Authors: D D Everest
few minutes later, Bramble Foxe strode into the kitchen carrying a large cardboard box.
‘What ho!’ she called in a loud, cheerful voice like Woodbine’s.
‘Ah, there you are Bramble,’ Loretta said. ‘This is your cousin Archie. And, Archie, this is your cousin Bramble.’
‘Cousin?’ said Bramble. ‘Since when did we have a cousin?’
Loretta gave her a dark look. ‘You’ve always had a cousin, you just hadn’t met him before. Now say hello.’
Bramble grinned. ‘All right, Archie?’
Archie smiled awkwardly. Bramble seemed a bit older than him.
‘He’s my brother’s son,’ said Loretta in reply to Bramble’s unspoken question. ‘He’s going to
be staying with us for a while. Anyway, where’ve you been all this time, darling? I was starting to worry.’
‘We were late getting out,’ Bramble said. ‘There’s something odd going on at work. Apparently a boy was attacked. I’ve got a note about a special meeting later this week. No one knows what it’s about, but we’ve all been told to be extra vigilant.’
She put the cardboard box on the kitchen floor. Archie peered across the table and saw that the box was full of old books. Bramble pulled out a chair.
‘Looks like a good haul,’ Woodbine said, rubbing his hands together.
‘Yes,’ said Bramble. ‘I picked them up from a charity shop on the way home. But I’m not sure any of them are keepers.’
‘All right, enough shop talk at tea time,’ Loretta said. ‘Would you like a sandwich, dear?’ she asked Archie, holding out a plate. Archie, who had watched her prepare them with growing apprehension, did his best to look hungry.
‘Yes, please,’ he said.
‘These are lemon curd and ketchup. These are tuna and jam, and these are cheese … and banana.’ Loretta pointed a purple fingernail at each one.
Archie’s hand hesitated in mid-air. He caught sight of Thistle and Bramble both watching to see
how he would react. He knew his credibility was on the line.
‘I’ll try the banana and cheese,’ he said, helping himself from the plate and taking a big bite. His cousins grinned.
‘Tuck in everyone!’ Loretta trilled.
This appeared to be a signal for Thistle, Bramble and Woodbine to wage war with one another. They immediately began grabbing the sandwiches within reach and piling them onto their plates. Then they feverishly opened the little unlabelled pots of homemade this and that, sniffed them, and thrusting their knives, forks and spoons inside, extracted the contents. All of this activity was combined with elbow jousting to fend off anyone else who might be going for the same morsel of food.
Archie found it all highly entertaining. One minute, he was sitting with four human beings, the next three of them had embarked on a food frenzy that would have shamed a troupe of baboons.
‘Now, Thistle, remember your manners!’ cried Loretta, swatting Thistle’s hand with a tea towel as he reached across Archie to pour himself a drink. ‘Really, Woodbine, do you have to eat three sandwiches at once. Don’t forget our guest Bramble – make sure you leave some for Archie.’
Archie made a grab for a sandwich, just beating
Thistle to it. Thistle roared with mock indignation and grabbed some crisps from under Bramble’s nose. Bramble meanwhile was cutting a piece of birthday cake with one hand and pouring some elderberry squash with the other. Archie was impressed.
‘How do you do that?’ he asked, admiring her ambidexterity.
Bramble grinned. ‘Years of practice!’ she said. ‘Would you like some of
birthday cake before Thistle scoffs the lot?’
Archie helped himself to a large slice, cramming it into his mouth like his cousins. The sardine filling was unexpected, but it went surprisingly well with the chocolate sponge and blueberry icing. He wondered again why Loretta had made him a birthday cake. How had she known that he would be coming to Oxford? Perhaps the book was from her?
‘So, Archie, tell us about this book that Granny Greene mentioned in her letter.’ Loretta said.
Not from her, after all. Archie had the full attention of all four Foxes now. Even Woodbine stopped chewing and trained his crinkly eyes on him.
Archie explained about the visit from Horace Catchpole and the mix-up over the message, and how Horace had come back later that night. At
the mention of a Special Instruction, the Foxes exchanged looks.
‘So you were a day late?’ Loretta asked thoughtfully.
‘Yes,’ confirmed Archie. ‘Gran was a bit worried about that. Do you think it matters?’
‘Well, it wasn’t your fault it arrived late, dear. The important thing is that you followed the instruction as soon as you could,’ Loretta said, but Archie thought she gave Woodbine a worried glance. ‘What happened next?’
Archie told them about Veronica Ripley and Arabella, her sullen-faced daughter.
