chloe & the unicorn

Unicorn. In Latin, "one horn," a fabled animal described by medieval writers as having a lion's tail, a stag's legs and a horse's head and body, with one horn growing from the middle of its forehead. It was said to be ferocious, and catchable only by putting before it a young virgin, before whom the unicorn would lie down and allow itself to be taken. The unicorn's horn was much prized for its magical properties.  --- Lass etal - Dictionary of Classical & Literary Allusion


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chloe & the unicorn 

(c) 1996 by guy teague

In an age, at a time, in the land of Delos dwelled a royal family -- King Steven, Queen Mab, and Chlothilde, their daughter, fondly called Chloe. They loved her dearly although Chloe was sometimes a handful. The two parents often consulted their councilors, seers, and wizards for advice in her behalf -- they knew Chloe would be their only child and was the kingdom's bright and shining future.

The current problem was that Chloe, oft-times a most stubborn little girl, wanted a horse. The King and Queen had consulted Pequod, their Chief Wizard, when she first made this desire known. Pequod prepared his potions. He combined exotic and magical ingredients that he stirred with a shovel in a huge vat over which he had suspended a chair hanging by ropes. When the ingredients were boiling and bubbling to his liking, he clambered up the ropes into the chair and sat cross-legged all the day and all the night breathing the fumes which wafted upward from the contents of the vat.

The next morning the wizard presented himself before the throne and informed Chloe's parents that the Oracle of Delos had spoken these words: "Princess Chlothilde will fall off a horse and nevermore be the same."

Of course, this pronouncement settled the issue completely as far as the King and Queen were concerned, for, as everyone in the kingdom knew, the Delian Oracle was never wrong. They issued a decree that whosoever in the kingdom allowed Chloe near a horse would be summarily beheaded without benefit of trial or jury. No one in the long history of the kingdom had ever suffered such a fate, so the people knew this was a serious edict.

On the other hand, Chloe became more stubborn the more times her request for a horse was refused. Only last night Queen Mab had gone into Chloe's room and said, "Chloe, do you want to take your bath now, honey?" Princess Chlothilde furrowed her brow, frowned, stamped her left foot and uttered her favorite phrase, "I prefer not to!"

The Queen then asked, "Would you like to listen to a bedtime story, dearest?" Chloe furrowed her brow, frowned, stamped her left foot and said, "I prefer not to!"

Queen Mab then said, "Don't you think it's time you went to bed, my little one?" Chloe again furrowed, frowned, stamped, and declared "I prefer not to!" The Queen retreated before this stubbornness, saying over her shoulder on her way out the door, "Well, maybe later then, sweetheart. Meanwhile, I'll send your father in to say good night."

Queen Mab went to King Steven and said, "I think our daughter is getting more and more stubborn -- will you go and see if she'll listen to you, dear heart?" So the King went upstairs to Chloe's room, knocking on her door before entering, because she was growing up and was he was mindful of her privacy. But he had no better luck than Queen Mab, garnering only more repetitions of "I prefer not to" ringing in his ears.

And the King said to his Queen when he had rejoined her, "Our councilors say we will just have to put up with it until she grows out of it, lady my wife." And Queen Mab was not comforted because Princess Chlothilde had much growing to do yet.

Up in her room, Chloe lay on her stomach on her bed with a book about horses spread out under her nose until the candles burnt down to nubbins. She got up, lit a new candle, realized she was far too hungry to go to sleep, and decided to go downstairs to the kitchen to get a snack. She was normally forbidden the kitchen, but knew Cook always prepared items in advance of serving the next day.

At the head of the stairs she smelled something funny. It smelled like the time she had snooped around the castle and opened a closet that hadn't been opened for years -- a smell of age and rot, moths and ancient parchment. Chloe didn't let it bother her, though, and started down the stairs treading lightly on the risers. When she turned the corner at the landing, she ran into a ghostly figure. She swallowed a scream -- he was tall and very, very, very white. He was wearing fancy dress in black, which only emphasized the bleached, lifeless flesh.

Chloe turned on the landing and started to run back up the steps. When her foot touched the first step, however, the step fell back to the landing from which she had started. She tried again with the same result. She then tried skipping the first step and jumping to the second one, but that step also dropped her back to the landing. She made a mighty jump and landed on the third step up, but it too fell back level with the landing and deposited her where she had started.

Then she felt the ghostly, clammy hands on her shoulder and she screamed her 95-decibel, 24-carat gold, emergency only, special holiday scream. It was REALLY loud! The sound echoed off the stone walls and up and down the narrow stairwell. The colorless figure didn't even wince (well, maybe an ear twitched) and in a trice had her gagged and stuffed into a towsack. He threw her head-down over his shoulder like Santa Claus' toybag, and she fainted from the horror and indignity of it, for Chlothilde was nothing if not a dignified little girl, mostly.

