An Embarrassment of Witches
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Darren’s brown eyes widened at the sight of his best friend’s costume. “You’re going to the New Year’s party dressed in THAT?”
Willow sighed. “That’s all they had left at the costume hire shop. Mum took one look at me and burst out laughing…as for Dad, he almost had a fit. I wished I could check what it looks like in the mirror. Is it really that hideous?”
“You’d be better off going as yourself…unless THIS is your real self,” Darren dropped into a comfortable rocking chair by the fire and studied the pink vision in front of him.
“Very funny, Darren Taylor! What am I going to do? There’s no time to make a different outfit by tonight. The invitation says people not in costume will be turned away. It’s my party; I can’t break my own rules!”
“You know Felicity will never let you forget this?”
Flopping into a worn leather sofa Willow buried her face into furry paws. “Don’t remind me! Botheration, I so wanted tonight to be a success.”
A grin spread across Darren’s face. Sounding remarkably like their headmaster’s daughter, he said in a squeaky voice: “Oh my, Willow Band, we have discovered a new species! Our village will be in every newspaper!”
Willow pulled a face. “All my old friends from vampire infant school have been invited. Compared to the things they’re going to say about my sudden fluffiness, Felicity’s comments will be positively refreshing.” Willow groaned, when she saw the expression on Darren’s face. “You’re right; she’ll never let me forget it. I’m doomed!”
“Oh come on, you’ve got to see the funny side. Besides, it’s only one night out of your life; it’s not the end of the world. By the way, isn’t it rather uncomfortable sitting on that…erm…thing on your back? You might want to take it off until later.”
Willow reached behind her and extracted her tail. “Oh, I squashed it. It was a lot fluffier when I put on the suit,” she wailed. “Can’t I get anything right? I’m a failure as a vampire AND I suck at being a carrot-nibbler. Just look at me, I’m a great fat, fluffy joke!”
“Hey, don’t give up before you have explored all your options. Perhaps we could make you look a little more…uh…dangerous?”
“Exactly how many Barbie-pink, blood-sucking bunnies have you met in your life, Darren?”
There was really no answer to that. Darren got up and began to prowl the room, absentmindedly fingering the ornaments on the little table by the window, pulling out books from the shelf by the fireplace and upsetting the cat by treading on its bowl of biscuits. Willow watched her pet Bartholomeaow inspect the carpet in disgust, his favourite fish-flavoured dinner now spread out all over Willow’s floor. A heavy sigh escaped Willow, temporarily halting Darren’s pacing.
“I could wear my beasty face and show my fangs…that would make me look more…grrrrr,” the large pink bunny on the sofa said wretchedly. The grandfather clock in the hallway struck 4 o’clock, only two more hours before the first guests were expected to arrive! Willow pulled off her furry paw gloves and sank deeper into the sofa cushions in an effort to disappear.
“Maybe…if I put on some bear claws instead of these things?” She said without much enthusiasm and looked pleadingly at her friend. “I’m a vampire, a blood-thirsty fiend; I can’t go out there dressed like this!”
Darren stopped his prowling abruptly. He turned the book he held in his hands with an air of surprise and puzzlement, until he realised he had picked it up during his travels around the room. His eyebrows rose when he read the title. It was a children’s book called The little Witch by Willow’s favourite writer Ottfried Preussler.
“I think I may have an idea but we’ll need our friend Rita’s help. There’s nothing like a little witchcraft to spice up a party!” An expression of mischief mingled with determination to help his friend stole across Darren’s face and for the first time that afternoon Willow felt more hopeful, her party might still be a success.
Two hours later the first guests arrived and Darren showed them into the living room, where a table groaning with yummy food and lots of lemonade awaited them. Decorated with left-over glitter from Christmas and a few shrunken heads from the novelty shop in the village, the white table cloth showed off nicely most of Willow’s favourite things to eat. Her mum had done her proud, for nobody could possibly feel left out.
