Mara stepped out onto the front porch of her little thatched cottage and peered at the forest around her. The sun peeked through the branches of the trees and reflected off the green carpet, forming fingers of light. The early morning mist swirling among them gave the forest a magical, fairy tale quality. How many people in the world realized that the forest really was a magical place? She was the forest's guardian, and as such, she was not only responsible for the ordinary forest creatures, such as rabbits, foxes, and birds, but she also protected many magical, mythical creatures.
Flipping her long blonde hair behind her shoulders, she stared up through the trees with eyes the color of the sky she observed. In appearance Mara was nothing more than a petite adolescent girl of sixteen, but in reality she was much more. To aid them in protecting the forest, the ancients had bestowed magical powers her family. Although she had the use of this magic at her fingertips, she did not like calling upon the magic too often, preferring, instead, to use her mind to solve the forest's problems. When forced to resort to the use of magic, the being at the receiving end of her anger never dared challenge her again.
Turning, she closed the door and stepped into the clearing. Another glance at the sun told her that it was time to start her daily stroll. She walked across the clearing to a little path that circled through the forest and ended back at her little cottage.
Before her foot touched the path, a cloud of small beings streaked from the forest and hovered around her face. A chorus of, "Good Morning, Miss Mara," filled the air while several of the creatures floated around her nose, tickling her with their wings.
Scratching her nose, Mara tried to scold them without laughing. "Now, stop that! What have I told you fairies about tickling?"
One of the small creatures stopped fluttering and landed on the top of Mara's hand. Sitting daintily on her hand was a small lady about two inches high. The woman's skin was a brilliant green and her hair a bright royal blue. Her eyes were golden in color and glowed with the light of the sun. A dress fashioned from the silk of caterpillar cocoons flowed to her ankles.
"We're sorry, Mara," the little fairy said. "But, we love to hear you laugh. It rises like a beautiful melody through the forest."
Mara smiled at the tiny woman. "Well, I suppose if you're going to put it that way, I can't be too angry now, can I?"
"No, You can't," the fairy giggled.
"Well, Astria, are you and the others accompanying me on my walk as usual?"
"Of course, Miss Mara. We have to protect you. Can't let anything happen to our guardian."
Mara shook her head as all the fairies flew away from her face and took positions on either side of her. If they wanted to think that they were protecting her, she saw no harm in it. Who knows, one day, she may really need their help, and she rather liked their company.
Accompanied by the chattering fairies, she began her morning walk along the all too familiar path. By her calculations, about hundred paces into the forest, she should encounter Graham, the Gnome, as he gathered wood for his daily baking. Graham and his wife, Glinda, baked pastries, cakes, and pies, and in Mara's opinion, were the best bakers in the forest.
As if on cue, Graham stepped out of a clump of trees onto the path a few yards ahead of her, a large load of wood strapped to his back. Gnomes normally carried five times their body weight, and Graham was no exception. The little man standing in front of Mara wore a pair of green trousers with a matching green vest. Under the vest, he wore a white shirt tucked into his trousers. On his feet was a pair of knee length brown boots, and like all adult male gnomes, he had white hair and a beard.
"Good Morning, Graham," Mara called, trying to see him through the cloud of fairies fluttering between them. "What goodies can we expect from your wonderful oven today?"
Graham walked towards her, picking his way through the swarm of fairies. "Something very special." A grin lit up his face. "Glinda traded for a basket of strawberries this morning. You, my dear Mara, will have strawberry pie for dinner."
It always amazed Mara how everyone seemed to draw pleasure from showering her with gifts. In the beginning, she protested and tried to stop them from giving her presents. Now, she accepted every present bestowed upon her graciously.
"Graham, you know how I love strawberries." The gnome beamed with pride. "But, I'll only accept if you and Glinda join me for dinner tonight."
Just as Mara stopped protesting their giving of gifts, the denizens of the forest learned to accept her invitations without protest. "Glinda and I would be most honored." He readjusted the load of wood on his back. "I must hurry home now if we are to dine with you tonight. There is much baking to be done before night falls."
"Okay. See you and Glinda this evening." Mara waved to the departing gnome.
