“Can you see him?” Katy peered around the stone wall of the ballroom in a most unladylike manner, pushing Jennifer aside in her eagerness to check out the huge crowd. Any other member of the royal family would have been outraged at her handmaiden’s familiarity, but the two girls were more best friends than princess and servant.
“Not yet.” Princess Jennifer pulled the girl back. “Don’t stick your head out like that! Do you want us to get caught? Anyway, I need some help with this costume.”
“Wait a minute. I think – ohhhhhhh.” Katy sighed. “That has to be him. The tall, wild-looking boy with the black horse mask. Look at those legs! And I’ll bet that codpiece isn’t all stuffing!”
“Katy!” Jennifer felt herself blush. “Prince Justine is a gentleman! And future king of the next province. He isn’t some muscle-bound stable boy for you to bed in an empty stall!”
“More like a stallion, I’d say.” Her handmaiden’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Looking for the perfect filly.”
“Hush! You can’t be heard talking like that about royalty. It isn’t, well, proper.”
“Oh, we’re supposed to be proper, are we?” Katy smoothed her gown and assumed an exaggerated air of formality. “I so humbly beg your pardon, Princess! Being an ignorant peasant girl, I thought you were wearing this elaborate unicorn costume to catch that stallion’s eye. Against the wishes of your father, the King, I might add.”
“He did not forbid me to attend the ball! And I happen to like this costume.” Jennifer was grateful that her costume’s full headpiece hid her red cheeks. Her father had made it quite plain that her two older sisters were to have the prince to themselves. And while he had not actually forbid her to attend, he had made it clear that Jennifer was not to approach Prince Justine at all.
“And you look beautiful in it.” Katy grinned at her. “I’m sure it is just coincidence that you chose the same kind of costume the Prince always wears. Here. Your tail is slipping.” She reached around and adjusted the fluff-tipped appendage so that it was centered again. “There. Let me take a look at you now.”
Jennifer tried to assume a ladylike pose as her handmaiden walked around her. At sixteen, she still had a touch of adolescent awkwardness that made her feel clumsy around her more cultured siblings. And though she knew she was pretty, it would be another year or two before she matured enough to lose her boyish figure.
“It’s perfect!” Even as she said that, Katy adjusted the mask’s forelock and tugged at one sleeve of her white silk gown. “You are a creature of light and magic. You are mysterious and elegant.” She raised an eyebrow. “Try not to trip and fall flat on your face.”
“Oh, that is just what I needed to hear.” Jennifer took a cautious step. Her slippers were made to look like golden, cloven hooves – quite beautiful, but also difficult to walk in. She had been practicing for hours in her chambers, trying to develop a smooth, gliding motion. “Where is my father?”
Katy peered around the corner again. “He’s over swapping lies with the Dukes. Oh, bother! Lillith is talking to Prince Justine! The cow! She too old for him!”
“You are speaking about my oldest sister, the Princess!” Jennifer tried to sound indignant, but felt growing despair. Lillith was only three years older than the prince’s reported age of twenty, and her buxom figure was the envy of almost every woman in the court. What chance did she have against that? “Oh, this is all wrong. I can’t go out there.”
“Nonsense!” Her friend pushed her towards the main ballroom. “You just have to walk across the floor. No one will know who you are, not even your father! Don’t even look at him! Remember, he has to be the one who approaches you.”
“He probably won’t even notice me.” Jennifer suddenly felt silly, like a child playing dress-up. Venturing a peek, she saw the young man kiss her sister’s hand. A hot flash of jealousy joined with tremendous longing. She had fallen in love with Justine the moment she first saw him more than two months ago. He had joined in a hunt with her father and some of the nobles, looking like a wild, magnificent stag himself among the tired old men.
However, she had adored him from afar, never having the courage to introduce herself on one of his infrequent visits to the castle. The young man might not even know she existed. Or perhaps he saw her as her own family did, as a child not quite ready to assume an adult role in the royal court.
“If he doesn’t notice you, I’ll eat your costume!” Katy reached out and grabbed her hands. “You can do this, Jennifer! You are a Princess of the realm, and just as beautiful as any girl here. If he doesn’t see that, even underneath this costume, then he doesn’t deserve you anyway!”
Jennifer squeezed the girl’s hands, then took a deep breath. Forcing herself to be calm, she stepped out into the ballroom. No one paid her any attention at first. There were far more elaborate costumes here. However, she began to feel admiring eyes as she glided across the floor, carefully avoiding the clusters that might test her ability to maneuver on the dainty hooves.
Fortune smiled on her, for the area in front of Prince Justine was clear. She made a slight adjustment of direction to pass within a few yards of the young man. Although she was careful not to look in his direction, she managed a sideways glance as she passed. The incredible blue eyes that had captured her heart were clearly visible behind his equine mask, but they were focused on Lillith.
She was sick with disappointment, but continued without missing a step. Once she reached the far side, she could slip out of the ballroom and run back to her chambers. And then she heard a faint gasp from behind, followed by the lightest touch on her arm. Turning, her heart pounding, Jennifer found herself looking into Prince Justine’s smiling face.
“Good evening, my lady.” He bowed low, then took her hand and brushed it lightly with his lips. “I do not believe I have had the honor of meeting you. I am Justine of Aramus.”
Jennifer struggled to remember court decorum. “An honor for me, Prince Justine. I am Princess Jennifer, daughter of your host.”
“My BABY sister.” Lillith came up behind Justine, angry eyes betraying a honey-smooth voice. “She is not really supposed to be here – court functions are not the place for CHILDREN.” She brushed by Justine and took Jennifer’s arm in a none-too-gentle grip. “Such a cute costume. Come, father will enjoy seeing you in it. I am sure the Prince will excuse us.”
Justine nodded and bowed again. “Perhaps we can speak later, Princess Jennifer.”
“If it isn’t past her bedtime.” Lillith yanked her arm hard enough that she stumbled slightly. As soon as they were far enough away, her sister hissed, “And what do you think you are up to? I was having a nice conversation with Justine when you came traipsing by in this clever little costume. Do you think he would really want anything to do with a child?”
“I am NOT a child!” Jennifer fought back tears. “I am a princess of the realm, and I have every right to be here!”
“Fine. I am sure father will be interested in knowing you deliberately disobeyed him. You were told not to say anything to the Prince.”
“Father told me I was not to approach him.” Jennifer stopped suddenly and yanked her arm free of Lillith’s hand. “I simply walked past the two of you. What was I supposed to do? Ignore him when he spoke to me?”
“Of course he spoke to you!” Lillith was beginning to boil now. “His interest in unicorns is well known. He would have spoken to a court page wearing this costume! I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought you WERE a boy under all that!”
“You great cow!” Jennifer shouted her handmaiden’s assessment in anger, then realized that the whole room had fallen silent. Horrified, she spun and ran for the exit as chuckles began to ripple across the room. Halfway there, the dainty hooves slipped out from under her and she fell backwards to land on her rump. Her mask flew off, exposing her tear-streaked face and messing her hair in the process.
