The next day, although I didn’t talk to her at all, I could feel that things were different between Harriet and I. It gave me a sense of encroaching excitement, and I hardly noticed when Teitnl left, being busy with trying to get something out of my studies instead of daydreaming about when I would be with her again. I was, however, with her in a sense, as I studied in the manor and she cleaned it, and I did see her a few times during the day. I mentioned before that Teitnl left, and that proved to be far more important than whether I was flirting with Harriet or not.
He was gone all day, and as the sun began to set I was reading something about rainbow trout when Harriet came in to sweep the study.
“I had begun to wonder if you’ve been avoiding me,” I said. I was sitting at Teitnl’s desk and this gave me a sense of empowerment, like a child pretending to be grown up, and I leaned my chin in my palm to watch her. She laughed at me and blushed.
“Of course not.” I sensed something in her voice, though, and wondered if she really had. Leaning back in my chair, I let a long moment of silence give her enough discomfiture to hand me some more clues. She glanced at me and fidgeted and I came to a realization.
“You really have been avoiding me!” This gave me a rush of all kinds of alarming emotions, and none of them were good. It helped that she smiled at me, yet it was further disarming, as if the idea of avoiding me was funny to her. I could feel my face flush, and as I did, I stood and took my books in my arms, fully intending to withdraw to my cottage to live forever in a hermitous, humiliated state. She wouldn’t let me leave, though, for that soft voice of hers stopped me in my tracks.
“Henry,” she said, looking down. “I’m leaving the estate.”
There was a prickling that rushed across my skin as I knew this was the best thing for her, but suddenly didn’t want her to leave, and in fact the very idea caused a sort of hollow pain in my gut. I didn’t know when all of this had occurred, since the last time her leaving had been brought up to me it hadn’t bothered me at all. However, here I was with Harriet telling me and I thought I would perhaps die from it.
I couldn’t tell her not to go, because I knew she should. I couldn’t encourage her to go or even feign happiness on her behalf because it made me so miserable. I didn’t know what to do, so I stood, blinded by her news, and watched the smallest movements of her form, memorizing her like I would never see her again. What I remember most was the way she turned her head, and how the push and pull of natural forces impacted the shape of her feminine neck that I had never touched.
“When?” was my ragged reply.
“Tomorrow.” She looked at me and seemed about to say something, but didn’t. A moment later she spoke again. “Aunt Olga and Master Teitnl have decided I have quite a lot to do in the world, outside of the estate. I suppose they’re right. I guess since knowing you, Henry, I don’t feel quite so shy anymore, not like I used to. But I … I thought since I’d be leaving I’d make it easier on both of us and –“
“We lost an entire day!” I was beside myself with torment. “Tomorrow? Why didn’t you tell me sooner? We could have done something with your last day here!”
She looked abashed as I complained for a while about spending the whole day reading about fish.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and I suddenly felt terrible.
“Don’t be,” I insisted. “Please… Oh, Harriet, you are the best friend I have.”
She gazed at me and her eyes seemed to begin to well up with tears and I had a moment of panic where I wasn’t sure what I’d do with a crying girl. I was saved from that predicament by a loud noise outside. It was like a thunderclap, and a few seconds later the doors to the estate slammed open.
“Olga! Ned!” yelled Teitnl.
Harriet and I forgot our angst and ran to the doorway to eavesdrop. Teitnl was at the end of the hall, not exactly disheveled because he never was, nor did I think it was a possibility that he ever could be, but he was as disheveled as he gets.
“OLGA AND NED!” he yelled again and I heard Olga’s voice from far off and some scuffling from the other direction. The required parties appeared.
“Yes, Master Teitnl?” asked Ned, a sense of alertness in his voice I’d never heard before.
“The cannons!” ordered Teitnl, and then he spun on his heel and stalked back outside. Ned and Olga looked pale, and then scurried off to the door at the back of the hall. As he opened the door, Ned gave a loud call for Junior, the door slammed shut, and then they were all gone, leaving Harriet and I alone in the doorway to the study.
I’d never seen a cannon once in all of my months at the estate, and wondered where they were kept. Somewhere in the back was what I deduced. I felt Harriet shift beside me and looked at her to see the same curiosity in her face I felt in mine. I grabbed her hand and we ran out the front doors.
The sky was variegated; deepening blue on one side and rich umber in the west. Somewhere in the middle it compromised and a few of the more zealous stars twinkled in the mixture. Teitnl was staring off towards the south with something like anxiety on his face. He heard us, though, and turned.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“Go to the back and help with the cannons, Henry!”
I went right away, but as I was running to the back I heard Teitnl confront Harriet for her presence.
“And you, shouldn’t you be packing?”
“Yes Master Teitnl, but I would like to help if I can.”
