The Uninvited Guest
Chapter one–Garden Getaway
Could this day possibly get any worse!?
She didn't dare say it out loud, but that's exactly what twelve-year-old Mariah Prindle was thinking as sweat rolled down her forehead and stung her eyes. For as long as she could remember, gardening had never been fun. And on this particular occasion when she was being forced to weed the entire vegetable garden, it was a downright miserable endeavor. It was a hot day, and as she knelt there, sweating and dirty, it only served to bring the mosquitos out in droves.
The only way to keep the pesky little biters off her arms and neck was to wear a sweatshirt. That, in turn, made her even more uncomfortable and terribly unhappy. Adding to her suffering was the fact that regardless of her attempts to yank them out, the weeds stubbornly refused to give up their position among the vegetables. Despite wearing gloves her fingers ached from trying to pull the unwanted plants out of the ground. She didn't even want to see how much dirt was collecting underneath her fingernails.
"I wish these plants could just weed themselves," she muttered in the general direction of her mother. "Who needs them anyway?" Her mind wandered, and she stared across the yard, spotting the row of apple and pear trees. Ugh, she thought. Before long it'll be time to pick apples. Sometimes I feel like I'm just a servant around here.
The job was progressing slowly at best, and being constantly scolded for laziness just made Mariah dawdle even more. As the minutes crept by and the task continued to wear her out, she wanted to be anywhere but there. A voice called out her name, softly at first, but then with a sense of urgency.
She glanced around, but didn't see anything. "Mariah," the voice repeated. "I'm over here." When she turned and looked toward the wooded area behind her house, something moved. Her first reaction was to rub her eyes, because what she was seeing didn't seem possible. It looked like a large horse, but unlike any horse she had ever seen before, this one had wings. Its coat was silver and she could clearly see a twisted and glistening golden horn coming from out of the beautiful creature's head. Its long tail and mane sparkled under the midday sun, casting an unearthly glow as it pawed at the ground in front of her.
Somehow her mother and father were totally unaware of what was going on. Not only had they failed to hear it calling for her, apparently they were also unable to see it. As the horse-like creature came forward, it stopped just a few feet away from her father and shook its gorgeous, shimmering silver mane. Her parents, however, remained oblivious to its presence. It was like they had been frozen in time, while the only moving objects were Mariah, her dog Willow, and the mysterious visitor.
"Well," it said, scuffing its hooves into the grass. " I can't stand here all day. Are you coming with me or not? The spell I put on your parents isn't going to last much longer. And besides that, if I stay here too long I'll turn into a horse. No offense to horses, but I'd much rather be an alicorn."
"Alicorn? I've never heard of an alicorn. You look like a Pegasus-unicorn to me."
The alicorn rolled its large purple eyes before speaking again. "Sounds like you've got a lot to learn. And right now, I don't have time to teach you."
"Where are we going?" Mariah said tentatively.
"I don't exactly know, but you'll know it when you get there," the alicorn replied, shaking its head.
"How long will I be gone? Will I be back before dark?"
"I can't really say, although time doesn't have the same meaning once we cross over."
"Cross over?" Mariah said with a puzzled look on her face. "When we get there will I be able to understand the language? Do they speak English?"
"Ummmm—that's kind of hard to tell, but I imagine so."
"That's not very helpful. So is it safe where we're going?"
"Kind of, but I wouldn't want to guess."
"What do you know!?" Mariah demanded. She took a quick look over at her parents, who were still standing motionless with silly looks fixed on their faces. Whatever spell the magical creature had them under, it was still working.
"You don't need to raise your voice," the alicorn told her. "I may not be able to answer your questions, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with my hearing. In fact, I can hear your parents' heartbeats beginning to speed up, which means the enchantment is about to end. So answer my question—are you coming or not?"
"Now, please, just follow me, Mariah," it said politely, abruptly changing tone. "All I can tell you is that you've been summoned. Everything else will soon be apparent. My job is to get you to the other side. What happens after that will be up to you."
"Summoned? By who? And why me? Wait a minute, how do you know my name?"
The alicorn came to an unexpected stop and looked back at her incredulously. There was a strange sparkle in its large purple eyes. "Seriously? You need to ask?" it began. "You're pretty well known in the world of magic, Mariah Prindle. It's not everyone who has met both the Snow Maiden and Mercy Meredith."
Up to this point she had been waffling on whether or not to follow this beautiful otherworldly creature from the land of faerie. At the mention of her previous forays into the realms of magic, her mind was made up. Mariah wasted no further thought on the subject, abandoning her dreaded chores to follow the ethereal visitor. After all, it wasn't every day that a winged unicorn showed up in the yard.
