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A Plague of Unicorns

A Plague of Unicorns

by Jane Yolen

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In this historical fiction-meets-fantasy novel by award-winning author Jane Yolen, readers 8-12 will experience a world where a young boy with nothing but questions may have the only answer to solving a unicorn infestation at a medieval abbey. With humor, heart, and an empowering twist at the end, this book is perfect for Yolen fans and anyone who wants to make their voice heard.

When young James asks one too many questions, his mother and uncle hope an education at Cranford Abbey will make him a proper noble—but when James arrives, the monks there are most interested in keeping the unicorns in the orchard from eating all the prized golden apples they need to save the abbey. Abbot Aelian thinks he knows how to defeat the ravenous unicorns, though it may actually be up to James to use his inquisitive mind to find a way to save Cranford Abbey and hopefully find a way to return home.

A Plague of Unicorns:

  • Features original, detailed illustrations that help bring the story to life
  • Has short, engaging chapters and a print size perfect for reluctant readers
  • Will appeal to lovers of unicorns, fairy tales, and books by authors like Avi and Karen Cushman
  • Helps empower readers 8 to 12 feel like their voice matters, no matter who they are

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310746102
Publisher: Zonderkidz
Publication date: 12/23/2014
Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,059,931
File size: 5 MB
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Jane has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century. She sets the highest standard for the industry, not only in the meaningful body of work she has created, but also in her support of fellow authors and artists. Her books range from the bestselling How Do Dinosaurs series to the Caldecott winning Owl Moon to popular novels such as The Devil’s Arithmetic, Snow in Summer, and The Young Merlin Trilogy, to award-winning books of poetry such as Grumbles from the Forest, and A Mirror to Nature. In all, she has written over 335 books (she’s lost count), won numerous awards (one even set her good coat on fire), and has been given six honorary doctorates in literature. For more information, please visit www.janeyolen.com. 

Read an Excerpt

A Plague of Unicorns

By Jane Yolen


Copyright © 2014 Jane Yolen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-74611-9


In which we are introduced to a short history of the unicorn plague

* * *

In one of the orchards behind the high stone walls of Cranford Abbey grew five different varieties of apple trees.

Three varieties bore ordinary green and red apples, which the monks had named Plainsong, Nones, and Prime.

One variety of tree bore apples the deep purple of port wine. The priests called them Sanctus.

And one group of trees bore apples that were a startling gold, a color that would put mustard to shame and make wheat weep, if such were possible. The first abbot of the abbey had cried "Hosannah!" That's a shout of praise, from the Latin, which is a language abbots, monks, and priests know well. His shout was heard by all the monks laboring in the orchard, and the name stuck.

The unicorns dined only on the golden Hosannah apples when they came through Cranford on their fall migration. They left the other apples quite alone.

No one remembered when they'd first come through the abbey grounds. There were only two mentions of them in the abbey records. One had been an offhand reference to "the white beast, the glory of God" in one of the long-misplaced hymn books. The other reference was a picture, rather smudged, of a unicorn eating an apple in the middle of the garden of Eden, in an illuminated manuscript about the wild beasts of Britannia.

For years no one had disturbed the unicorns at their feast. A lone unicorn may be a magnificent animal, full of rare enchantment and beauty. However, in a herd they can prove exceedingly cranky and exceptionally dangerous if disturbed, especially if they are disturbed while eating golden apples.

Now the first abbot, and the second, and the third—all fine and holy men—were long gone to their heavenly reward at the time of this story. They had each suffered the unicorns to share the golden apples, with only a few apples left at the end of the autumn at the topmost of each tree. For as the first abbot wrote in the Abbot's Journal, "There are but few golden apple trees in the orchard, and those trees are far from the others." And the second abbot added that, "The golden apples are not particularly plump nor pleasing to the tongue." And the third had said, definitively, "Not worth the battle."

