Unlike Jesser, my new abductors were noisy. Very noisy. Which I supposed was a good thing except I already knew David to be a very heavy sleeper. There was still hope for Jesser. Maybe. But as a gag was stuffed into my mouth, my wrists were tied, and I was thrown over the shoulder of someone and the blabbed on about how easy it had been to catch me and there seemed to be no sound of David or Jesser I became incredibly disappointed. And irritated. They had gone on and on about my safey and yet were so far improving incapable of protecting me.
There were four of them. It was too dark to make much of their features, but they biggest one was carrying me in that horribly awkward fashion and I could feel his beard scratching against my leg.
"A princess," another one was saying with a nasally voice. "Not just any princess, but Princess Moriah who is destined to be Queen. Queen potential doesn't make a difference, does it?"
"No," said the man carrying me. "Just has to be a maiden."
"She's not a maiden. She's married."
"Well, we can test her out anyway. Maybe the beast won't know the difference. It's just a dumb animal."
I really did not like the way they were talking. What animal? And what did my lack of maidenhood have to do with anything? I tried to spit out the gag. It tasted awful and was definitely not clean. I also tried to kick and hit but I had never really been suited to kicking and hitting. And the men just laughed at my futile attempts anyway.
This was humiliating. Draped over a shoulder like some common game sack. What was I, a dead duck they had shot down? And where was David and Jesser?
"She'll work. They love princesses. Nothing lovelier than a lovely princess," said another.
And that's when I realized one my captors was female. The one I had mistaken for Lydia. How could I have been so stupid? She sounded nothing like Lydia. She was youngish, definitely, but not Lydia.
"So, Princess Moriah?" the woman said. "Are you comfortable? Thanks for getting out of your… bed for us. Though I know sleeping on the ground is certainly not very comfortable. It made things so much easier for us. What do you say to that?"
I was not going to lose my dignity and attempt to speak. If I could see where she was, I could have glared at her. I could manage a good glare. But it was dark and I was stupid and I was not being rescued.
Finally they dumped me on the ground. Did not set me down gracefully. Dumped me. I sat up with not a little pain and tried again to spit out the gag. I had landed on the bumpy roots of a tree where there was way too much dirt. It was on the edge of a clearing, where a small fire glowed peacefully. It would have been a charming little campfire if it were not for my abductors
One knelt down in front of me, a knife in one hand, and grinned. He was missing a good deal of teeth. "Princess Moriah," he said, revealing himself as the man with the nasally voice. "Welcome."
I gave a muffled squeak as the knife went toward my hands, but all it did was cut the rope. My hands fell apart, wrists throbbing. I pulled out the gag. "I want to go back!"
"You will," said another man. He was old and would have been kind-looking—if he hadn't helped abduct me. "You will. Soon, hopefully. In fact, I'd like to have you back there sometime tomorrow, if your party hasn't moved on."
"They wouldn't move on without me."
"I know. You're the wife of Prince David. I probably should inform you that he doesn't have the greatest respect out here. Bumbling, bookish fool. Oh, well. You'll return to his side."
The woman threw off her hood and black hair tumbled down her shoulders. She was quite pretty. "Don't upset her about her husband, Papa. She's hardly past the bride stage, so I hear. Personally, I think the other traveling companion is much more handsome." She winked at me.
"How dare you speak of them in such ways," I said firmly, while secretly cringing at having had the same thoughts about Jesser. "They'll come for me."
"Maybe," she continued. "And hopefully you will have helped us out before then."
Help. All they wanted was help. All right. I would be dutiful if it would get me out of their clutches. "What help do you need?"
The big man who had carried me smiled happily.
"Unicorn," said the old man. "We're hunting unicorns. And we need a woman's help. Then we heard rumor the Prince and Princess were traveling out this way and we thought what better assistance than a princess? And then you so gracefully came to Eva when she called to you."
I didn't mention that I had thought she was my sister. "Why doesn't Eva get the unicorn?"
The big man laughed. A very odd laugh.
Eva blushed, but grinned in spite of it.
"I'm… unable to attract a unicorn."
"I'm married," I said.
"We're hoping the Princess thing works. Unicorns love princesses more than pretty much anything," Eva said. "But I'm just a commoner. Worth nothing." She said it with pride.
"Why are you hunting unicorns?" I didn't know much about them except they preferred the company of beautiful maidens. Not married women.
"Profit, of course," said the nasally man. "Why else? The horns are worth a fortune, the hairs fetch quite a pretty penny themselves."
Now I wasn't Lydia or Willow with the wild appreciation for nature, but my mouth dropped open in shock. "You're going to kill one?"
"Not kill," said the older man. "What do you think we are? Monsters? So what we're doing isn't exactly what you might call ethical in the treatment of magical creatures especially of the unicorn's purity, but we're not going to intentionally kill something. Do you have any idea how much bad luck it is to kill a unicorn? I'd probably have the queen of fairies or something after me for all I know. That's the last thing I need."
