An Unclean Legacy: “Glorious Unicorn Santrieste”

Once upon a time, they say, Gargamel the sorcerer bound the Devil between five peaks.

The people of that mountainous region were not well-pleased. Once-fertile land lay now permanently in shadow under the Devil’s back. His thrashing brought earthquakes. His cords and tail cut scores across the land.

The locals were human.

They adapted.

They built a new city on the Devil’s rich stomach. They used his bonds as bridges. They learned to tune out his tempting whispers, his ear-piercing wails, his threats and his promises.

Life went on.

Then Santrieste the unicorn came.

He was beautiful, was Santrieste. His eyes were the color of smoked glass. His mane was wild and his heart was clean.

His feet clicked and clacked on the stone as he walked along the mountain ledges.

“Free me,” said the Devil.

Santrieste twisted his head. He eyed the Devil. His nostrils flared, as if to say: Why should I do that, enemy of the world?

“It is not right,” said the Devil, “that any being should be thus chained.”

The unicorn hesitated. These words struck him as terribly just, and it was not in his nature to flee from the truth. He lowered his head. He whuffed.

There is a price for all such acts, he said. Why should I pay it?

And the Devil’s answer was cold and clean and it cut the unicorn’s soul down to the bone: “Because you are here, and because you can.”

So Santrieste reached the bond on the Devil’s left arm, and with one stroke of his horn he cut it away.

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the third installment of the story of that time.

It is Manfred’s tenth birthday.

The children stand in the old cathedral by Castle Gargamel.

Manfred strives to look solemn as Tomas sets new armor on him, piece by piece. Yet when the sunlight bursts through the broken roof and gets into his eyes, he loses his composure. He casts his still-naked arm before his eyes and he looks down. There he sees Elisabet, who is seven, staring up at him in awe, and he cannot resist a tease.

Ninjas don’t get to wear armor, you know.”

Elisabet, in her capacity as a ninja, really wants to say something. She really wants to tongue-lash him. But this is Manfred’s day. So she doesn’t. Instead she turns as red as a beet as she keeps all the words she’d like to say inside.

“Hee hee,” says Manfred. Then Tomas cinches him with the padding straps. Manfred’s eyes bug out. He sticks out his tongue at Tomas, retracts it, and reassumes the saintly demeanor in which he was becoming armored.

“You’ll have to make an oath,” Tomas says.

He is looking in a book. It is an old book of spells.

“An oath?” Manfred says.

“Something to tell the world who you are,” Tomas says.

“I will not shed innocent blood,” Manfred says. And there is a shine to him as he speaks.

“So be it,” says Tomas.

He affixes the white brassards to Manfred’s arms. They glow with the seals of saints and demons as they close.

“The rest you may remove,” Tomas says. “But these shall never leave you, nor let you break your oath.”

And Manfred lowers his eyes.

“Oh!” cries Elisabet, and looks south towards the door; for there, in the entrance to the cathedral, walking gently and clickily on the broken stone, there is the unicorn. He has come in answer to the ritual that Tomas has worked; in response to the summoning magic of Montechristien Gargamel; and in payment for a debt.

He is the most beautiful thing that Manfred has ever seen.

The unicorn ignores Elisabet, save for a sidelong glance and gentle whicker. He walks past Tomas without a glance. He pushes with his great head (but not his horn) against Manfred’s side.

“He’s mine?” Manfred asks. His heart is in his throat. His voice is yet unbroken.

Tomas looks in the book again. He skims it for any contraindications.

“He’s yours,” Tomas concludes, and he slams the book shut.

Looking into the unicorn’s eyes, Manfred knows his name.

Santrieste,” Manfred says.

And Manfred swings up onto the unicorn’s back, and he rides out into the lands of fable; and the unicorn is swift and Manfred’s heart leaps seven times with glee; and he casts an exultant glance upwards to the angel that sits on his right shoulder, proud of what he has chosen to become.

The angel is frowning.

“What?” Manfred says. He laughs. “I’ve won!”

“There is no virtue in you now,” says Manfred’s angel. “Only chains.”

