After what seemed like hours of riding through the woods, my poor donkey, Agnes, complaining bitterly at the pace the entire time, the riders stopped, looked to one another, and then simply vanished, leaving me and Agnes by ourselves in the wood.
“Well, this is a pretty turn of events,” Agnes remarked. “And me with my aching hooves. Those riders were merciless, mistress, merciless!”
“I am sorry about that, Agnes,” I said, patting her neck and trying to soothe her. “You were very fast, though. I had no idea donkeys could run so quickly. You’re a very brave girl.”
She straightened up a bit then, with pride, but immediately sagged at the middle.
“Er, mistress,” she said, “my back is a bit sore-like, from all of that riding. Do you think..”
“Oh, of course!” I slid to the ground, not a far trip as my long legs hung only inches above the forest floor on either side of poor Agnes’s belly.
“Ah!” She sighed. “That’s better. Now, mistress, do you know where we are? Which way shall WE walk next?” She looked at me, rather pointedly.
“Oh, Agnes, you don’t know? I’m not from around here; in fact this is my first time in the whole region. What shall we do?” Agnes began to bray, loudly, in distress, and large tears ran from her big brown eyes. “Here, here,” I said, “please don’t take on so. You’re supposed to be helping me out—silly goose.” I dabbed at her tears with the corner of my shawl, and the braying started to subside. “Just let me think for a moment.” I walked round the clearing and then sorted through my bags. “I remember, yes—there it is—that the Enchantress gave us a bag, filled with things that might be helpful on our journey.” Agnes stuck her nose in the bag.
“Is there any food in there? I’m very hungry.”
“Can’t you just eat grass or something, Agnes? I mean, you are a donkey, after all.”
“Well, I can… but it gives me the wind something awful. But I guess—“
“No, that’s all right,” I said, hastily. “We’ll see if there is food in here.” I shook the bag, and out fell a set of spectacles, a candlestick, a tiny anchor, a medallion with the imprint of the Unicorn and a set of wings. A bag of apples also fell to the ground, and Agnes stuck her nose in it and started munching away. “Agnes! Slow down! We don’t know how long that food might have to last us.” Agnes slowed her pace, finishing the apple in her mouth, her second, rather sheepishly. “Look, here’s a map.” I lit the candlestick, as it was getting rather dark. “Here—Blind Springs, near the House of the Serpent. That’s where we’re headed. But where are we now….” I suddenly noticed Agnes, who had stopped chewing and was visibly trembling. “Agnes? What’s wrong?”
“House of the S-Serpents?” She shook her head wildly. “You can’t make me, mistress, no, I won’t do it! I have whatsit—herpetophobia. Snakes, aaaughhh, noooo!”
“Agnes! I’m sure it’s just a name, you know, like um, Canyon of the Giants.”
“Giants? You didn’t say anything about giants? My mother was eaten by a giant. That’s it. I’m leaving you. I’m sorry mistress, but I simply can’t go on any further.”
“Agnes.” I said, sternly. “We are not going to see any giants. It was merely an example. Honestly, I had no idea that donkeys were such hysterical creatures. I thought your type was rather sensible.”
“That’s horses, mistress. We donkeys are a sensitive lot. So, if I could just have one of your apples, I’ll be on my way.”
“Nonsense, Agnes. Now, sit down with me here and let’s have a think. Here, you may have another apple. I promise I will allow to come to no harm.” My vision was a bit dim, with the fading light, so I thought to put on the spectacles.
“A bit schoolmarmish, if you ask me,” sniffed Agnes. “Rather hoity-toity.”
“Hush.” I picked up the map and suddenly, a large arrow appeared. “YOU ARE HERE.”
It pointed to a small glade, quite a distance from the House of Serpents. The wood adjacent, between us and the H of S, as I had to refer to it now to keep Agnes from blubbering, was also newly marked. “DANGER—SEVERE TROLL IMFESTATION.” Imfestation? Hmmm. Some spellers these cartographers were. I wondered at the accuracy of the map. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“Agnes, what’s the bravest horse-type creature you can think of?”
“Well, let’s see, there was that Shetland pony that rescued the little boy that washed out to sea, and a llama reportedly stood down a lion…but on the whole, I would have to say…(“unicorns” I whispered) oh, yes: unicorns.”
“Well, we are in luck, then, Agnes, because I happen to have with me a Seal of the Order of the Unicorn, which, when bestowed upon a creature, endows said creature with all the powers, privileges, and bravery of the unicorn. Come here.” Agnes turned toward me and I stamped the seal right between her limpid brown eyes. I held it there for a moment, and she visibly brightened.
