"Here, Barney," said his uncle, only just noticing him. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing," sobbed Barney, and fled.
Barney scooted through a hole in the hedge at the end of the dragon field. All he could think of was that he must give the SafeCharm back to the lady-trapped-in-the-tent and explain what had happened - then maybe everything would be all right. But the lady-trapped-in-the-tent was nowhere to be seen.
And then, to his relief, Barney saw the edge of a patchwork tent disappearing through a little door into the old turret at the end of the Palace. Uncle Billy had told Barney that he was not allowed in the Palace, but just then Barney did not care what Uncle Billy had told him. He ran down the old brick path that led to the turret and a moment later he was inside the Palace.
It was dark in the Palace; it smelled funny, and Barney didn't like it very much at all. He couldn't see the lady-trapped-in-the-tent anywhere. To his right were some narrow, winding steps going up into the turret and to his left a big old wooden door. Barney didn't think that the lady-trapped-in-the-tent would be able to fit up the narrow steps, so he pushed open the old door and gingerly went through. In front of him was the longest corridor Barney had ever seen. It was in fact the Long Walk, the broad passageway that ran like a backbone through the middle of the Palace. It was as wide as a small road and as dark and empty as a country lane at midnight. Barney crept into the Long Walk, but there was no sign of the lady-trapped-in-the-tent.
Barney didn't like the corridor; it scared him. And all along the edges were weird things: statues, stuffed animals and horrible pictures of scary people staring at him. But he was still sure that the lady-trapped-in-the-tent must be near. He looked at the SafeCharm and a glint of light from somewhere glanced off the shiny gold as if to remind him how important it was that he give the SafeCharm back. And then someone grabbed him.
Barney struggled and kicked. He opened his mouth to shout, but a hand was suddenly clamped over it. Barney felt sick. The hand smelled of licorice, and Barney hated licorice.
"Shhh!" hissed a voice in his ear. Barney wriggled like a little eel, but, unfortunately, he was not quite as slippery as a little eel and was held fast. "You're the dragon-minder's kid, aren't you?" said the voice. "Poo. You smell worse than he does."
"Lemmego..." mumbled Barney through the horrible licorice hand, which had something really sharp on its thumb that hurt.
"Yeah," said the voice in his ear. "Don't want smelly kids like you around here. I'll have that." His attacker's other hand reached down and wrenched the SafeCharm from Barney's grasp.
"No!" yelled Barney, at last wriggling free. Barney made a lunge for the SafeCharm and found himself face-to-face with - to his amazement - a Manuscriptorium scribe. He couldn't believe it. A tall greasy-looking boy wearing the long gray robes of a scribe was holding the SafeCharm above his reach and grinning. Barney fought back tears. He didn't understand it. Nothing was right this morning. Why was a Manuscriptorium scribe ambushing him and stealing his SafeCharm? You could trust scribes - everybody knew that.
"Give it back!" yelled Barney, but the scribe held the bottle just out of reach of Barney's desperate jumps.
"You can have it if you can reach it, Shorty," taunted the scribe.
"Please, please," sobbed Barney. "It's important. Please give it back."
"How important?" asked the scribe, holding the bottle even higher.
"Really, really important."
"Well, bog off then. It's mine."
To Barney's horror the scribe suddenly disappeared. It seemed to Barney that he had jumped into the wall. He stared at the paneling in dismay, and a trio of shrunken heads that were lined up on a shelf stared back. Barney felt scared. How could anyone disappear like that? Maybe he had just been attacked by a horrible ghost. But ghosts didn't have licorice-smelling hands and they couldn't grab things, could they?
Barney was alone; the long corridor was deserted and the SafeCharm was gone. The shrunken heads grinned at him as if to say, Enjoy being a lizard. Ha, ha, ha!