An Unclean Legacy

Glorious Unicorn Santrieste

It does not sink in for Manfred for some time what he has done.

It is more than eight months later that Tomas, in a fit of rage, shoves Manfred from his chair. Manfred rises.

Manfred is thinking: I must not hit him. Tomas is fragile. His nose will explode. It’s funny but it’s bad when someone’s nose explodes.

And then it is with a strange sick feeling that Manfred realizes that he has no choice. He has given himself to a unicorn, bound himself soul to soul to something holy, and he is bound forever by his oath.

“It doesn’t matter what I decide,” says Manfred.

Tomas looks blankly at him.

Manfred walks out. He goes to the stable. He finds Santrieste. He stares at the unicorn, face to face.

The unicorn tosses his head.

Shall we ride?

That’s what Manfred thinks the unicorn is saying. He’s a ten year old boy, and not the Devil, so his grasp of equine is not perfect.

It’s sunny out, indicates Santrieste.

“How could you?” Manfred asks.

There is a pause.

“How could you?”

And now Manfred is crying.

Tears blind him.

He does not see the reaction of the glorious magical beautiful unicorn Santrieste, which is, quite simply, Huh?

Thus we have seen the truth of Manfred before his fall; and something of him after. But he is not the only troubled heir returning to Castle Gargamel.

Tune in tomorrow for the next breathtaking chapter of An Unclean Legacy: “The Soulless Girl!”

15 thoughts on “An Unclean Legacy: “Glorious Unicorn Santrieste”

  1. The locals were human.

    They adapted.

    They built a new city on the Devil’s rich stomach. They used his bonds as bridges. They learned to tune out his tempting whispers, his ear-piercing wails, his threats and his promises.

    By sticking their fingers in their little blue ears and singing “La la la la la la”? :)

    I’m actually quite enjoying the series, but I think I might enjoy it more if I knew for certain that Gargamel wasn’t a “Smurfs” reference.

  2. Why shouldn’t Gargamel be a Smurfs reference? The Smurfs are a perfectly valid mythology for Hitherby to draw from, and useful because it contains so many absolute archetypes.

  3. “There is no virtue in you now,” says Manfred’s angel. “Only chains.”

    Ouch. Methinks this is saying, moral intuition atrophies if you never have to use it. And that there is only virtue insofar as there is the choice to do evil…

  4. Yeah, I noticed that. It’s kinda a condemnation of the entire cosmology of hitherby deities– that must define themselves in terms of their oaths and promises. I’m not sure I buy it as a line of moral reasoning.

    More seriously, the choice is made by a ten-year-old, incapable of really comprehending that sort of moral decision– the implications of his oath clearly don’t register upon him until much later. That it’s an uninformed moral choice (that he’s bound himself without really MAKING the decision to be bound) is more damning to me, than the idea that it’s a final choice.

  5. Given that Manfred at age ten is not competent to make such an oath, the whole thing seems to me like a cruel prank played on him by his father.

  6. well, he DID want to know what to do.

    he willfully did not want the choice. he denied the ability to make a choice. he wanted someone else to make the choice for him.

    So, Santrieste did.

    I am not a very big fan of discriminating based on age.

  7. This series reminds me of House of Saints / Standing in the Storm and of Countdown To Annihilation. The similarity ranges from form (a series of connected legends, unlike the scattered legends about Ink or the various connected series of Histories) to tone (both of the first series were about the world ending, and this one seems a bit grim) and to a lesser extent, characterization (Manfred appears to have certain essential similarities to some of the driven characters of House / Storm).

    All of them appear to be related, in some way, to Martin’s criticism of the Hitherby universe that he wants to change. The first could be read as a kind of cautionary tale of Martin to himself. He is in one aspect the well-meaning person whose metaphorical Origins Bomb could go very wrong. The core of the second was, I thought, the way that people are described as looking at each other and seeing roles — as heroes, villains, or trash to be killed. Vladimir’s often-mentioned act of hubris is finding a high, pure schema that he fits people into. While this undoubtedly has a larger point about real people, there is also a sort of comparison with the classification of Hitherby gods. (What was the recurring question about Martin? Not what he wants, or who he is, but what his classification is.) Now this story appears to be about binding promises, about self-definitions that once made can not be unmade — the classic method within Hitherby of a human, an entity with no fixed purpose, transforming themself into a god with a classification. We already know that Manfred does later on invalidate his, although he doesn’t seem very happy about it.

