NZ Forest Native Birds
 Excerpt from Albishadewe: Quest for the Unicorn

Chapter 1
The Strange Woman

Mark had hardly launched his kite when the wind dropped and it fluttered to the ground. He glared at it. The day had looked so good for kite-flying. Why did the wind have to disappear just because he decided to bring out the kite made by his older brother Adam?

He flopped down on the playing field, wondering what else he could do. It was proving a very long day. Why was it always like that when you were looking forward to something exciting that happened only at night time? It was the same at Christmas and Guy Fawkes. And tonight’s party should be especially good because it was a Halloween fancy dress one, and for the first time in his life he was allowed to stay up till midnight. What was more, it was going to be right here at his school!

     Mark shivered with excitement. Maybe he’d be on TV. The party’s organisers claimed it was the first of its type in New Zealand. New Zealanders didn’t normally make much fuss over Halloween. Surely that meant TV cameras would be there? Also, the organisers’ aim was to raise money for charity. The TV news people seemed to like that sort of thing.

     He stretched out on the grass and conjured up a vision of the wizard’s outfit his mother had made for him. Adam, who was nearly seventeen, and his girlfriend Julie had made their own and Mark hadn’t seen them yet.

     But they couldn’t be better than his, or even as good. Made from a shiny dark blue material, it glittered all over with stars and crescent moons composed of silver and gold sequins. There was also a matching belt with a silver buckle—not real silver, of course, but it looked real enough. The buckle’s raised pattern of curly leaves was what his mother called “antiqued”, which only meant the maker had blackened the metal so it looked old and dirty.

     To complete his wizardly image, his mother had made a matching tall, pointed hat. It didn’t matter that it was only cardboard covered with the shiny blue material and studded with sequins. You couldn’t tell without handling it. Once he had his Halloween mask on he looked really good in his outfit. His mother was so clever with the sewing machine! Mind you, she was clever at most things.

     Mark realised he’d fallen asleep only when a soft voice jerked him awake. “I hope her younger son is just as clever, then.”

     He opened his eyes. A woman stood over him. She wore a black, silky cloak reaching to her ankles. Her long black hair shone blue in the sunlight. At first Mark thought she was one of Julie’s older friends dressed in her Halloween costume, wanting perhaps to show off her surprisingly realistic wig. Then he realised that her back was to the sun. And yet she cast no shadow. He could partially see the sun through her as though through a mist.

     Mark leapt to his feet. Before he could run she spoke again.

     “Don’t run away—please. I won’t hurt you. I promise.”

     He stopped in mid-stride, finding himself unable to flee anyway.

     “What d’you want?” His words came out in a choking gasp. Oh, no! Why couldn’t he at least sound brave? She’d guess now that his big brother—and sometimes even his mother—fought his battles for him.

     “Only to talk to you. Please don’t be frightened.”

     How could he stop himself being frightened when he could almost see through her? At this thought, Mark gave another strangled gasp. Of course! It’s Halloween. She’s a ghost—probably from one of the old graves in the Hillsborough Cemetery. It’s not that far away—not for a ghost anyway.

     He strove to still his frantic heart. If she’d heard him thinking how clever his mother was, she could surely hear its cowardly hammering!

     “I’m not frightened.” He tried to make the words sound brave, but they came out in little more than a squeak.

     “You are,” she said, her tone accusing. For some strange reason she sounded disappointed as well. “So I won’t keep you long. I just want to know if you have a scar—or maybe a birthmark—that looks like a willow tree or a willow branch.”

     A batty ghost! That was all he needed. He shook his head. He daren’t trust his voice.

     “Show me.”

     Oh no! From what he’d read, scars and birthmarks were in places usually covered by clothes. There was no way he was going to take off his T-shirt let alone anything else.

     He shook his head again.

     She frowned. “Look, please don’t be frightened.” She looked him up and down as though assessing him. He couldn’t stop himself reddening with embarrassment. “You look strong enough, but I expected you to be a lot braver. Just show me the insides of your wrists. If you’re the one I’m looking for, that’s where the mark should be.”

