“You’re sure she’s untouched?”
“For God’s sake, yes. She’s just a girl.”
Duncan took the girl’s face in his hands, tilted her head back, pried apart her lips and had a look at her teeth. Her frightened gaze darted between him and her mother. “Doesn’t mean anything. There are whores younger than her.”
She was twelve or thirteen, small and thin for her age but healthy—good teeth, straight back. In a year or so, with a few good meals in her, she’d be a beauty with golden hair and clear eyes.
Her mother stood a few steps away, wringing her hands and trying to maintain a businesslike lack of expression. “I’ve heard men pay more for virgins.”
“You heard right,” Duncan said. “But you already agreed to my price. I’ll take her.” He tossed the pouch of silver at the woman. It landed at her feet, and she hurried to pick it up. Her husband was dead, and she had eight other children to feed.
He went to where he’d tied his horse to a fence post. “Get your cloak, girl, and come on.”
Barefoot, she stood in the dirt in front of the hovel and didn’t move. “I don’t have a cloak.”
“Eleanor, go on.” Her mother gestured, brushing her away like she was a wild dog.
She still didn’t move, so Duncan picked her up and set her at the front of his saddle. He mounted behind her, wheeled his horse around, and rode off without a backward glance. She didn’t struggle or cry at all, which worried him at first. Perhaps she was an idiot child.
Then she said, “What’s a whore?”
He considered how to answer. The less she knew about such things the better, so he said nothing.
He kept her steady with an arm across her shoulders, and she was limp in his grasp.
In three days they reached the wilds of Northumbria, plunging straight into a forest of twisted oak. What few local folk there were would not enter the place because they said it was haunted. Duncan made camp in a glade where a spring flowed clear. He set the girl on the ground and left her huddled in the crook formed by an immense protruding root. He’d bought a cloak for her, and boots.
Late that afternoon, just before dusk, he took her to a glen dipped in the shadow of a hill. He carried his longbow, a quiver of arrows with varnished shafts, and his sword. He set about building a blind, a crawl space shadowed with leaves and branches that allowed a view of the whole clearing. The girl watched him with her wide, blue eyes and slack, numb face.
He bade her sit on a grassy hillock. She began to tremble, clutching the edges of her cloak and hugging herself. For a moment he doubted. What was he doing, paying silver for a slip of flesh and then dragging the poor girl out here? The prize, remember the prize. This would work.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be over there. Sit quietly, and the beast will appear. When it does, calm it.”
He left her and went to his blind.
Wind shivered through the trees, sending autumn leaves raining. One landed on the girl’s cloak, and she brushed it off. Duncan held his bow with an arrow notched and watched all around the glen. Every whisper of leaves he took for footsteps.
Her fear passed with the time. She scratched at the dirt with a stick, played with the edges of her cloak. She started humming a country jig, a little off-tune. Over the next few days, Duncan kept the girl warm and fed, and she never complained.
After a week of sitting in the cold, the creature came.
It stepped out of the trees, out of the twilight mist, head low to the ground and nostrils quivering. A silver shadow in the form of a horse, seemingly made of mist itself. The long, spiral horn growing from its forehead reflected what little light remained in the world and seemed to glow.
The girl’s gasp carried all the way to Duncan’s blind. The unicorn’s head lifted, ears pricked forward hard, and he feared that she’d startle the thing away. But no, her scent was strong, and its instinct was powerful. Instead of cringing in fear, she got to her knees and reached toward it with both hands, whispering to it.
It leaned toward her, like a horse would to a bucket of grain. It made careful, silent steps, not even rustling the fallen leaves. Its thick mane fell forward, covering its neck. It huffed quick breaths at her, stretching forward to sniff at her fingers. The girl cupped her hands. The unicorn rested its muzzle on her palms and sighed.
Duncan shot his arrow, striking the creature’s neck.
