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"The Lives of Christopher Chant"

Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Again there was nothing wrong with Christopher when he woke up. He listened to Flavian that morning with a polite, vague look on his face while he marveled about that dragon. His marveling kept being interrupted by gusts of misery - he would never see Tacroy again! - and he had to work quite hard to keep thinking of the dragon instead. It was awesome. It was almost worth losing a life to have seen a sight like that. He wondered how long it would be before someone in the Castle noticed he had lost another life. And a small anxious part of him kept saying, But have I lost it - yet?

"I've ordered us a packed lunch," Flavian said cheerfully, "and the housekeeper's dug out an oilskin tha should fit you. We'll be off on our hike just as soon as you've finished that French."

It was raining quite heavily. Christopher took his time over the French, hoping that Flavian would decide that it was too wet for walking. But when Christopher could not think of any further ways to spin out the history of the pen of his aunt, Flavian said, "A little soaking never did anyone any harm," and they set out into a strong drizzle a little after midday.

Flavian was very cheerful. Tramping in the wet, with thick socks and a knapsack, was obviously his idea of heaven. Christopher licked up the water that kept running off his nose from his hair and thought that at least he was out of the Castle. But if he had to be out in wind and wet, he would have preferred to be in The Place Between. That brought him back to Tacroy, and he had to struggle with gusts of misery again. He tried to think of the dragon, but it was too wet. While they tramped across several miles of heath, all Christopher could think of was how much he was going to miss Tacroy, and how the soaking gorse bushes looked just as desolate as he felt. He hoped they would stop for lunch soon so that he could think about something else.
They came to the edge of the heath. Flavian pointed in a breezy, open-air way to a hill that was gray with distance. "That's where we'll stop for lunch. In those woods on that hill there."

"It's miles away!" Christopher said, appalled.

"Only about five miles. We'll just drop down into the valley between and then climb up again," Flavian said, striding cheerfully down the hill.

Long before they reached that hill, Christopher had stopped thinking of Tacroy and could only think how cold and wet and tired and hungry he was. It seemed to him to be nearer teatime than lunchtime when he finally struggled after Flavian into a clearing in that far-distant wood.

"Now," said Flavian, tossing off the knapsack and rubbing his hands together. "We'll have some really practical magic. You're going to collect sticks and make a good pile of them. Then you can try your hand at conjuring fire. When you've got a good fire going, we can fry sausages on sticks and have lunch."

Christopher looked up at the boughs overhead, hung with huge transparent blobs of rain. He looked around at the soaking grass. He looked at Flavian to see if he was really meaning to be fiendish. No. Flavian just thought this way was fun. "The sticks will be wet," Christopher said. "The whole wood's dripping."

"Makes it more of a challenge," Flavian said.

Christopher saw there was no point in telling Flavian he was weak with hunger. He grimly collected sticks. He piled them in a soggy heap, which collapsed, so he built the heap again, and then knelt with cold rain soaking into his knees and trickling under his collar, to conjure fire. Ridiculous. He conjured a thin yellow spire of smoke. It lasted about a second. The sticks were not even warm from it.

"Plenty of will as you raise your hands," Flavian said.

"I know" Christopher said and willed savagely. Fire! Fire! FIRE!!

The pile of sticks went up with a roar in a sheet of flame ten feet high. Christopher once more heard his skin fry, and his wet oilskin crackled and burst into flame too. He was part of a bonfire almost instantly. This is the life the dragon burned! he thought amid the agony.

When his fifth life took over, which seemed to be about ten minutes later, he heard Flavian saying hysterically, "Yes, I know, but it ought to have been perfectly safe! The wood is sopping wet. That's why I told him to try."

"Dr. Pawson rather suggested that very little is safe once Christopher gets going," a dry voice observed from further away.

Christopher rolled over. He was covered with Flavian's oilskin and, under it, his skin felt very new and soft. The ground in front of him was burned black, wet and smelly with rain. Overhead, the wet leaves on the trees were brown and curled. Gabriel de Witt was sitting on a folding stool some yards away, under a large black umbrella, looking annoyed and very much out of place. As Christopher saw him, the smoking grass beside the stool burst into little orange flames. Gabriel frowned at the flames. They shrank down into smoke again.

"Ah, you appear to have taken up the threads of life again," he said. "Kindly douse this forest fire of yours. It is uncommonly persistent and I do not wish to leave the countryside burning."