     In relief Mark turned his palms to face her. She looked at the unblemished skin on his wrists with obvious disappointment, her shoulders sagging as though with exhaustion.

     “I’m sorry. But I was so sure.” She shrugged and abruptly changed the subject. “What’s your name, boy?”

     “Mark Willoughby.” His name was out before he even realised he’d spoken.

     The woman looked surprised, and then elated, as though the present of Mark’s name was something exciting. Then to Mark’s amazement she laughed—a bright, clear sound unlike the cackle of witches in storybooks. “So the mark of the willow was a riddle!” She sighed, as though in relief. “Such are the strange ways of the wise! It would appear my quest is truly ended.”

     She turned to look behind her, at the trees beyond which lay the bush reserve known as the Avondale South Domain, which led down to the shallow waters of the Manukau Harbour. She sighed again, this time not in relief.

     “When will you be coming back here? Day after tomorrow?”

     “No.” Again Mark found himself answering as though he had no choice. “I’m coming to the Halloween party tonight.”

     “Halloween?” She looked puzzled. Mark, surprised at her ignorance, was about to explain, when understanding dawned on her face. “Oh, of course! Halloween would be short for All Hallows’ Eve, the eve of All Saints’ Day or the Day of All Souls. I thought that was a religious thing. Now I see the reason for your fright. You thought I was a ghost. Well, I’m not—not the way you think, anyway. Perhaps I’ll see you at the party? I do hope so.” She stretched out a hand. “In the meantime, farewell.”

     A cold, clammy feeling rippled up and down Mark’s spine.

     Shake hands with a ghost? NO way!

     However, he couldn’t seem to help himself. His hand reached for hers. But he didn’t find out what it was like to shake hands with a ghost. He abruptly felt giddy and the school grounds started spinning around him.

     Moments later, feeling a cold breeze on his face, he opened his eyes to find himself still stretched out on the grass. The sun had vanished behind a cloud. That and the breeze made the warm early summer day seem suddenly cool. He sat up and rubbed his knuckles into his eyes.

     Wow! That dream seemed so real. I’m glad ghosts exist only in stories.

     He rose and looked around. And his heart felt as though it stopped dead.

     The woman from his dream stood at the edge of the reserve under a pine tree. Despite the distance between them, Mark could see she was facing his way.

     Warily, keeping his gaze fixed on her and ready to flee the moment she moved, he picked up his kite and started winding the string back around the metal rod Adam had used to keep the string tidy. She still didn’t move. What could possibly be her game?

     Part of Mark wanted to flee. That was what he would normally have done. But another part of him was intensely curious. He also felt a stir of anger.

     He started walking down the playing field. It seemed to take ages. He’d never realised the school grounds were so big. And still the woman didn’t move.

     It could be a trap, he warned himself. When he was close enough she might grab him and drag him into the bushes.

     Just in case, he held the ball of string with the sharper end of its metal rod pointing outwards like a weapon. The woman remained unmoving. She must have seen his action, he told himself. Why didn’t she react?

     About halfway down the field, Mark stopped. He couldn’t go any further. It was all far too terrifying. The playing field didn’t even feel like his school any more. There was something menacing about it.

     “Who are you?” he yelled. “Why are you spying on me? What d’you want?”

     She didn’t reply, didn’t even move. He stamped his foot, yelled louder. “It’s bad manners not to answer when someone asks you a question!”

     Oh no! He’d gone too far there. Kids shouting in temper at adults invariably made the adults angry too.

     Since she still didn’t react, Mark dared to go closer. He stopped when he was still far enough away to be able to run. She still didn’t move. Her eyes stared straight past him, as though looking into the distance.

     How odd! She was staring at where he’d been lying on the grass! She looked like a statue—something like those figures in that wax museum in London. Her clothes were real enough, though. He could see the breeze moving the folds of the black cloak.

     With great daring, Mark threw the ball of string at her right arm, lifted halfway to her head. It bounced off. The arm didn’t move. The eyes didn’t even blink.

