The following is an original piece of fiction created by myself for the entertainment of others only.

The Unicorn Bride

By LJ58

Robert thought, not for the first time, that his prospective fiancé had lost her mind. They were miles from any trace of civilization, lost beyond even the bewildering moors that had led them in circles for what had seem an eternity. Or so it seemed to him. The constant rains had turned the trails around them into a muddy maze that only led to more dizzying circles going nowhere as far as he could tell.

He had known Jennifer was a strange woman when they had first been introduced. Apparently, neither he, nor their peers at the university had known just how strange. True, Jennifer Summers was a strikingly beautiful woman, that could hardly be denied. Yet for the raven-haired literature professor from the states to still be virgin at the unheard-of age of twenty-five was beyond bizarre to his mind in this modern world. That she remained in such a state even after four months of earnest effort on his part both amazed, and confused Robert Leland IV to no end.

Even his initial amazement was as nothing compared to the shock he received when he had finally learned the truth behind her peculiar convictions that her purity had to be maintained. Robert had played his cards the way they were dealt, and eventually drew out the elusive Ms. Summers until that fateful night they began what Robert had initially thought was but another dry, academic conversation.

Jennifer spoke of mythology, archetypes, and lost histories as if they were walking through the park, occasionally staring up at the stars that seemed to wink sympathetically down at him. He, being distracted by the swell of her breasts, and the faint, flowery scent of her perfume, had almost missed what she had told him that night.

"You found what," he had asked, uncertain of what he had just hear.

"Their breeding ground," she had replied innocently, lost in her own dreams.

Robert had noticed the shine in her sky-blue eyes as she droned on, but he had to break in again as her words raced on beyond comprehension. "Hold on, Jenny," he had finally stopped her. "Just whose breeding ground have you found?"

"My God, Robert," she had fumed. "Haven't you even been listening?" "Of course, of course," he had quickly assured her with his most winsome smile. "But please recall that I am just a dumb math professor. Most of these old tales go right over my head."

"Or through it," she had suggested, staring at the stars again rather than at him as a slight smile had curved her full lips.

He had shrugged, remaining silent in the wake of her chastisement.

"All right," she had finally conceded when he had maintained that silence out of self-defense. "I'll try to explain on a level you are capable of following."

"Ouch," he had exclaimed, clutching as his chest as he had tried to defuse the situation with humor.

"I'm just stooping to your level; 'Mr. Dumb Math Professor.'"

"Right. I admit it. You caught me gathering a bit of wool. So, how about another chance here, love," he had asked endearingly.

Or, he had tried to sound so.

She had shook her head at him as if he were but an unruly child, and then turned to resume their walk. As she did, Robert had willingly followed, keenly aware that their bodies were but inches apart. He had entertained fantasies of reaching out for her then, and sweeping her into his arms. The problem was, that even then his jaw had still ached with the memory of the first time he had tried such a bold move. It had taken two weeks of apologies before she would even speak to him again after that aborted attempt at seduction. He had been far more cautious since.

Leave it to a Yank to teach their women how to break bones!

"You are certain you want to hear this," she had finally asked him that night, gauging his honesty as she searched his expression.

"I am very sure," he had replied without hesitation in his most sincere tone.

"Very well. Try to understand, Robert, that after studying various folklores, mythologies, and testimonies from a great many alleged witnesses, I am now more than certain that there are still a few breeding grounds left in this world where we may yet find the fabled unicorn. What's more, a recent find in an old, monastic library south of Canterbury indicates that one of those breeding grounds might very well be located near the old moors just outside town."

"You are kidding," he had replied then, unable to keep the doubt from his voice even as his limited knowledge on the fantastical nature of the topic made the obvious connections with her claims.

"No. No, not at all. In fact, I've already found a local guide that knows the moors, and I intend to start a search in that area myself when we close for holiday next week. Just think," she had enthused as he gaped at her, actually clutching at his arm for the first time as her blue eyes shone brightly at him for the first time, and for all the wrong reasons. "Documented proof that a legendary beast still exists in our world. It will be…"

Pieces clicked, and he had blurted out, "And you think you can find them because you are still…..?"

"Pure," she had finished for him, not hearing the sarcasm that colored his dumbfounded tone. "I've waited all my life for this moment. Now, I'm so close to it, it almost seems unreal."

"Yes," he had commented dryly at that point. "I can see how it would."

Several biting replies came to mind at the time, but his analytical mind had wisely taken over when he instantly calculated the downside of her little adventure. A downside that could only be worked to his advantage if he played the properly supportive role until his moment of triumph.

"And whom do you plan on taking with you," he had asked, carefully crafting his next move.

"Just the guide," she had responded innocently. "Unicorns are reportedly very shy beasts, and not easily approached. A large party might frighten them away before we can even get a glimpse at them."

"I see," he had replied, speaking slowly as if in thought. He did not point out that she had been speaking as if the things were really out there waiting for her. Instead, he had continued to feign concern for her plans, and played on her pride.

"Tell me," he had finally asked. "Do you think a third party might be allowed along on this hunt? Say, an objective observer who might verify any findings you do happen to make? After all," he had reminded her with a smile, "I do take rather good photographs."

She had stared at him silently for a time, her hand falling from his arm only then as the pain of the scorn she had obviously felt from others flashed across her mind, dulling the excitement visible in her eyes. They were both well aware of how her English contemporaries viewed her ideas. To have a noted professor, one of their own, confirm her theories and beliefs, would be a fantastic coup. What she had not realized was that Robert had already anticipated, and calculated her train of thought. Indeed, he was counting on it.

"That sounds like a very good idea, Robert," she had agreed after a moment's reluctance. "I will be leaving early Tuesday mornings. Say, about three. Do you think you will be up to it?"

"I wouldn't dream of missing out on this adventure," he had then declared. Naturally, he had his own ideas at the time of how their adventure would end.

He had believed that after a day or two of fruitless searching, they could dismiss the guide, and then he would personally console the disappointed adventuress in his own special manner. What he had not counted on was the charisma of the guide, whom it seemed was also a believer. Nor had he counted on one other little matter. That being a track. A single, damned track in the mud that they had found the morning of their third day searching the infernal bog that was yielded to an inhospitable wall of thick forest growth after the rain finally ebbed.

They had left the eerie, and unnerving fogbound plains behind after that, entering a forest that he had not even known existed in this part of a modernized England in the twenty-first century. Less than a mile into the strange wood, the guide had found another large track that Robert had first taken to be from a large, unshod pony. Until both of his eager companions had reminded him that ponies did not have cloven hooves. While large enough to be the print of a small mare, that print had been indisputably cloven.

Still, he had protested. A single track in the center of an open trail?

