by Jill Knowles
“Jenna! Janek’s been arrested,” Devon yelled as she burst into the shop.
Again? Jenna sighed and wondered what new trouble her twin had caused.
Mama came from the back room, where she had been embroidering good luck symbols on a wedding dress. “What did you say, Devon?”
“Janek killed a deer on the Baron’s property. One of the Baron’s men caught him, and the rangers took him away.”
“Go and find your father.” Mama pushed her youngest daughter towards the door. “He’s down at the inn getting the measurements for the new tablecloths.”
“Wait.” Jenna set her sewing aside and stood. “I’ll go.”
“Hurry, child, there’s no time to spare.” Mama leaned against the wall next to the door, placing one hand on her breast. “There’s no telling what those awful rangers will do to him.”
Jenna patted her mother’s shoulder as she passed. “Everything will be all right, Mama, you’ll see.” She walked quickly along the cobblestone street, her worn boots making brisk tapping sounds on the smooth stones. What is it this time? Her twin brother spent his life in trouble, preparing to get into trouble, or recovering from trouble. Just last week, Alma, the local hedge witch, had come to the shop complaining that she’d caught Janek tying willow twigs to her cat’s tail. Alma discovered this just as Janek was setting the twigs alight. Luckily for the cat, the willow was green, so the flame just smoldered and went out before any damage occurred.
Mama had given Alma two yards of handmade lace, and the hedge witch had agreed not to report the incident to the magistrate. And the family had eaten beans every night since then to make up for the lost sale. Janek had probably gone poaching in order to bring them fresh venison. He didn’t seem to understand that it would make things worse.
Jenna arrived at the door of the Weary Unicorn, the town’s best inn, which took its name from a local legend. On the north boundary of the town, two roads met beneath an ancient oak. Legend had it that sometimes, late at night, unicorns stopped there to sharpen their horns on the oak tree’s rough bark before braving the dangers of the Chewaucan Forest. Jenna and her father were the only people who had actually seen a unicorn in this generation.
Janek hadn’t seen the unicorn. He had spent the next few weeks alternately tormenting his twin and telling her how lucky she was. Jenna still sometimes dreamed of the ride — it was hers, something her twin hadn’t shared and couldn’t ruin.
Jenna smiled up at the unicorn on the sign and smoothed her long brown hair before pushing the door open. As she stepped inside, she stopped for a moment on the threshold, looking for her father’s slight form. The innkeeper smiled at her and nodded toward the back of the room. Papa was bent over one of the tavern’s larger tables, measuring the distance between the tabletop and the floor.
“Papa,” Jenna called softly, going to him and kneeling beside him. “Janek was caught poaching on the Baron’s land again.”
Papa stood up with a groan, noting his measurements on a piece of parchment that rested on the polished oak table. “The fine will eat all the profits from the Southby wedding dress,” he sighed and shook his head, “but there’s no help for it.” He tucked the parchment into his belt pouch. Pushing a strand of his shoulder length gray hair from his face, he said, “I’ll be glad when your twin grows out of his penchant for mischief.” He sat at the table, rubbing his temples.
“He’s seventeen, Papa; he should have grown out of it years ago.” Jenna stared into brown eyes so like her own, willing him to believe her.
“Nonsense, child. He’ll stop this foolishness soon.”
Jenna sighed and turned away. Movement in the far corner of the tavern caught her eye. It was Daschel, the trader who came to the village each season with magical goods. He sat his tankard down and nodded to her. She bobbed her head a bit in response, flustered.
Daschel had been coming to the village for the past ten years, yet no one really knew him. He would stroll into town, a heavily laden pack on his back, and go to the tavern. The innkeeper let Daschel use a table to sell his magical potions and amulets. People came from all the outlying farms and smaller villages just to buy his wares — and have a meal at the inn.
