The Time Slip vanished.

Up until that moment, Marcellus had not believed in evil. During his long life he had come across many variations of being bad: lies, treachery, deceit, violence and just plain nastiness, and he would be the first to admit that he had probably been guilty of a few himself. But “evil” had undertones of the supernatural that Marcellus found hard to accept. But no longer. He knew he was in the presence of evil. And he knew why—these were the Ring Wizards.

Marcellus sank to the ground, and there he sat on the dusty earth, trying to figure out what had happened, while all kinds of terrible thoughts went through his mind. Marcellus put his head in his hands. It was all over now. Everything he had worked for was finished. He slumped down in despair and something tapped him on the top of his head.

How Marcellus managed not to scream was a mystery to him. Maybe, he thought later, he had recognized the soft, slightly apologetic touch. Whatever the reason, Marcellus leaped up and swung around to find himself face-to-face—with Duglius Drummin.

40

KEEPERS

Head held high, the Dragon Boat flew quickly away from the Castle, the gilding on her hull shimmering in the sunlight. As her huge, leathery wings beat slowly up-and-down-and-up-and-down, creaking a little with the unaccustomed effort, she took a direct path out across the river and over the orchards of the lower Farmlands, pink with late apple blossoms. She was followed by a smaller, greener, leaner dragon who was flying his fastest to keep pace with her.

“Spit Fyre, go home!” Septimus yelled.

Keeping his hand on the tiller, Septimus looked back, past the great scaly tail of the Dragon Boat and its golden tip to his dragon, who followed like a faithful dog.

“Spit Fyre coming too?” asked Nicko.

“No,” said Septimus. “He’s not.”

“That’s not what he seems to think,” Nicko observed.

Septimus was not pleased. “Spit Fyre! Go home!” he shouted again.

But Spit Fyre appeared to hear nothing—although Septimus suspected he heard perfectly well. His dragon wore the smug look that showed that he knew had gotten the better of his Master.

“Bother,” said Septimus. “He can’t come with us. He won’t be able to keep up.”

Jenna had not noticed Spit Fyre. She sat in the prow of the Dragon Boat, looking back at the Castle—a perfect golden circle surrounded by blue and green—and tried to shake off the feeling that she was deserting the Castle just when it needed her.

Septimus caught Jenna’s eye and smiled encouragingly. He remembered the last time they had flown together, when they were being pursued by Simon, and he thought of how different everything was now—and yet not completely different. The Two-Faced Ring was the last link of the chain of Darkenesse that led back to DomDaniel, and Septimus was determined to break it. Jenna returned Septimus’s smile and leaned against the Dragon Boat’s neck. The sunlight glinted off her gold circlet and her long dark hair streamed out behind her. Septimus had a sudden sense that he would remember this moment forever.

Nicko, however, was less inclined to remember the moment. To his embarrassment, he was feeling sick. He couldn’t believe it—he was never seasick. But there was something very unsettling about the constant up-and-down-and-up-and-down motion of the Dragon Boat that bore no relation to anything sensible like waves. Queasily, Nicko stared over the side and concentrated on the world in miniature as it passed far below, hoping that would make the sickness go. Soon he saw the fine silver line of Deppen Ditch and the hazy green flatness of the Marram Marshes beyond, peppered with little round islets rising out of the mist.

Jenna made her way along the deck toward Septimus. “Sep . . . you know . . . Uncle Eddie and Uncle Ern . . .”

“Yes,” Septimus said quietly.

“Well, do you remember how Aunt Zelda got Merrin back from being Consumed?”

“Pity she ever did,” growled Nicko.

“Yes . . . well, maybe she could do the same for them.”

“Maybe.” Septimus looked down at the Marshes below. Somewhere among the mist lay Aunt Zelda’s island—but where?

“The Dragon Boat knows how to find Aunt Zelda,” said Jenna. “It wouldn’t take long. And it’s their only chance.”