He had been certain that someone was trying to con them. Neither of his traveling companions would accept his doubts though, and they had pressed on deeper into the gloomy forest without hesitation. Disturbingly, he noted two facts about that third morning that continued to stick in his mind. First, the moment they had stepped past that odd animal track in the mud, the endless, and monotonous drizzle had simply stopped. Second, it was the same moment that the guide had moved his rifle from his shoulder into a ready position, eyes casting around as if expecting an attack of savages, or something. He had not cared for the lout's response to his lifted brow as he had armed his weapon.

"Them beasties ain't always friendly to men folk," he had informed Robert when he had caught his silently query by way of his raised brow.

Robert stood in the center of the trail that had led them ever deeper into the forest to this very glade in what proved to be a somewhat brighter portion of the forest. He decided that now was his opportunity to inject some reality into their increasingly strange world. Four days was enough. More than enough to convince himself that Jennifer Summers was every bit as peculiar as everyone else had hinted. Still, he felt it couldn't hurt to try reasoning with her one last time.

"Jenny," he smiled, keeping the pleading from his voice as she turned back from the path that loomed ahead to glance his way. "If we turn back now, we can still make it in time for Monday's second session. What do you say, love," he asked, his smile brilliant.

"Jennifer's response was immediate, and uncompromising.

"If you want to go back, Robert, feel free to do so. I am too close to turn back now. I can feel them. I'm so close. So very, very close."

Robert watching her stare out past the glade where their guide was now setting up what he felt was a comfortable camp. Or at least as comfortable as one could be in this godforsaken place. Although the sun had been up for hours, and the day itself was brighter, the thick canopy overhead still filtered out most of the afternoon sun. The dim shadows that surrounded them did nothing for his increasingly fretful state of mind. Especially when he felt his thoughts focusing darkly on Jennifer. She was acting obsessed, or worse. Her eyes continued to search for whatever her mind compelled her to believe awaited her.

"Of course," his rational mind seized at the idea, snapping up as the most reasonable explanation.

Why had he not noticed before. The woman was more than passing strange. She was…. Why she was certifiable! Full-on crazy. Maybe she should be put away, watched over, in case she proved as dangerous as she was odd. Maybe, he decided shrewdly, he'd see to it she was committed. Not, however, until he found a way to put her where he felt she truly belonged.

On her back!

In the very instant of his vicious reasoning, a wild, shrill scream filled the air around the glade. The sound hung over them, echoing forever in the forest it seemed before finally fading away. In its wake, absolute silence held full reign as they all but stared first at one another, and then around them at the growing shadows of late afternoon.

"My God," Jennifer whispered in awe in the heavy silence that followed. "It's them. I think that was truly them."

"Don't be absurd," Robert swore uneasily, trying and failing to hide his own uneasiness at the eerie cry. Only the guide, not to mention his own sudden nagging doubt, put the lie to his words.

"Don't be doubting the lass," the gnarled, old man warned him in that tense silence. "And don't be thinking ill of her. They can hear, y'see, and they hear even what's in your very heart. That's how the beasties speak," he added, tapping his own temple with a blunt forefinger.

"Ridiculous."

"Someone o' us," the old man went on undisturbed by Robert's waspish retort, "Was like as not thinking ill of a rare and pure thing," he told him, nodding at Jenny who stood staring out at the forest. "Such thoughts anger 'em, or so I been told."

Robert had no reply for that as they left their camp when Jenny suddenly snapped her head in a direction her feet immediately followed. "It be the summons," the guide whispered to Robert, holding his hand up to keep him from holding her back.

The blank look in Jennifer's usually bright eyes distressed him, but forced him to admit that something very peculiar was going on. He felt obligated to follow Jenny and the old man just to find his own answers, as the latter didn't bother answering his curt questions, and the former apparently no longer even heard him. He followed, determined to get to the rot of this outlandish behavior, even as he fought yielding to the outlandish notion that maybe there was something to Jennifer's quest after all.

"We best stop here," the guide finally spoke, his voice low as he held him back with a surprisingly strong grip that belied his age. "The lass must step out alone."

"But…."

"Do not be concerned. We'll see it all from this very spot," the old man assured him as he peered through the thick brush he had pulled him behind.

Suspicion welled up in Robert's mind as he regarded the man with fresh eyes. "You've been here before," he realized.

"Hush, fool, or you'll start 'em, and their ire is not to be trifled with by mortal men."

"What are you talking….about….?"

He saw them. In that one magical instant when a lifetime of cynical disbelief shattered like fragile glass, he stared in genuine shock at their majestic prancing as they came out of the forest to surround the seemingly entranced female before them. They paraded around the lone figure that walked forward to greet them even as he watched in an uneasy awe. Jennifer continued to walk through their milling ranks until she stood in the very center of a wide, trampled down clearing in the thick forest. She stood perfectly still, waiting, looking for all the world just then as if she had been carved from living stone.

Robert realized, not for the first time, that she was an incredibly beautiful woman.

As if on cue, the circling stallions stopped their milling dance the very moment she halted in the center of their wide circle. All but one of the huge, equine beasts knelt toward her as if paying homage. The exception was a huge, black brute crowned by a golden horn of spiraling bone that jutted out from its broad forehead. The stallion turned his massive head one direction, then another, as if studying the assembled herd around him.

Then, breaking the circle, he approached Jenny with a gait so graceful that Robert thought even a prima donna would have been hard-pressed to match the brute's dignified poise.

"Why are there no mares," Robert asked the guide, consciously awed by the fantastic creature that did indeed have cloven hooves despite himself.

"Hush, man, and we'll speak of this later," the guide spat. "Now is the time to watch, and to be silent."

With a presence of mind that surprised him, Robert suddenly remembered his cameras. He jerked the 35mm from its case, snapping frame after frame until the film ran out. Then he simply stood there, the now useless camera in his hands, his eyes on the black unicorn that stood unmoving before Jenny by this time.

The animal stood perfectly still for what seemed ages, studying her with eyes of the same brilliant hue that colored its impossible horn. Then, it, too slowly knelt before her. Such was its height that the act placed its gleaming eyes on a level with Jennifer's soft, blue orbs. They stared at one another for what seemed hours as the men watched in anxious silence. They were motionless so long that when the beast finally moved, Robert was startled into almost dropping the camera he had still been clutching with white knuckles. Still, he forced himself to keep watching as the beast lowered his gleaming spiral horn to touch first one slender shoulder, and then the other.

Robert stared open-mouthed as that faint touch caused all Jennifer's clothing to simply drop away from her body as if she had somehow been made intangible.

"My God," he gasped, staring at the sight before him.

She was a virtual goddess. Her small, but perfect breasts jutted out from a slender torso with a pride that defied her voyeur's opinions outside the circle of mythological equines. Her flesh was golden, and unblemished, and Robert swore she had to be the very epitome of feminine perfection just then. The dark hair hiding her sex strangely reminded him of the tangled undergrowth of the forest around them, and he found himself comparing her to some mythical forest nymph as he looked upon her beauty.

