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Authors: Joanne Owen

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Chapter Seven

I'd fallen hard and there were bits of bracken stuck in the blood on my knees. I picked them out, then picked myself up. There was no sign of the horses or their riders. They'd left as quickly as they'd come, before I could ask where I was, or why they'd picked me up. But at least there was light now. At least I could see. I was in a kind of forest, but not like one I'd ever seen before. The tree trunks were completely encased in leaves, with bare branches reaching out through them like grabbing hands. And there were plants bigger than houses, with spiky green fronds and orange tips fanned out like peacock feathers.

I looked back to where I thought I'd come from. I couldn't see the carousel. There was no path or anything to suggest I should go this way or that way, or any way at all. I heard a shuffling sound. I spun round.

‘Who's there?' I heard giggling. ‘Is someone there?'

‘We're here, silly!' A scrawny, fair-haired child came from behind a tree. ‘We found you. We were playing hide and seek to find you, and we won! We found you! I'm Coco and this is my sister Lola. I call her Lolly, and when we sing we're called “Miss Lola Lemona and Coco Coo”. Shall we sing for her, Lolly?'

A second girl appeared at her side. She was taller and had darker hair, but she had the same piercing grey-blue eyes and was just as bony as the little one. They both wore feathery dresses that hung loosely from their fragile frames; one gold, the other redcurrant. I shrank back, but it wasn't just their mad-crazy staring eyes and outfits that disturbed me. It was their skin. Their faces were wrinkly and veiny. Their necks looked like plucked chicken skin. And their
teeth
. Their teeth were little black stumps, like bits of broken coal. They were like little-girl grannies, and they both just stood there, looking me up and down with their stabbing eyes, saying nothing, scrutinising me.

It was only then I realised I was wearing a thin nightdress. I'd never seen it before and definitely didn't remember putting it on, but it had a small pocket at the front, so I put Granny's doll in it to keep her safe, and folded my arms to hide myself.

‘No. No singing,' said the older girl, pushing her sister behind her. ‘Who are you?' she asked. ‘What are you doing here?'

‘I  …  I don't know. I think I'm  …  I might be lost. Which way is Highfield?'

‘You really are lost. There isn't anything called that here. There's just us.'

‘Quiet, Coco. Why haven't we seen you before? Where's Mother Matushka been keeping you?'

‘Who?' I took a step back. Her eyes were burning into me.

‘You must know Mother.' Coco frowned. ‘You have to know Mother. She's everything. She's
more
than everything.'

I didn't know what was worse, randomly finding myself in a graveyard, or being interrogated by these terrifying girls. I felt trapped. ‘Look, I don't know who you're talking about or how I ended up here. Can't you just tell me how to get back to a road? There must be someone who can help.' My voice broke. I breathed deep to try to calm myself down. ‘Do you have a phone? Where are your mum and dad?'

‘Our mother and father aren't here, silly.'

‘But you just asked me about your mother.'

‘She's not just
our
mother, silly. She's everyone's mother. She's Mother Matushka. You talk funny. Can I touch you?' Coco prodded my arm. Her fingers were icy cold and made me shiver, but she reacted with more than a shiver. She sprang away from me like I'd given her an electric shock. ‘She feels funny, Lolly. And there's blood on her. Look,
blood
!'

She looked horrified. My knees did look pretty rank from the fall but there wasn't that much blood. But then I noticed she wasn't just staring at my knees. She was staring at my head too. I touched where it hurt. My hand came away sticky.

‘How can she be
bleeding
? She's like a real girl, isn't she, Lolly? She's not like a shadow.'

‘Of course I'm real. What do you mean?'

Lola grabbed my wrist with her scaly hands. She clenched me so hard I thought my bones would snap. She was far stronger than she looked.

‘Get off me!' I had to use all my strength to pull away from her. I darted off, vaguely in the direction I'd come from, but I'd only gone a few steps when I felt myself sinking. Within seconds the salty mud was up to my waist, and gluey plant fronds were swirling up around my neck.

‘Help me!' I screamed. ‘I'm drowning.'

The swamp was closing in around me, sucking at my ribs and shoulders. I could hardly breathe. I was certain that this was it; I was going to be pulled under and die. I went to raise my arms, to keep myself up, but they were bound to my sides by the suffocating sludge. I could feel hot mud bubbling into my face. I didn't know if it was preparing to suck me under or spit me out, and the more I struggled, the deeper I sank. I had to calm down or I'd be gone. But if I did nothing, I'd be gone too. I had to do
something
, and fast.

‘Find something for me to grab onto,' I called. ‘Just make it stop!'

I concentrated all my strength into keeping my head up, then twisted my hips and tried to shake my right leg loose without moving too erratically.

Come on, come on
. I felt something shift.

‘It's all right now,' Coco giggled. ‘You can stop wiggling. You can get out. Look!'

Keeping my head tilted back, I lowered my eyes. Coco was right. The mud had thinned out and I could move freely. I was still up to my hips in murky water, but I could move. I freed my arms and burst out crying and laughing all at the same time, hysterical with relief as I waded back to the edge of the marsh. I wasn't at all religious, but at that moment, I wanted to thank someone up there for saving me. I felt like I'd experienced a miracle.

When I reached the bank, Lola was staring at me like I had three heads. ‘What is it?' I asked. ‘I could have drowned, you know. It was up to my neck.'

‘You made the marsh go,' said Lola.

The way she said it really creeped me out. It was like she thought I had some weird powers, or had performed some kind of black magic to make it happen, or something. It had
felt
magical, but that was just my massive relief that I hadn't drowned. It's amazing what keeping calm and focused can do. Or maybe I was just lucky. But I definitely didn't do anything to
make
it go.