Mara and the fairies continued their walk around the forest. The path took them by the tree houses and workbenches of the weaver and cobbler elves. Farther on down the path were the tree homes of the wood nymphs and the river and stream homes of the water sprites. The latter two groups ensured that all the residents of the forest had plenty of wood and clean, clear water to meet their needs. Everyone in the forest contributed to the survival of the whole community. Even the faires buzzing around her head contributed, acting as the forest spies and watchers.
Mara found Nigel, the unicorn, along with his wife, and their children tending their vegetable garden and fruit trees. It always amazed her how Nigel and the other unicorns could produce enough food to feed the whole forest, but they did. As she and the fairies waved to the unicorns, Mara began giggling. The sight of the unicorns plowing the fields with their mighty horns always amused her. She tried every time not to laugh, but it was always to no avail.
A small lake marked the halfway point on the path. It was here that she found a comfortable place to rest for a while. In a few moments, she was sitting comfortably on the grass, the rabbits, squirrels, deer, and other gentle creatures of the forest gathered around her. Some actually lay next to her, resting their heads in her lap. She stayed at the lake for several hours as customary then resumed her walk home.
She frequently arrived home less than thirty minutes before sunset, but this particular afternoon her walk passed much faster than usual. When she stepped into the clearing around her cottage, she still had four hours before the sun would disappear below the tops of the trees. All her housework was completed, and she did not need to begin to prepare dinner for several more hours. What could she do to fill the extra time? Several ideas came to mind: she could either take another short walk or just rest in the shade of her porch. Neither of those ideas appealed to her though, so she continued to stare out into the trees.
Fortunately, the fairies had an idea and quickly grabbed her hands and pulled her towards a grassy area. In the center of the sat a chair fashioned from an old tree stump. It was to this stump that the fairies dragged her.
"Read to us," twenty or thirty little voices chimed at once as they pushed her down on the stump. "Please."
A noise behind her caught her attention. Turning her head, she saw two of the larger male fairies, trying to carry her storybook between them. The book was twice as large as they were, causing them to slowly sink towards the ground. Mara rose from the stump and quickly ran over to relieve the fairies of their load. Placing the book under her arm, she walked back over and took her place on the stump.
"All right." She set the book in her lap. "I'll read to you, but you must remain still and quiet, or I'll stop."
The fairies fluttered around her head, "We'll be quiet. We promise," they all answerd as they settled onto the grass and flowers around her.
Mara looked down at the old book setting in her lap and opened the cover. The page magically filled with words and would continue to do so until she finished reading and closed the book. This was ordinarily the only time she had any peace and quiet around the fairies. She liked them and would not have chased them away for the world, but their boundless energy and incessant chattering eventually wore on her nerves. True to their word though, the fairies remained still and quiet.
Several stories later, Mara grew tired and her throat was sore. The sun was touching the top of the trees, signifying that the evening was not far away, so she decided to stop reading and send the fairies home. The moment she stopped reading and closed the book, all the fairies started chattering at once, asking her to read one more story. All the chirping gave her a tremendous headache.
She slammed the book shut then breathed deeply several times before she attempted to talk. Her head was pounding, and she knew if she spoke now, she would cause nothing but hurt feelings. After several deep breaths and some concentration, the headache began to subside. Even though the fairies were still chattering away, she was able to address them in a calm tone.
Raising her hand, she said, "I'm finished reading for today. It's time for you to return to your flowers for the evening."
At the raising if her hand, all the fairies fell into complete silence. It was common knowledge amongst the residents of the forest that a raised hand from Mara meant, "Sit down and be quiet." At this point, she was one step away from anger.
"Yes, Mara," several fairies said quietly, bowing their heads. "You're right as usual. It's definitely time for us to go home."
Astria fluttered forward and placed a fairy kiss on Mara's cheek. "We're sorry," she whispered in her ear. "But, we love you and your company so much. It's hard for us to leave."
Mara held out her hand, allowing the fairy to land gently on her palm. Lifting her hand to her to her lips, she blew a gentle kiss over Astria. "I know, but you must remember that all of you talking at once gives me a ferocious headache. I'm much more sensitive to the things of the fairy world than most mortals."
The little fairy, as well as the other fairies, smiled up at Mara. "We know. We just forget, because you're with all of us so much that we think of you as being one of us."
"In a way, I am, but then again, I'm not. Even though my family passes the guardian powers down from generation to generation, we have a normal human life span."
"We know." Astria sighed. "You're the third guardian most of us have had." In a whisper that only Mara could hear, she added, "And our favorite."