Even from his hiding place, Robert could tell the dark curls framing her pure flesh were glistening with moisture. He felt himself reacting to the sight of that perfect body when the ebony stallion's golden spike dipped once more, this time toward Jenny's soft flesh. The point dropped down past her firm breasts, and traversed the smooth plane of her belly toward her nether flesh.

"What is he doing," he exclaimed as the golden spiral found, and then parted Jenny's virgin lips.

"Testing her, I'm thinking," the guide whispered, his eyes on the beast, ignoring the tempting sight of the naked flesh as he watched only the impossible creature before them.

"Testing?"

"For purity, man," the guide spat irritably at him. "Only a pure lass may stand before them."

"What if she isn't," he asked, wondering not for the first time if her innocence was not just an act.

"Then she'd be doomed for certain," the man replied baldly.

Robert gasped as he turned back to watch his desired mate tremble at the creature's intimate touch. The horn hesitated briefly, its tip lost from sight just within the folds of her moist flesh. In that very instant he felt sure his breath would never come again as the beast reared back as it rose to his feet so fast that he was certain the woman he was watching had just been gutted like a fish.

He let go a heavy sigh of relief when the beast came back down to stand on all fours after he had risen to his hind legs, briefly pausing to look down at Jennifer, who still stood unharmed, and oblivious to Robert's concerns. Yet the ritual was apparently not yet complete.

The long horn lowered again, and this time it gently touched Jennifer's lips, and rested there. Again, Robert was dumbfounded as he watched the woman's slender arms move to caress the animal's massive head in her small hands. Even more astonish, she had opened her mouth to take the tip of the potentially deadly spiraling bone between her lips. It seemed to glisten wetly in the light that filtered through the thick foliage overhead, and he frowned, thinking it had to have been dry just a moment before it touched her.

Hadn't it?

His mind reeled yet again at the scene before him. Here, this girl, whom he knew to be a prude at their best moments, was now licking at whatever unnatural fluids coating the unicorn's horn with a greed and sensuousness that seemed….well, frankly, unnatural. Her pink tongue slid up and down the gleaming horn in erotic slow motion, and Robert's furtive glance told him the beast wasn't exactly unmoved by her attentions.

He did not know what compelled him, but he chose that moment to raise his camera again, snapping a photo of the bizarre coupling, forgetting that he had no film left.

Coupling, his rational mind queried in horror.

Yes, his primitive mind instinctively replied.

For though his reason, his logic warred to reject the barely credible sight before him, he knew that this was exactly what was taking place before him. A kind of bestial foreplay that was leading up to something greater. But what? Just what did unicorns need virgins for, he had to wonder. None of the stories he could recall ever said, and Jennifer had never mentioned anything as far as he knew, or remembered. In fact, she had gone out of her way not to mention that half of the fables.

Not that he had really listened to her flights of fancy. He had been too busy looking at her, and dreaming of how well they would enjoy one another. Looking at her in the same manner in which that damned, horned freak now looked at her. Yet, that was impossible, wasn't it? Yes, impossible. Because Jennifer belonged to him.

At that very moment the thought filled his mind, the ritual before them ended as the circle of unicorns abruptly fled to wherever they stayed when not gathering together as they had here today. Only the black stallion remained, and it stood staring in Robert's direction as if it could see him through the thick undergrowth that hid him from view.

"Don't move an inch, man," the guide hissed, his rifle at the ready.

The fear in that gruff man's voice had Robert frozen, fearful of even blinking.

Eventually, the creature looked away. It paused to press the very tip of its still glistening horn against Jennifer's forehead, and then it, too, left the clearing with a burst of speed that made it seem to simply vanish. The woman stood staring after the dark beast, though her eyes were no longer vacant. They were now filled with an emotion that Robert couldn't begin to define, and he didn't like it. Not one bit.

"Jennifer," he called out, starting toward her.

"Hold on, lad," the old man stopped him. "You can't be going out there. Wait for her to come to us."

"Why," he demanded impatiently, staring back at that soft, silken flesh that he wanted so desperately to touch. To hold. To claim.

"Because, man, if you go out there now, it'd be like you was challenging the beastie. If you be honest, you know who'd be winning that fight. Don't you?" Robert gritted his teeth in frustration, but did not leave the sheltering brush. Was it his imagination or had he just caught a glimpse of something golden that flashed briefly on the far side of the clearing. Was that damned beast really out there waiting for him to make a move? Had it truly known they had been watching all along, and just waited to see if he would make some manner of misstep? He clenched and unclenched his fists, watching in silent agony as Jennifer slowly dressed. He did not miss the fact her eyes still stared after her monstrous paramour.

The thought knotted something deep inside him, and though even he didn't know it just then, Robert had made a decision. First, he was going to learn all he could about his rivals, but he knew his course of action was clear all the same. He had to save Jenny from herself, as much as from the beasts in this unnatural forest. He had no other choice.

"I told you," was all Jennifer said as she walked past them on the way back to camp. She didn't wait for either of them.

Robert fell back the equally silent guide as they followed her back through the forest to where their camp waited. Robert could not shake the feeling they were being followed, but he refused to look back. Although he would never admit it, even to himself, he was afraid of what he might see if he did turn.

Somehow, their two tents looked unusually vulnerable to him when they returned to camp. He spoke nothing of his fears as he settled into a small, camp chair, and watched the guide stir the coals of their morning fire to prepare their lunch.

Lunch? He couldn't believe his eyes when he glanced at his watch. It was almost six. Time had fled, along with his reason. There as still Jenny to deal with, too, who had gone directly to her tent, and had yet to emerge.

"Old man," he finally spoke as he leaned forward in his chair. "Just what did we see out there?" "So, now you believe," the man smiled from where he just squatted before the fire he was coaxing back to life. "Well, you were right, He nodded as he next added ingredients to a hot pan of some kind of broth he was warming. "I have been here before. The first time was some thirty years past, by way of the truth."

Robert waited impatiently as the old man put the mixture of broth and vegetables over the flames to cook. "I'll be telling you a tale," the guide advised him as he, too, finally settled into one of the chairs with a weary sigh.

"Just don't be butting in till I finish, as my mind tends to wander enough on its own," he added with a sly grin, and a wink.

Robert nodded, and the old man looked up at the darkening skies as he cleared his voice to speak again. This time, his voice betrayed his age, and a sadness that had not been evident in him until that moment.

"Aye, thirty years ago, now, but it still seems as only yesterday to my mind. My own, darlin' daughter, my eldest, came this way on a hiking trip with friends. She got lost, they said. Cut off from the others somehow. No one could seem to find her, and they couldn't begin to guess where they were themselves. There were a hellish fog, they said of that day, and the police wrote her off, feeling she was likely lost in a bog. I took it upon myself to find her, and followed after her. At the first, I managed to find her trail easy enough, and couldn't understand why none others had when they had all those hounds, and such. At the time I didn't even stop to think why none before me could find such obvious tracks, but, then, city folk are every looking the wrong way at the wrong time," he stated blandly before pausing to look around for a moment.

