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Authors: Joanne Owen

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Chapter Eighteen

Scarlet and I were still spinning around when a painfully shrill sound cut right into my ears. I raised my hands to protect them, it was that loud and penetrating.

‘Shoot!' Scarlet cursed. ‘Sorry, sugar, I was supposed to bring you back to the Place of the Players. Mother wanted your help with the light. She must've sent them.'

She meant Mother Matushka's wolf cubs. They were on the edge of the bank, their relentless yelps and whines on the verge of erupting into full-on howls.

‘Do I have to?' I really didn't want to leave. Spending this time with Fabian and Scarlet had been the closest I'd come to feeling at home here.

‘She needs you, Rosie, which means we all do, and I'll be for it if I don't get you there. I'm sorry.'

The wolves were getting more and more wound up, and I didn't want to cause any trouble for Scarlet, so after collecting the skull-post from outside the cave we walked towards the Big Top, with me between the two of them. The wind whipped up and made my dress swirl out and up round my shoulders, and the way the clouds were racing across the moon made it look like there was an eclipse every few seconds.

‘Feels like my hair's about to blow off!' Scarlet shouted.

‘I wish it would stop,' I replied, struggling to control my dress.

‘What's that, sweetie?'

‘I said I wish it would stop!'

And it did. As I said it, the wind stopped and the night was still. It was like, I remembered, when the marsh had cleared. I'd said I wanted that to stop and then the slime shrank back and I was safe.

‘Wowsers!' Scarlet stared at me, actually goggle-eyed. ‘Try it again. Say you wish it was windy. Let's see what happens.'

‘No. I don't wish it was windy.' But the truth was, I was terrified I
had
made it stop. I guess it could have been a coincidence, but I didn't want to find out that it wasn't. I didn't want to find out I could do things like that, things people aren't supposed to be able to do. I thought of what Granny had said about not being scared of what I could do, and felt a stab of guilt, but this was too much.

‘Why not, honey? This is
exactly
the kind of thing I was talking about. You can do anything.'

‘Leave her be, Scarlet,' said Fabian. ‘If she does not want to, she does not have to.'

I was grateful Fabian had stepped in so I could carry on pretending I was normal, but when we reached the Place of the Players there was nowhere to hide, and I just wanted to bolt back to the cave. There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, watching me, with the shadows of flames dancing on their masks and painted faces and animal heads. And this time I knew what they were.
Half-dead people
.

It was unnervingly silent. There was no music, no talking. It was like they were waiting for something, and I knew that something was me. Scarlet must have sensed my urge to run, because she squeezed my hand and nudged me forward.

‘Don't be scared, honey,' she said. ‘Be excited, be strong. Think of it like you went to sleep and woke up princess of the world's most amazing kingdom.'

But that wasn't at all what I felt like. I felt small and awkward as I walked through them towards Mother Matushka. She looked different – smaller, somehow even more swathed by fur, like she was being eaten by her cloak.

‘What am I supposed to do?' I asked her.

‘We must move down the moon and make the sun come. If we cannot, this place will stay in the half-light, and the days will not pass, the Riders won't respond, and the newcomers won't come.' Her voice was a gravelly half-whisper. I don't suppose she wanted everyone to hear how out of control things were.

‘Can't anyone else help?' I asked. ‘I mean, Fabian is much stronger than me, and so is Scarlet.'

‘I have asked you,' she said. ‘I've seen you do things they can't. It is not very different from when you captured the birds and controlled them. Do you remember that?' I nodded. Somehow, I
had
managed to calm them. At least, that's what it had looked like, and I'd felt something too – that invisible thread between me and them. ‘Come,' she said. ‘Let's go higher. Let's move closer to the sky. Follow my steps and follow my actions.'

We walked through the trees and started to climb the verge that lay beyond them. She moved up over the rocks, swift and sure as a lizard, but her chest rattled and wheezed like a broken squeezebox. I just about managed to keep up with her, scraping my knees and knuckles on the sharp rocks as I clambered behind. It wasn't until we'd almost reached the top that I glanced over my shoulder and registered how high we'd climbed, and how dangerous it was.
Don't look down, don't look back. Don't look down, don't look back
,
I chanted to myself, over and over, but I couldn't move another step.

‘I can't,' I said. ‘I'm stuck. I can't do it.'

Mother Matushka held out her hand. I didn't believe she could take my weight, but her tug was firm and her arms felt as strong as cables and she pulled me to safety.

‘Open your eyes,' she said. ‘You are safe. Look at our world.'

The Big Top, ringed by flames, and then the forest, and the lake, looking like a mirror with the moon hanging over it, was the most incredible view I'd ever seen. Truly breathtaking.

‘A thing of beauty, yes?' she said. ‘But we have work to do. Let us draw down the moon and raise up the light for the worlds to keep moving.' She aligned herself with the circus tent, with the moon and the lake on her right, and stretched out her arms. ‘Join me, child. Since the time of the marsh and mists I have raised the sun to bring warmth and light, to keep things revolving. Now, it seems, I cannot do it alone. I need you to try with me, child. I insist you try.'

‘What must I do?'

‘You must do as I do, child, and you must think. You must think and feel. Feel that the sun is in your skin and in your bones. And when your hands feel the wheel on which the sun and the moon revolve, we must press to the right.'

Copying her, I stretched out my arms and clenched my hands. Then I closed my eyes and thought about the sun and the light and all those things she'd said, and I felt an incredible force in my hands, like I really was holding an invisible wheel. My arms were taut and trembling from gripping it so hard.

‘Push everything into it, child,' said Mother Matushka, and there was urgency in her voice. ‘Press down the moon.'

