Copyright © Ian Irvine 2008
- A Spy is Caught
The town was attacked by magic while Tamly was sweeping his great-uncle’s broom workshop. His skin prickled, then the glowglobes on the wall let out needles of white-hot light which set fire to everything they touched.
There were flames everywhere – even Great-uncle Rafe’s stovepipe hat was burning. One of the broom makers ran to the pump and worked the handle furiously, but it coughed up a clot of muck like brown custard, and jammed.
People were shouting and running back and forth.
‘Stop!’ Great-uncle Rafe roared. Running to the water barrel near the door, he thrust his arm out, saying, ‘Deluge, Douse!’
His spell fired jets of water from the barrel in all directions and put out the flames, all save one. The last jet of water squirted back at Rafe but, instead of putting out his smoking hat, it shot up his nostrils. He snorted as water dripped from his fleshy nose.
An apprentice sniggered; Great-uncle Rafe silenced him with a glare. The broom workshop was a smouldering mess. He strode to the door, studying the smoke rising all over town and shaking his grizzled head. ‘The attacks are getting worse,’ he said to no one in particular. ‘I don’t know how much longer we can hold out.’
The magical attacks had been going on for weeks and no one knew where they were coming from, but Tamly was afraid. In olden times the land had been laid waste by Shardax, the Black Sorcerer, for a hundred years. What if that evil was rising again?
Hours later, Tamly eyed the huge pile of debris from the fire he still had to sweep up, leaned on the handle of his broom, and sighed. It had been good of Great-uncle Rafe to take him in after his parents died, but Rafe believed children should work for their living and Tamly did nothing but sweep all day.
If only I had magic, he thought miserably, for everyone in Meadowhythe could do magic, except him. Then I could save the day the way Great-uncle Rafe had. Why can’t I do magic? Why?
He began to sweep furiously. If the boards of Rafe’s workshop weren’t clean enough to eat off, Tamly would hear all about it.
After sweeping along the left-hand side where the racks of finished brooms were stored, and back down the middle, his nose was running from the straw dust and his burnt broom was falling to pieces. He began to daydream about having a magical broom that would do the sweeping for him.
Unfortunately, Great-uncle Rafe didn’t believe in using magic unnecessarily. He sometimes made flying brooms for customers but never for himself; there were no brooms with hands to carry water from the well; and especially no brooms that did the sweeping. Tamly stopped and leaned on his broom. What was the point in having magic but never using it?
Bang! The workshop door slammed and Rafe was standing there, looking furious. ‘I’m really disappointed in you, Tamly. After the day I’ve had, I thought I could rely on you to help. ‘Get to bed.’
‘But I haven’t had my supper …’
Tamly scuttled up the ladder to his attic room and huddled on the bed, his empty stomach rumbling. Supper was only a bowl of porridge with a few stringy bits of boiled chicken in it, but it was better than nothing.
Tamly jerked upright, for a white ghost was climbing the fig tree outside his window, and now moving along a broad branch straight for him. He was ducking under the covers when he realised that it wasn’t a ghost – it was Kym.
Kym, the daughter of the town conjuror, was his best friend, and she was brilliant at magic. She could make fire with her fingertips, create rainbows of light and call birds down from the tops of trees. Sometimes he wondered why they were friends at all, since Kym had magic coming out her ears, and he had none.
Lately she was always in trouble. Yesterday she’d been put into the stocks for making her father’s beard explode like a firework, but tomorrow she’d do something even worse.
She was balancing along the branch, her white nightgown billowing around her, her arms out as if walking a tightrope. Tamly’s mouth went dry. She’d break her neck if she fell. Kym wobbled, slipped and landed thump on the branch, on her bottom.
He opened the window a crack. ‘What are you doing?’ he hissed.
‘I heard you’d been sent to bed, so I brought you something … special. Open the window wide, muffin head.’
‘It’s too far to jump. You’ll fall.’
‘’Course I won’t. Hurry up!’
Tamly opened the window. ‘Try not to make any noise. Great-uncle –’
He didn’t have a chance to finish, for Kym ran along the branch and dived in a graceful curve towards the window. Too low – she wasn’t going to make it!
Her hands just caught the sill, then her small body hit the wall with a colossal thump. She lost her grip with one hand and Tamly saw the whites of her eyes. He grabbed her arm, couldn’t hold it, but managed to twist the front of her gown around his fist.
