In ages past lost to history there were many great kingdoms and dominions where magical beasts would cavort or challenge each other for honour's sake. The greatest of these kingdoms was the Land of the Unicorns.

Now, it came to pass that the third King of the Unicorns, Undomniel and his beautiful wife Lavrigne were heralded as the wisest and most benevolent of all Unicorn Royalty.

And their kingdom was blessed beyond measure by prosperity and joy. But there was a great sadness in Undomniel's heart because Lavrigne had foaled only a sickly filly and fallen ill herself, unable to give her Lord any further issue.

But Undomniel loved his daughter and named her Callarna, which in the language of the Unicorns is the precise sound that rainbows make before they pass back into the mists.

And he appointed three magical beasts from neighboring kingdoms to be her Honour Guard.

The first of these was a Dragon from the Realm of Fire, named Velasco. Velasco was renowned far and wide for his heroism and gallantry.

The second was a Mermaiden from the Land of Water named Selana. She was renowned for her wisdom and compassion.

The third of Callarna's honour guard was a Griffin from the Dominion of Sky named Eoffin. Eoffin was second to none in the arts of war.

The Unicorn nobility was pleased with the wise choice of companions for the young Unicorn princess, but worried about the purity of the royal blood.

"Oh Horn of the World," said the King's Grand Vizier, "I cherish your daughter almost as much as my duty to the throne. But your lady wife is ill and will never again bear you issue, and the Princess royal is delicate. It behooves me to suggest that you take a second wife to bear a strong Stallion."

The King tossed his mane imperiously. "My daughter is issue of my loins and heir to my name. She shall reign as Queen after me. I have long relied on your counsel, but to suggest that I betray my Lady Wife, and to suggest that I name another child as my heir besides my first born foal is something I will not take lightly. Keep your tongue Vizier, for your talk is near to treason."

The Grand Vizier bowed his head, and dimmed the light in his horn as was proper.

The King dismissed him and left to watch over his daughter, who was at that moment taking horn fencing lessons from Eoffin. Eoffin bowed at the King's approach, but Lord Undomniel bid him continue. Eoffin spoke gently to Callarna, "You have the swiftness and fleetness of hoof of the best of your kind. But my Princess, why did you not press your advantage? Your horn had surpassed my talons, yet you fell back. Why?"

The Princess' eyes grew round at soft. "I did not want to hurt you."

Eoffin clicked his beak and ruffled his feathers. "My Lady, there are those who would hurt you. You must learn that gentleness is not always wise."

***

At that very moment, the Grand Vizier was meeting with a cabal of Unicorn Nobles in a forest glen. Unhappy with the King's refusal to take a second wife, he and the heads of several houses were meeting to discuss the affairs of the kingdom. Lord Mercules of House Whinham began. "It has not been long since the war against the Phoenixes. Our peace is uneasy. They fear Undomniel's might, but when, Virgin Mare forbid, he passes into the great pasture, I doubt this Callarna will be a deterrant to the blood thirsty firebirds."

The Grand Vizier whinnied in agreement. "As always, you are wise, Lord Mercules. But the King's mind is set. He will not remarry, and he will not name a Stallion as his heir."

Lady Prescott of House Fordriver tossed her mane. "Indeed, and why is it necessary for a stallion to hold the reins? The mares of Fordriver are as blooded as any Stallion of Mounting."

Lord Milfescu of Mounting bared his teeth at this. "Does my lady give insult?"

"Indeed not. Your house's valor is beyond refute. But then, so is mine."

The Grand Vizier's voice was silky. "My Lords and Ladies, your houses are all indeed noble. As noble as the house that sits the Saddle Throne. There is no doubt of that."

The Grand Vizier allowed his eyes to widen, as if he had a sudden thought. "No, no. To think such things are treason. Surely you all have sworn fealty to the throne. I would not impugn your honor."

Lord Milfescu's voice was cold and sharp. "I have sworn fealty to Undomniel. Not his chosen heir. My loyalty is to the Kingdom of Unicorns."

The Grand Vizier's voice was steady. "But if some tragic accident were to befall the King, Virgin Mare forbid, may his lordship remain healthy, surely you would acclaim Callarna queen?"

"And have the Phoenixes burn our pastures before the Emerald Tiara sits on her horn?" Lord Mercules said archly.

Lady Prescott pawed the earth. "I mislike this talk. Undomniel is in the prime of his health, and the Princess Royal has the best companions available."

"Best?" Said Lord Milfescu. "None of them are unicorns."

The Grand Vizier batted his eyes. "My Lady has the right of it. The King is the image of health. But should something unforseen happen, perhaps My Lady would deign to serve as regent to the Princess royal until she comes of age? Strictly as a deterrent to the Phoenix hordes, of course."

"Indeed? And what does this arrangement profit you, Galfantes?"

The Grand Vizier looked the picture of wide-eyed innocence. "My lady? It profits the realm. I have ever aimed to serve."

"Enough." said Lord Mercules. "I am first general of the Rainbow brigade. The Army will not bow to a sickly filly."

Lord Milfescu chuckled darkly. "Are you suggesting a coup, My Lord? Your army would not last a fortnight without funds from the Exchequer."

Lady Prescott muttered darkly. "It is queer to see how quickly honor flies in the face of naked ambition. You both have your oaths."

Cords stood out on Lord Mercules' neck. "My oath is to the Kingdom, not some foal!"

The Grand Vizier's voice was mellifluous. "Lords and Lady, we all want what's best for the Kingdom. And I am certain that the King shall reign for a time yet to come. But I don't think it all imprudent to suggest that we form a council to protect the throne until young Callarna comes of age,should something untoward happen to her father."

