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The Unicorn Hunt
By John Pyle
Beck stood, turning toward the window. Over the heath the steppe rose, a sheer wall topped with hard stems, brown and green in the distance, a line against the sky. A dark-winged bird broke from a bare-limbed tree and swept out of sight over its edge.
Maybe I’ll find one in time, he thought. Maybe.
His eyes drifted back toward the child, unsure again. Only days might be left them--days he should treasure, not climb up to the harsh wilderness, risking his life to bring down the elusive creature. And yet ... to stand by and do nothing, to watch death take his only child, his wife’s last breath, to shrug off his last throw at keeping some trace of her laughing eyes near. Could he bear that? Could he let the chance slip by? No matter, that many fools had gone the hunt, never coming back, or slipping back into life with a whimper, defeated. In his day, Beck had been a skilled huntsman, sharp-eyed with a true aim. The spear came true from his grasp, flying where his mind willed. Many a boar or deer had gone down to rough heather from his hand. Once, even a bear had rued his metal.
He knelt by the bed, taking the boy’s hand. “Cale,” he said. “Would that I’d said these words before. Or lifted you in my arms once more at your urging. Would that I’d not lost my temper with you, or spurned your wish. Had I known ... But now ...”
Tears streamed down his face; he must not show the depth of his fear, not now.
“When I come back, son, I’ll bring your cure. The healers will know how to grind the horn for you. Its virtue is great, they say. Even if you ...” Enough, Beck thought. No longer able to hold back the sorrow pressing at his throat, he let go the boy’s hand and stood.
Yet he lingered, laying a palm on his son’s burning forehead. “I go now, Cale,” he said. “But I will come back. Hold on, son. Hold on for my return.”
The steppe was wild under the morning sky. Autumn had come sooner here; browns and yellows in plenty. The grasses danced under a perpetual wind, the sky burned without heat. Parting tall stems, Beck could decipher a deer trail, wolf marks, a bear swath. But it took more than skill and mortal sight to ken a unicorn’s path.
Still his feet were restless, and he set out through swaying grasses. To every side it stretched; only behind his back it fell away. Uncharted, it begged to lose him in its vastness. He must wander, relying on chance as much as eye and wit.
The day wheeled overhead but the land held no change. It kept close its secrets, yielding only birds rousted from the brush. But after the sun reached his shoulder, Beck glimpsed deer, brown heads and sides, a buck standing guard. He let them be, let go the urge to cast for them. Rumor must carry no threat before him. Game hunting would wait for his son, tall and thin at his side, hurling his spear the first time. Then Beck would smile on deer. Now they were nothing.
Still, skirting round them, Beck made for their trail. He’d found no other. And why should unicorns shy from a deer path? Sacred though they be, they must walk the earth like mortal creatures. But the deer path wound its way toward a bog, thick with mosquitoes, turf unfit for a man’s weight.
He left the path and made north, drawn ever that way, farther from the care-worn faces of friends with their arms reaching for their sons and daughters. If unicorns roamed the steppe, as once they had, they would stay far from humankind. Too pure, perhaps, to mingle with men who live bargaining against fate, cheating where they must. Beck pursued an empty horizon, letting the sunset burn the grasses to golden red about him.
By night, when creepers rustled under the thatch, he rested, damp beneath and cool in the face. He wondered if Cale held on, if the boy had even heard his plea through the fever. Suppose they could have spoken, he thought. Suppose he could have told his errand, measuring the boy’s face.
Beck stared into the dark, catching the glint of moonlight on the top of the nearest stalks, where the heads stood ready to burst dry, hardy seeds. He knew well how Cale would have looked, how his childish face would have opened and closed, like a flower presented with winter’s first touch. He would have begged to keep his father near, not for fear of his life--the child could not conceive of death, despite his own manner of birth. No, nor for longing to be with him, though there was that. No, but he would have protested the slaughter of such a creature.
“And what of your life, son?” Beck said aloud to hear his thoughts over the chanting crickets. “Should I let you die? Surely you are more sacred than these creatures. At least to me.”
But Cale would not have understood. He would not have seen that death must sometimes come for life to endure. Even the best and the purest must sometimes die, just so. Or all would die, the best among them. Then, too, was the prowess of the hunter, which earned him the right, surely, to sever even a unicorn’s breath from its body.