The alicorn started toward the woods, stopping once to look back and make eye contact with the young girl. As it continued to walk away, Mariah left her job behind and ran toward the trees, with her dog Willow following. She would be in big trouble later, but just then it didn't matter. She disappeared into the woods, leaving her mother, father and the weed-filled garden far behind.
She would soon come to regret this hasty decision, but since that involves events yet to be discussed, it would be better to proceed with her immediate course of action. After all, who would want to know the end of a story before they barely even knew the beginning?
"Okay, I followed you. Now what?" Mariah said to the alicorn when her house was out of sight.
"Just hop on my back. It'll be much quicker that way."
She had experienced some very strange things in her life, far more than the average girl. Riding on an alicorn was a first. It took her a moment to get comfortable, but once she did, the ride was surprisingly smooth.
As they trotted along Mariah realized that she knew nothing about the creature she was running away with. "By the way, what's your name?" she asked.
"My name? Where I come from they call me Achilles. I . . ."
"Did you say Achilles?" Mariah interrupted. "He's my favorite character from the Iliad . . ."
"Yeah, I know. I get that all the time," Achilles said glumly, stopping her mid-sentence.
As she rode, Willow ran alongside the alicorn, occasionally bounding ahead before stopping when he realized he had no idea where they were going.
"Nice dog you've got there. Very faithful," Achilles commented. "I have a feeling that will come in handy where we're headed. Of course a dog can also be a real liability. There are likely to be strange things to sniff and chase after. You'd better keep a good eye on him."
"No, I trust Willow. He's a good dog except . . ."
Again, before she had a chance to finish her thoughts, she was interrupted by the alicorn.
"Now brace yourself, Mariah. We're about to cross over and this could get rough. Hold onto my mane. It's going to be bumpy."
Achilles wasn't exaggerating. When they hit the void uniting the world of humans and the dimensions of magic, Mariah lost her grip on the alicorn's mane and sailed through the air. She hit the ground with a thud, rolling three times before coming to a stop, lying face up.
When she opened her eyes the first thing she saw was Willow's tongue. It was also the first thing she felt.
"Hey quit that!" she told the dog while wiping her wet cheek. She tried to sit up, but realized that it was too soon. This forced her to hold her hands out to prop herself up. Willow nearly knocked her back down in his enthusiasm.
"Hey," she said, raising her arms in defense from the over-exuberant springer spaniel. "I'm okay boy. Glad to see you too, but let me get up." She stood up and looked all around them. "Where are we Willow?" At the sound of his name the dog sat up on his hind legs with his tail sweeping back and forth against the ground like a broom.
Mariah could tell that wherever they were, it was a destination not found on any ordinary map. There was also no sign of the alicorn, and for a brief moment she wondered whether she had imagined the whole thing. What her parents described as her 'overactive imagination' had been the subject of plenty of teasing over the years. Because of this they doubted her claims to have once saved Christmas from an evil enchantress, and also to have escaped a pair of mischievous gnomes who trapped her in a barn.
Just then Mariah was touched by a very strange feeling. It was one that she had never known before. In truth, she was lost.
Still, it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. As far as she could make out, there were trees of every possible size, shape and color. Even the grass seemed different, although she wasn't certain just why it appeared that way. It was the same color, and it smelled the same as any grass she had ever known. Somehow it felt different when she walked on it—softer, or maybe lighter. Off in the distance she could see a rainbow coming right out of a small pond. It shimmered beautifully against the silvery light of the sun. And there, drinking from the pond, was Achilles, with the sun shining brilliantly off his horn. "Follow me," the magical creature cried out. "It's just a little bit farther." She wasn't sure what "it" was, but this, it seemed, was her kind of place. Her mother and father would be sorry they had scolded her. She would stay right here, in this special place, and no one would be able to find her unless she wanted them to.
Thoughts of her parents reminded Mariah about her father's tales of a lake or pond deep in the woods behind their house. He swore he had heard something, perhaps a trapped bird, crying and floundering in the water one evening. He had also heard the yowl of an enormous cat that night, but had noticed no such sound since then. Mariah's mother always joked that it was her father's old cat, Rio, now grown to the size of a tiger.
There was no cat to be seen, and no trapped birds to hear, but for the first time in her life, her father's story actually seemed quite possible.
As she started toward the rainbow, her dog Willow stood fast and began whimpering. "What's the matter boy?" she asked. "Don't be afraid, it's just a rainbow."
Looking to the side she noticed the actual object of Willow's attention—a small brown rabbit. It sat underneath the bushes, hiding among the clusters of white berries that looked like snowballs. It was doing the familiar rabbit trick of sitting completely still, hoping to become invisible to this sudden disturbance of peace and quiet.
