She shook her butter-colored tresses back from her face and, leaning back on two brown, supple arms, stretched out full in the grass. The sun hit her eyelids with aggressive brightness, so she left them closed and breathed in the tumbling summer air. It was a pleasant sensation.
"Ay me, alas, heigh-ho, heigh-ho!" she sang to herself liltingly in a minor key. Dropping her voice very low, she continued the song softly –
"Thus doth Messalina go
Up and down the house a-crying,
For her monkey lies a-dying.
Death, thou art too cruel
To bereave her of her jewel;
Or to make a seizure
Of her only treasure.
If her monkey die
She will sit and cry fie, fie…"
Voice lifted, the goatherdess sang the childish tune. Talitha was her name, and she loved nothing better on warm days on the hillside than to raise her voice in song. Her mother worked as serving maid in the house of the baron whose goats Talitha tended, and on festival nights she would summon Talitha up to help her. Once her kitchen duties were attended to, the girl would settle in some obscure corner near the minstrel and gaze at him, listening to his ringing voice tell tales of bravery and honor while watching his nimble finger run up and down the lute strings. Then, the next day, she'd run up onto the hillside with her goats and sing the new songs herself. Her favorite songs were the ballads which told the conquests of brave and daring warriors. These she often rolled about on her tongue in a pleasant daydream, for she loved chivalry and all its trimmings. Sometimes when she stayed on the hill till nightfall, she would look up at the constellations. Her favorite was that of the warrior Orion kneeling with his bow bent. Many times she looked at those stars and indulged in the pretense of a warrior of her own who fought for her love and admiration. And she would sing the ballads once again.
But today there was none of that; the song Talitha sang was one her mother used to sing to her as a lullaby when she was quite a child. It was a foolish little verse, with little sense to it, but the music was haunting and mellow. Talitha had just reached the last "Fie, fie" when the goats began to wail. Looking about in alarm, Talitha espied a mail-clad traveler upon a steed of black. A strange sight, for though the stranger had a knight's emblem painted upon his jerkin and saddle cover, he bore no train behind him; neither was he accompanied by an esquire, as was the custom of those times. Noble in bearing and commanding in appearance, though young, he rode alone.
The knight, having espied the girl with her goats, rode towards her and paused his horse. Talitha scrambled up in surprise, pulled her sleeves down over her half-bared arms, ran her fingers through her windblown hair and curtseyed, ashamed of her appearance.
"Good morrow, maiden," spoke the knight in a deep, pleasant voice. "Forgive me for disturbing your goats, but I would ask a question of you. Whose castle is that which rises up on yonder vale?"
Talitha, surprised and amazed at the courteous tone of the knight's greeting, replied,
"Marry, sir, 'tis the castle of the Baron Watersefeild, to whom belong these goats I here tend."
"I thank thee for thy direction," the knight said, "for such is my destination. God buy you."
"God buy you, Sir," she curtseyed as rode off. She turned to her goats with lips pursed in astonishment.
A knight! What could he be doing here, all alone? She wondered. He was a likely-looking one, too, and comely, with a close-trimmed beard upon a manly jaw, and coarse locks falling above two keen eyes. She had flushed in embarrassment at being discovered in her non-too-plentiful attire; she usually was indifferent to it. Why, her hair only reached her shoulders, for months ago she had cut it off in a fit of abandonment; it grew warm upon that hill. Settling back down in mortification, she ran her fingers through her hair, and blushed. Then she thought once again of the grand attire of the lone knight, and it reminded her of one of her ballads. She began to sing.
When dusk settled in and Talitha made her way to the castle, she found it all amuck with excitement. The stable-boys were chattering unnaturally and bustled about in a businesslike manner instead of teasing or flirting with her as was their usual way, and she penned up her goats unmolested. When she entered the kitchen, she found half of the serving maids assembled together around the little table, gossiping intently. Bits of their words floated over to Talitha's ears as she opened the door.
"…The baron's cousin."
"No, his brother!"
"What order of knight…?"
"What do I care? Did you see how comely he is!"
"…Must be poor to be here without esquire or anything…"
"Poor? Pah! Manuel says his horse is one of the finest in the land."
As Talitha walked in, one of the girls bobbed up her brunette head and called out,
"Oh, Talitha, have you heard the news?"
"There is a knight visiting the baron, is there not?" Talitha said in her usual placid way. "Tell me who he is, Emmeth."
