by Takiguchi Aiko (滝口アイコ)
The unicorn man came to the village when Eric was seven. The unicorn man had been coming to Eric’s village long before then – longer than the basilisk man or the pixie man or even the phoenix man – and according to his aunt visited the year Eric was born, but of course he had been too young to remember.
The village used the excuse of the unicorn man to hold a makeshift carnival, colorful streamers hanging off the roofs of the cottages and stables. Goody Shepherd would make her famous lentil stew and apple tarts (when the other magic men visited they celebrated with lamb pie, but no one wanted meat on their breath in the presence of the unicorn) and the men would come home midday from the fields to line up to see the unicorn along with the gathered women, and
children, lame and simple.
At seven, Eric had heard stories of other children who cried when they saw the unicorn and its great cloven hooves, who ran and hid behind their mother’s skirt or even out of the tent. He was determined to be braver than that but otherwise had little interest. The mermaid man had visited earlier in the spring and been a disappointment. The mermaid ,a listless thing with lanky hair, floated aimlessly in the tank. Eric had learned to tune his expectations according to prior disappointment. His aunt though stood patiently with him before the unicorn man’s patchwork tent on the outskirts of town and let Eric hold her hand the two hours it took for Eric to have his turn. He entered the tent, let the flap close behind him.
The tent was lit with gaslight, the first lamps Eric had ever seen. The unicorn stood in a box
stall, the smell of it overpowering the sweet smell of straw. It was rooting through its hay, picking particularly green shoots and chewing them slowly and with a sophisticated disdain. It looked at Eric with blue eyes and went back to its feed. It was larger than any horse Eric had ever seen by at least a hand but built slender like a stag.
“Touch him if you’d like,” the unicorn man said. He was lounging in the corner, startled Eric by speaking. Most of the magic men dressed like minstrels but the unicorn man wore clothes that had been fine once and neatly mended since, all in browns and greys though, like any peasant. “Five extra pence though and you can only pat him on the neck.”
For once, Eric was willing to risk his aunt’s anger at the wasted money. He dropped the five pence, hot and damp from his palm, in the box. He rested his hand on the crest of the unicorn’s neck, curling his fingers into its mane. The unicorn made a small noise through its nostrils, blowing its breath over Eric’s face.
“Well,” the unicorn man said, startling Eric. “He’s usually more jaded than that, that one. What’s your name, boy?”
The unicorn man stood up, a languid motion. His eyes were blue too, but amused. “Do I look like a sir to you, boy?”
Eric had been brought up to mind his elders and so shrugged helplessly. The unicorn man looked unlike anyone Eric had ever met. Tired in a different way than the men of the village. Weary where they were exhausted.
The unicorn man smiled, just a quirk of his mouth. “Well, Eric, was it? Look at this. He hates children normally, but he’s interested in you.”
“How do you know?” Eric asked. All the unicorn had done was stand still.
“Ask me when I visit again,” the unicorn man said. “You might be old enough then.”
“When are you coming back?” Eric asked.
The unicorn man just shook his head. “It’s not up to me.”
Eric, who was not an imaginative child, had dreams that night of running through a field, the wind at his back.
At fifteen, Eric was trading kisses with Sally Flemming behind her father’s barn and the unicorn man came back. When Peter the sheep boy told him he had seen the unicorn tent one village over it jogged a memory for Eric. The nagging sensation he felt petting Sally’s hair was the reminder of the unicorn’s coat, which had been ever so slightly softer.
Eric came back from the fields precisely third to last of the men, not daring to rush. He kept himself to himself. He could feel the sunburn forming on his back in the hours he waited for the rest to trickle away to the tent.
He paid for the visit out of his own wages this time. He was taller than the unicorn man, which seemed odd considering how large he loomed in Eric’s mind when Eric constructed the story of himself. But Eric could tell even with the unicorn man sitting down. The unicorn man was built fine-boned with tapered hands. Eric would only realize later that the man looked no older than when Eric was seven. His features were put together a little too clumsily to be truly handsome – too much of a nose, not enough of a chin – but there was something compelling about him. Eric, whose shoulders were too large for him and whose adam’s apple stuck out like boulder, stood in the doorway shyly.
The unicorn man did not look up from scratching figures on a clay tablet. It was odd to think the unicorn man would concern himself with something as quintessentially material as money.
“Five pence to touch.”
“I remember,” Eric said. “But only on the neck.”
The unicorn man looked up. “You’re familiar.” He said it flatly, a statement of fact.
“I’m Eric,” Eric said, tongue fat and stupid in his mouth.
The unicorn man didn’t appear particularly impressed but he tapped the side of his face with his piece of chalk. “Free of charge then.”
