Books by Jenny Nimmo
Midnight for Charlie Bone
Charlie Bone and the Time Twister
Charlie Bone and the Blue Boa
Charlie Bone and the Castle of Mirrors
Charlie Bone and the Hidden King
Charlie Bone and the Wilderness Wolf
Charlie Bone and the Shadow of Badlock
Charlie Bone and the Red Knight
The Snow Spider trilogy
The Stones of Ravenglass
The Snow Spider trilogy

Another one for Myfanwy, with love.
First published in Great Britain 2002 by Egmont UK Limited
This edition published 2010
by Egmont UK Limited
239 Kensington High Street
London W8 6SA
Text copyright © 2002 Jenny Nimmo
The moral rights of the author have been asserted
ISBN 978 1 4052 2543 4
ebook ISBN 978 1 7803 1202 6
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
Printed and bound in Great Britain by the CPI Group
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher and copyright owner.

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Contents

Cover

Title page

Books by Jenny Nimmo

Copyright

Prologue

1 Charlie hears voices

2 The Yewbeam aunts

3 The flame cats

4 The inventor’s case

5 Trapped in the dark

6 A ruined half-term

7 Hypnotised!

8 Breaking the rules

9 The Red King’s room

10 Skeletons in the cupboard

11 Clues at last

12 Mind games

13 The inventor’s tale

14 Billy’s dark bargain

15 A ringing, chanting, shining knight

16 War

17 The inventor’s daughter

18 The Red King

19 Into the ruin

20 The battle of the endowed

21 The longest night of the year

Prologue

Long, long ago a king arrived in the north. They called him the Red King for he wore a scarlet cloak and his shield was emblazoned with a burning sun. It was said that he came out of Africa. This king was also a marvellous magician and each of his ten children inherited a small part of his power. But when the king’s wife died, five of his children turned to wickedness and the other five, seeking to escape the corruption that surrounded their evil siblings, left their father’s castle forever.

Broken-hearted, the Red King vanished into the forests that covered the kingdoms of the north. He did not go alone, however, for he was followed by his three faithful cats; leopards to be precise. We must never forget the cats!

The manifold and fabulous powers of the Red King were passed down through his descendants, often turning up quite unexpectedly, in someone who had no idea where they came from. This is what happened to Charlie Bone, and to some of the children he met behind the grim, grey walls of Bloor’s Academy.

Charlie hears voices

On a Thursday afternoon, just after tea, Charlie Bone saw smoke. He happened to be looking out of his window when a dark cloud lifted above the autumn trees. The wind blew it south and it moved through the sky like a great, floating whale.

Somewhere, on the other side of the city, there was a fire. Charlie could hear a fire-engine racing towards it. He had no idea that in mysterious and unexpected ways he was connected to it, and would soon be drawn to the place where it had begun.

Charlie slept well, got up next morning and went to school. After school, Charlie and his friend, Benjamin Brown, walked home together, as usual. The cloud of smoke had gone, but the sky was stormy and dark. A fierce wind sent red and gold leaves bowling down Filbert Street.

Benjamin crossed the road to number twelve, while Charlie stopped at number nine. Most of the people who lived at number nine complained about the large chestnut tree in front of it; how dark it made their rooms, how damp and creaky it was, and how it would probably fall on the roof one day and kill them all in their beds. Needless to say, no one at number nine did anything about it. Complaining to each other was as far as they went. They were that sort of family. Or, rather, those sorts of families.

As Charlie ran up the steps to his front door, the tree sighed and rained a handful of conkers on to his head. Luckily his thick, springy hair softened the blows. Thick hair had its uses, though not many. Charlie was always being told to smarten himself up, an impossible task for someone with hair like a hedge.

‘Hullo, Grandmas!’ Charlie called as he stepped into the hall.

There were two grandmas at number nine: Grandma Jones was Charlie’s mother’s mother, and Grandma Bone was Charlie’s father’s mother. Grandma Jones was round and cheerful and bossy, while Grandma Bone only spoke to complain. She rarely smiled and nothing made her laugh. Her hair was thick and white, and she wore long, stiff garments in shades of black, grey or brown (never pink, which was Maisie’s favourite colour). Grandma Jones liked to be called Maisie, but Charlie wouldn’t have dared to call Grandma Bone by her first name, which was Grizelda. She liked to remind people that, before she had married Mr Bone, she had been a Yewbeam. The Yewbeams were an ancient family, their history littered with artistic people, and others who had more unusual talents, such as hypnotism, thought-reading, and bewitchery.

