The Silken Swift
by Theodore Sturgeon
There's a village by the Bogs. and in the village is a Great House. In the Great House lived a squire who had land and treasures and, for a daughter, Rita.
In the village lived Del, whose voice was a thunder in the inn when he drank there; whose corded, cabled body was golden-skinned, and whose hair flung challenges back to the sun.
Deep in the Bogs, which were brackish, there was a pool of purest water, shaded by willows and wide-wondering aspen, cupped by banks of a moss most marvelously blue. Here grew mandrake, and there were strange pipings in midsummer.
No one ever heard them but a quiet girl whose beauty was so very contained that none of it showed. Her name was Barbara There was a green evening, breathless with growth, when Del took his usua! way down the lane beside the manor and saw a white shadow adrift inside the tall iron pickets. He stopped, and the shadow approached, and became Rita. "Slip around to the gate," she said, "and I'll open it for you.*'
She wore a gown like a cloud and a silver circlet round her head. Night was caught in her hair, moonlight in her face, and in her great eyes, secrets swam.
Del said, "I have no business with the squire."
"He's gone," she said. "I've sent the servants away.
Come to the gate."
"I need no gate." He leaped and caught the top bar of the fence, and in a continuous fluid motion went high and across and down beside her. She looked at his arms, one, the other; then up at his hair- She pressed her small hands tight together and made a little laugh, and then she was gone through the tailored trees, lightly, swiftly, not looking back. He followed, one step for three of hers, keeping pace with a new pounding in the sides of his neck. They crossed a flower bed and a wide marble terrace. There was an open door, and when he passed through it he stopped, for she was nowhere in sight.
Then the door clicked shut behind him and he whirled. She was there, her back to the panel, laughing up at him in the dimness. He thought she would come to him then, but instead she twisted by, close, her eyes on his. She smelt of violets and sandalwood. He followed her into the great hal!. quite dark but full of the subdued lights of polished wood, cloisonne, tooled leather and gold-threaded tapestry. She flung open another door, and they were in a small room with a carpet made of rosy silences, and a candle-lit table. Two places were set, each with five different crystal glasses and old silver as prodigally used as the iron pickets outside. Six teakwood steps rose to a great oval window. "The moon," she said, "will rise for us there."
She motioned him to a chair and crossed to a sideboard, where there was a rack of decanters-ruby wine and white; one with a strange brown bead; pink, and amber. She took down the first and poured. Then she lifted the silver domes from the salvers on the table, and a magic of fragrance filled the air. There were smoking sweets and savories, rare seafood and slivers of fowl, and morsels of strange meat wrapped in flower petals, spitted with foreign fruits and tiny soft seashells. All about were spices, each like a separate voice in the distant murmur of a crowd: saffron and sesame, cumin and marjoram and mace.
And all the while Del watched her in wonder, seeing how me candles left me moonlight in her face, and how completely she trusted her hands, which did such deftness without supervision-so composed she was, for all the silent secret laughter that tugged at her lips, for all the bright dark mysteries that swirled and swam within her.
They ate, and the oval window yellowed and darkened while the candlelight grew bright. She poured another wine and another, and with the courses of the meal they were as May to the crocus and as frost to the apple.
Del knew it was alchemy and he yielded to it without questions. That which was purposely oversweet would be piquantly cut; this induced thirst would, with exquisite timing, be quenched. He knew she was watching him; he knew she was aware of the heat in his cheeks and the tingle at his fingertips. His wonder grew, but he was not afraid.
In all this time she spoke hardly a word; but at last the feast was over and they rose. She touched a silken rope on the wall, and paneling slid aside. The table rolled Silently into some ingenious recess and the panel returned. She waved him to an L-shaped couch in one comer, and as he sat close to her, she turned and took down the lute which hung on the wait behind her. He had his moment of confusion; his arms were ready for her, but not for the instrument as well. Her eyes sparkled, but her composure was unshaken.
Now she spoke, while her fingers strolled and danced on the lute, and her words marched and wandered in and about the music- She had a thousand voices, so that he wondered which of them was truly hers. Sometimes she sang; sometimes it was a wordless crooning. She seemed at times remote from him, puzzled at the turn the music was taking, and at other times she seemed to hear the pulsing roar in his eardrums, and she played laughing syncopations to it- She sang words which he almost understood:
"Bee to blossom, honey dew.
