Chapter 1. Lions and a unicorn

The stone lion on the gatepost
Jasmine Fisher had to go and stay with horrible Great-Aunt Peggy one summer when she was eight and a half. This was because her bedroom at home had turned into a Swamp of Disaster. In other words, while the family were away on their summer holiday, a water pipe had started busily leaking in the roof just above her room, giving her a lake instead of a carpet, a soggy heap of collapsed plaster instead of a bed, and a gaping hole instead of a ceiling. The living room, which was directly below her bedroom, was not much better. Mum and Dad were spending all their time having fits down the phone at builders and plumbers, and Jasmine could definitely see her parents' point when they claimed that she would be better off out of the way.

If only there was somewhere else to go instead of Glitterford House, Great Aunt Peggy's dark, grim old mansion! Glitterford House stuck like a blackened tooth out of the empty wastes of miles of countryside populated only by cows and sheep. Great Aunt Peggy didn't even have a television! Her main forms of entertainment seemed to consist of eating suet pudding and sitting there saying 'Pretty boy' to her evil-looking parrot. Oh, what a great time Jasmine was going to have. Not. But all her schoolfriends were still away on holiday. There was no alternative to Great Aunt Peggy.

Just to make things that little bit nicer, the car had broken down and was refusing to come back to life, as if it had gone on strike in sympathy with the leaking water pipe. Jasmine was going to have to go to Great Aunt Peggy's by train, and Mum and Dad had decided that it would be safe for her to do the journey all by herself, so that they could spend more time sobbing on the phone to plumbers.

'Just don't talk to any strangers, Jazzy,' said Mum, settling her in a window seat on the train and looking round uneasily. 'Apart from the ticket collector, I mean, of course. Anyway, I'm sure it's quite safe. Daddy and I always used to travel alone by train when we were children.'

'Back in prehistoric days,' thought Jasmine (who was generally known as Jazzy to her family and friends). She watched Mum shove a bag of clothes and books behind her seat. Next, Mum proudly placed a lunch-box on the table in front of her. Jazzy wrinkled up her nose and eyed it with deep mistrust. She just knew it would be bursting with health-giving salad-based goodness. Mum, who was a great believer in healthy food, feared that Jazzy would be deprived of lettuce for the next couple of weeks because Great Aunt Peggy considered that eating 'weeds' was not something that human beings did. On this one single, solitary point, Great Aunt Peggy was right, thought Jazzy.

'Okay darling,' said Mum, kissing her and giving her a hug. 'Eat your packed lunch properly, sweetheart, and Great Aunt Peggy will meet you at Glitterford station.'

But when the train arrived at the tiny village of Glitterford, there was nobody there. Jazzy stood with her luggage on the deserted platform, looking around her. There was a rustling sound from the leaves of the large, dark-green trees overhanging the railway line, and she could hear a bee buzzing. Apart from that there was no sign of life whatsoever.

Jazzy thought of phoning her parents on the mobile they had given her, but then she imagined them waiting nervously by the phone, praying that a builder would call them back. Jazzy was a brave and kind-hearted person, and she decided that Mum and Dad had enough worries at the moment. After all, she did know the way to Great Aunt Peggy's house. There was only one road in Glitterford village, so it was hard to get lost.

'I just knew that horrible Great-Aunt Peggy wouldn't meet me,' thought Jazzy, stomping out of the station. 'Now I'm going to have to walk all the way to her horrible house, and this bag is nearly pulling my arm out.'

It was not a terribly long walk, but it was rather a spooky one. As the road left Glitterford village, it became narrow, winding and shady. Tall trees arched overhead, blocking out the daylight. Unseen creatures made scrabbling noises under cover of the thick leaves, and the air smelt musty. A lumpy-looking grey church squatted like a toad in a clearing among the woods, surrounded by crooked gravestones.

Then a long stone wall appeared on one side of the road. Jazzy knew that this wall ran all round the edge of Great Aunt Peggy's garden, and she quickened her pace, hoping to arrive soon. On the other side of the road, the trees started to thin out, and soon the wind was whistling across a bare hillside dotted with massive rocks like giant teeth.

