The journey passed in a blur of motorways, roundabouts and town roads. Having accidentally packed his watch, Sammy had no idea how long or how far they had been travelling. His father was driving, following his mother’s directions.
They had stopped twice, once for something to eat and once when Sammy had thought he was going to be sick. For the last few minutes, they had been climbing a steep hill at a snails pace behind a huge orange tractor, pulling a trailer of golden hay bales.
‘Come on, come on!’ Sammy’s father roared out of the open window. ‘We haven’t got all day.’
‘We have actually,’ said Sammy. ‘It says on the card to arrive at any time.’
To keep the peace, Julia Rambles quickly handed round a large jar of mint toffees. ‘Won’t be long now Sammy. Keep an eye out and you might be able to see it soon. On the card, it says that your school is a converted castle.’
‘I know,’ said Sammy. He knew the words on the business card so well that he could recite them from memory. ‘It was built more than four centuries ago.’
‘It’ll take more than four centuries to find it at this rate,’ said Charles Rambles. ‘Finally!’
Sammy looked out of the window. The tractor had turned off down a narrow country lane.
‘We need to take that turn.’
Sammy gripped his seat belt as his father grasped the steering wheel and the Range Rover doubled back on itself. Luckily the tractor had turned off into a field and didn’t hold them up any further.
A few minutes later, Charles Rambles slowed down. ‘Should be just here on the right.’
Sammy looked up and felt his mouth swing open. Out of his father’s window he could see a tall, towering castle complete with battlements, turrets and towers with flags flying from the top of the coned rooftops.
‘Stop,’ he whispered. ‘This is it. We’re here.’
‘We’re somewhere all right,’ Charles Rambles snorted. ‘Just look at those ruins.’
‘Ruins?’ said Sammy. ‘It’s a castle. It’s amazing!’
Julia leaned around the passenger seat. ‘Are you feeling all right Sammy?’
‘I’m fine Mum. Drive in.’
‘We’re in the wrong place,’ snapped Charles Rambles. ‘Look, the sign says “Old Samagard Farm”. It’s the wrong place.’ He slammed the gear stick into reverse.
‘We’ll keep searching honey. It’ll be around here somewhere.’
‘Can’t you see it?’ shouted Sammy. ‘Look! The castle, the towers, you must see it!’
In the rear view mirror, Sammy saw his parents exchange looks.
‘It’s there!’ shrieked Sammy. ‘Can’t you see it?’
‘No,’ said Charles Rambles after a long pause. ‘We do not.’
Close to tears Sammy slumped back in his seat. His father was reversing down the lane, taking them away from the castle. He rubbed his eyes, if his parents were right and the castle wasn’t there, he was worried in case he was going mad.
‘Must be over excitement.’
‘Hopefully the new school will knock some sense into…woah there!’
Charles Rambles slammed on the brakes. Sammy leaned over the back seat to see why they had stopped. An old blue Land Rover was blocking the middle of the road.
‘Move!’ shouted Charles Rambles. ‘There’s a turning space just back there.’
Sammy heard a car door open and looked up. A woman was getting out of the car. She came up to the passenger door. Sammy stared clapping his hand to his mouth torn between a gasp and a giggle. The woman, although she was dressed normally in a denim skirt and striped blouse, had dark green hair.
‘Good morning, good morning,’ said the woman in a cheerful sing-song voice.
‘Good morning,’ snapped Charles Rambles. ‘Would you move your vehicle so that we can pass.’
‘Oh of course,’ said the woman with green hair. ‘But aren’t you going to drop off your son first?’
Charles Rambles shuffled uncomfortably in his seat. ‘What do you know about my son?’
The woman tapped the side window. ‘You have a suitcase in the boot and there’s no hotels, no houses, no airport for miles. He’s going to Dragamas isn’t he?’
‘If we can find the dratted place.’
The woman chuckled. ‘Can’t you see it?’
Sammy’s mother shook her head. ‘Our son says he saw it a moment ago, but all we could see were old ruins.’