Claw to mouse, and rain to tree,
Moon to midnight. I to you;
Sun to starlight, you to me…"
and she sang something wordless:
"Ake ya rundefle, rundefle fye,
Orel ya rundefle kown,
En yea. en yea. ya bunderbee bye
En sor, en see, en sown."
which he also almost understood.
In still another voice she told him the story of a great hairy spider and a little pink girl who found it between the leaves of a half-open book; and at first he was all fright and pity for the girl, but then she went on to tell of what the spider suffered, with his home disrupted by this yawping giant, and so vividly did she tell of it that at the end he was laughing at himself and all but crying for the poor spider.
So the hours slipped by, and suddenly, between songs, she was in his arms; and in the instant she had twisted up and away from him. leaving him gasping. She said, in still a new voice, sober and low. "No. Del. We must wait for the moon."
His thighs ached and he realized that he had half-risen. arms out, hands clutching and feeling the extraordinary fabric of her gown though it was gone from them; and he sank back to the couch with an odd, faint sound that was wrong for the room. He flexed his fingers and, reluctantly, the sensation of white gossamer left them. At last he looked across at her and she laughed and leapt high lightly, and it was as if she stopped in midair to stretch for a moment before she alighted beside him, bent and kissed his mouth, and leapt away.
The roaring in his ears was greater, and at this it seemed to acquire a tangible weight. His head bowed; he tucked his knuckles into the upper curve of his eye sockets and rested his elbows on his knees. He could hear the sweet susurrus of Rita's gown as she moved about the room; he could sense the violets and sandalwood. She was dancing, immersed in the joy of movement and of his nearness. She made her own music, humming, sometimes whispering to the melodies in her mind.
And at length he became aware that she had stopped; he could hear nothing, though he knew she was still near. Heavily he raised his head. She was in the center of the room, balanced like a huge white moth, her eyes quite dark now with their secrets quiet. She was staring at the window, poised, waiting.
He followed her gaze. The big oval was black no longer, but dusted over with silver light. Del rose slowly. The dust was a mist, a loom, and then, at one edge, there was a shard of the moon itself creeping and growing.
Because Del stopped breathing, he could hear her breathe; it was rapid and so deep it faintly strummed her versatile vocal cords.
Without answering she ran to the sideboard and filled two small glasses. She gave him one, then, "Wait," she breathed,
Spellbound, he waited while the white stain crept across the window. He understood suddenly that he must be still until the great oval was completely filled with direct moonlight, and this helped him, because it set a foreseeable limit to his waiting; and it hurt him, because nothing in life, he thought, had ever moved so slowly. He had a moment of rebellion, in which he damned himself for falling in with her complex pacing; but with it he realized that now the darker silver was wasting away, now it was a finger's breadth, and now a thread, and now, and now-.
She made a brittle feline cry and sprang up the dark steps to the window. So bright was the light that her body was a jet cameo against it. So delicately wrought was her gown that he could see the epaulettes of silver light the moon gave her.
She was so beautiful his eyes stung.
"Drink," she whispered. "Drink with me, darling, darling…"
For an instant he did not understand her at alt, and only gradually did he become aware of the little glass he held. He raised it toward her and drank. And of all the twists and titillations of taste he had had this night, this was the most startling; for it had no taste at all, almost no substance, and a temperature almost exactly that of blood. He looked stupidly down at the glass and back up at the girl. He thought that she had turned about and was watching him, though he could not be sure, since her silhouette was the same.
And then he had his second of unbearable shock, for the light went out.
The moon was gone, the window, the room. Rita was gone. For a stunned instant he stood tautly. stretching hi? eyes wide. He made a sound that was not a word. He dropped the glass and pressed his palms to his eyes, feeling them blink, feeling the stiff silk of his lashes against them. Then he snatched the hands away, and it was still dark, and more than dark; this was not a blackness. This was like trying to see with an elbow or with a tongue; it was not black; it was Nothingness.
He fell to his kness.
