The Crooked Mask by Rachel Burge



1


MORE THAN JUST STORIES

A

t first there are only fir trees and then the circus appears: dripping with snow and glistening in the half-light, as strange and beautiful as a newborn fairy tale. I push away a wet spruce branch and step into the clearing. The black-and-gold striped big top thrusts its way into the sky, grazing the dark clouds above and dwarfing the smaller tents that surround it. At its pinnacle a tiny black flag whips and snaps on the wind.

I check my phone and my stomach tightens with anxiety – still no message from Mum – then I trudge towards the site entrance. The archway stands alone in a field of snow, no railings or fence to either side of it, arbitrary and incongruous like a portal to another world. Carved across the top are the words ‘Circus of Myth & Mayhem’ in letters a metre high, the black-and-gold paint flecked and peeling as if ravaged by countless winters. A grey-chested raven swoops onto the sign, landing heavily, and my breath catches as it winks its beady eye then flaps away with a caw.

When I step beneath the wooden arch I see that the walls are etched with hundreds of runes. Running my hands over them, I walk through and take a lungful of air that is thick with silence and wood smoke. Just passing through an entrance has no real significance, I know, yet somehow it feels different on this side: the wind crueller and the sky darker.

A planked walkway leads into the site. Outside the first tent is a board announcing ‘Tickets – Billetter’ in flowing gold letters. The cold bites at my cheeks as I make my way towards it and look inside. No one: just a table, a cash register and an empty chair. All around me tents billow and groan in the breeze. Tethered by dozens of ropes, the big top looks like a hot-air balloon straining to take flight. Apart from the wind and the occasional thwump of sliding snow, the world is eerily silent. The taxi driver warned me the performance had finished for today, but there must be someone here.

I walk along the path and the back of my neck prickles, telling me I’m being watched. A figure is standing in the distance – a girl. I duck down the side of a tent and hurry towards her, about to call out, when a shiver runs down my spine. It’s her. Nina. She has short dark hair and wears a white shift dress, her legs bare. I stand frozen to the spot while she looks at me, her eyes two inky pools of black, her face devoid of emotion.

A familiar knot of anger twists inside me. After everything Mum and I have been through, we deserve to be left in peace. We should be making a new life together on the island, helping each other come to terms with our magical heritage and mending our relationship. We should be watering the tree and making sure the dead never escape again. Instead I’m here – and all because of Stig’s ex. I only spent a few days with him, so why is she haunt-ing me, a girl I’ve never even met? Clenching my fists, I fight the urge to yell, ‘What do you want?’ but I know she wouldn’t answer me, she never does. Suddenly she’s gone and I’m left staring into space, my breath the only ghost on the air.

A slow, steady drumbeat makes me turn my head. Faint at first and then louder, coming from inside the big top. I climb over a frayed rope and reach for the canvas door, when a deep voice sounds behind me.

‘Vi er stengt til i morgen.’

A man on stilts towers over me, wearing a white top hat and a tailcoat. A band of blue is painted across his nose like a mask, making his eyes and pale eyelashes appear even more startling. Tiny crystals dot his eyebrows and twinkle in his pointed beard and long blond hair.

The man takes several steps one way and then the other, moving all the time, and my neck aches to look up at him. He blinks at me in surprise, no doubt taking in my weird-looking eye and the scar on my cheek. For a brief moment I want to turn and hide my face, but I’ve promised myself I won’t do that any more. Holding his gaze, I snap my mouth shut and try to remember the Norwegian I’ve learned recently, but the words have gone from my mind, like someone took a drawer and emptied it out.

He leans down and smiles. ‘The circus is closed until tomorrow.’

I consider taking my dictionary from my rucksack, but then manage, ‘Snakker du engelsk?’

The man laughs. ‘Of course.’

My cheeks burn. ‘Sorry, yes, you just spoke it.’ I bite my lip, realising how stupid I must sound. ‘I’m looking for someone. Well, not looking for them. I’m hoping to find someone who knew them.’

The frost giant waits patiently, a bemused look on his face. He glances at my left eye, the one that’s blind, and then back to the other.