“I’m just a bloody horse, you know.”
The Mythical Beast did not fool Sir Gerald Armand-Vickers, famed seeker after relics of antiquity, legendary disposer of evils both ancient and inhuman, and renowned hunter of cryptozoological fauna. Years of careful research – of ferreting out lore, of interrogating eyewitnesses both credible and drunken, of rubbing scat twixt his fingers and soiling his trouser-knees in mud imprinted with unshod hoof marks – had led him to this moment of confrontation.
He raised his favourite hunting-piece, a walnut long-barrel with shiny brass plating that showed to best effect in a daguerrotype. “You, sir, are unquestionably a specimen of Elasmotherium monoceros, known variously as the Thessalonian Steed, the Maiden’s Mount or the Ctesian Ass. Or, as I prefer it, the Unicorn.”
The Beast stomped its hooves and gave a petulant snort. “How would you know a unicorn if you saw one? You couldn’t even pronounce Ctesian properly.”
Sir Gerald cursed his thrice-damned batman Wilberforce for insisting he sound out the C. “Them Ancient Greeks was proper learned, sah,” he’d said. “I don’t suppose they’d include a letter they didn’t meant to say. Wouldn’t be logical.” Insufferable man and no great hand with a shaving-razor either. Were he not an Afghan veteran thrice decorated for valour in the face of grievous wounding, Sir Gerald would long ago have dispensed of his services.
“I’ve only ever seen it written,” he said, steadying the wobble of his rifle. “Nevertheless you are self-evidently a unicorn, matching the widely-known description in every precise detail. You have a majestic equine bearing, there is an undeniable nobility in the cast of your mane and the sturdiness of your fetlocks is characteristic of every tale which recounts your kind. Moreover, there is a large silver horn protruding from your forehead.”
The Beast circled on the spot, treading with delicate grace as it surveyed its predicament. Sir Gerald observed with satisfaction that it now appreciated his mastery in cornering it. Steep canyon walls on either side, a sharp drop to a rocky Aegean bay behind and before, preventing all hope of escape, Sir Gerald himself, along with a handful of retainers, ammunition carriers and of course the delectable Miss Wade, seated before her easel. Even now her loyalty and trust overcame the terror he presumed this fearsome specimen must inspire in her tender, innocent heart.
“You have me there.” Conceding the debate, the Beast took advantage of the warm salted breeze from below to shake its mane. Simply magnificent. He would have to prepare detailed instructions for Griggs the taxonomer, to ensure his exertions captured the creature’s nonchalant beauty. “Well, then, what do you plan to do with me?”
Sir Gerald was hardly accustomed to so lengthy a period of inquiry from the subject of one of his adventures. Even that dreadful Gaelic imp in the green jacket had eventually ceased his taunts about caches of gold, albeit only once Wilberforce had detonated the charges. Most, in fact, did not speak at all. Gibbers, gnashes and howls, to be sure – a great many of them howled – but passionate argument was uncommon. There was a reputation-making monograph in it, without a doubt. Posterity called for a suitable quote. “Sir, I am pleased to inform you that you will be presented to none other than the Right Royal Order of Gentlemen Expeditioners, known colloquially to you perhaps as the Saxe-Cobs, after our patron Prince Alfred.”
“Upon my return to London, I mean to display you, stuffed and mounted in accordance with the customs and by-laws of the Order.” He braced himself for an act of desperate retaliation, now that the creature’s fate was revealed, but its airy demeanour remained intact.
“Shot in the head, then? My gizzards scooped out and stuffed with tar and straw?”
Its disappointment seemed faint. Perhaps Mythical Beasts subscribed to more stoic philosophies of life and death than we men, he mused. In a human enemy, forced to confront his moment of mortality, Sir Gerald could little but admire such reserve and dignity. The Unicorn, however, was beginning to get his goat. “Anything else would be most irregular.”
“More irregular than a talking horse with a magic spike growing out its face? This club of yours sounds marvellous.” Snorting, the Unicorn lowered his voice. “I’ll tell you what’s irregular, Sir Gerald Armand-Vickers. You sending your Miss Wade out after me on her own is very bloody untoward. Allowing her to wander about with a basket of fresh vegetables, unescorted, scattering rose petals and singing nursery songs? Instructing her to let a wild animal with a three-foot sabre-tipped horn rests its head in her lap? What the hell were you thinking?”
“What? But I -”
“It’s bloody lucky for her that she bumbled into me before the flock of Griffins sniffed her out. Not to mention the Peryton. Or that vicious bastard Jackalope that skipped the freighter out of Newport last month.” The Unicorn puffed out his puffy brown lips, showing two rows of thick tapered teeth. “This peninsula is crawling with nastier creatures than even the likes of you, you clot. She could have been killed.”
“Now see here -”
“And that’s another thing,” said the Unicorn, “I understand the strategy, I really do. Luring the Unicorn into a trap with an virginal maid,” he snickered. “It’s a classic.”
The effrontery of it! Ignoring the rifle now, it trotted past Sir Gerald towards his entourage. With Sergeant Wilberforce hovering alongside, his regimental blade drawn forth in a steady hand, Miss Wade worked at her sketchpad with nervous swipes of a charcoal stick. Her observant depiction of this encounter with the Unnatural would be the garnish to Sir Gerald’s triumphant address.
The Beast sauntered right up to Miss Wade, tapped Wilberforce’s blade aside with its horn, and lay its head in her lap. It rolled one eye towards her canvass. “Excellent likeness, Maddie,” it exclaimed with damnable familiarity. “The thing is, Sir Gerald, you must take a lady’s word as to her state of innocence, but I don’t suffer any such uncertainty.”
Then it coughed with a mannered delicacy. “I believe it was the long chase that inspired your loyal retainers to romance.”
Wilberforce, well positioned to have the Beast’s head off with a single cut of his sabre, began to turn as scarlet as his cavalry greatcoat. Miss Wade turned an affectionate smile up at her lover. “The Unicorn was most gentlemanly, Sir Gerald. At first, when he discovered my blemished condition, I supposed that he wished to impale me upon that horn of his. Instead we had a nice long chat about you.”
Without waiting for further details, Sir Gerald twitched the trigger on his hunting piece. His heart sank at its unproductive click.
Wilberforce coughed meaningfully. “Sorry, sah, but your ammunition’s jiggered. Removed the powder myself. The big ‘un here waved his magic horn over my gammy leg. Fixed it so I could dance a hornpipe, were I so accursed as to be a sailor.”
“Wanton harlotry! Devil take you all!” Dashing his useless firearm to the dusty ground, he drew his sword. “How dare you? Before I cut the heart from your chest, beast, I demand that you answer for your insolence.”
The Unicorn stood, scraped its foreleg in the dirt once, twice and once more. It lowered its horn to a menacing height. “You shouldn’t have murdered my cousins of the Irish fae, Sir Gerald. They pay for their revenge in pots of gold.”