Little Finger of Vecna: A Neutral Evil Rogue of Some Question

[image description: screencap of part of the neverwinter nights player character record for one “dedo menique”, a human neutral evil rogue at fifth level, including a portrait of a handsome barefaced young man with short jet black hair in dark clothing. the record lists his stats as strength: 8, dexterity: 17, constitution 10, intelligence 15, wisdom 12, and charisma 14. his current AC is 14 and he has 27 of 27 total HP, and 12,067 experience points with a total of 15,000 required to gain the next level.]

I can’t imagine that anyone is at all interested in my not-so-original D&D character creations, especially when they only exist in an ancient video game hardly anyone plays anymore, but I do enjoy writing about them, so there’s that. This time around my inspiration comes from Petyr Baelish, a character from HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones who is also known as “Littlefinger”. I haven’t really read far enough into George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels to claim them as much of an influence, or to know if the character from the books differs significantly from Aidan Gillen‘s portrayal of him on the show, but that hardly matters because I wasn’t aiming to re-create the character so much as come up with a new one loosely based on him. With that in mind, I named him Dedo Menique, which is Spanish for “little finger” (except that due to the disallowance of special characters in the character name field it’s missing a tilde, but that hardly matters either since the Spanish language itself doesn’t exist in Faerûn, which is the setting of the Neverwinter Nights base game in which our boy happens to currently reside).

For some time now I’ve wanted to make a Rogue PC that was a little less typical of the ones I usually play, and had previously experimented with several different types but they never really held my interest long enough to get very far in the game (incidentally, for those of you who weren’t aware, I seem to be addicted to creating new PCs for the purposes of re-playing the first chapter of the NWN default campaign, with the unfortunate result that I’ve never once completed the second chapter). Anyway, I guess you could say that the idea has been simmering in my brain for a while, even though I haven’t recently given it any conscious thought. At least, not until the sudden inspiration to use Littlefinger as a template came to me unbidden a couple days ago seemingly without any external prompting, when out of the blue I had the thought that it would be fun to play someone who was a complete rotter and had only taken on Aribeth’s quest for his own gain, and Petyr Baelish immediately sprang to mind. His alignment would be Neutral Evil, but he’d have a high Charisma as well as Dexterity and Intelligence, relying more on charm, persuasion, cunning schemes, and the use of magical items than skill in combat.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

The first thing I set out doing, before I even started up the game, was to create a custom portrait using the one from the Game of Thrones Wiki, but due to failing eyesight I messed it up in Photoshop just slightly enough not to notice until I’d installed it, ran the game, and entered character creation that there was a thin white line at the bottom of the portrait where there absolutely should not be one, so I was about to abort character creation and fix it when I noticed that I had already installed a custom portrait as part of a pack I’d downloaded which was apparently based on a similar image of Petyr Baelish, only this version was even better because it more resembled a painting and the subject looked younger (as would befit a character just beginning their adventuring career), and also less blatantly like a character stolen directly from a show which, I have to admit, I no longer have the fondest of feelings for.

As is often the case when I create a PC solely for the fun of roleplaying them rather than any notion of “beating the game”, I didn’t follow all of the expert advice out there (such as is laid out in this excellent guide to playing a rogue in NWN) to optimise my character. Instead I made him physically weaker and slightly more frail than is usually recommended for a rogue in order to increase his Intelligence and Wisdom, since I consider cunning to be a combination of these. A higher INT also means more skill points as well as access to higher levels of Wizard spells once I multiclass him into a Necromancer. Also, with that future in mind I made him a follower of Vecna. Perhaps his ultimate goal is to become a lich himself, but for now he just hungers for power, and as the saying goes, “knowledge is power.” And since in this AU he doesn’t have a Cersei to disabuse him of that notion, he will continue to live by it.

Since Dedo Menique is a commoner with pretensions to nobility, much like Petyr Baelish himself, I chose the rapier as his favoured melee weapon (the light crossbow would become the main instrument of his ranged attacks), because of its in-game description as “a light, thrusting sword popular among nobles and swashbucklers”. This will eventually be upgraded to the Namarra rapier (Neversleep) which is a nice little magical weapon that has a chance to daze an enemy on a successful hit. I also chose to have him go without armour, relying instead upon his high dexterity and the use of magical items such as the Amulet of Natural Armour to avoid getting hit, as well as feats such as Dodge and Mobility. For his considerable wardrobe I selected the Rogue’s Tunic, Assassin’s Garb, Necromancer’s Robe, Noble Outfit, Noble’s Tunic, and Noble Guardsman Tunic. He has since also acquired on his own quite by chance a Robe of Cold Resistance followed by a Robe of Fire Resistance, which I thought was interesting given that I based him on a character from A Song of Ice and Fire.

For Dedo’s in-game voice I chose the only suitable option available to me in my current bare-bones base game from ancient CD installation, the one named “Mature Swashbuckler“. It doesn’t exactly fit Littlefinger’s character, who as soft-spoken as he is in the series might have been better represented by the voiceset named “Stealth Specialist” which I no longer have access to, but in the end it just serves to differentiate my character from the original inspiration so I’ve come to embrace it. Besides, the Stealth Specialist is a bit too American-sounding, and there’s just something about the Mature Swashbuckler’s occasional outburst of “Haha, that’s it for you! Take that!” which seems very apropos for this sort of rogue, even if he sounds a bit more jovial than I’d like.

CHAOS IS A LADDER

Though Dedo is not a lawful character, he is currently working with the forces of law and order, and would much rather do so than become a known outlaw, as a chaotic character might, because that will get him nowhere in life–or at least, nowhere that he wants to be. Now, that’s not to say he’s averse to engaging in criminal activity, however. After all, the real Littlefinger was a crimelord in addition to being Master of Coin, a pimp and owner of a string of brothels. And to quote another of Littlefinger’s sayings, “chaos is a ladder.” As it happens, the city of Neverwinter’s current misfortune–the chaos brought on by the Wailing Death–has proved very much to Dedo’s benefit, so he is not so much working to assist the current power structure in maintaining itself as he is to position himself for a rapid rise within its ranks, but at the first opportunity he would betray his employers if it meant gaining even greater wealth and power.

This, I feel, is the crux of the neutral evil alignment. A great example of this sort of character is one Louis Bloom played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the excellent film Nightcrawler. Though he does occasionally exhibit the sort of behaviour usually associated with a chaotic evil alignment, for the most part he only goes as far as he needs to in order to get ahead in his newfound career, which is why he gets away with the things he does so easily, since he’s more or less operating under the radar. Chaotic evil characters are less inclined to rein themselves in, tending to give themselves over to their basest impulses, often on a whim, and glorying in murder, mayhem, and destruction for its own sake. That’s not to say that they can’t make plans and follow through with them (Batman’s Joker proves otherwise), but whereas a chaotic evil character might just want to watch the world burn, a neutral evil character usually only seeks to destroy whatever stands in the way of their success, even if it means that countless others will suffer in the process.

