“You still haven’t made me my brooch!”
At Mary’s reproachful voice, their mother turned round from the stove. Will looked up from his homework. It was spread on the kitchen table, vying for space with James’ books, around which Barbara—whose turn it was to set the cutlery—tried to fit in knives and forks. For once, the radio was turned off; upstairs could be heard a flute.
“No, I didn’t,” said Will automatically.
“Well, as good as a promise!”
Their mother looked at Mary, reddening with indignation, and then at Will, who dropped his eyes to the notebook. “What brooch?” she repeated. “Will? What brooch is this?”
“No idea,” he said, hoping his light tone would dismiss the matter.
“It was those buckles he had on his belt at Christmas, do you remember, Mum?”
Mrs Stanton’s eyes dropped to Will’s waist, where his sweater hung down low. It had been mere accident that, on Christmas Eve, as he and Mary had tusselled, it had been rucked enough for his family to see the first three Signs, threaded along the leather on either side of the belt buckle. With a quick sudden motion, James leant over and yanked up hard.
The Signs—now Six—had been linked together on a gold chain. For safekeeping among a large household, Will wore it wrapped around his waist.
“What the hell—”
“Language,” said their mother automatically.
“Did you wear that to school?” asked James incredulously. The others in the room caught only a glimpse before the jersey drooped back down to cover it.
For an instant Will panicked. Then, more clearly, he realized that he could … should … blur their minds. All he had to do was access the spells of Old Magic that he had learned from the Book of Gramarye. Focusing his thoughts to summon the memory of the right page in the Book, he hardly heard his mother tell him to take off his sweater, nor James and Barbara turn at the distraction of the car turning into the yard. Upstairs, the sound of the flute abruptly halted; and Paul’s footsteps could be heard hurrying downstairs.
“I said take it off,” Mrs Stanton repeated sharply. “And where’s your belt?”
“What?” His mother clearly had no intention of giving him time to concentrate. Under her hard stare, Will reluctantly hauled off his sweater, and stood with the linked chain clearly visible round his waist.
“Those are the buckles you were wearing at Christmas,” said James. “But you didn’t have that chain thing then.”
“Yes, I remember,” said Mrs Stanton. “Didn’t you say you made them at school, Will?”
The kitchen door opened and Paul came charging in.
“Oh, hey!” he cried. “Oh, those do look good on that chain, don’t they, Will? You’re a lucky bastard!” Then, turning to the others, he said, “Dad’s home,” and charged out the back door. It banged behind him, and sprang back ajar.
“Actually, he’s right: they don’t look bad,” said James, looking at the Signs with a critical eye.
“And he’s making me one for a brooch,” put in Mary quickly. “He promised, Mum.”
By now, Will had remembered: the night of the carol-singing, after they’d returned home: when he and Mary had gone upstairs, she had indeed asked him. “I didn’t exactly promise,” he said (and even to his own ears it sounded like an excuse). “I only said I ‘might’.”
“Well, but Will … if you said you ‘might’, you must have known how she’d take it,” their mother began. “I really think—”
The door creaked slightly as Mr Stanton pushed it open and came in, Paul on his heels.
“Oh, take it off and show your father!” said Mrs Stanton. To her husband, she added, “Look, Roger, isn’t it lovely? Will made it at school.”
Mr Stanton looked interested. A jeweller himself, signs of talent in his youngest were to be encouraged.
“In metalwork class,” put in Mary.
Reluctantly, Will reached for the clasp.
“No, he didn’t!” said Paul, astonished.
Will froze. Then he looked up and caught Paul’s eye—or tried to, with intent, but his brother was focused on telling the rest of the family what Will had said when Mary had been ensorcelled by the Black Rider.
“They were a gift from Mr Dawson,” said Paul. “A Christmas present.” He hesitated, “But when I saw them then, they were on Will’s belt … sort of threaded on. Not—” he pointed, “—linked in a chain.”
Their parents both looked at Will. Hard.
