For Tom Wishart
On the Beach
The Dragon Boat
The House of Foryx
A Storm Brewing
In the Dunes
Light of Day
Out of the Box
The Lemonade Stall
The Chain Locker
To the Castle
The Wizard Tower
The Top of the Tower
An Incursion of Ill Intent
Snow Princess Driffa, the Most High and Bountiful
Oskar and Ferdie
Thieves in the Night
The Far Fortress
My Lady’s Chamber
The Outside Path
The Rat Office
The Heart of the Ways
Ice and Rubble
The Orm Tube
A Darke Dart
The Snow Palace
About the Author and Illustrator
Books by Angie Sage
About the Publisher
ON THE BEACH
A distant bell tolled. On an ancient beach Dan Moon watched a line of flickering lights appear and disappear as they wound through sand dunes, heading toward him. It was three o’clock in the morning on MidSummer’s Day. Holding his own lantern high, Dan stood in the middle of a circle of rugs on the sand, watching the lights move closer. Dan’s bare feet were cold, and despite his heavy black cloak, he shivered in the predawn chill.
Dan saw the first of the lights—a flickering candle encased in a glass lantern—emerge from the dunes. It was carried by a dark-cloaked figure who was quickly followed by others. They walked slowly across the sand, heading toward what they called the MidSummer Circle. Silently, one by one they sat down on the rugs, making a circle around Dan.
The dark-cloaked group were not the only ones making their way toward the beach. In the shadows of the dunes the square figure of a woman moved hurriedly along a path she had marked out earlier that day. The woman, Mitza Draddenmora Draa, was late. She had intended to be in her hiding place before everyone began to arrive, but she had been delayed by having to help Dan Moon pull out a pile of moth-eaten rugs from under her bed in the spare room. And, what was worse, she had to smile while she was doing it because Mitza had to be a good houseguest, and more important, be above suspicion. Consequently she was not in a good mood. She didn’t like being late, she didn’t like sand, she didn’t like walking and she certainly didn’t like what she called “darned kids.” Still, it would all be worth it—she hoped.
Covered in sand after losing her footing down a dune, Mitza found her hiding place behind a small hillock of sand. It was near enough to hear what was being said and yet far enough away to make a quick exit without being seen. She settled down among the spiky dune grass and tried not to think about sand snakes.
Dan Moon, whip-thin, tall and dark, fiddled with the lapis lazuli stone that hung from a string around his neck. He had performed the MidSummer Circle more times than he liked to remember, but that night Dan was nervous—because for the first time his only child, Alice TodHunter Moon, twelve years old (and so now considered to have come of age) was old enough to hear it. Alice, who insisted on being known as Tod, was sitting at Dan’s feet, regarding him with an unflinching gaze. Her dark eyes were glowing with excitement as she twisted her long, thin plait—the traditional PathFinder elflock—that hung down from her mass of short dark hair. Just in time, she remembered not to chew the end of it.
Dan watched the last latecomer take his place. He did a head count and saw that all those from the village, aged twelve to fifteen, were indeed present. He checked his timepiece. It was important to Dan that he timed his talk to the very second. His father had never bothered, but Dan loved the sense of wonder that timing it just right always produced. It still gave even him goose bumps. He looked around the circle at the solemn audience, sitting cross-legged, muffled in their black cloaks. The younger ones had their hoods up against the chilly offshore breeze, but the older ones—too cool to cover—were toughing it out, and their faces and hair showed the typical PathFinder sheen that only became apparent in the dark.
Dan held his lantern high and saw the completed Circle of flickering points of flame. Silence had descended and with it an air of expectation. This was going to be a good night, Dan thought. The atmosphere was right. He was pleased for Tod’s sake—everyone remembered their first Circle. Dan glanced at his timepiece once more, took a deep breath and, speaking slowly but loudly enough for all to hear—including Mitza Draddenmora Draa—Dan Moon began.
“Good morning, PathFinders. Welcome to our new people.” Dan smiled down at Tod and two other twelve-year-olds, who were sitting in the space reserved for first-timers. Tod smiled shyly back. It was strange seeing her father in a new role—no longer a fisherman but someone who everyone was, literally, looking up to.
Dan continued. “Every year we meet in the early hours of MidSummer Morning to hear our history and to understand the secrets that made us PathFinders who we are, and why we are a little different from others. These secrets are kept among us, and when we leave the Circle we do not speak of them to anyone else. Does everyone here understand?” Dan did a 360-degree turn, looking at each person and getting a solemn “I understand” in return. Dan turned his gaze to the three sitting at his feet. “To begin, I will ask our first-timers to promise to keep our secrets from all who are not PathFinders, and more important, from all PathFinders who have yet to come of age and join our MidSummer Circle. You may have brothers and sisters or close friends who are only a little younger and you may feel there is no harm in telling them. But harm there is.”
