Before the Unicorn Hunt

One fine morning, a few weeks before the Prince was due to arrive, Lariselle saw the leaves on the great goldenoak tree start to turn, and she knew it was time to prepare for the hunt. The housekeeper at the royal hunting lodge, she was—officially—the only person who lived there all year round. The rest of her family lived in the village called Forest Gate, which sprawled along the road through the Skydark Forest. The same road took the Crown Prince and his entourage to the lodge for their annual unicorn hunt, his once-a-year chance to show off his skills, impress his friends and enemies alike, drink large quantities of Skydark cider, and not worry about the consequences.

In reality, Lariselle’s whole family lived in the lodge with her—there was no way she was living in there all alone, surrounded by stuffed dead glassy-eyed hunting trophies. And there were plenty of small servants’ rooms which otherwise hardly ever got used, tucked up under the rafters next to the main chimney so they stayed warm in winter. It only made sense for them all to live in the lodge, and if the Crown Prince never actually thought to check if anyone else was there or not when he wasn’t—well, then it wasn’t a problem.

Lariselle picked a leaf from the lowest-hanging branch of the goldenoak tree, and took it inside to show her mother.

Masena was hard at work, bringing up from the cellar the bottles of cider made from last year’s apples, ready to be decanted, mixed with extra ingredients, and then further fermented into the distinctive Skydark brew which Prince Alfrecht always enjoyed so much. He knew it was an ancient Boscan tradition to make Skydark cider and drink it at the autumn equinox, and he enjoyed emulating any tradition which involved getting blind drunk.

He didn’t know the significance of the cider, or of the equinox. Or that the Boscans still carried on the tradition, in their own way.

He didn’t even know that the Boscans still existed.

Masena came to the top of the cellar stairs, saw Lariselle holding the leaf, and stopped in the doorway.

‘It’s time, then,’ she said.

Lariselle just nodded. They had both known this time was coming—they were already preparing for the Crown Prince’s arrival—but they hadn’t known exactly when. They never did. Neither the Boscans nor the unicorns used the royal calendar, imposing an artificial grid onto the days and seasons. They went by the goldenoak.

‘Do you want me to go with you?’ asked Masena.

‘Best not,’ said Lariselle. ‘You know how skittish they can be.’

Now it was her mother’s turn to nod silently. There wasn’t much to say. Sometimes, a thing just needed to be done.

‘Will you be all right here?’ asked Lariselle.

‘I’ll be fine. Your brothers can help. We’ll have dinner ready for you, when you get back.’

‘Thanks. Well, see you later.’

Another nod, and that was that. Lariselle spent a few minutes getting everything she needed—a small pack with food and water, an apple tucked in her pocket, her hat and sturdy boots, the carved silver knife. This was normally kept in the Prince’s dining room, hidden in plain sight as part of a display of antique weapons. Then she set off, walking down the path which led from the hunting lodge to the road. She turned off down an unmarked side track long before she reached Forest Gate, and went to the real village.

While the hunting lodge was much more populated than it first appeared, the opposite was true of Forest Gate. At first glance it seemed a flourishing village, but nobody at all actually lived there—they just watered the flowers, and kept it in a state of picturesque semi-disrepair so that it looked nice for Prince Alfrecht’s journey. Everyone lived instead in the real village, which didn’t have a name because nobody had ever needed to call it anything other than ‘the village’, hidden down a narrow path in a part of the forest that the Prince and his hunting party never visited, because Narol the huntsman never took them there.

In the real village, nobody actually grew buckets full of flowers in their gardens—they grew fruits and vegetables and kept goats for milk. They also kept pigs, which at this time of year were largely set to roam in the forest, eating apples and acorns and beech nuts. The half-wild hogs provided an occasional prize for the hunters. After the hunt, they would be rounded up, and most of them would be slaughtered to provide bacon for the winter.

There were even a few pet unicorns, although the domesticated beasts never grew coats of quite the same lustre as the wild specimens, that pearlescent sheen which made their skin so perfect for gloves to wear at the royal balls.

Lariselle walked through the village, waving hello to Narol—who was milking his own goat—and to all the others she knew. Which was everyone she saw, because it wasn’t a very large village. They all gave her the same solemn nod—they recognised the knife she held, they knew she had an important job to do, and they knew nobody else wanted to do it. Or even could do it—the unicorns would only respond to someone with at least some Boscan blood, and there weren’t many of them left. Lariselle was the last of her father’s line.

