The moment they see the unicorn boy—the shine of his skin, the pearlescent spiral of his horn, his silken hair pale as moonlight—they want him. It’s no wonder he prefers virgins. Their uncertainty makes their plucking hands almost gentle. Some of them are even sweet. Afraid.
But even in them, the wanting does not wait long. And there is only one answer to the wanting. It is not that he gives, but they take. Insistent hands leave bruises in their wake, dropped petals scattering the snow of his flesh. Hard, needful fingers tangle in his hair, pulling strands free in blind ardour. Fingers press inside him, pushing, choking, wanting without end.
Sometimes there is pleasure, but it is brief and accidental. The men and women who come to his tapestried chamber, all woven with scenes of his downfall, are not there for him. They come to sate themselves, scarcely knowing they do. After, they wake, spent, dazed, wondering at the lost time. They leave feeling full. Light settles like good wine in their bellies, and they are happy for a time. Until the wanting comes round again and they find themselves back at his door with hunger in their eyes.
This has always been the way, for as long as he can remember. For almost as long as he can remember.
Brief snatches of memory creep from the corners of his mind at odd times, almost crueller than the hands and mouths that come for him at every hour. A pool with sweet water. Fruit, cool and crisp on his tongue. The soft whicker of his father’s breath. A song his mother sang to him. Strong, calloused fingers on his brow, soothing fever as his horn pushed through his skin and he wailed like a child teething, not understanding the pain.
Although it was never spoken aloud, he knows his mother took his father against his will—thus is it always with their kind—and that she wept for it ever after. Overcome by wanting first, then grief afterward, blinded by desire and need. But unlike any other, she stayed, did her penance by remaining to guard his father from future wanting hands, and by raising his child.
There is no one to guard or protect him. Only a thin chain—fine as sunlight—bound around his ankle and chaffing his skin, running to a ring of iron bolted to the floor. Sometimes, he thinks he hears footsteps pause just outside his door. Hope and fear bloom in these moments, but in the end, neither is fulfilled. The door does not open, and he is left alone.
Slender as it is, the chain binding him will not break for him. He has cut his hands trying. So there is only this room, the silken hangings, the soft pillows his face is pressed into to stifle tears and cries. Beyond these tapestry-hung walls, he knows nothing of this place, save there are other beasts here. He hears their cries sometimes—a peacock’s mourn, the howl of a lonely wolf, something vast and dark snuffling in sorrow through the halls.
At least he cannot bear a child to the monsters who come for him with ravenous hands. At least his mother had the foresight and courage to smother his sister before she drew her first breath, in the instant she followed him from the womb.
The unicorn boy wakes from a fever of lips and teeth and tongues all tearing at him to a different kind of heat. His skin flushes from moonlight to dull mother of pearl, hair matted in sweat. And still they come for him. He whimpers low, too weak to protest, but the hands that part the hangings of his bed don’t immediately reach for him.
Through the shine of sickness, he sees blunted nails, torn, bloodied to their beds. The fingers are strong, rough when they touch his brow, but they do not tug at him. They drag a wet cloth over his too-hot skin, skirting his horn in a way that makes him shudder. A face leans into his, yellow-eyed, breath smelling of carrion, hair brambled wild to frame it all.
“Who?” He has never seen her before.
She smiles, not a kind thing, showing broken teeth. Blunted, like her nails. Broken by force, to tame her. He knows all this in a heartbeat; he knows what it is to be shattered and chained.
Bells decorate her tangled tresses, circle her wrists, and her ankles below the tattered hem of her robe. Yet she made no sound in her approach, makes none now as she refreshes the cloth and lays it on his brow. Seeing him looking, her grin widens, showing more of the shattered stumps of her teeth, the meaty-darkness of her maw.
“Once upon a time, my children wove bells in my hair to honour me. They placed cinnamon in my mouth. I was a queen, a sorceress, a warrior. I was fierce sunlight scouring desert sands and stripping men’s flesh from their bones as the day wound down.”
