Ethan sat on Jynx’s bed and waited as she changed into her pajamas in the bathroom.
“I want to call Phoebe and Reginald,” Jynx said, entering the bedroom.
“You know they won’t come home early.”
“I guess you’re right,” she said, sniffling and blowing her nose. “They’d say it was just a nightmare.”
Ethan wondered if it had been a bad dream. What if none of it was real? What if he was back at Brinkley and hadn’t left for Christmas break?
Knowing what he was thinking, Jynx reached over and pulled a black feather from under the hood of Ethan’s parka.
“No dream,” she said.
The children sat in silence, staring out her bay window. More stars than they had ever seen covered the night sky. Jynx drew on the frosty windowpane with her pinky.
“Whatever happened to Amos?” she asked. “I don’t really care. He left us.”
“Ethan, he was scared like us. You’ve got to go look for him.”
“Jynx, don’t look at me like that. Anyway, you need to get some sleep.”
Giving up, she hugged her brother and climbed into bed. Back in his room, Ethan sat near the fireplace, his head in his hands. He’d hoped that watching the flames would help him to forget about Amos. He was also worried about Jynx being able to sleep. The birds had scared him too; would she be okay?
Giving up on watching the fire, he climbed into his bed. The warmth of the fire and the heavy quilts were lulling him to sleep. There was a creaking sound, and his door opened.
“Ethan, can I sleep in here?”
“If you stay on your side, and no wiggling,” Ethan said with a yawn.
Before he fell asleep, he was sure of one thing; Jynx would be okay. She was snuggled under the quilts and snoring softly.
The next morning, Mrs. Gooch thrust her head into Ethan’s room. “All right, you—wake up; it’s snowing again,” she said, a big smile on her face.
Excited by the snow, he bolted out of bed and dressed quickly. Jynx had gotten up earlier.
During breakfast, everyone was talking about their plans for the day—everyone except Ethan. He didn’t know what he was going to do about Amos. He was so lost in thought he didn’t hear Socrates.
“Ethan, how about it? You want to build a snowwoman? Jynx is up for it.”
“Um . . . what?” Ethan asked.
“Fashion a snowwoman?” Socrates asked again.
Ethan became aware again of the room and the people in it. “Oh, sorry, Socs. I was just thinking about something.”
“Thinking of something, or someone, perhaps?” Socrates said, munching a piece of fried chicken.
Ethan wondered if Socs knew about Amos. “Well, if it’s okay, I’ll pass on the snowwoman. I’ve got something I need to do.”
“Sure, dude. No worries. Jynx and I can build a whole gaggle of snow people,” Socrates said.
Ethan left for the library. Jynx caught up with him and stopped him, softly touching his arm. “Is it okay if I don’t go back into the maze just yet?”
“Of course. Are you okay? I mean with the birds and everything.”
“I’m okay, but something’s not right about that maze,” she whispered.
“I’ve got to find out what this is all about.” Ethan couldn’t bring himself to look at Jynx directly. “There’s something else I haven’t told you—I was afraid to.” He paused, clearing his throat. “I’m scared you’ll think I’m going crazy, but here goes: I heard a voice in the room upstairs. You know, when I saw the light in the tomb? It said, ‘Seek the light to reveal the shrouded treasure. For the sake of the trust.’ I felt all weird too, like I couldn’t move. I don’t understand any of this. Why here? Why us? The maze, a mausoleum, the huge painting . . . Amos is right; it’s all got to mean some- thing. I’ve got to know what it is.” He lowered his head. “Jynx, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I need to trust you more.”
“I don’t think I’d have told anyone either.” Jynx made little circles on the ground with her toe. Then she looked up. “We’re good, Ethan, but what about Amos? I hope he’s okay. He’s nerdy and a little chubby and he uses a lot of words I don’t know, but he seems like a nice boy. He’s funny, isn’t he?” She turned and climbed the stairs, leaving him at the foot of the staircase.
Back in the library, Ethan struggled to understand the events of last night. The birds could have attacked them, but instead they had herded them to the passage door. Then he was all confused about Amos. He felt cruddy for leaving him and not going back to look for him, but hadn’t Amos left them too? The more Ethan thought about it, the worse he felt. He heard a sharp ping from the direction of the window. He went to see what it was, but no one was there. He was about to sit down again when he heard a loud crack. Seeing nothing from the window, he put on his sneakers and climbed through the library window.
As he stepped onto the fresh snow, he felt the sting of icy air on his face. Turning the corner at the rear of the house, he came face to face with Scafell Crag.
The old man scowled at him. “Somebody’s been in the graveyard.”
Ethan was paralyzed. “It wasn’t me.”
“Liar,” Crag said. “Hear this, you little jerk. That graveyard is off-limits. If I catch you in it again, even your uncle won’t be able to protect you.”
