To See the Moon So Clearly

and other stories

(tales for both children and adults)


Lyeshy the Wood Sprite

translated by Simon Geoghegan / Gai Sever


Popped Out for Some Rats’ Tails

Four Barrels of Pure Gold

To See the Moon So Clearly

The Last of the Eastern Dragons

translated by Ian Appleby / Gai Sever


© Gai Sever, 2003

© Simon Geoghegan, 2014

© Ian Appleby, 2014, 2019


LYESHY THE WOOD-SPRITE


Mark couldn’t wait for his family’s trips to the forest. The forest was where Lyeshy lived, and you could always go and visit him. Mark was so excited that he didn’t get to sleep until the small hours of the morning.

But finally, they were off. It took them all day to get there. They arrived in the evening, when the clear autumn sun hung huge and red over the horizon. Finally, it went out, leaving the sky to the fair night, the icy twinkling stars, and the silvery moon.

Having dropped Mark and Mama off, Papa went to their neighbour’s house. This was where Papa’s friend was holidaying, and Papa was planning to invite him to help “warm” the house. Mark announced that he was going straight out to the forest to see Lyeshy, who was waiting for him to come and visit him.

“When did he invite you?” asked Mama in surprise. “Are you sure that Lyeshy is expecting you? What if you arrive and he’s busy with something important?”

“No. Lyeshy knows that I’m coming. And I really need to go and see him right now. I don’t want to keep him waiting.”

“Well, let me come with you.”

“But he didn’t invite you!”

“But I need to know that you’re going to be all right.” Mama smiled. “After all, I am your mother.”

Mark thought for a bit.

“Okay. But we’ll have to get a move on.”

They left their little house and set off to the forest. Their breath billowed in great plumes of steam, damp yellow leaves carpeted the earth, and the wind quietly murmured in the branches. Dusk was beginning to fall. A fragile silence reigned, as if the day had already gone to sleep and the night hadn’t yet roused itself from its slumbers.

Mark glanced about him in all directions. It would have been easy to miss Lyeshy amongst the vegetation in the dusky half-light. The forest was far from overgrown, with the trees losing half their leaves. All the same, Mark was very worried that he might not see Lyeshy. He didn’t like being spotted (which is why you always need to have your eyes peeled for a wood sprite; they’re very retiring and rarely show themselves to people).

“He must be around here somewhere,” Mark said anxiously. “He’s got a present for me.”

Mama bent down to pick up some huge red leaves to add to her yellow and russet bouquet. Darkness fell swiftly. Mark peered anxiously amongst the trees.

“Why isn’t he here? It’s already dark, and I won’t be able to see him!”

“It is dark, let’s go back. Maybe he’ll be waiting for us on the way.”

“Let’s go.” Mark sighed. “Can’t see a thing.”

They turned round and began to head back.

“Why didn’t he come? He knows that I’m coming today. He’s got a present for me!”

“Maybe he didn’t have time?” Mama smiled. “He’s got so much on his plate. The forest is so large, and there’s only one of him to look after it.”

Mark continued to look and listen out in all directions. Finally, in the depths of the forest, Mark noticed Lyeshy. He was standing under a huge tree, his eyes shining softly.

“Hello!” Mark cried out joyfully, rushing towards the tree. “Here I am, Lyeshy! I’ve come!”

Scratching his face on a bush, Mark dashed up to the tree where Lyeshy had only just been standing.

“Lyeshy! Where have you gone now? Come on, Lyeshy!”

Then he turned to Mama:

“Mama, you frightened him! He wasn’t waiting for you, and when he saw you, he decided to hide!”

Mama ran up to Mark and crouched down.

“Lyeshy won’t like it if you end up poking your eye out!” She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. “Hold this, let’s go home now, and we’ll put something on that.”

“Did you see?” Mark chirped happily, on their way back to the path, kicking up tornadoes of dead leaves. “I told you he’d come to meet me! It’s just that he was frightened of you. But I’ll come on my own tomorrow and see him.”

“Okay. Do what you think is best. And you’re right, Lyeshy didn’t actually invite me.”

As they came out onto the track, a small branch fell right into Mark’s path. Mark grabbed it, a cluster of dark crimson berries, slightly bluish, slightly wrinkled, and slightly damp, with several leaves attached that smelled of the cold, some rough and some smooth.

“This is for me from Lyeshy!” Mark declared triumphantly. “What a wonderful present, look, Mama!”

“It’s amazing!” Mama admired the remarkable branch. “Look at the leaves and the berries! I’ve never seen the like of them.”

“Lyeshy doesn’t have a lot of them. He only gives them to his friends, that’s why you don’t just find them growing in the forest. Have a smell!”

“Amazing!” Mama sniffed the branch. “I think it’s lovely... But we need to get a move on. Papa is probably already back. It’s time for supper. What do you think Lyeshy will be having for supper?”

“Leaves, berries, and mushrooms. Sometimes the squirrels bring him nuts. But he only accepts them in order not to hurt their feelings.”

“Why doesn’t he like nuts?”

“He’s a bit old. His teeth aren’t what they used to be.”

They came out of the forest. A light golden glow warmed the place where the sun was now hiding beneath the penetrating dark blue sky. The stars were already awake, winking at one another. The mountains cut through the last of the sunset like a great black backbone. The river in the valley shone like a thin cord, reflecting the dying glimmers of the day. The wind whispered drowsily. Birds flew overhead, their muffled wings beating muffledly.

Mark turned back towards the forest, pressing the branch with its berries to his chest:

“Lyeshy, I’ll be back to see you again soon! Only, don’t hide next time! We’ll only play for a little while, I won’t keep you for long. You’ve already got so much to do as it is. There’s the forest to get ready for winter, and I know that’s not easy. So I understand... Well, see you!”

Mark ran back to Mama, who had been waiting for him nearby. He took her hand, and they set off for their little house, with its cosy yellow windows lighting up the cold dark of the autumn night.

* * *

The house was filled with the tasty smell of supper. The table in the large room was already set with plates. Mark burst into the room, holding his branch aloft over his head.

“I’ve been given a branch! Lyeshy gave it to me as a present!”

“We’ll have a look in a moment,” said Papa. “Get out of your boots and coat and go and wash your hands.”

“They’re clean! I went to the forest, not just anywhere.”

“But before that, you and I brought all those dirty bags into the house.” Mama smiled.

“And you went out into the forest with hands like that?”

“If you don’t hurry up, Mark, we’ll have eaten everything without you,” said Papa’s friend. “It’s time for supper!”

Mark washed his hands, looking at the branch, which he had placed nearby on the table. Wiping his hands, he picked up the branch and rushed to the table, where he arranged it next to his plate.

“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Papa examined the branch.

“Lyeshy keeps these as presents. They grow a long way away, right in the middle of the forest, and they’re only for presents.”

Papa picked up the bowl and began to process around the table, serving out the food as he went. Mark took up his knife and fork. He kept one eye on the enticing food, while the other remained on the branch.

“It’d be interesting to know what Lyeshy has for supper,” Papa’s friend said.

“Leaves, berries, and mushrooms.”

“And in the winter?”

“Dried. Sometimes the squirrels bring him nuts, only he doesn’t eat them. He’s a bit old, and his teeth aren’t up to it.”

With the food inside him, Mark felt really sleepy. While the tea was being brought in, Mark began to doze off. And suddenly, there he saw Lyeshy. He was standing in a glade by an old, moss-covered tree stump. Some birds hopped around him, and some squirrels were sat nearby, along with a number of other small animals. They were chatting away in hushed tones, but Mark couldn’t make out what they were saying. They appeared to be talking in some sort of special woodland language, to stop people overhearing them and sticking their noses into their woodland affairs.

Mark was hit by a wave of anxiety. After all, Lyeshy had come to meet him, and Mama had been there... Lyeshy had taken fright and hidden. Things had worked out really badly, not at all as they should have. But what was to be done? What would have happened if Mama had remained on the path? Not gone running after him? No, Mark should have gone on his own. He came with his parents; that’s alright, of course. But he should have come to the forest alone.

Mark sensed a muted and mysterious music circling around him. Vague, half recognised sounds made by huge woodwind tree trunks and a percussion section of booming tree stumps. Large-eared, shaggy creatures were playing these fantastic instruments, and Lyeshy was sitting to one side, thinking about something and listening to the wonderful, entrancing music.

He had so many cares, all of them important. And Mark was only a burden on his time. But that’s just how things had turned out, and it certainly wasn’t Mama’s fault. He himself was to blame. “Lyeshy, where’s my present, me, me, me!” He should have just waited until everyone had fallen asleep and then gone to the forest without anyone knowing about it. That’s what he needed to do. No-one would know, no-one would worry, and most important of all, it would be a lot less fuss for Lyeshy.

“Ma...ark,” Mama’s voice carried to him. “Are you asleep?”

“I’m not sleeping,” said Mark, barely able to keep his eyes open. “I’m just dozing.”

“Well, drink up your tea and go to bed,” said Papa. “We’re getting up early tomorrow. We’ll go to the forest castle.”

“What’s the forest castle?” Mark perked up.

“It’s an old, run-down country estate,” said Papa’s friend. “Nobody’s lived there for over forty years, although it’s the most beautiful place. You really have to go there.”

Mark drank his tea, and he now no longer wanted to sleep. Now he would have to wait until everyone else had fallen asleep. He would fish his torch out of his bag, dress quietly, and then go off to see Lyeshy. If only they would be a bit quicker about it. What were they sitting about for? They had an early start tomorrow.

Finally, everyone went off to bed. Mama and Papa wished Mark good night, gave him a kiss, and headed off to their room. The lights in the house were extinguished, and silence spread to its furthest corners. Mark lay on his bed, patiently looking out of the window. The moon shone in the black sky, and the stars gleamed cosily. It seemed as if the world, with its boundless and endless sky, had suddenly been turned into a huge house. A house without walls, doors, or windows but a homely place of one’s own where all was good and calm.

Mark fondly began to think about Lyeshy. What was he doing out there? Where was he now? Couldn’t be far away; after all, Mark was about to go and see him, this time without Mama. Most likely, he was sitting on a tree stump and thinking. Or maybe not; maybe he was wandering along the forest path, making sure that everything was in good order.

Mark got up ever so quietly, dressed, felt around inside the bags, and pulled out his torch. He tiptoed out onto the porch, where he put his boots and coat on, wrapping his scarf around his neck. Closing the door, he jumped down the steps and ran off along the path.

And there was the forest! Mark inhaled the piercing fresh air. His eyes penetrated the darkness as if by magic. The moon poured its liquid green-tinged silver over the mountains and into the river, which gleamed in the valley. The bushes and rocks solidified into pale ghosts. Sounds crystallised in the heavens and fell earthwards — slow, very subtle. They echoed off everything they touched — the trees, the rocks, the earth... The stars slowly sailed into the heights, swaying slightly.

Mark looked out over the nocturnal world — autumnal, cold, and boundlessly bright. As if the universe had been traced onto the surface of a crystal globe, with Mark at its centre standing in the rays of the moon. The pen, fine, keen, and well honed, had engraved the pitch black firmament with bright lines — that outlined every mountain fissure and icy star with silver. The river had turned into a million sparkles. The hills into soft, undulating blots. The bushes into long, splayed paint brushes. Boulders were scattered below like peas.

Mark turned and headed into the forest.

* * *

He trotted along the path and soon found himself in the spot where he had last seen Lyeshy. Turning here, Mark cautiously made his way through the undergrowth with his torch. The forest hummed its nocturnal song. The night creatures rustled about their business, while birds exchanged calls in muted tones. Mark could sense unseen eyes calmly observing him. As if someone was hiding behind every tree, ready to peep out and stare at him the moment his back was turned.

The forest whispered away to itself under its breath. Branches cracked, and the occasional leaf fell down onto the boy. Mark walked on for a long time, carefully picking his way through the branches, trying not to upset the harmony and order that was not his to disturb. He came out onto a glade, the stars flickering in the ribbon of sky overhead.

It deepened, turning into a gully. The trees watched from above, dusted with a light sprinkling of powder from the moon. Mark shone his torch at them, and they turned away, alarmed by the light. Mark switched it off again. The gully widened, transforming itself into a small valley, and Mark noticed that he was now walking along the bank of a small stream.

He crouched down by the water’s edge, dipping his hand in. The water was neither warm nor cold, just like the moonlight splashing in the ripples. The stream quietly bubbled over the shallows, capturing the sparkle of the stars. Mark thought that the stream must have flowed straight from the heavens. Firstly, because it seemed to have emerged out of nowhere. Secondly, how else could it have acquired this colour and smell that so perfectly echoed that of the sky? Mark ladled up the soft water and took a careful sip. The taste was extraordinary.

“It must be a magic stream,” Mark decided. “Lyeshy has brought it down from the skies so that I could try it. Lyeshy, it tastes so good! I don’t even know how to describe it! I’ve never tasted anything as good in my whole life.”

Mark got up and set off alongside the water. The stream brought him to a large forest meadow, where the grass grew as high as your knees. And there in the meadow, Mark saw Lyeshy. He was standing close by, next to a blackened stump, dappled with leaves and wood dust. In the silvery darkness, Lyeshy’s eyes gleamed brightly.

“Lyeshy!” said Mark, rushing towards the stump.

But Lyeshy had disappeared again. Mark, nearly bursting into tears, called out:

“Lyeshy! Where have you gone now? Come out again, I won’t come close! Please, Lyeshy, I promise! But please stay, just for a little while!”

All around the forest whispered and murmured. The wind rustled. A bird hooted. But Lyeshy made no reply.

Mark looked round the meadow. From one side, it broadened and descended to a hollow, where the fluffy crowns of the trees flickered in a starlit haze. The forest swept down from the mountains to the distant lakes on the flats. Beyond them ran the stream that had led Mark to the meadow.

There, the snow-capped mountain peak reared up into the black sky, its white crown illuminating the night with countless crystals. It was as if the mountain had collected the entire light of the moon and was pouring it forth over the world.

Below it, a small castle shone, although on closer inspection, it looked more like a large manor house adorned with numerous towers and parapets. Perhaps this was the forest castle? That Lyeshy invited his friends to? Mark rushed towards it through the moist grass. On reaching the wide open gates, he stopped, hesitated, and said in a loud voice:

“Lyeshy, I’m sorry, but it’s dark in here... Do you mind if I switch my torch on?”

Lyeshy made no objection. Mark turned on the torch. Its cheerful ray glanced against the wall. Mark stepped over the threshold and looked around him. The interior was silent and forsaken. Mark began to worry again; if Lyeshy was waiting for him, it wouldn’t be like this here. It would be somewhere different somehow, somewhere that wasn’t so uncared for. Mark decided to have a look around the house.

The ground floor was littered with pieces of broken furniture and glass. The floor boards were missing from the first floor, and the windows and doors were all broken. The staircase barely held his weight. Moving as lightly as possible, Mark reached the gloomy attic and spent a long time exploring its passages by the light of his torch. He returned to the ground floor, where he started looking for an entrance to the cellars. He found a door and headed down some stairs, scanning the dark passages with his torch, but there was no Lyeshy inside.

Mark became very dejected. Why was it like this? Why couldn’t Lyeshy just come up to people, spend some time with them?

“Lyeshy!” Mark called out despairingly. “I so wanted to see you! And all I got was a glimpse of you a couple of times. Tell me, what do I need to do?”

Mark made his way out of the house. There was a barely perceptible ringing in the heavens. The forest muttered to itself, and birds flew overhead, their muffled wings beating noiselessly. Night made its soft progress through the forest, occasionally coming up against a branch with a soft crack. Mark made his way through the cold, wet grass to the black stump and sat down. He sat for a long time, dejected and sad, his chin cupped in his hands. He took one last glance at the meadow, the forest, the mountain, and the house and sighed:

“Well, I’ll go home then. Although I’m still really glad that I came to see you. And thank you so much for the present! It was so... I’ll never have a present like it ever again.”

Mark searched around for the path. He walked despondently, paying no attention to the measured bustle of the night — until he reached home. Mark made his way up to the door. Quietly opened it, took off his scarf, boots, and coat, and snuck into his bedroom.

He took the branch from the table and put it on the pillow in front of him. He felt like there was a lump in his chest and a dull ringing in his head. The rectangle of radiant night light pouring through the window was growing more and more lopsided, the time was approaching for the moon to make its exit. Mark was just dozing off when there was a scratching at the window.

He jumped out of bed and rushed to the window. There in the clearing, in the rays of the moon, stood Lyeshy. Still shaggy, covered in leaves and all sorts of other forest debris from which shone his bright, penetrating eyes. Next to him were some squirrels, several birds, and some other small animals. And they were all looking at Mark!

Mark felt the stone in his heart erode into a silver dust. The dull ringing in his head transformed into the purest crystal strains, the calm music of the stars. The peace, joy, and clarity that he felt at that moment were more intense than anything he had ever experienced in his life.

Then Lyeshy, the squirrels, the birds, and small creatures disappeared. The clearing had emptied, but the extraordinary mood remained. Mark watched the skies, glanced at the distant outline of the mountains, and then crawled in under his blanket and fell asleep.

* * *

Early the next morning, when the sun was barely awake itself, Mama had given Mark his tea (made from woodland herbs and berries) and an apple. He nibbled his apple on the veranda while the grown-ups were getting themselves ready.

The valley below was still swathed in haze, but the sun was already scudding along the distant peaks. The mountains shone with an icy early morning blue, their rosy snow caps twinkling and reflecting the warming rays of the sun. The river was still slumbering, but the sun’s rays would soon rouse her into song.

“Hello Mark!” Papa’s friend called out as he came out onto the veranda. “Have you finished your apple? We’re going to have breakfast now, and then we’ll be off.”

“Coming.” Mark blew out a warm cloud of steam that turned pink in the rays of the dawn.

Once they had sat down to breakfast, Mark announced:

“I went to see Lyeshy last night.”

“On your own?” said Mama in alarm.

“Well, of course, Mama! You saw yourself that he’s hiding from you. He hides from everyone, actually.”

“What did you talk about?” Papa asked.

“Nothing very much.” Mark sighed. “He didn’t want to get close. He appeared near the house and then disappeared.”

“What house was that?” said Papa’s friend with interest. “Was it in the middle of the forest?”

“It was like a miniature castle. Lots of little towers and windows. It had a huge attic and a stone cellar, just like a real one. Only everything had been broken a long time ago, all the glass was smashed. Lyeshy doesn’t live there.”

“Of course Lyeshy doesn’t live there,” Mama said. “If he has a home, then it would be more like a hut. Although I’m sure he lives in the hollow of a tree or maybe an underground den.”

“I think Lyeshy lives in the hollow of a tree,” Papa agreed.

“Next door to the squirrels.” Mark nodded.

“Maybe he just stays the night there every now and again?” Papa suggested. “The forest is a big place, and he’d have to spend the night in different places. He would need lots of places to stay overnight.”

“No,” said Mark, shaking his head. “Why would he need a house? He is everywhere, all over the forest, he’s Lyeshy! He only needs a house when he’s got guests.”

“That makes sense. The forest is all very well, but when you’ve got guests, you need a house, don’t you?”

“Of course,” said Mark, nodding. “After all, I’m not a Lyeshy, and I probably wouldn’t find it very comfortable in a tree hollow. But that house with the towers is just the job for when you’ve got guests. It’s in a large clearing under the mountain, it’s so lovely and beautiful there!”

“Did you say that it was run down with small towers and under a mountain?” Papa’s friend asked. “And facing the other way, is there a valley and the lowlands?”

“Yes, that’s it! And you can see the lakes from there, although it’s quite a long way away.”

“Well, that’s where we’re headed now! Did you say that you were there last night, Mark?”

“Well yes.”

“Well, you see, it takes half a day to get there by car.”

“What do you mean by car?” Mark snorted. “No-one goes to visit Lyeshy by car. And if you really want to know, Lyeshy, the squirrels, and some other little animals were only here last night, standing under my window. And you were all asleep and missed everything.”

“Well, that’s a turn-up for the book,” said Papa’s friend, shaking his head.

“Well, you shouldn’t have been sleeping. And Lyeshy also let me have some of the sky to drink.”

“How did he do that?”

“He turned it into a stream, that’s how.”

“What was it like?”

“Really delicious.”

With that, Mark got down from the table and set off for the door. He picked off the gold, red, and green leaves that had stuck to his boots during the night before putting them on and heading out to the car.

* * *


POPPED OUT FOR SOME RATS’ TAILS


It was an ordinary autumn morning. Cobwebs were glistening in the rays of pale sunlight, which were not so much offering warmth as warning of the winter chill to come. The wind was ruffling the oak trees in the grove alongside the Castle gates. Sentries were sauntering absent-mindedly along the walls, and the tips of their halbards were glinting no less peacefully than the little river that was flowing through the valley bottom. Mist was shrouding the horizon, the air was fresh and clear, and the first leaves were spiralling gently down from the oak trees. It was an ordinary morning — nothing special, nothing to suggest any unpleasantness to come.

And, anyway, what would there have been to spark off any unpleasantnesses? All the disputes had been long since settled. All the territories had been won, lost, and regained. All the princesses had been spirited away or married off (to husbands with whom they were now living happily ever after). Day followed ordinary day, everything happening just as it was supposed to.

Shortly after midday, neither later nor earlier than usual, one young boy, two cut-throats, and three grown-ups gathered in the refectory for lunch. These were Kaborga, Tukka, Turgubaduk, the Councillor, the Chamberlain, and the Marshal. The Councillor, the Chamberlain, and the Marshal sat down around the table. Tukka and Turgubaduk took up positions behind Kaborga.

The cut-throats followed their master at all times, in all places; at all times, in all places, they would come to his assistance, although they were always picking fights with each other.

They fought each other because of the awful boredom. Nothing ever seemed to happen, and they hadn’t even had to rescue their master more than a couple of times this year. The first time (when the boy had slipped out of an apple tree, getting caught on a branch and dangling upside-down), the cut-throats, through an excess of joyous zeal, chopped the tree into toothpicks. The second time (when the boy had fallen into the moat and nearly broken his neck), they went at the moat so hard that the drawbridge had to be repaired, and for three days you could only get into the Castle through the secret passage.

And so now the Councillor, the Chamberlain, and the Marshal were patiently waiting for the usual pre-lunch squabble to end.

“Well, now, what’s all this? Who’s going to explain this to me?” Kaborga, dishevelled, as always, and with furrowed brow, was finding fault with the cut-throats, who were standing at attention. “Bruises? Again? Where did you get those from? Who is there round here to have a fight with? Show me just one person round here that you can have a decent fight with! And I’ll fight them myself! When will this ever end?” He examined the bruises: one round Tukka’s eye and another under Turgubaduk’s ear. “What’s going to happen if you end up crippling each other? Who’s going to protect me if we have to send you to the dump?”

“Who would we be protecting you from, boss?” said Tukka, in his deep voice, striking the floor with his notched halbard. “There hasn’t been anyone round here these past three hundred years to need protection from. What sort of life is that? We’ve got someone to protect, but no-one to protect them from. Who can I butcher with this here halbard? It’s spoiling for the lack of anyone to butcher.”

He held out his rust-spotted halbard for the boy to see. Kaborga, frowning, guided the tip away from his nose.

“So are you saying all this is my fault? What about you, Turgubaduk?”

“Well, who else can we point the finger at, boss?” mumbled Turgubaduk thickly. “This lot, do you mean?” He nodded towards the Councillor, the Chamberlain, and the Marshal. “Just who are they, anyway? What do they do round here, anyway? Boss, just say the word, and we’ll kill them.”

They brandished their rusty weapons: Tukka — his halbard, and Turgubaduk — a pike. Kaborga turned to the adults, who were patiently strolling around the table.

“Right! I’ve had it up to here with them. Let’s send them off to the kitchen, the pair of them. They can hack pastry with their halbards, prick sausages with their pikes, and peel potatoes with their daggers.”

Tukka and Turgubaduk grimaced and swore blind that they wouldn’t ever start such conversations again — not ever — even if that meant they wouldn’t ever get to hack away at someone even once in their lives. Kaborga heard them out for half a minute, then graciously declared them forgiven.

Finally, they sat down to have lunch.

“I see the bridge has collapsed again,” said the Councillor in a drab tone, as he contemplated his leg of chicken.

“Has the miller gone and overloaded his cart again?” asked the Chamberlain, mournfully. “How many times has he been told? And still, he can’t be bothered to make an extra trip. Well, now he can fix the bridge himself.”

“He won’t,” observed the Chief Marshal, who was dipping his finger into the stewed fruit jar. “This has been happening over and over again for years, and he doesn’t give a damn. Do you reckon we should clap him in the dungeon, for a couple of days?”

“We’ve tried that.” The boy sighed. “But it just goes in one ear and out the other.”

“And a cow has already drowned as it tried to cross the river,” added the Councillor.

“It’s a nasty spot.” The Chamberlain nodded.

“What if we cordon it off so that no-one tries to cross?” suggested the Chief Marshal, between chews.

“There’s no point,” said Kaborga, munching on a chicken wing. “You know what our people are like.”

“So what, then?” The Councillor sighed. “Will we fix it?”

“We’ll have to.” Kaborga sighed.

“We’ll fix it...” The Chamberlain sighed. “Again...”

In other words, this lunch dragged on just as tediously as all the others had. When they eventually got around to the topic of the grape harvest, which was bountiful this year, although (typical!) there weren’t enough barrels in the wine-cellars, there came a rattle of boots.

The gate-keeper burst into the refectory. He was brandishing an enormous envelope, which bore a seal so hefty you could have used it as a battering ram.

“A letter!” he shouted, forgetting his station in his excitement. “A letter! To us! An actual letter!”

“Well, there we are!” The boy stopped mid-chew. “Do you mean to say letters really exist? Not only in books? Come on, then, hand it over. Let’s take a look at what kind of thing a letter actually is, at least.”

The gate-keeper made his way around the table and proffered the envelope to Kaborga. The Councillor, the Chamberlain, and the Chief Marshal leapt to their feet, shoved the cut-throats to one side, and jostled for prime position over the boy’s shoulder. Kaborga broke the seal, opened the envelope, and drew out a piece of paper folded into four.

“To all, each and every one, and this includes you, too. I’m in charge now! I have come to conquer the world. First thing tomorrow morning, I will come to you in the Castle, and I will slice you all up into slivers and chop you all up into little pieces. Fear me! I am the dreadful, mighty, and fierce mage, Shara the Most Supreme!”

“And what’s then?” asked the Councillor, scratching the back of his head.

Kaborga shoved the letter towards the adults, sprang from his chair, and began to thread his way around the cut-throats, muttering:

“I’ll slice you all up... I’ll chop you all up... Hear that? Tomorrow, first thing in the morning. He’ll come, and he’ll chop us all up. Well, there we are. What did we ever do to him? We’re sitting here, having our lunch, and suddenly, there you go — chopped up into little pieces. Just who is he, anyway? Where has he come from?”

“The one who brought the letter says he’s from the old castle, the other side of the river,” said the gate-keeper.

“Oh, I know the one. It has stood empty these past two years,” recalled Kaborga. “I was there when it last had people living in it. Then they headed off for somewhere in the foothills. Easier to hang yourself, they said, than live with expense like that. No kind of life, just constant repairs. The way I see it, that’s a declaration of war?” Kaborga turned to the Chief Marshal.