‘And they brought a book like me, and Veronica said that it was a Special Instruction, too,’ said Archie.
‘Hmmmm,’ muttered Woodbine. ‘One Special Instruction is rare enough but two on the same day – that is unusual. I would have expected Geoffrey Screech to have been there to receive them in person.’
‘Marjorie Gudge said he was meant to be back yesterday,’ said Archie, ‘but he was delayed. Marjorie sent the Ripleys away. I think they were a bit annoyed. And then this funny little man called Old Zeb offered me some silly job.’
‘A job?’ said Loretta, sharply.
‘Well, I took some books to his workshop for
the shopkeeper and he kept going on about it. I thought he might’ve been a bit crazy, to be honest.’
The Foxes were watching him intently.
‘Did you touch the flame?’ Loretta asked, urgently. ‘Show me!’
Archie held out his hand and she peered at his palm. ‘You’re Old Zeb’s apprentice,’ she said, glancing at Woodbine. ‘There can be no mistake about it.’
‘How do you know?’ asked Archie, staring at the tattoo-like mark, which he noticed resembled a tiny needle and thread.
‘Because the flame is binding,’ said Woodbine. ‘Once you have the firemark you are bound to your apprenticeship. You’ll have to show up tomorrow.’
‘Bramble has one like it,’ said Loretta. ‘Show Archie your hand.’
Bramble held out her palm to reveal a blue mark with a symbol of a ladder. Next to it was another one in green with a symbol of an eye.
‘Bramble is in her second year,’ Loretta explained. ‘She’s a second hand – that’s why she has her second firemark. And Thistle, here, will start his apprenticeship next year when he turns twelve,’ Loretta continued. ‘That’s the age that all the apprentices start.’
Archie’s brow furrowed. ‘I can understand why you like books,’ he said. ‘I like books, too. But do you really want to make your hobby your job?’
Loretta gave him another sharp look. ‘Hobby?’ she cried. ‘It isn’t a hobby, dear. And they’re not just any old books. We’re the Flame Keepers of Alexandria. We look after magical books.’
rchie stared at his aunt. He must have misheard her.
‘Did you just say you are the Flame Keepers of … ?’
‘Alexandria,’ Loretta finished the sentence for him. ‘Yes.’
Archie considered this for a moment. It had been a long day. He shook his head to clear it. It must be a family joke, he thought. He looked at the others around the table. Woodbine and his two cousins looked back at him with no hint of a smile.
‘And you said the books were … magic?’ Archie could hardly believe his ears.
‘Yes dear. We save them,’ said Loretta.
Archie blinked. He felt that he had stumbled into some parallel universe. Here they were talking about magical books as if it was all perfectly normal. They couldn’t be serious, surely?
He thought back to catching the flame in the bookshop. Or could they?
‘These magical books,’ he said. ‘How do you save them?’
‘We return them to the Museum of Magical Miscellany, of course,’ said Bramble. ‘Didn’t Old Zeb explain?’
‘The Museum of what … ?’ Archie spluttered.
Bramble looked at her mother incredulously. ‘How can he be related to us and not know about the museum?’
‘Granny Greene thought it best not to tell him,’ Loretta said. ‘She had her reasons, but it is time now for Archie to learn about our world – his world.’
She turned to Archie. ‘The Museum of Magical Miscellany is a closely guarded secret. It is hidden beneath the Bodleian Library in Oxford. But I think we’d better start at the beginning.’
Dusk was falling outside, spilling darkness into the room where they sat. Woodbine took a box of matches from his pocket and lit two candlesticks on the kitchen table. The flames from the candles cast dancing shadows on the wall.
‘Most people have forgotten about magic or don’t know it ever existed, but there was a time when it flourished,’ Loretta explained, ‘a Golden Age of magic. In those days the most powerful magicians in the world created spells, enchantments and
charms, which they wrote down in books for others to use. These are the same books that magicians have relied on ever since.
‘When Alexander the Great built his empire he collected magic from every country he conquered. He amassed all manner of magical instruments and artefacts. He even had his own magical gardens and a menagerie of magical creatures. But what Alexander prized above all else was his collection of magical books.
‘It was the greatest collection of magical knowledge ever assembled and the most valuable as well. In Egypt, Alexander planned a great library to house his collection and keep it safe – the Great Library of Alexandria. He died before it was completed but he gave the task of protecting the magical books to his most trusted scribes.
‘In the harbour in Alexandria on the island of Pharos a great lighthouse was built to guide travellers to the Library. The Flame of Pharos lit that lighthouse and the Library’s guardians were responsible for ensuring that the Flame was never extinguished. It is the same flame that burns in Old Zeb’s Smithy and left that mark on your hand.’