“Take it off. Now,” said Mrs Stanton.
Will reached again for the clasp and slowly undid it, brought the length of chain round his waist, and looped it loosely treble, hoping the Six Signs looked merely the buckles he’d called them.
His father held out his hand, silently. With everyone’s eyes on him, Will handed the chain over. Mr Stanton unlooped it carefully, spanned it out, and ran it through his hands from end to end.
These were his parents, Will thought, shaken. What was he supposed to do? The truth of the Old Magic was not for their hearing. Yet he knew his parents would not let him get away with telling lies to them. Will was eleven. He was an Old One; but he was eleven … and these were his parents.
“Now tell us the truth, Will,” said Mrs Stanton sternly. “Did you make this? Or was it Mr Dawson?”
He dare not let them decide the Signs should be confiscated.
“I-I-I … made some of them,” he stammered. “The ones you saw before—the metal ones.”
“This wooden one, though,” said his father, picking it out and lifting it above the other Signs. “Mr Dawson carved that. It’s your Christmas ornament. He carved that when you were born, just as he did everyone else’s initials.’
“Ye-e-e-s…,” Mrs Stanton said doubtfully. “It wasn’t in the box with the other letters.”
“It just got mislaid,” Will put in quickly. “I looked around the attic for it. And he gave me the other buckles—Paul saw them.”
“But they weren’t on the chain then,” Will finished, with some relief. “He got John Smith to do that a few days later.” He could see them buying it. It was plausible (and halfway to being true, after a fashion).
Then Mr Stanton lifted the chain close, and reached into his pocket.
“But dear,” said Mrs Stanton to Will, “that chain looks like gold. That’s far too expensive for a present. I really think—”
“I want that one for my brooch,” said Mary, pointing to the Sign of Fire, glittering with its sparks of jewels. “Or maybe,” she said, with a matching gleam in her eye, “the glass one with the fancy pattern.”
Will looked at his mother in alarm. His father fetched his jeweller’s glass out and started to inspect the chain.
Mrs Stanton sighed. “No, Mary, you can’t have either of those. They’re the ones Mr Dawson gave Will.” She turned to Will, “You know, dear, it’s very generous of him, but—”
“I don’t recall that glass one,” said James, peering closer.
“Can I have a look?” asked Barbara. She reached for the dangling end of the chain.
“—honestly, they must be family heirlooms,” continued Mrs Stanton to Will. “That Venetian glass one must be worth quite a bit; and, as for the one with the jewels—”
“Not gold,” said Mr Stanton abruptly. He lowered the chain. “There’s no hallmark, darling. And those can’t be jewels—” He waved the Sign of Fire in the air, without a close inspection. “Glass chips, obviously.” He whisked the chain away from Barbara and handed it back to Will. “Nice work, though,” he added. “You need to take care of it.”
“Did you really wear it to school?” said Paul, fascinated. “Under your jersey? Honestly, Will—what would the other boys think if they spotted it? Not to mention that it’s hardly uniform!”
“Yes, you can’t wear it to school,” said their mother firmly.
“But it would look great on next year’s Christmas tree.”
Merriman had come over from the Hall, ostensibly to bring a message from Miss Greythorne. He lingered for a few minutes by the front door as Will was showing him out. Time slowed….
“You see the problem?” finished Will a few minutes later. “The Signs must be kept safe.”
“And—” Merriman looked soberly down at the youngest Old One “—you must learn to be quicker to use what you have learned. Still—” he smiled “—let us solve one problem at a time.” His eye was caught by an old picture hanging on the wall just inside the big front door; and he went over to look at it more carefully. It was a brown-tinted Victorian print, done in great detail, called The Romans at Caerleon.
“Do you like it?” asked Will. “I’ve loved it all my life.”
“Yes,” said Merriman thoughtfully, “I like it very well, Will. It will do nicely, I think. As you say, the Signs must be safe; and for that they must be hidden—and in a refuge where none would think to look, nor find them if they tried.”