Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Short stories

A Boy with a Unicorn

A Boy with a Unicorn

 

 

By L L Watkin

 

 

 

Published by L. L. Watkin at Smashwords

 

Copyright 2015 L. L. Watkin

 

The girl in the mirror looked pale and nervous. Her long, muddy blonde hair was pulled up and back too tightly and fixed by heavy, jewel studded pins. There was a tiara in there somewhere but it was dull and lifeless in the dim dawn light. The tight brocade bodice of her ornate dress could not make her white bust womanly and the wide, sweeping skirts conspired to make her look short. In her hand she clutched desperately at a pretty bouquet of yellow roses. These, at least, were cheerful.

Mary bit her lip anxiously. How had it happened that her wedding dress was so hideous? Wasn’t she supposed to be the toast of the ball? It had taken her mother and sisters over an hour to strap her into it and it seemed so cruel that this was all their effort had achieved. She should have listened to them a month ago and fattened herself up.

The small dressing room’s little wooden door was pushed open and her mother stepped in. She surveyed her daughter and gave a beam of pride. “You look so grown up.” She clasped a fist to her mouth as if holding back tears, which seemed very silly to Mary, who didn’t feel very grown up at all. “Well, it’s time. Have you got everything?”

“Rachel has the veil. She thought it would blow too much in the wind.”

“That’s what veils are meant to do. No, we’ll fix it in here so all of the people can see it?” She called for her elder daughter with the voice of a sergeant major.

“The people?” Mary asked. Everyone except her family was supposed to already be on The Dasel.

“Exactly. Everyone wishing you well.”

“Oh.” Was this what it meant to marry the lord’s son? She closed her eyes to listen, but if anyone was waiting for her they were doing it quietly. What if they didn’t like her?

The veil was a long, trailing swathe of netting which came down to mid-chest at the front. Now the mirror could show nothing but the costume, and even that was hazy. She took a deep breath and then nodded that she was ready and stepped towards the door.

“Are you wearing your boots under there?” her mother asked in sudden suspicion, probably because Mary had just proved herself capable of walking.

“No.” Mary lied. No one was fooled. Rachel quickly found the proper shoes where Mary had tucked them behind a curtain. “Mother, I’ll fall over and no one will see anyway. The dress is on the ground.”

“Now. When you’re climbing in and out of carriages you’ll be lucky to show no more leg than your ankle. Take them off.”

Mary sighed. It was her first day of womanhood and already she despised it.

Her father was waiting in the porch. He too pretended that she was beautiful, although he had the grace to compliment Rachel as well. The grooms kept their eyes forward as she was helped into the carriage but she knew them well enough to think they were smirking on the inside. It took an age to settle her skirts and veil, and it was too windy to keep it under control. Finally the family were all ready and her father hit his cane off the roof to signal to depart.

As the crow flew it was not far to the pier, only a few hundred yards at most. However, Dilmos was built on steep slopes that the carriage could not go down and so their route crossed back and forth through the lower town for many minutes. It would have been quicker to walk down the steps, but her mother wouldn’t hear of it. They were commoners, but they weren’t that common, she said. Rachel had walked to her wedding, but then Rachel had married a spice-merchant. Girls marrying lords had to do it as the ladies did.

Someone must have stopped the rest of the traffic because they never had to stop to let someone come uphill. They would not have been able to pass as the narrow streets were lined on either side with townsfolk Mary had known all of her life. They were cheering her. She didn’t know whether to wave back or not. Would it seem arrogant? They might have done the same for any bride, anyone who could provide an heir and stop them from falling into the Duke’s hands.

“Are you scared, Mary?” Rachel leaned forward and took her hands. “There’s really no need to be.”

That was easy for her to say. No one was scared of her Graeme.

After an age they finally reached the docks and Mary was helped out as inelegantly as she had climbed in. There were cheers, and her veil was lifting enough they should be able to tell she was blushing. Some were even scattering flowers in her path as she let her father guide her down the steps and into the waiting rig. Two of the benches had been covered with blankets so her dress wouldn’t get wet and she sat squashed between Rachel and their mother with everything pulled up around her knees as they pushed off.

On the horizon the sky was grey but inside the bay the sea was calm. The great reefs around the entrance took the power out of the waves before they reached the embrace of the cliffs. The tide was receding, helping their journey out to the waiting ship. The great green sails were furled so the rigging made stark lines against the clouds, towering above her as the little boat drew alongside.

She longed to scramble up the nets, but of course the dress made that impossible. She would have spent the night aboard if her mother hadn’t decreed it unseemly. As it was she had to wait for the crew, all of whom seemed to be leering, to let down the seat and haul her up. Her mother complained at the indignity, which Mary thought was rather rich considering it was she who had insisted on it.

The congregation kept their faces resolutely forward until subtle signs from the priest indicated that the bridal party were ready and the wedding could begin. A sailor struck up an air on a set of bagpipes that could probably be heard across the bay and Mary let her father take her arm and lead her down the aisle.

