How Not to Poach a Unicorn


Dawn came slowly in the dense forest. The heavy cloud cover had cleared overnight but the sunlight was slow to bleed through the thick canopy. It fell in drops between the leaves and gradually pooled at the mouth of the cave. Whatever breeze there might have been above the trees was completely absorbed by the forest.

The group slept soundly through much of the morning. Though they had made their beds of rocks, their bodies reveled in the meager sense of security that their little cave had offered. Every one of them slept soundly through the night and woke slowly-all but two, that is.

One didn’t wake at all. Kazé still showed no signs of regaining consciousness. His breathing, however, had deepened. He appeared to be resting rather than clinging to life. The other snuck out in the first light of dawn.

Prag woke up feeling well rested. He was, as usual, the first to wake up. He rarely slept past dawn and his finely honed instincts would wake him if there was the slightest movement near him. Knowing that the others likely wouldn’t be up for hours unless he woke them, he stepped outside to relieve himself and then inspected his sleeping company. He was horrified by what he saw. Not only was he not the first awake, but somehow the clumsy idiot-boy had managed to wake up and move past him without his knowing. His blanket was empty and he was nowhere to be seen.

Prag stepped back out of the cave and realized that the sun had already climbed high in the sky. It was probably halfway to noon. He cursed himself for sleeping so late and dashed out of the cave in search of the boy. He said a quick prayer to an imagined patron deity of dumb luck that the kid hadn’t yet given away their position.

The veteran mercenary moved like a serpent through the forest. He flowed between the bushes and trees, barely disturbing a leaf. He found the boy’s trail easily and followed the bent blades of grass, displaced twigs and three inch deep tracks to a small clearing.

He approached, sword drawn… and stopped. He sat and watched for several minutes before he turned his blade on a quiet footstep from behind him.

He found the tip of his blade at the throat of a dark skinned woman with long wavy brown hair and very distracting cleavage. “Sorry to startle you” whispered Kish, who was finishing buttoning her heavy green riding jacket.

Prag was again impressed by the woman. She had managed to get almost within striking distance of him before he heard her approach. What’s more she had managed to arm herself and tack him without him noticing. More still, she had barely reacted to having a sword drawn on her. “Have a look at this.” He said with a bemused grin.

They both stared out again into the small clearing.

“What’s he doing?” Asked Kish, baffled.

“I think he’s practicing.”

“Practicing what?”

“Walking. He’s learning to walk.” Prag concluded.

They both continued to watch the bizarre spectacle that the boy was putting on. He would use a tree at the side of the clearing to balance. Then he would walk unsteadily to another one at the far side of the clearing. He repeated this again and again, all the while grinning stupidly.

Prag stepped out into the clearing and the boy stopped. He turned and beamed at Prag and promptly fell gracelessly onto his face. Apparently, he had not yet mastered the art of standing.

After some extensive explanations and frantic gestures, Prag managed to get across that he wanted the kid to come back with them to them to the cave.

The trip back was not even comparably stealthy as the journey to the clearing. Prag continued to slither silently between the trees and Kish moved through the underbrush like a jungle cat on the prowl. The kid, however, insisted on walking which was a noisy and awkward endeavor and Prag was certain the idiot had managed to find every dry twig in the forest to step on. It baffled him how the clumsy twit had managed to sneak out in the first place. He was even starting to think that the boy was somehow hustling them.

As they returned to their little cave, Prag rolled over the best way to approach the impending negotiations in his mind. He had considered the ‘loyal royal guard’ approach. It would probably be the most comfortable for the Princess, but this handmaiden of hers seemed both wily and capable, and would probably see through it.

Another option was the ‘worldly veteran’. He could be a competent guide, hunter, and tracker. It was a good idea-helping them survive through the wilderness. That idea, too, had a flaw. This was a princess. She’d probably want to get out of the wilderness as quickly as possible, and there his contract would end. Moreover, the going rates for guides weren’t nearly as good as for bodyguards.

He decided finally to take the “confident leader” angle. He’d make the plans, speak with certainty, and protect the womenfolk as a proper man should. The wolf would never buy it, but he probably had a couple of days at least before the animal woke up. By then the others would trust him enough to override that. Also, the Princess seemed pretty protective of her woman friend. If he didn’t establish himself as a leader, the Princess might continue her suicidal habit of rescuing the girl. He steadied his expression, fixed his mind to his task and the personality he needed to affect, and quickly calculated the going rate for heroically rescuing a princess in Haelund coinage.

The Princess was awake and fussing over Kazé when they returned.

“Alright.” Prag started his speech with all the confidence of an attacking general. “We need to get moving as soon as possible. I’ll be able to carry to wolf once I get him swaddled correctly, you two will have to carry the food and bedding…”

“Thank you Prag, but you should probably go ahead without us. We can’t move Kazé in this condition. We’ll have to take our chances here.”

The Princess had cut him off before he’d even gotten started. He’d chosen the wrong angle and she’d rejected it before he even got to haggling over the price. He figured he could still recover and rolled with it. He changed his demeanor slightly and aimed for her comfort zone.

“But milady, you’ll be in great danger here and I’ll be unable to protect you if we’re attacked.” without missing a beat he became the most loyal royal guard the Princess would ever encounter, willing to lay down his life rather than have her chip a nail.

“You’ll be in just as much danger as us. We can protect ourselves. You would be much safer on your own.”

The second shot at the target missed by even more than the first. Now the damn girl was trying to protect him rather than the other way around. Hiding his frustration he rolled into his grizzled hunter act.

