From the author: After mute Rosalind’s family dies, she’s mistakenly branded as a simpleton and taken in as a charity case by the horse breeder John. When a cruel stranger comes in the night to covertly board an extraordinary beast at John’s stable, Rosalind recognizes that the beast is no simpleton, either, and must find a way to give him a voice before he is caged forever.
The man called Marsh peered down at me and screwed up his face. He'd chosen to despise me already. "And who is this?"
Next to him, John Harrick slumped beneath the dim starlight. He sighed. "Don't mind her, Mr. Marsh. She's just a stray idiot I've taken in out of charity. She likes to watch the road at night sometimes, for her amusement, I suppose. But she'll tell no tales; her mind and tongue aren't clever enough."
Marsh's expression did not change. "I see."
I did not arise from my roadside rock, but leaned over some upon my good arm to peer at the wonder behind Marsh's scowling face. An entourage of four men stood in the deserted midnight road, loosely flanking a four-legged monstrosity. The beast was massive and black, but docile, for they led it by a single rope. I could not tell what manner of animal it was, because I could not see its head—they had swathed it in sackcloth, every inch.
"She's harmless, Mr. Marsh," said John.
Marsh slid John a poisonous look. "Honest men are even rarer than my creature, so to be frank, I have little reason to believe you. Still—" Marsh's mouth twisted. "At this hour, I have no choice. But if anything happens to my animal while you board it here, Harrick, I will prosecute you to your last halfpenny. This thing is worth more than your entire estate. Do you understand?"
"I assure you, sir, she'll repeat nothing."
Marsh stared into my eyes. I decided to despise him back, but I masked this with my best and slowest smile.
"See?" said John. "Now step this way, if you please."
As they passed, I got a closer look at the beast. It almost looked like a horse, but the shape was overlarge and somehow wrong. And somehow... familiar?
Something fluttered in my breast. I dared not hope, but what if—I eased myself up with my good hand and followed them. But, slow as I am, by the time I made it near the commercial barn's main entrance, John and his guests had gone through and closed it, along with the adjacent people-door.
Toby, the night watchman of Harrick's Stables, saw me coming and moved to intercept me. "Out for a stroll, are we?"
"Uh," I said.
Toby took my bad arm, which was already crooked, and guided me gently to the bench by the door. "You won't want to visit the horsies tonight, love. Old Toby isn't even allowed in right now."
I would've said, 'That's no horse,' but I knew that attempting coherent speech was useless. They only understood me if I made simple noises, like a beast. "Ih," I said.
"Sorry, love, but thems Harrick's orders. Seems a rich, traveling gentlemen is settling a contrary stud at the far end." Toby patted my hand. "But you can visit with me for a bit."
There was no helping it. I had to wait a quarter hour, until John and his guests emerged from the barn's side door. "It's all settled, Toby," John said, upon his exit. "I don't think you'll have any trouble."
"Very good, Mr. Harrick."
John cleared his throat. "Now listen. That horse is very excitable. And you saw the size of him—someone could easily get hurt—so only myself or Mr. Marsh is allowed at that end of the stable for the time being. You understand?""
"Yes, Mr. Harrick."
"All right, then. Goodnight."
John led his guests back across the yard and road. Toby stood. "Well, that's that, then. Go on now."
Instead of leaving, I reached into my big pocket and pulled out my Talking Book. "Ih," I said.
"What's that, love? You want something?"
My good hand shook. When John first found me on the road near Ashton and took me in 3 years ago, it had taken his household weeks to realize that the Talking Book was a tool and not an amusement. How frustrating that had been—when poor, sweet Kate had first painted its plates for me when I was young, she'd said, "If something ever happens to me and Mama and Papa, you can communicate basic needs with this, and they'll know you are no simpleton." Foolish me, for believing her.
Toby squinted at the book. "I can't see what you're after in this light. Come inside a moment." He took my bad arm and led me into the barn through the side door, and to a small table, where a pair of candles burned. Toby took the Talking Book from me and flipped through the plates, tipping them to catch the candlelight. He pointed at a picture of bread. "You hungry?"
A picture of a well. "Thirsty?"
A picture of a bed. "Ahh, you must be sleepy."
"Eee," I lied, because lies are often more expedient.
"You want to sleep near Old Toby tonight?" Toby returned my book and guided me into one of the chairs about the table. He settled in the other, folding his arms and closing his eyes. "That's fine, love. I'll just be resting my eyes for a bit. You go on and sleep."
I waited. In one minute, Toby was snoring.
"Pfft," I said to myself, and stood.
I immediately went to the far end of the stables. I am not good at moving silently, though, and many horses raised their heads and stared at my awkward progress.
A thump came from the far end.
My heart began to pound. A tremor moved through my bad leg; not strong enough to stop me, but enough to slow me down. My feet dragged over the unfinished earth, and I winced to think of Toby possibly awakening from the noise.
