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       Gauge, p.1

           Chris D'Lacey
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  338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH

  Orchard Books Australia

  Level 17/207 Kent Street, Sydney, NSW 2000

  First published in 2009 by Orchard Books

  This ebook edition published in 2011

  ISBN 978 1 40831 538 5

  Text © Chris d’Lacey 2009

  Illustrations © Adam Stower 2009

  The rights of Chris d’Lacey to be identified as the author and Adam Stower to be identified as the illustrator of this work have been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  All rights reserved.

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

  Orchard Books is a division of Hachette Children’s Books, an Hachette UK company.

  For Chloe and Freya

  Chapter One

  Burning. Lucy Pennykettle could definitely smell burning. This was not unusual in her house at Number 42 Wayward Crescent, Scrubbley. Lucy’s mother, Liz, made clay dragons for a living, and as anybody knows, dragons breathe fire – well, some of Liz’s special dragons did, anyway. The fires these dragons breathed were usually quite harmless. They took the form of smoke rings or breathy little hrrrs. But this form of burning, the one that was making Lucy’s nostrils twitch, seemed to be coming directly from the kitchen. It smelled very much like toast to her.

  “Mum!” she shouted and came charging down the stairs in her pyjamas and hedgehog-shaped slippers.

  Lucy’s mum was on the phone in the front room of the house. She was chattering away ‘nineteen to the dozen’ as people sometimes say, and clearly hadn’t heard Lucy or even smelt the burning. Still calling out to her, Lucy hurried on past and into the kitchen. Sure enough, there were two slices of bread toasting under the grill of the cooker. They were curling at the edges and turning black. Lucy balled her fists. Bravely, she ran to the cooker and turned off the gas. But as the jets of blue flame disappeared to nothing, there was a gentle whumph and the toast itself set alight.

  Lucy gasped and jumped back. “Mum!” she cried again. “There’s a fire in the kitchen!” She glanced at the tall green dragon that always sat on top of the fridge. He was a listening dragon, with ears like rose petals. He put on a pair of small round spectacles and craned his neck towards the cooker.

  “Do something!” said Lucy.

  The listener sent out an urgent hrrr. Within seconds another dragon had zipped into the kitchen to land with a skid and a bump on the worktop. His name was Gruffen. He was a guard dragon.

  Lucy sighed with relief. “Gruffen, put the fire out.”

  Gruffen studied the flames. The scaly ridges above his eyes came together in a frown. Strange as it might seem, Gruffen had never actually seen a fire before. He was a young dragon, still learning how to puff smoke rings from the back of his throat. He could see there was a problem, but wasn’t really sure what the solution might be. The toast made a cracking noise. A tongue of flame crept over the grill pan.

  Lucy gave a little squeal. “Do something!” she repeated.

  Gruffen leapt into action: he tapped his claws and consulted his book.

  When Liz made one of her special dragons, it was not unusual for them to come with some kind of ‘magical’ object. In Gruffen’s case this was a book. A sort of manual of dragon procedures. A directory of things to do in awkward situations. He quickly looked up ‘fire’. There were lots of interesting entries. Dragon’s spark, said one, the spirit or life-force of the dragon, born from the eternal fire at the centre of the Earth. That made his eye ridges lift. Source of warming, said another. Used in cooking, said a third. And then there was a rather large entry in red: WARNING – fire can be dangerous to humans, but dragons may swallow it without fear (or hiccoughs). There was his answer. Gruffen slammed his book shut and flew to the grill.

  With one enormous in-breath he sucked the fire towards him and swallowed it completely. The fire was immediately put out and the kitchen was saved. The only problem was Gruffen breathed in so hard that the toast came flying off the grill, smashed against his nose and exploded in a fine shower of brittle black crumbs. Liz arrived in the kitchen seconds later to find that her normally rosy-cheeked, straw-haired daughter was now the colour of charcoal.

  “Oh dear,” said Liz, wafting a hand beneath her nose. “Perhaps we’d better have cereal for breakfast instead today.”

  “That’s not funny,” Lucy said sourly. “I called you twice.”