The chuckles fell silent for a moment, only to explode into outright laughter when it was obvious she wasn’t hurt. Mortified beyond belief, she kicked off the cursed slippers and scrambled up. Even Prince Justine was laughing! She spun suddenly and ran from the ballroom, not stopping until she reached her own chambers.
She was still sobbing across the bed when Katy came in, lugging the lost headpiece. The girl dropped the mask and rushed over to hug her. “It’s all right! Half the old farts will be falling on their own asses by the end of the ball, too drunk to stand! You just got an early start.”
“I made a fool of myself! And in front of Prince Justine!”
“Aye.” Katy patted her arm. “But you need to be a bit more concerned about your father’s reaction. He looked more than a little peeved when you called Lillith a cow.”
“In front of all the guests!” Jennifer slumped. Her attempt to look like a lady had ended with a performance befitting a miserable, bratty child. “He’ll never let me attend another ball again!”
“I doubt if it is that bad. Most of the guests will forget it before the night is out, and anyway, Justine was dancing with Lillith when I left. So there was no harm done.”
Jennifer was not cheered by that last bit of news, but sniffed and sat up. “Do you really think they will forget about me falling like that?”
“Certainly.” Katy grinned. “Though I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of the drunken Dukes don’t Moo at Lillith a few times before the night is out.” The thought was enough to make Jennifer giggle, and once she started, the two girls ended up rolling on the bed in a fit of laughter that brought tears to both their eyes.
The King was somewhat less amused when she was summoned to see him the next morning. It probably didn't help that he was obviously nursing a hangover. After a long lecture on proper decorum and the impropriety of calling any member of the royal family an animal, she was ordered to spend the next week in her chambers. Further, she would not be allowed to attend any court function until she could demonstrate an ability to behave as an adult.
However, the worst punishment of all was being forced to apologize to Lillith in front of the entire court at dinner that night. Her two older sisters smirked as she had to proclaim her own childish failings, and then ask forgiveness for her ‘tantrum.’ After that, spending seven days in her own rooms was actually a blessing, for she did not have to face anyone except for Katy.
They spent the isolation coming up with all sorts of horrible fates for her sisters, and burning most of the unicorn costume in the fireplace. It was ruined anyway. The gold horn had snapped off the headpiece, and one of the fancy slippers had been lost. Katy also discovered a new stable boy who she claimed was hung like one of his charges, and provided graphic details of their sordid romps that left Jennifer blushing fiercely.
Not that she had any basis for comparison. Her knowledge of sexual matters was strictly second-hand, mostly from Katy’s recounting of her own exploits. If her handmaiden was as promiscuous as she seemed, it was a wonder she hadn’t found herself with child.
Despite her fascination with Katy’s love life, Jennifer had a much more conservative view of sex. Part of this was her upbringing – a member of the royal family had to be careful to avoid scandal. In truth, even her beloved handmaiden might be sent away if she ended up pregnant. However, Jennifer wanted more than an animal rut. She longed for romance, for the true, pure love of fairy tales. The kind of feelings she had for Prince Justine.
By the time her exile ended, the incident seemed to have been forgiven, if not forgotten. Her father even hinted that she might be allowed to take part in some minor court activities - following some concentrated schooling on etiquette and royal protocols, of course. Her sisters rather too eagerly volunteered to be her teachers. Lillith would no doubt use them as a form of further revenge, and Marian, the middle sister, enjoyed tormenting her anyway.
Jennifer celebrated her first day of freedom with a long walk in the woods just outside the castle. There was a small, peaceful grotto she had been going to for years. It was a refreshing change from the stagnant atmosphere of the court, and perfectly safe for her to be alone in. Katy would normally have come along, but her stable boy sent word he had some time off. Jennifer shooed her friend off after getting a promise of details that night.
The grotto was beautiful as always, old trees and wildflowers surrounding a clear pond. A fallen tree provided a convenient bench where she could sit with her feet dangling in the cool water. She would often stay here for hours, immersing herself in the sounds of the forest. So it came as a rather sudden shock to have a familiar voice speak directly behind her.
“Good morning, Princess Jennifer.” It was Prince Justine.
Flustered, she scrambled up, getting the bottom of her gown wet as she curtsied awkwardly still standing in the shallow edge of the pond. “Prince Justine! I did not know you were visiting the castle.” She flushed and stepped out of the water, cursing herself for looking even more the fool. “I hope that you will forgive my behavior at the ball.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” The young man’s face lit up in a smile. “Except for your rushing off without giving me even one dance.”
Jennifer blushed again, this time in pleasure. “You are too kind, sir. And if I missed a dance with you, I am truly punished.”
Grinning, Justine offered his arm. “Would milady settle for a walk? If it is not presumptuous of me to intrude on your meditation?”
“I am honored, sir.” She looped her arm through his, thrilled and terrified. “To what do we owe the honor of this visit? Does my father have another hunt planned?”
“Actually, your father is not aware that I am here.” Justine flashed a guilty smile. “I trust you will not have your guards imprison me for trespassing.”
Jennifer shook her head. “You are always welcome, of course. If not a hunt, then what? Surely your own province has forests to walk in.”
“I came to visit with a very dear friend, a lady who lives nearby.”
She felt a quick thrill. Could he mean her? “And would I know this lady friend?”
“No, I think not. And I probably should not be telling you about her, for she is living within your father’s estate without his knowledge.”
Jennifer stopped, disappointed and surprised. “She lives in these woods? How has she managed to avoid being discovered?”
“She is quite resourceful. And she has been here only a short time. I hope you will keep our secret.” Justine took her hand. “I would like you to meet her.”
While she appreciated his trust, Jennifer did not want to meet whatever woman had stolen the man of her dreams. “I will tell no one. However, I should be returning to the castle soon. My handmaiden might become concerned if I tarry too long.”
“It is not far, Princess.” He squeezed her fingers gently. “Please, humor me. I have told Arleana about you, and she would like to make your acquaintance. It would mean a great deal to me. And I am sure your servant is well entertained this beautiful day, and will not seek you out any time soon.”
Thinking of Katy’s planned activities, Jennifer suspected the prince was right. And no matter how disappointed, she could not refuse Justine anything he asked. Forcing a smile, she nodded. “If this Arleana is important to you, I would consider it a privilege to meet her.”
They followed a well-marked path through the woods, Justine anxious and eager as he led the way. She was amazed when they emerged into a small clearing only a few hundred yards away. A small peasant cottage stood on one side, with well-established gardens and flowerbeds to either side. She had walked these woods many times – how could she have missed this?
“Wait here. I will get her.” Justine went to the plain door and knocked timidly. It was odd to have a royal showing such formality to commoner, and Jennifer felt a stab of jealousy. What kind of radiant beauty had captured the Prince’s love so fully? Then the door opened, and her mouth fell open even as her heart filled with happiness.
The woman who emerged and embraced Justine was old and gray, and walked with a stiff-legged gait. They looked like grandmother and grandchild together. The old woman hobbled over to her and bowed awkwardly. “I am honored to meet you, Princess Jennifer. My name is Arleana. Justine tells me you can be trusted not to speak of me to your father. I hope you will not see a poor old woman as a threat to your family’s safety.”