I turned a corner to the right, another corner to the left. I stood between the final pair of stalls. Empty?
A monstrous head arose.
I jumped. Of course, the action made me fall, and I bit back a cry. But the misshapen head, still covered in sackcloth, only nodded at me, as if trying to smell me through the burlap.
I rolled to my good side and got to my feet. This took a long time and many false starts, and when I was done, I was quite exhausted. I leaned against the stall for some rest. "Ahh," I said softly, to let the beast know I was there.
It bobbed its head.
Time to solve this mystery. "Ahh," I said again, and reached for the covering burlap. My hand began to shake. By the time I made contact, my fingers trembled violently; I felt my face twist and contort, which is its wont when I am concentrating. I closed my fist over the sackcloth and began to lift.
The creature cooperated beautifully, ducking his head and pulling back. Together we removed his mask.
I learned why he had seemed familiar.
He had the fine face of a Percheron horse, proud and wide, with eyes that revealed a fierce and expressive intelligence. His head and neck were as black as the rest of him, save for a single white star in the center of his forehead, which encircled the reason they had kept him under sackcloth.
This was a unicorn.
Our eyes met. I saw both horror and recognition there, as if he too were looking at something tragic and strange.
My good hand trembled and dropped the sackcloth. True, I had felt a burst of irrational hope at the outset, but even so—how could this be? Unicorns were not treated like beasts. Unicorns were beauty and glory unbridled. They came at night, from some unknown paradise beyond our own, where the sky was taller and the sun gave off more than light. Their arrival was heralded by that sound I never heard anymore—a sweet song, strangely familiar but never the same way twice. The air would part like a curtain, and they'd come charging through by the dozen, or some nights, by the hundreds, like enormous flocks of swans.
They ran and reveled in their colossal size, their speed, their total silence; I marveled at the quicksilver color of their coats, and the way the grass beneath their hooves turned thick and lush with their passage. They ran to places unknown, and at dawn, they came running back. A single unicorn would lead them, and stop to sing. The gate would flower open, and he and his fellows would return back to their unknown paradise.
Not stand abandoned in a dark stall, like this poor soul.
My wobbling fingers connected with his nose, gently. I tried my best to stroke and make gentling noises. I had dreamed and prayed and even begged to see a unicorn again, but oh, not like this. It was supposed to be sweet. I was supposed to finally hear that song some night and call out with my mind, Can anybody hear me? My name is Rosalind. I lived on a farm at the edge of the Oaknot Woods. You and your fellows would come into this world, every night, in my own backyard, and I would watch you from the backdoor stoop when I could not sleep. And we'd have conversations with our thoughts. Remember?
And they would. A unicorn would approach me from the darkness, and I'd have someone to talk with again...
The bewildered one before me nudged my hand. You poor, poor thing, I thought. What are you doing here?
He did not answer.
It's all right, I thought. You can tell me. I am a friend.
I stilled my fingers atop his nose. His eyes darted to my grimacing face, and his nostrils flared. I could see it in his eyes—he had awareness. Why wasn't he answering me?
Are you afraid? I thought. Did that awful Mr. Marsh tell you to play dumb, if anyone removed the sackcloth?
Please, friend. Please answer me. You must look at me and know that my imperfect body cannot handle human speech. Even if you think I am an enemy, at least acknowledge that you can hear me. Nobody hears me. Please.
The unicorn would not respond. I kept coaxing, nearly begging. I tried for many minutes. And when I finally understood, my eyes filled with tears.
You're not a full unicorn, are you?
You can't talk.
I thought of Marsh and shuddered. A half unicorn. No unicorn stallion would be so depraved as to mate with an unwitting horse. Marsh must have somehow captured a unicorn mare, and chained her while—
I fought a wave of nausea. The worst monsters on this earth are people.
The unicorn must have noticed my sorrow, for he dipped his head and lapped my cheek with a dexterous unicorn tongue. He left his head low and next to mine. I moved my trembling fingers over his lips. His nibbles in response were gentle and skilled, as fine as any unicorn's, but his thoughts remained sterile and silent. What profound horror, to be unable to speak at all. At least dear Kate had given me a Talking Book.
That got me thinking.
I pressed my face against his. Yes—you need a Talking Book.
Your tongue and lips are healthy. You could hold a paint brush in your mouth and make a few essential pictures, and they'd know you are no animal. I thought of my own half-ineffectual Talking Book and smirked. Or at least, they'd know you are a clever animal. But we must start somewhere, no?
Don't worry. I will help.
I kissed his nose. "Ahh," I said, and backed away.
He anxiously stepped toward me, but the stall bumped against his hooves. Misery clouded his face. I wished I could explain myself, but I couldn't.
