How Not to Poach a Unicorn


 Cariolta sat back in her dining chair, took a sip of wine and stared into the amber liquid as though she were watching the story play within the bowl of the glass. “I suppose it started a little more than two months ago. My father, King Eridan…”

Cariolta paused suddenly shaken by the memory of her late father. Choking back her grief, she continued. “My father was worried that the harsh winter that had just passed would lead to poor hunting for the roaming people of Desidan. Whevever such a winter had happened in the past, the starving bands of hunters would raid the eastern farms of Haelund, which usually had a bumper crop following the heavy snow of those same winters. Retribution would be called for and it has, more than once escalated into a war. The last was thirty years ago and the injuries of that vicious feud have not been forgotten.”

“I am familiar with my history Cari.” Taimon interrupted “Unlike your little brother, I attended my classes.”

Cariolta’s brow furrowed. Her porcelain face twisted for a moment with the desire to chastise the Baron for the slight to her family, but she turned that energy towards her story. “Then you should know that the outcome of these wars is always the same. Hundreds die in battle; thousands more starve in the following winter and no one has ever claimed a meaningful victory from them. It was the intention of the kings to stop this before it started. The crown princes of both nations were to meet on neutral ground, at the Tomb of the God Emperor, to discus alternatives. Unfortunately there were complications.”

“My father was assassinated.” Kish interrupted, full of righteous fury. “He was poisoned in his own home. He and my older brother, Ulrat, had been heard arguing the night before. The next morning he was found dead from blackroot poison in his mead. None but my brother had been in or out of his tent that night, so he was blamed. The Council of Elders claimed that he was trying to take the throne by force, before his time and they exiled him.”

“Ulrat rode north along with fifty elkmen who were loyal to him.

The rest of us were left to suffer the rule of my younger brother Karle, who is not yet fourteen. What’s worse is that Karle made his lecherous tutor his chief adviser. That man is far too wily to wield that kind of power.”

“So did Ulrat kill your father?” Prag interrupted rather rudely, speaking through a piece of smoked yak.

“Of course not!” She nearly impaled Prag with her glare. “Ulrat revered my father, as we all did. They argued often; that was their wayof discussing things. If one wanted the other dead, they would have run them through, not used poison. I doubt Ulrat would even know where to find blackroot. No. This was a conspiracy. I suspect Karle’s tutor had a hand to play in it and now he practically rules the country.” Kish slammed herself back into her chair in frustration.

Cariolta picked up again, in a saddened tone. “Ulrat refused to take Kish with him in exile. He forced her to stay and do her best to keep Karle safe from the now obviously malicious influence of his adviser.

She offered Kish a comforting hand before continuing. “At the same time, trouble had started in Haelund. There were two assassination attempts made on the life of my brother, Prinin. Neither succeeded, but my father became very wary of letting him travel outside the castle until the source of them could be found.”

“So someone finally tried, eh?” Taimon mumbled to himself.

“What?” The princess was shocked at the idea that Taimon, a close friend of Prinin, would know anything of attempts on his life.

It was Baroness Verena that spoke up. “I suppose that such things are not discussed within earshot of anyone at court, but it has been long mumbled that Prinin would not make a good king.”

“And why not?” Cariolta was obviously hurt by the suggestion. “I know you loved your brother, Cari.” Taimon said as comfortingly as he could. “But he was too much his mother’s son. He was lousy with a spear and didn’t have the commanding presence that a king needs. The baronies, especially those to the east, near Desidan, feared that he would not be willing or able to protect them when war came again.”

“So they would kill him?” Cariolta was not at all ready to be thrust into the darker side of international politics.

“I didn’t imagine that anyone would actually do it, especially without another male heir. But with the birth of your little brother last year, I suppose someone got brave enough to try.” Taimon was speaking through a mixture of disgust at his fellow nobles and sorrow for the loss of his friend.

Cariolta’s gaze fell back into her emptying wine glass “In any case, Prinin couldn’t leave, so they sent me to the meeting instead. I arrived with my entourage at the Tomb of the Emperor at the appointed time and date, as did Kish, though she had travelled alone and without the knowledge of her brother.”

Kish took over the storytelling. “I was as surprised to see the Princess as she was me. We went inside the temple grounds to explain ourselves and try to make good of the situation. The grounds were strangely empty. There should have been monks tending to the area, but it was entirely silent and still. We went into the mausoleum which houses the undying body of the God Emperor and found the monks there. All of them were bound and gagged and the body was missing.”

Prag choked on his food. “Missing? Someone stole the body of the Emperor?”

“It would appear that it was your friends that did it. Just as we exited, we were set upon by at least twenty men in shadow cloaks. They attacked my guard and if it wasn’t for Kazé and Kish surprising them, we would have been overwhelmed.”

