Unicorn (Second Edition)

As he ventured deeper into the Silvers, Lieutenant Thorne felt deadness creeping through his flesh. He wrung his hands and tucked them into his coat, but the wind cut right through, leaving his skin hard and numb. His hands were soft after a lifetime of paperwork and letter-writing. Now, they were swollen and bitten by the savage cold.

Though he worried, his dying fingers weren’t worth stopping for. He was only hours into a flight which would take days, and he risked discovery with each passing minute.

He’d left Fort Pardwell before dawn, hoping to outrun the spread of bad news. Now, as evening approached, he imagined his time was short. Everyone would know by now, and Fletcher would be right behind him.

The sting of betrayal lay heavy in the lieutenant’s heart. It should have been easy to think about the things he’d abandoned, or the threat which surely followed, but the loss was muddled by disbelief. Behind him lay the soft grass and endless sky of his homeland, the grace of his king, and the blessing of God. His rank was forfeit. His career was over. He would never see his home or family again. All of those things were lost, yet he couldn’t bring himself to shed a tear.

It all seemed ethereal now, as if it never properly existed. He wondered if mourning would come later, or if something within him had finally unraveled.

It would have been easiest to accept death. Instead, Lieutenant Thorne chose to cast himself into the Silvers. He was untested in the wild, especially on his own, but cold outrage drove him along, step by arduous step.

The mountains were merciless. The snow-covered trails were littered with jagged stones and defunct signposts. Even at moderate elevations, the trees quickly became sparse. The cold stole his breath and uneven terrain fought each footstep. No man was meant to walk here, but those untamed trails were his only hope of escape.

Worst of all were the withered corpses of soldiers, frozen so long that they’d become landmarks. There weren’t as many on this part of the mountain, but above the snow line, there were hundreds. Thorne recalled the first time he’d seen them, fixed forever in ghoulish poses. As a green officer, he’d turned his eyes. Now, he could barely look away.

The mountains provided only superficial hope. If he reached the Lyrellian side, there was a chance that Fletcher would turn back. Even the king’s prized sky knights were cautious when entering Lyrellian territory.

The Lyrellians would be pleased to see the lieutenant, though not for pleasant reasons. A lord, even a lower lord, would fetch a large price in Lyrellian slave markets, or make an attractive trophy for a general.

Though horrific, Thorne preferred both outcomes to death. A captive man could still escape, but a dead man was simply dead.

Still, even capture wasn’t guaranteed. Perhaps the Lyrellians would take him captive, but it was just as likely that they’d kill him on sight.

His best defense was the information he carried. If he survived his trek to the lower summit, and if he survived his descent, and finally survived his first contact with his enemies, then perhaps he could negotiate his way to mercy. It was his only chance.

Swallowing nausea, the lieutenant continued.

Hours passed. The weather worsened, occasionally forcing him to stop and take shelter as the wind shrieked across stone and gnarled treetops. More than once, he trembled at its howl. He watched the blurred sky with restless eyes, searching for the silhouette of Fletcher’s beast.

In one particularly frightening moment, Thorne thought he heard the beast’s call entwined with the rattling winds. He stopped again, dropping to his knees and pressing himself against the nearest stone. Once again he looked to the sky, through the cascading snowflakes, but he saw nothing.

Thorne sighed and allowed himself a brief rest. Warmth crept back into his fingers, stoking his sense of dread as he rubbed them in futility. The warmth, he knew, was the next stage of death.

For the first time since leaving, his thoughts drifted back to fear. It was unsettling, how little fear he’d felt. Thorne liked to think of himself as a brave and principled man, but nothing in life could match his terror at the moment of his betrayal. He’d fled Pardwell in delirium, motivated only by the desire to survive.

He made a dizzy effort to stand, but once again he slumped into the snow.

“Be calm,” he whispered to himself. He closed his eyes and relaxed his body, banishing the fear as best he could. He thought about the mountain, the long walk down the other side, and the inevitable first contact with his enemies. There was so much left to do, but it didn’t matter if he couldn’t even stand. Then he really would die on the mountain, maligned and alone.

In his despair, he struggled for focus. He didn’t have to make it all the way to Lyrellian soil. For now, he only had to stand up.

“Breathe,” he reminded himself, voice raspy from the cold. He inhaled slowly and deeply, resisting the natural urge to hurry his breathing. The cold air shocked his lungs, and he quickly pulled his scarf over his mouth to alleviate it. Then, he sat still, slowly acclimating his body, and he thought about what he would do once he stood.

His strength returned slowly. He lay there, quietly planning his next step while he watched the sky for signs of danger. Perilous as it was, Thorne didn’t mind the storm. It might play into his favor. Bad weather rarely stopped griffins, but it often stopped their masters.

In the last shades of gray daylight, Lieutenant Thorne glimpsed something. The blurred movement appeared to his right, where a wispy creature picked its way over the rocks. It took several heartbeats for Thorne to trust his eyes.

