Norbert walked back from the abbey slowly, his once-proud and swaggering gait now that of a careful, elder statesman. “Her Ladyship wants a unicorn,” he said.
“A unicorn? Is she mad?” Bianca took her father’s arm and guided his steps over the broken stones at the threshold of their small cottage.
“Quite. But she is very definite about it.”
Bianca seated her father in his favorite chair and brought him fortifying, honeyed wine. She knew better than to suggest her father tell Her Ladyship “no.” They would quickly find themselves without hearth and home or heads. “What are we going to do?” she asked him, quietly.
“We’ll have to find her a damned unicorn, I suppose.”
“Can it be a dead one?” asked Bianca.
“Oh, absolutely not,” said Norbert, well aware of the elaborate narwhal tusks his daughter alluded to. And even if a “dead one” would satisfy Her Ladyship’s craving for a unicorn, the narwhal horn would cost them everything they owned. He might as well throw himself at Her Ladyship’s tiny, pointed feet and beg for mercy now, just to get it over with. “She wants to ride it into town. I believe she means to make the King’s daughter jealous.” Norbert’s mouth twisted into a wry grin. He and his daughter harbored the secret hope that one day, Her Ladyship would push her petty rivalries too far, and solve all their troubles for them.
Bianca had almost forgotten the upcoming visit of the King’s daughter. She bit back her disappointment that the Prince would not be accompanying his sister.
“Oh, dear. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
Bianca looked around the house, mentally calculating the time it would take to pack up their modest belongings and make it to the border on foot. Norbert would never make it out of the village. Neither would Bess, the old nag she used to plow their small field out back. She sighed. There was nothing for it but to find Her Ladyship a unicorn. Bianca feared this would not end well. “All right, Papa. We shall begin the hunt at dawn.”
Norbert looked up in astonishment. His blue eyes, clouded by cataracts, were full of concern. “You do know, don’t you, that there are no–”
“Hush now, Papa. You should get some sleep. Dawn comes in a few hours. We’ll figure something out.”
Bianca knew that the unicorns were presumed to be extinct. Unicorns were not extinct–quite the contrary. Bianca had seen them, grazing in the glade, many times. She had watched them frolic with small, fleet-footed jumping goats, up the side of Mount Doret. Majestic beasts–it broke Bianca’s heart to think of one being penned in Her Ladyship’s stables. She strongly suspected that Her Ladyship would never be able to ride such an untamed creature–not if she valued her life. But the thought of what Her Ladyship would do to Norbert if he failed in this quest froze her to the core. A unicorn would have to be sacrificed, that Norbert would not be fed to Her Ladyship’s hogs, or worse. Bianca wept with shame and guilt for the act of betrayal that she would be forced to commit.
With the first pale light, that colorless harbinger of dawn, Bianca and her father set out for the glade. “You know what to do, child?” Norbert hobbled along, each step painful and painfully slow. Bianca was glad they wouldn’t have to chase the beasts.
“Good girl,” Norbert nodded. “Though you realize, if you had married Robert Benning, as I’d asked–”
“Yes, Father, but then were would you be, now?” Bianca smiled gently at her father. He patted her on the arm.
“I might have died of the fever, last Winter, and spared Her Ladyship the trouble of butchering me for her hogs,” observed Norbert.
“True, true. Well, hindsight and all…” Bianca laughed. The world was simply too darkly funny not to laugh, some days.
As they came to the glade, Bianca put out an arm to stop her father and pressed a fingertip to her lips. “Stay here,” she said. “No matter what you see, you must stay here and stay silent. Our lives may depend on it,” she added with an ominous flair. Bianca did not know if the old legends held one drop of truth, but she did not suppose her father, at nearly eighty years of age, could be without at least the tiniest bit of treachery and wickedness. No matter how unconditionally she loved him, a unicorn would see straight through her father’s benign facade. Bianca shuddered.
Bianca walked, alone, into the glade. She carried with her Bess’s best leather halter and a handful of carrots with leafy green tops. She had no idea whether the unicorns liked carrots, but if the old legends were true, she’d have no trouble luring one to her, regardless. She stood in the shade of a lone maple tree and waited.
She did not have to wait long. Lovely, curious creatures, the unicorns were attracted to Bianca like hummingbirds to sweet water. Bianca sighed. The leader of the herd approached her incautiously and bowed, his great, gleaming, spiral horn touching the tip of her worn leather boot in obeisance. Bianca took a step forward. The unicorn tossed its head high in the air, then stilled. Its unwavering gaze unnerved her. “I am so sorry about this,” she whispered, stroking its velvety muzzle as she slipped the halter over its head and buckled the crownpiece above the horn. She whispered her hopes and dreams and fears into the creature’s ear. The unicorn stood absolutely motionless, then allowed itself to be led from the glade to where Bianca’s father, Norbert, stood with his mouth hanging open.
“Father, you’ll catch flies.” Bianca lifted his chin and smiled gently. “Let’s go see Her Ladyship.” They did not notice that they were being followed.
