Story art by Maerten de Vos (1532-1603).
From the author: When the young wizard journeys into the mountains to find her totem spirit, she little dreams of the twisted fate that would exchange her own soul with that of the winged unicorn.
The night was darker than she expected. Darker and colder. Frostmist haloed the stars. As she pulled her sheepswool ruach’ tight around her shoulders, Xiera wished, not for the first time, that she’d paid as much attention to her weaving as to her wizardry.
She had traveled, alone and unarmed, from Choa’tlexa at the edge of the Harvest Plains and into the barren mountains of Hua’tha’s Curse. At the fifth setting of Choa’tl’s Eye, she came across the circle of fallen stones. When she touched one, a spark crackled, stinging her hand. Her fingertips came away, covered in acrid dust. She sat cross-legged in the center of the circle and composed herself.
It will come, she reminded herself. My totem will come to me. Everything so far had been exactly as her teachers foretold, the journey to Hua’tha’s Curse, the moonless night, this place of power.
Moments crept by, bleeding into one another. The earth shivered, so light a ripple that she might not have noticed if she hadn’t been sitting so still. It was the third tremor that hour, each one raising it own false hope.
A speck of silver winked along the western ridge. Heartbeats followed one another. The mote of light elongated into a circle, quickly followed by the second moonlet.
“The Kiss of the Twins,” a man’s voice spoke from the night, velvet-smooth. Darkness masked his face, as coppery as her own. She’d never known a life without him, from her earliest memories of following, playing and fighting with him and his brothers, sleeping on the mounded carpets of the children’s tent, curled together like puppies.
Only later, as her wizardry stirred and her body changed, so did Xiera’s feelings for him, and his for her. She wept when the elders sent her to Choa’tlexa with its towers, stepped pyramidal temples and markets, as priests, traders, artisans and wizards bustled along the narrow stone streets. She wept again when Tl’al followed her three years later. His beauty burned as sharp as the sun, as did the answering fire within her. That was the last time she had wept, for wizardry kills tears.
“Tl’al! What are you doing here?”
His lips brushed hers, melting sweetness to fuel her rising irritation. She wanted him gone, to have this sacred time all to herself. Once this night was passed, once she was sealed to her totem, she could use her power to do as she wished.
“I’m supposed to be alone!”
“I just wanted to make sure—” another kiss, lips gliding over hers, “—that you wouldn’t forget.”
She couldn’t breathe.
He said, “People come back from Totem Night changed.”
Of course people came back changed. They came back wizards.
Summoning all the patience of her wizard’s discipline, she pointed to the Twins. “Within the hour their paths will bring them so close, they will embrace. You must be safely gone by then.”
“I know. Or the initiation will be spoiled.” Tl’al sighed, repeating the words she’d said to him, the reason she must remain virgin for this night. “But no one knows if they really touch.”
When she knew, by the quality of the silence, he had left, she turned her face once more to the heavens.
Moving in a solemn dance, the moonlets approached one another. Xiera’s heart raced and she forgot Tl’al, forgot the cold, the hardness of the rocks, the emptiness in her stomach, the soreness of her feet. Forgot everything except the glow, brightening with every passing moment until the two orbs blurred into a single point of radiance. Her eyes watered with staring at it. As she rose to her feet, the ruach’ fell away, leaving her naked except for a narrow silk belt, knotted according to her wizardry lineage, needing only this night for the final pattern.
A droplet of light separated from the fused moonlets, dipping and then rising, slowly growing in size. Xiera closed her eyes, praying to Choa’tl of the Harvest Sun and Her consort, the double-tongued serpent, Hu’atha. From the depths of her wizard’s heart, she asked that her totem be wise and powerful...and just a little bit beautiful, too.
When she blinked, the light was almost upon her, hovering just beyond reach. The body of a plains deer it had, with a proud arched neck and flowing tail, rounded hooves and wings. Wings rippled in syncopated beats, three on each side, attached along the sharply ridged spine. Feathers glimmered, iridescent. The creature was unmistakably male.
