Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret (10 page)

A
blast of cold air hit Archie’s face, making him gasp. He pushed the door open a little more. Something glittered on the ground, like a myriad of tiny diamonds reflecting the light. Ice. The floor was covered with it.

The air on this side of the door was freezing and he could see his breath hanging in the air like fog and feel it catching in his lungs. Long icicles hung from the ceiling, and somewhere nearby he could hear water dripping.

Archie squeezed through the narrow gap. His shoes made crunching sounds as they disturbed the frost-covered floor. He had not taken more than ten steps when an amber light came on. Archie stopped in his tracks. With a shock, he realised that it wasn’t a light at all but a very large eye that had just opened. Something was watching him from the darkness.

Archie’s heart was thumping in his chest and his legs felt wobbly. Then he heard it, the deep gravelly, growling sound of some terrible beast. Archie felt the almanac twitch in his hand.

‘Run for your life!’ it shrieked. ‘The beast is coming.’

Archie turned and ran for it. Thankfully, the door was still ajar and he could see a sliver of light. But as he raced towards it, he slipped and fell, sliding across the frosty flagstones on his stomach.

The almanac flew out of his hand and skidded across the floor and out through the open door. The light was poor but Archie thought he saw something moving on the surface of the book. It looked like black worms, writhing all over the cover. When he looked again they were gone. He heard the growling sound behind him.

Convinced the awakened beast was about to pounce, he scrambled to his feet and bolted for the door. He twisted his body sideways and squirmed through. The door slammed shut behind him.

Archie rested his hands on his knees while he caught his breath. As his ragged breathing began to slow, he shivered. His clothes were coated in a fine layer of glistening hoar frost, like a lawn on a winter’s morning.

What sort of creature was Old Zeb keeping in
there? Did the museum elders know about it?

He stared at the almanac lying on the ground at his feet. Its cover was still and intact. Whatever he thought he’d seen must have been a trick of the light.

‘What was that thing?’ he demanded. But the book was silent.

*

When he got back to 32 Houndstooth Road that afternoon, Archie couldn’t wait to tell Bramble and Thistle about the beast behind the blue door.

‘What do you think it is?’ he said, after recounting his close call.

‘It definitely sounds like a magical beast,’ said Bramble. ‘I suppose it could be some random popper that’s escaped from the menagerie.’

‘The menagerie?’ asked Archie, who had heard it mentioned before. ‘What’s that?’

‘The mythical menagerie is what’s left of Alexander the Great’s collection of magical creatures,’ said Bramble. ‘There’s one or two actual creatures but these days they are mostly poppers. That’s probably what you saw.’

‘I suppose so, but a popper would ezaporate and I think it’s been there a while,’ said Archie.

‘But why would Old Zeb keep a magical beast
under the Aisle of White?’ asked Thistle. ‘It doesn’t make any sense.’

‘Unless he’s working for the Greaders,’ said Archie, darkly. ‘He was very insistent that I was to bring the almanac straight back to him. I wonder if he means to pass it on to them.’

‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Bramble, but she didn’t seem completely convinced. ‘And anyway, what’s that got to do with the beast behind the blue door?’

‘I don’t know,’ admitted Archie. ‘But it must be against the Lore to hoard magical creatures. And that’s not all – I think the beast was protecting something.’

‘Why do you say that?’ asked Bramble.

Archie shook his head. ‘I don’t know. It’s just a hunch. Anyway, whatever the creature is, it was asleep until I went in and disturbed it.’

‘What on earth possessed you to open the door in the first place?’ demanded Thistle.

Archie shrugged. He couldn’t tell them that the almanac had put the idea in his head and sowed the seed of doubt about the old bookbinder. He hadn’t worked out how his cousins would react to his book-whispering secret. ‘I was just curious,’ he said.

‘You are a maniac!’ Thistle declared. ‘Certifiable!’

Part of Archie was secretly pleased that his cousins thought him daring and slightly mad.
But he still didn’t tell them about his strange conversations with the books. It was one thing to be slightly mad – and quite another to be stark raving.

‘I’ll do some research in the museum,’ Bramble offered. ‘See if I can’t find out what it is. Especially since you’re working so close to it, Arch!’

So now they had two mysteries on their hands – solving the riddle and finding out what kind of creature Old Zeb was keeping under the Aisle of White.

‘Anyway, whatever it is, you’re lucky it didn’t eat you or worse!’ said Thistle.

‘I suppose so,’ said Archie, wondering what could be worse than being eaten.

I
t was a few days later when things took a more sinister turn. Bramble, having made no progress with identifying the beast, was now devoting her time and energy to solving the riddle from the scroll. As her apprenticeship was in the museum itself, it didn’t look suspicious if she stayed late researching. That evening, Archie had waited behind to have a hot chocolate with her at Quill’s. By the time they left it was getting dark.

