As soon as the dart hit the mare’s shoulder, the world solidified around the stallion. The air enveloped the gleaming white beast in a damp cloak and sounds shattered against his ears. He watched as his mate sank to the ground, her nose settling upon her knee. Dark clouds rushed in overhead as birds flew up from the trees. For a fraction of a second the earth shuddered on its axis, throwing wind patterns into chaos and aiming a stream of cold air at one small country in the western hemisphere. The stallion started as the blare of a car horn in the distance reached his ears, but as suddenly as the sounds of the mortal world had battered him, they retreated as the snow began to fall. Big, soft flakes swirled lazily from the gunmetal sky to coat her body and hush the air. The ground was soon blotted out with white and drifts formed against the mare’s sides. Th e stallion bent his head and tried to move her but she did not stir. Her chest and eyelids were still and her mane was plastered to her head and shoulders with melted snow.
He lifted his head and called for help. There was no answering cry in the forest; no one came. Th e woodland creatures hid and tucked their faces into their tails. He looked at her with agony in his breast and then, as the sun went down, turned and fl ed toward a presence that called him, a presence that would surely help them both.
The unicorn stallion ran from the forest until he reached a muddy lane that ran behind a little row of cottages. Smoke spiralling from their chimneys stung his eyes and nostrils and the scent of people nearby terrified him. Still he ran, eyes and nostrils flaring red, running toward that soothing presence. He turned sharply and leaped over a wooden gate, his knees buckling briefly as he crashed down on to a gravelled path. He ran up to a green wooden door and frantically beat at it with a hoof, as cats gathered on the roof above him, staring at him with golden eyes.
His sides heaved as he panted and waited for the door to swing open, his hoof scraping at the gravel to leave a wound of bare brown earth. Then she was beside him, her cool hands on his face and the soothing sound of her blood thrumming against his body as she pressed herself to his flank. He lowered his head, confused and exhausted as the Feral Child combed her fingers through his tangled mane and whispered words of awe. The purring of the cats rose to a hum above his head and the stars spun as his world became a dark and dangerous place.
Maddy woke up slowly and stared at her bedroom ceiling. Her stomach clenched with dread as she realized it was cold, much colder than it should be. The old wound in her shoulder ached and that only happened on cold mornings. But it was early autumn – that ache should not have been bothering her for at least another month. She rubbed at the scar through the thin cotton of the T-shirt she slept in and frowned. A memory flickered deep in her mind, unravelling in flashes before her waking eyes before she had a chance to shut the lid on it. A blade of ice, sliding clean and blue into her flesh, the hot red blood that flooded the air with a scent of iron, and a white face with boiled white eyes twisting into an evil smile as she shrieked.
It had been almost a year since Maddy had gone into the faerie realm of Tír na nÓg to rescue little Stephen Forest, a child that in the mortal world slept just beyond her bedroom wall. He had been snatched by a faerie when the mounds had opened at Halloween, the one night of the year faeries could cross into the mortal world freely. The Feral Child, the faeries had called her, when she had fought, starved and frozen to get him back. But she was no such thing. She just wanted to forget but the horrible, roiling tension in the pit of her stomach told her they were not going to let her do that. Th e faeries of Tír na nÓg were back and it had something to do with the unicorn stallion she had locked in the coal shed.
She listened as the clock in the sitting room begin to strike the hour and sat bolt upright in horror as she counted the chimes. Ten o’clock! How had she slept so long? She threw back the duvet and scrambled into her clothes, combing her fingers through her tangled brown hair.
She looked around her room as she stuff ed her feet into her trainers, waggling them from side to side to push past the straining laces, knots forced so tight now only long fingernails could pick them apart. Her grandparents had made an effort to make the spare room feel more like her own since she had come to live with them, but that hideous wedding-wrapping-paper wallpaper was everywhere and so far she had failed to persuade Granda to take it down. Granny liked it too much and Granda wanted his money’s worth out of it before he got rid of it. Her eyes rested for a moment on the picture of her parents, dead eighteen months now in a car crash in Donegal, and her lips thinned with the dull pain it still brought her.
