Extract

dragonamberfinished

Chapter 1

Jem had his head stuck down the castle well. He had been hanging upside down for ten minutes, not moving, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. His friend, Sol the butcher’s boy, was keeping watch, but it was late afternoon and most of the castle was busy elsewhere. Gradually Jem began to make out details further down the well, where the neat, well-cut stones gave way to rougher-hewn stones covered with dark patches of moss. And then he saw it! A shadowy round hole – the entrance to what looked like a small tunnel leading from the side of the well towards the main castle. He pulled his head out and gazed at his friend in astonishment.

“You were right! I saw it! But how come I never knew about this before? How come you never told me?”

Sol grinned, and shrugged. “I didn’t know myself, did I? My grandad only showed it to me last week – when we needed somewhere really secret to hide the squire’s undergarments. Somewhere even the dogs couldn’t find them!”

Jem nodded in appreciation. It had been his plan originally, to steal the squire’s undergarments and fly them from the battlements, but he hadn’t been at Roland Castle when the plan was carried out. He’d been in another world – one without magic, but with all sorts of other interesting things. Custard creams, and computer games and buses… Not that he could tell Sol that. The Druid had sworn him and Dora to secrecy about the whole thing – and you didn’t break a promise to the Druid. He had quite a reputation for unusual and inventive punishments.

“Where does it go?” said Jem, a speculative look on his face. It was time he announced his return to the castle with some notable act of mischief, or people would start to think he’d gone soft. This tunnel might be just what he’d been looking for…

“We didn’t follow it all the way,” said Sol. “It gets too small – you can’t go more than a dozen steps. But Grandad said it goes to the castle cellar – there used to be some sort of pipe contraption that you could use to pump water down there, for potions and stuff.”

“The cellar?” said Jem, his eyes brightening. “The Druid’s cellar?”

“Yes,” said Sol, puzzled. “But I told you – it gets really tiny. You can’t get down it.”

“That’s what you think,” said Jem, with a wicked grin. He pulled the well cover over and dusted his hands off.

“I’ll see you at dinner,” he said, nodding to Sol. “First I need to have a chat with Dora.”

 

Dora was mucking out the pigs. It was her favourite job in the castle – no one disturbed you in the pigsties, and the pigs were always glad to see her. She was scratching Old Bessie on her back where she liked it, and fending off a few of the new piglets, when Jem vaulted over the stone wall and plonked himself down on the edge of the pig trough in front of her.

“I’ve found a secret way into the Druid’s cellar,” he announced with a flourish. “It leads from the old kitchen well. So I can sneak down there tonight – but you’ll have to turn me small.”

Dora looked at him in surprise. “Jem! Are you mad? Don’t you remember what happened last time?”

The last time Dora had turned Jem small had been in the depths of the Great Forest, with a huge creature from another world stampeding towards him – and while Jem had survived the transformation, Dora had been quite unable to undo her own spell. It had been the queen’s scheming nephew, Lord Ravenglass, who’d had to turn him back.

Jem grinned, and flicked his red hair out of his eyes cheerfully. “It’s fine. I’m sure you’ll manage to get it right, Dora. You won’t have a – what was it? – an elephant charging straight at you when you do it this time!”

Dora sat down on an upturned bucket and considered. It was only a week since they’d returned from their adventures in the other world, but sometimes she found it hard to believe that it had been real. The strange ‘swimming goggles’ and ‘camera’ that had appeared in Roland Castle; meeting Simon, and his sister Cat, and finding the deep amber that had caused it all. She wondered how Simon and Cat were getting on and whether Simon had worked out how to do any of the magic she’d shown him.

Dora glanced up at Jem. She probably could turn him small, she thought, and if she was concentrating when she did the spell, she was pretty sure she ought to be able to turn him back afterwards. If he really had found a tunnel to the Druid’s workshop, then he could make sure he was hidden down there this evening when they knew that the Druid had an important meeting.

