Jenna knew what to say. “Keeper, I give it.”
“Your Grace, I also give it,” Aunt Zelda replied. She handed the chain to Jenna, who had to stand on tiptoe to fasten it around Wolf Boy’s rather grubby neck.
“Gosh,” said Wolf Boy. He touched the delicate chain and the echoes of all those who had worn it before ran through his fingers.
From another pocket, deep in her faded patchwork dress, Aunt Zelda took a bunch of keys, all different shapes and sizes, and handed it to Wolf Boy. “You will be a good Keeper, Marwick,” she said.
“Thank you, Zelda,” said Wolf Boy. He looked around at his friends and shook his head in disbelief. “Wow. Hey. Well, I’d better get on. Got work to do. Uncles to fix. And fast.”
Aunt Zelda hugged Wolf Boy hard. “And you will do it, Marwick. I know you will . . .” Her voice trembled for a moment, then she swallowed hard and said brightly, “Well, now. You don’t want me hanging around getting in the way. I shall go and talk to the Dragon Boat.”
Wolf Boy, Jenna, Nicko and Septimus watched Aunt Zelda walk away down the path to the Mott.
“Oh, dear,” said Jenna. She took out a red silk handkerchief and blew her nose.
“Yeah . . .” said Wolf Boy. He looked at his friends. “I’ll do my best, I promise. I’d better go now. Get there as quick as I can.”
“Good luck, Marwick!” Jenna called out.
Wolf Boy raised his hand in acknowledgment and disappeared into the shadows of the cottage.
Jenna, Septimus and Nicko walked slowly down the path. The Dragon Boat lay still and majestic in the water, her head dipped down to Aunt Zelda, who was stroking the dragon’s soft, velvety nose. Spit Fyre watched. He looked, thought Septimus, a trifle jealous.
Aunt Zelda gave the dragon a last affectionate pat and stepped away. “Well, dears, you had better be off. I must say the Dragon Boat looks beautiful. You have cared for her very well.”
Jenna looked at Septimus as if to check something out with him. He nodded.
“Aunt Zelda,” Jenna said. “Would you like to come with us in the Dragon Boat?”
Aunt Zelda shook her head sadly. “I can’t leave the cottage empty. We have an awful Marsh Brownie problem at the moment. They’ll be in as soon as I’m gone. They’ll eat everything.” She looked regretfully at the Dragon Boat. “Oh, but I would have so loved to.”
Five minutes later a reluctant Spit Fyre was outside Keeper’s Cottage. “Spit Fyre, I declare you official Dragon Guardian of Keeper’s Cottage,” Septimus told him. “Do not let a Marsh Brownie—or any other Marsh creature—within ten yards of Keeper’s Cottage until Aunt Zelda returns. Understood?”
Spit Fyre thumped his tail crossly. He understood all right—he had been outmaneuvered. He began his first Dragon Guardian circuit of the cottage and wondered what Marsh Brownies tasted like. He intended to eat as many as he could.
In a great spray of muddy Marsh water, the Dragon Boat took off from the Mott. Septimus wheeled the Dragon Boat around the cottage to check up on Spit Fyre and then they flew out across the Marshes, heading for the dunes and the sparkling sea beyond. Aunt Zelda sat up at the prow with Jenna, her hand resting on the smooth scales of the dragon’s neck. She smiled contentedly, gazing out into a distant future that only she could see.
Down in the Deeps, behind the Cauldron, Marcellus was squashed into a Drummin burrow. The rock face of the Fyre Chamber was peppered with entrances that led to a hidden city—a complex system of chambers and branching tunnels shaped like a hollowed-out tree within the rock. The main trunk was a wide, winding thoroughfare, big enough for even a human to clamber up, and from this branched many smaller tunnels. These were the Drummin public spaces, lit by GloGrubs, with the larger chambers lit by tiny Globes of Everlasting Fyre. The smaller tunnels led to groups of private chambers (which the Drummins called nests) where they slept. These were arranged in clusters branching off a central passage, and although Drummins preferred not to share a nest, the clusters were sociable affairs and often occupied by groups of friends who had grown up together.
