By Tim Porteus

THE summer holidays are upon us and so for the next six weeks I will write a family tale based in East Lothian which I hope can be enjoyed by all the family.

This week’s tale comes from the imagination of various children from our county. It began with an idea from my daughter Manja and then was developed by children from Dunbar Primary School during a storytelling session there for the Coastword festival last month.

‘Once East Lothian was covered in a great forest, and in this forest everyone knew there lived the last unicorn in the kingdom.

A new young king decided that he would hunt the creature and kill it. He was told that the unicorn was a rare and special animal which would fight fiercely to maintain its freedom.

“Perfect,” said the king, whose nickname was Cornelius, “if I can find and kill this creature I will hang its head on the wall of my great hall and people will remember me as a great king, and say I was brave and stronger even than a unicorn!”

And so he set out with a group of nobles into the forest. He left behind his great hunting dog Woodster, for although this great hound was usually at the king’s side when hunting, the king knew Woodster did not have the scent of a unicorn and so would be unable to track it. He would find the scent of a deer or boar and lead the hunting party astray.

Besides, the young king wanted a challenge. He knew a unicorn was magical and elusive, and finding it would be near-impossible. But that would only enhance his reputation once he had killed it!

They had been searching all day in the forest when suddenly the king became aware of something hiding in a bush in front of them. The king dismounted and stood facing whatever it was, bow and arrow at the ready.

A wild boar charged from the undergrowth straight towards the king. A perfectly aimed arrow pierced the animal between is forelegs and its head ploughed into the ground as it fell dead at the king’s feet.

“Well done your majesty!” his companions cheered. The king smiled and nodded in pride at his kill. “Well, sirs, now we have dinner! Let us camp here and return to the hunt tomorrow morning.”

And so deep in the forest, the king and his men sat around a campfire and ate heartily. But the men became thirsty and the young king told his men to stay by the fireside while he went to the nearby burn to fill the waterskin with water.

“But you are the king,” said one, “it is not your job to serve us.”

“Even the king should at times serve those who are loyal to him,” he replied. And so the king walked into the trees and followed the sound of trickling water.

It was a moonlit night and the forest shimmered. The king soon found the burn and he knelt beside it and submerged the waterskin. Bubbles began to rise to the surface as the air escaped and it filled with water. The moon was reflected in the water and the bubbles from the waterskin made patterns on the surface. The young king watched them as they swirled then vanished.

Then his eye suddenly caught something moving a little downstream. He turned his head and saw the unicorn drinking.

The king’s body was electrified and then he realised he didn’t have his bow and arrow with him. But he still had his dagger! Like a prowling cat, he slowly raised from his knees making no sound. The unicorn was still drinking, unaware of his presence. The king’s fingers silently curled round the handle of his dagger and he began to unsheathe it.

“Why do you wish to kill something so precious?” someone said. The unicorn looked up and gazed at the king. The king knew this was his chance and threw his dagger at the creature with all his might. His aim was perfect but the unicorn was too fast and was already leaping back into the undergrowth.

The blade buried itself into the trunk of a tree. The king was furious. Who was it who had uttered those words and given the unicorn warning? He went to retrieve his dagger and as he pulled it from the bark a smile curved over his face. He hadn’t quite missed the unicorn, for wrapped around the dagger were hairs from the creature’s main.

By daybreak the hunting party was back at the king’s castle. The king was greeted by his great hound Woodster.

“I have something for you my boy,” said the king, and he let his dog smell the unicorn’s hair. “Now you have the scent,” said the king with a smile.

The next day, the king ventured back into the forest, this time with Woodster, and only two of his closest companions. They returned to the burn and soon Woodster had the unicorn’s scent. The hound chased the trail and the king followed. Soon Woodster was too far ahead to see him, but the king followed his barking.

Excitement ran through the king’s veins as he galloped through ever thicker wood. In just one moment as he was deciding which direction to go he stopped paying attention to what was before him. His head hit a great branch and he was thrown from his horse. He fell with such force that he was knocked unconscious.

When he awoke, the king realised he was hurt. He had no idea how long he’d been out, but his ribs and legs ached badly. He tried to lift himself but the moment he raised his head he froze with fear.

Three wolves were standing over him. They were growling and showing their teeth, which were stained with fresh blood. They pounced on the king and everything went dark.

The king opened his eyes and for a moment he was unsure if he was alive or dead. He was inside some kind of cave, and there guarding him were the three wolves. Except this time they weren’t growling but sitting quietly. The king then noticed his wounds were bound and dressed with bandages made from leaves.

And then the king saw the unicorn. Once again their eyes met. This time the king had time to study the beast. What a magnificent creature, he thought.

It could not talk to him, yet the king knew that the unicorn wanted him to rise up and follow it. As he got to his feet the wolves quietly followed him. It wasn’t a cave he was in, it was an overgrown giant yew tree, the drooping branches forming a wall.

The unicorn led the king outside and there on the ground was Woodster, bloodstained and dead. The king fell to his knees and wept. He loved his dog more than anything else. Rage and a desire for revenge first lit his heart, but then as he looked up at the unicorn, he suddenly understood something.

He’d lost something he loved which was precious and irreplaceable. He now realised people would not call him brave and great for killing the last unicorn. There would be grief at the loss of something special and unique.

The sound of horses interrupted the king’s thoughts. His companions had found him: “We were worried your majesty, thanks be to God you are alright,”

They saw that the king was kneeling by his slain hunting dog. “We will find the wolves and kill them for this deed,” said one of the companions, “and the unicorn, whose head will grace your castle wall.”

“No,” said the king, “henceforth I decree that the unicorn who dwells in this forest to be sacred and must be left alone. Likewise the wolves, who were merely protecting what we should have valued in the first place.”

“The king has gone mad with that knock on the head,” one whispered to the other. “Yes, he will change his mind when better,” said the other.

But the king buried his beloved Woodster and for the rest of his life protected the unicorn and the forest in which it dwelt. He married and had five children. In winter nights he would tell the tale of the unicorn to his family. And so it was that the unicorn became the royal symbol of the kingdom; a proud and brave creature who would defend its freedom.

He grew old and on the last day of his life he called his eldest child to his bedside. She listened carefully to his whispered dying words: “Take the small box which is hidden in the back of the cupboard in this room. Tell no one, and do not look inside it. Then secretly go into the forest, ride for half a day but pay no attention to the way you take. Then bury the box deep in the ground. Then leave the place and do not look back. You must not remember where you have buried it or leave trace of it.”

“I will, father,” the princess said.

And so, after her father’s death, the princess kept her promise, except for one part of it. She was just too curious to see what was in the box she was secretly burying. So she opened it and inside was the unicorn’s hair.

She now understood and replaced the lid and buried it deep in this unknown place. As centuries went by, the forest was sadly eventually cut down and the wolves were all killed.

But the unicorn remained safe and still hides somewhere in what is left of East Lothian’s woodland. And the wooden box still lies buried under some farmer’s field, or perhaps in a garden.

But who had spoken to the king on that moonlit night? Who had carried him to the tree? And who had dressed his wounds? The children from Dunbar Primary know the answer to this mystery.’