Jane and I pushed past Rimath and tried to open the sitting-room door. The handle refused to budge.
Jane kicked while I shoved and then she pushed me out of the way, and in desperation, started to pull at the handle even though it would never work.
Rimath reached our side, put his paws over our hands and stopped our feet from kicking with his tail. His eyes were wide and he mouthed the words ‘be quiet.’
From inside the room, we could hear our parents’ voices. Mum seemed to be threatening through gritted teeth: ‘as soon as I can get my hands on you, you’ll be so sorry…’ It was something she said to us all the time but this time she sounded like she meant it and also as if she were in pain. Dad’s words were just a muffled mumble. He must have been gagged but it wasn’t stopping him try to talk anyway.
Then there was another voice. It reminded me of corners and unseen cobwebs; of slippery stone and murky water.
‘Silence!’ it growled.
Rimath tapped our hands until we looked at him and touched his mouth with his tail. Shh.
The voice came again. ‘The door was rattling. Is there someone else in the house with you?’
Dad’s mumble became more frenzied. I could hear the tears in Mum’s voice as she said ‘n-no. We’re here alone. It was just the storm. Let us go!’
‘Stop struggling or it’ll be worse for both of you,’ said the voice. ‘I am Noggler and I want my treasure.’
‘What treasure?’ Dad’s voice was a little clearer. He must have squirmed the gag away.
‘Don’t give me that,’ said Noggler. ‘The owners of this house have hidden it for centuries and so far, no matter what we do to them, they’ve never told us where it is. Well, this time, things are going to be different. Let’s go.’
‘Go where?’ Mum’s voice was shaking.
‘You’ll soon find out.’
She gave another scream and Dad’s words were muffled again. Jane was now kicking at Rimath but he shook his head. Her furious eyes were full of tears. There was a sensation as if all the air was being sucked from around us and a deafening noise like a firework exploding as it spiralled down a drain. Then everything was quiet apart from the sound of rain against windows and the wind in the tiles above. The sitting-room door popped open.
Jane and I went to rush inside, but Rimath slipped in front of us, barring our way for a second before letting us through.
The room was much as it had been earlier. The overhead lamp cast a pale, sickly glow onto a table where a blackened but half-cooked Spanish omelette congealed. The front of the cassette player had been ripped off and mangled tape spilled out over the edge of the sideboard. Something dropped onto my head and this time I grabbed it. In my palm a creature like an inch-long woodlouse with uncountable legs, long antennae and a long forked tail squirmed. Trying not to be sick, I stared into its face. Bulbous red eyes blinked and a mouth full of fangs opened silently. I loosened my grip as I screamed and before it hit the floor, the creature sprouted wings and flew to the ceiling to bury itself in the beam.
‘Don’t be scared,’ said Rimath, putting an arm round my shoulder. ‘The fork-beetles are harmless. They’re just not pretty.’
I shrugged him away. ‘Where’s Mum and Dad, Rimath? Why did you stop us from getting in here?’
‘It’s not that simple. I -’
‘Where’s Mum and Dad?’ Jane’s voice wobbled as she pulled chairs over and dragged the sofa round. I stared into the corners and prodded the ashy fire-place with the poker. There was nothing to see but cobwebs and I could just make out red blinking dots under the mantlepiece. I assumed there was a cluster of fork-beetles watching me and felt sick again.
There was no sign that anyone had ever been in here. Outside the grimy window, the rain still poured in a thick curtain. We were miles from anywhere, all alone, with no-one to help. I shook the tears from my eyes. I turned on the dragon. ‘Why wouldn’t you let us come in and rescue our parents?
‘There were too many of them inside,’ said Rimath. ‘And they’d sealed the door just in case…’
‘In case of us?’
‘In case of me.’
‘You?’ Jane went to kick him again. Rimath’s tail curled round her waist, lifted her and put her in a musty armchair. He pointed at me and at one of the few dining chairs still upright. I sat down.
‘Who are you to boss us about?’ I shouted. ‘You’re no use. You’re a dragon. Why didn’t you just burnt the door down?’
