Eve rounded the corner of Uncle Quentin’s house and headed for the side road, Tillie trailing a few steps behind. They raced by a row of saddled horses, one gilt carriage, a unicorn wearing a bridle, Elias Qsmith’s pogo stick, and Mrs.Goodfelter’s scooter, finally slowing as they approached a wooden broom with wiry straw bristles that was leaning against the hedgerow.
That has to be Nora, Tillie thought.
Eve rushed right past the broom and ducked through a hidden opening in the hedge. Tillie followed, surprised by what she saw on the other side; there, stashed several feet from the road, sat a sleek, blue motorcycle painted with multi-colored flames that licked halfway up its sides. A helmet with matching flames hung from one of the handlebars.
“Meet N.O.R.A. – my Nitro-charged, Oxygen-enriched, Road-ready Autocycle,” Eve said. “Nora, this is what’s-her-name.”
Tillie curtsied to Nora. “Pleased to meet you, Nora. My name is Tillie.”
The witch stared at Tillie, bemused. “It’s just a machine,” Eve said. “It can’t understand you.”
Tillie bit her bottom lip and tried to look sure of herself. “I know that, Eve.”
Eve gathered up the hem of her white gown and climbed onto the motorcycle. “I’m afraid I only have the one helmet, dear.” Her lips twisted into a smile as she placed the helmet over her head. “I guess you’ll just have to not fall off.”
“A helmet wouldn’t fit over my ten-gallon hat anyway,” Tillie said, climbing onto Nora behind Eve, “unless it was a twelve-gallon helmet.”
With one kick of Eve’s sandaled foot, Nora’s engine revved to life. Eve cranked the gas and spun the motorcycle in a half circle, ripping up a whole patch of grass as they sprang through the hedgerow and onto the road.
Tillie lost her balance, but managed to wrap her arms around Eve at the last second. She felt like she was hugging a skeleton in a fancy dress.
With a great roar from Nora, they were racing down the road, spraying dust and rocks behind them in tiny swirling dustdevils. It didn’t take long for Tillie to realize that Eve was a terrible driver. The witch swerved from side to side, laughing with glee as Tillie wobbled unsteadily back and forth behind her. Tillie’s stomach began to feel like it was tied up in knots, worsened by the occasional high-speed wheelie. She decided to close her eyes and think of her favorite book “Unfortunately, Yes,” Said the Scarecrow. The only thing Tillie could see on the backs of her eyelids, however, was Uncle Quentin’s face when the glass eye turned black. He looked like he had just lost his best friend – which he had. Worst of all, it was Tillie’s fault.
Tillie opened her eyes and craned her neck around Eve’s shoulder. A wide expanse of trees was in front of them and Tillie suddenly remembered their destination – the Stranger Forest. She would have felt more comfortable if they were traveling to the Strange Forest. She had often played amongst the trees of the Strange Forest when she was small; the strangest thing she’d ever seen there was a large gopher carrying a drunk wood sprite over his shoulder, which was not really that strange at all.
But the Stranger Forest was a different story. Dangerous creatures lived in its depths – wolves, vampire bats, and goblins, just to name a few. Many people claimed that the Stranger Forest was haunted. Tillie didn’t believe that rumor, but she had to admit there was something forbidding about the place. She had been in the Stranger Forest with Uncle Quentin a few times, and she always left thinking how unpleasant it was. One time, when they had brought Old Mary Ann a new crossbow, Tillie had sworn that she saw a pint-size dragon creeping behind a tree. Uncle Quentin had just laughed and said that it was probably a frog.
At least we’re not heading into the Strangest Forest,Tillie thought. That really would be unbearable.
As they passed under the trees’ canopy, the already dark sky became black and the road narrowed to a well-worn path. Gnarled trees swooshed by Tillie, close enough to touch.
Suddenly, Eve ended the ride as abruptly as she had begun it. Nora’s back wheel rose off the ground in protest of the sudden stop, and Tillie let out a squeal. Climbing down from Nora, Tillie took in her surroundings. She hadn’t come with Uncle Quentin to visit Old Mary Anne’s cottage for months now, and – as Eve had mentioned at the party – the old woman’s house had fallen into a deplorable state of disrepair; the roof’s graham-cracker shingles were half-eaten by birds, the shortbread shutters were hanging off their hinges, and the gumdrop hedges were beginning to dissolve from years of rain. There were some signs of improvement, though; a ladder was leaning against the side of the house and the rock-candy footpath was nearly half restored.
“Where are the workers today?” Tillie asked, glancing around.