There were pumpkin pies, cheese cake and chocolate muffins for Willow’s human friends, a tray with slices of fried black pudding, barbequed fingers and boiled eyeballs just right for vampires, and for her cat Bartholomeaow there was a large plate of tuna. Next to a jug of home-made lemonade Willow spotted a decanter of spiced blood wine, her absolute favourite drink. Naturally, this wasn’t real wine but cranberry juice, since her mum had prepared it for a children’s party and not for grown-ups, but the other ingredients were just the same, a dash of blood from those nasty bankers in the High Street spiced up with plenty of cinnamon, ginger and cloves from old Mrs Edward’s market stall.
Darren, dressed as a blood-thirsty pirate, waited by the front door and greeted every new friend on Willow’s behalf, directing them to the living room, where Willow waited on a small pedestal behind a red velvet curtain. She felt rather silly, standing there like a statue on a market square about to be unveiled to an astonished public, or a supermarket gimmick or juggler in a shopping mall but having mulled over Darren’s plan from every angle, she felt there was little choice but to go through with it.
Verruca and Maximilian Snaggletooth, two vampire cousins from London, entered the hallway with a flourish and much noise. They were both dressed as noblemen from Venice, with lace collars, stockings and breeches, embroidered silk coats and wide-brimmed hats to which they had affixed ostrich feathers. They felt their rich clothes made it right and proper for them to inspect Willow’s country cottage with their noses high up in the air. Their high-pitched voices discussed the threadbare carpet and medieval hall mirror of questionable origin, when the next wave of guests arrived. Willow sighed, bracing herself for more nasty comments. Her cousins had only been invited because Willow’s dad had insisted on it.
Willow’s cottage couldn’t compete with the grand houses her city cousins lived in, but it was her home and at least she didn’t have to put up with the constant noise of wailing police sirens and passers-by throwing rubbish into their garden. The day her parents had packed their belongings into a removal van and decided from now on they’d be living in the village of Stinkforth-upon-Avon had been the happiest day of Willow’s life. While Verruca discussed the lack of bathrooms in the cottage and Maximilian moaned about the faded wallpaper in the living room, Willow reminded herself that rural Stinkforthshire County had many advantages, especially its great distance from London, making visits by her cousins a rare treat.
Unable to resist the temptation of a mysterious curtain at the far end of the living room, Verruca and Maximilian peeped through a gap in the heavy fabric. When they spotted their country cousin, they howled with laughter. Impatient as ever, Willow’s cousins pulled back the curtain with an amusing cry of Tallyho.
“I annoyed a passing witch. A powerful spell, I’m afraid.” Willow said confidentially, ignoring her cousins’ toothy grins. She raised her paws in a mock gesture of attack. “Grrrruesome claws, I tell you.”
“You look about as scary as my grandmother’s bed socks.” Verruca sniffed. “Mind you, the whiff coming from your feet’s just as gruesome, I grant you that.”
Maximilian tried to pull one of Willow’s long ears but she slapped his wrist. “On the stroke of midnight things will really kick off. I’ll turn into this horrible – “ Willow raised her paws dramatically, “this horrible, grrrrrrrreat big beasty. And after that things will just go from bad to worse. What am I going to do, if I can’t break the spell? Spring’s just around the corner. Warmer weather, bumble bees, primroses and tulips, the usual dangers to our kind.” Willow sighed deeply and smoothed out her fur.
Baffled, Verruca and Maximilian said in one voice. “But we’re vampires – we don’t feel heat or cold…why should you be worried about spring time, insects and a few flowers?”
Willow shook her head, allowing her ears to flop around her chin. She gestured for her cousins to come closer and whispered: “Shshsh, not so loud…somebody might hear you…it simply won’t do upsetting the Easter Bunny. He’s the Black Hare’s best friend.” She twitched her whiskers knowingly and straightened her shoulders. “The Vampire Council of 1837 could tell you a tale that would make your blood curdle and your fangs fall out.”
