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.”
“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.”
“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