A Charm for a Unicorn

Excerpt from A Charm for a Unicorn (buy from Amazon)

A Charm for a Unicorn
By Jennifer Macaire

Chapter One
The Crystal Ball

The magician lived in Castle Veil, a large manor house with a pointy roof and two round windows on either side of the front door looking out of its façade like wide, friendly eyes.

If you could look into the windows, you would see large, sunny rooms with worn furniture that didn’t match, but was useful and comfortable. The dining room had a formal look to it, with a long, cherry wood table and delicate chairs. Every room had a fireplace, and lamps of frosted yellow glass cast a warm glow when darkness fell. The rugs were plain, the floors smooth and shiny, and the best room of all, the kitchen, was so big it took up almost half of the downstairs all by itself.

The manor was usually quiet. Two sisters lived there with their father the magician, a cook, and a gardener. The sisters were called Leonie and Ann, the father was Sir Casper, the cook was Cook, and Bob was the gardener. Ann was studious and hardly ever shouted. Leonie was apt to burst into song, or laughter, and everything seemed brighter when she was around.

A dusty road led from the castle out of the hollow. It went over hill and dale, through wide fields of clover and wheat, to the nearest village. There, the road got bigger and went on to more important places in the kingdom of Windtide.

The magician walked swiftly down the road, his black robe flapping, his pointed hat bending backwards in the breeze. His shadow ran along the ground behind him, as if tagging along. Also behind him, in Castle Veil, a curtain twitched and a face peeked out the window. The autumn sun lit the face briefly, then the curtain shut and the face vanished.

There was only one order Leonie ever disobeyed, and that was not to use the crystal ball. Leonie’s father never locked the door to his study, and Leonie always made sure he was well on his way to the village before running up the stairs two at a time and slipping inside the little room on the south side of the castle. The room was round, being in the turret, and it had a fireplace, a window seat, and a stuffed ocelot with marbles instead of eyes. It also had a crystal ball. Her father had forbidden her to use his crystal ball, but once in the study, Leonie sat in her father’s chair and lifted the black velvet cloth off the crystal.
She looked at the shiny ball, and willed an image to appear. A bright spark appeared and became a young man herding a flock of sheep with the help of a black and white dog. Urged by the dog and the shepherd’s staff, the sheep trotted in a tight knit group down the road. The young man pursed his lips, and the dog leapt to his side. Affectionately, he reached down and scratched the dog’s ears.

Leonie wished the crystal ball would show the young man close up, but the image remained distant. She could only make out his wide shoulders, long legs, and wavy hair that held the flames of autumn. As he reached down to pat the dog, a lamb broke loose from the group and darted into the forest. The young man didn’t notice, and continued his way toward the village. Leonie peered closer, hoping he’d turn back for the lamb and at the same time hoping to catch sight of the village. She’d never been there and she held her breath as the young man topped the rise.

Frustration made her give an annoyed cry as the image in the crystal insisted on switching to the lamb as it sprang through a deep bed of ferns. The crystal ball was funny like that; you never knew what it would show you. Her father could control it, but all she could do was turn it on and off.

A noise startled Leonie, but when the door swung open she gave a sigh of relief. Her sister Ann poked her head in the room and said, “Father will turn you into a toad if he catches you with his crystal ball! It’s for his work only!”

“You won’t tell, will you? I really don’t want to be a toad. So far, I’ve avoided the am-phibi-yams.”

Ann snorted. “Amphibians.”

“Well, I almost got it right.” She sighed. “I wish I had your memory.”

“I wish I had your looks.”

Leonie got up, put the velvet cover back over the crystal ball, and hugged her sister. “You’re perfect the way you are.”

“I hate my hair.” Ann tucked her fuzzy red braids behind her ears. “Anyway, I came to say that you’d better leave now, I caught sight of father in the courtyard. He looks like a thunder storm about to burst, so I hope you’ve memorized your Latin.”

A shiver ran down Leonie’s spine. “He’s back already? I thought I’d have the afternoon to study! Can you help me?”

