Boy 412 sat down on the sandy floor and nervously ran his hands through the sand, trying to think what to do next. He was wondering if maybe his luck had finally run out when his fingers brushed against something metallic. At first Boy 412’s spirits rose—maybe this was what he had been looking for, a hidden lock or a secret handle—but as his fingers closed around the metal object his heart sank. All he had found was a ring. Boy 412 lifted the ring, cradled it in his palm and stared at it, although in the pitch blackness he could see nothing.

“I wish I had a light,” Boy 412 muttered to himself, trying to see the ring and holding his eyes as wide as they would go, as if it might make a difference. The ring sat in his palm, and after hundreds of years lying alone in a chill dark place under the ground, it slowly warmed up in the small human hand that held it for the first time since it had been lost so long ago.

As Boy 412 sat with the ring, he began to relax. He realized that he was not afraid of the dark, that he felt quite safe, safer in fact than he had felt for years. He was miles away from his tormentors in the Young Army, and he knew that they would never be able to find him here. Boy 412 smiled and leaned back against the wall. He would find a way out, that was for sure.

Boy 412 decided to see if the ring would fit. It was far too big for any of his skinny fingers, so he slipped it onto his right index finger, the biggest finger that he had. Boy 412 turned it around and around, enjoying the feeling of warmth, even heat, which was coming from it. Very soon Boy 412 became aware of a strange sensation. The ring, which felt as if it had come alive, was tightening around his index finger; it now fitted perfectly. Not only that, but it was giving off a faint golden glow.

Boy 412 gazed at the ring in delight, seeing his find for the first time. It was like no ring he had ever seen before. Curled around his finger was a gold dragon, its tail clasped in its mouth. Its emerald-green eyes glinted at him, and Boy 412 had the strangest feeling of being looked at by the dragon itself. Excited, he stood up, holding his right hand out in front of him with his very own ring, his dragon ring, now glowing as brightly as if it were a lantern.

Boy 412 looked around him in the golden light of the ring. He realized that he was at the end of a tunnel. In front of him, sloping down even deeper into the ground, was a narrow, high-sided passageway cut neatly from the rock. Holding his hand high above his head, Boy 412 stared upward into the blackness through which he had fallen, but could see no way of climbing back up. He reluctantly decided that the only thing he could do was follow the tunnel and hope it would lead him to another way out.

And so, holding out the ring, Boy 412 set off. The tunnel’s sandy floor followed a steady downward slope. It twisted and turned this way and that, leading him into dead ends and at times taking him around in circles, until Boy 412 lost all sense of direction and became almost dizzy with confusion. It was as if the person who had built the tunnel was deliberately trying to confuse him. And succeeding.

And that, reckoned Boy 412, was why he fell down the steps.

At the foot of the steps Boy 412 caught his breath. He was all right, he told himself. He hadn’t fallen far. But something was missing—his ring was gone. For the first time since he had been in the tunnel, Boy 412 felt scared. The ring had not only given him light; it had kept him company. It had also, Boy 412 realized as he shivered in the chill, made him feel warm. He looked about him, eyes wide open in the pitch blackness, desperately looking for that faint golden glow.

He could see nothing but black. Nothing. Boy 412 felt desolate. As desolate as he had felt when his best friend, Boy 409, had fallen overboard in a night raid and they had not been allowed to stop to pick him up. Boy 412 put his head in his hands. He felt like giving up.

And then he heard the singing.

A soft, thin, beautiful sound drifted over to him, calling him toward it. On his hands and knees, because he did not want to fall down any more steps just then, Boy 412 inched his way toward the sound, feeling along the cold marble floor as he did so. Steadily, he crawled toward it and the singing became softer and less urgent, until it became strangely muffled, and Boy 412 realized he had his hand over the ring.

He had found it. Or rather, the ring had found him. Grinning happily, Boy 412 slipped the dragon ring back onto his finger, and the darkness around him faded away.