The woman paused looking first from Sammy then to his mother and then to his father. ‘Oh,’ she said knowingly, ‘of course you might not, might you.’
‘If you know the way, please enlighten us,’ snapped Charles Rambles. ‘If not, move so we can find it ourselves.’
At this, the woman burst into tinkling laughter. ‘If you don’t listen to your son, you’ll drive all day and might never find it. Leave him with me and I’ll make sure he gets there. I’m dropping my daughter off for her first day. Perhaps they could go in together.’
‘Perhaps,’ snapped Charles Rambles. ‘It is a mixed school isn’t it?’
‘Of course,’ said the woman. ‘My sons go there and both my husband and I have been there in our time. It’s the only school like it for miles around.’
‘You can say that again.’
There was a rumbling and two more cars joined the queue behind the Land Rover. From the opposite direction, a minibus trundled towards them. Charles Rambles pulled the Range Rover up close to the hedge and got out.
Sammy followed his father, a little bit scared of the woman with green hair. He walked along beside the prickly hedgerow and stood on a stone jutting out of the bank.
From the stone, Sammy could see the grey castle towering on the horizon. Outside the car, it seemed much bigger and looked as though it was surrounded in a golden mist that looked very similar to the haze that Sir Lok Ragnarok and Mrs Hubar had disappeared into outside St. Elderberries High School.
Sammy heard a cough behind him and turned around. A small girl wearing black trousers and a spotless white shirt under a black blazer with a golden ‘D’ motif was standing beside him. If her smart uniform had got his attention, it was nothing compared with her head. An obvious relation of the woman they had just met, this girl had bright green hair.
Sammy knew that he had never been very good at talking to girls and especially not girls with bright green hair. He stood on the stone embedded in the hedgerow unable to do anything but stare.
‘Are you going to the Dragon School?’ asked the girl with bright green hair.
Sammy stared, sure that she had said “Dragon School.”
‘Er yeah,’ he replied, ‘Dragamas.’ He checked behind him, his parents were deep in conversation with the woman with green hair and a larger man who had got out of the minibus.
‘Or at least I was…’
‘It’ll be ok,’ the girl reassured him. ‘I’m Dixie. You’ve already met my Mum. My brothers are in the third year at Dragamas, they’ve told me all about it. It’s going to be great!’
‘Great,’ Sammy repeated, trying to catch some of his parents’ conversation edging a little closer along the embankment.
‘Well, is he going?’ asked the burly man looking anxiously at the children in the minibus who were rocking the bus from side to side. ‘Stop it you lot!’ He turned back to Sammy’s parents. ‘Are you going to let him go, or not?’ He coughed importantly. ‘Because if not, please would you move out of my way. I’m supposed to be meeting the new first years in twenty minutes and I can’t be late this year.’
‘Oh, are you a teacher here?’ asked Julia Rambles. ‘Is this Dragamas?’
‘Yes and yes,’ replied the man a little impatiently. ‘However I don’t have all day so please choose – is Sammy going to the Dragon School or to Switzerland with you?’
‘To Switzerland?’ exclaimed Julia. ‘How did you know?’
The burly man laughed and pointed. The book Sammy knew his mother had been reading, “Living and Working in Switzerland for the First Time” was clasped in her right hand.
‘How did that…’
The burly man laughed. ‘I’ll give you my word that Sammy will be in good hands and will receive a good, if not better education than any of those other schools.’
Julia Rambles gasped. ‘You read my mind.’
‘It’s settled,’ said Charles Rambles firmly. ‘Fetch your suitcase Samuel. It’s time to go.’
Sammy followed Dixie back to his parents’ car and picked up his suitcase. The green haired woman had brought Dixie’s suitcase from her car and was giving her daughter a huge goodbye hug.
‘Bye Mum,’ whispered Sammy. ‘See you Dad.’
‘Bye honey, be good.’
‘Work hard Samuel, make us proud.’
