An Embarrassment of Witches

Willow pic twoI promised the real Willow, the little girl who is the inspiration for my Willow the Vampire stories, her very own New Year’s story, so here it is and hopefully you’ll enjoy reading it!

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.

“Children!”

“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!

heks_in_maan witch flying against moonGood night and Happy New Year to Everyone!

The End

 

The Masked Intruder

Having decided that Willow the Vampires animal transformation number one is going to be Moly the Mole, I’ve now determined animal transformation number two will be the raccoon.

Raccoon (Procyon lotor) 3

Raccoon (Procyon lotor) 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ein Waschbär am frühen Morgen auf dem Dach ein...

Ein Waschbär am frühen Morgen auf dem Dach eines Wohnhauses. (English: A raccoon in the early morning on the roof of an apartment house.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may not be a native to the UK, but there are many of these masked intruders out there in the wild – to the despair of birdwatchers and other native wildlife conservationists. Raccoons raid not just our bins, they have also discovered the delights of raiding our bird tables. As the perfectly equipped scavenger, raccoons in Stinkforthshire will have no trouble making a living and are therefore perfect for Willow to magically transform into.

Raccoons in a tree.

Raccoons in a tree. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t be too hasty in your judgment, dear jury –  as usual it’s the fault of human villains, who thoughtlessly bought raccoon kittens and dumped them the very moment the animals had reached maturity – no longer cute, cuddly and playful, adult raccoons can be quite aggressive and difficult to keep.

Their native homelands are really in North and Central America, but when in 2007 UK laws changed with regard to the keeping of unusual pets like raccoons, lots of foolish people thought, why not keep one  – without ever making sure they knew enough about the proper keeping of such creatures.

The raccoon family consists of 19 rather different looking species, to which our little bushy-tailed bandit also belongs. The Procyonidae, as they are formally known, include coatis from South America, kinkajous, ringtails and olingos.

All of them are omnivores and they share the feature of very dexterous forepaws and almost human like digits. Raccoons are masters at raiding whatever happens across their way, using their paws to unpeel food scraps from paper wrappings for example. In the wild raccoons will eat whatever is available, from insects and small vertebrates to worms, fruit, nuts or seeds. They love to hunt for aquatic prey such as snails, crustaceans and small fish.

Deutsch: Beschreibung: Nordamerikanische Wasch...

Deutsch: Beschreibung: Nordamerikanische Waschbär (Procyon lotor). English: Raccoon (Procyon lotor). Français : Raton laveur (Appellé Racoon en Guadeloupe) (Procyon lotor). Author: Darkone, 5. August 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Male raccoons might travel alone or as part of a group, while females will live as small groups of up to four individuals. Like all Procyonidae raccoons are very vocal, with barking, squeaking, snarling and hissing. They love to sleep in large communal dens.

Throughout the Willow the Vampire series I want my vampire heroine to experience what it’s like to live in different environments – underground like a mole, foraging in our dustbins and gardens like a raccoon or flying like a bat and hunting for insects with the help of sonar. She will experience the joys of homebuilding as a badger, curse the discomfort of being a water vole when your home gets flooded and will no doubt enjoy a day out as a vain Wildcat on the prowl.

As the series continues, it will become clear, why Willow the Vampire is getting to know animals on such intimate terms – but there won’t be any spoilers from me…you’ll just have to be patient and read for yourself!

If you could keep an unusual pet without the animal suffering in any way from being kept as a pet, what would that animal be?

Prickly like a Writer?

One of my favourite animals is the European hedgehog. Although there are as yet no hedgehogs in my Willow the Vampire stories, I’m determined to include one or two in future plots. Why?

A hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)

A hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well firstly, because they’re cute and seem just the type of animal a child-vampire like Willow would enjoy observing in her garden. Secondly, because this particular writer has a lot in common with hedgehogs – not in looks, you understand, although most people who’ve met me in the flesh would say that 3,000 bristles sounds about right!

Hedgehogs are nocturnal insectivores, a group of mammals that includes shrews, voles and moles. These spiky little wonders are frequent guests to our suburban gardens, munching their way through worms, slugs, bugs and young birds that have fallen out of the nest.