"As long as I had equal say to the valiant Mercules, I could agree to that." said Lord Milfescu.

"And I agree also."said Lord Mercules.

"I do not" said Lady Prescott. "I will not be caught in your web, Galfantes."

Holding her head high, Lady Prescott cantered away from the others.

Lord Milfescu whispered to the Grand Vizier, "I told you she would be trouble."

The Grand Vizier chuckled. "Yes. And won't it be tragic when she is hanged for the murder of the king. The house of Fordriver shamed by a traitor."

***

Back at the Royal Palace, Callarna had just finished horn fencing exercises with Eoffin and was out-of-breath. Her father, satisfied that his daughter was as talented a hornsfilly as any of his house guard, left his child to her studies and began to pace the ramparts. From high atop the curtain wall, he could see his vast kingdom stretching out before him. He had devoted his life to protecting and enriching the realm, but remained unsatisfied. "There is still so much to do. Even here, in the most fortunate land of all the magical beasts, there is unjustice, and crime, and hunger."

He said this to no one in particular and was surprised when a voice answered him. "You are a good King, my Lord." It was his Lady Wife, Lavrigne. Roused from her chambers where she had lain ill for long months. "But even a good king cannot expect to remedy all the wickedness that exists in the world."

Tears stung the corner of Undomniel's eyes. "My beloved, the west wind is to harsh for you in your delicate condition."

Queen Lavrigne's horn glowed softly gold. "The west wind shall not chill me much longer. And I have urgent need of speech with you."

Undomniel knew well that a golden horn was an ill-omen for a unicorn. "My Lady, we must get you to bed. You are ill, I will call for the physicians of the Merpeople."

There was compassion in Lavrigne's eyes, but also a finality. "You know, my Lord, that before we came to wed, I was known as something of a prophet among my House. I have had a dream, a dream of dark and terrible things whilst I lay sick with fever."

"My beloved, it was a dream. Do not let such things trouble you."

The Queen would not be dissuaded.

"There are dark plots against you even now, my Lord. I cannot defeat them all, but if by my life or my death, I can keep you safe, then all is not lost."

"You are ill, my love."

"No longer." The Queen's horn glowed so brightly that the King was forced to turn his head and shut his eyes against its brightness. When his eyes opened, her horn no longer glowed. The life had fled the Queen.

***

The King called for a full 60 days of mourning for Lavrigne. He wanted nothing more than to creep into his chambers and lock the world away, but he had both a young daughter and a kingdom to protect, and so he went about his duties diligently.

He knew full well that after the mourning period was over, his courtiers would demand that he make arrangements for a new queen. Callarna was saddened by the loss of her mother, but as Lavrigne had lain ill for much of her life, did not feel the sting of loss as greatly as other foals might. Her studies with her companions continued apace.

From Selana, she learned logic, philosophy and magic. Eoffin taught her to fight, and hunt. Velasco instructed her in dance, courtly manners, archery, and fire safety. That she excelled at archery was a marvel, for Unicorns have no hands to pull back the bowstring.

And while the kingdom mourned the good Queen, the Grand Vizier slowly advanced his own agenda.

A border skirmish broke out between a minor noble in fief to Lady Prescott and a neighboring Salamander Lord, despite years of good faith and friendliness. Lady Prescott was forced to return to Fordriver to adjudicate the affair. Her absence from the Queen's funeral did not go unnoticed. The Queen was Lady Prescott's first cousin on her sire's side, and there were some nobles who muttered darkly that perhaps the loyalty of Fordriver was no longer beyond question.

On the sixtieth and final day of mourning, the Grand Vizier approached the King. The King appeared weary and nodded his head prefunctorily at Galftantes' approach. "I do hope you are not coming before me to advise me of a suitably noble mare of marriageable age."

"Your Majesty has such little faith in his humble servant's sensitivity. While this indeed a subject that must eventually be broached, I am aware that your heart is lorn over the loss of your Lady Wife-- as is the whole kingdom-- and such a time is not prudent for either My Lord or the realm as a whole."

The King managed a wan smile. "And why have you approached me?" "I am ever your humble servant, and would not broach a delicate subject as this while Your Majesty suffers the pangs of loss were it not of the utmost importance--"

The King whinnied. "Galfantes, my patience today is thin."

"There are disturbing rumors that while the Kingdom wore black, Lady Prescott has taken up the scarlet banner and plans a rebellion against the throne."

The King's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Fordriver has ever been counted among our most staunch and loyal vassals. There had best be more than unsubstantiated rumours should you bring such dire accusations before me, Galfantes."

"Lady Prescott did not attend the funeral rites of her cousin, your beloved wife, my liege."

"Indeed. And I am told there were sudden internal affairs that required her immediate intervention."

"Yes. Quite understandable. And easy to dismiss all these whispers as mean and petty gossip were it not for this afternoon's events." The Grand Vizier lowered his head sorrowfully.

"This afternoon's events?"

The Grand Vizier's eyes widened. "Your Majesty did not know? There was an attack on your daughter as she gamboled in the field this afternoon. It was manfully defeated by Eoffin and Velasco. On the remains of the assassin your spymaster found Fordriver coin, and the assassin's dying words were 'Prescott'"

The King reared. His eyes flashed angrily. "The Princess Royal's life was in peril and you come before me with gossip? Damn you, Galfantes." He set off at a full gallop down the halls towards his daughter’s quarters.

Standing guard over the doorway were Velasco and Eoffin. They both bowed deeply in deference to the King. Undomniel did not stop for formalities. "My daughter?"