Marcellus was in the largest public chamber of all, one that he could actually sit up in. Beside him squatted the compact figure of Duglius Drummin. Like all Drummins, Duglius was hard to spot unless you knew he was there. Drummins had a look of the earth about them. Their long hair was plaited and knotted into thick ropes, which were smeared with earth. Their chalk-white skin, which had never seen daylight, was covered with a fine dust from the rock, and their broad fingers and toes—which ended in fat, squashy suckers that allowed them to swarm across both rock and Cauldron alike—were grimy with dirt. If there was one word that could be used to describe a Drummin, it was “grubby.” But from the grime and dirt two big, round black eyes, bright and questioning, took in every detail of Marcellus Pye. From the moment he had tapped his old Master on the shoulder, Duglius Drummin had not stopped smiling—so broadly that Marcellus could see the Drummin’s tiny yellow teeth.
Marcellus and Duglius were conversing in the sign language the Drummins preferred to use. Duglius was telling Marcellus, Julius Pike, he did drag you away so roughly that we thought he would do away with you. Most sorrowful were we as we made all safe and repaired the breach that caused the Fyre and then did set all ready for when the Fyre might begin once more. Ah, Alchemist, it were terrible cold by then and we was horrible slow. But we got back to our nests in time for to catch the last bit of rock warmth—enough to make our cocoons.”
Cocoons? signed Marcellus.
Aye. To sleep the long sleep.
I did not know.
Duglius winked at Marcellus. We Drummins must have our secrets too, Alchemist, he signed. The cold is our lullaby, the warmth of the Fyre our morning sun.
Marcellus had forgotten the lyrical lilt of Drummin talk, which spilled over into their signing so that their hands seemed to dance as the words tumbled out. He relaxed, forgetting the danger for a moment. He was back home with his family and together they could work something out.
A little later Marcellus was not so optimistic. He had crawled out of the burrow only to be confronted by a frighteningly bright red glow filling the cavern. The light sparkled off the ancient twisted metal embedded in the rock so that the vaulted roof of the cavern seemed to be covered in the shining silvery web of a giant crazed spider. The air seemed to crackle and spark as Marcellus breathed it in, and it left the taste of metal on the tip of his tongue. Suddenly another Time Slip took him back to the very beginning of the Great Alchemie Disaster. This was how the air tasted then.
Fighting back panic, Marcellus dropped down into the shadows below the Cauldron. The heat was oppressive; already the sweat was pouring down his brow and his woolen robes hung heavy and hot. Marcellus crept stealthily under the round belly of the Cauldron. Tortoiselike and purposeful, he moved out from the protection of the Cauldron until he saw the massive shadows of Shamandrigger Saarn and Dramindonnor Naarn cast onto the opposite wall of the cavern. Marcellus watched them for some minutes, but they were motionless and gave no clue as to what they were doing. A slight movement behind him caught his eye and Marcellus’s heart raced with fear. Very slowly he turned around only to see a line of Drummins looking up at him, their black eyes wide in the darkness, seeing far more than he could ever see. Marcellus smiled—he had forgotten the Drummins’ habit of following him around. He signaled that they should stay where they were and, determined to see what was happening, he began to move slowly out from the protection of the Cauldron.
And then Marcellus saw them—high above on the Inspection Walkway, directing pencil-thin beams of red light onto the top of the Fyre, the intruders were walking slowly around the Cauldron, as though they were stirring a huge pot of broth. Marcellus saw the Alchemical blue flames leaping up to meet them, like fish jumping for bugs, and he knew what was happening—slowly but surely, the Fyre was being Accelerated.
Alchemical Fyre has many contradictions—one of these being that, unlike normal fire, the addition of coal will calm and contain it. Like a lion rendered drowsy by devouring a small antelope, Alchemical Fyre will be soothed by a blanket of coal.
Marcellus knew he must act fast. Hidden in the roof of the Fyre Chamber was a huge hopper of cannel coal, but the levers to release it were in the control room—and the only way for him to get there was in full view of the Wizards. He decided to make a run for it—but to give himself a chance first he needed to take off his shoes.