To stave off the pursuit of the black rider of Death, the sorcerer Malathikos searches for any hidden knowledge that might prolong his life. He tortures a fae servant, Rutu, for the secret of fae immortality. Rutu is oathbound not to reveal his people's secrets, but he might just leave a book or two open to hint at the solution. Malathikos lets the fae loose in the library. Rutu escapes, leaving behind a book open to the ecology of the unicorn, mythical beasts who live in Illylisily.
Malathikos follows Rutu to the forests of Illylisily, trailing the fae with star dust. He corners Rutu, who agrees to help if they both survive the arrival of the guards. A patrol of hussars then confronts the sorcerer. After a formal show of force is rendered ineffectual by Malathikos's protective wardings, the hussars leave, carrying a large ruby gift from Malathikos to smooth over relations with the king and his wizards.
Rutu leads Malathikos to the pools where the unicorns graze. Malathikos reaches out to a fairly placid male, only to remember too late that unicorns always travel in pairs...
I'll be honest, I did not enjoy reading this story. Malathikos and Rutu are both unsympathetic schemers of cloudy and uncertain parentage. Like the wasp landing on a nettle, someone's going to get stung, and I don't mind who. Malathikos was distilled evil, and Rutu plotted against him for immediate personal advantage with no thoughts to how his actions might affect others. Driven by selfishness, Rutu's tactical victories turned into strategic defeat. That said, unappealing characters do not a bad story make. Despite watching two different flavors of destructive selfishness duel, I was never tempted to throw my Kindle against the wall, nor did I feel the need to take a bath afterwards. Like in the Hays Code of old, both cheats got their just reward. I would rather read about the heroism of the Ige instead.
"The Ecology of the Unicorn" is not the first story to explore how the steps to avoid a given fate may instead bring it about. The black rider, symbol of approaching death, sparks Malathikos's fatal search to escape it. Unlike previous tales, however, this fact remains in the background. While Malathikos does strive against death, his efforts are directed towards obtaining the secrets of the fae from Rutu instead of lamenting an inevitable fate.
Fate and death appear to be the two great themes of the shorter tales of Thune's Vision.
While musing over what to write in for my review of "The Movements of the Ige", I had considered comparing that story to the Hollywood formula. In that structure, a protagonist tries to obtain a goal, an antagonist tries to prevent the protagonist from obtaining it, and the protagonist will reconcile with the relationship character who has been traveling with him. Please check out the link for examples. As a relationship structure, the Hollywood formula puts character and thematic conflict into sharp relief. As a plot structure, however, it suffers from the same fault as the three act structure: a saggy middle act.
However I was forced to abandon that idea as neither "The Movements of the Ige" nor "The Ecology of the Unicorn" have a relationship character. What both short stories do have, though, is clearly delineated conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. In "Ige", Kor wishes to fulfill his destiny to die before his god-sun. The arrival of the unnamed astronauts prevent that. In "Unicorn", Malathikos seeks to learn the secrets of fae immortality to stave off his approaching death. Rutu tries to prevent that. Both stories feature conflict that is personal, consequential, and definite. Kor succeeds over the shattered faceplates of the astronauts; Malathikos fails utterly, foiled by Rutu. There are no draws. Hernstrom's stories are focused duels between the protagonist and the foes of his desire, and read like the single combat of heroes of old.