By the time they arrived at the road leading into town, and up the hill to Her Ladyship’s abode, the Royal Caravan had arrived – bearing the Princess Stefani. “We’d best avoid the crowds,” whispered Norbert.
Bianca agreed. It would be a Very Bad Thing Indeed to present Her Ladyship with a unicorn, and greet the Princess empty handed. It might, in fact, defeat the purpose – which, to Bianca’s way of thinking, was not to make the Princess jealous, but to help her father keep his head upon his stooping shoulders. They detoured through Her Ladyship’s estate, discretely keeping to the shadows of her well-manicured hedges and orchards.
“Ah, there you are!” exclaimed Her Ladyship, just as Princess Stefani’s entourage pulled within earshot. “Thank you, Dearest Norbert, for–”
“It is always a privilege, My Lady, to take your beloved mount on his morning constitutional,” said Norbert, bowing deeply.
“My m–yes,” as understanding dawned, Her Ladyship looked pleased at the ruse. “Yes, yes, thank you. He’s very–dear to me,” Her Ladyship looked at the unicorn. Of course, she had not imagined that the old man and his daughter could pull it off; like everyone else, Her Ladyship had believed the unicorns to be extinct. But had the old man failed, as he was supposed to do, it would have rid Her Ladyship of her only real rival for Prince James’s affections. The beast looked back at her with that unnerving gaze, and an expression of icy rage and contempt. Bianca held out the lead, offering it to Her Ladyship. “Perhaps you could return him to the stable, my dear. He must be tired after all that walking.”
“Oh, no, My Lady–quite the contrary! He’s just warmed up. We thought you meant to ride him in the hunt, this morning, so we did not want to exercise him to the point of exhaustion.” It was a little wicked, Bianca realized, to taunt Her Ladyship like that, under the watchful and curious gaze of the kind Princess Stefani.
“What a lovely creature,” said the Princess in a reverent tone. “Stunning. And so–” Tame seemed the wrong word. The Princess was at a loss for a better one.
“Perhaps you would like to ride him, Your Highness?” Her Ladyship could be an evil, conniving little witch, but now she was playing a dangerous game. If the Princess refused, her father the King would hear word of it and her good reputation would be tarnished. If she agreed…
A gasp came up from the Princess’s entourage. “Look!” cried one of her guards, blanching in fear.
“Oh, how marvelous!” exclaimed the Princess, as from the forest an entire herd of luminous, white unicorns emerged. Three guardsmen raised their bows and drew the strings, arrows at the ready. “Stop that you oafs!” cried Princess Stefani, much to Bianca’s relief. Turning again to the herd, she smiled. “How extraordinary.” She dismounted and walked over to the dozen or so unicorns that stood, now, just a few feet in front of her. They dipped their heads to her, gently tapping her slippers with the sword-sharp tips of their horns. “Magnificent,” she said. Princess Stefani turned to Bianca. “You, I take it, are Master of the Horse?”
Bianca opened her mouth but was at a loss for words.
“My brother spoke of you after his visit here last spring. He said that you had a gentle, commanding way with horses. I had no idea that this extended to unicorns, as well.” The Princess gave Bianca an appraising look. Bianca saw nothing but admiration in the woman’s eyes, and curtsied in return, only just looking up in time to catch Her Ladyship rolling her eyes in disgust.
“Do you think I might ride one of these amazing creatures? Would that be permitted?” asked the Princess. Though she addressed Bianca, she really seemed to be asking the unicorns, themselves. The largest of them, a stallion of purest white – so white that he appeared to be emitting light from within – knelt down before the Princess and lowered his horn to touch the ground. She touched his forehead, running her fingers up the horn that resembled a knight’s lance. “Thank you,” she said softly, lowering herself onto the unicorn’s bare back. The stallion rose swiftly; Princess Stefani, an accomplished horsewoman, threw back her head and laughed.
“Oh, how delightful! Come, my darling Amena!” she said, addressing Her Ladyship. “Mount your lovely unicorn and let’s go for a ride!” The Princess grinned at Her Ladyship. “What on earth are you waiting for!”
Her Ladyship shuddered. She reached out to take the lead Bianca offered her. As she touched it, the unicorn snarled and rammed its horn clean through her chest, just to the left of the sternum. Amena did not even have time to scream. The unicorn slowly withdrew, dragging entrails with it as an arterial fountain gushed red from the poor, glassy-eyed woman’s chest.
“Oh, dear,” said the Princess. “The rumors about that stable boy must have been true, after all.” Turning to Bianca, she said, “Morning’s not going to last forever. Will you ride with me, dear girl? My brother would have me plead his case for marriage… I realize you could do better than a mere Prince, but you must at least hear me out.”
This is story #10 for the Story a Day challenge. I will have to do just a bit better than ONE a day to make up for my slackerly ways this past week. I’d plead work, but I refuse to make excuses!
Latest posts by HollyJahangiri (see all)
- A Brand New Blog with a Fresh Perspective! - September 15, 2017
- If We Were Having Coffee, I’d Tell You to #WriteBravely… - August 12, 2017
- A Taste of Home for the Next Generation (Interview with Sapna Anu George) - August 9, 2017