The candles flickered and Loretta fell silent. Woodbine took up the story.
‘For centuries Alexander’s collection was kept
safe until in 48 BC something terrible happened. A dark sorcerer called Barzak started a fire and the Great Library was burned down. When the scribes tried to salvage what remained of Alexander’s collection they discovered that the magic books had been corrupted – tainted by Barzak’s dark sorcery.
‘Years later the damaged books were brought here to Oxford where they would be safe.’
Woodbine shook his head, sadly. ‘The burning of the Great Library brought an end to the Golden Age of Magic. It marked the beginning of a dark age. Ordinary people grew suspicious of magic, frightened by it, and with good cause. Spells were cast out of spite and to cause mischief. Alchemists experimented wildly to make gold and become rich. Sorcerers summoned dark spirits. It was a bad time and people who practised magic were put on trial for witchcraft. Some wondered whether magic itself could survive.
‘And then in the 1600s a promising English alchemist called Fabian Grey emerged, and the magical world believed that he might be the one to save magic. But Grey became intoxicated with his own power. In 1666, his reckless experiments started the Great Fire of London – the second great magical conflagration. And so the world’s magicians met in London and agreed that such
a disaster must never happen again. They formed the Magical League and introduced strict new lores on the use of magic.’
Woodbine’s brow darkened. ‘But not everyone in the magical world agreed with the new lores. In secret there were some who still used magic for their own purposes. There still are. We call them Greaders – because they are greedy for the magic in the books.’
A breeze blew into the room from an open window, making the flames from the candles bob and flicker. Woodbine dropped his voice to a whisper.
‘Above all else, the Greaders desire a small number of very powerful magical books. The Terrible Tomes are the seven most dangerous dark-magic books ever written. It is said that if the Greaders get their hands on just one of the Terrible Tomes they could destroy the world.’
Archie was silent for a moment. His mind was racing.
‘So, is my book magical?’ he asked.
‘Almost certainly,’ said Loretta.
‘I knew there was something special about that book,’ he said. ‘But why would someone send me a magical book?’
‘I would have thought that was obvious,’ said Loretta.
Archie stared at her uncomprehendingly.
‘You come from one of the families who looked after Alexander’s original collection. We all do – the Foxes, the Ripleys, Marjorie Gudge, even old Rusp. Magic books are in our blood. We are responsible for preserving the magic that remains. If someone wanted to keep a book safe they would send it to one of the Flame Keepers. That way they’d be sure it would be taken to the Aisle of White and returned to the museum.’
Archie’s mouth fell open. ‘I see,’ he managed to stammer. ‘Why didn’t Gran tell me any of this before?’
Loretta gave him a kindly smile. ‘Your father made her promise to keep you away from magic for your own safety.’
‘And with good reason,’ said Bramble. ‘Dark magic can be dangerous. I told you a boy was attacked recently, didn’t I? When the Greaders start coming to Oxford, you know there’s going to be trouble.’
hen Archie woke the next morning, the first thing he saw was Thistle's grinning face.
âCome on sleeping beauty â wakey, wakey! Mum says breakfast's on the table. Oh, and she asked me to give you this,' he added, putting a shoebox down on the table next to Archie's bed.
âIt's some of your dad's old things. Mum's been keeping them for you. But she says you'll have to look at them later. Bramble wants to show you round the museum before you start your first day as an apprentice. You'd better get a move on.'
Archie stared at his younger cousin. It was true then, he hadn't dreamed it. He put the shoebox under his bed, dressed and raced down the stairs.
The sunshine radiated down onto the streets of Oxford. As Archie strolled along beside Bramble, he found himself whistling as he walked.
âThe great thing about Oxford is that there's so much history,' confided Bramble. âThe museum's been here for centuries and most people don't even know it exists.'
Archie could see that Oxford, with its ancient buildings, gated courtyards and winding cobbled streets, was made for secrets.
They turned left along a very wide road called Broad Street and Archie noticed two grand buildings on the right. The first was some sort of theatre and the second was the Bodleian Library, where the Museum of Magical Miscellany was located. But to his surprise Bramble marched straight past the entrance.
âAren't we going in?' he asked.
She smiled. âYou didn't think we would walk in the front door, did you? That'd be a bit obvious. There's a secret entrance that only the Flame Keepers know about.'
Now that she explained it, it made sense. Of course the Museum of Magical Miscellany would need a secret entrance. Bramble strode on and Archie had to jog to catch her.
