This is part 5 of an 11-part series (click here to read the first blog in the series).
The midnight, summer breeze felt fresh over her face. The whole world dancing beautiful once more. She was on an adventure – a quest! To reclaim her lost property. What a sensible thing to do. And she even knew the way… to the lake, at least. She smiled sincerely as a giggle of exotically-dressed women frolicked past. The lake was sublime, dark waters wisped in low mist and dotted with islands of magical lights. The colourful displays blooming and fading with melodious harmony. Japanese paper-lanterns lined the long, wooden bridge – warm, blossom-pink glow. Nearing the other side, Sophie could see the Penis Totem Pole at the top of the hill. And from the top of the hill: the arched entrance to the Fairy Woods.
Not so many people in this part of the festival. She past a couple of stony-faced teenaged girls walking in the other direction. They wore matching angel outfits, and matching expressions, stomping along locked in an evenly-balanced sulking match. An unconscious man lay with a cowboy hat over his face. Sophie was the only person heading towards the woods. Giant Venus Fly Traps guarded the arched entrance – bulbous, plaster-cast heads lolling around on invisible puppet strings.
It grew darker as she made her way into the forest – the lanterns few and far between. Rows of stalls lined the wide, muddy path, but they’d all closed for the night – shuttered up with metal fencing. The forest was deserted, atmosphere quiet and still. The lush fragrance of wood and soil. Shadowy trees meshed into a thick foliage above, with silvery ropes hanging from the trunks and branches in vast networks of cobweb.
A giant spider fighting a couple of velociraptors – this must be it. Although this sculpture depicted the dinosaurs devouring the arachnid. Didn’t Darren say it was the other way around? The woods were strewn with human-sized, plaster-cast models of spiders and velociraptors, locked in combat. Sophie’s bones shuddered. She didn’t much like spiders, especially giant ones… or velociraptors for that matter. And now she came across the macabre spectre of an enormous arachnid wrapping a dinosaur in a strangling cocoon of silk. It was horrible, but it seemed to be the landmark she was looking for.
The entrance to one of the nearby stalls was partially covered by a half-size fence. With the tall wall guarding the festival towering behind. The stall was carpeted in colourful rugs and set up as a meditation area, with cushions and mats piled towards the edges. Could see the hole from here, a shallow ditch worming under the great wall. Sophie wriggled past the little fence and moved to inspect the escape-route. Good, old Darren had actually given surprisingly accurate directions. Was it a good idea to sneak out of the festival… and head into the forest, alone… to search for a domineering madman with knives and a whip? No, obviously not! But she was here now.
She removed her feather jacket and pushed it through first. Not overly graceful as she squirmed onto her belly and slithered under the wall. It was tight, wriggling her hips to squeeze her buttocks through the narrow gap. How on earth did gangly Darren manage to manoeuvre himself through here? On the other side, she dusted herself down and peered into the forest. There were no lights… and she didn’t have a torch. Shit! She started walking directly away from the wall. At first, the glow of the festival silvered the trees with faint illumination, but the light faded as she traipsed deeper.
She stumbled onto a little track that seemed to be heading in the right direction. The path kept her clear from most of the surrounding bushes and brambles, but branches kept reaching down to clip her in the face. It was almost pitch black on the forest floor. Could still just-about hear the distant hum emanating from the festival, but the stealthy silence was taking over. The resound of her own heavy breathing and throbbing heartbeat. Every time she stepped on a stick, loud snaps echoed through the woods. Clumsy thuds as she tripped on rudely-protruding roots.
Seemed like the whole forest must be able to hear. Could sense the trees leaning in and whispering about her. It would be very easy to track her… to hunt her! All alone out here. No phone. No one around to hear her scream. What the fuck was she doing? This was definitely a bad idea! But she couldn’t help herself. He’d summoned her, with his evil sorcery… and he possessed that lock of her hair.
‘Fly to me later, Little Bird.’
An instruction, not a request! Maybe the Circus Master was preying on her now? He’d lured her out into the woods, where he could hunt her for sport. Goosebumps prickling on the back of her neck as she imagined him coming after her with his whip. Expertly tangling her up and dragging her writhing body towards him. Or wielding a tranquiliser gun, posturing tall with the rifle to his shoulder. Keeping her in his sights as she scampers through the woods like a frightened animal. Waiting for the right moment to squeeze the trigger and bring her down. Feeling the dart needling into her buttock and her body crumpling onto the ground. Trying to haul herself along on her elbows to escape. But the numbness filling her up, naked body twitching as he strides to stand over her. Looking up, through fogging eyes, to see the hunter staring back down… calm satisfaction.
What the fuck was she thinking?! How long had she been walking? Could be thirty minutes or more. But impossible to tell – time still warping in his mystical gravity. There didn’t seem to be a track anymore and the invisible ground was becoming ever more treacherous. She tripped in another hole, bashing her hands and knees. Could easily have strained her ankle. Then what would she do? She’d be fucked – there was no one for miles. Except… was that something up ahead? Could sense lights strafing up into the sky. She picked her way towards them carefully.
