With the precious beast secured, we began our return journey the next morning. While the hunters were all in a good mood on the march back, I could not say that I was of the same good humor.
It pained me to be given credit for picking the girl that would catch the rare unicorn. It was hard to feel any sort of merit watching her out of the corner of my eye, crying silently as we marched ever so slowly back to the capital. She cried, burdened with the realization that she had been the one to trap the poor innocent creature. And I — I had been the one to make her cry.
To be honest, I was too troubled to be doing what I ought. We had not yet arrived at the capital. If I had looked to Branwen then, I would have seen what she was up to at that moment. Instead, like the other hunters lost in their thoughts of their successes (in my case, failures) on this trip – I did not observe her talking to the other young girls from time to time.
I did not notice their feelings or their gloomy looks either. But later, I realized that they, too, were affected by their collective guilt. There was no pride in capturing a unicorn – a mere child who could do nothing except walk and cast confused looks at the girl who had been used to ensnare him.
But whatever Branwen may have been plotting then, perhaps it was for the best that I did not know. Had I, I think things might have ended differently. There was no way a handful of captive women and two renegade hunters could overcome the large number of guards that escorted our party and the prized unicorn.
As it turned out, rumors of the captured unicorn had preceded us and as such, we were forced to stop in town and hide both Lily and the unicorn in one of the King’s jails. We waited there for reinforcements to arrive from the capital. In that chaotic time, the other girls slipped out of their bonds and disappeared into the gathering crowds. I suspect Branwen’s involvement with this, but there was nothing concrete to implicate her. The other hunters did not or could not care, for they were too distracted by the crowds that were gathering.
The people of the town had gathered around the fortress out of curiosity. In time, they were joined by other people from outside the town. Some wanted a piece of the unicorn and its rumored healing properties. Others perhaps were simply desirous of having a good story to tell for generations to come.
As I stood on the second floor of this large fortress that served as the King’s jail and “home” to the unicorn and the girl and observed these crowds, I became afraid. The situation was becoming uncontrollable. There was no way we could leave now, not without additional manpower to guard our way.
And yet, in the midst of all of this chaos swirling about them, there was something happening to the girl and the unicorn. I could see the two conversing silently (for the child did not speak a language that was human). How that came to pass, I’m not sure, but again one might suppose that the girl knew the language all along. What I did see, very clearly, was a change in the girl’s eyes. Lily no longer looked at the ground when guards would approach her in her cell. She would look straight back at them, as if to challenge them not to be ashamed by what they were doing to her and the child.
After one week of this, the men could not help but apologize every time they approached her cell. See, most of them were goodhearted men, and the longer they were around this unicorn and the girl, the more they forgot their initial excitement at their accomplishment. And I, well…perhaps emboldened by the change in the girl, I finally spoke to Branwen. Quietly and traitorously, she and I began to discuss what could be done to free them for good.
Our options, however, were too late. The Queen and King were, in fact, already drawing closer to the city. Impatient to acquire their treasure, they had dragged their soldiers with them – both to secure the unicorn from any other interested parties and to capture the horn as quickly as possible.
Foolishly, they came in to the city and then demanded that the prisoners be paraded before their subjects as prizes. It was a proud and stupid act, full of risk to all involved. I was certain that amongst the thousands that had now gathered, there were a number of thieves and bandits amongst the onlookers.
I was nervous as we hunters marched the poor child and girl down the dusty streets towards the town square. The streets were lined with people of all sorts, pressing as close as they could against the soldiers that stood guard. And above all of us, a number of birds had flown in, following the people that had amassed in the town.
As we neared the wooden platform where the Queen and King waited, I wondered what could be done. Once the prisoners reached that platform, we would have to turn the unicorn over to the King’s own personal guard, who could not be easily overcome.
Around us, there was a murmuring sound growing from the crowd – a sound of questions and doubt. Having now seen the unicorn for themselves, the people were troubled to discover that unicorns were remarkably similar to us. They were wondering, like I was wondering, under what circumstances would the sacrifice of a creature be right.