“So it would seem,” the latter replied, cautiously. “Although, in fact, I’m not entirely sure... You see, my lord... In all my time, no-one has ever declared war on anyone else. I’m not entirely certain that I know the procedure. Forgive me, my lord.”

“Parasites!” exclaimed the boy, angrily. “What’s the point of having you around, and you call yourself Chief Marshal? You can’t even tell if we’re at war or not. Oh, never mind... Let’s think about what we’re going to do. Good grief, a person can’t even have their lunch in peace. As soon as you sit down for a bite to eat, someone declares war on you.” Kaborga shifted his gaze onto the gatekeeper. “Couldn’t you have waited until we’d finished?”

The man shrank back.

“Well, you see, there was a letter, after all... I thought this would brighten your day... After all, we never used to get letters...”

“Oh, never mind... What can you do? Anyway, it’s pretty clear by now what rotten things these letters are. I’m never going to read one again, and definitely not when I’m eating. And today, of all days!” Upset, Kaborga kicked the leg of his chair. “When there’s such an excellent stewed fruit! Go back to the gate and have a think about what we’re to do now. And make sure there are no more letters, got it?”

“Of course, m’lord. Understood, m’lord.”

The gatekeeper backed away sheepishly until he reached the door, then turned tail and fled.

“Of course, m’lord, understood, m’lord,” muttered the boy and went back to his chair. “Chief Marshal! What’s the status of our army? We do at least have one, don’t we?”

“I would have thought so...” The Chief Marshal faltered. “But if not, then we shall muster one. That’s what you do if you don’t have an army — you muster one... That’s the idea.”

“And how do you go about mustering one — do you know?”

“How would I know, my lord?” asked the Chief Marshal, morosely.

“You’re right... Kaborga sighed. “That was a stupid question.”

He was just about to sit down again, with the intention of finishing his lunch, but instead he pushed his plate away, stood, and turned to the two cut-throats standing stolidly behind his chair. Walking up to Tukka, he punched him in the stomach.

“Do you hear? They’ve declared war on us! Do you realise? You’d sleep through anything!”

“War? A proper war? Is this for real?”

“Couldn’t be realler!” The boy dug Turgubaduk in the stomach. “Turgubaduk! War!”

“Just say the word, boss! I’ll turn him into a sieve, good and proper! You just say the word, boss, I beg of you!” He held up his rusty pike in front of him.

“Oi, watch out!” Kaborga sprang back. “Don’t you kill me, you dunderhead! It’s war, you dolt! Slicing, and chopping, and lopping off heads. Got it?”

At last, the cut-throats worked out what was what. They jumped for joy and brandished their rusty weapons. The stone walls and floors shook.

“We need an army,” continued the boy, once the cut-throats had settled down. “Can you muster an army?”

“Can we ever?” beamed Tukka.

“Are you asking us?” exclaimed Turgubaduk, exultantly.

“Just say the word, boss!”

“Just have us do your bidding, boss!”

“We’ll chop the enemy up into little splinters!”

“We’ll run them full of holes, like sieves!”

“This is my bidding and command. Dark forces have declared war on us. They need to be chopped up and run through. Into splinters and sieves. Understood?”

Eventually, the two cut-throats, who were quite unable to trust in this sudden blissful upturn in their fortunes, clattered off.

“Well, now, that I can understand!” Kaborga let out a breath, once the halbard and pike had stopped flashing before his eyes. “They’re a sight for sore eyes, and no mistake. What about us? Very well... I declare a council of war.”

They sat back down once more. (Kaborga had to find a stool to sit on; Tukka had failed to notice in his exultation that he was smashing up his master’s chair.)

“Councillor?”

“We have a Crystal Mirror, a Black Orb, and a Golden Helm.”

“I also know we have them. Heard of them, anyway. But what do you do with them? How are they supposed to stop us from being sliced and chopped up?”

“What do you do with them?.. I only know that every castle should have a set. And that we are no exception.”

“I see. Chamberlain?”

“I see it like this. The Crystal Mirror, the Black Orb, and the Golden Helm — these are all magic items, is that not so? Meaning that we need to consult the Magister. He of all people should know what you do with them.”

“I see. Chief Marshal?”

“I think we should go and see the Magister and ask him what happens when war is declared.”

“In that case, let’s go.” Kaborga stood.

* * *

They left the table and made their way from the refectory towards the tower. At the door which separated the tower from the rest of the Castle, they paused.

“The main thing is to find out about these devices,” said the boy, taking hold of the door handle. “Whether they will help stop a war. Although, should we start by asking just who this Shara is? Actually, it doesn’t really matter. The main thing is to find out about the Crystal mirror, and all the rest.”

“Start by finding out about the devices, of course,” murmured the Councillor from behind Kaborga.

“No, we should probably start with Shara, in fact,” said the Chamberlain, his voice tailing off.

“No, better start with the Mirror,” stammered the Chief Marshal, who was standing behind the Chamberlain and quaking.

They looked at the boy. The latter sighed, flung open the door, and yelled out into the void of the tower:

“Magister! It is I, Kaborga! On matters of state!”

The echo bounced around the cylinder of the walls, fading away in a chortling sound somewhere up above. They began to climb the stairs. Right at the top, they crossed the lobby, which led to the mage’s quarters, and huddled in front of the door.

“Maybe we shouldn’t actually disturb him?” whispered the Chamberlain.

“Maybe he’s preoccupied with important matters — he is an enchanter, after all,” quailed the Chief Marshal.

Kaborga had just raised his fist to knock when he noticed a note thrust into the keyhole. He fished it out, unfurled it, and read:

“Popped out for some rats’ tails. Don’t expect me for lunch.”

“For some rats’ tails?” echoed the Councillor, in bewilderment. “What could he need them for, I wonder?”

“Hah! It means he needed them, if he’s popped out especially for rats’ tails... And where, might we ask, did he go? Do we not have rats’ tails of our own? All he had to do was ask. We could have got him a whole heap of these rats’ tails... Finest quality... It’s not like we’re short of this kind of stuff...”

“That’s all we needed — rats’ tails.” The Councillor re-read the note. “He’s left the government defenceless! Now what do we do?”

“We’ve been left to our own devices,” said the boy, gloomily. “Without any old cranks. Let’s go and take a look at what we’ve got and what state it is in. Assuming there actually is anything in any kind of state. The Crystal Mirror is what we’ll begin with.”

Kaborga went out onto the staircase and began running headlong down. The adults hurried after him. Further down, they peeled off onto a balcony, and clambered onto the roof of the Castle keep, which cut through the well of the Castle like a rib. The sun was softly shining, and a gentle breeze was blowing. Down below, there carried the strains of a great to-do. Tukka and Turgubaduk, far from putting things off till tomorrow, were somehow getting hold of an army.

Tukka was lording it over the right flank. He was instructing them in the very best way of using a halbard to hack at a wooden knight. The youths were inflicting diligent strikes. Tukka would either roar with approval or bellow in disapproval, after which he would demonstrate the correct way to cleave through the wooden knight. The splinters were all over the courtyard.

The left flank was being instructed by Turgubaduk. He was demonstrating the optimal pike-wielding technique for running through a dummy. The youths were attentive to the theory, and attempting to follow the instructions. If any of them were struggling with any of it, Turgubaduk did not swear in the slightest, but patiently demonstrated the technique again. The straw innards were fluttering about on the gusts of air that blew in through the open Castle gates. Bellows, yells, and the clash of iron on iron carried through the peaceful autumn skies.

Having crossed the roof, Kaborga found himself on the southern gate-tower.

“Where’s the key?” said Kaborga, firmly.

“I shall summon, directly...” The Chamberlain set off towards the staircase.

Kaborga, the Councillor, and the Chief Marshal kicked their heels. The Chamberlain was bawling and swearing. Eventually, he returned, followed by a steward who was trying to swallow down the last of whatever it was he had been eating. Kaborga set off up the stairs, clearing three steps at a time.

“What are you all doing down there?” he cried from above, impatiently tapping his foot on the old worn floorboards. “Look at the sun!” He pointed at the pale patch in the sky, serenely fading in the gentle sky. “It will soon be evening, and then it will be morning, and this horrid Shara will kill us all!”

Finally, they were all huddled together on the narrow landing.

“Open the room!” ordered Kaborga, sternly.

The steward could not get the key into the huge keyhole.

“Just a moment, Sire, just a moment... This hasn’t been opened in ages... There was no need, and the Magister never bade us root around...”

“What’s this I’m hearing?” said Kaborga in horror, and clutched his shaggy-haired head. “What do you mean ‘It hasn’t been opened’? What about checks? Tests? Keeping the dust off?”

The door finally opened. Kaborga burst into the room. It was a high-ceilinged room with a narrow window in the south-facing wall. In the middle, there stood some kind of apparatus under a cover, which had been terribly befouled by bird droppings. An acrid cloud roused which made it impossible to breathe. Eventually, Kaborga sneezed one last time, sniffed, and gave a command:

“Take off the cover!”

The steward dashed over to the ribbons and tugged on them. But either his hands were shaking or there was some other problem — the cover did not come undone. The steward, utterly demoralised, pulled tighter on the knot. The cover wrinkled, and under it something made a crackling sound.

“Well. He broke the Crystal Mirror. You all saw, didn’t you? Have you fixed all the details in your minds, before we die?”

“Maybe it isn’t actually broken yet?” suggested the Councillor, cautiously.

“How could it not be broken when it crackled like that? Now, in readiness for tomorrow, when this Shara will arrive, we’re left without the Crystal Mirror. Meanwhile, the Magister has popped out for some rats’ tails. Why is it so filthy in here?” Kaborga swept his foot around, rousing a minor hurricane of pungent debris. “Why couldn’t we even take the cover off without breaking anything? What do you propose we do now?”

The Councillor, the Chamberlain, and the Chief Marshal stood there, utterly dejected.

“The only thing for it is to go and surrender to this Shara. We’ll go to him and say: ‘Here you are, O dreadful, mighty, and fierce mage Shara the Most Supreme. Here is our Crystal Mirror. Now it is yours, with its filthy, dusty, ripped cover. Maybe it would take you to restore some order here.’ Honestly, it would be better if our Castle did get captured by this fierce Shara than putting up with this,” and he ran his hand over the outline of the mirror.

“But Sire!” said the Chamberlain, gingerly. “You see, the Magister forbade us to touch the machine. He forbade us, and threatened to turn us into prickleless hedgehogs if we so much as did anything. Surely you haven’t forgotten?”

“Dolts! He meant that no-one should try and use it without him! That the Mirror shouldn’t be activated without a good reason! But the dust! You need to wipe the dust from it! Magical items shouldn’t have dust on them! And he’s a fine one to talk. Three hundred years he’s been sitting in that tower of his, and did he even once check up on how the mirror was doing? Maybe it wasn’t working? Pure Knowledge he says he wants. ‘Popped out for some rats’ tails.’ But me,” and the boy jabbed his finger into the cover, “I don’t even know what this is for. What is it for?” Kaborga turned to the Councillor.

“Crystal Mirrors,” replied the Councillor, cautiously, “are a feature of every castle. And we, too, have one.”

“Well, for one thing, it seems that, in fact, now we do not. For another thing, what’s the point of it? If no-one knows what it is for. All right... It’s all my fault. It was up to me to take care of all this. But how are you supposed to keep track of it all? Your head would explode. Either there’s not enough barrels for the wine, or the miller, may he forever have no shoes and nettles strewn on his path, wrecks the bridge. Or those two galoots are squabbling... How can we go on? No, I’m going to surrender. I’ll go and I’ll surrender to this terrible enchanter. It’s not far, only a couple of hours’ travel. He can do what he likes with me, I just can’t go on like this any more. Enough’s enough! I’ll go this very night. And you lot can manage things here however you think fit.”

“Sire, maybe all is not yet lost,” suggested the Chief Marshal, uncertainly. “We have the Black Orb in the cellars. And somewhere in one of the cupboards there must be the Golden Helm. Why don’t we take a look? Maybe you won’t have to go and surrender.”

“Right,” and the boy strode out of the room. “Let’s go down into the cellar and take a look at what’s what with this Black Orb. I suppose you do at least know what it looks like? You’ll know it when you see it? But do you know how to get to it? Have you ever even been down into the cellar before? Even just once? No-o-o, I reckon I know why our old man popped out for some rats’ tails.”

They rushed out of the tower into the western courtyard, where Tukka was bawling out some poor young lad who hadn’t quite managed to chop the knight’s head in half just right. The half-head lay at Tukka’s feet while he roared and gesticulated wildly. Kaborga, the Councillor, the Chamberlain, and the Chief Marshal picked their way through the wood-chips strewn across the courtyard, giving the cut-throats plenty of room, and made their way into the keep.

“Lead on!” The boy tapped his foot.

“Where to?” whispered the steward. “Into the cellars?”

“Where do we store our Black Orb?”

“They say it’s in the cellars...”

“What do you mean ‘they say’?”

The steward said nothing, and didn’t even risk looking up.

“W-e-e-ll. It seems I have understood that we really do not have any rats’ tails of our own. And why the Magister at his ripe old age has suddenly quit his comfy tower, don’t expect him for lunch.”

“I know for sure that we used to have a Black Orb.” The Councillor sighed. “When I was a little boy, someone told me something along the lines of how they’d gone down to repair it.”

“I hope at least the old man for one knows where it is. It’s obvious that you lot,” Kaborga prodded each one of them in turn in the stomach, “are no use. What kind of use could there be from you... But him! These are his items! This is his job! Pure Knowledge he says he wants. And we should just lay down and die? Or surrender to Shara the Most Supreme? If only that wretched enchanter would come back. Alphysicist.”

The echo of his lament resounded through the keep, through the evening light that poured in through the tall windows.

“Sire, not so loud!” The Chief Marshal drew his head into his shoulders. “You shouldn’t say things like that about the Magister. He might take pity on you, Sire, perhaps, but we definitely wouldn’t keep our heads on our shoulders. He’ll turn us into prickleless hedgehogs for nothing more than us hearing you saying things like that about him.”

“Anyway. Are we going to look for the Black Orb?” asked the steward, very faintly. The rusty keys jangled in his shaking hand.

“No. What’s the point?”

They went out into the courtyard, where Turgubaduk was still tormenting the dummy. Kaborga plonked himself down on a bench near the doors. Up above, casting the walls into silhouette, there hung a gentle blue autumn sky. The sun, already low, seemed to touch the crest of the walls. A breeze blew in through the gates, setting aswirl the rags that Turgubaduk and his young charges had ripped from inside the dummy.

“So,” said the boy, holding his head in his hands and supporting his elbows on his knees. “What have we got? For one, the cover won’t come off the Crystal Mirror. For two, something inside it crackled. For three — no-one knows where the Black Orb is... For four — this is the first time I heard any mention of the Golden Helm. For five — the Magister has popped out for some rats’ tails. O come, dear Shara, and take us, innards, and all.” He tossed away a clump of straw from out of the dummy. “No, I’ll go and I’ll surrender. Better to give myself up than to die of shame when Shara comes and sees all this. Sees what kind of warriors we are.”

Downcast, Kaborga grew quiet.

“Sire, don’t be so hard on yourself,” said the steward, cautiously. “After all, we’re no worse here than anyone else. After all, there must be the Crystal Mirror, and the Black Orb, and the Golden Helm somewhere...”

“You don’t even know where your Black Orb is.” The boy sighed.

“It’s not mine,” said the steward in alarm. “Don’t talk like that, Sire. All I have are the keys to the cellar where it is... Where it should be.”

“What does that mean? Do you mean to say that so long as we have it — assuming that we do — then everything is fine? That that’s all we need? No, it’s all my fault. I’ve let everyone get lazy. It serves me right.” Kaborga stood. “That’s it! I’m off.”

“To surrender?” asked the councillor.

“Not yet. I’ve still got time to surrender between now and tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, I’m off to my chamber to think.”

He rose and made for the eastern tower. He stopped halfway and turned, gazing sorrowfully over the courtyard. Then he heaved a great sigh, carried on to the door, and disappeared.

* * *

Kaborga climbed to his small study, built into the eaves of the eastern tower. It wasn’t a tall tower, but the Castle stood on a hill, and the window opened out onto a spectacular view. Kaborga loved to sit himself down on the window-sill (his teeth typically sunk into a bun), to gaze out onto the surrounding area, and to dwell deep in thought. This time, he made straight for the window-sill, and sat leaning against the window frame, and began to think things over. It was nearly dusk — the time remaining until the shameful demise was ever less and less.

“We need some kind of course of action,” he muttered to himself, gazing out at a mountain ridge to the east. “Some kind of unexpected plan. With the army like those,” he grimaced, remembering the chewing steward, “this Shara will... Just who is he, anyway? Will chop us up into little pieces of his in a flash. We need a plan...”

The boy leapt down from the window-sill and began to pace up and down. A minute or so later, Kaborga sat at his desk and opened the drawer. In it was a note which the Magister had left for him to find a few days earlier. Kaborga unfurled it for the twentieth time:

“My boy, I am an old man, now. I am no longer interested in curses and incantations. I have arranged everything in the Castle so that you can reign in peace. You have the Crystal Mirror, you have the Black Orb, you have some other things as well — all this will be enough for you. But I am old, now. Any interest in overcoming purely technical difficulties (which is typical of specialists of a younger age) no longer exists for me. I felt the mundanity of specific crafts and applied knowledge. I am becoming ever more drawn to the richness of the natural sciences. It probably happens to every magician as they get old, when they begin to lose their technical prowess and yield to an urge to inquire into the heart of the matter, to acquire clarity, to penetrate deeply into that which lies on the dividing line between logic and feeling. I am in search of Pure Knowledge.”

“The richness of the natural sciences.” The boy clutched his shaggy-haired head, which had been booming for the past half hour as though he had been shut inside a bell. “How am I supposed, in the name of this Pure Knowledge, to set the Crystal Mirror going? How am I supposed to even take the cover off? So that we could at least show this Shara that we have a Crystal Mirror of our own. That it’ll take more than his bare hands to chop us up with. That we’re not just some backwoods village... Couldn’t you have dropped a hint just once in all this time, Magister? If the Black Orbs help when someone’s coming to slice you up. I’d shove you deep into that thin line between logic and feeling myself, just now. O learned natural scientist.”

Kaborga clambered back onto the window-sill and sat there until it grew dark. It was a wonderful evening. The eastern sky turned darker, taking on a cold, deep tint. The setting sun shone brightly on the snow-capped summits of the mountains. Birds were calling, and their resonant calls carried from afar, as cold and fresh as the autumnal evening air.

Kaborga got down from the window-sill, went over to the desk, and opened a different drawer. In it was a huge book, from which many bookmarks protruded. He dropped it onto the desk with a thud, fetched a candle from a cupboard, and lit it, found the page he was looking for, and began to read. Fifteen minutes later, he slammed the book shut with relief and put it back in the drawer.

“Lucid and great.” Kaborga chuckled as he got up from his desk and stretched until his muscles cracked. Then he left the study and slammed the door. “I wonder if he ever actually read back through what he had scribbled down. If that’s how the lucid and the great write, what can we expect from the dim and the small?”

In the lobby, he put on a jacket and went down into the guardroom. This was empty, apart from broken jug shards that languished in drying-up pools of spilled ale. He hurried out of the guardroom and made for the arsenal, where Tukka and Turgubaduk were billeted.

“What kind of mess is this?” he mourned to himself as he crossed the courtyard, above which the first stars had begun to twinkle. “Is it really the case that we’re going to let him come and slice and chop us all up? Looks like there’s no alternative.”

In the arsenal, among the bashed-up shields and suits of chainmail, Tukka and Turgubaduk were already fast asleep, exhausted, but they couldn’t have been happier. They had worked so hard during the preceding day, teaching the youth how to stab and slash, that they hadn’t even had a fight before going to sleep. The lack of any trickles of blood on their round physiognomies was a definitive sign that a new era was dawning.

“Tukka!” The boy went up to the cut-throats, who were tossing and turning amid piles of dented metalwork, trying to get a bit more comfortable. “Turgubaduk!”

They peeled apart their eyelids.

“Reveille! We need to get going.”

Tukka and Turgubaduk were taken aback. They looked sleepily at their master, who was looming sternly over them.

“Reveille?” Tukka didn’t understand.

“Get going?” Neither did Turgubaduk.

“Reveille! Get going!”

“Aw, boss!” whined Tukka. “What do you mean, reveille? It’s time to sleep, we’d just settled down.”

“Aw, boss!” snivelled Turgubaduk. “Get going where? It’s dark already!”

“On an important matter!”

“What matters? It’s time to sleep, you see,” whined Tukka.

“Which matters? It’s dark, after all,” moaned Turgubaduk.

“This means you’ve no interest in stabbing anyone? In chopping someone’s head off? Turns out you two are covered in the same dung as the rest of this Castle, is that it? Does this mean you want that dreadful Shara to slice us up into slivers and chop us up into little pieces? We need to go — I need to steal Shara’s Magic Power.”

“And what is this, this Magic Power?” asked Tukka.

“And can you run it through with a pike?” asked Turgubaduk.

“Get ready!” Kaborga snapped. “There will be a lot to do. You, Tukka, will be able to hack at someone with your halbard. While you, Turgubaduk, will get to run someone through with your pike.”

“Awesome!” Tukka jumped up and, in his delight, chopped a bench in two with his halbard.

“Now you’re talking!” Turgubaduk leapt up and sank his pike into the door.

“Wait for me by the bridge, outside the gates,” ordered Kaborga.

“Just don’t take long, boss,” replied Tukka joyfully, “or else they’ll all go to bed, and we’ll have no-one to cut up!”

“I’ll be quick!” Kaborga reassured them. “I just need to warn the adults that I will be gone for a couple or three hours, away to chop off a couple or three heads.”

“So be quick about it, then, boss!” replied Turgubaduk joyfully. “You be quick there!”

And they clattered off. Kaborga took a rope and grappling hook down from the wall, and set off for the Councillor’s quarters.

“Councillor! I’ve had an idea. I need to go over to that castle and steal Shara’s Magic Power. I have a book where it says that if you steal a mage’s Magic Power, then it stops him being a mage. Shara says he’s a mage, which means he has Magic Power. That is, if we can somehow take this power away from him, he will stop being a mage, and he won’t be able to slice or chop us up.”

The Councillor scratched his head.

“Can we risk trusting books so much? After all, it’s a long journey. Two hours, is it?”

“Well, who else can we trust,” the boy sighed, “when there’s such a mess everywhere we look? Right, then, we’re setting off.”

Kaborga went into the stable, mounted a horse, and rode out into the courtyard. Passing under the archway, he made his way through the moat and called out for the cut-throats, who were limbering up by hacking into the trunks of the oak trees lining the road.

“Stop making a mess! Wasn’t it enough for you that the whole Castle got covered with splinters today? I’ll make you tidy it all up tomorrow. You’ll learn.”

“How do you mean, boss?” whined Tukka. “If tomorrow means slicing and chopping, why tidy up, boss?”

“Why tidy up, boss, when there’s chopping to be done tomorrow?” snivelled Turgubaduk.

“Silence! If I order you to tidy up, you will tidy up. Think on — will it be fun for you to be slicing and chopping in such a pig-sty?”

They set off.

Kaborga on his nag, while the cut-throats jogged along on foot, and consequently the surroundings reverberated as far as the foot-hills. Tukka and Turgubaduk ran ahead, rummaging through the bushes and, just to make sure, prodding their halbard and pike into anything they came across. Tukka, who had grabbed hold of his favourite cudgel for just such occasions, was pounding loudly on the tree trunks. Half an hour later, Tukka ran across a hedgehog, and shrieked with delight. He tossed his halbard away in one direction, his cudgel in another, and cupping the hedgehog in his hands, he ran over to Turgubaduk. Turgubaduk melted, and flung away his pike. They both pranced around with the hedgehog, until they fell into a nearby hole.

Kaborga had to dismount and help them out. And then they had to make their way down to the stream and wash. This all took half an hour, and they were already running badly late.

“What were you thinking? That they’d be waiting for us there?” said the boy irritably, once he had remounted. “Let’s wait, they’d say, another half hour or so, until Tukka and Turgubaduk get here and run us through? Until they chop our heads off?”

“Oh, but he was such a cutie,” said Tukka, in his deep voice. “He had such sweet little ears, and a cute little nose!”

“And did you see his bright little eyes, as well?” gasped Turgubaduk. “And the way he snuffled!”

“He had such cute little spikes! All dark at the bottom, but all silvery at the top.”

“What about his little claws? They were so sweet and sharp! Almost as sharp as my pike.”

“No, as my halbard!”

“I don’t think so! Like my pike!”

“Now you’re for it!” Tukka had already turned around to lash out at Turgubaduk, but Kaborga rapped his fist on the cut-throat’s glistening bald spot.

“What did I do to deserve this? Enough! About turn, we’re going home. I’ve had it up to here! Let’s just let Shara come and slice us all into slivers, and be done. Then, just maybe, I won’t have to tolerate this any longer.”

“Aw, boss,” whined Tukka. “What about lopping off some heads?”

“You promised, boss,” snivelled Turgubaduk, “that I could run someone through with my pike.”

“To give someone a good couple of blows with my cudgel, at least.” Tukka sighed. “Otherwise, what was the point of bringing it?”

“Then onwards, and quickly. And not a word more!”

And on they went along the night-time road, and the moon shone bright silver in the sky, and the snowy mountain caps gleamed on the horizon, and a gentle breeze caressed their faces. Up ahead, on the hill above the road, the towers of the castle shimmered in the night. As they approached the moat, Kaborga gazed up at the wall, which was overgrown with moss, trying to decide which window would be the best one to climb through.

“Well, where are they, boss?” Tukka was looking from side to side and adjusting his grip on his halbard. “Whose head can I chop off?”

“I can’t see anyone, boss!” Turgubaduk was also looking around, balancing his pike at the ready. “Who should I run through?”

“First of all, I’m about to climb up into the tower, and maybe I’ll throw someone down.” The boy pointed up to the small eastern tower, where a lamp was shining at the very top. “Second of all, look for yourselves as well! You’ve got used to me doing the thinking for all of us, you parasites!”

Tukka and Turgubaduk spat on their hands and got a firmer grip on their weapons. Then they sprang into action and ran off, their eyes flashing wildly.

“That’s settled, then,” decided the boy, eventually. “I’ll climb into the eastern tower. Everything there is just like back home, I won’t get lost. It’s just that window that worries me... Never mind, I’ll clamber across below it, and no-one will notice me. That window, though — it’s a lookout post, like we have. I’ll be able to get in from there. It’s a doddle from then on — just three corridors and you’re in the tower.”

The boy paddled across the moat (the water only came up to his ankles), went up a slope, and ran his hand over the crumbling stone of the walls. Then he stood back, swung the rope, and launched the hook. The hook clanged, and scraped, and lodged firmly on a ledge. Kaborga tugged on the rope and swarmed up.

* * *

He climbed ever higher, and the world below him, bathed in moonlight, grew ever wider. In the valleys of the foothills, village lights were twinkling. The wind died down, and the rustling of the leaves grew quiet. Kaborga reached the hook and climbed out onto the ledge. Clinging to the wall, the boy sidled cautiously along the ledge, and soon he was at the window. He froze, trying to resist the temptation to see who was there in the room, and why they were still awake so late at night.

