“Yes, I suppose,” said Jenna.
“Yes, of course,” said Nicko.
Silas had overheard the conversation. “I’ll always be your dad, and Mum will always be your mum. It’s just you have a first mum as well.”
“Was she really a Queen?” asked Jenna.
“Yes. The Queen. Our Queen. Before we had these Custodians here.” Silas looked thoughtful and then his expression cleared as he remembered something and took off his thick woolen hat. There it was, in his hat pocket. Of course.
“Found it!” Silas said triumphantly. “Your birthday present. Happy birthday, poppet.” He gave Jenna the present she had left behind.
It was small and surprisingly heavy for its size. Jenna tore off the colored paper and held a little blue drawstring bag in her hand. She carefully pulled open the strings, holding her breath with excitement.
“Oh,” she said, not able to keep the disappointment out of her voice. “It’s a pebble. But it’s a really nice pebble, Dad. Thanks.” She picked out the smooth gray stone and put it in the palm of her hand.
Silas lifted Jenna onto his lap. “It’s not a pebble. It’s a pet rock,” he explained. “Try tickling it under its chin.”
Jenna wasn’t quite sure which end its chin was, but she tickled the rock anyway. Slowly the pebble opened its little black eyes and looked at her, then it stretched out four stumpy legs, stood up and walked around her hand.
“Oh, Dad, it’s brilliant,” gasped Jenna.
“We thought you’d like it. I got the spell from the Roving Rocks Shop. Don’t feed it too much though, otherwise it will get very heavy and lazy. And it needs a walk every day too.”
“I’ll call it Petroc,” said Jenna. “Petroc Trelawney.”
Petroc Trelawney looked as pleased as a pebble can look, which was pretty much the same as he had looked before. He drew in his legs, closed his eyes and settled back down to sleep. Jenna put him in her pocket to keep him warm.
Meanwhile Maxie was busy chewing the wrapping paper and dribbling down Nicko’s neck.
“Hey, get off, you dribble-bucket! Go on, lie down,” said Nicko, trying to push Maxie onto the floor. But the wolfhound wouldn’t lie down. He was staring at a large picture on the wall of Marcia in her Apprenticeship Graduation gown.
Maxie began to whine softly.
Nicko patted Maxie. “Scary picture, hey?” he whispered to the dog who wagged his tail halfheartedly and then yelped as Alther Mella appeared through the picture. Maxie had never got used to Alther’s appearances.
Maxie whimpered and burrowed his head under the blanket that covered Boy 412. His cold wet nose woke the boy up with a start. Boy 412 sat bolt upright and stared around him like a frightened rabbit. He didn’t like what he saw. In fact, it was his worst nightmare.
Any minute now the Young Army Commander would come for him and then he would be in real trouble. Consorting with the enemy—that was what they called it when someone talked to Wizards. And here he was with two of them. And an old Wizard ghost by the look of it. Not to mention the two weirdo kids, one with some kind of crown on her head and the other with those telltale green Wizard eyes. And the filthy dog. They’d taken his uniform too and put him in civilian clothes. He could be shot as a spy. Boy 412 groaned and put his head in his hands.
Jenna reached over and put her arm around him. “It’s all right,” she whispered. “We’ll look after you.”
Alther was looking agitated. “That Linda woman. She’s told them where you’ve gone. They’re coming here. They’re sending the Assassin.”
“Oh, no,” said Marcia. “I’ll CharmLock the main doors.”
“Too late,” gasped Alther. “She’s already in.”
“Someone left the door open,” said Alther.
“Silas, you idiot!” snapped Marcia.
“Right,” said Silas making for the door. “We’ll be off, then. And I’ll take Jenna with me. She’s obviously not safe with you, Marcia.”
“What?” squeaked Marcia indignantly. “She’s not safe anywhere, you fool!”
“Don’t you call me a fool,” spluttered Silas. “I am just as intelligent as you, Marcia. Just because I am only an Ordinary—”
“Stop it!” shouted Alther. “This is not the time to argue. For goodness’ sake, she’s coming up the stairs.”
Shocked, everyone stopped and listened. All was quiet. Far too quiet. Except for the whisper of the silver stairs steadily turning as they brought a passenger slowly up through the Wizard Tower right to the very top, to Marcia’s purple door.
Jenna looked scared. Nicko put his arm around her. “I’ll keep you safe, Jen,” he said. “You’ll be all right with me.”
Suddenly Maxie put his ears back and gave a bloodcurdling howl. Everyone’s hair stood up on the backs of their necks.
Crash! The door burst open.
Silhouetted against the light stood the Assassin. Her face was pale as she surveyed the scene before her. Her eyes glanced coldly about her, searching for her prey. The Princess. In her right hand she carried a silver pistol, the one that Marcia had last seen ten years ago in the Throne Room.
The Assassin stepped forward.
“You are under arrest,” she said menacingly. “You are not required to say anything at all. You will be taken from here to a place and—”
Boy 412 stood up, trembling. It was just as he had expected—they had come for him. Slowly he walked over toward the Assassin. She stared at him coldly.
“Out of my way, boy,” snapped the Assassin. She struck out at Boy 412 and sent him crashing to the floor.
“Don’t do that!” yelled Jenna. She rushed over to Boy 412, who was sprawled on the floor. As she knelt down to see if he was hurt, the Assassin grabbed her.
Jenna twisted around. “Let go of me!” she yelled.
“Keep still, Queenling,” sneered the Assassin. “There’s someone who wants to see you. But he wants to see you—dead.”
The Assassin raised the silver pistol to Jenna’s head.
A Thunderflash flew from Marcia’s outstretched hand. It knocked the Assassin off her feet and threw Jenna clear of her grasp.
“Begird and Preserve!” shouted Marcia. A brilliant white sheet of light sprung up like a bright blade from the floor and encircled them, cutting them off from the unconscious Assassin.
Then Marcia threw open the hatch that covered the rubbish chute.
“It’s the only way out,” she said. “Silas, you go first. Try and do a Cleaning Spell as you go down.”
“You heard what I said. Get in, will you!” snapped Marcia, giving Silas a hefty shove through the open hatch. Silas tumbled into the rubbish chute and then, with a yell, he was gone.
Jenna pulled Boy 412 to his feet. “Go on,” she said and pushed him headfirst into the chute. Then she jumped in, closely followed by Nicko, Marcia and an overexcited wolfhound.
THE RUBBISH CHUTE
When Jenna threw herself into the rubbish chute she was so terrified of the Assassin that she did not have time to be afraid of the chute. But as she tumbled uncontrollably downward into the pitch blackness she felt an overwhelming panic well up inside her.
The inside of the rubbish chute was as cold and slippery as ice. It was made from a highly polished black slate, seamlessly cut and joined by the Master Masons who had built the Wizard Tower many hundreds of years ago. The drop was steep, too steep for Jenna to have any control over how she fell, so she tumbled and twisted this way and that, rolling from side to side.
But the worst thing was the dark.
It was thick, deep, impenetrable black. It pressed in on Jenna from all sides and although she strained her eyes desperately to see anything, anything at all, there was no response. Jenna thought she had gone blind.
But she could still hear. And behind her, coming up fast, Jenna could hear the swish of damp wolfhound fur.
Maxie the wolfhound was having a good time. He liked this game. Maxie had been a little surprised when he had jumped into the chute and not found Silas ready with his ball. He was even more surprised when his paws didn’t seem to work anymore, and he had briefly scrabbled around trying to find out why. Then he had bumped his nose on the back of the scary woman’s neck and tried to lick a tasty morsel of something off her hair, but at that point she had given him a violent shove that had flipped him over onto his back.