So when Dedo convinces Judge Oleff Uskar to let him search for the tomb of Halueth Never, the semi-legendary founder of the city of Neverwinter (even after blackmailing Oleff earlier for his involvement in a “sinful operation”, namely the bordello known as the Moonstone Mask), the rogue almost immediately agrees to deliver any holy artifacts he finds into the villainous hands of Gilles, a cleric of the evil deity Talona, not because he personally feels any allegiance to the abstract concept of evil, or even to any of the deities that might ally themselves with his own patron Vecna, but simply because Gilles offered him more money.

FIGHT EVERY BATTLE IN YOUR MIND

For a rogue such as this, with such low scores in Strength and Constitution, a tank is required for a henchman. I chose the dwarven monk Grimgnaw, partly due to him being lawful evil. I could’ve just as easily gone with Daelan Red Tiger, the half-orc barbarian, but apart from the issue of alignment, Grimgnaw with his monk abilities is virtually unstoppable. Also, he has a shared interest in getting to the bottom of the undead infestation that has lately overtaken the Beggar’s Nest, though for very different reasons. Little does he know that he is being used, not to rid Neverwinter of the scourge of undead (though that will inevitably happen as a consequence of their quest), but rather for his employer to be able to gain more knowledge about the dark arts of necromancy.

[image description: screenshot of the player character dedo menique’s 3D avatar in his rogue’s tunic, standing with his henchman the dwarven monk known as grimgnaw in one corner of the moonstone mask in chapter one of the default neverwinter nights campaign module.]

With Grimgnaw at his side to fearlessly wade into every battle ahead of him, Dedo has become what the rogue guide I linked to above calls a “Gunship”:

The "Gunship" references the military combat helicopters of today, which strike from the edges of the battle and can change tactics mid-battle with ease. Gunships are the most versatile of the Rogues, already a versatile class, and often add spell-casting or other arcane or divine abilities to the Rogue mix. Gunships are usually the Rogues with the lowest number of hit points and the worst armor class, but make up for it in mobility, speed, and terrifying combat capabilities. They can't stand in a fight for long, but they make an impact out of all proportion to their size for as long as they ARE there.
Ross Glenn, “Neverwinter Nights Rogue Character Guide”

Hanging back in order to repeatedly shoot down the monk’s assailants with his crossbow means Dedo gets a sneak attack on virtually every enemy, and can often take down spellcasters before they even have a chance to finish casting their first spell, or at the very least interrupt some of their spells, causing them to fail from loss of concentration. If cornered by foes who happen to slip by Grimgnaw, as can sometimes occur when there are just too many for the dwarf to handle, Dedo will fight back using his magic rapier with Finesse, a feat which allows his attack bonus to be based on his high Dexterity rather than his much lower Strength, and if need be he can borrow time using his Parry skill (augmented by the Gloves of Swordplay) to hopefully fend off the attacks until Grimgnaw is able to come to his rescue.

However, as is the case most of the time in this campaign module when playing characters who are not themselves tanks, boss fights are the real problem. But since I’ve played through chapter one multiple times I already know how to fight every battle in my mind. You can call this metagaming, and technically you’d be right, but I rationalise it as my character having done an enormous amount of information gathering as he goes about his business, much the way Petyr Baelish with the help of his network of spies seemed to know almost everything that was going on in Westeros before anyone else did (except Varys, of course). This line of reasoning will continue to hold up in chapter two, assuming we get there, because he’ll be out of his element and for the most part flying blind (I did make some progress in chapter two with a couple of prior PCs but it’s been so long my recollection is a bit hazy).

Needless to say, so far I’m enjoying playing this character with all his subtlety, which allows me to roleplay a villain even as the game requires advancing him on a hero’s quest, which to my mind would make a lot less sense for a chaotic evil character. Dedo’s neutrality when it comes to law and chaos also makes for more versatility than a lawful evil character which is typically played as a more principled villain, even if their principles don’t always align with those of society at large. It also renders inconsequential the annoying fact that nothing your character does in this campaign will ever impact their alignment along the law versus chaos axis. Only choices deemed good or evil have consequences in this game unless you’ve installed a later module.

Happy Hobbit Day!

My sister and I put together a playlist of festive hobbity music for our celebrations that I just had to share with you because honestly I think it’s just perfect. Well, we worked long and hard on it so it better be!

This year we wanted to combine the pagan celebration of the autumn equinox (what some call Mabon) with Bilbo and Frodo’s Birthday, so the theme is just as the title suggests: a Hobbit Day Harvest Fest. Enjoy!

Hobbit Day Harvest Fest YouTube Playlist

How We Got Here: the History of Rings Of Power — Lord of the Rings Rings of Power on Amazon Prime News, JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit and more | TheOneRing.net

The debut of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Prime Video is in many ways a new age of Middle-earth adaptation. Set firmly in the Second Age, thousands of years before the events of the The Hobbit. This TV series sets out to explore the the age of settlements in Middle-earth […]

How We Got Here: the History of Rings Of Power — Lord of the Rings Rings of Power on Amazon Prime News, JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit and more | TheOneRing.net

Where Eagles Dare

As any fan of the Misfits can tell you, many (or even most) of their songs are about, or at least have titles inspired by or taken from, horror films. But “Where Eagles Dare” appears to be one of the exceptions. There is a movie called Where Eagles Dare but it’s not a horror film, and judging by the lyrics the song doesn’t seem to be about it–with the possible exception of one verse which I’ll get to in a bit.

[image description: movie poster for the 1968 brian g. hutton film “where eagles dare” starring clint eastwood and richard burton, featuring an artist’s over-the-top reimagining of the ciimactic cable car scene. (Fair Use).]

The most memorable line in the song is what brought it to mind the other night when my sister, slightly drunker for my birthday than I was, suddenly burst into my room laughing and shout-singing “I AIN’T NO GODDAMN SON OF A BITCH!” I hadn’t thought about that song for a while, so we put it on and listened as we poured another round, and that’s when it occurred to me that there was this movie I had heard about but never seen, starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, about a Secret Intelligence Service paratroop team raiding a Nazi castle in the Alps, and I wondered if maybe that most memorable line from the song of the same name came from the film itself. So I looked it up on Wikipedia only to discover that it seemingly wasn’t related to the song at all… unless it was not so much the premise of the movie itself, but the antics that went on behind the scenes (especially the drunken exploits of Burton) that inspired some of the lyrics:

“Richard Burton, well known for his drinking binges, disappeared for several days with his friends Peter O’Toole, Trevor Howard, and Richard Harris (who were not even in the movie), [causing delays in filming]. In the meantime, as part of his deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Clint Eastwood took delivery of a Norton P11 motorcycle, which he ‘tested’ at Brands Hatch racetrack, accompanied by Ingrid Pitt, something that he had been forbidden from doing… for insurance purposes in case of injury or worse. At one point during production, Burton was so drunk that he knocked himself out while filming and [his stunt double] had to quickly fill in for him. Derren Nesbitt observed that Burton was drinking as many as four bottles of vodka per day. At one point during filming, Burton was threatened at gunpoint by an overzealous fan, but fortunately danger was averted” [ibid].

