The Christmas Cat – Chapter 4: Hot Chocolate and Buttered Crumpets

A tall, powerful man strode down the hall towards them. He was dressed in flowing black robes that billowed as if caught by imaginary winds; strange designs of stitched silver shimmered in the cloth when he walked. He had a great white beard that fell like a snowy waterfall down to his heavy black boots, and his dark eyes flashed like lightning in the depths of a stormcloud.

There was no mistaking him. He was the Enchanter, and he did not look happy.

Myron and Micah drew closer together, wondering what was going to happen to them.

The Enchanter stopped in front of them, his hands on his hips. He regarded them sternly for a moment, his lips pursed, but he said nothing.

Instead, he looked up at the dragon that towered behind them.

“Artaxezulus, sit!” he said, and to the boys’ surprise the dragon immediately dropped to its hind legs, looking for all the world like a dog that had just been scolded.

“That’s better,” said the Enchanter. “Now: what’s all this? What are you two doing here? How did you get in? And where is my Phoenix Feather?”

Neither of the boys replied. Partly they were scared, and partly they had no idea what he was talking about.

Seeing their frightened expressions, the Enchanter’s face softened. He could tell they were neither thieves nor robbers. “All right,” he said. “How about we go and sit down and discuss this, and you can tell me exactly what happened?”

They nodded, and the Enchanter turned and beckoned with a long finger.

“Come along,” he said. “I’m sure we can find you something to eat and drink.”

They left the dragon curling up in its doorway again, and followed the Enchanter back through the house to the hallway where they had entered, then up the wide staircase to the second floor. Along the way they passed through many rooms, all of them different and each one remarkable.

One room was filled from floor to ceiling with great plants whose leaves were big enough to stand on, where the air was hot and thick with mist. The next room was cool and dark, and a round pool of water stood in the middle; when they looked up at the ceiling of this room it was as if they saw the sky outside, speckled with bright stars. In the next room all the furniture, including the carpet and bookshelves, was on the ceiling; a lightbulb stood straight up from the middle of the floor, complete with a flowery lampshade, and they had to climb up a ladder to get out of the far door. The room after this was completely dark, and as they walked across a narrow plank unseen things beneath them moved and rustled over each other, whispering gently amongst themselves.

The boys hurried after the Enchanter (who expressed no amazement at any of these things) and soon they were ascending a steep spiral staircase lit by dribbly candles. At the top was a heavy wooden door, which the Enchanter unlocked with an iron key that he took from under his robes and swung open to reveal a warm, brightly-lit room.

The boys followed him in. It was some kind of study, with bookshelves covering most of the walls and a desk jammed into one corner, piled high with papers. Flames leapt and danced in a stone fireplace around which stood three high-backed armchairs. The Enchanter waved them over to the chairs.

“Please,” he said. “Sit down. Let me get you something to drink. What would you like?”

Myron picked up what looked like a mechanical toad that was sitting on his seat; it gave a croak and let out a metallic noise — doing! — then leapt off his hand into a dark corner.

“Could I have hot chocolate, please?” he said.

“Me too,” said Micah, who was looking at a complicated arrangement of glass pipes and beakers that teetered on the desk and bubbled gently with purple liquid.

“Hot chocolate it is,” said the Enchanter, and waved a hand lazily. There was a gentle pop, and suddenly a small table appeared in front of the fire, with three steaming mugs of thick brown chocolate rattling around on the top. The boys sat down and took a mug each, smacking their lips as the hot drinks warmed their insides.

“And to eat?” asked the Enchanter. “Crumpets, perhaps?”

“Yes, please!” they said, and in the next instant an enormous plate rattled into existence on the table-top, piled high with steaming crumpets that dripped rich, golden butter.

The Enchanter sat down, and saw them hesitating.

“Eat!” he said. “I’m sure you’re hungry.”

They were, and they fell on the crumpets with a will. The Enchanter waited until they had eaten a few before he spoke again.

“So,” he said. “Tell me how you came to be here.”

Between dripping mouthfuls Myron told him the story so far, with help from Micah. They explained how they had woken up to find everyone in a deep sleep; how the Cat had come and asked for their help; how they had found the house and the room guarded by the dragon; and how Myron had gone in and taken the feather.