But then the fourth abbot was appointed. Abbot Aelian was a tall, greying man with a face that seemed to be considering everything —monks, tapestries, suppers, silver—and always finding them wanting. He had served as abbot of a smaller abbey in France, and spoke many languages, including owl—or so the French monks believed, for he could whistle and call down owls on Christmas Eve.

Abbot Aelian walked the halls of Cranford as silent as a ghost, but he had the gift of Presence when he wanted to be seen. He brought with him a recipe for apple cider that had been in his family for generations, a recipe for Golden Apple Cider.

He went around and about the abbey those first days, checking it from foundation to attic, from the walled gardens to the great compost heaps steaming in the sun. Nothing eluded his searching eyes. He checked the well, the hearths both large and small, the two spits for roasting, and the old dungeon where faulty parts of equipment were stored. He spent an entire morning noodling about in the big abbey kitchen, lifting lids, tasting the soup, testing the strength of every kettle, making lists of all the stores in the larder and the cold cellar. But he never smiled.

"He's not so much an abbot as a counting-house man," complained Brother Gregory, the cook, to anyone who would listen. He shook his fat forefinger as he spoke. "Mark my words, he will do nothing for the abbey or us monks."

In his tour of the abbey, Abbot Aelian learned that the stone walls had been breached in a number of places. The roof of the main building leaked, and was especially bad over the scriptorium, where monks worked tirelessly to illuminate pages of the Bible. To save the manuscripts and scrolls from the dripping ceiling, many monks had long since moved their individual desks to their individual cells so they might continue their work of decorating manuscripts with colorful capital letters and illustrations both beautiful and odd.

Also, alas, quite a few of the stained glass windows had been broken due to unseasonal hail. In fact, in one of the windows detailing the Crucifixion, Barabbas—the prisoner who'd been pardoned—had disappeared from his pane of glass entirely, leaving only an unfurled banner with his name on it.

* * *

Abbot Aelian returned to the kitchen at the end of the tour. He was carrying three large soup pots. "These are yours, I gather," he said to Brother Gregory. "We cannot have your good cook pots serving as drip catchers. Especially now that many of the monks are working on their illuminations in their own cells." He nodded at Brother Gregory but did not smile as he handed the pots over. "Their own cells are uncomfortable at best, and, I fear, not a very welcoming work space. That needs sorting immediately and will solve two things at once—the scriptorium and the pots in your fine kitchen."

Brother Gregory immediately stopped his complaining and became the abbot's friend for as long as they both lived, which—as it turned out—was well into their nineties.

* * *

Between them, Brother Gregory and the abbot went about testing the Golden Cider recipe on themselves and some trusted cook boys. They'd tried the other apples first, hoping to use the varieties already in abundant supply, but the cider always seemed to lack something: one was too sweet, one too sour, one too musty, one too sharp.

There was only a handful of the golden Hosannahs left from the last plague of unicorns. They had been at the tip top of the trees, left there when the unicorns had departed. The youngest of the monks had gone up on ladders and taken the few golden apples down, hurrying back with them to the kitchen. Seventeen apples in all. They were not good eating apples, nor good baking apples, and Brother Gregory was more than willing to use them in a cider test. But there were not enough for a full sampling by the monks. He was only able to make enough to fill two medium-sized mugs.

However, two medium-sized mugs was enough for anyone who took part in the test, for even a drop of the drink tasted heavenly. That was the word that all the tasters agreed upon.

It was hoped that the sale of the cider from these apples would help restore Cranford Abbey. Or, as the abbot said when he called the monks together in the small sanctuary of the abbey church, "The sale of cider has saved many an abbey in France. With my great-great-grandmother's recipe and the magnificent Hosannahs we have here in the abbey garden, there is no reason why we cannot restore Cranford to its former glory."

The monks cheered, and one of the youngest of the oblates turned three cartwheels in the aisle, much to the delight of his friends—though it won him a hard look from Brother David, who taught them mathematics and art and was said to smile once a year whether he meant it or not.