Tod blushed. She knew Dan was thinking of her best friends, twins Oskar and Ferdie Sarn. But there was no way she was going to ever break the Circle promise.
One by one, Dan asked each first-timer to say the promise. Tod was last and felt very nervous by the time it was her turn. “Alice TodHunter
Moon,” Dan said in a most un-Dadlike voice. “Do you promise to faithfully keep the secrets of our PathFinder Circle? For all time and in all ways?”
Dan smiled. “Well said all.” Then he addressed the rest in the Circle. “Let us welcome our new brother and sisters.”
“Welcome, brother and sisters, to the MidSummer Circle,” came the response.
Tod smiled. She belonged. It was a good feeling.
Dan relaxed. The serious part of the evening was done; now he could begin to do what he liked best—tell a story. He began to move around within the Circle, pacing slowly, speaking in his low, resonant voice while Tod listened, entranced.
“In the Days of Beyond, those distant days in the past, our ancestors went to the stars. Here on Earth they had great skills navigating what were called the Ancient Ways, and for this they were revered and called PathFinders. We no longer know what these Ancient Ways were, but we do know that because of their PathFinding skills, our forebears were chosen to leave this beautiful planet and find paths through the stars. They left willingly and went into a great closed metal container, a ship named PathFinder, which they knew they would never leave. An explosion sent the PathFinder up into the sky, away from our planet, past the moon, and set her on a path to the stars.”
Tod suppressed a gasp and exchanged glances of amazement with the other first-timers. She could hardly believe that Dan, such a great teller of stories, had managed to keep the most amazing story of all secret. She stared up at the dusting of stars above, trying to imagine what it would be like to walk into a huge metal tube, knowing that you would never see the sky or the sea again. Tod pushed her bare feet into the cold sand, as if to reassure herself that she was still firmly on Earth, and listened to the comforting sound of her father’s voice continuing his story.
“These people were different from those they left behind. Because in order for the PathFinder ship to travel fast enough to reach the stars, at first the people had to live in fluid to protect them from the terrible forces of acceleration. This is where our beautiful sign language comes from, for it is not possible to speak in fluid. And neither is it possible to breathe. So in here . . .” Dan placed his fingers on either side of the bridge of his nose. “. . . they had the things that fishes have. Gills. This was a deliberate change to the very essence of a human being, something that would be passed on to the next generation. This is why even now, many thousands of years away from our ancestors, some of us still have these gills.”
Tod stared up at her father in astonishment—so many secrets. She tried to imagine what it would be like to immerse herself in fluid, what the first gulp would feel like. Even if she had gills, would she choke? Would she feel as though she were drowning? Tod told herself she was never going to find out. Because her mother had not been not a PathFinder, she was very unlikely to have gills. But even so, Tod had to fight hard to suppress a shudder. Like many fishermen’s children, she had a horror of drowning.
Looking down directly at the first-timers, Dan said, “This is a dangerous secret that we keep from the younger ones for their own safety. As part of the Circle, you, too, will now keep the secret.”
Tod and her two companions nodded solemnly.
“I know,” Dan said, looking around the Circle, “that some of you will want to find out for yourselves whether you have these gills. And I know it is no good, my telling you not to do something, so I won’t. But I will tell you that the only way to find out if you possess gills is . . .” Dan paused not only for dramatic effect, but also to make sure they remembered. “. . . to be prepared to drown!”
A gratifying gasp came from the first-timers.
Well on form now, Dan continued. “And I will tell you why you must be prepared to drown. Because human gills do not activate until you breathe in a full, deep draft of water through your nose. If you do this and you are without gills, there is no way back. You will drown. And your chances of drowning are extremely high. We do not think that more than one in ten of us have gills now.”
Dan looked around the group. He smiled. As usual, the first-timers were surreptitiously sniffing, wondering if they could tell. “And before you ask, no, I do not know if I possess human gills or not. And I do not want to have to find out.”
Dan sneaked a quick look at his timepiece. He was going to have to speed up. “Our ancestors found the hidden Ways to the stars. For generations they traveled through distant galaxies, looking for worlds like ours. They danced with moons and flew with comets. They visited countless planets. On one they found an ancient civilization long dead; on another they found the stirrings of intelligent life but never, ever, did they find any creatures like us.”
Dan surveyed his audience, gazing at him in rapt attention, the first-timers openmouthed with amazement. “At last their expedition drew to a close and the PathFinder returned home. She landed on the very spot from which she had left, now marked by our PathFinder bell.”