Relieved that she was not facing a competitor, Jennifer smiled. “Of course not. As a member of the royal family, I extend a welcome to you and grant you use of this land. If anyone questions your presence here, please tell them to consult me.” She was not all that certain that she had such powers, but seriously doubted her father would argue too much over one old woman. “Though I am curious how you have managed to remain undiscovered.”
Arleana’s face crinkled in a warm smile. “I am a witch!” When Jennifer stepped back in alarm, she raised a spotted, withered hand. “No, child. Not the black arts. I follow the path of nature, tending the growing things of the earth and the creatures of hoof, wing, and paw. As for my ability to hide, it is but a simple illusion.” She closed her eyes a moment, and the clearing suddenly changed appearance.
Jennifer gasped. A cave had replaced the cottage and the immaculate gardens were a tangle of brush and trees. “I have been here before! Even glanced in the cave. And all the time I was actually looking into your cottage?”
“A convincing image, don’t you think?” Arleana concentrated again, and the cottage reappeared. “It has been safer to remain unnoticed, though with your kind invitation, perhaps I will not need to hide any longer.” She gestured to a fallen log. “Please Princess. I have not spoken with another female in ages, and Justine never pays attention to the court gossip. Would you humor and old woman and chat for a spell?”
It was obvious that the old woman and the Prince shared the same type of easy familiarity that Jennifer and Katy had. It made Justine all the more wonderful in Jennifer’s eyes – far too many royals tended to be aloof and even haughty around peasants, and even her life long friendship with Katy was more tolerated than approved.
“If you will reciprocate with stories of the Prince. I know very little about him.” She glanced at Justine. The young man had wandered near the edge of the clearing, and was staring into the thick woods with obvious longing. She took a step towards him, only to have Arleana touch her sleeve gently.
“Stay, child.” Speaking softly, she looked at him with obvious fondness. “His spirit is wild, more befitting a satyr than a prince. That is how we first met – he was your age, searching the woods for that which cannot be found. Instead, he found me. Our lives have been entwined ever since.” The old woman raised her voice. “Go, Justine! You have no wish to hear two women prattling, and we have no need to watch you pacing when you want to run. Go!” Justine bolted suddenly like a startled deer, vanishing into forest without even looking back.
Staring incredulously, Jennifer finally noticed that Arleana was looking at her expectantly. Of course. The woman was waiting for her to be seated first. She lowered herself on the log, still staring after the young man. “Where is he going?”
“Everywhere and nowhere, Princess.” Arleana chuckled as she eased herself down. “He will come back in an hour or so, sweaty and exhausted from his search. It has been thus since he was a boy.”
“What is he looking for?”
Jennifer blinked. “A unicorn? There are no unicorns in this wood! I am sure I would know of such a thing!” Indeed, the horned equines were so rare as to almost be considered a myth. Like centaurs, satyrs, and minotaurs, unicorns were creatures of a magic that was fading from the world. She had seen a minotaur once when she as very young, part of a travelling circus that had performed for the royal family. It was old, with mottled black hide and one horn broken off. The poor creature had looked almost like a normal bull that had simply reared up on its hind legs, and stank terribly. “Why would he think to find such a creature here?”
“You do not simply find a unicorn, my dear.” Arleana smiled. “However, if the soul is willing and the heart is pure, one can be summoned. I know the spell, but one as old as I no longer has purity required. Justine knows he will not find what he seeks, but he still visits the forest each day. In truth, he takes pleasure in the running itself, for he is a buck at heart.” She snorted. “Enough of that! Tell me of the court, Princess! What are the ladies of fashion wearing? What news is there of other places?”
Jennifer felt awkward at first, but quickly warmed to the old woman and found herself chatting away as if she were alone with Katy. Arleana wanted to know about daily life, her family, even the boring and routine details of the court. She laughed at some of them, and seemed genuinely amazed at others. They were still at it when Justine returned. The young man’s face was flushed and his clothes were damp and stained. A slightly dazed expression faded quickly when he saw Jennifer, and he brushed self-consciously at his soiled shirt. “My apologies, Princess. I should not have gone so long. Allow me to make myself more presentable, and I will escort you back to your grotto.”
She realized that the sun was indeed quite high – it had to be mid-day. The two of them had been talking for hours! As Justine disappeared inside the cottage, Jennifer leaned close to the old woman. “Could you summon a unicorn for him? If you had the help of someone pure?”
Arleana chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully. “It would have to be a virgin, one who has never been with man or woman, who will freely offer her love without reservation.”
Jennifer looked down at the ground, her heart pounding, then reached out and took the old woman’s hands in hers. “If I am worthy, I will help you. I love him with all my heart – I have loved him from the moment I first saw him.”
“You are more than worthy, Princess.” The old woman smiled. “He has similar feelings for you. The purity and innocence that he has sought these many years reside in your heart. It is why he brought you here to me. He sought my approval, and I am pleased to give it.”
Jennifer’s head whirled, and she could barely refrain from an unladylike shout of joy. “How can you do the summoning? What do you want me to do?”
Glancing to make sure the prince was still inside, Arleana gazed into her eyes. “Come tonight, if you would make his dream come true. At midnight, when the moon is full and the world is balanced between light and darkness. Tell no one else, for the spell cannot work in the presence of unbelievers. That is why the creatures of magic are vanishing – too many humans have forgotten their dreams, or been forced to abandon them in the struggle to survive.”
“I’ll be here.” Jennifer stood as Justine emerged, his clothes and hair arranged more properly, if still smudged. “Thank you for allowing me to be part of this.”
“It would not be possible without you.” Arleana leaned forward and gave her a delicate peck on the cheek. “Until tonight, my dear Princess.” Then she turned to the prince. “You are blessed with this one, Justine. Make sure you do not lose her.”
Jennifer blushed, and curtsied as if to the queen. “You honor me too much, dear lady. And please, call me Jennifer. Formality is not for friends.”
The prince walked her back to the grotto in silence. Jennifer didn’t need to talk – just walking arm-in-arm with Justine was enough. Even the thick, musky smell of his sweat was a rich perfume that she savored. When they finally reached the pond, he held her hands for a moment. Heat burned in her loins, her heart, and she suddenly knew that powerful desire that Katy had often described. She would lay with Justine at a word, a gesture, a glance, mindless of the consequences.
However, the young man simply traced her cheek with one finger, then kissed her forehead lightly. "Until we meet again, Jennifer. Soon, I hope.” Then he turned and strode back down the path.
She watched him until he had vanished behind the trees, and then took off running for the castle. It had to be past the mid-day meal, and she might have been missed. Besides, she finally had a romance of her own that she could share with Katy.
As it turned out, missing the mid-day meal wasn’t a problem. Being late for her first lesson in courtly behavior, however, was a major transgression according to Lillith and Marian. Threatening to inform the King of her blatant disregard of his orders, they spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening drilling her mercilessly on the varying degrees of deference and regal posture. The first involved bowing to a precise angle, the head held just so. After hours of stooping over, Jennifer’s neck and back were in agony. So her sisters kindly allowed her to walk around - with a heavy book balanced on top of her head. When she finally achieved success with that, they added another, and another, until she thought she would be squashed under the weight.