“It’s probably some necromancer,” decided Kaborga. “This Shara, I daresay, has brought a coven of necromancers with him, and he makes them stay up all night long and come up with all kinds of dirty tricks. Normal people don’t live in towers. Only mages and necromancers. Who else would do a thing like that? I should clamber further... No, I’m going to take a peek after all. Besides, I’ll find out just what these necromancers are — I’ve read about them in books, but I’ve never seen one in real life. Right, then. A quick glance, and onwards.”

Kaborga reached up, set his chin on the window ledge, and hung there, inspecting the room. Under the window, there was a great pile of bundles. Next to the wall, there was a small desk bearing an inkwell, a bundle of books all tied up, a single sheet of paper bearing four lines of poetry, and a quill pen. Opposite the desk there was a made bed. Opposite the window, there was a faded mirror and a dressing table. On the dressing table, there burned a candle. In front of the mirror, there sat a girl in a nightdress, brushing her hair. It was long and tangled, and occasionally the girl would give a whimper when she had to disentangle a knot by force. Kaborga’s shaggy head was revealed straight away in her mirror. The girl turned around. Curiosity flashed in her eyes.

“Who are you? Are you climbing in here to steal me away?”

Kaborga stretched even further and jumped into the room.

“Have they imprisoned you, or something?” He went over to the desk, to read what was written on the sheet of paper.

“Don’t look!” The girl leapt up and dashed over to the desk. She turned the paper over and covered it with her hands.

“All right, then, I won’t,” grumbled Kaborga, in confusion. “How was I supposed to know that I shouldn’t?”

“I didn't think someone would climb in through my window... Anyway, how did you climb up here? Shara said that not even a mouse could get inside the Castle!”

“Well, I’m not a mouse. What have you got here? Poems?”

“Not telling you,” said the girl, examining Kaborga. “But... If you want, I’ll show you, just not right now.”

“I don’t know how to write poems.” Kaborga looked around the room and, out of the corner of his eye, at the girl. “I tried it once. But our old know-it-all said that, if I tried that again, he’d do better to turn me into a prickleless hedgehog.”

“Your old know-it-all? Who’s that? And why do you think that I’ve been imprisoned? So is there such a thing as a prickleless hedgehog? Listen, have you come to steal me away, or not? If so, then what are you waiting for?”

“Our old know-it-all, that’s like your Shara — he’s the mage in the Castle... I’ll tell you about him, just not right now. Listen, what are you doing?” Kaborga went over to the girl and disentangled the comb from her hair. “You’ll tear all your hair out! That won’t do! You’ll turn into a prickleless hedgehog, and won’t need a wizard to help.”

“Yes, you’re right.” The girl sighed. “But it’s so long... You’ve no idea how awkward it is to do by yourself.”

“So where’s your nanny? Don’t you even have anyone who can comb your hair?”

“I don’t have a nanny. In fact, I don’t have anyone. I sit here from morning till night. Sometimes I wander around the Castle, the bits that aren’t shut up. When the adults are out on a military campaign. They’ve always got something on their hands, and right now it’s making war. That’s why we came here — to conquer the world.”

The girl went back to the mirror, sat down on her buffet, and sighed.

“Don’t get so upset,” said Kaborga reassuringly. “Let me comb your hair. I know how it should be done, he added, untruthfully, after a moment’s thought.

“Do you?” The girl brought her face back up to the mirror. The candle sputtered in the cool breeze from the window. “How come? Do you have someone you can comb?”

“Not just now. Don’t squirm so much! Or I’ll scratch your ear... Where did you get a comb like this? You’d comb an elephant with this.”

“Shows what you know! Elephants, if you must know, have the very tenderest skin, and it’s very easy to cut them. And the cuts take ever so long to heal.”

“How do you know? Have you got an elephant, or something?”

“I have a book about elephants, if you must know... Now, are you going to comb my hair, or what?”

Kaborga set about combing the girl’s hair. He started at the tips, then worked his way down from the tips, until he got closer to the roots — slowly, thoroughly, and carefully. The girl stopped squirming, and she even scrunched up her eyes tight in pleasure.

“How wonderful! It’s working out wonderfully for you...”

“Only because I’m following the right order, and not making a fuss. You should do everything in the right order and without making a fuss, and then everything will work out wonderfully for you. That’s what our old know-it-all always says, and for once I agree with him.”

“What about thinking? Are you saying that you should also think in the right order and without fuss? So that it works out wonderfully, your thinking?”

“Ha.” Kaborga chuckled, somewhat sombrely. “If you thought like that, then, maybe, you wouldn’t have to actually do anything.”

“Could you come visit me, at least once a day? And comb my hair?”

“Once a day? Not really... It’s a bit far. It took me two hours to get here.”

“So where are you from? Where do you live?”

“There’s a particular castle nearby, I’ll tell you later... You’d do better to move in with me yourself. Bring your books, bring your poems, and move in.”

“If you’ll steal me away, then I will, with pleasure. Otherwise... I sit here by myself, and can’t even leave the Castle.”

“I can imagine. They don’t even let you have a decent comb.” Kaborga hefted the comb in his hand. “This is an instrument of torture, not a comb. Bring it to our old know-it-all, it might come in handy for turning people into prickleless hedgehogs.”

“What’s an ‘instrument of torture’?”

“Um, I’m not really sure, but I’ve read that it’s something unpleasant.”

“I used to have one. It broke. No-one needs me. I thought maybe you’d steal me away. Maybe just a little bit... Not for long...”

The girl wouldn’t look up. Kaborga stroked her shoulder, through the old fabric of her nightdress.

“I’ll steal you away, absolutely. I promise! We’ll take your books and your poems, and I’ll steal you away.”

“And will you comb my hair in the evenings? Like you did just now, following the right order, and without making a fuss?”

“I promise. We have plenty of space in our Castle, we’ll choose something for you. Everything here is going to rack and ruin, makes even our place look spick and span. And here sits a little girl, all alone, hair all tangled up, and they won’t even give her a comb. And meanwhile they plan to conquer the world! Oh, yes, I nearly forgot... You don’t happen to know how I can get to your Shara?”

“I do. Let’s go together! Let’s go and steal some magical thing or other from him. I’ve wanted to do that for ages! What do you want with Shara?”

“As it happens, I need to steal something from him. Picture this — we’re sitting at the table today, having lunch. Everything as usual. Me, the Councillor, the Chamberlain, the Chief Marshal, a couple of cut-throats I have there. Having lunch we are, when suddenly — bam! A letter, from this Shara of yours. And what do we read but ‘now I’m in charge, and tomorrow morning, first thing, I’ll come over and slice and chop you all up’.”

“What?” said the girl, in horror. “He wrote that? In those very words?”

“Word for word. So off we shot to our old know-it-all. Started knocking on his door, when I see a note. ‘Popped out for some rats’ tails. Don’t expect me for lunch.’ Meanwhile we can go hang.”

“For some rats’ tails? What does he need with them? You know, Shara complains that you can’t get hold of genuine dragonfly snouts round these parts, but why he needs them he won’t say. But you’d never guess how much I long to know what he needs dragonfly snouts for. So, your old know-it-all, is he dreadful? Mighty? Fierce?”

“Not in the slightest. Why should he be?”

“Well, our Shara... That’s how he orders us to talk about him.”

“There’s nothing special about our old know-it-all,” said Kaborga in a disappointed tone. “It’s embarrassing, sometimes. You’d think he’d turn someone into something just once, but all he does is threaten to. And I’d love to see a prickleless hedgehog!”

“Me too! I’ve never yet seen a prickleless hedgehog. They must be cute!”

“Well, hedgehogs are cute anyway. We found one on our way here — of course, this one had prickles, we had to let him go... Let’s go and steal Shara’s Magic Power, and then I’ll steal you away, and we can go back to my home. If you like, I’ll show you my books.”

“Couldn’t sound better!” The girl clapped her hands. “But what’s this Magic Power? What’s it for?”

“I don’t know. I read in a book, and I think our old know-it-all used to say something like it, too, that Magic Power is the most important thing that a mage has. Without it, a mage isn’t a mage. So, if we steal it from Shara, he won’t be able to chop anyone up, and everything will be fine.”

“Maybe we should spoil it, then? To put an end to the matter, forever.”

“No. Why spoil something that could be useful? We’ll hide it, let it sit somewhere. It might come in handy. Or maybe we’ll give it away to someone else, someone less wicked than this Shara of yours.”

“How will you know whether he is wicked or not? After all, you’re not going to start by giving him a chance, are you?” The girl laughed.

“Of course not. That’s why we’ll steal it, and it can sit there doing nothing. I’ve got a good strong trunk, and no-one will get it out of there. Right, then, shall we go?”

The girl dashed over to the pile of bundles, rummaged in one, pulled out a ragged wool cape, and wrapped herself in it.

“I’m ready!” Her eyes shone, her hair fell in a neat wave down to her shoulders. “Let’s go steal this Magic Power, and then me — you promised!”

“Let’s go!” Kaborga took her hand.

He took the candle from the dressing table. The girl opened the door, and they went out into a small corridor that smelled of dust and damp.

* * *

“We need to go down,” said the girl, “then along the corridor, and then make our way into the air vent.”

They began to go down the spiral staircase cautiously. Flickering shadows crept along the rough stonework of the walls in their wake. There was a draught from below, and the candle sputtered. Kaborga sheltered it with his hand.

“If it goes out, we’ll have to feel our way along. I’ve got nothing to light it with.”

“Neither have I. They come to me in the evening, light it, and leave. And that doesn’t happen every day.”

“How do you write your poems, then?”

“During the day.”

“I thought poems got written at night-time. What about your inspiration?”

“Ah, well, I get by without,” said the girl, sadly. “If we don’t have anything to light the candle with... Never mind, I know the way even by touch. I go there a lot.”

“Have you ever seen it there?”

“The Magic Power? No.”

“Do you have any idea, even roughly, where it might be?”

“No, how would I? I never even thought that Shara might have some kind of Magic Power, you see... What might it be in? Is it big?”

“I don’t know,” said Kaborga, thoughtfully. “I thought this power was something to drink. To start with, we’ll check his flasks and vials.”

They continued on their way down. At last, a black maw opened up in the wall — the aperture leading off into the corridor.

“We can go straight down the corridor from here.” The girl paused in front of the opening. “But a hex has been placed on the door there. Shara has barricaded the whole Castle off with his hexes — there’s nowhere left you can get to.”

“A hex? Maybe we should test it out?”

“What if it does kill us? It is a hex after all.”

“Let’s talk through the options. In this case, it’s got to be one of four.” Kaborga counted them off on his fingers. “First option — it doesn’t kill us, and the door opens. That’s the very best outcome, although the very best never actually happens. You don’t need me to tell you... Second option — it doesn’t kill us, although the door doesn’t open, either. Third option — it does kill us, but the door opens.”

“Typical.”

“Fourth option — it kills us, and also the door doesn’t open.”

“That would be easier to bear.”

“Well, maybe that's the only upside. So shall we try?”

“But what if it’s the third or fourth option?”

“Then it will put an end to the matter. Although I still want to know,” and Kaborga gazed off into the darkness, “what he wanted those rats’ tails for.”

“What difference would knowing make to us, though? What he wanted those rats’ tails for?”

“Well, he wouldn’t tell us anyway. This last while he’s just been nothing but clever. When we get back to my place, I’ll give you something interesting to read... So let's go deal with the hex.”

They moved along the corridor, chasing away the gloom with the candle-light. Soon, their way was blocked by a door.

“Well?” Kaborga spoke into the gloom. “Should I open it?”

“Shall we do it together? If we’re going to die, let’s do it together. Because I’ve spent all my life all by myself.” The girl squeezed his hand.

“All right, then... But your life hasn’t gone entirely to waste. See, we’ve even managed to figure out how to comb your hair properly. Only you never did read me your poetry... And I never did show you my book... Ah, well, it doesn’t matter now. When you’re about to die, it makes no difference anymore. Hold the candle.”

“It really is a shame that you didn’t get to steal me away after all.” The girl sighed.

“And you never did show me your poetry... And, still, I wish I knew what he wanted with those rats’ tails.”

They grabbed hold of the door handle and tried to pull the door open. It did not budge.

“Hmm...” Kaborga caught his breath. “It looks like what was supposed to happen did happen.”

“Do you mean the second? Outcome?”

“Well, yes... You see, sometimes you get your hopes up. You think maybe just for once I’ll hit the jackpot. But life turns round, and wallop! And it’s just as bad as ever.”

“Should we turn back?” The girl tugged at Kaborga’s wrist. “Since we didn’t get killed, let’s quickly nick the Magic Power and you’ll steal me away — you promised!”

“Hold on. You should do everything in the right order and without making a fuss. Every door in the world has two sides. First, let’s try the other direction, and then we'll go and I'll steal you away. Just don’t forget to show me your poem — you promised!”

Kaborga grasped hold of the doorknob again, and put all his weight into shoving the door. And nearly toppled over! The door creaked open into the darkness.

“Would you look at that?” said Kaborga and hemmed. “That’s the first time I’ve seen the best option out of four come up. Most likely, something somewhere has gone wrong.”

“Maybe it’s because we’re together?”

“Looks like it. Anyway, we’ve broken the hex... Either that, or it was never there to start with.”

“How do you mean it wasn’t there?” exclaimed the girl, seeming offended. “Shara said that whoever tried to break through the hex would instantly end up going through the mincer. They’d be killed on the spot, and wouldn’t even leave a damp stain!”

“That’s kind of strange. Shara says one thing, but it turns out different. Never mind... Do you know your way from here?”

“I think so. I’ve been here before, only I came from the other direction.”

“What good is a hex if a girl can get past it from the other side?”

“Well, I did come through the air vent!”

“Oh, I see. Of course, that’s a quite different matter.”

They went through the doorway and hurried along the corridor.

“I get it,” said Kaborga, looking at the columns that seemed to be sailing past, “it looks like this passageway leads through the keep and ends up in the tower. Our Castle has the same design — tower, keep, passageway up top.”

“I wonder why Shara needs your Castle, if it’s just the same as this one.”

“I’m not sure it’s the castle he’s after. In the letter he wrote it was us he wanted to chop up.”

“So what will he do with the castle once he’s chopped you up?”

“Tidy away the bits of us somewhere and leave, most likely. What is there to do in an empty castle?”

“But I thought that maybe he wants something from your old know-it-all. Maybe he also wants to take away his Magic Power. Haven’t mages got their own scores to settle?”

“Of course they do. But why chop us up? Look! Here’s another door...” Kaborga pushed the door with his arm, and it opened serenely. “Did you see that? Dreadful, mighty, and fierce he might be. But he didn’t lock his door.”

They went through and found themselves on a small platform built into the side of the main tower. To their left, a staircase carried on up around the wall; to their right, it led down. In front of them loomed a black abyss.

“Scary,” said the boy, looking down into the dark. The echo twisted in the tower’s stone well. “It’s the same at our place — not even a bannister. I’m always scared I’ll go over the edge. Recently, I haven’t even been going there, though... Our old know-it-all is hardly ever in, these days. And now he's just gone, after those rats’ tails of his.”

“Sounds like you’ve grown fond of your old know-it-all!” The girl looked into the chasm with fear.

“Well, he’s a grown man, after all!” muttered Kaborga, sadly. “He’s been alive for four hundred years. You’d never guess how many books he’s read. He’s got such a massive bookcase, it’s frightening just to look at. His books, meanwhile, are all about warfare, or earthquakes, or some other deadly business. He might have thought — what if it happens to us? Or maybe he considers that earthquakes won’t affect us? If we’re lucky enough to have him living with us? After all, the mountains are not that far away. And you get earthquakes in the mountains. There’s a lot about that in the books.”

They were standing on the edge of the platform, and the candlelight was dwarfed in the darkness. A cold breeze came up from below.

“Why do you think that hole is there?” The girl looked at the stairs and the walls. “Maybe it’s for the mages to fly back up to their quarters? Directly, so as not to bother with the staircases.”

“I’ve never once seen our one so much as jump.” Kaborga hemmed. “Shall we go?”

“But let’s take it steady, stay close to the wall... I don’t know how to fly, see!”

Kaborga took the girl by the shoulder and carefully led her away from the dreadful drop. They started slowly climbing, holding tight to the stone wall with their hands.

“It’s so cold!” The girl drew her woollen cape more tightly around her.

“Summer’s over.” Kaborga’s breath steamed in the candle light. “When I steal you away, you should wrap up warm.”

“Oh, I will. Can we take my books, can we? Do you have fresh ink in your Castle? I've almost completely watered mine down.”

“We do. I’ll give you a whole bottle. I pocketed it last year, at our old know-it-all’s place, when he invited me to his four-hundredth birthday.”

Finally they got to the platform at the top. Three exits led away.

“This one goes outside, out onto the very t-t-top.” The girl was shivering from the cold. “I don’t know where that one goes... And this one leads to Shara!”

“I w-w-wonder...” Kaborga’s teeth were chattering. “Are th-th-there any he-he-hexes up here? Well, I’m p-p-past caring, we’ll freeze to death otherwise...”

Kaborga turned the handle. The door opened. They crossed the porch, opened another door, and ended up in a big room. It was warm inside, and it soon took the chill off the two children. The girl went over to the wall, which was lined with bookcases and shelves that groaned under books, pouches, and glass jars.

“Do you see? Every bottle has a label! Just like in an apothecary!”

“An apothecary? What’s one of those?”

“I don’t know... I have a book about an apothecary. I always thought that an apothecary was neat and tidy. And take a look at how tidy all this is!”

“You know, mages, they’re all right, really... Meticulous types.”

“That’s right.” The girl was looking curiously over the rows of bottles. “Just imagine what it would be like if all this stuff hadn’t been labelled!”

“Not half. What if you mistook rats’ tails for dragonfly snouts? No, that's not it.” Kaborga examined the labels carefully. “Ugh, that’s revolting! Just take a look at this.”

“Cockroach heads, dried, and ground, tincture. In a thirty-seven per cent solution of mouse urine, matured for four hundred and fifty years. Science is not that simple, you know… Just imagine how many revolting things they have to sift through when they want to discover something.”

“That’s what drives me crazy! You cannot just sit there and get on with what you need to straight away. No, you need to poke and prod half a million times, squander a pile of good stuff, waste half your life on rats’ tails... Only to announce that it is all nonsense, what do you call it... Dust and ashes, and that the meaning of life, it turns out, is in some kind of pure knowledge!”

“Pure knowledge? That is, before it gets spoiled?”

“Hmm... Probably. On the whole, knowledge is a thing of its own. Never mind how you obtain it, from good sources or from bad... That’s the whole point, and why it is so useful. And anyway, between you and me, knowledge is a strange thing. Take our old buzzard. He also spent his whole life up to his waist in this kind of nastiness...”

Kaborga put the vial with some crooked insect floating in a greenish-yellow solution back in its place.

“You sit there, day and night, mixing one horrid thing with another... Never a chance to get out into the fresh air, to gaze up at the sun and the sky! Did you see how wonderful the sky was earlier today? How the cobwebs sparkled? Well, that’s the talk!”

“And what about looking out of the window at the sunset! Behind you, the sun has already set, and up ahead, in the east, the sky is emblazoned with such pure tones of blue! And that one star has already come out, and the air is so cold and fresh, it seems so sweet! And it’s all so peaceful and quiet, with the valley, the river under the sky, the forest under the mountains, all of it off in the distance. It’s all so marvellous! But they poke themselves up and poke around, with rats’ tails.”

“I don’t know what to make of it all.” Kaborga sighed, sadly. “After all, rats’ tails — they’re a part of all this, the sunshine, the sky... All in all, that’s a difficult question.” Kaborga kept on sifting through the vials. “I’m happy to leave it to the mages to figure out. Meanwhile, we’re on the brink of war. So what we need to do now is find the vial with the Magic Power and snaffle it. And then you’ll fetch your books — don’t forget your poem! — I’ll steal you away, and we’ll head back to my home. Right, then, the Magic Power isn’t in this one. This is the next shell... Here it is! I’ve found it!”

Kaborga made a great show of presenting the girl with a bottle containing a beautiful dark-burgundy coloured liquid. The girl cautiously took the Magic Power and held it up to the light.

“It’s beautiful! What a lovely deep colour! And just listen how it fizzes so wonderfully.”

“You know what...” Kaborga examined the Magic Power closely. “Maybe it is worthwhile messing about with rats’ tails after all... If you end up with a Magic Power like that? Look how beautiful it is!”

“‘Magic Power, distilled, matured for five thousand four hundred years.’ Crikey!”

“There’s just one thing that worries me.” Kaborga cautiously took the bottle. “What if we steal this Magic Power, but he’s got some more stashed away somewhere as a back-up? Obviously, we’re not going to be able to go through the whole place here.”

“I don’t think so. There can only be one Magic Power. Otherwise what’s the point of it?”

“I’m not so sure... What’s to stop you pouring some from this bottle into a different one?”

“No,” said the girl, firmly. “You can pour out anything you like, except Magic Power.”

“Here, let’s take a gulp each? Maybe after that we’ll be able to fly?”

“Better not. We don’t know the slightest thing about it. How does it affect ordinary people? I’m tempted, though... If there was some way of being cautious... Maybe if we just diluted it?”

“Then you'd better just pour some. It’s not worth spoiling a good thing... It’s time we went.” Kaborga took the girl by the hand. “It’s getting late, and I’ve got cut-throats waiting.”

“Are you going to steal me away now?” exclaimed the girl gleefully.

“Of course! I promised, didn’t I?”

They left the room. Kaborga, clasping the bottle to his chest protectively, started descending quickly.

“These cut-throats of yours, do they protect you?” The girl hurried after.

“Of course they do.”

“You’ve got some good ones, there!”

“But they’re unhappy, though.”

“How come? How can they be good, and unhappy?”

“Well, you are, aren’t you? Good, and unhappy? You don’t even have a comb. They desperately want someone to hack at, or run through with a pike, and they have wanted that ever since they were little. But life at our place is never-ending boredom, there’s never anything interesting. Now — this letter from Shara came. You should have seen how it gladdened their hearts. We’ve had war declared, and now, at last, they’ll be able to slice someone up into pieces, puncture them full of holes, like a sieve, or, at the very least, chop someone’s head off. Except they won’t! Me and you have stolen the Magic Power and now it looks like there won’t be a war. And once again my lads Tukka and Turgubaduk will start moaning and getting bored.”

“It’s not good, being bored,” said the girl, sadly. “And I should know. I’ve spent my whole life being bored. Maybe we can think of something else for them to do?”

“I already have. I thought of a wooden knight for them. And also I thought of a straw-filled dummy. They were happy to start with, but then they started moaning even more. You see, a wooden head is no good for them. But where am I supposed to find a real one? All the heads round here are wooden.”

“Listen, why don’t they run one of this lot here through? They’re all puffed up like toads. Especially that Chief Warden, it makes you sick just looking at him. Self-important, bloated — why don’t they run him through for starters? Then they can be happy! And it would do him the world of good.”

“Where is he now?”

“I don’t know,” said the girl, disappointedly. “He’s probably gone too. Off on this campaign.”

“Then it won’t work — we don’t have time. By the time we find him... Anyway, what’s the point, now? After all, I’m stealing you away, and we’re not about to take him along with us. We’ll take only the things we need. Meanwhile, he might as well ward.”

* * *

They made their way back down to the platform and along the corridor, passed through the scary door with the hex, and eventually found themselves back in the little room with the mirror, the desk, the bed, and the pile of bundles under the open window.

“Gather your things,” said Kaborga, speeding her along. “I’m about to steal you away.”

“I’ll be quick!” The girl joyously flittered around the room. “This bundle of books is still fastened up, the poems can hide in my handbag, and then just two more bundles — this one and this one — and now we can get going!”

“Best write a note, and leave it on the desk. Otherwise your people will start to worry.”

“They won’t,” The girl hummed. “They’re getting ready to conquer the world. They won’t even notice I’ve gone.”

“Write it anyway. You should always let grown-ups know if you’re being stolen away.”

The girl fished out a clean sheet of paper from one of the bundles, and neatly wrote a few lines in pale, diluted ink.

“’I have been stolen away,’” read Kaborga aloud. “’Don’t worry. The place I am being taken to is good, and not boring. And I will have my hair combed every evening. And every morning. And I will be given a full bottle of ink. And anyway you’ve got to go and conquer the world. If you need to get in touch, write to me.’ That’s a different matter. Let’s go!”

He weighed the note down with the comb, leaving the candle alongside, then went over to the window.

“We’ll need to make our way along the ledge — somewhere on there we’ll find my rope. Take your books!”

He helped the girl over the windowsill, and they cautiously made their way along the ledge, and the whole world, bathed in moonlight, was at their feet, and the clean air of the breeze ruffled their clothes and their hair. They made it as far as the grappling hook. Kaborga reached down for the rope, pulled it up, and fastened it around the girl. She pressed the bundle of books close to her with her left hand, and took hold of the rope with her right, and Kaborga began to lower her down the wall. Eventually, the rope went slack. Kaborga pulled it back up, and sent the lightweight bundles down next. Then he came down himself, hand over fist.

“Let’s go home!” He picked up the bundles.

They made for the moat. Kaborga’s horse was wandering off to one side, grazing on the dewy night-time grass. Tukka and Turgubaduk were fast asleep on the bank of the moat, lit silver by the rays of the full moon.

“Tukka! Turgubaduk!” Kaborga quietly roused them. “Reveille!”

“But boss, we’re not asleep,” said Tukka, opening his eyes.

“We’re on guard, boss,” sputtered Turgubaduk.

“You tricked us again, boss,” said Tukka, plaintively. “There wasn’t anyone here at all!”

“We searched all around here, boss,” said Turgubaduk, indignantly. “We covered every inch, but couldn’t find anyone!”

They started goggling at the girl.

“No-one at all, as if they had all died of their own accord,” said Tukka, in a lost tone. “Have I gone and dragged my halbard with me again to no avail? It’s spoiling for the want of someone to hack at!”

“It’s all your fault, boss,” said Turgubaduk, in a distressed tone. “And now you’ve gone and stolen the Magic Power, and the war will be called off. Who am I going to stab with my pike? It’s already gone rusty for the want of anyone to stab!”

“And so it turns out we can’t even chop any heads off in a decent manner, let alone slice them up into pieces!”

“Whose guts will we get to spill now?”

The cut-throats stared at the girl, and started up their nattering again.

“So who’s this, then, boss?” whined Tukka, indicating the girl with his halbard. “From the tower, is she?”

“Who is she, boss?” whined Turgubaduk, indicating the girl with his pike. “Is she someone we can...”

“No,” Kaborga cut them off, as he helped the girl up into the saddle. “Not her.”

“Aw, at least let me get her blood flowing with my cudgel, boss!” Tukka was on the verge of tears. “Not so as it would hurt her, mind... Otherwise what was the point of bringing it?”

They crossed the meadow and set off on the journey back. The girl, who had made herself comfortable behind Kaborga, gazed at the hills, the forest; the teeth of the mountains delineated against the horizon by the moonlight, and eavesdropped on the conversation.

“Boss, you never show us any love!” muttered Tukka in a sleepy voice. “We’re devoted! We’d do anything! But you? You drag us out of a cosy, warm castle in the dead of night...”

“Boss, what did we do to deserve it?” muttered Turgubaduk, yawning. You promised us everything under the sun, yet you end up dragging back some girl, of all things.”

