The Unicorn and the Maiden
Long ago, on the edge of the forest of Broceliande, there lived a King called Boron who was hated by his people. He was also hated by the people of all the neighbouring kingdoms because he was constantly at war with them. He was a sour man who trusted no one and always suspected plots against his life. This wasn't an unfounded fear because the more bellicose he became, the more his people longed to be rid of him.
Boron had not always been a bad man, but disappointment and grief had poisoned his soul. In his youth he had been known as Boron the Blessed but now he had come to be called Boron the Bitter. The only soft spot remaining in his heart, it seemed, was for his daughter Therese. This was not just the special bond between father and daughter; she inspired love in everyone. She was one of those people who can only see the good in others and, in fact, many of her father's excesses were forgiven for her sake.
It happened one day that a Unicorn was seen in the forest near Boron's kingdom. As news of this spread from huntsman and forester to peasant and burgher many people recalled the circumstances when a Unicorn last appeared. It had coincided with the death of Boron's grandfather--whom he was rapidly coming to resemble--and was believed to signify the end of an evil reign. This inspired a mood of hope in the people and smiles were seen on faces that had not known joy for many years.
The King was the last to hear the news of the Unicorn. Oblivious to the significance of the Unicorn's presence, he thought only of acquiring the beast's precious horn. So he gathered all his wisest advisors together to plan how the desired object could be taken.
'It cannot be accomplished by force', they told him. 'Neither the stealthiest of hunters nor the bravest pack of hounds can catch the Unicorn. It is the wisest and strongest of beasts and in either forest or mountain it can disappear like the mist. It only comes within reach of humans it trusts and they are none but the purest maidens.'
'Then find me a pure maiden and we will set a trap with her,' said the King impatiently.
'But if she knows of the plan, my lord,' they replied, 'the Unicorn may sense it and keep away.'
'Then we won't tell her, you fools,' Boron roared, 'and if any of you breathe a word of this without my leave, your heads will go to feed the crows on the gatehouse.'
Boron was not a completely bad man so when it was pointed out to him that the purest maiden in all the kingdom was undoubtedly his own daughter, even he had qualms. He could perhaps have chosen some other maid but this seemed an insult to his daughter's honour, besides lowering the chances of success. So in the end, after wrestling with a conscience well used to defeat, he decided to go ahead and use poor Therese as unwitting bait for his Unicorn trap.
The next day Boron and his daughter set off on horseback, accompanied by a dozen of his truest knights. The King told Therese he wished only to watch the Unicorn from a distance, should it choose to approach her.
'Surely we do not require so much company to meet the peaceful Unicorn?' the princess asked her father.
'Of course not, my dear, but the world is full of our enemies so bear with them for my sake. Besides, they too would like a glimpse of this marvel.'
As they neared the forest they met a pleasant young Knight riding towards them bearing a shield of pure white. The King asked if he had any tidings of the Unicorn.
'I have been seeking the creature all night in vain,' the Knight replied, 'and many other nights and days past. There is nothing in all the world I wish to find more than the holy Unicorn.'
'You mean it no harm, do you?' asked the princess.
'I would stake my life against any who wish harm to the creature, my lady, and have done so many times in this quest.'
'Then you must come with us,' she declared, 'for we too seek the Unicorn in peace.'
To the King's private rage the Knight accepted and in due course the party came to a clearing in the forest. A mighty oak grew in the centre and a steep mountain overlooked it. The princess settled herself to wait on silken cushions amid the roots of the oak while the King and his knights withdrew to the forest. There they overpowered the Knight and left him tied to a tree before dispersing to lay their trap.
All that day Princess Therese waited with no sight of the creature. Then as the sun set and the full moon rose, and both planets ruled the sky jointly for awhile, she caught a faint glimpse of the Unicorn. It stood in the shadows beneath the nearest trees, as pale and insubstantial as a ghost.
For a long time the Unicorn watched Therese in still silence and she too dared not stir for fear of frightening it away. Then with the cautious grace of a deer it stepped into the open and trotted towards her, its snow-white mane tossing like waves, its slender, spiralled horn flashing against the sky. Therese could scarcely breathe for wonder and when the Unicorn's deep, wise eyes looked into hers she was filled love and awe for the creature. She felt herself drifting on the edge of a swoon and thought she could hear strains of heavenly music in the far distance.
The Unicorn hesitated until it was sure of the purity of her heart then the holy creature knelt and laid its head in her lap. As she cradled it, the princess was filled with immeasurable bliss. Her tears of joy fell on to the Unicorn and sparkled like diamonds in the moonlight.
Suddenly, with a roar, a thundering of hooves and a clash of weapons, the King and his knights burst from the trees. The Unicorn sprang to its feet, but already it was too late. The creature was surrounded and as it desperately sought a way through the ring of steel, it let out a pitiful scream of terror. Finally, it was laid low by the crushing blow of a mace and Boron leapt down to strike off its horn.
Therese finally came to her senses and realized what was happening. With a cry she ran across the clearing between the flashing hooves of the circling horses and threw herself on the fallen Unicorn and cradled its head in her white arms.
'Kill me first,' she cried, 'for I cannot live knowing I have betrayed so noble a trust.' Boron was furious. 'Pull her away,' he screamed at his men. But none of them dared lay a hand on the princess, so great was the love she inspired.
The King was enraged. He tried to pull her away and when that failed he very nearly struck at the horn anyway, not caring if he hit her. But in mid-stroke he realized what he was doing. With a flash of awareness the King suddenly saw what he had become. He realized he was on the verge of destroying the one person in the world he cared more about than himself. Boron threw his sword to the ground and sank to his knees; sobs of shame and remorse wracked his body.
At that point, the Unicorn awoke and with trembling legs struggled to his feet. Boron's knights withdrew and huddled under the trees, for they too were now ashamed of what they had tried to do. The Unicorn rose and let the maid soothe him awhile, then it turned to face the King. The creature moved towards Boron and lowered its horn until its point touched his neck. The repentant King neither flinched nor tried to defend himself.
'Please,' begged Therese, 'for my sake, spare my father.'
The Unicorn turned towards the princess with an enigmatic look in his eyes and then, with a few swift bounds, was gone like a flash of silver under the moon.
From that night forward Boron was a changed man. Or rather, he reverted to being the man he started out as, open-handed and honest and no more suspicious of others' intentions than the ways of the world demand.
So, just as the people had thought, the Unicorn's coming did indeed presage the end of an evil reign. However, on this occasion the King did not die. He was simply transformed into the good and honest ruler the people wanted.
The next time the Unicorn showed itself in his country it was to signal Boron's death, or perhaps to lead him from this life to the next. But this time love of the Unicorn in that place by the forest of Broceliande was matched only by sorrow at the King's passing.