Twitter and many other parts of the world are awash in comments and observations about National Unicorn Day. Since so much of it seems frivolous, here is an excerpt from my novel, A Lost Gospel, where unicorns are as real as the fingers on your hand.
“You want us to think like the unicorn?” Ogma was irritated, and spoke with deliberation. “The ways of the beasts are even beyond the girl. At her best, I believe she just follows.”
“There are times, Ogma, when the worth is not in the accomplishment, but in the attempt.”
“I’ll be a better man by trying to think like the beast?”
“You can’t help but be a better man, Ogma.”
“Well. That’s spoken like a Head Druid.” Although Cowin could not see his actions – perhaps because Cowin was unable to see him – Ogma held out his hand and rubbed his fingers together. “Here, beastie, beastie. Uncle Ogma has a wee treat for you.”
“Is that what you think a unicorn thinks?”
“But if you come up to Uncle Cowin,” Ogma’s voice now had a sing-song tone. “Just jab him in the arse with that big horn, for he doesn’t have anything for you at all.”
“A least I promise nothing.” The Head Druid had finally deduced what Ogma was doing. “But what will be the reaction of those very sharp teeth when your hand is found to be empty?”
“What?” Ogma hesitated.
“Does the unicorn possess your sense of humour?” Cowin did not try to suppress a chuckle. “Or will your empty hand be empty even of fingers?”
Ogma momentarily considered the question, then quickly raised his hand. He was about to make an obscene gesture, but instead turned in the direction of a distant noise. He could feel by the brush of Cowin’s cloak that the Head Druid did the same.
“We’re being approached without hesitation.” Ogma whispered the words.”By more than one, if the sounds don’t play tricks.”
“That isn’t possible in this fog.” As the oncoming noise shifted, Cowin turned slightly. “I don’t suppose you have a knife under your cloak?”
“No, Head Druid.” Ogma stared into the dark. “Like most, I rarely carry arms while on the Island.”
“The times are changing.” Cowin looked at the vague shape of his companion. “Keep no more than a few strides distant.”
“We’re not prepared for a fucking invasion.” Ogma got into a crouch and flanked the Head Druid.
“Maybe they won’t see us.” Cowin leaned toward the approaching noise.
“I think that’s a false hope.” Ogma moved into his fighting position, bracing for an attack. “They’re aiming right in our direction.”
“The fog will give some protection.” The Head Druid also crouched into a combat stance. “Let as many as possible go past, then jump the ones at the rear. If they’re armed, we might wrestle a weapon from them.”
“Or a body to use as a shield.” Ogma wrapped his cloak around his arm to help deflect a thrusting sword.
“Nothing fancy.” Cowin dug his heels into the earth. “We have to go on this voyage – nothing is more important. If we’re overwhelmed, we must try to escape.”
The fog seemed to muffle noises which were close, yet make distant sounds crack like a whip beside their ears. This aided to the druids’ confusion, and they couldn’t tell who was approaching, or from where. It was Ogma who spoke first, using an oath which held traces of fear around the words.
“Something’s brushing against me.”
“What do you – ”
“Curse Manannan’s damn fog – it’s at my legs.” There were sounds of commotion, and then of a body rolling on the earth. “Fucking sword of death.” Ogma’s voice was high.
“Where are you?” Cowin stared uselessly through the fog.
“By the gods of hell. Get it away from me.”
“Ogma.” Cowin moved toward his voice. “I can’t even – ”
“It’s the beast.” Ogma shouted. “The damned beast.”
“The unicorn.” Ogma was sputtering in anger. “It’s pulling my clothes with its teeth, and that horn has come inches from – ” Ogma’s voice moved. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
“Ogma.” The Head Druid was both concerned and relieved. “Don’t struggle – it’s not going to hurt you.”
“You don’t think being frightened can’t hurt you?” Ogma’s voice was sharp, but the rage was ebbing from it. “I’m stopping, you bag of shit. I’m sitting on my arse and not lifting a hand, so get your head away from me.” There was a pause, filled only by the heavy breathing of the unicorn. “This damn thing is bigger than you’d think, Head Druid.”
“Do you still have all your fingers?” Laughter surrounded Cowin’s words. “Or does the unicorn look upon you with a smile?”
“This was its game?”
“Be thankful.” Cowin walked toward the other man’s voice. “You found out the unicorn has a sense of humour.” He reached his hand to help Ogma to his feet.
“The beast does not go after your fingers,” complained Ogma.
“I don’t tease him.” Cowin rubbed the animal’s neck. “Nor do I speak of him in such a rough manner.”
“You think it understands me?”
“Not the words – but the intent.” Cowin felt the unicorn become tense under his hand. “The girl approaches.”
Isabella d’Este, Giovanni Cristoforo Romano, 1500.
There is a tradition in “my” branch of the Estey family that we descend from the d’Este of Italy. The d’Este clan were rich and powerful and influential. They married well which – yes – brought the infamous Lucrezia Borgia into the family when she wed Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.
My father had a reproduction of Alfonso’s sister, Isabella, readily at hand. Isabel was a name for at least one daughter in every generation of Esteys. Lucrezia attempted to befriend Isabella, but to no avail.
The town of Este is in Northern Italy, in the Veneto region, about a two hour car ride from Venice. It’s most recent population figure of two years ago was around 17,000. I have a special fondness for this part of Italy and have sprinkled references to it in some of my novels. Indeed, my whole historical onion trilogy is centred around a town in this area.
So, Este was certainly a destination when I travelled through Europe. And the surrounding area. Este was suitably medieval in tone, with its ruined Este castle and wonderful flower beds and bowers and stone bridge over river and walled town and as happily historic as all get out.
I looked to see how many Estes were in the phone book (a respectable number) but I didn’t phone anyone. I would be more thorough and stay longer on another trip. I doubt there is any way to fix up that castle.
I enjoyed all of Italy that I visited (and the rest of Europe held no less enthusiasm from me). But to stick, as it were, around the old homestead, the most enjoyable places were Venice and Florence. I was most surprised to see cruise ships looming from the Venetian waterfront.
I sighed on The Bridge of Sighs – from such beauty to such terror those prisoners were lead. A stunning memory was boating on the Grand Canal at dusk and seeing rooms in a passing mansion ablaze with chandeliers.
Florence was my favourite. It is, of course, awash in museums and galleries and art art Art. To chose the one which stunned me most was Botechelli’s Birth of Venus – and that’s saying a lot, considering. The Ponte Vecchio over the Arno lives up to all its billing. Alas, I bought no gold.
Also, a memory is walking along certain streets and assuming I was near riding stables because of the permeating smell. However, I was in the leather good quarter. There was also the ancient, wire mesh and gated elevator,the type I had only seen in movies, wheezing me aloft to my lodgings. And the lady who left her room key on my table after breakfast. And don’t get me started on the markets and the food. Don’t.
However, there is one golden memory which consists of neither history nor ancient art. This happened in Verona. I was walking along a busy street and looked into the interior of a news vendor. The building also had an array of paperback books. And there, looking back out at me, was my own novel, L’INGANNO BONNER, recently produced in an Italian translation. That was a most pleasant delight indeed.