Mara smiled at Astria. She hated to admit she had favorites among the denizens of the forest but she did. Even though it was obvious that Astria was her favorite, the rest of the fairies apparently did not mind, because she was the one who kept them in Mara's good graces.
Now that Astria was the only one talking, Mara's headache disappeared. Since she still had sometime before her dinner guests were to arrive, she continued to talk to the little fairy in her hand. After another ten or fifteen minutes of conversation, Astria decided that it was time for her and the other fairies to leave Mara alone for the rest of the evening. She placed another fairy kiss on Mara's cheek, and then floated up into the air above the other fairies. After making several circles above their heads, she motioned to them and rose up higher in the air. In unison, all the fairies rose from the ground and fluttered around her. Forming a cloud as they had that morning, they disappeared into the forest.
After the fairies were out of her sight, Mara sighed and retired to the porch of her house. When dealing with the fairies, she always found herself more tired than if she had dealt with all the unicorns, elves, and gnomes together in one big group. Sinking down in the chair on her porch, she stared out across her front yard to the trees while she regained her strength. Small lights began blinking throughout the forest, signaling that the fireflies were beginning to come out of their hiding places. Evening had officially arrived.
Except for the full moon, so the fireflies were the only outside illumination available. Mara would have preferred to remain on the porch, watching the fireflies playing in the darkness, but she did have guests coming. A ruckus at the forest's edge jerked her from thoughts. Nigel, the unicorn galloped towards her across the clearing.
The poor unicorn was out of breath when he stopped in front of her. "Mara… you have to come… quickly before they… hurt it."
"Hurt who?" Mara moved quickly to the edge of the porch. "Nigel, What's going on?"
"No time." His breathing was still labored. "Come with me. Hurry, climb on."
"Nigel, you're too tired to carry me. You lead and I'll follow." She stepped off the porch. When he hesitated, she waved her hand and commanded, "Go!"
Nigel immediately turned and ran back towards the trees. Mara began to spin around in a circle; in just seconds she was airborne, flying through the trees behind Nigel. She was now a cloud of light blue mist, so there was no danger of her hitting any trees or branches as she traveled through the forest. Watching the ground below, she occasionally kept an eye on Nigel to make sure that she did not lose him. After a few moments, she realized that he was leading her towards the lake. She wished he had told her what was happening, because she hated surprises.
The unicorn stopped running just before he reached the opening to the meadow that surrounded the lake. Mara stopped above the unicorn and slowly descended to the ground. Seconds before she reached the ground, her form solidified until she stood beside Nigel.
"Now, what's going on?" she demanded. "Who's going to be injured?"
"That!" Nigel pointed his horn towards a spot near the edge of the lake.
It was too dark to see clearly, so Mara resumed her flying form and flew towards the spot the unicorn had indicated. As she neared the spot, she saw a group of the forest dwellers gathered. She still could not see well enough to see what they were doing, so she landed behind the group and waved her hands towards the sky in a circling motion. A small ball of light appeared, lighting the lake and the surrounding meadow to a daytime brilliance. All the creatures in the huddle turned to look up at the fireball, leaving gaps in the circle so that Mara was able to see into its center. Something or someone cowered down in the center of the circle.
She stared in disbelief, because she had never seen a creature like before. At first glance, it appeared to be some sort of mythical animal along the lines of a dragon. As she moved closer, it began to look less like a dragon and more like a hodgepodge of a couple of animals. Dragon scales of blue and green covered the exposed skin of its body. The face appeared to be more horse like, but scales covered it also. In the center of it's forehead protruded a long white horn. Since the creature still cowered close to the ground, she could not see the rest of its body. It was a strange looking creature to be sure, but she sensed nothing dangerous about it.
While her ball of light distracted the crowd, Mara quickly moved to the creature's side. She did not care what this creature supposedly had done; no one in her forest took any sort of retribution against anyone without her consent. From the looks of the surrounding ground, it appeared that her friends had thrown sticks, rocks, and rotten fruit at it. Before the others turned back to their intended victim, she placed herself in a position where they would have to go through her to attack the creature again. Just as she turned her head to ask the creature its name and what brought it to her forest, the others turned and saw her standing in the center of the circle.
A deafening silence followed her question. She waited a few moments, but when it was apparent that no one would answer her, she began again. "I'm the guardian of this forest, and no one is denied entrance unless I say so. Is that clear? From what I see, this poor creature has done nothing to any of you. If I'm wrong, please correct me."
