With a grim look Princess-Warlady Ceilidh McCallum surveyed the battlefield before her. Bodies lay splayed about, arms and legs all over the place, the dirt churned and hell horses lay on their sides. Things had been going well for the Sparkle Ponies until Trouble showed up. The kitten had devastated both sides, smacking the wooden soldiers until they broke and pouncing on her plastic ponies. He’d teleported under the bush with one of the soldiers and gnawed on it enthusiastically.
“The solider screamed in pain as the giant cat tore through his innards until he could scream no more, not because of lack of breath but because his lungs had been eaten!” she narrated. After all, if the kitten was going to make himself part of the fight, she might as well go with it. “All across the battlefield people wept in anguish as the terror cat’s work clawed through them! There was nothing they could do except lie there and wait for the crows to eat them! Queen Blood Crow raised up on her hind legs and declared that they would all be avenged!”
She nodded to herself, satisfied at the ending of her battle. Her uncle Grady would have to carve her some new soldiers, but he was used to that now. Tucking a strand of brilliantly red hair behind an ear she looked around for the spade she saw earlier. She would have to bury the soldiers because she wasn’t allowed to make funeral pyres any more. Not since she almost set fire to the barn.
Which wasn’t any fun at all.
After a moment’s search she spotted the tool by the raspberry bushes. Cousin Nat had been working in them earlier. He’d been cultivating a special kind of raspberry, he told her when she asked, but then he’d gone off into boring stuff about cooking so she tuned him out. However, something much more interesting than the spade stood in the bushes.
A baby unicorn, its coat a soft caramel brown, nibbled on the just ripened berries. She let out a soft gasp of delight, putting her hands over her mouth. A unicorn was so much better than the pony she’d been nagging her mother to get. They came with weapons on their heads! Maybe, if she caught it, her mother would let her keep it instead of getting her a pony. The unicorn stared at her as she slowly approached and then flicked its tail, bounding off towards the woods that surrounded Thorn Hall.
She thought it had run off, but it stood just at the edges, as if waiting for her.
Biting her lip, she tried to figure out what to do. She wanted to go after it, of course, but she couldn’t go alone unless she told someone.
A human, adult, family member. Because crows didn’t count nor did horses or kittens or the postman.
Behind her she heard a thumping noise. Uncle Rory had been in the yard talking to the guy from down the road. They’d been looking at Uncle Rory’s motorcycle. He was an adult family member! She could tell him.
Running over to the barn, because for some reason he and the guy had gone into the barn and taken off their shirts, she yelled out, “Uncle Rory, I’m going to go capture a unicorn, okay?”
Without waiting for an answer she dashed back to the raspberry bushes and the unicorn, which still nibbled on the berries.
Again she paused and remembered something else. She shouldn’t go off into the woods without a weapon. Fortunately she knew where something she could use as a weapon was!
Reaching under the bushes by her battlefield she pulled out Trouble and tucked him into her coat. The kitten made a surprised meeping noise but then cuddled up inside without protesting. After all, despite what Cousin Trever said, a kitten had to be a weapon. If they weren’t weapons, they wouldn’t be pointy on five sides.
Now, properly armed, she headed into the woods to catch her unicorn!
Keeping track of eight residing McCallums, plus one husband and five children of McCallums and her parents was a job that made Talia’s stint in the military a relaxing vacation. Still, she handled it with the same way that she did the recruits: with violence, yelling and appropriate death glowers. Right now her problem involved locating her youngest brother, Rory and her niece, Ceilidh, and calling them in for dinner. Both of them had been quiet for the past hour which automatically made Talia suspicious of something going wrong.
Out in the yard she spotted Ceilidh’s battlefield, currently even more wrecked by Trouble having eaten a few soldiers and ponies. The fat grey kitten lay on his back with a pony’s leg sticking out of his mouth, sleeping in the sunlight. The sun would start to set in about an hour or so, but for now there was still enough light on the lawn for sunning himself.
Rory’s motorcycle stood by the barn with tools scattered around it. Tsking to herself, Talia walked over and picked up a wrench. Her brother should know better than to leave his tools lying around. Mayhem might eat them or one of the littles might decide they were good weapons.
A short, very short and obvious search led her to the barn where she did find Rory and the boy down the road, Jacob, she thought his name was. Or Jake. Maybe Bryce? She didn’t know. What she did know was the two of them were quite busy with each other.
