Merrin watched her while he speared an unsuspecting Marsh beetle with a well-aimed stab.

Chapter 28 Dragons

There had been two small explosions in the potion cupboardand a good deal of foul-smelling green smoke had poured out from under the door when Aunt Zelda added the fresh Marsh Banebut now, at last, after she had dripped thirteen drops of Cat's Claw Concoction onto his tongue, Wolf Boy was sleeping peacefully.

The MidSummer sun had just set. Jenna, Nicko and Septimus were sitting on the doorstep watching the last streaks of red disappear and the pinpoint light of Venus become steadily brighter in the darkening sky. Merrin was keeping as far away from them as he could. He was busying himself at the far end of the cottage, feeding and counting his large collection of ants, which Aunt Zelda let him keep in an assortment of old potion jars.

As midnight approached, Aunt Zelda lit a lantern for Jenna's yearly meeting with the Dragon Boat. Merrin was already upstairs huddled underneath his quilt. But, despite telling himself that he did not care one bit what that stupid bunch were doing with that weird boat, Merrin found himself drawn to the small attic window that looked out onto the Mott where the Dragon Boat was moored.

What Merrin did not understandbecause, knowing of Merrin's delight in hurting living creatures, Aunt Zelda had taken care not to tell himwas that the Dragon Boat was indeed partly a living, breathing dragon. Many, many hundreds of years ago, the Dragon Boat had once been a complete dragon. She had been a rare human hatching, hatched by Hotep-Ra, the first ExtraOrdinary Wizard, long before he had ever dreamed of traveling to the Castle and building the Wizard Tower. Many years later, on a terrifying night when Hotep-Ra fled his own country and began his journey north, the dragon had Transformed herself into a beautiful boat in order to save him from his pursuers. It was a generous gift, for a dragon can undergo only one such transformation in a lifetime; thus Hotep-Ra's dragon knew she would remain a boat until the end of her days.

At the prow of the boat was the living dragon's neck and head, at the stern was her barbed tail. The sails were her wings, folded neatly along the sides of the large wooden hull. When she had Transformed, the dragon's ribs had become the hull's ribs supporting the curved wooden planks, and her spine, running down the length of the hull, had become the keel. Deep in a locked hold, which no one had openednot even Aunt Zeldabeat her heart, silent and slow.

In the light cast by the lantern, Merrin watched Aunt Zelda walk with Jenna down to the Dragon Boat. They stood tor a moment in front of the prow, gazing up at the green and gold head of the dragon. Then, to his amazement, Merrin saw the dragon's head move. Jenna stood still in the yellow pool of lantern light, while the prow of the boat dipped down to meet her, until the dragon's head was level with Jenna's face. The dragon's emerald-green eyes looked directly into Jenna's and cast a rich green glow over her dark hair. It was as if they were talking to each other without words, thought Merrin. He watched Jenna reach out to stroke the dragon's nose and somehow he could tell that the nose was soft and warm to the touch. Merrin felt a longing to touch the dragon too, but he knew it was not for him. He noticed, with a feeling of satisfaction, that it was not for that Septimus Heap boy, or the pig boy either, as they were hanging back in the shadows watching, just as he was.

Merrin watched Jenna put her ear close to the dragon's head. He thought he saw Jenna's smile fade and turn to a frown, and he wondered what the dragon had said. Merrin loved knowing what people were talking about; he had got into the habit of listening to other people's plots and schemings when he was DomDaniel's Apprentice, mostly because no one would talk to him, and it was the only way he got to hear the sound of a human voice that wasn't shouting at him. Intrigued now by the scene by the Mott,he hopped about impatiently at the window, longing to hear what was being said.