âMost of the world has forgotten that magic ever existed,' Bramble continued. âThey think it's just
something from storybooks. It's a good job, too, Mum says, because people today aren't ready for magic. That's why we call them the Unready. They don't know about the magic books and its better that it stays that way. They have enough trouble with money, Mum says.'
As she spoke, Bramble turned right into a side street. Archie hurried after her. She was still talking.
âDad says that the Unready have science instead of magic â it's easier and less tempting. Besides, if people knew about the magic books it would cause all sorts of arguments. Imagine if one country had more magic than another â there'd be wars and all sorts of rows. Just like there used to be!'
They had reached the cobbled square Archie had seen the day before. Bramble marched purposefully across it and entered the narrow lanes.
When there was no one near, she stopped and faced him. âWhat you need to know, Archie, is that it's against the Lore to tell anyone about the magic books unless they belong to the Magical League. That's why Mothballs is such a secret.'
Bramble smiled, mischievously. âYes, that's what the apprentices call the museum.'
Archie felt a thrill of excitement. All his life he had dreamed of adventure and now he really was in the middle of one.
âOK, I get it. So where is it, this secret entrance?'
âYou'll see,' grinned Bramble, setting off again.
She suddenly ducked through an archway and into the courtyard that led to the Aisle of White.
âIs it through the bookshop?' Archie asked.
Bramble shook her head. âThe Aisle of White is the only part of Mothballs that's open to the Unready â so they can bring in magical books if they find them. Not that they'd be able to tell if a book was magic. Mr Screech works that out. But the main museum is strictly for Flame Keepers.'
She crossed to the other side of the enclosed courtyard, to an old and shabby half-timbered building with exposed beams in the medieval style. The spaces between the uneven timbers were filled with discoloured plaster and the upstairs bulged out beyond the ground floor. A sign outside declared it to be Quill's Coffee & Chocolate House, established 1657. âExotic coffee and chocolate from around the world,' the sign promised. âChoc-tails served.' A steady stream of teenage boys and girls were coming and going.
âTa-na!' Bramble said, indicating the door to Quill's, which was down some stone steps.
Archie couldn't imagine a more unlikely way into a museum. He grinned. âGood disguise.'
Bramble smiled. âYes,' she chuckled. âIsn't it? Now get a move on before people start wondering
why we're standing here gabbing.'
At the bottom of the steps a heavy oak door led into Quill's. Bramble pushed it and they slipped inside. An auburn-haired girl a little younger than Bramble came in just behind them.
A delicious aroma of chocolate, suffused with coffee, vanilla, orange and other fragrant flavours wafted through the air. Archie noticed that unlike its gloomy exterior, on the inside Quill's was bathed in a warm, sunny light. A sunbeam blazed through a glass skylight and reflected off the polished wooden floor, lending Quill's a mystical, almost astral quality.
As Archie watched, the girl with auburn hair strolled toward the light. It was so bright that Archie had to shield his eyes. When he looked again, she had vanished.
âThat's odd,' he said. âWhere did that girl go?'
Bramble smiled in a knowing way. âYou'll find out soon enough,' she said.
Directly opposite them was a long wooden bar. Ranged along the bar in a row were twenty or more chrome taps with old-fashioned porcelain handles.
As Archie watched, the waitress pulled down on one of the handles and a torrent of molten chocolate gushed into the mug she was holding. Then she held a glass under another tap. This
time a stream of red fruit juice gushed out. Archie licked his lips.
He was suddenly aware of the waitress looking at him. She was tall and thin with bare arms and lots of tattoos. Her hair was short and spiky and very, very black. Both her eyebrows were pierced.
âThat's Pink,' Bramble said quietly. âShe controls who goes in and out. Hello, Pink,' she called. âThis is my cousin Archie Greene.'
Pink gave him a friendly nod and came over. âSo you're Alex Greene's boy. I knew your dad.'
Bramble lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. âHe's the new bookbinding apprentice and he's never seen the museum before.'
Pink smiled good-naturedly. âFollowing in the family footsteps then â good for you Arch.'
She leaned forward secretively. âI take it you've got the mark?'
âYes, he has,' nodded Bramble. âShow Pink your hand.'
Archie revealed his magic mark.
Pink squinted at it. âYep, that's all in order. You can pass through the door ray.'
Bramble took him by the arm and marched him straight through the shaft of light. It felt warm like sunshine, and for a moment Archie was dazzled by it. He smelled a strange aroma that put him in mind of a summer's night. Then he was on the other side.