I'd like to give you the chance to escape from reality and into the world of elementals and shape shifters. I've chosen this chapter because it is set on Halloween night - appropriate I thought!
A group of little witches, ghosts and vampires walked down the street on the cold crisp evening. The moon, its face clear and welcoming was already shining brightly as the stars began to appear in the black expanse of sky. Janalya turned her face away from the delights of the night glistening above her and noticed the children for the first time. The sight of them made her laugh out loud, sending a cloud of warm air into the darkness; dragon breath, she always called it. She smiled as parents hustled their children towards home, their trick or treat bags bulging with sweets and their outfits beginning to look dishevelled. Their masks dangled from the adults’ hands as the youngsters scrubbed at their eyes. The children’s protests that they weren’t tired were ignored and the streets were relinquished to the teenagers. They were noisy, and the air was filled with their laughter as they jostled each other down the road. Janalya studied their costumes. They were more elaborate than the children’s and the teenager’s faces were covered in paint or gory masks. Janalya shook her head at them; it was one thing for kids to play dress up, but surely at their age the teenagers should know better? Then she realised that there was no reason for them to think differently. She smiled wryly; the truth about magic and the people who could use it was rarely told and had been kept secret for hundreds of years. A true witch definitely wouldn’t wear a tall pointed hat and stripy tights, and as for needing a broomstick to be able to fly; well that was just laughable.
The glowing eyes of the carved pumpkin lanterns seemed to watch Janalya as she retreated from her position on the top of the hill. She pulled her cloak more tightly around her slender body, raised the hood once more to conceal her blonde hair and walked in the shadows - back towards the woods. She’d long heard the rumour that on Halloween the boundary between the human world and the spirit world became thin, allowing spirits to pass through, but she wasn’t about to hang around to act as a welcoming committee; she had more important matters to see to.
Janalya reached the cover of the trees and paused, her head turning as she listened for any giveaway sounds of movement. She was confident that nobody had followed her but she wanted to be sure. The silence was broken by the call of an owl, but she couldn’t hear anything else, so she reached in her bag for her torch. Her feet made no sound as she advanced stealthily through the wood, her eyes continually assessing everything shown up by her light. The scent of damp earth and pine needles filled her nose; then she stopped suddenly as the aroma became tinged with smoke. Janalya clicked her torch off quickly and was instantly cloaked in darkness. She gave her eyes chance to adjust. Years of wandering around at night had sharpened her vision but not enough to see further than the area immediately around her; unfortunately, the Shatara had much better night vision. She stared into the darkness, listening intently, all her senses heightened ready to take action. A breeze picked up and carried with it a stronger smell of smoke. Janalya cautiously headed in that direction, placing each foot with measured care, her ears straining to hear any sound. Stray branches threatened to latch onto the wool of her cloak. She brushed them aside, eager to discover the source of the smoky smell. Her heart began to beat faster as she caught a glimpse of orange between the trees. She moved closer, unconsciously stooped lower and stopped behind a large tree. Keeping as hidden as possible, she peered around the gnarly trunk.
In a small clearing, a coven of witches stood talking, a fire casting dancing shadows across their features. Janalya relaxed for a moment, resting her head against the tree. She had found them. She had known that they would be in the woods somewhere tonight. Janalya studied them; although the witches were all different ages, they were all dressed similarly in long sleeved blue dresses. No fancy pointed sleeves were evident, as worn by the teenagers in their costumes. The figures in front of her wore black boots and - as she had predicted - no pointy hats or stripy tights. All the women had long hair but looked ordinary; no grotesque features or warts, and certainly there was no cauldron in the clearing- those ideas had probably become popular from Shakespeare rather than reality.
Janalya moved from behind the tree as the first of the witches took off into the air. It was a sight she had watched before. It never ceased to amaze her, the way they just kicked off from the ground and rose upwards. The remaining witches doused the fire and joined the others, vanishing into the dark night sky. Janalya was pleased to see them go. She had been relieved to discover their meeting place because now she need not fear bumping into them again later in the night. She was not scared of witches; it was just easier and quicker not to get entangled with them.