They did not tire of their game until dinnertime, where they loudly bemoaned her lack of grace and poise. Such public humiliation would normally have gotten Jennifer stirred up to a screaming fit, but she held her tongue and simply nodded occasionally. Their taunts had little impact after her meeting with Prince Justine. Her restraint was rewarded when their father cut Lillith off sharply in mid-tirade and noted that Jennifer might not be the one needing some training in manners and etiquette.
Katy was waiting for her in her chambers after dinner, looking a little peeved. “Where were you all morning? I checked the grotto, and searched the gardens and the castle! I almost alerted the guards, but then I heard you getting drilled by the Cow.”
Still a bit testy after a long day of harassment from her sisters, Jennifer bristled at her friend’s attitude. “Perhaps I should have gone to the stables to ask my handmaiden for permission to take a walk? Assuming I could pry you and your stable boy apart long enough!”
The girl looked as if she had been slapped in the face. “I did not mean…” She dropped her eyes suddenly. “I was worried about you. I meant no disrespect, Princess.”
Jennifer realized she had overreacted. “Katy, I am sorry. Please forgive a bad temper. You were right to worry, and I am grateful for your concern.” She stepped forward and hugged the girl warmly. “Oh, I have so much to tell you! It has been a wonderful, exciting day!”
Katy hugged her back, and then pushed away with a bemused grin on her face. “Wonderful and exciting? Somehow, those aren’t the words that come to my mind when I think of getting tortured by your sisters.” Then she sighed. “Apparently your day went better than mine.”
“Why? I though you were going to have another romp with your young man. Did he have to work?”
“No, he had the day off. We went to the old stables, the ones that aren’t used anymore.” Katy frowned. “He was, well, different. I mean, I’ve only known him a few days, but he was always very sweet and gentle. Today he got sorta rough, and almost angry. He stank, too. And when we started…” She flushed. “It may sound strange, but he was bigger. A lot bigger.”
“Bigger?” Jennifer was puzzled for a moment, and then gasped. “Oh! You mean – there?”
The girl nodded. “I know I said he was hung like a horse before, but today it was too close to the truth. It scared me. He was enormous, and the skin down there was all black!” A guilty grin spread across her face. “I lay with him anyway. It was incredible! But afterwards, I was exhausted and sore, and he wanted to do it again right away. He kept pawing at me, even when I told him to stop. I ended up having to slap him, and come back here.”
“That’s awful! So you aren’t going to see him any more?”
Katy sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe he’ll apologize. After all, he does have some endearing qualities.”
“Oh, right. Two big black ones, with a third between?” Jennifer grinned.
“Jennifer!” Her friend laughed. “So, what was so wonderful about YOUR day?”
“I had a walk in the woods – with Prince Justine.”
“What!?” Katy’s eyes widened. “What was he doing there? I heard nothing of a visit!”
The whole story spilled out, starting with the surprise meeting, the old woman in the woods, and finally, the luring of a unicorn for Justine. Jennifer’s eyes were shining as she recalled watching the young prince walk back into the woods.
Her friend listened in amazement, and then reached up and felt Jennifer’s forehead when the tale was done. “Are you sure you didn’t suffer some heat stroke out there in the woods? Or fall asleep in the grass? This sounds like a lovely dream. But witches and unicorns, and a prince running through the woods like an animal?” She frowned slightly. “If it is all true, don’t you think it could be dangerous? Perhaps you should tell your father about it.”
“No!” Jennifer grabbed Katy’s hand. “You mustn’t tell anyone! I shouldn’t have told you, even, but you have always shared your life with me. Please, promise me you won’t speak of this.” When the girl did not answer right away, she felt a stir of fear. “Oh, Katy! One word from you and all of will be ruined. If you value our friendship, do not betray my trust.”
“On one condition.” Katy gave her a worried look. “You cannot wander the woods alone. I will come with you. I know the old woman said to tell no one, and if you want, I will wait outside of her clearing. But I have to go.”
Jennifer nodded reluctantly. “All right. But you need to stay hidden. Arleana might refuse to summon the unicorn if she knows you are there.”
“A unicorn.” Katy breathed the word reverently. “Do you really think she can do it?”
Looking out the window, Jennifer saw the rising moon and felt a nervous flutter in her stomach. “We’ll know in a few hours.”
If Katy had not been with her, Jennifer would never have been able to leave the castle. Despite living there all her life, the princess had never before tried to sneak outside of its walls after dark. Most of the external gates were locked at sunset, and those that remained had guards posted. Peacetime or not, her father was not a fool.
However, the guards were charged with keeping unwelcome visitors out, not residents in. With an ease that was evidence of much practice, Katy took them through side passages and joining rooms without encountering a single person. They ended up in a large, mostly empty storage area that stank of mildew and rotting vegetables.
“This is where they stockpile provisions in times of war.” Katy put their single candle on a dusty table, and went to a large, heavy door on the far wall. “Come on! This opens into the exercise yard. If we stay close to the wall, we can slip through the stables and out to the pasture.”
The massive sliding beam that secured the door slid surprising easily and silently – thanks to generous applications of lard by her handmaiden on earlier visits. Jennifer suspected that the candle had been more for her benefit than any need on Katy’s part. The girl probably knew of ways in and out of the castle that the King himself - though it was probably no coincidence that this particular path led through the stables.
If her friend was hoping to see the boy, she was disappointed. Their passing was noted only by a couple of horses that watched in mild curiosity as the girls crept past their stalls. Once out in the pasture, they ran for the woods, stopping to gasp for breath only when they were well inside the trees.
“I can’t believe I am doing this!” Jennifer felt giddy. “I’ve never been outside at night before, never in my whole life!”
“And you may never get outside the castle again if your father finds out.” Katy grumbled. “Come on, then. It’s close to midnight now. You don’t want to be late.”
Jennifer headed for the grotto, her handmaiden close behind. Now that they were close, she began to worry. How would Arleana react to Katy? Was her friend an unbeliever? What if the girl’s presence prevented the summoning? In fairness, Jennifer would not be here now without her help.
As they approached the pond, she was suddenly afraid to go on. Summoning a unicorn was so important to Justine. Her mind flashed back to this afternoon, and the image of him as he emerged from the forest. Clothes rumpled and stained, his hair tangled with twigs - somehow he had been more handsome, more sensual than when he was dressed in his finery at the ball. There was a look in his bottomless brown eyes - she frowned. Brown eyes?
Before she could puzzle that out a dark shape suddenly appeared on the path in front of her. She screamed and fell back, nearly knocking her friend over. The figure stepped closer, moving into a patch of moonlight. It was a young man, perhaps their age, with a tangle of black hair and coarse features. He stared past her with enormous dark eyes that seemed to have no whites. “Katy?” The voice was a boy’s, though it had a raspy quality. “Katy, is that you?”