“And you didn’t even let me have a go with my cudgel,” added Tukka, in a crushed tone.

“It’s your own fault!” snarled Kaborga. “Who was it who went chasing after that hedgehog? Who was it that got stuck in a ditch for half an hour? Who was it that had to get cleaned up? I tried to warn you! Did you think that they were going to wait for us? Let’s wait, they’d say, another half hour or so, until Tukka and Turgubaduk get here and run us through? Stab us in the guts?’”

“Oh, but he was such a cutie,” said Tukka, in his deep voice. “He had such sweet little ears, and a cute little nose!”

“And did you see his bright little eyes, as well?” gasped Turgubaduk. “And the way he snuffled!”

“He had such cute little spikes! All dark at the bottom, but all silvery at the top.”

“What about his little claws? They were so sweet and sharp! Almost as sharp as my pike.”

“No, as my halbard!”

“I don’t think so! Like my pike! I’m going to wallop your ear!”

“Come on then! I’ll give you a black eye!”

The girl chuckled.

“Best leave them to it,” said Kaborga, dismissively. “We’ve still got another two hours left to go.”

* * *


FOUR BARRELS OF PURE GOLD


Most days, even in winter, the racket in the tavern on the Coast was deafening. The regulars would swarm around the huge table in front of the fire, cheek by jowl with those just passing through — the people who lived in the town further up the hill, and those who would moor up at the jetty nestling under the cliff and do the rounds of the pubs, telling tall tales, swigging grog, handing out black eyes, and maybe losing the odd tooth in return — before setting sail once again on the stormy winter seas.

This time, the weather was particularly inhospitable. Outside, it was blowing a gale. Foamy waves were crashing onto the beach. Soggy clouds were clinging close to the water surface. A cold, sullen twilight had descended; not a soul ventured out, and the tavern was empty. The only sounds to break the unwonted silence were the howl of the wind without and the singular conversation within.

In the tavern this evening there were: a couple of sailors from the Southern shore (their captain was waiting out the storm up in the castle, over a glass of something strong with the Count); a couple of sailors from the Northern quarter (they’d missed their boat, and now they were loafing around, trying to get taken on somewhere, anywhere); an old man, who spent every evening here regardless of the weather (and still no-one knew what he was called or where he lived); two young lads.

A fire was roaring merrily in the hearth, a lamp gave off a cosy glow near the ceiling, and by the smell of it, something tasty was cooking in the kitchen. The old fellow was interrogating the southern sailors, in between mouthfuls of grog from a huge tankard.

“Who’s your captain? The Salty Rat?”

“That’s right...”

“Him I know... What about the bosun? Baldskull the Bearded?”

“That’s right...”

“Him I know... So, are you bound for the Knife-Edge Cliffs?”

“That’s right...”

“Them I know... So, obviously, you’ll be crossing Dead Rip?”

“Well, yes. How else?”

“Another ship sank there just last week,” said the old man, with a certain satisfaction. “The Rip’s a fearful place at the best of times, but all the more so in winter. Why not go via the Island? It’d be quicker and calmer, I daresay.”

“Calmer? Old fella, you’re a comedian as well, clearly.” The southern sailor snorted, and banged his mug on the table-top. “Quicker? Sure, it’s quicker, much quicker. But calmer? Don’t make me laugh.”

“What do you mean, ‘don’t make me laugh’?” The old man peered at each one of them in turn. “Are you scared of the Dragon? You poor boys! There ain’t no Dragon there.”

“Yeah, right,” snarled the sailors in reply. “You’ll be telling us next there’s no such thing as dragons.”

“Of course there isn’t. Look how old I am, and I’ve never seen one.”

“Pull the other one!” barked a southern sailor. “Why, I’ve seen the Dragon myself, and that more than once!”

“Pull the other one. What does he look like?”

“Well, I don’t know... It was night-time when I saw him. Well, not him, as such, but how he flew. And I heard him. Fire, thunder! He flew by, and there was such a squall. It nearly turned us over. And I did see him last winter. Not far from here, as it happens. How can you bear to live here, closer than anyone to the Island?”

“We manage, somehow. Because that was no Dragon.” The old man took a sip of his grog.

“Ha! So who was it, then? Our Rat? He wouldn’t make such a racket as that, even if he downed a whole barrel. He’d stink worse than any dragon, that’s true.”

The sailors roared with laughter.

“What nonsense is this?” One of the lads, who had been sitting at the edge of the table and listening in, suddenly butted into the conversation. His round face expressed disgusted irritation. “Dragons don’t stink!”

“Hmm.” The old man turned to face the boy. “And how would you know?”

“I’ve been on that island, several times. And I’ve seen the Dragon.”

“So is it true that he set a whole convoy on fire this summer?” asked a sailor from the North.

“That’s a load of rubbish.”

“But there was a convoy! At least, there was until it vanished. They couldn’t all have sunk, could they? Not every last ship? The seas round here are always calm in summer.”

“A convoy.” The boy wrinkled his nose. “It’s not dragons you should be asking about the reasons why convoys go missing. The Dragon on the Island has a cave full of treasure, and he’s got so much gold there that you’d need more than ten years to carry it all away, no matter how many ships you had. So the idea he’d bother about your convoys, it’s...”

“Aye, well, we’ve all heard those stories.” The old man took a sip of his grog. “Like how he’s been guarding it for four thousand years by now, and every week they bring him a young maiden...”

“The young maidens, now, he flies off to fetch them himself,” butted in one of the southerners. “He flies down to us, once a month, and gobbles down a young maiden.”

“Everyone knows that young maidens are the only things a dragon eats,” added one of the northerners.

“You’re quite right.” The boy with the round face sneered, in irritation. “Ordinary women give them heartburn. I daresay you’ve heard that as well, haven’t you?” He looked at the old man.

“’Course I have,” the latter nodded, sipping grog. “So anyway, have you seen this for yourself? How the Dragon flies in and feeds on ‘em?” The old man turned back to the southerner. “Or was that also... At night?”

“People talk.” The sailor looked at the bottom of his empty mug.

“People talk, but you shouldn’t listen,” retorted the boy. “You come out with all kinds of nonsense, yet you’ve never dared even to approach to the Island yourself.”

“And I suppose you have?”

The boy just waved his hand.

“There’s no point trying to explain it to you. If you like the notion of dragons eating young maidens, why not let them do so? Except that they don’t, no matter how much it disappoints you.”

“So just what do they eat, then?” said the old man. “Did your Dragon not tell you?”

“For starters, he’s not mine, but yours. It’s you lot that live closest of all to him. Me, I’m from the East, but we don’t have any dragons left, these days. Secondly, no, he didn’t say. He and I would never raise such a dull topic of conversation as that.”

“Ha-ha-ha!” The sailors burst out laughing and banged their mugs on the table. “So just what did you talk to him about, then?”

“About the wonder of existence.” The boy looked at the sailors with dislike. “Who else would I talk to about the wonder of existence? With you lot? Well, I’ll be off... It’s just the same old thing here, like everywhere along the Coast. The Dragon set fire to a convoy, the Dragon ate a young maiden, the Dragon is a murderer and arsonist, never gives us a moment’s piece. And the main thing is, cunning monster that he is, you never actually see him without a barrel-full of grog inside you. Anyway, see you around...”

He drank up, set his mug down on the table, left a coin alongside, and made for the door. Before he could step outside, though, he was stopped by the other young lad, who had been sitting there all along, taking it all in with interest.

“Listen,” he said, hesitantly. “I need to talk to you. Can you hang on for a couple of minutes?”

“That I can,” replied the boy with the round face, taking a good look at this stranger.

They went over to the table, getting their oilskins caught up on the benches.

“My name is Sheda,” said the stranger, by way of introduction. “I’m apprenticed to the local astrologer. I live with the Count, in the castle.”

“I’m Lepa. A pirate. I ply the seas all round here. I thiefe and I rob.”

“You thiefe? Is that how they talk over your way, in the East? Listen... I don’t suppose you’re planning to head back to the Island again, are you?”

“Not right now, no. Why, do you need to get to the Dragon?”

“Um, that’s right...” Sheda was again hesitant. “You see, I’ve been searching all month for someone who might drop me off there. You know yourself, no-one heads out that way.”

“You’re not wrong there.” Lepa chuckled, looking over at the old man and the sailors, who were still engaged in their banter.

“It’s like this — I can’t pay you any money, I haven’t got enough. So I’m looking for someone who could maybe drop me off on their way somewhere.”

“You’d be waiting a long time.” Lepa chuckled. “Even if you did have money. But, anyway, what’s the rush? Wait until spring. Someone’d take you as far as the sandbanks, for definite, and from there take a skiff. In the spring, like?”

“You see... I can’t wait any longer. In fact, I can’t wait at all! Look, our count has a daughter. I really like her. You know, in fact, I can’t live without her. As though she and I had been together somewhere before, and we’ve met again in this world, so that we can be together again. No, it’s like she and I were simply fetched away together from somewhere else... But in this world... Oh, never mind! How can I explain it to you...”

“You can’t,” said Lepa gloomily. “Basically, you need gold so that you can redeem the girl from the Count. Otherwise, it goes without saying, you won’t get to see her.”

“That’s right!” exclaimed Sheda, relieved that he wouldn’t have to try and explain such a delicate situation. “He’d hardly give her away to me just like that. For one thing, who am I, in the grand scheme of things? For another...”

“Who’s who and who’s not. It’s all the same to the Count, whoever you are. You’ve got to see it from his point of view, too. For him, whether it’s his girl, his land, or his money, it’s all capital. He’s got the cares of the state on his shoulders! He’s got to think in a statesmanlike manner! Do you know how to think in a statesmanlike manner? That’s a skill you’ve got to learn. Only, they don’t teach it anywhere. But while you’re still figuring it out for yourself, you end up not having much state left.”

“So,” Sheda nodded, “I want to resolve this problem. If she and I elope, it will end up just the same as if we are robbing the Count. And he’s got a state to feed... If we don’t elope, and the Count sells her off to some prince or other, say from the Northern side — there’s one I’ve seen — then... I don’t matter, but what about her! You know, if anyone were to upset her, then I’d... I’d...”

“I get it.” Lepa waved an arm in frustration. “I’d do the same myself. Even though I don’t like the sight of blood.”

“What about the pirating?”

“I told you, I thiefe and rob. It’s not like I go round cutting people up.” Lepa grimaced in disgust. “I sink them now and then, sure, but there’s no bloodletting involved... Never mind. I don’t have anything in particular on the go just now. People are staying close to the shore. It’s winter, you can work it out for yourself. The seas can be rough for weeks on end. There’s no-one to rob, nothing to sink. Sheer boredom. Tomorrow morning, it should calm down, and we’ll head out. It’s a day’s sail, so we should get there by the evening, provided the wind doesn’t change. And it won’t, I’ve been sailing these parts since I was wearing nappies, I know the weather like the back of my hand.”

“Since you were wearing nappies?”

“I come from a pirate family!” declared Lepa, with a gloomy pride.

“Awesome! It’s a shame you and I didn’t get to know each other earlier!”

“There’s a time for everything.”

“Where shall we meet?”

“Come to the jetty at first light. We’ll head off to the island, have a chat with the Dragon, and we’ll buy off your girl. The old boy is a great guy. You really need money, and you haven’t got any. While he’s got a cave which is full to the brim. All kinds of gold, diamonds, and gemstones. He’ll cough up a couple or three barrels of gold. I reckon that should be enough for your count — he will have enough to count.”

“It’s just... Is it alright if we both come?”

“You and the girl?” Lepa wrinkled his nose so hard that Sheda gave a start. “A woman on board ship... Oh, all right, what are we to do with you. I understand. And, actually, you’d need to show her to the old boy anyway. Basically, be on the jetty at first light tomorrow.”

“Brilliant! What is your ship called?”

“It isn’t,” said Lepa, sadly.

“Why? Surely a ship has to have a name? It must be called something?”

“A ship must, yes. Only where are you going to find one of them these days — a genuine ship? Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow. First light, on the jetty. Just don’t be late.”

He stood, made his way to the door, wrapping himself up in his oilskin as he went, and stepped out into the wind and the gloom.

* * *

The morning broke just as gloomily and drearily as the previous day had been, except that the wind had died down. A rain had drummed down before dawn, bringing out the smell of the heather. The waves washed morosely up against the stonework of the jetty. The sodden cliffs above the shore dissolved in the low-hanging clouds.

In the east, over the sea, out where the sun was rising, there shone cold rays of light. The ships alongside the jetty were bobbing up and down smoothly and slowly, and the rigging was creaking. Merry seagulls were darting like arrows over the water, shattering the silence of the wintry shore with their cries.

On the road down from the town, two people were making their way down towards the jetty — a boy and a girl. Threading their way past the barrels, boxes, and sacks, they got closer to a plumpish, round-faced boy who, coat undone, hands thrust into his pockets, was pacing up and down alongside the boats.

“Didn’t I ask you not to be late?” he said, gloomily.

“You said at dawn,” said Sheda.

“And dawn has broken!”

“Not yet it hasn’t!” the girl butted in. She smiled, and her eyes shone from under her hood. “The dawn is when it’s completely light! And now it’s just dawning!”

“Here we go.” Lepa gazed at the girl with a sour expression. “It’s starting... Oh, never mind. I promised, didn’t I? Do you understand? Dawn is when the sun first appears over the horizon. Once it has appeared, that means dawn is over already.”

“Are you sure it has appeared already?” The girl looked up into the cloudy sky.

“Here we go...” Lepa walked around the girl, looking her up and down. “It really is starting.”

“What do you think?” asked Sheda, cautiously. “Will we be all right?”

Lepa walked around the girl again:

“She’ll do, I guess... She’ll do. You can count on a couple or three barrels in the bag. The old boy will see her worth, don’t worry. I can’t say for sure, but maybe... Providing she keeps her mouth shut, of course... Maybe he might even give you four. Basically, let’s see. What’s her name?”

“Mita... Will that be all right?”

“It’s good enough.” Lepa sighed. “Shall we go, then?”

He turned around and set off, walking towards a small vessel with a single mast. At the top of the mast, flapping in the wind, there was a black flag emblazoned with a white skull and crossbones.

“Look at that!” exclaimed the girl. “A pirate flag! I know it, I’ve seen it in a book! That’s great, isn’t it? We’ll be sailing under a real pirate flag!”

They went aboard over a flimsy gangplank. There was a crew of three in charge of the boat.

“Attention, men!” barked Lepa in a thick voice. “Form up!”

The crew quickly drew themselves up and assembled into a short file.

“This is Vermukh.” Lepa prodded a hefty lad in the stomach; he had a small head and no neck. “This is Gumka,” said Lepa, moving on to the next sailor; he was so lanky and awkward that it was a mystery how he had managed not to get blown overboard all this time. “This is Kubrulukuk,” said Lepa, by way of introducing the last; he was a short, roly-poly homunculus of a man, with huge ears. “All in all, they’re a competent bunch. They know the ropes... When I tell them what to do and how to do it. And we don’t ask anything more from them than that. To your stations!” he bellowed, in his thick voice.

Vermukh, Gumka, and Kubrulukuk scattered over the deck.

“Cast off,” Lepa gave a solemn command.

“Awesome!” exclaimed the girl, looking all around. “You even talk like a real captain. I know, I’ve read it in a book. ‘Cast off!’ Incredible… You’ve got a cosy boat!” Mita gazed at the mast, the sails, the black flag, and the other such rig, all neatly stowed away on the deck. “I like it very much. Why don’t we, once you have bought me out, set off in her and go voyaging? As long as it’s under the black flag, mind. What is she called? How many people can she carry? Actually, can you go beyond the Sea in her?”

“For starters,” said Lepa angrily, as he pushed his new acquaintances away from the deck side, “it’s not a boat, but a vessel. A ship! Got it? Secondly, just right now, I reckon I’d give a barrel of gold myself, if it meant you’d get bought out quicker. Thirdly, when we buy you out, I will need to head home, because my grandmother has taken ill. Got it?”

“Yes! Let’s get the gold as soon as possible, and we’ll set sail to cure your grandmother.”

“No. Go below, and don’t let me see you up here.”

“How far do we need to sail? Is it true that...”

“Yes, it’s true! It’s all true, all of it, whatever you ask. I need to get to work.”

He shot away to start giving his commands.

Sheda and Mita went below into the sole cabin and arranged themselves there on a small settee. Suspended from the cabin ceiling, there was a cage, in which a dishevelled dirty-yellow parrot was swinging to and fro. When they came in, it opened one eye a little, looked at them, frowned some more, and ruffled its feathers up even further.

“Look, Sheda, look! It’s a parrot! I know, I’ve got one in a book!”

She dashed over to the cage, but the parrot instantly woke up, bristled, and began to squawk:

“Look out below! Help! Look out below!”

Lepa’s head thrust through the hatch:

“Don’t touch the bird!”

“I wasn’t going to touch him, actually,” said Mita sulkily as she went back to the settee. “I was only having a look. Where did you get him from? Look, Sheda, that means that parrots do exist. But back home, in the castle...”

Lepa disappeared. From up on deck, stern commands once more rang out. The crew swarmed over the deck, their footsteps clattering. Lepa swore.

“No! See, you’re a block-head, to boot! Vermukh, you’d do better coming over here! Kubrulukuk, you dolt! Who is pulling that way? What did I do to deserve this? No, not that one! Any minute now we’ll turn turtle, you lop-eared numbskull! Right, that’s it. I’ll throw you all overboard!”

The sails had been set, and the ship was gathering way. Further out from shore, the wind freshened, and the wave tips foamed and beat against the ship sides. Mita could not resist, she sprang out onto the deck and ran over to the foc’s’le, wrapped her arms around the grabrails, and stood there, stockstill. The wind tore away her hood and ruffled her hair. The girl turned her head from side to side, gazing at the sea, the tattered clouds, the gloomy dawn, the taut sails.

“How wonderful!” She turned to face Lepa, who had dashed headlong after her. “But you make us sit in that box!”

“Isn’t it just?” snarled Lepa, seizing hold of her wrist. “You might at least have warned us that you were running off to get drowned. Any minute now, the wind will blow you overboard, and the dogfish will have you! I won’t try and fish you out.” He pointed at the choppy seas.

“But I won’t drown.”

“That’s what you all say,” said Lepa, sullenly. “Do you like it?”

“Awfully! I’ve never been on a sailboat.”

“Right, that’s enough,” hissed Lepa, his temper boiling over once again. “Either you start talking properly, or I will lock you up in a box! And that’s where you’ll look out at the sea and breathe in the fresh air from. Do I make myself clear?”

“Of course!” The smile never left Mita’s face. “But I don’t know! After all, I’ve never...”

“Never sailed before,” prompted Lepa, sternly.

“Well, yes. So if I do say something wrong, don’t tell me off, but tell me what I should say instead. Whenever something is wrong, you all only start mocking. But putting people right, so that they do better in future? Never.”

“Who do you mean by ‘you all’?”

“People.”

“Mita, don’t argue with the captain,” interjected Sheda, who had run out on deck after Mita. “Captains are not to be argued with.”

“I’m not arguing.”

“What do you mean, not arguing, when...”

“Enough!” roared Lepa, holding his head in his hands. “Back in the box!”

“You’re a nasty, inhuman man!”

“Vermukh!” yelled Lepa, hurrying away. “Which way are you winding it, you blockhead? I should wind you on the rudder right now! Gumka, who on Earth puts the helm over like that! When will you finally get blown overboard? Kubrulukuk, put that stay down! Any minute now you’ll send us all off to the fish for breakfast, you jug-eared dim-wit. When will this ever end?”

The ship made its steady way through the choppy waters. Never mind how much Lepa swore at his crew, they knew their business. The sails billowed out, sending the vessel speeding powerfully eastward. The black flag fluttered in the wind, flashing the skull’s grin. Lepa was still bellowing, moving about the boat, and checking the rigging, until he came back to the foc’s’le. Sheda and Mita were standing, transfixed, peering into the grey waters.

“Are you enjoying it?” Lepa asked.

“I want to live like this, too!” Mita could hardly tear her eyes away from the sea. “To sail, to thiefe, and to rob. To cast off first thing in the morning, and go to sea! To feel the wind on your cheek, to see the foam of the waves, to hear the rustle of the sail, and to run up the skull and crossbones! And ahead, only the horizon meeting the heavens! It might be cold, but, oh, it’s wonderful! And the spray is damp, and salty!”

“That it is,” chuckled Lepa mirthlessly. “What’s more, it’s not every day you set sail for the Dragon on the Island.”

“The Dragon! They say he’s made up! But he’s really real!”

“He’s real, all right,” grumbled Sheda. “But that’s neither here nor there. We’ll get the gold, and go straight home.”

“You can, if you want to. But I want to stay with him for a while. We’ll have tea. When else will I get to visit a Dragon? Just imagine if it doesn’t work out for us. Will I have to sit locked up in the castle, again, like a rabbit in the box?”

“You will. We’ll sail away, and how will you get back? Swim it?”

“The Dragon will take me back.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“Very well, you two can figure that out between you...” Lepa hemmed, looking them up and down, and then off he went to roust out the crew. “Vermukh! You incorrigible idiot! Did you ever see anyone tighten it like that? I’ll throw you overboard.”

* * *

The wind grew stronger. The ship cut determinedly through the waves. The sun climbed higher in the sky, pouring out light through the layer of clouds. It struck noon. Sheda had frozen stiff, and went down into the cabin to warm up, risking the wrath of the parrot. Mita stayed on deck, unable to wrench her gaze from the sea and sky.

“Are you enjoying it?” every now and then, Lepa would run up to her and ask.

“Take me with you on your ship!” she would reply. “I will try! I will learn.”

“Maybe...” Lepa would weigh it up. “We’ll see. Maybe as cabin boy...”

Eventually, Lepa called them all into the cabin to have lunch. Mita had had to be dragged in by force, because she hadn’t been willing to leave the deck for anything. (“I’ll have my lunch later on, and even if I don’t have my lunch, then I’ll do without. But when it comes to standing on deck, feeling the wind, seeing the skull and crossbones — when will I ever get a chance to do that again?”)

“You’ve got to have lunch!” remonstrated Lepa, shoving the girl into the cabin. “You’ll die of starvation, and what good will that do us for our trip?”

“Oh, no, I won’t.” Mita pouted. “It’s you lot who’ll die. It’s not like people die from skipping just one meal.”

“Oh, yes, they do!”

“No, they don’t.”

“Not another word!” yelled out Lepa, thumping his fist on the table. “Shut up and eat! Here, have some of this, it’s dried crab...”

“Crab?” Mita shrank back. “Like the ones that come out on the beach in the morning? They’re ever so round and cute, with their little legs and nippers. The ones which can walk sideways ever so cleverly? And I’m supposed to eat them?! I won’t eat crabs!”

“Oh, yes, you will!” said Lepa, angrily. “Eat! Right now!”

“I won’t eat crabs! I used to pick them up and hold them, and they’d wave their little feet! Eat them yourselves, you bloodsuckers!”

“Basically, she eats all sorts of horrid.” Sheda sighed. “Herbs, leaves, peapods, tubers, you name it. I don’t know how I’ll get on living with her, I really don’t.”

“So you can eat seaweed!” Lepa flamed up. “You can eat horrid, revolting seaweed!”

“Give it here.” Mita took a bunch of seaweed from the pirate. “It’s you lot who are horrid and revolting, but seaweed is tasty. And it’s good for you. But you eat your crabs, you murderers.”

She munched on her seaweed.

“Give me the seaweed!” the parrot piped up all of a sudden. “Give me the seaweed!”

“The seaweed was meant for him,” said Lepa, worn-down. “You’ve done the guy out of his lunch.”

Mita, still avoiding anyone’s gaze, went over to the cage and started sharing the long fronds with the parrot. They munched away together.

“What about the crew?” asked Sheda.

“They’re feeling shy. They’ll be eating in their quarters, or on the quarter-deck. In the fresh air.”

“What do they have to eat?” asked Mita. “Are they bloodsuckers, too?”

“Oh, give it a rest.” Lepa almost choked. “Be quiet! You shouldn’t talk at mealtimes!”

“So be quiet yourself, then.”

“Listen,” Lepa addressed himself to Sheda. “Let’s turn round before it’s too late, eh? If we don’t, it’ll be too late, trust me! I can turn the tiller, it won’t take a moment.”

Sheda sighed and looked away.

“Ah, well. Never mind.” The pirate waved his hand dismissively. “It’s none of my business.”

“What can I do about it?” said Sheda, quietly.

“Ooh, I’m going to give you what for!” said Mita, offended. “Take a good look at yourself.”

“Never mind, never mind... Don’t get upset.”

“I’m not upset. It’s you two who keep getting upset. But I’m not upset. Why would I be upset? I’ll give you what for.”

And that’s how they remained — Mita and the parrot, with ruffled feathers both, munching on seaweed; the parrot in his cage, and Mita underneath, on the settee.

The ship sailed on over the sea, the swell was smooth and gentle. Mita curled up and dozed off. Sheda solicitously drew an oilskin up over her, and he and the pirate went on deck.

“We’re sailing closer to the wind,” decided Lepa, sniffing the tart air. “Added to which, we need to change course at this point. Better not continue sailing that way, it’s full of shoals just under the surface,” and he pointed east. “Lose track of the moon, and it’s all over. We’ll give it a wide berth. Vermukh! Gumka! Kubrulukuk! Rouse yourselves, you wasters! Rudder to windward! Look to the sheets! Move yourselves!”

Once more, the hoarse orders rang out. The sails were reset, the vessel turned before the wind, and tacked left, towards the south-east.

“Wind is nor’-nor’-west,” said Lepa as he shot past. “With the wind abaft the beam, we’ll soon get past.”

“How come you know all this?” said Sheda, in respectful admiration.

“What is it that surprises you?” Lepa snorted.

“Well, you’re a pirate, aren’t you?”

“That I am! I thiefe and I rob with all my might.”

“Well, pirates are crude and uneducated, aren’t they?”

“Now you listen here!” said Lepa, bristling with anger. “I should throw you overboard right now, feed you to the dogfish. Or at least blacken your eye for you. Pirates aren’t people? Do you think we don’t go to school? Kubrulukuk! Who furls a sail like that? You’re no better than a plank with big ears. You blockheads!”

Sheda made his way onto the foc’s’le and clambered onto the bowsprit. The ship was cutting through the foamy waves. The boy fixed his gaze forward, into the murky distance.

Dusk was setting in. Kubrulukuk diligently ran up to the ship’s bell to ring out the time. The wavering clang rang out over the wintry sea. Lepa reset course once again, now that the dangerous waters had been avoided. They faced the prospect of sailing rather close-hauled in order to head north-east. But just then the wind swung sharply to the west, and Vermukh and Kubrulukuk had to re-rig the sails yet again, so that they caught the wind properly. The ship ran east, fully before the wind.

“Would you look at that?” Lepa rushed up. “I’ve never known such a wonderful wind as this before! Let alone in winter. Looks like it’s really necessary to buy off that lassie of yours. It’s all right, it’s all right. All things considered, she’s tolerable. I’ve carried worse,” he said, reassuringly, and sped off, yelling into the wind: “Vermukh, you wretched swine! Who pays a line out like that? Are you trying to make out that I’ve never shown you how to pay out a line? I’ll pay you out in a minute, you dolt! Gumka! Did you bother to look at the compass today at all?”