Kazé joined in with his recollection of the events. “King Krull was good to the High Wolves. He punished any who hunted us for our pelts as he would any murderer of men. He earned our trust and loyalty. Ulrat was often ambassador to our people. In his exile, he came to me in the northern Desidan Mountains for sanctuary. When he told me of the meeting between the peoples, I went in his place rather than risk his capture and execution should he be found in his own lands again. I arrived later than I should have, with only two of my trusted guard. Princess Cariolta’s escort were fighting a losing battle to the men hiding in the shadows. But they were easy enough to smell and hear, so we attacked.

Two fell quickly; I saw another fall to Kish’s blades, having underestimated our Battle Maiden. My comrades were wounded by lucky crossbow bolts. All of Cariolta’s men were dead or wounded. Those still standing were fighting hard but commanded the Princess to flee.”

“So we fled.” Princess Cariolta watched her trusted guard perish in her empty wine glass. “We rode hard back to the capital, hounded by the Shadow Thieves the whole way. We arrived to find the palace a burnt out husk. The bodies…”

Cariolta was unable to continue, so the ever sober Kazé took over coldly. “The bodies of the Royal Family had been thrown into a pile and burned. Their heads had been removed and put on stakes. The entire palace was a graveyard.”

Cariolta started to sob. “Even my baby brother… His tiny crown balanced on his severed head. It was unspeakable. How could anyone do that?” She broke down and buried her head in Kish’s shoulder.

Kazé continued undaunted. “There was a strange scent about the place, like I’ve never smelled before and odd tracks, like those of giant birds. But there wasn’t a living soul or any sign of any invading force that could have overwhelmed the defences. Before we could make a proper search of the palace, another band of Shadow Thieves caught up with us. We were forced to flee northward. Eventually we crossed the Ashun border and shortly thereafter crossed paths with a patrol. We were captured and imprisoned in Irsank Fortress.”

“Irsank Fortress?” Taimon nearly spat out his wine. “The inescapable dungeon of torment? How in the hells did you get out of there alive?”

“This kid let us out.” Kish replied. “He and Prag were being held captive there. Prag for poaching unicorns…”

The Baroness let out a gasp of pity to which Prag mumbled

“Bleeding heart bluebloods”

Ignoring him, Kish continued “This boy is strong enough to let himself out of the prison. He bashed his way through the doors with his fists, shattered the arm of a stone golem with his bare hands and quite casually threw a bed at Lord Cailo. He is unfortunately also responsible for the current state of your front gate.”

“How can any man be that strong?” Taimon was staring in disbelief at the scrawny youth whose fist will forever be imprinted on his front door. The boy stared back and smiled vacantly.

“We don’t know.” Cariolta had finally pulled herself back together.

“We’re pretty sure he doesn’t either. He’s a complete simpleton. He doesn’t seem to know anything, he doesn’t even speak. We’re just lucky, for the most part, that he’s taken a liking to us.”

“After our escape from Irsank, we made our way to the border as fast as we could. There the Shadow Thieves caught up with us again. This time we managed to fight them off enough so that they lacked the forces to keep up their pursuit. From then on we had little trouble reaching you. Our only hindrances were our overly chatty bodyguard and some foul weather.”

Baron Taimon was deep in thought. He spoke slowly as he stroked his chin. “Two kings were assassinated just as they were preparing to go to war. I am certain that is no coincidence. Our country has been thrown into anarchy because of it. Various barons are vying for power, but none will step up and claim the throne, partly because none has more of a claim than any other and partly because the others would blame whoever claims it as the mastermind behind the destruction of the Royal Family. The disappearance of the body of the God Emperor is curious and terrible, but I don’t see how it could be connected.”

“I don’t see how either, but I’m nearly certain that it is.” Prag retained his casual, disinterested tone of voice, but his eyes betrayed his intense interest in the puzzle. “I know the Shadow Thieves. They come from the same city in Caneria that I usually operate out of. Stealing the God Emperor’s body and leaving the entire cloister of monks tied up and uninjured sounds just like them; they enjoy showing off like that.

However, they wouldn’t attack or hunt anyone, even witnesses, unless they absolutely had to. Besides, the Shadows were trying to kidnap Cari, not kill her.”

“Interesting…” There was a long pause after that as Taimon shuffled the bits of information about, trying to make them fit. “It would make sense that someone would want Cariolta alive. If someone was to wed our maiden princess, they would be king by law of the land. But who would be able to convince a kidnapped princess to marry them?”

“A knight in shining armour.” Cariolta had a cold moment of insight. “After being hunted, kidnapped and probably horribly mistreated for a time, a girl could easily fall for a noble hero who came to her rescue.”

