The song of seven, p.1
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       The Song of Seven, p.1

           Tonke Dragt
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The Song of Seven


  The Letter for the King

  A Sunday Times, Metro and Times

  Book of the Year

  ‘A true page-turner’

  Sunday Times

  ‘Brilliant, extraordinary’

  The Times

  ‘Gripping, delightful and true’



  Daily Telegraph

  ‘A pulse-pounding epic’



  Financial Times

  ‘A cracker’



  The Secrets of the Wild Wood

  A Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times

  Book of the Year

  ‘Offers intrigue, action and escapism’

  Sunday Times



  ‘Action-packed drama’

  Daily Mail



  ‘A spellbinding tale that will appeal to the young and old’

  The Lady


  Title Page



  And now the story has begun THIS IS ONE


  In a carriage through the rain THIS IS ONE

  On a scooter with a biker boy THIS IS TWO


  He follows the carriage’s trail and ends up at the Thirsty Deer THIS IS ONE

  He visits a magician and finds out that appearances are deceptive THIS IS TWO

  He hears about a hidden treasure and a rhyme written in stone THIS IS THREE


  He makes friends with Roberto THIS IS ONE

  He hears about Seven Conspirators THIS IS TWO

  Aunt Wilhelmina has something to say THIS IS THREE

  And now even the children get involved THIS IS FOUR


  He is initiated by Miss Rosemary THIS IS ONE

  He hears about the Sealed Parchment THIS IS TWO

  He ventures into forbidden territory THIS IS THREE

  He is wounded in combat THIS IS FOUR

  The Secret of the Seven Ways is revealed THIS IS FIVE


  He becomes acquainted with Count Grisenstein THIS IS ONE

  He argues with Jan Tooreloor THIS IS TWO

  He gives Geert-Jan his first lessons THIS IS THREE

  He wonders where Ivan could be THIS IS FOUR

  He finds out more about the Sealed Parchment THIS IS FIVE

  He plays cards at the Thirsty Deer THIS IS SIX


  The tutor turns treasure-hunter THIS IS ONE

  He does some teaching and risks his life THIS IS TWO

  He looks for mushrooms and finds them, but Ivan finds something else THIS IS THREE

  He gets ready for a birthday party THIS IS FOUR

  He is astonished by Greenhair THIS IS FIVE

  He climbs a long ladder and… the party begins THIS IS SIX

  He gets into the party mood and a song fills the House of Stairs THIS IS SEVEN

  About the Publisher

  About the Author


  Always for Cornelijne



  And now the story has begun


  It was boiling hot, even though the windows and the door into the corridor were all open. The children had been silent for an hour, but that probably had more to do with the heat than with the tongue-lashing their teacher had given them at the beginning of the afternoon. Now that they’d nearly all finished the dull grammar exercises he’d told them to do, the noise was creeping back, little by little – whispers, a cough, quiet giggles, feet shuffling, desks creaking, paper rustling.

  Frans van der Steg, sitting at his desk on the platform at the front of the classroom, tutted and looked up. His stern look didn’t make much impression on the class though, perhaps in part because his spectacles had slipped down to the tip of his nose. But he didn’t say anything. He simply wasn’t in the mood.

  In the class of first-years at the end of the corridor, the little ones were singing.

  Do you know the Seven, the Seven,

  Do you know the Seven Ways?

  What a tedious tune, thought Frans van der Steg.

  People say that I can’t dance,

  But I can dance like the King of France.

  This is one…

  “Well, I know I certainly couldn’t dance at this tempo,” he said out loud. “By the time they get to seven, I could have counted to a hundred.”

  The buzz and bustle in the classroom increased, but Frans banged his hand on the desk and put a stop to it before it became a din. Twenty-five pairs of eyes looked at him. Frans stared back and then pretended to go on marking the books in front of him. He looked at the red line he’d drawn beneath the title of Marian’s essay, THE SEKRIT TRESURE, and gloomily wondered why he tried so hard to teach his students to spell. As he glanced at his watch, he heard Maarten’s voice: “Sir?”

  Frans van der Steg looked up again. He still wasn’t used to being called “sir”. He hadn’t been working in this village for long, and in town he’d just been “Mr Van der Steg”. What he should have said to Maarten was: “Did I give you permission to speak?” But instead he said, “What is it, Maarten?”

  The chattering began again. The children could tell their teacher wasn’t really angry with them anymore, and besides…

  “It’s twenty-five past three,” said Maarten.