There was no way I could locate a brush and paint at this hour, so I returned to John's house to rest and make my plans. I sat upon a stool in the corner of the empty kitchen, gazing at the glowing coals in the hearth and scheming. I didn't necessarily need brush and paint, just something that could leave a mark. Why, I could use slate and chalk, the sort that John's boys used. In fact, the boys were seeing Mr. Scribner tomorrow morning for their daily lesson in letters. If I could grab one of their slates before they left...
My good side trembled in excitement. Once the unicorn had proved his cognizance, they'd set him free, and perhaps he'd bring news of me to the others. Would Ionytus learn of me? My favorite stallion, always full of joy, his voice like a church bell in my mind?
Did Ionytus even miss me?
My wonderings turned to imaginings, which turned to flights of fancy. Before I knew it, I was dreaming, and asleep.
I heard a clatter.
Thin light streamed in from the windows. Sally, the maid, was building up the fire. In the sleeping rooms behind me, floorboards squealed as the boys went about their business.
I cast a wild look around. There on the table lay the slates and chalk, all readied, but Sally noticed me and grinned. "Morning, lovie. I'll have some nice breakfast for you in a bit. Hey hey, why so upset?"
"Ahhhhh!" I lunged toward the table, almost banging my knee against it, and planted my feet by the abandoned slates.
I tried to pocket some chalk, but the task was too difficult. My panicked fingers shook; pieces of chalk rattled across the wood and rained to the floor. By sheer luck a piece fell into my big pocket. I scooped up a slate and went for the door.
Sally intercepted me. "Lovie," she said gently, taking my crooked arm. "Come now, that don't belong to you. Give it back."
Words clotted in my throat. "Naaaa!"
"Come on, lovie." She set a hand upon my slate. Well! My bad arm is locked in place and has the strength of a horse. I shoved the edge of the slate beneath it and between the trap of my left fingers and palm; try to take it from me now, will you!
"Ih oh unnuh-ahh!" You don't understand!
Marcus entered the kitchen. His eyes lit up when he saw us grappling, and he began to laugh. "Sally! You're losing to the cripple!"
"Mind your tongue, boy!" The maid tugged fiercely; I cried out and twisted away. "It's your slate she's got!"
Marcus grinned. "I don't care at all. This is worth the loss." He raised his voice. "Samuel! Come to the kitchen; you'll never laugh so hard!"
Samuel ran in. They laughed and cheered me on, but did nothing to assist; as always, my desperation was a game to them. The maid grew breathless and cursed me roundly, denouncing me as a worthless wretch not worth the bother, and she finally let go. The boys applauded my victory. I limped out the back door, humiliated but bearing my prize.
At the stables, Toby was still dozing by the door, but John would come to relieve him any minute. I hurried to the far end.
The unmasked unicorn was awake, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. "Ahh," I said, in greeting. "Ahh." I stopped by his stall, leaning against it, getting my breath back.
He nuzzled my face, anxiously.
After a moment, I worked the slate free of my bad arm and held it out to him. "Ih." I tried to gesture with it, in offering. "Ih."
He looked at me uncertainly, and I gestured again, nearly pushing it against his chest. The puzzled unicorn took the slate with his teeth.
"Eee," I said. I reached into my big pocket, fumbling past my Talking Book, letting my jerking fingers seek out the chalk. I tried to grab a hold of it, but it was too difficult. I looked up at the unicorn, and back into my pocket.
I heard a clack. When I looked up, I saw the slate lying on the thick railing at the edge of his stall, and his great face easing toward me. Carefully, so as not to hit me with his horn, he dipped his mouth toward my pocket.
I clenched the fabric of my dress and raised it up, bringing the pocket within his reach. He nosed inside, eyes lighting up with understanding. He pulled his face out, chalk between his lips, and cast me an eager, knowing glance. He dipped his mouth to the slate.
The unicorn made a series of marks, smooth and looping, finer than any scribe could emulate. He showed it to me and pricked his ears. But all I could do was shake my head. I do not know my letters. Who would ever bother to teach me?
The unicorn whickered in annoyance. He rubbed his velvety nose over the slate, brushing it clean, and tried again. This time, he drew a simple pictogram of a unicorn, and a pictogram of a human. The human, with its twisted left limbs, was clearly meant to be me. Between them, he drew a heart, and tapped the picture with the chalk before looking at me expectantly.
He was asking me a question: Are we friends?
I grinned. We were friends before we met. "Eee," I said.
He drew a smiling face, in reply.
I laughed. The means was clumsy, and via slate, but I had someone to talk to!
Then the unicorn rubbed the slate clean and drew another picture, this one more detailed. On one side he drew a unicorn head, colored in with chalk to be white. Its mouth was open. On other side of the slate he drew a house, and in between, he put a swirling cloud of white.
Next, he drew a circle around the unicorn's throat. He drew a line from this, through the cloud, and ended it at the house. He capped the line with an arrowhead. It may have been a riddle to some, but to me, the meaning was obvious: unicorn song takes me home. "Eee!" I said.