And shortly, he came running back to Sheda.

“Take a good look! If there wasn’t such a murk today, we’d see it by now! We’ll be there soon!”

He waved his arm in the direction they were headed, and ran off again. Sheda peered toward the horizon and made out the black specks of cliffs against the skyscape of clouds.

“Land ahoy!” he yelled as he dashed for the cabin. There he began to pluck at the slumbering Mita: “Land! The Island! The Dragon!”

“Where? Really? Already?”

Mita, dishevelled, burst out of the cabin, flew up onto the foc’s’le, and stood gazing into the murky distance.

“Hooray! But where’s the Dragon? Why is there no Dragon? Where is he?”

“Relax!” came the hoarse reply from Lepa. “You’ll get your Dragon, don’t you worry. The old boy doesn’t like to come out of his cave in damp weather. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t like water. How come you don’t know that?”

“So how come he made his home on the Island, then? Why not in the middle of a desert somewhere?”

“Because the Island has a cave full of treasure! And dragons should live in a cave full of treasure and guard it! That’s all there is to it!” And again he shot off.

“So how did the treasure end up on the Island?” yelled Mita at his retreating back. “Has it been there a long time? Is there a lot of it?”

“Oh, Mita, how would he know?” said Sheda, sorrowfully. “Give the poor lad a break for once. He’s doing us a good turn, and you...”

“And I what?” said Mita indignantly, as she battled with the wind to keep her hair out of her face. “Are you saying I can’t even ask him questions? You sit there for ever and ever in the castle like a rabbit in a box, and they don’t even let you ask any questions. A girl could take offence at that, and never come back round.”

Mita stared straight ahead, pouting. In a minute, though, she clapped her hands again:

“The Island! It’s getting close now!”

The Island was indeed getting closer and closer. Gloomy cliffs rose up over the stormy sea. And now sandy bars could be made out, against which the waves foamed. Merry seagulls whirled over the boat, fighting the wind. The black wall of the cliff quickly loomed closer.

“But where will we moor up?” said Mita in alarm. “There isn’t a jetty there, is there?”

“We’ll drop anchor,” Lepa had come running up. “And take the dinghy!”

“A dinghy, that has oars, doesn’t it? Are we going to row? Awesome! I’ve read about that...”

But Lepa had already gone again, leaving in his wake only hoarse yells ringing out across the deck. He decided not to reef the sails but only to spill the wind from the sails and slacken the sheets — that way, they would be able to get back on board and under way again quickly, if things didn’t go to plan. Lepa did not trust the capricious wintertime weather, and several times he’d reminded them that:

“It might be calm just now, with a favourable wind. But in a couple of hours, it could be blowing a gale...”

Finally, Vermukh, Gumka, and Kubrulukuk paid out the anchor. The chains rattled, the anchor splashed into the foamy water with a greedy gurgling sound. Lepa battened down the hatch to the cabin, where the parrot was dozing, and sped off to launch the dinghy.

They embarked. Lepa yelled at the crew to keep a watch on both sides and to stay alert (because he wouldn’t hesitate to feed them to the fishes, and the dog-fish were waiting), hauled on the oars, and the dinghy sprang over the waves. Sheda and Mita could not tear their eyes away from the empty shore.

They rowed to shore. Mita, not waiting for the dinghy to reach dry land, jumped into the water, dashed onto the pebbly beach, and called out:

“Dragon! We’re here! Where are you? We’ve come to visit you and fetch some gold!”

“Mita!” yelled Sheda. “Have you lost your mind? Look at the weather! You’ll catch your death of cold!”

“Ah, no, she won’t,” piped up Lepa. “But she might catch a chill and grow hoarse... Lose her voice...”

He dragged the dinghy out of the water and onto the pebbles:

“What are you waiting for?” shouted Leta. “Let’s go — look, it’s already getting dark!”

“Don’t make such a fuss. I still have to load some stones into the dinghy to make her fast.”

“So make her fast, then, and let’s go! The Dragon won’t wait for us for ever! And, anyway, what if he’s not at home? What if he’s flown off somewhere on business? Did you bother to find that out before we set sail?”

“In this weather?” Lepa snorted.

At last, the dinghy was made fast. Lepa headed for the cliffs, threading his way between the rocks, seeking out the path which would take them up the mountain. When they had reached the entrance to a concealed ravine, the children looked back at the gloomy sea, the lowering sky, and the lonely ship with its white skull on a black flag. Then on they went, disappearing into the gorge.

* * *

“Right, then,” said Lepa, when they had reached a plateau. “Let me do the talking, got it? Everyone else, stay quiet!” He looked at Mita, sternly. “Repeat that to me!”

“Everyone else stays quiet.” Mita’s smile never wavered.

The wind howled over the plateau. The twilight deepened. Up ahead, the outline of the mountain took shape in the gloom.

“That’s where we’re going,” Lepa said, gesturing with his arm. “How are you getting on with those damp legs?” He drew his jacket more snugly around himself. “In this weather...”

“I’ve already warmed up.”

“She’s a tough one, my girl,” added Sheda, with pride. “She goes swimming in the sea all year round. Even in gales and snow.”

“It’s so wonderful, swimming in a gale!” exclaimed Mita, walking between the two boys.

“I’m not so sure about that,” muttered Lepa. “I don’t like it.”

“Have you ever tried it?”

“Huh. When you sail under the Jolly Roger, it can happen.”

“But you should try it yourself, from choice. It’s so marvellous, you know! I’ll show you one of these days.”

“No need! I’m not going swimming with you. Not in winter, nor in summer, either! And, anyway, I thought I’d made myself clear — no talking! Keep your mouth closed!”

“Well, you should shut up first, then.”

“Sheda, take her away from me! I’m about to knock her down!”

“Oh, I get it.” Mita grabbed the pirate’s hand. “You would hit a woman, wouldn’t you!”

“Oh, give it a rest, Mita,” exclaimed Sheda. “He’s only making empty threats, he’s not really going to hit you!”

“Get off me, you horror!” Lepa tried to disentangle himself from the girl’s clutches. “I’m not actually going to hit you — it never even crossed my mind! Get off!”

“I don’t think so! You said so yourself — said you’d knock me down and crush me! Isn’t that what you said?”

“All right, I said it!” Lepa prised Mita from his elbow. “So what? Get off me! Or I really will take a swing at you!”

“There!” exclaimed Mita, in exultation. “Come on, then! Take your best shot, come on!”

“Sheda, rescue me from this!” Lepa beseeched the other boy. “Let’s run away! The wind is in the sails! I’ve only myself to blame for ever getting mixed up with you two!”

“Mita, let him go,” said Sheda, with a sigh. “He’s not really about to start hitting you.”

“Right!” Lepa finally managed to extricate himself, and drew off to one side. “You can go to the Dragon by yourselves! You can ask him yourselves. Go on then, off you trot.”

“Oh, is that it?” said Mita, indignantly. “You bring us all the way here to the very backest of beyond, and now you want to abandon us! Well, I won’t stand for it! Take us to the Dragon right now!”

She flung herself at Lepa, but the pirate yelled out:

“I’ll take you! Just don’t touch me, you horrible girl! Do what you like, say what you want, just don’t touch me. Don’t come near me! Not while I’m showing the way, at least!”

He put his fingers in his ears and strode off ahead. Sheda and Mita hurried to keep up.

“Why do you have to be like that, Mita?” lamented Sheda. “He’s doing us a favour, and you...”

“And I what?” retorted the girl, scandalised. “He was threatening to hit me! And I hadn’t even been calling him names!”

“Oh, what did I ever do to deserve all this grief from you?” said Sheda, mournfully. “He’s doing us a favour...”

“So long as he doesn’t start any fights,” the girl muttered. “Lepa! So the Dragon lives in this mountain, does he? Incredible! Are we there yet? Drago-o-on!”

Lepa was walking a little way ahead, still with his fingers in his ears. Mita looked all around. It was getting dark already, but the mountain could still be made out. In her impatience, the girl ran ahead, then came back and tugged at Lepa’s elbow, urging him to speed up.

Eventually, Lepa brought them to a huge cave.

“Right, then,” Lepa fixed Mita with his fiercest expression. “Just one word from you, and the Dragon will eat you alive. Leave it to me... Do you understand, you fool?”

“Well, just look at that. What are we to do with him?” Mita turned to Sheda. “He’s at it again, being rude to a woman. I told you, didn’t I? Pirates are rude and uneducated. Even though they go to school.”

Lepa plunged into the murk of the cave. The other two went after him.

“It’s so clean and dry in here,” came the voice of Mita through the half-light.

“Does it surprise you, daft girl, that a Dragon’s lair should be clean and dry?”

“Well... You know, you hear people talk.”

“Don’t listen to them, then. Pay no attention!” Lepa pulled up sharp, and in the darkness, Sheda and Mita bumped into him. “Keep your trap shut and take a look for yourself, seeing that you’ve been brought here, you idiotic creature!”

“You’re at it again! Calling me names! I never called you names, did I? I even wanted to help out on your boat, and look how horribly you respond!”

“It is not a boat,” yelled Lepa, in a frenzy, “it’s a ship! Ship! Ship!”

“It’s a boat! Boat! Boat!”

“That’s enough from the pair of you!” Sheda butted in, groping for the girl’s elbow in the dark, to drag her away from the pirate. “Don’t start bickering in a Dragon’s den!”

Just then, a roar rumbled up from the depths of the cave. The floor shook. The children froze. Then it came again — dreadful, abrupt, in deep pulses.

“Well...” Lepa swung around in the dark. “I have a notion the old boy’s taken ill. He’s coughing. Onward! Maybe he needs some medicine...” Lepa’s footsteps clattered on the floor. “Sheda! Mita! Over here! It’s brighter by me.”

In the depths of the cave, an orange reflection flickered on the wall.

“That’s where we need to go. Just watch your step from now on, because there are piles of bones all over the place. They’ve accumulated over thousands of years.”

They made their way along the corridor, diligently stepping over the bones, ribs, and skulls.

“Are all these because the Dragon...” asked Mita, without her customary devil-may-care attitude for once. “ He won’t… Not us… Will he?.. How awful.”

“Why us? After all, we need the treasure for a good reason, not just because. And not all of it, just four barrels-ful. Though it’s already too much... And, anyway, dragons don’t eat meat.”

“So what do they eat? Do they eat sea...”

“Shut! Up! Be quiet! Keep your mouth closed!”

Finally, they made their way through the passage and emerged by the fire. Mita froze in delight, clutching her arms to her chest. They were in a cavern, the walls and ceiling of which could scarcely be seen in the light cast by a large open fire. A cauldron of boiling water hung over the hearth. On the other side of the fire, behind the tongues of flame, within the circle of light, could be seen the enormous head of the Dragon; it was contemplating a chessboard on which a game was under way.

“Greetings, old man!” bade Lepa, cheerily. “It’s me, Lepa! One of your own!”

“So I see, so I see... Greetings... How are those dunderheads of yours? Not drowned you yet? That tub of yours not blown off to the dog-fishes?”

“There’s no mischief for them to get into.” Lepa sidestepped the flames and sat himself down on the floor next to the chessboard, engrossing himself in the position. “Are you playing Black? It doesn’t look good for you. You can’t move here... And you can’t move there... Actually, you can’t move anywhere. You’re not like yourself at all. What’s made you so miserable?”

The Dragon snorted, and nearly blew out the fire burning in the hearth.

“What have I got to be cheerful about?” he said, hoarsely, keeping his golden eyes fixed on the board.

Then, eventually, he lifted his head and cast a piercing gaze at Sheda and Mita, who were standing at the threshold of the cave, wondering whether they should approach the hearth.

“Who’s this you’ve brought with you?” wheezed the Dragon. The tip of his tail emerged from the darkness, scales flashing, and indicated the two children. “Is this just a social call, or are you here on business?”

“Bit of both.” Lepa waved Sheda and Mita over to sit next to him. “You know what? You should resign… Your position’s hopeless.”

“I don’t think so.” The Dragon chuckled. “As a matter of fact, I’m playing White.”

“So what did you turn the board round for?”

“It’s always good to look at yourself from the outside... Oh, never mind.”

The tail tip emerged once more from the darkness, and pushed the board away into the gloom.

“What’s the matter — have you fallen ill?” inquired Lepa, solicitously. “You’ve caught a cold. And you’ll lose your voice any minute.”

“Yes, somehow I have contrived to fall ill,” the Dragon wheezed, as his flashing eyes watched the other two children settle down by the hearth, at a respectful distance. “Just imagine — I can’t even burn up a ship just now... Well, I can, of course... But only if I get two or three goes. Especially if the boat is wet. Old age, you understand, brings little to be happy about. There was a time, six or seven hundred years ago, I’d pay no heed to strong winds or hard frosts... You’d fly over some city, breathe fire, and instead of stone, there would just be fragments of charcoal. But now... Excuse me.”

The Dragon turned his head away and coughed. A bolt of crimson lightning flew from his muzzle, flashing heat along the cave wall. The flames in the hearth sputtered, and a hot gust slammed into the children. A lambent patch on the stone cave wall gently cooled and dimmed.

“This cough is bothering me,” said the Dragon, morosely. “So I thought I’d treat it with some hot tea.”

“Listen!” Mita could sit still no longer, and she dashed over towards the head.

The flashing tail tip flew out from the gloom and stopped the girl in her tracks, five paces from the Dragon’s maw.

“Don’t come too close, child,” wheezed the Dragon, turning to one side as he tried not to breathe fire over her. “I might not be in peak condition just now, but don’t get any closer than five paces. You’ll get scorched.”

“Do you have any raspberry jam, and a blanket?” inquired Mita, concerned. “And, anyway, what are you doing, lying here on these stones when you’ve caught a cold?”

“Mita,” said Lepa, restraining himself, “dragons sleep on stones, understand? Dragons aren’t supposed to have blankets, can you get that into your head?”

“Is that right?” The girl stamped her foot indignantly. “With a blocked nose like that? With a cough like that? Just think about what you’re saying! Oh, what a shame, if only I’d known! Still, never mind, I’ll go home and come straight back. I have some remarkable raspberry jam! My nanny makes it, you won’t find better anywhere along the Coast. I haven’t got a blanket as huge as that, that’s true, but we’ll think of something.”

“There’s no need for blankets, my girl,” said the Dragon, sadly. “I’ve got armour plates, and they’re warm... But a little raspberry jam wouldn’t go amiss.”

“I’ll bring some!” promised Mita, shifting a little closer to the Dragon, and feasting her eyes on his bejewelled scales, his solemn golden eyes, and his nostrils, which harboured in their depths a dark crimson flame.

“Excellent.” The Dragon sniffed. “The water’s boiling!”

Once again, the tip of his tail swung through the air over their heads, and it took the bubbling cauldron from the fireplace. Placing the pot on the floor, the Dragon directed his tail into the gloom and reached down a bundle of dried herbs.

“Mountain mint and St. John’s Wort. I gathered it last week, somewhere in the south. Lepa, pop out into the cave, dig out some goblets for us.”

Lepa stood up, circling wide his way past the Dragon’s head, and vanished into the gloom. In a minute he was back, holding four golden goblets. They were antique, and quite beautiful, engraved with subtle patterns and bedecked with jewels.

“At least there’s some use for them,” said the Dragon, with a melancholy sigh. “They just gather dust, usually.”

Mita, meanwhile, was efficiently taking care of the domestic matters — she brewed the aromatic tea, allowed it to cool a little, and poured it out into the goblets.

“Mountain-mint is good for blocked noses,” observed the Dragon, contentedly.

He drew in the scent to his nose, so strongly that the fire died out, and it grew dark. The cooling patch on the cave wall still glowed red.

“I beg your pardon.” His eyes glinted enigmatically in the gloom. The fire deep in his nostrils flashed. “Stand back, just in case...”

He opened his maw slightly, and his teeth were silhouetted against a hot fire as another fireball shot out into the stilled fireplace. A hot wave of air swept over the children. In an instant, the fire was blazing once more.

“I’ve got no heat left,” said the Dragon, upset. “There’s no way around it, I will have to see to my health after all.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Mita sipped the fragrant tea. “I’ll bring you my jam, and on top of that, I’ve got some of the tastiest honey — you won’t find nicer! — and it’s ever so good for you. You’ll stay home for a week or so, and get yourself better. It’s no good you going out in weather like this, with a blocked-up nose like that. Especially if all you’re going to do is waste your fire on some ships or other.”

The Dragon stuck out his forked tongue, lapped up some tea, and his golden eyes half-closed in pleasure.

“Aah,” he concluded, “that’s some fine tea. Now then, Lepa, tell me all about it. You’ve made this old creature happy with the thought that he might still be of some use.”

“Now don’t you go putting yourself down,” said Lepa, reproachfully, as he took a swig of tea. “Your friends always want you around.”

“Well, I’ve not much time left, you know,” said the Dragon, indifferently.

“I’ll hear no talk of dying!” said Mita, indignantly. “Cut that out! You just get to know a real-life Dragon, when he ups and dies! So who will I bring my jam to?”

“Well, I didn’t have it in mind to die quite yet — not today, exactly,” said the Dragon, soothingly. “But I am very old, my girl, and I have simply had my fill of many things. Idiots have come and caused trouble in ways you cannot even imagine. And now, here I am, at my time of life, coming down with a blocked-up nose. Tell that to anyone, and they’d laugh at you.”

“Well, that just shows what idiots they are!” Mita clenched her fists. “When dragons catch colds, you didn’t ought to laugh at them. You ought to help them, and tend to them! What kind of idiotic world is this!”

“Oh, well, it’s not quite as bad as all that,” said the Dragon, peaceably. “By and large, the world is a reasonable place. Its only real shortcoming is that it’s a public, h’m, place. But that’s none of our business... Anyway, over the one and a half thousand years of my life, I have seen all kinds of things. Both good and bad...”

“Are you fifteen hundred years old?” said Mita, in amazement. “I never would have guessed! You are well preserved. I’d have said a thousand, tops.”

“Now you’re just flattering me, girl.” The Dragon sighed. “For example, there was a time when I could fly fifteen hundred miles and incinerate a fleet of twenty ships in one breath. But now...”

He turned away, and coughed — once again a crack of thunder, a molten patch on the wall, and a scorching breeze in the cave.

“Earlier still, everything seemed somehow different,” continued the Dragon, bringing his snout back closer to the fire. “When I was little, and my mother wouldn’t let me fly more than three hundred miles or so from the caves, I used to tease the old ones. ‘When I was a lad,’ they used to say, ‘water was wetter, and fire was hotter, and the sun rose higher, and you could get proper honey.’ And now I see for myself how right they were.”

“Well, that’s perfectly understandable!” exclaimed Mita. “With a cough like that, and a blocked-up nose, I’d be tired of life too. Especially if I had no heat left. But never mind! You just look after yourself for a bit, and you’ll soon be incinerating twenty ships with one breath again! Cheer up! You’ll outlive the rest of us yet.”

“Ah,” the Dragon let loose a melancholy sigh. “I’m telling you, just wait till you’ve lived as long as I have.”

“I’ve got a question for you,” began Lepa, as he finished one gobletful and poured himself another. “I don’t suppose you’d happen to have four barrels of gold lying about the place, surplus to requirements, like?”

“I might,” replied the Dragon, lapping more tea. “Only, it depends what for.”

“It’s like this,” Lepa went on, noisily slurping tea from his goblet. “That one there,” and he pointed at Sheda, who was sitting the furthest away from the Dragon, “needs to buy this one here,” and he turned his finger to Mita, who was sitting in dangerous proximity to the Dragon, “from her old man.”

“And her old man is who?”

“He’s the Count, on the Coast. You know.”

“Oh, him. Yes, of course I know. The great-great-great-grandfather of your count, once upon a time, organised a hunt for me. People had been whispering in his ear, along the lines of I’d incinerated one of his convoys and swallowed some young maiden or other.”

“Argh!” Lepa got angry. “That drives me so mad!”

“Well, on the plus side, he managed to figure it out for himself — Dragons don’t eat meat! So where all this talk of maidens comes from, I don’t know. And anyway, it’s already a disgrace, not to mention my age.”

“So what do you eat?” asked Mita. “Do you like seaweed? These two, they hate it. But it’s really tasty, and it’s good for you. You just need to eat it properly. But if you don’t know how to eat seaweed, you’ve no business moaning that it’s revolting. It’s you who are the revolting ones.”

Mita pouted.

“Oh, I like seaweed, my girl. Dragons generally have the sort of blood group which means a plant-based diet suits them better. Personally, I prefer root vegetables. I’m very fond of turnip. But can you find a decent turnip these days? I remember, on that Coast of yours, nine hundred years ago — now, that was what I’d call a turnip! A turnip beyond compare. But these days?”

“What’s a turnip?” asked Mita, in surprise. “How does it grow? What colour is it?”

“What children have been reduced to?” The Dragon rolled his golden eyes morosely. The fire deep in his nostrils gently blossomed red. “Actually, let me get better, and I’ll come over and pay you a visit somehow. I’ve let things slide in my old age. Basically, all sense of shame and fear has been lost. I shall have to singe someone’s whiskers — and I know whose... Maybe, then, at least we’d see turnips on the market again.”

“So what about this gold?” Lepa brought the conversation back on track.

“So why is the only option to buy her out?” The shimmering tail tip came flying through the darkness once more, coming to rest on Mita’s head.

“The thing is,” Sheda embarked on a jittery explanation. “If she and I just run away, that means that we are stealing from the Count. And he’s got other things to worry about, he’s got a state to feed. And anyway, stealing’s not a very nice thing to do... But if we don’t run away, then the Count will sell her off, and then, you know...”

“I quite understand.” The Dragon sniffed. “All in all, this question could be settled in quite a different manner. However... It gladdens me that not every young person today has ended up the wrong way after all. That they still understand the right way of going about things. That’s admirable. I’ll help. The only thing is that I’ve got such a heap of gold there... It’s been a good fifteen hundred years since the last time anyone counted it. At any rate, I never have. Truth be told, I don’t even know how much and what of it there is, exactly. I’ve never needed to... It just lies there and lies there, and can’t even rot away. What purpose does this gold serve? I’ve lived for fifteen hundred years, I’ve flown all round the Sea, the only place I haven’t been to is the Moon, and still I have yet to understand. Lepa, perhaps you at least can explain it to this old creature? Give me your expert opinion. You humans, you create such horrors for the sake of this gold... You won’t wish to wake up in the morning. While we, thanks to some strange custom, have to guard our caves from meddling parasites.”

“Who’s forcing you to waste your life away here?” butted in Mita. “You could just up and off, fly round the whole world! You’ve got wings, haven’t you? And the world — it’s so huge! Even in fifteen hundred years you wouldn’t manage to fly round all of it! You could... Especially if your parents kept you down when you were little.”

“My dear girl,” said the Dragon, seriously. “I know this sounds stupid, but when you get to my age... You tend to see certain things a little differently.”

“It’s easy for you to say ‘when you get to my age’! You’re a dragon! But me? I’ll be dead in a hundred years or so.”

“That’s not what I meant,” said the Dragon, gently. “I can’t just leave my treasure for any layabout or madman to do with as he sees fit. Actually, the world isn’t set up in quite such a stupid manner as you make out. What if, for example, we didn’t protect our treasures?”

“I understand,” said Mita, nodding. “That’s your job, it can’t be helped. But we aren’t layabouts, are we? We really do need the gold. Have you any idea how sick I am of sitting in that castle like a rabbit in its box? What’s worse, papa has already shown me the prince to whom they’re going to have to sell me. Even in all your fifteen hundred years I bet you’ve never seen a specimen as obtuse as that! But it doesn’t matter.” Mita clenched her fists. “Just let them try! I’ll show him domestic bliss. I’ll...”

The tip of the Dragon’s tail draped itself snugly around the girl’s shoulders.

“That’s no answer, trust this old-timer. Lepa! You know where the gold is... In the corner of the cave, there, in a big pile.”

“How wonderful!” exclaimed Mita. “Can we take a look? Anyway, who piled it up there, do you know? I’ve never ever seen a big pile of gold in a corner. Back home in the castle, it’s all in chests, under seven different locks. Oh, I so want to see it in a big pile! There’s a page in this book I have...”

“Mita!” exclaimed Lepa. “Just shut up! How would we even carry it, in that case? It’s not like we brought any sacks.”

“Well, how about that?” The Dragon chuckled, scalding the cave again. “You’ve come to scrounge some gold and didn’t even grab hold of anything to carry it in.”

“I thought you’d have it all in casks and chests.” Lepa was annoyed. “But you’ve got it all in a great pile...”

“Of course I have,” replied the Dragon reproachfully. “How old is that gold? Every barrel and chest rotted away long since. Could you not have given that a thought?”

He snorted. The flames in his nostrils flashed.

“Never mind, we’ll think of something. Tell you what, I’ll take off now, just a short flight... Otherwise, the time it will take you going back-and-forth from here to the ship... We’d never be done by daybreak. Not to mention the loading. Come on, then.”

The Dragon’s head lifted, and moved forward. From out of the darkness, there followed a powerful neck, an enormous torso, and huge wings. His black scales sparkled golden in the flames from the fireplace. The Dragon, scraping his precious armour over the stone, made his way around the fire and disappeared into the gloom of the corridor — only his tail remained in his wake, growing narrower.

Night had already set in. The wind had not died down, and it was even colder. The huge Dragon had stopped at the mouth of the cave. His nostrils and maw were flushed with the fire deep within.

“This will have the added advantage of getting my blood flowing,” he said, with satisfaction.

“What wouldn’t I give for sails like that?” remarked Lepa, watching the Dragon unfurl his mighty wings.

“They’d be wasted on you.” The Dragon turned his head to him, eyes flashing. “Your ship is a third my weight. Wait here, I won’t be long. Let’s see, the breeze is from the west...”

After a short run-up, he flung his wings out to the side, gave a downstroke of hurricane strength, and rose into the wind, climbing higher and disappearing into the gloom. Half a minute later — the children, transfixed, were still following his trajectory with their eyes — a fountain of fire erupted into the skies, lighting up the base of the clouds. They only had chance to catch a glimpse of the Dragon before, flapping his wings with great power, he plunged into the clouds and disappeared.

“Would you look at that!” exclaimed Mita. “That’s a Dragon, right enough!”

“Ah, he’s just an ordinary dragon,” grumbled Sheda. “Nothing special. Dragons are supposed to fly and burn things.”

“Oh, give over, the pair of you!” hissed Lepa. “That’s enough! May I never have anything more to do with you! Let’s sit and wait, quietly. Got it?”

“Be quiet yourself!” shot back Mita. “Hissing like I don’t know what.”

“Oh, get lost.” The pirate gave in. He moved away and sat on the ground, head in hands.

“He’s still at it with the insults. It’s not enough for him to be hissing. He has to call people names as well.”

They settled down on the threshold to the den and waited.

* * *

The Dragon came back soon. He let loose another stream of fire amidst the clouds and plunged down to land. He came towards the cave at horrifying speed, but fifty paces away, at the very ground, he unfurled his wings and gained a little height while rapidly losing speed. He hung there for a moment before touching down lightly on his feet right at the entrance. The squall of air from the Dragon’s wings nearly blew the children over.

Mita bounced and applauded in delight:

“Would you look at that? Marvellous! Is that how every dragon comes in to land?”

“There’s nothing marvellous about it,” said Sheda irritably. “You try flying like that for a thousand years, you’d manage even better.”