Nearly all insectivores walk with a plantigrade gait on account of their flat-footedness, keeping their entire soles, heels and toes on the ground when they stroll through our hedgerows, vegetables patches or through wood- and grassland in the wild. They tend to be shy and secretive, and when they feel threatened they roll up into a spiked ball, displaying all of their 3,000 bristles to full effect. Razor sharp, these bristles are meant to protect them from inquisitive predators like foxes…I don’t know about the hedgehog, but it usually works for me.

Their Latin family name is Erinaceidae and their spread covers Europe, Asia and Africa, where desert hedgehogs live in burrows, keeping out of the heat during the day and coming out at night to hunt.

Just like me after my chemo therapy, hedgehogs have poor eyesight, but good hearing, by which they locate their prey (in my case that happens to be ladies behind the counters of bakery shops praising the yumminess of their Danish pastries and muffins).

During winter the European hedgehog, having spent the rest of the year in gaining a layer of fat (just like me), goes into hibernation. The animal makes a cosy nest from twigs, grass and dried leaves, before having a last feeding frenzy and finally settling down for a very long sleep. If this sounds an all too familiar pattern of behaviour, you’re probably a fellow writer…

Although I’m not nocturnal, having my best writing times very early in the morning, I’ve met many writers who say they prefer to write late at night, when it’s quiet and there are fewer distractions around. Just like the European hedgehog though, I feel the need to curl up into a bristly ball, when somebody addresses me as “oh, YOU’RE the writer lady”…which happens more often than I’d like.

I don’t know what it is about writers…there seem to be only two categories around…those who are outgoing to the point of being pretentious and utterly irritating and those who don’t like to talk about how they put words onto a page and get the stories out of their heads.

Some writers will whip out their latest opus at the drop of a hat and ask, if they should sign their book for you…no matter how inappropriate the situation. They don’t even wait to ask if their book might be something you’d like to read…they just assume THEY WRITE ergo YOU must be a fan.

Hedgehog

Hedgehog (Photo credit: Kimu_tae)

Other writers, and this is the category I belong to, feel there should be time off for good behaviour. I mean…I write for a living…I get commissioned to write things all day long…when I go out, I want to be somebody else…instead of a hedgehog, I wouldn’t say NO to being an engaging Large-eared tenrec for a change or perhaps a Ruwenzori otter shrew with webbed feet…or better still, an Elegant water shrew with a gorgeous black coat and white tummy.

If I were an electrician, carpenter or window cleaner, would people still want to know in excruciating detail how I go about my daily business?

A little Flight of Fancy

Part of the birds of prey display

Image via Wikipedia

As a small child Iwas haunted by recurring nightmares in which a bunch of monsters would chase me endlessly. Fortunately, every time they caught up with me, I was able to sprout a pair of wings and fly away just at the critical moment.

My recent question “what creature of the night would you like to be” prompted one reader to mention hawks – and as they are also one of my favourites, here are a few facts about hawks in particular and birds of prey in general.

Collectively they are known as raptors. That’s a term many people became more familiar with, when Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was released in 1993, since raptors of a different kind feature rather prominently in the film. There are no raptors or birds of prey in Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove, but future books in the series are likely to have these wonderful animals in them.

Bram Stoker’s vampire Dracula (published 1897) might have turned himself into a blood-sucking bat to harass Lucy, Mina & Co, but raptors are creatures “who seize and carry away” (the Latin word raptor means just that). They don’t generally hang around outside our windows, waiting for the perfect opportunity to nip us in the neck!

Hawks, like all raptors, have hooked bills, so they can tear their prey’s flesh from the bone. They also have powerful feet with talons to grab their prey and hold on to it. Their large eyes are perfect for spotting prey in daylight and at dawn. Raptors are also famous for their spectacular aeronautical skills; they are superb acrobats of the skies.

Each hawk family seems to have different ways of hunting. Sparrow hawks and goshawks like hunting by stealth: sitting high up on their perch – a branch in a tall oak for example – they will watch their victim for a while, before seemingly appearing out of nowhere to carry out their ambush. Harris hawks like to hunt in pairs or even as a small group. A female Harris hawk with a nest with chicks to feed with often team up with a group of male hawks to go hunting at dawn.

While some of the group flush out the prey – rabbits, rats or other rodents – the other hawks will cut off the victim’s escape route and intercept them. The team will share the spoils afterwards, so everybody gets fed.

Hawks kill their prey with their exceptionally strong grip, squeezing the life out of them. The African harrier-hawk has incredibly flexible legs for example that can bend at extreme angles, allowing the bird to grope around inside tree hollows for small mammals or nesting birds hiding inside.