Velasco replied, "The Princess, she is well, mi rey. Inside, she takes the water magic with Selana."

"Why did no one report to me!?" The King roared with fury.

Eoffin clicked his beak with surprise. "We sent a messenger, my liege. One of the Fordriver pages. We thought it best that we stand guard over the princess, all things considered."

The King's voice softened, "You have both done service for the kingdom as I understand it. But no messenger arrived."

Velasco blew a long plume of smoke. "That is an unfortunate curiosity. And yet, your majesty, the page did set out for el castillo. It would be a marvel that he should become lost."

The King's eyes flashed again. "Indeed. And I will have answers. But my daughter, may I see her?"

Eoffin bowed and pushed the doors open with his talons. "Of course, you majesty she is within."

Selana was speaking the Princess in a steady voice. "The important thing to remember, your Royal Highness, is that all things must flow."

AM Callarna did not see her father approach and was concentrating on a bucket of water. Her horn glowed softly blue. After a moment, the water in the bucket began to ripple and bubble. A tendril of water snaked over the side and slopped out onto the floor

. Selana smiled. "Very good, your highness!"

Callarna sighed. "Not so good. I was trying to make a rose."

Selana laughed. "You have achieved movement in the water. That is the difficult part." She looked up, noticed the King, and bowed deeply at the waist.

"Your Majesty. forgive my manners." Callarna turned and saw her father and galloped over to him, playfully knocking her horn against his. "Papa!"

All harshness was gone from the King's voice. "Little Callie. Your companions inform me you have been dilligent in your studies. You make me proud."

Callarna adopted the hauteur suitable for the heir to throne. "It is ever my hope to honor the House of my Father. My life is in service of the Realm."

The King laughed. His first real laugh in a very long time. "Your name day celebration is seven moons from now, and yet you convince me that you are already fit to be presented as a grown mare."

Callarna bowed her head in deference. The King continued, "The Assembly Unicorn will no doubt acclaim--"

The King's thought was interrupted by a resounding boom.

"Who dares?" roared the King.

The Captain of the Guards galloped towards the Princess' quarters. "Your majesty! We are under attack by sorcerors!"

The King growled at Eoffin, "Stay with the princess!" Then nodded to Velasco, "Come with me!"

Velasco beat his mighty wings once, and ran low to the ground towards the front of the palace, his claws clacking on the marble, tail whipping dangerously behind him.

At the front of the palace were four unicorns wearing Fordriver livery. Lightning crackled around them. And the earth beneath them was cracked and emitted foul fumes.

Members of the royal guard lowered their horns and charged the quartet, only to be repelled by an invisible hand. Archers from the ramparts fired arrows that bounced off harmlessly.

The largest of the four, a dappled stallion with a long, black beared turned towards the king and cackled. "The reign of Undomniel is over. The reign of Prescott is nigh! Your house shall fall!"

Velasco took a deep breath. He breathed out a jet of blue-hot fire that instantly incinerated all four sorcerors.

The King turned to him amazed. Velasco shrugged. "They did not take fire safety."

***

That night, the Lady Prescott and her guard fled her ancestral lands, as a royal decree called her to stand trial for treason. Aggrieved by her apparent betrayal, the King awarded her lands and titles to Lord Mercules, who was named Commander-General of the Royal Army, and proceeded to place a battlion of the Rainbow Brigade at Castle Fordriver, under his direct command.

Rumors that the Lady Prescott had allied with the Hippogriffs and was raising a terrible army to sieze the throne filled the streets. The Royal army began drills in the meadows, and the King began to make preparations to present his daughter to the Assembly Unicorn.

Only Callarna seemed unperturbed by the turmoil, devoting herself to her studies with an even greater fervor.

Velasco approached the rapidly maturing princess. "Su majestad, your devotion does you credit.But you are unresting. You must also learn to enjoy, to relax. You will burn yourself to the wick like a candle."

The Princess closed her eyes. "Velasco, I love you more than I could a brother, but one day I shall be Queen. There is no rest for the Kingdom, and there is no rest for me. Lady Prescott may be an attainted traitor, but she has taught me a lesson. A Mare must be twice as strong, twice as clever, and twice as unyielding as any Stallion should she wish to rule. I will be presented in a fortnight. I must not give the Assembly any reason to doubt my fitness as Heir to the Saddle Throne."

Velasco sighed and toyed with his mustaches wistfully. "You, Princesa, have surpassed all of my teachings. I will remain your devoted servant."

Callarna smiled. "You are my friend, Velasco. This is a rare thing. I have many servants."

***

Two weeks later the Princess was presented before the Unicorn Assembly with all formality. She had grown into a slender, but lovely young Mare, and acquitted herself with grace and dignity. The King placed the Opal of Radiance on her brow and named her Princess of Corvinthea and his heir.

Following the ceremony there was a grand banquet.

One by one, the Great Houses presented gifts to the Princess.

From Mounting,Lord Milefescu presented horseshoes made of the finest gold.

From Winham, Lord Mercules presented a blanket made from the silk of the silver spiders-- each spider as big as a country cottage, each spider full of wisdom and madness.

Lord Grievache of House Dallian presented Callarna with a magic feedbag that would never be empty of oats.

Lady Capula of House Deria offered ribbons spun from the hair of the water nixies. Any unicorn who tied these to her tail in the proper fashion would be able to breathe underwater.

And Archduke Gaborey, the Princess' grandfather, gave the princess a ring for her horn made of platinum and set with milky white stones.

It would, it was said, allow its bearer to walk upon moonbeams when the night sky was at its darkest.