The Druid had been keeping Dora and Jem at arm’s length ever since they’d returned from their adventures. When they asked what was happening, he just said he was “working on something” and that they “didn’t need to know”. But they were both determined not to be left out. They knew that there were four pieces of deep amber: Cat had one, and the queen, for now, had another. But that still left two pieces out there somewhere, and everything depended on getting to them before Lord Ravenglass. The Druid and the forest agents must be working on finding out where those bits of amber were. And a bit of listening at doors and quizzing the chambermaids had revealed that the Druid was expecting a special visitor from the Great Forest to meet him that evening, in his workshop.

“OK,” said Dora. “It’s the only way we’re going to find out what’s going on. I’ll do it.”

Jem whooped. “I knew you’d agree. Come on – I’ll help you finish the pigs and then we can sort out a plan!”

 

The small tunnel from the kitchen well was extremely dark, and the stones that lined it were slippery with moss. Jem, magicked down to the size of a dandelion, was on his hands and knees in the entrance, peering up at the greyish twilight at the top of the well.

“Are you all right?” called Dora softly. “Have you got down there yet?”

“Yes, I’m in!” called Jem. He could see Dora’s silhouette against the grey sky, but couldn’t make out anything of her expression. Not that he needed to, he thought. She would have a worried look in her brown eyes, and a small crease between her eyebrows. He grinned. “I’m fine!” he called. “Leave the rope hanging down so I can get out again – and go and find something to do for an hour or so. It’ll be suspicious if you hang around the well all evening!”

Dora nodded. “Good luck!” she called, and watched as Jem activated the small werelight she’d given him and started to feel his way into the tunnel. Then she pulled the cover back over, leaving a small chink for Jem to crawl through when he got back. She tiptoed off to find something inconspicuous to do, crossing her fingers that Jem would get down the tunnel all right, and that he wouldn’t encounter any rats.

 

By the time he got to the Druid’s cellar Jem was cold, peckish, and slightly regretting his offer to be turned small. He should have brought a jerkin and a hunk of bread or something, he thought. But at least he had made it all the way down the tunnel – and it did lead to the Druid’s cellar. Sol’s grandad had been right. The tunnel ended half way up the wall, just above an old water butt in the corner near the cellar stairs. There had been bits of old decayed pipework in the tunnel, but nothing Jem couldn’t crawl round or over, and although there was a hinged wooden cover over the end of the tunnel, it was very rotten, and there were plenty of holes Jem could peer through. He could see the tall, lanky figure of the Druid on the other side of the cellar, pottering around with bits of potions and writing occasional notes in the margins of a big, old spell book. Jem settled down, and prepared to wait.

He didn’t have to wait long. Almost as soon as he’d curled himself into the corner by the biggest hole, there was a rattle at the top of the stairs, and a breath of wind caused the candles in the cellar to gutter. A heavy tread could be heard on the steps, and then, with a slight grunt of breath, a rather rotund, balding man in blue overalls entered the cellar. Jem sat up eagerly. It was Albert Jemmet, the forest agent they’d met in Cat and Simon’s world.

“Albert!” said the Druid, looking up from his books. “At last!”

“Yes, well, sorry about that,” said the portly man, walking over to give the Druid a friendly thump on the back. “Bit of trouble with your castle gate guards. No chance of a mug of tea, I don’t suppose?”

The Druid grinned and gestured at a nearby armchair. On a small stool next to it stood a steaming mug and a bowl of sugar lumps.

“Ah – excellent!” said Albert, lowering himself into the chair and stirring six lumps of sugar into his tea with a sigh. He took a good slurp and then looked up, his expression business-like. “So. We’ve found one of them.”

Jem stiffened. He could see the Druid’s startled expression and Albert’s nod of satisfaction. This was it! They’d found one of the missing pieces of amber! Jem craned forward to try to get a better look.

The Druid sat down opposite Albert and conjured a second mug of tea for himself.

“Where?” he said, taking a large gulp.

Albert’s expression turned rather serious. “It’s not good news, I’m afraid,” he said. “All the indications are that it’s in the Akkadian Empire.”

