When Alfie Bloom inherited a castle and a centuries-old magic, his dull and lonely life was changed forever. But Alfie's new life has come with dangers he never could have expected. When Ashford the butler is kidnapped in the middle of the night, the castle comes under threat from a terrifying enemy. Trapped inside with only his twin cousins and best friend Amy, it's up to Alfie to defend his inheritance and prevent a terrible fate from befalling the whole of England!
Gabrielle Kent has worked in and around the videogames industry for fifteen years and currently lectures in games art and design at Teesside University. As well as teaching, she directs and presents Animex, the UK’s largest annual games and animation festival, bringing young people together from all over Europe. Gabriellehas written and contributed to a number of articles, papers and broadcasts on gaming and is a regular judge on the Games BAFTA awards. In 2006 she was voted one of the Top 100 most Influential Women in the games industry by US based Next Gen magazine.
Alfie rolled on to his back and smiled up at the stars as the wind whipped through his hair and flapped his pyjamas. He patted the fur beneath him – flying bearskin was the only way to travel.
“You’re quiet tonight,” said a deep voice by his ear. “Everything OK?”
“Just enjoying the peace, Artan.” Alfie reached back and scratched the bear’s head. The whole rug rippled beneath him as Artan growled with pleasure.
The moonlight glinted off Lake Archelon, highlighting the silhouette of Hexbridge Castle sitting high atop one of the hills overlooking thevillage. Alfie still couldn’t believe he lived there. His dad was fast asleep inside and so was his best friend Amy Siu, who was staying for the Easter holidays while her gran recovered from a bad bout of flu. His cousins Madeleine and Robin had left a few hours ago after spending the whole weekend at the castle.
Alfie loved having so many people around, especially after his former life in a gloomy basement flat with only his dad and his cat, Galileo, for company. Inheriting a magnificent castle from Orin Hopcraft, the last of the great druids, had changed his life completely, but he still enjoyed his own company sometimes. Where better to be alone than in the clouds?
It seemed like years since Christmas, when his head teachers, Murkle and Snitch, had turned into a dragon and tried to eat him. The ancient magic Orin had hidden inside Alfie had saved the day by stripping away their magic, but the feeling of power it had given him as he used it was almost as terrifying as the dragon. He shivered despite the warm night; he still had nightmares about it sometimes.
Tonight’s dream had been the worst yet. He had turned into a dragon and eaten his family. It feltso real that he could have sworn his arms were still green and scaly when he woke up. He’d taken to the skies before going back to sleep. A peaceful flight usually cleared his mind, but this time the nightmare was hard to shake. He touched the talisman that always hung around his neck. Feeling it there, keeping the magic inside him hidden and controlled, helped him to feel safe.
“OK, take us home, Artan.”
“Homeward-bound,” rumbled the bear. “Hold on tight!”
Alfie buried his fingers into Artan’s thick fur as the bear turned in a big swooping arc over Wyrmwald House school before soaring back towards the castle. Alfie was enjoying school life since Murkle and Snitch had been arrested. He hoped they’d be locked up for a long time somewhere very far away. His favourite teacher, Miss Reynard, had taken the role of headmistress. Alfie was pleased about that. She seemed the least likely person to turn into a ferocious dragon.
They glided over Archelon Lake towards the gentle roar of the river that flowed around the castle before cascading over the cliff behind it as twin waterfalls. As the bear sailed over the castle walls, the oak tree in the cobbled half of the
courtyard caught Alfie’s eye. It was lit with a blue light that flickered out almost as soon as he noticed it. Was he imagining things? He clamped his hand over Artan’s muzzle and pointed down. Artan nodded and quietly floated over to land behind the stone battlements.
Popping his head up to peer through one of the gaps in the stonework, Alfie could just make out a shadowy figure moving around near the tree. The drawbridge was still up, so how had someone managed to get in? The figure moved out from under the tree and headed towards the castle doors. Alfie leapt to his feet, but just as he opened his mouth to yell down at the intruder, he recognized the figure as Ashford, the butler. He dropped back down behind the stonework, not wanting to explain what he was doing out in the middle of the night. He watched the butler tuck something small into his pocket before heading into the castle. Alfie wondered what he was doing up so late.
