The Highest Justice
By Garth Nix
The girl did not ride the unicorn, because no one ever did. She rode a nervous oatcolored palfrey that had no name, and led the second horse, a blind and almost deaf ancient who long ago had been called Rinaldo and was now simply Rin. The unicorn sometimes paced next to the palfrey, and sometimes not.
Rin bore the dead Queen on his back, barely noticing her twitches and mumbles and the cloying stench of decaying flesh that seeped out through the honey- and spice-soaked bandages. She was tied to the saddle, but could have snapped those bonds if she had thought to do so. She had become monstrously strong since her death three days before, and the intervention by her daughter that had returned her to a semblance of life.
Not that Princess Jess was a witch or necromancer. She knew no more magic than any other young woman. But she was fifteen years old, a virgin, and she believed the old tale of the kingdom’s founding: that the unicorn who had aided the legendary Queen Jessibelle the First was still alive and would honor the compact made so long ago, to come in the time of the kingdom’s need.
The unicorn’s secret name was Elibet. Jess had called this name to the waxing moon at midnight from the tallest tower of the castle, and had seen something ripple in answer across the surface of the earth’s companion in the sky.
An hour later Elibet was in the tower. She was somewhat like a horse with a horn, if you looked at her full on, albeit one made of white cloud and moonshine. Looked at sideways she was a fiercer thing, of less familiar shape, made of storm clouds and darkness, the horn more prominent and bloody at the tip, like the setting sun.
Jess preferred to see a white horse with a silvery horn, and so that is what she saw.
Jess had called the unicorn as her mother gasped out her final breath. The unicorn had come too late to save the Queen, but by then Jess had another plan.
The unicorn listened and then by the power of her horn, brought back some part of the Queen to inhabit a body from which life had all too quickly sped.
They had then set forth, to seek the Queen’s poisoner, and mete out justice.
Jess halted her palfrey as they came to a choice of ways. The royal forest was thick and dark in these parts, and the path was no more than a beaten track some dozen paces wide. It forked ahead, into two lesser, narrower paths.
“Which way?” asked Jess, speaking to the unicorn, who had once again mysteriously appeared at her side.
The unicorn pointed her horn at the left-hand path.
“Are you sure—,” Jess asked. “No, it’s just that—”
“The other way looks more traveled—”
“No, I’m not losing heart—”
“I know you know—”
“Talking to yourself?” interjected a rough male voice, the only other sound in the forest, for if the unicorn had spoken, no one but Jess had heard her.
The palfrey shied as Jess swung around and reached for her sword. But she was too late, as a dirty bearded ruffian held a rusty pike to her side. He grinned, and raised his eyebrows.
“Here’s a tasty morsel, then,” he leered. “Step down lightly, and no tricks.”
“Elibet!” said Jess indignantly.
The unicorn slid out of the forest behind the outlaw, and lightly pricked him in the back of his torn leather jerkin with her horn. The man’s eyebrows went up still farther and his eyes darted to the left and right.
“Ground your pike,” said Jess. “My friend can strike faster than any man.”
The outlaw grunted, and lowered his pike, resting its butt in the leaf litter at his feet.
“I give up,” he wheezed, leaning forward as if he might escape the sharp horn.
“Ease off on that spear, and take me to the sheriff. I swear—”
“Hunger,” interrupted the Queen. Her voice had changed with her death. It had become gruff and leathery, and significantly less human.
The bandit glanced at the veiled figure under the broad-brimmed pilgrim’s hat.
“What?” he asked hesitantly.
“Hunger,” groaned the Queen. “Hunger.”
She raised her right arm, and the leather cord that bound her to the saddle’s high cantle snapped with a sharp crack. A bandage came loose at her wrist and dropped to the ground in a series of spinning turns, revealing the mottled bluebruised skin beneath.
“Shoot ’em!” shouted the bandit as he dove under Jess’s horse and scuttled across the path toward the safety of the trees. As he ran, an arrow flew over his head and struck the Queen in the shoulder. Another, coming behind it, went past Jess’s head as she jerked herself forward and down. The third was struck out of the air by a blur of vaguely unicorn-shaped motion. There were no more arrows, but a second later there was a scream from halfway up a broad oak that loomed over the path ahead, followed by the heavy thud of a body hitting the ground.