An odd, alert part of his mind seized on the laugh and understood it, and horror and fury spread through his whole being; for this was the laugh which had been tugging at her lips all evening, and it was a hard. cruel, self-assured laugh.
And at the same time, because of the anger or in spite of it, desire exploded whitely within him. He moved toward the sound, groping, mouthing. There was a quick, faint series of rustling sounds from the steps, and then a light, strong web fell around him. He struck out at it, and recognized it for the unforgettable thing it was-her robe. He caught at it, ripped it, stamped upon it. He heard her bare feet run lightly down and past him, and lunged, and caught nothing. He stood, gasping painfully.
She laughed again.
"I'm blind," he said hoarsely. "Rita, I'm blind!"
"I know," she said coolly, close beside him. And again she laughed.
"What have you done to me?"
"I've watched you be a dirty animal of a man," she said.
He grunted and lunged again. His knees struck something-a chair, a cabinet-and he fell heavily. He thought he touched her foot.
"Here, lover, here!" she taunted.
He fumbled about for the thing which had tripped him, found it, used it to help him upright again. He peered uselessly about.
He leaped, and crashed into the doorjamb: cheekbone, collarbone, hipbone, ankle were one straight blaze of pain.
He clung to the polished wood,
After a time he said, in agony, "Why?"
"No man has ever touched me and none ever will," she sang. Her breath was on his cheek. He reached and touched nothing, and then he heard her leap from her perch on a statue's pedestal by the door, where she had stood high and leaned over to speak.
No pain, no blindness, not even the understanding that it was her witch's brew working in him could quell the wild desire he felt at her nearness. Nothing could tame the fury that shook him as she laughed. He staggered after her, bellowing.
She danced around him, laughing. Once she pushed him into a clattering rack of fire-irons. Once she caught his elbow from behind and spun him. And once, incredibly, she sprang past him and, in midair, kissed him again on me mouth.
He descended into Hell, surrounded by the small, sure patter of bare feet and sweet cool laughter. He rushed and crashed, he crouched and bled and whimpered like a hound.
His roaring and blundering took an echo, and that must have been the great hall. Then mere were walls that seemed more than unyielding; they struck back. And there were panels to lean against, gasping, which became opening doors as he leaned. And always the black nothingness, the writhing temptation of the pat-pat of firm flesh on smooth stones, and the ravening fury.
It was cooler, and there was no echo. He became aware of the whisper of the wind through trees. The balcony, he thought; and then, right in his ear, so that he felt her warm breath, "Come, lover…" and he sprang. He sprang and missed, and instead of sprawling on the terrace, there was nothing, and nothing, and nothing, and then, when he least expected it, a shower of cruel thumps as he rolled down the marble steps.
He must have had a shred of consciousness left, for he was vaguely aware of the approach of her bare feet, and of the small, cautious hand that touched his shoulder and moved to his mouth, and then his chest. Then it was withdrawn, and either she laughed or the sound was still in his mind.
Deep in the Bogs, which were brackish, there was a pool of purest water, shaded by willows and wide-wondering aspens, cupped by banks of a moss most marvelously blue.
Here grew mandrake, and mere were strange pipings in midsummer. No one ever heard them but a quiet girl whose beauty was so very contained that none of it showed- Her name was Barbara.
No one noticed Barbara, no one lived with her, no one cared. And Barbara's life was very full, for she was born to receive. Others are born wishing to receive, so they wear bright masks and make attractive sounds tike cicadas and operettas, so others will be forced, one way or another, to give to them. But Barbara's receptors were wide open, and always had been, so that she needed no substitute for sunlight through a tulip petal, or the sound of morning glories climbing, or the tangy sweet smell of formic acid which is the only death cry possible to an ant, or any other of the thousand things overlooked by folk who can only wish to receive.
Barbara had a garden and an orchard, and took things in to market when she cared to, and the rest of the time she spent in taking what was given. Weeds grew in her garden, but since they were welcomed, they grew only where they could keep the watermelons from being sunburned. The rabbits were welcome, so they kept to the two rows of carrots, me one of lettuce, and the one of tomato vines which were planted for them, and they left the rest alone. Goldenrod shot up beside the bean hills to lend a hand upward, and the birds ate only the figs and peaches from the waviest top branches, and in return patrolled the lower ones for caterpillars and egglaying flies. And if a fruit stayed green for two weeks longer until Barbara had time to go to market, or if a mole could channel moisture to the roots of the corn, why it was the least they could do.