Charlie knew he had disappointed Grandma Bone by being ordinary. Even worse, in her eyes, he was quite happy to be ordinary.

When Charlie came home from school it was always Maisie who plonked a wet kiss on his cheek and pushed a plate of something under his nose. Today Maisie had a large bump on her forehead. ‘Ruddy conker,’ she told Charlie.

Grandma Bone was always sitting in a rocker by the stove, criticising Maisie’s cooking or the state of Charlie’s hair. Today the rocker was empty. That was the first unusual thing.

It was Benjamin’s tenth birthday on Saturday and Charlie had decided to make him a birthday card instead of buying one. He’d taken a photo of Benjamin’s dog, Runner Bean, smiling or, to be more precise, showing his long, incredibly yellow teeth.

Charlie had asked his mother to get the photo enlarged at Kwik Foto on her way home from work. He intended to stick a balloon saying ‘Happy Birthday, Benjamin!’ above Runner Bean’s head.

The second unusual thing was about to happen.

At five minutes past four, Charlie’s mother came in with a box of over-ripe apples and rhubarb. ‘They’ll make a lovely crumble,’ she said, dumping the box beside Charlie’s plate and kissing his shaggy head. Amy Bone worked part-time in a greengrocer’s shop, so there was always plenty of fruit and vegetables at number nine.

Charlie leaned away from the rotting fruit. ‘Have you got my photo, Mum?’ he asked.

Amy Bone rustled about in her shopping bag and found a large orange envelope. She put it on the other side of Charlie’s plate.

Charlie opened the envelope and revealed – not Runner Bean – nothing like Runner Bean.

It was at this moment that Grandma Bone appeared. She hovered in the doorway, fingering her neck, touching her silver-white hair and pulling at her stiff black skirt. She looked somehow as though she was on the brink of fulfilling her destiny. And in a way she was, though, at sixty-five, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a bit late.

The photograph that Charlie now held showed a man cradling a baby. The man sat on an upright chair. He had thinning, greyish hair and a long, mournful face. His crumpled suit was black and his thick pebble glasses gave his pale grey eyes a lost, marble-like stare.

Instead of pushing the photograph back into the envelope, Charlie continued to gaze at it. In fact, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from it. He began to feel dizzy and his ears were filled with mysterious sounds, like the hiss and swish of voices on the radio, when you can’t pin them to the right frequency.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Er, what . . .?’ His own voice seemed far away, trapped behind a kind of fog.

‘What’s wrong, Charlie?’ asked his mother.

‘Is something happening?’ Grandma Bone crept forward. ‘Aunt Eustacia rang me. She had one of her premonitions. Are you a proper Yewbeam, after all?’

Maisie glared at Grandma Bone, while Charlie pulled his ears and shook his head. If only the horrible muffled buzzing would go. He had to shout in order to hear himself. ‘They’ve made a mistake at the shop. Where’s Runner Bean?’

‘There’s no need to shout, Charlie.’ His mother looked over his shoulder. ‘My goodness, that’s certainly not a dog.’

‘Ow!’ wailed Charlie. But suddenly the mumbling voices broke free of the buzz and made themselves clear.

First came a woman’s voice, soft and unfamiliar: I wish you wouldn’t do this, Mostyn.

Her mother’s gone. I don’t have a choice. This voice was definitely male.

Of course you do.

Will you take her, then? said the man’s voice.

You know I can’t, replied the woman.

Charlie looked at his mother. ‘Who said that?’

She looked puzzled. ‘Who said what, Charlie?’

‘Is there a man in here?’ he asked.

Maisie giggled. ‘Only you, Charlie.’

Charlie felt claw-like fingers sink into his shoulder. Grandma Bone leaned over him. ‘Tell me what you hear,’ she demanded.

‘Voices,’ said Charlie. ‘I know it sounds silly, but they seem to be coming from this photograph.’

Grandma Bone nodded. ‘What do they say?’

‘For goodness sake, Grandma Bone, don’t be ridiculous,’ said Maisie.

Grandma Bone gave Maisie a withering look. ‘I am not being ridiculous.’

Charlie noticed that his mother had gone very quiet. She drew out a chair and sat down, looking pale and anxious.

Maisie began to bang saucepans about, muttering, ‘You shouldn’t encourage it. It’s all rubbish. I won’t have it . . .’