“Do you know where you’re going? Or how to get there? Do you know what you’re going to eat? There’s a lot of danger in this forest and you’d best have someone with you that’s been through here before.” It was weak. He knew it. It was all he had left. It amounted to nothing.

“Kaz is a better tracker than any man could ever be. Kish could find food in the middle of the Kor Desert. I know my own lands well and will not be lost as long as I am able to cross the border which lies directly south of here. I hold any debt you owed for my releasing you fulfilled.”

Her tone was that of a queen dismissing a peasant.

Prag was furious. He had a princess sitting right in front of him and she seemed hell-bent on getting herself killed rather than hiring him. He dropped his sales tactics, crossed his arms and sighed. “Do I not, for some reason, meet with your standards? It would seem to me that we could both benefit from a business arrangement. My previous contract

has been fulfilled and we’re both heading in the same direction. I can’t see how my pittance of a wage could…”

“We can’t pay you Prag!” The Princess cut him off sharply. Her eyes dropped to the cave floor in a mixture of shame and despair. “We can’t pay you… so just go.” Something didn’t sit right with what Prag had said. It set off a flare and bounced around in her head but couldn’t quite sort out what it was meant to illuminate.

“What do you mean you can’t pay me? You’re a princess. You reek of nobility. Wouldn’t someone pay a great deal to have you back?”

“I’m a princess, but a princess of nothing. Anyone who would pay to have me now is probably an enemy. I have no family left to reward you for my protection. Kish and Kazé here are the only ones in the world that I can trust now. I thank you for all you have done, but there is no profit to be found with us. Go. Take the boy with you if you’re willing. We’re nothing but a lure for ill-fortune and death.” She kept speaking as her mind searched for the source of the alarm in Prag’s words.

Prag slowly digested what the Princess was saying. He understood that there was no business to be done here, but something nagged at his mind. It was something tiny, something that he’d labelled trivial and shoved to a dusty and unused part of his mind but the Princess’s last rant had him now searching furiously for it. It refused to surface.

He stalled.

“So what will you do?” He asked, with some genuine concern seeping into his voice around the edges of his mock concern.

“We’ll hide here until Kazé can travel and then go south to the Barony of Orl. We should be able to at least find shelter there from Baron Taimon.” Cariolta was stalling as well, not thinking about her words. Her mind was fixed on the warning flare in her mind.

Prag was shuffling through the endless stacks of disused information in his brain as she spoke, but Kish cut in and distracted him just as he had almost found it.

“Don’t tell him where we’re going! He could turn around and sell that information. Have some sense!” Kish was considering her chances at dropping the mercenary where he stood.

Prag sensed his welcome had been overstayed and he turned to leave. As he gathered his rucksack he finally brushed the last cobweb from his mind.

“What did you call him?” he shouted, excited to have found his elusive thought.

“You said you had defaulted on your contract!” replied the Princess accusingly having found the source of her own mental itch.

They stared at each other for a moment of confusion before calming down enough to notice that both Kish and Prag had each other at sword-point, having drawn in reaction to the other’s sudden movement.

Prag lowered his sword slowly. “I apologize, Kish, simply a defensive reaction.” He sheathed his sword slowly and gave the woman another mental nod for the speed at which she had him on point. “At the point I told you that, Princess, it was true. I had believed my imprisonment to guarantee my failure. It is no longer the case.”

“But you were hunting unicorns… I don’t see any unicorn horns on your person.”

“I told you that I was arrested for hunting unicorns. That was true. I was doing that for some extra money seeing as I was in the area anyway. I’m rather embarrassed that I was caught for that.”

“What were you here for?” Kish had still not lowered her swords.

“If you must know, I was hired to kill Cailo.” Prag’s voice was almost flat, but it betrayed a hint of his amusement at the serendipitous circumstances that allowed him to complete his task. “Now, could you please tell me what you called that dog in the corner?”

“Kaz. I call him Kaz.” the princess answered, confused, uncertain as to why the mercenary would care.

“No, that’s what you usually call him. That’s a completely normal name for a wolf. I though heard you call him Kazé, though. What is his full name?”

“Not a big difference there, is it? What does it matter to you?”

“For me it’s a matter of appeasing my curiosity. For you it may be a piece of valuable information. You have my word that I will not tell a sooul. Please, is his name Tsukinokazé?”

The Princess’s face betrayed the truth before her lips could. “How do you know that name?”

“Because someone tried to hire me to kill him.”

Kish was shocked and angered at the statement and she moved her blades to a more threatening position on Prag.

“You needn’t worry about me.” He said calmly, almost ignoring

the swords at his throat “I didn’t take the job. It’s beneath me. I can assure you, though, that someone else did. It’s good news for me that the dog is going to be lost in these woods for a while. It means some of my competition will be tied up looking for him.”

Kish and Cariolta exchanged glances and the swords were lowered, but not sheathed. “Thank you for telling us.” The princess was suspicious of the mercenary, but polite.

Prag stood. “Unless you have a sudden eagerness to tell me who in the hells you are, my orphaned princess, and why you’re travelling with the Clan Alpha of the northern High Wolves, I’ll take my leave. No? Goodbye then, and good luck.”

Gathering his bags, Prag said one last thing. “If he is a northern High Wolf, then he’ll heal a lot faster if he’s in direct moonlight.” With that, he disappeared into the woods.

Kish and Cariolta were left standing in the cave, confused and suddenly very lonely. They stared out after their departing comrade and found the bright, vacant brown eyes of their unlikely savior and troublesome tag-along staring back at them.

The boy seemed to find the sudden attention ideal for demonstrating his new prowess at walking. He used the wall to stand, and wobbled awkwardly around the little cave, grinning with pleasure at his new skill.

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.