“Fine, stay here.” Their voices faded to inaudibility as I passed around the estate, and for some seconds the only sound was a bird and my feet in the lawn, until the voices of Junior, Ned, and Olga began to drift towards me. I passed around to the back, where a small shed housed the most unusual cannons I’d ever seen.
They were like cannons in a figurative sense only. That is to say, they looked like abstract cannons painted on a canvas to only suggest the idea of cannons, not to represent one to any degree of life-like authenticity. There were two of them and they were midnight blue, like the color that Teitnl favored, and were wider and shorter than normal cannons and banded around the middle with gold. Ned and Olga were handling one of them, and I skittered to help Junior with the other one, which had gotten stuck on a stick in the way. They weren’t overly heavy, at least they weren’t as heavy as they looked, and I wondered what material they were made of to be, if not light, then more manageable than they should have been. They also did not require fuses, or powder, or cannonballs that I could see.
Everyone seemed in on something I was not aware of, and were moving the cannons with great anxiety.
“What’s going on?” I asked as we pushed over the lawn towards the front. Junior just glared at me, and I gave him the most innocent look I possessed.
“It must be a unicorn!” Olga’s voice came from behind the other cannon. I considered.
“He’s going to blow up the unicorn with cannons? Sounds like overkill.”
“No, ye ridiculous boy!” snapped Ned. “Didn’t the Master teach you anything about unicorns?”
Junior smirked and I wanted to grind my teeth over my ignorance, especially in front of Junior.
“Not enough!” yelled Olga. “Tonight’s yer education then!”
My brow furrowed, but then we arrived in the front and Teitnl and Harriet ran to help push the cannons towards the southwest corner of the front lawn. Harriet came to my side, which made Junior’s smirk turn into a glower, and petty satisfaction was mine. There was a clear shot to the south where the trees were less prominent, and the sky was gloaming less and less from the vanished sun.
Teitnl began fidgeting with one of the cannons, and I saw a small panel open on the side with a number of odd instruments that the illusionist proceeded to manipulate with his agile fingers. There were clicks and a whir, and then the whole thing began humming like the sound numerous beehives might make.
“Junior, get my crossbow,” he said while his eyes were locked on the interior of the next cannon. “Wait,” said Teitnl. “Get two.”
Junior hesitated at the mention of two crossbows, probably feeling the same sort of confusion I was over for whom the second one was intended, and then took off in the direction of the estate. The second cannon began to whir, joining the first and making the sound of even more beehives as Teitnl was a whir himself in adjusting the machines. Olga and Ned stood nearby, only fidgeting as much as necessary, but they did seem anxious, so I decided I’d fish for some answers.
“So…” I began. Teitnl seemed to ignore me completely. “What’s all this then?”
“What’s all what?” was Teitnl’s absent reply. His hand was on one of the cannons and he turned to stare at the southern horizon. I cleared my throat. He looked back to me with a droll look on his face, tightened the sash around his waist, and was suddenly gone.
Before I could blink and ask where he had gone, Teitnl was back with a thunderclap, the only thing betraying his sudden movement being a certain windblown quality about his clothes and a few stray strands of hair from his queue. He grabbed each cannon in turn to aim it with ferocity, then looked for Junior, who had returned and was standing behind Harriet holding two crossbows; ornate and plain. Junior gave over the weapons, and Teitnl strapped on the ornate one, and then handed the other to me. I took it with confusion.
“You’re coming with me,” he said.
He didn’t answer, though, and instead called to Olga and Ned, who promptly readied themselves behind each cannon. Olga’s ruddy round face seemed strange behind a cannon, and with such a focused expression I would have thought she was cutting potatoes instead. Ned shared the look, and I had yet to discover the direness of the situation, although everyone else seemed to understand it completely. It was as if I had woken up and found myself in a secret club. A club of unicorn haters with strange contraptions.
“Ready?” he called. “Fire!”
Ned and Olga both pushed levers on the back of the cannons and the beehive pitch rose higher until they both shifted in unison back, then forward and something bright shot out of them, large beside Teitnl and I, then smaller and smaller, shooting high into the midnight blue sky. I began to attempt to form an inquiry, but there wasn’t time because Teitnl took me beneath his arm and we moved.
To say we “moved” was something of an understatement, because although Teitnl seemed to only take a step, the world began blurring by us at breakneck speed. He held me firmly in his grip, which seemed fortunate, because I was certain I would die otherwise, impaled on tree branches or crushed on rocks. At the end of his step there was a loud noise and we were standing in a clearing with the bright cannon-lights coming towards us. He pulled my arm to follow and we bolted into some bushes at the side of the clearing. I sat on the ground within the bushes and stared at Teitnl, so frustrated with unanswered questions that I was beyond asking anymore. He was surveying the clearing, and I think when he looked at me he had pity.