‘Ssssh!’ hissed Charlie. He could hear the baby crying.

The strange woman spoke again. You’ve upset her. Look at the camera, Mostyn. And please try to smile. You look so dismal.

What d’you expect? said the man.

A camera shutter clicked.

There. Shall I take another?

Do what you want.

You’ll thank me, one day, said the woman behind the camera. If you really intend to go through with this, it’s the only thing you’ll have to remember her by.

Hm.

Charlie noticed that a cat peeped from behind the man’s chair. It was an extraordinary colour; deep copper, like a flame.

From far away Charlie heard his mother’s voice. ‘Shall I take the photo back, Charlie?’

‘No,’ murmured Charlie, ‘not yet.’

But it seemed that the photograph had nothing more to say. The baby grizzled for a moment, and then was quiet. The gloomy man stared silently at the camera, and the cat . . .? Was that a purr? Maisie was making such a noise with the saucepans it was difficult to hear anything else.

‘Hush!’ commanded Grandma Bone. ‘Charlie can’t hear.’

‘It’s all nonsense,’ Maisie grumbled. ‘I don’t know how you can just sit there, Amy, and let your potty mother-in-law get away with it. Poor Charlie. He’s just a boy. He’s got nothing to do with those crazy Yewbeams.’

‘He’s got their blood,’ said Charlie’s mother, quietly. ‘You can’t get away from that.’

Maisie couldn’t. She closed her mouth in a tight little line.

Charlie was very bewildered. In the morning he had been an ordinary boy. He hadn’t been touched by a magic wand, or banged his head. He hadn’t had an electric shock or fallen off a bus, or, as far as he knew, eaten a poisoned apple. And yet, here he was, hearing voices from a piece of photographic paper.

To set his mother’s mind at rest, Charlie said, ‘I don’t think it was anything, really. I just imagined it.’

Grandma Bone leaned even closer and breathed into his ear, ‘Listen tonight. Things work better after midnight.’

‘He’ll be asleep by then, I’ll have you know,’ said Maisie, who had ears as sharp as a rabbit’s. ‘It’s all rubbish.’

‘Huh!’ retorted Grandma Bone. ‘Just you wait!’ She wafted away, leaving a scent of mothballs and mint drifting round the kitchen.

‘I didn’t hear anything,’ Charlie said when she had gone.

‘Are you sure?’ his mother said anxiously.

‘Honest. I was just doing it to tease Grandma Bone.’ He was trying to convince himself as well as his mother.

‘Charlie, you’re a wicked boy,’ Maisie said happily as she banged a meat cleaver into a meaty bone.

Charlie’s mother looked relieved and opened the evening paper. Charlie slipped the photograph back into its envelope. He felt exhausted. Perhaps a bit of TV would help him to relax. But before he could escape, the doorbell rang and Grandma Bone could be heard saying, ‘It’s Benjamin Brown, isn’t it? Charlie’s in the kitchen. And you can leave that mangy Baked Bean outside.’

‘It’s Runner, not baked,’ said Benjamin’s voice, ‘and I can’t leave him outside. It’s nasty weather.’

‘Dogs like nasty weather,’ said Grandma Bone.

Benjamin and his dog appeared in the kitchen. Benjamin was a small, pale-faced boy with hair the colour of damp hay. Runner Bean was a large, long-nosed dog also with hair the colour of damp hay. For some reason Benjamin was always being picked on by other boys. People stole things from him, tripped him up, laughed at him. Charlie tried to help his friend but, sometimes, Benjamin was beyond help. Sometimes, in fact, Charlie thought that Benjamin didn’t even notice that he was a victim. He lived in a world of his own.

Runner Bean, smelling the meaty bone, rushed straight to Maisie and began to lick her ankles.

‘Get off!’ she yelled, swiping him on the nose.

‘You are coming to my party, aren’t you?’ Benjamin asked Charlie.

‘’Course I am,’ said Charlie, immediately feeling guilty about the birthday card.

‘Good, because I’m getting a game that needs two people to play it.’

Charlie realised that no one else would be at Benjamin’s party. This made him feel even more guilty. Runner Bean began to whine, almost as if he’d guessed that he wouldn’t be appearing on Benjamin’s birthday card.

‘I’ll be there,’ said Charlie cheerfully. He hadn’t bought a present yet. He would have to rush out to the shops before he began his quest. But what quest was that? Something seemed to be hijacking Charlie’s thoughts.