Ann scowled. “You have to study more. If you’d only try you’d do just fine. But you daydream and your mind wanders and…”

“I know, I know.” Leonie interrupted, looking out the window in a panic. “Last week I spent three days as a squirrel because I forgot my erratic verbs.”

“Irregular verbs, you ninny, not erratic.” Ann sighed. “Why don’t you go to the kitchen. That way Cook is bound to ask you to go on some errand and you’ll be able to get out of the castle. Take the Latin textbook with you, and go study in the forest.”

“What about cook’s errand?”

“Would you rather be scolded by the cook or turned into an amphibian by father?”

Ann had a point. Leonie grabbed her Latin book from the table and ran down the back staircase to the kitchen.

Vast and warm, with a well-worn flagstone floor and a fire crackling cheerfully in the hearth, the kitchen seemed the perfect refuge. The table in the center of the room always had a basket of fresh apples or a plate of warm biscuits on it. Leonie and Ann spent countless hours on the long bench in front of the table helping Cook peeling potatoes, snapping beans, kneading bread, or just sitting with their chins in their hands watching Cook as she bustled about.

Cook had been in the kitchen for as long as Leonie could remember. According to Ann, Cook had once been a goat before their father had transformed her. How did Ann know these things, or did she make them up? Leonie would have to ask her one day. But she would never dare ask Cook outright if she’d once been a goat. Ann had probably just been teasing her, Leonie decided. That would be typical of Ann.

When Cook caught sight of Leonie, she pointed to an empty basket and said, “I need some apples.”

“If you see father, tell him you’ve sent me on an errand,” said Leonie. She picked up the basket and, with a last look at the cozy room, left. She took care to keep close to the hedge, in case she saw her father. To her relief, she made it through the back garden without seeing either her father or Old Bob, the gardener. She should go to the orchard, quickly fill her basket, then sit and study her Latin. But the forest beckoned and, after a furtive look around, she ducked under the split rail fence, ran across the meadow, and stepped into the woods.

#

Ann shook her head. Leonie would certainly spend the next few days transformed into some creature. Their father didn’t believe in laziness, and he despised ignorance and disobedience as well. But Leonie wasn’t any of those things…she simply didn’t have a logical mind. Ann felt a pang of pity for her sister, but she quelled it. Leonie might be hopeless in studies but her beauty made everyone around her look plain as mud.

Next to Leonie, Ann always felt clumsy, awkward and ugly. Leonie moved with grace and swiftness, and when she danced even the trees stopped rustling their leaves and birds swooped down to watch. Her pale hair fell in shining waves to her hips, and it never got greasy or got tangled. Her skin looked as soft as rose petals, and her eyes had the sparkle of stars reflected in rainwater. Ann sighed heavily, went to the crystal ball and lifted a corner of the cover. She peered into it, but the ball remained transparent, reflecting only her freckled face, upside-down and deformed by the globe. Ann stuck her tongue out at it, and in the reflection the ugly girl with red hair as bright as marigolds stuck her tongue out too.

How could Leonie make the crystal show her things? That too bothered Ann. Leonie never studied, and she couldn’t tell the difference between a potion and an elixir, but she had a knack for magic and could do things without even thinking.

“Huh, she does everything without thinking,” muttered Ann, flicking her fingernail against the crystal ball. Then she put the velvet cover back over it and went to sit in the window seat. Father would be here soon and she hoped to impress him with her recitation of the Latin irregular verbs, so useful in casting spells and working out medicinal formulas.

From her perch in the casement window she caught sight of her sister leaving the castle by the back door, a wicker basket over her arm. Sunlight sparkled on Leonie’s hair, and as usual two or three birds swooped down and fluttered around her, chirping happily. Leonie had been transformed into a sparrow one day, and had managed to elude the hawk living in the belfry as well as the mangy cats in the stable. She’d made friends with some birds, and unexpectedly, they seemed to remember her when she’d been changed back.