For a brace of years Barbara had wandered more and more, impelled by a thing she could not name-if indeed she was aware of it at all. She knew only that over-the-rise was a strange and friendly place, and that it was a fine thing on arriving there to find another rise to go over. It may very well be that she now needed someone to love, for loving is a most receiving thing, as anyone can attest who has been loved without returning it. It is the one who is loved who must give and give. And she found her love, not in her wandering, but at the market. The shape of her love, his colors and sounds, were so much with her that when she saw him first it was without surprise; and thereafter, for a very long while, it was quite enough that he lived. He gave to her by being alive, by setting the air athrum with his mighty voice, by his stride, which was, for a man afoot, the exact analog of what the horseman calls a "perfect seat."
After seeing him, of course, she received twice and twice again as much as ever before. A tree was straight and tall for the magnificent sake of being straight and tall, but wasn't straighlness a part of him, and being tall? The oriole gave more now than song, and the hawk more than walking the wind, for had they not hearts like his, warm blood and his same striving to keep it so for tomorrow? And more and more, over-the-rise was the place for her, for only there could there be more and still more things like him.
But when she found the pure pool in the brackish Bogs, there was no more over-the-rise for her. It was a place without hardness or hate, where the aspens trembled only for wonder, and where all contentment was rewarded. Every single rabbit there was the champion nose-twinkler, and every waterbird could stand on one leg the longest, and proud of it. Shelffungi hung to the willow-trunks, making that certain, single purple of which the sunset is incapable, and a tanager and a cardinal gravely granted one another his definition of "red."
Here Barbara brought a heart light with happiness, large with love, and set it down on the blue moss. And since the loving heart can receive more than anything else, so it is most needed, and Barbara took the best bird songs, and the richest colors, and the deepest peace, and all the other things which are most worth giving. The chipmunks brought her nuts when she was hungry and the prettiest stones when she was not. A green snake explained to her, in pantomime, how a river of jewels may flow uphill, and three mad otters described how a bundle of joy may slip and slide down and down and be all the more joyful for it. And there was the magic moment when a midge hovered, and then a honeybee, and then a bumblebee, and at last a hummingbird; and there they hung, playing a chord in A sharp minor.
Then one day the pool fell silent, and Barbara learned why the water was pure.
The aspens stopped trembling.
The rabbits all came out of the thicket and clustered on the blue bank, backs straight, ears up, and all their noses as still as coral.
The waterbirds stepped backwards, like courtiers, and stopped on the brink with their heads turned sidewise, one eye closed the better to see with the other.
The chipmunks respectfully emptied their cheek pouches, scrubbed their paws together and tucked them out of sight; then stood still as tent pegs.
The pressure of growth around the pool ceased: the very grass waited.
The last sound of all to be heard-and by then it was very quiet-was the soft whick! of an owl's eyelids as it awoke to watch.
He came like a cloud, the earth cupping itself to take each of his golden hooves. He stopped on the bank and lowered his head, and for a brief moment his eyes met Barbara's, and she looked into a second universe of wisdom and compassion. Then there was the arch of the magnificent neck, the blinding flash of his golden horn.
And he drank, and he was gone. Everyone knows the water is pure, where the unicorn drinks.
How long had he been there? How long gone? Did time wait too, like the grass?
"And couldn't he stay?'* she wept. "Couldn't he stay?"
To have seen the unicom is a sad thing; one might never see him more. But men-to have seen the unicom!
She began to make a song.
It was late when Barbara came in from the Bogs, so late the moon was bleached with cold and fleeing to the horizon.
She struck the highroad just below the Great House and turned to pass it and go out to her garden house.
Near the locked main gate an animal was barking. A sick animal, a big animal…
Barbara could see in the dark better than most, and soon saw the creature clinging to the gate, climbing, uttering that coughing moan as it went. At the top it slipped, fell outward, dangled; then there was a ripping sound, and it fell heavily to me ground and lay still and quiet.