Her weight almost dragged him out the window but he jammed his knees against the wall and held on. Kym’s boots beat against the boards and she caught the sill with her flailing hand. Tamly heaved and she scrambled in, laughing.
‘Shh!’ whispered Tamly. ‘You’ll wake Rafe.’
‘He’s gone out.’
‘Well, I wish you wouldn’t take such risks –’
‘Oh, poo! You worry too much. Besides, I’ve got important news.’
Tamly weakened. ‘What news?’
‘Eat first.’ She began picking things out of her shoulder bag – a roasted chicken leg, a couple of spicy sausages, two slices of buttered bread and a wrinkled apple.
‘Thanks!’ he mumbled as he bit into the chicken leg, too hungry to bother picking off the fluff from her bag. ‘This is great!’ A piece of chicken fell from his mouth into his lap, turned into a wart-covered toad and hopped under his pillow.
He jumped, inspected the rest of the chicken leg and put it down. ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that.’
‘You laughed when I did it to Mel the other day.’
Mel, Tamly’s other friend, was the son of the town blacksmith. ‘It seemed funnier then.’
Kym smiled. ‘Go on – the rest is real.’
He picked up his chicken leg but a pair of toad eyes were staring at him, so he grabbed a sausage instead. ‘Please don’t eat me,’ squeaked the sausage piteously, and began to wriggle in his fingers like a fat worm.
He bit it in half, chewing furiously, and thankfully it turned back into sausage. ‘What’s your news?’
‘There’s a special town meeting tonight, about the attacks. You’ve got to come with me.’
He stopped chewing. ‘Why?’
‘To spy on them, of course.’
‘It’s a bad time to be sneaking out, Kym.’
‘How else are we going to find out what they’re talking about?’ she said innocently.
Why do I let her talk me into these things? Tamly thought as he crept after Kym across the wet shingles of the town hall roof. We’re going to end up in the stocks, being pelted with rotten fruit.
‘Hurry up!’ Kym whispered. ‘The meeting’s about to start.’
She lifted the canvas over a hole where the shingles had been blasted off in a previous attack, and wriggled through into the dark roof space. Tamly gulped and followed her across dusty roof beams to a small hole in the ceiling.
‘Careful.’ Kym was peering down. ‘Don’t make a sound.’
‘You’re the one who’s talking!’
He looked through another hole. All the townsfolk were gathered in the hall and the council members were sitting around a long table at the front. Great-uncle Rafe looked worried. Beside him sat Kym’s father, Van, the town conjurer. He was a fussy little man with a white rabbit’s tail of beard on his chin. Kym’s mother, Lili, a plump witch-wizard with a streak of green in her red hair, was there too, and another five councillors, all talking at once.
Beside Tamly, Kym flexed her fingers. He caught her wrist, sure she was planning to set fire to someone’s beard. ‘Can’t you ever be serious?’
‘I wasn’t doing anything,’ she said, all wide-eyed innocence. ‘Shh!’
Great-uncle Rafe cleared his throat. ‘Councillors, townsfolk, these magical attacks are getting worse every time. Soon someone is going to be killed. We’ve got to do something.’
‘I’ve found where the twisted magic is coming from,’ said Van, stroking his whiskers. ‘Thorn Castle, in the Reeking Marshes.’
‘And I know who’s doing it,’ said Lili. ‘Lord Harshax.’
‘Why is he trying to destroy Meadowhythe?’ said old Mayor Ignatia.
‘I don’t know, but if the attacks continue, we’ll have to abandon Meadowhythe and become miserable beggars.’
‘The only way to remove the curse on our town is to get inside the castle and steal his Book of Spells,’ said Rafe.
Beside Tamly, Kym began scrabbling in her bag. ‘Kim, what are you doing?’
Grinning wickedly, she drew something long and knobbly from her bag and made passes over it with her fingers. It was a Thunder Charm. She was planning to scare the council out of their wits with it.
Tamly was reaching out to take it off her when he heard something alarming.
‘Thorn Castle is impregnable,’ Great-uncle Rafe said, ‘because Harshax can sense the smallest magics of any intruder. The only person who could possibly break into it is someone who has no magic at all …’
Kym went very still, and Tamly felt a shiver creep up his spine. They were talking about him. He leaned forwards onto the old plaster ceiling, trying to hear what they would say next, but it broke under his weight and he fell through, down onto the table. Right into the middle of the astonished council members.