At least the groom didn’t think they were making a mistake. He looked confident, even managing to smile slightly. Of course it was his second marriage. He was probably too old for nerves. His cousin standing beside him had a devilish grin, but that was just William. Always teasing. She tried to stifle her giggles and ignore him. This was a serious business.

The vows were not complicated, despite their life-changing effect. She managed to say her lines in a steady voice and breathed a sigh of relief as the ring slid onto her finger. Timothy (could she call him Timothy now?) gently lifted her veil for the ceremonial kiss. He was gentle but his beard tickled as it brushed her lips. It wasn’t entirely pleasant to have him press so close. She wasn’t sure she could get used to the sensation.

Then, of course, they turned to bow and curtsey to the congregation and the celebration could begin. She stayed by her husband’s side and let him guide her as a line of people she barely knew came to give their congratulations. They didn’t ask much of her – only that she smiled when they arrived and blushed when they alluded to babies. If that was as hard as being a lady got, then she had an easy life ahead of her. Someone pushed a glass of punch into her hand and she started blushing more furiously.

She could smell roasting meat coming from the forecastle and wondered if it was nearly time for the breakfast. Acting on her second thoughts she glanced back and then up at the sky. “The wind has turned.”

Timothy gave her a surprised look, which he had no cause to. It was their mutual love of the sea which had caused him to single her out as his bride, and he couldn’t have forgotten that already. “Yes.” he said. He looked round, orientating himself with the sweeping arms of the bay. “So has the tide. Wait here.”

Wait? Suddenly abandoned near the centre of the deck Mary rotated aimlessly, unsure what to do. The chattering groups around gave her pitying looks, but they had already greeted her and were not required to talk to her any more. She couldn’t see either of her parents or Rachel, and she worried it would be unseemly to foist herself on the guests, so she did as she was told and waited.

Her head was jerked backwards and she let out an ungraceful squawk as her hands flew to protect her veil. William let go with a laugh. “You look like a stuffed peacock.” he said. “He’s very pretty, but you wouldn’t want to be him.”

“Thanks for that.” she muttered.

“My pleasure, Lady Michaels.” He performed a good impersonation of a courtly bow, spoiled by his scuffed moccasin boots and impish grin. He was four years older than her, nearly twenty, but so childish she often expected to be able to look down her nose at him when in fact he was nearly a head the taller.

“Well, since we are family I suppose I ought to forgive you.” She sniffed disparagingly. “How did you get those boots past your mother?”

“I told her I’d change them when I was safe aboard. And then I hid until you arrived.”

“Now why didn’t I think of that? I’m getting blisters from these bloody slippers.”

“You only get married once.” He shrugged with no pity at all. “Maybe you can avoid the dancing.” He caught a glimpse of the shore and frowned. “The ship is pulling on its anchor.”

“I know. Lord Michaels said the tide had turned. I must have lost track of the time.”

“No, you haven’t.” The Dasel reached the end of her anchor chain and shuddered to a halt, jolting everyone. Those with weak sea-legs staggered, some even fell as the ship listed to port. “This might get exciting.”

“What do you mean?”

“Someone is playing with the weather.” he explained. “That isn’t a natural wind.” As he spoke her veil blew forward, wrapping around his legs like a shroud. “We should start sending people ashore.”

“Lord Michaels…”

“Is probably thinking the same thing.” He picked his uncle out from the crowd. “Yes, there go the orders. Ladies first, I should think.” It took Mary a moment to realise he meant her, she was so unused to considering herself a grown-up. She let him pull her into the shelter of the poop deck. “Wait here. I’ll go see what’s going on.”

“Wait!” She was not helpless, but the wind was causing such chaos to her dress and veil that he was gone before she managed to take a stride. Reluctantly she retreated to behind the stairs and busied herself ripping off her headdress and tying up the skirts as best she could.

A flash of lightning heralded rain, which came down hard and bounced back off the slick deck. The sky had turned so dark she couldn’t see anything except the single lantern held above the rope ladder to the boat. The sailor holding it aloft was made up of stretched white skin and shadows, the guests escaping below him even more ghostly. At least no one would forget her wedding, she thought. She wondered what Timothy had done to upset a wizard this much. Or maybe it was a jealous witch, not that Mary could imagine a witch being jealous of her. It was probably politics. She shook her head and tried to concentrate on things she could understand.

She had lost track of how long William had been gone. Everything was moving so fast and she counted time by thunderclaps, which could not be reasonable. She couldn’t wait forever if he wasn’t coming back. Steeling herself she stepped out into the wind.

Immediately she lost her footing and slid to the rail, hitting it with a thump that drove her breath away and might have broken her ribs if not for the stiff brocade of her bodice. She clung desperately until her fear subsided, then started making her way, hand over hand, towards to ladder. She slipped often, tripped over ropes more than once, and sometimes was pushed back more than she advanced, but she persevered. Why was no one helping? Where were they all?