‘Want to come for a walk with Runner?’ Benjamin asked hopefully.

‘OK.’

Maisie shouted something about supper as Charlie and Benjamin left the house, but the wind howled round their heads, and a clap of thunder drowned her words. Runner Bean yelped as a conker hit his nose, and Benjamin managed to smile at last.

As the two boys and the dog ran into the wind, leaves flew in their faces and stuck to fur and clothes. Charlie felt better in the open air. Perhaps it really had been a trick of his imagination. He hadn’t heard voices at all, it was just some silly nonsense that he’d made himself believe, and Grandma Bone had encouraged him, just to annoy Maisie and upset his mother.

‘Yes,’ Charlie cried happily. ‘It’s all rubbish.’

‘And leaves,’ said Benjamin, who thought Charlie meant the litter being blown down the street.

‘And leaves,’ sang Charlie. He saw a newspaper flying towards him and stuck his foot out to catch it. But the paper lifted in a sudden gust and wrapped itself round his waist. As he pulled it away from him, a picture on the front page caught his eye.

A mean-looking boy stood on the steps of a grey building. He had a long, narrow face and a whispy moustache grew above his thin upper lip. His dark hair, parted in the centre, had been drawn back into a ponytail.

‘What’s that?’ asked Benjamin.

‘Just a boy,’ said Charlie, and yet he had the suspicion that this wasn’t just any boy.

Benjamin leaned over Charlie’s arm and read, ‘Manfred Bloor, aged seventeen was rescued from a fire at Bloor’s Academy yesterday. Manfred said he was lucky to be alive.’

‘No, he didn’t,’ said Charlie breathlessly.

‘What d’you mean, he didn’t?’ said Benjamin.

‘He didn’t say that,’ Charlie murmured, and he suddenly sat on the ground, with his back to the wall. He held the paper at arm’s length, dismayed by the words that were creeping out of the picture.

Someone’s going to pay for this.

‘How’d you . . .?’ Benjamin began.

‘Shut up, Ben,’ cried Charlie. ‘I’m listening.’

‘What to?’

‘Shush!’

As Charlie stared at Manfred Bloor there came a jumble of shouts and then a woman’s voice broke through the others, Are you accusing someone, Manfred?

Too right I am, said a husky voice.

Why d’you think it wasn’t an accident?

The husky voice again, I’m not stupid, that’s why.

A man said, The fire service told us a candle was probably blown over. Don’t you believe this?

ENOUGH! Whoever said this had such a deep and chilling voice, Charlie dropped the paper. It whirled away and flopped into the gutter.

‘Charlie, what’s going on?’ asked Benjamin.

Charlie gave a deep sigh. ‘I’m hearing voices,’ he said.

‘Oh, no.’ Benjamin sat beside him, and Runner Bean crouched beside Benjamin. ‘What sort of voices?’

Benjamin never ever said ‘That’s rubbish’. He took life seriously, which wasn’t always a bad thing.

Charlie told Benjamin about the photograph of Runner Bean that had got mixed up with a man and a baby. ‘It was going to be a surprise birthday card for you,’ said Charlie, ‘and now it won’t be. I’m sorry.’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Benjamin. ‘Go on about the photograph.’

Charlie explained that he’d heard voices when he looked at the man and the baby. He’d even heard the baby cry, and perhaps a cat purring.

‘Weird,’ breathed Benjamin.

‘I made myself believe I’d just imagined it,’ said Charlie, ‘but when I saw the newspaper, it happened again. I could hear reporters talking to that boy on the front page. I could hear his voice, too. He sounded kind of mean and sly. And then someone said, “Enough!” and that was the worst voice I ever heard, in my whole life.’

Benjamin shivered and Runner Bean whined in sympathy.

The boys sat, side by side, on the damp pavement, not knowing quite what to do. The wind flung leaves at them, and thunder grumbled in the distance.

It began to rain. Runner Bean nudged Benjamin and whined. He hated getting wet. And then, during a particularly loud clap of thunder, a man appeared in front of the boys. He was wearing a dark raincoat and his wet hair was plastered over his forehead in wide, black bands.

‘It’s raining,’ the man announced. ‘Had you not noticed?’

Charlie looked up. ‘Uncle Paton,’ he said in surprise.

Uncle Paton was Grandma Bone’s brother. He was twenty years younger than she was and they didn’t get on. Paton led a secret life, even eating apart from the others. He never went out in daylight.

