Sings-to-Trees had hair the color of sunlight and ashes, delicately pointed ears, and eyes the translucent green of new leaves. His shirt was off, revealing the sort of tanned muscle acquired from years of healthy outdoor living, and you could have sharpened a sword on his cheekbones.
He was saved from being a young maiden’s fantasy—unless she was a very peculiar young maiden—by the fact that he was buried up to the shoulder in the unpleasant end of a heavily pregnant unicorn. Bits of unicorn dung, which was not noticeably more ethereal than horse dung, were sliding down his arm, and every time the mare had a contraction, he lost feeling in his hand.
It had been nearly two hours, the ground were hard and cold and his knees felt like live coals wrapped in ice. She’d kicked him twice, and if Sings-to-Trees hadn’t known that it was impossible, he’d have begun to suspect that the unicorn had arranged a breach birth out of spite.
No, he was being unfair. It couldn’t be any more fun for her than it was for him. Just because he didn’t really like unicorns, he shouldn’t let it cloud his judgment.
He sighed, and tried yet again to get a grip on one of the foal’s legs. Unicorn foals had hooves as delicate as glass bells, naturally, and however adorable they were when tripping lightly ‘cross the meadow, they were pure torture to try and get a grip on in the slippery less-than-hospitable environment inside the unicorn.
If he could just get the little monster turned around, a few good pushes should do it. The problem was getting a good grip. He rode out another contraction with gritted teeth.
Sings-to-Trees loved all living creatures with a broad, impartial love, the sort of love that rescues baby bats and stays up nights feeding them, one drop of milk and mealworms at a time. He splinted the legs of injured deer and picked ticks off the ears of foxes and gave charcoal to colicky wyverns. No beast was too ugly, too monstrous, too troublesome. He had once donned smoked glass goggles and shoulder-length cowhide gloves, and sat up with an eggbound cockatrice for three days, giving it calcium tablets and oiling its cloacal vents every four hours. Since he’d been nursing a pocketful of baby hummingbirds at the time, which had to be fed sugar water every fifteen minutes sixteen hours out of the day, it had been quite an extraordinary three days, and he still had nightmares about it.
But he’d never really warmed to unicorns. Possibly it was because they didn’t need him. Regular elves loved unicorns, as they loved all beautiful creatures, and a unicorn with so much as a stubbed hoof could turn up at the door of any elf in the world and be assured of the royal treatment. Sings-to-Trees hardly ever had to deal with them, and he preferred it that way.
But when somebody needed to actually reach a hand in there and turn a foal around, suddenly the unicorn lovers of the world melted away, and it was down to Sings-to-Trees and a barn and a bucket of soapy water. And the hind end of the unicorn, of course.
As if to punctuate this thought, the unicorn kicked him again. He grunted. He was pretty sure the mare was smart enough to know that he was helping her, he just didn’t think she cared.
He got a grip on something that felt like a wee little hock, and started the tricky process of hauling, coaxing, and generally begging the tiny creature to turn around. Another contraction came along, and he willed his numb fingers to hold on to the foal’s leg. His fingers laughed at him.
Give him trolls any day. A thousand pounds of muscle and bone, froggish goatish creatures the size of grizzly bears, with enormous curling horns that could smash through a concrete wall, and they were ideal patients. They might not be any more talkative than unicorns, but they understood every word you said, and if they had come to you for help, they’d trust you to the ends of the earth. You could saw off a troll’s leg, and it would look at you with huge, tearful eyes the size of dinner plates and hold still while you did it. And if you told them to come back in a week for a check up, they’d be there as soon as the sun went down, squatting patiently in the vegetable patch, ready to be poked and prodded all over again. Sings-to-Trees quite liked trolls. And they were grateful, too—not a month went by when he didn’t wake up to see gigantic cloven hoofprints around the yard, and half a billy-goat left draped across a tree stump. Not like unicorns. As soon as the foal was able to walk, the mare would be gone like a shot, and he’d never see her again.
Come to think of it, maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
“Okay,” he said to the unicorn, mildly surprised at the weariness in his own voice, “I think I’ve got it presenting right. Let’s give this a try…PUSH!”
The mare pushed. He pulled. There was a brief horrible moment where nothing happened and Sings-to-Trees saw another two hours of internal fumbling ahead of him, and then with almost absurd ease, the foal slid out and hit him in the chest, the mare grunted in triumph, and he fell over backwards with his arms full of slimy baby unicorn.