‘I asked around at the museum to see if any of the apprentices had any idea what you saw behind the blue door,’ said Bramble. ‘Meredith Merrydance thought it sounded like a dragon.’

‘No, I don’t think it’s a dragon,’ said Archie, amazed to hear himself saying such a thing. ‘It didn’t smell like a dragon somehow.’

Bramble raised her eyebrows. ‘And what exactly does a dragon smell like?’ she asked.

‘I don’t really know,’ admitted Archie. ‘But I think it would have more of a stench or something. Besides, dragons breathe fire and it was really cold.’

‘Now you’re some kind of an expert on dragons!’ exclaimed Bramble. ‘Is there no end to your talents?’

‘Very funny,’ said Archie. ‘But I’m serious.’

He told her about his father’s copy of
Creatures to Avoid If You Are of a Nervous Disposition
. ‘There were lots of dragons in there – their eyes were cruel and cunning. But the creature I saw had amber eyes.’

‘So we still don’t know what it is,’ groaned Bramble. ‘And I can’t make head nor tail of that riddle either. I spoke to Enid Drew – she’s a whiz with magical languages. Not as quick as you, of course, Arch,’ she teased. ‘Anyway, Enid said that Enochian Script was popular with magicians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but no one uses it any more because it’s too hard.’

‘So we still don’t have much to go on,’ Archie said, as they walked up the steps into the small courtyard by the Aisle of White. ‘Just that mysterious symbol on the clasp of my book – the same one that’s on the scroll. If only we knew who sent the riddle and the book – and if it was the same person.’

‘I bet we could find the symbol if we did some
more research at the museum!’ Bramble exclaimed excitedly, her eyes shining in the dark.

‘Bram, you’re already working late every night on deciphering the riddle. If anyone should be trying to find the symbol, it should be me.’

‘I can handle it,’ she said.

Archie glanced across at her. She looked tired. His cousin had more energy and enthusiasm than anyone he’d ever known, but the late nights were taking their toll. Archie let her walk a few paces ahead.

‘So, what do you think?’ Bramble asked casually over her shoulder. ‘About finding the symbol, I mean?’

Archie didn’t answer. He was standing very still.

‘Arch?’

‘Shhhhh,’ he whispered. ‘I think there’s someone there.’

There was a movement in the shadows and a dark figure lunged at him, catching hold of his wrist. Archie tried to pull away but his attacker held him tight.

‘Where is the book?’ it hissed in his ear. ‘Give it to me – if you want your cousins to live!’

‘What book?’ Archie stammered.

‘Don’t play games with me Archie Greene. You know what book. You have no idea what you are dealing with!’

‘I haven’t got it.’

‘But you had it!’ the voice accused. ‘Where is it now?’

His attacker loosened his grip just for a second. Archie saw his chance and yanked his arm free. ‘Run, Bram, run!’

His assailant lunged for him again and caught hold of Archie’s sweatshirt. At that moment, a door opened across the courtyard and someone ran up the steps with a torch.

‘Hey what’s going on?’ Archie recognised Pink’s voice. She must have heard the commotion from Quill’s.

The dark figure threw Archie to the ground and melted into the shadows.

Bramble ran to Archie’s side. ‘You all right?’ she asked.

‘Yes, but let’s get out of here before he comes back.’

*

‘So who attacked you?’ Thistle asked when they were safely back in Houndstooth Road.

‘I don’t know,’ Archie said, shaking his head. ‘It all happened so fast.’ The three cousins were sitting around the kitchen table. The house was dark except for a couple of candles. Loretta had
already gone to bed. None of the children noticed that the serving hatch to the next room was slightly ajar.

‘Whoever it was he was after the book,’ continued Archie.

‘But which book?’ asked Bramble. ‘Your book or the almanac?’

‘Good question. I thought it was the almanac, but now I’m wondering.’

‘But who would want your book?’ said Thistle.

‘Greaders,’ growled a low voice that made them all jump. Woodbine’s head appeared through the serving hatch. ‘Greaders,’ he said again, darkly. ‘That’s who.’

Woodbine appeared at the kitchen door. He sat down heavily in one of the chairs.

‘Had a scare, then, young ’un?’ he said to Archie.

Archie nodded. Woodbine was a reassuring presence. His uncle scratched his stubbly chin. ‘Something’s not right,’ he muttered. ‘Is Geoffrey Screech still missing?’

‘Yes,’ nodded Archie. ‘Marjorie is really worried about him. She’s started sleeping in the bookshop.’

