When the Rabbit's littlest grandchild was very very small, she would tell him a story and it went thus:
Once upon a time, long long ago, when the land still smelled of ash and dust and dead things and great cloven footprints still covered the sandy beaches and rocky cliffsides, the young king of men put on his cloak and his boots and his gloves and set out for the edge of his kingdom. He was young and hale and hearty, and his hair shone like cornsilk and his shoulders were broad, so he made the great journey in a day and a night. And when he arrived at the edge of his kingdom, he entered a small tavern by the roadside, ordered a pint and a bowl of stew and sat in the corner to wait.
Sooner than he'd hoped, but later than he'd wished, another man came into the tavern and sat beside him. This man was not a king or a prince or a lord, but his cheeks were smooth and his eyes were green and he sat with his hands up inside his sleeves and spoke not a word to the young king of men. Therefore the young king himself was obliged to start conversation.
“They say I am a king like no king has ever been before. They say the land itself praises my rule, and the birds and beasts grow fat on my sovereignty.”
The other man did not ask if the young king of men believed this, for it was clear he did not.
“I have a beautiful wife now, a princess from the neighboring kingdom. She has hair like wheat and cheeks red as cherries and she answers my every word with “if it please my lord husband”.”
The other man did not ask if the young king of men loved his wife, for it was clear he did not.
“...I wake every morning with her name on my lips,” the young king of men said, soft and low, and he was no longer speaking of his wife. “I pray to every old and new god to forget. I pray to my father. I pray to the Red Bull.”
“Don't do that,” the other man said, and his voice was that of a parent to a child.
The young king sighed, raked a hand backwards and forwards through his hair and stirred his stew. “If I wished, I could have a hundred strong men on a hundred fine horses sent out to every corner of the world. I could have every forest searched, every rock turned over, every songbird questioned. I am the king, and I could find her if I wished.”
The other man removed his hands from his sleeves – long, strong, pale hands, hands that had done mighty and terrible things – and with one he touched the king of men's shoulder.
“Go home,” he said, and the young king of men did.
That night, the other man, Schmedrick the Magician lay in his small cramped bed and looked at his hands in the moonlight. “She thanked me then,” he said into the dark. “She thanked me for what I did. Do you think she would thank me now?”
Beside him, the woman Molly Grue rolled over and placed her cold, roughened, bare feet on the magician's leg without opening her eyes. “You moron,” she replied in a voice thick with sleep and affection. And Schmendrick smiled and turned towards her, and his long strong pale fingers touched the whirls of white hair at her temples, white and soft and bright as a unicorn's mane.
When the Rabbit's littlest grandchild was quite a bit older, and not particularly interested in stories anymore, she would tell him one anyway and it went thus:
Once upon a time, long ago, when the land was sweet with honey and clover, and fish leapt out of the sea and into the hands of fishermen, and wild game laid down before the hunters without a fuss, the king of men put on his cloak and his boots and his gloves and set out for the edge of his kingdom. He was no longer young, and his kingdom had grown quite a bit, but his legs were like two oak trees, so he made the journey in a week of days and nights. And when he arrived at the edge of his kingdom, he entered a small tavern by the roadside, ordered a pint and a plate of fruit and sat in the corner to wait.
Later than he'd anticipated and faster than he'd dreaded, another man came into the tavern and sat beside him. This man was not a king or a prince or a lord, but he was a magician of some renown and his eyes were green and sharp and he sat with his hands resting on his knees and spoke not a word to the king of men. Therefore the king himself was obliged to start conversation.
“My wife has given me seven fat sons and seven fat daughters and they are all nearly grown and married to husbands and wives of their own.”
The other man did not ask about these sons and daughters, for it was clear the king of men did not care to share more about them
“I have never been defeated in battle. I have slain giants and ogres, trolls and serpents and I have come out triumphant every time.”
The other man did not ask about these battles, for it was clear the king of men did not care to remember them any more.