Half of the table in front of him was covered with delicate glass bottles filled with mysterious liquids. One the color of new leaves caught her eye. She leaned forward to look at it and smelled the faint scent of rosemary and lime. Lovely. The other half of the table held amulets suspended from silver chains. She saw several willow-knot good luck charms, wire-wrapped crystals of different colors, and a finely etched representation of Gwenna-of-the-Harvest.
“Anything in particular you’re looking for?” He asked in a deep, musically accented voice.
Jenna smiled. She had spoken to him for the first time only yesterday. Her brother’s antics kept the family far less prosperous than they would have been otherwise, so there was seldom any money for things like magic. The handsome trader had come into the shop just as she was putting out a new batch of lady’s scarves. He’d examined them carefully, and finally purchased a narrow, black scarf that Jenna had stitched. He had been courteous, asking after her health and discussing the wonderful early spring weather. Jenna had been so nervous she had barely looked at him. Especially after he smiled. He had a lovely smile. The memory of it made her cheeks heat.
The tavern door opened with a crash. Two hard-faced rangers filled the doorway. With the boiled leather armor over the Baron’s dark green livery, they made an imposing picture. Jenna unconsciously backed up, stopping next to Daschel.
“Baden Cromwell?” The taller of the two men spoke. It was Captain Tasdin, the Baron’s youngest brother, the leader of the rangers.
“I’m Baden Cromwell,” Papa said, stepping forward.
“Your son, one Janek Cromwell, was caught on Baron Tasdin’s land, in possession of a nursing doe and her fawn.”
That was serious. Janek’s crimes just kept getting worse and worse. She wondered how long it would be before he did something unforgivable. Jenna bit her lip, listening to the unemotional voice of the ranger as he continued.
“Since this is Janek Cromwell’s third and most serious offense, the Baron has sentenced him to six months in gaol, days to be spent laboring in the fields. Or he may pay a fine of fifty gold pieces.” With that, the rangers turned and left the tavern.
Jenna sank onto the chair next to the trader. Her chest felt as if it was wrapped too tightly in her bodice. Fifty gold pieces. Her family didn’t have that kind of money. In her most secret heart, she was glad. For once, her brother had found trouble he couldn’t escape. Perhaps six months unpaid labor would cure him of his foolishness.
“Here, you look like you need this,” Daschel’s lilting accent was soothing after the harsh words of the ranger Captain. He held his goblet out to her.
Without stopping to think about it, she took a drink. The fiery liquid almost choked her. This wasn’t the wine she’d had at village festivals; it was the dark, sweet whiskey the tavern keeper kept for his best customers. She sat the goblet down and blinked rapidly to clear her watering eyes, finally using the hem of her sleeve to blot away the excess moisture.
“My apologies. I didn’t realize you weren’t used to spirits.”
She managed a small smile. “No harm done. I can breathe now, so it helped.”
He gave her a quizzical look.
“Thank you,” she said, meeting his eyes for the first time. They were blue-black, with golden flecks that sparkled mysteriously—like distant flames on a dark night. His dark auburn hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail that hung nearly to his waist. Jenna was pleased to see the scarf she’d made tied across his forehead. Daschel always wore a headband. Local gossip wavered between speculation that he was hiding a disfiguring scar, and the belief that it was a strange foreign custom that civilized people wouldn’t understand.
A strangled sound from her father had her rushing to his side. Tears glittered in his eyes, and he looked far older than his years. “It’s not so bad, Papa. You know the Baron won’t mistreat him. We can visit him every sevenday.”
“We can’t let him stay there. He’s just a child.”
“He’s seventeen, father. Most men his age are promised, if not already married.” As she should have been. As she never would be without a proper dowry.
“A child, he’s just a child,” her father repeated. He pointed to the yellowed notice posted behind the bar. Years ago, Baron Tasdin had offered a one hundred gold piece bounty to anyone who could bring him a live unicorn. “This is our only hope.”