In a flash of electricity she managed to get a clear view of the chaos across the deck. There were people still huddling wherever they could grasp, barrels, ropes and all the wedding furniture sliding here and there. She saw one man disappearing into the hold with a scream she could barely hear. The main mast was struck and caught fire despite the driving rain, the sails fluttered free and the ship canted, throwing Mary overboard.

She managed to catch her breath before she hit the freezing water and put all her strength into pushing upwards. The surface was hardly brighter than the depths and she felt panic rising at the thought she was swimming the wrong way. She kicked her legs again, and again, and finally broke through and took a massive gulp of air that was mostly rain, salt and smoke.

The weight of her skirts dragged her under again and she bent to pull off her slippers, thankful that she wasn’t wearing her boots after all. This time she managed to stay up for long enough to orientate herself. The current was pulling her out to sea, away from the ship. She couldn’t see the boat. She was too far away to catch hold of the netting against The Dasel’s hull. Desperately she tried to reach it, but she couldn’t fight the current. She let out a howl of protest as she sped past and the wake drove her under.

Something caught her hair and she struggled fiercely as she was dragged upwards. Her flailing hand connected with something and she grabbed it, throwing both arms around it only to find herself back underwater. In the relative calm she opened her eyes and saw, blurred by the brine, that it was a person. A stronger person. She let herself go limp and he got them both afloat.

She gasped and spluttered out the water she had swallowed. “Are you alright?” William shouted. She nodded and he slowly let her go. “Wait”. He dived below the surface and she felt the tug as he sliced through her wedding dress. Some of the weight fell away and she was able to kick properly. He popped back up behind her. “Better?”

“A lot, thank you.” She wondered how much he had seen down there, and how exposed she was. It shouldn’t matter anymore, but it did. She turned herself round slowly. The rain was clearing as quickly as it had arrived and they drifted out into strong sunshine. She spotted the white cliffs to one side. They had been carried out of the harbour into the open sea. The land looked so far away and her cold limbs were so tired that she doubted they would make it, but nevertheless she took a feeble stroke in that direction.

“Don’t strain yourself.” William warned. “Help is coming?”

She laughed at him. “From where?” The storm was still raging over Dilmos. There would be no boats searching for them yet, and they wouldn’t last long enough in the water.

“Over there.” He nodded towards the town and she followed his direction.

For a moment she couldn’t see anything, then she made out a speck of white larger than the breaking waves. It wasn’t a boat, or even a raft. After several seconds of peering it drew close enough for her to make it out. “Is that your horse?”

“Neyleia, yes.”

“Your horse is swimming out to help us?”

“Don’t mock. She’s a much stronger swimmer than I am. If she needs to be.”

He was watching her carefully and she soon realised why. She stopped swimming in surprise and promptly sank. The wash of freezing water over her face soon brought her senses back and she pushed back up. “She’s walking?”

“Yes.”

“She’s walking on the water?”

“Yes.”

“She’s a horse!” She insisted, despite the evidence of her own eyes. White horses might seem bright in the sunshine, but they didn’t glow. And they didn’t have horns.

“Not so much, no.” The horse had reached them and stood ready. Below her hoofs, which Mary noticed from close range were cloven like a cow’s, the sea lay calm and flat, as though she was shod with invisible saucers. Mary looked up along well muscled white legs to the strong shoulders. Horses didn’t look so tall when she was standing up. How were they supposed to mount her?

William gave a strong kick and caught hold of his stirrup. It held and he was able to pull his second hand up to the saddle and heave himself over it on his belly. Mary felt tears welling up as she realised she would never be able to do that. After he had settled himself he pulled a short rope from a saddlebag and let it down to her. With numb fingers she knotted it tightly around her chest under her armpits and let him pull her most of the way until she could scrabble up in front of him.

Neyleia turned of her own accord and kept a gentle walk back to shore. It was hypnotic, just as it was calming to be held safely between William’s arms. She started shivering as the wind cut through her ruined clothes and across her soaked skin. She leaned back into his chest, but he was as chilled as she was and they shook together. She tried to keep her dazed eyes steady on the cliffs as they approached.

She was woken by the welcome warmth of a blanket being thrown around her shoulders. She had already been pulled from the horse and there was a groom in front of her. He was speaking but she couldn’t make out the words and simply shook her head, causing the world to spin. If he hadn’t been holding her up she would have fallen. Seeming to realise this he scooped her up and carried her indoors.

Gradually she realised they were in the castle, in one of the drawing rooms. She recognised the wall hangings from one of the dinners she had attended during her engagement. They showed a unicorn drinking from a forest stream and she started giggling uncontrollably. Someone pushed a mug of warmed cider into her hands and helped her to swallow some down.

“There now.” It was Lady Lydia, William’s mother. Why was she not tending to him? Mary twisted her head urgently until she spotted him. He was sitting on a sofa by the window, half smothered in a dark red blanket and talking with his father and sister. She relaxed a little.