Princess Callarna graciously accepted each of her gifts. But she was most pleased when her companions, Velasco, Selana, and Eoffin, each in turned offered their undying fealty and loyalty to the young princess.

There was music and dancing. And Callarna was especially light on her hooves, entrancing those who watched her spin and cavort around the floor.

And there was feasting, and unicorn delicacies like starlight punch, and rainbow pie.

The celebration had just reached its apex,and the participants were sated and merry, when tragedy struck.

The King, who had watched the proceedings warily, and had not indulged in the feasting or drinking took a bite from a single red apple.

His eyes rolled back in his head and he cried a single word, "treason!" before falling to the floor, where he shuddered once and lay as if dead.

Pandemonium broke out in the hall, and guests stampeded in terror.

Velasco, Selana, and Eoffin ran to the Princess' side and ushered her out of the hall and into safety.

The Princess had been well trained, and retained her stately demeanor. Allowing only a single tear to fall.

"Papa." she whispered.

Velasco's voice was urgent, "We must get you to safety. Once this has been accomplished, rest assured, mi reina. You will have satisfaction."

The Princess' eyes widened. "Reina? Queen? But I can't be queen unless... oh, Papa."

Selana's voice was smooth even as she cut Velasco a vicious look. "We know nothing yet, Highness. But your safety is our obligation."

The four companions hurried into the Princess' chambers. But they were not alone.

The glow of a horn illuminated the room. In the center stood Lady Pescott. No longer the elegant and haughty figure that Callarna remembered. Long gashes streaked her flanks, and rainbow color blood leaked from her wounds. Her mane was matted, and chunks of silver hair were missing from it. One eye was closed and swollen.

"You!" Cried Velasco before inhaling deeply. Eoffin let out a ferocious cry. The bubble of water around Selana began to roil ominously.

"Wait!" cried Callarna. "Let her speak?"

Velasco spat fire onto the floor. "Traitors should not have breath." Lady Prescott chuckled sadly. "I am no traitor. I have risked my life to come here tonight."

Selana's voice was cold. "and you are here. And tragedy has struck. You are saying this is not your fault?"

Lady Prescott sighed. "My fault that I was too late, perhaps. My fault that I did not tell Undomniel all that Lavrigne told me. My fault that I did not demand that worm Galfantes be executed and instead removed myself from the court."

Callarna whinied. "What are you talking about? Did you know my father was going to be poisoned."

Lady Prescott shook her head. "Poisoned? No. I knew there were plots and dark wheels. I knew your mother had troubling dreams. But I was a fool and thought it best to bide time until I had proof. Not realizing that they would get rid of me first."

Eoffin snarled. "This is a fine coincidence."

Lady Prescott continued. "You three are loyal to the Princess. As am I. They will attempt to kill her tonight and seize the throne. She must leave the palace. She must leave the kingdom. I have secured safe passage. At a great cost."

"I will not leave my father." said Callarna,stiffening her spine.

"Princess. The only chance to save him is to leave. He lives, but only because your mother added her own life to his. I have proof of this."

Lady Prescott kicked open a letter in the Queen's own hornprint.

Velasco's eyes widened at this. "If what you say is true.."

Lady Prescott stamped at the floor. "What I say is true, and we are wasting time. Please, we must leave."

Eoffin sighed. "I think this may be the wisest course. Bear in mind that I do not trust you, Prescott."

"Nor I," added Selana.

"And should any harm come to mi reina, Prescott, I will make sure that you suffer flames." added Velasco.

"Be that as it may, fine guardians. I can hear soldiers galloping up the hall." Lady Prescott kicked a stone in the wall. A secret passage opened seemlessly outward. "Follow me. This is the way out."

The four companions descended into the dark.

***

The four companions and Lady Prescott made their way through damp and winding tunnels. Every now and then they could hear turmoil from within the castle walls. Calls to arms and alarums and screams.

Finally, the reached a solid wall. Lady Prescott again pressed stone, and a section of the wall slowly descended into the ground.

Lady Prescott peered outside nervously. "I was afraid someone might post a guard, but it looks like.."

There was a horrible screech. "Found the pretty!" A black and purple blur sped towards the princess. Before any of the companions could react, Lady Prescott reared and speared the blur with her horn.

Twitching and impaled was a foul smelling bulk of feathers beneath the hideous face and sagging breasts of a harpy.

The harpy cried in agony. Lady Prescott's horn glowed green. Anyone speared on the horn of a Unicorn cannot help but tell the truth if the horn glows green. Eoffin noticed this.

"Who sent you, foul thing?"

The harpy twitched and cried. "The Grand Vizier paid us good money and sweetlings to kill any white filly that came out of the passages."

Eoffin snarled. "Us?" The harpy cried. "It hurts! Us. There are seven secret passages and seven secret sisters. One for each. He promised us sweet and tender foal meat!"

Eoffin squawked dangerously. "Anyone who exits these passages?"

The harpy struggled for breath. Her purple blood sluggishly leaked out of her wound. "No... only.. fillies." The harpy winced. "especially if.. they're wearing pretties.. like that one." The harpy pointed a claw at the opal setting on Callarna's forehead.

Eoffin howled. "Why?"

The harpy chuckled. "Don't care. Don't know. Don't--" she shuddered and fell silent.

Lady Prescott tossed her head and knocked the harpy off with distaste."Disgusting."

Eoffin bowed his head. "My lady, we owe an apology. It seems what you speak is true."

Lady Prescott snorted. "Time for apologies later. I have a ship in the harbor. Let's make for it with all haste."