Jazzy was not enjoying her walk, and she was glad when she arrived at a pair of ornate wrought-iron gates with a scowling stone lion on each gatepost. The lions' eyes seemed to be watching her as she stood there. Hesitantly, Jazzy put her hand on the latch holding the gates shut, and pushed. With a squeal of grating metal, one half of the heavy double gates swung stiffly open. Jazzy stepped inside.

A narrow path zigzagged away between tangled shrubs and more clumps of dark-leafed trees. Jazzy plodded along, her arms aching. Sometimes she dragged her bag along the ground instead of carrying it, and tears pricked under her eyelids. If she didn't reach the house soon, she was going to phone Mum and Dad and that was that.

But suddenly her attention was distracted. Between the trees, she saw a flash of white, then heard a neigh.

'What!' she thought. 'Does Great-Aunt Peggy keep a horse in her garden?'

There was a huge rosebush just beside the path at this point, thickly covered with deep red flowers with golden centres. All at once, the branches began to shake, and a horse's head popped out from between the clusters of roses. Jazzy and the horse stared at each other. But no, it was not a horse. Jazzy gasped. 'A unicorn!' she cried.

A unicorn among the roses

'All right, all right,' mumbled the unicorn, chewing. A spray of roses was sticking out of the side of its mouth. 'No need to get so worked up about it. Anyway, what have you got in that lunch bag?'

For some reason, Jazzy did not find it strange that the unicorn was talking to her. Perhaps it was because she was so desperate for company at the moment. It seemed like a hundred years since Mum had hugged her goodbye, and she had not heard a friendly voice since then. The unicorn looked adorable with its big, gentle eyes, pearly white coat and long mane. Jazzy loved horses, and she always talked to pet animals like cats and dogs, so why couldn't she talk to a unicorn? She felt a bit embarrassed about her packed lunch though.

'Oh, there's only some carrot sticks, and Marmite and salad sandwiches, and an apple,' she sighed. 'All the cheese and flapjacks are gone.'

'Well, I certainly wouldn't say no to a sandwich or some carrots or an apple,' said the unicorn, flopping down on the grass between two rose bushes. 'It's been a long time since I had any decent food.'

Jazzy sat down on the grass as well, and opened her lunch bag.

As the unicorn ate, he told Jazzy his story. 'My name is Cloudgrass,' he said, sinking his jaws with a snort of delight into a Marmite and lettuce sandwich. 'In happier days, I used to live with my family and a whole herd of other unicorns in a beautiful place called Freer Garden. By the way, are there any more of those yummy sandwiches?' Jazzy passed him a salad roll, and watched in disbelief as he munched it with sighs of contentment.

Freer Garden, Cloudgrass told Jazzy, was a strange and magical land that floated somewhere outside the normal universe. There was just one gateway leading from it to the human world, and this gateway was in the cellars under the house of a rich old lady called Miss Peggy Fisher. The unicorns used to wander back and forth between the two worlds whenever they felt like it, clip-clopping through the stone passageways of the house after Miss Fisher had gone to bed and squeezing through a window with a broken catch. One summer night, the whole unicorn herd had been out in Miss Fisher's garden, enjoying the fine crop of strawberries that they had found growing there. Tired but happy, they were heading home, when they heard a fearsome cackle of laughter. Miss Peggy Fisher was standing in front of the gateway to Freer Garden, pointing a bony finger at them. The gate was now blocked by a massive rock. 'You can keep your noses out of my strawberry plants in future!' she sneered. 'Off to the moon with you!' A beam of silver light shot from her finger, and as it zapped the unicorns, they disappeared from the earth and reappeared on the cold white hills of the moon. Only Cloudgrass had escaped.

The unicorns are sent to the moon

'If only my family and I could get back into Freer Garden,' said Cloudgrass sadly. 'I'm sure that Miss Fisher has a spell for bringing things back from the moon as well as for sending them there. It's probably in one of her spellbooks down in the cellar. But I can't even get into the house (or the vegetable patch) these days, the place is too well-guarded by magic. I'll never see my family or my home again.'

'Yes you will! You will!' cried Jazzy, hugging him. 'Just leave it to me!'

And she picked up her bag and marched round the last bend of the winding path, and up to the front door of Glitterford House.

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Last modified 28 December 2016
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