As Janalya stood enjoying the silence of the woods, she was unable to stop the yawn that made her jaw crack. She’d been travelling since first light; so safe in the knowledge that the witches had departed, she decided to stop for the night. Switching on her torch again she moved away from the clearing. The beam highlighted each section of undergrowth until she found what she was searching for; a large tree trunk with a hole, partially hidden by a bush. Over the years, she had become adept at squeezing into small spaces, either in trees or rocks, fit only for children, but that was when she needed to hide. When she wanted to sleep, she liked it to be big enough for her to be comfortable. As she shone her torch inside, she saw that it was surprisingly roomy and the floor was carpeted with fresh dry needles. Janalya ducked into the hole and lay down, pulling her cloak tightly round her body but not before she had withdrawn the dagger from her boot. The confines of the trunk would restrict her movements, so she must be prepared and have access to her weapon.
With a bolt of fear and a loud gasp, Janalya woke up. The dream that had caused her such stress vanished the moment her eyes opened, although it took a few seconds for them to focus enough for her to figure out where she was. When she realised she was curled up in the hollow of the tree trunk, the hammering of her heart lessened. Janalya unclenched her fingers from the smooth handle of her dagger and wriggled them to ease their stiffness. All Janalya could smell was the damp forest floor and chilled, clean air. She put the dagger away in the strap in her boot and eased out of her overnight accommodation; avoiding the jagged peeling bark that had been invisible in the depth of night, until she was upright. She stretched, flexing each tight muscle, working her way around her whole body until she restored her suppleness. She breathed in the brisk morning air and looked around; it was peaceful.
She glanced up and saw that the sky was lighter than she’d expected. The overhanging canopy of the trees made it darker so it was later than she’d thought. There was a mist hovering above the ground that moved and swirled into the air like tendrils of a climbing plant. The sharp frost overnight had coated all the leaves and branches in white ice crystals. Janalya had moved off the pathway looking for somewhere to sleep the previous night, now she saw one small track winding its way through the trees. This must have been what she had been following. She shivered. It was cold, and a thick white cloud of dragon breath escaped as she breathed out. Cupping her hands in front of her face, she blew forcefully into them. The warm air caressed her fingers, and with practised circular movements of her hands, she managed to mould the heat into a ball and keep it there. She briefly clutched the mini heat source to her chest, and then uncurling her hands, she pushed the warm air downwards so it travelled the length of her body, bringing warmth with it until it dissipated against the ground.
Having to use her powers to warm herself reminded Janalya that she was going to have to make a decision. It was only going to get colder; if there was no sign of either danger or hope, she was going to have to settle down for the winter. Taking the woven bag off of her shoulder; somehow she’d slept with it in place, and making sure her cloak was underneath her, she sank gracefully to the floor, crossing her legs and extending her arms out in front of her.
Today there was just a cold bite that confirmed that winter was on its way, seeming to suggest that Janalya was right to seek shelter. She spent a few more minutes in quiet reflection then got to her feet, her cloak unfurling around her. She gathered up her bag. Grasping her cloak loosely at the edges, Janalya set off along the track, in the opposite direction to where she had walked yesterday, smiling whenever the sunlight penetrated the overhanging branches. Even in late autumn, the sun was strong enough to make itself felt, warming Janalya and causing patches of brightness to skip across the ground.
The last of the mist evaporated as the day warmed up. Janalya weaved her way through the trees, listening to the birds chatter as she went and grinning at the antics of the squirrels as they scurried across in front of her, leaping onto the tree trunks. Camouflaged against the bark they gripped on, and then hung there like statues, the tiniest flick of their tails the only thing to give them away. She moved quickly and quietly, except when walking through the driest of leaves; these made a satisfying crunch as she stepped on them, causing her to smile again. The trees that had discarded those leaves now stood bare, their branches twisting and stretching into arm-like features.