  “Henry Bacon rang,” Liz explained, taking a damp cloth to Lucy’s face. “I didn’t expect him to be on the phone so long, but you know what he’s like.”

  Lucy grunted like a farmyard pig. Henry Bacon, the Pennykettles’ grumpy next-door neighbour, was always causing problems. “What did he want?”

  “He called to say that the Town Council are planning to demolish the library clock.”

  “What for?”

  “Because it’s old and doesn’t work very well.”

  “It tells the wrong time,” Lucy agreed. “And it clunks instead of chiming.”

  “Then it should be fixed, not demolished,” Liz said airily. “That clock is part of Scrubbley’s history. People would miss it. It’s not right to take it down.”

  Lucy gave a little shrug. “What about the ghost?”

  Her mother laughed. “Ghost? What ghost?”

  On the worktop, Gruffen looked up ‘ghost’. Strange spectral creatures, his book informed him. Often found at a place of great unhappiness.

  “Miss Baxter says it’s haunted,” Lucy sniffed. Miss Baxter, Lucy’s teacher, knew about such things. She often went on visits to stately homes. She claimed she had once seen the ghost of Henry the Eighth eating a chicken drumstick in a cloakroom. Miss Baxter, it had to be said, was slightly strange.

  Liz walked away, shaking her bright red hair. “The only thing that haunts that clock tower is pigeons.”

  “Dead pigeons?” said Lucy, aghast, her mind dizzy with images of phantasmal birds going “coo” (or would it be “woo” if they were ghosts?) as they flew through walls.

  “Just pigeons,” said her mum a little more soberly. She looked out of the window and became thoughtful for a second. “It would be such a shame to see that clock go. I feel as if I ought to be doing more to save it…”

  Lucy glanced at the dragons and they at her. For they all knew what was in Liz’s mind. Whenever Lucy’s mum became concerned about something, she only ever followed one course of action. She made a new dragon.

  A special one.

  Chapter Two

  Sure enough, Liz started one later that night when Lucy had gone to bed.

  Along the landing next door to Lucy’s bedroom was a small rectangular room which Liz called her pottery ‘studio’, though its popular name was the Dragons’ Den. At the window end was a sturdy wooden bench, where Liz kept her paintbrushes and potters’ turntable and all the things she needed for making dragons. The two longer walls were taken up with shelving racks, upon which stood a large number of completed dragons. Most of these were in storage, waiting to be sold on the market in Scrubbley, though some were treasured ornaments and some…well, some, like Gruffen, could spread their wings and move around if they wanted to.

  In appearance, most of the Pennykettle dragons looked the same. Their glaze was a mid to bottle-green colour, with occasional streaks of blue or turquoise. And they all had spiky wings and curving tails and oval-shaped eyes and trumpet-like noses. Liz enjoyed sculpting them in different poses. She had dancing dragons, sporting dragons, baby dragons breaking out of their eggs – dragons in all sorts of appealing stances. But those dragons that were special appeared without conscious effort, as though they had
simply popped out of Liz’s dreams. This is how it was with the dragon that came to be known as Gauge.

  Lucy Pennykettle, like her mum, had an unerring instinct for the birth of a special dragon. As Liz was twisting the turntable back and forth, carefully admiring her latest creation, Lucy slipped into the Den.

  “You’re supposed to be in bed,” her mother said.

  Lucy tactfully ignored her and came to stand by the bench. She peered at the dragon. “It’s a ‘he’,” she said, gently stroking his ‘top knot’ – the little spike that rose like a fin from the top of a dragon’s head. “What does he do?”

  “I don’t know,” Liz replied. “But he’s definitely special. I was just daydreaming and there he was.”

  “Why’s he got a paw missing?” Lucy pointed to the dragon’s left arm. The paw at the end of it seemed to be only half there. But as the moonlight shifted across the window she saw that he was wearing a kind of waistcoat and dipping his paw into a shallow pocket. “He’s got something,” she said. Her eyes glowed with excitement.

