Forgetting for a moment that Alther was a ghost, Alice grabbed his arm. “Alther,”
she whispered, as her hand clung to thin air. “Alther, there's something in here. An animal. It's big. Oh, my goodness, look.”
Two green eyes were reflected in the candlelight. They stared at Alice and Alther.
“Good lord, Alice,” gasped Alther. “You've got a panther up here.”
“Alther, I do not keep panthers up here. Or anywhere. I don't even like panthers. Oh, no, listen to it...” A low growl filled the top floor of Warehouse Number Nine as the Night-Ullr got to his four padded feet, the fur on the back of his neck bristling.
Snorri woke up.
“Kalmm, Ullr,” she murmured, seeing Alice and Alther silhouetted against the moonlight and knowing that she was safe. The NightUllr gave one last growl just to make a point. Then he lay down beside his mistress, rested his great black head on his paws and regarded Alice Nettles and her ghostly companion through half-closed eyes. Snorri laid her arm across his warm smooth back and fell into a deep sleep.
“I didn't know she had a panther as well as a cat,” muttered Alice. “She might have told me. These Traders are an odd bunch.”
Alther looked at the Customs Officer with an affectionate smile. He loved the way Alice, who appeared so tough on the outside, was really nothing of the sort. If you were in trouble, then Alice Nettles was not one to stand aside and watch. “Another of your waifs and strays, Alice?” he asked.
“Just a girl whose boat I had to impound for Quarantine. I felt bad about it, but what could I do? The Sickenesse is spreading through the Castle like wildfire. We can't risk it coming here.”
“Ah, yes ... that reminds me.” Alice's mention of the Castle brought Alther unwillingly back to reality, for he would have happily stayed sitting with Alice beside the little window, looking out at the lights of the Port, all night long.
“What is it, Alther? Why do I have the feeling this is not going to be a romantic evening spent talking in the moonlight?”
Alther sighed. “I'd really like it to be, but something has happened.”
It was Alice's turn to sigh. “Really? Something always does, doesn't it?”
“Please, Alice. This is bad. I need your help.”
“You know you don't even have to ask. What can I do?”
“I need to Search the warehouse from top to bottom. There is something in here that I need to find. Zelda and I never found it many years ago, but now I'm a ghost I think I can.” Alther sighed. “I shall have to Pass Through everything.”
Alice looked shocked. “But you hate Passing Through, Alther. And—well, you know how much stuff there is here. Mountains of junk and who knows what. It will be horrible. Goodness, this must be serious.”
“It is, Alice—very serious. You see, this morning Septimus and Jenna—say, what is going on out there?”
A loud banging way down in the street was rattling Alice's windowpanes. As they listened, the noise became louder and more insistent, until it turned into a regular thump, thump, thump that shook the floor and reverberated through the table.
“Sometimes I worry about you living in such a rough neighborhood,” said Alther.
“Just late-night revelers, Alther. I'll tell them to be quiet.” Alice stuck her head out the window and said, “Oh. Goodness me. Well, at least it's not a panther, I suppose.”
“What's not a panther?” asked Alther.
“A dragon is not a panther?” Alther repeated slowly. He felt as though Alice was talking in code.
“Generally speaking, no. A dragon is a dragon and a panther is a panther. That's just the way things are. Don't ask me why. I suppose I had better go and let them in before it smashes the door to pieces.”
“The dragon, Alther. I told you, there's a dragon at the door.”
“All right, all right, I'm coming!”
Alice yelled as the great warehouse door shuddered under the force of the blows. Alice, watched by a frustrated Alther, who longed to help her but could only stand by, pulled back two great iron bolts and, using all her strength, pushed the huge green warehouse door along its rusty runners. The door moved slowly but, with the help of Jenna and Nicko pushing from outside, it creaked and groaned its way open until there was enough room for a fifteen-foot dragon to squeeze in.
Spit Fyre galumphed inside.
“Careful!” shouted Alice—too late. A great stack of boxes marked fragile, crashed to the floor accompanied by the sound of tinkling glass. Spit Fyre was unconcerned. He sat down and looked around him expectantly as if he was waiting for someone to bring him supper, which was not far from the truth since Spit Fyre spent most of his time hoping for supper—or breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, tea, or dinner. Spit Fyre didn't mind what it was called as long as he could eat it.
“Jenna!” Alther gasped with relief. “What are you doing here?” The ghost smiled broadly as Jenna and Nicko, looking pale and tired, stepped inside. “Ah, and the master boatbuilder too. Hello, lad.” Nicko gave Alther a brief smile, but did not seem to be his usual cheery self. More in hope than expectation, the ghost peered out at the dark, rainy street and said, “Septimus with you?”
“No,” said Jenna—unusually curtly.
“You both look worn out,” said Alice. “Come upstairs and get warm.” Spit Fyre banged his tail with a loud crash.
“Quiet, Spit Fyre,” said Jenna wearily, patting the dragon's neck. "Go lie down.
Come on. Lie down. Sleep." But Spit Fyre did not want to sleep. He wanted dinner.
The dragon sniffed the air. It did not smell promising, just dust, moldering cloth, wormy wood, rusting iron, sheep bones ... mmm, sheep bones.
Spit Fyre pushed his nose into a tall tower of finely balanced wooden boxes, which stretched about twenty feet high into the darkness. The tower wobbled precariously.
“Out of the way, everyone!” Alice yelled, pushing Jenna and Nicko back out on the street with herself and Alther, who did not want to be Passed Through by a load of dead sheep. A deluge of boxes crashed to the ground, bouncing off Spit Fyre and landing all around him.
When Alice, Alther, Jenna and Nicko peered warily inside, the dragon was almost buried in boxes. He lifted his head, shook off a shower of dust and splinters and set about crunching open the first smashed box. A pile of yellowing bones and what looked like an old sheepskin rug fell out.
“Ugh!” said Jenna, who had recently developed a particular dislike of bones. “What has he got there?”
“Sheep,” said Alice, raising her voice over loud crunching, cracking sounds as Spit Fyre bit into the contents of the first box. “It's sheep bones. He's eating one of the Sarn herd. Oh, well.”
Gingerly, Alice, Jenna and Nicko stepped back inside and picked their way through the boxes. Jenna could just make out the words written on the side of one of the still-intact boxes in an old-fashioned scrawl that had turned brown with age: SACRED HERD OF SARN. BOX VII OF XXI. URGENT. FOR IMMEDIATE DELIVERY. They were almost obliterated by two more words stamped over them in a commanding, unfaded red: DUTY UNPAID.
“Spit Fyre!” Jenna shouted, pushing her way through to reach the dragon. "Stop it!
Give that to me. Now!" Spit Fyre looked down at Jenna out of the corner of his eye and carried on crunching through sheep number VII. It was his food and he was not giving it to anyone else—not even to his Locum Imprinter. She could go and find something of her own to eat.
“It doesn't matter,” puffed Alice as she and Nicko pushed the door closed and the warehouse became shrouded in darkness.
“But they're sacred sheep,” said Jenna. Spit Fyre cracked another bone and gulped it down with a loud gurgle.
“That I doubt very much.” Alice chuckled. “I reckon they're most likely part of the Sacred bones scam that the Customs Office stamped out about a hundred years ago. I wouldn't worry about it. Best use for them, if you ask me. They've not been much good to anyone else. In fact, I did hear that a farmer from the High Farmlands had bought them thinking that they were a live flock. When he came down to pick them up and realized that he'd bought a load of boxes full of old bones he refused to pay the duty and threw the Customs Officer into the harbor. Spent thirty days in the Customs House lock-up for his trouble.”