Anyway, I ended up watching the film on HBO Max, and no spoilers, but even though it’s set during WWII and Wikipedia calls it a war movie, to me it’s not really a war movie. It has none of the heaviness or dreariness of a war movie. It’s more of an action-adventure espionage thriller, and even has some elements of a heist or caper. As such it sacrifices realism in favour of thrilling Bond-style stunts and almost super-human heroics, but for the most part this is a stealth mission in which a small team of special agents are chosen to infiltrate “Schloß Adler“, the Castle of Eagles, which is being used as a Nazi base, in order to rescue a high-ranking American officer before he talks under torture. Which brings me to the one verse in the Misfits song that sort of fits:

Let’s test your threshold of pain
Let’s see how long you last
That tappin’ in your retina
Unbosoms all your past
With jaded eyes and features
You think they really care?
Let’s go where eagles dare
We’ll go where eagles dare

Interestingly, the title of the movie was originally going to be “Castle of Eagles” before it was wisely changed to its current one, taken from a line in Shakespeare’s Richard III: “The world is grown so bad/That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.” In the end I’m still not sure whether the Misfits song was inspired by the movie or not, but I’m glad that my curiosity about that possibility led me to watch it because it was a really good movie with some gorgeous scenery and sets that I would’ve most likely missed out on due to its having been labelled a war movie (which I’ve never been that much of a fan of, though there are always exceptions, like Full Metal Jacket, which is one of my all-time favourite films, period). I especially enjoyed the scenes on the cable cars, which reminded me of one of my favourite parts of the game Return to Castle Wolfenstein, only a lot more exciting for reasons I won’t get into so as to avoid spoiling it for those who have yet to see this classic film.

Misfits – Where Eagles Dare

The Rotting Horse on the Deadly Ground

[image description: detail from “the lieutenant of the barad-dûr” by john howe. a grim armoured figure with horned helm and a face like a skull, bearing a lance and wearing a sword at his side, rides upon a hellish steed fitted with metal barding including chanfron and criniere, having demonic red glowing eyes and a greenish tint to its rotting hide (Fair Use)]

As my fifty-first birthday approaches I’ve been waxing nostalgic and so, at the suggestion of my sister, have laboured long and hard putting together a retrospective metal playlist to serve as a soundtrack for the coming celebrations. I wanted it to sort of tell the story of how I became a headbanger thirty-six years ago and also help me reminisce about metal’s profound impact on my life, so I arranged the tracks in order of what I was listening to at various times in my life, and ended up finding it necessary to include so many that I finally had to settle for it being only half evil by capping it at 333. A musical odyssey that spans from 1986 to 2001, though it certainly didn’t end there, it took me nearly a week to finish and will likely take a few days of partying for us to listen to the whole thing. Anyway, this playlist got me thinking about how I discovered one of my favourite bands, Summoning, especially since I just bought a back patch of what I and many other fans consider to be their seminal album, Minas Morgul, with the intention of making a new battle jacket for myself.

As I recall one early autumn back in the late 90s I was browsing in a small leather shop in Greenwich Village when I noticed on a shelf off to one side a cardboard box full of CDs for sale. Curious, I started flipping through them, and quickly realised that they were all black metal albums. By this time I had heard and liked a few tracks from Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, but I was mostly into thrash and death metal so I didn’t recognise nor was I particularly interested in any of the bands whose names were printed on the seemingly endless succession of amateurish album covers in barely readable fonts, so I can’t even tell you today what obscure and ancient treasures I might’ve passed over. But one CD in particular did catch my eye, mostly because of the artwork.

[image description: cover art for Summoning’s 1995 LP “Minas Morgul” (Fair Use)]

Its quaint fortified medieval city surrounded by high walls nestled between majestic soaring misty mountains was what got me, along with the implication of the title with its Gothic blackletter font–namely that this was the very citadel of Minas Morgul, the Tower of Sorcery from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As I flipped the CD over and perused the song titles on the back cover I was enticed by the following track listing, also printed in the same font:

Soul Wandering
Lugburz
The Passing of the Grey Company
Morthond
Marching Homewards
Orthanc
Ungolianth
Dagor Bragollach
Through the Forest of Dol-Guldur
The Legend of the Master-Ring
Dor Daedeloth

From this I surmised that, unlike those of many black metal bands and artists who assumed Tolkien-ish names, these songs were actually about and/or set in Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth. So I bought it, brought it home, and listened to it… and my heart sank a little as the first song, “Soul Wandering” began electronically, turned out to be instrumental and without guitars, and then ended much the same way it began. It sounded like something one of my Goth friends might’ve produced in their basement using only an electronic keyboard and a mixing console, and I was immediately worried the whole album would turn out to be like that. Not that I don’t enjoy that kind of music now and then, it just wasn’t what I expected based on the packaging. But then the next song, “Lugburz” came on, with a freezing black rain of metal guitar and growling of orcish vocals, followed by the even better “The Passing of the Grey Company”, and I knew right then that I had discovered something special. The entire album sounded like a horde of orcs singing battle hymns as they marched off to war, to music that was at times slow and melodic, evoking the medieval, and at times fast and uproarious, like the most frenetic of black metal tracks, and at all times something I wouldn’t hesitate to use as background music for one of my D&D or MERP campaigns.

After that, Summoning, which turned out to be a duo from Austria, became my favourite band, and over the years I would collect every single one of their CD releases (except for their latest which I plan to order soon), including their debut album, Lugburz, which was more like traditional black metal in style. As each successive LP or EP came out, there seemed to be a progression, or evolution of their sound, and yet they always kept to that medieval/folkish style of their second LP, Minas Morgul, which has earned them the distinction of being labelled as “medieval atmospheric black metal”. Still, each new album was unique, and today if you ask eight different Summoning fans which is their fave you’re likely to get eight different answers. But best of all, I was right about their songs mostly being about Middle-earth, and in fact much of their lyrics are taken directly from Tolkien’s poetry. And they didn’t draw inspiration only from The Lord of the Rings, but The Book of Lost Tales and The Simarillion as well.

Now there are quite a few tracks from several different Summoning albums that I could pontificate about, but the one that’s been on my mind the most recently, partly due to certain current events, is the one that gives us the title of this blog entry. “The Rotting Horse on the Deadly Ground” is the sixth track off their 1999 LP Stronghold, and I won’t be talking about the music but rather the lyrics, because they’re the reason I’m finding the song particularly relevant today. But I’ll link to the song at the bottom of this post so you can appreciate the musical aspects as well.

[image description: screengrab of the lyrics entry on darklyrics.com for summoning’s “the rotting horse on the deadly ground” (Fair Use)]

As depicted in the image above, the text of the song lyrics when centered forms the unmistakeable shape of a mushroom cloud, making this an instance of concrete poetry. In such poems, the shape the lines form is usually a clue revealing what the poem’s (usually unnamed) subject is, so I think it’s safe to say that this hidden feature of the song is letting us know what it’s actually about. The bulk of the lyrics themselves, as with many Summoning songs, is a composite of Tolkien’s poetry, but added to this is a refrain I believe to be all their own:

Take a ride on, ride on,
on your rotting horse
on that deadly ground
Take a ride, ride on,
on your rotting horse
with a pounding sound.