  Her mother hummed in acknowledgement. “Well, if you want to know what it is, you’d better hurry off downstairs, hadn’t you?”

  Lucy was gone in a flash. She knew exactly what her mother meant. In the freezer compartment of the fridge was a small plastic box with a pale blue lid. Inside the box was, of all things, a snowball. Liz had kept it since she was a girl. There were many secrets surrounding this nugget of ice, and even Lucy didn’t know all of them. But the snow was what brought her mother’s dragons to life. That was all that mattered to Lucy.

  She scooted upstairs and handed the box over. Liz opened the lid, letting a fine wisp of condensation escape. The snowball glistened in the moonlight. Lucy held her breath as her mother broke off the tiniest chunk and let it rest on the new dragon’s snout. Immediately, it melted inside his nostrils.

  “There, the kilning process is started,” said Liz. Then she turned the dragon until he was facing a tall, elegant female dragon who sat alone on a shelf just behind the bench. Her name was Guinevere. Liz whispered something to her in the ancient language of dragontongue. Guinevere’s eyes slid open.

  Lucy’s shoulders bristled with excitement. She had always wanted to know what happened next, but the most she ever saw was a violet light shining out of Guinevere’s eyes. That was all she saw this time as well. The light played over the new dragon’s body, creating what looked like a slight halo of fire around him.

  Her mother turned Lucy away then, saying, “Come on. Guinevere will hurr when he’s ready. Oh, by the way, while you were downstairs a name came to me.”

  “Really?” said Lucy. This was quite unusual. Dragons weren’t usually named until they were active.

  “I think he’s got a watch in his pocket,” said Liz, “because the name I thought of was Gauge.”

  Lucy didn’t look impressed. “Gauge?” she queried.

  “It’s a word that means ‘to measure’.”

  “What’s he going to measure – with a watch?”

  “Time, I suppose.”

  Lucy’s shoulders sank. “That’s boring,” she tutted.

  But, as was usual where special dragons were concerned, she was in for a few surprises.

  Chapter Three

  It was another two days before Guinevere signalled to the listening dragon and he, in turn, signalled to Liz to say that Gauge was ready. Liz was in the kitchen at the time, having a cup of tea with Mr Bacon. Henry did not believe in dragons, so he did not hear the listener’s hurr. But he was close enough to feel a warm draught in his left ear, which prompted him to enquire if Mrs P, as he called Liz, had left a gas ring on?

  She said she had not and it was just a dragon breathing. That made Henry frown and caused Lucy to stifle a laugh. They enjoyed teasing Henry, though care was needed when a new dragon was in the house. Young special dragons had to be taught that they needed to act like solid clay figures when humans were near.

  While Lucy dashed upstairs to see what was happening, Liz carried on chatting to Henry. “Go on. You were talking about the plans to get rid of the library clock. Why can’t the Council just mend it?”

  “Far too costly,” Mr Bacon said, winkling a finger round his hairy ear canal.

  “It’s surely cheaper than knocking it down and installing a new one?”

  Henry shook his head. “Needs specialist attention. Old workings. Cranky. Cheaper to rip it out and put in a digital display.”

  Liz sighed in dismay. “We can’t have flashing neon bulbs in the middle of an old market town like Scrubbley. It’s completely out of character. I shall protest. And so will others.”

  But to her further dismay, Henry leaned forward and said, “Too late, Mrs P. Word has it that the motion has already been passed. Rubber-stamped behind closed doors.” He beat his fist down lightly on the table, enough to make his tea cup rattle against its saucer.

  Liz folded her arms (never a good sign) and let out a little puff of disgust. “Well, the ghost won’t like it!”

  “Ghost?” said Henry, closing one eye.

  Liz tapped her foot. Goodness, she thought, she had turned into Lucy in the space of a few seconds. “The clock tower’s…haunted,” she said.

  “Poppycock!” cried Henry, slapping his thigh. “Worked in that library twenty years, Mrs P. Never seen a spectre or heard the slightest hint of wailing – apart from the time Miss Hickinbottom dropped a large encyclopaedia on her toe.”