***

While the Princess and her company were fighting their way to the harbor, Lord Milfescu and the Grand Vizier were meeting alone in the Vizier's Garden.

Lord Milfescu paced while the Vizier stood maddeningly still.

Lord Milfescu bared his teeth. "The King still lives?"

The Grand Vizier remained still. "He does. and it seems he is in a magical sleep. Quite impervious to help or harm at the moment."

Lord Milfescu's horn glowed ominously red. "Damn it, Galfantes, this whole thing has gone teats up. The King's still alive, and I'm not sure Mercules' army's up to the task of crushing Prescott."

The Grand Vizier smiled to himself. "The King is still alive and in our custody. The army will be quite sufficient to pacify the populace, and the threat of the rebel traitor more than enough to disempower the Assembly Unicorn. Prescott is more useful to us without being crushed."

"And the Princess?"

"When we announce her tragic murder to the still-grieving populace, they will demand vengeance."

"Is she dead?"

The Grand Vizier's smile only grew broader. "Does it matter?"

Lord Milfescu continued to pace. "And what if Mercules finds out that it wasn't Prescott who poisoned the King?"

The Grand Vizier smirked. "My Good Lord of Whinham has many admirable qualities. Charisma. Prowess in battle. A fine mane of silvery hair. But, alas, cleverness is not one of his qualities."

"I hope you're right, Galfantes, for your sake. You're playing at civil war, and if things fall apart, I will have no qualms about joining the winning side and throwing you to the wolves."

The Grand Vizier's smile was unshaken. "Good to know."

***

On the high seas, Lady Prescott had fallen ill from he injuries and had seen no one except physicians. The harpy had scratched her injured eye, and it had grown infected.

On the fifth day, she emerged from her cabin wearing an eye patch. She looked shaken but resolute and called a war council.

The ship's captain, a gruff undine named Lukos, a Hippogriff Knight called Erosh, Lady Prescott, Callarna and her companions comprised the council.

Lady Prescott began. "I wish there were more time. But I have wasted enough being frail and weak. While we sit her on the waves, the Princess' Kingdom is falling to ruin and waste, and her Lord Father is captive by stallions whose only sense of duty is to themselves."

She sighed. "I may have lost an eye, but I am not blind. I don't think there can be a peaceful resolution to this conflict. Callarna will have to take by the kingdom by force."

Lukos snorted. "I can muster up a small fleet, but we'd need an army. To take back her Kingdom."

Lady Prescott smiled cooly. "And I have an army."

Erosh nodded. "The free cities of the Hippogriffs will honour their treaty to the Saddle Throne. As we see it, you are the living representative of the Throne, your Highness."

Callarna bowed her head. "I am honoured, Gallant Knight."

Lady Prescott, "With an undine navy, my legions and the hippogriffs, I believe we have a military force strong enough to counter the army of unicorns."

Velasco smiled. "These unicorns, they are so flammable."

Princess Callarna sighed. "I would do the least violence to my people that is possible."

"Of course. We would have it no other way." said Eoffin. "But anyone who dares stand against you is a traitor, and can expect no quarter."

Callarna closed her eyes. "The more pressing issue is my father. If he can be cured, I would be remiss in my filial duties if I neglected to deliver the cure."

Selana's voice was soft. "I have used the greatest of my arts to scry on your father. He lives, but he is beyond my meager powers to heal. There is a way, but I'm afraid it will cost us precious time. And the way is perilous."

Callarna spoke quietly, attempting to remove any traces of girlishness from her voice. "If there is a way to heal my father, I must attempt it."

Selana sighed. "The Golden Apples of Verdania are rumored to heal any sickness, nullify any poison."

Everyone began speaking at once. Lady Prescott shouted, "we have no time for tales from fishwives. The very Kingdom is at stake!"

Velasco argued. "I do not know the wisest course,but the Princess must make her own decision, y, yo creo even her own mistakes."

Erosh clucked. "The Hippogriffs honour their treaty, and will serve Her Majesty in the bloodiest battles against those who oppose her rule, but we cannot enter the isle of Verdania because of the most ancient of oaths."

Eoffin bristled his feathers. "My life and my death are yours to command, My liege lady, but I cannot enter Verdania. It is not a question of willing."

Lady Prescott thumped a hoof on the table. "Foolishness! We must prepare for battle."

Callarna's voice was not raised, but when she spoke everyone fell silent. "Enough. I thank everyone for their counsel, and I do not dispute the wisdom of this. I thank you for your service, Eoffin, but should I choose to go where you cannot follow, your duty to protect me ends when I pass the threshold and does not begin again until I return. I will not take the throne while there is still a chance my father can continue his rule. Selana, where is this isle?"

Lady Prescott sighed. "No need to ask her. The Merfolk are forbidden from revealing its location. I know how to get there."

Selana looked sadly away. "My Princess, I cannot accompany you there either." Lady Prescott snorted. "Lukos, you heard the Princess' command. Set a course due north-northwest, I will provide coordinates. And may the Virgin Mare have mercy on us all."

***

Back in the Kingdom of Unicorns, the Assembly Unicorn was taking a vote to give emergency powers to the Regency Council, headed by the chancellor of the exchecquer, the Lord Commander of the Royal Army, and the Grand Vizier. The Grand Vizier had argued that it was a temporary measure until the king recovered, and it was necessary to properly mobilize defense against the treasonous rebellion being mounted by Lady Prescott.

The Grand Vizier had tabled argument about naming an heir to the Saddle Throne in light of the terrible news of the Princess' assassination by stating that the King himself would name his successor when he recovered from his illness.