It was definitely some kind of camp. This must be it! Sophie’s heart began to drum-roll. She moved to crouch behind a bush, concealing herself in the treeline, bordering the clearing. Looking out over a half-moon of grass and mud, sloping down to a silent, country road. The forest continued up the hill, on the other side of the avenue, so the camp nestled discretely in a cosy dell. A few caravans, and some other vehicles, arranged in a crescent, alongside a large marquee-tent – the size of a small house. The caravans were dark, but light radiated from the marquee. Red canvas glowing with the flicker of fire inside. Couldn’t see any movement.
Excitement prickling as Sophie skirted along the treeline. The caravans seemed to be antiques from a bygone era – heavy, oaken frames brazen with brass. Wouldn’t have looked out of place in Victorian times… except for the modern tyres. All the curtains were pulled and they felt vacant. However, the tent-mesh windows on the marquee were uncovered. Sophie peered around before creeping out of the woods, stooping as she approached and then ducking below the window. Could hear the heavy breathing of a sleeping man. The whispering rustle of someone turning the page of a newspaper. Holding her breath as she raised her head to peer inside.
The tall tent was expansively spacious. Illuminated by half-a-dozen flaming torches, planted in the ground on spikes. The floor carpeted with a multi-layered patchwork of rugs. Various eccentricities of circus paraphernalia cluttered around, but what really caught the eye were the cages. Four rectangular enclosures, each roughly the size of single bed and not quite tall enough to stand up in. And they were occupied!
The giant’s slumbering body lay in the closest cage, enormous chest swelling and compressing as he breathed. Dmitri was in the pen opposite, sitting cross-legged in an upright posture. The torch on his headband beamed down on a large newspaper, sprawled in front of him, which he was reading intently. One of the lionesses was outside her cage, but attached to it on a long leash-chain. She was positioned in the middle of the doorway, as if on guard, except she lay curled up, fast asleep. The other feline prowled up and down inside her pen. A skulking slink on all fours, as if she was a real cat. But there was no one around to perform to! Did she really think she was a lioness? Must be under some sort of spell.
Sophie crouched down. That was really fucking weird! Dmitri and the newspaper… and the enchanted cat-women. Where was the Circus Master? A sudden shriek cried out of the darkness – a woman’s voice shouting… singing… chanting. The Fire-Witch! Sophie cocked her ears to locate the source of the vocals. Seemed to be coming from over the street. She darted back to the treeline and skirted down to the road. The witch was chanting words in a dead language, her tone now low and oscillating steadily – casting a spell. The adventurer crossed the narrow avenue and peered up the slope – the glow of fire up-lighting the sky at the top of the little incline. She picked her way carefully, scouring the ground and advancing with stealth. Only a few dozen steps before she crested the slope. Squatting behind brambles to spy on them.
A raging campfire crackled in the middle of the clearing. The Circus Master stood in statuesque pose beside it. Bare-chested, wearing his trousers, boots and top-hat. He watched the Fire-Witch dancing around the conflagration. Her wild, dyed-red hair spraying like blood as she swung her head about. Looping hoop ear-rings jangling. Dark face ignited with fiery war-paint. The bright whites her of eyes stretched wide on the straining rack of her brow. Red, orange and yellow silks writhing around as she cavorted. Flashes of flesh and gold. Her body and clothing shimmering and sashaying like the flames. Her chant escalating – singing sad and sinister.
The Circus Master was standing side-on from Sophie’s vantage point. Holding something close to his stomach, with both hands. An object, about the size of his top-hat, concealed under a black drape. The Fire-Witch came to the climax of her enchantment and stopped opposite the Circus Master. She swept her arms wide for a spectacular clap and an explosion of purple powder misted through the air. He raised the concealed object into the cloud, letting the dust shower over it. Then he brought it back to his middle, bowed his head solemnly… and turned directly towards Sophie. She ducked down further, although the darkness already hid her well.
The Fire-Witch watched as the Circus Master removed the drape to reveal the bird-cage. A small, yellow bird sitting on a perch inside. Sophie’s mind gulped as she stared. A strange contortion in her gut. The cage-door faced outwards and the Circus Master now pulled it open. The little bird just sat there, perfectly still. After a few long moments, he reached around and plunged his hand inside the cage. Grabbing the bird and clutching, so yellow feathers stuck out from his fist. Oh my God, he wasn’t going to crush it, was he?! He drew his hand out and swung his arm, flinging the little bird into the air. The crumpled ball of yellow spinning, before straightening itself out. Wings flippering into a flap and it darted off into the night.
Eyes still lowered, the Circus Master whispered something in a low growl. Sophie felt herself leaning forward to try and hear what he was saying. His chant rising… becoming louder.
‘Bu – Ra – Hay!’
His eyes flashed up to point directly towards Sophie. The grin began in his glare. He could see her! Even in the darkness. They stared into one another. If he’d beckoned, then she’d have floated to him. But he didn’t do that. Instead his whole body exploded into action. Stance springing wide, cage hurtling over his head as both arms flew into the air. Red-and-white horror-mask of a face leaping forward like a gargoyle. Gruesome snarl flaring his eyes and baring his teeth.
Sophie screamed in horror! Heart clutching her body… and turning it around. She fled into the night.