"All the same, I was filled with hope for a time, as her trail grew fresher day after day. Right up to the day I stumbled upon that clearing back yonder. Only I didn't find my lass. I found only her torn, discarded clothes, and all about the place was the track of those grand beasties. I searched, and wandered for days after, but finally had to admit my lass was gone. Y'see, I spotted a few of them from time-to-time when they let me. Never once did I see my lass. Not once."

Robert allowed the old man his silence as they sat listening to the flames crackle softly under the small pot of stew he had simmering between them. The aroma that rose to fill the air reminded him he was actually hungry, but he was unnerved by this long silence. He was about to say something, anything, when the old man cleared his throat to speak again.

"That was but the first time I seen then. I come back a few times since. Twice with a lass such as your own. They both claimed to hear the call, but with their….their ends were different as night and day. I seen though, though, to learn some of their ways. I'll tell you of the second lass, first," he said as he shook his head sadly. "Aye, that second lass was a fine enough girl, but came to a terrible end. I hope never to see such a sight again. She had heard me while I was in my cups, y'see, and she said she believed. She paid me a handsome fee to lead her to the beasties, and who was I to refuse? Sure, and she claimed she were pure, but in the end 'tis the beasties that judge. When the courting reached that point we saw this very day, the beast fairly ripped her open from thigh to throat. The horror was, she was still alive and screaming when all the others came in to join the first in feastin' on her lying flesh. I ran from that sight, man, swearing never to return," he declared fiercely.

Robert said nothing to that as the old man sat staring at the fire for a time.

"But," he sighed heavily, "Here I am again."

"Why," Robert all but demanded, his own horror visible in his dark gaze.

"Why, you ask? Lad, I am not but a poor, crazy fool back in the world. That is how I be known. Only when a fresh flower hears my mad tales, and comes to me with a claim of knowledge, I cannot help but take her money, and lead her here to….."

"To her slaughter," Robert demanded.

"Don't be judging what you don't know, lad. No, for there was another time. All went as it did this morn, and it followed the same on the second day as well, her being accepted as pure by all the beasties. Least, 'twas my guessing. Well, by the third morning, I'm thinking the lass is fairly safe, and I'm well worn, so I'll just sleep in. Where's the harm, I thought. Only she never came back, and I ne'er seen her again after that day. Just like me own lass. She just…. Vanished."

"Do you know what happened to her," Robert asked hesitantly, glancing toward the tent where Jennifer had disappeared.

"I can only suspect," he admitted. "I come to think the beasties use such lasses for mating, though. To breed, they must need….fresh lasses. For you must have noted we saw only stallions this day."

Robert frowned at the thought that had already occurred to him, the man's words crystallizing his own suspicions. "But…wouldn't that be impossible? It has to be. Their size alone! And being of such obviously different species….?" "Aye, different. But touched by the old magic, man. Or so it is said. It is also said that such magic does as it wishes."

"Then why bring Jenny here," he demanded hotly. "If you knew, even suspected any of this was true….. Why?" "You ought to know yourself," the guide chided him as he learned forward to test the thickening past over the mixture of broth and vegetables in his pot. "Such women hear the beasties' call from birth, 'tis said. Only a few ever come to heed or understand that call, and actually follow the summons to these rare, magic places.

"Breeding grounds, I'll call them, like your lass.

"As to why, you ask? Why, to know for sure, and certain. This time, man, I will watch the lass to the very last. This time, I will know what happened to me own dear child. No matter what it may cost you, or her. That is why," he told Robert bluntly.

"And what happens after that," he hissed in contempt for the man's mad scheme.

"She is a fine lass," the old man sighed as he glanced toward her tent. "But 'tis her own destiny that she follows. I just happen to be along helping her find the right road. A road that, like or not, she might have found by herself in time, so don't be thinking you can blame your woes on me."

"Robert," Jennifer called out at that very moment, stumbling out of the tent as the guide reached to stir the simmering broth.

He looked her way, grateful that at least she looked herself again.

"Yes, Jenny," he answered, jumping up to steady her when she almost fell at his feet. Her trembling legs seemed unable to carry her just then, and he had to help her to the chair left for her near the fire.

"I'm okay," she reassured him. "Just a little headache," she said, rubbing absently at her forehead. "I think I just need something to eat, and a good night's rest."

"Supper'll be ready in a sec, lass," the old man smiled up at her as he knelt out of his chair to taste the thick broth with his wooden ladle he used to stir the pot.

"Are you all right," Robert asked her in spite of her reassurances. He was not certain she looked quite herself after all now that he really looked at her.

"I was right, Robert," she suddenly grinned girlishly up at him. "All these years, I was right. I hope you got some good pictures," she smiled innocently at him as the old man settled back in his chair, keeping is silence.

"You were right," Robert nodded solemnly, not bothering to glance at the camera he had set aside, not even thinking of those impossible images he had captured.

"I told you," she exclaimed again, excitement once more shining brightly in her crystalline eyes. "I told you," she echoed, sighing as she sagged in her chair as if too weary to even sit upright just then.

"Yes, you did," he agreed again, disturbed by her sudden weakness. "And since I have plenty of photographs to prove your theories, too, we can return…"

"Return," she frowned, the furrow between her delicate brows thickening as she stared up at him. "How can you even think of leaving when we've only just made an initial contact? My God, Robert, they are so much more complex than I would have ever imagined."

"What are you talking about," he demanded hotly as he half rose from his own chair after just sitting back down.

"The ceremony you saw today was just…..well, a beginning. The…."

She blushed scarlet when she realized only then that the two men had seen her, and watched her all day. That they had watched everything. The blush reassured him only slightly. He knew what the old man had told him, but he needed to know what was in Jenny's head. No one knew more about these impossible creatures than she did just then.

"Our guide seems to think they have some kind of….secret language," he suggested to her, sitting back down again. "Maybe like….telepathy. Did you sense anything from them," he asked guardedly. "I mean, anything comprehensible," he asked belatedly at her peculiar expression.

"Light," she blurted out. "Light, and music," she smiled again as she spoke. "When he touched me, it was if I felt all his love, his joy, in a burst of pure, warm light that just…..enveloped me. They are everything good and pure, because they do not allow anything impure to come among them. They speak in the language of song, too, and it….it is so….beautiful," she told him, her eyes glazing over just as they had that morning as if just the memories were enough to entrance her.

"I see," he murmured, unable to put the image of what had happened to that second girl the guide had spoken of from his mind. "What else?" "What else do you want to know," she asked with an innocent smile. She seemed oblivious to the darkness in his eyes, but his earlier decision was starting to reform in his conscious mind by now.

"Just what exactly was that ceremony all about today? Could you tell us that?" "They were showing off, mostly," she laughed softly. "I think they were offering themselves to me."

"And the black one?"

