The Unicorn Game
by Alicia Alves
It’s not that I don’t love him. I do, in a way. I just don’t want to marry him. Of course, what I want doesn’t matter. In Albion, all of its daughters must marry and so shall I.
I caress the spine of Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, an interesting volume Father brought back from England. If I could find that city, I would not need to be married. I could do as I liked and read in the light.
As it is, I sit hunched in Father’s closet of a study, devouring his small collection in the night. I light no candle. I can’t afford to be discovered. It is the noise of the tavern that allows me to enter unnoticed. When I am married, I will not be able to read at all.
I am tilting Pizan’s work from the shelf when light enters the room. Someone has opened the door. I lift my finger from the book and turn to face the door, eyes downcast as is proper.
“Abertha, there you are.” Mother rushes toward me, grabs my arm. “You are lucky I don’t tell your father about this. What are you doing in here? Never mind, girl, why do you not speak with The Elders?”
I should have known Mother would notice my absence.
“Mama, it is too loud to listen to their words.”
“Oh hush.” Mother smacks my wrist. “That is no reason to enter your father’s study. Besides, your fiancée is a part of that crowd.”
“I know, Mama.” Tomorrow I will belong to him. To Aarman. I will no longer be able to sneak into Father’s study. I will no longer be able to read.
Mother places a heavy hand on my shoulder and kisses the top of my head. When she kisses me like that, I become a child again, though at eighteen I still am a child by the law of Albion.
“I am proud of you, child. Aarman is a strong man. He will keep you safe.”
Safe. There it is again. Always safe. Words spew from my lips before I am able to push them back in.
“Why do I need to be kept safe at all? I am fine on my own. Why do I need to be anyone’s wife?”
“I mean it, Mama. Why?”
Mother’s lips clench, and she looks at the door.
“We should not be in here.”
I open my mouth to object, but Mother is already dragging me out of Father’s study. In the hall, I repeat the question, “Why?”
“Because,” Mama whispers, “a maid needs a man for protection. Women cannot fend for themselves. You know that. Now back to your studies,” she says, shooing me into the tavern.
“But why can’t I continue as I do now?”
“Because why?” Our voices grow louder, but I don’t try to stop it.
“Because ... Because that is the way it is.” Mother throws up her hands and mutters in a language I do not understand. All I know is that it is not the language of Albion. I thank God we are alone. I wouldn’t want Mother to be punished.
“Fine, Mama,” I say to quiet her. “I am sorry. I will return to my lessons.”
“There’s my girl,” Mama says, patting my arm. “Listen to The Elders and you will have nothing to fear. You will be as much prepared for matrimony as a girl can be.”
“Thank you, Mama.”
With snow still clinging to its branches, the weeping willow looks like a wedding veil spread out over the lake’s edge. The setting sun makes the veil look darker than it should. Whether that is good or bad, I can’t tell.
“Maidens must not venture out after dark,” I mimic Maya, one of The Elders. I mean, really, what will the night do to us? Turn our fair skin a couple shades darker? The night has never done anything to harm me, nor has it harmed nature. As far as I am concerned, I am nature. So a little night can’t hurt me.
I amble to the lake and take off my shoes at its shore. I gather my skirts and take a step into the water. I glance around, but no one is here. With a giggle, I plunge my other foot into the lake, and then I am laughing and dancing in the water. Mother watches me so closely that I hardly ever find a moment to sneak away. I twirl, splashing water into the frigid air. My legs grow numb, and I must climb back onto dry land. My body shakes and my breath fogs the air, but it is worth it.
My laughter is cut short at the sound. Mother. My spine straightens instinctively, and I try to rub my skirts clean, but my nightgown is white and the mud is so dark. There is nothing for it now. I can’t hide what I have done. I lower my chin and await punishment.
“Abertha, why the heavens are you out here? Get back into the ... What have you done to your nightgown? Why are you wearing a nightgown?” Mother grabs my arm, dragging me back to the tavern. “Who will marry you looking like this?”
Mother pauses, but I know better than to think she is looking for an answer. I keep silent.
“Well, let’s get you inside, and see if anything can be done.”