“Liam?” Her friend moved to stand between them, her voice tense. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you! Please, Katy! I’m sorry. Can’t we go somewhere and talk?” The boy took a step closer, and Jennifer became aware of a strong stink of horse and manure. Of course! The stable boy! In this light he looked distinctly unusual, even ugly. Not that her friend had mentioned appearance as an attraction.
“You idiot!” Katy’s voice was seething. “You nearly sent us into fits! How dare you sneak up on a member of the royal family like that! This is Princess Jennifer!” Then she looked puzzled. “What’s happened to you? Are you ill?”
Liam bowed awkwardly, then stepped back into the shadows. “I am sorry, highness. It is really important for me to talk to Katy. Could you spare her for a few minutes?”
“Not now!” Her handmaiden suddenly adopted a formal attitude that was almost funny. “And what makes you think I want to talk to you anyway? Go back to your beasts in the stable. We have business here tonight.”
The lover’s spat reminded Jennifer of something else the old woman had mentioned. “Katy, why don’t you stay here and talk with him? It isn’t far, and it might be better if you do not accompany me.”
“What?!” Her friend sounded slightly hurt. “You don’t want me to come?”
“Well, it’s not exactly that.” She struggled for the words. “Arleana said that unicorns require purity and innocence.”
There was a short silence. Then Katy spoke in a whisper. “And you can’t have a common slut like me around, is that it?”
“No! I mean, not exactly.” Jennifer was getting frustrated and upset, not wanting to hurt her friend, yet anxious to leave her behind. “Katy, please! You said you would wait outside of her clearing. It’s just a short distance down this path. Stay here and talk to Liam. I’ll be fine, really!”
The girl did not answer, but dropped her gaze to the ground and made no move to follow when Jennifer took a few steps. Once again, it was clear that she was hurt. However, Jennifer had no time to make things right. The moon was full and bright, and she sensed that midnight was not far away. There would be time to make things up to Katy later.
Arleana was waiting for her, and beamed as soon as she spotted Jennifer hurrying up the path. “I knew you would not disappoint me, dear. Come, I have everything prepared.” She limped to the edge of the clearing. As Jennifer followed, she noticed a ring of wild flowers and leaves surrounding the area. At the old woman’s bidding, she started to step across, then recoiled from a sensation of touching into a cool pond.
“Do not fear, child.” Arleana patted her arm, a warm smile on her face. “You sense the force of nature.”
“It is like stepping into water!” Jennifer hesitated. This was the first real magic she had ever experienced, and she suddenly remembered that there were dark stories of enchantment as well as the pleasant fairy tales.
The old woman chuckled. “And are you afraid of water? You should be happy, for only those who are pure of soul and heart may pass.” She lifted a gnarled hand and seemed to hit a solid barrier. “See?”
Steeling herself, Jennifer cautiously stepped over the ring again, this time continuing across. The air was cooler inside as well, and carried delicate scents of lilac and cedar. She grinned, feeling a sudden surge of energy that made her want to shout and leap in the air. The aches and pains from her lessons had been washed away, and she felt more refreshed and alive than she had ever been before. Spinning happily, she looked back at Arleana. “What should I do now?”
“Remove your clothing.” When the old woman saw her troubled frown, she chuckled. “There is no shame in nakedness, child! And it is only you and I here. Have you not been unclothed before in the presence of other women?”
Although she was self-conscious about her undeveloped body and reluctant to bare herself to a relative stranger, Jennifer realized she had to make a decision. Either she was willing to do anything to grant Justine’s fondest desire, or she wasn’t. Closing her eyes, she envisioned his face, wild and beautiful. The passion she had felt earlier roared into life again, and it was suddenly easy to strip. She pulled everything off in a happy daze, letting each item fall to the ground.
As her last undergarment slipped from her fingers, Arleana’s voice drifted softly in the air. “Focus on your love for Justine. The summoning will only work if you freely offer your soul to that love, without reservation or regret.”
Jennifer nodded dreamily without opening her eyes. There was no need for her to concentrate – her soul was filled with love for the young man, her heart and mind completely open.
“Now envision the unicorn.” The old woman’s voice was a whisper in her ears, touching her thoughts like wisps of smoke. “Summon it with your love.”
Another image formed in her head, bright light that took on a vaguely equine shape. She tried to recall the unicorns embroidered on countless tapestries, and depicted in paintings throughout the castle. However, the shape in her head remained blurred. Then the music started.
Soft notes, felt more than heard, caressed her mind. She swayed as the sounds began to form a simple melody, growing in volume and intensity. Pipes of some sort, played with such skill as to shame the castle bard. Instead of distracting her, the soothing music seemed to aid her concentration, sharpening the indistinct glow into something that was similar to the artwork, yet so much more.
Delicate and graceful, the creature pranced lightly on golden hooves. While it bore a superficial resemblance to horses, it was no more related to that common animal than humans were to the fairy folk. Its mane floated almost weightless around a finely-sculptured head, with eyes like magnificent blue sapphires that reached out to swallow her. It was love and music and light, and she felt a sense of childish wonder as it began to move with the music.
No court lady, no visiting performer had ever danced with such elegance. Spinning and leaping, the enchanted creature performed an intricate pattern of movements that she found herself trying to duplicate. Aided by the flow of notes, she began to move with it, awkwardly at first, but finding the steps coming more naturally as the tempo increased.
The vision moved closer, brushing her lightly with silky fur, smelling of honeysuckle and sweet grass. They moved together in her mind, skin against hide. The heat of passion was joined by a throbbing warmth in her feet that flowed up her legs as they spun and leapt in the air. Her blood was pounding, eyes filled with the image of the imaginary beast.
Faster now, she and the unicorn were as one. She could feel its muscles, sense the heartbeat that matched its rhythm to her own. The creature surrounded her, immersing her in energy and warmth that flowed through her entire body. They were whirling madly to the rush of notes, two shapes for a single being. The unicorn in her mind reared up, enveloping her human image completely, and she felt herself flow outward like water filling an empty vessel.
A scream cut through the music, startling her from the dream. Caught off balance, she twisted and fell heavily to the ground, her mind a mass of confusion. She was panting from exertion, and soaked with her own sweat.
“Jennifer! Get up! Run away!” It was Katy.
Unable to coordinate arms and legs, Jennifer looked blearily around the clearing and saw her friend throw herself against the magic barrier. The girl looked and sounded terrified, clawing frantically at the invisible barrier that separated them. But where was the unicorn? Sick fear twisted her gut – had they failed? She looked for Arleana, hoping that the spell was simply incomplete, that she could still bring Justine the creature of light and magic that he so desperately sought.
But Arleana was not there. A strange and beautiful being had taken her place, vibrant young woman above the waist, and animal below - a faun. Her human half put even Lillith to shame, with full, firm breasts and slender frame. Shimmering golden hair framed a face that was sensual and timeless – she could be 18 or 38. She balanced on cloven hooves and thin legs that were part goat, part deer, yet neither. And behind her, the picturesque cottage and gardens had become the dark forest cave.
“Fool!” The faun shouted in Arleana’s voice, and stalked towards Katy with an odd, hopping gait that reminded her of the old woman’s hobble. “I told you to keep her away!” It was immediately obvious that she was talking to the dark shape that suddenly grabbed her friend from behind - Liam. His tunic was torn almost off, and his face bore scratches visible even from a distance.