‘You’re wanted at home,’ Uncle Paton told Charlie.

Charlie and Benjamin stood up and shook their cramped legs. This was the third unusual thing to happen today. It wasn’t nearly dark enough for Uncle Paton to venture out.

Charlie wondered what could possibly have happened to cause such drastic action.

The Yewbeam aunts

It was difficult to keep up with Uncle Paton. He swept through wind and rain as if he wore seven-league boots.

‘I’ve never seen your uncle outside in the daytime,’ Benjamin panted. ‘He’s a bit funny, isn’t he?’

‘A bit,’ agreed Charlie who was rather in awe of his peculiar uncle. He put on a spurt as Uncle Paton had already arrived at the steps of number nine.

Benjamin fell behind. ‘Something’s up with your family,’ he called to Charlie. ‘I hope you can still come to my birthday.’

‘Nothing can stop me,’ said Charlie, reaching his uncle.

‘No dogs,’ said Uncle Paton, as Benjamin and Runner Bean came leaping up to them.

‘Aw, please,’ said Benjamin.

‘Not today. This is family business,’ Paton said sternly. ‘Go home.’

‘OK. Bye, then, Charlie.’ Benjamin trailed away, followed by Runner Bean, his ears and tail well down. A real hangdog.

Uncle Paton ushered Charlie into the kitchen and then disappeared upstairs.

Charlie found his mother and two grandmothers sitting at the kitchen table. Maisie looked very put out, but a secret smile played on Grandma Bone’s thin lips. Charlie’s mother was nervously stirring a cup of tea. Charlie couldn’t imagine why. His mother didn’t take sugar.

‘Sit down, Charlie,’ said Grandma Bone, as if she were about to put on a show entirely for his benefit.

‘Don’t let the Yewbeams get at you!’ Maisie whispered. She took Charlie’s hand and patted it.

‘What’s going on?’ said Charlie.

‘The Yewbeam aunts are coming,’ said his mother.

‘Why?’ asked Charlie.

The Yewbeam aunts were Grandma Bone’s three unmarried sisters. Charlie only saw them at Christmas, and he’d formed the impression that they were deeply disappointed in him. They always left a strange assortment of gifts: paint-boxes, musical instruments, masks and cloaks, and even a chemistry set. Charlie had found none of these things the least bit useful. He liked football and TV, and that was about it.

Grandma Bone leant across the table. Her eyes sparkled mysteriously. ‘My sisters are coming to assess you, Charlie. And if it is found that you are worthy – that you are, as I suspect, endowed – then they will provide the necessary funds to send you to Bloor’s Academy.’

‘Me? At Bloor’s?’ Charlie was aghast. ‘It’s for geniuses.’

‘Don’t worry, love. You won’t pass the test,’ said Maisie confidently. She got up muttering, ‘Of course, it’s old Maisie who has to do all the preparation for our Lady Mucks, isn’t it? I don’t know why I bother.’

There was to be a dinner for the aunts, Charlie’s mother explained. The best silver, the finest crystal and the treasured porcelain, would be carried up from the cellar and laid in the chilly dining-room, a room that was only ever used when the Yewbeam aunts came. Maisie was defrosting chicken and fish and goodness knows what else, as fast as she could.

Charlie would have been worried if he hadn’t been completely convinced that he wouldn’t pass the aunts’ test. He remembered how he’d tried to paint a picture for them and failed miserably. How he’d unsuccessfully attempted to play a violin, a flute, a harp and a piano. He had put on the masks they provided: animals, clowns, pirates, cowboys and spacemen, but only managed to act the part of Charlie Bone. Finally, it had to be admitted that he was not gifted.

So as he waited for the great aunts to arrive, Charlie was not as fearful as he should have been.

Benjamin, on the other hand, was extremely fearful. Charlie was his best friend, his only friend. Anything that happened to Charlie would, indirectly, happen to him. Sinister events were closing in on his friend. Benjamin sat by his bedroom window and watched Charlie’s house. As darkness fell the street lamps came on and lights winked in the building behind the chestnut tree: in the basement, the attic and all the bedrooms. What was going on?

The wind intensified. Thunder and lightning coincided. That meant that the storm was right above. Benjamin clung to Runner Bean, and the big dog hid his face in Benjamin’s sleeve.