His parents got back into their Range Rover, leaving Sammy and Dixie with the burly man and his minibus. The green haired woman was already turning her Land Rover in the lay-by opposite the school gates. She sped away leaving a large cloud of dust in her wake.
The burly man consulted a lever arch file and held out his hand. ‘Hello Sammy, hello Dixie, welcome to Dragamas. My name is Professor John Burlay.’
Sammy held out his hand in silence, in awe of the solid man in front of him. Professor Burlay was head and shoulders taller than him, dressed in a grey pinstripe suit with a white shirt and pale green tie. He had light brown hair swept back over his forehead and a thick beard that ran from ear to ear with a bushy moustache that almost covered his lips. His dark brown eyes twinkled kindly and Sammy felt safe in his presence.
‘What do you think so far Sammy?’ asked Professor Burlay as he helped Sammy then Dixie into the minibus. ‘Take a seat anywhere, and keep it down the rest of you. You’re giving me a headache!’
Still speechless, Sammy nodded and held tightly to his suitcase as they lurched through the gates over a cattle grid, up the long, tree studded driveway to the castle entrance. He counted the number of faces in the seats next to him. There were twelve people on the minibus including himself and Dixie, all first years no older than him, all looking anxiously up at the castle to find out what lay in wait.
Professor Burlay parked in a gravel courtyard that ran as far as Sammy could see around the castle walls. Up close, the castle was much larger than it had seemed at the gate and more frightening. The walls were made from large grey flagstones joined with cement and dotted with narrow slit windows at irregular intervals. The towers caught Sammy’s eye the most. He had counted nine coned turrets, each flying a jet black flag with a golden ‘D’ matching the design on Dixie’s blazer. A large iron-bound oak door stood between them and the inside of the castle.
As he watched, the door opened and a small man wearing grey overalls appeared.
‘Hullo Professor,’ said the man, ‘these the last of the first years?’
Professor Burlay nodded, ‘I’ve got twelve here, that makes it thirty nine doesn’t it?’
‘Forty Professor, we had another one come while you were collecting these.’
‘Good,’ Professor Burlay smiled at the caretaker. ‘Would you help them with their cases?’
The man nodded and started heaving the grey suitcase belonging to a blonde haired girl sitting at the front of the minibus.
‘Everyone ready?’ Professor Burlay opened the minibus door and beckoned with his free hand for them to come out.
Sammy followed Dixie and two boys with jet black hair out of the minibus. He struggled under the weight of his suitcase but stayed silent since no one else mentioned that their suitcase was too heavy.
‘Leave your bags here please,’ said Professor Burlay. ‘They’ll be taken to your rooms by our caretaker, Tom Sweep.’
Sammy looked at Tom Sweep. The caretaker reminded him of his grandfather with a similar weather-wrinkled face and straggly grey hair tucked under a grey peaked cap.
‘Thank you,’ said Sammy as the caretaker took his suitcase.
Tom Sweep touched his cap. ‘All part of the service young sir.’
Sammy felt a nudge in his elbow. Dixie, the girl with green hair was grinning at him.
‘It’s quiet isn’t it?’
Sammy nodded. ‘A bit.’
‘That’s because they aren’t back until tomorrow.’
Sammy looked blankly at her.
‘The rest of the school silly. Then it gets sealed up so they can’t get in.’
‘Who’s they?’ whispered Sammy feeling sure that it couldn’t be worse than the Rat Catchers at his old school.
Dixie leaned uncomfortably close. ‘The Shape,’ she whispered inches from his nose sending shivers down his spine.
He followed Dixie through the arched oak door. It was pitch black and there was a cool breeze chasing them inside. Sammy pulled his jumper down over his hands.
‘Brr,’ grumbled one of the dark haired boys. ‘It’s cold in here.’
‘T’will get a lot colder yet boys and girls.’
Sammy looked up into the darkness to see who had spoken. His eyes made out a dark grey silhouette of a woman wearing a hooded cloak. She carried a glowing candle that cast soft shadows dancing around the room.
