Ten minutes ago, I was on my way up to the castle to hide my pebble. Now I’m on my way down from the castle, and I did hide my pebble, but I have also acquired a highly flammable fox cub.
Ugh. Why do all these things happen to me? First the goose, now this.
So I’m heading down the hill with a firecub cradled in my arms. My empty art portfolio swings from my hand, caked with mud. Firetail stares up at me.
‘You don’t look like a Firetail,’ I say.
He stares up at me like I’m stupid.
Of course I look like a Firetail, I can almost hear him saying. Did you see me back there?
‘Hmm, no. That name doesn’t fit. I’m gonna think of something else.’
What am I going to do with him? I can’t take him into the house – what if he sets fire to something? There’s always the treehouse, which Dad has fully flameproofed using a special chemical spray. And he can’t escape because he won’t be able to get down the rope ladder.
At least there’s no school tomorrow. Now that would be interesting. And he’ll be gone by Sunday night. It’s just two days, I tell myself. Two days, and then everything will go back to normal.
‘At least you’re cute,’ I say. ‘It could be worse. You could be a firespider, or a fiery naked mole rat.’
Firetail blinks at me. He looks as unsure of me as I feel about him.
I don’t make eye contact with anybody as I trek through town, which isn’t unusual for me. I’m a head-down-walk-fast kinda guy. But today I’m walking extra fast, and my head is extra down, as I don’t want to draw any attention to myself.
Which is hard when you’re cradling a fox cub against your chest.
‘Aw, what a cute puppy!’ a passing girl squeals to her father, and I relax slightly. I’m glad it’s not just me who’s made that mistake when his flames aren’t showing.
I’m approaching our house when Firetail starts wriggling in my arms. He lets out an irritated whine.
‘What’s wrong?’ I ask, and suddenly his coat begins to heat up under my fingertips. ‘OK, OK!’
I glance up and down the street to make sure there’s nobody around before putting him down. Instantly, his fur begins to dim.
‘Rude,’ I mutter. ‘All that fuss just to get your own way. What’s wrong anyway? Ah, I see...’
I watch as he waddles over to an unfamiliar car that’s parked directly outside our house, cocks his leg and begins to wee on one of the wheels.
The front door of my house opens. I freeze as the cub keeps weeing. I was going to go straight through to the back garden. I didn’t want to get caught by my parents and have to explain to them –
But it’s not my parents standing in the doorway. It’s a woman with brown hair and a kind face, a colourful bag swinging from her shoulder. My dads appear behind her as she makes her way down the garden with a wave. She pauses when she spots me.
‘Oh, you must be Charlie!’ she says, beaming.
I’m rooted to the spot. Firetail has finally lowered his leg.
Please stay still, I urge silently. Where he’s standing, the wheel is blocking him from sight.
‘Er, yes, that’s me,’ I say, trying my best to sound normal.
‘Fabulous!’ says the woman. ‘My name’s Pam – I’m an adoption social worker. I just popped in to talk to your dads.’
Of course – with everything that’s happened I’d completely forgotten about the visit from a social worker. And Firetail just peed on her car!
‘Oh!’ I exclaim. ‘Nice to meet you.’
‘You too. I was just explaining to your dads that the adoption process should be plain sailing as they’ve already been through it once,’ Pam trills. ‘Are you looking forward to having a little brother or sister?’
I plaster on a smile. Not only is Firetail sniffing nervously round my feet, but now I also have to pretend I am excited. ‘Oh yeah. I, er, really can’t wait.’
‘Wonderful! I’ll be calling back soon. Maybe we can have a bit more of a chat then?’
‘Erm, yeah, that would be nice.’
She slips through the gate and onto the pavement. She’s getting close. I quickly lean down, scoop Firetail up and pull my school bag round to my front to cover him. As Pam climbs into her car, I scamper down the path and wave at my dads, slipping through to the back garden before they can call me over. I don’t want to pause to talk – what would I say?
Sorry I’m late – I was just talking to a stranger from a magical kingdom who gave me this living bonfire to look after for a few days. What’s for dinner?
They’d freak. Especially Dad – it’s literally his job to put out fires. What would he do if he saw Firetail? I’m just going to have to be really weird and evade any human contact whatsoever for the next two days.
Shouldn’t be too difficult. Weird is my default setting. Except, I think, as I slip through the garden fence and make my way towards the treehouse, what about Lippy and Roo? How am I going to keep Firetail a secret from them?