It screamed, a piercing wail, and reared straight up like it might fly. Duncan shot again and hit the crook of its throat, where the head joined the neck. Twisting in mid-air, it tried to leap back to the shelter of the woods, crying with strained breaths. After one stride it fell, chest plowing into the earth, head and horn still raised. Groaning, it rolled to its side.
He didn’t know how much it would take to kill it. The stories were vague on that point. Heart racing, Duncan drew his sword and approached. The thing shuddered, sighed quietly, the sound of air leaving a billows. He sprang at it, driving his blade into its side, through its heart, but it didn’t move again. Dark stains ran from all three wounds, matting the hair of its mane and coat.
His hands were trembling. He’d done it. Bracing his foot against the unicorn’s ribs, Duncan pulled out the sword, stumbling back and dropping it. Its horn was a foot long. Worth a fortune. He took his hunting knife, and it occurred to him that no one would believe where the horn had come from if he didn’t take the whole head.
Belatedly, he looked at the girl.
She huddled on the ground, covering her head with her hands. Slowly, her face emerged. She stared at the dead unicorn, blood congealing on its side.
“You did well,” he said, attempting gentleness. His voice shook.
This was another part he had not thought to plan for—what would she do after? He expected sobbing. But she merely gathered her cloak around her and got to her feet. She seemed older, wrapped in the gloom of the forest, mist-glow turning her hair silver.
She stepped to the body, knelt by its head, and pressed her hand to its cheek. Quickly, she drew away. “It’s already cold.”
“It’s just a beast,” he said. “Just a hunt.”
He started cutting, and she moved out of the way.
As he cut the final strand of muscle joining the head to the neck, the body began to shrivel, drying up, turning to dust, blowing away piece by piece. The girl put her hands in it, clutching the ash-like powder and opening her empty hands as it faded to nothing.
“It was beautiful,” she said.
Eleanor gave a final tug on the cord that secured the bundle to the pack horse. The mass of it was awkward, wrapped tight in oilskin. A long, thin piece jutted out, lying flat along the horse’s flank. It was the head of their ninth unicorn.
She’d grown like a weed the last five years. Regular meals worked wonders. Duncan kept her fed, and she put on weight, developing healthy curves and roses in her cheeks. He bought a horse for her, along with the pack horse. They made quite the little company now, a world of change from when he stalked the woods alone.
She scratched the pack horse’s ear and went to kick dirt on the last embers of their campfire. “Do we ride far tonight?”
“Yes. I’d like to cross the border without guards watching. And—these woods are angry, I think.” It was spring, but the trees still looked like skeletons, black shapes against the sky, reaching for him. He’d made a habit of killing magic, old magic, and he found himself looking over his shoulder more and more these days. “Will you be all right?”
“Of course.” She said it sharply, but when he looked, she was smiling, watching him as she tightened her saddle’s girth.
Of course she’d be all right, living wild in the wood and traveling like a bandit as she had. He avoided civilization as much as possible, kept her away from towns with their taverns, from people who might say a corrupting word. She was still pure; the unicorns still came to her.
They left the road before they reached the border and cut overland, picking their way through the ruins of the old Roman wall. No one saw them, and they stopped before dawn to rest.
In two days they reached their destination, where a wealthy lowland chieftain bought the horn, then opened his hall for a feast in honor of the hunter. Duncan relented. They wouldn’t stay long.
Eleanor, wearing a simple gown of green wool, hair tied up in a braid, stood with him, untroubled by the great hall, the gold, the rich folk, and the stares. She had never been very excitable, but there was more to it than that. She was a creature of nature and didn’t know to be wary here. She stood calmly, chin lifted, meeting every gaze that came to rest on her, refusing to be cowed by the noble company. She only gave a nod to the chieftain himself. They all saw she was proud, haughty even, and a wild beauty showed through with that pride. How had she learned to carry herself so, this waif from the hovel?
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and smiled.
He hadn’t trimmed his beard or combed his hair to appear before the chieftain. His clothes were clean at least, but they were still hunting clothes, leather breeches and jerkin. And he, who slew unicorns, owed them no obeisance.