Beck closed his eyes against such thoughts, against what little light the night held, against his last resistance, and let his mind down into the place where better luck may be born.
He was glad for gray dawn, eager for the warmth of walking. As sunlight bled over the horizon, he was in motion, jerky stowed in his pack, dribbled water drying on his beard. The turf damp in the thick stems, he walked as if he’d spotted the track, not too erect, not hasty or careless of noise. Only his eyes roamed ceaseless.
The walking was his comfort now, such as it was. The steady motion of lifting the leg, bending the knee, flexing the toes, dropping the heel. It brought rhythm to the meaningless lift of breath and blink of eyes, the senseless prolonging of his life in the face of his boy’s death. In such a rhythm surely there could be meaning, a song at least, an epic perhaps, worthy of proud tears, stirring the breast. All the more, when he walked as if on the trail, as if the unicorn waited at the end of his long path.
But at midday he stopped, sinking on his haunches. The sun stood by his head, stark not warm. He was tiring, a man no more in his prime. His legs and feet ached, his spear arm felt dead. Time was, he could have walked farther and felt less. Now, when his youth was needed, it was gone. His eye less quick, his ear less keen. Too long he’d waited to find his dear girl, bed her, bring a child from her loins. Too trusting in fate’s smile, maybe; too foolish to see through the empty promises of old age. A child for his doting years--for their doting years. And now, too late to regret the past, reshaping it with a backward glance. Let it be as it was.
He stood. North lay the same barren waste, unchanged. But, like a shadow’s breath, gray as a winter wind, something moved, skimming the grass stalks. Running. Beck hesitated, thinking. It might be nothing. A trick of the eye. It might be kin to a deer, or some other creature. Not white. It was no unicorn. Still he began to run, holding his spear at his side.
At a jog, the grassland seemed to shift its hues, the separate stems blurring until he could see only snatches of ground, horizon, gray shadow, parting brown waves. His breath came steady, loud in his head, his heart surging. It held new music, oddly slower, a world frozen in mid-stride.
Beck held the gray shadow before him, never losing sight of its fragile trace. After two hours, he knew he had gained ground, though his own pace had slowed. The creature was tiring, maybe. It might have run for hours before Beck had spotted it, fleeing through the steppe or racing toward some tryst.
At least now he was sure: he chased a live thing, a real gray back. It ran with a wobbling bound, like a dog. And at last he began to fathom other possibilities, less pleasant. Suppose it was a wolf, after all? How long before they met with its pack--and certain death to a lone man? And yet, he was strangely loath to turn aside, to let it free at the end of a long pursuit that led him due north, where already the air was cooler on the skin.
Now came the moment when the creature turned back its nose, catching a sound maybe from behind, curious, peering. No question; it was a wolf, the dog-ears and red tongue, yellow eyes. Even from a distance, Beck knew. Yet even now his stride did not flag. He could not hold his distance. An unforeseen desire had gripped him, to kill the gray wolf, and it burned him through like an iron brand through leather. The unicorn quest gave space to his rage. His grip tightened on his spear as his eyes followed the gray hide bounding before him.
Stride for stride, Beck neared. The wolf ran, a dog before his master, tossing its head as if to urge him on. But Beck felt no remorse as he lifted his spear arm and hurled the shaft through the air. Tired, footsore and weary, his aim yet held true. The burnished point drove through the wolf’s hide with a thud. Thrown from its legs, borne by the spear-thrust to earth, it shuddered to a stop. One moment, the thrill of running; the next, hard death on grassy turf.
Beck came to the corpse in four strides and stood over it, panting. Now at last he felt his weary toil and gasped to catch his breath. The wolf’s glassy eye stared blind at him. He stared back, clutching his knees. It was big, heavy-jawed. Met alone, face to face, Beck would have fled its kind. But no fear surged through him now, too late. He grasped the shaft and yanked the spearhead free. A gaping, mangled wound lay before him, but he turned from it. He felt no joy in the kill, no glory. And his breath fled when he lifted his gaze.
The shoulder he saw first, not the horn. The face turned toward him, white ears perked, nostrils flaring. But the magnificent, rippling shoulder held his eye. So here it was, creature of myth. So rumor does carry truth, mingled with its lies--or maybe makes its own truth. So be it. He saw its horn first as a shadow on the face.