"Now," said the abbot, "about those unicorns. I have a plan."

Everyone cheered again, though some of the older monks were rather hesitant when it came to applause. They had been through this before.

* * *

So, in that first autumn of Aelian's rule, when the golden apples were at their ripest, the battle lines were drawn—monks against unicorns.

It was not a fair fight, because the monks believed that to harm any animal except for the purposes of dinner was wrong. Further, they believed that harming a unicorn —thought to be the animal avatar of the Christ—brought about the greatest of misfortunes.

Besides, they had no weapons but Brother Gregory's three large knives, which he was reluctant to give up as easily as he had given up his pots.

The unicorns, as far as was known, had no such thoughts about monks. And, besides, they had very sharp horns.

Here ends the first part of the Short History of the Unicorn Plague.


The short history of the unicorn plague, part two

* * *

At the end of that first autumn encounter—"The Abbot's War," as it was called in the town of Cranford—the tally stood as such:

Burly Brother Alford—pierced through the hand.

Skinny Father Emmanuel—run through the thigh.

Two novices with turned ankles from scampering away.

One oblate with a skinned knee, having fallen out of a tree where the unicorns fed.

Three infant oblates—young boys given to the abbey as toddlers by their parents —awaking each night with screaming nightmares.

And the unicorns?

No casualties or injuries. In fact, the leader had begun taunting Abbot Aelian, letting him get closer, closer, and then trotting away with a toss of his head and a whinny that sounded remarkably like a laugh. The golden apples? Except for the topmost apples—all gone.

* * *

In the town of Cranford, which lay to the immediate west of the abbey and its gardens, the locals began to make jokes about what had happened.

"To fight an apple-bapple" meant "to wage an uneven contest."

"Apple pudding" was something frightened children did in their pants.

"As rare as a golden apple in the Lord Abbot's garden" meant something that didn't exist at all.

Boys invented bouncing ball rhymes, such as:

See the monks all in a row.

In come the unicorns ... down they go.

Girls made up skip-rope tunes:

Abbot, Abbot, say your prayers, I hear a unicorn on the stairs.

Abbot Aelian was not amused by any of this. He felt the entire countryside was laughing at the abbey, and especially at him—and he was right. Though he was a good man, he had absolutely no sense of humor. Or so it was thought.

And he had no golden apples to make his cider, either.

* * *

That winter Abbot Aelian studied the unicorns out of his tower window as they devoured the golden assets of the garden, and he began to devise a plan. He read all about unicorns in three great books of unicorn anatomy that the abbey owned: The Unicornus Is a Wily Beast was the thinnest of the volumes, and he tackled that first. Next he read De Natura Unicorni in Latin, and finally he tried Unicornis in Tribulo, but found it too fantastic for his liking.

"A romance more than a treatise," as he explained to Brother Luke over his tea. Brother Luke, short and stout, had the finest hand at illuminations, and so he and the abbot had tea every other day to discuss the books in the library and the ones being worked on by the monks.

Brother Luke nodded. He liked romances more than treatises himself, but he wasn't about to admit that to the abbot.

Abbot Aelian understood from both observation and research that unicorns took one week to eat all they could, one week to digest what they could, and one week to excrete what was left. And then they started eating all over again. He read that part of the De Natura to Brother Luke and was delighted when the round monk smiled and nodded in return.

"So it is with many animals," Brother Luke said. "Though horses eat and excrete rather more quickly."

"Lucky then," said the abbot, "that we are dealing with unicorns."

"Lucky indeed," replied Brother Luke.

* * *

So the second autumn, Abbot Aelian set his tallest, strongest monks to guard the gates into the orchards while the infant oblates and novitiates were to hide in the branches of the red and green apple trees as lookouts.

"We need only to keep them out one week in three," the abbot said.

