#12NOW writer Claire Savage gives us an exclusive extract from her new children’s novel, Magical Masquerade. A fantasy adventure aimed at children between 9 – 12, the story concerns Felicity, a young girl on not one, but two magical quests, having to solve three riddles that will set her free. Below, we join Felicity mid-quest, as she searches for a witch amidst dense woodland, and encounters something rather surprising along the way…
Growing more used to strange people disappearing on her in even stranger ways, Felicity shook her head in bemusement when the Moss Man vanished, but she was grateful for his gift and knew there was no point hanging around. According to her map, she still had quite a distance to cover before she reached the part of the wood where the witch lived. The Moss Man had reminded her, however, that witches lurked all around here, which gave her the chills. Granted she had a little hocus-pocus at her disposal now, but would she remember how to use it all – and quickly enough – if she was confronted?
Stopping briefly along the way for lunch from her enchanted crockery, Felicity pushed on with her journey, staying on the alert. As the afternoon drew in and nothing unusual happened, she pushed the thoughts of hidden magic and traps to the back of her mind. She didn’t directly encounter any more fairy folk, but she suspected her presence had been noted. In fact, she was fairly certain concealed eyes were watching her every move, but as no one confronted her, Felicity felt confident anyone tracking her was merely curious and meant no harm. Not yet anyway.
She stopped every so often to check her progress on the magic map and was dismayed each time to see that it looked as though she’d hardly moved. Yet to her, it felt as if she’d already walked for miles. Just how long was it going to take her to reach the witch’s spire?
She was so preoccupied that it took her longer than it should have to notice the silence that had dropped down around her. This part of the wood was even more closely knitted with trees than the way she’d just come. The birdsong had gone, while the scuttling and scurrying sounds from the undergrowth, which had been constant and comforting background noise, had been replaced simply with the sound of the trees.
Only leaves whispered their secrets softly in the breeze, their branches and boughs creaking gently and blocking out the sun with thick foliage. The atmosphere was saturated with suspense and up ahead Felicity could make out shapes – solid, jagged outlines which loomed ominously before her – yet still she walked, as if they were reeling her in with an invisible rope.
As she drew nearer, the shapes sharpened and Felicity saw they were in fact huge standing stones, not black and bumpy like rocks, but smooth and sculpted. There were five altogether, each a different colour and roughly oval in shape. A dull yellow stone, the farthest away from her, stood straight ahead, while just below it, to the left, was a grey stone mottled with white. Opposite was a reddish brown stone and behind Felicity was a white and a purple-blue stone, spaced apart from one another.
In the centre of the stones, where she now stood, lay a pile of broken twigs and branches – a fire, waiting to be lit. A creeping suspicion came upon her that someone or something was coming, as she realised that was probably why the woodland creatures had fled. They had felt it and she had not. They’d gone somewhere safe but she was now right in the middle of whatever was about to happen … and something told her it wasn’t going to be good. She had to hide and fast. Bushes were everywhere and could provide good cover but Felicity wanted a tree so she would be able to see what was going on. If she could just hide inside a hollow or perhaps climb one to get a safe view.
Spying a medium-sized tree with a branch just low enough for her to reach, she ran towards it. Without thinking, for she could feel a subtle change in the wind and noticed that even the trees had stopped their whisperings now, Felicity swung herself up and scrambled as high as she safely could, settling down comfortably and parting the leaves just enough to give a view of the stones. From her vantage point she could see they formed the five points of a star. She only hoped she was well enough hidden from anyone on the ground.
She didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes, everything changed.
First, came the smell of wood smoke laced with strange fragrances. The air was perfumed with mystery and suspense, with fear and unease; longing mingled with doubt and distress, mixed up with wishful thinking and desire. Felicity didn’t know how she knew these things – she just did.
Then came the flames.
Five curling plumes of smoke snaked their way in from five different parts of the wood, entering the centre of the star-shaped space and then plunging into the assembled kindling. It burst into flames of gold and orange, electric blue and deep blood red, of emerald green and buttercup yellow and, finally, of black. Felicity had never seen black flames on a fire before and she felt shivers tip-toe up and down her spine.
Then came the crows.
Gripping the branch to stop herself from tumbling off, Felicity tried to work out where the cacophony of cries was coming from but could see nothing. The calls collided with the silence, shattering it to pieces with ugly shrieks and scoldings, and then she saw the black birds themselves enter the clearing. They flapped noisily towards the black-flamed fire – five crows to match the five standing stones and the five smoke plumes. Each bird flew anticlockwise around the fire three times before settling on the ground, each in front of one of the stones. Then silence once more.
Felicity watched, breath bated, her knuckles white from clenching the branch so hard, eyes focused on the scene below. The crows arched their sleek black necks, wings spread wide to either side, and then the most extraordinary thing happened. The stretching didn’t stop.
As the crows’ necks arched, they elongated, giving the birds the appearance of stunted flamingos. Their wings also extended slowly, writhing in the firelight like black feathered snakes trying to escape their very skins.
The crows’ flamingo-like necks were joined by flamingo-type legs next – stick-thin appendages which grew until the creatures reached almost the height of the standing stones. The legs were no longer those of a bird’s, however, as each pair now seemed to be wearing differently coloured striped stockings, all ending in black buckled shoes.
Their torsos were now encased in ebony fabric embossed with sparkling silver stars, hats and eyes, while the remaining feathers grew downwards to become flowing black skirts.
Wings had become arms ending in long bony fingers – fingers tipped with gnarled, pointed fingernails, all painted black. Necks were no longer feathered and crow-like but had smooth skin and the foundations of five heads.
Five heads of five witches – with hats on top.
Magical Masquerade is available to order on Kindle and in paperback via Amazon.