A scar crosses her left eye, leaving it milky. She smoothes more water over his skin. He shivers as it dries, cold, and the chain around his ankle chimes in answer. In a deft movement, she snaps one of the bells from the bracelet at her wrist, holding it out to show the clapper broken.
“Here, they made me wear bells to warn them of my approach, so I could not sneak up on them and take their life by force.”
She raises her arms, makes a little step, a turn; all her bells are silenced. Her expression is sly a moment longer, wicked light, curved as a sickle moon, sliding through her eyes. Then her expression sobers, posture softened and turned inward once more.
“I have spent time in the slave pits, been forced to fight battles not my own. I bear scars not of my choosing.”
“And now?” the unicorn boy asks, mouth dry.
“I am old and forgotten. They think me harmless. They tell me you are sick and send me to care for you.”
“Monsters must see to monsters, the beautiful and the horrid.”
She sits, uninvited, on the edge of his bed. He flinches from her heat and smell, from the memory of hands and wanting.
“You are scarce more than a mouthful.” She smiles again, showing cracked teeth, wounded gums. “You would not fill my belly.”
She leans in again, gaze raking him like coals. She touches the down of his mane, brushing it from his eyes.
“Would you learn to be terrible?” she asks.
The shine in her eyes frightens him. It shows the desert she described, ink-stained with shadows from the lowering sun, scattered with bones picked clean to leave meat-stink between her teeth. Once they curved wicked, strong, yellow like high noon.
“Beauty can be terrible, too,” he says, voice scant a whisper.
His eyes flutter closed. What might his terrible beauty be? Not the relentless pound of daylight, but the subtle burn of the moon. Sliding, insidious, to turn desire against those who would claim him and leaving them drained. Even after all he has suffered, bruises patterning his skin, and the hollowness left in their wake, he does not think he could do it. His beauty cuts inward. He cannot give back what is given to him, what is taken. Where the lion roars and devours the day, the unicorn thinks only of the soft whicker of his father’s breath, a scent like oranges, and his mother threading blossoms through a mane silver like his own.
“I want to run.” He opens his eyes.
“How far can you run? How fast?” Her anger is for him, not at him; she can see as well as he that his soles are lily skin, not hardened hooves.
“As far and as fast as I can. I hope it is enough.”
The lion whuffs, a breath that might be a laugh or only taking the scent of him. She presses the bell with its torn clapper into his palm, hard enough to dent the skin, hard enough almost to draw blood, and folds his fingers over it tightly. She picks up his thin golden chain, runs it over calloused pads before bringing it to her mouth.
“As do I. Run and tell my children of this place. Give them my token, and they will not devour you. Or.” She gives him another wicked smile, so he can see in her the ferocity, the youth stamped on her features, bright as a new-minted coin, just behind the tarnish of age. “Or, at least they will give you a fair head start. Tell them of this place as you run from their wicked teeth and snapping jaws. Tell them to come shatter its walls and burn it to the ground.”
She bites, gnashing with torn teeth, blood slicking her chin. He sees her, blazing in this room, standing in his absence to snap at those wanting hands and rending as many as she can before they take her down. He is frightened of her and for her. Perhaps they are the same thing. The chain breaks. Hot breath, blood-scented, touches his flank. She growls low in her throat, bells not making a sound at her movements. He runs.
Story copyright © 2015 by A.C. Wise
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Gregory St. John
A.C. Wise‘s fiction has appeared in publications such as Clarkesworld, Shimmer, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 4, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume 1. In addition to her writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story. Her first short story collection will be published by Lethe Press in summer 2015.
Gregory St. John (artwork) is an artist and fiction writer living in Gainesville, Florida. If he is not painting or sculpting, tending to his gardens and chickens, studying history and science, reading while walking his four dogs, cooking, or building something, he is hard at work at the family perfume business, Solstice Scents. He is currently drafting his first novel and editing a collection of his short stories titled The Short and Curlies, featuring “The Presence of Hell,” “Servant of Stone,” “A Helping Hand,” and “The Dare.”