“I tried, mistress!” The boy’s voice was strained and fearful. “She did not want me. All she could think of was her friend. I tried to keep her with me, but she fought too hard to get away.” He looked down at the struggling girl. “I could not hurt her, mistress.”
“Indeed?” Arleana’s voice was cold. Jennifer realized it was the old woman now, though her thoughts were too confused to make sense of that. The faun sneered at him. “You wished for the spirit and sexuality of a mighty war horse, yet you could not find the strength to restrain a common servant girl? Let her go, then. I have no further need of your bumbling assistance.”
Liam released Katy and stepped back. Her friend ran to the barrier to stare at her, then turned on the faun. “What have you done to her? Change her back! The King will hunt you to the ends of the earth. Prince Justine will have you beheaded for this treachery!”
Surprisingly, Arleana laughed. “Such dreadful consequences! Then I must make sure I am not found out. Fortunately, there are only a few loose ends to tie up here.” She put the pipes to her lips and smiled darkly at the boy. “A gentle war horse? I think not. You are more suited to pulling plows than battle.”
Liam’s eyes widened and he turned to run, only to freeze as the first note of a new tune sounded. He seemed to waver, leaning forward but seemingly unable to make his legs obey. As the music floated around him, he slowly faced back towards Arleana. The boy’s cheeks glistened with tears, his face a mask of hopelessness. “Please…” He held out his hands beseechingly.
The faun responded with more of the melody, this one oddly coarse and plodding after the whirl of sounds for the unicorn. A peasant song, crude and simple, yet it hung in the air with an almost physical presence. Liam took a step towards her, then swayed. Another step, this one heavier than the first. He moved sideways, then back, each footfall more forceful than the last. A shadow passed over his face, his chest. And he began to get larger.
Liam turned clumsily, his movements a parody of dance that reminded Jennifer of a performing bear. The remains of his tunic split apart and fell to the ground, revealing a dark pelt that shone in the moonlight. His still-outstretched hands were swelling, becoming thick lumps that gained mass with each step. The ground shook as he moved now, his body more than tripled in size and still growing. Its shape altered, no longer human. His face pushed out, nostrils enlarging as they turned soft and thick, and his skull settled back into a lengthening neck.
Shaggy fur spread over dark hide, arms thickened into massive, rounded forelegs, and the heavy maleness that had thrilled Katy grew even larger as it found a new home between flat, deep thighs. The performing bear was a dancing horse now, a massive animal that struggled desperately to remain standing on two legs.
The music slowed. Plodding notes, lumbering melody. The pipes seemed to weigh Liam down further, for he flailed the air for a moment and then fell to all fours. Jennifer could see one white-rimmed eye fixed on Arleana. Each sound was like a physical blow that left the quivering animal a bit shaggier, more coarse of feature. Liam blinked, the white of his eyes disappearing as his fear seemed to drain away. Dropping his head, the plow horse snuffled at the ground as the final notes played, and began to pull at the thick grass with bristled lips.
Jennifer stared at the beast, dimly remembering a dance of her own. What had Arleana done to her? Her arms and legs felt stiff, and bent in ways that felt wrong. She tried to lift her head to look at herself, but found that she was still too exhausted from the dance. Then a new fear battered at the thickness around her mind. Katy! Her friend was still pressed against the barrier, her back to Jennifer. She appeared to be staring at the rough beast that had been Liam.
“And now for you.” The faun had moved towards the girl, the dark smile fading into smoldering anger. “You almost ruined everything with your interference. And after I went to so much trouble to please you with Liam.”
“Please me?” Katy spat the words. “I had no wish to see him become an animal! That was your doing, you vile witch!”
Arleana shook head, suddenly smiling again. “Did you never wonder how he always had time for you? How a boy his age might be so endowed? Or even at his endless curiosity about your life in the palace?”
Katy spun suddenly and stared at Jennifer. “No! He cared for me! He wasn’t a traitor!” The desperation in her voice betrayed her own doubts. “I told him nothing of importance!”
Another laugh. “Nothing of importance? My dear girl, you were instrumental in my luring the princess here! Bragging of your friendship, trying to impress a common stable boy with your lofty station? How else could I know about Jennifer’s special spot here in the woods? Or when she was likely to be here?”
From her friend’s expression, Jennifer knew the accusations were true. Katy looked at her miserably, both hands pressed against the barrier. Then her eyes hardened and she spun and launched herself at Arleana.
The move obviously caught the faun off-guard, and she barely escaped the girl’s lunge. However, she leaped nimbly aside as Katy sprawled on the ground and easily avoided her attempts to grab at the creature’s slender, bestial legs. Before her friend could scramble up for another try, she was caught by a few quick notes.
Arleana smirked from a safe distance. “Such fire! And loyalty to your friend, as well. You might have made a fine war horse yourself, except for that troublesome stubbornness.” She put the pipes to her lips and began to play. The tune was similar to Liam’s, but lacked the plodding beat.
Jennifer’s attempt to cry out emerged as a high, odd bleating sound. Katy was rising to hands and knees, already under the music’s influence, but she somehow managed to look back and even force a smile. Then she shivered and closed her eyes as the transformation began.
The change was faster than Liam’s had been, perhaps because she was already on all fours. Swaying at first, she rose at a sharp angle as her legs stretched out. Hands and feet seemed to change first, darkening into pale hooves far smaller than those of the plow horse. Her arms lengthened as they thickened, leveling her back off, and brownish fur rose up to cover her thickening hide.
Katy began stepping awkwardly to the simple rhythm, stiff movements turning to a more prancing motion as her legs assumed more equine structure. Clothing stretched, then split apart with a loud tearing sound. The ample breasts that Jennifer had long envied were already smaller, and shifted rearward as dark hair swept across her sides.
Sick with grief, Jennifer watched the ripple of change flow up her friend’s neck, pushing her head out and sending her face thrusting out into a coarse muzzle. Her ears shifted higher, and stretched skyward as the girl’s hair drew in to form a coarse mane. The melody was drawing to a close now, slowing suddenly to the plodding tempo only for the final phrase. As the last note faded away, the new jenny shook herself and then bucked suddenly with a loud bray.
“Do you wish the whole of your mind stripped away?” The animal stopped its tantrum as Arleana brought the pipes halfway to her lips. “I have left you your identity, even what little intelligence you had as a human. A few more notes and you can join Liam as a true beast.”
The shaggy brown donkey turned to look back at Jennifer and gave a sad-sounding wheeze. Her friend was still there, in mind if not in body. Jennifer felt a surge of irrational joy – being trapped in a beast’s body might be worse for Katy than losing herself to it. However, as long as she retained her identity, there was hope the girl might be restored.
“A wise choice.” Arleana gestured towards Liam. “Wait over there. Interfere, make a single sound to distract me, and your thoughts will be wiped away.”
Jennifer wanted to comfort her friend, to apologize, to say anything. However, her voice was gone. Attempts to speak created a variety of noises, ranging from a musical trill to a very goat-like bleating. Unable to make her body respond, she stared at the faun with as much hatred as she could muster.
