Sammy was glad when the path ended and Mrs Grock’s house appeared in the lantern light. The cottage was in complete darkness, silhouetted against the sky.
Professor Burlay kicked the gate open gently and they walked up garden path, past the wishing well to the front door. Professor Burlay released Serberon’s legs and knocked on the front door.
It creaked open spookily and Sammy shuffled forward, carrying Serberon’s weight in his arms. They were in a large rectangular lounge lit by soft candlelight. There were three doors on the far wall, leading into the house. One of the doors was slightly open and through the narrow crack, Sammy could see what looked like a store room with large wooden barrels and sacks with white labels. From the doorway, he couldn’t read the labels, but he hoped there would be something in one of the barrels to help Serberon.
Professor Burlay took Serberon’s shoulders from Sammy and guided him into the room. Sammy followed Dixie, taking in the musky smell of scented candles and the cosiness of Mrs Grock’s front room.
Stretching the width of the house, the front room looked much bigger inside than it had appeared from the outside. On the left was a large wooden table with patchwork cushions resting on the seats of six wooden chairs. Behind the table ran row upon row of books stacked high on rickety shelves from floor to ceiling.
Sammy knew that, apart from Ratisbury library, he had never seen so many books in one place. He strained his eyes to read the titles. They seemed to be about illnesses, medicines and cures.
To his right there was a purple three-seat settee, facing an alcove where a stone fireplace was set deep into the outer wall. Yellow-orange flames licked the underside of logs crackling in the grate sending sparks on to the stone hearth.
‘Take a seat kids, she won’t be long.’ Professor Burlay laid Serberon on to the settee and drew up three beanbags from next to the fireplace.
Sammy wandered over to the bookshelves. He took the stub of a candle from the wooden dining table and held it up to the spines to read the titles.
‘Midnight Magic,’ he muttered, ‘1001 Instant Cures, Third Century Illnesses, The Angel, A Generation in Magic, How to Fix Almost Anything, Cuts, Bruises and Broken Bones.’ He paused as one book caught his attention, “The Mystery of the Wishing Well”. Sammy reached out to touch the book and jumped as a shadow loomed on the wall in front of him.
‘Ooch there’s magic in that one all right.’
Sammy spun round. Mrs Grock was standing in the doorway. She whisked past him to pick “Cuts, Bruises and Broken Bones” from the bookshelf and waved for him to sit down by the fire.
‘I fancy we could do with a cuppa,’ Mrs Grock said to Dixie. ‘Do you know where it is?’
Dixie nodded and headed for the central door. Sammy stared as she walked into a modern kitchen that looked out of place next to the ancient feel of the lounge.
‘Now then young Dragon Knight.’ Sammy jumped as he realised Mrs Grock was speaking to him. She had put a pair of horn rimmed glasses on her short nose and was reading from the leather bound book.
‘I will need three eggs, a turnip and a bottle of amberoid.’
Sammy laughed. He had almost believed her, until she had asked for the amberoid.
‘Young Knight,’ said Mrs Grock reprovingly. ‘The eggs can be found outside with the hens, the turnip from my allotment and the amberoid from the bottle on the top shelf in my store, through the door on the left.’
Sammy nodded, thinking he would worry about finding eggs and turnips in the dark first.
Once outside, Sammy could see the wire frame of the hen house silhouetted in the cloudy moonlight and he stumbled into it, cracking his knee against one of the solid support poles.
‘Good thing I’m not afraid of the dark,’ he grumbled, scratching his hand on the sharp wire separating the sleeping hens. He picked out five eggs and a handful of straw and feathers. ‘Turnips next,’ Sammy whispered, putting the eggs into his coat pocket for safekeeping. He stumbled back on to the path, searching in the darkness for anything that looked remotely like an allotment.
Halfway along, Sammy tripped on an uneven bump and went flying, face first, across the path on to some squishy muddy ground.
‘Uurrgh,’ said Sammy, hearing the eggs crush together. As the moon reappeared from behind a cloud, he could see neat lines of vegetables and the outline of a family of rabbits feasting on a large lettuce. Sammy heaved himself up, brushing a round object away from his arm.
