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Authors: Joanne Owen

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Part Two

One autumn night when the leaves fell thick and the frost bit hard, Vasilisa's stepmother conspired with her daughters to get rid of Vasilisa for good. She gave all three girls a task. The eldest was told to make lace, the middle girl was told to knit stockings and Vasilisa, the youngest, was told to spin wool. The stepmother went to bed, leaving one candle alight for the girls to finish their work by. As the night went on, the eldest sister went to the candle and pretended to straighten the wick. She put out the flame and, feigning alarm, said that someone would have to go to Baba Yaga's hut to fetch more fire. ‘But not I,' she said, ‘for I can see by the light of my pins.'

‘And not I,' said the middle sister, ‘for I can see by the light of my needles.'

‘Then that's settled,' said the eldest. ‘Vasilisa must go.' And they pushed her out into the night.

Vasilisa sat on the doorstep and fed her doll, wondering what she should do, for she was frightened of making the journey alone. Once she was fed, the doll's eyes shone like two stars and she told Vasilisa to go, promising she would be protected. A little way along the path, a horseman galloped by. He was dressed in white, and his horse was white and, as he passed, dawn broke. A little further along the path, a second horseman galloped by. He was dressed in red, his horse was red and, as he passed, the sun rose.

Vasilisa walked on through the day and eventually came to Baba Yaga's hut. The sight of it filled her with dread. It had a fence made of bones, there were skulls on the fence posts and the door had a human mouth in place of a lock. As Vasilisa stood there, shaking with fear, a third horseman galloped by. He was dressed in black, and his horse was black and, as he rode up to Baba Yaga's door and vanished, night fell. Just then, the skulls on the fence posts glowed through the darkness and fire flamed from their eye sockets and it became as bright as day. The trees crackled and creaked and all the leaves rustled and Baba Yaga emerged from the woods, sailing the sky in a mortar, sweeping away all traces of her path with a broom.

‘Who goes there?' said Baba Yaga, sniffing the air. ‘I smell human blood!'

‘It's Vasilisa,' she said. ‘My stepsisters sent me to fetch light.'

‘I know them,' said Baba Yaga, for she knew most things. ‘But before I give you light, you must work for me and, if you fail in your tasks, I shall eat you up, spit out your bones and burn them!'

They went inside and Baba Yaga ordered Vasilisa to serve her the food cooking on the stove. There was enough to feed a dozen people, but Baba Yaga gobbled everything down, except for a drop of cabbage soup, a crust of bread and a scrap of pork rind. Then she gave Vasilisa her tasks. She was to sweep the yard, clean the hut, wash the bedclothes, sort through a great pile of wheat and cook dinner before the next day was out. ‘If you don't,' Baba Yaga warned, ‘I shall eat you up, spit out your bones and burn them!'

Once Baba Yaga had settled down for the night and the cottage shook with her snores, Vasilisa offered her doll the leftover food and asked what she should do, fearing the work was impossible for a person to get through in a single day. But the doll said she'd already eaten her fill and needed no more and, with her eyes shining like two stars, she told Vasilisa to rest, ‘For the morning is wiser than the night.'

Next morning, Vasilisa rose as the light from the skulls was fading. The White Rider galloped by, day broke and Baba Yaga went outside. She whistled and her mortar, pestle and broom appeared. Then the Red Rider galloped by and the sun rose, and Baba Yaga climbed into her mortar and took flight. Vasilisa looked around, saw that her work had already been done, and thanked her doll for delivering her from death.

That evening the Black Rider came, the night fell, the skulls' eyes glowed through the darkness, and Baba Yaga came from the woods. When she saw that Vasilisa had done everything she'd asked she exploded in rage, angry she had nothing to complain about.

‘Why don't you speak, child?' asked Baba Yaga. ‘Have you lost your tongue?'

‘I don't dare,' replied Vasilisa. ‘But, if I'm allowed, I'd like to ask one question.'