"He…. Well, he…..I suppose we sort of chose one another. He gave me a glimpse of their society, and as I said, even those brief glimpses were rather complex. I'm still trying to decipher a lot of what I saw, and….felt….in here," she told him, tapping her temple lightly.

"And why did he….? Why were you stripped," Robert blurted out, his own frustration fueled by a dark anger.

"Robert," she laughed vibrantly. "Are you jealous?"

He looked down, and noticed for the first time that even sitting down, her legs continued to tremble visibly. Even her feet, left bare, were sporadically convulsing as if she no had any control over her own muscles. He forced herself to look back up at her face, and found himself furious that her expression revealed no pain. No discomfort. Certainly, no shame. Instead, she seemed to be blissfully euphoric, as if intoxicated.

"Just answer me," he demanded. "What was all that….that fondling about? My God, woman, you looked positively indecent out there. You looked as if you were trying to make love to that freakish brute," he charged her.

Jennifer only smiled tolerantly, and he almost didn't hear her softly spoken reply. "I was," she informed him with a wistful sigh that only served to further infuriate him.

"Why," he demanded of her, not noting the old man's smirked as he ladled stew out into three wooden bowls, handing Jennifer hers first.

Only then did it occur to him where he had seen similar behavior to hers. She was acting just like one of those addicts that would occasionally filtered through his classes at the university. "The horn," he guessed. "That creature's horn secreted something that is affecting you."

"Nonsense," she laughed as she took the bowl from the old man, and began eating hungrily. "Now you're just being silly."

"Al the same, you are not going back there again," he informed her flatly. "First thing in the morning, we are leaving this godforsaken place. You will not be seeing that black devil again, and that is final," he told her with grim determination.

"Good night, Robert," she told him patiently after handing the old man back her empty bowl to stand on still wobbly legs. He watched her go, mesmerized by the old grace she possessed despite her obvious discomfort. He had to have her. In that moment, he knew, and acknowledged that the depth of his desire. He would have her, but first he would have to get her away from that time-lost freak of nature.

He barely tasted his own stew the guide had handed him as he planned their early departure for tomorrow morning in his mind. They would leave this dark place behind forever even if he had to drag that foolish woman out of here bound hand and foot. She was his, damn it. His!

He was so distracted by his own thoughts that he almost didn't hear the echoing scream that had so startled them just that morning sound in the near distance. The old man nodded at the sound, but said nothing. He only wished that the lass had come alone, as they had originally planned.

That night Robert slept heavily after he finally lay down. So heavily that he did not know when the guide slipped from his blankets, and left him alone. He did not know when the sun rose into a sky hidden by the thick, green canopy that was becoming increasingly more menacing to his mind. He only knew that when he woke, he was alone in the tent.

"Damn," he swore hotly as he looked around the interior of their tent, and realized that he had indeed been left behind. He rose, dressing quickly, and stopped only to verify what he had already suspected. It took no more than a glimpse to confirm that Jennifer had gone as well. He swore again as he dashed madly though the brush, following the faint trail that seemed twice as long as it had been the day before as he tried not to get lost.

Sweat rolled down his brow, blinding him at times as he ran headlong through the forest, fearing the worst with every step. The sun was already high overhead, and it tormented him with its false light bleeding through the shadowy canopy as the forest itself remained dank and murky to his eyes. He finally reached the clearing, and when he looked for Jennifer beyond the assembled flesh of assembled unicorns, he couldn't help but gasp aloud in naked disbelief.

Unicorns of every imaginable color were once more filling the clearing. Only these creatures were all mares. All except that single, black brute that was again kneeling majestically beside a very naked Jennifer in the very center of that glad. She was leaning back against the creature's strong back, idly stroking its dark mane as she watched the mares circling them in silent procession.

Two thoughts filled his mind at that moment.

That the old man had lied. For there were obviously mares here. Dozens of them.

Also, he wondered why the infernal creatures wanted women, especially his Jenny, if they already had mares of their own with which to breed. That was when he finally noticed Jennifer's bare legs when the circle moved just enough for him to get a clear view of her.

"Dear God," he cried aloud as he stood just beyond the thicket that hid the old man, the sound startling the parading mares into instant flight. Only the stallion remained, rising slowly to stand imperiously over the naked woman who remained at his side. Jennifer stood as well, but stayed close to his side, pressing herself against his massive flanks as if the beast were her champion. Her protector.

"Back away from the glade, you damned fool," a familiar voice hissed from behind him even as the guide's strong hands dragged him back into the brush. He had been about to enter the clearing, and had not been aware of anything else but Jenny. His Jenny. Or rather, the thing that she was becoming.

"What's happening to her," he almost cried as she and the beast both relaxed at his retreat. The stallion lowered its big head, one bright eye cocked toward them as it offered its glistening horn back to the woman who once again suckled at it as if she were a starving babe.

"I reckon that that's what happened to my own dear lass, lad," the old man said as he continued to stare at her. "I reckon that be what happens to them all."

"What do you mean," he demanded, unable to tear his eyes from the incredible vision before him.

"You must know. Sure, and you must know by now," the old man murmured as he finally turned away. "She is to be made one of them. I can see that now. Just as I can see what surely must have come of my daughter. It was her fate to join that circle of wild beasties, as it is now your lass' fate to join them. I only hope she truly is happy with them," he sighed, and Robert wasn't quite sure which woman he spoke of just then. His daughter, or Jenny.

"Are you mad," he exclaimed after tearing his gaze from the horrific sight before him. "We can't let that thing do this to her. We have to stop it. Somehow….we have to stop it."

The old man had been about to leave, but he stopped. "Lad," he sighed without turning to face Robert. "Their magic is in her blood. And not the blood of her veins, as you must know. 'Tis her purity. Aye, her purity which has brought her to this, and so her purity will put paid to the spell that will claim her in time. Or so I'm guessing after all I've seen."

"You're saying….?" "You know what I am saying, man," he spat at him. "You're forgetting what the lass and I have already told you," he told him in disgust.

"I still don't understand," Robert protested.

"Aye, I guessed as much. City folk. You have no real understanding of the old ways. The wild ways. You two," he turned to gesture at the stallion as he spoke now. "You are rivals. That great beastie and you, you both view for the lass. Only think of the lass, Robbie, and consider what becomes of her if you try to break the spell on her now, which I can see in your eyes you are pondering. Think of the second lass I told you of earlier, and use what imagination you have left. Aye, you might break the spell with your actions. Only does that change the lass back to what she were? Or does she stay as she is now, if the beasties even let her live," he asked pointedly.

"And, Robbie," he added as he now stared right into Robert's pale, shocked gaze. "Recall everything of what I said. You two are rivals. Do you really think that great rival of your'n will let you go without paying the penalty for your sins do you dare cross him? Ask yourself that, lad, afore you go doing aught about the thoughts rattling about in your thick, empty skull."

"I have to do something," he muttered mutinously after a moment, shaking his head with sullen determination. "I can just let that thing take her."