Eric was somewhat shaky, approaching the unicorn. It was staring at him in a shifty, equine way, forced to look sly. Horses, due to the position of their eyes, looked at you sideways in order to see you directly. It was whiter than sheep, whiter than clouds, its mane glittering silver when it caught the light. Eric stroked its nose gingerly. The unicorn flickered its ears forward and back and then perked them at attention.
“Does it like apples?” Eric asked.
“He,” the unicorn man corrected. “And he likes them as much as anything, I suppose. He’ll enjoy having a gift from you though.”
Eric, the quiet sort, didn’t ask for clarification and simply held out a small green apple he had wrapped in a kerchief that morning. The unicorn sniffed it, nostrils flaring, before crunching it down. The juice ran over Eric’s hand.
“He’s very pretty,” Eric said softly.
The unicorn man said, “Have you ever thought why God would make a creature lovely?”
Eric frowned. He wasn’t sure he understood the question. The unicorn man didn’t seem to mind either way, talking to himself. “Talk to a holy man, he’ll say there is beauty in nature or magic in order to glorify His good name. But it serves the animal as well.”
“Anything would want to be beautiful.”
“Especially a predator,” the unicorn man said. “Being beautiful puts prey off its guard.”
Eric frowned at the unicorn, who was licking the salt off his palm. Its teeth were as flat as any grazing animal’s.
“Do you have plans tonight? Any barns to raise, country dances?” the unicorn man said it with a sneer.
“No,” said Eric, who seldom if ever did. When his aunt passed, he had the house to himself and preferred the quiet of it.
“Meet me tonight,” the unicorn man said. “There’s a willow by your river. Meet me there.”
“Because you want to ride him,” the unicorn man said. “Its been your heart’s desire since you were a small boy, hasn’t it? You’ve never saddled as much as a donkey, but you dream almost every night about riding the unicorn, parting the autumn air in your wake. Don’t you?”
Ashamed, not meeting either of their eyes, Eric nodded.
The unicorn man held out his hand. “I’m Bren,” he said. “We’ll be seeing much of each other.”
So Eric was fifteen when he rode the unicorn for the first time. It was also the age when he stopped kissing Sally Flemming or any other girl.
Bren the unicorn man and his charge were waiting for Eric when he came down to the river, the harvest moon swollen and orange above them. The unicorn was restless, pawing at the grass, but unbridled. Bren held himself compact and still.
Eric approached awkwardly, wiping his hands on his trousers. Bren looked up, then flinched when the unicorn bumped him with his horn. “Evening.”
“He’s not saddled,” Eric said.
“You might as well kill him to saddle him,” said Bren. “You don’t tame magic. Let’s not waste time then.” He knelt down and cupped his hands together. “Step here.”
Eric, who had not touched another man in years, put his foot in Bren’s hands and allowed himself to be boosted onto the unicorn’s back. He swung his legs clumsily over the side, kicking harder than he had intended to. The unicorn shook his head as if irritated by a fly. “Sorry,” Erik said.
Bren laughed, a dark brown sound. “He’ll survive. Hold onto his mane. They have no feeling there. Don’t try to steer or urge him on though. He’ll know wherever he wants to go. Remember, you’re a passenger. This is an honor.”
Eric had enough time to nod before the unicorn went from standing to a full gallop. Eric clang more to its neck than its mane, but he found his seat eventually, squeezing tight with his knees and heels. The unicorn had an easy, even stride.
It wasn’t that the unicorn’s gait felt fast. It was that the rest of the world suddenly became slow, the half shadows of the night drab and uninteresting compared to the power beneath him. Eric looked up at the moon and grinned from the joy of it.
The unicorn took him down a secret path in the Dark Woods, stopped to drink at a stream before running again. Its stride was always gentle and unchanging no matter the terrain, the incline or decline of the ground. Eric caught smells you smell in the night. Earth freshly turned up by worms. The dew.
The sky was turning a light purple by the time the unicorn returned them to Bren. Bren was sitting under the willow tree, humming a nameless tune. His hair was wet, as if he had used the time to wash. “Everything you wanted it to be?”
Eric, breathless, nodded.
“Give me your hand then,” Bren said. Eric hesitated, then did so, allowing Bren to help him off the unicorn. They stood close as Eric steadied himself on solid ground. Bren smelled of the unicorn and clean skin.
“Thank you,” Eric said, still panting.
“Don’t thank me,” Bren said. “We haven’t discussed payment yet.”
