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The Golden Casket
Chapter One

The last few days of the holidays are always difficult. First of all, the prospect of school looms ever closer and parents are likely to start wittering on about new clothes or shoes or getting schoolbooks together, or asking silly questions like ‘have you got enough pencils?’ –or paper, –or books, –or whatever. Secondly, there are thoughts of all the things that could have done in the holidays if only there had been time.

For Jennifer and Michael it was no different. Jennifer was thirteen and her brother was eleven and although they had had a rather good adventure at the beginning of the summer holiday, this was a long time ago and, now, they were bored.

“What shall we do?” asked Jennifer.

“I don’t know.”

“I thought you were always supposed to have brilliant ideas.”

“I do,” said Michael.

“Well, have one now.”

“Why me? How about you having one for a change?”

“The trouble is, there isn’t really time to plan anything. We’ve got to go shopping tomorrow and, after that, we’ll be going home and then it’ll be ‘I want you home early to-day, you’ve got to have baths and an early night because its school in the morning’.” Jennifer managed a mimicky sort of voice that was nothing at all like her mother’s but which sounded just as bored and peevish as she felt.

“We could go looking for flowers.”

“What? You’re not interested in flowers.”

“Or should I say fossils? You know – the quarry.”

“Oh. The quarry. I see what you mean. The quarry.”

“Well, you said there wasn’t time to plan anything and the last time we went there, we were there for days – if you remember.”

Jennifer remembered only too well. Their adventure was very fresh in her memory. They had gone to the quarry and had become lost in a mysterious, underground passage and been persuaded by Zeus, the chief of all the gods, to undertake a dangerous quest to recover the Calendar that controls Time. She was unlikely ever to forget the evil witch, Ker, their being captured by the ice trolls or the terrifying riddling contest with Aleph, the Hobgoblin prince in Baalindor. There had been some happy times, it is true, and she recalled their friendships Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and Tara, the pretty naiad.

“Of course I remember. How could I forget? But I don’t want another experience like that, thank you very much.”

“Why not? It was all right in the end. It might be a way of getting some extra days of holiday without anyone knowing.”

“It was all right in the end but it might not have been. Do you really want to go?” Jennifer sounded puzzled.

“Yes. Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure why. I’ve been thinking about it and I sort of feel somehow we ought to go. I don’t really know whether I want to go or not.”

“I don’t want to go. It’s too dangerous, so if you think I’m going to Baalindor again, you’ve got another think coming.”

“Well, we’ve got to do something today. I’ll go mad if we just stay in watching television.”

“You couldn’t,” Jennifer grinned.

“Why not? If we stay at home there is nothing else to do but watch television. And there’s only cricket and stupid, kids’ programmes on, anyway.”

“I mean you couldn’t go mad. You already are mad!”

“Oh, ha ha ha! Very funny. You must’ve spent all day thinking that up. Anyway, I vote we go to the quarry. We could just have a look and see if the passage is still there. We don’t have to go along it – but you might see Hermes again if we do.” Michael remembered how Jennifer had been fascinated by the handsome god.

“Hermes? What do I want to see Hermes for? Oh, I see! You aren’t thinking of Hermes at all. You just want to go and see Tara again.”

“I don’t.”

“Oh, yes you do. I’m not stupid. I saw you both when we got back from Baalindor. Kissing and kissing as if your lives depended on it.”

“That wasn’t my fault. It was Tara,” said Michael, but he went a bit red.

“I didn’t notice you trying to stop her. Anyway, she’s too old for you. She must be at least a thousand.”

“She looks younger than you even if she is immortal. Anyway, she’s a lot prettier than you.”

“Well she swims better than you.”

“No, she doesn’t” – Michael was proud of his swimming skills. “Well, yes,” he admitted, “perhaps she does. Hey, did you see how she was dry the moment she got out of the water? How do you reckon she did that?”

“Perhaps the water in Olympus isn’t wet.”

“It felt wet when we swam in it,” said Michael.

“Well, I don’t know. Perhaps you should ask her.”

“How can I when you won’t come to the quarry? Oh, come on. Let’s just have a look and see if the passage’s still there. I think we ought to. We can see what it’s like and if it doesn’t look safe we can change our minds.

It was just at that moment that their father came into the garden. “If you two have nothing better to do than argue ...”

“We weren’t arguing.”

“It didn’t look like it! What I was going to say was that if you two have nothing better to do, you could mow the front lawn.”

“But,” said Jennifer, “we were just going to go to the quarry. You know, we went before and it rained? We never did find any trilobites.”

