“He hadn’t always lived like this. Once life had been good. Once he had a beautiful wife, a small homestead, the respect every man should have, and a chance at a family. All of that had been swept away in one brief, bitter moment, with the thunder of hooves and the flash of a spear cutting all light and joy out of Stephen’s life forever.
He could still see Eleanor in his mind’s eye, smiling as she went out that day to gather blackberries. It was only a short walk from his homestead to the forest, and she laughed at his concern for her safety. She was always laughing though. It was one of the things that drew him to her in the first place. Her easy, good natured humor. She had a quick wit, but never used it to belittle others. She never laughed at his limp or small stature.
Stephen heard again in memory his wife’s scream as Count de Brant’s spear went through her, while the boar that it had been its intended target charged off into the underbrush. Stephen had begged for a farthing to pay the local healer, but the count barely paused long enough to ask, “If you cared for her so much, why did you let her wander off into my hunting run?” Stephen wept helplessly as she bled out in his arms.
The sound of hooves nearby jerked him back to the present. Another hunting group was approaching. Stephen’s small size allowed him to hide easily in the shadows. Coming closer, it sounded like a stampede. Stephen looked out from behind a stump just in time to see the most magnificent beings he had ever laid eyes on jumping three-abreast over a massive log. A whole herd of unicorns was in full flight past him. Roan, dappled, and chestnut they raced across the clearing, desperate to escape.
As he watched in horror, a smaller chestnut unicorn at the rear of the herd stumbled while trying to clear the last hurdle to freedom. One leg splayed out awkwardly, and the unicorn fell to his knees, horn nearly driving into the ground at the base of the log.
“This way! I think we’ve finally got one!”
A scout cantered out from the shadows, followed by a larger group-nobles and spear men. Last of all came Count Robert de Brant. Reining up next to the wounded unicorn, the count gestured impatiently to a soldier, his dark eyes glinting.
“Hurry up idiot! Ride back to the castle and fetch the farrier-this unicorn must remain perfect. If he isn’t patched up within 15 minutes, it’s you who will be needing a doctor.”
De Brant turned in his saddle. “Tonight there will be a feast. I know all of you will be there to celebrate my good fortune in this hunt.” Blowing his hunting horn, he turned back towards the castle, followed by the rest of the noble entourage. Only a small group of spear men hung back to guard the wounded unicorn while the farrier tended his leg.
“He should be able to make it to the stable now.” The farrier straightened and turned to go, followed by the other spear men. The last of the scouts slipped a halter around the chestnut neck, tightening it enough to force the unicorn to his feet.
“Get up, brute. No dawdling on the way to the castle.”
The scout was hauling for all he was worth, trying to drag the unicorn towards the path out of the clearing.
“You’d move slowly too if you’d been attacked and had your leg nearly broken in two,” groaned the unicorn. The soldier’s only response was to kick the bent leg hard. Stephen slipped out from behind the tree trunk. Crouching, he pulled his bow from his back, nocked an arrow, and let fly at a loose branch just above the scout. It was a perfect shot that severed the limb and knocked the soldier out. Stephen quickly undid the clasp on the halter and yanked it off, then bent down and tied the unconscious soldier hand and foot with it, removing the scout’s belt knife while he was at it.
“That should hold him at least long enough for you to get out of here. I’ll have to make a run for it now myself, but I couldn’t just stand aside and watch them drag you off. De Brant already destroyed my home and family. The least I could do is stand up for you the way I wish someone would have stood up for me.”
“I don’t know how fast I can go. The farrier braced my leg enough to stand on it, but I think it’s still dislocated. Thanks for the rescue though. I hope that you can make it out before they come looking for you. My herd will be miles away by now. I’ll have to take it slow, but maybe I can catch up with them further downriver.”
The unicorn took a tentative step, then another, before nearly falling to his knees, whinnying with pain.
“Take it easy. I have a house nearby. Nothing fancy, but it’s away from the count’s regular hunting runs. You’ll never make it past the castle like that. You can barely walk, much less dodge de Brant’s soldiers. They’ll be out in force as soon as he finds out you’re gone.”
Stephen had been busy with the scout’s confiscated belt knife and an old tree limb while he spoke. Taking a small ball of twine from his pocket, Stephen deftly bored holes around the outer edges of the brace he’d been carving, then looped the twine through.
Limping forward, the unicorn held the injured limb up and allowed the makeshift brace to be tied on. Gingerly, he took one step, then another.
“It’s still sore, but it can bear weight now.”
“Follow me, and I’ll show you where you can hide. Thankfully it’s not far. My name’s Stephen, by the way.”
“I’m Andrew. Are you sure you want to take this risk? If Count de Brant finds out you helped me, he’ll likely burn your house down, with you in it.”
“My hut is this way.”
Stephen limped back towards the forest, while Andrew hobbled along beside him.
“We make quite the pair, don’t we? A crippled unicorn and a crippled forester. It’s a wonder the whole forest isn’t laughing loudly enough to be heard clear up at the castle.”