Dan paused, and right on cue the sound of the bell drifted over the dunes. Tod felt a swathe of goose bumps run over her.
Dan waited until the last echoes of the bell had faded. “When the crew emerged, they found nothing but windswept dunes and a hostile crowd from the Trading Post who had seen a ball of fire drop from the sky and had come to investigate. Thousands of years on Earth had passed, compared with a few hundred on board the ship—the PathFinder and her crew had been forgotten. The Trading Post people thought they were strange alien creatures and imprisoned them in a fortress in the Far.” Dan waved his hand in the direction of the forest that bordered the village. “This is why we do not venture deep into the Far. It is not a good place for PathFinders.
“After many long years, the Trading Post jailers lost interest and they at last set our people free. The PathFinders returned here, built our village and lived peacefully. But the old mistrust between us remains to this day. They are a hostile people, quick to anger, and neither the Trading Post nor the OutPost is a safe place for a PathFinder to be.
“But enough of that!” Dan broke the sober atmosphere with a sudden smile. “Now, it is story time. The PathFinders brought back many tales of the unbelievable places they had seen. At each Circle I tell a different one using our own sign language, which they passed down to us, their children’s children. And tonight, Circle, I am going to tell you about the planet of the giant trees.”
Dan placed the tip of his left index finger on the tip of his left thumb to make an O: the PathFinder sign for “okay” when used as a question. In reply, all in the Circle made the same sign with their right hands: okay, used to show agreement or that all is well. And so Dan began.
Tod sat entranced as her father wove his story with fluid hand movements, dancing around the circle on his long legs, taking them with him to the stars. She wished it would go on forever, but when his hands began to slow and his elegant fingers fluttered less fast, Tod knew he was drawing to a close.
Now Dan began to speak as well as sign, slow and low. “And so, we PathFinders have traveled to the Great Beyond. We have seen many worlds, but we have seen none as beautiful as ours; we have seen many suns, but we have seen none as perfect as . . .” Dan turned around and pointed out to the sea. Exactly on schedule, a fingernail tip of orange broke the horizon, pushing its way up from the sea. “This! This is our sun. This is our Earth. This is where we belong.”
A shiver of goose bumps ran around the MidSummer Circle. Dan Moon grinned. He had done it.
Enjoying their sense of being special, of belonging, the Circle watched in awe as the brilliant ball of light rose from the water; they saw the sky grow bright and the morning star fade away. It was, as Dan Moon had said, perfect.
Suddenly, Tod spotted a flash of gold in the sky. She looked up, shielding her eyes. There was another flash, green this time, and Tod’s heart jumped in recognition. This was something she had seen long ago. Something she had drea
med about for many years, and something that no one, not even her father, believed she had seen.
“It’s the Dragon Boat!” Tod shouted, leaping to her feet. “The Dragon Boat!” Everyone looked at her disapprovingly, particularly Dan. This was not how you behaved in the Circle. But now everyone was looking at the sky, and some were standing up to get a better view. The MidSummer Circle was broken.
The flash of gold and green moved ever nearer, and now they began to see what Tod already knew it to be—a beautiful green dragon that was also a golden boat. Or was it a beautiful golden boat that was also a green dragon?
The Dragon Boat approached steadily, her huge wings beating up-and-down, up-and-down, and soon she was near enough for everyone to see the dragon’s neck stretched forward, her iridescent scales shining in the sunlight. They saw her tail arched high, the golden barb on the end glinting. And then her sleek golden hull was overhead; everyone was waving madly—and two figures at the helm, one in purple, one in red, returning their waves.
Dan Moon knew he had been upstaged, but he didn’t mind. He was excited as anyone to have seen such an amazing sight. He swept his daughter up into a hug and said, “So, Alice TodHunter Moon, you really did see that Dragon Boat.”
“Put me down, Dad,” Tod muttered. “Everyone’s looking.”
THE DRAGON BOAT
The pilot of the Dragon Boat—a young man with curly straw-colored hair and green eyes so bright that you might expect them to shine in the dark—looked down at the first landfall since they had left their island.
“Hey, Jen,” he said, pointing down to the beach. “There’s that circle of lights again. That’s another MidSummer tradition going on down there, I guess.”
Jenna Heap, a young woman wearing a fine cloak of red silk lined with white fur, her long dark hair kept in place by a circlet of gold, peered over the side of the Dragon Boat. “They’ve seen us,” she said, returning the waves of the excited onlookers below. “It’s already light. We must be later than usual.”
The young man, Septimus Heap—Jenna Heap’s adoptive brother—smiled. “I seem to remember someone was fussing about whether we had enough food.” He pointed at two large picnic baskets strapped to the deck. “Even though we have enough to feed the entire House of Foryx.”