Then he knew: She’d learned by watching him.
That evening, he allowed himself more ale than he usually drank, to help chase away the shadows lurking at the edges of his thoughts. Sitting at the high table with the chieftain’s men, he listened to conversation play around him. He only answered when someone spoke his name and woke him from his reflections.
“Duncan. The lord has given you a quarter of his wealth for that horn. You could live nobly on that.”
“I hunt again in the morning,” he said.
Laughing, the courtier said, “But why? You’re rich, aren’t you?” Several times over in fact, but he kept the money hidden. “You’ve a beautiful woman at your beck and call—”
Before Duncan could turn on the man to correct him of this notion, an older fellow with a white beard leaned over. “He doesn’t do it for the wealth. That’s what you don’t understand. He does it for the power, to be able to turn his nose up at lords.”
“And the girl?” the overloud courtier said. “Don’t tell me you’ve never even touched her.”
“You fool, of course he hasn’t,” said the older one. “She’s the bait.”
Across the hall, Eleanor was dancing with the chieftain’s youngest son, a handsome lad of twenty with far more charm than Duncan liked. She didn’t know the steps, and he was teaching her. She stumbled—Duncan had never in the last few years known her to stumble. The boy caught her waist, and she laughed. Then he took her hand and raised it to his lips.
Duncan set down his mug and climbed around the table.
He marched across the hall directly toward Eleanor and the boy, scattering the figures of the dance. The fiddler stopped playing, the drummer lost his beat, and the whole hall fell silent. Folk cleared a space for him.
Planting a hand on the young lord’s chest, Duncan shoved him away and stood between him and Eleanor. He didn’t say a word, only glared, and the boy backed into to the protection of the crowd.
Duncan put his hand on the back of Eleanor’s neck and turned her toward the door.
“Never even think of it,” he said, hissing into her ear.
“What are you—”
“If he gets what he wants from you, you become useless to me.”
She ducked out of his grasp. “It was only a kiss—”
“A kiss leads to other things.” He’d said too much already. How much longer would he be able to keep her? “Go to the stable. Get our horses ready. We ride out tonight.”
“Duncan, there’s no reason to ride out. We’ve a warm place to sleep tonight. A roof, for God’s sake.”
“We ride out tonight.”
So, wrapped in cloaks and huddled in their saddles against a cold drizzle, they spent the night on the road.
Eleanor rode behind him, and her silence bothered him. He kept looking over his shoulder to make sure she was still there.
“What did he say to you?” he said.
“He told me I was pretty.”
“What’s the matter with you?”
She gave a long-suffering sigh, then let hoofbeats fill the silence before answering. “He asked me if I ever felt like I was betraying them. He could not believe that I would draw a creature of magic to me, then betray it.”
“Well? Is that how you feel?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I want to do this forever. I think I would like to marry someday.”
“What do you know about marriage?”
“It’s what men and women do, isn’t it?”
He was so very, very close to losing her. Perhaps he should just let her go.
“Men like that don’t marry girls like you, so you can stop thinking of it.”
“I didn’t say I’d like to marry him. Though—I’ve heard men pay more for virgins.”
He might have said a hundred things to that, but he refused to be taunted.
A couple dozen strides of silence later, Eleanor said sullenly, “You may own me, Duncan, but you’re not my father so don’t pretend to be.”
More hoofbeats, more silence, then Duncan said softly, “You earned your way free a long time ago, Eleanor.” He didn’t think she heard him.
Eleanor let her hair hang loose, draping in waves down her shoulders and back. She wore a blue gown the color of sky at twilight and went barefoot. As she matured, becoming more comfortable in her own skin, she attracted older unicorns, ones not so easily enticed, the ones with the longest horns.
They might wait for weeks before drawing one close. During that time Eleanor would wander through the woods, walking, singing, making her presence known. Duncan followed, moving softly and staying hidden. Once, he’d had to stay downwind of a unicorn who followed Eleanor for five days before finally revealing itself and coming to her hand.