Although there was grim muttering among some of the Great Houses, the petty lords readily agreed that the plans set forth by the temporary Council were prudent, and voted to give them emergency powers.

After the meeting came to an end, Lord Milfescu and the Grand Vizier (now Secretary-General of the Royal Council) again met in the garden.

Milfescu began to pace, as was his wont. "I mislike that the vote of that fool Mercules carries equal weight to mine."

Secretary-General Galfantes blinked slowly. "Indeed? You have some other plan? Mercules controls the army. Without his consent and support, none of this emergency powers nonsense would mean anything. He has earned his place."

Milfescu snarled. "Without my monies,there would be no army."

Galfantes smiled. "But there is an army. And they would have no difficulty taking the treasury from you, if they so desired."

Milfescu tossed his mane. "And to whose word does Mercules cling? If you think it has escaped me that your lackey gives you two votes, while I have one, you are a fool."

Galfantes tutted. "You have an entire third of a Kingdom between your teeth, and you want more? My, we are ambitious."

Milfescu snorted. "You are poison, Galfantes."

"Am I? Well, I hope that I am a draught you can get used to, My Lord of Mounting."

Milfescu turned and left the garden without further comment.

Lady Prescott's ship lay anchored two knots off the cost of Verdania, and island shrouded in mists. Captain Lukos explained, "This land is forbidden to creatures of the sea and air. This is as close as I dare come. I will set out a longboat for the Princess' party."

Lady Prescott snorted. "What Party? It seems only the Princess and I will be making this trip."

Velasco's voice was smooth. "Ah, but despite my handsome wings, I am a creature of fire. There is no reason for me to miss out la aventura con la princesa. My blood stirs even now at the prospect of fighting alongside the noble Lady Prescott."

Callarna smiled. "I feel a good deal safer knowing that you will be by my side, Velasco."

Lady Prescott snorted. "are we just going to stand here and jabber about valor, or actually do something? We still have a war to plan."

The crew lowered the longboat down with the Princess and Lady Prescott inside. Velasco flew just over their heads, propelling the boat forward at regular intervals with his tail.

It was mid-afternoon, but as they moved closer to the island, the sky began to darken.

A preternatural dampness began to chill them. Velasco's wing beats became more heavy and labored. Out of the mists they could see bone white trees, leafless and skeletal, their branches swaying to some unfelt breeze.

Princess Callarna said, "This does not look welcoming." Her voice was distorted and sounded as if it had come from a long way off.

The unicorns' horns began to glow as they grew nearer to the island, in a futile attempt to combat the looming darkness. The water beneath them reflected green and red.

The boat reached the shore. The unicorns' horns glowed their brightest, but failed to chase away shadows cast by the skeletal trees. The sand was rough and pebbly and the color of old, dried blood.

Velasco landed with a muffled thump. He exhaled. Sickly green flames played about his mouth. He sighed. "Mi fuego, it doesn't work very well in this place. Hope no one needs a campfire."

Lady Prescott whinnied. "There isn't much that frightens me. But this place does." Princess Callarna smiled wanly. "The only way is forward." And she approached the eldritch wood at a canter.

The companions made their way through the wood, hearing sounds of slithering, and strange predatory cries. They could not tell if they were far off, because all sound was distorted and strange in this place.

Sometimes, they would encounter bones jutting out of the hard, dark earth. Bones of man, and bones of beast.

These occurred with more frequency the deeper into the woods they went. At last they came to a grotto, its mouth covered in darkness so deep that the light from the uncorns' horns was powerless to penetrate it.

As they neared it, they could see it was made, not a natural feature. And it was constructed out of skulls.

Thousands of skulls. Skulls of mice, men, rats. Skulls of rocs large enough to snatch an elephant, skulls of tiny dew pixies, skulls of unicorn, and griffin, and elk.

A dense smell perfumed the air. It was not the smell of the charnel house. It was the smell of apples.

The smell made the travellers' mouths water, even Velasco who had long consigned himself to a diet of cows and plump sheep.

Callarna looked at her companions. "I suppose this must be the place."

Velqasco nodded. "I shall go first and rend anyone who attempt to harm you. Senora Prescott will take the rear."

Callarna nodded sadly. "That's not the way things work. I must go alone." and without pausing, she plunged into the darkness.

There was the sensation of falling for a time, and a darkness so complete that she could not even see the light that shone from her horn.

Her hooves touched ground, and round objects rolled beneath her.

A voice came from nowhere and everywhere. "Clever girl. If you had brought your friends you would not be here. You would only be inside the grotto."

Callarna's voice held steady. "I have come for an apple."

The voice mocking. "Yes. Many have. Behold!" The darkness dissipated with a sudden blinding light. Callarna blinked for a second. She was standing on a mountainous pile of skulls. Far beneath her, stood an enormous apple tree whose branches were buckling under the weight of golden apples.

Callarna kept her voice steady. "And many have failed to return."

The voice chuckled. "These are the ones who screamed."

Callarna's voice remained quiet. "And if I scream I fail your challenge? Then I shall not scream."

The voice answered. "Brave and pretty, your sweetmeats will be delicious, and I'll devour them over the fires for many a long and lonely year."

Callarna tossed her mane. "I am of the Blood Royal, I am the daughter of Kings, and I shall not scream."

Derisive laughter echoed off the walls. "We shall see how brave you are one you see what I am. But even then, should you stay brave, my pretty, you have to pass the final challenge."

"Final challenge?" Callarna called out.

"Riddle my sweet. Riddle."

Callarna stamped, crushing a skull beneath her. "Then let's get on with this. Show yourself!"