When they were finished the Enchanter leaned back in his chair and blew air between his lips.

“I see,” he said. “Well first I apologise for the behaviour of Artaxezulus, my dragon. Naturally he took you for thieves, and responded in the only way he knows how. I assure you, he is normally quite harmless. Secondly, I must confess I know nothing of any Cat, talking or otherwise. It is certainly not my Cat — that much is for sure — and I am sorry to say it appears to have lied to you, to trick you into coming here.”

The Enchanter rose from his chair and rummaged around on the desk. After a brief search he gave a cry of triumph and pulled out a rough wooden bowl, which he brought over and set on the table (after conjuring away the plates and mugs with a wave of his hand). He waved again, and suddenly the bowl was sloshing with a bright blue liquid. The Enchanter bent over and began muttering under his breath. The boys watched in silence.

At first nothing happened. Then, ever so slowly, a faint mist began to form on the surface of the liquid. It quickly thickened, billowing over the rim of the bowl and down on to the floor, where it lay and swirled around the chair-legs. The boys drew up their feet — the mist was icy cold, and it made their toes ache.

The Enchanter continued muttering, focusing his gaze on the surface of the mist. Suddenly he drew in a sharp breath and straightened up, his face grave.

“See for yourselves,” he said. “It is as I feared.”

The boys leaned forwards with their heads together, wondering what they were about to see.

The mist swirled thickly, then suddenly it parted, and the boys gasped. It was as if they were looking down on a bleak landscape from high in the air, through a gap in the clouds. In the distance, dark against the night sky, rocky mountains rose in a great wall; a river flowed down from the slopes and passed below them, and beside the river a black shape was moving fast in the direction of the mountains.

Micah gasped, and Myron’s stomach turned. The shape looked a bit like a bat, a bit like a tree, and a bit like a dream you are glad to wake up from, and it sped along just above the ground faster than an express train. In one gnarled, knobbly hand it held the glowing feather that Myron had taken from the cupboard — the feather the Cat had taken from Myron.

There was no mistaking it. It was the Boggart.

Myron frowned. “How did the Boggart get the feather?” he asked.

“My guess would be that the Cat you met was one of the Boggart’s accomplices,” replied the Enchanter. “Or, worse still, that this Cat was the Boggart itself, for the Boggart is a master in the art of shape-changing, and can make itself look like anything it wants to. Only when it thinks it cannot be seen will it go back to its natural form, as you see it here.”

The boys took a moment to understand what the Enchanter was saying. In the meantime the Enchanter waved a hand over the bowl, dissolving the liquid and evaporating the mist, and replaced it back on the desk.

When he sat down again it was with a grave face.

“This is serious,” he said. “That feather is powerful magic — it is a Phoenix feather, one of only three in the whole world.”

“What’s a … a fee-nix?” said Micah, copying the way the Enchanter said it.

“Here.” The Enchanter reached out a hand, and one of the books leapt off its shelf and into his fingers. He opened it, and turned it round to show them a picture of a reddish-golden bird emerging from a blazing fire.

“This is a Phoenix,” he told them. “The Phoenix, I should say, for there is only one in existence. It is the most magical creature in all of the Seven Worlds — more powerful than a dragon, more potent than the Boggart, more noble than a unicorn. To possess one of its feathers … well, I suppose I hardly need tell you what powerful enchantments one could work.

“And now the feather that was mine is now the Boggart’s, and before long it will start to make the most terrible spells and wreak the most awful havoc wherever it can.”

Myron and Micah looked at each other guiltily. The Enchanter did not have to say it directly, but they knew that everything that was happening was their fault. They should have been more careful, and asked more questions — but what was done was done, and no amount of regret would undo it.

The Enchanter regarded them seriously. “There is more,” he added. “In his attempt to rob me the Boggart used a large part of his magic to put me and Artaxezulus into a deep sleep. Such was the power of the spell needed to enchant me — an Enchanter myself — that it not only put us to sleep, but the whole town of Filey that lies in the bay yonder; everyone there is now deep in a sleep from which it is impossible to wake by normal means. The alarms I had set around my Feather were enough to rouse me, but unless I can get that Feather back, and break the Boggart’s enchantment by the time the sun rises, everyone in the town will sleep on and on until the world ends!”