"Can I have something to eat first?" said Christopher. "I'm starving."
"Give him a sandwich," Gabriel said to Flavian. "I recall that when I lost my life, the new life required a great deal of energy as it took over." He waited until Flavian had passed Christopher a packet of egg sandwiches. While Christopher was wolfing them down, he said, "Flavian says he takes full responsibility for this latest stupidity. You may thank him that I am lenient with you. I will simply point out that you have caused me to be called away at the moment when we were about to lay hands on a member of the Wraith gang I told you of. If he slips through our fingers, it will be your fault, Christopher. Now please get up and extinguish the fire."

Christopher stood up in some relief. He had been afraid that Gabriel was going to forbid him to work the Scoreboard for the cricket match tomorrow. "Dousing a fire is like conjuring in reverse," Flavian told him. So Christopher did that. It was easy, except that his relief about the cricket caused little spurts of flame to keep breaking out all around the clearing.

When even the smoke was gone, Gabriel said, "Now I warn you, Christopher - if you have one more accident, fatal or not, I shall take very severe steps indeed." Having said this, Gabriel stood up and folded his stool with a snap. With the stool tucked under his arm, he reached into the umbrella and started to take it down. As the umbrella folded, Christopher found himself, with Flavian beside him, in the middle of the pentacle in the Castle hall. Miss Rosalie was standing on the stairs.

"He got away, Gabriel," she said. "But at least we know how they're doing it now."

Gabriel turned and looked at Christopher, witheringly. "Take him to his room, Flavian," he said, "and then come back for a conference." He called out to Miss Rosalie, "Tell Frederick to prepare for a trance at once. I want the World Edge patrolled constantly from now on."

Christopher pattered off beside Flavian, shivering under the oilskin. Even his shoes had been burned. "You were a crisp!" Flavian told him. "I was terrified!" Christopher believed him. That dragon had crisped him thoroughly. He was absolutely sure now that if he lost a life in an Anywhere, it somehow did not count, and he had to lose that life properly in his own world, in a way that was as like the death in the Anywhere as possible. Moral, he thought: Be careful in the Anywheres in future. And while he was putting on more clothes he skipped about with relief that Gabriel had not forbidden him to go to the cricket match. But he was afraid the rain would stop the game anyway. It was still pouring.

The rain stopped in the night, though the weather was still gray and chilly. Christopher went down to the village green with the Castle team, which was a motley mixture of Castle sorcerers, a footman, a gardener, a stable lad, Dr. Simonson, Flavian, a young wizard who had come down from Oxford specially, and, to Christopher's great surprise, Miss Rosalie. Miss Rosalie looked pink and almost fetching in a white dress and white mittens. She tripped along in little white shoes, loudly bewailing the fact that the trap to catch the Wraith had gone wrong. "I told Gabriel all along that we'd have to patrol
the World Edge," she said. "By the time they get the stuff to London there are too many places for them to hide."

Gabriel himself met them on the village green, carrying his folding stool in one hand and a telegram in the other. He was dressed for the occasion in a striped blazer that looked about a hundred years old and a wide Panama hat. "Bad news," he said. "Mordecai Roberts has dislocated his shoulder and is not coming."

"Oh no!" everyone exclaimed in the greatest dismay.

"And how typical!" Miss Rosalie added. She pounced around on Christopher. "Can you bat, dear? Enough to come in at the end if necessary?"

Christopher tried to keep a cool look on his face, but it was impossible. "I should hope so," he said.
The afternoon was pure bliss. One of the stable lads lent Christopher some rather large whites, which a sorcerer obligingly conjured down from the Castle for him, and he was sent to field on the boundary. The village batted first - and they made rather a lot of runs, because the missing Mordecai Roberts had been the Castle's best bowler. Christopher got very cold in the chilly wind, but like a dream come true, he took a catch out there to dismiss the blacksmith. All the rest of the Castle people standing around the green in warm clothes, clapped furiously.

When the Castle began their innings, Christopher sat with the rest of the team waiting his turn - or rather, hoping that he would get a turn - and was fascinated to discover that Miss Rosalie was a fine and dashing batswoman. She hit balls all around the field in the way Christopher had always wanted to do. Unfortunately, the blacksmith turned out to be a demonically cunning spin bowler. He had all the tricks that Tacroy had so often described to Christopher. He got Dr. Simonson out for one run and the Oxford wizard out for two. After that the Castle team collapsed around Miss Rosalie. But Miss Rosalie kept at it, with her hair coming down on one shoulder and her face glowing with effort. She did so well that,
when Flavian went out to bat at number ten, the Castle only needed two runs to win. Christopher buckled on his borrowed pads, fairly sure he would never get a chance to bat.