Maximillian shrank back, but Verruca was not easily impressed. She snorted dismissively: “Upsetting the Easter Bunny, are you mad? We’re blood-sucking fiends; we’re not scared of anybody!”
“Oh, but you should be! I guess your parents thought you were too young to hear such a grizzly tale. Ah well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Oh look…more guests!”
Willow turned away quickly before Verruca could think of a suitable reply; new guests had arrived in the hallway. Willow craned her neck and caught a glimpse of Felicity, dressed as a witch! By the look on Darren’s face, Willow could tell he was as surprised by this latest development as she was. Felicity stood in front of the hall mirror, straightening out her long blond hair before finally adjusting her high hat, made from black felt and sheets of thin cardboard that had once held quantities of their headmaster’s favourite breakfast cereal. The wide brim partially shaded her face, so Willow couldn’t tell Felicity’s reaction to the sight of the living room table laden with some of Felicity’s favourite cakes.
Felicity was accompanied by a tall dark-haired boy, who was dressed as a warlock in purple robes. From the way she abruptly turned her back on the boy and now hovered by the mirror far longer than was necessary, Willow guessed Milo had tried to impress Felicity with the choice of his costume but Felicity did not like what she saw. She was clearly trying to avoid entering the living room on her own, as this would give Milo a fresh opportunity to talk to her. Undeterred, Milo tried to catch her attention by waving a golden wand at every new arrival entering the hall. A bunch of spring flowers shot out from the wand’s business end whenever Milo cried the words “sim sala bim”.
Darren, who was handing out glasses of lemonade to the new arrivals, could barely keep a straight face, when two of the guests, Romanticus Spitfire and Evangeline Eagleye from Dartford, responded with a heartfelt “Gesundheit” and hurried into the living room before another bout of Milo’s floral magic could block their way.
Felicity remained in the hallway, apparently admiring her witch’s costume in the medieval mirror, leaving Milo no choice but to enter the living room on his own. Willow decided to take pity on her. Now that Willow’s curtain disguise was blown, she might as well step down from her pedestal and join her party guests. She hopped down on the Turkish carpet and waved a furry pink arm at Felicity, who turned and stared open mouthed at the vampire-turned-fluffy-bunny.
“I annoyed a passing witch. A powerful enchantment, I’m afraid.” Willow explained in response to Felicity’s wide eyed wonder. Willow strolled into the hall and linked her furry arm through Felicity’s, not forgetting to express admiration for the silver threaded cross stitching on the blonde witch’s dress, before Felicity had a chance to make a cutting remark about Willow’s fluffy white tail.
Willow was starting to enjoy Felicity’s polite refusal to comment on her costume, but the sight of Milo’s purple warlock costume and Willow’s plush generosity when they reached the living room table finally got the better of Felicity. She cocked her head to one side and studied Willow’s pink fur.
“Before Daddy dropped me off outside your house, we saw Farmer Edward’s son heading this way. He was dressed as a forester with a gun to frighten the living daylights out of Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf. I seem to remember a great big knife dangling off his belt, just right for skinning bunnies. Aren’t rabbit collars terribly fashionable this winter? You might want to change into something less…uh…tempting?”
“Don’t be deceived by my pink appearance. I assure you, a blood-thirsty monster lives within this fur.” Ignoring Felicity’s snort, Willow planted her furry feet firmly in front of her and picked up a plate. “Just wait until midnight. Then the second part of the spell kicks in. Ah…I’d better have some cake before I’m tempted to eat one of my guests.”
Willow heaped enormous slices of cheese cake onto two plates and held one out to Felicity. “A magical remedy. Apparently eating cheese cake stops killer rabbits from turning really nasty. Speaking of sorcery, I see you chose your costume to match Milo’s magical theme. I bet he’s thrilled. What legendary people are you meant to be…Merlin and Melinda Hogroast? I heard they were a delightful couple.”