Prag suddenly sat up straight in his chair and made a fuss about fixing his unkempt hair and straightening his shirt. Once satisfied he made a very poor effort at looking charming.

A look of revulsion crossed Cariolta’s face. “No Prag, I don’t think you managed to win my heart with your rugged good looks and daring charm. In fact, I think I just threw up a little. Not to mention that you weren’t the one to rescue us, he was.” She gestured to their young friend who had just finished eating a whole chicken.

“Why don’t you marry him then?” Kish proposed almost straightfaced.

Cariolta responded with an expertly raised eyebrow and a look of mock interest in the suggestion.

Lady Verena refocused the rapidly disintegrating conversation. “So someone is trying to become king by force. Why would they try to start a war at the same time?”

Things clarified for Taimon. He spoke as the plan unfolded in his mind. “He would ascend the throne and at the same time rally the various baronies to his side to fight off the barbarian hordes that are ravaging the eastern frontier. He would be a hero in the eyes of the country. The country would welcome the new king with open arms instead of running him over hot coals as they would in peace time.”

“That sounds great.” Prag liked the suggestion. He saw a puzzle come together neatly but still had a swath of pieces left over. “There are a few odd details we haven’t mentioned yet. First off, various parties wanted Cailo and Kazé assassinated at almost the same time as the other two kings were being offed. That’s too much of a coincidence for me to swallow. Next, there’s that wizard we met. He’s absurdly powerful and he knows both Kish and Cariolta. Actually, he knows Kish quite well.”

“He knew the kid too.” Cariolta jumped in. “In fact, he said that he had made him.”

Something clicked in Taimon’s brain. He spoke with sudden authority and urgency. “Prag, how do you know Cailo was supposed to be assassinated?”

It’s very awkward for a man to tell someone who just fed him a nice dinner and gave him a new set of clothes that you’re a professional murderer. Prag always had trouble talking about work with those outside the business; they never understood the intricacies of the profession and how irrelevant it was who actually did the deed. It’s really the person paying the bills that’s the monster. He knew full well that nobody at the table had any interest in hearing his moral justification for what he does, so instead he resorted to his default state of ‘blunt’. “Because I was hired to kill him.”

“You didn’t did you? I mean, you escaped the prison. You didn’t just happen to kill the Lord on your flight down the mountain?” Taimon was extremely agitated for some reason.

After a rather awkward pause Cariolta, answered, as if fearing a father’s scorn “Actually…we killed everybody in the fortress.” She stiffened, expecting some kind of verbal assault from Taimon.

“Everyone? That’s terrible! That prison and Cailo are a necessary evil in these parts. His men keep the trolls and ogres at bay. Without them there, we’ll have creatures of all sorts wandering into our lands.” The exasperated Baron clutched his head and sank into his chair.

“He didn’t really leave us with much of a choice,” Cariolta defended herself vigorously. “He was going to… He was going to do terrible things to Kish.”

The Baron wasn’t really listening. “Next you’re going to tell me that you stole his cape and sword too.”


“You did?” Taimon was panicked. “Those are supposed to be ancient relics—gifts from the Sorcerer King himself. What if he comes looking for them? What if he comes looking for you? Where are they now?”

“The cloak is in my pack,” said Kish “The kid has the sword.” “You let a simpleton carry around a relic of Ashunar, the Demon King of the North? Are you all quite mad?”

Kazé decided to add some sobriety to the situation. “The kid smashed through your iron door without effort. Do you really think a sword makes him that much more dangerous. Besides, he’s the only one who can lift it. The thing weighs as much as your house.”

“Then it’s true.” The Baroness had moved into the sitting room where the guests had piled their gear. She was carefully wiping the layers of filth from the scabbard, exposing the gleaming white silver traced stone beneath.

“What’s true?” Cariolta rose to watch the lady of the house prod delicately at the sword, as though it were made of crystal.

“The story of these swords…” The lady beckoned for them to come into the room with her. “I’m surprised you never heard the story from your uncle Ash, Cariolta. That’s where I heard it. He was my magic teacher too, you see. And he would tell all sorts of stories about the old legends.”

Cariolta looked sheepish “I skipped a lot of magic lessons.” She mumbled.

The Baroness continued. “In any case, these swords are supposed to be made from a star that fell from the sky. The star fell in the mountains of Ashun and made a huge crater where it landed. King Ashunar built his black fortress in the crater and used his powerful magic to forge six swords from the fallen star. The legend says that each sword weighs as much as a mountain and that the sorcerer king chooses his generals by having them try to lift one of the swords. Only someone who can carry the sword can be a general.”

“How does anyone lift that thing? I can’t even move it.” Kish was remembering her tumble into the river.

