Desmond found it difficult to concentrate on the old, mystical tome. The frail, yellowed pages threatened to crumble at his every touch. The faded writing blurred as he struggled to translate the dialect making him realize collecting mushrooms wasn’t as much of a chore as first thought. At least he was outside.
Time and again he looked out of the narrow, arched window past the neat overflowing garden. The clear, sunny day invited his attention with welcoming blue skies and wispy clouds. It was a much better alternative to being locked in a dark house studying ancient spells.
A sorcerer’s apprentice was a mundane existence at best despite the prestigious reputation guaranteed from success at his studies. If he wasn’t practicing simplistic impractical spells, his responsibilities included doing various errands around the house. From cleaning the cluttered cabin to tending the garden, Desmond’s days could not be called unique. Today his restlessness was beginning to get the better of him.
The chair creaked as he scraped it away from the angled table displaying the tattered book. With a loud yawn he stretched, his aching body fighting every move. Eyeing the thicker later half of the book, Desmond yearned to be allowed to try more advanced incantations, longing to feel more like a student than a caretaker.
Rubbing his eyes he made his way to the front door, adjusting to the changing light as it opened. A refreshing breeze met him, making the sole choice stepping outside. He stared at the untamed front yard, relieved that Gunther had never asked him to clear it save for a narrow worn pathway. He sat on the topmost cobble step and lounged backward basking in the afternoon sun.
Gunther had gone into town and wouldn’t be back until dusk, giving Desmond a rare several hours by himself. It was not to do what he pleased though. The old sorcerer expected his young charge to always study in hopes of honing the magical talent that insisted on remaining dormant within him. It was that fact that bothered Desmond the most when he would meet up with friends who went off with other teachers. They would be mastering advanced magic while he was still struggling with carnival tricks.
Desmond felt his mind drifting. As he began to doze off, he snapped up, remembering.
“I wonder if she came back yet,” he spoke to empty air, standing up to head back into the house. Ignoring the books that demanded his attention, he strolled through towards the garden, continuing into the forest that was such a bane a few hours before.
Desmond was a carpenter’s son and it was always believed he too would grow up to be a carpenter. He studied under his father the tools of the trade but something within him stirred for a different path. Desmond didn’t remember when the interest started. Even though he had not manifested any magical talent, he knew deep down he wanted to be a sorcerer.
His parents didn’t understand the unusual request their son was making. Talented children started very young and were sent off to appropriate schools soon after, but a carpenter’s son? Desmond was determined. He practiced carpentry and continued helping around the farm as he was supposed to, but every moment of spare time was used studying magic. Magic did whatever it wanted and appeared on its own time and Desmond was sure that with enough application, his own would come soon enough.
The first time he was sure he was on the right track was when he met Gunther, a freelance wizard teaching at a nearby school to supplement his own studies. He at once took interest in the boy. They spent most of the day talking and Gunther asked if he would be interested in apprenticing with him.
Desmond could not have been more excited. Here was the proof that he wasn’t just going through a phase. A real sorcerer had pointed out that there was indeed latent magic in him. For some reason it was not presenting itself as it did with more adept students. Soon after Desmond’s parents were convinced to allow him to train their son.
It had been two years. With Gunther’s guidance his magic began to flow, slow and weak but better than nothing. Living as an apprentice however was not what he envisioned. Everything was hard – the studying, the work, the chores, everything. His teacher had warned him that it would be from the very beginning of his training. Desmond was resolved to see this through although it was days like today that made him wonder whether he did make the right choice.
Desmond walked through the dense vegetation this time not begrudging his needing to be there. Gunther had sent him on so many treks for his various needs, he became familiar with the surroundings, unlike in the beginning when getting lost was a common annoyance. He was now even able to walk through the forest in the pitch of night and still find his way. Maybe his magic was of a more practical nature rather than what he hoped.
An unusual rustling caught his attention. Desmond kept a careful ear out. “It can’t be wolves, it’s daylight. It has to be wind blowing through the trees.”
The rustling began again this time accompanied by an even more familiar feeling. Goose bumps waved all over his body. The electric tingling from that morning returned. Desmond picked up his pace, attempting to see if he could get a glimpse of what he was sharing his walk with. Something had to be causing the inexplicable sensation. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to find out though.
Nothing else was out of the ordinary. No birds were taking to flight screaming a warning call or small animals scurrying away from a particular area. The forest was as normal and calm as he was used to it being.
The sound came again.
“Wind. It’s wind.” Desmond repeated the words trying to regain the conviction of his first realization. Just as it had started, the feeling stopped. Speeding to a trot, Desmond reached his desired destination as the trees faded into a clearing.