The street was now deserted except for three shadowy figures. On they came, a line of black umbrellas hiding all but the hems of three dark coats and six boots: four black and two red. In spite of the wind, there was a strange rhythm in their movements, almost as if a dance were taking place beneath those wide umbrellas. The figures stopped beside the chestnut tree, as Benjamin feared they would. And then they mounted the steps to Charlie’s house.

For the first time in his life, Benjamin was glad to be himself and not Charlie Bone.

At number nine the dining-table was laid, and damp logs smouldered in the grate. When the doorbell rang, Charlie was sent to answer it. The three great-aunts swept into the house, stamping their feet on the tiled floor and shaking out their wet umbrellas. Their coats were hurled across the hall, landing on Charlie as if he were a coatstand.

‘Pick them up, boy,’ commanded Aunt Lucretia, as Charlie scrambled beneath the wet garments. ‘They’re valuable moleskin, not rags.’

‘Now, don’t be harsh, Lucretia,’ said Aunt Eustacia. ‘Charlie’s got a secret to tell us, haven’t you, pet?’

‘Erm,’ mumbled Charlie.

‘Don’t be shy.’ Aunt Venetia, the youngest, came swaying up to him. ‘We want to know, everything.’

‘Yewbeams, come in. Come in!’ Grandma Bone called from the dining-room.

The three sisters sailed through the door; Lucretia, the eldest, first, Venetia, the youngest, last. Snatching glasses of sherry from Grandma Bone, they gathered round the dwindling fire, shaking their damp skirts and patting their abundant hair. Lucretia’s white as snow, Eustacia’s iron-grey, Venetia’s still black and folded round her head like raven’s wings.

Charlie backed away and made for the kitchen where Maisie and his mother were busy round the stove.

‘Take the soup in will you, Charlie,’ said his mother.

Charlie didn’t want to be alone with the great-aunts, but his mother looked hot and weary, so he did as she asked.

The soup tureen was very heavy. Charlie could feel the glint of Yewbeam eyes, following him round the long dining-table. He plonked the tureen on a mat and ran to fetch the bowls, before Grandma Bone could complain about the drop of soup that had spilled over.

When everything was ready, Grandma Bone rang a bell, which Charlie thought was rather silly. Everyone could see that the meal was on the table.

‘Why do we need a bell?’ he asked.

‘Tradition,’ snapped Grandma Bone. ‘And Paton has no sense of smell.’

‘But Uncle Paton never eats with us.’

‘Today,’ said Grandma Bone emphatically, ‘he will.’ ‘And there’s an end to it,’ said Maisie with a grin, which soon faded when the four sisters glared at her.

Uncle Paton arrived looking irritated, and the meal began. Maisie had done her best, but ten minutes was rather short notice to devise a meal of any distinction. The soup was salty, the chicken dry and the trifle had a sad, drowned look. No one complained, however. They ate fast and heartily.

Maisie and Charlie’s mother cleared the table. Paton and Charlie helped. And then it was time for the assessment. Charlie discovered that his mother was not allowed to be present. ‘I won’t go in there without you!’ he said. ‘I won’t.’

‘Charlie, you must,’ said his mother. ‘The Yewbeams hold the purse-strings. I have nothing.’

‘It beats me why you want Charlie to go to that ridiculous academy,’ said Maisie.

‘For his father’s sake,’ said Charlie’s mother.

Maisie clicked her tongue and said nothing more.

Charlie’s father was dead, so why did it matter so much? His mother wouldn’t tell him. She gave him a little push towards the dining-room and in he went.

‘I want my mum in here, or I won’t do it,’ said Charlie.

‘My, my, a boy who wants his mother,’ Aunt Venetia cooed.

‘A boy who wants his mother is a baby,’ said Aunt Lucretia sternly. ‘Time to grow up, Charlie. This is a Yewbeam affair. We don’t want distractions.’

At this point Uncle Paton tried to slip away, but his oldest sister called him back. ‘Paton, you’re needed. Do your duty, for once.’

Uncle Paton reluctantly slid into the chair she indicated.

Charlie was made to sit on one side of the table, facing the four sisters, Uncle Paton sat at the end. Charlie wondered how the assessment would be conducted. There appeared to be no musical instruments, no masks or paint brushes on the table. He waited. They watched him.

‘Where did he get that hair?’ Aunt Lucretia asked.

‘His mother’s side,’ said Grandma Bone. ‘A Welshman.’ She spoke as if Charlie were not there.

‘Ah!’ The three great-aunts sighed, disapprovingly.