‘Welcome to Dragamas,’ said the cloaked woman, pointing her candle towards a long wooden table. ‘Pick up your name, your house has chosen you already.’
‘That must be Mrs Grock,’ whispered Dixie at Sammy’s side. ‘My brothers told me about her.’
Sammy followed Dixie over to the table. There were a number of coloured envelopes, red, blue, green and yellow, each with names on. Sammy rummaged on the tabletop and found his name handwritten on a green envelope. The dark haired boys and Dixie picked up green envelopes as well.
‘North,’ said Dixie clutching her green envelope. ‘Cool!’
‘North, follow me,’ Professor Burlay called from the back of the room.
Sammy looked up. Professor Burlay was standing in a line of four adults sandwiched between two women, one tall with closely cropped raven black hair and one no taller than himself. On the raven haired woman’s left stood a tall sandy haired man wearing a grey jumper and jeans with a large black belt studded with three silver stars. The man nodded to Dixie and called: ‘South, follow me.’
‘East, follow me,’ said the tall raven haired woman. A group of boys in front of Sammy shuffled towards the woman.
‘West, follow me,’ said the shorter woman. Another group of boys and three girls went up to the woman who checked their names against a piece of paper she was holding. Sammy stopped listening after she read “Peter Grayling” and “Samantha Trout” and leaned over towards Professor Burlay waiting for his name to be called.
‘Melissa Brooks, Holly Banks, Dixie Deane…’
Dixie shuffled forward with two girls that Sammy guessed were Melissa Brooks and Holly Banks.
‘Naomi Fairweather, Amos Leech, Helana Marchant, Darius Murphy, Samuel Rambles,’ Professor Burlay paused for breath and ticked the names on his sheet of paper, ‘and Gavin and Toby Reed.’
The dark haired boys pushed past the girls to be at the front of the crocodile line as Professor Burlay led them out of the room with the envelopes and into a candlelit corridor with grey stone walls and a grey stone floor.
They twisted around passage corners and up two flights of steep stairs until Professor Burlay stopped suddenly, causing Sammy and Dixie to bump into Gavin and Toby at the front of the line.
Sammy looked over one of the boys’ shoulders not knowing whether it was Gavin’s or Toby’s. He could see a large wooden door, similar in shape to the door that they had come into the castle through. It looked very old and had dark iron studs from top to bottom holding iron reinforcement bars in place. In the middle of the door was a tarnished plaque with Gothic swirl writing that Sammy could just make out as “North.”
Professor Burlay pushed the door open and it creaked eerily on its hinges. Sammy shivered as he walked through the doorway.
‘Let’s get some light in here shall we?’ Professor Burlay raised his right hand and the room lightened into a warm glow.
As Sammy’s eyes grew used to the light, he could see that they were inside a large circular room with bookshelves, tables, chairs, sofas and a large grandfather clock.
‘Welcome to your common room,’ said Professor Burlay. ‘This will be a place for you to relax and to study.’
Sammy stared around the homely room, noticing two archways leading to two separate staircases. He stared for a moment longer before he realised that Professor Burlay was separating the boys from the girls. He moved away from Dixie and stood with Gavin and Toby, a boy with dark hair and dark skin and a fourth boy who was smaller with mouse brown hair, not knowing which was Darius and which was Amos.
‘Boys, please wait here while I show the girls to their tower.’
Sammy nodded and settled into a green velvet armchair and picked up a car magazine. The dark skinned boy came and sat next to him.
‘Hi, I’m Darius.’
‘I’m Sammy,’ said Sammy, annoyed to find he was nervous now his parents had left. They would be halfway home by now.
Professor Burlay returned alone a few minutes later.
‘Are you ready boys?’
Sammy put down the magazine and followed Darius, Amos, Gavin and Toby through the other archway, up the opposite staircase.
