“And did it fit you?”
“No. Well, not at first. And then it did. It got smaller.”
“Ah. I don’t suppose it sang you a song, did it?”
Boy 412 had been staring intently at his feet up until then. But he glanced up at Marcia and caught a smile in her eyes. Was she making fun of him?
“Yes. As it happens, it did.”
Marcia was thinking. She said nothing for so long that Boy 412 felt he had to speak.
“Are you cross with me?”
“Why should I be cross with you?” she replied.
“Because I took the ring. It belongs to the dragon, doesn’t it?”
“No, it belongs to the Dragon Master.” Marcia smiled.
Boy 412 was worried now. Who was the Dragon Master? Would he be angry? Was he very big? What would he do to him when he found out he had his ring?
“Could you…” he asked hesitantly, “could you give it back to the Dragon Master? And tell him I’m sorry I took it?” He pushed the ring back across the desk toward Marcia.
“Very well,” she said solemnly, picking the ring up. “I’ll give it back to the Dragon Master.”
Boy 412 sighed. He had loved the ring, and just being close to it had made him feel happy, but he wasn’t surprised to hear that it belonged to someone else. It was too beautiful for him.
Marcia looked at the Dragon Ring for a few moments. Then she held it out to Boy 412.
“Here”—she smiled—“is your ring.”
Boy 412 stared at her, uncomprehending.
“You are the Dragon Master,” said Marcia. “It is your ring. Oh, yes, and the person who took it says to tell you he’s sorry.”
Boy 412 was speechless. He stared at the ring lying in his hand. It was his.
“You are the Dragon Master,” repeated Marcia, “because the ring chose you. It doesn’t sing for just anyone, you know. And it was your finger it chose to fit, not mine.”
“Why?” breathed Boy 412. “Why me?”
“You have astonishing Magykal power. I told you before. Maybe now you’ll believe me.” She smiled.
“I—I thought the power came from the ring.”
“No. It comes from you. Don’t forget, the Dragon Boat recognized you even without the ring. She knew. Remember, it was last worn by Hotep-Ra, the first ExtraOrdinary Wizard. It’s been waiting a long time to find someone like him.”
“But that’s because it’s been stuck in a secret tunnel for hundreds of years.”
“Not necessarily,” said Marcia mysteriously. “Things have a habit of working out, you know. Eventually.”
Boy 412 was beginning to think that Marcia was right.
“So is the answer still no?”
“No?” asked Boy 412.
“To being my Apprentice. Has what I’ve told you changed your mind? Will you be my Apprentice? Please?”
Boy 412 fumbled in his sweater pocket and pulled out the Charm that Marcia had given him when she had first asked him to be her Apprentice. He looked at the tiny silver wings. They shone as brightly as ever and the words on them still said, FLY FREE WITH ME.
Boy 412 smiled.
“Yes,” he said. “I would like to be your Apprentice. Very much.”
THE APPRENTICE SUPPER
It had not been easy to bring the Apprentice back. But Aunt Zelda had done it. Her own Drastic Drops and Urgent Ungent had had some effect, but not for long; soon the Apprentice had begun to slip away again. It was then that she had decided there was only one thing for it: Vigor Volts.
The Vigor Volts were a bit of a gamble, as Aunt Zelda had modified the potion from a Darke recipe she had found in the attic when she had moved in. She had no idea how the Darke part of it would work, but something told her that maybe this was what was needed. A touch of Darkenesse. With some trepidation, Aunt Zelda had unscrewed the lid. A brilliant blue-white light shot out from the tiny brown glass bottle and almost blinded her. Aunt Zelda waited until the spots had disappeared from her eyes, then carefully dropped a tiny amount of the electric blue gel onto the Apprentice’s tongue. She crossed her fingers, something a White Witch does not do lightly, and held her breath. For a minute. Suddenly the Apprentice had sat up, looked at her with eyes open so wide that she could see almost nothing but white, taken a huge, sighing intake of breath and then lain down in the straw, curled up and gone to sleep.