I remember when I first listened to this song I wondered what that part meant, but it wasn’t until I saw the lyrics centered as shown in the previous image that I at last began to understand. The lyrics taking the shape of a mushroom cloud are a clue that this song with its added refrain is about nuclear war, giving new meaning to the lines from Tolkien’s poetry which were by themselves simply about conventional war and the loss it brings:

Wars of great kings and clash of armouries
Whose swords no man could tell, whose spears
Were numerous as wheat field’s ears
Rolled over all the great lands, and seas
Were loud with navies, their devouring fires

Behind the armies burned both fields and towns
And sacked and crumbled or to flaming pyres
Were cities made, where treasuries and crowns
Kings and their folk, their wives and tender maids
Were all consumed. Now silent are those courts
Ruined the towers, whose old shape slowly fades
And no feet pass beneath their broken ports

I heed no call of clamant bell that rings
Iron tongued in the towers of earthly kings

Here on the stones and trees there lies a spell
Of unforgotten loss, of memories more blest
than mortal wealth.
Here undefeated dwell the folk immortal
under withered elms,
Alalminore once in ancient realms
.

Seen in this light, there are three explanations for the added refrain that I can come up with and they aren’t mutually exclusive. Firstly, as I touched upon in an earlier post, the horse is a symbol of the cavalry, which in medieval times were the noble knights who sought honour and glory in war. So one thing we might glean from it is the message that unlike with conventional warfare, there is no possibility of honour and glory in a nuclear war, only the senseless destruction of all life. Hence in this nuclear age the noble horse of chivalry is not only doomed to rot, but in a sense, already rotting.

Another take on it is that the rotting horse refers to the point of view some hold that we must have nuclear weapons in order to avoid getting nuked by others who have them, a well-known argument on which the military doctrine of “mutual assured destruction” is based. In other words, as the reasoning goes, the very fact that a nuclear war can have no winners should serve as a deterrent to the use of nuclear weapons on both sides. This is often used as a apology for the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, so the lyric may be a critique of that. The metaphor of a horse as someone’s point of view or political position is not such a stretch, given that we have such idioms as “beating a dead horse”, “come down off your high horse”, and “fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”

Lastly, what the lyric “rotting horse on that deadly ground” evokes for me most vehemently, especially in connection with that image of the mushroom cloud that the lyrics form when the text is centered, is this oft-quoted line from the Book of Revelation:

 And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

Revelation 6:8 (KJV)

Not long ago I finally got to see the film The Green Knight, which I found to be a beautiful if overly long and convoluted take on the 14th century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and now one scene comes to mind featuring a conversation about the colour green and how it can represent not only life, as with the verdancy of living and life-giving vegetation, but also death and decay. I mention this because the original Greek wording of Revelation 6:8 literally translated is not “pale horse”, but “green horse”. The word used for “green” in this case is chloros (χλωρός), whence comes our word “chlorophyll”, the pigment plants use for photosynthesis which gives them their green colour; as well as “chlorine”, named for its yellow-green hue. But in this context it refers to the sickly green or greenish-yellow of disease and putrefaction (and it is for this reason that in some more modern Biblical translations, the phrase in question is rendered as “a pale green horse”). The implication is therefore that Death rides upon a rotting horse, which of course makes perfect mythopoetic sense.

Yet my sense is that the speaker is not literally addressing Death, the actual figure who is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; though the metaphorical image is certainly of him riding his “rotting horse” over “that deadly ground”–an obvious reference to ground zero, being that long after a nuclear detonation the affected area remains deadly from radioactive fallout–“with a pounding sound”–which could also be a reference to the multiple detonations that a full-scale nuclear attack would entail, since one might imagine that from afar the successive explosions would resemble the pounding sound of hooves, as of some monstrous warhorse galloping across the land. Rather I think the target of this sardonic admonishment is altogether human.

Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, after having witnessed the successful detonation of the first atomic bomb he helped to create, famously said that it brought to mind a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Perhaps Summoning had this in mind when they wrote the refrain of “The Rotting Horse on the Deadly Ground”, which to me only makes sense within the context of the rest of the lyrics if it is directed at those mere mortal scientists, politicians, and military officials who would themselves become Death, the destroyer of worlds, by continuing to engage in a foolish arms race which can only lead to our utter annihilation.

Anyway, here’s the song if you’d like to hear it:

Summoning – Stronghold – The Rotting Horse on the Deadly Ground

Though here we stand/In darkest night

[image description: A light display shines from where the World Trade Center used to be. The two beams of light are illuminated each year on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Randall A. Clinton – Public Domain)]

I dreamt earlier this morning that I was writing these lyrics to music, to be sung by a choir. Though it was a simple tune, I couldn’t remember it upon waking, but I started jotting down as many of the words as I could recall as soon as I woke up, and I think I not only came close to a complete transcription of it, I may have even improved on it a little. It’s clearly inspired by Sam’s Song in the Orc-Tower, which impressed me at an early age, well before I ever heard it set to music. Though not composed with the September 11th attacks specifically in mind, I thought the above image of the Tribute in Light a fitting one for this poem.

Though here we stand
In darkest night
Our hope will rise
A shining light

To pierce the veil
Of cloud above
To never fail
On wings of love

A helping hand
A hopeful sight
A healing word
A beacon bright

Though here we bide
Deep in the dark
The light inside
Ignites a spark

With starkest wings
Against the night
Our song it rings
And takes to flight

To pierce the veil
Of cloud above
To never fail
On wings of love

© 2022 by Strider Lee

I Love Horses!

[image description: a pair of horses stand side by side in a green pasture under a blue sky. attribution: Nokota_Horses.jpg: François Marchalderivative work: Dana boomer, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons]

Today is “National I Love Horses Day” so I’m taking a break from working on my Camp NaNoWriMo project to express my own love of horses, which began in my early childhood—despite having never ridden one. Does a pony count? I recall a pony ride from when I was around four years old, and that’s one of my oldest memories, but the closest I’ve ever been to horseback riding was when a New York City mounted police officer nearly trampled me with one once upon a New Year’s Eve at Times Square back in the late 1980’s (in his defence, someone had thrown a Champagne bottle at him, which probably startled the poor horse).

Anyway, according to NationalToday.com, a website that explains all these weird and wonderful “national day of’s” which modern society seems to have proliferated in recent decades, “National I Love Horses Day was created to highlight the importance of the animal in human history and development. Horses have been around for around 50 million years and they were domesticated by nomads in 4000 B.C. The animal is believed to have originated from North America, with increased traveling and globalization taking it to other parts of the world…. As human populations increased and commercialization started taking over, horses began being used to cultivate the land and other general agricultural settings. Because of the strength and endurance they displayed, horses were also being used for the transportation of goods and people over long and short distances. Over the years, horse racing and show-jumping contests also gained the attention of the public.”