They stopped quickly after she banged the wrench on the side of the stall they were entwined in. Rory jerked up, his mess of red hair falling into his face and his green eyes going wide. “Talia! What are you doing here?”
Alan? Squeaked in terror from under Rory, as he saw the wrench and Talia’s expression. He made a dive for his pants.
“Looking for you. It’s supper time,” she said, idly swinging the wrench around in a maybe threatening manner. It slapped solidly against her palm. “Where’s Ceilidh?”
“She’s not outside playing?” Rory asked, pulling on his own pants and deliberately not looking at her.
“No. She’s not. And no one else in the Hall knows where she is. Which means she must have run off somewhere. Which means she must have asked you for permission to run off somewhere.”
The wrench thunked against the wall of the stall meaningfully at the end of each statement.
“Now, think, hard. And with your head. Where is she?”
She could see her brother’s thoughts racing as he dressed. Cory? Had finished dressing and made some mumbled excuses before fleeing the barn.
“I… I think she may have said something about a unicorn?” he said after a long moment.
“Yes… a unicorn, and hunting one.”
Talia allowed a very uncomfortable silence to drop as she continued to swing the wrench around. When she saw that he was starting to squirm, she said, “You let Ceilidh go hunting after a unicorn, in the woods, likely, near sunset, by herself?
“You have two choices, Rory. One: you can get Grace and go find Ceilidh and the unicorn, likely facing certain amounts of pain to various… important parts of your anatomy. Or two: you can tell Siobhan that you let her little girl go unicorn-hunting near the Watchers.”
She didn’t envy the choice, honestly. One way would end up with him getting humiliated, beaten and bruised and the other just dealt with a unicorn. Siobhan’s tongue and temper were noteworthy even for a McCallum. Had she been born several hundred years ago, her scathing tongue would have easily made her a skald to be reckoned with.
“I’ll… go get Grace,” he said finally.
“You go do that, then. She’s in the weapons room, last I checked.”
The wrench made a final thunk in her hand as Rory scooted around her to get his twin sister.
Surprisingly, Ceilidh didn’t have too much difficulty following the baby unicorn. It always kept within her sight, if out of her reach. Had she been a few years older she might have wondered about this. But for right then, all she saw was the cute fluffy unicorn with the deadly horn starting to grow out. As she pushed her way through the undergrowth of the darkening woods, she tried out various names for the unicorn in her head. Boneflower was a good one, she thought. So was Caramel Apple or Bloodthorn.
“The great general… no… hero Ceilidh McCallum marched through the forests with her trusty sidekick Trouble in search of a noble steed to ride into battles on,” she narrated quietly to herself. Then, trying to mimic Trever when ever he tried to call an animal to him she said, “Here, baby unicorn!” This month she wanted to be a vet like him, and this seemed to be the perfect chance to try! “Come here, baby unicorn! I just want to pet you! And take you home with me! I’ll give you apples!” She remembered being told that unicorns liked apples.
Ceilidh wished she’d remembered to get some apples off the tree before she’d gone after the unicorn, but she didn’t want to lose it. The great hero would get her steed even without apples.
“Maaa!” the unicorn bleated. “Maaaah!”
At its cries the trees rustled. Ceilidh stopped in her tracks and clutched Trouble tightly to her. From her left a graceful unicorn with a white coat that glistened with a hint of gold stepped out. She held her breath at the sight of the ethereal creature. The baby unicorn bounded over to the adult unicorn and nuzzled her flank. Tenderly the adult wuffed at her baby, checking her over carefully to see if it was all right. Once done, the unicorn stared right at Ceilidh. Who stared right back.
She flicked her head at the girl and then started to walk deeper into the woods, the baby following her. Of course Ceilidh trailed after. Two unicorns were even better than one! “The great hero took the unicorn’s offer to learn her secrets and followed her deep into the woods of sorrow where only the bravest dared…”
“How stupid can you be?” Grace growled at Rory as she followed Ceilidh’s tracks. Thankfully the girl hadn’t learned how to cover her tracks yet or they’d have some serious problems. She barely made any tracks as it was.