In popular fiction hawks and eagles often appear as magical beings, which side with either good or bad. In J. R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings hawks are spying for the evil antagonist Sauron, while eagles ally themselves with the good hobbits and wizard Gandalf.

The Bird of Prey

The Bird of Prey (Photo credit: CJ's)

In the film version of comic book hero Flash Gordon’s adventures (Flash Gordon, 1980, directed by Mike Hodges), cruel Ming the Merciless is eventually overcome by Flash Gordon receiving help from Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) and his Hawkmen. These Hawkmen are not entirely reliable and trustworthy though. Prince Vultan initially betrays Flash Gordon, but later comes to his aid, when the Hawkmen’s kingdom on Sky City is destroyed by Ming the Merciless.

It seems to me our relationship with hawks is ambivalent. Throughout the centuries mankind has trained hawks and other raptors for hunting. Pampered and prized from before the Middle Ages to our present day, such hunting birds live a life of captivity, while their cousins in the wild delight us with their amazing aerial displays. Perhaps we have always been too envious of their ability to master the skies to allow them their unfettered freedom?

I’m still in two minds what type of raptor will feature in Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts; having already assigned a certain task to owls, I find there should be a bird antagonist, too.

If you had to write a short story containing a raptor, what species would it be?

What Creature of the Night would You want to be?

While I was writing Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove, I kept thinking how writers through the ages have been fascinated with the transformation of humans into some form of animal – from werewolves in horror and gothic stories to bats and wolves in vampire fiction, from geese, fish, hawks and other critters in T H White’s The Once and Future King (published 1958, written between 1938 and 1941) to the big black dog and rat in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books, where wizards can change their appearance.

So what creature of the night would I be, if a Merlin-type magician came along and granted me that wish? Hm…probably a cat…not because I’m so vain that I regard myself as sleek, elegant and graceful enough to fill the paws of such an animal, that’s for sure!

If anything, I’m rather the opposite of everything cats stand for…plump, middle-aged and probably a little scruffy, given that I’m a full time writer with little time to spare for dressing up or money in the bank to stay on top of the latest fashions.

No, it would be because cats lead such interesting lives. Cat owners who have fitted miniature cameras to their cats’ collars have been amazed how large a territory our kitties patrol during their nocturnal ramblings. Forever curious about the world, cats investigate everything in their path and never get bored. Every day is exciting.

Domestic cats that have gone feral can have huge hunting territories of a 25 km radius or more. They hunt rabbits as big as themselves and far from living a lonely hunter’s life often team up with other feral cats and live in a “pride” like lions.

Any cat owner who’s ever tried to outstare their cat will know that it is impossible. What are these enigmatic beasties thinking about? Do they dream? Have they formed their own philosophy about life, the world and us?

Since ancient Egyptians first domesticated cats in their grain stores and temples, the cat has been our reluctant companion. Becoming a feline for just one night might explain to me why my own cat loved to sit on my keyboard the very moment I settled down to do some work or why she couldn’t find a better place to sharpen her claws on than the folder with my latest work, or my leg, my chair or writing desk. Was she trying to tell me she didn’t like my writing or was this just a little teasing to get my attention?

If you bumped into Merlin or a fairy godmother with a wish to grant, what creature of the night would you like to be?

What’s eating little Red Riding Hood?

Gray Wolf I

Following on from my last blog, I’ve been thinking about my childhood reading experience, when coming across Little Red Riding Hood for the first time. Frankly, ever since I read the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale about some thick-headed girl who cannot tell her grandmother from a fully grown, hungry wolf I have been pleading for the wolf and all its canine kind.

I recall that my initial reactions were outrage and disgust: why should the poor beastie suffer such a fate? Anyone as stupid as little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother deserves to be eaten, surely?

Over the centuries wolves have gotten an exceedingly bad press for no good reason. Shy and secretive, wolves are the original canines who came to live with man – to keep our ancestors company, help them hunt, assist with shepherding live stock and be generally man’s most loyal friend.

How did we repay this splendid species? We hunted them to extinction in most parts of Europe and are still cheerfully killing them in the USA and elsewhere in the world…for their skins, for their eerie howls, for their fairy tale bad press. The Ethiopian wolf has only some 500 remaining specimen living in the wild – they are among the most critically endangered animals on the planet, as are Red Wolves, where only some 200 individuals are still surviving in the wild today.