Over the crowd, I heard the sound of the wind beginning to pick up. The birds began to crow, sing shrilly, and cry.
And then I saw fingers start to point upwards, towards birds circling ever so much closer in the sky. I heard the gasps, as a western wind blew, tossing the King’s guards like a deck of cards. And then I heard, I saw, I felt the flurry of white wings everywhere, beating those fools to the ground.
A thousand birds, wings thrumming, dashing through the air, rushed the soldiers. It was an explosion of chaos in the square– a sound of screaming and terror.
And then in the middle of the cleared area, a woman appeared.
She stood, hair black as coal and eyes as clear blue as the skies on a summer day. Six large white swans circled overhead, ready to strike perhaps at any man who would touch the woman.
The cacophony was silenced.
“I’ve come for the unicorn,” the woman directed a scepter accusingly at the King and Queen.
For a moment, the crowd looked at this woman with unabashed wonder.
The King finally overcame his own shock at the challenge and choked out, “It is not yours.” His face turned an unflattering shade of purple at the obvious insult to his power. “Our hunters have rightfully captured it.”
“Oh?” The woman’s voice thundered. “Dare you challenge the claim of the Swan Queen?”
The King’s face paled.
The crowd trembled.
“Where is the hunter responsible for this capture?”
It was at this moment, that my fellow hunters failed me. They, who had been so eager to share in the prize and perhaps even take credit for the hunt, stepped back from the line in which we stood. They had seen the power of the woman and her guards. They were leaving me to face her wrath alone.
I did not know what to do at that moment. But with a glance at Branwen’s determined face, I found the courage to speak. “Your Highness,” I bowed shakily in the presence of the one queen that we knew of only as legend, but because of that legend, would dare not defy. She possessed a type of magic that made the court magicians cower, one that would mete out its own version of justice should she be angered.
“Tell me exactly what happened,” her eyes pierced through me. I managed to do so, stumbling over my words as I narrated everything from beginning to end. In my nervousness, I also expressed my reservations and regret for what I had done.
To my surprise she then turned to the prisoners and asked them if what I said was true. They spoke to her in that strange tongue that none of us could understand.
But whatever they said, the anger on the Queen’s face lessened slightly. “It is fortunate that you have not done worse, King and Queen. Already a great crime has been performed against these unicorns.”
“These unicorns?” The King’s mouth fell open.
“You’ve imprisoned two unicorns,” the woman answered coolly. “But as the injury against the elder was not your doing, and you have not yet dehorned the other, be glad that I shall spare your life today. I will leave your lives for theirs.”
And with that last parting statement, a cloud of white descended once again upon the square. I saw the girl and the child being lifted onto the backs of two large and rather agreeable swans by some of the crowd. They did this quickly, before the soldiers could recover from the smaller birds that were mercilessly pecking them.
I was surprised, though, to find myself placed on the back of one such creature and handed a pair of reins. There wasn’t any time to question what was happening, as I could only barely cling to the bird as it rocketed to the sky. I was overwhelmed by a fear of being tossed off the back of this bird and plunged to a rather messy and deserved death. I had not realized the danger I was in – for my words to the Swan Queen had the appearance of treachery to the current King and Queen. The crowd had realized the danger, much to their credit, and paid me a great service that day.
As the birds leveled off, I turned my head slightly to watch the Swan Queen who rode aloft on the back of one of the six swans. The swan who was my mount noticed my attention, and then with a small sound, twirled about in the air such that I could watch her no more. And so I looked instead to Lily and the child, the two unicorns, riding happily on the back of a third swan. Their faces shone in the moonlight and their eyes danced just like the twinkling stars above. They sang a song that I did not know, but I heard the word ‘home’ floating in the breezes.
And I realized then that we were going west, back to the forest in which this messy affair had started.