Janalya stumbled over a fallen branch and was startled to see familiar landmarks, like the huge pine tree and the old well, long since derelict and unused. The cottage stood on its own amongst the trees, the stonework reminded her of her childhood home. Studying it intently, various emotions fought for attention as she found herself standing outside it once more. Even though there were a few dwellings at her disposal, this was the only one that she thought of as home. Over the last few years, she’d always tried to spend the winter here; it made her feel as if she belonged somewhere. The stones were weathered with age and the roof had some moss on it, but apart from the fact that the windows were extremely dirty, they and everything else looked to be intact. She retrieved the large iron key from under a stone by the thick wooden door. Janalya had to jiggle it about in the lock before she heard the click she was waiting for. She pushed hard against the door in order to get it to move; then it creaked and groaned until the opening was big enough to slip through.
A musty smell greeted Janalya as she crossed the threshold, but she also felt a sense of welcoming, a lightness in her chest as if the cottage had embraced her. Her grey eyes darted around, although it was too dingy to be able to see properly. She rummaged for the torch and indistinct shapes, which turned out to be furniture, loomed out of the darkness as the light touched them. Janalya shone her torch at the walls; there were still some candles in their holders. She searched in her bag for her lighter. The familiar etching of the full moon with flowers cutting off one edge, like clouds flitting across its surface, never failed to comfort her. She spent a moment tracing it with her finger before she flicked the wheel. The candle flames flickered and dimmed at first but soon stood upright and began to give out some useful light. The cottage was cold with a damp feel to it and needed to be heated. Janalya knew that she would need to sweep the chimney before she risked lighting a fire. Sweeping it would take a long time, so she closed her eyes and summoned a blast of air to push any soot or debris out of the way. She repeated this with the flue on the kitchen range. Satisfied the fires could be safely lit, she found dry logs in the store out the back and set and lit the fire in the main room and the kitchen range, pleased that she would soon have hot water, as well as a warm place to stay. The fire also gave off a lot of light and Janalya saw that the cottage had been invaded whilst she’d been away - by spiders. They’d been very active. There were large dusty cobwebs in every corner and stretching between the walls; the sight of them made her shiver. She was fortunate she hadn’t walked into any yet. She disliked cobwebs - the way they clung on with their sticky threads. The only good cobwebs were outside in bushes, glistening in the rain: not wrapping around her. She shivered again and went to find a broom.
The cottage was soon clean and tidy. The sturdy wooden chairs, well worn and polished smooth with age, the overstuffed sofa, all seemed to be beckoning her to sit on them. The fire blazed and crackled, adding its own welcoming greeting. She looked round satisfied. She’d found enough food to get her a meal later and breakfast in the morning. Tomorrow she would have to go into the village to get some provisions and spend some time chopping wood for the fires. Janalya ran herself a bath, putting all her clothes in a tub to soak; another job for tomorrow. She stepped into the hot water, relishing the feel as she sank down. She submerged herself and lay for a second - cut off from her senses. With a splash her head broke the surface and after wiping her face with her hand she laid there quietly, the one candle she had lit casting a pale orange glow around the rustic bathroom.
All scrubbed and cleansed, Janalya donned another dress. It felt good to be able to wear dresses again, instead of her usual garb of combat trousers, which were undoubtedly easier to move in. After all these years, she still felt uncomfortable looking at herself in trousers. She couldn’t imagine what her mother would say if she saw how she normally dressed. She could picture the disapproving look on her face, and it made her smile, which helped to lighten the moment. The loss of her parents still made her sad.
She ate her meal in front of the roaring fire and relaxed, for the first time in who knew how long - probably since the last time she’d been here. Because this was the one place that Katsuo or the Shatara had never found out about. The yellow flames reminded her of Katsuo’s eyes, and she shut her own to banish the thought. It still caused her pain that she had walked away from him.
She swung her head round at a tapping sound against the window. She was about to get up to investigate when she saw a moth hitting the pane of glass. Janalya fell back against the cushion and listened to the wind. It began to whistle through the gap in kitchen window frame making her smile.
This excerpt is from my YA novel Janalya.