This was worse news still. The boys’ spirits sank, and they looked down miserably. What had started out as a grand adventure had turned into a bad dream.

“What can we do?” said Myron. “Because it’s our fault, isn’t it?”

The Enchanter did not reply straight away. He was deep in thought, his dark eyes flashing as he started into the fire.

At last he stirred and looked at them. “There is one way,” he said. “And that is to go to the lair of the Boggart itself and take back the Feather. I cannot go — the Boggart would sense the approach of such strong magic as mine within seconds, and would be well prepared by the time I arrived. But if you two went in my place, you would have a better chance.”

They could hardly believe what they were hearing. Go to face the Boggart on their own, without any help? It was a mad idea.

“But we’re just two boys,” said Micah. “How would we beat the Boggart?”

The Enchanter stood and rummaged through his desk again.

“You would not be alone,” he said. “For one thing I would send Artaxezulus to help you, and to carry you there and back again. And for another … ah! Here they are!”

He held up a hand in triumph, clutching a leather bag that looked like it was full of marbles.

“What’s that?” said Myron.

“These are seeds from the grundle-tree,” said the Enchanter, opening the bag. He tipped something into his hand — it was very much like a marble, but reddish-brown and wrinkled like a walnut.

“Plant one of these,” he said, “and wish for help, and it will grow into something useful within a few seconds. These seeds are very rare, for the grundle-tree grows only on the slopes of the Volcanoes of Azmaroth, and usually when they fall what grows is another grundle-tree — that is what all grundle-trees wish for, after all.”

He put the seed back in the bag and handed it to Myron, who took it carefully.

“Now,” continued the Enchanter. “All you need is some clothes and proper shoes, and you can be away.”

He conjured up some jeans and jumpers for them, and boots for walking, and they dressed in silence, each wrapped up in their own nervous thoughts. When they were dressed the Enchanter took them back down the stairs, through more strange rooms, and out on to a wide balcony where they could see the whole of the town lying dark and still in the bay beneath them, and the bright stars winking above them.

The Enchanter took out a golden pocket-watch and consulted it.

“You have five hours left before sunrise,” he said. “It is a mercy it is still winter, and the sun rises late. But make haste! Return with the Feather as fast as you can, so that I can reverse the spell in plenty of time!”

The boys nodded nervously, and the Enchanter smiled.

“Good,” he said. “I have confidence in you two. I know you will succeed.”

He put his fingers to his mouth and whistled loudly. A moment later there came the rushing of heavy wings, and the dragon Artaxezulus rose into view, swooping round the towers until he came to land on the balcony. He regarded the boys suspiciously from one baleful eye, but the Enchanter tapped him on the snout.

“These are no thieves,” he said sharply. “They are victims of the Boggart’s tricks, but they have agreed to put things right again.”

The dragon snorted, and its expression softened a little.

“You will carry them to the Boggart’s lair,” the Enchanter instructed. “Give them as much help as you can, and defend them with your life. Do you understand?”

The dragon nodded. It lowered one leathery wing to the floor, forming a ramp for the boys to walk up onto its back. There they found a row of spines which they found they could sit between very comfortably, and when they had settled themselves and taken firm hold the Enchanter waved to them.

“I will stay here and try to find another way around the spell,” he said. “But our best hope is to retrieve that Feather. Thank you for your help, Myron and Micah. Your bravery will be rewarded.”

“We’ll get it back!” said Myron, more bravely than he felt. Micah nodded in agreement, but said nothing.

A last farewell, and then the dragon rose and leapt into the night sky, spreading its wings in great downward thrusts that lifted them up, up, and away from the house and the cliff and the sleeping town, up towards the stars that flashed brightly in the darkness. The wind whistled in their hair, and their stomachs turned as they looked back to see the ground rushing away from them; but they were not afraid. They had the dragon to help them, its inner fire warm through its scales, and Myron had the grundle-seeds tucked into his pocket.

So they flew on, keeping tight hold of the dragon’s spines, flying towards the Boggart’s lair.

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