What made this prompt really interesting to me is that it immediately brought to mind Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which is one of my favorite books and that I think of as the quintessential unicorn tale. (Apparently, the author himself actually intended it as a bit of a spoof of fairy-tale archetypes.)
But, of course, the challenge is to do it differently. So I started my story a few days ago and kept it pending as a draft while I worked on some other things. Yesterday, I received a copy of Beagle's short-story collection The Line Between as part of an order from Amazon. It contains a sort-of sequel to The Last Unicorn, which starts off surprisingly similar to what I've done here. (Only that story has a griffin terrorizing a village, not a unicorn.)
The swamp smelled of decay, and the air thrummed with the drone of hordes of insects and biting flies. As the small group of men waded through fetid brackish water past a stand of twisted trees, the baying of the dogs grew fainter. The man in front, large and burly, with a thick beard flecked with silver, swore under his breath. They were losing the beast. If they lost any more ground they'd be tracking at twilight. It was not a prospect any of the men could say they would look forward to. It was dangerous territory. There was death lurking in the dank pools of quicksand that littered the bog, and although there were fewer wolves in these parts now, you could still hear their mournful calls some dark nights.
And then there was the unicorn.
The village had lost many young women this year. They would be in the fields, or in the wood near the edge of the bog lands to pick berries, and then suddenly would just be gone. All the tales told of the unicorn's affect on maidens, luring them to it with some siren call that only girls most pure of spirit and body could hear. But unlike the fairy stories, which were full of romanticism, the reality of the creature's presence in their land filled the villagers with dread. A maiden seduced by a unicorn did not return to her home, and was never seen by her family again. Very rarely did they even find a body, and a proper burial was denied to so many lost souls.
There were now only a handful of marriageable women among their scattered households, and a curfew had been enforced. No girl was allowed out to do work in the open without accompaniment. But still their virgin daughters vanished, all through the spring and summer. Some truly desperate families were offering their children up outside of the marriage bed. It was now fall, and the village, down quite a number of young women, was not equipped to handle the harvest. They could not afford to lose any more of their daughters. So some of the men had determined to find the menacing beast and destroy it.
On the morning of the hunt, the town was very still. In their hearts, many of the wives already mourned lost husbands. It was well known that the unicorn was one of the hardest beasts of the forest to kill. It would take more skill to track than even their best hunter might posses. They didn't know how many would return, if any made it back at all.
The men had gathered a pack of hunting dogs from the surrounding farms, many mangy and undernourished, hardly a match for a boar, let alone a beast as fearsome as the unicorn. But it would have to do. They set out as the sun rose, tinting the clouds in soft pink that belied the darkness in their hearts. The dogs caught their prey's scent early on as they passed through the heather at the edge of the dark forest.
A small stream ran there, and it seemed to the men that the unicorn must have passed very recently for the trail to be so fresh. Emboldened by the possibility of being so close, they released the dogs. The baying, slavering pack descended into a stand of massive trees and the men followed, warily, struggling to make way in the dense thicket. They walked for a considerable time, resting little, often losing sight of the dogs, navigating only by the sound of the hounds. Morning passed into afternoon. They had left the deepest woods behind, and now traveled in a broad flat marshland, where they had to tread with care. The sun beat down relentlessly as insects feasted on any exposed flesh.
The men walked on, each consumed by misery and plagued by doubts. Their weariness and fear made them irritable, and they began to question the wisdom of their task. And each in his turn was reminded by the large man with the beard, the one member of their party who did not seem to be losing hope, of the importance of protecting their remaining daughters. By dusk they were exhausted and dreaded setting camp in the swamp. The sky became overcast, and the air smelled of a coming storm.
The storm broke with a massive thunderclap, and in the distance, over the howl of the wind and the rain, came a mournful keening. They quickened their pace, careful of the treacherous ground, until they came upon an island of trees. The bodies of their dogs lay prone in the gathering darkness and the underbrush had been trampled in many places as the hounds had fought - and died - to hold the unicorn at bay.
What they were faced with was not the dangerous, captivating beast of legends, but a worn, half-starved animal that could hardly stand. Its once radiant coat was frothy with sweat and streaked with dark flecks of blood. The shining hooves were caked with mud, and saliva dripped from its gaping mouth. The unicorn turned its lowered head toward them and took a tremulous, stumbling step. The bearded man drew his bow, and fitting an arrow, mouthed a silent prayer.
His aim was true, and the arrow found the animal’s heart. After a moment it fell and was still. The men worked quickly to remove the horn and burned the unicorn’s body. They would return to their village secure in the knowledge that their daughters were safe, and their households would again be prosperous.
Bent over the prone body of the dead beast, the men did not see, cloaked in the darkness of the stormy evening, a flash of silver in some brambles. There the foal lay, hidden. It sniffed the air and trembled, waiting for the dawn.