He came lower. She saw the eyes, dark as a starless sky, and the single milky nub of a horn. Curved eyeteeth showed between its lips. The smell arising from his body reminded Xiera of wildflowers, of autumn honey, of blood.
Xiera sank to her knees. She had no idea anything could be so beautiful and so terrible. It was too late for flight or indecision, for she had prayed the creature into her heart. In all the centuries of wizard-lore, no one had ever been sent such a totem. She didn’t know if such creatures had a name.
Then I will give you one. You will be mine, my beauty, my teacher, my guide. And I will be yours...
The beast drew nearer, head dipping, nostrils flaring to take in her scent. Breath flowed over her bare skin. Xiera tingled all over.
Fire sparked in the dark eyes. With a whuff! the creature’s head shot up, turning, ears pricked. Muscles tightened beneath the silver-lit hide. Wings hesitated, then beat faster.
“It’s all right...” Xiera said softly, glad that her voice did not betray the pounding in her chest. “Here, come here to me.”
Ears swiveled in her direction. As if drawn by a lodestone, the creature approached her once more.
A sound like leather on wood, like willow branches breaking under a killer frost, shot through the stillness. With a scream, the beast threw himself backwards. The light from his body shifted from moony silver to Choa’tl’s gold.
Xiera froze. Her eyes focused on the rope now tightening around the creature’s throat. A second noose settled behind his ears and a third caught one forefoot. The beast reared and screamed again. Red streaks laced his hide. One of the ropes around his neck snapped clean through.
“Hoald heem!” came a voice, unmistakably female. The accent sounded like trader’s ling.
The next moment, the creature fell heavily on its side.
“The rope, damn you!” the other woman yelled. “Are you blind?”
Xiera threw herself to her knees beside the creature, terrified that he would injure himself, break one of those impossibly slender legs, strangle on the ropes. With both hands, she stroked the taut, quivering neck. Immediately, the creature calmed.
“Be still, my beauty,” she crooned, blessing any power that would listen for her steady voice. But she had no knife, no hand axe. Weapons were forbidden for the totem journey.
Too frantic to think straight, Xiera tugged at the knots with her bare hands. The coarse rope tore the skin on her fingers. The second neck rope, which had been slack, went tight.
“Ha!” The other woman stepped from behind the largest of the fallen stones. She was dressed outland style, all in leather, breeches tucked into scuffed, patched boots, and a jacket missing most of its metal studs. Her head had been shaved in stripes, now grown to a fuzz.
She pushed Xiera aside, with a few practiced movements bound the creature’s foreleg to the opposite rear foot, and slipped a rope halter over his head. She knotted a strip of cloth over his eyes.
“What have you done?” Xiera cried. Her hands curled into fists, but she held herself back. She must spill no blood on Totem Night, least the wizardry in her veins turn to evil. “Let him go!”
“Let him go?” The woman put her hands on her hips, threw back her head, and laughed. “It’s the luck of a lifetime, a big strong buck like him. Why, his balls alone will fetch a thousand, maybe more, in Rindar!”
“Balls, horn, liver. You did well, my girl, keeping him quiet for me. I thought I’d have a real fight on my hands.” She jabbed the creature’s flank with one boot. He thrashed once, then lay still, breathing heavily. “It’ll take a bye for the potion in the blindfold to do its work. Then I can handle him without all these ropes and we’ll be on our way.”
Xiera’s thoughts began to clear. “Where do you mean to take him?”
“Rindar,” the other woman repeated, as if speaking to a simpleton. “The gentles there are crazy for any kind of strange meat, when all that really ails them is being too damned inbred. Me, I can’t tell the difference between horsemeat, unicorn, or shoe leather. Give me a nice fat goose anytime.”
Unicorn... The word rang like a bell. Xiera touched the mane, felt the strands like unspun wool. “I never knew unicorns had wings.”
The huntress unbuttoned her jacket and took out a wide-mouthed glass jar and a short, curved knife. Before Xiera could stop her, she set the inner edge of the knife against the base of the unicorn’s horn and sliced it off.
The light from the unicorn’s body vanished. He lay still, unprotesting. Only his breath, hesitant and shuddering, revealed that he still lived.