“If you’d wanted to go fossil hunting, you could’ve gone any day in the last week. Why does it have to wait until I ask you to do something useful? You’ve been staying with Auntie Margaret all the holiday without doing anything to help. Surely you could mow the lawn for her?”

“We’ve only just decided. We weren’t arguing – honestly. We were just deciding where to go and we had decided to go to the quarry. Just that very second you came out. We’ll do the lawn when we come back. Anyway, you’ve been here for over a week, so you could mow the lawn,” she added cheekily.

You will, by now, have realised that all families are much alike. Everyone argues about next to nothing. Parents have good ideas about helping around the home – and sons and daughters are very quick to find other important things to do when parents have these ideas. Indeed, Jennifer was so quick to take up the idea of going to the quarry that Michael was taken aback and he stood there with his mouth open.

“Close your mouth, Michael, you’ll catch a fly,” said his father. “Well, I suppose the holidays are almost over. I’ll tell you what. You can go to the quarry if ...”

“Hooray!”

“I said ‘if’. If you agree to do it properly. Take that geological hammer I had when I was doing the Open University course and a notebook and make a list of all the fossils you can find with a diagram of exactly where you find them. Draw the cliff face as carefully as you can and mark on it where you find each fossil. You can number them and put the numbers on the chart. And when you come back, we’ll see if we can work out how old they are.”

“We already know that – four hundred million years.”

“Well, do it just the same. You never know when you can make a new discovery. And take those safety glasses with you. I don’t mind you blinding yourselves but I haven’t time to take you to the hospital this afternoon.”

It was obvious that any conversation with their father was going to be just as pointless as had been their own conversation with one another, and Jennifer thought it was time to bring it to an end.

“O.K. Anything for a quiet life.” She gave an exaggerated grin so her father would not think she was being rude.

***

“We won’t need a picnic,” said Jennifer, “we can get food when we get there.”

“So, we are going to Olympus?”

“We’ll just go to the quarry and have a look. We can see if the steps really are still there.”

“I’m sure they are. We had better take some food, though. They might think it’s rude if we look as if we are taking things for granted. And we did get hungry in the passage the first time.”

They gathered together some biscuits and squash and set off for the quarry. The weather was not so good as on their earlier visit at the beginning of the holidays – a sign that the summer was nearly over. The quarry was behind a steel barrier but, as before, they just walked round the end it.

“We’d better have a look for brachiopods and make some drawings at least,” said Jennifer.

“I don’t see how we’re going to do drawings of where we find them on the cliff face. They are all in the rocks lying on the ground.”

“Perhaps we had better see if we can find some on the cliff, then. Who’s going to do the drawing?”

“You are. You’re better at drawing than me,” said Michael who really thought he was better at diagrams but didn’t want to be bothered.

They set to without much enthusiasm and quickly made a very rough sketch. They found no trilobites but did find a few brachiopods, little fossil shells that looked rather like tiny cockle shells and proved that the quarry had, millions of years ago, been at the bottom of the sea.

“So long as the sea doesn’t come back now, while we are here,” said Michael.

The sea was at least a hundred miles away and Jennifer ignored him.

“Well, don’t laugh, then” said Michael, a trifle peevishly. “I know it wasn’t that funny but I am bored with fossils. I vote we look for the store room now.”

“O.K.”

They headed across the floor of the quarry to the buddleia bush where they had lost the butterfly they had been following on their earlier visit. Its beautiful, purple flower heads had faded now and the few remaining blooms were half dead with many orangey-brown patches of tiny, shrivelled flowers.

“Here it is.” Jennifer pushed the branches of the buddleia aside and, there, exactly as before, was the entrance to the old store room. It was quite a squeeze to get inside. “I think I must have grown,” said Jennifer.

“Just got fatter,” said Michael and ducked before Jennifer could hit him. He quickly slipped inside to prove he wasn’t fatter but grazed his knee in the process.

“Serves you right!”

The room that they entered had once been used a store room for the quarry and still contained a jumble of old, broken tools, boxes and rubbish. It was thick with dust and grime. Cobwebs hung festooned from every available point and some of them stood out in shafts of light that entered the gloom through the broken roof.

One thing stood out from the rest. The carved wooden box was still there where they had seen it first. The lid with its curious carvings was raised, just as they had left it when they had climbed inside and gone down the steps.

“It doesn’t look big enough to climb inside.”

“That’s what we thought last time. It seems to grow bigger when you look closely.”