“That’s normal, she’s a bird-brain,” said Ann softly, leaning her forehead against the windowpane.

Leonie disappeared into the forest and Ann felt a sudden twinge of disquiet. She frowned, then heard her father’s footsteps in the hallway. Turning, she put a bright smile on her face. “Hello Father,” she said as he opened the heavy door.

Her father, the magician, stared at her with pale eyes that might have reminded her of Leonie’s eyes if they’d had the slightest sparkle or warmth, but he looked made of winter, with wispy, frost-white hair and a gaze like ice. “I hope you’re ready for your lesson.” He peered at her as if he could see right into her brain, and even his voice sounded wintry.

“Yes father.” Ann clasped her hands behind her back, cleared her throat, and recited her lesson. Afterward her father gave her some other pages to read and he sat down at his desk and began to write letters with a goose-quill pen.

Ann settled back in her window seat and read a bit. The steady scratching sound of the quill made Ann drowsy, but she didn’t close her eyes and give in to her urge for a nap. Her father glanced at the water clock a couple times, and finally asked in a paper-dry voice, where Leonie had gone.

“I don’t know sir,” said Ann truthfully. “She took her Latin book, so she must have gone somewhere to study.”

“She better be back in time for her lesson, or she’ll find out what it’s like to be a sheep,” her father said.

Ann made a face. She’d never been transformed into anything. The only time her father had lost his temper at her had been when she’d asked him if she and Leonie had been transformed, like Cook and Old Bob. She’d asked, in all innocence, what creature she’d been before she’d become his daughter.

“If your mother heard you say that, she’d turn in her grave,” he sputtered, and had stomped from the room. That had been the only time he’d mentioned her mother, and Ann had never asked again. Just as she’d never insisted to go with her father when he left the castle and went to the village and other places. The two girls never left the castle grounds except to go a little ways into the forest, and even then they knew better than to cross the stream.

Their world comprised the castle, the gardens, the orchards and the woods in front of the stream. Ann had never felt the slightest wish to go anywhere, but Leonie often begged her father to let her accompany him to the village, to which her father had always replied an emphatic ‘No’.

Ann watched as the water clock turned silently on its axis and hoped that Leonie would hurry up and learn her verbs. The shadows grew long and the scent of baking bread for dinner rising from the kitchens tickled her nose and made her anxious for her sister.
#
Leonie ducked under the sweeping branches of a charm tree and sighed as the shade cooled her head. She would find a comfortable spot to sit and read, and with luck, she’d be able to memorize enough Latin to please her father. She’d just spotted a mossy rock when she heard a soft bleating. The runaway lamb!

She followed the noise until she came to the forbidden stream. The lamb’s bleats sounded as if they came from the thicket on the other side. She stood on tip-toe and tried to see it, but the fern and nettle grew too densely.

She set the book and basket down, kicked off her wooden clogs, and holding her skirt high, she began to wade across the stream. She didn’t think it would be so deep, or the pebbles so slick. Her feet slipped, she lost her balance, and she fell into the icy, fast running water. No one had taught her to swim, and as the water closed over her head she thrashed and took a huge breath to scream. Water clogged her nose and mouth and she choked. The swift current snatched her feet out from underneath her, her dress, soaked, pulled her under and she couldn’t get to the surface! Her life flashed before her eyes and it seemed ridiculously short and useless. She’d never done anything worthwhile or interesting, she’d disobeyed her father, and now she drowned.

Blackness enveloped her, and she prepared to die, when suddenly something yanked her arm nearly out of its socket and pulled her out of the stream.

“Are you all right?”

Leonie opened her eyes. She lay on her back in deep grass. She could see nothing but grass and sky for a moment. Then a spasm shook her and she coughed up a prodigious amount of water. Strangling and choking, she rolled over on her side and managed to get her breath back.

“Shall I go get help?”

Leonie sat up and looked around. Her eyes fell on a young man. “You!” she cried.

The shepherd drew back, a startled expression on his face. “Do you know me? Have we met?”