The huntress lifted the stoppered jar with an air of satisfaction. Within its murky red depths, a pale light glimmered. Xiera wondered what creature had given its blood to preserve the unicorn horn.
The other woman untied the unicorn’s neck and legs, keeping a firm hold on the halter rope. When she removed the blindfold and slapped the end of one rope against its sides, the unicorn heaved himself to his feet and stood, legs splayed, head down. Eyes dimmed, as if unseeing.
“Pl—please!” Xiera stammered. By Choa’tl and Hu’atha and their thousand offspring, what could she do? Take on this armed outlander with her bare hands? “Name your price!”
“More money than you’ll ever see!” The woman jerked on the halter rope. The unicorn took a single step forward and set its feet. “Balls! I’ll have to drag him the whole way!”
“Then let me come with you.” Xiera gathered up her ruach’. “To care for him. He’ll come easy for me, less work for you.”
At her words, the unicorn dipped his muzzle between her breasts. His breath swept over her, sweet and warm.
“I don’t owe you any favors in return,” the huntress said, her voice guarded.
“I don’t care.”
“You’ll freeze your tits off.”
“I don’t care.”
The huntress lowered her voice. “It won’t make any difference in the end, you being there.”
Xiera held her tongue. She did care.
They went on a little while, sliding and skittering down the trail, the huntress in front, the rope slack. Xiera kept her hand on the unicorn’s neck.
Not far, tucked in a shadowed cleft of rock, they came to the huntress’s camp. A strange beast, humped and three-horned, jerked awake at their approach. Tied to a fallen tree, the unicorn folded its legs and lowered itself to the ground beside the banked fire.
“We’ll move out at first light. I hope you travel fast. You can wear my spare shirt and breeches. No so new, but they’re clean.”
Xiera shivered and pulled her ruach’ more tightly around her. A garment of her own weaving was all that ritual allowed on Totem Night. Rather than being told again that she’d freeze her tits off if she refused, she asked, “Do you have a name?”
“Josselinda, that’s what my mam gave me. Most folk call me Joss, when they call me anything. Suit yourself.”
Xiera blinked in surprise. She knew by the signs in Joss’s voice that she’d spoken her soul-name.
Joss squatted beside the log and leaned back. “You’re such an innocent. You’re thinking you can witch me by my name. Ha!” She closed her eyes and pretended to snore.
Xiera sank to her knees beside the unicorn. She rested her head against the creature’s flank. Its warmth enveloped her. Joss was right and she was wrong. A soul-name carried power, but power which Xiera, so close to her totem and so far, could not wield. Yet.
Embers fell, rustling. Xiera’s eyes flew upon. For an instant, she thought she’d slept through the night, that the color misting across the sky heralded dawn. But the light was cold and blue, with no trace of Choa’tl’s gold, and it quivered with the singing of the stars. She’d never dreamed such glory, such harmony. Her eyes caught a second source of radiance, the human body curled at her side, one slender hand entwined in her mane.
One foreleg and then the other, hindquarters beneath her, Xiera rose to her feet. Her nostrils flared, filled with the flowery pungency of virginity, the dying prayers of the tree whose embers faded in the firepit, the mute misery of the tri-horn, dreaming of lumbering free on the far high-desert, dreaming of rutting females, of noa’chal heavy with seed...
One scent drew her most of all, a soul-scent layered with pain and pride and soul-iron, complex like wine that had lain in the temple cellars for many seasons.
The light from girl’s body died. On the other side of the camp, Joss scrambled upright and caught hold of the halter. The coarse rope bit into Xiera’s tender nose. She whuff!ed in indignation.
“So you’ve still got spirit in you!” Another jerk.
Xiera spread her wings and fanned them to their full display before she remembered that Joss could not see them. Emotions surged through her—fury and pride and things she had no human names for. With the transformation, the drug had cleared from her unicorn’s blood and already she could feel the nub of a new horn on her forehead.
Give in. Don’t waste your strength. Xiera forced herself to lower her head, blowing as if even this small show of rebellion had left her exhausted.