"You never know," said the Castle bootboy, who was working the Scoreboard instead of Christopher. "Look at him. He's hopeless!"

Flavian was hopeless. Christopher had never seen anyone so bad. His bat either groped about like a blind man's stick or made wild swings in the wrong place. It was obvious he was going to be out any second. Christopher picked up his borrowed bat hopefully. And Miss Rosalie was out instead. The blacksmith clean bowled her. The village people packed around the green roared, knowing they had won. Amid the roars, Christopher stood up.

"Good luck!" said all the Castle people around him. The bootboy was the only one who said it as if he thought Christopher had a chance.

Christopher waded out to the middle of the green - the borrowed pads were two sizes too large - to the sound of shouts and catcalls. "Do your best, dear," Miss Rosalie said rather hopelessly as she passed him coming in. Christopher waded on, surprised to find that he was not in the least nervous.

As he took his guard, the village team licked its lips. They crowded in close around Christopher, crouching expectantly. Wherever he looked there were large horny hands spread out and brown faces wearing jeering grins.

"Oh, I say!" Flavian said at the other end. "He's only a boy!"

"We know," said the village captain, grinning even wider.

The blacksmith, equally contemptuous, bowled Christopher a slow, loopy ball. While Christopher was watching it arc up, he had time to remember every word of Tacroy's coaching. And since the entire village team was crowded around him in a ring, he knew he only had to get the ball past that ring to score runs. He watched the ball all the way onto the bat with perfect self-possession. It turned a little, but not much. He cracked it firmly away into the covers.

"Two!" he called crisply to Flavian.

Flavian gave him a startled look and ran. Christopher ran, with the borrowed pads going flurp, flurp, flurp at every stride. The village team turned and chased the ball frantically, but Flavian and Christopher had plenty of time to make two runs. They had time to have run three, even with the borrowed pads. The Castle had won. Christopher went warm with pride and joy.
The Castle watchers cheered. Gabriel congratulated him. The bootboy shook his hand. Miss Rosalie, with her hair still trailing, banged him on the back. Everyone crowded around Christopher saying that they did not need Mordecai Roberts after all, and the sun came out behind the church tower for the first time that day. For that short time, Christopher felt that living in the Castle was not so bad after all.

But by Sunday lunchtime it was back to the usual ways. The talk at lunch was all about anxious schemes to catch the Wraith gang, except that Mr. Wilkinson, the elderly sorcerer who looked after the Castle library, kept saying, "Those three rare books are still missing. I cannot imagine who would wish to make away with three girls' books from World B, but I cannot detect them anywhere in the Castle." Since they were girls' books, Mr. Wilkinson obviously did not suspect Christopher. In fact, neither he nor anyone else remembered Christopher was there unless they wanted him to pass the salt. On Monday, Christopher said acidly to Flavian, "Doesn't it occur to anyone that I could help catch the Wraith?" This was the nearest he had ever come to mentioning the Anywheres to Flavian. Sunday had driven him to it. "For heaven's sake! People who can cut up mermaids would soon make short work of youl" Flavian said.

Christopher sighed. "Mermaids don't come to life again. I do," he pointed out.

"The whole Wraith thing makes me sick," Flavian said and changed the subject.

Christopher felt, more than ever, that he was in a tunnel with no way out. He was worse off than the Goddess, too, because she could stop being the Living Asheth when she grew up, while he had to go on and turn into someone like Gabriel de Witt. His feelings were not improved when, later that week, he had a letter from Papa. This one had been opened and sealed up also, but unlike the letter from Mama, it had the most interesting stamps. Papa was in Japan.

"My son,

My spells assure me that a time of utmost danger is coming for you. I implore you to be careful and not to endanger your future.

Your loving Papa"

From the date on the letter, it had been written a month ago. "Bother my future!" Christopher said. "His spells probably mean the lives I've just lost." And the worst of it, he thought, going back to his misery, was that he could not look forward to seeing Tacroy anymore. All the same, that Thursday night, Christopher went out through the split in the spell, hoping Tacroy would be there. But the valley was empty. He stood there a moment feeling blank. Then he went back into his room, put on his clothes and set off through The Place Between to visit the Goddess again. She was the only other person he knew who did not try to make use of him.

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