She ran to it, and it began to make the sound again. It was a man, and he was weeping.
It was her love, her love, who was tall and straight and so very alive-her love, battered and bleeding, puffy, broken, his clothes torn, crying.
Now of all times was the time for a lover to receive, to take from the loved one his pain, his trouble, his fear. "Oh, hush, hush," she whispered, her hands touching his bruised face like swift feathers. "It's all over now. It's all over."
She turned him over on his back and knelt to bring him up sitting. She lifted one of his thick arms around her shoulder.
He was very heavy, but she was very strong. When he was upright, gasping weakly, she looked up and down the road in the waning moonlight. Nothing, no one. The Great House was dark. Across the road, though, was a meadow with high hedgerows which might break the wind a little.
"Come, my love, my dear love." she whispered. He trembled violently.
All but carrying him, she got him across the road, over the shallow ditch, and through a gap in the hedge. She almost fell with him there. She gritted her teeth and set him down gently. She let him lean against the hedge, and then ran and swept up great armfulls of sweet broom. She made a tight springy bundle of it and set it on the ground beside him, and put a corner of her cloak over it, and gently lowered his head until it was pillowed. She folded the rest of the cloak about him. He was very cold.
There was no water near, and she dared not leave him. With her kerchief she cleaned some of the blood from his face. He was slill very cold. He said, "You devil. You rotten little devil."
"Shh." She crept in beside him and cradled his. head.
"You'll be warm in a minute "
"Stand stilt," he growled. "Keep running away."
"I won't run away," she whispered. "Oh, my darling, you've been hurt, so hurt. I won't leave you. I promise 1 won't leave you."
He lay very still. He made the growling sound again.
"I'll tell you a iovely thing," she said softly. "Listen to me, think about the lovely thing," she crooned.
"There's a place in the bog, a pool of pure water, where the trees live beautifully, willow and aspen and birch, where everything is peaceful, my darling, and the flowers grow without tearing their petals. The moss is blue and the water is like diamonds."
"You tell me stories in a thousand voices," he muttered.
"Shh. Listen, my darting. This isn't a story, it's a real place. Four miles north and a little west, and you can see the trees from the ridge with the two dwarf oaks. And I know why the water is pure!" she cried gladly. "I know why!"
He said nothing. He took a deep breath and it hurt him, for he shuddered painfully.
"The unicom drinks there," she whispered. "I saw him!"
Still he said nothing. She said, "I made a song about it.
Listen, this is me song I made: ' 'And He-suddenly gleamed! My dazzled eyes Coming from outer sunshine to this green And secret gloaming, met without surprise The vision. Only after, when the sheen And Splendor of his going fled away, I knew amazement, wonder and despair, That he should come-and pass-and would not stay, The Silken-swift-the gloriously Fair!
That he should come-and pass-and would not stay, So that, forever after. I must go, Take the long road that mounts against the day, Traveling in the hope that 1 shall know Again that lifted moment, high and sweet, Somewhere-on purple moor or windy hill- Remembering still his wild and delicate feet, The magic and the dream-remembering still!''
His breathing was more regular. She said, "I truly saw him!"
"I'm blind," he said. "Blind, I'm blind."
"Oh, my dear…"
He fumbled for her hand, found it. For a long moment he held it. Then, slowly, he brought up his other hand and with -them both he felt her hand, turned it about, squeezed it.
Suddenly he grunted, half sitting. "You're here."
"Of course, darling. Of course I'm here "
"Why?" he shouted. "Why? Why? Why all of this? Why blind me?" He sat up, mouthing, and put his great hand on her throat. "Why do all that if…" The words ran together into an animal noise. Wine and witchery, anger and agony boiled in his veins.
Once she cried out.
Once she sobbed.
"Now," he said, "you'll catch no unicorns. Get away from me." He cuffed her.
"You're mad. You're sick," she cried.
"Get away," he said ominously.
Terrified, she rose. He took the cloak and hurled it after her. It almost toppled her as she ran away, crying silently.
After a long time, from behind the hedge, the sick, coughing sobs began again.
Three weeks later Rita was in the market when a hard hand took her upper arm and pressed her into the angle of a cottage wall. She did not start. She flashed her eyes upward and recognized him, and then said composedly, "Don't touch roe."