A brook lay ahead of him, clear water running over shiny smooth stones. The sight made him forget the strange incident.
“Too bad it’s not hot enough,” he said, taking in the sight before him. “That water looks good enough to jump in. Guess I’ll settle with getting my feet wet.”
Taking off his boots and rolling his pants, Desmond positioned himself on a sturdy rock. He kicked both legs, splashing the refreshing water, looking over at the home across the river from him.
Stacked stones made the walls of the quaint cottage, its roof topped with a thick layer of thatch. A grassy clearing surrounded it, an incomplete wall separating the house from the rest of the imposing forest.
There was no one around as he could see, but it was obvious that chores were being worked on. A large basket of wet laundry sat next to two poles holding a line taut. Sheets billowed stiff with water, the wire sagging where they hung, but the poles remained firm.
Desmond kicked at the water again, catching a glance of a large figure from corner of his eye. An animal was walking opposite his direction, a slight turn revealing an ebony horse following the edge of the riverbank.
Remembering the rustling, he felt a feeling of foolishness over finding out he had gotten nervous over escaped livestock. Desmond stood and placed his wet feet back into his leather boots while watching the animal. If someone had lost a horse it would be best to catch and return it. Maybe he could even get a reward for his trouble.
He stood still as he decided on a course of action. The horse didn’t look like it was in a rush although there wasn’t a bridle for him to grab onto. With any luck it would be tame enough for him to lead back home.
Desmond followed the horse’s slow pace, beginning to realize the way the creature acted. It walked as if it were half its size and weight, not the typical plodding.. Its coat also remained a rich deep black instead of shining brown in the sunlight. It didn’t even make a sound while Desmond could hear his own footsteps crush grass and snap twigs underneath him. He studied the black figure as it continued along the river edge, its swishing tail catching his focus.
“It can’t be.” Desmond gave the surrounding area nervous glances. “Slim, lion-like tail. No horse has a tail like that.” Not believing what it signified, Desmond stepped back. “Turn around,” he whispered, clenching his fists. “You can’t be what I think you are. Turn around and show me.”
Obliging him, the creature arched its deer-like neck, revealing a fine, Arabian profile. And growing from the center of its forehead was a single spiral horn.
The tingling started, this time with such intensity that Desmond was knocked back, his eyes blinded with white stars. Like a flame an uncontrollable urge to follow rose in his chest. Fighting the impulse Desmond staggered, struggling to regain his sight. The feeling dissipated along with the tingling. The battle was won for now.
The animal pawed a cloven hoof, tearing at the grass. The movement betrayed a hint of frustration.
“Desmond? Is that you?” s
The words coming from across the river broke the spell. Startled, Desmond turned behind him, seeing a young woman waving from the bank. He spun back expecting the unicorn to be there. It had retreated into the woods not making a sound as it had appeared.
“Did you see that?” Desmond pointed to the place where the unicorn used to be.
“The unicorn, it was right here.” His voice trailed as he searched around.
“A what?” She either not know or didn’t hear what he was talking about.
Shaking his head, he walked back to where he had been sitting. “Maybe I was just seeing things but I know I wasn’t,” he muttered. The girl’s lack of reaction made him question his senses. “It was too real to be a figment of my imagination.”
“So aren’t you supposed to be studying? I thought old Gunther didn’t let you out of the house this far.”
Her voice brightened his face. “It feels that way,” Desmond answered, dismissing the unicorn. “He went into town and I decided I needed a much deserved break.” He sat back down and smiled at the girl, unsure if she could see him doing so. Removing his damp shoes he placed his feet back into the cool water, disappointed at not being able to get a reward for returning a lost horse.
“Well, unlike you, I have to get back to my work. A girl gets no breaks around here.” She hoisted up her basket of laundry.
Desmond cupped his hands around his mouth. “I’ll supervise!”
She laughed and waved him off, returning to the clothing. He sighed, splashing the water, trying not to get caught staring.
Hannah was the same age as him, a slender young woman with fire-red hair. She wore a plain dress with the hem tied up showing off her bare feet. Thanks to all the work the sorcerer demanded of his young charge, Desmond had to resort to learning Hannah’s chore schedule and making sure he was at the river every chance he got when she did them. He could see her without being too far from the house to get into trouble when Gunther started calling.
He felt himself blush causing him to wiggle his toes. He leaned back on his elbows looking over to the where the unicorn was standing.
“How could Hannah just miss seeing a unicorn? And if I wasn’t seeing things, what was it doing this close to people anyway?” He was more bothered by the latter question than the former.