“They’re at it again,” Lepa sighed. “You can’t imagine how sick of them I am!”

“I can, my boy.” The Dragon spat out a trawler’s fishing net, which was teeming with wet barrels. “There are some containers for you. Let’s go and bring out some gold.”

“Blimey!” Lepa scratched his head as he looked the barrels over. “They’re not exactly small.”

“Of course not. What would have been the point of flying off to fetch small barrels, especially now that night has set in, and me with a blocked nose?” He snorted again, and his nostrils briefly blazed.

“I should have brought those blockheads of mine along.”

“By the way, where did you leave them? Where did you drop anchor?”

“Same place as usual,” said the pirate, becoming fretful. “Why do you ask?”

“There’s nothing at the usual place. I dropped down out of the clouds, specially, to take a look. How are you going to get back? Especially bearing in mind the gold.”

“What a go!” Lepa was taken aback in earnest. “Those parasites have been at the grog again, have they? And they’ve not noticed that they’ve slipped the anchor?”

“I’ve always said that things never end well when alcohol is involved,” said the Dragon with satisfaction, and snorted, unleashing a wave of warmth which was most welcome on a damp and chilly night. “Alcohol is a poison and a detriment to society.”

“So don’t you drink?” exclaimed Mita. “You mustn’t, of course! You fly, after all.”

“Under no circumstances,” replied the Dragon, with a gloomy pride. “In fifteen hundred years, I have drunk strong alcohol only once, back when I was still a stupid fledgeling. I would have been a hundred and twenty, maybe a hundred and thirty. But not a drop since then.”

“Mita!” Lepa sought to set her right. “It’s not because he flies. It’s because spirits can simply make him explode!”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you — it’s horrid! I tried it just the once myself, too. True enough, I didn’t explode, but all the same, you can’t imagine how much I regretted it afterwards. I’m ashamed to remember it.”

“Tell me about it.” The Dragon nodded his huge head.

“Well, what are we going to do? Where’s my ship? Where are my staunch lads, my Vermukh, my Gumka, my Kubrulukuk?”

“Nothing ever happens to staunch lads like your Vermukh, Gumka, and Kubrulukuk. You can trust my fifteen-hundred-years’ worth of experience,” said the Dragon, consolingly. “We’ll go and search, at daybreak. They’ll have been carried off somewhere.”

“And I never did put a reef in the sails,” said Lepa in distress, pacing up and down at the cave entrance. “No, after all, no, I’m not fit to become a real sea-wolf. The last time I reefed, I barely got my leg out of the way in time. This time I didn’t reef, and my ship has been carried away.”

“What was it you wanted? To become a sea-wolf, you need to start out being a sea-wolf-cub, and take your knocks. Wolves are either born or made. And you weren’t born a wolf, were you? Very well, then. Your blockheads won’t have gone anywhere, we’ll find them — as soon as it grows light, and the clouds lift. Right now, though, we’ll load up the gold and drop these two off home.” The Dragon pulled the tip of his tail from the gloom and indicated Sheda and Mita. “Let’s go and shift some gold.”

The Dragon took the net full of barrels in his teeth, and slithered into the cave. The children raced after him. At last, they found themselves in the most secluded of the caves, the repository of the Island’s treasures — ancient, fantastical, and innumerable. The abundance and splendour made Sheda’s and Mita’s eyes simply bulge. They froze, overwhelmed.

“Get moving,” commanded Lepa, fixing a torch to the wall in the crack. “There’s plenty to be getting on with, if we’re to be done by daybreak.”

“So take what you need. I am going to have a lie-down and get warm. It was rather chilly as I was flying. There was a damp edge to the wind today, somehow.”

The Dragon crawled back to the fireplace, scraping his sparkling scales. The children dug into the mountain of gold and gemstones, the summit of which was lost somewhere in the gloom over their heads. They equipped themselves with goblets to shovel up the gold and gems, which clattered and rang as they were poured into the barrels. The work went smoothly.

“I just hope it’s enough for the Count,” Sheda kept muttering, anxiously. “Enough to buy her out.”

“You’re a nervy sort, Sheda,” said Lepa, with annoyance. “If I was you, I wouldn’t be going crazy like that. That nonsense lassie of yours is worth at best a barrel and a half.”

“I’m going to give you what for!” said Mita, offended. “You’re only worth a barrel and a half, yourself. You didn’t put a reef in the sails, and now that sick old creature will have to fly to and fro with you over the cold ocean, to rescue your blockheads. You could at least have kept the poor old thing in mind, even if you’d forgotten about your blockheads. You wretched rapparee.”

“Listen, Sheda, it’s you I feel sorry for. You’re a good lad. When you grow up, you’re going to be a stargazer. The stars, man! Let’s seal her up in a barrel and chuck her in the sea. And whoever finds her will only have themself to blame.”

“You’re a fool!”

“Take pity on yourself, Sheda!”

“Oh, what can I do?” Sheda sighed. “We all have our destiny.”

“You’re right there.” Lepa also heaved a sigh. “Well, then, my friend Sheda, gather your strength. I can see that you’ve no problems health-wise. You’ll have a long life...”

He turned to face Mita, who was carefully shovelling gold into a barrel with her goblet.

“I hope.”

Eventually, the barrels were filled and sealed. The children fastened them up carefully in the net, and headed back towards the fireplace.

“Did you manage?” asked the Dragon. “Are the containers ready?”

“Aye-aye, sir!” Lepa nodded. “It’s time to get under way.”

Then the Dragon slithered down into the cave of gold, caught hold of the net in his teeth, and dragged it outside, into the wind.

“It’s freshening up!” He spat out the net and sniffed the air. “Quickly, climb on my back. Hold on tight! If you get blown off, we’re not going to look for you.”

The children clambered onto the Dragon’s back and arrayed themselves between his wings, seizing hold of his gem-encrusted scales.

“Don’t pinch! Can’t you hold on properly? If you’re going to pinch, I’ll dump you in the sea, for the dogfishes.”

“Oh, I see!” exclaimed Mita from the Dragon’s back. “And I had gone and trusted you! So that’s why you put up with us for so long!”

“Hutch your mouf, my laff!” retorted the Dragon with the net in his mouth. “I’ll dump you firft.”

“Oh no, I don’t think so! You wouldn’t dare!”

At this, Lepa, no longer able to bear such a lack of respect, finally rapped the girl on the back of her head.

“Now you’re for it!” yelled Mita, jubilantly. “If you want a fight after all!” And she fetched him a blow on the forehead.

Lepa had drawn his arm back to hit again, but the Dragon spat out the net and roared:

“Cease!”

And he let out such a terrible gout of flame that the stony plateau was lit as far as the eye could see, and the clouds were singed with crimson fire. The heat swept over the children, and the skin on their faces grew taut. For a moment, they froze in confusion.

“You can either stay quiet and we will take off, or else I can give you a light roasting and go and drink up my tea,” said the Dragon, calmly.

“Let’s fly,” exclaimed Mita.

“Then not a word! Gilded youth.”

He seized hold of the net, gave a run-up, flapped his wings — deafening the children who were cowering on his back — and began to gain height.

Soon after, they plunged into the clouds, passed through them, and emerged under coal-black skies strewn with countless pinpricks of icy starlight. A silver sickle hung in the East, touching the blanket of clouds with a clear light. The wind roared in their ears, the Dragon’s wings swooped — it was all very mysterious, and a little bit frightening.

The Dragon sped on and up. When he eventually reached an altitude which was very cold indeed, he altered the tempo of his wingbeats and began a smooth, peaceful glide, maintaining height with just the occasional flap. Transfixed, the children gazed into the chilly radiance of the fathomless sky, at the crescent moon above the horizon, and at the ghosts of clouds beneath their feet. There was no fear, no cold, nothing other than the magic of a winter night above the clouds, on a dragon’s back.

Eventually, the Dragon spread his wings and began to descend at dizzying speed. The wind would have torn the children all away into the void for certain, if they hadn’t taken shelter, pressing themselves down as deeply as they could into the scales of the Dragon’s armour plate.

Once more, they tangled with the clouds, becoming sodden and chilled. When they broke through the puffy blanket, they found they were only a matter of a few feet above the water. The Dragon, streaking low over the sea like a flash of black lightning, approached the shore, unfurled his wings, sloughing speed abruptly and gaining height a little, hanging there motionless for a moment before springing down lightly and gracefully onto his feet, just as he had earlier. As if there weren’t four barrels of gold in his teeth, nor two boys and a girl on his back. He spat out the net, coughed, searing the stones, and snorted.

“Off you get. I’m not flying any further. I fear miracle hunters — they take no heed of bad weather. Hide the gold here, and get yourselves home. The Count can come and fetch the gold himself, bring a cart or something.”

The children reluctantly climbed down from the Dragon’s back.

“Well, that was something else!” exclaimed Mita, scarcely able to draw breath. “What a day it’s been! For starters, a boat-ride under the Jolly Roger, then tea-time with a Dragon, and then the Dragon brought us home! With the gold! Incredible. I want to do it all again.”

“It wasn’t a boat-ride, you most foolish of girls!” Lepa got very angry. “It was a ship! A ship! A ship!”

“A ship? But you said it yourself — where would you lay your hands on an actual ship! And, anyway, what difference does it make? It still sails, we still had tea with a Dragon, we still brought the gold back, all the same. We still flew back home on a Dragon! Oh, what a pity that we won’t be able to breathe a word of it to anyone.”

“Talk about it as much as you like,” said the Dragon. “Everybody will go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’, but nobody will believe a single word of it. And whoever does, let them envy... Well, you can stay here and argue. I’m away home. And don’t forget,” he turned a flashing eye to Lepa, “we still have to search out those blockheads of yours. It will be dawn soon, I could do with resting a little before we start searching, and getting a bit warmer. I’ve caught a chill here with you lot, I could do with drinking some more of that tea. Or else I’ll fall properly ill.”

“Not on your life!” exclaimed Mita, flinging herself towards the Dragon.

The ever-vigilant tail tip barred her way.

“I may be a Dragon with a cold,” said the Dragon, chiding the girl, “but I am nonetheless a Dragon. It’s true that just now my temperature is not what it should be, but I can still turn a stone into ashes.”

“You just make sure! That once you have found those blockheads of his, you go straight home. You’d do well with a bowl of hot water for your feet and a scarf round your neck, but...”

“Don’t worry. It’s not all that bad, and scarves are itchy.”

“And don’t forget about the jam! When you find his ship, have Lepa come and fetch me, and I’ll bring you a whole jar! I’ll soon be bought out, after all, and I’ll be able to go where I like.”

“It’s not that simple, my girl.” The flame of the Dragon’s nostrils flickered in the gloom. “Even when you get bought out, you won’t always get to go where you want, when you want.”

“Yes, I know.” Mita sighed. “It even rankles to hand over four barrels of gold... When it’s not clear what for. But it’s still better than sitting like a rabbit in its hutch, after all.”

“Well, now’s your chance to find out.” The Dragon had begun to turn his long body around, getting ready for take-off. “I’ll pop in myself. But only when it gets dark. I don’t want to set tongues wagging. If they see me, they’re bound to start spreading rumours about the old Dragon coming after young maidens. I am so fed up with all of that. What kind of people are they? Fifteen hundred years I’ve been alive, flying and burning and sinking, and still I’ll never understand anything about this species. Sometimes you think no matter how many things you burn or sink, it doesn’t seem to do any good. Sometimes you think it’s a good job you were born a serpent. Lepa! There’s a grotto over there. Roll the barrels in, and climb on my back, and look lively. I won’t crawl in, there are some sharp stones in there. If I get scratches, I’ll have to polish them out again. I hate doing that — it tickles.”

While the Dragon waited patiently at the water’s edge, Lepa, Sheda, and Mita rolled the barrels into the secluded grotto. They heaped pebbles over the top, then emerged into the damp breeze to say goodbye.

“You must call in and visit us,” said Sheda, hugging Lepa.

“I certainly will. Just make sure you get that one,” and the pirate jabbed a finger at Mita, who was once more smiling as though nothing had happened, “under lock and key in the box, or down in the vaults, doesn’t matter, just hide her away under lock and key!”

“I’ll give you what for now! You just try and call in, if I’m under lock and key. I’ll give you what for!”

“Four barrels of pure gold, for a girl like that!” said Lepa, clutching his head. “Tell you what, Sheda! Let’s salt her away in a barrel after all. And use the gold to buy a proper ship. We could even name her something, imagine that! And we’ll sail away somewhere, the other side of the Sea!”

“Oh, I’m telling you, you’re for it now!” Mita was properly upset. “Me in the barrel, and you off to the other side of the Sea? You’re horrid, the pair of you! I’ve been sitting and sitting in that castle my whole life, and just when I get the chance of leading a normal life, that’s what you come up with. Me in the barrel, and you off to the other side of the Sea. I’m leaving right now, see, and I’m not coming back ever.”

“Is that a promise? Do you promise never to come back?”

“Oh, Mita, that’s enough now.” Sheda sighed. “Don’t quarrel. People shouldn’t quarrel with pirates.”

“I’ll be off, then,” said the Dragon, in a fed-up tone.

“Four barrels!” Lepa shook his head. “Four barrels of pure gold!..”

He ran over to the Dragon and scrambled on to his huge back.

“And you promised to take me on as cabin boy!”

“Are we flying or what?” yelled Lepa into the sky.

“Don’t forget about the jam!” Mita waved at the Dragon. “You can fly in and see us whenever you want — evening, middle of the night, or even the wee small hours. I’ll stay awake! I’ll be waiting for you. I’ll head straight home right now, dig out the very best jar, and I’ll be waiting! The very tastiest, the very raspberriest! Just make sure you fly over!”

“Thank you, dear girl,” replied the Dragon. “But you should sort out the jam, and then go to bed. During the night, girls should be sleeping, not waiting for dragons.”

And with that, he turned, took a run-up, flapped his wings, and soared away into the black night.

* * *


TO SEE THE MOON SO CLEARLY


Princess Thar-Agne was an orphan, and so, by rights, it was incorrect to call her a princess. She ought to have been addressed as “Your Majesty,” but they called her a princess — she didn’t yet look like a proper queen, so what were they supposed to do? Apart from one uncle (and he a distant one, at that), she had no relatives left. And that uncle had to bear the burden of ruling the country. When Thar-Agne grew up, then she would be able to do it all herself, but for now, she couldn’t just be abandoned to the whims of fate.

There was no shortage of duties associated with running the country, and each one of them was incredibly hard for the young queen. For instance, each morning she had to get up early and get washed and dressed, and not just any old how, but bearing in mind her audiences with important visitors, the majority of whom wished to declare war on the girl.

They were all spiteful and greedy, all demanding either that stretch of coastline where the purple snails were gathered, or that valley in the mountains where the best grapes in the world grew, or that little town that was famous for its jewellers. Recently, for example, the prince from the neighbouring kingdom had demanded that he should be betrothed to Thar-Agne. The prince had even drawn his rapier from its well-darned scabbard and began poking its rusty metal blade all over the place. It’s awful to contemplate what might have happened if it had not been for the uncle’s composure and diplomatic experience. The princess would simply have had no alternative but to send the prince to have his head struck off (which would, more than likely, have led to war anyway).

But that was nothing compared to the tortures which the girl underwent during the ceremonies that were held. They were all conducted according to awful, unbearable rules, when she had to pull on the dusty rags, to say only the words that her uncle whispered to her. And when the tortures had taken her last strength, when she wanted to burst out crying in torment, she could not even send anyone to have their head struck off.

And, today, Thar-Agne was just plain late for her audience. Through the window, grey clouds could be seen speeding past, the wind rattled the eaves and the shutters, and downpours of rain beat tattoos against the window panes. Her uncle was on edge. In such weather, his niece never wanted to leave her cosy apartments. And today, she was going to have the most important audience. Their neighbours from the east had come, with but one goal — to declare war on the princess. Difficult times lay ahead for the uncle — on the one side he would have the princess sending all and sundry to have their heads struck off, while on the other he would have the emissaries all dripping with gold and flourishing their scimitars.

Thar-Agne had not emerged, and her uncle directed his legs to her bedchamber. At the doors, he was met by a detachment of the palace warders most devoted to the princess.

“I have orders to send anyone who approaches within three paces of these doors to have their head struck off,” said a warder, his axe flashing. “There, you have been warned.”

“I know,” replied the uncle, crossing the fatal boundary. “But thank you for warning.”

The uncle opened the door and went into the bedchamber. The princess was at the window, pressing her face against the glass.

“I see that dear girl is not even dressed yet.”

“Uncle, I don’t want to get dressed. I want to snuggle up in a blanket and spend all day sitting at the window.”

“Which blanket does my dear girl want to snuggle up in?”

“You know. In the fireplace one. On the wall in the Upper hall. Uncle, order them. Let it be brought to me, and I will wrap myself up in it. And then let them bring me a cup of hot chocolate and a bun. I will sit at the window and watch the rain.”

“I’m afraid nothing can be done just now. At any rate, not before lunch.”

“Why, Uncle, why? Why can’t a princess snuggle up in a blanket, order a cup of hot chocolate be brought her, and sit at the window, for a while? It’s such lovely rain. And not a princess, in fact, but an actual queen. That’s right, isn’t it, Uncle? You said so.”

“The blanket to which you refer is not in fact a blanket but a tapestry and an heirloom. It is over five hundred years old. Think of respect for your ancestors, who preserved it for so long. They did not snuggle up in it, they kept it safe, and consequently it has hung there up to now.”

“If they didn’t snuggle up in it, that just means they weren’t cold and miserable. Why can’t I snuggle up in it now?”

“Because people don’t snuggle up in tapestries. Now we will go and get washed, then we will get dressed, then we will order a cup of hot chocolate be brought, and then we will go out for the audience.”

“No, we won’t! They’ll just be saying stupid things and making scary threats all over again! Oh, they’re so bothersome! Uncle, let’s send them all to have their heads struck off.”

The uncle led the girl to the bathchamber, then to a fireplace room, where a table had already been laid for breakfast with her favourite cup, her favourite saucer, and her favourite spoon. Hot chocolate had been brought in, in an antique silver jug, along with a bun. The princess chewed a bite, squeezing her eyes shut in pleasure.

“What a tasty bun! Uncle, don’t let them send our chef to have his head struck off just yet. This is a really tasty bun!” Taking a sip of chocolate, she squeezed her eyes again. “This hot chocolate is so tasty, just marvellous! Don’t let them send our chef to have his head struck off just yet, Uncle.”

“Very well, my girl. Our chef has been making you porridge since before you could walk. He loves you very much, and we are not going to send him to have his head struck off.”

The princess sipped her chocolate and savoured her bun. When breakfast was over and done with, her uncle set about the most difficult task.

“And now we need to put on the crown and go out to the emissaries.”

“Aw-w...”

“All the same, it’s raining outside, you can’t even go for a walk in the courtyard.”

“But I don’t mean to go for a walk. Neither in the gardens nor in the courtyard. I want to sit at my pretty window and watch the rain. It’s so nice to sit at my window when it’s raining and the fireplace is crackling. And with some hot chocolate, and with a bun.”

“Of course it is. And this afternoon you’ll be able to do just that. But now we need to go into the Reception hall and listen to what the emissaries have to say.”

“But the rain might stop this afternoon, mightn’t it? And the emissaries will wait, if there’s something they’re after.”

The uncle went across to her, hugging her shoulders, and repeated:

“We need to go into the Reception hall and listen to what the emissaries have to say.”

“Well, if we must,” Thar-Agne sighed, “let us hear them out, and then order them to have their heads struck off, all of them. Can we, Uncle?”

“Of course we can, my girl.” Her uncle gently pulled the princess up out of her armchair. “Of course we can.”

* * *

In the Reception hall, they were waiting patiently. The begilded emissaries were pacing up and down the gleaming parquet floor and gazing up at the beautiful stucco ceiling. The hilts of their scimitars, crimson and gold, shone wickedly.

The princess appeared. She was clad in a lavish dress, a cape, and a crown that glittered with jewels. The crown had been made half a millennium ago. It had been made back then for precisely such occasions as these, when whoever was the monarch, if they were still a child, needed to show that they, nonetheless, had not been born the day before. That crown had been used by a good few of Thar-Agne’s ancestors, and each one had been very happy with it. It suited the princess particularly well — it was inlaid with such wondrous, striking sapphires. (And, as it happened, these had been mined from the very region which the wicked emissaries had come to try and take away!)

The girl, paying no attention to the bows which greeted her arrival, climbed up onto her throne and sat there, frowning. The chief emissary stepped forward and began rattling on about something, unfurling a scroll of paper that had been fastened by a huge seal.

“What did he say, what did he say?”

“He’s saying that we should give them the Eastern Mountains. Her interpreter approached. Impudent sort, isn’t he?”

“Ugh, what a horrid man! Why should we, all of a sudden?”

The question was translated, and an answer received.

“He says that your ancestors seized these territories unlawfully. He has all the documents, that’s them, there... Silly, isn’t he?”

“And just what do they intend to do? If we don’t give them the Eastern Mountains?”

“Ah, what’s the point of asking?” said the interpreter, contemptuously. “They’ll declare war.”

“War? An actual war?!”

The emissary began rattling on again.

“What did he say, what did he say?”

“He says that their forces are already gathered at our eastern border. A huge army, several million strong, all armed with scimitars.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” The princess jumped up. “Uncle, how can that be? Several million scimitars! That’s such a scary pile, isn’t it? Where can they have got so many? Their country isn’t big enough to fit them all in!”

“It sometimes happens there can be many more scimitars than that. Alas, he is telling the truth. Our head of intelligence reported as much to me at yesterday’s council of state. You, my girl, must tell them that we have to study the documents. That we will need a week to consider.”

“Maybe we should send him to have his head struck off? Then we won’t have to consider.”

“You see, we’d still have to consider, even so...”

“There we go again, with the considering,” Thar-Agne sighed and clambered back up onto her throne. “Very well, Uncle. I love you, and so I will order him to wait.”

“Yes. Only, you need to suggest that he waits, you mustn’t order him in any way.”

“Whyever not? I am a princess!” The spark of her blue sapphires shone in tandem with the spark of her blue eyes. “Actually, I am a queen, didn’t you say so, Uncle? Why can’t I order him?”

“Let’s talk about this later, and somewhere else.”

“I don’t want to have any conversations, I don’t, I don’t! I want to give orders! Otherwise, what’s the point of being queen?”

“Very well. Order him to wait a week.”

“Tell him,” the princess glittered sapphire-blue as she span around to her interpreter, “that I order him to wait for a week.”

The interpreter rattled away in Oriental. The emissaries nodded.

“Did you tell them the truth?” Thar-Agne shuffled uneasily in her seat. “Did you tell them that I was giving them an order?”

“No... I simply said that we would have to inspect the documents.”

“And you didn’t tell them that I was giving them an order? I have been tricked again!” The princess banged her fists on the arms of the throne. “Uncle! Why? Why have you all tricked me again? After all, you agreed, didn’t you? You shouldn’t have agreed, in that case!”

The uncle, who from the very start had been afraid that today’s encounter would not pass without someone falling victim, simply said:

“My girl, you and I are going to have a talk... Later.”

“Again, again, again you say talk! How much longer will there be talk?”

Thar-Agne jumped down off the throne and turned to go.

“Where are you going, my girl?”

“Tell them that I am going away to learn their stupid language. When I have, they can come back, and I will tell them everything myself. The truth. While you — and this includes you, Uncle, as well, — you’re all horrid, horrid, horrid liars!”

And the princess dashed away. The emissaries, alarmed, awaited official clarification.

“I’ll say this,” asked the interpreter, calmly. “That Queen Thar-Agne has departed for the library, where she will be studying their language in order to have the opportunity to converse with them directly. And that I am retiring.”

And he began.

* * *

Shortly after this, there occurred an insulting incident. Running back to her bedchamber, the princess cracked her forehead on the door frame. The resulting bang was so loud the warders at her door at first scattered in all directions. Her crown flew to the floor and, flashing blue sparks, rolled away. Thar-Agne flung herself on the bed, rubbing her injured forehead.

“Ow, ow, ow! Ow, it hurts! Ow, how dreadful! Uncle! Nanny! Ow, ow, ow!”

Her nanny came rushing in — a plump old woman, who had been nursing the girl since her first day in this world. A vial of some noxious-smelling ointment was brought, which always salved the bumps and bruises of the restless princess. Thar-Agne was settled on the bed. The lump was treated with the ointment. Her nanny remained to keep watch at the bed. The girl, now with a compress on her head, moaned, sighed, and whined.

A rumour spread around the Castle — the princess had split her head wide open and didn’t have long to live. A kitchen boy came running into the bedchamber — clarification was needed on what to do with lunch. When he had received the instructions (“A crust of bread... And half a cup of chocolate... Assuming I don’t die”), the boy made his way back. Luncheon was served as had been demanded. (True enough, it did not pass without a bowl of vegetable soup also, and a bunch of the salad leaves, which the old man used to buy himself, at a secret location.)

When the uncle dared to take a look inside the bedchamber, there was no princess there — she had been led into her drawing room, where she was finishing up her bowl of soup and nibbling the last few fragrant salad leaf stems.

The time came to change the compress. The nanny — a plump woman in a bonnet, an apron, and a multiplicity of petticoats — was fussing over the unfortunate girl.

“Ow, ow, ow, nanny! Oh, but it smarts!”

“Thar-Agne!” The nanny had lost patience. “Sit still and don’t move your head. You’ve gone and done yourself a mischief, and now you want your uncle to take the consequences, is that it? Turn this way, and don’t move a muscle.”

The princess screwed her eyes shut and turned to face the old woman. The nanny slapped the compress over the lump on Thar-Agne’s head.

“Oof! It smarts! It smarts so much that it’s going to finally finish me off!”

“Stop fidgeting! You’ve been naughty, now sit and take your medicine, you obnoxious little hooligan.”

“I wasn’t being naughty! It just happened! But it’s not like you’re feeling sorry for me, you’re telling me off! You don’t really love me, do you? And I used to play on your knees! What an awful, wretched, difficult day it’s been today! First, they didn’t let me sit at the window and watch the rain. Then they didn’t allow me to order those horrid emissaries to clear off. And now I’m being tortured with compresses. If you want me to get better quicker, let me out to my bed. I’ll lie down, and it will all heal up, and don’t torment me with your compresses. Everyone’s lying to me, they want to take away my Eastern Mountains, they’re just waiting for me to die.”

“Do you see what happens when you don’t do what the grown-ups tell you?” admonished her nanny. “Have you disobeyed your uncle again?”

“But why did he tell me not to give any orders, Nanny? After all, I am actually the queen in fact, am I not? If I want a thing to happen, I will give the order! If I don’t want it to, I won’t! Tell him, Nanny, tell him not to stop me giving orders.”

“I’ll tell him, I will. But you be a good one and don’t make me all worried.”

“It’s all his fault! He stopped me sending the emissaries to have their heads struck off... Let me go, Nanny, I’m going to lie down. I’ve got a splitting headache, ringing in my ears, and flashes before my eyes. I’ll be dead soon.”

“You have to listen to your elders! Now your head will hurt, and you won’t even notice that we’ve been declared war upon. You could at least have spared a thought for your kingdom, even if you don’t care about yourself.”

The nanny gathered together her healing supplies and swept her way grandly out of the room.