He never struck until the unicorn touched her, thus losing its will to flee.
This time it took three days to lure the beast. Eleanor walked into a clearing, knelt, and picked flowers, humming to herself. The unicorn emerged from the trees behind her. She paused—perhaps she felt its breath on her neck—but she didn’t turn around. She kept humming, picking flowers until she had a small bouquet. Duncan crouched in the shelter of a thicket and waited.
The unicorn, a broad, muscular beast with a horn almost two feet long, stepped around her, sniffing her. She didn’t move, she was in its power—with its horn leveled at her, it could stab her at any moment. So she waited until it stopped before her, then slowly offered it her flowers. It reached and brushed them with its lips.
A cry, like the whinny of a horse sounded through a trumpet, rang through the forest. On the opposite side of the clearing from Duncan, a white shape hurdled the underbrush and thundered toward Eleanor and the unicorn. It snorted with each stride.
This creature, this second unicorn, was at least eighteen hands tall, a titan that shook the ground as it galloped. Its blazing horn must have been three feet long, the longest Duncan had ever seen.
Tossing its head, it raced at Eleanor’s unicorn and rammed it flank-to-flank, shoving it away from her. The newcomer screamed again, rearing at its fellow, which cried in answer and spun out of the way, tearing the soil with black hooves. The monster drove it off, and it raced into the forest.
The monster’s mane shook, white hair cascading over satin shoulders. As it turned to follow the other, it let fly a kick with all the power of those massive hindquarters.
Eleanor had backed away from the fight, but not out of range of those hooves. Struck, she flew back, lifted bodily and sent sprawling on the bracken.
“Eleanor!” Duncan burst from his hiding place just as the unicorn fled with the same rolls of thunder in which it had arrived.
She was curled on her side, coughing and gasping for breath. He left his longbow and sword behind and crouched by her, gingerly touching her arm and fearing how broken she might be.
“Eleanor, speak. Where are you hurt? Tell me.” He touched her face, ran his hand to her neck and felt a rapid pulse.
“I’m all right,” she said, wheezing, brushing his hands away and trying to sit up. “Lost my breath is all.”
His hand went to her side to help her up, and she cried out and flinched away. Her breathing started to come in panicked gasps.
“Sit back. Breathe slow. Good.” He helped her lay back against a tree and prodded her side. The pain came mostly in her ribs. Cracked, he wagered. She wasn’t coughing blood, she could feel all her limbs. She’d come away lucky.
He made camp there and fetched a bucket of water from a cold stream. He came to where she lay curled up, favoring her injury.
“Strip,” he said. “I’ll have to wrap those ribs.”
“Take off your dress.”
She blushed, crossing her hands over her chest. Then, a half-smile dawning on her lips, she gave him a look that made him blush.
“Yes, sir,” she said and began unlacing her gown.
He pointedly did not stare at her breasts as he bandaged her torso. When had she gotten breasts? They weren’t much, just large enough to fill a man’s hand, and yet—he was not staring.
“What was that thing?” she asked, gritting her teeth as he pulled the cloth tight. “It didn’t even notice me.”
“A legend among legends. An old brute of a unicorn. Filled with rage and jaded to the scent of virgins.”
“Like you,” she said, sitting half-naked before him.
He tied off the bandage, giving it an extra tug that made her squeak.
“It’s been watching us for some time,” he said. “Perhaps—perhaps it is time I quit this game.”
He helped her settle by the fire to rest, and he cooked their supper. They ate in silence. He put away the dishes, saw to their horses, and brought back his bedroll.
Eleanor watched him across the fire.
“We could catch it,” she said.
“You don’t just catch a beast like that. It is a god among unicorns, and we’ve inspired its wrath.”
He grunted a denial and looked away. Not afraid—he’d spent more nights alone in wilderness most folk dared not travel in daylight than he had under roofs. He could buy any man, lord or commoner, that he chose. He made way for no one. He did not fear. But he was getting old, finding himself wishing for some of the roofs he had shunned. Perhaps that was nearly the same as fear.