Although unicorns are not rare they are also not common. The made their homes as far away from people as they could. There are stories of unicorns coming to the aid of kings and living under their care, but those stories were repeated less than the rumors of unicorns stealing maidens away. Whichever was true, Desmond couldn’t get his mind off of the incident. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, allowing himself to slip into a welcome nap.
Hannah chuckled as she watched Desmond fall asleep with his feet in the water. “He does that every time,” she said to the blanket, continuing her work. “If he’s not careful, he’ll end up in that river.” A mischievous smile crossed her lips. “I hope I’m there to see it if he does.”
She continued to spy on him from behind the hanging laundry. She remembered first meeting Gunther’s student. They had come to purchase dried herbs from her mother. He was quiet didn’t make eye contact much. When he did though he couldn’t help but let loose a modest smile, one that would get a little wider whenever Hannah would come into the room.
She swayed her head and let out a little laugh as she put up the last of the laundry. Taking one last look at the sleeping apprentice, she picked up the basket and walked back into the house.
Helping her mother with dinner was the next of her chores, one that didn’t need to be done just yet. Hannah decided a quiet stroll would be a good way to pass the time. Glancing over one last time to where Desmond had been sleeping, she was greeted with an empty stone. He was gone.
“Gunther expects him to do so much work.” Hannah wiped her hands on her shirt, disappointed. “But if he is to become a sorcerer he will no doubt do a lot more later than what he’s doing now. I’m glad my life is simpler.” She paused. “Okay, maybe not as exciting but simpler most certain.”
Being barefoot she walked along the soft, grassy edge avoiding the rock bed. She was not looking forward to a careless slip to send her into the water. She chuckled again. “I’m sure Desmond would like to see that,” she said remembering her own similar thought before. The sound of his name made a smile appear. His vision was enough to keep her company if she couldn’t have him actually with her. “I wish he wasn’t working all the time.”
She sighed, not hiding her longing.
Hannah started humming and twirling, dancing to the music in her mind. She spun until dizziness sent her tumbling to the ground. She continued to hum, digging her toes into the grass. As she tilted her head side to side to the melody she imagined, a shadow stretched beside her.
Hannah hoped to see his familiar figure walk out and surprise her. She called out his name again. As with the first time no answer followed. Instead, a slight rustling revealed a black silhouette among the trees. Alarmed, all she could think about was her mother’s warnings about going out too far alone. Between natural predators and travelers with less than chivalrous ideals there was no telling what could be lurking around.
Hannah lifted herself, trying not to either frighten or gain the attention of what may be watching her. The shadow jumped to her opposite side. Following, she spun herself around, ready to run at the first sign of anything coming out from its hiding spot. The quick turn dug her heel into the ground, catching her foot. She fell forward onto her hands, panic waving through her.
A gasp escaped as Hannah raised her head as a black unicorn emerged from the brush. Her eyes were fixed on the ebony creature with the deep blue eyes. The ivory horn shone with a faint golden light, the silken black coat rippling like liquid.
The unicorn began to step back where it came, content at the maiden’s notice. Hannah felt confusion overwhelm her. It was always dangerous to confront a wild magical creature but the girl could not allow a unicorn to just pass her by.
“Don’t go! Please don’t go.” She stretched out her arms, her eyes filled with desperate pleading.
The unicorn stopped facing her. Hannah inched closer, feeling a tremendous pull. No matter what happened she needed to touch the unicorn. She needed to prove to herself that this wasn’t a wonderful dream she was about to awake from.
“Please, I’ve never met one of your kind before. I know I’ll never again.”
The unicorn stepped lightly, stretching towards her. Placing his velvet muzzle within her hands he pushed until her head was resting against his cheek.
Hannah trembled with overwhelming emotion. She hugged the unicorn’s neck, breathing in the perfumed smell of its coat. Gathering enough strength, she pulled away, still convincing herself the encounter was real.
“I am Alaric,” the unicorn spoke. Hannah fell back onto her knees. “What is your name?”
“My name is Hannah.”
“Hannah, I make one request from you. Return to this place tomorrow as the sun begins to set. I will be here waiting. Will you do that for me?”
She shivered at the sound of his voice. “Yes, I promise,” Hannah answered without hesitation.
Alaric bowed before her. With a fluid motion he turned from the young woman kneeling in the grass, trotting off.
Hannah sat motionless, staring into the area where the unicorn stood. As the sky began to turn dark orange with the setting sun she snapped out of her daze. Realizing she was late for dinner she jumped up, heading back home.
I can’t tell anyone, she thought as she ran. I made a promise no matter how much I want to tell everyone!
Her encounter with the black unicorn would have to remain a secret for now.