Eve removed her helmet and tossed her green braid over her shoulder. “Your uncle gives them Tuesdays and Thursdays off.”
“That’s good of him,” Tillie said.
“Why he would want to decrease their productivity is beyond me,” Eve said, adjusting the ringlet of silver in her hair. She hopped off of Nora’s seat and floated gently to the ground, her white gown settling on the leaves around her.
Tillie opened her mouth to defend her uncle, but an unusual sight distracted her – the largest owl Tillie had ever seen flew from the top of a nearby tree, circled the small clearing once, and then landed on Old Mary Anne’s cottage. The owl stood as tall as Tillie and was covered with mangy beige and white feathers, which were completely missing in several spots. Two puckered white scars crisscrossed the owl’s featherless head in a huge “X.” The bird’s eyes glowed red from deep within, and in one of its talons it carried a velvet pouch.That must be the owl who bugnapped Ophelia, Tillie thought.
Eve took a step toward the cottage, but Tillie grabbed the back of her gown.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Eve demanded. “Don’t make me…”
The witch’s threat was interrupted by the sound of a hundred screams rolled into one. Tillie looked up in alarm. The old owl’s wings were tucked tightly at its sides, its neck stiffened, its head thrown back, and its beak opened wide as it let loose the terrible screech.
From the trees surrounding the clearing, hundreds of owls answered the call.
“A parliament of daylight owls,” Eve whispered.
“That’s not a good thing, is it?” Tillie asked.
“What do you think?” Eve peered into the treetops. “I suggest we run as fast as we can for the front door. Right now!” The witch lifted the hem of her dress and dashed for the cottage.
Tillie, wearing sensible cowgirl trousers, outpaced the witch. She pushed the white chocolate gate open and held it for Eve.
“Hurry!” Tillie shouted.
But it was too late.
The owls poured from the trees, drowning out Tillie’s screams with their battle cries. Their sharpened beaks and studded talons glinted as they swooped down. At the same time, sheets of rain began to fall from the black clouds overhead. An owl clicked his claws at Tillie’s head as he dove, snatching her cowgirl hat and ripping it to shreds.
Eve caught up to Tillie, blood running down her forehead from a gash. “We must get into the cottage!” she screamed. As she turned toward the house, a group of owls dropped from the roof and landed in front of the door, cutting them off.
“Distract those birds so I can prepare a spell for defense,” Eve commanded. She began chanting incomprehensible words and moving her arms in rehearsed patterns. Another group of owls swooped down from the sky, concentrating their attack on Eve. Tillie jumped into the air and waved her arms, but the diving birds ignored her. One of the owls slammed into the side of the witch’s head, knocking her to the muddy ground.
“Leave her alone!” Tillie screamed at the sky.
Eve stood, snarled, and restarted her chant.
Another battalion of owls flew high and dove. Tillie scooped up a handful of rock-candy stones and threw them as high as she could. The birds flew into the candy, screeching in pain.
“Ha!” Tillie said as the owls retreated, but her celebration was short-lived. The ancient owl on the roof – the leader of the parliament – rose into the air, the scarlet bag held tightly in his claws.
Eve’s chanting became quicker and louder and she moved her arms so rapidly that each motion blurred into the next.
The giant owl dove, letting out another piercing cry. He came in low over the witch’s head and released his grip on the pouch. A silvery powder spilled from the bag’s innards.
“Watch out!” Tillie yelled. She grabbed Eve and tried to yank her out of the way, but only succeeded in putting herself in the path of the shimmering dust as well. She coughed, inhaling the sparkling grains.
Eve completed her chant and looked around, noticing the silver powder. “Vanishing dust,” she gasped.
“What does that do?!” Tillie asked, brushing the powder from her clothes and skin.
“Exactly what it says on the tin.”
Suddenly Tillie noticed something strange – Eve was shrinking. The witch’s head was already below the top of the white-chocolate picket fence and moving lower at an alarming rate. A second later, Tillie realized that she, too, was shrinking. The cottage, the woods, the owls, the gumdrop bushes, and, everything except for Eve loomed ever larger. Blades of grass towered over them like skyscrapers.
Finally, Tillie stopped shrinking.
Eve’s spell must have worked, Tillie thought as a stream of rainwater knocked her off her feet. “Flash flood!” she yelled as the water carried her away. “Or flash puddle, anyway,” she amended, remembering her new height. She tried to stop her momentum by grabbing onto passing grass blades, but the current was too strong. She searched the water around her for Eve, but saw no sign of the witch. A wave crashed over her head, filling her mouth with water. She fell beneath the surface, stuggling to catch her breath. Then something struck her head and everything went black.