How could she explain? “No, not exactly. I saw you this morning as you walked with your sheep. Have you come looking for the lamb? I heard it in the forest, and that’s how I came to fall into the stream.”

The shepherd nodded, his eyes round, and Leonie wondered if he were shy. Having never met anyone new before, she hoped she made a good impression.

She sneezed and quickly wiped her nose on her wet sleeve. So much for making a good impression. “Excuse me, I must look terrible,” she said, pulling a long piece of river weed from her hair.

The young man shook his head. “Oh no, you are as beautiful as a summer’s day.” He flushed, and cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like a bad poem. I’m usually better at conversation.”

Leonie had never talked to anyone except the people at the castle, or on rare occasions, father’s imposing visitor—Sir Wulfe, a magician who frightened Leonie and Ann with his bulbous, disconcerting eyes. She didn’t know anything about conversation, but good manners had been drilled into her since birth. She got to her feet and curtsied. “I’m very pleased to meet you, sir.” Her wet dress didn’t quite give the impression she would have liked, and the her hem dragged in the muddy grass.

The young man stood and bowed. “The pleasure is all mine, my lady. What’s your name?”

“Leonie,” she whispered shyly. It was both exciting and frightening to finally talk to someone from the village. She hoped she wouldn’t ruin it by being silly.

“Mine is Renaldo. Pleased to meet you, Leonie.” He frowned. “Here, take my cloak. You’re shivering.”

Leonie wanted to tell him she shivered because she’d never met a stranger before, but her tongue seemed stuck to the roof of her mouth. His hands brushed against her shoulders as he draped his cloak over her, and the sudden warmth made her head spin.

She swayed and would have fallen, but he caught her. “You look very pale,” he said smoothing her hair from her face with a gentle touch. “I think I ought to take you home. Where do you live?”

Leonie looked around, searching for a familiar landmark. “I live in Castle Veil,” she said. “It’s nearby the stream I fell into. My father said I mustn’t ever cross over, but I heard your lamb and…” she tried to pull away but the young man’s hands had tightened on her waist.

“Castle Veil?” his voice sounded strange.

“Do you know it?” Hopefully he could point her in the right direction. Instead, the young man let go of her and took a step backward. “What is it?”

“Are you an enchantment?”

“No of course not. I’m Leonie.” Clouds blocked the sun and evening came. Her wet dress now felt like ice. “Please help me,” she cried.

Renaldo looked at her, and she saw pity in his gaze. “I beg your pardon, Lady Leonie. It’s just that I have heard of Castle Veil, and I’ve seen the magician. I’m afraid the reputation of your dwelling is not a kind one. Your mother was well loved, but your father inspires more fear than confidence, though his healing is above reproach.”

“How do you know about my mother?”

Renaldo was silent a minute, then he said, “I know about your mother because my father sometimes mentions her. It seems…” he gave a little laugh, then said, “It seems he courted her, but she married the magician. My father says that once she married him she was never seen again.” His voice ended on a questioning note.

Leonie felt an odd stab of loyalty toward her father. True, he was strict, but never cruel. “It wasn’t our father’s fault. She died in childbirth.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Father isn’t bad, really, but he’ll be cross if I’m late. Will you help me go back home? Afterward, you can go see to your sheep. I’m sorry if I took you away from your job, your employer will be angry if you don’t find the lamb.”

“I will help you get back to your home, and don’t worry about my job. In fact, I’m not really a shepherd.” He paused and gave a wry grin. “My full name is Renaldo Hector Alexander Priam of Windtide. I am prince of this land as my father is King. And forgive me for thinking you were an enchantment, for although we know your father, he has never once spoken of having a daughter.”

“Two daughters, actually.” Stung, Leonie considered her shepherd suddenly turned prince. “I’m afraid our father hasn’t taught us anything about how to converse with a prince or what to call one.” She raised her chin higher. “I hope you’ll pardon my ignorance, but I can’t remember all your names anyway” she added. For some reason her vision blurred.

“Don’t cry Leonie. I forget them too. As a matter of fact, I bet I left one or two out.”