“Oh, Papa,” she said, laying her hand on his arm. When Jenna was a child, she and Janek had gone to play on the edge of the forest. He’d wandered off, leaving Jenna by herself. She followed a butterfly deep into the forest, becoming hopelessly lost. Before she could panic, she stumbled into a tiny meadow. A unicorn the color of a new copper coin stood in the center, munching on bright pink clover. She spent the next several hours petting it, talking to it, and weaving intricate braids into its mane and tail. Late that afternoon, it led her to where Papa had been searching for her on the forest’s edge.
Her father flinched away from her touch. “You will lure the unicorn to you. When it lays its head in your lap, you will tie a white silk thread around the base of its horn. Then you will bring it to me. You will go to Unicorn’s Rest tonight and every night until you catch one. Your brother must not go to gaol.”
“Unicorns are not animals to be put in a menagerie. The Baron doesn’t believe in them, but we know the truth. It’s wrong. I won’t do it.”
He wouldn’t look at her. “Janek comes first.”
Jenna sat quietly at the crossroads, shivering as a cool breeze ruffled the hem of her skirt. The west road went into the heart of the Chewaucan Forest, where creatures of magic lived. The north road led north to the top of Mt. Pyre, where the mage called Firesoul practiced his arts. Neither road saw much use. The hard trunk of the ancient oak against her back gave her a measure of security; at least no one could sneak up on her. She started at every sound, imagining monsters roaming the darkness.
A yard of silken thread rested in her lap. How could such a fragile thing hold a creature of magic? No, not a creature. A person. She’d looked into the intelligent, compassionate eyes of the unicorn she’d met as a child. She knew it was as much a person as she was. And now she was to help imprison one of its kindred. For the first time in her life, she truly hated her brother. If the gods were just, Janek was as miserable as she was. She imagined him sitting alone in a cold, damp cell deep in the bowels of a dungeon. Not that the Baron had a dungeon, of course, but it made her feel better.
Musical hoof beats startled her. The thread in her hand felt heavy. She strained her ears, trying to gauge how close the sound was, but only heard the chirring of crickets and the faint rustle of leaves in the tree above her. It must have been her imagination. Jenna put her face in her hands and cried, soaking the silken thread with her tears.
A low whinny intruded on her misery. She looked up just as the unicorn knelt and laid its head in her lap. Without thinking, she tied the damp thread around the base of its horn. The unicorn groaned, but made no effort to stand.
“I’m sorry,” she said, stroking the beast’s neck. Powerful muscles rippled beneath the soft hair. “My father is the only son of an only son. If my brother doesn’t marry and produce an heir, our family name will die out.” The unicorn shook its head. She ran her fingers through the unicorn’s silken mane. “I heard Mama and Papa talking once. Papa feels that he would be betraying his own father if he allows the family to fade away. Mama has miscarried several babies, and the healer has forbidden her to conceive more children. Janek will be my father’s only son.” The unicorn made a rude noise, somewhere between a snort and a whicker.
She talked all night, telling the unicorn of her brother’s many sins, and of his virtues. How she loved him even when she hated him. Finally, the sun began its ascent. The dawn light was captured and made glorious by the unicorn’s horn. Of the purest fire opal, the horn seemed to burn. Tears came to Jenna’s eyes at the beauty of the creature whose head rested in her lap. The hair on the unicorn’s body was copper-bright, and its mane and tail were the color of banked coals. Legend said that unicorns were white, with horns and hooves of pearl, but both unicorns she’d seen were sorrels.
She removed the silk thread from the unicorn’s horn. “Go, quickly, before my father comes.”
And so it went each night. Jenna talked of her brother, her family, and the hopes and dreams she’d forsaken. The unicorn listened patiently, answering her with soft sounds and urging her to lavish attention on it. Jenna loved the time they spent together, but the worry that her father would discover them haunted her. She knew she should warn the unicorn to stay away, but the thought of losing her only friend was too much.
“Whom have you been with?” Her father’s harsh words awakened her.
“What?” She looked around, relieved not to see the unicorn anywhere near. Shaking fallen leaves and dew from her skirts, she stood.