Before Felicity’s growl could transform into a cry of protest, a helpful Willow recalled a few more magical characters: “No wait, I’ve got it! You’re Magwitch the Mad and he’s Houdini’s sidekick whatshisname…Bertie the Hopeless, that’s the one! Or perhaps you’re the German witch famous for her terrible warts…no? Then you’re Hekate and Milo is Taliesin, the Welsh wizard with a taste for leaks and a wand full of daffodils!”
“I’m Demdike and Milo’s dressed as James Device. We’re characters from the Pendle witch trials, which you’d know if you paid attention in history class,” Felicity snapped. She snatched the plate of cheese cake and turned on her heels, darting off towards the velvet curtain and the little pedestal, where Willow had planned to hide until the party’s great surprise was ready to be sprung on her guests.
Darren and Farmer Edward’s son entered the living room; to her dismay Willow saw he really had dressed up as a fierce forest ranger. They were joined by Romanticus Spitfire and Evangeline Eagleye; the former was dressed like a knight, while the latter was regrettably also dressed as a witch. Before Darren had a chance to talk to them, both vampires drifted towards the table where the platter with barbequed fingers occupied their attention.
“Nice to see you again, Willow.” Georgie, Farmer Edward’s son, was far too polite to notice the colour rising on Willow’s cheeks matched her fur. He reached into a satchel on his back and produced a glass of home-made jam. “Mum sends you this. She said you like this stuff.”
“Strawberries! I adore them. Thank you very much.” Willow beamed at him. “Look, Georgie drew a picture of his parent’s farm for the label. Cool. I like the way you’ve caught the light on the barn and fields.”
Acknowledging Georgie’s drawing with a polite growl, Darren turned his attention to the latest newcomers’ costumes. Romanticus wore real armour that looked incredibly heavy and shiny. Evangeline’s costume consisted of a long black robe over a dark red skirt and shirt. Just like Felicity she wore a tall black hat with a wide brim. She carried a broom on her back, which she had attached to a leather strap and slung over her shoulder. A dead bat dangled from a silver necklace around her neck and she’d attached a fake wart to her chin. Darren sidled over to the table and stood next to her.
“So Willow’s rather fond of strawberries? Is that a fruit humans use to calm bunny-monsters?” Evangeline dug her bony elbow playfully into Darren’s ribs and grinned, the wart wobbling dangerously on her chin.
“Sometimes, but more often than not we use chocolate.” Darren tugged at Evangeline’s broom. “Good job you brought this. We may need it at midnight, when the second part of Willow’s spell sets in.”
“Don’t be silly, Willow’s not enchanted, she’s wearing this stupid pink outfit because she’s gone soft on humans. I have no doubt when the Vampire Council hears of this, she’ll be expelled or something. De-fanged probably. Ridiculous lie, who’s ever heard of witches casting spells in parts?”
“But that’s where you wrong; this particular witch does things quite differently. Compared to her you look positively cuddly, if you don’t mind me saying so. You should have seen her out there in the forest…it was terrifying. We were out for a stroll, when we stumbled into her lair.” Darren drew closer, his brows drawn together in an effort to remember every detail of his ordeal. “The forest witch wore robes made from squashed human skulls, her hat was made from a hundred live snakes and her boots were snarling wolves’ heads.”
Darren paused for effect. Other children began to gather around them. He noticed Romanticus hung on his every word, but detected a flicker of doubt in Evangeline’s eyes and so hurried to complete his tale. “The witch rode a black stallion, a brute of a horse with fiery nostrils and stinky breath that would stop a stampeding herd of buffalo in their tracks, but Willow mocked the witch, saying she wasn’t scary at all. To prove she wasn’t frightened, Willow offered breath mints to the witch’s horse. At this the witch got very angry and drew her wand; she yelled: Be cursed for your impudence, child! On the stroke of five o’clock you shall turn into the feeble bunny that you are at heart, but at midnight…I’ll turn you into the meanest, ugliest, most brutal creature this world has ever known.”
Romanticus eyed him nervously. “W-Wha-what’s that?”