Emmeth looked at her friend in surprise and the other girls, who had heard Talitha's words, turned their heads towards her.
"Why, how did you know?" Emmeth asked. "He bore no train, and arrived singly on horseback."
"He passed by my flock and asked for directions to this castle," Talitha replied.
"He didn't!" the girls were full of awe. "What did he say? Were you frightened? Tell us," they bombarded her with questions. Talitha backed away towards the wash bin and began to wash her face.
"I tell you, he only asked the way to the castle. He is very courteous. I only wish I'd looked more respectable."
"He is the baron's brother," Emmeth broke in suddenly. "There is to be a formal celebration in honor of him tomorrow." Talitha grew curious.
"What is he doing here in the first place?" she inquired of her friends. The girls looked at each other with knowing eyes. Finally, one of them said,
"Well, they say…"
"It is only just rumor," a tall blond girl interrupted. "You can never trust those pages for their word."
"Pages! I heard it from my brother, and he is no page," the girl replied indignantly.
"Tell her," urged Emmeth.
"They think," the girl continued, "that there may be a sprite – a spirit – a thing – in the forest. There have been stories from the neighboring villages about a strange being that inhabits the forests about this land. Some people have sworn they've heard the leaves rustling as they walked the path by the forest; and others who have gone into the woods when the thing is about have never returned. And the baron has got hearing of this, and his brother – this knight without an esquire – is famed, so we hear, for his valor in joust, duel, and battle. He has come to investigate the news."
All was silent as the girl ended, and all directed their eyes towards Talitha. Her face bore an expression of almost bewilderment, and then a tinge of fear shaded it.
"A spirit – a thing, in my woods?" she said. "But no one has ever told me this before. I have seen naught."
"Perhaps," returned Emmeth, "but you may as yet. I have begun to worry since I heard of it. You had better be careful, and not stray into the woods with your flock - "
But to the surprise of them all, Talitha laughed. Throwing her yellow head back, she laughed a gay young girl's laugh.
"Well, you may all worry, if it pleases you," she said, "but for my part, I don't believe a word of it. It's all wives' tales."
"Dead villagers are no wives' tales," Emmeth chided her.
"Dead villagers," her friend mimicked scornfully. "A bear could do as much harm. I won't believe it's a spirit – not till I've seen it myself. From the way you're all talking, one might think it was Beelzebub himself."
And she ran out of the kitchen door and towards the spring where she washed her face and combed her hair, bundling the short curls into a small net at the nape of her neck. Then she went in and ate supper while the girls were pressed into service of the kitchen.
The next day Talitha sat by her goats as usual, musing over incoherent bits of ballads as she toyed with a dandelion. The goats grazed beneath the shade of a few oak trees leading to the woods. They moved about, eating any bit of clover or ivy they could get their strong teeth around. Talitha moved away from them to the edge of the hill where she could spread herself out easily, and look up at the bright sky. Her head was turned, however, by the sound of her goats bleating worriedly; when she looked around, she saw that they were huddled far away from the shade in which they had been grazing.
"What ails ye?" she said, standing up. Shading her eyes with a tanned palm, she looked across in search of an intruder, but none showed itself. Her heart thumped a bit as she thought of the so-called "spirit," but she swallowed her fear.
"Nonsense," she muttered. "Anyway, if there is such a thing about, the best course of action is to steer clear of it," and so she beckoned her goats towards her, cajoling their cries with a handful of tempting weeds.
Upon her return to the castle at dusk she found the place in festivities. Recalling that Emmeth had said there would be a celebration, she snuck into the kitchen in pursuit of a minstrel, but heard no singing. She sighed in disappointment but hungrily ate the food allotted to her. Then, as it grew dark, she ran out to the hill unnoticed, and there she lay on her back watching the stars. As the sun set and the sky grew dark, the stars came out, or rather, as Talitha's mother used to tell her, the night-pixies came out to scatter stars with their wands. The pixie-queen, she had been told, was the loveliest little creature in the world, and, as she danced gaily up in the sky, stars shooting from her little toes would swirl about and form the constellations. When the moon came out, Talitha still lingered, for her warrior shone brightly this night, and she dwelt pleasantly upon the starry shape, and hummed her ballads once more. Finally, thinking that her mother might be home missing her by now, she girded herself in preparation to leave. She was scrambling to her feet when she saw a form rise against the moon on a hill peak. Gasping, she froze. She gazed towards it, and there on the distant hill was a unicorn, reared on its hind legs, shadowy in the moonlight.
