Xandra Hobson has always been fascinated by magic. So when she rescues a beautiful wounded bird, she is convinced that the glowing white feather it leaves behind must be magical. When she brings the feather to school, she is surprised to find that Belinda is interested in it, too. Belinda is a weird girl whom everybody makes fun of. Xandra doesn’t want to be seen with her, but Belinda seems to know something about the feather—so Xandra decides to befriend her. Belinda calls the feather a key.
But a key to what? And how does it work? When Xandra tries to use the key, she becomes aware of an unseen world, full of phantoms. Some are soft and cuddly, like the young animals she has rescued. But others are terrifying monsters. Could the key’s magic be evil? Xandra needs Belinda to help her explore the unseen, but she also needs to learn to help herself if the key is to become a gift and not a nightmare.
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Three-time Newbery Honor Award winner Zilpha Keatley Snyder lives in Mill Valley, CA.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
It all began on a cold day in early autumn when a girl named Alexandra Hobson was playing a dangerous game in a forbidden forest. The game, about an enchanted creature, half human and half animal, had been inspired by the fact that Alexandra, or Xandra, as she preferred to be called, believed herself to be enchanted in some deeply secret and very private way. In a way that ordinary human beings could never understand or appreciate. Particularly not the humans who happened to be members of her own family and who, in spite of what most people thought, were all hopelessly ordinary.
As for the forbidden forest? The forest was real enough, acres and acres of undeveloped timberland that started right behind the Hobsons' property and stretched out toward the mountains. And the forbidden part was real too. Forbidden by people who insisted that a forest wasn't a safe place for a twelve-year-old girl to spend so much time, at least not all by herself.
And so it happened that on that particular cloudy afternoon nobody knew where Xandra was or what she was doing. Not that any of her siblings would have cared to know, except so that they could tell and cause trouble. In the Hobson household causing trouble for Xandra had always been a favorite pastime.
She hadn't meant to go very far that day, but she'd gotten caught up in the game about being an enchanted woodland creature, and one thing and one forest pathway led to another. She'd skirted the edge of the marsh, crossed Cascade Creek by jumping from one rock to another, and kept going on, deeper into the forest.
This time the game concerned a unicorn, a magical creature that could be seen only by royal princesses or enchanted people. She was closing in on the unicorn, imagining fleeting glimpses of its slender legs and glowing golden horn, when she suddenly arrived at a place she had never been before. She had come out of dense forest into a small circular clearing carpeted with a thick layer of vines and ferns and surrounded by tall overhanging trees. She was turning in a circle, admiring the peaceful beauty of the small meadowlike area, when she was startled by a sudden sound.
She'd heard what? Gunfire? Yes. Definitely gunfire. Two shots in rapid succession. Frozen by surprise, Xandra was standing motionless when she became aware of a snapping, crackling sound in the branches over her head. She jumped back, throwing up her arms to protect her face, and when she took them down, there it was, only a few feet away.
Lying on a mound in the center of the vine-covered clearing, very close to Xandra's feet, was a large white bird. As she stared in shocked surprise, it fluttered weakly and then lay still. At first she was too horrified and angry to be frightened or even to remember why she ought to be, completely blocking out all the times she'd been warned about what might happen to her if she went into the woods alone, particularly during hunting season.
It was a big bird, its body larger than a pigeon's, but completely, purely white. Its wings, fanned out on the gray earth, gleamed like sunlit snow--except where an ugly smear of red ran along the edge of the right wing and trickled down onto the grass. Muttering, "How could they? How could anyone shoot something so beautiful?" Xandra dropped to her knees, but as she stretched out her arms the bird began to move. Lifting a sleek, tear-shaped head, it opened its long golden beak and gave a mournful cry. "Oh," Xandra gasped, "you're alive."
The wounded bird raised its head on its long curved neck and looked at her. Looked long and carefully, turning slowly to examine her with one glittering, jewel-like eye and then the other. Then it crooned again and began to try to pull its long slender legs under its body. It was still struggling to get to its feet when Xandra became aware of a series of terrifying sounds: shouting voices, crashing underbrush, and then trampling feet and the barking of a dog.
They were coming. The hunters were coming to get their prey. To crush it into a bag full of dead game, or to hang it from someone's belt by its long delicate legs. Scooping the white bird up into her arms, Xandra turned and ran.
At first she ran directly toward home, but then, remembering something she'd read about how to escape bloodhounds, she headed for the creek. She stopped only for a moment at the rocky bank, then jumped out into the water and began to wade, working her way upstream.
The streambed was paved with slippery, moss-covered rocks, and the cold water quickly saturated her shoes. The depth of the water varied as she moved forward. Sometimes it was only a few inches deep, but now and again it flowed well above her knees, soaking the hem of her skirt. The howling of the hound grew louder and as she slipped and stumbled forward, she wondered frantically if it was really true that a hunting hound would lose the scent if its prey ran through flowing water. Or was she freezing her legs and ruining her new shoes for nothing?
The dog's howls grew louder and closer, and now Xandra could hear the voices of the hunters--hoarse, threatening voices, calling to each other and to the hound. Shaking, almost choking with fear, she stumbled on, slipping and sliding, now and then falling to her knees. With the motionless bird still cradled in both of her arms, she had to struggle clumsily to get back onto her feet. She was cold and soggy, her knees were skinned and bruised and her plaid skirt was wet almost to her waist before she became aware that the sounds of pursuit had begun to fade.
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