‘Turnip!’ Sammy exclaimed, picking up the turnip. He checked the eggs; just one had broken in his fall. He made his way carefully back to the house, reaching for the door handle as the moon disappeared behind another cloud.
A noise behind him made him turn around and his blood ran cold as he stared straight into the red eyes of one of the hooded figures from earlier in the afternoon. He rattled the door handle and leapt inside, away from the figure.
‘Here!’ Sammy thrust the the sticky eggs and turnip into Mrs Grock’s hands.
‘Ooch!’ squealed Mrs Grock. ‘You’d best get cleaned up.’ She pointed to the right hand door. ‘You’ll find my room that way, on the right again is the bathroom.’
Sammy headed for the door and stopped just in time as Dixie came out of the kitchen holding a tray of steaming tea.
‘Watch it,’ said Dixie, steadying herself.
Sammy waggled his sticky hands at her and squeezed past into Mrs Grock’s low ceilinged bedroom.
The bedroom was about a third of the size of the living room with a large four poster bed draped in purple on the far wall. More bookshelves lined the remaining walls, the largest towering over a tiny writing desk with silver lamp and a half written letter.
Sammy knew he should head straight for the bathroom, but his curiosity nagged him to peek.
‘Dear Sir Ragnarok,’ he read. ‘It is with regret that I must hand in my notice as school secretary and nurse…’ Sammy stared, knowing that he shouldn’t be reading the letter but desperate to find out why Mrs Grock might be leaving.
‘…I fear for my safety as the Shape draws ever closer, lurking outside my house. It will not be long before they are strong again. A dragon has fallen in the forest and the stars are aligning in the formation that has not risen in the sky since the fall of the King of the Dark Ages…’
Remembering that he had come into Mrs Grock’s room to clean himself up, Sammy tore his eyes away from the letter and over to the door on the right. His fingers closed around the door handle, a brass dragon tail set deep in an oak door that could easily have come out of the Dark Ages itself.
Thinking hard about the hooded figures in the clearing and at the garden gate, he rubbed the mud and soil from his face and rinsed his hands using a dragon shaped soap and the red and blue dragon head taps overlooking the deep ceramic basin.
Sammy dried his hands on a cream towel embossed in gold stitching with yet another dragon. As he turned to leave he noticed a half empty bottle of sleeping tablets on Mrs Grock’s bedside table.
In the lounge, Dixie had handed round cups of steaming tea and was sitting on one of the purple beanbags gently brushing Serberon’s green hair out of his eyes. Professor Burlay and Mrs Grock were nowhere to be seen.
Sammy grinned as he remembered the amberoid and headed for the store room. The door was now shut and he could hear muffled voices inside.
‘…and I followed the tracks…gate to the forest…’
‘The Shape?’ said Professor Burlay.
He knocked on the door, reaching for the dragon tail handle.
‘One moment Sammy, we’ll bring the amberoid.’
Sammy went back over to the fire and flopped on one of the beanbags.
‘Eavesdropping?’ asked Dixie.
Sammy didn’t reply, his head churning with the conversation he had overheard.
‘Fine,’ snapped Dixie, tossing her hair. She ignored him completely until Professor Burlay and Mrs Grock came out of the store room armed with two brown glass bottles and a silver basin no bigger than a cake tin.
Mrs Grock knelt on the floor beside Serberon and took a sheathed kitchen knife from her front pocket. She sliced the turnip into eight equal slices and balanced them on the basin rim.
After re-sheathing the knife, Mrs Grock smashed the eggs together with a crunch, dripping the orange and white liquid into the bowl and throwing the shells into the fire.
Sammy watched as she unscrewed the two bottles of amberoid and poured a lumpy brown, gravy-like, liquid one drop at a time on top of the egg mixture. He screwed up his nose as wafts of the liquid evaporated around them. It smelt like a mix of used sports socks and soggy rice pudding. Professor Burlay and Mrs Grock carried on as normal, probably used to it, he thought.
‘There you go,’ said Mrs Grock whisking a slice of turnip through the mix with a flourish. ‘The potion to fix cuts and bruises.’ She looked at Sammy. ‘Would my young Dragon Knight like to go first?’