The creature moved fluidly between the barren trees, graceful and delicate. At first Thorne thought he’d found a horse, though its body was too small and its neck too long. He then decided it was a deer, thought he’d never seen a deer with such stark white hair.

Like a deer, it walked on cloven hooves. It had a silken mane and a long, tasseled tail. From its brow sprung a spiraled horn, elegant but wicked, and almost invisible in the gusting snow.

As it drifted closer, it turned its head toward the lieutenant. Its fawn eyes had an astonishing quality about them, like a real, sentient soul lived there.

Thorne froze under its gaze. The holy creature observed him in silence, eyes filled with sorrow and disappointment.

The lieutenant’s vision blurred with the threat of tears. He wiped his eyes, only to notice the creature’s impossible gauntness, like a starving skeleton wrapped in fine sheets. Horrified, Thorne recoiled against the stone at his back, unable to do anything but stare.

Calmly, the creature tucked its ears to its head and walked away. In only a few steps, it disappeared into the winter whiteness.

Thorne stood, his heart thundering, and continued into the mountains. He made good progress, but the creature haunted every step. Its frailty lingered in the lieutenant’s mind, but so did its judgment. Thorne thought about those pitying eyes and wanted to retch.

He tried not to over-think the sighting, but the stories of his youth and the rich legends of his people echoed in the silence. Those tales ascribed holiness and kindness to the suffering creature he’d just seen. It was supposed to be an ambassador of goodness and faith. But he’d seen it tainted, withering in the unforgiving mountains.

Did the Silvers truly devour everything?

He struggled along his chosen trail, ever wary of the cold as night descended. Sky knights didn’t fly after dark, but Thorne didn’t plan to rest. With nothing to eat and no way to make a fire, he doubted it would be worth the lost time, or the risk of not getting back up.

Not only was it risky, but he dreaded the quiet that would come with rest. He didn’t want to think about the betrayal. He didn’t want to see his cousin’s face, or hear his soft, reassuring voice, whispering those terrible lies.

Worse, he didn’t want to think about the creature, with its thin body and dispassionate stare.

So the lieutenant walked, welcoming the dimming light. The weather cleared as the evening approached, leaving the sky empty and eerily silent. Thorne was left with the crunching of his boots in the snow and soft puffs of his own breath.

The future had become too uncertain, and the past remained burdened with transgression. Neither appealed to him, but he could not say which was more  bleak.

As the sky deepened to purple, Thorne’s skin prickled. He stopped and set his jaw, eyes rolling tentatively towards the sky. Slowly, the air filled with the distant but nearing sound of wing beats.

If only he’d made it a little longer.

Bile filled Thorne’s throat, but he chose not to run. He dropped his bag and turned, watching as the creature descended. It was massive, at least sixteen hands tall, with tawny fur and hook-like talons stretched before it. It alighted with a heavy sound, fierce golden eyes locking on Thorne with wicked intelligence.

Thorne took a deep breath, but he didn’t move. He tucked his hands behind his back to hide the tremors. He looked not at the beast, but at the young man perched on its back. The rider peeled his flight goggles away to reveal a weary and youthful face. It was Sir Gavin Fletcher, young yet reserved, marked by reluctance and grim resolution.

Rider and beast kept their distance and simply watched while Thorne was frozen in their sight. “Lieutenant Thorne,” Fletcher said. “I’m afraid you must stop. You’re under arrest, by order of Flight Captain Pardwell.”

Thorne steadied himself with a slow breath. “On what charges?”

“Extortion and theft from the crown.”

Thorne cast his eyes down. “It’s true enough,” he said.

The griffin hissed. Fletcher clicked his tongue, and the animal prowled forward in its slinking, catlike gait. “Please don’t struggle, sir. Let this be easy, and perhaps something can be done for you,” Fletcher said.

Thorne stood fast. He stared back at the beast and its master, expression strained and hollow. His stomach churned.

“You’re tougher than I figured, Lieutenant. I didn’t think a desk officer would make it this far,” Fletcher said, voice dropping to something lower and warmer. Thorne wanted to dissect it, to determine if that was reluctance of tension that he detected, but he struggled to keep his thoughts clear.

Instead, he offered a simple answer: “I’ve been here longer than you, Sir Gavin.” It made him sick to use the young knight’s honorific, but with a monster mere yards away, the lieutenant would not risk it.

“And yet you thought to flee on foot,” Fletcher said tersely. “Sir, you couldn’t have expected to escape. You should have surrendered with your dignity. You’ve only made it worse for yourself.”

“Dignity?” Thorne replied. “I value my life more than I value my reputation. Tell me, Sir Knight, when did bravery become more important than good sense?”

Again the griffin hissed. Thorne’s stomach tightened, but he didn’t back away.