It was easy after that. The ring guided Boy 412 along the tunnel, which had opened out to become wide and straight and now had white marble walls richly decorated with hundreds of simple pictures in bright blues, yellow and reds. But Boy 412 paid little attention to the pictures. By now all he really wanted to do was find his way out. And so he kept going until he found what he was hoping to find, a flight of steps that at last led upward. With a feeling of relief, Boy 412 climbed the steps and found himself walking up a steep sandy slope that soon came to a dead end.

At last, in the light of the ring, Boy 412 saw his exit. An old ladder was propped up against a wall and above it was a wooden trapdoor. Boy 412 climbed the ladder, reached over and gave the trapdoor a push. To his relief it moved. He pushed a little harder, the trapdoor opened and Boy 412 peered out. It was still dark but a change in the air told Boy 412 that he was now aboveground, and as he waited, trying to get his bearings, he noticed a narrow strip of light along the floor. Boy 412 breathed a sigh of relief. He knew where he was. He was in Aunt Zelda’s Unstable Potions and Partikular Poisons cupboard. Silently Boy 412 pulled himself up through the trapdoor, closed it and replaced the rug that covered it. Then he gingerly opened the cupboard door and peered out to see if anyone was around.

In the kitchen Aunt Zelda was making up a new potion. As Boy 412 crept past the door she glanced up, but, seemingly preoccupied by her work, she said nothing. Boy 412 slipped by and headed for the fireside. Suddenly Boy 412 felt very tired. He took off the dragon ring and tucked it safely into the pocket he had discovered inside his red hat, then he lay himself down next to Bert on the rug in front of the fire and fell fast asleep.

He was so deeply asleep that he didn’t hear Marcia come downstairs and Command Aunt Zelda’s tallest and most wobbly pile of Magyk books to lift themselves up. He certainly didn’t hear the soft swish of a large and very ancient book, The Undoing of the Darkenesse, pulling itself out from the bottom of the swaying pile and flying over to the most comfortable chair by the fire. Nor did he hear the rustle of its pages as the book obediently opened and found the exact page that Marcia wanted to see.

Boy 412 didn’t even hear Marcia squeal as, on her way to the chair, she nearly trod on him, stepped back and trod on Bert instead. But, deep in his sleep, Boy 412 had a strange dream about a flock of angry ducks and cats who chased him out of a tunnel and then carried him into the sky and taught him how to fly.

Far away in his dream, Boy 412 smiled. He was free.

21

RATTUS RATTUS

How did you get back so fast?” Jenna asked Boy 412.

It had taken Nicko and Jenna all afternoon to find their way back through the haar to the cottage. While Nicko had spent the time they were lost deciding which were his top-ten best boats and then, as he became hungrier, imagining what his all-time favorite supper would be, Jenna had spent most of the time worrying about what had happened to Boy 412 and deciding she was going to be much nicer to him from now on. That was if he hadn’t already fallen into the Mott and drowned.

So when Jenna at last got back to the cottage cold and wet, with the haar still clinging to her clothes, and found Boy 412 sitting perkily on the sofa next to Aunt Zelda, looking almost pleased with himself, she did not feel quite as irritated as Nicko did. Nicko just grunted and went off to soak himself in the hot spring. Jenna let Aunt Zelda rub her hair dry for her, and then she sat down next to Boy 412 and asked him her question, “How did you get back so fast?”

Boy 412 looked at her sheepishly but said nothing. Jenna tried again.

“I was scared you had fallen in the Mott.”

Boy 412 looked a little surprised at this. He didn’t expect the Princess-girl to care whether he had fallen into the Mott, or even down a hole for that matter.

“I’m glad you got back safely,” Jenna persisted. “It took me and Nicko ages. We kept getting lost.”

Boy 412 smiled. He almost wanted to tell Jenna about what had happened to him and show her his ring, but years of having to keep things to himself had taught him to be careful. The only person he had ever shared secrets with had been Boy 409, and although there was something nice about Jenna that did remind him of Boy 409, she was a Princess, and even worse, a girl. So he said nothing.

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