Eleanor wouldn’t understand, young imp that she was. Her eyes were bright, her face clean of wrinkles of age and worry. Her time in the wild had made her luminous.
“I think I can tempt an old brute of a unicorn.”
“A beast like that sees nothing but its own fury.”
She moved to his side of the fire, wincing and pressing her hand to the bandage as she crawled. She sat close to him; they had not been so close since he carried her before him on his saddle.
She touched his face. Not pressing, she held her palm lightly against his cheek, just enough to brush the edge of his beard. She was trembling a little, unsure of the gesture. Her brow furrowed, her expression anxious and waiting. Then, she kissed him.
Her lips felt as soft and clean as she looked. Her breath brushed his cheek, sending warmth across his face, through all his blood.
He dared not move, lest he frighten the creature away.
When he did not react, she ran her hand up his cheek, tangled her fingers in his hair, and kissed him more firmly. She was clumsy, her nose jutting into his, her balance on her knees wavering.
He took her face in both his hands and taught her how to kiss properly.
He almost gave in, and she almost let him, but his hand went from her breast to clutch her bandaged side and she gasped and flinched away. Giggling, she curled up in his arms, head resting on his chest.
“See? I can tempt an old brute.”
He brushed his fingers through her fine hair, touching her as he went, ear, neck, shoulder.
“I never intended to make a whore of you,” he said softly.
She pulled away and looked at him. “You’ve done it from the first, using me to make your money, haven’t you?”
He chuckled sadly. She was right, after all. “You’ve become too worldly for this hunt.”
“Not yet. We have one more unicorn to catch.”
It would be best to leave it. But even if he never entered another forest for the rest of his days, that old beast would haunt him. That prize, that challenge, the three foot horn—that was how he should end his hunting days. And the time was now: Eleanor had reached the peak of her maidenhood, unsurpassed beauty, her innocence still intact but ready to burst, a rose at the height of her bloom. Perhaps the old beast wouldn’t be able to resist her. After all, five years of nothing but pure thoughts notwithstanding, only a cracked rib made him resist.
“Why do you want to do this?” he asked.
“The usual reasons: money, fame. Because it is the profession to which I was apprenticed and I have no choice.”
“Then I set you free. Here and now, I have no hold over you, and moreover I will give you half of what we have earned these past years. I will not ask you to act as bait for the old one. So, will you leave?”
“No. I will hunt the old one.”
She hesitated before answering, pursing her lips and looking around at trees and sky. “The power,” she said finally. “The power I have over them. A girl like me—there’s no other power I could have, is there?”
Heart pounding, he thought, There is another power you have.
They waited for Eleanor’s ribs to heal before searching out the old one. They left their horses behind, took a minimum of gear, and traveled deeper into the northern woods than they ever had before.
Tracking unicorns, it was no good looking for hoof prints or broken twigs for signs of their passing. They left no prints. One searched for other evidence: a pool of water that should have been brackish, but was clear and fresh; a patch of grass greener than the foliage around it, where one of them had slept. Then, catching unicorns was more like fishing than hunting. Once a place they frequented was found, there was nothing to do but set the bait and wait.
They caught a glimpse of it after they had been looking for a week. Eleanor—watched by Duncan, who perched in a tree a hundred paces away—sat alone in a sunny clearing, brushing her hair. The beast, a fierce buck as large and thick as an oak tree, moved toward her, silently for all its bulk. Its thick mane and tail rippled, its coat shone like silver.
Duncan watched it pass to the edge of the clearing, but it did not enter. It circled, watching Eleanor. She looked up only when she heard its breath snort. When she did, it turned and galloped away.
Eleanor didn’t eat much at supper that evening. “I think I’m afraid of it,” she said, not meeting Duncan’s gaze. “It sees into my heart, sees I’m proud. I can’t fool it.”
“Do you want to leave off?”
“No. Fear will pass.”