Aunt Lucretia was fumbling in a large leather bag. At last she drew out a brown paper packet tied with black ribbon. She tugged the ribbon and the packet fell open, revealing a pile of ancient-looking photographs.

Grandma Bone pushed the packet over to Charlie, and the contents fanned out across the table.

‘What am I supposed to do with these?’ asked Charlie, who had a very good idea what they wanted him to do.

The great-aunts smiled encouragingly.

Charlie prayed that nothing would happen; that he could just glance at the dusty-looking collection and look away before he heard voices. But, one quick look told him that the people in the photographs were making a great deal of noise. They were playing instruments: cellos, pianos, violins. They were dancing, singing, laughing. Charlie pretended not to hear. He tried to push them away from him, towards Aunt Lucretia. She pushed them back.

‘What do you hear, Charlie?’ asked Grandma Bone.

‘Nothing,’ said Charlie.

‘Come on, Charlie, try,’ said Aunt Venetia.

‘And don’t lie,’ said Aunt Eustacia.

‘Or we’ll make you cry,’ snarled Aunt Lucretia.

That made Charlie angry. He wasn’t going to cry for anyone. ‘I don’t hear nothing,’ he said, shoving the photographs away.

Anything,’ said Aunt Lucretia, shoving them back. ‘You don’t hear anything. Not nothing. Grammar, boy. Has no one taught you?’

‘He clearly needs to attend the academy,’ said Aunt Eustacia.

‘Just look at them, Charlie, there’s a pet,’ said Aunt Venetia sweetly. ‘Just for one minute, and if nothing happens, we’ll leave you in peace and just . . .’ she waved her long white fingers, ‘melt away.’

‘All right,’ Charlie said grudgingly.

He thought he could get away with it; just look at the photographs and block out the sounds. But it didn’t work. The sounds of cellos, pianos, sopranos and great gusts of laughter came bursting out at him, filling the room. The great-aunts were talking to him, he could see their thin lips working away, but he couldn’t hear their words above the dreadful clamour of the photographs.

At last Charlie seized the pile and flung them, face down, on to the table. The sudden silence was a wonderful relief. The great-aunts stared at him, quietly triumphant.

It was Aunt Venetia who spoke first. ‘There, that wasn’t so bad, was it, Charlie?’

Charlie realised he’d been tricked. He’d have to watch out for Aunt Venetia in future. She was obviously more cunning than her sisters. ‘Who are all those people, anyway?’ he said miserably.

‘Your forebears, Charlie,’ said Aunt Lucretia. ‘Yewbeam blood ran in all their veins. As it does in yours, dear clever boy.’ Her attitude had changed completely. But Aunt Lucretia being nice was just as scary as Aunt Lucretia being nasty.

‘You can go now, Charlie,’ said Grandma Bone. ‘We have things to discuss. Arrangements to make for your future.’

Charlie was only too glad to go. He leapt up and marched to the door. As he went he caught sight of Uncle Paton’s face. He looked sad and far away, and Charlie wondered why he hadn’t said a word the whole time he’d been there. Paton gave Charlie a quick smile and then looked away.

Charlie hurried to the kitchen where Maisie and his mother were eagerly waiting for the results of his assessment.

‘I think I’ve passed,’ he told them glumly.

‘Well, I’m blowed,’ said Maisie. ‘I thought you’d get away with it, Charlie. Was it the voices?’

Charlie nodded miserably.

‘Those ruddy Yewbeams.’ Maisie shook her head.

Charlie’s mother, however, was not so unhappy. ‘The academy will be good for you,’ she said.

‘No, it won’t,’ said Charlie. ‘I don’t want to go. It’s a stuffy old place for geniuses. I won’t fit. It’s halfway across the city and I don’t know anyone there. Suppose I refuse to go, Mum?’

‘If you refuse . . . all this could disappear,’ said his mother, waving in the general direction of the kitchen cupboards.

Charlie was astounded. Were his great-aunts witches, then? Making houses disappear at the touch of a wand, or maybe an umbrella?

‘D’you mean the house could disappear?’ he said.

‘Not exactly,’ said his mother. ‘But our lives would change. Maisie and I have nothing. Not a bean. When your father, Lyell, died we were at the mercy of the Yewbeams. They provide for everything. They bought the house, they pay the bills. I’m sorry, Charlie, you’ll have to go to Bloor’s if that’s what they want.’