The pile of skulls rumbled, began to cascade downwards, Callarna lost her footing and slid down them, admonishing herself to remain silent as she tumbled downward. At last she came to a stop at the foot of the skull mountain, horn glowing red with defiance, out of breath.

Over the skulls slithered an enormous pale worm, as thick around as an oak tree, its full length still hidden in the pile of shells. From tentacles sprouting around its maw, eyeballs stared, no two the same, all watching Callarna with malevolence.

Sharp, curved teeth gleamed from its maw. It smelled of rot, decay, and despair.

The horrible thing wound its way around Callarna, pausing to lick her flank with one of its hideous, forked tongues. "Scream," it said.

Callarna shuddered at its touch, but only replied, "I will not."

The mocking voice came from everywhere as the creature hissed and brushed up against her. "You will taste so much better than your mother. She was old, and you are young. But still, Lavrigne was my favorite meal."

Callarna bridled against the insult but her voice was still and small. "I will not scream, thing."

The worm turned its eyes to her and drew close enough that she could smell its reeking breath. Sharp teeth brushed against her cheek. The voice continued. "If you will not scream, I will eat the dragon and the lady unicorn. Or maybe I already have."

The creature turned its head away away from her, and vomited out the partially digested head of a unicorn. It lay steaming in pool of green bile

Callarna shut her eyes quickly, but her voice was steady and even. "You lie. That unicorn has two eyes. Lady Prescott had only one. And her horn had a clockwise spiral. This is counter clockwise."

There was a deep chuckling. The worm, and the unicorn head coalesced into green smoke and vanished.

"Very good. But if you fail the riddle, your bravery will not profit you. I still get to eat you, my pretty."

Callarna pawed the ground. "your riddle, thing?”

The voice answered. "I wield the broken sword. There are those who call me weakness, but wise men know I am strength. Only I separate true kings from tyrants. What am I?"

Callarna lowered her head in thought for a moment. "Are you mercy?"

The skulls rumbled behind her and a horrible groan emanated from everywhere. Then everything was still. The voice answered sulkly, "You may take an apple."

Callarna walked forward to the tree and gripped an apple between her teeth, careful not to bruise its flesh or rend its skin. The world shimmered for a moment, and then the tree, the mountain of skulls, and the voice were gone, and she was standing in the grotto, staring out at her worried friends.

Lady Prescott grinned, "Well done. Now, to war!"

***

As Lukos called to arms his comrade Undines, Eoffin and Erosh flew ahead to rally the Hippogriff knights and Lady Prescott's unicorn legions. Princess Callarna studied maps of the Unicorn Kingdom. "I think our best option is to strike the Capitol from the sea. Once the Unicorn Assembly see that I've returned, there may be some Lords who will join our cause."

Lady Prescott whickered. "There will still be much bloodshed before this is over. Your enemies hold the treasury, and many of the soldiers are loyal to Lord Mercules. We will need to rout the army, and quash any rumors that you are an impostor, or my puppet."

Princess Callarna nodded her head. "I have the opal, and if we can take the castle, my father's word will be enough."

Velasco blew a plume of smoke. "Princesa, we will take the palace and restore your father if I have to burn the stones into ash myself."

The Princess smiled. "I hope that will not be necessary." Selana interjected, "I have created a storm to cover our approach. The hippogriffs and unicorns are poised to approach from the south as a diversion. We all await your command, Highness." Selana sighed. "I only wish my father hadn't deigned to remain neutral in this conflict."

The Princess smiled. "Your magicks and the spells of the Undines will do. Unicorn wizards are increasingly rare. We attack at first light tomorrow."

Lady Prescott said in an unexpectedly tender voice, "get some rest Princess. Tomorrow we will be victorious."

***

That night, a shadowy figure crept into the treasury office where Lord Milfescu was working late. Words were exchanged in cautious whispers. After the furtive conversation Lord Milfescu nodded at the figure and said, "I understand. I will make plans."

***

The next morning, a terrible storm hit the capital, whirlpools and huge crashing waves sunk the majority of the Unicorn Kingdom fleet anchored in the harbor. Dragonfire heavily damaged the rest. To the south, the Unicorn army was engaged in a battle with Lady Prescott's troops and the hippogriffs. Princess Callarna landed with a small cadre of soldiers, expecting resistance from the homeguard, but there was no one to offer challenge.

The Princess and her guard marched through the high streets and towards the palace without resistance. When they reached the palace, they found the doors opened and unguarded.

Lady Prescott snorted. "There is something wrong here."

Princess Callarna responded. "I fear you have the right of it, still if my father is here, restoring him will end all this conflict."

The princess turned to cross the bridge into the palace, when a dark figure plummeted towards the party with a pained scream.

It was Erosh. He was sorely wounded and out of breath. "My Princess, this is a trap. Our forces met only a small part of the army. Another force hemmed us in from behind. The bulk of the army heads this way to trap you before the castle walls, led by Lord Mercules himself." As if on cue, the portcullis slammed shut in front of them.

The Princess looked grim. "We fight here then, and pray that the army remembers their loyalty to my father."

Lady Prescott reared up. "No mercy for anyone who dares strike against the rightful heir!"

A sound like thunder filled the air: hooves striking against the stones of the street. The vanguard of the Royal Army galloped towards the Princess and her party. At its head was Lord Mercules, Lord of Windham, and his horn glowed red as blood.

Velasco spit out a might gout of flame that blanketed the street and made the air shimmer with its heat. Mercules jumped through fire, hooves flashing in the morning light.