"You're not asked the one question that should matter most," the old man finally sighed.

"And what would that be," he asked him impatiently.

"You haven't asked if'n this be what the lass herself wants. Maybe…..Maybe she prefers to be right where she is now."

Robert frowned at that thought, unable to even begin comprehending such a bizarre idea. One glance at Jenny's now freakish appearance told him the old man was wrong, and he was right. She would never consciously want to be like that. He had to save her, but even he could not dismiss what his eyes beheld in that glen. Still, neither could he tear his eyes from the sight, not even when the old man left him there alone with his trouble thoughts.

Jennifer now resembled nothing more than some mad artist's vision of some half-equine forest nymph. She was a vision of feminine grace and beauty, until one looked below her hips. Yet the sight of her twisted flesh beyond those widely flared hips still stirred him despite the unnatural look of her. It was as if science and reality had yielded their hold upon her physical form, and what had once been long, slender legs were now a furred semblance of equine flanks. Her feet had curled down into tight, hard cores that were now little more than dainty, cloven hooves, and even a small, dark tail of silken hair now sprouted from behind the firm, rounded flanks of her newly firmed bottom.

"Dear God," he swore half aloud at himself. He was already attributing her with bestial characteristics himself.

Flanks?

Hooves?

Yet how else could he describe her now? Her legs were no longer truly human. In fact, much of her lower abdomen was also dusted with the same fine, dark hairs that covered her legs.

"All right, you black bastard," Robert growled from his vantage point behind the thick brush. "You might enjoy her today, but tonight she will be mine again. Damned if she won't," he swore hotly as he left the ghastly sight of the misshapen female behind to seek the normalcy of their camp.

He did not glance back as he stalked away, unable to bear another glimpse of the alien intimacy between the mismatched pair. If he had, he might have seen the stallion turn to stare after him, his round, golden eyes glowing with an intensity that bespoke its own determination. It was as if he understood Robert's challenge, and had accepted it.

The light was not yet gone from the sky when Jennifer finally returned to the camp. Her legs, her flanks, were no longer weak, or trembling. She moved with a strength and grace that were so unnatural for her that it only fueled the rage that was still growing in Robert's heart.

"Jenny," he tried to greet her.

There was another change in her already. The sight of it choked off any words he might have spoken. For her forehead was now swollen to the point it seemed an elongated knot was already about to thrust out from between her glazed eyes. He no longer doubted what he she was becoming. It was all too obvious from the twisted shape of her morphing body.

"It's wonderful, Robert," she tried to tell him, as if not sensing his mood. "So wonderful. They are such fantastic beings, and they're letting me join them. Me," she cried happily.

"No," he blurted out, paying her childish enthusiasm no heed as he glared at her from his seat near the fire.

"It is like a dream," she babbled on, equally heedless of his own outburst. "A wonderful dream I could never have thought possible until now. I feel like every dream I have ever had is about to come true," she smiled brightly, so caught up in her own fantasies she didn't see his harsh, glaring features when he looked her way.

"Wonderful," he replied somberly, his tone dripping with contempt. His distaste for what she was becoming visible on his scowling visage.

"Yes," she agreed, still seeing none of that as she smiled back. "It is very wonderful."

"Shouldn't you be putting some clothes on," he asked her bluntly, trying not to allow himself the titillation that came with the sight of her remaining bare, pink flesh. That part of her that was not yet covered in dark hair, or fur, or whatever it was he amended in silent disgust. For that hair had already risen to the point it was now dusting her breasts, too.

"Why," she asked artlessly. "I don't really need them any longer. It isn't as if you two haven't already seen what there is to see," she added with an impish grin at her two companions.

She was teasing him now, he realized bleakly. She had to be. Months of dating, and careful manipulations, and tender courting for what? So some freak out of a child's fairy tale could steal her from him without so much as a word of protest? He wanted to slap her. To force her to see herself as what she was becoming in his eyes. Didn't she knew how horrible she looked at that moment? Didn't she understand?

"You cannot really want this," he blurted out. "My God, Jenny. You're turning into a freak!"

A frown crossed her face as she looked down involuntarily. Her hands moved down her thickening flanks, feeling the smooth, warm silk of her dark hair covering her body. She looked back up at Robert, not with shame, but with a strange mixture of pride and anger.

"You don't understand," she accused him with a fierce expression as she shook her head. "I thought you did, but you don't."

Robert felt a sense of déjà vu, knowing he had seen that expression before now. Even as he wondered where, the answer came to him. She wore the same mad gaze that the stallion had exhibited when he had almost walked out into that glade. He had to shake his head at the similarity. Why had he ever let her come on this mad venture? He tried to frame words, seek logical reasons to show her how wrong all of this was, but by the time his mind had cleared enough to think rationally, Jenny had already retreated to her tent.

"Tomorrow's the day," the guide spoke softly, startling Robert. He had been so quiet that he had almost forgotten the man was even still there.

"What?" "Tomorrow, lad. Seems 'tis always the third day with magics, and tomorrow," he told him frankly, "Is the third day."

"So it is," Robert nodded grimly.

"Stew's hot," the old man informed Robert as he filled a bowl for himself. "If'n you're hungry. I'm just going to finish this up, and head for bed myself."

"I'm getting too old to stay up so late, he smiled thinly. "Especially since I intend to be up early," he winked, teasing Robert with his late rising that morning.

"This time," he nodded at Robert. "This time… I'll see it through to the end. I'll know for sure and certain what happens out there."

"Damn," Robert swore to himself as the man finished his food, banked the fire, and left him standing there alone as he went into their smaller tent to seek his blanket.

Once again he felt as if their small camp was alarmingly vulnerable to the darkness growing around them. For the first time he began to wonder what other creatures might lurk in this enchanted forest. Were the unicorns alone here? Or were there other beasts, equally fantastic, that still roamed the shadows beyond the sight of mortal men. Creatures that might find the unicorn as helpless prey? That thought did nothing for his state of mind.

Especially when a low, wailing moan filled his ears from far off in the distance. He wondered if that was one of those possible predators. The thought of Jennifer, in any form, being ravaged by some bloodthirsty monstrosity, forced the unthinkable to finally rise in his mind.

True, the thought had been in his mind all along, but now the moment of truth was at hand. As the old man had said, only one thing drew the beast to Jenny. It stood to reason then that only one thing would separate them. Secure in his dark logic, he turned toward Jennifer's tent rather than his own. A small candle was still burning on a stump she had pitched her tent over in order to use it as a make-shift table. He hesitated only briefly as he lifted the flap of the tent to peer in at her.

"Hello," she greeted him cheerfully as she turned from a journal with a pen in her hand, acting as if she had not stormed away in anger only a short time ago. He frowned at her, thinking he shouldn't have expected her to be sitting on the cot as she usually did, but neither had he expected to find her squatting before her makeshift table, scribbling furiously in her journal. Yet there she was, doing just that.