What Merrin did not realize was no one could hear what was being said. His first impressions were right: Jenna and the dragon were communicating without words, as all the Queens throughout the ages had done with the Dragon Boat. Every MidSummer Day, when the power of the Dragon Boat was at its height, the Castle Queen would visit the boat. The first visit of a Castle Queen had been many, many hundreds of years ago, when the Dragon Boat was being repaired by Hotep-Ra's boat builders after she had been shipwrecked at the mouth of the river on the way to the Castle. Those were sunny visits, with the Dragon Boat regaining her strength in the bright Marsh air. But, as Hotep-Ra grew old and his powers began to wane and his plans go awry, he had become afraid for the safety of the Dragon Boat and had walled her up in an old underground temple on the island where Aunt Zelda now lived. By the instructions of Hotep-Ra, the Dragon Boat was watched over by a succession of Keepers and visited by a succession of Queens every MidSummer Day. No one knew why this had to be done, for Hotep-Ra's writings had been lost. All the Keepers and the Queens knew was that it was one of the two things that kept the Castle safethe other was the presence of the Queen.

And now the visit was complete, Merrin watched Jenna put her arms around the dragon's neck as if to say good-bye, and then as she let go, he saw the dragon slowly raise her head to its usual position and become nothing more than a beautiful boat once more. Jenna looked at the Dragon Boat for a moment and then she and Aunt Zelda walked back up the path. As they came nearer the cottage, Merrin lost sight of them. Suddenly Merrin felt very sleepy; the slow, silent scene that had been played out in front of him had had a strangely soporific effect. For once, instead of listening at the top of the stairs as he usually did, he went back to bed and fell asleep. For the first time ever, that night Merrin did not have his usual nightmares.

Downstairs, Aunt Zelda had lit a small fire of apple wood and was pouring some celebratory parsnip and cabbage juice. MidSummer Night was an important night for all White Witches, but it was especially important for the White Witch Keepers on Draggen Island. Aunt Zelda was the latest in a long line of Keepers, but she was the very first to have the Dragon Boat moored outside her cottage, just like any ordinary marsh boat. In the past, on MidSummer Night, all the previous Keepers had taken the Queen down through the trapdoor in the potion cupboard and along the tunnel to the old temple, where the Dragon Boat had been left by its first Dragon Master, Hotep-Ra.

The Dragon Boat's second Dragon Master now sat sipping parsnip and cabbage juice beside the fire, fiddling with the Dragon Ring he wore on his right index finger and saying to Jenna, "What's the matter? What did she say? Tell us, Jen."

Jenna did not reply. She stared into the fire, thinking hard.

Aunt Zelda came and sat beside them. "You should never ask the Queenor, indeed, the Queen-to-bewhat the dragon said. Even in the old days when the ExtraOrdinary Wizards still knew about the Dragon Boat, they would not have dared to ask that," she told Septimus sternly.

"Oh. But Jen doesn't mind telling us, do you, Jen? Anyway, if it's something bad she shouldn't have to think about it all on her own."

Jenna looked up from the fire. "I don't mind Septimus asking," she said.

"I'm sure you don't," said Aunt Zelda. "But you do need to know about how things are donehow they've always been done. And without your ... oh, dear ... without your mother here to tell you ... well, I feel I should let you know all that I can."

"Oh," said Jenna, and then lapsed into silence. After a while she said, "I do want to tell you what the dragon told me. She told me that she knows a Darke One is coming. She says she is no longer safe here"

"Of course she's safe here," Aunt Zelda spluttered indignantly. "She is with meI am the Keeper. I Keep her safe."

Jenna carried on, speaking in a low, steady voice, all the while staring at the fire, unable to look at Aunt Zelda while she was telling her so many unwelcome things. "The dragon said that since the temple was washed away and she has been outside, she has been expecting a Darke One to find her."

"Well, why didn't she tell you that when you came last year?" asked Aunt Zelda somewhat peevishly.

"I don't know," said Jenna. "Maybe she didn't want us to put her back under the ground again. She's only humanI mean, dragon. She loves the sun and the smell of the marsh air."

"Exactly," said Aunt Zelda. "It would be a terrible thing to hide her away again. And she looks so beautiful. I talk to her all the time now that she's out there."

Jenna wondered how she was going to tell Aunt Zelda what the Dragon Boat had asked her to do. "She says she must leave," Jenna mumbled.

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