At this time of year, after a hot summer, she could pass easily enough for a normal Skydark villager with a tan and sun-bleached hair. The Prince and his friends had never particularly commented on her appearance, or even really noticed her. They generally brought all their entertainment with them—she just brought them their food.

If they ever saw her in the depths of winter, they might think differently. However, in the cold months, the road through the forest was always rendered impassable by the snow—and so nobody ever came to the hunting lodge until the spring thaw, when the royal ladies arrived for the forest flower festival. Lariselle always tried to avoid their sharp eyes. They preferred to be served by her half-brothers anyway, who provided the right kind of roughed-edged virility to set off their delicate flower displays to perfection.

On the other side of the village, the track continued, surrounded by ever-more thickly growing trees and undergrowth. Lariselle kept going, as the sounds of humanity gradually faded behind her, replaced by the silence of the Skydark Forest. It was here, in the quiet places at the heart of the woods, that she really understood how it had earned its name; looking up, she couldn’t see the sky at all, only the canopy of leaves that almost completely blocked the light.

Luckily, she had eyes that were well-adapted to seeing through the perpetual green twilight of the deep woods.

Eventually, she found the place she was looking for: the other village with no name. The village that was so hidden most people outside the Skydark Forest didn’t even think its inhabitants still existed. The Boscan village.

The houses were built partly on the ground, and partly up in the trees, linked to each other with ladders and ropes. And this village wasn’t made just from the houses; the trees themselves had been tamed, their branches woven in ways that created connections—and barriers. The Boscans had lived here for hundreds of years, shaping the forest to suit them. Now, there were only a handful of them left.

A handful of that handful met her at the edge of the village, each of them holding a single goldenoak leaf. They had seen the sign too, and knew what it meant.

Lariselle bowed her head in greeting, and they did the same. When she lifted her head again, they looked back at her, their eyes filled with sadness, and then they parted ranks. This wasn’t supposed to be a part of their year—and yet, they had adapted to survive. As they parted, they revealed the herd of unicorns standing behind, waiting for her.

Although she had done this many times before, the sight never failed to take her breath away. The beautiful satin shimmer of their skin, standing out in the forest gloom. The long pointed horns of the females, transparent and tinged faintly green with the venom they bore. The thicker, opaque horns of the males. The softly rounded horns of the juveniles. The gleam of their long manes and tails, the hush of everything around them.

They were holy to her people, and she was here to help kill one of them.

Crown Prince Alfrecht didn’t care about what was holy. He would never see them like this, magnificent and eldritch in the soft still darkness. He only ever saw them as sources of his pleasure: the thrill of the hunt, the tang of fresh blood in his Skydark cider, another trophy mounted on the wall of his hunting lodge, more pairs of fancy gloves for himself and his mistress.

Lariselle hated what she had to do—that didn’t change the fact that she had to do it. It had long ago been decided that there was only one way to keep the Boscans hidden, and to prevent the unicorns being hunted to extinction. In order for the herd to survive, one must die.

She stepped forward. With one hand, she pulled an apple from her pocket; with the other, she raised her knife. The knife made of Boscan silver, passed down to her by her father. She could wield it, as few of the human villagers could, and she could approach the unicorns. But while she had some Boscan blood, she wasn’t fully of them—she didn’t live in this village, she didn’t drink the Skydark cider around their autumn fire, and she didn’t—couldn’t—share their horror of shedding unicorn blood.

The herd all raised their heads to her in greeting, lifting their horns to show that they trusted her, even though they knew why she was here and what she was going to do.

Then one of them slowly shuffled towards her. An old male, his eyes mostly clouded, his skin increasingly pale and dull. Lariselle felt tears pricking her eyes as she recognised the markings on his nose. Only last year he had seemed still in the prime of his long life; now he was half-wasted away, ravaged by disease. She suspected that, if the Boscans hadn’t been taking care of him, he’d already be dead by now.

Instead, they had kept him alive, so he could be killed by the Crown Prince.

Lariselle approached him gently, and murmured his name. It was a name her father had taught her, as he had taught her the names of all the herd who lived in the Skydark Forest. Names that were not suited to be spoken in human company, names that could not be written down. He lifted his nose, sniffed the air—he could clearly still recognise her scent—and accepted the apple she had brought him.

She stroked his nose and his mane as he ate it out of her palm, and whispered to him the words she had long since memorised, and which now felt more meaningful than ever.