“How are you feeling?” Lady Lydia asked.

“Better, thank you.” The fire was very warm and she felt uncomfortably hot, but the tattered remains of her dress were still dripping so she didn’t ask to be moved. “Where is Lord Tim… I mean, where is my husband?”

Lydia avoided the question. “Do you remember what happened to you, dear?”

“Well, yes. I was washed off The Dasel in the storm.” She shuddered. “William dove in to rescue me, and then his unicorn brought us to the castle.”

“His unicorn?”

“Yes. Neyleia, his unicorn.”

“I see. Wait for me one moment.” She went to talk to her husband. They were both dishevelled and pale-faced. Mary had expected there to be servants and ladies hovering around her, but it was just the five of them. William’s father gave a startled grunt and asked William a sharp question. William shrugged as her gave his low reply. Whatever he said seemed to calm his parents and his mother returned to Mary’s side.

“What is it?”

“It’s nothing, dear. Does your head feel alright? You might be in shock.” She laid a hand over Mary’s forehead. “You feel like you might be coming down with a fever, which would hardly be a surprise. We should get you to bed.”

Mary frowned. There were things she was supposed to be doing tonight in bed. “Where is Timothy?”

Lady Lydia sighed. “Not everyone has returned yet, dear.”

“Lord Michaels?”

“He is at the gates waiting for your husband.”

“My mother?”

The lady hesitated. “She is in the chapel.”

“You didn’t tell her I was here?”

“We did, but she wouldn’t come to you. Your father and sister are also in the chapel. I… I am afraid I have to tell you that they are drowned.”

Mary waited for her to add something to make that sentence make sense, but she didn’t. “Daddy and Rachel are dead?”

“You should rest. Your mother couldn’t bear losing you as well.”

Mary didn’t care what her mother could bear. Choking sobs were beginning to tear up her throat. She was shivering again, letting the blanket drop off her shoulders. Another cup of cider was pressed into her hands, but she couldn’t drink it until they forced it down for her. Almost immediately her head started swimming and the world went dark.

There was a pale shaft of moonlight shining across one strip of the rich carpet, lending no colour to the intricate pattern. It was late and the old nurse who cared for her was dozing in her armchair as Mary slipped her legs carefully from under the heavy quilts. She wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and walked carefully to the window. She was still dizzy and moved slowly, but she knew the fever had almost left her. She found the chink in the curtains and peered out cautiously.

The rooftops of Dilmos glistened in the moonlight, cascading down the hill below her to the cold, dark sea. Here and there a lantern was still lit where night-workers or revellers were about, but the main light came from the moon. It was hanging high above thin strips of cloud, almost full again. Two weeks, she thought. My honeymoon is half over.

She shivered and made her way slowly back to bed. When morning came she would rise. Even a widow had some place in society, and she needed something to distract her from the grief, else she would spend all of her life within this chamber.

Her determination almost failed in the face of the nurse’s abject worry. She had never met the woman before her illness (she had been nurse to Timothy and his sisters in their childhood and had not been close to the family anymore, not before the tragedy), but still her tears and fussing pulled at Mary’s heart. She allowed herself to wonder if it was too early, hastily dismissing the thought again. It would always be too early.

She was not expected to breakfast and the family hadn’t waited for her. For an instant they paused in bashful silence, and then William rose to offer her his seat at Lord Michaels’ left hand. She was too embarrassed at intruding to speak much, offering only vague assurances that she felt much better as she struggled to swallow a slice of toast and a bit of tea. This seemed to be all Lord Michaels and his sister were expecting, although they didn’t return to whatever debate they had been having before she arrived and consequently the table fell back into silence.

“Have you fully recovered, William?” She noticed his mother flinch and belatedly remembered she should call him by his title in public. She wasn’t sure breakfast should count as “in public”, but Lady Lydia’s expression implied that it did. She would have to try harder to mind the formalities.

“I am well, thank you, cousin.” William smiled. He looked cheerful, though thinner than he had been before and relying more on his shock of ginger hair to give him colour. She had been told he had been abed nearly a week, his fever strong but breaking earlier than her own.

“I’m very glad. I’m not sure I thanked you for my rescue.”

He glanced warily at his mother and uncle. She remembered correctly then – he had denied the unicorn existed. “A gentleman could hardly do less, my lady.” He bowed slightly, accepting her gratitude. Mary considered pressing the subject, but decided it would be pointless.

After breakfast she followed Lady Lydia to the morning room. She had never been a gifted needlewoman but she paid attention as the lady showed her the workbasket. It was not like the workbasket at home, full of shirts to be mended and socks to be darned. The castle kept servants to do that sort of work. The lady worked on decorative status pieces. So not only would Mary be terrible, she would also be useless.

