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A Crown of Kingfishers

It was raining heavily in the kitchen and there was a small hurricane making a mess in the sitting room so Simon had no choice but to do his homework on the wobbly little table Granny had placed in the nook beneath the stairs. The emergency homework table or E.H.T is what everyone in the house called the table and it was where Granny left most of her notes to herself. Having arranged the contents of his schoolbag among these tottering stacks of yellowy paper, Simon closed his eyes and listened to the din of the house. The grandfather clock was snoring loudly on the upstairs landing, the dust beasts were mewling in the attic and the red hound that had leaped from the ashes of the hearth on midsummer's eve was snarling at the wood goblin who had tried to pluck one of the flaming hairs from its tail. Despite the racket, Simon could still hear that the sounds that Granny made as she went about her business were not there. It being the last Thursday of the month, the greatest witch in Ireland had gone to the hairdressers and would not return for another hour. Apart from the magical creatures and the spirits and the weather systems that lived in the house, Simon was all alone. It was only in the last year that he had been considered old enough to no longer need a babysitter on such occasions and, while being on his own still made him feel like a grownup, it also awoke the butterflies that lived in his stomach.

As the ruckus continued all around him, Simon wondered how he would ever manage to do his homework. He would bet the contents of his piggybank that Brigid Lackagh's house was never this noisy! No wonder she was always getting the best scores in the class! No wonder the teacher was always calling her a genius and making the rest of the class give her a round of applause. It was so unfair! It wasn't exactly easy to be a good student when it could start to snow in your bedroom in the middle of the night or when your whole house might have risen off the ground and walked on a pair of gigantic chicken legs to the other side of the street by the time that you got home from school! What made it all particularly hard was the way in which those people whose brains no longer allowed any magic in (Granny called such people Lockheads) never noticed such things even when they were happening right in front of them. A house could stroll past them, a fog dragon weaving rainbows on the roof and a sand troll leaning from the upstairs window to hurl abuse at any passing trees (sand trolls hate trees, particularly deciduous trees that have given up their leaves for the winter) and the Lockhead would not notice a thing!

Just when Simon thought that the house could not possibly get any noisier, the bricks in the walls awoke and began to chant solemnly.

We once slept on the river's bed. We once felt the tickle of mist on the hills. The world will spin and we will be cliffs and boulders once again.

The chant grew until it made Simon's bones rattle. Gritting his teeth, he wondered if it might not be a good thing to be a Lockhead after all. Imagine how easy it would be to get your homework done without so many distractions! Then again, would it not be just a bit too quiet? Simon's heart did a little dance as he remembered that someday he would have to make his choice – he would either give himself completely to magic like Granny or else become a Lockhead like his father. Whichever path he took, there could be no going back. Simon's father had made his choice when Simon's mother had died. Granny said that his heart had been too full of sadness to leave any room for magic. Kissing his new-born son, he had spoken the words that cut the threads which bound him to the other worlds. That is what magic is – it is to be in many worlds at the same time and never fully belong to any of them. Simon's father had become a Lockhead. Now, he can see only one world where Simon and Granny can see many. Simon's head began to ache as he tried to think about which life he would choose. In the end he gave up! It was all too confusing and it would be many years before he had to make the decision anyway.

Simon sighed and accidentally blew over one of the shaky stacks of paper which sat on the table. Her brain almost full to the brim, Granny forgot things. Usually these were little things but sometimes even big things slipped her mind. That is why she left piles of notes all over the house. Every note represented something that Granny needed to remember. As he leaned down to clean the mess, one particular scrap of paper caught Simon's eye. It was not as yellowed as the rest and Granny had used big heavy letters which meant that the note was about something important.

ON OCTOBER 2ND, THE GOLLUS WILL BE RELEASED FROM HIS CHAINS UNLESS I AM THERE TO STOP IT. I MUST BE IN THE GARAGE AT 5.13 P.M. OR ALL OF THE WORLDS WILL BE DESTROYED!!!

P.S. I also need to get more cat food for the wood goblins.

Simon's heart began to speed up as his eyes went to the calendar on the wall. October 2nd! It moved even faster when he looked at the watch on his wrist. 5.11 p.m.! Granny was still at the hairdressers! She had forgotten all about the Gollus (whatever that was!). All of the worlds would be destroyed! With a groan, Simon raced from the nook beneath the stairs.