- The Black Forest
Tamly groaned and wiped the dust out of his eyes. High above, he could see Kym’s frightened face peering through the hole.
The furious council members rose to their feet.
‘There’s your answer,’ cried Van. ‘Your wretched nephew can’t do magic and he’s useless for anything else. Send him to Thorn Castle.’
‘I agree,’ said Lili, and the other council members did too; they were nodding all the way around the table.
Rafe’s face was dark with anger and his black beard coated with white plaster dust. ‘You’re right, the boy is good for nothing, not even sweeping,’ he fumed.
Tamly’s mouth went dry as he looked into the sunken eyes of his great-uncle. Rafe was right. He was a burden on everyone. Tamly was sure Rafe was going to send him to Thorn Castle.
‘But I promised Tamly’s dying mother I’d look after him,’ Rafe added quietly, ‘and I don’t go back on my word. I’ll not send a ten-year-old boy to his doom, even if it is the only chance to save our town.’
Rafe picked Tamly up from the table, set him on the floor, then raised his hand. Tamly braced himself for a clout over the ear, but Rafe dusted him off, saying gruffly, ‘Clear out, lad, before I change my mind.’
Tamly bolted for the door. The day had been a disaster but his heart was singing. His uncle cared about him after all! It made Tamly feel all the more guilty for being such a lazy dreamer.
Mel, the blacksmith’s son, caught up with Tamly outside the town hall. He’d been at the meeting with his father. ‘That was amazing,’ he said, ‘How did you –?’
‘Mel,’ roared the blacksmith, his black eyes glinting in the street lamps. ‘Get home to bed, right now!’
Mel turned pale and ran off. Kym, who had a habit of disappearing when there was trouble, was being led home by the ear by her furious mother. Lili must have seen Kym looking down through the ceiling.
Tamly brushed the dust out of his dark hair, making the odd, silvery lock at the front stand up, and trudged into the park towards his favourite tree, a vast spreading fig even larger than the one outside his window. Plucking some fruit, he sat against the trunk in a patch of moonlight and nibbled a fig, thinking about the dreadful news. He loved Meadowhythe and couldn’t bear the thought of being driven out, but it looked like that was going to happen. Unless …
No! He wasn’t even going to think about going to Thorn Castle. Tamly bit into another fig. Yuk! He’d bitten into a grub. He spat it out and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
The town was silent, but he didn’t want to go home; he was too worried. Something had to be done; there had to be a way to fight Harshax. Yet the more Tamly thought about it, the clearer it became that there was only one way to save the town. He would have to break into Thorn Castle and steal Harshax’s Book of Spells – all by himself.
As Tamly thought about that, he shivered. Having no magic might get him into Thorn Castle, but if Harshax caught him, how would he ever get out? Did he have the courage to try?
Tamly wasn’t big, tough or brave, and he’d heard unpleasant stories about Harshax, whose ancestor had been the Black Sorcerer, Shardax. What if he were caught? Tamly shuddered. He couldn’t do it. It was late now and all he wanted was his warm, safe bed, yet how could he sleep knowing he was letting everyone down?
The way to Thorn Castle was long and dangerous. Thick forest surrounded Meadowhythe, and it was full of wild beasts. If he got through the forest, he would have to cross the wraith-infested Reeking Marshes, then find a way past the enchanted Bramble Barrier of deadly heart-thorns that protected the castle from intruders. Dare he?
Tamly touched his pocket knife and felt safer for having it. I’ll just go to the edge of the forest, he thought, and see if I can see across the marshes to Thorn Castle. That can’t hurt. He got up and set off at once, before his courage wore off.
He was picking his way through the darkest part of the forest when he heard a long, hissing shriek, not far away. He jumped and was going for his knife when he realised that the sound had come from on high. It was just a barn owl; it was hunting, but not for him.
He hadn’t gone much further when a muffled thud came from behind him. Was he being followed? Tamly’s heart hammered and he walked faster, remembering a squint-eyed man he’d passed near the door of the town hall, then a witch with a shivery necklace of rat’s skulls. What if they were spies, coming to make sure he never got to Thorn Castle?
The moon was directly above now, though hardly any light filtered through the thick woods. Tamly cast a wild look over his shoulder but couldn’t see anyone. His heart was thundering.
A scrape behind him sounded like a dagger being drawn from a sheath. He wanted to run but knew he would be hunted down. He had to attack. As he passed a big tree, Tamly slipped around its trunk, felt for a stout stick and raised it above his head.