"1 need you to tell me something," he said- "And tell me you will!" His voice was as hard as his hand.
"I'll tell you anything you like," she said. "But don't touch me."
He hesitated, then released her. She turned to him casualty.
"What is it?" Her gaze darted across his face and its almosthealed scars. The small smile tugged at one comer of her mouth.
His eyes were slits. "I have to know this: why did you make up all that… prettiness, that food, that poison… just for me? You could have had me for less."
She smiled. "Just for you? It was your turn, that's all."
He was genuinely surprised. "It's happened before?"
She nodded. "Whenever it's the full of the moon-and the squire's away."
"You forget yourself!" she said sharply. Then, smiling,
"It is the truth, though."
"I'd've heard talk-"
"Would you now? And tetl me-how many of your friends know about your humiliating adventure?"
He hung his head.
She nodded. "You see? They go away until they're healed, and they come back and say nothing. And they always will."
"You're a devil… why do you do it? Why?"
"I told you," she said openly- "I'm a woman and I act like a woman in my own way. No man will ever touch me, though. I am virgin and shall remain so."
"You're what?" he roared.
She held up a restraining, ladylike glove. "Please," she said, pained.
"Listen," he said, quietly now, but with such intensity that for once she stepped back a pace. He closed his eyes, thinking hard: "You told me-the pool, the pool of the unicorn, and a song, wait- 'The Silken-swift, the gloriously Fair…* Remember? And then I-I saw to it that you'd never catch a unicorn!"
She shook her head. complete candor in her face. "I like that, 'the Silken-swift.' Pretty. But believe me-no! That isn't mine."
He put his face close to hers, and though it was barely a whisper, it came out like bullets. "Liar! Liar! I couldn't forget. I was sick, I was hurt, I was poisoned, but I know what I did!" He turned on his heel and strode away.
She put the thumb of her glove against her upper teeth for a second, then ran after him. "Del!"
He stopped but, rudely, would not turn. She rounded him, faced him. "I'll not have you believing that of me-it's the one thing I have left," she said tremulously.
He made no attempt to conceal his surprise. She controlled her expression with a visible effort, and said, "Please. Tell me a little more-just about the pool, the song, whatever it was."
"You don't remember?"
"I don't know!" she flashed. She was deeply agitated.
He said with mock patience. "You told me of a unicorn pool out on the Bogs. You said you had seen him drink there.
You made a song about it. And then I-"
"Where? Where was this?"
"You forget so soon?"
"Where? Where did it happen?"
"In the meadow, across the road from your gate, where you followed me," he said. "Where my sight came back to me, when the sun came up."
She looked at him blankly, and slowly her face changed.
First the imprisoned smile struggling to be free, and then- she was herself again, and she laughed. She laughed a great ringing peal of the laughter that had plagued him so, and she did not stop until he put one hand behind his back, then the other, and she saw his shoulders swell with the effort to keep from striking her dead"You animal!" she said, good-humoredly. "Do you know what you've done? Oh, you… you animal!" She glanced around to see that there were no ears to hear her. "I left you at the foot of the terrace steps," she told him. Her eyes sparkled. "Inside the gates, you understand? And you…"
"Don't laugh," he said quietly.
She did not laugh. "That was someone else out there.
Who, I can't imagine. But it wasn't I."
He paled. "You followed me out."
"On my soul I did not," she said soberly. Then she quelled another laugh.
"That can't be," he said. "I couldn't have…"
"But you were blind, blind and crazy, Dei-my-lover!"
"Squire's daughter, take care," he hissed. Then he pulled his big hand through his hair. "It can't be. It's three weeks;
I'd have been accused…"
"There are those who wouldn't." She smiled "Or-perhaps she will, in time."
"There has never been a woman so foul," he said evenly, looking her straight in the eye. "You're lying-you know you're lying."
"What must I do to prove it-aside from that which I'll have no man do?"
His lip curled. "Catch the unicom," he said.
"If I did, you'd believe I was a virgin?"
"I must," he admitted. He turned away, then said, over his shoulder- "But-you?"
She watched him thoughtfully until he left the marketplace.