The unicorn looked skeptical at my professed understanding. "Eee," I insisted, and to prove I understood, I started singing.
The sound was awful, I'll admit, but still recognizable as song. His eyes widened and he whinnied back. It sounded like "Eee."
I laughed again. "Eee!"
"Eee." The unicorn erased the slate and drew a new picture, similar to the last one. But in this picture, the unicorn head was left uncolored, leaving it as black as his own. And on top of the circle over the unicorn's throat, he drew an X.
He looked at me. He drew X's over the cloud and house, then erased them both, leaving nothing but the lonely unicorn with a silenced throat.
I reached out to touch his neck. I sang a few bars, and said, "Naa." You can't sing.
He whinnied, "Eee." Yes.
And therefore, you can't go home.
Of course. If he couldn't talk, how could he sing? Proving his cognizance to his captors, and thereby gaining his freedom, would still not be enough to bring him home.
"Hmm," I said.
He shifted his weight uncertainly.
How in God's name could I open a gate for him with a unicorn song I could not sing?
He erased the slate and drew a larger black unicorn head. Inside of this, he drew a bubble, representing his mind or thoughts. In this he drew a second unicorn head, also black, with its mouth open and a circle around his throat.
I didn't understand. Did he dream about being able to sing? Did he know another half-unicorn like himself who could do it? Or was he remembering a time when he had once been able to? "Ih," I said.
I turned. John and Marsh stood nearby, staring at me and the unmasked unicorn in horror.
"Damn you, Harrick!" Marsh roared. "She's revealed it!"
John lunged toward me, fury in his eyes; I threw up my arm to stop him and tried to shrink away. I misstepped and fell against the stall, knocking the slate backwards and into the enclosure. The unicorn danced in panic, and beneath his massive hooves, the proof of his sentience shattered.
"Bad girl!" John shouted. He slapped me across the mouth. I cried out and fell to the floor. "Bad, bad, bad girl!"
"You incompetent son of a cock!" said Marsh. "You haven't kept your stables locked? How many of your customers have snuck in here and seen? Every superstitious peasant within miles is going to descend upon this barn!"
John glowered down at me. "My sincerest apologies, Mr. Marsh." He gripped my bad arm. "Get up."
I'm ashamed to say I cried. Behind me, the unicorn squealed and tried to rear, but the ceilings were not high enough for his horn. "Placating nonsense," shouted Marsh, above the unicorn's panic. "I demand from here on out that you lock your stables."
"She's just an idiot, I tell you!"
"As is your incompetent Toby, for letting her wander down this way!"
"I'll deal with him, rest assured." John dragged me out of the stables and all the way to the house without another comment, his expression grim and determined. He finally sat me down at the kitchen table, his brows twisting into an unhappy knot.
"What am I to do with you?"
I tried to still my sobs, but my whole face was dancing out of control.
John came round to where I was sitting and pulled out my Talking Book. He laid it upon the table in front of me, and flipped to the picture of bread. He tapped it with a calloused finger. "Did anyone remember to feed you this morning?"
This only fueled my rage. Why can you not understand? my heart cried out. Why can none of you understand?
John tapped the picture again. "Did they?"
"Naa," I said, though it was completely beside the point.
"You don't want food?" asked John. "Or you do want food?"
I was too sickened by him to respond.
John made up his own mind and gathered some leftovers from breakfast. He then sat down with a plate of bread and sausage, and raised a bit of bread to my lips. "Eh?"
I dully took it.
"There you are," said John kindly. "You'll be far more tractable when you've some food in your stomach. After this, we'll take you out to call on Nature, and then we'll lay you down on your rags for a nice nap. That'll keep you out of trouble."
I did not resist. All my exertions of late had exhausted me. Sometimes consciousness is too great a burden.
I napped deeply. When I awoke, John's wife Myrtle was taking her market basket from its hook on the wall. She saw me stir and smiled. "Well good morning, lazyhead." She waggled her basket at me, the way a master waggles a bone at a dog to entice it. "We're going to the market, you and I."
I rolled over and looked at her with suspicion. I love the market, but it was a rare day when they bothered to take me. I'm sure she was only offering because John had instructed her to keep me out of trouble. "Naa."
"Oh, come now." She knelt and helped me up. "We'll have fun. We can visit the hatter, and get you a nice straw hat, with a big blue ribbon."
"Or the fruit seller. She'll have some sweet cherries for us. Cherries? Do you know what cherries are?"
I hope you catch influenza, you insufferable twit. "Ih."
"I know. We can visit Jared the Trader. You know Jared. He has those foreign curiosities and instruments you like. Maybe he'll play some music on one of his queer little pipes."
"Ih." Music couldn't tempt me either. What I needed was to be back at the stable, where...
...a unicorn was trying to find a way to sing.
Myrtle waggled her basket again. "Yes? Some nice music?"