“We’re hunting a unicorn.”
He looked me over in consideration, and then lifted a hand towards the clearing, filling it with beautiful illusory wildflowers.
The bright lights from the cannons then came to the clearing, and they didn’t land like I had expected them to; instead they burst once above the clearing, shattering into vibrating strings of light and drifting or even floating multicolored through the sky above us. It was mesmerizing and I watched the lights with wonder until Teitnl’s sharp elbow impaled my side. He pointed to a part of the clearing that was far from us.
It meandered into view through the underbrush, only a white leg and exquisite hoof at first and then a muzzle. It seemed to reveal itself in a teasing way that made me desire more and the slowness of it was agonizing. I wanted to run from the bushes and see it all, gorging my eyes on what must be, from the small parts I could see, the most beautiful creature in the world. Through the leaves I saw the hint of fine, whisper-thin, white hair that fell across itself like strands of silk, and as I ached to touch it I knew I had fallen in love… with a horse. Teitnl gripped my arm hard with his hand, pulling me to him as if his firm grasp would make me retain my senses.
“Watch the flowers,” he whispered almost without sound into my ear, and I obeyed, as I couldn’t have stopped myself from watching one of the delicate silver-gray hooves step into the edge of the illusion. The flowers vanished; they ceased to exist the instant the unicorn touched them. The flowers around those flowers went, too, and then like dominoes, they all went out in a wave. It was like a pebble dropped in a pond. The illusion was gone from just a touch from the unicorn.
I was still in Teitnl’s grip; he was like a vice. Perhaps it was his hatred of the beast, or perhaps it was that he feared I would run to it. It could have been both, as both were true and hung heavy over us at that moment.
“Unicorns reveal truth,” he whispered to me quiet enough so he wouldn’t be overheard, but with urgency. “They render us completely powerless. There is no illusion great enough that a unicorn can’t dispel it with a touch.”
The unicorn came closer by a little, drawn by the lights that hung above the clearing, which darted to and fro with a multitude of colors. Its dark eyes cast up to the lights beneath long lashes and I knew if that unicorn were a woman I might have gone mad enough to kill Teitnl for it.
“Listen to me,” came Teitnl’s whisper. “If a unicorn sets foot in the valley it will dispel my illusion entirely, exposing the illusion for what it is. Hundreds of years of work will be lost. We have to stop it.”
“We have to kill it.”
I moaned at the idea. “No… we can’t.”
“We have to.”
“It’s so beautiful, how can it be wrong?”
“Unicorns are idiotic creatures.”
I gasped at him, furious over his insult of unicorns, which suddenly felt like they had been my best friends for ages. Teitnl slapped me.
“Snap out of it!” he hissed. “I thought you were smart enough not to be fooled by simple charm magic.”
Once the stars cleared from my eyes (Teitnl was always a talented slapper) I blinked and realized, to an extent, what had been happening to me. I still didn’t want to kill it, though.
“Isn’t there something else we could do?”
“It’s either the unicorn or our livelihood. Which will it be, Henry?”
“But it’s so pretty!”
“That’s the nature of the beast.”
“Can’t it be turned into a girl somehow?”
Teitnl slapped me again.
“Ready your crossbow.” He unstrapped his crossbow and began checking it, prepping his bolt and unlacing the harness. The unicorn was in the center of the clearing now, gazing up at the lights with mindless abandon, unaware that it was about to be crossbowed to death by a blue-haired elf with a vendetta against its kind. I had removed my crossbow, but, seeing Teitnl take careful aim, could bring myself to do nothing with it, and instead dropped it to the ground and buried my face against Teitnl’s coat and began to cry. I felt a rush as the crossbow in Teitnl’s arms fired, a small but deep click, a tiny movement that resonated through the both of us, and then the keening wail of the creature in the clearing. I fell back onto the ground and covered my face as Teitnl reloaded, fired, reloaded again. There was a third loud snap, the thud of a bolt hitting its target, and no more wailing.
I heard Teitnl moving, and then suddenly the agony I’d been experiencing lifted, gone in a flash. I sat up and blinked.
“Is it dead?”
I stood and looked over the bushes where Teitnl was standing over the remains of the unicorn. Its appearance was nothing like what I recalled. First off, it was gray, not the pure white I’d seen. It actually kind of looked like a goat. I didn’t mourn its death, either, which seemed strange since I could still remember how desperately I’d loved it five minutes before. I shivered.
“I don’t like charm magic,” I said, staring at the dead creature.
“I despise it,” said Teitnl. “Charm is magic for the weak, used to exploit and control.”
He added with low disgust: “There is no art in it.”
“I’m sorry I was taken by it,” I said, feeling ashamed of my frailty.
“It was your first time,” he replied, making an excuse for me.
“What should we do with it now?”
“Throw it in the bushes.”