Her eyes sparkled; then she walked briskly to the goldsmith's, where she ordered a bridle of woven gold. if the unicorn pool lay in the Bogs nearby, Rita reasoned, someone who was familiar with that brackish wasteland must know of it. And when she made a list in her mind of those few who traveled the Bogs, she knew whom to ask. With that, the other deduction came readily. Her laughter drew stares as she moved through the marketplace.
By the vegetable stall she stopped. The girl looked up patiently.
Rita stood swinging one expensive glove against the other wrist, half-smiling. "So you're the one." She studied the plain, inward-turning, peaceful face until Barbara had to turn her eyes away. Rita said, without further preamble, "I want you to show me the unicorn pool in two weeks."
Barbara looked up again, and now it was Rita who dropped her eyes. Rita said, "I can have someone else find it, of course. If you'd rather not." She spoke very clearly, and people turned to listen. They looked from Barbara to Rita and back again, and they waited.
"1 don't mind." said Barbara faintly. As soon as Rita had left, smiling, she packed up her things and went silently back to her house.
The goldsmith, of course, made no secret of such an extraordinary commission; and that, plus the gossips who had overheard Rita talking to Barbara, made the expedition into a cavalcade. The whole village turned out to see; the boys kept firmly in check so that Rita might lead the way; the young bloods ranged behind her (some a little less carefree than they might be) and others snickering behind their hands. Behind them the girls, one or two a little pale, others eager as cats to see the squire's daughter fail, and perhaps even… but then, only she had the golden bridle.
She carried it casually, but casualness could not hide it, for it was not wrapped, and it swung and blazed in the sun. She wore a flowing white robe, trimmed a little short so that she might negotiate the rough bogland; she had on a golden girdle and little gold sandals, and a gold chain bound her head and hair like a coronet.
Barbara walked quietly a little behind Rita, closed in with her own thoughts. Not once did she look at Del, who strode somberly by himself.
Rita halted a moment and let Barbara catch up, then walked beside her. "Tell me," she said quietly, "why did you come? It needn't have been you."
"I'm his friend," Barbara said. She quickly touched the bridle with her finger. "The unicom."
"Oh," said Rita. "The unicom." She looked archly at the other girl. "You wouldn't betray all your friends, would you?"
Barbara looked at her thoughtfully, without anger. "If- when you catch the unicom," she said carefully, "what will do you with him?"
"What an amazing question! I shall keep him, of course!"
"I thought I might persuade you to let him go."
Rita smiled, and hung the bridle on the other arm. "You could never do that."
"I know," said Barbara. "But I thought I might, so that's why I came." And before Rita could answer, she dropped behind again. The last ridge, the one which overlooked the unicorn pool. saw a series of gasps as the ranks of villagers topped it, one after the other, and saw what lay below; and it was indeed beautiful.
Surprisingly, it was Del who took it upon himself to call out, in his great voice, "Everyone wait here!" And everyone did; the top of the ridge filled slowly, from one side to the other, with craning, murmuring people. And then Del bounded after Rita and Barbara.
Barbara said, "I'll stop here."
"Wait," said Rita, imperiously. Of Del she demanded,
"What are you coming for?"
"To see fair play," he growled. "The little 1 know of witchcraft makes me like none of it."
"Very well," she said calmly. Then she smiled her very own smile- "Since you insist, I'd rather enjoy Barbara's company too."
Barbara hesitated. "Come, he won't hurt you, girl," said Rita. "He doesn't know you exist."
"Oh," said Barbara, wonderingiy.
Del said gruffly, "I do so. She has the vegetable stall."
Rita smiled at Barbara, the secrets bright in her eyes.
Barbara said nothing, but came with them.
"You should go back, you know," Rita said silkily to Del, when she could. "Haven't you been humiliated enough yet?"
He did not answer.
She said, "Stubborn animal! Do you think I'd have come this far if I weren't sure?"
"Yes," said Del, "I think perhaps you would."
They reached the blue moss. Rita shuffled it about with her feet and then sank gracefully down to it. Barbara stood alone in the shadows of the willow grove. Del mumped gently at an aspen with his fist. Rita, smiling, arranged the bridle to cast, and laid it across her lap.