As I pushed harder and harder, something snapped and I lost my grip. The moon had shifted down, it was now dipping into the lake. On the other side, to our left, the sun was a thin curve peeking above the horizon. The light was like nothing I'd seen. The sky above was still pitch black, but on the side of the moon it was purple and orange with wisps of pink, and on the side of the sun it was yellow and white, also with wisps of pink.

‘Take hold again,' she said. ‘It can't be left like this. We can't leave them wedged in limbo, stuck halfway like this.'

We strained again, and I felt another snap.

‘Have we done it?' I asked, catching my breath. The moon was no longer visible, but the sun still hadn't fully risen. I could see more of it now, but still only a hazy half-globe. ‘Will it come up by itself?'

‘It will not, but I cannot do any more. Not now, not yet. I have nothing left.' She was wheezing.

‘I could keep trying. I'm not tired yet.' I was sweating from all the effort, but still buzzing with energy.

‘No,' she said. ‘We shall try later, back at the cottage when I've recovered.'

I started to follow her down the rocks, but I couldn't go – I couldn't give up – so I scrambled back up and repositioned myself. This time, when I found the wheel, I pushed even harder into the pressure. Suddenly, my arms shot down and, through my closed eyes, I sensed a change in the light. I opened them and saw that the sun was now a full, bright, orange sphere, and the circus was bathed in its rays.

I'd made the sun rise.

Had
I made the sun rise?

From further down the cliff, Mother Matushka replied as if I'd said this aloud. ‘Yes, child. You have made the sun rise, and you revived the boy I froze. You can do my work, for which I thank you, and you can undo my work, about which I am uncertain.'

Her voice was faint, and she looked terribly sad, which made me feel guilty. I mean, I knew I hadn't deliberately made Freddie move again, and I knew she'd asked me to help her with the sun, but I felt bad she hadn't been able to do it herself. She said nothing more as we descended the rocks and returned to the Place of the Players. She said nothing until they fell silent, and then she addressed them.

‘This child from outside has brought life to this place of half-death. Our Circus of the Unseen has been seen,' she said. ‘Our world has been changed, and we cannot go back to the way we were.'

‘Why not?' It was Lola, never afraid to speak out. ‘This is our place, not hers. She's not meant to be here, is she? She's not like us. She shouldn't change anything. She shouldn't be doing the sun.'

‘Once something has changed, Lola, once things have moved on, they never go back to how they were. Is your life here as it was before you arrived? Was your life on the island the same as it was in England? Are your mind and your heart as they were before those experiences?'

Lola shook her head, and I knew Mother Matushka was right too. I knew you couldn't stop things from changing, and I knew you couldn't turn things back, no matter how much you wished something hadn't happened.

‘She shall work alongside me,' Mother continued. ‘She shall be welcomed into all that we do, for as long as she's here.'

Those words sent a shudder through me. Me raising that sun meant I was a day closer to having to make a decision. Time was edging towards my chance to go home, towards me having to attempt the impossible. I didn't notice Mother Matushka leave. I stood there in a daze, thinking about what had just happened, and what she'd said about things changing and not being able to go back to how they were. And I was thinking about Granny dying, and how that had changed us all, and I wondered how me not being at home had already changed Mum, Dad and Daisy.

All this was whirling round in my head when I noticed that the music had started up, and it sounded just like the inside of my head – an out-of-control, jumbled mess. I caught Scarlet's eye. She was with Fabian, just outside the Big Top, on her horse, wearing a sequined corset and a tutu that stuck out at her hips. ‘Rosie!' she called, waving both arms. I went as close as I could. The creature still looked calm as anything, but then so had the one that ran off with Granny.

‘Fancy a ride on Sunny Blaze? I could teach you to twirl on her, if you like. You seem light on your feet. I mean, the way you went up those rocks was amazingly brave, not to mention the little matter of you raising the sun.' She arched an eyebrow, grinning from ear to ear. ‘What did I tell you? Wasn't I right?'

‘I was just helping.' I shrugged. ‘Mother Matushka told me what to do.' It wasn't like I'd worked really hard and become good at something. It was just a weird consequence of me being here, which was a horrible, freakish accident. ‘And I'm not sure about riding. I'm not keen on horses.'

‘You can bring people to life and you can raise the sun, but you're scared of horses? How about the trapeze, then? You gotta try something. Just you, me and the Fabulous Fabianski, with no one else watching. Reckon you have the poise for it.'

Scarlet's encouragement must've really got under my skin because I found myself saying yes, I would like to try the trapeze, as long as it was just the three of us. And she had a point about climbing those rocks. I'd managed to hold it together up there. OK, I'd frozen near the summit, but I hadn't totally crumbled. I'd climbed back and finished the job on my own. That had been much more dangerous than being stuck up a tree, scared of a snake that was actually a worm. It was also braver than getting back on a stage after that disastrous audition. And I'd actually done it.

Scarlet flipped back the opening to the Big Top, and I could see there was no one there, so I went inside determined to keep going, desperate to try more, without anyone being there to see any mistakes I might make.

‘You should wear something more showy, Rosie,' Scarlet suggested. ‘Pick something from that chest. Maybe one of the little ribbon dresses.'

‘You mean this?' It was hardly a dress at all, though she was right about it being little. It had a tight red bodice and a skirt made of red and white ribbons, like a maypole.

Once I'd changed, Scarlet scaled up a pole to a swing. She tossed down a harness to Fabian and he fixed it around my waist. Before I had a chance to psych myself up, I was already being hoisted up into the air. I screwed my eyes shut, feeling queasy from all the swinging and the thought of there being nothing but a thin wire stopping me from smashing onto the sawdust below.

BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
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