You can hear me read this story on Episode #54 of R.B. Wood’s The Word Count Podcast. The three-word story prompt was: Chocolate, thorns, and lust. Give the podcast a listen for great stories by Eden Baylee (‘The Letter’), C. Thomas Smith (‘Take Me’), and Bill Kirton (‘Genesis’). It was my first time on the podcast, and I am grateful to be included in such excellent company!

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Lady_with_unicorn_by_Rafael_Santi

The Unicorn

There’s a small hollow beneath a tree near the unicorn’s enclosure where Sanguine likes to sit. It’s quiet, padded with grass and moss between the roots, and deep enough to hide her from the castle. She likes to come here after lessons or beatings, because the unicorn listens to her. Sometimes she thinks it might even talk to her. It makes Uncle angry when she tells him that: she is too old to make believe, he says.

Tonight she has brought the unicorn chocolate. It reaches over the spiked iron fence and eats it out of her hands, dark velvet muzzle grazing her fingers. Then it nuzzles her cheek, nibbles at the chain of gold and rubies around her neck.

Auntie says there is no unicorn, only a horse: “It doesn’t even have a horn”, she mocks, but Sanguine remembers when the animal was brought here. She was very young, and the unicorn was just a yearling: all black-blue-shimmer coat, mane and tail a tangle of spun silver. Its mother was a carcass on a wagon, red blood dripping from black flanks and hooves. Uncle’s men had paid dearly for the prize: one limping, one slung over the saddle. The mare’s golden horn was stained with blood and gore, and Sanguine remembers that she cried when the men cut it off with an axe.

Treasure, power, magic… anything can be had for a unicorn’s horn. But even after all these years, this unicorn has no horn. That makes Uncle and Auntie angry. Maybe that’s why they tell her it’s a horse, as if it is the horn that makes a unicorn what it is, nothing else.

The unicorn paws the ground, whinnies softly. It’s restless tonight, just like Sanguine is.

“Tomorrow,” Sanguine whispers. “Tomorrow I must go with the sorcerer.”

The sorcerer is young and powerful. Auntie says she should be grateful for such a match, but the man looks at her with a lust that weighs and measures her flesh and skin.

Thick blackberry brambles surround the unicorn’s enclosure, twining thorns around the iron fence. Auntie calls the brambles roses and says that they are beautiful. Sanguine thinks they are dark horrors, full of rot and shadows. Whenever she looks beneath the brambles, she feels something wriggle at the back of her mind: something long ago, something she can’t recall.

Sanguine puts her arms carefully through the iron fence, avoiding the thorns, touching the unicorn, the softness of its hide like silk and stars and summer nights. It will suffer no one’s touch. No one’s, except Sanguine’s.

Sanguine has tried to believe that the unicorn is a horse, but she can’t: even when Uncle laughs at her, even when Auntie strikes her to make her believe. She remembers it so vividly: the blood, the yearling, the dead and injured men, her own tears. She wouldn’t remember it if it weren’t true, would she? But sometimes that memory shivers, as if something else is concealed beneath it, but she cannot seem to lift that veil.

Heavy boots clatter on rocks. Sanguine pulls back her hand too fast, scraping it on the thorns. She sucks the blood off her knuckles, and there is something hidden in that salty taste, too: something forgotten and forbidden.

Quickly, she crawls into the shadows and rot to hide beneath the brambles; the smell of decay devouring her. Two men with spears. Uncle at the front with his whip.

“I sold one living, and I can sell one butchered. The hide will fetch a good price.”

The unicorn rears up, burnished hooves flashing. Sanguine feels its fear and rage as the thorns rip her clothes and skin. A spear prods the unicorn through the fence. It screams, the unicorn screams. Or did I scream? Sanguine wonders. Tangled brambles snag her hair and lace and golden chain, the links choking her as she tries to wrench loose.

Uncle cracks the whip and unlocks the gate to the enclosure, and in that same instant the chain snaps and falls off Sanguine’s neck.

The spell unravels when the chain falls. Her flesh unravels too. She is no longer girl or niece, she is crawling on all fours, out of the thorns and brambles, flesh and bone twisting and turning as she moves.

“Sanguine!” Uncle’s eyes on her now. She can’t answer him, wouldn’t if she could, and when the whip cracks again, the world cracks, too. It cracks and falls away, and through the cracks she can see the world anew: see the garden turn to a mouldering Netherworld boneyard, Uncle’s face an undead mask of rage, the castle glowing like a corpse-light, her own limbs turned to four-legs and black flanks.

She sees the old memory anew. Auntie who is not-Auntie, slipping the golden spell-chain over a newborn filly’s ears and mane, shifting her, binding her, a treasure beyond horn and hide, right there at her dead Mother’s carcass as the yearling is led away. And she sees Uncle, not-Uncle, wrench his spear from Mother-mare’s chest.

Sanguine shakes her mane, dips her head, neighs as she charges. The men fall. She stabs not-Uncle through the chest with her exquisite golden horn, breaking the last remnants of the binding-spell when his neck snaps on the rocks.

“There was another unicorn,” she says turning to Sister-mare, “and it was me.”

© Maria Haskins 2016.

Read more short stories.

Unicorn_hunt_-_British_Library_Royal_12_F_xiii_f10v_(detail)

Top image: Portrait of Young Woman with Unicorn – oil on canvas applied to wood, by Raphael, c. 1506. It is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. More here.

Bottom image: Illustration of a unicorn hunt; detail of a miniature from the Rochester Bestiary. Held and digitised by the British Library. Date: Late 1200s. More here.

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