  Twenty-five past three was packing-up time, and Frans van der Steg’s group of ten- and eleven-year-olds could pack up faster than any other class. It had been like that almost since the first day back to school after the summer holidays. At first, the class had been very noisy when twenty-five past three came around, but that hadn’t lasted for long. Kai, one of the most boisterous boys in the class, had – accidentally on purpose – dropped a big box of coloured pencils, much to his classmates’ secret delight. Mr Van der Steg had just shaken his head and said with a serious look on his face, “Kai, Kai, you probably think there’s no harm done and it’ll be easy enough to pick up the pencils and tidy them away, but I’ve seen for myself the terrible consequences of such clumsiness. A friend of mine once did the same thing, only it wasn’t pencils he dropped, but two whole armfuls of lances and spears.”

  Kai had just gaped at his teacher, but Maarten, who always spoke without being spoken to, had squawked, “Huh? Lances and spears? But how come?”

  “Lances and spears,” his teacher had repeated, “with sharp iron points, which don’t break as easily as pencil points. It made such an incredible din! And it had to happen just as we were sneaking through the palace at night…”

  “Palace? What palace?”

  “The King of Torelore’s palace. We were caught like rats in a trap. We’d worked so hard to steal those spears from the armoury. And then that idiot let them go crashing to the floor! Well, of course, everyone woke up: the King of Torelore, the Queen of Torelore, and all their soldiers with their sabres. And then the fun really started…”

  As the teacher continued his tale, you could have heard a pin drop. But when the bell went, the class exploded with questions. “And then? What happened next?!”

  Their teacher couldn’t let them go home until they’d heard how he’d managed to escape from the deepest dungeon in the royal palace, where he was tied up with thick ropes and
guarded by a hungry lion, could he? But Frans van der Steg had simply told Kai to pick up the pencils and sent them home with a promise to continue the story another day.

  And he’d done exactly that. He’d been teaching the class for three weeks now and, at the end of every day, from twenty-five past three to half past, as they packed up, he told them a story, and on Saturday mornings, when the children also had lessons, the stories went on for much longer, sometimes for as long as three quarters of an hour.

  His class had heard the tale of his adventures in the Kingdom of Torelore, and his account of his journey back home, complete with a shipwreck and a desert island. They knew all about his stay in the haunted castle, and about the time he’d faced the Abominable Snowman in the Himalayas.

  “But it’s not true, is it?” Maarten sometimes said. “You’re just making it up.”

  The other children knew that too, but that didn’t make them any less interested in their teacher’s tales. Somehow, in their imaginations, he was two people – one was just their teacher, Mr Van der Steg, but the other was a kind of fearless knight, with hair like flames, FRANS THE RED, a hero who could take on anyone.

  And now the only thing that could save this hot, boring afternoon was a new adventure. Yesterday Frans the Red had returned safe and sound from an expedition to the rainforests of Urozawa, and he had a few minutes left today to set off on his next escapade.

  Mr Van der Steg straightened his glasses, ran his fingers through his hair and then slowly shook his head.

  “Um, chaps,” he said (he always called them that, even though there were girls in the class too), “I’m tired.” He knew he was disappointing his students, but he really had no idea what to tell them. “The thing is…” he continued, “I’m waiting for…”

  “For what, sir?” (there’s no need to explain who asked that question).

  “For a letter,” said the teacher. It was the first answer that came to him. “A very important letter,” he added. “It might arrive this evening. The sender is… something of an enigma… And I hope,” he concluded, “that it’ll be the beginning of a new adventure, with a mysterious and perilous mission.”

  They’ll have to make do with that, he thought. When all the books had been handed in, it would be time to go home anyway. He leant back in his chair, stifled a yawn and absent-mindedly hummed along with the first-years, who were singing the Song of Seven again.

  Phew, this weather! thought Frans van der Steg, as he cycled home. It didn’t get this hot all summer holiday. I really should have taken the class outside, instead of being annoyed with them for not doing their work properly.

  When he got home, to the house where he rented a room, he found his landlady in the conservatory with a big pot of tea.

  “Ah, there you are,” she greeted him. “I bet you could do with a nice cup of tea.”

  “I most certainly could, Mrs Bakker,” he said. “You know just what a person needs after a hard day at work. Shall I get the deckchairs out of the shed? Then we can sit outside.”

  “Oh no, don’t bother,” his landlady replied. “There’s a storm coming, and we’ll only have to bring everything back in.”

  Frans opened his mouth to point out just how brightly the sun was shining today, but then he heard thunder rumbling in the distance, and he changed his mind.

  “Once it starts raining,” his landlady said, “that’ll be the end of the summer.”

  Frans looked out to see thick black clouds rolling towards the sun. He didn’t reply.

  “Would you like a biscuit, Frans?” his landlady asked. She was old enough to be his mother, so he didn’t mind her calling him by his first name. When he spoke to her, he was always polite and called her “Mrs Bakker”, but whenever he thought about her, it was as “Aunt Wilhelmina”. He knew that was her first name, and he thought the title of “aunt” suited her. She was rosy-cheeked, plump and perky, and she was a wonderful cook.