“The Black Hare!” Willow and Darren whispered as one.
“The B-B-Black Hare?”
“His razor-sharp claws are so long, he can slice a boy in half with one swipe of his paw.” At the sound of Willow’s voice the room fell silent. “When the Black Hare doesn’t get his favourite food, he gets very angry…and he stops time! Just think…no more Easter…no more Christmas…no birthdays and no New Year’s Eve…EVER! Just you and the Black Hare for all eternity.”
“Wha-what’s his favourite food?” Felicity breathed.
“His fangs are so fearsome, they give sharks nightmares and tigers roll over like kittens at the mere sight of them.” Darren peered over his shoulders, first left, then right, before slowly turning to the curtains at the rear of the room. He raised his hand and pointed with trembling fingers to the small pedestal. “That’s the exact spot where the Black Hare will appear.”
In the hall the grandfather clock struck the eleventh hour. Evangeline and Romanticus gasped. How could this be, they’d only just arrived? Verruca and Maximilian shifted nervously in their lace collars and tiptoed away from the table to get some distance between them and the ill-fated pedestal. Milo, Felicity and Georgie, who had drawn near, repeated the terrible words to all who would listen and within moments everyone at the party knew, at the stroke of midnight the Black Hare would seal their fate!
More guests arrived. A gaggle of children dressed as witches arrived from Telegraph Hill, a favourite South East London district for vampires with an artistic streak. There were short and fat witches, tall and skinny ones, bulky, muscular witches Willow vaguely recalled from her vampire infant school days and one brown-haired teenage witch in a shabby dress whom nobody remembered at all. Ignoring the hushed whispers of her party guests Willow handed a welcoming glass of blood wine to each new arrival and wondered if Darren’s plan was really going to work.
If only she’d been able to explain about her ridiculous outfit, how she’d been so busy sorting out her mother’s birthday present and surprise party, which was to be held in January, she’d forgotten to telephone the hire shop and reserve a New Year’s Eve party costume for herself. When Willow had finally remembered, the pink bunny suit with the long ears and the white fluffy tail was the only costume the shopkeeper had left. Naturally, Willow couldn’t explain this to her guests – her mum was flitting through the room, refilling glasses, heaping more food on the platters on the table; she would most certainly catch her daughter’s words. A surprise party with all her mum’s friends! How could Willow possibly spoil that? It had taken her weeks to write all the invitations in secret!
Willow swallowed her pride and endured the mean comments every new arrival made at the sight of her silly costume. Some pulled at her ears and some took the liberty of tugging her tail. Her response to every single guest remained the same: “Just wait until midnight. That’s when the second part of the spell kicks in.”
The new arrivals would soon hear the rest of the sinister tale…and wherever Willow looked guests were huddling together, looking worried as soon as the Black Hare was mentioned.
“I think that went rather better than expected,” Darren said quietly beside her. He rubbed his hands together and chuckled. “Now for the rest of my cunning plan.”
“Except your plan didn’t involve dozens of witches turning up! How am I going to find the right one, when the lights go out?”
Darren acted surprised. “And there’s me thinking vampires have super night vision. I forgot…you’re really a fluffy bunny at heart.”
Willow rolled her eyes. “Don’t you start! I’ve been enduring comments about my cuddliness all evening. It’s enough to make my grandmother Vampira the Ferocious turn in her grave.”
Darren shuddered. “From the tone of your voice I’m guessing she’s revolving in her coffin as we speak.” He took a look around the room. “You’re right; we do suffer from an embarrassment of witches this evening. I hadn’t counted on so many people choosing the same costume.” He twirled the ends of his fake moustache thoughtfully. “Never mind, I’ll think of something. It’s time you sneaked back to your place behind the curtain.”