Crag stalked off through the snow. A cold shudder went down Ethan’s spine. Why would Socrates have a man like that around here? Just then, a snowball hit his head.
“Psst . . . Ethan,” a voice said.
Looking around, Ethan didn’t see anyone.
“Up here, Einstein—in the tree. Is Crag gone?”
Amos was twisted in the branches of the large hawthorn tree that grew behind the house.
“What are you doing up there?” Ethan asked, chuckling at the sight of Amos.
“Stop laughing and tell me if the coast is clear.”
“He’s gone,” Ethan said.
Amos carefully made his way down the tree. Ethan made a tightly packed snowball and threw it hard at Amos’s backside, hitting him with a sharp thwack. Amos lost his grip and fell backward. He hit the snowy ground with a thud. “What was that for?” Amos said, looking up at the sky.
“For hitting me just now. Also, for leaving me and Jynx in the maze last night.” He had forgotten he was going to apologize to Amos.
Amos’s face reddened. “Wait a minute. Leaving you in the maze? Let me tell you something, buster! I spent a couple of hours lost in that maze, and I was chased by a conspiracy of exceedingly grumpy ravens. Luckily for me, they chased me straight to the passage door. You’re full of yourself. You left me for dead.”
“ ‘Buster’? Really?” Ethan asked.
“Oh, shut up,” Amos said, rolling onto his side.
“Amos, when those crows showed up, you left us—not the other way around,” Ethan insisted. “Jynx had run off. Remember? Admit it—you ran away, you big wuss. Anyway, I knew those crows wouldn’t hurt us.”
“They were ravens, you moron.” Amos struggled to get up. “I guess you weren’t scared at all, were you? For the record, I’m not a wuss. I just don’t like angry ravens trying to peck my eyes out. You ran too.”
“How’d you know that?”
“I could hear you and Jynx, genius.” Breathing hard, Amos finally got to his feet. “I just couldn’t find you in the maze.”
Ethan hated Amos knowing that he had been scared, so he stalked away.
Amos called after him, “I threw the snowball at you because it was the only thing I could do to get your attention. I didn’t want Crag to hear me.”
“Well, Crag sure can hear you now,” he said, reaching the corner of the house.
“Do you want your notebook?”
Ethan stopped. He’d forgotten about the notebook. He walked to Amos and snatched the notebook from his hand without looking at him. Amos, smiling, held his hand out to him. Instead of shaking Amos’s hand, Ethan turned abruptly and walked away.
“You’re welcome,” Amos called after him, then started walking back toward his house.
Ethan spent a miserable afternoon sitting in the library with the notebook open. The more he studied the copy he’d made of the painting, the less he understood.
What did all the little drawings mean? What if the painting was just decoration, or someone’s idea of a joke? What if it really meant nothing at all? He turned the drawing upside down, but that didn’t help either.
Later that afternoon, he gave up. He walked over to one of the bookcases and shoved the notebook between two oversized art books. By shifting the larger books, he could hide the notebook from view.
Wandering through the house, he passed the doorway to the conservatory and saw the paint-splattered back of his uncle bent over a case. He was pulling out his guitar.
“Hey, I’m getting ready to practice,” said Socrates. “Can you help me with something?”
Socrates handed Ethan a different guitar and showed him where to put his fingers on the fret board. Then he showed him how to strum the guitar. Ethan struggled at first but soon was playing an actual chord. Finally, Ethan learned a strumming pattern as his uncle encouraged him to keep going.
When his uncle began to play, Ethan couldn’t believe his ears. The two of them actually sounded good together. It sounded like music! They played this way for a few minutes, and then Socrates taught him two more chords. These were a little harder, but after a few minutes, he was able to play them.
“You’re a fast learner. You might just be a musician, dude.” Socrates nodded at the guitar Ethan held. “Thanks for the help. I’ve been working on a particularly greasy riff and need the rhythm part. Alas, my muse, Ourania, beckons— gotta go. You can keep playing if you want to.”
Ethan returned the guitar he’d been playing. “Socs, thanks for showing me the chords. That was more fun than I thought it’d be.”
Socrates grinned at Ethan and left the room, his cane tapping on the hardwood floor.
After dinner, Ethan felt surprisingly refreshed; somehow playing music had given him courage. Playing the chord at first had been hard, but he eventually did it.
He decided to try his luck again with the notebook.
Back in the library, Ethan pulled his notebook from its hiding place on the shelf and went to his favorite chair. Opening the notebook to the painting, he tried to think like Amos. First, the painting had a meaning. He sat a few minutes and became frustrated again. This stupid painting is driving me crazy. It was a puzzle, but really, it was more of a riddle—a riddle with pictures instead of words. Maybe the strange writing in the center of the painting was also a different kind of riddle. I could really use Amos’s help, he thought.