Its first act was to kick him with its adorable little hooves. He gazed at the barn rafters while it beat a tattoo on his ribs. It hurt, but not as much as his knees did.
Okay. Not much more to go. He could handle this.
He staggered upright, shuffled on his knees to the end of the unicorn he hadn’t seen much of this evening, and dumped the foal in front of her.
She bent down, snuffled at the tiny creature, tapped it delicately with her foot-long horn as if to test it, and then began licking at its damp white hide. The bedraggled foal lifted its muzzle and made a faint squeaky snort of protest.
Sings-to-Trees was aware that at another time, this scene would be pure magic, even to someone who didn’t much care for unicorns, a reaffirmation of everything good and noble in the world. But there was gunk from the hind end of a unicorn plastered clear up the side of his face, delicate hoof prints turning purple across his ribcage, and he felt about a thousand years old.
He got painfully to his feet—-his knees had moved through the on-fire stage and now felt as if tiny lightning storms were raging under the caps—-and staggered to the other end of the barn, where a bucket of water and soap were waiting for him.
The water had been warm a few hours ago. It was icy now. The soap was a tiny yellow iceberg in a frozen sea. His right arm, which had been the one inside the unicorn, was red and white and bruising magnificently where contractions had smacked his bicep repeatedly against the mare’s pelvic bones, and there was unicorn crap and amniotic fluid and bits of straw all over him.
He glanced back at the mother and child, who were arranged in a beautifully domestic scene, as tranquil as the dawn. White hide glowed in the muted lamplight of the barn. You’d never know she’d spent hours in labor. That was unicorns for you.
He looked down into the bucket. The soap winked balefully at him. He sighed and began washing up.
Pausing only to make sure that the afterbirth had gotten passed with no difficulties—he considered patting the foal, but the mare, ingrate that she was, stamped a hoof at him and lowered her horn warningly—Sings-to-Trees limped out of the barn.
The moon glared down like a bar of soap in a bucket of cold sky. The path up to the house was packed earth, washed blue and black in the moonlight, and approximately a thousand miles long. Several ages of the earth passed while he toiled up to the house, punctuated by the bright jangle of pain from his knees.
A coyote with one eye and a ragged ear was stretched out across the porch rug, and when the elf was close enough, it lifted its head, pricked up the good ear, and came down to meet him. A cold nose touched his hand, and the tail made a careless motion that was certainly not a wag—Fleabane had a certain amount of dignity, despite his name—but might conceivably be mistaken for one. Sings-to-Trees wound a cold hand in the coarse hair behind the coyote’s ears and rubbed affectionately. They walked the last few yards up to the house together, and then Fleabane flopped back down on the rug and Sings-to-Trees went inside.
There were animals to be fed yet—a bat hanging upside down in the closet who was thankfully past needing ground mealworms shoved down its throat, an orphaned raccoon who was just starting on solid foods and needed warm milk with a little bread, and of course the gargoyle. He dumped a half handful of mealworms on the closet floor, heard a grumpy chitter in response, and left the bat to its own devices.
There was half a cold chicken left, and he divided it up carefully, a quarter for a sandwich, and three quarters for the gargoyle. He built up the fire, and set milk to warm by the hearth. The warmth was wonderful, if painful on his cold hands, and he started to sink down into the rug in front of the fireplace, caught himself, and lurched to his feet. He didn’t dare stop moving. If he sat down to rest, he wasn’t going to get back up in a hurry.
The back door opened with a wooden groan. Spring was well advanced, and the nights were fairly warm, but it was closer to dawn than midnight, and Sings-to-Trees realized immediately that he had neglected to put a shirt on. He took three steps forward, shivering, turned, and hucked the battered remains of the chicken onto the roof.
A stony chuckling came down to him, followed by the crunch of chicken bones. Satisfied, Sings-to-Trees went back inside to feed the raccoon.
He must have made tea at some point, because when he woke up, there was a stone cold mug of it next to his elbow, and a half-eaten sandwich sliding off his knee towards the floor. The raccoon cub was asleep in his lap, in the wreckage of what had been a saucer full of bread soaked in warm milk. Perhaps it was just as well he hadn’t bothered with a shirt.
It looked like most of the milk had gone into the raccoon, anyway, and his sandwich had a distinctly gnawed look. Some days that was all you could ask for.
He gave up even pretending he was awake, put the raccoon to bed, toweled the remnants of both their dinners off as best he could, and limped to the bedroom. He had just enough energy to remove his shoes, and then sleep crept up and hit him.