But the unicorns were something else. Terrible creatures, thrice the size of a shire horse, with a razory run of plates along their backs that marched up their thick necks to culminate in a wickedly serrated horn. This protuberance rose from between piggy eyes and was barbed: these barbs were poisonous, so if you didn’t die of the initial goring and subsequent voiding of your intestines, you’d be cut down by a lung liquefying toxin. They were less predictable than the dragons, too, and entirely immune to appeasement. More intelligent. They came for the first time one winter ten years back. Our stores were fat with grain and salted meat, and, as with the heartbeat of the countryside around us, the pulse of town life had slowed with the dropping temperatures. Folk stayed by their fires, content and nodding and waiting for spring. The dragons were asleep, too, and the fields were covered in an opalescent blanket that, from time to time, was whipped into a misty aerial froth that hung in the air for hours.
They came at dusk, with the purpling of the horizon, when the trees were black shapes against an ice-cream sky and the last rooks were circling. I became aware of an oscillating judder, felt in my feet; this pounding syncopation quickly spread so that I felt its jarring beat in my legs, my hips, in the push and pull of my own heartbeat, and I was on the verge of pulling up the floorboard for my blade when the town siren began its long scream. By now, that seemingly subterranean thunder had resolved into the almighty pounding of hooves, and then the first scream came. God help me, I took one look outside my cottage, and retreated, pulling up that floorboard after all, not to retrieve my weapon, but to lie alongside it in the crawlspace, pulling the board back atop me so that I lay in a webby tomb, listening to the deaths of my neighbours and the awful rampaging of the monsters I had so briefly seen outside.
When I emerged just before dawn the next day, the town was slick with blood and shit. The survivors told their tales and, at the fading of the sun, those of us that remained sought refuge in the crypt beneath the church, where we huddled in a cloud of our own rimy breath until daybreak. But the unicorns didn’t return that year, and we never knew what they wanted, other than gore and grief, for our stores went unmolested, our barned cattle unharmed. It has been said since that it is our dread that feeds them, but I think that is just old world nonsense. More like they do not come to us out of hunger – their bellies seemed pretty full to me, what little I saw of them – for I believe their prey lies elsewhere. I think that they come to us for sport, in the wintertime, when whatever doorway leads to us opens and they are allowed brief access. I had a brother once who ventured west, way beyond the smoking lakes and the crystalline passes that mark the northern border of our principality. He went to hunt the mountain lions, and he returned many months later with a sackful of pelts and stories of his many trails. I asked him how they had tasted, those mountain lions that he had snared. He told me they had tasted awful; he had subsisted happily on fish and berries. His joy in their killing was not the base jubilation of the survivor who knows his empty stomach will be filled, but a narrower pleasure – to my mind, a hollow euphoria. Perhaps it is this these horned terrors feel in what passes for their brains when they come to hunt us.
They came again one winter dusk the following year, putting to smoking ruin our hopes that their previous visit had been a one off aberration. They sensed the traps we had laid. Their leathery hides proved impervious to blade or bow. They leapt our ditches with brutal grace. And blood spattered bright on our frost-scummed streets once more.
And so, as the last of the next year’s leaves shivered and fell, I shouldered on a pack and left for the mountains. I knew that I would probably not survive: no dragons had been sighted for a week, and we presumed they had begun their hibernation, but no-one knew for sure. And autumn was always dicey when it came to dealing with dragons: they were sleepy and slow and angry as their blood cooled and the heat in their bellies banked to low embers. It was only during this season that we in the town would be wary when their bulging shadows fluttered over our streets and squares. If we could spare them, two or three felons would be tied up alongside the goats in the field just beyond the boundary line, and this seemed to appease the beasts, for the most part.
But, should I have encountered a dragon in my trek towards their home in the stony fastness, I fully expected a charry death. A quick one, if I was lucky.
And yet, as I clambered higher into the foothills, the skies remained clear and blue, free of cloud and beast, the quality of the air so crisp and sharp that, looking back, I could easily make out the small details of the distant town: the flag topped turrets of the Elders’ Seat, the jostle and push of the market square, the gloomy squat of the town jail. I surged on upwards and, after a day’s travelling, I finally reached the yawning hole in the rock-face where we believed the dragons slept through the winter. As I approached, a hot metallic smell assailed me, filling my lungs, so that I used a rag to cover my mouth and nose as I came closer. Piles of half molten dragon dung still steamed and hissed all around the cave mouth, and, from deep within that hellish hole, I thought I could make out the distant huff and wheeze of the sleeping beasts.
Here I stopped, and, putting my bound pack down on the snow scrimmed ground, I set up a rudimentary camp, and waited. Hours passed, and days, and the weather drew in close and cold as I huddled beneath my furs and chewed on strips of salted meat. The nights were long and bitter, and many were the times, come dawn, that my entire body was without sensation, and I watched as the first blooms of frostbite flowered on my toes and fingers. I watched the town, always. Sometimes it appeared to float on a scrappy cloud of mist, sometimes it was a lone patch of mute colour amid a sea of hoar. And sometimes it disappeared entirely, and those times were the worst.
But there finally came an indigo dusk when the grasslands beyond the town’s borders sparkled with a half frozen, diamond dew that winked and glittered at me across the miles to where I lay, now well beyond shivering, outside the dragons’ cave. A sharp prickling innervated the muscles of my back and neck and I was up and standing, insensible to my blackened feet, even before I saw the herd of unicorns materialize out of the murk of the forest that flanked the town. I struck my tinder and set its spark to the stacked pile of blackthorn that I had kept covered and dry during the many days of my watch, and saw how the barbed wood took the flame and gobbled it, as if it were the wood eating the fire, and not the other way around. The first screams rose thin and distant from the town as I kicked the conflagration, trailing blackthorn barbs, into the coaly blackness of the cave. I heard the wood skitter and woof as it slid into the great hole, thick gouts of pungent smoke trailing behind it in ragged flags.
I could not bear to look down at the town, so I watched the entrance to the cave instead. At first, there was nothing. And then there was. A chorus of enraged, damp screams split the twilight and, wasp-like, a swarm of dragons, woken by the blackthorn smoke and utterly enraged, flew out into the winter night. They were clearly confused, flying haphazardly, snuffling sparks, and murderous. In their semi-sentient state they did not notice me at all, lying prone on the ground, but instead began to coalesce together with more purpose, and flocked as one towards the town, desiring only destruction.
Townsfolk died that night, to be sure, and many as the result of my actions. But I have learned to live with that, for the dragons, alive to some ancient instinct, perhaps, wiped out every single last unicorn that winter evening. They swooped down on them, tearing and terrible, with a ferocity that we had never seen directed against our own kind. They breathed what fire they could, and the stink of roasted flesh reached me up on my rocky perch. And they did not cease until the final horned monster was destroyed, even as its dying struggles mortally gored the dragon it fought. I cannot describe to you the noise that the unicorns made as they perished: hearing it near drove me mad.
It is winter again now, and the tale I have told you concerns events ten years past. And in all that time, we have never been troubled by another unicorn. Nor by the dragons, either, who flew away that night and did not return come spring. The crops we grow now are of the standard size and, on occasion, they fail, and we know what it is to feel the pinch of hunger when the days diminish and the fields are frozen. And I would be remiss if I did not record that many of us here still watch the skies as the land wakes again each year, and listen, with something like longing, for the drag and waft of great wings overhead.
©December, 2016 Melanie Smith
Melanie Smith lives and writes from Gloucestershire, England. Her story "The Locked Door" appeared in The Flash Fiction Press in November. This is her first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.