“And now it is just the two of us again.” Arleana moved back to the edge of the ring and gave a disgusted sigh. “Another minute and you would have been complete.” She scowled at the grazing plow horse. “I should geld him with a dull knife.”
Struggling again, Jennifer squealed in anger and frustration. Arms and legs flailed uselessly, as if her mind no longer knew how to control them. However, this time one arm ended up thrown forward, and she was able to glimpse her hand. Or what had been her hand. Four fingers had merged into two pale, swollen lumps, and her thumb had shifted back and shrunk to a nub. It reminded her of her costume slippers. The cloven hoof of a unicorn.
She froze suddenly as the lilting melody of the unicorn dance filled the air once again. The notes seemed to nourish her exhausted body, giving her strength to lift her head and see what magic Arleana had wrought. Jennifer whimpered at the site of her twisted, deformed body.
Caught well past the halfway point between human and animal, her body was a gross distortion of the unicorn she had danced with in her vision. Most of her skin was covered by silky white fur, with bare patches that gave her a mangy appearance. Her legs were fully transformed, with glistening golden hooves and a fluff of feathering over each. However, the equine limbs were attached to a mostly human hind end that had the beginnings of a tail sprouting.
Her arms had shifted lower on a chest that was already barreled out and devoid of even a trace of her modest breasts. They must have already migrated down between her legs. Her hind legs. For the delicate, rounded limbs she was now pushing herself up on would never again function as human arms.
The flexibility of her neck was evidence that the rest of her had not been spared, though it did not seem that her face had pushed out yet into a muzzle. Aided by the music, she rose shakily to all fours, feeling energy increase as the tune picked up tempo again. The bare patches of skin were already filling in with fur, and she found herself swaying to the lilting notes. Jennifer looked at the two pack animals now standing together on the far side of the clearing. Katy was still watching her with drooped ears and her head hanging low.
Remembering the brave, if futile show of resistance that her friend had demonstrated, Jennifer locked her legs suddenly and tried to block out the sound of the pipes. Arleana increased the intensity of the music. Strength rushed into Jennifer’s muscles, and the need to leap, to run was almost too much to resist. Yet she remained braced, refusing the lure of the dance.
“Ungrateful child!” The faun stopped playing suddenly and stepped to the edge of the ring, her eyes blazing in anger. “I am trying to give you a gift beyond measure, and you fight me? Look at yourself! You are a freak, a thing to be pitied. Let the music finish shaping you!”
Jennifer squealed again in anger, but took sudden heart in the realization that she actually could resist. She pawed angrily at the ground with one fore hoof, dimly aware that it was a very equine thing to do.
“Jennifer.” Arleana visibly calmed herself, and adopted the warm, gentle smile she had used so successfully s the old woman. “Why do you fight me? Do you fear becoming a rough beast of burden like your friend? Or losing your mind? Can you not see the wonder of your fate? You were destined to become a unicorn. A creature of light and magic, beautiful and pure.”
Why was the faun trying to win her cooperation? Katy and Liam had both fought back, yet they were now common animals. Jennifer’s mind was clearing a bit. What was stopping Arleana from simply forcing the change on her?
“Time grows short, Jennifer.” The faun’s voice had an edge of anger again, but she maintained the smile. “Have you already forgotten your vow of love for Justine? Is your feeling for him so shallow that you would remain a freak out of spite, rather than grant his life’s desire?”
Justine! This vile creature had tricked him, taking advantage of his gentle nature by weaving her illusions. If only he was here now, to see what Arleana truly was.
“Allow yourself to feel the magic, child.” The faun placed a hand against the barrier. “Can you not sense it within you? You seem to fear my power, yet I am trying to give you access to a pure fae energy that knows no bounds. There is no limit to what can be accomplished with a unicorn. Famines ended, plagues cured. The good that could be worked through you might benefit thousands.”
It was true. Jennifer could feel something in the air, the ground beneath her hooves. It was much like the cool sensation of the barrier, a rippling of sensation that surrounded her, but did not quite touch. Everything the faun had said was the truth, she realized. It had been Jennifer’s own perceptions that had been manipulated. The illusion had been the cottage, not the cave.
Arleana began to play again, the melody softer and more soothing. The tune was vaguely familiar, evoking memories of chasing fireflies on a clear summer night, and the warm embrace of her mother’s arms. Jennifer could feel the music drawing off her fear, her body slimming and shrinking slightly under its caress. Becoming younger, more innocent, more trusting.
No! She fought of the transformation with a fierce burst of will, determined not to let the faun win. Surprisingly, it was easier to resist this time. Some part of her seemed to touch the essence of magic, allowing her to draw a small measure of strength from it on her own.
“Curse you!” Any pretense of warmth was gone now as Arleana snatched the pipes from her lips. “I will not have my plans thwarted by a willful child!” She glared at Jennifer a moment, and then narrowed her eyes with a cold smile. “How much do you value your friendship with the girl? Will you stand there while I strip away her memories, her dreams torn from her mind one by one, until only a donkey is left? Or something more final, perhaps? I can reduce her to a mound of clover for her former lover to devour.”
Jennifer shivered, having no doubt that the faun would do precisely what she said. Yet there was no way she could cooperate. While there was truth that a unicorn’s power could accomplish great good, it was clear that Arleana would make no such use of a unicorn. There was no way to know what plans the vile creature had, but Jennifer knew that she wanted no part of them. Regardless of the price.
The music played again, suddenly sounding shrill and empty to Jennifer’s ears. She was blocking the effect completely now, and realized that the faun could do nothing to her now.
Arleana seemed to sense it too, for she glared at Jennifer, and then turned to face the two animals. Before she could raise the pipes to her lips, however, a familiar form burst from the trees behind Liam. Justine! He pushed past the huge horse and looked at Katy and the faun with obvious confusion. Then his eyes locked on Jennifer, and his face lit up. Obviously realizing what was going on, he grabbed the faun roughly and pressed his lips against hers in a wildly passionate kiss.
A sword through the heart would have been kinder. Jennifer nearly fainted from the shock. As cruel as the faun had been, Justine’s apparent betrayal tore at her soul. How could such a dark and sinister monster have seemed so perfect, so pure?
Pulling free from the young man’s embrace, Arleana pushed him gently towards the circle. “Go to her, my love. Claim her as your own.” The faun’s eyes were bright and she followed Justine with her pipes half-raised. He reached the border of flowers and leaves and stepped across without hesitation.
Dumbfounded, Jennifer stared as the prince approached her. His face was full of wonder, his eyes dark pools that reflected her distorted features. Animal eyes, she realized. What was it Arleana had said? ‘He is a buck at heart.’ More of the faun’s truth. Looking closer, Jennifer saw the delicate points of his ears, the shadow of dark fur that covered his arms. And almost hidden by the wild tangle of his hair, short protrusions on either side of his forehead.