It was true. As the two of them craned their necks to look inside the box, the opening seemed to expand, exactly as it had done before, until it was as wide as the steps to the boiler room at school.

“Now what?” said Jennifer.

“We go down.”

“I’m still not sure this is a good idea. How do we know it’s safe?”

“That’s what you said last time and we were all right weren’t we?”

“Well we might not be this time,” said Jennifer. “Everyone knows tunnels aren’t safe.”

“Well, this one is. Let’s just go down to the bottom of the steps and see if we can see Bela.”

“Bela wasn’t much help last time. He got lost himself. If Hermes hadn’t come and taken us to Olympus, we might be stuck in there still.” Secretly, she wanted to go down as much as Michael but, now they were at the top of the steps it seemed a bit too real.

Michael had to admit that what Jennifer said was true but he swung his leg over the side of the box and started off down the steps. He turned, “Come on. We’ve got to go. It’ll be all right. I promise.”

“What do you mean ‘we’ve got to go’? And you can’t promise.”

But Jennifer, too, found herself stepping into the box and following Michael down the steps. It was difficult to remember how far the steps went, it seemed further than last time, but, eventually, they arrived at the bottom and looked around them. The passage was there as before, stretching into the distance and lit at intervals by the red glow of the smoky torches.

“Now what?”

“We go on down the passage.”

Jennifer looked backwards. “The steps are still there.”

“So far, so good then. I’m sure it’ll be all right.” Michael made himself sound more confident than he felt.

They carried on walking for what seemed a very long way. Once they got used to the chill after the warmth of the late summer sun in the quarry, it wasn’t really cold. They noticed that the rough stone floor was angled downwards so they must have been going deeper into the earth. There was no variation in the scenery. Indeed, there was no scenery – just the rough, red walls with the torches.

“How far had we gone last time when we met Bela?” Michael wanted to know.

“I can’t remember. We were running most of the time. It seemed a long way. I think it must be further yet.”

Michael looked round. “The passage is still there but I can’t see the steps.”

“What?” Jennifer whirled round. “Oh, I thought you meant it had closed up again. They’re just out of sight that’s all.”

The last time they had entered the tunnel, the Bela had closed the steps to prevent goblins getting into the world of humans and, for a moment, Jennifer thought the same thing had happened again but the passage stretched reassuringly away from them. Jennifer couldn’t see the steps but that was just because of the gloom and the distance.

They continued down the corridor, perhaps more hesitantly as they sank deeper into the ground. At length, after they had been walking for nearly an hour, they heard a low singing sound and, there, coming towards them, was a little human-like figure in red trousers and green tunic. The figure had on a metal cap or helmet and he had a dagger at his belt.

“It’s Bela!” shouted Jennifer.

The figure stopped dead and, so fast that you couldn’t follow the action, he pulled the dagger from his belt and stood facing the intruders.

“Bela! It’s us. Jennifer and Michael,” called Jennifer.

“Michael? Jennifer? Is it you? Thank goodness. I thought it was goblins.” said Bela. His funny face, with its enormous eyes, lit up with delight as he recognised them. “Welcome to my home. I thought you would never come back.” And then his shoulders seemed to slump and he looked worried. “But you shouldn’t have come.”

“Why not? Zeus said we could come whenever we wanted to.”

Before Bela could respond, there was a sudden loud crack like a gun going off behind them and, spinning round, the children saw that the wall had closed and that a boy was standing there, his arms folded across his chest and with a supercilious grin on his face. But this was no ordinary boy. He was a little shorter than Michael but he was very slim, almost like a willow-the-wisp, and his face was the pale, grey-green colour of winter lichen with bright green eyes set below a dark brow. He was dressed all in green and he had a hat with a huge feather stuck in the band. A sword hung in a sheath at his belt.

“Greetings, humans,” the boy said. Then, he pulled a fierce face and, drawing his sword, yelled, “Prepare to die a horrible death!”

Michael and Jennifer moved closer together, eyes wide and fearful.

“Just joking!“ said the boy, grinning. “Sorry if I scared you. No, I’m not! I’m glad I scared you.”

He returned the sword to its sheath.

“It wasn’t funny,” snarled Jennifer.

Jennifer became aware of something tugging at her sweater and, looking down, she saw Bela looking anxiously up at her. “I’m sorry, mistress,” he said “I am truly sorry but I didn’t have time to warn you. He won’t hurt you but you are in danger again. The Lord Oberon wishes to see you and he’s closed the tunnel. You must go with Puck. I couldn’t stop him whatever Zeus says. Here Oberon is master.”