“Ten nights. Today will be the eleventh day your brother has languished in gaol.” Her father gave her a bone-rattling shake. “Who has taken your purity?”
“No one.” Jenna had no more tears to cry. Her cheek still ached from the slap he’d given her yesterday evening—for daring to smile while her brother was gone.
Papa gave her one last shake before letting her go. “Tonight, Devon waits for the unicorn.”
“Papa—” She flinched when he raised his hand. “I’ll catch one tonight. Just give me a chance.” She breathed a sigh of relief when he left, and sat, staring up through the tree’s canopy at the rising sun. The shifting colors lulled her into a light doze. Too many nights spent talking to the unicorn, fearing every moment that her father would appear and capture it, had taken their toll. She slipped into a deep sleep.
The sensation of being watched awakened her. There was a dark human form bending over her. She froze, terrified. No one would hear her if she screamed, and she had no way to defend herself.
“So, Jenna Cromwell, have you captured many unicorns?” Daschel’s lilting voice asked.
“No.” She shivered, not at all certain she was safe with the handsome trader. Foreigners sometimes had strange ideas about right and wrong.
“I’ve heard it said that patience is a virtue.”
“What are you doing here?” She stiffened as he sat next to her.
“Does a man need a reason to seek out a beautiful young woman?” He was still wearing the scarf she’d made.
Nervous laughter bubbled out of her chest. “I’m not beautiful.”
His tone gentled. “Why aren’t you married? You’re an intelligent young woman, an accomplished seamstress, and you have a kind and generous heart.”
His words filled her with a desperate, futile longing. “I have no dowry.”
“Your parents own a successful shop.”
“All our profits go to pay fines and damages for the mischief Janek causes.” She bit her lip. It wasn’t proper to tell a stranger the family’s troubles.
He nodded. “I know. But surely there are young men in this town who are willing to look beyond that.”
Blinking back tears, she looked down at her hands. “No one wants to be tied to my family.” A tear escaped, trailing down her cheek.
A gentle hand tipped her head up. Daschel wiped away the tear with his thumb. “You’re trapped by your brother’s crimes. How can your father love one child so much that he abuses his other children?”
Jenna shook her head. “I don’t know.” She leaned into his hand. A small tear just above the cuff on his left sleeve caught her attention. Tracing her finger over the soft blue linen, she said, “Let me mend this for you.” Her belt pouch held a variety of threads and several gauges of needles. She found some blue linen thread that was just a bit darker than Daschel’s shirt, already threaded onto a needle. There was enough for this small job. “It won’t take a moment.”
She took his hand in both of hers, smiling as she felt the calluses on his fingers. Turning it over, she studied the tear, located just over the pulse point of his wrist. Carefully, she slid her fingers underneath the sleeve, holding it taut while she stitched. Under her fingertips, she could feel his heartbeat speed up. “There,” she said, tying the thread off and snipping the ends. “All done.”
“Thank you.” He stood, offering her his hand. “May I walk you home?”
“Yes.” She let him pull her up and tuck her hand into his arm. As they walked, she wished he were a suitor, taking her walking in order to win her love.
“I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
“Oh.” Her heart sank. She couldn’t think of anything more to say.
When they reached her parent’s shop, he kissed her hand. “Good luck Jenna Cromwell. I hope you find happiness.”
What an odd thing to say. “Thank you. Safe journey.”
He bowed to her and strode toward the Inn. It was all she could do not to call after him and beg him to take her along on his travels.
“Goodbye, Daschel,” she murmured before going into the shop.
Jenna bit her lip, alternately praying the unicorn would come, and hoping she never saw it again. Could she capture it, stealing its freedom to buy temporary freedom for her brother? Because it would be temporary, she knew. Janek wouldn’t change, and eventually he’d do something even their father couldn’t get him out of. And yet, her sister was innocent, only eight years old. Devon had done nothing to deserve being forced to sit the lonely, dangerous vigil at the crossroads.