‘Then ask, child,' said Baba Yaga. ‘But not every question has a good answer, and if you ask too much, and know too much, you'll grow old before your time.'

‘Who are the three riders?' asked Vasilisa.

‘They are my day and my sun and my night, child. They are my faithful servants,' Baba Yaga replied, and then she asked if Vasilisa had any more questions.

Vasilisa shook her head. ‘You said if a person asks too much, and knows too much, they'll grow old faster, and I don't want to grow old faster.'

‘Very good,' Baba Yaga replied. ‘You paid attention.' Then she asked Vasilisa how she'd managed to get all the work done. Remembering the promise she'd made to her mother, Vasilisa kept her doll hidden away in her pocket, and said it was due to her mother's blessing.

‘I'll have no blessed ones in my house!' shrieked Baba Yaga, and she dragged Vasilisa outside, stuck a skull on a stick and passed it to her. ‘Here, take this for your stepsisters. This is what they sent you for, and may they enjoy it! Now begone!'

And Vasilisa ran home through the forest by the light of the glowing skull.

Chapter Six

I woke up screaming. I'd never felt such pain. It was like shards of ice were stabbing into my head. I rolled onto my side, clutching Granny's doll. The ground was damp against my bare legs, and I could smell wet earth. The last thing I remembered was being in the cabin with that boy. And after that, then what? Nothing. There was nothing in my head about what had happened until this. I pushed myself up. Every movement sent another stab into my head, and my whole body was sore.

Daddy? Mum?
I called
.
No answer. Nothing. A sliver of moon slipped out from the clouds. There was crumbling stonework all around me, stretching out as far as I could see. I couldn't catch my breath, I was frozen to the spot, in the middle of a graveyard. But I hadn't walked here myself, so how was it possible?

I had to get out, but I couldn't see a path. It was completely overgrown, no flowers, no well-tended graves. I started to weave my way through them, looking for a gate, for any way out, for any end to it. I picked up speed and stumbled into a statue of a girl. I could see her face clearly in the silver light. Her expression looked real, and her hands reached out as if she was offering me a gift of the dead leaves cupped in them.

I pulled back the twisted branches and briars to read the inscription. This was crazy. I traced my fingers over the letters. I was right. They spelled out my name, Granny's name, our name – but this wasn't Granny's grave. I felt my heart twist itself into a tiny, spiky ball and I ran and I ran and I just kept going.

After a while, I came to a grove. The ground was soft and springy underfoot, like expensive carpet, and the air smelled sweet. I snaked through the lush trees and found myself in a clearing. At its centre was an old-fashioned carousel with a red-and-white striped canopy.

‘Hello?' I called
.
‘Anyone there?
'
I heard my voice echo back at me. But no one answered. I noticed a booth on the edge of the carousel platform. It had to be the control room or maybe a ticket office. I ran to it, wondering if there might be a phone there, maybe even an attendant. It was too dark to see anything clearly, but there was no sign of anything electrical like a phone, and definitely no attendant.

A deafening beating sound started up, and dozens of shiny black birds surged from the trees and swept around the carousel. The first looked like crows, but those that came after were huge, prehistoric-looking creatures, with stony, blue-grey beaks as long as swords. Shaking with fear, I ducked down and watched them soar round and round, gaining height with each revolution. Their claws looked strong enough to pick me up, and sharp enough to tear me to pieces. It started snowing too. It fell thick and fast and the birds vanished into it.

I waited a few minutes, to be certain they really had gone, before I left the booth. I grabbed onto a pole to pull myself aboard the platform. It had carvings coiled around it, snake-like creatures with dragons' heads and eggs for eyes, and the platform was carpeted with dewy grass. It felt like a living thing, like the grass was actually growing there.