While Willow tiptoed into hiding behind the backs of her party guests, Darren put the second part of his plan into action. He drew the sword dangling from a broad belt around his waist and challenged the noble knight Romanticus to a duel. The sound of clashing wooden swords and the cries of the fighting boys caught everyone’s attention. The Black Hare was forgotten, and a small crowd circled the boys. The vampires cheered for Romanticus and the village children rooted for Darren to win.
Unbeknown to her friends, Willow took up position on the pedestal once more. Darren had previously arranged the curtains in such a fashion that neither the left nor the right side of the alcove in which the pedestal stood could be seen. Two large mirrors would reflect back whatever scary pictures Rita’s film projector would show on the wall behind. Willow chuckled. In the hall the grandfather clock struck the midnight hour. All lights went out. A united gasp from her guests told Willow the scene was set for her great performance. She wondered briefly how well Darren and Rita’s plan would work, since there’d been no time to try the trick before the party, but she guessed finding out was just part of the fun. Darren’s idea to put the clock forward was brilliant, Willow thought with a final snigger.
At the last stroke of the clock an eerie howl rose in the chimney and filled the house. The party guests shrieked and tried to find cover. Some crawled under the table, others climbed into the closet under the stairs. Caught in the middle of flight by a dark mass that seemed to drip from the fireplace and spread across the floor like a pool of blood, Verruca and Maximilian froze on the spot and threw their arms around each other.
“Please don’t eat us! We’re vampires and wouldn’t taste nice at all. Why not try a few of the humans, they look quite tasty?” Verruca tried to joke but the wobble in her voice gave her away.
The sinister dark thing grew in size and rose up in front of the hearth. The ghostly shadow turned into tall witch. White skulls were grinning at them from her robes; flame red hair framed a pale green face that seemed to glow in the dark. Maximilian shuddered, when her hat began to hiss and spit fiery sparks. He clung closer to his sister and hoped her broad hat would shield him from the witch’s stare.
The witch raised her arms and said in a booming voice: “I beseech you dark spirits! Bring forth the Black Hare so that he may feast on these idle children!”
Everyone screamed. Thunder and lightning followed. Ringlets of smoke began to rise from the witch’s hat, her voice still ringing in everyone’s ears. “Show yourself, oh mighty Black Hare!”
A flash of lightning illuminated Willow who, standing straight as an arrow on her pedestal, began to grow taller and taller; now she towered over her friends and her fur appeared longer, shaggier and darker. Willow raised her arms into the air and another flash of lightning revealed to her guests the unmistakable, horrible truth that long claws were sprouting from her paws.
“Blimey, Rita wasn’t kidding. That’s amazing.” Darren gasped. In his wildest dreams he hadn’t expected Willow’s friend to pull off such a fantastic magic trick! Mirrors and smoke can work wonders, Rita had said.
Judging by the screaming and shouting, he felt Willow’s party guests had probably had enough of a good thing. Darren decided to switch the lights back on, but he discovered the switch no longer worked. He flipped the switch up and down but the old fashioned chandelier dangling from the ceiling remained dark and distinctly “un-glowy”. The fireplace was the only light source in the room. Over by the curtain the Willow-monster had nearly grown to twice its size. It stepped down from the pedestal and walked with wobbly steps towards the screaming party guests.
“Make it stop!” Felicity begged and dived behind the sofa.
“I’m too young to die!” Maximillian echoed his sister Verruca’s cry.
“Don’t be silly. You’re vampires. You cannot die!” Evangeline hissed, clearly determined to show good sense. She somewhat spoiled the effect by climbing on a chair and lifting her robes to reveal two plump ankles and a hole in her socks.
“It’s the Black Hare, you fool, not a mouse!” Georgie raised his gun and aimed it at the Willow-monster, temporarily forgetting his weapon would spout nothing more life-threatening than water. “You’re not feasting on me, Black Bunny! Go back to where you came from.” He squirted water at the ghostly creature, but it simply ignored Georgie’s gun.
The Black Hare chased him around the table instead. After the second sprint around the table, a breathless Georgie reached into his satchel and produced another glass of his mother’s jam. He held it out with shaking hands. “There’s a good little bunny; you like strawberries, remember? Please don’t eat me. Take the jam!”