"Come in. Come in," she waved absently with her pen. "I was just trying to get everything down while it was still fresh in my mind. They really are such wondrous, complex beings," she enthused again as she went back to scribbling her thoughts on paper.

"With your photographs, and my words, you can finally prove to the world that I was right all along."

"I can prove you were right," he echoed in confusion.

"Well, honestly, Robert," she smiled back at him again, her pen pausing briefly again. "I cannot see myself going back now," she told him as if he had not already thought of that himself.

"Jenny," he shook his head. "Think. Think of what you are doing to yourself. Even if anyone does believe…..us, do you really want them invading this place? Perhaps hunting, or even capturing these….creatures for zoos. Or worse?"

"Of course not," she murmured, lost in her writing again.

"Besides…."

"Besides, what," she asked, turning to regard him with a grim expression that told him she was considering far more than what he had warned her of just then. Outsiders would do more harm than good if they ever found the glade, true. Still, what would they do to her, if she tried to return?

"I….I thought we could…. I thought we might be able to undo this….magic," he told her with a helpless shrug as he took a step closer. "Then you could make your own report. If that was what you wanted to do."

"And how would you undo this magic," she asked him guardedly as she stared directly into his eyes with an unusual brightness to her crystalline, blue orbs. Then she added, "And why would I want to even try?" "Jenny," he faltered helplessly, stepping toward her again.

"I see so much more now that ever before," she told him. "Of the world, and of you. I know you care, in your own, selfish way. But you wanted me just for the challenge more than anything else. After all, I was just a silly, American virgin that dared refuse you. Well, that doesn't make me anyone's toy, Robert," she continued curtly. "It doesn't make me stupid, either. You can't have me. You never could. I belong to someone else."

"Some….thing, you mean," he spat at her, his rising temper finally exploding.

"He is far more human than you are just now," she retorted harshly. "He truly loves me. Can you say that? Can you honestly say that?"

"That thing just wants to breed with you, you silly bitch," he shouted at her.

"And what do you want," she shouted back as she stood to confront him. "You don't know. You don't understand. They aren't like that. They've very civilized. They have their own language. They have stories, and songs, and….."

"You stupid, ignorant little virgin," he shouted, slapping her so hard she fell back beside her small cot with a ragged cry.

"Robert, please," she begged him when he slammed a hard fist into her side when she tried to stand. Her protest was cut off when the blow forced the air from her lung.

"Yes," he hissed down at her as he fumbled with his fly. "If you want to be an animal, then, by God, I'll take you like one."

"No, Robert," she screamed in genuine fear as he fell across her back, pining her to the ground beneath his still greater weight. She struggled madly, but he was still larger, and stronger than she was despite her changes.

"If I cannot have you," he thundered, "Then no one….nothing will!"

He again fumbled with his fly, and she felt the obscene bulge of his rampant flesh pressed against her exposed buttocks held back only by her fledgling tail. She screamed again, but Robert was beyond caring.

Until the screams changed.

The cry that filled the air now was shrill, and angry, drowning out the woman's broken sobs as she struggled beneath him. The air itself seemed to shake with the wild, echoing call, and in the wake of that trumpeting rage, Robert froze just long enough for Jennifer to scramble away from him, escaping him, and the tent. Cursing darkly, he pursued her even as the shrill cry rang in the air again. This time, from just a few feet away from the tent.

He never saw the blow the struck him down as he scrambled out of tent after Jenny, driving him to the ground with the force of a sledgehammer to his skull as he left the tent. Flashing cloven hooves danced around him, and he tried to ignore the pain in his head, and the deafening cries of the ebony brute as it reared over him once again. He was about to die, but all he could think of was that he had failed to save Jenny from the this thing's unholy spell.

"No," Jenny's voice rang out in that tense moment as those deadly hooves drove down toward his fragile chest. In that same instant, the hooves moved, and landed to bracket his shoulders as the stallion ended up standing over him, his long, glistening spike aimed at his throat as those wild, golden eyes glared down at him. The spike lightly brushed his temple where he had been struck, and in the same instant all his pain simply vanished and a soft, melodic whisper along with a genuinely alien sensation filled his mind.

"She does not need your saving," rang out quite clearly through his mind as the whispering sounds mended the pain in his skull.

Yet he knew no one had spoken.

He gaped at the creature straddling him with its forelegs, too stunned to even blink as he realized where those words, and strange music now filling his head had originated.

"I tried to tell you," Jenny said as she moved to stand beside her protector. His eyes widened all the more when he realized her lips had not moved when she spoke to him.

"You may stay tomorrow," the masculine voice spoke again, it's tone filled with a carefree laughter as the unicorn pranced backward to let him rise. He was forced to accept the sound really was pure and innocent, full of life's joy. Nothing malicious dwelt in the beast's heart or mind. He had simply been protecting his mate.

"You may stay, but you must not interfere again," he was warned as he slowly sat up, and simply stared up at the mismatched pair before him.

Finally, Robert managed a slow nod, and in that moment of acceptance, he felt his numbed soul open to the wonder and magic that he knew had not been present in his perspective before that very moment. It was obviously the unicorn's doing, but he did not care.

"Tomorrow," rang in the air between them as the creature turned, and slipped back into the shadows surrounding the camp. It moved so silently, and gracefully it seemed to have all but melted into those shadows.

"I tried to tell you," Jennifer said with her own voice as she passed him, but without looking down at him this time. The damage had been done, and it could not be undone.

"I know," he replied all the same, sorrow adding weight to his words as he waited until she disappeared back into her tent before finally standing. "I know," he repeated to the empty night surrounding him.

The old man was asleep, or pretending to be, when Robert finally went to their tent. He did not care which. He was still trying to put everything into some sort of perspective as he lay down atop his bedroll. His entire world had changed the moment that golden spike had touched him. It was as if had been asleep before abruptly waking to a whole new world of sensation. One that was beyond anything he would have previously thought possible.

The lyrical tones of the unicorn's mind-voice still ran through his head without cessation. Rather than disturbing him, he found himself craving more of the revelations of which he had been granted only the faintest of glimpses.

"Was…is this….what it is like for her," he wondered aloud as he lay staring into the darkness around him that no longer seemed quite so menacing. There was no answer.

He wouldn't have thought he could sleep, but apparently he did, for he was roused only by the firm shake of a strong hand even before the first rays of the sun had touched the sky. The old man grinned at him as he knelt over him.

"I'm thinking neither of us want to miss this morn," he suggested as he moved back to let Robert clamber to his feet.

"Jenny?"

"The lass just left. The beastie himself came to fetch her not five minutes past."

If the guide knew what had happened in the night, he wasn't speaking of it. For that, Robert was grateful. He was more than ashamed of himself when he looked back on his behavior last night, and didn't want to dwell on it. He merely nodded at the man before taking a long drink from the canteen that lay near his bedroll. The water was warm, and brackish, but it refreshed him. He hadn't undressed before laying down, so he simply combed through is short hair with his fingers, and followed the guild out of the tent. Oddly enough, he found himself welcoming whatever revelation might come today.

