The castle is built by hand now, not stitched together from a witch's scraps and fancies. The towers and ramparts thrust straight into the sky, proud as mighty oaks, not skewed crazily about like disarrayed stalks in a trampled wheat field. Lush green lawns blot out the scar where Haggard's old fortress stood, if there ever was a scar -- I can no longer remember. Banners snap and flare, windows glow with firelight, and despite towering over the countryside the castle has a comforting, lived-in look that welcomes all who would approach it.
I turn my back to it and spur my mount in the opposite direction. It's not home. It never will be. The corridors of my father's bewitched castle were ever dark and cold, but every stone and step were familiar, even welcome. This is a pleasant-enough substitute, but that's all it will ever be -- a substitute.
This isn't how it should have been. Heroes should be able to write their own endings -- they seem adept enough at writing everyone elses, be they villain or victim or loyal sidekick. A hero should be able to decide for himself whether he truly wants to rule the kingdom he saved from whatever despoiling monster or despot, whether he truly desires the princess he snatched from the clutches of the dragon or lecherous relative, whether he wants to reap the rewards of a quest or to continue questing, considering that in itself his reward.
A hero should be allowed the right to refuse the crown and pursue the unicorn.
The magician told me to be content with the blossoming of the land my father ruled as signs of the unicorn's passing. It was my destiny as the hero, he said, to rule the people and undo the damage my father and his Red Bull wrought. He could say that easily, of course -- he would not be the one returning to a kingdom he did not want to rule over a people he did not love. He had all he wanted at his fingertips, his newly birthed magics and his traveling companion. All he had ever loved did not now either lie at the bottom of the sea that had entrapped the unicorns or haunt a distant forest out of his reach forever.
Then again, maybe not so far out of reach as I first thought...
The magician spoke of great heroes needing great sorrows and burdens, lest their greatness go unnoticed. But what do I care of others recognizing my greatness? My greatest triumph still haunts my dreams, sea-white and with eyes reflecting green leaves and fox cubs instead of my own face. Immortal she may be, a beast of faery and legend, but in my heart she remains, and will ever remain, the Lady Amalthea, my true love.
Molly told me she was not to be won with great deeds. Perhaps that's true -- I can think of no greater deed than freeing her people from the sea and the Red Bull's tyranny, and still I could not hold her to my side. But maybe it's the other way around. Perhaps I am not the one to be won with great deeds. Could she work a greater deed than restoring me to life after the Red Bull killed me... and could she hold onto me any better than I could cling to her?
No matter. A great deed may not be enough... but perhaps a great love can suffice.
The magician said there were no happy endings, for nothing ever ends. Perhaps he's right... but even if I am denied a happy ending, let me at least valiantly try to seek it.
The road rolls away beneath my horse's hooves, carrying me ever forward to a deep lilac wood where a single unicorn, one who has tasted of love and mortality and so stands apart from her kinfolk, perhaps awaits my return.
I will find you, Amalthea. I will find you and say those things I forgot to say to you. I am mortal to your immortality, a guttering candle to your blazing sun, but I cannot, will not, let you be merely a gleaming shadow in my dreams.
I'll find you.