I hoist myself over the platform and into the treehouse, sending Firetail spilling onto the boards. He freezes, taking in this brand-new setting, and then starts patrolling the perimeter of the room, his nose pressed to the floor.
I’m going to spend the whole weekend in the treehouse, tucked away from the world, I decide. If I can just keep him calm and happy, then there’ll be nothing to worry about. What was it Teg said about his fire? It flares up when he’s angry or scared or excited, and sometimes when he’s hungry, so I just need to make sure he’s none of those things.
Should be easy, right?
It’s not the best plan. Not a fireproof plan. But, as Firetail pounces on my beanbag and begins to savage it, it’s the only one I’ve got.
‘Oh, I don’t know, Charlie. Isn’t it a bit chilly for that?’ says Pa.
We’re in the kitchen. I’ve just asked my dads if I can sleep in the treehouse tonight. It’s something I do regularly in the summer.
‘You know it’s July, right?’ Dad says to Pa. ‘It’s beautiful out there, and we’re not forecast any hurricanes tonight.’
Pa huffs and waves a ladle at Dad. ‘Fine! But if a storm hits I’m blaming you.’
My body hums with adrenaline. I left Firetail up in the treehouse, sleeping soundly after an hour of wrestling a beanbag which ended up singed when he got a bit overexcited and his flames came out. Once he’d established that the treehouse was safe, he shed his anxiety and started running around like a maniac.
I change into pyjama bottoms and a hoodie, then grab my sleeping bag, a pillow, and an old stuffed toy frog before heading back down to the kitchen. I pinch some corned beef and a few other treats, as well as a bottle of water and a bowl.
I open the back door and step out into the twilight. To my relief, the treehouse is still standing – I half expected to find it engulfed in flames, like an enormous blazing broccoli.
I carry my supplies up the ladder and find Firetail still snoozing against a beanbag. He snaps to attention as I enter, then relaxes when he sees me. I set everything down and sit opposite him.
‘Don’t worry, it’s only me,’ I say. ‘You’re a bit nervy, too, eh? I can relate.’
I peel open a pack of corned beef. Instantly, Firetail’s nose wiggles.
‘I thought that would work.’
I offer the slice of meat. He picks his way towards me, his nostrils flaring.
‘I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to look after you.’
He sniffs at my offering, then snatches it out of my hand with such speed that it startles me. I can feel the pleasant warmth from his fur as he chomps, his entire body taking on a gently shimmering quality. The sky outside is darkening, but he’s providing all the light I need. I feel like I’m in a volcanic grotto.
‘You need a new name,’ I say. ‘I still don’t think Firetail is right. How about... Rocket?’
He shoots me a withering glance.
‘No? OK... how about Dave?’
He doesn’t even grace this suggestion with a response. I can’t say I blame him.
I come up with name after name, but none of them seem to fit. I go from the obvious, like Ember and Comet, to names inspired by appearance, like Bushy and Rusty. They just don’t feel right. But then I cast my mind back to our Welsh lesson, to the animal names that we learned today.
The Welsh word for fox...
‘Cadno,’ I say.
The cub looks up, his ears twitching. It’s like that was already his name and somebody just said it aloud for the first time.
‘Ah, so that’s what it is,’
I grin. ‘Cadno. I like it.’
I feed him the rest of the beef before settling down against the beanbag. Cadno carries the stuffed frog over and urges me into a tug of war. I laugh as he yanks, putting his entire chubby body into the game.
Maybe this won’t be so bad, I think to myself as I toy with the pennycog in my pocket. Teg said to use it if I run into any bother – that it would alert his own pennycog, and he’d know to come and find us. But Cadno doesn’t seem to be any trouble – and he is extremely cute.
Here, with the cub yanking at my toy frog, a playful little growl rumbling in his chest like laughter, I feel a million impossible things become real. Maybe I won’t need to use the pennycog at all.
‘Nice to meet you, Cadno,’ I say.
My dreams are filled with howling. A wolf wail that echoes through the night. The Grendilock continues its hunt, getting closer and closer with every sniff...
I open my eyes. The night is still. Cadno is curled up against me, his paws digging into my side, and everything is as it should be.
Except I’m sure I can hear a real howl, way off in the distance, creeping down from the hills. Maybe it’s just the residue of my dream, but, as the moon reaches its highest point in the sky, I gather up a snoring Cadno and head inside, up to my bedroom.
Just in case.