Charlie felt very tired. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘And now I’m going to bed.’

He had forgotten about the orange envelope, but when he got to his bedroom, there it was on his pillow. His mother must have rescued it from the piles of food and crockery on the kitchen table. Charlie decided not to take a second look at the man and his baby. He would take the photo straight back to Kwik Foto tomorrow, and maybe get Runner Bean in exchange.

When his mother came up to say goodnight, Charlie made her sit on his bed and answer a few questions. He felt he deserved to know more about himself before he set foot in Bloor’s Academy.

‘First, I want to know what really happened to my father,’ Charlie said. ‘Tell me again.’

‘I’ve told you so many times already, Charlie. It was foggy, he was tired. He drove off the road and the car plunged into a quarry, it was a hundred metres deep.’

‘And why aren’t there any photos of him around? Not one.’

A shadow passed across his mother’s face. ‘There were,’ she said, ‘but one day, when I was out, they all disappeared. Even the tiny picture in my locket.’

Charlie had never heard about this. ‘Why?’ he asked.

At last his mother told him the truth about the Yewbeam family; how horrified they’d been when Lyell fell in love with her, Amy Jones, an ordinary girl with no exceptional talents. In a word, unendowed.

The Yewbeams forbade the marriage. Their laws were ancient and strong. The women could marry whomever they chose, but every male with Yewbeam blood must marry an endowed girl. Lyell broke the rules. He and Amy Jones had eloped to Mexico.

‘We had a wonderful honeymoon,’ sighed Charlie’s mother. ‘But when we came home I knew that Lyell was worried. He hadn’t escaped them after all. He was always looking over his shoulder, running from shadows. And then, one foggy night, when you were two years old, he got a phone call. A summons, really. Grandma Bone was ill, he must go to her immediately. So he got in his car and . . . drove into a quarry.’ She gazed into the distance for a moment and murmured, ‘He wasn’t himself that day. Something had happened. It was almost as if he were under a spell.’

She wiped away a very small tear. ‘I don’t think Grandma Bone has an ounce of love in her,’ she said. ‘As far as the Yewbeams were concerned, when Lyell died it was just the end of an unfortunate episode. But they were interested in you, Charlie. Suppose you turned out to be endowed? They realised they would have to take care of you until they found out. So they gave me a house and let Maisie move in. And then Grandma Bone arrived. To watch us. Uncle Paton came shortly after that, because . . . well, I suppose he didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was grateful for everything, until the photos vanished. It was something I just couldn’t understand. Grandma Bone denied having touched them, of course.’

Charlie listened to his mother’s story and put two and two together. ‘I know why the photos vanished,’ he murmured. ‘Grandma Bone didn’t want me to hear what my father had to say.’

‘But, Charlie, you were only two,’ said his mother. ‘She didn’t know that you would have this funny gift for hearing voices.’

‘She guessed,’ said Charlie. ‘It’s probably in the family.’

His serious face made his mother smile. She kissed him goodnight and told him not to worry about the Yewbeams. ‘And don’t worry about Bloor’s Academy either,’ she said. ‘After all, your father went there.’

‘And did he have a talent?’ asked Charlie.

‘Oh, yes,’ said his mother, from the door. ‘But not your sort of talent, Charlie. He wasn’t endowed. He was a musician.’

When she had gone Charlie couldn’t sleep. He had too much on his mind. It was unsettling to think he was part of such a peculiar family. He wanted to know more. Much more. But where to begin? Perhaps Uncle Paton could provide a few answers. He didn’t seem as heartless as his sisters.

The storm blew itself out. The rain stopped. The wind died and the cathedral clock struck midnight. On the twelfth stroke, Charlie felt a sudden, strange breathlessness. Something was happening to him. It was as if he were passing through a moment when he might live or die. He thought of Lyell, the father he couldn’t remember.

The moment passed and Charlie found himself wide awake and restless. A few minutes later, he heard Uncle Paton creak downstairs and go to the kitchen for a snack. Charlie had grown used to his uncle’s night-time ramble. It always woke him up. Usually he would just turn over and go back to sleep. Tonight he jumped out of bed and got dressed.

When his uncle left the house, Charlie crept downstairs and followed him. He’d often wanted to do this but he’d never had the courage. Tonight was different; he felt confident and determined. Paton moved fast. By the time Charlie had closed the front door, very softly behind him, his uncle was about to turn a corner. Keeping close to the houses, Charlie ran to the end of the street.