The Vigor Volts had worked, but Aunt Zelda knew there was something she had to do before he could fully recover. She had to Release him from the clutches of his Master. And so she had sat by the duck pond and, as the sun set and the deep orange full moon rose low on the broad horizon of the Marram Marshes, Aunt Zelda did her own bit of scrying. There were one or two things she wanted to know.
Night had fallen and the moon was high in the sky. Aunt Zelda walked home slowly, leaving the Apprentice in a deep sleep. She knew he would need to sleep for many days before he could be moved from the duckhouse. Aunt Zelda also knew he would be with her for a while longer. It was time that she had another stray to look after, now that Boy 412 had recovered so well.
Her blue eyes glittering in the dark, Aunt Zelda picked her way along the Mott path, engrossed by the images she had seen in the duck pond, trying to understand their meaning. So preoccupied was she that she did not look up until she had almost reached the landing stage in front of the cottage. She was not pleased by the sight that met her.
The Mott, thought Aunt Zelda irritably, was a mess. There were just too many boats cluttering up the place. As if the Hunter’s rancid canoe and the tatty old Muriel Two weren’t bad enough, there was now, parked on the other side of the bridge, a decrepit old fishing boat that contained an equally decrepit old ghost.
Aunt Zelda marched over to the ghost and spoke to him very loudly and very slowly, in the voice she always used when addressing ghosts. Particularly old ones. The old ghost was remarkably polite to Aunt Zelda, considering she had just woken him up with a very rude question.
“No, Madam,” he said graciously. “I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m not one of those awful old sailors off that evil ship. I am, or I suppose I should, strictly speaking, say that I was, Alther Mella, ExtraOrdinary Wizard. At your service, Madam.”
“Really?” said Aunt Zelda. “You don’t look a bit like I expected.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” said Alther graciously. “Excuse my rudeness in not alighting from my boat to greet you, but I have to stay in my dear old boat Molly, otherwise I will be Returned. But it is a pleasure to meet you, Madam. I take it you are Zelda Heap.”
“Zelda!” Silas called out from the cottage.
Aunt Zelda looked up at the cottage, puzzled. All the lanterns and candles were blazing, and it seemed to be full of people.
“Silas?” she yelled. “What are you doing here?”
“Stay there,” he shouted. “Don’t come in. We’ll be out in a minute!” He disappeared into the cottage, and Aunt Zelda heard him say, “No, Marcia, I’ve told her to stay outside. Anyway, I’m sure Zelda wouldn’t dream of interfering. No, I don’t know if there are any more cabbages. Why do you want ten cabbages anyway?”
Aunt Zelda turned to Alther, who was lounging comfortably in the prow of the fishing boat. “Why can’t I go in?” she demanded. “What’s going on? How did Silas get here?”
“It’s a long story, Zelda,” said the ghost.
“You may as well tell me,” said Aunt Zelda, “as I don’t suppose anyone else will bother to. They seem too busy raiding my entire stock of cabbages.”
“Well,” said Alther, “I was in DomDaniel’s rooms one day attending to some, er, business, when the Hunter came and told him he had found out where you all were. I knew you were safe while the Big Freeze lasted, but when the Big Thaw arrived I thought you would be in trouble. I was right. As soon as the thaw came, DomDaniel shot off to Bleak Creek and picked up that ghastly ship of his, ready to bring the Hunter down here. I arranged for my dear friend Alice at the Port to have a ship ready and waiting to take you all somewhere safe. Silas insisted that all the Heaps had to go, so I offered him Molly to travel in down to the Port. Jannit Maarten had her laid up at the boatyard, but Silas got her in the water. Jannit wasn’t very happy about the state Molly was in, but we couldn’t wait around for any repairs. We stopped off at the Forest and picked up Sarah; she was very upset because none of the boys would come. We set off without them, and we were making good time until we had a small technical problem—a large technical problem, actually. Silas put his foot through the bottom of the boat. While we were repairing it we got overtaken by the Vengeance. Lucky not to be spotted, really. Sarah was in a terrible state about that—she thought all was lost. And then, to crown it all, we got caught up in the Storm and swept onto the marshes. Not one of my most enjoyable trips in Molly. But here we are, and while we were just messing about in a boat, you seem to have dealt with everything most satisfactorily yourselves.”