Fifteen unicorn soldiers lay dead and charred behind him, but the soldiers kept coming. Tendrils of water snaked out of the moat to drag soldiers screaming down to the depths, but behind Mercules more advanced relentlesly.

Lady Prescott rode out to meet Mercules, but was intercepted by one of his riders. they met horn against horn. Sparks flying as the crashed into each other.

Velasco spit fireball after fireball into the uncoming hoarde, but still they rode inexorably towards the Princess and her party, over the dead, over the burning wreckage.

Lady Prescott had dispatched her foe, and was steadily moving towards the General, when two others challenged her. Princess Callarna had a clear path to Mercules and rode out to meet him. Her horn, for the first time, flashed red.

She lowered her head and charged. Mercules was taken aback by her sudden ferocity, but met her horn with his just in time. There was a resounding crack. Mercules gritted his teeth and thrust towards the princess ferociously, but she danced out the way effortlessly. He snarled and reared. "You dare impersonate the princess Royal? You are a beast. A monster."

Callarna's voice was thick with fury. "I AM the Princess Royal, Callarna, daughter of Undomniel, and you are a traitor." She lunged forward and scored his side with her horn.

Mercules roared in pain. "You have bloodied me. But you are overmatched, and I will crush your corpse beneath my hooves!"

Mercules regained the offensive, and began to drive the princess back to the moat with vicious thusts and lunges.

The Princess was driven to the edge of the moat, and Mercules crowed triumphantly, "At last impostor, you see your folly."

The Princess' voice was calm. "No traitor, you see yours." From behind her,a massive fist of water burst up and crashed into the general, knocking him unconscious.

The Princess reared over the fallen general and addressed the army. "I am the Princess Royal, named Princess of Corvinthea, heir to the throne and successor to Undomniel. Those of you who throw down your arms and join me, will receive full pardons. Those who oppose me can expect no quarter!"

There was a murmuring throughout the combatants. Some immediately shouted, "I'm for the Princess." While others debated the merits of loyalty to the general.

At that moment, a familiar form flew overhead. Eoffin cried out to the Princess, "Your highness, the Phoenixes approach from the west."

General Mercules struggled to consciousness, amazed that he had life. The Princess turned to him coldly. "I shall not forget your treachery, General, but it appears the Phoenixes are intent on destroying the Kingdom. Call a truce, and we will fight the together."

"Is this some sort of trick?" He sputtered.

The Princess whickered. "I could have killed you where you lay."

The General called to his troops, "Stop the advance. A greater threat comes towards us."

He nodded to one of his captains, "Ride under the white flag and tell the rest of the army to rally."

The Princess turned to Selana. "Can you and the undines keep the air damp?"

"Yes, my liege lady."

Eoffin sighed. "The Hippogriffs fly to meet the phoenix, and have already called retreat from the unicorn skirmish. I do not know if they will be able to prevent the phoenix advance."

At that moment the silvery cloud cover glowed a terrible orange. Seconds later, the first of the phoenixes crashed through the clouds, gripped in deadly combat with a hippogriff.

Velasco roared and flapped his wings. "They may not burn, but they are not immune to claws." He rose up to meet the approach of the phoenixes. The wind howled and the rain fell in thick sheets.

Brilliant, beautiful orange and red birds plummeted out of the sky with terrible talons poised to strike and maim.

Mercules rallied his troops and met beak and talon with horn and hoof.

Peals of lightning illuminated the clouds and the Princess could see the silhouettes of griffin, dragon, and hippogriffs engaged in aerial combat with deadly firebirds. Feathers and bodies fluttered down. More orange and red than white and silver, but more than enough of both.

The Princess joined Selana at the moat and sent forceful jets of water at anything that looked remotely orange.

At long last, the phoenixes,taken by surprise by the aerial forces and unprepared for the deadly water that sapped their strength, called the retreat.

The storm lifted,and Selana collapsed, exhausted.

Mercules approached the Princess. His horn was shattered and useless, and his flank was badly burnt, but he remained alive.

He coughed. He had inhaled flame, and had not long to live. "You are the Princess Royal, and I am a fool. Too late I swear fealty."

The Princess' voice was tender. "We cannot forgive treason, but we do not forget the valiant service you have done your Kingdom."

Mercules smiled wanly once, and fell. His chest moved no more.

***

The Princess addressed the wounded and tattered army, still united by their common battle. "Mercules died a hero. He was wrong, and he made grave errors, but in the end, served the Kingdom he loved." She turned her head to the wall. "Open the gates."

The portcullis wrenched up with creak. Alone, head high she walked into the Palace. She wandered through rooms and galleries until she found her father, still sleeping.

She pulled the apple from her saddlebag and crushed it between her teeth so the juice dribbled into her father's mouth.

After a moment, his eyes opened.

He sighted his daughter and smiled. "It's you. I had dreams you were coming. It's you"

The King made a full recovery, but in one year's time abdicated the throne in favor of his daughter.

***

Lords Milfescu and Galfantes were executed, their lands and titles siezed.

Eoffin was named commander of the Royal air force, and several hippogriffs decided to live permanently in the Unicorn Kingdom.

Selana was named Royal Enchantress and set up a home in the bay.

Lady Prescott was named Admiral of the navy and Chief Advisor. Her lands and title were returned, but she ceded them to the army

... which was commanded by Velasco, who set up house in Riverford Castle with a spicy dragoness named Illiana.

After Callarna's reign the Unicorn Kingdom was no more, but this is not a bad thing. She had negotiated treaties and alliances, and in its place was a republic of magical beasts. Not the perfect land her father envisioned, but far closer than he been able to achieve.

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