Eric sputtered. “You said in the tent-”
“I don’t mean money,” Bren said, and kissed him. Eric froze for a long moment before allowing himself to respond to the slow movement of Bren’s mouth, clutching at his sides. The kiss tasted like morning. Eric could feel the heat of the run radiating from the unicorn’s flank.
The kiss lasted, it seemed, almost as long as the ride. When they parted, Eric rested his forehead against Bran’s. His voice was hoarse when he said, “Are we even now?”
Bren drew back, eyes hooded, a twist Eric couldn’t identify to his mouth. “Oh, my boy. You haven’t even begun your payment.”
When the unicorn man came back when Eric was twenty, he was living in a cabin
outside the village and only heard of his arrival on his weekly visit to the market. He waited until night, when the crowds had left the tentground and Bren was securing the poles for the night.
He looked up when Eric came close. “Good evening.”
Eric struck him in the face.
Bren reeled back but made no move to retaliate, working his jaw. “You’ve been waiting, I see.”
“What did you do to me?” Eric said.
Bren’s eyes were blue and clear and genuinely sorrowful. “I didn’t do anything. I fought against it, actually. We both took a shine to you. He won though, as always.”
“What is it?” Eric said. “How do I cure it?”
“There’s no cure,” Bren said. “He marked you. Every moment you’re away from him there’ll be that itch beneath you skin, that need to be close, that clawing at your insides. There’s no cure. But there is relief.”
“Your payment,” said Bren. “Overdue by now. Take my place.”
Eric turned to leave but stopped with a shudder.
“It’s not all bad,” Bren said. “There are rewards. You’ll stay young for as long as you remain in his services.”
“How is an eternity of this a reward?” Eric said.
“Because you were born alone and spent a lifetime alone,” Bren said, as one who knew. Of course he knew. “You’re unwanted by everyone and everything except him and he will always be yours and you will always be his, as long as you remain true to him and his demands. He needs a familiar and you need him as a companion.”
“This is sorcery,” Eric said.
Bren looked unimpressed. “Of course it is.”
“What if I refuse?”
“I welcome you to try,” Bren said. Then, after a pause, “I have served our master for a long time. Kingdoms have come and gone since I’ve been in his service. You’re strong. Strong enough for this. Please. Relieve me.”
In the years since they last met, Eric had ample time to wonder if Bren had been a lord’s son before the unicorn, if he had been married, raised a child or two. If he had mundane life or an exotic one before being shackled. Bren stared at him with naked desperation but more than that, Eric could feel the unicorn within the tent as if tethered to him, felt the beast’s patient certainty. Maybe it was such an ethereal thing it couldn’t understand the weight of the yoke.
The color was high in Bren’s cheeks and he looked young, suddenly, in his anxiety. Eric grabbed him by the back of the neck and hauled him into a kiss. He had wondered other things about Bren in the time since Eric rode the unicorn, ignorant of the rite and happy.
Their rutting was quick, frantic, Eric pinning Bren to a tree with his superior weight. He shucked his trousers down to the knee but made Bren undress, an act Bren did not make particularly seductive. He was elegant all the same, pale skin gone dove grey in the last of the light. Eric kissed his neck, sucked until Bren made a noise mostly of pain.
Bren pushed him back half an arm’s length, panting, feeling the length and weight of Eric’s prick in his hand. Then he dropped to his knees. Eric made his own sound, a confused one, before Bren took his prick into his mouth and then Eric made another noise entirely.
It was confusing at first. He had not known people could come together this way. Bren’s cheeks were bulging and it felt like he was drawing something from deep within Eric, a small, strong tug from the depth of his stomach. Eric rocked into the touch mindlessly, smoothing over Bren’s hair.
And through it all he could still feel the unicorn, neither approving or disapproving. Older than Eric could reckon time and operating through laws that, still fully human, Eric didn’t yet understand. This may not be the standard ritual, but it understood the changing of the guard. Eric thought he could see its horn through a threadbare section of the tent cloth, the glitter of it.
“What will you do?” Eric asked Bren when he was done. His voice sounded like a stranger’s. He was becoming a stranger.
Bren looked quizzical as he wiped his mouth, then laughed. “I’ll die.” At Eric’s look of alarm, he laughed again. “Not today, I hope. But what else is there to do? I’ll build what life I can for myself and then I’ll die of it, like most everyone.”
The unicorn had left its tent and stood next to Bren, head and horn raised high. It nuzzled Bren, for all the world a simple gesture of affection. Bren stroked its flank, his expression more complex.
“I do regret it had to be you,” were Bren’s last words to Eric, as he set off into the night and the unicorn moved to Eric’s side.
The unicorn man came to Henry’s village when he was seven. According to his grandmother, he had come the year of Henry’s birth but of course Henry had been too young to remember.