“Making things lighter is a simple trick of magic.” She grabbed the hilt of the sword and started to focus.

Prag had noticed that there was a black and grey tabby cat running around the house, but had paid little mind to it. Now the cat was behaving strangely. Its back was arched and its claws dug into the carpet. He also thought he could see a slight shimmer passing from the eyes of the cat, through the Baroness. “You’re a proper witch.” He observed.

“She is, as are all proper ladies of Haelund.” Taimon seemed to be gloating as he watched eagerly as his beautiful and apparently powerful wife cast her spell on the blade.

She finished her incantation and pulled at the sword. To her credit, she moved it significantly more than Prag was able to when he first tried. That is, it moved.

Verena was amazed. “If I’d done that to a normal sword, we could have blown it around the room like a feather. You say this boy can lift it without any magic at all?”

“Yeah, the kid’s pretty much unstoppable.” Prag gestured at the boy, who was now trying to touch the cat, which was making every effort to maintain a safe distance. Prag interrupted the potentially disastrous pursuit by drawing the boy’s attention towards his sword.

Happy to see it again, he bounded over and picked it up. Unfortunately, as it was still under the effect of Verena’s spell, the sword was significantly lighter than he had remembered and he accidentally tossed it through the floor above. It came crashing down a moment later, ruining a well stuffed armchair before coming to rest again on the stone floor. The boy seemed to sense that he had done something wrong and affected a look of both guilt and innocence. It’s the sort of look that only toddlers and puppies can muster and makes it impossible to be angry with them.

The ruined sitting room was, however, the last straw for the good Baron. He excused himself and set about organizing his men. He had a border to defend, a door to fix, three royals to guard and now a hole in his second story floor. He was having a bad night. The others watched as the boy wrestled with the heavy clasp on the enchanted metal belt which held the sword.

“There’s one more thing that’s been eating at me,” said Prag as he helped the boy with his buckle. “How is it that our sweet little maiden princess is so good with a short spear?”

Cariolta looked suddenly shamed and angered and Verena chuckled lightly “I can answer that for you,” she said “With Your Highness’s permission.”

“Oh, go ahead, half of the rest of the kingdom probably knows anyway.” The Princess sulked over to a corner and slumped into one of the surviving chairs.

“Cariolta and Prinin were born less than a year apart.” Verena began, “Both of them spitting images of their mother: blonde hair, bright blue eyes, fair skin. In fact, when they were very young they were always dressed in different colours just to tell them apart. They were also very dear to each other and were nearly inseparable except when it came to their studies. Prinin was forced to learn all about history and warfare and law and matters of the court as well as spear-fighting. Cariolta, on the other hand, had to study magic and dance and art with us other ladies of the court.”

“They are a little more than five years younger than Taimon and myself but we studied alongside them as their seniors for a time. Cariolta never really got on with us ladies, though. She always wanted to be out learning to fight with her brother. Taimon told me that Prinin was much the same, more interested in the magics his sister was learning than spear-fighting.”

“As the years went on, we started to notice that their behaviour was erratic. Some days Cariolta would be enthralled with the magic, and others entirely despondent. Also, neither of them seemed to be developing their skill at an acceptable rate. It wasn’t until Prinin’s voice changed that we discovered what had been happening. They had been swapping places whenever they had the chance. In a full fighting uniform or a dress and bonnet, the two were indistinguishable. So by the time they were fourteen, they were both half trained witches and half-trained spear-fighters.”

“So that’s why you don’t have a familiar like all the proper ladies of the court?” Prag was in stitches. “Because you were too much a tomboy.”

“Yes, terribly funny.” Cariolta was not the least bit amused. “I’m rather drowsy. Could I retire?”

“Of course, Your Highness. Though if I’m not mistaken, the room we had prepared for you now has a rather large hole in the floor.” The Baroness answered with as much grace as she could after embarrassing the Princess with her story.

“I shall share a room with Kish, then, if she will have me.”

“After this past month, I think I would find it hard to sleep without you nearby.” Replied Kish sincerely, “I’ll take my leave now too. Thank you for your hospitality Baroness.”

Prag and Kazé were each given their own rooms next to Kish’s. Prag’s was somewhat less ostentatious than the others, but it was far better than what he was used to and he certainly wasn’t going to complain about sleeping in a real bed. The boy was left downstairs in the sitting room. He had fallen asleep there by himself anyway and they decided that if he was going to do any more damage, it would be best to keep it localized.

It took some time for Prag to fall asleep. The grunts and moans involved in the princesses removing their corsets conjured images from his run-in with the wizard that were rather difficult to beat down again. He did eventually sleep, though, as did they all. Safe at last in warm soft beds.

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