A puzzle piece clicked into place for me. That final pictogram on the slate—the unicorn had meant that he could hear the song in his mind, but merely lacked the means to bring it forth.
I could change that, though, with Jared's unwitting assistance.
I smiled. "Eee," I said to Myrtle.
Because I cannot walk that far, we took a cart to the market. By the time we got there and hitched our conveyance on Load Street, the square was packed and bustling, and Myrtle insisted on taking hold of my elbow to keep me close.
We took our time. I enjoy the energy and change of scenery, but I do not enjoy it when Myrtle greets friends and acquaintances, who invariably heap their pity on me ("You're taking her out? How nice"—"Well good morning to you too, love"—"The poor dear"). But there's nothing to do but endure it.
After suffering through a lengthy circuit of Myrtle's friends, I was finally rewarded with a visit to the trader. Jared is a fat man with a jovial air, and as usual, he greeted us with a showman's smile. "Good morning, Mrs. Harrick. Or is it afternoon by now?"
I scanned his wares. I saw many things—glass beads, puzzle boxes, wooden bowls, ocarinas—but not the device I wanted that I knew he had. Where was it?
Myrtle released me and waved her hand. "Morning, afternoon; no matter."
"What can I do for you today?"
"Well in truth, I've just come round for her sake." Myrtle nodded at me.
"Taking her out for some air, are we?"
I glanced through Jared's wares again. The device I sought was the ideal instrument for a voiceless unicorn—a block of wood laid over with metal struts, perpendicular to which lay metal rods that could be plucked with the thumb (or unicorn tongue)—and an instrument long unwanted by anyone else, thanks to its uncommon queerness. I'd seen Jared demonstrate his "thumb piano" to anyone who'd watch, but he couldn't sell the thing to save his life. Why wasn't it here?
"She's been a handful this morning, and we're trying to pacify her," said Myrtle. "I don't suppose you could play us a tune?"
Jared touched his hat. "Anything, for the lovely Mrs. Harrick." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small flute. With a wink at me, he raised it to his lips, closed his eyes, and straightened up to play.
There! My thumb piano had been hidden behind Jared's sprawling bulk.
I exhaled in relief and glanced at Myrtle. I could pick up the instrument and indicate that I wanted it, but Myrtle would never buy it for me.
I'd have to steal it.
Carefully, I inched toward Jared and the thumb piano, as if I were idly wandering. My left side faced Myrtle, and my right hand rested casually by my prize. Jared still had his eyes closed, but Myrtle was watching me.
I pointed across the market. "Ih."
Myrtle turned to look. I dropped my hand to the table and swept it to me, sweeping the thumb piano into my big pocket.
The noise made Jared open his eyes. "Naa!" I yelled, and lurched away from the stall. "Naa, naa!"
"What is it?"
"Something's frightened her." Myrtle put an arm about my shoulders and shushed me. "She was pointing at something. Did you see what it was?"
"No. I was focused on the tune." Jared peered across the square. "A stray dog, perhaps?"
Myrtle rubbed my shoulders. "I think she's all right now. You just had a little scare, didn't you, dear?"
"Uh," I said.
"She's all right." Myrtle nodded at Jared. "My thanks for the song. And now that I think of it, do you have any glass beads in from Riverhead?"
Back at the house, I wasted no time. The instant Myrtle helped me down from the cart, I moved across the yard, away from our private barn to the boarding stables. And the instant I reached the side door, I yanked triumphantly on the handle.
But the door didn't budge.
I tried again. I tried a third time, and a fourth, rattling the door in its frame.
The block of wood barring the peephole slid back, and John's eyes peered out at me. "No."
I threw myself into the door. "Ahh!"
"No," John said, more firmly. "You're not coming in."
"Go away, damn you!"
I heard a chair drag over the packed earth floor. John glanced to his left, then stepped away. Another pair of eyes appeared, hardened with suspicion and malice. "I thought you took care of it," said Marsh.
"Well, I did. And she's come back. What would you have me do, chain the poor thing up in the cellar?"
"I would. But unfortunately, a man's personal affairs are his own." Marsh slammed the peephole closed, but his voice continued. "Now are you going to guard my horse until tomorrow, or aren't you?"
My heart squeezed in panic. They were leaving tomorrow?
"If I daresay so, sir, you are being unreasonable. The stables are now locked. The worst she or anybody else can do is mill about outside."
"Get her out of here."
"The stables are locked, sir." John spoke stiffly. "I have done all I can."
"I already had my meeting with the Royal Menagerie agent this morning, you know," said Marsh. "There's nothing preventing us from leaving for the palace tonight. And depriving you of the second half of the extremely large boarding fee I promised."
Silence from within.
"Now get her out of here."
The lock clicked. The door eased open, just wide enough for John to squeeze through and catch my arm. "Come on," he said.
