Alban took the stallion, of course, it being the only beast large enough to bear the baron’s rather bulky frame. Twenty hands high if he was an inch, the stallion rippled with muscle, his hide almost as gleamingly bronze as the baron’s hair. They made a handsome pair.
My own unicorn was white, though her coat and horn glinted silvery in the right light. She and I made friends years ago, and we’ve been on several adventures together. The second time we met I gave her a name: Adeline. ‘Addie,’ I greeted her warmly, as she nosed and lipped at my cardigan. I gave her a kiss, and a ball of sugar. She dipped a bit to permit me to spring up onto her back; I took hold of the silver rope she wears which more or less keeps me from falling off, and we were ready to go.
Rob, too, was mounted up, sitting competently astride a night-black unicorn I felt a bit envious of. What a majestic creature she was! Her tapering horn was indigo traced with silver, her mane black glittering with stars. I had never seen her before; a new friend of Addie’s, obviously.
Jay, though, was in trouble. There was but one unicorn left for him to choose: a little mare of pale golden hide and rippling white tresses. She seemed friendly enough, but somehow they were not getting along. Jay stood several feet away from her, hands on hips, eyeing her with no friendly spirit, and the mare was dancing nervously from hoof to hoof.
‘Up, Jay!’ I called. ‘No time to waste!’
‘It may come as a surprise to you to learn that I have never ridden a unicorn.’
‘No problem. It’s much like riding a horse, only more… airborne.’
‘What makes you think I’m capable of riding a horse?’
That did surprise me a little. Who didn’t know how to ride a horse? But I suppose the arts of chair-riding, and related charmery, are more likely to appear on the university’s curriculums these days. Winged horses and unicorns, like so many other magickal beasts, are becoming scarce.
‘What do you think, Addie?’ I whispered to her, patting her silky neck. ‘Do you think you could carry two of us? We’re both skinny and on the short side, nothing too burdensome.’ That wasn’t an altogether fair way of describing Jay when he was almost six feet tall. Compared to the baron, though, he was a lightweight.
My darling Adeline indicated her approval by trotting over to Jay and halting right beside him. She lowered her graceful form to the ground, and waited patiently for him to notice her.
Which he did, though with almost as much delight as he had greeted the rest. ‘What’s this?’
I patted Addie’s back. ‘Join me, and the world will be ours.’
Jay raised his brows.
‘I’ll keep you from falling off,’ I translated. ‘Not that Addie would ever drop us.’
Jay was not impressed, but he did not argue. Within a few moments Addie had both of us astride her elegant back, Jay sitting behind me as stiff as a board.
‘Try to relax,’ I told him. ‘You only make it harder for yourself otherwise.’
He tried, with some success, but that was before Adeline rose to her feet again and began to walk. Jay clutched me so hard that it hurt, but I let it pass; he’d had a hard day already, and they don’t issue unicorns with seatbelts. No wonder he was uneasy.
‘Here we go,’ I murmured, as Addie began to trot, then to canter. She launched herself into a tearing gallop, her glittering wings spreading wide and beating with long, powerful strokes. Her hooves left the ground and we were away, spiralling up into the sunlit sky.
Jay wrapped his arms around my waist and buried his face in my shoulder. I suppose he didn’t want to see the view, which was a shame, because we flew higher and higher; so high, anybody who saw us from the ground would take us for a distant flock of birds. Old Winchester Hill dwindled to nothing beneath us, lost in the expanse of rolling, vibrant green countryside over which we flew.
‘Open your eyes!’ I called to Jay. ‘You have to see this!’
‘Gladly,’ said Jay. ‘As long as you’re okay with my vomiting all over your dress.’
‘On second thought, maybe stay as you are.’
‘That’s what I was thinking.’
I was glad of Jay’s warmth as we flew, for however glorious the April sunshine, the winds were cold so far above the ground. The journey was not long, for my unicorns were fast beyond belief; those glorious wings gobbled up the miles, green meadows sailing by below us as we flew. Nonetheless, by the time we spiralled down to the ground I was frozen stiff. I did not so much dismount as fall straight off Addie’s back, landing on my feet by happy fortune alone.
Jay walked about, waving feeling back into his arms and shaking himself. I expected him to look nauseated or petrified, but if anything he looked exhilarated.
‘Not so bad, eh?’ I said, smiling at him. ‘Air Unicorn, I mean.’
He grinned at that, taking me by surprise again. ‘Eight out of ten, would fly again.’
‘One point deducted for sub-optimal temperatures. One point for the screaming terror.’
‘Unfair. There was no screaming.’
‘In my head, I was screaming the whole time.’
‘I salute your courage,’ I told him, matching action to words.
He rolled his eyes and turned away from me, which was rather unfair considering I had been serious. But never mind. I certainly wasn’t going to admit that my knees were a bit weak, too; I’ve flown by unicorn a few times, but the combination of height and speed combined with the lack of safety features always takes a toll.
‘This is the right place,’ said Alban, striding up with his bronze stallion trailing behind him. ‘Near enough.’ The wind had done terrible things to my hair, I had no doubt, but the baron merely looked handsomely windswept. Some people spend a lot of quality time with a hairdryer trying to achieve that effect, and without much success.