‘Um…’ Sammy couldn’t make up his mind which was worse, the pain in his leg or the vile smell of the healing potion.
‘Serberon first,’ said Dixie firmly. She reached for the bowl of frothy liquid.
‘Ooch ok,’ said Mrs Grock. ‘Take some turnip and rub it on the wound. That’s it. Keep it away from the eyes and mouth.’
‘Ok,’ said Dixie, clearly not expecting to be allowed to go first. She took the turnip as instructed, swirled it through the brown liquid and rubbed it on to Serberon’s forehead.
Sammy gasped. Where the liquid had rubbed over the blood and cuts on Serberon’s face, they had healed and he looked as good as new.
‘Thanks sis,’ said Serberon, touching his forehead.
Dixie beamed. ‘That’s ok.’
‘Now for the young Dragon Knight,’ said Mrs Grock. ‘The left leg and the right hand.’
Sammy stared; how could she possibly know where he had cut himself.
Mrs Grock hitched her skirt up to her knee. ‘I’ve done it myself many-a-time,’ she chuckled, ‘John keeps telling me to be more careful, especially in these days.’
Sammy didn’t stop to wonder what she meant by “in these days” and took the turnip, gratefully stroking the liquid across his knee whilst holding his nose with his free hand. He took a deep breath and used his left hand to cover the scratches on his right hand.
The scratches vanished under the turnip mixture as quickly as the cuts had vanished from Serberon. As he ran out of breath, Sammy spluttered, glad to find the smell had gone.
Mrs Grock laughed. ‘You get used to it in the end.’ She threw the remaining slices into the fire and yawned. ‘Time for me to get some kip.’
Professor Burlay nodded. ‘It’s time we were back at the castle and it’s a little walk yet.’
‘They could use the passage,’ said Mrs Grock, hiding a second yawn behind her hand.
‘Not tonight,’ said Professor Burlay, starting to yawn himself. ‘They’ve had more excitement today than any first years I can remember. It’ll only cause trouble.’
‘You canna remember the way,’ Mrs Grock laughed. ‘Besides, it may be safer with the Shape in the woods.’
Sammy looked at Dixie. ‘Secret passages!’
‘Underground! Please Professor Burlay, can we use it?’ begged Dixie.
‘I don’t know…’ started Professor Burlay, every bit the pushover Sammy had suspected.
Mrs Grock was already on her feet holding out her hand to help Serberon up. She gathered their cups onto the tray, passed Dixie the lantern from the hearth and led them into the store room.
‘In there, under the white grain sacks, you’ll find a trapdoor opening inwards,’ said Mrs Grock. ‘Go down the steps and you’re into the passage.’
Sammy grinned, not only were they going to be allowed to use the passage, but she was giving them an easy way to return to the cottage without being seen.
‘You’re sure the Shape don’t know about these passages?’ asked Professor Burlay.
‘Ooch that’s right John, but hurry or the little ones will be in trouble.’
Back on his feet, Serberon seemed to be at full strength. He heaved the heavy sack away from the trapdoor and kicked the metal handle. The trapdoor fell open, revealing the stone steps and dark passage exactly as Mrs Grock had said.
Serberon led the way. He took the lantern from Dixie who followed him, clutching his coat, down the steps into the passage. Sammy followed Dixie, using his staff to keep his balance. He looked back as Mrs Grock pushed something shiny into Professor Burlay’s hand.
‘Draconite,’ whispered Mrs Grock, catching Sammy’s eye, ‘for Margarite.’
Sammy guessed that she meant Gemology professor, Dr Margarite Lithoman of the West house and he made a mental note to read up on what draconite was. At the very least, he would ask questions in her lessons.
They stumbled through the dark passage, barely inches from each other. It was cold and damp with a musty smell lingering in the air. Sammy half wished they had taken their chances above ground.
‘Must be a leak somewhere,’ said Professor Burlay, splashing through a puddle to take the lead in the narrow passageway.
Sammy tapped the walls with his staff. ‘It’s all stone,’ he said. ‘Maybe there’s a crack somewhere.’
Professor Burlay looked worriedly at them. ‘There’s no cracks here, young Sammy.’
