’s about time we brought the proud father down here today. We’ve got Lusita in season so we’ll see what we can do. If we try and the tests prove negative we’ll have to resort to AI from Darius. And,” he added, looking at Nikki who had a questioning expression on her face, “After that I’ll show you the lab.”
They trudged up the hill, Kellie with the halter, Nikki with the oats and Tom with his hands in his pockets, walking swiftly ahead of the other two.
Suddenly Tom broke into a run near the top of the hill, and Kellie and Nikki sped after him. He was shouting, but they couldn’t understand him with the wind blowing restlessly and noisily. Then all became clear as they topped the hill.
Darius was sharing his paddock with a mare.
“One of McGowan’s, I’ll bet!” Tom gasped, catching his breath. Will McGowan owned the property next door. His homestead was nestled several hills away.
The animals eyed the humans and, as one, turned and bolted. Darius’ paddock was large, with two fences between Tom’s land and McGowan’s. The mare took the lead – she was sleek and obviously thoroughbred – and raced towards her home. How she got into the paddock became clear. She stood back and leaped over the wooden fence gracefully. Darius followed, and barely cleared the fence. His conformation and hybrid breeding showed his weaker points – he was no show jumper.
“Bugger!” spat Tom, and muttered more words under his breath. Luckily the animals were still on his property. There were a few more hectares between his and McGowan’s. Below them the creatures galloped across Tom’s paddock.
Kellie and Nikki ran raggedly downhill, ducking through the wooden fence, breathing heavily.
“Come on, Darius!” The words jerked out of Nikki’s breathless mouth, barely more than a whisper.
Abruptly the mare and Darius stopped, wheeling and snorting. Darius pranced like a true Andalusian, dancing through the long grass with his tail cocked up almost vertical to the ground. The mare pawed the grass and shook her head.
“Darius,” pleaded Kellie.
Nikki produced the oats with a big show of putting her hand in her pocket. Darius watched her intently. She could almost feel him wondering, deciding what to do. Greed got the better of him. Slowly, picking up his Andalusian legs in an abstract piaffe, Darius floated across the shimmering grass to the girls.
“Good boy,” crooned Kellie, hiding the halter behind her back.
Nikki held out the oats, calling “Darius, Darius,” in a gentle, singsong voice. Finally the grey muzzle was tentatively touching her hand. But his ears were pricked and his eyes wild. He ate nervously, spilling the oats and snorting some of them onto the ground.
Kellie approached him, aware that, in his majesty with a mare to protect, he had somehow grown an extra two inches. His head was high and she struggled to clasp her arms around his neck and secure the lead rope around it.
Darius tensed when he felt the tope, and his ears flattened against his black mane. He stopped chewing.
“Good boy,” offered Nikki. “Keep eating.”
But when Kellie tried to slip the halter over his nose it was too much. The stallion in Darius came out. He had a mare to look after, he had someone to run with, and he wasn’t going to be caught. Not yet.
He dove his head down and stabbed Kellie in the ribs with his norn, tossing her sideways with an arrogance she didn’t know he possessed. And he knew how to use that horn, too.
“Shiiiiiit!” Kellie let go of the halter and clasped her hands to her ribs.
Nikki tried to grab the lead rope, succeeded in grabbing one end of it and lot of mane. The mane tore free in her hand and she found herself holding a halter, rope, and some hair. She watched Darius bolt for all her was worth – priceless! – to the brown mare.
“Kellie, are you okay?”
“Think so,” mumbled Kellie, pulling up her sweater and finding only a red mark. He hadn’t broken anything – not her skin or her ribs or least of all his own sharp horn. She rubbed her side and began to jog towards the animals.
“Come away!” yelled Tom. “Let them go, Kel! Let them settle down! We’ll try and catch them later.” He beckoned from the top of the hill, and looking backwards every few seconds, Nikki and Kellie trudged up through the grass.
Darius didn’t want to settle down. Aware of himself and proud of his superiority, he chivvied the mare into another gallop. She tore off, bucking playfully, and he followed her around and around the paddock.
Finally she turned to the west, and her home.
From the hill Tom and his family watched uselessly.