She knew he said that just to make her feel better, but it worked. She gave him a watery smile. He gave her a clean handkerchief and put his arms around her. As he stared into her eyes, his face drew nearer.

Leonie knew what would happen next.

She knew it the way she knew should would draw her next breath. Everything about the kiss happened as naturally as breathing. And as soon as their lips touched, Leonie knew that she needed this man the way she needed air to breath, water to drink, and a heart to beat. She closed her eyes, lost in the sensation of finding something she’d been searching for eternally.

When they drew apart their eyes met. It was like looking into a mirror. “You felt it too,” she whispered.

“Yes,” he said, and his mouth curved into a smile. He rested his cheek against hers. “When I get back to my home, I will tell my parents I have fallen in love. And then I will ask your father for your hand in marriage. I hope you will agree.”

“Marriage?”

“You’ll say yes, won’t you?”

“It’s too sudden,” said Leonie. Everything was going in a rush, as if she rode in a magician’s whirlwind. In her storybooks, the princess always felt swept away, and although she was no princess, she understood exactly what the author meant now.

“I know this is sudden, but my mother has been speaking of nothing but marriage to me for months now, so I suppose I’ve been looking for the right person. Now I have found you.”

“It’s not like going out to search for a job, you know. You’re supposed to court a woman and see if you really like her. We’ve hardly spoken. How could you have fallen in love with me?” Leonie heard her words and wondered where that sensible person had come from, and how she could shut her up.

Renaldo grinned. “I fell in love with you the minute I saw you weren’t a drowning dryad. Don’t be worried about my mother. She’ll be thrilled when I tell her the good news.”

“Well, Father won’t be very happy when I go back and tell him I’m engaged to someone he’s never met.”

“Oh, but I have met him, several times in fact. But don’t say anything yet. It will be a surprise. I’ll come myself and bring all my minstrels to play music, and a gift for your father. Would he like that?”

Leonie wasn’t sure her father would like that, but to her it sounded splendid. “Yes, of course.”

“As soon as possible, I will come to your castle and ask your father for your hand. Now, shall I accompany you to your home?”

“I don’t know where I am. I’ve never gone further than the orchards.” She hoped he didn’t think her too stupid. Ann said it was best she just smile and keep her mouth shut when meeting new people.

Renaldo didn’t call her an idiot, as Ann would have. Instead, he took her hand and led her to the highest point in the meadow. He pointed to the valley, and there, nestled among the orchards and gardens, was Castle Veil. From here it seemed very tiny, and she realized with a start that it wasn’t truly a castle, but a large manor house rather in need of repairs. The roof sagged, and the shutters drooped mournfully from the windows. Bob kept the gardens neat though, and the fences around the orchard all stood straight, although rambling briar roses had overgrown them. Now, in the autumn, the briar rose’s pale pink flowers had disappeared leaving place for vibrant red rose hips.

Gloria, their red and white spotted milk cow, stood against the orchard fence waiting to be milked, As Leonie watched, Bob came down the well-worn path to lead her to the stables. Renaldo took her hand and said, “Looks like you’ll have fresh cream with your dinner tonight.”

She could see the silvery ribbon of the stream, and to her relief, she was on the right side of it. All she had to do was go down the path through the meadow, cross a small copse of woods, and she’d be in the far orchard, minutes from her home.

Renaldo insisted on accompanying her to the orchard, and for a minute they stood, arms entwined, as the sun touched the horizon. The evening breeze rustled the leaves in the orchard. Summer touched its end, the sunflowers bowed their seed-laden heads toward the ground, and the grass turned yellow in the pastures.

“Remember what I said.”

“As soon as possible you’ll come back.” Soon would seem like years, she knew, and already her heart broke at the thought of leaving him for a minute. But her father waited in his study, and the sun turned red. Her lesson would soon start, and she hadn’t learned a thing. With a sigh she gave him one last kiss, then pulling gently from his grasp, she ran barefoot across the orchard toward her home.