“How long is this going to take?”
The court bards described her voice as ‘lovely’ and ‘trilling’. He thought perhaps they might have been more accurate (if less poetic) had they used words such as ‘shrill’ and ‘piercing’ instead.
“We would be done already if Sir Kathrington were here. This was doomed from the start, you know. Father will not be pleased with how you’ve handled this. We’ve been here three hours already and still haven’t seen a single sign. It certainly won’t be my fault when this fails….”
Almost-Sir Thaddeus Uthridge clenched his teeth together and tried very hard not to listen to the never ending litany of complaints and blame. Sweating and uncomfortable in full armor, he crouched behind a thick screen of bushes on the edge of the clearing. Through the leaves, he could see the perfect Princess Perinolde seated upon her perfect throne in her perfect pavilion. Her golden hair fell past her shoulders in perfect ringlets and her gown fell in perfect, graceful folds past her delicate toes.
He knew they were perfect, because he’d spent the better part of the morning arranging each one to her exacting specifications, thus freeing her to find something else that was less than perfect about which to complain.
If the unicorn didn’t show up soon, he might have to muffle her with a perfect bit of silk.
Immediately upon thinking such a horrible thing, he blushed. That was no way for a Knight to act! To be fair, he wasn’t a Knight quite yet, but he was definitely almost a Knight. And Almost-Knights did not fantasize about gagging princesses.
The half-ignored litany of verbal abuse spouting from those perfect lips rose to a fever pitch. “A bug! A bug! Did you see it?”
After a short pause she gave an aggravated sigh, a sound filled with more long-suffering outrage than he had previously believed a simple exhalation of breath could possibly contain. “Of course you didn’t, you’re useless! Where is Sir Kathrington?! I demand a full Knight attend me! It is obvious that your ineptitude is frightening off my unicorn. When we return to the castle, you can be certain I will make this dire travesty known throughout the entire court! A Squire simply cannot possibly perform this job properly. He lacks the knowledge, the skill, the experience, the bulging muscles….”
Again, he tuned her out. This whole exercise was likely futile. No one could even assert that unicorns were real. The entire venture was based on a handful of old legends and stories, which stated that a unicorn was a mythical horse-creature with a single, magical spiraling horn sprouting from its forehead. According to legend, the unicorn would come to a virgin alone in the forest and lay his head upon her lap, gentle as a kitten. Legend also said that a tincture of powdered unicorn horn, taken daily, would cure all ills and grant the drinker immortality.
When the aging king declared that the gods themselves had made known to him their wishes that he should be immortal, and his only daughter exclaimed that she should be honored to be the virgin used to capture the elusive unicorn…well, a mere Squire did not naysay that.
Though if the princess happened to have a tongue sharp enough to cleave fog, and if the King had a reputation for bowing to her slightest whim, it might very well be true that a Squire could be beheaded for the sin of frightening away nearby unicorns through sheer ineptitude.
Not that she seemed to need his help in frightening away all of the local wildlife. They’d not seen so much as a bird since arriving at the glade early this morning. He couldn’t blame them. He’d much rather be anywhere but here, himself. What’s more, he couldn’t agree with Princess Perinolde more – he wished that Sir Kathrington were here, as well. Unfortunately, the Noble and Celebrated Sir Kathrington had engaged in a bit too much ‘celebrating’ the night before, and was likely still in the upper room of the Jolly Rooster, snoring off his hangover with a barmaid in each arm.
As the princess’ litany grew even longer, Thaddeus felt a headache spring to life between his eyes. If he listened to even half of the gossip around the armory dinner table, he would have serious doubts about whether Princess Perinolde truly was the pure, virtuous unicorn-bait she claimed to be.
Again, he felt a wash of shame. That was not the sort of thing an Almost-Knight should be thinking about right now!
Duly chastened, he let his eyes roam over the glade. The small clearing containing the Princess’ pavilion had been carefully prepared days in advance to ensure the delicate princess need feel no hardship in her role. The grass was neatly trimmed, all the way up to the glistening, mirror-like surface of the small pond.
Though anyone listening to Perinolde’s complaints would be certain she was enduring massive hardships in uncharted woods, she was actually quite comfortably situated. He’d been informed by one of the servants that the clearing was generally used by the royal goose-herders, and it was no more than a few short miles from the castle proper.
The thick trees that ringed the grassy area showed no signs of movement that could not be attributed to the wind. There was no sound of approach (or none that he could hear over the Princess’ constant harangue) – no crinkle of leaves, no whisper of grasses.
He sighed. This was never going to work. Even if unicorns were real, no animal with any sense at all would be coming into this particular glade today. Even the frogs had stopped singing.
Perhaps he could slay a doe and powder the fur so that it appeared white? If he added a goat horn to the forehead, none ever need be the wiser…
A sound! The crunch of a leaf, the barest whisper of tall grasses stirring when there was no wind. Immediately, he tensed, firming his grip on the hilt of his sword. Where had the sound come from? Oblivious to his sudden shift in attention, the Princess continued her complaints. He fought the nearly overwhelming urge to shush her.
Was it…there! There, on the opposite side of the clearing! Through the trees, the light flashed for just a moment against something white. He blinked. Surely the heat was simply making him see mirages. It couldn’t truly have been a unicorn…could it?
At the far edge of the glade, the tall grasses parted and a white form stepped tentatively onto the newly shorn grasses.
It was…it had to be…but that was impossible!