Horses also appear to have been important religiously in many cultures that had contact with them. There is evidence of horse worship, for example, in Europe and the Mediterranean dating as far back as the Bronze Age. The worship or at least veneration of horses was probably also practiced by the early Anglo-Saxons, which is perhaps why the eating of horsemeat is still taboo in England as well as in cultures derived therefrom today. It has even been suggested (perhaps erroneously) that J. R. R. Tolkien invented the fictional race of Rohirrim, or Riders of the Mark, a horse-centred culture whose language is based on the Mercian dialect of Old English, as an answer to traditional history’s claim that the early Anglo-Saxons were defeated by the Viking cavalry because they themselves did not fight on horseback. At any rate, there is plenty of evidence that these early English settlers did have a strong horse culture, and the mythical brothers said to have led the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes into their newfound land according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, were even called Hengest and Horsa, whose names mean respectively “stallion” and “horse”.

I think I first became fully conscious of my love of horses when I read Black Beauty as a child. Then it was not long afterwards that I became fascinated by all things medieval, and of course the knight on horseback has always been a very prominent symbol of the Middle Ages. Of the few occasions that I got to see a horse up close, the most memorable were at the Medieval Festival at Fort Tryon Park, and the New York Renaissance Faire in Tuxedo, New York, both of which have always featured jousting. There were of course, numerous cinematic influences as well. One of these which I’ve already blogged about twice was Excalibur, a film adaptation of early Arthurian romances and the literature inspired by them, central to which is the concept of knighthood, which at its most basic is the culture of mounted warriors or soldiers. After all, a knight is almost always a member of the cavalry (a word derived from the French “cheval” meaning “horse”, which also gives us “chivalry”), as opposed to the foot soldiers, or infantry, of which the root word “infant” is not a coincidence, for it originally referred to soldiers considered “too inexperienced for cavalry“. So we see that from early on, the mounted fighting force was considered a class above the ones obliged to fight on foot, and this is even reflected in the lowly status of the pawn in chess. It is of course also telling that the chess piece known as the knight is represented by a horse’s head.

It was not so much that I wanted to own a horse (though I certainly fantasised about it as a child), but that my heart soared whenever I saw one, especially if it happened to be running. I wasn’t even particularly keen on riding one, or else I should have done so long ago—there were, after all, reasonably-priced horseback rides in Central Park until 2007, and I was surely making enough money in the early aughts to be able to afford one. That’s not to say that I don’t regret having never ridden a horse, and it is in fact on my bucket list—just that it’s not one of the things I prioritise in connection with my personal appreciation for these majestic animals. In fact, my love of horses once even prompted me to Google the question “Do horses like being ridden?” It had suddenly occurred to me that they—at least when domesticated—were very much at our mercy. Perhaps they would prefer to be roaming free? The answers I got were frustratingly inconclusive, but here’s the most comprehensive one, for what it’s worth.

The history of the horse is every bit as fascinating as the history of humankind, not the least because they are so intertwined (or at least, have become so in relatively recent times). I could go on and on about this subject, but then by the time I was done it would no longer be National I Love Horses Day, and I wanted this post to be timely. So I’ll conclude with this video that I’ve posted to the blog in the past, but which bears repeating. It’s a fascinating look into the origin and history of horses and their domestication for all those who are interested in such things.

First Horse Warriors

Then once you’re done watching that, take a gander at this excellent music video from Of Monsters and Men featuring a hypnotic continuous animation of running and jumping horses:

Of Monsters and Men – Mountain Sound (Official Lyric Video)

Still need more horse love? Check out this list of the 50 best horse movies according to HorseNetwork.com.

Gift of the Unicorn: An Original Fairy Tale (Part IV)

Read Part IRead Part IIRead Part III

[image description: virgin and unicorn by domenichino (public domain)] 

“No, I will not do this.” Prince Zakir was adamant. “I will not keep secrets from my wife. There has to be another way.”

“There is none, my prince,” the unicorn replied sadly.

“Then I must remain celibate, even if it be for the rest of my life.”

And so another month went by, and winter slowly turned into spring, and with spring came all the longings that a young man has to lie with a woman. Yet still Prince Zakir kept true to his vows.

One night, however, he could take it no longer, and so he went out into the castle garden and called the unicorn’s name softly.

As Ancoron approached, he bowed his head, only this time the prince bowed back, and said, “May God forgive me, but I have reconsidered your offer.”

“Then you will swear never to speak of me to your wife or anyone else again?” the unicorn asked.

“I swear it,” said the prince, and bowed his head lower as if in shame.

No sooner had he spoken these words than Ancoron disappeared; and Prince Zakir knew in that moment that he would never see the unicorn again, for he was no longer pure of heart.

That evening the unicorn met with Princess Geva in the garden for the last time.

“I must go away now,” he told her. “But I will never forget you.”

“No, Ancoron!” she cried. “Please—I couldn’t bear it! If I lose you my heart will surely break!”

“You have your prince,” said Ancoron, “to mend it for you.”

She burst into tears now, weeping and sobbing into her hands with head bowed.

“I am sorry,” the unicorn sighed, and then, as the princess reached out a hand to caress his nose, with a nod of his head he tilted his horn quickly downwards and scratched her palm with its tip, just enough to draw blood.

She let out a small gasp and then immediately fainted.

When she awoke a short time later she was alone, lying next to the rosebush, and seeing the scratch on the palm of her hand she chided herself for being so foolish.

“I stayed too long awake,” she said, “and fell asleep on my feet! I must have tried to grasp the rosebush as I fell.”

Then she went inside to seek her husband, and soon found him waiting for her in their bedchamber. She smiled fondly as she saw him lying there in what was to be their marriage bed. Now he beckoned to her, and letting her gown fall from her shoulders, she climbed into bed with him.

That night Princess Geva knew her husband for the first time, and afterwards as she lay in his arms she whispered to him: “My dear prince, my own Zakir. Why ever did we wait so long?”

And this brought a tear to the prince’s eye, but he turned his face away so that she would not see, and not willing to lie to his beloved, only said: “We had to wait until the time was right.”

The next day Princess Geva rose, and leaving her husband sleeping, dressed and went out into the garden as she was wont to do; though of course she now no longer remembered the reason for it, but imagined it was only to enjoy the spring air and the birdsong and the beauty of the flowers.

It was a lovely morning, and the sun shone gently as it rose over the tops of the trees that bordered the castle grounds, and as she strolled thus she felt happy, but also a little sad. The happiness, she knew, sprang from her love, but whence the sadness came she had no inkling. It was like a dull ache in the breast, or a tightening around the heart; as of a deep, abiding longing that she could not name, or a wound that had no physical cause and therefore no practical remedy.

“I suppose every woman must feel this way after the loss of her maidenhead,” she thought.