Sammy frowned. There was nothing worse than being called young, especially when he had tried to make a sensible suggestion.
Professor Burlay stopped again, making everyone bump together. Sammy leaned around Professor Burlay’s shoulder to see why they had stopped. In the glow of Serberon’s lantern, the passage seemed to split in two.
‘Which way?’ asked Sammy.
‘I think…’ said Professor Burlay nervously, ‘I think we should go left.’
‘Right,’ said Serberon, swinging the lantern from side to side. ‘We should go right.’
Professor Burlay started walking down the left hand passageway.
‘Left would take us to the Dragon’s Lair,’ called Serberon. ‘Right should lead us back to the castle.’
Professor Burlay walked back to the fork. ‘A vote perhaps?’ he said darkly.
Dixie huddled close to Serberon and pointed down the right hand passage.
‘We should stay together,’ said Sammy torn between Professor Burlay’s authority and his gut feeling to trust Serberon.
‘Yes we should Sammy,’ said Professor Burlay, ‘and we should go left. May I have the lantern please Serberon?’
Serberon stood still. Dixie looked up at him. ‘Come on Serb, let’s go left. We can always come back if it’s wrong.’
‘We should go right,’ said Serberon, reluctantly handing over the lantern.
Dixie whispered in Sammy’s ear.
‘I can’t,’ said Sammy. ‘It was a one off.’
‘Just try it,’ said Dixie.
Sammy coughed and held his staff tightly, the bulging end facing the ground.
‘Fire!’ he commanded.
Exactly as it had happened in the forest, red sparks burst from the end of the staff giving him a surge of confidence, power and adrenalin. A small fire formed in the passage at their feet.
Serberon stared. ‘First years can’t do that.’
Professor Burlay stepped close to Sammy. ‘There’s strong magic in that stick Sammy. Go easy with it eh?’
‘Ok,’ said Sammy, unable to take his eyes away from the flames.
Professor Burlay took out his own staff and pointed it towards the fire. As if invisible strings were in control, the fire lifted from the ground. ‘Magic,’ said Professor Burlay, taking the flames towards the left hand passageway.
‘Hey look!’ shouted Sammy, catching sight of some shapes on the passage ceiling. ‘Directions!’
They craned their heads to see the faint chalk drawings.
‘A dragon and a castle,’ said Serberon smugly. ‘Now can we go right?’
‘Very well,’ conceded Professor Burlay, taking them in silence down the right hand passage back to the castle.
As they climbed up a second set of steps, Sammy was intrigued to see that the passage extended into a lantern lit tunnel, stretching as far as his eyes could see.
‘That’s the shute,’ said Dixie. ‘It goes from the school gates to the front door. We’d have used it yesterday if Professor Burlay hadn’t given us that lift.’
‘Humph,’ said Serberon. Sammy guessed that he had walked on his first day.
The steps continued upwards at a painfully steep angle, at least the height of two storeys in a department store. Sammy’s feet ached from the distance that they had already walked that day and he was glad to reach the top and breathe the fresh night air again.
Professor Burlay consulted his pocket watch and led them through the castle door. ‘Dixie, you and Serberon may go up to your tower rooms. Sammy, please follow me.’
Sammy exchanged a worried look with Dixie and Serberon before they separated at the main stairwell. Dixie and Serberon headed for the North tower and Sammy followed Professor Burlay along a corridor to another staircase. They climbed higher and higher in spirals until Sammy thought they would surely reach the castle roof.
The spiral staircase ended with a solid door in the same way the North tower staircase ended with the door to the first year dormitory.
‘Right Sammy,’ said Professor Burlay. ‘My orders are to leave you here to see Sir Ragnarok. We’ll meet again tomorrow morning. You have an introduction to the science of Astronomics, starting at nine thirty sharp.’
Sammy stared. This was easily the worst moment of his entire life. He flinched as Professor Burlay slapped his shoulder and tapped under Sammy’s chin.
‘Keep it up,’ said Professor Burlay, trying overly hard to be reassuring.
Sammy waited until Professor Burlay was out of sight before he knocked on the wooden door and stepped back, waiting for it to open.