Price of Alicorn
Near the headwaters of the river Esk in the Eskdale, on the border with Faerie, was the village of Baddon-on-Esk. It was a goblin market town, where twice a year the sidhe came to trade elf-silver and elf-shot for freshwater pearls and sea silk combed from the bearded mussels of the River Esk. Strange trade brought queer customs to the people of that place, whose homes never faced the west, nor allowed their dogs to drink from a hoofprint.
It had come on the old king to establish an embassy with the elves, and so he chose the Elfhouse at Baddon-on-Esk, where the sidhe were wont to stay on the nights of market-day, for there were certain bargains they could only make under moonlight, and certain wares that vanished with the sun. In the Elfhouse, Elf-Law ruled, and they brought forth strange yellow wines long forbidden by church and state, and men and women sometimes came there in curiosity and left weeping and hobbled. As a commemoration for this new status, one of the Elf-Kings gifted Baddon-on-Esk with a unicorn.
It was a gift the village could not refuse, even if they dared. The unicorn stalked the woods during the day and the village streets by night, carved its sigil into the wood of door frames and ancient oak, and by that sign no one was ever again lost walking in that forest, nor did any pig or dog miscarry a girl-child, nor was any woman ever subject to rape by mortal man. Such were the gifts of the unicorn to the people of Baddon-on-Esk.
So they suffered in silence as one by one the boys of the town went missing, called forth by sweet songs and sweet scents to that field where no window faced, there to satisfy the lusty guardian. Mothers wept and fathers kept stoic when their boys returned, trousers stained with blood, and in time they would be called again and again, until they did not return. All this the daughters of the village had watched, and all they knew is that it happened, and not why.
One hot summer the king sent an envoy to the Elfhouse, for there was war to be had with Spain and he wanted elf-shot for his cannon, and with that ambassador he sent a small court of clerks, scribes, guards…and the Elf Cup, for the king was wise in the ways of elves. The Elf Cup for her part paid a call on the village whores, a brother and sister, who had learned enough from their mother and her mother’s sister the ways of elves to satisfy in at least a small way those merchants who came to the goblin markets. On the threshold of their house the Elf Cup saw the sigil that the unicorn had carved there, and she frowned but said nothing.
Yet she had frowned, and one of the brotherless sisters had seen it. She told her friend, and the other hers, and soon all the girls in the village waited before the door until the Elf Cup emerged. As afternoon gave way to gloaming, she emerged, and saw the girls gathered there—and said no word but looked out west where no window or doorway faced, and passed through the crowd to the edge of that field with the two grasses and the broken bones of brothers long lost but not forgotten.
There was a glimmer of white on the edge of the field, and a strange snickering jeer that sounded from where it met the edge of the wood. The Elf Cup’s face was set and impassive as a merchant, and she fingered a bracelet of golden thorn wrapped about her wrist until it drew blood, then she turned to the girls who followed her and told them what must be done, and her price. But she did not tell them why, for she needed that innocence a little while longer.
In the hour before cockcrow, every daughter of the town between twelve and fifteen summers quietly took up their father’s swords and their mother’s shields, and met on the field that faced nearest to Fairy, where no window or doorway in the village faced. It was sward of grasses earthly and unearthly, for some grew by sunlight and others by moonlight, and on the earth were the bones of their murdered brothers.
The beast came to the edge of the field from the Faerie-side, drawn by the massed virginity. Its coat and eyes were the color of white metal, and it moved with the bulk of the draft horse and the grace of a lion, and it crept forward on cloven hooves where the dew gathered like mercury. It sniffed the air and flashed its sharp teeth as it trotted toward them, and between its legs bobbed and danced that great vulgar horn of ivory and muscle that so many chroniclers misplace.
It danced across the field, shaggy coat shining, and lowered its head to sniff at the lap of the youngest of the girls, who could scarce lift a sword and had made do with her mother’s sharpest kitchen knife. She sat down, and the beast lowered herself to all fours to snuffle at her crotch. The girls of Baddon-on-Esk brought their knives down on that shining white hide, and in less time than it takes to tell it soon they were all splattered with that fabulous blood, which pooled and puddled like mercury on the earth so that the earth-grasses blackened and died where it touched, but the elf-grass grew strangely luxuriant, and that girl who still had its head in her lap worked the blade of the kitchen knife back and forth as she sawed through the great neck.
The eldest of the girls, who was not too young to use the gelding knife, cut off the Elf Cup’s prize and brought it to the house where the king’s envoy was staying. And when the Elf Cup accepted the thing, the girl asked the questions that had not been asked.
“The beast itself acted in accord with its nature, for there is ever only one male to the herd, and it will only mate with the dams and never with his daughters, yet neither will he long permit a son to remain for long, and will kill them ere they can take his daughters’ virginity. Left here alone from his people, his duty remained and yet his lusts turned strange, and that is why your brothers died.”
The Elf Cup hesitated as she ran a hand down the soft skin and ivory barbs of her prize.
“Yet there is another thing, for the elf-king well knows the nature of unicorns. I think perhaps he gifted it on purpose, for the elves have a great craving for virgin-milk, and that is always in short supply.”