"Oh!" she breathed. She felt suffocated, unaware of which emotion she should feel. Should she be surprised, frightened, enthralled, or faint? She stood still as a rock for a moment. Then, as quickly as it had come, the unicorn disappeared again into the shadows.
Talitha slept little that night, and at length resolved that she would go to the knight and tell him what she had seen. He was, after all, in quest of the creature. The only trouble lay in the inevitable question of carrying the resolution out. How does a seventeen-year-old goatherdess go about informing a knight about the appearance of a creature which was seen only by her? The more she thought about it, the more foolish it seemed. It gnawed away at her persistently until she could bear it no longer, and vowed to herself not to do such a strange thing. In the morning she rose early as usual, and donned her customary gown of gray. She bundled back her hair with more prudence than usual, and scrubbed her arms and neck as well as her face. But when she left the cottage, she went to her goats, and let them out.
As the animals rushed from their captivity, bleating in their way like spoiled children, they kicked the dust from the ground and sent it flying up the girl's nostrils. Forced to raise her head, she coughed, and out of the corner of her eye saw the form of a man nearing her. She recognized the man to be the manservant of the warden of the hunt, who was a very important member of the baron's service. Standing stock still in surprise, she stared at him as he neared her. He came right up to her as though on special business.
"My master has been employed by the Knight to thoroughly investigate the county in search of the rumored spirit that has been roaming it," he said in a lofty, yet almost vague manner. "In order to shorten this task, I have been asking those who have had a chance to be near the forest besides ourselves if they have found any evidence of such a creature." Supposedly thinking this speech sufficient, he tilted his head in a questioning manner, and set his eyes upon her in the manner of a grand inquisitor.
Talitha, half laughing, half scared, mentally gave a prayer of thankfulness for the circumstances in which she was now placed.
"I have seen something," she said, "just last night; and I did not know where to go with my story. But if the Knight wishes to hear my tale, and you will bring me to him, he shall have it."
"Tell me what you saw, and my master shall bring him the news," the man said eagerly.
"Nay, sir," Talitha refused. "I will tell it to him alone."
A bit miffed, the manservant went off, but when she returned at noon, he appeared, and told her that the knight, hearing her request, had ordered her presence within the castle. She, on trembling legs, followed the page to his chamber.
He was standing with his brother, looking at papers at a table. When the page showed the girl in, she stepped quickly to the side, and curtseyed as the knight turned. The grandeur of the stone room emphasized the girl's comparative slightness. Shades which were drawn over the great wide windows made the light shine in golden which reflected darkly on her already brown skin and made her hair look pale in contrast. Her face was very pretty but due to her uneasiness her lips and cheeks had little color. The knight spoke.
"Is this the little goatherdess who gave me directions to this castle?" he asked in his pleasant voice. "And they tell me you have seen something? Why could you not tell my warden what you saw?"
"Because, gentle sir," Talitha replied carefully, "I feared that my story is somewhat fantastic and I wished not for my words to be misconstrued. If my words are doubted here, at least it is my master who will declare my fate." She looked towards the baron as she said this with trembling lips, and he nodded a little uncertainly.
The knight himself had been watching her intently. His admirable keen eyes fixed upon her face, his wide mouth held terse with curiosity, he said to her,
"Tell us, pray, what you saw."
Talitha brushed a stray hair from her brow, and began to speak.
"My goats have been huddling and acting queer lately, and so I suspected something, but saw naught," she began. "Then, just this last night – during the festival," (here she blushed), "I was out on the hilltop, just by myself, and I saw the silhouette of – of a unicorn, sir. It rose beyond the hillside, at the far north, and left. I was so frightened, I stayed no longer than I saw it," she ended hurriedly. The baron looked at his brother in dismay and fear; his brother's brow hardened, but his eyes glinted.
"How far was it from you?" he asked.
"Oh, very far, sir. No less than two miles, I would wager."
"And how could you tell it is the creature you think it to be?"
Talitha shivered as she remembered the ghastly vision.
"It rose on two hinds, and pawed the air. I could see its mane and its horn in the moonlight."
The baron and his brother met eyes.
"Well," said the knight finally, "If there is a unicorn out there, we must rid the place of it, for no spirit could be more dangerous than a unicorn. Wild, wanton, utterly fearless – and such a horn of steel, made to bore out men's hearts. I will go out this week to investigate, and take the warden and his men with me. We will scour those forests. As for you," he addressed the goatherdess, "You must, for your own safety, keep clear of the forest. Go to the southernmost hillside to graze your goats, and keep away from woodlands. Unicorns love solitude and security, so you must be safe in a field."