After another long period of silence, Nigel stepped out of the cover of the forest, where he rested after leading her to the lake. "Mara, since the others are too ashamed to tell you what they've done, I will," he said softly.
Mara would have expected no less from her noble unicorns. Smiling softly, she urged on the gentle unicorn. "Well, Nigel, what happened?"
"Nothing, Mara. Absolutely nothing. From where I stood, the poor thing just walked into the forest. It didn't say or do anything before the others started picking on it and calling it names."
The unicorn paused for a moment before continuing, "From what I heard, they didn't like its looks. Some of them, no names mentioned, commented that something that ugly must be evil, and then they started trying to drive it from the woods. When my unicorns and I tried to intercede on its behalf, they drove us away also. Mara, I don't understand." He looked at the circle surrounding them. "They're all supposed to be my friends. What happened to them?"
Mara shook her head. She was their guardian and here she was protecting someone from them. Extending her hand, she touched the creature on its head. "I don't know, Nigel," she answered as the others looked on in apprehension. "Fear of the unknown tends to make enemies out of the best of friends. Would you help me get this poor thing to its feet?"
As they pulled it to a standing position, Mara carefully surveyed the beast for a second time. It was an ugly thing at first glance, she would agree on that point, but she saw nothing about it that was frightening or evil. Now, that it was standing, she found that it had the front legs of a horse, but the back legs of a dragon. Where a tail should have been, it only had a scaly stub. Scales covered its whole body, and it was these scales that gave it such a scary appearance. Instead of the smooth scales of a dragon, this creature's scales were rough and raised an inch or two on top of its body. It was not such a bad looking creature, once you grew accustomed to its appearance. She and Nigel dusted the dirt and wiped the fruit remains off it skin. At one point, Mara thought that she saw a hint of a smile around what should have been its mouth. Now that it was clean and tidy, it did not look scary at all. Mara reached up and carefully brushed some dirt of the top of its head before Nigel set a cap he had found laying on the ground on top of it.
"Well, you don't look so horrible now, my friend. As I was going to ask earlier when I had to stop and deal with my friends. What's your name and what are you?"
Staring first at Mara, then Nigel, and finally out at the whole crowd, the creature spoke it first words. It spoke so softly and in such a small whisper that Mara had to strain to hear the words. "My name is Jareth, and I'm a unigon."
Well, although she had never personally seen a dragon, she had thought that he looked like one when she first saw him. She wondered what Nigel thought about it, considering being part unicorn made Jareth in a way related to him. When she glanced over at Nigel, she saw that he was deep in thought too.
"Glad to meet you, Jareth," she said, smiling and holding out her hand again. "I'm sorry that you were greeted and treated with such disrespect. We're usually a friendly forest. We welcome all who visit us. I've no idea what got into my so-called friends."
When she finished speaking, Mara glared out at the group standing around her. It was obvious that they were ashamed themselves and afraid of her. They now realized that the beast was friendly, they wanted to leave and return to their homes, but they could not move. She held them in her power, and they would stay until she was ready to allow them to leave.
"T-t-thank you," Jareth stared softly into Mara's eyes. "You and the little unicorn are the only friendly faces I've seen since I arrived. I was told that this was a friendly place to live."
"Normally, it is." She looked up at the unigon, towering over her. Giving her friends a cold stare, she added, "I apologize for my friends again. Who knows what has caused them to be so rude. By the way, my name is Mara. I'm guardian over this forest and all who enter here."
Jareth bowed his massive head to the tiny guardian. "Thank you for the welcome, Mara. I'm hoping to find a new home for my family. I was told that your forest would be the perfect place, but now I'm not too sure."
Nigel whinnied as he moved closer. "Jareth, I'm Nigel. Please don't judge us too harshly. My unicorns and I'll more than welcome you and your family to the forest. I think that you'll enjoy living here, especially with Mara as guardian. And, I wouldn't worry about how the others will treat you. From the looks of them, they are more than mildly ashamed at the way that they have behaved."
Suddenly, a mass of twinkling lights appeared at the edge of the forest and the tinkling of bells sounded through the meadow. A cloud of multi-colored lights soared towards the gathering. The fairies had arrived. Asleep in their flowers, they were unaware of the situation until Mara's ball of light woke them. Mara was glad to see them, for she knew that if anyone could make someone feel wanted, it was the fairies. They were flighty creatures, but they were full of warmth and at the moment, Jareth was in need of all the warmth that they could muster.