     That was when it dawned on him. Of course! She was a wax figure, probably put there specially for the party. He must have seen it before without really noticing. That would account for his silly dream.

     Ashamed of his terror, Mark reeled in his ball of string, which had rolled right to the figure’s feet. Somehow he couldn’t make himself pick it up from where it had fallen. With the ball of string clutched in one hand and the kite in the other, he took to his heels.

     All the way home, and even over lunch, his brain churned with ideas of how he could scare his friends that evening as he’d been scared.

When Mark saw Adam and Julie’s costumes that evening, he was pleased to see they were nowhere near as good as his. Julie, with a long black wig covering her blonde hair, reminded him very much of the figure under the pines. The main difference was that the wig didn’t have the silky blue sheen of real hair. Adam’s costume, padded to make him look broader, was similar to Julie’s. His long black wig and beard, in which Mark could see a few silver strands, made him look like the Wizard of Christchurch, except that the real wizard (now Wizard of New Zealand) preferred more colourful robes. Neither Adam nor Julie wore masks. Their hats were both black to match their costumes.

     Very dull was Mark’s private opinion, though he had to admit Adam looked extremely dignified—and much, much older than his age.

     When they arrived at the party Mark told Adam and Julie he wanted to find his friends. Then, having made sure they were engaged in talking to their own friends, he made his way through all the colourful party-makers to the edge of the bush.

     But the figure had gone. He stared past the pine into the bush. Maybe someone had pushed it over into the reserve. The ground sloped just there. He went to the trunk of the pine and looked down. The canopy of the taller trees made it very dark. He certainly couldn’t see anything to suggest the figure was down there. And there was no way he was going inside the bush at this time of day! He turned and ran back to the party.

     He soon forgot his disappointment, for there was more than enough to make up for the figure’s disappearance. The organisers had set up a huge marquee decorated with all manner of scary things: big, hairy-looking spiders in sticky-looking webs; stuffed corpses dressed in rotting clothes and about to crawl from open tombs; papier-maché witches and wizards hanging from horizontal poles so they moved in the slightest breeze; a “body” hanging by its neck from a gibbet. Even part of the school playing fields had been made to look like an old graveyard, where one of the “corpses” was about to climb from a papier-maché tomb. Strings of coloured lights hung everywhere, their dimness only making the place eerier once it became fully dark.

     Mark could hardly believe how much his school had been transformed. It was going to be a real fun night!

     For a few hours he forgot everything except the fun and the food.

     He was about to help himself to a second piece of chocolate fudge cake when something touched his leg. He looked down, expecting to see a cat or a dog begging for food, Instead, he saw a tall, pointed black hat.

     Oh, Adam’s lost his hat, he thought, bending to pick it up. However, as soon as he touched it he knew it wasn’t Adam’s, or Julie’s either. It was too well made. Also, the fabric looked like heavy silk. It was even lined with silk. But he’d seen no one apart from Adam and Julie wearing black hats.

     Frowning puzzledly, he stood up and examined the brim and sweatband. It had no label. All the same, there was no doubt about it: this was an expensive hat. It made the one he wore—the hat he’d thought so wonderful—look like the gaudy toy it was.

     Mark had a sudden urge to try on the hat. It couldn’t do any harm. Then he’d look for its owner.

     He raised one hand to his head and took his own hat off. Then he raised the hand carrying the black hat. At the same time a sharp movement from someone wearing black drew his attention to the other end of the buffet table. He stared straight into a face that at first he thought was Adam’s, for the man had long black hair and a beard, streaked faintly with silver. But Adam didn’t have flashing black eyes. They were blue like Mark’s. And this fellow was taller than Adam. He was broader, too, even taking account of Adam’s padded costume. A huge man, in fact.

     “No! No! Don’t!” the man yelled, waving frantically at him.

     So this big bully owned the hat. Too bad, Mark mused, plonking it onto his head.

     At that moment the lights went out.

Further extract from Mark Willoughby and the Impostor-King of Lazaronia

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