"Let's go," he told the old man, not even caring to wait for breakfast despite having not eaten last night.

"Aye, man," the guide nodded solemnly. "I've a feeling we both need to see what's what this day."

The trip to the glade was made in silence. Even the insects were quiet this morning. It was as if the entire forest knew something was about to happen, and was holding its collective breath in anticipation. This time, Robert felt the path was too short, that they must have somehow missed the clearing. He began to despair of even finding the clearing again when they finally came to the tangled brush where they had hidden that first day. He still felt as if something was missing. The emptiness of the glade only amplified the feeling as they looked for some sign. Even Jennifer was nowhere to be seen.

He considered violating the apparent sanctity of the clearing to go in search of her. Even as he considered taking the first step, a rush of clover hooves announced a veritable stampede of unicorns that rushed from the forest's depths to fill the clearing. Young and old, great and small, male and female, the glade was suddenly filled with dozens of multicolored beasts straight out of some age old fantasy. There was still no sign of the black stallion, though, or of Jennifer.

The beasts settled into a tight circle made of several orderly rows of equine flesh. The stallions formed the inner circle of the ring, and something told both men that there was something significant to the placement of the circle's numbers. The young animals came next, with the mares comprising the outermost rings of the great circle.

As if on some unspoken cue, a shrill trumpeting cry broke the silence of the early morning air even as one side of the circle parted to form a narrow corridor that led to the center of the glade. Robert watched slack-jawed in wonder as the black unicorn appeared only then with Jenny at his side. Her body hair was thicker than ever, and her hair was now long and thick enough to form a genuine mane down her slender back as it flowed over her shoulders in a shimmering curtain of black silk. Even her eyes were different, somehow bluer and brighter than he had ever seen them.

She kept pace at the stallion's side on her own fully formed clover hooves with a fluid grace that seemed miraculous given her misshapen body. How could he have ever thought her a freak? She was almost too beautiful to behold, her face shining with life and joy, almost childlike in her innocence.

The extraordinary couple stopped only after they reached the center of the glade. The narrow path inward closed behind them, and now Jenny was lost to sight as she knelt in the midst of a sea of colorful equine flesh. Even as Robert considered edging closer, a brilliant burst of rainbow-colored light exploded out from the center of that magical circle. Before his blinded eyes could completely clear he heard once more the rush of hooves as most of the creatures fled the glen for the shadows of their forest home.

Only five of the magical beasts remained behind, and he realized with a start that the sleek black mare with the sky blue eyes nuzzling the stallion had to be Jenny.

Unable to stop himself, Robert ignored both the old man, and the stares of the creatures before him. He emerged from the concealing brush, stopping inches from the black mare with the silver spiral of glistening bone rising from her narrow forehead. He didn't know if she pointed that spike at him in warning, or in invitation. Still, he did not retreat this time.

"Jenny," he murmured quietly as he stopped, standing perfectly still before her.

The mare snorted once, and then a wordless song filled his mind. Tears brimmed in his eyes as he reached out to touch her, but he couldn't quite bring himself to touch her. He found himself dropping to his knees, staring up at her in wonder.

"I won't tell them about this place," he promised the extraordinary couple. "I'll let everyone know you were right," he smiled a tentative smile up at her, "But they'll never find you. No one will, unless you call them. I finally understand," he sighed, staring up at both of the sleek, black creatures of legend before him. "I finally understand."

The stallion nodded once, and with a shake of his long tail, he and Jennifer were gone in less time than it took to blink. Only three other unicorns remained as he slowly climbed to his feet. One of the trio was a huge, silver-white stallion, so pure in color it almost hurt to stare at him. Next to him stood a half grown colt of soft brown that was only then beginning its own magical spiral. Close by, and strangely familiar, was an auburn mare with eyes greener than summer grass. Its soft, lyrical song filled his mind for the briefest of instants, and then it looked over to where the old man stood, still hesitant to cross over into the clearing.

"Old man," he called over his shoulder. "This is your daughter, Mina. She wants to say goodbye."

"'Tis true," the old man whispered as he dared come a little closer, and then a little more. "Aye. Aye, 'tis true," he murmured, stepping close enough to look eye to eye with the mare.

"She wants you to stop grieving for her. She's happy here, and wants you to go back to living your own life," he told the guide.

"You can hear her, then," he asked in wonder, looking from Robert to the mare with fiery coloring, and the bashful colt that stood nearby. Her family. "Ah, lass, I only wished to know what became of you," he told her as he looked at the three unbelievable animals. "Your mother still frets over your soul, but there is no need. Is there? No need at all."

The stallion snorted once, and the colt ran up beside its mother, braving the nearness of the two strange men. The mare looked back at the stallion, then trotted over to join the big stud, her colt close behind.

Robert watched with the old man as the last of the unicorns departed the circle, leaving them alone. The old guide wiped a single tear from his gray-green eyes as he watched them go. Finally, completely alone in the circle, Robert turned to make his way back to the camp with the old man at his side.

"I do understand now," he told the shadows around them as he walked away from the magical place. He knew they heard him. They heard everything in their forest.

"Do you really, lad?" "Yes.

"They only bear males, you see," he explained as they walked back to camp. "So they have to call for mates to come to them. It's part of their magic. Only so few truly believe these days that only a few answer their summons. The legends go it all wrong," he realized as he recalled some of what Jenny had told him. "The virgins don't trap the unicorns. The virgins were only following the summons to join them. They help keep the race alive."

"And what now, lad," he asked. "What will you say when we return?" "The truth," Robert smiled. "Jenny went home, and she won't be coming back. She told me herself she had no family. No one will be coming to look for her."

"And the glade," the old man asked.

"That will be our secret, although I doubt anyone will ever find it again without following a virgin to this forest hideaway. Still, I think I will write her book. A book that will explain the legends….and maybe wake others to the magic of strange….beasties again. Who knows? There may be others out there who are hearing a call to a destiny that they don't yet understand."

"You don't regret losing her, lad?" "Do you regret finding your daughter as she was?"

"Nay. I regret only that I couldn't hear her lovely voice one last time."

"She had a very beautiful voice," Robert told the old man. "They all do," he added as he noticed the forest seemed more brightly lit than ever before to his eyes. "A laughing, musical voice, full of life, and….joy."

"Her mother will never believe me," the old man mourned softly, but with a degree of humor back in his old eyes.

"They're happy, old man. And, they're safe in their forest home. Tell her that."

"Aye, and you send us one of them books you plan to write," he grinned as they went to pack up their camp, knowing they could no longer stay.

"Goodbye, Jenny," he murmured just before they stepped back through the fog that seemed to be growing up around them as they left the forest behind sometime later. He liked to think he heard a last, lilting farewell before the gray mist carried them back to a cold, gray reality.

End…?