As the fairies approached, Nigel also sent out a loud neighing sound summoning his family. Twenty or so unicorns and more than a hundred fairies surrounded Jareth wrapping him up in a cozy feeling of warmth. Mara watched her unicorns and fairies doing what they did best -- spread love. The fairies could be a real bother sometimes, but they were always friendly and full of love. The unicorns were very gentle, very noble beasts, and had a knack for making one feel safe and secure.
While the unicorns and fairies occupied Jareth, Mara surveyed the crowd and made note of everyone there. A wave of relief swept through her when she saw that Graham and Glinda were not amongst the mob. Would they mind sharing their dinner with a unigon? Hopefully not, because she intended taking Jareth home with her.
She smiled softly to herself as she turned back to Jareth. "Jareth, you must give us another chance."
Turning to the gnomes and elves, she stared into the eyes. "I'm sure that my friends are very sorry and wish to apologize to you now." She emphasized the word "now" and rising a few feet off the ground. "And, remember, my friends. You can't judge someone by how they look."
The crowd assembled around her watched Mara to grow larger and larger. She lifted off the ground and floated above them. They looked amongst themselves, and then quickly one by one, they each stepped forward and apologized to Jareth. She remained hovering above them until all had apologized. When the last gnome walked past Jareth and disappeared into the forest, the fairies and all the unicorns prepared to say their good-byes. All of them, except Nigel, followed the gnome into the darkness. Mara gently floated downwards. Before she had a chance to set her feet on the ground, Nigel stepped up so that she landed on his back.
"What in the...?" she exclaimed.
The shy unicorn grinned. "I'm rested now. I insist on taking you home. Are you taking Jareth with you?"
"If he'll come," Mara answered, adjusting herself on the unicorn's back. "Will you come home with me? We can get to know each other. I can share with you the advantages my forest would provide your family. At the same time you can tell me what your family can contribute to the forest community."
A shy smile appeared on Jareth's face. "You're actually inviting me into your home?"
"Why of course. I have nothing to fear. I don't think that you would harm me. Besides, my home is well protected."
"Will I fit in your house?"
"My house, like myself, is magical. Take my word for it; you will be quite comfortable."
"Well, then I accept your invitation. It's too late to return home now anyway. You mentioned giving back to the community. Do you mean as in an occupation?"
"Yes, that's what I mean. Nigel and his unicorn are the farmers. The gnomes do the baking and the elves, the shoemaking and sewing. What can you do?" Nigel began carrying her slowly towards the trees.
Jareth followed them. "Well, before our home was destroyed, I was a carpenter and silversmith."
"Oh my!" Mara exclaimed. "We have plenty of work around here for you."
"Yes, you would be more than welcome here," Nigel added. "I have several storage barns in need of repair, and I would like a special piece of jewelry made for someone special."
"Oh, really!" Excitement danced in the unigon's eyes. "What did you have in mind? A nice round barn? A pentagon?"
"Do you think that we can talk about it tomorrow? I'm a little too tired to talk about it tonight."
Listening to Nigel and Jareth talk only reinforced the reason that the unicorn had, over the years, become her best friend. As tired as he was, he was giving her a ride home and doing his best to make Jareth feel welcome. She leaned over and whispered in Nigel's ear, then sat back to watch a blush gently rise up the unicorn's cheeks. "Mara, it was really nothing," he said quietly. "You know how unicorns hate such things."
"Just the same, Nigel. I like to let my friends know that I appreciate them."
"If you say so, Mara." Quickly changing the subject, he asked, "Are you ready to rest for the evening, Jareth?
Jareth smiled softly. "Yes, I am. Please lead on."
Mara was very glad they had persuaded Jareth to give their forest a chance. She would have never forgiven herself if someone ever felt unwelcome. When the others found out about the skills Jareth would bring to the forest, they would feel even more foolish than they did now. They all had need of his services. Tomorrow, she would remind them how unfair it was to judge someone before knowing them. She took a deep breath and leaned back on the stout little unicorn to enjoy the ride home. The guardian and her friend, the unicorn, led their new friend, the unigon, to the safety and comfort of her warm cozy home.