Apart from a bicycle with no chain, a rusty lawnmower and a hundred cans of old paint, the garage was empty. Simon checked his watch, his heart almost stopping as 5.12 p.m. became 5.13 p.m. He held his breath but nothing happened. 5.1 3 p.m. became 5.14 p.m. and still nothing happened! His Grandmother must have made some mistake! His breath changing into mist when he finally released it, Simon noticed that the garage had grown very cold. It was then that he remembered that he always set his watch two minutes fast so that whenever he looked at it in school, he felt like he was two minutes closer to the end of the day. With a popping noise, the garage began to grow. The walls shot away from him and the roof rose until it had vanished behind the clouds. Clouds! With a sinking feeling, Simon realised that something magical was happening. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again, the garage was gone.

Simon was standing on a lily pad at the centre of a lake. Snowy mountains rose all around him and he could smell the pine forests which covered their sides. As Simon watched, a shiny green pike swam beneath his feet and left a trail of bubbles on the water. Just as he noticed that another two lily pads were bobbing nearby, a lanky heron descended from the grey sky and settled himself on one of them. From the strange glow that surrounded him, Simon could tell that this was no ordinary Lockheaded bird.

My Granny …

Before he could finish, the Heron held up an enormous wing and turned to look at Simon.

You will not speak until the Gollus has arrived!

The heron's voice was as hard as stone and Simon found that he could not meet those golden eyes. As a chill wind began to blow, the great bird turned to look at a swarm of midges that was hovering above the third lily pad. Simon turned too and squeaked when the cloud began to thicken. As he watched, the scariest monster that he had ever seen stepped from the midges. The same size as a man, the greasy black hair which grew from the Gollus's head reached all the way to his toes. Coils of rusty chains held his scrawny arms by his side and two red eyes burned in his invisible face. Simon felt like he did when he was about to be sick as he looked at the monster.

So we are all here!

The Heron looked from Simon to the monster.

A hundred years have passed since last we met, Gollus. Have you learned the error of your ways or must you wear your chains for a hundred more?

Before the Gollus could answer, the scrawny bird spoke some words in a strange language and a circle of green symbols appeared in the air above the monster's head.

A spell of truth. You will speak no lies today.

The Gollus rattled his chains but after a moment he fell very still.

I Wil dEStroY aLL oF The WorRLdsSsS if yOu SsssseT Me FREe.

Gollus's voice was the worst thing that Simon had ever heard. The heron ran his beak through his feathers and then turned to Simon.

Only a magician's words can keep the chains in place. You will speak them now!

Simon looked at the bird and the bird looked back at him. Simon looked at the Gollus and the Gollus hIsSssEd at him. What would he do! Simon's Granny was the magician! He had not made his decision yet!

My granny…she's the magician…She forgot about the Gollus…

Simon hated how small his voice sounded. The heron blinked his golden eyes at him and made a coughing sound. The Gollus rattled his chains excitedly.

Without the words of a magician, the chains must be undone.

The heron's voice was still hard but Simon could hear great sadness in it too. As he watched the chains began to slide off the Gollus. The monster's eyes were brighter and redder than ever. He would destroy all of the worlds! Simon had heard him say it! What could he do to stop it? Only the words of a magician would do!

The thought was so hot that it burned Simon when it first occurred to him. He couldn't! Could he?! No! It shouldn't have been like this! He should have had years to decide! Simon imagined the noise of a thousand worlds pouring in on him forever. He imagined belonging everywhere at once while not belonging anywhere at all. There could be no going back! As the chains of the Gollus slipped even more, he squeezed his eyes shut and shouted as loud as he could.

I GIVE MYSELF TO MAGIC!

Nothing changed and everything changed. Simon could feel it. He had become a magician. A crown of kingfishers darted about his head, flashing blue and orange as they flew. A strange metallic sound reached his ears. The chains of the Gollus! They were almost undone! Only Simon's words would stop him!

Do not release him!

The heron jumped at Simon's shout and the Gollus tried to raise a hand. A strange light played about those cruel and twisted fingers but it sputtered and vanished as soon as the chains began to tighten once more! Simon had spoken just in time! The Gollus would not go free! As Simon watched, the monster disappeared into a cloud of midges and, with a relieved squawk, the heron rose into the darkening sky.

Alone once more, Simon stood on his lily pad as a shower of rain made circles on the water around him. He was a magician and there could be no going back. He had thought that he would have years to make his choice but Simon did not feel bad. He had done exactly what he was meant to do.