Waiting until Ashford had closed the door, Alfie gave Artan a pat and they swept up to his open bedroom window. He still hadn’t told any of the adults about the bear. He was half afraid his dad would want to run experiments to figure out how he could talk and fly. Only Amy, Madeleine and Robin knew about him, and they were under strict instructions to keep their lips zipped or else lose their flying privileges.
The bear glided silently through the sleeping castle. Alfie hopped off outside the castle library and Artan floated back to his cosy little room in the southern tower. Alfie was still wide awake after his nightmare. He grabbed a few of his favourite comics from the library to read in bed, hoping they would help to replace the dragon in his dreams.
Passing the staircase, Alfie heard an unfamiliar voice echoing up from the ground floor. He froze and listened. It was melodic yet harsh. Every word carried menace.
“You were a fool to return. Did you think we would forget what you stole from us?”
Slowly, Alfie lay down on the carpet and peered through the banisters into the hall below. There were four people down there in the dark. Three of them were very tall and wore long tunics with some form of leather waistcoat. They were holding on to the arms of the shortest figure, who was struggling to free himself from them.
“Tell us where it is.”
The sharp-faced owner of the voice stood almost nose-to-nose with their captive, who answered defiantly, “The one place you’ll never be able to take it from. Muninn and Bone’s vaults.”
The second voice Alfie knew well. Ashford. The castle was being burgled and the robbers were threatening their butler! Alfie didn’t know what to do. He could wake his dad and Amy, but two twelve-year-olds, a butler and a skinny inventor would be no match for the fierce-looking men in the hall.
There was a grunt from Ashford as one of the men drove a fist into his ribs. Looking around frantically, Alfie spotted a large sword held by a suit of armour. He considered grabbing it and charging down the stairs but doubted he’d even be able to lift it high enough to threaten the thieves.
“You will take us there.”
“No one can travel there without one of their coaches,” replied Ashford.
“Then call one.”
The man was holding a knife to Ashford’s neck. Alfie’s instincts took over. He leapt to his feet and threw his full weight against the suit of armour, sending the whole thing crashing down the stairs.
“Hey, you! What are you doing? Get out of here!” he yelled at the top of his voice as the armour crashed and banged its way down the stairs. He picked up one of the shoulder pieces and clashed it against the wall, hoping that if he made enough noise the men would think there was a whole army upstairs.
“Alfie, duck!” shouted Ashford.
Alfie dropped to the floor, and not a second too soon. Three arrows thudded into the tapestry behind him in quick succession.
“What’s going on?” shouted Alfie’s dad, dashing out of his bedroom at the same time as Amy emerged from hers in tartan pyjamas, brandishing her baseball bat.
“What is it, Al? Are you OK?”
Alfie crouched behind the stone balustrade, making himself as small as possible as the two of them raced down the corridor towards him. “Stay where you are!” he shouted as he kicked out at another suit of armour, sending it toppling downstairs after the first. “They’re firing arrows!”
“Who, Alfie? Who’s down there?” called his dad over the clanging and clattering of metal.
“I don’t know,” mouthed Alfie. He pulled his arms in tight just as another arrow chipped the stone near his elbow.
The last piece of armour crashed down into the hall below. Alfie risked a peek. A fight had broken out. Ashford had wrestled himself free and was spinning furiously, aiming punches and kicks at the intruders with pinpoint accuracy. Where had he learnt to fight like that? Alfie wondered. One of the men was on the floor near the bottom of the stairs; the other two were circling warily, waiting for a chance to attack.
“What do we do?” whispered Amy, wriggling across the floor towards Alfie on her elbows.
Alfie was wondering that himself. His dad seemed to have a plan, and had grabbed a shield and spear from the walls as he crawled over to join them.
“Get to one of the bedrooms and lock the door until you hear my voice,” he hissed over the yells and crashing sounds from below.