She was shown the kitchens and the larder, but told not to trouble herself, the housekeeper would work everything out. The head gardener would manage the greenhouses and the kitchen supplies. The hens and geese in the yard had a manservant to care for them. The stables, guardhouses and everything outside the walls were the Lord’s province. At the end of the tour they came to the library, where she was allowed to touch books only on one particular shelf lined with romance novels.

“Do I have any work to do, my lady?”

Lady Lydia shrugged gently. “The lord’s wife has many duties, the heir’s virgin-widow very few. I will take care of it until I must return to my own house. In due time Lady Primrose will come down. She is the heiress now, at least until the Duke can argue her out of her inheritance in favour of his son’s claim.”

“That would be a disaster for the town.”

“Lord Timothy is dead, my dear. There is nothing to be done for it. Unless you and Lord Timothy were very prompt, or even pre-emptive, about fulfilling your vows?” Mary blushed furiously. “No, I didn’t think so. For all his faults, he was a true gentleman. Not like my infuriating offspring.”

“Lord William?” Mary joined her at the window and looked downwards. William was riding out of the gates, dressed in his unfashionable and common brown tunic and trews and his moccasins. Neyleia was looking splendid, her horn shining brightly against the gloomy day.

“Off to see another doxy, no doubt.” his mother muttered sourly. “I probably have grandchildren across half the county, the number of times he feels the need to disappear for a few days.”

“I…” Clearly she didn’t see the same thing as Mary did. “I think we shouldn’t make assumptions, my lady.”

“No?” Lady Lydia gave her a thoughtful look. “You’re a widow now, my dear. You don’t have to pretend to modesty or ignorance anymore.”

William was gone for three days. Three days in which nothing much happened. Mary waited on Lady Lydia each day, and took meals with the lady and Lord Michaels. They were very kindly, but she wished she were free to return to her mother and not be such a burden. The castle didn’t seem as safe with William gone. She lived with the fear that they would attack again – the people who had murdered her father, sister and husband. William’s own magic was powerful enough to protect her, she had to believe that, but when he was gone she woke with night terrors and jumped at shadows.

She saw him from the morning room window while she was pretending to embroider a cuff for Lord Michaels. Without a thought she sprang up, hitching her skirts around her knees as she ran down the stairs and across the courtyard to meet him at the gate. “Mother will kill you.” he said.

“It’s good to see you too.” She slumped in relief that he was home. “Is that sunburn?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” He swung his leg over Neyleia’s rump and slid to the ground. “How could anyone catch sunburn with the weather around here?”

That was certainly true. Mary wasn’t allowed to “risk her complexion” by staying out of doors, but she was hardly tempted to anyway because the sky always looked about to rain. It was an unreasonably miserable summer, perfectly matched to the mourning clothes almost everyone wore. Still, what other cause could there be for the vibrant pink across William’s nose and forehead. Neyleia grunted and when Mary glanced her way, the unicorn winked. Mary drew a breath but decided not to respond in the presence of grooms who might think she was mad.

“Do you, by any chance, know how to stitch?” William brought her mind back into focus.

“Badly. What have you torn?” He presented his forearm where his tunic had been ripped open in three parallel tears. It was stuck to his skin with dried blood. “Dear Gods, you’re hurt. This way.”

She took his uninjured hand and led him swiftly to the still room. “Sit there.” He perched on the indicated stool and watched while she gathered herbs in a bowl. He had the look of someone who was only humouring her. She was used to that. She wasn’t really sure she was doing it right either. Tending wounds had always been Rachel’s job, and she had only ever watched. She didn’t think she would actively harm him though.

She returned from the kitchen with a pail of boiled water and poured it carefully over her herbs. The still room was filled with heady summer aromas. The cook, who had followed her from the kitchen, seemed to decide this was a proper activity for a lady after all and retreated from the passageway back to her job.

When the water had cooled she soaked a clean cloth and pressed it to William’s arm. He winced. She didn’t apologise. “These look like animal scratches.”

“It was an interesting day.” His lips twitched in a small smile. “They’re only scratches. Nothing to worry about.”

“Maybe.” She continued to wash them out anyway. She was able to detach the cloth and he reclaimed his arm long enough to pull the whole tunic off over his head. His skin was very pale, apart from a scattering of freckles over his collar bone, and pulled tight over wiry muscles. She wondered if Timothy’s chest had looked like that and took his arm back before the thought could spread. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

“I have no doubt of it, my lady.” He didn’t sound too happy about it, though. He was checking the windows and doors for eavesdroppers.

“Why does no one else see?” That should be unspecific enough.

William smiled again and she felt her pulse increase. He was actually going to tell her. “No one is an exaggeration. Some people, like myself, are allowed to see, and some have strong enough magic that they can’t be fooled. And then there are some, like you, who are at the right stage of life, shall we say?”

Mary blinked foolishly. Slowly she felt a blush rise to her cheeks. “Oh.” she said. “I mean… Oh.”

He laughed gently. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of, cousin. It’s a bit inconvenient, but it’s not wrong.”