‘Why did you let me sleep so long?’ she asked Granny as she walked out of her bedroom.
‘And good morning to you too,’ said Granny. ‘I was just about to wake you up so you saved me the bother. Sit down there and eat your breakfast. We have to leave for Mass in half an hour.’
Maddy thought of the unicorn in the shed, who was probably wondering where his breakfast was. ‘I just . . .’
‘You just nothing,’ said Granny, with a do-not-mess-with-me look on her face. ‘Breakfast, make yourself presentable, Mass. You have time for nothing else.’
Maddy looked down at her crumpled jeans and scuffed trainers. ‘What’s wrong with the way I look?’
Granny rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. ‘What am I rearing?’ she sighed.
Sunday was the day Maddy’s hideous Aunt Fionnula and her revolting brood paid a duty visit to Granny and Granda. Maddy couldn’t stand any of her cousins, apart from Roisin and Danny. They had risked their lives with her last year trying to get Stephen back and she couldn’t forget that. They might not be best friends but they had a bond no one else could share and it made Maddy just a little less lonely in Blarney.
As soon as Aunt Fionnula launched into one of her monologues (Aunt Fionnula never had what you would call a proper conversation, where the other person talked back), Maddy herded Roisin and Danny into the kitchen.
‘I am going to show you something I don’t want anyone else to see, so just stay calm,’ she whispered.
‘I don’t like the sound of this,’ said Roisin as they snuck out the back door and over to the coal shed. Maddy threw open the door and Roisin and Danny’s jaws dropped as they stared at the unicorn. Th e animal was so white he was almost blue and he shone ghostly in the dark and dusty coal shed. His horn scraped against the roof as he turned his head to look at them with an anguished expression in his sapphire-blue eyes.
‘Oh no,’ said Danny, who had gone almost as white as the unicorn.
Roisin stretched out a hand to the animal, which snuffled her palm with a velvety nose.
‘He’s so lovely,’ she breathed. ‘Can we keep him?’
‘What, one of the pillars of old magic that keeps the world propped up?’ asked Maddy. ‘Don’t be soft .’
‘Oh no,’ said Danny. ‘Oh no, oh no, ohno, ohno, ohno.’
‘Will you please get it together?’ hissed Maddy.
‘I am not going through all this again,’ said Danny. ‘Get rid of it, get it out of here! How are we going to explain a unicorn in the coal shed?’
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the back door opened and they heard the crunch of feet on gravel. They looked at each other in panic. ‘Now what?’ squeaked Roisin. Granny was walking toward them holding the coal scuttle. She frowned when she saw them.
‘Don’t be thinking of playing in there now – it’s filthy,’ she warned. ‘Danny and Roisin, your mother will scalp the pair of you if you ruin your clothes, and I won’t be too happy with you either, Maddy.’ Roisin and Danny looked on in amazement as Granny walked straight through the unicorn, filled the scuttle and walked back out again, closing the door in the animal’s face. ‘I mean it – play either in the garden or in the house, but stay out of here.’
They trudged obediently behind her in stunned silence but huddled in the kitchen to talk in private. The unicorn had nudged the shed door open and they watched him sniff around the garden while George stared at him from the safety of his kennel with all the intensity of a short-fusing terrier brain.
‘How come Granny was able to walk through him like that?’ asked Danny.
‘She’s been doing it all day,’ said Maddy. ‘Remember what Finn said? They are more symbol than animal and if you don’t believe in what they stand for then you can’t see them.’
‘But we can see him and touch him?’ said Roisin.
‘That’s because we’re faerie-touched,’ said Maddy. ‘We see things like him whether we want to or not.’
‘What’s he doing here? Why is he hanging around?’ asked Roisin.