As the girl stood up, Xiera sensed her fleeting confusion. She dipped her muzzle, caught the rush of hot blood to the girl’s cheeks as she felt the moist warm breath across her uncovered breasts. The girl reached one hand to lightly stroke Xiera’s arched neck.
“That’s right,” Joss said, breathing hard. “Keep him under control.”
The huntress turned back to her place at the log, where she’d left her sword—
—and came up short as Tl’al pressed its tip to the base of her throat, the little cup where the collarbones met.
“Easy, boy,” Joss said, a wary edge to her voice. “Just put the pig-sticker down.”
In reply, Tl’al nicked her. Blood made a slender dark ribbon down her chest.
Xiera had seen Tl’al throw and truss a wild plains sheep, who were far less docile than Joss was now. It would take Joss hours to work free once he was done with her. All the while the unicorn-girl gazed at him with such wonder and such hunger...
They raced through the dark, Xiera leading the way. Her unicorn eyes saw colors she’d never known existed. Her unicorn muscles flexed powerfully, untiring, and her feet never slipped on the rock. The others followed the pearly beacon of her body.
When they slowed to draw breath, Tl’al talked in low, soothing tones to the girl, the girl he thought was Xiera.
By Hu’atha of the Double Tongues! Xiera had no idea how she was going to tell him that he was talking to a unicorn, a male unicorn. Once they were safe, she’d have to find some way to sort things out. That assumed she still could, once Totem Night had passed.
They came around a bend as the trail plunged toward the Harvest Plains. The very air here tasted different, warm and heavy, smelling of pollen-thick plainsgrass.
But not hers any longer. Instinctively, she knew that once she returned, she would become as dull and drowsy as any ordinary wingless, hornless beast.
She paused to think and let the humans rest. Choa’tlexa’s lights glowed below them like bits of amber. Far behind, she sensed Joss free herself and gather her weapons, her ropes.
Tl’al had taken the unicorn-girl into his arms. Xiera remembered how it felt, her body melting against his, the sweet fire of his lips brushing hers, trailing down her neck, the answering fire within herself—
Within the unicorn-girl, too.
Acolytes returned from Totem Night changed. She had always assumed the change came from the initiation itself, the mystical bonding to one’s totem. A dizzying thought struck her, that perhaps the spirit which now drew Tl’al into an even deeper embrace, was not at all that of a unicorn, but of an untried wizard just like herself—young, passionate, impatient, arrogant with her own wizardry.
Xiera pawed the ground, snorted. Shook her head, sending her mane flying.
Tl’al turned to watch her. His puzzled expression quickly faded as the unicorn-girl drew his hand beneath the ruach’. Tl’al tilted his pelvis and pressed against her. Xiera could feel his hardness, his strength, the rush of delirium in the girl’s own body. The girl’s eyes met Xiera’s for an instant.
Xiera could not guess how long the girl had been held captive in this unicorn’s body, waiting for the next virgin wizard to come searching on Totem Night. And how long would it take her to find another body?
On the dark mountain trails, Joss spurred her three-horned beast to the chase. Vibrations shivered through earth and air, heart and hoof and stone.
Unicorns came to the pure, the innocent, the maiden. Joss was hardly that, no was she wizard-trained, but beneath that brassy exterior lay a host of other interesting possibilities. One could be innocent in many ways. Even a hardened heart must long for something. And Joss had so casually spoken her soul-name, secure in the belief that Xiera could not use it against her.
Of course, Joss would want to bind the unicorn and take him to Rindar to be slaughtered for the delicate palates of the gentles. That would only make the challenge more interesting.
Or she could disappear into the heights, lose herself in Hu’atha’s Curse, remain a unicorn until Choa’tl closed Her Eye forever.
Being a mystical beast was all very well, but she hadn’t trained as a wizard to spend eternity star-gazing. Besides, she owed Joss something.
Freeze my tits off, indeed!
Xiera tossed her head. Wings beat with slow, sure force her until her hooves barely touched the gritty earth. Later, she promised herself, when her horn had fully regrown.
But not, she thought as she eyed the entwined couple, too much later.
This story originally appeared in Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Worlds, ed. Marion Zimmer Bradley..