Then later that afternoon, as she took the same route back to the castle, she passed the rosebush on her way and recalled again how the night before she had so foolishly fallen asleep and scratched herself on one of the thorns. And now as she glanced down at the spot whereupon she had awoken, a flash of light like the sparkling of a dewdrop caught her eye.

Curious, she bent down for a closer look.

There, amid the tangled roots of the rosebush, a tiny tear-shaped diamond lay glittering in the sun.

© 2014 by Strider Lee

Gift of the Unicorn: An Original Fairy Tale (Part III)

Read Part IRead Part II

[image description: virgin and unicorn by domenichino (public domain)] 

So did the prince ride upon the unicorn’s back, far to the west, swifter than the wind, through many kingdoms and principalities, across deserts scarcely inhabited, over mountains and seas, until at last they arrived at the briar wall that enclosed the dwelling place of the legendary maiden.

Here and there upon the massive thorns of the briar hung the bleached white bones and rusted armour of all of the enchanted maiden’s previous would-be suitors, but the prince was not afraid. “If my beloved is truly on the other side of this wall,” he said to himself, “then I must breach it somehow, or die in the attempt.”

But even as Prince Zakir approached the briar wall the thick thorny vegetation parted of its own accord, forming a path for him straight to the great lawn on which Geva’s castle stood. So without hesitation he followed the path safely through the briar, and as he crossed the lawn and approached the gardens he saw Geva standing there at the castle gates beside a large rosebush, with sunlight in her hair, looking even more beautiful than she had in his visions.

When Geva saw her prince she nearly lost her breath. “You are the man of my dreams,” she said, and meant it quite literally. For she had often dreamt of him but had told no one about this, not even Ancoron, as she had thought it but a bit of folly.

“And you are the woman of mine,” he replied.

She blushed. “I never dared hope that you truly existed.”

He took both her hands in his. “The hope that you truly existed is what has kept me alive all these years.”

Meanwhile, when the witch’s familiar saw that the briar wall had come down, it immediately slunk off to tell its mistress. But before it even left the castle grounds, the cat was once again pinned to the earth by an invisible spirit.

“I can see that you’ve been up to no good again,” said Ancoron as he kicked one of the wicked creature’s nine lives out of it with his mighty hoof. And no sooner had he done so than Geva’s mother ceased her babbling and got out of bed and went looking for her daughter, having been under the spell of the witch’s familiar for all that time. As for the cat, it ran back to its mistress with its remaining eight lives and never returned to the castle again.

When the unicorn next found the couple in the garden Geva scarcely noticed him at first, so enraptured she was with her charming prince. But then at last she turned to him, and ran to embrace the fair creature, weeping tears of joy. “Ancoron!” she cried happily. “I feared I would never see you again!”

“It was I who found your prince for you,” said he, not without a fair bit of pride.

“I know,” she said. “He told me. I can’t thank you enough! You are a true friend.”

Now that Geva’s mother had regained her wits, she busily prepared a magnificent wedding feast. But in her happiness she forgot to invite the witch. As it turned out, the old hag showed up at the castle anyway, and as soon as Geva’s mother saw her she blanched, but recovering herself quickly, ushered her in and announced her to everyone as the guest of honour. But she wouldn’t say why she should be the guest of honour at her daughter’s wedding feast, and so Geva began to fear that her mother had lost her mind again.

The feast was indeed a magnificent affair, with the finest minstrels in the land playing continuously in the gallery, and a luscious board laid out in seven courses, and jesters and jugglers entertaining the many highborn guests. But the prince and his new princess soon found it tiresome. They only wished to be alone with one another, yet they sat through it patiently nonetheless, making eyes at each other from across the table and laughing at each other’s jests. After dinner they danced together for the first time, and that was the most delightful part of the evening. Then, before they knew it, it was all over, and the guests were leaving. They both heaved a sigh of relief.

But before the witch left the castle she pulled Princess Geva aside. “You look radiant, my dear. I am so happy for you and your new husband.”

“As am I,” said the princess.

“Alas,” the witch replied, “too bad such happiness cannot last.”

“Can’t it?”

“No, I’m afraid not. For after tonight you will no longer be innocent.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is difficult to explain. Innocence can only be fully comprehended by those who have lost it. But trust me when I say that once you and your husband have lain together you will no longer be innocent.”

Now a thought occurred to Princess Geva that she had not considered before, and she politely excused herself and went out into the gardens where Ancoron was always wont to appear to her, whereupon she called the unicorn’s name softly.

“I am here,” he said, stepping out of the shadows.

“Ancoron!” she cried. “After tonight I will no longer be innocent! Doesn’t that mean I will never see you again?”

“Alas,” said he, “it does.”

“Oh, no!” Now she was on the verge of tears. “You have been my dearest friend—my only friend! I can’t bear to lose you again, Ancoron!”

“But you must.”

“No—I can’t—at least, not yet. I will speak to my husband. He will understand.”

And so she went back into the castle, and spoke to the prince, telling him what she had learned, and tearfully explaining that she could not bear to part with her dearest friend so soon.

“Then we must live apart for a while,” Prince Zakir said sadly, “lest the temptation become too great for us. But I will visit you often, and furthermore I vow that whether we be together or apart, I will have no other for as long as I live.”

So the prince went back to his own land; but true to his word, in the weeks that followed he remained faithful to his wife, and returned often to visit her and her mother and Ancoron. And on one such occasion, as the young couple strolled through the garden together hand in hand on a brisk autumn evening, they both saw snow for the first time, whereupon they laughed and laughed as it fell upon their upturned faces, delighted with it, and with the world, and with each other.

And as Ancoron watched them unseen, it was then that he finally made up his mind to convince Princess Geva of the wisdom of letting him go that she might truly be with her prince. But he waited a week, delaying the awful moment when he would have to say farewell, and thus before he could do so, the maiden’s dear old mother passed away.

“I can’t leave her now,” the unicorn said to himself. “Not so soon after losing her mother.”

And so another month passed, and then another, and through it all Prince Zakir waited patiently, staying at the castle but still remaining chaste and ever true to his vows.

Then at last one day Ancoron felt it was high time he convinced Geva to let him go. Yet he knew it wouldn’t be easy, so he sought out the fairy again to ask her advice. He also knew that this was a long shot, for fairies are capricious beings at best; but once he had told her all that had transpired since their last conversation, she became furious. “That meddling witch!” she cried. “So she’s the reason I was trapped in that bottle in the first place! Come with me, Ancoron. I’m going to go give that old hag a piece of my mind.”

When they reached the witch’s dwelling they found her busily brewing some foul concoction or other in her huge cauldron, humming an ancient tune to herself as she churned it with the boat paddle, so preoccupied that she didn’t even notice that anyone had entered at first. But then suddenly she looked up in surprise at Ancoron standing there in the doorway, and immediately ceased her stirring of the foul-smelling substance, a sound issuing from her foul mouth that might have been a gasp though it more resembled a death rattle. Even though the witch was far from innocent and pure of heart, she was able to see the unicorn because she too was a magical being and possessed the sight. But she could not yet see the fairy, who had cast a veil of invisibility over herself that even the witch’s third eye could not penetrate.