The Druid spluttered tea down his front and choked. Albert had to give him a firm whack on the back.

“The Akkadian Empire?” he said faintly, when he had recovered. He ran his hands through his messy dark hair, looking appalled. “Are you sure?”

Albert nodded. “It looks like it. We can’t be sure where, exactly, and it doesn’t seem to have been used for a very large number of years, but according to the research we’ve done, it’s almost certainly still there. We think it’s the southern amber, the fire amber.”

“Dragon amber,” mused the Druid, rubbing his chin. “It would fit.”

Albert took a slurp of tea. “Of course, we haven’t had an agent in that world for generations. Not officially.”

“No,” said the Druid slowly. “And it won’t be easy to get anyone in there now. Any attempt to find the amber will have to be quick, and very secret. One agent only.”

“Exactly,” Albert said, and looked at the Druid with a very neutral expression in his blue eyes. “There was quite an argument in the forest about what to do, but it’s finally been agreed. We want you to be the one who goes.”

The Druid met his gaze, then nodded. “I rather thought you might,” he said heavily. “But you know – I didn’t get away very easily last time. They want my head.”

Albert raised one eyebrow. “What exactly did you do last time?”

The Druid looked slightly shamefaced. “I – er – well. I stole a dragon. A royal one. As a matter of fact, she still lives here – in a cave up near Whitestone Peak.”

Jem gasped. So that explained where the dragon had come from! The Druid had brought it from another world. No wonder he always looked a little guilty whenever the dragon or its offspring caused trouble – and no wonder they were the only castle in the kingdom that had real dragons! Jem shook his head, wonderingly. He’d always liked the dragon on Whitestone Peak – so much so that he’d tried to hatch a couple of the dragon’s eggs himself when he’d found them abandoned by the millstream last autumn. The baby red dragons had caused no end of trouble when they’d got bigger, and the Druid had had to banish them from the castle – after giving Jem a very thick ear. But they still occasionally swooped down when he was out and about in the countryside, and gave him a friendly peck on the ear. For some reason they seemed to think he was their mother.

Jem was so busy thinking about the dragons that he missed the next bit of conversation, but when he looked up again, Albert was offering the Druid a rather ornate painted tile.

“It’s all we’ve got from that world,” he was saying. “It’ll get you into the temple, anyway, and it’s pretty damn certain that the amber will be in the control of either the royal court or the priests.”

The Druid shook his head. “Sorry, Albert. I’m not walking straight into that hornets’ nest. I’ve got a memento of my own. It will do me fine.”

He rummaged in a cupboard for a few minutes and then came up holding a small brass teapot, tall and elegant, with an intricately wrought handle.

“The Western bazaar,” he said. “I should be able to find a few old friends there – keep a low profile, avoid any guards or officials…”

He looked across at Albert, his brown eyes troubled. “You know, I – ah – I might not make it back. You’d better be prepared to send someone else if…”

Albert nodded. “If we have to,” he said. “But I’m hopeful. You’re our best agent.”

“Ex-agent,” said the Druid, with a wry smile. He shrugged. “I think I’d better go straight away. We have no idea how close Ravenglass might be to finding it. And besides, if I wait too long, I might think better of it.”

He pulled an old travelling pack off a hook on the wall, and slipped a small dagger into his belt. Then he held the teapot in front of him, and started to make a series of gestures over it, muttering some strange words. A white mist formed in front of him, and then took the shape of a doorway. The Druid glanced over at the stocky figure of Albert and gave him a thumbs up.

“Wish me luck!” he said, and stepped into the mist.

Albert sighed, as the mist popped out of existence.

“Good luck!” he said softly. He propped the ornate tile against one of the Druid’s spell books and took a final gulp of his tea, before trudging slowly out of the cellar.

Jem realised he had been holding his breath. He let it out in a big whoosh, and started to crawl back up the tunnel. He had to get to Dora. He had to tell her what had happened. They could use the tile to follow the Druid, and help him find the amber.

deepamber_runes

 

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