‘Your sacrifice will not be in vain. Your blood will spill this day, and the ruler from beyond the trees will soon take your life, but your herd will live on. Your children will eat the fruits you have sown, and run free through the forest. This much I promise you.’

And then she drew the knife across his throat.

He accepted his fate in silence, although several of the younger unicorns made sounds of distress. The Boscans ran to catch the silvery blood as it flowed, humming a wordless hymn as they did so. Lariselle knew they would mix it into their brew for the Skydark cider, and leave it to ferment. The Prince’s own version of the cider would be made with fresh blood, so it wouldn’t be quite the same. It was a small difference, and yet Lariselle felt it was an important one—the Boscans used the cider to achieve transcendence, while the Prince just used it to get wasted.

She counted to one hundred, just as she always did, and then she let go of the old unicorn’s head. The exsanguination was not complete– yet he was severely weakened. A Boscan young man—she recognised him as her second cousin, Prylm—took charge of the half-dead creature, holding a thick wad of cloth to his neck to staunch the bleeding, and leading him away to the place where they tended the sick.

Lariselle wiped the blade of her knife, and muttered a quick prayer to the gods—not the gods that Crown Prince Alfrecht professed to believe in every other day of the year, the gods of the Skydark Forest that he pretended to believe in every autumn when he drank his blood-spiked cider and played at being a forest dweller. The gods that she and the Boscans worshipped every single day of their lives.

The other Boscans turned away from her, and she felt a sudden stab of anger. Why did she have to go through this, every year? Why did she have to half-sacrifice an aged unicorn, just so the Prince and his wealthy friends could hunt it down afterwards and feel like they were the masters of nature? Just so Narol could take them on a long circuitous path through the trees, claiming to be following the scent of the unicorn herd, only to lead them—eventually—to this weakened specimen, and let him die to save the rest of his kind? Why did she have to pretend she lived a solitary life in the hunting lodge, while her family lived in the make-believe village of Forest Gate? Why did she have to hide half her heritage—the half that gave her the pale eyes and flaxen hair paired with the dark skin, the affinity with the forest, and the right to wield the blade? And yet the other half—the human half—meant that she was able to use the blade to cut the unicorn’s throat and serve the future king. She was Boscan enough to serve the unicorns and understand their ways, and human enough to hurt one.

‘Are you all right?’

The voice came from Prylm, who was now returning from his task, wiping the blood from his hands.

‘Not really, no,’ she answered him.

‘You did well,’ he said. ‘He’s in no pain. We’ll treat him with every kindness we can, these final days. It’s a worthy death.’

Beyond him, the herd of unicorns made a low murmuring sound of muted agreement.

‘I just—I wish it didn’t have to be me.’

‘And I wish we were still the rulers of Skydark Forest, and rode unicorns into battle to stab our enemies to death with their venomous horns. But all things must be what they are.’

At this, Lariselle could only offer a sigh.

‘I have a gift for you,’ said Prylm, and held out his hand. Lariselle took what he had to offer: a very small glass bottle, filled with a faintly shimmering green liquid.

‘What is it?’ she asked, although she already knew.

‘Unicorn venom. The queen of the herd consented to let me take some from her, to give to you.’

‘I-’ Lariselle turned to seek out the queen with her eyes, the largest of the females, with the longest horn and the most beautiful shimmering coat. ‘Thank you,’ she said. The unicorn raised her horn high in acknowledgement.

Then to Prylm she said, ‘I never thought I would earn this gift.’

Unicorn venom was only ever given to those among the Boscans who had proved their valour. It was almost unheard-of for someone of mixed heritage to receive it.

‘You have more than earned it,’ said Prylm. ‘You have taken on your father’s mantle, and you do what we cannot, to help keep us hidden and the herd preserved.’

The Crown Prince thought that his grandfather had extirpated the Boscans from the forest, and that the unicorns ran wholly wild. What he would do if he found out the truth—that the Boscans survived, even in the very blood of his housekeeper, and that the unicorns he so loved to hunt lived in harmony with the people he thought were gone—

‘Use it wisely,’ said Prylm. ‘A few drops added to the Skydark cider will produce vivid dreams. A few more drops will make you sleep for three days straight. And the whole bottle, emptied into someone’s glass when they are already intoxicated…’

He didn’t finish the sentence, and Lariselle didn’t even dare to finish the thought. She knew exactly what unicorn venom could do. Prylm closed her fingers around the bottle.

‘Use it wisely,’ he said again.

Lariselle nodded, one last time, and then turned around and headed back to the hunting lodge.