It was a situation that had no fair ending. Jenna weighed all the different courses she could choose, trying to find the one that did the least damage. Finally, she made a decision. Steeling herself, she sent a prayer to Gwenna Tanglehair, asking forgiveness for what she must do.
The unicorn appeared not long before dawn, resting his head in her lap with a satisfied sigh. Jenna warmed her hands underneath his mane, absently plaiting the soft hairs. “I won’t see you again. My sister will be here tomorrow night. Please, don’t go to her. She doesn’t understand that it would be wrong to steal your freedom. Promise me you won’t trust her.” Jenna would sneak out of the house each night and come here to watch over Devon.
Whickering what she hoped was agreement, the unicorn settled his head deeper in her lap. The tears she’d thought long gone made an appearance. “My brother deserves far worse than six months working in the Baron’s fields. My father does as well. Maybe if Janek had been punished before now, he wouldn’t have gone poaching.” She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and stroked the unicorn’s brow, just below the base of the horn. “I hope you will help me watch over my sister and keep her safe, but don’t let her see you.”
The unicorn stood, gazing down at her with dark, mysterious eyes. The air twisted and sparked, and Daschel was smiling down at her. Jenna scrambled to her feet, pressing her back against the tree. Her heart was trying to beat its way from her breast.
“My name is Daschel d’Pyre. It means ‘Soul of Fire’ in the unicorn tongue. Will you marry me?”
She let her eyes rest on the multi-faceted fire opal in the center of his forehead. “H-how is this possible?”
She pressed harder against the tree, willing it to keep her safe. “W-why would you want me?” Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined this. Jenna felt like a kettle about to boil over as fear and wonder bubbled inside her.
“Why wouldn’t I?” He pointed north, at the mountain. “I have a cottage up there. You could see your sister when I bring my wares down each season.” He knelt in front of her and held his hand out to her. A silver ring with a flame-colored opal set in its center rested in his palm. “Jenna Cromwell, will you consent to be my wife?”
She took the ring, holding it gingerly. The fire that sparkled inside it warmed her palm. “I’d travel with you?”
“I hope so.”
“What about Devon?”
Daschel sighed. “Regardless of your answer, I’ll pay your brother’s fine—on the condition that your father never again buys Janek’s way out of trouble. Your sister won’t suffer for your brother’s folly.”
“My father might make such a bargain with you, but it would only last until my brother broke the law again.” The words shamed her, but she owed him the truth.
“If your father gives me his oath, he won’t be able to break it.”
“You were the one that took me home that day, weren’t you?”
He grinned at her, not at all confused by her words. “You were so unafraid, it intrigued me. Each time I came to the village, I heard tales of Janek’s troubles. I watched you, and was charmed by your grace and kindness.
Jenna looked at him, considering. In her dreams, she married for love. She loved the unicorn. Could she love Daschel? Would she be happy traveling—and living—with him?
A faint smile played around his lips as he awaited her decision.
“I don’t want you to pay Janek’s fine. He deserves this punishment.”
“What do you want?”
“My sister is in school right now. We can stop there on our way out of town and take her with us. If my parents want to suffer for Janek, they can. But I won’t allow my sister to be sacrificed for my brother.”
“Done.” His smile widened into a grin.
Looking down at her dress, she chuckled ruefully. “You truly want a bride with no dowry—and nothing else except the clothes on her back?”
“I want you, Jenna.”
She slid the ring onto her finger. “Yes.”
Jill Knowles writes dark fantasy, horror, and dark erotica. This former archaeologist now lives and works in Tucson. In her spare time, between working, writing and trying desperately to have a life, she volunteers as a mediator for Pima County. She is owned by far too many cats. Currently, her work can be found in “Tales of the Talisman” magazine, “Modern Magic” print anthology, and the upcoming “Justice Wears a Dress” anthology.
Story © 2006 Jill Knowles. All other content copyright © 2006 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish