The Winter of the Unicorn
Outside the city walls, despite a hard winter, the granaries were still well filled. There was plenty for a great feast and for the rest of the winter too. The hens and geese were plump. The Baron and his men had been out on a deer hunt in the forest. The cellars were laden with heavy oaken casks filled with cider and mead.
The streets were brightly lit with lanterns and merry with song and chatter. Minstrels played festive music, glad to have been welcomed into the City.
Children well wrapped in wool coats and leather boots ran about throwing snowballs at each other and made ice slides in the streets to the annoyance of the old and infirm. In the morning when they woke they had enjoyed drawing finger pictures on window panes to embellish the work of Jack Frost.
The cooks were all preparing the winter feast. Everyone was looking forward to eating the Goose (except the geese of course). There would be puddings and pies and fruits and nuts from the fields and the forest and there would be frumenty, a great favourite of all. The poorer people were hoping to have a slice of Humble Pie, made with the heart and brains and other offal of the Deer.
When the festival of the Winter Solstice arrived and the old, old custom of tree dressing began, the plump Friar came to the tree he called the Paradise Tree outside the cathedral and blessed the tree in readiness for the time of Christmas Eve.
There was to be a play just outside the church on Christmas Eve and mummers were to adorn the evergreen tree with apples and communion wafers. Decked out in this way it represented the two mystical trees in the Garden of Eden; the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil and the Tree of Life. The play would be attended by many, both rich and poor.
In the morning the rich Baron stood, wrapped in furs with an armed guard behind him, on the steps of the Great Hall and gave ostentatious, but not overly generous, charity to the poor of the city. He despised the poor. He saw them not as men but as mindless vermin. He had not a compassionate or charitable bone in his body. He was unkind and even cruel. He washed his fingers frequently in a bowl of rose water a servant held beside him, wiping poverty from his hands on a delicately embroidered cloth.
Out, beyond the city gates, a mile or so away in the fields where the ground was a patchwork of brown, bare frozen earth sprinkled by flurries of snow and deeper drifts against walls and hedgerows, a family lived by a frozen lake, close to a forest, in a wooden hut. They were a family of six; an old Grandfather and his son Dynawd, his sons’ thin, gaunt wife, Awena, who once had been very pretty, and their three very young children. All were pale, cold, dressed in rags and starving, as were many others in that land.
The family had done their best to ensure their survival but they were only allowed to keep a small portion of the harvest. The Baron and the City took the rest.
The fire in their hearth was meagre as, though there were plenty of fallen branches and twigs in the forest, these too had been claimed by the Baron as his own property and only a bare supply could be gathered. The Deer and all living things belonged to him too, by his sole decree and the support of his henchmen.
The Barons men rode out from the city frequently to check that the people of the land withheld no item of tax or stole from the forest.
The punishment for poaching or for gathering more than an allotted amount of wood from the forest was very severe, no less than death was ever granted. Dynawd dare not risk his life for his whole family depended upon his survival. He took what he could. His boots were a mess of mended holes. He spent his days plugging every hole that let in a draught or was outside in the snow with Awena scavenging while the old man watched the children. He felt impotent as he watched his family starve.
The winter had come early that year and been very harsh. Dynawd had never before found it this hard to survive and looking ahead he began to despair. There was nowhere to turn to for help. He looked at his wife and children with pity. His father could offer no advice.
The baby was always coughing in a way that caught at Dynawd’s heart. She was his only daughter. He loved all his children dearly and his wife and father too. He was glad his mother had died in a peaceful sleep in the summer. It was a better death than this.
Dynawd couldn’t sleep at night, partly through hunger and partly through sorrow. His wife clung to him in her sleep for warmth. He rolled her aside and wrapped the thin blanket closely around her and went outside.
The moon was full and the snow in the fields, the frost on the leaves, the icicles that hung from the eaves of the hut and the ice on the lake all glittered and sparkled in moonlight. How such beauty could also be so cruel in its consequences was a mystery.
Dynawd looked up. A bright star shone high at the apex of the sky. It was surrounded by myriad twinkling stars as if diamonds had been tossed on a black velvet cloth with one pure jewel at the centre, outshining them all. Dynawd was overcome by its beauty and sat down in the snow outside the hut and wept unashamedly. He was at his wits end and powerless to change anything.
As he sat there the memory of happier winters came to him from the time before the Baron came and seized all the land and murdered so many of Dynawd kin. Almost all of the old Wise Ones had been taken in a day and slain.
Then he remembered the Yule Log that used to burn in his family’s hearth for twelve days each year. Now, this was forbidden. It was a very hard wood and so considered to be of great value.
The memory gladdened Dynawd’s heart for a moment and he resolved that, come what may, he would get a Yule Log once again in this bitter year and some holly and mistletoe too if he could and maybe even a rabbit or a squirrel. What had he got to lose now, they were all going to die anyway. Despair brings desperate actions.
Dynawd stood up and as he turned towards his door to fetch a knife and an axe his eye was caught by a silver glimmer just inside the forest. A light flurry of snow had begun to fall again and Dynawd, squinting against the cold flakes that landed on his eyelashes, peered into the forest with blurred eyes. Now he saw nothing and, looking back briefly over his shoulder he went into the hut.
Dynawd came back out with the knife in his belt. He set the axe down by the door a moment because, to his surprise, he saw a graceful white horse standing beside the lake. He had no thought to try and catch it as, wild or owned, it was not to be his, so he just stood silent and watched it.
Then he saw the white horse bow its head and the ice immediately melted and made a pool. The horse drank. This made Dynawd very curious and he slowly crept forward, trying not to crunch the snow with his ragged boots but the horse heard him instantly and turned its head.
It was a Unicorn.
Dynawd stood transfixed, rooted to the ground. He had never seen such beauty; a Unicorn in the snow lit by moonlight, magical, unbelievable, yet there it stood. Dynawd could not have moved at that moment even if he had wanted to. He expected the Unicorn to flee to the forest and vanish like all dreams do.
Instead of fleeing the Unicorn came to him and stood before him calmly. Dynawd looked deep into the Unicorns soft starlit eyes and saw endless compassion and kindness and something a little like sorrow.
In a voice that was musical with the purity of a struck silver bell that seemed to come from far, far away, the Unicorn spoke.
‘’I have come to help you Dynawd. This land is stricken. The city takes everything. Your people cannot survive. Something must be done. You must swear never to forget your traditions or what your people believe.’’
‘’I swear this,’’ said Dynawd. He would have sworn to anything the Unicorn asked of him, but he agreed with every word.
‘’Kill me and take my horn. My horn must be used for good and never for ill. Your family shall eat my flesh and survive. My flesh will be one with your flesh and with it you will receive my blessings. ’’
Dynawd reeled back in shock. ‘’I can’t kill a Unicorn,’’ he said and tears filled his eyes.
‘’You must,’’ said the Unicorn, ‘’It is my wish and it’s why I am here beside you this night. You must do as I say and nothing less. You must kill me and your family must eat my flesh. You must take my horn and help your people and keep their spirit strong. You will be blessed by my spirit. I will live inside you. From now and forever no-one in your family will die in danger or of ill health. All will have a peaceful death in old age, just as did your mother, who I met long ago in the woods when she was a maiden. ’’
Seven times Dynawd refused to kill the Unicorn.
Seven times the Unicorn insisted he must.
Then the Unicorn said, ‘’I will make this easy for you. Go and lean your back against the oak tree over there and hold your knife out toward me. You may close your eyes if you wish but keep your arm and the knife straight and rigid. Go, do as I tell you.’’
Dynawd obeyed, but he couldn’t close his eyes. The Unicorn walked up to him there and looked at him gently and then raised its beautiful head, bearing its throat and pushed itself onto the knife, cutting the vein that held in life. Blood flowed down onto the snow as the Unicorn fell to its knees without a sound and it lay down at Dynawd’s feet.
Dynawd stood there, unable to move, but then he remembered the Unicorns words. He cut out the horn and took it. It glowed in his hand like starlight a moment and then dimmed to bone. Dynawd skinned the Unicorn and took it as meat to his home. He found it very hard to eat and swallow it but he knew that he must. He didn’t tell his family what it was.
The next morning Dynawd saw that his wife’s face was different. She looked so healthy and seemed to have some inner light. His father and children too looked strong and well. He stood and stretched himself and felt a strong vigour in his limbs that he had not felt for years and he could not help but smile.
He stepped out of his door and looked across at the Oak tree. He saws no sign of slaughter or death but a Holly tree grew there next to the Oak and it was weighed down with red berries and full of singing birds that had come to eat.
Dynawd wondered what the Unicorns horn could do. He had been told to use it to the good and never to the ill so he knew that it must have some power. He had seen the Unicorn melt a hole in the ice on the lake and so Dynawd thought that a safe thing to try. He touched the ice with the wand. The ice melted.
Then he went to a dead tree and touched it. At first he saw nothing but then, after a while, a few buds appeared. Dynawd had sense enough and respect enough for nature not to mess about with the seasons so he did no more than that. He returned to the house to sit and ponder. The horn was still in his hand.
When Dynawd went in and closed the door Awena said, addressing Dynawd’s father, ‘’my, that was a strong wind to swing the door like that!’’
Dynawd said, ‘’It was me.’’
Awena looked startled and said, ‘’Dynawd? Where are you?’’
‘’I’m right in front of you Awena. Can’t you see?’’ Dynawd touched her arm.
Awena squealed and backed away.
‘’Do you see me Father?’’ Dynawd asked.
‘’No I don’t,’’ said his father. ‘’Try putting down the Unicorns horn.’’
Dynawd was surprised at his fathers’ words but did as he was bid and appeared as normal.
‘’How did you know it was a Unicorns horn?’’
‘’From old tales of invisibility my father told me and his father told him before that. Also I dreamed of a Unicorn all last night and I have my suspicions about that meat. Hadn’t you better tell us what happened?’’
Dynawd sat down and told them all that had happened. He showed them the horn and they passed it from hand to hand in reverent awe.
‘’You could kill the Baron maybe?’’ said Awena.
‘’No I don’t think so,’’ said Dynawd. ‘’That’s certainly a good deed to many as we would all see it but it could also be seen as evil and though the Unicorn said I must help our people he also said I must only use the horn for good. That may not include anyone’s death, including that of the Baron. There will be other ways.’’
‘’But the first thing we will do is move into the forest. I will build us a small shelter where we can be more hidden and safe for a few days and I will use invisibility to feed us while I think. We will go far, far in where our fire smoke can’t be seen. We will as good as vanish. I will see what else this horn can do.’’
And this they did.
One night before he went to sleep Dynawd left the Unicorn horn resting on a sack of grain. In the morning he saw that the sack was full of gold coins. They had wealth but Dynawd knew he must not use the horn just for his own well-being.
Dynawd thought hard and long in the forest. He was an intelligent man and his father was full of old stories to guide him so Dynawd also listened. Finally he came up with a plan. He didn’t fear for his families safety because the Unicorn had said they would all live long lives and die in peace.
Dynawd went alone to the City, using invisibility and leaving gold coin on the counters of shops until he was dressed as a wealthy man. Then tucking the Unicorn horn away he went and bought all else he needed with the gold. He bought fine clothes for his family and three horses and a very fine sword of old design for himself and rings of silver and sparkling jewels for Awena’s fingers. He knew this latter was an indulgence but also felt she deserved it. Then he returned home to fetch his family back to the City.
On the Twelfth Day of Christmas Dynawd and his family entered the gates of the City in splendour. The people bowed as they passed, even the Lords and Ladies. There was something in Dynawd face that inspired. They felt his inner beauty.
Awena who had once been pretty now shone with an inner light and there was no denying that she was the most beautiful woman any man had ever seen in that City. The old man looked wise and noble and the small children laughed and sang as they rode with him on his horse. The babe was in Awena’s arms.
Dynawd took a room at a simple tavern, which puzzled the rich and the poor alike. But wherever he went amongst the poor he was generous and it was obvious he had wealth. He was polite to the wealthy but didn’t speak with them much at first, preferring to observe the City whilst creating a certain mystique. It wasn’t long before he was invited to sit at the Barons loaded supper table one night.
The Baron asked Dynawd where he was from and Dynawd told him he was from the far side of the forest. The forest was known to be vast.
‘’I have travelled much,’’ said Dynawd
‘’You must have many travel tales,’’ the Baron said, ‘’I would like to hear some if you would oblige. I get bored here in the evening with these drunken louts who hang about the Court. I don’t trust any of them either.’’ The Baron was a little in his cups, as he so often was.
‘’I would be glad to oblige my Lord, ‘’ Dynawd smiled, thinking he had a huge stock of tales to draw upon, stories from his own race, stories with adventure and wisdom. He would be glad to tell them to this powerful, unkind usurper from another land, this man of no compassion.
After a time Dynawd started to create some tales of his own too in a way that was designed to influence the Baron in current circumstances as they occurred. In effect he had become the Barons favoured Bard, which was a powerful position of influence.
The Baron didn’t really even know what a Bard was; thinking it was just a poet and musician, an entertainer. But he came to regard Dynawd as a trusted friend who never did him harm. Occasionally Dynawd would seem distracted and say he was thinking of leaving but the Baron always begged him to stay.
The people knew very little of Dynawd or his wisdom and inner light but under his influence the Baron came to see that showing a little compassion could be an effective political strategy and even a delight. The compassion and love that poured from the Unicorns horn had the greater effect in the land and Dynawd’s family acknowledged that to each other and never forgot it.
While Dynawd told the Baron endless tales and gained his trust and advised him on serious matters Awena rode about the countryside, taking the Unicorn wand with her, helping, healing and feeding the people. She became well known and loved and they started to call her Unicorn Daughter and Lady of Light.
Dynawd and Awena were very happy in this life and they saw their people prosper and the Unicorns blessings revealed. They both lived to be more than one hundred and thirty years old and when they died their children kept the Unicorns horn and continued to help people all over the land.
The blessing of the Unicorns flesh was passed down, generation by generation until its history was lost in the mists of time but in every generation thereafter one Bard of great, slight, or no fame at all appears in that family and has the gift of the Unicorn.
They quietly do their best to help in any way they can wherever there is suffering and a need for secret charity. In this way it could be said that the Unicorn of Winter has outlived all others, who are just a beautiful memory and gone from this world.