Arleana began to play again, a tune similar to the unicorn dance, but this one more sensual. Bracing herself, Jennifer felt nothing. The music was for Justine. The young man removed his clothing as he slowly approached her, oblivious to the darkening of his hands, the growing weight of budding antlers. By the time he reached her, he was no longer human.
His legs were furred and ended in cloven hooves, and his sex was the sheathed bulge of a deer. A male faun, a forest spirit like Arleana. He reached out and caressed her trembling neck with his hands, the music drawing fur from his chest and arms, pulling his face into a snout. More stag than human, his touch still sent a quiver of pleasure through her body, and his scent clouded her thoughts.
Phrases of the unicorn dance mixed with Justine’s music, brushing at her mind gently. She tried to resist, but Justine pressed up against her as he fell to all fours, and the contact was too much to fight.
The two melodies picked up pace and intensity, and she felt her body flowing again. She pranced with a buck now, no trace of the young man remaining. They leapt together in movements that were erotic, yet never sexual. Jennifer felt connected at a deeper level than she thought possible, almost as if they were one being. There was no room for lies here, no place for falsehood to hide.
Justine was no more human than Liam, she realized. The faun had given him the mind and soul of a stag, then created the façade of a man over it. Yet Jennifer also knew that Justine truly loved her, completely and without reservation. And regardless of the consequences, man or stag, she discovered that she still loved him with an equal intensity.
At that moment, the fae energies shimmering around Jennifer cascaded over and through her body. She gasped as the world was suddenly filled with light, the sound a bright trill of pleasure. Vision was sharp and clear, yet there was a strange double-vision when she looked at the people around her. Justine still danced beside her as a stag, but an image of the young faun was superimposed over his animal body. Katy’s ghost was almost fully human, though her ears seemed overlarge, and even Liam had a humanoid, if horse-like shadow. All of them were surrounded by a soft blue-white aura, as if they were reflecting the moonlight. Their souls.
Then she looked at Arleana. The faun’s other image was a darker twin with a deep purple-brown glow that gave her a sickly, diseased appearance. The pipes had a pale yellowish light of their own that flowed through the air to surround her and Justine.
Jennifer could feel that light pulling at her mind, trying to steal away her will. With a single thought, she cast them away. Arleana shuddered as the connection was broken, and her music faltered. She altered the tune, changing the color of the notes to a pale blue. Again, Jennifer was able to throw off the tendrils easily. She did not need to see herself - she was the unicorn of her vision, silky mane floating about her head, sapphire eyes, a delicate gold spiral emerging from her forehead. She felt weightless, dancing over the earth on her golden hooves. She was beyond Arleana’s reach now, immune to the magic. No, she -was- the magic.
Breaking away from the dance, Jennifer pranced lightly to the edge of the circle. The faun stopped playing, looking confused. She was just beginning to realize that she had lost. Her treachery had backfired, creating a being too powerful to be controlled by her tricks.
Jennifer trilled in triumph, tossing her head and stamping the ground in a show of strength. The faun could not even cross over her own barrier. Although Jennifer had no such limitation, she needed to find a way to use the fae energies that coursed through her. So much magic - the essence contained in one of her silky hairs would transmute Arleana into a pool of slime, or freeze her forever as a statue of granite. She strained to find the key, the method of release. And heard the faun start to laugh.
“Do you think I would give you such power if you could make use of it yourself?” The faun sneered from the other side of the ring. “A unicorn is a storage device, a focal point for magical energy. You are like a bucket of water, holding liquid for those who have use for it. Yes, you have some small ability to protect yourself. And your horn has its own healing properties. However, you can no more cast a spell than a bucket can drink the water it holds.”
Her eyes narrowed, and she raised the pipes to her lips once more. “And you cannot protect others.” Music sounded again, the plodding peasant dance that had reshaped Liam. These fingers of light were dark green, and though Jennifer was still able to refuse their touch, they had a more solid feel to them. This was a brutal magic, pounding instead of sculpting.
Why did the faun bother? She already knew it was a wasted effort. Then Jennifer realized the heavy magic was not just directed at her. She followed on strand to Liam, his essence already larger and coarser. Another was pulling at Katy’s ghost, drawing the girl’s face into a snout. And the third? Spinning, she saw the prancing stag faltering as the translucent faun’s skull deflated into a more deer-like shape. Jennifer squealed in frustration.
Arleana stopped playing and regarded her with cold humor. “Only I have the knowledge and ability to restore them. As long as some trace of humanity remains, they can be as they were. However, once the essence of their being is fully animal, they will cease to exist as sentient beings.” She raised the pipes again. “To make sure you understand.”
She renewed the plodding melody, but the single streamer was attached to Liam. Although Jennifer had already seen the boy transformed into a horse, there was a darker horror in watching his soul destroyed. The humanoid horse fell to all fours, filling out to match his physical self. As the two images merged, the pale glow surrounding him flickered, and then faded away.
The music changed abruptly, a sparkle of pink and lavender that reached out for Katy and Justine. In moments, they were as they had been before. The lesson was clear. Cooperate, and those she loved would be safe. Fight, and see those loved ones fade away.
She started as a hand stroked her neck. Justine had moved next to her, fully human again in form, even if his soul remained a faun’s. She leaned into that touch, desperately needing to feel the purity of his love. He picked up a vine of honeysuckle from the ground and fashioned it into a loose necklace around her throat. No, not a necklace. He stepped forward, holding one end of the fragile stem. A lead rope.
A child could have broken free in a moment, yet Jennifer found her self compelled to follow the young man out of the circle. As she stepped through, the shimmering flickered and vanished. Though she knew what to expect, she still felt sick dread as Justine lead her to the faun like a little boy showing off a prize pony. He offered her the vine, but the Jennifer’s great relief, Arleana did not take it.
“No, Justine. She is yours. My gift to you, my sweet love.” The faun smiled triumphantly at Jennifer as she gathered the young man into an embrace. “Now, it is time to return to the castle.” Arleana’s form shimmered and changed suddenly, and she stepped back from Justine with a girlish giggle. “You can escort me back - I am sure my father will appreciate having his youngest daughter rescued from the woods.”
Jennifer stared in dismay. The faun had stolen her identity. The clothing, her hair, even the nuances of her voice. It was an illusion, of course – she could see that the human shape was a third layer painted over Arleana’s true form and soul. However, it would fool any human. Returning like this would both help establish her identity, and secure the King’s favor for Justine. And Katy’s disappearance would be linked to that of the missing stable boy. It was not uncommon for young servants to leave without notice.
The faun’s plan was ingenious. With Justine under her control and Jennifer’s position in court, she would have major influence in two of the largest provinces. Combined with the power she might wield using a unicorn’s fae, there seemed little that anyone could do to stop her.
Except that she and Katy still had their minds. And it appeared that they would be kept close, for the counterfeit Jennifer was climbing on Katy’s back. She could see her friend’s human soul bristling at being used as a mount, cooperating with obvious reluctance. In contrast, the feeling of Justine on Jennifer’s back brought a sense of well-being and contentment, as if she were not quite complete without him. The price of love, no doubt, but one she was willing to pay. That love would have to sustain her until the happy day when she could dance once more – this time on Arleana’s grave.