Their eyes met. The unicorn seemed to read him through, like an old woman sizing up a newcomer, too seasoned for lies and too weary for deceit. Its eyes, blue as the summer sky, its nostrils, pink, flared. It tossed its head, turning away, sending a thought in its wake. It said, Thank you.
Beck looked at the dead wolf at his feet, then the spear in his hands. Tears bled over his cheeks. “Cale!” he said, letting the word rip from his breast. And almost he let the unicorn free. Almost. But when his gaze lifted, when he saw it springing over the tall grass, he could not let it go. No. The skill of the hunter, he thought, gives him the right. And he pushed his legs into a run.
The white shape tugged at him, though his legs were heavy and his breath came rougher now. Thirst clawed at his throat. Already the unicorn was outpacing him, vanishing with every bound. Too far to try a cast, too near to quit the chase. But Beck could not run forever. His legs went limp at last; the grass rushed past his ears and he fell to earth. Panting, he let go the urge to stand. The track was his now; let his quarry run free. It too must pause for food, seek out water and rest. His chance would come.
Evening was upon him, the hour of mortal rest. And he slept, his mouth still full of small hard bits of meat, half-chewed, unswallowed. Let sleep entomb him; let him rest, the mortal soul, friendless on the wide steppe, no ear to hear his tale. Grief bore him away. He went limp under its shadow.
Morning brought the grit to his eyes. His mouth raw, still pebbly. He took a swig of water, let it run over his tongue, through his cheeks. Standing, he saw his path and pushed his body forward.
The unicorn was long gone; wherever it had roamed the day would disclose. But a dull heaviness hung over the land. The wide sky had turned its back to him, withdrawn and gray. And he made his way as a hunter must, calling to mind days gone by, when he’d tracked game with his kin autumns past. Then, he’d never turned from game; no mercy for his poor feet, his sore thighs. Quarry seldom give way to the weak-willed, the soft and easily deterred. He pressed on, possessed now at last by the hunt alone. All thought of Cale had fled him.
So immersed, midday came upon him and, with it, a swampy pond, thick with cattails and swarming flies. The unicorn had left hoof prints on its bank; they led away to high ground. He let his eyes roam, seeking not the white form, but only what he did find: a break where he could crouch and wait, shrubs clinging to water’s edge. There, a wary hunter could hole up and wait for his quarry. The pond would bring it back, come day’s end or sooner. Wherever it had run, it would circle around by some route cut by its clever hoof. Or so he hoped.
Crouching and still, the flies at last let his face be. From the break he could see yards of pond’s edge. But he was well hid; nothing could find him but memories and fears. Snatches of his life with Cale dangled their bait at the mouth of his cave, but he did not issue forth for them. Better to let that part hunger for the real boy, his flesh restored.
Here, in the quiet of his thoughts, Beck could see the black birds dipping their beaks for minnows, the slap of a fish on the pond as it snatched at flies. Mice skittering for a sip, seized whole by water snakes. Hunter and hunted meeting in the age-old embrace. Say what he might, Cale could not have gainsaid that drama.
Beck must have slept. The moon shone bright on the pond. He would have missed his quarry were it not for his legs. They would be useless to him now, precious minutes, as he worked his toes and feet to bring the blood back. The glorious white unicorn walked before him and lowered its head to drink. It seemed lit by its own glow. Alert, ready, Beck could have stood and made a fair throw. Instead his legs tingled, pain skittering through them.
He watched helpless as the fair creature finished its drink and circled away. It gazed through the night, seeking something. A mate, maybe. Beck tried a leg: no use. Already the unicorn walked on, and he was forced to crawl from his hideaway, rustling the underbrush.
The unicorn led him back to open grass, here already emptied of its shelled grains, bending its back for the winter snows. He could smell it, too, on the wind, the first hint of cold from the north. How far had he come in three days? How much farther must he run? Now, at least, he could stand, but he came to a crouch instead and shuffled after.
The fair creature walked without aim, tossing its head through the dry stems, a rattling shift like a strong wind through dry leaves. Seeking forage, maybe. Beck could not get closer; the unicorn strode with a tall step. And then it struck him, what the creature was seeking, and he sank down and waited.
It circled, as he’d hoped, and stomped the earth, tossing its head. Forlorn it seemed, as if prescient of its coming death, the spearhead through its side while it slept. Still it prepared its nest, breaking the grass stems, stomping them down, bending them for a deathbed. Then it settled to the earth, and Beck held himself, clamping down his desire, letting go his remorse.