“At last!” the old hag cackled with glee. “At last I have my very own unicorn! I knew it wouldn’t be long before you fell into my trap!”

Just then the fairy appeared to the witch in all her glory: a fearsome creature with hair and eyes of silver flame.

“Spirits preserve me!” the hag cried.

“Not likely,” the fairy said. “I have come for my revenge.”

“Have mercy!”

“This is the extent of my mercy. You must abandon any plans you have of capturing a unicorn. And you must help Ancoron find a way to convince Geva to let him go and consummate her marriage with the prince. In return for this, I will overlook all the trouble you’ve caused me.”

“All right, all right,” the witch groaned. “I’ll tell you what must be done. But your one-horned friend will not like it.”

“What is it?” asked Ancoron.

“You must cause her to forget all about you,” said the witch.

“And how do I do that?”

“With a potion. Give me an hour or so and I’ll mix one up for you.”

“Very well,” said the fairy. “You have one hour. And I will stay to make sure you hold up your end of the bargain.”

An hour later the potion was almost ready. The witch turned to Ancoron then with a wicked grin. “The last ingredient is the hardest to come by,” she said. “But we’re in luck, because it just so happens it’s a unicorn’s horn, and you’re a unicorn.”

“But if you take my horn,” Ancoron replied sadly, “I shall not have long to live. Nevertheless, I will not stand in the way of Geva’s happiness. Do what you must.”

“Ancoron, you fool!” the fairy cried. “It’s a good thing I stayed.” Now she turned toward the witch, her pale face flushed with fury. “There’s no way in hell you’re harming a hair on this creature’s head!”

“Never fear,” the witch assured them, “it needn’t come to that. I need only spread the potion on the tip of his horn. But then he must wound her with it—it needn’t be a deep wound, you understand—just the merest scratch, but enough to draw blood.”

“And what will that do to her?” asked Ancoron.

“She will fall into a deep slumber, and when she awakens, she will no longer remember you. I suggest you have the girl meet you by the rosebush that grows beside the garden wall. That way, when she awakens, she will think she merely fell asleep and scratched herself on one of the thorns.”

Ancoron looked long at the potion. “And just like that, all memory of me will be gone. It will be as though we never met—as though our friendship never existed.” He sighed heavily. “Well, I suppose it’s for the best.”

The fairy looked upon him kindly. “Mortals are much more than mere bundles of memories,” she said.

“True,” said the witch. “Though the girl will no longer remember you, she’ll still feel your loss—somewhere, deep inside of her, as a vacancy—like that left by a missing puzzle piece—a part of her that’s empty, that hungers for something, though she won’t know what. She won’t feel truly whole—not for a long while—perhaps not for the rest of her life.”

“Is that true?” Ancoron asked the fairy as doubt began to gnaw at him once more.

“For the most part,” she replied with a scowl at the witch. “But many a truth is told in malice, as they say. On the bright side, the love of her prince may mend Geva’s heart eventually; for true love has healing powers that none of us immortals will ever comprehend.”

The unicorn thought about this for a long moment. “And what of Prince Zakir? Must I wound him as well?”

“The spell will not work on him,” the witch replied, “for the very reason that he does not love you. He loves Geva only, and has no room in his heart for anything else.”

“You must bid him swear never to mention you to his bride,” the fairy suggested.

“He will not like that,” said Ancoron.

“Then you must explain to him why it is necessary,” she replied. “Now I must go. But remember, old hag, if you betray us I’ll be back for you.”

© 2014 by Strider Lee

Read Part IV

Gift of the Unicorn: An Original Fairy Tale (Part II)

Read Part I

[image description: virgin and unicorn by domenichino (public domain)] 

Meanwhile the legend of Geva’s beauty continued to spread throughout the land, and even to lands beyond. And with the legend of her beauty went the legend of her imprisonment behind the briar wall. So of course it wasn’t long before all manner of would-be suitors started coming from all over to try their luck at freeing the maiden and winning her as a bride.

Many came, and many tried, and all of them died. They could not break the spell, for even if they were princes, they were neither innocent nor pure of heart, and even if there had been one who was all of these, how could he truly love Geva, having never so much as seen her?

And so the years passed, and still Geva’s prince did not come, and Geva remained a maid, with only the birds and animals for company. For her poor old mother had taken to lying in bed all the time, babbling inanely, and wouldn’t even feed herself, so that she had to be spoon-fed by her daughter. It was a lonely life, and Geva wanted nothing more than to have a real friend. But she was utterly innocent of the ways of love, and so it had not occurred to her that she might desire a husband as well. Thus it was only a matter of time before a unicorn appeared to her, as these magical creatures are attracted to innocence. She had been sitting in the castle garden listening to the birds sing when the magnificent beast approached her from out of the briar wall, which only barred mortal men and women from passing through it, and he was easily the most beautiful creature that Geva had ever seen.

“Hello there!” she greeted him as he drew nigh her. “Will you be my friend?”

“Of course,” said the unicorn. “My name is Ancoron. It means ‘One Horn’. What’s yours?”

“Geva. It means ‘Gift’.”

“Lovely. But why are you here all alone, behind this wall of briar?”

“I don’t know. I only know that no mortal can pass through the briar. It’s been this way for almost as long as I can remember.”

“Well now,” said Ancoron. “That doesn’t seem right.”

“I know,” the maiden replied. “When I was a child, we had servants in the castle. I remember that. And many people came and went, and my mother wasn’t bedridden, and—and—I didn’t feel so lonely.”

“Well you needn’t feel lonely any longer,” Ancoron assured her. “And perhaps together we can solve this strange mystery. After all, I’m no ordinary animal. I’m a unicorn.”

“I know all about unicorns,” said Geva, for over the years she had busied herself in her prison with the reading of countless books on all sorts of subjects. “You can only appear to the innocent and pure of heart. Your horn is a coveted ingredient in many magical spells, wherefore a maiden is often used as bait to lure you into a trap, that hunters might take your horn. And when you weep, the moonlight turns your tears to diamonds.”

“I don’t know about that last one,” said Ancoron. “A unicorn doesn’t weep unless his heart is broken, and as far as I know, that’s never happened. Say… you aren’t trying to lead me into a trap are you?”

“No,” said Geva. “Of course not.”

The unicorn chuckled. “As if you’d tell me if you were.”

“You’ve got me there,” said Geva, with a smirk. “But then, if that had been my purpose I would’ve been foolish to mention it at all.”

“True,” laughed Ancoron.

“I have no need to trap a unicorn,” said Geva after a moment. “But I do need a friend.”

“Well,” the unicorn replied, “now you have one.”

After that Ancoron came to visit Geva in the garden every day, and he would bring her news of the world outside, whereupon they would talk of many things, and play many a silly game, and sometimes she would brush his mane. Then one afternoon she was doing just that when suddenly the unicorn’s ears began to twitch. “What’s that sound?” he cried with sudden concern.