I am in Father’s study. Thankfully, the sun is high so I can read much easier. The Book of Beasts lays open on my lap, another one of the treasures from Father’s travels.
When the door opens, I worry that it is Mother so I look up. Father stands at the threshold.
“You know you are not allowed in here,” Father says.
We both smile. Father steps into the room and closes the door behind him to block out the noise.
“What are you reading, Berthie?”
“The Book of Beasts.”
He nods and comes to stand beside me at his desk. He looks down at his hands and I begin to worry. Father is not a shy man so why does he look timid?
“Was there something on your mind, Papa?”
He looks at me, but something feels different now. He’s changed since he first walked in here.
“Have your lessons with The Elders been helpful?”
I swallow my sigh. “Yes, Papa.”
“Do you feel prepared to marry Aarman?”
“As prepared as I can be, Papa.”
“Have you ever heard of the Unicorn Game?” The question seems so out of place, so sudden, that it takes me aback. I open my mouth to answer, but then I close it. Unicorns ... I have read about them somewhere.
“Yes,” I lie.
“Listen carefully, Abertha. No one I have met in England has heard of the Unicorn Game. They speak of unicorns only as mythological beings.”
I nod as though this means something.
“Please,” he says. “Keep what I have said in mind. You will be wed tomorrow.”
“Did Mama play this game for you?”
Father smiles. “No. I loved her too much for that.”
For a blessed moment, I didn’t know what he meant. And then I did.
“Oh, Papa,” I shriek, covering my ears.
Father pulls me close and kisses the top of my head. I curl into the embrace and wish he would never let me go.
“Remember what I have said.”
When Father leaves his study, I return my attention to The Book of Beasts. I search its entries and find Unicorn. So that’s where I have seen the word before. A beast that is passive when in the presence of maidens. I suppose that’s where I come in, but how?
“Mama, why has no one told me about the Unicorn Game?”
Mother pauses in hanging the strings of replica pearls for my wedding. It takes her a few seconds to look at me.
“Why do you ask?”
Mother waves a hand in the air. The pearls whip about on their string. “Yes, well, it is no matter how you heard of it. Really, Aarman should have mentioned it. Goodness knows why he hasn’t.”
“Why have the Elders not told me? They are the ones preparing me for my wedding. They are the ones teaching me about ... everything.”
“It is not for young maidens to know before they are told.”
I force my neck to bend forward instead of stamping my foot. When I turn to leave, Mother stops me with a hand on my arm.
“Well, I suppose I could ...”
My chest tightens and I wait.
Mother pulls me close. Her eyes scan the empty tavern before settling on me. I can feel the weight of a great secret pushing on my lungs. I press my lips together to keep from making a sound.
“The Unicorn Game will bring you great wealth, child.” I feel myself deflate. “You are a maid, yes?”
“Good. I wondered why Aarman had not told you. I feared he gave up wealth for pleasure. For heaven’s sake, your wedding is tomorrow.”
“Do not interrupt me, Abertha. Or do you not wish to hear about the Unicorn Game?”
After a pause, Mother says, “It is a duty given to the most beautiful maidens in Albion. You see, unicorns are attracted to maidens. They are the only ones who can lure the beasts.” Lure. So I am to be bait. Lovely. Mother grasps my hands. “You will bring your family great honour. Once the unicorn has been captured, you and Aarman will live in the royal court in England. You will have diamonds on your shoes, gold on your dress, and rubies in your ears.”
I stumble back, out of Mother’s grasp. “But I don’t want any of that.”
“Oh child, don’t be silly. Of course you do. Everyone does.”
Mother’s eyebrows rise, and I continue, “I can’t walk in diamonds. I can’t work in a gold dress. Rubies will only weigh me down.”
“You will never need to walk again. You never have nor ever will need to work. With a unicorn, you will be a princess. Don’t you dare pretend that does not matter to you. These are only nerves talking. You will want these things again in the morning.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. You do, and you will perform your duty. Tomorrow you will set out early, before the wedding, and catch a unicorn. Do not let us down.”
The sun welcomes me early the next morning; it illuminates my naked body beneath the thin cotton of my nightgown. The sun shows me that I have not dressed before sneaking out, but I do not care. The sun loves me and so do I.
