An account of the hunter E.Wildwood, Year 300
as compiled in
“The Collected Tales of the Big Bad Wolf,” circa 1325
It is human nature to fear death. But there are those who fear it more than others, doing anything they can to avoid it. We seek out strange items that supposedly maintain our youthful appearance, we buy soldiers to protect us against those who might kill us, and we look for the mystical things that grant us immortality.
It should not be a surprise to most of you that the quest for immortality often is the pursuit of the wealthy. After all, there is no hope of everlasting life for the regular man who can not afford either these magic elixirs of youth or a hired army to secure these mystical items for them.
In a way, I fall into the latter category – a hired man in the service of a King who, having obtained great power too easily, lived in constant fear of losing it and becoming nothing. His wife was no better, a foolish vain creature, who spent too much time in front of the mirror admiring herself. They both wasted their vast resources to pursue youthful immortality.
And so, we hunters were made to do unthinkable and illogical things in the name of the King.
It continued as such for years.
That is, until, the unicorns came.
Lily was a girl without a last name.
She had no village either, to anyone’s knowledge.
When we found her, she was a slip of a girl, with long yellow hair that fell to her waist and the saddest blue eyes that I had ever seen, and a scar on her forehead that marred what would have otherwise been a beautiful face.
We discovered her, chained up with other some other women who had been locked away in a dark part of the King’s castle. There was no valid reason for them to be there, other than they had been born pleasant to look at and, therefore, posed a vague threat to the Queen’s claim to beauty.
What became of these girls is something I’m not proud to admit to after all these years. These were not hardened criminals, just young women of various means. The sickly ones died in prison. The healthier ones did not often fare better. Often these women were taken deep into the woods to serve either as bait or protection against the dark things that the court magicians said could only be appeased with a human sacrifice.
Why this girl caught our attention, however, was because of her pale features. Here in the East, we are a dark lot and we don’t see fair folks all that much. The magicians said that the way to catch a unicorn was to use a young girl. The reasons for catching one was to take its horn and use it to make a potion for immortality.
Each of us sent down here picked one girl to take along with us to the far Western part of the kingdom, where there had been rumors of the fabled creature running about. If the stories were true, a young maiden was the only way to approach the creature. As it would be a long journey, we had to take several girls who looked as if they might be the sort of creature that could entice the animal to come to her.
Why I selected her, I didn’t know at the time, other than I found her mysteriously pretty. Later I realized that it might have been the hand of fate guiding that choice.
In total, we took five girls with us. To be suitable for this quest, they had to be reasonably healthy and young. We took them away from the castle quietly before tending to them. It would not have done to clean them up under the Queen’s jealous nose.
We handed them over to a capable innskeeper’s wife, who tackled months of grime and dirt, and who soothed the frightened girls’ feelings. Branwen stayed with them for– of the hunters commissioned to hunt the rare unicorn– she was the only woman and could watch over them without risking accusations regarding their chastity. It was she who made a point to learn all their names and share that information with each of the escorting hunters.
What she told them about the march to come, I do not know. But once they understood they were not to be sacrificed to the dark things of the woods, they did not fight us so much as we began our journey West. Still, we had to keep each of them appropriately bound and chained. We could not afford to lose these girls unless we, too, wanted our failures to result in our own loss of freedom and life.
The girl Lily was my charge during these long hours of walking. She accepted the water and food I gave her readily, but otherwise did not converse. It may seem foolish to not say anything to an obviously pretty girl, but as a hunter, it was simply not protocol to do so. There was no point, after all, becoming acquainted with someone who might be about to die.
Branwen was the only one who spoke with her easily and showed her an abnormal level of kindness. I did not understand that then, either, but many years after, she told me it was because she sensed something different about the girl.
As we neared the woods of the fabled unicorn, the ladies grew more easy in spirit. We had not encountered anything bad so far, and under Branwen’s watchful eye, they were treated fairly well. However, as I watched Lily out of the corner of my eye, I perceived that she grew more agitated the deeper we went into the woods.
The reasons for this agitation were in evidence later when one factors in all the events that transpired shortly after. But I digress, and should continue with explaining things in the order in which they had occurred to me.
We pushed through the woods until we had arrived at the point where the unicorn had been spotted. We then deployed our hunting dogs to do a bit of sniffing about, and based on their apparent interest in one area, decided there to fan outwards from that point and carefully tie or chain the women in place. The hunters would leave each girl sitting for a while, plied with food and water to keep them quiet and cooperative, and then retire to hide in the trees or bushes in the area.
To be honest, I did not see the point in such an activity. After all, given the large vastness of these woods, what chance was there that a unicorn would randomly wander through an area crawling with humans and decide to prance up to a girl sitting there, out of place? And yet, that is exactly what happened with Lily.
Whatever sense of fear or anxiety she had felt while on the march, she had pushed aside once she resigned herself to being in the woods. It was odd lying in the bushes watching her sit there looking up quietly at the sky for a time, saying nothing. And it felt even stranger watching her lean up against the tree and then close her eyes, looking more at peace than she had during this entire march.
I had begun to nod off when I felt a slight stirring of the air. Once the wind had passed, I saw a small figure peeking out of a nearby bush, looking about cautiously. At first, I thought it was a small child causing mischief, but as I was about to step forward, I saw the horn nestled in the tousled gold hair of the child.
I froze in place, watching as the young thing circled the girl curiously. For several moments, he danced about, eyes shining as he regarded the face of the girl. I could see that he was quite taken with her, and it was understandable. There was so much similarity between the two. Had he not had a horn, I would have thought them siblings or mother and child.
I was still not sure exactly what was happening, but as the child lay at the feet of the girl and settled into a nap, I watched the sleeping form of the child change shape.
I spent too long watching this rather fascinating picture. Truthfully, at this point I did not want to disturb either the girl or the child. I was sincerely moved by the image, and loathe to interfere. I was torn, thinking perhaps it would be best to free them both and drag them out safely of the forest.
It was unfortunate that I was too slow in realizing how much time had passed. Too late, I realized that other hunters had breached the periphery in order to replace me at my guardpost.
They spotted the unicorn immediately, moving like dark shadows past me, hands reaching for the small white colt whose head lay innocently in the girl’s lap.
As the sun set behind me, I heard the sound of cries, a horse and a girl’s as they were bound to one another.