A large black shape moved gracefully over to the library window. For a moment Badger looked out over the back lawn. Then she slowly turned her noble head toward Ethan and fixed her yellow eyes on him. It was as if her eyes seemed to be saying Ethan, you’re a jerk—go apologize. Then she left the room.
The look in her eyes stayed with him. He’d treated Amos badly, and he wouldn’t be climbing through the window. Ethan stood where Badger had been and stared out into the night. He could just make out the roof of a house in the distance.
He knew what he had to do.
Ethan’s sneakers crunched the snow as he walked across the backyard. Turning onto the road to Amos’s house, he looked at the night sky, where a few stars were peeping out between the black cloud cover and the gauzy halo around the moon. As he walked toward Amos’s house, he loved the feeling of being the only person on the snowy road.
When he reached Amos’s house, it looked like no one was home. Thinking he would come back in the morning, he turned to leave, but an odd sound made him stop. Following the lilting melody to the front porch, he peered through the window and saw a woman slowly singing and dancing in the front room. Her hair was long and tangled, and the soft light from a stained-glass lamp highlighted a dark splotch that almost covered her cheek. At first, he was frightened by her witchlike appearance, but then he realized she was Amos’s mother. Amos had said she was crazy. Now he understood, and a bad feeling came over him. He felt sorry for Amos; it had to be hard. He wondered if Amos was bullied because of his mother too.
He left quickly.
Back at Gramarye, Ethan lay in his warm bed and gazed out his window into the starry night sky. A gentle purring sound came from the foot of his bed. Two large green eyes reflected the fire’s light. Before pulling his covers up, he looked back at the cat and grinned. Four large paws were sticking up in the air, and a snore rattled softly from Badger. The next morning, as he walked down the same road as the previous night, the winter sunlight streamed through the pine trees lining the road. On seeing Amos’s house, he became nervous. Amos could still be mad at him.
After knocking once, the front door swung open. The woman he’d seen the night before peeped from around the door, revealing wiry gray hair pulled tightly into a bun.
“Isn’t it funny how cats can climb up trees but can’t figure out how to come back down?” she asked him, a large smile on her face.
“Um, yes, ma’am,” Ethan said. “Is Amos here?”
“Can’t ever come down . . . The other day I saw one sitting high in a tree. The men with the noisy red wheelie contraption had to get her down. Helmets, ladders—a real hullabaloo,” she whispered, still smiling mysteriously at Ethan.
“Mrs. Sprunt, I was wondering—”
“Oh yes, Amos, he lives here—knows how to come down trees too.”
Before Ethan could respond, she shouted, “Amos!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Amos said, entering the living room.
The woman just smiled at Ethan, flicked her fingers at him, and left the room.
“What do you want?” Amos asked, looking away from Ethan.
“Amos, um, I came to apologize.”
Amos folded his arms. “You should.”
“Amos, I’m sorry about what happened in the maze and for calling you a wuss.”
“Big,” said Amos.
“I believe the exact words were ‘big wuss,’ ” Amos said, pointing his finger at Ethan.
“Okay, I’m sorry I called you a big wuss.”
Amos looked at Ethan, eyebrows raised. One boot tapped the floor.
Ethan could hear Amos’s mother singing the same weird song in the kitchen. What do I do now? Ethan thought.
Finally, Amos said, “Apology accepted.” He turned and went up the stairs.
Confused, Ethan walked back to Gramarye and was soon back in front of the fire, a mug of hot chocolate steaming in his hand. He didn’t know where he stood with Amos, but he needed to solve the riddle of the painting.
He spent an agonizing day staring at his copy. No ideas came to him. Hoping to clear his head, Ethan went outside and walked around the grounds, watching for Crag. But roaming the grounds wasn’t fun without Amos either.
After dinner that night, he was back at the library fireplace—even more bored. He needed Amos’s help—his brain. Just then, he heard the window latch.
Yes! Ethan thought. It’s not over yet.
When Amos sat in the chair next to his, Ethan didn’t know what to say—but then Amos said quietly, “ ‘The game’s afoot.’ ”
Ethan, about to ask Amos what he meant, stopped himself. “Awesome.”
Amos pulled a large folded piece of paper out of his backpack. It was a much larger version of the painting. “Ethan, I think the key to this is the writing in the center— it’s elementary, isn’t it? If it’s in the center, it should be important. It could be a rune or a cipher. Whaddya think?”
“Works for me. What if it doesn’t mean anything? Look at that other freaky writing. How do we know which is the right one?”
“We don’t—we have to try one first. It’s a chance we just have to take. If we have to guess, guess wisely; we start with the one in the center. Now, let’s see how good this library is. I’m going to look for any books on runes or codes. You go look though any dictionaries.”