  “I’m going out this evening,” she told him. “The neighbours have asked me to go round and watch something on TV with them. Some kind of drama. It’s supposed to be good. So you can work at the big table in the dining room if you have lots of paperwork to do.”

  “Thank you,” said Frans. He sat down, stirred his tea and sighed again. “I still have another nineteen essays still to mark,” he added, “and twenty-five spelling tests. And I’ve got to do my own homework for tomorrow too.”

  “That’s the biggest nonsense I’ve ever heard! Schoolteachers are supposed to give out homework, not do it themselves.”

  “Ah, but I want to get ahead,” said Frans, “which is why I’m studying for another qualification.”

  His landlady gave him a look of disapproval. “You should be satisfied with the job you have! My son was always interested in getting ahead too, and where did that get him? All the way over there on the other side of the globe! In Australia! My only son, and he’s all I have.”

  “But he writes you lots and lots of letters,” Frans said, to cheer her up, “and he sends you photographs of the grandchildren.”

  “That’s true,” she said. “I’m expecting one today, in fact. I suppose that’s better than nothing. But the postman’s late though.”

  “I’m waiting for a letter too,” said Frans with a smile. “And it’s a very important one, or at least that’s the story I told.”

  “Have you been making things up again? I hear you’ve got those children’s heads spinning with all kinds of crazy stories. Mind they don’t return the favour. Would you like another cup of tea? Ooh, look how dark and cloudy it’s getting now! I’m glad I only have to go next door this evening. Looks like we’re in for a terrible storm.”

  Mrs Wilhelmina Bakker was right: that evening, after dinner, the rain came hammering down against the window panes. Frans was sitting at the big table, with all his papers spread out over the plush red tablecloth. The wind blew so hard that the curtains were rippling, even though the windows were closed. The whole house was creaking; at times it sounded like someone was walking up and down the hallway, sighing and groaning. But of course there was no one there; Frans was all alone in the house. He tried to concentrate on his work, but after a while he had to get up to look. Opening the curtain, he peered outside. A flash of lightning blinded him for a second, followed, a moment later, by an almighty clap of thunder.

  I hope that lightning didn’t strike anything important, he thought.

  But then other sounds filled the air – windows rattling away, doors banging and flying open.

  “What on earth…!” said Frans, dashing into the hallway.

  A gust of wind blasted towards him; the front door had blown wide open. The brass lantern in the hallway swayed to and fro, and strange shadows danced across the walls. Rain lashed Frans’s face as he struggled to close the door. It was only then that he spotted the letter on the mat. He picked it up; the envelope was damp and the writing was smudged. Yet he could still clearly make out his own name and address.

  “My goodness me,” he said to himself. “It seems my story has become reality – a letter for me, and it just blew in with the storm.”

  He checked that all the other doors and windows were properly closed, before going back into the dining room and sitting down at the table to open the envelope. After reading the letter, he sat there for a while, staring at it in amazement. Written in strong, confident handwriting, the letter said the following:

  Tuesday 22 September

  Dear Mr V der Steg,

  In response to your letter of the eighteenth of this month, I should very much like to meet you. As I live in a somewhat remote spot in the woods, I shall send my man to pick you up, on Friday 25 September, at exactly half past seven.

  Respectfully yours,

  The signature was illegible. All Frans could make out was two large letter G’s, each followed by a small r. Gr… Gr…

  But that wasn’t why he’d raised his eyebrows. He was most surprised because he had not in fact written a lett
er on the eighteenth of this month.

  Then he began to laugh. It was obviously just the children playing a joke on him.

  But which of his students had handwriting like that? One of their fathers must have written it, or an uncle, or a big brother.

  Do I know anyone who’s called Gr… Gr… something? he wondered. No, I’m certain that person doesn’t exist. Someone’s deliberately made the signature impossible to read.

  He studied the letter and then the envelope. They were made of beautiful, expensive-looking paper, with a small coat of arms in the corner, which had another G on it, with a cat’s head inside.

  Frans put down the letter and opened his textbook. After a couple of minutes, he caught himself thinking about the letter again. What nonsense, he told himself. It’s just the children having a joke, that’s all. I’ll have to do something about this tomorrow though. I’m the one who makes up my adventures, and they shouldn’t be getting involved. “In response to your letter of the eighteenth of this month…” However did they come up with that? What day is it today? Thursday the twenty-fourth. And the letter’s dated the day before yesterday… Ha, they might as well have written April the first! And of course there’s no stamp… No, wait a second, there is a stamp on the envelope…

  He took a closer look and got another surprise. The stamp had been franked in the nearby village of Langelaan on 23 September!

  “How can that be…?” he murmured. “That was yesterday, and I didn’t say anything to them about a letter until today. They must have faked it somehow… but they can’t possibly be that clever. I can’t imagine how they might have done it. The envelope’s dirty, but it doesn’t seem to have been tampered with. Hmm…”


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