A giggle escapes my lips, and I try to block it with my fingers. Had my lungs given breath to that sound? Ridiculous girl. Settle down. Somehow that thought is funny, and I began to laugh again. Then I laugh for all I am worth and run to the willow tree.
A broken branch has fallen into the water. I can see the tip of it peeking out of its underwater bed. I reach for it, break it in half. I stab its end into the earth, leaving my mark. I do it again and again. It relieves a pressure deep inside I did not know existed. I succumb to the urge to write my name in the dirt, but instead of giving me pleasure it only gives me pain.
This is the last day of Abertha Oothoon. Tomorrow she will be no more.
Her name will not live on after she is gone. It is not permanent. Foxes will spread the dirt with their tracks, stamp out her name. Rain will wash it away. Soon it will be gone.
I pull my nightgown close, about to sit, but then straighten. I am so sick of sitting. My body rebels at the motion, urging me to run, to work, to feel the wind in my hair. I loosen the strands from their plait, shaking my head until they give up the shape.
It is not enough. I need more. I need movement.
I run to the barn, the need to move quickly burning my heart. The need to ride propels me until I am safe past the barn doors. I am reaching for a saddle when a shadow announces a presence behind me.
The scent of ale and leather tells me it is Aarman who stands behind me. He is the only one aside from my family who would enter our barn. I take a deep breath to steady myself and continue with the saddle. I don’t care if Aarman sees my naked backside. He can stare if he likes. It doesn’t matter anyway. Tomorrow it will belong to him.
And so will the rest of me.
“Abertha, what are you doing?”
“Working,” I say, reaching for a bridle.
“Here, let me.” A hand comes into my view and I swat at it.
“I can bloody well do it.”
I don’t flinch when I see the hand reel back. I can picture Aarman’s face, full of shock and disgust, but this is my day. How dare he try to ruin it? He will have me for the rest of my life. I deserve one day of my own before the rest of my days are swallowed up.
“You should at least cover up, darling,” Aarman says after a long pause. “Did you know you are wearing a nightgown? Not that I mind.”
A hand presses against my lower stomach, pulling me back against a strong body, a masculine body. I am paralyzed. Fire runs through my veins, jumps over my skin. Too hot. Can’t breathe. A sickness worse than anything I have ever experience stirs deep in my belly. Aarman has never touched me before.
I push my body forward, out of his arms, and swing around with chin raised and shoulders back.
“Well you are, dear.”
I sigh. Of course he doesn’t know what I mean. He never does. No one ever does.
I am walking past him when he grabs my wrist. For some reason that I don’t understand, it frightens me and I pull back. This time the tight sickness in my belly is familiar. I pull back again, but Aarman holds tight. Indignation rises with the fear, and I glare at him.
“Don’t look at me like that. I’m only trying to talk to you.”
I try to walk away again. I will drag him behind me if I have to.
“By the heavens, Abertha, I hope you won’t be like this tomorrow,” Aarman says, pulling me back. It is disconcerting how easily he does it. I stay still. “I will assume these are only pre-wedding nerves. Your mother mentioned you acted quite out of character when she told you about the Unicorn Game.”
“She also said you should have told me about it.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted more. But now the choice has been made for me.”
At first I didn’t know what he meant. And then I did.
“What do you need me to do?” I speak with as much venom as I can and cross my arms over my breasts. Aarman misses it all.
He releases me with a smile. “I knew you would come around. Don’t fret, darling, I will tell you all when we reach Virgin’s Rock tomorrow. For now you must make yourself decent and come meet my men in the tavern. We will celebrate.”
When Aarman directs his men off-track into the forest, he waits for me. He holds out his hand, reassuring. I try not to want to reach out for it, but I do. I try not to love that little smile of his, but I find myself smiling back. But it is his eyes that breed a feeling of dread low in my belly that makes me want to turn back. There is something about this forest, the way the trees grow unnaturally close together like they are hiding something, that makes the dread grow worse.
