Many years ago, in a faraway country, there lay a beautiful valley, fruitful and pleasant and green as an emerald. On one side of it rose a great wall of mountains; on the other stretched an endless forest, so deep that none had ever seen the center of it. The valley soil was rich and fertile, fed by a clear, sweet river that poured down from the mountains when the snow melted each spring. The forest was thick with game, and its trees supplied the people with lumber for their homes and firewood to warm them through the long winters. During the summer sheep frolicked in the pastures, and in springtime the plum trees burst into flower, covering the landscape in clouds of pink and white petals. In that jeweled valley, among the streams and the soft green hills, there lived a peasant girl. It is with her that our story begins.
The girl lived with her parents on a little farm at the edge of the woods, where they raised goats and chickens and grew barley in the fields. Every morning she rose at dawn to gather milk and eggs for the family's breakfast. It was on one such morning, as she made her way from her family's cottage to the pen where they kept the goats, that the girl heard a sound stranger than any she could have imagined.
It was an eerie sound, high and ringing and reedy, like the whistle of the wind through a crack in the roof, or the sound a wet fingertip makes around the mouth of glass. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, echoing, filling her with wonder and sorrow until it seemed her heart would break. Then it faded as suddenly as it had come, and the world was quiet again, stirred only by twitters of birdsong.
She stood transfixed, her shawl pulled tight around her, searching in stunned silence for the source of the sound. The air was still; nothing moved but the slinking mist and the plum blossoms as they drifted aimlessly on the breeze. What had she heard? she wondered. What could make such an unearthly sound?
Suddenly it came again, and she bolted, her shawl slipping from her shoulders as she raced down the hillside. She almost stumbled, pelting down, down, over the sloping earth, the sound growing louder and clearer the closer she came to the woods. It died as she reached the forest, and as she came to a stop before the shadowed trees, suddenly all thoughts of it faded to a whisper in her mind. Before her now lay something far more astonishing.
Just beyond the trees, glimmering in the haze of falling petals, stood the most wondrous creature she had ever beheld. It had the body of a stag, yet instead of antlers a single, shimmering horn rose from its head, and while a deer would have been made of flesh and bone, this creature was formed from seamless, sparkling glass, its eyes as blue as sapphires in its crystalline face. It moved like a ghost through the fog, its footsteps ringing clear as bells in the stillness.
Her breath caught. "Unicorn," she whispered, and the word seemed to hang in the air like a spell as she spoke it. Trembling, she stared in disbelief at the glowing beast before her. It was then that she saw the arrow. It rose from the creature's flanks like a ragged thorn, dark against the paleness of its body. White blood trickled from the wound, dripping down its leg like watery milk. The unicorn raised its shining head and let out a long, whistling moan that made tears sting her eyes. It was the sound, the call that she had heard from the hilltop. The creature had been calling her. That was why she had come, why she was here. She had to help it. She stepped forward, slowly, carefully, afraid the unicorn would spring away. She could see its limbs tensing, its blue eyes growing wide. "Please don't run," she breathed. "I won't harm you."
The creature stood silent among the trees, its jewel eyes fixed on her. She took another step forward. She was shaking, every hair standing on end. At last, she stretched out her hand and touched her fingers to its glassy skin. It trembled at the touch, its sides heaving, but to her relief, it stayed, and when it grew calmer, she led it away from the forest, towards the hills. Slowly, slowly, they began to climb the winding path up to her mother and father's house. But the unicorn was too weak; it collapsed, letting out a cry that shook the hillsides. The girl scrambled to its side, trying desperately to help it to its feet, but to no avail. She ran back up the hill, calling for help, the unicorn's cries ringing behind her like wails. At last she reached the farm and found her father, and together they brought the injured creature safely into the house.
They laid it by the hearth, where it glowed like a molten ruby in the firelight, weeping tears that turned to pearls in their hands. Her mother tended its wounds as gently as she could, but the creature seemed so weak that they feared it would not live past sundown.
Hours passed and the girl never left the unicorn's side. Day slipped into evening and evening faded into night, but she would not be parted from it. Her mother brought her a blanket, and with the soft warmth of the fire on her face and the unicorn's gentle breathing for a lullaby, the girl soon slipped into quiet, dreamless slumber.
When she woke the next morning however, it was no longer a unicorn that lay beside her. It its place slept the most beautiful man she had ever seen. He was white as ivory, with golden lashes and hair like pale honey, so perfect that her heart skipped a beat. Beside him lay a crystal dagger, its silver hilt twisted with filigree and afire with gems. Glancing down at his leg, she saw that it was wrapped with her mother's bandages, the fabric stained red now instead of white. Was this the unicorn that had fallen asleep beside her last night?
With baited breath she reached out to touch him, half-convinced she was dreaming. He stirred, and blinking in the light, stared up at her with eyes as dark as sapphires, as blue as the unicorn's eyes had been. The girl fell back in alarm, but he caught her hand. "Don't be afraid," he said, and his voice was so soft and his face so kind that she began to calm a little. "I am a King's son," he told her. "For a year and a day I have been bound to wander as a unicorn, unable to return to my home and my people. But you have lifted the spell, and saved my life." And with that he bent down and kissed her hand.
Woken by the prince's voice, the girl's parents arrived. Seeing the unicorn gone and a young man in its place, her father and mother were astounded, and together they listened in silent wonder as the Prince told them his tale.