Ethan blinked. “Come again?”
“In some dictionaries,” Amos said, “the first page of each letter’s section shows the different ways the letter has been drawn throughout history. See if any match.”
Flipping through a dictionary in one of the upper-balcony alcoves, Ethan felt miserable. He had only checked ten letters in one dictionary. Out of boredom, he flicked his pencil across the balcony and followed its flight with his eyes.
Then he saw it. Alone on a shelf was an old book with The Return of Sherlock Holmes printed on the spine. It’s gotta be better than a dictionary, he thought, opening the book. It was a collection of stories with words like pince-nez and priory in some of the titles. The most peculiar story title was “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.”
Ethan hoped it wouldn’t be boring and settled back on the cushioned bench. The story was about a husband and wife who find stick-men drawings on their garden bench and doors. The figures were in different poses, and some of them were illustrated in the book. The more Ethan looked at them, the more the drawings started to look familiar. He wondered if they matched the weird symbols in the painting, but after looking at his copy, he saw they weren’t the same.
I’ve got some time. I’ll just finish this story and then help Amos. During the next hour, he read where Holmes explains that the drawings are actually a cipher, or a code. The detective then explains how he solves the cipher. I wonder? he thought.
Marking the page and closing the book, he hurried to where Amos sat eating a large cookie. “Amos, I think Sherlock Holmes can help us with this. Look.”
Amos’s eyes flew down the page, absorbing every word. He put the book down and started copying the strange writ- ing from the painting onto a blank sheet of paper. When Amos finished, he said, “E is the most used letter in the English alphabet. That’s where we start.” Following the rest of Holmes’s explanation from the story, he copied the rest of the painting’s strange symbols.
After underlining the symbols that were used the most, Amos wrote an E above them. Words with only two letters had to be words like be, to, and at. Three words had double letters in them; they could be O’s or E’s. Amos said he couldn’t think of any other vowels that were duplicated in words. Slowly, words started to appear.
“Ethan, make another copy of the secret writing. I’ll need it. Something is screwy with these words. They’re not making any sense.”
Ethan made two other copies of the cipher, one for Amos and another for himself. He sat beside Amos and looked at his first sheet while Amos started on the second. The ticking of the mantle clock blended with sounds of pencils on paper. Ethan noticed the scraggly raven had perched on his favorite limb just outside the window. The library’s light glinted faintly on the bird’s iridescent feathers.
“Hey, Amos, what’s the difference between a raven and a crow?”
Amos, focused on the cipher, ignored Ethan’s question. Something clicked in Ethan’s brain. What if the only difference between a raven and a crow was size? What if they were the same bird? The word same rang in his ears.
“Could symbols stand for more than one letter?”
“You mean represent.” Amos looked up, slapping his knee. “Wait! I think that’s the key to the cipher. Moseby, you’re a genius!” He gaped at Ethan.
No one had ever referred to Ethan as smart, let alone called him a genius. Finally, he had contributed to solving the mystery just as much as Amos had. “Thanks,” he said, feeling the blood rush to his face.
With renewed confidence, Ethan buckled down and started comparing the two pages. An hour later, the boys were staring at a truly bizarre riddle:
Lost red serpent, dark which seeks,
Aye show all, but nothing be,
Bone to four, but once a time,
For Zephyrus’ postern, St. Christopher’s rhyme
A Lady’s cut steel, from Poseidon’s bane,
To crypts’ keep and Adam’s gain.
Take heed and learn my sermon,
Or doom will make Thee,
Food for vermin.
“It’s a riddle inside a cipher,” said Ethan.
Amos scratched his head, took off his glasses, and polished them with his shirttail. He started to speak, but stopped and shook his head. He began shaking and muttered, “I’ll go mad, insane. I’ll be committed to the asylum.”
Ethan watched as his shaking got worse.
Amos kept repeating, “Everything is a puzzle, riddle, cipher.”
Amos’s losing it, Ethan thought. He walked over to his friend and was struggling with what to do. Then he had an idea: “Amos, what would Sherlock Holmes do?”
Amos sat up straight, a look of keen determination on his face. Then, he slid back in his chair, crossed his legs, and fixed his gaze on the fire. He stayed this way for a long time. Finally, he said, “We touch one place on the painting, and then something should happen. ‘The game’s afoot!’”
Owen R. Minter was inspired to write The Shrouded Sword, a fantasy story filled with ancient magic and time travel, after creating a drawing based on Arthurian legend. The Shrouded Sword is the first book in the Gramarye Cycle series. When he’s not writing, Owen makes paintings with a leaf blower, reads, and enjoys coaching Special Olympics Athletics.
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