The next day, clouds covered the sky. The day after, a drizzle set in, a long cold rain promising to last for days. They wrapped their cloaks tight around them and found sheltered hillocks in which to spend the nights. Eleanor said she caught glimpses of the old one twice, watching them through trees from far away.
“Who’s hunting who, I wonder?” Duncan said, frowning.
A week later, at twilight, when the rain-damp sky was a breath away from falling to darkness, Eleanor stopped Duncan with a hand on his chest.
“Let me go on ahead,” she said. “Circle ’round to that thicket, watch from there.”
“You think he’s there?”
“I think he’s waiting for me.”
He grabbed her hand and kissed her fingers before striking off.
A clearing lay where she had pointed him. He saw nothing, but crouched hidden, bow strung and arrow ready, and waited.
A moment later, Eleanor approached. She had left behind her pack, cloak, and boots, and unbound her hair. Her linen dress was quickly becoming soaked, clinging to her until every part of her slim frame showed: the line of her waist, slope of hip, the matched curves of her breasts. Her hair, darker when wet, dripped down her shoulders and back, framing her face, slick with rain.
Wandering into the glade, she seemed like a creature of mist, a nymph from a tale, one of the watery maids who pulled men under lakes to their deaths. Being soaking wet did not detract from her grace; she stepped lightly, lifting her skirt away from her feet, and stood tall. She looked up at the sky and smiled.
A snorting breath, loud as a roar, preceded the old unicorn’s charge into the clearing. He ran at her, legs pumping, head lowered so its horn aimed for her heart. Duncan almost let fly his arrow, knowing he could never hit it as it ran but fearing for Eleanor.
She stood her ground. She didn’t move. Just smiled a little and waited.
A mere stride away from her, the unicorn slid to an abrupt stop, hind end gathered underneath it, front legs lifted, and shook its head, brandishing the horn.
Eleanor crouched, lowering herself on bent knees, and raised her arm to the beast, offering her hand. She showed herself submissive, the lesser of the two.
The unicorn shook his head, his obsidian eyes flashing. He seemed torn, straining forward even as he resisted, as if pressing against a barrier. The beast stepped back, pranced in place, then spun away. He did not flee, but trotted a circle around her. She circled with him, her hand outstretched, fingers splayed, waiting for a chance when he might brush against them. While he came close—drifting in tighter and tighter circles, then suddenly leaping out to the edge of the clearing again, like a child playing around a bonfire—he never let her touch him.
All the while, Eleanor smiled a soft, wondering smile.
It was a game, this teasing and dodging. They must have played it for an hour. Sometimes the unicorn stopped and seemed ready to step toward her, head bowed, tamed. Then he reared and jumped away, and Eleanor laughed. At this, his ears pricked forward, his neck arced, and he seemed pleased to hear her.
Duncan watched from the thicket, his cold hands gripping his bow and notched arrow, his face flushed.
The unicorn moved toward her, hot breaths coming in clouds of mist. His back stood a good deal taller than Eleanor; his head towered above her. He came close enough for his breath to wash over her lifted face, but he still would not cross the last stride to her arms.
So she played the tease, and backed away from him.
“I’m pure as starlight, dear one. Touch me.”
She pulled at the laces closing the neck of her gown. She separated the front edges, enough to show breast but not nipple. She stretched her arms back, so that at any moment the gown might fall off her shoulders completely, but it didn’t, and she shook back her hair. The unicorn stretched his neck toward her, but she stayed just out of reach.
Duncan bit his lip. He dared not shift, though he was hard, pressed painfully against his breeches. Blood pounded through his crotch. He willed his hands to remain steady.
Her feet and legs were caked with mud, the hem of her gown black with the stuff, even though she held it off the ground. She was wet as a drowned kitten, but smiling and shining, moving a slow dance like she was born to this damp world—as innocent as the rain. Rain which gave life, and which flooded and drowned. This, he thought, was why men paid more for virgins.
The old unicorn was also aroused.