“Different things matter to different people, Lieutenant,” Fletcher said. “But if your life is what mattered, then why run into the mountains? You’re well-liked. We could have helped you. The captain might have shown you mercy, if only you explained yourself.”

“I have nothing to say which will satisfy you, or your captain,” Thorne replied.

“Not even an apology?” Fletcher asked.

“Why apologize? I’m not ashamed.”

Those words felt strange on his lips. He knew he should have been ashamed, but apathy was like lead. The entire exchange felt tired. He’d heard so many young men like Fletcher, so similar in age and background, drawn into the myth of honor.

Fletcher narrowed his eyes pensively. “Who were you working for, Thorne? Was it for yourself, or did you act on someone else’s order?”

“The Count Strathford,” Thorne replied.

“Your accuser?” Fletcher asked. He paused, face twisting with confusion.

“And my cousin,” Thorne said bitterly.

Fletcher hesitated before reached for the spear mounted to the side of his saddle. The griffin took a calculated step forward, bringing the spear within striking distance. Unable to match the creature’s stare any longer, Thorne cast his eyes down.

“Then why don’t you accuse him back?” Fletcher asked.

“There’s no point. No lord would be indicted on the word of a lesser cousin,” Thorne said.

The wind whispered to them during the following silence. Thorne could hear it whistling past the rocks, muffled by the thick layer of snow. The holy texts claimed that singing wind represented freedom. How beautiful, to hear it in this moment.

At length, Fletcher spoke. “I would help you,” he said. “The flight captain trusts me. And he trusted you. News of your indictment injured him, Lieutenant. He would be glad to know that you were forced by your cousin-”

“I wasn’t forced,” Thorne interjected.

Fletcher shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “Then why?” The conviction left his voice, replaced by mellow, wounded confusion.

Thorne bowed his head. “Sir Knight, you are a rare sort of man. Three years of service, and not yet ruined by war,” Thorne said. “And I hope you stay that way.”

“That’s lovely, but I want to know why you stole from us, and why the count would accuse you if he was also involved,” said Fletcher. There was a bubbling impatience in him, or was it anxiety? A longing for the truth?

When Thorne didn’t answer, the sky knight thrust his spear forward, dangerously close. Thorne’s heart quivered as he took a step backwards.

“We were found out,” Thorne said, voice trembling at last. He didn’t feel the need to elaborate. The realization was visible enough in Fletcher’s tightening posture.

The lieutenant stood in silence, strangled by the words caught in his throat. “When you return to Pardwell, I want you to give it a good look. I want you to see what a wretched place it is,” Thorne said. “And if you truly look, you will see why I chose my family over my king.”

“I doubt that,” Fletcher replied.

“The king has discarded us,” Thorne said. “Just as the Lyrellians are discarded by their emperor. We are cast to these mountains to die, ground into stone, alongside our enemies. We are sacrificed together, in a war which will never end. It’s all just misery anf filth.”

Thorne’s throat continued to tighten. “How long can you stand it, Sir Knight? How long can you watch this before you have no passion left in your heart?  If you are like me, then a day will come when you no longer care. When your hand will no longer grasp a sword or pen in His Majesty’s defense.”

The lieutenant shuddered. “I’ve wasted my life serving the king and fighting his endless wars. The money was inconsequential. Silver will never reclaim those years.”

“I see,” said Fletcher in a hoarse whisper. “And you think I’m untested? And that I will become like you?”

“Everyone does.”

Fletcher snorted. “And how much of my life do you know, to make such assumptions?”

“I don’t need to know anything.”

Fletcher shook his head. “I hear the complaints of a petty, dissatisfied soldier. You’re mourning your own loss, but you forget that you are still very much alive.”

Thorne frowned. “A life half-wasted,” he said.

“You seem more worried with your own fulfillment than all those lost lives you invoked a few moments ago,” Fletcher replied. “That’s a wretched way to live. I’m sorry.”

Thorne bristled. “Sorry for what?”

Fletcher’s expression hardened. “What you’ve done is wrong. But I’m sorry for you,” he explained. “Sorry that you’ve allowed your anger to enslave you. Someone should have helped you long ago, Lieutenant, but it seems that nobody bothered. Had I known you sooner, perhaps I would have done it myself.”

“What good is your sympathy?” Thorne asked. “You’ve come to kill me either way. At your hand or Pardwell’s, the outcome is the same.”

“I’ll offer once more,” Fletcher said. “Come back with me.”

It had grown dark now, too dark to make out the young man’s face. “Let us challenge your cousin together. You will be punished for your crime, but I will appeal for mercy and see your life spared. We will see what we can make of it.”

Thorne’s eyes ached, but no tears formed. He buckled and slipped to his knees, taken by exhaustion. “You are a good man, but that will never happen,” he said. “But I hope you stay as you are.”

Fletcher paused. “Then you won’t surrender?”

“Never.”

Fletcher nodded and raised his spear. “That’s a shame.”