Jess drew her sword and kicked her palfrey into a lurching charge. She caught the surviving bandit just before he managed to slip between two thorny bushes, and landed a solid blow on his head with the back of the blade. She hadn’t meant to be merciful, but the sword had turned in her sweaty grasp. He fell under the horse’s feet, and got trampled a little before Jess managed to turn about.
She glanced down to make sure he was at least dazed, but sure of this, spared him no more time. Her mother had broken the bonds on her left arm as well, and was ripping off the veil that hid her face.
“Hunger!” boomed the Queen, loud enough even for poor old deaf Rin to hear.
He stopped eating the grass and lifted his head, time-worn nostrils almost smelling something he didn’t like.
“Elibet! Please … ,” beseeched Jess. “A little longer—we must be almost there.”
The unicorn stepped out from behind a tree and looked at her. It was the look of a stern teacher about to allow a pupil some small favor.
“One more touch, please, Elibet.”
The unicorn bent her head, paced over to the dead Queen, and touched the woman lightly with her horn, briefly imbuing her with a subtle nimbus of summer sunshine, bright in the shadowed forest. Propelled by that strange light, the arrow in the Queen’s shoulder popped out, the blue-black bruises on her arms faded, and her skin shone, pink and new. She stopped fumbling with the veil, slumped down in her saddle, and let out a relatively delicate and human-sounding snore.
“Thank you,” said Jess.
She dismounted and went to look at the bandit. He had sat up and was trying to wipe away the blood that slowly dripped across his left eye.
“So you give up, do you?” Jess asked, and snorted.
The bandit didn’t answer.
Jess pricked him with her sword, so he was forced to look at her.
“I should finish you off here and now,” said Jess fiercely. “Like your friend.”
“My brother,” muttered the man. “But you won’t finish me, will you? You’re the rightful type, I can tell. Take me to the sheriff. Let him do what needs to be done.”
“You’re probably in league with the sheriff,” said Jess.
“Makes no odds to you, anyways. Only the sheriff has the right to justice in this wood. King’s wood, it is.”
“I have the right to the Middle and the Low Justice, under the King,” said Jess, but even as she said it, she knew it was the wrong thing to say. Robbery and attempted murder in the King’s wood were matters for the High Justice.
“Slip of a girl like you? Don’t be daft,” the bandit said, laughing. “Besides, it’s the High Justice for me. I’ll go willingly along to the sheriff.”
“I don’t have time to take you to the sheriff,” said Jess. She could not help glancing back at her mother. Already there were tiny spots of darkness visible on her arm, like the first signs of mold on bread.
“Better leave me, then,” said the bandit. He smiled, an expression that was part cunning and part relief beginning to appear upon his weather-beaten face.
“Leave you!” exploded Jess. “I’m not going to—What?”
She tilted her head, to look at a patch of shadow in the nearer trees.
“You have the High Justice? Really?”
“Who are you talking to?” asked the bandit nervously. The cunning look remained, but the relief was rapidly disappearing.
“Very well. I beseech you, in the King’s name, to judge this man fairly. As you saw, he sought to rob me, and perhaps worse, and told his companion to shoot.”
“Who are you talking to?” screamed the bandit. He staggered to his feet as Jess backed off, keeping her sword out and steady, aimed now at his guts.
“Your judge,” said Jess. “Who I believe is about to announce—”
Jess stopped talking as the unicorn appeared behind the bandit, her horn already through the man’s chest. The bandit walked another step, unknowing, then his mouth fell open and he looked down at the sharp whorled spike that had seemingly grown out of his heart. He lifted his hand to grasp it, but halfway there nerves and muscles failed, and his life was ended.
The unicorn tossed her head, and the bandit’s corpse slid off, into the forest mulch.