Thus was Talitha tending her goats in the warm sunshine on the day that the hunt occurred. Dreamily, she lay, stretched out full on the grass. The dew was still damp on the earth, and the flock still bleary-eyed when she suddenly heard the noise of dogs baying and men shouting. Heart racing, she looked over into the forest beyond. The sounds faded until all was silent. Then she heard a cry, and her hand flew to her throat. There were men racing down the hill – menservants of the warden of the hunt. Clothing tattered and eyes as round and hollow as if they had seen a specter, they shouted at her as she rose.
"Do not go near there, maid!" the menservants cried. "We are going for help." But notwithstanding their warnings she ran swiftly into the woods, oblivious of where she was going. Through flora and fauna she ran wildly, following distant moans and rustles – until finally she found the knight, thrown on his back and propping himself up on his elbows. Nearby him lie the warden, bloody and still; and before him, tall and erect, was the creature. The unicorn.
It was the most magnificent creature Talitha had ever seen. It was like a great white horse, but more lovely and strong – and at the same time delicate – than any horse ever seen. Tall and majestic, and white as snow, with a mane blowing and curling wildly in the wind, its marble eyes glinted with a humanlike quality. It had a pure white lock of curly hair at its chin and sharp, cloven hoofs. But its crowning glory was its long, luminous horn. It was as long as Talitha's arm, and sharp. Its tip glowed with the red of the blood it had so recently spilled. Talitha shivered at the sight of it.
It lowered its horn threateningly as it stepped towards the knight. Talitha looked in horror at the knight's face. This man, so noble and brave and fearless, was now looking up at a force far greater than he, and his breathing sent heavy tremors through his body as perspiration ran down his brow.
"No!" Talitha said. "No, no!"
She ran, half mad, and put herself between him and the unicorn.
"Maid!" the knight breathed, his voice replete with horror. The unicorn snorted, or rather snarled, like a wild beast. Talitha trembled, but threw her shoulders back, and lifted her chin in defiance. The unicorn's shining horn gleamed in the golden light of the nearing dusk. The girl's heart beat wildly as it eyed her, and despite her resolve she faltered backwards.
Until now, the unicorn had been standing still as stone, watching her, one hoof raised. Now it made a sudden movement, as if it had made its decision to kill the intruder that came between it and its prey. One step closer – its horn lowered towards her – another step of the cloven hoofs – the grass parted at its touch. Talitha fell to her knees before the creature but did not stir from her place between the knight and his antagonist. It towered above her, and she covered her face with her arms. The hoof beats came nearer, nearer…
She heard the knight draw in a shaky breath. Her hair blew in the wind, and something warm touched her neck. Opening her eyes, she looked about dizzily. The unicorn was bending down towards her. It pressed its silken muzzle against her bare skin as a dog nosing its master's hand – gentle and plaintive. Talitha, bewildered, moved away from it. It lay itself next to her in the grass as though it were a lamb. The goatherdess felt lightheaded. A laugh escaped her still cold lips as a hysterical flow of relief spread through her body.
"Why – what," she stuttered. Now situated, the great white creature laid its head in her lap.
"You have tamed it," the knight said.
"But I never – I do not – " she began, but just as the words escaped her mouth, the menservants of the warden appeared at the edge of the wood, bearing a following of men with arms. The crowd was noisy and they approached the place quickly, staring in horror at the dead warden. Their voices buzzed steadily, until they caught sight of the beast lying before them beside the girl. They stared agape.
"How could a maid have done such a thing?" their voices whispered.
"She has done it," replied the knight, his voice now strong for everyone to hear. "She has done this thing, and her maidenhood has enabled her to do it. She has tamed the wild beast and" – he put his hand on hers – "she shall hereafter have my love."
Talitha's hand, upon the mane of the unicorn, grew warm beneath his, and she remembered the stars in the sky on the night she saw the unicorn rise up. The unicorn was no longer a shadow of fear but a material object of caresses; her warrior was no longer a pattern of stars in the night skies but a real living man who loved and wanted her.
The unicorn turned its great white head, and touched the knight gently with its nose. He smiled.
A/N: The song used in this story is not mine; it's an old English song I found a Britten arrangement of. The author is anonymous, so I'm pretty sure I'm not breaking any copyright laws. lol.