A/N: This is set vaguely in the same universe as one of my novels-in-progress, but there's no prior knowledge necessary. Based on this image.
The unicorn's coat had been silvery-white, lustrous, as if lit from within by a pure, joyful light, but now it was a muted grey. Its stride was slow and irregular, stumbling behind the caravan. Its horn had been shorn away, leaving pale, watery trickles of blood, running down its face, mattering its forelock and stinging its eyes.
Up ahead, the headman was playing a tune on his violin, jubilant, celebrating their success, his children and grandchildren following behind him, running and dancing and laughing, bright jewellery flashing in the fading sunlight.
The horn was stowed away inside the caravan, wrapped in a cloth, carefully cleaned and polished. Come market day, it would make them rich. The unicorn would be sold, piece by piece.
The child sat on the back of the caravan, legs dangling above the ground, swinging back and forth as he was jolted about by the bumpy road. He was supposed to watch over the unicorn, see that it didn't try to break free of its bindings. So he duly sat and watched. As the hours went by, and the sun sank lower and lower on the horizon, his thoughts began to wander into dark, delicate places that he had been trying to avoid.
The unicorn had been beautiful when he'd first see it, through his little one night, glowing in the moonlight. It had been beautiful as it was chased and hunted and terrified, beautiful even as it was ensnared in the nets, legs flying and kicking, unshod hooves glinting like silver, but now it was dull and grey and ugly, plodding like a cart horse.
It would be sold, piece by piece. The child wondered if it knew. It looked so sad, but that could just be the pain and the fear and the exhaustion, surely.
The sharp chords of the violin coupled with a loud burst of laughter broke through his pensive daze. He sat up straighter, startled, and the unicorn seemed startled too. Its head reared back, ragged mane shaking in the breeze, but it was not the movement of a spooked horse. The unicorn was coming out of a daze of its own. It looked back and forth, at the caravan, at the passing landscape, then at the child.
And it knew. It knew what was to happen to it. It knew everything and more. Its dark, sad eyes seemed to stare into his soul, straight down into the depths, as if it knew what he was thinking. It stared at him for a long, awful moment, then turned away, eyes falling closed.
The child kept staring at it, mouth open as it to speak. He wanted to say something, to apologise, but there were no words.
We need the money, else we'll starve come winter. Maggie's baby needs medicine from the doctor. The roof leaks and the stove smokes and our clothes are full of holes. We get driven out of towns half the time and they spit at us the rest, they think we're dirty and thieving and we consort with the devil, and we need the money, sir, we really do.
The unicorn turned back to face him as if it had heard, though he hadn't spoken aloud. Its expression was blank, unreadable.
The magicians pay hundreds for unicorn entrails. We'll be rich men come next Sunday. With blood on our hands and its gaze burned into our souls.
It grew dark. They lit the lanterns. He got up and slipped into the caravan, went to where the horn was kept and unwrapped it carefully. It was strong stuff, probably wouldn't chip if he dropped it, but it didn't hurt to make sure.
He ran his fingers down the smooth length of it, marvelling at the pearly sheen. It was long, at least a food and a half, tapering to a sharp point. A unicorn could gut a man with its horn, he'd heard. When he twisted it in his hands it glimmered as it a thousand colours were trapped just under the surface, writhing, trying to get out.
They would stop soon, make camp for the night, and the fire would burn, and they would cook dinner and laugh and joke about what they would do with the money, but the whole time the unicorn would be watching them from the shadows, gazing at them with its sad eyes, silently judging.
The child drew the point of the horn across his palm, slicing a thin cut, a line of blood seeping out. He cupped his hand around it, let it gather there, then tilted it back and forth, watched it glint in the lantern light from outside, his throat tight and thick, and he shuddered.