“Inconvenient?” She bristled, and considered stabbing him with the pin she was securing his bandage with. “It’s none of your business. I was married. I was ready. It was… It was the Duke’s doing, I think.”

William sobered. “Yes, I think so too. Uncle should never have allowed Cousin Sarah to marry him.”

“It was a good match.” Mary remembered that wedding. She had only been child, daughter of an insignificant knight, but everyone had been invited to the celebrations in the market square. There had been bright bunting and acrobats and fireworks after nightfall. There had been for her wedding as well, but the party had been cancelled before it began.

“Yes, and Timothy and Anna were going to have a baby and there would have been no trouble. But then the baby died, and Anna died.”

“And Timothy died.” Her voice cracked, much to her own surprise. She knew she should miss Timothy, but she had thought so much of her father and of Rachel that she hadn’t had time. She was sure she had never really loved him anyway, and now she would never know why he had ever proposed.

William pulled her in to a tight embrace. He was warm and the skin of his chest was as soft as it looked. “It’s not your fault, cousin.”

“I know.” She sniffled for a time and then pulled away before anyone else saw her crying. “That’s not what you meant by this being inconvenient, is it?”

“No. You can’t tell anyone about this, Mary.” He held her shoulders, staring directly into her eyes. “It’s very important that certain people don’t hear of it. There are… uses for horn and a lot of people who will kill to get it.”

“Why is your nose red?”

He frowned. Obviously he had thought his threats would daunt her. He didn’t realise that she lived in fear all the time, every day since the wedding, and it was actually a relief to have a rational threat. “I’ve been a bit further away than you would expect a man on horseback to get.” he admitted finally. “There are evil things in the world and Neyleia and I try our best to stop them where we can. We have to travel around a lot.”

“With magic?”

“You can’t tell anyone, Mary.”

He sounded desperate and she wondered briefly how long he had been keeping this secret from his whole family. How many times he had returned burned and bleeding and no one had noticed, no one had tended him. “I won’t.” she promised. He let go of the breath he had been holding and winced slightly. Instinctively she put a hand out to check his ribs. They didn’t feel cracked and he didn’t flinch away. “Do you often get hurt?”

“No.” He laughed shortly. “Surprisingly not, no. I was a bit careless. I guess I had other things on my mind.” He pulled his ruined tunic back on and she knew that was as much as he was going to reveal.

She was woken in the night by screams. Not her own, for a change. With shaking fingers she lit the candle by her bed and, throwing on her shawl, crept to the door. Lady Lydia paused with her ear to her son’s door. “Go back to sleep, child. It’s only a nightmare.” She looked haggard, far more worried than she was whenever Mary dreamed. That was fair, she supposed. William was more important than she was.

Breakfast was uncomfortable, William and his mother glaring at each other over the table. As soon as he had finished eating he announced he was going out for a ride and he lost no time going. Lady Lydia made herself busy as well and Mary was left alone in the morning room. She tried to work, tried to read, tried to think, but in the end she simply paced back and forth before the windows waiting impatiently for the day to be over.

They were alone again for dinner. Lord Michaels had not entertained since the wedding. Now it was the lord and his sister who were silently arguing, William was ignoring both of them. It had never been like this in Mary’s family. They had never kept secrets from each other and their quarrels had been open and frequently loud. Of course, this was her family now, but it didn’t feel like it.

“Your daughters are your own concern, Thomas.” Lady Lydia said eventually, as the footmen were clearing away the half-eaten plates. “I will leave them to you. You will leave my son to me.”

“You have decided, then?”

“The letter has been sent.”

“What letter?” William looked from one to the other nervously.

“I have summoned an expert to help you.”

Mary put her wine glass down carefully. She felt a bit sick, which was nothing to what William was feeling if his expression was honest. He was horrified. “You sent to the madhouse?”

“Don’t think of it like that, dear. The doctors will know how to help with the dreams and the running off. You’ve been through a great trauma, no one would protest that or think less of you for taking some time to recover. I would have them examine Mary as well, but your uncle is being stubborn.”

“It’s only been a fortnight, Lydia.” Lord Michaels snapped. “It’s far too early to presume something is amiss.”

“Well, she was stable before, I suppose.” Lady Lydia concentrated on smoothing her napkin. “They will be here with all haste. Four days at the most.”

William was lost for words. Finally he pushed back his chair and left the room. Mary took a breath, and ran after him.

She found him on a balcony of the south wing. This part of the building was almost new, built in the time of Lord Michaels’ father when the pirate raiding was already a memory and the castle could be pretty as well as defensive. The windows were wider and taller here, joined together with wide lintels and decorative columns. On the floor below them the ballroom opened onto a paved terrace, which in turn led down into the formal gardens. Above and to the side were ranks of little balconies such as this one, barely large enough for two people to stand, attached to high-ranking guest bedrooms and the formal entertaining suite.