The mare was heading for the worst fence on the property. Technically it was just on McGowan’s land, and it was a monster, really too high for horses to attempt to jump, although the mare had obviously managed it to get to Darius. It had aged bits of barbed wire left dangling from strategic points where the fence had been renewed with wood and wire and whatever else Will McGowan could lay his hands on at the time. There were even springs from a double bed at one end.
The mare was a superb jumper, that was obvious. She paced it carefully and cleared it – just – before gracefully landing and cantering off over her own land.
Darius, annoyed at her departure, screamed the half-horse, half-something else whinny that was peculiar to him and followed.
“Darius!” howled Nikki and Kellie.
For an instant the unicorn’s ears flickered, then instinct won. The mare was getting away. He tore at the fence, rose, and ended up in a tangle of wire, barbed and otherwise, crashing heavily to the ground.
He lay horribly still.
When, an age later, Kellie and Nikki – and, puffing behind them, Tom – reached him, they saw the unnatural angle of his neck, and the blood in his nostrils, and couldn’t say a word.
* * *
“You’re the last unicorn,” Nikki said sadly to Apollo, watching him dance around Maya’s legs. “The only unicorn. For now, anyway.”
Depressed, she put her hands in her pockets and found the tangle of Darius’ mane, which she had absently stuffed in there that morning when things were still wonderful and Darius was alive and well.
Now he was neither. She had an idea Tom would want to do a post-mortem to see what a unicorn was like internally, but her journalistic reflexes failed her. She hugged Maya, who butted her gently, and rested her head against the mare’s neck.
Tom had showed her around the lab, encouraged her to take photos and notes and told her the story of Darius and how he came to be, with a heaviness in his voice.
“By writing this book I can keep Darius alive,” Nikki had said sadly.
“It’s Apollo who’ll keep him alive,” Tom had said quietly. He looked like he’d aged five years, but said he was used to setbacks with his projects, and this was the worst yet. Not to mention Darius being a friend and not just a subject. “But your book will document him, both on a research level and a personal level. He’s the founder of a dynasty.”
Apollo scratched his head against his mother’s flank, and took a drink.
* * *
Nikki took herself back to Sydney a week later. She had to find a new job – and she had to write the book on Darius.
Borrowing a friend’s darkroom and advice, she developed and printed her photos. The ones she had taken that golden morning of Darius at his most playful turned out far better than she could have dreamed – they caught his personality and uniqueness perfectly. When she first set eyes on a closeup she had taken of the unicorn’s face, she knew she’d found the cover of the book.
Writing the book took months,as she had to squeeze it in between her new job, which was assistant fashion and style editor on a woman’s magazine – what a joke for a woman who wore nothing but jeans!
But at last the first draft was finished on a Tuesday afternoon. Satisfied, Nikki saved a copy onto floppy disks to send up to Tom the next day for proofing and corrections. It was late in the afternoon, l’heure de vin rouge really, so Nikki poured herself a glass from the open bottle on the bench, promised herself she’d go to the gym tomorrow, and sat in the least uncomfortable of her cheap armchairs to read the Sydney Morning Herald.
Journo’s habit, she read the paper from cover to cover, and half way down page twelve, one headline caught her eye: Unicorn Born in USA.
“Kentucky, Sunday: An Australian-bred throughbred mare imported earlier this year has given birth to a foal with a distinct horn on its forehead. The impeccably-bred mare, Selma’s Joy, was purchased by millionaire horse breeder Samuel J. Thwaites from a small stud farm in northern New South Wales, owned by William Mc Gowan. McGowan did not believe the mare to be in foal at the time of purchase. It is not known if the “unicorn” foal is a genetic freak, and tests are being carried out.”
Nikki’s heart thudded. It had happened. The secret had escaped, with her book all but complete and ready to go, not a moment too soon. Apollo was a weanling now, and according to Kellie his horn had grown several centimetres. He was undoubtedly as much a unicorn as Darius had been.
And Darius – Nikki grinned – was continuing his dynasty on the other side of the world. She felt happier than she had in months, and picked up the phone to ring Tom, to tell him his dream was alive and well, and living in Kentucky.
© Copyright Caroline Sully 1990, 1999
Reproduction without the author’s permission is strictly prohibited