When she awoke it was morning. The sun was shining through a high, round window way above her head. Chloe was in a bare-walled, one-room cell. She had been sleeping on a cot in the corner. There was a basin and a chamberpot and not much else. She tried the door and found it locked tight, but she heard footsteps approaching on the other side.

Chloe backed up and sat down on the cot in the corner of her room just as the door opened. She suppressed a gasp as she realized it was the ghostly figure from the night before. At least he didn't seem as frightening in the morning sunlight, she thought, and anger rapidly replaced fear as she remembered being tossed into the towsack like a toy.

She walked right up to him, her hands made into fists, and addressed him in the same manner she would one of her fathers servants. "Take me home -- immediately," she demanded.

"My name is Bartleby, and I'd prefer not to," he said.

"My father has never, ever executed anyone," Chloe said bravely, "but I promise he'll make an exception for you if you don't return me right now." She shook her head, tossed her hair, furrowed her brow, frowned and stamped her left foot, but none of these had any effect that she could tell on the owner of the sallow countenance facing her.

"Your parents will be notified that you are here after a delay that I have carefully calculated in order to build up their anxiety and make sure my offer, when tendered, will not be refused. In short, if they pay up, you go home," said Bartleby in a calm, clear manner.

He sounded to Chloe like one of her fathers more pompous and condescending councilors.

"In the meantime, you will work for me. I will allow you three choices, but choose one you must."

Having said this, he backed out of the door, keeping his eyes on her warily, and she heard the lock engage and his footsteps recede in the distance.

Later -- how much later Chloe knew not -- the door opened again and a stout woman of middle years bustled into the room.

"Well, little one, are you to work in the kitchen for me?" She asked.

"What would I do in the kitchen?" Chloe asked respectfully. "I've never been allowed to cook."

"Why, little one, you wouldn't cook," the woman chuckled at the thought, "you'd wash dishes, scrub pots and pans, clean and set the tables, and, if you proved you can hold onto plates without dropping them, serve the food."

"I prefer not to!" Chloe replied. She furrowed her brow, frowned, and stamped her left foot.

The woman turned and left the cell, saying only, "Very well, but you've only two choices left."

Some time later, the door opened again and a tall lady with a hawk-like face and nose entered Chloe's cell.

"Well, child, have you decided to work for me in the palace chambers?" she asked.

"And what would I do if I worked for you?" Chloe asked.

"Why, child, you'd be a chambermaid -- you'd make the beds and sweep the floors and empty the chamberpots," the lady replied.

"I prefer not to!" Chloe replied. She furrowed her brow, frowned, and stamped her left foot.

The woman went out the door, saying, "You've only one choice left, and, by my reckoning, that means no choice at all."

A little later Chloe heard the door open again and an older man came in. His clothes were dirty but his hands were clean. He held his cap in both hands, respectfully.

"So Princess, are we to have your services in the stables then?" he inquired of her.

"And what would I do in the stables?" Chloe asked cautiously, although her pulse quickened at the thought of horses.

"You'd muck out the stalls and feed and brush the horses, Princess," said the groom.

"It seems you're the last one," Chloe said resignedly, not wanting her enthusiasm to show, "so I guess I have no choice but to work for you."

"Very well, Princess," the groom replied, not unkindly, "someone will come for you early tomorrow morning." He then turned and went out the door, smiling into his moustaches for he had young daughters and saw through Chloe's act.

Chloe spent a restless night conjuring up images of horses and it seemed forever until morning when a stableboy came to accompany her to the stables. She was shown three horses and was told that they were now her complete and total responsibility. When she asked their names, she was informed that none of the horses at this castle had names. She thought this was sad, so she named her charges Turtle (because she was slow), Nippers (because she would nip you to get attention), and Ginger Nut (because she liked the gingercake deserts Chloe brought from the kitchen).

Chloe was ecstatic to finally be allowed around horses -- a treat never allowed her at home since the Delian decree -- and she worked hard to keep the stalls clean and to ensure her charges had fresh water and food. She would brush their coats until they shone, then lead them around outside the stables for their exercise in the weak autumn sunlight. The head groom told her proudly that he wished all his stablehands worked as hard as she and that all the horses under his charge were as well cared for as her three.

She had fantasized daily for years of the time when she would actually be able to ride, so, when she was sure that no one was looking, she would use the corral fence to clamber up on the back of Turtle -- the gentlest and most patient of her charges -- and ride around atop the broad back inside the enclosure. Mostly though, just being around the horses was enough, and sometimes for hours at a time, she would actually forget that she was a long, long way from her home in a strange land.