Woodbine shook his head thoughtfully. ‘Worried about the Greaders, I expect. Your aunt Loretta hasn’t slept properly since she heard about that boy being attacked. Probably best if we don’t mention what happened tonight. Keep it between
ourselves for now. It’ll be Greaders that’s behind it, all right. Trouble is, you can’t tell whose working with them.’

Woodbine rubbed his chin again. ‘Hmmmm,’ he growled. ‘One thing’s certain, that book isn’t safe where it is.’

L
ater, as the two boys were settling down for the night, Archie’s mind was still racing. Woodbine had said his attacker must be a Greader, but Archie wondered how the man had known about the book. Perhaps he had overheard Bramble and him talking in Quill’s. It was a warning that they should be more careful.

Woodbine had said something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps he suspected someone inside the museum? Archie thought about what the almanac had said about Old Zeb. If the old bookbinder was working for the Greaders then none of the books at the bookshop were safe. The more Archie thought about his book sitting in a box in plain sight, the more worried he felt.

The book must be from the same person who had sent the riddle, he reasoned. Horace Catchpole
had said he was a magician. But why would a magician have sent the book to him? How did he even know Archie would be born in four hundred years’ time? What was special about him anyway? And then he had a sudden thought. What if the magician had sent him the book because only a book whisperer could protect it?

‘Psssst, Thistle,’ he hissed. ‘Wake up. I’ve got to get my book.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ said Thistle’s groggy voice. ‘First thing in the morning.’

‘No,’ whispered Archie. ‘I have to get it now.’

Thistle sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. ‘You mean right now?’

Archie nodded. Thistle grinned. ‘A midnight raid on the Aisle of White!’ he whispered. ‘Excellent. Shall we wake Bram?’

‘No,’ said Archie. ‘She’s been working late at the museum. She needs some rest. Besides, we can handle this on our own.’

*

It was just after midnight when Archie and Thistle let themselves out of 32 Houndstooth Road. The streets of Oxford were transformed at night. The ancient sandstone buildings appeared in sepia tones like an old-fashioned photograph. Mysterious
puddles of darkness lurked at every turn. The two boys cautiously made their way through the narrow cobbled lanes.

When they arrived at the bookshop it was in darkness. A single light on in Quill’s was the only illumination in the small courtyard.

‘How are we going to get in?’ hissed Thistle.

‘I’ve got a key,’ Archie replied, producing it from his pocket. He fumbled with the lock trying to find the keyhole.

‘You know what we’re doing is against the Lore, don’t you?’ said Thistle.

‘Yes,’ said Archie. He was all too aware of it. ‘But I’ve got to trust my instincts on this one.’

An owl hooted nearby.

‘Hurry up!’ urged Thistle. ‘Someone will see us.’

Archie turned the key and pushed the door open. The bell clanged loudly, making both of them jump.

‘Geoffrey, is that you?’ They heard Marjorie mumbling in her sleep.

‘Shhhh,’ whispered Archie. ‘I forgot about Marjorie. She’s started sleeping in an armchair at the back of the shop.’

They stood still, waiting to see whether she would wake up, and were relieved when they heard her resume snoring soundly.

Very gently, Archie closed the door behind
them, leaving it on the latch so they could make a quick getaway if needed. He turned off his torch so that he wouldn’t disturb Marjorie.

The bookshop was eerie in the dark. The aisles between the bookcases were like dark alleyways where anything or anyone could be lurking. All Archie had to do was locate the book in the cardboard box, which would only take a second. But first he had to find it.

‘You stay here and keep an eye out,’ he whispered to Thistle, ‘I’ll get the book.’

Archie crept forward in the pitch dark, his hand in front of him to feel his way. Inch by inch he guided himself towards the back of the shop. He was about half way when he heard a whispered voice.

‘Who’s there?’ it asked urgently from behind the curtain. Archie recognised the voice of
The Little Book of Blessings.

‘It’s me,’ he whispered. ‘Archie.’

‘Hello Archie. I’m glad it’s you.’ The voice sounded relieved.

‘I haven’t heard any of the other books whisper for days now,’ said Archie, keeping his voice low so that Thistle wouldn’t hear. ‘Is everything all right?’

‘Something is stealing our magic, and whatever it is is getting stronger,’ she said. ‘The other books are too scared to speak any more.’ The little book sounded frightened.

‘Anyway, why are you sneaking around in the middle of the night? Have you come to help us?’

‘Er … it’s a long story,’ said Archie. ‘I’ve come to collect a book I left here.’

‘That book!’ said
The Little Book of Blessings
. ‘Yes, you must take it away. It isn’t safe for any magical books to be here.’

Archie suddenly felt very uneasy. The bookshop seemed full of menace now.
The Little Book of Blessings
was silent.