‘Do you want to rescue your parents?’ said Rimath. We nodded. ‘Then you need to listen to me. Really carefully. It’s quite a story. I’m not sure where to start.’
‘Who’s Noggler?’ I said. ‘And where has he taken Mum and Dad?’
‘He’s a… I don’t know how to describe Noggler and his crew. I don’t want to frighten you.’
‘I’m not scared of anything,’ snarled Jane.
‘Nor me,’ I added, hoping he wouldn’t start describing large dogs, long-legged spiders, dark corridors or great-aunts.
‘Well,’ Rimath scratched his nose. ‘They’re krakenmen. Half human, half sea-monster. It’s very complicated. I won’t know which of his lairs Noggler has taken your parents to till we’ve worked out which way they went. Now what we’re looking for is a square of floor or wall which is a different colour to the rest.’ He peered up at the light-bulb. ‘That’s going to be hard in this light. I’d throw a very bright flame but there’s a risk Noggler has posted a guard and we might be seen.’
‘I’ve got a better idea,’ I said. I didn’t really want to leave the room, unnerving as it was, but there was nothing for it. I ran into the hall where our luggage was and rummaged in my bag. Buried at the bottom was the flash-light I had hidden for late-night reading under the covers. Every squeak and bang of the old house made my heart beat faster. I rushed back into the sitting-room and shone it round, shading the light from spilling beyond precisely where I pointed.
‘There!’ said Jane. The rug near the sofa was askew and we could just make out a scorch mark. It wasn’t the usual sort of shapeless burn, but was geometric and neat. We dragged the rug back and revealed a large square on the floor-boards.
‘That’s it,’ said Rimath. ‘If we hadn’t found it within half an hour, it would have faded back to normal. They have powerful magic, the krakenmen. On my own, I couldn’t have done anything but put you into danger too if I’d gone inside. Now I know which way they’ve gone, I know which lair they’ll have gone to and what to do.’
‘So we need to lift the planks and chase after them.’ Jane knelt on the floor and started stabbing at the edges of the square with the poker.
‘No!’ said Rimath. ‘That won’t work. It’s completely sealed again and only they know the spell to open it. We need to follow them a different way. My way. I’ll explain the rest as we go. You have to trust me. But you have to be quiet and…’ he prodded Jane with his tail, ‘not argue back. Promise?’
‘Huh,’ said Jane. ‘If you think – ’
‘Oh stop it Jane!’ I said. ‘We’ve got to rescue them. Goodness knows what mess Dad will get us into if he starts talking. He never knows when it’s time to joke and when it’s time to be serious. I trust you, Rimath. Which way now?
I thought Rimath would take us outside into the rain but instead he headed straight into the kitchen. In the space where the cooker or fridge should have been there was – now I looked closer – another small pointless cupboard door embedded into the wall near the stone floor.
Rimath muttered under his breath. A tiny flicker of flame licked round his mouth and then disappeared. The cupboard door opened to reveal a dark space.
‘You’d best go first Laura,’ he said. ‘You’ve got a flashlight and you might need it. Jane can go in the middle. I’ll be at the back. We’ll just have to trust each other. Come on, what are you waiting for? We need to get to your parents as soon as possible.’
I crawled forward and shone the flashlight upwards. Above was the shaft leading to the cupboard on the landing. I redirected the light forwards and could see nothing but rock. I had thought maybe there would be a tunnel heading out from the house but I was wrong. With a trembling hand, I pointed the flashlight down and felt over the edge. The shaft continued deep into the ground. My terrified imagination made me think I could hear echoes and crashes. All I knew for certain was that the rungs were slippery and the beam of light was swallowed by the depth of the shaft. I had no idea how deep it was or what waited at the bottom.
But there was nothing for it. Someone had to rescue Mum and Dad and we were the only ones who could.
I turned the flashlight off and pushed it deep into my pocket. Then I slipped over the edge of the shaft until my feet made contact with a rung.
I took a breath and met my sister’s eyes. ‘Let’s go.’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Jane. ‘Let’s go.’
Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.