Chapter 4 Intended
W hile Barney Pot was being mugged in the Long Walk, Aunt Zelda watched Septimus's departure from the little window at the top of the turret. She saw Spit Fyre rise high above the Palace, his big white belly blotting out the sun. She saw the shadows of the dragon's wings run across the Palace lawns as he headed toward the river, and she saw what seemed to be the precariously balanced tiny green figure of Septimus almost hidden behind the great muscled neck of the dragon. She watched Septimus fly Spit Fyre three times around the striped tent on the landing stage and saw Alther Mella emerge from the tent and wave him off. Then she strained her old eyes to follow Septimus and his dragon as they set off toward a bank of mist coming in from the Port. As dragon and rider became nothing more than a dark spot in the sky, finally disappearing from view, Aunt Zelda sighed and told herself that at least Septimus had the SafeCharm - a live SafeCharm, no less.
Aunt Zelda stepped away from the window. She took a golden key from her pocket, pushed it into what appeared to be a solid wall and walked into the Queen's Room. As she stepped into the quiet sanctuary, she put aside her worries about Septimus and turned her thoughts to the boy who had once been Septimus's best friend. In the Young Army, Septimus and Wolf Boy had been inseparable - until the terrible night when Wolf Boy had fallen from the Young Army boat and disappeared into the dark waters of the river. At the sound of Aunt Zelda's rustling dress, Queen Cerys turned slowly in her chair and her deep violet eyes regarded her visitor vaguely. The ghost of the Queen rarely left the room, for she guarded the Queen's Way. It was a quiet, usually uneventful existence, and the ghost spent much of her time in a dreamlike state from which it was sometimes difficult to rouse herself.
Aunt Zelda curtseyed once more and drew out the long silver tube from her pocket. The sight of the tube brought Queen Cerys out of her reverie, and she watched with interest as Aunt Zelda took out a piece of parchment, carefully unrolled it and placed it on the arm of the chair in which the ghost sat.
"This is for a new Intended Keeper, if it please you, Your Grace," said Aunt Zelda, who did not hold with calling Queens the newfangled "Your Majesty."
Queen Cerys didn't care what anyone called her as long as they were polite. Like her daughter, Jenna, she had always thought that being called "Your Majesty" was somehow ridiculous, and she considered Aunt Zelda's use of "Your Grace" not much better. But she said nothing and looked with interest at the sheet of parchment before her.
"I have not had the pleasure of seeing one of these before, Zelda," she said with a smile. "My mother saw none - although I believe my grandmother saw two or three."
"I believe so, Your Grace. That was a bad run. By the time Betty Crackle took over, it was chaos. Poor Betty. She did her best."
"I'm sure she did. But you have been Keeper for a long time now, Zelda?"
"Indeed. For over fifty years, Your Grace."
"Oh, please, Zelda, just call me Cerys. Fifty years? Time goes so fast...and yet so slow. So who have you chosen? Not one of those Wendron Witches, I trust?"
"Heavens, no!" exclaimed Aunt Zelda. "No, it is someone I have had living with me for a while now. A young person who has, I am pleased to say, a great feeling for the Marsh and for all things within it. Someone who will make a good Keeper, of that I am convinced."
Cerys smiled at Aunt Zelda. "I am very pleased. Who is it?"
Aunt Zelda took a deep breath. "Um...Wolf Boy, Your Grace - Cerys."
"A strange name for a girl. But times change, I suppose."
"He's not a girl, Your - Cerys. He is a boy. Well, a young man, almost."
"A young man? Heavens."
"I believe he would make a wonderful Keeper, Queen Cerys. And nowhere in the Tenets of Keeping does it actually say that the Keeper must be a woman."
"Really? Goodness me."
"But of course the decision is yours, Queen Cerys. I can only advise and recommend."
Queen Cerys sat and gazed at the fire for so long that Aunt Zelda began to wonder whether she had fallen asleep, until her clear, slightly hollow voice began to speak.
"Zelda," said the ghost of the Queen, "I realize that the duties of the Keeper have changed now that the Dragon Boat has returned to the Castle."