Archie steeled himself and moved forward. His hand touched the cardboard box. He flicked on his torch, directing its beam down so that it wouldn’t wake Marjorie, and rummaged through the box until he found what he was looking for. His fingers closed on the book and he felt a wave of relief.

‘I’ve got it!’ he whispered, turning off the torch.

‘Good. Now let’s get out of here,’ Thistle whispered back. ‘I think there’s someone out there watching us.’

Archie gazed around the bookshop at the darkness. He could hear Marjorie snoring lightly. He felt like something was watching him. He spoke again to
The Little Book of Blessings
, his voice urgent.

‘Do you want me to take you, too?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘Go now! Quickly! Before it is too late!’

Archie hesitated for another second. ‘Thanks for the warning,’ he whispered into the darkness.

‘Bless you, Archie Greene. May you find the path that is meant for you.’

Thistle was peering anxiously out into the courtyard towards Quill’s. ‘Come on,’ he whispered and they slipped out into the night.

*

When they got back to 32 Houndstooth Road they couldn’t resist waking Bramble to tell her what they had done.

‘Well you should have included me,’ she said, crossly. ‘I don’t see why you should have all the fun.’

‘Shhhh, keep your voice down, Bram,’ hissed Thistle. ‘You’ll wake Mum and Dad.’

‘It was my fault,’ said Archie. ‘I thought you needed the rest after all the research you’ve been doing.’

Archie put the book on the bed. It looked even more mysterious in the torchlight.

‘You were right, Archie,’ said Bramble, inspecting the silver clasp. ‘It is the same symbol as on the scroll. By the look of that scorch mark I’d say it had been in a fire at some point, too. That could mean it was in the Great Library of Alexandria.’

‘So it could be good or it could be evil?’ said Thistle.

‘Yes,’ mused Bramble, ‘judging by the writing on the cover it’s in Enochian Script, the language of angels.’

‘And angels are good, right?’ said Thistle.

‘Well, yes,’ said Bramble, relaxing a bit. ‘I suppose so. It’s weird that you could understand it, though, Archie.’

Archie felt uncomfortable. ‘That was a fluke,’ he said. ‘I mean, how could I possibly understand a magic language that I’ve never seen before? Besides, I tried to read this book when I first got it and couldn’t, so why was I able to read the riddle?’

‘Dunno,’ said Thistle. ‘And it’s not as if the book can tell us.’

Archie felt the blood drain from his face. Thistle was right – ordinarily, a book couldn’t speak, even a magic book – unless you were a book whisperer! Archie had a horrible sinking feeling.

His thoughts were interrupted by Thistle. ‘How do you open this wretched clasp?’ he asked, in frustration.

‘You turn it like a dial,’ said Archie, without thinking.

‘Well, I’ve tried that,’ said Thistle. ‘There must be some special knack to it.’

‘Not really,’ said Archie. ‘I just turned it until it clicked open.’

‘Well, be my guest,’ said Thistle, handing him the book.

Archie turned the clasp as he had done the first time he’d opened it. A picture of a bolt of lightning appeared in the tiny window, but it didn’t open. He tried again. This time an icon of a smiling skull appeared but still it wouldn’t budge. He turned the clasp a third time and the crystal ball appeared. Archie now knew that these symbolised the different types of magic.

‘That’s it,’ he declared, tugging at the clasp, but it remained locked tight. ‘Well, that’s really strange,’ he said, his voice rising in frustration. ‘It opened before.’

They heard footsteps on the landing.

‘Uh, oh,’ said Thistle. ‘Quick, hide the book!’

Archie slipped it under the pillow just in time. The door opened and the light came on.

‘What on earth are you doing awake at this time?’ asked Loretta. ‘Isn’t it bad enough that we’re under attack from Greaders, without you three staying up half the night?’

She suddenly burst into tears. Woodbine appeared at her side and laid a reassuring hand on her arm.

‘It’s all right Loretta,’ he said. ‘The museum
elders won’t let the Greaders get their hands on any magical books.’

‘But what about that poor boy, Peter Quiggley?’ wailed Loretta. ‘Whatever is it coming to when the apprentices aren’t safe to go about their business.’

Archie wondered whether his uncle had told Loretta about him being attacked outside Quill’s. But Woodbine drew his finger across his mouth to indicate his lips remained sealed. Loretta wiped her eyes.

‘Yes, well, I’m sure you’re right,’ she sniffed. ‘But it’s so unsettling. I mean if the Greaders were to get hold of one of the Terrible Tomes … it doesn’t bear thinking about.’

She wiped her eyes again. Then regaining some composure she turned to the children.

‘You three. Bed. Now!’

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