Alfie stared at his dad. He had never seen him look so fierce and determined. “No way! You can’t go down there alone. I’m not leaving you.”
“You don’t have a choice. Get to your room. I’ll help Ashford.” Before Alfie could argue there was a yell from Amy. She had leapt to her feet and was shouting down over the banisters.
“Ashford! Look out!”
Another figure had appeared in the doorway: a woman. She was tall, with a coldness to her angular features, and she stood with a bow raised to her shoulder. Ashford hadn’t seen her; his face was turned up towards Amy. Alfie joined Amy in screaming and pointing towards the door. Ashford turned and two of the men leapt at him, trying to pin him down. He fought his way out of their grip, but it was too late. The second his eyes met those of the woman at the door, she released her arrow. It tore through his clothes and thudded into his shoulder, the sheer force of it knocking him to the ground.
“No!” Alfie and Amy screamed as one. Alfie ripped the spear from his dad’s hand and hurtled down the stairs, screaming at the top of his lungs, his dad and Amy following close behind.
A sack was pulled over Ashford’s head as his attackers dragged him towards the doorway where the woman with the bow stood, her pale face lit up with cruel delight.
“Stop! Leave him alone!” Alfie yelled, hurling the spear in fury. It clattered uselessly to the ground behind the intruders as they disappeared through the door. He leapt down the last few steps and charged across the hallway.
“Alfie, wait!” called his dad, but then he let out a cry of pain. Alfie looked back to see him tumbling over the armour that littered the stairs. Amy stopped to pull him to his feet as Alfie sprinted out into the courtyard, leaving them behind,
The oak was lit up again with the weird blue light. This time Alfie could see that it was coming from a gaping hole in the tree’s trunk – it was some kind of portal. Ashford’s captors stepped through into the light, dragging Ashford with them.
“Stop!” Alfie shouted as he ran. He reached the tree just in time to see Ashford’s feet disappearing through the portal. With barely a thought, Alfie thrust his arms into the light. It felt cool and rippled like water around his arms as he grabbed hold of what felt like a leather waistcoat. He planted his foot against the tree trunk and pulled as hard as he could, staggering back as a figure emerged. It was the woman who had shot Ashford. She was smiling, her beautiful green eyes glittering with malice as she grabbed his wrists in a vice-like grip and twisted until he let go of her clothing. Alfie cried out in pain, struggling to free himself.
“Get off him!” screamed Amy, racing towards them. Alfie’s dad followed, limping badly. Just as Alfie’s wrists felt like they were about to snap, the woman released her grip with a cry of rage. Amy had batted one of her baseballs through the air to smash into her cheek. A purple bruise blossomed instantly on the woman’s luminous white skin. She snarled something at Alfie in a language he didn’t understand. Amy threw herself on to the woman like a wildcat but was swept aside with an effortless blow that hurled her across the courtyard. The woman turned and stepped back into the tree.
“Alfie, stop!” called his dad as Alfie lunged towards the portal.
He could barely see anything through the light that suddenly surrounded him. He tried to take a step forwards, but his dad’s hands grabbed at the back of his pyjamas and he felt himself being dragged back out of the tree.
“No!” he screamed, straining to move forwards, the portal crackling around his ears as his legs were pulled back into the night air. “We’ve got to stop them taking Ashford!”
He could hear his dad and Amy screaming his name as he held on to the sides of the portal and struggled against their grip, willing all the strength he could muster into his arms. Straining to pull himself forwards, his fingers appeared to twist into claws, and scales ran up his arms, just like in his dream. Was the portal doing this to him?
As he tried to blink away the image, a figurematerialized through the blinding light. It was the sharp-faced man who had threatened Ashford. His cold eyes were emotionless as he stared down at Alfie. His foot snapped out to kick Alfie in the chest, sending him flying back through the portal, where he landed in a heap on top of his dad and Amy. Struggling to catch his breath, Alfie watched the portal shrink back into a long blue line before its light winked out completely.
Staggering to his feet, he frantically pounded his fists on the bark, but the portal was gone. And so was Ashford.