“Oberon’s not real is he? I thought he was just in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Who’s Oberon?” Michael wanted to know.

“He is the king of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but he’s not real.”

“The Lord Oberon is very real,” said the strange boy. “And I am Puck, that some people call Robin Goodfellow. I’m real too and I’m the Lord Oberon’s servant. Oberon wants to see you and I’ve come to take you to him. He wishes you no harm. He’s heard of your hunt for the Calendar and he wants to see the humans who defeated Aleph.”

“Puck?” asked Jennifer. “You were in A Midsummer Night’s Dream too. You’re not a boy.”

“Of course not. I am Puck, the cleverest Fairy in the One Forest, and servant to the Lord Oberon.”

“Fairy?” Michael sneered. “There’s no such thing. That’s just baby stuff. I’m not frightened of you.”

“There’s no reason to be afraid of me,” said Puck, “at least not at the moment. I won’t harm you – if you do what I say – and neither will Oberon – if you do what he says. It’s what comes after that might be dangerous but, for two such humans as you who’ve defeated Ker and Aleph, it should be easy.”

“What d’you mean, ‘what comes after’ might be dangerous?” Jennifer wanted to know.

“That I can’t tell you. You must wait to see Oberon.”

“What if we won’t come? You can’t make us. You aren’t Zeus and he is the supreme god of all. And we are bigger than you.” Michael was not going to take any disrespect from a thin little person like Puck – even if he said he was Oberon’s servant.”

“You’ve got to go. You’ve got to go,” wailed Bela. “If the Lord Oberon wants you, you have to go. I’m sorry but Oberon’s word is law here. You’ll have to go if Oberon says so.”

“We won’t have to do anything,” said Michael.

Puck scowled. “You’ll damn well do as you are told! You don’t defy me and get away with it.”

“You’ll have to make us go,” Jennifer, who had been looking at Bela, said, turning back to Puck.

“I’ll make you if I have to,” answered Puck. “You may have defeated Aleph and tricked Ker but you’re not immune to Fairy magic and you’ll not trick me because I am Puck and Puck is the greatest trickster in the One Forest.” He pulled himself up to his full height and Michael was reassured to see that he was still shorter than he was. But Puck was speaking again, “Enough of this nonsense. If you don’t want to be turned into a couple of dormice and carried to Oberon in my pocket, you’ll come willingly. You’ve got to come one way or another and it would be more dignified to walk into Oberon’s palace than to be carried.”

“How do we know you can do magic?” Jennifer, like Michael, felt that they shouldn’t give in too easily.

“Bela will tell you.”

Bela was standing there nodding vigorously. “Yes, mistress. Yes, mistress. Puck is a great magician.”

“I reckon, whatever he says, he’s just a boy. He isn’t even as big as Michael.”

“How big he is doesn’t matter,” said Bela who was considerably smaller than Puck. “And he isn’t a boy. He’s the servant of the Lord Oberon and ...”

“And the Lord Oberon doesn’t like to be kept waiting,” interrupted Puck, “and we’ve kept him waiting long enough. In any case ... ” he waved his hand, there was another clap of noise that seemed to fill the corridor and the wall in front of them, just like the one behind, closed. In both directions, the corridor was now closed by a solid wall of stone. “... in any case,” continued Puck, no longer smiling, “you’ve nowhere else to go.”

Jennifer and Michael had, unconsciously, moved to stand side by side and, now, they looked at one another.

“I said we shouldn’t come,” said Jennifer.

“He said Oberon doesn’t want to harm us.”

“It’s not Oberon. It’s what comes next. Puck says that what comes after may be dangerous and I’ve had enough danger for one holiday.”

“Well, like he says, we’ve no choice but to go with him. We’ll tell Oberon that we won’t do whatever it is he wants us to do and then he’ll have to let us go home.”

Puck said nothing but his returning smile seemed to suggest that it would not be as easy as that. “Come,” he said, “we’ve wasted enough time. If you don’t come at once, it’ll be dormice for both of you.” And he grinned as if he was secretly hoping that dormice it would have to be.

Jennifer correctly interpreted the grin. “All right. Lead on then – if there’s anywhere to lead us to now you have so very carefully sealed up the walls.”

Puck just smiled, waved his hand – and the wall opened again, revealing the corridor exactly as it had been before. “Come, then.” And, without looking to see if Michael and Jennifer followed, he turned and led the way along the corridor.

Bela called a quick ‘good-bye, mistress and master’, Michael and Jennifer called an even quicker ‘good-bye’ back and then hurried after Puck.

 
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