The stealthy sounds came closer, then stopped. Had he been discovered? His arms ached but he dared not lower the stick.
A twig snapped, then leaves rustled – the fellow was on the other side of the tree. This is it, Tamly thought. If you don’t strike first, you’re dead.
He sprang out and was swinging his stick when he realised that the shadow was smaller than him.
‘Aaahhh!’ shrieked a girl’s voice.
He dropped the stick. ‘Kym, is that you?’
‘Who else would it be?’ she said crossly. She raised one hand and golden lights streamed up from her fingertips like candle flames.
Tamly sighed. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Following you, boulder brains! You’re going to Thorn Castle to become a dead hero, and I’m coming to look after you.’
‘I don’t need looking after,’ he snapped. ‘Besides, I’m only going to the edge of the forest to have a look.’
‘Yeah, right! As if we’re going to stop there.’
Tamly’s heart sank. If Kym was with him, he’d end up going all the way to Thorn Castle, he knew it. This was worse than wild animals in the forest; worse than being followed by spies. But no one else could save the town, so he had to go – alone. ‘Go home, Kym. You can’t help me.’
‘I’m coming to keep you company.’
‘No! You can do heaps of magic. Harshax would sense you before you got across the swamp.’
‘All right! I won’t do any magic. And I’ll stop at the edge of the forest.’
‘You should go home. I’m afraid you’ll get into trouble.’
‘I’m already in trouble. Mother and Father were so angry they threatened to take my magic away, for a whole month. I’d die without it, Tam. I’ve run away.’
‘What’s that?’ hissed Tamly an hour later, as something let out a yipping howl in the black forest.
Kym moved closer to him. ‘Dire wolf.’ Her voice quavered.
‘W-what’s a dire wolf? Are they worse than ordinary wolves?’
‘Much! They’re bigger and meaner, with glittering eyes and teeth as hard as steel.’
‘Let’s go home,’ whispered Tamly. ‘Quick!’
‘We can’t – it’s behind us.’ Kym grabbed his arm. ‘What are we going to do?’
Tamly had never been so afraid in all his life, but if they ran, they were done for. He pulled out his pocket knife and opened the little blade, though he knew he’d never fight off a wolf with it. ‘We keep walking. Slowly. Don’t show any fear. Wolves can smell fear.’
Her teeth chattered. ‘In that case, it’ll smell mine a mile away.’
They went on, following the path, but before long Tamly made out a faint pattering behind them. ‘It’s on our trail.’
‘Do you think it’s one of Harshax’s beasts?’
‘Probably,’ said Tamly. Why, why hadn’t he gone home to bed? He looked over his shoulder and saw two brilliant specks. ‘Eyes, behind us.’ He swallowed and clutched the knife more tightly.
Pad-pad, pad-pad. Soon the dire wolf was so close that he could smell its unpleasant, pungent odour. ‘How far is it to the edge of the forest, Kym?’
‘Miles. We’re not even halfway.’
Tamly couldn’t bear to have it behind him, so he turned and began walking backwards. The dire wolf was visible now, a creeping shadow in the pools of moonlight, just a pair of glittering eyes in the dark spaces.
‘We’ll have to fight it off.’ He stopped in a glade and held his knife up so the moonlight caught it. ‘See if you can find a rock or something.’
The dire wolf went still, staring at him. Tamly stared back, feeling its eyes drawing him in. Soon it would know how afraid he was, and then it would go for his throat.
‘No rocks,’ said Kym. ‘No sticks either.’ She let out a nervous, high-pitched laugh.
The dire wolf swayed backwards; came forwards again, slavering. It was about to spring. ‘Do something!’ he hissed.
‘I thought you didn’t want me to use magic?’
‘It’s better than being eaten by a wolf.’
Kym began muttering rhymes to herself. Tamly held the knife out. The dire wolf went into a crouch. If Kym didn’t do something quick, it would be too late.
She grabbed his arm. ‘Mouth so big, but brain so tiny,’ she chanted as the wolf sprang, then gabbled, ‘taste this little boy – all spiny!’
With a roar it was on them, knocking Kym aside with its shoulder and driving Tamly to his knees. His pocket knife went flying, the dire wolf’s gigantic mouth opened and Tamly was staring at the iron-hard teeth that were going to close right over his head.