The rabbits stayed hid. There was an uneasiness about the grove. Barbara sank to her knees, and put out her hand. A chipmunk ran to nestle in it.
This time there was a difference. This time it was not the slow silencing of living things that warned of his approach, but a sudden babble from the people on the ridge.
Rita gathered her legs under her like a sprinter, and held the bridle poised. Her eyes were round and bright, and the tip of her tongue showed between her white teeth. Barbara was a statue. Del put his back against his tree, and became as still as Barbara.
Then from the ridge came a single, simultaneous intake of breath, and silence. One knew without looking that some stared speechless, that some buried their faces or threw an arm over their eyes.
He came slowly this time, his golden hooves choosing his paces like so many embroidery needles. He held his splendid head high. He regarded the three on the bank gravely, and then turned to look at the ridge for a moment- At last he turned, and came round the pond by the willow grove. Just on the blue moss, he stopped to look down into the pond. It seemed that he drew one deep clear breath. He bent his head then, and drank, and lifted his head to shake away the shining drops.
He turned toward the three spellbound humans and looked at them each in turn. And it was not Rita he went to, at last, nor Barbara. He came to Del, and he drank of Del's eyes with his own just as he had partaken of the pool-deeply and at leisure. The beauty and wisdom were there, and the compassion, and what looked like a bright white point of anger.
Del knew that the creature had read everything then, and that he knew all three of them in ways unknown to human beingsThere was a majestic sadness in the way he turned then, and dropped his shining head, and stepped daintily to Rita.
She sighed, and rose up a little, lifting the bridle. The unicom lowered his hom to receive it- -and tossed his head, tore the bridle out of her grasp, sent the golden thing high in the air. It turned there in the sun, and fell into the pond.
And the instant it touched the water, the pond was a bog and the birds rose mourning from the trees. The unicorn looked up at them, and shook himself. Then he trotted to Barbara and knelt, and put his smooth, stainless head in her lap.
Barbara's hands stayed on the ground by her sides. Her gaze moved over the warm white beauty, up to the tip of the golden horn and back.
The scream was frightening. Rita's hands were up like claws, and she had bitten her tongue; there was blood on her mouth. She screamed again. She threw herself off the now withered moss toward the unicorn and Barbara. "She can't be!" Rita shrieked. She collided with Del's broad right hand.
"It's wrong, I teli you, she, you, I…"
"I'm satisfied," said Del, low in his throat. "Keep away, squire's daughter."
She recoiled from him, made as if to try to circle him. He stepped forward. She ground her chin into one shoulder, then the other, in a gesture of sheer frustration, turned suddenly and ran toward the ridge. "It's mine, it's mine," she screamed.
"I tell you it can't be hers, don't you understand? I never once, I never did, but she, but she-"
She slowed and stopped, then, and fell silent at the sound that rose from the ridge. It began like the first patter of rain on oak leaves, and it gathered voice until it was a rumble and then a roar. She stood looking up, her face working, the sound washing over her. She shrank from it.
It was laughter.
She turned once, a pleading just beginning to form on her face. Del regarded her stonily. She faced the ridge then, and squared her shoulders, and walked up the hill, to go into the laughter, to go through it, to have it follow her all the way home and all the days of her life.
Del turned to Barbara just as she bent over the beautiful head. She said, "Silken-swift… go free."
The unicorn raised its head and looked up at Del. Del's mouth opened. He took a clumsy step forward, stopped again.
Barbara's face was set. "You weren't to know," she choked. "You weren't ever to know… I was so glad you were blind, because I thought you'd never know."
He fell on his knees beside her. And when he did, the unicorn touched her face with his satin nose, and all the girl's pent-up beauty flooded outward. The unicom rose from his kneeling, and whickered softly. Del looked at her, and only the unicom was more beautiful. He put out his hand to the shining neck, and for a moment felt the incredible silk of the mane flowing across his fingers. The unicorn reared then, and wheeled, and in a great leap was across the bog, and in two more was on the crest of the farther ridge. He paused there briefly, with the sun on him, and then was gone.
Barbara said, "For us, he lost his pool, his beautiful pool."
And Del said, "He will get another. He must." With difficulty he added, "He couldn't be… punished… for being so gloriously Fair-