‘You have to see Mother. You really do.' Lola grabbed hold of me again. I struggled against her. I was freaked out. The marsh, these girls – the way they looked, the way they spoke; it wasn't normal. It was like they, and this place, existed outside the normal world. I turned back to where we'd come from, but I couldn't see more than a few paces ahead. A strange mist had suddenly descended, and it was swirling towards us.

Crap
. I couldn't see my way back to the carousel or graveyard now. In a split second, I wondered about breaking free from Lola and trying to find my way out, but the way the mist was now closing in, licking its vaporous limbs against me like a living thing, I decided I'd be better off going with them. This Mother person might be able to help me get out of this freaky place.

We went deeper into the forest, faster and faster, with the mist chasing at our heels. We swerved sharply to the right and stopped on the edge of a crater. There were clouds beneath us, forming a kind of cocoon over it. I stepped back from the edge, my head spinning and hands clammy from being up so high. It was like looking down through the sky. Then I felt a rumbling and a droning vibration rising through my feet, like the earth was throbbing, and through the mist I could see a settlement in the valley below. There was an enormous red-and-white Big Top at its centre, ringed by trees.

‘Is this a circus? You're from a circus?'

‘It's not just a circus, silly,' said Coco. ‘We're a secret. We're the Circus of the Unseen.'

‘What do you mean?'

‘Well, have
you
seen it before?'

I supposed Lola had a point. I hadn't seen it before, but then, why would I have? I didn't know where I was. I might have been a few miles from home, or a million. She took hold of me again and we swooped into the valley. The bank was steep, almost vertical, and we plunged down so fast it felt like we were actually flying and I'd left my stomach on the edge. The momentum was so strong I carried on hurtling forwards, even after we'd reached the bottom.

When I eventually stopped and caught my breath, I heard music again, but this sounded like real musicians were playing it. I couldn't see them clearly through the trees, but I could see movement, and could hear violins being bowed, cellos being stroked, drums being struck. The noise made me feel queasy. All the jerky strings, and honking horns and a clanking piano that sounded like someone was dancing up and down on the keys. It sounded like a wonky-wheeled cart, and every time the music skipped a beat it was like the cart had hit a rock and was about to overturn. But there was something keeping it upright. Through the madness of it all, beyond the chaos, a calm drone underpinned everything. And then I saw the source of the drone. There was a girl sitting alone, away from the trees, away from the others. She was dressed in a kind of traditional folk costume, working the bellows of her accordion as if it was part of her, not just an attachment strapped to her chest. She couldn't have been more than five, but her music was  …  I don't know, it sounded wise.
She sounded older than her years.
I closed my eyes and found myself swaying in time with the music.

The spell was broken by a jab in my ribs.

‘Through here, and stay behind me.'

I followed Lola through an avenue of trees and we came to another sweet-smelling grove like the one I'd found after the graveyard, except this had the Big Top at its centre rather than a carousel – and it really was enormous, bigger than any other circus I'd been to, bigger than any stadium. It was like an upscaled version of the old-fashioned fair Daisy and I had been to years ago, the one we'd had our photo taken at. But this wasn't exactly like that. There were no lorries here spoiling the old-time atmosphere. This was like
being
in the old time. No behind-the-scenes grime, no chug of generators belching out dirty smoke. No safety nets, backstage workers or laser light shows ruining the out-of-this-world illusion. There were flaming torches and flickering lanterns. There were ropes and wires and giant seesaws and springboards. There were girls twirling on dancing horses, divers in stripy swimsuits plunging from high boards into tanks of bubbling water. Everyone was wearing some kind of elaborate costume, robes from the ancient world, beautiful black-and-red African masks, carnival headdresses, sweet-wrapper-bright kimonos. It was like people from all places and all times had gathered here.

‘Scarlie! Look what we found, Scarlie. A surprise!'

Coco waved madly at a woman strapped to a Wheel of Death contraption. It was spinning round at a crazy speed, making her red hair spray out like flames. Coco ran to a basket near the wheel and picked up a knife. ‘Ready?' Coco called. The woman grinned and Coco hurled the knife at her. It skimmed her hand, stabbed into the board between her thumb and index finger. Then she did it again and again, and I swear every single knife Coco launched touched some part of the woman's body. I couldn't bear to watch. I looked away.

‘Should she be doing this?' I asked Lola. Then, just as I finished speaking, Coco let out an ear-piercing shriek. There was a blade planted
deep in the woman's neck, right down to the handle.
Jesus.
I needed to spew. Lola ran to the wheel and spun it round so the woman's feet were at the bottom. Then she yanked out the knife and unstrapped her. I couldn't believe it when she stepped down and took a bow as if nothing had happened. I couldn't see how this was an illusion. This looked like an actual death-defying feat. I mean, this really should have killed her.

‘Scarlet's special, isn't she?' Coco smiled. ‘We're all special here.'

‘So what's this surprise then, honey?' The woman who should have been dead swaggered towards me in swishing skirts and a pair of lace-up boots that were as tight as a second skin. She stopped a metre or so away, one hand on her pinched-in waist, looking like she'd slipped off the pages of a comic book, or an old pin-up poster advert for a once-fashionable brand of cola.

‘We found a new girl, Scarlie! I heard the music and then we found her.'

‘Thought no one had stayed last time round.' The woman flicked her hair to the side. ‘Scarlet Starlet,' she said, holding out a hand. I noticed a tear in the thumb of her glove. The knives must have been real, sharp enough to cut through leather. ‘And who are you?' she asked. ‘Where did you come from back there? Pretty little thing, aren't you? What's your name, girl?'

BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
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