Alicia took in a deep breath of the fresh country air, looking around at this new place as her parents' car drove away. They had left her here with her grandfather, where she was to help him fix his ranch up. It was a nice-looking place, with some sheep grazing nearby, the fresh scent of flowers, and two horses trotting around in a paddock next to the main house. Her grandfather called for her, and Alicia trotted over, her blonde hair bouncing in its side ponytail.
"Hi, Grandfather Thomas!" Alicia called, leaning up on her toes and wrapping her arms around him. The portly old fellow chuckled and returned the hug, patting her firmly on the back.
"How is my favourite granddaughter?" he asked. Alicia beamed at him, pulling away so she could breathe.
"I'm very well, thank you, grandfather," said Alicia, her bright blue eyes sparkling in the sunlight. "How have you been? Mother has told me all about you, she said that you live on a horse ranch?"
"Yes, well, it was once a great horse ranch," said her grandfather, looking around the place and rubbing sweat from his brow. It was a rather warm day, but the breeze countered it nicely. "But it's fallen on hard times recently. We haven't had anyone to ride the horses. Juna tries, but, bless her, she's just not cut out for horsewomanship. Now, you, on the other hand, have more promise. Your mother told me that you've been riding before?"
"Yes, grandfather," said Alicia, nodding. "I have only ridden a little, but I do dearly love horses."
"Good, good," said her grandfather, a smile spreading across his face. "Now, I'm going to introduce you to a very special horse. Come along." He walked over to the paddock, Alicia following him, and called, "Alicia!" Alicia was puzzled.
"I'm right here, grandfather," said Alicia.
"Oh ho ho, I wasn't calling you, Alicia," said her grandfather. He smiled as one of the horses, a mare, trotted up to him and nuzzled his hand. He rummaged in his back pocket, bringing out a sugar cube, and fed it to the mare. "This horse here is your namesake, and the one who you will be riding while you're here."
"She's a very beautiful horse," said Alicia, admiring the mare's dapple grey coat and long palomino mane. Honestly, she'd never seen a horse quite like it where she was from, but then, her mother had warned her before she'd left that Grandfather Thomas' horses were quite unusual.
"That she is," said Grandfather Thomas. "Here." He handed Alicia a sugar cube, which she held in her palm before holding her hand out, palm up, to the horse. The horse Alicia nickered, then lipped at the sugar cube, and the human Alicia giggled at how the horse's soft, fuzzy lips tickled her hand. Her grandfather smiled at the sight of it. "There, you're bonding already. Would you like to take her for a ride around the farm?"
"Sure!" said Alicia. The horse stood there placidly while Grandfather Thomas helped the girl up onto her back, and, once Alicia was sitting properly, she clicked her tongue and dug her heels in slightly to make the horse move. She was quite a lively one, eager to run and turning whenever Alicia wanted her to. But, when Alicia got around the back of the house, she suddenly slowed down, bumping into a sheep that dropped a few golden coins onto the ground.
"Ah, hello there, you must be the new girl," said the strange creature. Alicia screamed, bringing her grandfather running around the corner.
"Alicia, what's wrong? Ah, I see, you've met Stato," said her grandfather.
"W-who? What? That bunny man just talked to me!" said Alicia, her heart pounding. Her horse apparently didn't pick up on her emotions, just standing there.
"Yes, he's the shepherd here," said her grandfather. "He does a very good job, too. The sheep love him."
"Thank you for the praise, Thomas," said Stato, looking down and scuffing the ground with his foot. Alicia was still struggling to process this new information, this new person, this new creature.
"I suppose the sheep are more comfortable around a fellow animal. Or at least, someone who's mostly animal," said Thomas. "You don't need to be scared of him, Alicia, Stato is harmless. He's even a vegan, like all of the bunny people here."
"There are more of him?" asked Alicia, unable to stop staring at the strange creature.
"Yes, they're quite common in these parts," said Thomas. "Why, a group of them even runs the flying shop where you'll be able to buy clothing, hairstyles, tack, cleaning and playing items, and many other items. I'll show it to you one day."
"This is all so strange," said Alicia. "I thought that I was just coming here to help you fix up your ranch."
"Well, perhaps it would have been better to introduce you to Juna first," said Thomas. "She's human."
"I would like that," said Alicia. Thomas chuckled.
"Well, come along then," said Thomas, and Alicia followed on horseback while Thomas led her up a sloping road. She tried to keep in the middle of the road, not wanting to fall off the edges, even as she admired the view from up here. The ranch might be small, but it was beautiful. Though, she wasn't sure what the large horse-shoe shaped golden arch in the middle of the ranch was. Perhaps it was another of the strange things on her grandfather's farm. But she'd ask him about that later, when she was ready for more weirdness.
"Hi there," said a young woman who stood in front of a little house. Alicia smiled at her. "You must be Alicia. Your grandfather said that you were coming here to help him fix up his ranch, he's been looking forward to it all week."
"Yes, I am," said Alicia, relieved that there was at least one other person her age on this ranch. Maybe she'd have a friend here while she worked, that would be nice.