A clanging musical sound started up, a cross between an oompah band and a knackered ice-cream van. It swelled louder and faster and turned into a full-on polka tune. I heard a snapping noise above me. A series of shutters were opening around the outer edge of the striped canopy. Behind each was a lantern that cast flickering light over the rides. There were horses and hares, and a boar and a bear. There were foxes and goats, and leopards and wolves. Then a spotlight flicked on over the centre of the carousel, illuminating a woman's back.

‘Where am I?' I asked, rushing towards her. ‘Where is this?' She was seated at a large spinning wheel, wild-haired and sitting straight as a broom handle, her arms reaching out to the spindle rooted into the platform. She didn't reply. She just pumped her foot on the pedal at the base of the wheel's framework and the carousel started to move, slowly at first, but it wasn't long before it was rolling and creaking like an old ship in a storm, rising and falling in juddering waves while the animals moved up and down their snaky poles.

I tapped her shoulder. She felt hard
,
solid as wood. My heart sank. This wasn't a woman at all. This was a mechanical doll, with six eyes staring out from her three faces. One was smooth and young looking, with cheeks flushed candyfloss pink. Another was heavily made-up like an old-time showgirl, all long lashes and lips. The third was patched with pockmarks the colour of red cabbage, yellow eyes glaring from its shrunken head.

The ride careered faster and faster and sent me reeling into a carriage pulled by three horses. My head was pinned to the back of the seat from the force of the spinning. I stared up at the stars and planets painted on the underside of the canopy. Everything became a whirl of ruby and gold, silver and blue, then red and white. I closed my eyes, surrendering myself to the flow as the ride ran its course. It stuttered to a standstill, and the music faltered and wheezed to nothing. Finally, the shutters snapped back over the lanterns. I staggered from the carriage, but couldn't see where the edge of the platform was. It was as if the carousel had merged with the ground.

When the music eventually stopped ringing in my ears, I realised another set of sounds had replaced it. Whistles and chirps, and the rush of water, and then the hammer of hooves. I turned cold with sweat. I'd hated being anywhere near horses since the time one went crazy and nearly got Granny killed. We were on holiday in Germany at the time, somewhere near the border with France, and the horse she was riding bolted off the path into the traffic. A lorry had to swerve right across the road to avoid her. It was so close.
So
close – and so were these. They were just a few metres away. Two out-of-control horses – one black, the other white – were pounding towards me.

‘Lolly!' called a little girl, stabbing a finger into the air. ‘Listen! Music.' She climbed further up the branch she was perched on. ‘It's
the
music. From the carousel.'

‘Stop making things up. It can't be.'

‘There. Listen!'

Lola froze. Her sister was right.

‘Why is it playing now, Lolly? It's not time, is it? There haven't been enough moons or suns since the last time. This is the first day, isn't it?'

Lola leapt down from the tree.

‘Where are you going?'

‘To see what's happening.'

‘You can't. You mustn't. Wait! Don't leave me.' Coco went after her sister. ‘We're not supposed to do this, Lolly. We're not supposed to leave. We shouldn't have come as far as this.'

‘We're not leaving, and we can't go any further. It's not
possible
to go further. We're just checking.
I'm
just checking. You can stay here if you like.'

‘I want to come with you.'

‘Only if you're quiet, and stay close.'

They went as far as they could, to the edge of the mist, and sat on the mossy ground watching the swirling lights, bodies quivering like hummingbirds.

‘What can you see, Lolly? Are the others there? Have they left us out? Why would they do that?'

‘Shh!' Lola stood up as the music machine wound down.

‘What is it? What are you looking at?'

‘Nothing.' Lola pulled Coco close. She'd seen a girl on the carousel, which shouldn't be possible, because this wasn't the time, this wasn't what happened. She stroked her sister's hair. Both girls put their hands to their ears as two horses charged through the mist towards them. The black mare stopped. It reared up, snorting, and stampeded off. The white horse emerged with the girl draped across the saddle in front of the hooded rider. All at once, it became light as day. Lola grabbed her sister and lurched from the beast's path. She raised her head and watched as the rider dropped the girl to the ground and rode off.

BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
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