He allowed his "holy warriors," as he called the monks, to carry pitchforks for protection, as well as kitchen cloths to snap at the unicorns' backsides. He gave each of the two priests slingshots purchased from the town, plus a full cloth pocket of hard peas to use as ammunition. The oblates and novitiates—or at least the most capable of the boys—he posted in the actual Hosannah trees because they were the lightest and would not break any branches. They were supplied with buckets of warm water fortified by fish guts to rain down upon the beasts, because in one of the books the abbot had read, such a combination was called "Unicorn Bane," meaning that unicorns hated it and would run away at even the slightest whiff.

The holy warriors practiced their maneuvers all winter long. The priests with the slings started acting like boys. And the oblates all got soaking wet and came in smelling dreadfully of fish guts.

The longer they practiced, the more problems arose. The towel-snappers began snapping anyone walking quietly in the dortoir, the dormitory where they all lived. Those they pounced upon ran away screaming, which violated all of the abbey's rules on silence.

As for the pitchfork brigade, they were lucky not to run one another through, though it was a close thing.

And three of the boys—Bartholomew, Aiden, and George—got soaking wet once too often in the deep cold of winter and came down with walkabout pneumonia, forcing them to stay in bed with warm compresses for days on end.

* * *

The abbot gathered all of the members of his abbey family together one evening after prayers. It was close to Christmas, and he gave them what would be written down as his Christmas homily, though it was less about God and more about the unicorns.

"My children," he began, looking down on them from the high pulpit, "God does not want you to overtax yourselves in this practice, nor to make yourselves ill. This is but a rehearsal only. Save your real bravado for when the beasts actually arrive again in the fall."

Bartholomew, Aiden, and George—who had bonded in the infirmary—had quite enjoyed overtaxing themselves and then having to take it easy in the soft infirmary beds. They liked being read to as they lay in a half stupor. It wouldn't be hard to do it all over again as soon as the abbot would let them. They winked at one another and nodded their heads.

Then Bartholomew whispered, "We'll get them next time, boys!" Meaning, of course, the unicorns.

* * *

Few of the ordinary duties besides prayer got done that cold winter.

By March, everyone at the abbey, except Bartholomew and his boys, was exhausted by the unicorn practice, even as modest as it had become. And as Brother Luke cautioned, "They are not practiced in anything now but boredom."

So Abbot Aelian allowed them to rest up all spring and summer with only minor practices.

For the monks and most of the novices, it was a relief to return to the scriptorium or the kitchen or the winter gardening or the animal care—the goats and the cows had suffered the most from neglect. And there were the bell ringing duties and the washing of the stone floors.

But for the oblates—especially Bartholomew, Aiden, and George—it was a return to a life of order and silence, the hardest thing for young boys to endure. So they practiced at night, in secret, and had to be wakened rudely with a hearty shake each morning by the monk in charge.

* * *

The gardening monks still kept a careful eye on the orchard trees, of course. It was their job. They watched the flowers first, then the buds, then the hard bead of each small apple. They reported what was happening every day to Abbot Aelian, who wrote it down in a notebook labeled Of the Labors of Gardeners. It was, he hoped, to be his greatest work. After defeating the unicorns, of course.

The gardeners and their novices waited impatiently, then fearfully, then hopefully as the apple beads of late summer grew large and round, and it was clear they were nearing a major harvest.

They hoped that after the slingshots and fish guts and the rest, the unicorns had decided to go elsewhere.

And just when they were congratulating themselves on a job well done, and the bell ringers were ringing out the canonical hours, the unicorns came back, threading their way across the meadows of barley towards the orchard.

It was Bartholomew who saw them first from his perch in the tallest Plainsong apple tree. He sang out his discovery in a voice that mixed pride with a dash of bravado and a pinch of fear.

Here ends the second part of the Short History of the Unicorn Plague.


Excerpted from A Plague of Unicorns by Jane Yolen. Copyright © 2014 Jane Yolen. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERKIDZ.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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