"Look here," said John severely, as we walked. "I know you can't quite understand what I am saying, but I know you can read my tone. So you should be able to tell that I am very, VERY upset with you. Mr. Marsh is a rich and important customer, profoundly unpleasant though he may be, and I will not have you getting in the way of this opportunity for us. You are staying in the house. Understand?"
"No horsies until tomorrow." He reached for my Talking Book, to communicate I don't know what.
But I squirmed away. The thumb piano was still in there.
"Stop that!" John tightened his grip. I tried to swat away his other hand, but my swing was clumsy and wild, and he reached into my pocket.
His expression stilled. "What's this?"
My breath began to quicken. I tried to keep my expression blank and innocent.
He withdrew the thumb piano. "What on earth?"
I smiled through my fear. I reached for it, as if I had a right to own it. "Eee."
John frowned. "Did you get this at the market?"
I reached for it again. "Eee."
"Yes yes, I can see that you like it." John examined the instrument. "But why on earth would Myrtle give this to you? Jared's wares are always overpriced." He shook his head. "Silly woman. I'll have to have a word with her."
He towed me toward the house again, but would not give back the instrument. "Ih!"
"Ih!" Rosalind, keep your temper!
But I couldn't. He was going to ask Myrtle about it right now, and I would never get it back.
I began to fight him. I don't know why. I already knew exactly what would happen. He would drag me into the house, call for Myrtle, sit down with us, and ask about the instrument. Myrtle would be shocked and appalled; John would announce that he'd ride to Jared's house the next morning to return his property and apologize; and I'd get whipped with a belt and cast onto my rag bed, where I'd sob while the others tsk-tsked and wondered what had gotten into me today.
I wasn't surprised at all when that's how it unfolded.
My spirit faltered after this, and I spent the afternoon wallowing in misery. When night fell and the family gathered for dinner, I ate with little appetite, then lay quietly on my rag bed while they cleaned up and dispersed. I stared up in silence at the rough-hewn beams, wishing with all my power, like a fool, that Papa were here to help, and Mama were here to comfort.
But I only had myself, now.
As the household put itself to bed, my temper rose again. I thought of Ionytus, and wondered what I'd say to him if we ever met again: While we were apart, I met another unicorn. I'm sure you've never met him. He's imprisoned in the palace. And ever since then, I haven't dreamed of you—only that other unicorn's lonely, frightened face.
I despised myself. I wept awhile.
Finally, I dried my tears, struggled up from my bed, and crept as slowly as I could throughout the darkened halls.
Since John had not yet ridden to return Jared's property, that meant that the thumb piano must still be in this house.
I simply had to find it.
At first I feared that John had placed the thumb piano someplace high—the top of a cabinet, for example, or the highest shelf in a closet. Under the best of circumstances, I might be able to drag a chair or stool to a place of my desiring, but it is impossible for me to climb upon one. John knew this, and he has hidden things from me in high places before. However, tonight he must have wanted to keep the thumb piano within his sight, perhaps thinking that there was no way I could or would dare to take it under such an arrangement.
It was in his bedroom.
I saw it on his bedside table, plain and obvious in the diffuse light of the gibbous moon. The doorway into John's bedroom is on the left side, with the head of his bed against the left-hand wall, and the bedside table between them. The thumb piano was scarcely 5 feet away. It practically begged to be snatched.
I took a step inside.
Too late, I remembered that his bedroom floorboards squealed, and the wood protested loudly at my step. I tried to freeze. John rolled over beneath the bedclothes. I remained on the threshold, quivering, while he settled down with his closed eyes facing me.
This would never work.
Beneath Myrtle's scratchy snore, I listened to John's breathing, waiting for it to settle. Ten minutes feels like aeons, when you're attempting to stand still. When I thought it was safe, I took my single, creaking step backward.
John's breathing paused.
I waited. It settled again.
I withdrew down the hall, wincing at the sound of my steps. The family was accustomed enough to my passing walk and wouldn't be awoken by it, but I found myself wishing otherwise. Maybe if they saw how upset I was...
No, Rosalind. None of them care even half so much. Myrtle would only scold you for wandering, John might try and put you back to bed, and Marcus and Samuel would only laugh.
Marcus and Samuel.
Wait a moment.
I paused outside the boys' room, shoving my hand across my face to wipe away a film of anxious sweat, then walked inside. I bumped into their bunk. "Ih," I said, not caring which one I roused. "Ih, ih, ih."
Samuel, on top, awoke. He rolled over and squinted down at me. "Hey, ol' cripple-legs," he yawned. "What is it? Got to piss?"
"Whyn't you bother mum about it?"
"Ih, ih, ih!"
"Fine, augh, I'm coming." Samuel climbed from his bunk as Marcus wriggled to life beneath him.
"Cripple-legs. She's got to go out."
I led Samuel from the room. He turned toward the kitchen, but I turned the other way.
"No, dummy," he whispered. He took hold of my arm. "Back door's this way."