Wolves and other canines have been around for hundreds of thousands of years – but since we began to take them into our homes some 14,000 years ago, we’ve done pretty much all we can to destroy them in every way we can – from hunting them for their fur to domesticating them and turning them into overbred, often crippled and in permanent pain lapdogs with hideous shapes that no longer allow them to breed unaided, breath or walk without difficulties (go to Crufts and meet any terrier, German Shepherd or British bulldog for example).

Wolves are intelligent and beautiful animals. My fascination with them prompted me to make them a part of Willow the Vampire & the Sacred Grove. My ancient vampires can turn into all sorts of creatures of the night, including wolves. I’m intrigued by the way wolves communicate with each other through body language and long distance “phone calls”, i.e. howling.

Gray Wolf, Canis lupus

Gray Wolf, Canis lupus (Photo credit: ArranET)

I’m moved by the fact that wolves and their kin form a lifelong monogamous relationship with their partners and that both parents are actively involved in bringing up their cubs.

May their howls echo through the forests long after the despicable species “mankind” has been wiped from the face of the Earth!

Who’s afraid of Fairy Tale Forests?

Forest lake in summer

Although strictly speaking, they are not a “creature of the night”, forests scare me…perhaps because traditionally they are the natural habitat of creepy, crawling, scary things?

Growing up in Northern Germany, one is rather blessed with an abundance of forests, mysterious lakes and rivers. Am I freaked out by forests because trees are sinister ancient beings, whispering behind my back, as I’m trying very hard not to be eaten by wolves?

Erm…no…they’ve all been slaughtered by mankind, so nothing scary left in that canine quarter. What about bears? Nope, they went the same hearth-rug way as the wolves. Perhaps it’s the wild boars that still roam the Northern German forests? Nope, they are quite shy creatures and usually run away.

So why am I scared? I blame it on literature. Forests in books are often depicted as quite anti-human. Think of the forest in Harry Potter, where gigantic spiders have made their home or the way Tolkien uses trees and the forest to actually go into battle in The Lord of the Rings.

There’s also Little Red Riding Hood herself…not to mention Hänsel and Gretl, whose plight terrified me as a child – and in Germany children get to read the Brothers Grimm stories as originally intended – for an adult audience – not the watered down Victorian translations published in the English language versions of the famous fairy tale collection. Witches are burnt in ovens, children get eaten and nasty stepmothers have to dance with hot irons strapped to their feet until they die…the original Brothers Grimm stories don’t show a lot of mercy to culprits, I’m afraid.

Stamp description / Briefmarkenbeschreibung De...

Image via Wikipedia

Trees…every one of them offering a huge living space for all manner of animals, from birds, mice, bugs, slugs, worms, spiders and other insects to mischievous spirits, dwarfs (Zwerge) and fairies. Trees should be viewed as friendly, life-giving beings. Their wood can be burned to keep us warm and safe. Yet, literature rarely seems to view them that way.

Getting lost in a forest – let’s face it, who hasn’t left the trail for a clandestine pee behind a tree – is an unpleasant experience. As soon as it gets dark on a winter’s afternoon, forests turn into something unutterably hostile…a veiled threat behind every pine branch, danger lurking behind every oak and underneath every upturned elm root…the primeval fear humans have of the unknown?

Vampires are rarely seen in forests – even Willow the Vampire is suspicious of the Sacred Grove and its magical properties. Forests are not exactly a good hunting ground either – there are far too few humans in them nowadays. Modern vampires like to hang out with the young, bright and beautiful things in cities…there are easy pickings among inebriated teenagers…

TV shows like True Blood are rather unusual in that they depict vampires living everywhere, including rural areas, where the loss of victim after human victim would soon flush out the supernatural being and earn them a stake through the heart for their trouble. Not that the vampire genre is based on logic, you understand.

When I started out writing Willow stories, I wanted them to take place in a rural setting. Small villages in the middle of nowhere are scary places, too, no matter how picturesque they might appear to the visiting tourist. Just like trees they sustain a multitude of life, but make no mistake, there’s real danger lurking in Stinkforth-upon-Avon’s community!

Are trees so ancient, they can no longer comprehend the feelings and thought processes of lesser “mortals”, even vampires, who can “live” their afterlife for centuries? Are small village societies so cut off from the rest of society that they make their own rules? I grew up in one, perhaps that’s why I chose a small village as the scariest of settings I could think of.