“...I wish I remembered what it felt like to die,” the king of men said, and his great hands were fists on the table. “I wish I remembered what it was to be dead, then alive and to know she gave me that before she was gone. Perhaps I would appreciate my life more if I could.”
“I don't think so,” the other man said, and his voice was that of a friend.
The king of men picked through the fruit on his plate and he sighed a great and rumbling sigh and he shuffled his leather-clad boots. “If I wished, I could ride on my finest corsair alone throughout the land and fear nothing. I could pass down all the roads and ask if anyone was alive and had eyes to see what happened that day. I am the king and I could demand the truth.”
The other man turned his face – his long face, his lean face, his face which had seen wonderful and monstrous things – and he looked at the king of men.
“And will you?” he asked, and the king of men did not answer.
That night, the other man, Schmendrick the Magician, turned his face away from the moon and hid it in his pillow. “She called herself my friend,” he mumbled into the fabric. “Do you think she would do that now?”
Beside him, the woman, Molly Grue, moved bones that were stiff from the approaching winter, and curled her small and humble frame about the magician. “Don't be a fool,” she said, and her voice only shook the littlest bit when Schmendrick looked up at her with eyes bright as a unicorn's horn.
When the Rabbit's littlest grandchild was full grown and writing stories of his own, she told him one last tale and it went thus:
Once upon a time, not as long ago as you might believe, when the land was in autumn and the trees were the color of wine and crumbling castles, and there were no more bandits in the woods or harpies in the air, the old king of men put on his cloak and his hat and his boots and his gloves and set out for the edge of his kingdom. He was bent and stooped and his hair was grey and long and the road went on for miles and miles, so the journey took him a year and a day. And when he arrived at the edge of his kingdom, he entered a small tavern by the roadside, and was immediately turned away and told to sit outside and get the stench of the road away from paying customers.
Before too very long, but after he had already forgotten about it, another man came to the tavern and knelt before him. This man was not immortal or undying or young at all, but magic clung to his cloak and fell from his lips when he sighed. And the old king of men hung his head and did not speak, so the magician was obliged to start conversation.
“Have you decided to leave your fine fat grandchildren and great-grandchildren and set out on your quest with a hundred men and a hundred horses?”
The old king of men shook his head once, and the other man thought how very very sad he looked.
“Have you come to give me a message, using your final breaths to send me off into the world to deliver it?”
The old king of men shook his head once, and the other man thought how very like King Haggard he looked.
“...why have you come, King Liir?” the magician asked, and his voice was that of someone very frightened.
The old king of men rattled out a sigh and lifted his heavy grey head. “I am the king,” he said, his voice like rotting treestumps. “I am the king of a great kingdom and I cannot forget that I loved a thing undying. I am the king and I cannot forget that I am mortal and I kissed eternity and held her in my arms. I am the king and I wish to know if she cannot forget either.”
The magician lowered his head and hid his shameful, hot tears from the old king of men. “I cannot answer that for you,” he said, and left the old king of men by the roadside.
That night, under the stars, the other man, Schmendrick the Magician, wept bitter tears as he watched the moon set. “Can we forget her?” he asked the night. “Can we ever put her out of our minds and be at peace?”
Beside him, on the damp and empty grass, there came no answer. The night was as silent as the tears of a unicorn.
When the Rabbit ended this story, her littlest grandchild stamped his foot and shook his whiskers and demanded that she continue. “That cannot be the end!” he said. “There is so much left unsaid, left undone! What happened to the woman? Did she die, or is she simply off having a snack? And what of the king – did he find who he couldn't forget? Did she remember him still? There are so many possibilities, grandmother, you can't end it there!”
The Rabbit humphed softly and folded her ears and was generally unmoved. “I certainly can,” she replied, as she was a beast who allowed nobody and nothing to shake her resolve. “I know what I can and what I cannot do, and it is only a story besides.”
But then, since she was a grandmother who loved her littlest grandchild with all her soft shriveled old heart, she added, “However, I cannot tell you what to do, grandson of mine. Therefore, if you wish to continue the tale, I suggest you go to the source.