The creature that stepped into the glade was no more a horse than he was. It was…no, she. He was somehow certain in that instant that she was female. She was something of a cross between a horse and a deer, but that seemed such an inadequate and mundane description for such an ethereal creature. She was far smaller than a horse – her back probably came no taller than his hip. She seemed thin – almost elfin – with a willowy grace that immediately made him feel oafish and clumsy, crouched as he was in heavy armor. Cloven hooves stepped delicately across the grass and a lion-like tail with a tuft of long, silvery hair trailed in a graceful curve behind her hocks. Her neck was arched and had a short, upstanding mane somewhat like a horse. Her dished face ended in a delicate muzzle with slitted nostrils, like a deer. Two small ears swiveled nervously back and forth, catching sounds in all directions, as a horse would. And her eyes…her luminous eyes were blue as a cloudless sky.
And, of course, from her forehead sprouted a single, silvery horn that swept up and then back in a graceful curve over her ears.
She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen in his life.
“Ha!” Perinolde’s voice rang out in a sound of pride and accomplishment. “I told you it would come for me! Of course it would come for me. How could it not? In fact, I’m surprised that only one appeared, to be completely honest. Father will be so pleased!”
The Princess! For a moment, he had completely forgotten that she was there! His face flushed hotly with embarrassment. What sort of Almost-Knight became so besotted with an animal that he forgot his primary charge?
His hands, sweating inside of the heavy mail gauntlets, lost his grip on the sword. The sound of metal striking the ground at his feet caused the beast to startle, head up and ears forward, a single foreleg poised to bolt.
“You clumsy oaf!” the princess exclaimed, setting his teeth on edge. Screaming at him was not likely to soothe the frightened beast.
Despite the Princess’ outburst, the unicorn remained focused on his position, and he cursed himself for dropping his sword. They would be right to behead him if his clumsiness frightened away the beast.
He sat as still as he possibly could, praying that the unicorn would forget the sound of his sword, or attribute it to some departing animal. He could only hope her attention would return to the Princess.
A small, disobedient portion of his mind marveled at the fact that the unicorn had come at all, given the amount of verbal poison the Princess had been spewing all morning. Any creature so mystical surely also had…standards?
The unicorn’s slit nostrils widened, then quivered gently on the exhale. Relaxing, she took a step forward, and he felt some of the tension drain from his shoulders as well. It was working.
Another step forward, away from the forest and toward the pavilion in the center of the clearing, and he gently reached down and grasped his sword hilt again, the grass whispering softly at the movement. His heart raced. Could he do this? Could he really slay this magnificent creature? He felt a drop of sweat carve a path down his cheek, and suddenly his armor seemed too heavy, too hot.
Just two more steps, and the unicorn would be close enough to lay her head in the lap of the Princess, and would then, according to legend, become completely helpless. The perfect time to strike. His hands trembled.
The unicorn took those steps, then…took another? What?
Moving more swiftly and surely now, the unicorn completely passed the Princess, who began to sputter. “No! No, you stupid unicorn! Come to me! THIS WAY!” Perinolde grimaced, then in the same sickly-sweet tone she used on her lapdogs, she beckoned, “Come here, pretty unicorn! Come to mommy! Come, baby!”
The unicorn acted as though she didn’t even realize the Princess was there, moving past the garlanded pavilion without so much as the flicker of an ear. She walked straight to…to him?
He blushed. That wasn’t part of the plan! The stories were always very clear – the virgin had to be a female. Just because he’d never…after all, it was hardly as though it mattered…and he’d kissed the scullery maid that one time, so it wasn’t as though he were completely virtuous!
Despite his mental stuttering, the unicorn’s pace never slackened. As she got closer, he felt his grip on the sword weaken again. His king had commanded that he kill the unicorn and deliver the horn. He had, since the day when he and his Knight were chosen to undertake the task, dreamed of being the one to hand the trophy to his sovereign. He’d imagined the accolades and fame, of the King Knighting him on the spot.
But now that the time was here, now that the beast was actually coming directly for him, he didn’t know if he could do it. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
::Is it you?::
A woman’s voice, lilting and spritely. Most definitely not the voice of the Princess. Confused, he looked around to see where the voice had come from. Had someone managed to sneak up on him?
::It is you! Oh, I’ve been waiting for so long!::
Again the voice, but this time he was certain that the voice hadn’t been heard. He’d…somehow felt it. Inside of his head. Confused, his eyes met the luminous blue eyes of the unicorn through the screen of bushes that still separated them. It had been her voice. He knew it, somehow. Knew it just as he had known she was a female.
::Of course you know me! I have been searching for you for over a hundred years!::
The delight and relief in the voice was unmistakable.
She had been searching for him? But he was only sixteen summers!
And yet, he could not deny that he felt a link between them.
She leaped the screen of bushes with a single motion, landing lightly in front of him. For a moment, he could do no more than stare at her, awed anew by her unobscured beauty. She shook her head teasingly, arching her neck.
::Come home:: she said, simply, and he felt that he’d been waiting to hear those words for longer than he had been alive.
She laid her head in his lap.
* * * * * * * *
The King never did get his unicorn horn.
Princess Perinolde went quite mad, babbling on and on about how she had seen the Squire transform into a unicorn. Sir Kathrington was unable to confirm her story. By the time he’d arrived on the scene, all that was left of his useless Squire was an empty suit of armor behind a screen of bushes. The Princess became so hysterical on the subject that her father finally sent her to a nunnery – ostensibly to teach her piety and meekness, but in truth because he couldn’t bear the sound of her shrieking any longer.
Sir Kathrington got eaten by a dragon the following year, and very few people either noticed or cared.
As for Almost-Sir Thaddeus Uthridge and the unicorn? Their adventures were only beginning.