"We do it all the time," Eva explained. "Since I became pretty much useless, we hire other girls to get them for us. Then Jack here ropes them and reins them in, cuts off the corn, trims some hairs…don't look at me like that, they're going to shed the horns anyway and grow others very quickly. It's not a big deal."
I still couldn't shake away the horror. "And what do you do with them?"
"Sell them. There's a wonderful black market out there," said Eva's father.
Great. I had just been dragged into crime. I wanted to cry, but didn't like how that would look. It didn't matter. I cried anyway.
Eva sighed and sat down next to me. "Don't worry, Princess. It's not a big deal. And if you're unable to catch a unicorn, you'll go right back to where you were, no harm done. Just keeping in mind you can't tell your husband about us."
I nodded. These people scared me.
"Good. You're so agreeable. I like that. Now stand up. There's a pond a way's away where they like to come and drink at sunrise." And without giving me a chance to stand up on my own she pulled me up by my arm and pushed me ahead of her.
The ground was covered with rocks and pine needles. "My feet hurt."
"Sensitive princess feet," Jack said with a cruel laugh. "Have you never gone outside?"
Not as much as other princesses. "Not without shoes."
"Of course," Eva muttered. "Darien, pick her up."
"No, that's—" Before I could finish my protest the big silent man now known has Darien had flung me back over his shoulder.
"Comfortable?" Eva asked.
I refused to respond.
I don't know how much time passed. I grew sore, horribly sore, in my position, but I was not going to say anything to these people. I already hated them.
But as grayness spilled over the trees we appeared near a pond that forced itself against the trees. Darien put me down much more ceremoniously than before.
The pond was pretty. It was a perfect circle and reflected the sky like a smoky glass mirror. I imagined that if I were a unicorn I would go drink in it.
Eva's father began pulling things out of a pack. "Do you stitch, Princess?"
"You're just a gem, aren't you? Here, take this, find a comfy spot, and get to work." He handed me a folded length of fabric, a few spools of thread, and a needle. Sew and stitch like you've never done so before and hopefully you'll make us rich."
"Well, we'd pay you, but you are the Prince's wife."
I sighed, but took the materials and sat down next to the pond. The fabric turned out to be a miniature tapestry of, of course, a unicorn. The unicorn was half-finished and sloppily done at that. Before I could do anything else I would have to take out quite a lot of thread. I grit my teeth and set to work. The thread snagged on the way out. It was poor quality. All of this stuff was poor quality. Why I had to deal with it I didn't know. But with a few mean jerks I had it out. And it was a tangled mess. I tossed it to the side and took out the white thread. Cheap white thread. But I would make the most of it.
The previous girls had worked on the unicorn's body, which should have been simple enough if they had sufficient talent, which clearly they did not. I rounded out the corner of its back and set into its tail. I felt incredibly calm as I worked.
Then something stirred near the pond. I automatically lifted my eyes and nearly laughed.
It was a unicorn. A living, breathing unicorn. And, sadly, not quite as glorious as I expected. It was rather fat and on the gray side, but a unicorn nonetheless. I should have expected all those stories had made them sound better than they were. It was just a non-ugly horse with cloven hooves and a horn. Still, it was graceful enough as it lowered its head for a drink.
I glanced to where my captors had been hiding, then stood up.
How did one go about calling a unicorn?
It eyed me as I approached, but continued to drink. I realized I wasn't much of a threat. "Hi, dearie," I said. "Hi, unicorn. You're pretty."
It rose its head and looked at me full on.
I held out a hand toward it. What would it be like to touch a unicorn?
It backed away a step, but did not run.
"Come on," I said. "Help me out here so I can get out of here." Maybe unicorns went for pleads.
The unicorn snorted, but otherwise did not bolt.
My fingers grazed its head. It still wasn't running. Okay, so princess title did outrank maidenhood. That was just unfair.
"You're pretty," I repeated.
And with that out of my mouth a rope slid over the unicorn's neck and Jack gave a cry of victory. The unicorn tried to bolt, but Jack was strong when it came to a rope.
I backed away as the unicorn tried to bite my hand. Nasty little thing. How did anyone like unicorns?
And yet… I hated the thought of what was happening to it.
Eva's father was over now along with Darien. Jack now had the rope tight and the unicorn had stopped struggling. It now stared around with panic in its eyes. Eva's father pulled out a small saw and stopped at the unicorn's head.
I gasped and closed my eyes. I couldn't bare to watch.
"It doesn't hurt them at all," Eva whispered to me. I hadn't realized she was there. "The new horn will start growing back within a day, sometimes. They're better classified as antlers that way."
"Just take me back," I muttered.