  8. Metal:

    Is age really a factor here? So many of Hitherby’s characters are children, and they seem to exist in a universe where they are legitimate moral actors rather than existing in some state of innocence or incapacity to make proper/responsible moral choices (as is the case for, say, sharks).

  9. Free will also seems to be a notable theme — in “House of Saints”, all of the people who were sorted lost theirs; and here Manfred loses his.

  10. Rich,

    A nice observation.

    I’m starting to wonder about the morality of those in the House of Salt who create gods ex nihilo. What moral agency does someone like Micah have? I get the impression that Lisa was angry about that.


  11. The analogy between Martin and Manfred is suggestive, but not quite there. Martin started or self-created as a firewood boy, and then increased his options / gave up on that dharma. He may be classifiable as a Hitherby entity (I’m still guessing “dragon” if he is), but if so, he’s got a broader range of action than he started with. Manfred starts as, presumably, a human, and binds himself to a much more restricted role. Manfred’s later unbinding of himself may remind Martin of his own history in some way.

    One meaning of “An Unclean Legacy” might be about the legacy of D&D. Perhaps that’s why the Smurfs sort of hover over it, as childhood animation. D&D (or AD&D, whatever) is probably the first RPG played by the large majority of those here who have ever played one, and many elements of “An Unclean Legacy” have a D&D-ish or at least sword-and-sorcery feel. Elisabet appears to always fear Manfred (possibly contributing to Manfred’s later dislike of ninjas) not because of anything that we’ve yet seen Manfred do, but because of what he could do, being who he is — a sort of inherent dislike of the role that his abilities tempt him to assume.

    When you choose a D&D character, it’s not primarily about developing a persona, learning something, contributing to story, etc. (When these goals become primary, the player generally turns to some other RPG.) It’s about exercising imaginary power within a certain defined role. Even if you choose a “good” character, the basic temptation is still the one that Manfred confronts within himself — the temptation to be a bully. Being “good” simply gives you an acceptible reason to change the land and people that you encounter according to certain rules, in the same way that Manfred tries to resolve his inner conflict by looking for something else to tell him what to do.

  12. Is age really a factor here? So many of Hitherby’s characters are children, and they seem to exist in a universe where they are legitimate moral actors

    They do?

    I would say that most of the children in the legends are forced by circumstance into making weighty choices, but when they consider ethical issues in those choices, they generally stop at the level of primitive intuitionist concepts of virtue and fair play. Ink is a little more sophisticated, but the universe has stubbornly and explicitly denied her moral agency; that may have changed in her latest appearance, but we haven’t seen the results yet.

    As for the children of the histories: Liril has no free will, which implies a lack of moral agency. Iris, despite her suffering, seems to me to be morally innocent, as does Persephone. Jane and all of her siblings, and Micah and Belshazzar and Iphigenia, have age-by-definition rather than chronological age.

    The only other non-deific child from the histories who springs to mind is young Tina. I can’t decide whether she’s morally undeveloped or acting from a Nietzschean ethical egoism. Maybe you’re right, about her at least.

    If there’s anyone I’ve missed, please say so. Even a cursory review of my past comments will show my propensity to make bone-headed mistakes because I’m too lazy to go re-read a dozen entries before posting. Especially when I’m sleepy, which I am at the moment.

  13. Why shouldn’t Gargamel be a Smurfs reference? The Smurfs are a perfectly valid mythology for Hitherby to draw from, and useful because it contains so many absolute archetypes.

    Because here it’d be a punchline, a zingy pulp twist that recontextualizes all that has gone before. This stuff is cool enough straight up that I don’t think I want that…

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