Blanket content warning for Unicorn/Factory: This setting involves unicorns using their horns for both violence and sexual violence, although none of that is directly described in this story.
Jakob took the woman to his home for the night. She deserved better than an anonymous inn bed, after the story she had given them, and, what was more, Jakob found he wanted the rest of the story.
His wife and second-oldest daughters put her to bed. They were not rich, but every home had some small corner that could be made up for guests. In the town, they whispered that the Administrators might come to visit. In the Villages, it was said that you never knew when a guest would turn out to be a unicorn in disguise.
She wore his wife’s second-best nightgown and was wrapped in a quilt Jakob’s mother had sewn for them. She seemed to fall asleep quickly, but Jakob himself lay staring at the ceiling for a very long time before dreams took him.
She ate breakfast with them the next morning, polite as a gentrywoman, appetite as small as her capacity for whisky had been large the night before. She helped Jakob’s wife Elin wash up after, and then, and only then, she asked Elin politely “May I?”
What Elin thought of this woman, Jakob might never know. She looked at this stranger, dressed in widow’s weeds and carrying such pain, and she knew what she’d wanted before Jakob did.
“Of course,” she said. There was a tone in her voice that Jakob had never heard, and it occurred to him that he was intruding on matters most often private to woman.
The woman tilted her head at Jakob. “Let us walk,” she offered, “down by the green.”
“As you wish.” She had gone to the river. She was a Village girl. What had changed in her that she carried herself so nobly? Or was it Jakob, that he wanted her to be noble, because of what she had done?
She said nothing until they were meandering the town green, sidestepping the sheep that grazed there. “You want to know what the unicorn’s answer was.”
“Lady, only if…” She cut him off with a hand.
“You were kind to me when I was being unkind. You brought me into your home when all you know of me is that a unicorn rejected me. For your kindness, I am going to repay you with harsh truths that are too much for me to bear alone. And yet, I can tell that you want me to do so.”
Jakob swallowed. “I want to know what the unicorn’s answer was,” he admitted.
“Unicorns are a mystery to men. That it was it is. They are a mystery to everyone, but the women walk to the river, and so the men think we know something they do not.”
Jakob nodded his politely, but forced the words out. “Women see the unicorns,” he offered, “and they… touch them.”
She raised an arch eyebrow at him. He thought she looked nearly amused. “Does touching someone tell you about them?”
Jakob coughed, thinking of a misspent youth. “Ah. No.”
“Indeed.” She leaned against a tree and looked pensive. “But… Sometimes, the unicorn will answer a question. Sometimes he will answer two. I asked two.”
She was leading him into the story, he knew, but he couldn’t bring himself to resent it. She had been wounded, he thought. She may be lucky to be alive. Few of those who were so wounded ever married, ever bore children.
He cleared his throat yet again. “You said you asked what you’d done wrong.”
“..I did.” She sighed. “And the unicorn told me a secret. But, you see, it’s a secret nobody wants to believe.”
Nobody, Jakob thought, meant no-one where she came from. He thought she might be challenging him, and then he thought of the days in the tavern and amended his opinion. She was challenging him.
“And the unicorn said?” he offered. He did not want to know. He did not want to hear. It was the only thing he could do, to hear.
She eyed him. “You will not want to believe.”
“Lady,” he answered, naked in sincerity and in terror, “I cannot do anything but believe, not after what you have survived.”
She bowed her head for a moment. Jakob thought, perhaps, she’d wanted him to refute.
“He said,” she whispered, so softly he had to step forward to hear him. “He said ‘sometimes the river needs the blood.’ He said,” she continued, while Jakob struggled not to rear back, “that they insisted on purity because then, then there was someone to bleed when the river needed blood. He said,” she was no longer whispering, but Jakob did not move away. “He said that he was sorry, but the unpure ones no longer came down to the river. He said,” and now she was shouting, sobbing, “he said I had done nothing wrong! And he would try to not kill me, but the river…”
Her voice broke. Jakob held her, not knowing if she wanting it, knowing only that he needed to do something. “…the river,” she whispered. “It demanded the blood. I’ve stroked a unicorn.” Her eyes went to Jakob’s. Even now he had to fight not to flinch away. He held her shoulders, feeling like he was holding so much more. “They made a bargain.” Her voice was cracking, growing weaker. “We only thought it was the one we made.”
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