About a week after Chloe started working in the stables she was awakened one night in her cell by the noise of footsteps running outside her door and the sound of voices raised in confusion and fear. She ran to the door and, in pressing her ear against it, discovered that it was unlocked. She cautiously leaned her weight against the door, opened it and slipped out into the passageway, staying close to the wall in an attempt to escape notice. Very shortly, she found that she needn't take such precautions since all was in chaos and no one took the slightest notice of her stealthy exit from her cell.

Since the only place she knew how to find were the stables, her feet carried her in that direction automatically. When she got into the courtyard she saw what was causing the commotion -- a grass fire was approaching the castle grounds from the South and the stables were the closest structure to the fire, being they were at the southern perimeter of the castle grounds.

She hesitated a second when she realized that she could probably escape easily if she ran to the North, but not one step did she take in that direction -- she started running as fast as ever she could directly toward the stables. As she came closer she could hear the frenzied whinnying of the terrified horses.

Chloe entered the stables and went directly to her three charges. Even though she knew time was short, she instinctively realized that calming the trio was the first priority. Her eyes settled on the grooming brush hanging on the wall. She grabbed it and gave each of the horses several strokes down both sides since she had noticed this inevitably had a calming effect on them. She located a bridle and put it on Ginger Nut, and without daring to pause to think about her action, climbed on the mare's back using the stall's lower and middle rails as steps. She was a little nervous about riding the fiery mare, but knew that the other two horses would follow the natural leader of the group.

Although Chloe had only ridden inside the stable grounds, she had dreamed about it so often that it felt completely natural, exactly as she had imagined it those many times in her fantasies. She got Ginger Nut turned toward the courtyard gates to the West and she and the three horses went through unchallenged because the castlefolk were all out fighting the fire.

Chloe kept Ginger Nut at a trot and even Turtle, as though sensing the urgency, kept close behind, nostrils nervously flaring. The little group made good time. Following a path through the woods and having a full moon to outline any obstacles they traveled miles away from the fire and Bartleby's castle. Chloe could hear a stream burbling off to the left of the path. Frogs drummed, night birds called, and insects whirred in the clear, crisp air.

The only plan Chloe could think of was to keep moving, to get as far as possible from the castle. They trotted until the early morning hours long after moonset, when Ginger Nut passed too close to a tree and a low-hanging branch whacked Chloe on the head. She fell onto her back into a grassy patch unconscious. The horses stopped and circled her, grazing the good foliage.

When she awoke the next morning with a headache from the nocturnal knock on the noggin and the sun shining into her eyes, she found herself in a clearing and the three horses in a tight group at the far edge eyeing a strange sight. Chloe turned to see what they were looking at and saw a white creature that looked mostly like a horse with its head stretched up in a bushy, fruit-laden tree.

"Madam, I beg you, please free me from this accursed entrapment," Chloe heard this strange beast say, in a somewhat prissy voice surprisingly free of inflection or accent.

"What sort of beast are you and what is the problem?" Chloe asked the creature. She felt completely unafraid of it, whatever it was. She looked more closely and saw that it had the legs of a deer and the tail of a lion. Its head was out of sight in the tree and the voice emanating from the branches seemed to come from no one particular place -- it seemed disembodied and dispersed itself around the clearing like fog.

"You can call me Ishmael. I'm a unicorn, and my upper crustaceous protuberance seems to have become impaled into the trunk of this tree while I was foraging for fruit," he replied. The voice was very masculine, if a little whiny and petulant, so Chloe decided to think of it as a he. She had no idea what he was talking about, however, so she climbed up into the tree to see the problem for herself.

When she drew level with the beast' head, she spotted the problem. He had a two-foot long horn growing out of his horse-shaped head that had gotten threaded between two branches and wedged in a woodpecker hole.

Chloe found a firm perch on a thick branch and, after telling Ishmael to walk straight backwards, grabbed his horn, wrenched it out of the hole and helped guide it out between the threaded branches. Ishmael shook his head vigorously and whinnied with joy at being free as Chloe carefully climbed down and sat in the grass at the bottom of the tree. The climb had made her dizzy and the knot on her forehead had begun to throb painfully.

Ishmael came to where Chloe sat, lay down in the grass beside her and placed his large head in her lap.

"Somehow I seem to feel this fulfills some long-forgotten need that lay half-dormant and tickling at my conscious until today." He said. "I am your servant forever, dear child. Is there any way I can help you? You look lost now I have the leisure to study your visage."

Chloe wished he would talk more plainly and not use such big words. They made her head throb worse. His sentences reminded her of her father's stuffy councilors who used big words to try to impress the King. But she could tell Ishmael used such language naturally and not to impress anyone, so she wasn't too peeved.