Jess choked a little, and coughed. She hadn’t realized she had stopped breathing. She had seen men killed before, but not by a unicorn. Elibet snorted, and wiped her horn against the trunk of a tree, like a bird sharpening its beak.
“Yes. Yes, you’re right,” said Jess. “I know we must hurry.”
Jess quickly fastened her mother’s bandages and bonds and rearranged the veil before mounting her palfrey. It shivered under her as she took up the reins, and looked back with one wild eye.
“Hup!” said Jess, and dug in her heels. She took the left-hand path, ducking under a branch.
They came to the King’s hunting lodge at nightfall. It had been a simple fort once, a rectangle of earth ramparts, but the King had built a large wooden hall at its center, complete with an upper solar that had glass windows, the whole of it topped with a sharply sloped roof of dark red tiles.
Lodge and fort lay in the middle of a broad forest clearing, which was currently lit by several score of lanterns, hung from hop poles. Jess grimaced as she saw the lanterns, though it was much as she’d expected. The lodge was, after all, her father’s favorite trysting place. The lanterns would be a “romantic” gesture from the King to his latest and most significant mistress.
The guards saw her coming, and possibly recognized the palfrey. Two came out cautiously to the forest’s edge, swords drawn, while several others watched from the ramparts, their bows held ready. The King was not well-loved by his subjects, with good cause. But his guards were well-paid and, so long as they had not spent their last pay, loyal.
“Princess Jess?” asked the closer guard. “What brings you here?”
He was a new guard, who had not yet experienced enough of the King’s court to be hardened by it, or so sickened that he sought leave to return to his family’s estate. His name was Piers, and he was only a year or two older than Jess. She knew him as well as a Princess might know a servant, for her mother had long ago advised her to remember the names of all the guards, and make friends of them as soon as she could.
“Oh, I’m glad to see you, Piers,” sighed Jess. She gestured to the cloaked and veiled figure behind. It was dark enough that the guards would not immediately see the Queen’s bonds. “It is my mother. She wishes to see the King.”
“Your Highness!” exclaimed Piers, and he bent his head, as did his companion, a man the other guards called Old Briars, though his name was Brian and he was not that old. “But where are your attendants? Your guards?”
“They follow,” said Jess. She let her horse amble forward, so the guards had to scramble to keep alongside. “We came on ahead. My mother must see the King immediately. It is an urgent matter. She is not well.”
“His Majesty the King ordered that he not be disturbed—,” rumbled Old Briars.
“My mother must see His Majesty,” said Jess. “Perhaps, Piers, you could run ahead and warn … let the King know we will soon be with him?”
“Better not, boy. You know what—,” Old Briars started to say. He was interrupted by the Queen, who suddenly sat straighter and rasped out a single world.
Either the King’s name, spoken so strangely by the Queen, or the desperate look on Jess’s small, thin face made Old Briars stop talking and stand aside.
“I’ll go at once,” said Piers, with sudden decision. “Brian, show Their Highnesses into the hall.”
He laid a particular stress on the last word, which Jess knew meant “Keep them out of the solar,” the upper chamber that the King had undoubtedly already retired to with his latest mistress, the Lady Lieka—who, unlike Jess, actually was a witch.
They left the horses at the tumbledown stable near the gate. The king had not bothered to rebuild that. As Jess untied the Queen and helped her down, she saw Brian working hard to keep his expression stolid, to maintain the professional unseeing look all the guardsmen had long perfected. The King being what he was, the outer guards usually did not want to see anything. If they did want to watch, or even participate, they joined his inner retinue.
The Queen was mumbling and twitching again. Jess had to breathe through her mouth to avoid the stench that was overcoming spices and scent.
“Ed-mund … ,” rasped the Queen as Jess led her to the hall. “Ed-mund …”
“Yes, Mother,” soothed Jess. “You will see him in a moment.”
She caught a glimpse of Elibet as Brian stood aside to let them pass through the great oaken door of the hall. Piers was waiting inside, and he bowed deeply as they went in. He didn’t notice the unicorn streaming in ahead, the smoke from the fire and candles eddying as she passed.