Grunting and growling the Black Hare ignored the jam and stumbled about the living room, upsetting chairs and knocking over the table lamp. The Willow-monster chased after her guests one by one, driving them here and there, finally cornering them in the hall. The terrified party guests tried to open the front door, but it was locked. Over the din of growling, shouts and shrieks, Darren heard the grandfather clock strike the hour. On the last stroke of one o’clock the lights came back.
Darren tried to calm everyone down. Some were crying, others were too upset to speak and simply sank onto the sofa by the hearth, where no trace of the sinister witch remained. Darren looked around – where on earth was the Black Hare?
At the far end of the room, a pink and rather dazed bunny sat on the pedestal with her face buried in her paws. Darren hurried over to her.
“Just look at it, my party is ruined! How could Rita go so far?” Willow sniffed.
“But I didn’t! This mess –“ Rita stepped out from behind the curtains and gestured around the room with her broom stick, “is not my doing!”
Willow studied her friend’s face and realised she spoke the truth. The Christmas sparklers in Rita’s hat were still smouldering but the green glitter Darren had painted on her face earlier had started to peel off. She looked just as scared as everybody else.
“Then who did this? It really looked as if you were turning into the Black Hare!”
“Darren, there’s no such thing as the Black Hare, we made him up, remember?”
Darren sank onto the pedestal next to Willow and scratched his head. “But if Rita didn’t conjure him up, then who did? There’s a whole room full of witches, anyone of them could be the culprit.
Willow stared at the assortment of witches before her and asked herself the same question. Which one of these harmless looking girls had terrified her guests and why? She studied every pointy hat and pale face in turn, but apart from ticking clueless Felicity off her list of wrong-doers Willow couldn’t think how she could possibly unmask a magical being.
At that moment Willow’s mum Alice entered the room, casually picking up a chair here and there and smoothing quite a few ruffled feathers among the guests with the promise of ice cream and pizza. Helping her clear up the mess was none other than the teenage witch with the brown hair and the shabby dress. The girl winked at Willow and Darren. Willow’s mum joined her daughter at the far end of the room.
“My New Year’s present to you, Willow. Thanks for inviting Miriam and her family to my surprise birthday party in January. They are some of my oldest friends. Miriam’s so looking forward to it…in fact, she was so excited she rang me and thanked me before she remembered it was supposed to be a secret.” Willow’s mum said quietly.
Alice ran her fingers through Willow’s brown hair. “Miriam is the finest witch in her class and I’m very fond of her. Miriam doesn’t get out much, what with her mum being ill and her twin brothers still in nappies, she has too many chores. Most people just forget about Miriam and her family, because they’re poor. But not you.”
Willow’s eyes widened. “She told you about the surprise party? And I was so careful, hiding the invitations under the stairs until they were ready to be sent and telephoning people when you were out! All my hard work wasted.” Willow frowned. “How did you find out about our magic trick tonight? Are you a mind-reader? You seem to know simply everything.”
“It’s my job to know everything, I’m your mum!” Alice said, a smile stealing across a face. “Besides, the man from the novelty shop rang and said if you didn’t reserve a costume by the 29th December, he could only give you a bunny costume that nobody else wanted to hire.”
Willow digested this news. “So…you arranged for Miriam the wonder-witch to come here tonight?”
“All part of the service. Mums-R-Us were happy to oblige.”
“But Mum…your birthday surprise is spoiled!”
Alice planted a kiss on Willow’s nose. “Don’t fret. Since I don’t know who else you’ve invited, it’s still going to be a surprise and besides, I regard this little magic trick of Darren and Rita’s as part of my birthday treat. It was very entertaining the way everybody ran for their lives.”
Willow sighed. “I wished all my party guests would see it that way, but I guess it’s a vampire thing.”