‘I don’t care. I’m having nothing to do with this!’ said Danny as he began to walk toward the sitting-room door. ‘It can’t be good, it never is. This lot don’t just drop in for a visit. It wants something, and I am not getting dragged into anything this time.’
‘It’s not an “it”,’ yelled Maddy, just as the door was yanked open.
Aunt Fionnula stood framed in the doorway, her pastel-pink shell suit throbbing faintly in the soft glow of the sitting-room lamps. Her gimlet eyes were fixed, as usual, on Maddy. ‘What are you making all this racket for?’ she barked. ‘We can barely hear ourselves think in here!’
‘I’m not in here on my own, you know,’ said Maddy.
Aunt Fionnula leaned down to glare into Maddy’s face. Amazing, thought Maddy. The old wagon already looks like she’s sucking on a lemon. Pucker up a bit more and she’d look just like a cat’s bum. She bit the inside of her cheeks to stifle a nervous giggle.
‘My children have been properly raised,’ said Aunt Fionnula, hiking an anorexic eyebrow so high in her disapproval and contempt that it almost disappeared into her solid mass of hair. ‘My children know better than to run around shouting and roaring and making a show of themselves. The fact that you cannot says something about you, young lady.’ She raised a bony finger and began to poke Maddy in the chest, a painful jab emphasizing each word. ‘You. Are. An. Ignorant. Bad-tempered. Little. Brat.’
Maddy gritted her teeth. Her legs shook and her blood boiled as she stared up at Aunt Fionnula. Out of the corner of her eye she could see her grandparents and her cousins looking around to see what all the fuss was about. Granny sighed and came over to them, as Aunt Fionnula raised her finger for another jab.
‘Maddy, love, why don’t you take George for a walk around the square and leave us to talk for a little while?’ she asked.
‘I haven’t done anything! Why is it every time someone starts on me, I have to take the dog for a walk?’ said Maddy. She jerked her chin in Aunt Fionnula’s direction. ‘Make her walk him.’
‘Please, Maddy, just for a little while,’ soothed her grandmother, as she took Maddy’s jacket from a hook behind the back door and ushered her out into the back yard. ‘Stretch his legs before dinner.’
Maddy looked over her shoulder at her, her green eyes brimming with tears.
‘Why don’t you ever take my side?’
Granny sighed. ‘It’s not a question of sides, love.’
Maddy gritted her teeth against the tears that threatened to spill, yanked a rather surprised George out of his warm kennel to tie the collar around his neck, and then stormed out of the back garden. She scowled and scuffed at the ground with her tatty trainers, dragging the terrier along on his lead. George, his brown eyes bulging, kept trying to twist his body round to stare at the unicorn that followed them. The stallion was oblivious to the odd person that walked through him. Maddy didn’t bother to look back at the little horse. Instead she hunched her shoulders underneath her jacket and lingered beneath a tree overlooking the square. The wind was bitter and the low village buildings cowered beneath needles of icy rain that began to hammer down from the leaden sky. Maddy sighed and zipped her jacket tighter to her throat. The front of her hair was already soaked where her hood crept back from her forehead. Soon Roisin and Danny came panting up.
‘We got away as soon as we could,’ said Roisin.
‘It wasn’t easy – Mum’s not too keen on us hanging out with you,’ said Danny. Roisin glared at him and rammed an elbow into his ribs. He gave a yelp of pain.
‘What’s your problem? She knows Mum doesn’t like her,’ he said.
‘There’s no need to spell it out,’ said Roisin. ‘Anyway, Maddy, what’s going on? Any idea why our friend here has shown up?’
‘Are you interested?’ said Maddy.
‘Of course we’re interested,’ said Roisin, looking at Danny, who was studying his feet. ‘Aren’t we?’
‘Yeah,’ Danny mumbled, shamefaced. ‘Course I am.’
‘Good,’ said Maddy. ‘I think we need to have a chat with Seamus. And we need to find out why the mare isn’t here.’
Excerpted from The Unicorn Hunter by Che Golden. Copyright © 2013 by Che Golden.
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