So she told him the whole story, including the kidnapping, while she stroked the lovely head lying in her lap. After she finished her story, Ishmael said, "Climb up onto my back, Princess, we must go pay a visit to Bartleby."

"Oh, no," Chloe exclaimed, "Anywhere but there. I never want to see that monster ever again in my life."

"Don't worry," said the unicorn. "It's something we have to do and you do trust me, don't you?"

And surprisingly, Chloe had to admit that she did, unreservedly.

So they set off that very minute with Chloe perched on the great, white back of Ishmael, his head held proudly high, rolling side-to-side as if in gentle swells a-sea -- Turtle, Nippers and Ginger Nut drafting in the wake behind.

As they traveled, Ishmael talked endlessly, as expected from a creature of his erudite talents and garrulous nature. He admitted how much he hated having a lion's tail and the spindly legs of a deer. He wanted to be overall a horse, notwithstanding the horn, which he liked -- he said it gave him character, set him apart from the other horses, and would surely attract a discriminating mate of superior intelligence, high station, and enchanting beauty.

"I feel like such a total fool -- a motley hybrid, like a mule," he explained. "This lion's tail's too sparse and spare -- won't do to swish the flies away -- and these stag's legs too thin by far -- won't keep the wolves at bay."

Far too soon for Chloe's liking, the group found itself at the main gate of Bartleby's castle as the sun was setting on the day. Ishmael bent his forelegs and kneeled gracefully down so Chloe could alight.

"Tell the watchman we need to talk to Bartleby," Ishmael whispered to Chloe.

"'Eh, whas'at?" exclaimed the watchman, "Did I 'ear tha' pug-ugly 'orse say som'at?"

"No, I said we had to see Bartleby." Chloe said. "Tell him it's Princess Chlothilde sorry she's run off and returning his horses."

The watchman mumbled to himself and kept a wary eye on Ishmael, but dispatched an underling to send the word, and shortly the pale, black-clad figure showed up with Cozmetol, his chief wizard.

"So, the horsethief repents, the runaway returns," exclaimed Bartleby. He turned to the wizard, Cozmetol, and commanded, "Dispatch the unicorn, off with his head, break the bond."

The wizard placed a tiny pair of spectacles upon his thin nose and pulled a small scroll from his sleeve, glancing at it only briefly before replacing it. He raised his arms, cocked his wrists, and uttered a string of wizardly words, one of which at least sounded maybe a little like Abracadabra.

A blue cloud immediately surrounded the unicorn and all heard the wizard say, "Lo, bats reign -- I slew the troll." Or maybe he said, "Oh, ratsbane -- I blew the roll." But, in any case, as the cloud dissipated the watchers noticed that the unicorn's stag's legs were changing to horses' legs and that a stag was emerging from Ishmael's mouth. The instant that the full-grown stag was out of the mouth, Ishmael's tail started changing to a horses' tail and a lion was emerging out the unicorn's mouth.

The stag that had emerged from Ishmael's mouth took two bounds and pinned Bartleby to the castle gate with his great forked horns. The lion was close behind and ripped Bartleby's stomach open with his powerful jaws and sharp fangs and started eating the organs he found inside. Bartleby screamed and screamed as the lion chewed and chewed.

The wizard and the gatekeeper ran as fast as their legs could carry them, through the brambles and through the bushes, each in different directions. The stag pulled his great horns free and trotted into the woods. The lion made muffled smacking noises. Chloe was very, very upset by Bartleby's screams and put her hands over her dainty ears.

"Can't you do anything for him?" She asked Ishmael. She had to shout to be heard above the noise.

"For your sake and sensibilities, I will," said Ishmael, "turn your head and close your eyes." When Chloe complied the unicorn lunged forward and speared his horn straight into the heart of Bartleby, who immediately expired. Ishmael pulled his horn free and cleaned it by wiping it in the grass, twisting his stately head to do so. The lion never missed a bite and may be chewing still.

"The poor, pale, passive mortal," Ishmael mused cryptically. "Yet not as passive as his namesake, more's the pity."

And Chloe and Turtle and Nippers and Ginger Nut and Ishmael and all the residents of Bartleby's castle returned to Delos. King Steven and Queen Mab were exceedingly glad to have Princess Chlothilde back and decreed high holiday with full pay for all for a year. Stables were built, many horses were procurred, including the mare Rosinante--as high of station, as superior of intelligence, and as enchanting of beauty as even Ishmael had ever dreamed.

Chloe never again furrowed her brow, frowned, stamped her left foot and uttered her favorite phrase, "I prefer not to!" -- at least not until much later when she was married. All lived happily foreverafter, in an age, at a time.

--- -END- ---