In which unicorns aren't all they're cracked up to be.
Much had been made of Bretoria’s unicorns. They were said to be noble, graceful creatures, with sleek flanks and long flowing manes that sparkled in the sunlight. Some said the unicorns were magical creatures, that their blood could grant immortality and cure any ill, that their horn could pierce any armor. It was claimed that if someone were pure of heart a unicorn could actually speak to them and grant them wishes.
To the people of Bretoria unicorns were just local wildlife. They weren’t particularly awe inspiring, and they certainly didn’t grant wishes. Bodrie knew that, but he certainly wasn’t about to tell the tourists. Mostly because, as a tour guide, it was his job to take them out into the forest so they could see one.
He did wonder how such wild stories had gotten started. Perhaps the first expedition from the faraway kingdoms to “discover” Bretoria had punched things up a bit to make themselves look better. Or maybe it was just a case of stories that grew more fantastic with each telling.
Either way Bodrie and other like him were making a living off of it. It hadn’t taken them long to figure out that the foreigners wealthy enough to make the trek to Bretoria were also wealthy enough to pay outrageous sums for virtually everything else. And outrageous though the sums were, some days it was just barely enough for Bodrie to put up with his clients.
Today was shaping up to be that sort of day.
“Can’t go out,” he patiently explained to the latest tourist. “It’s mating season.”
“We’re not here to see anything like that,” the man replied. “We’re here to see the unicorns.”
Bodrie sighed. The man, whose name was something like Tabbot, was actually negotiating for a larger group of foreigners. A quick look told him most were servants or, interestingly enough, guards. Which left an older man, his younger wife, and what could only be their adolescent daughter.
“Look,” Bodrie told Tabbot, “I understand that. But we really shouldn’t go out there just now.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Tabbot insisted with a lowered voice. “My employer brought his daughter here to see the unicorns for her birthday. He’s convinced – and has convinced her – that if she meets one it will grant her a wish. He’s not taking no for an answer.”
“Well then he’s going to be mighty disappointed,” Bodrie chuckled, more at the idea of ‘meeting’ a unicorn than anything else.
“Look, eventually we’re going to find someone who’s willing to take us. It can be you, or it can be them, but I’d rather not waste any more time.” Tabbot pursed his lips and glanced back at his employer. “We’ll double your rate,” he offered.
“Eh,” Bodrie made a sceptical noise, but he had to admit the offer was tempting.
“All right, fine,” Tabbot said. “I know the game. There’s plenty of tourists here, only so many guides, and it’s a sacred animal. It’s highway robbery, but we’ll triple your fee.”
For a moment, Bodrie was certain his jaw had hit the floor and he would have to bend over to scoop it up. “Half up front,” he managed to say. Sacred animal? He was going to remember that one.
“Agreed,” Tabbot said easily. “When do we leave?”
The answer, of course, was as soon as possible so the tourists didn’t have a chance to change their minds. And so, just as the sun was rising the next morning, Bodrie led the group into the forest. Most times of the year it would have taken quite a lot of wandering around to find a unicorn. During mating season it was easier – there were a number of glades and clearings where they liked to congregate.
Bodrie set them up atop a hill with a good view of one such clearing. “Right,” he told the group, “Everybody settle down. Stay as still and quiet as you can, and you should have yourselves a unicorn sighting soon.”
And indeed, it didn’t take long. The tourists were all eating the preserved meat and cheese meals they’d brought along as snacks (cooking fires having been prohibited lest they scare away the unicorns), when one of the creatures slowly walked into the clearing below.
“There it is,” Bodrie pointed out. “That’s a female, probably younger from the size of her horn.” In the early morning sunlight, he supposed they did have a majestic quality about them.
And then he saw something move between the clearing and the hill. Something that looked an awful lot like the young girl. He spun around immediately to find the older man and his wife looking on. “What the bloody hell is she doing?” Bodrie demanded of them.
The wife gave him a quizzical look. “She’s going to meet the unicorn, of course.”
“Oh, no.” Bodrie turned and sprinted down the hill after her. Stupid, he should have known.
“What is it?” the older man called from behind him, “What’s wrong?”
Bodrie didn’t bother to answer. Crashing through the underbrush at full speed, he managed to catch up to the girl just short of the clearing. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “You’ll ruin it!”
“Ruin what?” he asked, grabbing her by the arm.
“Daddy said it would give me a wish-”
“Don’t be stupid, unicorns don’t grant wishes.” He became aware of another sound, the thundering of hooves and the rustle of underbrush. Another unicorn burst into view nearby, its eyes locked on them. But this one was no female. It was a large mass of muscle and bone, and it had murder in its eyes. Just what he’d been afraid of.
“Woah,” he tried, holding out a hand. “Easy there… nice murderous beast…”
“What is – is that a unicorn?” the girl asked, clearly confused. “Why is it so big and… and angry?”
“Mating season,” Bodrie sighed. “And we’re too close to its mate.”
Suddenly, triple rate didn’t seem quite as good as it used to.