“What sound?” asked Geva, whose sense of hearing was nowhere near as acute as a unicorn’s.

“I hear something breathing nearby.” The unicorn tensed, the fine downy hairs under his magnificent mane standing on end. “Wait here, I’ll just go and check.”

He didn’t have to go far before he spotted it: a sleek black cat sitting under a rosebush, watching and listening. As soon as he saw it Ancoron could tell it was up to no good, so he circled around, sneaked up behind it unseen and unheard, and pinned it to the ground beneath one of his forehooves.

“Aiiiii!” the cat screamed. “What invisible spirit has caught me thus?”

“One that can crush you to death,” said Ancoron. “So you’d better tell me what’s going on here, and quickly!”

“My mistress is a witch,” the cat eagerly confessed. “She taught the old woman how to trap a fairy and get three wishes from it. But the foolish mortal angered the fairy, so it imprisoned her and her daughter behind this briar wall. I’ve just been looking after the girl, I swear! My mistress feels responsible for her since it was she guided the old woman in the first place.”

“Where can I find this fairy?”

“I don’t know, I swear it!”

“Perhaps your mistress knows.”

“She doesn’t, else she would have already convinced it to lift the curse.”

“Well then I suppose I must find this fairy myself.”

“That sounds like a splendid idea,” the witch’s familiar replied, his yellow eyes narrowing.

“You had better stay away from Geva,” the unicorn warned the cat, “if you know what’s good for you.”

And with that he let the beast go, and making his excuses to Geva, straightaway went looking for the fairy, with a promise to return to the maiden promptly. And being a magical being himself, it was not long before he found the immortal wight where she dwelt in a grove not far from Geva’s castle.

The fairy was seated on a magnificent throne of silver briarwood, clad in silver from head to toe, with eyes of silver and hair and skin as white as snow, and she was easily the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes upon.

“Are you that very same fairy who put a curse on the innocent girl who now inhabits yonder castle?” he demanded of her.

“I was angry,” the spirit admitted. “Of course I regret it now. The poor thing. But what can I do? The spell cannot be lifted, not even by me; nor can it be broken. It can only be fulfilled. None but a prince who is as innocent and pure of heart as she, and who is her true love, can free her from her prison.”

Ancoron thought about this for a long moment.

“Can you not transform me into a prince?” he asked finally.

“I cannot make you something you are not,” the fairy replied. “You would look like a prince, but you would only be a unicorn disguised as a prince. And though you may be innocent and pure of heart, you would not be the maiden’s true love.”

“Then I suppose I must find a prince,” said the unicorn, “who is innocent and pure of heart, and who will be her true love.”

“Yes,” said the fairy. “Well, good luck with that.”

So Ancoron returned to the maiden and explained everything, and before long he went off on his quest, promising to return with the one who would break the spell. She hated to see him go, but also had the utmost faith in him, and the prospect of the curse being lifted at last was certainly an appealing one; especially since it meant she could summon the finest doctors to the castle to see to her mother. For at this point the idea of finding her one true love did not seem as important.

For many days the unicorn searched long and hard, and far and wide, but to no avail. See, in every kingdom he visited, there were marriageable princes aplenty, but not one of them was innocent or pure of heart.

Meanwhile, despite Ancoron’s warning, the witch’s familiar took advantage of his long absence to cozy up to Geva, and soon the girl found herself confiding in the wicked creature.

“The unicorn is never coming back,” said the cat one day. “You might as well get used to that fact. But I will be your new friend, and I won’t ever leave you.”

At that Geva began to weep, but quickly wiped her tears away. “Do you swear?” she asked innocently.

“On my life,” said the sly feline, who had an extra eight of those to spare.

It was at around this time that Ancoron gave up his fruitless search and was on the point of returning home. But as sometimes happens in situations like these, before he was even halfway there, he serendipitously stumbled upon exactly what—or rather, who—he had been searching for.

Two servants stood before the gated entrance to a walled garden adjoined to a magnificent palace. It was midday, when most peasant folk rested from their labours, and now the pair sought out the shade of a large palm tree and sat down to share a loaf of bread and a jug of wine.

“It is high time the prince took a wife,” said the first servant.

“He will have none,” said the second.

“Ah,” said the first. “Well, that is not so unusual. When I was his age—”

“No,” the second interrupted, “you misunderstand me. The prince has never been with a woman at all, nor does he wish to.”

“You mean—”

“No, that isn’t it, either. He has fixated himself on some maiden he has never seen except in a vision.”

“A vision? Then the tales about him are true.”

“I would not speak of such things if I were you.”

“Of course you are right. Come, we’d best get back to work.”

Curious, the unicorn followed the servants into the garden, which was very large and magnificent, with many high trellises and all manner of flowering plants and trees. In the midst of the garden sat a handsome young man upon a chair of gold, splendidly dressed in the finest silks, with long dark hair, almond eyes, and olive complexion.

“Good morning, fair creature,” he said when he saw the unicorn approaching. “I am Prince Zakir.”

The unicorn bowed his head. “I greet you, Your Highness. I am Ancoron.”

“And what sort of beast are you,” the prince asked in surprise, “that you can speak the language of men?”

“I am a unicorn.”

“I see. It stands to reason that you are a magical beast. I have heard of such before, though I have never seen one. But what brings you here?”

“I come on behalf of a maid most rare, who may only be betrothed to a prince who is as innocent and pure of heart as she, and who will be her true love. I have searched long and hard, and far and wide, but this is the first time I have encountered anyone who met the first two requirements; though of course whether or not you will meet the third remains to be seen.”

“I have only one true love,” the prince replied, “and I will have no other. As to the second requirement, I am far from innocent—oh, innocent of the ways of love, I grant you—but though I have never personally shed blood, many men have died by my decree.”

The unicorn thought about this for a moment. “Perhaps,” he said, “a prince may dispense the realm’s justice and still be counted innocent, so long as he is pure of heart. For if you were not both of these, you would not be able to see me.”

The prince smiled, but Ancoron thought, a bit sadly.

“You are far more generous than my enemies,” he said at length. “Though they fear to raise a hand against me, they have no qualms about speaking ill of me behind my back.”

“And what do they say of you, Prince Zakir?”

“They say that I am not my father’s son. They say that my mother made a cuckold of my father, and lay with an efreet, who got me on her. They say that I am a bastard, and the spawn of a devil.”

“And why do they say such things?”

“Because I have had visions, and the visions have all come to pass—all, that is, save one.”

“That being?”

“The vision of my beloved.”

“Tell me of this vision.”

“The vision of my beloved is engraved upon my heart. While I live, I will have no other. And if ever I find her, if she says she will not have me, then I shall immediately die of grief.”

“And who is your beloved?”

“I do not know her name. I do not even know her whereabouts, else I should be with her. I only know that she is far, far away, and hidden from all men; a beautiful prisoner with golden hair that reaches to her ankles, eyes the emerald green of the forests, and skin as pale as milk.”

“Come with me,” said Ancoron, “and I will take you to your beloved.”

© 2014 by Strider Lee

Read Part III