Like the rest of the castle, the stairs were grey stone, set at a short walking pace apart spiralling round and round, higher and higher. They passed four doors on the way up, before coming to the top of the staircase and a solid wooden door. On the door was plaque that read “First Years” written in the same Gothic scrawl as the plaque on the door to the common room. Above the door was an old fashioned gold bell.
Professor Burlay held the door open for the boys to duck under his arm into the tower room.
Sammy was last to enter the room and he gasped as he did so. The room, although it was smaller than the common room, was equally circular, about double the size of his parent’s bedroom at home.
There were five green quilted beds spaced evenly around the room. To the right of each bed was a curved wooden chest of drawers standing underneath a narrow slit window filled with clear glass. Running in a loop around the bed and chest of drawers was a curtain rail with thick green velvet curtains pinned to the wall. They looked as though they could be drawn around the length of the bed and drawers for privacy.
‘Welcome to your tower room,’ said Professor Burlay, smiling at them. ‘Look to the end of the beds for your names and that’s where you’ll sleep.’
Professor Burlay backed away from the tower door and closed it behind him. ‘Goodnight boys, see you tomorrow.’
Inside the tower room, Sammy bent down to look at the silver plaques with more Gothic writing. He was standing beside a bed with the name “Darius Murphy” written in black on the silver plaque.
‘This is yours Darius,’ said Sammy.
‘Great!’ Darius heaved his suitcase onto the bed.
‘Samuel R. Rambles,’ said one of the dark haired boys pointing at Sammy, ‘is that you?’
‘Yeah, I’m Sammy.’
‘Great,’ said the dark haired boy holding out his right hand, ‘I’m Toby, this is my brother Gavin.’ Toby waved his hand towards Gavin who was pulling clothes haphazardly out of his suitcase and stuffing them into the chest of drawers beside his bed.
Gavin waved. ‘Hi Sammy.’
‘Hi,’ said Sammy shaking Toby’s hand. He turned to the last boy in the room, ‘you must be Amos.’
The boy shrugged and whipped the green curtain around his bed taking both himself and his belongings out of sight.
‘Oooer,’ Darius giggled. ‘What’s up with him?’
‘Dunno,’ said Gavin pulling his curtain between his and Toby’s beds. ‘See you tomorrow.’
‘Night,’ said Sammy pulling his own curtain. He dragged his suitcase onto his bed and pulled out his pyjamas and wash bag ready for the morning. As he rested the wash bag on top of the chest of drawers he noticed that a number of items had appeared on top of the chest that he was sure hadn’t been there when he’d arrived.
There was the green envelope he had picked up downstairs that he had thought he’d put into his back pocket. Next to the envelope was a black stone that he recognised as onyx from staying with his uncle, a geologist who ran a jewellery sale and repair shop. There was a steaming mug of what looked like hot chocolate, a green school tie and a large mottle green, football sized egg.
Sammy stared at the mottle green egg for a whole minute before changing into his pyjamas. He picked up the drink, which turned out to be a sweet hot chocolate, and the green envelope. He opened the envelope single handed and pulled out a piece of crisp white paper with the golden ‘D’ Dragamas logo at the top.
“Dear Mr Rambles,” he read from the letter. “You are now in the room where you will conduct your first year at Dragamas, the school for Dragon Charming…”
‘What!’ Sammy burped, choking on his hot chocolate.
“…Events in your life have paved the way for you to be here. It is not only your right to be here, but it is also your destiny. You have been chosen, and here you will raise your dragon, Kyrillan, to the best of your ability. You will learn skills that you never dreamed possible and will be offered the chance to do great things outside of the world of man…”
‘Whoa there,’ said Sammy staring at the letter, daring himself to read on. The letter went on for another three paragraphs signed at the bottom by Dragamas headmaster, Sir Lok Ragnarok. Sammy read and re-read the paragraphs until somewhere a clock chimed midnight. He put the letter into the top drawer of his chest of drawers and fell into a deep sleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.
He dreamed of his parents, merged with the words in the letter, merged with the egg Kyrillan sitting on his chest of drawers until at last he woke in the dimly lit room.