“How was I supposed to know a baby unicorn was going to show up around the Hall? Barely anyone there is tolerable to one! And we haven’t seen any in ages in the area,” Rory said, shifting his rifle onto his other shoulder.
“You should have known as soon as she said ‘unicorn’, you dip.”
“And last week she said she was going dragon hunting and came back with a half dozen fire salamanders!” he protested.
She grunted in annoyance, remembering the “joy” of having to chase the salamanders around the hall and trying not to get burnt. They’d managed to scoop them up into pots and toss them outside after six harrowing hours. How Ceilidh got them inside without hurting herself was still a mystery.
“You still shouldn’t have let her go. The salamanders were just as much of a problem even if they weren’t dragons.” Grace shoved a branch out of the way and hid a smile as it hit Rory in the face.
She loved her brother, she really did, but sometimes he could just be such an idiot. Well, someone in the family had to be. It was some sort of law or something. If you got a big enough family, one person had to be the idiot. And Grace had twelve siblings, with Rory having the unfortunate luck of being the seventh son.
Glancing up at the darkening sky she started to walk faster. They weren’t prepared to be in these woods at night. Rory kept up with her, also leery of being out here in the dark.
Ceilidh had no such worries about being out in the woods so late. She just followed the unicorns, the mother glowing a bluish-silver in the darkening woods. What did start to worry her, however, was that they were getting closer to the Watching Stones. Her mother and Nana and Auntie Talia and … well… everyone… even Uncle Rory, had told her that under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever no matter what not even then, no not even for that reason should she go through or near the stones. Her mother had taken her to see them once and delivered that warning. She didn’t know why they were so dangerous; they just looked like eight stones set in a circle with one on top of two of them like a doorway. She’d thrown a rock into the circle and nothing bad happened. Some things had been carved on the stones but she didn’t know what they said. Her mother didn’t enlighten her.
However, Ceilidh did sense the seriousness of the situation and promised never to do so. But… that promise hadn’t included unicorns! And she wouldn’t go through the circle, she told herself. Great heroes didn’t break serious promises like that. She’d just get near the circle.
Breaking through the trees the unicorns entered the small clearing with the Stones. The sun set as they did. It should have been hard to see the Stones, but it wasn’t. Where the last time she saw them they just looked like rocks; now they glowed with bruised purple and dark blue light. Ceilidh could see the writing on the stones outlined in the glow. The unicorns started to graze near the Stones, but didn’t go through them.
In her pocket, Trouble mewed softly. She put her hand on his head and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
“That is a noble sentiment,” a soft voice that somehow reminded her of storms and thunder said. Ceilidh tried not to jump, but she did anyway.
“Who said that?” she cried out.
Through the stones, a woman stepped out. Her skin was as dark as the purpling sky and her hair a blood red, not like the flaming red of Ceilidh’s family. She couldn’t tell what color her eyes were but her clothes were very fancy, like something out of one of the history books. The dress, wide and fancy, had unicorns sewn into it. “I did, little one. And who are you?” she asked.
“Who are you?” she asked back. Her mother said to never give her name to strangers. This woman was definitely a stranger.
“I am Lady Forlorn. I see you’ve met my friends.”
The mother unicorn walked over to the woman and nudged her gently.
“Yes. I want to be friends with the baby so we can go riding together and destroy all the evil people out there like a great hero,” Ceilidh said. “And make Sarah jealous because she only has a pony not a unicorn.”
The woman laughed. “You sound like a McCallum. I knew a McCallum once, but that was a long time ago.” She sounded sad at that and for a moment Ceilidh felt sorry for her.
“What was their name?” Ceilidh asked.
“Oh, I don’t remember. It was along time ago. She was good company,” the woman said. “I do miss her though.”
The baby unicorn ambled over to Ceilidh and finally she was able to pet her. The fur was as soft as a kitten’s. “I’m sorry,” Ceilidh said, running her fingers through the unicorn’s fur. The baby bleated softly.
“I’m just a little lonely, that’s all. Arien and her child are company but they aren’t good company for tea and cookies. My cook makes the most wonderful cookies.”
“My cousin Nat makes the bestest cookies ever!” Ceilidh said and carefully gave the baby unicorn a hug around the neck. The baby tugged at her hair, which tickled.
“Does he really? You must tell me about him,” she said and gestured through the stones. “We can have tea and cookies and you can tell me everything about everyone.”