  “Well, if I were the Town Council, I’d be careful,” said Liz. “You shouldn’t mess about with the supernatural.”

  Henry drummed his fingers. “No such thing as the supernatural,” he declared, just as a dragon fluttered into the kitchen and landed on the three long hairs of his nearly bald head. “What the…?” he cried. He jumped in his chair and felt his bald spot. But by then, Gauge had fluttered onto the fridge top to say hello to the listener.

  “Mum, I couldn’t control him!” Lucy cried, appearing, out of breath, at the kitchen door.

  “What hit me?” said Henry, starting to look around.

  Liz sighed heavily and snapped her fingers to get Henry’s attention. As their eyes met, Liz’s gaze became a strange hypnotic stare and the colour of her eyes turned from green to violet. “Go home, Henry. Have a nice sleep,” she said.

  A dizzy look spread across Henry’s face. He rose up like a robot and was gone.

  “Sorry,” Lucy said sheepishly to her mum.

  “It’s all right,” Liz said, letting her eyes return to green. “Henry won’t remember a thing.” She glanced at the meeting taking place on the fridge top. She spoke in dragontongue to Gauge, who fluttered down to her open hand. “You need to learn the house rules – and quickly.”

  Gauge flicked his tail and looked at her with wide, admiring eyes. He dipped his hand into his waistcoat pocket and, just as Liz had predicted, brought out a watch. He gave a gentle questioning hrrr.

  “You want to know how quickly?” Liz translated.

  Gauge gave a nod.

  Liz glanced through the window. “By the time it gets dark?” she suggested, wondering if he would even understand the concept of sunrises and sunsets at his tender age. Though you could never tell with dragons. Sometimes, they could do or know extraordinary things. And so it was with Gauge.

  He flipped open his watch and stared at its display. Liz and Lucy leaned forward to share a look.

  “That’s not a watch,” said Lucy. For there were no hands or numbers or date window to see. Instead, they had glimpsed what appeared to be a miniature solar system of planets whirling around one another. And possibly some stars. All deeply reflected in Gauge’s eyes.

  Liz nodded in astonishment. “I think that’s more than a watch,” she said. “I think it’s a kind of tuning device.”

  “Pardon?” said Lucy. She was now completely confused.

  “I think this dragon is in touch with the universe,” Liz said.

  And to answer Liz’s question, Gauge said that nigh
tfall was predicted in eight earthly hours, twelve earthly minutes and ten earthly seconds – though he wasn’t quite sure, yet, what that meant. He flipped the watch shut.

  “He’s weird,” said Lucy. “What use is a dragon that times things?”

  “I don’t know,” said Liz, but her thoughts, like the planets in Gauge’s watch, were steadily whirring. And though she couldn’t see how Gauge could possibly help with it yet, those thoughts kept returning to the problem of saving the library clock.

  Chapter Four

  In the meantime, however, Lucy’s question, “What use is a dragon that times things?” was quickly answered. It soon became apparent that Gauge had an inbuilt desire to learn how to measure anything whatsoever, particularly anything to do with time. He first demonstrated this when he caught sight of the clock on the wall above the door of the kitchen. It was quite an ordinary clock, as clocks go, but the motion of the second hand ticking around seemed to throw the special dragon into a frenzy of delight. He flew out of Liz’s hands and hovered in front of it. He tapped the plastic casing. The clock ticked on. Gauge consulted his watch, as if he were using it as a device to check the clock’s accuracy. Then something extraordinary happened. Gauge put his watch away and hurred at the clock. Suddenly, its two large hands began to spin, faster and faster, until they were just a blur of black lines. At the same time, Gauge was copying the movements with his paws. This continued until the clock hands had spun all the way back to the correct time again. Then it ticked on as if nothing had happened.

  Gauge blew a smoke ring and fluttered down onto the kitchen table.

  “Mum, what did he just do?” asked Lucy.

  Liz ran a finger down the scales on Gauge’s spine, a tickling process all the dragons loved. “I think he just learned to tell the time,” she said. “Earth time, at least.”

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