“This is an odd place to hide.” She tried to joke, although he wasn’t in a mood to be humoured. “You can be seen from half the garden.”

“Not for much longer.” He cocked his head towards the sun, which was already setting off to their right.

“I suppose that’s true.” She hopped up to sit on the stone balustrade. It was pleasantly warm now, although it would get chilly quickly once the sun had gone down. “I found you from the house.”

“You followed me. It’s not the same thing.” He softened the words with a small smile. “Have you come to tell me it will be alright?”

“I…” She searched for words, shaking her head. “No. I can’t really promise that. It sounds awful. Do you think she’ll actually have you committed?”

“Yes. She never really liked me. I think she was quite happy with just my brother and sister. It was father who wanted a spare.”

“You can’t be easy to live with, either.” Mary defended. She was sure Lady Lydia would be heartbroken if she heard William say such things, but she was equally sure William wasn’t willing to believe that. His mother was used to getting her own way and he needed his secrets and freedoms – that had nothing to do with loving each other.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.” He kicked the balustrade in frustration. His soft boots refused to dent it. “I can’t go to a madhouse. It’s a vile place, with cages full of desperate and broken souls gradually sinking deeper into drugged stupors and doctors who make more money from the tourist tours than from medicine. Apart from that nightmare, I have a job to do. Well, Neyleia has a job to do and she needs me to help her. Wants me to…” He kicked the inoffensive stone again. “I guess I could resign. She can train up another rider easily enough.”

“But then she wouldn’t protect the castle.”

“Then she probably wouldn’t even be in this corner of the world. It’s my home, not hers.”

“So the Duke would come.”

“So the Duke would come.” He finally chipped off a piece of stone and flung it hard over the garden. Mary couldn’t see where it landed through the twilight, but there was a clatter as though it had struck a statue or pot. “And he will kill everyone else in his way – starting with my uncle and Primrose. Probably my brother as well, just to be safe. I, of course, wouldn’t be a problem anymore, safely rotting away in my cell.”

“We can persuade your mother to change her mind.”

He laughed caustically. “You haven’t known her long enough. There must be a way to do this. There’s so much I’ve done, so many towns I’ve saved and people I’ve rescued. I have powers that can stop sorcerers in their tracks and tricks that can put armies to rout. I have scars across half my body and memories that can sear the soul. And for all of that, I can’t save my own family?”

“Saving your family isn’t your job.” She reminded him. “It was mine.” Her hands fell over her belly protecting… Protecting nothing. She had been no wife and she would be no mother.

William also glanced down. “That would have been so neat.” he agreed softly. “It’s so easy to cast protective charms on an unborn child, or even a newborn one. They’re naturally receptive to that kind of magic. And an heir would be kept safe in the castle. A good enough charm could potentially have kept the whole town safe, at least from the kind of magic that killed…” He finally saw her stricken expression and trailed off. “You didn’t need to know that. I’m sorry.”

“Would it… Would it have harmed my child?”

“No.” He stepped forward and cupped her chin gently in his slender hands. “I would never have done anything to harm your child. It’s a totally benign spell.”

“But I don’t have a child.” She felt her eyes start to water and chided herself for being ridiculous. She was far too young to be a mother. But suddenly the thought of never having children, of waiting out her mourning year and then returning to her mother and spending every year thereafter hidden in their little house getting older and lonelier with no husband and no family – she could picture it so clearly and the tears began to pour down her cheeks.

“No, no.” William wrapped his arms around her. “It’s not your fault. Timothy had no right to involve you. He should have taken a nobleborn who knew what she was getting herself into.”

“Why did he pick me?”

“He was always more at home at sea than on land, and he thought you would understand that. He remembered you picking cockles on the beach when you were a girl.”

Mary, who could count on one hand the number of times she had sailed out of the harbour, stopped sobbing in surprise. He had married her because of the little girl she had been? Slowly she looked up at William, searching for signs that he too saw her as a child. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but certainly she couldn’t see it now night had fallen. In irritation she pushed herself up and kissed him.

His lips were rough, and mostly what she could taste was the salt of her own tears. It was a chaste kiss because she had no real idea of what she was doing. For a long moment she was afraid she was only proving her naivety. Then William moved, dropping his hands down to support her as his tongue pushed between her lips.

They broke apart. It was so dark he might as well have been invisible, but she could feel his breath hot and fast on her face. “This is madness.” he gasped while his body continued to press tight against hers.

“Madness.” she agreed. There was a heat building in her belly, new and exciting, despite which her head felt clear. In fact when she analysed her heart she found fear, worry and a small measure of self-disgust the dominant emotion was smugness. She thought she had proven her point.

William groaned, resting his forehead against hers. “What are we doing?”

“We are facing this together.” she told him promptly. “Which you should do far more of.”

“We can’t face this together, Mary. I can’t have you – I can’t have any wife, let alone my cousin’s. What I need is time, and peace, and sleep.”