He too felt the keen edge of the unicorn’s beauty, its purity and grandeur. Yet, unlike a small boy, he would turn away from this vision even as he faced it, and he would bring death to it, effacing even such a creature from the world’s realm. How could he bring himself to that? Still he waited, only for that. Long and still he crouched on the thatch, listening for the change, too far to perceive it when it came.
He waited until he must be sure, then counted off another round of chirps in the night. Only then, stealthy as a fox, he rose to his feet and scuttled over the grass, pausing between spurts like a mouse in a fright. So by degrees he made his way to where white played in the moonlight between dry stems, and then, like the vision from a sacred dream, he saw the unicorn’s body, prone and peaceful under the moon’s face. Its chest rose and fell, and he lifted the spear to his ear. He knew the place where the metal must pierce, the ribs that must part to admit its burnished tip and let it down into the heart, spilling blood over the white coat. And he paused, swallowing his sorrow, fighting back his regret.
The unicorn’s eye opened. Maybe it heard the shift of grasses or saw the shadow of a man’s head. Or maybe it heard a mortal’s regret. The eye, a pale gray in the dim light, opened and moved over the man, taking in his face. Then the head lifted from the ground and a whinny broke from its throat and the unicorn stood, majestic, glaring down.
Beck stood his ground, holding his spear at the ready. Better to end so sacred a life face to face, he thought, gathering his courage. But the eyes issued a pale challenge; the nostrils flared. The creature was angry, not afraid. It reared as if to strike Beck on the head with sharp hooves. He stepped back and drew back his spear arm.
The unicorn raised its voice in a mighty cry. Death would come to one or both. He heaved the spear, let go the shaft from his hand. Ever his aim had been true, bringing death. But regret must have betrayed him, for the shot flew wide, though the cure that would bring life to his son stood so near. The heavy spear shaft glanced across the unicorn’s white flank. And the creature came down on its front hooves, hot breath blown from its nostrils over Beck’s face.
He stepped back again, feeling down in his pack for his knife. Only then, impossibly, did he remember the horn and its fatal tip, and his eyes widened. The unicorn lowered its horn, and Beck stepped back yet again, his fingers closing on the knife hilt. But the blade caught in the pack, on his waterskin, maybe, or some useless thing that would bear him down to the grave.
Their eyes locked, and Beck had the sensation known to him only once before, that he stood facing something inevitable, impossible to vanquish. The scene flashed before him, his dear wife gasping out her last breaths. Cale had come, but she was going. And he could not stop her flight from the body.
Beck ceased struggling and faced the creature, eye to eye in the dim moonlight. Anger, as he thought it, rose in the unicorn’s eyes. A challenge, brimming with sadness, came to him. Why do you hunt me? I am a creature of peace.
“My son,” Beck gasped. Though the words did not make their way free of his throat, the knife came free of its hindrance. With his left hand he reached for the creature’s neck, felt its smooth fur and, beneath, its pulsing life. His right hand rose. Even now, could he bring the cold edge through the creature’s soft skin, bring death here, under the sacred moonlight?
“My son is dying,” he whispered, an apology for the unthinkable crime he would commit. “Your horn,” he said, “is his only cure.”
So intimate, their touch, face to face in the night, the knife edge a betrayal.
The unicorn lowered his head, touching his horn to the crown of Beck’s head. An austere greeting, it seemed, or submission to its fate. And then, with a sudden shift, it bore down as if to plunge the horn through Beck’s skull. The man cried out, too surprised to raise his knife. His knees buckled and then a dull crack--bone breaking. Killing the creature now would work nothing but revenge, he thought, as he let the knife slip to the ground.
He had failed, lost his nerve. Like other fools, he would die on the horn of the beast. Rumor had failed them all. The white sheen of the creature, its beauty and grandeur, had misled them. It was a killer, not a healer. He, its latest victim.
So thinking, Beck sank to the earth. The white form rose again on its hind legs and let out a shattering cry. Then it leaped over him and dashed away into the night. Unthinking, Beck raised his hand to the crown of his head. But no crushed bone met his fingertips. Raw skin and bruise, no more; a thin stream of blood.
What then? he thought, shifting to his side. His aching eyes fell on a small, shining object, glimmering in the moonlight. He took it up--the tip of the unicorn’s horn.