“I suggest, grandchild-mine, you go ask the unicorn what happened next.”
Once upon a time, only a day or so ago, when the forest where it was once always spring had been forgotten beside a road that was never traveled, and the creatures who had once lived there had all died, leaving their bones lying in a hollow by a cool calm pool, and their great-great-grandchildren had all moved on and never spared a thought for their origins, the Rabbit's littlest grandchild asked a question of a unicorn.
The unicorn lived in her lilac wood and she was so very alone. For years upon years, she had wandered through her trees, feeling an ache in her bones that nothing could soothe. Her skin had crept and crawled with the memory of mortality, and her heart had been a dull stone that beat against her fragile ribs with an unceasing heavy rhythm.
And so, one day, she had laid down beside her pool and closed her eyes and the unicorn had slept. She had slept as moss grew over her legs, as leaves covered her mane, as ivy twined it's way around her horn. The unicorn had slept as the ages of men had risen and fallen around her forest, and she had when men themselves were nothing more than dust and bone and memory in the back of all living things's minds. Perhaps she had dreamed in that time. Perhaps she hadn't.
But she was sleeping yet when the Rabbit's littlest grandchild had approached her, so still and grey and covered in moss and earth that she seemed a part of the land itself. It was only when he cleared his throat and thumped his feet nervously and twitched his ears and shaken the dust of eternity with his living breath that she stirred.
She stirred, and the sky shivered and the earth moaned and the centuries turned their faces away, ashamed and in awe of the parting of her eyelashes and the softness of her eye as she turned it onto the Rabbit's littlest grandchild. Every man and living thing that had ever been in all the world was within that eye, and the Rabbit's littlest grandchild could feel his own death clawing at his heels and he was afraid.
But then the unicorn blinked and it was just a damp, dark eye, clear and harmless as a bead of dew, fixed upon him so quiet and still that the Rabbit's littlest grandchild straightened his back and smoothed the fluff of his breast and knew that she had waited for him and his question. So he asked it, soft and earnest and unashamed of what he longed to know.
“Did they come back?” he asked, and then, “Was he foolish? Were they angry? Did she weep? Did you know them when you saw them? Did you turn away from their mortal faces and their mortal hands? Or were you gentle with them, knowing that you would be here when they were dead and gone?”
The unicorn looked at the Rabbit's littlest grandchild and she said nothing. There was an eternity inside her, and her bones were weak as water from carrying it. The breath in her mouth was dusty, and her mane was like seafoam on the sand and she could not say the words he had searched for.
So the Rabbit's littlest grandchild, a creature whose beginning and end were no more than a heartbeat to a being like the unicorn, gave the words to her. He would be gone before she had let that dry breath go, and he was so very small and fluffy and foolish, and he gifted her with an answer.
“I think the wizard was unsure of himself, at first but grew more and more himself. I think the woman wept and clutched your neck and whispered words of love to you. I think the prince was frightened and you were...you were kind to him, because you remembered...” He trailed off then and sat on his haunches and the Rabbit's littlest grandchild wondered what it was like to love something undying, and what it was like to be loved in return and he longed to bury his face in his hands and weep and he wished he had never come, because she would not say anything.
Finally he turned away, carrying the knowledge that he was small and stupid and she would go back to sleep and still be sleeping once he and his grandmother and their stories were dead and gone. As he did, he had to whisper, had to add in a voice as soft as the unicorn's eternal breath, “I think you were kind to all of them. I don't think it exists within you the possibility to be otherwise. Not to them.” Then he straightened himself to go.
But oh, the earth trembled with the excitement of a butterfly on the wing, and the unicorn stretched out her long grey neck and rested the tip of her bone-yellow horn between the Rabbit's littlest grandchild's shoulders and her voice was as sweet and awestruck as the day she left the outside world of men and retreated back inside her forest.
“I remember this,” she said, with such joy. “Oh. Oh, I remember.”