"Well what're you on about, then?"
I led Samuel further down the hall, pausing beside John's open bedroom door. I gestured at the instrument, beckoning from its place at the edge of the bedside table.
Samuel frowned at me.
I forced myself to grin like a fool.
The mischief caught hold in his eyes. I watched the scheming unfold across his features in the dim light, as he imagined what entertainments would ensue when his father found the instrument missing. How John would rave and dither. How he'd find me and probably beat me again. How Samuel and his brother would laugh uproariously at their father's impotent rage and my pathetic, predictable trouble.
Samuel returned my fool's grin. He winked at me.
Deftly, with the soundless grace of a stalking cat, Samuel eased into his parent's bedroom and navigated the maze of treacherous floorboards without prompting a single squeak. His hand dipped down to the bedside table. He lifted my coveted instrument. Samuel turned to me, set a finger against his smiling lips, and exited as soundlessly as he'd entered.
In the hallway, I maintained my foolish grin, following after him without speaking until we reached the kitchen.
"There you are," Samuel finally whispered, sliding the thumb piano into my big pocket. "Be sure you wave it about in Father's face, mind. He'll have kittens!" Samuel put a wrist to his mouth to stifle his laughter, and didn't wait for my reaction before retreating back down the hall.
If all went well, John would never see me waving it about, but I was certain he'd blame me for its loss and beat me anyway.
Well. So be it.
Prepared in both supplies and spirit, I finally left the house for Harrick's Stables across the yard. As soon as I had crossed the empty road, I saw that the stables' people-door was still closed, and surely still locked. But that was all right. I'd simply catch the party as they left, which by now, would probably be in just a few hours. I'd be sure to spy their exit if I sat on the bench by the main doors.
So that's what I did.
And as I waited, I slid my quaking hand into my pocket, and rested it on the unicorn's makeshift voice.
Somewhere, a bird began to sing. I listened. What I really wanted to hear was another song, strangely familiar but never the same way twice, but as always, I heard nothing. I closed my eyes and, with longing, thought of my Ionytus.
That was my mistake. Not thinking of Ionytus—but closing my eyes.
"The yard's all clear."
"Let me have a look."
I started. I was lying down on the bench, on my good side. Above me, dawn licked at the edges of the sky, dimming the stars. When had I fallen asleep?
Next to me, the people-sized door was open, and the last of Marsh's men stepped inside. I lay frozen, watching. The man shut the door behind him and I heard it latch. "There weren't anyone. It's fine."
I struggled to sit up. I moved to stand, ready to dive into the bushes for concealment, when I felt a lack. The Talking Book was hitting my right hip, but nothing else.
Where was the instrument?
"You didn't even look, you ass." Rattling from within. "Peter, hold the chain, and be ready to use it on that brute. I'll look round."
Under the bench. It must be. I bent into a kneel, my knees shaking like that unseen and ominous chain. I reached into the tufts of weeds, but my hand was quaking so—
The door opened and Marsh emerged. I looked up as he looked down, and his face turned hot with rage.
I threw myself under the bench. He stomped toward me, all the more terrible for his silence. My body began to spasm from the fear, and I flopped uselessly in the grass like a dying fish.
His hands closed over my ankles.
My fingers brushed steel and wood. I swept the instrument into my grasp, along with grass and mud, and curled over it as Marsh dragged me out into the cruel dawn.
"I am tired of you," he said calmly, and kicked.
I cried out. Within the barn, chain rattled.
"Nobody here seems willing to teach you your place. But I am."
Kick. I cried out again. Chain rattled threateningly in the barn, and a voice shouted, "Hsst! Be still now!" but I barely noticed it. The only things I knew were the brutal toes of his boots and his complete, merciless loathing.
"What are you for? Getting in my way? Nobody gets in my way." Kick. "Nobody."
I ran out of breath for cries. His cruel hands gripped my arms, good and bad, and hauled me upward onto legs that would not support me. I was forced to hang inside his iron claws. He shook me till my head rolled toward him.
Marsh spat in my face.
Chain rattled like hail. "Marsh! Get in here and control your horse! What in blazes are you doing?"
The fluid stank. My body throbbed in agony mixed with spasms, but still I clenched my fingers around the instrument.
Marsh let go a hand and slapped me.
I cried out again. Now cries rose from within, and behind us, the main doors banged like a cannon. Dust rose from the wood. "Marsh! Your horse—!"
And then he tried to take my instrument.
I screamed again. Except this time, I did not stop—scream after scream poured from my hysterical throat, because I was about to have nothing left. Nobody could hear me. My family was dead. The unicorns were gone. I would never be seen as anything more than a nuisance and an animal. And the last mirror of my own humanity was going to be crushed beneath enslavement and my own failure to speak on his behalf.
And Marsh was stronger than I was.
His fingers pried mine up and away, and for the first time, I saw him smile. "John Harrick can't help you now, you little parasite."