He did sound worn out and her heart bled for him. She wanted to drag him away, climb on his unicorn and go far away. So far she had never even seen it on a map. So far they could pretend they had never lived or lost in Dilmos at all. She could do it. Her mother would be fine and she had no other family or friends to miss. But he did, and so he wouldn’t run. If he could have left he would have been gone by now, but it was equally clear to her that he couldn’t stay.

Slowly she leaned in to place her lips back on his. He leaned away. “William, you are not the only person here with a job to do. In the morning you can ride off to fight your sorcerers and rescue your good folk, but for now, for tonight, please help me make an heir.”

He didn’t reply. He merely hefted her off the balustrade and laid her down on the balcony floor. It was cold, but she didn’t mind because he was warm.

She was still warm the next morning, tucked under her blankets, alone apart from the old nurse who dozed in her chair by the cold fireplace. She really had no business lingering there – there was no danger of Mary’s fever returning now – but her presence was welcome nonetheless. She could bear witness that no man had come by in the night.

Was that real? Mary wondered. Her body was sore and content in equal measure, proving that it was no dream, but she could scarcely believe her own wantonness. If a baby came of it… Well, she would have to claim it was her husband’s. The cousins were alike enough no one would be able to tell if she and William both denied it.

She could hardly have slept a wink, her mind too full of possible consequences, and she rose ridiculously early. She threw on her dressing gown and hurried through the halls, to find William already in the stables. He had saddled his mare and loaded her with enough bags for a long trip. “You’re running away?”

He flinched, glaring at the horse as though she could have warned him of Mary’s approach. “We agreed that would be best. I’m not fond of my mother’s brand of medicine, and even without that staying here with you would be… complicated.”

“Complicated?” Mary balled her fists in her skirts. Was she complicated? She wasn’t sure. She had always been a simple merchant’s daughter, but was she even the same person she had been before? It felt like this should be simple – a boy, a girl, neither otherwise engaged. What could be simpler, really? “Will you come away from the horse? I’m trying to talk to you and she brings back bad memories.”

William refused to move. “There’s nothing to talk about. You are Lord Timothy’s widow. You’re in mourning and you cannot be seen with another man. You would be ruined. I can’t promise to keep my distance if I stay, so we have to part. For your sake, and the child’s.”

“There’s not going to be a child,” she soothed, even though she had counted the days herself during the sleepless night and knew there was a chance. There was no way he could know that but he snorted quietly as though seeing through her lie. Mary bit her lip. She couldn’t argue with his practicality – she had come to the same conclusions herself, however much she disliked them. “Where will you go? What will you do?”

He sighed, finally turning to look at her with anguish in his eyes. “You aren’t a maid anymore.”

“No,” she agreed. “I’m not a child anymore. You can tell me.”

“No, I can’t.” He checked that they were alone and stole a quick, passionate kiss. “Don’t wait for me.”

She felt her lips twitch in a smile. Always teasing. He knew full well she intended to wait for him. He had to come back at some point – she was family, after all. She didn’t say so, though, because so much had changed in the past fortnight that she could make no promises for the next year. She felt that it would be alright but, as she watched her lover ride out the gate, she could not have said why.

 

About the Author:

LL Watkin is the pen name for writing partnership Liz Smith and Louise Smith, two sisters from the North of England who’ve been writing science fiction, fantasy and horror together for nearly ten years. Some stories may be more Louise’s, some more Liz’s, but all spring from a collaborative process.

We only started publishing in 2012, but since we’d been writing for so long beforehand we had a glut of material to get out there, and we currently have four novels and a set of short stories which is available either individually or collected.

You can find out more about use on our Smashwords page:

https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/LLWatkin

Also from LL Watkin:

The Leviathan Series

Jethabel (Book 1)

Therion (Book 2)

Pathiel (Book 3)

Hero of the Alliance Captain David Arman is worried. The fleet is falling back (again) and leaving Sheraton port to the hands of the Tren armada. To salvage his reputation he needs to go down fighting, but his orders are to take as many refugees as will fit on board and run. He will find himself questioning his loyalties and struggling to stay alive.

The Handmaiden Series

The Abbey at the World’s End (Book 1)

The Chapel in the Wasteland (Book 2)

The Cathedral in the Void (Book 3)

Keldaren just wanted an easy life. A job where the boss wouldn’t scream if she was five minutes late. A nice boyfriend. Treasure worth a not so small fortune. To go a week without a bomb going off in her near vicinity. Was that so much to ask? Unfortunately, when your best friend is a three thousand year old ghost with a chip on her insubstantial shoulders, it might be.

Short Stories

The Harpers and Other Stories (Collection 1)

The Drowned Leviathan and Other Stories (Collection 2)


A Boy with a Unicorn

  • ISBN: 9781310730238
  • Author: L L Watkin
  • Published: 2015-10-02 20:05:06
  • Words: 8528
A Boy with a Unicorn A Boy with a Unicorn