“Go and get some rest.”

Her uncle had come up to the chair where the princess was grieving.

“Uncle... Why is life such an offensive thing? Why is everything so horrid?”

“Does it hurt, my girl?”

“Dreadfully!” Thar-Agne touched her compress. “If I could only die quicker.”

He took her into the bedchamber. There he made sure that the girl lay down and wrapped herself in a blanket.

“Get some rest.”

* * *

Her head was aching, and ringing, and buzzing — there was no way she could get to sleep. Thar-Agne crawled out of bed, then made her way to the window and crawled under the curtain. The rain has stopped. She crossed over to her dressing room, fished out a cloak and some shoes, arrayed herself in them, and went out onto the small inner courtyard.

It was wonderful there. Pudgy wisps with grey bellies swam across the heavens — so low that they had swallowed the top of the tower. A drowsy breeze blew, not in the least bit cold. The garden was inundated with the fragrances — fresher than fresh — of herbs and flowers, joyous after the rain. The princess wandered about, taking in the fragrances, and in the end she had sniffed so much in that her head began to buzz from quite a different cause — the scents.

She sat down on a bench near the doors. She snuggled up in her cloak, which was soft, furry, and warm, and she felt glorious (at least, as glorious as anyone could feel with a lump like that on their forehead). She looked around at her courtyard, at the damp, mossy walls and rooftops all about.

Suddenly, somewhere off to her right, there was a bang. Thar-Agne sprang to her feet and started to peer through the leaves that were studded with pearly rain drops. It was clear, somewhere on the right, someone had fallen off the wall!

“Yikes!” exclaimed the girl in delighted horror. Someone wants to intrude upon me!

She lifted the hem of her cloak and ran towards the sound. Once she had pushed her way through the leaves and got soaked by a waterfall of droplets, she ran over to the wall and made out a boy who had just risen from the damp ground. On the boy’s back, hanging from a strap, there was a lute.

“Who are you?” asked the princess, sternly. “And why are you jumping from the wall when you are carrying a lute? You might break it!”

“Nothing will happen to it. Look, it’s not even spattered with mud.”

“My uncle forbids me to jump from the walls. He says I might break something... But what did you fall down to me for? Tell me, but be honest.”

“I came to see whether you had died or not.”

“And why did you think that I should have died?”

“People were saying that the emissaries from the East had slammed you into a door. So as to spare all the expense of going to war.”

“People say all kinds of things,” retorted Thar-Agne, angrily. “I’m sure they’ll want to slam me into a door when I order them all to have their heads struck off. But why do you have a lute, here?”

“It’s always with me.”

“Where do you live?”

“In the Tower.”

“In this one?” Thar-Agne pointed at the clouds pierced by the Tower. “How wonderful! Do you think I could come and visit you? I have never ever been in the Tower!”

“Will your uncle let you away to visit? He’s a strict one you’ve got there, and no mistake. He makes you stand in the corner for three hours a day.”

“Is that what people say?” The princess grew even more angry. “He does nothing of the sort! My uncle is the kindest uncle in the world. And also, he’s the wonderfullest uncle in the world. And the very bestest. And if anyone says anything nasty about him, I will order him to have his head struck off.” She stamped her foot, sending up a little fountain of spray. “Go and tell that to your people.”

“Then come and visit me at night. From my window, you get such a marvellous view of the Moon!”

“I don’t know. How would I know? I’ve never been in the Tower, I said so, didn’t I?” She sighed. “But what difference does it make where you look at the Moon from? From here,” and she indicated the walls and leaves around her, “you can see it pretty well too, you know.”

“You just haven’t seen it for yourself. And, anyway, there are places from where you can get such a good view of the Moon that even my window in the tower seems like nonsense.”

“And do you know these places?”

“Only one, if truth be told... But what a place it is! Oh, if only you knew.”

“I want to know! I want to see the Moon from that place, I do, I do! Show it to me, I’m ordering you!”

“It’s just that it’s not exactly close by. Do you know the forest on the mountain the other side of the river?”

“I don't... I’ve never been outside the Castle... How can we get there? And we have to make sure no one knows about it.”

“I know a secret passage.”

“Then let’s go and look at the Moon, right now!” The princess tugged at the boy’s sleeve.

“It won’t work out today.” He sighed. “Today I’ve got a rehearsal. In fact, I’ve got to go now. You see, I only thought to catch a glimpse of you — on the off-chance you were still alive — and then get straight to my rehearsal.”

“It was the right thing to do! You should check everything for yourself. But this bump of mine hurts so badly! Do you know how much I am suffering?”

“That’s a nasty bump you have there.” The boy carefully ran his fingers over it. “A bump like that will take a long time to heal. I bet they’re putting compresses on, aren’t they?”

“And horrible ones. You can’t even imagine how much they smart!”

“Ha, I can imagine only too well. Last year, when I fell out of a tree, they put these compresses on that nearly killed me. I could have died, and I would never have seen you.”

“You’ve been wanting to see me? Why?”

“Well, I liked you very much when I saw you.”

“Really? But why?”

“I don’t know... I liked you, and that’s that. I even composed some music for you.”

“Really?” Thar-Agne bounced up and down and sent the puddle under her feet splashing everywhere. “Play it for me, play it! I’m ordering you!”

“Not right now. Now I need to climb back up home.”

“But when will you come back? When will you perform your music for me? And when will we go and look at the Moon?”

“Let’s do it tomorrow in the evening. I don’t have any rehearsals tomorrow. I’ll come for you, and we’ll go and look at the Moon. If you don’t have any important matters of state to attend to, of course.”

“I won’t have! I will order them all to have their heads struck off. Just promise, promise, promise!” Again, she tugged at the boy’s sleeve.

“We have a deal, haven't we? See you tomorrow!”

The boy disentangled the princess from his sleeve and climbed up the creepers that spread across the wall, making his way up and out of view.

“If you don’t come, I will order you to have your head struck off!” shouted Thar-Agne after him. “Well, there we are. Again I’m alone, and no-one needs me.”

She returned to her bedchamber, sat down on an ottoman, and began to wait. Three minutes after that, she crossed over to her bed and continued to wait there. But it was hopeless — a huge expanse of time remained until tomorrow evening. While tomorrow morning would again bring those awful people with their idiotic scimitars. She definitely had to send them all to have their heads struck off. She had had enough of them, the stupid idiots, she was at the end of her tether.

Dreaming of how wonderful it would be to send every last idiotic emissary to have their heads struck off, the princess fell asleep.

* * *

The next morning it was overcast, cold, and miserable again. The uncle made his way with a firm heart to the bedchamber. Thar-Agne was in a state of utter despair. Today, she had woken two hours or so earlier than normal, and waited patiently for the evening. (The only thing she had done was go to the mirror, finding that her remedy was up to the mark, the bump was almost gone, and there was now no reason left to be ashamed when looking at the Moon.) But time passed, and there was less and less strength left to wait for the evening.

Her uncle went across to his unhappy niece, who was sitting on the ottoman with her hands on her cheeks, looking down at the floor. He squatted down, and hugged the princess to him, and stroked her unbraided hair.

“Does your head still hurt like this?”

“No, Uncle.” The girl sighed. “My head doesn’t hurt, now. It just buzzes, and there is ringing in my ears, but it doesn’t hurt, much. I could even manage a little breakfast. They might bring me a cup of tasty chocolate. Well, and a bun.”

“We shall organise that now. Then why are you so sad?”

“He didn’t come, and now we won’t go and see the Moon.”

“And when was he supposed to come?”

“He said in the evening...”

“But there is still some time left before evening. He still has time, and he probably will come. That is, of course, if you didn’t promise to send him to have his head struck off.”

“I did promise, Uncle, I did.” The princess gave a bitter sigh. “But only if he didn’t come... And if he does come, why would I?”

“This ‘he’ — is who?”

“How should I know? And what difference does it make?”

“Don’t you even know his name? That’s not good. If we knew his name, I could find him and bring him.”

“No, let him come himself, now that he promised!

“There's still time until the evening.” Her uncle stood up. “But, for now, you should get washed and dressed, and have your breakfast, because we need...”

“I’m not going anywhere!”

Thar-Agne stood up, made her way to the bed, and lay down, burying her face into a muddle of bedclothes.

“I shall lie here until I die. Or until he comes. And order those clowns to be sent to have their heads struck off, after all. And tell them there are to be no more audiences.”

* * *

For all that difficult, stupid, tedious day, the princess did not once leave her bedchamber. She lay on her bed, not saying a word, just sighing and occasionally crying quietly. The day went by, and yet he still did not appear; even when it became the afternoon, he still did not come. They called her to breakfast, to lunch, and to dinner, but each time she replied that she didn’t want anything, apart from them to send everyone to have their heads struck off and leave her, for once, in peace.

The evening came, cold, windy, and unsettled. Thar-Agne, wrapped up in her blanket, went over to the window, and looked out at the inclement weather.

“Well, I don’t care anyway,” she whispered, pressing her aching forehead to the glass. “I don’t care that the Moon’s not visible. He hasn’t come anyway. I shall tell my uncle, and he will order a search. Then I shall send him to have his head struck off, and then some! I am evil, I am grim, I am dreadful, I am bloodthirsty, I am cruel, I am dark, I am merciless, I am inhuman... He shall know.”

And she sniffled, and wept, and the tears trickled down her cheeks.

Then she wandered around the room. Then she changed into her nightgown. Then she lay down on her bed. Then she lay for a long time, not shutting her eyes. Then the clock on the drawing-room mantle-piece struck ten. Then, half-past ten. Then, half-past eleven, and the time had come to die.

Then something very strange happened.

In the air vent in the wall below the ceiling, something made a noise. The vent’s cover fell off and fell onto the thick rug below. This formed an opening, out of which fell something that was not very big, grey, and terribly dusty. It smacked down after the cover and began to sneeze!

The princess sprang up on her bed. The grey, dusty, sneezing thing began to unfold. A boy emerged in the middle of the bedchamber.

“You came!” exclaimed Thar-Agne, joyously.

“Well, yes, I did. I thought we’d agreed?”

“I’ve been waiting for you since the morning! But you never came!”

“Hm... I told you I’d come in the evening, didn’t I?”

“Well, so what?” Thar-Agne jumped down off the bed and ran up to the boy. “Suppose you’d have come earlier? What’s your name, by the way?”

“You can call me just Vedde.”

“Vedde, how are we going to see the Moon? Have you seen how cloudy it is? Those horrid clouds have eaten up the Moon, what are we going to do?”

“Where we’re going, you can always see the Moon. Don’t worry. It’s damp and cold there, Agne. Have you got a warm jacket?”

“How will we get there? Will we climb in there?” The girl indicated the air vent.

“Yes. Put some warm clothes on.”

Thar-Agne ran into her dressing room and brought out her favourite fur cape — long, soft, and sparkling.

“No.” Vedde inspected the cape and tested the material. “It will get stained and ripped in there. Any kind of old rags will do, dirty ones if possible.”

“But what about the Moon?! How can I look at the Moon wearing dirty rags?!”

“The Moon won’t mind. It understands.”

“But I don’t have any dirty rags to wear...”

“I thought as much.”

The boy brought out a wrinkled sack he’d stuffed down his shirt-front. It turned out there was a jacket in the sack — it was old, well-worn, much-repaired, but it was still strong and quite warm enough to keep the little princess from the chill of the dank night.

“I don’t have such a brilliant jacket as this!” The girl sighed, inspecting the marvellous garment. “And I don’t have a sack like that even more. If any were to set up home here, my uncle would insist on throwing them out...” Thar-Agne put the jacket on. “It’s so cosy! I will order one just like it for me.”

“That’s my old jacket. Now this.” Vedde held open the sack.

“What do you mean?” said Thar-Agne, in fright. “Get in the sack? Whatever for?”

“It’s very dusty in there. And anyway, a princess didn’t ought to be dusty. I shouldn’t need to explain that.”

“But how am I supposed to see in there? What if I lose my way down the wrong turning? What if I fall out somewhere and get lost forever? What about the Moon?”

“I’ll make sure that everything is all right.”

The princess scrupulously put on the sack. Vedde stacked up three ottomans, climbed up onto them himself, took hold of the girl, lifted her up, and popped her into the passageway. Then he caught hold of the edge with his hands, stretched up, climbed in, and called out:

“How is it?”

“Miserable,” confessed the princess from inside her sack. “It’s prickly. And there’s a seam or something digging into my back.”

“Put up with it. We need to see the Moon. And to see the Moon, you often need to put up with some unpleasantness. Now I’m going to drag you along. You lie in your sack as you are, and don’t worry.”

He pulled the bundle with the princess. Thar-Agne endured the torment courageously and even tried not to complain (it turns out that being dragged along a pipe inside a sack is really not all that pleasant). But it didn't take long for the boy to drag her.

“There's my hole! Now, I’m going to let you out, and then we’ll make our way down by rope. Do you know how to climb down a rope?”

“I’m not sure,” said the princess, at a loss. “I’ve never climbed down a rope before. What do I need to do?”

“You need to try.”

Vedde undid the princess and helped her out of the sack. They made their way safely down, and Vedde took a small lamp from his pocket. The beam danced over indistinct objects.

“Where are we?!” Thar-Agne caught tight hold of the boy’s elbow.

“This is the old kitchen. It was already closed before you were born — me, too, for that matter — because the floors had begun to get damp.”

The lamplight picked cauldrons, frying pans, and saucepans out of the darkness — huge, black, and scary.

“Follow me! Don’t hang back, it’s easy to get lost round here.”

They crossed through into an unknown room. In the middle, there stood a big wooden block. All around there were blackened bones, rusty hooks, cleavers, and axes.

“What is that, Vedde?” asked the princess when the beam of light stopped on a huge knife.

“It’s a butcher’s knife.”

“And what’s this, that’s on it? It’s black, and sticky, and disgusting?”

“It’s blood. Only down here, in this damp cellar, it’s congealed into something horrid. But it used to be blood.”

“Real blood?”

“They used to butcher the animals here — cows, pigs, sheep — so that the kitchens could use the meat in the dishes they cooked.”

“With this same knife?” Thar-Agne was in a state of complete horror.

“Well, yes. They would be cut up into many pieces.”

“All with this knife, you mean... And would the blood go spraying out to the sides? Let’s get out of here right now, Vedde. This is a bad place, I really don’t like it here. Just think, in our glorious, cosy old Castle there are places like this!”

“You can’t even begin to imagine,” Vedde gave a gloomy chuckle, “what sort of places there are in our Castle. We’re going to have to pass through one of them.”

“Really? Then let’s get across it as soon as we can, and we’ll run and see the Moon!”

They left that horrible room. They walked for a long time. They descended some slippery stairs, opened some rotten doors, and crawled through some airless holes. The boy fearlessly hacked through the gloom with the lamplight, and the princess, alongside him, did not feel at all fearful. When Vedde needed some time to get a door open, Thar-Agne even decided to go for a bit of a walk.

“I’m going for a walk around, Vedde, all right? Just a little one. Just while you’re getting the door open.”

“Just don’t go far. It’s easy to get lost in here.”

“I’m not going to get lost. After all, we're going to look at the Moon!”

The princess stepped aside. She came back after a minute, holding an enormous rat by the tail. The rat was hanging upside-down, twisting and thrashing about. (The rat was really not enjoying being treated like this; she might have been a queen, but more than likely she wouldn’t have liked it if she had been caught and carried hanging upside-down from her tail.)

“Look, Vedde!” Thar-Agne triumphantly presented the rat. “Look, what a darling creature! Look at its little paws, and its little eyes and ears, its cute whiskers and tail! Do you see, not everything is so awful in the Castle! What is it, Vedde? I will order them to get me one just like it! What a marvellous creature! What is it?”

“It’s a rat,” said the boy, as he finally got the bolt open.

“A rat?” said the princess, confused. “This thing is actually a rat? Yikes!”

She let go. The rat plopped down onto the floor, squeaked, and scurried away.

They set off. They walked for a long time — again they descended stairs, again they opened doors, again they crawled through holes. It was getting colder and colder. Presently, Vedde stopped before a low door set into a damp wall.

“Look,” he said, and he shone the lamp through the door.

Within, Thar-Agne made out some bones lying on a pile of something rotten.

“Did they used to butcher animals here, too? But if so, what was the chain for? So that they wouldn’t run away? What is it, Vedde?”

“A skeleton. That poor unfortunate died in this dungeon, and no-one bothered to even give him a decent burial. Can you see the skull? And there, look, there are the ribs.”

“Let’s get out of here right now, and let’s not come back here ever again. Why is it, that to see the Moon and to listen to music, you need to walk a path like this? Maybe there’s another way? One that’s not so dreadful?”

“I don’t know. All right, let's go.”

“Vedde... Do you know where people get their heads chopped off?”

“People don’t get their heads chopped off these days. These days they get hanged, or poisoned with something, or smothered. But in the old days, yes, heads used to roll. Heads were usually chopped off in town squares, so that everyone could watch and enjoy themselves.”

“And when a head gets chopped off, does the blood spray out everywhere?”

“Ha. When a head gets chopped off, the blood comes gushing out of the neck like a fountain.”

“Have you ever seen it?!”

“No. The physician told me that there is a special vein in our neck which all the blood that we have flows through. And that if a head gets chopped off, this blood flows so powerfully through there that it starts to spurt out. Until it’s all gone and there’s none left.”

“And people watch this, and enjoy themselves?”

“The whole square.”

“I shall order all of them to have their heads struck off, all of them, all of them! How terrible, how horrible, how vile!”

“Don’t get so worked up. This was a long time ago, in the olden days. These days no-one gets their head chopped off, I told you.”

“So how do people enjoy themselves, then?”

“They find ways... We need to go.”

“Don’t let’s ever come here again!”

“But what if you want to see the Moon again?”

“Maybe we could look for a different route? I’ll bet there are many ways to the Moon, aren’t there? There can’t just be one, can there? And such a terrible one?”

“Of course not. There are many different things in the world. Some things there should only be one of, like the Moon. But there are some things which there should be a lot of, like paths to the Moon. At the moment, I only know this one, and I’ve shown it to you. But in general, I think, every person has their own path to the Moon.”

“Well, yes! Just imagine — if not, how crowded with people it would be here. It’s not just us that want to look at the Moon, is it?”

“Not even close. Here are a few for starters — musicians, people I know. They simply have to look at the Moon from time to time. Otherwise they fall ill, and they can’t compose any music.”

They set out on their way again.

“But how can it be that everyone can look at the Moon... So many people look at the Moon, but is there enough of it to go round?”

“You know... I’ve been thinking that if we really were to divide the Moon up among everyone, then of course there wouldn’t be enough to go round. You see... The Moon is made so that it doesn’t matter at all how many people see it. And everyone can, one and all. But to make out something, truly lunar... Well, not everyone can. Take this lad I know. He’s not exactly blind, but there is something wrong with his eyes. He gets red and green mixed up.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know. The physician says that it’s not a problem, really, and many people are like that. They’re not even considered to be ill. Well, anyway, just you try and explain to him how he should gather wild strawberries in the forest. He won’t be able to make out the red colour against the green leaves.”

“Really?” Thar-Agne stopped. “He’d starve!”

“It’s like that with the Moon. You can look at it until you burst. But if you don’t know how to see the colour silver, you’ll never understand why the Moon is so beautiful. So don’t worry, the Moon will last a good long time yet. Here we are.”

Vedde kicked open another door, and they started up the stairs. They smelled the wet earth, the fresh leaves, the breeze blowing — and emerged into the dank night.

* * *

The passageway had led them out onto the river bank. It was cold and damp. Leaves rustled in the breeze, and water splashed.

“Where are we?” The princess looked about her with delighted horror. “It’s the river! Are we there yet?”

“Not yet. But we’ve already made it out of the Castle.”

They splashed their hands in the water, and then Vedde pointed to the skies:

“If there were no clouds, we’d see the Castle in the Moon. Do you know how beautiful it looks! At night, it is all airy, as though it has been woven from silver thread. It’s as if the Moon was tracing them, when it lights up the roofs and parapets, the embrasures and spires. And my Tower looks particularly wonderful. And especially when the Moon hangs right above it. It’s like a huge silver lamp that illuminates the Castle and the forest. And if there are clouds, it’s as though they were silver-mane ghosts. And the trees, meanwhile, are like bars of silver. And the sky is so dark and fathomless, speckled with stars, and it’s all so peaceful and clear, it’s wonderful! It all looks so cosy, especially when the Castle windows glow orange.”

“I want to see that!” Thar-Agne bounced. “Vedde, take me with you next time! When it will be just like you said! When they suspend the Moon over the Tower and light up the orange windows! Take me! I’ll even walk that same path again, and wrap up in your dusty sack... And I’ll look at the bones...”

“Very well! There’s not long left.”

“What liars they are, though.” The princess was hurrying after Vedde, along the pebbles on the river bank. “After all, my uncle knew how wonderful it is outside the Castle. Why didn't he let me go out?”

“You just don’t know what there is outside of the Castle. But he does know, and he probably thinks that you wouldn’t like it. He’s good to you really, even if he does make you stand in the corner for three hours at a time.”

“Look, I’ve told you already, he doesn’t make me stand in the corner... Your people are lying. They all lie, they’re all frauds.” Thar-Agne sighed.

They walked on, and the water murmured and the wind rustled in the trees. And the branches arched over the river, while drops fell from the leaves and splashed, and it was quiet and fresh and wondrous. Then Vedde turned off from the river bank into the forest, and they walked along a path, occasionally stumbling over a tree root.

The path headed off up the mountain, they were climbing for a long time, and the princess was growing tired of waiting — when would they ever get to see the Moon, and when was Vedde ever going to play his music for her? It seemed to her that morning was breaking, that the Moon had hidden for the day, that today, like every other day, nothing was going to happen...

The forest ended. They came out onto the top of the hill. Ahead of them, the hillside sloped down, and below it spilled, or, rather, flooded, or, rather, cascaded a marvellous silvery world!

The clouds had drawn back, and there, in a black clearing in the heavens, was the Moon, at last! A silvery light flowed out, infused with liquid night. The scent was indescribable, it was the scent of the Moon, the scent of tranquil silver light. Thar-Agne stood stock-still, for fear of frightening away even the slightest drop of the Moon’s scent, even the tiniest silver Moonbeam.

Vedde took his lute down from his shoulder and began to play, while the girl stood, and looked, and listened.

The music was short and simple, just a pair of chords and a handful of notes, but it was so silvery, so crystalline, so Moonlike! It was damp, like the heavens; it was cool, like the grass; it was fathomless, like the whole world, its lights twinkling in the night. Thar-Agne stood, and she looked, and she listened, not moving, not breathing. Vedde finished playing, and said:

“What did you think?”

“I liked it very much! Very, very, very much! Only, Vedde, you know, would you not ever play it for anyone else?”

“But it was you that I made it up for. And for when the Moon would be like this. If I was to play that music to someone else, and in a different place to boot, it would be ruined.”

“That’s right! So don’t you play it even to me, if there isn’t a Moon like this. I don’t want such good music to be ruined. Of course, it’s a pity that we can’t capture it and take it home. And then listen to it now and then.”

“Of course, I could play it to you in the Castle.” The boy slung the lute back over his shoulder. “But what would be the point? You never get a Moon like that inside the Castle.”

They went back into the forest and headed down the hill, leaving the Moon at the top.

* * *

At the entrance to the underground, the princess stopped.

“You know, Vedde! I am going to order them to arrange a Moon like that in the Castle. Let everyone see it. After all, didn’t you say that the Moon won’t mind even if everyone looks at it?”

“What they needed to do from the very start was to arrange the Castle so that the Moon could be seen from it. It’s too late now.”

“You’re right.” Thar-Agne sighed. “I wonder, does my uncle know that the Moon can be sometimes seen as clearly as that?”

“I think he knows.”

“So does that mean that he too climbed into a sack, and held a knife in his hands, and looked at those scary bones? So that he could see the Moon?”

They went into the passageway and plunged into the gloom.

“I’m not sure about the sack, but he has held a knife, and he has seen a mound of bones.”

“I don’t want any bones... I’ll give an order, and they will abolish them!”

“Ha. It would be good if everything could be solved so easily.”

“I’m still going to give the order! Suppose they do.”

And they took the route back, and did not speak anymore. They passed back through the scary corridors with the dungeons; they passed back through the scary room where the knife was lying; they passed back through the scary kitchen. And Vedde put the princess back into the sack, and shoved her back into the opening, and they both spent a long time sneezing on the fluffy carpet.

“All right, then,” said the boy at last. “Now it’s time for you to go to bed, it's late.”

“Yes, I have to go to bed.” The girl lay down, snuggled under the blanket. “Again, tomorrow, my uncle will come with those emissaries of his. I am so fed up with them! Vedde, save me from the emissaries. I want the Moon, and I want music, and I don’t want those stupid emissaries, with their scimitars... It’s so wonderful that you came... Showed me the Moon and played me your music... Will you come again, is that all right? Come to me, put me in a sack, and drag me... Wherever you want... As long as it’s out of this Castle... Will you come?”

“Ha. I could show you such wonderful places!”

Vedde, let’s run away!” She half-rose on the bed. “You know such wonderful places! Let’s run away and live there!”

“No. It’s best not to spend all your time in places like that. But you do need to spend some time in places like that. Yes, you need to do that, you have to. But you can also live in the Castle. It’s not actually that bad, you know.” Vedde again laid the princess down and tucked in her blanket.

“But still, let’s run away... Somewhere, at least... Just a little bit...”

She was falling asleep.

* * *


THE LAST OF THE EASTERN DRAGONS


text_check The hurricane raged all night. It was scary to get too near the doors and windows — shutters rattled, ragged curtains thrashed against walls, and slates hailed down from the roof. Towards morning, the hurricane blew itself out, the clouds brightened up, and the sun rose over the battered town. The streets, usually so spick and span, were unrecognisable. Shop signs lay forlorn in puddles, all jumbled together with tree branches, weathervanes, and smashed tiles. Broken glass glittered in window frames. Shutters hung from bent hinges.

Breathless children gathered at the school, every one of them bursting to recount the adventures that had befallen them along with the hurricane. At one house, the wagon had been smashed to smithereens; at another, all the old junk in the attic had come crashing down (revealing a trove of marvellous curiosities); at yet another, the very roof had been blown off. Classes had already begun, but half of the children had yet to arrive. Children constantly came running in, chattering about the bridge that had collapsed into the river. All the boats had been blown out to sea, and so, to get the children to school, they’d quickly had to knock together a raft.

The children who lived down by the docks came rushing in and began to report that the ships, which had sailed out to sea so as not to be smashed up against the shore, were returning with torn sails, and some even with broken masts. Closer to mid-day than the morning, Leyesso burst into the classroom. She was a girl from the other side of the river, the miller’s daughter. She greeted her teacher, and then she ran across to the window, where she shared a desk with Tooba, the armourer’s apprentice. Once she had caught her breath, she whispered:

“Tooba! Guess what! There’s a young dragon hiding in our shed, right now! They were flying, and he was brought down by the gale! He’s in our shed, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to get back home now!”

“Really?” Tooba almost jumped out of his seat. “Didn’t anyone spot him?”