But someone else could.
The main doors burst apart and ripped clean off their hinges, throwing splintered wood into the dawn. The unicorn shot from the void, like a thunderhead conquering an open sky, a storm under his hooves and lightning in his eyes. He came straight to us, horn lowered and ready, but the mere sight of him unleashed was enough for Marsh. The foul man bolted across the yard.
I could never dodge in time, so I just held up the instrument, showing him the way home.
He understood. Without even slowing down, he snatched the offering up in his mouth as he passed. His sheer momentum knocked me over. I fell to the earth, gasping, as he soared over the fence and plunged into the shadows of the deep woods.
The trees swallowed him in seconds.
Marsh roared nearby, incoherent in his frenzy. The sounds of panicking horses served as a chorus in the stables behind him. Marsh's men ran out of the barn, shouting about saddling up and riding after him, and Marsh came over and struck one like a disobedient dog. They cowered and ran back inside. "You'll never find him—ever. He's gone!
"And John Harrick, you cockless, soulless, two-tongued, slime-eating Hell toad—"
I didn't hear the rest, because Marsh fell upon me. He hit all the places he had struck already and all the places I'd been whipped before that. But it was too late. I had already won.
My exhaustion and agony became too great to bear, and I soon fell into merciful blackness.
I am not certain of the days that followed. I know that people tended me, because I was gently touched and fed, but I also know that I had enemies. The house seethed with anger. Myrtle put salve on my bruises and changed my dress, but her face was as hard as Marsh's had been. When she was out of the room, her tone was clipped and cruel. "Now," she said.
"No," John replied, just as shortly. "Not until she can walk. Anything else is barbaric."
"This is barbaric. She's ruined us, and you'd have me—"
"Damn you, John—"
"I refuse to be a monster. Do you understand me?"
Myrtle's tone turned bitter. "All too well. It's your cussed generosity that got us here, after all."
"Shut your mouth, woman. Have you no mercy? I am in charge of this house and its affairs, and we will let her go when she is well enough."
In my pile of rags, I trembled.
Some acts, apparently, were unforgivable. Even those which come from nothing but an animal.
My health returned. I could barely walk twenty feet, but Myrtle insisted that I was ready, and she prepared a wagon late one afternoon. "I'll take her up north," John told his wife, "and leave her on the road outside of Smithton. Someone will take pity on her and pick her up."
John and I drove out alone. When he finally stopped, he stared through the trees at the sunset for a long while, saying nothing.
"Ih," I said.
John roused himself, then climbed down and opened the back of the wagon. "Come on, girl. Time to go."
I crawled toward him. He helped me out and set me down, minding a sore place on my ribcage. We looked at each other for a moment.
John's eyes were wet. "You know somehow, don't you?"
"Do you know I'm sorry, then? And how much I tried to do good by you?"
I wasn't sure how to answer. He hadn't tried exceptionally hard. But he had tried sometimes, which was more than I could say for most.
John wiped his eyes. "Don't be afraid. You've got spirit, girl, and I'm sure wherever you end up, you'll be just fine. Take care, huh?"
John stroked me on the head, as if bidding farewell to a pup, then climbed back into the driver's seat. He turned the wagon round, then tipped his hat to me as he drove past. I watched his cart disappear over a hill.
"Pfft," I said.
I stood there for a long moment, watching the darkness gather and listening to the nocturnal insects awaken. The only place I could reasonably go was Smithton, but even though the night was fine, I did not look forward to the walk. It would be a long one, and it would hurt.
In that case, shall I carry you?
The voice was like a church bell in my mind.
The branches at the roadside parted, and without a sound, a pair of shining unicorns stepped through. They approached me over the packed earth, their hooves making no noise, their footprints full of grass and tiny, star-shaped flowers. Five feet away, they stopped and watched me.
So suddenly? After all this time?
In disbelief, I raised a quaking hand to touch.
Branches snapped behind them. The two unicorns looked over their shoulders. Inelegantly, a black shape pushed out from the forest, his hooves clopping atop the road and leaving nothing but ordinary depressions. A leather assemblage hung around his shoulders, and in a holster on the upper part of his foreleg, where he could easily reach it with his dexterous lips and tongue, sat Jared's instrument.
When the unicorn came to me, he pressed his face to mine.
I didn't have to say a word.
This story originally appeared in Big Pulp.
KJ Kabza is back with a second round of fiction that’s “Incredible” (Tangent), “Fascinating” (SFRevu), and “Worthy of Edgar Allan Poe” (SFcrowsnest). Featuring his freshest work from top SF/fantasy venues of today, including F&SF, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and more, UNDER STARS showcases wonders from worlds both here and beyond. Included is all of KJ Kabza's work published from mid-2011 through 2013, plus 5 new pieces, exclusive story notes, and 69 dirty limericks with a speculative twist.
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