It was too late.
When Willow caught sight of the rabbit, he bounded forward, the way springer spaniels are famous for. His front paws went airborne and his long brown ears flapped as he bounced toward the rabbit. Frightened by the oncoming spaniel blur of black, white and brown, the cottontail jumped away from the snowball-like bushes. Hoping to escape, it dashed wildly from one side to another, as they are known to do.
Leaving all caution behind, Willow charged after it.
"Willow, come back!" Mariah shouted. It was already too late. As anyone whose dog has ever chased a rabbit knows fully well, there is no stopping an avalanche, a runaway locomotive, or a dog in pursuit of a hopping four-legged fur-ball. The rabbit darted out of a group of golden colored bushes and headed toward the remains of a tree that had tipped over many years previous. There was a sudden flash of light, and the rabbit was gone. This did not deter the hard charging spaniel, and with another flash of light, he also disappeared. Clearly there was something strange going on here, and Mariah had no choice but to check it out for herself.
As was the case with both the rabbit and dog before her, there was another dazzling flash. In seconds Mariah found herself in a completely different place. Instead of the wooded area, she was now at the base of a huge oak tree. Willow was nowhere to be seen, although she could hear him. The dog's familiar bark soon led her to the base of a different tree. There stood Willow on his hind legs, front paws firmly placed against the side of the trunk, barking up into the tree.
"Oh Willow, you crazy boy, rabbits don't climb trees," she scolded, walking toward him. "Or do they?" Much to her surprise, Mariah saw that her dog was right. This rabbit had somehow made its way up the tree, and was clinging to a branch for all its worth. She also noticed something even more unusual. As the branch shook under the weight of the rabbit, acorns fell all around her. That in itself was not unusual, she had seen thousands of acorns before. These were not typical acorns. Instead they were shiny and gold. "Ow!" she exclaimed as one of the tree nuts dropped squarely on top of her head. Not only were they the color of gold, they were made of gold, solid gold at that!
"Ooooh! Golden acorns," she rejoiced before commencing to scoop them up off the ground to fill her pockets. What an amazing find, she thought. I'm going to be rich! Her mind flooded with visions of all the things she could do with the money these acorns would bring.
"Caw, caw CAW!!" the silence of her dream world was shattered by the sound of an enormous crow flying right at her. Dozens of crows appeared from out of nowhere, all of them bearing down on her. There were so many that Mariah stopped gathering the golden acorns and instead looked for a place to hide. For some strange reason she recalled learning that a grouping of this type was called a murder. She didn't like the sound of that at all. "Caw, caw, thief! thief!" the crows squawked in unison, and she realized that the source of their aggravation was the golden acorns she had pocketed. They had her surrounded now, and the birds continued to squawk like a crazed chorus.
Caw! Caw! Thief! Thief!
What do you think you are doing?
Caw! Caw! Thief! Thief!
What are you trying to do?
Caw! Caw! Thief! Thief!
You'd better hand them over
Caw! Caw! Thief! Thief!
They don't belong to you!
It was all too clear that the crows were not happy with her. Just then a second strange thought went through Mariah's mind. In it she recalled memories of a very scary movie where birds attacked an entire town. Stay calm, she told herself, although she knew that was much easier said than done. She had no idea how she was going to get away from them in one piece, but she had to try something.
Thinking quickly, Mariah pulled a handful of acorns out of her pocket and threw them as far as she could. She hoped it would create enough of a distraction for her to make a fast getaway. At first the plan worked, as many of the crows gave up the chase in favor of the golden acorns. Too many crows to count remained in pursuit, and these angry birds had no intention of letting her off so easily. Feathers, claws and beaks engulfed them as the crows swarmed and pecked away. Mariah looked around, but there was no place to get out of the flight pattern.
But maybe there was!
Hands over her head to ward off the dive-bombing crows, Mariah sprinted toward the giant oak tree and the rabbit hole. It had brought them there. She hoped it would also take them back the other way. At this point it was their only chance. Otherwise . . . She didn't finish the thought. There was no time for second guessing herself.
In the end, it worked. At least in some respects.
Just like before there was a flash of light, and she was gone. Always a quick study, she had learned to close her eyes after the last time. Now, as she opened them, a new problem awaited her.
Where was she?
It definitely wasn't the same place.
Instead of the wooded area, Mariah now stood next to a statue of a little man with a long beard. Arms pointed toward the air, his face was also focused upward. It was as though he was looking for something far, far away. No, this wasn't where they had started from. Regardless, it was better than being 'murder-ed.'
"That was a close call," she said aloud. "But where's Willow?"