Ceilidh stared at the stones, her mother’s warning ringing in her head. “I don’t know…” she said, her fingers still in the baby’s mane. “Mum would be awfully mad at me if I did.”
“Ah! But we can be there and back without anyone knowing it,” the Lady said stepping over to Ceilidh. She held out her hand.
Shaking her head, Ceilidh said, “No… I don’t think it’d be a good idea.”
“Come now. Don’t you want to see where Arien and her baby live? It’s the most wonderful castle. There are other unicorns there and all sorts of other creatures that I’m sure you’d love to meet.” Her voice changed now, turning sweet as honey and echoing in Ceilidh’s head and making her feet want to move closer. She closed her eyes and tried to force the voice away, tried to make her feet want to stop moving.
“No. I don’t want to.”
“Surely you must!” the woman said, her voice most insistent. “It’ll be wonderful! There are knights who can teach you how to use a sword.”
Ceilidh took an uneasy step forward, but shook her head. “No.” In her pocket Trouble squirmed. “I already know how to use weapons! My auntie Maeve is teaching me,” she said. She didn’t think she liked this woman any more.
“Oh? Do you now? Could you show me?”
“Yes!” And she took the kitten from her pocket and flung it at the woman.
Trouble yowled in displeasure before latching onto the woman. She gave a surprised yelp and tried to dislodge it. Trouble hissed and bite at the long fingers before vanishing and appearing on top of her head, claws digging in deep. They dug in deeper as she tried vainly to get him off.
“What are you!?” she cried. The kitten vanished and reappeared all over the woman, yowling and biting and scratching. His claws left rents in her dress and scratches on the lady’s face.
Loudly Ceilidh shouted, “And the brave blink panther Trouble fought against the evil fairy lady who wished to steal his master away!”
Finally the fairy was able to wrench the kitten off of her and toss it away. Trouble tumbled through the grass and meeped miserably.
“You miserable little creature!” she cried. “You horrid little thing!” From somewhere she pulled out a knife that looked like a unicorn’s horn. “I’ll have your head!”
“I think not!” Grace said, stepping out into the clearing, Rory behind her, rifle cocked and aimed at the woman. Grace had her obsidian bladed sword pointed it at the woman. With her free hand she beckoned to Ceilidh.
Grabbing Trouble, Ceilidh ran behind her aunt. “Suddenly rescue arrived!”
The mother unicorn reared up on her hind legs and started to charge Grace and Rory, clearly trying to protect the woman.
So, Ceilidh threw Trouble at the unicorn. “But even her saviors were in need of help, so the hero once again called upon her blink panther to save them!”
Trouble vanished in mid-throw and reappeared on the unicorn’s rump, tiny claws digging into its hide. The unicorn reared again, but this time in pain. She kicked and bucked, but Trouble held on tight. Finally the unicorn ran through the stones. It was only then that the kitten vanished from sight. The baby fled after her mother bleating in fear.
That left the Lady alone with the kitten-wielding Ceilidh, the sword-wielding Grace and the rifle-holding Rory.
“McCallums!” the woman spat, “You’re all the same.” With that epitaph she vanished through the stones, clearly not wanting to deal with the adults without the unicorn.
Rory didn’t let the rifle down until the glow on the stones vanished. Then he sighed in relief. Grace did the same as she sheathed her sword.
“Did you see me, Auntie Grace?” Ceilidh said, cuddling Trouble. “Did you?! I fought an Elf Lady! I fought an elf lady just like in the stories Uncle Rory is always telling me about and I won and now I’m a hero, right? Just like in the stories, right?” She bounced up and down excitedly.
“You are in a great deal of trouble, young lady,” Grace said, scooping up the little girl and giving her a worried hug. “You were in a great deal of danger. You shouldn’t have gone running off like that by yourself.”
“But I took a weapon with me just like you told me to! And I won the fight!” she protested. “I’m a hero now! Aren’t I?”
Grace looked over at Rory.
“You are a hero,” Rory said slowly, “But you’re also in a great deal of trouble.”
Ceilidh thought this over before declaring. “I don’t care. As long as I’m the hero!”
As Grace carried Ceilidh back, she narrated quietly to herself, “And with her followers the great hero Ceilidh rode back home where a victory celebration awaited her!”