She had him then. She got to her knees, as she had done instinctively that first time, and offered him her cupped hands. With deliberate steps he came to her, lowered his head until his whiskers brushed her fingers, and licked her palms with a thick pink tongue.
Duncan loosed his arrow.
Pierced through the throat, the unicorn screamed. He reared, becoming a tower of a beast, as tall as some of the trees. Duncan jumped from his blind and shot again and again. One arrow hit his chest, another his shoulder, but still the beast kept to his feet. Duncan thought the monster would turn and run, and he would have to track him until he dropped. But the unicorn stayed, kicking and rearing, pawing over and over again the ground where Eleanor had been.
She’d ducked away, crouching at the edge of the clearing; Duncan saw enough to know she was safe. He got one more shot away before the unicorn charged him. He drew his sword and managed a slice at him as he passed. The edge nicked his chest, drawing a little blood, but the unicorn didn’t slow. He turned on his haunches, throwing a rain of mud behind him, and attacked. Neck arched, horn aimed, the unicorn ran at him. Duncan stumbled back and raised his sword to block.
He couldn’t hold his own against the sheer force of the beast’s movement. The unicorn pressed forward, his body a battering ram with his horn at the fore, and Duncan could only rush to escape, making token parries with his sword.
The unicorn got beside him and with a swipe of his head knocked Duncan over. He sprawled in the mud, and as he got to his knees the unicorn charged again, striking him as he turned away. The blow wrenched his shoulder and spun him around. Setting his will, he got to his feet and looked for the next attack—the unicorn was coming at him again, making a running start, ready to impale him on that prized, impossible horn.
He opened his hands—his sword was gone. He’d lost his bow as well.
He waited until the last moment to dodge, to keep the unicorn from swerving to stab him anyway, and again the beast’s bulk shoved him over. With the wind knocked out of him, he was slower to rise this time. He heard the thunder of hot breaths coming closer.
Eleanor screamed. “Here I am! It’s me you want!” She stood in the middle of the clearing, arms at her sides.
The unicorn stopped in a stride and turned to Eleanor, his betrayer. With a satisfied snort, he trotted at her, neck arced, horn ready.
“Eleanor, no,” Duncan would have said, if he’d had the breath for it.
She got to her knees—putting herself too low for the beast to stab her comfortably. He’d have had to bring his nose nearly to his chest. So he had to crush her with his hooves. Duncan stumbled in the mud, hoping to get to her in time.
The unicorn reared, preparing to bring all his weight and anger down on Eleanor.
In a heartbeat, she stepped underneath him and raised Duncan’s sword, which she’d hidden beside her.
She held it in place underneath his heart, and he came down on the point. For a split second he hung there, and it looked like she was holding him up with the sword. Blood rained down on her from the wound. Then he fell straight onto her, and they crumpled together.
Finally, too late, Duncan found his feet. The unicorn was dead. Its body lay on its side, a mound in the center of the clearing.
“Eleanor,” he panted with each breath. He approached its back, his heart pounding in his throat. Blood streamed from the body, filling in puddles and footprints. He saw no movement, heard no cries.
He went around the great unicorn’s head, twisted up from its neck, its horn half-buried in mud.
And there was Eleanor, streaked with blood and dirt, extricating herself from the unicorn’s bent legs.
“Eleanor!” He slid into the mud beside her and touched her hair, her shoulders, her arms. He helped her wipe the grime from her face. “Are you hurt? Are you well?”
“I got away. I’m only a little bruised. But you—” She did the same, pawing him all over for signs of injury. His twisted shoulder hurt to move, but he could move it. All his limbs worked. He could draw breath. He would live. They both sighed.
Smiling, she took his hands.
“No more unicorns, Duncan. If you want me, I’m yours. And if you won’t have me, I’ll leave and find someone who will.”
He swallowed her with kisses until she laughed. Then he took her, there in the rain and the mud, against the carcass of the unicorn.
© 2003 by Carrie Vaughn.
Originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Spread the word!