Why does Aarman need so many men? Does he not believe I am a maid? Their armour glints like a blade in the pre-dawn light. The trees feel even closer than before. I can’t breathe. They are suffocating me.
The normalcy of Aarman’s voice forces me out of the tunnel my fear had put me in. I am back with Aarman, aware. This is just a forest, and this is just a man. I will do my duty then return home to be wed. And begin the first day of the rest of my so-called life as a wife and mother. I find myself missing the tunnel.
“We need you to stand on that rock.” Aarman gestures to a stone dais, whether made by nature or man I have no idea. Oak trees stand proud on either side of it, their branches leaning down as if in worship. My mother did say this unicorn would make me a princess.
Aarman guides me to the dais, and for once I am grateful for the feel of his hand on my back. One of his men follows behind.
“There now,” Aarman says. “Everything is alright. Up you get.”
I step onto the dais. I feel my hands begin to shake. The trees no longer feel reverent. They feel oppressing. Sickness rises in my throat, choking me. I move to get off the dais. Aarman catches me about the wrist. He reaches into the tree.
“What are you doing?”
“Relax,” he says, unwinding a chain from the branches. Something so cold does not belong in nature. I want to trust him, to relax like he says, but I don’t. “We don’t want you to spook the unicorn. That’s all.”
He smiles, but this time I don’t believe it. Something is wrong. Very wrong. I move back, but the other man chains my left wrist. Aarman chains the right. I am trapped, a hart finally pulled down by the master’s dogs.
“Aarman,” I say. It is only his name, but it is a plea I hope he will not ignore.
He steps onto the dais, cups first one cheek then both. His eyes remind me of the lake and the willow tree; they are just as sad and glassy. There is something trapped underneath his eyes that I can’t reach even though I want to. Aarman leans forward, presses his lips to mine. So this is what kissing feels like. Cold, trembling, wet. Are those his tears or mine? Before I find an answer, he pulls away. Before I see his face, he turns and hides in the trees with the rest of his men.
When he leaves the dais, I feel my loneliness like a blanket tied around me. I can’t untie it alone. I begin to feel like I will never get out. Panic wells up in my mouth until it fills with it, can’t fit anything more, and must burst open to let it out. Screaming is the only thing I can do, and so I scream. I scream for Aarman; I scream for Mother; I scream for God.
My scream dies when the unicorn comes. I don’t see it at first, and when I do it is already in the clearing. Its beauty kills my scream; it seems disrespectful to make such a noise in its presence. The unicorn’s hide gleams like moonlight, and there is a swirling crystal horn between its black eyes. I don’t doubt this creature can buy royalty. It almost looks like a horse, but it is too ethereal, too beautiful, too different.
It watches me like I watch it. Is it studying my features? Do I look ugly to its eyes? I don’t dare move while it stares.
“Aarman,” I say again, but he doesn’t come. No one does, and suddenly I am afraid.
The unicorn circles me, sniffs my dress. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to picture my bedroom, the willow tree by the lake, anything but where I am. But it doesn’t work. I can still hear the unicorn. I can still smell the rotting earth. I am weary from standing and know the chains will not let me sit.
I open my eyes. The unicorn paws at the ground and lowers its head. Looking down at the point of its horn, I realize the instrument is not only beautiful but deadly. The unicorn’s hide becomes ghostly, its eyes mirrors of Hell, in the dim light of the dawning sky.
It is getting ready to charge.
“Aarman,” I scream this time but produce no different effect. Aarman remains hidden.
The realization of what I am empties me. The Unicorn Game is no game at all but a sacrifice. My duty is not to marry my fiancée but to die for him. Part of me prays I could marry him but the other is grimly happy. Soon, I try not to think how soon, my blood will stain this rock and will remain here for all time.
I will be Abertha Oothoon forever.
Alicia Alves is a Canadian fantasy writer. She has been published in What If? Magazine and Mystic Signals.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Luckily, I am an English major so a lot of my inspiration comes from the texts I read for school. “The Unicorn Game” is one of those stories. I am particularly influenced by mythology, fairy tales, and Gothic tales. Inspiration can come from anything and everything: a song lyric, an image, a train of thought. I always keep a notebook and pen with me for when inspiration hits.