“You’re right,” said Septimus. He looked back at Spit Fyre. “Besides, I have a package to drop off. A great big green one.”

Wolf Boy was standing by a large and very gloopy patch of mud, trying to persuade the Boggart to collect some Marsh Bane.

“I don’t go out fer Marsh Bane in the day,” the Boggart was saying. “Not anymore. If yer so set on it, you can come back an’ ask at midnight.”

“But you’re never here at midnight,” Wolf Boy was saying.

“I is.”

“Not when I come to see you, you’re not—hey!”

“No need ter shout,” complained the Boggart—but to thin air.

Wolf Boy was running back to the cottage, yelling, “Zelda! Zelda! The Dragon Boat—the Dragon Boat is coming!”

Aunt Zelda came to the door, her face flushed from boiling a mixture of eels and a fresh crop of Bogle Bugs. Stunned, she watched the Dragon Boat and her faithful follower cruise low over the island, circle twice and swoop in to land on the Mott—the wide Marsh ditch that encircled the cottage.

Aunt Zelda was so shocked that she could do no more than shake her head in disbelief and stare at the great plumes of muddy water that arched into the air as the Dragon Boat hit the Mott. When Aunt Zelda wiped the spray from her eyes, she saw her beautiful Dragon Boat furl her wings and settle into the Mott, and it seemed to her as though the Dragon Boat had never been away. There was a sudden flash of red against the gold of the hull, and Aunt Zelda saw Jenna leap down and run up the path toward her.

“Aunt Zelda!” yelled Jenna.

“Hmm?” said Aunt Zelda, still transfixed by the sight of the Dragon Boat.

“Aunt Zelda,” Jenna said urgently, grabbing both of Aunt Zelda’s somewhat sticky hands. “Please, listen. Please. This is very important.”

Aunt Zelda did not react.

“Give Zelda a moment,” said Wolf Boy. “She’s had a shock.”

Jenna waited impatiently while Aunt Zelda, her eyes full of tears, gazed at the Dragon Boat. Suddenly Aunt Zelda shook her head, wiped her hands on her dress and turned to look at Jenna. “Yes, dear?”

Quickly, Jenna launched into her story before Aunt Zelda’s attention wandered. She made it fast and simple and soon came to the end. “So you see, Aunt Zelda, your nephews, Ern and Eddie. They so need your help.”

Aunt Zelda said nothing.

Wolf Boy prompted her, “You’ll need Drastic Drops, Urgent Unguent and your modified Vigour Volts. Won’t you, Zelda?”

Aunt Zelda sighed.

Jenna was beginning to despair when suddenly Aunt Zelda looked at her with the old, wise gaze that Jenna had missed so much. “Jenna dear. My memory is going. My powers are weakening. I know that I would not be able to bring my very silly but—by the sound of it—brave nephews back to this world.”

“Aunt Zelda, you can. Please.”

Aunt Zelda shook her head. “I can’t.” She turned to Wolf Boy. “But I know someone who can.”

It was Wolf Boy’s turn to shake his head. “No, Zelda. That’s a Keeper’s skill.”

“It is indeed a Keeper’s skill. Which is why, Wolf Boy—or I think I should call you Marwick now—I am giving you this.” From her pocket, Aunt Zelda took a small silver chain, made with delicate triple links. “It’s the Keeper’s chain. It got a little tight for me last year and I took it off. I knew then that my Keeping Time was drawing to a close. But it will fit you perfectly, Marwick dear.”

Wolf Boy was shocked. “No, Zelda!”

“Yes, Marwick. Soon I will forget where the Keeper’s chain is and then I will forget even what it is. You must take the chain now, while I still understand what it is I am giving you.” Aunt Zelda smiled at Septimus and Nicko, who had come up the path to join them, leaving Spit Fyre sitting beside the Dragon Boat. “You see, now we have everyone we need for a handover. We have the Queen—well, as near as makes no difference—and the representative of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard as witnesses. All I need now is the permission of the Queen.”

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