“I don’t know! I hid him there, among some sacks. I only just had chance to ask what had happened to him. I had to run for school. He said that he didn’t know how he was going to make it back home now. And that, anyway, young dragons shouldn’t fly by themselves, because they haven’t developed the sense that dragons use to find their way yet. And that he’s an orphan, that his parents were shot down by magic arrows when he was just a baby. He had been to the Islands with his grandfather, they were flying home, and they were caught in our hurricane. And it blew him down right into our backyard.”

“The main thing is to make sure no-one finds out! We’ll just tell Miopa. He’ll think of something. We can trust him, and he knows everyone.”

“All right! Let’s tell Miopa. I don’t even know what to feed him! After all, I’ve never had a young dragon before. And most likely, he’s hungry.”

“You bet! You’d be hungry too, after something like that. Has he broken anything? He must have come down with a real bang!”

Finally, the classes ended. Leyesso and Tooba took Miopa to one side and started talking at him agitatedly.

“Listen to this, Miopa, only you’ve to promise not to tell anyone!”

“Promise! No-one! Cross your heart!”

“Not a soul! It’s really important!”

“Promise! Not a word! Like the grave!”

“Whoa! Calm down, calm down!” Miopa made a face. “Start at the start, and be quick. I’ve got to dash, the roof came off our pigeon loft last night, we need to put it back on. Come on, then, what?”

“You’ll never guess, Miopa. Leyesso has a young dragon hiding in her shed! It was brought down by the hurricane! He was flying home with his grandfather, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to get home now!”

“He’s still only little, and young dragons mustn’t fly by themselves, without any grown-ups! Because they still haven’t developed the sense that dragons use to find their way! And, well, he’s an orphan, his parents were shot down by magic arrows when he was still just a baby! We’ve got to think of something!”

“We’ve got to send him home somehow, or seek out his grandfather and get him to fly here to pick up his grandson.”

“Right.” Miopa scratched his head. “It’s a pretty pickle. You see, if he’s one of those dragons that live the other side of the Eastern ridge, it’s not so bad. You could fly there in a day and a half, I reckon, and he’ll cope with that by himself. But if he’s one of the Northern dragons, then it’s a different story. It’s a very long way away, and autumn is already over. He might freeze. If he’s little, he won’t yet have a good flame. All right, look... I’ll nip off home right now, and then we’ll head round to yours, Leyesso, and the first thing we’ll do is have a word with him. I’ll meet you on the bank, where the fox bit you last spring, Tooba. In half an hour, don’t be late.”

“We should go as well. I’ll tell my folks that we need to get together for something.”

Miopa dashed home, and Leyesso and Tooba hared off to the armourer’s workshop.

* * *

Half an hour later, they gathered together again and set off across the river in a boat with the cooper. He was distraught over the destruction the hurricane had inflicted. His barrels had been scattered all over the district, the very barrels he’d been planning to earn good money from, so that he could repair his workshop.

“I’ll have to start over, working in the old one. The roof leaks in there, and the windows won’t shut, it’s drafty... Winter’s coming on, I’ll catch my death of cold again,” the cooper complained as he worked the oars.

“I’ll get our lot on board,” said Miopa. “Once they get their own stuff sorted out, we’ll look for your barrels. So they got scattered around, well, that’s not so bad. Maybe they got flung as far as somebody who’d meant to buy one anyway. You won’t have to pay for delivery.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Tooba in delight. “Look how massive that tree is, and even so, the roots were torn out!”

He pointed to the uprooted trunk of an oak tree that was sailing down the middle of the river like an actual ship.

“I can’t remember the like.” The cooper shook his head, hurriedly steering off to one side. “I’ll wager nobody can. There’s been nothing like this round here for at least a century.”

“Maybe it was sent deliberately?” suggested Tooba. “There’s that evil mage who lives in the south. Wicked, he is. Ours is forever falling out with him.”

“No, it was an ordinary hurricane. Firstly, special hurricanes break something specific, or carry it away to a particular place. But this one came and went, and nothing uncanny happened. Although, who knows... Secondly, our mage is no fool. A special hurricane, even one like that, he would have driven off in two shakes.”

“He’d have driven it off?” said Leyesso. “So why didn’t he drive this one off, then, the non-special one? Isn’t it allowed?”

“Of course it’s not allowed.” The cooper nodded. He was drawing closer to the riverbank, which was covered in branches, and debris torn from houses and sheds. “A hurricane which has been whipped up specially, that’s one thing. A proper hurricane, that happens by itself, that’s quite another. It’s a natural phenomenon, isn’t it? You should let them happen the way they happen. And, anyway, if a hurricane happens, or an earthquake, it’s not the mages who are to blame, but we ourselves, us ordinary people. Everything in the world is set up to be in balance. And we, every one of us, are a part of that balance. And if we do something wrong, the balance is disturbed. And it has to be restored, balance does. Meaning hurricanes, or, as it may be, floods, for example — they somehow restore that balance. That’s what I think myself, and our Astrologer has said as much, as well.”

“He’s a wise old man,” replied Miopa with approval. “But there is something he doesn’t know. I asked him once how I could tell what is good, and what is bad — not for me, but in general. He said he didn’t know! So I asked him what his telescope revealed. But he said that’s not the sort of thing you can make out through a telescope.”

“And he wasn’t afraid to say it,” noted the cooper, with admiration. “Here we are, then. Now, what about those barrels? Will you help?”

“Of course! It’s just we have one important thing to do, and then we’ll be right back.”

Bidding the cooper farewell, Miopa, Leyesso, and Tooba ran towards the mill.

“He won’t have frozen, will he?” asked Tooba, anxiously. “It’s cold in that shed!”

“I closed the door firmly, it didn’t ought to be drafty,” worried Leyesso.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” repeated Miopa. “In a minute we’ll get there, and we’ll find out everything.”

At last, they got there. They stealthily crept round the fence (the dogs, recognising familiar scents, simply wagged their tails) and entered the yard through the gate which opened onto the woods. They stole across to the shed.

The young dragon was behind a pile of grain sacks. He had curled himself round, and was lying with his head on the tip of his tail. He was really small, only ten paces from head to tail, but he was already black. Only the webs between his toes and the very tips of his wings were still crimson. His scales, already hard, glittered in the gloom of the shed.

“Hello!” The children ran up to the young dragon. “So, how are you? Now we’re going to save you!”

The young dragon spun its head round, looking at the children.

“I thought you weren’t coming...”

“Oh, how could you!” Leyesso was upset with him. “I did tell you that I just had to go to school, but then we’d come back straight away and come up with a plan. You know, last year we saved a little hedgehog. He’d fallen down the well and started to drown, we barely rescued him. We even had to go down the well. It’s ever so scary down there, you know!”

“I don’t know,” said the young dragon, sadly. “I don’t know what a well is... I don’t even know how I’m going to get back home.”

“Don’t you dare get upset.” Miopa clapped the young dragon on his paw. “It happens to us all! Last year, I got lost in the forest, and fell into a wolf’s den. Imagine that! But I didn’t cry at all. I was just afraid that the wolf would fall in on top of me, and there we’d sit until he got hungry. But you’ve been lucky! You didn’t get plunged into a swamp, or smashed on a pile of rocks, but sent down to us in our backyard.”

“What’s your name?” asked Tooba.

“Nothing, yet. We choose a name only when we are already adults. But while we’re not yet fully grown, and while we’re not allowed to fly without adults, we don’t have names. When I’m ninety-nine years old and become a grown-up, then I’ll choose a name for myself. But in the meantime, well...”

“Don’t cry!” Leyesso stroked the young dragon’s paw.

“I’m not crying... It’s just that my grandfather will be so worried out there! You see, I’m the very last one, and if something happens to me...”

“You haven’t broken anything, have you?” Leyesso was still concerned. “Are you still in one piece?”

“I think so, yes... But what does it matter? I won’t be able to fly all the way home. I still haven’t developed my sense. It only comes to us when we are ninety-nine years old. Then we can fly wherever we like, without adults.”

“What, even to the other side of the sea?” asked Tooba, appalled and delighted.

“Even to the other side of the sea,” said the young dragon, sadly.

“Calm down, calm down.” Miopa was thinking things over. “If your sense hasn’t developed yet, we’ll have to find something else instead. What we need is a map and compass. Do you know what they are?”

“Of course!” The dragon livened up, and his eyes burned a dark gold. “Grandfather used to say that you must never go to sea without a map and compass. Every sea-captain must know his map and compass. But Grandfather doesn’t even know where I came down... That hurricane was so scary! There we were, flying home, and suddenly, at midnight, on it came! And, of course, out over the sea, there’s nowhere to land. Clouds and lightning all across the sky, all the way up to the stars! I tell you true, it was so frightening! I don’t even remember when it caught hold of me. And I couldn’t tell you how far it took me. And then it slammed me into the ground! I woke up, looked around, and saw it was already morning and the hurricane had blown over. I saw a shed. I very nearly couldn’t crawl that far and hide.”

“Just a minute!” exclaimed Leyesso. “Do you want anything to eat, at all? We’ll bring it for you, just tell us what you want!”

“No, thank you. I’ve already eaten this week,” said the young dragon, sadly.

“Does that mean dragons eat once a week?” Tooba could not sit still for inquisitiveness.

“Grown-ups eat once every three months, but the little ones once a week. I’ve already eaten, Grandfather brought me pumpkins, from the south, ever so tasty they were...”

“We’ve also got pumpkins!” This thought cheered Leyesso up. “We’ll give you some to take with you. What if you get hungry on the way?”

“Of course we’ll give you some,” said Miopa. “But first we need to get hold of a map and a compass, and to think about how you’re going to find this way. You wait here for us, and we’ll go off and get everything sorted out. Right, then, let’s go!”

* * *

They raced back into the town. Crossing back over the river, they paused very briefly to check progress on rebuilding the bridge, and then they headed for the castle.

“We’ll go visit the Astrologer.” Miopa had his plan of action worked out. “He’ll give us a map, or he’ll tell us where to get hold of one.”

The town was humming with activity throughout — doors, shutters, and curtains were being rehung; rubbish and smashed slates were being removed; panes of glass were being replaced. They ran up to the castle, clustered round the rosy-cheeked guard, and began demanding to see the Astrologer.

“We need to see him on very urgent business! It’s really dreadfully urgent!”

“What business would that be, then? You can’t just go bothering astrologers with any old nonsense — you know that, Miopa. Just what business have you got, exactly, if he’s to drop everything else for it?”

“We can only tell it to him, nobody else. You let us through, and then you ask him if it was important or not.”

“And still, what is it that’s so important? If it’s about the hurricane, then every other household has it just as bad.”

“It is about the hurricane, but it’s much more important than in any other household. Come on! Either go and call him down yourself, or let us past.”

“Well, all right.” The guard turned to face the tower. “I’m not climbing all the way up there, though, you can go up by yourselves.”

Finally, he let the children into the castle. The Astrologer was sitting at his desk, buried in a heap of paper. He turned to face his visitors, the stars and crescent moon sparkling on his deep blue gown.

“Ah, Miopa!” The Astrologer smiled. “It’s been quite a while since I last set eyes on you.”

“I’ve been drowning in schoolwork... Listen, we have an important matter to discuss. It’s very important, and very secret. Only promise you won’t tell anyone! There’s a young dragon in our shed,” began Miopa once they had all sat down. “He was flying home to the East with his grandfather, and the hurricane overtook them. He was spun round and dumped almost on top of her house.” He indicated Leyesso. “You see, he’s still little, he’s not yet reached ninety-nine years old. And young dragons, until they turn ninety-nine, they don’t develop their sense. Well, you probably know... The point is, he can’t fly home. But he’s the very last of the Eastern dragons! His grandfather is most likely already looking for him, but there’s no way he’ll be able to find him. To cut a long story short, we need a map and compass.”

“Hmm.” The Astrologer began pondering. “Maybe we should wait until his grandfather finds him? Wouldn’t it be best for him to stay in the shed for now? Or, if that’s too risky, to hide him somewhere better?”

“I’ve already thought that over. You see, who knows when his grandfather will find him? Maybe he never will. There’s no telling how long he might be with us. And just think what will happen if anyone finds out there’s a dragon hiding somewhere hereabouts! He might be young, but he’s still a dragon! You know what they’re like round here.”

“Unfortunately, I do,” agreed the old man, stroking his long white beard. “So, you were saying he’s an Eastern dragon?”

“Yes! And that’s good news! Aren’t the Eastern dragons closer to us than the Northern ones?”

“They used to be,” said the Astrologer, mournfully. “Incidentally, I used to know his grandfather. This would have been sixty years ago, before your friend had even hatched. I’d travelled beyond the Eastern Sea. On its farther shore, there is wilderness, and beyond that, the mountains where the dragons live. Or used to... Even then, there were only three or four of them left. And now, you were saying, he’s the last? What is happening to the world? And what a fool I’ve been! I sit here, trying to account for every last star, my hair turning quite white, and meanwhile the last dragons are dying out. Very well! I do have maps. We’ll lay our hands on the very best and newest I have. But for a compass, I’m afraid you’ll have to run down to the docks. Ask one of the sea-captains for his back-up compass. Explain clearly that you need it for an important matter.”

The Astrologer stood and went over to a cupboard containing scrolls of paper.

“I’ve got an excellent map right here... No, not that one... Nor that... Where has it got to?.. A-ha!”

The children jumped down off the bench and crowded round the old man, examining his old map inquisitively.

“What a magnificent map!” exclaimed Miopa. “Such fine work! Look how clear and precise everything is!”

“Quite so!” The old man nodded with pride and satisfaction. “They don’t make them like that anymore. This map was drawn by my teacher’s teacher. He travelled around the whole of the north, the north-east, and the east, and I can vouch for the fact that this is the most accurate map in existence today. Now, let’s see how we need to fly.”

They returned to the desk. The Astrologer tidied away his charts and unrolled the map.

“Flying direct, you could get there in a day. The only trouble is, young dragons cannot fly for more than ten or twelve hours. They might over-exert themselves, and then they will never take off again. He needs to fly north-east to begin with, and then south-east. That way, he will always have somewhere to land if he gets tired, or if he runs into another hurricane of some sort. Let’s take this pencil and draw two lines. This one is how he should fly north, to the end of the Eastern sea. That one is how to fly east, when the sea comes to an end.”

“Oh, he will have to fly such a long way up to the north!” Leyesso looked at the route. “What if he can’t stay warm? What if he freezes? He’s still only little.”

“While he’s flying, he won’t freeze,” Miopa reassured her. “And when he lands for a rest, he’ll seek out some cave or other, to stay out of the wind.”

“We’ll need to wrap him up in sacking. Otherwise I won’t let him go!”

“Sacking will get in his way!” Tooba was ready to argue. “Do you think you could fly comfortably if someone wrapped you up in sacking? He’s still only little, he’s still got red wingtips, you’ve seen them yourself.”

“We’ll roll up some sacking and give it to him for the journey,” Miopa decided. “If he can’t find a cave for the night, he’ll just snuggle up in the sacking and he’ll be fine.”

“And we’ll give him some pumpkins!” insisted Leyesso.

“That’s exactly what we’ll do.” The Astrologer nodded. “He’ll need to take off in the evening. By sunrise, he’ll have reached the northern shore of the Eastern sea, and he can land for a rest. You will have to tell him to hide as best he can up there. And not to come out before sundown! That’s where pirates and caravan raiders hide. Still worse, there always used to be dragon hunters living there. Maybe there still are. After all, there are still some dragons left alive. It was most likely they who shot your dragon’s parents.”

“But why would anyone want to kill a dragon?” Leyesso was almost in tears.

“Some say they are seeking revenge on a dragon that was supposed to have destroyed a city, or burned a caravan, or stolen something away. Others don’t even try to hide that they are after dragon scales. You know that you can’t overcome a dragon’s scales with anything apart from a magic arrow. Back when there were still many dragons, ignorant mages used to wander around the world, making their living by selling magic arrows. You can still find such arrows even now. They’ll pass through any chain mail, through any shield, through iron as thick as your finger. I’ve seen one myself, forty-odd years ago it was...”

The Astrologer grew thoughtful, and sighed.

“And there used to be true mages, cruel and merciless, who would kill dragons to master the secret of their fire. You see, dragonfire is the hottest of all, it can burn or melt many things that no other fire can even touch. And it’s vital to have a good fire when you’re in the magic profession.”

“But can’t anyone find some sort of different fire?” Leyesso was agitated again. “Surely, somewhere in all this great wide world there must be another kind of fire, that is just as hot? And why, when it comes down to it, can’t we just make friends with dragons? Then the dragon could blow on whatever it was you wanted, and melt it?”

“And how come,” Tooba was wondering, “how come the dragonfire remains if the dragon itself has been killed?”

“This is what you have to understand,” said the Astrologer, thoughtfully. “The fire is the spirit of the dragon. You see, a dragon is not simply some kind of big lizard, it is, so to speak, the body of a fire-spirit. The mages would kill the dragon as though it were the body of this spirit, while taking the fire-spirit itself and making use of it. It’s said some mages knew how to bend the spirit to their will so powerfully that they almost became dragons themselves. Of course, they did not learn how to fly or to breathe fire — to do that, you need to be born a dragon. But with the spirit of a dragon, you will see, hear, sense, and know everything that dragons can.”

“But that means,” mused Miopa, “that to see, hear, sense, and know everything that dragons can... You don’t have to be born a dragon?”

“Of course not. Flying and breathing fire — that’s one thing. Seeing, hearing, sensing, knowing — all that’s quite another.”

“Then people must be capable,” exclaimed Leyesso, “of learning to see, to hear, to sense, and to know everything that dragons can! And to not kill dragons!”

“All the more so, seeing that killing a dragon is no small feat, and dangerous to boot,” said Tooba.

“Quite so.” The Astrologer nodded his head and smoothed his beard. “You need to be a very powerful and talented mage to manage that. To capture a dragon’s spirit, and then keep it against its will, I’ll tell you, that requires you to be a great master.”

“But how can that be?” Miopa jumped up. “I’ve never understood it! How can it be right — to be such a great master, to know of and be able to do such things... And then to go and kill a dragon and imprison its soul! How does it happen that knowledge embraces such evil people?”

“That is a complicated question,” said the Astrologer, thoughtfully. “There is a peculiar wisdom in how the world is arranged. Knowledge simply exists, and is forbidden to no-one. It is we who decide all of a sudden that a person is an evil-doer. Whereas knowledge decides for itself.”

“Well,” said Miopa. “We can talk about that later. Nothing’s going to happen to the world or to knowledge for now, and meanwhile we’ve got a young dragon who is freezing. His scales are still thin... It’s a good job at least that your shed is well-built, lined with timber. Well, now, let’s go and get this compass!”

“Come back and visit me!”

“Definitely! But first we’ll send the young dragon on his way. Then I need to fix the pigeon loft, and then clear the branches from the yard, and then do my homework, but then I’ll definitely come and visit.”

“We need to mend the roof, collect the sack crates, and replace the glass in the kitchen windows,” said Leyesso.

“We’ve got to fix our sign back up, and help our neighbour — his wall was blown down, and now he’s got the tavern’s pigs grubbing up his workshop floor,” said Tooba.

“And then we need to lend the cooper a hand, too. All his barrels got scattered, and they need to be collected, otherwise he can’t sell them, and then he won’t have the money to repair his workshop, which is drafty, and then he’ll catch cold again,” concluded Miopa, and the children, at last, ran off.

* * *

They went back down to the castle courtyard, took their leave of the guard, and headed down to the docks. There, the hurricane had felt most at home. Sacks and bales that had been readied for loading were scattered all about the wharves, but the main thing was the ship that had been smashed against the dockside.

Miopa, Leyesso, and Tooba ran up to the pile of wreckage and gazed for a while with delight to see such a rare treat, and then they began looking for someone they could beg a compass from. Not far from the wreck they made out a ship from distant lands, sporting an unfamiliar flag. A sailor was standing by the gangplank, smoking a pipe. The children ran up to him.

“Are you the captain?” Miopa pointed at the foreign vessel.

“I am,” replied the sailor, looking at the children with interest. “Are you after a passage somewhere?”

“Not right now. We need a compass. Quite desperate, in fact. It must read true, and be proven! It mustn’t deceive! It must have been proven!”

“I’d quite like a compass like that, myself.” The captain chuckled, puffing his sweet-smelling pipe. “What do you need it for?”

“It’s really important. A matter of life and death.”

“There are all kinds of matters. You’d probably do all right with an ordinary one, do you see? But, no, you demand the very truest, most proven... Just you try and find one like that. Especially these days.”

“It really is a very important matter, honestly!” Miopa repeated in frustration. “We badly need one! Quite desperately, in fact... So just where are we to find one, then?”

“Well,” and the captain puffed his pipe. “I’ve got a compass like that. Very good, proven and reliable, I’ve sailed the whole sea with it, and it never once sent me astray. Ah, I’ve been to... No, wait, if I was to tell you all the places I’ve been, you’d be here ‘til morning and still not hear the end. But, of course, a compass like that I wouldn’t part with just for you to do who-knows-what. You understand me too.”

“Well, you see,” and Miopa began anxiously explaining. “There’s a young dragon hiding in our shed. He was flying home to the East with his grandfather when the hurricane overtook them. He was spun round and dumped almost on top of her house.” He indicated Leyesso. “He’s still only little, he’s not reached ninety-nine years old yet. And for young dragons, until they become ninety-nine, they don’t develop their sense. Anyway, he can’t fly all the way home. But he’s the very last of the Eastern dragons. His grandfather most probably right now has already worn his legs out looking. Well, his wings, to be precise... But he’s hardly likely to find him! Anyway, we need a compass. Just don’t tell anyone! Not a soul! You know what they’re like round here.”

“It might be as I don’t know so well what they’re like round here... Although however far I go — and I’ve been right round the world — people everywhere are the same. The dragons vanished from my home a long time ago, too. The last one was seen when I was just a little boy... And I remember I so very badly wanted to make friends with a dragon!”

The Captain puffed at his pipe, and gazed dreamily at the horizon, which was already wreathed in the evening mist.

“That’s why I became a sailor, because I thought there might be a land somewhere where dragons still lived.”

“Well, what about it? Did you see one anywhere? Here, dragons only live on the far side of the Eastern sea and also in the north... But that’s so far away, the ends of the earth.”

“There are still some in the west, but not exactly near at hand, either — more than a month’s voyage. But what about a map? You need a map to go with a compass.”

“Look!” Miopa pulled the scroll from under his shirt. “The Astrologer gave it to us!”

The captain unfurled the map and coughed in admiration.

“They haven’t made maps like this for an age. I wouldn’t mind copying one.”

“You go and see him, he must have more. He lives in the tower. Tell them you’re from Miopa — that’s my name — they’ll let you in straight away.”

“First thing tomorrow, if I have time. That’s a splendid map! You won’t go wrong with a map like that. Right, then, stay where you are...”

He went up the gangplank. The children waited impatiently, looking back at the sailors who were sorting through the marvellous wreckage at the docks. Eventually, the captain returned. He was holding a large, shiny, brass compass.

“Take this. It’s my back-up compass, exactly the same as the main one on deck. It’s accurate and reliable, I’ll vouch for that. It’s antique... They don’t make these like that anymore, either,” he added, puffing sadly. “With your map and this compass, your friend won’t lose his way. Go along now, run! It’s getting dark!”

“Thank you! So long!”

The children took their leave and ran from the docks.

* * *

While they were heading back up towards the town, and making their way back over the river (the bridge repairs were likely to take another week), and sneaking back across the yard, it grew dark. Leyesso snatched a lantern, and the children went into the shed to find the young dragon. In the darkness, two golden eyes glittered. The young dragon looked happily at the children.

“I’d already begun to think you weren’t coming back... It’s so very scary and lonely in here! It’s true the dogs kept running in, bringing me bones, but all the same... Would you mind coming in at least once every day, all right? Because it’s so very scary and lonely in here.”

“Stop snivelling!” ordered Miopa in a firm tone. “We’ve brought you a map and compass. Now I’m going to tell you how you need to fly, and then you’ll set off.”

Miopa spread out the map on the floor and weighed it down with the lantern to stop it curling up again.

“Look at this line. This is how you need to fly. The map is really good, and from the air you’ll see everything the way it’s shown here. You just need to imagine this line on the ground and fly along it. The important thing is to always hold the map so that it shows the ground as it is. Do you see this compass in the corner, here, drawn in? Hold the map so that the blue needle on your compass points the same way as the blue needle on the map. So that they both face towards the same point in the north.”

“I’ve got it! I have to position myself so that the line along which I fly seems to pass between these markings on the compass.”

“Exactly right! You’ll fly north-east, across this river here, then over this swamp, and then over this forest. Toward morning — you do fly quickly, don’t you? — you’ll have reached the northern corner of the Eastern sea. The main thing there is to land and hide! There are pirates and caravan raiders who live up there, and — bear this in mind! — there might be dragon hunters. If they spot you, they will shoot magic arrows at you!”

“Was it them who shot my parents?”

“Most likely! That’s why you need to be awfully vigilant and cautious. Just imagine if something happened to you! After all, you’re the last of the Eastern dragons! What then? There’d be no dragons in the east! And just imagine how upset we’d all be if we learned that something had happened to you!”

“I shall be very vigilant and cautious! I give you my word, I will not be spotted! As soon as dawn starts to break, I will land somewhere and hide. And when the stars come out, I will fly off and be home by the morning!”

“Once you have waited the daylight out and you take off again, you need to fly south-east. That means,” and Miopa turned the compass to show how the needle reacted, “the line which you follow now must pass between these markings.”

“Right.” The dragon nodded, his eyes gleaming in the gloom of the shed. “I see! It’s clear, it’s actually quite simple. But the main thing is, I can fly without any sense!”

“You can fly home. You can’t just fly anywhere with no sense. Fly home, when you really have to... Well, then. Let’s say our goodbyes. It’s grown dark, it’s time for you to leave.”

They went outside, under the early stars of an autumn evening.

“You have to take the sacking with you,” worried Leyesso. “And here’s another pumpkin for you, they’re tasty! Let me tie this sacking under your paw, because it’ll already be cold in the north...”

“Take it, it could come in handy.” Tooba nodded. “Who’s to know what will happen? It’s not like you’ll have a campfire to keep you warm. For one thing, there might not be any firewood. For another, wicked people might notice a fire!”

“You’re true friends,” said the young dragon. “Once I’m ninety-nine, and I choose a name, and my grandfather lets me out from the cave by myself, I’ll fly straight back to you!”

“And then will you take us for a ride, just a little one? Just over the forest?” Leyesso was wiping away tears.

“Of course! We’ll fly into the very back of beyond, somewhere no-one has ever been! And then we’ll fly high up to some peak and breathe fire into the high mountain air. And we’ll sit and look around, and the whole world will be at our feet! And then we’ll fly back to my home! Oh, do you know what a splendid view we have from our cave? The valley, so calm and cosy... And down below, the river, fast and clear, as though crystal was flowing from the mountains. And the water in it is so pure, and it tastes so good, and so cold — freezing! And above, the clear sky, velvet and soft, even when it’s very cold... Oh, do you know, it’s magnificent where we live!”

“It’s time!” Miopa handed the map and compass to the young dragon. “Off you go! May you have fair winds!”

“May you have fair winds!” said Tooba.

“May you have fair winds!” said Leyesso.

The dragon took a run and then jumped, beating his wings. Then again and again, stroke after stroke, he rose higher and higher into the air — his scales flashed in the last ray of sunlight — and then he faded away into the fathomless indigo autumn sky.

* * *