"It's lovely to meet you," said the young woman. "I'm Juna." She held a hand out, and Alicia dismounted so she could shake it. "That's a beautiful horse. May I pet it?"
"Uh, sure, I guess so," said Alicia. At a nod from Grandfather Thomas, Juna held her hand out and petted the mare's velvety nose, smiling.
"I wish I had your way with horses," said Juna. "But I'm just not cut out for riding. I've tried, but I always fall off or mess up somehow. I'm good with interior decorating, though, I can help advise you on how to make the ranch look beautiful."
"I think it looks beautiful as it is," said Alicia. "But I'm sure that you have some great ideas. I'll look over them with you later, if you like?" Juna nodded, smiling.
"Yes, I would like that," said Juna, watching enviously as Alicia easily mounted the horse. "Oh, have you tried flying yet?"
"No," said Alicia. "Horses can't fly, they don't have wings." Juna laughed, a sound that was quite musical and lovely.
"The ones here can," said Juna, a knowing twinkle in her eye. "Go on, jump off that small cliff just here, I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised. It's more of a glide, but it's still so wonderful. I could never manage that myself, but I've seen others doing it."
"Um..." Alicia hummed uncertainly, but her grandfather chuckled.
"Go on and try it, Alicia, I hear that it's great fun," said her grandfather. Alicia took a deep breath but pointed her horse towards the edge of the cliff, riding her forward. "Faster than that, you'll need to jump." Alicia closed her eyes and, against her common sense, dug her heels in, telling the mare to go as fast as she could.
"Open your eyes!" someone called, and Alicia's eyes flew open just in time to see the cliff rushing up towards her. She cried out, leaned forward, and told the horse to jump, expecting to plummet to her death or at least leave the horse with some major injuries.
But, to her great surprise, ethereal wings suddenly unfolded from either side of the horse. And the horse did not fall. Alicia laughed in delight, happiness and excitement rushing through her. The horse glided through the air, her wings somehow holding her up despite being made of nothing more than light and air, and landed safely on the ground some distance away, where she slowed to a stop.
"Wow!" Alicia cheered. "That was... that was awesome!" She couldn't stop grinning, hardly able to believe that she'd just flown. Well, technically it had been gliding, but those wings... They were gone now, but Alicia would remember them for the rest of her life.
"Heh, it is pretty awesome, isn't it?" said the voice from before, and Alicia gasped in surprise as she saw a dark-haired boy come around the corner of Grandfather Thomas' house, a large Saint Bernard trotting at his heels.
"Alek! I didn't know you were here too," said Alicia, dismounting her horse and running over to hug him. She hadn't seen her cousin in ages.
"Heh, yeah," said Alek, returning the hug quickly before stepping away. "My father thought that it would be good for me to put all of my energy to good use. I've been trying to do parkour."
"Oh," said Alicia, and laughed. "Well, a big project like fixing up a ranch is sure to use a lot of your energy."
"Yeah, and riding horses will help with that, too," said Alek. "This stallion here is mine." He walked over to the other horse in the paddock, a stallion in an unflattering shade of brown, and petted the horse's neck.
"Oh, I didn't know you rode too," said Alicia.
"Of course I do, I love horses," said Alek. "I don't get to ride them much in the city, but I like to get out to the country and ride sometimes."
"I never thought I'd have something in common with you," said Alicia, putting her hands on her hips and smiling at him. "But I'm glad I do. You might be an annoying brat sometimes, but you're still my cousin."
"That's right," said Grandfather Thomas, joining them and petting his dog on the head. The dog panted happily, his tail swishing across the ground. "You two will be working here all summer, so it'll be better if you get along."
"So, have you met the bunny people yet?" asked Alek.
"Yes!" said Alicia. "They're so weird-looking."
"They're cool," said Alek with a shrug. "You just have to get used to them. And the best thing is that they accept carrots as payment." Alicia had to giggle at that.
"That's adorable," said Alicia.
"Yeah, it is," said Alek. "And all races reward carrots. Want to go racing with me?"
"Actually, I might advise you to get to know the area first," said Grandfather Thomas. "Just go for a casual ride, get to know your horses and surroundings. Then, once you're more familiar with both, you can enter races. You might see some races in action while you're touring the place on horseback, but just try to keep out of their way. Some races, especially the magic ones, can get quite fierce."
"What kind of magic?" asked Alicia. Their grandfather chuckled.
"Oh, you'll see," said Grandfather Thomas. "Just be careful out there. And here are some carrots so that you two can buy something you like at the shops."
"Thanks, Grandfather Thomas," they said in unison, and mounted their respective horses, setting out to get to know the country. On the way, they talked, catching each other up on what had been going on in their everyday lives since they'd last seen each other at a family event. Alek had been practicing parkour, as he'd said, much to the disdain of his father, while Alicia had been a good little city girl student dreaming of a life out in the country. Their respective parents had finally decided to send them to Grandfather Thomas, who needed help with his ranch and promised that they would have a lot of fun while getting plenty of work done and learning important lessons.
Alicia greatly looked forward to getting to know this land a little better, and, as she watched a few riders go by flinging spells at each other, she decided that she might look into these magic races. They looked like fun.