We had come down in a field, just within sight of a pretty village — Alresford, presumably. I was not worried about being spotted; Adeline is used to passing herself off as a swan, or a goose, or some other large bird, under the cursory glance of a non-magickal observer. Nonetheless, I judged it best to dismiss her and her little herd as soon as we were certain of no longer needing them.
‘Thank you,’ I whispered to Addie, kissing her soft nose, and she whickered at me before trotting off.
The closer we got to Farringale, the more Baron Alban’s urgency increased. He led us off towards the old town at a storming pace, and I had little time to admire the neat terraced houses with their bright paintwork, the tiny shops, or the delightful old timber-framed mill with its crown of thatch. Sun dappled the broad streets, the air was fresh and bright, and I wished we had gone there with a picnic or something, ready to enjoy the day. But Alban looked as grim as death, which was helpful in recalling my mind to our real purpose. We passed occasional strollers and shoppers as we tore through Alresford, but the baron attracted no real notice whatsoever; no doubt he was adept at concealing his unusually tall frame, unusual features and distinctive skin colour behind a glamour charm.
We stopped at last not far away from the lovely old mill. A sturdy bridge arched over the clear water of the River Alre, a blocky construct built from stone and brick. Clearly ancient, it must date, I guessed, from somewhere in the medieval period — a rare survival from such far-distant days. The bridge dwarfed the narrow waterway running beneath it; its pointed arch rose high enough for us to walk right underneath. We stopped on a little ledge next to the water, and looked expectantly at Alban.
‘Key?’ he said, looking at me.
I withdrew my beautiful key from my pocket. To my delight, the sapphire blazed when the light hit it; was it the sun that lit its internal fire, or proximity to the gate it was intended to open?
Baron Alban took two more keys out of his own pockets: one shining gold set with a ruby-red stone, the other glinting bronze and cradling a stone of vivid green, like emerald, or peridot. Both keys radiated coloured light, like mine, and I was moved to gratitude that we were, at least for the moment, alone at the bridge.
I thought Alban would know what to do with the keys, but he did not appear to. He stepped back a few paces and stared at the bridge, brow furrowed, clearly perplexed.
I could see why. There were no signs of anything like a keyhole anywhere upon that aged stonework. Not even one, let alone three. How were we supposed to open the gate?
‘May I borrow that?’ Alban said to me, indicating my key with a nod of his head.
Reluctantly, I handed it over.
‘Thanks.’ The baron held all three keys in one of his large hands and stepped into the water, heedless of the damage to his polished boots. He walked all the way under the arch, dipping down as the roof sloped lower. Nothing happened, save that he got rather wet. He turned about and made his way back to us, shaking his head.
‘I thought merely holding the keys might be enough, but no.’ He went back to searching the stonework for a clue, pacing back and forth impatiently.
‘There.’ Rob pointed a finger over the baron’s head, at the smooth stonework just above the bridge’s pointed arch.
I saw nothing. ‘What? What are we seeing?’
‘Wave those keys around a bit again, Baron,’ said Rob.
Alban complied, looking like he felt a bit foolish. But as he stretched up his arm and waved the keys back and forth, a faint, answering glitter of colour rippled over the stones.
‘Well spotted,’ commented the baron.
He was the only one of the four of us tall enough to do anything about this discovery, of course. This was troll country, all right. Alban laid each key in turn against the stones until something else happened: the gold key flashed red and sank into the stone, fitting into a perfectly-shaped depression we had not been able to see before. There it lay, twinkling jauntily red.
The baron had no trouble fitting the second key alongside it: within moments, the bronze key with its green jewel had taken up a neighbouring spot, and the two shone side-by-side like early Christmas lights.
Only one key, my key, was left, and its home was soon revealed by way of a sheen of blue lighting up the grey stone. But Alban hesitated.
‘Are we ready for this?’ he asked of us, looking over his shoulder and down at his audience of three.
‘Yes,’ said Rob. He looked prepared, his posture confident, his manner composed. But so he always did. I have never seen Rob at a loss, or afraid.
‘I am,’ said Jay, though he looked and sounded less certain than Rob.
‘Onward,’ I said, and tried to sound staunch and imperturbable. Was I ready? How could you be prepared for something you could not predict?
This was no time for doubts, for the baron nodded his acknowledgement of our enthusiasm and reached up to place the third key.
Rather a lot happened.
First, the light. If the keys had shone brightly before, now they fairly blazed, and a rainbow raced, swift and glittering, over the arch of the bridge.
The bridge shuddered under some force we could neither see nor feel, shedding earth and stone dust into the water. I winced, suddenly anxious, for the bridge was irreplaceable; what if the passage of centuries had weakened it? What if it was no longer capable of bearing the pressure of the Farringale enchantments, and collapsed? Milady would never forgive us. I would never forgive myself.
But it held. The shaking stopped, the rainbow of light faded, and all became still once more.
With one change. A serene white light shone from underneath the bridge, marking the outline of an arched portal. A breeze gusted forth from within, bringing with it the musty scent of lost ages.
The way into Farringale was open.