Darren grinned. “Nonsense! A little exercise is good for humans; now there’s more room for pizza and ice cream. They deserved a little scare; they were all guilty of making fun of you.” He got up and strolled over to the guests, who were each blaming the other for the mess in the living room. Darren stopped and bowed before Miriam, before introducing her to everyone, praising her for her fine magical performance that night. The young witch beamed, when a round of applause greeted her.
When Willow’s guests heard the appearance of the Black Hare had been part of the evening’s entertainment, they took it much better than expected; in fact, Verruca and Maximilian went to bed a few hours later, claiming it had been the best party they’d ever been to in their lives. As always, Felicity was the last guest to leave.
“I knew right away it was some kind of party trick,” Felicity said, when she put on her coat. Her father was already waiting in the car outside. “I mean…there’s no such thing as real witchcraft and it’s all done with mirrors and smoke.”
Willow merely grinned and handed her guest her gloves and scarf.
“Anyway, who’s ever heard of the Black Hare? It was just a ruse to stop us from making fun of your silly costume, wasn’t it, Willow Band?”
“Absolutely!” Willow said and extended one furry paw. Felicity eyed it suspiciously but shook it when it showed no sign of ferocious claws.
“Only the Easter Bunny knows the real identity of the Black Hare, but so far he’s not given it away.” Willow added with a toothy grin that showed both her fangs.
Felicity squeaked and shot through the front door with her witch’s robes billowing behind her, her wide-brimmed hat barely clinging on to her long tresses as she ran down the garden path and scrambled into her father’s car. Willow gave her a cheerful wave and turned to find Darren eating his final chocolate muffin of the day.
“You can stop making your beasty face now,” Darren said with his mouth full as he headed up the stairs. “The show’s over, Bunnikins, and I’m going to bed. Thank your mum again for letting me stay over. Maximilian had better not snore.”
“If he does, just whisper in his ear Bring forth the Black Hare so that he may feast on these idle children and I guarantee you, Maximilian will stop.”
She watched her friend climb the stairs and locked the front door, before switching off the lights in the hall. Only the dying embers of the fireplace lit her path up the stairs. Willow smiled to herself when the grandfather clock struck midnight, this time genuinely. She was looking forward to her bed and couldn’t wait to take off her silly costume. Willow reached the upstairs landing with a big yawn and stretched her tired arms above her head. At the end of the long passage her mum had left a candle burning, so Darren and the other kids sleeping over would find their way. Willow smiled. Her mum really thought of everything. Willow had just decided she’d buy her mum a big bunch of flowers to thank her for helping with the New Year’s party that day, when a loud crack startled her and she turned on her heel.
It had come from the hallway below. Willow peered over the balustrade and stared into the darkness below. Nothing!
“How silly of me, probably just the embers in the hearth,” Willow mumbled, suppressing another yawn. She turned back towards her room but what she saw rearing up in front of her froze her on the spot and made her knees shake with fear.
The Black Hare!
Shadowy and sinister it loomed to her right, its monstrous ears sticking up in the air, its gigantic paws raised as if to pounce. Willow could feel the hair on the back of her neck rising; a chill ran up and down her spine. She took a careful step back; perhaps if she retreated slowly the monster wouldn’t spot her? But the Black Hare had clearly no intention of letting her go and took a step towards her. Willow took another step back and another, now almost reaching the top of the stairs at full speed, but the Black Hare kept following her at the same pace. What should she do?
Willow peered over her shoulder and formed a daring plan. If she jumped on the banister she could slide down and reach the front door before the Black Hare had a chance to catch up with her. She’d lead it down into the garden, away from her friends and family, keeping everyone safe. After that…well, she’d often wondered what eternity would be like, so she’d probably find out tonight!
Willow cautiously swung one leg over the banister and was about to launch, when she saw the Black Hare lift one shaggy leg and copy her. Botheration!
What a fool she had been! Willow tugged her long ears and laughed. The Black Hare did exactly the same!
It was about time she went to bed, if she saw her own shadow as a threat!