“I feel it, mistress,” she said, in wonder. “D’you think I’ll grow a horn?”
“I don’t know, Agnes, but let’s get moving while you’re feeling brave.” Tucking the map beneath my arm, carefully hiding the notation about trolls—didn’t know if Agnes could read, you see–we set off. Agnes walked, head held high, munching the remains of her apple. We progressed into a deeper forest, with taller trees, and darker shadows. We hadn’t been there more than a few minutes when we heard a great noise in the brush. I quickly ascertained the situation—a horrible smell was coming our way, along with a clomping noise and some growling type vocalization.
“Quick, Agnes, up here!” I had spied a stairway in the trees and instinctively made for higher ground. We ran up the stairs, Agnes clip-clopping behind, breathing heavily, and reached a sort of stone plateau. It was empty except for a fire ring, over which hung a spit, on which was skewered the remains of a decidedly horse-type creature. I struggled back to block Agnes’s vision, but she had already seen the worst. She began the loud, hysterical braying I had become acquainted with in the glade. “Hush!” I hissed, clamping my hands around her jaws—the troll will hear us!” Too late, I realized my error.
“TROLL?” she shrieked, through clamped jaw. Her eyes rolled, and I feared she would faint.
“Unicorn power, Agnes, Unicorn power!” She braced herself while I dumped the contents of the bag on the stony ground. We heard heavy steps ascending the stairs, gnashing of teeth and loud bursts of breath which increased the foul odor. I grabbed the first thing my hand fell on, a set of wings, and they began to flutter. Thinking fast, I hooked them to Agnes’s bridle and scooped up the rest of the items, tossing them in the bag. I threw myself across Agnes’s back and felt a slight lift. Agnes brayed all the louder, and I bit her ear to quiet her.
“Unicorn power, Agnes! I think I see a slight horn growing from your forehead. Come on, Agnes, think light thoughts—fairy dust, angel food cake, billowy clouds, cotton candy—oops, there we go!” And suddenly we were airborne, but just barely. My feet still brushed the stone plateau, and as I looked down I saw an enormous troll, rushing about the surface. Fortunately, trolls have poor vision, so it didn’t see us immediately. Soon, though, it smelled our fear and raced in our direction. It swung an enormous club over its great shaggy head, and with a vicious growl grabbed my ankle. “Light thoughts, Agnes, light thoughts!” I kicked at it, and managed to free my foot, leaving behind only my shoe, as Agnes screamed “Alfalfa meringue pie!” and we were aloft, flying high above the angry creature. We heard its shouts for many minutes, while I consulted the map and tried to rudder Agnes toward Blind Springs. I felt troll drool dripping off my foot and looked down to see it blistering just a bit. I shivered at our near escape.
I pulled an apple from the bag and fed it to Agnes while we were in the air, stroking her neck and her ego.
“What a brave donkey! If it wasn’t for you, Agnes, our goose would be cooked! I knew you had it in you.”
“Oh, well,” Agnes said, blushing, “it was only ONE troll, after all, I mean, really, hardly a threat, is it?”
“Look, there’s the H of S below. We’re almost there!” Agnes started quaking once again.
I made a quick decision. In honor of her courage and wise use of unicorn power, we would bypass the H of S. “Just go on by, Agnes. We’ll go directly to Blind Springs. I spied it below, a rushing waterfall tumbling toward a pool that bubbled from within, visible one moment, gone the next in a mist. “Hmmm, perhaps that is why it is called Blind Springs,” I said, as I dropped the little anchor. We began to descend slowly, circling round and round until Agnes’s hooves touched down on a grassy knoll above the springs. “We’re here!”
“Glory be,” Agnes shouted, braying a bit with joy. I laughed and slid from her side, and then I noticed something. I looked, looked again, and then took off the magic spectacles. It was still there.
“Why Agnes,” I said, “You really do have a horn growing from your forehead. You will be the world’s first uni-donkey. You were magnificent, really you were.”
“Thank you mistress. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll be off.” And with a dignified nod, she turned to go.
“Agnes, wait!” I took one apple from the bag for myself and tied the rest to her bridle, under her chin so she could reach them. I kissed her on her new horn-bud and patted her neck.
“Good-bye, dear Agnes.” She trotted off. I lay upon the grass for a bit, consulted my map, and then turned to head toward the H of S. I saw a raven overhead, and hoped it would bring word of my pending arrival to the Enchantress. I reckoned another two hours walk should bring me to my destination.